Grunt, Chapter 68: Revenge of the Rabbi

GRANT HOWARD

January 15, 42 AF. Having served as company clerk for the past three months and change, I was sure of the date. After all, part of my duties now included marking our official calendar. Fort Ford had been more than a little surprised when we showed up at the tail end of a rare snowstorm, a great train requiring four separate barges to accommodate wagons, teams, and people. The snow was already melting, but it would be a while yet before our five rearward wagons embarked. The bargemen hadn’t had any work in weeks and were being rounded up from wherever they could be found, many of them drunk in the town’s surprising number of ramshackle saloons or shacked up with disease-riddled rent-a-chicks in everything from heavily patched tents to sod-roofed dugouts. Pride of ownership remained a low priority in this place. Nor was bathing high on the list.

“They’ll work the booze off, Grant,” Moss Feldman assured me. “Gold fever trumps moonshine, especially during the slow season.”

Not that they were being paid in actual gold. Silver, yes. Sighting gold would have inflamed these poverty stricken laborers, possibly inspiring them to consider foolish action against our group.

Okay, probably. Fifteen of our wagons were already being ferried across on three barges. The quality of personnel deteriorated noticeably from barge #1 to barge #3. Our #4 bunch…not exactly the crème de la crème of frontier society.

We were sixty-three souls strong, not around forty as I’d first thought. To discourage locals from getting too familiar, every one of us wore at lest two weapons this day. Mine included a .45 ACP semiautomatic pistol, holstered at one hip, with a long knife sheathed at the other. Several of the scouts were walking arsenals. Even eleven year old, dark skinned Esteban Morales had a .22 caliber revolver in a shoulder rig and a thin back-slung blade that on him looked like a sword. But our more vulnerable members weren’t standing guard out in the open. Our apparent fighting force amounted to forty or so for the entire train, depending on how we defined a fighter.

I worked on my sketch of the wharves without conscious thought. Not that my artwork had gotten much better. It was what it was. But it no longer required my full attention, once the quill pen started scratching across a fresh sheet of hemp paper. For the first time in what seemed like forever, my mind had time to roam back over the past few months, considering what I’d learned.

In retrospect, it was a fair amount.

Merrilee had been right to worry about snipers. At least two of our rolling nation’s finest still spoke against the Hispanic boy. Not openly, but behind our backs.

“Our” meaning those who’d undertaken to protect and mentor the kid. Eight humans and one mighty wardog. Midget had adopted Morales immediately, pretty much guaranteeing the young ganger’s survival. The huge canine knew he couldn’t outfang a gun, had in fact wisely hidden in Moss’s wagon during the Jagged Teardrop slaughter, but among his own people his life was sacrosanct. One puzzlement: Esteban was the only boy between preschool age and young manhood in the entire train.

A boy and his dog.

Esteban himself was another puzzlement. To me, he was. To the Feldmans, not so much. They’d seen it before. “He’s a hollow door,” Moss explained. “His early years have left him without a solid core. One door skin wants to please everybody else to his own detriment. The other door skin demands attention and feels the world has hurt him and thus owes him a living. Two extremes. No middle. Back Before, they had a lot of labels for a person like that. Bipolar. Passive aggressive. Manic depressive. Paranoid schizophrenic. This kid is pretty much all of those.”

Teaching him about boundaries, self reliance, and most importantly, self respect…could be an impossible task, we all admitted. Yet I could not have left him on that butcher’s field. I simply couldn’t.

On the plus side, we knew a whole lot more about 13 Bloody Crips than anyone outside of their territory had ever known before. Yes, we were headed far away from them and, it turned out, would not be back. Yet solid intel was never to be disparaged, so sayeth the Moss man.

Who turned out to be the acknowledged leader of our caravan despite rolling his wagon last. The heavy machine gun was his; he preferred to serve as rear guard, a giant scorpion’s deadly sting-tail. The grandmother type who’d first invited me to come, sit, have a bite, turned out to be Mrs. Feldman, Carol Feldman, formerly Carol Williams, NYPD boat pilot and currently the pilot for our wagon train. Also Merrilee’s mother in law.

Ah, Merrilee. Now, there was a woman. I still wasn’t sure she wouldn’t hook up with somebody else before I felt qualified to make my move, but spending time in her company…yeah, I needed to figure things out before that window of opportunity slammed shut.

After the horror at Rocky Creek, only three encounters had so much as leaned toward confrontation on the Gatorville road. None of those incidents produced any casualties. To any rational observer, our wagon train was clearly too tough a nut to crack.

Size counts.

“Where’s Esteban?” Moss had just realized he hadn’t seen the kid in a while.

“Hiding in Dutch Charlie’s wagon. With Midget.”

“Ah.” That said it all. Nothing else triggered the boy’s paranoia like proximity to strangers. In his mind, they were all out to get him.

“Moss, would you mind telling me the rest of the story? Like, the real reason this wagon train is moving west en masse and not going back? We have time, I think.” The wagon seat seemed even harder when we were sitting still, but my butt wasn’t nearly as bony as it had been when the old Jew had picked me up, lo those many eternities ago.

His eyes kept scanning, watching, wary. No way did any of us trust this last batch of Forders. River scum. But necessary river scum, and they’d only slit your throat for a copper if they thought they could get away with it. Silver linings.

“Might was well,” he said finally. I put my sketch back in the map case, giving him my full attention.

=========================================================

MOSS FELDMAN

Backstory. We had escaped New York right enough, but we’d brought a viper with us. Too bad for the long term welfare of the group, but how could I have known?

Even today, I ask myself the flip side of that question. How could I have not known? Elderly Rabbi Harkowitz, “Hark” to the many thousands who’d subscribed to his Holocaust Holocast, had disseminated his scholarly teachings among the Jewish masses for more than three decades prior to the death of high tech. True, I’d never watched his program. But, like pretty much every other human with a drop of Jewish blood in his (or her) veins, I’d been at least nominally aware of his radical viewpoint. In a nutshell, Hark the Jewish Herald first revealed his controversial conclusions during a press conference held at a tiny New York synagogue in the year 2471 A.D., more than 500 years after Hitler’s attempt to exterminate every Jew in the world, never mind that historians believed the onetime Fuhrer might have been part Jewish himself. His rant was simple but dangerous, or perhaps dangerous because of its simplicity.

Jews deserved what they got during World War II

Because God needed His chosen people to learn a lesson

Which was to stand up for themselves or suffer and die.

(Unspoken) Anyone who disagreed with Harkowitz was an anti-Semite

And must be utterly destroyed.

Israel, newly formed as a nation in 1948, knew all about the need to stand and defend their own turf against those who would see the descendants of Judah gone from the face of the Earth. That much was not all controversial in the tiny middle eastern country, though it was far from being a globally accepted tenet. In America, for example, there were anti-Zionist Jews who detested Israel, some on secular grounds, other for religious reasons.

The Hark was utterly secular, scorning the religious side of Judaism. He reserved his deepest revulsion for those who leaned toward the mystical side of life. Critics who believed in reincarnation suspected he’d been a hater of Jews for many lifetimes, resulting in forced incarnation as one of those he reviled.

Even so, it sounded crazy for a Jewish scholar to state brazenly, “They deserved what they got.” Unless he really had been Adolf Hitler back in the day, in which case it made total sense. Whatever the invisible history of the matter, his proclamation definitely stirred the pot. It also got Elisha Ramirez Harkowitz a whole ton of powerful, free publicity. Which was the entire point. Within weeks, the soft spoken rabbi had a syndicated holo show and an audience that grew like knapweed, invasive and ever spreading. Donations began to flow in, first a trickle, before long a river, all purposed to “aid the Hark in continuance of his studies.” Which they did. Massive funds were siphoned off in multiple directions. Key politicians got healthy bribes. Harkowitz got high maintenance babes, few of them Jewish. Elite fixers got gold bars. Hark got Rolls Royce cars. His Sabbath holo programs became ever more strident. So did his followers. In 2478, there was even talk–serious talk–of running for President on the Star of David ticket.

And then, just as he was entering his golden years, looking forward to them with keen pleasure…it all came crashing down. Capriosi vilify started killing people by the millions, ultimately by the billions. Human techs disappeared from satellite maintenance centers, leaving AIs on their own. The artificial intelligences did their best, and in fact nearly succeeded, but in time even the self-replicating versions failed, following their creators into the oblivion of history. E. R. Harkowitz had no more followers, no more income, no more hope for the future. At eighty-two years old, he considered himself unlikely to start over with any reasonable chance of success. His life had shot its bolt and the bolt had missed the target by a mile.

He was a bitter, bitter man.

Bitter against all of Creation, from God Itself to those countless sycophantic followers who had so abundantly supplied him with funds, adulation, and notoriety. What a nerve they had, dying like that. If they all reincarnated as cockroaches (not that he believed in reincarnation), he would gleefully stomp on every little brown carapace he could find.

Losers.

And then…escape from New York. With three score and more souls aboard the Badge of Honor, souls he could influence for his own benefit. His new following, as it were, whether they knew it yet or not.

And then…Moshe Feldman. NYPD cop. Killer. Physically imposing, exuding menace, promising him a long bath in a slimy harbor if he so much as opened his aging mouth.

Feldman would pay. Him and his idiot followers. The Badge was no more than an hour away from death on the docks when he made his first move, insinuating the first thread-seedling of doubt in another passenger. Many such seeds would fail to take root. He knew that. But he had plenty of seeds in his psychological warfare kit. He would use them all.

Not that Carol Williams and I knew any of this at the time. We would not uncover the plot until years later, too far behind the curve to stem the cancers of hatred, political scheming, and venomous rhetoric shielded by a thousand camouflage layers protecting the rotten heart of the Ho Ho Society. Ho Ho was as secretive as any order of Masons or Knights Templar had ever been. It put ninjas and blood-oath assassins to shame. Its less trusted members, new come to the group, knew only that they’d joined an all-male fraternity of brothers who did good works and welcomed each other with open-armed acceptance. At the second level, the surface meaning of the society’s name was revealed, Ho Ho standing for Holocaust Honesty, a rather obvious take on Harkowitz’s former Holocaust Holo broadcast and yet another smoke screen.

That is, it was obvious if you were one of those familiar with the World of Before and listened carefully to a rather unattractive, attention-seeking rabbi manifesting in your living room on a regular basis, back in the day.

Carol and I, the only two former law enforcement officers in our group of New York refugees, were carefully kept out of the loop.

“That’s the way-back back story,” I said, watching Grant’s reaction. He didn’t have any that I could detect. I reminded myself to avoid playing cards with him, at least when cash stakes were involved. ” After searching the coastline for twenty-five months and three days, ever seeking safe harbor from storms raging in across the ocean, beaching our boat every now and then to explore inland, seeking plant food, rare game animals, or blessing of blessings, an abandoned cow or two for good red beef, we finally settled where Masada now sits. We gathered other compatible survivors as we could, some found us, babies were born, and the community grew rapidly. We had to institute some form of organized government, and we did.

“Unfortunately, and still beneath our radar, a frightening number of newly minted administrative bureaucrats were full fledged members of the Ho Ho Society. Which, as we learned too late to our dismay, was run with an iron fist by the lone High Ho Ho Master. You guessed it. Said Master turned out to be none other than the seemingly spineless rabbi I’d once threatened to feed to the fishes. Eleven of our most trusted allies died in the search for that information, the knowledge of who was in fact pulling Ho Ho strings. Bad jokes were made–we still had a lot of Before survivors with us then, before age caught up to so many of them–about the Ho Ho Grand Master obviously having to be a Ding Dong, but it was dark humor. Gallows humor, if you will.

“Then the old rabbi died. Some suspected murder, but he was ninety-three. Whatever the truth of his death, his mantle passed to another…and we were never able to uncover the new head honcho’s identity.”

I stopped talking for a moment, taking time to organize my thoughts. How did one summarize forty-one years of political intrigue, distilling its essence to a single thirty minute discourse? A couple of the horses stamped restlessly; they were as uneasy about this Great River crossing as I was. Unlike them, I didn’t dare let that disquiet show. Others looked to me, seeking an image of calm confidence. One of the burdens of leadership.

“Eighteen months ago, our faction decided we had to get out. Run from what had become the Ho Ho’s ownership of the so called Western Jewish State. The overall situation was simply too threatening for us to remain longer, unless we wished to go to open civil war, an abhorrent option which was truly no option at all. We had better fighters, far more skilled in both combat and social interactive balance, than our brethren did, but they had the numbers, nearly a thousand men under arms against the few score you see here in the caravan. Frankly, they could have thrown mind-controlled zombies at us until our brains were eaten, and in quick order at that. It stung, being outgunned and politically outwitted by a bunch of Ho Hos, but they had the reins of power. Laws had been passed that tore our male children from parental homes on their sixth birthday, forcibly enrolling them in brainwashing schools run by the state. Which is why there are several girls but no boys between the ages of six and sixteen in our wagon train.”

It was time to wait for Grant to catch up. No longer impassive, our marvelous company clerk was looking just a little bit gobsmacked. “Moss, this is unbelievable. I had no idea your nation had such internal tensions going on.”

“Of course you didn’t. It’s not something any of us would advertise to outsiders. With the possible exception of UTE, every neighbor nation watches like a spiraling flock of vultures, waiting to pounce at the slightest hint of weakness. And yet….”

The bargemen were pretty close to ready now. It wouldn’t be long. One man in particular caught my NYPD cop eyeball. “Grant, don’t be obvious about it, but do you see that surly looking fellow wearing a buffalo robe and a battered slouch hat?”

“Got him.”

Huh. The former wizard hadn’t even turned his head. Maybe he went out-of-body to observe? I was impressed despite myself.

Despite my age, it still bugs me a little when somebody demonstrates a street skill superior to mine. Not that I intended to let my petty, competitive nature show. “Impression?”

Howard didn’t hesitate. “Not cold enough for a heavy robe like that, so what is he packing under there? Can’t work pole or oar in that bulky thing, so he’s either an operator or a boss of some sort. Beat-up hat could be a disguise but he looks filthy enough it’s probably real, so he’s not exactly your cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness sort. Shifty eyes, doesn’t much like our Star of David insignia on wagon or jacket. Seems unduly interested in Merrilee’s wagon, possibly caught a glimpse of her climbing inside, so he knows there’s a young woman in there. Keeps the front of his robe open enough to allow a fast draw of blade or shooter. Hopefully not grenade; it is his barge, after all.”

“Well, golly gee whiz.” The kid continued to surprise me. “You gain those powers of observation during your magicky wizardy days?”

He grunted in self-deprecation. “Should have, but no. Gained those powers of observation trying to stay alive around far more powerful and ruthless Holy COW wizards. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but no knowledge at all is absolutely deadly. Ignorance is definitely not bliss.”

“Huh. Looks like we’ll be loading soon. Tell you more about WSJ politics, courtesy of one old, bitter, long-dead rabbi, another time. Except I will add this, for now. The WSJ as it is constituted today has strayed widely from Judaism as it has been understood for millennia. We’re pretty sure current leadership conspired with 13 Bloody Crips head honchos to arrange for that bunch to attack us the first night away from Masada. Unthinkable, right? But likely nonetheless. Despite their overwhelming numerical advantage, WSJ authorities cringed from the idea of doing the job themselves, for a number of reasons, one being the fact that we still have in our possession the original heavy machine gun we brought out of New York. To Carol and me, who were trained on the gun when NYPD was still functional, it’s a weapon like any other. A powerful one by today’s standards, mind you, but no more than that. Conversely, to the old rabbi it represented a mystical power beyond his comprehension. During our early years, he saw it used several times. Carol and I believe the image of entire swaths of men being mowed down by .50 caliber bullets cranked out at a rate of 800 rounds per minute was…overwhelming to say the least. In the end, legendary. To our benefit, as it turned out, he passed that legend on to his successors, burned it into their brains. So they hoped a couple hundred gangers would do their job for them. Plus, that way, they couldn’t be blamed for our deaths.”

The barge was ready. Time to roll the wagons onto the deck and secure the teams to stanchions provided for the purpose, then chock the wagon wheels. The horses wouldn’t like it.

Heck, I didn’t like it, either. The far bank of the great, rolling river could be seen only as a low, dim line of smudge on the horizon. The barge itself was no Badge of Honor 25th century powerboat. In fact, it appeared to be nothing but a glorified raft with railings. The barge supervisor was obviously planning something nasty for us. What’s to like? I thought.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Grant, outwardly as calm on the wagon seat as I appeared to be, sketching quietly. No stranger would ever guess he was even remotely aware of his surroundings. But I’d been training him in shooting, blade fighting, and various martial arts these past several months. He was an apt pupil, both curious and determined.

I expected this was going to get interesting in the Chinese meaning of the word.

======================================================

GRANT HOWARD

Do your thing, Moss had told me. Despite my armament, I was the only wagon train member capable of passing as bookish and oblivious, making notes or sketching crudely on my pad as I shifted aimlessly from one vantage point to another on the barge. I was also the only one–so far as I knew–with the ability to shift in and out of my physical body at will.

From this viewpoint, high above the massive rivercraft, I could even watch myself drawing. The artwork produced by my body when I wasn’t even in it tended to be no worse than any other. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

Buffalo Robe was on the move again, strolling slowly toward the stern, keeping himself between his rowers on one side and our wagon guardian warriors on the other. Ostensibly, he was simply overseeing the oarmen who’d long since racked their shallow-water poles. Some of these river scum did need supervision; more than once, the supervisor’s short quirt flashed forward from inside his robe to slash fiercely at a slacking man’s shoulders. They were used to it, these lice-ridden Fort Fordites. Harder working fellows radiated approval when a slacker got whacked. Hit ‘im, boss!

Robe’s continual motion also allowed him to evaluate his opposition. Twenty oarmen on each side, forty total, plus the boss made forty-one. Against ten, and that counted me. Our more vulnerable people were inside the wagons, maintaining red alert silence, of no apparent danger to those who might covet the train’s obvious riches. Moss’s concealed machine gun would be of no use in this situation.

So, if I were planning to rob these wagons, how would I do it?

A question with many answers, none of them satisfying. I needed to eyeball this from up higher.

Hm. Our barge was the last. Far, far ahead, Carol’s lead wagon and two others rode atop the lead craft. They had reached the far shore already, slightly downstream from us but only slightly. Men were leaping from the shore side. Zoom in closer. This barge had the same complement of personnel, forty oarmen–or pole men, depending on who was talking–but the threat seemed much less. Her craft’s “supervisor” was a runt, a little guy so small he wouldn’t have dared try whipping his charges. Heavy plank barge-to-shore bridges were detached from the sides of the barge and wrestled into place. Team after team surged into motion, crossing the bridges, following one of countless dirt-cut roads along the bank. They moved well and…

…and disappeared from sight.

Uh-oh.

They had to do that, I realized belatedly. Clear the way for the rest of us. But what was beyond those high banks, through which those road tracks had been cut? The lead bargemen were already hooking up their own team, towing the craft back upriver. We didn’t need to worry about those guys. They were just doing their job, poling hard to keep the unloaded ferry boat from gouging into the bank.

What had Carol found on the other side of that embankment? Would they be able to free up warriors to trot back in support of our remaining wagons? I did not like having them out of sight like that.

It never occurred to me to try soul-zipping over there to take a look. Oh, how we box ourselves in with our own thinking.

Still, barges #2 and #3 cleared their decks without incident, though not all at the same landing spot.

Then it hit me. Barge #4, our ferry, was independent. Maybe all the barges were rigged that way, possibly built by different entreprenurs and crewed by whoever they could hire. There had to be a hierarchy, a rule among river rats about who would go first. A pecking order. Each crew was a separate entity, a business unto itself, like the cab drivers Moss had told me about in ancient New York City. No wonder those ahead of us were busting their butts to get their passengers offloaded so they could tow their barges outa Dodge. They wanted nothing to do with Buffalo Robe’s nefarious activities. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Pontius Pilate washing his hands. Nazi party members at the Nuremburg trials, claiming they had known nothing about gas chambers or mass graves.

We were the last in line. Had drawn the most villainous crew in all of Fort Ford.

At least, I thought, working hard for optimism, we don’t have to worry about the other crews ganging up with our bunch. Small solace, but better than nothing.

It would happen when we were offloading. No question. Wagon drivers would be distracted, working the reins of their teams. It would give the bargemen an edge. More of an edge.

So, what to do about it?

Sigh. Why did the answer have to be so obvious?

I returned to my body and began moving about in seemingly random fashion. Moss first. “As we offload,” I whispered from the side of my mouth. His nod of acknowledgement was barely perceptible. Then came the words I dreaded but could not avoid. “Buffalo Robe is mine.”

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MOSS FELDMAN

It pained me, but the kid was right. My team and I knew each other. Getting down the ramp would be tricky work requiring my full attention. Our older fighters were primarily tasked with protecting not only the wagons but the precious cargo therein, our few priceless women and children. Besides, they all looked exactly like what they were, hardened warriors with sharp, wary eyes and calloused hands. Yet, who would think to worry about a space case, airhead company clerk bent over his numbers?

Robe would never see Grant coming.

I hoped. If he did, my protégé was as good as dead already.

=====================================================

GREAT RIVER, WESTERN BANK

Tha plan wuz simpul. Ma men wud wate on ma signul, then jump them rich Jew bums all at wunst. Snoot-locker hot-dung fiters thay thot. Wudn’ do em wun bit a good with wun a ma guys hangin on each arm, anuther rapped aroun’ both legs, an tha striker shovin a shiv up is gut all at tha same time. Ma boys didden pack shooters. Didden need ta. Flat-blades wuz eezy ta hide under winter jackits. Long range, we wooden dare. Close up like this, they wuz ded meet.

Everbuddy noes Jews carry gold. Maybe evun jools. Weed snag tha treasure. Moren that, weed shag tha witches. Snag an’ shag, tha ol’ wun-too punch. Ther wuz wimmen hiden in them giant waggins. I cud smell ’em. Aint nuthin in tha worl’ smells quite like a splittail. Sum sez I stink ’nuff I cud nivver smell a wummin. Sez Im blowen smoke. Shows whut thay noes. Female don’ evun hafta be upwin’ fer me ta smell ‘er, like a deer duz. I felt ma nose holes flare wide, gettin reddy. Wimmen stink good.

Time. Wok eezy, a bit behine tha wide-sholder Jew driver on tha firs waggin seet. Ded Jew sittin. Sittin reddy up ther, movin is teem slow an easy ta tha ramp. Tha tall skinny paper pusher iz goofin’, all gawky an’ stuff, drawin’ a waggin wheel or sumthin on that paper. Squiggles. Ol’ Pap wunce tride ta tell me tha pen was mightiern tha sord.

Man, ol’ Pap wuz full of it. He nivver lurned ta read er rite, no moren I did. How wud he know?

Time-time-time. My good right fist slipt inside ma hevvy bufflo robe. Droo tha pistil crossbo, alreddy pre-cock an reddy ta rock. A simpul littul peece a thred kep’ tha quarl from slippin’ outa plase til it wuz needed. Ma own invenshun. Hah.

What tha–?

=====================================================

MOSS FELDMAN

“All well?”

Stirk nodded as he pulled up a stool and lowered his considerable bulk down onto it with considerable care, enjoying the fire. “No sign of pursuit. Fort Ford being what it is, didn’t expect there to be. Only slightly odd thing I’ve noticed is the boy.”

“Esteban?” I scratched my beard. It needed trimming. “What about him?”

“Nothing much.” The scout shrugged. “Just that he’s sticking to Merrilee tighter than her own shadow. Fingering that .22 you let him wear. Not pulling it out of the holster or waving it around or anything, just sort of reassuring himself that it’s there.”

“Hm.” Was our little ex-ganger feeling he had to protect my daughter in law, or was he hoping she’d protect him? I’d give Grant a heads-up, first chance. At the moment, our company clerk was making the rounds, taking head count.

“I’m off duty till midnight now. Got time, if you’d care to fill me in on what happened back there. The rest of us were getting worried, as long as it took you to top the rise away from the river.”

I stretched my arms, loosening the kinks in my shoulders. “Didn’t amount to all that much, thanks to our adopted former wizard. Boss river rat had a notion. Drew a crossbow on our lead driver, just as he was fixing to ease his team down the ramp. Underestimated Grant.”

“Easy to do,” Stirk agreed amiably, “if you’re an idiot. I’d think twice about starting up with Slim.”

Slim? Looked like Grant Eckles Howard had acquired a nickname. “Oh, Mr. Stinky Buffalo Robe was an idiot, all right. Grant was loitering nearby, just waiting for Stinky to make his move. By the time that crossbow came out where he could see it, our studious paper pusher had his Bowie out of its sheath and moving fast. Didn’t try to kill the river rat outright. Slim is smarter than that. Went for the exposed wrist. Severed a bunch of tendons. The crossbow fell to the deck. Discharged when it hit. Blew the bolt under the wagon, into the leg of a pole man on the other side. Could have hit one of our guys but didn’t. Anyway, next thing Boss Rat knows, he’s short the use of a hand and looking down the barrel of Slim’s big .45. Whined and cussed and yelled some, but pretty soon he got religion. Ordered his sub-rats to stand down. Which they were quite willing to do, looking a number of sawed-off shotguns in the face as they were by then.”

“Huh.” My friend picked up a long stick from the ground and poked the fire a bit. “You know, Moss, I had my doubts in the beginning. Wasn’t real sure about taking him in. But you made the right call, and bless you for that. So, you offloaded and left the one-hand man to the mercy of his fellows?”

“Such is it might be.” I shrugged, unconcerned. “By the time we topped the rise and left them all behind, some of his subordinates had that look in their eyes, you know?”

He knew. We sat in companionable silence for a while, giving the women space to get their mealtime preparations in order. There would be a quarter moon tonight; I might even stay awake long enough to watch it rise. Only Carol knew how worried I’d been about this Great River crossing. Maybe we’d watch the moon together. At long last, the big knot between my shoulders began to loosen. There would be hard days ahead, plenty of them, but the East was behind us once and for all.

It was a good feeling.