Grunt, Chapter 71: Hunger Moon

MICHAEL

“Baby, it’s cold outside.” I stomped most of the snow from my boots, closing the door behind me.

“Plenty below zero,” Lieutenant Blake agreed from his place at the conference table. His winter coat was off, hung on one of the wall hooks. Mighty warm in here, at least by comparison. It still struck me with amazement, all the building our people had done while we trader-explorers had been gallivanting all over the countryside throughout summer and early fall. Our Council Building’s walls were stacked logs, the roof consisted of a ridgepole, hand-adzed rafters, cross-boards, and split shakes, but the heater beat anything I’d ever seen. Constructed of cunningly fitted stones and clay-based mortar–one of the kids had found an all-important clay deposit in August–it looked like no stove I’d ever seen yet was certainly more than a mere fireplace.

But enough about that. This was deep-freeze February, what Granshako called the Hunger Moon. We were well provisioned at the Roost, thanks to the Smith brothers’ slaughter of their yearling steers in early November after temperatures had dropped enough to freeze meat effectively.

Others were not so fortunate, in the sense of God helps those who help themselves.

Blake opened the ball by introducing our visitor to those who didn’t know him. “Lady and gentlemen, this man on my left is Wayne Gilson, formerly a corporal under my command, currently Sergeant in charge of Fort Steel militia.”

Several eyebrows shot skyward. Up until now, we’d been without formal contact at Steel. Escaping slavery and killing the fort’s top military man sort of puts a damper on détente.

John Sebastian Blake didn’t let a little thing like that bother him. “Sergeant Gilson brings old movie news. That is, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ll let him explain.”

“Thanks.” Wayne Gilson got to his feet, cleared his throat, and began. “First things first. Those of you who’ve lived at Fort Steel know that our administrator, Strator Tucker, was a tyrant. After y’all blew his pet wardog out of the saddle, though, things changed. Captain Finster was the hammer playing wack-a-mole with our heads if we dared speak out of turn. We freedom-minded types pulled off a coup in early September. Didn’t execute the Strator. Didn’t have to. Fellow sort of lost his mind. Presently, he’s living in a shack, writing the great American novel. Or so he believes in his own mind. Nobody else can make sense of his scribbling. Our side took over, set up a government with a Fort Manager as executive head, held in check by the Merchant’s Council which sort of acts like a Congress, and so on and so forth. The foundry manager is on that council, but has no more say than the beef man, the horse man, the traders’ rep, et cetera.

“That’s sort of the good news, I guess. Hopefully, we’re a better people now. Slavery has been outlawed. A code of penalties for various crimes is in place. And we’d like to establish, um, a formal relationship with other communities, including the Roost. If we can.”

Good news indeed. I exchanged glances with the rest of our Council. Except for Julia, who was looking a little green around the gills, they all responded with nonverbal agreement, leaving the ball in my court.

“Glad to hear that, Wayne. You’re saying Steel as a whole is willing to deal with us escaped Spartacus types? I’m a little surprised.”

“Yeah.” The young sergeant nodded his head in agreement. “Me too. It turns out there were quite a few antislavery sympathizers among us all along. Not martyr types, you understand. They kept their heads down and their mouths shut when Finster was alive but they’re mouthy enough now. Then the vast majority are…you didn’t hear this from me, but they’re sort of sheeple. Give ’em a Judas goat to follow, or even better, a leader with some real skills and actual ethics, and they follow right along. Amazing how many fall into that category. They work their shifts, or keep house, or whatever it takes to get through each week. Maybe drink a bit on the weekends, hang out and play cards with their friends, and Devil take the rest of the world. Not bad folks, you understand, but…limited. And of course there are a few who want to be the big frog in the pond, but we lucked out. Elected a real leader for Fort Manager.”

Lieutenant Blake spoke up, curious. “And who might that be?” I came close, but he knew every man jack in the entire community.

Gilson looked him in the eye. “Jeremiah Compton.”

“Weasel?” Disbelief burst from Blake and me at the same time.

“None other.” The emissary’s grin stretched from ear to ear. “I didn’t see that one coming, either.”

“Wow.” I sucked in a breath. “Just…wow.”

“You could say that. Turns out that man’s got more administrative and political smarts in his little finger than the whole rest of Fort Steel put together. He makes enemies, but he knows how to emasculate them so they never manage to get at his back or gut his proposals. Plus, nobody wants to cross him for fear of alienating his wife, Laura being by far the best healer we have. Medicine woman and sneaky political man. Potent combo, right there.”

I could see it now. “Okay, what’s the bad and the ugly?”

“Ah.” The light died in Gilson’s eyes. “A lone man reached the fort three days ago. About half starved and three quarters froze to death, he was. Says he knows you, Michael. Or at least knows of you.”

Who…?

“Skinny bugger, but tough as they come. Name of Washburn Conroe. Goes by Wash. Says you saved him, him and his people, on the Roil River last summer.”

“Well, I’ll be–” The scout. He was alive.

“Thing is, his people, call themselves the Gathering, black folks in the middle of a subzero whiteout winter, they’re starving to death. Wash, he said if I talked to you, tell you you’re welcome any time. Main agitator in his bunch was an old geezer with a bad attitude, tried to kill him while he was sick abed, full of bullet holes. Only he was awake and the would-be assassin ran into a hideout derringer Wash had. Barely had the strength to pull the trigger, but the bullet didn’t care. He made it back to pretty much full health by the time the snow flew, but their people wouldn’t listen to their leader.”

“Randy McGee?”

“He did say McGee, yeah. This McGee tried to tell ’em they needed to be conserving what grain, salt beef, and salt pork they had with ’em, plus put hunting parties together and try to find as much big game as possible before winter really set in. Sadly, as Wash puts it, he and McGee were the only two ants in a whole herd of grasshoppers. They hunted what they could, found a couple of stray buffalo and a small herd of wild cattle, but not nearly enough to feed two hundred people through a hard northern winter. Most of ’em had been city folks; they just couldn’t hear what McGee and Wash were telling them.”

Mace Smith had a question. “So Wash set out alone to see if he could find help?”

“Not quite. He had two other men with him at the start. One wandered off during a blizzard and was never seen again. The other froze to death, just plopped down in the snow and quit moving, some days before the scout reached Fort Steel. Thing is, he was able to follow the Fort Steel road most of the time, though he got off-trail more than once. But he never once had any idea how far it was.”

I nodded grimly.   It was impressive enough that Gilson, the only Steelie who even knew exactly where we were,  had been able to find the right trails to reach the Roost under this much white stuff.  “Three steady weeks on a decent horse. How long since Wash left the Roil?”

“Near as we can figure…right at thirty days.”

“So that would be the bad.” In this weather, fighting down the mountain trail and bucking occasional prairie drifts, never mind that the Sergeant had broken trail on the way up, it would take three days to get back to Steel–which I figured Gilson had in mind or he wouldn’t have bucked snow thigh-deep on a tall Indian to come see us in the Hunger Moon. After that, a combined relief party from Fort Steel should be able to make it to the Gathering in…three more weeks. I just couldn’t see it happening any quicker.

People already starving, nearly two months before the arrival of a relief column.

“That’s the bad, all right.” Gilson scratched the stubble on his chin.

“Okay, Sergeant, let’s hear the ugly.”

Deep sigh. “The ugly is this. Henry Perfle, the livestock manager at Steel–“

“I know Henry.”

“Yeah. Well, Henry had a fit at first. The only way we could feed that many people–you realize that’s almost equal to Steel’s total population?–the only way would be to slaughter at least twenty beeves from Steel’s herds. Figuring cow size and yield, deboning everything to cut down transport weight, that’s 8,000 pounds of meat. Which would allow a pound of beef per person per day for forty days. Say from the second week of March into mid-April or so. It ain’t the nine pounds per day the ancient Blackfeet used to eat, but along with a couple of wagon loads of potatoes, and thank goodness we have a surplus of those….”

Mace pointed out the obvious. “Might not be two hundred people left when we get there.” I hadn’t known he was counting himself in on this run, but I was glad to hear it.

“Cheerful thought.”  Gilson’s eyes were grim.  “And one that’s preying on Washburn Conroe’s mind, believe me.   It’s possible they could all be dead by the time we get there. But Weasel feels strongly, and the majority of Fort Steele’s people agree, that we’ve gone far too long without a care for others, or even for those within our own stockade walls. So the administration has come up with a detailed plan. Of course, being the Weasel, he’s also keenly aware that having a large new settlement obligated to Fort Steele–and to the Roost as well, for that matter–could pay huge dividends over time. As long as we never let them forget it but do it in a way that doesn’t smack them in the face.”

Ah, politics.

“So. Sounds like Fort Steel has a plan well in hand, Wayne. What’s the ugly?”

He drew in a deep breath, let it out slow. “Manpower. We’ve got enough wagons and Lord knows we’ve got enough horses to pull them. But volunteers willing to leave the fort for what could be a two-month journey with frozen death at the end? Short supply, right there. Henry’s culling his herd as we speak, the beeves being slaughtered and deboned and the meat piled high in freight wagons. Every functional wagon we’ve got, saving only a couple the foundry needs to keep on hand to keep working steel. Fifteen, maybe as many as twenty wagons total. But we’ll be lucky if the fort turns up a driver for every wagon. That’s a best case scenario. Even if we manage that, there’ll be no one left over for anything else. We need somebody to break trail, scout out ahead, make sure we don’t run an entire freight train out of route. Somebody to start campfires at day’s end, set up tents, cook. No fighters or hunters to guard the train–and believe me, it’s going to need guarding. We think the Locust Pack of feral dogs drifted on south with the season, but these snows have driven elk and deer down out of the mountains and the wolves have followed. Two weeks ago, we lost three yearlings to a wolf pack before driving them off. Killed or wounded a few wolves, but there must have been twenty-five or more in that bunch. The wagon drivers aren’t going to be able to pull sentry duty; they’ll be too exhausted every night to even stay awake if they tried.”

“Ah.” I didn’t really want to go gallivanting down-country in midwinter, but it had to be done. And as usual, I had to lead our contingent. The friendship and trust between me and John Sebastian Blake was solid. He was a far better organizer and administrator of civil matters than I would ever be. I was a much more qualified explorer and developer of foreign relations than he would ever be.

Sigh.

In the end, we found a hot meal and a cot for Sergeant Gilson. He needed to catch up on his sleep, at least a little bit, and we needed the rest of the day to gather volunteers, horses, and gear for what looked like a frigid jaunt that could well take the rest of the winter. We closed the meeting officially and got to work.

Mace volunteered immediately. His bride and adopted kids wouldn’t like it, but they wouldn’t object, either. Sandy and Gabby Smith might be willing to come along.

But not Lauren, not in this weather. I couldn’t risk losing her. I just couldn’t.

And not Julia. “You know I have to leave you at home this time,” I told my blonde. She didn’t respond verbally, just flipped me a matched pair of birds as she dashed for the door. I cold hear her horking up breakfast outside, decorating the snow.

“What the–?” Mace caught himself. None of his business.

“Morning sickness,” I observed sagely, o’ wise man of the world that I was at nearly eighteen years of age.

“She’s pregnant? I thought–”

“Turns out she ran out of the special herbs she was using to prevent conception. Didn’t tell me until last week.”

“Well. Congratulations, Dad.”

“Little early for that,” I grunted. He knew what I meant. The Gunderson women had a pretty solid live-delivery rate, few miscarriages, but there were no guarantees. Not in this world as we knew it. Fortunately, Herman the Hermit would also be staying behind. If he couldn’t midwife effectively, nobody in our community could. Mellie Tipton Smith would back him up, too, so nobody was likely to say a word against the semi-mutant.

And I would need a different mount. Roan was getting old. Besides, tough mountain horse that he was, he didn’t stand that tall. The drifts would wear him down in short order.

In the end, Lt. Blake and his sentries let us out of the main gate at first gray light. Not counting Fort Steel’s Gilson–who would not be going on the Roil River run, as he was needed at Steel–there were seven of us. Me, of course. Sandy and Gabby Smith. Mace Smith and another Smith brother, Grit. Jesse, teamster extraordinaire and Grunt’s adopted daughter. And our token Native American, Granshako, the tall warrior who still fully trusted exactly two white men: Michael Jade of the Roost and big Jake Sedlacek of Fort 24.

“Hey,” Granshako had opined, telltale twinkle in his eyes, “these are black people we’re trying to save. Gotta be better than some of you pasty-faced whites.”

I laughed aloud, causing my new horse to dance nervously. A dark bay he was, sturdy-limbed and tall, sixteen-two according to Julia and Gabby. They should know. A bred-up Gunderson mount, tough as steel cable and tempted to buck. Hopefully, a few days of hard winter travel would take that out of him. Gabby rode past on her jet-black mare, leaning out of the saddle to pat me on the knee as she went by. “No worries, cowboy,” she grinned.

Hah. Right.

Lacking a wagon to drive, at least for the time being, Jess led our pack string. We were taking plenty of everything…we hoped. I led the way on the big bay, Sergeant Gilson next behind me. Jess led her string next to last, taking advantage of five riders ahead of her, breaking trail. Granshako took the tail end Charlie position for now, though Mace would spell him from time to time. It paid to keep one’s rear guard fresh. It hadn’t snowed since Gilson left Fort Steel, so the work his animal had done, breaking trail to reach us, didn’t go to waste. Besides, the steep stuff was three-fourths downhill until things leveled out on the open prairie. There, snow cover varied tremendously, the ground being swept nearly clean in some areas and buried under towering drifts in others. Where terrain permitted, the big horse and I led them around the worst of those.

We had shovels, but come on, get real. There might be no other choice in places for the freight wagons, but a pack string can go almost anywhere.

One thing we did not have to worry about was getting wet. Every stream we encountered was frozen solid. Wind was another matter. Nothing fierce yet, probably no more than two, maybe thee miles per hour, but in the open there was nothing to stop it. Down-country, it wasn’t nearly as cold, reaching a high during the day we guessed to be in the mid-twenties, but the melting breezes of spring were nothing but distant dreams.

Taking the eastern shortcut past the taboo City ruins and pushing fairly hard–though not so hard as to damage our mounts–we reached Fort Steel right at midmorning of Day Three, having made the run in two days, four hours, and some minutes. They weren’t expecting us yet, wouildn’t have the freight train ready to move out until the following morning, but that was more than okay by me. Dozer, my skyscraper-high Gunderson bronc, had already earned his new name. The big horse could plow through drifts like a buffalo with a screaming Indian behind him. We could all use the time to hash out travel assignments and pecking order with our Fort Steel freighters, most of who’d known me previously as nothing but a slave brat troublemaker of the first order. And….

Jeremiah Compton met us at the stockade gate. He was mounted on a flashy little crimson bay mare with a black mane and tail plus three white socks to match the white diamond on her forehead. Gone was the servile, slinking attitude by which I’d known him for three-quarters of a decade. He’d filled out some, radiated an air of quiet competence, and no longer bothered to hide the fact that his eyes saw everything. Even the horse seemed to suit him, as–surprisingly–he was suited to command.

It never occurred to me that he was making the same observations about me.

He thanked us for coming. “We need to talk,” I told him bluntly. Weasel nodded and turned his horse. I followed, figuring he had a place warmed up for us to sit and negotiate. Tough negotiations they would be, too. Both of us were willing to help, but neither of us was interested in letting the other guy dominate. In a tiny sense, we were the heads of two nations who’d warred on each other in the past, willing to forgive and become allies against the bigger, badder world out there, but never to let the other take unfair advantage. Weasel and Dawg, I thought, the two most underestimated men ever produced by Fort Steel. It was fitting.

Beyond that, we each had strengths to offer and weaknesses to defend. Mighty Fort Steel was sending nearly twenty people west. We were contributing “only” seven. But seen from another angle, we were contributing the most: Nearly ten percent of our total population versus around eight percent of Fort Steel’s. They were contributing every ounce of the beef and potatoes. On the other hand, the Roost’s fighters were all blooded warriors, every one, even young Gabrielle Gunderson Smith, while few of the Fort Steel wagoneers had ever been near the business end of a bullet fired in anger.

Plus–and this would be crucial–I held two trump cards. The Gathering’s indomitable scout was in no shape to travel back west with us, leaving me as the only man who knew the way. Fort Steel personnel simply never traveled that far, for the most part contenting themselves with letting peripatetic traders come to them. That was trump card number one. I felt Weasel’s gaze slide incuriously over the leather case I was carrying. He was good; no one who’d not known the core of the man would have guessed he was mightily interested in the case’s contents. As he should be.

The Small Council Room, as I would later find out it was called, could only be described as homey. Warm. Comfortable. Fireplace burning…was that coal? A smooth-topped table polished to a soft sheen, atop which someone had already placed a teapot and two steaming mugs. Yep. This guy was good, all right.

“So how’s Laura and the kids?” I asked, genuinely interested.

He hadn’t expected that as my opening salvo. “Feisty as ever,” he snorted. “But not my problem for a while. At least my wife isn’t. She insists on going with you to Roil River.”

My eyes widened in surprise. Fort Steel’s premier healer and the Fort Manager’s wife, jaunting westward ho in blizzard season? “Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow. Nothing I can do about it, you know. That woman makes up her mind and I try to cross her, I’ll get my tailbone kicked up clean between my eyeballs.”

I was pretty sure he was exaggerating. A little. “I’m a married man myself these days.” Didn’t need to press that issue any farther. “Kids going to be okay without her? Or did they insist on going, too?”

“Hah. Son tried, but Mama Bear rules the chicken coop. Or something like that. He’s twelve now, you know. And her number one apprentice. He and his sister are staying here. He gets to be Doctor Compton while she’s gone.”

“Huh. Well, I can’t say it won’t be comforting to have her with us. If there’s any of the Gathering left alive when we get there, she’ll keep ’em that way.” Simple fact and we both knew it. “Wayne tells me you figure to kind of put those folks in your debt. You’re welcome to that. But I have three conditions before we head out.”

“Figured,” he said dryly. “You are who you are.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“Point. What are your conditions?”

I ticked them off on my fingers. “One, I’m the commander of this little expedition and you let your people know it up front. I don’t need any tenderfeet gumming up the works when there’s a blizzard roaring in or a wolf pack on our trail or whatever.”

“No argument, Michael. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

No argument? Already he was making me worry. What else did he have up his weaselly sleeve?

“Two. I want Jess driving the lead wagon.” It dawned on me that he likely had no idea who Jess was. “She’s the teamster who worked with Grunt for years.”

“Hm. That dumpy thing was a woman?” He thought for a moment. Not long. Jeremiah Compton thought fast. “One of our drivers might chicken out. He doesn’t want to go anyway. Guy’s about half a drunk.”

“So, leave him home and give Jess his wagon?”

“I’d hoped to get rid of him for a while, but…okay.” His show of reluctance was phony as a raider’s promise of good will toward men. He hadn’t wanted to send the drunk in the first place.

“All righty then.” I undid the lace tie on the leather case, extracted a few papers, and handed them over to Fort Steel’s current overlord. “This is a copy of the MAP agreement between the Roost and Fort 24. We’d like Steel to be the third signatory, and I’d appreciate it if I could show it to the Gathering after we’ve fed the survivors. They’re certainly going to want to join, especially if we can present your wagons full of food as a MAP expedition. When we set it up to handle emergency situations, we were thinking of military attacks, but if starvation doesn’t qualify as an emergency, nothing does.”

I left him to study the Mutual Alliance Pact wording and headed out to take care of my horse.