Grunt, Chapter 72: General Winter’s War

MICHAEL

None of the Fort Steel teamsters gave me any initial grief. For the first three days out of Fort Steel, things ran too smoothly for words. Most of the trail west carried no more than a few inches of snow cover, the wind never picked up, and neither man nor beast suffered a single injury. Jess’s lead team turned out to be a matched set of six huge mules, all of whom bonded with their new mule-loving driver. Camp routine settled in nicely with cooking handled primarily by healer Laura Compton plus three Smiths: Sandy, Gabby, and Grit. No wolves were sighted. Even our several thousand pounds of boiled potatoes–cooked prior to departure in two of the foundry’s huge cauldrons usually reserved for molten iron, since frozen raw potatoes never fared well–seemed comfortable in their wagon beds. I knew it couldn’t last.

It didn’t.

On the evening of Day Four, after the horses had been fed their rations of grain and hobbled to graze on dry winter tall-grass, minutes after supper had been served and Gabby had headed for a nearby drift to get non-yellow snow for melting into dishwater, we heard her scream. It was dark out there where the firelight barely reached. Within seconds, Mace and I were on the scene, though Sandy and Jess had both beat us there and everybody not on sentry duty was pounding our way. Several men carried torches.

It hadn’t been Gabrielle’s scream. Julia’s younger sister crouched in fighting stance, bloody knife in hand. One of the Fort Steel’s wagon drivers had backed up several steps, leaving a blood trail as he went. His right hand, cradled in his left, was missing two fingers. A third digit hung by a thread. All three continued to bleed like crazy.

Without a word, the Roost went to work. Sandy sided his wife, heavy revolver drawn and the hammer back. He left it pointing at the ground, but the message was clear. If anyone else from Steel wanted to up the ante, he was all in. His kid brother Grit and the Native warrior Granshako both backed him, leaving their sidearms in their holsters but watching the crowd just as warily. Mace and I grabbed hold of the wounded man while Jess bandaged his hand expertly, no time lost. She didn’t even have to go back to camp for first aid supplies; her heavy winter coat was lined with endless pockets. By the time Laura Compton made her way forward, the job was nearly done.

There was a reason I’d wanted Jess on the lead wagon.

Our swift, silent action forestalled any questions from the Steelers. Seven of us, nineteen of them, but they were for the most part farmers, herders, or shopkeepers. We were a machine.

“All right,” I said after Jess gave me a nod, indicating she’d done what she could. “We get to hold our first-ever MAP court hearing, right here, right now. Gabby, what happened?”

“Hey!” Fingers had found his voice.

“You’ll get your turn,” I told him. It must have been something in my eyes. He shut back up. “Gabs?”

The veteran of the Gunderson Corral Battle sheathed her knife. Sometime during our emergency medical session with Fingers, she’d found a way to clean it. “I was bending over, I guess flashing my pretty parka-covered butt at him, scooping and packing snow into the bucket, when Zawicki tried to jump my behind from behind.” Ah. Right. That was his name. Karl Zawicki. Drove the third-from-last wagon. “Startled me, which I guess is why I missed.”

“You missed?” Zawicki had two and a half abbreviated digits that said otherwise.

“Yeah. I was aiming for his throat.”

Oh. Well, she’d taken a Rodney Upward arrow in the thigh, back in the day. She likely figured getting the short end of the stick once was enough. Combat vets are like that.

The defendant couldn’t restrain himself. “That’s not right! I just came out to help her!”

“That’s your testimony?” My tone was mild as unsalted butter.

It was. “All right, gentleman,” I addressed the assemblage. “You well know, ’cause Compton so informed you before we left Steel, I’m the military commander for this unified MAP mission. As such, I could decide how we’re going to handle this.” I paused to let that sink in, listening to the low rumbles and grumbles in the back of the bunch where the malcontents couldn’t be identified. “But that probably wouldn’t promote peace and harmony between our two groups, now would it? So here’s how it’s going to work. Jess is going to put everybody’s name in two hats, excluding only Fingers here, Laura Compton because she’s devoted her life to healing and could hardly vote to execute a man, Gabby, Sandy Smith because he’s her husband, Jess herself, and me. One hat will hold the names of the Roost’s three eligible jurors. I’ll draw one name out–Mace, Grit, or Granshako–and that person will be a juror. Then I’ll draw two names out of the Fort Steel hat. We’ll have a three-man jury, two Steelers, one Rooster.”

That threw some of them. Fort Steel now used jury trials, but no one in our group had ever served on one. They had questions.

“What are we supposed to decide?”

“Two things. First, two out of three of you have to decide if the defendant is guilty. Did Zawicki really come out here to help, in which case his injuries are no more than an unfortunate accident, or did he try to jump Gabrielle under the cover of darkness, in which case there has to be punishment. If you decide he’s guilty, then you have to decide what that punishment will be.” I donned my fiercest countenance. “And there are no limits. If you find him guilty, you can also decide he’s suffered enough, let him keep on driving his team one-handed, or you can decide to send him back to Steel on our sorriest spare nag, or you can decide he has to hang or be shot. You have one hour to render your decision. We can’t afford more.”

Silence. A lot of silence.

In the end, teamsters Bobby Hollis and Joiner Drake were drawn to represent Fort Steel. Mace Smith gave me a dirty look when his name came out of the hat for the Roost. The three men retired to deliberate around a private campfire Weasel’s wife had built to provide privacy from prying ears. That woman was always thinking. I gave her a nod of appreciation and she winked at me.

The wink triggered a longing for Julia and Lauren that nearly drove me to my knees. Yeah, I knew I was only one of many married men away from their loved ones in the middle of a war against a deadly opponent, old General Winter himself, but damn! Waiting for the jury to come in provided the only real slack time I’d had since leaving home. I didn’t like it. It felt like I’d lost an arm and a leg, like the ancient Before stories said loan sharks took if you were desperate enough to deal with them. Big chunk of my gut, too. Hollow Gut Man.

I turned away, grabbing my .358 Winchester. Maybe a round of the perimeter would do me good, check in with the sentries. It was dark out there. Nobody could see my face. The wet running from my eyes and freezing on my face would be invisible.

Creator, how did I ever survive those alone years as a slave kid?

Yeah, yeah. I knew how. Hate sustained me then. Hate, determination to break free, plus the precious, gossamer thin threads of caring offered by teacher Cindy Harakas and healer Laura Compton.

No wonder her wink had undone me. Epiphany.

The jury ended up deliberating for more than an hour, but not by much. The night was cold, we needed our sleep, tomorrow would be another long, hard day. One idiot’s fate wasn’t worth staying up all night.

“Guilty,” Mace said. Hollis and Drake had elected him foreman of the jury. Over his objections, I was sure. The entire camp, excluding only the posted sentries, had gathered to hear the verdict.

“You got that down?” I turned to check on Jess, who was taking notes. Those would be transcribed in a permanent record once we returned to Fort Steel. She gave me a quick thumb up.

“The verdict is guilty,” I repeated, loudly enough to make sure everybody heard. “What is the sentence?”

“He goes back to Fort Steel. Alone. On foot.”

No horse, then. I was relieved. We’d only brought two spare mounts in the first place. If I was gauging the mood of our people right, there were some who were shocked. Others nodded solemnly. Time for me to do my judge thing. “The Court thanks the jury for their service,” I intoned, consciously adopting the speaking style teacher Marakas had once demonstrated in class when I was…twelve? Thirteen? The sentence made sense. Not death, though I would have backed them up if they’d made that decision. I would have made a similar eject-the-fool decision. In fact, if I remembered my lessons right, Before societies left most sentencing to judges, not juries. But it had been essential to involve Steelers in sentencing one of their own. Absolutely essential. Weasel and Dawg might have forged a new alliance, but the operative word in that sentence was new. Newborn things are fragile. I had nineteen Fort Steel men…okay, eighteen men now, plus one Steeler woman, following the lead of a formerly disrespected, despised, trouble making slave boy and obstinate rebel. Being seen as abusing my power would be a sure recipe for disaster. Besides, this way I was able to shift a significant share of the burden to our jurors, like Pontius Pilate washing his hands before handing Jesus Christ over to the mob.

Ow. Uncomfortable analogy, that.

Still, there were plenty of details left to consider.

Come dawn, we were on the move, short on sleep and a tad cranky but not one minute behind schedule. Laura had changed our first MAP convict’s finger wraps. He was outfitted with a pack, not a full eighty-pounder since he didn’t seem like man enough to drop that much and sling it back to his back one-handed. His rifle was confiscated, but his battered .38 Special revolver was fully loaded, as was his cartridge belt. Just in case. Wolves. He’d have to draw it awkwardly, left-handed, but it beat trying to convince a pack of carnivores with a stick.

Granshako would be handling the tail end Charlie position, Mace having been dragooned into occupying the wagon seat vacated by our social reject. The Native warrior would be riding with rifle in hand, watching Zawicki until he was out of range. With the sullen rage blasting from the wounded man’s eyes, that was a sensible precaution. The fool seemed to be angrier at his intended victim than at me or the jury. How dare a mere woman fight back like that?

Had Fingers lived at the Roost rather than at Fort Steel, I’d have made sure he was dead. Unless Sandy Smith beat me to it. Had the sex predator had any idea whose wife he was dealing with? No. Obviously not.

I’d better keep an eye on Sandy, too, whenever we were in Fort Steel territory. If Fingers survived the several-days trek back to Steel, he would still never be safe around the man who’d tracked down Gracie Stark and shot her arm off.

“Think he’ll tell the truth?” Young Grit Smith rode beside me, helping to break trail long enough to ask the question.

“Nah. He ain’t got it in him.”

Four days into a three week run and already one man down. Fun, fun, fun.

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ROIL RIVER

RANDY McGEE

What day was it? Day after a blizzard dumped more than a foot of snow on us, that’s what day it was. Month…it was…it was the month more than forty people died a starvation, or else froze to death after being so close ta starvation it didden make no nevermind. Maybe I shoulda let them et the horses. Maybe my grammar was slipping, back to my unthinking days, misspent youth. Next thing, I’d be axing people stuff instead a asking them. Woulda been less frozen corpses eyeball-staring at the uncaring sky, that’s for sure.

Only I couldn’t. Couldn’t let them et the horses. Lotsa reasons. Some even logicle…logical. If they’d a et one horse, then they’d a et another. Pretty soon, boom, no more draft animals for moving wagons or plowing, no more saddlers for riding. We’da survived ole man winter maybe. But barely, weak and needing to hunt and our best man gone dead out there somewhere inna white, Wash Conroe frozen-eyeballing the suddenly sunshine but still ice cold blue uncaring sky. As hunters, most of us sucked. Wash coulda taught us, was teaching some, but no more Wash. Spring without horses woulda been death just as sure, only slower. Better ta die now than try doing a horse’s work wit a man’s sorry excuse for muscles when the snow melted. If it was ever gonna melt. That was the locicalness of it. The biggest main reason was sumpin’ else. Sumpin’ pounded in my head by Mother McGee, may she rest in peace. Her words pounded in my throbbing head.

Animals are Soul, too, Randall Washington McGee. Horses are your friends. You think the good Lord Jesus is gonna smile down on your backslidin’ self if you abuse another Soul who is your friend? Jesus be whuppin’ you right outa the temple like them Pharisees, that’s what he be doin’ if you mistreat your Soul-friend. You be collectin’ your thirty pieces of silver like ole Judas, an’ you know that didden work out real well for him inna end, now did it? That’s what you be if you abuse a horse, Randall Washington McGee. You be endin’ up a Pharisee Judas on the dark side of the moon from our Lord, workin’ for ole Satan inna lava pits, that’s what.

Two hundred starving people for whom I was responsible couldn’t hold a candle to Mother McGee.

So what had I done? I had ta rack my brain, which wasn’t working too good, what with lack a food an’ barely enough strength ta chop a hole in the river ice every morning so’s we could bucket water at least. The Roil was plumb frozen over, ice six inches thick even over the faster-water part. What had I done?

I had done saved the horses at the expense of maybe all two hundred of the Gathering. If they ever found me out…couldn’t think about that. Deep night, no one strong enough ta pull sentry duty, nothing ta eat, I’d gone ta the holding pasture. Caught up old Roamer, the boss mare alla others followed. Led her out the gate, climbed on bareback, an’ headed west. The rest had followed as I’d known they would. Not that I didn’t stir them up some so’s they knew we was goin’, got the sleepers awake and all that. Two miles downstream, well outa sight an’ way farther than anyone else was gonna make it on foot, I turned the mare loose in a broad meadow. Winter-dry grass there was tall, much of it poking above the snow. Wash had told me about it, had located the place during one of his jaunts. “There’s a warm pool here, see?” I didn’t have to tell Roamer. She was already drinking. Not a hot spring exackly, the pool felt ta my hand like it stayed aroun’ maybe fifty degrees all winter long. Should we relocate ta this spot later? Not sure it didden have leeches. Time ta think about that when we saw how many of us still drew breath come snowmelt.

The walk back ta the encampment nearly did me in. Already weak as a newborn Before celebrity’s marriage vows. Wasn’t even sure how I’d managed ta get up on Roamer’s back in the first place. Or how I found the strength ta get the pasture gate closed. Snow was falling by the time I made it ta my blankets.

There’d been a lot of unhappy humans that morning, hungry for horse meat but no horses. “Did you patch that hole in the fence on the south side?” I didn’t lie, exactly. Not exactly. Just let everbody assume the worst. We all knew the crew I’d assigned ta fix that fence hadn’t lifted a finger one. For a while, I thought I’d gone too far, that we were going ta have a mob ready to eat lazy human no-fix-fence flesh. Wasn’t sure I had enough energy left ta think on my feet, ta redirect the starvees toward some other target. But they hadn’t had the energy ta get up a good ole pitchfork-wavin’ mob. The only danger ta the horses was if they came back home to their people, but that was nice pasture down there with warmish water ta sooth their long throats. They might drift off an’ truly disappear, but….

How long ago had that been?

Lost count.

My rifle felt heavier than a creosote-soaked railroad tie. Had ta do it, though. The game would be coming outa their hidey spots after havin’ ta hole up for three blizzard days. They’d be moving around, leaving fresh tracks. An’ if it was ta be it was up ta me. Weren’t nobody else in the Gathering sill strong enough ta even make the effort.

An’ effort it was. Slow-slog across the river ice, knee-plowing through fresh snows as I goes. Falling twice, just crossing the ice. Ain’t that nice. Mos’ likely, if by some grace of God–grace taa me, not so much ta the deer–I manage a lucky shot and down something, can I even drag it back ta the camp? Not without eating some of it on the spot, I bet not. Raw. Few of us have fires now. Few of us have fuel for such. Oh, for the storied days a buffalo poop so thick on the plains it could be scooped up and burned just like wood. As long as I was wishin’. Maybe ice fishin’. Had ta be fish in that river. Were fish. Some of the folks had caught some before winter came. But ice fishin’? None of us knew the first thing about how ta do that, except for the old myths about holding live maggots in yer cheeks ta use as live bait.

Hungry as the people are, any maggots that make it ta their mouths wouldn’t be live for very long. Not that there’s maggots this time a year. Crazy legend.

Made it across, so now what, upstream or down? The whitetails love river brush, good ta hide in. Lotsa brush either way. More upstream. Try that. Likely won’t even make it back ta camp alive, but Mother McGee’s favorite son don’t dare quit. Quit and git to the other side, she’d whack me with a paddle. Why ya think my butt’s swole up like this, bro? Oh, you had one a them mamas, too?

Eyes on the ground, lousy hunter but–fall again, this time only ta my knees. Small victory. Hafta get up, but one thing atta time. Lift head first…not that easy. Ain’t happenin’.

Wait. Sound? Sounds like…jingle traces? Horses? Still can’t lift my head. Vision blurred. My time, maybe. Mother McGee musta put in a good word for me, sent that sweet chariot. I could hear her voice, singing strong.

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I whisper, “I’m coming, Mama.” Couldn’t let her see me knocked down like this. Man don’t face his destiny with his head down. I struggle harder, fight to raise my gaze harder than I’d fought in the streets as a kid. Been fightin’ for my life then, too. Goin’ to the Greater Life now. Voices. I can hear voices. Angels, ain’t no question about it. Gotta clear my vision, get that head up, come on wimp, you a man or a mouse?

Strength flows into me, don’t know where from, grace a God. My head lifts. My vision clears. I see the angels.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

The lead angel looks a lot like the Roost’s young leader, the killer of raiders, Michael Jade. He’s mounted on a big, beautiful bay horse. Wrapped up in winter garb, scarf covering half his face an’ all, but only one man sits a horse like that. Behind him comes wagon after wagon, as far as my eye can see, pulled by powerful teams that plow through knee-deep snow like it’s nothing. The lead team…mules. Song never specified. Must be God’s mules, maybe Mary’s donkey mated with horses, made God’s mules. Some of the wagon drivers and outriders show wear and tear in their own right. An arm in a sling here, a dried-blood stain on a pants leg there.

A band of angels indeed. Nobody ever said angels didn’t have ta do battle ta do God’s will. I let go, passing out face down in the snow.