Jeremiah Baseline Compton, Miah to his family (short for Jeremiah), lay curled in the fetal position, shivering in the day’s first gray light until the wagons were well and truly gone. No more fragrant road apples dropped by the mules and horses. No more looming war dog. No more Hammer Blackface, the ancient, meaningless janitor who turned out to be something else entirely. Only pain remained, the fiery torture of his slashed hamstring pulsing with every beat of his terrified heart. Weasel, they called him. Little did they know.
Laura knew. Laura MacIntosh Compton, bride of his dreams, mother of his children. She knew, and he would not fail her. He was alive–I am alive!–and determined to get back to her. She had warned him. Oh, how his lady had warned him. The persona you have created is going to bite you in the butt someday, beloved. The law of karma, as taught to me by Gran MacIntosh, demands it. The law of mental molds demands it. For too long, you have stayed in character outside the walls of our home. Sooner or later, your butt is going to get bit!
His lip curled up, part grimace against the pain, part shame, part amusement. His wife had been wrong. It wasn’t his butt that had felt the bite of the knife; the blade had struck far lower than that. Emotions swirled through his consciousness, fierce, each demanding his attention while resenting the others.
Shame, that he had let down his family. Whether or not he died before reaching home, he had blown it. A man with one good leg at Fort Steel was no man at all.
Fear, that his low tolerance for pain or his less than robust constitution or a chance encounter with animal predators or human raiders or bad weather or stepping wrong on a rock might kill him before he could reach the relative safety of the Fort.
Relief, almost a shame in itself, relief that he was still alive.
Anger, at those who had sent him on such a fool’s errand.
Gratitude, the strangest of all, gratitude toward the giant Grunt who had cut him, gratitude that his adversary had not killed him or tortured him. Captain Finster, in such a situation, would have made his death long and slow, simply to indulge his sadistic nature. Young Dawg would have knifed him or strangled him or pierced his brain with a nail through the ear. Even the old blackfaced janitor would have made sure he left no enemy alive at his back. Yet Grunt had spared him, doing what he must but no more, leaving him a chance to return to his family. It is strange, feeling this way toward a man who has knifed you, but it is real.
The gratitude became even more real when he finally dared to open his eyes to look around, take stock of his situation, and figure out how on Earth he was going to cover eighteen hard miles on one leg. There before him, left against the base of the tree to which he’d been tied during the night, was…a canteen. In a crumpled heap beside the canteen…a soft piece of leather, doeskin maybe, three inches wide and, as he discovered when he stretched it out, more than four feet in length. The items gave the appearance of having been dropped carelessly, left behind by accident, but Miah knew better. He really believed I might have harmed the little boy, yet he still left these for me. It made no sense that a stranger treated as an enemy would do this, yet it had been done.
Well. He picked up the canteen. Uncapped it. Inhaled cautiously. Not water…alcohol. He knew that scent, the potent potato vodka brewed at Fort Steel. Not full by a long shot, but enough. It would have to be enough.
First, a single careful swig, the comforting burn down his throat, spreading warmth from his belly outward. It helped. Next, kneeling so he could reach back to his wounded ankle, he poured a generous portion over the gash. And screamed once more, long and heartfelt. Damn, that hurt! But it would hold off infection, at least for a time.
When the nausea from the increased pain subsided, he set to work wrapping the foot and ankle with the long, soft leather strip. It took several attempts to get the job done, to get the wrapping right so that both ends wound up near each other and could be tied off properly. By this time the sun was up. His grandfather, a survivor only moderately blackfaced, had owned a set of adventure books from Before. The main characters never took this long to deal with even a near-fatal wound. Now he understood what they meant by the word fiction.
The leather wrapping helped. Not that he could use the leg, but the binding would remind him not to move it wrong, and flies would be kept away.
Now for a crutch, which wasn’t going to be easy. Grunt had been astoundingly merciful, but he hadn’t gone so far as to leave a blade behind. Miah couldn’t blame him for that; edged metal was priceless.
Getting to his feet–no, his foot–didn’t come easily, either. Once he’d accomplished that, pulling himself vertical with fingertips wedged in the bark of the pine tree as much as anything else, he got scared all over again. Predators naturally followed wounded prey. Blood had been spilled here, his and the doe’s, the scent unmistakable. He was never an outstanding athlete; hopping eighteen miles was simply not going to work. Man up! Laura’s face filled his vision, her deep brown eyes boring into his. She never lets me sit on the pitty potty for very long.
The ugly truth was that a proper crutch was out of the question. In grandfather’s books, the protagonist would luckily find just the right branch with a perfect Y at one end, bingo, crutch. Try finding a perfect Y in a pine forest! Besides, even if he did find such a magical stick, how would he cut it to length? Impossible. It seemed like forever and half a ton of Sundays before he settled on a piece of deadfall lumber that might more accurately have been designated a quarterstaff. Nearly two inches thick at the base, green enough to possess several pounds of unhelpful weight, at least it wouldn’t break easily. It wasn’t pine, either, though he couldn’t have named the smooth barked tree if his life depended on it.
Which it sort of did.
The canteen strap hung over his shoulder well enough, only a little of the vodka remaining. Hobble-hopping to the upstream trickle to fill the container up the rest of the way, he remembered the teamster woman boiling the water before anybody drank it; he would have to hope an ounce of alcohol would be enough to kill any bugs. It might keep him from getting beaver fever. Then again, if he did, would he even notice the additional misery? His Laura was knowledgeable about such things. If he could get home, pegging it all the way, she’d fix him up good as new.
Except for the hamstring, of course.
By the time he left the campsite, using two hands on the staff like he was poling a dugout canoe and feeling the jolt run the length of his bad leg every time he hopped forward on his good leg, the sun was halfway toward its zenith and storm clouds were moving in from the northwest. Great. On top of everything else, he might just end up freezing to death. Slave sandal on his good foot, summer slave tunic his only real covering, his odds weren’t good. But if he could cover one mile per hour (doubtful)…and keep his mind occupied, concocting a story to tell Tucker and Finster that gave them reason to let a cripple live… Yeah, there’s a challenge. Let’s go with that for a while. Maybe he could sell them on the benefits of having the only one legged pole vaulter in a thousand mile radius. Great tourist attraction, if there were any tourists to be attracted.
Grandfather had told him of the Before days, people swarming the land like so many ants, over population to the max. They’d had tourists then, or so he’d said. Unfortunately, the Comptons–and maybe the Teacher–were likely the only Fort Steel residents who even knew the word.
Focus! If he didn’t focus on things practical, he was a dead man. Laura had always decried his Weasel persona, but it had kept them alive for years. Plus, it was the only game in town; he had no other options. The Weasel was tough, fearless, wily, sneaky, a great asset if he was on your side and a fearsome enemy if he wasn’t.
Were Tucker and Finster to realize the Weasel was a mask and only that, a shield against the hard world and no more, he would die. A cripple who preferred the poetry of sunsets over conquest, whose heart melted at the sight of any baby, animal or human…that weakling would be seem as nothing but a liability by the Fort’s iron fisted rulers. He’d be lucky to end up as compost.
Jeremiah Baseline Compton was a gentle dreamer. The power hungry of the world had no use for such.
Weasel, though…even now, the Weasel persona might be able to save him, keep him in a position to not only survive but to continue providing for his family. If he could gain such a reputation for nastiness despite never having actually killed anyone, could he not turn this to his advantage as well? There was such a thing as too much honesty. He had no problem lying to liars despite his good secret Christian upbringing. Jesus didn’t lie, but Jesus got crossified.
But how? How could he spin the truth, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?
Not that he’d ever seen silk, but he’d heard of it. Who’d want to carry a purse made out of thin slick fabric anyway? Talk about destroying your manly image.
By the end of the first mile, well out of the woods and retracing the route through open country, he had the beginnings of a story. By the end of the second mile, the framework of the tale was in place. By the end of the third, he’d fleshed out most of the details and had begun rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing.
At near the five mile mark, he fell. Determination and the use of mental distraction had moved him farther toward home than he would have believe possible, but he was done. His good leg was good no more; utterly numb, it simply refused to handle one more pole-hop and folded up limply, dropping him flat. Not on his face, thankfully; his equally numb two handed grip on the staff had allowed his body to twist, slamming him down on his left shoulder.
Great. He lay there, unaware of his heaving chest as it labored to replenish oxygen supplies to every cell in his body. One eye was pressed against the grassy trail. The other took in the sky, now fully overcast, though thankfully neither rain nor snow nor freezing temperature had yet descended to claim him. Inches in front of his nose, a busy line of foraging ants trundled back and forth, hauling bits of vegetative something or other. Not three steps ahead, a sizeable rattlesnake slow-crawled across the trail; had he not fallen, he might well have stepped on the reptile. Prone as he was, prairie grasses grew well above his position on both sides of the trail. In the distance, a ragged gray line announced the presence of one of the ancient Before highways, fast potholing into oblivion.
Beyond that, he knew, lay the river. Not a giant like the Misery or the Sippy; heading out, the wagons had managed to cross it without floating. Thigh high at the crossing. No problem, even on foot, for a man with two good legs.
Which, he observed gloomily, amounted to exactly, precisely, specifically two more good legs than he had at the moment.
Lesser agonies than either leg, his hands finally got his attention. Gripping the pole had rubbed the palms raw in places. Mostly, though, the pain in them simply throbbed, poor competition for the piercing shooting cramps in his–ha ha–power leg.
He had to get to that river. There would be cover there, water loving trees like cottonwoods and willows, thick brush, thickets to at least keep the frigid night wind away. Dangerous critters, too, no doubt, maybe even a careless rattlesnake curled up right where he wanted to nest. Risk.
But a far lesser risk than staying out here in the open where he was guaranteed to wake up dead or worse.
Some feeling was returning to his left leg. Pins and needles. How long had he lain here, spaced out, nothing but breathing meat waiting to be eaten by the first passing coyote pack? The prairie wolves weren’t nearly as big as the great wolves, but they were ever so sly, with all those narrow snouts and long, sharp teeth, the better to rend you with, Little Weasel Falling Hood.
Yeah, what he wouldn’t give for a hood. The temperature was dropping fast.
Time to go. Later, he would remember making that decision, but little more. He had no recall whatsoever of actually getting to his foot, taking up the bloody staff once again, lurching forward. There was a dim memory of stumbling twice, nearly falling both times but catching himself with desperate, arm wrenching pole maneuvers. A vague awareness of the crumbled highway asphalt being behind him. And then he was down again, slamming that same bruised shoulder in that same exact way, which wasn’t going to do him any favors in the morning. But he was there. It was deepest gloom now, the last hints of light barely enough to hint at outlines, every tree trunk a starving bear ready for dinner. Or a tiger. There were legends about the great cats, myths claiming some of the them had been released from public zoos by animal rights fanatics during the long fall of humanity, the six hundred pound apex predators flourishing in the southern country and possibly spreading northward. Rock pythons, too, monster reptiles capable of swallowing a man whole.
Jeremiah Baseline Compton was too tired to care. Still, he had to get under cover before passing out completely. Had to. Off to his right, crowding the riverbank, willows beckoned. At least he was pretty sure they were willows, slender of trunk, willing to bend aside as he dragged his way deeper into the thicket, leaving his bloodied pole vaulting staff behind. Were a marauding beast to happen upon him in his hideout, a monster stick of lumber like that would be useless anyway.
It took a while to find a clear spot large enough to let him lie down without squeezing one or more parts of his body, but when he did, there was room enough to accommodate the fetal position, where he’d started the day in terrified agony and was now finishing in numb exhaustion. There were plenty of moldy leaves and other bits of detritus on the ground. He covered himself, inches thick as he raked it in with both hands, his body heat already warming things up.
By the time he pulled head and hands in close, shrinking carefully into the crude pile of mostly rotting vegetation like some great turtle retreating into its shell, snowflakes were coming down. A buck deer, at least he hoped that’s all it was, snorted somewhere nearby, most likely startled by his frantic activity.
He’d never done this sort of thing before, never been trained for it or even told about it. Spiritual guidance? Thank you, Jesus. This last thought, a brief but heartfelt mental prayer, closed out his day. Consciousness fled swiftly. There would be time enough in the morning to consider his next step, if he was still alive, and cold or not, he was grateful it was snow, not rain.
He hated sleeping wet.