Grunt, Chapter 27: Red Horse

GRUNT

We waited an extra day for the storm to finish blowing itself out despite Tommy’s obvious agitation. The man got cabin fever, or mine shaft fever to be more accurate, quicker than anybody I’d ever known. He was the only one of us, though. I was starting to feel my age, more than willing to lounge by the fire and catnap the hours away. The aging hadn’t slowed me down noticeably so far, but I couldn’t help thinking about that old saying:

I ain’t as good as I once was
But I’m still as good once as I ever was.

Or something like that. It wasn’t like I could do a Google search to check it out. More than anything, though, I found myself anxious to get this hunt over and done with, get myself back to Fort 24 and dig in, answering questions about the Before times while our community’s finest scholars wrote down the answers, all of us taking our time to get it right but hurrying nonetheless. Considering the remaining Survivors, I was likely going to be the last man standing who remembered the world the way it was. Once I was gone, there’d be no more living witnesses to resurrect the past, get it recorded for posterity. Except for Hammer Weathers, maybe; the old doctor/warrior had a bunch of years on me but gave the impression he was going to be around for a while.

We had an awful lot of words jotted down even now, treatises on a plethora of subjects. Weapons manufacturing and use, cooking healthy, nature’s remedies, spaceships, fresh and salt water ships, genetics, selective breeding, brain tanning, the English language, mathematics, literature, history, government, politics, gardening, hunting, automobile manufacturing, the use of fossil fuels, solar power, coal oil lamps, field surgery, fishing, building construction, homemade concrete, metal alloys, mining, logging, relationships, the game of marbles, glass blowing, glass manufacturing, stucco, chess, various card games, a crude version of backwoods Monopoly, biology for both men and women…the list went on. And on. And on.

And yet it wasn’t enough. Would never be enough. That was the primary duty for Capriosi vilify Survivors, the wearers of the blackface. We had to help preserve as much knowledge as possible while we were still here to consult. You never knew what was going to be important. Some things were as obviously crucial as the nose on your face while other nuggets of knowledge might never be used for generations yet come into play a century or two down the line. We oldsters usually spent every day of every winter adding to the repository; we had no greater responsibility than that.

Until Rodney Upward. The redheaded punk. Marcus should have been the one out here; after all, it was his stupidity as a Trader that allowed the kid access to our mountain redoubt in the first place.

But Marcus was worthless as teats on a boar hog for something like this. Laziest excuse for a Trader in the whole Fort, always cutting corners, looking for the path of least resistance. The man had never left the Fort during bad weather and never would. He couldn’t track worth sour apples, he complained about the cold constantly, and he’d never fired a shoot gun in his life.

Dawg–okay, Michael and Julia were enjoying themselves, at least. For them, the extra day underground amounted to a bit of a honeymoon, and I was glad to see it.

Tommy kept his own counsel and that was fine.

Inevitably, the second day dawned bright and clear, a few clouds wisping above but mostly blue showing through. The temperature had come up to the point that things were beginning to melt, albeit with glacial slowness. The wind had died down. Acclimated as we’d become to the cold snap, it almost felt like shirtsleeve weather. By the time the sun was peeping over the horizon, we were back at it, retracing our route to where we’d last seen Demon tracks. We then headed east by guess and by gosh.

Our odds of picking up their trail again was pretty good. Civilians wonder how we do that, but the truth is, most travelers going in a given direction will follow the same sensible route unless some outside force intervenes. Our quarry had been heading due east before; chances were that’s all we’d need to do to come up right behind them.

Besides, we had Slash. “Scout,” I told him, and the big wardog took off, covering more ground than we did despite having to bust through a drift here and there to do it.

Each of us had a packet of pemmican in a coat pocket or a saddle bag. Lunch munch right there, neither reason nor desire to stop. Buck ducked his head to grab a bite of grass in midstride every now and then, and I let him. He wouldn’t be getting anything else until we stopped for the night.

We rode all day without finding Upward’s trail. No surprise there, though. If the Demons had braved the elements before we did, the blowing, drifting snow would have wiped out their tracks anyway. All we could do at this point was keep on keeping on. There was a flat-topped butte ahead; we’d reach it by sunset and camp there, on the other side. I’d only been through this way once before, but if I remembered right, it wouldn’t be a bad campsite. Not the best, but certainly not the worst.

“Hwoof!” Slash’s low huff got my attention in a hurry; I pulled the big stallion to a stop, peering ahead. There he was, thirty yards front and off to the right a bit, mostly disguised by a sizeable clump of sagebrush . I knew that sound he’d made; the huge canine had something he wanted me to see. I raised a fist, pumping my arm in silent code. The others would stay back a bit, spacing out a bit more jus in case there was trouble. Not that I distrusted my hound, but better safe than sorry.

“Lead on, boy.” My voice was a low rumble, barely audible even to me, but Slash heard it well enough.

The temperature was already dropping. Dismount? No, I might need the horse in a hurry. The last time the oversized pup had done this, I’d ended up coming face to face with a brown bear in an old school bear trap, the kind that cuts into hide and flesh, sometimes right to the bone. Had a crossbow with me that time. Could have shot the bear easily enough, but it hadn’t seemed right. I’ll hunt, but trapping? Okay, so sometimes we really needed the furs, but my first instinct was still to snap those trap jaws around the privates of the trapper and see how he liked it.

It had taken hours to free that bear without getting me and the dog killed in the process. Nobody knew about it; it wasn’t the sort of thing you shared with your bear meat loving buddies.

To this day I remained convinced that Slash approved of helping the bruin and that was enough. What happens with me and Slash stays with me and Slash.

“Whoa, boy. E-e-easy now.” It wasn’t a bear this time. Nearly hidden beneath the spreading branches of the sage, the man sprawled motionless, blood caking his buckskins and the rude tourniquet he’d applied barely holding life to limb. Maybe thirty or so, dark features, black braids, a wicked looking Bowie knife in one hand and a look in his eye that said he was ready to die but he wouldn’t go easy.

“We’re not the enemy.” I spoke in a conversational tone. It didn’t matter; I wasn’t sure he even recognized me as human. He knew I was there, all right, but not that I’d help him if I could.

Well, foo. With Slash watching the gravely wounded man, I dared turn in the saddle. Julia was there. I signaled to her: Back!

If this man had been attacked, it was most likely by the outlaws we’d been following. They were white men on horses, we were white folks–couldn’t call Julia a man–on horses. To him, I likely seemed to be here for the express purpose of finishing him off.

He hadn’t responded to me in any way so far, so I tried again. “Speak English?” He looked Native to me, not fullblood but definitely part. Some of the Survivors had turned against the white man’s language; he might be one of them.

“Little,” he grunted, expressionless.

I pointed to his shattered leg–and I use the term advisedly; halfway down the shin, the bone stuck out, stark and white, ironically bloodless, sharp enough to use as a fighting knife. “Four men?”

Something flickered in his eyes. That was good, right? “Didn’t see. Lots of bullets. One man plus others spray lead? Not sure.”

I nodded. “They’re right bastards. We hunt them. Your camp?”

“Th–” He stopped, grunted in pain, gritted his teeth, gestured with his head. “There. Around butte.”

I checked our position, considering. Four, five hundred yards at most. That was all. A galaxy away for a man in his condition. Something hit my nose then, and I sniffed deeply. Burned stuff. Damn.

“We can get you there.” I didn’t look at him, didn’t want to watch as he made his decision. “Hurt like hell.”

“Not die.”

Well, that was clear enough. This was one tough hombre. It was obvious he’d been here a while, most likely since yesterday or we’d have seen smoke. How he wasn’t bled out already or frozen into a mansicle I had no idea.

The only thing I could do was carry him. He had that big knife, too, but I wasn’t about to suggest he let go of it. White men had persuaded Native Americans to disarm in the past and no good had come of it. With the rest of the posse gathered round, I squatted and duck walked in under the sage bush with the wounded warrior. “Gotta pick you up out of here and then carry you on foot like we were dating,” I explained, unsure of just how much he understood.

Size does matter. I outweighed the fellow by at least a hundred pounds. Slash paced beside us, Julia took Buck’s reins since Michael was already leading the pack horse, and Tommy rode guard. As soft-footed as I tried to go, even with the snow helping and all, it had to be an agonizing journey for the Sagebrush Warrior.

Hey, Slash had found him in the sagebrush. Why not?

We came out of the brush, up onto this little bench–maybe four feet above the surrounding terrain–and strode into a scene of utter desolation. People moved slowly, silently, picking up the pieces as best they could. Two…three bodies were laid out near the scree, awaiting burial rites. Women in long buckskin dresses and fur-stuffed moccasins worked to pull together the tragically small amount of winter stores that remained. There were charred remains of this and that scattered around, but it looked like the village’s teepees were mostly intact. The Demons had tried to burn the place? Heavy buffalo hides are pretty Smokey the Bear friendly, though of course dried lodgepole pine supports would go up like tinder.

Not that it looked like many of those had burned, either. Eight…nine of the teepees were erected with one, two…looked like three jumbled on the ground. What had those idiots done? Got tired of playing firebug to no good result and pulled the poles down just for spite?

“Granshako!” A tall woman, her face streaked with soot, came running at us. The word she’d yelled might not have been Granshako. Might not even have been a word; an entire phrase or even a sentence, maybe?

There was no doubting her emotion, strange language or no strange language. She pulled up short a few yards from us, staring at the bone sticking out of the warrior’s leg. “Oh!” Some exclamations are just universal; that’s all there is to it.

I passed off my stoic cargo to two older men, both of them stocky and barrel chested. They didn’t say a word, just looked at me with distrust in their eyes. Until they spotted Julia; the appearance of a well put together white woman packing the accoutrements of a male warrior definitely got their attention. Still, they only grunted and headed for one of the teepees with their new patient. Didn’t look much like medicine men. I was guessing these people couldn’t be choosers.

The voice came from my left and a little to the rear. “English?”

Turning to face the speaker, I picked him out from the gathering circle of onlookers, a man as old as Doc Weathers if he was a day, limping slightly. Here was their village elder, or maybe their Chief, judging by his gray braids that reached down to nearly mid thigh. Not a tall man, five-five at most, with a sizeable head that made up for the rest of it. Bushy black eyebrows. Part native for sure, a quick intelligence gleaming from those dark eyes. Prominent nose. Solid; in his day the man would have been dangerous in a fight.

Come to think of it, maybe he still was.

“Yeah, we speak English.”

“Good. Come.” He turned, the people parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses–or Aaron, depending on whom you read. He led the way to a smallish lodge that had been set aside for him in this trying time; I’d bet Slash’s fangs against a juicy rabbit that wasn’t his usual abode. He ducked in through the flap. I gave the others a quick look, told Slash “Guard!” and followed.

Without ceremony, the old man seated himself on a pile of furs, gesturing for me to follow suit. I did, keeping my weapons ready to hand. You never know.

He sat silently, studying my face. Waiting game? I didn’t have time for this. “Four men, leader a young redhead. Evil. They did this?”

“Obviously.” My host studied his fingernails, still waiting.

“How many dead?”

He sighed, raising his gaze to meet my own. “Those three you saw outside. Two more undetermined as yet; they may not live to see another sun. And Granshako, the man you brought to us. One young girl with a bullet through the ribs but nothing vital punctured; she will live.”

“The lodges have many holes in them. I am surprised there are not more casualties.”

“Ah.” He snorted, a flash of anger showing in his eyes. But only briefly; the man had control of himself to an impressive degree. He studied the small fire warming the teepee, looking for answers in the flames. “They were not very good at what they did. Only one gunman did much damage; the others were wild shooters. You know them.”

“Yes. I know them.”

“You hunt them.” It was not a question.

“Yes.”

“Good. They have taken my granddaughter. Perhaps you will get her back. Not as a maiden; we two are men here. We know better. But to bury her in the sky if she has gone on, or to surround her with family if she survives.” He indicated his own face, speckled with black marks. “You were touched lightly by the blackface. You are a Survivor.”

“Hnh. I am.” There was a bond between us, unspoken but real. Those of us who knew the Before times, who watched the world die around us, we are tied together in ways the younger generations will never be able to understand. I was not startled when he told me his story, the words spilling out as from a faucet with no gasket.

“My white man name was Maxwell Glade. I taught Native dialects to students in San Francisco, helped them learn Pawnee, mostly, but also a few others. Nearly dead languages, all of them. When I pass, the Pawnee will speak no more on this Earth.” He chuckled. “The way things are going, it’s possible no human language will remain on this Earth, eh?”

“Eh,” I agreed. The survival of the species was far from guaranteed, especially with the villains of the remnant being so willing to kill the rest. Man has ever been his own worst enemy.

“When you catch up to the evil ones, tell them Red Horse sent you, eh?”

“Red Horse.” I had to ask. “You chose the name, or it chose you?”

“Ha!” He slapped a blue-veined, bony hand on one knee. “Neither! I will tell you this. If Morning Lark hears you tell it, she will know you and I are connected. It will help her feel comfortable with you immediately, eh?”

I nodded. “Makes sense.” My knees were killing me, sitting crosslegged like this, but no way was I going to let the old Pawnee know that.

“It happened the third year after the end of the Fall. I’d left the Bay Area, trekked on foot nearly to Reno, stole a horse from a man’s corral, and was on my way. It was a good horse, a strong white gelding with just a few black spots on its rump, not really Appaloosa but some fools managed to register them that way. I wandered for a time, well armed with a Colt 1911 pistol and a hundred rounds, plus a pump shotgun. Where it was I don’t really know, the earthquakes having done their job and most of the rivers having lost their dams and bridges, but somewhere between northern Nevada and my native Oklahoma, I ran into a bunch of raiders. There were many of them.

“The leader coveted my gelding, and of course my weapons. My life meant nothing to him. They had weapons of their own, but they relied on them too much, and on their numbers. One thing I had in my favor was the cover behind me, sort of like the Hill Country in Texas.”

He paused, trying to remember. “Huh! Maybe it was the Hill Country. Not on a straight line to Oklahoma from Reno, but my path had become anything but straight. The earthquakes had done their work. Warring factions had added to the damage. There were many rivers to cross and no more bridges or dams, at least not where they could do me any good….”

Senility? Did this old man have the beginnings of dementia? Not that I could recall every detail of my past clearly, either. “The raiders?” I prompted quietly.

“Ah. Yes. The raiders. They really wanted the horse, I think, so they tried not to hit the animal with their arrows, their crossbow bolts, or their few bullets. The battle began not long after the sun was up and went all day, until the sun was setting in the evening. It was a June day, I think, so a long one. They could not know I’d shot in pistol competitions, seldom winning but always learning something. Two of them had horses, and one a mule. I shot those first, leaving them all afoot.”

He stopped his narrative again, leaned sideways to pick up a stone pipe that had a full bowl of some aromatic weed. Lit it with a twig set alight by one of the coals in the little warming fire glowing between us. Puffed. Inhaled. Passed the pipe to me.

Hey, when in Rome. I made sure not to let any of the smoke get down into my lungs, instead holding it my mouth for a time and then exhaling through my nose. He seemed satisfied. I handed the pipe back to him, fully aware I was going to have to thoroughly coat my nasal passages with poison to get him to finish his story. Sure, I could have been abrupt, just risen and departed without grace, but I was already playing the long game here. If these people survived, perhaps Red Horse could be persuaded to move them to Weeping Widow Falls for their winter camp. Good protection from the wind there, enough migrating elk to keep the tribe fed, and plenty of winter grass for the horses. We could use all the nearby allies we could get.

“You’re patient for a white man,” he observed. Ha. He’d been testing me. “So. I could have outrun them then but my blood was up. It sang through my veins, the song heard by Crazy Horse in his day, by Cochise, by Gall. They had brought battle to me but they would not live to regret it.

“Though in the end some did. I kept moving, strung them out, picked them off. When opportunity knocked, I would slit their throats after dropping them, dip my left hand in their blood so my shooting hand remained clean. Slapped a fresh palm print on my white horse. Sort of like the Old West gunfighters notching their guns, a way to both keep track of my kills and terrorize the enemy. Terror,” he observed, “is a useful tool.”

“It can be.” I would say no more than that. I’d had relatives killed by terrorists, Before.

“When darkness came and my white horse was more target than transportation,” he continued, passing the pipe back to me, “it was time to call it a day. Besides, my blood had cooled. I began to wonder what had possessed me. So I made a run for it, exiting the hills before slowing to a ground-eating trot that covered many miles before I made camp around midnight. My horse was exhausted but unhurt except for one scratch across the rump where an arrow had sliced the hide. I didn’t even unroll my blankets, just fell on the ground, curled up, and slept.

“In the morning, I finally got around to counting the Blood Hands on the horse. Seventeen. I had killed seventeen men after having never been in so much as a child’s fistfight before that day. The blood was dried, so it was no longer really red, but it came to me then. I had earned the name of Red Horse in the old way, or close enough for government work.”

His eyes twinkled. True Native Americans have a sparkling sense of humor unlike any other group on the face of the planet, at least in my experience. I grinned at him. Couldn’t help it. “So. Bring the name of Red Horse to your granddaughter and she will know to trust me.”

“Tolerate you, anyway.”

“Good enough.”

“You know the Mad Max movies?”

Whoa. Talk about a sudden shift in topics. “Hnh. Before my time, but yeah, sort of. Those shows were like cockroaches, unstoppable. Saw the one…Fury Road, I think was the title, where he started out a prisoner of the War Boys with an iron cage on his face.”

“That’s the guy. Lot of those movies were still being rerun on TV, right to the end of the Fall. Always liked them, maybe due to my white man name being Maxwell. Me, I’m not Mad Max; I’m just Pissed Off Max, unable to protect the family I swore to protect.”

“Hnh. Well, my white man name is Jake Sedlacek, but they call me Grunt.”

“Can’t imagine why.” His eyes twinkled again.

I needed to get going and Pissed Off Max aka Red Horse seemed to understand that. He remained sitting, staring at the fire as I got to my feet and made my way back out into the cold. Night had fallen just that fast; the stars were already out. Slash wagged his brushy tail at me, expectant but no more so than the other members of my posse. We couldn’t really make eye contact in this lack of light, but I made sure to turn my head toward each in turn. Julia, Michael, Tommy, three of the best trail mates I’d traveled with in years.

“Mount up,” I said, taking Buck’s reins from Julia’s hand and stepping up myself. “The coulee country starts about two miles east of here, plenty of cover so we can hunker down out of the wind. We won’t have to travel all night, but let’s get a head start on tomorrow.”

They all complied without comment, fully aware that camping within bowshot of a people who’d been badly hurt by others of our kind…well, that would be just stupid. I’d fill them in on the details once camp was set up, of course. Come the sun, we’d be covering ground in a hurry, making up for lost time.

Having a batch of outlaws to catch was one thing, bringing a terrified abductee home to her family quite another.