Grunt, Chapter 28: An Apple a Day Gives Me a Gut Ache

JULIA

And again we slogged forward, the horses unquestionably feeling the grind even more than we were. Our only advantage lay in the trail itself, the snow beaten down thoroughly by the renegades and stolen horse herd we followed. If we did not catch up with the appropriately named Demons soon, another day or two at most, our mounts would collapse under us. It hurt me badly, seeing them suffer like this, even though I well understood the credo: If you have to kill a horse to save a human, kill the horse. Even my brother was showing the strain if you knew the signs, and having grown up with him from day one, I certainly did. There were worry lines in Big Jake’s brow whenever we stopped for any reason now, and a set to his shoulders that made it clear he was in pain from so much time in a cold saddle. My moon time was on its way, adding its usual feeling of bloat to my overall aching bones and general bitchiness. Yes, of course I fought to keep the latter from showing, but it wasn’t easy. Only Michael seemed impervious to the rigors of the chase, his compact body still flowing with the jerky-gaited roan between his legs, his eyes still bright and alert, inquisitive even.

I could have slapped him for holding up so well, but Mama Ruth had taught me well. It was my moon time talking, no time to be taking it out on my man.

How many days had it been since we’d left Red Horse’s decimated village? Eight? No, that didn’t seem…nine. This was our ninth day away from the butte where Upward’s Demons had so damaged a good people for no good reason. Morning Lark, the abducted Natïve girl, was still with them. At least there was that; she hadn’t been killed. We all hoped, prayed even, that Devil’s luck may have finally abandoned the renegade junior raider. He’d arrogantly camped no more than a dozen miles east of the Butte that first night after the attack, giving the wind time to quit and leaving a trail for us blazed as clearly as axe marks on trees in the forest. A full blown village idiot could have followed this winter highway.

For a time, the fools had lugged the Chief’s cumbersome teepee along behind them, burdening three horses with heavy travois loads. There was never any evidence they’d managed to set it up, though it did look like they’d tried twice.

Morning Lark would have been beaten, perhaps, in an attempt to force her to reveal the magic by which such a huge teepee was raised, poles and all. But did the girl even speak any English, or only the jumbled patois developed by Red Horse’s little tribe, a jargon known only to them? Plus, perhaps, she was stubborn?

Or was she intelligent? If she was a thinker, might she have tried to help them set up the lodge in order to kill time, making it easier for followers to catch up and effect her release, or at least avenge her?

No…if she was intelligent, then she would have realized her grandfather’s people did not have the means to send pursuers, no matter her importance in their eyes. While Grunt had been in the lodge with Red Horse, I had not been idle. The Red Horse clan members were understandably suspicious of the men, but my gender disarmed them. Two small children, the boy maybe nine, the girl even younger, had approached us closely as we waited for our leaders to finish their discussion. They were fascinated by my blonde hair, by my size–bigger than some of the men in the village–and by the huge wardog, Slash. The boy was perhaps not fully bilingual, but he had more English than the others, and the well known Gunderson facility with our own sign language filled in the gaps.

Daddy had taught us to speak with our hands as a way to communicate silently on the hunt. I’d taken our family skill for granted until meeting those kids. They’d scowled in ferocious approval when I mimed hunting the bad men and choking them to death, my extruded tongue and crossed eyes adding to the effect. They’d also “told” me that the three dead men laid out near the scree, and the man Granshako with the shattered leg, were their four finest warriors.

It made a horrible kind of sense. America’s best have always put the safety of others first; those warriors would have done their best to provide covering fire while the others escaped into the brush, never mind that their recurve bows were no match for Before quality firearms carried by the aggressors.

So if Morning Lark hoped for rescue and Rodney Upward understood that, he must be laughing at her. Mocking her.

Ain’t nobody coming for you, squaw. We shot ’em to bloody rags!

I had never truly hated anyone before, but in the young redheaded raider’s case, I was pretty sure I was getting there. With that and the agony of the trail (rhymes with travail), I finally decided to compose one of my “epic” poems. That’s what Daddy always called them. Epic. Mom…she didn’t entirely approve of some of my earthier poetic sentiments. “You’re X-rated inside, honey,” she’d told me more than once. “Your father’s daughter through and through, but sometimes I do wonder if I’m your mother.” I hadn’t figured out she was joking until somewhere around my twelfth birthday. She had it right, though. I loved my mother, but Russell Gunderson was my guiding star, even ahead of my big brother.

Until Michael Jade, that is. Sorry, Dad, you’re going to have to settle for second place.

The poem, then? Yes, I certainly needed something to distract me. It came whipping through my brain like the 24 River in full flood; all I had to do was concentrate on remembering the verses before they faded into nothingness. I’d had that happen before; it was not a good feeling.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Is said by the sellers of apples
Though some like a horse of pure sorrel or bay
Hey, give me a gray with some dapples

All right, so I didn’t much care what color the horse was, really. I’m more of a function over form kind of girl. But it rhymed, and how many words can say that when you’re talking about apples? And it was true that apples and I didn’t exactly get along, except when they were cooked apples, like in pies. Yum! Wouldn’t be seeing any apple pies out here on the trail. Just road apples, left behind by the horses. Whether or not those would give me a gut ache like regular apples or not, I had no idea and didn’t intend to find out any time soon.

There’s not a set answer for all living men
Or even for two or three lovers
Be the topic of diet or livestock in pens
Or in bed who wants how many covers

Michael liked it a little warmer than I did, but the difference wasn’t unbearable. I’d noticed he’d have a shoulder out, bared to the cold, any time it was above freezing. Crazy dude, but I loved him.

So take all your wisdom and write it in books
That’s a way to keep lore in the present
But don’t give me one of those down-your-nose looks
If I take a fool hen over pheasant

I really did like sage grouse, or fool hens. Hadn’t so much as seen a single pheasant in my life, so I was faking that part. Literary license, right?

People are sheeple who gather in flocks
Except for the wolf and the herder
I evaluate life with its meadows and rocks
Sometimes I’ll condone even murder

And I would. Condone murder, that is. Give me a clear shot at bad man Rodney Upward or one of his gang and I’d shoot to kill without hesitation. Or decapitate, if it came close enough for sword work. We’d known Pen Garber slightly, heard of the Dotsons, but they were worm food as far as I was concerned. As soon as it warmed enough for the worms to find their carcasses, anyway. In the meantime, maybe coyote mansicles.

I kept at it, running through the entire poem time after time after time, committing it to long term memory. It would take a while to do it right, maybe keep my mind occupied until the sun went down. I’d have to face the grim reality then, the defeat in Grunt’s very posture, the frustration in the rest of us. But for a time it would do. Hm. An Apple a Day Gives Me a Gutache. Catchy title. I’d have to do something with that eventually, maybe a longer prose piece….

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GRUNT

The depression hit me low, hard, and fast. Never saw it coming; it was just there like a football player driving the front line, cannonball style, knocking me on my tail during our high school playing days. No other man, not even a wrestler, can compete with the way a player familiar with the pigskin takes you out. One moment you’re well into the game, fat, dumb, and happy. Next thing you know this black guy, a foot shorter than you and no more than half your weight, has flattened you like a pancake run over by a ten ton asphalt roller.

That’s the way it felt. Gut, heart, head, everything. They call it depression because it knocks you lower than your usual position, right? Well, I was definitely knocked lower. Even the flesh around my eyes felt like was drooping in sad sympathy with my plight. I wanted to cry, and had I been alone, I might have given in to the urge. There seemed no point in going on with this fruitless chase. I”d been so sure we’d catch up to the outlaws before now, especially with the travois loads slowing them down, but then just hours ahead of us they’d jettisoned the ballast, left the great buffalo hide contraption lying by the side of the trail, poles too. From there, they’d taken off like a house afire.

It wasn’t hard to understand how they did it. They’d stolen nearly half of the animals Red Horse’s people owned, enough that they could swap mounts three times a day, even swap pack horses. They were starting to drop animals; we’d seen the tracks of several equines who’d separated from the herd, worn-out critters looking for a bit of graze and a respite from the driving Demons. Nobody in our group would ever push horses that hard, use them up that badly, unless it was during a a brief life-or death dash.

Maybe they really were demons.

The worst part was that I didn’t think they knew they were being followed even now. It wasn’t pursuit that drove them; it was some goal Rodney Upward had, pulling him onward. The only settlement out there, at least that I knew about, was Fort Steel, still a good two weeks away at a steady daytime walking pace but considerably less for the gang.

Unfortunately, there was no way we could match their speed indefinitely. Our horses would have to rest tonight, probably all day tomorrow as well, to be fit to move ahead in any sort of health. We’d managed to keep them free of saddle sores and none of them had come up lame, but the grind was taking its toll nonetheless. I glanced at the sky. Noon, or right at. Five more hours of light worth counting and we were done. Failed. If they got clear of us on this run, we would not be rescuing Morning Lark, at least not in time. We would not even be avenging her. I had huge winter responsibilities at Fort 24, responsibilities that couldn’t be ignored for our community’s long term future. As it was, even if we camped now, rested the horses, and turned back as soon as they were good to go, we’d have been gone from the valley for more than a month.

Hnh. Thanksgiving must be coming up, give or take a few days. The weather had been holding, but that couldn’t last. Happy Turkey Day, turkey.

Man, how I wanted to say to them all, bleep it, kiss my hairy buttocks, go find your own answers, solve your own problems. And the time was coming when I was going to have to do just that. We weren’t that many hours behind our elusive quarry. Tommy and I totally agreed; they couldn’t be more than half a day ahead of us. The tracks told the story.

But half a day was a quarter of a day too much. If I knew anything well, it was horses, same for Tom Gunderson, and we agreed. If we didn’t find the bastards by sunset, our mounts would be stove up in the morning, too stiff to go on, underfed, half starved, sore, out of energy. They were already gaunt, ribs showing, except for Buck. How the big pinto kept on keeping on the way he did, I had no clue.

Still, even Buck had stumbled twice in the last mile. Not big stumbles, just a little hitch-and-recovery, like a stubbed toe, but he didn’t do that. Not ever. The stud was a surefooted as any mountain goat ever birthed.

Until he wasn’t.

A gigantic yawn took me. I let my mouth gape as wide as it would go, never mind hiding it behind a hand. It’s not like there was any polite society ahead of my point position to get offended. Now, if Julia had been off to one side instead of behind me and Buck, sure, I’d have played the gentleman then. Got to follow some of the rules. Got to–What’s that?

I stopped Buck cold, considering. Held up my right hand, palm open, our sign to halt. Buck tossed his head, jingling his bridle just a wee bit, but I barely noticed. Slowly, ever so slowly, Buck followed my rein-and-boot directions to slip sideways a few feet, off the trail and behind a small patch of brush that would at least break up our outlines. Only then did my hand slip down to unfasten the saddle bag straps, pull out the antique brass telescope–museum quality, that one–and raise it to my eye.

Focus. Focus. Shift left–ah, there he is. Focus, and…bingo!

One of the Dotsons. Had to be. Squatting next to a leafless cottonwood tree, doing his business, not a care in the world. The man’s fleshy butt cheeks had given him away, flashing the world. A most stupid but inviting target.

For several long minutes, I glassed the creek bank. Couldn’t see any of the others, but they had to be there. Or maybe they’d gone ahead, left one man to stink up the place while they were well out of olfactory range? Hnh.

Time for war council.

The others had already dismounted, waiting for the good word. “One of them for sure,” I nodded at the questions in their eyes. “Can’t say I could pick a pair of Dotson butt cheeks out of a police lineup, but he’s wearing a wool coat made in Ma Dotson’s unique style, green and brown checks.”

“Close enough for the Ruger?” Tommy Gunderson’s question was to the point.

“Edge of the envelope.” I scratched the stubble of my growing-in-again beard. “Close to 400 yards, I’d say. Should still be able to nail him dead center if he hangs around long enough to get shot at.” There was no thought of making this a fair fight and no plan for catching up to all of them at once; if we could announce our presence on their backtrail by taking out their tail end Charlie, we’d do it. Cut them down from four guns to three and get them to worrying about who’d be next. “But I can’t quite shoot from here. Can’t get too much closer, either, but just the other side of this brush patch, there’s a rock big enough to serve as a shooting rest. And to give a couple of us a little cover, should they surprise us with what they’ve got.”

They all nodded their understanding. Rescuing the fair lady, or the Indian Princess in this case, worked wonderfully in fairy tales. In reality, when you had a chance to cut down your enemy’s forces by twenty-five percent in one shot, you took the shot. Pulling the Gunsite Scout out of its boot, I passed Buck’s reins to Julia. “Slash is out there somewhere, but he hasn’t reported in on our squatting duck over there. Likely happened to be working another quadrant just at the wrong time, so keep an eye out for him. Just as soon keep him out of this one if we can.” My monster wardog was tough, but he wasn’t immortal. Bullets could kill him, and the Demons had more than enough lead on hand to do the job.

“Tommy, I could use you with me as a spotter. Even if Dotson disappears on us before I can line up the sights, we know they’re in the area. You be scanning and I’ll be aiming, okay?”

“Got it.” Gunderson passed his own horse’s reins to Julia; both she and Michael would be staying here, keeping our mounts relatively safe unless the battle came our way.

Julia handled it well. Michael looked more than a little pissed but didn’t say anything. I’d keep him safe, too, if I could. The kid was too fearless for his own good.

The gods of war were with us. Dotson must have had a real need; he hadn’t moved from his squatting position under the distant tree. In fact, while he was still down in the Number Two position, he had one hand braced against the tree trunk. I could imagine him all blocked up there, or maybe the opposite for all I cared, grunting and groaning and cussing his uncooperative innards.

All too aware that no live target holds position indefinitely, I wasted no time. Prone position in the snow, left forearm braced against the mossy boulder, mittened hand supporting the forestock gently but firmly. Right hand releasing the safety, right eye lining up the tip of the front post in the center of the aperture, dead center at the base of the target’s neck, breath in, half out–CRACK!–shot him in the back. Or rather, through the back. The exit wound ought to be a doozy.

“One down,” my spotter reported calmly.

“Ten-four,” I responded, working the bolt to chamber another round. Didn’t know if archaic CB radio lingo was appropriate, but it wasn’t like I’d been in the military or in law enforcement before the Fall. Heck, I was a Founder; who was going to correct me if I was wrong? My depression was gone; I was feeling pretty darned good about myself at the moment.

And then everything went sideways.