It was nearly sundown by the time we took a break from reading Carrington’s journal. The narrative had reeled us in, hook, line, and sinker, Wild Bill’s account bringing the final deadly scene to life four decades after it happened. By the time it dawned on us that the snow had finally quit and the sun was coming out, we both had to pee so bad we were seeing yellow. After we’d relieved ourselves behind separate bushes, gathered several more armfuls of firewood to bolster our dwindling supply, and studied the sky for a few minutes, we split up. It would take her a while to fix supper, enough time for me to check the horses and give them each a double handful of rolled oats.
No more than that. The supply was getting low.
Our little herd was no longer hobbled. We’d determined that the park fencing was still in shape to contain horses as long as the entry gates were properly secured, which they were. The relative freedom allowed them to paw through the knee deep snow to find grass. Besides, they weren’t going anywhere even if they could; every one of them had become attached to us.
“Yeah, Roan, you first.” With the feed bag strapped shut, my mount’s only option was to nose into my cupped palms, lipping up the oats greedily while keeping one ear back, rolling a dangerous eye and listening for any lesser beast who might dare to contest his leadership. Most horse herds follow a lead mare, sort of a female equine alpha if that makes any sense, but I’d ridden point on the rough-gaited roan for so long that the others had somehow adapted to him being first in all things. He didn’t like it when his ration was gone, but he didn’t argue much, either; we’d long since established the rules to this game.
Next came Appy, followed by the pack horses. Their hooves crunched the snow as they moved; the temperature was already dropping. Fast. Come daylight, we’d head back to the library, see what we could see. Probably just take the saddle mounts, leaving the packers behind. There was a risk to that, should any human raiders or even a large predator come calling, but we’d seen no sign of anything large enough to be worrisome. We’d developed a solid feel for the park environment, learning every nook and cranny, practically every tree and bush in the place. Roan and Appy could be left to forage inside the library’s perimeter fence if we simply ran a rope across the hole formerly filled with bones, and this way we hedged our bets. If something bad did happen, we might lose our packs and pack string or our saddle horses, but not both. Besides, there had looked to be enough grass growing inside the library fence for two horses to graze while we were inside the building, but five would be a stretch.
Not the perfect solution but better than nothing.
As I continued to feed, one eye on the horses as they moved, seeing nothing wrong with their gaits, no obvious horse health issues to worry about, my rather stunned mind roamed randomly through the journal findings. Carrington estimated nearly nine hundred dead or fatally wounded, their bodies clogging the fence breach utterly before the remaining survivors had finally come to their senses and retreated, never more to be seen. Julia and I hadn’t moved nearly nine hundred skeletons, but hey. Forty years gone by, a lot could happen. We’d still had to shift several hundred sets of bones.
To gun down that many, the library security chief had fired nearly 4,000 .30 caliber rounds through the pair of Pigs, as he’d called the M60 machine guns. By the end of it, one barrel had overheated so badly as to be rendered useless and the other wasn’t far behind. Thirty-nine belts at 100 rounds per, with only 11 belts left over. The crazed mob had soaked up almost 80 percent of his total stock of ammunition.
I couldn’t even conceive of those numbers.
When it was over, it hadn’t been over. He and Little Brie hadn’t heard at first, being thoroughly deafened by the long thunder of the firefight and slightly amazed that the snipers who’d tried to take him out hadn’t scored a single hit. One would have been enough, but the steel firing shield had worked its magic. That, and the enemy gunners couldn’t shoot for s**t. It helped when the guys trying to take you out were better at soaking up lead than delivering it. Brie’s face, hands, and clothing were all smeared dirty, gunpowder residue or whatever, and Carrington was pretty sure he looked worse, having been the one hunched behind the weapons for hours. Or maybe it hadn’t been hours, but it sure felt like it. So they had a logical excuse for failing to hear the pounding on the inside door for a while.
That noise had gotten through eventually, though, and Brie had unlocked the heavy steel door leading into the library proper, swinging it wide and leaving Carrington to face Horace Wyndham and his followers. Wild Bill hadn’t taken any chances, either; the one still-functional M60 now in his hands as he stood facing the very people he’d been protecting moments earlier. The portion of the scene we’d covered ran unceasingly through my head.
“This will not stand!” The bug-eyed leader of the Sugar Puff Airheads–as Carrington termed them–immediately launched into his tirade, sparing no cliché, ending every sentence with a Preacher John exclamation point as was his wont. Especially when he was worked up, and he was worked up like never before. A pudgy finger shot out at the end of his arm, pointing at the security chief like it was a loaded gun. “Mass murderer! Felon! Stalin! Hitler!”
“You forgot Pot Pol, Papa Doc, Ho Chi Minh, and Ante Pavelic, just to name a few,” Wild Bill returned mildly, wincing inwardly as he’d realized he’d misspoken. It was Pol Pot, not Pot Pol. Not that this idiot would know the difference. All he knew was his belief in neo-Schenkism–not the philosophy of their late employer but something else, a cobbled-together quasi-religion espousing the tenets of divine protection for the chosen believers, avoidance of violence to the nth degree, and demonization of anyone who didn’t fall in line with their particular, narrow brand of dogma.
That’s where Julia and I’d left off. We couldn’t wait to get back to read the rest of the story. I bade the ponies good night and returned to the shelter.
“Soup’s on,” she grinned, handing me a steaming bowl. We’d need to hunt meat in another ten days at most, but for now we were well fed. “Slurp up!”
It was pitch dark by the time we settled in once more, torches rigged with enough spares lashed together to last for hours. We wouldn’t be sleeping much this night. I wiped my fingers on my buckskins, vigorously, to remove any remaining traces of dirt on the surfaces that might come in contact with the ancient pages. “Ready?”
“Born ready.” Julia leaned back beside me, arranging one of the blankets over our legs and leaning against me. “Even if we don’t understand half the terms he uses. Read away.”
Wyndham raged on, but I heard none of it. I was blacking out, knew the symptoms, and leaned sideways quickly enough to let the near wall prop me up. Hopefully, the crazy man and his followers–The True Way, they called themselves, hah!–would see my slanted posture and glazed eyes as casual, uncaring arrogance rather than weakness. Desperation alone kept me from slumping to the floor, unconscious. Years of training and deadly combat in some of the most remote and vicious regions of our precious blue planet kept the machine gun steady, its muzzle trained on the fat man’s gut, never wavering by so much as an inch. Even this barrel remained so hot that I wasn’t sure it was safe to fire one more round through it, but if I had to, I would. Bill Schenk had entrusted me to keep this building and its contents inviolate, the last best hope for the continuation of humanity as a species. We’d talked often, Crazy Bill Schenk and Wild Bill Carrington, the misunderstood savior of all things temporal and the cynical veteran of a dozen bloody conflicts. The answers are here, he’d said, and I believed him.
My eyes jerked up from the journal, locked on Julia’s. If mine were as wide as hers, we were thinking the same thing. “Misunderstood savior?” My mind was spinning. The man had murdered the world outright; how could he be considered a savior?
“The answers are here,” Julia said softly. “Let’s concentrate on that. And please keep on reading; I want to know what happened next.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
The bombastic bugger was reaching a fever pitch in his oration. I could tell that much as my hazed-out vision began to clear. Still couldn’t make out his words and didn’t have time to wait. Carefully adjusting the M60 so I could control it with one arm and hand, I used the other to reach into an inner pouch-pocket of my jacket, removing a pinch of weed between thumb and finger, tucking it in behind my lower lip. No, not that kind of weed. Most likely, hopefully, Wyndham would think it was nothing more than a nip of Copenhagen or Skoal, a shot of nicotine. In fact, it was a special blend of leaves, more powerful than intravenous coffee and impossible to replace once my stash ran out. I was already chewing some of it, holding the juice under my tongue to take the stimulation sublingually.
My consciousness returned to Earth within seconds. I could almost wish it hadn’t; with hearing returning, the True Way leader’s voice sliced my brain like fingernails scraping down a blackboard. At least there was a silver lining. Cliché Man had come to a decision. There’d be no more wasted time.
“You care nothing about God, about The True Way, about us!” The 9 millimeter Hawke semiauto in Wyndham’s hand–when had that gotten there? How long had I been semiconscious?–the pistol raised. Oh. Other hand. He’d had it all along, no doubt, and I’d missed it. Damn me for a slaughter weary, ignorant fool. The rabble rouser’s thumb contracted, pulling the hammer back; my own finger tightened on the M60’s trigger. The idiot had maybe one chance in a thousand of hitting me at this nothing range of twenty-three feet, and even then my full battle rattle was more than adequate to ameliorate the effect of the popgun he held. But I don’t let anybody shoot me with out shooting back. It doesn’t work that way. My military, full metal jacket rounds would punch through him like so much tissue paper, coring more victims as they crowded in behind their inexplicably charismatic leader. I was about to become in reality the mass murderer the Wayers already believed me to be.
Not that these thoughts ran through my mind. That would come later, in retrospective, along with the crushing guilt.
I almost didn’t hear the sharp little crack of sound, but the visual was stark and compelling. Wyndam’s gun hand literally exploded, his Hawke still unfired as it flew crazily off to one side. In the split second it took me to process the event, several things became crystal clear. It was not my fellow security officer, Jenks, who’d come to my rescue; the hit came from the wrong direction. The sound had been distinctive, that of a small .17 caliber hypersonic round capable of exploding a man’s hand like so much fist-held nitroglycerin. And…there was only one shooter in this building capable of making a western fiction shot like that.
Wyndham’s own enforcer had just shot his boss.
The True Wayers packed up that night and left at first light, departing via the front door and subsequently the front gate. In many ways, they were a great loss to the library, consisting of specialists in archival research, linguistics, medicine, hydroponic gardening, and more. But their leader, once his mutilated hand had been amputated at the wrist and a fistful of potent painkillers had muted his nerve endings, voiced the plaint of the majority when he told them–more quietly now, to be sure–that they couldn’t stay in this den of iniquity, this place of mass murder, this yada yada yada, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. It was time to abandon ship.
For the four of us remaining at our posts, getting rid of the bad apples was worth the price of seeing the rest of them gone. With one exception. The man who’d shot his nominal superior deserved better. He lingered behind, leaving last so he could say goodbye. “I’ll miss you the most, Cheese Wheel,” he grinned, ruffling Little Brie’s hair. Brie blushed, knowing her nickname, Little Brie, really had been inspired by her short, rotund stature. Only Samuel could call her Cheese Wheel and get away with it, though she didn’t seem to mind being addressed as Little Brie by the rest of us.
“Back atcha, redskin.” Blushing or not, crushing or not, Brie always gave as good as she got. Sam looked about as Native as Native could get. Probably wasn’t fullblood. Few were these days. But close enough.
“You’re going with them, then? Horace thanked you for blowing off his hand?”
His eyes twinkled. “Wouldn’t go quite so far as that, Bill. But once the painkillers hit him and he could hear me, and I explained I did it to save not only his life but to save the life of the others you would have cut to ribbons if he popped a cap at you, what could he say?”
I had to chuckle. “That made him all sweet reason?”
“That, and the fact I didn’t give him much choice. Ark and George and I, we’re the only ones who know a place to go.”
“The confluence,” I said.
“What confluence?” Brie’s enquiring mind wanted to know.
Samuel answered her. “Two strong year around creeks. They come together, out of the mountains to the north, confluence in a really nice valley spot about two days ride east of here, give or take. Couldn’t be a better place to build a town. Probably would have been one there long since, except it was federal land. No feds left to stop us now, though. At least so far as we know.”
“You’ll need a perimeter wall.”
“Sure. But that’s doable. There’s an old limestone quarry a few miles to the northeast of the confluence, just outside the old BLM boundary, up in the foothills. Ten men with wagons could quarry and haul enough rock for a respectable defense in a year at most.”
I thought he was being overly optimistic, thinking he could get ten Wayers to agree to all that hard work in return for something they scoffed at in the first place. Wyndham and his followers were big believers in trusting their version of the Almighty, refusing to tie up their camels, and of course a total lack of borders. Samuel and Ark and George were the exceptions, barely tolerated. And I do mean barely.
“Well.” I doffed my cap, scratched my head, and observed, “I don’t reckon you have a lot of choice, either. Your son and his wife are not exactly self sufficient, rugged individualists, eh?
“No.” His eyes lost their humor. “They’re not. Nor will they ever be, and they’re already indoctrinating their son. Flat-out brainwashing the lad. I’ll never get through to them, or him either. But hey,” he shrugged, a gesture that spoke volumes, “if I can’t talk sense to my son or my grandson, maybe there’ll be another generation before I die.”
My friend’s expression was intense; I had to throw him a bone. “And if there is, you’ll make sure he doesn’t get brainwashed before you can slip in a few clues.”
“Got that right. Well,” he hitched up his pants, tightened the belt another notch, and slung the Sniper Seventeen over his shoulder, “time to git. See ya on the flip side.”
“Back atcha. I know you’ll take care of that bunch the best you can, but Jade? You take care of your own self, too, eh?”
“Planning on it.” My friend tossed a sloppy salute and was on his way.
Silence reigned in our little shelter, broken only by the snap-crackle of a fire freshly stoked as Julia added fuel. It was freezing hard out there tonight; we’d reached the depths of winter and Old Man Frost was bearing down. Shadows danced along the great, fallen trees that walled us in safety from the elements. More shadows playing overhead on the tarp, no doubt, but I didn’t look up. I couldn’t. Julia said nothing, waiting for me to be ready to discuss this bomb of a revelation.
I don’t know how long that wait ran, but when I spoke the moon was up, casting sparkly light, a million miniscule diamonds atop the crusted snow.
“I remember him.”
Still Julia waited.
“I’m not sure how old I was when he died. Younger than nine when I was taken slave, but four? Five? Six? Seven? Somewhere in there.” Finally, I lifted my gaze to meet my beloved Julia’s. “I believe he really did make good on his promise, Jules. For all these years, I’ve never quite understood how my views came to be so different from those of my parents and my grandparents. It must have been my great grandfather, planting those seeds within me, probably from the time I could walk. Or even before. What a man.”
My mate scooted around, placed a hand on my thigh. “What a man, indeed. You come from good stock, Michael Jade.”
“I do. I really do. It must have been hell for him, you know. I don’t remember anybody named Ark or George. He was probably a lone voice crying in the wilderness for years before I was born. He certainly didn’t get the wall built. Lord, babe, if he had, the Fort Steele raiders wouldn’t have had such an easy time slaughtering and enslaving us.”
“But?” Julia leaned over to give me a kiss on the cheek. I kiss I sorely needed at that moment, I might add. “I hear a but in your voice.”
“But he succeeded with me. Hon, I was starting to doubt myself, you know? Like, who was I to lead my people out of Egypt and, well, not wander for forty years, but hit for the promised land and rebuild an entire society, complete with the means of defense against all comers. Samuel Jade just put steel back into my spine. For the first time, I realize I’m not descended from monsters, or at least not entirely. I won’t let his life be forgotten, or lived in vain. I simply won’t.”
“Never thought you would, sweetheart. Never thought you would.”