Grunt, Chapter 47: Welcome Home, Honey


“Three to the trees, right!” The staccato of high volume gunfire wasn’t right on top of us yet, but it wasn’t far off, either. “Three to the trees left!” My arm signals weren’t even necessary; the experienced squad members peeled off, a trio moving upslope into thick timber, another already disappearing behind downslope evergreens. The four of us remaining had our carbines out, pointed in the air at the moment but ready to level instantly at the curve in the trail ahead of us. We were abreast, crowding the narrow trail as tightly as it could be crowded without jostling each other’s horses. We’d have to shoot straight over the heads of our mounts, but they were trained to hold steady for that if necessary.

None of us had expected anything like this. There had to be twenty guns blasting away, bullets flying as thick and fast as a swarm of Africanized killer bees whose hive has been kicked. I wanted desperately to charge to the rescue of Sergeant Blake and Corporal Gilson, as did every man jack among us. But Blake had said to hold, running blind into a meat grinder would do no one any good, and the odds of our noncoms surviving such a fusillade were minimal. Made me think of the ancient Before legend of Bonnie and Clyde, dying when authorities threw 167 bullets their way. Hard to live through something like that. The rolling thunder we were hearing might not consist of that many rounds–mixed, too, heavy hitters and lighter stuff, at least twenty shooters involved–but it couldn’t be far short.

“We should do something, Harve.”

I glanced at the speaker. Danny Borge, the oldest man in the squad. Still a private, or rather, again a private; he’d been promoted to Corporal several times over the years but always got busted back to private for one infraction or another. A steady veteran in the field, though. “We will shortly, Danny, but we’re not jumping blind. If they’re not already dead, we’ll know soon enough. But we’ll move ahead as cautious as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. In the trees. All of us.”

Borge nodded, a short, jerky movement.

The gunfire stopped. Just like that, the barrage was over. One final, separated shot…then silence. That last round could have been one of our guys, using his last bullet to take himself out. Or the execution of an already wounded man. I hesitated, considering. Take to the timber now, or–we all heard it at the same time. The pounding hoofbeats of a horse running flat out, clearly audible on the packed-down snow trail, distant at first but coming closer by the second.

“Two by two!” I snapped. Alternate troopers pulled back, positioning themselves directly behind Borge and me. When the rider came barreling around the corner, he might not be able to stop without crashing into us unless there was a way through. It could be a riderless mount. Maybe. But I didn’t think so. My mouth was dry; my palms were not. Borge and I leveled our carbines, as we expected the men hidden in the trees were doing as well. Only the pair of troopers behind us would be holding off, not wishing to shoot past our ears. They’d better not, anyway.

Coming at full gallop, Gilson’s bay horse was instantly recognized, the tall gelding’s ears laid back as it stretched for every inch, its rider leaned low over the saddle, upper body nearly horizontal as the pair raced toward and then between us before the Corporal managed to straighten and yell, “Whoa!” The bay had been used to rope calves for branding for two years before being drafted into military service; the animal dropped its haunches nearly to the snow, front legs iron stiff as it slid to a halt. “Squad gather!”

Troopers appeared from timber on both sides of the trail, their mounts scrambling to take up positions facing the way Gilson had come. “Steen, take the lead and get us out of here, single file, lope where possible.”

I swallowed hard. “What about the Sarge?”

“More holes in him than your grandma’s cheese, soldier. If you don’t wanna get ventilated the same way, move!”

I moved, leading the way back down the trail, off of the mountain. Booger knew what I wanted; he’d neither slip nor slow. That left me easy enough in my mind to turn in the saddle, riding forward blind more moments than not. The squad was strung out, keeping close but not too close. Every head was as rearward-focused as mine was, which finally made me realize I had a job to do. I turned back around, scanning the trees to either side as we passed them steadily, almost expecting the boogey man to jump out of the woods, yell boo, and fill me full of holes. The Corporal had taken up rear guard position, not unexpected in a situation like this. Not that I really knew what the situation might be, other than a dead Sergeant. There had been a bullet hole in Gilson’s right pants leg, below the knee, about mid-calf. Below that, the wool was soaked, blood dripping down off his boot, leaving droplets in the snow. Not life threatening, maybe, but it needed to be looked at. Bandaged at the very least, get that blood stopped.

There was a spot about three miles farther on. I’d pull up there, hope I didn’t get my tail chewed too hard. We didn’t need to lose another man.



John Blake shook his head in disbelief. “Can’t believe that–what did you call it?”

“Kalashnikov.” Julia answered his question but kept her attention on the revolver she was reloading. All six of us had contributed to the World War barrage. Which long gun my mate had fired and which she’d left to her loader, Carp, I didn’t know. Probably gave the boy the lighter weapon. Which I had not; young Bolo had seriously bruised his shoulder, emptying the .358 Winchester while I’d gone rapid fire with the AK-47, as fast as my finger could pull the trigger. Thirty rounds of .308 short ripping air and smashing into trees in the time the twelve year old could lever five rounds through the hunting rifle. Which was still half the time it took for Blake and Gilson to empty their carbines. Five of us firing as fast as we could, but the speed of the AK, and even the lesser speed of the .358, had made it sound like more. A lot more.

“What I can’t believe,” Bolo put in, “is Gilson shooting himself in the leg like that. Man, that’s insane.”

“Not insane,” Blake countered. “Just gutsy. And a good idea, though I’m not sure I’d have been able to do it.”

“A good idea?” The kid’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. “For real?”

“Think about it, son. He could probably have sold the story without a mark on him, but adding a bullet hole put the frosting on the cake. James has always been a persuasive cuss. Add that wound taken in combat, fighting his way out of an ambush that killed his superior officer, he’ll be a Fort Steel hero. Strator Tucker never has been my biggest fan; he won’t be shedding any tears over my demise. Just so he doesn’t start pondering too hard about Gilson and me being cousins. Finster never promoted him because of that very fact, but the Captain never told everything he knew to Tucker, either. There was kind of a competition between those two.”

We stopped talking to listen. Quiet reigned once again at the Roost; a couple of magpies were already back to making noise. None of the other troopers could be trusted, Blake said, but cousin James would be working quietly to let a few certain malcontents at the Fort know there was an alternative to life under Strator Tucker and his various managers. Livestock supervisor Henry Perfle was the only one of those who counted as a real human being; the rest of them including the foundry manager were the Strator’s creatures to the bone. No one would hear of the Roost’s existence from Gilson’s lips; we’d all agreed on the story he’d tell when he got back to the Fort. An expedition under a different commander might unmask us, but who could fill that role? Not likely, Blake felt, and I had to agree. Much as it galled me to think it, my years as a slave had provided me with immeasurable benefits, my in depth knowledge of the inner workings of Fort Steel being far from the least of those.

“Jules, maybe you’d best ride on ahead, let everybody know Sergeant Blake is coming. There could be some serious panic if they aren’t prepared.”

“No kidding.” Moments later, she was mounted and gone, young Carp heeling her like a faithful hound, his bugged-out eyes fixed on my woman in obvious adoration. Bolo kept his horse a few steps behind Carp but his eyes were fixed on Julia as firmly as the other boy’s. Major crushes there or I was blind.

Couldn’t blame the kids. Besides, I had bigger things to worry about. Most of all, the relationship between me and John Blake. “Let’s wander over by the tree line, Sergeant. That downed pine looks suitable for sitting a spell and we need to talk.”

He followed, saying nothing. A man of few words, or at least few unnecessary words. We got ourselves situated, more or less comfortable on the rough bark still attached to the deadfall. “I wanted us to work this out alone,” I began, “just the two of us.” Mainly, I didn’t want my mate around in case this did not go well. Blake nodded, seeming to understand. There was nothing for it; I plunged ahead. “Having you join us is a blessing, no doubt about it. But I need to know how it’s going to be between you and me. Until you came along, I was the lead dog in this little parade, and as I see it, that should still be the case. But,” I paused just a beat for effect, “You’re more than twice my age, experienced military, and the women all know you far better than they know me. So what’s it going to be?”

The older man took his time, plucking a stem of dried winter grass and sticking it between his teeth, chewing meditatively. Putting his thoughts in order or just figuring out how to say what he wanted to say? Impossible to tell; that rugged, square face gave away nothing. But I was no stranger to silence; no experienced slave could be. I waited, absolutely still outside and inside as well.

“I may be older,” he said finally, “but you’re the leader. Yeah, I can run a squad of troopers well enough, but you got done in one night what I hadn’t been able to figure out in eight years. The women you freed may not be completely at ease around you yet, but they still followed you. With crucial help from Lynn Burch, you say, but the fact is I could never have done what you did. You’ve got a head for planning and what it takes to follow through. For Pete’s sake, man, I never once thought of blowing up a powder magazine as a diversion. I wouldn’t have been able to come up with the overwhelming weaponry you did, either that heavy rifle or the Kalsh–Ka?”

“Kalashnikov. Or AK-47.”

He nodded, accepting the correction. “AK-47. Jade, you have a magic I’ve heard of but never seen, and only heard of it in legends at that. You’ve got a talent; what you need turns up when you need it and the right people come into your life when you need them. That’s the way it looks to me, anyway. Even as a young slave boy, Lynn took a special interest in you. Her brightest student, she said. You didn’t know that? No, of course you didn’t. But she did. The Trader acquired you just when you were old enough to start making things happen, then set you free at the first stop out of Fort Steel. Seven months later, you come back carrying three inches more in height, a good thirty pounds of muscle you didn’t have, a full set of fighting skills or I miss my guess, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen and a warrior to boot, and so on and so forth. And all of that fits you. Fits you like a glove. I’m not putting myself down, but believe me, I’m as close to being in awe of you as any old soldier could get. And your mind for military tactics is instinctive. Even the way you had your defense set up when we rode in…I couldn’t better that even now that I see the layout. So you run this show, you and your woman, and I’ll back you up. All the way. Hell, man, you saved my family when I couldn’t see a way to do it. The last thing on Earth I’d ever want to do is usurp your position, even by accident or a careless word.”

I stared at him, gobsmacked. Everything he said made sense, except I couldn’t apply it to me. How long he’d been holding his hand out before I noticed, I wasn’t sure. In the end, we shook on it.

“Well,” I said when I could find my voice, “that should be enough lead time for Julia. Let’s head on up to camp.”

We rode side by side, both of us checking our backtrail frequently. A habit, and a good one. Gray squirrels were out in force, flitting among the higher tree branches to either side of the broad meadow. Half a dozen deer raised their heads, leaving off grazing to watch us pass; they must have hidden in the timber when the guns were rattling the Roost, but they were back out in the open already. They would be easy hunting, but despite our need for meat, I had no intention of targeting any of them. Some animals would leave the area now that humans were moving in, but those who remained would be our neighbors and friends for as long as possible. A starvation winter might change that, but hopefully no time soon.

The entire camp had turned out to greet us. Julia sat her horse, just outside the tree line. The others were on foot, smaller children wrapped around their mother’s legs or bundled at their breasts. Miriam Slovensky said nothing, made no exclamation of joy or greeting, but darted forward, leaving her kids behind, slamming into Blake’s solid chest as he leaped from his golden palomino. “Welcome home, honey,” I heard her murmur, but I kind of had to look away; it didn’t seem right to watch the fierce reunion between these two. My eye fell on Golden, the sergeant’s flashy stud. We’ve got us a horse herd now, I thought, picturing the colts that proud stallion would throw. Of our twenty horse seed group, fifteen “appropriated” from Fort Steel, eight were mares. We were in the horse business.

Julia gestured; I left Blake and his woman to it, riding forward to join my mate. The boys, grouped around Bolo and Carp, were listening to their undoubtedly enhanced tales of the shooting with avid interest. All of the remaining women were dividing their attention between the Blake/Slovensky reunion and me; two even blew kisses my way. Good thing my wife was not a jealous woman, nor had any reason to be. “Come on into camp.” Julia was not only smiling; she was glowing. “One of the boys will keep a lookout; in fact, they argued over who got the honor until I assigned sentinel shifts.” Wow. She’d gotten a lot done in the brief time before we rode up. Not that it surprised me. Not with Jules, it didn’t. “The women will have chow ready in a short; you need to relax. That, and make plans. We need to hunt soon; we’ll be out of meat tomorrow and I have a hunch you’re not interested in depopulating the local woods any time soon.”

Hard not to love a woman like that; when she wasn’t right with me, she was a step ahead.



“Get out of here!” Spittle flew from Strator Tucker’s twisted lips. For the first time in alll the years I’d known him, the de facto dictator of Fort Steel had lost it. The man’s eyes bugged out to rival the young slave fugitive called Carp. He’d turned purple, veins bulging at his temples; if this didn’t give the man a stroke, nothing would.

Not that I’d ever be so lucky. Rising from the stool on which I’d been perched for the duration of the interrogation–officially a debriefing, but it had certainly been an interrogation in all but name–I managed to grimace only slightly from the pain in my leg. The bullet wound was infected; had it taken us even one more day to make it back, my survival might well have been in doubt. Shooting myself had seemed the thing to do at the time, but so had the occasional double dog dare when I was a kid. My uniform was grimy, sweat stained from the sickness, funky from days in the saddle and sleeping rough. I hadn’t been able to force down a bite of anything in the last 24 hours, but craved water like one of those mythical camels after crossing the fabled Sahara Desert. Still, I managed a crisp salute with my right arm, the left managed the crutch reasonably well, and seconds later I was out of there.

Young Harvey Steen squatted by the hitch rail across the street. He rose to his feet smoothly, no less dirty than I was but fueled by the power of youth and great genetics. “Thought I told you to go off duty, Private,” I growled. Steen was hardly the cause of my anger, but he was a convenient, safe target.

“Figured you might want a witness if Tucker decided to just shoot you or string you up.”

“Hnh.” I snorted, hobbling across to where he was untying my remount’s bridle reins from the rail. “Don’t think he’d quite dare do that. Sure ’nuff wanted to, though. My report didn’t exactly tickle his fancy.” I managed to step up into the tall half-Thoroughbred’s saddle on my own, but it was a near thing. Harvey mounted up and we rode off down the street, headed not to my place but to the Compton compound outside to the east. Not far, a mere two miles or so. Seemed like a trip around the world. “Don’t suppose you managed to get word to Barb?”

“I weren’t quite born yesterday, Corp. Barb will meet us there.” Without waiting for me to express my appreciation, which I didn’t really feel like doing right then anyway, he went on with…a joke? “She told me to tell you the latest your niece came up with.” That would be Katy, seventeen years of age, six feet tall, and already better at repairing machinery than most of the men employed at the foundry. I really didn’t want to hear this, but I was going to, regardless. “They were serving pickle spears at the community mess hall the other day. Apparently Katy don’t much care for pickles, so she told one of the staff when he came by, I’ll give you a nickel if you’ll tickle my pickle!”

I smiled in spite of myself. That was Katy to a tee. “I can see those would be fighting words if a guy said them to a girl, but what happened?”

“Oh, the way I was told, he tickled her pickle and she gave him a nickel.” Fort Steel didn’t really have a coin called a nickel, which was apparently a small denomination alloy back Before. But we did have pewter slugs called nickels, used in much the same way.

“Of course he did,” I muttered. It wasn’t all that funny, not the way my leg was throbbing. I could imagine feeling tendrils of gangrene already running up to my crotch and beyond. I hoped it was my imagination.

By the time we reached the Comptons’ place, the moon was up and I was too stiff to dismount by myself. Weasel met us in the yard; he and Harvey eased me down off the horse. It wasn’t really that warm out, but I was sweating head to toe.

“Welcome home, honey.” I hadn’t even been aware of the wwomen’s arrival from the house. Thankfully, Barb was a big woman, two inches taller than me, half again as heavy, and strong as the proverbial ox. With her on one side and Laura Compton on the other, I couldn’t have fallen if I wanted to. Harvey must have headed back to the company stables, where he’d take care of his horse and then head for his own little bachelor’s shack. Weasel disappeared, presumably he was putting my gelding up in the barn. But I didn’t know any of this. I was almost out, and then I was out, my last thought one of regret that I hadn’t replied to my beloved when she’d welcomed me home.



The bits of light leaking through the canvas finally brought me to full awareness. Bright daylight? How long had I slept? The exhaustion had hit hard, wiping me out before the tent was fairly up. Julia must have done everything for me, just shoveled me into the shelter and taken over. There were marks on the tent flap…charcoal. Hunting–back before dark.

I’d never felt guilt like this before, but then, I’d never shirked my duties before, either. No dream recall, no memory whatsoever of the entire night. Flap open–man, that sun was bright! Definitely warm, too; at this lower elevation, camped near the lake we’d stumbled across just at sunset yesterday, most of the snow was gone, just a few shady patches remaining. Serious need to get out of here if I didn’t want a yellow tent…made it, relief as powerful as the discovery that Sergeant John Sebastian Blake was not an enemy but an ally. Roan was tethered nearby, the only horse in the string smart enough not to tangle his feet if we left him room enough to graze. The gelding raised his head, chewing a mouthful of dried grass, ears pricked forward. Two of the three pack horses we’d brought were inside a rope corral strung from tree to tree, which meant she’d ridden Appy and taken one pack critter.

This part of the country alternated between open areas and stands of timber, some large, some small. I remembered that much. Eighty feet southwest, the pines stopped and rolling, grass covered foothills took over. Well, grass and sagebrush covered. Lots and lots of sagebrush.

But Jules would be hunting around the perimeter of the lake just east of the camp, something like sixty acres of water surrounded by dense stands of brush, willows and a score of species I couldn’t identify. Farther from the shores, there were mostly pines, scrub and jack and yellow, Ponderosa and lodge pole, but all pines of one variety or another. The competition between tree and bush was nowhere smooth or even, of course; here the trees pushed right out on a point to the very edge of the water, there the brush, water weeds, and thirty different kinds of grasses fought back, sometimes to a shoreline width of a hundred yards or more. My mate would be slow-stalking through terrain I couldn’t imagine handling. There was no way I could ever find her if I tried. Nothing to do but sit and wait.

Not that I could literally sit. Not now. Flickers of memory from the day before yesterday surfaced of their own accord as I set about straightening up around the camp, adding to the firewood pile, restarting the fire itself and making sure it stayed lit, cleaning the .358 Winchester and .46 Long Colt revolver, sharpening my belt knife, inspecting every bit of tack, shifting the rope corral to a new location for better grazing and turning Roan in with the pack horses, digging a real latrine pit well downwind, and a hundred other little details that never make it into the adventure stories.

We needed meat; it wasn’t all that hard for Blake to convince me he could manage the Roost during our absence. “From what I’m hearing, Julia is the most experienced hunter among us by far. You two go get us some meat; I’ll hold down the…um, Roost.” Nobody wanted to call our redoubt a fort. Not ever. No way. Huh-uh. When Blake was backed up by Lynn Burch, we were as good as gone. “Might be three days,” Julia had told everyone. “We’ll need to drop back down to a lower elevation; the big game hasn’t yet returned to the high country.” Three days was a long time when the settlement was out of meat, but the women assured us they could stretch the little remaining. Stone soup, they said, which made no sense to me. Who ate rocks? Blake’s assurance that he’d see to a sentry roster for the Throat, along with relays back to camp if any threat manifested in our absence…I didn’t see how he was going to manage that with the population we had, but….

Somehow, even worried as I was, the sun managed to move across the sky in record time. It had been midmorning when I’d finally rolled from my blankets. There’d been no three-shot distress signal, but now sunset shadows were lengthening at a frightening rate.

“Hello the camp!”

No mistaking that voice. “Come on in!” I didn’t go to meet her; as thickly forested as this part of the woods was, I couldn’t even be sure which game trail she was following. There were several criss-crossing the area. Moments later, though, her horses could be heard easily. Appy’s nose huffed happily into view, followed by the rest of him, my mate, and the pack horse. Her mount was no fool; camp might not be an established barn, but it meant getting rid of the saddle for a while, getting rubbed down, and many night hours available for grazing or simply standing with one leg cocked, asleep on its feet in the way of horses. That and company; horses are herd animals, after all.

Tired as she obviously was, Julia still insisted on cooking, most likely motivated by having tasted my poor offerings one time too many. I did everything else, though. “You look a lot better,” she grinned, pulling a bloody packet of canvas-wrapped meat from one of the panniers.

“Back in the land of the living, anyway.” I grinned back. “Thanks to my take-charge wife. Though I don’t know what could have possibly wiped me out like that.”

She snorted, albeit delicately. “Of course you don’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She already had the skillet hot and slices of tender backstrap sizzling away. “Let’s see…all you’ve done recently is penetrate the defenses of a hostile Fort, organize the escape of scores of slaves, come near to blowing yourself up in the process of crippling the Fort’s first response efforts, stop a duly constituted militia squad in its tracks, hold rear guard position nonstop for more than two days of tough mountain travel, stop a second military squad cold in the Throat of the Roost, negotiate an alliance with what used to be the second most hated soldier in all of Fort Steel, yada yada yada. Nope, no reason at all for you to be exhausted after a simple little walk in the park like that. You must be getting soft.”

“Well, when you put it that way…what’s that yada yada yada mean, anyway?”

“And so on and so forth, or something like that.” I had our plates out, suddenly realizing my belly button was kissing my backbone. “Don’t ask me where it came from, though. It’s something our family’s said since forever, but nobody living today has a clue where we got it.”

Fresh backstrap, hot off the skillet, turns out to be an aphrodisiac. We didn’t worry about keeping watch that night; our camp was well hidden and the coyotes yip-yapping made it clear nothing bigger and more dangerous was in the area.

It turned out the meat she’d brought back to camp had come from a bull moose. I’d never even heard of such a thing; somehow, my education had missed that species entirely. “Twelve hundred pounds of meat,” Julia informed me, “and another hundred of lower legs, hooves, head, and antlers.” She was sort of joking about the antlers, which were barely starting to push velvet at this time of year, but we didn’t dare leave them behind. Even in that state they had many uses, she said, though I couldn’t imagine what those might be. Nor could I have imagined the sheer size of the thing. Even quartered as she’d left it, with each piece rope-rigged to hang from a branch so far above the ground even a grizzly on his hind legs couldn’t have reached it, we were looking at massive loads for the three pack horses. And the head…nothing mammalian could be that ugly. Could it?

Still, we had the string lined out by midmorning and were back to the Roost before the sun set. Could have made it faster, but not with every horse carrying at least 500 pounds of goodies, all of the moose plus our camp gear. There was no need to hail the sentry at the Throat; in fact, noise here was discouraged, though we could hear distant sounds from well out on the mesa. They sounded like…civilization. Saws working, both large and small. The steady -chunk!- of axes. Voices, too, especially the high, carrying tones of children. How long since those kids had known the opportunity to make any noise at all? Slaves certainly weren’t encouraged to mouth anything but silence.

As we got closer, I realized the Throat wasn’t silent, either. Something was happening. Raising my right hand in the prearranged signal, I couldn’t help grinning when the harsh caw of a crow sounded immediately. Blake had promised he could train sentries to make a passable crow sound and he’d done it. Raven next, I supposed. This time I was leading, Jules riding drag. On around the curve we went…until I stopped in shock. We’d been gone exactly three days, right? No more than that, surely. One full day exploring until we found the lake, I slept through one, and then today–yep, three days. This couldn’t possibly have been accomplished in that amount of time. Not with one grown man, one educated but hardly labor hardened woman and ten more busy with a gaggle of litlle ones. Julia pulled up beside me; we covered the rest of the way to the stockade wall in silence, staring in disbelief.

That’s right. The stockade wall. Oh, it wasn’t exactly complete yet, but the massive gate was in place, plus maybe fifteen feet of erect, thick posts to each side. Twelve feet high at least, with the tops sharpened to nasty points. A huge pile of completed posts lay ready to hand, awaiting the necessary hands to lift them into the trench. Another, smaller pile of split rails were being added inside at chest height to a grown man, but women and small children were fiercely drilling holes for pegs to be pounded through the rails and into the posts, keeping them together so they wouldn’t warp. Mother-kid teams? Looked like it, and some of those little ones on the drills were no more than four and five years old. Helping Mom? Hard at it, though; they certainly got an A for effort.

John Blake strode from the timber then, leading a former Fort Steel nag reduced to draft horse duty, pulling a log out into the open. Eighteen feet long and a good foot thick at the small end, it was no easy drag; the animal had to realy lean into its jury rigged harness to make the thing move. Carp and Bolo were on the wood almost before the Sergeant had the rope out of the way, axes in their hands, one smoothing away limb stubs that had been missed, the other chipping away at the small end. Sharpening the post, I realized, and handling that axe like he’d been born with it in his hands.

Blake saw us, of course. How could he not? “Welcome home,” he yelled, doffing his hat with an ear to ear grin. “You like it so far?” So much for the idea of staying quiet.

“Like it?” I rode Roan on through the open gate; no use tempting him to fall in the trench and break a leg or worse. “I love it! Can’t quite believe it, but I love it.”

Julia had gotten over her astonishment. “Not sure how you dug that trench with the ground still frozen, John.”

“Oh, that?” He put on a face of mock innocence. “Twarn’t nuthin’ atall, ma’am. Child’s play, you might say.”

One of the little ones piped up. “Child’s play! Our mommies boiled water and made the ground soft and we dugged it!”

I was speechless. Julia was not. Maybe it was coming from a large family, or just the natural mommy gene. “You dugged it good, huh!”

“We sure did! We dugged it good!”

My eyes threatened to leak; it was an effort to keep the moisture contained. Here I’d believed we were being saddled with fifty-one kids too young to be good for much of anything, yet it wasn’t that way at all. Twenty-five, maybe thirty of them–goodness, they seemed to be everywhere now that I really looked, doing all sorts of things that needed to be done–twenty-five or thirty of them were workers, busy little bees, and what they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm. We had us a clan.

Naturally, many eyes were on the chunks of moose meat lashed to the pack horses. “John, you think your crew has put in enough work for one day? I’d say what you’ve done here deserves a feast tonight.”

“Feast! Feast! Feast!” My older boys even joined in on that one. Not that they were really mine any more.

“Chief,” Blake twinkled, “I’d say a feast sounds like a mighty fine idea.”

Chief? Hunh. Well, somebody had to hold the title until we could set up a Constitution, I supposed. In any event, I knew one thing. For the first time in my life, I truly had come home.