Grunt, Chapter 69: Christmas Horse

SLIM HOWARD

Three thousand miles. Three. Freaking. Thousand. Miles. Yeah, Moss swore it was “only around” 2,930 miles from Masada in the Western Jewish State to the putative city limits of the southwestern bed of sin known as Gatorville. So what? The thick callouses on my rear end were rounding up.

Three. Thousand. Miles.

Even at the end of civilization as the ancients had known it, books were still being written about the early pioneers who invaded the West, a horde of locusts shoving indigenous people aside to destroy an even more ancient way of life. Not that the process was anything new. Stronger peoples had been stomping all over weaker peoples since time immemorial. The elementary school playground bully was alive and well in Life’s DNA, merrily stealing lunch money from his classmates. Not only was there nothing new under the sun; our star wasn’t new, either. Why did our little blue ball live so far from the center of our galaxy, let alone the larger universe? Simple. Bigger, meaner stars most likely pushed it away from the better spots.

Some folks were convinced my mind worked in a weird way.

Weird or not, I was tired. Bone tired. As were most of us, no doubt. We fought yawns, rubbed our eyes, and scratched ourselves to stay awake. Or was that itch a new chigger bite? In this delta country, the pesky little arthropods were ubiquitous. At least half of us were scratching irritably, snapping at those who spouted nonsense about scratching being the worst thing you could do. it was difficult to avoid glaring at those who seemed to be immune, Moss and Merrilee and even young Esteban among them. Especially tonight. The decision had been made to enter the ultra-dangerous metropolis at the third hour past midnight, when few if any residents would be out and about to observe our passage. If any insomniacs did, they would perceive only an intimidating ghost caravan, rolling silent except for the stamp of hooves and the creak-jingle of harness. None of us would speak. Midget would patrol silently beside the wagons, terminating any overbold urban canines with slashing jaws capable of killing a wolf like it was nothing and making a Great Dane think twice.

We’d only seen one Dane on this trip, a tall leopard beauty. That dog had been wise, snarling yet yielding the right of way to Esteban’s guardian. Midge was just as tall and a whole lot heavier, massively muscled like a Rottie yet limber and athletic as any human acrobat. Even in the face of gunfire, I had an idea he’d be about as hard to kill as an old boar grizzly.

Rolling through town at this ungodly hour was, Moss assured us, a necessary precaution. “We’ve had trader wagons ambushed here before,” he explained. “We can’t get lost, since the main road runs right through the center of the city, but we could get into deep trouble if they saw us coming in broad daylight. A favorite trick is to have a gaggle of little children, especially girls, dash out into the street in front of the lead wagon as if they’re playing some chase-me catch-me game. Which they are, but we’re the prize. The teamster will halt his team rather than run over a bunch of rug rats in a foreign town. Just like that, the victims are stuck in place. More kids run to the wagons, importuning drivers and even mounted guards, asking for candies or a coin or perhaps a bit of cloth for a poor, sainted mother who has no clothing.”

“Then suddenly the wagons are surrounded by armed adults, sometimes pretending a sort of civility as long as they get their way, but turning ugly as soon as any resistance is perceived. The Mayor of Gatorville maintains a Tax Squad who levies toll, basically whatever they think they can get away with.

“No, we need to be through their not-so-fair city before they know it. There are places we can camp on the other side, a few miles west and north of city limits. Then we’ll send a trade delegation back, twenty hard men plus half a dozen extra horses at a time, a team rigged out as pack animals. A group like that will look as tough and nasty as any bunch of raiders. Our soldiers will make no conversation, crack no jokes. Snake eyes all the way. In Gatorville, appearances are everything. The mayor’s machine won’t try anything hinky. Over-wintering raiders, if there are any groups fully assembled and sober enough to be aware of us on such a fine Saturday morning, will also see us as a nut too tough to crack.”

“So…what do we have for trade?” A good question, I thought.

“Candies.”

“Huh?”

“Candies. Hard candies. We’re carrying five hundred pounds of hard candy in Dutch Charlie’s wagon, most of it intended for trade. In addition to plenty of hemp seed, we have everything we need to plant sugar beets when we pick a place to settle. Two of our people are skilled at turning beet sugar into hard candy, often flavored with peppermint, spearmint, caramel, licorice, you name it. From everything we’ve heard about this burg, Gatorville will go nuts over the stuff. Pure gold.”

Candies. Now I’d heard everything.

“Time to get moving.”

Oh. Right. I had to play my part. Let’s see, .45 in place, Bowie in place, sawed-off 10 gauge shotgun in hand. I’d never fired a 10 gauge, figured the kick would likely break my shoulder and blow me clean off the wagon seat if I had to use it.

Up ahead, Carol flicked the reins. Her eight-horse hitch leaned into it and we were on our way. Two miles to Gatorville’s first buildings. Three miles through, at least forty-five minutes traversing the gauntlet. Main Street was wide enough for wagons to meet and pass each other, but not much more than that. Boardwalks in front of some buildings. Hitch rails. Deep shadows dappling everything as a fickle moon played tag with spotty cloud cover. This far south, there was no threat of snow. It had rained earlier in the day, though, and the thoroughfare was muddy underfoot. The horses’ hooves suck-slurped with each step. Merrilee’s wagon, just ahead of us, squeaked in protest; an axle short on grease. We kept to the center of the street, allowing our mounted escort to flank us on either side. As dark as the looming building fronts were, their windows were even darker, great gaping holes into an alternate universe from whence alien life forms might spew forth at any moment. Alleys were even worse; bad things lived in dark alleys, rape and murder and general mayhem on what passed for their minds.

My breathing was getting frantic. With an effort, I forced myself back to calm. A semblance of calm.

It helped when I began to realize we must look even scarier to any sleepy-eyed inhabitant who might glimpse us passing through. In the distance, several dogs barked, then followed the leader into a group howl-sing. They knew Danger stalked their homes. None came close. Main Street curved sharply, not an intersection, just a curve. Viewing the wagons from the inside of that curve, the moonlit side, any Gatorvillian would be awed if not frightened out of his wits. Most of our horses, especially the huge draft animals, were dark in color, blacks and bays, bigger by at least five hundred pounds than any other equine we’d seen on this entire journey. Satan’s steeds to the unsuspecting late-night eye, pulling wagons of tremendous size, soft-gleaming-silver, gold-on blue Star of David on each one, the blue seeming black and thrusting the interlocked triangles into sharp relief even in this minimal light. Few this far west knew much about Jews; those sons of Judah who did live out thisaway were more likely to conceal their true nature from their neighbors. As a result, many a newcomer to our wagon train thought the Star of David was ye olde sign of Satan worship incarnate, the inverted pentagram. It takes very little to trigger fear in a preconditioned human mind.

Downtown Gatorville sported taller buildings, some of them a full three stories in height. Wider, too. Here lived the great merchants, starting with the Mayor himself who owned the Monopoly Mercantile–no kidding, that’s what the arrogant son named it, painted on the front in scarlet (black at night) letters six feet high. If you got it, flaunt it. That seemed to the motto here.

Thanks to Moss’s advance intel, we not only understood this but got into the spirit of the thing. We flaunted our military might. Every wagon sported a shotgun rider. Every mounted warrior carried a long rifle, butt planted high on each man’s thigh and pointed almost straight up at the sky so it looked even longer and more deadly.

A door slammed somewhere. At least one witness had taken note of our passage. No muzzle flash spewing death from window or doorway; whoever our observer was, he wasn’t stupid. But the moccasin telegraph would spread the news like wildfire. By the time our traders rode back into town, say around midmorning, the entire city would have heard. This might not be a bad thing. For at least a little while, exaggeration would have us at a hundred wagons or more, with a thousand rifles.

Appearance? Yes, that was important here, but only to plant seeds in men’s minds. Gossip would multiply objective appearance by a factor of five. At least.

I worried about Merrilee’s wagon axle. I worried about some fool deciding to open fire from the shadows. I worried about…well, most everything. Even so, with all that worrying, I forgot about my bony, permanently bruised butt and was some surprised when the last buildings fell behind us.

We’d made it without incident. It was the first of March, no more than ten days behind Moss’s most optimistic schedule. First light had come and gone by the time Carol pulled off the Fort Steel road, as it was called. There were fifteen hundred hard miles between here and Steel, with dozens of hamlet-sized settlements and stubborn groups of farmers and ranchers scattered throughout the region. But still it was called the Fort Steel road. Go figure. Sort of like the old Jew’s windy about signs halfway around the planet in the Before days, pointing arrows under printed nonsense like 8,793 miles to Wall Drug. Wall Drug being a tourist trap in the badlands of South Dakota, or somewhere near there, before the Yellowstone volcano wiped it out.

Carol’s pick was a bench that stood several yards above the road. A modest little stream made its way lazily along the far side. We’d have to bucket water for cooking. “And boil the dickens out of it before you take a drink,” she advised. “It doesn’t look particularly healthy.”

Aside from buggy water, we couldn’t have asked for a better fort-up setting. Not a wheel-busting boulder in sight. The drivers formed up the jagged teardrop–the hedgehog, as most of them called it, which I guessed was okay, too. The sun was getting up earlier these days, going to bed later. Spring had already sprung in this area, though we were told it wasn’t likely any of the major raider groups had headed north yet. Those outlaws traveled fast; they wouldn’t want to outrun the short grass, the fresh green growth that kept their horses going strong.

Neither would we, but we’d be moving slower. Wagons. With families. And teams that needed more grazing and resting time every night than the lighter saddle mounts did.

Heh. To think that I now considered a fourteen hundred pound saddle horse “lighter.”

True, only a few riders owned mounts of that size. Most were closer to a thousand. The wagon-pullers, though…not one of them scaled at under fourteen hundred, with some running a ton or more. Mucho horseflesh. I hoped our settling-place would have lots of long grass. Those overgrown ponies were going to need it.

Moss elected himself head of the trade delegation, forking a chestnut half-Arabian stallion with fire in his eye and an eye for the mares. I hadn’t known the aging ex-cop could handle that much horse. I certainly couldn’t. Wouldn’t even try. Nuh-uh. Yet I still felt insulted when I didn’t get to go into Gatorville. My curious cat mind really wanted to see what the city was like in daylight.

“No you don’t, kid.” Feldman shook his head decisively. “Trust me.”

“I do trust you. You know that.” My voice sounded a little on the sullen side, even to me.

“Grant, take a close look at the guys who are going.”

Well, all right. It took far too long, but I finally got it. “Ah.”

“What do you see?”

“Bunch of bad mammer-jammers. Whole bunch look like they could chew iron and spit nails.”

“By Jove, I think he’s got it. And why is that important?”

Blasted mentor of mine should have been a teacher, not a cop. “Appearances.”

“Exactly. Slim, you’re one of the best hands we’ve got now, and I don’t say that lightly. But you’re a sleeper, slender as a reed and about as threatening to the uninitiated as a pocketful of posies. Until push comes to shove, and then the reed turns out to be a Toledo steel sword blade. At Fort Ford, that sleeper aspect turned out to be exactly what we needed. Got the job done and kept the casualties down at the same time. But in Corruption Central here, that appearance would work against you. The idea is to keep anybody from even thinking to try us.”

Chagrin much, Howard? “Go get ’em, Moss man.”

“Figure to. One more thing. You keep an eye on things here, okay? I didn’t train you on the use of that machine gun just for kicks and giggles.”

That made me feel better. I was the official backup dude for the nastiest weapon in our entire arsenal. Not bad for an amateur, right? Besides, maybe I could help Merrilee get her axles greased.

Which sounded kind of dirty somehow, but come on, get your mind out of the gutter.

The trading party was barely out of sight when Cortin Blausfeld wandered over my way and took a seat on one of the folding-leg stools. Cort wandered slowly and sat gratefully, with good reason. He was the oldest man in the caravan, a good eighty-six years of age, or so he said. He certainly looked it. His wrinkles had wrinkles. The bags under his eyes were capacious, to put it mildly. One eye teared regularly, forcing him to wipe his face with a sleeve every few minutes. That eye was about half blind, even with the strongest spectacles his wagon carried. His hands shook when he wasn’t working or sleeping, yet Mr. Blausfeld–I still had trouble calling him by his first name, though he chided me regularly on that score–Cortin Blausfeld knew more than the rest of the exodus combined, including Moss.

I felt like I should be taking notes every time he opened his toothless mouth.

“Found this in my stuff,” he said after he’d gotten his wind back. Walking the length of the jagged teardrop was enough to wear him out. “Figured you might put it to use.”

A book. A book on drawing horses.

Wow.

“Tired of seeing my team sketches come out looking like broomsticks with hooves?” I was only half joking.

“Not me. Figured you might be.”

He was right about that. We sat in companionable silence, his breath wheezing a bit even at rest, me soaking up the pages like a whole coral reef worth of sponges. Not that I’d experienced such a reef or even a sponge, but judging by the Before articles and illustrations I’d seen….

Uh-oh. It wasn’t anywhere near Christmas, but the idea for a drawing took hold of my mischief bone and rattled my entire skeleton. I shouldn’t…yeah, but it was funny as…no, I really shouldn’t.

In the end, I couldn’t help myself. A good, solid, fundamentalist Christian would probably be offended. None of those in this group, so maybe…maybe it could work as Jewish humor? Working from the book, using two different pencils pilfered from the train’s limited supply, I had the drawing done in a couple of hours, give or take. And bless me, it honestly did look like a horse for a change.

Okay, another sheet of paper, block print a sincere

SEASONS GREETINGS
FROM THE
CHRISTMAS HORSE

Finally, I showed both pages to Blausfeld. There was nothing wrong with the ancient’s sense of humor. He literally fell off the stool laughing. It’s a wonder he didn’t break a hip or something.

Helping the old man back up to the stool wasn’t easy. He was still sputtering with laughter, repeating the text printed beneath the sketch. “Pees on Earth, good will toward men! You nailed it, Slim. The best horse pees on Earth and does think well of us messed up homo sapiens. Man, I’m missing a simple copier right now. Every wagon in the train is going to want that Christmas Horse picture.”

Really? I hadn’t expected that. I was laughing right along with Mr. Blausfeld, but terror was setting in, too. I could already see about fifty ways the drawing could be improved.

Perfectionist much, Howard? Oh, yeah.