Grunt, Chapter 84: A Sitting Duck in Her Sights

SWAKO THE DWARF

Milo flinched visibly but there was no way around it. When we left the overhang at sunrise, ten year old Gwinnie rode behind him on Big Black. Perched atop our fearless leader’s sizeable travel pack, she could see ahead if she peered over Milo’s shoulder. She also blithely ignored the various ties and hung onto Milo himself for support, making him even edgier. He didn’t say anything but I could read him like a book.

Gwinnie smiled at him sweetly when he turned his head to make sure she was settled in. Couldn’t have her falling off, eh?

Little Pet–short for Petula, she’d confided–rode behind me on Handsome, but her view was more restricted. Looking ahead, she could see nothing but my broad back. Unless she stood up on my pack, which I firmly discouraged her from doing. She tried it once anyway, just to let me know I was not the boss of her.

Despite the grim aftermath of the tsunami into which we were riding, I had difficulty suppressing a bubbling desire to laugh out loud. Gwinnie had zeroed in on the black rider as her future mate of choice, a fact that was obvious to everyone except the target himself. Her rough cloth dress was not short, but she had to hike it up to sit on the pack, her bare legs flashing as they hung down beside the back of Milo’s saddle. Pet rode demurely, crosslegged and comfortable, trusting Handsome not to skitter sideways and dump her off. Her big sister was locked down, most likely mentally practicing her someday-name: Guinevere “Gwinnie” Grazie. Gwinnie Grazie did have a nice ring to it, no?

The man who’d intimidated a murderous ferry boat captain and his flunkies had no clue. The girl still mostly ignored him, pretending–but only to Milo–that his existence remained unimportant to her.

Meanwhile, she was campaigning like a lifetime politician, setting out to force her choice to see her as a woman despite the fact that she was still at least a year or two short of puberty. They grew up fast in hillbilly country. She’d begun by making sure my friend knew she was adult-capable, making sure he knew about her ability to fork-stick a rattlesnake. “Don’t try that with the narrow-head snakes,” she’d explained as if she were a schoolteacher holding forth at a blackboard, ” ’cause they ain’t got no flare in front of their necks. Stick don’t mean nothing to them kind unless you beat ’em with it.” She’d cut up and fried up a mighty fine batch of fresh liver for the girls’ first meal in our camp. She’d cooked breakfast for all of us this morning, a task I suspected she’d taken over for good.

And she’d flashed a bit of skin every time Milo was looking and didn’t think she knew it.

Every time he turned hastily away, she’d appeared almighty satisfied. She caught me smiling once, when she’d done that, and had the brass nerve to wink at me. I couldn’t help myself. I’d winked back.

Regular little strumpet, that one. Lolita in waiting.

And of course her kid sister knew exactly what her big sis was up to. Wouldn’t have surprised me if the seven year old had settled for me, the way things were going. As questionable as my love life had been, ever since my wife left me for the blacksmith back home, I’d have been willing to wait till the kid grew up. You know, another ten years or so. But it wasn’t that way between us and that was fine. I wasn’t even seen as an uncle, it didn’t seem like. More like an older brother. A much older brother.

Poor Milo, though. Gwinnie had him in her sights. He was a sitting duck. This could end up just fine if the girl could make herself wait until she was at least fourteen or fifteen. Lots of brides that age. My goodness, could a ten year old wait half again the years she’d already lived? Not that she was anything like a normal ten year old.

On the flip side, there were alternative scenarios that could mean real heartbreak. I didn’t think this child would handle rejection well. Or competition. What would happen if our black rider fell for a twenty year old raving beauty up there somewhere in the Northwest Territory?

All of this was in my mind when Milo told us our first objective was to find some riding pants for the girls. “Bound to be something, clothing being freighted, whatever. You know, hung up in the downed trees or half buried in the mud flats or swamp or something.”

It was left unsaid that the former owners wouldn’t be raising any complaints at the theft. Tsunamis are effective complaint-stoppers.

Surprisingly, finding a freight wagon to loot turned out to be a lot tougher than we thought. The incoming tidal wave had crushed them, sometimes right down to the axles, and the receding water had tumbled quite a few all the way back out to sea. Or so we guessed; it wasn’t like we had any way of really knowing. We found just one wagon box that remained mostly intact where it had fetched up in a tangle of downed trees, mud, swamp grass, dead horses still in the traces, and three human corpses. Unfortunately, that load was nothing but raw alligator hides, probably headed for the tannery at Great River, the one business located on this western side of the flood due to its–the tannery’s–rank smell. Now they would lie here, half submerged in slime, and rot.

Even picking a route through the mess, trending westward because that’s the way we needed to go anyway, was a job and a half. The night’s storm hadn’t quit adding water to the ground until a couple of hours before sunrise. Between that and the tsunami, mud was the order of the day. Snakes seemed to be everywhere, most of them harmless but a dangerous smattering of deadly cottonmouth moccasins mixed in, along with the stray rattlesnake and an occasional python. Of the latter, the rock pythons were deadliest, imported from Africa but prolific in the southernmost states since the twenty-two hundreds. A 30 foot rock python considered a full grown man a mere snack. They probably couldn’t swallow horses, but neither did they inspire us to take chances.

All of these serpents would have been rare–and easily visible–when the Gatorville road was in order. Evaluating the damage, I estimated it would take freight crews at least a month to clear the way entirely, back to what it was. They were equipped, always, with axes, saws, and muscular men, but there was just so much debris.

It was Pet who finally spotted what we were looking for, not a wagon box at all but a TP. Traveler’s Packs were first manufactured in a facility at Fort Kill, a settlement north of Gatorville but south of the Northwest Territory proper. You couldn’t go there to buy one, though. Try it and die. They were not tolerant of outsiders, not for any reason. Fort Kill wagons brought loads of finished TPs south to Gatorville, selling them to a wholesaler who took it from there.

Of course, every stitchery with a hunk of canvas was making knockoffs these days, though none of the imposters matched Fort Kill for quality. You got what you paid for.

Come to think of it, one of the girls spotting the pack wasn’t all that surprising. Milo and I clearly had a harder time with all the corpses. I guessed that seeing your mom kill your dad and then blow her own brains out…yeah. “Everything dies sometime,” Gwinnie had stated during our evening conversation. Hillbilly tough.

The pack our littlest traveler had spotted was in fact an original TP, the Wanderer model designed to be toted by men who walked the roads for a living. Not everyone could afford a horse.

We approached the pack with caution. Who knew what sort of creepy-crawly might be resting beneath or behind the heavy canvas pack? Finally satisfied there was no immediate danger, Milo lifted the pack free of the brush where it had ended up, grunting as he did so. “Well loaded,” he observed. “At least eighty pounds. How did you recognize it as a genuine TP, Swako?”

“Had one once. Until some yahoo stole it. There are lots of ways this brand is superior. Better, tighter stitching with heavier thread. More metal slot-grommets with turnkey latches. But the clincher is right here.” I took over, opening and lifting the top loading flap. “See this?”

The girls had crowded in, full of curiosity. Gwinnie read the small golden script embedded in a leather shield. “M-I-F-K.”

“Exactly. MIFK. Made In Fort Kill. And in case you’re wondering, those letters are formed of real gold wire.”

“Real gold?” Milo blinked.

“Yep. Not a lot; you see how thin the wire is. Can’t imagine how many of these you’d have to combine to come up with an ounce. Don’t know where Fort Kill gets its gold from, either. But I can guarantee one thing. None of the knockoffs use gold in their imitations.”

“Huh. I should think not.”

Inside the pack? Travel necessities, including skillet and fire making materials, a ground cloth, a spare shirt, spare pants, socks, all that. But glory be, the remainder–roughly half of the pack by volume–contained clothing for boys. Fourteen pairs of pants in various small sizes. Eight shirts. Undersized socks. Even underwear, which I was pretty sure our wee ones weren’t wearing at the moment. The man who’d toted this pack had been a specialized peddler. Or a pervert, but I preferred not to go there.

“Want some boy’s panties?” I grinned, holding up a pair. “Can’t have you two dressing all girly-girl, as far as we’re going.”

“How far is that?” Gwinnie asked the question as Pet snatched the shorts from my hand. They looked like they might fit her. The younger sister put them on, right there on the spot, not even bothering to take off her worn moccasins. Milo turned his head while she did it, though there was no need. That little kid managed the move without showing one bit of skin above the knee. Her mama might have had an anger management problem when it came to her imperfect husband but she’d obviously taught her daughters well.

Oh. How far were we going? It dawned on me that I didn’t really know. I never had known, just started out following the roads that would take me out thataway. I looked at Milo expectantly.

“A bit less than nine hundred miles to Gatorville,” he said, “then another fifteen hundred to the Northwest Territory. Give or take. Depending on where the man I need to find ended up.”

My jaw dropped. “So that’s….”

“Roughly two thousand, four hundred miles from here.”

The numbers meant nothing to the girls. “These’ll fit me,” Gwinnie announced, a full change clutched in her arms, “and I think you, too, Pet. Come on.”

Milo’s young back seat stalker wasn’t about to change in front of her target. I doubted modesty had anything to do with it, but she led her little sister out of sight, behind a brush pile. They returned a few minutes later. My friend’s sigh of relief was audible. The clothes did fit, with a wee bit of room for growth. Both girls were now attired in long sleeved shirts in faded blue that set off their eyes, tan pants, and–presumably–underwear on both females now. Only the moccasins remained the same.

That’s when Milo surprised me. “You guys look good,” he observed. Both girls smiled. “Do you want to keep your dresses, or not?”

Gwinnie was carrying both filthy garments. She turned them over in her hands, slowly. Exchanged a careful look with Pet. “Just as soon bury them, if that’s okay. There’s some of our mother’s blood and brain stains on both of them.”

We buried them. Deep. None of us looked back as we remounted and rode toward the westering sun, doing our best to avoid looking at much of anything except direct threats.

The best thing about our route was the ever increasing distance it put between what was left of the road and the coastline. Near sunset, nearing the last of the tsunami damage, we came upon half a dozen freight wagons and their teams. Men, some of them pedestrian travelers, were working together to clear the road, two-man saws going nonstop, axes limbing, shovels digging, horses dragging big stuff out of the way.

Their leader, presumably the trader himself, stared at us in astonishment. “You’re the first people we’ve seen come out of that. Are there others?”

“Could be.” Milo tipped his hat back, exposing a swath of bare scalp. “But not for the next sixteen miles. At least that’s how far I reckon we’ve come today.”

“So…how bad is it?” His gaze flickered over the girls and me as he talked, but no more than that. He had weightier problems to worry about than two men with traveling with two kids.

“Bad. No way to know for sure, but we’re guessing more than a hundred dead. Lots of them swept out to sea, right where the bay cuts in close to the road. You know the area?”

“Yeah.” The captain wiped a sweaty brow. He’d been working as hard as any of them. “Coastline gets to within half a mile of the road, give or take.”

“That’s the spot. We were taking a breather. My friend here happened to spot the ocean bed where there should have been water. I scoped it,” he turned and spat, communicating more than mere words could convey, “and the ocean had disappeared as far as the eye could see. We knew what that meant–hell, anybody would know what that meant after the earthquakes and tsunamis during the Fall, at least if they listened to their elders. There was a freight train passing right by us, right at that moment. We yelled at them. Tsunami, we said, get to high ground. Damfools just looked at us like we’d lost our marbles. Ripped us a new one, but there was no time to do more. There was a rock upthrust about a quarter mile from us, through swamp and thorn trees and then regular forest. We made it, turned around and looked. Everybody else had figured it out by then, the water was coming in fast, but too late. Too. Damned. Late.”

“Hnh.” The trader nodded. “I know those rocks. How high did the water get? Past the road, obviously.”

“Way past the road. Clear up in the middle of the forest part. More than three hundred feet above sea level, seemed like. Maybe a hundred, hundred and fifty feet below us.” Milo left out the bit about the girls already being in place at the rocks, but what he said next tore my gut in two all over again. “We watched them all die. Watched them, and not a damn thing we could do about it.”

“Ain’t nobody gonna whip Mother Nature head-on,” the man on the ground said. He sketched a quick salute, wiped sweat from his brow, took a fresh two-handed grip on his axe, and got back to work.

We rode on, the Gatorville road clear before us.