Grunt, Chapter 85: The Hanging Judge is Born

GATORVILLE, MID-JUNE

Ideally situated between the mouths of Roil River and Nameless River, with piling-supported bridges spanning both and an almost ideal climate for those who detested snow, the metropolis of Gatorville appeared to be snoozing lazily under the noonday sun. Fat and complacent, bloated on trade from every major community in the Northwest Territory commingling with trade from every one of the Five Great Nations far to the northeast, not to mention Great River’s contribution, the city had it made.

Or so thought the city fathers, members of the Council and others with their greedy hands in the pot.

To a degree, they could be forgiven for their arrogance. Situated just enough higher than the Ocean of Sturms to have escaped the worst of the tsunami, Gatorville controlled both bridges. The amazing pile-supported structures, brainchild of a local builder, spanned delta country that made the rivers crossable. Three months ago, tolls had been instituted for passage either east or west, with gangs of uniformed thugs aka City Militia posting guards at the bridges to handle collections. Graft was frowned upon and strictly limed to the upper crust, the ruling class. Debauchery, never in short supply, had increased to impressive levels with several strip clubs and half a dozen brothels doing quite well. No welfare; if a woman needed money, she could always sell her body, but a man short of cash had best be earning real wages if he expected to eat. A code of punishment to fit the crime had evolved. No lopping-off of hands, because why cripple a potential worker, but chain gangs were back in vogue along with hangings for rape (but only if the victim belonged to a citizen of substance), murder, and half a dozen other specific crimes. Medium infractions were handled through whippings. Minor boo-boos usually–but not always–ended up with the perpetrator doing work for the city under strict, armed supervision.

All in all, the fat cats were happy and the lower classes knew the rules. What could be better than that?

Sure, there were rumors coming out of the Northeast Territory. The wilder of these spread a silly tale about the Asians who called themselves Hooded Cobra. Supposedly, the yellow men were taking over the whole Five Nations country. They were also planning a big military push, maybe even plotting to send a whole slant-eyed army as far as Gatorville itself, and they had the temerity to call themselves an empire.

Utter rubbish, of course. And even if they did, if the rumors turned out to be true, they’d be in trouble if they tried to take over Gatorville. The Council had finally decreed a census showing the biggest city in the whole hemisphere now had more than four thousand residents. Nobody could crack an egg of that size. Most likely, the rumors were started by traders hoping to sell more war materiel, weapons and fast horses, stuff like that. No, the slants were no threat. Yawn ho-hum.

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MILO GRAZIE

Lying up in the brush as far east of the bridge as my little scope would reach, eyeballing the situation with early morning sun behind us, I muttered, “Our sources weren’t lying.” Since clearing the tsunami debris, we’d traveled mostly at night, holding to the pattern that had always worked well for me. Every now and then, though, picking the time and people carefully, I’d gone out on the road in full daylight, alone so no one would remember a party of four. Nobody was going to catch us from behind but eastbound travelers could and did give us mostly honest reports about what lay ahead. They had no loyalty to Gatorville and were often happy to vent about the recently instituted tolls.

“There are guards?”

“Yeah. Don’t look like disciplined regulars, but they’ve got uniforms and shoot guns. And they’re taking money from people. Or goods, sometimes. A guy with a string of pack mules just forked over what looked like a small bale of furs.” Swako and I weren’t worried about the money so much as we were about the guards. We needed to stay pretty ghosty, not have our descriptions spread everywhere. Plus, who knew what evil might befall us if one of those guards got a good look at Gwinnie and Pet. Word was, foreign children were subject to human trafficking if caught without adequate adult male protection. Against the number of bully boys Gatorville could summon, my friend and I could hardly be considered adequate. If we could get over this bridge and through the city, the guards on the Nameless River bridge shouldn’t be a problem. Tolls were only being collected one way, as people were inbound. At least, such had been the case as of yesterday. As of tomorrow, who knew? Those buggers had been putting more and more restrictions in place.

Conundrum for sure. I glanced at Gwinnie and then at Pet, one girl lying motionless on each side of my position. This was hunting. They understood hunting. I let each of them have a look through the scope, Swako taking last turn. The dwarf grunted noncommittally as he took in the river crossing scene, then closed the scope and handed it back to me.

“Well,” I sighed, “let’s slither back down off this ridge, mount up, and head back to camp. We need to sleep on this.”

Day-sleep we did, except for Swako. The short-legged man simply couldn’t adjust to my way of doing things. Instead, he dozed in the saddle more nights than not, trusting Handsome to follow in Big Black’s hoof-steps and stay out of trouble. He’d snooze a bit near the close of day, while the sun was plunging toward the horizon and the rest of us were fixing supper and handling other chores, but no more than that. Overall, it was a good arrangement, with at least one of us awake at any hour of the day or night.

When I awoke, the girls were already up and Swako was settling in for his nap. I yawned, covering my mouth for propriety’s sake, and rolled out. Had to go see a man about a dog, then gather the larger sticks for our just-before-sunset cooking fire. Pet had already assembled tinder and kindling. Gwinnie was frowning in concentration as she scrubbed the skillet with sand, apparently not satisfied with my last dishwashing job. The ten year old knew as well as I did that getting the fry pan hot enough to cook supper would sterilize the thing, yet she re-cleaned it nonetheless. A bit of OCD there, I thought. Which beat the dickens out of a slob willing to risk food poisoning; that was for sure.

I was going over the belts I’d been making for the kids, checking to be sure I had the holes spaced right, when it hit me. I knew how we were going to transit Gatorville.

Later, when we were done with supper and putting out the fire, the dwarf having consumed his usual three portions–an appetite that occasionally made Pet giggle and Gwinnie smile fondly–I broached the subject. “You guys feel like being bait?”

Both girls stared at me, a suddenly careful look in their eyes. “Bait, how?” Gwinnie asked. “Daddy taught us to fish. The bait didn’t have so good a time of it.”

Swako was glowering, the first time he’d done that. He obviously thought I’d lost my mind. Maybe I had. I searched my memory for a better word and found it. “Sorry, y’all. I shouldn’t have said bait. Distraction. That’s what us grownups are going to need if we’re going to take out the bridge guards.”

The dwarf exploded, startling the girls. “What you mean take out, white man? That’s another word for murder, yes? Distraction or no distraction, I ain’t into killing anybody who ain’t trying to kill me. What you think, now we’re Ninja assassins, strike in the dark, ten guards down, bim-boom-bang? Get a grip, man!”

Seven year old Pet piped up, her eyes anxious. “We’d like you two not fight.

“Not each other,” Gwinnie agreed.

Swako and I realized what we’d done at the same instant. Perhaps arguments between their parents had started like this before amping up in the end, resulting in a double killing, a murder–or at least manslaughter, if you went by the old American code–and a suicide immediately after. My friend and I looked guiltily at each other, mortified.

“We’ll settle down,” I promised quietly.

“Right down.” Equally chastened, Swako ran a hand through his lengthening beard. The man hadn’t shaved since we’d left Great River. His whiskers grew like weeds. “Maybe you should run us through your thinking from the beginning. I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than just waltzing over there and clobbering a superior force.”

“Yeah.” Foo. There was no way around it. “I suppose I should. Okay, first things first. You know I stayed up all last night, studying the bridge, both sides, the river, as far as I could see into the town, all that.”

“Wait.” Gwinnie raised her hand. “Are you saying you can see in the dark. Like, the complete dark. ‘Cause it was cloudy last night and the only thing I could see over that way was a little light, like a small campfire or something.”

“Uh-huh.” Now came the crux of the matter. Would they even believe me? “I can see in the complete dark.”

“Wow,” the girls chorused, their eyes wide. Gwinnie added, “So you’ve got a Gift, too, like Pet. Only different.”

I nodded. Swako actually smiled. “That does explain a few things. But how? If you even know how.”

“I’ve never been exactly sure, but I think I see into the infrared spectrum.”

It was the dwarf’s turn to nod. Pet’s brow furrowed. “What’s a infer ed spektrim?”

How to explain it…huh. “Most humans see this wide.” I held my hands a few inches apart. “I see this wide.” My hands separated a bit more. “You, Pet, don’t see so much in one direction as I do,” I pushed my right hand back to display the original gap, “but with your sight, you see this deep.” My left hand went high now, right hand low, palms still facing each other. Instead of being inches, the gap between them stretched to four feet or more.

Swako might not possess my superhuman eyesight or Pet’s prescience but there was nothing wrong with his mind. “Seems to me, partner, you’re selling yourself short. Pet, I’d say Milo’s right about your Gift.” He went high and low like I’d done. “But his own Gift is nothing to sneeze at.” Wide with the arms this time, equaling the illustration for Pet. “And between the two of you, with Gwinnie and me serving as mere mortal anchors to keep our magic folks from getting big heads, we got all the bases covered.”

The girls thought about that. Two anchor normals, two Gifted freaks. Baseball analogy, which still worked; the game had never gone out of vogue, though in the more rural areas it was often a creative challenge to come up with something to serve as the ball. “I’m the shortstop!” Pet announced proudly. We all laughed. The ice was broken.

Back to my explanation. “Okay, so I can see in the dark, right? Which let me discover that the ten-guard contingent isn’t a 24/7 thing. Sunup to sundown, yes. But right after sundown, the…swing shift, I guess you’d call it, only has four guards, two at each end of the bridge.” Said bridge was over 300 feet long, so it made sense to have guards at this end screening travelers before they crossed. During normal traffic hours, the city-side guards were mere backup, just in case. “Then comes the kicker. Swing shift is short. Maybe they don’t trust their people to stay awake all night, but for whatever reason, the graveyard shift, midnight to dawn, only has two guards on the city side, none on the other end at all. Plus one young boy with a pony. I’m guessing he’s there in case he’s needed as a courier. He doesn’t appear to be armed.”

Swako interrupted. “The boy–”

“Way ahead of you. Gwinnie, Pet, these guards…I’m thinking we will have to kill them. Or at least disable them, and doing that without making it permanent…I just don’t know how we could do that. But the kid on courier duty, absolutely, no kill. Catch him if we can, tie him up and leave him behind, but if he gets away we let him go.”

“Is that smart?” Gwinnie’s question. Once again I realized just how hardnosed-practical these sweet little things really were inside.

“Maybe not smart,” I admitted, “but that’s the way it has to be.”

The question was, could the dwarf kill in cold blood? Not the kid, but one of the guards? Despite being an unblooded virgin in this game of life and death, I knew I could. Well…I’d just have to make my case. Then we’d see. Besides, I had an out for him. Sort of.

“If the courier gets away, he’s most likely going to gallop straight to wherever their headquarters is, somewhere central in the city. We should have time to slip on through to the western bridge before he’s rounded up reinforcements, especially if we stick to side streets and keep our ears cocked. But a live guard is another kettle of fish. He’s…we just can’t risk leaving either one of them alive to tell tales. As for rationalizing the assassinations, consider this: City rulers are known to be involved in human trafficking. The militia is involved. Rewards are given for young people snatched up to serve in the brothels, either in pay or in, um, sexual services in those same brothels. These are not good people, people.”

“All right,” Swako said tiredly, “they deserve to die. Not sure the Lords of Karma are going to buy that argument, but if we’re going to rationalize, that’s as good as we’re going to get. So how do we do it? We go across that bridge, they’re going to be ready for us, and they’re hardened, experienced killers for sure.”

“For sure, and you’re right. Out here in the boonies, on this side of the Roil, people do live. A lot of them are fishermen, small time entrepreneurs. They tie their boats up along the shore. Nobody dares steal them because the City owns the boats and each boat has an ID number burned into the gunwale. Stealing city property carries a death sentence. Which we don’t care about ’cause a lot of folks in Gatorville would just as soon kill you as look at you anyway.”

“Oh, that makes me feel a lot better.”

“It gets worse. I’ve learned a lot, snooping around at night while y’all were sleeping.” We’d been letting the girls take the reins of our two horses now and then, getting them used to handling Black and Handsome. Happily, both animals adored the kids. Black would sometimes buck under me when I first stepped in the saddle but he wouldn’t think of it if Gwinnie was at the helm. She was precious cargo. I thought the warhorse might be more protective of her than I was. As for Handsome, Pet meant it when she called him by name and the ugly horse knew it. His adoration of our littlest traveler was so obvious, he might as well have been saying, “blow in my cropped-off ear and I’ll carry you anywhere.” She could even handle his hooves or walk under his belly with impunity. But could they pull off what I had in mind? “We don’t dare be too far from our rides when we make our move. So….

“Swako, the idea is, we get our packs squared away, make sure the girls are mounted, and then they have to wait while you and I hoof it upstream, far enough to steal a boat that can carry us across the river and put us on the city-side upstream from the bridge. Tonight is going to stay really dark unless the cloud cover dissipates. When we’re in position, we’ll strike a light, just enough to tell Gwinnie and Pet we’re ready. Then they come toodling across the bridge on the horses, chatting to each other as if they didn’t have a care in the world. The guards will be nervous, maybe, but they’ll be more curious. They’ll want to see what they’ve got. They’ll hear horses’ hooves and little girls’ voices, all valuable. And when the time is right, I’ll kill the guards.”

“Wait a sec. You will? Both of them? You just asked me if I–”

“You’ll be an accomplice but I’m not asking you to make the kills. You’re stronger than I am by an order of magnitude, but I’ve got the attitude.” Neither of us said anything about still being virgins. The girls who were putting their lives in our hands didn’t need to know that. “And I’ve got the training. What I’ll need you to do is steady the boat. The shoreline doesn’t look friendly at all, so we’re going to have to make our move from the water. And for that, we need the girls holding our enemies’ attention so they don’t realize we’re there until it’s too late.”

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SWAKO THE DWARF

The strength of my relief shamed me. Not that I showed it. A freak like me learned early to maintain a poker face worthy of the finest riverboat gambler ever conceived. I was pretty sure my no-kill record was going to get itself broken sooner or later, what with us heading not only through the wickedest metropolis in the land but on north, into the wild country where the power of a man’s integrity was only as good as his weapons and hiw will to use them. Plus the war Milo swore was headed our way in a year or two at most. When Venom Chang led his army our way, neutrality was not going to be an option.

But I’d put that day off for as long as I could. “All right,” I told the black rider who saw in the dark. Freak. “I’ll steady the boat if the girls will bring the horses across.”

Gwinnie crossed her arms, considering Milo. “Pet and I’ll be your bait distraction. But you better get this right.”

“Believe me,” he sighed, “I’ve thought of little else.”

“Kill ’em good.”

We both stared at her. Her sister just nodded in agreement. “Kill ’em good.”

“Bloodthirsty little devils, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea, Milo.” Gwinnie cocked her head, a bright-eyed bird. “You think they have lawyers in the Northwest Territory? You know, like Before?”

He blinked at the change in direction. “Uh…I don’t know. WJS has a few. You’ve got to have a code of law for there to be lawyers, I think.”

“Or lawyers smart enough to make one up?”

“Hm. Or that, I suppose. Why are you so interested?”

“Simple, Mr. Milo man. Because I’ve decided I’m going to be a lawyer. Uh-uh, don’t interrupt me. Not just any lawyer. I’m going to be a prosseh cuter.”

“Huh?”

“You know,” she said in a tone that meant dummy, “the kind that puts bad people in jail. Except if there aren’t jails, you have to convince a judge or a jury or whatever. I don’t know much about it yet. Except I’ll make them hang or get shot or pay fines or get taught the hard way. We got criminals, right? So we need lawyers and I’m gonna be one.”

With that, she was done. No more to say. Didn’t care what we thought about it. I watched Milo out of the corner of my eye. He looked puzzled, flustered, even hurt. I doubted he knew what was bothering him. Why should it matter what the ten year old did with her life? Whether she eventually tilled fields, raised babies, or became the territory’s first hanging judge in the rascally mold of Judge Roy Bean (Phantly Roy Bean, Jr., 1825-1903, Before calendar), she was still just a kid for now.

Yet Milo had felt the child’s full attention shift from him-the-man to focus on a cause and he didn’t like it whether he understood it or not. I surely did hope our designated distraction did not end up distracting our fearless leader from the task at hand.