Grunt, Chapter 87: To Each His Own

MAP RENDEZVOUS, AUGUST 1

Tired but content, the Roost’s key negotiating contingent rode back to their tents with the sun still well above the horizon. Their campsite was situated well away from the others, providing extra privacy and, being situated on a low rise well downstream from the Gathering’s main settlement, caught the evening breezes first. That was more important than one might think, especially since the July politicking had run longer than expected. Michael Jade and his companions had figured to be well on their way back home by now.

Not that they were complaining.

The horses were unsaddled and turned out to graze before Julia spotted their oncoming visitors. “Looks like Moss accepted your invite,” she said. “Jake, too. They’re riding together.”

“Good.” Randy McGee’s people had been outstanding hosts but would undoubtedly be as glad to see the last of their guests as the guests would be glad to go. The celebrations hadn’t been awesome enough to offset three weeks of grinding negotiations on the Roil when everybody had thought they could finish their business in no more than ten days at most.

Moss Feldman, leader of the Jews at the Badge, across Wild River in the high country, signed as he stepped down. Well over sixty years of age, the former NYPD officer was starting to feel the miles. Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek, towering over everyone else at six feet, six inches in height, grinned at him. The big man was nearly as old as Moss, with a bullet-wounded butt cheek to boot, but he was still as competitive as he’d been in his late teens near the end of the Fall of humanity, hitting the sputtering-out rode circuit with a vengeance. If his hip was hurting him, he wasn’t about to show it. Moss just shook his head and let his friend have his moment of glory.

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MICHAEL JADE

Mace Smith studied our surroundings. “We’re secure,” he reported. “I’ll keep watch. Y’all go ahead.”

“You sure about that? You need to know all this, too.”

“I’m sure, Michael. You can fill me and Sandy in on the way home.”

“All right, then.” It wouldn’t do to rush this. Julia laid our sleeping infant son down on the folded blanket in his rough woven-willow corral, then went to assist Laurel at the fire. We’d all worked right through lunch. The Gathering ladies were working up a Final Night Barbecue that promised to leave everybody stuffed to the gills, but that wouldn’t be ready for hours yet. Sandy Smith was up there, not with his brother Grit, but being courted by several of the dusky maidens who hadn’t yet managed to get Grit to commit. Heh. That rhymed.

We men settled our weary bones down onto woven willow backrests. Versatile stuff, willow. I let out a sigh of my own, never mind that I was, at eighteen, forty-some years younger than either Grunt or Moss. “You didn’t bring your clerk?” I asked. “That man’s a wizard at taking notes that make sense.”

The old Jew tipped his head back, laughing aloud. “Michael, you have a way of putting your finger on things. He’s a real wizard. Or rather, he was until he figured out magic was not the right spiritual path. Which irritated his elders and necessitated his escape from Cuya County. We picked him up along the way.”

“Hnh.” Grunt raised a bushy eyebrow. “Nice pickup.”

“You have no idea. But Michael, you called this meeting. Shall we get to it?”

Yeah. It was time. “First, I find it intriguing, probably meaningful, that the three of us who head up mountain communities are so comfortable with each other. Jake, you and I have a history, of course. But Moss, neither of us had met you until three weeks ago, yet I’m pretty sure we’d trust you to cover our backs any time.”

Grunt’s eyes twinkled at that. He fished out a short-stemmed pipe and some sort of dried vegetation, tamping a load into the bowl. Moss nodded. “Things in common, I guess. Not taking anything away from the river people, but those of us who gravitate to mountain living are just…a little different.”

I nodded. There was more to it than that, but I understood his point. “Jake, you have a better way with words than anybody else. Could we start with you giving us a summary of what MAP accomplished at this Rendezvous? It’ll lay the background for what I have to tell you.”

“What, without letting this old man rest? Evil young slave driver you are.” An inside joke. I’d been a childhood slave at Fort Steel before gaining my freedom and then freeing the others. “Well, let’s see. First thing, we had to figure out boundaries, what land was going to be claimed by each entity. We started out easy, setting the Mutual Assistance Project’s southern border at a line from mountains to the Yellowstone Caldera Wastelands, roughly halfway between us and Fort Kill. Knowing, of course, that the day might well come when MAP fighters will have to defend that border with arms.

“Then we moved on to what I wanted for Fort 24. Again, no problem, mostly because it’s a long way from here to 24 and Randy McGee felt the Gathering had plenty of negotiating room in that direction.

“Third came the discussion between the Badge and the Gathering, where things went south for a while because Randy and Moss found themselves at loggerheads over the area between Roil River and Wild River Valley. That bogged us down for nearly a week. Tensions were running high, as evidenced by Grit Smith from the Gathering calling out your clerk from the Badge.”

“Slim Howard,” Moss reminded him. “The former wizard.”

“Right.” Jake tipped a two-finger salute to his friend, accepting the interruption. “Grit called Slim out. Although only Grit believed it was over a girl since Slim and your daughter-in-law, Moss, seem to be locked in solid. Most likely if the you and Randy hadn’t been nearly feuding over the boundary decision, there wouldn’t have been a fight at all. Anyway, they shucked their weapons, we all gathered around to see your skinny easterner get thumped, but it didn’t work that way. Slim kicked Grit’s butt all over the place. Made it look easy, too.”

“My kid brother still isn’t quite over it,” Mace said. He was passing our position, ceaselessly packing the perimeter, eyes outward. “But he’s enjoying lots of girl-sympathy for those black eyes, busted nose, and missing teeth. They’re giving him reward points for being too stubborn to know when he was whipped.”

“Ah, but that did seem to break the logjam somehow. Moss and Randy came to agreement the next day and we moved on from there. And then….”

He paused, mostly for dramatic effect. I knew what was coming next.

“After all that was settled, the only boundary negotiations that mattered were the ones between you, Michael, and Jeremiah Compton. You opened by demanding all of the territory north and east of the old Fort Confluence settlement. You were going to re-found Fort Confluence someday, you said rather fiercely, and you weren’t about to accept just enough land to be a stupid little island out there. It was…quite a performance.”

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing. High above, a pair of golden eagles spiral-circled each other, riding the thermals, soaring until pretty soon they’d disappear from sight. My heart flew with them. “Did I overdo it by that much? Really?”

“Oh yeah.” Moss grinned. “A most theatrical effort. You set poor Jeremiah right back on his heels.”

“You did,” Jake agreed. “There was no way Weasel was going to give up two thirds of the best hunting and grazing land, let alone all that good water. He actually stuttered when he said you were out of your freaking mind. But that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? Get him fixated on that big chunk of land, fight like crazy to avoid backing up an inch until you oh so grudgingly agreed to him keeping Fort Confluence while you had to settle for the much smaller area to Fort Steel’s north and west. Which, I noticed, just happened to include the backside of Cemetery Ridge and the entire, utterly taboo city ruins. You wanted that city.”

I sat there, no doubt looking all Cheshire cat with a belly full of canary, savoring the moment. “That’s a fact. And now we come to it. Gentlemen, nothing is more important to our survival than that dead city. Let me tell you what we already know about it.”

Their jaws dropped when I got to the part about the Libarary, how dedicated, long dead men had kept it from being looted during the Fall, how the Noehm family still lived there, two hundred strong or more, dwelling in underground tunnels but maintaining the above-ground facility with dedication, even zeal. How I had met Laurel there in the rose garden, she waiting for the man she knew would come. How our best weapons, especially the AK-47 carbines, came from there. And most important of all, how I believed the Library held answers.

“Sooner or later, with enough study, I believe–no, I know–the truth about the Fall is there somewhere, in the vast archives. In the meantime, there are practical matters. Books on agriculture, weaponry, forging of metals, the capture and release of energy. Even now, still, there are lights powered by water turbines that have been going nonstop, except for needed repairs by the Noehms, for more than forty years. The Noehms themselves are scholars, technicians, thinkers, builders, you name it. That family may be the most precious of all, because of the knowledge in their heads.”

“Holy Mother of Pearl,” Moss Feldman breathed. “If this one city retains such treasures, there must be others.”

“Yes.” I nodded. He’d hit the nail on the head. “You’ve told us, Moss, that you always suspected Hooded Cobra was already exploring an ancient city or two, taboos or no taboos. Sooner or later, aggressors are going to show up on our southern doorstep, armed with knowledge and perhaps weapons from Before. We can’t possibly be the only people to overcome the inhibitions of our forebears.”

Jake sucked in a breath. “Arms race,” he said.

“Yes.”

Mace appeared, coming back around from the tent’s west side. “Riders coming from the lower ford.”

We all went on alert, hounds picking up a scent. “Friend or foe?”

“Don’t think they’re a threat. They’re walking their horses right up the trail, bold as brass. Let me glass ’em.” He retrieved a pair of Before binoculars from his saddle bags and headed back around to take a better look. He was back in less than a minute, his eyes noting that while we hadn’t risen, we all had rifles close at hand. Lauren disappeared inside the tent. Julia kept cooking but slipped the hammer thong loose from the revolver riding at her hip. “Not a threat,” Mace said. “Lead man on a big black stud I’d swear is a match for yours, Moss. Two kids, boys clothes but long hair; I think they’re girls. Drag rider, strong-built but mighty short legs. And a pack horse. That’s the lot.”

Moss was on his feet, excitement in his eyes. Jake and I looked at each other, shrugged, and got up as well. “A black stud, you say?”

“Black as the ace of spades.”

We all moseyed around the corner of the tent, waiting. The lead rider, dressed all in black in this terrible August heat, for Pete’s sake, pulled his mount to a halt some thirty feet from our position. “Moss Feldman, I presume.”

“I’ll be! Milo Garzie, is that you?”

“In the flesh.” Milo swung down and stepped forward, extending a hand to the old Jew.

Moss took it and pulled the younger man into a rib-crunching hug.

“Don’t break any more ribs, please.”

“What?” Feldman released. “You got some busted ribs?”

“Cracked, anyway. No lung-busters. Not important. But my news is.”

I stepped forward. “Any chance we could do introductions before hearing that news?”

“Ah. Yes. Excuse my manners. We don’t travel in daylight much. I kind of forgot the rules for polite company. Guess you heard my name. This here young lady is Gwinnie Bliss. And her sister, Pet Bliss. And the handsome fellow on the Handsome horse–”

“Swako,” the dwarf cut in, his voice deep and melodious.

By the time Jake and I’d identified ourselves, Lauren was out of the tent. She and Julia took charge of the children in nothing flat. They didn’t seem to mind, possibly because of the great smells coming from the cooking fire. The women sliced a few more steaks from the veal hindquarter Randy McGee had given us; there’d be plenty to go around.

Milo held off on delivering his news until his plate was piled high, but he couldn’t wait any longer. He spoke between bites. “The Resistance sent me, Moss.”

“All the way from WSJ?”

“Yep.

“When did you leave?”

“Ides of March. But it was an open winter. Not a lick of snow on the ground when I left, and as you know, heading right south, that route gets you down into pretty warm country right quick.”

“Huh. Milo, do you realize just how fast you moved? You averaged close to thirty miles a day. Yet your horses look to be in fine condition. A little on the lean side, maybe, but there’s time to fatten them up before the snow flies. Unless you have to head right back.”

“Not going back. Didn’t exactly make any friends at Gatorville or Great River, either one. Figured to stay in this country, if you’ll have me.”

“Without question.” We all had questions, most of them revolving around his acquisition of traveling companions. But those questions could wait.

“Well…in a nutshell, the message is this. Get ready for a Hooded Cobra Empire army to show up on your doorstep, no later than two or three years from now. Figure to face not only Asian soldiers but blacks as well, and also a division of Jews.”

“Jews!”

“Sadly, yes. Hooded Cobra conquered 13 Bloody Crips without raising a sweat. A lot of blood, but no sweat. Then they conscripted the surviving soldiers into their own forces. Then Ezekiel Gold sold us all out, offered to cut a deal with Emperor Cheng of Hooded Cobra. So yes, civil war. We may very well have to kill our own brothers and cousins and whatnot.”

“Well…drek.” Moss eased himself back down on his backrest. I feared he might be having a heart attack.

But no. His heart was broken but not attacked.

Milo wasn’t done. “It gets worse. Our people estimate the combined Empire military expedition could end up numbering more than a thousand fighters. Maybe as many as fifteen hundred.”

Moss and Jake looked at each other. Fifteen hundred. In ancient U.S. Army jargon, that would be a full battalion. More fighting men than the combined population of MAP’s five settlements, including women, children, and geezers. How many could we raise if we went all out? Maybe, I thought, two hundred at most. Realistically, more like one hundred. Fifteen to one odds with a wide open, three hundred mile southern border to defend. This was not good.

I did have to ask a question. “Milo, how on Earth did you manage to travel at night? Especially at that speed?”

He looked uncomfortable for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “Guess if I’m going to cast my lot with y’all, you need to know. I can see in the dark.”

“What, like a cat?”

“Better than that. I think what I’m doing is seeing into the infrared spectrum. Heat differences, see? Black and white, but gradations of intensity. Put me in a pitch dark cave with no other living being and no changes in temperature, maybe I’d be blind. But out here, where everything puts off different heat levels, I can see as well under dense cloud cover at midnight as you can see when the sun first goes down. I’m actually a little unhappy, traveling in daylight, but the vitamin D is needed and we had to make contact with y’all.”

Interesting. “Despite my youth, MAP–that’s our Mutual Assistance Pact, the entity responsible for defending the territory–MAP has selected me as our military commander in case of war. So I have to ask, would you be willing–”

“Not assassination. I’ve been thinking about that. Half a dozen times on the trip here, I thought I might have to kill. Even planned for it. But something always went wrong, which turned out to be right in the end, and so far I’ve not taken a human life with my own hands. Don’t get me wrong. I can do it. Will probably have to if Hooded Cobra pushes the issue. But as a night sniper, I’m dead certain I’d lose my spiritual edge somehow.”

“Unh.” So I had some sort of half-assed pacifist on my hands? Wonder what he’d think if he knew how many I’d killed already, and I was way younger than he was.

Oh well. To each his own. “How about recon? Or spotting for others to take out?”

He rubbed his stubbled chin. “Recon, yes. Feels right. Spotting for hit squads…I’ll have to think about that. Contemplate on it.”

Moss reached over, touched my arm. “He needs to meet Slim.”

“Yeah.” But what would happen when those two got together? Would the fighting clerk and ex-wizard convince the young Jew it was okay to kill, or would the sort-of pacifist night visioner persuade Slim Howard to go pick posies for a living?

MAP had settled on the rank of Major for me, at least to start. Now I knew why. The position involved major headaches.