As the evening wore on, a new moon marking time in the night sky, Fort Steel settled down as usual. Except for two places: Billy’s barn and Larson’s stable.
The louder location? Billy’s, of course. The cottonwood log structure, thoroughly caulked with mud from the creek banks and enclosing more than three thousand square feet, liberally sprinkled with support posts and roofed with hand split shakes, served the evening meal to nearly a quarter of Fort Steel’s population every day of the year. With the Strator covering the charges for two interesting strangers, that figure doubled, curious residents only slowly drifting back to their homes after it became clear the newcomers were dog tired, mostly uncommunicative, and boring to watch. By the time the moon had climbed halfway to its zenith, there were no more than a dozen curious watchers, chatting with each other at considerable volume to make up for the silence of Grunt and Jess.
For whatever reason, possibly a bit of hearing loss in those who worked at the foundry by day, few of Fort Steel’s natives ever spoke quietly. It was a loud fort, this one.
At the stable, the only sounds were those of Buck and the mules steadily chewing hay or relieving themselves in their stalls (or both)…and the ripsaw noise of stable owner Rik Larson’s snoring as he slept soundly in his domicile next to the tack room. Out back, just beyond the round corral, Doc Shrinker sat cross legged in the dirt and muttered quietly, “Old man might be a holy terror when he’s awake, I’ll give ‘im that, but it’d take a nado to wake him right now.” His younger brothers, Wutsup and Ay, nodded in sage agreement. They’d learned long ago to mostly jist kinda go along with whatever Doc said. Fewer lumps on their noggins that way, fewer times gittin choked out, fewer times being called idjits. Not that they didn’t smart back to him plenty, but they picked their battles.
Ay whittled, shaving a stray stick of kindling down steadily. True, the pile of shavings at his feet would shout loudly, “Ay Shrinker was here!” But that never occurred to the young man. Not much did, unless it was a chance at some of Bo Chase’s raw corn whiskey or an opportunity to get rid of his own unwanted virginity. Both of his brothers had scored with Loose Lacey Corrigan, back in the day, but that roundheel had done got herself married off to old man Hopkins before Ay was old enough to get his chance. Ay was still sour about that; if he had a cattle ranch supplying half of the meat consumed in Fort Steel, you jist betcha he’d a had himself a Lacey all to himself, too. Some cowflops had all the luck.
Most forters considered the middle child, Wutsup, to be the cream of the Shrinker kid crop, such as it was. But Wutsup was still “one of them boys,” working a regular shift at the foundry and making an entire Steel Dollar a day but following his shiftless older brother’s lead when he was off duty.
Doc heaved a deep sigh. His brothers knew it was coming when he did that. “Wut,” he said, his deep voice suddenly angry in the night, “it’s been way too long. You go scout out Billy’s, see what’s keeping them traders up this late.”
Wutsup Shrinker unfolded his long, lanky body, rising to his full height before slinking off, using that slidey, shifty movement he did when he didn’t care to be seen. He was gone for a long time, it seemed like. By the time he returned, simply appearing out of nowhere, a thing that doesn’t go bump in the night only because it’s way too slick to stub its toe, Ay’s stick was whittled down to a nub and Doc’s patience was frayed nearly to the point of snapping entirely.
“Well, Doc, if we wanna bush them two, looks like we’d best be ready to take all night waiting. I wandered right on into the barn, helped myself to a piece of leftover cornbread, then sat in a corner munching slow-like so–”
“I don’t care bout yer cornbread, brother. Git to the point.”
“I’m gittin. I’m gittin. Fer a while, the teacher was there talking with ’em–”
“The teacher? What would she want with two smelly outsiders like that?” In truth, Doc Shrinker was none too fragrant himself, but the thought of that stuck uppity female language notsey schmoozing with the traders gave him gas.
“Dunno, bro. Jist reporting what I seen. Couldn’t hear no details; there’s still a bunch of other fools in there yakkin at each other like none of ’em gotta work tomorrow. But she was there when I went in. After a while she wandered off, and it looked like nobody else was gonna go near ’em, heck, we know the Strator went to bed way back when. Skinny flink gotta have his beauty rest and all. But then old Hammer hobbled over and sat down with ’em. And I ain’t none too sure they won’t still be talking come daylight. The freighter woman–man, she’s ugly–she weren’t saying nothing, but them two men? They was thick as thieves when I left, heads together over the table, jist a-jawing away like nobody’s bizness.”
Ay stopped his whittling at that. Spoke up. “Somebody akshuly listening to that old geezer? Man, he was done for by the time I was big anuff to run and hide when I seen his Scourgey face.” It was true; the black marks covered the ancient’s damaged skin from white hairline to the collar of his shirt. Though he wouldn’t admit it, being a grown man and all, Ay Shrinker still had nightmares about Hammer Weathers. There weren’t many of the old Scourgers still around, maybe thirty total left in Fort Steel, and now this stranger Grunt who could almost pass for normal, being marked as little as he was.
They’d be doing the world a favor when they were all dead. The past was the past, Ay figured. As he seen it, folks needed to be looking forward.
Grunt watched the elderly gentleman make his way across the room, his left leg dragging a bit with every step, leaving an unmistakable trail gouged in the dirt floor of the barn. The Scourge had hit this one hard, marking him badly. So badly that three of the remaining forters, all born clean of the disease and clearly superstitious, got up from their benches and moved well out of his way. A pariah, then. Plenty of prejudice to go around at Fort Steel.
Most likely, the Strator and the Captain of the Guard are only tolerating our presence because they need our steel something fierce.
“Mind if I sit?” The oldster eased himself down on the bench opposite the big man without waiting for an answer, merely flicking a glance at Jess. The woman freighter seemed pretty relaxed, leaning back against the wall, broad brimmed hat tipped down to shade her eyes, arms crossed. Sound asleep, she was.
“Hnh. Be pretty cold of me to tell you no, now wouldn’t it?” One corner of his mouth twitched, amusement putting a bit of sparkle into his dark, tired eyes. He could use about four days worth of sleep.
“Guess it would at that.” The fellow chuckled, a rare sound for anyone who wore the black face. “Good to see you haven’t lost your sense of courtesy, Jacob.”
Grunt leaned forward, suddenly alert. “You know me?”
“Know you?” His grin was grotesque, a curved yellowish slash of snaggled teeth cutting through the ruined face. “Hell’s bells, boy, I delivered you.”
“Well, I’ll be…Doc Weathers? Hiram?”
“One and the same, though I go by Hammer these days.” He extended a hand across the table.
Grunt shook it firmly, not enough to crush bones but enough to make a statement. You had to trust a man before you’d lock grips these days, especially with a blackface. “Didn’t expect to see anyone I’d known from Before, but it really is a small world. Hnh.” At the moment, he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Doctor Hiram Weathers had been their family physician for years, watching him grow up, openly cheering him on as he hit his teens, the high school rodeo circuit, and the honor roll all at the same time. When the world imploded during his senior year, the physician had headed to Cincinnati at the request of a major hospital administrator who happened to be his brother. Young Jacob’s mother had cursed the doctor for leaving them in the lurch, but his father had understood.
Until the Scourge had reached their small town, population 3,701, and then it was too late for anything but the dying. At eighteen years of age, Jake Sedlacek had watched his entire town die. Once the Scourge showed its symptoms, death was at least fairly swift. Few victims had lasted longer than a week after the first black spots appeared, raging in delirium, racked by horrific hallucinations that made Dante’s Inferno sound user friendly, fevered, convulsing, cursing loved ones they no longer recognized as humans, cursing themselves. His father had been among the first to die, his mother among the last, with all three sisters splitting the difference.
I was the lone survivor among an even 3,700 dead. How many horrors must Doc have seen, and how did he survive after the blackface marked him so thoroughly? I thought my survivor’s guilt was heavy, but this man….
“Earth to Jacob Sedlacek,” Hiram said, snapping him back to the here and now. “Yeah, it’s a shock. I couldn’t believe it when I saw you, either.”
“Well. Well. I doubt either one of us wants to reminisce a whole lot, but–dang me for choking up here, but it’s good to see you, Doc.”
The blackmarked man laughed. “First time anybody’s said that to me in a coon’s age.” His voice dropped suddenly, low enough to be certain none of the others scattered around the great room could hear him. “You need to hear some things, boy. For one, I’m not known here as a doctor. I offered my services when I first arrived some eight or nine years ago, but they didn’t want anything to do with me. See, the good people of Fort Steel have a certain attitude about survivors who wear the marks. Basically, they can’t wait for the last of us to die off. We scare them, it seems, so they come down on us pretty hard. Know what I do for a living around here, Jake? I sweep floors–and as you’ve seen, the floors around here are rammed earth at best, with dust in your lungs and silicosis laughing at you. I was lead surgeon for seventy-three different organ transplants back in the day, from kidney to liver to heart, but to them I’m nothing but a broken down old blackface who just won’t be polite enough to lie down and die. They wouldn’t trust me to pull a splinter from a finger.”
Grunt’s eyes went cold and hard as he listened. The fierce hatred of injustice that had gotten him into hot water from the time he was big enough to walk…he definitely didn’t much like what he was hearing. “Doc–”
“Hold on, Jake. Billy’s going to be pushing all of us out of here before too long so his crew can clean up and get ready for morning. I got more to say.”
“Say it, then.” Beneath his curly black hair, the big man was all ears.
“There is one fellow here called Doc. Only it’s not what you’d think. His father passed on last winter, but before he did–you remember the old Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue?”
“Sure.” Granddad’s second favorite song, right behind Fly Trouble by Hank Williams.
“Well, Benjamin Shrinker was one of the survivors still alive when I got here. We became friends of sorts, mostly because he had the second worst case of blackface, next to mine. Even the other survivors avoided us when they could. Come to find out, Ben was a big fan of that song and also of the old Looney Tunes, especially Bugs Bunny. He must have planned it for a long time, but however it came about, his wife wasn’t strong enough to object and he named his three sons Doc, Wutsup, and Ay. Whenever he wanted to call those boys in for the supper his woman had on the table, he’d head out toward the field where they had their truck garden. He’d have those three weeding and watering and whatnot, though they’d slough off on him any time they got the chance. Anyway, he’d go out there and yell, Ay, Wutsup, Doc! Nobody else thought it was funny; it was just Mr. Shrinker calling his kids. But Ben thought it was hilarious.”
“Hnh. It’s a wonder those boys didn’t take serious offense to that.”
“See, now we’re getting to my point. Accepted wisdom around here is they did take offense, probably not understanding the reference unless Ben told them right out, but three months after their mother died, the Shrinker shanty went up in flames. The boys just happened to be elsewhere so they weren’t hurt, but Benjamin Shrinker was killed.”
Possible murderers, then. Worse. Patricide. “And this pertains to me how?”
“I’m just about there. Nobody could prove they’d done it, but I’m certain they’re as guilty as O. J. Simpson even if the gloves didn’t fit. Even worse, they’re not only guilty, but they’re a pack of idiots. Or at least Doc is an idiot, and the other two go along with him most of the time. When they burned that shanty, they also burned their only home. Those three slept on the ground for months after that. People were too wary of them to take them in, with good reason, and nobody had extra logs or boards–we’ve got a sorry little sawmill going now, but not then. Anyway, I’m rambling, so let’s cut to the chase. They’ll have it out for you, Jake, and they’re just stupid enough you can’t predict them. So be ready.”
“Please, Doc. I’m always ready. If I weren’t, do you honestly believe I’d be alive right now?”
Hiram Weathers looked uncomfortable at that, shifting on his seat, easing his bad leg to a less painful position. “Sorry. I know you’re careful. But did you know this next bit? Which is, you can expect Strator Tucker to try bartering you some slaves when you start haggling in the morning.”
“Slaves?” Grunt’s voice was low but his tone fierce and his gaze fiercer.
Hiram shrank back, lifting his palms in a “go easy” gesture. “You need to know. Six years back, there was a little settlement out east of here, three days ride away, less on a fast horse. It was called Fort Confluence, a fancy name for one small creek running into a little bigger creek. Good water, good grass, but they only had fifty or so people there, and not much for defense. Fort Steel wiped them out. Killed every male above the age of puberty and every female past child bearing age. Enslaved the rest. And they’re here today, seventeen original slaves plus six young children conceived by rape, twenty-three slaves total with a deliberate plan to breed more.”
Jacob “Grunt” Sedlacek would have liked to believe he was already planning how to free these people, but he couldn’t fool himself. The red-rage haze hanging before his eyes made real cogitation impossible.
“Yeah,” Hiram nodded. “Figured you’d see it that way.”
“He’s not the only one.” The sleeping Jess had spoken; she looked wide awake now, fortunately a whole lot more rational than her traveling partner.
“Well. Billy’s slowly heading this way. Watch yourself, son. If you don’t see me in the morning, not to worry. I’ll be around.”
Grunt fought for control and found it. The warrior who lets his temper rule his thinking for too long is a dead warrior; he knew that. He also knew this was war. It wasn’t bad enough that humanity had nearly gone extinct a mere forty years ago; man’s savagery to man had to burst forth in full bloom already? Sheesh!
Jess was on her feet before he was. They nodded to the proprietor, made their way out into the night, and headed for Larson’s stable. Their moccasins moved over the dirt street in utter silence, neither needing to communicate with the other until Jess suddenly stopped, one hand upraised, a silhouette against the new moon sky. Nearly midnight from the looks of it. The woman reached for Grunt’s hand, lifted his fingers to touch her nose. She had smelled something that wasn’t right. Sniffer woman, Grunt thought fondly. Superhero. Heroine. A stray thought brushed past on moth-dusty wings, something about wondering how the English language had fractured with so many of the younger folks already. Tower of Babel fallen, again. This was no time to be wool gathering, though. Focus.
His human hound dog led the way now, circling the stable, Grunt following a careful five paces behind until she stopped. There they were, all three Shrinker men, curled up right there in the grass, sound asleep. True, they were only indistinct mounds under that sliver of moon, but the smell? Grunt was no sniffer woman, but even he could never forget that aroma.
Struggling to stifle their chuckles, the two traders eased back around to the front of the stable, strolled inside, and were met by the wet nose of Slash, ever pleased to see his people back on the job. They boosted the giant beast up the ladder to the loft. The King Kong of canines loved climbing–Jess swore he was part cat–but did need a bit of help to keep his heavy rump from hindering his ascension.
They slept like babies, well positioned and well protected, knowing both Slash and Buck would keep watch. Ay, Wutsup, and Doc would never know how lucky they’d been that sleep had overcome them before they could implement their plan, whatever it might have been.
By first gray light, Grunt was awake and stretching out the kinks, needing to head out back before his bladder burst…but Jess was ahead of him, sitting crosslegged on a pile of hay, one of her numerous throwing knives making gentle whisking sounds as it brushed across the whetstone. To the casual eye, the woman looked dumpy and shapeless.
The better to hide your fangs until they’re needed my dear, he thought. Although if her blades were needed today, he would already have failed. Time to put on his negotiating hat, make the Fort Steel slicks believe they’d rooked him good, and get the heck out of Dodge. So to speak.