Strator Tucker was, to sum it up in a word, ekstatic. Not that the emotion showed on his face; bean counter or not, he was far too savvy for that. But tickled tan? You better believe it. As imposing as the black haired giant might be at first glance, he had turned out to be a reel goober when it came to trading.
“I still think we otta jist rub ’em out,” Captain Finster had insisted, “take the load, burn the bodies, and count it win-win.”
Fortunately, the Captain listened when the Strator spoke. Tucker might be dreaming of writing the Great Novel that could crack the Eestern markets, git hisself famous and leave this miserable Fort fer the Big Time, but he was at heart a canny realist. “Fin, we could do that,” he’d said, “but why lug a bucket a water when you kin have the hole krick? You jist put ole Weasel on his trail, let ‘im foller them two back to where they kum from. Then we’ll know iffen its a good idee to stomp ’em out or better ta let ‘im do all the hard hollin, right?”
Finster jist liked killin folks more’n trading with ’em, but he seen the light. Weasel was by far the Guard’s best opshun. Iffen he kum back with good news, yeah, that’d work. Iffen he didn’t come back at all, that’d be jist about as good; the little slime bucket was a pest on his own count.
Grunt and Jess were tallying the trade load on the other side of the square, oblivious to this byplay. It was quite a tally, too. Tucker had tried to sell them on the idea of taking part of the deal in Steel Dollars but hadn’t been overly surprised when that didn’t fly. That money was worthless outside of the Fort itself.
“I’ll call the load, Jess, you record it.”
The broad faced woman simply nodded, reaching into a drawer under the big freight wagon’s seat to retrieve the leather-paged journal. Strator Tucker couldn’t tell what she was using to make marks on the leather. Charcoal stick? Something. It didn’t matter. He could hear Grunt’s booming voice clearly enough, enumerating the goods as they were loaded by Fort personnel.
–Apples, 1 crate
–Potatoes, 3 crates
–Nails, assorted sizes, 2 kegs
–Tanned cow leather, 16 hides
–Steel swords, 3 each
–Salted beef, 3 kegs
–Shoot guns, 3 each
–Cartridges, 150 each
–Powder, 1 keg
–Blasting caps, 200 each
–Fuse, 2 coils
Strator refrained from shaking his head by sheer force of will. Except for the shoot guns and cartridges, these items were simple enough, produced in abundance at Fort Steel. He figgered they’d gotten at least six times their value in steel pipe and plate, maybe seven. Even the powder, caps, and fuse coils were easy enough to manufacture, now that Fort Steel had experts in residence and a reasonably trustworthy supply train coming in from Eesthome twice a year, bringing certain ingredients they couldn’t produce on their own. The choke point was the shoot guns themselves; it was amazing and frustrating, how many things could go wrong there. But they’d solve it. They would.
His attention had wandered; he’d akshuly spaced out and missed most of the load calling. Couldn’t have that; the deelishus part was kummin up. Hee! Hee!
–Mules, 4 each
–Harness, 4 sets
–Freight wagon, four by eight box, 1 each
–Slaves, 5 each
Yup! He’d done it! Oh, that dumrump Grunt had protested the idee at first, claimed he couldn’t see the vantage of havin slaves at all, but he was a liar, that one. He jist weren’t as good a liar as ole Strator Tucker the someday world faymiss author, no siree. Tuck, you done yerself proud. Heckan sour cabbage, he’d gotten rid of ever single wun of them worthless wuns they didn’t want, and gotten paid fer it ta boot!
Wun of the slaves, a scrunchy faced teenager known as Dawg, was up on the driver seat, piloting the wagon. He wouldn’t be makin no break fer it, not with them shackles on his legs. Not ta menshun the quality of them four mules, which weren’t much. The other four slaves sat uncomfortably in the wooden box, towed along like so much garbage Hee! Hee!
Grunt headed out on Buck, the big pinto stallion, merely nodding at Jess as he passed her position. Slash strode easily at the horse’s side, the interspecies friendship between canine and equine stronger than most would have believed possible. Jess flicked the reins, just a little, clucking once. Hawk, the lead mule in her six mule span, flicked his great ears forward and stepped out smartly, cueing the others to follow suit. They were headed home and knew it.
The slave called Dawg, fifteen years of age and nearly executed a week earlier for his snotty attitude, spat over the side of the smaller wagon and spoke quietly to his own team. “Head on, Betty, Snort, Wiggles, Cream. Head on.”
Half a mile from the fort, big Jake Sedlacek dropped the pretense of stupidity. No longer appearing casual and unaware, he sat straight in the saddle, turning frequently to eyeball their backtrail, soft-scanning both flanks as well as the landscape ahead of them. Jess did likewise, her dumpy-slumped posture shed as surely as the skin of a growing snake. Had Strator Tucker bothered to keep an eye on his victims, he might have wondered, but the Strator of a busy place like Fort Steel had other things to worry about.
Like where in the berry patch Doc Shrinker had gotten to. Wutsup had showed up fer work at the foundry or he’d have been told, and Ay was out there working in his assigned field, but Doc? It weren’t till nearly high noon that boy turned up. He’d overslept, he said, sullen, not apologizing one bit fer sluffing off a whole half day. Stinkin Shrinkers.
By that time, the trader’s wagons were long gone over the rise. It was up to Weasel now.
Yesterday’s heat was a mere memory; the day was cool, partly cloudy, with distant thunder hinting at rain every so often. Grunt rode ahead of the wagons, scouting forward for as much as a mile at times, then drifting back to have a word with Jess or feed and water the slaves without stopping. They made good time, averaging close to three miles an hour by his figuring, and reached Trickle Creek just before sundown. The rain had never quite arrived, so the ground was dry. More importantly, the downstream pool still held water enough for the stock and the upstream flow was still sufficient to fill their canteens and cookpot. They were in timber country now, but the clearing was sizeable, large enough to sport a crop of tall grass. No longer green, not this late in the year, but still full of nutrition.
As soon as Jess began unhooking her mule team, Dawg hopped down from the slave wagon, the chain between his ankles allowing for that much, and did likewise. No words were shared, every Soul remaining silent except for Grunt’s brief instruction to the giant dog-wolf. Or wolf-dog. Or half grizzly bear, mountain lion, nightmare, whatever that great gray beast might truly be. The young man was sullen and rebellious by nature, but he admired outstanding animals, and Slash was about as outstanding as they came. Bugger stood nearly as high at the shoulders as some of the mules. “Scout,” Grunt said, a wave of his hand taking in the woods surrounding the campsite. Dawg could swear the huge canine nodded before slipping ghostlike into the treeline.
An hour later, all seven of them were settled in a circle around a nearly smokeless fire, feasting on the liver and heart of a sizeable blacktail doe Slash had brought to them. The beast had waited patiently until Grunt had finished butchering the carcass, then attacked the complete fore quarter the black haired man handed to him. “I said Scout, not Hunt,” Grunt pointed out, ruffling the fur behind the monster’s ears as he ate. He didn’t sound that upset about it, though.
Dawg knew things. He knew, for instance, that there had to be more to this man and his teamster woman than met the eye. He knew he wanted to make friends with Slash more than anything…well, more than anything except gaining his freedom and–
“Everybody full up?” The question was mild, addressed to the slaves as if they were real people. “All right, then. First order of business is the subject of security. There are all sorts of dangers out here in the wilderness, but you’ll note that between the mules, my horse Buck, and Slash here, we’re completely surrounded by our animals. If there’s trouble on the way, they’ll let us know.
“Now. You’ve all been traded to me for a bit of steel pipe or strap or whatever. But I don’t know your stories, and I’d like–
He was interrupted by a soft snort from the stallion. Slash’s ears were up, pricked toward the darkness.
“Hello the camp!” The voice was firm, clear, loud enough to hear but not loud enough to carry far.
“Come on in, Hiram.”
Doc Weathers moved into the circle of firelight, leading a fine bay mare and, following the mare, a stocky black pack horse. The black was heavily laden. The old blackface seemed to be moving better this evening, and he was dressed for the trail. Or for war; the grip of a short steel sword jutted up over his left shoulder, there were knives at either hip, and a crossbow hung from his right hand, casually, as if he’d forgotten it was there.
“Might as well call me Hammer, Jake, at least when I’m in a mood.” His eyes reflected firelight in a charred face; he looked more demon than man. “And I’m in a mood. Weasel,” he continued, his voice suddenly low and scary, “did you really think you could pull this off?”
The crossbow seemed to move of its own volition, clearly aimed at one of the slaves. Strator Tucker had listed this one’s name as Gardener, claiming he was sixteen years of age and good with growing vegetables, traded off only as a last resort in order to seal the deal for the steel. He looked a lot older than sixteen now, his mixed race features gone whiter than winter’s first snow, his eyes darting left and right, seeking escape where there was none.
“Reckon the bow’s really necessary, Doc–Hammer?” Grunt’s tone was mild, curious. “It’s not like he’s going anywhere at the moment.”
“Call me cautious. A few things you don’t know about this one, Jake. He’ll snap that little boy’s neck if he gets a chance, especially if he thinks he’s going down and there’s no way out. This bolt moves faster than his hands, though.”
“Ah.” Grunt glanced at Slash. The war dog had laid his head down on his paws, just flicking an ear occasionally to make sure he didn’t miss out on the conversation. Looks like he knows Doc’s on our side.
“Jake, do me a favor. Tie that Weasel’s hands behind his back, good and tight mind you, and then I want to show you something.”
What the heck. Why not?
Once the tying was done, Hammer Weathers finally decocked the crossbow and hung at back behind his mare’s saddle, ignoring the interested looks the horsey hussy was giving Buck. She wasn’t in heat at the moment; she was just.…overly friendly when it came to big, virile stallions.
“Let’s see, here.” He moved to the circle, reached down, and yanked the slave’s shackled ankle up for inspection abruptly, spilling the fellow on his back. Fear receded from the man’s eyes; if looks could have killed, Weathers would have been on his way to the Happy Hunting Ground in a hurry. “You see this steel ring, Jake? Fort Steel likes their slaves well secured, but they don’t care to injure them too much if they can still work, and most of all they hate wasting good metal. So they make their anklets light and round, just a rod of quarter inch iron bent into a circle around the slave’s ankle and then welded in place.”
“Hnh. How do they keep from burning the ankle while they’re welding?”
Weathers shrugged. “They make it loose enough to slip a piece of soaked leather in there, between skin and weld. And they don’t weld it quite all the way around on the skin side. Mostly, though, when they’re done welding and the iron has cooled, they do paint it. Pretty blue color, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yeah. But this buildup here, over the welding bead?” Pulling one of his knives, he sliced a portion of the bead like it was–
“Something like that. The Fort has developed a few products they use for putty or calking. Now look. I’m not the powerhouse I was fifty years ago, but I’ll bet…” He pushed down with one hand, up with the other. “And there you have it. Even an old man like me was able to spring that apart enough to slip the chain link free. Little man could have set him self free any time he took a notion.”
“Hnh. Maybe not. Slash might have taken out his throat. But I see your point. Jess, would you be kind enough to finish hog tying our pseudo slave, please? And a gag would be nice. I need to chat with the rest of the folks wearing iron. Hammer, you hungry?”
“Wouldn’t turn down a bite of venison.”
“Help yourself. I take it your Fort Steel days are behind you?”
“Behind me and good riddance. From the time you popped out of your mother’s womb, squalling lustily and ready to take on the world, I’ve been curious to see how you’d bend destiny. If you’ll have me, now I’ll get the chance.”
“You know you’re more than welcome.” A stick in the fire popped noisily, showering sparks skyward. It was a good thing, this reunion. A very good thing. Timely, too. “You’re provisioned well, I see.”
That brought a chuckle from the blackface. “The horses are descended from the mare I rode into Fort Steel back when. Strator Tucker and Captain Finster, they rule things just so, informed me that all animals are community property at the Fort. I never did have much use for a community property state, so I just divorced those yahoos and took what I figured I was owed.”
“Hnh. Okay, you four,” he addressed the slaves. “You all obviously knew Weasel here was a plant, but you said nothing. I’d like to know your thinking about that. Kiko?” He addressed the older woman, one who looked like maybe menopause had hit early and done her no favors.
Kiko shriveled in on herself, clearly terrified. “I…Master, I….”
“Easy, woman. I’m not going to punish you. Speak your mind.”
She did, though it might have been the most frightening thing she’d done in years. “I…I was young enough when Finster and his raiders hit Fort Confluence. I mean…I mean they didn’t kill me because I looked like maybe I could still bear children…and I did.” She looked at the cross eyed, pigeon toed five year old chained next to her, a boy who’d as yet been allowed no name, an obvious reject. She looked, but she didn’t dare touch her own son. Her memories of the whip were far too fresh. The child stared vacantly. Not Down’s Syndrome, Grunt thought, but not quite right in the head, either. Environment or genetics? He didn’t know. Time would tell. “And…and when he came out not quite perfect in their eyes, and my childbirth was not easy, I guess…I guess they must have decided to just get rid of both of us, good riddance to bad rubbish. And I…I would never have dared to say anything. He…the plant…he would have killed both of us, I’m sure, and I don’t mind dying, but….”
“Neither of you is going to die.” His voice was gentle, empathy tamping the rage down for now. “And you, girl?”
The other female was thin to the point of emaciation, probably in her teens somewhere but seriously under developed. Fried eggs for breasts. Muddy blue hopeless eyes. “They…uh….” She stared at the ground, unable to meet his gaze. “They couldn’t make me have a baby. Barren cow, they called me. Which I guess kind of sums it up.”
It did sum it up. It also raised a question. “You both speak excellent English, much better than the so called free citizens of Fort Steel. Why is that?”
“Oh!” Her face lifted, visage brightening. “That’s the Teacher! I’ll miss her. She taught anybody who wanted to learn. Even us.”
“And you wanted to learn. Okay, you’re next.” His gaze shifted to the sullen teamster.
“I weren’t afraid to tell you,” the boy spoke defiantly. “I don’t know you from Adam’s off ox. For all I know, you’re as bad as the forters. So I was planning to take care of Weasel myself. Soon as I could get hold of a weapon, mister high and mighty super spy there was going to get a knife through the heart or a rein around his neck or even a nail in his ear. He might be tougher than me in a straight up fight, but if he never saw me coming, that’d make no difference, now would it?”
“Don’t reckon it would. Kiko, your son there, would he like to have a word?”
Surprise flitted across the mother’s features. Asking a five year old slave child to speak up? Unheard of. “No.…he doesn’t speak much.” Which was an understatement of epic proportions.
For a long moment, relative quiet reigned over the camp. Oh, the fire continued to crackle, Weasel’s breathing sounded a bit uneven as the reality of his situation bored into his consciousness, a light evening breeze stirred through the trees, and somewhere in the distance, a coyote pack made a kill. But nobody spoke until Slash stretched and yawned, which seemed to break the spell.
“Well.” Grunt rose, went to the freight wagon, pulled some sort of metal thing from one of the under-bed drawers, and returned, kneeling beside the fire-spirited teenager.
“What is that?” The slave eyes narrowed in concern. “You going to cut me with that?”
“It’s called a hacksaw,” the big man replied, “and I’m going to cut that iron off of your ankle if you’ll hold still.”
It took a while, having to be careful not to cut flesh while he was cutting iron with the only hacksaw blade they had, but eventually the slaves were iron free, every one of them staring at him in confusion.
“Our people,” he told them, “don’t believe in slavery. You all can figure out what you want to do with your lives. It’s your choice. But for now, grab those blankets, pick a spot on the ground or in the wagon, and get some sleep. We’ll decide Mister Weasel’s fate in the morning. Which is going to come early; I intend to be on the trail by first light.”
With that, Grunt reached down to pick his captive from the ground as easily as hoisting a bag of trash. Sometimes, it was good to be a giant among pygmies. Not that he relished the leadership role, but he had it to do. Weasel would be double guarded just in case, tied to a pine tree and watched over by the war dog. Let the fellow stew for a few hours, imagining the worst.
Not that reality wouldn’t be bad enough. After breakfast, after everybody had their say and the wagons were ready to roll, Grunt would pull his sharpest knife from the hidden sheath strapped to his forearm. Lean down, slice the spy’s right hamstring in one swift movement. Let the gag muffle the man’s screams. Once the screaming was done, cut him loose. Inform him, “It’s a pleasant eighteen mile hike back to Fort Steel if you have two good legs. With just one, it might take a little longer.”
Most likely, the little man would make it, but not in a single day. He would arrive in bad shape, at first relieved, but full of fury, living for the day he could see Grunt the trader’s head on a spike but being able to do little about it. Strator Tucker and Captain Finster would know Grunt as an enemy then, for sure, but they would be cautious, knowing also that their target was dangerous, aware, and armed with their own shoot guns. It wouldn’t be like falling upon an unsuspecting, sleepy little village. Especially not in the mountains. The forters were open plains people, and snow was coming; Grunt could feel it in his bones. Twenty more miles to go, and his wagons would turn into the storm at Triple Fork, their change of direction covered by the snow.
Jake Sedlacek loved winter. Used properly, its weather would cover a multitude tracks that simply couldn’t be hidden without snow.