Restless in his blankets, Dawg twisted and turned, lifting the edges, letting the freezing night air in to chill his back. Neither asleep nor awake, he managed to straighten them out somewhat, enough at least to block the ice running down his spine. Yet despite his inner struggle, his movements were slow and careful, the actions of a body conditioned to the dangers of making noise at night in uncharted territory, sensitized to the presence of the one child and two women resting mere feet above his head, only the wagon’s floorboards separating them from the warrior.
For warrior he was, having drawn blood in the Trace and lots of it.
They weren’t nightmares, really, but they weren’t pleasant, either. Ceaseless repetitions of his spear forms, gouts of blood bursting forth from his throat-slashed victims, endlessly watching them come at him, fall to his blade, fountaining gore forever more. His kill count must in the hundreds now, he thought, kneecapping his latest opponent with a low horizontal butt stroke, blocking high and striking low, taking down a dark skinned giant, piercing the man’s diaphragm with a short angled-up lunge as the man fell, then stepping over his body to take on the next…and the next…and the next….
Never leaping. Only fools let both feet leave the ground at the same time, unless they were running in headlong flight. A seriously quick small man had lost his life, demonstrating that truth. He’d yelled, high and fierce, a war cry worthy of the red tailed hawk, soaring high in the air, broadsword held over his head, two handed, intending to cleave Dawg from top to bottom on the downstroke. But Hawk Man could not change his trajectory in midair. Footwork, Grunt had stressed. Always footwork. And it had paid off, the high jumper’s sword missing its mark because one hand was no longer attached to the arm. The target had sidestepped, slashed upward in a move that sliced cleanly through flesh and bone….
The dream battles did not take up the entire night. At intervals, the teenager awoke sufficiently to become aware of his physical surroundings. Drenched in sweat sometimes, at other times bone dry, occasionally fevered, but ever and always drawn to gaze through the darkness toward the boards above his head, sensing the soft, curvy form of the girl practically within arm’s reach, her breathing, the roundness of breast and hip that continued to manifest more clearly every day, fueled equally by the first sense of security and the first adequate diet she’d had in years. Dawg wanted her with every cell in his hormone-infused young body, yet his desire was–to put it mildly–unrequited.
He’d dared hope, when she’d saved his life in the Trace, bonking the head of the bandit who’d had him down in the snow, forcing the knife toward his body. When she’d gotten sick after the battle, he’d put it down to natural causes, a mere release from the fear of death. But it was not that.
It was him that had made her vomit. His actions with the Sedlacek Special spear he prized so highly. He had been the one to wound one man and send two others to the Unhappy Punting Grounds for Losers in Battle, their life blood staining the pure white snow. It had taken him seven days, but he’d figured it out, thinking deep and hard. For the young warrior known as Dawg possessed the ability to perceive truths other men might never recognize, though he was not yet aware that this ability was anything special.
Gloria had been ten years old, one of the sweetest children in all of Fort Confluence, when the Fort Steel militia murdered her family in front of her disbelieving eyes and took her slave, to be used as their new masters chose. They had all seen horrors that day, the slaves had, but their reactions had been different. Though only nine at the time, seeing his father’s skull smashed and his mother taken had awakened a rage he didn’t know he had, a rage multiplied exponentially when the woman who bore him died a year later, attempting to give birth to his half brother by rape. Dawg had seen only injustice…
…but Gloria had seen the abyss.
Awake for the umpteenth time, he eased sideways, craning his neck out from under the wagon, looking up at the stars. It had stormed two days ago, but it was clear tonight. The morning star hung low and bright in the sky; it wouldn’t be long before Grunt made the rounds, rousting the troops to get ready for another day of rolling the wagons. Yet it would not be a full day; the big man said they would reach his home–their new home–by midmorning.
There was no point in going back to sleep. He would lie still, waiting for the call-out, holding his water and thinking. One good thing about the dreams, the spear forms are getting deeply ingrained in me now. I’m not likely to fail to use the right one when I need it. A buck snorted not far away, having come downwind and failing to smell the camp until he was nearly on it. Slash the war dog opened his eyes and cocked his furry ears but let the deer go. Maybe if I give it time, Gloria will get over it. Yeah, and a har-de-har-har to that idea, too. He could only hope this home of Grunt’s had available girls who appreciated a blooded warrior. Their leader had refused to tell them anything about the place, only saying, “It’ll be better to let you see it for yourself.”
Strangely enough, Grunt did not seem to be in any great hurry to get going. They had a leisurely breakfast for a change, following which he and Hammer Weathers took their time, inspecting tack, straightening the freight wagon’s load just so, even heating water with which to shave. Dawg had never seen anything like the folding blade Grunt fished out of a saddle bag, but most of all he was amazed at the face that emerged as great curls of black whiskers fell to the snow. Clean shaven, the big man’s features were square and rugged, yes, but most of all they revealed lips that tended to curl up at the corners at the slightest provocation. It was as though he’d grown the beard merely to hide a nature of gentle humor, preferring to present a darker, more forbidding countenance to the world at large when he was out and about.
Either that, or the guy was just plain lazy. Hammer Weathers had shaved every day, come snow or high drifts. Dawg himself? Well, he didn’t have much in the way of whiskers yet, now did he? And maybe never would have, carrying as much Ojibway blood in his veins as he did.
Pretty Gloria didn’t turn her eyes away from Grunt, now did she? Wait till she saw him kill. See how she liked that.
The sun wasn’t up yet, but that didn’t mean much in these mountains. They had long since left the low foothills behind, climbing more or less steadily, though not so steeply that the draft animals had to struggle. They did have to lean into the traces now, working their way ever upward through relatively open timber, not the close-set trees of Fear Trace but a friendly sort of country, filled with glimpses of deer and even elk grazing in the near distance, once a humpbacked grizzly ambling along in no obvious hurry to den up for the winter, and twice the clear tracks of some great cat who’d crossed the trail since the last snowfall. With ample layers of clothing looted from Grunt’s trade goods, none of the travelers were in any trouble, though it did pay to shift one’s feet a bit to keep the circulation going. Brisk air for sure, but they were fairly well acclimated, able to enjoy the regular warnings of alarmed squirrels marking their passage, all of the humans both eager and anxious.
The animals skipped the anxious part; they were only eager. Buck led the way, the big pinto stud knowing he was headed for the barn, his ears pricked forward, only Grunt’s occasional twitch of the reins reminding him he needed to walk home, not run. Jess’s six mules would have been even harder to hold back except for the grade; as it was, all she had to do was let her babies do their thing. Slash didn’t even pretend to patrol; the gray war dog did move through the trees rather than stick to the trail, but he was gamboling like a pup, plunging his nose down into the snow, tossing the white stuff into the air, loping up ahead of Buck and Grunt to take the lead for a minute or two, then dropping out and back, clear to the rear, pretending to nip at the heels of Hammer’s bay mare–though always at a respectful distance, so no one took him seriously–then dashing off into the woods again, scaring the dickens out of a stray jack rabbit.
Still mute, five year old Free followed the dog with his eyes, the hint of a smile transforming his face, his eyes twinkling.
They were nearly to the summit of a narrow pass, a great place for ambush if there was going to be one, when the sound struck. Tawoot-tooooooooo! A bit like an old train whistle, Hammer Weathers thought, though much higher in pitch. A sound that would carry a long, long way in still morning air like this. He was not surprised to see Grunt’s fist shoot skyward, his arm fully extended for a second or two before being folded and then swiftly raised again. This time, by the old doctor’s estimate, the massive fist held its position on high for a good six seconds at least. A code, obviously, between sentry and returning traveler.
The sentry was not spotted, though. Excellent positioning and discipline, Hammer observed. A good sign. A really, really good sign. Any enemy force with half a brain could take out Fort Steel without so much as raising a sweat, Strator Tucker and Captain Finster being mediocre tacticians at best. Whatever Grunt’s home stomping grounds might turn out to be in the end, they would be well defended.
Having once known young Jake Sedlacek, his father, and his father’s father before him, he had expected nothing less.
In the pass, still climbing, Dawg became sick to his stomach. Not vomiting, thank the powers that be, but hinting toward it. His guts were churning. He struggled to keep from hurling, struggled to keep the strain from showing on his face, struggled most of all to understand. The meat they’d had for breakfast couldn’t have gone bad; the temperature hadn’t risen above freezing since the elk had been killed, except for a few hours each afternoon, and not by much even then. It was hard to think….
“Dawg, bring your team on up.”
The teenager startled, realizing Grunt and Jess’s wagon were both stopped at the top of the rise, waiting for them. He swung the horses off the trail to the right, pulling along side Jess’s mules, focusing so hard on parking perfectly and not looking like a fool that he hadn’t stopped to wonder about Grunt’s command or even look farther down the trail. “Easy now,” he murmured, setting the wagon brake just as Hammer Weathers rode up.
“There she be,” the big man announced, sweeping his arm wide. And finally, oblivious to the sharp intakes of breath from the women riding in the wagon box, he looked. A sizeable mountain valley sprawled before them, something like a mile wide, maybe two, and several miles long. There was snow here, too, but not nearly as much, with bare patches of dry grass showing through in in various places. A sparkling stream, maybe even enough water to be considered a small river, wound through the length of the valley bottom, still clear and sparkling, not yet iced over even a little bit, exiting the valley at a considerably lower elevation, below their position and to the right, disappearing into heavy forest. Tall ridges defined the area’s perimeter, their slopes mostly packed with fir, spruce, and pine, much of it stately old growth timber. At the far north end, a towering peak dominated the scene, a mountain so…mountainous…that its summit, far and away above the timber line and gleaming with snow that never completely melted, reminded Dawg suddenly of the tale his grandmother had once told him of the fabled Mount Rainier, though it could not be Rainier itself…could it? He couldn’t have been more than six when she told him that story, about the top of the mountain blowing off in a volcanic eruption that ended the lives of thousands….
Kiko and Gloria were whispering to each other, marveling at the settlement itself. He hadn’t noticed until then, but…. It was like nothing he’d ever seen or even heard about. No log walls around a compound of any sort, at least that he could spot. Instead, the valley was dotted with little clusters of buildings here and there, each cluster separated–sometimes widely–from its nearest neighbor. Trees here and there, but nothing like a patch of woods or even a windbreak row. His eyes were good enough to identify pole fences, the leaning style, what were those called? Smoke lifted in the still morning air from at least one chimney in every building cluster….
“Welcome,” Grunt said, pride evident in his voice, “to Fort 24.”
It took them a while to realize who’d said it. When they did, there were smiles all around. “Free!” Gloria shouted to her five year old son, “You said your first word!”
Craning his neck around to stare at the little boy, Dawg added stupidly, “You can talk!”
Hammer’s eyes were twinkling like crazy. “He can talk, all right. And the first word he said was wow. I’d say that’s a pretty good omen, wouldn’t you?”
Dawg thought about that. It was a great omen. Not only that, but his stomach wasn’t riled up any more. How about that. Nerves? He’d been that sick-feeling due to nerves and nothing else? Apparently. Of course! The last time I changed settlements, my Dad had been killed, my Mom raped, and I was heading into six years of slavery. But not this time. This time…I can make a home here. I’m sure of it. “Grunt?”
“Why is it called Fort 24? I mean, it’s not like a real name.”
Sedlacek chuckled, leaning to pat his restless stud horse on the neck, settling him down. Buck was not happy to have to wait, now that home and oh so many good looking mares were within striking distance. “That’s by design, Dawg. There are people like me traveling to far settlements all the time, or at least as much as weather permits, and the 24 designation makes it harder for curious outsiders to pin down. Your own birth home, for example, Fort Confluence. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out a name like that would apply to somewhere two streams or rivers come together. So let’s say you’re out there trading, maybe a thousand miles from here, and some ugly yahoo you’d never trust at your back asks where you’re from. We can honestly say we’re from Fort 24 and it doesn’t give them a clue as to our whereabouts.”
That sounded like pretty feeble reasoning to the young warrior. “Okay-y-y…but why 24 specifically?”
“Oh, that one was easy. There were 24 of us who founded this community. So, shall we journey on, fellow travelers?”
“Mind if I ride up front with you,” Hammer asked. “Or do you still need a Tail End Charlie?”
“Not here, we don’t. Absolutely, Doc, let’s hit it.”
The two men headed out, riding side by side. Dawg let Jess go on ahead, bringing his wagon in behind hers as usual. He strained to hear what the older men were saying to each other as they covered the quarter mile down a gradual slope to the first set of buildings, but they were too far ahead, the wagons themselves weren’t exactly silent, and after a bit he gave it up as a bad job, returning his attention to the land.
Hammer spoke quietly. “This is where your uncle took you hunting for the first time, isn’t it? Up in the Wilderness?”
“Hnh.” Grunt looked at the aging doctor appraisingly. “Wouldn’t have expected you to remember that.”
“How could I forget? You brought home your first elk, the first day of archery season, didn’t let a day go by for months without bragging to everybody you knew about taking down a Boone and Crockett bull with a recurve, not even a compound bow.”
“Oh. Yeah. Well, I was young and stupid.”
“Just young, Jake. You were never stupid. Goodness, I’d have been busting my britches to tell people, too, if I’d done something like that at the age of fifteen.”
“Hnh. Well…Uncle Richard always was a good teacher. And one helluva bow hunter, too.”
“So…after the Fall, you were what, early thirties by then?”
“Hnh. Thirty-one. I wasn’t much use to anybody for a while after that. Not that it mattered much. It took me three-four years to get my act together, another half dozen before enough of us survivors had found each other–survivors worth finding, that is. By that time, our little tribe had determined to find this place, a place the feds had kept people from despoiling until of course there weren’t any feds any more.”
Hammer nodded thoughtfully, considering the valley. “Looks like a right little banana belt in here.”
“It is. Not really that high up, either. A little over five thousand feet elevation at this lower end. Good soil, and a longer growing season than you’d expect. Not exactly peach country, but we’ve been able to grow good spuds, carrots, a bit of lettuce. Peas next, if those we got from Fort Steel are any good. Strawberries. Raspberries. Not those hothouse GMO types we were all being fed Before, but sturdy little things, and tasty. Mighty tasty.”
“What about those cattle I see grazing over yonder? I’d think predators would be a real problem.”
“Oh, they are, but our herds take care of themselves surprisingly well. They’ve killed or run off more cats and wolves and bears than we humans ever have, and by a huge margin at that. Most of the killer critters around here have learned to leave them alone.”
“Don’t know much about moo cows,” Hammer admitted, “except they make good eating, and a little Brahma blood never seemed to hurt if you were trying to raise bucking bulls for the rodeo.”
“True that,” Grunt admitted, “but these are pureblood Scottish Highlands. Or American Highlands, I guess, but their ancestors came from Scotland. Once our group found this place, which wasn’t easy to do with nothing but an old memory to go by, and got our first shelters built, we split up. Fourteen stayed here to keep on building and start planting–we had carrot seeds and a couple of bags of potatoes with us for that purpose–while the other ten, myself included, headed out for what used to be Sheridan, Wyoming. During my rodeo days, I’d gotten to know about a rancher in that area who raised the breed.”
“You found the critters, obviously.”
“More like they found us. We’d been looking all summer. Winter was coming on. We’d given up, mostly, but had ended up going all the way to Belle Fourche.”
“What used to be, yeah. We knew that’s where we were because of a sign still standing that said Entering Belle Fourche. Nobody wanted to go right into the remains of the town because of the Almighty Taboo, except me, and I didn’t dare for fear the rest of them would panic when I came back out, figuring I might be carrying evil with me. So we drifted on a few miles, camped not far from the river, and when we woke up the next morning, there they were. The whole herd, twenty-seven of them counting calves, drinking from the river. They’d gone pretty wild, and I was only one born and bred cowboy in our bunch, but we managed to spook them enough in the right direction and get them started. Thought we’d never get them home, but in the end we did, right through this same pass in the middle of a whiteout blizzard. Highlands are really pretty peaceable by nature…as long as you don’t get between a mama cow and her calf. Then it’s Katie bar the door.”
Fascinating as it was, Hammer realized their conversation was over. Several riders were headed their way, coming on at full gallop, whooping and hollering. Having heard the sentry’s whistle and seen their wagons coming, they’d obviously realized one of their founders had returned from the hunt alive and well, with newcomers in tow. They weren’t about to let him slip in quietly.
“Friends of yours, I take it?”
“Hnh. Worse.” Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek grinned from ear to ear, belying his words. “Sons.”