Grunt, Chapter 29: The Rhubarb War

RODNEY

“It’s a fine spot, Pen, I gotta give you that.”

Pleased and mildly surprised, Garber glanced up from where he was securing the Native wench. “Told you,” he said.

“That you did,” I conceded. “That you did.” We’d decided to camp here for a couple of days, nearly four hundred miles from the butte where we’d picked up the little blanket warmer, something like three hundred more to Fort Steel. According to the map they’d lifted from the Marshal’s office–grease stained a bit now, but still mostly serviceable–the next fifty miles or more was going to be ugly. Flat as a pancake, with little to no cover against a storm should one come up. It looked like one might be in the offing, too, judging by the sky and the feel of the air.

So I’d agreed to stop here for a couple of days. Rest the horses. Let the Dotsons go fishing in the small but surprisingly deep lake supplied by the creek. Finish breaking the young squaw I’d dubbed Butey as a joke on her. Not Beauty; she was certainly not that. Butey, after the butte near which she was taken. Although she clearly wasn’t worth the effort. Not really. Hadn’t even fought me as long or as hard as I liked and homely as a mud fence to boot.

Worthless, really.

Except for her cooking. She wasn’t bad at that, and there were the fish after all. Trout, they were called . Tasty, especially the way the redskin fixed them. I chuckled inwardly. The girl had taken to cooking our grub like it was her salvation. Natural slave, that one. If she’d only been a little prettier, or if they’d managed to snag the one they chased into the brush but couldn’t catch…now there was a looker….

“Gotta go again.” Jay Dotson’s eyes were scrunched up from the cramps, from trying to hold it in. Diarrhea since sometime yesterday, getting worse all the time.

“Well, get the heck up the creek!” I snapped, “Ain’t like we want to be smelling your stained britches for dessert!”

Jay moved off at sort of a hobbling run. His brother watched him go with a worried look on his face. “He ain’t been this sick in years. Ain’t thinking straight. Didn’t even take his shoot gun. I’d best follow along.” The younger Dotson flashed a fleeting grin our way. “Not too close, mind you. I’m no fonder of his recent bouquet that you guys are. Reckon I can drop a line in that lake finger Pen swears by, look like I’m prospecting for supper instead of playing babysitter.”

Fair enough. Butey’s ankle hobble had her tethered to a tree with about twenty feet of rope, enough for her to do what we needed her to do. Maybe enough to hang herself, had I been dumb enough to let her, but that wasn’t happening. Certainly not enough to reach any of the weapons; even the little knife we allowed her for cooking chores; that was in my saddle bag.

Pen was gazing up-creek, toward the bend around with both Dotsons had disappeared, looking thoughtful. “It really seemed like Jay was getting over the wound and the beating he took from the Gundersons. It really did. Delayed relapse, you think? Maybe brought on by our pushing so hard lately?”

Questioning my leadership decisions, are you? “Impossible to say. Hopefully it’ll be enough to fix him back up, a couple days doing nothing but lying around between trots up the creek with the trots.” My second in command should have at least smirked at that one. The man had no sense of humor.

I wasn’t about to admit that the days off were as welcome to me as they were the rest of the Demons. Never show weakness, period. I could go mount the squaw again, but as weird as it was to think, that was actually getting boring. Just no life to her. These northern Natives were pathetic.

Feigning boredom, I sat down on my saddle where it rested atop a ground sheet and began laying out my weapons. The rifle was in perfect working order; not much to do there. The revolver had a problem. Most of the time, pull the hammer back and it moved smoothly enough, but sometimes it hung up halfway back, the cylinder neither here nor there. I’d figured out a little double-stutter thumb technique that usually got the job done, albeit far too slowly if it ever happened in the middle of a gunfight, but it was driving me nuts. Since we had the time, I’d take it apart, piece by piece, figure out where it was worn down wrong, maybe come up with a fix. Had I been a follow-the-law civilian, I might have taken up gunsmithing. Weapons never irritated me like people did.

–CRACK!–whump!–

The shot came out of nowhere. “What the–” Pen Garber sat frozen in place, his eyes wide, head jerking around on his neck like a trout on the end of a fishing line. Idiot.

My body had reacted instantly, already scrambling for cover in the willows before conscious thought could catch up, the rifle held in a two handed grip as I slid into the brush on my belly, face skating the surface, twisting through the dense stand of small tree trunks like an eel through reeds.

Only then did my brain start to catch up. Where? How many? It didn’t matter who; that could wait for later. Either we’d been followed after all, not likely since we’d been moving so fast for so long, or there was somebody else out here traveling the winter plains. Somebody who shot first and asked questions later, or skipped the questions altogether. That had been a meat shot; one of my men was dead. Jay if he’d waved his butt cheeks at the shooter, or Joe if he’d presented the better target as a fisherman silhouetted by the partially frozen lake.

No way was I going back out into the open, into the campsite. Too much open area there and no way to see up over this edge of the bank, toward where the shot had come from. Continuing to twist forward, I made my way to the north edge of the willows, peeked out…and there they were. Two men, looked like, lying prone behind a sizeable rock. One looked like a big bugger, aiming a shoot gun toward the crossing where Jay must have gone to do his business. Stupid, dead Jay Dotson, never did get it through his head that a man needed to be more cautious in his choice of excretion location than almost anywhere else. Generals had been captured by the enemy that way, back in the day.

Okay then. Two of them. Just two. No two mud buckets were going to get away with killing one of my men. Without conscious thought, I poked the barrel of the tube fed shoot gun out of the willows, eared the hammer back, and let ‘er rip, levering the action back in forth rhythmically. Only half aiming; it was long range for this weapon but the snow kicked up every time a bullet hit the ground. Yeah, it was spray and pray, but not blind. Not all ten bullets would find those men, but some would.

–Crack!–Crack!– Two rounds delivered before they reacted, twisting my way. –Crack!–Crack!– If Pen had gotten his head out of his nether regions by now, he should be joining the party soon. –Crack!–The man without the long gun had, what, a telescope to his eye? No time to worry about it now. –WHUP!– Pen’s shot-throwing shoot gun, by thunder. The fool had Demoned up after all. Not that his weapon had near enough range to reach the enemy. Unless he pointed it half at the sky, maybe, and then possibly the pellets might come down on those two like a little shower of lead rain. But it was the thought that counted. The thought, and those two realizing they faced more than one shooter. Now if Joe could just get into it right, they’d have these guys pinned down good, a quarter circle encircled…or something like that.

–Crack!–Crack!–Crack!– Ha! Couldn’t really hear that identifying sound of a hit, but I’d tagged one of them for sure. The big dude. If he’d taken out a Dotson, which I was sure he had, that shoot gun of his had to have one heckuva long reach. But I had to be tough to see; I’d wait to move until the tube on my rifle was empty.

–Crack!–

“AIIIIIYEEAHHHHHH!

The sudden scream curdled my insides, froze me to absolute stillness. Raw, primal, an utterance of elemental rage and pain. I had heard that sound just once before, down south in the bayou country. That time it was a woman. This time it was a man.

Joe Dotson.

He came barreling out into the open, sprinting in a one man full frontal charge across four hundred yards of bare snow. His stout legs churned furiously, kicking snow in the air with every stride. Unlike his sick brother, he’d had the sense to take his weapons with him. He used them now, firing the revolver one handed, crossbow gripped in the other. If he got close enough to the men behind the rock, that crossbow would be as deadly as any shoot gun.

Not that he’d get that far. He didn’t have a chance. Unless we gave it to him.

–WHUP!–Pen’s shot shooter again. Effective or not, he was still in the fight.

–Crack!—Right on time, right at the worst of times to run empty. Joe would be dead before I could reload the whole tube. I went to single shot fire, grabbing one cartridge from the bandoleer, loading from the breech, levering the round into the chamber, fling one more load of death across the prairie toward those two. I couldn’t fine tune the elevation now, but maybe, just maybe it would be enough to keep them off balance, worried about me, missing the oncoming madman who’d found his brother dead at the crossing.

–WHUP!–

My respect for Pen Garber rose a notch. Once he got into the game, he kept pitching even if he didn’t have a prayer in hell of hitting anything.

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MICHAEL

“Son. Of. A. Morgweelian. Courser.” Big Jake’s snarling profanity could be heard despite the steady gunfire coming from somewhere off to our right front. “We’ve been flanked and that lucky bastard just shot me in the ass.”

Behind the brush screen where Julia and I were holding the horses, we couldn’t see a damned thing. I felt like cussing a little myself.

“Hold still, dammit.” Tommy’s voice. “I’m just trying to slap a patch on there; it ain’t like I’m thinking to suck the venom out from a snakebite.”

“Get your hands off my britches and get to scanning that creek bed. It’s not like I’m gonna bleed to death in the next few minutes.”

“You might,” Gunderson growled back.

Then nothing but the shooting. I had to do something. “Here,” I told Julia, “hold these.”

“Oh sure, leave the woman holding the bag. You men are all alike.”

I don’t think she even knew she’d said that. I hoped she didn’t know.

Scramble around the brush patch on the north side. There…not good. Jake and Tommy had excellent stone cover on the east side but not so much to the south. There were at least two shooters dug in over that way, but it wasn’t like the ancient black powder days we’d read about. These shoot guns might not have a lot of range but they did have smokeless powder. At night, sure, muzzle blasts would pinpoint their positions.

In broad daylight with the sun out, not so much.

Ignoring his bloody backside, Sedlacek was lying steady, his Ruger .308 aimed in the general direction of the incoming fire, steady as a rock but not firing back. For a second or two it made no sense; why not send out some suppressing fire, make the rest of Rodney’s gang at least a little bit nervous? But then it hit me. Grunt had exactly 99 cartridges left that fit his rifle. Unless he picked out a sure target with his naked eye, he’d wait until his spotter told him where to look.

If they both survived long enough for that to happen.

I scooted back around behind the brush, ignoring the questioning look from Julia. Grabbed the two Sedlacek Special short spears to go with the shoot gun already hanging from my left hand. Took off in a dead sprint, aiming toward the creekbed even farther south than the Demons had used to flank our sniper team. They flank us, we flank them. They’d probably see me, but I’d be a fast-moving target, hard to hit. Carrying the fight to them at close range might be a reckless thing to do, but there was no way I was going to stand around twiddling my thumbs while our guys were pinned down. One man was already wounded; we couldn’t afford any more than that.

Out of nowhere, a horrible scream distracted me. I missed a step, went flying arse over teakettle, came up on one knee, checked briefly to see what the yelling was all about. A man charged from the crossing, right from where one of the Dotsons had been taking a dump before Grunt shot him. The other Dotson, then, mad with grief-rage, literally out of his mind. Flat on the ground, our lead shooter swiveled on his belly, raised the Ruger toward the oncoming berserker. It exposed him broadside to the shooters hidden in the creekside willows, but what choice did he have?

I had to get moving. Up, go, go, go–corner of my eye, Slash bursting from the cottonwood trees to the north, angling to cut Dotson off in mid-charge. The outlaw never stopped running forward, never stopped screaming, just snapped a one handed shot with his crossbow–

–and the big wardog crashed on his nose, plowing up snow with his face, taking the hit in complete silence, not so much as a whimper or a yip. Broken shoulder? I didn’t have time to think about it; the creekbed was coming up fast and a bullet could be coming my way at any second.

But Dotson shouldn’t have done that.

The Ruger fired once. The crazy man kept coming forward; the legends of bullets blowing a man back off his feet are just that, legends. A tiny lead bullet did not have the power to overcome the inertia of a full sized man in full charge. But it did have the power to punch through the man’s belly, taking out his spine as it exited to the rear so that he flopped to the ground like a fish yanked out of water. I saw something spray from the back of his coat. Blood, flesh, bone, whatever it was, it might take him a while to finish dying but he wasn’t getting back up.

Two down.

I hit the brush at least as fast as Dotson had hit the snow. In, through, edge back. No, edge back out; trying to move in the willows themselves was a fool’s move. The tops would shake, give me away. Couldn’t have that.

Had they seen me? I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think so. Though the long shooter was firing in a much slower cadence now, it was still firing, and so was the other, the one with the shotgun sound.

Shotgun? Who brings a shotgun to a rifle fight?

Said the man carrying a pair of spears.

I came to their camp. No sign of anyone out in the open. Piece of rope tied around a tree, campfire nothing but coals, gear scattered around haphazardly, nervous horses everywhere unable to escape their pickets. Where was the girl? Where was Morning Lark? Had they killed her already? Distracted by my own thoughts, I passed up the rifle shooter, the one I presumed had to be Rodney Upward himself. No way would he give his man a rifle while he had nothing but a shotgun. Had to be him. I moved on reluctantly; from my current position, it sounded like the shotgun man–Pen Garber?–was a lot closer. I could almost hear him breathing as he took his time between shotgun blasts, possibly conserving ammunition like Grunt was doing.

Wait. I could hear him breathing. He’d quit firing entirely and I”d missed it. Good way to get killed. He was easing back through the willows toward camp now, coming straight at me, making less noise than some but far more than any true creature of the wild would ever accept. There was a medium sized cottonwood tree three steps away; I hustled over, putting the trunk between us. No way was I going into the thick brush after an armed and dangerous shotgun wielder; he would have to come out into the open. And then I’d need to take him down before Rodney figured out I was back here.

Pen Garber had not been hunted before joining the Demons, but he’d been a hunter all of his life. His senses were keenly attuned to danger and he was fast. Lord love a duck but he was fast. Had I simply shot him as he stepped out into the open, he’d have had no chance, but at the last second I opted to use a spear for the sake of silence, hoping Rodney Upward wouldn’t hear our struggle over his own shooting.

It was not a good plan, but it was a plan.

He stepped from the brush, shoot gun held in both hands, wary as an old whitetail buck, sniffing the wind, scanning every direction.

I lunged from behind the tree, having gone by sound only until this moment. There wasn’t a lot of distance between us, maybe twenty feet, but it was too much. I’d be on him in an instant, but he only needed half of that to swing the shoot gun barrel around, thumb earing the hammer back, finger squeezing the trigger. There was no thinking now, no changing course, only my determination to drive the razor sharp spearhead through his gut. No bones in the way of massive trauma that way; if I died, I was taking him with me.

Not until he writhed on the ground, screaming and moaning as his life blood and entrails continued to exit his abdominal cavity, not until then did I realize I hadn’t been shot. The shoot gun had not fired. I picked it up from where he’d dropped it, broke open the single shot action. Empty. The man had run out of ammunition and then tried to shoot me with an empty gun.

But I shouldn’t have paused long enough to make sure Garber wasn’t going anywhere, long enough to relieve him of his stolen revolver and belt knife. His dying noises had alerted Upward, big time, and even distracted me. Brain fart, possibly a lethal brain fart.

When the lead outlaw burst from the brush, it was my turn to be caught in the open, and he was not out of ammo. There was too much distance between us for a charge and I couldn’t count on Lady Luck to back my play twice in a row. Gamblers throughout history have been brought to ruination doing that. I dropped the spear, dived to the left, clawing at the holstered revolver as his first shot burned through my winter coat, missing my arm by a hair.

He was smooth with that lever action…

…but no match for a short gun. My return shot hit him somewhere high, couldn’t be sure where, but enough that his left hand didn’t work right.

Unfortunately, the redhead was not ready to die just yet. He dropped nearly prone, scrambled in behind a pile of saddles and pack panniers. Which wouldn’t have been that bad, but he didn’t stay there. Deciding I was mostly unhurt–except for my pride–and fit to continue, I retrieved the shoot gun and spare spear from behind the tree, ready to play hide and shoot until either I got lucky or Tommy Gunderson could join the party. Or Julia, for that matter, though I was kind of hoping she’d stay with the horses. Feeling kind of protective these days, I was.

Wha–“Rats.” The sound of a running horse. Upward was gone; he must have kept a spare mount saddled and ready.

Well, at least the pressure was off Grunt and Tommy for now.

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JULIA

Morning Lark sat crosslegged beside the campfire, watching me fix a pot of stew for our supper. “Interesting,” the stocky woman observed, taking note of every little detail.

I smiled at her.

She hadn’t come out of hiding until I showed up at Rodney Upward’s former campsite. Didn’t totally trust a new batch of white men traipsing around, killing the old batch. For all she knew, she’d explained, Michael and Tommy and Jake might have been raiders, too. She’d had no intention of trading one evil master for another. My gender had once again been useful, luring her out of her sanctuary in a big old rotten, hollow log.

Not that Red Horse’s granddaughter worried much about them now. Michael Jade was mine, Grunt invoked the mighty name of Red Horse, and she was on board with all of that.

Besides, she liked the looks of my brother. I could tell.

Big Jake had to ride almost sidesaddle, nursing that shot rump of his, but we’d nonetheless gathered everything up and shifted camp back several miles, toward Fort 24. Too much blood and death where the battle had taken place. Plus, the campsite near the lake was a death trap. Too much cover coming from too many angles. An enemy could sneak up on you just like that, as my mate had demonstrated. Slash had to travel by travois now. We’d done all we could for the wardog, but whether or not he’d ever run on four legs again was an open question. Joe Dotson’s bullet had torn through hard muscled flesh and broken the bone just a few inches below the shoulder. He’d allowed Grunt to set the bone without so much as snapping at the man, a remarkable thing, but keeping it immobilized so it could heal was not going to be easy. It wasn’t like a lower leg break, that’s for sure.

Morning Lark had volunteered to fix Grunt’s butt. He’d demurred, finally allowing Tommy to patch it up. The big man hadn’t snapped at his nurse any more than the big dog had.

“Soup’s on,” I announced to no one in particular. Three strong men materialized out of the darkness, returning from their various tasks to take seats around the fire. Or in Grunt’s case, to take half a seat. I had to stifle a giggle, seeing him rolled over to the side like he was about to pass gas. None of them were on watch at the moment, but we weren’t unprotected. Buck, Grunt’s oversized stud horse, grazed nearby, his senses nonetheless alert to our surroundings. Most of all, Slash’s head was up, ears pricked forward, nose sniffing the wind, no less alert than before his injury.

We’d take sentry duty shifts after eating, but now was a time to socialize, to catch up on the events of the day we’d not had time to discuss in detail.

Grunt started it off, asking his first question after he’d downed a bit of stew. “Hnh. Lark, you speak English very well. That surprised me a little.”

The Native girl twinkled at him. “Understandable. Most of our people rejected the white man’s language after the Fall. But grandpa Red Horse, he raised me from before I could walk. He’s still trying to cram everything into my head, even today.” She looked around at the winter night. “Well…maybe not literally today.”

Surprisingly, my brother jumped in with the next question. Or maybe not so surprisingly? Did Thomas Gunderson maybe like the stocky woman who watched him from the corner of her eye when he wasn’t looking? “How bad did they hurt you?” Blunt, to the point, but that was our Tommy. He never was one to waste words.

But he couldn’t have anticipated her response. Swallowing the food in her mouth before she choked herself, Morning Lark burst out laughing. “Hurt me? I was not hurt at all. The beatings, they were nothing compared to the bumps and bangs I’ve gotten while breaking and training wild mustangs. See this?” She pointed to a sizeable bruise over her right cheekbone. “That was a backhand from Rodney himself, the mighty leader of the mighty Demons who ambushed my people and killed some of our best. But did it hurt? Not like the pony who kicked me in the gut last spring. Knocked the wind out of me, that one.” Her dark eyes twinkled with even more merriment; I could swear she was trying to see if she could make my brother blush with her next revelation. “Or did you mean between my legs? Oh, redheaded Rodney used me, all right, if you could call it that. But I’m no shy maiden; Granshako and I used to sneak off together, before Red Horse caught us and scolded us, told us we were related, that coupling was taboo. But by the stars, that warrior is hung like a horse! If anyone could have hurt me, it would have been him.

“Rodney? I barely felt him. There was an old question passed down from my ancestors, asked by black whores in the Before days. When a white sailor would ask them to go off with them for money, they would ask, what do we want with you white boys and your little cigarette paper peters? I asked Rodney that same question.”

“You did?” I was startled. “That couldn’t have ended well.”

“Oh, I didn’t ask it in English. See, I only look stupid.”

Odd noises around our campfire finally got my attention. Tommy’s face was indeed beet red, strangled noises coming from his throat; I had never seen the man so mortified. Both Grunt and Michael were snuffling and snorting, trying to hold back the laughter.

I grinned despite myself. If they hooked up, this one would provide balance for my stodgy, ever so proper, super organized big brother. Hah!

Things eventually got back under control. We finished the meal in relative silence, concentrating on filling our bellies. When the last bowl was put down, though, Michael finally spoke up. My honey. Quizzing the new chick.

“Lark?”

“That’s my name; don’t wear it out.”

Michael chuckled. He must not have heard that one before. “Would you be willing to tell us the basic story, from your abduction forward? Without the cigarette paper part? I’m not sure Tommy could handle much more of that.”

Whoa. My mate, ribbing his brother in law? This was new.

Lark gave him a long look. “Yeah. I can do that. Condensed version?”

“Sure.”

“All right.” She shifted her gaze to watch the fire, either as a way to avoid eye contact or as a technique to focus her memory. “It was hell when they started shooting up our village. We didn’t know how many there were, or why they were doing it, or even if any of us would live through it. Reminded me of the old stories, Sand Creek, Colonel Baker’s massacre of Heavy Runner’s band of Piegan, genocidal assaults like that. The three men you say died, plus Granshako, they yelled for all of us to run to the sagebrush while they stayed behind, buying us time. Grandfather Red Horse didn’t go at first; he was everywhere, like magic, calming people down enough so they ran in the right direction, helping wounded to the brush. He told me to go, loudly, many times, but I am his granddaughter. I am also the tribe’s only healer, too young to be properly called a medicine woman maybe, but all we have since Yellow Flower died two winters ago. I could not leave the wounded, and that is how they caught me.

“I screamed and fought him at first, the one you call Rodney Upward, but soon realized that would get me nowhere. So I went inside myself, took counsel with the Great Spirit. Calmed myself, began to evaluate, to plan. By the time we made camp I was amazed at their arrogance, their stupidity. A lone warrior on the vengeance trail could have followed them to camp that night, cut their throats in their blankets. And we weren’t even far from the butte. It was then I realized I could beat them.”

She paused, staring into the flames. None of us dared say a word; she would speak again when she was ready. Yet she made me think, and I marveled. That first night? Mere hours after the attack, she had herself together and was already planning ahead? In her position, I doubted I could do as well.

“Red Horse taught me from the beginning, this world is nothing, the dream that we think is real, a shadow, a shade, a filmy dim echo of the greater truth. What is truly real lies beyond this physical world, and I went there each night, asking for guidance, asking to be shown what I must do each day.

“And the answers came.

“By the third night, I knew others followed, that Upward and his Demon clan were pursued. They seemed ignorant of it, but I was awake while their awareness slept. The race was shown to me, the effort to reach us by the people I now know to be you four from the place called Fort 24. But the pursuers were not winning the race. Perhaps subconsciously aware of the danger, Upward pushed horses and people endlessly onward. I had to slow them down, and I did.”

Again she paused. This time, I couldn’t wait for her to go on. “How?” I asked, my whispered question barely a breath upon the breeze.

“Ah.” She raised her head for the first time, turned to look each of us in the eye for the first time. “Rodney himself had provided the means, or one of his men had. They stole winter stores along with stealing me. Pemmican, various roots that keep well, whatever struck their fancy. In their ignorance, what they did not know was that one of the parfleches contained dried roots and herbs intended for medicine, not food.” She laughed suddenly, a sharp, derisive sound. “And then they put me to cooking!” She shook her head in amazement. “I truly could not believe it at first. Who forces an enemy to cook his meals? Do they know nothing of poisons, or that poison is a woman’s weapon of choice?

“It was clear that Upward believed himself superior to me, that he was convinced I was under his control. Always, one man watched closely as I cooked, and always I was required to taste the food before any of them touched it. But come on, really? I could have palmed a pinch of powdered herb at any time, casually passing it over their dishes as I served them, and possibly killed them all. But there were risks. I would be suspected and killed before they themselves died, or they might not die at all, or worst of all, I might succeed and the powers that be would punish me for taking their lives. I am a healer; to kill as a warrior does is not my way. I may heal a warrior to protect me, but to do the deed myself? Questionable. Very questionable.”

We were caught up in her tale, captured in her web. Morning Lark, granddaughter of Red Horse, was a born storyteller.

“But there came an answer. Not a perfect solution, but the best I could think of to do. If I could sicken just one man, give him symptoms that might not point to me as the suspect of his distress, it might be possible to influence the flight of the Demons, cause it to come to a halt long enough for my succor to arrive. My succor or my vengeance,” she shrugged, “but excuse me if I prefer the succor.

“So I went to my medicine bag, ground up some rhubarb root, slipped more and more of it into his meals as I served them. For three days I did this. Rhubarb root is a powerful laxative. Jay Dotson was the weakest of the men, having been seriously injured sometime in the recent past. His brother was solicitous of him, and the others could not afford to leave both of them behind.”

Both Grunt and Michael were nodding in understanding. Tommy was staring with his mouth open. Me? I felt nothing but admiration for this Native girl. Based on her looks and her behavior while in captivity, the Demons had underestimated her badly. Nobody seemed inclined to ask Morning Lark how she’d managed to get rid of the hobble that had connected to the tree or how it had been, hiding in that hollow log with all the frozen rot and stuff in there, but we could get to that some other day.

Michael was chuckling quietly. “What?” I asked, putting a hand on his knee.

He smirked at me. “Oh, just thinking. I’m looking forward to the day I can look Rodney in the eye and tell him his entire gang ended up being casualties in the Rhubarb War.”

I smirked back, but my heart wasn’t in it. It looked like we were going to avoid the subject for the night, but come the dawn, decisions had to be made. Wounded or not, Rodney was still out there and needed to be brought down permanently, so somebody had to track him to the east. On the flip side, Morning Lark needed to get back to her people and couldn’t go alone. Our little posse was going to have to split up, and I had no idea how we were going to do it. Three bullheaded men, one of them wounded in the rear, versus two opposing objectives.

It wasn’t going to be pretty.

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Author’s note: The archivists at Fort 24 recently discovered a map of the Rhubarb War battle site. It is believed that Jacob (Grunt) Sedlacek personally sketched this map during his long and painful recovery from the wound he received there, though the color coding was obviously added at a later date.

The Rhubarb War map. Demon outlaws are designated in pink, posse members in green, and the captive Native girl, Morning Lark, in purple.

6 thoughts on “Grunt, Chapter 29: The Rhubarb War

  1. Good story. I was amazed that Jake and Tommy missed the others over on the creek. I figured they would glance around and see them before they started firing at that white bottom. Guess they were too transfixed on that big, white target. Figures that Grunt would subsequently get shot in the cheek, since cheeks were what caused him to be careless.
    I knew that the leaves of rhubarb were poisonous, but did not realize that the root was a laxative. I love rhubarb stalks in a pie. I prefer to temper the bite with strawberries though. Not too many, or they will overwhelm the flavor of the rhubarb. My dad had a good sized patch in his garden, and someday I will get some. My grandpa liked rhubarb pie too and he gave me a recipe that I like with some strawberry in it. He just gave me a couple of his recipes, but they were both good ones, using the fruits of the harvest.
    Many of the plants we eat can be poisonous, if we eat the wrong part of them or do not pick them at the right time. I remember when an old TN country woman was telling me about the poke we were eating. Like in the song Poke Salad Annie. She was telling me if you pick it too late in the spring, it will make you sick. And if you don’t prepare it right, it will make you sick. You have to soak it to leach the poison out of it. And you should only pick it when the leaves first start to show in the Spring. About 2 weeks after the leaves pop out, it will start making you sick.

  2. Another thing I noticed was that Rodney told Jay to go upstream to relieve himself. Too keep your water source clean, you should only go downstream. Otherwise, you risk diseases from it. That is what caused many problems in European cities during the middle ages. Running water will usually purify itself in about 200 yards, but most people do not even think about that. The more gravel and sand, the better to get it purified.

  3. Last things first: Yes, upstream defecation is a good way to contaminate your water source. But Rodney knew that. They all did. It’s not stated explicitly in the chapter, but Jay did not put the water source at risk. First of all, the stream was mostly frozen over, so they were pulling water from the lake (which was frozen only at the edges) and boiling it prior to use. Outlaws, yes, but not complete idiots.

    Grunt and the others could not have seen the camp, no matter how hard they looked.. There was no smoke coming from the campfire (mere coals at the time). Most of all, the target was at the crossing. 400 yards straight ahead, while the bend in the creekbed where they’d set up camp was several hundred yards downstream on a wide-arcing curve that put Rodney’s location roughly 399 yards to their right but totally hidden behind a lengthy willow stand some thirty or forty feet thick, maybe more. (Which is why Rodney scrambled to the willows when he heard the Ruger fire, then squiggled through the stand until he could see his enemy.)

    Going downstream to relieve oneself was not a practical option as the brush closed in tight below the camp position. So potty duties, especially for the sick and unquestionably stinky Jay Dotson, had to retreat back upstream toward the crossing–but well back from the creekbed itself, which is where he found the cottonwood tree to support lean against while squatting.

    Grunt can hardly be faulted for not spotting signs of the camp, with one exception: He could have set Michael or Julia to watch that brush line just in case. Even then, though, Rodney and Pen began firing from positions that were completely inside the screen of willows. It’s unlikely that anyone could have seen them without a modern thermal imaging device. There was one recruit–just one, an African American from Oakland– during our Army basic training who could immediately pick out a camouflaged soldier hiding among the trees at any real distance, and even those trees were nothing compared to a stand of willows when it came to breaking up a human outline.

    Having grown up on a ranch with river-bordering willow stands much like the one described, I can report from experience that whitetail deer used them for deep cover during hunting season with great success. Both Grunt and Tommy would have known that, but unless the place had been explored in detail before, no one could have known there was such a pretty little place to hole up, behind the willows but on the near side of the creek bank.

    Of course, the terrain lives in my mind but was not fully detailed in the chapter. It couldn’t be; the post would have ended up closer to 10,000 words than the 5,700 it required. 😀

    I do love rhubarb pie but do not like the addition of strawberries.

    Much prefer the more astringent flavor of 100% rhubarb. One of my questions to waitresses for decades was, “Is that strawberry rhubarb or real rhubarb?” To me, adding even one strawberry ruins the whole thing.

    I didn’t know about the laxative effect of rhubarb root, either, until I researched “purgative laxatives” for this chapter. Needed a real plant which would do the trick for Morning Lark and which was known to thrive in their climate. When I stumbled onto the discovery, I was content. We raised rhubarb in two separate gardens during my growing up years, so I knew it was a workable plant for the story.

  4. Becky, I just added a map of the battle site. Hopefully this will help to clarify a few details.

  5. Thank you, Ghost, for another wonderful chapter. Rodney’s store of practical tactics does not cease to amaze me, including the use of this rifle like a mortar to extend the range of his shots… of course, he did not have ammo restrictions to hamper him.
    Morning Lark is another surprise, a highly practical and wise woman who also uses spiritual guidance for her actions. She is definitely very valuable to her tribe and will probably be treasured by Fort 24 people too, if the tribe moves to the valley for their winter camp.
    Michael also did very well, in spite of his impetuous youth mistakes. And if Rodney’s injury is significant this could help slow him down. I wonder what Rodney got away with on his prepared mount: a rifle with ammo and some food, for sure. I wonder if he took the map and a remount, too. If Michael and Julia both go after Rodney, they will be able to pick from the stolen horses that Julia knows… but Rodney could set up an ambush now that he knew he was being tracked (and I’m sure he recognized Michael before running). The question now is, will Rodney make it to Fort Steel? and how will he ingratiate himself to the slaverunners if he has no slaves?
    Well, I’ll stay tuned for the next chapter to find out! 😀

    And, as for Rhubarb, I love the pie!
    Manny

  6. You’re welcome, Manny. This one was a pleasure to write. Had about 1,500 words done from the night before, then added around 4,200 in a single sitting.

    Using a rifle “like a mortar” is something anyone familiar with ranged weapons would know to do in that situation. Essentially, the ballistics are the same whether you’re firing a rifle, using a bow and arrow, flinging a spear, or even pegging a baseball or a rock. Also, having the snow kicking up where bullets hit was the next best thing (for Rodney) to actual tracer bullets, giving him steady feedback on the adjustments in elevation he needed to make. You’re precisely correct from one angle, though: Not everybody is good at doing that, especially under stress. And yes, a lack of ammo restrictions can certainly be helpful.

    Morning Lark is indeed impressive. It was time for a bit of her character to be revealed. It seemed awfully trite and formulaic for her to follow the “set in stone” patterns of most other literary heroines trapped in similar situations, so I was open for her to have a different take on the experience. Just how different, though, ,I had no idea.

    Excellent ponderings on Rodney, Michael, and Julia. What you said. 😀

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