There wasn’t a lick of light out tonight. Stumbling home in the dark was not my idea of fun and good times. Not that Strator Tucker cared, though the man did complain like a little kid with a runny nose when the electricity went out for the third time and he had to light lanterns like the rest of us. Any sensible dude would have authorized final testing of the water wheel system and extensive wire run in a building designated for the purpose, but no-o-o, Tuck had to have it. Emblem of prestige.
Emblem of pride, greed, and stupidity was more like it.
Beyond that, the Fort council meeting could have wrapped up hours ago. Rehash, rehash, rehash. Inefficiency, Tucker is thy name. And he was our supposed leader. More productivity needed from the slaves, he said, when every woman was kept busy cranking out babies like so many fresh-hatched ducklings and there wasn’t a single male above the age of sixteen. How the women managed to juggle kiddie care and every menial job known to mankind at the same time, now that was a miracle. Of sorts. As for the boys, most of them showed the effects of being forced to lift too many heavy objects before they were old enough for their bones and muscles to harden properly. Dawg and the others traded to Grunt last summer definitely had the best of it, no matter where they ended up.
It would have been easier to walk without the awkward boot Laura had designed to allow my slashed Achilles tendon to heal, but I didn’t care to go barefoot down these dirt streets where occasional rocks and the more than occasional pile of horse apples rested to trip the unwary. Stump along, stump along, hi-de-ho. At least it was no longer necessary to keep the boot on at home, inside the house. As long as I walked softly and didn’t try to run. Another three months, she said, before that would be safe to try.
Cloud cover had rolled in an hour earlier. One lousy hour less of stupid meeting and I’d have beaten the stygian darkness home, walking easily–or as easily as possible with this boot–under moonlight.
Stupid Strator. There’d been no reason for me to even be there, ignored as I was but required to attend nonetheless. Not that Captain Finster had been much better, pushing for more funding for the militia, more soldiers to train, when every possible hand was needed for the foundry, not to mention calving season. Winter was over. We might get another storm or two, but the effects wouldn’t last long.
Stump, slosh through puddle, grumble.
“Good evening, Weasel.”
The voice startled me to full stop, my feet frozen in place. Sounded familiar, but who…? A large form leaning against the corner of the log wall–a storage building, in this section of town–could barely be made out, even now that I knew where to look. Big man, at least bigger than me. though that wasn’t saying much. Most men were bigger than me. The guy loomed, threatening by his presence alone, even had I not been dead certain he had a long shoot gun cradled in his arms. Not pointing at me at the moment, but if he wanted me perforated, Laura was about to become Fort Steel’s newest widow. My throat went dry…but they don’t call me the Weasel for nothing. Never let ’em see you sweat.
“Good evening to you, sir,” I replied politely, relieved that my voice sounded steady. “But I fear you have the advantage of me.” In more ways than one. “Who are you, if I might ask?”
“I’ll answer your questions. The one you just asked, and those bursting in your head, too. But first, I need your word that we can have a nice chat without you deciding to do anything stupid.”
“Wouldn’t think of it.” Well, I would think of it, but I wouldn’t act. Neither the knife at my belt nor my walking staff would be of much use against a shoot gun. Never take a stick to a gunfight.
The man chuckled, genuinely amused. “Sure you would think of it. But just so you understand, Jules?”
Jules? A sound from somewhere over my left shoulder pulled my attention back around to the street intersection I’d just left. At the far corner, another figure, also armed with a shoot gun. Which I could tell even in the darkness, just a dim impression of a long steel barrel…pointing my way.
“Okay,” I said as lightly as I could, “Now I wouldn’t think of it.” Were I to suddenly dart back around the corner, Jules would still have a clear shot at my back, all the way down the block. “Do you mind if I relax?” There was a hitch rail in front of this building. Moving slowly, I eased one hip against the rail, taking a little pressure off my still-healing ankle. More importantly, show no fear.
Another chuckle. “You always did perform well under pressure. How’s the tendon?”
What the–? “Almost good as new. Will be, give it another few months.” Courtesy. It keeps people alive. “You did say you’d answer my question…um, questions.”
“Yep. I did. Remember a slave named Dawg?”
Dawg? It couldn’t be, could it? Yes. Yes, it could. The looming shadow projected utter confidence, felt a lot bigger, sounded a lot older than the kid at Trickle Creek, but that one had always been crazy. If anybody who’d ever escaped Fort Steel bondage would consider slipping right back inside, he’d be the one. “I do seem to recall such a person. Last time I saw him, he was telling a certain Trader he’d have slit my throat first chance he got, had others not done for me first.” No inflection. It wouldn’t do to sound bitter. Could I move fast enough to get inside this building and bar the door? No, wait, that wouldn’t work. Not that the door was locked; these storage units had no locks except for a simple bar. On the outside.
“True enough. Dawg has had a lot of time to think things through more clearly since then. He’s kind of graduated a bit. Doesn’t even go by Dawg any more. Calls himself by his real name.”
The silence drew on. What, he wanted me to ask? Okay, I’d ask. “And what might that name be, if you don’t mind telling?”
“Michael. Michael Jade.”
Jade. That name meant something. Couldn’t place it, but….
How long we lounged there, unmoving except for our lips, I wasn’t sure. Certainly thirty minutes at least, maybe double that. Michael “no longer Dawg” Jade didn’t tell me everything by a long shot, but what he did have to say was astounding.
Summed up, he was here to free every last slave, including all the kids the girls had been raped to produce, right down to the last infant. That was insane, utterly insane, yet not the wildest part. The wildest part was that he wanted us to help him do this thing. Us meaning Laura and me. During the seven months he’d been gone from Fort Steel, he’d put together a lot of pieces and realized I wasn’t exactly what he’d always thought; I was both less and more. I didn’t know which hit me harder, realizing my façade had been pierced so thoroughly or realizing the man actually trusted me. How on earth?
Problem is, Jeremy Compton, you can be bought with trust and you know it.
At the end of our conversation, Jade had laid it on the line. “You go on home and kick it around with Mrs. Compton tonight,” he’d said. “Figure out where you stand, the two of you. I’ll be in touch. But know this. If you do decide to help, I’ll do everything humanly possible to get my people out of here without bloodshed, but if you don’t, or if you decide alerting Tucker and Finster is the way to go, people are going to die. I’m not alone, and there isn’t a one of us who hasn’t had experience killing. Some of those militia members aren’t much older than me and I’d hate to see them die, but I’ll level the place if I have to.”
It was the quiet, cold certainty in the man’s voice that chilled me. No bragging, just fact. How a prune-faced, sullen, teenaged slave drudge could have transformed himself into Rambo, that Before hero of ancient war fiction…in little more than seven months? Impossible.
And yet true. I had no doubt whatsoever he could and would do what he said. Laura would reheat supper for me, but my appetite had fled.
Zipped lips were necessary as we crawled on hands and knees through the low tunnel, one end hidden under the floor boards of storage shed #17, the other exiting in Fort Steel’s south side horse pasture. Necessary, but frustrating. Still, what must be done, must be done. The dense cluster of chest-high sagebrush, the only plants growing in what appeared to be a pile of sharp rocks, served to mask the exterior exit. Horses and herders went around this spot. Fortuitously, their hooves would blot out the signs of our passing in the morning, when the animals were driven from the fort to graze all day, followed by and somewhat guided by mounted boys as young as ten and no older than fourteen. A few hundred yards from the sagebrush, a ten minute hike up Raider’s Draw, our mounts waited, hidden by trees, brush, and the Stygian night. A short ride across a low rise later and we were safely hidden in another draw, this one unnamed.
Dismounting and setting about hobbling the horses, I finally felt safe enough to speak despite being no more than half an air mile from Fort Steel’s east gate. “I never thought….” Julia waited. She probably knew what I was going to say, but she waited anyway, finishing her horse work before I did, sensed more than seen as she rolled out the ground cloth and blankets. “Fifty-one. How are we ever going to winkle fifty-one kids out from under Finster’s very nose?”
Her question came, soft-voiced, without a shred of audible stress in it. “You did not know the numbers?”
“Not even close.” I stepped downwind a few paces, relieved myself, and returned to join her in the blankets, fully dressed with the .358 Winchester cradled in my arms. I’d much rather be cuddling, but not this night. Not with the enemy practically in breathing distance. “I can see how I missed it. Now I can. But that’s no help. Two slave barracks, one for boys like me, ages sixteen down to nine, a baker’s dozen of us enslaved when Fort Confluence was razed to the ground. The other housing every female, along with their Steel-produced children. I know all the boys well, having lived with them for so long, and can recognize and name the women, too. But the kids? Not so much. We never even saw them until they were five years old or so, enough to be put to chores by their masters. I thought six, maybe ten. That’s all.”
“Hm.” She snuggled up to my back, spooning. “And yet the numbers fit. Ten fertile girls enslaved for nearly nine years now, repeatedly raped, bred like cattle. If each had produced one baby every year–and all of those babies survived, of course–we’d be looking at eighty little ones, not fifty-one. Maybe we should count our blessings.”
I sighed deeply. “Eighty or fifty, saving either is a nightmare.”
Her chuckle stirred the hair on the back of my neck. “A nightmare for the oppressors, maybe. They won’t likely sleep well, losing their entire slave crop in a single night.”
“You think we can still do this.”
“I know we can.” She squeezed my shoulder gently. “Fifteen horses. That’s all we need.”
“Fifteen–babe, we were planning on taking that many anyway, most of the ponies carrying double, but the older people, boys and women, they’re not horse experienced. Keeping them from falling off or letting their mounts take control was going to be a challenge; you know that. Now you’re saying we can take seventy-three men, women, and mostly young children on the same number of critters?” I’m no pessimist, but come on.”
“Yep. It’s doable.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. How?”
“It’ll take a little more time, but with luck…those wooden pack panniers in shed #31. One on each side of each horse, crossbuck pack saddles, blankets from shed #9 to line the pannier bottoms. Any kid seven or younger can fit in a pannier just fine. Add two more folks on top, between the panniers, three if a mom is holding her littlest one. Twelve horses for the human loads, total weight per pony no more than one big man, at least if your people are as undernourished as you say. Three more horses to carry your midnight requisition shopping list of axes, saws, rope, seed stock, and whatnot. Easy peasy, puddin’ and pie.”
The image she painted had merit. It rolled around inside my head for a while, taking shape. No. “If only….”
She finished my thought, sort of. “Ah,” she murmured a bit too theatrically, nibbling my ear between sentences. “If only we had, oh, I don’t know…Superman would be good. Or maybe…just maybe…how about if we had someone in our little posse who’d grown up part horse herself, surrounded by horses and horse people, riding before she could walk, training, communicating, packing strings for wannabe hunters who didn’t have the brains the Creator gave a carrot. Someone who’s stood guard over horse herds in the middle of the night, wind, rain, or snow, straight through blizzards even. Someone who can sense the difference between a trained pack horse and a saddle horse without even seeing the critter, almost mind melded as it were.” She sighed for effect. “Yes, yes, if only such a person could be found.”
I chuckled in spite of myself. “I forget sometimes who I’m married to.”
“You better not.” She knuckled me in the ribs. Hard.
“Okay, okay, Miss Literal Lady. You’re right. I’d better not, and I won’t.” Our relationship was still pretty new, but I’d already figured out there are some lines a wise man does not cross. Although it still astounded me that she’d had no problem with Laurel Evans coming into our lives. Predicting how she’d take anything was an art at best, and I was no artist. “It’s going to burn time, though. Not only catching the horses from the night pen; I understand you can mind meld with the equines. But rigging the saddles and panniers, raiding the sheds for all those blankets, and maybe saddle blankets for up on top, just for butt padding…we’ll be very, very lucky if we can do all that and still clear the Fort before first light. Yeah, there aren’t any padlocks on the sheds we need. Nobody would dare steal so much as a stray bridle. But rigging fifteen…are you sure?”
“Honey, I can rig a horse faster than you’d believe. All this time on the trail, I’ve been taking it easy. Give me a deadline and watch me.”
“The deadline you’ve got.” I was feeling a whole lot better. We might not have Superman on our side, but Super Woman made a more than adequate substitute. A shudder went through me as I contemplated my earlier foolishness, before Julia and I met, me planning to somehow get this job done all by my lonesome. “Maybe we should get some sleep? Big day tomorrow, come hell or high water.”
I kissed the back of her hand where she had an arm wrapped around me. She kissed the back of my neck. Within minutes, her breathing evened out. Definitely sound asleep, she even snored a little. The sandman wouldn’t come for me quite yet, though. Elusive dude, that guy. There were too many ifs. We would succeed in freeing my people if Weasel and Laura Compton came through. If my diversion worked as planned. If Tucker and Finster had not changed the night guard system. If the women did not refuse to flee; some slaves had refused freedom Before, if the history books could be believed. If the boys followed my orders without deviation; they would run, no doubt of that, but Jock and Aron were both a little screwy in the head. If. If. If.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. The Biblical quote echoed inside me, but whether it presaged well or ill for our upcoming effort, I had no idea.