The heat was oppressive despite my lack of clothing. Too young and too crippled to mine the salt, I was put to work packing it into jute bags. The chunks had to be hammered down until each bag weighed enough. I’d once had arms that were strong for my nine winters, but deformed hip sockets left me with legs that bowed, joints that popped out, and pain. Always pain. Bodily pain from the struggle of my birth. Heart pain from the fading memory of my parents whose desperation and disgust had caused them to sell me to the salt mines. Stomach pain from lack of proper food; crippled boy slaves were expendable and cost lest than a bushel of grain. Much less. I was a throwaway boy.
All this I knew, as I knew the whip, the bullying from bigger boys, and most of all, the shaft. This mine, which I supposed was like all others, having nothing for comparison, was accessed by a rope ladder dropped down a long, narrow, dark hole. The real miners, those with arms and legs that worked right, swarmed up and down the wiggly rope like so many African monkeys. I had seen monkeys once, long ago. That memory was fading, too. Everything was fading but the pain and the fear. The fears. Multiple fears. But most of all the fear of the rope climb. Up was bad, weak as I was at the end of the day. Down was worse. Much worse. Once “on the salt,” things were better. There was light from the lanterns and plenty of room to move about without fear of falling. But the hole terrified me. It terrified me every morning, when it was still dark outside and even darker where the rope went down. There was no salt near the surface, so no need to widen the hole, no need to make real steps or anything like that. Making bigger holes in nothing but dirt was wasting money.
The salt men did not waste money.
The hole was evil. I knew the word evil because my mother, the mother whose face I could no longer see in my mind, she feared evil. Feared it greatly, took all sorts of precautions against it, and made sure her children–even the two of us who came out wrong–knew to fear evil, too.
Everything was, of course, for the glory of Rome. The bullies loved to say that. “Get moving, crip, for the glory of Rome!” “You’re holding up the line, crip! Maybe I should kick you off the ladder for the glory of Rome!”
Twice now I’d almost fallen. Once on the first day, and again yesterday. My undersized body was weakening. My arms, once so strong, were wasting away. I could put my fingers all the way around now, touch tip to tip. Not much left but bone. When I died, would they feed my remains to the pigs like they threatened?
I did not want to die. I did not want to be fed to pigs.
The overseer was counting my days. I could see it in the way he looked at me. Those who died or were killed, like my brother who’d been stomped to death by the bullies, were taken away and never seen again. Where did they go? To the pig pens?
I did not want to be pig poop.
The shift ended, marked by a barked command from the overseer. The overseer was a slave, too, but a big, burly one with sandals, a tunic, and a whip. An ugly whip, with metal sewn into the tip. Nearly all of us knew that whip, knew the infected sores on our backs it made happen, knew the screaming pain and the worse after, the fever and inflammation and especially the horror when salt got into the wounds.
Real miners filed out first, swarming up the rope ladder like monkeys, still strong, maybe able to live another who knew how long? Then the bigger boys among us packers, hard on the heels of the miners. And then, last of all because that was the way it was, me. The overseer kept one eye on me. I could feel his look on my back, boring into my skull. He could not leave yet. He had to inventory the mining tools and jute packing bags, then wait for the night shift overseer to come down the rope to relieve him of duty. If I was slow, he might kill me tomorrow.
No one would care.
My arms had grown too weak. There was no muscle left. From well before dawn until dusk, I had labored, being watered little and fed less. I was not going to make it.
The overseer knew it. He’d seen dozens die, in all their stages. “Move it, crip!” His sudden bellow was not much of a surprise, yet it startled me. I was near the top, just a few more rope rungs to go, but it didn’t matter. My left foot slid from the rope as I stepped up, dropping my full weight on my arms. My grip failed, first one hand, then the other. I cartwheeled down the shaft, nearly ninety feet, screaming until my face met the salt floor with a resounding splat.
“Daylight in the swamps!” The soft, piping voice penetrated my skull like a cheery little redheaded woodpecker boring for insects. Rat-a-tat-tat! Ow! My eyes flew open. I was sitting up in bed, staring wildly into the darkness, sweating buckets, heart pounding. A sliver of light under the doorframe jerked me back to reality. Spare room in Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek’s big new house, built this past summer by the legendary Fort 24 cofounder and trader. “I’m up, Free!”
Yeah. Right. Let’s see…predawn. The six year old boy’s mother would have breakfast on the table in minutes. How Kiko had snagged the much older giant, now there was a mystery. But she’d done it and she could cook. Man, could she cook. Good thing, too, what with the rest of my crew up at the Gundersons’ livery for the duration of our stay. My inlaws would have liked me to spend some time with them, but they weren’t complaining. Who would, with the quiet, charismatic beauty of Lauren Evans to bewitch the men while the Smith brothers talked horse trade? This was, let’s see…Day Four at Fort 24.
Oh foo. The Council meeting was this morning. Salt trading negotiations were complete. We had bursting loads of everything from iron nails to tools to potatoes and herbs, rope and bolts of linen cloth, all ready to sling atop the pack string. Yep. No more trading to do.
Just politics. Ick.
I shucked out of my sopping buckskins, wiped myself as dry as possible, and climbed into my one good spare set of clothes. The dream–nightmare?–was starting to fade, thank goodness. At least the mystery of my aversion to vertical salt mine shafts was mystery no more. A final shudder rippled through me and I headed to the kitchen. Time to wrap myself around a sizeable bait of Kiko’s fine cooking. I was going to need the fuel for today’s meeting.
The newly appointed Head Criers watched closely, taking notes on precious linen-pulp paper. Whatever was decided here today, they would broadcast to each and every Fort 24 resident. After comparing notes and, if necessary, checking with Council members to be sure there were no mistakes. It was important to get things right, especially today.
Michael Jade looked good. Young, but good. His buckskins were well made, prime examples of mountain finery that accentuated his broad shoulders. Not a huge man but not a runt, either, he gave an impression of compact, coiled power. Dark haired, dark eyed, the former Fort Steel slave had the proverbial look of eagles about him. He didn’t miss much, that one.
Towering Jake Sedlacek dominated the room as always. Even his slight limp seemed somehow to add rather than detract from the giant’s gravitas. Silver streaked his black hair now.
Every Council member was in attendance, already seated around the square conference table. Pure oak, that one, jokingly referred to as “a Round Table with corners.” Not every attendee would vote in favor of the MAP, but at least none could later say it had been passed behind their backs. Every watcher tried to guess who would vote for the measure and who would vote against. Except for Grunt; all knew the co-founder and former trader wanted this agreement badly. But he would need three of the remaining six to vote with him. Did he have them? The assemblage would find out today.
Twenty-eight…no twenty-nine members of the public had taken audience seats as well. This treaty would affect every man, woman, and child. They had a right. They would also get at least some of the details wrong; the Town Criers would be replied upon to set the record straight.
As the first rays of the morning sun splashed through the east windows, Crush Miller (Lower Valley community rep) called the meeting to order and explained a few things for the sake of those who’d not been present yesterday or the day before.
“A motion has been placed before the Council, to wit: That we the government of Fort 24 join in alliance with the government of the settlement known as the Roost, not as a republic or confederacy, but as providers of mutual aid, one to another, should either come under attack by significant outside forces. This agreement shall be known as the MAP, or Mutual Assistance Pact. It has been argued that pressure from either the south, or east, or both, is inevitable. Raider groups are becoming larger, traders are bearing more and more alarming news of population growth and expansionist thinking, especially in the east, and at least one group of refugees from oppression in the east has already arrived to take up residence in the oxbow area of Roil River.
“Certain details of the proposed MAP agreement have yet to be worked out and will have to wait until later, as the Roost ambassador here today is under the time constraint of oncoming winter and must head back home by tomorrow morning at the latest. However, the broad outline of such an agreement has been agreed upon–should it pass in the vote today–and includes four key provisions that cannot be ignored or deleted. These four are:
“One. In time of extremis, up to one half of all trained and healthy fighters resident in any member group can and will be committed to come to the aid of any other member group under attack, or expected to come under attack.
“Two. Membership shall not be limited to Fort 24 and the Roost but shall be open to other free western communities, should any wish to apply for membership. Three prospective members shall be approached on this matter: Red Horse’s Eagle Clan band, the Gathering at Roil River, and Fort Steel.
“Three. No group practicing or condoning slavery shall be admitted.
“Four. In preparation for such times when the MAP’s combined armed forces may be campaigning in the field, a register of leadership hierarchy shall record the Captain in Charge and his Second in Command in order that confusion in the field be minimized.”
The Criers scribbled furiously. They would have to condense this, but later. Later. For now, green light, get it all down, worry about distilling the essence after the meeting adjourned.
Surprisingly, not a single voice was raised against the concept or even against the staggering fact that fully half of Fort 24’s military force might one day be sent out to assist a new, much smaller ally some twenty days’ hard ride east on fast horses. Thirty days, if a supply train was part of the picture. There wasn’t even any overt concern about inviting the Roil River newcomers to participate…though the Council hadn’t been told those Gathering people were mostly black. They could find out later. A few Fort 24 residents were about as bigoted as ancient rulers Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Adolf Hitler had been. Only a few, but they were a loud few, as Red Horse’s people had learned to their sorrow but not their surprise.
No, the objections came from other quarters. Harvey the Rabbit Man wanted a much more ambitious setup, a republic with Fort 24 and the Roost as states within that republic. Big Jake shot that down before Jade could get to his feet. Republics required a centralized government, he pointed out, and they inevitably failed as government grew big enough to eat the descendants of its founders, if not the founders themselves. No way. Same thing for a confederacy, that being, as he put it, “…nothing but republic lite.”
There was a lull in which it seemed discussion might be over. But no. Not hardly. This was after all a political meeting. Rob Speck (Lower Valley rep) was on his feet, demanding to know why it mattered if a group applying for membership practiced slavery. “None of our business, I say!” Stocky of build, with a jutting chin and a reputation for stubbornness, Speck was the closest thing to a Libertarian the Fort had.
Michael Jade and Jake Sedlacek were on their feet instantly. Crush Miller raised his gavel and an eyebrow, then hesitated. A look passed between Michael and Jake. Michael sat back down, his entire demeanor declaring, “Go ahead, big man. I’ll wait my turn.”
Grunt planted his feet, hooked his thumbs in his belt, and glared at Speck before addressing the room as a whole. “Hunh.” His voice boomed. “I find it hard to believe any man in this room could question that provision. Our number one ally, in fact the man who suggested the MAP in the first place, was a slave in Fort Steel for years. He knows from the inside what that means. But my esteemed colleague,” his voice dripped with scorn, “wants to wave that away like a bad smell when gas has been passed. I’d like to be able to tell you I understand what this man,” he gestured to Jade, seated at his side, “has been through. But I can’t, and neither can any of you. So let’s recap what he’s accomplished in the past year and two months. Maybe then you’ll take him seriously even if you don’t give credit to his insights on the marvelous–that’s sarcasm, Rob–institution of slavery.
“This man watched as his parents were slaughtered by Fort Steel slavers. Then he was taken at age nine–nine, mind you–and forced to labor as a slave until he was traded to me last year at the age of sixteen. I freed him, as you know. Since then he’s only, oh, let’s see…gained some schooling here at Fort 24. Trained toward being a Sentinel. Wounded and drove off a tiger who attacked his classmate. Later helped kill that same tiger. Saved our bacon in the Rhubarb War where I was shot, taking out two outlaws, including Rodney Upward himself, in close quarters combat. Freed his own people from Fort Steel slavery, possibly ending slavery there forever. Personally killed their military enforcer. Founded an entirely new community, the Roost. Brought in an important group, the Smith family. Wiped out close to a third of King Arthur’s notorious gang, including the King himself, while saving the Gathering at the Roil. Faced down the feral dog mob known as the Locust Pack and seriously reduced their numbers. Brought us a load of more-precious-than-gold salt just when we needed it most. Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten, he also married one of ours, Julia Gunderson. He did all that and more in one year. If anyone in this room is foolish enough to still think slavery is an okay idea as long as it’s not in our community, then at least open your eyes enough to recognize this man as a formidable ally and the best of friends.”
Jake sat down. Speck was stunned but recovered rapidly, shaking his head like a horse bothered by flies. “Yeah, well, he’s still–”
“My turn.” Jade was on his feet, his voice soft but compelling. “Slavery next door today is slavery in your home town tomorrow, Mr. Speck. So let me show you just exactly what slavery is, and you tell me if you’d like to live it, or have your loved ones live it.” His jacket was hung over his chair. He was undoing the laces on his shirt. Shrugging out of the buckskin garment, he revealed a strongly muscled torso, gleaming with the health, vitality, and sheer power of youth. Then he turned around, giving the Council and most of the audience a good look. His entire back was criss-crossed with thick ropes of braided scar tissue, highlighted by the long, slanting rays of the morning sun which made the rough ridges appear three times as prominent as they actually were. A collective gasp sucked all the oxygen from the room.
“That,” Sentinel rep Overland remarked quietly, “must hurt like hell.”
Michael turned back around, shrugging into his shirt. “It’s not comfortable,” he admitted in extreme understatement, “but I’m used to it. I don’t know anything else.”
Fort 24 voted the MAP into law, 5 aye, 2 nay. Rob Speck and Harvey the Rabbit Man refused to budge, though it didn’t make any difference. There are none so blind as those who will not see, and they would not could not see Michael Jade as anything other than a jumped-up punk kid with pretensions of grandeur. He was probably lying about all that stuff he’d supposedly done, never mind that Jake Sedlacek himself had been present for some of it. This Roost bunch sounded like a ragtag gaggle of pitiful fugitives seeking to leech off of their wealthier neighbors. In Before political terms, if Jade had been a Republican, Harvey and Rob were left wing Democrats full of derision and scorn.
Jacob “Jake” Sedlacek (aka Grunt) was approved as Captain in Charge with Michael Jade as Second in Command. The Roost didn’t even know about this yet, but Jade assured the Council that his own people would endorse what he’d done as soon as he got back home. The Head Criers quit scribbling and scrambled for the door; this news must be out and running within the hour.
I was proud of the kid, even if the MAP he’d pushed for might well force me back out on a long, hard trail or two before all was said and done. Hopefully not; word from the traders painted a picture of multiple back-east communities fighting each other more than anything else, and the true southerners at Gatorville weren’t terribly interested in forging a northern empire that might require them to deal with snow and subzero weather. With luck, we might have another generation or two before the buffalo chips hit the tornado.
Not that either Michael or I counted on luck much. But we’d never have been able to get the Council to go for a Captain in Charge who was all of seventeen years old, never mind that he’d done more school-of-hard-knocks living in his seventeen years than Rob Speck had in his fifty-five.
“I’m getting antsy,” Jade admitted as we neared my house. Our house. Mine and Kiko’s and little Free’s. The youngster was coming out of his shell rather well now.
“Yeah, you need to get going. Your crew will be here for supper, right?”
“That’s the agreement.”
“Kiko wouldn’t miss it. She’s been looking forward to throwing this feed from the moment y’all rode in.”
“I know. It’s just–”
“A long way home and the weather’s turning. I get it.” There’d been snow on the peaks yesterday. With a month’s travel still ahead of them, the specter of blizzards sweeping over the prairie was a chill one. Heh. “Might be a surprise of the good kind before you go, though.”
We’d reached the barn. Stepping down, I eyed the lad’s rough-gaited roan. Amazing that he was still forking that particular bronc. “You’ll see.”
When we’d finished caring for the horses and headed for the house, I made sure Michael went through the door before I did. He hadn’t commented on the strange horses clustered in the corral, but then he didn’t know what belonged there. Double heh. I had to see his reaction to this.
The tall warrior rose from the table first. “Granshako!” I fairly lunged forward. We clasped forearms, then pulled each other into a fierce hug, grinning like idiots. I’d never seen the anti-white Indian so effusive, but then, he had reason. Michael Jade was one white man he had reason to trust. When we broke our embrace, a stocky woman, dusky of complexion but no Indian, moved up beside her man.
“This is Carly,” Granshako announced proudly. “From North Valley. We got married in Red Horse’s village nine days ago. If you’ll have us, we’ll honeymoon on the way to this Roost of yours.”
My jaw fell open. “You’d both leave your people? To join me–I mean, join us?”
“No, you had it right the first time. To join you. This Roost of yours sounds like an eagle roost to me. We need that. Carly’s people threw her out when she took up with me. My people married us okay, but the women are mad I hooked up with an off-white girl instead of one of them.” His eyes danced. Native American humor in full flow. Carly punched him lightly in the ribs, causing the corners of his mouth to twitch upward.
“Well now, you’re surely welcome, both of you.”
“We don’t come as beggars.” Carly looked serious. “My man’s leg is all healed. He’s been catching and breaking wild horses. So he brings twenty, and my two brothers didn’t like what Dad and Mom did, so they gave me a bunch of pack saddles and halters as sort of a sneaky wedding present.”
“Twenty–why, that means…excellent!”
Behind me, Jake cleared his throat. “Kiko tells me your bunch just topped that far north ridge. They’ll be here in fifteen, twenty minutes. I’ve got one more, uh, little surprise for you.”
The “little” surprise was anything but. The creature–man?–that shuffled out of the shadowed back bedroom was…grotesque is the kindest word that comes to mind. Long, powerful arms. Short, thick legs. It–he?–shambled forward, almost on all fours, reminiscent of gorilla pictures I’d seen in a Before book. Not a gorilla head, though; that dome was a regular pumpkin of a thing, round and huge. But hairy. It looked like thick black fur, not only on top of his head but covering his face as well. This being could sleep in a snowbank and sweat. The beard drooped at least a foot below his chin, or at least what I thought was his chin. Tiny ears. Big nose holes. Thick lips framing teeth fit for cracking coconuts, had there been any coconuts around here to crack. His clothing was strange, too, some form of…golden brown cloth? No boots on his feet, nor leather moccasins, but….
He looked like some primitive spirit, or demon, something that should live deep in a jungle.
When he spoke, he nearly knocked my boots off. “Michael Jade? I’m pleased to meet you.” Cultured. Perfect English. High society from the mouth of a circus pumpkin-ape. What the?
“Uh. Yeah. I’m him. Jade. Michael.”
“Well,” the apparition turned to Jake in obvious amusement, “I’ve seen worse reactions.”
Indeed he had. All of his life, he explained, people had been trying to kill him. Hate and fear at first sight. Forty-three years of age, as close as he could figure. His mother had died from capriosi vilify, one of the very last victims. Another woman, fleeing the remains of Philadelphia City, had heard him crying in distress, lying beside his mother’s corpse, dehydrated, starving, and alone. “I couldn’t have weighed much at the time,” he explained, telling how Mama Stella had found him in the rubble. For the next three decades plus a year or two, they’d been inseparable until she finally died from sheer exhaustion.
“She not only raised me, but she taught me everything she knew, and she knew a lot. Before the Fall, she’d been a PhD biochemist and a botanist. We had to hide from everyone. She was considered a good looking woman, and that was a bad thing. I was considered a freak monster, and that was also a bad thing. It was the two of us against the world.”
As he spoke, my initial shock melted away. To tell the truth, he was no uglier than my whip-scarred back, eh? And his knowledge of plants…I had to interrupt. “Would you be interested in joining us at the Roost? It’s a long month’s travel from here, but we could sure use your skills. Heck, one of the former slave women might even take a shine to you. We’re short of men and they aren’t picky.”
That made him laugh. “That would be something. I won’t be counting on it, mind you. But yes, I wouldn’t mind joining you. I prefer to live alone, but the country is getting crowded. I’m no fighter, but I can help with sickness and healing wounds. I can also teach anyone willing to learn which wild foods are safe and which are not.”
Hot dang. We had us a pet gorilla Albert Einstein of the plant kingdom.
He didn’t have to tell me why Fort 24 wasn’t suitable. Around these parts, given half a chance, some fool would shoot him for target practice.
The surprises for the day weren’t finished, though. By the time supper was on the table, my mind was reeling, trying to take it all in. As expected, Julia, Lauren, Mace, and Sandy were all present, but they hadn’t come alone. Gabriella Gunderson, Julia’s sister who’d been wounded by Rodney Upward in the gang’s first raid, was hanging on Sandy Smith’s arm like she was afraid he might escape if she looked the other way. Nice rebound, Sandy. Ace Gunderson, one of the middle brothers, had decided to abandon his father’s business as well. “Three of my brothers got themselves wives now.” He shrugged, unconcerned. “The old man will survive without me and Gaby.” To top it off, Russ Gunderson had sent along more horses, some of the finest riding stock in the west, as sort of a double dowry for Gabriella and Julia. He’d also sent a threat. Get his girls killed, he’d promised, and he’d track me down and stomp me to mush.
The Abominable Hair Man could do it, too.
And then Jess popped in.
It was good to see the dumpy teamster. It was even better to hear that, sort-of daughter to Jake or no, she was emigrating to the Roost with us. “Why?” I asked, then mentally smacked myself upside the head. It sounded like I didn’t want her at the Roost. Happily, she understood.
“Why not? It’s getting boring around here. No more trading runs, not a single attempt by anyone to kill me or even steal my cargo. And I’m bringing a wagon. And mules.”
Wait. “A wagon? Jess, we can’t get a wagon within miles of the Roost. No wagon roads. Steep game trails. Trees as thick as fleas on a dog.”
“And your point is?”
I stared at her, blinking owlishly. “Uh–”
“Michael, the wagon doesn’t have to go all the way to your Roost right now. Winter is on its way. No one is likely to go foraging in the high country until next spring at least. We stash the wagon as close as we can get it, then take the winter to figure out how we’re going to build a wagon road from the open prairie country up to your place.”
My eyes narrowed. “Few problems with that. Aside from the time and manpower needed. Much of our safety lies in the fact that wagons can’t reach us. If we build a road….”
She stared me down, eyes serious. “The road is essential, for trade and to expedite cavalry movement. You’ve taken a leadership role now, a big one that encompasses the entire region. Do you think the big boys are going to be willing to deal with you long term if you’re hiding in the hills like…well, like Herman the Hermit here.” She jerked a thumb toward gorilla man, Mama Stella’s boy, making me realize I hadn’t gotten his name yet. I was never going to be able to get Herman the Hermit out of my head.
“Hey,” Herman said. Mildly. He didn’t seem offended.
“Hey yourself, Herm. If you don’t have a secluded place of residence, well hidden from the world at large, the mob will come after you with torches and pitchforks, yelling monster!”
“True that.” The herbalist hermit–oh brother, now I’m doing it–nodded in agreement.
“Just as true, if Michael doesn’t put on a brave front, yelling here I am or some such, he’ll never be taken seriously. Who cares what the hillbillies in the hills think? It’s a numbers game. You can’t afford to ignore public opinion.”
I sighed. Deeply. They say every revolution eats its own children. Was I about to be eaten? We’d left the Roost last spring as a party of six. Mudfoot’s murder had reduced that number by one. Now we were returning with half again as many people, at least if you counted Herman the Herbalist Gorilla-Pumpkin Hermit. And more than three dozen additional horses. And a mutual defense treaty with a western power.
My head hurt.