Moss Feldman’s tale about escaping from New York on a gunboat called Badge of Honor put a whole new spin on the way I saw the wagon driver. I wanted to know more. Sadly, it would have to wait. The sky had turned partly cloudy, but there was still enough shine-through to make it obvious there wasn’t much daylight left. Far ahead, our lead wagon turned from the road, hooking back toward a rocky creek on the other side of a boulder-speckled meadow. The rest followed, being careful to avoid oversized stones that could mess up a team, break a wagon wheel, or worse. I knew what came next. It was time to circle the wagons.
Wrong. It was time to spiral the wagons. Each team moved up beside a parked wagon, not behind it. Wait. Not a spiral, either. Not exactly. More like a teardrop. A big, jagged teardrop. Or maybe a sawtooth leaf? No. Teardrop. The lead team was swiftly unhooked and led inside the enclosure to have tack removed, but the rest of them were already inside. When the parking process was complete, there was only a single creekside opening left, just wide enough to lead horses out to be hobbled so they could graze.
After being fed a ration of oats. Man, they had oats? How unbelievably rich were these people? And how many? I counted twenty monster wagons, so twenty drivers at least. Plus roving riders. Guards? Another twenty of those. At least a dozen folks who didn’t fit either category.
Lacking either strength or knowledge sufficient to assist with horse-and-camp chores, I begged a piece of paper and a quill pen from Moss so I could sketch the layout. It fascinated me. Whether or not the shape was deliberate I could not tell. It might be the result of wagon drivers new to the process, in which case it would get better over time. Probably. Beyond that, my sketch was kind of embarrassing. In real life, every wagon looked identical in shape and size. My representative rectangles on paper started out big and pretty but shrank by a factor of three or four by the time the teardrop was complete.
Hey, I’m no artist. Just a curious cat. I would redraw the rendering later. Maybe. In the meantime, my childish effort would at least help me remember. And I did have the shape right, more or less.
I was squatting, my back propped against a wagon wheel, studying the sketch with mild disgust when Moss’s voice jerked me back to more practical matters. “You stink, boy.” He tossed a string-wrapped bundle at my head. Startled, I barely caught it in time. “Go dump yourself in the creek, scrub yourself from head to toe, and get dressed.”
Blinking in confusion and shuddering at the idea of voluntarily baring myself to those chill waters–again, after so many near-drownings during my flight from Cuya County–I almost missed his next words. When the import hit me, so did humiliation. “When you’re done, bring that rag of a robe back here and we’ll burn it. Wouldn’t do to gag the fish.”
The creek was even icier than I’d expected. Running faster, too. By the time I emerged from a small boulder-nest backwater pool, scrubbed in places I didn’t even know I had places, I was shaking like an aspen leaf in an autumn gale. Silently cursing the old Jew from one side of my mouth and blessing him with the other, I placed the rough bar of homemade soap on a bit of leaf litter and got dressed. Where had he found clothes that more or less fit me? They were a bit loose, but not ridiculously so. As I regained weight, they’d fit even better. There was even a pair of sturdy leather boots. Tee shirt, packers (skivvies), thick socks. Neutral earth-colored, long sleeved shirt with jeans to match and a flat-braid belt rope. A soft cap with ear flaps and ties that kept them out of the way when they weren’t needed. A heavy canvas jacket to keep out the wind.
Warm. Soothing. Comfortable.
An image of a hog being fattened for the butcher’s knife flashed into my head. Not that these Jews ate pork. Or maybe they did. Main point being, nobody treated a wastrel stray with such charity. There had to be a darker motive behind Feldman’s seemingly open-handed generosity. He was up to something.
But what was it?
All my life, I’d heard horror stories about the grasping Jew, the greedy Jew, the Jew of Two Faces, the evil demonic spawn of Satan Jew. Anti-Semitism was an article of faith in Cuya County. Being treated like a prodigal son returned to the fold made no sense. It had to be a façade, a well practiced deceit designed to trap the unwary.
But man oh man, this new apparel felt awesome.
When I returned to the wagon fort enclosure, night was falling. Moss waved me over to join a group gathered around one of half a dozen campfires. At our fire, numerous men, three women. No mistaking genders when they all wore clothes similar to my new garb. No dresses? No decent Cuya County girl would be caught dead in jeans. Huh.
A grandmotherly sort of woman eyed me with obvious welcome. “Come, sit, have a bite.”
Couldn’t argue with that. The seats were interesting, stools with hinged legs that obviously folded for travel. Hard as a wagon seat on my bony butt and likely made from similar wood. There were several different bowls being passed around the fire. No way these had been whipped up on the spot; the women must have been cooking all day long as the wagons rolled west. How? Worry about it later. There were mashed potatoes, a creamy goulash with plenty of meat, hot brown bread fresh from the oven, preserves of some dark berry, even steamed squash. My rational brain tried to keep my suspicious nature alert. The rest of me turned traitor and signed up for the duration.
For a time, I was so busy gorging myself that conversation around me faded to a distant hiss of white noise. The first voice to penetrate was feminine. “Simon’s clothes look good on you.”
I turned to regard the female. Short, five-two at most. Dark eyes. Dark hair, curly, shoulder length, reflecting firelight. Full, wide lips. High cheekbones. “Uh.” I swallowed a mouthful of jammy bread, suddenly worried. Girl. Built like brick–“Who’s Simon?”
“My husband,” she said simply. When she inhaled, how interesting the view. And uh-oh, I suddenly realized these jeans might be a problem. Unlike my former wizard’s robe, they made any below-the-belt reaction instantly obvious. Talk, fool. If you’re talking, maybe she won’t look down.
Yeah, right. “Oh. I should thank him.”
“Send a prayer.” She smiled. Gently, no heavy emotion in it. “He was killed last year.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t–”
She waved it away. Slim fingers, graceful hands, calloused palms. No shrinking violet, this one. “No way you could know.” She’d been standing but now settled herself on the stool immediately to my left. There’d been a soldier type sitting there a minute ago, hadn’t there? Where had he gone? Miss Impressive’s scent washed over me, delicate, clean, a hint of lavender. “He died a hero, part of a squad that hit a group of Hooded Cobra raider-spies who were caught inside our borders. We do not mourn him. We celebrate his life.” She shrugged, forcing her shirt to do interesting things. “You are not wearing his death garments, but the other clothing he left behind serves a purpose. At least, in our family that is the practice. Not everyone thinks as we do.”
Why is it the presence of a beautiful female forces men to stay stupid things? “It’s really comfortable. What’s it made from?” Not cotton, I was sure. Cotton only grew farther south and was rarely seen in Cuya County, but the wealthy CCP wizards (Holy COW. Heh.) wore cotton robes. This wasn’t that. It wasn’t linen, either. So what was it?
Amazingly, I’d stumbled onto the right topic. “I’m glad you asked! Everything you’re wearing, excepting the boots, is made from the same source. So are the canvas wagon domes. The water bags. Baskets. Even all of the ropes, from strings to hawsers.” She grinned wide, flashing perfectly imperfect teeth. “Guess!”
Irrepressible much? “I have no clue.” Ugh. A bit too accurate, that.
“Are you sure you can’t guess? I’ll give you another clue. It’s the crop we intend to make the mainstay of our economy, wherever we set up shop out west.”
My mind was blank. Thank the Stars, she finally took mercy on me. “Industrial hemp.”
“Hemp? You mean, like pot?” These Jews were looking to set up Stoner Nation in the wilderness?
“Like, but not the same.” Her voice took on a lecturing tone, teacher to student. “Both members of the cannabis family, but you’d have to smoke a wagon load of hemp to get high. Did you know the word canvas originally came from cannabis?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I didn’t know that.”
“Oy. What conspiracies the politicians weave. See, Grant, hemp was used to make the sails and ropes for the ancient sailing ships–and for that matter, the current sailing boats, though most of those have to stick to coastal waters these days. Nobody survives the wide ocean when a major storm hits. So nobody is putting in the time, effort, and resources to build an ocean crosser. Why would they?”
It suddenly dawned on me that the entire wagon enclosure had gone quiet. Men were moving through shadows near several wagons. Only–“You have the advantage of me. I know not your name.”
“Oo, formal form of address. I like it.” He eyes sparkled with mischief. Was this hot JAP interested in me? Couldn’t be. A scrawny stray competing with trained fighting men of her own kind? Unthinkable. “My name is Merrilee. Some call me Merry, but I hate that. Lee is okay. Last name Feldman.”
Feldman. Of course. “Granddaughter?”
She laughed, full and throaty. “A flatterer, too! Oo, I’ve struck the mother lode. No, Grant. Moshe is my father in law, not my grandfather. I’m twenty-eight years old.”
Really? She didn’t look more than fifteen. “You look…younger.”
“Thanks.” She patted my knee. “A girl likes to hear that.”
Her touch sent flames racing through my entire body, but it wouldn’t do. Not yet. Not until I’d established myself. Established yourself? A pheromone-charged smile and a few soft words have you committed to these people, just like that? I had to change the subject. “Where did everybody go?”
She glanced around, unconcerned. “They’re getting ready for the attack.”
“Say what?” I hadn’t heard her right.
“What attack? The wagon train is going to be attacked?”
“Oh, sure. Every train is attacked. What did you think? Three thousand miles out in the open between here and Gatorville–which is a real snake pit unto itself, by the way. Every freight wagon is a juicy target. Twenty Jewish wagons with scores of prime draft animals? Eldorado. Everybody knows we sneaky, acquisitive Jews carry thousands of pounds of gold and gemstones, rich furs and big-eyed virgins. What bandit wouldn’t drool over such a prize?”
My eyes narrowed. “It’s a mighty big wagon train for a few stumblebum raiders to tackle, don’t you think?” Great galloping galoshes, we were only one day out of Masada itself, for cry-yi.
She sighed melodramatically. “Ah, stereotype, foolishness is thy name. Not every outlaw is either stupid or cowardly. Some of them command a hundred men or more, from time to time. But you do have a point. Most raider groups would drool with envy as they passed us by. So who would try to take us out? Eh?”
I thought about it. Amazingly, an answer came. “A major opponent. One who hated the fact that every wagon load of trade goods from Gatorville has to pass through WSJ territory to reach them. UTE is your ally, so hopefully not them. Aside from the raid in which your Simon was killed, Hooded Cobra probably wouldn’t bother because getting a sizeable military force through 13 Bloody Crips and WSJ would be a losing proposition. Cuya County is too far north for a direct attack on WSJ to make any sense. Which leaves…13 Bloody Crips.”
“Brass ring, Grant. You nailed it.” She patted my knee again, turned it into a quick squeeze. “Dad was right about you.”
“So…what more can you tell me about this impending attack?”
“Why certainly, young Jedi. Listen and learn.”
Jedi? Was that Yiddish, or what?
“We don’t travel blind. There are scouts out all the time when we’re on the move. They report a force of two hundred enemy, give or take. The Thirteens got out ahead of us. Not surprising; it’s pretty much impossible to keep an undertaking of this size a secret. One of their spies no doubt got wind of our enterprise. Our borders are not exactly hermetically sealed. It wouldn’t have been impossible for them to slip a whole bunch of heavily armed people through our territory without being seen, especially if the soldiers traveled in small groups and moved only at night. Some of their scouts are as good as anyone on our side, don’t tell Moshe I said that. They’ve known our exact position from the moment we left city limits.”
My heart was pounding almost painfully in my chest. “Two hundred is a lot.”
“There’ll be fewer tomorrow.”
She sounded so confident. Hubris? Or did she have reason? The fires were left to die down, leaving the areas under the wagons in pitch darkness. No moon. A few stars peeping through cloud cover. Merrilee got off her stool and began cleaning up. I wanted to help but figured that would tarnish my already less-than-manly image. Being careful of my footing in the darkness, I headed over to Moss’s wagon, which served as one side of the wagon fort entrance. Now that I was listening, I could hear people digging, the occasional clack as shovel head met buried rock. Foxholes. Under the wagons. I wanted one. Dig me a hole and call me gopher.
It wasn’t Moss digging under his wagon. “I’ll be in the wagon box,” he explained. “You’re welcome to join me, or you can dig a hole.”
“I’ll dig a hole.” Getting trapped inside a wagon box…no. “And maybe a weapon?”
“You’re not known well enough to be issued a shooter. But if things get hot enough that you need one, the man in the foxhole next to you will already be dead. You can grab his.”
Oh, great. That sounded like fun. I bummed a short-handled shovel, crawled under Feldman’s wagon, and started digging. The warrior next to my position had already finished his foxhole. He was hunkered down, curled up and snoring. I dug carefully, quietly, partly to avoid waking him. Mostly to eavesdrop on the low conversation being held a few yards away. Moss, plus several other voices I didn’t recognize.
“They should get here by oh-three-hundred.” Unidentified voice.
“No chance they’ll wait for dawn?” Female. Sounded familiar.
“They know better than that.” Moss.
“Standard prep good to go?” Female.
“Done and done.” Unidentified voice.
“Bring the horses in around midnight. They should have grazed their fill by then.” Moss.
“Aye. Most of them are asleep on their feet already. Except for lazy lie-down Blaze.” Unidentified voice.
“Light ’em up when?” Different unidentified voice. Sounded young.
“I’ll give the signal.” Moss.
“Aye.” Older unidentified voice.
No more. I bent my back to my task, piling dirt up in front of the body-saver excavation. Questions darted back and forth between my ears like minnows in a river eddy. Who was the woman? Why did she sound familiar? Why did the enemy know better than to tackle these wagons in daylight? What was “standard prep?” What did “light ’em up” mean?
Curious, curious cat.
Wait. The woman. That voice…grandmotherly, telling me, “Come, sit, have a bite.”
Man, this was a tough crowd.
How I fell asleep, emulating the warrior next door, I had no idea.
Cloud cover had increased. It was about as dark as a night could get. No way to tell exactly what time it might be. Somewhere between 0100 and 0700 hours, girl. The sky will lighten by 0700.
Choam Silver had been wide awake for some time now, refreshed by his foxhole nap. Action was imminent. Tired or not, Silver never got caught napping. He was now ready, as was I in my safety pit beneath Israel’s wagon. Positioned between Choam and me, the ignorant, innocent Cuya County refugee slept on, though his snoring had settled considerably. Interesting man, that one. Tall and thin, half-starved, yet a look about him that reminded me of my lost Simon. And Simon’s clothes would fit him glove-fine, once he’d had a chance to put on a little weight.
My father in law had to have known the effect Grant Howard would have on me. Moshe Feldman, schemer extraordinaire.
A small clinking sound out there somewhere in the darkness. Someone had stumbled into the early warning line placed sixty feet out from the wagons.
“Light ’em up!”
Dad Feldman’s bellow made me jump. Thank goodness it was dark; I hate looking stupid. Slightly flustered and flaming with this is it adrenaline, wouldn’t you know, the first safety match flew from my fingers, landing down around my feet somewhere. The second try worked. Strike match against grit strip on box. Light! Yes, light, hidden from the enemy by my trusty earthen bulwark. Touch to quickmatch FLARE! Which is why they call that sort of fuse quick. A split second slower than the wagon to my left, maybe half a second ahead of the wagon to my right. Bilious yellow-green light exploded the night, flashing forth from stake-mounts installed after dark, reflecting from the metal wagon sides, exposing the startled 13 Bloody Crips fighters in a scene worthy of–
Worthy of what? There was no adequate way to describe it. Senior WSJ warriors, my father in law among them, told of numerous battles over the years, some dating back to the final gasps of Man’s Fall. Among their combat hardened peers, there were knowing looks, simple nods of acknowledgement. For someone like me, a simple girl taking up the fighting duties of her fallen mate for the first time, there was only one word that seemed like it might fit.
The brown-skinned enemy fighters seemed endless, thousands I would have thought, had our scouts not been so certain there were “only” two hundred or so. Of course they couldn’t field thousands. It would have required conscripting every man, woman, and babe-in-arms in their entire nation to do so. For one seemingly endless moment, they stopped, frozen in place, startled. So close, so close, so close. I gripped my rifle so hard my fingers hurt. We under-wagon warriors were reserves; Moshe had told us that. Only if they closed, attempted to breach our perimeter by scooting in beneath the wagon beds, only then would we need to fight.
I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to pee my pants. How had my Simon done this, month after month, year after year, and remained sane? How? How?
One huge black man, darker than most, his angry features a sickly greenish tint like overcooked and overripe roast beef due to the color of our flares, rose from a half-crouch to stand erect. His arm shot skyward, holding a rifle. His mouth opened to shout his forces forward.
At that instant, the Maccabee Hedgehog shot its quills. Upper-half panels dropped clear, allowing every wagon’s rear-end guns to open fire. Most were rifles, but even with my lack of field experience, there was no mistaking the Big Dog for anything else. Moshe’s antique .50 caliber machine gun, the same heavy weapon that had once been mounted on a sixty-foot boat dubbed the Badge of Honor, roared a full metal jacket greeting to our visitors. I was still staring at the dusky giant when a .50 caliber sewing machine stitched him across both thighs, blowing great gobbets of meat and bone away, dropping his abbreviated body to the frosted grass.
I desperately wanted to look away but could not. No one had ever told me there was this much noise. And blood. And literal guts. Screaming, crying–one of those screams came from my left. Grant Howard. No one had bothered to wake him before starting the dance.
Bodies on the ground, scores of them, some still in death but many others writhing in agony. War is Hell, the old saying goes. I never understood that until now. More down, and still more, rows of them meeting the sharp-edged reality of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. And it was a scythe. Some crawling, dragging limbs, dragging entrails. Others running, fleeing the Demon Consequence. Why did you have to try to take us out? None of them heard me. The agonized question was only in my own head, anyway. They never pulled a single trigger. Never had a chance. And still our guns fired.
What kind of monsters were my people?
The wagon guns stopped.
Over the moans and screams of wounded and dying men, my father in law’s bellow rang out with authority. “Harness up! We leave at first light!”
Seated on bloody grass, I cradled the man’s head and shoulders in my arms. “Don’t leave me,” he begged. He looked to be twenty or so, mixed race, part African American, part Hispanic. His heavily muscled upper arms were covered with tattoos. His left knee was shattered, though it was the thigh wound that would kill him. I hadn’t been able to stop the bleeding.
“I won’t leave you,” I promised.
There was a hint of gray on the horizon. The killing field flares had burned out, but several wagon fort campfires had been built up, casting enough light for the teamsters to get their teams hitched to the wagons. Enough light for the half-squad of snipers to see any wounded enemy who might try to get off a shot against the caravan. There had been eight of those, each terminated by a single head shot. 13 Bloody Crips would not leave their wounded to suffer alone. Someone had told me that, when I’d asked. There were enemy soldiers out there still, watching, waiting for us to leave so it would be safe to tend to their fallen. They would not try sniping; the Jews had crushed them too thoroughly. Ninety-seven down, according to my battlefield count. Half of their entire force.
My new family? Scary.
Yet no one had tried to prohibit me from visiting the darkling butcher’s field. They thought I was crazy, but they didn’t try to stop me. I exercised my white privilege, the awareness that none of Moshe Feldman’s people were likely to mistake my milk-pale face for that of a ganger. Red Cross did not exist these days. White face would have to do.
Maybe they were hoping a wounded 13 would take me out. I was new, an unknown factor to most of them. Let one of ’em cap the schlub, or stick a shiv in him. We’ll be well rid of Feldman’s stray.
“I have failed.” The burly ganger’s voice was weak but clear. I looked him in the eye, Soul meeting Soul, as he repeated the words. “I have failed.”
He was gone.
“Time to get on the wagon, Grant. We’re moving out.”
I lifted my head, blinking. Feldman’s daughter in law. Simon’s widow. Merrilee. With great effort, I got to my feet. “There’s a boy.”
“A boy.” Where was that boulder…there. I walked over, “Esteban, it’s Grant. A woman is with me.”
Merrilee followed, bemused.
The youngster huddled behind the rock, hugging himself, shivering. “This is Esteban Morales.”
She stared, eyes big. “You want us to adopt a ganger?”
“Look at him. He’s unarmed.” Thin, too, I should talk.
She looked. I couldn’t read her expression. “How old are you, Esteban?”
“E-e-e-leven,” he stuttered, whether from the chill morning air, terror, or shock, who knew? Probably all three. “P-please let me come with you. I won’t b-b-be any t-trouble. I swear.”
Was the young widow putting it together? Did she realize how bad it had to be at home for the lad to beg sanctuary with the people who’d just slaughtered his compatriots like so many strung-up hogs?
“Where’s your weapon?” She asked quietly. “Surely you weren’t thrown at us barehanded, were you?”
“I h-h-had a knife. A little one. But I dropped it s-s-somewhere. It was r-r-rusty anyway.”
I was about to find out just how decisive a member of Feldman’s family could be. “Stick close, Esteban, right behind me. So close you’re almost bumping into me. In fact, take hold of my belt. Grant, you bring up the rear. We’re going to make an Esteban sandwich. Our people won’t hurt me, but a couple of them might tag you, Esteban, if they got a clear shot. Mr. Tall, White, and Good Samaritan here will have to take his chances.”
Moss was already up his wagon seat, waiting for us. There was just enough light to allow the teamsters to avoid all those meadow boulders. The lead wagon headed out just as we handed Esteban up to sit on the old Jew’s left. Without a word or even a raised eyebrow, Moss snagged a piece of jerky like the one he’d given me yesterday and held it out to the shivering youngster. Yesterday? Could it be that recent? The kid grabbed the meat strip and started chewing, eyes watching his benefactor with the look of a cat who fears an adversary might try to take his fresh-caught mouse.
I started to climb the ladder. Merrilee’s voice stopped me. “You’re covered in blood. Let me grab another set of clothing. You change, and I’ll soak what you’re wearing in a cold water tub while we’re on the trail.”
There was no use arguing. I did drop into a foxhole to make the change; no way was I stripping in front of this female. I’d have to do without the canvas jacket today, but complaining wasn’t in the cards. Esteban Morales was wearing thinner clothing than I was. If he could suffer in silence, so could I.
It was nearly noon before it dawned on me to wonder how on Earth the teamsters managed to get the entire caravan moving without crashing a wagon wheel or busting a horse leg in one of those foxholes. Puzzled, I pulled my amateurish jagged teardrop sketch out of the map case and began studying the layout. When Moss noticed me adding to the diagram, he told me where to find his cache of coloring sticks.
By the time we found another decent pullout for the night, the wagon train was twenty miles farther down the road. Forty miles in the first two days, losing nothing but sleep to the early morning slaughter. Before he climbed down from the butt-blistering hardwood seat, Moss took a long look at my enhanced artwork. “You just found your niche, Grant. We need someone to chronicle our journey, keep our history. You’re our new company clerk.”
I had no idea how radically those few words would shape my life.