I was in the middle of my third horse sketch, wondering why the left side of the animal’s face looked perfect yet the right side insisted on resembling a mutant mule, when the rider came into view. He was still a dot on the horizon when my gut pegged him as heading right for us. Thoughtfully, I put my drawings and tools away, swapping them out for a small stick of firewood. Still following instinct, a six-inch all-purpose belt knife replaced the huge Bowie, though the Colt .45 stayed in its shoulder holster. There’s a difference between disguising oneself as a hayseed and being just plain stupid.
Old Cort Blausfeld was half asleep on his stool, eyelids fluttering up and down like lazy, tethered moths. I waited until the hairy dun angled from the Fort Steel road toward our position, then said quietly, “Company coming.”
Those fluttery eyelids snapped open. The old man hadn’t survived eighty-six years of hard living–more than half of them prior to and during the grim Fall of humanity–without paying attention to possible threats in his environment. “Want me out of the way, Slim?”
“Nah.” The rider appeared to be a man of middle age, neither lean nor heavy, middle height. Wearing low-heeled boots suitable for either hard labor or traveling on horseback, gray canvas jeans, heavy brush jacket. Brown hair, shoulder length. Simple, honest face, now creased in a worry-frown. Pulling his stocky mount to a halt some eighty feet from the wagons, he called out in a clear, ringing voice, “Hello the camp!” Asking permission to come on ahead, preferably without being shot. While Blausfeld and I were posted at this nearest-to-Gatorville spot, there would be other eyes on him, other rifles at the ready.
“Come on ahead,” I replied, setting down my whittling before standing to lean against the wagon’s back end, arms crossed, my right hand cradling the big pistol’s grip beneath my partially zipped coat.
“Thank you.” He rode over, up onto the bench, and stopped, staring at us with those worried eyes. “Mind if I step down?”
“Rather you didn’t. You’re a better target, skylined like that.”
“Yeah. Okay.” He wore a trimmed beard, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously beneath it. “Wish your people had been as careful as you are.”
Cort squinted his leaky eye, glared with the other. “What do you mean?”
“I–I didn’t want to be the one to ride out here to tell you.” His voice was smooth, mellifluous even, though stressed noticeably.
“Spit it out.” Gravel-voiced now, Cort was. I was watching the messenger’s body language, listening carefully to his voice. A voice, I had zero doubt, that could charm birds from trees in nesting season and bees from hives in midwinter. He ran a hand over his face, smoothing nonexistent wrinkles. Habit?
“O-okay.” Nervous gulp. Big Adam’s apple bob. “I–your people are in trouble.”
That made me frown a bit, but old man Blausfeld was on this one. I let him run with it. Behind us, from either side, more wagon train members were drifting our way, wanting to hear what this guy had to say. Take his measure. Not all of them, of course. Women and kids would still be out of sight. Sentinels would stay at their posts. Cort asked the obvious question. “Our people?”
“The, uh, the traders who rode into town a few hours ago.”
Silence. We weren’t about to offer Messenger Man any clues; let him dig them out for himself.
“Ah, that is, uh, everybody in Gatorville was curious about them. Especially about those big black horses, the ones with the packs. We just don’t see animals like that around here. Some early risers saw them coming through, you know, before sunup. Spread the word. Your people seemed to know their way around. Headed straight for Monopoly Merc–that’s the big store where I work. Clerking, you know. Got my horse and a little house in the south district, but work at the Merc. Some of your folks, they, uh, came inside, left the others with the horses. My boss, he was glad for the trade. Things have been slow this winter, you know? I was working in the back, tallying inventory lists, but voices drift, you know?” His eyes darted nervously, checking out the growing crowd listening to his tale. Didn’t appear to like what he saw. I wouldn’t have, either; executing the bearer of bad news is a time honored tradition among humans.
“Anyway, uh, ah, I guess the Queen must have gotten the word. One of her spies or whatever. She likes to sleep in when she’s off duty, as she calls it, but she was fired up and ready this morning. Surrounded your horse-holders with, I dunno, must have been fifty or sixty of her gang. Or, uh, her liegemen, as she calls them. Raiders armed with everything from guns to swords and knives, even a few throwing daggers.”
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t like what I was hearing. “You might as well step down,” I told the clerk, changing my mind. “Finish your story.”
He looked at me. Blinked. Got off his horse. I straightened from my slouch and eased forward, big ears the better to hear you with, attentive to his every word. “Go on.”
“Yeah.” He did the face-rubbing thing again. Held his hands up in a brief gesture of surrender. “Like I said, I was in back. Didn’t see exactly how it happened, but next thing any of us knew, the Queen’s men had every one of your people surrounded and disarmed. Kind of wasn’t a choice, you know? They must’ve been outnumbered five or six to one. Queen claims your horses were stolen. Now, uh, oh dang. We all know that’s not true. Her bunch never had any beauties like that. But, thing is, see, she’s got scores of witnesses, every member of her gang and plenty of townsfolk who don’t want to mess with her. Boss didn’t like the Queen ruining his trade like that, told me to slip out and tell you folks what was going on.”
“Which is?” No concern for our men, just ticked at losing business? Figured.
Ah….” He gulped again, then finished in a rush. “They’re going to hang them at sundown.”
Collective gasp behind me. Not fear. Rage. I could feel the fury building. I nodded to myself as I stepped forward to shake the man’s hand. “Want to thank you for coming out here to tell us.” I stuck my hand out. Stubbed my toe on a rock just as he stuck his hand out in return. Had to throw a foot forward to catch myself, ending up all stretched out and bent over said knee, hand darting down, grabbing a piece of ground to keep from falling on my face. Cort Blausfeld said something just then, something that distracted the messenger, made him raise his head to look over at the old man instead of down at me.
When you’re fifty pounds lighter than half the men you’ll ever go up against, you learn to use what you’ve got, and what I had was a long, lean frame with tons of leverage. My fist came sweeping up from Mother Earth, driving from my well-anchored back leg, powering over that bent knee. Perfect strike, right up under the Gatorvillian’s chin. Sounded like an axe chunking into a dry log. Lifted Messenger Man clean off the ground–some said nearly a foot, though they likely exaggerated–and dropped him in a heap, out cold.
Somebody squawked, “Why’d you do that?”
I ignored whoever it was for the seconds it took to retrieve the ever-present coil of rawhide cord from my coat pocket. Mighty good to have on hand, that stuff. Lots of uses. Hogtied the unconscious body, using sailor knots no man could undo by himself. Undid the bandanna that hung around his throat to keep the chill off. Wadded that into his mouth, none too gently. Used my own to tie the gag in place; he wouldn’t be spitting it out.
Only then did I relax a mite.
Eight…nine wagon train members gathered around now. Several looked confused. Nobody seemed overtly ticked off at me, so that was a plus. “How many of you believed him?” I asked quietly.
Shock. With the single exception of Cort Blausfeld, they all had. It took a little while to get everybody clear of the spell. “You remember him saying he clerked for a living?” Yeah, they remembered that. Of course they did. “Okay, lookee here.” I rolled the still-unconscious form over so they could see what I was getting at. “Those look like a clerk’s hands to you?” The palms were thickly calloused. Three separate scars flashed white. “You only get those callouses from hard labor. Most of the time, some could be accidental, but most of the time, scars like that come from living through knife fights. See the missing tip on his ring finger? Best bet is he got that caught between rope and saddle horn, working wild cattle or wild horses.”
That got through to them. But there was more. “Thing is, folks, you’re not to blame. This man also has the Touch, and he was really putting it out there. I mean, he was laying it on thick.”
“The touch?” I didn’t catch who said that. It didn’t matter.
“Touch. Capital T. Pure essence of black magic, using his voice.” In truth, it was simply magic, neither black nor white until designated by a practitioner, but hey, KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. “A few more minutes unchecked, and I’m betting three fourths of you would have been ready to dash off to Gatorville to rescue Moss and the rest, wouldn’t you? No, don’t answer. I’m not trying to put anybody on the spot. But here’s the thing. Logically now, is there any man, woman, or child among us who really believes Moss Feldman, Dutch Charlie, Stirk, and the rest would allow themselves to be disarmed under any circumstances? I don’t care if it was a thousand to one. Would that ever happen?”
Of course it wouldn’t.
And yet, mere minutes ago, only old Cort and young me had seen that. I was beginning to see the advantage in having eighty-six years of life experience…or in my case, having a few hardcore years of experience as a black magician.
The question now was: What was Messenger Man really up to? And I thought I knew the answer. If Magic Dude here had succeeded, we’d have depleted our wagon defense forces considerably. As it stood, with thirty fighters available, we had plenty. One for every wagon gun plus one for every other under-wagon foxhole. But what if Voice had persuaded, say, twenty of us to go haring off to Gatorville? Only ten defenders left, then. Not nearly enough to produce interlocking fields of fire all the way around the jagged teardrop. Zero backup foxhole warriors. A well planned attack might have broken through, might have literally taken the train by storm.
Rich them, dead us, and an ambush waiting for Moss and his squad when they returned.
Okay, that was the worst case scenario. Which is what you plan for when it comes to survival.
“Cort,” I said quietly, “you reckon there might be, oh, say, fifty or sixty of this so-called Queen’s raiders out there right now, maybe holed up in that brushy draw?”
The ancient Jew straightened from where he’d been going through the unconscious man’s pockets. Good thing he’d done that, too. Felt like kicking my own butt for not thinking of it. I’d missed two small knives and a two-shot derringer. “Pretty good odds.” Cort nodded, thinking. “That’s no more than four hundred yards east of the bench. Bound to be a way in there for locals who know the terrain. All they’d have needed to do would be wait for a bunch of us to go white-knighting away, then hit our flank hard.”
I wasn’t exactly an official leader in Moss’s absence, but somebody had to say it. “Might be a good idea for everybody to stick close to their assigned combat posts till Feldman gets back, eh?”
Surprise, surprise. When I looked around, our folks had all disappeared again. Heh.
“Looks like our boy has a hard head. He’s coming around.”
“Right you be.”
It took the prisoner a couple of minutes to finish shaking off the cobwebs. He glared at me with plenty of hatred, the really good stuff. I knew the feel of that emotion, having lived with it for years before becoming a mass murderer. Tasty back then. Sharp and acrid now. Unmistakable any time. As was the fear, shooting through in raggedy-spike streaks.
“Here’s the deal.” I spoke in a conversational tone, simultaneously pulling my belt knife, whetting it on a small stone. Whisk, whisk, whisk. “You have a choice. I’m going to remove the gag.” Hope, and something fierce, leaped in his feral gaze. “Just so you know, your Voice won’t work on me. Or on this old man here, either. I’m going to ask you questions. You can either answer those questions fully and truthfully, or you can lie. Or refuse to speak. If you lie or remain silent, I will have my friend hold your jaw open. Then I will reach in and grab your tongue, stretch it out nice and tight…and slice it off at the base.” I waited a beat, letting that sink in. No more mixed emotions. Just pure, unadulterated horror. That horror battered at my mental shields but did not penetrate. “Do we understand each other? Nod if we do.”
He nodded. Jerky, spastic, but one takes what one can get. I removed the gag, He spit a few times–not at me, not with a blade in my hand and eyes of Death in my face–but to one side, attempting to get rid of the taste. His bandanna apparently hadn’t been washed in some time.
“First question. Who is this Queen?”
For one long moment, I feared he would choose not to answer. Whoever she was, she scared him at a distance almost as badly as I did up close.
Almost. “She’s…she’s, uh, used to be King Arthur’s woman.”
I raised an eyebrow. Voce Man hurried to explain. “You wouldn’t know, I guess, being new to these parts. But King Arthur really was kind of a king. Ran the biggest, baddest, best organized gang of raiders anybody had ever seen. They roamed all the way north to Fort Steel every summer, wintered back here in Gatorville every winter. Never once failed to bring in, uh, loot. Lots of loot. Twenty years or more he did that. Nobody could touch him, and here in town, nobody wanted to. He kept his men under control, even in the off season. Pretty much, anyway.
“But then,” his eyes wandered toward that brushy draw, then jerked back to meet my steady gaze, “last year he ended up dead. Word is, some nobody we’d never heard of shot his head clean off.”
I interrupted. “Another raider?”
“No. No. Don’t think so. Some guy with a heavy rifle and a dead eye, but not a raider. Believe he heads up some kind of small settlement, way up in the northern mountains somewhere.”
“And the Queen?” I prompted him.
“Yeah. The Queen. Queen Slaughter, she calls herself, and she named herself right.” There was reverence in the man’s tone now. If he wasn’t one of the Queen’s men, I’d eat my own cooking. “This smallholder, the shooter, goes by Michael, he captured her that same day he shot the King. She escaped. This fool friend of his, Sandy something, seems he had a crush on the dead King’s woman. He tracked her down. They shot it out. Neither of them died, more’s the pity, but the Queen lost an arm. She escaped again, made it back south, hooked up with a few survivors from the old gang, took over–man, if you ever meet her, you’ll know how she managed that, if you live long enough. Ain’t nobody out-toughs the Queen.”
Not a bad bit of intel for a single question. Hm. “How many raiders does she have waiting in the draw?”
Shock. I might as well have shot him between the eyes. “What do you mean?”
He hadn’t quite lied, had he? I decided not to say anything. Just shaved a few hairs from the back of my hand with my blade. Yep. Sharp enough to cut tongue.
Voice Man broke. “Okay! Okay!” Nothing smooth about his voice now. “She’s got her whole gang waiting. Fifty-seven men, plus her, and she’s worth any ten of ’em, even one-armed. She’s been recruiting all winter, all right? Whaddya want from me? Sheesh!”
“Name, rank, and serial number,” I muttered.
I didn’t answer directly. He wouldn’t understand anyway. I looked over at Cort. “All right with you if I stay with Mr. Bigmouth Bass, here? The folks ought to be told what’s out there.”
“Not a problem.” The old man stretched, cracking a few joints in the process. “I’ll see to it.”
My gaze returned to the Gatorvillian. He was sweating despite a slight breeze and a temperature somewhere in the low forties. Probably figured he wasn’t going to like being left alone with me.
He figured right.
Trading had gone well, better than I would have believed possible. Not only had we gotten everything on our wish list in exchange for 360 pounds of hard candy, but the man at the Mercantile swore he could find buyers for all the raw sugar we could produce, once we found a place to settle and had a crop harvest. Eighteen, nineteen months from now, hopefully. Raw hemp fiber didn’t interest him much, but he’d fairly drooled over our various samples of canvas, finer cloth, and rope. We’d make out better by producing finished products anyway.
Perhaps most important of all, our horse holders had picked up a ton of Gatorville gossip. Mostly from curious kids and idle ne’er-do-wells who had nothing better to do with their time than chit-chat with exotic strangers, but gossip was gossip. When we had the time, we’d all sit down, talk it out, sift through the chaff to find a few kernels of truth.
One such kernel seemed pretty clear already. There was a new gang leader in town, a one-armed woman as vicious as any junkyard dog, but smarter. Townies called her the Queen, or–spoken in hushed tones–Queen Slaughter. Had herself a huge number of raiders ready to head north any day now, yesiree.
So why hadn’t we seen hide nor hair of anything like that? I was more than a little nervous. So were Stirk and Dutch Charlie and the rest. We rode with our eyes so thoroughly peeled, they pretty near fell out of their sockets. Could be the Fort Steel Road ran through country that was too open. If we saw a mob like that coming, we could certainly make a run for the wagons. Our prize animals were speedy enough. Even the huge draft horses could cover ground; they weren’t entirely coldbloods. Or maybe Queenie’s meanies simply weren’t well enough organized, seeing as how we’d gotten in and out in less than a day. It takes time to round up scores of outlaws when they’re scattered throughout a city like Gatorville with its endless flophouses, rent-a-chicks, and bootleg booze.
Yeah, maybe we’d lucked out. Maybe. My thumb caressed my rifle’s safety, making sure it was off. Couldn’t wait to get back to the security of the wagon train with its heavy machine gun and battle tested defensive formation.
And…there she was, up on the bench, out beautiful twenty-wagon train, cargo boxes built from twenty-fifth century aircraft alloy. I hadn’t told Slim that part of our history yet. When the Badge of Honor beached for the final time, we’d rigged a bunch of axles under the big boat and pulled it all the way to the Sector Seven G-444 boneyard. G-444 fighter-bombers had ruled the skies over much of Earth for more than fifty years before being decommissioned by short-sighted politicians whose motto was, “If it works, un-fix it.” The G-444 Devil had been to twenty-fifth century warfare as the A-10 Warthog had been to twentieth century battles. Had it been a sidearm, it would have been a latter day version of the twentieth century Colt 1911 semiautomatic. Rugged, durable, and just plain dependable beyond belief. Ordinary bullets bounced off its secret-alloy hull, a metal half the weight of aluminum and twice as pilot-saving as titanium. Yet in a crumbling hangar on the west side of the boneyard, we found tools for working the stuff and manuals explaining how to work the tools.
Three of our wagons were in fact loaded with those selfsame tools and manuals plus all the alloy sheets we could steal without over-burdening the teams.
As we drew closer, we could see Slim Howard, still within a few steps of my wagon, but he wasn’t sketching or crunching numbers. No, he was resting my spotter scope on a forked stick, peering through it toward…where? Down country, along that draw? And what was that–a figure sitting on the ground with…what?
Man, my eyes weren’t what they used to be.
Slim waved a hand–he knew we were coming–but didn’t look up from the scope. And that was a man, sitting on the ground. Hands tied behind, ankles tied in front, leather hood over his head. The leather puffed in and out with his breathing.
This ought to be interesting.
Our ex-wizard finally straightened from the scope. “Welcome home, boss.”
“Looks like you had some entertainment while we were gone.” My voice was wry, even to my own ears.
“Some.” He told us the story then. Merrilee popped her head up from her under-wagon foxhole and grinned at me. Carol, my beloved, eased into view, leaving her prime wagon gun to its own devices for a moment.
“Huh,” I said intelligently when he was done. “So what did you see through the scope?”
“Found a little break in the trees about half a mile back toward town. We didn’t spot them sneaking up through that draw, but I was able to get something of a count when they left. Which was just now. Can’t guarantee they didn’t leave a few scouts out there to keep an eye on us, but better than fifty are riding back to Gatorville. Which scares me some.”
“Scares you?” I hand-signaled the others. They moved on inside the wagon enclosure, preparing to unload the packs and get the team ready for harness.
“Yeah. This Queen Slutter is way too smart. When we didn’t fall for her ruse, did she try to take us out anyway? No. No, she did not. She withdrew, to raid, loot, rape and pillage another day. Creator save us from smart villains.”
“Got a point. Tell you what. We didn’t eat in town–not much kosher in Gatorville, I’m thinking–so we’re all going to grab a bite. But then we’re going to harness up and head on north. We’ll still have three, maybe four hours of light, what with the longer twilight. Chatterboxes in town say there’s a camping area about nine, ten miles ahead that’s even better than this one. I don’t care to sit still where the enemy has already scouted our position. Might as well keep ’em guessing as much as we can.”
Slim nodded. “What about our agent provocateur here?”
“He’s your prisoner, kid. You call the shot.”
“He don’t much like hearing us use the word ‘shot,’ eh?” Without further ado, he walked over and yanked the hood from the man’s head.
And I got a shock. “You branded him?”
“Just a little. He wouldn’t hold still, so I had to knock him out again. And use a running iron. But I think I did a neat job, don’t you?”
Well…yeah. Three burn-letters in block script an inch high were centered on the man’s forehead, just above the eyebrows.
“Std?” What, the guy was a venereal disease?
“Silver Tongued Devil. Once it heals, I reckon he’ll take to wearing a do-rag down low to cover it, but I figured he ought to be marked for easy recognition in the future, eh?”
The rawhide bonds were tight. Slim didn’t bother trying to untie them, just cut the fellow loose with his belt knife. “You can undo the gag once you’re out of sight,” he said. “Not before. And feel free to keep my bandanna; it’s not like I’d use it again after you did.”
The last we saw of the walking STD, he was flogging his horse at full gallop, heading south as fast as the shaggy nag could take him.