JACOB “GRUNT” SEDLACEK
When we arrived at the Gathering’s sprawling river bottom settlement on the Roil River, Randy McGee consulted with his people and decided to throw a WELCOME ARMY party–inside the stockade on the bench, of course–complete with a community theater production of The Music Man. This ancient play, dating back to the twentieth century on Before calendars, included a rousing rendition of the song, Trouble in River City.
Oddly enough, this particular River City (as it would become known) turned out to be just about the only place lacking trouble. Sure, we had military considerations to consider. Where exactly was Venom Chang, how were we to pay for the costs of the war and all that. But the folks who’d given us the Walking Dead roving squad, not to mention a fair number of bone-tough infantry fighters, backed MAP in body, mind, and Soul. They were with us one thousand percent and not shy about showing it. Any soldier given an overnight pass could count on pleasant female companionship, free meals that beat anything they could get in the field, and nods of respect from civilian men. The Gathering was solid.
The others…not so much. Couriers had come to the Roil from my own Fort 24 with the disturbing–even disgusting–word that malcontents in my home mountain district of Fort 24 were stirring the cauldron and muttering incantations. Not literally. Politically. Lower Village in particular, my home town no less, had taken control of the Ruling Council in my absence. With both me and the Sentinel Captain gone off to war, they’d given their foxy nature free rein and messed up the henhouse something fierce. The sneaky, yellow bellied buggers had even pushed through a resolution that had Upper Valley about ready to declare feud on their lifelong neighbors. Upper Valley political power had waned, too, with so many Gundersons either married Away (Julia and her sis to Roost residents) or fighting in the war (three brothers).
Lower Valley had even pushed through a Resolution demonizing MAP as a dictatorial, cruel, inhumane organization run by Oligarchs who intended to oppress the innocent…and welcoming deserters, whether from MAP or from Hooded Cobra, as persecuted people needing succor. MAP soldiers who served with honor had, in their eyes, no worth at all.
With Major Jade’s approval, I gathered up every Fort 24 fighter we had and laid the situation out in the open. They didn’t like hearing what I had to say, especially when I named names and read out the specific wording of the Resolution. But they had to know. Once the Hoodies were finally whipped good and proper, they’d have some decisions to make. It was only fair to give them as much time as possible to mull it over.
“I just hope Russ Gunderson can keep a lid on Upper Valley for now,” I told them. They all agreed with that. Fervently.
Jake took the news about Fort 24 stoically on the outside. Inside, I could feel him seething. I sympathized strongly but had to catch up on the news from the other districts as well. Our courier to Fort Steel would have delivered the news of Weasel’s demise by now. I only hoped he’d managed to carry out the covert part of his mission. I had plans for Steel, sneaky plans no one but Julia, one trusted courier, and I knew anything about.
I’m good at sneaky when I have to be.
Captain Blake, basically the Roost’s top dog these days where I was home or not, remained as close to me as another brother I’d never had, second only to Mace Smith. His messenger confirmed everything up in the mountains was on track except for some of the younger guys getting mighty antsy. They wanted to run down, join up, and kill themselves some Hoodies. I might have considered taking a few of them on to replace our losses…if we’d known where the enemy was and what they were up to. Since we didn’t, I sent back instructions for everybody to stay put. If this war somehow made it up our way, we’d need those young firebrands on home guard duty, sniping the enemy’s advance from behind every other tree.
Word from the Badge was downright bitter. We had the best of the Jewish fighters down here with us, Stirk and a number of his Scouts. The burly Captain didn’t much appreciate hearing that his homeboys (and girls, as few as those were) were talking sedition. Using Moss Feldman’s death in combat as an excuse and Slim Howard as a scapegoat–the civilian government, small as it was, blamed the Occasional Wizard (as we jokingly referred to him) for their revered leader’s death and talked of seceding from MAP.
The fools ether didn’t realize or willfully ignored the fact that MAP had evolved over the past few years. It was currently a constitutional republic composed of five states: Fort Steel, the Roost, the Badge, the Gathering (commonly known as River City), and Fort Steel. Stirk and I, along with Julia, Mace, Gwinnie, Grit, Grunt, Slim, and Merrilee, ate together one evening. Afterward, I produced my carry copy of our current Constitution and Code which, like those of Fort 24 and the Roost, had been plagiarized wholesale from the ancient laws governing the United States of America. “Here’s the relevant passage,” I said. “Fort 24 may be violating this section. The Badge is doing so without a doubt.” I passed it around for everyone to read, though Stirk, Grunt, and I all had it memorized.
18 M.A.P. CODE § 2384. SEDITIOUS CONSPIRACY
If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the Mutual Assistance Pact, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the Mutual Assistance Pact, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the Mutual Assistance Pact, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the Mutual Assistance Pact contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.
We kicked it around for a while. It was new to Grit and Gwinnie. I addressed the girl. “Gwin, what we plan here must not leave the command tent. Except for your sis; Pet knows how to keep her lips zipped.” Then I turned to Stirk. “You’re sure you can get past the bridge guard at the Badge? When the time is right?” None of this would happen until the war had drawn to a close but most of us understood the need for advance planning. Throughout history, far too many veterans of difficult wars had returned home to find their efforts wasted, themselves denigrated, their government not what it should have been. We were absolutely not going to make that mistake.
“Come on, Dawg.” The Chief of Scouts snorted in derision. “You think those pansies are going to see us coming? Gimme a break.”
“Consider it given. If you say you can get the bridge open, I say you’ll have the entire army’s backing as our first order of business after Chang is settled. You do realize a few of your Badge friends and neighbors will end up hanging.”
“Maybe not.” He shrugged, unconcerned. “Sedition falls short of treason. There’s no indication any of ’em are looking to wage war against MAP. But if hanging is called for, I can drop the trap under ’em. Good Creator, man, I recognized several of the Hoodie soldiers I shot down at Ripple Ridge. One of ’em was my ex-brother in law. Merrilee, I’m just glad you and Slim won’t have to be part of it.”
“But we will,” Mrs. Howard correct him gently. “The Major did say you’d have the backing of the entire army to reinstate lawful civilian government. And our kids are there. Slim and I thank you but we’ve decided we’re not going to wait for you to bring them out to us. We’re going in and get them. Period.”
Grit Smith, favoring his burned arm only a little these days, asked, “Major, you said other soldiers faced similar problems in the past?”
“Yeah.” Grit was mighty handy but no reader. He wouldn’t be aware of the histories. “Mostly in societies with high amounts of freedom. Nigh on six hundred years ago, some U.S. soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War got spit on. Called baby killers in the press. That sort of thing didn’t happen as ofen where a strong ruling government, monarchy or dictator or whatever, could and would have the spitters and name callers arrested and tortured. Personally, I don’t give a rat’s bony behind what some namby pamby noncombatants call me, but I do care about the rule of law as we’ve established it. If we let that get subverted this early in the process, we won’t last a single century.”
It had been dark outside for a couple of hours when a tired rider approached our tent. The others had gone to their blankets; only Julia and I were left, poking at the fire, watching smoke rise through the teepee’s smoke hole. It was sizeable, this teepee, and surprisingly comfortable even in cold weather. Not something we could haul around on campaign, but Granshako had spent the summer with Randy’s people, teaching them the ins and outs of teepee construction. While we were in River City, this one was ours to use.
The steel tripod allowed a kettle to stay hot 24/7. Julia poured a fresh mug of spearmint tea for our visitor, then dug out our skillet. “Bison heart,” she explained, slicing pieces into the pan.
“Get yourself warmed up, Snuffy.” I trusted this man. We had spent years together as slave boys in Fort Steel. He was one of those I’d freed after being granted my own freedom by Grunt. The trust between us was steel-strong, pun intended.
He took a couple of sips, then began to talk as his scraggly beginnings of a beard thawed out. “The yahoos who think they’re in charge made it clear they didn’t trust me,” he said, “but they couldn’t keep me from talking to Henry. Not when I explained you might need to buy a hundred head of cattle to feed the army and half that many horses to make up for cavalry combat losses. The thought of getting all that MAP gold, maybe beggaring the military in the process, had dollar signs rolling around in their eyeballs. I don’t think they ever noticed that word, might.”
“And Henry? What was his response?” The one man of power and influence at Fort Steel that I implicitly trusted was Henry Perfle, the Livestock Manager who–and I was counting on my targets not to realize this–personally owned sixty-seven percent of all the domestic livestock at the Fort. I’d known this since my early slave years, sneaking around with big ears, sniffing out secrets, eyeballing private records without anyone catching me in the act.
Well…not catching me most of the time. The welter of scars on my back were mute testimony to the fact that I’d been caught occasionally.
“Mr. Perfle,” Snuffy grinned, “said he would sleep on it.”
“Aha!” We both knew that when Henry Perfle was against something, he told you straight out. If he was willing to sleep on it we were in like Flynn.
Julia and I did not get frisky that night after Snuffy left. Instead, we rested quietly together, her head resting on my chest. I stared into the darkness, going over everything in my mind. Venom Chang in the wind, check. River City solid, check. Fort 24 after-war plan of action, check. Badge after-war plan of action, check. Roost would have to wait until the others were settled, though I’d send Julia home to our son if she’d go, check. Fort Steel after-war plan of action, check.
Stirk hallooed the teepee an hour before dawn. We were up, though barely. I’d slept maybe two hours at most and wasn’t really with it yet.
“Heading out,” the Scout reported. “Seventeen of us. Leaving you a handful for local recon.”
He snorted, wheeling his big black stud, slipping away under the setting moon. It felt like ten degrees outside, give or take. The Scouts were taking half a dozen pack horses with them, loaded with canvas tents, extra rations, spare uniforms, and plenty of ammunition. This was to be a reconnaissance in force, a serious attempt to pick up Chang’s trail. Not by crossing the Roil but by checking for fresh tracks in the snow, all the way down to the OrgaMins, and then–if no tracks were found–staking out every known ford between here and there. The trouble was that during this low-water time of year, dead winter, Chang might be able to cross just about anywhere. Once spring breakup started happening, with snow melting and ice breaking up and rains adding to the mess, he could cross pretty much nowhere. In between, if we had a really tough winter, the entire river might freeze over in places, allowing the Hoodies to skate right on across on the ice. Not a comfortable picture.
Yet scouting still made sense. Stirk’s rangers might not figure out Chang’s reentry point in advance but they would certainly be able to follow tracks. Unless the Chinese War Leader chose to move during a track-covering storm. None of us thought that likely. He’d used a storm to cover his crossing into the Fringe, but out in the open, covering miles blind? He’d be able to find his way only if he had the Devil’s own luck.
Which me might have, at that.
More than anything else, we all felt better knowing the Scouts were out there on the move, keeping watch. It made us all feel like we were doing something. For the Scouts themselves, it would keep them field-sharp. Every little edge counted.
“Shipoopi,” Julia said.
“What?” I turned to watch her adding wood to the morning fire.
“I just got it.” She grinned at me, eyes sparkling. “Remember the song? In The Music Man?”
“The play?” What on Earth was she getting at?
“You weren’t paying attention, were you?”
“Uh-h….” Guilty as charged. Stage plays, I’d discovered, weren’t my thing. Boring. Bunch of idiots prancing around, saying dumb stuff, breaking out in song. No connection to reality.
“It was in the second act, honey. The secret has to be explained in terms of, um, I think it was mid-twentieth century. At that time in our land’s history–you’re a big history buff, sweetheart–they had a pretty strict moral code. Censors and everything. Half a century later, even young kids were using the F-word like it was King’s English. But when The Music Man was written, nobody was supposed to cuss. At least not in public. Scatological jokes were only done in comedy clubs or recorded on albums you had to ask the store clerk to get from under the counter by name. In moving pictures where two people were in bed together, they had to each have one foot on the floor. It was a pretty weird time.”
“Okay.” Frankly, I thought every time was probably a pretty weird time if you took the long view, but okay.
“See, that’s the joke. When the character Marcellus Washburn sings The Shipoopi, it starts out like…”
Shipoopi, shipoopi, shipoopi
The girl who’s hard to get
Shipoopi, shipoopi, shipoopi
But you can win her yet
“The playwright sold the song as being about a girl who’s hard to get. In reality, he slipped the word right past the censors. Nobody seemed to think it was inappropriate at all.”
I wasn’t really listening but figured I’d better say something. “It was inappropriate?”
“Sure. Break it down, babe. Shipoopi is nothing but shi-poo-pee. The girl in the song, the one who’s hard to get? She’s apparently nothing but a collection of body wastes!”
She finally had my attention. Here I was, all seriously worried about the war and what had to be done after, and she’s talking about girls and potty training in a dumb play? I could feel my eyes blinking rapidly of their own accord.
“You’re not pregnant again, are you?”