Grunt: Epilogue

Captain James Gilson of Fort Steel went home with his entire contingent for some well earned R & R. Three weeks later, he and a fortified roving squad headed back out “on patrol,” a move that raised not a single eyebrow among the civilians who had overthrown Jeremy “Weasel” Compton’s administration. As far as they were concerned, the fewer military men in or near the fort, the better.

Had they known what Gil’s men were actually doing once they were out of sight of the stockade, a lot of britches would have been soiled.

We Barred Rocks took a longer rest, healing up at the Roost, catching up on everything Captain Blake had accomplished during our long absence. Loving our loved ones. Performing mundane chores like ordinary citizens. Healing. Our three-day ride down out of the mountains and over to Fort Steel was almost jaunty. We were feeling entirely mischievous, up to no good and loving it. The puffed-up types at Steel didn’t like us entering their gates, ten armed men and four armed females, but they could say nothing. We were there, after all, to present them with a Medal of Freedom for their part in the war effort. The weapons, ammunitions, and wagon parts produced by the foundry had in fact been crucial to our success. When the feasting was done that evening, the pompous asses in city government breathed easier, knowing we’d be gone again in the morning.

When the sun rose to the lowing of cattle and neighing of horses in great numbers, accompanied by the sharp yips and whipcracks of herders at work, they were stunned. “What are you doing?” They yelled at us. “Thieves!”

“Not thieves.” Henry Perfle, livestock manager for all of Fort Steel, rode up on a flashy gold-and-white pinto. “Employees.” Calmly, he produced proof of ownership for two thirds of the held-in-common herds comprising a sizeable portion of Fort Steel’s wealth. The bureaucrats and politicians would have stopped us even so, by force if necessary, but their few hunting rifles did not stack up well against dozens of heavily armed veterans still slit-eyed from the war. They huffed and they puffed and blew their own house down.

We helped Henry move the herds two days northeast, to the tragic site of ruined Fort Confluence, where fifteen years ago my parents had been slaughtered before my eyes. The few scattered bones that had been found, sun-bleached, animal-gnawed and brittle, were gathered in a single pile for burial at the new Massacre of 33 A.F. memorial. Freedom Creek and Redemption Creek, newly renamed, flowed together here, wending their way across broad prairie crowned with lush carpets of mature grasses. Wagons were already rolling, hauling fresh-cut logs from the distant, forested slopes. There would be a stockade here to beggar the one at Fort Steel, manned by hard working men and women delighted to leave the stuffy government and squalid history of Fort Steel behind.

A few days later, reinforced by nearly eighty vets drawn from four different MAP communities, we began two projects at once. The mighty foundry, to the pompous people’s further dismay, was completely dismantled and moved to a prime location on the banks of Redemption Creek. Not a single bit of scrap iron was abandoned. It, too, had always been privately owned. The owner was Henry Perfle’s best friend, a visionary with one eye on the future and heartfelt disgust for the governmental structure he left behind. Few of the departing foundry workers or independent metallurgists could resist flipping Fort Steel the finger on the way out. In its new location, an instantly thriving community named Fort Liberty (no longer Fort Confluence) powered the thundering, blistering hot manufactory of everything ferrous. Which would be dubbed Freedom Foundry. Simultaneously, wagon load after wagon load of priceless books from Laura Compton’s no-longer-secret library rolled out, covered with oiled canvas in case of rain. Long had she defended the property gifted to her by her grandfather, but with her beloved Weasel gone, it was time to move on.

What was left behind at Fort Steel was not quite a ghost town. Not yet. It was still peopled with ninety-seven Souls whose greedy government owned enough cattle and horses and basic supplies to survive just fine if these resources were efficiently managed. But they were no longer wealthy. To make it through even one more winter, they would have to roll up their sleeves and work. To put it in terms of ancient Before political hyperbole, their heads exploded.

At the new Fort Freedom, we Roosters celebrated the official naming of Fort Freedom on July 4th. We laughed a lot with our friends, drank a little more than we should have, and headed home the following morning with throbbing heads and soaring hearts.

Word eventually came to us, in the mountains, of the situation at Fort 24. The greedy fools who’d overthrown Weasel at Fort Steel had gotten off light. At 24, Marshal Bledsoe and his allies had held trials for those who’d stirred up so much trouble, hanging six men and one woman for treason.

There was no word from the Badge. Two Jews from that community helped with the Steel-to-Liberty move but chose not to return home. “Stirk may or may not be able to handle the political situation,” they told me. “One way or the other, we’re heading down to Elk Hollow, partly to reassure his lady until he can get there and partly to do some courting of our own.”

The rest of us decided we’d done our duty. We went home to stay. Summer passed, autumn aspen leaves turned to gold, five feet of snow accumulated at the Roost by March and fought melting until late April. Young calves and their mothers were brought up from the low pastures, spring planting was accomplished, crops sprouted and grew.

It was not until early August that fast courier relays arrived with the news. Once again, we rode out of the mountains. Roving squads from every MAP community reassembled, a cautiously optimistic, heavily armed force of sixty-three military veterans and thirteen recruits. We met the Hooded Cobra party at River City. There was no sign of Venom Chang but we knew the man heading the column.

Sora, the Skilled Man.

Once the pleasantries were over, Sora walked along with Julia, Mace, and me as we repaired to the command tent. Over tea, he briefed us on the Emperor’s response.

“His first thought was to reject your proposal entirely, raise a new army, and come back at you again. It had never occurred to him that Venom Chang might fail. As the weeks passed, his viewpoint changed. The man is ambitious but also a realist. He began to see the sense of what you had to say. Yet he was cautious. He could not decide. Until it became clear to him that his War Leader, his lifelong closest friend, closer than a brother, was not right and never would be. Chang’s headaches worsened. His memory became less and less reliable. He could still fool the troops, still look good on parade, but never again would he handle the rigors of a military campaign requiring extreme endurance and strategic thinking. In the end, the Emperor went with your plan almost entirely.”

“Almost?”

A faint smile flickered across the Japanese warrior’s face. “I have brought all forty girls, as you saw. Along with an escort of forty soldiers to keep bandits and fools from getting ideas, of course. But the Emperor refused to send pure Chinese maidens. The three Chinese in the group are mixed race. There is Chinese blood in them. Just not one hundred percent.”

“What else?”

“Small things. A toll fee for the use of Great River ferries. Good behavior deposits for any non-Empire personnel entering Gatorville, refundable on departure if your people have caused no damage. Delaying our departure from Hooded Cobra, and thus delaying our arrival at MAP. In his own words, he cannot be seen to hop when you say toad.”

“Saving face.” I nodded, accepting the Continental Alliance Agreement the Emperor’s scribes had drafted. It was surprisingly brief and to the point, covering only three pages of fine script. Sora waited patiently while I read the document before passing it to Julia. Mace, too, would scrutinize the wording before I signed. “This is the Emperor’s signature, witnessed by Venom Chang and three others?”

“It is.”

“It looks good, Skilled Man. Very good indeed. I have no desire to see the Emperor hop when I say toad.” This time, his smile was more than fleeting. “Unless my advisors find something surprising that I missed, I will gladly sign this agreement. Our best scribe will need to make copies. That will take a day or two. But I’d like you to stay with us a little longer, if you would. The forty girls you brought will be among strangers. Many of them, if not all, must be frightened no matter how brave their front.”

“You want me to help ease their transition until they get to know you weird, alien, inferior subhumans who wish to wish to despoil them?”

“A little too much honesty there, Sora,” I grinned, “but basically, yes.” Leaving Julia and Mace to their reading, the Japanese swordsman and I left the tent. Gwinnie and Pet were surrounded by the newcomers, the lot of them chitter-chattering away. They fell silent when they spotted me, or maybe it was the Skilled Man.

“Hey,” I said. “Who wants to be a Rooster?”

5 thoughts on “Grunt: Epilogue

  1. A lovely piece of craftmanship, Ghost, and a wonderful closing chapter. I feel so many small questions bubbling in my mind, yet the big questions are answered and in MAP as in the “real world”, life goes on.
    The Fort Steel solution is impressive, and the new Fort Liberty will ever remind the old foundry people of their sins and that “crime does not pay”. Better yet, the property owners of Fort Steel’s apparent wealth can now enjoy they fruits of their labor without the abusive government that got rid of Weasel. They voted with their feet, as a good Baseball team will, took their ball, bat and glove with them.
    As for becoming a Rooster, I was tempted to say “Me!, Me!” but then remembered I am not a 12 year old girl… LOL
    Manny

  2. I am laughing at Manny’s response. I would too, but I would not love all the snow. I have my little veggie beds, and I have a nice strawberry bed. I will be buying fruit trees over the next couple of years, and will have a small orchard eventually. I have my little bit of frontier lifestyle, now I just need to convince my kids that I am happy sitting at home and not going anywhere. I ran around much more than I was happy with when Dennis was alive. Now I would love to sit at home, and live quietly for awhile.

  3. Manny: How LONG did it take you to remember you weren’t a twelve year old girl? Just wondering….: 😀

    The “craftsmanship” kudo is appreciated. Ditto for your (grudging?) acceptance of the many “small questions” not being answered. That really is like “real life.” There’s hardly a day goes by that I don’t have numerous questions of various sizes “bubbling in my mind” and I’m reasonably certain most folks find themselves in similar situations. Life, by definition, is messy.
    ——————————————————
    Becky: I am grinning at you laughing at Manny’s response. That much snow (five feet accumulated) is a little on the high side for me, too. Same for the late snowmelt each spring. Here in the valley (Deer Lodge) we had about two feet (accumulated) of snow this past winter (4,000 + elevation) but undoubtedly five feet in the mountains (6,000 to 8,000 elevation), easily. And the mountain snow, at least at the higher elevations, is far from completely gone today (April 19).

    Of course, as you’ve said before, our valley “two feet” is still anathema to you. Which is as it should be. If everybody on Earth was drawn to the exact same climate, think of the population density!

    Or rather, don’t think about it. Too depressing. 😀

    Your “little bit of frontier lifestyle” suits you perfectly. That’s been obvious to me from the beginning, at least when you manage to convince your offspring to let you have your Becky time.

  4. Becky, I am always on the move, but after my divorce I met a girl that I felt was perfect for going to live on a mountainside, me working nights singing with my guitar at the local nightclubs and restaurants in the caribbean island tourist destination… and yes, that’s the way I though I would be happy with her. Yet she decided none of that was what she wanted, so I never got to live on the mountainside valley, living off my entertainer skills… 🙂
    What I did do was go weekends to another mountainside valley the family owned and started taking care of it, gathering fruits and cleaning up the spring and creek every weekend, hoping to build a house there someday… my soul healed and grew there until I had problems with a local neighbor and basically stopped going. You are lucky you were able to fulfill that desire.

    Ghost, I actually was so deep in the story that I only realized I wasn’t a young girl when I tried to explain why I somehow concluded I didn’t want to be a Rooster. LOL
    Manny
    Manny

  5. Manny, I’m blown away! I will take your explanation (young girl / Rooster) as the ultimate compliment, concluding that this must be my best wrap-up epilogue to date. Which means I really do have to tackle another story to see if I can top this one, right?

    Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a “new breakout author” by my 100th birthday, eh?

    I’m still working to realize my “mountainside valley” dream. Pam & I “almost” had it at the Border Fort, which did provide a desert version, a sanctuary of peace, quiet, and privacy like no other place I’ve lived to date. The downsides were sun damage to skin, steadily increasing sensitivity to chigger bites, and a plethora of Mojave green rattlesnakes living in the area. The Holy Waters Ranch property has none of those–limited “northern” sun only, no chiggers, and no rattlers of any variety, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife guy responsible for overseeing that valley. But it does have that huge power line running through the property. There’s always something, right?.

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