Grunt, Chapter 54: Broad Shoulders

MICHAEL

It was a worn, frazzled, bedraggled group that approached the final downhill turn in the trail leading to the Roost. Another hundred yards and our lead rider (me) would be in sight of the stockade wall sentry. Well. We couldn’t have that, could we? No way we were going to stumble on home like the world had licked us, never mind that with our losses, that wouldn’t have been far from the truth. Time to turn Roan around for a bit.

“Let’s hold up here,” I told Mace. “We need to look as good as possible, like a somber but proud honor guard for your father.” Zebediah’s corpse was wrapped in blankets and strapped belly down across his own saddle horse; he deserved a forward position. Plus, our people needed to see right off that we’d lost a man. His widow and the two sons who’d stayed with the cattle would know instantly know who occupied that saddle. None of us had the words, nor did we believe in putting off bad news.

Mace just nodded and stepped off the big sorrel he was riding. I moved on down the line, passing instructions and suggestions to the rest of the Smith brothers. Our nerves were shot from fearing another attack for the day and a half plus a mighty short, sleepless night we’d spent after the battle in the rain. It was nearing sunset, but we’d made it before another dark night could settle in; we’d be highly visible to one and all, once we passed the stockade gate. Three pack horses lost from panic and stray bullets during the gunfight. Two baby chicks dead when it was all done, and one of the piglets. At least we had plenty of replacement pack animals, gathered up after King Arthur’s surprisingly ignominious retreat. Dead men’s ponies, but a horse is a horse of course. We’d even gotten Appy back, or rather he’d gotten himself back, trailing his reins and wearing a fresh, red slash across the rump where Weasel Face’s bullet had removed a slice of horsehide and skimmed along the muscle.

It could have been worse. So much worse. We all knew that. It didn’t help.

Julia was still riding drag. When she dismounted to start srprucing up, she was facing our backtrail. Surprise her once, score–sort of–for Weasel Face. Surprise her twice…not going to happen.

We worked quickly, brushing dried mud from the horses and tack. Same for our buckskins, making sure no trail stain remained. My mate fished out a couple of bright pieces of cloth from her saddle bags, likely something she’d gotten in barter with the Smiths when I wasn’t looking.

“Hold still.” There was mischief in her eyes as she fastened the red piece around my neck before using the blue for herself. I couldn’t see what I looked like, of course, but she’d transformed her own appearance with such a simple decoration. If I looked half as flashy, we were ready for the parade.

It took a little longer for the others, what with each of them responsible for an entire pack string, but we still had a bit of sunlight left by the time we reached the stockade. The gate was already wide open, waiting for us. Half a dozen young soldiers, plus Lieutenant Blake himself, were lined up. Three on one side, four on the other, so that we passed through a half squad of Roost Sentinels on our way in. I had my AK-47 in hand, there being no other choice with the .358 occupying the saddle boot, so I made sure it was braced on my thigh and aimed at the sky at a cocky angle. My posture was ramrod erect, not half-slumped like I usually rode. I was glad of the red kerchief. Behind me, Mace’s sorrel pranced as he led his father’s mount. I hadn’t known my friend’s horse was trained to do that.

As we passed through the waiting Sentinels, Blake suddenly snapped, “Squad, sa-lute!” The fingertips of seven right hands snapped to seven temples, seven elbows held at precisely the same, correct angle. At least, it looked precise and correct to me out of the corners of my eyes, though I rode facing straight ahead. This was a statement we were making, all of us; it would not do to diminish the somber moment in any way.

We were home.
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–Three Days Later–

Home, I thought, home sweet boiling cauldron of stress, and all on my broad shoulders. Not really; I was neither foolish enough nor egotistical enough to believe that in my heart of hearts. But.

But.

The enthusiastic Smith men, most of them, were focusing heavily on the same woman. Never mind that Mellie Tipton, age 27, had more rug rats than anyone else in the Roost, a total of seven five-and-under trouble makers. Mel was just the right kind of curvy, had a wicked sense of humor Fort Steel had somehow failed to scour out of her, reeked of female chemistry, and loved the attention. There were even rumors that she’d enjoyed the attention of the uncaring fathers who’d sired her brood. Most of the others in her sisterhood considered her a raving slut. That hadn’t mattered when they were all slaves, but now? Now she was monopolizing the men and the other women were steamed. There’d even been one knock down, drag out cat fight, begun by chunky Beryl Stevenson. Beryl was sporting a fantastic shiner, a bitter attitude, and one less tooth; Mellie didn’t have a mark on her. All in all, it was a fine hot mess.

A mess that naïve, busy little old me had not seen coming. But nobody had a solution, so they were looking to me to fix everything. Being an Original Founder was highly overrated.

Slowly strolling the edge of the cliff around the Roost’s perimeter, hidden by boo coo trees, I had privacy to think for a time. Courtesy of Julia and Lauren, I did; they were covering for me, telling anyone who asked that I was checking for weak points, places a determined enemy might be able to scale the cliff and come upon us unaware. Which I’d done before and Lieutenant Blake had done three times so far, but it was the best excuse we had. Spring had finally sprung in earnest; everything was green and growing. The rain had been gone just long enough for the place to dry out on the surface while ground cover had water aplenty. Except for excited songbirds calling to find mates or already coupled up and building nests, the woods were quiet.

Yes, my girls–never mind that both of them were older than me, Julia by quite a bit and Lauren by who knew how much, I couldn’t help thinking of them as my girls–they had done this for me. It seemed everybody wanted a piece of me, including Sandy Smith. The fourth son. He was the only Smith man not chasing Mellie Tipton. He wanted to talk to me in private. I’d been putting him off, afraid of what he might want to discuss. He wasn’t chasing Mellie, which was good, but he wasn’t engaging with any of the other very interested women, either. I didn’t know if he simply found them all lacking, was too shy to talk to females, or–heaven forbid, since we needed couples badly–maybe he was gay. I mean, to each his own and all that, but come on. Once we were grown to, say, five hundred Souls, a guy-loving guy might not be a big deal. But now, when we so desperately needed fathers for so many children and husbands for lonely women, it would be a very big deal indeed.

Believe it or not, the sun was beating down and I was sweating. Freezing winter, shivery wet muddy spring, and now this?

Though in truth, my girls were really the source of my sweating. Lauren had admitted last night that she was afraid every time I left the Roost, afraid that I would be killed or even run away, and she would be abandoned. I’m afraid. Just those two words, but enough to stand me on my head. She knew I wouldn’t run from what I’d begun to build here, didn’t she? Let alone run from her? But she did believe in reincarnation; maybe I’d done her wrong in a past life? Or multiple past lives? I had no idea, but her being scared…that scared me.

As for getting killed, nobody had managed it yet. I didn’t intend to make it easy for anyone in the future, either.

And then it got worse. I told Julia about Lauren’s irrational fear…and instead of helping me out, she let me know she worried about me bailing out on her. I’m jealous, she’d admitted. It occurs to me that now you have such a slim, lovely, long-lived beauty with all this knowledge, and she dotes on you, maybe you might decide you don’t need me any more?

I’d been gobsmacked, to put it mildly. How could either woman think for one second that I didn’t want both of them is close to me as I could get them? Beyond that, didn’t the passion they felt for each other cancel out their insecurities?

Obviously not.

Why they cared so deeply for a scarred young former slave with more on his plate than he could handle and far too little personal time to spare with either of them…that was a mystery and a marvel.

Sadly, my girls were far from the most pressing problem I had to confront today. Mudfoot, whose real name none of us remembered, had been caught in the act two days before we returned from our final Smith Mountain run. Caught trying to rape one of Mellie Tipton’s kids, a five year old girl. Little Skye hadn’t been harmed, thanks to three other former Fort Steel slave boys who’d realized Mudfoot was missing from his firewood splitting duty. Nobody trusted Mud. I never had, during my slave days; there was something off about the kid. He was what, twelve years old? Thirteen now, maybe. Which meant he’d been about Skye’s age when we’d all been enslaved by the Fort Steel monsters. Little wonder he was twisted. We all were, in one way or another.

Unfortunately, the final decision was being left up to me. Time to get back to the improvised court hearing, the first held in our new community center building. Lieutenant Blake deserved endless kudos for the progress on the building. Enough stone had been found to form a low foundation, enough to keep the logs away from mother Earth and her natural rotting process. All four walls and most of the roof framing were up, awaiting roofing and hinged doors. Once the structure was rainproof, the construction crew would be adding a real wooden floor.

We were all in place by high noon. Mace Smith, Jed Blake, and I occupied a long bench behind a rough hewn table. Quince and Stubby escorted the prisoner, each older boy gripping a rope tied around Mudfoot’s neck. Mud looked plenty nervous, as he should. His eyes darted left and right. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, shifting the neck ropes slightly each time he swallowed. His hands were tied behind his back. No lawyers; we’d heard about those, but there weren’t enough of us at the Roost to engage in such foolishness.

This would be recorded as our community’s first legal decision and precedent, though. As the most educated person available, teacher Cindy Marakas sat to one side, taking notes with pencil and paper acquired from the Smith stores. There were a number of witnesses standing along the walls. Maybe someday we’d have seating in here for those who needed it. Most of the Roost’s residents were elsewhere, though, taking care of business. Not even Mellie, mother of the near-victim, bothered to attend the hearing. She trusted us, or at least trusted me and Blake, to take care of Mudfoot one way or another.

That trust didn’t exactly lessen the load pressing down on my shoulders. I was Atlas holding up the world, albeit a small world in the larger scheme of things.

We didn’t waste any time. John Sebastian Blake recited the known facts, and then it was my turn.

“Look at me, Mud,” I intoned. There was something in my voice that made him comply. He didn’t like it, but he met my steady gaze. “I’m not going to ask you if you realize what you did was wrong. Frankly, it doesn’t matter what you think. What does matter is simple.” It wasn’t, really. I was lying. Maybe we had a lawyer in attendance after all. “This community cannot afford to harbor anyone who will cross the line like you did. On the flip side of that coin, neither can we afford to lose a single man at this stage of our development.” The boy wasn’t catching half of that and wouldn’t have understood all of the words on his best day, but I wasn’t speaking to him. I was speaking for the record that would stand as the Roost’s Legal Decision #1. “As it happens, we won’t have to execute you on the spot–”

“What?!” That got his attention; the prisoner’s startled squawk of alarm fit the circumstances perfectly. “You–a, a, a death sentence? Y-y-you can’t be serious!”

“You weren’t listening. I said we won’t have to execute you, at least not right away.”

“But.” He was speechless for a moment. “Dawg, I didn’t do nuthin’!” There were tears in his eyes now, though whether from fear or outrage I had no idea.

Again, I spoke for the record. “First, please be advised that I am not be addressed by my former slave name.” My voice was the crack of a whip. “The name is Michael Jade, or in your case as things stand at the moment in this Court, Mister Jade, sir.” I couldn’t make myself insist on “Judge” or “Your Honor.” Not just yet.

“Consider the facts, Mudfoot. We must and will have zero tolerance for any act in which a female of any age is forced. Many of our people are former slaves; we will not go back to that in any way shape or form. Secondly, the age of consent may be variable in different cultures, but nowhere, among any people, is five years old enough to cut the mustard.” Ouch. Bit of a wince there. Could have chosen better words. Too late now. Thirdly, you’ve been an indifferent sort of worker, but even so, your reluctant efforts have contributed to the overall community welfare. So the decision has been made to remove you from this place for a while, see if you can benefit from a bit of seasoning, a little exposure to the real world out there. At dawn tomorrow, you will join an expedition. We’ll be scouting out the bison migration on the prairie; we’re going to need a lot more meat than our hunters can find in the mountains, at least until the Smith cattle herd has grown sufficiently. Beyond that, we’ll be traveling far to the west, looking to establish trade with other settlements and possibly to recruit additional talent for the Roost. We are likely to be gone for most of the summer.” I did not add that terminating the boy, if it came down to that, was better done away from our home.

Either Mudfoot would grow up or he would push daisies. There was no way we were turning loose anyone who’d been inside our redoubt. After all, security is largely a matter of secrecy, keeping the other guy ignorant of just what you’ve got and just where you’ve got it.

The other boys led him out, still restrained by the neck ropes, his hands still tied behind his back. He stumbled a little. Quince and Stubby would pass off the rope handling duties to other boys, but Mudfoot would will be restrained until we were packed, saddled, and ready to go in the morning.

Mace popped the obvious question as we signed our names to the notes Cindy had taken. It would look on paper like all three of us had partaken equally of the proceedings, but most of all, it got Lieutenant Blake’s signature on record as a co-judge. He’d be heading the bench for any cases that came up during my absence from the Roost, and there were bound to be some. Who would serve as his co-judges would be left up to him; at least that was one worry off my mind.

Now if I could only figure out a way to dissuade Lauren from joining us on our summer jaunt. She wanted to go and I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t say no to either woman, even when that weakness might cost her life. Julia being a natural warrior helped a lot; hopefully she never learned just how deep my panic had run when I’d realized she was taking the brunt of King Arthur’s assault. But Lauren was the very antithesis of a killer. I can treat wounds and other injuries, she’d said calmly, and I can cook. It will take a load off Julia. Her presence would certainly do that. It would also present an irresistible target to any raider or other lowlife who got so much as a glimpse of her in our company. Big Jake Sedlacek, aka Grunt, had once told me his tall, flashy pinto stud drew enemies like flies, too; few bad guys could ignore the temptation to own a horse like that. If only I didn’t want Lauren with me every bit as much as she did.

Well, I told myself, we’ll just have to see what happens. Preoccupied, I didn’t notice Sandy Smith. He’d been standing along the wall with the other witnesses but hadn’t left with them.

“A moment, Michael?”

“Sure, Sandy. I’ve got to start packing; can we walk and talk?” Whatever he wanted to discuss, it couldn’t be that bad…could it?