Grunt, Chapter 64: Thanksgiving Homecoming

MICHAEL

It was truly a Thanksgiving homecoming, all the more because we nearly didn’t make it. The trek from Fort 24 ended up taking a full thirty-five days on the trail, not thirty. Some of the horses accepted Herman the Hermit readily while others rolled their eyes and laid their ears back if he came within thirty yards of them. Granshako’s steeldust range stud, a fighting five year old, especially distrusted the oddly formed human. A mountain cat tried to pick off one of the yearlings, failing but raising merry hob in the process. It took hours to straighten everything out after the two pack strings and the loose remuda tried to run away from the young, reckless cougar.

Not that there weren’t compensations. For one, the stallion had charged the cat, striking with broad teeth and iron hard hooves, pounding the sizeable kitty into mountain lion mush. For another, the natural equine wariness of the Hermit didn’t matter since Herman didn’t ride anyway. Never had. Instead, he walked, covering a surprising amount of ground on those short, stumpy legs. When he went on all fours, knuckles to the ground in a great, space eating gallop, he was capable of speeds far greater than any normal human–close to twenty miles an hour by my guess. It was astounding to observe. I wondered, sometimes, if our herbalist was the result of some forbidden Before experiment by a mad scientist.

Whether or not that was true, his surprising speed did much to explain his survival to date in a world that saw him as a monster.

Maybe he wasn’t human at all. Maybe he was a Sasquatch.

If so, he was one scary smart Bigfoot. The four women in our group–I say four because the fifth, dumpy teamster Jess, was more male than female in my book–did all the cooking, and a bang-up job of it, too, but Herman brought daily offerings to the communal kettle that elevated our trail cuisine to new heights. Underground tubers, occasional mushrooms, autumn-dried herbs including wild rose hips laden with vitamin C, a dozen or more different, wizened berries even the wilderness-wise Granshako and mountain-bred Smiths had always thought were poisonous…all found their way past our grateful palates to fuel our bodies into new heights of blooming health and vigor. Before we’d been on the trail a week, two of the pack horses had their panniers emptied, their loads redistributed among other ear-flicking equines so the master herbalist with his small one-hand shovel could load them with gathered goodies for the Roost. He even concocted a foul smelling extract that did much to deter the hordes of flies taking advantage of balmy Indian summer afternoons.

Yet as the old saying goes, children, don’t try this at home.

Carly (Mrs. Granshako) and Gaby (Smith) weren’t children, but they were the youngest members of our group–though Gaby was close to my age, having recently turned seventeen. On the march, both women had “horse responsibilities,” assisting primarily with pack string #2 and the loose remuda. Their youthful exuberance exceeded that of anyone else in the company by orders of magnitude. Coupled with their budding friendship, it inspired them to add to Herman’s herbal contributions from time to time.

Herman was not with them when they spotted the patch of death cap mushrooms. The fatal fungi (the Hermit had a notebook bearing that title, Fatal Fungi), looked a lot like a fully edible species we’d all enjoyed three days earlier. When the girls scampered happily back to camp, Lauren was taste-testing the contents of the kettle. Julia was stirring great slices of elk liver in two large skillets.

My bride left the frying pans for a moment. She walked over to the piled packs, picked up the great dinner bell we’d acquired at Fort 24, and rang it vigorously. While her back was turned, Carly passed a small handful of mushroom slices to Gaby, who sprinkled them into the sizzling grease surrounding the liver slices. When Julia returned to the pans, she noted the mushroom bits and smiled. “Thanks,” she told her sister.

She had no idea her sibling had not retrieved the ‘shrooms from one of Herman’s panniers.

When we gathered to eat, the Hermit was nowhere to be found. This was not unusual. He often foraged well into early dusk, roaming wide or dropping behind before loping back into camp.

Since our helpful gorilla-pumpkin guy didn’t eat meat, there was nothing to arouse his suspicion. The pans had been cleaned, scoured and rinsed and hung to dry. Sandy and Mace were taking first shift on sentry duty. The rest of us lounged around, luxuriating in the chilly but pleasant evening air, enjoying the clear sky’s transition from cerulean to midnight blue. The moon wouldn’t be up for some time yet, but there were stars aplenty, a sparkle-gauze blanket of peace and serenity. Herman helped himself to a bowl of veggie stew from the kettle and settled in with the rest of us. All in all, it was the most sociable evening I’d spent in years. All was right with my universe.

The food poisoning hit hard about six hours after full dark, close to the witching hour. Julia and I were on sentry duty. My gut cramped. Diarrhea let fly. Vomit spewed from my mouth. At first, I retained enough mental freedom to worry about my sentry duty, to worry about my mate on the other side of the camp. It had to be food poisoning. Nothing else made any sense.

The third bout of diarrhea did me in. Couldn’t get my britches down in time. Couldn’t find energy enough to care. My rifle was cast off to one side, hopefully free of ick.

Herman found me an eternity later. I was curled in fetal position on the ground, moaning in my own filth, lost in my own misery. “Jade!” His voice thundered in my skull; I vomited again. He pulled me to a sitting position, none too gently. “Michael.” He was insistent; I had to give him that. “You have to drink this. And you have to keep it down.”

Oh no. My stomach rebelled at the vile smell of the devil’s brew he was holding in his free hand. Swallow that? Keep it down?

“If you don’t, you’re a dead man.”

Yeah. Who gives a rat’s–“Agh-h-h!” The gorilla handled me like I was a squalling infant fresh from the womb. One great long arm snaked around my shoulders, his powerful fingers pinching my nose shut. Before I could react, he’d yanked my head back so my gaping mouth was pointed at the sky, then drowned me with that evil liquid he was carrying. He must have set the container to one side so the rest wouldn’t spill. Either that or he had a third arm hiding somewhere. My jaw was jammed shut with an audible clack of teeth, right through the liquid slop. At least he let go of my nose: I could breathe again. I swallowed convulsively. “Mph-h-h!” My heels drummed the earth, trying to get purchase enough to fight back. All thought of weaponry had fled my mind; there was nothing but panic-driven rage. Or rage-driven panic. Chicken, egg, which crossed the Judge of the Dead first?

Six times I vomited back into my mouth. I know. I counted. Or something in me did; it was not a conscious decision. Six times my jaw refused exit, clamped in gorilla-vise. If I lived, I was going to kill this sonofa–

The urge to vomit slackened, then quit entirely. Slowly, suspiciously, my reptile brain slithered back into its den. My vision cleared. Herman’s eyes came into focus, pooled concern reflecting the newly risen moon. One last bit of diarrhea headed for the exit. He removed the hand covering my mouth.

“The others?” I croaked. It came out like a a laryngitic frog, “Rg-uhrr?”

Somehow, he knew what I was asking. “The others have all been treated. I got to you last because there was no other choice. You were the farthest from the tents.”

“Casualties?” It came out nearly intelligible this time.

“Too soon to tell. I think I got to everybody in time and I think the amount you all ingested was less than a fatal dose. With luck, the antidote will prevent irreversible liver damage. From what the girls were able to tell me, I believe Sandy Smith got hit hardest because he has a weakness for mushrooms and ate a little more than anybody else. But I also got to him first, so…we’ll see.”

Mushrooms, huh? I thought he knew what he was doing with those things. Then he told me the rest of it. I didn’t have the strength to interrupt, but I could listen. Gabriella and Carly weren’t even sick because they’d so enjoyed watching the rest of us consume their “treat.” By the time they filled their own plates, the fried death cap slices were all gone. Herman had been able to make a positive identification, thanks to the double handful of uncooked fungi the new brides had stashed in one of the panniers. That also meant the kids who’d almost killed us had to help nurse the victims in camp and the man who’d come closest to death was Gaby’s very own husband.

Lots of clich├ęs and truisms popped their heads out of their holes when I heard that. Irony sucks. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. A little Knowledge is a dangerous thing. Add in the fact that we’d been eating liver when we ingested a poison that targeted the liver. Dead animal revenge? Irony, liver is thy name. I suspected none of us would hunger for that particular organ meat for some time to come.

We would need to remain camped right where we were for at least the next 48 hours. Every victim would have to be dosed with that nasty antidote–which smelled like somebody’s unwashed socks boiled in essence of dead cat, and tasted worse than it smelled–every four hours for at least five more doses, then every six hours for another clock-around. Carly was womaning up and taking her own medicine, showing every sign of learning from her mistake without being crushed by it. Gaby was weeping a lot and couldn’t quit apologizing; if her man died, she could possibly go insane or at least suffer a nervous breakdown. She would have to be watched carefully, once the rest of us were strong enough to undertake that task.

“Silver lining.”

“Huh?” I blinked at Herman’s hulking form. “Humor me. Brain’s not back in gear yet. And I’ve got a splitting headache.”

“Oh, just thinking. It wouldn’t take much to nudge Gaby’s guilt. Just a little bit. She’d make a fine apprentice to a master herbalist, don’t you think?”

I started to laugh. Headache put a stop to that. Ow. “You’re a devious ape–” Oops. Hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

The herbalist’s pumpkin-head split in a wide jack o’lantern grin. “Just call me
Silverback.”

I snorted. Again, ow. I can be a slow learner sometimes. “Seems to me, Sandy might take exception to his cutie hanging out all the time with another man.”

“Aha!” His eyes gleamed in triumph. “You called me a man!”

Uh? “I haven’t before?”

“I’d have to check the record.” He waved a paw–a hand. A hand. He waved a hand, dismissing the subject. “It’s kind of nice, being called a man. Bit of a downgrade from the noble ape, though.”

“You,” I decided, “have been hanging around Granshako too much.”

We ended up stuck in one spot for two days, not three. Unsurprisingly, Sandy and I took the longest to recuperate. Lauren and Julia had barely been discomfited, having waited for the men to eat before filling their own plates. They barely got half a nibble each.

Gluttony, thy name is doom.

By the second night, I was feeling almost okay and had enough energy to quiz Herman. “I’d always heard death cap mushrooms were fatal and there was no cure.”

The Hermit chuckled. “Most still believe that despite an antidote being readily available for the past five hundred years or more.”

“Oh?”

“NAC, N-acetylcysteine. Lab produced for the longest time. A number of plants contain cysteine. Cysteine can be extracted and distilled down to its essence, but getting it converted to NAC? That was the challenge. Mama Stella was the first to solve the problem. In the year 2502, she told me. Or a few years BF, Before Fall, according to the calendar in use today. Got a patent for it. She taught me. The process is neither quick nor simple, but I can do it. Given time, that is, and a place to work undisturbed.”

“Huh.” My mind latched onto an obvious danger. “We likely don’t want to let any outsiders know about your talent.”

“Which is why I prefer to live alone. Duh.”

“Well, we have plenty of mountain country for you to explore. Reckon you can find a hidey hole or three. Our people already know how to keep their lips zipped. Comes from so many of us having lived as slaves.”

He nodded soberly. “That would do it.

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JULIA

When the Wild River hove into view, nineteen days out from Fort 24, our spirits lifted. This was the halfway mark; it was all downhill from here. Not physically. There’d be miles of climbing ahead. But emotionally…yeah. All downhill.

Where we crossed, Wild River was pretty tame, so much so that in Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek’s many previous crossings–and Michael’s several now–neither of them had so much as commented on it. Upstream a mile or two, where the watercourse roared out of the mountains, it was utterly impassable. Or so the legends went. It wasn’t like I’d seen that country. But once out onto the sprawling prairie, the raging river split into more than a dozen much smaller streams that slowed down to a meandering crawl across land as flat as the former fabled Kansas. Which meant sloshing through creek after creek after creek, if a split river could properly be called a bunch of creeks. It probably couldn’t, but until somebody corrected me, that would be how I’d think of them. Or recreeks, like, “creek again.” Creek to river to recreek to bigger river on down the line.

Divided like an afro braided into a jillion cornrows, none of the recreeks bottomed out at more than a foot or two of water in late autumn, though some of them were river-wide. This land would have already been settled if it weren’t for the spring floods. I was sure of it. Judging by the variety of tall, winter-dry grasses in evidence, the soil had to be incredibly fertile.

Michael called a halt an hour before sunset. The campsite was exquisite, creek to the front, creek to the rear, more high-protein grass than the horses could possibly handle.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why my mate had chosen this spot. He and I were rotated off sentry duty until tomorrow’s late shift. We joined Lauren in our tent with considerable anticipation. Later, as both of my partners slept, I lay awake for a long time, listening to night sounds. Grass waving in the wind. Grass being chomped by horses who couldn’t believe their good fortune. Occasional snap-crack of an ember in the dying cookfire. Michael’s soft breathing, interrupted occasionally by a half-snore. Lauren’s stillness. The much-beloved woman I’d come to think of as our Resident Gentleness didn’t make any sound at all when she slept, except after we’d had beans for supper.

When beans were on the menu, all three of us slept with our heads toward the open tent flap.

At length, beanless, I slept. And the dream came.

The wedding was part joy, part desperation, part fear, part…it was impossible to identify all the parts.

There were two couples. One seemed ordinary enough, a young couple in love, but the other was different. The preacher–priest?–in black shirt and white clerical collar was old enough to have white hair, what remained of it. A big man. His bride might have been out of her teens, but not by much, and she clearly did not want to be marrying this man. A shotgun wedding in reverse, with an invisible-but-real weapon aimed at the girl’s back.

I stood a little to the back and to the right, observing. Sympathizing, but it was not up to me. Not yet, anyway.

The officiator was merciless. He married them.

–scene shift–

Wedding reception? Who knows? My “Dad” is seated with others around a table. I am standing, almost pacing, checking the cylinder on my nine-shot Taurus revolver, a snub-nosed .22 double action with a heavy, twelve-pound trigger pull. I snap the cylinder back in place, notice “Dad” observing with disapproval as I cock the hammer and let it down slowly. I care little for his opinion, one way or the other. I know he’s not my real father, though he looks like him. If he’s a symbol for God cast up by the Dream Censor, I may be in trouble.

At the moment, I don’t care. I slide the pistol back into its shoulder holster–on the right side, which is truly odd, as if the rest of the experience makes total sense–and stride off to my bedroom for the night.

–scene shift–

A large building–hotel? The old clerical man is to sleep in one room with a woman, but not the one he married. The prisoner bride is in the next room…and I am to sleep in that one. When I enter, the room is pretty dark, she is asleep in the far bed, and she’s left her blue, mid-thigh wedding dress on the floor just inside the door to press itself for morning.

Having shucked down to my underwear, I turn back the covers on the near bed, then decide to hang up her dress. It is wrinkle-free now. Steam iron floor, who knew.

She awakens. Not happy. Out of bed in her own underthings, striding to grab the dress from me. “I don’t want any hassle,” she snaps.

“No hassle. I was merely hanging it up for you.”

She eyes me distrustfully, still suspicious that I might have designs on her body as Preacher Man presumably does. Or maybe not. ‘Tis a mystery. Donning the dress, she leaves, fully clothed except for being barefoot.

I awoke, thoughtful. I felt an affinity with the less-than-happy and certainly-not-sexually-fulfilled shotgun bride who wasn’t sure she should trust me but wasn’t sure she shouldn’t, either. The dream made me a trifle uneasy, yet my cockiness felt important, too. The .22 had not been in evidence by the time I’d reached the bedroom but had been blatantly displayed in “Dad’s” presence. It all felt, I decided, like some portent for the future, something I would be wise to remember.

Man, why is there never a sage around when you need one?

Or…maybe there was. I would share the dream with Lauren when I got a chance. She showed remarkable insight in many areas. One could hope.

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MICHAEL

We were saddling up after breakfast when I first heard it. When Roan stepped a certain way, there was a little snap-click somewhere in his right hip area. It didn’t seem to bother him but it bothered me. My main mount was going on the disabled list. His chances of making it all the way back to the Roost were better that way. Once home, he’d have to settle for a well-earned retirement.

Well, bird droppings and little rabbit pellets. “Sorry, boy.” I murmured. The rough-gaited gelding looked at me reproachfully. A good horse-rider bond is a thing of beauty, in its way an intimacy as strong as that between husband and wife. Or in my case, husband and wives, plural.

I felt like crying.

“Granshako!”

The Native warrior looked up from the appaloosa’s hoof he was inspecting. “Yo, Chief?” I never knew whether his insistence on calling me Chief was humor or genuine respect. Could be both, I supposed.

“Roan’s got a snap in his hip. You got a mount I could use?” Why I asked Granshako for one of his recently wild equines, I had no clue. There were plenty of prime Gunderson critters available.

I take that back. I did know why. The Gundersons were family already. The wary Indian might feel more included if I went to him for help. It didn’t have anything to do with his remuda being the closest horses at the moment. Not at all. Heh.

He didn’t hesitate. “The brown and white pinto mare should do the job. She’s fast and tough. You just can’t wear her out.”

The horse was beautiful, obviously packing a bit of Arabian in her DNA. Judging by Before pictures I’d seen of ancient automobiles, shifting my saddle from Roan to Patches–yeah, that seemed like it ought to be her name–would be like upgrading from an AMC Pacer to a Chevy Corvette. I fairly drooled, instantly losing at least eighty percent of my guilt over kicking homely Roan to the curb.

Granshako failed to mention one little detail. Patches stood easy while being saddled…then promptly bucked me off when I stepped into the saddle. Repeatedly. The first time was the most spectacular, though hardly the most painful. Had I been alive back in Grunt’s rodeo days, I’d never have come close to being World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider. The launch was worthy of an Apollo moon shot, flipping me head over heels twice before I came down to earth. The second time included some sort of impossible corkscrew twist. The third…according to the rest of our group, all of my landings were spectacular wrecks and there were thirteen of them. It was looking like I was going to have to choose between taking another horse (unacceptable to the Roost’s fearless leader’s seventeen-year-old ego), getting myself killed (which seemed entirely possible), or hitting the trail around noon instead of at dawn.

And then she quit. I don’t mean she got tired of bucking. Granshako was right; that horse never wore out. But I’d passed some sort of initiation, at least for the day. We moved out at an hour after sunup, give or take.

Every square inch of my body was bruised. Getting up tomorrow would probably require a winch. The saddle battered my busted butt without mercy. Lauren and Carly gave me looks of mild disbelief, but everybody else got it. They were all horse people, inured to the bone-deep belief that a rider was judged more by his try than by anything else.

I would not have chosen this test knowingly, but passing it made me feel better about myself than anything I’d done since freeing my people from Fort Steel.

A sudden premonition swept through me. This was not the only test I would have to pass in this place. My eyes were magnetically drawn to the high country, up there where Wild River crashed through several steep, narrow, rocky gorges before splashing down over the foothills and out onto the plain.

I shook the feeling off with an effort.

But I didn’t forget it any more than I forgot we were ten humans strong now, not nine. Why I’d been thinking nine for days was beyond me. Had my brain been excluding our massive gorilla-ape? Unconscious bigotry, Michael Jade is thy name? I hoped not.

Luckily, I was riding drag today. No one would see me shifting in the saddle, trying to find a comfortable position that did not exist. I would have time to think up a way to–someday–get back at that sneaky redskin for his joke on the white boy.

Only slowly did I begin to realize Granshako had been right about the mare. Her natural gait was smooth, almost silky. Her intelligence was formidable, enabling her to untie the average knot with her teeth in seconds. She loved to travel, ears pricked forward, alertly watching everything around her. She had a sense of humor. It finally dawned on me that she hadn’t dumped my face in the dirt thirteen straight times out of meanness. She just loved to buck, the play of Soul expressing Itself in joy at Life itself, and she was really, really good at it.

“Sweetheart,” I said conversationally, “we need to come to an agreement. You do that to me every morning and you’ll break me, sooner or later. I’d really prefer not to be broken.”

She turned to look at me and snorted softly. I wished I knew what she meant by that.

======================================================

JULIA

We were still seven miles out when the blizzard hit. Thank goodness we’d made it into the mountains before Old Man Winter let go with his first major blast of the season. Out on the open prairie, the wind had to be howling like the Locust Pack on the hunt. We could feel the wind here, far more than a mere breeze, but survivable. Attempting to travel the low country now would be a guaranteed death sentence.

Not that we had it easy. Michael was riding point, our fearless leader on the mare I’d been sure would kill him. After that first morning, she settled for giving a single half-hearted jump when my mate first stepped up, just to remind her rider that she was still alive. But she cared about him. I could see that. I was even a little jealous. Most of all, though, I was glad she was the horse she was. Mountain bred. Tough as a keg of nails. A real nose for the trail, as good as any Gunderson horse ever bred. Quite frankly, she was ten times the horse Roan was. And she needed every bit of horse-ness to keep on keeping on. The sun was still up, somewhere above the clouds, but it was hard to prove it down here. The snow was coming down heavily, adding depth inch by inch. Already six inches of the stuff and climbing. Patches was breaking trail for the rest of us. Michael had to focus on the trail; there were a couple of forks that could take us in the wrong direction.

With two full pack strings and a bunch of loose horses, we did not want to find ourselves stuck at a dead end in some brush-choked gully bottom with no way to turn around.

Mace was riding drag, making sure we didn’t lose anybody out the back end.

How Granshako managed to keep his wild bunch on the trail in good order…now, there was a mystery. The Indian definitely knew some horse magic.

It was getting colder. My left eye was blurred, frozen tears, snow-encrusted, half-blind. I didn’t imagine anyone else was faring any better.

The snow got deeper. We passed a fork I recognized as the last one before the Roost. I’d lost any sense of the passage of time, but Lauren’s horse ahead of me was still moving and the pack string behind me was still following, as far as I could tell. It wasn’t like I could see past the lead pack horse’s nose. Two miles left? Something like that.

And then the light failed. One minute, I could see. The next, nothing. Just the moan of wind through the trees, the cold, the snow, and the sounds. Saddle leather creaking. Horses breathing, hooves tramping snow down but quietly, quietly, muffled by more than a foot of white stuff beneath and who knew how much still to come. My fingers tingled; I wiggled them in their mittens to aid circulation. Thank Creation for big Jake Sedlacek; without his forethought, we’d have been stuck with five-fingered gloves.

I’d been through blizzards in the mountains when I was growing up, under worse conditions than this. But never, never, had I needed to travel in a blizzard. We Gundersons all knew how to fort up, to swiftly build an emergency shelter, to get a fire going in a snowstorm if necessary. Traveling was insanity. Necessary insanity in this case. The timber on these slopes was thick, with few if any known parks, or clearings, where we could have hunkered down. We had to continue forward; there was no other realistic option.

The snow was now knee high. Not here in the middle of the bunch where so many had gone before. But up front, where Michael and Patches were breaking trail…the spotted mare was a remarkable critter, but was she bulldozer enough to make it all the way to the Roost? Without being spelled off by another?

Come to think of it, where was Herman? Somewhere in the middle of the group, hopefully. Away from a beaten trail, the snow would be thigh deep around his stumpy legs.

The lights didn’t register at first. Neither did the sounds. Only as I rode through the great stockade gate itself did I recognize the illumination cast by a dozen signal torches atop the posts. There were shouts, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying.

And then…and then I was inside the stockade, my mount still moving forward mechanically until a man stepped forward, grabbing the reins. I thought dimly, I should shoot him, but my body wasn’t interested. It felt unbelievably warm. After slamming against the mesa’s thick rim of protective trees and the tall stockade wall, the wind was cut down to a mere breeze.

My rein hand rested loosely on the saddle’s pommel, letting my mount follow Lauren’s animal without any direction from me. My off hand, clutching the lead pack horse’s halter rope in a frozen grip, seemed unattached to an arm that had gone completely numb.

From the direction of the Roost’s main settlement, a sea of bobbing lights pierced the still-falling snow. Villagers coming in a rush with torches and pitchforks to take out Frankenstein’s monster. They surrounded us, jabbering unintelligibly. A few faces looked vaguely familiar.

They had to pry my fingers open before dragging me bodily from the saddle.