Grunt, Chapter 14: Armed, Dangerous, and Crazy

As always, until WordPress gets the glitch fixed, let’s hope I caught all of the duplications before publishing.____Ghost32

The Johnson family home had already become a blessed sanctuary for Dawg, especially after dark. With evening chores done and a supper of hot elk stew filling his belly, the teenager contentedly lounged by the fireplace, sharing the warmth in the plank-floored living room with Hiram and Wilma’s three young children. Bertrand, Rosalie, and Marisa were all going to school, just like he was, but not in the same classes. Hiram had washed the dishes while Dawg handled the drying, the rule being that whoever cooked a meal did not have to clean up after.

Which might have been a problem except that everybody took turns cooking. Even the youngest, Marisa, a mere eight years of age, put a meal on the rough hewn table once a week. Knowing payback was a booger, no cook cared to get a reputation for dirtying more pots, pans, or plates than necessary.

The cabin was built for both defense and shelter from the elements, its walls consisting of logs some ten inches thick and hollowed out on the bottom sides so that each layer draped snugly over the heavy lumber below. There was only one window on each side of the structure, big enough to let in a little light during the day but small enough to keep out a large predator with bad intentions…man included. Hinged shutters were closed and barred at night, as was the only door.

Cozy. Warm. Safe.

Which made it all the more startling when a voice called loudly from outside, “Hello the cabin!” Dawg found himself on his feet without thinking, lance in hand, facing the door.

“Easy, son,” Hiram Johnson murmured quietly, just loud enough for the teenager to hear. More loudly, the easygoing farmer addressed their unseen visitor. “Identify!” Dawg noticed the man’s hand wasn’t far from the double bitted axe used to split firewood; he might present a calm exterior but took his duty as head of household seriously. The cabin sat a bit outside of Lower Valley village proper, far enough from its neighbors for nefarious deeds to go unnoticed for a while, and there had been three murders in Fort 24 during the last decade. Besides, comfort in their current surroundings notwithstanding, none of the residents–not even the Founders–had lived here from birth. Every one of us came from somewhere else, Dawg thought, where things were worse. Well…except for some of the kids, of course. And maybe some of the younger adults. And–

The voice outside responded. “It’s, um, Steve Meadows, one of the newbie students. And, uh, two others, Lacey and Kiko.”

Kiko? “I don’t recognize the other names,” Dawg whispered to his host, “but Kiko came in my group from Fort Steel, with Gru–Mr. Sedlacek.”

“Ah.” Johnson’s expression cleared. He moved to unbar the door, never mind the long dagger mounted in a leather sheath next to the door knob. If this turned out to be an attack after all, the homeowner clearly intended to use the door as a shield and the knife as a weapon. “Come on in, y’all. It’s cold out there.”

“Not so bad, really,” Steve Meadows protested, but his ruddy cheeks gave his words the lie. As he stepped forward into the light from the fireplace and several strategically placed candles, his features became clear. Fat Boy! At least Dawg knew the kid’s name now. Kiko followed, but little Free wasn’t with her. Generous babysitting by the host family, perhaps? She nodded at Dawg but said nothing. And the last…Pretty Girl!

Hot diggety dog, things were looking up! Lacey, her name was. Lacey. Lacey. Lacey.

Chubby Steve was explaining. “Victor George said we should form study groups and, um, Kiko reads pretty good but she says you’re better, Dawg, and we liked the way you, er, expressed yourself during Orientation, and so….”

Pretty Lacey was illiterate? Ha! Maybe his mental prowess counted for something? Maybe even more than his less than attractive prune-wrinkled face? Though now that he thought about it, his face hadn’t felt quite as rough lately…better nutrition? The breath of freedom?

The Johnson cabin wasn’t exactly a mansion, but with mother Wilma’s cheerful urging, the new study group found themselves ensconced in the kitchen. Which was not a bad deal as the room had a cast iron cookstove, obviously a relic from Before, gleaned in some trader’s foray.

“It’s pretty obvious the Fort 24 people aren’t worried about going into the forbidden cities to look for stuff, huh?” Lacey’s voice, a little husky but sexy as all get-out. R-rowf!

“I hadn’t really thought much about that,” Dawg admitted. “But yeah, they’re breaking taboos all over the place.”

“Yeah.” Fat B–Steve beamed, though it could be he was simply relieved to be in out of the cold. “Dawg, I really want to say thank you. Hey, I even promise not to hem and haw around so, uh, much.”

“So, how did the three of you end up getting together?”

“Oh, uh, Lacey and I have known each other for, um, years, right, Lace?”

“Years indeed.” The raven haired beauty lit up, her smile radiant as she answered the boy. Dawg felt a hot spike of something that could only be jealousy slicing through his gut. “We came in together, just the two of us, with trader Cormac.”

“Tell me more.” Idiot! Or maybe not; girls did seem to like to talk about themselves.

“There’s not a lot to tell. Steve here is my cousin, but his parents were killed by raiders when he was barely old enough to walk. Since then, he’s lived with me, my Dad, and my Mom. Mom died from a winter disease three years ago. Dad had a good thing going in Fort Fish. That’s a fort on the coast, right near the beach, big old ocean. He was a great shark hunter, my Dad, and shark meat is pretty much coin of the realm in Fort Fish. But after Mom died, he got really mean. She kind of kept him under control, I guess. Anyway, he turned into a real–uh, best not say exactly with children in the house.”

“Fair enough,” Dawg nodded sagely. Wow. He was holding his own in a conversation with the lovely Lacey! Although he probably needed to acknowledge his Fort Steel mate, Kiko…who was, he realized, regarding him with quiet amusement. Too smart for her own good, that Kiko always had been. “But how come your Dad let you leave with a totally strange trader for parts unknown?”

“Oh,” Steve put in cheerfully, “he didn’t let us. We told him we were leaving; we didn’t ask.”


“Yeah. And then he got really mad, Lacey’s Dad did, and charged at Cormac with a harpoon, and Cormac killed him just like that. And then we climbed in one of Cormac’s wagons and hit the trail. Though, um, we’re probably not real welcome back home any time soon.”

“I would guess not!” What were these traders made of, anyway? Not to mention the other thing; who could be so cheerful about seeing their father/uncle killed in front of them? “How many people live in Fort Fish? How far away is it?”

“Dunno how many exactly, but enough. Hundreds. I think maybe it’s, um, maybe only a few hundred miles west of here, but, uh, the mountain crossings make it seem a lot longer.”

Well, then. “Time to get to studying?” There were nods of agreement. Wilma Johnson padded quietly into the kitchen, rigged up four mugs with her special blend of herbs, poured boiling water from the kettle into each mug, and served the students. They nodded their thanks and she nodded back; no words were exchanged.

“What books did you all get?” He checked the tea. Still way too hot to swallow without burning his tongue.

Kiko volunteered to go first. Her library treasure was titled Inevitable Collapse, by Darlington Copas Banks. “It’s quite recently published,” she explained, “written during the actual Fall. Banks didn’t quite manage an ending to the book; it has that feel of being unfinished, you know? That’s explained in an epilogue written by his editor; the author contracted Capriosi vilify and died in a matter of days. But his theory makes sense to me, horrifying as it is.”

“And that theory would be?” Dawg was genuinely curious now, enough so that he barely registered Lacey’s knee brushing his under the table.

“Banks believed that, as the title indicates, the Fall was inevitable. That it had to happen. Not necessarily with the help of a devastating manmade virus; the trigger could have been one of any number of things. And in fact, at least according to the sources he cited, there were several factors involved, not just blackface. But humanity had outgrown the planet’s willingness to tolerate it, Banks says, and it had to happen. That’s the short version.”

Dawg had struggled through 1984, but he hadn’t wasted any time doing so. Sentinel Duty class was going to sponsor a trip up 24 River, all the way to the snowbound outpost high on the flanks of 24 Peak. That would eat up all of Thursday, Friday, and at least half of Saturday; he’d had to get his assigned reading done in a hurry.

“1984, by George Orwell, is much older,” he said, “and it’s a novel. Fiction. Orwell doesn’t assume mankind messing up will inevitably mean society’s collapse or a population crash. Instead, in truly depressing fashion, he describes a society that crushes the spirit of its citizens. Government is all powerful and even thinking something of which the authorities disapprove is enough to get you into deep, deep trouble. Not unlike our former home, Fort Steel, I might add.” He grinned at Kiko. The older woman grinned back. Lacey’s knee pressed on his knee a bit harder and he began to wonder what that was all about.

Not that his body didn’t respond to her nearness. Oh yeah.

“Fort Steel wasn’t really that oppressive to its citizens,” Kiko said, sobering. “Only to its slaves. Lacey, your turn, eh?”

“Theatrical sigh.” She held her hands high, gazing up as if imploring the God of the Cabin Roof to have mercy on her. “Kiko’s been a lifesaver for me. And for Stevie, too. Literacy was unknown at Fort Fish; the people there only care if you can bait a hook or throw a harpoon effectively enough to bring home a bit of piscatorial plunder. So our Fort Steel savior here, she’s been studying for all three of us, skimming our books as well as hers and reading some of the parts aloud. As I understand it,” she held up a medium thin book that despite its yellowed pages was obviously bound in genuine leather, “CASH IN! by Manuel Perez talks in agonizing detail about three different financial ecosystems, as he calls them. Not that we have any idea what an ecosystem might be, except that it seems to involve money, barter, stuff like that. Did you know, Dawg, that Before, the Ancients used to use invisible magic money? Push a button, just like Victor George told us, and bingo! Pretend money happened, bounced all the world, paid for everything from toothpaste to torpedoes?”

Toothpaste? Torpedoes? “You’re kidding, right?”

“Not.” She wasn’t pushing her knee against his now. This topic seemed to have her confused. Worried.

Kiko spoke up. “The author was a pretty optimistic guy. He believed in humanity getting out to space, going to explore and even live on other planets, or even among distant stars. Reading his work, I got the impression he loved complexity, was a master of detail like you wouldn’t believe. Mostly, so far anyway, my impressions and conclusions are probably the dead opposite of his. He called that pretend money fiat currency, or cryptocurrency, or Bitcoin, and other big fancy words, not one of which I understood. Some of it, I guess, was paper, and some this magic-in-the-air unreal imaginative stuff. Give me something metal I can hold in my hand any day, if I don’t have anything to barter. But there were a couple of things he said that made sense. One of them is, let’s see your book, Lace…page 126:”

“Newcomers to a community sometimes run the risk of lawsuits and huge errors by not knowing the local ordinances and laws that correspond to their new homes, especially when interacting with someone who does know the rules and wants to take advantage of the newcomer. Been there, suffered that, as a young adult and lately, as a mature parent. And I really hate it when someone says it is part of the learning curve…. But newcomers also have a great advantage, when they are willing to work for it: they see missed opportunities and ways to make money that the locals might not recognize….”

“Lordy, lordy, lordy.” Dawg put his elbows on the table and his face in his hands, an odd way to signal sudden understanding. Spreading his fingers enough to peep out, he muttered, “So. Is that what Fort 24’s immediate immersion in such an extensive curriculum is all about? Are the leaders trying to give us an overview of the community as fast as they can, with enough depth that just maybe we’ll be able to avoid doing something stupid culturally…or even better, to spot a way to become productive that the ones who came before us missed?”

Food for thought, but the others looked like they’d have to chew on it for a while. Eventually, they drank their cold tea and moved on to Steve’s book, which turned out to be a detailed report on the histories of the Democratic and Republican parties, complete with numerous anecdotes of corruption, bumbling, lying, stealing, and the occasional ethical stand against all odds.

To no one’s surprise, the ethical stands were in the distinct minority. It hadn’t taken long as a slave at Fort Steel or as a young person living under a surly shark hunter’s roof to become thoroughly skeptical of people in power.

“So,” Dawg put down his mug, realizing it must be getting very late, “what seems to be the common thread here? What might old man George be trying to get us to see?”

“We, um, could make, er, a list,” Steve suggested. The heavy lad was slumped in his chair. None of them would be greeting the morning all bright eyed and bushy tailed.

“A list it is, then.” Kiko fished in her carry bag, got out quill pen, ink, and paper–real paper, which shouted louder than anything that the traders really were raiding the taboo cities–and set to work. “I’ll start; everybody else pitch in, okay?”

They did. Before long, they had enough items on the list to call it a night; if this wouldn’t get them through next week’s Why 24? class, nothing would:

1. The larger the community or society, the more complex its structure.

2. Imaginary money is deadly and a society that lets it happen is stupid. (Victor George might object vigorously to that one, they agreed, but who cared? The teacher wanted discussion, they’d give him discussion.)

3. Give man half a chance and he will oppress his fellow man. (Beware big government.)

4. Too much technology is every bit as destructive as too much fire. Or imaginary money.

5. As newcomers to Fort 24, they would be wise to keep their eyes out for opportunities other citizens might miss or even think crazy.

Dawg stretched and yawned. “Let’s call it a night. We–”


As before, Dawg found himself on his feet, semi-crouched in ready stance, lance in his hands. The women were still at the table, wide eyed, frozen in place. Chubby Steve, surprisingly, produced a belt knife from under his coat; he looked impressively fierce for such a round thing.

Hiram Johnson strode into the kitchen. “Identify!”

“Crier Walter Miller at your service, Mr. Johnson! I come with urgent news from the Council!”

“One moment!” Johnson turned to Lacey and Kiko, hissing like a snake. “Back room, you two. Now! And you, too, Steve.”

“But I–”

“You don’t have the training. Move! Dawg, you fought in Fear Trace, did you not? I believe Jake mentioned that.”

Dawg nodded, a terse jerk of the head, his eyes never leaving the door.

“Good.” His voice reverted to normal. “Let me unbar the door, Walter!”

The crier stumbled through the doorway. Miller was a small man, shorter even than Dawg, and slim to boot. He brushed a fresh dusting of snow from the shoulders of his coat as Hiram barred the door. There was a sheen of sweat covering his face despite the cold outside. His chest heaved as he took a moment, leaning to place the palms of his hands on his knees, drawing in great ragged gulps of air.

“Whoo!” He said, straightening. “A code 5 run after dark in winter gear takes it out of a fellow. Thank goodness this is my last stop. Everybody needs to hear this.”

They would hear it anyway, Dawg thought. The Johnson cabin wasn’t exactly large enough to prevent that. Still, Hiram Johnson called out to the others, and soon enough they were all gathered around the kitchen table, Wilma Johnson fussing at the stove, preparing a fresh hot mug of tea for their late night guest. The Johnson children, though undoubtedly awake from all the commotion, had long ago been sent to bed and knew enough to stay there.

“Rodney Upward,” Miller said, his expression as solemn as an executioner with an axe in his hand, “has disappeared. But not just missing. He and Jeb Strake got into it at Holdover House and the boy stabbed old Jeb with a carving knife.”

Lacey gasped. Kiko’s jaw clenched. Steve simply nodded as if he’d known all along the redhead would come to no good. The Johnsons didn’t change expression, but Dawg had gotten to know them well enough to read beneath the surface; they were worried. “How bad is Jeb?” Hiram asked.

“Don’t know yet. He’s in the infirmary and was able to tell the Marshal who stabbed him, so he’s conscious. Said the boy took off with his prize pulley bow and his fancy gray gelding, so the kid is armed and dangerous, probably crazy to boot. Word from the Council is that nobody moves after dark until this guy is caught, nobody travels alone–except us criers, we don’t count–and watch your backs. Nobody knows if Upward is running or hanging out, ready to go on a crime spree.”

“Wilma,” Hiram said, his tone brooking no argument, “the girls can bunk in with you. I’ll grab a piece of the floor out here, along with the rest of the guys.”

Lacey, clearly slowest on the uptake, began to protest. “But–”

“No arguments, Lacey. Your host families all know the rules. They’d skin me alive if I let you head home now, and so would the Council. Dawg, I believe it would be best if you and I took shifts, staying awake. Upward wouldn’t be able to break into this cabin, but he might try for the livestock if he’s crazy enough.”

“First shift?” The teenager asked.

“I’ll take that. You’ve had a long day and a long evening of studying. Go hit your bunk for a couple of hours. We’ll lay a pallet out in front of the fire for Walter, and I’ll sit here at the kitchen table. You can take second shift, starting around midnight.”

Wilma Johnson had heard enough. “Come on, girls,” she said cheerfully. “Hiram and I have a big old bed; all three of us will fit. Besides, it’s been ages since I’ve had a night of girl talk.”

Dawg went to his bunk as instructed, lying down fully dressed, but sleep did not come easily. The redheaded rebel was dangerous enough, no doubt of that, but he was a young immigrant, too, and he was out there in the cold somewhere. Not lying on a comfy bunk, surrounded by capable people who cared about him. When Dawg finally drifted off, he dreamed of a young cougar with a reddish coat of fur, a yearling maybe, prowling the mountains with yellow eyes and a heart full of fear.