Grunt, Chapter 25: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego

“You’d do that?” I was pretty sure my heart had stopped beating. This simply could not be true; the curvaceous, outrageously-good-with-a-sword, tiger fighting woman of every man’s fantasy could not have just said she’d go with me to free the rest of my people from slavery.

I was dreaming, right? It had to be a dream. Except my dreams were never this good. My psyche would never have had the audacity to produce a moment like this tall, strong Julia Gunderson female with her blonde hair that blazed golden under the sun and framed her exquisite face so perfectly in this flickering campfire light. Besides, dreams never smelled, and she did. She smelled of our days on the trail, sure, but most of all she smelled of her. I could inhale that scent and die happy. Almost. I do tend to exaggerate to myself, just a little.

Her whispered reply left no room for doubt. “I would. And I will.”

My hand found hers, our fingers moving of their own accord as they intertwined. “Well then, welcome, partner. I’ll love you till the day I die. Which may or may not be far in the future, but it’s the best I can do for now.” Partner? Sheesh. I should have saying things like beloved, mate for life, honey, sweetheart, and are you out of your mind choosing a nobody like me with nothing to his name but the donated set of clothes on my back and two short Sedlacek Special spears gifted from Grunt? All of those things were certainly going through my mind.

The need between us was overwhelming. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, her voice suddenly husky.

She didn’t have to ask twice. We rose as one, returned our bowls to the small stack of dishes by the fire. They’d have to be cleaned before morning when the next rotation cook took over. That would be me, my turn, not that I was looking forward to it. A sudden inspiration struck. I snagged the cast iron kettle, used a small forked branch of unburned juniper to fill the vessel with burning coals, and was good to go. Julia would speak up if I didn’t, or at least I thought she would, but it was my place as the man of our newly formed partnership, so I swallowed the nervous lump in my throat that thought I might have to fight her big brother and got on with it. “We’ll be back in a bit.”

“Hnh. Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do, kiddies.” Grunt’s remark was delivered with a straight face. I didn’t look at her brother.

“Ew-w-w!” I timed it so we were exiting the room; had to get in the last shot. “You and Tommy? That’s just gross!”

The roaring laughter of both men covered Julia’s muffled snort as she stepped up beside me. Not that we walked hand in hand in the darkness of the drift; both of us were still warriors and prepared for what might come. The Before revolver rode at my left hip, belt knife at my right, one of the Sedlacek Spears was gripped in my right hand, and the kettle of coals swung from my left, lighting the way between us just enough to see where we were putting our feet. On the other side of that heated iron, I could see my woman’s–my woman’s!–right hand remained unburdened, free to draw her sword at need, and over there in the gloom on her left side, was that…? Yes, it was.

She was carrying a blanket.

It was only then that I realized the song Grunt had been singing the day we left Fort 24 was running through my head, big time.

I have a thing for dangerous women
Who will stand up in a fight
Help me take down the enemy
And make sure things turn out right
I don’t need no wimpy doormat
I don’t need no country mouse
Give me a girl with a bladed weapon
Who can cut my troubles out

Prophecy? I’d never known a woman who truly fit that song until the Gundersons had come waltzing through that classroom door mere minutes after Jake had put away his guitar….

Wow. Just…wow.

“Whatcha thinking, honey?” Her voice purred at me as we walked.

“Um…lucky me. Destiny. Maybe even prophecy.”

“Lucky us. Destiny? Yeah, I’ll buy that. I sure never committed to a man before I let him get in my pants before and not even then–that sentence doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?”

I chuckled, my nerves lessening. “Don’t tell me you’re nervous, too?”

“Like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But,” her free hand found my kettle-swinging wrist and didn’t let go, “it’s a good kind of nervous. We were meant to be, Dawg.”

“Yeah, I–it scares me I might wake up and find it isn’t real, but yeah. I can feel it now. Now that I’m sort of getting through the shock of you saying you’d go with me. Not many girls would do that. Pardon, many women–”

“You can call me girl any time you like. It doesn’t offend me.”

“Oh. Good.” Lame much, Dawg?

“Got a question, though. You’re only known as Dawg? Was that your birth name, or–?”

“Nah. Slave name. The Fort Steel barbarians didn’t want us using our given names, didn’t want us identifying ourselves that way, so they tacked whatever they liked on us and made it stick. I still remember my given name, though. Swore I’d hold it close to my heart till I could grow up and cut out their hearts. Um…that sound too bloody for you?”

“No.” Her voice was suddenly fierce, tiger-killing fierce. “If scum like that had murdered Mom and Dad in front of me, I’d have not only hunted them down and killed them, I’d have done it slow, sliced them up in small pieces while they were still alive, seared their flesh over the fire while they watched and fed it to the coyotes in the hills. And then I’d have cursed their essence to the Devil and beyond, razed their town, and salted the earth upon which they’d walked. ”

“All righty then.” I’d found the perfect woman for sure. “Just remind me not to irritate you unnecessarily, wouldja?” I found myself grinning. Strator Tucker and Captain Finster in slow barbecue mode; I could go for that.

The tiger killer’s tone softened immediately. “You don’t have to worry.”

Oh, good. Not that I’d really been concerned…much.

“Would you share your birth name with me?” Same soft tone, only more so. Almost timid. Julia Gunderson, timid?

“I’d share anything with you. Hey, that hole there…kind of high up on the sidewall, but I bet I could give you a boost and then you could reach down and give me a hand up. Must be one of those stopes Jake was referring to.”

“Far enough from those two jokers for privacy,” she agreed, “but I’ll boost you up. It’s the man’s duty to go first, just in case there’s a man-swallowing mythical fire breathing dragon in that hole, right?”

Great image. Also too much information. “Oh. Sure.” I set the kettle down; she could hand it up after I got situated. Which meant I really would be scooting into a pitch black hole with no way to know what was in there, but man has always done stupid things to impress woman. Who was I to flout tradition?

I should have realized her strength after seeing her lop off an entire tiger leg in one sword swipe. Her boost fairly threw me into the stone darkness. Julia might be willing to play the submissive female with me at appropriate times, but I’d be wise never to get into an arm wrestling contest with her.

Poor tiger never had a chance.

Nor did I, come to think of it. Not that I was complaining.

The stope didn’t go straight back but angled upward. That caught me off guard, jam-skidding my knees and nearly stone-burning my nose from the force of Julia’s boost. Not that I would ever admit that to her. Male ego bruised much, Dawg?

I got myself scooted around and she handed up the kettle. With that placed to the side, kept from sliding back out of the stope by a small imperfection in the surprisingly smooth rock slope, Julia came next. We probably weighed about the same, but she practically shot up into the hole, using my hand for little more than a balance point. I’d swear she had coil springs inside those shapely legs.

No more than thirty feet up the slope of the stope, stooped over because the ceiling, or hanging as Grunt called it, was only a few feet above the floor, we found the perfect place. To the left, away from the main shaft, a level section had been carved into the rock–carved with explosives, so we’d been told, though you couldn’t really tell. Those Before miners had been wizards with dynamite.

Not that I’d ever seen dynamite in action. Just heard about it. One of those legends.

Julia spread the blanket. We sat down side by side, our backs against the wall, and she flipped half of the woolen fabric over our legs. Cozy. Toasty. I placed a hand on her thigh; she moved her own hand atop mine and held it there.

“So,” she said, “your birth name?”

“Michael.” It did not come out easily. “Michael Jade. My father was Abraham Jade. Mom came from the Crimson clan, guess they chose the name for themselves after the Fall. So, Shirley Crimson before she married Dad. So my full name is Michael Crimson Jade.”

“It hurts to speak of it?” She’d heard something in my voice.

“No…not really that.” I sucked in a deep breath, let it out slow. “It hurts every I see them cut down by those murderers, sure, but not…not to speak of them per se, or the name they gave me, or our family history. It’s just…honey, I haven’t spoken my name aloud from that day to this. I was terrified, of course, horrified and piss-my-pants scared the way any nine year old child would be, but even then, right that day, after they’d rounded up the few they’d left alive to become slaves but before the sun had set, the rage filled me. Anger doesn’t describe it. Rage, and determination. I promised myself never to forget them, never to forget my name, but also never to speak it aloud where the enemy could hear, not until the day I could become strong enough to throw it in their faces as I cut them down, one by one, until none were left.”

She squeezed my hand. “And now?”

“Yeah. Good question.” The lust I’d felt when we left the campsite room was gone, overridden by the sheer release of letting another Soul know my deepest thoughts and desires. Letting myself trust. This amazing female–“You know, Julia, I’ve never touched another person, or been touched, in any intimate way, until tonight, with you. Not so much as a hug from a fellow sufferer. Nothing. I didn’t realize how much I needed it.”

“Wow. You–not even another slave? Surely some of you must have been drawn together, some way, somehow?”

My laugh was bitter. “You know how they handled us? It was weird, come to think of it, almost schizophrenic if I understand the definition of that word. They’d let Fort Steel’s only teacher come and teach us, as long as it was on her own time, but male slaves were housed under guard in one building, females in another. During the day, males were–and are, since only a few of us got out with Grunt this last trip–we were marched to the dirtiest, most dangerous, menial tasks available. Shoveling livestock manure was the best of those jobs. The females were taken elsewhere, used sexually in the hopes of breeding more good little slaves, forced to do other things that made our broken limbs and foundry burns enviable. Then at night, back to the segregated lockups we went. Day in, day out, we were too exhausted to think about even patting another slave on the shoulder to let him know we understood. Because we didn’t understand, Julia. We didn’t. How could anyone treat his fellow man like that?

“There was one boy about my age whose father had been a preacher before the Fort Steel militia came. The preacher died with a spear in his belly, using his last words to beg his son to trust in God. And the kid tried. He really tried. I heard him saying his prayers night after night, just a couple of pallets down the floor from me. Nobody tried to stop him from doing that, but one day he stopped himself. He was assigned to cleanup duty in the foundry. One morning, just minutes into the shift, he screamed something about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as he took a running dive from the catwalk into a huge cauldron of molten steel. He didn’t go dancing around in the flames; he just…disappeared. Hardly even made a splash.”

Julia’s whisper barely registered. “Michael Crimson Jade, I have been so sheltered.”

I felt bad for her then, and guilty. It snapped me out of my fugue. What right did I have to dump my skull-load of grim memories onto her shapely shoulders? Not that she didn’t need to know. She had volunteered to help bring my people out of Egypt; she couldn’t be allowed to stand by my side as I faced the Pharaoh unless she understood the situation at least a little.

But still. I could have eased into it a bit instead of–

“Don’t.”

“Huh? What?”

“Sweetheart, don’t get down on yourself for letting me into your head. I’m your Ruth, right?” Her hand left mine, but only so she could shift around, taking my face between her palms, facing me nose to nose. “Whither though seekest blood, I shall sharpen thy blades and shed it with thee. Not the King James version, but the Julia Gunderson Jade version. We are one.” Then she broke the mood entirely. “And that’s the way I roll, baby!”

Her grin lit up the mine shaft; her lips fueled mine in a way I’d never dreamed possible. For the next little time, or eternity, or no time at all, she led the way, the older woman of experience tutoring the young neophyte.

And man, was I ever happy to be tutored.

By the time we got back to the campsite room, Grunt and Tommy should have been rolled in their blankets and sound asleep.

As if. The old folks had stayed up till the kiddies got home. We stepped quietly, straining our ears in hopes of hearing something juicy.

“…microplastics?” Tommy’s voice.

“Yeah. Abbreviation MPs. Studies found them in increasing amounts, right up until the Fall. Microscopic bits of foam, fibers filament, fragments, and pigments, reaching the oceans in increasing amounts since the explosion of the use of plastics beginning in the 1950s. Even at the end, most of the scientists and politicians swore they weren’t prevalent enough to present a clear danger to human health. But nearly every brand of sea salt had some of them, and even table salt mostly came from ocean water. A giant company named Cargill had huge seawater drying ponds to reclaim ocean salt, and that wasn’t sold as sea salt. What made it worst of all, plastic breaks down slowly, producing ever smaller sizes, and smaller sizes could let them their penetrate into various bodily organs more readily and, therefore, cause a higher degree of toxicity.

“Not every human showed symptoms of MPs toxicity by a long shot, but for years my grandfather did. His glands were constantly swelling, he caught way more colds and flu viruses than he should have, his energy was about half what it had been for most of his life, and so on and so forth. Then one day he stumbled on these studies about microplastics and it was like a light bulb went off in his head.”

Sounded boring. We stepped into the room. Slash opened one eye, ascertained it was us, and went back to sleep. The horses ignored us. Tommy looked at me innocently and asked, “Get your cane varnished?”

I had no clue what he meant by that, but it sounded wrong somehow, so I just snorted a little as we crossed the room to our spot by the far wall. Julia looked more than a little smug and I loved her for it. Loved her for a lot of other things, too.

“Guess the kiddies wore themselves out too much to talk,” Jake observed.

Tommy agreed. “I’m sure they’ve had an exhausting evening. You were saying about MPs?”

“Hnh. Well, Granddad figured he could start buying salt from a company that mined it near what used to be the town of Redmond, Utah, and that stuff wouldn’t have microplastics in it. But he liked to eat out, let other folks do the cooking, and everything in the restaurants, it seemed, had salt in it. So did most of the available sauces and canned goods in the markets. So what was he to do? His wife had passed; he didn’t have anybody to cook for him by then.

“Amazingly, that old man took the bull by the horns and started cooking from scratch. Made a lot of mistakes in the kitchen in the learning process, but within a year he’d written his own cookbook. No more MPs, and he got healthier by the day. Didn’t happen all at once, of course, but it did happen.”

“So,” Tommy got up, moved to the fire, and added a few more chunks of juniper. The scene was…cozy. I felt myself drifting off even before Julia had our blankets laid out. We’d be sleeping together from now on, damn the brothers and full speed ahead. “Your grandpa, he lived happily ever after, until the Fall?”

“Oh, hell no.” Grunt chuckled and got to his own feet, readying his roll for the night. “He got rid of his symptoms all right. Felt so good that he started dating again. About two years later, a jealous husband shot him in the back as he was diving out of the window of the wife’s bedroom.”

“Still,” he finished, “that wasn’t a bad way to go. And I learned from it. To this day, I’ll only use salt I dug out of the ground myself, and you can darn sure bet I’ll be staying away from the ocean for at least the next thousand years. Or two.”

Slight exaggeration; Grunt wasn’t aging fast but he was aging. He’d’ made his point, though; Julia and I wouldn’t be looking for beachfront property in the foreseeable future. Man, that Before society surely did have their heads up their collective derrieres. Organ-piercing microplastics, yeowch!

My girl got herself settled and I spooned in behind her, snug as two bugs in a rug. If those bugs had knives and spears and swords and shoot guns all ready to hand, anyway. We might have turned into a couple of snuggle bunnies, but we weren’t forgetting Mr. Bear. We didn’t even take off our boots.