Grunt, Chapter 52: Punch a Bull

JULIA

With four virile young Smith studs newly on the scene and stirring hormones, several young mothers were pushing hard for a celebration feast during which the genders could mingle a-all night long. A couple of them hadn’t been impressed when it was pointed out that partying right now would be just a wee bit premature, none of the beef animals were going to be converted into steaks at this time as the herd size needed to increase to meet the community’s future needs before the skinning knives came out, or even that a few more preparations for an expected outlaw raid took precedence over social functions. They did, however, settle down some after learning that two more eligible bachelors of the same strong bloodline would be present and interested when we did authorize a hoedown.

Not that they knew what a hoedown might be; their ignorance gave rise to several bawdy jokes.

“Suppose anybody knows how to make music?” I asked the question in passing, not putting much of anything into it. Lauren, Michael, and I were seated on rough-carved log seats in front of our home tent, which was considerably larger than the small travel canvas we used on the trail. There was a bit of crisp snap to the evening air, but the cooking fire radiated enough heat to make the ambience almost balmy despite being nicely burned down to a worthy bed of coals. It was our second night at the Roost; Michael and I would be joining three of the four Smith men on the trail back to Smith Mountain at first light. Hawk Smith would be staying behind, simply because the Smiths weren’t about to leave the cattle herd alone with no one else cow-experienced and several large predators still unaccounted for. Lieutenant Blake had reported the demise of the last, late rising bear–a boar grizzly in his prime, thankfully not a mother with cubs. The kids did not need to see baby bears murdered because humans feared their mother. But there was still at least one mountain lion showing tracks. The big cat could obviously leave at any time–a wooden stockade being no obstacle to a kitty with claws–but Blake was far from certain the cougar had pulled up stakes despite all the human activity in the vicinity.

The younger children were kept under the eagle eyes of wary mothers and the older boys were cautioned to explore at least in pairs, with kid-sized spears in hand. Kitty would definitely eat a five year old, given the opportunity.

Also thankfully, the two young boys who’d first spotted the bear knew enough to break the rule and split up, one running to find the Lieutenant and the other keeping an eye on the ravenous bruin. “I was sure wishing I’d had your .358,” he’d told Michael, “but my carbine managed to get the job done.” Michael hadn’t asked for details.

The hide hadn’t been worth saving, nor the long-denned animal’s meat worth eating. The carcass had simply been dumped over the edge at what was now being called Sendoff Point at the extreme southwest corner of the mesa. Bodies dumped there ended up landing in one of the steaming fissures, getting boiled thoroughly and dissolved in the process. We couldn’t have dreamed up a better natural midden.

Lauren stopped turning the spit and announced, “Time to eat!”

We each cut our own slices from the venison roast, mainly because our appetites varied wildly. Lauren’s inch thick slab looked positively dainty next to my two inch thick serving, but neither of us could compare with the massive chunk our man carved away from the pitiful remainder. Must have been four pounds of solid protein, right there. He hadn’t been eating all that well these past few days, but his need to feed was clearly back in full bloom.

Meat and a little salt, with the deer’s haunch still medium rare in the center. That was it, no vegetables or anything else. We had potatoes on hand, but every one that had survived the winter in the Smith Mountain root cellar would be needed for planting, which would need to be done soon. At least, according to Mace, and he should know. Lauren read my mind, though. “Dandelions will be up shortly,” she said, “and we’ll have some of the finest greens anywhere.”

I hadn’t known dandelion leaves were edible. It turns out the blossoms make a delicate tea, young leaves are awesome salad greens even raw, though often eaten cooked, and the roots are loaded with nutrients, not to mention capable of some pretty impressive detoxing. Who knew?

True, I had an excuse. For whatever reason, we Gundersons had never seen a dandelion in the Fort 24 area. But they were present here, apparently.

I must have been woolgathering. Michael had already inhaled his mountain of meat and needed to talk. “Ladies,” he began soberly, “first of all, I thank you for the fine meal.” It was a rule with him never to insult the cook, or cooks in this case. But there was something else on his mind. “Got a confession to make.”

Lauren just raised one perfectly arched eyebrow. I had to ask. “A confession?”

“Yep.” He belched loudly. Nothing to do with his forthcoming confession, hopefully. “But it’s ugly, tells how I um, arranged for certain people to be murdered. Part of the baggage from my past. If you don’t care to hear it, I’ll understand.”

“Oh no, you don’t. No teaser like that and leave us hanging. Although…Lauren?” Our partner always seemed so slender and delicate to me, and she was certainly not a killer; perhaps she wouldn’t want to hear about this.

“If Michael needs to unburden himself,” she replied quietly, “I can stand it.” I noticed she didn’t say she wanted to hear it.

“Well….” He looked us each in the eye by turns. It cost him, though; the effort was obvious. “Had another nightmare last night…more a dream, really, I guess. It wasn’t anything I’d repressed. Not this time. But I’d done my best not to think about it for a lot of years. Figured it was telling me, hey, your girls need to know about this, and even if they don’t, you need to tell somebody. And since I’m not Catholic, a priest is out of the question…not that we have a priest here….

“Ah, I’m stalling. Jumping right in now.” His hands worked against themselves as he spoke, clutching. Writhing. I was pretty sure he was unaware of their motions. “A lot of faces were blurs when I first came to Fort Steel as a slave, but some stuck. Couldn’t have forgotten them if I tried, and sometimes I did try. Some of those burned into my brain were the butchers who slaughtered my parents right in front of me. There were three of them, and all three of them…it didn’t seem like cutting down unarmed civilians, man or woman, that didn’t bother them even a little bit. To put it nicely. It was obvious they enjoyed what they did. Satanic, if you will.”

The night suddenly seemed colder. I wanted to stoke up the fire, add some wood, but not while Michael was talking; I didn’t dare break the trance that seemed to hold him. I did sneak a quick glance at Lauren; her expression was composed, but sad. I have seldom seen such sadness in another person’s face. Then I realized some of that sadness was probably my own, reflected in my sister wife….

“When we got to Steel, at first I couldn’t function. I was only nine, I was in shock, and I was being brutalized on a regular basis to boot.” His voice was not exactly a monotone, but it wasn’t exactly the Michael we knew, either. The only word I could ascribe to it was eerie. “But by my tenth birthday–I remembered exactly when that was–I had names to put to the three butchers. Ross, Bindle, and Stark. First or last names, who knew, but that’s what the others called them, and that was good enough for me. I celebrated my tenth birthday by getting whipped in the morning for mouthing off to somebody–don’t remember who, I got so many whippings–and then later in the day, finding a way to sneak a free moment. In that moment, I made a solemn, whispered vow of revenge, vowed to see each of these three animals dead. Marked my left wrist by scraping across it with a sharp rock I’d found, three marks, scraped until they bled.”

He lifted his left hand, palm forward, and pulled his buckskin shirt sleeve back a bit so we could see. The three scars were thin, faded, but still visible. My heart was in my throat; controlling the tears that wanted to flow, I didn’t dare look at Lauren. I’d never noticed those marks. Michael’s body was so scarred, they’d simply escaped my notice as a handful of saplings in the midst of a huge forest might go unremarked.

“It took me three years to get the job done,” he continued, the tone of his recital now nothing more than a clerk reciting sales statistics for the day’s marketing. “There are thousands of ways to kill a human, but most of them were off limits to me. I could find poison; there are plenty of toxic substances all around us, and we had the foundry as well. But poison was out, too risky, no guaranteed success anywhere and no way to get the job done without being found out. Blades maybe, but again, stab somebody as a slave kid and see how likely you are to go unnoticed. The list went on. What I finally realized was that I’d have to be sneakier than the sneakiest rat citizen in all of Fort Steel, and that changed my thinking.”

He quit looking at us and stared into the shimmering coals. “Stark died first. Believe it or not, the man was married, but his wife was super jealous. With some reason; Stark was one of those who used the new slave women and girls a lot. But Gracie Stark didn’t seem likely to off her man in a jealous rage over a slave. It would have to be a citizen, someone she saw as above her. And I didn’t want her killing the other woman I was going to use.

“But we were being taught our letters steadily by that time. I became the teacher’s best student, working super hard to master the presentation of the written word. And I did; I got so I could forge a perfect copy of anybody’s handwriting, if only I got a sample to study for a while. Stark didn’t write well, but he wasn’t totally illiterate. His hand was sloppy and included lots of misspelled words, let alone horrible punctuation and questionable grammar, but he did write. In fact, as a militia member, he had to write reports at certain times, and one day I managed to steal a page which included his signature and everything.

“Then I finally spotted the girl I called my catalyst. Olga was–probably still is–one of the prettiest females in all of Fort Steel. Adult but still single, though she had at least half a dozen young bucks begging to marry them. Stark ogled her every time he got the chance, but she was above him socially, some relation to the foundry manager, and he never tried to take it any farther than that.

“Gracie had seen him eyeballing the lass, though–I overheard that much one day–and within the week, I had an unfinished Ode to Olga, which went something like this.”

OWED TO OELGAH
by Stark
Ya never encurraged me evin wun time
But I jist gotta write ya this desperit rime
I’m jist a pore solejer but if ya will lissen
Teers of luv down yer sweet cheeks gotta glissen
I’d leeve my ole ladey in half uv a hartbeet
Jist tell me sweet Oelgah ya feel the heet
My soon to be X is an uglee ole cow
Compaird ta yer buty o I luv ya now!!!
I need sum mor verses to Finnish this Owed
Lets jist run away an hit the ole rode
Cuz C thers a seecrit that nobody

“I left it like that, unfinished. Crumpled it up good like it’d been in Stark’s uniform pants pocket and he’d forgotten to take it out before sending his stuff to the laundry that week. See, at Fort Steel, one of the perks the militia had, to make up for their poor pay, was free laundry service, and guess who did the laundry? Yep, us little old slaves, you betcha. This was before I was assigned to the foundry, wasn’t big enough yet to be much use there, but they could sure enough work me to the bone in the laundry. We were of course required to check pockets before washing anything, and when the uniforms were returned, all clean and dry, any pocket contents we’d found were sent right along with the uniforms. Stark was out on patrol the day Gracie found that note. When he got back home, tired and probably cranky, ready for supper, she took the butcher knife and cut his throat with one great slashing swing.”

He stopped for a moment, shifting his gaze from the coals to look at us once again. His eyes were haunted. “Stark bled out right there, kicking and thrashing his life out on their kitchen floor, unable even to protest his innocence.”

When Michael stopped speaking this time, it was for good. Lauren said nothing either, but after an eternity of time had passed, I found I had a question. “What happened to Gracie?”

Our mate laughed, a short, harsh bark. “Oh, they would have hung her, but she’s a good looking woman, the note maybe helped a little, and most of all, she was pregnant. These days, as you know, nobody throws away a new life lightly. We have no choice but to cull the bad actors out of the herd, but untested babies are precious beyond comprehension. Strator Tucker decreed that she could live on three conditions: She had to agree to be impregnated yearly until the age of thirty-five, and she was I think twenty-three at the time. She had to give up every child for adoption the moment it was born, so as not to infect the babe with her taint. And she could never remarry or even live with a man, ever again.”

“So,” Lauren sounded thoughtful. “A slave in all but name.”

“Yeah.” Michael spit into the coals, as if trying to get a bad taste out of his mouth. “But Gracie Stark was way too fiery to take that lying down. So to speak. She agreed to the conditions, there being no other real option. But within a month, she’d outfitted herself with a pretty decent pack of stolen supplies and slipped out of the fort one night. On foot; she’d never ridden and wouldn’t have known how to handle a horse if she’d had one.”

“At least,” I observed, “she never found out you conned her into killing her man. I take it they never found her?”

“They never did.” Michael’s eyes were clearing up some: I was relieved to see that. “But there are stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s running with King Arthur’s band of Raiders.”

We stopped to recover, brewing a pot of tea and slowly drinking the herbal concoction before continuing, but our man with the much-scarred body told the stories of the other two murders he’d engineered before we turned in for the night. Each one had made him sick when it was done, but he’d taken his vow seriously, only grieving over the collateral damage to innocents he’d manipulated after the killing was done. By the time we turned in, I was grieving, too–mostly for the young boy who’d engineered three deaths by his thirteenth birthday despite being in the eyes of Fort Steel a helpless, battered, undersized slave kid.

On the good side, it takes one to know one. As our community grew, sneakiness would at some point rear its reptilian head…but it was unlikely to ever steal a march on our fearless leader.

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ZEBEDIAH SMITH JOURNALS
Spring, Year 41 AF

The Jades and our boys rode in just at dusk, all of them amazed at what they found, at the decision I’d had to make, at all the work we’d gotten done in the six days they’d been gone. Grown hogs slaughtered and smoked, weaners penned for crating in the a.m. Implements broken down and ready to load in panniers. Seed potatoes sacked, dried apples boxed. Horse herd brought in from north slope pasture and corralled. So on and so forth. No sentry tonight; odds against getting hit before daylight are in our favor and we all need the sleep; tomorrow will be rough.

For who knows what reason, the Before world intrudes on my thoughts this evening. Billions upon billions of humans, carpeting the world. Fools who worked not at all, opportunists who specialized in living on the backs of others–like today’s Raiders but lazier, often doing nothing but music or art or playing stupid games from “video” to “sports,” or heaven help me tinkering with the minds of others. Genocide, serial killers, rapists, terrorists, parasites, predators and prey of every shape and kind. Did not see it then, caught up like all the rest as God scrubbed the surface of the planet, but this world is better, at least for now.

Too bad my time here is almost up.

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MICHAEL

Questions crowded my mind, screaming for answers. “How can we possibly move the rest of your outfit in a single trip, Zeb?” It wasn’t making sense. Yes, they had nearly fifty more horses than we’d realized, an entire herd running loose in high mountain meadows, protected by a fierce, brown range stud with iron muscles and a nasty disposition, led by an equally tough black mare. Yes, I could believe we were going to be packing a multi-string group of more than thirty cargo critters, smoked and salted hog meat in some of the panniers, younger piglets crated in others with air holes included. But they were still leaving behind, by my guess, nearly eighty percent of everything they owned. Despite the difficulties that would have been involved in transporting all of that to the Roost, such a huge…abandonment…made no sense to me.

“Got a strong hunch, Michael.” Zeb dug out his short stemmed pipe, tamped it full of some aromatic plant leaves that didn’t interest me at all, and lit up. Two of his sons were setting out supper for the bunch of us. A cold supper, thick ham and cheese sandwiches; mother Sara had left enough bread to keep us going through the week. The old man drew in smoke and let it out through his nose in an obviously satisfying ritual. Whatever he was smoking was almost like incense; the kitchen suddenly smelled better. “Don’t believe we’ve got enough time to haul it all. Going by the original plan, it would have taken us another full month before we were done. I can feel the axe falling, and I’ve learned not to ignore that feeling.”

Oh. Well. Smith had survived the Fall, had lived this long when almost no one else had matched his record. Refusing to acknowledge what his sixth sense was telling him would be tantamount to suicide.

“Going to take a lot of rebuilding,” I observed, donning my Captain Obvious persona.

“True.” He nodded, accepting a sandwich and dipping himself a mug of water from the crock on the table. “But we’re taking every single tool. Enough to make half a dozen pack horses cranky,” he chuckled, contemplating the drink in his hand, “but we’ve got six strong men and no excuses.” He deposited the mug on the table, then lifted the sandwich to his mouth and took a bite worthy of a hippopotamus. Not that I’d ever seen a hippopotamus; it just sounded like a fun word to say, even in my head. Hippopotamus. Hippopotamus.

I’d gotten halfway through my own meal, Julia munching companionably by my side on the bench, our thighs touching, before it hit me. “Six strong men?” I asked between bites. “You don’t count as a seventh?”

He grinned at me, flashing a barricade of yellowed, rather snaggly teeth. I was a little surprised to realize he still had them. “I used to, but my grip isn’t what it used to be. Back in the day, all alone for those years after the Fall prior to Sara, I was in such physical condition. Michael, I could swing an axe literally from dawn to dusk. Or a hammer, or work a saw. Grab a bite here and there, but mostly work, work, work. I had to work if I wanted to survive the memories of the world as it had been, the pain of its death. I’d grown up fascinated with music, even apprenticed myself to a luthier for a few years in my late teens, making guitars, and learned I had a bit of talent with a fiddle. Then got interested in diseases of the mind, and threw myself into the study. The mind, mind you, but what you thought didn’t make a hill of beans worth of difference when Capriosi vilify came to call. So I had to shut down mentally and focus on physical survival, first and foremost, and that changed me. I was a stud, boy. I was a stud.”

I didn’t take offense and Zeb calling me boy. Frankly, I didn’t even realize he’d done it until much later; I was utterly caught up in his recital. What was left of my sandwich sat forgotten in my hand.

“How strong was I, back then? You don’t have to believe it, but my first bull was an ornery sort at times, and one day when he charged me in the corral, he irritated me a bit and I punched him right between the eyes. Hairline broke a couple of knuckles, probably, from the way it felt and the flattened look of those knuckles ever since, but I knocked that seventeen hundred pound sucker out. There was an antique movie, long before my time, but it had a cult following that kept it alive till the end. Blazing Saddles. In it, this brute of a character, played by a former professional athlete as I recall, this simple minded but burly Mongo, he knocks out a horse. Except that was not real, a horse is likely easier to thump than a thick headed bull, and I really did that.”

“Wow.” I could feel Julia trembling slightly, trying to keep from laughing. She clearly figured the old fellow was telling a tall tale. But was he? Either way, wow seemed the appropriate response.

“Yeah.” He didn’t grin this time, but his eyes did twinkle. “Wow. And ow. I had to nurse that hand for a good two weeks after that. Bull never charged me again, though, so maybe it was worth it. Thing is, those days are behind me. This afternoon, I straightened up from shoeing one of the horses, walked off about ten steps, and all of a sudden my legs gave out from under me. Ended up on the ground. Only good thing about it was, my stalwart sons were working elsewhere and didn’t see that happen. Didn’t see me on the ground like a feeble old far–fellow. Took me several minutes to get back up. The spell passed, but sooner or later it’ll come back. Won’t be working livestock on the ground any more; my sons are going to have to take over. You know, I can stand my body failing. What I can’t stand is embarrassment.”

It was hard not to look around to check, but my peripheral vision was enough to confirm that his sons were hearing this for the first time, as I was. And they liked it even less than I did.