“You will pack up now. We’re heading home.” Jeremiah “Weasel” Compton stood spread legged, a gloved but loaded finger pointing for emphasis. “You’re my wife!”
I stared back at him in shock, feeling our son stiffen as he stood by my side, facing his father. No man had taken that tone with me in years. The last one who’d tried still didn’t walk straight and would never father children. What was wrong with my mate of nearly eighteen years? His eyes were crazed, enraged, full of fear and…something else. “We can’t leave now,” I said quietly, the sound of loving reason that had soothed Miah so many times before. “These people need us. I don’t think any more toes will have to be amputated but it will be some time before everyone is out of danger. Davies and I have to monitor them for at least another two weeks and–”
“These people.” It came out as a snarl, barely understandable. “They’re all you think about. You’ve always done that, even at Fort Steel, even when you were treating mere slaves. Without your these people attitude, smartass Dawg would have died. Better if he had. You’ve been crushing on him since he was first brought from Fort Confluence at age nine. He’s one of your these people. Think you can compete with his hot chicks? Maybe soothe his scars?”
I’d not have thought it possible for my shock to deepen. I was wrong. Our son, ever ready to stand guard between me and any attack, was prepared to launch. I put a hand on his arm, restraining him by force of will alone, not daring to take my eyes away from the raving madman in front of me. Here I’d worried about getting old, nineteen years of age difference between us, wrinkles showing as menopause hit me with its classic sucker punch. Yet my young and virile husband felt ignored, even abandoned by me. I could not believe he was saying these things. I could not believe he was saying them–more like screaming them now–in public, among the understandably concerned Elk Hollow refugees. “I have never crushed on Michael Jade,” I protested. “If I wanted to crush on anybody, it would be Jake Sedlacek.”
Oooops. Wrong thing to say. I bit my tongue hard enough to draw blood. In his mid-sixties, Big Jake was still a force to be reckoned with. The MAP Captain we’d originally known only as an itinerant trader from Fort 24 turned out to be a cofounder of Fort 24. He stood six-feet, six inches in his stocking feet. He’d trained and now led volunteer MAP fighters from all over the Territory. He’d been everywhere, done everything. The Weasel topped out at five-five, a poster boy for little man syndrome who now babysat refugees in the boondocks. If there was anything I should not have done, it was compare the two men.
Jeremiah’s eyes bugged out. His face turned purple. His pupils were dark obsidian pits with fiery red rings around them. Aiyee, how had it come to this?
There followed enough acrimonious accusations to fill an ocean. I didn’t care about his troubles. Davies, standing at my side, was not his son. Nikki, our firstborn, married with children, was not his daughter. This whole Hooded Cobra war was stupid; why couldn’t we all just get along? Guns ought to be outlawed. The whole world was filled with ingrates who deserved to die. And on, and on, and on, his voice rising throughout. My shock began to dissipate as I went from feeling hurt to realizing my man was terrified inside, falling apart at the seams. Beside me, Davies shifted gears, too, dropping into the relaxed stance that meant he was ready for action. If his father tried to attack his mother–and at the moment it seemed a possibility, for who can predict the actions of the unhinged?–our son would intervene. He had grown taller than Jeremiah, broader of shoulder, and he’d had his share of scuffles with his peers. The Weasel was lightning quick and vicious in a fight. It would not be pretty if father and son tangled.
The tide of vitriol flowing over me ceased suddenly. Dropping his voice back to a deceptively casual level and pretend-reasonable tone, my husband asked, “You don’t have anything to say, woman?” It didn’t occur to him that I’d not have been able to get a word in edgewise during his tirade. But now…now I had to speak. A crowd had gathered tightly around Davies and me while pretending not to do so. Lots of pretend going on.
“I had no idea you were in such pain.”
Again, the wrong thing to say. It should have been said in private. But here, within the perimeter of the Elk Hollow camp where countless ears strained toward us and sound carried in the chill November air, privacy was not easily had. Not once Miah had started his rant.
He glared at me, blaming me for I knew not what. There was something he wasn’t saying. “You won’t have Weasel to kick around any more,” he snapped. Turning on his heel, he strode through the snow to where his horse was tied. Vaulting into the saddle, a born athlete who might have been a competition gymnast in an earlier era, he rode out of camp, back to us, eyes forward.
“Where’s he going?” A child asked.
Without taking my eyes from my husband as he followed the trail toward Laundry Spring, I answered the nine year old girl. “I don’t know, honey.”
“You won’t leave now, will you? Mama’s baby is due any day. She might die if you’re not here.” Words of wisdom from one who’d already seen more death in her young lifetime than anyone should have to suffer through.
“I won’t leave.”
This time I turned. Grit Smith stood at my left elbow. Had my husband tried to take a swing at me, he’d have faced more than our overgrown son. “Yes?”
“He told me in confidence. You know, on the trail. I think you need to know.”
“Fort Steel voted him out as Mayor.”
“They what?” Jeremiah Compton was–had been–a topnotch administrator. Under his aegis, Fort Steel had prospered greatly. “Why would they vote him out?”
“He didn’t tell me all the politics of it, but the other guys told me a lot of it had to do with a smear campaign run by his enemies at Steel. They spread rumors in the Fort. Claimed he was beggaring the people by designating too many assets for this war. You know, cutting trade off while supplying arms for our military. This clique apparently swore up, down, and sideways that we didn’t have any real crisis at our southern border, that Steel should never have joined MAP, lots of other things like that.”
“Tell me the rest of it. Tell me what you’re holding back.” Jeremiah had stopped at Laundry Spring, stepped down, and tied his horse to a pine tree limb. Now he was kicking the snow around. I had no idea what that was all about. Laundry Spring never froze, the lukewarm water bubbling up from some subterranean hot-rock domain. Some of the men had dug it out a bit, creating an earthen container some twenty feet across by eighteen inches deep. The refugees used it for more than laundry. Bathing, sometimes. Washing of hands and faces.
Smith sighed. “Yes, ma’am. If I got it right, the thing that cut Mr. Compton the deepest was not losing his Mayoral seat. It was the innuendo, the suggestions that he must not be much of a man if he let his wife ride off to war with hundreds of randy men, snicker-snicker. He even challenged one of the worst mudslingers to a duel but the coward chickened out. He volunteered to deliver the explosives to Major Jade, but he couldn’t live out in this open country indefinitely. He feared it. He told me the size of the land felt like it was crushing him, even when he tried to sleep. He felt himself a failure, full of shame and rage at his perceived inadequacies.”
“Oh, husband.” I breathed the words, my throat too constricted for more than that. “You’ve succeeded at so much.” Miah had finished with his snow-kicking and was standing at the edge of the carved-out laundry basin, staring off to the north. My awareness opened and suddenly I knew.
“No!” My scream split the air as Weasel’s hand dropped almost casually to his hip. The heavy revolver seemed to levitate from the holster without effort, his hand holding the butt of a death-dealer with a mind of its own. Even as the muzzle lined up with his open mouth, the hammer fell. Brain, bone, and blood fountained from the back of his ruined skull. The weapon’s report echoed through Elk Hollow as his lifeless body slumped bonelessly downward, then forward, hitting the water with a plop that couldn’t have really been heard, yet I heard it.
Plop goes the Weasel.
They told me when I returned to consciousness some hours later, finding myself wrapped in blankets. Neither Grit nor Davies had left my side. Jeremiah’s body, they told me, would be buried on a knoll just east of the Hollow, facing north toward his beloved Fort Steel. “When this war is over,” my son said, “we’re going to get a chisel and cut an epitaph in granite. For now, we’ll char the letters on a split log beside his grave. You have any thoughts about that, Mom? What it should say?”
I didn’t even have to think. “Damn all wars and politicians,” I replied tersely. “Damn all wars and politicians.”