Grunt, Chapter 46: Twisted Trail

BLAKE

This was not a campaign to cheer the heart of a veteran of the prairies. The steep, thickly forested slopes could be hiding any number of deadly enemies no more than a few yards from the narrow trail. That the fugitives and their allies had clearly come this way was no consolation whatsoever, nor was the fact that none of them seemed to have turned aside to climb through snow into timber. It didn’t take a military genius to realize they could have done so at some point well ahead, then circled back to set an ambush. Worst of all, that idiot Strator’s opinion that there was only one shooter among them was worse than ridiculous. Newly promoted Corporal Gilson, by far the best tracker among us even if that wasn’t saying much, assured me there were more horses in the group than just the fifteen stolen from Fort Steel. A lot more. Five at least, and every one of them could be toting a renegade or raider who could shoot the eyes out of a flying raven at three hundred yards.

Okay, so it might not be that bad. But then again it might. The terrible bullet that had taken the Captain down, that was no lucky shot. I could feel my own gut ripping open, my spine shattering like it had been…best not to go there.

Not that Finster’s death bothered me. Not as such. After all, I’d fantasized doing as much myself, hadn’t I? For years now, ever since….

“Hold!” My soft-voiced command wasn’t necessary, what with me stopping Golden and raising my gloved right hand. Habit. Routine. Either could get me killed here, but the calf paths of the mind are deep-rutted.

Gilson had been scouting ahead as usual; no need for all of us to blunder into a trap at once. He had his horse at a trot as he came around the sharp bend, nothing unusual in that when returning from a scout, but there was something in the way he held himself. He had news. Good or bad? That was the question.

He didn’t bother to salute as he pulled the bay gelding to a halt. Saluting in the field was prohibited; such a practice would only serve to mark out an officer, paint a bullseye on him for the enemy. Not that I needed much more painting; the yellow stripes on my sleeves were markers enough.

“You need to see this, Sarge.” Still Sarge; there’d been no promotion to officer when I was given this command, despite being the senior military man in the entire Fort. Strator Tucker would sooner see me dead than carrying gold bars on my shoulders.

Neither Gilson nor I were in the habit of wasting words. I turned my flashy palomino stud to face the remaining eleven troopers. “Steen, you’re in charge till we get back.” There were a few surprised looks at that; Harvey Steen was the youngest of them all, barely needed to shave yet. But he’d shown both good sense and initiative in tense situations before. Golden shifted his feet, sensing my mood. The horse was as telepathic as they came. Or empathic. Something. A touch of the reins wheeled him back around. “Lead on, Corporal.”

We were out of sight of the squad when Gilson turned from the trail, heading into downslope timber a dozen yards before dismounting and tying his mount’s reins to a tree branch before slipping forward noiselessly on foot, carbine in hand. I followed suit, more than a little curious. When he stopped, taking a knee, it took me a long moment to register what I was seeing. We were still screened by a few remaining trees, or at least I hoped we were, but no more than an easy pistol shot across a dead area filled with downed trees, a solid rock wall rose straight up into the air. I scooched forward, half afraid there were eyes on us already but unable to help myself; I had to get a better view. An obvious, thoroughly beaten trail ran forward, toward that wall, then turned to the left, up toward the edge of the giant wedge, where it looked extremely likely there was a more or less level access route onto the monster rock itself. From this angle, there was no telling how wide it might be, but from the length…all of Fort Steel could fit into one corner of the mesa. Living trees lined the rim in an unbroken line, dense cover that could shelter a thousand shooters.

“If there’s…a few dozen archers could hold off an army. This is not good.”

I’d only breathed the words, but Gilson heard them right enough. “Change the plan?” He asked quietly.

“Adapt a bit at least.” No way was my squad being commanded to ride out through that wide open area. Nor was taking to the woods an option. They were all open country soldiers; in the gloom of the forest, a five year old girl jumping out from behind a monster trunk and yelling boo might well panic the lot of them. Forcing them to fight in the forest would be no more than one step short of stumbling around underground where the entire mountain might fall on them. “You game, James?”

Gilson shuddered, yet he kept his voice steady. “We’ve come this far, Sarge.”

I clapped him on the shoulder more for my own reassurance than anything else. “Let’s do it, then. And let’s hope it’s not a good day to die.”

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JULIA

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Slowly, so as not to attract attention despite my well hidden position near the rim, my free hand moved up to rub away the hallucination.

Yet when I looked again, blinking, they were still there. Two obvious soldiers, both with yellow stripes on the sleeves of their uniforms–though more on one than the other–rode out of the timber at a sedate walk. The blocky man on the flashy palomino stud had to be Sergeant Blake. Neither man held a weapon, nor was either so much as looking around at all, just letting their mounts plod right on up the trail. Well trained horses at that, capable of being guided by knee pressure alone. They must be.

Because both men had their hands in the air.

We’d discussed a dozen different possible scenarios but never anything like this. I had to tell Michael. Scooting back on my belly until it was safe to get to my feet and ease into a crouching run, I managed to avoid snapping any twigs on the way back to my chosen shooting rest. Daddy would have been proud of me. From there, it was a matter of standing up straight, ignoring the inquiring look from my loader. I couldn’t see Michael or Bolo across the way unless they stood up as well, but they’d be watching for me. I held up two fingers: Two men. Index fingers alternated cycling forward, pointing down: Walking pace. Both hands in the air, one finger pointing back toward the newcomers: They were coming in with hands up, and yes, I really meant it. Shrug of shoulders: I had no clue what that indicated.

A single fist rose above one moss covered boulder: Message received.

Sinking back down to my shooting position, I noticed Carp’s eyes were bugged out even more than usual. “Got me, partner,” I whispered. “I’ve never seen anything like it, either.” It did occur to me that it might be a trick, something to hold our attention while other Fort Steel troops slipped through the trees. It didn’t make sense to send the two noncoms, though. “Reckon we’ll know soon enough.” The butterflies in my belly were in full flight, but the boy didn’t see them. He settled down, eyes relaxing back to their still-weird normal as I settled into shooting position. Without having to move, I had a pretty decent field of fire. If we did have to retreat, rooting us out of these deadfalls would not be easy.

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MICHAEL

They kept right on coming, dead center up the trail, past the corner where I couldn’t see them into full view, moseying up the throat like neighbors come for a potluck dinner. Not only were there their hands high in the air all the way, had to be burning lactic acid like crazy by now, but by the time I called out loud and clear, they were within forty feet of my position. “That’s far enough.”

I didn’t yell it; there was no need. Besides, my quiet voice made it clear they were in point blank range. Their horses stopped cold, just like that; I didn’t even hear a whoa. They were so close I could practically count the pores in Blake’s skin. Two faces turned in my general direction, but they had no idea of my exact location. I was no ventriloquist, but the rocks did all the work, redirecting my voice so that it could have come from half a dozen places. Blake and Gilson–looked like the “forever private” had finally made corporal–wore heavy winter gloves, no good for gun handling. Their long shooters were still in their saddle boots. Each wore a short shooter as well, a standard Foundry-produced revolver, but the holster flaps were buttoned down tight. Unless they had neck-sheathed knives and had mastered the art of blade throwing, there was no way they could bring a weapon to bear with any speed.

Which of course was why they were still breathing.

“State your business,” I said. It should have been obvious, but the way they’d waltzed in here made the obvious less so.

“Like to have a parley, if you would.” Blake’s response was delivered calmly; the man was in complete control of himself. I’d never seen a time when he wasn’t.

A parley, eh? Hm. Better than a shooting war. Maybe. I’d have to show myself to do it right, though. Was it worth the risk? Come to think of it, did I have any choice? He’d left ten more soldiers somewhere. I didn’t like not knowing where, but…had I ever heard of Sergeant John Sebastian Blake lying? To anyone, even a slave?

No. No, I had not, and that’s what decided me. “Your horses trained to ground tie?”

“Yes.”

They would be. “Step down, then. Leave your weapons on your saddles and walk forward until I say stop.”

Carefully, with no sudden movements, they did as instructed. Gunbelts were removed, then hung from saddle horns. There was a moment when Gilson, on the ground between horses, could have gotten his revolver into play, but the moment passed without incident. They walked forward a dozen paces before I said, “Stop.”

I handed the .358 to Bolo, accepting the Kalashnikov in return. It made me a bit nervous, depending on a gas operated weapon to cycle rounds, but the Library write-up on the weapon identified it as one of the most reliable shooters ever made. Not the most accurate at longer ranges, but its short carbine length and 30 round banana clip made it easy to maneuver and unbelievably overpowering in close.

The three of us squatted on our heels, just old buddies having a palaver. Except that one buddy was armed and made no bones about it. I’d positioned them so that Julia had a clear shot at either Fort Steel man without worrying about hitting me. It also put them between me and the throat entrance, just in case. “You asked for this little chit-chat,” I pointed out. “So tell me why we shouldn’t just pop the both of you and cut down the odds a bit more right here and now?”

Absently, Blake stroked the stubble on his square face. “Never thought to see you again, Dawg, but–”

“It’s Michael,” I interrupted coldly. “Michael Jade.”

He nodded. “My apologies. I didn’t know you’d even remembered your own name, but I should have. You were old enough. How much do you remember of the raid on Fort Confluence?”

“You mean the massacre?” If my tone had been frost before, it was ice now. “Quite a lot. I remember Mom and Dad being slaughtered in front of my eyes, both of them screaming lightning bolts through my gut before they died. I remember blood. I remember little kids being herded like shoats into wagon, tied crying to the rings, being beaten or shaken, sometimes both, when they wouldn’t shut up. I remember very little about my own beating, not that first one anyway, but I remember vowing to kill every so called soldier who had been involved in the atrocity, even remotely. And I remember you. I remember. You. Were. There.” Why had he asked that question? The fury I’d held at bay for so long boiled through my defenses, sent tendrils of fire along every nerve in my body. It was everything I could do not to gun the man down then and there, emptying the entire magazine into his lifeless, twitching body.

And yet I had to know. “Why?” I asked through clenched teeth.

Blake must have seen his death in my eyes, yet he never flinched. He looked…accepting. “Why did I ask such a dangerous question?” His tone was mild. Not condescending, not pitying, not anything but…mild. “Because I bear my own scars from that day. Nothing like yours; I would never presume to think such a thing. But enough. Do you remember anything about me? Other than that I was present. Anything at all?”

Did I? I wasn’t sure.

“Well….” He stopped to clear his throat. “I grew up at Fort Steel. My father farmed, mostly beets and potatoes. From the age of four, I was put to work with a hoe, chopping weeds and woe to me if I slacked or, even worse, harmed a crop plant in the process. As I got older, I grew to hate farm work. Anything would be better. Anything at all. I even thought of running away, maybe joining up with one of the Traders that came to the Fort every summer. But I didn’t have the courage for something that drastic. I was a coward at heart. No so that anyone noticed; I held my own in fights with the other boys my age. But doing something really big, that was beyond me.

“Over time, the idea of joining the full time militia grew on me. Fort Steel soldiers had it easy; all they had to do was ride horses and stand around guarding the stockade gates. Sometimes there would be forays against marauding raiders; I listened with rapt attention to soldiers’ tales of derring do. It seemed to me they got the prettiest girls, too.”

“Is there a point to this?” It came out as a snarl. I didn’t have time to listen to childhood stories about a boy who’d been tortured by having to hoe. I was willing to bet Blake had never even been whipped once.

“There is a point. Michael Jade, knowledge is power. I’m offering you power that may affect the course of history, at least as we know it.”

“Hnh.” Could have fooled me, but I let him go on.

“I’ll try to shorten it up a bit. Basically, all of my hoe-hating childhood led me to petition to join the militia on my sixteenth birthday, the minimum age. Finster was the Captain even then. My Dad tried to haul me back to the farm by my ear, but the Captain stopped him. He gave me a chance, and I worshiped him for it. For years after that, the man could do no wrong in my eyes. I was his protégé, rising up through the ranks more rapidly than any other. Some troopers remain privates for their entire careers; there was no guarantee of promotion under Finster. But by the time I turned twenty-seven, I was wearing a Lieutenant’s gold bars and strutting like a banty rooster, second in command to Finster himself. There were no other officers, just the two of us. I was in hog heaven; if the Captain had ordered me to leap into a vat of boiling lava, I’d have been performing a perfect swan dive before the last word was out of his mouth.”

And I needed to know this, why? Wait a minute. “You were a Lieutenant?”

“Briefly, yes.” A shadow crossed Blake’s face. Sadness? Grief? “Finster didn’t tell us what he intended at Fort Confluence. In fact, he lied to the entire command. A haven for raiders, he said. A direct threat to Fort Steel that had to be neutralized. And like everyone else, I bought it. Until we rode in and he gave the order to start killing. Most of the others followed orders, like it or not, but I couldn’t. I froze, sitting my horse motionless for the longest time, not knowing what to do. I don’t think Finster even realized I wasn’t murdering defenseless human beings until…what brought me out of my shock was, there was a young girl, maybe fifteen, pretty as a sunrise in spring. She was backed up against a wall, frozen in terror, eyes as big as saucers, and the Captain himself was advancing on her. He’d gotten down from his horse and had his sabre drawn. I believed he was going to slice her in two, and something in me snapped. I don’t remember how I got there, but the next thing I knew, I was standing between my superior officer and his intended victim, telling him he’d have to go through me. So he did.”

I cocked an eyebrow. “You said that?”

“I did. That much I remember clearly. Not much after, though. I saw the strike coming and knew I was dead. But I came to later, hogtied in the bottom of a wagon along with a raging headache and several women tied just as tight as I was. Gagged, too; none of us could speak. Turned out he’d whacked me upside the head with the flat of his blade, not the sharp edge. I’d have wished for the other, but for one thing. The girl with the big eyes was lying right next to me. Her eyes were open, and they were looking at me from no more than six inches away. So close it made me near crosseyed just to focus. She was alive. I thought I’d saved her, not realizing Finster had intended to capture and enslave her all along.”

Blake paused, some deep emotion working in him. I shook my head. “Surprised you weren’t court martialed and shot.”

“I expected to be. I was court martialed right enough, Finster being judge, witness, and jury all in one, but he didn’t exact the full penalty. Maybe he didn’t want to waste all the time he’d put into me, but more likely he didn’t want me to get off too easy. Instead of standing me up before a firing squad, he had me busted back to private and whipped, forty full lashes with a cat.” The sergeant unbuttoned his coat and let it fall to the snow. The wool uniform shirt went next, though he didn’t shuck that entirely, just dropped it down to his waist and swiveled without getting up.

His back looked worse than mine. Some of those criss-crossed scars were thumb-thick, ropy ridges only a sadist could love.

“I’m surprised you lived through that.”

“Almost didn’t. I had forty days of accrued leave saved up. Finster decreed that I could use those days to heal up. If I wasn’t able to return to duty at the end of that time, I’d be drummed out of the service with a dishonorable discharge. In other words, I’d be exiled from the Fort, fair game, to be shot on sight if I ever tried to return. Not only that, but I’d be required to spend those furlough days in the slave quarters with the women. I really don’t believe he thought I had a chance of making it; he wanted the girl to watch me die. He was just that kind of wonderful fellow.”

The light dawned. “She’s here, isn’t she?”

He nodded. “Miriam Slovensky. Slave name Harlot.”

My mental gears finally began turning. “Four children…and from the look of them, two could be yours.”

He began buttoning his shirt back up, looking me in the eye as he did so. “As far as I’m concerned, all four of them are mine.”