Grunt, Chapter 59: The Road to Royalty

GRACIE

It didn’t take long for my inner bravado to fizzle out like moss tinder in a monsoon rain. Despite my bold words to Sandy Sucker Smith, the days ahead held far more terror than promise. My arm stump throbbed incessantly, not infected I didn’t think, but fevered and inflamed some. Phantom pain my pretty behind; stump pain was the boss of me. Almost. Almost the boss of me. Blaze seemed to be holding up, but I didn’t dare push her too hard. She was going to have to mosey along with me on her back for days on end, sweet cool mornings sliding into sweaty afternoons into shiver-chilly nights full of things that go bump in the dark. She grazed a bit, dozed a bit on her feet, drank from the streams we crossed, rolled a reproachful eye back at me every once in a while as if to say, “Get a life, woman! You think I’m a diesel-breathing Before steel machine or something?”

By the third sunset, I was done. My butt was numb, dead to the world. Couldn’t tell if the arm stump had finally quit throbbing–what, seven days post-amputation now? Or if my brain just didn’t register the throb any more. I’d been able to wrap the reins around the saddle horn, freeing my remaining hand to rummage clumsily in the left hand saddle bag for the pemmican Sucker Smith had given me. Sorry about blowing your arm off, ma’am. Here’s some hard jerky pounded together with fat and berries in exchange. Have a good life! Once I almost dropped the leather-wrapped package; that scared me worse than the night horrors. No need to worry about that any more. The last of it was gone. I’d nibbled it to death. Hadn’t meant to. He’d given me a canteen of water, too, seeing as how I didn’t dare step down to drink from any of the creeks Blaze and I’d crossed. Part of me hated the horse for being able to dip her muzzle and drink her fill. The canteen wasn’t quite empty, but what little water was left had turned brackish. Tasted of metal.

Worst of all, I was getting weaker by the moment. It was taking longer than it should have to catch up with my fellow survivors. Too long. Then again, riding into their camp in such a weakened state might lead to one of those fate-worse-than-death situations. They were, after all, nothing but a ragtag collection of outlaws. King Arthur had molded them into an effective and more or less disciplined fighting force, but without his powerful personality to glue them together, they would have degenerated rapidly. No rules except might makes right. Worst of all, I didn’t know who they were, who had lived through the Roil River firefight. Hopefully, Cut Morgan had cashed in his chips. Nobody but Arthur could ever handle Cut.

Bleary-eyed, I almost missed the turnoff. Almost. Huh. All twelve horses had gone up that way and come back out before continuing on south. Double huh. Did I want to lose the time it would take to visit the shacks? That’s what we called them.

In the end, Blaze made the decision for me, starting up the track without me so much as twitching a rein. I let her, thanked her even. It was only a mile and a half, ending in a hidden hollow thick with trees of surprising variety. Cottonwood, maple, oak, pine, fir, chokecherry, elm…I didn’t know what all else. But all three dilapidated shacks were gone, nothing left but a few charred bits still slow-smoking the air. I pulled Blaze to a stop. Nobody around. Total stillness, the Earth holding its breath.

No. Not totally still. A small figure eased forward from the woods, circling the ashes to stare up at me, grave eyes in a ten year old face. “You alone?”

The boy’s question didn’t surprise me. I could be bait. “Trailing them that did this,” I nodded. The dizziness took me by surprise.

I must not have been out for long, but long enough. When I came to, I was lying on a pallet, resting under a maple tree at the edge of the woods. Blaze grazed contentedly in the clearing. She was hobbled. Her bridle and saddle were off, which helped me realize my head was raised, using the saddle as a rough pillow. Oh my, how good it felt to be off that animal. I turned my head the other way, toward deep woods. A woman about my own age, though not nearly as good looking, squatted beside me, watching my face. “Care for some water and food?”

My voice came out in a croak worthy of a goosed bullfrog. She took it as assent. “Small sips, small bites. You don’t wanna throw it back up.”

Nobody slept during the early evening. We had too much to discuss. There was no doubt about who had torched these people’s homes, but I needed specifics. After telling them of King Arthur’s death, I had to wait a while so they could grieve. “The King always respected us,” a lean, stringy-muscled man said. “Every time they came by, we’d do good, honest trade.”

“I know. I was there. Arthur always traded fair for your furs, and we always appreciated stopping here. The hospitality, the grace of the woods.”

“Yeah. And we appreciated the good hunting rifles, ammunition, fire strikers, knives, blankets, everything.”

I took another sip of water. Food-wise, I was full. Water, not so much. Major dehydration. “Did they hurt anybody? Kill anybody?”

“Thank the Spirits, no. There’s seventeen of us total now, counting three babies in their first year. Five of us, me included, tend to smell trouble in advance.” The man had a strong Spanish accent, but I’d spent enough time in Gatorville to understand him well enough. “We hit the woods a few minutes before they rode in. Watched from hiding. Puzzled at first, since we recognized most of them, but then we realized the bunch was too small and the King wasn’t with them. So either they’d split off or the King was dead.”

“The King is dead. Way north of here, a raid gone wrong on a river they call the Roil.”

He bowed his head. “Figured, when I seen your arm. He was a good man.”

“Yes, he was. About the losers who burned you out–well, first, you going to be okay? Or will you starve or freeze this winter?”

“We’ll make it. Like I said, nobody hurt. We’ve always kept reserve caches, just in case, you know? They didn’t find those. I maybe shouldn’t be telling this, but the shacks were more decoy than anything.”

That brought a genuine smile to my face, cracking my sunburned lips. “They got diddly-squat?”

“Heh.” He smiled back. “A wee bit more than that, but not much. Just enough to let them believe they’d cleaned out us poor, ignorant, dirt poor hicks. One bale of furs, our worst. Nothing we would’ve ever brought out for trade with the King, mind you. Real moth-eaten pelts, mostly.”

I threw back my head and laughed aloud. Stringy Man didn’t laugh, but his smile did widen to a grin. When I’d spent myself, I got down to business. “Tell you what. I’ll make you a promise here and now. If you good folks will fatten me up for another day or two, maybe change this nasty bandage on my arm, let me get some real sleep, and fix me up with a weapon, I swear by my love for King Arthur, I will repay you tenfold. Those fools will never act against you again and next year when I come north, you will have all the goods your little hearts could desire.”

“Our little hearts could desire quite a bit, ma’am.”

“And why not?”

“What sort of weapon? Our firearms are needed, but for King Arthur’s queen we would–”

“Not a shooter. Trying to handle a rifle one-handed would be asking for trouble. Even reloading a revolver wouldn’t be easy. No, I need something simple, meant to be used one-handed. Something that never runs out of ammunition.”

“Ah.” He understood. Thirty minutes later, I had what I wanted. The knife was slender yet strong, double edged with a needle-sharp tip, nine inches of blade sprouting from a leather-wrapped handle that fit my hand perfectly. I had large hands for a woman my size. No guard between blade and handle. The slim beauty was not made for fighting.

But it was made for killing.

While two of Shackville’s women were crafting the leather harness I requested, I grilled Stringy Man about the arsonists. “Did you see enough to know if any one man was leading that raggedy bunch of cutthroats?”

“Ayup. Big man. Not as tall as the King, but thick as a tree stump. Say five-ten, two-fifty. Brown hair, full beard. Mean cuss. Packed a rifle but looked like he had more cold steel hanging on him than made sense. I remember him being with the King before, but he was mouse-quiet then. No more. You know him, I reckon.”

“I do.” Cut Morgan had survived the Roil fracas after all. Born bully, scared to death of the King, but I’d known not to let him get near me when Arthur wasn’t present. He’d rape any female he could corner, but worst of all, he loved to slice people up. Which was how he’d earned his nickname. Cut, cut, cut. Listen to ’em scream. Cut some more. Oh, what fun! He’d even tried cutting King Arthur once, came at him with a short sword. Arthur was faster and about a million times smarter. Blocked the oncoming blade with a stick of firewood and kicked Morgan square between the legs. Lifted all 250 pounds of him a good foot in the air. Settled his hash right fine. But with Arthur dead and gone….

————————————————–

Letting Cut’s bunch get well out ahead of me was necessary. For the next two days and change, I slept and ate, slept and ate, slept and ate some more. My recovery was miraculously rapid. The specially designed harness carried my pig sticker on my back, between the shoulder blades. Happily, I’d always been on the flexible side and my good left arm had great range of motion. When I wasn’t sleeping or eating, I was practicing, flipping my jacket collar out of the way, reaching down below my head to extract the knife, adjusting my grip even as the blade came free, slashing on the way out of its sheath before stabbing forward with all the strength I could muster, turning my body to throw all my weight into the thrust. The first hour of practice was pretty clumsy; I even dropped the weapon once. By the third hour, clumsy was gone, replaced by swift-and-sure.

After supper, the night before I would be leaving, I asked Stringy Man–we still hadn’t exchanged names–to time me on the draw. He nodded in understanding. “I’ll do the old alligator one, alligator two thing.”

He got to “Alliga–”

“Huh.”

“What?”

“The King would be proud of you. It’s not taking you more than half a second to draw and thrust that knife.”

“Thanks.” I felt my cheeks warm with pleasure. Arthur would have been proud of me. He’d always been aware that while taking a knife to a gunfight wasn’t smart, neither was taking a gun to a knife fight. That is, at arm’s length, knife beats gun. If the knife wielder knows her business, that is.

There was one more trick up my sleeve. Sleeve singular, get it? Heh. Stringy Man produced an ancient, rusty revolver, a skinny little .22 that had seen far better days. He loaded it with empty brass and I stuck the useless hunk of metal under my belt, in front where it could be seen. A decoy, like the shacks had been. Stringy also taught me something I should have thought of for myself: It was possible for a one-handed woman to step up on a saddle horse if she simply mounted from the off side. That also took a little practice to get the reins and saddle horn gripped in the same hand, not to mention the slithery body-twist motion as I launched from the ground, but Blaze was patient.

“See y’all next summer,” I said, and rode from the Shackville hollow without looking back.

————————————————————

Now that my the initial crisis was past, my arm stump showing no sign of infection as it healed, my horse rested, my belly filled and adequate supplies provided for phase two of my survival plan…it got harder. In the beginning, when it was all about making one more mile without falling off Blaze or having her fall under me, nothing else had been able to penetrate my consciousness. Now everything did. Questions peppered my thoughts. Where might the Locust Pack be? I certainly couldn’t afford to run afoul of them now, armed with nothing but a sliver of steel. When I finally caught up with the other raiders, what would my reception be? Some of those men admired me, or at least I thought they did. Plenty of them wanted my body, or at least they had. Whether or not a missing arm would depreciate my market value remained to be seen. Hulking Cut Morgan dismissed me as “just another two-bit split-tail”–that quote had reached my ears long ago, though I’d kept it from King Arthur for obvious reasons. Young Lance, if he was still alive and still part of the group, would be a wild card. Lance was no Lancelot despite his name. Thin to the point of emaciation, maybe five-seven if he stood up really straight, pockmarked face, sallow skin, twitchy eyes of a blue color so faded they were often mistaken for gray. No, Lance was no storybook knight.

On the other side of the ledger, he was a gunfighter par excellence. The young raider carried two .38 caliber revolvers–he didn’t trust semiautos–slung on his hips, not low but high, presented in crossdraw fashion. He was fast, accurate, never hesitated when somebody needed killing, and had been absolutely loyal to Arthur. Two winters ago, while we wintered in Gatorville, a rival gang had accosted us on Claw Street with the clear intention of eliminating the King. On paper, their plan looked good, more than twenty of them blocking the street ahead and behind, blades and shooters at the ready. We were only four at that moment on that street: Arthur, me, hulking Cut Morgan, and scrawny Lance.

They’d been seriously outnumbered.

The others had begun to trash talk. Lance, spinning with Morgan to cover our rear, had drawn and emptied both revolvers, methodically placing his shots, leaving nine opposing gang members down and dying while Lance cursed, deeply upset that he’d missed three times. The bunch in front of us turned tail and ran, shocked to their cores. Even better, Lance had absolutely zero desire to ever lead anything. He was an effective, deadly bodyguard and liked it that way. No major decisions to make, just protect the boss. Simple. Satisfying.

But presuming he’d survived, where did his loyalties lie now? That was indeed the nervous-stomach question.

Even so, I rested well at night, rolling up in the blanket and tarp Stringy Man’s people had provided for my comfort. Of necessity, supper was eaten cold; the light from a campfire could be seen from miles away tin this open country.

Thus it was that on the third evening out from Shackville, just as light failed entirely but before I’d pulled Blaze to a halt, I saw their campfires twinkling merrily in the gathering darkness. Three fires for a mere dozen outlaws? Wasteful. Foolish. How many buffalo chips did they have to gather for those, how many dead sagebrush plants did they have to chop? I decided to ease closer under cover of darkness, preparing for my grand entrance at dawn. Circle to the left, come at them from the east with the sun behind me, the sun in their eyes. I’d be silhouetted. They’d be unsure at first, fingering their weapons while fighting yawns. Hangovers too, or I missed my guess. Arthur had always strictly rationed alcohol on the trail, but the King was dead. Long live the Queen.

It had been overcast, low and gray and cool, for most of the day. Now the sky cleared, giving me a good look at the stars during this dark of the moon. It was close to ten p.m. by the time Blaze and I settled in, no more than a quarter mile from their camp. Close enough that another horse might have whickered, announcing my presence prematurely, but Blaze was not that kind of girl. She knew how to keep her mouth shut.

Even without binoculars, a few things were obvious. Everyone was bedded down inside the triangle of campfires, perhaps providing a bit of protection against wild animals while also showing the blanket-lumps as inviting, juicy targets. No flat blankets, meaning there probably weren’t any sentries posted. One huge lump that had to be ol’ Cut himself. Two smaller lumps that were most likely clay jugs lying on their sides, dead soldiers who’d contributed mightily to the gang’s general drunk-and-passed-out condition. I sighed. This was both good and bad. Good: Few of them were likely to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I rode in. Bad: Hung over guys were notoriously sullen and cranky.

Okay. Time to get some sleep. It would be broken, a matter of napping lightly, then waking enough to check star positions, rinse and repeat. But it would leave me far more alert than those guys out there, come first light.

==========================================================

The man called Lance spotted her first, a slim silhouette atop a big mare, right sleeve empty below the elbow where it bulged over the bandage beneath. She must have lost that arm during the Roil River dustup, no more than it seemed to bother her. The only outlaw fully awake and aware at that moment, his gunfighter instincts flaring to full alert, he left the campfire coals he’d been coaxing back to life and eased slowly, quietly out to her left, his right. This was going to be something worth seeing.

Hulking Cut Morgan, among those mostly up but not really awake yet, finally detected her presence. The big man brought himself erect, massive shoulders sloping forward, fat tongue licking greasy teeth as he squinted at her through little pig eyes. A single grunt said it all. He began stomping out toward the oncoming rider, who stopped her mount and swung down, coming to earth with the Chief still thirty feet away. Lance, having positioned himself as he wished, had the only full-on side view of the proceedings. Enough men had seen who it was, though; they kicked their still-sleeping fellows awake, brutally and with little regard for the mutters and expletives that ensued.

She let the horse’s reins drop. The mare wouldn’t be going anywhere, what with so many of her kind in the area watching with pricked ears. Gracie stood at ease, facing the oncoming mountain troll with apparent calm, though she couldn’t possibly be calm inside. Lance found himself whistling an ancient tune softly, almost under his breath.

There ain’t no good in an evil hearted woman
And I ain’t cut out to be no Jesse James

In the camp, curses had trailed off to breath-holding silence, a stillness broken only by the soft-as-a-sleepy-chick’s-peep whistle and the Chief’s thudding boots. Cut slowed his pace. Stopped for a moment. “So. The prodigal witch returns.”

Lance arched a brow, surprised. He hadn’t thought the boss knew any big words like prodigal. He kept on whistling.

You don’t go writing hot checks down in Mississippi
And there ain’t no good chain gangs

Gracie’s response was cool, measured. “After Roil River, I killed one of Jade’s bunch and wounded another. Can you say as much?”

“Huh.” Morgan resumed his forward progress, closing the distance between them slow and easy, trash talking but in a fake-friendly tone designed to keep the King’s former mate off her guard. “You talk pretty big, considering ol’ arsehole Arthur’s not here to back you up any more.”

“The King is dead. Long live the Queen.” Her good arm twitched a little, as if she were thinking about grabbing the little pistol stuck in her waistband.

Too late. Close enough now, looming over her, Cut suddenly lunged, beefy right arm launching forward to grab her forearm before she could draw the gun.

No. Cut grabbed for her but missed as she stepped both to one side and forward, inside his guard, her hand streaking not for the gun at her waist but up, over, behind her head. Steel flashed in early sun’s long rays, arcing over her shoulder, snapping up-and-in, disappearing to the hilt in the Chief’s oversized body. Lance knew the man was dead before he fell, his oversized form seeming to melt downward, nothing more now than a pile of meat for the coyotes. Gracie’s diminutive size had worked to her advantage, allowing her to power the killing thrust with her entire body, driving the blade in below the breastbone, up through the diaphragm, likely piercing the heart. Live by the blade, die by the blade. Lance’s lip twitched upward. He was amused. Cut Morgan wasn’t going to enjoy having to admit to the Judge of the Dead, “Uh, yes, Your Honor, I did get taken out by an unarmed woman half my size.”

Unfazed, Gracie stood with one foot atop the carcass, bloody knife raised in victory. “The King is dead! Long live the Queen! Does anyone else have a problem with that?”

It was a gutsy move. Every outlaw possessed at least two shooters. The outcome hung in the balance, men muttering and passing sidelong glances at each other. Time, Lance decided, to act. He sauntered casually over to stand at Gracie’s side, thumbs hooked in his gunbelt. No more muttering. Every man jack in camp remembered the story about this man gunning down nine armed and ready opponents with twelve shots in a matter of seconds. There were only eleven confused raiders left in camp, none of them overly endowed with native courage. Do the math.

Gracie took up where she’d left off. “Like I said, the King is dead, long live the Queen. But I am no Guinevere. We’ll let the world get to know me as Queen Slaughter. Appropriate, don’t you think?” No response. She hadn’t expected any. “Arthur will be avenged. The simpletons at Roil River will be looted one day, and more than that, we will wipe out Michael Jade’s bunch.” That made them nervous, as it should have. “But that’s for another day, when we’re ready. For now, we need to act like the raiders the King taught us to be. We’ve still got most of a thousand miles between us and Gatorville. We’re going to keep on heading south for the winter. Gatorville is a great place to winter if you’ve got the goods to trade. Plenty of hard liquor and easy women. But look at you.” Her lip curled in scorn. “Raggedy bunch, eh? Not even enough canvas for tents at night. We’re going to change that. By the time we ride into town, we’ll be packing as rich a haul as ever you saw.”

She was bluffing a bit. They’d have to get lucky, ambush a few other gangs maybe, certainly take out a few honest traders. But she’d known what these men needed to hear. Lance had quietly stepped up to be her stick; the promise of riches had to be the carrot. They were hers, at least for now.

Lance was the only one standing close enough to notice her legs were trembling. Adrenaline crash was a bugger. As the men turned away, nodding and talking and getting the fires stoked up with more enthusiasm than she’d expected, she pitched her voice low, for only the gunfighter to hear. “Most of these losers will need replacing. Eventually.” He didn’t respond. There was no need. But there was one more thing that had to be said. “Reckon we’d best be sharing blankets, and at least one of us sleeping with one eye open.”

“I’d be honored,” he replied quietly, and the deal was struck.