Grunt, Chapter 98: Two Red Hearts

STIRK, CHIEF OF SCOUTS

Darla Whitman regained consciousness the following morning, weak but alert, able to swallow on her own without having her throat stroked. Witnin forty-eight hours she was back on her feet, tending to others while slowly recovering her own strength.

George Stavrakos, sturdily built, of Korean-Russian descent and the survivor who’d crawled toward Elk Hollow on all fours at the last, was not so fortunate. By dint of supreme effort, we were able to rouse him far enough to sit him up and feed him, yet his eyes never opened. He was popular with his fellow refugees, especially the women, half of dozen of whom undertook the Herculean task of keeping him alive, unfreezing his hands and feet, warming him in a protective knot of their own bodies.

Several of these females carried belt knives–we’d seen nothing more formidable among them, not even a wood axe–and used their blades to fashion workable clubs from scavenged wood. Not a difficult task in itself; Elk Hollow was covered in second growth pine, charred snags, and young plants of every sort. Grasses, shrubs, young trees no taller than a man on a horse at most. Wolves drove elk and deer out of the mountains by the thousands every winter, the harassed ungulates gravitating toward the tasty buffet thriving in this Fear Trace country. With two squads of MAP scouts hunting daily, we’d stocked the larders for these people in a matter of days, stringing the meat up above the reach of bears. Not all blacks and grizzlies had denned yet; we added several of those to the stock of hanging meat.

Though Darla remained silent on my choice of the half-Chinese James Marin as Civilian Administrator, her eyes spoke volumes and the women nursing George Stavrakos moved in groups of six or more, fingering knives or clubs or sharp-tipped wooden spears. My suspicions were being confirmed on an hourly basis.

I took precautions as well, ordering the scouts to watch each other’s backs at all times. We did not know these people.

“Company coming, Cap.” Acting Corporal Gumbel jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “From the east.”

That cannot be good news, I thought, grabbing my long glass and climbing to the northern rim of the hollow to have a looksee, Grumble leading the way, Private Worth covering my back. I was right. It wasn’t merely good news. “It’s a bleeding miracle,” I breathed.

“Who they be?”

I took my time answering. The sky had remained clear all week but our respite was at an end. The overhead sun would be hidden within the hour. Snow before sundown. “Grit Smith in the lead, by the Creator,” I breathed. “Burned arm or no. Riding point ahead of–you ain’t gonna believe this, boys. The Weasel himself has come to call.”

Grumble snorted in disbelief. “Weasel? From Fort Steel?”

His astonishment was understandable. Jeremy “Weasel” Compton had earned the army’s undying contempt when he let his wife and son go to war while he stayed tucked safely behind the walls of the foundry fort that had to be War Leader Venom Chang’s prime objective. I handed over the long glass. “See for yourself, Corporal. He’s armed to the teeth and I count twenty-two with him, including his wife and son.” Dang. My relief-powered adrenaline rush made me want to go take a dump. “We’re getting the manpower and a surgeon to boot.”

I sensed a disturbance in the Force behind me and turned my head far enough to pick Administrator Marin up in my side vision. Trouble Man could smell a threat to his power base a mile away. Inside, I grinned, nasty and wolf-like. Worth had an eye on the guy and a hand on his six-shooter. I turned back to Grumble. “Hustle on over to the corral and saddle Midnight for me.”

He didn’t argue. That was one thing about the complainer. He knew when it was time to execute an order and he didn’t waste time.

I rode out to greet them, Worth with me, Grumble remaining at his sentry post. “Good to see you back in action, Grit.” The youngest Smith brother had earned the acknowledgement. “See you found some stragglers.”

Smith just quirked a corner of his mouth upward. Jeremy Compton answered for him. “Here we come to get you lazy loafers back to the war and all you can do is say howdy to the one-armed bandit?” He said it with a straight face but his dark eyes twinkled. Thankfully, it didn’t look like Grit was exactly one-armed. He still had both, though the right hung sort of stiff by his side and he didn’t use it much.

Thing was, I knew better than to get into an insult contest with Weasel. Never knew anybody to win one of those. The man looked small, couldn’t stand more than five-five in his stocking feet, but he was quick as a racer snake, both physically and mentally. “Good to see you too, Mr. Compton.” I bowed in the saddle, my bulk making the gesture look downright ridiculous.

Laura spoke up. Our guardian angel, skilled surgeon, penultimate healer, and Weasel’s wife. “Heard you might need a sawbones or two.”

“Ma’am,” I affirmed fervently, “that we do.”

Then I saw him. Back in the rear of the column, hunched over, as uncomfortable as Igor delivering brains to Dr. Frankenstein. The Hermit did not do well on a horse. He’d traveled here on shank’s mare, using his trademark all-fours loping gait that resembled nothing so much as a gorilla crossed with a Neanderthal. MAP’s finest herbalist was here, too? “Michael can spare y’all?” I asked quietly.

“Michael asked for volunteers,” Laura Compton replied, “and Jeremy stepped up. He’d just gotten to us.”

“He also sent a message,” Weasel said, shifting in the saddle, his eyes darting in a dozen different directions at once, making sure no refugee ears could hear us. “Avoid the caldera.”

“Ah.” I knew what that meant. “So, you’re our relief column? We can turn these good folks over to you and get back to the war?” It made sense. Weasel might have felt noble enough, or maybe dissed enough when his family headed for the combat zone without him, but the two dozen–counting him and Herman–were not in any way ready to face Chang directly. They had neither the training nor the experience.

“Yep. You can get back to kicking Cobra butt.”

“Risky business, that,” I said drily, “if you don’t take care of the snake’s head first. Let me show you what we got.” I led them to the rim.

Grit was impressed. “Whoa. I get the meat, this being Elk Hollow and all, but how’d you get all those cabins built so fast? There must be, what, fifty of ’em?”

“Only twenty-seven,” I replied. “As you may recall, Fear Trace burned from end to end six years ago. This area was a thick stand of lodgepole pine which should have burned to cinders, but for some reason a section or so didn’t do that. Wetter, maybe. Grunt says they get thunder showers here that don’t always touch the northern acres. Whatever the reason, the fire did flash through, took out the needles and most bark, but somehow got put out before it could eat through the cores of the trees. All we had to do was knock down the trees and cut ’em into logs, notch ’em and raise ’em. You’ll notice they’re all saltbox style, so we only had to run a single layer of smaller diameter roof logs, then start scooping dirt and making mud to chink everything.” I was understating the difficulty, of course. Bragging about how tough a job had been never got anybody anywhere. We’d only had one small shortsaw and a camp axe to start. Once Darla had regained her wits, she’d told me where to find tools at their last campsite. Corporal (then Private) Gumbel had taken Worth’s mount as a pack horse and made the round trip alone, leaving at daylight and returning at dusk, toting treasure. Three timber-capable saws, two falling axes, and an essential grindstone. Everyone who could stand and a few who could barely crawl had pitched in to raise the cabins. They’d been highly motivated.

We rode on down into the refugee camp and began to familiarize everybody with everything. I started to tell Weasel the Scouts would be gone within the hour when Herman the Hermit stood from examining the unconscious George Stavrakos, right fist atop left fist as if holding an invisible two-hand sword. MAP military sign code. Poison.

I stepped down from Midnight. “Prognosis?” I whispered.

In a bare breath of sound I could barely catch, the herbalist replied. “On his feet in 24 hours or dead.”

I nodded. But another full day? I did not have that. I spoke without moving my lips. “Grit. Corporal. Weasel.” Smith and Grumble eased in close, casual-like. Weasel Compton was already standing next to me. “Joint op. Six Scouts, six Steelers. Make like you’re just showing the new guys around. Don’t look now, but there’s a fellow over the other side of that campfire, pretending disinterest, ears pointed this way. Ugly eyes, dead. Broken nose, cants off to the left. Right shoulder sets a bit lower than the left. Forest green coat, stained almost black. Knife in his belt. Maybe a derringer in his pocket, so watch his hands. Y’all slip around there, sneak up on him. When you jump him, make sure you get between him and his buddy boys.” That last was TMI. If there was one thing both Scouts and Weasel knew to a tee, it was how to be sneaky.

And violent. When they made their move, James Marin yelled in outrage and went for his weapons–he did have more than one, as I’d guessed–but he never had a chance. Three or four of his cronies looked like they might want to make something of it, but no, on second thought, forget it. These were civilian camp bullies, not elite, battle hardened soldiers. Throwing their weight around, taking advantage of those who could not defend themselves, sure. That was recreation for such as these. Going up against MAP scouts? Eh, not so much.

Marin was still making noise when I collected Weasel to help me conduct the search. “Gag the prisoner,” I told Grit. He did it with relish.

Each crude cabin–no doors on any of them yet–hosted a minimum of ten refugees. I selected a Marin crony at random. “You come with us. Bring two more of your own. Now.”

At the so called Admin Cabin, I called a halt and ducked inside first, my oversized frame barely fitting through the narrow doorway. No way was I following one of these fools into a darkened interior. “Come on in here. Show me which belongings are his.”

Puzzled, the man did as he was told. “Right there. That bundle in the back corner. We don’t none of us got much. But I guess you know that.”

“All right. Pick it up. Carry it outside.”

Again, he followed instructions. I squeezed back outside and told the mixed group to gather ’round. “Set it down on the ground there. Okay, men, you’re all witnesses. You can attest to the fact that one of Marin’s own cabin mates identified this bundle as belonging to Marin and that I have not touched it or tampered with it in any way. Agreed?”

Everyone agreed, even Puzzled Man.

“All right, then.” I squatted and began by unfolding the worn broadcloth shirt that carried our prisoner’s earthly belongings. “Inventory this, Weasel, would you?”

“I would.” Fort Steel’s Mayor didn’t waste words. Maybe there’d been good reason for the Steelers to elect him as their leader after Strator Tucker lost his hold on the place.

“Broadcloth shirt, one. Inside left breast pocket, razor knife, one. Inside right breast pocket–well, what have we here?” I’d expected to have to go through everything. Even then, there’d been no guarantee the evidence would be found. But…”Medicine pouch, one. Inside the medicine pouch, three divided mini-pockets. Inside each mini-pocket…a different blend of what seem to be herbs of some sort, ground moderately fine.”

“Smokes, maybe?”

I wasn’t sure who’d said that. “Never seen him light up. Don’t smell like any smoke I ever sniffed.” There were other items wrapped in the shirt but nothing of immediate interest. “Could be completely innocent, gentlemen. Let’s go find out.”

This was the first Court hearing ever held at Elk Hollow. Everyone who could walk was in attendance when we gathered in the center of the clearing. I bellowed in my command voice, telling the crowd what we were there for. “You’re all wondering what this is all about. Hang in there; we’re about to get to it. First, let me introduce Mrs. Laura Compton, wife of Jeremy Compton, the Mayor of Fort Steel. Laura has spent a lifetime as a healer. She is a skilled surgeon and more than familiar with herbs. This pouch,” I held it aloft, “was found in James Marin’s belongings. It contains three different herbal mixtures. Now, I personally can barely tell chokecherry from sagebrush–” I paused to let the laughter ripple through. “–but I’m betting Mrs. Compton can give us a pretty good idea of what we have here.”

It took her fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to be sure, but in the end she delivered her verdict in ringing tones of absolute certainty. “I will not tell you the names of each plant in each of these mixtures,” she began, “because every one of them can kill if used incorrectly and you don’t need to know how to do that. But I can and will tell you this. Two of these three mixtures, ingested in even tiny amounts, will kill a human being stone cold dead in a matter of minutes. The third one will also kill, but much more slowly, often putting the victim into a quasi-coma for days or even weeks before the heart finally stops beating.”

“In other words,” I asked in my best imitation of a Before prosecutor, “would you say the only reason to carry these herbs would be to murder people and get away with it?” There was a collective gasp as the crowd finally got it.

“That,” Laura Compton said, “or a mercy killing or assisted suicide. But in these specific mixtures, certain death, yes.”

I wanted to say the prosecution rests. My great grandfather had been a prosecutor in upstate New York before the Fall. He would have been proud of me. But we weren’t done yet. I thanked Laura. In truth, much of the herbal diagnostics had come from Herman the Hermit, him squatting across from her as she worked, sniffing and looking and letting her read his lips. But I knew the refugees could accept the information better if it came from a good looking woman. The pumpkin-headed, gorilla-bodied freak of a genius herbalist would have at best distracted the refugees of Elk Hollow. “Ungag the prisoner.”

Marin glared at me, saying nothing, his hatred transferred wholesale from George Stavrakos to me. “Any last words before sentence is passed?”

He didn’t have to think about it. “Yes. You all die. I help. You all die.”

Oh, come on, now. Really? He was talking like a bad imitation of a first generation Before immigrant from mainland China, English as a second language? I wasn’t buying that. But he stuck with it. “You were assigned to camp follower duty? To spy on these people?”

“They spy. No good. I find out who. Weed out traitors. Get rid of losers.”

Huh. I knew for a fact that MAP didn’t have any assets embedded among Chang’s camp followers. Which meant…”You marked innocent men and women for death. And then executed them. Just a sprinkle in food and poof! Like that?”

“No innocent. All guilty. Kill all. Mongrel mix-race Korean bastard. White Jew whore. Black ape. Kill all. Chinese rule.”

Wow. A fanatic worth of comparison with ancient Islamic suicide bombers, a fortunately extinct species. I doubted Chang had told him to go kill everybody. He’d exceeded his authority, no doubt. Not that it made any difference. Murder is murder. “Gag the prisoner.” I’d heard enough. “Have you heard enough?” I bellowed to the crowd. Only the front ranks had been able to hear Marin’s words, but they were being relayed farther back at the speed of speech.

“Murderer! Murderer!”

Ah. Okay, then. Time to quell the mob. I’d wanted them to understand why this Darth Vader in yellow skin had to die, but…”Ungag the prisoner.”

He was done talking. Tough as my walls were, I could feel his hatred battering at them. Concentrated evil. “Is there anyone you’d like us to notify of your death? Family back home? Lover?”

He spat at me. Missed.

Hanging was not a good idea. There were children present, kids who’d already seen far too much horror in their young lives. The firing squad escorted James Marin, the Chinese serial killer with the European name, well out of sight. We heard the volley, but faintly. His body was left for the scavengers in an undisclosed location, hopefully not one the more adventurous boys would discover too soon.

“Well,” I told Weasel, “you’ve got your work cut out for you here, but at least I cut off one cobra head before scooting. You’re figuring to stay through the winter?”

“Why not?” Compton gave me an overdone, pirate-squinty leer. “Nice and safe here, compared to where you’re going. And I’ll have my woman to keep me warm.”

“Always thinking ahead.” I shook his hand, said my goodbyes to Darla, told her I’d be back in the spring, or earlier if we finished this war first. She nodded against my chest as we held each other, saying nothing but pressing something into my palm. I pocketed the something, certain I would prefer no one else see whatever it was.

George hadn’t come out of his poison-induced coma yet, but time waits on no man. We headed north just as it began to snow, lightly at first, the cool kiss of the Creator. Another bit of storm travel, but our horses were rested and we were anxious to rejoin our brothers in arms. Every one of us, sixteen men in total, would feel guilty until we’d brought the army’s experienced scouting arm back up to full strength.

When I was sure no one else was looking, I fished out the something Darla had given me. A small heart, carved from cedar heart. Juniper, we called it locally. No inscription, but sanded and polished fine as glass, sealed with animal fat, glossy and smooth as if dipped in lacquer.

My own flesh-and-blood heart expanded until I thought it would burst from my chest. I slipped the little red cedar talisman into my inner left shirt pocket and buttoned the flap. MAP’s Chief of Scouts rode north to war, his two red hearts beating as one.