The man called Randy McGee wasn’t in good shape but his resilience astounded me. While Gabby and I tended to the Gathering’s fallen leader, Michael had the wagons circle near the frozen-over Roil River’s near bank. Fires were built in a hurry, using deadwood we’d hauled from a small patch of timber three days earlier. It’s a good thing we’d brought the wood. The young-bodied, old-eyed man I’d once healed from slave-boy whippings knew his business. There wasn’t a stick of anything burnable within a mile of this place. Plenty of tall cottonwoods, but their fallen fellows had already been scavenged and living trees would have to be cut down and left to half-dry over the summer months. They wouldn’t do anyone any good right now.
Granshako knew how to use cottonwood effectively, though. As he explained, “It’s best if burned, not green exactly, but not completely dry, either. Windfall stuff rots fast, maybe even half gone before it topples. Bone dry, it burns up too fast, whoosh, no good, gone. Too wet and it’s no good either. But cut a living tree, let it set a while so it’s in between, and yeah, you can use it all winter and stay warm. Just have to know what you’re doing. But hey, get lucky and find an old dead giant half petrified, it’ll burn slow and hot like coal. If you can cut it.”
These people still had no stockade wall. Understandable, since they’d chosen to settle on land without decent building timber and hadn’t even taken winter seriously until it smothered them in white, but I couldn’t imagine surviving settlement living these days without a wall. No food. No water other than mouth-melted fistfuls of snow dirtied by proximity to the Gathering. They had foolishly counted on the river which now scorned them in its slick hardness. This close to surface water, they should have been able to dig wells, taking care to keep those well away from cesspits. Or the river would have worked, if they’d had a couple of healthy men willing to swing ice-chopping axes every morning and enough folks capable of forming a bucket brigade. Poor sanitation, open latrines near to overflowing, stinking up the air, sometimes within a few paces of their tents. Ragged canvas, wind whistling through. Once McGee had some lukewarm water and hot stew broth in him, and I’d treated him for frostbite, his remarkable mind had snapped right back into full functionality. Forty-eight dead, he reported, counting Wash Conroe’s two companions lost during his desperate trek to Steel, yet one hundred fifty-three still alive. Some of them barely, who knew how many with frozen extremities that would have to be amputated, but one hundred fifty-three still drawing breath.
Michael and Mace had huddled to discuss the Roil. In the end, the wagons did not attempt a crossing because neither man trusted the river ice that much. A human could walk over safely as long as he watched his balance, no problem, but steel-shod horses might slip and skitter. Fort Steel being what it was, none of our animals had left on this mission without shoes in good working order, but was the ice thick enough to guarantee safety for a thousand pound horse or mule as easily as it held a two hundred pound man? Perhaps not. Plus, the equines could fall, maybe rip a tendon or break a cannon bone on the ice even if it did hold, and the loss of a heavily laden wagon after coming this far was not even worth thinking about. Then there was the simple fact that starving Gathering members could not be entirely trusted. Weak they were, yes, but also crazed and desperate. They might have tried to storm our train, given the chance.
So Jade didn’t give them the chance.
For three days, our people did the cooking across Roil River from the stinking camp. I say stinking because that’s what it was, literally, and not just from the latrines. While Gabrielle and I ministered to those who could not yet walk, we were escorted by Sandy and Grit Smith–who wore two revolvers each, butts forward, as our bodyguards and sometime assistants. The scarecrows lying in their poorly patched tents presented little threat, but again, Michael took no chances.
“Humans in this condition are not entirely human,” he replied when I complained about the intimidation factor presented by looming two-gun men. “Once their bodies respond to sustenance and their brains kick back into thinking mode, we’ll see. But for now this is not an option.”
I grumbled, yet secretly I was proud of him.
On the Gathering side of the river, right near the riverbank, a mixed group of MAP troops handed out hot broth, meat, and potatoes along with unfrozen water, nourishing those who could manage to get on their feet. Rough trestle tables, wooden bowls and spoons rough-carved might not have looked like much to a “civilized” person, but they were all we had and nobody was complaining. First servings were always broth; stomachs long without input were ill equipped to handle solid food. They had to be reconditioned slowly. Portions were strictly rationed, not stinting, but avoiding waste while carefully encouraging people who’d been counting themselves dead for weeks if not months. Those who could not walk at all, and at first there were dozens of them, had their food brought to them by MAP teams, Fort Steel wagoneers for the most part. I could see quiet pride in the eyes of my fellow Steelers, and often compassion. They knew they were doing a good thing.
The Gathering’s people, a surprising number of them, recovered with impressive speed. Nothing like magic man Randy McGee, but within three days, more than half of the survivors were on their feet and nearly a quarter were strong enough to help resurrect others.
Gabby and I, along with our heavily armed shadows, continued to work our medical butts off. Having grown up in a large, mostly self-sustaining family, the young Smith bride didn’t need any training to serve as my right hand. What she didn’t know, she picked up fast without me saying a word. I was pretty sure we were reading each other’s minds. Our field hospital, a large tent set up to the south of the camp, not far from the bench from which Roost fighters had blown off King Arthur’s head and pretty much destroyed his raider force, became among other things the site of more than two dozen amputations ranging from single digits–toes or fingers–to entire feet. We were way too busy to pay attention to anything but medical concerns. Food was brought to us and we ate, usually with exhaustion and resentment toward the necessary delay.
No matter how much we got done, there was always more to do.
Supper was over. I pulled out my calendar stick, cut another notch, and frowned in concentration, momentarily unaware of my surroundings. Seven days gone since we’d reached the Gathering, twenty-nine since leaving Fort Steel. All of us–well, almost all of us–were itching to head home, hopefully finishing our lengthy round trip before spring thaw caught up to us. Truthfully, we’d done about all we could. Dozens of the starveling Roil River residents were back up to full function, or close enough to it for company work. None of them were going to be winning any strong man contest for a while yet, but they could work slowly and carefully for a few hours each day without collapsing. Laura and Gabby had performed miracles. Every pound of frozen raw beef and frozen boiled potatoes had been man-hauled across the frozen river and placed under heavy guard. Rationing would continue for a long time, enforced by rotating guard shifts of Gathering men who’d learned the hard way what it was to go hungry, or worse, watch helplessly as their loved ones withered before their pain-filled eyes. Teams of MAP troops had hauled empty wagons two miles west and slightly north, harvesting deadwood and returning with piled-high loads of firewood, all of which was now also under guard and being rationed. Randy had browbeaten the other two surviving Gathering Management Group members, convincing them to join him in signing their people up with MAP, so that agreement was now in full force between all four major northwestern settlements.
Yet there was always one more thing that needed doing.
“We’d to get out of here in the morning,” I said to Randy, “if at all possible. But we need to see if we can find your horses.” McGee had told me about the herd disappearing one night, apparently heading out through a carelessly neglected hole in the pasture fence. “Too bad it’s already dark. I’d like to have gotten to that today.”
He rubbed his hands together, then held them out over the dying cookfire coals. Nobody in the Gathering would ever again take winter warmth for granted. These people were scarred, but what hadn’t killed them had certainly made them stronger. Scratching his thick winter beard, he observed. “Moon will be up in about an hour. If Grit would be willing to go with me, and loan me his spare mount so I don’t have to walk, I’ve at least got an idea where to look.”
Ah. There was something Randy wasn’t telling me. “Grit’s a pretty adventurous sort. Reckon he might be willing.” The second youngest surviving Smith brother would not be going back with us. Several good looking young Gathering girls were competing for his attention. I didn’t blame him for abandoning us. Much. We’d even taken a vote and decided to leave one of our two spare horses with him, sort of a pre-wedding present, even though he hadn’t yet figured out which dusky beauty was going to put her brand on him. Heck, Grit still thought he was the one who was going to make the decision. Wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up with multiple Sisters locking him down. More men than women had died during those endless weeks of frozen starvation, demonstrating once again which sex is really the stronger and leaving an imported two-gun-toting white boy at a high premium. Besides, this particular white boy had major skills. Anything these city-bred immigrants needed to know about staying alive in this country, Grit could teach them.
“We’ve not had time to just shoot the breeze,” Randy noted, “till now.”
“Been meaning to ask about that dead man you brought in on top of the tail wagon’s meat load. How’d he die? Didn’t look like anything major was busted, no bullet holes or claw marks. Horse stomp him or what?”
“Bruce Ellenvale.” I sighed. “Small farmer, owns a place a few miles south of Fort Steel. Didn’t have to volunteer for this run, but he did. Wife back home, three kids. Raised some of those potatoes we brought. No, he didn’t get stomped. Man was harnessing his team one morning and just plain pitched over dead. Laura Compton said it looked like a heart attack. Worse ways to go, I guess.”
“Can’t argue with that. What about the big man with the bloodstained pants and the limp?”
“Freak accident. We had a tough creek crossing, ice slick as snot. He was leading his team across, made it to the final step next to the bank, when the off leader slipped and went down. He tried as hard as he could to help the horse stay on its feet, but no dice. When the critter went down, a flailing hoof hit him hard, drove him at a downstream angle toward the bank, where a sharp snag was sticking out like a short spear. Nailed him. Drove that splintered wood to the bone.”
“Tough man,” McGee observed.
“Indeed. He didn’t even scream or pass out when Laura was cleaning the wound. She had to pick out a bunch of half-rotten splinters.”
“Ouch. Sorry I asked. But as long as I’m at it, the guy with his arm in a sling?”
“Horse did kick that one. Broke a forearm bone.”
Mom was not going to be a happy camper when she found out Grit would not be coming home, and guess who would have the joy of telling her? Ai-yee! The widow Smith professed to love all her sons equally, but the kids always know. Reckless in some ways, brilliant and mouthy, ever willing to fight his brothers if he thought he was in the right–even the whole bunch of us at once, even when he knew he’d end up on the bottom of the dogpile or tied up high in a tree with his pants missing or pitched headfirst into our old mountain swimming hole, he’d never backed down. Not once.
Six brothers growing up together with squabbling among ourselves as one of our prime recreational sports…that had been a blast. Mom finding out her pet troublemaker had deserted to chase tail on the Roil, yeah, I could hear it already. He couldn’t just help those people out for a few months? Maybe find a nice girl and bring her home? You couldn’t talk any sense into him? Mom knew how to plant guilt-barbs, that was for sure. Not that I was feeling guilty. Heck, if I hadn’t already married the steel-spined hottie, Mellie Tipton, I’d have been prospecting a bit myself.
Heh. Dangerous thought, that. Not only Mrs. Mellie Smith would be on me if she thought I was getting a case of wandering eye. My seven newly acquired stepkids would be giving me the evil eye as well.
Truthfully, I thought my kid brother was doing a good thing. Adding Smith common sense and expertise to Randy McGee’s leadership, the both of them backed up by Wash Conroe once the scout was fit to leave Fort Steel, should be enough to get these people moving in the right direction. Grit had always felt a bit oppressed, living as one of the younger Smith brothers. Here with the Gathering, he was a legitimate hero. His views would be respected. Depending on how much he influenced McGee, people here would live or die because of Grit Smith.
I wouldn’t have wanted his job. Ever. As far as I was concerned, functioning as Michael’s unofficial second in command on the trail was more than enough to be going on with.
Sandy was even less impressed with Grit’s decision than I was. But we knew how to play the game. Especially since Sandy’s wife did wholeheartedly endorse the idea of having a Smith permanently embedded with the Gathering.
Gabby and Laura looked up from the kettle of breakfast they were stirring. Leftover meat scrap stew with skins-on mashed potatoes, what else? “Horses coming,” Laura commented quietly. How they’d heard them, I had no idea, but they were right. Across the river, an entire herd was steadily moving toward the settlement from the west. It wasn’t all that light yet, but it looked like Randy on Grit’s spare horse, leading what had to be the herd’s bell mare. Far to the rear, my brother was pushing the stragglers forward, making sure none of the animals broke to left or right.
How could I tell it was Randy in the lead? Knew the horse he was riding, for one thing. For another, yeah, low light at this early morning hour, but the Gathering leader had a whole lot darker tan than any Smith had ever sported.
Reminded me of the old joke. How do ya tell them two horses apart, hillbilly? Aw, it’s easy. The white horse is two inches taller than the black one.
I almost doubled over, it was that hard to keep from laughing. Ethnic humor was back. Dad had once told us kids it hadn’t always been that way. During the last five centuries before the Fall of humanity, there were times when humor like that was funny and times when it was politically outlawed. During the occupation of Earth by seven-eyed aliens with nine arms, big guns, and no sense of humor whatsoever, cracking a joke about genetic differences of any sort had been punishable by death. The Seventy-Nines, as they were called behind their chitinous backs, didn’t last long. Especially after hardnosed Earthlings realized they tasted better than lobster when boiled.
At least nobody ever said they tasted like chicken.
The teams were already harnessed to the wagons. Once the recovered Gathering equines had been turned in to the fenced pasture, Randy McGee handed his mount over to Grit and walked across the river ice to join us for breakfast while he reported to Michael. I listened in.
“Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”
“Much better,” McGee agreed, nodding in contentment. It had been a long night, but he wasn’t feeling it yet. “We’re still fifty-some short, but even if we don’t find the rest, we’ve got plenty to ride for hunting, pulling plows, and the like. Well…maybe not plenty, but enough. Infinitely more than zero.”
We were swinging the wagons back around and heading home thirty minutes later. I cursed my little brother under my breath. With him staying on the Roil, I had to drive dead man Bruce Ellerman’s wagon, though we’d shifted places so I was positioned in the middle of the train. My saddle horse was tied to the back hitch ring, readily available at need. If we were attacked or faced some other emergency, I could tie off my team to the wagon ahead of me and be in the saddle within less than a minute, ready to reinforce Jess up front or whoever was stuck as the back wagon. But this wagon seat was hard as a rock. Cold, too, with no horse heat helping me sandwich a saddle tree to keep my cheeks warm.
Hey, I’d tried to talk Granshako into driving, but no. Not a chance. Never drove a team, he said. Great excuse. He’d ride drag, rear guard, no problem, but a freight wagon? White man stuff.
I was pretty sure the Native warrior was laughing at me.
So this was going to be a long, uncomfortable journey home. Especially with Bruce’s frozen corpse bouncing around in the otherwise empty wagon. The weather was still holding, somewhere in the mid-twenties by my guess, but spring was coming. We could get a warm spell any time now. That would make things ever so enjoyable, carting a thawing, fragrant corpse home to his widow and orphans, struggling through mud and bog holes for weeks on end. Here’s your man, Ma’am. Ignore the decomposition. Mom would cluck her tongue at me for thinking about that, but hey. My bride, merrily doing her thing back at the Roost, is a lifetime optimist, but me?
I’m a glass half empty kind of guy.