WESTERN ROAD GUARD POST, WESTERN JEWISH STATE
Shift came change during deep dusk, with all six guards exchanging jokes. Those going off duty had reason for good humor; it was payday and they all had ideas of how to spend their pocket-hole-burning wages. Those coming on duty were about half sloshed, with full bottles stashed in their packs. None were concerned about unauthorized travelers, the last expected traders having rolled their heavily laden wagons into WJS territory in midafternoon. No one with a lick of experience wished to seek stabling for their draft animals or security for their goods after dark. Early arrivals get the best rooms.
Thus all six guards failed in their duty, becoming cognizant of thundering hoofbeats only when the great black horse was nearly upon them. They froze in place, momentarily unable to process what was happening. Technically, it was hard to blame them. Despite the disputed flight of sixty rebels and their wagon train last year–or was it year before last?–there was no official edict against lone riders leaving WJS in a hurry.
The Corporal of the Guard, foul-mouthed, fat, and forty, happened to be standing in the middle of the road when the Demon Beast ran him over, smashing him into the graveled surface, one iron-shod hoof landing on his right thigh and breaking bone as easily as snapping a twig. A young private, still beardless, was the only man to bring his weapon to bear, flinging 150 grains of lead after the fleeing rider. He did not aim at the horse since horses were valuable and harming one could get a soldier court martialed. In fact, he did not really aim at all; in the gathering darkness the shot went wide by a good three yards.
In the roadway, the corporal was screaming at the top of his capacious lungs, but not about his broken leg. “Cease fire!” He shrieked like a madman, seeing his career disappearing down an outhouse hole. “Cease fire! That man could be a government courier for all you know! Idiots!”
They would soon learn he was most definitely not a government courier.
A quarter mile westward, Milo Grazie eased back on the reins, bringing the big black down from a full-out gallop to a ground-eating trot that could be maintained for miles on end. There were no sounds of pursuit, nor were any expected. It was as close to full dark as made no difference, the midnight color of his mount as well as his clothing making him invisible until moonrise. Which would not happen until near midnight. He had time to put plenty of distance between himself and the border.
Distance, he admitted to himself, that he would sorely need. The task he’d been given seemed even more impossible than it had twenty-four hours ago. Suicide mission, more like. Abandon hope all ye who exit here.
It would not take WJS officials long to identify him. It stung, having to leave friends and an aging mother behind, but they’d left him no choice. I’m way too young to feel this damn old, he thought, unconsciously parroting a lyric from a five hundred year old song about a professional saddle bronc rider. Twenty-five, yet he felt like a hundred and five. A jockey he was not. In fact, at five feet, five inches in height and weighing a trim, hard-muscled one hundred and forty pounds, he knew he had mad skills but horsemanship was not one of them. I’ll either get better or die, he thought ruefully. The only consolation? At least this insane quest had not been his idea; he could point his finger at those who’d coerced him into undertaking The Mission.
How he had kept from falling off when the big black beast had run away with him, taking the bit in its own oversized horse-teeth, had no idea. Though he’d not been hit when a guard fired a lone shot, a mad adrenaline rush past the guard shack had never been part of his plan. “You’re an animal,” he told the bone-jarring monster beneath him. Big Black snorted and blew and kept on going.
Learning to post properly on a trotting horse was, Milo discovered, a learned skill like any other. He was going to be one sore puppy tomorrow. “First small-holding we come across with a decent riding animal, you’re getting traded.” It shouldn’t be hard to work a trade. Big Black was a stud with way too much class for most country folks. If a fellow lived far enough off the Gatorville road to think his acquisition of a high-class stallion with doubtful provenance might go undiscovered forever…such a fellow might trade and count himself a wizard for having shucked a fool traveler right out of his boots.
And he would have to change rides. The stud was way too much horse and way too unforgettable. Nothing but a flashy target.
He pulled Black down to a walk. Both horse and rider needed a break. Nor could he trot or gallop all the way; even a perfect relay of mounts would play out if he tried that. Besides, there were wagon ruts here, more than capable of tripping a horse moving at speed.
As daunting as this tilting-at-windmills quest seemed, he did have some positive factors on his side. Few lone travelers could hope to survive. In fact, he knew of just one who had, and that man had been eastbound, not headed toward the wild country. Blasted Ezekiel Gold. No. Stop it. Dwelling on the man’s negative qualities could come later, not when he needed every faculty to function fully if disaster were to be averted. So, positive qualities, eh?
Well…he was young and his health was good. Two biggies right there. He had maps in his saddle bags and in his head. Olfactory superiority. He could smell like no other human he’d ever met. No, not stink. Smell. Right now, for example…horse sweat, saddle leather, wild grasses beside the road, a black walnut–evil things, those black walnut trees–a distant skunk. Not that anyone would miss a skunk smell, but at least the striped perfume factory was far, far away. Coyote pee, just at the edge of the gravel. That odor would remain potent for hours. Back home, Mom had marveled at her only son’s sophisticated nose. “You know every ingredient I’ve used to prepare a meal, how long it’s been on the stove, all that, using nothing but your schnoz. Your grandfather had a schnoz like that. You should be proud. That man was a legend in his own time.”
Proud he was not. Packing a beak that would make a toucan envious…yeah, try surviving fifty mean kids when you’re were growing up with a face hose worthy of ol’ Elephant Man himself. He’d heard it all. “Your nose isn’t that big,” his mother had told him time and again, but mothers couldn’t be trusted. They were biased.
First gray light was showing in the east when Milo finally realized three things. He’d eaten nothing all night, not even taken a drink. Big Black had managed a few horsey sips once, when they crossed a stream too miniscule to need a bridge. Most importantly, they needed to get off the road sooner rather than later, find a place to lay up for the day, a spot hidden from day travelers. Not only that, but it had to have grass and water for the horse.
“And how in the name of Solomon’s lust for Bathsheba am I going to find such a haven when it’s still dark out?”
Black huffed a horsey sort of snort, almost as if he understood English. Less than a quarter mile farther down the track–which was packed dirt only now, no more gravel–the rangy stud stopped cold, turning his head toward the west, away from the road that now pointed mostly south. Milo still couldn’t see much, but he could tell the animal’s ears were pricked forward, alert and interested.
Without thinking, Milo muttered aloud, “Think you’re so smart, then? Sure, give it a shot. I got nothing to lose but time and maybe my life. Small potatoes in the overall scheme of things, doncha think?”
The horse was moving with his rider’s first words, angling away from the roadway, choosing his course almost delicately. Minutes later, the pair found themselves sheltered in a grove of mixed hardwood trees. Milo Grazie’s great nose told him they’d found a good place; he could smell water long before he heard the soft trickling sound. He shook his head in disbelief. “That old Scout told me, but I didn’t believe. Still don’t.”
By the time he had the saddle and bridle off, visibility was rapidly increasing. They’d left the roadway none too soon. “Hide,” he told Black firmly, and the big beast disappeared without making a sound. How could such a large animal move with such stealth? An elk, now, sure. Mountain elk were notorious for being able to slip silently from point to point, all in the name of survival. But a platter-hooved, steel shod horse? Unbelievable.
Black would roll himself clean, curry comb himself as it were, but the saddle blanket had to be hung over a low shrub to dry during the day. It would be necessary to brush it free of debris and bugs before resaddling, but dry was important. Saddle sores were not an option.
Now that it was light enough, not yet dawn but getting there, Milo could appreciate the horse’s uncanny wisdom, or spiritual guidance, or luck from wherever. With the ground cloth laid out and the saddle for a pillow–he’d slept on worse in his uncle’s stables when hay and straw were in short supply–he could rest well hidden among the shrubs sharing space with genuine trees. Mahogany, he noted tiredly, scattered among a profusion of maple trees with a few isolationist oaks standing around in silent disapproval of their neighbors.
He was arranging his weapons–close at hand yet easy to gather for hurried departure if necessary, as he’d been taught–when he remembered he had to eat something. Sighing deeply as he dug in the saddle bags, Milo considered his position. Best estimate, he and the Incredible Unstoppable Horse had covered a full eighty miles their first night out. Crazy beast had probably gotten rid of him and headed for the hills where the wild mares run. Which would leave him to walk the next stretch. Not far. A mere 4,500 additional miles or so. Dear Diary, he thought, laughing inwardly despite himself, “Last night was the craziest night of my life.”
Three hard-boiled eggs later, he was sound asleep, shielded from enemy view and harsh sunlight alike, lulled by wild birdsong. He’d always been a day sleeper.
MILO GRAZIE, THREE WEEKS EARLIER
“You have got to be kidding me.” There was no exclamation point in my voice. My tone, even to my own ears, was flat, without affect.
“No, son.” The old Scout didn’t even change expression. “It’s absolutely imperative that we get a message to Moss Feldman’s group and you’re the best courier option we have.”
Objections came tumbling out of my mouth, sincerity oozing from my pores. I was dead earnest, which in my book outranked being just plain dead by infinity. “Feldman may not even be alive. Nobody knows where he went. I’ve never been any courier at all, so I can hardly be your best option. In the name of Yahweh, think what you’re saying! I’m afraid of the dark. I’ve never been out of the city in my entire life. The only things I know about horses come from working in my uncle’s stables, which certainly does not qualify me as a Wild Wild West suicide jockey. You want me to go out there, leave my aging mother, travel alone all the way to this so called Northwest Territory, which you tell me is bigger than all of the Five Great Nations country, and look for one old Jewish needle in a haystack, and for what? Just to let him know that maybe an army will be heading his way. Big whoop!”
“Milo.” Miriam Grazie didn’t raise her voice, yet it cracked like a whip. “Listen to yourself. You just called your mother aging.”
Oh, drek. Piles of little rabbit pellets. Bull flop. I was in for it now. To me, she is an aging mother, but what Jewish mother is going to let her son get away with saying something like that out loud? In front of strangers, no less. I was in for it now.
“Son, I’m perfectly capable of surviving without you here to hover over me. This is a much larger issue. You are not afraid of the dark; you are afraid of sleeping in the dark, which is why you have always sought out night shift work. On this journey, you will need to be alert at night, to travel at night, to get your sleep during the day as you’ve always done. Your quirks precisely fit the needs of this mission. And shame on you, Milo David Grazie, for referring to Moishe Feldman as one old Jewish needle in a haystack. Mr. Feldman founded this entire society in which we live, yet our own people have produced this newest generation of corrupt politicians who ruin everything. Moishe is far more than a needle, young man, never mind that he is most certainly a sharp stab in the eye of those in power today. And you, you, you…worm, trying to worm your way out of your own civic duty. If you refuse this duty, born of my loins or no, you are no son of mine!”
I stared at her in shock. My own mother was betraying me? She would disown me? I knew she’d always had a thing for Moss Feldman–Moishe she called him always, his proper name, never his nickname. My mind went numb. The Scout’s next words barely registered.
“Mister Grazie, you and your mother are both right…except in the matter of your mother’s age. She is forty-three and a more beautiful woman I have never seen or my eyes would have fallen out from the sheer blinding glory of the sight.” Sunk in my own misery, I failed to notice my mother’s swift, startled glance at the Scout as he said this. “The first thing I must admit to you, however, is that you are one hundred percent correct when you say this is a suicide mission.”
My attention jerked back to the world around me. I stared at the grizzled old man, disbelieving. “You agree–”
He raised a hand, stopping me. “That is, you could end up dead. I myself was one who argued against your selection, not that it did me any good.”
“You argued against my–who would you have sent, then?”
“And why aren’t you going, then?”
“Um…I was rejected as unfit on multiple counts. One, my age; the others felt a courier with the appearance of innocent youth would not be discovered as easily as a seasoned veteran. Everybody in our military knows my face on sight. My description could be accurately displayed on handbills all the way from here to Gatorville. Coupled with a reward, dead or alive, I would be a marked man almost immediately. You, on the other hand, have made yourself the Invisible Man. You work at night where few ever see you, and when they do, it is by a brief flash of lantern light, ho hum, who cares, just another stable boy. Our group will be able to put out an entirely false description of you that should mislead Ezekiel Gold and his toadies for some time. No one will recognize you if you travel at night for the most part. WJS is known for tall black horses, but I’ll be giving you my personal mount, my closest friend, and my friend knows how to hide during the day, better than a deer lying up in the brush. Your mother tells me you have an extraordinary sense of smell which may also stand you in good stead. You’ve studied several martial arts and are capable of surprising big men, or even multiple opponents, who will tend to dismiss you because of your size. And we’ll train you intensively before you leave. What do you say?”
“Whatever.” My voice was leaden. “If we can train at night.”
“Excellent.” The Scout rose to go. “We’ll arrange your termination with your employer. You deserve to spend this one last night at home with your mother.”
I’d been staring at the floor, but my gaze lifted now. Looking my recruiter in the eye, I spoke with unrelieved bitterness. “No. I do not sleep at night, remember? I will spend the next ten hours at my uncle’s stables, working, then sleep in one of the lofts during most of tomorrow. You can come for me there at dusk.” My mother said nothing. I did not look at her. At the stables, never mind the night’s work to be done; my uncle would gladly assign me to a building where nothing much was going on. Rather than muck stalls or shift hay, I would sit shiva for my mother. Not the proper seven days of bereavement, as I didn’t have seven days to spare, but for seven hours. It was necessary to do at least that much.
She would have disowned me, would she? Hah! My mother was dead to me.