Tortured, he ran from his lover’s eyes; he saw no others.
Well, farg narb it and scrub me with a rusty cactus, Strator Tucker thought, staring at the words he’d written. Seventeen times he’d quilled them to paper, not once able to come up with the right paragraphs to follow, the lattice of the tale that would make his name, get him out of this pen-and-ink bean counting job and elevate him to–
“What the–” He jumped to his feet, banging his bony knees under the edge of his pine desk. “Ow!” Hobbling and cursing, he headed for the door, one thin arm brushing flies away from his face. Flies bothered everybody, humans and livestock alike, but seemed to have a special affinity for the sleepy eyed tally master. Sleepy in this heat, anyway; he wasn’t fully alert even yet.
“Beller!” He yelled at the lone guard atop the catwalk, “What’re you wasting that horn for?” The ancient can-powered squawker couldn’t have much left in it, not after so many decades. Tripe, the metal was nearly rusted through as it was, even back when they’d first found it in the remains of whatever city that had been.
“Ain’t wasting, Strator!” Young Beller Stockman yelled right back at him, no respect at all. “Strangers kummin!”
Strangers? There hadn’t been any strangers approach Fort Steel since…he couldn’t remember when. Last winter? Snow would be flyin soon anuff again, so what, most of a year gone by? “Sure they ain’t scheduled?”
“You’re the Strator,” came the retort. “You know there ain’t no buyer ner sellers ner traders on the books this moon, now is there?”
Smart alecky kid. Barely old enough ta hold a crossbow steady, couldn’t even cock it, yet he had the mouth. Smooth faced punk was right, though; there was nobody scheduled. Not Eestern buyers ner any of the known sellers ner traders. Strangers. Which could mean any one of about ten different things, one of ’em opportunity and the other nine trouble. His mind, finally fully awake and functioning at top speed, worried the most about raiders. Fort Steel’s foundry put out the only finished steel goodies fer near three months travel, and the best, with the most variety, fer far more than that. Swords, crossbows, plowshares, knives, hoes, rakes, horseshoes, wagon wheel rims, barrel staves, and lately even a few firearms, what with Karbin Loy and his three sons showing up two years ago, knowing how to put together gunpowder. Closely held secrets here, lots of ’em. Which was why a dozen of the Fort’s population of one hundred ninety-seven Souls were its designated protectors, men and boys with somebody on guard at all times, though most of ’em were out in the fields today, bringing in the last of the harvest.
“Git on yer pony and round up the Guard,” he said, having finally gotten close enough to the stockade that he didn’t have to shout. “Or–wait a sec, lemme come up there.” Climbing the ladder scared him; heights were terrifying things. But the catwalk was wide enough, and he needed to see out through the tips of the sharpened tree trunks. Tree trunks that had been wagon-hauled from the stands of cottonwood along Cottownwood Creek, then treated with…he didn’t know what, but it kept them from rotting out right away.
“All I seen so far.”
“Hm.” He lifted the scope he’d carried most of his life, ever since Paw Tucker fell to the last hoorah of the Scourge. It would’ve made more sense to give the precious glass to the guard on duty. Yeah, like that was gonna happen. “One man in front on a mighty flashy pinto, one wagon piled heavy from the looks of the way those mules are having to set down against the grade. One man driving. Don’t see nobody else–wait, what the? Is that a freaking wolf?” He adjusted the scope back and forth a bit, but the picture told the same story. “Good starshine amighty, Beller, that thing’s bigger than any wolf I ever seen. Kay, they’re maybe a mile and a half out, just coming over that rise like they done. Moving steady but slow…we got maybe half an hour till they hit the front gate. Beller, you scoot, round up Captain Finster and the rest. He’ll know how to set everbuddy so’s we don’t git any nasty surprises.”
“On it,” the youngster chirped, altogether too cheerful fer Tucker’s taste. Blasted kid likely all excited at the prospect of visitors, no matter who they might be.
Not that the older man could blame him; Stockman couldn’t be more than what? Twelve this coming year? If that. “Too young to know better,” he muttered under his breath, and headed back to his quarters to find his cleanest dirty shirt. The wagoneers would be trail grungy and wouldn’t care, but Strator Tucker cared; he had an image to uphold.
Hating horses as he did, he wasn’t about to mount up, so all the lead man on the pinto saw as he approached the stockade gate was a skinny little dude leaning against a post, somehow giving the impression of self importance despite having to look up at the newcomer. Having to look way up. The rider’s mount was flashy enough, all right, but at close range the big stud was just plain scary. Fortunately, the mares were all either corralled at the far end of the fort’s sprawling fifty acre enclosure or out working the cattle herds and various fields with their owners. Still, tired as he obviously was, the animal’s spirit was obvious, flaring of nostril and flashing of eye. Seventeen hands tall if the monster was an inch, plenty of pep left in his step, and the rider…
…yeah, the rider was scary, too. But then, anyone venturing out with a lone companion these days would have to be scary. The Scourge hadn’t left many, and none of them weaklings. This man…burly was the first word that came to mind. Stocky of build, yet tall enough that he didn’t look like a midget on that mountain of horseflesh. Black hair, lots of it, no hat despite the broiling sun that made grasshoppers assume winter would never come. Broad face, covered with curly black beard and just two Scourge marks against his right cheekbone. A survivor, then, but one touched only lightly by the plague that had driven his generation to the point of extinction. Rounded shoulders, but a wrestler’s kind of roundness, not fat. Fringed buckskins. Moccasins. No firearm visible, no crossbow, but a great knife at his left hip in a leather sheath and a saddle scabbard that held half a dozen short spears.
A mountain man, then, one with eyes hooded so deeply within folds of drooping flesh that it was impossible to be sure of their color. Black? Midnight blue? Or something else.
The six-mule span pulling the great freight wagon followed a few paces back, piloted by a smaller yet equally stocky fellow…or was that a woman? Hard to tell, the way the driver slouched over the reins. Must be a man; no female could handle a team like that. Could she?
The black haired rider pulled up, using his free hand to rub sore eyes for a moment before he spoke. “Fort Steel, I presume?”
“Only real settlement in approximately forever,” Tucker replied. “Whatcha hollin?”
“Hnh,” the big man grunted, his stallion eyeing the soft fortman evilly. “Not a load of raiders under that tarp, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Not at all,” Tucker lied smoothly. “Simply hoping it might be something we kin akshuly use. You’ve the look of a man figgerin’ to trade, an’ the last trader we seen had a lode of nuthin’ but worthless waste ore. Hated to see that, what with me bein’ the Strator here an’ all. Much prefer everbuddy bein’ happy as clams when the talkin’ is dun.” Not that he had any idea what the starburst a clam might be, but it was a saying. One of the old ones, he thought.
“Hnh. What’s a straighter?”
Tucker couldn’t believe his ears. “You dunno what a Strator is?” When his outburst got no response, he went on. “You know…well, giss ya dunno at that.” He thought of telling this boob his reel opinion of hicks from the sticks, but the bugger had a look to him. Shure, the Guard no doubt had him covered, crossbows and mebbe even the Captain’s shoot gun by now, but who would fall first? The esteemed Strator, Eloysius T. Tucker, that’s who. Couldn’t have that, now could he? “A Fort’s Strator is the settlement’s least appreciated member, I’d say. It’s my job ta keep all the numbers straight, tell the foundry master when his steel’s running short, keep tally of the harvest, work out what crew’s gonna keep the stockade in repair, assign folks ta fix the canals when they git clogged, that sorta stuff….” He trailed off, feeling foolish and wondering why.
“Hnh. Jess,” he spoke over his shoulder to the wagon driver, “I do believe he’s the administrator, like a mayor or some such. You reckon?”
The teamster turned her head and spat over the side of the wagon. “Hnh.”
Yep, Tucker decided, definitely female. Not the purtiest thing he’d ever seen, but beggers couldn’t be choosers.
“Well then, Mr. Strator, I reckon it’ll be just fine to show you the load, seeing as how you have to tally it and all. Might as well relax your nervous folks with the crossbows, peeking out at us there.”
Tucker had difficulty understanding the man’s weird accent, but he nodded politely. Not that the black haired trader noticed; he’d already turned his horse and was riding back to the nearest rear corner of the wagon. Without dismounting, he reached over and pulled a slipknot free. The teamster loosened the rope at the front corner, and between them they pulled the side of the canvas up atop the load. Somebody whistled–an undisciplined guard? Steel pieces, cut to fit the wagon, stacked neatly. He crunched the numbers in his head quickly, suddenly not wanting to appear ignorant in front of this man. This stranger who had brought them finished steel, not mere unprocessed ore. Pipe pieces, a lot of it, plus a good bit of strap, and he’d bet his last quill pen to a pigeon fart there was sheet steel down in the bottom as well. Not too deep or no mere six mules could have ever pulled it, but some. The foundry master would drool in his soup when he saw this load. Stars alive, what could they produce out of this single load? There was a small fortune here…
…which was going to be tough on Fort Steel, bartering for it all. His mind whirled, already wondering what they could throw into the pot to seal the deal. Horses. Cattle. Even one of the new shoot guns, or maybe even two of them, one for the ugly chick, too, no doubt. Unless the trader was gullible and willing to take the short end of the stick, which he doubted considerably.
“Captain!” He called to the leader of the Guard. Finster trotted out from the over-gate turret and down the ladder without a word, three of his better warriors in tow.
“Captain Finster,” the Strator said, “This is…what is yer name, sir?”
“Hnh. Most folks just call me Grunt.”
Can’t imagine why. “This is Grunt. If he and his teamster have a tally of their steel? You do? Excellent. Captain, if you would kindly escort these fine folks to the foundry stock yard, let ’em unhitch, and then show ’em to Larson’s Stable where they could put up their animals, I would be delighted to see them at Billy’s for supper. The sun is, after all, about to set.”
“Yessir. Um…what about the…dog?”
Cripes. The great gray beast had been lurking on the far side of the wagon; how could he have forgotten about that?
“Hnh,” Grunt grunted. “We’ll accept your invitation to supper, Mr. Strator, but Slash here will stay with the other critters. And if Larson’s has a loft, we’ll sleep there with them as well. We don’t get to forts much, but the last one we visited, some fools tried to steal Buck.” He indicated the huge pinto.
Beller Stockman had slipped up close, no doubt without authorization. With the audacity of the young, he asked, “What happened?”
“Hnh. Nobody was too sure what killed who first, but by the time Slash had ripped out their throats and Buck had stomped them to mush, the point was kind of moot.”
The forters looked at each other. None of them had any idea what a moot was, but they got the picture. Somebody gulped hard. Not the kid; Beller just looked fascinated. “Good thing they didn’t stab er shoot yer dog, huh.”
“Hnh. Kid, they got to see him coming before they can hit him, and mostly that doesn’t happen.”
“Well!” Strator Tucker clapped his thin palms together so hard they stung. “I assure you, Rik Larson runs a tight ship–er, stable. We’re as safe and civilized here as anywhere in the world since the Scourge. Of course, best guess is there ain’t but two million Souls left alive in the world entire, at least so the Kroniklers in Easthome dee-clare.” He wasn’t about to admit he couldn’t possibly fathom such a huge number, having been born into a world where a population of five hundred was a metropolis and the greater predators considered men lunch in the vast swaths of wilderness, but hey. This Grunt bore the marks, at least two of them, so he’d been around when the bear hit the salmon.
How had Grunt and his woman cut those steel pieces so cleanly? Trade secret, no doubt. But wow. Half a dozen loads like that and they could grow Fort Steel to be the premier power west of Kill River, at least as long as the earthquakes that had reshaped the land didn’t fire up again. Now, if he could just somehow keep the Shrinker boys from stirring up trouble with these traders. Them three didn’t have the good sense God give a sody cracker–whatever the starburst a sody cracker might be–and that was a fact.
Tortured, he ran from his lover’s eyes; he saw no others. The land spilled toward him slowly despite his pace, majestic and beautiful yet meaningless in the grand scheme of tangled thoughts spider-webbing between his ears. “Why does it hurt so much?” She had asked, seeking solace, seeking answers, reaching for comfort from a man who had none to give…
Argh! All this time, and the words had to come now? The moment the traders and their escort were out of sight, turning from the fort’s main drag onto the side street leading to the foundry yard, he broke into a run. Such as it was. His late father had once told him he ran like a baby juraff with a broomstick up its butt, all stiff and stilted like. He never had figured out what a juraff might be, but even at that age he’d known an insult when he heard one. He seldom ran, remembering that, but this was an emergency. He had to get this written down quick-like-a-bunny, before the forters started pouring into his office, demanding to know about the strangers. Slamming into his seat, he barely noticed when he banged his right knee on the desk. Again. Quill, ink…
The land spilled toward him slowly despite his pace….