Mellie Tipton stirred the oversized cauldron of stew one handed, no mean accomplishment in itself when the stir stick was nearly three feet long. The community’s Summer Expedition, led by Michael Jade, had dug the king sized stew pot up somewhere, along with three more just like it, then sent Mace and Sandy Smith back with the iron lashed atop their strongest pack horses. The two Smith brothers wouldn’t say exactly where Jade had found these treasures; not even their mother or their other brothers had been able to pry their lips loose on that score.
“Trade secret,” they replied to any and all inquiries. Their brothers took it in stride but mother was Sara was a wee bit miffed.
The secrecy made total sense to Mellie. To her way of thinking, the fewer people who knew the location of any mother lode, the less likely somebody would flap lips in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not that the Roost had any contact with outsiders. Currently. But things changed. Always, things changed. There might even be a traitor, perhaps a disaffected teenager who decided building a brand new society from scratch wasn’t all that.
When Mace and Sandy had returned, some three weeks after the expedition’s departure, they did have stories to tell. Each kettle was full of buffalo meat packed in salt. The Smiths had long known about a big salt lick, from which they mined as much salt as they needed. They also knew exactly how to salt cure meat so that it could survive the summer months without spoiling; their father had learned from a Before book and passed his process on to the rest of the family.
Sara and her sons brought more to the Roost than a healthy infusion of testosterone; they brought priceless knowledge and lots of it.
Even with that knowledge, the pack string’s journey with the huge pots–or were they kettles? Mellie had never understood the distinction between those two. The pack string had struggled in places where game trails were crowded closely by trees on both sides. They’d managed, eventually, but it had taken time. With relief, they’d turned their cargo over to the Roost’s unofficial quartermaster, the teacher who’d ended up wearing more than one had as most adults did these days. Cindy Marakas kept impeccable records and somehow managed to control distribution without ruffling too many feathers. Mellie couldn’t do that; she ruffled feathers with every breath she took.
There were mysteries here, Mellie realized. One mystery was the magic in her marriage to Eagle Smith. Two weeks wed now they were, joined by the simple expedient of stating their commitment in front of every Roost citizen who wasn’t on sentry duty. Another mystery was the journal she held in her other hand, the one that wasn’t stirring the pot.
Sara Smith had given it to her after finding it in her late husband’s saddle bags, a leather bound volume nearly two inches thick. “I’ve read a little of it,” the widow had said on the morning after the wedding, “but it’s too painful right now.”
As Sara’s first daughter in law, bringing seven ready made grandchildren as dowry, she needed to read old Zebediah’s journal, to understand the late patriarch’s life and legacy. Every entry was made in a neat, precise hand, small–probably to economize on space, she thought–yet crisp and easy to read. There were no dates, though Zeb did once in a while refer to the passage of time. Mellie hadn’t found time to crack the covers until now, but with her youngsters all either working at tasks with older boys or up at Smith Valley with Eagle, Hawk, Grit, and Reese, she had a day of relative peace. They’d be in for supper at sundown, but not before; there was too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Make hay while the sun shines. Literally.
With all of her charisma and undiluted sex appeal, Mellie Tipton Smith was often underrated in other areas. Her fingers had the grip of a raptor’s talons; her forearms were rippling masses of corded muscle. She flipped the cover open with her thumb and began to read.
Day three since leaving the city, I think. Or is it four? Got to watch that better. Winter could sneak up on me. Acquired my first horse yesterday. Dapple gray. Think he’s a boy. He pees like one. Starving in a corral when I found him, hide over ribs, hardly any flesh on his bones. Named him Lucky. Can’t ride him yet. He can barely walk. But he goes after the grass. Drinks long and deep at every water we encounter. Lies down to sleep next to my bedroll. Aren’t horses supposed to sleep standing up? I appreciate the company, comforting when the night winds wail.
Mellie was hooked already, but she made herself stop reading long enough to eyeball the cooking fire. Time to add a couple of sticks of firewood. She tucked the thick journal under one well muscled arm, left the stir stick to its own devices for a moment, and bent down to tend to the all important blaze.
Then she straightened, took up both stick and book, and resumed stirring and reading.
Three weeks out? Four? I’ve lost track. Must devise personal calendar. Exhausted, terrified, sick at heart. Must record. Lucky looking better. Nearly died. Scraggle Man showed up yesterday. Scruffy ragged starving scarecrow. Crazy eyes. Ignored me. Went for horse with knife. I should not have been startled but was. Nearly didn’t get pistol out in time. A split second later and Lucky’s throat would have been slashed. Took too many bullets to kill Scraggle. Could have beat him to death quicker. Thought 9 mm was right caliber. Too late to change now.
Lucky didn’t spook much. Dead man stared at me. Strange memory trigger, fat old Lars from our psych conventions, infamous for bad groaner Q & A jokes.
Q: What did the psychiatrist tell his wife when she asked why her brother was still obsessed with women’s mammary glands after ten years in therapy?
A: (Shrugs) You can’t wean them all.
It was with considerable relief that we watched Mace and Sandy Smith lead their pack string the final half mile to our agreed rendezvous camp. We’d been here for three days, just resting and waiting, nervous as a group of prairie dogs sighting a rattlesnake slithering into their colony. Eight miles east, the remaining buffalo meat, and there was a lot of it, had been salted down, wrapped in rawhide, and buried in numerous caches, each cache dug bottle-shaped into the earth before being covered with its own original sod plug. Landmarks were memorized but also painted in code on one of the antelope skin leathers we used in lieu of Before paper. It was unlikely raiders or animal predators would find our caches, but we’d seen far too much sign to feel anything resembling peace. The summer prairie was alive with hostiles.
Including Mudfoot. Less hostile now, since he realized we weren’t planning on limiting our summer foray to buffalo hunting. The boy obviously preferred to avoid returning to the Roost for as long as possible. Especially since he wasn’t sure if I was going to have him executed or not. Had he possessed an ounce of brains, it would have occurred to him that the farther from home the killing, the better, but that sort of logical insight was as far beyond his mental capacity as the legendary Before digital world was behind us.
With or without Problem Kid, Julia and I were really grateful to have our reinforcements back from their meat freighting trip to the Roost. Rapid firing weapons or not, doubling the number of available trigger fingers made a huge difference in the big, bad world out there. Mudfoot could have been an asset–maybe–but we weren’t about to trust him with heavy weaponry. His belt knife, yes, but no more than that. Even the short Sedlacek spears were removed from his grasp every evening after training. Worst of all, the thirteen year old was lazy. Had he been a hard worker…but he wasn’t. Except when Julia or I had an eye directly on him; he busted his hump then. More willingly for Julia than for me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
Mace rode point, but as the Smiths pulled their mounts to a halt and stepped down, my first question was for Sandy. “Anybody give you grief at home?”
“Nope.” Just that, but it conveyed volumes. Not even Mace knew the real reason Sandy had opted to join our summer expedition rather than compete for one of the former slave women. The younger Smith brother had confided in me because he’d felt there was no other way to convince me to let him come along. Not interested in any of the women he’d seen, Sandy had been dreaming his entire life about a particular girl. He’d know her when he saw her. I know she’s a hand, not like anybody else except maybe your Julia, only not as tall as Julia, though some wider.
Far be it for me to interfere with a man chasing his dream. I’d sure enough chased mine hard enough during my slave years at Fort Steel when no one alive could have believed I’d find a way to make it come true.
The sun was setting. Lauren and Julia had supper ready, enough for all of us and then some. Made a fellow wonder if they’d somehow known the Smiths would be in before dark. I stood sentry while the others ate, then swapped out with Julia. In this open country, it would take an old school Apache to sneak up on anybody, but that didn’t mean we dared get sloppy. Lauren cleaned up, waiting on my plate, puttering around and quietly listening as the three of us shared news. Mace went first.
“Had to duck three different groups on the way back, Michael.”
“Hnh.” I mumbled around a mouthful of roasted tuber of some sort. “We are pretty far west. Lots of trails crossing each other.”
“That,” Mace agreed, “and one of the groups might have been traders, an honest wagon train. Wagon wheel marks, anyway, at least three wagons. Not too many raiders use those unless they’ve killed off the traders first, but we weren’t taking any chances. Several riding mounts with them, so they’re a larger group than some. The other two bunches, one might have been your redskin friends, quite a few riders and several travois being dragged. But we ain’t assuming there couldn’t be another group using travois, and the third group was big enough to have been King Arthur’s bunch, but we don’t think it was. Lots of hoof prints, tracks left by two wheeled carts, but still…probably not the King.”
“Too many people all of a sudden.” I kept on eating, chasing the food down with swallows of boiled creek water. We’d seen similar sign, plus more. The Land of the Free was getting over populated in a hurry. We were positioned a little past the halfway mark toward Fort 24, having traveled and/or crossed trails feeding several thousand square miles. Between us, we’d spotted evidence of more than a hundred people infesting the plains. I shoved down my last bite of meat and observed, “A mere forty-one years since the Fall, and already we’re losing elbow room.”
Between Fort 24, Fort Steel, and the Roost, we added up to more than eight hundred humans, of course, but most of those stuck close to home. Just thinking about it left me feeling claustrophobic.
Michael decided to get us moving after one day of rest for the Smith brothers and their animals. There were prickles running up and down my spine, knowing it was too soon. Knowing there would be trouble before the day was out. Knowing it was destiny and there was nothing I could do but mention my certainty to Julia, who passed it on to our fearless leader. My love sister’s gut was telling her the same thing. The men felt it too, at least a little; they always rode wary, but their hands caressed their weapons more often than usual.
You will be needed. The small, quiet voice in my head was barely audible yet as certain as snow in winter. Thanks for the heads up, I thought back.
Not long after sunup, clouds rolled in, driven by a gusting wind. All too soon, we’d ridden into a storm with thumb-wide hailstones striking like lead bullets. Caught out in the open prairie, we could do nothing but keep on keeping on. The frozen pellets struck with force enough to kill a sheep; it was a wonder neither horse nor human dropped under the bruising, stinging assault. Still, there were lumps and headaches enough to go around. My left leg was certainly going to be black and blue tomorrow.
The storm left as suddenly as it had arrived, sunlight piercing the parting clouds. My spirits soared, reveling in the glory of God, bumps and bruises notwithstanding.
It was midmorning when we came to the river. Michael, riding point, pulled Roan to a halt and sat staring, slack-jawed. The rest of us gathered around. Only Mudfoot and I seemed unaffected. I’d seen Roil River before and the boy wasn’t about to admit anything impressed him. Except females he thought he could dominate. Our attempted child rapist steered clear of Amazon warrior Julia, but I’d caught him leering at me any time he thought he could do so unobserved. It wasn’t only juvenile girls who were at risk around this one. He’d attack me if he had half a chance, away from the others. Worse, he shot eye-daggers at Michael’s back with incredible ferocity. One of the Creator’s children who reveled in the dark side, it was possible he didn’t even notice the flood before us.
The Roil ran strongly at this point, a bit more than one hundred feet across. Not rapids, but with a current that could knock a strong horse off its feet, slippery round rocks from bank to bank and muddy enough at this time of year that you couldn’t see the bottom. There was brush along both banks in many places, but not right here. No big trees, not even a water loving cottonwood. If we were going to continue with Michael’s intended summer scouting and trading foray, we’d need to find a way to cross safely. By “we,” I didn’t mean I had a mouse in my pocket. It would be up to the others. Not my responsibility. Nor my skill set.
With all of that, none of them seemed to have noticed the most important thing. I kneed Grass Lover–that’s what the mare said her name was–forward, coming to a stop between Michael and Julia. Time to snap these youngsters out of their trances.
“Never seen a river before?”
Michael didn’t even turn his head as he answered, “Nothing like this. Some sizeable creeks, but not….”
“As interesting as the people camped over there?”
“People? What peop–.” He did a double take worthy of a Before slapstick comedian. He should have. The group was partially disguised by all that tall grass and lots of brush, but come on. Had our group not been hypnotized by the great expanse of running water, surely a gathering of forty or more brown humans–African American descent mostly, or I missed my guess–surely that should have been obvious. Especially since nearly a dozen of them were fully in the open and heavily armed, watching us warily. Nobody was pointing anything deadly our way, but they were ready. More than ready. I could feel their emotions from here. Fear, determination, defiance, even hope.
One man stepped up on a magnificent white horse, rode down to the rocky beach. He didn’t lack for courage; any one of our rifles could have picked him off easily. Cupping his hands, he bellowed in a voice that carried easily across the rushing water.
“Friends or foes?”
Michael reached across me, handing his AK-47 to Julia so his hands were free to reply in kind. “Friends to all but slavers and raiders!”
Thus the negotiations began.
In the end, we made it across the river without losing so much as a single pack horse, though it might not have gone so well if the panniers had been fully loaded. The man who’d called out to us led us to a sizeable pasture where the horses could be off loaded and turned loose to graze. These people had been here a while. They had more of those magnificent white horses, at least a dozen of them, as well as oxen and mules.
Our first contact identified himself as Randy McGee, First Communicator of the Gathering. Mace and Sandy went with two younger boys to off saddle the horses while McGee led us to a sort of car port–horse port?–constructed of living willows artfully woven to protect the occupants from weather and prying eyes. It would have stopped the hailstones…but not the flies. Big blue-green biters, drawn by the blood. Two women, one of them old enough to have experienced the Fall, waved scraps of buckskin to keep the insects at bay. Lying on a blanket with his head propped up on the neck of a thoroughly bloody, thoroughly dead white gelding, a young man peered at us with pain-filled eyes. Dismissing Michael and Julia within seconds, he fixed his gaze on me. This close to the other side, he knew.
Randy McGee spoke softly. “Wash was scouting ahead for us. He spotted a big bunch of raiders, but they saw him before he could slip back out of sight. One drawback of a pure white horse, eh? But he and Hood made it all the way back, many miles.” Hood? Oh, the horse. “Hood died a little after midnight. Wash is hanging in there.”
The young scout was as dark as a moonless night, not to mention skinny as a rake. Obviously tough; I could sense the life force within him, still pulsing strongly. His people had set his broken arm and stopped the bleeding in his side, but the bullet was still in there. I could feel its darkness spreading. It had ticked his liver but run out of energy. Shot in the back, but it would be closer to go in from the front. A lot closer.
“I might be able to help, Wash, but there are no guarantees.”
The lean scout barked a surprisingly strong laugh, then winced. Getting the pain back under control, he grinned, a flash of white teeth in that ebony face. “What’s black and white and red all over?”
“You got me.” Where was he going with this?
“Granny tells me the answer used to be a newspaper, back Before. You know–” His breath hitched for a moment, then he continued. “–when they had newspapers. Now…now I figure it’s a Gather man and his horse after getting shot up. My folks done what they could. You don’t fix me up, I’m a gone gosling, so nothing to lose, eh? Do what you gotta do.”
I nodded in respect and began my preparations.
Lauren had finished working her magic. The bullet was out, Wash was all stitched up, and the women of the Gathering felt they could keep infection from setting in. Whether the patient would live to fight another day…well, we’d see what we would see. Lauren’s skill with a scalpel was one thing, but I had a hunch that most of the help had been spiritual rather than physical. Her hands had been steady during the operation, but she was shaking now, shivering from head to toe. Julia flicked me a look; I stepped forward and took most of Lauren’s negligible weight, keeping her from falling as we headed out to the campsite Mace had chosen for the night. Alarm bells were clanging between my ears; showing weakness in front of strangers who outnumbered us by eight to one was never a good idea.
“It hurts me.” Her whisper barely carried to my ears; none of the others could have heard it.
It would be a long time before I let her be used in that way again. If I had any say in it. Julia walked on her other side, just far enough away to allow her to bring weapons into play easily. Something was making both of us uneasy, wary as mice in a cage full of cats. Everyone seemed friendly, glad to meet us, grateful for our help, but something was off.
Stocky Randy McGee walked with us, informing me quietly that Wash’s injuries had decided things for the entire Gathering. Originally pulled together from a wide area far to the southeast, these people had drifted for years, a nomadic village of sorts, never certain where their destiny would lead them yet utterly confident that God really did have a plan. Group numbers had waxed and waned as people joined, left, were born, or died in any number of harsh and unforgiving ways. They’d had to fight other groups at least a dozen times and were still here, though most of their best fighters had fallen in one battle or another. Wash Benson was a highly valued member of the community, in fact the only remaining pure warrior among them. He could not be moved safely for some time. Therefore, here they would stay, building a life on the eastern bank of the Roil River, naming their settlement Hood in honor of the gallant white gelding who’d borne his rider safely back to his people despite his own fatal wounds.
Hood had soaked up seven bullets in his flight from the raiders, yet he’d kept on going. One of the Before elders–there were three of them in the group–said the horse deserved a Medal of Honor. Randy and I weren’t sure what that was, but it sounded good.
I’d thought about inviting the Gathering to join us at or near the Roost, but that was a no go from the start. Even if we could somehow isolate and eliminate the source of whatever was raising our hackles, mountains terrified these folks. Besides, the Roost was a far piece from the Roil River and the two-wheeled carts they used for cargo transport could never travel the game trails.
Night was falling. Randy joined our much smaller camp for supper; he didn’t want to miss any opportunity to communicate. I had a question. “What made you leave the far southeast in the first place?”
“Too many mean people,” he said soberly.
“How many?” There couldn’t be more than a few thousand. Could there?
“Nobody’s keeping census records,” he shrugged, helping himself to another slice of Julia’s venison loin dish. “But a lot. Biggest city I’ve seen is maybe twenty-five, thirty thousand people.”
Whoa. “That’s…a lot.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Those people are ruled by a thing called Government for the Greater Good. GGG. We’re the GGG and we’re here to help. And they do help in a way. Few people starve. But there’s no freedom. They breed like rabbits, too. Not a happy bunch, and they fear the unknown beyond communal farms outside of their city limits, but if they get big enough to expand out thisaway someday, we’re in trouble. Those who leave, like we did, are branded as misfits. They hang misfits.”
Fort 24 needed to hear about this, and maybe Fort Steel, too. If we could set up a Republic, or at least a strong alliance between all of us, along with other settlements I knew nothing about but had to exist…. Grunt would know them.
I chuckled. McGee cocked his head like a curious bird. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing ever changes.” I shook my head, covering for the fact that my thoughts were still half baked. It made sense, though. If the far flung settlements, along with Red Horse’s semi-nomadic people and Randy McGee’s Gathering, could somehow all come together, the lame joke would acquire an entirely new punch line.
Q: What’s black and white and red all over?
A: The Western Republic of Allied Settlements (WRAS). Attack one and you attack all.
Unfortunately, a true republic needed a central federal government and central governments tended to grow like cancers. I didn’t like that idea much. So, back to the old version:
Q: What’s black and white and red all over?
A: A newspaper.
Or Lauren wielding a bloody scalpel on Wash Benson’s bullet riddled body. No joke, but a punch line with real punch.