Captain James Gilson of Fort Steel went home with his entire contingent for some well earned R & R. Three weeks later, he and a fortified roving squad headed back out “on patrol,” a move that raised not a single eyebrow among the civilians who had overthrown Jeremy “Weasel” Compton’s administration. As far as they were concerned, the fewer military men in or near the fort, the better.
Had they known what Gil’s men were actually doing once they were out of sight of the stockade, a lot of britches would have been soiled.
We Barred Rocks took a longer rest, healing up at the Roost, catching up on everything Captain Blake had accomplished during our long absence. Loving our loved ones. Performing mundane chores like ordinary citizens. Healing. Our three-day ride down out of the mountains and over to Fort Steel was almost jaunty. We were feeling entirely mischievous, up to no good and loving it. The puffed-up types at Steel didn’t like us entering their gates, ten armed men and four armed females, but they could say nothing. We were there, after all, to present them with a Medal of Freedom for their part in the war effort. The weapons, ammunitions, and wagon parts produced by the foundry had in fact been crucial to our success. When the feasting was done that evening, the pompous asses in city government breathed easier, knowing we’d be gone again in the morning.
When the sun rose to the lowing of cattle and neighing of horses in great numbers, accompanied by the sharp yips and whipcracks of herders at work, they were stunned. “What are you doing?” They yelled at us. “Thieves!”
“Not thieves.” Henry Perfle, livestock manager for all of Fort Steel, rode up on a flashy gold-and-white pinto. “Employees.” Calmly, he produced proof of ownership for two thirds of the held-in-common herds comprising a sizeable portion of Fort Steel’s wealth. The bureaucrats and politicians would have stopped us even so, by force if necessary, but their few hunting rifles did not stack up well against dozens of heavily armed veterans still slit-eyed from the war. They huffed and they puffed and blew their own house down.
We helped Henry move the herds two days northeast, to the tragic site of ruined Fort Confluence, where fifteen years ago my parents had been slaughtered before my eyes. The few scattered bones that had been found, sun-bleached, animal-gnawed and brittle, were gathered in a single pile for burial at the new Massacre of 33 A.F. memorial. Freedom Creek and Redemption Creek, newly renamed, flowed together here, wending their way across broad prairie crowned with lush carpets of mature grasses. Wagons were already rolling, hauling fresh-cut logs from the distant, forested slopes. There would be a stockade here to beggar the one at Fort Steel, manned by hard working men and women delighted to leave the stuffy government and squalid history of Fort Steel behind.
A few days later, reinforced by nearly eighty vets drawn from four different MAP communities, we began two projects at once. The mighty foundry, to the pompous people’s further dismay, was completely dismantled and moved to a prime location on the banks of Redemption Creek. Not a single bit of scrap iron was abandoned. It, too, had always been privately owned. The owner was Henry Perfle’s best friend, a visionary with one eye on the future and heartfelt disgust for the governmental structure he left behind. Few of the departing foundry workers or independent metallurgists could resist flipping Fort Steel the finger on the way out. In its new location, an instantly thriving community named Fort Liberty (no longer Fort Confluence) powered the thundering, blistering hot manufactory of everything ferrous. Which would be dubbed Freedom Foundry. Simultaneously, wagon load after wagon load of priceless books from Laura Compton’s no-longer-secret library rolled out, covered with oiled canvas in case of rain. Long had she defended the property gifted to her by her grandfather, but with her beloved Weasel gone, it was time to move on.
What was left behind at Fort Steel was not quite a ghost town. Not yet. It was still peopled with ninety-seven Souls whose greedy government owned enough cattle and horses and basic supplies to survive just fine if these resources were efficiently managed. But they were no longer wealthy. To make it through even one more winter, they would have to roll up their sleeves and work. To put it in terms of ancient Before political hyperbole, their heads exploded.
At the new Fort Freedom, we Roosters celebrated the official naming of Fort Freedom on July 4th. We laughed a lot with our friends, drank a little more than we should have, and headed home the following morning with throbbing heads and soaring hearts.
Word eventually came to us, in the mountains, of the situation at Fort 24. The greedy fools who’d overthrown Weasel at Fort Steel had gotten off light. At 24, Marshal Bledsoe and his allies had held trials for those who’d stirred up so much trouble, hanging six men and one woman for treason.
There was no word from the Badge. Two Jews from that community helped with the Steel-to-Liberty move but chose not to return home. “Stirk may or may not be able to handle the political situation,” they told me. “One way or the other, we’re heading down to Elk Hollow, partly to reassure his lady until he can get there and partly to do some courting of our own.”
The rest of us decided we’d done our duty. We went home to stay. Summer passed, autumn aspen leaves turned to gold, five feet of snow accumulated at the Roost by March and fought melting until late April. Young calves and their mothers were brought up from the low pastures, spring planting was accomplished, crops sprouted and grew.
It was not until early August that fast courier relays arrived with the news. Once again, we rode out of the mountains. Roving squads from every MAP community reassembled, a cautiously optimistic, heavily armed force of sixty-three military veterans and thirteen recruits. We met the Hooded Cobra party at River City. There was no sign of Venom Chang but we knew the man heading the column.
Sora, the Skilled Man.
Once the pleasantries were over, Sora walked along with Julia, Mace, and me as we repaired to the command tent. Over tea, he briefed us on the Emperor’s response.
“His first thought was to reject your proposal entirely, raise a new army, and come back at you again. It had never occurred to him that Venom Chang might fail. As the weeks passed, his viewpoint changed. The man is ambitious but also a realist. He began to see the sense of what you had to say. Yet he was cautious. He could not decide. Until it became clear to him that his War Leader, his lifelong closest friend, closer than a brother, was not right and never would be. Chang’s headaches worsened. His memory became less and less reliable. He could still fool the troops, still look good on parade, but never again would he handle the rigors of a military campaign requiring extreme endurance and strategic thinking. In the end, the Emperor went with your plan almost entirely.”
A faint smile flickered across the Japanese warrior’s face. “I have brought all forty girls, as you saw. Along with an escort of forty soldiers to keep bandits and fools from getting ideas, of course. But the Emperor refused to send pure Chinese maidens. The three Chinese in the group are mixed race. There is Chinese blood in them. Just not one hundred percent.”
“Small things. A toll fee for the use of Great River ferries. Good behavior deposits for any non-Empire personnel entering Gatorville, refundable on departure if your people have caused no damage. Delaying our departure from Hooded Cobra, and thus delaying our arrival at MAP. In his own words, he cannot be seen to hop when you say toad.”
“Saving face.” I nodded, accepting the Continental Alliance Agreement the Emperor’s scribes had drafted. It was surprisingly brief and to the point, covering only three pages of fine script. Sora waited patiently while I read the document before passing it to Julia. Mace, too, would scrutinize the wording before I signed. “This is the Emperor’s signature, witnessed by Venom Chang and three others?”
“It looks good, Skilled Man. Very good indeed. I have no desire to see the Emperor hop when I say toad.” This time, his smile was more than fleeting. “Unless my advisors find something surprising that I missed, I will gladly sign this agreement. Our best scribe will need to make copies. That will take a day or two. But I’d like you to stay with us a little longer, if you would. The forty girls you brought will be among strangers. Many of them, if not all, must be frightened no matter how brave their front.”
“You want me to help ease their transition until they get to know you weird, alien, inferior subhumans who wish to wish to despoil them?”
“A little too much honesty there, Sora,” I grinned, “but basically, yes.” Leaving Julia and Mace to their reading, the Japanese swordsman and I left the tent. Gwinnie and Pet were surrounded by the newcomers, the lot of them chitter-chattering away. They fell silent when they spotted me, or maybe it was the Skilled Man.
“Hey,” I said. “Who wants to be a Rooster?”