Garrett Polensky brought his five-wagon train of trade goods through Fort 24’s Sentinel Gap in the middle of the season’s first real storm, his mule teams struggling through snow already nearly two feet deep. The young trader tried to act as if he’d never been worried at all, but he wasn’t fooling anybody. Every member of the Council had been worried sick, with one exception fretting over the possible loss of the wagons as much as the men.
Big Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek, the one exception, breathed a huge sigh of relief when the runner apprised him of Polensky’s arrival. Had the overly bold youngster gone missing for good instead of just being late…but he hadn’t. He was here. He’d come through.
“Hnh. I’ll catch up to him at the warehouses,” he told the messenger, “and thanks for letting me know.”
JAKE “GRUNT” SEDLACEK
It didn’t take long to saddle the stud. Slash elected to stay behind. The giant wardog had disappeared for two full days a while back, found himself a lovely bitch somewhere, and brought her home. My traveling buddy had pretty much abandoned me from that point on. Not that I blamed him. Suki was a mighty fine looking gal, mostly German Shepherd but a little taller than most. Puppies expected sometime next month.
Happily, my gunshot hip didn’t bother me at all when I stepped into the saddle. Nor had I limped these past several weeks. Staying home instead of riding the trading trail throughout the summer months had allowed my body to heal, though there was one devil of a dimple in my left buttock that was likely to be with me till the day I died. None of the other Council members realized just how thoroughly my health had improved, but I suspected none of them would be crying when I pulled out next spring, either. I might be a Founder and key Councilman, but we grated on each other’s nerves at times, principally because of the differences in our visions for the future. To a man, the others were isolationists, wanting Fort 24 to stay close and safe within its mountain confines despite the acknowledged need for traders to come and go with goods we couldn’t produce in either Upper or Lower Valley. But I knew better. I was no globalist, Creator perish the term, yet I understood the need to interact with other communities, to truly be both a good neighbor and a profitable trading partner.
Maybe it was my early rodeo years that did it. I didn’t know. But I did know we were going to be left behind if we didn’t pay attention. Left behind both materially and spiritually, like one of those ancient aboriginal tribes that never truly came into the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth.
Then again, maybe it was nothing more than my restless spirit. Winter hadn’t even really showed its teeth yet, and here I was cabin fevered already.
No wonder I rode down to the warehouse district with eager anticipation. Garrett had done my job this year, venturing the long, hard route, all the way to Fort Steel and back. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say, to live through his words the trading season I’d missed.
“Pole” Polensky turned out to me more than happy to see me, too. Three of the Council members were already on his case, glancing impatiently at the treasure trove being unloaded from his wagons while doing everything but curse the young man to his face for declining to answer their endless questions.
“It’s late in the day and I’m exhausted,” he explained politely. “I’ll give my report to the full Council tomorrow, any time you set. Tonight, I couldn’t sensibly string two thoughts together.”
“Makes sense to me,” I put in, my imposing presence–I’d been told many times it was imposing, so I reckon it was–quashing the blatant irritation my peers had been showing. Harvey the Rabbit Man gave me a dirty look but didn’t think I noticed. “I know I’d be bushed if I’d come in through a storm like that.”
Grumbling, Harvey turned on his heel and left, not quite stomping away to where he’d hitched his horse. The other Council members followed. Grinning, Pole winked at me. “Don’t suppose you’d care for a bit of Carla’s famous beef stew, Jake.”
I chuckled, which was safe enough. The malcontents were out of earshot. “You’re telling me your fiancée is going to want an old man hanging around her kitchen table on your first night home?” I knew she wouldn’t mind, though. The girl was a marvel.
“She’s pure politician, bred to the bone.” Polensky shrugged. “And a whole lot of what I learned this trip pertains to politics, both present and future. I’m pretty sure she’d skin me alive if I didn’t give you the lowdown ahead of your, shall we say, esteemed colleagues.”
He had a point. Especially when he used the word esteemed. Carla Castrioni–likely to be Carla Polensky before spring thaw or I missed my guess–got steamed every time the subject of Council foot-draggers came up. In truth, she considered every Council member but me to be a steaming pile of–“Be glad to. Care to have me double check your inventory tallies in the meantime?” My offer wasn’t one bit altruistic. It would save time, and besides, I’d get a chance to memorize the trade goods he’d brought.
Which, as I soon found out, were substantial. Mostly bar stock and finished steel products form Fort Steel itself. Iron pipe in three different diameters. A full dozen “new and improved” shoot guns guaranteed to produce twelve inch groups at two hundred yards, lousy accuracy for a Before rifle but unheard of, pinpoint practically, in After production firearms. Kegs and kegs of nails, bolts, and screws. Strap iron in several widths and thicknesses. Three new hand drills with ultra-hardened bit sets for easier hole-making. Sheet metal for stovepipes. One new-design cast iron stove guaranteed to heat a house better on less wood, complete with upper cooking surface–that one was sure to set off a bidding war before it found its new home. A variety of hammers, wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers. Half a dozen brace-and-bit sets for drilling holes in wood. Two thousand rounds of ammunition. And, much lighter by volume but filling half of the last wagon….
“Apples? Wherever did you come up with apples?” I racked my memory, trying to remember what they used to call these green versions…Granny Smith. Great for, oh my overeager taste buds, pies. Or just plain eating. I grabbed a particularly tempting specimen and bit into it. Still crisp and juicy. I moaned in ecstasy.
Garrett grinned ear to ear. “Tasty, aren’t they? Believe it or not, these came from a grove gone back to the wild. So far, nobody but us knows. We were headed for Fort Steel, almost there, when Johnny’s wagon broke down near Trickle Creek. Busted an axle. Took us two days to search out a workable piece of wood, then of course we had to shape it and swap it out. In the meantime, Ningles thought he ought to go hunting for fresh meat. Ninny’s a lazy son of a buck, always looking for a way out of work, but he usually finds game if there’s any to find, so I okayed his foray. He was gone most of that first day, never killed so much as a jack rabbit, but darned if he didn’t stumble onto an old apple orchard about three miles upstream from the crossing. Tumbledown buildings there, too, from Before. He brought back twenty pounds of these apples. We all pigged out, spend most of day two with the trots, but by the time the wagon was repaired, I’d decided Ninny had found us a gold mine. Especially since trading hadn’t gone so good. We were heading into Steel with far too few items the Steelers were likely to want.
“Biggest problem was hiding our tracks. We didn’t want anybody else following our left-behinds to the grove. Had to walk right up the creek, pick apples, fill our packs, and walk back down the same way. Mighty wet proposition, but nobody complained. Not even Ninny. By sunset, we’d filled one entire wagon with apples, top to bottom, stem to stern.
“Fort Steel went nuts. They tried everything they could think of to find out where we’d gotten the apples, but none of us were born yesterday despite my baby face. Weasel did what he could, but his people kept gathering around, pushing verbally, bumping the price up. Which is how we ended up skinning Weasel alive in the trade, getting all this good iron and making our summer a blazing success.” He stopped to take a breath, enjoying my rapt attention. The lad knew how to tell a story, for sure. “You’d briefed me well on ol’ Weasel, so we were watching for shadows when we left. Sure enough, three hours out from Steel, we picked up on the men following us. Three of them, thinking they were sly. But those open-country folks are no match for mountain bred men, I can tell you that. Took us three days of steady traveling before they gave up. Ninny trailed them all the way back to that last open run to the Fort, then reported back to us. We reversed course, back to Trickle Creek, just one day away from Steel. Pretty well stripped the grove of every apple that wasn’t bruised and then headed home as fast as the wheels would turn.”
I rubbed my chin, thinking. “You done good, son.” Not that he was my son in the biological sense, but Garrett Polensky had always listened when I told him things. That counts. “No trouble with raiders?”
“Nary a sign,” he admitted. “Not even a glimpse of the Locust Pack, either. Biggest excitement we had all summer was finding that grove and then taking advantage of the folks at Fort Steel. But I got a lot of news, and I reckon you’d just as soon hear it first, before the rest of those so called Fort government types.”
He was right, and I was properly amazed. The Gathering on the Roil, saved twice by none other than Michael Jade but going strong now. The Badge, also refugees from the East, unbelievably bridging Wild River and taking possession of the fabled, hitherto inaccessible Wild River Valley. The MAP now consisting of five separate communities. King Arthur gone–courtesy of Michael’s .358 Winchester, no less–and his female successor wiped out by living rocks. Pole had even ridden all the way up to the Roost to confer and trade with Michael, leaving his men and wagons camped at the edge of the timber while he made contact. A lone rider from the Badge, a scout named Stirk, had caught up to the traders when they were on their way home, acquiring a few bushels of apples and adding his support to Michael Jade’s request for an all-in MAP Rendezvous during July’s new moon.
Of course I would have to go. Heck, I couldn’t wait to go. Randy McGee, acknowledged leader of the Gathering on the Roil, sounded like one helluva man. Moss Feldman was reportedly even older than me; we’d have a lot in common and I simply had to meet the man who’d conquered the Wild River gorge. Besides, between Feldman and Jade, the great raider gangs were destroyed, likely never to rise again. Civilization had come to the territory. Even the little man known as Weasel would be interesting; how would he handle coming face to face with the man who’d knife-sliced his hamstring, right there on Trickle Creek, not really so very long ago? Granshako. And Jess. I really, really missed my foster daughter.
Something told me Slash wouldn’t be going with me, though. He was a family dog now. Besides, his age was showing more than mine was, his muzzle starting to turn white and his gait a little stiff. Let him stay home and daddy his lady’s puppies. One of my sons would be willing to care for him and his woman while I was gone, especially if I gave them one of the puppies first.
Those were the personal considerations.
When it came to social responsibility, Fort 24 simply had to be represented, and there was no one else but me to take the lead on that. There were a hundred different topics for discussion that might come up; no one else could be trusted to approach them with a level head and the gravitas to make the MAP decisions stick when he got back home. It would be good to have at least one other Council member with me, though, and I had one in mind. Captain Overland of the Sentinels. Orville commanded our military arm, he was rock-steady under pressure, and wonder of wonders, we actually liked each other. So…who else? The meeting would take place on Gathering turf, a piece of river bottom well south of where they currently had their fields and pastures, but it was a sure bet nobody would send a delegation of less than ten Souls. Marshal Bledsoe…could I get him to go? The man was no adventurer, but he did take his law enforcement duties seriously. We would see. Who else?
Ah. Of course. A handful of Gundersons. But could I tempt them away? They’d have to be gone during the first few weeks of haying season. Maybe have to hire less competent help.
I had my winter work cut out for me. Especially in the think-and-write-it-down category. Red Horse’s band of Native Americans, for instance. Tiny in number, they still couldn’t be ignored. Nomads at heart despite wintering every year near us now, they’d already made it clear they had no intention of locking themselves into something like the MAP treaty. Couldn’t blame them; treaties had never treated their people well. Once he fully understood just how fast the country was filling up–shades of the 19th century Bozeman Trail–Red Horse was going to be mightily alarmed. Their wanderings this summer hadn’t taken them far enough north to encounter either the Gathering or the Badge, but…I would have to make sure the Rendezvous decisions included rights in perpetuity for the First People, along with some sort of open ended provision allowing but not requiring their few warriors to fight at our side during time of war with foreign invaders. And to accomplish that, I’d need to persuade the Chief himself to attend the Rendezvous with the Fort 24 contingent. Not an easy task, I suspected, but I did have one ace up my sleeve. Michael Jade and Granshako would both be there.
That would have to be the lure, pointing out to my friend that his tribe’s finest warrior and the one white man he respected even more than he did me…well, they were not likely to allow the Natives to be shafted, any more than I would. Not likely at all.
Much to do, much to do. Why did that make my heart beat faster? My senses were suddenly sharper. I could smell the snow, feel the brisk air caressing my bearded cheek, see the little cottontail rabbit browsing low brush near the tree line. Not even Slash had spotted that bunny yet.
Guess I wasn’t dead yet.