The Way it is.
©2006, Glen Frey
This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Glen Frey in 2006, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
Early June of Change Year Eleven
Just off Old Highway 204; somewhere between Weston and the Blues, at the north edge of the Old Umatilla Reservation
Why horses and mules let us do what we do with them is kind of a mystery to me, I mean, they’re a bunch bigger than we are and yet we can make’em do all kinds of things they’d probably rather not do, and then we make’em go places they’d not go on their own. Take now for example: It’s hotter’n the hubs of Hell, we’re a long way from decent food and water, and we’re really beat. Oh, when I say “all” I mean my Buckskin, Max and my two mules, Sarah and Jack. Anyway, here we are, right out in the blistering heat of a high summer day in eastern Oregon. I stretched, arched my back to work out some of the kinks, adjusted the katana so that it hung better on my back and then took a look around the sere landscape while my four legged compatriots swished their tails and did other things connected with fly removal.
I sit here, feeling the heat pound into me and watch it rise in waves from the broad stretch of tawny grass and dry shrub, gradually being lulled by the simple sounds of the big empty… then it’s all back… Change Night… heat rising in waves as the flames from the burning 747 destroy my family, all the confusion, anguish and fear as society begins to come apart, people becoming more desperate with each passing day, finally turning to violence as the basic act of staying alive becomes their driving force.
As I came to understand the nature of the catastrophe that had come upon us I became more and more angry. A kind of insanity took control of my mind as rage began to consume me… for a while all I could think of was Maggie and the little ones, and how they’d been ripped from me. Part of it was probably guilt because I’d not been there with them but whatever the reasons were I became someone else, someone other than the guy who’d taught History for most of his adult life and read fairy tales to his children. Even now, whenever the blade work gets really hard, a wave of rage and grief surges up in my head and I scream Maggie’s name as my sword reaches out for human life. I dunno, maybe that’s my way of striking back at whatever or whoever did this to us. I don’t think about why much, everything just is.
My “is” since the Change usually involves staying alive — just surviving. Most of the time I’m not sure why I bother, but I guess that something in me wants to keep drawing breath so that I can deal out one more hurt, one more shot at whoever did us. Maybe, subconsciously, I hope to have a crack at the perp… up close and personal… yeah, that’s a sweet thought, one that I hug close so that it stays warm up next to my heart.
Well, to make a long story short, in order to have a shot at anyone you’ve got to be alive and it was rapidly becoming obvious that to be alive in Portland you needed to be of some use to the Protector. Not wanting to go Ronin in the countryside I went for a merc in order to earn a living. My swords pretty much guaranteed me an “audition” and I wound up swearing fealty to Conrad Renfrew, guy who later became the Count of Odell… the guy I auditioned with didn’t — swear fealty, or anything else.
Working for Odell, and, by proxy, the Lord Protector of Portland, was pretty much a story of bright steel, blood, and sneaking about; with running like hell as a reserve option. It kind of gave a whole new dimension to the expression: “… living life on the edge.”
Being on the cutting edge mostly meant that I became a kind of “general utility” trooper, since they didn’t have a lot of neo-Samurai around and probably couldn’t have figured out how to fit us into the Norman scheme of things even if they had. (Oh yeah, Mr. Bughouse of the Lidless Eye had decided that the world of William Red Beard was just the ticket for the new here and now.) Still, governments make policy, policy is built on information, and they needed guys like me to go out and get the information.
Information became my middle name. Doing sneak and peek ops was pretty much the story for me, right from the first year of the Change clear up to September fourth, 2008 in Change Year Ten. I spent a lot of time on the borders of our so-called Protectorate, keeping an eye on people who didn’t like Herr Nutso. That meant quite a bit of contact with the Red Witch’s Clan, running from or chasing cavalry scouts sent out by the Bear Lord, or keeping a close eye on the little farming and range lords and the ’skins out east toward the Blues.
During that time I found that I was really good at the whole horse thing, pretty good at sneaking about or laying in wait, and damn good at “slicing and dicing” other folks. I’ll do hard penance for a lot of what I did one of these days, particularly if the “Bible Thumpers” have got it right. One thing though, if the “Thumpers” are right at least I’ll get a chance to see Maggie and the girls again. ’Course the down side will be explaining all that I did to stay alive… not looking forward to that. Maybe she’ll buy the whole “crazy with grief” plea, since it’s mostly true. Anyway, that’s pretty much the short version of my story, at least down to the stubble field with the rather romantic sounding name.
With both armies arrayed on the “Field of the Cloth of Gold” I watched as the Bear Lord met the Protector in single combat By then I’d become pretty hard and part of me thought the Bear Man was stupid to risk everything he had on a chance roll of the bones but another part admired the ballsy nature of the challenge… something I was pretty sure Doctor Sadismo would never have chanced.
By the end of the day, with both men gone, those among us that were of a more contemplative bent quickly realized that the good ship Politics would soon have a new captain… which could well mean a change in course. A new course raised the vision of a different port at the end of the voyage with a whole lot of potential opportunities to be exploited.
I gave the range of possibilities considerable thought, took a good look at the pool of available leadership, and decided that since I’d pledged myself to Odell and he decided to stick with Sandra ( who was really scary smart) that I was better off holding to my pledge of allegiance. Besides, I’ve got this silly sense of honor which interferes with my common sense a lot. Generally, the rest of the Count’s vassals fell in line behind him and those who didn’t soon found that life’s contractual obligations could be terminated.
With support secure, the Count quickly moved to implement long arranged plans to eliminate potential opposition to Sandra’s regency. In what I still privately refer to as The Night of Red Steel, a good many of the old time Gangbangers who made up the Association’s nobility were betrayed by a short circuit in their street smarts and paid the price for congenital stupidity. Unfortunately for them the currency being accepted had a definite red color, usually followed by temporal bankruptcy. By September fifth those of the Association gathered on the field were aware that a new order was in the making and no few of us pondered our place in the scheme of things. As there were a number of vacancies among the vassals, due to a run of bad luck or a significant lack of judgment, many of us sensed a change in the winds of fortune. So it proved. Many new knights and barons were appointed over the succeeding months. Would you believe that they offered me a knighthood and a manor to support it, all for my staunch service on behalf of the Lady Sandra and her daughter?
I nearly took it, but any permanent place without Maggie wouldn’t have been a home. Once again, my old demons were shoving me out the door, urging me over the horizon for one more whack at… whoever. The Count seemed to understand, once I explained why I was turning him down. I suspect that it was because he was a pretty strong family man himself and could identify with how I felt, though the whole business was a long ten years gone. Even so, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe: “…you can’t go home again.”
So, instead of building a home I hung around Odell through the winter. Then after Change Day, when spring began to creep in, I took Max, a couple of good pack mules that I named Sarah and Jack, and decided to head out… across the Hood, east up the Columbia, across the Snake and on out into the No-Man’s Land beyond Pendleton and up across the Blues. Out where it cooked you in the summer, froze you in the winter, and came at you with the desperate and dispossessed… all the wild wolves, both human and animal, that nature could throw at you.
I stepped aboard Max and we were about ready to head out the gate when the Count came to say goodbye. Standing next to my stirrup he looked up: “Charley, I don’t expect to see you again… you’ve got too many monkeys riding on your back, but if you do return we can always use you… just to train the little pukes if nothing else. I’ll keep the offer open in case you change your mind. Oh, one other thing. Make good notes while you’re out there. I keep on hearing things about Idaho and Nevada and we could use some hard Intel. I’ve got other people over in that direction so it doesn’t all rest with you but we can use whatever you get… if you survive to give it to us.” With that he reached up and shook my hand, then turned and went back to helping run a kingdom. Max and I turned and went away through the gate, on out into tomorrow.
❀ ❁ ❀
A snort from Max brought me back to the Land of Now. He had his head up, ears forward and nostrils flared. Giving another snort he turned his head to the right and stared off toward what could be the edge of a ravine, maybe four hundred yards, or more, away. My senses went to full alert as I scanned the ground he was eyeballing… nothing: “Max, you’re sensing phantoms.” Then they were there — three riders materializing, as might a sorcerer’s sending, their images distorted, seeming to float on the shimmering waves of hot air rising from the parched ground. “Well Max, looks like you were right. We got company and I’m bettin’ they ain’t friendly… not out here anyway.”
I stepped down off Max, let his reins trail on the ground so he’d stand, and walked back to Sarah and Jack. “Listen you two, I’m gonna unhook you, so that you can try a run for it in case this goes wrong. That way you might not get hurt. If they catch you, don’t make it easy for’em. Okay? If you two go into panic mode it’ll annoy them no end and I like that idea a lot.” I smiled at the vision of these guys trying to handle two panic stricken and cantankerous mules. The way I see it, any little shot like that’s a good thing, even if I’m not around to enjoy it. Then I remembered a cartoon that had been on the wall of my old barbershop, and I couldn’t help but chuckle: It had shown a stork swallowing a frog, and the frog, halfway down the stork’s gullet, was trying to choke the stork to death. Yeah, I thought, anyway you slice it, that attitude’s a good one to have in this new “fuck your buddy” world.
After slapping the mules on the rump to get them moving a little I walked back and got up on Max. Reaching into one of the kit bags slung over the pommel, I dug out my binoculars and focused in for a closer look at the riders. These guys were on the unidentified list as far as looks go, but out here that didn’t mean much. They could be anyone, from rovers strayed too far west to mercs out of Pendleton hired out to scout for the Eye. They could even be beaten and desperate ’Skin holdouts, trying for one more crack at the Eye before they went to whatever hereafter waited for them. This starved and burned out country turned out people who were willing to do about anything to make life just that one small scintilla’s worth of better.
Whoever they were, there were a couple of lancers and one with what looked to be a crossbow slung over his back. Putting my binoculars away I reached behind the cantle, took the cover off my bow scabbard, and drew out a short Bearkiller style cavalry bow. I braced the tip of the bow on the flap with the curve against my leg and quickly bent it, moving the string up as I did. For a moment I stared at the bow, remembering the day I got it. I’d been picking up intel down south and she’d been out scouting for Lord Havel… a pretty girl until she met me… never saw what hit her. ’Should have been home getting ready for her Senior Prom. Damn the change… damn, damn, damn!
Yeah, damnation indeed and now more of the same old shit… probably. Reaching back next to the bow scabbard I uncovered the quiver that was strapped there and withdrew an arrow with a willow leaf point. It was one of a medieval Japanese design that I’d had made up by a smith in Odell. Maybe a bit heavy in the point but very useful for punching through hard stuff, like armor, shields, bone, all that. Besides, I didn’t plan on long-range shots. That kind of silliness was for Hollywood and I sure as hell wasn’t Errol Flynn. I could have been a purist and had a bowyer build a Japanese style bow as well but the darn things are just too awkward from horseback, besides, they really don’t have the hitting power of the jazzy little recurves that the BKs use.
Nocking the arrow, I sat there, Max and I both focusing on what was quite likely a fight in the making. The riders rode to within about a hundred yards, pulled their horses to a stop, and looked us over. I could pretty well read their thoughts, seeing the packs heavy with gear, with me as the only barrier between them and a small treasure trove of goodies that could be turned into a slightly better life for them and theirs. Since the peace the writ of the Eye doesn’t extend this far, and so for all practical purposes there’s no law except what can be enforced with a strong right arm and a sharp edge.
It looked like they knew edge law as well as I did because two of them unshipped their lances, leveled them and kicked their horses into a trot, which built rapidly to a gallop. Meanwhile, the remaining member of the trio raised a heavy crossbow and began to maneuver toward us for a shot, keeping somewhat back from the other two as he did so.
I waited until they’d closed to within reasonable bow shot, then I gave Max the signal with my knee and he took off to the right, moving with the speed and precision of a fresh horse. At the same time I drew and turned in the saddle, tracking the lancers. As they turned to the left in pursuit, the left-hand horse presented a broadside target. With little conscious thought I loosed the arrow. Hardly feeling the vicious slap of the string against my bracer I reached back for another arrow, nocked it and turned in the saddle, drawing for another shot. What I saw then caused my pulse to leap: As the three horsemen had turned left in pursuit it looked like my first arrow had struck the left hand horse in the right shoulder. Screaming in pain the horse had fallen off to the right and slammed into the left side of the other lancer. Just as I turned for another shot, both horses had gone down, creating a tumbling tangle of horse and human wrapped in a cloud of yellow dust. Out of the cloud of dust rode the third rider, crossbow up and rising in the stirrups for his turn at making it hard for me to breath.
When I saw the bowman come out of the dust, I signaled Max to stop and shifted my point of aim toward the sweet spot at the base of the horse’s neck. I narrowed my concentration until everything went away save the arrow and the target. Focus, focus, be one with it… now!
Released, the willow leaf flashed across the rapidly closing gap, burying itself to the feathers as the steel head of the shaft destroyed the animal’s heart. In a small fraction of time, the bowman’s steed went from being a creature of strength and grace to an awkward, loose limbed thing of dead flesh and bone. As life fled, momentum propelled it forward into a half somersault; then to fall on it’s back, raising an explosion of dust. The archer flew through the air; over the head of the horse as it went down, struck the hard baked ground headfirst, crumpled, flipped over once and lay still.
Glancing toward the other two riders, I saw that no one was up and moving except for one pretty dazed horse. With that, I put my bow in the scabbard, drew my katana, and turned my attention back to what was left of the nearest rider. Reining Max around we walked the few feet that separated us from the man who had just done his level best to kill me. Looking down from Max’s back I was quick to pick up on the idea that the guy was no longer a problem. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that his neck was cocked at an angle that was impossible to achieve if his spine was still in one piece. That, plus the fact that his eyes were wide open and staring at me through a veil of dust and grit without blinking, gave me to believe that he was definitely of the corpse persuasion. With the realization that I needn’t worry about the guy anymore Max and I walked on over to what was left of the other two.
Reaching the mound of ruined flesh, I dismounted, dropped the reins to the ground and carefully approached the tangle of limbs. The horse part of it still moved, now and then struggling to rise and falling back, often screaming in pain. The human portion of the pile was quite still, with that rather definite quality that said neither would be in the moving business again… either that or they were damned good actors.
Once more I looked at the horse, finally deciding that it couldn’t get up because my arrow had busted its shoulder. The narrow willow leaf point had struck hard and gone deep… a shot that had luck riding with it all the way. That was twice today that Lady Luck had been on my side and I kind of figured that I’d about used up a months’ ration in one go. I sure as hell hoped I wouldn’t need any more for a while.
Well, I couldn’t let the horse suffer. Sheathing the katana, I reached down into my boot, pulled out my tanto, and walked over behind the animal, coming up on his head at an angle that prevented his seeing me. I quickly reached over and cut the great artery, the razor edge slicing through the muscle as if it were nothing more than wet tissue paper. Immediately I stepped back, barely missing a head butt as the horse lunged. It struggled for another two or three minutes as it’s blood pulsed out onto the ground. Finally it quieted and lay there, feeling the life leave it’s body.
Being forced to associate with humans is hard on animals, especially horses. We’re always taking them into situations that are likely to get them killed and it bothers me a lot more than taking out the schmuck that’s on his back… the clown up on top made the decision to be there, the horse didn’t.
At the end, feeling bad about the deal, I involuntarily reached down, stroked his neck and surprised myself by saying, “Forgive me, child of the wind…”
At that a breeze sprang up, and a small dust devil materialized and went dancing off across the grass. Shocked, I stood there and shivered, a chill racing up my spine. I wasn’t used to an immediate response from the spirit world. Hell, you never know, that’s a part of living that we’ve never pinned down. If we can be hit by all the weird physics of the Change, anything is possible.
Finally, I shrugged off the eerie business and went back to checking out the two dead guys. My first read had been on the money for one, with flies already crawling across unblinking eyes. The other guy was alive, every now and then sucking air with a harsh rasping sound, eyes closed, probably unable to move. Still, it pays to be cautious, especially since he’d been doing his absolute best to shove me off this raggedy assed mortal coil.
With that thought I wiped down my tanto, put it back in my boot sheath, and once again drew the katana. Reaching out, I placed the tip of the sword against the man’s neck. At the touch of cold steel his eyes flicked open. Slowly turning his head to bring me into view, he stared for a bit: “I’ve seen you before… ” Here he stropped, coughed, then said: “It don’t matter… ’m all stove up inside, hurts too much to move. Jus’ make it quick.” Drawing a long hoarse breath he added: “You were lucky, ’s all… dog meat otherwise. Fucking Change… glad to be out of it… ” Taking another deep, painful breath he added: “Okay, let’s do it.”
I didn’t see a lot of reason to say much, so I parked the long sword, reached down and drew the tanto, then stepped over and looked him in the eye: “Nice speech, too bad you’re such an asshole.” With that I sent him on his way. Spasmodically his shoulders and neck arched up as the blood poured out, then, as he lost muscle control, his bowels failed and the odor of violent death filled the air. Unbidden, the thought rose up: “Blood and shit, I’ve smelled that mixed together at least once a month for the last eleven years. That’s all we’re about now, blood and shit. Damn, what a way to live.” Once more wiping down the tanto I returned it to my boot and turned to consider the dazed horse.
It was an Appaloosa, well marked with a solid reddish brown on the hindquarters and a typical white and red pattern on the shoulders, forelegs, and head. If it were sound, a little rest and care would make it a beautiful animal. Right now though it was a long way from looking good. It stood, head down, covered in dust, with broken reins dragging on the ground and several little cuts and skinned places on its hide. Stepping easy I walked over to the animal. Taking the reins in my left hand I slowly stroked the long graceful neck with the right. The horse rolled it’s eye and snorted a bit but was too shaken to do much of anything else — even with the smell of blood in the air. The light saddle on it’s back had taken a beating in the collision and had slipped to one side. In order to reassure him, I kept up a running commentary as I gave him a onceover without finding any serious injury. Then I tugged gently on the reins and slowly walked him in a circle, watching closely for any sign of damage that hadn’t shown up in the earlier inspection. Once again, Fortuna smiled. He didn’t show anything that couldn’t be fixed with a little rest and care. I sure was gonna owe Ms. Luck a big favor one of these days.
Finishing the inspection I walked the new horse over to Max and let them get acquainted while I took the busted saddle off and dropped it on the ground. After that I climbed up on Max and, new horse at lead, we headed back to find Jack and Sarah.
We found the mules without much trouble and I quickly hooked them to lead behind the new horse, gave all the animals a drink from the rapidly dwindling water supply, and then headed the weary creatures back to the scene of combat.
Once there I got down off Max, quickly searched the dead guys and then went through the gear on the horses. Oddly, they weren’t packing much. That germ of thought quickly grew into a full blown attack of apprehension as I stood and took in what they weren’t carrying… no food, little water, and no field gear. Where was their pack train? Shit, shit, shit! Where was their camp? How many were there?
In short order I made a bundle of the modified ’shetes they were carrying and strapped them to Jack’s pack. A quick inventory of what I found on the terrible trio left me in possession of a fair selection of hunting knives, folding knives, one good old-fashioned wind up pocket watch, and a few of the new coins that were being circulated.
Anyway, at the moment my chief worry was putting as much distance as possible between me and whoever might be with these people. I got back up on Max and we were about to beat feet when all four of them raised their heads, ears forward and nostrils flared. Right then I noticed that a hint of smoke was creeping in on the slight breeze that was blowing from the direction these guys had come. Riding on the smoke was a hint of meat gone bad, which was a nice addition to the party aroma that the dead were giving off here. Max and the others must have sensed something else as well because about that time all four cut loose with the vocals their kind use when greeting others of their sort.
That tore it! I might have been able to get by with the noise made by Max and his new buddy but my recent fan club hadn’t had any mules, and that unique sound wasn’t likely to go unnoticed by whoever was down by the fire. Then I thought more about the smell of rotting meat and paused to consider the situation. These guys might be all there was and had simply been out for a short look-see. Maybe whoever else was there wasn’t able to do anything except stink? Then I looked at my traveling companions and that was the clincher. They were all just about done in. They needed food, water and a couple days rest. Hell, I wasn’t feeling real spiffy myself. We were in no shape for another fight or a long run either. With that I decided that I’d roll the dice once more and find out if Lady Luck was still looking over my shoulder. If I wasn’t going to make the point I wanted to find out now, I hate waiting around. Decision made, I got Max on the move and the five of us headed toward the smoke.
Reaching the edge of a broad, shallow gully, we stopped and looked down slope. I once again took out my binoculars and dialed in, taking a closer look at what we faced. From where we stood on the edge of the flat, the eroded area widened as it angled east down into a wet weather creek. At the lower end, near where the gully joined the creek bed, it went across a small bit of bottom that had been created by high water over the years. From there it opened out into the gravel of the wash which headed south and disappeared off into the distance.
Near the mouth of the gully was a swale which promised water. The small patch of green was partially encompassed by a cluster of tents, and off to one side was a small two wheeled cart and a couple of stacks of gear and other camp items. A bit further away was a small herd of horses, mostly bays, roans and sorrels… That was the crowd that Max and the gang had greeted. The smoke we’d smelled was coming from a small fire in front of the tents while off down in the wash, considerably to the south, a flock of carrion birds rose and fell in the air. That was likely where the rotten meat smell came from. It was also probably why there was so little security around the camp. They likely felt they didn’t need any… anymore.
I didn’t see anyone up and about on my first pass, however, as I moved the glasses back over the camp for a second look a man came out of one of the tents. As I watched, he straightened, raised his arms and stretched, then stood with his hands on his hips and looked about the camp. Finally, he went over near the fire and began to busy himself with prepping supper.
I sat for a good while, watching him as he worked, and waited to see if any other folks would put in an appearance. I was also wondering how this clown had managed to survive out here in the land of cheap life. I mean, here I am, riding a horse and leading three more critters of the equine persuasion. We were only about three hundred yards off and we’d already knocked on the door in no uncertain manner. There was practically no cover of any sort and yet this character couldn’t see us. He was either real stupid or very distracted.
Seeing no sign that Mr. Oblivious had any company I got Max moving and our little quintet headed on down to say hello. Even though we didn’t make any attempt to be sneaky the guy fixing supper didn’t twig until we were about a hundred yards away, then he tried to make up for his lack of survival skills in one go: At last sensing something, he looked up, dropped the skillet as shock temporarily hit him with an attack of nerves, and then he rushed for the tent he’d come out of… stumbling and nearly falling as he did so.
Signaling Max to move on in I reached back and pulled out the saddle bow, then took an arrow out of the quiver and nocked it. We were within about fifty yards by the time the guy came running out, all ready to go, with a ’shete in his right hand and a targ on his left arm, face shadowed by a broad brimmed hat. Just as he straightened and turned to face me, targ up, I yelled at him: “Don’t be stupid. You haven’t got a chance in Hell of taking me, not on the ground like that. The rest are dead, you got no help comin’.” About then the Appaloosa registered on him and he stopped… looking stunned.
Then he looked back at me, saying, “That’s the horse Dad was riding.” As the implication of that hit home his face convulsed, and raising the targ to a defensive position he held the ’shete up over his head and came at us in a dead run… a charge I suppose. I had the bow ready and quickly raised it, drew and released. I’d hardly had time to feel the string slap my bracer before the willow leaf point punched it’s way through the steel face of the little shield and destroyed the ’shete wielder’s arm. The chunk-pop of the strike was followed by a scream that shifted from pain to rage as he came on, shield up-busted arm and all.
I tracked him as he ran and when he raised the ’shete for a strike I shot again. This time the arrow took him in the left eye and came out the back of his head in a spray of blood, bone and gray matter. Flipping backwards he hit the ground, twitched and flopped a while, then quit doing anything. I sat, another arrow nocked, waiting for someone else to put in an appearance.
When it stayed quiet I put away the bow, I shifted my shoulders until the leather covered sword scabbard rode easily, and climbed down off Max.
Walking over to the other dead guy’s dead kid I took a look at what was left of his face. Jesus, he barely raised a crop of peach fuzz! Well, well, people make adult decisions at a much younger age these days. It always bothers me a bit because zapping kids just wasn’t something I ever expected to be doing. Shaking it off I took a slow scan of the area, then decided that I might as well get on about my business.
I took one last look at the kid, shook my head at the crappy hand that the game of life deals out, and began stripping the saddle, packs and other gear off the gang and tossing it on the ground. Leaving the halters on I led them over to the little seep and found that someone had dug a fairly large hole, which was now full of water. Since it was large enough, I let everyone have a drink while I gave them a rubdown. When they’d finished solving the water shortage I hobbled the crew and took off their halters.
After treating myself to a long drink I drew my katana and went to check out the tents. I found nothing in the first two beyond the usual jumble of personal stuff and trail gear. Walking over to the third, I used the point of the katana to flip the entrance flap to one side and looked in: In the back, gagged, bound and stark naked, was a woman. Right then I knew my life was about to become a whole lot more complicated!
❀ ❁ ❀
As I came in she raised her head and glared defiance out of one intense blue eye. The other was probably blue as well but it was hard to tell since she’d been slugged pretty good. It was swollen nearly shut and had assumed the color of a ripe plum shot through with splotches of yellow. Her normal skin tones were likely something on the order of a light, slightly reddish brown. I couldn’t tell there either since it was sort of obscured by a layer of dirt interspersed with a lot of bruises. Her dark auburn hair looked like it would normally have hung down her back in a braid but today it was in wild disarray, making her look like a theatrical madwoman, framing her face in dirt encrusted tangles. Where she was tied the cord had bitten deeply into her flesh and the gag was tight enough to have caused raw places to appear at the corners of her mouth. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what had gone on here — the place reeked of sex and stale body odor.
Without much thought I put away the katana, pulled out the tanto, batted aside the hands that the woman raised in alarm, and told her, “I’m just gonna cut the gag loose, don’t go into panic mode.” With that I carefully slid the blade up under the edge of the gag, slicing it neatly in two. “Easy, your mouth’ll be stiff and sore.” Then I sat back on my heels and watched while she worked her jaw and tongue.
Licking her lips she held up her hands, asking in a hoarse, raspy voice, “What about my hands and feet?” Hesitating for a moment, I finally shrugged and cut her loose. I didn’t figure that she’d be much of a problem for a few hours anyway. If the need arose there were other ways to solve any problem that she might cause.
As her ankle bonds fell away I told her, “They’re gonna hurt for a while. Just massage and flex them a bit and wait for circulation to come back. Don’t try to handle much of anything ’cause they’ll be numb. Also, don’t give me any trouble. If I have to I’ll tie you up again. I don’t need anymore problems than the ones I just solved.”
For a second her face went blank while she considered what I’d said and then, as realization hit, “… solved? You mean they’re dead?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, four of ’em, anyway. I got real lucky. Happens that way sometimes… not often, but every now and then. Today was just their turn. This time they rolled the dice and shot craps.” Then, motivated by a belated afterthought, I asked, “Is four all there are?”
Answering, she said, “It’s all I ever saw. They said something about burying some others but I don’t know how many.” Pausing, she gave me a long considering look, then, licking her lips again, she asked, “Got any water? Been a while since I had any.”
“Sure,” I said.
When I came back, she’d covered herself with a blanket and was sitting, knees drawn up, hands clasped around her shins and her head down on her knees. For a second or two I looked at her and then I tossed her the canteen and hunkered down, resting on my heels while she took cautious little sips of water, her puffy lips making the process touchy. When she finished, she capped the canteen, her numb hands making it difficult. Then she made to hand it to me. “Keep it,” I said, “there’s more outside and you’ll need it for later.”
With that she gave a little shrug, winced, put her head back down on her knees, then asked, “Okay, what now?”
“Well,” I responded, “for starters I need to make sure all the animals are okay, then I’ll see about rustling up some chow. After that we need to have a talk. Until then, why don’t you get some rest… sleep if you can.” Privately, I imagined that she’d have trouble sleeping right now… bad dreams and what not. Trauma tends to do that. Even now, I still wake up in a cold sweat once in a while as I re-live Change night.
When I stepped out of the tent, ’ol Sol was about to close his show and the curtain was ready to rise on Lady Night’s production. By the time I’d finished checking my animals, spread out my bedroll by the fire and fixed a basic meal of dried fruit, jerky and hardtack, it was well dark. Not wanting to mess with the dead guy’s dead kid right then, I’d covered him with a blanket, lit a candle lantern I’d found in one of the tents, and took a bite to eat into Ms. Beaten and Abused.
The lady in question was stretched out on the bedroll, another blanket added to the one she’d had before, head pillowed on one more blanket rolled up. When she saw me come through the entrance, her hand tightened briefly on something under the blankets and then she visibly forced herself to relax. Not saying anything I went over and knelt next to her, though I noticed that a bowie was missing from a belt that hung on the center post.
Without looking at me she rasped out, “This was hard… ’bout as hard as what happened after the Change. …took me years to get over that. Now I’ve got to do it all over again. Every time I close my eyes it’s all back… all the hurt and pain, not just what happened here, but for the last eleven years.” She shuddered, then added, “Jesus, I just don’t know if I can handle it.”
“Well,” I said, “for you the first step on that road is to sit up and have a bite to eat. I know it sounds corny but it really helps. You’re exhausted and in a lot of pain. Food helps with the exhaustion and I’ve got something for later that ought to help with the pain. Then I think you’ll be able to get some sleep, at least for a while.”
For a couple minutes she stared up at me, then she nodded and tried to sit up. When she moaned a little and bit her lip I quickly reached out to help her but as soon as I touched her she flinched, “Don’t! Just let me handle it. I don’t think I can bear being touched right now.” With that she gathered herself and made it into a sitting position, drew her knees up and rested her forehead on them. After a few minutes she said, “Okay, let’s see what’s on the menu.” This was followed by about ten minutes worth of concentrated chewing and swallowing as she forced herself to eat. Finishing, she gave a soft kind of phlegmy chuckle and said, in a stronger voice, “I remember how expensive dried foods were back in the day. Now they’re an ordinary part of everyday life and we call it desecrated desiccation. On the whole though it wasn’t bad. Pretty creative actually, making a kind of stew out of the stuff. For a trail cook you’re okay.” At that, I gave her points for toughness. Not many women, or men for that matter, could go through the abuse that she’s taken and still be able to crack wise.
She followed the observation with a swig from the canteen, then said, “Okay, you wanted to talk, let’s talk. Since it looks like you’ve adopted me I guess you’ve got a right to some information. One thing though, it’s a two way street… can you handle that?”
I shrugged and said, “Sure, why not. It’s not like I’ve got a lot of deep dark secrets to hide.” Actually, I probably did have a couple, given my past associations, but they weren’t germane to this, at least not right now. “You want to draw straws to see who goes first, or should I just start in with the questions?”
“You go,” she said, and drew up her knees and put her cheek down on them, keeping her one good eye firmly fixed on me.
“For starters, what happened here?” I asked.
“Don’t know for sure,” she replied, keeping her head down. “We had one guard out and the rest of us were asleep. I woke up when someone screamed. The guy in the tent with me, John Yellow Horse, grabbed his bowie, jumped up and ran outside. I grabbed a ’shete, and had just stepped out when someone turned the lights off. I think that’s when I got this eye. When I woke up I was flat on my back in the tent and one of those Pendleton bastards was shoving it to me. I yelled and busted his lip. That set him back for a minute and then the other two grabbed my arms and held me down while he went back to work on me. I kind of lost track after that. I think all of them had a turn… several turns… day before yesterday that was. More since. The kid kept coming back… randy little shit. I think they used me to break him in and he couldn’t get enough.” She was silent for a few minutes, then said, “Listen, ’mind if we stop for a while. I really hurt, more’n I thought..”
“Sure, no problem,” I replied, “It’s not like we’re goin’ anywhere.”
As she turned to lay down, something caught. Grimacing in pain she put a hand down to steady herself and looked back at me. “I hate to say this but I think you’ll need to try and patch me up.
“I hurt a lot… more than just the eye. Those assholes beat me pretty good when they weren’t getting their rocks off, so I may have some busted ribs. One of them put the boot in… probably because I bit off part of his ear.” With a raspy chuckle, she added, “Seemed to piss him off for some reason.”
I guess I had a stupid look on my face, ’cause she went on, her voice gone all quiet and flat, “When there’s nothing left to lose there’s no point in holding back. I was already dead and I knew it… wasn’t a matter of if, but when. The only reason I was still alive when you showed up was because they weren’t finished getting it on. When the fun ran out they’d have cut my throat, stripped the camp, and headed home.”
Pushing herself back up, she continued, “So, you’re gonna have to patch me up since you seem determined to stick around and help. I hurt too much to do it myself and the ribs need wrapped, my cheek may be broken, and God knows what else is messed up. Christ, I hope I don’t lose the eye — can’t tell if it’s still good, swollen the way it is.” Then, almost as an afterthought she added, “… and I really, really hope I don’t get pregnant. Damn, they dumped enough in me one of them could have caught. Right time of the month, s too.”
It was way into the night before I finished wrapping her ribs and tending to as many of her injuries as I could. I brought in a bowl of water and a cloth that she could use as a compress for her eye and left a bucket for the necessary. By then she was about ready to cave… one hard woman to have made it this far. I gave her a tab from my carefully horded store of the morphine that Portland chemists were beginning to turn out and then helped her lay down. I figured that the narcotic would help her deal with the pain and the nightmare, at least for tonight. From tomorrow on we’d need to play it by ear.
Rising I turned to leave when a slightly muzzy voice asked, “My people are all dead aren’t they?”
“I dunno,” I replied carefully, thinking of the carrion eaters I’d seen on down the wash. I figured that the answer to her question lay there but I’d wait and check in the morning. No point in stressing her until I knew for sure. “There’s no one else around close or those three wouldn’t have been out looking over the ground. How many of you were there?”
“Six,” she answered, “seven if you count the baby… he was my sister’s son.” She put her head back down, keeping her face toward me, and closed her eye. There was a wait, then in a voice barely above a whisper, “They were all I had left. We’d decided to head east up into the Blues and find a place to hole up, wait for a chance to make a comeback. After the Eye busted us those scum in Pendleton kept after what was left until most of the Tribes were dead or refugeed out to one of the other res’ like Warm Springs. A few of us were roaming the old tribal ground, getting even where we could. I guess we paid for that.”
Here she stopped and raised her head, “ You got anybody?” I shook my head,
“No, mine all died on Change night. Nobody much since then, just a one night stand now and then.”
Putting her head back down she said, “Yeah, me too… no permanent attachments.“ Then, “You got a name?”
“Charley… Charley Johnson. You?”
The sleepy voice came back with, “Margaret Birdsong… Maggie for short.” Then quietly added, “You’ll do Charley Johnson, you’ll do. G’night.”
To myself I replied, “So’ll you Maggie Birdsong, so’ll you.” Then for a while I stood and watched her as the drug took her away, feeling her name resonate through me, then I turned and walked out into the night. Maybe Wolfe didn’t have it exactly right.
❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀