by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2008 Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers

Home -=- #19 -=- ANTHRO #19 Stories
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   When he finally opened his mouth, Nielsen said the one thing I didn’t want to hear: “We’re really your prisoners, aren’t we? You wouldn’t let us go back home if we tried.”
   He said it softly as he drove the wagon east. I was riding my fourlegger horse alongside. Damn right I looked across at him then; if he was about to try to bolt on me, he had my full attention.
   We was riding into the sunrise, and I couldn’t help admiring the way the sun’s fire glowed on the beams of his broad antlers. A passel of those who’d been changed during the Shattering were sickly, even if they was otherwise sound. But to look at them, at least, Caleb Nielsen and his family were magnificent.
   “Why ask? Ya want to try to go back to that miserable little ranch?”
   He snorted, and there was real humor in it. “It might be easier for me to come with you if I didn’t know you were keeping secrets.”
   I took a deep breath and decided to go for broke. If I read Caleb right, he was tough enough to face the facts, and too smart to snow. This hombre’s brain fit his skull just right, sure as shooting.
   “You’re our guests,” I told him. “We’d do anything to help you, even die for you if it would do a mite of good. But… if we had to arrest you… we would. Now, things ain’t near as bad now, in 1943, as they was in 1920, just after the Shattering. Even so, you have to understand: There ain’t nowhere near enough fertile, thinking people around that we can afford to lose even one.
   “And don’t think I’m proud of dragging people to Cheyenne in handcuffs, Caleb, ’cause I ain’t. None of us are. But folk like you, your wife, and probably your children, you’re more precious than gold or diamonds or anything! We have to save you and your seed. For your good, for the good of your children, for the United States, the whole damn world, and the Day of Renewal. For all that, yes, we’d force ya if we had to. But it ain’t going to come to that, is it?”
   He shook those broad antlers of his. “No…”
   “Then what’s eating you? I’ve been square with you. There’s my cards, every last one face up on the table where you can see ’em. Now, you be square with me.”
   He laughed, by the Old Gods! And when I heard him laugh, I knew it would all work out. A man who can laugh at himself, now, his mind you ain’t got to worry for.
   “Now that we’re so close… I’m afraid,” he said. “What will it be like to be able to speak to other people again, after so long alone? If it weren’t for the children, I think I’d turn back.”
   If it wasn’t for his children, he might turn back? Heh! If it wasn’t for Nielsen’s children, we’d never have asked him to come to Cheyenne with us in the first place. His two daughters, pretty does, were riding ahead with my partner, Sharpears Chuck Blue. They were probably flirting with him. Hell, they’d been flirty with me, and I’m a bear; I’ve got even less chance to marry a doe than that musclebound stallion partner of mine does. Their flirting was all innocent, I think, at least as far as they knew. But their bodies knew what they wanted. It was high time to get those kids somewhere that gave them a chance to find a mate and settle down.
   Nielsen’s son, a buck too young for his first set of antlers, was asleep in the wagon, under the canvas cover we’d rigged up for the journey. His wife was sitting back there, but she’d dropped off to sleep as well. That was good. She was half-crazy, although meeting Chuck and me seemed to have settled her a mite, if I was any judge. Sometimes the horrors she’d seen in her life were too much for her, though, and it wasn’t easy keeping her quiet then.
   “What’s the problem, Caleb? You and yours will be happy in one of the Enclaves! The journey’s no problem, the railroad’s re-established as far as Cheyenne now. The Government will put you and your family on the train. They’ll give you new clothes and all the books and newspapers you need to learn what’s happened since the Shattering. And they’ll be honest; they’ll tell you the good and the bad, both. They’ll give you everything you need until you and yours find your callings. They’ll educate you, they’ll build you a new life. You’re precious, and they’ll treat you like the treasure you are.
   “And you’ll meet people, more people than you can imagine. There’s almost a million thinking, talking, healthy people in the nation, and you’ll be in Baltimore, living with three quarters of them! Think of that. You could meet and talk to somebody new, or even five or ten new people, every day for the rest of your life!”
   He looked across at me, and the hope in those deep brown eyes woulda melted one of the killers the Prophet calls his Avenging Angels, let alone me. “Could we have a piano?” he asked.
   That surprised me so much I just blinked at him. He smiled sadly. “For Jane. Before the Shattering, she was a lovely young girl. Human, of course; we were all human then—well, what kind of fool am I, you know that. But Jane played the piano… She was so good at it, and she was so happy when she played. Sometimes, on her better days, she talks about that. A piano might help her, might bring her back from…” He stopped talking, tears in his eyes, and looked at the trail ahead.
   “Then she’ll have a piano. She’ll have doctors. Whatever she needs, things you or I can’t hardly imagine, they’ll get for her. You and she are more precious than you can know. Anything you need you’ll get.
   “You’ll have a house with running water and electric light, and heat for the winter. You’ll have a radio.”
   He looked dubious. “That would be nice, but why can’t we have a telephone instead of a radio? That way nobody would have to learn Morse Code.”
   I managed not to laugh at him. After all, how could he know about inventions since 1920? He’d been so alone out there! “They’ll get you a telephone, too, with a dial so you can call anybody you want whenever you want. The radio’s not for sending messages, it’s to bring voices into your home. You can hear the President speaking to you, right in your own living room. You can listen to music, news, and plays. Everybody’s going crazy about those, and you will, too—just you wait until you hear Jack Bunny! You’re going to be part of the world again. You’ll be looking ahead, not just remembering the horror of the Shattering. That’s wonderful. That’s not anything to dread.”
   “I know, I know.” He nodded forward, toward his daughters. “I’d go east for my children, even if I thought it meant my death. But… I worry about so many things, now. And one thing that troubles me… is whether my children will continue in the True Faith.”
   “Well, now. You’re a member of the Latter-Day Saints, right?” Thank goodness he didn’t belong to one of the bizarre religions that had sprung up after the Shattering, like the Church of New Babel, the Edenites, or (may Hypothetical God protect us) the Church of Satan King of the World the Destroyer. “There’s plenty of other Mormons in Baltimore.”
   “Yes—but there are other religions, too. That’s what worries me.” He laughed grimly. “Back before the Shattering, I never would have thought that freedom of religion would seem such a terrible thing to me. I was nearly fifty years old when the Plague hit, did you know that? That means I’m in my seventies, and still full of—um, still fathering children. It’s just not natural—whatever ‘natural’ means! I just don’t know any more… these are strange times.”
   “Well, Caleb, what happened to you isn’t that unusual. You just got your clock turned back a good ways, and there’s plenty of other folks can say the same. Heck, one of our Marshalls, the most revered of them all, he’s almost 90 now. And to look at the man, you’d think he was a teenager!”
   “Really? It’s good to know that God didn’t single me out for any special rewards… if ‘reward’ is the right word for living on through the Shattering. You did live through it yourself, didn’t you, Deputy Smith?”
   “It is no small thing to see your species go extinct. To see a plague come that twists and kills humans, burning and shattering and destroying us, until the plague itself dies for want of pure humans to infect. Our Elders gathered the town together so we could care for each other as we died. And when it was over… Jane and I were all that were left, in a church full of rotting, half-changed bodies, and the last ones who’d cared for us through our fever now dying themselves. We swore an oath of matrimony to each other; there was no preacher to marry us. We left town and moved to that ranch because… it was beyond our strength to bury all the bodies, or burn them.”
   “I admire your courage, Caleb, I really do. I had it easy. I was only a child, I didn’t know how bad things were. And then the Marshalls came early to Sacramento, my home town. I never had to try to survive alone.”
   “It wasn’t easy, Deputy. We thought we were the only thinking people left in the world. Thank God we weren’t! But… God is what troubles me. How can those who never lived through the Shattering know how important He is? He spared us. Only one in twenty survived at all, and only a fraction still… um… able to have children. He spared us. Why? Why us? I think of those who died, and I feel like I should have died, too. And then… I feel guilty for feeling guilty.”
   This wasn’t the first time us Marshalls had run into that kind of sentiment—Survivor’s Guilt, we called it, and it was best quashed as soon as possible. “Hold on there, Caleb. You’re alive, sure enough, but what makes you think God sat down and deliberately chose you, in particular, over anybody else? The Shattering Plague was the consequence of an act of war, wasn’t it? Now, I’m no preacher or holy man, but it seems to me that God—” I almost said ‘your god’, but that would have been a terrible mistake. “—lets our sins play themselves out. I simply don’t believe He’s in the business of protecting us from our own stupidity or evil. And if that’s the case, all God did was let things take their course. Nobody chose you, Caleb. It was just… the luck of the draw.”
   He smiled—the expression was kind of weak, but genuine. “I hadn’t thought of that. You know… I would like to believe it. It’s better than trying to understand why I was so special, when I know I’m not.”
   “Believe it, then.”
   “I think I will. At least I will pray about it. Thank you for giving me something to think about, Deputy. But one thing is for sure: People like my children, will never understand those of us who lived through the Shattering. And we, in our turn, will never understand them.”
   “Perhaps not.”
   That was a sobering thought, because I’d be dealing with youngsters, born after the Shattering, some day. A sight sooner than I could have imagined, as it turned out.

   We were back in Cheyenne the day after seeing Nielsen and his family to the hospital and the hotel. I went to the Capitol to check in with Marshall Baylor. I was hoping for a couple of days off, ’specially if the pay train had come in while we were away. Which wasn’t so very likely, mind you, what with the troubles the Prophet of the Church of New Babel was stirring up in northern Nebraska. But you could always hope.
   I knocked on the Marshall’s door. “Come on in, Alkali,” he said, and the instant I saw him I could tell there was something heavy on his mind. He’s an open-faced sort, and the fact that he’s a bear same as me helps me read him too.
   “Close the door. You and Sharpears were off to, where, down near the Utah border south of Rock Springs, wasn’t it? How did that go?”
   “Pretty good, sir. We questioned the Dying, and we tracked, and searched, and finally found a little ranch hidden in a valley way off all the tracks. There were only five people holed up there, but danged if they weren’t all one family. A married couple and three—count ’em, three—viable youngsters, all clean-limbed and strong-looking. They came with us gladly, too. Oh, they had their doubts, but when I left ’em in Miss Kitty’s hands at the Palace Hotel, they was wandering around looking like they thought they was in Heaven.“
   Baylor nodded. “I remember how I felt before the Marshalls found my family. It’s horrible to be alone like that, just horrible, with the world gone to hell. By the Old Gods, I’d trade this Capitol Building and every museum piece we save for just one thinking person rescued from that life—let alone a whole family of ’em! What’s their bloodline?”
   “Deer. You should see them; they’re wonderful physical specimens, big, strong, muscular. I think they’re mulies—mule deer, I mean. The guy’s antlers are mighty broad. And they weren’t nearly as skittish as the whitetail deer I’ve met. I sent Sharpears in to talk to them first, of course, leaf-eater to leaf-eater. But I think I could have just walked up and said ‘hi’, if I’d wanted to. I don’t think they’d of panicked at all.”
   “Five healthy people, and none of them Dying. You could hardly wish for better, going to a backwater place like that.”
   “Nope. So do we get a break now?”
   “Would if I could, Alkali, but we don’t have near enough Deputy Marshalls to run down all the leads we get. I’ll give you and Sharpears a week off when you get back next time, promise. I got a radiogram that today’s train’s on schedule. It’ll be here in an hour, and the back pay’s on board. Your pay will be waiting for you when you get back. You ought to be able to have a fine old time on your leave.”
   I sighed. “After we get back, if we do. What you got for us?”
   “More of the same, I’m afraid—but easier and closer in. One of our Travelers came down from the north, said he’d heard tell of a family with children hiding out on a ranch northwest of Lusk. That was a little town on a railroad, north of here.”
   “Ugh. Rolling brown hills, not a mountain, hardly a tree.”
   Baylor shrugged. “‘We go where we’re called’—”
   “—‘to be ready for the Day of Renewal’, yeah, I know. But do you trust this Traveler? Not all the Dying who serve with us are as dedicated to the Day of Renewal as they say. And if I remember right, Lusk is pretty close in. You’d think if there was anybody there, we’d have found them already. Lusk isn’t that far from the Black Hills, either. Not that far from where the Prophet is supposed to be hiding.”
   “This Traveler’s given us good tips in the past. We don’t think he has links to the Black Hills. I’m convinced he means well. Of course he might be wrong, or somebody could’ve lied to him. But I think we should still check his story.”
   “All right. But that’s not all, is it? How about you drop the other shoe?”
   He frowned. “Am I that obvious, Alkali?”
   “Yes, you are, sir. But don’t blame yourself; you’re just an honest bear, and we love ya for it. Lay your cards on the table and let’s get on with it.”
   “All right. I’m sending a trainee with you. A rookie, right out of the US Marshall Service Academy.”
   “That’s bad, maybe, but even that isn’t quite enough to explain your long face.”
   He looked disgusted, the way only we bears can do it. Like he’d busted into a beehive and taken a thousand stings and the hive was empty and besides all that it was raining… that kind of look in his eyes. “Our rookie is connected.”
   “Connected, huh?”
   “The story is, word came down from Washington that we should look kindly on his joining us, and that if he graduated from the Academy we should post him in the West. The note came on White House stationery, they say.”
   “Well, that settles it.” You don’t rightly turn down a suggestion that probably came from the President for the Duration of the Emergency, Theodore III, himself! “But I’d have to say I got a few questions, like: Who the hell’s gonna pull strings to make the kid a Deputy US Marshall, Third Class? In Wyoming, no less? If you’re connected, you don’t send your son out here. The Navy, the Diplomatic Corps maybe, but not here. A guy could get hurt out here!”
   “That’s right,” Baylor said. “You damn sure don’t send your son out here. Not unless you want to get him out of sight, or maybe give him a chance to be a hero.” A dead hero, Baylor meant. “I don’t know if it’s true or not—I can’t believe they’d send him out here if it is true—but the rumor is that the poor little S.O.B. is a mutt. I heard tell he lists his bloodline as ‘jackalope’, for Pete’s sakes!”
   “Jackalope? That fake critter they used to hang on the walls in bars, the one they used to use to make fools of Easterners? He thinks he’s a jackalope? Why’d you saddle us with him if he’s already going crazy? Why saddle anybody? Get rid of him before he gets somebody killed!”
   “Well, he can’t be completely insane. He passed all his classes at the Academy, and you know they won’t give the ‘Gentleman’s C’ to anybody. No, he earned his way out here. That means he’s part of the Service, and I have to give him a chance. It’s the Code, Alkali! The code we live by. ‘Judge not by the shape of the body’, right?”
   “I’m not worried about the shape of his body. I’m worried that his skull is squeezing his brains a little. You know exactly what I mean.”
   Baylor sighed. “Yes. But there have been some mutts who didn’t go crazy. And quite a few who were fine up until they were middle-aged or older. So maybe he’s got some good years in him, and wants to do something useful before he goes mad. I can respect that. Give him a chance—but keep an eye on him. This ought to be an easy run for you, you should have time to watch him, and the trip’s not that important anyway. If he starts to crack up on you, call it off and head back for Cheyenne.”
   “Well, Marshall, I can’t say I much like the idea of givin’ up on any mission, even checking another of these dead small towns. But if I need to give up, I will.”
   “Of course you will. You’ve got good sense, and that’s why you get saddled with our connected mutt rookie. Lucky you.”
   So I went out to the rotunda, where the Deputy Marshalls awaiting assignment were milling around, and broke the news to Sharpears. He took it better than I would have, but he’s a steady sort. I admire that about him. Hardly more’n a couple references to, well, horsecrap is the polite way to put it, then his cussing storm blew over and we were ready to meet our new trainee Deputy Marshall Third Class.
   We’d heard the train whistle, so Sharpears and me, we thought to walk down Capitol Avenue to the station to meet our new, unwanted partner. But when we walked down the steps of the Wyoming State Capitol Building there was our young man standing at the edge of the Capitol Square looking up at the dome. He had a small, cheap suitcase beside his hooves, and his face seemed more sad than excited by the opening of his new career.
   I’ve seen a lot of mutts in my time. Hell, the Dying are almost all mutts. But this fellow might have been the cleanest-looking mutt I’d ever met. His eyes were clear and bright. His body was symmetrical. His ears matched. He stood straight on hooves he’d cleaned and polished, and his feet had no wrappings, not even the spats most of us wear to protect the top of the foot. A good bit o’ the time, it’s the feet that give mutts trouble more than anything else, except for their deformed brains, of course.
   He was a little fellow, ’specially compared to me and Sharpears; he was about five-four, maybe a bit more. His fur pattern was strange but attractive. He was mostly a rough-looking speckled gray-brown, like a hare, but he had antelope markings; a black mask across his nose and under his eyes, black patches on the side of the neck, a white throat and white lower-throat horizontal stripes. He had the rabbit’s head shape, insanely long rabbit ears with black pronged horns growing from his skull in front of them, and the strangest pale golden eyes. His teeth were somewhere between rabbit and antelope. I couldn’t see his tail then; it was hidden beneath the duster he wore. But between a bunnytail and a pronghorn’s, there ain’t that much difference if you’re seeing them from any sort of distance.
   There was one thing about him I hated right off: He wore a golden earring. With those ears, I suppose it was natural, but I was pretty sure he was a ‘he’, and I don’t like earrings on a male. Maybe he liked boys, I didn’t know. Well, hell; I shouldn’t care, long as he made his donations at the clinic on schedule. Only of course our boy here was a mutt, so he wouldn’t be making any donations anyway…
   He was looking up at the Capitol dome with his hands in his pockets. “I wonder if they’ll use it again?” he said, more to himself than anybody else, as we approached.
   “Use what?” Sharpears said. They don’t call him that for nothing.
   “The Capitol. I wonder if there will ever be a State government in Wyoming again. Or in any of the States.”
   “In time, when there’s the population for it,” I said. “We preserve this place in trust for that day.”
   “Of course.” He smiled. “We must have faith that the Day of Renewal will come, or why go on? You look like the gentlemen I was supposed to meet?”
   “I’m Alkali Creek Jim Smith, and this quiet fellow is my partner, Sharpears Chuck Blue. You’re named Swift?”
   “Yes. I’m Elijah Swift, Deputy Marshall Trainee Third, and I’m honored to meet you.” He pulled his right hand out of his pocket, and I could see one way, at least, that his mixture of bloodlines had marred him. His hand looked nearly useless; it had only two stubby fingers and a thumb, and his ‘fingernails’ were right massive hoof-y things. It looked more like the foot of a fourlegger deer than the hand of a sapient.
   Not only that, he wore no ring on that right hand. No ring like mine, or Sharpears’s; both our rings are gold. Well, that was no surprise, for two reasons. It didn’t look like he could wear a ring on that hand anyway, for one. But in the second place, no mutt would be wearing the gold or silver ring of a successful breeder. After all, if mutts could earn a breeder’s ring, then the Dying wouldn’t be the Dying.
   But Mr. Elijah Swift wasn’t ashamed of his crippled hand. He held it out for me to shake. What there was of it, he seemed to have as good control as anyone could want. And his fingers felt strong. I got the feeling he could have hurt me with his grip if he’d wanted. Those hooves were sharp!
   “Do you know your fieldcraft, Swift? Have you had any training?”
   “I had all the standard Marshall Service field training. I don’t have the practical knowledge like you guys, except what I picked up out here when I was little. But if it’s in one of the tests, don’t worry too much. I passed them all.”
   Sharpears perked his ears in that special way that meant interest and skepticism. “That’s good to know. Even a routine mission can go bad out here. If you don’t know how to ride and shoot, you belong back east.”
   Swift looked embarrassed. “I can do both, if I must. I hate the idea of shooting, though.”
   Well, of course he would. He was a leaf-eater, after all. I would have hoped his attitude was different if I didn’t mean to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Just as soon as he proved himself as useless as I feared, of course.
   Sharpears snorted faintly. I’m not sure the kid noticed. “You’ll draw a rifle and a sidearm from the armory in the Capitol basement. You’ll have to take one of those damned 1911s for a sidearm, more’s the pity. It’s all they’ve got.”
   “Yeah,” I said, “and you’d better pick out a good horse from the remuda. They keep that next block east from here. Pick him out and saddle him yourself; I want to make sure you know how. We’re heading out tomorrow at first light.”
   “I’ll be ready.”

   And he was ready, in a manner of speaking. The fourlegger horse Swift led out of the remuda was saddled perfectly—but with a pack saddle, not a riding saddle! Sharpears looked fit to bust when he saw it.
   The kid spoke before Sharpears could decide which cuss words to use first. “I can ride him if I’m hurt, but I’m quick enough on my feet to keep up otherwise. The packsaddle lets him carry some extra food and ammo.”
   Sharpears is slow to speak, and he’s willing to let a fool hang himself if the fool insists. He laid his ears back, but he kept his mouth shut and nodded. I could see he was squinting at the packsaddle too, probably noticing what I had: The kid’s rifle and 1911 were lashed to it.
   Now, there’s nothing in the regulations says we had to wear our pistols on our belts. But we all do—at least, those of us who know what we’re at and mean to stay alive out here. When I started in the Service, one of the first things old Marshall Tilghman told me, down in the Oklahoma District, was: “Keep your sidearm handy. You may not need a gun this hour, or you may not need it this day, but you’ll need it. And when you do, you’ll need it damned fast.” Tilghman knew all the old gunslingers, Earp and Masterson and so on, and he was at least as good as any of them. If he tells you something about gunfighting, you’d best listen.
   But on second thought, did it really matter? Could this crazy mutt of ours even shoot with those sad little hands of his? The kid would be a menace with the 1911, and probably not that much better with a bolt-action rifle like the Springfield. Maybe it was better to let the kid go unarmed until we could get him something he could handle better. And he was a mutt, so he was going to go crazy, if he wasn’t crazy already. If he died, so what? Probably be a kindness to the poor S.O.B.
   My partner’s ears were laid back; I knew there was going to be trouble. Sure enough, soon as we rode out into that dawn he kicked his mount into a trot, heading north out of the center of town and into the deserted parts of what had been Wyoming’s capital city. It was a pace the horses couldn’t keep all day, and Sharpears never treats his fourlegger cousins bad, whether they’re natural-blooded or feral-blooded. He’s got sympathy for them, whether they can tell him how they feel or not. But he was ticked that this rookie thought he could keep up with us on foot. He was going to show Elijah Swift a thing or two. He was going to run that jackalope right into the ground.
   My partner is my partner, but I’d be lying if I said he took it like a man when he found out that the rookie could, in fact, keep up with us just fine. There Swift was, trotting along looking all cool and unconcerned, no trouble keeping up with us at all. And then Swift went dashing off the trail. He picked himself a nice little bouquet of pretty orange flowers, all quick-like; I was sure he’d gone nuts, then. He ran ahead of us, to the top of a little rise, and stopped, and looked around, and waited for us to come up.
   The mutt wasn’t even out of breath! Well, just you try to run a pronghorn antelope into the ground some time. Just you try.
   There he stood, looking across the plains, and I saw why he’d picked the flowers. He was eating the damned things, one after another! And by the look on his face, they might just as well have been candy.
   “The horses might need a rest,” he said. “There’s a line of cottonwoods up ahead. Must be a creek. That’d be a good place to stop and rest ’em a few minutes.”
   Sharpears looked fit to explode, but he was having a hard time finding anything to explode about. That didn’t improve his disposition any. “That earring,” he said, finally. “Take that earring off. I can see the light glinting on it half a mile away.”
   Swift’s ears drooped. “Oh, claws of the Prophet! I forgot the silly thing.” He jammed his last couple of flowers into his mouth, swallowed them, and reached into his pocket for his Government issue multi-tool; it’s a cute dingus that includes a little pair of pliers, among other things. “Could one of you please—”
   “I’m not taking an earring off of any—”
   “Oh, hell, Sharpears, I’ll take care of it.” My hands are better for that kind of thing anyway. “C’m’ere, kid.”
   “Thanks, Alkali. It’s not easy for me to unscrew the ring, especially with no mirror.”
   I didn’t say a word. That earring was too much, just too much even for me. I took the pliers and twisted the threaded nut on the earring, to open the gap so Swift could take it off.
   It was a well-made earring, heavier than I expected. It had an oval onyx set in it, with some writing engraved around the oval. The onyx was engraved with the letters US. “Huh…” I squinted. “This looks like a breeder ring.”
   Swift started to nod, then felt my fingers holding his ear and stopped himself. “It is. I know usually only the ladies choose an earring instead of a finger ring, but…” He wiggled his stubby hooved fingers. “I have a little trouble with normal rings.”
   I stared at him, stared at the earring. “You’re saying you’ve got a certified breeding rating. Gold ring grade, plus.” Onyx was what, category plus-three?
   “Sure. Cross-fertile with your rabbits and hares, deer, and pronghorns—pronghorns are rare, that’s why they rate me higher than they really should. About half my donor-kids turn out to be jackalopes, though. That’s OK. So far, every one of them’s ended up with halfway decent fingers. I don’t mind my hands, they work for me, but I wouldn’t wish ’em on someone who had to find work in a factory in the city.”
   I raised an eyebrow at Sharpears. He raised an eyebrow back. “Jackalopes,” he said dubiously. “You’re saying jackalopes breed true.”
   “Hey, the way the Shattering mixed us all up, it would be a miracle if at least one new species didn’t come out of it. Right?”
   This was a delusion—it just had to be. But, hell, it’d be easy enough to check on when we got back to Cheyenne. I dropped Swift’s earring into his hand without comment. “Keep this safe.”
   “You got that right! They charge you a fortune if you lose one of these stupid things.”

   Two days out we reached the Platte. The new road crosses it at Torrington, a few miles downstream from where Fort Laramie used to be. The bridge was down, or more likely they’d never finished it. But the river was low, with summer coming on. We forded without any trouble.
   We were about a mile north of the river, clear of most of the ruins of the town, when Swift looked off to the east. “There’s somebody over there,” he said.
   “I don’t see anyone.”
   “Me, neither, but I hear someone,” Sharpears said. “And… they’re talking.”
   We hadn’t spoken with anyone in twenty miles. We really needed some local information. I nodded, and without a word we turned off the road.
   Sharpears had his ears laid back again, but kind of droopy and sad-like, not tight to the head like when he’s angry… and then I saw why. We were riding to a cemetery. The smaller plants were dead, but some trees with deep roots had taken hold and still cast a shade across this place. There were tombstones and what was left of a fence. There was an old man, looked like he was of the badger bloodline, kneeling on the ground beside a bundle wrapped in old cloth. He had a shovel, too, and he’d turned a bit of soil, but it didn’t look like he had the strength to do anything more.
   He had a wheelbarrow there. He must have brought his dead to the sanctified ground by pushing him, or her, or possibly it, in that wheelbarrow. How he’d found it in himself to do even that I didn’t know. It must have mattered to him, mattered to him more than his own life.
   He had his back to us. I could hear him now: “The Prophet said the curse won’t follow us. I am… life and… I am the new life and whoever… whosoever, uh…”
   My horse stepped on what had been a gravel driveway. There was still enough gravel to make a sound. The old badger jumped to his feet and turned. He nearly fell over. “Who are—who are you?”
   “We’re United States Deputy Marshalls. I’m Marshall Smith, this is Marshall Blue and…”
   “Godslove,” Swift said. “Deputy Marshall Elijah Godslove. Let me speak the words you wanted; I remember them.”
   He walked forward slowly, with his ears drooping. He looked down at the bundle on the ground. “What was her name, Brother?”
   “You… you…” The badger took a deep breath. “Mary Redemption. I am Michael Redemption, I was her husband Michael Palmer before the Shattering took her mind away. So long ago, so long ago… and yet I still loved her. Still do love her.” He wept. “And on some days, when the madness lightened its grip on her… I think she loved me, too. I think at the end her mind came back to her, and she still loved me.”
   Swift nodded. “Oh Lord,” he said, “remember the promise given by your servant the Prophet, that the wrath of the Second Tower of Babel shall not follow us beyond this world. Grant that your servant Mary Redemption be whole and beautiful again, in your presence forever. Grant, too, that those who loved her, before the Shattering of the Chain of Being and after, shall join her there and never be parted from her again. Amen.”
   “Amen,” old Michael said. And Sharpears said it too, I swear he did.
   “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He who believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” There was more like that, I don’t remember it all. But the kid said it right, or right enough to comfort old Michael. It was enough to bring tears to—well, I didn’t weep, of course. Not me.
   “Go on,” Swift told us, after he’d said a few more words. “I’ll catch up with you. I should help Mr. Redemption give she who was once his wife a decent burial.”
   “No,” Sharpears said, and by the set of his nostrils I knew he wasn’t in any mood for bargaining. “We’re all staying. We’ll all take care of her. It’s the least we can do.”
   So that’s what we did.

   Afterward we stood aside, Sharpears and me, while Swift said goodbye to the old badger. His ears were bad, the badger’s; he spoke loud, and Swift spoke loud in return. I didn’t need ears like my partner’s to overhear their parlayin’.
   “Thank you, Brother. But… are you my brother? You speak like one of the Church, yet you ride among the Marshalls.”
   “I was of the Church, born and raised. Now I work toward the Day of Renewal, when the people will repopulate the nation and the world.”
   “But you’re walking the road to damnation! The Lord has cursed us—we built a tower to Heaven, and He cursed us with a thousand different languages, so we could never work together as one people again. But we hardened our hearts against His message. We ignored the warning of the Bible. We went so far as to build machines to fly into the sky! So He cursed us again, not with a thousand languages, but by shattering us into a thousand species. We are doomed under His wrath. It is blasphemy to try to fight it.”
   “Is it? After the First Babel, there were many survivors. They grew and spread, and in the end the Lord came to them and walked among them to give them His word, didn’t He? He was even willing to die for them. He didn’t doom them all after the First Babel. So why shouldn’t there be survivors of the New Babel, too? We’re trying to save all we can, all the people, all the history, to make a better world for the new people, when they come.
   “For they will come. I’ve been to the Enclaves; I know there will be new people. God has saved a remnant, and the world will live again. There is still hope, Brother! God hasn’t abandoned us! Someday people will be happy and live in peace again, and we can gain peace from knowing that, even if we will never live to see it. Have faith in His mercy.”
   “Maybe… maybe.” The old badger sighed, looking toward the setting sun. “I hope so, Brother. We wanted a family and children, Mary and I did. Was that so much to ask? But then the Shattering came, and—well, she was—like you, only of more species mixed, and not so well blended as you. Badger, deer, fox, I think. It was hard to tell. But I took care of her. I still loved her. I hope she knew.”
   “She knows now, Brother.”
   He smiled through his tears. “Maybe she does. But… what do I do now?”
   “Well, my partners and I, we’re going further north. When we come back, you could ride with us toward Cheyenne. There will be other people there, anyway. You won’t need to be alone.”
   “I might do that. But promise me that when my end comes… and I don’t think it will be long… that you bring me back here to rest beside her.”
   “The Prophet told us never to swear an oath, so I won’t swear. But I give you my promise: I will do this for you, if there is life in me to do it.”
   “Thank you, Brother.” Mr. Redemption looked troubled. “I shouldn’t say, but… Deputy Marshall or no, I can’t believe you serve evil. You should know there’s something brewing north of here, Brother Godslove. The Prophet and his men never did like your kind, him saying he’s the rightful President and all. I know he’s trying to do something about it in the plains to the East, but I think he might be ready to pull some mischief here, too. Something about tricking the Marshalls to come close to the Black Hills and capturing some, or just killing some.”
   “I don’t know. Because you’re Marshalls, I guess. Or maybe he thinks he can use you as hostages to bargain with Theodore III for something. In any case, be careful up there. I’ve seen bodies of twenty, thirty riders come through in this past year, two or three times. Don’t you run into a bunch like that.”
   “Thank you, Mr. Redemption. We’ll be careful.”
   We rode north out of there. Or Sharpears and I rode—Swift trotted alongside, as always. It was nearly sunset, but I, for one, didn’t want to camp too close to that old cemetery with its new grave.
   We made a dry camp three miles north, with a low hill between us and the road just in case. I didn’t say a word about it, just dug a little gasoline stove out of my kit and used that to heat some canned stew for me and some peas and carrots for Sharpears—how he eats canned peas I just don’t understand. The stove didn’t make near the flame that a campfire would have; set up in a dip in the ground, you couldn’t have seen it twenty feet away.
   Cooking our grub was all the easier because we didn’t have to fix anything for Swift. He was trotting around picking flowers again, along with some grasses and some branches he clipped from what shrubs there were. He used those hoof-hands of his, and they cut the brush just as easy as you please. If that’s what he wanted to eat, there was no complaint from Sharpears or me. Not now.
   Then we settled down to watch the sky go dark and the stars come out.
   “‘Godslove’, huh?” Sharpears asked.
   Swift sighed. “Yes. Swift’s a taken name. I was born Elijah Solomon Godslove, and I was lucky at that. You should hear what they named my older brother.”
   “You know all that New Babel stuff pretty well.” Sharpears’ tone was a world of suspicion.
   “Well, I should! I was raised in that church, after all. I’m not sure even now that I don’t believe some of what they taught. It makes sense, if you were raised reading the Bible. Their doctrine says that God was angry because we didn’t learn from the Tower of Babel. This time were were even more ambitious; this time we built airplanes to fly through Heaven, not just to touch it. So God sent the Shattering. It scrambled us up so much that we might not be able to work together as we did, ever again. There’s logic to it, you have to admit.”
   “But you changed your name. You left the church.”
   Swift laughed. “Yes. We were in the Baltimore Enclave, with Mom and Father telling me all the people around us were followers of the Devil because they didn’t believe the way we did. But I could see that the people I met each day were good; I knew what my parents told me didn’t make sense. So I broke with them—but the only way I could see to do that, was to go to another religion. I joined the Edenites.” He looked sad. “I guess I should have expected that Father would disown me, after that.”
   “The Edenites?” I said. “Good God!”
   He shrugged. “I was raised up within a churchy family. That’s all I ever knew—so like I said, when it was time for me to break with my folks, I couldn’t imagine not going to another faith. I chose the Edenites.”
   “But those guys are…” I trailed off. I didn’t want to hurt the kid’s feelings.
   “Utterly nuts,” he finished. “I can see that now, yeah. To think that Central Africa is the new Eden because nobody comes back from there alive, how crazy is that? I myself tried to break out of Baltimore Enclave to sail to Africa. Came within an ace of taking the Ride down Baltimore Avenue.“
   That ‘Ride’, of course, being the trip to Bon Secours Prison—the Kindly Prison. The place they send you if you’re crazy or a criminal, but your seed is too precious for them to exile you or execute you. They take such good care of you at Bon Secours! They’re very careful. Very gentle. Very humane. And they will never… ever… let… you… die.
   Gives me the shakes just thinking about it, it does.
   Swift saw me shiver. He nodded. “I have a brother and a sister who took the Ride. She’s mad, almost catatonic, thank God. He was a mutt, and not too bright, but a silver-ring breeder in spite of it; a mutt that’s a breeder, there’s one in a million. He’s fertile with coyotes, as it turns out. He was only a petty thief and shoplifter, but they got him as a habitual criminal and…”
   “That’s rough,” I growled.
   “I’d slip him a black capsule if I could.” Swift sighed.
   “Strange family you have,” Sharpears said. “Coyotes?”
   “Yeah. Most families, at least you know what species you are. Mom and Father both went jackrabbit, and my older brother, he’s one, too. Then there’s me. Two sisters, coyote, besides the one in prison, who’s fox. A fourth takes after mule deer; she’s a sweetheart, that one. You’d like her. Teaches third graders in Baltimore.”
   “Never heard of a family that had multiple bloodlines.”
   Swift gave a what-can-I-say? kind of shrug. “It’s true, it’s all true. It just made everything that much harder for my poor father.”
   “You’re mighty sympathetic to a fellow you had to run away from.”
   “Just ’cause I can’t live with the man, doesn’t mean I hate him! Fact is, I don’t blame him for anything. He had the roughest time of anybody I know, when the Shattering came: He was in France during the War. You know how Theodore the Second had a son, Quentin, who died flying fighter planes for the French? Father was over there at the same time. He was an ambulance driver serving with the French forces, so he was there a year before any United States troops started coming in.
   “The Great War was a stalemate then. The French would attack the Germans and get beaten back, the Germans would attack the French—”
   “Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “The Germans? Who cares about the Germans?”
   “Back then? Everybody did! The Germans were the major enemy at that time. Austria-Hungary was their poor cousin, almost helpless on the battlefield.”
   That’s when the penny dropped. “You’re talkin’ about before the werewolves showed,” I said.
   “Right,” Swift agreed. “After that, well, the werewolves started coming at night. A few, and more, and then whole regiments of them. They’d bite you, and I guess it takes years for your body to change over to werewolf completely, if it ever does at all. But right from the start you get a compulsion to obey the true werewolves—the Night Hussars, as our ‘friends’ in the Empire insist we call them. And they in turn are compelled to obey their superiors, right up to the Dark Emperor himself.
   “So if any of our soldiers got bitten by a werewolf—even the tiniest little scratch—he’d have to kill himself. Or his friends would have to kill him, before he turned, before his mind went over to the enemy. My father had to kill some. He’d scream about it in his nightmares.
   “Nobody could stand against a force like that. The Allied armies fell apart. Father stumbled in with the first United States troops, who arrived in time to get a few more evacuees to the ports and off the continent before the Empire overran everything.
   “After the war, he came back to his home in South Dakota and took up his veterinary practice again. And then a year later, the Shattering started in Europe. And it spread so fast!
   “I know the Empire swears that werewolves had nothing to do with the Shattering, but I don’t buy it—the coincidence is just too great. I think whatever made werewolves changed itself and became the Plague of the Shattering. Right?”
   “Could be,” Sharpears said. “Leastways, it makes as much sense as anything else.”
   “That’s what Father thought. He knew that the werewolf disease spread by bite. And since rabies spreads by bite, too, he figured the Plague and the werewolf disease might also be related to rabies. So he vaccinated Mom, my oldest sister, and himself against rabies… and he waited for the inevitable.
   “I’m not sure if he was a genius, a nut, or just lucky. But all three of them—Mom, Father, my oldest sister Annie the mule deer—they all survived the Shattering Plague when it hit.
   “That wasn’t the end of their troubles, though. Mom and Father were still fertile, much more so than before, if anything. But as I said, the bloodlines in my family just hadn’t settled yet. We kids differed from each other. Some of my brothers and sisters were stillborn, or too malformed to live, or ended up hopping off into the underbrush on four legs—whether they had enough brains to learn to speak first, or not.
   “That was the life my parents led. Is it any wonder that when the Prophet’s men came around, offering some explanation, offering some meaning to their horrible lives, my parents listened and believed?”
   He looked up at the sky, and his eyes glittered in the starlight. “That’s part of what I meant when I said I don’t like guns or shooting. Yeah, it’s hard for me to hold a rifle. But also… dang it, we’re not just here to gather viable breeders and preserve museum pieces. We’re also here to comfort the Dying. These people have all been through a Hell I can’t even imagine! We’re supposed to comfort them if we can. If we have to pull our guns—if we have to start shooting—that means we’ve already failed.”
   I looked at Sharpears. Sharpears looked back at me. I don’t know what that big galoot was thinking, but about that time it occurred to me that if our mutt friend Elijah Swift was crazy, it was a kind of crazy we needed.

   Lusk was deserted. On the outskirts of town there was a little heap of stones, no more than three or four little ones and one larger slab of river stone. There was a wooden grave marker, too. It read TILGHMAN.
   Sharpears laid his ears back. “Old Bill wouldn’t like that.”
   “It’s an honor,” I said, walking to the little memorial. I turned over the large slab of stone and pulled an envelope from beneath it. “Besides, it ain’t like he’s going to see it.”
   “Better hope not. He’s almighty good with a gun, Bill is.”
   “It’s just a mail drop,” Swift said.
   “Of course. I suppose we could use the old post office, but that would be a mite obvious.” I unfolded the paper. “Says here, our Traveler friend thinks there’s one or two families at a ranch about five miles northwest of here, along this road.”
   Sharpears nodded and turned his horse that way.
   “I don’t know,” Swift said. “Remember that dust I saw yesterday? That could have been riders, and the Black Hills aren’t far.”
   “We didn’t come this far just to turn back.”
   The ranch, when we found it, wasn’t much. There was one barn left, along with the house. We turned in from the road and a woman come from the house and onto the porch. “It’s the Marshalls! We’re saved!” she shouted—but somehow, it didn’t sound right at all.
   “She’s a mutt,” Swift said.
   “Trust me, antelope have good eyes! She’s a mutt—wolf, cow, rabbit, she’s all twisted-up like—get out of here!”
   He turned and ran toward some ruins we’d passed on the way in—the walls of a little stone-and-sod hut. The roof was long gone, but what was left would do for a decent little fort. I don’t know what it had been. Maybe the ranch’s original house? Anyway, Swift hurried his packhorse inside, then he ducked out the opposite wall and ran across the open ground, heading south. There was no shelter for him that way. There was no way he could escape.
   As for Sharpears and I, we had our own worries: About thirty riders, boiling up out of the creek cut behind the ranch house, with another ten or so that went after the jackalope. Bullets piffed the dust and thudded into the sod hut as we scrambled inside.
   I unlimbered my Springfield and returned fire. There might have been thirty of them… but they were in the open, and the .30/06 is merciless in its accuracy. That broke their first charge enough that Sharpears and I could hold off the rest.
   “Poor dumb kid.”
   I nodded. “Mutt or no mutt, I was starting to like him. But he couldn’t deny his bloodlines. Jackrabbit and pronghorn antelope; there’s nothing in that blend but run and run. Poor bastard. Think he’s got a chance?”
   A volley of shots sounded, some distance to the south. “Nope,” Sharpears said.
   “We held off their charge.”
   “Only got the water in our canteens, though.”
   “Swift’s canteen, too. Running off with no food and no water… Well, he won’t be needing any. Think we can hold these boys off until Baylor misses us and sends help?”
   Sharpears shrugged.
   The answer was no, we’d be out of water and captured, or dead, before help could arrive. But we were going to hold the Prophet’s Men, or whoever these riders were, for as long as we could anyway.
   Well, hell. Not like we had anything better to do, right?

   Three days we held ’em off. Three days, and no sign of help.
   They tried to rush us (only just the once). They tried to sneak up on us in the night, but my partner ain’t called ‘Sharpears’ for nothing. They tried fire. Well, they got the ranch house and the barn and whatever was in ’em, but they didn’t get us. Sometimes mutts aren’t too smart. Sometimes they’re not lucky and the wind changes on them, too.
   So, came the dawn on the fourth day. We had maybe another two days’ worth of water, and the mutts were still out there, less the ten or fifteen who’d got in the way of our bullets. Can’t rightly say how many of those we’d killed, mind you, but the rest wanted us real bad…
   Anyhow, dawn. The fourth day. And us with too little food, water, or ammunition. My partner’s ears quirked around: “I hear engines,” he said.
   I nodded. I wanted there to be engines too much to believe it. Even if Baylor had just managed to get a Jenny training plane to fly over and search for us, that meant help was on the way. Maybe they could drop supplies from an airplane, too! Maybe—
   Shots rang, off in the distance. Then a roar of gunfire, like a machine gun, and more shots closer in! I heard feet running, rushing our fort from the southeast. Sharpears and I lifted our rifles.
   And that is when I heard a voice I’d never expected to hear again, so help me Hypothetical God!
   “Alkali! Sharpears! It’s Swift! Hold off, I’m coming in!”
   And there he was, Elijah Swift, dashing out of a low spot and into our view, running at tremendous speed! He leaped and sailed over the top of the wall, already tucking into a neat roll. He landed, bounded back to his feet, and aimed the damnedest-looking gun back along the way he’d come. He pulled the trigger and the thing roared to life. Shell casings flew everywhere! They were .45 Automatic, same ammo my 1911 used.
   Swift’s bullets sent grass stems and twigs and pebbles and dust flying, away out there. From the grasslands outside I heard many words I wouldn’t have expected from devout followers of the Prophet. Quite a few misshapen, furred bodies dove for cover before I could bring my rifle on target.
   “Hi, deputies. Miss me?” That jackalope was enjoying this shindig way too much.
   “Only because I didn’t think to shoot at you in time, you dang-fool rookie!” Sharpears barked. “Where’d you get that… that… brush-cutter? What in the name of the Old Gods is that thing?”
   Swift loosed another burst toward the creek bed to the north. “Something an Army Colonel named Thompson designed back before the Shattering. They found its drawings in a filing cabinet. Only just now got its problems worked out.”
   It was a stubby little carbine, with vertical grips in front and back and a big steel ammunition drum hanging down in front of the trigger. It looked all the stranger because its grips were silvery metal rings that looked to be shaped to fit Swift’s hoof-hands perfectly.
   “Works pretty good, don’t it? My brother sent it to me. He knows some good gunsmiths.”
   “You’re never going to hit anybody as far away as the creek, if that fires the standard pistol shells,” I told him.
   “Don’t have to. As long as it keeps ’em at a safe distance, that’s enough for me.”
   “You might have a point.” Something moved by the foundations of the destroyed ranch house. I took a shot in that general direction.
   Swift pulled a tear gas grenade from his belt, but it was painted blue, which meant it was practice ammunition. “Wind from there, so…” He pulled the pin and tossed it out. Bhawooof! White smoke shot into the sky.
   “What’s that for?”
   Boom-pow! Something thudded far away, something else exploded nearby; both sounds arrived at almost the same time. “Mountain howitzer,” Swift said. “Smoke tells ’em where not to shoot. Father always said artillery was the toughest weapon for soldiers to face, and I expect he’s right.”
   “Where the hell did you get a howitzer from?”
   “Cheyenne. It sure as heck ain’t mine—Baylor’s here! Got all the Marshalls he could gather, and a couple troops of mechanized cavalry too, with motorcycles and three armored cars.”
   “Damn,” Sharpears said. “We’ve been rescued? We ain’t never gonna live this down!”

   We camped in Lusk that evening, in and around the school building. Sharpears, Swift, and I slept just outside the walls. Somehow a patch of lush grass had survived here, along with some juniper shrubs that had been landscaping once.
   “So you ran away on purpose,” Sharpears said. His tone said he didn’t want to believe it.
   “Sure did,” the jackalope replied. “You had the soddy for cover, and me being there or not wouldn’t make any difference. I can’t shoot worth a darn with a standard rifle or sidearm.”
   “You do all right with that daisy-cutter of yours…” I said.
   He stroked it. “Yes, and I’m not letting go of this puppy. It’s modified to fit my hands, so it had better work for me! No, I figured you’d hole up in the soddy—left my packhorse and my supplies there for you. I had to get out while I still could, before they trapped me, too. Somebody had to go for help, obviously. And I wouldn’t want to insult you, Deputy Sharpears, but I don’t rightly think you can outrun a fourlegger horse.”
   “But you’re saying you can.”
   “Can and did, sir. The horsemen weren’t much of a problem. The wolves, now, they were smart. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were feral-blooded, not natural. But when wolves go for you, they try to get you to circle. Natural prey will do that—but I didn’t. And then after I’d outrun most of them, I stood my ground, built a fire, and that’s what I used to fight off the last of ’em. Whether they can speak English or not, fourlegger wolves don’t like fire.”
   “And then you ran all the way back to Cheyenne to get help. Eating flowers and sagebrush all the way.”
   “Only as far as Ten Mile Fork; they have a telephone. As for the flowers and stuff—” Now he reached over and cut off a branch of a juniper bush with that hoof-hand of his, snip, just like that. He took a bite of it. “As for the flowers and stuff, you folks just don’t know what good eating is, that’s all.”
   He’d snipped off a juniper branch with his fingers. Those things are tough! Damn. “You can’t enjoy eating thatI said.
   “Sure do!” he said with a smile. “Tastes just like gin.”
   Sharpears shook his head and snorted in disgust. “That daisy-cutter gun of yours, and now this. What’s your name, Rookie?”
   Swift looked confused. “Elijah Swift.”
   “Nah—damn rookies can’t get anything right. Your name’s Cutter.”
   Swift took another bite of his juniper branch, looked at the sky, and nodded wisely. “Cutter Swift. Yeah, that works.”
   I’ve been wrong about people before, and might just be I was wrong about this kid. I think he’s going to fit in just fine.

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