Wednesday, February 10, 2016

By Dave Mallegol

3000 BC

Chapter #1

Daven and the Botai

It was an early midsummer morning when I awoke to the smell of pan cakes and tree syrup, a new breakfast meal we had learned about from our friends, the Finns.  I had been thinking about these people lately, even without the pleasant reminder provided by the food, since members from their clan were expected to arrive at our village today.

My wife, Ildiko, called to me, “Good morning, Daven.”  I rolled over in our sleeping rack.  Our fifteen-year-old son, Marc, and his fourteen-year-old brother, Arno, were already out of our pit-house, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Liffey, was helping her mother with the cooking.  Their chatter was good to hear as I stretched and got up.  I pulled on my horsehide pants and shirt and washed my face in a clay basin.  I pushed my long black hair away from my face and  went to my beautiful, brown-haired wife of almost seventeen years and hugged her, lifting her off the ground.  She laughed and I put her down to hug my daughter in the same manner.

After a delicious breakfast, I said goodbye and headed to the horse pit-house where I found Marc and Arno grooming and feeding our horses.  Most of the work was already done, so there was not much for me to do except smile my appreciation.  One horse, called Boomer, was the animal I usually rode, but I had a second stallion that was a son of the very first wild horse we tamed, the great steed that my older son, Mikl, had caught and called Gray Boy. 
Last year we extended the side of our horse pit-house, which is a structure built partially below ground, to make room for additional mounts.  My sons and I added water to the trays for all the horses in this pit-house, along with fresh hay and grains that our clan’s women and men gathered each week.  We had just finished with these chores when I heard a familiar voice call to me, “Daven, you old man, what is this I hear that you are the lead hunter for this village, once again, after all these years?”

It was my good friend, Victor of the Finns.  He and his second in command, a man called Saabs, had arrived, along with their wives.  I greeted both men with the hunter’s clasp, a custom whereby each man grabs the forearm of the other.  That was not enough of a greeting for old friends, so a big bear hug followed.  I had not seen Victor and Saabs in two years, and I would never forget how I had met them initially when I needed their help to defeat the primitive warriors known as the Smolens, fifteen years ago.  This current visit was to discuss the recent raids by an unknown aggressor, so once again our meeting involved an enemy.

I smiled and said, “Yes, Victor, what you have heard is true, I am the lead hunter once again.  But I am glad of it.  I was gathering dust and getting bored, and to tell the truth I missed leading the men.  I will explain just how this came about and bring you up-to-date with what is happening here at the Botai village.  But Ildiko is cooking for you at our pit-house, so let’s walk as I talk.  She has made some of your famous pan cakes, and they are waiting for you.”

On our way to my pit-house, I said, “As you might remember, after the war with the Smolens, I gave up my responsibilities as the lead hunter and turned the duties over to a man called Nicholas, the younger brother of Alex, our new leader—or as we call him, our Oldson.”

Victor replied, “I certainly know Alex, and I remember his brother too.  But I hated to see you step down.  You are the best hunter I have ever known, and when it comes to war, there is no one who comes close to you.  I feel sorry for those who might be on the wrong side of the next war with you, now that you are back from gathering cob webs.”  He laughed.

I nodded and said, “I hope we never see another war.  I have had enough of them.  You might recall that my old friend, Bruno, was in favor of both of us stepping aside so others could lead.  Bruno told me that he had been the Oldson of the Botai for long enough.  I remember when he said, ‘It is time for others to take over and for you and me to roam the mountains and explore new lands.’  His words sounded good to me at that time.

Bruno had a large family with his second wife, Jewel, and several married children from his first wife, who was deceased.  I had three children, and I wanted to be free to spend more time with Ildiko and to explore to the north with Bruno and see country that none of us has ever been to, so I stepped down.  It was a good decision for Bruno but not a good one for me.  I missed my job as lead hunter every day.

Saabs asked me, “Where did Alex come from?  I thought you told me once that he was not a Botai by birth.  Am I right?”

“You are right,” I replied.  “Alex was not born a Botai.  He comes from a Russian tribe far to the north.  He was taken captive by the Mongols many years ago when he was still a boy.  He cannot remember the name of the village where he comes from.  We rescued him and his brother from the Mongols, as well as Jewel and her evil sister, Tangee, and several others.  Some of the captives stayed with our relatives, the Krasnyi Yar, and some came here to live at the Botai village.”

“How is it that Alex became the leader of a clan he was not born into?” Victor asked me.

“Alex was a leader from the first day he arrived, and he was the right choice to succeed Bruno. He is smart, strong, and well respected, especially among our young hunters, yet the experienced men follow him easily as well.  Our wise elders agreed that he was the best man to lead the Botai.  You probably recall his winning the wrestling contests at the Summer Gatherings for many years.  Alex was ready.  However, our new lead hunter, Nicholas, was not fully prepared at that time to lead the hunters, so I stayed at his side as his mentor.”

Victor asked, “I assume this new man did not do so well, and you took over again?”

I responded, “Nicholas was a very good hunter and did quite well.  He just needed more experience.  I was his trainer and guide as he worked his way into his new role.  I was there to advise him and teach him.  I did this by letting him come up with his hunt plan by himself, and I reviewed it with him before we went on the actual hunt.  After the hunt, Bruno and I went over what happened and if we felt it was a success or not.  We also talked about what we could have done better.” 

Saabs asked, “How well did this man called Nicholas do?”

“Nicholas progressed very well.  He led many hunts for bears, aurochs and horses.  Bears and horses present danger, but aurochs are the most difficult animal to kill because of their huge size and power.  They weigh many times more than a horse, but while they are very strong they are slow.  We simply wound them and follow them and wound them again and again until they are so weak that they cannot run anymore.  Then they stand and face us.”

Victor laughed.  “I imagine you have found the bears easier to kill.” 

“Yes, but only because we now have trained dogs from your man called Lions.  Before this, I would say that bears were the most dangerous of all.  Now, the dogs do most of the work.  But hunting horses is another story.  They are fast, and they fight, kick and bite when they are attacked.  As you know, we Botai are somewhat different from you Finns because we hunt for meat more than we herd animals, although we now graze sheep just like you.”

“So what happened with Nicholas?” Victor asked, still pressing for why I resumed the role as lead hunter of the Botai.

“The last horse hunt was where Nicholas had a problem.”  We neared my pit-house as Victor and Saab’s wife approached from another direction, and our conversation stopped for greetings.
Robert L. Bacon
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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

By Pete and Judy Ratto

Chapter 1

The woman in the sunburst yellow dress settled behind a small boy who stood between his parents in the front row. In her carefully chosen spot, she would have no problem seeing the senator. More important, he would be able to see her.

Following the presidential candidate’s schedule occupied most of her time. She knew him, and his routines. He was a clever politician, a clever man. At one time, she admired that about him. In spite of his womanizing history, she’d held him in high esteem. She hadn’t cared about the rumors of his less-than-ethical political acumen. He was bright and confident. Like her, he knew what he wanted and achieved it. The one thing he lacked was loyalty. That was his one unforgivable flaw.

A momentary stab of rejection cut through her as crushing memories of betrayal clamored to the forefront of her mind. Another staunch memory held them at bay, protecting her as always from thoughts that could leave her filled with rage or shattered from distress. I did what I had to. He gave me no choice.


Rows of supporters without access to the ticket-only event stood shoulder to shoulder, necks stretched and ready for a coveted glimpse of the man who could be the next president of the United States. Young and old mingled together, most dressed in patriotic colors and wearing Grayson for President buttons. Tabloid reporters and photographers took strategic positions at the iron-gated entrance to the prestigious institution.

The mainstream press had already set up their sound and video equipment on Columbia University’s south lawn. Amsterdam Avenue was closed for two blocks north and south of 116th street. With the absence of thru traffic, the cacophony of city activity hummed in the distance. Escalating murmurs obscured the honking horns, worn, grinding transmissions, and truck trailers loaded with goods booming as they slammed into the streets’ deep potholes. Area residents, intent on going elsewhere, glanced at the restless group and at the clouded sky. Briefcases and umbrellas in hand, they hurried to subway stations or Columbus Ave to hail a cab.


She’d been waiting for the event to begin since spectators and press had started to arrive. Turning toward the reporters at the campus entrance, she caught a brief glance from one of them. She almost shook her head in reproof when he gave her a slight nod. Instead, she ignored his acknowledgement and vowed not to look his way again.

She checked her phone for the time. It was still early, but she could be patient. Another half hour was nothing compared to the years she’d waited for what she deserved or rather, what he deserved.


As if on cue, stubborn puffs overhead gave way to a glorious blue sky on the warm August afternoon. Mounting shouts and whistles alerted all to the arrival of a line of black vehicles crawling at the curb north of the entrance. Men and women clothed in dark suits, more apt for a funeral than a summer outdoor event, exited onto the street. With serious faces, they scrambled to organize their positions before the guest of honor emerged. By all the staff and security Senator Grayson utilized, one would think he’d already won the election. Some criticized his self-importance. Those who knew him well commended his prudence.

All who gathered cheered as presidential candidate Senator Todd Grayson exited one of the limousines. Skilled at working a crowd to his full advantage, Grayson took his time. Straightening to his full height, he smoothed the jacket of his lightweight, ivory linen suit. He looked like a white knight among his entourage of black-clad minions. He faced the street audience, threw up his hands, and waved.

A mass of hand-held banners and American flags flapped like a flock of gulls vying for a prized clam. Classically tall, dark, and handsome, he had as many men fawning over him as he had women. Not since JFK had a presidential candidate charmed a constituency as Grayson had.

Grayson’s staff paved the way for him to enter the campus, shielding him from direct contact with those crammed behind the barricades. In a move that was either spontaneous or a well-contrived plan, the senator turned and walked in the opposite direction and began to shake peoples’ hands. The crowd went wild with whoops and shouts for attention. Surrounded by his campaign staff, his personal counsel Douglas Cain, and his bodyguards, he navigated among potential voters like a rock star.

Grayson stretched over the wooden barriers grasping as many hands as he could. Men removed their caps in respect, nodded, and returned strong, steady shakes. Women squealed and clapped, some patting their beating hearts as if they might swoon. His broad smile bared perfect white teeth that contrasted with his golden skin. Grayson’s careful choice of attire, including the pale blue shirt and tie, conveyed the tranquility of sand and sea. You could hear sighs of contentment at Grayson’s touch.

As president, Todd Grayson would take care of you.

He moved to the end of the narrow walk and back again toward the campus, scanning the adoring crowd. Grayson slowed when he noticed a woman who appeared oblivious to the lively throng surrounding her. She stood still but for a subtle bob and sway, like a buoy when bumped by gentle ocean swells. Tall, with shoulder-length blonde hair, her bright yellow, sleeveless dress set her apart from all the red, white, and blue. Her white designer handbag hung on her shoulder and she clasped her hands low in front of her. Grayson watched her lift her hand to adjust her dark sunglasses. Sharp and adept at reading people, her stance unnerved him. He couldn’t see her eyes, but he sensed her stare. He would have thought she was blind except her head turned to follow his movement.

Douglas Cain nudged the senator’s arm, breaking the connection with the woman. “We need to move along, Senator, if we want to keep to the schedule.”

“I know, Douglas, but this is as important as a stump speech,” Grayson said, his practiced smile never leaving his face.

Cain had been with Todd Grayson from the start of the senator’s venture into politics. With Grayson’s reputation and past, his lawyer’s presence at all functions was paramount. About to enter the campus, where another group awaited the senator’s appearance, one of the tabloid reporters caught Grayson’s attention.

“Senator, you look well rested from your vacation in the Hamptons. What is your response to some of the negative pushback by your opponent regarding your position on defense spending?”

Grayson glanced at the reporter’s nametag. “Tom, it’s not my policy to waste time on the defensive—at least not until the debates. I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done, and that’s to present my ideas directly to the people. It’s the folks’ opinions that count.”

Those standing nearby nodded and applauded their approval. Before Grayson could turn away, the reporter asked another question. “Senator, is it true that you were involved with call girl Sheila Rand and a prime suspect in her murder?”

Grayson did not move. The rapid blinking of his eyes as he processed the question was the only indication he had not turned to stone. Sheila Rand.

He had not thought of the woman for sixteen years. It was true they’d had a brief affair, but he’d had an alibi for when she was murdered. Cain had taken care of it. He’d taken care of that and another matter.

A moment of recognition flashed through the senator’s mind. He whipped his head toward the woman in the yellow dress. A stream of perspiration dripped down his face as he desperately searched the crowd. Where is she? Was it her?

“Senator?” the reporter prompted Grayson.

Grayson eyed the reporter. Cain moved in to stand between them, but Grayson refused to be intimidated. He grinned.

“Tom, you need to check your facts before you ask questions that make you look foolish. I have nothing to hide. Sorry, but I’m on a tight schedule,” he said and allowed Cain to guide him away.

A grin still pasted to his face, Grayson’s thoughts swam with dredged-up memories of the past. His chest filled with anxiety. He couldn’t breathe. Grayson was drowning in thoughts of all that could go wrong. He looked at Cain, his protector—his life preserver. He exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The lawyer would deal with any fallout. That was his job.

Grayson shook off his concern and strode through the university’s gate to where he would give a rousing speech. Excited college students and faculty packed the stands. They applauded as he stepped to the podium. Another stage. Another performance. Everyone quieted and Grayson began the prepared rhetoric he knew would raise spirits and hopes. That was his job.

As his popularity tide rose, Senator Todd Grayson glided into the hearts and minds of those who would elect him to the most powerful position in the world. It would be smooth sailing, unless the long-ago matter of a murdered call girl surfaced and dragged his political career into a maelstrom of disaster.

Robert L. Bacon
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Friday, November 20, 2015

by Elma Schemenauer

Copyright © by Elma Schemenauer

Chapter 1

Municipality of Coyote, Saskatchewan, March 1940

Tina felt like liverwurst in a sandwich, trapped in the stalled truck between her dad and the man he wanted her to marry. Rich, boring Roland Fast.
From the looks of things, she might not survive to marry anyone. Freezing to death seemed more likely. All she saw through the windshield was blowing snow. Occasionally she glimpsed the fence beside the ditch they were stuck in. Beyond the fence, only a wilderness of white glittering in the afternoon light: no Saskatchewan prairie, no horizon, not even a telephone pole.
She stamped her boots, trying to warm her icy feet. She should never have agreed to come along and sketch Roland's horses. She liked horses, but getting stranded in a blizzard wasn't supposed to be part of the deal.
To be fair, she couldn't blame Roland and her dad. They weren't expecting this storm. It had howled in from the northeast with hardly a whimper of warning.
Her nostrils tingled with cold and the green-banana stench of Roland's hair oil. She pulled the collar of her jacket higher, nudging him with her elbow. "How about trying the ignition again?" If they got the truck going, they'd at least have some heat.
Roland slumped over the steering wheel, his apple-cheeked profile making him look younger than his twenty-eight years. "It's no use. This stupid truck isn't going to start."
"Don't blame the truck, Roland," Tina's dad said. "There's probably snow in the engine."
Roland's sigh puffed out white in the frigid air.
Tina almost felt sorry for him. According to Roland, his 1940 Ford was the most modern half-ton on the road. No other new model had such a powerful engine. But all that horsepower under the hood was useless without a spark to get it going.
Something like her and Roland. There wasn't any spark between them.
Her dad shifted on the seat, jostling her onto Roland's wide shoulder.
She edged away. "Could we brush the snow out of the engine?" she asked, sounding more hopeful than she felt.
Roland gave her a bleak smile, his face too close to hers. "I doubt it in these conditions."
"Okay, I just thought I'd ask." She didn't know how Roland felt about her. Not knowing made her nervous. He was awkward with women, but she sometimes caught him watching her with a certain softness in his eyes.
Whether he was interested or not, she should quit letting her parents throw them together every time she came home from Vancouver. She should simply tell her folks, "Look, I don't want you interfering in my life. I'm a grown woman; I've got a job in the city. Anyway I'm in love with someone else."
She shuddered to think of the avalanche of questions her parents would ask. She wasn't ready to answer them, not yet.
The wind whooped around the truck, rattling the windows.
Roland reached behind the seat, grabbed his hat, and plunked it over his blond curls. "I think we should walk to Frank's house. It's the closest."
Tina's heart jumped at the mention of the man she loved, but she kept her expression blank. She didn't want her dad or Roland guessing how she felt about Frank. They'd be shocked. Her dad would scold and rage. He wanted her to marry a church-going Mennonite, preferably the owner of this impotent truck.
She jerked her chin toward the bottle of pills in Roland's pocket. "What about your mare? I thought she needed that medicine."
"We'll get it to her as soon as we can, but we'll want someplace to get warm along the way." His voice reminded her of a radio announcer booming out news of Hitler's war.
Her dad rummaged under the seat, crowding her against Roland.
She moved away.
Her dad sat up, his head bobbing. "Roland, do you have any blankets? I think we should stay here till the storm lets up. It's too dangerous to walk in weather like this."
Roland shot him a narrow-eyed look. "Obrom, we've got no heat in here. We could freeze to death, even with blankets. This storm could last for days."
"We could freeze outside, too." Tina's dad pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and gave his nose a honk. "The snow's blowing too thick. We might get lost and wander around like drunkards."
"Not if we follow the pasture fence," Roland said. "It'll lead us right to Frank's." He raised his eyebrows at Tina. "What do you think?"
She peered out into the arctic blankness. If they stayed here, they'd probably freeze unless someone came along and helped them—not likely. If they braved the blizzard, they'd either reach shelter or die trying. "We can't be far from Frank's," she said. She remembered passing his neighbour's granaries before the storm hit.
"It's about a quarter-mile," Roland said.
Tina sucked in a chilly breath. "We can make it." It was better to face danger head-on than wait around to see what would happen, wasn't it? She reached into her pocket for her fuzzy woollen cap and tugged it down over her ears.
Her dad's brow puckered like it did when he was deep in thought. With all her heart Tina hoped she and Roland were making the right decision.
Her father sighed, then glanced from her to Roland as if they were a couple. "I guess you young people are right." He put on his cap and lowered the earflaps. Tina helped him tie his scarf over his nose and mouth. Then he opened the passenger door and she plunged out after him.
The wind hit her hard, whistling through her cap and making her ears smart. She pulled her scarf from under her jacket. Fighting the wind, she tied it over her cap.
Her dad motioned for her to follow Roland, who was ploughing through the ditch toward the fence. She struggled along in his footsteps with her father close behind. Snow spilled into her boots, shocking her with coldness.
The drifts were shallower on the pasture side of the ditch. Strands of barbed wire appeared and disappeared between blasts of snow. God willing, that elusive fence would lead the three of them to her boyfriend's house. Tina dared to smile. The good Lord must have a sense of humour.
"We'll walk in the pasture, away from the ditch," Roland bellowed above the yowling wind. He set one boot on the lower wire of the fence, held it down, and lifted the upper one, creating a gap for Tina to climb through. She scrambled between the wires, careful not to catch her jacket on the barbs, then stepped aside as her dad and Roland ducked through.
"Come on," Roland called, heading along the fence. "Single file. Stay together."
Tina followed, admiring Roland's boldness in spite of herself. She knew why her parents wanted her to marry him. He was strong, worked hard, and came from a family who had owned an estate in the old country. Roland's ancestors had the same Dutch-German-Mennonite background as hers. According to her folks, that shared heritage would make a solid foundation for marriage and children.
But Roland was as boring as turnips compared with Frank. Her Frank was hot peppers, red cabbage, and wild mushrooms. He was adventure, music, and laughter. Some people said he didn't have the gumption to buckle down to farming, but they didn't know him like Tina did. He just needed a good woman to settle him down.
Her hands ached with cold, even in the coyote-skin mittens Frank had given her. She clenched and unclenched her fists, trying to get her circulation going, then peered over her shoulder to see how her dad was doing. His tall figure loomed through a whirling smoke of snow. The scarf over his nose and mouth was white with frost from his breath clouding into the air. She motioned for him to shift the icy patch away from his face and turned to follow Roland again.
She didn't see him. Where was Roland? She took a few steps forward, feeling like a ship without a rudder, and almost bumped into a lumpy snow-covered mound. It seemed big, wider than an outhouse though not as high.
"Tina!" Roland's shout came from ahead and to her right. "This way."
A bolt of relief shot through her as she spied Roland chugging along beyond the obstacle. She checked to make sure her father was still behind her, then followed Roland, grateful for the partial shelter offered by the mound of whatever it was.
A rock pile. Of course. Frank's father had picked tons of rocks off his land when he farmed here. This must be one of the places where he'd chosen to dump them. She fought the wind to the far side of the rocks. Once she was clear of them, she caught sight of the fence again and turned to wave to her dad.
He wasn't there.
Tina's heart fluttered like a bird caught in a fox's jaws. She drew a breath to call to Roland, then saw something long and dark slumped beside the rocks. "Roland," she shrieked, "something's wrong with Dad." She stumbled toward her father, fell, picked herself up, and hurtled forward.

Robert L. Bacon

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Friday, August 7, 2015

by Mike Hartner

Chapter 1

            I looked upon the gray waters that surrounded me.  To the west it was dark and cloudy, the wind blustering.  But as I braced myself against the gale hitting full force against my peacoat, I smiled.
            It was fitting that I was here, and nothing could ever convince me otherwise.  I’d been birthed on land but it wasn’t long afterward that I was on the water—and acquiring my sea legs.  From the time I could walk, I learned to balance myself on the uneven deck. And later to climb the gnarly spars and ultimately the sayles.  My parents taught me my numbers and to read and write as well.  Numbers, well, was my best subject, and I was good at that.  But my time at sea was what I loved the most.  In truth, the only fun I remember in my childhood was when they took me on our merchant ship from our home in Portsmouth to London or to Bristol.  It wasn’t the location that I liked or the end of the journey; no, for me it was the sayling, standing on the deck, listening to the wind, watching the ocean and the clouds and . . .  late at night . . . the stars.  I wanted to be on the sea forever, and I knew this from my very first time aboard ship.
            I remember very well every one of those trips, because during each voyage I would close my eyes and concentrate, and it was as if I were talking to the water.  And through a combination of waves and the ship’s motion, it felt as if the sea was in turn communicating with me. 
            I recall all of the journeys with my father and his good friend, Captain Jose.  The saylors on those ships were always good to me, and I came to respect all of them.  They taught me sayling while they went about their own jobs.  Even as a little kid I  was taught how to tie knots.  And when I was eleven they instructed me on how to throw knives and swing a cutlass.  Soon afterward I was taught how to prime, load, and shoot a musket.  But I turned up my nose at the musket, even the smaller flintlock pistols.  To me, there was no honor in this sort of fight.  No great talent was needed to shoot somebody.  Any idiot could pull a trigger.  In my mind, it required real skill to defeat a man, or woman for that matter, with a cutlass.   And, yes, I will take up swords against a woman.  Because, you see, I am one also.
            Captain Jose had been a friend of the family since before I was born.  He’d sayled with my father, James, and my mother, Rosalind.  I heard the stories of the trip from Kilwa, where I was born, and then to Portsmouth, where we now live.  I don’t know how they originally met because I haven’t been told that yet, but Captain Jose is so close to the family that I’ve always called him Uncle Jose or Uncle for short.
            Currently, I am not quite twelve years old, thin as a rail, a little over eleven hands high, and maybe weighing four stone soaking wet.  My hair is long enough to wear tied behind so it looks like the tail on a pony, but many men wear their hair the same way, so no one would know I was a girl just by looking at me.
            I was in the office of Crofter Shipping Yards one day when Uncle Jose called me to him said, “Come over here and sit down.”  He was always so nice to me that I never hesitated at any request of his, so I took a seat next to him.  He gave me a funny look, kind of sly but not really since he smiled right away.  “I’ve already talked to your parents, and both James and Rosalind agree with me.”
            I looked at him and fidgeted, not having a clue what he was going to say next.
            “You’ve sayled with your father and me all your life.  We brought you to Portsmouth on a carrack many years ago.  You’ve been on the caravel we sayled to Le Havre and on a special boat too, a cog—the one with just one sayle—when we sayled to London.”
            I nodded at him, but I was confused.  Had I done something wrong?
            “Mary, there is a caravel that will be leaving these shipping yards in a little over a week.  It's headed to the north of Scotland.  Seldom do pirates sayle these waters, so other than weather it will be relatively safe and . . .”  My eyes widened.  Was I getting the right message?  Was he really doing this?  Was he really going to make my dream come true?  “If you should be interested, I can schedule you to take your sayling tests in the next few days so you can be on that caravel and start out as part of the crew on this trip.  This way, you can see if sayling is really what you want to do.”
            I threw myself at Uncle Jose. “Yes, yes.  Please, yes.”
            He laughed.  “Then let’s go get you some sayling clothes and set you up to crew on your very first ship.  Then I’ll introduce you to the captain.”  I jumped up from my chair but Uncle Jose pointed to me so I’d  retake my seat.  His face turned solemn, almost to a frown.  “There’s something we need to discuss, and this won’t be easy to talk about.  I brought this up this with your parents, and they told me to go ahead and tell you.”
            Uncle Jose’s change of attitude was so great that I was startled.  “I don’t understand.”
            “I’ve already spoken to the captain, since I assumed you’d say yes.  And he assured me that his main crew will respect you as a girl and also as a Crofter.  But there are always new men brought on board.  And even though the regular crew is honorable as far as this captain knows, they are still men of the sea.  Mary, do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
            “Your crew was always wonderful to me.”  As soon as I said this I started to think back to all the times the men had helped me.
            “You were a young girl who was the daughter of the owner of the ship, and I was the captain who knew each man well.  If anyone had stepped out of line, he would have been run through or thrown overboard.  This will be different, and you must understand that you are older now, almost a woman if you aren’t already.  I don’t know how else to put it, but to say you will have to be on your guard at all times.  The captain will have a couple of his most trusted men watching over you, but even a caravel is a big enough boat that . . . well, no person can be looked after day and night.”
            I hadn’t given what Uncle Jose was talking about a single thought, but I wasn’t scared.  “I’m not saying I can take down a saylor, but I know how to defend myself, and Mother has taught me how to hurt a man where it hurts the most.”
            Uncle Jose let out a muffled laugh that might’ve been a groan.  “Always know who’s around you, and be aware that you’re going to constantly have to prove yourself.”
            “Because I’m a girl?” I snapped, mad that I’d done so at Uncle Jose.
            “Yes,” he came back just as fast, but then he smiled and showed his big teeth.  “Just be aware that nothing I have said was with the intent of trying to talk you off the boat.  I just don’t want you—”
            “Uncle Jose, I’ve heard the men talk on the boats since I was first able to walk the decks.  Sometimes I’d hear things that I know I wasn’t supposed to, and as I got older many saylors didn’t even think I was not one of them, so I’m not unaware that men are going to be men at times.  I can handle myself, I promise.”
            “Let us hope you don’t have to.”  He stared hard at me.  “At least with the crew.”

Click the link to read more of I, MARY or to purchase this book on Amazon.

Robert L. Bacon

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

by Sheryl Dunn



Loring Jeremias is tempted to turn back, but this decision is not reversible. No. She's come too far and given up too much. The time to reconsider is past. 
In the late fall chill, she quickens her pace along the forest trail, the ground hard and frozen beneath her moccasins. The winter snows have yet to fall in Jackson, Wyoming, and for this, she is grateful. The sawed-off shotgun digs through the backpack into her waist. She shrugs its weight to the side, rubs her hands over her arms to warm them, and forces her fingers deep into her gloves. Her mouth is so parched, her lips cling to her teeth.
     The fog forms and fades away, only to form again in different shapes, hunters...witnesses.
Don't think. Just get it done.
Beside the Snake River, trees pierce the haze. Tendrils of fog slither down the alder standing alone in the center of the clearing, and she imagines them creeping along the ground toward her. Magpies tch, tch, tch. An eagle screeches, wings flapping, and the river churns in the distance.
At the side of the clearing, she clambers over a fallen pine, and crawls under the boughs she arranged so meticulously the day before. The laces on one of her moccasins have come undone. She ties them, this time with a double knot, loads the tranquilizer pistol and settles down. It shouldn't be long now.
 Nothing obstructs her view of the pathway leading from the town to the river. She rests her arms on the log, and waits.
Something crawls up her neck. She swats at it; a spider lands on her arm. She coughs back a scream, and brushes it off. After a time, her knees ache and she shifts on the damp leaves, releasing a whiff of mold and decay.
A twig snaps.
Her hand tightens around the dart pistol.
Please let it be Devlin.
He's whistling, a tuneless wheeze she's heard before, and he carries a plastic bag. She knows what's inside: a Sears catalog with pictures of children in their back-to-school clothes.
 Will he take a leak as he did yesterday and the day before? She tries not to breathe.
He hangs the bag on a branch of the alder and unzips his fly. Urine steams against the tree. He grunts, zips up and paws for the bag.
The dart won't kill him, but if they find him before the Medetomidine-Ketamine dissipates...
Too many ifs.
 She fires.
 "What the fuck?" He grabs his rump, yanks out the dart, and frowns.
 She rises and shakes the branches from her shoulders.
 His hand grasps for the tree. He stumbles and drops to his knees, as though praying for forgiveness.
Damn, he's going to fall forward. She wants to rush to him, to prop him up, but she waits for the drug to take effect.
He rubs his eyes and squints. He's hallucinating. She can hear her own ragged breathing over his mumbled gibberish.
When he falls forward on his hands and knees, and leans to the side, she scrambles to him, props him up with her hip. She places the shotgun on the ground, picks up the dart and jams it into its case in the pocket of her vest. One piece of evidence out of the way.
His eyelids flutter, his jaw sags, and when his head nods, she rolls him onto his back the way she learned in First Aid. It's easier than she thought. Too much beer and age have thinned his bones, wasted his muscles.
With her arms under his armpits, she drags him and props his back against the tree. His body remains upright. No need for the rope in her backpack to keep him in place.
Fetid whiffs of sweat and mothballs rise from his wool jacket. She holds her breath, picks up the shotgun and confirms the chamber is empty.
To test the suicide position, she wedges the gun barrel into his chin with the butt on the ground between his legs, close to his groin.
His eyelashes . . . long and curled like a child's. He was someone's child once. But so was she.
She needs his prints. He's right-handed--for days she watched him open doors, drink beer, and scratch his nose, all with his right hand. But early in the morning, in the woods, and free from the vigilant eyes of the locals who tried unsuccessfully to run him out of town, he turns the pages of his scrapbook with his left hand. His special pictures. His special children.
She places his right hand around the trigger guard, shoves the thumb into the slot, presses hard, removes the hand and clamps the fingers and thumb around the stock and again on the action and barrel. Except for the area around the trigger guard, she repeats the process with his left hand, near the muzzle end, compressing thumb and fingers into the barrel, and steadies it under his stubbled chin.
Satisfied, she removes the box of shells from her pocket, keeps two, and scatters the rest on the ground. She presses his fingers onto the box and on the shells.
From the backpack, she pulls out the drop sheet, shrouds her body from head to toe. She finds the armholes and ensures the gun is in the proper position, but when she tries to chamber a shell, the grip won't move.
She pumps.
She pumps again.
Thunk. The grip loads.
She drops to her haunches and rams the barrel under his chin. The world pauses, waiting for her to fall. She remembers to breathe.
Gritting her teeth, she thinks about the children and squeezes the trigger.
Sound waves blast through her and beyond. And blood, so much blood. Brain tissue gushes onto the drop sheet, splatters on the tree, startling her even though she memorized the after-effects of shotgun suicides.
Wave upon wave of nausea. Gagging sounds.
Hide. Anywhere. Anywhere but the closet, that musty closet, behind Mommy's muskrat coat.
But she mustn't run. She cannot leave evidence. She has done what she had to do; now she must save herself and the others who depend on her to escape.
She sacrifices stealth for speed, rises and folds the sheet into itself and away from her. An alert forensic investigator might notice a gap in the splatter pattern where her body shielded the ground, but the investigators might be parents. A parent might choose to overlook many things.
Or might not.
Perhaps animals will disturb the site and cover her tracks.
Hurrying now, down the bank to the river, rinsing the drop sheet, folding it into itself, resisting the urge to plunge into the river until her soul runs clear, stuffing the drop sheet into a green garbage bag, cramming it into her backpack.
She's still alone. Still safe.
She hangs a camera around her neck, and pulls an orange vest over her camouflage jacket. If other hunters come, she'll say she was hiking, taking pictures, heard the shot, and found him.
She will cry. It won't be difficult to cry.
One last check of the site. Devlin's bag still hangs on the tree. Would he have brought it today? No, not if he intended suicide. She shoves it into the backpack. Are there furrows where she dragged him? A few. She scuffs the dirt with a fallen branch.
Where's the spent shell?
It should be on his left. No, his right.
She can't see it. She should be able to spot the red casing.
Did she trap it in the drop sheet and flush it into the river? What if she can't find it?
Tears push at her eyes. It must look like a suicide. She cannot fail now.
She steps back. "Calm down. Breathe." She's muttering, but can't stop.
With a stick, she checks up and down his clothes.
She pokes the leafy debris.
A glimpse. Red plastic and brass still in the chamber. How could she have forgotten? Pump-action shotguns don't eject the shell until the next round is chambered. She swallows to moisten her tongue and struggles to her feet. When she checks her clothes and her moccasins, she can't see any evidence. No obvious bloodstains, no brain tissue. She backs away from the body, shoulders the backpack and slides the straps over her jacket.
To survive now, she must leave unseen and she must forget, but forgetting is not one of her skills.
Along the trail, she prays they'll find his body soon, that she'll read about his suicide in the Jackson Hole News and Guide when she checks the Internet back in New York. A pointless prayer because what will be, will be, and that's okay.
The sun breaks through the sky's stinging haze. She feels exposed. Someone is shining a flashlight into her eyes, the closet door is open, and she can see Daddy's shoes, and Daddy, waiting.
At the edge of the forest, protected by the pines, she watches a Range Rover leave the Edelweiss Motel's parking lot and turn left onto Harbinger Road. When it chuffs out of sight, she slips out of the woods and into the end unit of the motel, changes her clothes, and cleans the room. She shuts the door behind her, throws the backpack into the trunk of her nondescript Ford and drives away.
For the first hundred miles, she fights back nausea, and grips the steering wheel with whitened knuckles until her hands cramp. Gunshot echoes rumble in her ears.
Will they ever disappear? She wants to forget them, but she won't. She knows she won't.
At the second hundred-mile interval, she buries her moccasins and the drop sheet in the woods. At the third, she rips the Sears catalog to shreds, imagining that same catalog sitting so openly, so innocently on the coffee tables of homes with children. She stuffs the pieces into the bag, buries it, and tries not to think about the picture of a little girl she knows, holding a Barbie doll, Gold Jubilee edition.
The dirt settles over the bag. She exhales and straightens her shoulders. 
Later, deep in the woods, she digs one last hole, burns her hunting clothes and gloves, and buries the ashes.
From time to time along the way home, she pulls over and tries to sleep in the back seat, a shallow sleep, floating on top of a pond roughed by the wind.
In Summit, New Jersey, she parks the car in a garage she rents under a false name, and changes into a navy business suit.
She will take the Transit to Hoboken and the P.A.T.H. train to the subway. She'll ride the elevator to her office. There, she'll search for hints of suspicion in her colleagues' voices, and pretend to be normal. She's had a lifetime of pretending to be normal.
Perhaps her next murder will be easier.


Robert L. Bacon

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Adventures of The Bronze Horsemen
by Dave Mallegol

                                                               3000 B.C.


I was positive he was the same man, the one from the Smolens who killed my mother and my father twenty-five years ago. He had the scar on his shoulder from when I wounded him with my child’s bow. He also had the long scar that ran from the top of his head, across his face, and down to the point of his chin. His real name was Carcusa, but because of his face, everyone knew him as Scarman.

I am Daven, lead hunter and second-in-command of the Botai. Bruno is our leader—our oldson—and my longtime friend. It was Scarman and the Smolens who drove us from our home village so long ago.

The village controlled a valuable reindeer migration route. Every year the animals migrated to the north, and we took what meat we needed for the next six months. When the herd came south to avoid the harsh winters, we did the same thing. The herd provided all the protein we needed. At that time, we were a small group of twenty-two men, women, and children, known as the Horse Clan. We had two related clans who still hunted and gathered, rather than settle into a village as we did. We saw them occasionally on hunts and at the annual summer gathering.

Bruno and I were children when the Smolens, led by Scarman, attacked without warning, again and again. The attackers wanted our village, because of the location and the meat it provided us. My parents and several others were killed in those raids. When just fifteen of us were left, the oldson decided that the Smolens were too strong for us. He said we could not fight them any longer, and we relocated to our present village on the Ishim River across the great Volga River. As a young man, I vowed to take our original homeland back some day. It is a vow I have not forgotten.

The last time I saw Scarman was when he attacked us the final time. I shot him with an arrow from my boy’s bow and ran for my life. Now, he was my captive. Yesterday, I chopped off four of the five fingers on his right hand, but he spit at me and refused to answer my questions. I let him agonize in pain overnight. Today, I returned with my bronze sword.

Bruno and I approached the two captives—Scarman and the ten-year-old boy—sitting on the ground tied to poles. Joining us were several hunters and one of the elder women, Emma, who spoke a language they could understand. I told Emma to repeat in her Finnish language the questions we had asked Scarman yesterday. She said, “What is your name, why are you here, and how many hunters does your tribe have?” Scarman sneered at me.

My anger was boiling with revenge for my parents, yet I had to gain as much information from this enemy as was possible. What I failed to hear was the comment made by the ten-year-old boy, the second captive, when he spoke late yesterday in his Finnish tongue. This morning he repeated his words, and Emma turned to me and said, “Daven, the boy says he will tell you everything you want to know, but only after the scout is dead.”

I replied to Emma in our Botai language, “It almost seems too easy to kill the scout and hope the boy can answer all my concerns. I will get more information from the scout before we turn to him. The boy may tell us everything he knows, but it might be only a small part of what the lead scout knows.” Bruno nodded in agreement.

Emma repeated my question. Bruno and Toth, one of our Hungarian friends, listened and watched, along with our clan leaders. The scar-faced man laughed at me, his hand still bloody from the damage I did to him yesterday. I raised my sword as a threat, and he spit in my direction.

His arrogance made me angry, which was the wrong thing for him to do at a time like this. I swung in a downward motion and chopped off part of his right foot. Bones splintered and blood spattered from the stub where his foot was a moment ago. Scarman knew his death was coming, and he writhed in pain. I looked at the piece of his foot lying on the ground and stuck my sword into it. I held the severed foot in his face until it fell off my blade in his lap. When he screamed, The boy shuddered in terror, and urine ran between his legs.

I let Scarman suffer for some time before I ordered three men to bring kindling wood. They made a fire a short distance from my prisoner’s remaining foot. He watched as the flames came to a full fire. I am sure he wondered what was coming next. He moaned and hung his head, but this was just beginning for him.

I had no trouble with what I was doing to him. This man had killed my mother by slitting her throat, and he killed my father in a fight to the death when the Smolens took our village. I let him feel the pain from his stump for some time. Then I ordered the men, “Push the fire close to his remaining foot.”

Scarman held his foot off the ground to avoid the flames, but it was only a matter of time before his leg tired, and he could not hold the foot out of the fire. The remaining foot came down, little by little, closer and closer to the flames. It started smoking, and the skin blackened as his flesh burned. He moaned again, the pain unbearable. His toes smoked and oozed a light-colored liquid that dripped into the flame and made it sputter. The smell of burning flesh was distinct and ugly—I felt as though I might throw up. Others in the pit house—a home that is built half under the ground and half above it—looked away, and some left. The young boy vomited whatever he had in his stomach and turned his head away from the scene.

I nodded to Emma, and she repeated my questions to the writhing scout. “What is your name, why are you here, and how many hunters do the Smolens have?” Scarman was in such terrible pain that he could not respond. His head sagged in defeat. Hopelessness was exactly what I wanted. His will was broken. Tough, mean men like this one can sometimes endure hard, sharp pain, but being burned piece by piece is not something anyone can endure for very long. This man Carcusa was one of the toughest, but his stubbornness was gone. He raised his good hand just a bit in surrender.

I ordered the fire pushed away from his foot. I let him feel the relief from the searing heat for a while before I approached him again. Emma took a breath, as if to ask the same question again, when he finally spoke. “My name is Carcusa. I am called Scarman.” He looked into my eyes and said, “I am your equal with my people, the lead scout and hunter for the Smolens.”

I stood over him and waited for the rest of the answer. His agony was obvious as he took short shallow breaths and exhaled rapidly. He said, “I was sent to find a village we Smolens could conquer for expansion. We have 140 people—over sixty fighters plus many boys who will become men by spring. They will come and kill you and your families if I do not return. A village this size will be no problem for them. They will destroy you. Your wives and children are already dead. My men will eat tender flesh from your children. Kill me, and you kill your families.” Emma translated word for word to be sure I understood exactly what he said.

I smiled. His threat was hardly worth a response. I took my time and questioned him for most of the morning, getting every bit of information possible from him. When I knew all that he knew, I reminded him of that day, twenty-five summers ago, when he led the attack on the Horse Clan who once lived where the Smolens live now. My sword pressed against the old scar on his right shoulder, causing a new trickle of blood. I made my point and spoke in an angry, unforgiving voice. “You got that scar from me when I was a boy. The long scar on your face is from my father, just before you killed him.” I asked him, “Do you remember my mother? You cut her throat in a raid two weeks before the day you killed my father.”

He raised his head, his pain obvious as he said, “I do not remember your mother. I do remember when I was wounded by your arrow, and I remember your father very well. He fought hard. I suffered for two moons from his knife. I have killed so many others that I do not recall the rest of them, like your mother. She is one of many and impossible to remember.”

I asked Bruno if he had any more questions. He did not. I asked Janos, Jon, and Mikl, as heads of their clans, if they had any more questions; they had none. George, a senior hunter, was present, although he was not a clan leader, and he shook his head when I looked in his direction. Toth, lead hunter of the Hungarians, asked, “Why were your men scouting my Hungarian village? Who sent them? Were they sent to find another village to conquer?”

The Smolens leader nodded his head. “Yes, they were part of a second scout team sent by my leader, Terracon, a fearsome man. The Smolens need more space and more food. We need to move south to get more distance between us and our enemies, the Finns. We have been at war with them for two years.” Scarman said, “The Finns are poor hunters and complain they do not get their share of reindeer meat. Terracon is an insane animal, a madman in human form. I have no doubt he will conquer this place and avenge my death.” I paid no attention to this dying man’s comments.

Mikl asked the captive, “Who is this boy, and why is he here with you?”

The Smolens scout was bleeding from the stump of one foot and the burns of the other one. He barely voiced his reply. “He is a worthless piece of dung, the son of my second wife. I brought him with me to teach him to be a man and to learn the ways of a scout. Do what you want with him. He is a weakling and worth nothing. He knows nothing more than what I told you.” I sensed the captive was trying to protect the boy, even as his own life was slipping away.

With no more to learn from this man, it was time for him to die. He knew it was coming. I had what I wanted—knowledge of the enemy. After all these years, I would have revenge for my parents, but death for this one would not be easy. I let him suffer for some time while I reminded him of what he had done to so many Horse Clan families and children. Carcusa lapsed in and out of consciousness. Every time he nodded off, I jabbed him in his shoulder to be sure he was awake. I stood to his side where he could see me and laid my sword on his head and sliced back and forth, cutting through his scalp. I let my sword rest there for a minute as blood ran down his face. He trembled in anticipation of my final move.

At the end, Scarman said, “Terracon, the man known as the Controller of the Earth, will avenge my death. He will rape your wives and mothers and cut up your children while you are made to watch. You will all die. My leader loves me more than he cares for his own brother. He will come when you least expect it. Do what you must do, but mark my words: Terracon will come for you, just as I did years ago.”

I had heard enough. I raised my sword and let him see it as I swung it in a wide circle. With one hard slash, I severed his head from his body. The head fell to the ground and rolled across the pit-house floor, leaving a bloody trail behind it. Carcusa’s ordeal was over. Alex and Nicholas, two of the former Russian slaves we had rescued and now members of the Botai, dragged his body to the river and threw it in. His head followed his body. Carcusa did not deserve a burial. The river rats and scavengers would be his companions from here on.

The captive boy slumped in a heap. He had passed out, yet he was still tied to his pole. He was uninjured, except for the arrow wound my guards gave him when he was captured a few days ago. To everyone’s surprise, I ordered the boy revived, fed, and given water. Patts, our lead medicine woman, sent her assistant, Elizza, to treat his injury. He stayed under guard until I went to him the next day.

I approached and had Emma ask him, “Do I need to build another fire and roast your feet, or do you want to tell me what you know? It is your choice. Talk to me, or die as your leader did.”

The boy shook his head and responded in his Finnish language, “No, hunter, you do not need the fire.” The Finn language he spoke was very similar to the Hungarian language that Ruth, Emma, and Toth spoke as their native tongue. They understood very well what he said. I was also familiar with Hungarian, because I was married to Ildiko, my wife from the Hungarian people. I knew many of his words.

I ordered the boy, “Tell your story. Tell it once, and let it be the truth. I will not ask you twice. If you lie to me, you will die as your companion died, by fire. Your death will not be easy. If you tell the truth, I may have other plans for you.”

The boy spoke freely. “I was born a Finn. The Finns are a large tribe separate from the Smolens. My people hold the territory to the north of the village. For many generations, the two tribes put up with each other pretty well until the Smolens did something bad, which led to a war that lasted for two years.”

He shifted uncomfortably, but went on with his story. “After a long cold winter, food ran out for the Smolens and many starved to death. It did not affect us as much as you might think, because we herd sheep and work hard at farming. While we were on this journey, Scarman told me that so many died in his village with no food and that many of the survivors turned to cannibalism before that terrible winter was over. Infant children died first, then elders, and then the weakest of the adults. He said that members of a clan were not allowed to eat their relatives, but they were allowed to eat members of other clans. If the Smolens herded sheep as we do, they would have survived.

“My people herd sheep and hunt reindeer during the spring and fall migrations. As a result of farming and hard work, the Finns have a good supply of meat and grains, even during the worst winters. When the spring reindeer migration finally started that year, the Smolens, who were starving to death, killed off the first animals of the herd. When they killed the lead animals, the migration stopped. Without the leaders, the rest of the herd panicked and scattered in every direction. The herd never reached our village or that of the Russians to the north of us.”

The boy swallowed hard—he’d been talking nonstop and clearly was thirsty, but we offered him nothing. I glared at him until he took up his story again. “The head man of the Finns, who is called Victor, meaning the ‘eagle,’ sent scouts to learn why there was no annual migration. That was when we learned that the greedy Smolens had killed off so many of the first animals that the migration stopped. Every year before that, the Smolens harvested weaker and older animals from the second half of the herd, and there was always plenty of meat for everyone.

“With no reindeer coming north that year, Victor had little choice. We could either survive on mutton alone or teach the Smolens a lesson. Victor and his clan leaders—one called Maada, a powerful man, and Saabs, a stocky, loyal clan leader—said that survival on mutton alone was not an option. The Finns launched a surprise attack on the Smolens, killed many of them, and took the reindeer meat the Smolens had already smoked for themselves.

“The first battle went well, with the Finns winning, but we were not able to kill enough of the enemy to win the war that day. The Smolens recovered well enough to form a defense, and the fight raged on for days. Days became weeks and more weeks of fighting. The Finns won some of the time, while the Smolens won other battles. Skirmishes and attacks went on for two years. Many hunters on both sides were killed and wounded, with whole families being taken as hostages. In the end, fifteen of our men were killed and many were wounded. I heard from Scarman that the Smolens had about the same number killed and many more wounded.”

He shook his head, whether in resignation or sadness, I did not know. “After a while, the big battles slowed down due to so many lost men on both sides. The problem was that the Smolens never stopped raiding our herders and stealing our animals when the Finns grazed sheep at distant locations. They have killed at least ten men and taken their wives and children as captives. My family is among the captured leaders. My people are uncertain when it comes to another fight. We are not a warlike people; we are herders. Victor says with the continued attacks, we have little choice. We will have to go to war again at some point.

“My family has a long history as the best sheep herders in the area. We were with our animals at a distant grazing location the day I was captured, along with my father, mother, brother, and two sisters. That man you tortured and killed yesterday—Carcusa … ‘Scarman’—he told me the story of when he first attacked your old village and how he got the scar. He was proud of winning the fight with your father. He killed my father and my older brother as part of a celebration.

“He beat my mother into submission and took her as his second wife. She did not give in to him at first and paid a hard price with beatings and very little food. Finally, after several weeks of bad treatment, she gave in to him, probably so my two sisters and I would be fed. They remain in the Smolens village right now. I respected Carcusa for his knowledge and the way he protected me, but I had no love for him. I often thought that I should try to kill Scarman to get even for what he did to my father and my brother, but I had no chance if I had to fight him. Still, I thought about killing him, maybe in his sleep, but as you saw, when I was captured I had no weapons except a small flint blade for skinning game.”

Although I expected the boy to talk rather than face torture, I was nonetheless surprised that he spoke at such great length without needing any prompting. He was ready to tell me everything. “When Scarman and I left on this scouting trip, there were five Finn families—twenty-five people in all—still held at the Smolens village,” he went on. “The Finns have no possibility to escape, because the distance is too great and because they fear the Smolens. The women have been warned that they will be hunted down and their children will be killed if they try to escape. Mothers are told they will be made to watch their children die in front of their eyes. With their husbands and almost all their sons killed off, they have no hope. Scarman has another wife, but he has no boys from her, so he kept me from harm and adopted me. In that way, I owe him my life, but I hated the man for what he did to my family.

“I can tell you everything you want to know about their number of hunters and their weapons. They have no bows that look like yours, and they have no horses. They are hunters on foot. They use the old-style bows, like the one Scarman carried, and they have copper axes, but no swords. Their knives are flint, not metal like the blades you carry.”

I wanted even more information and asked him, “What foods do they have? What is the size of the village, and how many hunters do they have?” I realized I hardly remembered the old village, other than the most basic facts: the main trails, the river, and the general location.

Others were gathered in the pit house with me—my son Mikl, Toth, Bruno, George, and Jon, Bruno’s son listened while I asked questions. Occasionally, one of the wise elders, Emma, suggested another question for the boy. Two other elder women, Ruth and Judy, also listened attentively, as did Patts, our medicine woman, and Diana, Bruno’s wife.

Fear showed in the boy’s eyes, but he went on with his story without hesitation. “I have heard the Smolens’ stories over winter campfires for the last two years. They moved south over twenty winters ago and attacked a small clan of people who held the village they now occupy. The move gave them some distance between themselves and the Finns, but they caused a war anyway. They grow nothing and raid our herders to survive. They live by old rules. They say it is their right to take what they need to survive. They hunt and gather whatever fruits and vegetables the land provides. They brag that the spirits sent the Finns to them for their use, almost as the spirits allow mountain lions to hunt goats.”

The boy closed his eyes momentarily, as if conjuring up images of what he was about to tell us. “The tales told at campfires over the long winter say the Smolens took a village with about twenty people. From what I heard you say yesterday, your people were the ones they drove out. I am wondering if some of the elders in this pit house might have been among them.” The boy looked at Emma, Ruth, and a few of the older men, like Bruno and me. He was right, but no one commented.

“The Smolens have 140 people and sixty or so hunters. Their number of hunters was greater, but at least fifteen were killed and a similar number are still recovering from wounds due to the war. They have plans to conquer a new village after the migration hunt. They will do what they always do—kill the men and boys and beat the women into submission. When Scarman threatened to eat your children, he meant it. I have seen it with my own eyes. They eat the hearts of their victims. They say it is not cannibalism. They say it makes them strong when they eat the hearts of their enemies.

“The Smolens have too many people for their village. The flat space for pit houses is filled, and the foods they gather are not enough. Now, the fruit trees are old and bear fewer apples and pears every year, and tubers and vegetables are harder to find. Wheat and oats have been harvested so many times that they grow back with less grain each year.”

I was amazed at how much this boy knew for his age. And now that he’d given so much information, he seemed almost eager to continue.

“Because the village is farther north than yours, and nearer to the mountains, winter is very cold, and it stays longer. To gather wheat and oats for bread, they must travel to the plains and carry the seeds back in baskets. The leader made an announcement last month. Terracon is the man who rules and who many claim is insane. He and his brother, Mercillus, announced that the Smolens would have plenty of food if half of them moved somewhere else. I know this, because Scarman told me the plans over an evening camp while we traveled.

“Because of food shortages, Terracon sent two teams of scouts to find another land. Your village and the big man’s village”—he pointed at Toth—“are the places to attack. Terracon remembered the Horse Clan as being weak. He told Scarman, ‘Enjoy your journey. I am sure the Botai are still weak to this day.’ We came to observe your village. The other two men were sent to scout the Hungarian people. One or the other was going to be attacked.”

Toth was a huge man. He growled his comments at the boy in a fearsome manner. “The two men he sent to my village were captured. They are both dead. I killed them. Scarman is dead too. You are the last scout left alive. If not for Daven”—Toth nodded at me—“and the leader, Bruno, I would chop you to pieces right here and right now!” To enforce his threat, he rested his grip on the handle of his sword, the one I’d given him after we took it from the Mongols last year.

The boy looked at Toth, an imposing man—tall, bearded, and threatening. Because the boy was not sure who was going to make the decision on whether he lived or died, he did not respond. I felt the young scout had told us all he knew. I did not consider him to be dangerous, other than that he might try to escape and return to his village to protect his mother. If that happened, my plan to attack the Smolens would no longer be a surprise. Naturally, I could not let him escape.

I made a bold decision without asking Bruno or anyone else in the room—I felt it was part of my role as the war leader for the Botai. I had an idea how the boy would become a key part of my plan. It all depended on whether he could be trusted and turned to favor us. From the story he told, I counted on him to seek revenge for his father and brother. Revenge and love are the two emotions that can drive a man—or in this case, a boy—to extraordinary efforts.

I untied the boy and turned him over to Patts. “Treat him for the arrow wound and feed him,” I told her. Before Patts could take him away, I asked his name.

“My name is Frank,” he responded. “In the Smolens village, they call me Frank the Finn. I am ten years old, but I will have my eleventh birthday before the next moon rises.”

I studied him cautiously and then said, “Frank the Finn, listen to me carefully as I explain your fate. For the next month, you will stay here in our village, not as a captive, but as a visitor. I want you to get to know us. Learn how we treat each other, how we think, and who we are. You will find that the Botai are no longer weak, as Terracon remembers us. We do not have the number of hunters the Smolens have, but we have more-powerful bows, and we ride and fight on horses, which doubles our ability to attack an enemy, even at a long distance from here. Our greatest strength comes from the many powerful friends we have. You do not see them here at our village today, except for the big man called Toth. With our friends, we far outnumber the Smolens.”

I took a step closer to him and looked directly into his eyes. I wanted him to pay close attention to my next words. “Frank, you will report to our medicine women every day. They will treat your wound. In a week you will be completely healed. After your daily medical treatment, you will go to Janos, the man standing to your left, and learn from him. This man is a clan leader and senior hunter. He has raised many sons and daughters and will treat you as one of his own over the next month. Every second day, you will find me after the evening meal, and you will tell me what you have learned.”

I then nodded toward the women present, pointing to them in turn as I said to the boy, “Your behavior will also be observed by our senior women. They are Judy, Ruth, and Emma. Show them the respect elders deserve. Think of your visit here as a one-month test. If it goes well, you will be free to make a choice of what you do after the month as our guest. If your visit does not go well, I will decide your fate. The choice is yours. Disobey my instructions and you will pay with your life as your leader paid with his.”

The boy looked at me in disbelief. Yesterday, he’d watched his leader and stepfather die a cruel death at my hands and no doubt expected the same for himself. Now, he was being treated as a guest. It seemed he did not believe his good fortune, or perhaps he thought it might be a trick.

My instructions were clear. “In order that Janos and I know where you are at all times, four bronze sheep bells will be attached to your wrists and ankles. For the next month, every movement you make will be known to us. At the end of every week, one bell will be removed, so you know your time is moving ahead, week by week. You have herding knowledge from your past life with the Finns. I expect you to help our herders with the herd of sheep kept here in the village. Herding is new to our people, so we need ideas on how to do it.

“If you escape, I will assume your story was one of lies. My hunters on horseback will run you down. A mounted rider can cover four or five times as much distance in one day as a ten-year-old boy on foot. Since there is only one trail around the south of the Ural Mountains, we will simply get ahead of you and wait for you to appear along the trail. You will be killed without an explanation.” I spoke not in a threatening tone, but in one that was matter-of-fact.

“If you try to go over the mountains instead of using the trail, it will be certain death due to the extreme cold at this time of year or because the wolves will take you for a meal. One or both of them will be your death if you take that route. You already know the power of our three curve bows if we have to hunt for you. I suggest you stay here and learn from us, rather than try to escape.” I looked him in the eyes and asked, “Do you have anything to say?”

Frank responded as I expected a captive might. “I will do as you tell me. I have no choice. I cannot run away with the wound I have, and I have no weapons. If I were to escape and return to the Smolens, they would treat me badly, especially when I report that Scarman is dead. Most likely, Terracon will suspect me of killing him and put me to death. If he kills me, he might also kill my mother and my sisters. I live to save them.”

Janos, Toth, and I studied the ten-year-old. I was certain he could be turned in our favor. He had everything to gain and little to lose. Toth pointed at the boy and said, “I would kill him right now rather than take a chance on his escape.” The boy shuddered with fear of the grizzled, powerful man and stepped closer to me. I advised Toth, “We will not kill him, at least for now. If he escapes, you will have the pleasure of hunting him down.” Toth grunted at my decision.

After Patts’s medical attention, Janos, Alex, and I walked the boy to our old craftsman, Tedd, who was working at some project in front of his pit house. I said, “Tedd, I want you to attach four sheep bells to this boy, one to each wrist and ankle.” He did not question me. The boy had no chance of removing a bronze bell. Only the biggest of our bellows could produce enough heat to melt bronze and certainly no flint tool could cut through the new metal.

The boy looked to Janos, who showed his fatherly side as he touched the boy’s head while Tedd heated the bronze. I had a future use for the boy and ignored Toth’s opinion. The Hungarian was not hard to understand. He was all about killing the enemy or being killed. The boy now understood that I was fully in charge. He also knew that if Toth was the lead hunter, he would already be dead.

Robert L. Bacon

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