The Long Range Forecast
by Dwight Krauss
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Conley peered hard to the northwest, crouching behind cover. “X1. H1,” he whispered. “Status.”
“One,” came back the reply, “take.”
“On me!” Conley called as he leaped up, releasing all the leads and hand directing the suddenly wild dogs to the upper left. “Hie! Hie! Hie!” he yelled to the point dogs and they yelled back, acknowledging the orders and Buford could hear them changing direction.
It was on, a mad crash through underbrush and woods, thorns tearing at Buford’s fatigues and hands and raising welts and blood lines as he kept his interval and stayed up, by God, stayed up with Conley, frantically searching the 180 for signs of ambush. Whoda thunk it? He was in a battle! Wow! Better than a deer kill. Emma, he sent her a thought, after this, I am a guard! If he lived through it.
That cautioned him and he got himself under control and stayed on Conley’s signals, which directed them right, then left, then fast, then slow, as the dogs moved. There was a sense of convergence and, suddenly, the dogs howled with one note and there were shouts from the front and Conley dropped a pointed hand forward and it was a run now, Buford forgetting his place and actually surging ahead of Conley to get there.
At the top of a hill, somewhat bare of trees, Buford saw two black-fatigued men standing careful, guns lowered, looking at something ahead of them. The dogs were baying somewhere past them and Conley stopped everyone with a dropped fist. He whistled once and one of the fatigues turned.
A MacGregor, and he waved everyone up almost cheerfully. Buford broke formation again in his eagerness and Conley palmed a stop. “Settle down there, Thirteen,” he said, “we still ain’t sure what we got,” and Buford faded back, chastened, somewhat mollified when Conley grinned good-naturedly.
Conley led the V short of the ridge and conferred with the MacGregor. There was a lot of gesturing and the dogs were still going at it until Conley shouted “Yo!’ and they cut their yelping to about a quarter. The relative silence was a relief.
Conley nodded them forward. Buford stepped to the ridge. They were on top of a slight bowl, enough of a depression to form a steep little run below. Another MacGregor stood down there with a shotgun, looking at ease. The dogs were arranged in a semicircle in front of a fair sized pine, heads lowered, growling, snapping, making little charges, impatient for Conley’s orders. Buford looked at what held their attention.
It was a man, slumped against the tree, breathing hard. His shirt was torn and so were his pants and you could see the welts and blood from his hard run through the forest. Buford sympathized. The man had a shock of black, unkempt hair, and his brown eyes were wild and waving over the dogs and the MacGregors and now the hunt. He was dark-skinned, coffee-colored. He raised a weak, imploring hand. “Por favor...”
“Pour fay-vor?” Conley mocked and that got a laugh from the group. Conley nodded at the far MacGregor. “Ask him.”
“De dónde es?” and that elicited a torrent of Spanish that Buford couldn’t follow, mandatory classes or no. MacGregor nodded and interrupted with sharp questions, “Quiénes? Cuántos? Cómo lejos?” and there was a pleading quality to the man’s uninterrupted word stream as he fixed on MacGregor, a look of hope on his face.
MacGregor waved him down as the stream of questions dwindled, smiled and said assuredly, “Voy a darle con algo para beber,” and then turned to Conley, the smile dropping immediately. “Says he’s lost, didn’t know anyone was up here. Deserted from a transportation unit located probably down near Roanoke. Was just looking for a place to call his own, start a farm, bring his family up when the fighting stopped.”
“Transportation, huh?” Conley looked at the man suspiciously. “What’d he drive?”
MacGregor asked and everyone understood the response, “Burros.” They all laughed and the man looked among them, a smile playing fearfully on his face, the hope growing. Misplaced.
“Where’s he from?” Conley was staring at the man like a bug on his shoe.
“Yeah?” Conley’s look narrowed, “Goddamn Zapatista.” The man started at the word, “No, no,” he waved a frantic hand that got the dogs growling more, “campesino. Solamente un campesino!”
“Cállate!” Conley snarled and the mood got ugly. MacGregor and Conley exchanged a look and stepped away from each other.
MacGregor turned, intent in his eyes. “Hold.” Conley held up a hand, stopping him, and looked over the hunt. “Gentlemen,” his voice boomed to take them all in, “obviously, no herd today. So, would someone here like the honor?”
He looked pointedly at Buford and Gregory while the adults and older kids exchanged glances, frowning. Gregory looked terrified. Buford stared at Conley, his mind working. No hunt, so no kill. No battle, either, so nothing there. No claim on your thirteenth, nothing you could brag on, like Daryl off salvaging a truck abandoned on 81 right now. What would Emma say?
The seconds grew and disgust formed on Conley’s face. He turned and nodded at MacGregor.
“Wait!” Buford called with more of a squeak than he wanted. MacGregor stopped, looked at him, then made a sweeping gesture forward. Buford moved down the ridge, just behind the growling dogs, Conley watching him expectantly. Buford stared at the terrified man. The man stared back, puzzlement on his face. Lessons poured into Buford’s mind, all resolved to a single word.
He lifted the M1 easily and sighted and fired, the man’s sudden “No!” no hindrance. The head exploded, spattering the dogs, maddening them, and even Conley couldn’t hold them off. There were hoots and crows of “Gawwddamn!” “Hooollly sheet!” and “Look’t them dogs go!” There were also sounds of severe retching and Buford looked back at Gregory’s supine form, bucking with sickness in the bushes. Obviously not guard material, he thought contemptuously.
Conley’s gigantic hand smacked into his back, almost throwing him down, but it was affection. “Good shot!” he chortled.
Buford smiled. High praise indeed.
* * *
The bonfire roared and Buford edged it, soaking up the heat. It was a damn cold night, typical mountain fall and, if it weren’t for the ceremonies, he’d be in his bed, wrapped up in about twenty blankets.
Mom clucked over his cold sensitivity. “I swear,” she said, “you must have some of the Ballantines in you. Thin-blooded southerners.” He’d checked his line when she first said that but there was no crossing with the Ballantines. At least, not officially. Rumors had the lines crossing a lot more than the documents let on; rather salacious rumors, of course.
Conley’s gigantic hand slammed his back for the umpteenth time, almost throwing him into the fire. “Damn, boy, you did good today, real good,” for another umpteenth time. Conley had a Mason jar filled to the brim with pop skull.
Dad said Conley was already embalmed, they just needed him to drop dead. It was good-natured, of course, Conley and Dad were brothers, after all. “You given thought,” Conley said between two healthy gulps, “of what your Sixteen is going to be?”
Buford shrugged. “Some. I’m kinda interested in the water works. Lumberjacking, too.”
“All good things, all good,” Conley nodded, draining the jar, which amazed Buford. Conley should at least be blind. “How are you with dogs?”
Dogs? Buford’s eyebrows rose. “I’ve never had one, so...”
“Yeah, that’s your Dad,” Conley chuckled, “dogs always gave him the willies. Funny how families are, edn’t it? Tell you what,” Conley slipped an arm around him, “come on by the kennels after service this weekend and we’ll see what the hounds think of you.”
“Really?” Buford was astonished. “Really?” It was all he could say. “Yep, really!” Conley gave him a hug that almost killed him and strolled away. Buford watched him go.
He was feeling very warm now and looked across the fire at the group of girls gathered around Emma. She cocked her head invitingly, smiling at him, and his heart skipped. He strolled over. “Hi.”
“Hi Buford! Hi Buford!” this from Jennifer and Caroline, who barely gave him the time of day before. A bit startling. “Hi, how are you?” Lame, but he’d been taken by surprise.
Emma aimed a jaundiced eye at the girls and took his arm, leading him away. “So I guess,” she said dryly, “now that you’re a big hero, I’m going to have to watch you, hm?”
“I’ve heard some of the western groups actually take several wives,” he said.
“Yes, that’s why they have octopus babies.”
He laughed at that and looked at her, charmed. “We won’t have octopi.” She smiled and arched her neck and there he went, down those eyes again. Oh my God, could it be any more perfect?
Peripherally, he saw Missie glowering at them from another group of girls. “Better watch her,” he said, “she’s likely to shiv you.”
“Humph,” she snorted, “I can handle her. Think maybe we should give her Ernest as consolation?”
“Maybe Gregory, seems more her speed.” They both laughed at that.
The Bell sounded and there was sudden quiet, except for logs cracking and sparks flying upward. They all turned toward the Great House and, yes, there it was, the wheelchair at the edge of the deck, partially lit by torches, partially by solar lights. Grandfather’s wizened face hovered like a mini-moon above the dark blankets wrapping him. As a group, quietly, respectfully, they moved across the field and into moonlight and it was ghostly, these tribes coming to their father. Buford shivered.
They made a semicircle around the base of the deck, Grandfather above them, silent, watching, approving. Dad and the other fathers came out of the crowd, turned, faced them. They were carrying a bound volume each. Buford braced himself. Don’t screw up.
The Dads nodded and Buford and Gregory, still looking pretty shaky, and Daryl and Hector, a Carlisle who was really good with chemistry (made landmines today, Buford heard. Cool), stepped out and in front of them, then about-faced. Buford was last in line, which meant he got the Line. He smiled. Good.
Hector’s Dad passed the volume to him. Hector opened it and, more from memory than text, began to read. “In those days, Grandfather saw what was happening. The press of mongrel peoples from southern countries, the rise of medieval religions, the growth of rapacious government...” and he went on with the history, Buford reciting silently along with him. The proper break came and Hector stopped and handed the volume back while Gregory’s Dad handed off his.
Gregory cleared his throat. “Uh,” he began and there was a ripple of some disapproval in the group and Gregory’s Dad made a small, annoyed sound. C’mon, Gregory, like we rehearsed, strong, confident... Buford shook his head. Definitely bound for farming.
“Grandfather” — a quaver in Gregory’s voice. Not good — “bought this land.” An obviously rehearsed and ill-timed hand gesture took in the fields and mountains. You’re blowing it, Greg. “He built the Great House. He built the systems, the water, the electricity, acquired the animals, the seeds...” better, and Buford settled into the rhythm of it, as did the group, although, face it, Gregory was toast. “And Grandfather called, and the Ten Families responded, old friends, bringing their knowledge, their strengths, their intents to the land...” and Gregory stumbled to a close.
Daryl went through the early skirmishes and the Page County War and the alliances, growling in his TV announcer voice and almost making Buford laugh, but he held it. Not the time and place.
Buford felt Dad’s tome press gently into his hand. Smoothly, perfectly, he brought it up and, before he even got to the page, started, his voice booming, clear, as befitting a Walker. He went through the families, the ones that merged, the ones that died, and the Premises, “Use talent wherever it grows. One wife, one husband, many children. Watch the Lines,” and was done.
They turned, the Dads fading back and, on subtle signal, the Thirteens advanced up the stairs, Buford managing not to trip, thank God, and stopped just below the landing, Grandfather looming above them. Creepy. Buford mentally smacked himself. Stop it, dillhole, he’s just an old man. But, hey, didn’t they just read his history? Wasn’t your history supposed to be written after you died? Maybe Grandfather was the living dead. Buford suppressed a smile.
Grandfather wheeled down the line. “Thank you,” Buford heard him say to Hector and then couldn’t hear him say some other things that made Hector express some pleasure and made Buford a bit jealous. That was quickly dissipated by the brusque manner in which Gregory was passed over, something the Group no doubt marked. Daryl, then his turn. Buford braced.
Two surprisingly strong hands fell on his shoulders. “Buford.” That same crackly falsetto and yep, that same steel, reflected in the hands about to snap Buford’s arms off. “You’re named after my own grandfather, but you know that. I heard about your day.” The grip increased and Buford wanted to yelp, but didn’t. “You are strong,” Grandfather whispered, “you are fast. You are a warrior. Keep us safe,” and Grandfather did something Buford had never seen him do at previous thirteens, not even at weddings or birthings.
He hugged Buford.
A sound of surprise and approval came from the group, and Buford heard his own Dad’s above that. Grandfather pulled back and looked at him, smiling. Buford was stunned. Honored. “Thank you,” he whispered.
They turned as one and faced the group. There was a whoop, started by Conley, more whoops and then cheering and clapping and someone set off flares over by the woods, red star shells, yellow ones, and everyone cheered for this rare treat. No doubt would scare the bejesus out of the Mongrels skulking around.
Flushed, excited, Buford’s eyes fell on the crowd and the one face that was turned towards him. Emma. Smiling. Proud.
He exulted. What a day.
Copyright © 2009 by Dwight Krauss