Sunday, September 13, 2015

7: The Grand Tour

            When Ben reentered the cave the following morning, he brought company.  Buddy and Will floated at attention as the tall, umber-skinned stranger smiled beatifically at them.  His nose was broad, his chin prominent, his torso lean and muscular beneath a thin leather doublet. 
“Got newcomers, do we?   Spotted you two on the way into town.  That was me, up there on Greta’s Bluff, watchin’ you two movin’ like all-get-out, and that devilfish behind ya.  Nice to see you made it.”  His grin was wide and genuine, his brown eyes dilated in the dim light of the cave.  “Reckon Jason did a number on that fish, eh, Ben?  Killin’-est boy you ever saw.  Good boy, though.  Sorta boy who could put an arrow through a mountain lion’s eye at a hundred yards, then bring her cubs home and raise ‘em with his own two hands.”  He smiled even wider.  “Fine boy.”
“He is that, Buck,” Ben agreed.  Even Ben, who didn’t impress Will as a man who relaxed easily, wore a smile in the presence of the tall, easygoing newcomer.  It seemed he had a gift for putting people at ease.
“So, thing is,” the tall black man continued, “whenever new folks show up in town, they got a lot to learn.”  His voice was musical and expressive, marked by a faint undertone of gravel.  “I expect you two have a lot of questions.  Nothin’ wrong with that, and Rosemary’ll have answers to a lot of ‘em.  She’ll be by directly.  Meantime, though, Ben always likes me to join him and the new folks for what we call the ‘grand tour.’  See the town.  Get to know your neighbors.
“But of course, we haven’t been introduced, have we?  Folks ‘round here call me Buck, though my name’s John.  Too many Johns in town, hardly a last name among ‘em.  Two folks got the same name, gotta stick somethin’ in front of it.  Wouldn’t work on me; got a Black John already, works down at the mill.  So Buck it is.  Nice to meet you folks.  I’d shake your hand, if you had one.”  He laughed broadly.  “Not to worry, though, you’ll get those in time.  Two each, in fact.”  He laughed again.  “Not to worry.”
“Perhaps we could start the tour right here, Buck,” Ben suggested.  His smile masked what might have been a touch of impatience.  “With the contents of this cave.”
“Stands to reason we might.”  Buck gestured broadly at their surroundings.  “This is the Redoubt.  Long time ago, way back early on, this was a mine.  Folks bailed out on it when iron was discovered in the hills outside down.  This place?  Not much for iron.  Got some silver, though.  You’ll see it right over there.”  Indeed, now that he’d pointed it out, Will could see a vein of what might have been raw silver exposed in one of the cave walls.  “Now that’s something, isn’t it?  Folks bailing out on a silver mine to go after the harder stuff instead.”
“As our guests will no doubt understand,” Ben cut in, “Haven is a pragmatic community.  Survival is paramount.  For survival one requires tools and weapons.  For tools and weapons, one requires iron.  Silver is ornamental.  Iron is essential.”
“Could be you’re right,” Buck acknowledged, “but not everyone’s so practical-minded as our Ben, here.  Still some folks around here who say ‘Silver is Safety’, wear that silver triangle pendant ‘round their necks.  I’m a relatively new arrival myself, but supposedly that saying dates a long way back, to back before there even was a Haven.”  Ben’s smile was strained; he didn’t appear to care much for the concept.  “In any case, Ben’s got a point.  Silver may be shiny, but Haven isn’t much for bein’ shiny, if you take my meanin’.  Nowadays, we use this more as a fort than as a mine.  It’s what you’d call our last line of defense, against the hillmen or whomever you please.”
Ben gestured broadly to the weapon racks on the walls, which contained everything from iron-tipped pikes to crossbows to the harpoon Jason had wielded the previous day.  “Disregard the superstitious sayings of our forbears,” he said, addressing Buddy and I.  “The aphorism ought to be, ‘Iron is safety.’  You’ll also find dried jerky, medicinal herbs, and other supplies in those barrels over there.  Down that fissure in the cave wall, you’ll find a freshwater spring; there’s any number of other passages back there, leading off God knows where.  You will have noticed the stone basin in the floor over here; we store water in it when the need arises.”  He strode over towards the cave mouth.  “This aperture, you’ll note, is too narrow to accommodate more than one man at a time; hence, even an overwhelming force of hillmen attempting to enter the cave would find themselves bottlenecked, forced to attack in single file.  I needn’t tell you, I’m sure, what someone like Jason can do in single combat against a malnourished, unwashed barbarian?  A small, skilled garrison could hold this position for any length of time necessary.  This makes it the ideal fallback location for the town’s population.”
Buck nodded.  “As you may have gathered, Ben’s pretty fine at the soldierin’ business.  For an apothecary, anyway.”
Ben’s expression was blank.  “A man must serve the community in whatever roles it requires.”
“That’s so.  Folks in Haven mostly serve themselves, truth be told.  But when things get fuzzy ‘round the edges?  Like when the hillmen come down on us, whoopin’ and raidin’?  Well, you can bet that all those independent-minded folks come running for Ben, the moment that happens.”  The two men led the newcomers towards the mouth of the cave.  “Result of which is, Ben here, he’s about the closest thing we’ve got to a mayor.  Not that we’d ever manage an election, I suppose.  Folks wouldn’t stand for anyone in official authority, here in Haven.”
“No,” Ben acknowledged ruefully.  “No, they wouldn’t.  Not officially.”
The four of them emerged from the darkness of the cave into the light outside.  The conversation between Ben and Buck continued in the background, but Will barely noticed.  He had been understandably distracted on his way down through the atmosphere, and hadn’t gotten much of a look at the local scenery.  From ground level, the landscape was simply awe-inspiring, magisterial in its beauty.
            Near the roadside, the town’s livestock had grazed the prairie grasses almost to the ground, leaving a carpet of uniform emerald green.  Further off, the native grasses of the prairie asserted themselves, painting the turf with overlays of beige, sienna, and gold.  The rolling hills were marked by spots where the bones of the land poked through its skin―flakes and shards of sharp grey flint and rough tan sandstone.  Depressions in the turf formed watering holes, flanked by purple coneflowers, white and yellow yarrow, and orange milkweed amidst which butterflies flitted.  Frogs croaked; grasshoppers buzzed.  Chocolate-colored cattle stood hip-deep in the brackish water, seeking to ward off the heat.  In the distance, the hills rolled on endlessly, fading to violet on the distant horizon; a single cottonwood stood atop a nearby rise, etched against the sky.  Passing clouds like stray sheep cast swaths of the landscape into deep shadow.
Dimly, Will realized that Ben and Buck’s voices were fading.  A small dirt path led down the slope from the cave mouth; and he hurried down it to catch up to them.  Up ahead, the path broadened into a road leading west into town.  Buck, however was peering off into the distance to the north.  Gazing in the same direction, Will could make out distant buildings and the unmistakable shape of the town mill, its four arms slowly turning in the summer breeze.  “Out there, where the river bends―the Quinnipiac, we call it―that’s where the farms are at.  Four great big ones and a whole lot of little ones.  I work for Huapac out at his stead, and I’ll tell you what, that’s a man who can make ANYTHING grow.  We’re lucky to have him.”  The four of them turned and headed down the road, towards a ramshackle collection of structures roughly a quarter of a mile away.
“We’ll be even luckier for men like Huapac when winter arrives,” Ben added.  “If it should happen to be the case that either of you knows anything about farming, we hope you’ll put that knowledge to use for us.  A remarkable number of our citizens are seduced by what I will laughingly call the ‘glamour’ of life in the town proper.  But when it comes time to bite the bullet, it is the farms that keep us all alive, that keep us from descending into the naked savagery and outright cannibalism that mark the hillmen.”
“And speaking of life in the big city, we’re coming up on it right now,” Buck proclaimed.  “Try not to get swept away by the sophistication of it all.”
The party moved on, two of them ambling down the rough dirt track, two floating, the air full of the whoops and chirps of songbirds and speckled with cottonwood seeds.  A single sandpiper, its legs stilted, cocked its head suspiciously at them, then fluttered into the air at their approach.  The outskirts of the community were marked by agricultural buildings―sheep and cattle pens, beehives, kennels, a livery stable, and a tannery, the stench of which caused the two incarnates to screw up their faces in disgust.  Buck turned to address the newcomers with a wry expression:  “Good time not to have a nose.” 
Further on, the road widened somewhat, and traffic increased.  Numerous passersby exchanged cheerful greetings with Buck, and some also nodded at Ben.  Buddy and Will seemed to have made an impression by the circumstances of their arrival; more than once, Will saw the people they passed casting a furtive glance at his heartlight.
They passed a crude home, not much more than a shack, in front of which sat a man in his early thirties, on a three-legged stool, smiling genially and smoking a straight-stemmed pipe.  “Smilin’ Bob!  Another lucky night down at Luther’s, eh?” Buck exclaimed.  “Bob”’s grin never wavered; he raised a hand in greeting, then resumed counting off small iron coins as he thumbed them into a hide pouch on his lap.  The roadside opposite the ramshackle structure bore a ditch filled with a lacelike silver weed, its fibers and seedheads fine as spider silk and light as sea-foam. 
Not much further down the road Will could see a dry goods establishment, and across the street from it, a spacious, well-constructed oaken building.  A scarecrow of a man stood on the porch of the larger structure, leaning on the railing, staring levelly at them as they passed.  Buck turned to Will and opened his mouth as if to speak, then caught a meaningful glance from Ben and decided otherwise.  They moved on.
Traffic thickened as they approached the center of town.  “You will have noticed, I suppose,” Ben said, “that our community is not exactly a triumph of urban planning.”  It was true; the “town” appeared to consist of a single artery of commerce a couple of miles long and no more than a few buildings wide, without a single cross street or side street.  “As I have noted, ours is a community marked by―I will put it kindly―a strong iconoclastic streak.  Many varieties of men and women have found their way to Haven―but in every one of them runs a strong streak of individualism.  As Buck has noted, there is no authority, per se, that can deny anyone an opportunity to build wherever he or she pleases.  So, naturally, those who wish to sell goods simply park themselves along the main thoroughfare, instead of in a more efficient grid.”
“Time was,” Buck added, “back in the day, folks who wanted some space between themselves and the rest of us just plopped down wherever they pleased.  Back then, Haven wasn’t nestled amongst the hills so much as splattered all over them.  Guess you put your foot down on that, eh, Ben?”
Ben shook his head sadly at the recollection.  “It was even worse than Buck describes.  When I first arrived here, there was nothing but a smattering of huts and shacks, scattered hither and yon.  Inefficient in terms of commerce, indefensible in terms of attacks from the hillmen.  Citizens would―em, how to put it delicately―would dispose of their bodily wastes in the river upstream, while others drew pails of water downstream.  It was only with the greatest difficulty that I managed to talk people around to the existence of a main thoroughfare at all, and to arrange for efficient division of labor.  Even to advance to the level of organization you see before you has been like pulling teeth.”
There was a small grocery abutting an open-air market, and then larger buildings―a bakery, a pair of smithies, a boardinghouse, and an entirely inordinate number of saloons.  The largest of these, fully three stories tall, bore a bright red-and-black sign declaring it to be LUTHER’S; as they passed, the double doors swung wide open.  From inside came a cacophony of music and laughter, followed by a scruffy, flailing figure who flew headlong through the air, describing a graceful arc that ended in the mud at Buck’s feet.  The doorway was soon overfull with the figure of a man who would have dwarfed even Jason, with a thick head of red hair and a vast beard so massive and unkempt that it could have served as a nest for an entire family of raccoons.  “An’ STAY out!” boomed the ginger-haired giant in a vowel-strangling roar, before turning his back and heading inside again.   Buck stooped to assist the whimpering, liquor-sodden figure to his feet, while Ben shook his head sadly at the whole affair.  “Disease has not followed us here to Elysium.  We are blessedly free of the physical pestilences that marked our earthly lives.  But the pestilences of the human spirit?  Of addiction, vice, and sin?”  Ben watched the drunkard stagger up the road, still sucking at a hip-flask.  “Those we have brought with us.”
“Oh, now, Ben, it’s not so bad,” Buck said soothingly.  “Can’t control everything people do.  Gotta let ‘em have fun their own way.”
“Fun,” Ben said.  “Yes.”  He paused in the middle of the street, then turned his head to look behind them.  The drunk was relieving himself against the foundation of a nearby leatherworker’s store, groaning with pleasure.  The store owner had raced out onto the porch and was shaking a fist at him and screaming obscenities.  “I have to say, Buck, that ‘fun’, to me, implies something a bit more ambitious than what we’re presently witnessing.”
“Might be, Ben,” muttered Buck, his tone a bit hesitant.  “But what’s so for you isn’t necessarily so for others.”
“Do you think not?”  The four of them were moving on again, now well past the center of town, and the flow of traffic was diminishing.  “I believe we can agree that, at minimum, a degree of physical security is necessary to the enjoyment of life.  I’ve done the best I can to provide such a guarantee to the community―to create the preconditions for their, as you put it, ‘fun.’  What about that fellow we met lying in the street back there?  What has been his contribution?”
“He’s got a name, you know,” Buck chided him.  “His name’s Ed.  Well, I think they call him ‘Mean Drunk Ed’ now.”
“I can’t imagine why.  Can you tell me, Buck, how Ed’s brand of ‘fun’ is compatible with the ‘fun’ of others?  With the prosperity of this community?”  Ben stared at his feet for a moment, then continued.  “Consider our adversaries for a moment.  The hillmen are utterly free, are they not?  Free, each of them, to pursue their own objectives.  Their own ‘fun’, if you will.  Do you think they enjoy the anarchy and deprivation that rules their lives?”
“It might be that they do, actually.” Buck said.  “I don’t see ‘em lining up to join us in town, if you see what I mean.”
“No.  They prefer to descend in hordes, seize the products of others’ labor, and run.”  Ben spoke through gritted teeth.  “Haven is among the most civilized, the most productive, of all Elysium’s communities.  And yet…to attempt to direct its citizens to a common purpose is to attempt to herd housecats.  They do what I say…just so long as what I say happens to be what they want to do at that particular moment.  They are utterly ungovernable.”  
They moved on, Buck still exchanging greetings with virtually every person who passed.  Will, however, was occupied with yet another of the questions which seemed to pop into his mind at regular intervals.  We’ve run across several hundred people―and so far, Jason is the youngest of them, and Ben is among the oldest.  Where are the kids?  Where are the old people?
The road ended in a stretch of relatively fertile ground down by the riverside, with several small groves of cottonwood and oak nearby.  “Town commons,” Buck remarked to us.  “For meetings and the like.  End of the road.”  Down below them a shallow depression near the base of a gentle slope formed a natural amphitheater. 
Ben, for his part, was still bemoaning the lonely burden of leadership; his soliloquy had continued unabated since their meeting with Mean Drunk Ed.  “We of Haven are capable of being so much more than we are,” he said, his expression icy.  “With even a modicum of cooperation, we could accomplish far more―politically, scientifically, militarily.  We could be a light to all of Elysium.  We have been given a second chance at existence, and yet we squander it on…”
“That my husband you got there, Ben?”  The voice came from behind them.  Turning, Will saw a tiny, broad-featured woman with coal-black skin, her hair bound beneath a cotton kerchief.  She did not look pleased, and her dark eyes were boring holes through both of his guides.  Will found that he wanted, suddenly, to be elsewhere; in fact, as elsewhere as possible.  Good God…and I thought Ben was intimidating?  The power behind this woman’s stare could drive a train.
Buck seemed the primary target of that glare, yet if it discomfited him, he showed no sign; if anything, his smile grew somehow broader, his face lit up with delight.  “Harriet!” he exclaimed.  “I was just showing these fine new folks around town.  You should meet ‘em!”
Harriet turned her glance on the two heartlights.  Will feared for a moment that his soul was being eaten away―yet when he actually brought himself to look into her eyes, he found no malice there.  Iron purpose, yes, but no real malice.  “Charmed, I’m sure,” she said.  “You two been hangin’ with an interestin’ crowd.”  She turned her gaze on Ben, who impressed Will by managing to meet it directly.  “This ‘un, f’rinstance.  Talks a lot about ‘community’ and ‘common purpose.’  He tell y’all what all he means by that?  F’r instance, he tell you that he once said that all the colored folk ought to live together in one part o’ town, away from the white folks?”
Ben raised both hands in a gesture of affronted innocence.  “Not the case, Harriet.  It was merely a suggestion intended to promote mutual tolerance and respect.  I made no demands on you, nor did I claim I had the right to do so.”
“Mmm-hmmm.”  Harriet turned back to Buddy and Will.  “Don’t suppose that in your ‘tour’ he chose t’ introduce y’all to Black Ben, works at the distillery?  Could be he wasn’t impo’tnt enough to be worth your notice, least not in Ben’s eyes.”  She turned back to Ben.  “Tell me, Ben, one thing I never figured out.  Everybody in this town got a name.  How come he’s ‘Black Ben’ and you’re just plain ‘Ben’?  Any reason you’re not ‘White Ben’?”  There was an undercurrent of lightning in the air.  Will turned to Buck, and thought that, just for a moment, his smile seemed a little forced.
Ben, for his part, was as smooth as silk.  “Presumably because I preceded him in my arrival by more than a century, Harriet.  The supplemental terms in our names are descriptive rather than derogatory.  They exist merely to provide clarity.  You know this to be true.”
“Oh, they’re clear, all right,” she retorted.  “One o’ these days, a white woman named ‘Harriet’ is gonna show up in town, and we’ll see us some things.  I been here a while, but that day comes?  See if my name don’t suddenly become ‘Black Harriet’ overnight.”  She glanced at Buddy and Will again.  “Could be one ‘o these un’s a Harriet.  One never knows, do one?”
“Really, Harriet, these suspicions…”  Ben shook his head.  “I have, after all, taken one of your kind into my own home, have I not?”
Harriet scoffed.  “Oh, yeah.  Sure have.  Young Jason.  Half puppy, half pit-bull, and you sure do work him like a dog, sure enough.  Doin’ your tasks an’ scaring your enemies.  Livin’ off your scraps.  You know, back in my day, we had a name for black folks who worked in white folks homes without bein’ paid for it.  And as for them who kept ‘em…”  She glared daggers at Ben.  “…we had some pretty pungent names for them, as well.”
Ben gaped at her, white with shock.  “You…you go TOO FAR!” he exclaimed.  “I have nothing, nothing whatsoever, against the Africans!”
“Course not,” Harriet replied evenly.  “Matter of fact, you think everyone should own one.”  Her razor glance whipped back around to Buck.  “This one here, though…this one’s mine.  And I’ll be takin’ him off your hands now.  Promised me he’d be home by midafternoon, take care o’ some business we got.”  As Harriet looked at Buck, her gaze was as purposeful as ever―but unless Will was imagining it, there was something else there as well, something deeper and richer.  “Been dawdlin’ ‘bout, this ‘un,” she said, but this time the frost in her voice was clearly staged.  “Late as ever.”
Ben took a small step back, his hands still raised; he gave a slow, graceful nod.  Buck stepped forward.  “Oh, come now, woman.  You know I was right on time.  Like I always am.”  She took his hand and led him back towards town.  Buck turned back towards Buddy and Will, and mouthed a few words―Ain’t that a woman?—and then strolled off in the company of his wife.  Ben glared at their retreating backs and muttered something under his breath, but before he could say anything aloud, Jason came sprinting up the road, sweating and disheveled, harpoon in hand.
“Ben!” he shouted.  “Ben!  Up on the…”  It was at this point that he noticed Buddy and Will, and his face broke into a wide grin.  “Oh!  Hi, guys!  I forgot!  You’re supposed to learn about Haven today!  Did Buck show you the soccer field?  We’ve got a whole team together and everything!  I mean, I’m probably the…” His face darkened a bit.  “Well…I mean, I shouldn’t brag, I guess, but I’m pretty good…and we’ve got Antonia, and Dave and Corey, they’re new like you, and Really Big Angus from Luther’s, though he’s not real quick, he just sort of crashes into people, and Manuel, he joins us sometimes, and you wouldn’t believe it, he’s sort of simple but when you put a ball at his feet…”
Ben cleared his throat.  “Jason?  I’m assuming you came rushing up here for a reason?”
            Jason’s expression went blank for a moment, then he burst out with a huge shout.  “Oh, CRAP!  Yeah!  Hillmen!  Hillmen up on the bluff!”
Ben’s attempts at collegiality, whch had never struck Will as being entirely convincing, evaporated completely; he was instantly the commanding man of action they’d met the night before.  Ben fixed Jason with a steady gaze.  “Calmly, please,” he said, his voice low and intense.  “Tell me what you know.  How many are there, and what actions have been taken?  Has the alarm been raised?” 
Under Ben’s ministrations, Jason managed to regain some semblance of composure.  “Um…not many, I don’t think.  My patrol spotted a fire, like, right up atop Greta’s Bluff, like I told you…scouts, we figured, and I wanted to come back and warn you first…”  Here he gulped, inhaled, and continued.  “But…well, Grigori was on the patrol, and…you know…”
A pained expression crossed Ben’s face.  “Yes,” he muttered bitterly.  “Grigori.”  The word was laden with a heavy weight.  “Alone, I assume?”  Jason nodded.  “Very well.  Go retrieve Buck, and never mind Harriet’s objections for the moment.”  This, Will noticed, drew a noticeable gulp from Jason; he might have been the sort of man who fought space monsters with a spear, but there were evidently some terrors even he couldn’t face.  “Afterwards, get to the boardinghouse and get a squad of men together; I’ll meet you at the fork in the road beside the ridge.”  Ben turned back to Buddy and Will.  “As for the two of you, return to-“
Will never heard the rest; he was already rocketing up the road, angling upwards and towards the hills.  He had recognized the name “Greta’s Bluff” from the previous day, when Jason had identified it as the high point from which Buddy and he had first been spotted.  If speed and flight were his main assets, Will figured, then he might as well put them to use; whatever his deficiencies, he could at least get to the site of the incursion ahead of Ben and the others.
For all of his endless questioning, it didn’t occur to Will to ask what he, an intangible being, would actually do once he arrived.  He was caught up, as if possessed, by a single thought.  He had to know what was going on.  He had to see for himself.

I have to see!

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