Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 25

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

We pulled out of New London at noon with Tonya driving the big coach. Tonya steered the big machine effortlessly, and for the first time since I met her, she did not try to scare me to death. She stuck her tongue out at me when I commented on how responsibly she was driving.

I had Tonya stop the coach about five miles outside of New London so that I could test fire my new weapons. Even though the ammunition had been stored in ideal conditions, I was not sure if it would still function properly. I had my old pistols in my saddle bags, just in case. I fired a couple of random rounds from each weapon, and was pleasantly surprised that not only did the ammunition fire, the pistols shot true to my aim. The rifle was outstandingly accurate for a carbine. I reckoned it was accurate out to four or five hundred yards, more than enough for right now.

We had been on the road for an hour when we passed a couple of covered drays. Each of the big wagons was being pulled by a four hitch of large mules. The wagons had wooden bodies and canvas tops, but the underpinnings were more like the coach in which I was currently riding. The balloon wheels and solid steel fully-sprung axles seemed to roll easier and smoother than the iron rimmed wood wheels of my time. I suffered a bout of homesickness as we went by them.

“You are looking at the real coin-of-the-realm, Jeb,” Lucy remarked as I stared at the freight wagons. “We New Londoners operate nine salvage mines and sorting centers and we are actively scouting out new locations as the residual radiation from the war dissipates. Liz established a distribution warehouse system we use to quickly find items to fill orders we receive from Paradise Valley and Casadega. Since the valley is pretty well mined out, we supply most of the materials they use. Scavenger mining is a tough and sometimes dangerous job, so the valley dwellers are happy to leave it to us. We even fund a research facility there to find more uses for what we mine.

“Liz has been very good to and for the citizens of the valley, even though Bearclaw’s isolationist faction is loath to admit it. As more people leave the valley and Casadega to join us, we are starting our own manufacturing base. The citizens of the valley aren’t blind to the fact that we are passing them by because their leaders are so preoccupied with the past. It is only a matter of time until they join us.”

I nodded at her remarks and watched the wagons as they disappeared behind us. I absorbed what Lucy had said, and it made a strange sort of sense to me, so I guess I was starting to understand these future folks better. But what really struck me were the wagons and mules eating our dust. Because what better exemplified the strangeness of this future world than wagons nearly identical to ones I drove six hundred years in the past? That those wagons were carrying things that were relics from between my time and this one that were beyond the ability of either, made the situation even stranger.

Five miles from the check point that straddled the road down into the valley, Lucy opened up a compartment in the bottom of the mediscan table and I folded myself inside it. The floor of the compartment was padded with some sort of cushiony material. It was obvious that I wasn’t the first person to travel concealed there. Lucy answered my unasked question.

“We have used this unit to smuggle people in and out of the valley for over a year now. The guards at the check point usually just wave us through anyway,” she said.

As I was contorting my big lumpy body into the compartment, I noticed Tonya putting on a blond wig. She was also wearing a pair of those spectacles with smoky colored lenses that the future men favored. Being seated and wearing the loose blue meditech outfit disguised her size. Even if you knew her, it would have been hard to tell it was Tonya.

The guards at the checkpoint did stop and board us, but it was only a cursory inspection. Lucy explained to the checkpoint commander that Queen Elizabeth had sent the unit to help with any emergencies until the university medical units were available again. The commander actually thanked her for helping in their time of need as Tonya eased the coach into the valley.

Lucy helped me uncoil from under the mediscan table ten minutes or so past the check point. I kept myself away from the windows by relaxing on one of the collapsible rolling cots with which the coach was equipped.

Being on the coach as it moved deeper into the valley reminded me a great deal of my time as a raider with the Army of Northern Virginia. JC and I had made a number of forays behind the Union lines in just this manner; we simply drove our wagons as if we belonged where ever we were. I was not surprised in the least that the same tactic worked here in the future, because these future folks were even more unsuspecting than the Yankees in Maryland had been. The future men thought their numbers and advanced society made them impervious to attack.

We pulled into Paradise City at a few minutes after four in the afternoon. Lucy directed Tonya onto a side street less than a mile from the university, and we hid in plain sight in a shaded parking lot. I choked down one of the ration bars for supper and chased it with a slug of water. I checked my weapons one last time, then sacked out on the cot. I planned on napping until it was dark enough for our purposes and like all good soldiers, I could fall asleep any place and any time I wanted.

Sarah gently woke me up at seven-thirty. It was full dark by then. The women had changed out of the medtech uniforms into the black trousers and colored tunics that the university staff wore. I remained dressed in my normal clothing with the addition of the mesh garment that I had stitched to the inside of my cotton duster.

While I was sleeping, Tonya had come up with a plan to get us inside the fortress-like main university building. It was a simple and audacious plan of the sort I preferred. What Tonya proposed was taking me to one of the back entrances to the building as if I were her prisoner. I saw one big drawback to her idea.

“Doing that might well mark you as a traitor, even if we succeed,” I commented.

Tonya waved her hand dismissively.

“I’ll take my chances,” she replied.

Before I could say anything else, my attention was distracted by a commotion coming from the street that ran past our parking place. I cautiously peeked out the window and saw a milling throng of citizens moving down the street in the direction of the university. When I gave Lucy an inquiring look, she shot me a big smile.

“Liz thought a diversion might help, so she planted the seeds for a protest vigil to happen at eight tonight in front of the university. As you can see by how many people are out there, the citizens of the valley are waking up to the fact that Bearclaw and the old guard are stealing their chance for a better future.”

I nodded absentmindedly as I watched the people stream by us. There were even more folks in the crowd than were at Liz’s speech yesterday. As soon as the bulk of the crowd passed us, Lucy smoothly maneuvered the medical coach in behind them. Sarah commented that it appeared natural to have medical coverage at such a large gathering, and that they would probably actually have to treat a few of the protesters before the night was over.

Lucy steered into an unlit alleyway two blocks from the main campus building so Tonya and I could jump out. She and Sarah admonished us to be careful, then drove away as Tonya and I slipped into the inky night. Tonya led the way through a labyrinth of narrow alleys that wove their way between large warehouses. I commented to Tonya that it was a part of the city I had not seen before.

“These buildings are where the grunt work happens that is needed to keep the research laboratories functioning. Marvels like the mediscan are created here from two and three hundred year old reclaimed electronic components. That building over there is the foundry where recycled metals are recovered and that one houses the biomass incinerators that provide power to the electric grid. We find a use for ninety-five percent of the materials recovered from the landfill mines.”

Even though Tonya was whispering, the pride was evident in her voice.

We traveled the next quarter mile in silence as we skirted around the warehouse section and approached the rear of the large central university building. Tonya’s plan was to boldly walk into the large paved parking area behind the building and march right up to the security door. My hands would be loosely bound behind my back by some sort of smooth cable that she had sawed mostly through with my pig sticker. I would pretend to be restrained until I saw an opening I could exploit. Tonya had my holsters and pistols slung over her shoulder for me to grab, once I was free. I had also secreted one of the new style Colts in the waist band of my trousers and covered by my duster earlier when no one was looking. I did that out of cautious habit, I hated the helpless feeling being unarmed gave me. Like my mama always said, ‘better safe than sorry’.

“Here we go,” Tonya whispered as we approached the parking area. “Act your part, Jeb, because there are video cameras covering this lot.”

I trudged along in my best prisoner imitation as Tonya walked a few steps behind me, covering me with her stunner. When we reached the door, she had me lay spread-eagle on the concrete while she pressed a button by the door. I could hear the whir of the video cameras as they zeroed in on us. I thought Tonya was gilding the lily by treating me so cavalierly, but it must have impressed her old compatriots, because after a brief exchange, the door swung open and two guards stepped out. The man and woman unceremoniously yanked me to a standing position and frog marched me into the building.

I recognized the woman as the agent that had been with Tonya when I first met her, but the man was new to me. The guards were none too gentle with me, but we were now inside the enemy camp. They forced me down into a chair and both of them hovered over me.

In briefing me on what to expect, Tonya had described the room just inside the door as the ‘Security Center’. Except for the moving picture devices, it was pretty much just like every marshal’s office I had ever visited, right down to the pair of battered desks. Besides the two agents who dragged me into the room, there was an older man at a console not unlike the one in a mediscan unit. Tonya sat in a chair next to him and regurgitated the story she had prepared to account for us being there. Tonya was almost as good a dissembler as my friend JC Colbert.

Tonya related to the Security Commander that I had forced her to aide in my escape from the university, and she’d been my prisoner until she’d managed to turn the tables on me when I tried to rape her last night after Liz knighted me. She said she stole one of the horseless vehicles, drove it to the valley rim and abandoned it at one of the high passes. She claimed she did not alert anyone because she did not know who she could trust outside the university.

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