Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 18

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

I could smell the beef cooking in the kitchen from where I was standing out by the barn. It took all of my willpower not to bolt for the kitchen door at a dead run. Instead of running, I put my arms around Tonya and Sonja and we strolled up to the front door. Tonya laughed and patted my belly when my stomach rumbled in anticipation.

“Sonja, I think we are going to lose our man to my mother as soon as he sits down at the table,” Tonya said.

Sonja nodded glumly.

“I know. How can we stay with him, knowing he’ll cast us aside for the first woman who tosses a piece of dead cow his way?”

Well, I did not cast either of them aside, but for about fifteen minutes, my entire attention was centered on the absolutely delicious beef stew Carol ladled out. Carol said that stew was an excellent compromise between those of us who ate meat and those who did not. She showed what she meant by only ladling vegetables out of the pot for Sonja. Carol said she had a dozen or so recipes for meals like this one that she would be happy to share.

I gave Carol an enthusiastic hug in gratitude for the excellent meal. She stiffened in my arms at first, then sighed and snuggled close. Except for her much longer hair, holding Carol was the same as holding her daughter. Yes, the physical similarities were that close. I let go of Carol and stepped backwards when it became apparent that she was not going to do it.

“She even feels like you in my arms, Tonya. I’m telling you, the pair of you could be twins.”

Tonya nodded and replied.

“It’s that way with most unaltered daughters. For some reason, unaltered females are almost clones of their mothers. Coleen has theorized that more of the weakened male DNA is shunted aside by the more robust female genes with each succeeding generation.”

I could see how it would be tough for the gelded men of this time to pass on any sort of legacy. People of the future were selectively breeding themselves into oblivion as far as I could tell. I had to admit that the altered women were all beautiful and well constructed, but they were not a bit more appealing to me than Tonya or Sarah Hunnicutt. I could never see myself happy in this civilization.

After lunch, I vetoed the idea of us immediately departing for the outlands.

“We will move out at first light tomorrow morning. This afternoon, I want to check the equipment that was sent with us, and figure out how we will load our pack animals.”

Two of the metallic silver colored trunks were in the conveyance that brought us out to Carol’s farm. I could guess that the trunks contained my weapons and some of the future men’s camp equipment. I wanted to go through what was sent and distribute it between us and the pack animals. The women signed on to my plan, so we opened the trunks in the shade of the front porch. The first trunk had two sets of the light weight bedrolls, sleeping pads, packages of foodstuff and eating utensils. For all I know, it could have been the same gear the time traveling women had with them when they visited 1869.

The second trunk had a set of the field camp equipment for me and the items I had brought from the past. My Spencer was in there, along with my pistol and my stage gun. Tonya’s eyes went wide when I pulled the weapons out of the trunk to load them.

“Instruments of death,” she whispered in awe.

I corrected her immediately.

“That is not true, Tonya. I am the instrument of death, these weapons are just tools.”

I let Tonya heft the pistol, she knew the basics of how it operated, but she had never held one before. Tonya’s experiences as a member of the security service, made her less afraid of the idea behind the pistol. I made a mental note of that fact. While we were in the outlands, I would try to teach her to shoot. The idea of Tonya toting the shotgun as she watched my back was more reassuring than her holding only a stunner. The outlanders demonstrated that they did not put the value on human life that the citizens did. You could hoot and holler about peace and brotherhood all you wanted, but without the resolve to fight for your beliefs, you were destined to end up in the service of someone who would.

Sonja’s reaction to my weapons was the same as it had been back in Wyoming. She refused to even look at them, let alone touch one. I had a thought then that something in the process of genetic alteration caused an aversion for lethal weapons. If it was programmed into the basic nature of men, why couldn’t it also work on women?

We sorted through the gear and stacked it into five piles. The two biggest piles were destined for the pack mules. Those piles included most of the camp site gear. The three smaller piles were items we would wear, carry on our person, or pack into our saddle bags. I had each of us carrying enough gear to survive in an emergency if we lost the pack animals.

I spent part of the afternoon training my new ‘command’ on how to travel and react while in enemy territory. I showed them hand signals and maneuvering techniques I had learned when JC and I served with Colonel Mosby’s Rangers in 1864.

In return, the two women taught me how to use the equipment sent out by the Pleiad. I thought most of the items were almost luxurious, even though they held common uses. I especially liked the sleeping pad that would keep my big muley butt off the ground while I slept. The item I appreciated most, though, was the future’s version of the common spy glass the women called binoculars. The ability to see objects magnified seven times with both eyes was outstanding.

Tonya had maps of the area in which we would be operating that were even more astounding in their detail than the ones Sonja had of Wyoming when she visited there. Once she taught me the basics of reading the map and using the compass that came with it, I was much better disposed towards our trip. We sat down with the map and plotted out our first day’s journey. Tonya had some precise knowledge of the area from when she had served on the Fringe, and the Pleiad had a fair idea of where Elizabeth Smith was located. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to me to learn that Elizabeth had named the settlement she founded as ‘New London’.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that one of the items in the trunks was my fiddle. It had made the trip in good shape. The instrument was traveling even better now, because someone had fitted it into a case made of the silver color metal. Taking the fiddle with us into the outlands was a luxury, but what the heck, we had the room, and the women did not mind.

One thing we did not take was the second tent that the Pleiad provided. Sonja picked it up and frowned. Tonya took the tent out of her hands and tossed it aside.

“That thing is superfluous, unless you are planning on sleeping in it by yourself,” the bigger woman said.

Sonja grinned and shook her head.

“Not on your life,” she said with a laugh.

We finished our repacking by six that evening and walked back into the house. The place smelled wonderful again, this time my nose discerned chicken and dumplings. As good as the food smelled, I forgot all about it as soon as I saw Carol Larson standing at the stove. She was wearing a snug-fitting calico print dress that showed off her splendid figure. Her long chestnut hair cascaded down her back in a wavy riot of red, brown and blonde high-lights. When she turned around to greet us, it was obvious she had rouged her cheeks and lips. Her smile was big and bright, and obviously meant for me. My eyes were locked on Carol’s, and her smoldering look was quickly arousing me. Tonya broke the mood by noisily clearing her throat.

“That’s dirty pool, Mother,” she carped good-naturedly.

Carol had the grace to blush before replying.

“Whatever are you talking about, My Dear? You know I like to look my best when we have guests.”

Tonya laughed and gave her mother a hug.

“Of course you do,” Tonya said in an unconvincingly sarcastic manner.

Supper was even better than lunch. After the meal, Carol joined us in her parlor to share the latest she knew about the outlanders’ doings. I was not that surprised that Carol traded with the outlanders.
It seemed only natural, given her location on the fringe. According to Sonja, trade with outlanders was common among fringe dwellers. The activity was also strictly legal and even somewhat controlled by the government. Outlanders were the source of much useful salvage.

Carol told us that the charismatic “Queen Elizabeth” had consolidated four or five bands of outlanders into one town she had names ‘New London’. She had also proclaimed all the area under her control ‘New England’. The area of the United States that once bore those names had been vaporized early in the dark times. The results of Elizabeth’s organizational skills were readily apparent in the quality of the materials the outlanders now offered Carol in trade. The outlanders were buying breeding stock from Carol in an effort to become self sufficient.

Carol speculated that they had raided the experimental farm for the same reason. She had no idea why the outlanders had resorted to such violence. She said she was not worried that they might turn that violence towards her.

“I know all the livestock breeders in the interior, so I am their go between for obtaining what they need that I don’t have. The Pleiad allows me to keep trading, because I am one of their best sources of current information about the outlanders,” she said.

Shortly after ten that night, Tonya yawned and stood up.

“I think it’s time to turn in. Mother, can you give me a hand with the linen?”

Carol sorted out the sleeping arrangements and I was soon ensconced on the parlor davenport. It wasn’t as comfortable as the bed I’d spent the last two nights in, but much better than sleeping in the barn.

I slept well and after a nice breakfast that featured ham and eggs, we saddled and packed up. By eight-thirty, we were on a well worn trail that led towards the east. Carol was riding with us, acting as our guide to the end of the fringes.

The trail we followed led due east through areas cleared for ranching and farming. We rode for a couple of miles before the terrain became rougher, and we started up hill. As we moved up in elevation, pastures gave way to neatly planted stands of spruce, pine and fir trees. I asked Carol about the trees.

“This is land reclaimed by the Civilian Conservation Corp about fifty years ago. Every citizen between the ages of sixteen and twenty one serves six months in the CCC. The Pleiad resurrected the CCC idea from a similarly named organization from the early twentieth century. The CCC has reclaimed thousands of acres of fallow land, while leaving large tracts undisturbed as wild life habitat,” she said proudly.

Sonja added to Carol’s explanation.

“Reclamation is important to us, because for every square mile cleared and put to use, the Pleiad adds twenty additional birth permits. Population control is a major issue for us, and has been for nearly a century. Keeping the birth rate low is an unpleasant fact of life because of our limited resources and long life spans.”

I nodded my understanding, but did not comment on what they said. Needing a permit to have a child just added to my growing list of reasons why I did not like the future. As far as clearing and reclaiming land went, why did they have to conscript people into doing that? Why not just open the land up to settlement? To me, the lack of pioneering spirit was another indictment against altering men the way they had.

I put those thoughts out of my mind and took out my map to orient myself.

Paradise Valley encompassed more than a thousand square miles. It was a low mountain valley, oriented northwest to southeast, twenty miles wide and fifty miles long. The mountains that formed the western side of the valley were higher than the eastern peaks, and snow covered for much of the year. Snow melt, a receding glacier and natural springs created the headwaters for the Paradise River. The river flowed down the western side of the valley and spilled out of the valley into the high plains.

We were moving up the eastern wall of the valley. About halfway down its length, we headed for a small pass between two saddleback ridges. It was a climb of about two thousand feet of elevation. The slope was becoming progressively steeper, but the trail was passable and the animals were not laboring. We did not see any wildlife, other than an occasional squirrel, but there were signs aplenty of deer, wolf, mountain lion and even bears. I pointed out some mountain lion tracks to Carol and she smiled and nodded.

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