Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 21

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

What I told Tonya about attacking was not braggadocio, because attacking the gaggle of Juicers before they could organize themselves was about the only choice I had. The odds were stacked against me as far as shear numbers were concerned, but I hoped my experience as a soldier and lawman would even the deck some. I had a thought and turned around to catch Tonya before she slipped out the back door.

“Tonya, see if you can free any more of the normal women while you are out there. Peek in the back doors of these next two buildings to your right. Gather up all you can find and circle counter clockwise around the camp until you get to the road. Whatever you do, don’t take any unnecessary chances, if you see a Juicer, shoot first and ask questions later.”

Tonya gave me a crooked little grin and a snappy salute.

“Aye-aye, Captain,” she said.

I rolled my eyes but returned her salute.

“One last thing before you go. Do you know about how many of these creatures are here?”

Tonya made a face and nodded.

“I counted eight men and twenty four of the women. Four of the women aren’t fully changed yet. Most all of them have one of the beam rifles, but many of the power supply magazines are questionable. A few of them carry bows and arrows as a back up. Be careful honey, because these abominations are cunningly insane.”

I told her, “Yes dear,” then watched as she moved out the back door. As soon as she was gone, I stooped low and rushed out of the building. I moved as fast as my legs would carry me for about ten yards, then I dropped to my belly and opened fire. I think the Juicers did not comprehend the threat I posed, until I started cutting them down with that second cylinder, because even after the two I’d shot earlier, they all sort of stood in a group and tried to return my fire. With them so close together, only the Juicers in the front of the mob had an unmasked shot at me. Of course those were the very muscle bound monsters I was duck shooting.

I fired three times, sprang to my feet and dashed toward the wood line near where I dropped the guard. I like my chances much better with some cover and concealment. Plus, by moving into the woods, I was diverting the Juicers’ attention away from where Tonya was hopefully busy collecting the other normal women. Now all I had to do was keep their attention on me. I dropped to one knee a few feet from the wood line.

“Hey, Juicers,” I yelled. “Can’t deal with a real man, can you? Throw down your weapons and surrender if you want to live.”

As soon as I finished hollering, I dove for the ground. It was a good thing I did, as a couple of energy bolts cut up the leaves above my head. I grinned that my ploy exposed two more Juicers with functioning beam rifles. I returned to them well aimed pieces of nineteenth century lead for their trouble. I sprang to my feet and took a couple of quick steps into the underbrush. At the end of the second step, I heard a crackling noise and someone shoved a white hot poker into the calf of my left leg. I yelped most unmanfully and pitched forward, face first into the underbrush.

When I fell, my pistol flew out of my hands and landed somewhere in the thicket. Somehow I composed myself enough to roll over and pull my stage gun from behind my back. My left leg was refusing to hold my weight, so I low-crawled forward to a break in the brush. I did not like what I saw even a little, as the Juicers were forming a ragged skirmish line. Directing the Juicers was a huge muscular mountain of a man with a bald head and a cruelly handsome face.

“Nice shot Farrell,” the big man bellowed in a deep basso voice.

Then he hailed me.

“You there in the bushes, if we have to come get you, we’ll kill you most gruesomely.”

When I didn’t answer, he cut loose with a couple of curses and turned his attention back to his people.

“Stay spread out and let’s go get him, he can only fire single shots, so when you see that flash, everyone fire at it.”

His instructions were good enough to cook my goose if I did not do something decisive. The head man was standing slightly behind the center of his line and partially screened from my view by two big women. I took a shot at him anyway. I steadied the shotgun, pulled back the rabbit ear hammers and fired both barrels towards the juicer leader. I rolled hard to my left as soon as I fired, ending up on my back about four feet away. I broke open the action of the shotgun and dug two fresh rounds out of my pouch as a stream of blasts from the beam rifles chewed up the woods from where I last fired.

The blast from the shotgun had stopped the advance in its tracks. Two more Juicers were down, but neither of them were Mister Big. He, in fact, was cursing and haranguing his cohorts to move forward once again.

I was in a bad situation, because my leg was still not cooperating holding my weight and I did not have nearly enough ammunition. I sighed, pulled back one hammer and sighted towards the big man again. The Juicers’ leader must have figured out I was gunning for him, because he was crouched low behind some of his minions. With no clear shot at the leader, I took out another one of his soldiers that had a functioning weapon. The entire exercise reminded me of the Union Army’s fruitless charges at our dug in troop at Fredericksburg. The difference here, though, was that I didn’t have the ammunition to repulse all of them.

I was set to start worming my way deeper into the small thicket, when suddenly a beam rifle bolt hissed by me, headed in the opposite direction. One of the juicers cried out, grabbed his thigh and pitched forward. I jerked my head around and there was Lucy, kneeling about three paces away, her rifle humming as it recharged. She smiled wanly when I caught her eye. I tried to calm and reassure her to keep her in the fight.

“Good shooting, Lucy. We can treat the ones you wound, but no one can bring us back if they kill us.”

Lucy gave me a curt nod. It was obvious that she found shooting someone distasteful, but was resigned to doing whatever was necessary.

“The long black mesh garment on some of them is a diffusion vest. You’ll have to take care of those,” she said, her voice only quavering slightly.

I nodded and did just that. The ranks in front of us had thinned somewhat, but we still had more than a dozen of the creatures in two ranks not thirty yards from us. I broke open my action as Lucy fired, and stuffed two more shells in the breach. It was small comfort that I was down to my last six shots. I drew a quick bead on my next target, just as one of the Juicers in the back rank pitched forward with an agonizing scream. Two second later, another crumpled. Tonya was obviously behind them at the corner of the building. I had seen enough killing for one night.

“Cease fire, cease fire,” I yelled.

Everyone sort of froze when I started yelling, so I motioned Lucy over to me.

“Help me stand up Lucy, I am going to offer them terms.”

She was by my side in a flash, concern written on her face. I answered her question before she could ask it.

“It’s only a flesh wound in my calf, but it has numbed my leg.”

Between us, we propped me up on my good leg. I called out again.

“We have you surrounded and in our crossfire. We aren’t Valley Dwellers with stunners, and you have seen that we won’t hesitate to kill you, so this is your one chance to surrender. Lay your weapons on the ground at your feet, back up three paces and sit down if you want to live.”

Only the leader and one other Juicer chose the second option. I was prepared for the big man to put up an argument, and had my stage gun trained on him while I talked. As soon as he started yelling, I yanked back on both triggers. At almost the same instant, a Juicer in the front rank crumpled to the ground, his beam rifle harmlessly discharging into the dirt.

When the final accounting was completed, we had nineteen Juicer prisoners, five of them wounded. Thirteen were dead, including their gruesome leader and the large woman that was his second in command. We freed nine normal women, including Sonja and Tonya.

I was exceedingly happy when Lucy finally raised the militia unit on her radio and directed them to our location. They arrived shortly before sun up. The militia was commanded by Sheriff Greer’s chief deputy, an older, taciturn man born and raised in the Outlands. He took one look around and pulled out his communication device.

“I’m going to need a lot more help out here, including medical personnel and more militia and a bunch of vehicles,” he explained to Lucy.

Chief Deputy Thatcher could communicate back to New London, because he and his troops had placed some device he called a repeater every seven miles between where we were and the town.

I was bone-weary and my leg throbbed achingly, but I still stayed awake. As I sat with my leg propped up in front of the building full of trussed up Juicers, I reloaded my other two cylinders with powder packets, balls and primers, and mounted one in my Colt.

Tonya came over and sat by me. For all she’d been through, she appeared remarkably unfazed by her harrowing experience. The only indication that the ordeal affected her was the beam rifle she refused to part with.

“You saved my bacon, Tonya, but you were disobeying my order when you did it. Protecting those innocent civilians was more important than saving my worthless hell-bound hide,” I said in mild reproach.

“I did exactly as you said, up to the point of leaving you by yourself. The other women were in a safe place and I was between them and the Juicers. What you are forgetting Mister Mule-head, is that the highest member of our government ordered me to protect you. Not to mention, nowhere in my oath did I swear to follow the orders of a maniac with more courage than common sense,” she replied tartly.

Then she leaned over and kissed me softly on the lips.

“I did not doubt for a second you coming to get us, Jeremiah, and neither did Sonja. When you burst through that door, my heart almost jumped from my chest at the sight of you,” she said.

I did not know how Sonja felt about matters, because she and the other normal women were sedated and sleeping peacefully in one of the buildings. Lucy and the militia medical sergeant decided to sedate them, because they were all seriously distressed. They were to stay sedated until better qualified medical personnel were available to treat them. I asked Tonya why she was taking her abuse at the hands of the Juicers so much better than the other women. She shrugged and thought for a few seconds before she answered.

“I think one reason is that I was only a captive for a few hours. I’d also like to think that I am mentally and physically tougher than those women, but maybe I’m just more vindictive. Whatever the reason, I had no qualms about vaporizing those Juicers, and I don’t feel an ounce of regret or guilt for it even now,” she said defiantly.

I quickly told her that to me, killing one of those monsters was no worse than dispatching a rabid dog. The way I figured it, the Juicers gave up the right to be treated humanely when they voluntarily gave up their humanity.

The medical sawbones finally made it to me after treating all the seriously wounded Juicers. I did not begrudge him holding me out to last, because I hoped it meant my injuries were not that severe. I know it certainly didn’t look bad, as it was just a thirty-two caliber sized hole in the front and back of my lower left leg, just to the right of my shin bone. There was only a small trickle of blood from either hole. I did have persistent burning pain deep in my leg, but I had been hurt worse by being stepped on by mules. Somehow the injury to my calf translated to my foot not acting as it should. I could not feel my big toe, and my foot refused to bend at the ankle. The medical sergeant made the pain go away with one swift jab of a needle into my thigh. In fewer than ten minutes, I felt good enough to dance.

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