Spartacus lifted the satchel that contained the colony's tools and slung it over his shoulder. A gentle breeze, the first of spring, blew silver waves over the horizon as it offered up his hair in tribute to the determination of man. He stood for a moment as an unimposing figure on an unimposing landscape, quietly rolling a cigarette as he waited for his son Jesse to finish wiping off the last solar panel.
The younger man gave the panel a final swipe with his shirtsleeve and called to David, who was off playing a game of fetch with Seven. The three generations then came together and began walking in the direction of the setting sun . . . and the colony.
“Come on, give up the goods,” Jesse told David.
The boy blushed and looked away from his father. “I don't know what you mean.”
Spartacus and Jesse winked at one another.
“You don't know what I mean?!” asked Jesse. “How about little Ada Morgan, does that name ring a bell? You know, I heard she was hopin' you'd ask her for a dance tonight.”
David ran ahead a few yards with Seven. “I don't dance with girls,” he shouted defensively over his shoulder.
“Ya dance with Seven,” his father shouted back.
“Seven's not a girl, she's a dog!”
“Well dancin' with a pretty girl's gotta be a might better than dancin' with some ol', stinkin' heeler!”
Spartacus laughed. “Not at his age it isn't,” he told the younger father.
The two men, old and young, walked side by side in silence until they reached the hidden entrance to the colony's subterranean dwelling. Then Spartacus handed David the tools. “I'll see you boys in a little bit.” He patted the youngest on the head. “I promised I'd stop by and talk to Sitota about the corn.”
“Okay,” David told his grandfather. “Come on, Seven! Let's see if Mrs. Po needs help in the kitchen.” The boy pushed aside a wall of brambles with a stick and followed the dog inside.
“Oh, boy,” said Jesse, “she's gonna love that.”
After tousling each other's hair about, the fathers smiled and nodded to one another then parted company.
Spartacus replaced his cowboy hat and made his way past the wind turbines that were painted to blend in with the trees on a neighboring hill toward the spot where Sitota and the heelers were tending to the colony's herd of goats and pigs. “You wanted a word with me about the corn?” Spartacus asked Sitota, his friend since before the Holy Wars.
“Not the corn.” The Ethiopian, once the principle of the same school where Spartacus had been an English teacher, nodded to something behind the cowboy.
Spartacus looked over his shoulder at his horse. "Quigley?” he asked in a voice that was as ruff as sandpaper: one of the cowboy's trademarks.
“What about him?”
“First of all,” said Sitota, “he is the ugliest creature I have ever set eyes upon.” The shepherd waved the crook of his staff at the herd. “He scares the goats and pigs you know!”
“He's a painted horse,” said the cowboy in defense of his steed. “They're suppose to look unique.”
Sitota fervently shook his head and pointed to the horse. “I've seen painted horses before, my friend, and that is not unique. That is ugly. Ugly . . . ugly . . . ugly!”
“Okay,” said Spartacus, “so he's a-little homely. What does his looks have to do with the corn?”
“Well, it just so happens that he is not only an ugly horse, but an ugly horse thief. I caught him in the shelter this afternoon—eating corn from the granary—and you know what he did?!”
Spartacus shook his head.
“He ran and hid from me!” Sitota threw his hand in the air. “Why did you have to teach him that stupid game? Now we can't even punish him when he does something wrong! And you can expect to get an earful from Mrs. Po as well, I can tell you that, my friend. Some of that corn was reserved for tonight's celebration of the sowing season, which means she will want to send less of last year's tomato seeds to Kennard's colony when you and Whitecrow leave to trade. ”
Spartacus nodded. “Yes, and we leave tomorrow before the sun touches yonder hill, so I should go and make amends to Mrs. Po, and you, my friend, should come in and prepare yourself for a long night of celebrating, for you have many reasons to do so; soon you and Ayana will know the joys of grandparenting.
“How long until your son, Ignatius, and his mate have the child?”
Sitota smiled. “One—maybe two months.”
The cowboy raised both hands to the heavens and offered up a prayer on behalf of the colony's newest member. Then he looked at his friend of many years and said, “I have another prayer—a wish on behalf of you and yours: That your decedents, starting with the son of your son, will know only freedom.”
A tear came to the brim of the Ethiopian's eye. In a voice filled with the kind of emotions that only the words of a loving friend can evoke, he replied, “It is a very good prayer indeed. Mine thanks you for it and wishes the same for yours in return. Now about your ugly horse.”
Both men laughed. It was the kind of laugh that only those humans who are free can posses: a rare sound in the world of the two friends.
Sitota left the herd in the care of the heelers and accompanied Spartacus back to the colony.
“Why do you think my son is destined to have a son and not a daughter?” he asked. The shepherd and the cowboy had been friends for many decades, and they respected each others' thoughts and opinions concerning most matters. Both men, like the sounds of freedom, were rare creatures to be found in their time, which was not really their time at all; their time had been when they were not only friends, but colleagues, a time when society still preferred the way of the scholar to the way of the warrior.
“It was not a prophecy I spoke: only wishful thinking,” said Spartacus. “If your son were to give us a male—a warrior as honorable and as human as he—our colony would be blessed a hundredfold, for surely he is one of the finest men that this world has ever seen. It is no secret among those here or across the drylands that it has been a privilege and a great honor of mine to call him godson these past twenty-seven years, or to have him as a brother for my Jesse; mind you, not as much as Jesse, who prizes his friendship with your son almost as much—perhaps even more—than I prize my friendship with you.” There was a look that came over the cowboy's face then, a look that only those who have survived many years in the Dark Times can attest to. “Besides, I would not wish having a daughter on anyone, not in these times. Keeping a boy-child safe from the horrors of this world is hard enough; a female child stands no chance at all. And I love you and yours too much to witness the kind of suffering that it would cause you if one your granddaughters were to fall into the hands of the enemy.”
Sitota patted his friend on the back and looked behind them at Quigley; the horse was standing near a small tree, watching them. “You are a good friend, Spartacus. You have a very very ugly horse. But you are a good friend.”
That evening, in celebration of the sowing season, Spartacus picked up his guitar and played Bluegrass late into the night with the other members of the band. The celebration started off with feasting then moved onto singing and dancing as the adults passed around the last skin of shine. Everyone applauded as Sitota was the first to lead his wife out onto the dance floor. The applause was soon followed by laughter as Seven and David joined them. After the boy and dog had taken a few turns around the dance floor, Jesse pulled David aside and had a word with him.
Spartacus looked across the room to see Ada Morgan sitting alone on a bench, pouting as she watched the boy who preferred to dance with his dog instead of her.
David, avoiding eye contact with the girl, and obviously embarrassed, walked up to her and asked her for a dance. He then blushed as she accepted by grabbing his hand and jumping off the bench.
Spartacus smiled at the two youngsters who were doing their best to keep up with the adults and the rhythm of the music. Once the song was over, Ada gave David her first kiss. The boy grabbed his cheek and ran from the whistling of the crowd to hide beneath a table with Seven. At that moment, for the first time in years, a part of Spartacus wished that his wife Sarah could have lived long enough to see their son grow up and have a son of his own. However the biggest part of him, even now, would always be grateful that she had passed on while Jesse was still a babe, before the Holy Wars and the Dark Times had befallen the earth. He was also grateful that his precious son's darling wife had died from fever in the company of loved ones instead of at the hands of Draconian's soldiers, now Caesar's legionnaires.
The cowboy's mind turned to dark thoughts . . . and to Caesar. Even though it had only been three years since Caesar slew Draconian, the former general had gained a power far exceeding that of his predecessor's; and that power was still growing, like a plague upon the face of Earth. Spartacus had sent operatives to infiltrate Caesar's stronghold to find out if there was any way to kill the tyrant in his lair and free the captives, but the colony had not received word from the operatives since they had crossed over into the drylands some months ago. Spartacus and the other members of the colony could only pray that Hicks, Christian, Zawalski and Jerek were still alive and would come back to them, hopefully bearing good news.
Spartacus let his attention drift back to the instrument in his hands. After finishing off the evening with a couple of lullabies for the children, the members of the colony prepared themselves for bed and the next day's sowing of the seeds: all expect Spartacus and Whitecrow, who held council with one another in the kitchen.
“No more, Mrs. Po, thank you.” The cowboy moved his plate, but the little Chinese woman was quicker and slid the honey cakes onto it before he could get it beyond her reach.
“You don't tell me when you had enough; I tell you!” She shook her spatula in his face. “Now eat,” she said. “And then, when you are so big and so fat that you cannot move, we will talk about that demon of yours.”
“Yes, Quigley!” She made a funny grunting sound and sneered. “Quigley. What kind of name is that? I'll tell you what kind of name it is: a demon name. Not the kind of demon that brings peace, prosperity or an endless supply of shine, but a bad demon. The kind that scare you in the middle of the night and steal your corn when your not looking.”
Whitecrow snickered as he lifted the old rat-poison bottle that contained Mrs. Po secret stash of shine. “I'll drink to that.”
“No you won't!” she said, snatching the bottle away from him. “This has to last me until the two of you get back. You and Billy 'The Kid', here, can have all you want when you reach Kennard's.” She then took a sip from the bottle and disappeared behind the sink.
Whitecrow reached across the table and tapped Spartacus on the back of the hand. When he had the cowboy's attention, he said, “I need to talk to you about Marcus.”
“Go on.” Spartacus brought forth his last cigar and lit it before passing it to his second-in-command.
Whitecrow accepted the offering.“He's been acting stranger than usual lately. Jumpy, like a coyote that's been kept in a cage for too long.”
Spartacus took the cigar back from Whitecrow and pulled on the end of it, filling his lungs with smoke, then letting the smoke spill out of his mouth and nostrils in a slow steady stream. To the Indian and the old woman, who was watching from her place behind the sink, the cowboy bore the resemblance of the philosophical dragon as it sits alone on the highest mountain peak pondering the mysteries of life. Finally, after taking another thoughtful puff off of the cigar, he asked, “Do you think it has something to do with, well, you know, his . . . ”
“His ability to screw even the smallest thing up?” Mrs. Po offered as she came around the sink with a wet towel in her hand. “Oh, why don't you just come out and say he's an idiot for once instead of always tip-toeing around the subject. How about if I say it for you? Marcus is an idiot! Marcus is an idiot! There, you feel better now, big tough cowboy?” She cleared away their dishes and wiped down the table. “You too nice—too sensitive, you know that?”
Spartacus gave her a wink and his most charming smile as he swung his legs up onto the table. “You might wanna be careful there, Mrs. Po. It's been a long time since such a fine-lookin' woman has payed me any attention, much less a complement or two.” He gave her another wink.
The old woman giggled and waved him off with the towel. “Oh, shut up! Even if I wasn't married, I still wouldn't get with a young scoundrel like you.” Before disappearing behind the sink again with the dishes, she gave one final giggle and blew him a kiss.
The cowboy and Whitecrow laughed; they laughed even harder when she hit the Indian in the head with her secret stash. Whitecrow picked up the bottle. After blessing their trip the following day and taking a drink, he handed the bottle to the cowboy and they resumed their conversation about Marcus.
Whitecrow released a lungful of smoke and shook his head. “I know he's kind of slow, a know-it-all and an asshole but this is something different. I don't know how to explain it. It's like he's more skittish than usual.”
Spartacus was quiet for a moment. Over time, he had come to trust in Whitecrow's instincts, which, at the very least, were uncanny. More importantly, if there was one thing that the cowboy knew about the man John Whitecrow, it was this: the Indian never spoke lightly when it came to the colony; he was always dead-serious. “Do you think we should cancel our trip?” Spartacus asked, passing him the bottle of shine.
Whitecrow shrugged and took a drink from the bottle before handing it back to Mrs. Po. “We can't take him with us; it would be too much of a hassle,” he said. “And I don't think we can afford to cancel our trip. We need that piping, not to mention the cable and other stuff we're running low on. Then there's Kennard's colony. They'll definitely need the oils, dried goods and skins before winter—and they're might not be another chance to go before then, especially with the way the world itself has been changing these last thirty years. If Kennard and his old man weren't some of our only remaining allies I'd say forget about it, but they are, and anything we can do to help them survive will only be to our advantage.”
The cowboy nodded, urging the Indian to continue.
“I think our only option is to tell the other members of the colony to keep an eye on him while we're away. Definitely Mr. Morgan, Ignatius, Chambers—"
“Gibbons,” Spartacus added. “She's one of our best warriors.”
“Actually,” said Whitecrow, “she's the one who brought the situation to my attention.”
“You mean, she noticed something before you?”
“The Indian shrugged again. “Yeah, so what? She's good. And hot, too!” Whitecrow leaned over the table and whispered to Spartacus, “Man, that scar across her right cheek is so sexy. I was thinkin' about when we got back maybe I'd ask her to, uh . . . “
“To what?” The cowboy raised his eyebrows.
Whitecrow smiled and leaned back in his chair. “That's just it, there's nothing to do around here. And besides, man, I don't think she's the kind of woman that enjoys long walks while looking at the pretty flowers. Maybe I'll take her out and let her shoot my crossbow . . . or something.” He stared off for a moment then snapped his fingers together. “We could wrestle! Oh, yeah. I'd even be willing to crank-up the charm and let her best me.”
“I don't think you'd have to let her.” Spartacus grinned; the grin then faded as easily as it had appeared. “So have we made our decision concerning Marcus?”
Immediately Whitecrow became serious again. “I really can't see another way. But if you can, I'm ready to listen—other than bringing him with us; I'm serious about that one.”
The cowboy slid his legs off the table. “Well then, we should go inform the chosen ones.”
Both men left Mrs. Po in the company of her duties to hold council with the other warriors in the colony. Once they had squared everything away concerning Marcus and their trip the following day, the Indian and cowboy headed to their respective lodgings and bedded down for the night. To both of them it seemed as though they had just closed their eyes when they heard the colony's only cock crow up a dreamy morning blanketed by fog. The two men then gathered their gear, saddled their horses, and began giving and receiving farewells.
Spartacus knelt and rubbed the top of his grandson's head. “You be good for your pa, understand? And do your part to help look out for the colony.”
David held his head high and nodded, proud that his wise and respected grandfather had intrusted him with the security of the colony—and in front of many of the colony's finest warriors to-boot.
The grandfather squeezed the third generation's shoulder and, for a moment, they were two men staring into the recesses of each others soul. He then stood up and turned to the second generation.
“Be careful, Pa.” Jesse hugged his father. “There are many dangers between here and there, and we need you back here as soon as possible—”
“Yeah!” cried David. “So make sure ta kill a lot of bad guys.
“Bang! Bang, bang! Play dead, Seven!”
The heeler rolled onto her back then jumped up and ran over to Spartacus.
The cowboy reached down and shook hands with the dog. “You mind your pa, too, ya hear?” Spartacus marveled as Seven, one of the most most loyal creatures that he had ever met, barked twice and ran to David.
“Shit,” said Jesse. “Here he comes.”
“Here who comes?” asked his father. “And watch your mouth. If your momma was here right now, boy, she'd be tap dancin' up and down that spine of yours.”
Jesse apologized, then tilted his head and nodded to Marcus, who was walking toward the hill.
Spartacus turned and greeted the man as he would any other member of the colony. Right away he noticed something different about Marcus: the short pot-bellied man looked frail . . . sickly. Maybe that's why he's been acting so nervous. He's worried that we'll suspect he has the fever and put him out; or he's afraid that we'll put him out because of his mental regression, which continues to get worse with each passing day.
“I just wuh-wanted to wish you both a safe and pl-pleasant journey,” Marcus stammered. Before Spartacus or Whitecrow could respond, he took off down the hill, flapping his arms and screeching: “It's time for blueberry soup, ha, ha! It's time for blueberry soup, hee, hee! After drinking our blueberry soup, ha, ha, we'll drown ourselves in blueberry tea. Hee, HEEEEEEEEE!!!”
Whitecrow raised his eyebrows and looked at Spartacus. “So, blueberry soup's on the menu today at the House of the Scrambled Mind? Doesn't sound very promising, does it?” Then: “OW!” Whitecrow grabbed his arm and whirled around; he came face to face with Gibbons. The Indian smiled. “That was a pretty solid punch,” he told her. “Maybe you can show me your technique sometime.”
Gibbons smiled at him dangerously as she handed him his gauntlet. “How about if I just show you right now?” She punched him as hard as she could in the shoulder, then swept his feet out from under him and pinned him to the ground.
Spartacus flinched and turned to Sitota. The cowboy hugged his dearest friend close to him. “Look out for them, even the warriors,” he whispered.
“You know that I will do my best, but I am not you, Spartacus; you are the only one who can lead us. So please come back soon, my friend.” Sitota kissed Spartacus' forehead and then stepped aside so that Ayana, his wife, could kiss the cowboy's weathered cheek.
“Mrs. Po asked me to give you these.” Ayana handed him a bundle wrapped in cloth. “Honey cakes straight from the oven.”
Spartacus smelled the sweet bread through the cloth. “Tell her I'm much obliged. You can also tell her that she didn't have to bribe me to bring back an extra skin of shine for her stash.”
Ayana laughed as she looked over Sitota's shoulder at Ignatius, who was leading Jack, Dumb and Lazy (Mrs. Po's three asses) with one hand while carrying Mercury, Whitecrow's hawk, on the other. Once the warrior reached them he handed the hawk to Whitecrow. “Fair travels,” he told the Indian. Then after hugging Spartacus and handing the cowboy the rope tied to the three asses, which were laden with trade-goods, he went to stand next to Jesse, his friend since the cradle.
Spartacus put the honey cakes into one of the pockets of his his duster and mounted Quigley. “Fare thee well, my fellow humans.” The cowboy tipped his hat while his horse stole a carrot from the hand of a small child. “I promise you that we shall make haste. If we are not back before the moon waxes full, it would be my advice—and my wish—that Jesse, with his genius for strategy, take charge of the colony's affairs. However, if you yourselves do not truly believe the same, you should hold council this evening and decide who will take my place if some evil should befall us during our travels.”
Everyone, including the warriors, agreed that Jesse should be the one in charge of the colony with Ignatius as his second-in-command.
Satisfied, the cowboy gazed out at the terrain; the perfect place to trap and destroy a mass army. Hidden underneath was a vast underground shelter, filled with hundreds of colonists. Even though all colony members over the age of six were trained to fight and defend themselves, only about fifty of them were actually battle-harden warriors. The rest of Spartacus' warriors had fell under the brutal hands of Draconian, the late, great, scourge of humankind. With the help of his general, the ruthless dictator was able to crush Spartacus' army of insurrectionists and ravage the colonies and their civilian populations. The cowboy and the other survivors who were not taken captive had gathered here, vowing that they would do everything within their power to make sure that humankind prevailed over the demons of the earth.
Spartacus' attention was drawn to Whitecrow and David. Whitecrow was promising the boy that as soon as he was old enough he would have a hawk of his own. David then asked Whitecrow to name the hawk for him as he had done for the Indian.
Whitecrow agreed and set Mercury to flight.
“Damn,” said Whitecrow. He gave his arm a final rub before climbing into the saddle. “She hits really hard, for a girl.”
All of the colonist within hearing-range laughed: all except Gibbon's, who slapped the rump of Whitecrow's horse as hard as she could while letting out a mighty battle cry.
The cowboy saluted his warriors and the other members of their tribe and set off after his second-in-command.
“Grandpa,” David said, running along beside him with Seven, “when do you think I can go with you to Kennard's?”
His grandfather smiled. “You still gotta another five years at least. But that day will come sooner than you expect. Enjoy what remains of your childhood, for it will be over within the blink of an eye. As soon as you reach your fifteenth year you must learn and train in the art of war. Hopefully by your eighteenth birthday you will have already taken your place among the other warriors.” He leaned over and tugged on the boy's earlobe. “Be good and go back to your pa. It's not safe beyond the borders of our land, and we're almost to the border now. We will be back as soon as the fates allow.”
David, trying not to cry, looked up at his grandfather. “You promise?” he asked.
Spartacus gave him a reassuring smile. “I promise.”
“Promise again!” said David. “Promise that this isn't the last time we'll see each other.”
The cowboy slowed his horse a pace. “We will see each other again, David. If there is only one promise that I can keep, it will be the one I make to you. Now go back to your pa.”
David nodded and fell back with Seven. At the last moment, he shouted, “I love you, Grandpa!”
Cupid's arrow pierced the old man's heart. Fighting back tears of his own, Spartacus pulled Quigley around and looked into the face of his grandson, memorizing every detail down to the last strand of hair on the boy's small head. “I love you too, David. You're a fine young man, and I am proud to be your ancestor and to call you my decedent.”
The boy's demeanor immediately changed. He wiped away his tears, stood tall, puffed out his chest, and gave his ancestor a courageous look. Any adult who could spot the makings of an alpha in a cub could see that this cub—given the proper nutrition, love, security and training—would be a formidable adversary for Caesar and his legionnaires someday; if Caesar could maintain control of his empire long enough for the boy to grow into manhood.
Grandfather and grandson saluted one another and said their final fair wells. When Spartacus reached the top of the last hill lining the colony's border, he turned back for one final look. Far off in the distance he could make out two tiny specks: David and Seven. Though his grandson could not see his actions, the cowboy stood up in his saddle and waved before heading off into the wilderness with Whitecrow.