A Walk in the Woods: Episode 14

Trempage comes out into the daylight and sees Buckets mounted on his old gelding, leading another horse and accompanying a scruffy young stranger with a bulging pack.

Trempage: Hey, Buckets, what's up?

Buckets: Going to look for Jardyce. His horse come back without him.

Trempage is a rather elderly veteran of the Unity Wars, who stayed in the army for some years after. He lives on his pension and memories, which he shares with anyone who will listen. The memories, that is.

Nick still isn't happy about having an armed local beating the woods where Kat and Pinecone are hiding.

Trempage: And what's with the stranger?

Buckets: Thinks he's a Simekiller.

Trempage: Huh.

Buckets: Me, I don't think we need a Simekiller. Jardyce probably just fell and bunged himself up.

Nick: I have taken care of a number of problem Simes, if that happens to be the reason that Jardyce didn't return.

Trempage: Well, nice day today, maybe I'll come along. I've got plenty of experience "taking care" of "problem Simes".

Trempage makes it plain that he doubts Nick does. The man doesn't even have a rifle.

Buckets: Better safe than sorry. Could use the help.

Nick isn't carrying anything more lethal than a razor for shaving. His high Farris-trained Donor field notwithstanding.

Trempage: Well, lemme get my rifle. Saddle my horse for me Buckets, will you?

Buckets: You can ride Mucilage here if you'd like, Tremp. Save a few minutes.

Trempage: What you gonna do if Jardyce needs to ride? Or his body?

Buckets: I'll put him on Hairbrain here, and I'll walk back.

Buckets is very glad to have old Tremp along. Not only does he distrust Nick's Simekilling skills, he just plain distrusts Nick.

Trempage: Okay. Be right back.

Nick catches Buckets' distrustful look, and tries to look ~~ innocent and harmless ~~. He thinks that such things are a lot easier when the person to be influenced is Sime.

Buckets turns to Nick.

Buckets: Trempage's a good man. War veteran.

Nick: Really?

Trempage ducks back into his cabin and rapidly assembles some supplies -- food, matches, dry socks, ammunition, a flask of medicinal spirits.

Buckets: Killed lots of Simes in the wars. He'll make sure nothing bad happens while we're out there.

Buckets is thinking mostly of the bad things Nick might decide to make happen.

Nick: Isn't he a little old to be fighting? Simes are hard enough for a young Gen to chase down.

Nick ought to know, as he's been spending the past few years chasing after them.

Buckets: He's still got good eyes, and he's a better shot than I am. It's not who can run, it's who can shoot. Specially if you're on a horse.

Buckets stares pointedly at Nick's battered boots.

Buckets: Guess you wouldn't know about that.

Trempage comes out wearing an old Gen Army pack and carrying a rifle from the Unity Wars.

Trempage: Ready to go, boys?

Buckets refrains from staring at Nick's lack of rifle, since there's nothing to stare at.

Nick: I'm no horseman, I'll grant you that. But I do know Simes, and how to discourage them.

Buckets grins at Trempage.

Trempage somewhat stiffly mounts mounts the spare horse, but sits like a cavalryman.

Buckets: Yup. Let's go.

Nick starts off down the road with the practiced stride of someone who's used to long-distance hiking.

Trempage: Gonna let him track for us? Trust him?

Trempage knows that a blind bat could track through this snow.

Buckets: I'm watching him. And the track.

Trempage nods.

Nick: Buckets tells me you fought in the Unity War, Mr. Trempage?

Trempage: Yeah. Scout and sniper.

Nick: Really? Where did you serve?

Buckets stifles a groan. That's more than enough of an opening to keep Tremp going for hours.

Trempage: Invaded Nivet, east of here. The Sime were all hungry for kills. Had to hold them back. Before you were born. After the war, I worked in the east, teaching the young men how to hunt Simes, getting the local packs that spring up if you don't stop 'em.

Buckets has, of course, heard all of Trempage's stories a hundred times. Most of them were quite entertaining the first dozen or so times.

Buckets: Wasn't it you, Tremp, taught us all the best tricks for Simefighting?

Buckets thinks a little of Trempage's advice might improve the odds of Nick living to see his next birthday.

Trempage: Not the same, when you're just after one of them, especially a young one with no experience. Not like facing a pack, or an army, of long-time killers. A Gen a month, for years. Real monsters, them.

Buckets shudders theatrically.

Nick: Yes. I'm glad that those days are largely past.

Buckets: You think you know Simes, kid. Trempage here knows old Simes. The really dangerous ones.

Trempage: Doesn't take 'em long to learn. And they form up into packs when they can. Still do, if people don't look after their kids properly, like they used to.

Trempage looks grim.

Trempage: But when they form up an army, moving like locusts, killing every Gen they find... killing each other fighting over Gens...

Nick: There were plenty of young Simes escaping all the way to Sime Territory, even before the Unity War.

Trempage: The smart ones, I suppose. Turning into a snake doesn't smarten a kid up, just makes him a killer.

Buckets: Can't afford to bet, though, that the one you're facing is stupid.

Nick: No, it's never a good idea to make your plans depend on your opponent's stupidity. Not unless you know the opponent well, and know for sure he is.

Trempage: Stupid or not, they're all fast, and they don't care what happens to them when they're after a Gen. Charge right into rifle fire.

Nick: They don't even realize that the rifle's there, if they're zlinning. It doesn't have selyn to light it up.

Trempage waves that away.

Trempage: When they've got that lust to kill, their brains are pretty much turned off -- they're like animals or machines.

Nick: True. Just like a person who's starving, or dying of thirst.

Trempage: Makes it easier to shoot them, if you've got the nerve to face them down until they get in range.

Buckets: Wasn't it you, Tremp, taught us all to never let them look you in the eye? Panic you and freeze you up, if they look you in the eye.

Trempage: Well, works that way for some.

Nick: Not for me.

Buckets: I never coulda shot my own sister, if I'd looked straight into those blue eyes.

Nick: All that means is that you were a loving brother, not that meeting a Sime's gaze will make you freeze.

Buckets: Treesa was a good kid. But once those snakes came out on her arms, she was as much a monster as any.

Trempage: It's hard if you remember them from before they turned Sime. Hard not to have some sympathy for them. But there's only one cure for it, like there's only one cure for rabies.

Nick: I suppose out here, that's true. Closer to the border, there are other solutions.

Trempage: Well, they're not raiding any more, and they say they're not killing any more in Nivet. But there's always more homegrown ones, if the family isn't responsible.

Trempage isn't concerned about Nivet, now that the raids are over.

Buckets: It's why I've never wanted to marry and have kids. Hell of a responsibility. Had to do it once for Treesa, and once was enough.

Nick: There would be another way, if there was a Sime Center within reach.

Buckets spits into the bushes.

Trempage: Not in my lifetime. Not in yours either, if ever.

Nick shrugs.

Buckets: Ain't gonna happen. Not in these parts.

Nick: That's up to the people who live here, certainly. But I've lived in places with Sime Centers, and there are a lot fewer people shooting their sisters there.

Trempage: One or two kids need taking care of every year, and usually it works out, nobody gets hurt.

Trempage automatically excludes the dead Sime.

Nick: Except the grieving families, of course.

Trempage looks at Nick with disgust.

Trempage: That's life. That's how things are. Nobody raises all their kids, whether it's sickness or the other that takes 'em.

Nick: I've been to places where a lot of families do raise all their kids. Not all families, but a lot of them.

Buckets: Listen, kid, you've been putting on a good act. But I can tell you're really no Simekiller. Will you listen to some good advice from them that can teach you how to survive?

Trempage: I'm gonna pull out ahead and scout. Looks like Jardyce followed his usual tricks, staying off the trail.

Trempage doesn't want to hear more from this young man about how everything would be different if everything were different.

Buckets gives Trempage a nod.

Trempage makes sure his rifle is ready to hand and pulls ahead.

Nick would like to object, as he doesn't want Trempage to stumble across Kat and Pinecone. He can't come up with a plausible argument, however. At least Kat will be able to zlin Trempage coming a long way away.

Buckets: Kid, listen to me. Simes like to hide behind willow scrub. Stay away from willow scrub. Small mountain ash too. The bushy kind. Gives good cover, specially in summer.

Nick: Willows and ash? Well, they would provide a visual screen, while not interfering with the Sime's ability to zlin a Gen coming.

Buckets: Yeah.

Nick: Of course, that doesn't help if you're hunting the Sime, rather than the reverse.

Nick recalls several times when he and Snake went hunting for berserkers in scrub.

Buckets: Now if you're hunting a Sime and don't have a gun, you can try fire. Wave a torch or a hot poker at them. On the other hand if you're chilled through, you're a target. More appy-tizin.

Buckets glances at Nick's rather threadbare winter clothing.

Nick: Now, that's not true. What makes you attractive to a Sime in need is how much selyn you're carrying, not whether you're warm or cold.

Buckets: Shows how much you know. Another thing. If they can't get at your lips they can't kill you. Tie a scarf around your face and it'll maybe slow 'em down just enough for your buddies to get a shot in. Or turn your back, if you've got the nerve. Buys you an extra half second.

Nick: Maybe or maybe not. It's certainly possible for a Sime to take selyn in alternate positions. Back of the neck, say.

Buckets: Never heard of that one. But if it's true, then keep your collar buttoned.

Buckets stares at the back of Nick's neck, picturing a giant bullseye over it.

Nick decides to pass on a little advice of his own.

Nick: The best defense to a Sime who wants selyn is not to have a lot on hand.

Buckets: Yeah, well, staying away is fine. But it means someone else is gonna have to face them. Not too responsible for a big brave Simekiller.

Nick: You don't have to stay away. Just get rid of the selyn before you go in.

Buckets: Yeah, how? Empty it into a slop pail? Or give it to some other Sime and then go out dead to hunt?

Nick chuckles.

Nick: Not all Simes kill. You can give selyn and not die from it, and afterwards you can go in without being a big, fat target to any Sime in miles.

Buckets: Yeah, right. That's fine in the funnies, but it don't happen in real life. Not for folks like you and me.

Nick: Channels exist. I've met a few, along the border.

Buckets: Kid, I can promise you, there ain't a channel anywhere within a hundred miles of here. This ain't the big city.

Nick: I agree, this isn't the sort of place the Tecton serves. Still, the principle is valid.

Buckets: Principles is for schools. I'm talking about real life.

Buckets stares at Nick suspiciously.

Buckets: Did you used to be a college kid before you ended up on the road?

Nick: I've had some formal schooling. Learned a lot more on the road, though, to tell the truth.

Buckets: Never trust the stuff in books, kid. Trust real life the way it is. Books is pretty, but they ain't real.

Nick: True, reading a book about something is no substitute for learning it properly.

Buckets: Believe that, kid. Really believe that, and you'll live longer.

Nick: Now, I've been along the edges of Simeland. Learned a lot about Simes on the way.

Buckets: Yeah? Such as?

Nick: What things attract or provoke a Sime, and how to avoid doing them.

Buckets: I'm all ears.

Buckets is, too; they're the feature that gave him his name.

Nick: Pain and fear trigger Simes to attack, while if you can stay completely calm and open, you've got nothing to fear from most Simes.

Buckets grunts skeptically.

Nick: How did you think Donors manage to give selyn to channels in hard need, every month?

Buckets: Donors, if they really exist, is different. They got bigger... whatever it is, so they got enough to spare. If they know that, they don't hafta be scared. Us little guys, we need to be scared. No shame in it, so long as you cope.

Nick: I assure you, Donors are perfectly real. I've met several. They weren't any more extraordinary than I am.

Buckets: Not to look at, maybe. Simes can smell the difference.

Buckets doesn't make much distinction between the various delicate senses that he doesn't have.

Nick: Simes can tell someone who's afraid of them from someone who isn't, yes. That's the main difference between a Donor and you.

Buckets: Yeah, but I got reasons to be afraid. So do you, if you're smart.

Buckets has decided this crazy guy will believe just about anything except the facts. He decides to have a bit of fun.

Buckets: One thing you gotta watch out for, if you're gonna hang around Simes. Once in a while you get one with tentacles that glow in the dark. Bright red, green, sometimes orange. Them's the really dangerous ones. Saw a picture in a book once.

Buckets keeps his face perfectly straight as he says this, just in case Nick turns around to look.

Nick hoots with laughter.

Nick: What was it, a picture of some Sime student playing with fluorescent algae? Or a prop tentacle in some play?

Buckets isn't sure what algae is, but at least the kid got that his joke was a joke.

Buckets: You'll do okay, kid. Just mind not to believe everything you hear.

Nick: I won't. But I hope you'll excuse me if I give a lot of credit to what I've learned from folks who actually have contact with Simes.

Buckets: That's where I learned what I know. For example, the thing about Simes can't stand roses, my cousin Ginny learned that one when she sprayed a bottle of rose cologne in the face of one. The thing about the willow scrub, that was the Hawkins boy. The thing about the glowing tentacles, I made that one up to see if you could tell.

Trempage comes back down the trail, disgusted at the amount of noise Buckets and the stranger are making. If there's danger, noise will attract it. And by the tracks, they're nowhere near Jardyce, or his body.

Trempage: Simes could hear you all the way from Nivet, if there are any out here.

Nick is counting on it.

Buckets: Find anything, Tremp?

Trempage: Jardyce's horse's tracks coming back crossed the ones going out a few times. Might as well follow the back trail. Horse would take the easier way.

Buckets: Lead on, then.

Trempage: Might try to keep the noise down so if there is a Sime out there, he'll have to find you the harder way.

Trempage turns his horse around, and leads the way.

Buckets: If there's a Sime out there, he'll find us.

Trempage: You can sneak up on them, you know. They can't zlin through a hill or even a big rock.

Nick: This trail's pretty open, though.

Nick's nager is also considerably more zlinnable than the nondonors'.

Buckets still thinks Jardyce just fell off his horse and hit his head or bunged up his leg.

Trempage: Well, it heads up over that ridge there. A Sime the other side of it wouldn't know you were there if you were quiet enough.

Nick is ~~ concerned ~~ as Trempage points in the direction of Kat's hiding place.

Buckets: Well, then, let's be quiet a bit.

Buckets figures the jingle of harness is more than loud enough to tip off the probably nonexistent Sime.

Trempage: Mind the time I was scouting, spotted a bunch of them camped in a valley. Kept behind the ridge line, just sort of peeked at 'em between the rocks. Never spotted me. Sent us back later, and we wiped 'em out. Sharpshooters.

Buckets smiles in ~~ satisfaction ~~ . Tremp can tell his stories firsthand. Maybe the kid will believe those.

Trempage: Only lost four of us, as I remember.

Trempage shakes his head.

Trempage: Fools tried to run. Lost their nerve. Only thing to do when a Sime comes at you is stand your ground and shoot.

Nick: A Donor has other options, but I don't expect you had any with you.

Buckets: You're starting to catch on, kid. Gotta live with what is, not with what might be.

Trempage looks at Nick.

Trempage: It's like dogs -- you run, they'll chase you. They can smell fear and it makes them crazy to kill. And if they chase you, they'll take you down, every time, unless some braver man shoots them for you.

Nick: I suppose it would be hard to aim a weapon when you're running the other way.

Trempage snorts.

Trempage: Gotta keep your nerve, fighting Simes. Only way to survive.

Nick: It helps if you're not trying to fight the Simes, as well.

Nick hopes his companions will remember that, if Kat and Pinecone can't or won't stay hidden.

Trempage: We were fighting real killers. No choice but fight or die.

Nick: True, back then.

Buckets: Luckiest thing I ever did was break my leg that spring. Still aches in the rain, but I lived. But you, Tremp, you was there. Lot you could teach a young guy.

Buckets would rather listen to Trempage's stories one more time than try to reason with Nick any more.

Trempage: It's not the same any more, thank God. They've stayed on their own side of the border for nearly forty years now. Army doesn't even clean out packs of our homegrown ones much any more. They get people from Nivet to do it. Simes, and some of those Gens they can't kill.

Nick: That seems a better way, to me. No one gets hurt.

Trempage: You're right, there. But a Sime comes around here, nobody's going to send us anyone to take him out. We're on our own out here in the mountains, just as we've been for generations.

Nick: It's too bad.

Trempage: That's life. That's how it's always been.

Buckets: You've traveled, kid. You've seen the cities. Us, we're just here. Gotta live with what is. When you're here, that's how it is for you too.

Trempage looks around, enjoying the fine cold clear day and thinking about his youth.

Buckets: Kid, there's something I don't get about you.

Nick: What's that?

Buckets: You came on talking like some big Simekiller, now you want to live and let live, get all friendly with Simes. Can't do both.

Trempage: I'll take point again.

Buckets: Don't go too far, Tremp. Think we're close to where Jardyce's trapline meets the trail.

Trempage heads up the ridge, following the tracks.

Buckets is still waiting for Nick to answer his question. He's paying more attention to Nick than to the condition of the trail.

Buckets: How about it, kid? You want to kill 'em or cuddle 'em?

Nick has a strong preference for the latter, particularly with some individuals.

Nick: I do what's appropriate for the situation. It's worked so far.

Buckets: Sooner or later you'll hafta pick one or the other.

Nick: Maybe. Maybe not.

Buckets: Ooooofff!

Buckets's horse has skidded on a slippery bit of trail, nearly dumping Buckets from the saddle.

Nick: Steady, there.

Buckets's horse is now standing awkwardly, with one hoof slightly raised.

Buckets dismounts stiffly and examines Hairbrain's right fore hoof and fetlock.

Buckets: Picked up an ice ball. Sprained.

Nick: You can't ride him with that, I'd think.

Buckets straightens to soothe the hapless horse.

Buckets: It's okay, boy. It's okay. No, I can't.

Buckets thinks for a moment.

Nick is ~~ glad ~~ that they are losing one of the party. He thinks that between them, he, Kat and Pinecone can probably handle Trempage.

Buckets: Tell you what, kid. I'm sure, now, that Jardyce just had something like this happen to him. You take my doctoring kit off the saddle here, and go catch up to Tremp.

Nick: Sure. I'll tell him what happened, so he won't worry about you.

Buckets: I'll wait here a bit, then if you're not back I'll start back to town, slow and easy.

Buckets considers for a moment, then decides to take a leap of faith.

Buckets: Here, you take Treesa, just in case. Take good care of her, and get her back to me later.

Buckets pulls the rifle from his saddle and offers it to Nick.

Nick hesitates, as he's never used one of the things. He then reflects that if he's holding it, neither can Buckets.

Buckets: I don't really think there's a Sime out there, but if there is you're headed right for it.

Nick is not averse to having one less gun in hostile hands, around his channel.

Nick: Thank you. I'll take good care of it.

Nick takes the weapon, keeping it pointed away from Buckets.

Buckets: Name's Treesa. After my kid sister.

Nick tries to hold it with something of the confidence Buckets showed.

Nick: Of course. Treesa.

Buckets sees Nick's awkwardness with the gun and almost has second thoughts. Almost.

Buckets: Just remember not to point her at anything you're not willing to kill. Um, including your own left foot.

Nick: Er, yes.

Nick adjusts his posture.

Buckets: Now go catch up with Trempage. Me and Hairbrain, we'll be okay.

Nick: All right. Be careful. It wouldn't do to avoid the Sime, if there is one, and fall prey to a bear instead.

Buckets: A bear? This time of year?

Buckets is sure now that Nick is a city kid.

Buckets: Go help Tremp. I'll be fine.

Nick nods and heads up the trail.

Buckets takes out his knife and begins to work the ice ball out of Hairbrain's hoof.

Trempage has stopped not far away and is watching as Nick leaves Buckets and the lame horse and trudges up the hill toward him, holding the rifle like it's covered with pig shit.

Trempage: His horse is lame so it's you and me now?

Nick: Yes.

Nick adds mentally, "and Kat, and Pinecone. And somewhere, a probably injured Gen that maybe Kat can heal."

Trempage: Well, shouldn't be much farther. Tracks going out are almost as fresh as tracks coming back.

Trempage shares a bit of scouting lore.

Nick thinks that more to the point, the tracks are continuing to go closer and closer to the place where Kat and Pinecone are hiding.

Nick: So we should find Jardyce soon?

Trempage: Hope so.

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