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Old Guy

The Scavenger

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I wrote this one today. You guys might like it.

“Not doing so well, eh?” A high-pitched voice roused Milo.

He shifted slightly, trying to see. “Who . . .” Searing pain stopped his words. Bones grated in his left shoulder. Gritting his teeth, Milo tried to roll over, away from the pain. Nothing happened. He could see his right leg. The top of his boot had been ripped away, leaving behind a bloody mass of trouser and knee. The leg didn't hurt, which seemed both good and bad.

“Don't worry about the knee. In fact, don't worry about anything. You'll be dead in a few minutes.”

“Who are you?” gasped Milo. “I can't see . . .”

“In a moment. I must check this wound in your back. What's your name?”

“Mi - Milo. A musketeer of the Black Spear.” He tried to move again -- and regretted it.

“Never heard of any bandits going by that name.”

“God! My shoulder . . .” He lay still, barely breathing. “Not bandits. Mercenaries. We -- I -- we were hired out to . . . now I can't remember. Jesus. I dream. I must be in camp -- dreaming.”

His words brought a peal of laughter. “Did you dream that shattered knee? Is this hole in your back a kind of nightmare? Your guts lie on the ground. The buzzards will soon gorge on them.”

“I have been shot,” muttered Milo. “Shot through.”

“Shot through. Yes. I like the sound of that. Shot through. Shot through. A good deal of description and misery all bound up in two words, eh.” A very short woman stepped over his leg and sat down. She wore a stained jacket over a dingy shift of uncertain color. “You can call me Gray. You're the first of your lot I found alive.”

“I don't -- I can't move. My shoulder is broken, I think.” He tried moving his right arm. The elbow registered a savage protest. “God. I am killed. Jesus take me.”

“We have a few minutes, I think,” said Gray.

“Why are you here? On a battlefield?”

Again she laughed. “This is no battlefield. You were caught in the narrows and ridden down by the Duke's cavalry. I heard no shooting. Just the sounds of lance and sword against steel and flesh.”

“We march with the muskets unloaded. To -- to keep the powder dry. But we had outriders. Scouts. Hired by the Captain.”

The woman shrugged. “Bought off by the Duke, I imagine.” She leaned forward. “Where have you been? What have you done? Are there women who wonder where you are?”

Milo stared in wonder, drawn briefly out of his own misery. “Why do you ask? And why of me -- a man soon dead and buried?”

“Not buried. No one would dare. Duke's orders. As for my questions -- call it curiosity. My mother warned me about it, but I still ask the questions.”

“Do you get answers?”

“Sometimes. Most men don't think women are good for much, except between the blankets or at her cooking pot. Dying men will talk to a woman.”

He wanted to laugh, but dared not risk the pain. “So here you are -- among the dying and the dead. Do you not have a man to torment?”

“There have been men. No husbands. I talk too much.”

Milo closed his eyes and paused to breathe. He didn't want to answer questions. It hurt to talk. Yet, he could feel life slipping away. The woman waited. “I have nowhere to go. What can I tell you?”

“As I said before. Where have you been?”

“Towns. Some big, some small. Camps in the wild.” He remembered a night march under a full moon and told her how the men before him seemed like armored phantoms gilded in silver. Then he spoke of a low stone wall and how they crouched behind it and shot down men coming toward them across a flooded field. Greasy gun smoke drifted in banks, like fog, and their enemies loomed out of the brown mist as if conjured there from another time and place. “I was very afraid, but held my place.”

“You cannot name these places you speak of?”

“To a soldier one day becomes the next. Faces repeat endlessly. One dirty little town is very like the last one -- and ten before that. In cities we seek drink and whores.” Milo coughed and fell silent. She started to rise, then sank down as he began again. “You asked -- about women, did you not?”

“I did. Was there ever a particular woman?”

“Most women are particular -- about much.” He smiled through his pain. “When I was a boy, I -- I wanted a girl. A girl -- in the next . . .” Milo's voice trailed off. His face relaxed.

Gray leaned forward and closed his eyes, then got up and slapped the dust from her shift. “He had a couple good stories,” she said aloud. “I wish he'd lived long enough to tell me the girl's name.”

She bent over the next corpse and pulled the purse from his belt. It had already been cut open. “Not a copper. Cavalry. Damn their eyes. Robbing the dead while a poor old woman starves.”

Crows complained as Gray went from man to man. Only three copper coins went into her bag. She stretched and watched the crows settle down to their work. “Feast well, friends.”

End

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