We sat and dripped sweat in the honey heat, listened to Mic D on the upright, and Mama Tracery checked on each table one by one.
“Samuel,” Mama Tracery said, “you’re going to start paying a maintenance tax on those fritters if you don’t slow down boy; I spent my last penny on those broken legs.”
“Yes ma’am,” Samuel said through bits of fried potato.
I threw my arm over Samuel’s shoulder. “Don’t listen to her Sammy,” I slid my plate of steaming pastries under his nose. “Have a happy birthday friend.” I shook him then stood with my cup raised. The boys held up their drinks with me and quieted. Mic saw me stand from his upright near the door and softened his playing. “Good on you Samuel m’boy! for surviving another year in this God-abandoned hell-hole. You’ve made our loads lighter with your weight, been the pillar of many fond tales told throughout Sand Canyon. You are a true un-wit and a gentle beast… we love you dearly, old friend.” I bowed. The boys cheered and most of the bar joined in.
“Hear, hear!” Mama Tracery said, and Mic turned up the music and the tavern carried on as normal.
“I don’t know why you guys give me so much trouble with my weight. Here. In the factory… I didn’t choose this you know?”
Jethro swatted away Samuel’s words. “People wish they had that belly. People want it. They want to be warm at night, maybe get some sleep during their damn ‘drills’. You listen to your friend Jethro, I won’t steer your wrong. In some countries, you are king.”
“Hush!” Samuel said. “Stop it with that, it’s busy tonight.”
“Oh, They don’t drink here.”
“They drink where they will drink.”
“Lighten up boys,” I said. “I’ve ordered another round.”
“You’ll kill me tonight,” Samuel said.
“All this talk about death! I came to celebrate a special day, not talk about the Goose-law.” The others laughed.
“Yes, well it is easy to talk about something you’re ignorant of, isn’t it?”
“Woah, woah, Sammy, it’s all right friend, drink, breathe—what’s gotten into you? You’re still plenty young for finding a woman.”
“Ya,” Yulcup said, “the problem’s when he finds ‘er, Samuel don’t know what he do, hey?”
“What’s bothering you Sam?” I said.
He pulled at a red swell on his earlobe. “I’m… It’s really not much, I’ve… haven’t you heard about the residential arrests?”
“Sure,” I said, “but they wouldn’t do it without reason. Not that I like the bastards this side of the border, but I’ve never seen one in town, and as long as it stays that way I’m not turning away a place to earn.”
“Okay boys,” Mama Tracery said, “you’ll have to pay for them all this time,” She held out a cup for me to take.
Then the tavern door burst open. A group of men filed in and stood motionless in grid formation. The orange evening glow of the industrial square caught on their huge backs. The soldiers wore common clothes, but their short-clipped haircuts and massive size betrayed them.
“Gauslaw,” Jethro said. The word soured in his mouth and he spit into his cup. Then he put his chin on his chest. Tommy, who until that moment knew not but the taste of table wood, jolted up and, seeing the men, slid from his stool to hide in our legs.
Finally, Old Epot came before the bar and lifted a hand. “Welcome to Epot’s friends, I’m Cardinal Epot… Can I get you gentlemen anything?”
One of the soldiers lunged out from the group and seized the collar of a nearby patron. I didn’t recognize the middle-aged man. The soldier drove a fist into his cheek and the man collapsed from his chair. The soldier mounted the man and placed three sharp blows to the head then left him on the floor.
“Well, hold it now!” Epot said.
A young woodworker, Aegon, knelt by the beaten man. “I can’t feel if he’s breathing… Epot, someone call the guards!”
“Wait just a minute now! You men haven’t asked for anything and you’re already sticking people. Maybe I can oblige you? I’m sure I’ve got something here even a Gauslaw would like—you are Gauslaw, that is—I mean, excuse me for assuming, but even if you are, I can’t have my customers beat up you see? No one will come back. If no one comes back, then I can’t pay the high—albeit fair—taxes that I do, and I’ll tell you if you don’t know, liquor is popular in Sand Canyon. What do you say? What can I do for you?” Epot hasn’t lived in the canyon all his life; he saw the world before he gave his money to the wrong people and ended up here; he knows how to talk to people. But had he ever talked to a Gauslaw?
“This man needs help!” the kneeling man said. “We need a doctor, we need help! Somebody call the—” but before he finished, a second soldier’s boot struck him in the gut. The boot struck again, then again, and again; the man’s chin ran with red. Mama Tracery shrieked.
The soldiers parted down their center; out steeped a nobleman in a heavy wool suit and a tie that spun the tavern light; his hands hid behind his back. You’ve never seen blue eyes before this man; they somehow stuck on each of us at the same time! “Now,” he said it with a polished metal voice; smooth and level. “I don’t want to hear another word that isn’t a direct answer to my next question.” He waited for a moment; everyone seemed to understand. “Right. Where is Samuel Phillis? And don’t bother lying to us, we know he’s here.” He held up a black revolver. “Just a matter of how many of you rats I’ll have to kill before he comes to me. So… who wants to save a life today?”
The boys and I didn’t dare look to Sam, but we all felt the table rattle and we all leaned our elbows on it to keep it still.
“Why you mean Sammy Phillis, Sammy Phillis from factory three?” It was Mic. He had clambered back to his upright while the soldiers spoke and now seemed almost calm, or drunk, or stupid. It was Mic though, so probably all three.
“Shh!” a voice hissed from one corner of the tavern. “Shut it Mic!” from another.
“You know where Samuel Phillis is?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mic said, “I know Sammy, I know Sammy real good. You know, that jolly old ham taught me a thing or two on this upright. In fact he worked on a few pieces with me.”
“Let’s hear it then boy, I’m not as patient as my friends.”
Mic gave a huge smile and rubbed his palms together. “The Gauslaw says play, lord I’m going to play.” Before the soldier knew what he meant, Mic had already started pounding out a bouncy tune and shaking his head. “Oooh! My old lady promised me, when she died, she’d set me free!” he sang. It’s a good song, you know it; old Mic changed it some, but it stayed good. As he sang each line, more and more of us around the tavern joined in echoing it back. “She lived so long that her head got bald, and she gave out on the notion of dying at all! Oh, my old lady said to me, she said ‘listen here baby, I’m going to set you free!’ Oh but when that head of her’s got slick and bald, the lord couldn’t have killed her with a big green maul!”
“Enough!” The leader said. He signaled for one of his men to stop Mic, but we all pushed our tables together, shut our eyes, smiled and kept singing louder.
“My old lady wouldn’t die, With her nose all hooked and skin all dry, but my old lady somewhere did flee, and she left me here in the factories!” The whole structure swayed with us, our voices matched by the cedar walls; the soldiers commands were not heard.
Mic stood and pointed straight at the soldiers, “Then old Gauslaw likewise promised me, in years come and gone to set us free, so here’s some poison to help you along, and may the devil preach your funeral song!” And with that, Mic bent over and pulled something—I couldn’t see what—from under his bench, and charge the soldiers with arms raised.
So many of the patrons had stood in that moment that I did not see him fall. I heard the shot, something dropped, and the singular inhale from those who had seen. And then, oh friend, then! what happened! It began with a broken bottle thrown, another round fired, then deafening cries and cheers and the assembly contracted around the soldiers. We turned on them all. They couldn’t draw their swords or pistols, we held them so tight. We killed them, all of them, ten Gauslaw dead at Epot’s, ten Gauslaw dead!
And now I’ve told you, take this weapon, gather as many others as you can. We are barricading the tavern against the nobles and we need your help! What do you say? Work together, fight together—can I count on you to help the rebellion?