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Revenant's Storm (The Wicked West series)

Chapter Six: Kernel and his Bootcamp Boys

Jules Lewis had a photograph of a child propped up on his desk in his office. It stared back at him always as he worked, the familiar ghost of a cherished boy who had lost his way.

During late nights in his office, when the flickering of the sconces blazed defiantly against the blanket of dark beyond the window, he would gaze into the joyful brown eyes of the photograph, cover his face with his checkered handkerchief, and quietly sob.

There was another picture, too, beside it in a gilded circular frame. It was the same boy, but subsequent: a handsome young man was pictured with an easy, dimpled grin. He relaxed leisurely into the crisp linen suit Jules had gifted him for university, the fabric wrinkling where the elbows creased, his neatly combed hair tousled by distracted fingers, and his loosened tie hanging limply, like a noose around his neck.

Jules knew that the latter resembled his son more accurately for the investigation, and it was the photograph they had used on the poster to be later torn down by Domingo in the Indigo Plume. But it was the younger, apple-cheeked version which he envisioned out in this perilous world without him. He had sent his son away for college and he had disappeared off the face of the earth before the first semester had concluded, five long years ago.

Jules never allowed himself the opportunity to mourn his son's disappearance. Instead, he channeled his desperation into his work in the Chamber of Commerce. Good, wholesome, honest work which sought to make the streets safer for that lost little boy out there in the big wide Somewhere.

And Jules never, not even once, stopped searching.

Jules had instilled a few philanthropic programs, unions for miners and outreach organizations to fund schooling for children in the less fortunate areas, but his pride and joy was the militia which fended off ruthless gang members from the innocents.

The gangs had been expanding into the desert and innocent tent towns had been increasingly caught in the crossfire. Jules had a dream, where young men could enlist their services to protect the citizenry and, in turn, be recognized for their valor by the Federation of Commerce. They desperately needed a force of justice to preserve the wavering peace in the chaos.

There, of course, had to be a leader for such a righteous endeavor. Jules, clinging painfully onto hope, his head filled with fond memories and good-intentioned aspirations, knew that his true place was behind his desk in his cozy office, with ink-smeared fingers and his photos of his missing boy and his eager plans unfolding for the future. With this in mind, Councilman Jules Lewis made the executive decision to place his precious militia under the fastidious care of Kernel Wilson.

Kernel Wilson was an aging magnate who fancied flashy paperback military fiction from an era long forgotten. He maintained a series of bookshelves dedicated to the preservation and upkeep of his prized collection of dilapidated novels.

The works of Willard Seymour McTennyson, in particular, had provided Kernel the sloping foundation of his military expertise. Willard Seymour McTennyson's flashy portfolio included critically-acclaimed titles such as "Loose The Dogs of War" and "Rangers of the Night: Sentries of the Sequoia".

Kernel had pored over the pages, fascinated by the unwavering courage and dramatism of men pledged to die for their land, completely engrossed as his white-clothed gloves gripped the crumbling spines, the tools of maintenance often forgotten as he flipped quickly through the pages.

Kernel's penchant for these flamboyant novels was reflected in his militia. Although they had practical and government-funded red brick buildings for the barracks and mess hall, Kernel liked to keep his properties well-groomed and crisply gardened. He made sure to leave out thick quilts and freshly stocked his bookshelves with fascinating titles and tended all the healthy green houseplants. Nothing was too good for his Bootcamp Boys, and Kernel took care to provide for them all that he could with the utmost attention.

Kernel's biggest flaw was that he was kind; perhaps too kind to truly be useful when it came time to realize the boys' violent purpose.

To Kernel, war wasn't war, because there had not been a real war in his home for a long time. The continent was just reawakening from its last nuclear slumber, and the civilization here was nothing more than a tangle of merchants squabbling against the desert. The gang wars had not yet begun, but the conflict was heavy and close, like the barometric press of a thunderstorm on the near horizon.

No, to Kernel, war was not violence. It was fascinating stories. Bravery and resourcefulness and polished medals. Kernel loved the idea of justice. He tried to make himself look like an enforcer of justice through costume, just like in the books he liked to read.

The boys saw this and misunderstood: they mistakenly referred to Kernel as Colonel. Kernel, bless his heart, thought that they were calling him by name. It was an honest mistake considering that, for most, literacy was a luxury. Kernel felt he was more fatherly than authoritative, anyway. This was confusing for the boys to interpret because he chose to wear a custom-made, shiny-buttoned military uniform.

Kernel structured his morning as he always did. He woke from the bed (a metal cot with a thin striped mattress) in his office, and shaved with a specialty homemade shaving cream in the small cubicle bathroom. He ground coffee beans with the supplies he kept in a drawer of the pine desk of his office. He drank his bitter coffee from his enamelware mug down to the dregs, uniform tie tucked over his shoulder to keep it from getting stained. He brushed his teeth with baking soda, also found in the drawer, and opened the window into the cool morning to spit out into the flowerbed beneath.
From his stance at the windowsill, he could make out the form of Jozefo ducking into the cafeteria in the pre-light of early dawn.

Now, there was a good lad, that Jozefo boy. One of his very best Bootcamp Boys. Kernel saw in Jozefo all of the virtues of his literary heroes. Humility, generosity, decency, and a strong moral compass.

Where other boys did it for the paycheck sent back to their families, or simply had went limp in the riptide of the draft, Jozefo had enlisted as early as he was able. He had been thirteen at the time, and now it was nearly four and a half years later. He was not the oldest Bootcamp Boy in the camp, but he certainly was the most experienced.

Jozefo had wanted to help make the world a better place. He was taller than the other boys, made with more muscle, and seemed more like a young man than a teenager. His hair, despite his best efforts at grooming, totally defied gravity, shooting off into all different directions. He had a friendly face and a gentle disposition and bright white teeth. Despite his bulk, he always spoke considerately and with a respectful tone.

Jozefo had the kind of morning that one realizes was perfect, but only ever in hindsight. He had woken to the blue-tinged twilight saturating the barracks in its heartbreak hues.

He had silently dressed in the almost-dark from the folded pile he had prepared for his future self the night prior. He silently slid his feet into his boots and tightened the laces. He neatly made his bed.

The light turned pink as the morning slowly arrived, the dust motes swirling around him as he had tiptoed gingerly through the bunks of his sleeping friends: Foxtrot and Maverick, Jericho, Twiggs, and Peabody. They were normally rowdy and laughing and pranking, but sleep had washed the easel of their expressions, and their relaxed faces struck Jozefo as starkly youthful.

He walked to the cafeteria and was noticed by Kernel, who was standing at his window and spitting into the flowerbed.

The canteen chefs welcomed Jozefo over the pop and sizzle of buttery hash and eggs in the bright, hushed voices that only early-morning people ever use. Jozefo tied his apron with a bow and hopped right into the bustle of the preparations. His large fingers carefully folded puffy dough into miniature fruit tarts for his campmates. He tried not to get flour on the rolled sleeves of his uniform and failed, as per usual. He chatted with the other chefs as he worked and genuinely listened when they told him about their families and hobbies. He was happy then, dusted in flour, delighted with the company of his kitchen staff, occupied with the joyful work of crafting pastries for the boys he had grown up with.

He breakfasted afterwards at one of the long pine tables, alone and promptly, savoring the sweetness of the orange juice as he hurried to sound the bugle and make the early announcements. Another perk to being a Bootcamp Boy was having access to out-of-season ingredients and other commodities, thoughtfully provided by Councilman Lewis.

Jozefo smiled as his friends staggered blearily into the sunrise after he had trumpeted out the brass jangle of the bugle. Foxtrot was wearing an expression that said he'd make no apologies for the electric strawberry hair shooting out defiantly on one side. Peabody's small stature was irate, like he was looking for any reason at all to tussle, which he usually did during his grumpiest mornings, which was all of them. Maverick blinked sleepily and seemed unaware of the drool on the side of his mouth.

Although they were like family, and the fort was more like a summer camp than a military training facility, the reality of it all was that they were still boy soldiers, standing in sparkling and unblemished uniform, yet introduced to violence and war.

Today would be the day that changed. The announcements, read with a storybook voice by Jozefo amplified through the bullhorn, declared that their squadron would be going on their first real-world mission.

It was a simple operation; they were only collecting taxes from a few of the tent towns. They were on the outermost regions of the territory that Jules Lewis had staked out for his righteous brigade.

The boys had hoped for an assignment with more daring, something with a little more razzle-dazzle, but they supposed it would be easy enough, anyway, and coolly subdued their excitement.

Jozefo concluded the announcements with his trademark flourish- a daily positive affirmation- and then squeezed stealthily into his spot in the rows of soldiers.

Kernel, eagerly, commanded the rest of the warm-up. Mostly it was a jumble of incoherent morale and inspirational urgings. The boys found it quite poetic, and listened with respect to this artistic and unexpected side of the Colonel. The remainder was a mishmash of campy tropes from Kernel's historical fiction novels, including shambling through large tires and tactical jumping jacks and practicing their tourniquet knots.

Kernel even felt so inspired he had the Bootcamp Boys rigidly shout, with spittle flying from their lips, "I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'VE BEEN TOLD!" It was a special treat that Kernel reserved for an occasional flair.
If there were other lyrics, they had been lost to history. The boys trailed off helplessly, shuffling their feet in the awkward silence that followed.

When Kernel was satisfied that their pretending had been sufficient, he dismissed the boys to their breakfasts in the canteen. Jozefo's path intersected his friends' on the way to the barracks. Foxtrot and Maverick urged Jozefo to join them in the cafeteria, but Jozefo would be restless unless he finished his chores.

"You've already slept in the beds, so someone has to make them," he explained, earnestly.

"We'll get you eventually, Kettle," Foxtrot theatrically shook his fist at him, like a thwarted villain. Jozefo had earned the nickname because his nose had the tendency to whistle as he dozed.

They were already leaving and Jozefo watched them go, longing for just a moment more of conversation.

They would be going on their first mission today. They were encroaching upon the hazy yard between boyhood and maturity. Would he witness his friends become men?

"Tell me what you think about breakfast!" he shouted after them, the tarts an afterthought, but they had already meandered down the hallway.

As he shook out the crisp white sheets in the barracks, Jozefo was grateful for his life, and he was grateful for his friends. He was grateful to the Colonel, and to Councilman Jules Lewis, and to the world for treating him generously thus far. He did not like to let these precious epiphanies idly pass him by.

There was a divinity in routine miracles that he believed should never be taken for granted. The perfect cup of coffee, or a life-changing book, for example, were acts of an unseen and benevolent god.

His mind, unintentionally, boomeranged back to memories preceding the Bootcamp. To his dusty hometown of Tombstone, and to the stone cathedral which had fostered him. This wasn't so different from his life as an altar boy: waking up early, the ritual and the routine, rushing about on errands. He missed Sister Aubergine and the sweet whisper taste of the sacramental bread. He wondered if she looked older now. If she had wrinkles, did they crinkle her eyes from frequent amusement, or did they drag her face downward from a chronic frown. Had the years been kind to the peaceful church?

He momentarily lost himself in thought, which was something that Jozefo did not often do. He possessed a clarity of mind; a self-awareness in the context of his environment that left him alert and attentive.

Maybe it was just because it happened to be the anniversary of his introduction to the Bootcamp. Every year on this day, his boyhood self felt just a little closer, like binoculars shifting into focus for just a second before blurring again.

Just for an instant, he thought he might be pinning the fluttering white sheets up onto the clothesline in the idyllic church courtyard, instead of folding rumpled blankets in the stuffy brick-walled barracks.

* * * * *

The Bootcamp Boys marched onwards in their ant-line patrol towards their first official mission.
In the dusty sunlight, the shapes of haggard tents could be spied in the middle distance. It was small and unimpressive, perhaps only forty people total, on the very fringes of Jules' Federation-protected land. Even in the distance Jozefo could tell it was not much. Little resources went into its upkeep, despite the taxes issued for protection.

His friends joked amiably as they walked. There had been an ongoing banter amongst the group, since forever, spattered with flashes of insight and moments of tender friendship. Maverick hoisted the squirly Peabody up on a bicep for a dare. Foxtrot was secretly passing around snacks from his fatigue pockets. Although they shared an easy camaraderie, the conversation was fringed with the edgy awareness of the very real weapons weighing down their belts.

Jozefo walked alongside them but did not hear the banter. He felt very far away from himself.

He was still distracted, as he had been while earlier that morning. He could not stop his mind from wandering, and it was so unlike its typical precision that Jozefo began to see a stranger within himself. His thoughts swirled from one into the other, blurring into the next. He found himself feeling melancholy and nostalgic and contemplative.

His introspection led him outside of himself, and he thought, Who am I, in this group of people? What is my identity? What am I like as a person?

He was alarmed because he realized that he did not know who he was; that he did not recognize any distinguishing qualities within himself. He was stifled because of his lack of experience. Because he had not yet ventured into the world around him and discovered his place within it. He thought, suddenly, that there were so many people he had never met, who lived in the houses and towns surrounding him, who met with friends in the markets and had birthdays.

And now he was on a mission, approaching the families and their homes, with the steel bite of a gun in his hand. There were real bullets stuffing their pockets, not the rubber props he had stupidly expected.

It was not one of the Colonel's silly charades from this morning. The Colonel was not here, and the cadet in command was an older boy with sandy hair and a hard-lined mouth. He gripped his gun tightly, and when he gestured, it was with curt efficiency. Jozefo recalled that his name was Ralph, and he and Jozefo had traded cats-eye marbles a few years back before Ralph had gotten his promotion. Ralph had smiled more often then. He was not smiling now.

It struck Jozefo, then, how young they all were, and how eager some of the youngest boys seemed to be to taste the fight for themselves. When they claimed their victory, would they be satisfied with the flavor of combat on their youthful palates?

Jozefo tried to breathe in through his mouth and out through his nose as they shouldered their way to the leader of the camp. He could not remember the name of this settlement, and it bothered him because it suddenly seemed of dire significance. He tried not to notice the clutter of their daily lives: well-mended toys and the dyed weavings of unfinished baskets and dried herbs tied with twine hanging to cook with. The image of the herbs struck him, and in some surreal cerebral vendetta, he committed them to memory, for no reason at all.

Ralph wasted no time on introductions. He stated the charges and requested the payment. His tone was calm and authoritative. It left no space for negotiation.

Jozefo tried not to think that there were children watching, who might be frightened by the large intruders whose boots kicked up dust into their simmering stews.

Jozefo had been trying hard not to faint, his uniform too tight around the bulk of his body, perhaps touched by the heat as well as the impending existential crisis, and had not caught the name of the leader. He was only half aware of his surroundings as the shabby man with the matted hair had fallen to his knees, begging for leniency. Jozefo snapped back into his body with the butt of Ralph's gun crashing into the man's gushing nose.

Jozefo froze, and he realized as he did that what it means to "freeze" is to constrict all of your muscles at once, coiled up like a frightened snake. Jozefo started forward to help the man, and Foxtrot read his expression and shot him a furious look. He mouthed, NO. Wait for orders.

Jozefo was going to be sick. He was going heave up his breakfast in front of all of these people in his ridiculous uniform. The tarts had come out well, sweet and tangy and flaky, but Jozefo doubted they would look as well splashed onto the dirt. Though his stomach churned he held his position, because even through the shock, he recalled that the Bootcamp was all that he knew now. He had nowhere else to go, which is a sobering revelation to have.

Jozefo was silent the entire journey back, even though Foxtrot had fallen into step beside him and nudged him imploringly. The day had passed partly without Jozefo, who was but a ghost haunting his own body, and his resulting recollection was nothing but scraps of tattered fabric in his memory.
Crunch. The weight of the gun. The frightened eyes of the witnesses. His immobility complicit with the injustice.

The scenery morphed into the familiar brush around the Bootcamp.

Jozefo persisted through the familiar courtyard of the base and returned to the kitchens. He tied his apron with a bow and hunched over the sink and lathered his hands and up his arms, again and again. He baked tarts even though he already had this morning because there were still leftover ingredients. He piped a much more generous glob of the goopy filling into each flaky core.

The bright conversation around him was boomingly loud. His hands were shaking from what he was about to do.

When he finished with his kitchen duties, he silently prepared a plate for himself, and then, stealthily, another. He did not meet anyone's eyes or look up from his work. No one was watching, but he was careful to sneak off to an unsupervised nook near the panty. He discreetly gathered the steaming food into tin containers, and then foraged the inventory for handfuls of jerky and dried fruits.

On a whim, he grabbed the herbs that he recognized had been hanging from the tents earlier today.

Two dinners and some provisions that would not be missed, sealed tightly and wrapped in wax paper to keep dry. Jozefo worried if he had taken too much; if he should reopen the tins and take less. After deliberating, he reluctantly wrapped everything in a handkerchief and hurried out of the kitchens before he lost his nerve.

His pulse hammered in his chest as he urgently crossed the hallway to the barracks. He worried that everyone could hear the thunderous percussion and would automatically suspect what he was up to.
With his honest disposition, Jozefo never had reason for subterfuge, and as a result had not acquired the skill of lying. He did not know what he would say if he was intercepted, with two tins of warm food wrapped neatly and packed away. The thought distressed him immensely. His body buzzed with the anxiety of deviance.

When he ducked into the darkened barracks, as the sun had set while he had looted the kitchen, he nearly collapsed with relief. The bunks were empty.

The steel bed frames reminded Jozefo of animal bones as he shoved his canteen, two outfits, and a thin blanket into the military-issued satchel, which had been thoughtfully provided by Jules Lewis. The rising panic that he had subdued in the kitchen overcame him in the darkness, and he had to stop to make himself breathe right again.

He thought, Is this what it means to be a soldier?

And then, I can't do this. I can't do this. I'm not cut out for it. And he knew, in that instant and as that version of himself, that it was true. And although he was doing the right thing, it did not make the burden of it any easier.

In the giant tapestry of life, with the threads of unmade choices fraying outward, Jozefo would have been promoted to and beyond Ralph's position, had he stayed. Jozefo had, for a while now, been falling away from the role of a big brother and into the mold of a leader. He commanded respect with his height and ethics. Everyone he ever met had a good impression of him. He had, subconsciously, begun to dream of a station where he could improve the world around him. He would wonder for nearly a month what to put on the patch of his new uniform, before settling on Sister Aubergine's maiden name, which pleased her very much. His friends would be nearby. Kernel would come to find a son within him.

But Jozefo did not stay.

Jozefo had not known himself well enough to notice his own potential. But on the mission, he had discovered something that he was not: a thug. He had no stomach for violence.

So he left, and the panic over-inflating his chest dispelled like fog. The world relaxed and seemed bigger and more real around him. He felt breathless and dizzy at the concept of unadulterated freedom as he cut across the Colonel's jungle gym and obstacle course in the shadows of the night.

When he looked up in the darkness of the sky, finally breaching into the desert, he noticed on whim the brightness of the stars.

He tossed his head back and laughed, jovially and from the gut. The coyotes yipped in the distance, and for a moment they were together, one and the same, the man and the stars and the sands.

Jozefo wondered how he had never experienced it before, the magic and splendor of freedom.