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The Storm Weaver (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 later: 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. Although Jules knew that the latter resembled his son more accurately for the investigation, and it was the photograph they had used on the posters like the one Domingo had torn down in the Indigo Plume, it was the younger, apple-cheeked version which he envisioned out in this perilous world without him. His son had left for college and disappeared off the face of the earth before the first semester had even 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 towns, 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 eager plans unfolding for the future. So, Councilman Jules Lewis made the executive decision to place his precious militia under the fastidious care of Kernel Wilson. It was ultimately a decision with little consequence.

Kernel Wilson was an aging merchant 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 for his comprehension of 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 watered all the healthy green houseplants. Nothing was too good for his Bootcamp Boys, and Kernel prepared all that he could provide them with the utmost attention. He was kind; perhaps too kind to truly be useful when it came time to realize their 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 winter, and the civilization there was nothing more than a tangle of merchants fighting 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. War 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 his pine desk of his office. He drank his bitter coffee from his enamelware camping 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 air 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 to be sent back to their families, or simply had went limp in the riptide of the draft, Jozefo had enlisted as early as he could. 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 to the kitchens over the pop and sizzle of buttery eggs and hash in the hushed voices that only library attendees and 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 happy 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 on his lips 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 blond 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 most of them. Maverick blinked sleepily and seemed unaware of the drool hardened on one 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, articulated for clarity by Jozefo and read with a storybook voice 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 wanted an assignment with more daring, something with a little more razzle-dazzle, but they supposed it would be easy enough, anyway, and tried to coolly subdue 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 only reserved for the occasion 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 tried to compel Jozefo to join them in the cafeteria, but he had already eaten earlier.

“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. 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 of the tarts!” he shouted after them, 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 so 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 church which had fostered him before. It wasn’t so different from his life as an altar boy: waking up early, the ritual of 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, and 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 occupied thought, which was unlike him because Jozefo had an attentive mind. Maybe it was just because it happened to be the anniversary of his introduction to the Bootcamp. Every year on this day, his past self felt just a little closer than normal, like binoculars shifting into focus for just a second before blurring again. Just for an instant, he thought he might be in the idyllic church courtyard pinning the fluttering white sheets up onto the clothesline, instead of folding rumpled sheets in the stuffy brick-walled barracks.

* * * * *

The Bootcamp Boys marched onwards in their ant-line formation towards their destination. 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 high taxes issued for protection.

His friends joked as they walked. Maverick hoisted the squirly Peabody up on a bicep for a dare. 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 folding the sheets. He could not stop his mind from wandering, and it was so unlike its typical attentive precision that Jozefo thought he resembled more of a stranger than himself. His thoughts swirled from one into the other, blurring into the next, and 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, that he did not recognize any distinguishing qualities within himself and that must mean that he did not know himself at all. 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 hands, and there were real bullets scattered amongst the lot of them. 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. His name was Ralph, and he and Jozefo had traded marbles a few years back before Ralph had gotten his promotion.

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 in their youthful stomachs?

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.

Ralph wasted no time on introductions. He stated the charges and requested the payment. His tone was calm and implorative, but left no space for negotiations. Jozefo tried not to think that there were children watching who might be frightened by the large intruders whose boots stirred dust into their simmering stews.

Jozefo had been trying to hard not to faint, perhaps touched by the heat as well as his impending existential crisis, his uniform too tight around the bulk of his body, 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.

He froze, and he realized as he did it that what it means to “freeze” is to constrict all of your muscles at once, coiled up like a frightened snake. He made to move, and Foxtrot shot him a furious look and mouthed, NO. Wait for orders.

Jozefo was going to be sick. He was going to empty his stomach in front of all of these people in his ridiculous uniform. Though his stomach churns, he holds his position, because even through the shock, he recalls that the Bootcamp is all that he knows now and he has nowhere else to go.

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 himself, 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.

Jozefo persisted through the familiar courtyard of the base and returned to the kitchens. He tied his apron with a bow and lathered his hands and up his arms hunched over the sink, once and again. He baked tarts even though he already had this morning, but piped much more of the goopy filling into the flaky cores. The bright conversation around him was boomingly loud. His hands were shaking from what he was about to do.

When he finished with his duties, he prepared a plate for himself, and then another. 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 and, on second thought, some herbs. Two dinners and some provisions that would not be missed, sealed tightly and wrapped in wax paper to keep dry.

His pulse hammered in his chest as he urgently crossed the hallway to the barracks, and he worried that surely everyone could hear 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, and the thought sent a flurry of alarm throughout him.

When he ducked into the darkened barracks, as the sun had set while he had looted the kitchen, he nearly collapses with relief. The bunks were empty. The steel frames reminded Jozefo of skeleton bones, as he shoved his canteen and two outfits and a blanket into the issued satchel, which had been thoughtfully provided by Jules Lewis. The rising panic that he had subdued in the concentration of the kitchen caught up with 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 knew he was doing the right thing, the consolation did not make the burden of it any easier.

In the giant tapestry of life, with the threads of alternate 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 role of a leader. He commanded respect with his height and personality. Everyone he ever met had a good impression of him; even liked him. He had, subconsciously, begun to dream of raising to 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. His friends would be nearby. Kernel would find a son within him.

But Jozefo did not stay.

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

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

When he looked up in the darkness of the night, finally breaching into the desert, he looked up on a whim and noticed the brightness of the stars. He tossed his head back and laughed, jovially and from the gut.