It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

21


Ellen Murchison rode, pain stitching her side, on a plow-gaited farm horse, her crutch behind her back on an improvised sling. She was in too much pain to wear a belt and holster, so an improvised saddlebag made from greasy cloth bumped along by her knee.

Ah well, dignity was never our strong suit around here, she sighed – which led to another coughing fit. It would take almost three hours at her present pace to get to Wilsons' from Hall; she bespoke everyone she encountered, looking for soldiery, and had collected surprisingly few – an even dozen marched along desultorily behind her: a few bows, bush-hooks and improvised spears. Murch was a good Marine, but he was armor – armor tended to think geography. Ellen had been MEU, and her war thoughts turned more naturally toward sociology. The invaders, she reasoned, would keep together whenever possible, to concentrate force. If they had been seen at Lawson's, it would be an acceptable risk to draw personnel from Bridge, Ball Butte, and Maggie's Hill and seek out and destroy this enemy there, or meet them decisively should they force the saddle. Where did not matter nearly so much as who. Make guess, take risk. This enemy must be seen off to non-personhood at the very first opportunity. But where was she to find enough people? It was already too late to bring back everyone from all the uncontested positions.

 The Creek had always struck her as the longest of long shots; as command structure had disintegrated following the failure of the last several resource wars, she and her husband, the two remaining security guards at the Ridge facility, had at last accepted that no one was coming to relieve them, and finding the entire valley abandoned with most of its resources intact, had persuaded, over the years, a number of people to settle there rather than keep running, as everyone had seemed to be doing, northward. The migration was understandable; average temperatures were up – drought and radiation sickness were a problem everywhere to the south, along with interracial clashes and general mayhem. Canada, which no doubt was finding its long border indefensible, had become a kind of Mecca for most. And almost no one had the knowledge or the means to grow food.

 Murch had shown considerable leadership in persuading passersby that they would find a bird in the hand worth two in a hypothetical Canuck Land. Best to stop here and pitch in with the picks and shovels, yes? Some had shaken their heads and passed on; some had attacked – and become compost; a few, at first, joined the Murchison's budding tribe, and accepted the dual roles of farmer and defender. Then more, and then more; Ellen sometimes thought too many. There had been mistakes, crop failures. And so many just up and died. The problems had begun to appear insurmountable, and the winter of '46 had been almost unbearable. For over ninety days there had been no rain; there had been all of four heat waves of more than forty degrees Celsius, in which few could do much beside go and sit in the dwindling Creek; then there was too much rain, right at harvest, with a raging Creek and much flood damage; then the terrible freeze; then the "flu" thing had carried off many. After that, the deep snow that had stayed and stayed; and in the midst of the snow, when everyone was hunkered down, had come a clever group of bandits dressed in white, who had fought their hungry way to the doorstep of the Mess Hall and been despatched there.

 Murchisons' was the nearest farm to the Bridge, to set a standard of courage and preparedness, from which many had willingly taken example. Yet too few had been available to rise to the defense of too many; and her son, to Ellen's eyes the best and brightest, had lost both his legs in that grisly business. And here we are again, mused Ellen bitterly. Little Mo blown to bits. Murch, like so many elders of the Creek before him, at the end of his rope from "industrial poisoning." Untold casualties left and right.

 Ellen coughed again, a long racking spell. But I'm not the self-pity type. Better not start, she warned herself, looking up at Savage Mary's on the left as she passed the gate. That old bat would laugh me down the river, for one. Ellen patted the farm horse's neck. The half-Percheron gelding, tall and deep chested, relished the affection.

 "Mrs. Murchison, Ma'am?" A couple of the Mary apprentices had come down to the gate.

 "Yes?" Ellen begrudged reining in, but perhaps she could use these two – and any others they might bring.

"Dr. Mary's compliments, and could you use some bottles of black powder?" asked one, a small red-haired young woman. The other, a very dark-skinned young man with a high, thin nose, added, "Captain Murchison asked for 'grenades' and this was the best we could do at short notice."

 They hefted a small wooden crate of what looked like wax-stoppered 750ml wine bottles, with several inches of stiff cord protruding from each stopper.

 "Yes, we could. How many have you?"

 "Five BP, right now," said the lad. "We feel badly about the glass, but metal containers were not ready to hand. These are packed with all our current powder and some old laser toner, and a bunch of broken glass, pebbles, and such. And the other seven, the green ones, are Molotovs, mostly vodka and sheep fat."

The lass added, "Those have a powder charge at the tail of each fuse. Untested, sorry to say, ma'am. And we have a box of brand-new matches, with strikes, tested!"

"It will be very much appreciated. If those bombs break, I think they will still go bang." Ellen saw that they were both wearing swords. "Young lady, could you run up and ask Mary to send along anyone she can possibly spare, including anyone from Rogers', with all possible weapons? And that includes you."

 "She said she expects that. 'Now is the time for every good man ...'"

 "Yes, I know that one. Hop!"

"Yes, ma'am." Red hair flying, the girl ran up the hill.

 Ellen had slowed her horse, but not stopped. Turning painfully on the bare gray back, she addressed the young man. "I think it will rain again. Do you have a cover for those?"

 "Yes, but it's okay, the fuses are genuine pyro, waxed. Fizz a nice purple color."

 "All right; well, come with us. Protect the matches carefully; as we go along, distribute and explain the bottles and the matches to everyone, and get them to take about half an inch off the fuses; we don't want any of those thrown back at us."

 "Yes, ma'am." He smiled, showing two rows of shining teeth; better looking teeth than almost anyone at the Creek had, these days; Ellen included. Hope you get to keep that lovely smile through the end of this day.


Wolf was as satisfied as he could be under the circumstances. He was down to nineteen men, two of whom were chewed up some but could put up a fight if necessary, and he'd managed to conserve ammunition well. Lo and behold, so had Cougar. They'd made hash of that new bunch coming up the trail, mostly with arrows, bolts and knives. No way to know the numbers, but it had looked like about ten, half of whom must be dead and the rest non-ambulatory – there had been too much hurry to double-tap – so along with that pugnacious lot on the hill, he reckoned the farmers were down by about twenty. With whomever this lot lost on that first night, they must be carrying a third of their good fighters on casualty lists, tying down quite a few more. Odds had evened a bit, yes.

 He looked around him. Such high living he hadn't seen in a very long time. If ever. Even the homesteaders back in the stone house had a primitive set-up compared to this! Here was what had been a "living room" in days gone by, and it was a living-it-up-room, so far as he could see, to this day. What looked like fresh paint or whitewash on the walls, ceiling. There was a mauve couch with matching plush chairs, patched on the arm-rests. With them there were polished wooden lamp tables with real lamps on them that smelled of vodka. The wells of the lamps had been stuffed with bits of red flannel to look like old-time red lamp oil; a feminine touch. The whole place smelled of women; not the bow-carrying kind they'd been encountering, but breeders and curtain-washers. Incredible! Over here were paintings hanging, framed no less, of landscapes and animals and people's faces, done in what looked like berry juices on parchment; but done with care for all that; someone had had the time. And over there was some kind of skinny thing like a guitar, mostly soundbox, along with two gourd rattles and a small drum, all hanging from the wall, each decorated with beads and little chicken feathers.

Dubyah-tee-eff! Looked they'd been leading the good life for decades! While he, Wolf the Lucky and everyone he knew was living from hour to hour, skulking from ruined warehouse to shattered office building day in and day out, living by necessity on long pig. To heap insult upon insult, outside the window – through real glass no less – stood an effing orchard – pruned and somehow mowed – apples, he recognized, some still unpicked,with a lot of other things – grape vines, and some kind of nut trees. With barns, and sheds, and gardens, and somewhere around, clucking chickens. It boggled the mind. An effin' insult, what these people were! Death would be too effin' good for 'em.

 Cougar came in, the Glock stuffed in his belt. "Wolf."

"Coug."

 "Boys are pretty riled."

 "Don't blame 'em."

 "Wanta know, so can we have a go at th' girl arready?"

 "Nah, hold 'em for a bit, yah? Reasons of state. Y'all've felt 'er up a little, but bring 'er in here in one piece now, so's she an' I c'n have a little chat; detail a few ta watch, so's y'don't think I'm pullin' rank fer a joyride."

He waved the AK at the walls and window. "This buncha farmers is a unbelievable effin' deal; I wanta know what she knows about what's downstream here; numbers 'an disposition an' layout, an' what all's goin' on up on that mountain up there."

 "Thinkin' 'bout Magee? Wanna bring him in?"

Wolf narrowed his eyes. "Don't let's get ahead 've ourselves, son. We play this right, we might be able to make him ours 'stead'a us his, if ya follow me."

 Cougar dropped his gaze. "Wolf, that's why we're your bunch."

 "Right y'are! Sorry to lose Hein an' th'others, but we're sittin' pretty compared to how we might 'a been. Get'er in here, an' some witnesses – an' get these outbuildings occupied, we need a welcomin' committee fer anybody tries to come here, either from that bridge up by th' road, or behind us from th' trail."

Cougar touched his forehead. "Wolf."

 "Coug. Oh – Coug."

 Cougar pulled up short by the doorway to the hall. "Wolf?"

"Yer man Mellow's good w'locked doors; have him bust open th' pantry an' give ever'body a good feed."

"Wolf."

 "Coug."

Wolf leaned his rifle against the wall. Almost time to turn the two duct-taped magazines around. He'd wait a bit before shedding his Kevlar. Comfort was just not to be thought of. Wish t'hell I'd brought more stuff. Was no way t'do it, though. If it gets hairy here, I might have to go to Magee all alone. Not a very nice thought. Not a very nice thought at all.


Billee came bouncing up the slope in the late-morning sun, chasing her foreshortened shadow from boulder to boulder. Avery, watching through the bomb-proof window, admired her boundless energy and verve. All the best runners were around that age; good for the Creek, but at what cost? He'd had a childhood. Billee was childlike in many ways; but in some ways she'd been an adult since day one. She'd never know, very likely, what she had missed. He wheeled around and awaited her entrance, which, as usual, came sooner than he could quite anticipate; she stood breathless before him, cheeks red from the climb, her new bow in her right hand, strung. He waited as she caught her wind. "Want some water?" he asked.

 "M'fine." Another series of deep breaths.

"No one chasing you, I take it?" "Oh! No, I don't think they're thinking about me at all now! They've – whew! – headed east, like you said, and I heard some gunfire –"

 "Toward the saddle?"

"– Mm-hmm, but I kept my eye on the house like you said, and there are, I'm pretty sure, just two of'em left down there." She grinned. "One's hurt, I think, and the other one's Mr. Squinty, who got all bee-stung, and now he's itching a whole lot, haha. Creep."

 "Weapons? Gear?"

 "He's got my beautiful binoculars an' he's looking out for me, but in the same place – not too bright! And s'got Mr. Lawson's lever-action."

 "Don't think you were spotted, then?"

 "Aww, he's only glassing a little, they've got'm both doing housework – cutting up that awful meat, n'running the smoker."

 "All right, so time is wasting and I think I see an opportunity here. Get your feet under you and go have some lunch and then, right away, go tell all this, word for word, to Mr. Huskey, he's the whistle of Bledsoe's. Met him?"

She nodded vigorously.

 "He'll be right down the west face about a quarter mile from here, waiting for you; he knows what to do. Word to go on is smart and the response is aleck."

She bolted for the door; then turned halfway with her hand on the jamb, eyes wide. "Hey, is that about me?" 

"Only if the shoe fits."

"Huh?"

 "Hop!"

"Yessir!" She vanished down the stairs. Avery wheeled round and faced the console, chuckling. Then he looked down at his stumps. Shoe, my effing ass. What I wouldn't do for a good pair of legs right now.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

20


Cougar proudly looked down again at the Glock 17 in his right hand. Eleven rounds was all Wolf gave him, but it represented a promotion of sorts. With Willets and Burgoyne both history, he and Dill were the closest thing to non-coms Wolf had.

Well, Cougar would give it his best.

Dill had been given the Winchester and been told off with one man to hold the "fort." There was enough food there to last them all for days; nice to have it to fall back on.

The day was dawning damp but foggy; a good sign. Fog meant the rain had stopped and might hold off a while; and the hillside was slick enough as it was. The going had been anything but easy in the dark, and the gnarly clumps of brush and random boulders made direction-finding in the cloudy night all but impossible. There was "up," and that was about it. But now, with a little light, Cougar could see that the ridgeline was close at hand – and the tops of tall trees behind it bespoke a very different terrain on the other side.

"See, it's all kinda open over here cuz' that's th' south slope," Wolf had said at the briefing. "Don't spend too much time in th' red bushes; it's poison oak. Dill's gonna break out something fierce," he'd grinned. "When we get to th' top, there might be a welcomin' party. It's gonna be trees an' underbrush, which'll hamper bowmen. If they're spoilin' fer a fight, they'll pop up on th' ridgeline and we take 'em out. Aim high, 'cuz it's steep an' will throw yer aim off – theirs too. Don't hang around, though. Attrition gets us nowhere.

"If there's a fight, it means there's a trail on th'other side. We find a trail, we stick together an' bust through. Break out inta th' valley. My idea is, either they all run, as we 'uv seen before. Just chase 'em down an' take 'em out. Or we take some farmers hostage – women, if we're lucky – get a peace deal with food fer th'winter, or failin' that, get 'em to rush us across th'open –" he waved the AK for emphasis –"'an' even out th' odds. So, wing an' wing. I'll take eleven and go left; Cougar will take nine and go right. Space out evenly. Exploit any holes and then, down th'other side, converge on th'middle.

"Remember, it's all for one an' one for all; if we are all gonna have enough to eat between now and next summer, it's over that hill."

It was not much of a plan, Cougar could see that. But if Wolf proposed it, likely nothing better was available. And Wolf was right; people had always run. Until a couple of days ago.

He looked along his line, from right to left. Everyone was about even; Chuckie excepted, who'd sprained an ankle and had had to crawl to keep up. Bows and crossbows were at the ready. Across the draw, he could see Wolf's line, a little ahead of Cougar's. Wolf had sent a man ahead a little, to spy out the ridge. No activity to be seen there; maybe this was going to be easy?

"Hein."

"Coug."

"We're only about fifty paces off th' top; push ahead slowly, taking advantage of cover, and see if y'kin get up there and provoke somebody. We've got 'em within pretty easy bowshot from here if they bother ya any."

"Right, Coug." Hein took off his bedroll, and, checking his knife, quiver, and crossbow, hunched forward and crept from rock to rock toward the saddle.

When Hein had gone about twenty paces, he suddenly stood up, uttered a vexed grunt, turned sideways – which showed a crossbow bolt protruding from his back – and pitched forward onto his face, legs thrashing.
"Hit 'em!" Wolf's voice came across the scree at mid-slope. Something was going on over there, as well.

Cougar shouted. "Pickets! Find 'em, kill 'em!" Running toward the boulder behind Hein's position, Cougar found a man, foot in stirrup, cranking a crossbow. He pointed the Glock at his chest with both hands and squeezed the trigger. It barked, and the bowman fell backwards against the rock, his mouth open. Bodies were squirrelling around all across the slope. One of Cougar's men had flushed another picket, who was swinging a long bow at him. Cougar aimed and fired again, but missed. His man stepped back, and after the bow had swung past, stepped in and put his knife into the farmer. Two for one! Were there more?

A whistle shrilled, farther up the slope. Several heads popped up along the ridgeline. Cougar aimed, but it was a bit far for pistol work, and they were prairie-dogging – looking, then hiding, then looking again. An explosion came from above – there was a gun up there! Black smoke drifted off to the right, and one of Cougar's men sat down, holding a hand to his collar-bone, blood seeping out between his fingers. An arrow passed close to Cougar's head, high.

Another picket stepped out, aiming a crossbow at one of Cougar's crew. Cougar fired, and dropped him. Cougar ran forward. Where was that rifleman? Ah, there's the arm up there, ramrodding. Still too far. Crack! That must be Wolf's AK. The rifleman's been hit. Crack! Crack! Wolf's finding targets. "C'mon! Over the top!" Wolf's shout. "Let's go!" shouted Cougar. He ran, much as one can run over loose rocks, bushes, and mud, uphill.

More whistles. The ridgeline! Aha, lots of targets, trying to stay low. Cougar picked out the next to stand, a bowman, arrow drawn. No, a girl! The pistol jumped in his hand. Huh – women fighters. One less bow to worry about, but what a waste ... two men, rushing him with swords, no less. One took an arrow in the chest, the other Cougar shot. How many rounds left? Boom! another muzzle-loader? Way off to the left. Aha! Here's the trail. "Bunch up! Bunch up! Let's go, let's go, let's go!"

A frightened-looking red-haired girl stood in their way, with an arrow nocked. Cougar aimed the Glock, but one of his own men stepped in the way. She loosed, but a branch deflected the arrow, missing them both. Cougar and his man reached her at the same time, with the same idea. Cougar rapped her over the temple with his pistol barrel, and as she sagged, dropping her bow, the man – Mellow was his name, the big guy – scooped her up over his right shoulder, his bow in his left hand.

Three more shots from the ay-kay. Wolf was covering the rear as his forces reformed on the trail and ran down through the cold, wet brush toward their new Shangri-La.

Or whatever it might be.

There was a fight going on. Karen could hear it, but could not see it. She kept her bow ready, but nothing was happening in front of her. To her left, she could see Vernie, but not see what he was doing. Still farther away, Tomma stood up, aimed, and fired the Hawken. Then he sat down, pulled his ramrod, charged his weapon with a patch in his teeth, set the patch, rammed it, reached for a ball, dropped the ball down the barrel, lifted the rod again, and a shot rang out.

Tomma dropped the Hawken and cradled his left arm, with a look of distress on his face, and Vernie ran to him. They seemed to be arguing for a moment, then Vernie finished the ramming, took a percussion cap offered him by Tomma, stood up cautiously, aimed and fired. Karen saw all this from the corner of her eye as she continued to scan the slope beneath her. Nothing there.

As quickly as it began, the fight seemed to be over. No! something was going on over at the trail, around to her left and across the draw. Karen checked in front of her and to the right, then looked down the steep hollow. Men were running down the mountain behind her, strange men, and one of them was carrying a body. No, it was struggling. Marcee from Lazars'!

Karen could see that there were two openings, through the Douglas firs, ahead of the main body of invaders. It was already a long way down. She trained her bow on the first gap. As they began to pass through it, she loosed. Too high! She set another arrow and shifted to the second gap. Two or three men reached it, bunched up. This would give her a chance. She loosed, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them begin to limp, accepting help from another. Too low, but something. She wondered if it would be safe to shoot at the group carrying Marcee.

"Karen!" It was Allyn, down the south slope behind her. She stepped up onto the saddle and looked down. He was hurt.

"Should I come to you, or pursue? They've got Marcee!"

"No, I'm ... I'm fine here; I've just got a bolt in my left –" They both heard the 'fwip' of a crossbow. For a moment neither knew where it was, then Allyn discovered he'd been shot again with a second bolt, to his right arm. He sat down hard. Karen could see the attacker; a wounded bandit who, abandoning the crossbow, drew a knife and staggered toward Allyn. They were ten paces apart.

Karen knelt, drew an arrow, aimed it, and loosed. It struck the man near his collarbone and went through him to the fletching. He went to his knees, then began crawling toward Allyn. Karen drew again, but by this time Emilio had appeared from nowhere, and with one of Savage Mary's short swords hit the man twice around the region of the neck.

He moved no more.

Emilio checked the scene for movement, saw something that interested him, walked to some bushes and raised the sword again. It flashed in the morning sun.

Karen heard a honking sound, and, in spite of herself, looked up.

A flock of Canada geese passed low over the saddle, in a wide-winged vee, heading for their ancient flyway on the Big River. Their shadows passed over Emilio as he tucked the sword in his belt and walked back to Allyn. He beckoned to Karen. She replaced her arrow in the quiver and ran to help.

Allyn had fallen over, but was trying to sit up. Karen supported him, and then braced him as Emilio drew the bolts, ripped cloth, and tied the wounds. Such blood as flowed was dark; no arteries had been cut. Allyn turned a pale face toward her. "Kinda mucked it up, didn't I?"

Emilio responded. "We were too few to do more than we did. They are a little weaker, now, I think, and soon may be they will begin to wish they had not come here. No more talk, my friend. Karen, I am going to carry this man across my shoulder; ready an arrow and follow me; you are rear guard. We will bring all our wounded to Wilsons' and then seek another opportunity to meet with these gentlemen."


"Could we put Allyn down, Mr. Emilio? His left humerus is articulating in the middle." Karen, following Emilio's fireman's carry, did not like what she was seeing.

The surviving crew members of Ames, Jones, Wilson, Holyrood and Lazar were gathering themselves together in the sunny open spot in the middle of the Starvation Ridge saddle; the very place where, only two months ago, Karen, alone, lost, cold and starving, had tried to hold off the fighters from the Ames and Wilson farms. She was hungry again this morning, but had no idea what had happened to her bedroll, with its stash of baked potatoes and bean cake. Karen was cold again, too; the sunshine seemed bright but not very warming. Winter coming.

Stannin, from the Wilson farm, one of those who had helped carry Karen, unconscious, down the steep path on the north slope only two moons ago, lay still with his arms splayed back across the wet brown grass, not far from where Karen was standing. A small amount of blackening blood had dribbled across his nose and cheek from a tiny-looking hole in his forehead; she could see from here that the back of his head was missing. Not far from him, barely breathing, lay Aleesha, from Lazar's, with a bit of small intestine protruding from her back. She had been brought from the woods to the east of the opening, and across the grass could be seen a wide and darkening blood trail. These bald-headed men are like a cancer, Karen thought. They have to be stopped.

Emilio was discovering that he was the only crew leader alive on the hill, apart from Allyn, whose shattered arms were bleeding again through the bandages. Mr. Molinero squatted by Allyn. "Can you hear me?"

"Mmnh..."

"We are going to splint your arm; the bone has been broken. When we carry you down, we don't want to cut an artery. Breathe deep, if you can, and let out your breath slowly. Try not to fall asleep."

"Mnmh-mh!" But Allyn was already drifting. Errol came up, with a handful of long thin sticks and some duct tape.

Emilio stood up and turned, to see Karen, with a bow in each hand and two quivers of arrows, and behind her Vernie, supporting Tomma, who also had an injured arm. Vernie was carrying the Hawken. Several others had assembled, one of whom, like Tomma, had been wounded in the left arm, and was carrying a Lyman muzzle-loader in his right.

Emilio was torn.

Three or four people were sitting or lying down, also wounded. And Emilio had himself counted six dead. The anger welled up in Emilio's chest. They have trodden upon us like ants. 

One part of him wanted to drop all the wounded, with water and and food to hand, and take all the able-bodied in pursuit of the foe. Another knew it was Creek policy to bring in the wounded for care ASAP, because delay was so often a death sentence in the absence of strong medicines.

Errol, working over Allyn's arm, spoke up quietly. "Sir," he said to Emilio, "while we were collecting ourselves, I heard another fight going on below us." He indicated with a nod the narrow trail down into Starvation Creek Valley. "I believe the Ellers, Reymers, and Peachers sent us their relief crews on schedule, and I think, from the sound of it, they were unprepared for the bandits coming down."

"Those men are well away from here," said Tomma. "They'll hole up somewhere, and with any luck, our people will surround them."

"Yes, we may get another chance," put in Vernie.

Karen gestured with her bow. "Two of them are hurt. It will be a down payment."

"You saw them? Wounded?" asked Emilio.

"Yes." she answered, with something in her expression Emilio had not noticed before.

This information seemed to decide things for Emilio. "We will bring everyone down. If the rifles are not loaded, Vernie and Errol, do so now, and cover our advance, point and rear guard. Everyone else, shed bedrolls and enough weapons to carry wounded, please, two by two where possible."

"Need some help?"

Those who were in good enough condition to do so turned toward the voice. Wilson Wilson, looking fresh and hearty, with a revolver in a holster on his hip, stood, arms akimbo, on the slope above them. Four of the mountain's crew, armed with bows and a crossbow, were with him.

"It looks like we missed the fun; but we're game. Give us some folks to carry for ya, and ya c'n bring some more of yer stuff. I'm bettin' you'll need it 'fore th' day's over."

Everyone got busy. Karen stepped closer to Aleesha. She wasn't breathing now; it was clear she would not be among those carried down the mountain this morning. Squatting down by the girl's head, Karen took her hand for a moment, and felt the life going. "I'm sorry," she said. "Would have liked to get to know you."

She stood up again to take her place in line. The spare bow she was carrying was Aleesha's.


Friday, July 11, 2014

19


Avery Murchison rang the spare buzzer. This would call together the entire crew, who might be anywhere on three of the four floors below; there was an elevator, but it hadn't been run – if it could run – in the lifetime of anyone now living at Ridge. The stairs were a problem for Avery; he could get up and down them himself, but it was a slow and undignified process. From time to time, he felt the need to oversee his crew's efforts, and the strongest would form a two-person carry, then fetch the wheelchair for him. That seemed somewhat undignified as well; so he generally resorted to to an "all call" to the control room.

Eight bodies hurtled up the stairs. Avery believed he felt no sorrow for himself at the sound of so many feet; but his distant manner left no doubt that he'd known loss, and would rather run than wheel. First to arrive was young Billee, who had been resting in quarters after her ordeal of the afternoon; the others came in after her, one by one.

"Evening. Take a seat." Steel folding chairs were numerous in the facility. Ridge crew members, five men and three women, took chairs from the stack by the smooth black basalt wall and arranged themselves, by custom, in a circle in the square room.

"Billee here has had an adventure, as we all know, and it seems likely we'll have visitors soon. I understand everything still outside has been brought in? Good. We've done a fair job of maintaining the front and back door; they match the hillside reasonably well; but the windows can't really be helped. They are likely to be obvious, though they're rather one-way. If the bandits possess explosives we could be breached. Billee's bow, and the big binocs, had to be left behind. Do we have a spare bow?"

Wilson Wilson, a son of the original orchardist on the Creek, spoke up. "Yes, sir. I have an old compound that's not too big for you, Bee, and six good carbon broadheads to go with." He smiled.

"Ooh, thanks," said Billee. She leaned forward, eyes alight with anticipation.

"Very good," said Avery. "So, other bows?"

"Two; yew-wood longbows. About – " they consulted briefly –"thirty arrows."

"Crossbows?"

"Five; seventeen bolts."

"And the Ruger Old Army, which I recharged with powder and ball today." Avery looked round the group. "Not much; but we have the home ground, plenty of provisions –" this brought smiles and chuckles – "and lockable steel doors throughout. We don't expect everyone to converge here; at the moment, Hall is safer from our guests than the trail would be. So, Ridge is part of the front lines instead of castle and keep. Savage Mary sent us someone on a science mission, but the Captain's holding him at Hall tonight.

"We can't risk having anyone outside in the dark; tomorrow we may try to link up with the crews on the saddle." Avery nodded toward the east. "We're the right flank. If our guests get round us tonight, Hall could be in trouble. Wendlers, Tomlinsons, less one fighter, and Gulicks are spread out at the bottom, with Hall in reserve. That's not a lot of defense to meet twenty-four well-armed and very experienced men." He let that sink in.

"Back when we only had six or eight bandits at a time, we found that dealing with them was hard work." He didn't look down, but everyone remembered how he'd lost his legs. "So, we're going to batten down tonight. Wilson, keep me company, we'll do watch and watch. Billee, go the rounds and see that each floor has its food and water and the lamp wicks and fuel are in good order. Two to a floor, doors locked and barred, all entry refused except to this knock." Avery rapped the table in a pattern all knew, though none of them had heard "shave and a haircut" sung. "Sleep tight. With any luck, we'll be fresh and dry at daylight and any visitors will be wet and tired. Then we'll see. 'K?"

Nods all round; sober but unfrightened faces. Along with their friends the Ball Butte Murchisons, this crew considered themselves the elite defenders of the Creek.

"Good; hop."

They folded their chairs away and filed out. Wilson went with them. to retrieve his gear. Avery could hear Billee in the stairwell, haggling. "Look, you each have fifteen arrows; maybe you could give me one each? Then at least I'd have eight."

One of a kind, thought Avery. After today's doings, Bee will be a very good nickname for her!

"Don't mind about the girl; she knows her way around up there; that's all." Wolf smiled. Dill had returned from the south slope of Starvation Creek covered with stings; his right eye was swollen shut, and his breathing was labored. He also seemed depressed at having been bested by a child; but he had not returned empty-handed.

On the table between them lay a lightweight bow; several arrows to match, a leather-bound case containing a beautiful pair of air-raid warden's binoculars dating from World War II, which she had tried to hide away, a fanny pack (when had he last seen such a thing?) containing an oddment of possibles, including an old lip-balm tube which had been refilled with scented grease of some kind, a steel water bottle, and a packet of large leaves containing a half-eaten cake, redolent of grains and apples. Last, but not least, there was a badly rusted steel sign, about a foot wide and two feet high, with tiny holes at the four rounded corners.

"This interests me the most, Dill; and the fact that you had the presence of mind to pick it up, and go back to acquire the kid's toys, after what you'd been through ... well, I'm impressed."

It took a lot to impress Wolf. Dill, sore as his ass was, sat up straighter. "So, what's it say, Wolf?"

"I'll tell ya; th' thing's had a lot of weather, but th' writin' was – smashed into it – as well as painted. 'NO TRESPASSING. INTRUDERS WILL BE ARRESTED. SECURE AREA. USDHS.' Now, you say that there had been a fence there?"

"Yeah, Wolf. They'd took it all away but it looked like it was concrete-anchored posts and chain link, with a trail along th' inside, and it went right around th' mountain. Saw some old razor wire, too."

"So these folks may have somethin' more goin' on than just gettin' straw in their hair. Huh. Thanks a whole bunch, Dill; you go get some rest."

"Wolf."

"Dill."

Wolf made the rounds of the campfires. From each group, he got a sense of their morale, which was high after the day's feasting and plundering, and he made sure they'd remembered to set sentries. Before dawn, they would take up their war gear, and go have a look at the peasants' paradise.

As he came up to the house, Cougar met him on the steps.

"Wolf."

"Coug."

"Gotta tell ya 'bout somethin' we heard on that radio thingy."


Carey Murchison felt what he thought of as pain-in-the-gut more and more these days. Willow-bark tea was not going to cut it; so he rode out the storms of red-in-the-eyeballs hurt either by himself, till they passed, or otherwise tried to look quietly introspective in a leaderly way. Others, he felt, habitually looked to him to think his way through these emergencies, so when he ran out of ideas – and in this much pain, who has ideas? – he bluffed his way through, for the sake of Creek morale.

The current spasm went on much longer than usual. Fortunately the runner was out, to see if non-combatants had thought to clear themselves out of upper Creek, and to pass on Murchison's strong opinion to the effect that they should do so if they had not. Avery had not called since reporting on little Billee's near miss on the south slope – busy with dispositions to lock down the Ridge overnight and anchor the right flank. So no one was present in the command center to witness that "the Captain" had doubled over and almost fallen to the floor in a faint. He was reaching for a half-finished cold mug of peppermint-chamomile tea when the radio kid knocked and entered, without waiting for a "come in." Carey looked sourly upon him, but the effect was lost on the nearsighted eyes behind those thick panes of glass.

"Sir, if I can't go up tonight, perhaps I could demo our idea down here?"

"And what would that involve?"

"I'd connect the car radio to your twelve-volt current – you do have twelve-volt, right? – it would be quite safe; I have an in-line ten-amp fuse here. The doorbell buzzer can't hurt the radio or vice versa. The output wires go to a speaker – I have one here, but, in fact, they will run your 'phone – the impedance is not too much of a mismatch – and also Mr. Murchison's on the Ridge! That way you could both listen to any broadcast messages – as reported by our recorder to you today – if the antenna does any good, here in the shadow of Ridge."

"It sounds like you just need something to do; I've heard the message. If, as I suspect, they're just repeating the same one over and over, I don't see the advantage of rushing this. We can haul this up the hill and set it up for you; we understand the principle. But it might not be for days if ever; there's a war on. Do you have more phones that could match up with the three we have? That I could use."

Uh, no, sir, dynamics were superseded long ago."

"More's the pity. But you have lots of car speakers and computer speakers and such; could you rig up some kind of intercoms? One for Wilsons would be super, and one for Bridge and one for Mary, just for starters."
Selk gave a look of astonishment; apparently he'd not expected this line of thinking from the "Old Man." "Umm, you know, I think we just might!"

"Well, that's a priority. Go back to Mary's – you can find it in the dark? It's quite safe to do so at the moment, I think. Thank her for the blades. And propose, from me, a crash program in communications. And please – beg her for me – we appreciate the expertise and the industry that have gone into making the percussion caps, but when can we have some cartridges – with primers?"

This last was said with some force, and poor Selk jumped, but maintained his composure, and turned to go. Carey called him back.

"One more thing. Could you also say to Mary that Carey her friend would love to see some kind of hand grenades – if there's enough powder."

"Yes, sir. What are 'hand grenades?'"

"She'll know. Hell, soup cans full of nails and screws and BP, with a five second fuse, would be just lovely. This here is hill country, and we need to be able to reach behind these boys and spank 'em on the butt."
Selk's eyebrows went up behind the glasses. 

"Umm, I'll see what I can do, sir!"


Long past midnight, Ellen Murchison hobbled across the bridge to the Mess Hall with a limp and a crutch. She also had a fever and a cough, but she reckoned there might well be worse things happening than whatever her condition might be. Good information was not to be had at Chaneys', and so she came looking for her husband, or anyone who might be able to fill her in.

Hall was packed; it looked like the scene at some Red Cross shelters she'd come across in days gone by. Many people from farms on the upper Creek had decamped from the anticipated invasion point, and most of them had come here. In the dim light from alcohol lamps and tallow drips, bedrolls had been spread out along the walls and among and even on some of the tables, and though many people, among them women with children, oldsters and a few disabled, were asleep or attempting to sleep, others were up and about, and a clattering came from the kitchen.

Ellen made for the stairwell down to the pantries, where a door led to the command center.

"Ellen!" She turned, painfully, toward the voice. It was Velma Ames, the cattle breeder. "I heard you were in hospital! Have they turned ya loose? Honey, you don't look so good ..."

"Seen Carey?"

"Oh! He's popped up a couple times, mostly hides in that damp basement. Shouldn't ya sit down, then?"
"No, m'better'n I look, honest. See you in a bit." Ellen pressed on.

Getting down the stairwell with the crutch took more doing than she'd anticipated, especially when she had to negotiate two cooks in the dark, bringing up a large sack, but eventually she came to the door and gave it her customary knock.

Indistinct voices came from within, but she could tell that one of them was Carey's and he had recognized her knock. The door opened, with a whiff of old tallow – the room was not sufficiently ventilated – and Huskey, the crew leader from Bledsoe's, stood aside to let her in.

"Ellen, what in the effing hell are you doing up?" asked Captain Murchison, who was sitting across the broad table from her, with the Creek map spread out before him.

"Same thing you'd be doing, Murch," Ellen croaked. She looked him over, and was shocked to discover his condition had worsened since she'd seen him last. If a man shrinks in a week – practically right before your eyes – how long before he fades away completely?

"Well, it's obvious you're here without Dr. Chaney's permission. How'd you get the crutch?"
"Stole it. Got time to fill me in?"

"Sure. Mr. Huskey, close the door, please, and join us."

"Yes, sir."

They huddled round the map beneath the lantern.

"We've got about thirty people here. I think." Murchison stabbed at the map with his finger, in the vicinity of the Starvation Ridge saddle. "And fifteen or twenty in reserve, at the bottom. Elevation between them is a couple of hundred feet, though, and there's just the one steep trail, so the reserve can't get at a fight quickly if it develops at night. Or, for that matter, in daytime. Everything is muddy now. We'd have asked them to move up closer, but that north slope is all tangled thickets, people would lose touch."

Ellen nodded.

"Up here –" he indicated the Ridge facility – "is Avery's bunch, about ten in all, hunkered down till daylight, with plans to feel out the situation at dawn and try to hook up with Allyn's crews."

"So there's a gap in the line."

"A big one. And Avery's been blind since about two in the afternoon – they jumped his lookout."

"So, she dead?" This was offered hopefully; capture would be so much worse.

"No; got away! So we don't know where the bandits are right now. With any luck they're still skulking around Lawson's; they had two battles and a long march, then slaughtered everyone at the homestead, so I'm guessing they won't move till daylight, with all this terra incognita in front of them."

"But you don't have any confirmation of that."

"I don't, which is why we're scattered all over, not knowing their movements. It's an effing mess. Now, right above us –" he drew a line from the Ridge to the Bridge – "we have nobody. They are little likely to come straight at Hall, not knowing the terrain, but it's an intolerable gap, with everyone descending on us. So I've pulled three crews across the Creek –" he nodded at Huskey –"on the assumption that there are no more armies like this one approaching Ball Butte or Bridge. They can cover between the Ridge trail and the drop-off above the Bridge; then tomorrow we'll scrape around and see who's had enough rest and resupply to send toward whatever develops."

"Well, Carey, that's just about what I would have done." Ellen turned her head – her body was too stiff – toward the young man. "Do you have the shotgun?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"When's your jump-off?"

"Soon as possible. I was just leaving."

"'K, if you have time, send somebody to Chaney's for the revolver and the powder and ball kit. But," she smiled, "umm, don't tell 'em where I am."

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am. Captain." Huskey disappeared into the hallway.

"A good one," remarked Carey.

"Yes, he had a lot to do with how well it went up at the lookout." Ellen gave in to a coughing spell.

"Girl, you are a sorry mess. When I looked at you last night – in the morning rather, you were out like a light and looked like you would sleep a week."

"'S'just a cold. Murch, it's you I'm worried about." She covered his hand with hers. "Why are you melting away on me?"

Carey looked at the wall. The silence stretched on. Tens seconds, twenty. She gave him his own time; he'd always taken inquiry into his health as an invasion of privacy.

Now he looked at the ceiling, then down at their hands, fingers interlaced, and finally again directly at her. "Ellen, it's bone cancer."

"I knew it! The effing DU. I never did like it that you were on the old LAV-30Fs."

"Well, it was my job; I didn't ask for it; they posted me." He smiled sheepishly. "Enjoyed it, though."

"Shit. Liked it! Effing killed yourself liking it." Tears filled her eyes. "So, how long have we got?" I will not fall apart.

"Y'know ... lot of other ways to get radiation poisoning; I'm sure I'm not the only one on the Creek, either. Me? ... maybe two months. If that crowd over the hill doesn't get us first. Or their friends."

"And nothing we can do?"

"Girl, there was nothing we could do back when there was something we could do! And now, for pain, I drink effing peppermint tea."

"Oh, Murch."

Murchison withdrew his hand. "Ellen, we got a lot to do between now and then. Identify weaknesses, find some strengths, encourage new leadership, and, assuming we're not too badly damaged in the next week or so, batten down for the winter and make it through to spring with grain and animals intact!"

Without you and without Mo-reen, she thought. Dammit!

"Ellen, I know what you're thinking, but you should see the shape you're in. A cold these days is no joke, and neither is a wound, even a small one."

"True. What have you got for sore throat?"

"Try some of this stuff; mostly chamomile, with a little honey. S'cold, though." He poured a mug for her. "Were losing two of your fellow patients already."

Too much dying. "I make that ten of us, plus all of the Lawsons. What's with these intruders, anyway?"
"They're just the same as us. We lucked into a sheltered area with clean land, replicable foodstuffs, and enough labor to run it; they didn't – till now. That might be the only difference – oh, and that they've had more practice at killing, lately, than we have."

"Did you get a look at the bodies? They must have been brought here."

"Ours or theirs?" he smiled grimly.

"Theirs. I shot them all, except one, I think – Huskey brained him – but it was too dark to get much of an impression."

"I'm surprised you didn't get at least one prisoner for me." he smiled.

"Sorry about that, but we didn't know how many we were dealing with."

"Well, I can tell you. All white, male, muscular, tattooed, shaved heads, bumpy faces, and war paint. Makeshift clothing and weaponry, some effort toward camo."

"Kind of a skinhead militia?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Magee. He's back."

"It's the look he cultivates. But I think he's in Roseburg."

Her eyebrows shot up. "Why do you think that?"

"Remember KKUV? He's broadcasting from there."

"No!"

"Yep. I think he's out of touch with this bunch – but he's looking for them, or some kids enough the same as makes no difference."

"Jeeah, Murch, they all get together, no more Creek for sure."

"That's right. We're going to have to go all out, I think. Which we're not yet focused enough to pull it off."

Ellen collected her crutch. "Murch, I really, really love ya, but I think I better get a move on now."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Got some focusing to do."