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.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

25

The wounded had arrived, and the medical team had swung into action. Ellen, realizing sadly she had taken herself to the limit, was going to be one of the patients. Once again using the crutch, she gathered her forces for a short lecture. They were all tying on armbands of old white linen for quick identification in a night fight. She'd explain to the grenadiers in detail what must be done; then describe to everyone how they would ford the creek, using the dark shapes of the two skyline redwoods to find their way into the inner grounds of Wilson's; tell them about ignoring pain; about closing fast and striking home, first with their arrows in the firelight, then bush hooks and swords; knives last. Incapacitate whomever is right in front of you before running to a whistle. Three long blasts would be to retreat across the Creek and fall back on Beemans', with a rear guard. Emilio would take the old Navy, all six chambers charged, and lead. What was she forgetting? There was always something. They all looked up at her on the top step of the porch, expectant and trusting.

But suddenly they all seemed distracted. There were gunshots across the Creek, through the cottonwoods below. Something went boom, and echoed against the hills. A grenade? Dynamite?

The lookout came to his west window and shouted down to the house. "There's a fight!"

"We know that, where?" croaked Ellen.

"It's down by th' burning shed! There's some running around going on, too!"

Ellen backed up to the chair by the porch table and sat down. Oh, shit! Who's doing what to whom, and why now? Wilson, quite apparently, had not gotten Ellen's message.

"Emilio!"

"Ma'am?"

"Take over here, please. Give 'em a quick refresher on cover and concealment, run 'em across the creek out of sight of the bridge, over by the west hedge – cover the crossing with the revolver – and watch for an opportunity. Stick together. If Wilson's bunch has them engaged, one Molotov into the main house might be all we need."

Neither spoke of the obvious – as a daylight scenario, it could be costly.

Cost would be measured in friends and neighbors.



Karen alternately crept and shuffled, crouching, along the eastern hedge of Holyrood Farm. Her sandaled and stockinged feet were damp; a misty rain was beginning to fall on the barley stubble of the field. Ahead of her, across the cottonwoods along Starvation Creek, she could see the late afternoon clouds dragging their ragged skirts through the firs on Maggie's Hill. In her left hand she carried her longbow. Across her back she carried a borrowed quiver of better make than hers, with a side pocket containing a small water bottle, some bean cake, and a few possibles. She checked, for the fortieth time, the long cedar arrow, tipped with a broadhead pounded from a stainless-steel washer, nocked to the waxed string of her bow. At her belt was one of the smaller of the Savage Mary short swords and her skinning knife. In an inside pocket of her leather jerkin, stitched into place, rested a holster made from a pre-Undoing Tyvek/bubble-pack envelope, which she'd gladly received from Mrs. Ames. In it rode the tiny pistol. With any luck, her sealed primers were still good. There was no testing them; in all the world, so far as she knew, there were only thirteen rounds left in her caliber, and all of them were on her person.

"Hold up!" whispered Huskey, behind her. She stopped and looked back briefly; he carried the Winchester, which he'd explained had belonged to Mr. Lawson, and in a holster on his right hip, the Ruger BP revolver with which Avery Murchison had entrusted him, along with a half-size crossbow slung on his back, bolt-loaded and cocked.

On the left side of his belt, he carried another of the swords. In a pouch, he kept food and water, and a jar of alcohol and bear fat, brought from Lawson's, in case they found an opportunity to fire the house at Wilson's.

This venture was, as they and everyone in the woods behind them knew, a massive risk. Between the two of them, they carried nearly a third of the Creek's lead-throwing firepower – assuming, as Wilson had pointed out, the Winchester, with its six .30-30 cartridges, was in actual firing condition. Should they, and their equipment, fall into the hands of the invaders, it could well spell doom for the Creek. As things stood, very likely the invaders represented doom anyway, should they break out across Holyrood's into the farms toward Hall.

The risk had appeared acceptable to them, and to Wilson Wilson. "You get into too much trouble," he'd said, "You had better fire every round you have, or, failing that, get into a building and burn yourselves and the guns down with it. We might be able to back you up and get you out of there – but we most likely won't. 'K?"

They had nodded soberly.

Huskey caught up to Karen. He noted with approval that she continued to watch ahead, with her head half turned to listen to him. "We're almost to the second gate into Wilson's," he said quietly. "That what you wanted?"

"Yes," Karen replied. "There's a mixed yard of young apricots and nectarines here, and we're shielded from the buildings by a big compost bin. The fire is on the other side of that. There is some tall grass, not scythed yet, to hide us getting from here to there."

"Sounds good." 'K, I'll go point, and open the gate a bit, and we'll crawl into the grass. We're liable to cut a wide swath, though, with all this gear."

The gate was a typical Creek concoction of steel posts cannibalized from the old Ridge security fence, and barbed wire, with a swath of blackberries encouraged to grow along each side, trained to both hide the gate and allow it to swing. Black hawthorn trees had been encouraged to provide additional camouflage, blending the site into the long hedge. Only one gate in each of the border hedges had been kept clear; and each of the obvious gates had been placed so that it was covered from a house, a blockhouse, or a crow's nest.

Huskey pushed through, stopping every few seconds to examine the surroundings, while Karen watched behind them, in case the bandits had also invested Holyrood's. Eventually he beckoned to Karen. "All clear." She replaced her arrow in the quiver, so as to be able to travel on all fours.

They lay down in file in the rain-jeweled autumn grasses and crawled, bellies off the ground, weapons awkwardly pushed ahead of them, for what seemed a very long time. At length they came to the edge of the scythed ground around the compost bins, structures made of small-diameter logs stacked like log houses, but left unchinked to admit air to the rotting vegetation piled within.

Aiming for an empty bin with the side toward them open, they rose as one and walked almost tiptoe across exposed ground among the apricot trees, and with a breath of relief reached the limited cover.

Karen habitually re-nocked her arrow and moved to the straw-bedecked gaps in the opposite wall to examine the ground between herself and the smoldering stamping shed.

To her horror, she saw five bald men, with black-painted cheekbones, all armed and wearing pre-Undoing clothing and boots, walking toward her along a farm path. They would reach the compost bin in seconds!

Karen pirouetted carefully to face the open side, arrow drawn, her eyes wide. This was all the information Huskey needed; setting aside the suspect rifle for the moment, he silently slid the crossbow from his shoulder and aimed to the same place.

The men ambled, single file, past the corner of the compost bin, aiming for "gate number three," the main undisguised hedge gate to the right of the one the Creekers had slipped through. The "tail-end Charlie," carrying a laminated fiberglass compound bow with a ready carbon arrow, remembered at the last moment his role as rear guard, and turned nonchalantly to look into the bin.

Huskey released his bolt into the rear guard's chest; the man gave an alarmingly loud sigh and released his arrow as he fell into the man behind him; it passed weakly between Husky and Karen. Karen aimed for the man at the head of the procession, catching him in the buttocks with her arrow. He whirled with a shout, brandishing a large and businesslike pistol, which let off a round into the air with an ear-shattering bang, then fell to his knees, reaching for the arrow behind his back.

Suddenly the scene became a blur in Karen's mind, despite her best efforts to concentrate.

The remaining three bandits had the presence of mind to grab their hurt companions, including the one with the pistol, and make for cover around the compost bin to the right.

One of them stopped to fit an arrow. Huskey dropped the crossbow and drew and fired the Ruger, which then somehow fell from his hand.

The man looked at his now useless drawing arm, threw the bow at Huskey and ran to join the others. Huskey snatched up the Winchester, hauling back the hammer with his thumb as he did so. He triggered the weapon at his foes through one of the gaps in the logs, but had a misfire. He tried again, and there was a loud report; the space filled with dark and acrid smoke.

Someone replied with the modern pistol, and Huskey ducked instinctively.

Karen briefly remembered her father's admonitions about earplugs – "if nothing else, chew some leaves and stuff them in your ears" – too late, of course. Her ears were ringing and she felt disoriented. But she drew another arrow and ran round the compost bins to the left.

Twenty - thirty - forty steps, turn, ten steps. Hop out, drawn and ready. There they were! Aim. Release. Grab another arrow. Nock, draw, aim, release.

They were busy fighting Huskey; one of them had the big pistol and fired it into the bin. Another arrow, nock, draw, release. A foe discovered her; he'd dropped his crossbow but drew a long Bowie knife and rushed her.

No time to reach for an arrow; no time for the sword either! Her old training kicked in. Karen waited at the corner till the man was within striking distance, knife extended, and gripped his forearm, turning on her back foot and helping him on his way. The momentum carried him halfway to the apricot trees. When he recovered and came running back, yelling, he faced the small muzzle of the tiny green pistol wrapped in both her hands. He hesitated. The pistol jumped; the muzzle flash was bright even in the daylight.

A miss? From three meters? He was almost on her again. Remembering not to try to fire until the trigger had cycled, she stepped aside again, and ran round him in a half circle. From almost behind him, she gave her trigger another long, smooth pull, and the tiny, unbelievably loud weapon squirmed back in her hand a second time. The bandit had swept at her with the wicked knife blade again as she went by, and she discovered her left shoulder had opened and gone appallingly numb.

She switched to a one-handed grip, tracking the man's trajectory. He hopped strangely, struck the wall, bounced off, turned toward her again, but sagged back against it. Light was going out of his eyes. No miss – she'd shot him twice, but adrenaline had kept him going. He changed his grip on the knife for a throw. Karen shot him again, almost dropping the Kel-Tec. A deja-vu of a similar fight, in the snows of the northern Sierra, crossed her mind for a brief second, and then she remembered to stay aware. Stepping past the now sitting, and very quiet, body, she checked again around the corner.

There had been gunfire during her altercation with the lone bandit; ending with an eardrum-shattering boom. All of their present foes were lying on the ground, two of them convulsing. She should "double tap," but this position was exposed to other buildings, and even as she considered this, an arrow arrived, burying itself in the wood only inches in front of her. Holstering the pistol and picking up her bow, Karen ran back around toward Huskey's hiding place. She drew another arrow from the quiver as she did so, but her left hand, which held the bow, could not sustain a draw. Dropping the bow at the corner of the empty compost bin, she drew the sword and rushed in.

Huskey lay on the mud floor, fouled with mud and blood. Karen stuck the sword upright in the compost, ready to hand, and knelt over Huskey. Big man. It would take time to check over all of him.

"Where are you hurt?" Karen asked.

"Huh! All of me." He tried to grin, but it was more of a grimace. "I got them, they got me, they got me again, I shot again and it blew up on me."



Karen looked at the Winchester. Its barrel had bulged at the front of the receiver and blown apart. Squib round? She looked at Huskey again. Both his eyes were closed, and he was bleeding from the lids. It looked like they'd been spattered with something from the explosion. He was also clearly bleeding from his right arm and somewhere around the inner thighs as well. She pulled up his jerkin and pulled it back down again, pain searing her from her left arm as she did so. "I don't think you got it in the torso, sir; you might just live."

"Not worried about that, though the Creek does not need a blind man. Make sure they're not rushing us, that's th' main thing."

Oh! right! Karen stood up and peered through the logs. No one in sight.

Something punched her, hard, in the left arm again. As she heard the shot, she looked, bemused, down at her arm. There was a hole in one of the small logs, and another in her forearm, with Douglas fir splinters embedded all around it. Bleeding had already commenced; dark. Not arterial; small favors.

They can see me. Karen sat down, hard, in the mud, and drew the Kel-Tec again. She squirmed backwards against the upright in the corner for what concealment she could find, and peered through one of the lowest gaps.

Still no one coming, and no one visibly moving among the bodies just in front of her. Where had the shot come from?

The little log beside her face bloomed splinters and a hole appeared. A small geyser of mud spattered her legs and Huskey's. This would be the repeating rifle they'd heard about, up high. Second floor or attic dormers of the house, perhaps?

This isn't cover. Now what?

Huskey spoke. "Karen, we done good. That was a fourth of 'em. But you aren't gonna live without us foxin' him somehow. Can you move me?"

"Maybe a little. My arm ... " She pointed, then realized he could not see the gesture.

"Brace yourself along the wall and pull me upright. No argument; put me where you are now! ... and get around the corner into the compost."

Karen understood; sinking lower, she dug her heels into the muck, locked her good arm with Huskey's and heaved him to her. Splinters flew again at the movement, and Huskey flinched and grunted as the report sounded. "Where's th' wheelgun?" She found and handed it to him. "Now go!" She went, forcing her left hand to take the sword, pistol in her right hand.

The Ruger fired, blindly, in the direction of the farm buildings. The bandit rifle fred again, twice, and Karen, huddled behind a heap of straw mixed with apple pulp and veggie parings, heard nothing more from the bin to her left.

She popped her magazine, one-handed, and counted peeps of brass through the holes. She'd fired three. She thought so, but it was always good to check. Reaching into her other "vest" pocket, hands trembling with shock and dismay, she found her film can of spare rounds and counted out three new rounds; these she loaded into the magazine with her right thumb. It was taking much, much longer than she expected; and she dropped the last one twice. Each time she had to pick it up with the magazine seated in the palm of her hand, which was amazingly sweaty, and line up the cartridge with the steel lips again.

Sweat was in her eyes, too; she knew it wasn't the rain by the way it stung. Remember to breathe.

The last round snapped into place just as her hand was giving out.

She seated the magazine gently, and became puzzled as to how she was going to rack the slide. Then she remembered there would be a round chambered already. If she'd shot the magazine empty she could not have reloaded the pistol, not with her left arm in this condition.

How much blood was she losing? She must try not to slip from consciousness.

Wait, what was that? Someone was crawling toward her bin! She aimed, wobbling badly, at the corner. Was it Huskey? Let it be Huskey! No. A hand appeared, then another, with the big ugly pistol in it. Then a head came round the corner, bit by bit. 

Bald.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

24

"K, folks, council of war time, seeing as we're all here." Ellen Murchison looked round the room. She, the Chaneys, Emilio Molinero, and Guchi Yamaguchi, the young substitute runner for Hall, had moved indoors to escape the chilly afternoon weather. Everyone was having cold oatmeal with fruit and solar tea of one kind or another; as were the warriors who'd remained out-of-doors.

 She'd found a large sheet of scrap paper, an old soil survey map of what had been an adjacent county. Spreading this, upside down, on the dining room table, she picked up a tiny watercolor brush, made from some Beeman farmer's hair, and dipped it in a jelly glass of charcoal water. She drew the brush along the paper in a wavy line, lengthwise, then dipped the brush again.

 "This is the Creek. And this is the road, running along the north bank of the Creek." She dipped and painted rapidly, as everyone craned their necks to see. "Here we have Maggie's Hill and the Butte on the north, the Ridge on the south, with the saddle here, and all off to here is the Cascades." She waved the brush at the terra incognita on the right. Heads nodded.

 She dipped the brush and dotted along both sides of the creek and road. "'K, here's all the farms, starting with Hall and Murchison across from each other on the west and Ames and Wilson ditto on the east. Wilson is occupied by that ugly-faced horde." She made an "X" on the dot representing the orchard farm, then looked to Emilio.

 He nodded. "Yes. They have had casualties. We think they are down by a third of their original number, with at least two wounded. They have two rapid-fire weapons, experience, and enterprising leadership. But their reasoning in being here seems to me obscure."

 "I'm guessing they had sort of no choice," put in Tom Chaney. "Our scorched earth policy in the approaches to the west has been effective until now, but we may not have anticipated that such a large and determined group would penetrate this far across the flood plains – they had no way to go back, only forward."

 "Good a guess as any," said Ellen. "So, we have a little over thirty of us here, with some grenades and Molotovs, and a revolver." She dipped another small brush in blackberry-elderberry juice for a different color, and drew a circle around Beemans. "Twelve at Ames, or, really, en route to Jones, with six badly hurt people on stretchers." She drew an arrow between Ames and Jones.

 Tom's brow furrowed. "Elsa and I should be on our way there right now. With one or two fresh volunteers."
 "May I recommend?" asked Ellen. Tom raised his eyebrows, expressing assent. "You'll be too exposed at Jones' and with insuffcient protection. They get wind of you, they're apt to come across the Creek and double-tap the lot of you. I know your people are pretty much exhausted by now," she turned to Emilio. "But if we can get everyone to here, they'll be 'inside the lines,' as we used to say, with a better kitchen, more medical supplies, rested personnel to lend a hand, and a chance to bring the stretcher bearers back up to speed and back into the action."

 "This is good," said Emilio, rising. "I should go back right away and bring them."

 "You look pretty all-in yourself. How's about we send the runner?"

 Guchi nodded. "I can go on the pony; it will be faster, and I'm supposed to see all I can for the Captain anyway. With your permission?"

 "Go; and thanks for your report. Stick to the north of the hedges, and stay low and quiet, 'K?" 
Guchi, who'd remained standing, nodded, raised his hand in farewell and strode to the door.

 "Nice kid. Now, according to him, the western group that's been watching the Bridge has been turned loose to pitch in for us; they've captured and burned Lawson's and are heading for here." She drew a circle around the trailhead behind Wilson's. "Guchi says a runner came in from there, who asked us to go to your aid at Jones'. That turned out to be redundant, but who knew?" she grinned.

 Elsa watched her. Quite a performance, girl; I happen to know your fever is about a hundred and three by now; how long can you keep this up? But she held this to herself.

 "So, she's on her way back there with a few, a very few reinforcements. And now I think the bottom of our barrel has been scraped. How many people are down there at present, and what have they got?" she asked Emilio.

 "I no longer know, ma'am, but there should be more than ten. We have, also, there and on the summit, at least thirteen dead of our own and three of theirs."

 "We're going to become aware of that at some point; it will be a sad and hard winter no matter how this goes. But those will have to wait awhile. What 's the armament picture over there?"

 "There is a revolver, with I do not know how much ammunition. Two muzzle-loading rifles and about forty balls and powder, and many more bows, crossbows and hand weapons than people to wield them."

 "So they have the back exit reasonably plugged, but they're well outnumbered. We also have no way to co-ordinate with them. Folks, I have to admit this looks iffy to me; they're tired, we're tired, it's getting colder and wetter out, and somebody is going to start making mistakes. We're wide open in all directions except the saddle and right here at Beemans'. They take it in their heads to try just about anything but stay put or come after us here, they'll get away with it.  "So." She put down the brush, and picked up her tea, sipping it to put off the advent of laryngitis. "In the time-honored tradition of Council and GM, the table is now open to suggestions."

 Elsa pointed to Holyrood Farm on Ellen's map. "If they go on a burning campaign, it would make sense to them to go this way. No one is there; and they could destroy four places in a row unopposed. That's, that's a fourth of our resources right there."

 "But destruction may not be the primary consideration," objected Mr. Molinero. "The burning building at Wilson's is only one; I think it may be a challenge only, to come and have it out, so to speak."

 "I think so, too," Ellen agreed. "Tom?"

 "I think if we sit tight, they will come look for us, and in some way for which we, as the less imaginative side, will be unprepared. The semiautomatic weapons give them advantages in this mixed terrain."

 "That's so; what would you do?"

 "Well, I'm a medic; I'm distracted by all the hurt that's coming at me from Jones'. And I hate to propose something that will likely cost us even more. But I think if I were you, I'd get someone over to Wilson Wilson with a proposal for a coordinated attack on their position at night, first with the grenades, and then at close quarters, hand-to-hand. We ought to have better odds in the dark on our own ground."

 "Yes! I think so, too. If these men realized just how stretched-out we are, and had any kind of an idea where to go, they could, right now, burn their way all the way to Hall and march up the Ridge, practically without a fght. Even if we could keep up with them, they'd be able to hold us off in daylight the whole way there."

 "And then it would be over."

 "For the Creek, yes. But, Tom and Elsa, you both know, and Emilio here might as well know, it could potentially make matters much, much worse."

 She looked around at the three of them. "For Murch and me, this is priority one: these tattooed yahoos must not see the installation on Starvation Ridge. We move against them after dark. Tonight. Agreed?"


Mary Savage, Ph.D., was getting bored. It's all well making slow fuses and stuffing bottles, she thought, but making primers would be more fun, and we just don't have the micro capability. Also, with more than half her people run off to play hero, she couldn't even get more powder done; no one to run around scraping up the delightfully evil ingredients. And there seemed to be hardly anything in the kitchen; she'd looked, and had had to make do with the damned eternal oatmeal, cold. This here rheumatoid arthritis is the bitch.

 "Selk! Selk! You around here anywheres?" She thought she heard something respond to that; like a squirrel backing itself out of a nest. Presently the back door banged, and feet came pattering down the hall.
 "Yo?" Selk peered at her through the thick glasses.

 "'Yo,' he says. You pick up all my worst archaisms. Listen, most everybody here is gone to try and win themselves some medals; who have I got here besides you?"

 "Mmm ... well, there's Ollie; he's still making Molotovs. With rag fuses; we're out of the good stuff, and powder, too."

 "How many has he got?"

 "About three by now, I think. The trick is to find anything that will burn right. And all the matches – and the matchmaker – went with Mrs. Murchison, anyway."

 "Well, tell him to leave off. I need transportation, and you two are it. Are there any wheelchairs in inventory?"

 "There's the medical one that came over from Chaney for repairs – big heavy thing. Folds flat. The brakes wouldn't set."

 "Right, the ugly gray vinyl thing. Well, never mind the brakes; let's deliver it as-is to Hall, with me in it."
 "Umm, you want to go to the Mess Hall?"

 "What's with the eyebrows? I'm even less mobile than I let on; I want to chew the fat with Murchison, who is not likely to be enticed here from there just now; and the alternative is a garden cart, assuming we can find one. Or do you think you can rig up an extension for that godawful phone system of his?"

 "Not enough good wire handy, no dynamic handsets."

 "Chair it is, then. Fetch!"


Wolf walked out to the crow's nest and tipped back his head. "Give it up, Coug. They ain't comin.'"
 "Wolf. 'K, girl, ya just got a reprieve; climb down th' ladder, slow-like."

 "I can't move." Derisive hoots came from the two nearest blockhouses; from where Wolf was standing, the female sounded, to him, too, more petulant than hurt. But that might be a matter of perspective, he realized. The human animal is a mysterious thing.

 "Sure, y'can. Seven more fingernails says y'can go down that ladder even faster than y'came up."

 She complied. Wolf held her by the wrist as Cougar came down. By now there was not much fight left in the little redhead; but unnecessary complications were always best avoided.

 "Swap weapons, Coug, and lock her in the outhouse; I'm going up and look around fer a minute."

 Sure thing, Wolf."

 "Coug."

 As they left, Wolf could hear her: "Water? Water?" – and Cougar's reply. More guffaws from the blockhouses. He'd have to make the rounds and sharpen them up again soon – they all had poontang on the brain.

 Wolf popped the magazine and counted rounds, snapped it back into the magazine well, tucked the pistol into his belt, and set his hands and feet to the skinny little ladder. It was one of those household fire-escape things, with two parallel chains and the narrow PVC pipe treads, with cable threaded through them. The treads were cracking with age, and climbing took more concentration than he'd realized. He wondered if he'd find it hard going to get through the little hole in the crow's nest floor, but the Wilson farmers had thoughtfully run the ladder right up to the ceiling.

 There were four windows, open to the elements; each ran the length of a wall and was about eight inches high. The walls, only four feet high, were made of stacked four-by fours; decent cover with a good view. From the north window, Wolf saw that two hulking trees blocked much of the view, across the roof of the big house from the crow's nest. But he could make out three large frame houses through a skein of water-loving trees along a small river; none of the chimneys were smoking. The valley's road was across the river as well, and seemed to be mostly lined with fruit trees and grapevines. 

Two of the houses were two stories high, like the one in hand, and all were whitewashed; they all had outbuildings and barns and were spaced about half a klick apart. Things were closer together than he'd realized; but there were impedimenta in all directions.

 On the one hand, not too cleverly, the farmers had re-roofed the old houses in cedar. An attack with torches would be definitive. On the other, there were fences everywhere; the few gaps in vegetation showed that they were made of barbed wire, and taller than the abandoned barbed-wire farm fences elsewhere. And the gaps were few. A deliberate effort had been made to hide the fences in an impenetrable thorny growth, six to eight feet thick. By leaving a few archers at each gate, the locals could hold up an advance in any direction long enough to get reinforcements. But perhaps they hadn't thought much about that. It might have more to do with limiting the escape of stock and/or crop predation by deer.

The quick way to get around would be that road. So it was probably well defended somewhere off to the left; perhaps at that third house. 


Wolf dug out his 4X rifle scope, uncapped it, and gazed in that direction. Uh-huh, a lookout just like this one. And occupied! Why hadn't they sent out skirmishers when his men had torched the building? They should be frantic at losing this stuff. He swung to check out the other two places. Didn't look like there was anyone home. The noisy cow had been turned out, though, and was grazing on a rise between the house on the right and a very large barn toward the long, low hill in the background. Someone has been there this morning, very likely. Maybe some of that bunch they'd punched through getting to here.

 Why hadn't they driven off the animals and emptied the larders? 

Maybe they'd put off decamping until the last minute – put a lot of faith in the defenders on the hill.

 He lowered the scope, swung around, and scanned the "south forty." 

Near at hand on the right, the cowshed was still pumping out prodigious amounts of gray smoke, which drifted left across his field of view. But the woods stretched across the entire scene, from the mountains at left to the big ridge, covered with timber on this side, on the right. Whatever was up there could not be seen from here, or, no doubt, vice versa. It would have to be investigated from up close, if at all. Raising the scope, he glassed along the edge of the woods between the billows of smoke. Nothing to be seen, but he felt watched. There couldn't more than a dozen farmers over there as yet. Might be worth sending a sortie against them; perhaps at night?

 A look to the east was unproductive; pastures and woodlands, and taller and taller mountains that way. It would all be wilderness, and for his purposes impenetrable. There is never as much game under such a thick canopy as there is in open country; his crew would starve if they tried a breakout in that direction. Heck, they could starve anywhere but here.

 Wolf one-eightied on the small bench and peered west. Two farms, both of which seemed evacuated, could be seen that way, nestled against the big ridge. He was not a farmer himself, but he sensed the mountain's shade would limit productivity of long-season crops. He expected to see mostly pastures and hayfelds, and that was what he saw; with sheep. There were fewer fences, fewer gates. The farmers would not, he felt sure, have had the time or manpower to close off this route. With the cable cutters out front and the Glock and the AK in the rear, a sortie in this direction could be productive. His archers could burn some buildings, and with any luck provoke the yokels into charging across those bridges, so that they could be picked off.
He heard someone messing about at the bottom of the light pole. 

Drawing the Glock and keeping it ready but out of sight, Wolf looked down through the trapdoor opening. It was Cougar, back from the outhouse, AK in hand.

 "Coug."

 "Wolf."

 "Swap back. I've filled the mag for ya; put together a quick little expedition. Four men and a can of alkie; an' break out th' Bics."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

23

"Hello, Carey. You're looking like shit."

 "I'm feeling like compost." Murchison, telephone handset in hand, looked up at Tom Chaney in the dim light from the alcohol lamp.

 "Apropos. Have you seen a runaway patient of mine?"

 "Yep, she's stolen a horse, pulled together a ragtag children's crusade, and headed after the bandits out toward Ames'."

 "My god, Carey, she doesn't plan to outlive you, does she?" It was more a statement than a question.

 "It's her call. I think she's right, too. If I didn't have to keep tabs on Ridge, I'd be there with her."

 "What's happening up top?"

 "Well, the Bledsoes and company have gone after a rear guard that's camping in Lawson's house. Scorched earth. Avery says he sees the smoke already. From there, they'll try to hook up with Wilson and the
little Saddle army over to the Ames end."

 "That was always our weak spot."

 "Mm. Should have done more about it. Permanent dugout with phone should have been farther down the south slope. Hindsight. Never would have had 'nough diggers anyway, though."

 Elsa Chaney, in high dudgeon, strode through the doorway.

"Where's Ellen got off to?"

 "Well out of reach for now, dear," replied Tom.

 Captain Murchison set down the handset. "Haven't you got enough patients without her?"

 "They're all as settled as they're going to be. Mrs. Lazar, Velma, and some others are on it now. I want to fnd Ellen and get her back in care, or she's not going to last the week!"

 Murchison slammed his hand, palm down, on the table. "Nobody around here is going to last the week if we don't contain the incursion up the Creek! And furthermore," he said, turning and pointing to the handset, "as I was about to tell your man here, there's maybe worse brewing."

 "Worse?" asked Tom.

 "The kids have rigged a radio up at Ridge. Using the doorbell circuit. It's patched in to the phone, and I've been listening. Magee's back. Probably less than two hundred miles from here. These skinheads may be acting on their own, but I have a feeling he's looking for them."

 "Oh, Jeeah-help," said Elsa quietly.

 "Yeah," answered Murchison. "And anybody else up there that wants to lend a hand."


Karen opened her eyes. As usual she was disoriented, plus her eyelashes seemed gunky. Shadows had moved a bit, and were much fainter: more clouds moving in. Midday already? She found she was wrapped in her blanket, which was damp beneath her but a help. Someone was back-to-back with her in another
blanket. Sitting up, she found that it was Errol, out cold.

 Crawling out of the blanket, stiff and chilled, Karen found the roll-bag had been placed by her head. She sipped some water from her bottle, an old gray Nalgene, and gnawed some equally tasteless bean cake. No one else around? No, there were bodies stretched out near the trail, in two rows beneath the autumn-bright red foliage of some viney maples. Something about those on the left suggested they were alive.

 Standing up, Karen scanned the surrounding woods. What had wakened her was a muffled chopping sound; a work crew was uphill, cutting up wild hazel poles and fashioning stretchers with blankets that had belonged to the dead. She moved to the row of wounded and found Tomma and Allyn among them.

 "Hiya," said Tomma. He didn't raise his head.

 "How are you?"

 "Starting to feel like shit."

 "Think they muck on their bolts or something?"

 "Wouldn't put it past them; but this was a bullet. Errol poured in some alky, both holes; I'll live. I'm considered walking wounded, Emilio says." He smiled wanly.

 "Want some water?"

 "Sure do."

 She handed him her bottle for a long swig.

 From Tomma, she moved to Allyn. His presence had faded, she realized with a shock. Just from arm wounds! And, she reminded herself, from being carried round on a mountain with bones shredding muscle. At home she had studied physiology, advanced first aid, and diagnostic triage. But Father had directed her studies toward self-care, and it had been mostly theoretical. Faced with so much destruction, she felt ignorant and helpless. The others seemed even more at sea than she.

 She looked at his long face, with the trim black beard. This gentle man, whose hands held valuable knowledge of grafting and pruning, should not have been mangled so – if he lived, he might well be a
double amputee, not something she'd seen a lot of. He might not want to live. She was not sure she would, in like case.

 She pulled his blanket up to his chin. He'd 'liked' her, in that way that was supposed to mean eventual marriage among these people. She'd not known how to respond to him. Now, she would very likely not know where this particular story would have gone.

 Allyn's eyes opened. He turned his head slowly, and, recognizing her, cracked a crooked smile.

 "Ah, the wild Amazon."

 "Shh. Rest."

 "Pooh. They get me out of here, I'll end up even unhappier than I am now. Really, though, I'm for the heaps at Hall Common, yes?"

 He was sweating profusely in the chill air. She found a bit of cloth among his few bedroll things and patted down his forehead. "I think you should think about apples, plums, pears, apricots, cherries, and
filberts, and walnuts – and, umm, quinces. They'll need you."

 "Hmm. You're politic, and I thank you for that. Water?"

 "Right here." She tipped his head up a little and dribbled in a mouthful.

 Wilson Wilson stopped by. "'K, we got enough poles for all the stretcher cases, and a party is making up to gather up your friends here and and go hedge-hopping. You're Karen, Ames, right?"

 She nodded.

 "Emilio says you should stick with my group and keep an eye on Wilson Farm. I grew up there; so you and I know the place better than anyone that's on their feet here. S'good?"

 "Yes. Oh – there's this freshened cow at Ames' –"

 "Yes, everybody hears her. Emilio says if they don't run into bandits there, he'll see she's helped or put out of her misery. S'maybe gone on too long to do anything for, by now."

 And so the disaster spreads. We're our own little Freeway Corridor here. Is it like this everywhere? She looked down at Allyn. His eyes had gone out of focus again, but he'd been listening.

 "Go back t'work, girl," he whispered. "Sic'm."


"Wolf, that cow has quit hollerin' all of a sudden. Think somebody's maybe up there?" the scout asked.

 "Oh, I don't doubt it. No, don't investigate. We mostly oughta stick together for awhile. Just go back 'n keep an eye on th' road."

 "Wolf."

 "Gilroy."

 Wolf sat in the easy chair and leaned back. He closed his eyes, briefly – then began listening to, and scanning, his surroundings again, with his AK on his knees. He'd assumed someone would have made contact by now: this place was valuable. The snivelly female they'd captured wasn't much help, though. His hope that they'd try to ransom or rescue her, or for that matter this apple farm, was fading. A person of relatively little importance, a dishwasher sort from a farm called 'Lazar.' Hmm. Jews alive? Not that he cared one way or the other, himself; but some, if they were still alive, would give a lot for the information.

 And he'd learned this place was 'Wilson.' Not much information in that! Kind of hierarchical households, but a decentralized community. Apt to do things piecemeal, which explained why they'd met such a small force on the hill, ditto the reinforcements. Also, she didn't seem to know a thing about the 'Dept. of Defense' business, up near the hilltop. Could never have faked that blank look.

Such leadership as existed here was proving both cagey and shadowy. Maybe they were ex-military? But so much "left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-does" seemed amateur in the extreme. Why, some of these people might not even know we're here! Might have to force the issue.

 "Hey! Coug!"

 "Wolf?" Cougar's annoyingly appealing face popped round the door jamb.

 "Way too quiet 'round here."

 "It is that, Wolf."

 "Seen anythin' outside we could set fre to?"

 "Well, Wolf, we need all the little huts on the perimeter –"

 "I'm the one said that; what don't we need?"

 "Well, there's a little building, no walls, full of hay at one end. Couple of big animals were in there; we're having them for supper."

 "Oh, yeah. Well, have 'em light that off. 'N then take th' girl up inta th' lookout 'n make her scream a little bit. No harm tryin'. I jus' wanna ring somebody up to talk to, s'all. That don't work, we'll recon in force 'n set fre to th' places we c'n see from here."

 "Wolf."

 "Coug."


"Ma'am, brought you some tea."

 Ellen awoke, woozy, her head pounding. "Unh, wouldn't mind so much if this was a hangover. Help me up, dear. I'm stiff as a board."

 Ro-eena complied, then offered a mug.

 Ellen sniffed. Her eyes widened. "Oh. ... Oh! Real tea?"

 "Mmm-hmm, the Beemans found a bush here; a Russian variety of sinensis. Grows this far north, ma'am. And Mr. Allyn, I think I've heard, has begun propagating it at Wilsons'."

 Ellen sipped. "With honey. Also hard to come by these days. And ... ?" She wrinkled her nose.

 "We ground up some ginger root."

 "Well ... well, I guess I need it. So, anything new and exciting going on?" She looked around her; nothing seemed out of place. A country farm hedge and gate; two young people with bows watching the road. Leaves falling peaceably, by ones and twos, from fruit trees.

 "The lookout says there's another party approaching from the west; that they're definitely ours; that somebody has quieted the cow that was screaming, up at Ames. And he thinks there's someone at Wilson's
but doesn't know who."

 "I'm guessing those are our guests. Might be them at Ames', too. Well, let's get me up and see if I can belt on this gosh-awfully heavy revolver. Where's Deela with that whistle?"

 "Shouldn't you eat first, ma'am?"

 "That I can do standing up. What have you got?"

 "Oatmeal with some herb oil and dried veggie leaves, ma'am."

 Ellen's eyebrows shot up. "No one laid a fire, did they?"

 "No'm, it was sunny for awhile and we did some up in a solar oven; also we've ground up quite a lot of grains and are soaking them. With apples and pears, sliced. The oats are not very appealing, ma'am, but
we are a crowd here."

 "Good job. And now I think I hear horses."

 Through the remaining leaves of the apple and plum trees along the road, they could see another small army approaching with bows, cross-bows, bush-hooks, and even a pitchfork. At its head rode Dr. and Mrs. Chaney. Deela appeared at Ellen's elbow, hung the whistle cord around Ellen's neck, and offered her a steaming bowl and a spoon. She set down her tea on the porch table and ate, as the small cavalcade approached the driveway. One of the sentries looked up the walk to her, worried.

 "Do we have a password, ma'am?"

 "Not likely," called out Tom Chaney. "We're here on our own recognizance. May we advance and be recognized?" he grinned.

 "Comedian. Come on in and let's sort ourselves out," replied Ellen, with her mouth full. "Who all you got?"

 "Some Maggies, Delsmans, Tomlinsons, and Hall. Ten, besides ourselves."

 Ellen did the math. "I make that thirty-two in all. We should make a roster; if there were a melee right now, we wouldn't be able to know who's gone missing."

 "I'll start on that, if you like." Carl Perkins, from Tomlinson's, stepped forward with his bow.

 "Do you read and write?" asked Tom.

 "Mm-hmm, wouldn't if I'd grown up here, now would I?"

 "Touché." They smiled at each other; Tom fished out an old Tatum clipboard from his medical saddlebag and handed it to Carl.

 Elsa dismounted, gave her reins to Ro-eena, who'd run down to take them, and came up the steps. She looked down at Ellen."You ... you runaway, you." But she seemed to mean it half as a compliment.

 Good thing, too. There have been times I have not liked this do-gooder, thought Ellen. "Want some tea?"

 "Got something besides peppermint?"

 Ellen picked up the mug from the table and waved it under Elsa's nose. Mrs. Chaney's eyes widened. "Tea! Oh, of course. Beemans' tea!"

 "Coming right up," said Deela, as he went by.

 Tom joined them. "Ellen, we're straight here from Carey, who's in reasonably good shape, and says Avery's doing well, too. He wants us to look you over and change that wound dressing."

 "Why wouldn't Avery be doing well?" asked Ellen, absent-mindedly raising her jerkin to reveal a sour-looking bandage, right above the holstered Navy, with a red spot near one edge. Elsa went to work, shaking her head.

 "His crew have gone to help the young people that went up to the saddle yesterday," said Tom, "and he's also directing an assault on the bandits' lines of communication. See that smoke beyond the saddle?"

 "Oh. Lawsons'."

 The lookout said something to the young man at the foot of the crow's nest, who called up to the house.

 "Ma'am, there's a fire over at Wilsons'." All eyes looked lower.

More smoke – much more smoke – dark gray shot through with black, somber and sullen, began belling into the sky. It was in the same direction as the saddle, but much closer. The elders remembered that cloud shape.

 "What building is it? Can you tell?" Ellen called out.

 "No. It's not the house, though."

 She turned to Tom, with Elsa following her around in a half-circle, muttering. "A provocation. It's their way of saying hello."

 "Maybe we could parley? Find out what they want?" Elsa asked, who stood back with her arms round herself.

 Ellen's eyes flashed. "What they want, I think they made very clear out at the Eagle's Nest. And they haven't changed their note since."

 "I'm sorry, Ellen. But –"

 "Elsa?" Tom put his arm round her. "Maybe someday, we'll have some sanity around us again. Meanwhile, those men down there have eaten the Lawsons."

 "Do we know that?"

 "Yes, dear ... we do."

 The lookout talked to the caller, who cupped his hands around his mouth. "There's another horse coming."

 "That would be the runner from Murch," noted Ellen. "Unless there's some other horse we don't know about."

 The caller was listening to the lookout. He turned and cupped his hands again. "And there's someone coming over from Jones Farm."

 "How many?" asked Tom.

 The caller relayed and waited, then passed on the response. "One. Has hair, wearing a jerkin."

 "One of ours," remarked Tom to Elsa and Ellen. "Looks like everything is happening at once."


Karen watched the stamping shed go up in flames. Steam from the loosely-piled haystack began to whiten the smoke, which ran along the ground to the east, masking the east orchard, the Creek, Ames Farm, and the blue hills beyond. From across the fields, she could hear, faintly, a woman's screams, repeated at intervals.

 Without taking her eyes away from the ground ahead, she spoke to Wilson, hidden among the maples to her right. "We could use that smoke, get right in among them unseen."

 "And attempt a rescue? That's what they want. No, Karen, Marcee's as good as dead to us now. No sense joining her."

 "I understood that, I think. But if we went part way, in the dead ground, then we could be in a useful position to exploit opportunities."

 "Mmh. That's good thinking; but we're in small numbers here. If pressed from the west, they may come out of that smoke this way, and from here is our best shot at them – concentrated fire from concealment."

 "Sir, it's a war of attrition, They can afford casualties less than we can. I would like to go see if I can cause some confusion. They wouldn't expect just one."

 Wilson moved closer, and peered at Karen from among the ferns and brambles.

 "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but – what's in it for you? ... if I may ask."

 She glanced over, then straight ahead, . "This valley is the – it's everyone's chance, around here, to start over. But not if it gets pushed over the edge. You're losing people, hay, grain, animals, structures, and capabilities, with a winter coming in. Whatever Allyn knows, whatever Mo-reen knew, all of the dead or dying – it's vanishing."

 "True, but, again, we'll need firepower right here."

 "You saw what happened at the saddle, and on the trail behind us. I think the same happened at Ball Butte. You are all soldiers, but these bandits aren't bandits – they're some kind of commando. They will hit one place in the line, together, and most of them will escape."

 "So, we fight them, we get most of them, but if any get through, they may bring others back in larger numbers?"

 "Yes. In order for the Creek to survive you must kill them to the last man. If, say fourteen of them hit you here instead of twenty, you have a better chance of doing this."

 "Again. What's in it for you? You know you won't live."

 Karen resumed watching the smoke and the fields, but also watched Wilson peripherally.

 "I grew up underground – you know the story?" He nodded. "My father's room was the only approach to mine. Anyone who might try to take me had to go through him. It cost him his life – but it worked. I
was worth that. The Creek is worth that."

 "She's right." They turned. Huskey, from Bledsoe Farm, was standing up the hill from them. He'd approached almost soundlessly through the undergrowth, and overheard the tail end of their exchange.

"Sorry we don't have a current password; only one I've got is 'smart' with the reply 'aleck.'"

 Wilson was overjoyed. "Huskey! How many of you are there?"

 "Oh, we're four; been beating up country in your direction and that posse out there –" he pointed at Wilson Farm with a lever-action carbine – "is down by two."

 "That's more than a little encouraging." Wilson returned his attention to Karen. "Let's talk about your idea. Details?"