October is a eff of a time to go campaignin', Wolf thought. But if anybody is out there farmin', now is th' time to hit'm up.
He surveyed his crew. Not much, but where can one put together enough men to achieve anything when there's never enough food or potable water and so many diseases keep popping up? And what's the fun of trying to build an army when there's no ammunition to speak of, any more?
If he hadn't lucked into that intact gun shop in that ghost town in the boonies, he wouldn't be running any kind of serious operation by now -- or maybe any kind of operation at all.
The owners had opted to dome the whole place with steel-bar-reinforced concrete, leaving one opening that was covered with a door salvaged from, apparently, a bank vault, presumably with intent to return and use the building's contents as trade items.
They must have possessed a bulldozer and a crane and fuel to run them with, as well as considerable single-mindedness. He admired them, but there would be no hope of meeting them, no doubt. As usual, they hadn't returned.
With the aid of some terribly crystallized stump powder, his last live cap and a car battery still holding a weak but sufficient charge, with wire harness ripped and spliced from the same car, he and Mac had made their way in. Correction. He, Wolf, had made his way in. Mac had not survived the break-in.
Oh, well. He wasn't such great company in that goddamned prison cell, either.
It had taken so long to find, train, dominate his small army -- everyone has to sleep sometime -- that the ammunition and working primers had begun to run low at last, and he'd had to resort to scrounging crossbows and compound bows to keep things hopping.
I s'pose we'll be down to spears and clubs before this is over, he thought wryly. Bet I oughta be looking for guys with bigger shoulders now, stead'a sharper eyes.
Wolf climbed up on a stump and turned around. The column halted. It was a good spot for counting heads; an opening among the copses of ash and cottonwood, and although there was, as there was nearly everywhere now, an awful lot of Scotch broom and teasel crowding the trail in a tangle eight feet high, he could see everyone from the stump.
Twenty-eight. Good, no one had slunk away. 'Course, if they tried, the first one to claim the kill would get the liver. But he didn't expect much trouble; morale was high since they'd landed on that last little pocket of pilgrims. So many people going north! What did they think they were all going to find up there? Klondike gold?
"Hey y'all, an' how ya' doin?"
"We're real good, Wolf," they replied in unison.
'Course you're good, you're alive, ain't ya? Who deserves to live?"
"Yeah, cuz' the dead are in no effin' shape to deserve nothin'. An' that. Is. A. Fact; you ever heard the dead tellin' ya 'bout their rights?" Scattered chuckles, not many; they'd heard that one too many times. "Break, till we come get ya. Use th' shade of this maple, an' keep the chatter down to a gentle roar. Secure all your loads and gear. Willits, point. When Burgoyne catches up to us, Bucky, swap with 'im an' go out fifty yards. 'K?"
"S'good, Wolf." Unison again, but not as loud. Mention of the maple showed Wolf's mind: Keep low and quiet and out of sight of any line of fire. The spot offered no cover but fine concealment.
And the ground was dry.
Though it had been a droughty summer, as usual, they had found entire days of monotonously wet going. Without anyone to maintain ditches and drains, many of the abandoned farms had quickly reverted to wetlands, a problem compounded, though Wolf knew nothing of this, by the absence of personnel at flood regulation dams in the huge watershed. Nothing had stopped the rivers jumping their banks in winter, and often the resulting sheets of water had had nowhere to go, covering roads as well as fields.
Wolf didn't care if he never saw another blue heron as long as he lived.
All sat down, keeping weapons close at hand and unshipping loaded pack frames or pack bags and tumplines, and sipped water or traded differently-textured bits of jerky.
The men, ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, were all veterans, proud of their association with Wolf the Lucky, and had adopted several means of quickly distinguishing themselves from potential foes -- which is the meaning of "uniform." Few of them had yet grown the luxuriant beard, black streaked with gray in his case, that adorned Wolf's scarred and pitted face; but all sported closely cropped hair in imitation of his premature baldness, and had adopted his practice of streaking his cheekbones with lampblack.
They also had crudely tattooed one another with needles or safety pins, and, in a gesture unique in their experience so far, had learned to tuck bits of ash under the skin of their foreheads, raising welts that saluted Wolf's status as a smallpox survivor.
Their devotion pleased Wolf's vanity, but he was more interested in their relative lack of focus. The more extreme forms of discipline, in the early going, had been constant, thinning the ranks and forcing up the recruitment rate. Things had improved, but still! The nonsense he'd had to put up with would strain a saint. He remained standing, eyes saccading continually over the nearby brush and woods, with his prized AK in hand.
Not that there hadn't been a lot to choose from in the shop. He could have gone with one of the many models of AR; they'd even stocked that lovely HK. But he appreciated sturdy and simple and he appreciated the extra hundred yards of reach. His entire life of some twenty-four years -- getting old, goddammit -- had been one long shot anyway.
Everything else he had cached, and doled out over time, but much of it was gone or out of commission now.
Burgoyne, a feral slip of a youth who'd proved useful in culverts, sewers and "rat holes," reported in. He carried his favorite (and now rare) weapon, a Stoeger coach gun Wolf had entrusted to him, with a bandolier of assorted shells, each lovingly encased in Saran wrap.
"Heyaa, Wolfie, all clear in back."
"Sure, it's all effing swamp anyways. Take a breather here with th' boys, I'm gonna follow up Willits for a bit."
Wolf didn't have to go far. Willits, a cautious and reliable scout, had holed up in a copse of willow and other trash trees, on the edge of an unexpected expanse of grass.
"Whatcha got here, dubyah?"
"Wide open; no cover, no housing. That mountain we've been aiming for comes down to a gap on the other side of this; and there's a bridge out there."
"Lemme get a look at that." Wolfie reached into the back pocket of his cruiser's vest, and produced a small rifle scope, which he preferred to the binoculars he'd found in the shop. He'd fitted the scope to his AK, and so the scope could serve dual purposes. But for moving targets he liked iron sights. Unwrapping the scope from its protective bag, he swept the horizon with it, then grunted.
"Not enough elevation; there's a lot of dead ground here. Ya done right ta hold up. Gimme a leg up into this effin' tree here."
From his perch, Wolf studied the bridge. Too clean. It oughta have more crap growin' on it by now, even though it's all steel and asphalt around there. Hmm.
He swept the horizon again. To the south, woods over to the base of the mountain, the slopes of which were grassy, and rocky at the top. Might go that way and get a look from up there at the valley behind; lots of exposure, though. To the north, where, he knew from the map, the freeway had swept in close to the foothills, stood one of the ubiquitous cell towers. Out of habit he scoped that.
Something about it didn't quite look right.
Wolf packed up the scope, grinning at Willits who was standing by his knees, below.
"Dubyah, call up th' boys and form column on me; we'll make for that cell tower through th' woods. Let's keep out of sight of it, though, long as we can. Savvy?"
"Savvy, Wolfie." Willits, crossbow in hand, disappeared into the short green shadows of the willow thicket.
The ancient telephone in the command post rang twice.
This startled "Captain" Murchison.
The phone system, a closely guarded secret, had been assembled by Murchison and a couple of technically teachable youngsters from gear they had found in what might well have been a ham radio museum. Powered by a twelve-volt solar panel salvaged from a roadside signboard, and a rotated set of of deep-cycle RV batteries, each of four stations held a doorbell button, a doorbell, and a dynamic handset with magnetically-driven microphone and speaker. The range of operation, assuming enough suitable wire could be found, probably was no more than ten miles.
A weakness of the system was that all four posts could listen in on any conversation, like a party line; another was that anyone sufficiently trained and equipped, and patient enough to sort out the wires, could theoretically patch in, using a sufficiently old-fashioned headset and a pair of alligator clips. But the wires had been buried; Carey Murchison regarded the system as relatively secure.
It was, however, to be used only in extremis. This had as much to do with the state of the batteries as any security consideration. Good stuff could not be had anyway, as the farming limited one's options. Divided attention was the Creek's bugaboo.
Two rings meant Mo-reen, in the advanced lookout.
Carey picked up the handset and pressed the button in the handle as he held it to his ear. Click.
"Go ahead, over." He released the button. Click.
Click. "S'Mo. Over." Click. A whisper, heard on two mountaintops and in the command post.
Damn it all. She's keeping her voice down. Trouble!
Click. "S'up, Mo? Over." Click.
Click. "Position may be compromised. Over." Click.
Click. "Describe. Over." Click.
Click. "Body of at least twenty advancing on position, direct heading, no bye, all on foot, armed, rucksacks, camo. Over." Click.
Too far and too many to mount a rescue in time. And they might be advance echelons of a larger force; a full engagement might compromise the whole valley. If only the few horses weren't harrowing for winter wheat this week!
Click. "Got 'em, Carey." This was Ellen's voice on the Ball Butte station. "One point man, main body twenty-five, twenty-six, ahh, twenty-seven ... twenty-nine, thirty. And ... one rear. Over." Click.
Click. "Describe weapons, Mo. Over." Click.
Click. "Bows, crossbows. Umm, one rifle! with banana mag. Over-r-r." Click. A desperate child's voice. But disciplined. Still whispering and holding to protocol.
Click. "Confirmed, Carey. Rear has a firearm as well. They are less than one hundred yards from Mo and closing, double pace. Over." Click. Ellen Murchison again, steady as ever. But this information, assuming Mo's hideout had somehow been made, was a sentence of death, and all four stations knew it.
Click. "Advise; drop and run? Over." asked Murchison. Click.
Click. "No, sir, can't run; they're on my ladder side. Will drop and secure; may be forced to engage. Love ya!"
Under the canopy of a long copse of ash and willow, which followed what had once been a drainage ditch, Wolf's small army had made for the cell tower as a point of interest in a practically featureless landscape. Sometimes nice things could be turned up inside those inevitable chain-link fences.
If nothing was there, they could have a go at the small hill in the middle distance, from the summit of which, no doubt, they could see into the valley behind that bridge and decide if it was worth investing.
Wolf stopped a moment and studied the cell tower. It was one of the tube type, common enough along the freeway corridor. There would be a tool shed, a bunch of conduits coming out of the ground by the shed, leading into a junction box with a door on it, like a circuit breaker box, and, about fifteen feet up the side of the tower, ladder rungs, made of steel, going up to the microwave antenna array.
It was the antenna array that had captured his attention. On it was an eagle's nest, a six-foot deep pile of branches and twigs, with lots of bird shit all over the top. More of the white stuff had streaked the tower on its lee, or southern, side, covering some of the ladder rungs, and spattered on the leaves of the Himalaya blackberries that had taken over the chain-link fence.
Wolf turned to Willits, who stood near his elbow.
"Dubya, get me Burgie. Nah, scratch, get me Cougar; he's been achin' to show off for weeks."
Willits smirked his approval; Burgoyne, like himself, was too valuable to throw away on a maybe. Cougar was reliable enough for some recon, if it didn't get too complicated, but was much more expendable. Wolf had the middle management touch. Willits saluted with a finger to his forehead. "Wolf."
"Willits." Willits departed, low and fast.
Willits found Cougar in the middle of the column, on one knee with his chin on his compound bow. "Cougar!"
Willits jerked his thumb. "Wolf."
Cougar left his pack, brought his bow and quiver, and ran with Willits to the lead.
"Wolf." Cougar's eager, wide face appeared through the brush. A good worker, thought Wolf. Just a hair on the whiny side, though.
"Coug, got a job."
"Yeah, so, what do ya see over there?"
"Uhhh, cell tower, fence, gate in them briars, padlocked. Building inside, door hangin' open, no windows."
"Padlock new or old?"
"Umm? Uhh, can't really tell from here. Too shady."
"'K, what I want ya ta do, leave your bow and shit here and run over and look at that padlock And see if y'c'n look inside that shed. Then grab me a leaf -- one 'a the ones wi' birdshit on it -- and bring it back here."
Cougar looked like he'd like to question the bit about the leaf, but he remembered his protocol in time and dropped the bow and quiver. "S'good."
"Gotcha covered. Go!" Wolf pulled the bolt on his AK and sighted vaguely on the eagle's nest.
Cougar zig-zagged through the Scotch broom in what had been a small parking lot, stood up by the gate, snatched a leaf, and brought it back.
"S'good, Coug, what'd ya see?"
"Old padlock, rusty. Nothin' in th' shed."
"Hmm. 'K, arm and fall back."
Wolf set down his AK and sniffed the leaf as Willits watched. Then he reached into his vest pocket and peeled the plastic wrap from a much-beloved disposable lighter. He flicked on the flame, scorched the white-spattered leaf, and sniffed again.
"This here's paint. White latex. Wonder how they're gettin' in and out?"
"Ladders, maybe? Throw one in, throw it out?"
"Yeah, team effort. Willits --" Wolf pointed up to the eagle's nest "-- that there is a lookout. An' it won't do no good as a lookout 'nless they c'n talk to each other. Occupied? Maybe. I'm declarin' a high-value-objective. Get me Burgie. I want his shotgun, too, 'n the magnum slugs; seven six two might not have enough penetration."
Mo-reen had stripped off her shirt, wrapped the precious handset in it, and dropped it through the toilet seat, down the long shaft of the tower into the noisome glop below.
She took up her crossbow, set it against the wall, put her foot into the stirrup, cranked the string back to the notch, and rolled up to a crouch over the trapdoor, on one knee. There was no room to stand up in the "eagle's nest."
Through the loophole in the trapdoor, she could see that a small man had already popped the padlock with a huge bolt cutter, wrenched open the gate, and run to the base of the tower with a grappling hook. He got the bottom rung on the first try, and began swarming up a knotted rope. She could see a hatchet and a handgun, tucked in his sash.
Mo-reen leaned back and picked up a bolt from her stash. She'd made them herself, from hammered coins, turned cedar, and chicken feathers. Grandpa had been so proud.
There was a startling explosion, and the two-inches-thick hatch leaped in its bar and hinges. A hole appeared in the hatch, and splinters of wood embedded themselves in Mo-reen's arm. The pain, combined with her primal fear, made loading the bolt a chore. Her breath rasped and her hands shook uncontrollably. She'd have to position herself over the loophole again; that might still be concealment, but it was clearly not cover. She felt naked to all the world.
Leaning over the loophole, she found the climber already twenty feet away and ascending rapidly. His feet, as they slapped the rungs, made echoes in the tower. She set the stirrup of her weapon against the loophole, locked the stock into her shoulder, and aimed.
Another hole, with an ear-splitting impact, appeared in the hatch. Half-dazed, Mo-reen was aware she'd been shot in the hip area with something heavy, as well as more splinters. Staying put, she checked her aim again.
The man below was right beneath her. He had one hand on the top rung and with the other was reaching for the pistol. Blood was already running across the floor and dripping onto his helmet. Armor! Professionals at last -- but no way to tell the Creek.
Mo-reen waited till he looked up, and loosed the bolt. In slow motion, he began a fall of more than a hundred feet, with her fletching of chicken feathers protruding from his throat, just above the top of the zipper on his Kevlar vest. One for the Marines!
She checked her hip, where the numbness was spreading. Not good. Not good at all. Shit.
My life. Could have been kind of nice one. S'over. Thank-you-Jeeah-for-all-that-was-good.
She reached for another bolt, but things were already shading into a red dream. And how would she crank the bow, anyway? She wasn't even sure she had legs.
Nothing for it; must pop now while she still could. Maybe something will fall on somebody and ruin his day. That would be nice. She opened the box on the wall beside her as another round and another came through the trapdoor to her left, showering her with splinters. Red to red, black to black. She'd already connected black. Holding one red wire in her shaking right hand and the other in her left, she stroked the stripped ends across each other, and had the momentary satisfaction, in the darkness of her cramped and final abode, of seeing a tiny spark.
In the command post beneath the Starvation Creek Mess Hall, Captain Carey Murchison was watching the voltmeter on the wall at the battery station. The needle flickered, dipped, and rose back to thirteen volts. A slight tremor reached his feet through the packed earth floor.
He turned away. Soon there would be a column of black smoke, miles away to the east, beyond the reach of the little valley. A runner, a boy of twelve, stood by his side.
"I'm sorry, sir."
"Yes. But she was a volunteer. We can't play favorites, as you know."
"Go and call a General Meeting. Entire length of the Road, everyone not exempt or needed to cover the approaches. Condition red."
"Right away, sir." The runner turned on his heel and ran.
Murchison sat down heavily and put his head in his hands. People would begin arriving from the nearest farms in ten minutes. He must do his mourning between now and then, and not give in to the darkness. That much, and no more, he could do for his only granddaughter.