"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."
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.
"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."