Billee put down the heavy binoculars and stretched. They were an old model, built a century ago. Intended for use with a tripod, they'd lost that long ago, and she used now a forked stick for support. Still, it was wearing. Her pulse affected the thing's usefulness, and she'd learned to deep breathe, then let out her breath slowly, watching through the eyepieces only a few seconds or so at a time.
To the left, men were lugging something to the smokehouse. It looked like – oh, never mind that. These people were dis-gus-ting. Killers and worse. People, that was one thing, but she would not watch them drag that poor dog around. Directly in front, there was activity on the porch. To the right, a couple of cooking fires. It really looked like they might stay the night.
She held her right hand out, crooked her fingers, and counted from the sun to the horizon. Three hands, or as the old people inexplicable put it, "ours." Must stay till dark this time, so as not to be seen.
Meanwhile she depended on this rockpile covered with poison oak, dressed in its lovely fall colors. Not likely to be seen here, in the thick stuff.
Habitually, she looked around for late-season rattlesnakes. It was cool now, with one more moon before winter, and last night's rain had put a damper on things reptilian, but better safe than sorry. The little diamondbacks, more numerous every year, were a pretty tame lot, but it would be rude to step on one, and they had little tolerance for rudeness.
Billee found the bald-faced hornets much more of a concern, but the nearest nest that she knew of was forty meters west. They too were calming a bit with the change in the weather. Not much to worry about out here, except for the creeps down below. She sat up slowly, lifted her scope and stick, eased the scope into position and swept the Lawson place again. Four – no, five men going down to the river.
Wait. What's that sound?
She listened again. Nothing.
Still, best be ready. She capped the binocs, both ends of each tube, and stuffed them in their case. Propped in their crack in the basalt, they might stay dry. She scattered the handful of leaves over the crack that she kept handy for the purpose. Moving slowly, slowly, she strung her bow and picked up her ready arrow.
Could be anything. Let it be a deer. Let it be a deer.
A smattering of small raindrops pattered the rocks. A pebble rolled, somewhere off to the left. Then silence. Turning her head imperceptibly that way, Billee watched that area, maybe sixty meters off, with her peripheral vision, attuned to movement.
Maybe she imagined it?
No! There it was! A man, focused on her hiding place. Stone-still, one of the creeps. Shit, shit, shit, made!
Could he see her? She didn't think so – he was stalking her position. She'd been seen, somehow, from the Lawson's. They were being smug, and had sent a collector.
Billee could wait until he approached, and shoot – or do a rabbit-run, and hope not to be shot with a weapon, if he had one on him. Waiting presented the problem that there might be more than one of them. Running presented the same problem, but if there was only one, this would be the option to take.
Have to chance it.
Taking another deep breath, this time in an effort to get the numbing panic out of her legs and arms, she put down the bow, dropped her fanny pack, picked up the water bottle from it, took a short drink, rinsed her mouth and spat. Then she grabbed a baseball-sized stone and bolted.
She reached the hornet's nest, hanging from a poison oak bush in a cleft in the rocks. After she'd passed it, she turned and pelted the nest from seven meters away. There was a satisfying thump and the nest swayed. Turning on her heel, she darted up the mountain just as the man reached the cleft.
His yelling was music to her young ears, and even as she ran, she allowed herself a rude gesture. Hah! Creeps.
Emilio, Juanita and Raul came into the kitchen and found Karen, Tomma, Vernie, and Errol sitting down to steamed greens, which were mostly kale and fava leaves. Mrs. Ames was pouring her version of "green drinks," hot water strained through mint, chopped herbs and vegetable leaves. They had stocked up on baked potatoes and venison jerky for the overnight maneuver, and had also made up a sackful for Emilio.
"Good evening, friends," said Emilio. "I am thinking, if this does not go so well, there should not be anyone here tonight. The crew leaders for Wilsons, Jones and Beemans agree. Mrs. Ames, if the animals all are prepared to be without you awhile, I would say let us pack you and Nita and the boys for a night at Hall. The Wilson people will wait for us all by their bridge."
Mrs. Ames had anticipated this, and there was not much that needed to be done. David was called down from the lookout, a few possessions not already in packs were gathered, and additional hay, comfrey, and beets, with such grain as could be spared, were made available to the cows and chickens.
The full complement of Ames were on the road before nightfall.
The Wilsons bridge was on the left, beyond an apple orchard, a few hundred yards' walk. Five of the Wilson residents welcomed the two women and the twins from Ames, and departed along the road into the night with them. They traveled armed, and no one carried lights. A steady light rain had begun, and the darkness was thick, but every Creeker had experience in navigating the road by the contrast between the night sky above and the even darker trees, fences and hedges at either hand.
Karen half expected Allyn to be waiting for her at the bridge, but as the whistleman for Wilsons he had duties across the Creek. Emilio, Tomma, Vernie, Errol, and Karen trooped in single file across the Wilson bridge and up the lane toward the farmstead.
"Word?" – a challenge came from ahead.
Emilio gave the expected reply. ""Jonathan! Word?"
"Good evening, Stannin. Ames coming in."
"Wilson greets you. Jones and Beemans are here; Holyroods and Lazars are coming."
"Has every noncombatant been sent to Hall?"
"Yes; word got to the Holyroods and Lazars last, that's why their crews aren't here yet."
They came up to the main house. Its windows, along with the loopholes of its outbuildings, faintly shone with the glow of alcohol lamps. Voices came from within; a few people were sitting out of the rain under a pair of large redwood trees that had been planted in the yard over a century ago. The Ames crew joined these and sat, wet-haired and damp-clothed, in the darkness. The difficult march ahead, under the conditions that had arisen, weighed heavily now on all minds, and most conversations became muted.
Karen preferred to stand alone; sitting for very long in the cold reduced one's readiness in case of the need for action. So did conversation. In spite of herself, she began to shiver, rattling her trash-bag poncho; the wool cloak she was wearing underneath it held out some cold, even when wet; but the leather jerkin beneath that, which some of the rain had found, robbed her of heat. To distract herself from her discomfort, she recited inwardly, as she sometimes did, pointers which Father attributed to his favorite author: Do not think dishonestly ... do nothing which is of no use ... an elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak ... maintain the combat stance in everyday life and make your everyday stance your combat stance ...be able to look to both sides without moving the eyes.
The other crews, as it turned out, had been right behind them. Stannin's voice challenged twice; other voices answered, and the available forces had gathered.
Allyn appeared from the night, with other leaders. "Emilio?"
"We are here."
"We are five."
"Nice; there are only twenty-eight of us for tonight; three crews will be in reserve and will come stay here later. They'll relieve some of us in the morning. Does everyone have plenty of rations? Water? Gear?"
Allyn was apparently in charge. Even in the dark, he looked pleased with himself; but not overly so. A good man, even among these well-meaning folk.
Other groups approached the tree from the house and from beneath the other redwood.
"K, here's the deal." Allyn raised his voice to reach all ears. "We'll file up the trail from here to the saddle. Wilsons will be on point, and will drop down the other side a bit and spread out on picket. Each picket carries a whistle, a little higher pitched than mine. Jones will spread out in the saddle and be prepared to go to any whistle. Holyroods go left and spread out along the crest, left flank. Lazars stay together behind the hill and get some rest. Beemans and Ames go right and spread out as far as you can toward Ridge, one every fifteen paces. We're setting dispositions now because we're late getting up there and will need to keep quiet. I know that's a very thin line, but it's the best we can do. If they hit us, we raise all the ruckus we can, so the crews at Wilsons will know to get ready for trouble. But they really can't come to our aid till daylight; we're the only ones at all familiar with the hillside. All set?"
Various voices gave assent.
"K, let's get our hike on. Give each other three or four paces, so we don't all slap each other silly with wet branches." Allyn's voice conveyed a wry smile through the clouded night.