Avery Murchison rang the spare buzzer. This would call together the entire crew, who might be anywhere on three of the four floors below; there was an elevator, but it hadn't been run – if it could run – in the lifetime of anyone now living at Ridge. The stairs were a problem for Avery; he could get up and down them himself, but it was a slow and undignified process. From time to time, he felt the need to oversee his crew's efforts, and the strongest would form a two-person carry, then fetch the wheelchair for him. That seemed somewhat undignified as well; so he generally resorted to to an "all call" to the control room.
Eight bodies hurtled up the stairs. Avery believed he felt no sorrow for himself at the sound of so many feet; but his distant manner left no doubt that he'd known loss, and would rather run than wheel. First to arrive was young Billee, who had been resting in quarters after her ordeal of the afternoon; the others came in after her, one by one.
"Evening. Take a seat." Steel folding chairs were numerous in the facility. Ridge crew members, five men and three women, took chairs from the stack by the smooth black basalt wall and arranged themselves, by custom, in a circle in the square room.
"Billee here has had an adventure, as we all know, and it seems likely we'll have visitors soon. I understand everything still outside has been brought in? Good. We've done a fair job of maintaining the front and back door; they match the hillside reasonably well; but the windows can't really be helped. They are likely to be obvious, though they're rather one-way. If the bandits possess explosives we could be breached. Billee's bow, and the big binocs, had to be left behind. Do we have a spare bow?"
Wilson Wilson, a son of the original orchardist on the Creek, spoke up. "Yes, sir. I have an old compound that's not too big for you, Bee, and six good carbon broadheads to go with." He smiled.
"Ooh, thanks," said Billee. She leaned forward, eyes alight with anticipation.
"Very good," said Avery. "So, other bows?"
"Two; yew-wood longbows. About – " they consulted briefly –"thirty arrows."
"Five; seventeen bolts."
"And the Ruger Old Army, which I recharged with powder and ball today." Avery looked round the group. "Not much; but we have the home ground, plenty of provisions –" this brought smiles and chuckles – "and lockable steel doors throughout. We don't expect everyone to converge here; at the moment, Hall is safer from our guests than the trail would be. So, Ridge is part of the front lines instead of castle and keep. Savage Mary sent us someone on a science mission, but the Captain's holding him at Hall tonight.
"We can't risk having anyone outside in the dark; tomorrow we may try to link up with the crews on the saddle." Avery nodded toward the east. "We're the right flank. If our guests get round us tonight, Hall could be in trouble. Wendlers, Tomlinsons, less one fighter, and Gulicks are spread out at the bottom, with Hall in reserve. That's not a lot of defense to meet twenty-four well-armed and very experienced men." He let that sink in.
"Back when we only had six or eight bandits at a time, we found that dealing with them was hard work." He didn't look down, but everyone remembered how he'd lost his legs. "So, we're going to batten down tonight. Wilson, keep me company, we'll do watch and watch. Billee, go the rounds and see that each floor has its food and water and the lamp wicks and fuel are in good order. Two to a floor, doors locked and barred, all entry refused except to this knock." Avery rapped the table in a pattern all knew, though none of them had heard "shave and a haircut" sung. "Sleep tight. With any luck, we'll be fresh and dry at daylight and any visitors will be wet and tired. Then we'll see. 'K?"
Nods all round; sober but unfrightened faces. Along with their friends the Ball Butte Murchisons, this crew considered themselves the elite defenders of the Creek.
They folded their chairs away and filed out. Wilson went with them. to retrieve his gear. Avery could hear Billee in the stairwell, haggling. "Look, you each have fifteen arrows; maybe you could give me one each? Then at least I'd have eight."
One of a kind, thought Avery. After today's doings, Bee will be a very good nickname for her!
"Don't mind about the girl; she knows her way around up there; that's all." Wolf smiled. Dill had returned from the south slope of Starvation Creek covered with stings; his right eye was swollen shut, and his breathing was labored. He also seemed depressed at having been bested by a child; but he had not returned empty-handed.
On the table between them lay a lightweight bow; several arrows to match, a leather-bound case containing a beautiful pair of air-raid warden's binoculars dating from World War II, which she had tried to hide away, a fanny pack (when had he last seen such a thing?) containing an oddment of possibles, including an old lip-balm tube which had been refilled with scented grease of some kind, a steel water bottle, and a packet of large leaves containing a half-eaten cake, redolent of grains and apples. Last, but not least, there was a badly rusted steel sign, about a foot wide and two feet high, with tiny holes at the four rounded corners.
"This interests me the most, Dill; and the fact that you had the presence of mind to pick it up, and go back to acquire the kid's toys, after what you'd been through ... well, I'm impressed."
It took a lot to impress Wolf. Dill, sore as his ass was, sat up straighter. "So, what's it say, Wolf?"
"I'll tell ya; th' thing's had a lot of weather, but th' writin' was – smashed into it – as well as painted. 'NO TRESPASSING. INTRUDERS WILL BE ARRESTED. SECURE AREA. USDHS.' Now, you say that there had been a fence there?"
"Yeah, Wolf. They'd took it all away but it looked like it was concrete-anchored posts and chain link, with a trail along th' inside, and it went right around th' mountain. Saw some old razor wire, too."
"So these folks may have somethin' more goin' on than just gettin' straw in their hair. Huh. Thanks a whole bunch, Dill; you go get some rest."
Wolf made the rounds of the campfires. From each group, he got a sense of their morale, which was high after the day's feasting and plundering, and he made sure they'd remembered to set sentries. Before dawn, they would take up their war gear, and go have a look at the peasants' paradise.
As he came up to the house, Cougar met him on the steps.
"Gotta tell ya 'bout somethin' we heard on that radio thingy."
Carey Murchison felt what he thought of as pain-in-the-gut more and more these days. Willow-bark tea was not going to cut it; so he rode out the storms of red-in-the-eyeballs hurt either by himself, till they passed, or otherwise tried to look quietly introspective in a leaderly way. Others, he felt, habitually looked to him to think his way through these emergencies, so when he ran out of ideas – and in this much pain, who has ideas? – he bluffed his way through, for the sake of Creek morale.
The current spasm went on much longer than usual. Fortunately the runner was out, to see if non-combatants had thought to clear themselves out of upper Creek, and to pass on Murchison's strong opinion to the effect that they should do so if they had not. Avery had not called since reporting on little Billee's near miss on the south slope – busy with dispositions to lock down the Ridge overnight and anchor the right flank. So no one was present in the command center to witness that "the Captain" had doubled over and almost fallen to the floor in a faint. He was reaching for a half-finished cold mug of peppermint-chamomile tea when the radio kid knocked and entered, without waiting for a "come in." Carey looked sourly upon him, but the effect was lost on the nearsighted eyes behind those thick panes of glass.
"Sir, if I can't go up tonight, perhaps I could demo our idea down here?"
"And what would that involve?"
"I'd connect the car radio to your twelve-volt current – you do have twelve-volt, right? – it would be quite safe; I have an in-line ten-amp fuse here. The doorbell buzzer can't hurt the radio or vice versa. The output wires go to a speaker – I have one here, but, in fact, they will run your 'phone – the impedance is not too much of a mismatch – and also Mr. Murchison's on the Ridge! That way you could both listen to any broadcast messages – as reported by our recorder to you today – if the antenna does any good, here in the shadow of Ridge."
"It sounds like you just need something to do; I've heard the message. If, as I suspect, they're just repeating the same one over and over, I don't see the advantage of rushing this. We can haul this up the hill and set it up for you; we understand the principle. But it might not be for days if ever; there's a war on. Do you have more phones that could match up with the three we have? That I could use."
Uh, no, sir, dynamics were superseded long ago."
"More's the pity. But you have lots of car speakers and computer speakers and such; could you rig up some kind of intercoms? One for Wilsons would be super, and one for Bridge and one for Mary, just for starters."
Selk gave a look of astonishment; apparently he'd not expected this line of thinking from the "Old Man." "Umm, you know, I think we just might!"
"Well, that's a priority. Go back to Mary's – you can find it in the dark? It's quite safe to do so at the moment, I think. Thank her for the blades. And propose, from me, a crash program in communications. And please – beg her for me – we appreciate the expertise and the industry that have gone into making the percussion caps, but when can we have some cartridges – with primers?"
This last was said with some force, and poor Selk jumped, but maintained his composure, and turned to go. Carey called him back.
"One more thing. Could you also say to Mary that Carey her friend would love to see some kind of hand grenades – if there's enough powder."
"Yes, sir. What are 'hand grenades?'"
"She'll know. Hell, soup cans full of nails and screws and BP, with a five second fuse, would be just lovely. This here is hill country, and we need to be able to reach behind these boys and spank 'em on the butt."
Selk's eyebrows went up behind the glasses.
"Umm, I'll see what I can do, sir!"
Long past midnight, Ellen Murchison hobbled across the bridge to the Mess Hall with a limp and a crutch. She also had a fever and a cough, but she reckoned there might well be worse things happening than whatever her condition might be. Good information was not to be had at Chaneys', and so she came looking for her husband, or anyone who might be able to fill her in.
Hall was packed; it looked like the scene at some Red Cross shelters she'd come across in days gone by. Many people from farms on the upper Creek had decamped from the anticipated invasion point, and most of them had come here. In the dim light from alcohol lamps and tallow drips, bedrolls had been spread out along the walls and among and even on some of the tables, and though many people, among them women with children, oldsters and a few disabled, were asleep or attempting to sleep, others were up and about, and a clattering came from the kitchen.
Ellen made for the stairwell down to the pantries, where a door led to the command center.
"Ellen!" She turned, painfully, toward the voice. It was Velma Ames, the cattle breeder. "I heard you were in hospital! Have they turned ya loose? Honey, you don't look so good ..."
"Oh! He's popped up a couple times, mostly hides in that damp basement. Shouldn't ya sit down, then?"
"No, m'better'n I look, honest. See you in a bit." Ellen pressed on.
Getting down the stairwell with the crutch took more doing than she'd anticipated, especially when she had to negotiate two cooks in the dark, bringing up a large sack, but eventually she came to the door and gave it her customary knock.
Indistinct voices came from within, but she could tell that one of them was Carey's and he had recognized her knock. The door opened, with a whiff of old tallow – the room was not sufficiently ventilated – and Huskey, the crew leader from Bledsoe's, stood aside to let her in.
"Ellen, what in the effing hell are you doing up?" asked Captain Murchison, who was sitting across the broad table from her, with the Creek map spread out before him.
"Same thing you'd be doing, Murch," Ellen croaked. She looked him over, and was shocked to discover his condition had worsened since she'd seen him last. If a man shrinks in a week – practically right before your eyes – how long before he fades away completely?
"Well, it's obvious you're here without Dr. Chaney's permission. How'd you get the crutch?"
"Stole it. Got time to fill me in?"
"Sure. Mr. Huskey, close the door, please, and join us."
They huddled round the map beneath the lantern.
"We've got about thirty people here. I think." Murchison stabbed at the map with his finger, in the vicinity of the Starvation Ridge saddle. "And fifteen or twenty in reserve, at the bottom. Elevation between them is a couple of hundred feet, though, and there's just the one steep trail, so the reserve can't get at a fight quickly if it develops at night. Or, for that matter, in daytime. Everything is muddy now. We'd have asked them to move up closer, but that north slope is all tangled thickets, people would lose touch."
"Up here –" he indicated the Ridge facility – "is Avery's bunch, about ten in all, hunkered down till daylight, with plans to feel out the situation at dawn and try to hook up with Allyn's crews."
"So there's a gap in the line."
"A big one. And Avery's been blind since about two in the afternoon – they jumped his lookout."
"So, she dead?" This was offered hopefully; capture would be so much worse.
"No; got away! So we don't know where the bandits are right now. With any luck they're still skulking around Lawson's; they had two battles and a long march, then slaughtered everyone at the homestead, so I'm guessing they won't move till daylight, with all this terra incognita in front of them."
"But you don't have any confirmation of that."
"I don't, which is why we're scattered all over, not knowing their movements. It's an effing mess. Now, right above us –" he drew a line from the Ridge to the Bridge – "we have nobody. They are little likely to come straight at Hall, not knowing the terrain, but it's an intolerable gap, with everyone descending on us. So I've pulled three crews across the Creek –" he nodded at Huskey –"on the assumption that there are no more armies like this one approaching Ball Butte or Bridge. They can cover between the Ridge trail and the drop-off above the Bridge; then tomorrow we'll scrape around and see who's had enough rest and resupply to send toward whatever develops."
"Well, Carey, that's just about what I would have done." Ellen turned her head – her body was too stiff – toward the young man. "Do you have the shotgun?"
"When's your jump-off?"
"Soon as possible. I was just leaving."
"'K, if you have time, send somebody to Chaney's for the revolver and the powder and ball kit. But," she smiled, "umm, don't tell 'em where I am."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am. Captain." Huskey disappeared into the hallway.
"A good one," remarked Carey.
"Yes, he had a lot to do with how well it went up at the lookout." Ellen gave in to a coughing spell.
"Girl, you are a sorry mess. When I looked at you last night – in the morning rather, you were out like a light and looked like you would sleep a week."
"'S'just a cold. Murch, it's you I'm worried about." She covered his hand with hers. "Why are you melting away on me?"
Carey looked at the wall. The silence stretched on. Tens seconds, twenty. She gave him his own time; he'd always taken inquiry into his health as an invasion of privacy.
Now he looked at the ceiling, then down at their hands, fingers interlaced, and finally again directly at her. "Ellen, it's bone cancer."
"I knew it! The effing DU. I never did like it that you were on the old LAV-30Fs."
"Well, it was my job; I didn't ask for it; they posted me." He smiled sheepishly. "Enjoyed it, though."
"Shit. Liked it! Effing killed yourself liking it." Tears filled her eyes. "So, how long have we got?" I will not fall apart.
"Y'know ... lot of other ways to get radiation poisoning; I'm sure I'm not the only one on the Creek, either. Me? ... maybe two months. If that crowd over the hill doesn't get us first. Or their friends."
"And nothing we can do?"
"Girl, there was nothing we could do back when there was something we could do! And now, for pain, I drink effing peppermint tea."
Murchison withdrew his hand. "Ellen, we got a lot to do between now and then. Identify weaknesses, find some strengths, encourage new leadership, and, assuming we're not too badly damaged in the next week or so, batten down for the winter and make it through to spring with grain and animals intact!"
Without you and without Mo-reen, she thought. Dammit!
"Ellen, I know what you're thinking, but you should see the shape you're in. A cold these days is no joke, and neither is a wound, even a small one."
"True. What have you got for sore throat?"
"Try some of this stuff; mostly chamomile, with a little honey. S'cold, though." He poured a mug for her. "Were losing two of your fellow patients already."
Too much dying. "I make that ten of us, plus all of the Lawsons. What's with these intruders, anyway?"
"They're just the same as us. We lucked into a sheltered area with clean land, replicable foodstuffs, and enough labor to run it; they didn't – till now. That might be the only difference – oh, and that they've had more practice at killing, lately, than we have."
"Did you get a look at the bodies? They must have been brought here."
"Ours or theirs?" he smiled grimly.
"Theirs. I shot them all, except one, I think – Huskey brained him – but it was too dark to get much of an impression."
"I'm surprised you didn't get at least one prisoner for me." he smiled.
"Sorry about that, but we didn't know how many we were dealing with."
"Well, I can tell you. All white, male, muscular, tattooed, shaved heads, bumpy faces, and war paint. Makeshift clothing and weaponry, some effort toward camo."
"Kind of a skinhead militia?"
"Magee. He's back."
"It's the look he cultivates. But I think he's in Roseburg."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Why do you think that?"
"Remember KKUV? He's broadcasting from there."
"Yep. I think he's out of touch with this bunch – but he's looking for them, or some kids enough the same as makes no difference."
"Jeeah, Murch, they all get together, no more Creek for sure."
"That's right. We're going to have to go all out, I think. Which we're not yet focused enough to pull it off."
Ellen collected her crutch. "Murch, I really, really love ya, but I think I better get a move on now."
"Yeah. Got some focusing to do."