Cougar proudly looked down again at the Glock 17 in his right hand. Eleven rounds was all Wolf gave him, but it represented a promotion of sorts. With Willets and Burgoyne both history, he and Dill were the closest thing to non-coms Wolf had.
Well, Cougar would give it his best.
Dill had been given the Winchester and been told off with one man to hold the "fort." There was enough food there to last them all for days; nice to have it to fall back on.
The day was dawning damp but foggy; a good sign. Fog meant the rain had stopped and might hold off a while; and the hillside was slick enough as it was. The going had been anything but easy in the dark, and the gnarly clumps of brush and random boulders made direction-finding in the cloudy night all but impossible. There was "up," and that was about it. But now, with a little light, Cougar could see that the ridgeline was close at hand – and the tops of tall trees behind it bespoke a very different terrain on the other side.
"See, it's all kinda open over here cuz' that's th' south slope," Wolf had said at the briefing. "Don't spend too much time in th' red bushes; it's poison oak. Dill's gonna break out something fierce," he'd grinned. "When we get to th' top, there might be a welcomin' party. It's gonna be trees an' underbrush, which'll hamper bowmen. If they're spoilin' fer a fight, they'll pop up on th' ridgeline and we take 'em out. Aim high, 'cuz it's steep an' will throw yer aim off – theirs too. Don't hang around, though. Attrition gets us nowhere.
"If there's a fight, it means there's a trail on th'other side. We find a trail, we stick together an' bust through. Break out inta th' valley. My idea is, either they all run, as we 'uv seen before. Just chase 'em down an' take 'em out. Or we take some farmers hostage – women, if we're lucky – get a peace deal with food fer th'winter, or failin' that, get 'em to rush us across th'open –" he waved the AK for emphasis –"'an' even out th' odds. So, wing an' wing. I'll take eleven and go left; Cougar will take nine and go right. Space out evenly. Exploit any holes and then, down th'other side, converge on th'middle.
"Remember, it's all for one an' one for all; if we are all gonna have enough to eat between now and next summer, it's over that hill."
It was not much of a plan, Cougar could see that. But if Wolf proposed it, likely nothing better was available. And Wolf was right; people had always run. Until a couple of days ago.
He looked along his line, from right to left. Everyone was about even; Chuckie excepted, who'd sprained an ankle and had had to crawl to keep up. Bows and crossbows were at the ready. Across the draw, he could see Wolf's line, a little ahead of Cougar's. Wolf had sent a man ahead a little, to spy out the ridge. No activity to be seen there; maybe this was going to be easy?
"We're only about fifty paces off th' top; push ahead slowly, taking advantage of cover, and see if y'kin get up there and provoke somebody. We've got 'em within pretty easy bowshot from here if they bother ya any."
"Right, Coug." Hein took off his bedroll, and, checking his knife, quiver, and crossbow, hunched forward and crept from rock to rock toward the saddle.
When Hein had gone about twenty paces, he suddenly stood up, uttered a vexed grunt, turned sideways – which showed a crossbow bolt protruding from his back – and pitched forward onto his face, legs thrashing.
"Hit 'em!" Wolf's voice came across the scree at mid-slope. Something was going on over there, as well.
Cougar shouted. "Pickets! Find 'em, kill 'em!" Running toward the boulder behind Hein's position, Cougar found a man, foot in stirrup, cranking a crossbow. He pointed the Glock at his chest with both hands and squeezed the trigger. It barked, and the bowman fell backwards against the rock, his mouth open. Bodies were squirrelling around all across the slope. One of Cougar's men had flushed another picket, who was swinging a long bow at him. Cougar aimed and fired again, but missed. His man stepped back, and after the bow had swung past, stepped in and put his knife into the farmer. Two for one! Were there more?
A whistle shrilled, farther up the slope. Several heads popped up along the ridgeline. Cougar aimed, but it was a bit far for pistol work, and they were prairie-dogging – looking, then hiding, then looking again. An explosion came from above – there was a gun up there! Black smoke drifted off to the right, and one of Cougar's men sat down, holding a hand to his collar-bone, blood seeping out between his fingers. An arrow passed close to Cougar's head, high.
Another picket stepped out, aiming a crossbow at one of Cougar's crew. Cougar fired, and dropped him. Cougar ran forward. Where was that rifleman? Ah, there's the arm up there, ramrodding. Still too far. Crack! That must be Wolf's AK. The rifleman's been hit. Crack! Crack! Wolf's finding targets. "C'mon! Over the top!" Wolf's shout. "Let's go!" shouted Cougar. He ran, much as one can run over loose rocks, bushes, and mud, uphill.
More whistles. The ridgeline! Aha, lots of targets, trying to stay low. Cougar picked out the next to stand, a bowman, arrow drawn. No, a girl! The pistol jumped in his hand. Huh – women fighters. One less bow to worry about, but what a waste ... two men, rushing him with swords, no less. One took an arrow in the chest, the other Cougar shot. How many rounds left? Boom! another muzzle-loader? Way off to the left. Aha! Here's the trail. "Bunch up! Bunch up! Let's go, let's go, let's go!"
A frightened-looking red-haired girl stood in their way, with an arrow nocked. Cougar aimed the Glock, but one of his own men stepped in the way. She loosed, but a branch deflected the arrow, missing them both. Cougar and his man reached her at the same time, with the same idea. Cougar rapped her over the temple with his pistol barrel, and as she sagged, dropping her bow, the man – Mellow was his name, the big guy – scooped her up over his right shoulder, his bow in his left hand.
Three more shots from the ay-kay. Wolf was covering the rear as his forces reformed on the trail and ran down through the cold, wet brush toward their new Shangri-La.
Or whatever it might be.
There was a fight going on. Karen could hear it, but could not see it. She kept her bow ready, but nothing was happening in front of her. To her left, she could see Vernie, but not see what he was doing. Still farther away, Tomma stood up, aimed, and fired the Hawken. Then he sat down, pulled his ramrod, charged his weapon with a patch in his teeth, set the patch, rammed it, reached for a ball, dropped the ball down the barrel, lifted the rod again, and a shot rang out.
Tomma dropped the Hawken and cradled his left arm, with a look of distress on his face, and Vernie ran to him. They seemed to be arguing for a moment, then Vernie finished the ramming, took a percussion cap offered him by Tomma, stood up cautiously, aimed and fired. Karen saw all this from the corner of her eye as she continued to scan the slope beneath her. Nothing there.
As quickly as it began, the fight seemed to be over. No! something was going on over at the trail, around to her left and across the draw. Karen checked in front of her and to the right, then looked down the steep hollow. Men were running down the mountain behind her, strange men, and one of them was carrying a body. No, it was struggling. Marcee from Lazars'!
Karen could see that there were two openings, through the Douglas firs, ahead of the main body of invaders. It was already a long way down. She trained her bow on the first gap. As they began to pass through it, she loosed. Too high! She set another arrow and shifted to the second gap. Two or three men reached it, bunched up. This would give her a chance. She loosed, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them begin to limp, accepting help from another. Too low, but something. She wondered if it would be safe to shoot at the group carrying Marcee.
"Karen!" It was Allyn, down the south slope behind her. She stepped up onto the saddle and looked down. He was hurt.
"Should I come to you, or pursue? They've got Marcee!"
"No, I'm ... I'm fine here; I've just got a bolt in my left –" They both heard the 'fwip' of a crossbow. For a moment neither knew where it was, then Allyn discovered he'd been shot again with a second bolt, to his right arm. He sat down hard. Karen could see the attacker; a wounded bandit who, abandoning the crossbow, drew a knife and staggered toward Allyn. They were ten paces apart.
Karen knelt, drew an arrow, aimed it, and loosed. It struck the man near his collarbone and went through him to the fletching. He went to his knees, then began crawling toward Allyn. Karen drew again, but by this time Emilio had appeared from nowhere, and with one of Savage Mary's short swords hit the man twice around the region of the neck.
He moved no more.
Emilio checked the scene for movement, saw something that interested him, walked to some bushes and raised the sword again. It flashed in the morning sun.
Karen heard a honking sound, and, in spite of herself, looked up.
A flock of Canada geese passed low over the saddle, in a wide-winged vee, heading for their ancient flyway on the Big River. Their shadows passed over Emilio as he tucked the sword in his belt and walked back to Allyn. He beckoned to Karen. She replaced her arrow in the quiver and ran to help.
Allyn had fallen over, but was trying to sit up. Karen supported him, and then braced him as Emilio drew the bolts, ripped cloth, and tied the wounds. Such blood as flowed was dark; no arteries had been cut. Allyn turned a pale face toward her. "Kinda mucked it up, didn't I?"
Emilio responded. "We were too few to do more than we did. They are a little weaker, now, I think, and soon may be they will begin to wish they had not come here. No more talk, my friend. Karen, I am going to carry this man across my shoulder; ready an arrow and follow me; you are rear guard. We will bring all our wounded to Wilsons' and then seek another opportunity to meet with these gentlemen."
"Could we put Allyn down, Mr. Emilio? His left humerus is articulating in the middle." Karen, following Emilio's fireman's carry, did not like what she was seeing.
The surviving crew members of Ames, Jones, Wilson, Holyrood and Lazar were gathering themselves together in the sunny open spot in the middle of the Starvation Ridge saddle; the very place where, only two months ago, Karen, alone, lost, cold and starving, had tried to hold off the fighters from the Ames and Wilson farms. She was hungry again this morning, but had no idea what had happened to her bedroll, with its stash of baked potatoes and bean cake. Karen was cold again, too; the sunshine seemed bright but not very warming. Winter coming.
Stannin, from the Wilson farm, one of those who had helped carry Karen, unconscious, down the steep path on the north slope only two moons ago, lay still with his arms splayed back across the wet brown grass, not far from where Karen was standing. A small amount of blackening blood had dribbled across his nose and cheek from a tiny-looking hole in his forehead; she could see from here that the back of his head was missing. Not far from him, barely breathing, lay Aleesha, from Lazar's, with a bit of small intestine protruding from her back. She had been brought from the woods to the east of the opening, and across the grass could be seen a wide and darkening blood trail. These bald-headed men are like a cancer, Karen thought. They have to be stopped.
Emilio was discovering that he was the only crew leader alive on the hill, apart from Allyn, whose shattered arms were bleeding again through the bandages. Mr. Molinero squatted by Allyn. "Can you hear me?"
"We are going to splint your arm; the bone has been broken. When we carry you down, we don't want to cut an artery. Breathe deep, if you can, and let out your breath slowly. Try not to fall asleep."
"Mnmh-mh!" But Allyn was already drifting. Errol came up, with a handful of long thin sticks and some duct tape.
Emilio stood up and turned, to see Karen, with a bow in each hand and two quivers of arrows, and behind her Vernie, supporting Tomma, who also had an injured arm. Vernie was carrying the Hawken. Several others had assembled, one of whom, like Tomma, had been wounded in the left arm, and was carrying a Lyman muzzle-loader in his right.
Emilio was torn.
Three or four people were sitting or lying down, also wounded. And Emilio had himself counted six dead. The anger welled up in Emilio's chest. They have trodden upon us like ants.
One part of him wanted to drop all the wounded, with water and and food to hand, and take all the able-bodied in pursuit of the foe. Another knew it was Creek policy to bring in the wounded for care ASAP, because delay was so often a death sentence in the absence of strong medicines.
Errol, working over Allyn's arm, spoke up quietly. "Sir," he said to Emilio, "while we were collecting ourselves, I heard another fight going on below us." He indicated with a nod the narrow trail down into Starvation Creek Valley. "I believe the Ellers, Reymers, and Peachers sent us their relief crews on schedule, and I think, from the sound of it, they were unprepared for the bandits coming down."
"Those men are well away from here," said Tomma. "They'll hole up somewhere, and with any luck, our people will surround them."
"Yes, we may get another chance," put in Vernie.
Karen gestured with her bow. "Two of them are hurt. It will be a down payment."
"You saw them? Wounded?" asked Emilio.
"Yes." she answered, with something in her expression Emilio had not noticed before.
This information seemed to decide things for Emilio. "We will bring everyone down. If the rifles are not loaded, Vernie and Errol, do so now, and cover our advance, point and rear guard. Everyone else, shed bedrolls and enough weapons to carry wounded, please, two by two where possible."
"Need some help?"
Those who were in good enough condition to do so turned toward the voice. Wilson Wilson, looking fresh and hearty, with a revolver in a holster on his hip, stood, arms akimbo, on the slope above them. Four of the mountain's crew, armed with bows and a crossbow, were with him.
"It looks like we missed the fun; but we're game. Give us some folks to carry for ya, and ya c'n bring some more of yer stuff. I'm bettin' you'll need it 'fore th' day's over."
Everyone got busy. Karen stepped closer to Aleesha. She wasn't breathing now; it was clear she would not be among those carried down the mountain this morning. Squatting down by the girl's head, Karen took her hand for a moment, and felt the life going. "I'm sorry," she said. "Would have liked to get to know you."
She stood up again to take her place in line. The spare bow she was carrying was Aleesha's.