It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

28


Wolf had passed through, or over, at least six gates. Some were locked, some not. In several fields, sheep had watched him pass by; in one, two red cows. There were small plots that had been plowed and seeded; others had been harvested, or interrupted in the process of being harvested.If you could have asked Wolf, later, what he had seen, he might have answered, "mostly a whole lot of either dirt or green stuff." He had little idea of what he was seeing; he'd grown up urban in a shattered former nation that, back when it had been functional, had devolved its knowledge of farming upon little more than two percent of the population.Plots were, small, separated by dense growths of hedge. The pattern, which had seemed clear enough to Wolf from the crow's nest at Wilson's, was bewildering at ground level. But the terrain also provided him abundant concealment, so he was not overly concerned at slow progress. He'd passed the night in a loosely-piled haystack.

As he walked along the hedgerows, Wolf took inventory. The rain was tapering off, but he was wet through, even beneath the body armor, and his clothes stayed saturated as he moved through the wet, unmown vegetation. His boots squeaked, which meant there would soon be blisters unless he could get his boots and socks dry. He'd let himself get separated from the Glock, and his bug-out gear, and was not carrying food or water. His wet and baggy cargo pants were rich in pockets, and in these there were baggies (precious items in themselves) containing an assortment of decades-old treasures: Bic lighters, a Mylar emergency blanket, duct tape, compass, flint-and-steel, aspirin (which he had doled out to his crew as needed), and, in a fragile sandwich bag, a handful of 9mm rounds, with no weapon to match them.

He knew the polyethylene would breathe too easily. The primers would begin to corrode, with all this exposure to sweat and weather. Should he ditch them? This was hard for him to do; they had been the source of so much of his power. There were many, many more where those came from, however; if he could ever get back to his stash.

On his belt was a leather sheath with a serrated Kershaw folding knife nestled within; and in his hands the Chinese-made AK, with ten or fifteen (he had better count them, first chance) rounds in the current magazine, and one in the chamber. The other magazine, taped to the inserted one upside down, was now empty. And he'd lost his scope getting down from the little tower.

His escape both elated and troubled him; for himself, once again Wolf the Lucky; but he'd put a lot of investment in the gang of freebooters he'd built up. It was clear to Wolf that there had been no alternative in the end; but the memory of Cougar's plaintive cry for help galled him. All for one, one for all, indeed.

Ah, well, he said to himself. Only the living deserve ta live. What's next?

He'd passed the physical plants of four of the farms – each seemed like a small independent village; each, at the moment, was apparently deserted. What sort of command structure was there here? How had all these people co-ordinated to stand their ground rather than stampeding?

He had half a mind to burn the farmsteads as he went, for spite; he was angry with himself for not seeing that this was the route he should have gone with his entire crew, a day ago. But stealth is a good tool for as long as you have it, and not a moment longer. Best keep the option. Even as he thought this, Wolf could hear, on the road across the Creek well out of sight, a horse trotting westward. He fought down the impulse to try to catch the rider; that route must be well guarded.

Food, water and socks were becoming the highest priorities.

He chose one of the farmsteads to approach, and crawled toward it through an unkempt thicket of sunchokes, some of which had grown over eight feet tall. There was a smell, among the roots of these, of some kind of edible root, but he was unfamiliar with it. He watched the house for half a hand, and guessed that it, too, had been abandoned for now. People would surely be returning soon. Best get on with it.

The farmhouse was smaller than some of the others he'd seen; one story high, with no crow's nest or blockhouses. Maybe they hadn't got round to it yet? The place could be approached obliquely without being seen easily from windows. He'd have a go. With his weapon at the ready, muzzle down, Wolf ran across the tiny scythed yard, pushed through an unlocked gate in a trimmed hedge, rounded a corner, and bounded up the front steps. With his left hand, he tried the glass doorknob. It turned readily, and the door swung inwards without creaking.

Keeping himself as mentally sharp as any young-old man might – a day after losing most of several night's sleep, several meals, a war, and all his companions – Wolf cleared the rooms, right to left, found no stairwells up or down, and finished his tour in the kitchen. An unremarkable place. Everywhere were some kind of gasburners on wall sconces, pieces of handmade furniture, a few ancient art prints, and quilts on display on some of the walls. Bedrooms had two sets of bunk beds in each, and a worktable; leather tools and sewing supplies abounded. Twelve people, apparently, lived here. This looked like commies more and more all the time. Wolf was amused; he knew Magee would not be.

The kitchen was much smaller than the one at "Wilson Farm" had been, and featured what looked like a gas stove connected to an oversized tank outside, next to a large pile of manure. Wolf had not seen a methane digester before; but he vaguely guessed what it was. Why, with so much animal manure around, had there not been more explosives used? These people had a very hit-or-miss technology. Perhaps there was nothing of real interest on the mountain after all?

Exploring cabinets, Wolf was able to come up with a half-gallon plastic jug for water, after rejecting several that had apparently contained either soap or vinegar. He had trouble understanding why the pitcher pump on the drainboard by the sink didn't seem to want to work, as it smelled of water, but there were emergency supplies in stacked crates of glass bottles marked Smirnoff, and he tapped into this. It was a start. Pouring himself a tumbler, he opened another door, and found an assortment of spoiling dinner leftovers on shelves made of hardware cloth. The floor and ceiling of the former closet were also screened, and Wolf could feel a cool breeze moving up through the shelves.

Clever.

But what's in here? He opened a crock jar and sniffed. Milk, with cream risen to the top! Fresh milk was a novelty to Wolf, but his body knew what it was, and trembled to have it. Bringing the crock to the kitchen table, he poured the water from his tumbler onto the floor and filled it with cream, then sat down, leaning the rifle against the table.

Just as Wolf raised the glass to his bearded lips, he heard movement somewhere overhead. A shuffling of feet.
An attic?

With someone in it!

Setting down the glass reluctantly, Wolf took up the rifle. Then he reconsidered, grasped the tumbler in his left hand, drank it off, set it down, and then moved to the kitchen door at the back of the house.

There was a staircase on the outside of the building, going up to a small door on a landing above the back porch. Inwardly cursing his carelessness in clearing, Wolf stepped outside, ascended the staircase, and tried the door – another glass knob – finding it unlocked as before. Pointing his weapon before him, he cleared a small skylit attic room. It held mostly a rug and a chair and shelves of old books; he stepped through a low door frame into a darkened room with a heavy curtain over a dormer window. A thin magenta light trickled through the curtain into the shadowy interior.

Against the far wall sat a large bed frame, with its legs sawn away to fit the ceiling height. The bed was heaped with blankets and pillows, and among these lay an old man – easily the oldest Wolf remembered ever seeing – looking at him with the unseeing eyes of the blind.

"Hey, young fella! S'whatcha sound like, but you're not one a' the Hiseys by the sound of it. Y'little war over yet?"

"Uhh, no, sir." Wolf stepped over to the bed.

"Wouldn't think so! What a ruckus! They said I had to go to the Mess Hall with 'em, an' I said screw that, just go without me. I manage pretty good up here, s'not winter yet, n'got plenty to eat. Hafta dump my effin' chamber pot out the window, though ... where ya from?"

"Wilson Farm."

"Ah, so you're one 'a those apple maggots. Well, I guess there's a place for cider in this grand scheme. But I betcha we had a thousand pounds of coffee in the PX. Betcha Murch is still sittin' on all of it, too. Crazy bastard. You can tell him I said so; I don't care. All that hush-hush stuff is long gone, and he's been out of honest work for – must be fifteen years. Twenty for all I know."

"Pee-ecks, sir?"

"Oh, you know, a little cafeteria 'n store. For all the engineers and the guards."

"Oh, that's right. You worked in the mountain, didn't you?" Wolf guessed.

"Funny way to put it. Sure, I wasn't always blind and useless – put in nine years on the power plant, I did. Civil Engineering Corps. You know all that, dontcha?"

"Tell me again; I always liked hearin' about it."



Wilson Wilson looked sourly into the smoking pit and gestured with the reloaded Ruger Old Army. "Dammit, I was born in this house." Disconsolately, he kicked a fried window-latch into the interior.
Deela, carrying the Lyman muzzleloader, stood beside him, fidgeting a bit. "Had we not best begin tracking? The man has sixteen hours' lead on us."

"Yes, well, he could be out of the valley by now. That skinny little fire-eater wasn't able to tell us about him until after midnight, and there's not much moon yet."

"Again, we suffer for lack of dogs."

"Well, those got eaten up long ago. But maybe we can make some use of wolf cubs when we find a den." Wilson turned to the others. "Guchi's back to Hall to organize defense and search from that end. The man was last seen carrying a rifle that can take down everyone here. So, we all have whistles; we are going to cast a wide net, watching ahead and behind us as we go. As much as possible, stay where you can see someone but not both be seen from anywhere at any one time.

"I'll walk point. Mr. Deela here will bring up the rear and watch our backs. Mr. Perkins, please take the far right – you have the Navy Colt? Good. Watch that thing; Mrs. Murchison will have all our hides if it gets away again. Minnie Min, center, watch my back. Errol, far left. Remember, this man is more a predator than a fugitive. Act accordingly."

"Wilson, who's covering Beemans'?" asked Cal.

"Vernie Watkin is there with the Hawken and a crew of young 'uns, sickies, and woundeds, with bows and bombs. If the guy crosses the Creek and doubles back, he can do as much harm there as to us – but it's a chance we'll all have to take. There's one shepherd gone up to the Saddle, and that's it."

Errol, who seldom spoke, stepped forward. "So. Let's hope we are the ones that find him."

"No kidding. All set?"

Nods all round.

"Hop!"

They headed, by ones and twos, well separated, for the gate to Holyroods'.



"Oh, Tom." Elsa looked at the row of dead, laid out at right angles to the road. "This is worse than Eugene." They walked along the road, escorted by Vernie and two of the grenadiers, who were now carrying swords and crossbows and looking older than they had two days ago.

"Likely not. We were working just one street; it was like that everywhere; and there had been more than a hundred thousand people just the week before."

"You're so effing practical. I hate it."

I know. Sorry."

"Since we're being practical, why isn't everyone all bloated, like that other time?"

"That was summer. We're having cold weather and cloudiness; it helps." He turned to Vernie. "How many?"

"Right here, right now, twenty-two of ours, eighteen of theirs. More died in the house, we think, and we haven't collected everyone from over by the Ridge yet."

"Aleesha's up there," put in Elsa. "She should have had a life, Tom."

"Everyone should have a life. We find ourselves born; then we make choices. Some work out to a longer life, some work out to a better one. Longer, as we both know, is not necessarily better."

"It's going to be too many for Hall, isn't it?"

"Yes," answered Dr. Chaney. "The heaps can only absorb so much. And in spite of the cold, corruption will certainly set in; we're going to have to do something different."

"Can we move them all up to one of the fields above Ames'?" asked Vernie. "You know; exposure, Indian way."

"Well, it's quite a concentration of putrefaction. There will be rain all winter, and Ames' is upstream of a lot of wells. I don't really know if that's an issue, but it makes me uneasy."

"Burial, then?" asked Elsa. "With funerals? Nothing lengthy; but when we all go back to Jeeah, a farewell seems appropriate."

"For ours, sure," replied Vernie. "But I'd just as soon give these bandits to the coyotes unsung and unremembered."

"No, give them a few words, too." They turned toward the voice. It was the tall girl with the crazy hair, in an antique cotton shift with no left sleeve, her arm bandaged from wrist to collarbone. She stood by the apple trees on the far side of the road, supported by Ro-eena.

"Karen!" Elsa was shocked. How could she be up so soon?

"Them, too; it was necessary to stop them, but we needn't be angry. That's a waste, you know."
"Ro-eena ..." Elsa began, warningly.

Ro-eena turned her head to Karen. "You're getting heavy. Back to Beeman's now? Before they beat me up for bringing you?"

"Yes."

Karen paused as they passed Cougar's corpse, next to Stannin's.

The two looked very much alike.



Avery Murchison took a sip of water from the mug sitting in the cupholder of his Quickie chair.

He had not seen Savage Mary in years. At the time, he'd been an athletic and optimistic youth with legs, and she'd been a prematurely arthritic middle-aged scientist, dour and sardonic by turns, complaining of her being cooped up among so many "commies" – her father, a leading libertarian, would be rolling over in his grave, she'd said.

They hadn't taken to each other.

Now, perhaps, they were more alike. One chair-bound invalid being painfully rolled up a mountainside in an oxcart, to consult with another whose domain consisted of these lamplit warrens; the virtue of said warrens being their flat, smooth floors, the best place in Starvation Creek for a chair-bound would-be Marine to make himself useful.

As if there were such a thing as the Marines anymore.

She'd undoubtedly take over.

He rolled to the window facing north, and glassed in that direction out of habit; most of the "road" from Hall, and Hall itself, could not be seen from here.



For years, everything had been carried up on packframes or packsacks with tumplines, or dragged by travois; then finally oxen had become available, bred from the tiny herd of Devons that had been found at what was now Ames'. Rubber-tired trailers had been adapted, including one that had a tailgate labeled "Toy." Avery had wondered what kind of toy the trailer had carried in days gone by, until a chance remark by his mother cleared up the mystery. He had mused on that for days: what other things are we forgetting? What untapped knowledges will break when the first Creek generation is gone?

Billee ran in.

"Do you ever walk?" Avery asked.

"Huh! Don'tcha wanta know are they here yet?"

"I can deduce from your manner that they are."

"De-dues?" She knit up her eyebrows.

"Never mind. Are there enough people to get Dr. Mary up here?"

"She's a doctor?" Eyes widened.

"No, a physicist."

"What's that?"

"Cut that out. Can she get here?"

"Oh! Yeah, Millie and Bobbo, and two folks from Hall, and some guy with little windows over his face."

"Glasses. They help him see."

"No kiddin'? So, yah, it's gonna be noisy, but sit tight."

"Like I can do anything else. Go show them a lamp up the stairs, Mm? Thanks."

She skipped over to the door, leaned over the railing of the landing, and turned back. "They've got it covered, here they come."

It was quite a production, Mary being possibly the heaviest person on Starvation Creek. She could stand on her own, but getting her up each step involved having someone under each arm, with backups to make sure the group did not topple over backwards. Millie, a longtime Ridger, led the way with a candle, which she blew out as she reached the landing. Presently, Mary Savage, Ph.D. was sitting in her purloined wheelchair, huffing and blowing and darting mildly aggrieved looks round the room from between long pigtails of pepper-and-salt hair.

"That 'road' out there is a killer, Junior. You ought to get it graded." Her eyes darted to the control panel even as she spoke.

"We do, every year. With a stone boat behind the oxen. Best we can do. And the name's Avery."

"Ooh, touchy. Well, that makes two of us. So what can you show us, here?" Selk came in and stood beside her chair.

"Lots. Or only a little, depending. And you are?" asked Avery.

"Selk; I do the radios and the generator and such."

"Oh, right. Dad has us listening to that car radio for you."

"How's it doing?"

"There are some interesting things coming out of the far north and some Spanish or Portuguese from far south; it's quiet for hundreds of miles around here, except for that station you asked about."

"Same broadcasts?" asked Mary.

"Yes; a loop, which suggests access to either computing power, or archaic tape technology, or both."
Mary and Selk were both impressed; Avery had more education in pre-Undoing knowledge than they had expected. Obviously Carey and Ellen had spent more time on teaching him than they had bothered to mention.

"Magee still looking for those names and numbers?"

"Well ... it's a recording. There might not even be anyone there. Without triangulation we can't even be certain the transmitter is in Roseburg. What we do know –" he added weight to his voice for emphasis –"is Guchi tells us the likely leader of our bandits, who is on the loose still, is a match for one of the names."

"Which one?" asked Selk.

"Wolf."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

27


With more and more concern, Vernie watched white smoke filling the Wilson house; bandits would surely be coming out of it soon, coughing and wheezing, which would be a good thing, as it would be the end for them; but there was no sign of Emilio backing out of the tunnel! He turned to one of the young grenadiers.

    "When they start hitting the yard, light and throw everything you've got at them. Ready?"

    "We can't, sir, Mr. Molinero has the strike for the matches."

    "You were down to one?" 

    Contrite heads bowed in reply.

    "Oh. Well, we could find a way to get one going with the rifle, I suppose; but that will take too long. Here," he said to one of them, "you take this thing and if they show, haul back the hammer all the way, aim at them just like your crossbow, and squeeze the trigger. Keep it snug on your shoulder or you'll get a hell of a bruise. Lean into it a little when you shoot. 'K?" Rest of you be ready with your knives for any trouble, or, heck, smack 'em over the head with the fricking bombs. Here's the whistle, too, in case the bandits still have any fight in them and come for you. Everybody along the creek will help. I'm going in after Emilio."

    "Yes, sir," said the oldest, taking the big Hawken and the whistle on its cord. 

    Jeeah, he must be all of ten, thought Vernie. Are we going to make it through this? And what will we be like?

    He dropped the shot pouch and powder flask and ran round the building, dodging in through the open door. No one was shooting from the house. The culvert was tiny by Emilio's standard's; for Vernie it was a dangerously tight squeeze. Also, cold and wet; but the long dark puddle was the least of Vernie's worries. As there was no room for his elbows, he had to lay himself out with his arms ahead of him and inch along like a very cramped caterpillar. Air was flowing past his ears into the darkness ahead; of course, the fire must be drawing it through the tunnel.

    The rifle boomed somewhere above him.

    "Emilio!" he shouted.

    "I am here. Why are you not fighting our enemies?" The voice sounded a dishearteningly long way away.

    "I am. This is how I'm doing it right now. Are you coming?"

    "I cannot move; I think there is a hole in the pipe somewhere behind me and I have a bolt in my leg which has gotten into the hole."

    Vernie redoubled his crawling effort. The burnt arm throbbed. "You were shot?"

    "Yes. It is not so very bad a hurt, but now my head is getting hot."

    "Well, hang on, an' I'll come and unhook you."

    "Thank you, Vernie. Though I still think you should be shooting bandits."

    "Oh, shush up."




Wolf waited a bit longer to see if he'd indeed finished off whomever had been killing Cougar's crew; they had chosen a flimsy place to attack from and Wolf had been able to silence them with the AK by firing at shadowy movements in the muck bins. Cougar apparently had some fight in him still, as Wolf had watched him crawl around toward the other side of the bin, with the Glock. But he could not hear any shooting. What was going on down there?

    New sounds attracted his attention, from the direction of the house. He moved to the north window of the lookout and discovered that "Wilson's" was on fire, or at least full of smoke! Even as he watched, the smoke trapped in one of the basement windows turned orange; that was it, then. His men were pouring out the back door and charging round to the front, where at least one of the black powder weapons greeted them. An arrow sailed out from in front of the house and embedded itself in a stack of crates.

    Past time to go; and no time now for regrets. Should he fetch the female from the outhouse? Something in his bones told him, though, that these people were beyond the bargaining stage. Disappear now before the farmers from the saddle joined the fight. Wolf lifted the trap door.




Taking the reloaded Kel-Tec in her teeth, Karen picked up the sword, 

    "Why not? You're all done here. Unless there's some kind of country you're fighting for, which I doubt, you might as well make yourself useful."

    Suddenly a man ran past the bins, well away to the right among the trees, with an assault rifle in his hands. Karen shifted her aim, but he was already past a reasonable shot, loping along the orchard row. If he'd been looking for a fight, he'd surely have spotted them, but he was focused entirely on the gate in the hedge.

She got up on her knees, hobbled over to the armed hand, which was trying to aim round the corner at her, and gave it a hard smack with the flat of her blade. The pistol dropped into the mud. There was a satisfactory groan. Quickly dropping the sword, she scooped up the pistol – whoa, heavy! – put it behind her, opened her mouth and let her own more familiar little pistol fall into her hand. This one, at least, she knew was loaded. She found the grip and pointed the muzzle at the bald head. The bandit spoke.

    "Shit, lady, you've shot me, your guy's shot me, I'm dying here, and here you go break my effin' hand."

    The right thing to do would be to shoot him now and end it; but curiosity got the better of her. "Sorry it's not your day, but why are you here? And who's in charge?"

    The house, across the farmyard, began making popping and clanging sounds, and glass began shattering. They could both feel heat coming from that direction and hear shouts and the sounds of a desperate fight developing.

    "Why should I tell you?" He crept forward a bit, showing a wide face and large mouth, and looked at her sardonically. She backed up, sitting on his pistol, her useless left arm dragging and distracting her. But now that she saw his face, she knew she would never forget it. This could so easily be one of the farmers, running sheep or scything ryegrass. There was a childlike quality in his expression. 

    Karen's "prisoner" turned his head toward the fleeing man.

    "Wolf!" he shouted. "Help!" But help from that direction was clearly no longer to be had. Slowly he turned back his head toward Karen and rested it on the ground, dejected. His fingers dug into the mud convulsively.

    "That was your leader?" She gestured with the .380.

    "What's it to ya? Eff. Eff. Oh, shit. Shit. Y'all gutshot me, y'know that?"

    "Well, sorry, but we weren't the ones looking for this war."

    "Who was looking for a war?" His eyes blazed. "We were looking for food. Wouldn't you?" And with that, he suddenly threw mud into Karen's face and came scrabbling round the corner post.
    Karen fired blindly, twice; her weapon then jammed and was knocked from her hand. Fingers struck the side of her head, then groped for her throat. Hunching up, she dug the big pistol out from the muck beneath her, shoved the barrel into the ribcage above her and fired again; the weight of a large man, for the first time in her life, fell upon her and lay still.



    For awhile, Karen felt oddly disembodied. Despite the awful impact on her ears of all the gunplay of the last few minutes, she could hear, as if from the other end of a long pipe, much of what was going on around her.

    The house was in full flame, with old, drained plumbing and packed Mason jars exploding, and the crackling of hundreds of burning knots in century-old fir and pine sheathing. Stud walls were buckling, shattering whatever windows had not given way before the heat, which was intense even here at the compost heaps, a good fifty meters away. A gun fired somewhere. A woman screamed from time to time, with a hopeful note in her voice. People were shouting orders; then there was not much to be heard, other than the hiss and roar of the flames, for awhile.

    The man had fallen across her at an angle, with his head beside hers. Hot moisture pooled on her, through her tunic, and gradually cooled. She could smell the stench of his soiled clothing. This, she knew from experience, was to be expected.

    Darkness was coming on, but the smoke from the house fire, which rose straight up toward the clouds, turned gray, then black, and was filled with sparks and flying debris. This is pretty, she thought. 

    But now I think I'm ... tired.

    A heavier rain began falling steadily, but Karen took no notice of it at all.




Doc Chaney was wearing out; too much to do! If we all pull through this, I have got to get some apprentice medics. The big house at Beemans' was filling up with hurt people; also with sick people. Whatever it was Ellen Murchison had was apparently spreading to some of her young crusaders.

    "Tom?" Elsa was standing by his elbow, with a small basket of dried opium poppy pods in one hand, a steaming mug in the other.

    "Mmh?"

    "Okay if we steam some of these? We're out of the real thing, it being fall, but maybe we can get some good out of them."

    "Sure, sure. We're kind of working in the dark here in more ways than one."

    "Oh, about that, Vernie's crew is off to Jones' again to get more lamps and candles and anything remotely medicinal, as well as blankets and food. When that place is cleaned out, we'll strip Ames'."
    "Yes. Thanks, dear. But Vernie's hurt, himself!"

    "Not as badly as most of the others, and it keeps him from freaking over Tomma, who's getting fevered."

    "That might come to another amputation, but at least it wouldn't be a double. We need to get more bread mold going ... who's next?"

    "You are. Sit down and take a tea break – here's a hot cup." Tom complied.

    Emilio hobbled in, on Ellen Murchison's crutch.

    "Emilio, you should be resting."

    "There is too much coughing; who can sleep? I am as well right now, doctor, as I can be. I am glad to see you sitting down for once."

    "Whatever. I think there's going to be much more work, soon; the coughing is beginning to sound like pertussis. You and I will probably both get a dose of it before it runs its course."

    Emilio, keeping one leg off the floor, stumped on the crutch into the pool of light cast by a cluster of small alcohol lamps on the table next to Tom; he'd obviously hoped to crash on the nearby couch, but he could now see it was occupied by an unconscious young man whose torso was wrapped in bandages. His blanket had fallen on the floor. Dr. Tom got up, covered the sleeper again, and taking his cup, moved to a three-legged stool which he drew from under the table. He motioned Emilio to the easy chair which he'd just vacated. Emilio showed momentary distaste for the consideration, but accepted, plunking himself down with a sigh.

    "Want to put your foot up here?" Tom patted his knee.

    "That will not be necessary." Emilio arranged himself as comfortably as possible, holding the crutch upright by the side of the chair.

    He gazed at Dr. Chaney for a few moments. "It was you that introduced me to Juanita. For which, if I have not thanked you one thousand times and a time, I do so now."

    "You had a close call in the culvert."

    "I had given up my life for lost. As so many others have done, the last three days. It amazes me that Mr. Vernie did what he did; I would have thought he could not fit in so small a space."

    "You didn't come through unscathed," smiled Tom. "Have you seen what's happened to your hair?"
    "It is of no concern. Do we have numbers?"

    "Nothing final. We know of about twenty-two dead of our own, from all the fights, and from an accident with an ox-cart coming in from Maggie's. At Chaneys', Hall, and here, we're tending sixteen wounded. That might be a low count. Some sick, too, or both. There are some missing as well, including, from Ames', your guest, Karen Rutledge."

    Emilio gave Tom an aggrieved look. "She is not a guest, Dr. Chaney, she is family. From the day she came to Ames' she has given her all."

    "Well, we're out looking. She's very tough."

    "And from the uninvited guests?"

    "We think we got them all; there were, by Ellen Murchison's count, thirty-one to begin with. We've tallied twenty-six bodies, including two men that had been left at Lawson's. We'll be checking Wilsons' in the morning; it's all collapsed into the basement and too hot to handle. If any got away, we'll start tracking."

    One of Emilio's young grenadiers appeared in the doorway. "Sir, we gotcha Ames lady; they're bringing her up the walkway!"

    "Alive?" asked Tom. Emilio began wrestling with the crutch in an effort to get up from the chair.
    She nodded vigorously. "Mm-hmm. One arm messed up, and they said, umm, hyporetical?"
    "Hypothermia. Who even knows that term anymore?"

    "Mr. Wilson Wilson, Doctor. From Ridge. He found her, along with Mr. Huskey, and a dead bandit."

    "They're not bringing Huskey here?"

    Her face fell. "He, he didn't make it, sir; so he's been brought just to the road for now."

    Emilio found his footing and hopped over to her.

    "Thank you for so much good news as you could bring; are you still on duty?"

    "Oh, no, just thought you'd like to know. 'M'off to bed now, and hope you're feeling better soon." She turned and vanished from the doorway.

    Tom got up from the stool. "It's back to work for me."

    "Yes, sir. Do you work on this table?"

    "Hm? No, it's too small, except for patients that can sit up. I've been working on the floor here."
    "Ah. Well, I shall retire to the kitchen."

    Elsa came in with Wilson, who was wearing a pre-Undoing green rain slicker, very wet, and carrying a large canvas sack.

    Elsa's eyes found Tom.

    "Yes," Dr. Chaney said. "More new work. Coming in here?"

    "They're bringing the stretcher up the steps." She looked at Wilson and Emilio.

    "It is our signal to take ourselves away for now, Mr. Wilson," said Emilio. "Come into the kitchen with me, and if there is enough room for us, we can get you warmed, dried, and fed, yes?"

    "That'd be lovely, Mr. Molinero. Lead the way."

    They found the kitchen not too crowded, but up and running, with two young women tending fire and serving up a thin but welcome soup of reconstituted greens, onion, and tomatoes, with a trace of rabbit. Hot applesauce was also on offer. The "real" tea had long ago run out, but as Wilson set down the apparently heavy bag and shucked his raincoat, a mug of rose hip and elderberry tea was put into his hand, and a seat, on a long high-backed bench along the wall by the open hearth, was vacated for the two men.

    Emilio set aside the crutch, warmed his hands at the fire, and waited for Wilson to have a chance at the tea before questioning him.

    Wilson took a long pull at the tea, then made a face. He looked around, found an alcohol lamp going on a wall sconce, took it down, blew it out, drew a scrap of cloth from his pocket, unscrewed the hot burner from the collar, poured some of the alcohol into the tea, reassembled the lamp, and replaced it. One of the cooks shook her head, but said nothing.

    "I'm good, now," said Wilson. "I can see you're being very patient with me."

    "Ah .... so, if I may ask, where were they?"

    "We took one last look at the area around the compost heaps, because there'd been four enemy dead right by it and signs they'd been in a fire fight. Huskey was on the inside, with Mr. Avery's Ruger in his hand and a blown up levergun by his side." He waved a spoon at the canvas bag. "They're in there. The girl was in the next bin, half buried in a pile of cowshit, with one of the bandits dead on top of her.

    "Had a funny little semiauto next to her, with a stovepipe ..."

    "Which is?"

    "Sorry, I pick up talk from the Murchisons. A kind of cycling failure of ammunition ejection."

    "Proceed."

    "... and another big old antique semiauto in her hand; all bloody. The guy'd been shot any number of times and had one of her arrows sticking out of his backside, too."

    "Very hard to kill."

    "But met his match, I'd guess."

    "What is her injury?"

    "Well, we don't know; it was really dark out there. But left arm is bad, I'm pretty sure. Laid out in the rain for hours; that couldn't have helped any."

    "I am thinking. These two must be the fighters we heard in the midafternoon, yes? No one else was with them?"

    Wilson looked at Emilio sheepishly. "Ah, well. S'my fault; I let 'em talk me into it; something about stirring things up in the rear. We kinda thought we were on our own. Pin them down until Hall sent some kind of army."

    "Sergeant Ellen had hoped to co-ordinate."

    "Yeah, your runner got to us right after they left. Y'know, it made sense to us at the time."

    "It was like Mrs. Murchison's views, but, you see, we did not have the smoke on the north side."

    "And then the rest of us got into your fight too slowly. We've caused you some casualties; including you, sir. I'm not coming out of this looking very good, in fact; and Huskey's people will have it in for me after this."

    Emilio shook his head. "We will all discuss the best ways to do things. But there will be much to do and little time for blame. It may be this attack was the right thing. There were, you say, five dead bandits there. I am thinking these two did the Creek much good; the attack on the house was relatively easy in the end."

    "You're generous, Mr. Molinero. I'm not sure I'd be so easygoing if the shoe were on the other foot."

    Emilio looked down ruefully at his bandaged and braced leg, with a swollen, stockinged foot at the end. "It may be it will be some time before there is a shoe on the other foot, my friend."

    They looked at each other for several anxious moments. Then, mutual permission granted, they laughed.

    Elsa appeared at the door. "Hey, boys, girl's asking for you. Says it's urgent."

Saturday, August 30, 2014

26

"Hey down there!" The unexpected voice drifted down the dark stairwell. 

Carey Murchison halted his discussion with the newly recruited runner, one of the Perkins kids from Tomlinson's, and stepped over to the doorway. He looked up the stairs. 

"Mary, what are you doing here?" 

"Just being sociable. Got a couple of strong girls up here to haul me down, shall we stop by?"

"Sure, sure. We'll move the table a bit for you."

Mary was helped down the steps; she could do it under her own power but it would have taken a lot out of her. The helpers proved to be Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Lazar, off shift from the "hospital" across the road. Winded, they practically fell into the available folding chairs.

"Comfy furniture ya got here, Murchie." Mary picked up a yellowed, mostly used-up steno pad from the table and fanned herself. "Nice stale air, too."

Murchison winced. "Murchie" was not one of his favored nicknames. "Sociable, mmh? Tell me more."

"Guy, we're in trouble, aren't we?"

Carey looked at the three of them. Probably the time for most secrets was long gone. "Are you thinking about the little war we have in hand or your radio research?"

"Both, bud. Think it's all connected?"

Murchison offered them cold chamomile tea, which Mary waved off with the steno pad. "Might not be," he said. "But some think it could be, if any of them get away."

"Mm-hmm. And if we're busy putting everything back together, and finding enough to eat for whomever is left over from this, when the next wave comes, fella, I don't think we're gonna pull through. Even," she said emphatically, slapping down the steno pad, "if we come up with those primers for all your old brass. We gotta reorganize."

"Agreed." Murchison, who'd not yet sat down, did so, rather gingerly.



Mary looked at him. Why, the man's a practically a skeleton! Why didn't I know about this?
"'Agreed,' he says. Y'know, guy, I thought you were gonna be more invested in your cute little suburban layout. I was all set for a pissing match here."

"Nahh, Mary, we still gotta farm. But I hear you, and I think we might be on the same page."
Mrs. Lazar, a round-shouldered woman with a halo of frizzy gray hair, spoke up. "All man's striving is for his mouth." They looked at her. "Ecclesiastes," she added.

"That's right, Ava," said the Captain, smiling. "Food is primary. And as Dr. Mary here is noting, we're living in a time when both the food and our persons need constant safeguarding. We will reorganize."

"Castle and demesne, Carey?"

"Yes. Ridge is the castle. Hall here is the demesne, and perhaps we will have to move most of the village here. It would certainly help, with centralization, to have more horses."

"Wait, wait. Ridge? Way up there! How can we build up at that lookout, Murchie; it's a solid ball of basalt!"

"Well, there's more to it than you might think. The Department of Defense had an experimental facility in days gone by; Ellen and I were part of the Marine contingent providing security. There are five floors of subterranean rooms inside. Big rooms."

Mrs. Ames' mouth dropped open. Ava leaned forward. Mary tipped her head to one side. "How big?"
"You could fit everyone at the Creek inside, with room for a little privacy. And lots of food. Maybe even some stock. There's plenty of water. In fact –" he turned to a ledger sitting on the desk –"We send Avery full accounting of everything we pass on to them from Hall, and he sends back full accounting of everything that has arrived, its disposition, and condition. We've been stocking your castle for over fifteen years, Mary. Want to go see?"

"I do indeed!" Mary leaned forward, like Ava. "Facility? What was their gig, Sergeant Murchison?"
"We didn't ask and were never told. Maybe if you look it over, you can tell us something about it. We've been meaning to invite you, anyway, but the list of things we wanted from your group just grew and grew. And it seemed like need-to-know was best policy, and maybe we overdid it."

Mary opened her mouth in an "O" and fluttered her hands in the air in mock shock.

"And defense? How do you defend a cave?" asked Mrs. Ames.

She's swifter than she looks, thought Murchison. "Very badly, if at all. Till now we have depended on concealment. Might be time soon to begin some new construction."

Ava Lazar held up a hand, palm out, as if offering a benediction. "These will I bring to my holy mountain," she intoned.

"What?" asked Mary.

Mrs. Lazar shrugged. "Isaiah."

"Ri-i-ight." Mary wheeled around. "Murchie?" she asked, uncharacteristically softly. "Are we losing you?"

He looked up from the ledger, which had drawn his attention. "Yes."

"So, may we ask, how long is it you have, yet?" asked Mrs. Lazar.

"Give or take a few weeks, about two months. In fact," he added, grimacing, "You've caught me on a good day."



Emilio Molinero would have liked to have waited for the messenger to return from Wilson with an explanation of the new developments, but whatever had been going on over at the farm certainly sounded urgent.

Gunplay, albeit sporadic, had been going on for minutes, which felt like years, and now consisted entirely of the flat crack of the bandits' semiautomatic rifle. His own forces had only the one black powder rifle and a long, heavy cap-and-ball revolver (now in his possession) with which to reply to this weapon. The bandits' leader undoubtedly had range, skill and ammunition in his favor, as well as the home ground, in a manner of speaking.

Cautious by nature, Emilio disliked marching his very young and poorly armed charges down the hedgerow to the road, disliked herding them along it, disliked fording the Creek, and disliked approaching the occupied tree farm, now bristling with harm, but there it was. He could never have imagined removing his shirt and hugging a hornet's nest to his chest, and this felt something like that; but the thought of Juanita and the boys steadied him.

Looking over the bank of Starvation Creek between the roots of two cottonwood, he could see the two redwoods where he had camped with his co-workers – was it only yesterday? The evening before? – and the main house, partly obscured behind them. On either hand it was guarded by one of the little blockhouses.

Did the bandits know yet that these were connected to the house by tunnels?

Perhaps he had the beginnings of a plan. Surely some of the bandits were absorbed in the activities which had made so much noise; now would be the time to take advantage.

Emilio turned to see whom he had on his left. To his mild surprise, it was Vernie with the Hawken; his sense of tactics was offended. The two firearms should be farther apart in the line.

"Hello, Vernie. Tell me ... down!"

They both ducked. An arrow passed though the place where they had both been, and struck a young man in the shoulder, who should not have been standing in the first place. Though it did not penetrate deeply, the surprise carried him off balance, and he fell backwards down the embankment with his head in the creek. Two of his friends rushed to his aid; several others shot arrows and bolts ineffectually in the direction of the attacker, who was well concealed behind a walnut tree at the entrance gate, to their left. Already he was fitting another arrow and raising the alarm.

"Ah, we are all so careless," Emilio said. "And I most of all. Vernie, please, see if you can do something with that man when he next takes aim."

Vernie shouldered the Hawken, with its ladder sight raised, and steadied his aim. The still-shouting scout appeared again, and the boom of the Hawken, which only Emilio expected, made him jump along with everyone else. Heavy gray smoke drifted back into the underbrush. The enemy archer reluctantly dropped the bow, painfully got to his hands and knees, and began crawling toward the house. Several bowmen drew beads on him.

"Hold fire, everyone, please." requested Emilio. "And it is not a good range for me with this." He waved the Colt Navy, which glistened in the light rain. "Who here is our best archer?"

Heads turned toward a blond young man about five meters feet to Emilio's right, holding a large crossbow. He recognized him as a Hisey shepherd. "Will you do us the honor, please?"

"Yes, sir."

The crossbowman knelt behind a patch of horsetails along the top of the embankment, aimed, tracking the crawling figure, and fired. The bolt sailed past the bald man's nose.

"Damn. Leading him too much. Sorry."

"Please. You are very good considering the distance; take your time. Everyone else, stay very low, but watch the houses, the hedges and the trees. No more surprises for us, please."

The archer stepped down the embankment, sword dragging in the soft sand behind him, and stepped in the stirrup of his crossbow, cranking the string back to the notch. He drew and placed a bolt, them climbed back up to the horsetail patch.

The man, now halfway to the house, shouted something again, and a reply came from one of the windows. The rifle had gone silent; was it being brought round to the front? Time might yet turn against them. Distractedly, Emilio bit one of his nails to the quick.

The crossbow sang its tiny tune again. The bolt struck the crawling man in the short ribs and disappeared; he lay down dejectedly, drew himself into a fetal position, and did not move again.

"Jeeah!" someone said.

"Well," said Emilio, "now we all are veterans. Veterans and the dead share much, my friends. Vernie, are you reloaded?"

His companion nodded. "Sorry I'm not faster."

"You will improve. All right, my friends. Vernie and I will run to the corner of that blockhouse on the right, with four grenadiers." He indicated those who would go. "We will attempt to fire the building and perhaps return. If we do not succeed, another six – you two, and the remaining four grenadiers will attempt the same again. If the blockhouse burns or is vacated, there will be a tunnel. We must get beneath the main house and set it aflame as well. Most of you remain here and prepare to shoot, should any come within range, or if necessary, chase down and cross blades with any who run away. Keep as well covered from the upper windows as you can. It is not perfect, but so we find it, yes?"

Heads nodded.

Emilio and Vernie, with their four grenadiers, crawled up among the horsetails, checked all their gear, and ran down between two rows of leafless young pear trees toward the corner of one of the blockhouses. No shots came from the rifle, wherever it was. There was activity at one of the loopholes of the blockhouse, but the angle was poor for firing upon them; the archer inside was awaiting a better opportunity, as Emilio had foreseen. Upon arrival, the six of them at first had no clear idea what to do; the roof was too steep for a Molotov cocktail, and the loopholes too small to fit one through. The crossbowman inside was maneuvering about at the loophole to their right, desperately trying to find a target.

"Here," said Vernie. "Light one of those things and hand it to me." This was done; he applied it to the left loophole and held it in place with the barrel of the Hawken.

"Wait," said Emilio. "That will –"

"I know. Put me out if I burn." Vernie turned his head away to protect his eyes.

There was a small firecracker blast. Glass flew out in all directions, with blue-tinged flames behind it; Vernie dropped the enflamed rifle, shouted in pain and rolled on the grass. The now-unarmed grenadier beat with her hands at the remaining flames on Vernie's sleeve.

Inside the tiny building, there was a yelp and the sound of someone trying to put out a small fire inside. Emilio stepped round to the right-hand loophole, feeling terribly exposed, while hauling back the long-legged hammer of the Colt. Squeezing the trigger as he came opposite the dark hole, he loosed a ball into the interior, and while he had little hope of a lucky hit, the noise and the extra smoke seemed to make up someone's mind inside. Everyone could hear the door-bar rasping as it was lifted. The heavy door squeaked on its hinges; someone would be running away.

"Quick, light one of the bombs and throw it over the building." But battle shakes had seized the remaining young grenadiers; the box of matches was spilled. Emilio shrugged and stepped around the corner, again fully exposed to the main house. Someone from the blockhouse was in full flight. Emilio cocked and fired again, twice. On the second shot, the man staggered, but kept running.
Wasteful. Stick to the program. Emilio dodged back around the corner. "Vernie!"

"Here!"

"Get from the young ones another fuel bomb, please, and give it to me! With matches!"

"Right here!"

"Good; now cover me against the house from the left side."

Emilio ran round to the door. An arrow struck the doorjamb in front of his face; he ducked beneath it. A bolt flew into the calf of his right leg, as the Hawken, around the corner, spoke in reply. He threw himself, dizzy with pain, into the interior and set down the bomb and the revolver to see about removing the bolt from his stunned flesh. The air was terribly thick with smoke, which poured around him and out the doorway. Coughing, Emilio tried to draw the bolt, but this was beyond his will.

Hellish pain! He tried again. His whole body seemed to grow cold, his head light. Forget it – the trap door! Stick to the program!

Pulling himself up by one post of the bunk beds, Emilio found the inconspicuous brass hat-hook that released the false wall. He hurled the beds over, and turned for the Molotov. To his horror, he discovered the bed frame had fallen on the revolver. No time to retrieve it – he was almost out of air. Grabbing scattered matches, he stuck several, with their improvised strike, in his teeth, scooped up the spirits-and-fats-filled wine bottle, and descended into the hole in the floor that waited behind the false wall, head first. The crossbow bolt twitched against the edge of the hole, causing Emilio to gasp, losing the matches and strike in the dark. By feel, he rounded most of them up again, cradled the bottle in the crooks of his arms, and crawled into the tunnel.

This culvert, half a meter or so in diameter and made from salvaged steel culvert pipe from before the Undoing, was not like those at Ames', as it was not well drained. Ah, Allyn, not so good! This will embarrass your farm. There was dank standing water; he must be even more careful with the matches now, and the crossbow bolt persisted in dragging against the spiral steel ridges of the tunnel. From somewhere above him came the boom of the muzzle-loading rifle. Emilio crawled, surprised to find the cold water soaking his elbows, belly, and knees bothering him, if anything, more than his mangled calf.

How far to the house? How far?

Ah, we are here at last. Draw the bolts. Yes, the door is the back of a cabinet in the downstairs pantry. Three other such tunnels come to the same room, no doubt. The door at the top of the stairs is ajar; Emilio can see the room has been ransacked. There is a large woven bag of pearled barley, open and partly spilled, in front of the cabinet.

Emilio tries a match, in one hand, upon the strike, in the other. There is a smell like burnt urine. It fails. There are six more matches. They are long, awkward, and uneven, but they are matches; in his life he has seen only borrowed coals, flint-and steel, or fires begun with hand lenses.

He tries another. Damn! Another, carefully, carefully! It lights, but he drops it; it falls out of sight into the room. There are shouts, gunfire above. There is a smell of gunpowder, a different smell than that of the black powder with which he is familiar. Booted feet running about. Someone might come for more food, if these men abscond. Another match, carefully, please! Yes! Now for the fuse. Ah! The violet flame; lovely. Gently toss the bottle onto the barley. And now to bolt the door back into place and retreat.

Light begins to flicker beyond the trapdoor. Air flows past him, pouring through the cracks to feed flame in the room beyond.

But wait! The crossbow bolt is caught on something. In the narrow space, Emilio cannot now pull forward nor go back, nor turn to reach for his pinioned leg to free it. Damn! Damn. Must move.

Must!

Cannot.

Ah. So it is. A better life for Juanita and the boys, yes? Please? Thank-you-Jeeah-for-all-that-was-good.