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, August 17, 2014

24

"K, folks, council of war time, seeing as we're all here." Ellen Murchison looked round the room. She, the Chaneys, Emilio Molinero, and Guchi Yamaguchi, the young substitute runner for Hall, had moved indoors to escape the chilly afternoon weather. Everyone was having cold oatmeal with fruit and solar tea of one kind or another; as were the warriors who'd remained out-of-doors.

 She'd found a large sheet of scrap paper, an old soil survey map of what had been an adjacent county. Spreading this, upside down, on the dining room table, she picked up a tiny watercolor brush, made from some Beeman farmer's hair, and dipped it in a jelly glass of charcoal water. She drew the brush along the paper in a wavy line, lengthwise, then dipped the brush again.

 "This is the Creek. And this is the road, running along the north bank of the Creek." She dipped and painted rapidly, as everyone craned their necks to see. "Here we have Maggie's Hill and the Butte on the north, the Ridge on the south, with the saddle here, and all off to here is the Cascades." She waved the brush at the terra incognita on the right. Heads nodded.

 She dipped the brush and dotted along both sides of the creek and road. "'K, here's all the farms, starting with Hall and Murchison across from each other on the west and Ames and Wilson ditto on the east. Wilson is occupied by that ugly-faced horde." She made an "X" on the dot representing the orchard farm, then looked to Emilio.

 He nodded. "Yes. They have had casualties. We think they are down by a third of their original number, with at least two wounded. They have two rapid-fire weapons, experience, and enterprising leadership. But their reasoning in being here seems to me obscure."

 "I'm guessing they had sort of no choice," put in Tom Chaney. "Our scorched earth policy in the approaches to the west has been effective until now, but we may not have anticipated that such a large and determined group would penetrate this far across the flood plains – they had no way to go back, only forward."

 "Good a guess as any," said Ellen. "So, we have a little over thirty of us here, with some grenades and Molotovs, and a revolver." She dipped another small brush in blackberry-elderberry juice for a different color, and drew a circle around Beemans. "Twelve at Ames, or, really, en route to Jones, with six badly hurt people on stretchers." She drew an arrow between Ames and Jones.

 Tom's brow furrowed. "Elsa and I should be on our way there right now. With one or two fresh volunteers."
 "May I recommend?" asked Ellen. Tom raised his eyebrows, expressing assent. "You'll be too exposed at Jones' and with insuffcient protection. They get wind of you, they're apt to come across the Creek and double-tap the lot of you. I know your people are pretty much exhausted by now," she turned to Emilio. "But if we can get everyone to here, they'll be 'inside the lines,' as we used to say, with a better kitchen, more medical supplies, rested personnel to lend a hand, and a chance to bring the stretcher bearers back up to speed and back into the action."

 "This is good," said Emilio, rising. "I should go back right away and bring them."

 "You look pretty all-in yourself. How's about we send the runner?"

 Guchi nodded. "I can go on the pony; it will be faster, and I'm supposed to see all I can for the Captain anyway. With your permission?"

 "Go; and thanks for your report. Stick to the north of the hedges, and stay low and quiet, 'K?" 
Guchi, who'd remained standing, nodded, raised his hand in farewell and strode to the door.

 "Nice kid. Now, according to him, the western group that's been watching the Bridge has been turned loose to pitch in for us; they've captured and burned Lawson's and are heading for here." She drew a circle around the trailhead behind Wilson's. "Guchi says a runner came in from there, who asked us to go to your aid at Jones'. That turned out to be redundant, but who knew?" she grinned.

 Elsa watched her. Quite a performance, girl; I happen to know your fever is about a hundred and three by now; how long can you keep this up? But she held this to herself.

 "So, she's on her way back there with a few, a very few reinforcements. And now I think the bottom of our barrel has been scraped. How many people are down there at present, and what have they got?" she asked Emilio.

 "I no longer know, ma'am, but there should be more than ten. We have, also, there and on the summit, at least thirteen dead of our own and three of theirs."

 "We're going to become aware of that at some point; it will be a sad and hard winter no matter how this goes. But those will have to wait awhile. What 's the armament picture over there?"

 "There is a revolver, with I do not know how much ammunition. Two muzzle-loading rifles and about forty balls and powder, and many more bows, crossbows and hand weapons than people to wield them."

 "So they have the back exit reasonably plugged, but they're well outnumbered. We also have no way to co-ordinate with them. Folks, I have to admit this looks iffy to me; they're tired, we're tired, it's getting colder and wetter out, and somebody is going to start making mistakes. We're wide open in all directions except the saddle and right here at Beemans'. They take it in their heads to try just about anything but stay put or come after us here, they'll get away with it.  "So." She put down the brush, and picked up her tea, sipping it to put off the advent of laryngitis. "In the time-honored tradition of Council and GM, the table is now open to suggestions."

 Elsa pointed to Holyrood Farm on Ellen's map. "If they go on a burning campaign, it would make sense to them to go this way. No one is there; and they could destroy four places in a row unopposed. That's, that's a fourth of our resources right there."

 "But destruction may not be the primary consideration," objected Mr. Molinero. "The burning building at Wilson's is only one; I think it may be a challenge only, to come and have it out, so to speak."

 "I think so, too," Ellen agreed. "Tom?"

 "I think if we sit tight, they will come look for us, and in some way for which we, as the less imaginative side, will be unprepared. The semiautomatic weapons give them advantages in this mixed terrain."

 "That's so; what would you do?"

 "Well, I'm a medic; I'm distracted by all the hurt that's coming at me from Jones'. And I hate to propose something that will likely cost us even more. But I think if I were you, I'd get someone over to Wilson Wilson with a proposal for a coordinated attack on their position at night, first with the grenades, and then at close quarters, hand-to-hand. We ought to have better odds in the dark on our own ground."

 "Yes! I think so, too. If these men realized just how stretched-out we are, and had any kind of an idea where to go, they could, right now, burn their way all the way to Hall and march up the Ridge, practically without a fght. Even if we could keep up with them, they'd be able to hold us off in daylight the whole way there."

 "And then it would be over."

 "For the Creek, yes. But, Tom and Elsa, you both know, and Emilio here might as well know, it could potentially make matters much, much worse."

 She looked around at the three of them. "For Murch and me, this is priority one: these tattooed yahoos must not see the installation on Starvation Ridge. We move against them after dark. Tonight. Agreed?"


Mary Savage, Ph.D., was getting bored. It's all well making slow fuses and stuffing bottles, she thought, but making primers would be more fun, and we just don't have the micro capability. Also, with more than half her people run off to play hero, she couldn't even get more powder done; no one to run around scraping up the delightfully evil ingredients. And there seemed to be hardly anything in the kitchen; she'd looked, and had had to make do with the damned eternal oatmeal, cold. This here rheumatoid arthritis is the bitch.

 "Selk! Selk! You around here anywheres?" She thought she heard something respond to that; like a squirrel backing itself out of a nest. Presently the back door banged, and feet came pattering down the hall.
 "Yo?" Selk peered at her through the thick glasses.

 "'Yo,' he says. You pick up all my worst archaisms. Listen, most everybody here is gone to try and win themselves some medals; who have I got here besides you?"

 "Mmm ... well, there's Ollie; he's still making Molotovs. With rag fuses; we're out of the good stuff, and powder, too."

 "How many has he got?"

 "About three by now, I think. The trick is to find anything that will burn right. And all the matches – and the matchmaker – went with Mrs. Murchison, anyway."

 "Well, tell him to leave off. I need transportation, and you two are it. Are there any wheelchairs in inventory?"

 "There's the medical one that came over from Chaney for repairs – big heavy thing. Folds flat. The brakes wouldn't set."

 "Right, the ugly gray vinyl thing. Well, never mind the brakes; let's deliver it as-is to Hall, with me in it."
 "Umm, you want to go to the Mess Hall?"

 "What's with the eyebrows? I'm even less mobile than I let on; I want to chew the fat with Murchison, who is not likely to be enticed here from there just now; and the alternative is a garden cart, assuming we can find one. Or do you think you can rig up an extension for that godawful phone system of his?"

 "Not enough good wire handy, no dynamic handsets."

 "Chair it is, then. Fetch!"


Wolf walked out to the crow's nest and tipped back his head. "Give it up, Coug. They ain't comin.'"
 "Wolf. 'K, girl, ya just got a reprieve; climb down th' ladder, slow-like."

 "I can't move." Derisive hoots came from the two nearest blockhouses; from where Wolf was standing, the female sounded, to him, too, more petulant than hurt. But that might be a matter of perspective, he realized. The human animal is a mysterious thing.

 "Sure, y'can. Seven more fingernails says y'can go down that ladder even faster than y'came up."

 She complied. Wolf held her by the wrist as Cougar came down. By now there was not much fight left in the little redhead; but unnecessary complications were always best avoided.

 "Swap weapons, Coug, and lock her in the outhouse; I'm going up and look around fer a minute."

 Sure thing, Wolf."

 "Coug."

 As they left, Wolf could hear her: "Water? Water?" – and Cougar's reply. More guffaws from the blockhouses. He'd have to make the rounds and sharpen them up again soon – they all had poontang on the brain.

 Wolf popped the magazine and counted rounds, snapped it back into the magazine well, tucked the pistol into his belt, and set his hands and feet to the skinny little ladder. It was one of those household fire-escape things, with two parallel chains and the narrow PVC pipe treads, with cable threaded through them. The treads were cracking with age, and climbing took more concentration than he'd realized. He wondered if he'd find it hard going to get through the little hole in the crow's nest floor, but the Wilson farmers had thoughtfully run the ladder right up to the ceiling.

 There were four windows, open to the elements; each ran the length of a wall and was about eight inches high. The walls, only four feet high, were made of stacked four-by fours; decent cover with a good view. From the north window, Wolf saw that two hulking trees blocked much of the view, across the roof of the big house from the crow's nest. But he could make out three large frame houses through a skein of water-loving trees along a small river; none of the chimneys were smoking. The valley's road was across the river as well, and seemed to be mostly lined with fruit trees and grapevines. 

Two of the houses were two stories high, like the one in hand, and all were whitewashed; they all had outbuildings and barns and were spaced about half a klick apart. Things were closer together than he'd realized; but there were impedimenta in all directions.

 On the one hand, not too cleverly, the farmers had re-roofed the old houses in cedar. An attack with torches would be definitive. On the other, there were fences everywhere; the few gaps in vegetation showed that they were made of barbed wire, and taller than the abandoned barbed-wire farm fences elsewhere. And the gaps were few. A deliberate effort had been made to hide the fences in an impenetrable thorny growth, six to eight feet thick. By leaving a few archers at each gate, the locals could hold up an advance in any direction long enough to get reinforcements. But perhaps they hadn't thought much about that. It might have more to do with limiting the escape of stock and/or crop predation by deer.

The quick way to get around would be that road. So it was probably well defended somewhere off to the left; perhaps at that third house. 


Wolf dug out his 4X rifle scope, uncapped it, and gazed in that direction. Uh-huh, a lookout just like this one. And occupied! Why hadn't they sent out skirmishers when his men had torched the building? They should be frantic at losing this stuff. He swung to check out the other two places. Didn't look like there was anyone home. The noisy cow had been turned out, though, and was grazing on a rise between the house on the right and a very large barn toward the long, low hill in the background. Someone has been there this morning, very likely. Maybe some of that bunch they'd punched through getting to here.

 Why hadn't they driven off the animals and emptied the larders? 

Maybe they'd put off decamping until the last minute – put a lot of faith in the defenders on the hill.

 He lowered the scope, swung around, and scanned the "south forty." 

Near at hand on the right, the cowshed was still pumping out prodigious amounts of gray smoke, which drifted left across his field of view. But the woods stretched across the entire scene, from the mountains at left to the big ridge, covered with timber on this side, on the right. Whatever was up there could not be seen from here, or, no doubt, vice versa. It would have to be investigated from up close, if at all. Raising the scope, he glassed along the edge of the woods between the billows of smoke. Nothing to be seen, but he felt watched. There couldn't more than a dozen farmers over there as yet. Might be worth sending a sortie against them; perhaps at night?

 A look to the east was unproductive; pastures and woodlands, and taller and taller mountains that way. It would all be wilderness, and for his purposes impenetrable. There is never as much game under such a thick canopy as there is in open country; his crew would starve if they tried a breakout in that direction. Heck, they could starve anywhere but here.

 Wolf one-eightied on the small bench and peered west. Two farms, both of which seemed evacuated, could be seen that way, nestled against the big ridge. He was not a farmer himself, but he sensed the mountain's shade would limit productivity of long-season crops. He expected to see mostly pastures and hayfelds, and that was what he saw; with sheep. There were fewer fences, fewer gates. The farmers would not, he felt sure, have had the time or manpower to close off this route. With the cable cutters out front and the Glock and the AK in the rear, a sortie in this direction could be productive. His archers could burn some buildings, and with any luck provoke the yokels into charging across those bridges, so that they could be picked off.
He heard someone messing about at the bottom of the light pole. 

Drawing the Glock and keeping it ready but out of sight, Wolf looked down through the trapdoor opening. It was Cougar, back from the outhouse, AK in hand.

 "Coug."

 "Wolf."

 "Swap back. I've filled the mag for ya; put together a quick little expedition. Four men and a can of alkie; an' break out th' Bics."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

23

"Hello, Carey. You're looking like shit."

 "I'm feeling like compost." Murchison, telephone handset in hand, looked up at Tom Chaney in the dim light from the alcohol lamp.

 "Apropos. Have you seen a runaway patient of mine?"

 "Yep, she's stolen a horse, pulled together a ragtag children's crusade, and headed after the bandits out toward Ames'."

 "My god, Carey, she doesn't plan to outlive you, does she?" It was more a statement than a question.

 "It's her call. I think she's right, too. If I didn't have to keep tabs on Ridge, I'd be there with her."

 "What's happening up top?"

 "Well, the Bledsoes and company have gone after a rear guard that's camping in Lawson's house. Scorched earth. Avery says he sees the smoke already. From there, they'll try to hook up with Wilson and the
little Saddle army over to the Ames end."

 "That was always our weak spot."

 "Mm. Should have done more about it. Permanent dugout with phone should have been farther down the south slope. Hindsight. Never would have had 'nough diggers anyway, though."

 Elsa Chaney, in high dudgeon, strode through the doorway.

"Where's Ellen got off to?"

 "Well out of reach for now, dear," replied Tom.

 Captain Murchison set down the handset. "Haven't you got enough patients without her?"

 "They're all as settled as they're going to be. Mrs. Lazar, Velma, and some others are on it now. I want to fnd Ellen and get her back in care, or she's not going to last the week!"

 Murchison slammed his hand, palm down, on the table. "Nobody around here is going to last the week if we don't contain the incursion up the Creek! And furthermore," he said, turning and pointing to the handset, "as I was about to tell your man here, there's maybe worse brewing."

 "Worse?" asked Tom.

 "The kids have rigged a radio up at Ridge. Using the doorbell circuit. It's patched in to the phone, and I've been listening. Magee's back. Probably less than two hundred miles from here. These skinheads may be acting on their own, but I have a feeling he's looking for them."

 "Oh, Jeeah-help," said Elsa quietly.

 "Yeah," answered Murchison. "And anybody else up there that wants to lend a hand."


Karen opened her eyes. As usual she was disoriented, plus her eyelashes seemed gunky. Shadows had moved a bit, and were much fainter: more clouds moving in. Midday already? She found she was wrapped in her blanket, which was damp beneath her but a help. Someone was back-to-back with her in another
blanket. Sitting up, she found that it was Errol, out cold.

 Crawling out of the blanket, stiff and chilled, Karen found the roll-bag had been placed by her head. She sipped some water from her bottle, an old gray Nalgene, and gnawed some equally tasteless bean cake. No one else around? No, there were bodies stretched out near the trail, in two rows beneath the autumn-bright red foliage of some viney maples. Something about those on the left suggested they were alive.

 Standing up, Karen scanned the surrounding woods. What had wakened her was a muffled chopping sound; a work crew was uphill, cutting up wild hazel poles and fashioning stretchers with blankets that had belonged to the dead. She moved to the row of wounded and found Tomma and Allyn among them.

 "Hiya," said Tomma. He didn't raise his head.

 "How are you?"

 "Starting to feel like shit."

 "Think they muck on their bolts or something?"

 "Wouldn't put it past them; but this was a bullet. Errol poured in some alky, both holes; I'll live. I'm considered walking wounded, Emilio says." He smiled wanly.

 "Want some water?"

 "Sure do."

 She handed him her bottle for a long swig.

 From Tomma, she moved to Allyn. His presence had faded, she realized with a shock. Just from arm wounds! And, she reminded herself, from being carried round on a mountain with bones shredding muscle. At home she had studied physiology, advanced first aid, and diagnostic triage. But Father had directed her studies toward self-care, and it had been mostly theoretical. Faced with so much destruction, she felt ignorant and helpless. The others seemed even more at sea than she.

 She looked at his long face, with the trim black beard. This gentle man, whose hands held valuable knowledge of grafting and pruning, should not have been mangled so – if he lived, he might well be a
double amputee, not something she'd seen a lot of. He might not want to live. She was not sure she would, in like case.

 She pulled his blanket up to his chin. He'd 'liked' her, in that way that was supposed to mean eventual marriage among these people. She'd not known how to respond to him. Now, she would very likely not know where this particular story would have gone.

 Allyn's eyes opened. He turned his head slowly, and, recognizing her, cracked a crooked smile.

 "Ah, the wild Amazon."

 "Shh. Rest."

 "Pooh. They get me out of here, I'll end up even unhappier than I am now. Really, though, I'm for the heaps at Hall Common, yes?"

 He was sweating profusely in the chill air. She found a bit of cloth among his few bedroll things and patted down his forehead. "I think you should think about apples, plums, pears, apricots, cherries, and
filberts, and walnuts – and, umm, quinces. They'll need you."

 "Hmm. You're politic, and I thank you for that. Water?"

 "Right here." She tipped his head up a little and dribbled in a mouthful.

 Wilson Wilson stopped by. "'K, we got enough poles for all the stretcher cases, and a party is making up to gather up your friends here and and go hedge-hopping. You're Karen, Ames, right?"

 She nodded.

 "Emilio says you should stick with my group and keep an eye on Wilson Farm. I grew up there; so you and I know the place better than anyone that's on their feet here. S'good?"

 "Yes. Oh – there's this freshened cow at Ames' –"

 "Yes, everybody hears her. Emilio says if they don't run into bandits there, he'll see she's helped or put out of her misery. S'maybe gone on too long to do anything for, by now."

 And so the disaster spreads. We're our own little Freeway Corridor here. Is it like this everywhere? She looked down at Allyn. His eyes had gone out of focus again, but he'd been listening.

 "Go back t'work, girl," he whispered. "Sic'm."


"Wolf, that cow has quit hollerin' all of a sudden. Think somebody's maybe up there?" the scout asked.

 "Oh, I don't doubt it. No, don't investigate. We mostly oughta stick together for awhile. Just go back 'n keep an eye on th' road."

 "Wolf."

 "Gilroy."

 Wolf sat in the easy chair and leaned back. He closed his eyes, briefly – then began listening to, and scanning, his surroundings again, with his AK on his knees. He'd assumed someone would have made contact by now: this place was valuable. The snivelly female they'd captured wasn't much help, though. His hope that they'd try to ransom or rescue her, or for that matter this apple farm, was fading. A person of relatively little importance, a dishwasher sort from a farm called 'Lazar.' Hmm. Jews alive? Not that he cared one way or the other, himself; but some, if they were still alive, would give a lot for the information.

 And he'd learned this place was 'Wilson.' Not much information in that! Kind of hierarchical households, but a decentralized community. Apt to do things piecemeal, which explained why they'd met such a small force on the hill, ditto the reinforcements. Also, she didn't seem to know a thing about the 'Dept. of Defense' business, up near the hilltop. Could never have faked that blank look.

Such leadership as existed here was proving both cagey and shadowy. Maybe they were ex-military? But so much "left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-does" seemed amateur in the extreme. Why, some of these people might not even know we're here! Might have to force the issue.

 "Hey! Coug!"

 "Wolf?" Cougar's annoyingly appealing face popped round the door jamb.

 "Way too quiet 'round here."

 "It is that, Wolf."

 "Seen anythin' outside we could set fre to?"

 "Well, Wolf, we need all the little huts on the perimeter –"

 "I'm the one said that; what don't we need?"

 "Well, there's a little building, no walls, full of hay at one end. Couple of big animals were in there; we're having them for supper."

 "Oh, yeah. Well, have 'em light that off. 'N then take th' girl up inta th' lookout 'n make her scream a little bit. No harm tryin'. I jus' wanna ring somebody up to talk to, s'all. That don't work, we'll recon in force 'n set fre to th' places we c'n see from here."

 "Wolf."

 "Coug."


"Ma'am, brought you some tea."

 Ellen awoke, woozy, her head pounding. "Unh, wouldn't mind so much if this was a hangover. Help me up, dear. I'm stiff as a board."

 Ro-eena complied, then offered a mug.

 Ellen sniffed. Her eyes widened. "Oh. ... Oh! Real tea?"

 "Mmm-hmm, the Beemans found a bush here; a Russian variety of sinensis. Grows this far north, ma'am. And Mr. Allyn, I think I've heard, has begun propagating it at Wilsons'."

 Ellen sipped. "With honey. Also hard to come by these days. And ... ?" She wrinkled her nose.

 "We ground up some ginger root."

 "Well ... well, I guess I need it. So, anything new and exciting going on?" She looked around her; nothing seemed out of place. A country farm hedge and gate; two young people with bows watching the road. Leaves falling peaceably, by ones and twos, from fruit trees.

 "The lookout says there's another party approaching from the west; that they're definitely ours; that somebody has quieted the cow that was screaming, up at Ames. And he thinks there's someone at Wilson's
but doesn't know who."

 "I'm guessing those are our guests. Might be them at Ames', too. Well, let's get me up and see if I can belt on this gosh-awfully heavy revolver. Where's Deela with that whistle?"

 "Shouldn't you eat first, ma'am?"

 "That I can do standing up. What have you got?"

 "Oatmeal with some herb oil and dried veggie leaves, ma'am."

 Ellen's eyebrows shot up. "No one laid a fire, did they?"

 "No'm, it was sunny for awhile and we did some up in a solar oven; also we've ground up quite a lot of grains and are soaking them. With apples and pears, sliced. The oats are not very appealing, ma'am, but
we are a crowd here."

 "Good job. And now I think I hear horses."

 Through the remaining leaves of the apple and plum trees along the road, they could see another small army approaching with bows, cross-bows, bush-hooks, and even a pitchfork. At its head rode Dr. and Mrs. Chaney. Deela appeared at Ellen's elbow, hung the whistle cord around Ellen's neck, and offered her a steaming bowl and a spoon. She set down her tea on the porch table and ate, as the small cavalcade approached the driveway. One of the sentries looked up the walk to her, worried.

 "Do we have a password, ma'am?"

 "Not likely," called out Tom Chaney. "We're here on our own recognizance. May we advance and be recognized?" he grinned.

 "Comedian. Come on in and let's sort ourselves out," replied Ellen, with her mouth full. "Who all you got?"

 "Some Maggies, Delsmans, Tomlinsons, and Hall. Ten, besides ourselves."

 Ellen did the math. "I make that thirty-two in all. We should make a roster; if there were a melee right now, we wouldn't be able to know who's gone missing."

 "I'll start on that, if you like." Carl Perkins, from Tomlinson's, stepped forward with his bow.

 "Do you read and write?" asked Tom.

 "Mm-hmm, wouldn't if I'd grown up here, now would I?"

 "Touché." They smiled at each other; Tom fished out an old Tatum clipboard from his medical saddlebag and handed it to Carl.

 Elsa dismounted, gave her reins to Ro-eena, who'd run down to take them, and came up the steps. She looked down at Ellen."You ... you runaway, you." But she seemed to mean it half as a compliment.

 Good thing, too. There have been times I have not liked this do-gooder, thought Ellen. "Want some tea?"

 "Got something besides peppermint?"

 Ellen picked up the mug from the table and waved it under Elsa's nose. Mrs. Chaney's eyes widened. "Tea! Oh, of course. Beemans' tea!"

 "Coming right up," said Deela, as he went by.

 Tom joined them. "Ellen, we're straight here from Carey, who's in reasonably good shape, and says Avery's doing well, too. He wants us to look you over and change that wound dressing."

 "Why wouldn't Avery be doing well?" asked Ellen, absent-mindedly raising her jerkin to reveal a sour-looking bandage, right above the holstered Navy, with a red spot near one edge. Elsa went to work, shaking her head.

 "His crew have gone to help the young people that went up to the saddle yesterday," said Tom, "and he's also directing an assault on the bandits' lines of communication. See that smoke beyond the saddle?"

 "Oh. Lawsons'."

 The lookout said something to the young man at the foot of the crow's nest, who called up to the house.

 "Ma'am, there's a fire over at Wilsons'." All eyes looked lower.

More smoke – much more smoke – dark gray shot through with black, somber and sullen, began belling into the sky. It was in the same direction as the saddle, but much closer. The elders remembered that cloud shape.

 "What building is it? Can you tell?" Ellen called out.

 "No. It's not the house, though."

 She turned to Tom, with Elsa following her around in a half-circle, muttering. "A provocation. It's their way of saying hello."

 "Maybe we could parley? Find out what they want?" Elsa asked, who stood back with her arms round herself.

 Ellen's eyes flashed. "What they want, I think they made very clear out at the Eagle's Nest. And they haven't changed their note since."

 "I'm sorry, Ellen. But –"

 "Elsa?" Tom put his arm round her. "Maybe someday, we'll have some sanity around us again. Meanwhile, those men down there have eaten the Lawsons."

 "Do we know that?"

 "Yes, dear ... we do."

 The lookout talked to the caller, who cupped his hands around his mouth. "There's another horse coming."

 "That would be the runner from Murch," noted Ellen. "Unless there's some other horse we don't know about."

 The caller was listening to the lookout. He turned and cupped his hands again. "And there's someone coming over from Jones Farm."

 "How many?" asked Tom.

 The caller relayed and waited, then passed on the response. "One. Has hair, wearing a jerkin."

 "One of ours," remarked Tom to Elsa and Ellen. "Looks like everything is happening at once."


Karen watched the stamping shed go up in flames. Steam from the loosely-piled haystack began to whiten the smoke, which ran along the ground to the east, masking the east orchard, the Creek, Ames Farm, and the blue hills beyond. From across the fields, she could hear, faintly, a woman's screams, repeated at intervals.

 Without taking her eyes away from the ground ahead, she spoke to Wilson, hidden among the maples to her right. "We could use that smoke, get right in among them unseen."

 "And attempt a rescue? That's what they want. No, Karen, Marcee's as good as dead to us now. No sense joining her."

 "I understood that, I think. But if we went part way, in the dead ground, then we could be in a useful position to exploit opportunities."

 "Mmh. That's good thinking; but we're in small numbers here. If pressed from the west, they may come out of that smoke this way, and from here is our best shot at them – concentrated fire from concealment."

 "Sir, it's a war of attrition, They can afford casualties less than we can. I would like to go see if I can cause some confusion. They wouldn't expect just one."

 Wilson moved closer, and peered at Karen from among the ferns and brambles.

 "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but – what's in it for you? ... if I may ask."

 She glanced over, then straight ahead, . "This valley is the – it's everyone's chance, around here, to start over. But not if it gets pushed over the edge. You're losing people, hay, grain, animals, structures, and capabilities, with a winter coming in. Whatever Allyn knows, whatever Mo-reen knew, all of the dead or dying – it's vanishing."

 "True, but, again, we'll need firepower right here."

 "You saw what happened at the saddle, and on the trail behind us. I think the same happened at Ball Butte. You are all soldiers, but these bandits aren't bandits – they're some kind of commando. They will hit one place in the line, together, and most of them will escape."

 "So, we fight them, we get most of them, but if any get through, they may bring others back in larger numbers?"

 "Yes. In order for the Creek to survive you must kill them to the last man. If, say fourteen of them hit you here instead of twenty, you have a better chance of doing this."

 "Again. What's in it for you? You know you won't live."

 Karen resumed watching the smoke and the fields, but also watched Wilson peripherally.

 "I grew up underground – you know the story?" He nodded. "My father's room was the only approach to mine. Anyone who might try to take me had to go through him. It cost him his life – but it worked. I
was worth that. The Creek is worth that."

 "She's right." They turned. Huskey, from Bledsoe Farm, was standing up the hill from them. He'd approached almost soundlessly through the undergrowth, and overheard the tail end of their exchange.

"Sorry we don't have a current password; only one I've got is 'smart' with the reply 'aleck.'"

 Wilson was overjoyed. "Huskey! How many of you are there?"

 "Oh, we're four; been beating up country in your direction and that posse out there –" he pointed at Wilson Farm with a lever-action carbine – "is down by two."

 "That's more than a little encouraging." Wilson returned his attention to Karen. "Let's talk about your idea. Details?"

Friday, August 1, 2014

22

"This is not good," said Emilio Molinero. He and Wilson lowered the half-conscious Allyn to the ground and together they surveyed the scene along the narrow trail. Bodies of people they had known all their lives lay at uncomfortable angles among the blooded sword-ferns beneath the deep shade of the firs. At least four dead could be seen; and also there were people alive, but for how much longer, none could tell. Arrows and bolts had flown, and they had found marks. It had been a rout; no dead and wounded were found from the invading force. Every able-bodied person was already helping someone hurt in the Saddle fight; what could be done for these others? And where were
the bandits? Could this be a trap?

 "Karen, keep an arrow at the ready, please, and go and find Vernie. He will have come through here and seen the edge of the woods; we need to know what is ahead." Emilio turned to Wilson. "Let us find all
the wounded; and if they can be brought to the trail, we shall do what we can for them here; and see if we can get a runner to Hall for help and perhaps some people from Chaney's."

 As Karen set down the things she had been carrying, except for her bow and quiver, she could hear Wilson's reply. "Yes; we would either need oxcarts for all these, or stretcher relays."

 Karen, who, like most of the others, had slept little in the last two days and nights, was beginning to get tunnel vision from exhaustion, but she maintained her scan of her surroundings as she ran down the
trail. She passed a Creeker with a bolt in his back, whose breath made bubbles as he crawled. Was this Vernie? No. She knelt down and said, "Rest. Rest, now; you're only hurting yourself, and help is coming."

And ran on.

 The edge of the woods was not far away; sunlight was brighter ahead already. The Ellers, Reymers, and Peachers, who would have been ten or eleven in number, had only just begun their hike when the bandits came down upon them in the fog. Ahead, kneeling by the trunk of a mid-sized maple tree, she could see Vernie. Without turning his head, he extended his left hand, palm down, and signaled her to slow down and approach with stealth. She did so. After what seemed an eternity, she came up on his right. The heavy rifle lay ready to hand, leaning against the mossy tree trunk between them.

 In the distance a cow, clearly in great distress, was bellowing.

 "We got trouble," Vernie said softly.

 "Are they at Wilsons'?"

 "Mmm-hmm."

 "And that's Florence, yelling, over at Ames.'"

 "Yes, she hasn't been milked this morning. Mrs. Ames hears about this, she's likely t'kill the bandits herself. All the animals in upper Creek are hurting or hungry; this cruelty touches us all in so many ways."

 Karen knew he was also worrying about Tomma; no one could be certain to recover from deep wounds these days.

 The farm buildings could be seen from here; a two-story white house, with the two big redwoods behind it, and several small outbuildings. These did not look like log buildings, such as those at Ames; but they had been reinforced with very thick layers of planking. Even a ball from the Hawken was not guaranteed to go
through that. Near the main house was a watch-tower of the same kind as the one at Ames; it had been a creosoted light pole at one time; the useless mercury vapor lamp had been hauled down and salvaged, and
in its place was a tiny structure like a tree house. Access would be via rope ladder and trap-door; and the ladder was missing.

 Karen produced her monocular and handed it to Vernie. He'd seen it before, two months ago when they'd had to examine her belongings; but he was unfamiliar with the workings of such a thing except by hearsay. Karen understood; she took it back, looked through it for a second to demonstrate which end was which, and handed it to him again, uncapped.

 "Ah!" he said. "Very nice. Mm-hmm, someone's on the second floor. In the crow's nest, too."

 "How do we get the wounded up to the road?"

 "The only way would be to go up the right-hand side of the hedge, ford the Creek, and go to Ames Farm, if the bandits are not already there. Then over to Jones along the back fences. If someone goes to get help, the help should come to Jones'. Carefully, of course, in case these bandits go there as well. But I think they are stopping at Wilsons' and thinking. 'What do we do now?'" Vernie grinned mirthlessly. "They have bitten off a very large mouthful to chew."

 "I could do all that."

 "Yes, you may be our swiftest. But you are not rested. No more am I, or most of us. But the Ridge crew is fresh. Go back and tell the others what you've seen here; they'll do what seems best to them."

 'K; keep the glass on them."

 "I will do that; thanks."

 Karen returned up the trail to the first switchback; the two crew leaders were standing there with Errol and a couple of Ridge crew, over the body of the man she'd spoken to. He had apparently already died. She gave her report; Wilson turned to Emilio and put his hand on his shoulder. "How about you all try to lie down and take a bite and a nap; Minnie here knows her way to the Hall trail from this one without coming out of the woods. She can get us help for the wounded over to Jones', and some kind of army up to there to see about these effers at Wilsons'.

 "We will do so. There is very little strength in most of us now. Will you be forming a line?"

 "Yes, as usual, it's the best we can do. There's cover here, but not between here and the house. If they make up their mind they're screwed and try to come back through here, we'll whistle you up; and then we'll want to get as many of them as we can." He patted the Ruger Old Army on his hip for emphasis.

 Emilio looked round. "Thirteen of us dead already; here and above. Soon may be we will not have so many wounded to carry to Jones'."

 Wilson turned and spoke with Minnie, who, as she listened, nodding, shrugged out of her blanket roll and added it to the supply depot that had been made, just off the trail among the ferns. She ran off to the west presently, dodging through the thick hazels and underbrush. Errol handed the Lyman rifle and its pouch to one of the Ridge crew, and bent down to pick up his and Karen's blanket rolls and his bow and axe. Karen collected her blanket roll from Errol, and, with him, walked a short way from the trail and lay down to rest, with the intention of sitting up presently for some cold potatoes and bean cake.

 From across the valley, Florence's frightened and urgent calls echoed against the hills. So sorry, baby. Nothing we can do for you right now, thought Karen, with her eyes closed. In almost no time she
was asleep. Errol unrolled her blanket and covered her.


Ellen's little army had grown to some twenty-two. There was not much experience among them, and, except for the newly appointed grenadiers – one of whom had already dropped and cracked his bomb and was in disgrace with his friends – severely underequipped.

Fortunately every able-bodied Creeker had trained in selfbows from earliest childhood; these would have to do.

 They were arriving at Beemans. Up the hill, sheep were bunched against a fence, stricken with fear; two coyotes stood in the middle of the pasture, tearing at a ewe they had downed. One lad, a Beeman, turned, distressed, to Ellen on her tall horse.

 "Permission to go shoot at the 'yotes, ma'am?"

 Ellen looked up at the house. Her point man had already checked it out and was waving the "all clear." "Are you sure of recovering your arrows?"

 "Yes'm, I'll have a full set for the bandits!"

 "I like your style; sure, have a go, but take one of your friends with you to watch all round; salvage the ewe, too, then both of you back to the house pronto."

 "Yes, ma'am!"

 Ellen turned into the yard and was, at first, bemused as to how to get her sore body down from the Percheron-mix farm horse. At last she simply urged him up against the porch and slid off. She sat down
heavily on the top step, wheezing, with the bagged Navy revolver by her side.

 "Who here is all about horses?"

 "Me!" called several simultaneously, waving hands.

 Like a class of school kids in days long gone, she thought wistfully.

 "All right, you and you, give our friend here some rest from his bit, find him some grain and water and something to curry him. He's been very sweet. Whoa, don't go yet. You, and you, investigate the kitchen and do something for the rest of us, but no fires just yet. You, you look like a climber with sharp eyes. Yes? 'K, go up to the crow's nest and check out the farms east of us. Anything you see, tell it to – you, go with him and wait at the bottom of the pole, anything he tells you, come tell me. Don't shout it out. You two –" she pointed – "stay by the road, same deal, but with arrows nocked. Rest of you, find cover in a circle around the house, fifty paces or so out, ten to twenty apart. Mr. Deela, take the whistle, please. Any part of the perimeter gets into an altercation, run towards the action, blowing as your go. Rest of you hear the whistle, put some of your attention thataways, 'case they break into your rear, but don't move unless we come get you. They could fake us out. 'K, all? I'm going to have to lie down a bit."

 "You look flushed, ma'am," remarked Deela. "May we look for something to bring down fever?"

 "Bless you," she replied, lying down on the porch and rolling herself in the red wool blanket on which she'd ridden the horse. "Put the kitchen kids on it, please, but then be thinking about that periphery." She closed her eyes.