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.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

20


Cougar proudly looked down again at the Glock 17 in his right hand. Eleven rounds was all Wolf gave him, but it represented a promotion of sorts. With Willets and Burgoyne both history, he and Dill were the closest thing to non-coms Wolf had.

Well, Cougar would give it his best.

Dill had been given the Winchester and been told off with one man to hold the "fort." There was enough food there to last them all for days; nice to have it to fall back on.

The day was dawning damp but foggy; a good sign. Fog meant the rain had stopped and might hold off a while; and the hillside was slick enough as it was. The going had been anything but easy in the dark, and the gnarly clumps of brush and random boulders made direction-finding in the cloudy night all but impossible. There was "up," and that was about it. But now, with a little light, Cougar could see that the ridgeline was close at hand – and the tops of tall trees behind it bespoke a very different terrain on the other side.

"See, it's all kinda open over here cuz' that's th' south slope," Wolf had said at the briefing. "Don't spend too much time in th' red bushes; it's poison oak. Dill's gonna break out something fierce," he'd grinned. "When we get to th' top, there might be a welcomin' party. It's gonna be trees an' underbrush, which'll hamper bowmen. If they're spoilin' fer a fight, they'll pop up on th' ridgeline and we take 'em out. Aim high, 'cuz it's steep an' will throw yer aim off – theirs too. Don't hang around, though. Attrition gets us nowhere.

"If there's a fight, it means there's a trail on th'other side. We find a trail, we stick together an' bust through. Break out inta th' valley. My idea is, either they all run, as we 'uv seen before. Just chase 'em down an' take 'em out. Or we take some farmers hostage – women, if we're lucky – get a peace deal with food fer th'winter, or failin' that, get 'em to rush us across th'open –" he waved the AK for emphasis –"'an' even out th' odds. So, wing an' wing. I'll take eleven and go left; Cougar will take nine and go right. Space out evenly. Exploit any holes and then, down th'other side, converge on th'middle.

"Remember, it's all for one an' one for all; if we are all gonna have enough to eat between now and next summer, it's over that hill."

It was not much of a plan, Cougar could see that. But if Wolf proposed it, likely nothing better was available. And Wolf was right; people had always run. Until a couple of days ago.

He looked along his line, from right to left. Everyone was about even; Chuckie excepted, who'd sprained an ankle and had had to crawl to keep up. Bows and crossbows were at the ready. Across the draw, he could see Wolf's line, a little ahead of Cougar's. Wolf had sent a man ahead a little, to spy out the ridge. No activity to be seen there; maybe this was going to be easy?

"Hein."

"Coug."

"We're only about fifty paces off th' top; push ahead slowly, taking advantage of cover, and see if y'kin get up there and provoke somebody. We've got 'em within pretty easy bowshot from here if they bother ya any."

"Right, Coug." Hein took off his bedroll, and, checking his knife, quiver, and crossbow, hunched forward and crept from rock to rock toward the saddle.

When Hein had gone about twenty paces, he suddenly stood up, uttered a vexed grunt, turned sideways – which showed a crossbow bolt protruding from his back – and pitched forward onto his face, legs thrashing.
"Hit 'em!" Wolf's voice came across the scree at mid-slope. Something was going on over there, as well.

Cougar shouted. "Pickets! Find 'em, kill 'em!" Running toward the boulder behind Hein's position, Cougar found a man, foot in stirrup, cranking a crossbow. He pointed the Glock at his chest with both hands and squeezed the trigger. It barked, and the bowman fell backwards against the rock, his mouth open. Bodies were squirrelling around all across the slope. One of Cougar's men had flushed another picket, who was swinging a long bow at him. Cougar aimed and fired again, but missed. His man stepped back, and after the bow had swung past, stepped in and put his knife into the farmer. Two for one! Were there more?

A whistle shrilled, farther up the slope. Several heads popped up along the ridgeline. Cougar aimed, but it was a bit far for pistol work, and they were prairie-dogging – looking, then hiding, then looking again. An explosion came from above – there was a gun up there! Black smoke drifted off to the right, and one of Cougar's men sat down, holding a hand to his collar-bone, blood seeping out between his fingers. An arrow passed close to Cougar's head, high.

Another picket stepped out, aiming a crossbow at one of Cougar's crew. Cougar fired, and dropped him. Cougar ran forward. Where was that rifleman? Ah, there's the arm up there, ramrodding. Still too far. Crack! That must be Wolf's AK. The rifleman's been hit. Crack! Crack! Wolf's finding targets. "C'mon! Over the top!" Wolf's shout. "Let's go!" shouted Cougar. He ran, much as one can run over loose rocks, bushes, and mud, uphill.

More whistles. The ridgeline! Aha, lots of targets, trying to stay low. Cougar picked out the next to stand, a bowman, arrow drawn. No, a girl! The pistol jumped in his hand. Huh – women fighters. One less bow to worry about, but what a waste ... two men, rushing him with swords, no less. One took an arrow in the chest, the other Cougar shot. How many rounds left? Boom! another muzzle-loader? Way off to the left. Aha! Here's the trail. "Bunch up! Bunch up! Let's go, let's go, let's go!"

A frightened-looking red-haired girl stood in their way, with an arrow nocked. Cougar aimed the Glock, but one of his own men stepped in the way. She loosed, but a branch deflected the arrow, missing them both. Cougar and his man reached her at the same time, with the same idea. Cougar rapped her over the temple with his pistol barrel, and as she sagged, dropping her bow, the man – Mellow was his name, the big guy – scooped her up over his right shoulder, his bow in his left hand.

Three more shots from the ay-kay. Wolf was covering the rear as his forces reformed on the trail and ran down through the cold, wet brush toward their new Shangri-La.

Or whatever it might be.

There was a fight going on. Karen could hear it, but could not see it. She kept her bow ready, but nothing was happening in front of her. To her left, she could see Vernie, but not see what he was doing. Still farther away, Tomma stood up, aimed, and fired the Hawken. Then he sat down, pulled his ramrod, charged his weapon with a patch in his teeth, set the patch, rammed it, reached for a ball, dropped the ball down the barrel, lifted the rod again, and a shot rang out.

Tomma dropped the Hawken and cradled his left arm, with a look of distress on his face, and Vernie ran to him. They seemed to be arguing for a moment, then Vernie finished the ramming, took a percussion cap offered him by Tomma, stood up cautiously, aimed and fired. Karen saw all this from the corner of her eye as she continued to scan the slope beneath her. Nothing there.

As quickly as it began, the fight seemed to be over. No! something was going on over at the trail, around to her left and across the draw. Karen checked in front of her and to the right, then looked down the steep hollow. Men were running down the mountain behind her, strange men, and one of them was carrying a body. No, it was struggling. Marcee from Lazars'!

Karen could see that there were two openings, through the Douglas firs, ahead of the main body of invaders. It was already a long way down. She trained her bow on the first gap. As they began to pass through it, she loosed. Too high! She set another arrow and shifted to the second gap. Two or three men reached it, bunched up. This would give her a chance. She loosed, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them begin to limp, accepting help from another. Too low, but something. She wondered if it would be safe to shoot at the group carrying Marcee.

"Karen!" It was Allyn, down the south slope behind her. She stepped up onto the saddle and looked down. He was hurt.

"Should I come to you, or pursue? They've got Marcee!"

"No, I'm ... I'm fine here; I've just got a bolt in my left –" They both heard the 'fwip' of a crossbow. For a moment neither knew where it was, then Allyn discovered he'd been shot again with a second bolt, to his right arm. He sat down hard. Karen could see the attacker; a wounded bandit who, abandoning the crossbow, drew a knife and staggered toward Allyn. They were ten paces apart.

Karen knelt, drew an arrow, aimed it, and loosed. It struck the man near his collarbone and went through him to the fletching. He went to his knees, then began crawling toward Allyn. Karen drew again, but by this time Emilio had appeared from nowhere, and with one of Savage Mary's short swords hit the man twice around the region of the neck.

He moved no more.

Emilio checked the scene for movement, saw something that interested him, walked to some bushes and raised the sword again. It flashed in the morning sun.

Karen heard a honking sound, and, in spite of herself, looked up.

A flock of Canada geese passed low over the saddle, in a wide-winged vee, heading for their ancient flyway on the Big River. Their shadows passed over Emilio as he tucked the sword in his belt and walked back to Allyn. He beckoned to Karen. She replaced her arrow in the quiver and ran to help.

Allyn had fallen over, but was trying to sit up. Karen supported him, and then braced him as Emilio drew the bolts, ripped cloth, and tied the wounds. Such blood as flowed was dark; no arteries had been cut. Allyn turned a pale face toward her. "Kinda mucked it up, didn't I?"

Emilio responded. "We were too few to do more than we did. They are a little weaker, now, I think, and soon may be they will begin to wish they had not come here. No more talk, my friend. Karen, I am going to carry this man across my shoulder; ready an arrow and follow me; you are rear guard. We will bring all our wounded to Wilsons' and then seek another opportunity to meet with these gentlemen."


"Could we put Allyn down, Mr. Emilio? His left humerus is articulating in the middle." Karen, following Emilio's fireman's carry, did not like what she was seeing.

The surviving crew members of Ames, Jones, Wilson, Holyrood and Lazar were gathering themselves together in the sunny open spot in the middle of the Starvation Ridge saddle; the very place where, only two months ago, Karen, alone, lost, cold and starving, had tried to hold off the fighters from the Ames and Wilson farms. She was hungry again this morning, but had no idea what had happened to her bedroll, with its stash of baked potatoes and bean cake. Karen was cold again, too; the sunshine seemed bright but not very warming. Winter coming.

Stannin, from the Wilson farm, one of those who had helped carry Karen, unconscious, down the steep path on the north slope only two moons ago, lay still with his arms splayed back across the wet brown grass, not far from where Karen was standing. A small amount of blackening blood had dribbled across his nose and cheek from a tiny-looking hole in his forehead; she could see from here that the back of his head was missing. Not far from him, barely breathing, lay Aleesha, from Lazar's, with a bit of small intestine protruding from her back. She had been brought from the woods to the east of the opening, and across the grass could be seen a wide and darkening blood trail. These bald-headed men are like a cancer, Karen thought. They have to be stopped.

Emilio was discovering that he was the only crew leader alive on the hill, apart from Allyn, whose shattered arms were bleeding again through the bandages. Mr. Molinero squatted by Allyn. "Can you hear me?"

"Mmnh..."

"We are going to splint your arm; the bone has been broken. When we carry you down, we don't want to cut an artery. Breathe deep, if you can, and let out your breath slowly. Try not to fall asleep."

"Mnmh-mh!" But Allyn was already drifting. Errol came up, with a handful of long thin sticks and some duct tape.

Emilio stood up and turned, to see Karen, with a bow in each hand and two quivers of arrows, and behind her Vernie, supporting Tomma, who also had an injured arm. Vernie was carrying the Hawken. Several others had assembled, one of whom, like Tomma, had been wounded in the left arm, and was carrying a Lyman muzzle-loader in his right.

Emilio was torn.

Three or four people were sitting or lying down, also wounded. And Emilio had himself counted six dead. The anger welled up in Emilio's chest. They have trodden upon us like ants. 

One part of him wanted to drop all the wounded, with water and and food to hand, and take all the able-bodied in pursuit of the foe. Another knew it was Creek policy to bring in the wounded for care ASAP, because delay was so often a death sentence in the absence of strong medicines.

Errol, working over Allyn's arm, spoke up quietly. "Sir," he said to Emilio, "while we were collecting ourselves, I heard another fight going on below us." He indicated with a nod the narrow trail down into Starvation Creek Valley. "I believe the Ellers, Reymers, and Peachers sent us their relief crews on schedule, and I think, from the sound of it, they were unprepared for the bandits coming down."

"Those men are well away from here," said Tomma. "They'll hole up somewhere, and with any luck, our people will surround them."

"Yes, we may get another chance," put in Vernie.

Karen gestured with her bow. "Two of them are hurt. It will be a down payment."

"You saw them? Wounded?" asked Emilio.

"Yes." she answered, with something in her expression Emilio had not noticed before.

This information seemed to decide things for Emilio. "We will bring everyone down. If the rifles are not loaded, Vernie and Errol, do so now, and cover our advance, point and rear guard. Everyone else, shed bedrolls and enough weapons to carry wounded, please, two by two where possible."

"Need some help?"

Those who were in good enough condition to do so turned toward the voice. Wilson Wilson, looking fresh and hearty, with a revolver in a holster on his hip, stood, arms akimbo, on the slope above them. Four of the mountain's crew, armed with bows and a crossbow, were with him.

"It looks like we missed the fun; but we're game. Give us some folks to carry for ya, and ya c'n bring some more of yer stuff. I'm bettin' you'll need it 'fore th' day's over."

Everyone got busy. Karen stepped closer to Aleesha. She wasn't breathing now; it was clear she would not be among those carried down the mountain this morning. Squatting down by the girl's head, Karen took her hand for a moment, and felt the life going. "I'm sorry," she said. "Would have liked to get to know you."

She stood up again to take her place in line. The spare bow she was carrying was Aleesha's.


Friday, July 11, 2014

19


Avery Murchison rang the spare buzzer. This would call together the entire crew, who might be anywhere on three of the four floors below; there was an elevator, but it hadn't been run – if it could run – in the lifetime of anyone now living at Ridge. The stairs were a problem for Avery; he could get up and down them himself, but it was a slow and undignified process. From time to time, he felt the need to oversee his crew's efforts, and the strongest would form a two-person carry, then fetch the wheelchair for him. That seemed somewhat undignified as well; so he generally resorted to to an "all call" to the control room.

Eight bodies hurtled up the stairs. Avery believed he felt no sorrow for himself at the sound of so many feet; but his distant manner left no doubt that he'd known loss, and would rather run than wheel. First to arrive was young Billee, who had been resting in quarters after her ordeal of the afternoon; the others came in after her, one by one.

"Evening. Take a seat." Steel folding chairs were numerous in the facility. Ridge crew members, five men and three women, took chairs from the stack by the smooth black basalt wall and arranged themselves, by custom, in a circle in the square room.

"Billee here has had an adventure, as we all know, and it seems likely we'll have visitors soon. I understand everything still outside has been brought in? Good. We've done a fair job of maintaining the front and back door; they match the hillside reasonably well; but the windows can't really be helped. They are likely to be obvious, though they're rather one-way. If the bandits possess explosives we could be breached. Billee's bow, and the big binocs, had to be left behind. Do we have a spare bow?"

Wilson Wilson, a son of the original orchardist on the Creek, spoke up. "Yes, sir. I have an old compound that's not too big for you, Bee, and six good carbon broadheads to go with." He smiled.

"Ooh, thanks," said Billee. She leaned forward, eyes alight with anticipation.

"Very good," said Avery. "So, other bows?"

"Two; yew-wood longbows. About – " they consulted briefly –"thirty arrows."

"Crossbows?"

"Five; seventeen bolts."

"And the Ruger Old Army, which I recharged with powder and ball today." Avery looked round the group. "Not much; but we have the home ground, plenty of provisions –" this brought smiles and chuckles – "and lockable steel doors throughout. We don't expect everyone to converge here; at the moment, Hall is safer from our guests than the trail would be. So, Ridge is part of the front lines instead of castle and keep. Savage Mary sent us someone on a science mission, but the Captain's holding him at Hall tonight.

"We can't risk having anyone outside in the dark; tomorrow we may try to link up with the crews on the saddle." Avery nodded toward the east. "We're the right flank. If our guests get round us tonight, Hall could be in trouble. Wendlers, Tomlinsons, less one fighter, and Gulicks are spread out at the bottom, with Hall in reserve. That's not a lot of defense to meet twenty-four well-armed and very experienced men." He let that sink in.

"Back when we only had six or eight bandits at a time, we found that dealing with them was hard work." He didn't look down, but everyone remembered how he'd lost his legs. "So, we're going to batten down tonight. Wilson, keep me company, we'll do watch and watch. Billee, go the rounds and see that each floor has its food and water and the lamp wicks and fuel are in good order. Two to a floor, doors locked and barred, all entry refused except to this knock." Avery rapped the table in a pattern all knew, though none of them had heard "shave and a haircut" sung. "Sleep tight. With any luck, we'll be fresh and dry at daylight and any visitors will be wet and tired. Then we'll see. 'K?"

Nods all round; sober but unfrightened faces. Along with their friends the Ball Butte Murchisons, this crew considered themselves the elite defenders of the Creek.

"Good; hop."

They folded their chairs away and filed out. Wilson went with them. to retrieve his gear. Avery could hear Billee in the stairwell, haggling. "Look, you each have fifteen arrows; maybe you could give me one each? Then at least I'd have eight."

One of a kind, thought Avery. After today's doings, Bee will be a very good nickname for her!

"Don't mind about the girl; she knows her way around up there; that's all." Wolf smiled. Dill had returned from the south slope of Starvation Creek covered with stings; his right eye was swollen shut, and his breathing was labored. He also seemed depressed at having been bested by a child; but he had not returned empty-handed.

On the table between them lay a lightweight bow; several arrows to match, a leather-bound case containing a beautiful pair of air-raid warden's binoculars dating from World War II, which she had tried to hide away, a fanny pack (when had he last seen such a thing?) containing an oddment of possibles, including an old lip-balm tube which had been refilled with scented grease of some kind, a steel water bottle, and a packet of large leaves containing a half-eaten cake, redolent of grains and apples. Last, but not least, there was a badly rusted steel sign, about a foot wide and two feet high, with tiny holes at the four rounded corners.

"This interests me the most, Dill; and the fact that you had the presence of mind to pick it up, and go back to acquire the kid's toys, after what you'd been through ... well, I'm impressed."

It took a lot to impress Wolf. Dill, sore as his ass was, sat up straighter. "So, what's it say, Wolf?"

"I'll tell ya; th' thing's had a lot of weather, but th' writin' was – smashed into it – as well as painted. 'NO TRESPASSING. INTRUDERS WILL BE ARRESTED. SECURE AREA. USDHS.' Now, you say that there had been a fence there?"

"Yeah, Wolf. They'd took it all away but it looked like it was concrete-anchored posts and chain link, with a trail along th' inside, and it went right around th' mountain. Saw some old razor wire, too."

"So these folks may have somethin' more goin' on than just gettin' straw in their hair. Huh. Thanks a whole bunch, Dill; you go get some rest."

"Wolf."

"Dill."

Wolf made the rounds of the campfires. From each group, he got a sense of their morale, which was high after the day's feasting and plundering, and he made sure they'd remembered to set sentries. Before dawn, they would take up their war gear, and go have a look at the peasants' paradise.

As he came up to the house, Cougar met him on the steps.

"Wolf."

"Coug."

"Gotta tell ya 'bout somethin' we heard on that radio thingy."


Carey Murchison felt what he thought of as pain-in-the-gut more and more these days. Willow-bark tea was not going to cut it; so he rode out the storms of red-in-the-eyeballs hurt either by himself, till they passed, or otherwise tried to look quietly introspective in a leaderly way. Others, he felt, habitually looked to him to think his way through these emergencies, so when he ran out of ideas – and in this much pain, who has ideas? – he bluffed his way through, for the sake of Creek morale.

The current spasm went on much longer than usual. Fortunately the runner was out, to see if non-combatants had thought to clear themselves out of upper Creek, and to pass on Murchison's strong opinion to the effect that they should do so if they had not. Avery had not called since reporting on little Billee's near miss on the south slope – busy with dispositions to lock down the Ridge overnight and anchor the right flank. So no one was present in the command center to witness that "the Captain" had doubled over and almost fallen to the floor in a faint. He was reaching for a half-finished cold mug of peppermint-chamomile tea when the radio kid knocked and entered, without waiting for a "come in." Carey looked sourly upon him, but the effect was lost on the nearsighted eyes behind those thick panes of glass.

"Sir, if I can't go up tonight, perhaps I could demo our idea down here?"

"And what would that involve?"

"I'd connect the car radio to your twelve-volt current – you do have twelve-volt, right? – it would be quite safe; I have an in-line ten-amp fuse here. The doorbell buzzer can't hurt the radio or vice versa. The output wires go to a speaker – I have one here, but, in fact, they will run your 'phone – the impedance is not too much of a mismatch – and also Mr. Murchison's on the Ridge! That way you could both listen to any broadcast messages – as reported by our recorder to you today – if the antenna does any good, here in the shadow of Ridge."

"It sounds like you just need something to do; I've heard the message. If, as I suspect, they're just repeating the same one over and over, I don't see the advantage of rushing this. We can haul this up the hill and set it up for you; we understand the principle. But it might not be for days if ever; there's a war on. Do you have more phones that could match up with the three we have? That I could use."

Uh, no, sir, dynamics were superseded long ago."

"More's the pity. But you have lots of car speakers and computer speakers and such; could you rig up some kind of intercoms? One for Wilsons would be super, and one for Bridge and one for Mary, just for starters."
Selk gave a look of astonishment; apparently he'd not expected this line of thinking from the "Old Man." "Umm, you know, I think we just might!"

"Well, that's a priority. Go back to Mary's – you can find it in the dark? It's quite safe to do so at the moment, I think. Thank her for the blades. And propose, from me, a crash program in communications. And please – beg her for me – we appreciate the expertise and the industry that have gone into making the percussion caps, but when can we have some cartridges – with primers?"

This last was said with some force, and poor Selk jumped, but maintained his composure, and turned to go. Carey called him back.

"One more thing. Could you also say to Mary that Carey her friend would love to see some kind of hand grenades – if there's enough powder."

"Yes, sir. What are 'hand grenades?'"

"She'll know. Hell, soup cans full of nails and screws and BP, with a five second fuse, would be just lovely. This here is hill country, and we need to be able to reach behind these boys and spank 'em on the butt."
Selk's eyebrows went up behind the glasses. 

"Umm, I'll see what I can do, sir!"


Long past midnight, Ellen Murchison hobbled across the bridge to the Mess Hall with a limp and a crutch. She also had a fever and a cough, but she reckoned there might well be worse things happening than whatever her condition might be. Good information was not to be had at Chaneys', and so she came looking for her husband, or anyone who might be able to fill her in.

Hall was packed; it looked like the scene at some Red Cross shelters she'd come across in days gone by. Many people from farms on the upper Creek had decamped from the anticipated invasion point, and most of them had come here. In the dim light from alcohol lamps and tallow drips, bedrolls had been spread out along the walls and among and even on some of the tables, and though many people, among them women with children, oldsters and a few disabled, were asleep or attempting to sleep, others were up and about, and a clattering came from the kitchen.

Ellen made for the stairwell down to the pantries, where a door led to the command center.

"Ellen!" She turned, painfully, toward the voice. It was Velma Ames, the cattle breeder. "I heard you were in hospital! Have they turned ya loose? Honey, you don't look so good ..."

"Seen Carey?"

"Oh! He's popped up a couple times, mostly hides in that damp basement. Shouldn't ya sit down, then?"
"No, m'better'n I look, honest. See you in a bit." Ellen pressed on.

Getting down the stairwell with the crutch took more doing than she'd anticipated, especially when she had to negotiate two cooks in the dark, bringing up a large sack, but eventually she came to the door and gave it her customary knock.

Indistinct voices came from within, but she could tell that one of them was Carey's and he had recognized her knock. The door opened, with a whiff of old tallow – the room was not sufficiently ventilated – and Huskey, the crew leader from Bledsoe's, stood aside to let her in.

"Ellen, what in the effing hell are you doing up?" asked Captain Murchison, who was sitting across the broad table from her, with the Creek map spread out before him.

"Same thing you'd be doing, Murch," Ellen croaked. She looked him over, and was shocked to discover his condition had worsened since she'd seen him last. If a man shrinks in a week – practically right before your eyes – how long before he fades away completely?

"Well, it's obvious you're here without Dr. Chaney's permission. How'd you get the crutch?"
"Stole it. Got time to fill me in?"

"Sure. Mr. Huskey, close the door, please, and join us."

"Yes, sir."

They huddled round the map beneath the lantern.

"We've got about thirty people here. I think." Murchison stabbed at the map with his finger, in the vicinity of the Starvation Ridge saddle. "And fifteen or twenty in reserve, at the bottom. Elevation between them is a couple of hundred feet, though, and there's just the one steep trail, so the reserve can't get at a fight quickly if it develops at night. Or, for that matter, in daytime. Everything is muddy now. We'd have asked them to move up closer, but that north slope is all tangled thickets, people would lose touch."

Ellen nodded.

"Up here –" he indicated the Ridge facility – "is Avery's bunch, about ten in all, hunkered down till daylight, with plans to feel out the situation at dawn and try to hook up with Allyn's crews."

"So there's a gap in the line."

"A big one. And Avery's been blind since about two in the afternoon – they jumped his lookout."

"So, she dead?" This was offered hopefully; capture would be so much worse.

"No; got away! So we don't know where the bandits are right now. With any luck they're still skulking around Lawson's; they had two battles and a long march, then slaughtered everyone at the homestead, so I'm guessing they won't move till daylight, with all this terra incognita in front of them."

"But you don't have any confirmation of that."

"I don't, which is why we're scattered all over, not knowing their movements. It's an effing mess. Now, right above us –" he drew a line from the Ridge to the Bridge – "we have nobody. They are little likely to come straight at Hall, not knowing the terrain, but it's an intolerable gap, with everyone descending on us. So I've pulled three crews across the Creek –" he nodded at Huskey –"on the assumption that there are no more armies like this one approaching Ball Butte or Bridge. They can cover between the Ridge trail and the drop-off above the Bridge; then tomorrow we'll scrape around and see who's had enough rest and resupply to send toward whatever develops."

"Well, Carey, that's just about what I would have done." Ellen turned her head – her body was too stiff – toward the young man. "Do you have the shotgun?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"When's your jump-off?"

"Soon as possible. I was just leaving."

"'K, if you have time, send somebody to Chaney's for the revolver and the powder and ball kit. But," she smiled, "umm, don't tell 'em where I am."

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am. Captain." Huskey disappeared into the hallway.

"A good one," remarked Carey.

"Yes, he had a lot to do with how well it went up at the lookout." Ellen gave in to a coughing spell.

"Girl, you are a sorry mess. When I looked at you last night – in the morning rather, you were out like a light and looked like you would sleep a week."

"'S'just a cold. Murch, it's you I'm worried about." She covered his hand with hers. "Why are you melting away on me?"

Carey looked at the wall. The silence stretched on. Tens seconds, twenty. She gave him his own time; he'd always taken inquiry into his health as an invasion of privacy.

Now he looked at the ceiling, then down at their hands, fingers interlaced, and finally again directly at her. "Ellen, it's bone cancer."

"I knew it! The effing DU. I never did like it that you were on the old LAV-30Fs."

"Well, it was my job; I didn't ask for it; they posted me." He smiled sheepishly. "Enjoyed it, though."

"Shit. Liked it! Effing killed yourself liking it." Tears filled her eyes. "So, how long have we got?" I will not fall apart.

"Y'know ... lot of other ways to get radiation poisoning; I'm sure I'm not the only one on the Creek, either. Me? ... maybe two months. If that crowd over the hill doesn't get us first. Or their friends."

"And nothing we can do?"

"Girl, there was nothing we could do back when there was something we could do! And now, for pain, I drink effing peppermint tea."

"Oh, Murch."

Murchison withdrew his hand. "Ellen, we got a lot to do between now and then. Identify weaknesses, find some strengths, encourage new leadership, and, assuming we're not too badly damaged in the next week or so, batten down for the winter and make it through to spring with grain and animals intact!"

Without you and without Mo-reen, she thought. Dammit!

"Ellen, I know what you're thinking, but you should see the shape you're in. A cold these days is no joke, and neither is a wound, even a small one."

"True. What have you got for sore throat?"

"Try some of this stuff; mostly chamomile, with a little honey. S'cold, though." He poured a mug for her. "Were losing two of your fellow patients already."

Too much dying. "I make that ten of us, plus all of the Lawsons. What's with these intruders, anyway?"
"They're just the same as us. We lucked into a sheltered area with clean land, replicable foodstuffs, and enough labor to run it; they didn't – till now. That might be the only difference – oh, and that they've had more practice at killing, lately, than we have."

"Did you get a look at the bodies? They must have been brought here."

"Ours or theirs?" he smiled grimly.

"Theirs. I shot them all, except one, I think – Huskey brained him – but it was too dark to get much of an impression."

"I'm surprised you didn't get at least one prisoner for me." he smiled.

"Sorry about that, but we didn't know how many we were dealing with."

"Well, I can tell you. All white, male, muscular, tattooed, shaved heads, bumpy faces, and war paint. Makeshift clothing and weaponry, some effort toward camo."

"Kind of a skinhead militia?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Magee. He's back."

"It's the look he cultivates. But I think he's in Roseburg."

Her eyebrows shot up. "Why do you think that?"

"Remember KKUV? He's broadcasting from there."

"No!"

"Yep. I think he's out of touch with this bunch – but he's looking for them, or some kids enough the same as makes no difference."

"Jeeah, Murch, they all get together, no more Creek for sure."

"That's right. We're going to have to go all out, I think. Which we're not yet focused enough to pull it off."

Ellen collected her crutch. "Murch, I really, really love ya, but I think I better get a move on now."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Got some focusing to do."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

18


Billee put down the heavy binoculars and stretched. They were an old model, built a century ago. Intended for use with a tripod, they'd lost that long ago, and she used now a forked stick for support. Still, it was wearing. Her pulse affected the thing's usefulness, and she'd learned to deep breathe, then let out her breath slowly, watching through the eyepieces only a few seconds or so at a time.

To the left, men were lugging something to the smokehouse. It looked like – oh, never mind that. These people were dis-gus-ting. Killers and worse. People, that was one thing, but she would not watch them drag that poor dog around. Directly in front, there was activity on the porch. To the right, a couple of cooking fires. It really looked like they might stay the night.

She held her right hand out, crooked her fingers, and counted from the sun to the horizon. Three hands, or as the old people inexplicable put it, "ours." Must stay till dark this time, so as not to be seen.

Meanwhile she depended on this rockpile covered with poison oak, dressed in its lovely fall colors. Not likely to be seen here, in the thick stuff.

Habitually, she looked around for late-season rattlesnakes. It was cool now, with one more moon before winter, and last night's rain had put a damper on things reptilian, but better safe than sorry. The little diamondbacks, more numerous every year, were a pretty tame lot, but it would be rude to step on one, and they had little tolerance for rudeness.

Billee found the bald-faced hornets much more of a concern, but the nearest nest that she knew of was forty meters west. They too were calming a bit with the change in the weather. Not much to worry about out here, except for the creeps down below. She sat up slowly, lifted her scope and stick, eased the scope into position and swept the Lawson place again. Four – no, five men going down to the river. 

Wait. What's that sound?

She listened again. Nothing.

Still, best be ready. She capped the binocs, both ends of each tube, and stuffed them in their case. Propped in their crack in the basalt, they might stay dry. She scattered the handful of leaves over the crack that she kept handy for the purpose. Moving slowly, slowly, she strung her bow and picked up her ready arrow.

Listened.

Could be anything. Let it be a deer. Let it be a deer.

A smattering of small raindrops pattered the rocks. A pebble rolled, somewhere off to the left. Then silence. Turning her head imperceptibly that way, Billee watched that area, maybe sixty meters off, with her peripheral vision, attuned to movement.

Nothing.

Maybe she imagined it?

No! There it was! A man, focused on her hiding place. Stone-still, one of the creeps. Shit, shit, shit, made!

Could he see her? She didn't think so – he was stalking her position. She'd been seen, somehow, from the Lawson's. They were being smug, and had sent a collector.

Billee could wait until he approached, and shoot – or do a rabbit-run, and hope not to be shot with a weapon, if he had one on him. Waiting presented the problem that there might be more than one of them. Running presented the same problem, but if there was only one, this would be the option to take.
Have to chance it.

Taking another deep breath, this time in an effort to get the numbing panic out of her legs and arms, she put down the bow, dropped her fanny pack, picked up the water bottle from it, took a short drink, rinsed her mouth and spat. Then she grabbed a baseball-sized stone and bolted.

She reached the hornet's nest, hanging from a poison oak bush in a cleft in the rocks. After she'd passed it, she turned and pelted the nest from seven meters away. There was a satisfying thump and the nest swayed. Turning on her heel, she darted up the mountain just as the man reached the cleft.

His yelling was music to her young ears, and even as she ran, she allowed herself a rude gesture. Hah! Creeps.


Emilio, Juanita and Raul came into the kitchen and found Karen, Tomma, Vernie, and Errol sitting down to steamed greens, which were mostly kale and fava leaves. Mrs. Ames was pouring her version of "green drinks," hot water strained through mint, chopped herbs and vegetable leaves. They had stocked up on baked potatoes and venison jerky for the overnight maneuver, and had also made up a sackful for Emilio.

"Good evening, friends," said Emilio. "I am thinking, if this does not go so well, there should not be anyone here tonight. The crew leaders for Wilsons, Jones and Beemans agree. Mrs. Ames, if the animals all are prepared to be without you awhile, I would say let us pack you and Nita and the boys for a night at Hall. The Wilson people will wait for us all by their bridge."

Mrs. Ames had anticipated this, and there was not much that needed to be done. David was called down from the lookout, a few possessions not already in packs were gathered, and additional hay, comfrey, and beets, with such grain as could be spared, were made available to the cows and chickens.
The full complement of Ames were on the road before nightfall.

The Wilsons bridge was on the left, beyond an apple orchard, a few hundred yards' walk. Five of the Wilson residents welcomed the two women and the twins from Ames, and departed along the road into the night with them. They traveled armed, and no one carried lights. A steady light rain had begun, and the darkness was thick, but every Creeker had experience in navigating the road by the contrast between the night sky above and the even darker trees, fences and hedges at either hand.

Karen half expected Allyn to be waiting for her at the bridge, but as the whistleman for Wilsons he had duties across the Creek. Emilio, Tomma, Vernie, Errol, and Karen trooped in single file across the Wilson bridge and up the lane toward the farmstead.

"Word?" – a challenge came from ahead.

Emilio gave the expected reply. ""Jonathan! Word?"

"Gravenstein!"

"Good evening, Stannin. Ames coming in."

"Wilson greets you. Jones and Beemans are here; Holyroods and Lazars are coming."

"Has every noncombatant been sent to Hall?"

"Yes; word got to the Holyroods and Lazars last, that's why their crews aren't here yet."

They came up to the main house. Its windows, along with the loopholes of its outbuildings, faintly shone with the glow of alcohol lamps. Voices came from within; a few people were sitting out of the rain under a pair of large redwood trees that had been planted in the yard over a century ago. The Ames crew joined these and sat, wet-haired and damp-clothed, in the darkness. The difficult march ahead, under the conditions that had arisen, weighed heavily now on all minds, and most conversations became muted.

Karen preferred to stand alone; sitting for very long in the cold reduced one's readiness in case of the need for action. So did conversation. In spite of herself, she began to shiver, rattling her trash-bag poncho; the wool cloak she was wearing underneath it held out some cold, even when wet; but the leather jerkin beneath that, which some of the rain had found, robbed her of heat. To distract herself from her discomfort, she recited inwardly, as she sometimes did, pointers which Father attributed to his favorite author: Do not think dishonestly ... do nothing which is of no use ... an elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak ... maintain the combat stance in everyday life and make your everyday stance your combat stance ...be able to look to both sides without moving the eyes.

The other crews, as it turned out, had been right behind them. Stannin's voice challenged twice; other voices answered, and the available forces had gathered.

Allyn appeared from the night, with other leaders. "Emilio?"

"We are here."

"Numbers?"

"We are five."

"Nice; there are only twenty-eight of us for tonight; three crews will be in reserve and will come stay here later. They'll relieve some of us in the morning. Does everyone have plenty of rations? Water? Gear?"

"We do."

Allyn was apparently in charge. Even in the dark, he looked pleased with himself; but not overly so. A good man, even among these well-meaning folk.

Other groups approached the tree from the house and from beneath the other redwood.

"K, here's the deal." Allyn raised his voice to reach all ears. "We'll file up the trail from here to the saddle. Wilsons will be on point, and will drop down the other side a bit and spread out on picket. Each picket carries a whistle, a little higher pitched than mine. Jones will spread out in the saddle and be prepared to go to any whistle. Holyroods go left and spread out along the crest, left flank. Lazars stay together behind the hill and get some rest. Beemans and Ames go right and spread out as far as you can toward Ridge, one every fifteen paces. We're setting dispositions now because we're late getting up there and will need to keep quiet. I know that's a very thin line, but it's the best we can do. If they hit us, we raise all the ruckus we can, so the crews at Wilsons will know to get ready for trouble. But they really can't come to our aid till daylight; we're the only ones at all familiar with the hillside. All set?"
Various voices gave assent.

"K, let's get our hike on. Give each other three or four paces, so we don't all slap each other silly with wet branches." Allyn's voice conveyed a wry smile through the clouded night.