Near winter is a eff of a time to go campaignin', Wolf thought. But if anybody is out there, now is th' time to hit 'em up.
He surveyed his crew. Not much, but where can one find enough men to achieve anything when there's never enough food or potable water and so many diseases keep popping up? And what's the fun trying to build an army when there's almost no ammunition around, any more?
If he hadn't lucked into that intact gun shop in that ghost town in the boonies, he wouldn't be running any kind of serious operation by now – or maybe any kind of operation at all.
The former owners had opted to dome the whole place with steel-reinforced concrete, leaving one opening that was covered with a well-hidden door salvaged from, apparently, a bank vault, presumably with intent to return and use the building's contents as trade items. Or for their own use over time.
They must have possessed a bulldozer and a crane and fuel to run them with, as well as considerable single-mindedness. He admired them, but there would be no hope of meeting them, no doubt. As usual, they hadn't returned.
With the aid of some terribly crystallized stump powder, his last live cap and a car battery still holding a weak but sufficient charge, and with wire harness ripped from the same car and spliced, he and Mac had made their way in. Correction. He, Wolf, had made his way in. Mac had not survived the break-in.
Oh, well. He wasn't such great company in that jee-dee prison, either.
It had taken so long to find, train, dominate his small army – everyone has to sleep sometime – that the ammunition and working primers had begun to run low at last, and he'd had to resort to scrounging crossbows and selfbows to keep things hopping.
I s'pose we'll be down to spears and clubs before this is over, he thought wryly. Bet I oughta be looking for guys with bigger shoulders now, stead'a sharper eyes.
Wolf climbed up on a stump and turned around. The column halted. It was a good spot for counting heads; an opening among the copses of ash and cottonwood, and although there was, as there was nearly everywhere now, an awful lot of Scotch broom and teasel crowding the trail in a tangle eight feet high, he could see everyone from the stump.
Twenty-eight. Good, no one had slunk away. 'Course, if they tried, the first one to claim the kill would get the liver. But he didn't expect much trouble; morale was high since they'd landed on that last little pocket of pilgrims. Always going north! What did they think they were all going to find up there? Klondike gold?
"Hey y'all, an' how ya' doin?"
"We're real good, Wolf," they replied in unison.
'Course you're good, you're alive, ain't ya? Who deserves to live?"
"Yeah, cuz' the dead are in no effin' shape to deserve nothin'. An' that. Is. A. Fact; you ever heard the dead tellin' ya 'bout their rights?" Scattered chuckles, not many; they'd heard that one too many times. "Break, till we come get ya. Use th' shade of this maple, an' keep the chatter down to a gentle roar. Secure all your loads and gear. Willits, point. When Burgoyne catches up to us, Bucky, swap with 'im an' go out fifty yards. 'K?"
"S'good, Wolf." Unison again, but not as loud. Mention of the maple showed Wolf's mind: Keep low and quiet and out of sight of any line of fire. The spot offered no cover but fine concealment.
And the ground was dry.
Though it had been a droughty summer, as usual, they had found entire days of monotonously wet going. Without anyone to maintain ditches and drains, many of the abandoned farms had quickly reverted to wetlands, a problem compounded, though Wolf knew nothing of this, by the absence of personnel at flood regulation dams in the huge watershed. Nothing had stopped the rivers jumping their banks in winter, and often the resulting sheets of water had had nowhere to go, covering roads as well as fields.
Wolf didn't care if he never saw another blue heron as long as he lived.
All sat down, keeping weapons close at hand and unshipping loaded pack frames or pack bags and tumplines. They sipped at water or traded differently-textured bits of jerky.
The men, ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, were all veterans, proud of their association with Wolf the Lucky, and had adopted several means of quickly distinguishing themselves from potential foes. Few of them had yet grown the luxuriant beard, black streaked with gray in his case, that adorned Wolf's scarred and pitted face; but all sported closely cropped hair in imitation of his premature baldness, and had adopted his practice of streaking his cheekbones with lampblack.
They also had crudely tattooed one another with needles or safety pins, and had learned to tuck bits of ash under the skin of their foreheads, raising welts that saluted Wolf's status as a smallpox survivor.
Their devotion pleased Wolf's vanity, but he was more interested in their relative lack of focus. The more extreme forms of discipline, in the early going, had been constant, thinning the ranks and forcing up the recruitment rate. Things had improved, but still! The nonsense he'd had to put up with would strain a saint. He remained standing, eyes saccading continually over the nearby brush and woods, with his prized AK in hand.
Not that there hadn't been a lot to choose from in the shop. He could have gone with one of the many models of AR; they'd even stocked that lovely HK. But he appreciated sturdy and simple and he appreciated the extra hundred yards of reach. His entire life of some twenty-four years – getting old, jee-dee it – had been one long shot anyway.
Everything else he had cached, and doled out over time, but much of it was gone or out of commission now.
Burgoyne, a feral slip of a youth who'd proved useful in culverts, sewers and "rat holes," reported in. He carried his favorite (and now rare) weapon, a Stoeger coach gun Wolf had entrusted to him, with a bandolier of assorted shells, each lovingly encased in plastic wrap.
"Heyaa, Wolfie, all clear in back."
"Sure, it's all effing swamp anyways. Take a breather here with th' boys, I'm gonna follow up Willits for a bit."
Wolf didn't have to go far. Willits, a cautious and reliable scout, had holed up in a copse of willow and other trash trees, on the edge of an unexpected expanse of grass.
"Whatcha got here, dubyah?"
"Wide open; no cover, no housing. That mountain we've been aiming for comes down to a gap on the other side of this; and there's a bridge out there."
"Lemme get a look at that." Wolfie reached into the back pocket of his cruiser's vest, and produced a small rifle scope, which he preferred to the binoculars he'd found in the shop. He'd fitted the scope, side-mount, to his AK, and so the scope could serve dual purposes. But for moving targets he liked iron sights. Unwrapping the scope from its protective bag, he swept the horizon with it, then grunted.
"Not enough elevation; there's a lot of dead ground here. Ya done right ta hold up. Gimme a leg up into this effin' tree here."
From his perch, Wolf studied the bridge. Too clean. It oughta have more crap growin' on it by now, even though it's all steel and asphalt around there. Hmm.
He swept the horizon again. To the south, woods over to the base of the mountain, the slopes of which were grassy, and rocky at the top. Might go that way and get a look from up there at the valley behind; lots of exposure, though. To the north, where, he knew from the map, the freeway had swept in close to the foothills, stood one of the ubiquitous cell towers. Out of habit he scoped that.
Something about it didn't quite look right.
Wolf packed up the scope, grinning at Willits who was standing by his knees, below.
"Dubyah, call up th' boys and form column on me; we'll make for that cell tower through th' woods. Let's keep out of sight of it, though, long as we can. Savvy?"
"Savvy, Wolfie." Willits, crossbow in hand, disappeared into the short green shadows of the willow thicket.