Wolf the Lucky wondered, not for the first time, about luck. He'd lost his best man and four twelve-gauge slugs and had not much to show for it. And now it looked like rain.
Rain, as everyone knew, was poisonous.
"So what all we got here?"
Willits handed him the precious Glock. "No harm done to that, as usual." He looked over his shoulder at the wreckage which was being systematically gone over by Wolf's men. "The fire at the top of the tower looks like it will go on for awhile – there may have been volatiles stored inside. Most of what came down is just wood – roundwood woven together to make the 'nest.' There was one occupant; looks like it was a girl. She was blown all over us along with some of her personal items, a crossbow and a pair of binoculars which are a total loss, and a few handmade bolts, which we can use. Oh, and we know you hit her; low in the gut. That might be why she ..."
"Burgoyne?" Wolf cut in.
"He's salvageable. A lot of stuff came down right on him and the fire didn't get to him. Got the Kevlar, got the axe, got the bolt cutters. Cougar is divvying up the meat with the axe."
"Come across wires, caps, fuses?" Communication gear?
"Uhh, no. If she had anything like that it must have gone down the tower."
"Any sign of what the girl's been eating?"
"Umm, beets, apples, potatoes, and some kind of bread. Anything else, blown away."
They always left the best for last, instead of coming out with it. Even Willits. It's enough to drive ya mad. Apples could be foraged ... but ...
"Beets? Potatoes. Bread!" Eff! It's the pot of gold.
These farmers must be amateur fighters, or they'd never have let her get out this far with farmed food. It was like a signpost: come and get us. On the other hand, the blast had been a pretty slick trick. No smell of cordite or whatever. What else have they got? Have to be careful, but not too careful. Speed might be of the essence. Those clouds up there; around here, when it rained, they sat right on the hills, blanking out any advantage of a pair of eyes on the heights. He made up his mind and handed the shotgun and four buckshot shells to his new second-in-command.
"Willits, let's wrap up here."
"Take five guys and this and go recon that hilltop due east of us; I have a feeling we're being watched from there. Travel light, take water, run a hundred, walk a hundred. The rest of us will take the meat and your loads, get back into the cover and work our way over toward that bridge. If you can, clear out the hilltop and get a look-see into the valley. Either way, come back down and rejoin us by the bridge. Chirp, we'll chirp twice and bring ya into the lines."
"Willits." They each touched a finger to their foreheads.
Wolf holstered the Glock, turned to the remainder of his crew, who had gathered, sensing decision, and gestured with his AK.
"You got all that?"
"Wolf," they replied, almost in unison for once. They gathered up the recon's, and Burgoyne's, gear, as well as the fresh meat, and fell into column with Cougar on point. The Scotch broom, scenting the air with their passage, added its pungency to the smell of burnt wood and flesh. Smoke rose behind them, and they stepped in the shadows of tall ash and cottonwood.
What's keeping them? Ellen Murchison wondered for the fortieth time. Her crew was worn out, not only from an unusually long day with short rations, but the tension of knowing that an armed force, led by a man carrying the weapon that had fired on her granddaughter's position, might come upon them from somewhere to the west. Or, anyway, she'd seen them toiling toward her, before they entered the dead ground below the slope. Since then clouds had rolled in, chill and bleak. Now it was nightfall. Not much advantage to attack us here now, she thought. Unless they mean to stay.
She'd already packed up her phone and buried the wires. A last call might be vital to the Butte crew, but if made too late, would compromise the remaining two stations' communications. One must know when one is expendable and act accordingly.
Wait; footsteps? She hauled back the long spur of her replica Colt Navy percussion revolver. It went through its litany of little clicks; disturbingly loud in the stone shelter. Black powder had been easier to revive than modern ammunition; but if the weather was going into its winter mode, the weapon could become unreliable. Still, she'd done what she could. With Jeeah's blessing, she could theoretically take out five.
"Clearcut." A voice in the fog, that of Melvin, one of her outliers. A bowman.
"Blowdown." Ah, the right answer. She'd wait a few moments before easing down the hammer, though.
"Come forward and let's see you. Crew?" asked Melvin. Good; almost a whisper, as directed.
"Russell's. Got Bledsoe's and Joseph's, so we're nine. Action?" Too loud. Well, one thing at a time.
"We'll show you outlying positions and go; three fit into the post."
A body attached to the "Russell's" voice arrived outside the dugout; a young man looked in. "Beg pardon, ma'am –" he lowered his voice as he became aware she was shushing him "– Ol' Man says we have to string off to the left and connect up with a line forming up; all the way down to the creek."
"All right. Thank you for coming. What do you carry?"
"Me? Bow, and one of the new 'swords.'"
Ellen began dismantling the tripod of the telescope. "Tell you what; I'll have my arms full getting this down from here tonight. Give me that little sword in case I have to defend it, and you take the Navy. You know how to use it, right?"
"Jeeah. Yes; I've dry fired it, anyway. Long time since I've seen it."
"K, well, when ready, hammer all the way back; if seven paces or less, point, shoot. There's no safety or anything like that to worry about. And as it's heavy you won't have too much recoil. But you might want to stuff some moss in your ears; it's close in here." Another face appeared in the doorway. "Your friend here should watch your back and be your ears –''
A gleaming tube, barely visible in this light, pointed in through the doorway. There was a blinding flash as a weapon was fired, point-blank, into the young man from Russell's, who spun and fell soundlessly against her. Blinded and deafened, Ellen forced herself to feel for the dropped revolver – it seemed to take forever as the collapsed body, still quivering, interfered. Why hadn't she been shot yet? Oh – he must be blinded himself.
She grasped the comforting grips of the long, heavy Navy. She must have made some sound, as there was movement from the presumed direction of the doorway. To shoot, she'd have to give away her position with the noise of her revolving cylinder; advantage bandit.
No happy endings in real life. One of Carey's favorite sayings.
Footsteps outside; more of them? The figure in the entrance twisted, but this provided her with no opening; the tube – it had clearly been a shotgun's blast – was still aimed her way. Then there came a welcome thump; quite loudly, her assailant had been struck in the back of the head. He'd be tightening his trigger finger as consciousness slid away ....
Ellen gathered strength to shove the body aside and leap to her left, as the second explosion came. She gasped involuntarily as pain seared her right side. But she hoped – based on old experience as a United States Marine – that she'd got off light. Most of the pellets had disappeared into the poor young man she'd known for all of thirty seconds. Whatever had passed through hurt, but was not debilitating. Or so she told herself.
"Mrs. M.?" shouted a tremulous voice, much too loud, in the entryway, as the shotgunner sagged and fell into the interior.
"Come in. And you are?" She holstered the Navy, picked up the shotgun, leaned it on the wall, and searched the body for ammunition. There was a pocket. Two shells! Buckshot, betcha.
"I'm Huskey, Bledsoe's. We're in a row out here." He stood, breathing heavily, in the entrance, a hatchet in one hand.
Ellen could hear shouting and blows: hand-to-hand. She scrabbled in her pack. "Here. I'm going out with this –" she picked up the shotgun, snapped it open, shoved in two shells. "– a little ways off. Cut his throat, just in case, then count to ten –" she handed him her only flare. "– smash it down on the wall here, like this. Hard, 'k? Don't look right at it, but hold this end, and run out and throw it as high as you can. On ten. Got me?"
She could feel him grinning in the dark. "Yes, ma'am!"
Jeeah, she thought. A few more like this one, pretty please. She stepped out and limped to the nearest boulders. If anybody was there, they had better know the effing password.
Guchi showed Karen and Allyn the kitchen arrangements. Three wood cook stoves of varying manufacture were arrayed against one wall, with steel pipes that had been let into a wide brick chimney. Pots and pans of all sizes and differing in style and quality hung from hooks or nails driven into a plank that ran the width of the ceiling.
A variety of sinks stood along the opposite wall, with buckets underneath to catch gray water for use on the farm. A large hand pump adapted from an old windmill pump stood in a cement basin on the floor, but was, apparently, seldom used, there being water pressure to the sinks from impounded springs at the base of Starvation Ridge. Steps led down beside the sinks through a hole in the floor, with railings around it; Karen supposed, knowing by now how Creekers did things, that this led to a pantry and buttery.
The stoves were all going, and on their flat iron surfaces steamed pots of stew. Guchi waved at these. "Carrots, cabbage, kale, walking onions, elephant garlic, sunchoke, cilantro. My own recipe, hah ha. But we have no salt. We are using blood from chickens. It would be better with salt. We do have some dried and ground chile peppers, though. I will be stirring these and keeping the fires."
He gestured to the long butcher block table down the middle of the room. It had a magnetic strip loaded with old, lovingly sharpened and stropped knives, anywhere from three to twelve inches long, along with a couple of cleavers. There were real oil lamps going; a luxury.
"Sorry there is not better light. Choose your weapons! – there are pack bags of potatoes and bulb onions here; we don't have enough fat on hand to fry anything, so, what to do, cut them up about so small –" he held up a two-centimeter cube of yellow-fleshed potato -- "fill these thirty-quart pots to here – cover with water – chop these chives, with some rosemary and marjoram, fine, and add them, and we will boil this down into a nice potato soup, add cream at the last moment, and the wet and hungry will love you for it," he smiled.
A head appeared in the doorway. "May I help?" Vernie! Welcome anywhere, Vernie was everyone's favorite "scullery maid," capable of putting in long hours at farm, house or kitchen work without boredom or complaint.
"So, did you see Tomma?" asked Allyn, reaching for a long knife and a red potato.
"See him – hah! He saw me. And challenged me! I did not yet have the password; had to lie down until someone got a lamp. My own main man – he might have shot me. I am depressed."
This was delivered as Vernie's deadpan version of humor, and lightened the tension in the air, briefly. But as they worked, they could hear urgent comings and goings in the Mess Hall. There had been, apparently, a real fight, somewhere in the rain and darkness beyond.
Wolf stood in the rain in a black-trash-bag poncho, water dripping from his nose and eyebrows, listening. Two booms, close together, then, a bit later, a glimmer of red in the clouds, then a series of smaller bangs, spaced apart. Not good.
He turned to the men not out on picket, who were huddled around several small campfires within what might have been a house foundation. They were playing their favorite game, which was dice, by rattling the 'bones' in a tumbler and shooting them onto the cement wall.
"'K, here's what I think went down. I, Wolf the Lucky, have not had a lucky day." Someone hooted. "Well, y'know, even a lucky gambler throws snake eyes now and then." More hoots, but good-natured, considering the circumstances. "Willets took longer to get up that hill than I thought; he was supposed to hit a lookout in daylight. From the sound of it, he's bit into a fort and they bit back. Somebody is double-tappin' up there and I'm thinkin' they ain't ours."
The dice-can stopped rattling. Handfuls of roast meat were suspended in mid-air. Everyone considered the implications. They were not used to things not going their way.
"So we didn't get a look-see and we're out some guys and a damn good shotgun." Wolf took off the bandolier underneath his poncho, wrapped it carefully in polyethylene sheeting, and handed it to the nearest man. "Put that away till we can get it better stashed; shotguns are a dime a dozen but ammo is effin' hard to come by."
He crossed his arms; the trash bag rustled. "Now. As you can see, we're not to th' bridge yet by half a hike ourselves; things are farther apart out here than they look. Anybody can tell me th' last time we saw a house or a barn, or anything besides that cell tower?"
The Luckies looked puzzled, and searched one another's faces and their memories. Briggs, a bowman at the middle fire, spoke up. "Well, after we got into them pilgrims, we holed up wi' th' females at that long building at th' end of a road." He grinned.
"Yep, what they used ta call a 'school building.' Kids went there ta learn stuff, back in th' day. So. Nothin' since. Two days' hike, no buildings, only foundations, like this'n."
They could make nothing of that, so they awaited Wolf's conclusion
He waved in the general direction of Ball Butte and the Creek. "Them farmers has been here awhile, and they're organized. I'm thinkin' they've ransacked this whole section out here –" his arm swept in an arc in the firelight "--every board, nail, and tile, not just to use, but so's nobody can use any of it ta get near 'em. No shelter, no food, no gear. None of that, so's no Pilgrims to live off of.
"I'm thinkin' th' lookouts have got word to th' home folks and th' home folks is waitin' by th' bridge ta have a go at us. With who knows what all – mines, maybe. Th' front door is shut. So, boys –" he paused for effect "--we're goin' round to th' back door."
"Yeah, Wolf!" assorted voices cried. "Back door! Back door! Them farmers is meat."
"K, so party on, then get some sleep. If nobody's back down here by daylight, we're off."