Allyn fell in beside Karen. "Have you been baking ever since you came over?"
"Mmph –" Karen pointed to her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. "– no; we've been cutting wood and working on the little blockhouses. I just moved into one."
"I'm still cutting and drying apple slices; even though there's not really enough sun now. We need to clear out the cold frames and start winter veggies."
"Maybe you could smoke the apples."
"Very funny." He pointed to Karen's bow. "Get any practice in with that?"
"Some; not enough. It's very nice, lots of power. But though I have been oiling it, every few days the point of aim changes."
"About twelve centimeters left to twenty meters – if there's no wind."
"Twelve in ... I think I need more practice than you do."
Karen, striding long to keep up with Emilio and Tomma, turned her head and regarded Allyn's earnest expression. "I had a good teacher. But ... thank you."
Allyn seemed almost about to stumble. Several expressions chased themselves round his face, then he looked ahead, matching stride with her.
This sort of thing – a promising conversation that halted suddenly – had happened between them before. Karen was not sure what to make of it.
They caught up to the Beemans the Lazars and the Ellins crews. Along with the Joneses and the Holyroods, the number had swelled to some twenty-four young men, and three women. All mingled briefly, then fell in and marched on past Reymers Farm, which lay on the other side of the creek. Two women, gathering potatoes, waved and then stooped to their work. Their warriors had already left for the Mess Hall. Behind their fields, clouds began to shroud the long basaltic spine of Starvation Ridge, and the day darkened.
"Hi. We met yet?" The two young women had somehow edged Allyn away, and were walking on either side of Karen. They carried laminated compound bows, a new thing in Karen's eyes. They were both shorter and wider than she, the one on the left fair-skinned, red-haired and freckled – much more so than Karen, and the one on the right was olive-skinned, dark eyed, and smiling – it was she who had spoken.
"Heard of you; I'm Aleesha and this's Marcee. We're both Lazar's."
"So," asked Marcee, "You a warrior? Not all the women are."
Karen wasn't sure what to answer to that, but Marcee went on. "The old-timers are all about how women have the eggs, of which there aren't going to be enough, so we're supposed to stay out of any fighting – unless it comes to the farms."
A picture leaped into Karen's mind of Juanita's bow and arrows, leaning on the wall in the Ames kitchen. Readiness, at least, had no gender.
"So, you've ever been in battle? You're too new here, I'd think." Marcee seemed to be looking Karen over appraisingly.
"No, I have not been in these 'battles."
"Aha! A raw recruit."
Tomma, now several ranks forward, looked back. "Don't be too sure. She's a Drownproofer."
"A what?" Marcee looked confused.
"Drownproofer. She was trained all her life to avoid attackers, then whip them when cornered."
Allyn chimed in. "And she has."
A steady light rain began to fall as evening came. The young people, many of whom had little in the way of rain gear, were happy to arrive at the Mess Hall no later than they did; they shucked their heavy pack frames and went to empty places at the tables, where baked potatoes and steamed kale awaited them in a variety of wooden or ceramic bowls. Pitchers of water and old Tupperware or aluminum tumblers were also available. But as for cutlery, each was left to his or her own devices. The potatoes had cooled. Karen set to with her belt knife and looked around her as she ate.
The long room was packed with people. Against the wall in the middle was a low plywood stage with a table and chairs on it; and in all but one of the chairs sat, presumably, Elders. Karen knew three of them: Tom and Elsa Chaney, the doctor and the farmer at Chaney's; on the table, hands splayed to his left and right, sat the "Captain," Carey Murchison, the former Marine sergeant. His balding head bowed, he seemed to her frailer than when they'd met, but still powerful.
Murchison raised his head and said something to Tom Chaney, who stood up. The spate of conversations and clatter of dishes subsided.
"Hi, and welcome to the General Meeting. It's not like ones we're used to. It's a two-parter; and there's nothing to vote on." His smile eased some of the tense atmosphere. "The Bledsoes, Josephs and Russells have already met and they've gone up to reinforce the Murchisons on Ball Butte. There's a bit of a war on." His kind eyes fell on Murchison. "Carey."
"Thanks, Tom." He looked round the room; some fifty young faces – so young!– looked back. "Today, a party of, we think, thirty-one, all male, surprised the Eagles's Nest from the woods and the lookout was forced to pull the plug. We believe the attackers also suffered a ... fatality. They appear to have spent part of the afternoon sifting through the wreckage of the Nest, and at least some are now making for the Butte, and should arrive under cover of darkness."
He gestured toward a handmade map, with east at the top, hanging from the wall behind the table. "As you can see, as they've split their forces, they may believe they can hold our attention on the Butte and slip into the valley just north of the Bridge. There might not be too many of them, but they have discipline, some courage, and enterprising leadership, and they may be hungry. Also –" he looked round the room again for emphasis "– they possess two or more modern firearms and some working ammunition." He let this sink in.
There were no questions; another sign that this was not your garden variety General when everyone seemed to have something to say into the wee hours. Many could guess who'd died at the Eagle's Nest, and the shock cleared their heads. Soon all would know, and mourn with the "old man." For now, they could honor the loss best by giving him their full attention.
"We have very little time. Wendler's?"
"Three." a voice came from the far back.
"Four." Karen knew that voice. Cal Perkins, the smiling man she'd met on the road with Mrs. Ames. So they had settled at Tomlinsons'.
"Two." Gulick Farm had few residents again; something Dr. Chaney called "flu depletion."
Flu had been a serious matter on the Creek, and had disrupted more harvests, and canceled more trainings, than any other factor, short of the ubiquitous radiation sickness. There were no graves, however; bodies were ceremonially composted, along with all other farm "waste." The dead, it had been noted, had registered no complaints.
"Okay, so, twelve. Go form a line between Russells' crew and the flat."
And so on; Hisey's and Delsman's crews would form a line across the creek, with their center on the Bridge; Maggie's and Peacher's would return home and then fan out north across the saddle between Ball Butte and Maggie's Hill; Reymer's, Lazar's and Ellins' crews would throw a line from the Bridge to the Chaney farm, to back up those on Ball Butte but also be available to throw into the line across the Bridge; and Beemans, Jones', Holyrood's, Wilson's and Ames' would stay at the Mess Hall, a last reserve.
Murchison gave them all the passwords for the night, and offered a few general instructions; keep at least twenty feet but no more than forty feet apart, keep still, keep quiet, engage anyone who fails a challenge; come to one another's rescue as needed, but use common sense; if you find yourself hurt or weaponless and alone, fall back on Hall.
Each "crew" had its own tactical leader, carrying a shrill wooden whistle. The whistle was intended to be unique in note, a call to one's own; but in practice anyone might respond. Assuming there were no deep sleepers. It would be four hours on, four hours off for the next while. More or less; who had a working watch anymore?
This was no more than a skirmish line; if that war party out there had stuck together they could cut through any part of it like butter. But it would be the Creekers' best chance of determining their movements until morning.
Sixty-three fighters were available in all, including those from Murchison's farm; those had been on alert at the Ball Butte station all day, though, and would need relief. And, of course, the Ridge, which had its own crew. So, say fifty-nine mobile, a third of them half-trained and experienced, the other two thirds half-trained and green.
So, we can expect a casualty rate of two to one. Or more. In that sense they have us outnumbered. Were the odds better at this end of the valley, he would have sent back the Ames' and the Wilsons's crews to watch the eastern saddles on Maggie's Hill and the Ridge. But you can only cover so many bets at a time. Not for the last time that day, Murchison struggled to keep his mind away from the futile round of "what ifs" concerning the failed lookout; none of it would bring back his granddaughter.
The crews moved back to their gear along the walls, taking their weapons, blanket rolls, and such rain capes or wool cloaks as they had, but leaving behind the pack frames. These had been used to bring in food supplies for the campaign. A few workers, whose farm was known as Hall, wearing aprons and cloth caps, began opening packs as the last "soldiers" filed out.
"Tomma, please take your firearm and go out to the trees and cover the entrance." Murchison smiled wanly. "And keep your powder dry." "Rest of you, half of you go take a nap, half please assist with the food. We'll make a third of it available for meals here over the next few days, and the usual two thirds will go into the ox-cart queue."
Karen made eye contact with Emilio, whose gentle smile showed her the chain of command was as it should be. She checked the location of her blanket roll, bow, and quiver, and presented herself to the nearest "Hall." "Hi."
The boy, surely about twelve, had a long, thin face, scraggly black hair, a light complexion, and dark eyes that seemed to look narrowly at her from beneath his eyelids. "I'm Guchi. Hall."
"Karen ... umm, Ames."
"S'short for Yamaguchi. I dunno, it was on a tag I had around my neck when they found me."
"Sounds a good name either way. What do I do?"
Allyn appeared by her right shoulder.
"What do we do?"