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, May 31, 2014

13


"Huskey, what have we got here?" Ellen had sent the young man to get a situation report. She'd covered the dugout with the shotgun, which she'd prudently not used – when might she see working shells again? – and, as Huskey's flare briefly lit the scene, was able to dispatch two bandits using her Colt Navy. Three more were already dying nearby, and she'd gone to finish them with her remaining three rounds. All of them had worked, despite the weather. People had stood around, winded and stupid from their brief, intense encounters, and she'd sent them back into line.

"Ma'am, we have six intruders, all confirmed dead. No others appear to be in the line or in front of it. If any got through and kept going, we don't know about it."

"How about our people?"

"Oh, ma'am –" he had to stop for a moment, to keep his voice from breaking "– we've lost seven – four with throats cut, one shot with a firearm, and two with arrows. And five are hurt; one with an arrow, four stabbed, one run into a rock in the dark and we're thinking broken arm. And two missing."

"That's six wounded, Huskey; the gunner got me too." She heard his sharp intake of breath. "But not badly; I'm sure I'm walking wounded." Eff! "So ... fifteen casualties out of fifteen people?"

"Ahh, no, nineteen. Tomlinsons came to our whistle. One of the hurt is theirs, but she's game to stay in line. They're on our left."

"Call it thirteen, then; eleven if our missing turn up. As against six men that we knew were coming and thought we were ready for. We're in trouble, Huskey, but we've been in trouble before." She looked around in the rain, but there was zilch to see. Moaning came from away to the right. 

"K', pull all of the dead, ours and theirs, off the summit a ways – say twenty feet – and we'll see about getting them down from here in the morning. Send me anybody that needs real medical attention and can walk, and we'll go down to Chaney's together and send you some stretcher bearers for the rest. Put 'em in the dugout, make 'em as comfy as you can. Are you the whistle for Bledsoes?"

"I am now." She could hear the mourning in his voice.

"Take this." She handed him the Stoeger. "It'll give you two shots. Hopefully. Unload it, dry-snap it, load it, get a feel for it. Don't think the pellets will spray all over. It has to be aimed, just like your bow, 'K? I'm going to leave you the 'scope, too. Now ... could you find me a little sword; it's in the dugout. I didn't know that young man by name –"

"Will Stafford, ma'am. A Russell. I'll get it for you." He departed and returned, double time, and handed it to her in silence.

"Thank you, Huskey; you're a winner. I'll sit here and wait for your other walkers."

"Ma'am." Huskey turned on his heel and disappeared into the rain.

Ellen, one of the oldest residents of the Creek, suddenly realized how exhausted she was. She was soaked in fog and blood and worse, with a dour odor of burnt gunpowder clinging to her wet hair; her side was starting to bother her more than she liked. She'd also heard a bit of croup creeping into her voice as she'd talked.

It would be hours, the getting down from here with hurt people – darkness, slick spots in the trail – but some hurts must be attended quickly for best results, and she and they would just be in the way up here. She'd have to have a talk with that young woman from Tomlinson's. Brave is not always wise.

A little light was filtering through the clouds now – quarter moon rise? Ellen realized she could see a body lying nearby. Melvin, one of her own farmers. A cheerful, hard-working lad, if not the brightest, specializing in grains. Undoubtedly one of the cut throats. He'd died without making a sound.
And her own granddaughter, gone; no doubt already bones, scattered over that lonesome valley in the night. She and her sick husband and her legless son had listened to the girl's last words less than twelve hours ago.

Everything she'd tried to accomplish was turning into ashes. Ellen M., get a grip! Best not dwell on the children now.

She examined the sword. A project of Savage Mary's, these things. Carey seemed to like the idea, though no one had really trained on them yet. Yes; these guys are night fighters and knife fighters, she thought. Bows, not so good in the dark. We're going to need a little bit of reach on them.

Made from a chainsaw bar, this one looked about fifty centimeters overall; it was better balanced than she'd expected, and some effort had been made to give it a sense of style. Double edged, full tang, with a straight integral crossguard, leather-wrapped hilt, and a heavy round pommel – pewter, maybe. She tapped her boulder with it; and it sang; not a sweet note like a farm bell, but "good enough for government work." Something like a Roman gladius, but more leaf-shaped. Greek-ish.

She could see what Carey was thinking. If you're going to have to go medieval, best bring a little esprit to it. Semper fi.


Karen spent the entire shift on potatoes and onions, listening to Allyn and Vernie and Guchi carry on a good-natured male banter among themselves as they carried heavy pots – sometimes two men to a vessel – back and forth.

People had drifted into the Hall wet, and stood by the fireplace at the north end, steaming, then moved to the tables to eat stew or soup, or both, dipping oat cakes. Some could barely move, they were so stiff from the unaccustomed cold, or beat from climbing up and down the Butte in the dark, or sitting quietly in the damp near the Creek with rain down their necks. They could not stay long. These were the first shift of watchers in the night; their team members had spelled them, but they must return, bringing back food and water. Then they could make themselves as comfortable as possible and wait for the sound they hoped would not come: the shrill blast of the whistles.

War, it seemed, even on day one, was barely humanly possible. Thank goodness for the Hall!
Karen had grown up in a basement, with one other human being as her entire culture. Father had done what he could, explicating from the strange photographs in his magazines, to prepare her for a wider world should she ever encounter one. Here is a scene at a coffee shop. This is the waitress, these are her customers; they are thanking her. But now she had found a wider world; and it was not much like the magazines, at least until this moment.

Guchi was right; she was greatly appreciated whenever she put in an appearance, bringing a tureen of hot cream-of-potato to one of the tables. Weary smiles greeted her; mumbled thanks warmed her ears. Even the ones who were nodding at their bowls seemed grateful. A bit more of the ice around her heart fell away.

At length Tomma could be seen, picking his way toward them across the crowded, firelit room, with Emilio.

"'K, gang, shift's over, changing of the guard." Tomma draped his long arm over Vernie's round shoulders. Each gave the other the companionable look of the long and comfortably married.

"Yes," added Emilio. "I will find your crew, Allyn, who have been resting, and they will make soup and stew with me, yes?" Guchi nodded, wearily, and reached back to untie his stained apron.

Karen sourly noted, by the lamplight, stains on her jerkin, and vowed to find an apron on her next Hall shift. She drifted in Allyn's wake to a corner by the big fireplace, where someone had picked up a guitar and strummed a chord. Everyone apparently knew the tune; those nearby that were not sleeping softly sang with the musician:
As we pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
Let us all taste the hungers of the poor.
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears:
Hard times, come again no more.
It's a song and a sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Oh, hard times, come again no more.
Carey Murchison, who had been out, stepped in. "Beemans and Jones, fall in; stretcher bearers. Anyone with bad knees, find a sub now. Move it!"

Bodies stirred, at first several, then more: about eight in all headed for the door. Murchison looked round the room. "Who around here can sew and doesn't faint at the sight of blood?"

That was practically everyone, but Karen found herself among the first three or four to stand up. Murchison beckoned. "That'll do; follow me."


The rains had settled down to a gentle mist in the night. The entrance to Chaney's farm was almost across the bridge from Hall, but a little bit upstream. They arrived at the clinic in very short order. The Captain saw the volunteers to the door and turned away; like Caesar, whose camp was attacked at night by the Gauls, he seemed to feel keenly the need to be everywhere at once.

Karen, who had lived in the clinic for over two weeks, felt sure she might know her way around, but the place was disarranged. Someone had brought in an old vanity with a very large mirror, and in front of the mirror, which was tilted slightly forward, stood a very large cluster of alcohol lamps. The light from these was effectively doubled by the mirror.

The large oak table had been pushed over into the pool of light, and here Dr. Chaney, the veteran Army medic, stood with Mrs. Chaney in attendance, quietly pouring liquid into, or at least on, a hole in a young man's leg. The patient watched with interest. The air near the table smelled of vodka, laced with a potpourri of comfrey and plantain. Elsa Chaney looked up and saw the new arrivals.

"Oh, good," she said.

"Mmh?"

"The kids are here from Hall; now we can take on the tough case and also the easy ones."

"Oh, yes; that's good. Now you, young man; that was a lucky shot. It missed your femoral artery, and the broadhead came out at the back nicely. And your friends have kept your leg away from dirt; I'm sure that will help. You will have to stay off this leg, though. Have someone keep you fed and watching you for redness, swelling, soreness, and fever. With any luck you can stay out of the line for a couple of weeks."

Though pale, the boy nodded, apparently put at his ease. "I – I helped put down the man that got me." He grinned.

"I'm sure you did; and you've joined an exclusive club today." Chaney clapped him on the shoulder. "Hop over there with Elsa's help." He looked round at the newcomers. "Ah, a very likely bunch. Elsa, I've seen this one" – he pointed to Karen –"she's handy with needle and thread."

"So I remember."

"So please take her on for the stitching of any of our walking wounded that need it; but first, let's all move our more serious stretcher case onto the table."

They all piled their weapons and bedrolls by the door, and arranged themselves, following the Chaneys' example, round a young man lying on a bloodstained pallet near the wall. Many hands scooped and lifted, many hands gently carried. The barely conscious patient, sandy-haired and rangy, was longer than the massive table, and as they extended his limbs, his hands and feet dangled over the ends.
Dr. Chaney unlaced his jerkin and scissored away part of the soiled tunic beneath. A loop of small intestine, along with the cecum, protruded from a long slice that had been made across the belly, opening his diaphragm. The glistening entrails quivered lightly as the young man breathed. His arms and legs stirred in a spasm of pain.

"Hold those, please. Not you two; you'll have other business."

As they stepped away, Karen and Mrs. Chaney could hear the patient interview begin behind them: "Can you hear me? Yes, well, I'm sorry but you may be awake for this; you have my permission to faint. We're going to put something in your mouth, and you may bite down on it; 'k?" Mrs. Chaney opened the door to the observation room, Karen's old quarantine residence. A candle gave the only light that did not come though the heavy plate glass window from the "operating theater."

Three people were sitting here in chairs. One of them, a surprisingly elderly woman with an aura of command, sat naked to the waist with a bandage round her middle, into which seeped blood from her side. She was trying to pull on a blue woolen poncho over her head with her good arm. Mrs. Chaney went to her assistance.

"Thank you, Elsa," the patient croaked, then coughed. "I'm not much for putting up with night air any more, I'm afraid."

"Hah. More than the rest of us put together, I bet. Karen, this is Ellen Murchison, our second-in-command."

Karen wondered how one salutes such a person on the Creek. She remembered a curtsey depicted in an old Geographic; such an incongruity! So she simply stood still with her arms by her sides.

"Ma'am."

"Thank you, dear; heard all about you. You'll help see to my friends here, I trust." She nodded to the two, a young white man and a black woman, and prepared herself to lie down with Elsa's help.
Karen stepped over to them. "Hello, Mrs. Perkins."

Mrs. Perkins smiled. "Hello, y'self, sweetie. This here is Elberd, he's a Joseph." The young man nodded gravely. Mrs. Perkins held a bloody cloth to her arm with her good hand. "This just needs washing and binding, and it can wait. I'd like to have kept the arrow, but it got away. We'll see to this young man first, hmm?"

The youth spoke. "She tried to stay and see if there'd be more fighting. But Mrs. M. found me and made me go get her before we walked out."

Mrs. Perkins put in, "And I was not in as good shape as I thought, but he helped me all the way down in the dark and never said he was hurt."

"I was embarrassed. Nobody shot me! In fact I never saw them. Things started happening and I ran toward the whistle and I think I fell down the mountain."

Karen wasn't sure where to begin. "Hi, I'm Karen. Ames. How is this arm?"

He was holding it cradled in the other, protectively. They were both startled by a muffled scream coming from the outer room. "I dunno. Busted, maybe. There's a clicking when I move it and it's getting bigger all the time."

Elsa, who had made Ellen comfortable, overheard this and came over. "This should have been splinted." She looked in his eyes. Shock. He's worse off than he thinks. "Okay, well, I think you will need to spend some time with the doctor, but he's busy, and in the meantime we're going to get you horizontal and warm, and we'll work on your face."

"Face?"
"Your cheek, dear; it needs putting back in place."

"Oh." He looked as if he might cry.

"Now, look. You were brave to be where you were, and practically carried Lorena down that trail in the dark -- with a broken arm no less, so no need to apologize. Battlefields are dangerous in all kinds of ways; your face is going to have a brilliant scar and I think it will be quite attractive with it. 'K? Want some vodka before we start?"

"Ma'am. No ma'am, I think I can handle it."

"Right, I know you can; so, let's get you down and bring over some more light. Karen, here's a needle and thread; they've been soaked in alky. I'll hold the lamp for you. Let's wash that out as best we can and we'll see some running stitches; should take about thirty from here round to here, y'think?"

"Yes'm." Karen reached for the kit. She had not slept more than a catnap since dawn the previous day, and it must be getting on toward morning; yet she would give it her best. The lad had earned it.