Cougar came to the house, where two bodies were laid out in the shade on the north side, and found Wolf sitting in the doorway on the west, examining one of the cartridges from the old man's Winchester.
"That last boy, he's alive yet – just gutshot. Can talk!"
"Well, they're damned hard to hit from a scope, running like he was; I'm surprised I hit him at all. Outstandin'; let's have him up here for some conversation."
"Wolf." Cougar ran off down toward the river.
Wolf reloaded the round, parked the carbine against the doorjamb, and looked inside the house. A couple of his men were going over the kitchen. They'd found the well and the pantry; there were, believe it or not, some cans of evaporated milk, and even a large gunny sack with a dozen pounds or so of oats in it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen grain. His men, none of them over nineteen, had seen a few pitiful attempts at farming but winnowed grain was a novelty to them.
The place was situated in a sunny spot with a mountain at its back, a river full of fish at its feet, and had been cleverly rebuilt into a small, even cheery, fort. With a needlepoint hanging on the wall: "Give to God the glory." A survivalist and his brood. Wolf felt some regret for their extermination, but with the larger prize across the mountain going unclaimed as yet, and winter coming on, he'd concluded they had no time to try to recruit the old man. So he'd opted to invest ammo in securing a jump-off place.
"Boys, we got a guest comin'. Could we get this table cleared a bit, to make him comfy?"
"Oh, yeah, Wolf, you bet." They swept the breakfast dishes onto the floor with a crash.
Wolf winced. "Ah, now, be a little civilized about it. We might wanta use this as headquarters for awhile, or have it ta come back to for arr 'n arr. Tate, pick up them pieces and what's good, take over to th' sink. Chuck the rest out th' back away from th' path."
"Yeah, Wolf. Sorry."
Cougar and three others came to the stoop, carrying a listless and bloody burden. In shirt and pants, pre-Undoing style. Some of these loners really knew how to hang onto the things they had known. Might be a whole stash of nice clothes in the loft somewhere.
"Right this way, gennumen, lay him down on th' dinin' room table nice 'n easy."
They did so, and gently enough, considering.
"Now, if ya please, bring th' other three and put 'em in the shade of th' house, with th'old skinnies."
"Three?" asked Cougar, puzzled.
"Did I or did I not shoot two more boys an' a dog?"
"Oh, yeah! Dog!" Cougar grinned. Dog was much preferred to "long pig" – when they could get it. "Wolf." He touched his forehead and led his companions out into the sunshine.
Wolf looked over their find. "Tate, let's put somethin' behind this young man's head and give 'im a drink of water."
The boy looked about thirteen. Big, though. These fanatic patriarchs fed their kids well but didn't always train them well, he'd noted. Obsessed with freedom for themselves, they gave little of it to their families. Anywhere in 'polite' society, by now this would be a grown man, responsible for his own fate.
One result of such close parenting was the botch this bunch had made of meeting Wolf's arrival. Let 'emselves get mowed down like sheep. Sad, no kiddin'.
Ah! Coming around. A spasm of pain in the region of the bowels made the boy's body arch on the table; he tried to roll over.
"Easy, now. Yah've been shot; we're here to take care of ya."
"Where's my Pa? Where's my Ma?" A tear rolled down the lad's cheek.
"Not much we can do for 'em, I'm afraid. Dead when we got here."
"How do I know you didn't kill 'em?"
"Ya don't. Might have to trust us. We're not here to trouble ya's; and I'm sorry to see what has happened. But we'd like to know a bit about th' folks over th' hill, if ya can tell us anythin'." Wolf patted his hand.
"Wh-why? N'why should I talk to you at all?"
"Ah, that's the spirit. I knew ya had some backbone to ya. But lemme show ya somethin'." Wolf's men had examined the wound and left the blood-soaked shirt half unbuttoned. Wolf undid the remaining buttons and pulled away the shirt, then lifted the boy's head. "See that? s'an exit wound. Yer shot from behind, I'm sorry ta say. And this on yah's shirt – see right here? – is not all blood. Yer folks give ya any idea what this means?"
"Yeah. Some." He was beginning to shiver uncontrollably.
"Yep. So ya might's well chat with me, son. I'm all the time yah've got left."
Mary Savage, Ph.D., pushed her jeweler's loupe up to her forehead and rolled away in her high-backed office chair to admire the treadle machine. It had been found out there somewhere, back when the Creekers were ransacking the region, in a farmhouse full of antiques. The young folks, her apprentices, were moderately good at disassembly and fabrication now, and she'd had them carefully remove the sewing machine from the platform and set it aside for later use, then mount a gearbox taken from an old hand-cranked grinder and attach a weighted hacksaw to it. The saw went lickety-split when the foot treadle was rocked; just the ticket.
"Nice. Very nice, thank you much! Now, y'all take five, sip a little home brew, and let's start making a lathe for this thing as well. See, it's gotta to run a variety of tools, everything we can think of to do with it; and it'll give us a leg up on all kinds of productivity."
And we shall certainly need all kinds and then some.
Mary had taught engineering at Georgia Tech. Her specialization was tensile strength of materials, along with malleability and ductility. Well-trodden areas, but there had been some new discoveries, some of them hers, in the properties of carbon nanotubes for example. She was visiting Oregon State, consulting for Chinese physicists on cost-control for wire-drawing machines, when all hell had broken loose. Cities, even this cute little one with its starry-eyed "Transition Town" groups and gardens up the wazoo, would soon be disaster areas. Mary had packed up her Tahoe with all she thought she might need, and left town on small streets and obscure roads, her route Google mapped and GPS checked.
Both of which crashed forever within half an hour of her departure.
A large-bodied woman with a bad back and worse legs, she'd known, of course, that she wouldn't get far, but giving in to fatalism was not in her nature. As luck would have it, she'd been pulled over by a state police car, robbed of everything, and dumped at an intersection right by a road sign that said "Starvation Creek." And here she was, chief engineer for a bunch – if it were possible – even more starry-eyed than the environmentalists back in town.
But so far, so good. They'd fed her for seventeen years.
Good chow, too. Considering.
One of the kids, beer jar in hand, glanced out the window. "Dr. Mary, we got company coming up to the house."
"Rogers'?" The farm was uniquely organized. Two separate households were maintained: Savage Mary's, as it was called, and Rogers. Rogers' crew farmed the whole place and a Common farm next door as well. They tested agricultural equipment from Mary's shop, and tried out other gadgets and schemes as well. Both houses were exempt from military service at the borders, as a rule; Mary's was vital industry, and Rogers' was responsible for Marys' security. To prevent their personnel from becoming an elite, both houses regularly rotated young people out to other farms.
"No, it looks like Errol, from Ames, with the orchard guy." Errol, one of the carpenters, had been one of Mary's trainees, and his knowledge of smithing, casting and grinding had come from the shops.
"Well, show some hospitality and hop to th' door, honey."
Errol and Allyn came in, cloaked against the fall air outside. "Ma'am."
"What? Ma'am, is it?" she roared cheerfully. "Leave your Creek manners at th' door, and come out of all that fooferah, why don't ya?"
"Oh, we couldn't," said Errol.
Allyn explained. "The bandits are maybe heading to the upper Creek round the Ridge, and we're sent to greet them if they do. Lot of crews right behind us."
"Uh huh, well. And Ames and Jones in the lead. Got the most to lose soonest, poor things."
"Yes'm. Would you have more percussion caps ready to go?"
"We do. Box is on th' table right beside you. They're packed in fluff, nice and secure, about three hundred."
Allyn gathered it up carefully. "This will be a big help."
"So I suppose that girl, she's pledged to Ames now?" she asked Errol.
"Same as. She's never stated her intentions, but she has integrity and likes us."
"Uh huh. So I got a feeling she's not coming by to see me right away. Not surprised. Well, got a minute?" He nodded. "'K, well, come back here –" she rolled into the next room "– see what else we have for y'all."
Allyn and Errol followed her dutifully and looked to the corner indicated. Errol shook his head. "Well. Shops are busy, I see."
"They are indeed. We've made up about twenty of these so far." She hefted a short sword by its hilt. "They're stout enough to cut or crush, light enough to parry and thrust, and the pommel and cross guards can deliver a good whack as needed. Makes up for there being so few machetes 'round here. Not so good for sword and dagger, better with a shield; but y'all are all archers so never mind shields for now. Shoot till your arrows are gone, see, then draw this and you have an option when the bandits get social. Wear 'em in your belts till we can make up some frogs or scabbards."
They knew few of the terms but understood the language of her hands. "Never needs reloading," she added with a wicked smile.
"Like my axe."
"Mmh. But a little more versatile. You hang on to that axe, but have this young man stay next to you with one of these. Lacks symmetry, keeps the bandits guessing. Anybody carrying bush hooks?"
"Yes, a few," said Allyn, hefting a sword with his free hand. The bush hook, an axe-handled tool with a long thin blade, hooked at the end, was built in Mary's shops for clearing brush and maintaining hedges. They'd proved very popular on the farms.
"Same deal. Crews average three fighters, yah? One bush hook, two swords. Everybody watches everybody else's back. They get inside your reach, your swordsman takes 'em out. They mess with your swordsman, you take 'em out."
"Hmm." Errol had looked a bit sourly upon the swords, but he was beginning to see the possibilities. A bright young man, though quiet and hard to read. She'd always liked him but wished he'd laugh more.
"Hmm, he says. I guess that will have to do." She rolled, casters squeaking, over to the doorway into the front room. "Hey! Y'all gather up all these irons down to th' road an' hand 'em out to whomever'll take 'em as they go by. 'K? – Waitaminnit. Somebody get me a tall one, then do it."
She turned toward Errol and touched his sleeve as they went by. "Now, these things they're bringin' down with you, they take years to learn to use right, just like bows. But this size makes sense to a good fighter the minute they pick up one. We'll have to count on that for now. Who knows – maybe coats of mail some day. And, kid –" she locked eyes with him. "--do take care of yourself out there, huh?"
He almost smiled.
"'It will have to do,'" she thought, over her glass of home brew, watching at the window. Our bloody motto. Sure wish we'd had time to teach these kids to read. And found them some good history books.