Ellen Murchison rode, pain stitching her side, on a plow-gaited farm horse, her crutch behind her back on an improvised sling. She was in too much pain to wear a belt and holster, so an improvised saddlebag made from greasy cloth bumped along by her knee.
Ah well, dignity was never our strong suit around here, she sighed – which led to another coughing fit. It would take almost three hours at her present pace to get to Wilsons' from Hall; she bespoke everyone she encountered, looking for soldiery, and had collected surprisingly few – an even dozen marched along desultorily behind her: a few bows, bush-hooks and improvised spears. Murch was a good Marine, but he was armor – armor tended to think geography. Ellen had been MEU, and her war thoughts turned more naturally toward sociology. The invaders, she reasoned, would keep together whenever possible, to concentrate force. If they had been seen at Lawson's, it would be an acceptable risk to draw personnel from Bridge, Ball Butte, and Maggie's Hill and seek out and destroy this enemy there, or meet them decisively should they force the saddle. Where did not matter nearly so much as who. Make guess, take risk. This enemy must be seen off to non-personhood at the very first opportunity. But where was she to find enough people? It was already too late to bring back everyone from all the uncontested positions.
The Creek had always struck her as the longest of long shots; as command structure had disintegrated following the failure of the last several resource wars, she and her husband, the two remaining security guards at the Ridge facility, had at last accepted that no one was coming to relieve them, and finding the entire valley abandoned with most of its resources intact, had persuaded, over the years, a number of people to settle there rather than keep running, as everyone had seemed to be doing, northward. The migration was understandable; average temperatures were up – drought and radiation sickness were a problem everywhere to the south, along with interracial clashes and general mayhem. Canada, which no doubt was finding its long border indefensible, had become a kind of Mecca for most. And almost no one had the knowledge or the means to grow food.
Murch had shown considerable leadership in persuading passersby that they would find a bird in the hand worth two in a hypothetical Canuck Land. Best to stop here and pitch in with the picks and shovels, yes? Some had shaken their heads and passed on; some had attacked – and become compost; a few, at first, joined the Murchison's budding tribe, and accepted the dual roles of farmer and defender. Then more, and then more; Ellen sometimes thought too many. There had been mistakes, crop failures. And so many just up and died. The problems had begun to appear insurmountable, and the winter of '46 had been almost unbearable. For over ninety days there had been no rain; there had been all of four heat waves of more than forty degrees Celsius, in which few could do much beside go and sit in the dwindling Creek; then there was too much rain, right at harvest, with a raging Creek and much flood damage; then the terrible freeze; then the "flu" thing had carried off many. After that, the deep snow that had stayed and stayed; and in the midst of the snow, when everyone was hunkered down, had come a clever group of bandits dressed in white, who had fought their hungry way to the doorstep of the Mess Hall and been despatched there.
Murchisons' was the nearest farm to the Bridge, to set a standard of courage and preparedness, from which many had willingly taken example. Yet too few had been available to rise to the defense of too many; and her son, to Ellen's eyes the best and brightest, had lost both his legs in that grisly business. And here we are again, mused Ellen bitterly. Little Mo blown to bits. Murch, like so many elders of the Creek before him, at the end of his rope from "industrial poisoning." Untold casualties left and right.
Ellen coughed again, a long racking spell. But I'm not the self-pity type. Better not start, she warned herself, looking up at Savage Mary's on the left as she passed the gate. That old bat would laugh me down the river, for one. Ellen patted the farm horse's neck. The half-Percheron gelding, tall and deep chested, relished the affection.
"Mrs. Murchison, Ma'am?" A couple of the Mary apprentices had come down to the gate.
"Yes?" Ellen begrudged reining in, but perhaps she could use these two – and any others they might bring.
"Dr. Mary's compliments, and could you use some bottles of black powder?" asked one, a small red-haired young woman. The other, a very dark-skinned young man with a high, thin nose, added, "Captain Murchison asked for 'grenades' and this was the best we could do at short notice."
They hefted a small wooden crate of what looked like wax-stoppered 750ml wine bottles, with several inches of stiff cord protruding from each stopper.
"Yes, we could. How many have you?"
"Five BP, right now," said the lad. "We feel badly about the glass, but metal containers were not ready to hand. These are packed with all our current powder and some old laser toner, and a bunch of broken glass, pebbles, and such. And the other seven, the green ones, are Molotovs, mostly vodka and sheep fat."
The lass added, "Those have a powder charge at the tail of each fuse. Untested, sorry to say, ma'am. And we have a box of brand-new matches, with strikes, tested!"
"It will be very much appreciated. If those bombs break, I think they will still go bang." Ellen saw that they were both wearing swords. "Young lady, could you run up and ask Mary to send along anyone she can possibly spare, including anyone from Rogers', with all possible weapons? And that includes you."
"She said she expects that. 'Now is the time for every good man ...'"
"Yes, I know that one. Hop!"
"Yes, ma'am." Red hair flying, the girl ran up the hill.
Ellen had slowed her horse, but not stopped. Turning painfully on the bare gray back, she addressed the young man. "I think it will rain again. Do you have a cover for those?"
"Yes, but it's okay, the fuses are genuine pyro, waxed. Fizz a nice purple color."
"All right; well, come with us. Protect the matches carefully; as we go along, distribute and explain the bottles and the matches to everyone, and get them to take about half an inch off the fuses; we don't want any of those thrown back at us."
"Yes, ma'am." He smiled, showing two rows of shining teeth; better looking teeth than almost anyone at the Creek had, these days; Ellen included. Hope you get to keep that lovely smile through the end of this day.
Wolf was as satisfied as he could be under the circumstances. He was down to nineteen men, two of whom were chewed up some but could put up a fight if necessary, and he'd managed to conserve ammunition well. Lo and behold, so had Cougar. They'd made hash of that new bunch coming up the trail, mostly with arrows, bolts and knives. No way to know the numbers, but it had looked like about ten, half of whom must be dead and the rest non-ambulatory – there had been too much hurry to double-tap – so along with that pugnacious lot on the hill, he reckoned the farmers were down by about twenty. With whomever this lot lost on that first night, they must be carrying a third of their good fighters on casualty lists, tying down quite a few more. Odds had evened a bit, yes.
He looked around him. Such high living he hadn't seen in a very long time. If ever. Even the homesteaders back in the stone house had a primitive set-up compared to this! Here was what had been a "living room" in days gone by, and it was a living-it-up-room, so far as he could see, to this day. What looked like fresh paint or whitewash on the walls, ceiling. There was a mauve couch with matching plush chairs, patched on the arm-rests. With them there were polished wooden lamp tables with real lamps on them that smelled of vodka. The wells of the lamps had been stuffed with bits of red flannel to look like old-time red lamp oil; a feminine touch. The whole place smelled of women; not the bow-carrying kind they'd been encountering, but breeders and curtain-washers. Incredible! Over here were paintings hanging, framed no less, of landscapes and animals and people's faces, done in what looked like berry juices on parchment; but done with care for all that; someone had had the time. And over there was some kind of skinny thing like a guitar, mostly soundbox, along with two gourd rattles and a small drum, all hanging from the wall, each decorated with beads and little chicken feathers.
Dubyah-tee-eff! Looked they'd been leading the good life for decades! While he, Wolf the Lucky and everyone he knew was living from hour to hour, skulking from ruined warehouse to shattered office building day in and day out, living by necessity on long pig. To heap insult upon insult, outside the window – through real glass no less – stood an effing orchard – pruned and somehow mowed – apples, he recognized, some still unpicked,with a lot of other things – grape vines, and some kind of nut trees. With barns, and sheds, and gardens, and somewhere around, clucking chickens. It boggled the mind. An effin' insult, what these people were! Death would be too effin' good for 'em.
Cougar came in, the Glock stuffed in his belt. "Wolf."
"Boys are pretty riled."
"Don't blame 'em."
"Wanta know, so can we have a go at th' girl arready?"
"Nah, hold 'em for a bit, yah? Reasons of state. Y'all've felt 'er up a little, but bring 'er in here in one piece now, so's she an' I c'n have a little chat; detail a few ta watch, so's y'don't think I'm pullin' rank fer a joyride."
He waved the AK at the walls and window. "This buncha farmers is a unbelievable effin' deal; I wanta know what she knows about what's downstream here; numbers 'an disposition an' layout, an' what all's goin' on up on that mountain up there."
"Thinkin' 'bout Magee? Wanna bring him in?"
Wolf narrowed his eyes. "Don't let's get ahead 've ourselves, son. We play this right, we might be able to make him ours 'stead'a us his, if ya follow me."
Cougar dropped his gaze. "Wolf, that's why we're your bunch."
"Right y'are! Sorry to lose Hein an' th'others, but we're sittin' pretty compared to how we might 'a been. Get'er in here, an' some witnesses – an' get these outbuildings occupied, we need a welcomin' committee fer anybody tries to come here, either from that bridge up by th' road, or behind us from th' trail."
Cougar touched his forehead. "Wolf."
"Coug. Oh – Coug."
Cougar pulled up short by the doorway to the hall. "Wolf?"
"Yer man Mellow's good w'locked doors; have him bust open th' pantry an' give ever'body a good feed."
Wolf leaned his rifle against the wall. Almost time to turn the two duct-taped magazines around. He'd wait a bit before shedding his Kevlar. Comfort was just not to be thought of. Wish t'hell I'd brought more stuff. Was no way t'do it, though. If it gets hairy here, I might have to go to Magee all alone. Not a very nice thought. Not a very nice thought at all.
Billee came bouncing up the slope in the late-morning sun, chasing her foreshortened shadow from boulder to boulder. Avery, watching through the bomb-proof window, admired her boundless energy and verve. All the best runners were around that age; good for the Creek, but at what cost? He'd had a childhood. Billee was childlike in many ways; but in some ways she'd been an adult since day one. She'd never know, very likely, what she had missed. He wheeled around and awaited her entrance, which, as usual, came sooner than he could quite anticipate; she stood breathless before him, cheeks red from the climb, her new bow in her right hand, strung. He waited as she caught her wind. "Want some water?" he asked.
"M'fine." Another series of deep breaths.
"No one chasing you, I take it?" "Oh! No, I don't think they're thinking about me at all now! They've – whew! – headed east, like you said, and I heard some gunfire –"
"Toward the saddle?"
"– Mm-hmm, but I kept my eye on the house like you said, and there are, I'm pretty sure, just two of'em left down there." She grinned. "One's hurt, I think, and the other one's Mr. Squinty, who got all bee-stung, and now he's itching a whole lot, haha. Creep."
"He's got my beautiful binoculars an' he's looking out for me, but in the same place – not too bright! And s'got Mr. Lawson's lever-action."
"Don't think you were spotted, then?"
"Aww, he's only glassing a little, they've got'm both doing housework – cutting up that awful meat, n'running the smoker."
"All right, so time is wasting and I think I see an opportunity here. Get your feet under you and go have some lunch and then, right away, go tell all this, word for word, to Mr. Huskey, he's the whistle of Bledsoe's. Met him?"
She nodded vigorously.
"He'll be right down the west face about a quarter mile from here, waiting for you; he knows what to do. Word to go on is smart and the response is aleck."
She bolted for the door; then turned halfway with her hand on the jamb, eyes wide. "Hey, is that about me?"
"Only if the shoe fits."
"Yessir!" She vanished down the stairs. Avery wheeled round and faced the console, chuckling. Then he looked down at his stumps. Shoe, my effing ass. What I wouldn't do for a good pair of legs right now.