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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

22

"This is not good," said Emilio Molinero. He and Wilson lowered the half-conscious Allyn to the ground and together they surveyed the scene along the narrow trail. Bodies of people they had known all their lives lay at uncomfortable angles among the blooded sword-ferns beneath the deep shade of the firs. At least four dead could be seen; and also there were people alive, but for how much longer, none could tell. Arrows and bolts had flown, and they had found marks. It had been a rout; no dead and wounded were found from the invading force. Every able-bodied person was already helping someone hurt in the Saddle fight; what could be done for these others? And where were
the bandits? Could this be a trap?

 "Karen, keep an arrow at the ready, please, and go and find Vernie. He will have come through here and seen the edge of the woods; we need to know what is ahead." Emilio turned to Wilson. "Let us find all
the wounded; and if they can be brought to the trail, we shall do what we can for them here; and see if we can get a runner to Hall for help and perhaps some people from Chaney's."

 As Karen set down the things she had been carrying, except for her bow and quiver, she could hear Wilson's reply. "Yes; we would either need oxcarts for all these, or stretcher relays."

 Karen, who, like most of the others, had slept little in the last two days and nights, was beginning to get tunnel vision from exhaustion, but she maintained her scan of her surroundings as she ran down the
trail. She passed a Creeker with a bolt in his back, whose breath made bubbles as he crawled. Was this Vernie? No. She knelt down and said, "Rest. Rest, now; you're only hurting yourself, and help is coming."

And ran on.

 The edge of the woods was not far away; sunlight was brighter ahead already. The Ellers, Reymers, and Peachers, who would have been ten or eleven in number, had only just begun their hike when the bandits came down upon them in the fog. Ahead, kneeling by the trunk of a mid-sized maple tree, she could see Vernie. Without turning his head, he extended his left hand, palm down, and signaled her to slow down and approach with stealth. She did so. After what seemed an eternity, she came up on his right. The heavy rifle lay ready to hand, leaning against the mossy tree trunk between them.

 In the distance a cow, clearly in great distress, was bellowing.

 "We got trouble," Vernie said softly.

 "Are they at Wilsons'?"

 "Mmm-hmm."

 "And that's Florence, yelling, over at Ames.'"

 "Yes, she hasn't been milked this morning. Mrs. Ames hears about this, she's likely t'kill the bandits herself. All the animals in upper Creek are hurting or hungry; this cruelty touches us all in so many ways."

 Karen knew he was also worrying about Tomma; no one could be certain to recover from deep wounds these days.

 The farm buildings could be seen from here; a two-story white house, with the two big redwoods behind it, and several small outbuildings. These did not look like log buildings, such as those at Ames; but they had been reinforced with very thick layers of planking. Even a ball from the Hawken was not guaranteed to go
through that. Near the main house was a watch-tower of the same kind as the one at Ames; it had been a creosoted light pole at one time; the useless mercury vapor lamp had been hauled down and salvaged, and
in its place was a tiny structure like a tree house. Access would be via rope ladder and trap-door; and the ladder was missing.

 Karen produced her monocular and handed it to Vernie. He'd seen it before, two months ago when they'd had to examine her belongings; but he was unfamiliar with the workings of such a thing except by hearsay. Karen understood; she took it back, looked through it for a second to demonstrate which end was which, and handed it to him again, uncapped.

 "Ah!" he said. "Very nice. Mm-hmm, someone's on the second floor. In the crow's nest, too."

 "How do we get the wounded up to the road?"

 "The only way would be to go up the right-hand side of the hedge, ford the Creek, and go to Ames Farm, if the bandits are not already there. Then over to Jones along the back fences. If someone goes to get help, the help should come to Jones'. Carefully, of course, in case these bandits go there as well. But I think they are stopping at Wilsons' and thinking. 'What do we do now?'" Vernie grinned mirthlessly. "They have bitten off a very large mouthful to chew."

 "I could do all that."

 "Yes, you may be our swiftest. But you are not rested. No more am I, or most of us. But the Ridge crew is fresh. Go back and tell the others what you've seen here; they'll do what seems best to them."

 'K; keep the glass on them."

 "I will do that; thanks."

 Karen returned up the trail to the first switchback; the two crew leaders were standing there with Errol and a couple of Ridge crew, over the body of the man she'd spoken to. He had apparently already died. She gave her report; Wilson turned to Emilio and put his hand on his shoulder. "How about you all try to lie down and take a bite and a nap; Minnie here knows her way to the Hall trail from this one without coming out of the woods. She can get us help for the wounded over to Jones', and some kind of army up to there to see about these effers at Wilsons'.

 "We will do so. There is very little strength in most of us now. Will you be forming a line?"

 "Yes, as usual, it's the best we can do. There's cover here, but not between here and the house. If they make up their mind they're screwed and try to come back through here, we'll whistle you up; and then we'll want to get as many of them as we can." He patted the Ruger Old Army on his hip for emphasis.

 Emilio looked round. "Thirteen of us dead already; here and above. Soon may be we will not have so many wounded to carry to Jones'."

 Wilson turned and spoke with Minnie, who, as she listened, nodding, shrugged out of her blanket roll and added it to the supply depot that had been made, just off the trail among the ferns. She ran off to the west presently, dodging through the thick hazels and underbrush. Errol handed the Lyman rifle and its pouch to one of the Ridge crew, and bent down to pick up his and Karen's blanket rolls and his bow and axe. Karen collected her blanket roll from Errol, and, with him, walked a short way from the trail and lay down to rest, with the intention of sitting up presently for some cold potatoes and bean cake.

 From across the valley, Florence's frightened and urgent calls echoed against the hills. So sorry, baby. Nothing we can do for you right now, thought Karen, with her eyes closed. In almost no time she
was asleep. Errol unrolled her blanket and covered her.


Ellen's little army had grown to some twenty-two. There was not much experience among them, and, except for the newly appointed grenadiers – one of whom had already dropped and cracked his bomb and was in disgrace with his friends – severely underequipped.

Fortunately every able-bodied Creeker had trained in selfbows from earliest childhood; these would have to do.

 They were arriving at Beemans. Up the hill, sheep were bunched against a fence, stricken with fear; two coyotes stood in the middle of the pasture, tearing at a ewe they had downed. One lad, a Beeman, turned, distressed, to Ellen on her tall horse.

 "Permission to go shoot at the 'yotes, ma'am?"

 Ellen looked up at the house. Her point man had already checked it out and was waving the "all clear." "Are you sure of recovering your arrows?"

 "Yes'm, I'll have a full set for the bandits!"

 "I like your style; sure, have a go, but take one of your friends with you to watch all round; salvage the ewe, too, then both of you back to the house pronto."

 "Yes, ma'am!"

 Ellen turned into the yard and was, at first, bemused as to how to get her sore body down from the Percheron-mix farm horse. At last she simply urged him up against the porch and slid off. She sat down
heavily on the top step, wheezing, with the bagged Navy revolver by her side.

 "Who here is all about horses?"

 "Me!" called several simultaneously, waving hands.

 Like a class of school kids in days long gone, she thought wistfully.

 "All right, you and you, give our friend here some rest from his bit, find him some grain and water and something to curry him. He's been very sweet. Whoa, don't go yet. You, and you, investigate the kitchen and do something for the rest of us, but no fires just yet. You, you look like a climber with sharp eyes. Yes? 'K, go up to the crow's nest and check out the farms east of us. Anything you see, tell it to – you, go with him and wait at the bottom of the pole, anything he tells you, come tell me. Don't shout it out. You two –" she pointed – "stay by the road, same deal, but with arrows nocked. Rest of you, find cover in a circle around the house, fifty paces or so out, ten to twenty apart. Mr. Deela, take the whistle, please. Any part of the perimeter gets into an altercation, run towards the action, blowing as your go. Rest of you hear the whistle, put some of your attention thataways, 'case they break into your rear, but don't move unless we come get you. They could fake us out. 'K, all? I'm going to have to lie down a bit."

 "You look flushed, ma'am," remarked Deela. "May we look for something to bring down fever?"

 "Bless you," she replied, lying down on the porch and rolling herself in the red wool blanket on which she'd ridden the horse. "Put the kitchen kids on it, please, but then be thinking about that periphery." She closed her eyes.