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, August 9, 2014

23

"Hello, Carey. You're looking like shit."

 "I'm feeling like compost." Murchison, telephone handset in hand, looked up at Tom Chaney in the dim light from the alcohol lamp.

 "Apropos. Have you seen a runaway patient of mine?"

 "Yep, she's stolen a horse, pulled together a ragtag children's crusade, and headed after the bandits out toward Ames'."

 "My god, Carey, she doesn't plan to outlive you, does she?" It was more a statement than a question.

 "It's her call. I think she's right, too. If I didn't have to keep tabs on Ridge, I'd be there with her."

 "What's happening up top?"

 "Well, the Bledsoes and company have gone after a rear guard that's camping in Lawson's house. Scorched earth. Avery says he sees the smoke already. From there, they'll try to hook up with Wilson and the
little Saddle army over to the Ames end."

 "That was always our weak spot."

 "Mm. Should have done more about it. Permanent dugout with phone should have been farther down the south slope. Hindsight. Never would have had 'nough diggers anyway, though."

 Elsa Chaney, in high dudgeon, strode through the doorway.

"Where's Ellen got off to?"

 "Well out of reach for now, dear," replied Tom.

 Captain Murchison set down the handset. "Haven't you got enough patients without her?"

 "They're all as settled as they're going to be. Mrs. Lazar, Velma, and some others are on it now. I want to fnd Ellen and get her back in care, or she's not going to last the week!"

 Murchison slammed his hand, palm down, on the table. "Nobody around here is going to last the week if we don't contain the incursion up the Creek! And furthermore," he said, turning and pointing to the handset, "as I was about to tell your man here, there's maybe worse brewing."

 "Worse?" asked Tom.

 "The kids have rigged a radio up at Ridge. Using the doorbell circuit. It's patched in to the phone, and I've been listening. Magee's back. Probably less than two hundred miles from here. These skinheads may be acting on their own, but I have a feeling he's looking for them."

 "Oh, Jeeah-help," said Elsa quietly.

 "Yeah," answered Murchison. "And anybody else up there that wants to lend a hand."


Karen opened her eyes. As usual she was disoriented, plus her eyelashes seemed gunky. Shadows had moved a bit, and were much fainter: more clouds moving in. Midday already? She found she was wrapped in her blanket, which was damp beneath her but a help. Someone was back-to-back with her in another
blanket. Sitting up, she found that it was Errol, out cold.

 Crawling out of the blanket, stiff and chilled, Karen found the roll-bag had been placed by her head. She sipped some water from her bottle, an old gray Nalgene, and gnawed some equally tasteless bean cake. No one else around? No, there were bodies stretched out near the trail, in two rows beneath the autumn-bright red foliage of some viney maples. Something about those on the left suggested they were alive.

 Standing up, Karen scanned the surrounding woods. What had wakened her was a muffled chopping sound; a work crew was uphill, cutting up wild hazel poles and fashioning stretchers with blankets that had belonged to the dead. She moved to the row of wounded and found Tomma and Allyn among them.

 "Hiya," said Tomma. He didn't raise his head.

 "How are you?"

 "Starting to feel like shit."

 "Think they muck on their bolts or something?"

 "Wouldn't put it past them; but this was a bullet. Errol poured in some alky, both holes; I'll live. I'm considered walking wounded, Emilio says." He smiled wanly.

 "Want some water?"

 "Sure do."

 She handed him her bottle for a long swig.

 From Tomma, she moved to Allyn. His presence had faded, she realized with a shock. Just from arm wounds! And, she reminded herself, from being carried round on a mountain with bones shredding muscle. At home she had studied physiology, advanced first aid, and diagnostic triage. But Father had directed her studies toward self-care, and it had been mostly theoretical. Faced with so much destruction, she felt ignorant and helpless. The others seemed even more at sea than she.

 She looked at his long face, with the trim black beard. This gentle man, whose hands held valuable knowledge of grafting and pruning, should not have been mangled so – if he lived, he might well be a
double amputee, not something she'd seen a lot of. He might not want to live. She was not sure she would, in like case.

 She pulled his blanket up to his chin. He'd 'liked' her, in that way that was supposed to mean eventual marriage among these people. She'd not known how to respond to him. Now, she would very likely not know where this particular story would have gone.

 Allyn's eyes opened. He turned his head slowly, and, recognizing her, cracked a crooked smile.

 "Ah, the wild Amazon."

 "Shh. Rest."

 "Pooh. They get me out of here, I'll end up even unhappier than I am now. Really, though, I'm for the heaps at Hall Common, yes?"

 He was sweating profusely in the chill air. She found a bit of cloth among his few bedroll things and patted down his forehead. "I think you should think about apples, plums, pears, apricots, cherries, and
filberts, and walnuts – and, umm, quinces. They'll need you."

 "Hmm. You're politic, and I thank you for that. Water?"

 "Right here." She tipped his head up a little and dribbled in a mouthful.

 Wilson Wilson stopped by. "'K, we got enough poles for all the stretcher cases, and a party is making up to gather up your friends here and and go hedge-hopping. You're Karen, Ames, right?"

 She nodded.

 "Emilio says you should stick with my group and keep an eye on Wilson Farm. I grew up there; so you and I know the place better than anyone that's on their feet here. S'good?"

 "Yes. Oh – there's this freshened cow at Ames' –"

 "Yes, everybody hears her. Emilio says if they don't run into bandits there, he'll see she's helped or put out of her misery. S'maybe gone on too long to do anything for, by now."

 And so the disaster spreads. We're our own little Freeway Corridor here. Is it like this everywhere? She looked down at Allyn. His eyes had gone out of focus again, but he'd been listening.

 "Go back t'work, girl," he whispered. "Sic'm."


"Wolf, that cow has quit hollerin' all of a sudden. Think somebody's maybe up there?" the scout asked.

 "Oh, I don't doubt it. No, don't investigate. We mostly oughta stick together for awhile. Just go back 'n keep an eye on th' road."

 "Wolf."

 "Gilroy."

 Wolf sat in the easy chair and leaned back. He closed his eyes, briefly – then began listening to, and scanning, his surroundings again, with his AK on his knees. He'd assumed someone would have made contact by now: this place was valuable. The snivelly female they'd captured wasn't much help, though. His hope that they'd try to ransom or rescue her, or for that matter this apple farm, was fading. A person of relatively little importance, a dishwasher sort from a farm called 'Lazar.' Hmm. Jews alive? Not that he cared one way or the other, himself; but some, if they were still alive, would give a lot for the information.

 And he'd learned this place was 'Wilson.' Not much information in that! Kind of hierarchical households, but a decentralized community. Apt to do things piecemeal, which explained why they'd met such a small force on the hill, ditto the reinforcements. Also, she didn't seem to know a thing about the 'Dept. of Defense' business, up near the hilltop. Could never have faked that blank look.

Such leadership as existed here was proving both cagey and shadowy. Maybe they were ex-military? But so much "left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-does" seemed amateur in the extreme. Why, some of these people might not even know we're here! Might have to force the issue.

 "Hey! Coug!"

 "Wolf?" Cougar's annoyingly appealing face popped round the door jamb.

 "Way too quiet 'round here."

 "It is that, Wolf."

 "Seen anythin' outside we could set fre to?"

 "Well, Wolf, we need all the little huts on the perimeter –"

 "I'm the one said that; what don't we need?"

 "Well, there's a little building, no walls, full of hay at one end. Couple of big animals were in there; we're having them for supper."

 "Oh, yeah. Well, have 'em light that off. 'N then take th' girl up inta th' lookout 'n make her scream a little bit. No harm tryin'. I jus' wanna ring somebody up to talk to, s'all. That don't work, we'll recon in force 'n set fre to th' places we c'n see from here."

 "Wolf."

 "Coug."


"Ma'am, brought you some tea."

 Ellen awoke, woozy, her head pounding. "Unh, wouldn't mind so much if this was a hangover. Help me up, dear. I'm stiff as a board."

 Ro-eena complied, then offered a mug.

 Ellen sniffed. Her eyes widened. "Oh. ... Oh! Real tea?"

 "Mmm-hmm, the Beemans found a bush here; a Russian variety of sinensis. Grows this far north, ma'am. And Mr. Allyn, I think I've heard, has begun propagating it at Wilsons'."

 Ellen sipped. "With honey. Also hard to come by these days. And ... ?" She wrinkled her nose.

 "We ground up some ginger root."

 "Well ... well, I guess I need it. So, anything new and exciting going on?" She looked around her; nothing seemed out of place. A country farm hedge and gate; two young people with bows watching the road. Leaves falling peaceably, by ones and twos, from fruit trees.

 "The lookout says there's another party approaching from the west; that they're definitely ours; that somebody has quieted the cow that was screaming, up at Ames. And he thinks there's someone at Wilson's
but doesn't know who."

 "I'm guessing those are our guests. Might be them at Ames', too. Well, let's get me up and see if I can belt on this gosh-awfully heavy revolver. Where's Deela with that whistle?"

 "Shouldn't you eat first, ma'am?"

 "That I can do standing up. What have you got?"

 "Oatmeal with some herb oil and dried veggie leaves, ma'am."

 Ellen's eyebrows shot up. "No one laid a fire, did they?"

 "No'm, it was sunny for awhile and we did some up in a solar oven; also we've ground up quite a lot of grains and are soaking them. With apples and pears, sliced. The oats are not very appealing, ma'am, but
we are a crowd here."

 "Good job. And now I think I hear horses."

 Through the remaining leaves of the apple and plum trees along the road, they could see another small army approaching with bows, cross-bows, bush-hooks, and even a pitchfork. At its head rode Dr. and Mrs. Chaney. Deela appeared at Ellen's elbow, hung the whistle cord around Ellen's neck, and offered her a steaming bowl and a spoon. She set down her tea on the porch table and ate, as the small cavalcade approached the driveway. One of the sentries looked up the walk to her, worried.

 "Do we have a password, ma'am?"

 "Not likely," called out Tom Chaney. "We're here on our own recognizance. May we advance and be recognized?" he grinned.

 "Comedian. Come on in and let's sort ourselves out," replied Ellen, with her mouth full. "Who all you got?"

 "Some Maggies, Delsmans, Tomlinsons, and Hall. Ten, besides ourselves."

 Ellen did the math. "I make that thirty-two in all. We should make a roster; if there were a melee right now, we wouldn't be able to know who's gone missing."

 "I'll start on that, if you like." Carl Perkins, from Tomlinson's, stepped forward with his bow.

 "Do you read and write?" asked Tom.

 "Mm-hmm, wouldn't if I'd grown up here, now would I?"

 "Touché." They smiled at each other; Tom fished out an old Tatum clipboard from his medical saddlebag and handed it to Carl.

 Elsa dismounted, gave her reins to Ro-eena, who'd run down to take them, and came up the steps. She looked down at Ellen."You ... you runaway, you." But she seemed to mean it half as a compliment.

 Good thing, too. There have been times I have not liked this do-gooder, thought Ellen. "Want some tea?"

 "Got something besides peppermint?"

 Ellen picked up the mug from the table and waved it under Elsa's nose. Mrs. Chaney's eyes widened. "Tea! Oh, of course. Beemans' tea!"

 "Coming right up," said Deela, as he went by.

 Tom joined them. "Ellen, we're straight here from Carey, who's in reasonably good shape, and says Avery's doing well, too. He wants us to look you over and change that wound dressing."

 "Why wouldn't Avery be doing well?" asked Ellen, absent-mindedly raising her jerkin to reveal a sour-looking bandage, right above the holstered Navy, with a red spot near one edge. Elsa went to work, shaking her head.

 "His crew have gone to help the young people that went up to the saddle yesterday," said Tom, "and he's also directing an assault on the bandits' lines of communication. See that smoke beyond the saddle?"

 "Oh. Lawsons'."

 The lookout said something to the young man at the foot of the crow's nest, who called up to the house.

 "Ma'am, there's a fire over at Wilsons'." All eyes looked lower.

More smoke – much more smoke – dark gray shot through with black, somber and sullen, began belling into the sky. It was in the same direction as the saddle, but much closer. The elders remembered that cloud shape.

 "What building is it? Can you tell?" Ellen called out.

 "No. It's not the house, though."

 She turned to Tom, with Elsa following her around in a half-circle, muttering. "A provocation. It's their way of saying hello."

 "Maybe we could parley? Find out what they want?" Elsa asked, who stood back with her arms round herself.

 Ellen's eyes flashed. "What they want, I think they made very clear out at the Eagle's Nest. And they haven't changed their note since."

 "I'm sorry, Ellen. But –"

 "Elsa?" Tom put his arm round her. "Maybe someday, we'll have some sanity around us again. Meanwhile, those men down there have eaten the Lawsons."

 "Do we know that?"

 "Yes, dear ... we do."

 The lookout talked to the caller, who cupped his hands around his mouth. "There's another horse coming."

 "That would be the runner from Murch," noted Ellen. "Unless there's some other horse we don't know about."

 The caller was listening to the lookout. He turned and cupped his hands again. "And there's someone coming over from Jones Farm."

 "How many?" asked Tom.

 The caller relayed and waited, then passed on the response. "One. Has hair, wearing a jerkin."

 "One of ours," remarked Tom to Elsa and Ellen. "Looks like everything is happening at once."


Karen watched the stamping shed go up in flames. Steam from the loosely-piled haystack began to whiten the smoke, which ran along the ground to the east, masking the east orchard, the Creek, Ames Farm, and the blue hills beyond. From across the fields, she could hear, faintly, a woman's screams, repeated at intervals.

 Without taking her eyes away from the ground ahead, she spoke to Wilson, hidden among the maples to her right. "We could use that smoke, get right in among them unseen."

 "And attempt a rescue? That's what they want. No, Karen, Marcee's as good as dead to us now. No sense joining her."

 "I understood that, I think. But if we went part way, in the dead ground, then we could be in a useful position to exploit opportunities."

 "Mmh. That's good thinking; but we're in small numbers here. If pressed from the west, they may come out of that smoke this way, and from here is our best shot at them – concentrated fire from concealment."

 "Sir, it's a war of attrition, They can afford casualties less than we can. I would like to go see if I can cause some confusion. They wouldn't expect just one."

 Wilson moved closer, and peered at Karen from among the ferns and brambles.

 "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but – what's in it for you? ... if I may ask."

 She glanced over, then straight ahead, . "This valley is the – it's everyone's chance, around here, to start over. But not if it gets pushed over the edge. You're losing people, hay, grain, animals, structures, and capabilities, with a winter coming in. Whatever Allyn knows, whatever Mo-reen knew, all of the dead or dying – it's vanishing."

 "True, but, again, we'll need firepower right here."

 "You saw what happened at the saddle, and on the trail behind us. I think the same happened at Ball Butte. You are all soldiers, but these bandits aren't bandits – they're some kind of commando. They will hit one place in the line, together, and most of them will escape."

 "So, we fight them, we get most of them, but if any get through, they may bring others back in larger numbers?"

 "Yes. In order for the Creek to survive you must kill them to the last man. If, say fourteen of them hit you here instead of twenty, you have a better chance of doing this."

 "Again. What's in it for you? You know you won't live."

 Karen resumed watching the smoke and the fields, but also watched Wilson peripherally.

 "I grew up underground – you know the story?" He nodded. "My father's room was the only approach to mine. Anyone who might try to take me had to go through him. It cost him his life – but it worked. I
was worth that. The Creek is worth that."

 "She's right." They turned. Huskey, from Bledsoe Farm, was standing up the hill from them. He'd approached almost soundlessly through the undergrowth, and overheard the tail end of their exchange.

"Sorry we don't have a current password; only one I've got is 'smart' with the reply 'aleck.'"

 Wilson was overjoyed. "Huskey! How many of you are there?"

 "Oh, we're four; been beating up country in your direction and that posse out there –" he pointed at Wilson Farm with a lever-action carbine – "is down by two."

 "That's more than a little encouraging." Wilson returned his attention to Karen. "Let's talk about your idea. Details?"