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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

27


With more and more concern, Vernie watched white smoke filling the Wilson house; bandits would surely be coming out of it soon, coughing and wheezing, which would be a good thing, as it would be the end for them; but there was no sign of Emilio backing out of the tunnel! He turned to one of the young grenadiers.

    "When they start hitting the yard, light and throw everything you've got at them. Ready?"

    "We can't, sir, Mr. Molinero has the strike for the matches."

    "You were down to one?" 

    Contrite heads bowed in reply.

    "Oh. Well, we could find a way to get one going with the rifle, I suppose; but that will take too long. Here," he said to one of them, "you take this thing and if they show, haul back the hammer all the way, aim at them just like your crossbow, and squeeze the trigger. Keep it snug on your shoulder or you'll get a hell of a bruise. Lean into it a little when you shoot. 'K?" Rest of you be ready with your knives for any trouble, or, heck, smack 'em over the head with the fricking bombs. Here's the whistle, too, in case the bandits still have any fight in them and come for you. Everybody along the creek will help. I'm going in after Emilio."

    "Yes, sir," said the oldest, taking the big Hawken and the whistle on its cord. 

    Jeeah, he must be all of ten, thought Vernie. Are we going to make it through this? And what will we be like?

    He dropped the shot pouch and powder flask and ran round the building, dodging in through the open door. No one was shooting from the house. The culvert was tiny by Emilio's standard's; for Vernie it was a dangerously tight squeeze. Also, cold and wet; but the long dark puddle was the least of Vernie's worries. As there was no room for his elbows, he had to lay himself out with his arms ahead of him and inch along like a very cramped caterpillar. Air was flowing past his ears into the darkness ahead; of course, the fire must be drawing it through the tunnel.

    The rifle boomed somewhere above him.

    "Emilio!" he shouted.

    "I am here. Why are you not fighting our enemies?" The voice sounded a dishearteningly long way away.

    "I am. This is how I'm doing it right now. Are you coming?"

    "I cannot move; I think there is a hole in the pipe somewhere behind me and I have a bolt in my leg which has gotten into the hole."

    Vernie redoubled his crawling effort. The burnt arm throbbed. "You were shot?"

    "Yes. It is not so very bad a hurt, but now my head is getting hot."

    "Well, hang on, an' I'll come and unhook you."

    "Thank you, Vernie. Though I still think you should be shooting bandits."

    "Oh, shush up."




Wolf waited a bit longer to see if he'd indeed finished off whomever had been killing Cougar's crew; they had chosen a flimsy place to attack from and Wolf had been able to silence them with the AK by firing at shadowy movements in the muck bins. Cougar apparently had some fight in him still, as Wolf had watched him crawl around toward the other side of the bin, with the Glock. But he could not hear any shooting. What was going on down there?

    New sounds attracted his attention, from the direction of the house. He moved to the north window of the lookout and discovered that "Wilson's" was on fire, or at least full of smoke! Even as he watched, the smoke trapped in one of the basement windows turned orange; that was it, then. His men were pouring out the back door and charging round to the front, where at least one of the black powder weapons greeted them. An arrow sailed out from in front of the house and embedded itself in a stack of crates.

    Past time to go; and no time now for regrets. Should he fetch the female from the outhouse? Something in his bones told him, though, that these people were beyond the bargaining stage. Disappear now before the farmers from the saddle joined the fight. Wolf lifted the trap door.




Taking the reloaded Kel-Tec in her teeth, Karen picked up the sword, 

    "Why not? You're all done here. Unless there's some kind of country you're fighting for, which I doubt, you might as well make yourself useful."

    Suddenly a man ran past the bins, well away to the right among the trees, with an assault rifle in his hands. Karen shifted her aim, but he was already past a reasonable shot, loping along the orchard row. If he'd been looking for a fight, he'd surely have spotted them, but he was focused entirely on the gate in the hedge.

She got up on her knees, hobbled over to the armed hand, which was trying to aim round the corner at her, and gave it a hard smack with the flat of her blade. The pistol dropped into the mud. There was a satisfactory groan. Quickly dropping the sword, she scooped up the pistol – whoa, heavy! – put it behind her, opened her mouth and let her own more familiar little pistol fall into her hand. This one, at least, she knew was loaded. She found the grip and pointed the muzzle at the bald head. The bandit spoke.

    "Shit, lady, you've shot me, your guy's shot me, I'm dying here, and here you go break my effin' hand."

    The right thing to do would be to shoot him now and end it; but curiosity got the better of her. "Sorry it's not your day, but why are you here? And who's in charge?"

    The house, across the farmyard, began making popping and clanging sounds, and glass began shattering. They could both feel heat coming from that direction and hear shouts and the sounds of a desperate fight developing.

    "Why should I tell you?" He crept forward a bit, showing a wide face and large mouth, and looked at her sardonically. She backed up, sitting on his pistol, her useless left arm dragging and distracting her. But now that she saw his face, she knew she would never forget it. This could so easily be one of the farmers, running sheep or scything ryegrass. There was a childlike quality in his expression. 

    Karen's "prisoner" turned his head toward the fleeing man.

    "Wolf!" he shouted. "Help!" But help from that direction was clearly no longer to be had. Slowly he turned back his head toward Karen and rested it on the ground, dejected. His fingers dug into the mud convulsively.

    "That was your leader?" She gestured with the .380.

    "What's it to ya? Eff. Eff. Oh, shit. Shit. Y'all gutshot me, y'know that?"

    "Well, sorry, but we weren't the ones looking for this war."

    "Who was looking for a war?" His eyes blazed. "We were looking for food. Wouldn't you?" And with that, he suddenly threw mud into Karen's face and came scrabbling round the corner post.
    Karen fired blindly, twice; her weapon then jammed and was knocked from her hand. Fingers struck the side of her head, then groped for her throat. Hunching up, she dug the big pistol out from the muck beneath her, shoved the barrel into the ribcage above her and fired again; the weight of a large man, for the first time in her life, fell upon her and lay still.



    For awhile, Karen felt oddly disembodied. Despite the awful impact on her ears of all the gunplay of the last few minutes, she could hear, as if from the other end of a long pipe, much of what was going on around her.

    The house was in full flame, with old, drained plumbing and packed Mason jars exploding, and the crackling of hundreds of burning knots in century-old fir and pine sheathing. Stud walls were buckling, shattering whatever windows had not given way before the heat, which was intense even here at the compost heaps, a good fifty meters away. A gun fired somewhere. A woman screamed from time to time, with a hopeful note in her voice. People were shouting orders; then there was not much to be heard, other than the hiss and roar of the flames, for awhile.

    The man had fallen across her at an angle, with his head beside hers. Hot moisture pooled on her, through her tunic, and gradually cooled. She could smell the stench of his soiled clothing. This, she knew from experience, was to be expected.

    Darkness was coming on, but the smoke from the house fire, which rose straight up toward the clouds, turned gray, then black, and was filled with sparks and flying debris. This is pretty, she thought. 

    But now I think I'm ... tired.

    A heavier rain began falling steadily, but Karen took no notice of it at all.




Doc Chaney was wearing out; too much to do! If we all pull through this, I have got to get some apprentice medics. The big house at Beemans' was filling up with hurt people; also with sick people. Whatever it was Ellen Murchison had was apparently spreading to some of her young crusaders.

    "Tom?" Elsa was standing by his elbow, with a small basket of dried opium poppy pods in one hand, a steaming mug in the other.

    "Mmh?"

    "Okay if we steam some of these? We're out of the real thing, it being fall, but maybe we can get some good out of them."

    "Sure, sure. We're kind of working in the dark here in more ways than one."

    "Oh, about that, Vernie's crew is off to Jones' again to get more lamps and candles and anything remotely medicinal, as well as blankets and food. When that place is cleaned out, we'll strip Ames'."
    "Yes. Thanks, dear. But Vernie's hurt, himself!"

    "Not as badly as most of the others, and it keeps him from freaking over Tomma, who's getting fevered."

    "That might come to another amputation, but at least it wouldn't be a double. We need to get more bread mold going ... who's next?"

    "You are. Sit down and take a tea break – here's a hot cup." Tom complied.

    Emilio hobbled in, on Ellen Murchison's crutch.

    "Emilio, you should be resting."

    "There is too much coughing; who can sleep? I am as well right now, doctor, as I can be. I am glad to see you sitting down for once."

    "Whatever. I think there's going to be much more work, soon; the coughing is beginning to sound like pertussis. You and I will probably both get a dose of it before it runs its course."

    Emilio, keeping one leg off the floor, stumped on the crutch into the pool of light cast by a cluster of small alcohol lamps on the table next to Tom; he'd obviously hoped to crash on the nearby couch, but he could now see it was occupied by an unconscious young man whose torso was wrapped in bandages. His blanket had fallen on the floor. Dr. Tom got up, covered the sleeper again, and taking his cup, moved to a three-legged stool which he drew from under the table. He motioned Emilio to the easy chair which he'd just vacated. Emilio showed momentary distaste for the consideration, but accepted, plunking himself down with a sigh.

    "Want to put your foot up here?" Tom patted his knee.

    "That will not be necessary." Emilio arranged himself as comfortably as possible, holding the crutch upright by the side of the chair.

    He gazed at Dr. Chaney for a few moments. "It was you that introduced me to Juanita. For which, if I have not thanked you one thousand times and a time, I do so now."

    "You had a close call in the culvert."

    "I had given up my life for lost. As so many others have done, the last three days. It amazes me that Mr. Vernie did what he did; I would have thought he could not fit in so small a space."

    "You didn't come through unscathed," smiled Tom. "Have you seen what's happened to your hair?"
    "It is of no concern. Do we have numbers?"

    "Nothing final. We know of about twenty-two dead of our own, from all the fights, and from an accident with an ox-cart coming in from Maggie's. At Chaneys', Hall, and here, we're tending sixteen wounded. That might be a low count. Some sick, too, or both. There are some missing as well, including, from Ames', your guest, Karen Rutledge."

    Emilio gave Tom an aggrieved look. "She is not a guest, Dr. Chaney, she is family. From the day she came to Ames' she has given her all."

    "Well, we're out looking. She's very tough."

    "And from the uninvited guests?"

    "We think we got them all; there were, by Ellen Murchison's count, thirty-one to begin with. We've tallied twenty-six bodies, including two men that had been left at Lawson's. We'll be checking Wilsons' in the morning; it's all collapsed into the basement and too hot to handle. If any got away, we'll start tracking."

    One of Emilio's young grenadiers appeared in the doorway. "Sir, we gotcha Ames lady; they're bringing her up the walkway!"

    "Alive?" asked Tom. Emilio began wrestling with the crutch in an effort to get up from the chair.
    She nodded vigorously. "Mm-hmm. One arm messed up, and they said, umm, hyporetical?"
    "Hypothermia. Who even knows that term anymore?"

    "Mr. Wilson Wilson, Doctor. From Ridge. He found her, along with Mr. Huskey, and a dead bandit."

    "They're not bringing Huskey here?"

    Her face fell. "He, he didn't make it, sir; so he's been brought just to the road for now."

    Emilio found his footing and hopped over to her.

    "Thank you for so much good news as you could bring; are you still on duty?"

    "Oh, no, just thought you'd like to know. 'M'off to bed now, and hope you're feeling better soon." She turned and vanished from the doorway.

    Tom got up from the stool. "It's back to work for me."

    "Yes, sir. Do you work on this table?"

    "Hm? No, it's too small, except for patients that can sit up. I've been working on the floor here."
    "Ah. Well, I shall retire to the kitchen."

    Elsa came in with Wilson, who was wearing a pre-Undoing green rain slicker, very wet, and carrying a large canvas sack.

    Elsa's eyes found Tom.

    "Yes," Dr. Chaney said. "More new work. Coming in here?"

    "They're bringing the stretcher up the steps." She looked at Wilson and Emilio.

    "It is our signal to take ourselves away for now, Mr. Wilson," said Emilio. "Come into the kitchen with me, and if there is enough room for us, we can get you warmed, dried, and fed, yes?"

    "That'd be lovely, Mr. Molinero. Lead the way."

    They found the kitchen not too crowded, but up and running, with two young women tending fire and serving up a thin but welcome soup of reconstituted greens, onion, and tomatoes, with a trace of rabbit. Hot applesauce was also on offer. The "real" tea had long ago run out, but as Wilson set down the apparently heavy bag and shucked his raincoat, a mug of rose hip and elderberry tea was put into his hand, and a seat, on a long high-backed bench along the wall by the open hearth, was vacated for the two men.

    Emilio set aside the crutch, warmed his hands at the fire, and waited for Wilson to have a chance at the tea before questioning him.

    Wilson took a long pull at the tea, then made a face. He looked around, found an alcohol lamp going on a wall sconce, took it down, blew it out, drew a scrap of cloth from his pocket, unscrewed the hot burner from the collar, poured some of the alcohol into the tea, reassembled the lamp, and replaced it. One of the cooks shook her head, but said nothing.

    "I'm good, now," said Wilson. "I can see you're being very patient with me."

    "Ah .... so, if I may ask, where were they?"

    "We took one last look at the area around the compost heaps, because there'd been four enemy dead right by it and signs they'd been in a fire fight. Huskey was on the inside, with Mr. Avery's Ruger in his hand and a blown up levergun by his side." He waved a spoon at the canvas bag. "They're in there. The girl was in the next bin, half buried in a pile of cowshit, with one of the bandits dead on top of her.

    "Had a funny little semiauto next to her, with a stovepipe ..."

    "Which is?"

    "Sorry, I pick up talk from the Murchisons. A kind of cycling failure of ammunition ejection."

    "Proceed."

    "... and another big old antique semiauto in her hand; all bloody. The guy'd been shot any number of times and had one of her arrows sticking out of his backside, too."

    "Very hard to kill."

    "But met his match, I'd guess."

    "What is her injury?"

    "Well, we don't know; it was really dark out there. But left arm is bad, I'm pretty sure. Laid out in the rain for hours; that couldn't have helped any."

    "I am thinking. These two must be the fighters we heard in the midafternoon, yes? No one else was with them?"

    Wilson looked at Emilio sheepishly. "Ah, well. S'my fault; I let 'em talk me into it; something about stirring things up in the rear. We kinda thought we were on our own. Pin them down until Hall sent some kind of army."

    "Sergeant Ellen had hoped to co-ordinate."

    "Yeah, your runner got to us right after they left. Y'know, it made sense to us at the time."

    "It was like Mrs. Murchison's views, but, you see, we did not have the smoke on the north side."

    "And then the rest of us got into your fight too slowly. We've caused you some casualties; including you, sir. I'm not coming out of this looking very good, in fact; and Huskey's people will have it in for me after this."

    Emilio shook his head. "We will all discuss the best ways to do things. But there will be much to do and little time for blame. It may be this attack was the right thing. There were, you say, five dead bandits there. I am thinking these two did the Creek much good; the attack on the house was relatively easy in the end."

    "You're generous, Mr. Molinero. I'm not sure I'd be so easygoing if the shoe were on the other foot."

    Emilio looked down ruefully at his bandaged and braced leg, with a swollen, stockinged foot at the end. "It may be it will be some time before there is a shoe on the other foot, my friend."

    They looked at each other for several anxious moments. Then, mutual permission granted, they laughed.

    Elsa appeared at the door. "Hey, boys, girl's asking for you. Says it's urgent."