A disinterested quarter moon yawned, scattering its pale light willy-nilly across the landscape. A killer’s moon, this one, providing just enough illumination to transform every patch of waterside brush into a dark forest worthy of Harry Potter panic. There were rattlesnakes in this tall-grass country, slowly crawl-hunting, their sensors attuned to the body heat of warm blooded creatures. Two of their kindred, including a two-foot youngster and a heavy bodied, bad tempered grandmother nearly ten years old, just over five feet long, and weighing a good forty pounds, had met their ends a few hours earlier. Hungry humans were no friend of the pit viper, especially during daylight hours. Not that the decapitated serpents cared; those two Souls had fled, freed from the carcasses now enlivening the Gathering’s great cauldron full of Fanaya’s Famous Rattler Chili.
Most of the dreaded two-leggeds slept at this hour, but there were exceptions.
Monitoring the jury rigged gate holding livestock in the mostly level pasture covered with nearly a dozen different grass species plus dozens of animals and their copious droppings, a lone sentry fought to keep awake. Thirteen, he was, soon to celebrate his fourteenth birthday. A responsible boy, mostly, but the excitement of the day had worn him out. White folks, and not just any old white folks, either. Warriors who were not raiders. Women beautiful beyond his dreams, both of them flaring his nostrils in different ways. The non-warrior who cut into Wash to save his life–maybe save his life, though the outcome hung yet in the balance. Slender, that one. Delicate. An aura of goodness, of kindness. Shaking almost uncontrollably as she was led from the sick tent after completing her cutting task, but not before. That one, he wanted to protect. Okay, own, too. He wanted to own her, his mother’s prejudice notwithstanding. But protect also.
The other female frightened him somewhat, though in a good way. Tall, statuesque. He was proud of remembering that word, statuesque. If it fit anyone, it fit her. Buckskin clad, weapons worn like she knew how to use them. Eyes that missed nothing. She could break me in half, he thought with wonder, shivering deliciously at the thought.
It had been hard to make himself pay any attention whatsoever to the males, but he’d managed. His mama didn’t raise no fool. Jade, the one they called Michael…the boy shivered again, thinking about that one. Nothing delicious there. Young but not young. Michael’s eyes didn’t miss much, either. He was courteous but scary, greeting people easily while figuring out ways to kill them. Not a monster, maybe, but one monsters feared if they were wise.
He knew a few wise monsters, some of whom lived unrecognized among the other members of the Gathering.
Halfway around the encampment, situated closer to dense riverside brush than any other, one of those monsters sat crosslegged in front of his tent, smoking and thinking. And waiting. Erect, he stood three inches over six feet and weighed a good deal more than two hundred pounds. Not that he had any intention of standing erect this night. Not even to urinate. The oldest man in the entire Gathering, Barrel Stockman figured to celebrate his ninetieth birthday when the first snow flew, or thereabouts. Bitter he was, watching the night through the good half of his precious Before glasses. Glass singular, now; the right lens had popped free of its frame three months earlier, disappearing in the river they’d been crossing at the time. At night, when human vision wasn’t much to brag about anyway, he could pretend both eyes saw equally. But they didn’t. Not really. Left eye through glass, still 20/20 or close to it. Right eye unaided, too fuzzy for words. He’d been a bitter being for a long time; loss of the lens had merely ground the injustice deeper.
Ah, for the good old days. Head of black ops authorized by the President himself, power behind the throne in many ways. He’d been a happy man then, possessing ample outlet for his native bloodlust. Terrorists had feared him like no other, though he really didn’t care who he killed as long as they died. Slowly, if possible, with fear and pain searing their very bone marrow. The latest longevity treatments had virtually guaranteed him an extended lifespan, perhaps as much as two centuries in which to indulge himself and call it patriotism.
Back then, “Bare” Stockman had never been mistaken for a nice guy.
Then capriosi vilify had blindsided him. True, it had blindsided the entire planet, but the other billions of people didn’t count. His apple cart had been upset. Within little more than a decade, humanity had for all intents and purposes been wiped from the face of the Earth. He could no longer kill freely, certainly not the dozen or so victims per month he needed to keep him content. Worst of all, the virus had ignored him entirely. He’d been immune. The cosmos was laughing at him. Kill to your heart’s content now, and pretty soon you’ll be all alone in the world. A fate worse than death, that. Stockman raged at the unfairness of it all, the Catch 22 nature of the beast. He certainly couldn’t indulge himself with other members of the Gathering, for a couple of obvious reasons. One, there weren’t enough people in the Gathering to give him cover; if he killed here, he would be found out, the ultimate horror for a professional assassin to whom light was death. Two, weakening the group unless he had another group to join would be cutting his own throat. There were other land sharks prowling the west.
Worst of all, there were even occasional dolphins. A dolphin could kill a shark, and this Michael Jade was a bottle nosed dolphin if he ever saw one.
Still, the Barrel practiced his tradecraft instinctively, always. He often hunted for the group, giving him opportunities to be alone and earning the admiration of the sheep who admired his ability to find game with only one good eye. His longevity treatments were failing gradually, now that civilization had been destroyed, so he looked like an old man. He was an old man. A vicious old man able to hide his true nature from those around him. Or so he thought.
Roaming wide of the Gathering also provided another benefit. More often than not, he was the first to spot strangers traveling the prairie. Not infrequently, he was the only one to spot them. If he did not want to be seen on his big brown gelding, they never knew he was there. But if he chose to make contact….
In camp, he was known to rise well before dawn to build up the cooking fires for the morning meal. If no one else could start a blaze, he could; the old man had magic fingers. He could even start a fire in a pouring rain. Or pass off excess smoke as the careless introduction of green wood or wet leaves. No one doubted the old fire wizard. Even when he’d gone hunting while the white woman carved on their favored scout, no one had blinked. Nor had they wondered at his return without so much as a scrawny rabbit to show for his efforts.
Feeling the patience of the born predator during an important stalk, Three Eyes–as the snarky younger boys referred to him behind his back–tapped out the dottle from his pipe before loading a fresh batch of cut leaves into the bowl. It would be a long night, but for him it would pass quickly. Pleasant anticipation tingled his adrenaline just enough, keeping him quietly alert, aware of everything around him. Situational awareness. His sight might be going, but his hearing was still exceptional, his sense of smell acute. There, some few feet away, a mouse rustled in the grass, feasting on seeds. A snake, though not a rattlesnake, slithered stealthily closer, preparing to feast on mouse. Farther along the brush line, nearer the river, an owl hooted softly, preparing to take either mouse or snake, as long as the snake was not too big. The sound of the river, soothing to most, provided background noise he filtered without thinking as he listened. Three rows of tents away, the fattest man in camp snored noisily, a sound louder than anything else but the river itself. The horse pasture was too far away, though he imagined he could hear some of the animals sawing through grass with their blunt teeth, thumping the earth with their hard hooves.
Imagination had begun to trump reality, sometimes, but he wasn’t ready to own it.
Across the flat, four hundred and thirty-seven yards south of his position, the hill loomed above the flat, alluvial plain like an oversized muffin. Barrel had taken it upon himself to make his way up there when they first arrived. Having a high point of land overlooking them all might be a good thing or a bad thing, and the only way to be sure which was to climb the beast. His horse hadn’t been happy about scrambling up the steep slope, but he’d done it. On top, things had gotten interesting. The bench wasn’t exactly level, but close enough for company work. It covered close to sixty acres, all at least two hundred feet above the river. Decent grass. On the far side, the little hill chopped off abruptly; long ago, it had been cut for two sets of railroad tracks to run through at the bottom. At the west end of the cut, the land sloped down much less steeply; in the future, that route would probably be a lot easier for pack animals. For a long moment, he’d allowed himself to fantasize building a house that overlooked the riverside encampment. Not that he knew much about building houses, but even stone cold assassins can dream, right?
Most of all, he’d gotten a mighty good look at the valley. And he’d seen something. Even with only one good eye.
What he’d seen had encouraged him to slip out of camp, to go hunting more frequently than usual. Including the afternoon of Wash’s surgery. The strike would come at first light, or at least that was the arrangement. But there was no reason for him to take that as gospel. Infinite faith in one’s fellow traveler on the dark side was a fatal error fit for a fool, and his mama didn’t raise no fool.
Come to think of it, his mama didn’t raise him at all. Not after his twelfth birthday, when he’d killed her and her boyfriend of the moment and gotten away with it. He intended to get away with this, too, and to profit handsomely in the process. To do that, he must survive. And he was very, very good at that.
The quarter moon had long since set when Wasburn “Wash” Conroe opened his eyes in the medical tent. A single candle, set atop a block of wood behind his cot, flickered fitfully, the wick trying to make a decision between burning down clear to the end and drowning in its own pool of melted beeswax. Something stank; it took a few moments to realize that something was him. Massive trauma, dry stress sweat, and even drier blood did not a Chanel Number Five fragrance make. Not that he’d ever sniffed a whiff of Chanel, but old three-eyed Barrel Stockman swore it was way better than essence of shallow latrine. A stray camp stool sat forlornly near the tent flap. He could make out nothing else. Most likely, one of the women had been watching over him for a while, but not now. Either they’d known he was past his crises or suspected he was going to die. Why bother to vigil a guy all night, eh?
It must be close to daylight, that darkest hour just before dawn. He didn’t much like being backlit by the only light in camp, a prime target for any human night prowler that might come along, but there was little he could do about it. He could move his head, his arms, even his legs, but trying to sit up proved to be an extremely bad idea. His midsection was thoroughly wrapped in soft, absorbent fawnskin. Blood encrusted. Somebody had worked on him, gotten the bullet out, patched up his innards. Who had done that? Few if any in the Gathering had the necessary will, let alone the skill.
Other than the wraparound bandage, he was naked beneath a single black bearskin. Even summer nights were cool in this north country. Where were his clothes? Maybe off somewhere, being cleaned? Thankfully, no; his questing fingers found a pile of stuff right beneath his cot. Much of the nasty smell came from there; had he pooped his pants? Soiled or not, he had to know…yes. The smooth, hard contours soothed him like nothing else, at least nothing else since he’d been shot.
Shot. They’d riddled Hood, hadn’t they? They would pay for that; the horse had been his closest friend. They would pay in spades. Once he was healed up. If they didn’t find the Gathering and shoot everybody first. He needed to get up, get out there, organize the people who were lost without him. He needed to. But he couldn’t. Frustration, Wash Conroe is thy name.
One mile downriver, King Arthur called his raiders in close. Quietly; sound carries on a still night. Slim, trim, fierce Gracie Stark rode at his left stirrup, unwilling to be separated from her man. Once was enough. He’d left her safely in the rear during the mountain attack in which he’d lost nearly a third of their men; she wasn’t about to let him out of her sight this time.
“Okay, boys,” he said, sensing rather than seeing the outlaws clustered around him. “It’s time. The old traitor’s smoke signals left no doubt. The two with rapid fire shooters, both the white witch and the man, are definitely there. We’ll catch them flat footed, sound asleep or at least yawning. Ain’t but four shooters in the whole bunch this time. Everybody ready to get some back?”
Assenting murmurs and not a few growls answered in the affirmative. One voice asked, “What about the informant?”
“Cain’t never trust a traitor, eh? Especially one that old. Gun him down. Be a mercy. Save the old renegade from arthritis, senility, whatever. We’ll be doing him a favor.”
Chuckles all around. This sort of favor, they understood.
“Forward at a walk, then. I’ll sound the charge when it’s time.”
They moved out, single file for now, twenty-seven men and one woman. Revenge and loot, maybe even a few females kept alive for a while, all for a few minutes of bloody work. What could be sweeter?
He couldn’t vouch for Jade’s bunch, but Barrel Stockman was pretty sure he was the first to detect the raiders’ approach. Long before they broke into a gallop, the hooves of their horses spoke to him through the Earth itself. He didn’t need to put his ear to the ground; his rear end picked up vibrations just fine. Checking the long knife at his belt and picking up his rifle, he crawled on hands and knees, silently disappearing into the brush. These outlaws likely considered him expendable, now that he’d done his part. The big man disagreed.
No sentry sounded the alarm. The first clue for the camp came in the form of a screeching yell from downriver, followed immediately by the thunder of many horses’ hooves. Neither the boy posted at the horse pasture gate nor the warrior from Michael Jade’s party gave any sign of existing, let alone being up and ready to fight. The three Roost party tents stood silent; the Gathering exploded with panicked activity like a kicked anthill.
King Arthur and his band came in shooting, yelling in triumph, scattering the Gathering like so many quail. Except these quail could not fly. They were gunned down without mercy, saving only the women and girls who looked doable in the early gray light. Those were roped, snared in loops thrown by riders who might have been trained by old time Mexican vaqueros, their accuracy was that great.
In the medical tent, unable to rise, Wash Conroe could do nothing but listen to the chilling yells and screams. Forcing his mind to clarity, he began to make out words. “Yee-haw-w! I got me one!” “No-no-no-please-don’t!” More gunshots. “Ain’t no fightin’ men here, King!” A bass bellow, “Where are the mountain fighters? Where, you fools? Where are they?”
A single shot crack-boomed, a heavier rifle than Wash had ever heard. The bass voice went silent. In seconds, so did the others. Then a woman’s scream, “It’s them, blast you! We’re caught out in the open and they’re up on that hill somewhere!” Listening, Wash marveled. That must have been one fine shot, over four hundred yards with a two hundred foot drop. More words he could not make out. Horses thundered away. Charging this counter threat? Another scream from the woman who had not left; she sounded close. Seconds passed. Another big rifle crack-boom, accompanied by the clatter-crack of fire so rapid it rolled. More screams, then horses moving fast again, but back downstream this time, and far fewer of them. Washburn didn’t know who these Jade people might be, having been out of it the day before, but he was certain of one thing. The raiders had found them and regretted it mightily.
Easing from concealment, big Barrel Stockman stood erect, adjusted his one-lens glasses, and evaluated the situation in a glance. Situational awareness, indeed. His plan had backfired big time, but he was still alive and intended to stay that way. Moving swiftly through the encampment, he barely broke stride to speak a word of comfort to shattered, bleeding women tending their fallen men, more of whom appeared to be cooling corpses than not. Boy child count had been decimated, but many survived. Kids know when and how to hide; only adults lose that native skill if its not practiced beyond puberty. Stockman paused long enough near one tent, momentarily out of sight of any others. He’d never bothered to learn the man’s name, but his fresh blood would serve now. Entering the tent, he used his long knife to cut a wide strip from the dead man’s blanket. Dipping the strip into the man’s shattered chest cavity, he soaked it thoroughly, then smeared himself liberally before wrapping the gory cloth snugly around one thigh. He would limp a little on that side now, projecting the appearance of a man who’d been badly wounded in the fray. It would not do to appear too healthy right now.
At the edge of camp near the river’s ford, where the camp had been hit hardest, he found King Arthur’s body. The top of the man’s head was blown clean off. The King had found his Battle of Camlann. Slumped beside him, holding one of the corpse’s hands between her own two, his slut keened like an ancient Native American after the U.S. Army got done with her tribe. She could not be allowed to surface from her grieving; she might decide to run her mouth, tell the world about his betrayal of his own people. Moving with purpose, he shifted the rifle to his off hand and drew his knife. One quick slash–
Stockman halted, not bothering to hide his anger. “They killed half of the Gathering! Maybe more!” Where the man had come from, he wasn’t sure. Maybe I am getting old. Sandy Smith stood straddling the keening female, one big boot firmly planted on either side of her body. She could have lifted her head and bitten him in the cojones. Not that it seemed likely at the moment. She was utterly unaware of anything but her fallen man. Gritting his teeth and squinting his eyes in a well practiced imitation of righteous fury, he took a half step forward.
And stopped when the man eared the hammer back on his lever action carbine. The muzzle pointed squarely at Barrel’s gut. Smith’s eyes were deeper and darker than the bore of the weapon. The old assassin might not respect human life much, but he did have a high regard for his own. Getting gut shot was extremely low on his bucket list.
Still, a few Gathering men were drifting their way. If he could get them fired up…ugh. Randy McGee was among them. Why couldn’t he have been among the dead?
Another man stepped up beside the woman-straddler. “Like Sandy said, mister. Back off.” Michael Jade’s eyes were death itself. A lever action rifle of some sort was slung over his shoulder, but he held a short barreled carbine with the natural ease of one born to kill. Stockman should know. He made his decision. Nodded shortly to Jade, turned on his heel, and limped away, toward the medical tent.
Michael spoke without taking his eyes from the Gathering survivors. “Randy, we’ll need to be moving out.”
“Reckon so.” McGee didn’t look happy, but he was no fool. Jade’s people might have kept the massacre from being even worse than it was, but if they’d known the attack was coming, why hadn’t they warned him? Why were they protecting a raider, woman or no woman? For that matter, where was the pasture guard? All in all, things would get ugly sooner rather than later. “What about our gate guard? You didn’t hurt him?”
“Only his pride. Boy fell asleep on duty. You’ll find him gagged and lashed to one of the stakes on the left side, three rods past the gate.”
Sandy Smith didn’t like doing it, but in the end he choked Gracie Stark out, then tied her atop a pack horse. By the time she came to, glaring murderously over the rag stuffed in her mouth, King Arthur’s body was being strapped on behind her, draped across the panniers. Mace, Lauren, Julia, and Mudfoot had already gathered the rest of their horses. Twenty minutes later, they were moving out, downstream, the way the survivors had fled. An ambush was possible, maybe even halfway likely, but fording the Roil right next to the shattered camp would have left their backs exposed to possible bullets for far too long.
“Mace, you up for taking point?”
“Keep your sniffer sharp.”
“Teach your granpappy to suck eggs.”
On his way back to the drag position to watch their backs, Michael kept pace with Sandy for a moment. “She’s the one.”
“Ayup.” Smith looked a bit sheepish. He’d known he’d recognize his dream woman when he saw her. He’d had no idea she’d turn out to be the infamous Gracie Stark.
“Going to take a bit of wooing, all things considered. She’s not going to thank you for manhandling her, or me for blowing her man’s head off.”
“Wooing, heck. I reckon I just need to keep her from killing either one of us for the next few months.”
He had a point. “Which is why we’re going to run this expedition all the way to Fort 24 before we head back home.”
“I need to talk with Grunt. You know, big Jake Sedlacek. There are materials and supplies we can get there, maybe on credit if we’re lucky. It’s not like we’ve got a lot to trade this year, but I’m hoping they can always use more meat. And that’ll give you time to try civilizing your new love. I don’t fancy letting her know anything about the Roost at this point, eh?”
“Eh. Reckon she’ll appreciate us giving King Arthur a decent burial?”
“Wouldn’t count on it.”
Barrel Stockman fumed as he watched them go. He hadn’t had one of his plans turn into a mess like this since the day he was rejected for a date with his high school’s prom queen. It didn’t sit well at all. Still, there was one loose end he could tie off. The medical tent wasn’t being used for triage; it wasn’t large and everybody knew Washburn Conroe was lying in there, dead or alive. He needed to make sure it was dead. If Wash recovered enough to remember who’d encouraged him to ride out in that particular direction on that particular day….
Luck was with him. A dead raider sprawled not ten feet from the tent flap. Best of all, he had a belt knife. Obviously, that raider had entered the tent and slit the wounded scout’s throat, then been shot after exiting the premises. Stockman would use his own knife, only drawing it at the last moment, then bloody up the raider’s blade to point the steel finger.
The sun was up. Inside the tent, it took his good eye a moment to adjust. Wash lay prone, pale as a ghost, still perilously low on red blood cells, but awake. “How you feeling, kid?”
Washburn didn’t answer. Just lay there, looking at him. Like a dead man. Which he would soon be. Stockman stepped forward, putting as much sincerity in his voice as he could. “Terrible attack, more dead than alive. The Gathering still exists, though. We won’t go easy into that good night. Glad to see you’re back in the world with us. We need you, boy.” Another step. His hand drifted casually to the hilt of his knife. One quick pull and slash and the deed would be done–
Flame blossomed from the black bear fur. Almost-ninety-year-old Barrel Stockman, not his real name, had been in the business too long not to know what that meant. The heavy lead bullet struck him between two key ribs, bored straight through the center of his heart. Even as his body crashed to the turf beside the injured man’s cot, he realized, “I really am getting old.”
Washburn Conroe pulled the derringer from beneath the singed hide. Readied his second shot, just in case. Stockman was one man he wouldn’t consider dead until he’d sat three days with the body.
Randy McGee was the first to enter the tent after the shooting. Wash was passed out, the tiny pistol still clenched in his fist. McGee thought for a minute, then gripped the derringer and carefully eased it down from full cock. Tucking Wash’s hand back under the hide, he fluffed the black bear fur to make the bullet hole invisible. There would always be a powder burn on the inside, but this would do for now. It took a Herculean effort to drag the huge man’s body outside, but he managed. Apparently, that dead raider hadn’t been quite dead after all.