Happy Bleeping Birthday to Me, Chapter 3: Captain Obvious

We didn’t have to kill anybody the entire rest of the winter, physically anyway, nor did anyone show up intending to kill us. If fact, it was pretty much a five month honeymoon. While the nation continued to be ripped apart from border to border and coast to coast, battling not only Russians in the east and Chinese in the west plus a massive push into the southern border states by Caliphate forces delighted to slaughter anyone unwilling to live under Sharia law, my new slave girl and I basically partied hearty.

It was a good thing I understood survivor’s guilt to be a loser’s game and that I was able to get that across to Tori as well. Her only living aunt, a type II diabetic living in Derringer, had died a couple of months into the process, no longer able to procure insulin. Liza Connors had escaped the Quaglorin gas drift, had even managed to squirrel away food the newly formed DSC, the Derringer Survival Committee, had missed during their searches of every house in town. She had not been able to escape her own out of control glucose levels.

The Committee had burned her body in the new crematorium, a furnace built by the Hapsten Brothers before Haptsten Welding ran out of MIG wire. Cremation was now mandatory in Derringer, the little town having become a law unto itself.

For that matter, the only functional state government left appeared to be that of North Dakota, at least according to public broadcasts and Net coverage. Every community had become more or less a law unto itself. The United States of America still had armed forces in the field, so the federal government wasn’t completely out of it yet, but the feds had their hands full with the various foreign invaders; they didn’t have the manpower to mess with the civilian population.

Except where they raided the civilians for supplies. That hadn’t happened in our immediate area yet, probably due to (a) our sparse population and (b) the devastation wrought by the Quaglorin gas release that had pretty much eliminated everyone in a fifty mile radius of Colorado Springs.

While we waited, we ate well, rested well, learned each other’s bodies, learned each other as Soul, and began Tori’s real education. I was astounded at her capacity; she took to a dozen different fields of study with equal enthusiasm, absorbing knowledge like new generation quicker picker upper paper towels–which put sponges to absolute shame. History, psychology, martial arts, Sun Tzu on the Art of War, cooking, archery, firearms–though we did not shoot at anything for fear of wasting ammunition and/or drawing attention to ourselves–tracking, you name it.

Her only downfall was math…I thought. She’d failed algebra before dropping out of school, young enough to be dragged back to class by the education police but ignored in the small town of Derringer, another kid fallen through the cracks. I began to despair of ever getting the common algebra concepts through to her. But she persevered, powered, I felt, by the knowledge that her Master believed in her utterly, and one day she suddenly got it. Just like that, she got it. From there, it was lock and load and Katie bar the door. She inhaled the texts on plane geometry, solid geometry, trigonometry. When she reached calculus, she lost me; I’d struggled mightily to pull a B grade in beginning calc, back in the day.

The girl had the potential to be a rocket scientist.

With all of that, we did stay in close touch with Marcus Grady, easing the Power Wagon down out of the mountains on an average of once a week but not on a specific schedule. An enemy who can figure out your schedule finds it easy to lay an ambush. We did watch the weather closely, hoping as often as possible to get back upgrade just as a storm was coming in, with fresh snow to blanket our tracks.

At the café, Grady’s little family grew. Cecily Pike gave up the ghost in mid-December, orphaning her son Jimmy, but the boy was not without companions. Seven more Souls had come to shelter under Marcus’s roof by New Year’s Day, only one of them an adult male. Jasper Kane was around twenty, a short, stocky fellow with a wide, open face and a willingness to work if he had somebody looking over his shoulder. Willow Steneen, in her mid-forties, looked like she’d hooked up with her host, though we weren’t about to pry into that to find out for sure. Three of the children were hers, two boys and a girl, ranging between six and twelve years of age. Holly Warburton, stick thin and scared of her own shadow, had once been Tori’s classmate. Last but not least, twenty-something Sunami Yokeem sported stringy hair and at least eighty pounds she did not need.

It amazed us some, how anyone could stay that fat with food in seriously short supply everywhere, but she did it. Some folks are just easy keepers, I guess.

Speaking of food, I’d asked Marcus once if he was okay on that score. Few were, I knew; people were starving in Derringer, men often out hunting but finding too little.

“Not hurting yet,” he’d claimed, but I was having trouble believing him. The man wouldn’t ask me to dip into my stash if his belly had already gnawed his backbone plumb in two. And with this mob to feed….

After that trip, Tori and I’d gone hunting. She needed real time practice with a compound bow anyway. As often as not, she could already outshoot me on the targets, but taking down meat for supper was a big step up from that.

“Let’s hunt uphill from the Quonset,” I’d told her as we got ready to hike that day. “That way, any game we get, we can drag it downhill all the way. Or most of the way, anyway; sometimes you get an animal down in a draw where there’s no way out but up.”

“Okey dokey,” she’d grinned, and we’d set out.

It was nearing noon, just about time to turn back if we were going to make it back home before dark, when she got her chance. Elk, a dozen of them, all bulls. The rutting season was over; the boys had no reason not to hang out together. I lined up the sights on my .270 Remington, willing to chance the sound of it if Tori missed, but I needn’t have bothered. Her arrow flew true, taking a three point through the lights at 120 yards.

Three tines per side, that is. Some folks count both sides and call that a six point bull. Where I grew up, that’s cheating.

The animal ran, but not far, and he was dead when he fell.

I gave my girl a squeeze on the shoulder, and we got to work. When I cut the head off, Tori asked, “Didn’t you tell me we’d need the brain? For tanning the hide?”

“Someday,” I agreed, “probably. But we’re not to that point yet; we’ve got enough clothing stocked up to last for a while, especially with your sewing ability. I’m proud of you, being able to cut down Rains’s old stuff to fit you.”

“Oh.” She blushed, embarrassed. Tori still hadn’t mastered the art of taking a compliment. “Well. Except for shoes and boots. Haven’t figured out how to turn her size tens into size sevens yet.”

“Hey, you can’t have everything. Look off to your right, Tor, easy like, no quick moves. Under the trees at the edge of the clearing. What do you see?”

“I don’t…wolf!” Her voice was a mere whisper. “No…wolves, plural. Three of them.”

“Four,” I corrected her. “There’s a black one about thirty yards to the right of the others.”

“Oh.” Her voice stepped up out of whisper mode and got small at the same time. “Will they attack us?”

“Not likely. But I do think they were stalking the elk when we struck first. Which is another reason we’re leaving the head to go with the guts.” I finished hauling the steaming mass out onto the snow with my bare hands and straightened, hooking up the towing strap running between one of the carcass’s hind legs and my pulling harness.

“Yo, brothers!” I lifted my voice to carry across to the “Kibble’s down! Come and get it!”

Though she hadn’t shot the biggest animal in the herd, I still had to be dragging a good 500 pounds of meat, even with the innards–except for the heart and liver, which of course we retained in the bag Tori was carrying–and head removed. It wasn’t the first elk I’d ever dragged out, though, and I was proud of making it look easy in front of the girl. I’d planned well; there wasn’t a lick of uphill to worry about on the way home as long as I retraced our tracks exactly.

I didn’t look back, that being a mite awkward when pulling a serious load, but Tori kept me posted on what the wolves were doing.

“They’re coming for the guts. Oh, hey, the black one got there first. Oops, now he’s backing off. Guess he’s not the boss wolf, huh?”

“Probably not.” I was seriously concentrating, not wanting to puff and blow while answering. “Probably not a he, either. Most likely a lesser female in the pack.”

“Ah. Hey, she’s sitting away from the others a bit now, just watching us. I’d swear she’s saying thank you!”

We had a good three miles to cover. Even downhill, that was a workout. When the teenager spoke up, wanting to take a turn in the dragging harness, I didn’t argue. When she first leaned into it, the carcass didn’t budge an inch. That made me smile inside; I’d have felt a bit unmanned if she’d just walked off with the thing. But she didn’t quit; the girl got that little crease in her brow she gets when she’s concentrating, set herself a bit differently, lunged forward…and made it happen. She covered a good three hundred yards before it was obvious the 500 pound load was whipping the 125 pound woman’s butt.

After that, she didn’t ask to take any more turns; the job was mine all the rest of the way to the Quonset. Served me right for gloating, even secretly.

I’ve never been one for saving the ribs when it comes to wild meat. If we were desperate, that would be another matter, but we weren’t. We hung the carcass up next to the backhoe loader for a few days, skinned it out, carved up the meat–me handling knife and saw, Tori doing the wrapping and marking–and the entire rib cage, spine and all, was dropped off one ridge to the west where something hungry was sure to find it.

Then we made another trip down country, delivering half of the meat to Marcus. Yes, half of the loin, too, what some folks call the backstrap. No better eating on any animal, unless it’s the liver. I’m partial to fresh liver, unless of course it’s got those white spots that mean liver flukes.

This one didn’t.

We took our first hit in mid-February during a down country trip in the middle of a cold snap that reached 37 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Human scavengers had made it past Grady’s Café by one route or another, foraging up the gulch as far as our precious down country house. The place had been ransacked, every window broken out just for the cussedness of it, the front door smashed in. Not the garage; that part of the structure had been hardened considerably in anticipation of just such an event. The 1957 Chevy was therefore untouched.

Strangely, the inside of the house wasn’t that damaged, either. A couple of cabinet doors were ripped off the hinges, and it was clear the place had been searched, the pantry emptied of food, that sort of thing. The TV and computer were both gone. But overall, the building was still structurally sound.

And so was the real heart of this home. I’d built it to look like it was on a slab, but in reality it was sitting on a half-basement, the vents hidden and piped to locations that would seem unconnected to the house. The hidden trap doors in the hardwood floors had gone unrecognized.

Our flash drive recordings of the doings in the world were safe and working flawlessly, as usual.

“There are a few sheets of strand board in the garage,” I told Tori, “enough to board up those busted windows. That should keep the weather and critters out, protect the interior. Besides which, the next batch of marauders that comes by will see nothing but an abandoned, boarded up structure. They’ll be more likely to pass it by.”

“Unless they need shelter,” she pointed out, “a place to stay. Then we’ll have squatters.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t seem too likely. There’s no short of houses in town; it’s people that are dying off, not buildings. Not too many rounders are going to want to tackle living out here with no wheels and no obvious food source.”

Marcus accepted the elk meat with a simple thank you. His boarders, however–all of them refugees from a town that had judged them wanting and pretty much run them out–lit up like so many candles at the sight of all that meat.

I didn’t have the heart to tell them how soon it would be gone. They had maybe two hundred pounds there, divided by nine people? Even if Marcus stretched it out, concentrating on chili feeds and other extenders, these people needed at least a quarter pound of red meat a day per person if they were going to keep up their strength. With a steak thrown in here and there, or an occasional roast…I was betting they’d be meatless again in two months, give or take.

But that was better than starving today.

By the Ides of March, we had a better picture of how things were falling out in the Derringer area, throughout the United States, and around the world. Or at least we thought we did; many of the reports, especially on the Net, were conflicting and not at all easy to reconcile. But overall, the pieces of the puzzle seemed to be falling in place.

On the global scale, it had become clear why Russia and China had chosen this era to attack America. Simply stated, both great nations were flat dead broke, their economies in the toilet, their own people starving. At the same time, America’s President Jacobus Martin Brood had been elected to his second term in office, arguably the most utterly insane and certainly the weakest Commander in Chief we’d ever seen occupy the Oval Office, not excluding the record breaking Barack Hussein Obama of the early twenty-first century. Seizing an opportunity that might never come again in his lifetime, Russia’s Premier Snarotsky had struck first, aiming straight for our capitol, intending to decapitate the head of the snake first.

Whether that strike had taken out its intended target or not remained unclear, President Brood being declared dead by some and alive by others. The majority seemed to agree that he was alive but in hiding, not even daring to publish a video with a few encouraging words for the people. The man didn’t have half the balls of the average suicide bomber after the bomber had blown himself up.

The Russians had used a nuke. Washington D.C. had pretty much disappeared in a mushroom cloud, upper levels of the Pentagon and all. It hadn’t been that simple to knock out our military–nor had the Snarotsky likely thought it would be–but the generals were definitely distracted…

…and the Chinese decided, hey, if the Americans are all focused on the front door, the eastern seaboard, why don’t we just slip right in the back door? Which they did, launching the offensive that eventually brought their paratroopers to the now defunct Colorado Springs, Colorado. It had been easy for them. Brood had brought our armed forces down to criminal levels; there was no way we could fight two of the most powerful countries in the world at the same time. Not effectively. Not even on our home turf.

Why hadn’t we retaliated with nuclear weapons? Simple. Unilateral disarmament. We didn’t have a nuke younger than fifty years of age. Nothing worked except for the lone warhead that blew up over our own territory before it could be launched, taking out most of Boston.

There had been those who saw it all coming, of course. Right wingnuts, every one, according to most of the media. “China and Russia teaming up to take us out? Preposterous! They both depend on our trade. They don’t trust each other one bit. You right wingers are even farther off your rockers than usual!”

And so on and so forth.

Part of what they said was true. China and Russia definitely did not trust each other one bit. But they didn’t need to. They were simply two jackals taking down the lion that had plagued their lives for centuries. The big cat was weakened, emaciated, and they each went for a hamstring.

Then came the jihadists, going for our gonads. A quarter million reverse crusdaders, some said, being passed through Mexico without the slightest bit of interference from the Mexican government–if you could call that a government–and on into the border states, pouring over and through the fence, laughing at the Border Patrol agents who laid down their lives or, sometimes, fled like rats from a sinking ship.

The Chinese held the west coast all the way from Bellingham to Los Angeles, but the camel jockeys ruled from San Diego east through Phoenix and most of southern Texas.

Or so the airwaves claimed. We weren’t too sure the talking heads could be trusted. Not that they’d ever been all that trustworthy, but it was getting to the point of ridiculosity. It was all propaganda; the only question was, which liar were we listening to at any given moment, and how many–if any–tidbits of truth could we extract from the load of bull being slung at us.

And then, one day in early April, with the weather warming and the snowmelt running the mountain streams bank full, we watched our very last TV broadcast. We were at Grady’s Café on a Wednesday, having brought the meat from a couple of deer carcasses we knew the people would be sorely needing. The cable companies had been destroyed for a long time, but Marcus had a bootleg satellite signal powering the picture on a big screen TV on the cafe’s south wall. We were all celebrating our host’s discovery of a gallon can of Green Mountain Coffee, never mind the lack of creamer. He did have a little sugar left, and we were more than happy to make do with that.

I was on my second cup when the screen went black.

Black coffee, black screen, I thought. I remember thinking that. There’d been other blackouts, lots of them, but this time I knew. I knew it was forever.

Marcus had a little computer in the back, in the apartment where he slept. It didn’t look like much, but it was a sleeper, mil spec hardened like my under-floor stuff. In fact, we’d gotten our equipment form the same supplier, Underground America, years earlier.

We just looked at each other and slipped on back to his bedroom, the two of us, leaving everybody else in the dining room. My friend knew, too; I could see it in his eyes.

The Net was dead as a politician’s promise. Our planet had become utterly dependent on the plethora of satellites orbiting our big blue ball. Someone, or some group, had figured out a way to take them out. All of them. At the same time.

I talked to a genius type, years later, who explained what he believed had happened. There were other theories out there, but his made as much sense to me as any of them. Paul Rentworth, PhD; you might have heard of him. Paul told me, “Harrison, putting together all the data I’ve been able to put together, here’s what I believe happened. A turbo-virus was uploaded to the satellites, one that burrowed into every satellite’s software, probably with a built-in delay factor so that all of the birds, every one regardless of its location at the time, blew its own programming at the same instant as all the others.”

“How instantaneous was it?” I’d asked, “Do you know?”

“From the first to the last,” he replied, “One point three milliseconds.”

“That’s…impressive.”

“I thought so.”

Marcus and I didn’t know all that on that fine, sunny April afternoon in Colorado. We couldn’t possibly have known. And yet we did know.

On the way back up country, Tori and I pulled one of the shortwave radios out from under the down country house’s flooring and loaded it into the Power Wagon. There would still be the possibility of enemy forces, either the Chinese or our own government, triangulating to pin down our location. It didn’t seem all that likely, though, and with the satellites down, the ability to stay in contact with Marcus at all times seemed more important than the risk.

Tori drove all the way up the grade. She was getting downright good behind the wheel. The girl had talent like you wouldn’t believe.

She also had nightmares, not as many as before, but she still had them.

“Same one?” I would ask softly, holding her in the night as she sobbed into my chest, shuddering and shaking like she was having a seizure.

“Y-yes. Always–always the same.”

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the killing of Riggins and Moran that haunted her, but the gunfight at the café, the termination of the five Chinese hybrid troops–half aviator, half Special Forces–that Marcus and I’d gunned down. It had taken me a while to figure out why that was so, why the death of five enemy invaders got to her in a way the death of two Americans she’d known did not.

Turned out the secret was involvement. She’d had nothing to do with Riggins and Moran; she’d just sat there in shock while I did my thing without warning. By contrast, she felt directly responsible for the deaths of the Chinese, acting the pretty-little-butt-in-your-face distraction we’d needed to get the jump on them.

Another factor? Yeah, there was one more. The Chinese were grade A hardcase assholes of the first order, pissed off at being dead and doing what they could to attack us in our dreams to get even for losing the contest on the physical plane. I knew this because they’d come at me a few nights here and there, but inner planes combat is definitely within my comfort zone. After I’d killed the bunch of them off a few more times, they pretty much left my dreams alone.

It was apparently harder for them to give up on the pretty little girl.

She’d been gaining lately, though, partly through applying a few fighting techniques I’d taught her but mostly by asking the Dream Master to guard her dreams each night and by chanting the Hu as she dropped off to sleep.

She’d not known the Hu, found in every language on Earth in one form or another, was an ancient name for God, but she certainly took to it like a duck to water.

On our next trip down country, April 22nd according to the calendar although with no satellite clock to consider, we could always be wrong about that, Tori was pretty somber. I had business to take care of and she wasn’t happy about it.

“Marcus,” I said once we were settled at our usual table for war council, “have you heard if the DN Quarter Circle is still in one piece?”

“The Nestossin place?”

“Yeah.”

The burly man rubbed his stubbled chin, thinking. “We’re not getting a lot of updates, but as far as I know, yeah. You thinking of calling on Gwen?”

“Considering it.” Gwen Nestossin had to be pushing eighty-five these days, but last time I’d seen her, she hadn’t showed much sign of slowing down. Her husband, Big Dave Nestossin, had been dead, what? Fifteen, twenty years now? The old cowgirl ran the ranch with an iron fist, specializing in Charolais beef plus ornery sons and their offspring. “Guess I wouldn’t be spilling any beans to tell you our hideout is high enough in the mountains to attract wolves and bears and mountain lions, but even so, we’re going to have to bite the bullet and come up with a couple of saddle mounts sooner rather than later.”

“Unh.” Grady sipped his hot water, the café having run out of both coffee and tea long since. “You never did want to have to defend horses from predators.”

“True. I did not. Frankly, I still don’t. But I don’t see any alternative, not for the long run. We’re not out of fuel yet, but one of these days we will be. Worse than that, internal combustion engines make noise. With the weather warming up, everybody who’s still alive and has a firearm or a bow or even a slingshot, they’ll all be out tramping through the hills, looking for fresh meat or a stash of food left in some back country cabin, whatever they can find. They hear our engine coming their way sometime, all they’d need to do would be lay up behind a tree or a rock and wait. Gun us down, take the vehicle and run.”

“Which would be stupid of them,” he said dryly, “since it would then be them making all that noise, making themselves targets.”

“Ain’t no shortage of stupid around here these days, my friend.”

“True that. So, how do you intend to get there? Nestossin’s is way to Hell and gone the other side of Derringer.”

“Yeah. Well. I was hoping maybe your old mountain bike still had air in the tires.”

He stared at me, dumbfounded. “You’re figuring on pedaling right smack dab through the middle of town? Might as well just do that with the Chevy, seeing as how you’re determined to commit suicide and all.”

“Suicide, no. Homicide, maybe. I do need to have a chat with a few of our local entrepeneurs about tearing up my house, eh?”

“Ah-h-h.” He let out a long breath. “I see what this is all about now. And I see why Tori came in here looking like she’d sucked down an entire lemon, too.”

In the end, he loaned me the bike. I never was much for two wheeled transportation of that sort, but I could make do when it had to be done. Tori hugged me goodbye, more than two thirds convinced I was riding to my death, and I wheeled off toward town, around the bend that brought the buildings of Derringer into view. I likely looked a sight, an old cowboy in work boots and heavy coat, a Henry lever action rifle in .30-30 caliber in a scabbard across the front of the handlebars.

One thing about that bike. Marcus had mounted a pair of high rise rear view mirrors on the handlebars, just ahead of the grips. Nobody would be sneaking up behind me when I was riding, which was more than you could say for most bicycles out there.

Despite my bravado, I was nervous. None of us really knew the current situation in town. Had I been able to make the mile long dash from one end to the other without being spotted, that would have been more than fine with me.

That vain hope vanished when Dag Potter stepped out of the Community Center building in the middle of the town, accompanied by two guys I did not know. He’d seen me coming, Dag had, or I’d have flown past before they could react. The pudgy man held up a hand, calling out, “Harrison Polson! Long time no see! Park your wheels and set a spell!”

This could well become a downright revolting situation in nothing flat, but I did as he said. Had I flashed on by, my back would have been to the three of them. Mirrors or no mirrors, Dag Potter was not a man you let at your back if you had a brain in your head, at least not if you wanted to keep it in your head.

He gave me a sour look when I padlocked the bike to the street sign pole at the corner and hauled the Henry out of its scabbard, but I’d expected no less.

“Figure somebody’s going to steal your bike if you don’t lock it up?”

“Captain Obvious,” I replied. It didn’t pay to push Potter too far, but it didn’t pay to let him think he could push you, either.

Inside, I took a chair from one of the tables and moved it to place with the wall at my back. Potter shook his head. “Harrison, Harrison, Harrison. For an old man, you sure haven’t learned to trust your fellow man, have you?”

I took one long, slow look around the huge room. The stage at the far end had been converted to a throne of sorts, with a fine leather office chair behind a huge cherry wood desk. Flanking the desk were several lesser chairs on each side, usually occupied, I was guessing, by the King’s sycophants and/or guards when Court was in session.

Not that anyone was sitting there now; they were all gathered around to interrogate Old Man Polson, to see what the hillbilly fool on the bicycle might have to add to their entertainment of the day. I leaned back, crossing my arms, waiting. Potter was obviously in charge here now, which would mean Mayor Stringer had gone to meet his maker. There were fifty, maybe sixty men in what had been a dance hall the last time I’d seen it at the Fourth of July Rodeo dance the previous summer. Three women, attending Potter as he took a seat across the table from me. Julie Mark, Sherry Three Feathers, and one I didn’t know, bringing the current Boss of Derringer a cup of real by God coffee on the one hand, a container of sugar on the other. The third girl, the stranger to me, stood behind Potter’s chair, kneading his shoulders.

All of this was, I must admit, a sight to see. Dag Potter was a Denver native, no more than two or three years out of prison, a known murderer who liked to strangle his victims slowly with cotton clothes line rope. During his trial, he’d had a far better attorney than he’d deserved, pulled twenty years, done it standing on his head–or bent over, or on his knees, according to scuttlebutt–and relocated to Derringer upon his release. Last summer, he’d been surviving by cutting firewood for other folks, mowing lawns, swamping out the Foothills Bar, whatever odd jobs he could find.

Now, it seemed, he’d come into his own. I had no doubt the pasty faced, overweight, sluglike thug staring complacently at me through his crossed eyes…yep, he was in full control of whatever was left of the town.

“How many,” I asked quietly, “are left alive?”

He started, coming back from wherever his dark thoughts had taken him. “In town? Not quite two hundred. These are all of the men, forty-seven of us. The rest are women and kids. Not many old people.”

No, I thought. There wouldn’t be many old people left. Potter would have seen to that.

“So,” he continued, one wormy lip crawling upward in a bit of a sneer, “how do you come to be looking so good, old man? And for that matter, where have you been lately. Ain’t seen hide nor hair of you since the shit hit the fan. Got a real nice stash somewhere, do you?”

I relaxed then. Funny how that works for me. “Well,” I replied evenly, a hint of a smile creeping across my face. I felt it, and I was sure he could see it. “I damn sure don’t have anything left in my pantry. Enjoy the peaches, did you? I understand Del Monte’s a bit better brand than they provide in the joint.”

He never saw that one coming. I do so love it when they never see it coming. His doughy face mottled purple. If looks could have killed, I’d likely have expired on the spot, except that the way those eyes of his aimed, it was a little hard to tell. He might have missed.

“Are you accusing me of something?” His voice hissed like a scared snake. Of course, as any reptile lover knows, a scared snake is a dangerous snake.

I cocked an eyebrow. “Yep. I’m accusing you of being a lowdown, chicken shit, lily livered, butt banging pile of lard and, oh yeah, a vandal and a thief.” I was betting nobody had spoken to him like that for a while, at least not since he’d gotten away from the Gray Rock Hotel a few years ago.

It felt good to be up front and honest like that. I’ve heard it said there’s such a thing as too much honesty, but golly gee, it was nice to be able to let it out.

Dag Potter, unfortunately, didn’t seem to appreciate the input. “Take him,” he snapped to the two men who’d been sidling closer along the wall, inch by inch. On the plus side, my peripheral vision is pretty good; without taking my attention away from the man across the table, I was keenly aware of the fellow on my left lunging toward the rifle I’d left leaning against the wall while the fellow on my right pulled a knife that would have done credit to old Jim Bowie himself.

I didn’t bother to get up, just uncrossed my arms. A bit quickly, I will admit, each hand filled with a single action Heritage replica single action revolver. Nobody had noticed the slits in my coat through which I’d accessed the sewn-in holsters; it must have looked like a magic trick to the assembled audience. Great sound effects, too; there’s nothing like the sound of those retro shooters coming back to full cock.

Okay, so they’re only .22 caliber weapons. It doesn’t matter much; they’re .22 Magnums. Besides, even little bitty muzzle holes can look like Howitzers when you’re staring down the barrels across a mere six feet of table.

Maybe more than Howitzers if you’re cross eyed. I wouldn’t know about that, just like he wouldn’t know I really didn’t want to have to pop caps inside the building, especially Magnum caps. I do value my hearing.

“If either one of you moves another inch,” I promised softly into the sudden silence, “your cross eyed boss here is going to sprout a couple of extras.”

From there, it was simple enough. Potter apparently figured he had eyes enough already. He encouraged his bully boys to retreat without further ado. Which didn’t surprise me; the man had spent a full twenty years behind bars being banged in the butt by men tougher than he was. When he had the upper hand, he would be ruthless. When he didn’t, he’d submit completely.

I’d been counting on that.

It didn’t take much urging to persuade him to accompany me back outside, instructing the others to wait inside until his return. I had him walk with me the quarter mile to where the street turns enough to take me out of the Community Center’s line of sight, then told him he was free to head on back. He wouldn’t run; it would be important for the Boss of Derringer to stroll on back into his den of iniquity as if nothing had happened, as if he’d merely been out for a walk with a friend. The others wouldn’t see him as weak that way, or so he’d hope.

Most likely, though, it would be a really good idea for me to find another route on my return trip. I’d taken him by surprise with the pistols. That would rankle; he’d want revenge if he could get it. Especially since, before we parted, I’d relieved him of his belt gun–a Rambo Special semiauto, POS if there ever was one, but it was the idea of the thing–and a truly fine Kershaw folding knife. Plus his boots. He looked a lot more pissed off about the boots than about the weapons.

“We’ll call that even for the damage done to my house and the pantry raid,” I told him. “Pull something like that again, I’ll cut your balls off and stuff ‘em down your throat.”

He just nodded, said, “Yes sir,” and started walking back in his socks. There were holes in those socks, I noted, though not in the boots.

I’d just cleared the final building, a gutted out service station, when I heard the cry.

“Wait up! Wait up, please!”

Coming up the street behind me, a tall, thin scarecrow pumped furiously on a bicycle three sizes too small for him. I stopped and waited, my arms crossed. He didn’t seem dangerous, but I wasn’t in the mood to take chances.

“Please,” he panted, gasping for breath, “take me with you.”

“Why?”

“Why–what?”

“Why should I take you with me?” Adding a fugitive to our Quonset household had not been in my plans when I’d started this day. On the other hand, the best laid plans of mice and men….

“Why…uh…well….”

“The truth and nothing but the truth, son.” He looked to be at least six-two, maybe six-three, but couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds soaking wet. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t quite place it.

“The truth.” I could see the young man, somewhere in his mid-twenties at a guess, take hold of himself. His eyes were dark, his cheeks more sunken than Abraham Lincoln. Not quite an Auschwitz image, but too close for comfort; it wasn’t often you saw a human being this close to starvation who was still on his feet. “The truth is, Mr. Polson, I’m a dead man if you don’t. The people in town, they, well, they used to like me okay, I thought, but not since Dag Potter took over.”

I remembered him now. He used to work the afternoon shift at the now defunct gas station. “Hiram Jacobson, is it?”

“Yes. Yes sir.” He looked grateful to be remembered. “That’s me.”

“Your folks?” His father, Benjamin Jacobson, had owned the station.

“Dead.”

“All of them? I’m sorry, kid.” I kicked myself mentally for calling him kid; it just slipped out.

“Yeah…Mom got nailed with that gas. Dad, too, but he didn’t die right off. Sicker’n a dog, and I don’t think he’d really recovered from that and, you know, Mom dying, when the pneumonia got him. Corinne….”

“Your sister?”

He nodded. “She was okay. Food was getting short, but we thought the two of us were going to get through the winter. Until….”

I had a hunch. “Potter?” Dag Potter had done his time for the murder of a Castle Rock girl; Corinne Jacobson could have been her twin.

“Potter. I can’t prove it, but….”

“Enough, Hiram. We’ll settle up with Jailbird Potter when the time is right. For now, let’s saddle up and get to pedaling. We’ve miles to go before we sleep.”

I headed on out, young Jacobson pedaling furiously behind me. I was betting he’d had that bike he was riding since he was a young boy; it took some serious pushing to get it to keep up to Grady’s pro level mountain bike.

A couple of miles out, working on up into the foothills on the Nestossin Ranch Road, it hit me. I was an idiot. We stopped long enough for me to fish in the saddle bags. Hiram stared at the two stale granola bars like they were manna from Heaven, but it didn’t take him long to make them disappear.

“Sun’s going down,” I observed. Captain Obvious. “We’ll be riding by moonlight by the time we get to the DN Quarter Circle.” There was a spare sweater in the right hand saddle bag; I dug that out, too. “Get this on under that ratty jacket. Can’t have you freezing to death the very evening you got your freedom.”

Overhead, a pair of ravens sounded their “RA!” call as they winged toward their roost for the night.

“RA! RA!” I called back at them.

“RA!” Came the reply.

Hiram Jacobson didn’t look at me like I was weird or anything, which was a good sign. On the other hand, after what he’d been through this past winter, I had a hunch it would take more than seeing me talk to ravens to throw him off.

“Ready?”

He nodded, I stepped back across my bike, and off we went. It was a beautiful sunset. I just hoped Gwen’s hands didn’t shoot first and ask questions later when two renegades came rolling up to her ranch house after dark.