Grunt, Chapter 9: Fear Trace

DISCLAIMER: There’s at least one bit of duplicated wording on this page, along with some plain old weirdness, not because I did it that way but because the page decided it had a mind of its own. I would have to retype nearly 6,000 words on a new page to fix it (copying and pasting doesn’t work), and for now it’s not worth the effort.___Ghost

“Life is complicated, isn’t it?”

“Hnh.” Grunt shifted his gaze to look at the speaker, the prune faced teenager known as Dawg. Teenager, but a young slave no longer. Three weeks on the trail they’d been, enough for things between the bunch of them to shake out a bit as they crossed streams, rivers, valleys, sagebrush flats, and two mountain ranges. This night, they were camped in a field of boulders interspersed with plenty of late autumn grass flavored with several inches of snow. The horses and mules were hobbled and chowing down, Slash the war dog was scouting out there in the darkness somewhere, stars twinkled merrily in a crisp sky, the women were boiling meat from a young cow elk Hammer Weathers had shot with his crossbow just at sunset, and life was good. The former slaves were filling out, adding muscle and even a little good, healthy fat. How was that complicated? Figuring out why you should survive at all after seeing your whole world fall to the blackface, that was complicated. This? Not so much.

The kid had that look in his eye, though; he wanted to talk. “How so?

Dawg look uncomfortable, maybe wishing he hadn’t opened this particular can of worms. “Uh…well…when you cut us loose back at Trickle Creek, told us we were no longer slaves and we could make our lives our own, it looked simple enough…for about a day. All I could think of was learning how to kill really well, then going back to wipe out the slave masters at Fort Steel and setting the rest of our people free.”

“Hnh. Nothing wrong with that. Had I been through what you been through, I’d likely have been thinking along similar lines myself.” Grunt picked up a long stick and poked the fire a bit; the girls were peeling potatoes to add to the pot, whispering to each other all the while, and weren’t keeping the flames right.

“Yeah.” Dawg heaved a deep sigh, like he was Atlas just realizing the weight of the world was on his shoulders. “But that’s…what’s the word…simplistic. It’s too simplistic.”

“Hnh.”

An owl hooted mournfully, some distance away. Both Hammer and Grunt turned a bit, cocking their ears, listening. Real owl or not? His great spotted hide clearly visible at the edge of the firelight, the huge pinto stallion didn’t seem concerned. The mules were calm. Slash was out there somewhere, patrolling….

“See, I could do that. But if I did, then who would take care of Kiko and Gloria and little Free?” He gestured toward the females and the odd child as if they were stumps without ears. He was like that, though. Dawg spoke his mind always, heedless of who might overhear or whose feelings might be hurt. Whatever career he chose in life, it would not be that of a spy. “Sure, I know you and Hammer will look out for them, but you’ve got other things to do; there’s enough on your plate. Besides, you’re a recruiter, aren’t you? Bet you a Steel dollar to a deep fried donut hole you got the itchy foot, can’t stand hanging around your home base for too long at a time, am I right?”

Grunt’s eyebrows rose. He would have replied, but Dawg wasn’t waiting for an answer.

“Gloria’s just gotten rid of her slave name, Free finally has a name, and I’m going to leave them with strangers they don’t know yet and can’t possibly trust? I don’t think so. Yet I still want to get the rest of our Fort Confluence people out of Fort Steel, and the two goals aren’t exactly compatible. So, complicated.

“Then there’s the matter of feelings. I mean like…romance.”

The big man wasn’t one hundred percent certain with only campfire light to go by, but the young man seemed to be…blushing? “Romance?”

“Yeah. You know, where boys meet girls of their own free will and they like it? You’ve heard of it?”

Blasted kid had a mouth on him, now didn’t he? “I’ve heard of it,” he said mildly.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got feelings for Gloria, but she’s got eyes only for you. Maybe that’ll pass if she finds out you’ve got six wives and seventeen kids whenever we get to where we’re going, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Then again, Jess here is older than me, and she’s even your adopted daughter so that’s scary, but she’s been teaching me a lot about teamster work I didn’t know, and if she liked me that way, hey, I’m not sure I’d say no–but she’s looks at Kiko that way, not at me.”

The teamster woman, seated halfway around the fire, equidistant between the men and the former slave women preparing the meal, jerked her head up to stare at the teenager. For one long moment, her jaw hung open, knife and whetstone forgotten in her hands. Then she snapped out of it, closed her mouth, shook her head, and went back to honing the blade.

“And as for Kiko, she’s got no interest in man or woman. She’s still trying to come to grips with the miracle of freedom, of realizing she and her son are no longer in bondage, no longer likely to be executed at a master’s whim for being judged less than useful. So pity the fool who falls hard for her!”

Hammer Weathers interrupted. “Dawg, do you realize you’ve just humiliated, embarrassed, and offended nearly every one of your fellow travelers?”

“I have?” The youngster looked confused. “How so? All I was saying is, life’s complicated!”

“If it wasn’t before,” Grunt shook his massive head, “it is now.” He decided it was time to change the subject before the cooks became so distracted they ruined the stew or Jess cut herself sharpening a knife she’d carried for years. “But let’s move on. I need to tell you all about tomorrow. We’ll be leaving this boulder field by midmorning, then crossing an open area where we’ve got no cover. Should leave that by approximately noon, but the problem is getting all of us through the afternoon alive.” He looked around, slow and easy, making eye contact with everybody but little Free whose mind, such as it was, remained somewhere else anyway.

“At that point, after the open area, we hit what our folks call Fear Trace. Three miles, give or take, through some of the most tightly packed forest you’ll ever see. Plenty of animals in there, and the worst critters of all are the ambush bandits. Get a group of raiders working out in the open and sooner or later their numbers will get whittled down because they can’t help making themselves targets even while they’re making good folks like us targets. But in these woods, it’s different. Really different.”

His listeners were riveted to his every word, as well they should be. Their lives might depend on having paid strict attention. Jess alone, herself a veteran of the Trace, showed no emotion.

“Fear Trace has a wide enough trail to allow passage for wagons, but barely. There’s not one single place where you can turn around. Every tree trunk can hide an outlaw, and there are tree trunks every few feet. We’ve even known Tracers to hide in a hollow tree or downed hollow log. They can burst up from under a pile of leaves or lurk high overhead in the treetops. Three good friends of ours died a few years ago when Tracers dropped a net over their entire wagon and then jumped down on top of them with short swords. It is flat out the most dangerous portion of our entire journey. However,” he held up a hand to forestall the storm of terrified questions he could see brewing in the women who’d been slaves, “I have survived the Trace more than a dozen times, Jess has been with me for half of that, and we have no intention of yielding up our lives or our goods to the dregs of humanity. I do have a plan.”

They waited. He definitely had their attention.

“Dawg, first of all, you’ll need to stay with your wagon tomorrow.”

“What–but if there’s fighting out there, I want to be in on it!”

“Spoken like every young warrior who ever lived.” Grunt smiled gently, hoping to take some of the sting from his instructions. “But I need you on the wagon seat; you’re just too good a driver. You keep Buck’s tail in sight all the way through the Trace, close enough for you and Jess to support each other if the bad guys get close enough for you to see them.”

“Buck’s tail? But won’t you be on him?”

“Not this time. Hammer, may I borrow your Black? He’s a lot smaller than Buck, so he can slip between those trees easier, and of course he doesn’t have all that white on him to stand out if we’re playing duck-and-dodge in the pines.”

Weathers gave him a wry look. “Just try not to get him shot. I’m kind of attached to both of my ponies.”

“Aren’t we all? Now, we’ll stop a few hundred yards outside of the tree line. I’ll swap horses and take the lead, but not as far ahead as when we’re in open country. Jess, you know the game; if you hear me yell or shoot, we have contact.”

“Ayup.” The stocky teamster woman’s hands were busy, checambush bandits. Get a group of raiders working out in the open and sooner or later their numbers will get whittled down because they can’t help making themselves targets even while they’re making good folks like us targets. But in these woods, it’s different. Really different.”

His listeners were riveted to his every word, as well they should be. Their lives might depend on having paid strict attention. Jess alone, herself a veteran of the Trace, showed no emotion.

“Fear Trace has a wide enough trail to allow passage for wagons, but barely. There’s not one single place where you can turn around. Every tree trunk can hide an outlaw, and there are tree trunks every few feet. We’ve even known Tracers to hide in a hollow tree or downed hollow log. They can burst up from under a pile of leaves or lurk high overhead in the treetops. Three good friends of ours died a few years ago when Tracers dropped a net over their entire wagon and then jumped down on top of them with short swords. It is flat out the most dangerous portion of our entire journey. However,” he held up a hand to forestall the storm of terrified questions he could see brewing in the women who’d been slaves, “I have survived the Trace more than a dozen times, Jess has been with me for half of that, and we have no intention of yielding up our lives or our goods to the dregs of humanity. I do have a plan.”

They waited. He definitely had their attention.

“Dawg, first of all, you’ll need to stay with your wagon tomorrow.”

“What–but if there’s fighting out there, I want to be in on it!”

“Spoken like every young warrior who ever lived.” Grunt smiled gently, hoping to take some of the sting from his instructions. “But I need you on the wagon seat; you’re just too good a driver. You keep Buck’s tail in sight all the way through the Trace, close enough for you and Jess to support each other if the bad guys get close enough for you to see them.”

“Buck’s tail? But won’t you be on him?”

“Not this time. Hammer, may I borrow your Black? He’s a lot smaller than Buck, so he can slip between those trees easier, and of course he doesn’t have all that white on him to stand out if we’re playing duck-and-dodge in the pines.”

Weathers gave him a wry look. “Just try not to get him shot. I’m kind of attached to both of my ponies.”

“I’ll do my best. Jess, you know the drill; if you hear me shout or shoot, we have contact.”

“Ayup.” The stocky woman had put the whetstone away and was checking each of the many knives she carried hidden about her person, mostly making sure they were still there and easy to draw.

“Doc, it’d be good if you’d ride drag, just as far back as you can without losing contact.”

“Not a problem, Jake.” Doc Hiram “Hammer” Weathers, the former M.D. who had performed scores of organ transplants in his day, prepared to transplant a few more, checking the edge on his sword and making sure the cocking mechanism on his crossbow was oiled and ready. “I’ve been Tail End Charlie before.” He also carried one of the Fort Steel shoot guns Jake had taken in trade. When they’d tried them out, neither he nor the big man had been all that impressed, the smoothbore weapons being little better than 18th century muskets for accuracy. But they reloaded easily enough and at short range in the woods they would do.

Later, with everyone fed, the women retired to the former slave wagon with Kiko’s child and were soon snoring to the amusement of the two older men. Hammer and Grunt sat cross-legged, staring contemplatively into the coals so that their night vision was destroyed but paying close attention to what their other senses had to say, quietly content despite the challenge facing them on the morrow. Both survivors of Capriosi vilify had lived through enough hard times to take each day as it came. Plan for the future as you can, worry about it not at all. They’d done their planning, so…the huge war dog came trotting into camp, stopped near the pile of elk offal, and gave the big man a look.

“Yeah, that’s yours,” Grunt gestured with the moccasin he was resoling. “Dig in.”

“Looks like there’s nobody out there, eh?” It wasn’t really a question.

“Nobody within half a mile of us, anyway. That’s Slash’s routine. Give him the command and he spirals out from the camp, bigger and bigger circles, checks every degree of the compass.” The trader paused with buckskin lace in hand to stare admiringly at the great beast. “Don’t know how he does it. Travels all day long with us, then patrols the perimeter before he’ll settle down for the night. Gets maybe six hours of sleep at most, yet if there’s something trying to sneak up on us, he’ll still wake up and figure it out at least as fast as the mules. Never known another critter half as smart or a quarter as durable. Not even sure he’s all canine. Could be some mad scientist’s experiment going on there, doncha think? Like the ultra mega patrol guard dog robot with nanites, Cyborg Pup, Captain AmeriPup?”

Weathers chuckled. “Could be. Planet Earth certainly had enough of those dark money projects in full swing prior to the Fall.”

They should get some sleep, too, but not until Dawg finished his workout. From his first evening lesson, ignoring the day’s fatigue in favor of learning how to survive close quarters combat, the homely teenager had taken to short-pike work with a vengeance. The kid was a natural. Impressed, Grunt had donated two of his short spears to the cause.

“Short” being a relative term. Yes, carried in a custom scabbard/quiver on Buck’s saddle, the weapons hadn’t looked all that long, but the pinto stud stood a good seventeen hands tall and his rider’s six and a half feet from heel to scalp contributed to the illusion. Sporting eleven inches of double razor edged blade reminiscent of the ancient Arkansas toothpick and a sturdy five foot haft of mountain ash, the Sedlacek Specials stood several inches taller than the youngster’s five-eight.

Dawg had been working forms nonstop for a good twenty minutes or more. Guard position, short thrust, long thrust, kick-and-pull, high block, low block, parry, vertical butt stroke, horizontal butt stroke, reverse butt stroke (aka smash), spin-back butt stroke, down-slash, up-slash, side slash left, side slash right, block and kick, rinse and repeat, vary the sequence, over and over again. As a slave, he had never been allowed to so much as hold a weapon. The spear meant everything to him, its mate carried in the freight wagon where he could get to it in a hurry if he was somehow disarmed by an enemy or the haft was broken. Sweat poured from every pore in his body despite the subfreezing temperature, his breath coming in great gasping heaves, steaming the night air.

Hammer’s lined face reflected the firelight as he watched. “Finally figured out what that style reminds me of, Jake. Bayonet fighting, isn’t it?”

“Hnh. Some, yeah. Bayonets were adapted from pike fighting in the beginning. Figured it made sense to turn that around, adapt spear work from bayonet. What goes around comes around.”

“Hm. What’s that move right there, where he kicks out at the air and pulls the spear back?”

“He’s not kicking air. He’s kicking an enemy’s body. Spear has lodged in bone and he’s getting his weapon free before the corpse can hit the ground.”

“Ah. That makes sense. And that one, where he slides the spear butt back behind himself and lets the momentum carry him around? Presume that’s an enemy sneaking up behind him?”

“Ayup.” Grunt looked up at the sky. Near midnight. “Dawg!”

“Yeah?” The kid stopped, turning to face his mentor, his chest heaving but his spear still held in guard position, his feet positioned to move quickly in any direction, knees slightly bent.

“Sack time. I realize your body snaps back quick, young as you are, but you still need your rest. As do we.”

“I’m not keeping you up!”

“Yeah, you are. Call it a night.”

“All right, all right.” Truth be told, he was more than exhausted but hadn’t been about to quit with the older men watching. Minutes later, still sweat-wet but warming up fast in his roll under the women’s wagon, he was fast asleep, too worn out to fret about tomorrow’s journey through the Trace.

Jess was asleep under her own wagon, sort of, drifting in and out, waking every few minutes to test the night air for smell or sound that might seem out of place. She never did sleep well on the trail.

Hammer likewise awoke more than once during the night, but that was due to his bladder rather than his nerves. Freezing or not, he just couldn’t hold it as long as he could fifty years earlier. He and Grunt had bedded down on opposite sides of the camp, the big man having Slash the war dog nearby while the old doctor/warrior had to settle for a bush and a small lump of something under his ground sheet that refused to move out of his way.

The wagons were rolling by the time it was light enough to see, humans munching pemmican while the animals plodded through the snow. There was no talking; not even the women riding in the second wagon had anything to say to each other, though they did notice that little five year old Free seemed unusually alert, sitting on top of Hammer’s pack and peering over the side of the wagon.

They left the boulder field behind, crossed the open area that would give any enemies in the area plenty of time to prepare for their arrival, stopped to let Grunt change horses just where he said he would, and entered the dense forest with the sun high in the sky and adrenaline flooding their bodies.

Fear Trace was worse than their leader had described. Even more than Grunt dwarfed the stocky horse called Black, the trees loomed over the little column. There were no tracks in the snow other than those of elk, deer, moose, coyote, wolf, fox, rabbit, and the occasional weasel crossing the trail, so that much was good, but the silence–other than the occasional bark of a squirrel and once the harsh call of a jay–was oppressive. The snow muffled the footfalls of hooves but seemed somehow to amplify the creak of the wagon axles. The trail twisted and turned, sometimes so sharply that the wagons scraped tree bark on one side or another, giant Douglas firs towering so high and so large in diameter that even the sliver of sky overhead was obscured.

It was, Dawg thought, more like a narrow tunnel than any real trail. A narrow, horror filled tunnel. His fear of enclosed spaces was not much, but here…here was another matter altogether. He couldn’t see beyond Buck’s rump, the stallion being tied as he was to Jess’s wagon. Driving was easy enough; all he had to do was follow Jess’s wagon track’s exactly. No big deal.

Which, unfortunately, gave him time to imagine things. Bad things, hiding behind trees or up high in trees. It required every bit of will power he possessed to keep his eyes from darting around wildly, to keep his focus and attention on his job which, first and foremost, involved keeping his team calm and focused.

Kiko and Gloria fought the same fear as they rode behind him in the wagon with Free. He had to keep it together for them.

Riding drag, Hammer Weathers rode at ease, alert and wary but relatively unconcerned. He’d seen thousands upon thousands of his contemporaries die during the Fall; if his number was up today, so be it. In the meantime, however, his free hand, unencumbered by reins, lazily checked over his weapons one at a time, then checked them again. Shoot gun, which in this close cover would be mostly useful for its shock and awe effect, ready to rock but left in its saddle scabbard. Crossbow, held in a quick-draw sheath he’d designed and crafted himself, cocked, with a quarrel ready to fire. Short sword in its back-slung scabbard.

And most importantly with so little room to work in these woods, the hammer that had given him his name, a single pound of sledge steel with a two foot handle featuring a flared pommel that kept it from sliding through his fingers. The hammer had saved his life more than once, gone into hiding during his janitorial days at Fort Steel, and come out again to play in the Fear Trace.

It was good to have it right there, lashed across the swells of his saddle with slip knots that could be released in seconds.

Atop the lead wagon seat, Jess seemed utterly relaxed, almost indifferent to her surroundings. Appearances could be deceptive.

Riding point, Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek had his awareness stretched in all directions, paying attention to any cue he could get. Slash skulked through the trees along the left side of the trail, working under the “Close Guard Scout” command. He was on that side because, quite frankly, an enemy striking from the left would not have as far to go to reach the big man’s heart. It was the same thinking that led duelists to stand sideways, right side to the enemy; an inch or two of penetration by cold steel or even a bullet could make all the difference. You might be able to survive with one lung out of commission, but losing one heart? Not so much.

The quiet continued as he and Black passed the giant lightning-blasted Ponderosa pine snag he knew marked the three quarters point. It might be that no Tracers were monitoring the Trace this day, that they would get through unscathed–Don’t be listening for the whistle! The thought came from his rodeo circuit days, back when life was simple and the blackface had not yet overtaken the world. It’s not over till it’s over.

Twice, he’d had to clear the trail of windfall timber, slender trees that had fallen over since he and Jess had come through here on the way to Fort Steel. Those had clearly been natural events.

The heavy log blocking the trail around Dead Man’s Corner was not.

Grunt jerked Black’s reins to the right and jerked his Fort Steel shoot gun from the scabbard in the same smooth, two handed motion. Jess was barely out of sight behind him; he would have to–

CRACK!– The slug passed his ear so closely, he could feel the wind. They have guns! Where–there! Whatever the outlaws had looted from their victims, it used black powder. Dead giveaway, smoke cloud–now! His heavy bullet hit home; there was no mistaking that wet –thump!–of a meat shot.

Out of the saddle then, jerk Black’s head around and down so he had no choice but to fall, not trained but not now in the line of fire either, wall eyed and highly offended, protected in the shallow hollow.

A piercing scream sliced through the timber, only a second or two before being cut off, its direction hard to pin down, but it had to be from the other side of the trail. Slash, following his favorite human-killing tactic of slashing a hamstring from behind, then severing the wrist of the man’s prime weapons hand, then taking out the throat. Grunt had worked with him for nearly a year on that until the animal came to understand men, their weapons and their weaknesses.

Two down, but there would be more. Two would never dare tackle a group of this size. The question was, where? Where were they? Cool snowy forest or not, sweat rolled down his face. For a long moment, the only sound was Black’s heavy breathing. Then a yell, cut off as swiftly as the scream had been. Two for Slash; three down.

There might well be another one up near the log, over on his side, backing the man who’d been packing the black powder weapon. Motionless, Grunt strained his senses until the decision was made for him, sounds of battle coming from back down the trail.

No time to wait for the horse.

Before Black realized he was no longer being held down, the trader had undone the quick release buckles on the long scabbard holding his spears and was gone, thundering around the curve toward Jess’s wagon, the empty shoot gun jammed down in beside the spears, finding room enough only because the kid had two of the short pikes and the running man now held one in his right hand, the ash haft looking like a mere toothpick in his massive fist. Fear that he wouldn’t be in time churned in his gut, urging his long legs to ever greater strides until he fairly flew across the snow, felt himself leaning a bit into the sharp left turn–

–Three of them, two already down, one bleeding out in the snow with his hands clasped around the knife handle, unable to force himself to pull out the seven inches of razor sharp steel that had punctured his gut. Not that he had much of a gut to pierce; all of the Tracers looked half starved at best, clad in mismatched rags sporting holes in abundance and held together by nothing but grease and dirt. Scraggly, matted beards, wild hair, scrawny limbs. Number two wasn’t moving at all; Jess’s throw had nailed him squarely through the heart, a miracle considering rib bone should have had at least a fifty-fifty chance of stopping the steel, or at least slowing it down some.

Number three clearly thought he had a chance; he was closing the distance fast with what looked like a rusty sword while the teamster woman’s mules were throwing a fit, jostling the wagon seat as she pulled yet another knife from a hidden sheath inside her buckskin shirt.

Grunt’s throw from thirty feet away had a lot behind it, all of his immense power multiplied by the forward momentum of his headlong charge, but Sedlacek Specials were not designed to be thrown. The spear hit low, taking the bandit in the thigh, not a clean center hit but enough to drop him to the snow, half turned around from the force of the blow. The outlaw showed his toughness, ripping the spearhead from his leg without making a sound.

He died silently, too, Jess’s third knife nailing him in the back.

“Sucks to be him,” Grunt panted as he galloped on by. Jess would get her team under control well enough without his help; he was needed farther on.

Dawg’s wagon had it easier in one sense; his three opponents all tackled him from the left, where timber had provided better cover than on the right. For one horrible moment after he heard shots fired, he hadn’t known what to do. Then the monkey-agile predator had leaped down on top of him and there was nothing to do but try to stay alive. His attacker was armed only with a short knife, but that was more than enough. Momentum carried the pair of them off the wagon seat to the right, the team lurched forward for several steps before halting in confusion, and the teenager found himself on his back in the snow, a man half again his size with very bad breath forcing a blade down toward his chest. He didn’t remember getting hold of the man’s wrist, but it didn’t matter much; the outlaw was older, heavier, stronger, and inches away from ending his existence on this plane. There was nothing he could do, no counter move that would be enough–

–THUNK!–The smelly man rolled off of him, stunned.

Wasting no time congratulating himself on his good fortune, Dawg scrambled to his feet, plucked the spear from Gloria’s shaking hands, and took out the injured Tracer with a swift slash across the throat. Low slash, he thought. Grunt didn’t show me that one!

“I just couldn’t stab him!” Gloria’s eyes were wide, her body trembling from head to toe. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t!”

Dawg wasn’t listening. There were two more of the buggers. Figuring their bad-breath buddy would take out the only male, they’d headed for the women, one of them making a grab for Kiko and getting a long scratch from her long knife for his efforts, the other trying for Gloria and missing as the girl had dived out of the wagon with Dawg’s spare spear.

Kiko’s attacker had backed off, cursing, but now he had Dawg’s primary spear in hand. The other, chasing Gloria, suddenly realized he was facing an armed man with a spear while he’d brought nothing but a knife with a six inch blade to the battle. He turned to run–long thrust, the spear pierced his side before he was fully turned. Gasping in despair, the wounded man kept going, sped up, disappeared into the woods.

Which left two men with identical spears facing each other. The Tracer was tall, nothing close to the giant Grunt, but six feet or more. Thirty years of age at least, hard of eye, confident with good reason. Clearly, this man had killed and survived to kill again, his face scarred but the other guys no doubt looking worse, as in dead.

But Dawg’s blood was up. The fight was brief but beautiful, if viewed by one who perceives beauty in mortal combat done well. Relying on his greater reach and horribly misjudging the teenager’s smaller size and relative youth, the tall man lunged forward the moment they’d come within reach of one another. Parry / vertical butt stroke / smash / slash. And it was over, the bandit gushing blood from between the hands clutched to his throat, his eyes bulging in terror.

Dawg looked around wildly, expecting more attackers, adrenaline still flying high.

“Nice work, kid,” Grunt said. He stood by the heads of their horses, calming them, stroking their necks. “Too bad our war dog has dibs on the Slash name; I’m guessing that’s going to be your signature move from now on.”

“You think?”

“You used it twice in your first battle. Hey, Doc.”

Hammer cantered his bay mare up close to the wagon before stopping. “Sorry about the delay. Not that it looks like you needed any help.”

“Oh, but I did.” Dawg’s knees gave way; he slumped to a sitting position, still holding the bloody spear with both hands. “That first one would have done me in except for Gloria. She bonked him on the head with the spear butt, let me get out from under him. I’d been disarmed till then.”

“Is that right?” The old doctor gave the girl an appreciative look. “Well then, good for you, too, Gloria.”

The sixteen year probably didn’t hear that; she was too busy vomiting into the snow beside the trail. Little Free was watching everything from the wagon bed, looking quite engaged, nothing vacant about his expression now. His mother huddled in one corner of the wagon, her arms crossed, holding herself, shaking.

“No action back your way, Doc?” Grunt had the team calmed now. He gestured to Dawg, indicating he should get back up on the wagon seat and take the reins.

“Woulda coulda shoulda, maybe,” Hammer allowed. “I heard some rustling off in the woods, but they ended up thumping away, making as much noise as a bunch of stotting blacktails. I didn’t dare rush forward until I was sure they’d gone. Wouldn’t do to be dancing the death fandango up here and have somebody slip up behind and surround us, eh?”

“Sounds right to me.”

“So, where’s my Black horse?”

Black, it turned out, hadn’t gone anywhere. Instead, the mare had strolled out of the woods and back to Jess’s mule team, reins dragging, wary of the bloody corpses littering the snow but allowing the teamster to catch her up and tie her trailing reins to the wagon brake handle until everybody was ready to move.

Shifting the log turned out to be a simple process; Buck didn’t even object when the rope was tied to his saddle horn. He pulled like a draft horse…but then again, he was taller than some draft horses, though not quite as heavy. The log had been limbed nicely, the Tracers no doubt figuring to use it more than once.

Shadows were lengthening when the little convoy exited the Trace, but the sun was still up. They trekked on until the light began to fail, putting several miles behind them. No one objected to setting up camp in the dark. Distance from the gory horror that lay behind them was well worth the price of the whistle.