In the brief march from Rodney Upward’s scattered remains to the creek, fatigue rolled over me like one of the distant ocean’s fabled tsunamis. I was riding point, trying my best to stay alert and unwilling to admit weakness in front of my woman, but my very bones cried out for rest. That, and food; we hadn’t eaten since taking breakfast, well before first light. But rest most of all; I would gladly starve a little if I could just stop moving. How I stayed in the saddle was a wonder, the rough gait of the roan gelding no more stimulating than a mother’s lullaby sung to her infant.
Why? Why was this happening? Yes, it was bitter cold out here, but I’d seen colder days. Longer ones, too. Life as a Fort Steel slave had inured me to hardship. So…why?
When we dropped down into the creek bed, the shadows were long and dark. The sun had not quite reached the western horizon, but we didn’t have much time.
“Hey, babe.” My voice was more the hoarse croak of a frog than anything human, one more sign of extreme exhaustion. “Wanna take a look at the tracks before Roan and I trample all over them?
My blonde mate didn’t say anything, just pulled her appaloosa up alongside, the pack horses strung out behind her, and dismounted. The glance she gave me might have had a touch of worry in it, but her attention was soon focused on the task at hand. The creek crossing in front of us spanned fifty feet or so, the bed much wider here than either upstream or downstream. Unsurprisingly, it was completely iced over. Animal tracks were everywhere; clearly, humans weren’t the only ones using this spot to get from one bank to the other. A welter of canine prints predominated, indicating the pack we’d seen eating Rodney had come this way, from the east. The Gunderson mare’s hoof prints pointed straight into that mess of predator paw marks, bringing me to the limit of my tracking skill.
Thankfully, it was a piece of cake for Julia Gunderson Jade. “The mare got here first,” she said without looking up. “The pack crossed in a hurry, though. No doubt focused on the easier prey, the downed man a mile ahead.”
“They’d have been aware of him at that distance?”
“Not impossible.” She continued to scan the snow covered ice as she explained. “Coyotes have might sharp senses, hearing and sight and smell, all three. There hasn’t been any wind all day that we could feel, but….” Julia took off a mitten, sucked an index finger briefly–which woke me up a little, right there–and held it above her head, turning slowly. “Yep. There is a wee breeze and it is from the west. They’d have been downwind.”
“Huh.” I was going to have to remember that trick. Wet finger feels cold breeze dry face can’t. Interesting.
“Plus, he could have still been alive. Fell off his horse, maybe, at the end of his rope, but if he made any noise at all–a groan, moan, whine, whimper, anything that smacked of a creature in distress–it would draw the pack like iron to a magnet. They might even have spotted him from that little rise before dropping down to cross the creek. So yeah, entirely possible.”
I tried to plug that information into my mental database, form a coherent picture of the whole. It worked, mostly, but something was bothering me. Couldn’t put a finger on it. I made a heroic effort to wake up a little more. C’mon, Dawg, man up here. Something’s wrong. “So…can you tell which way the mare went?”
She shook her head in resignation. “Probably not before morning. Light’s going fast and I’ll need to look farther out from the crossing, up or down or maybe both. Good bet she didn’t cross over and keep going, though.”
“You’re pretty sure.”
“Ninety-nine percent. There’s good graze along the creek and protection from the wind. Plus, if she had kept going, the odds of her running headlong into thirty hungry coyotes…that’s more than enough to take down large game. Those song dogs aren’t wolves by a long shot, but enough of them working together can kill even a moose. I’ve seen it. Or rather my brother Speck has, three years ago during one of his hunting trips. From the way he tells it, it’s not a pretty sight.”
“Unless you’re a hungry pack member.”
“Unless that–hey! What’s that?” She was standing erect now, pointing across and up the creek a bit, to where a small bench sat, populated with low brush and dry winter grass.
It took me a moment to spot what she was talking about, but then, “Looks like a building?” The question mark at the end of my sentence wasn’t because of the dark form’s appearance. It was simply preposterous to think anyone would have built a structure out here in the middle of nowhere.
“Let’s check it out.” Julia had a head start on me; she was in motion before I got my off foot out of the stirrup, striding as purposefully as one can when there’s ice under the snow.
That’s when it hit me. The something wrong I hadn’t been able to pin down. Right where the frozen stream normally flowed, bursting out from narrow banks less than fifteen feet across to spread across more than three times that much width…”Julia!” I screamed. “The ice–”
–broke. Both feet plunged through the weak surface at virtually the same time, pulling her down–
–I was off the roan, knowing there was no time to get the coil of rope from the packs–
–waist deep, her boots hitting bottom so thank God she wasn’t in over her head–
–no way the ice would hold me even on my belly–
–current, there was a strong current under the ice, pushing at her, trying to either break her back or flip her facedown into the water, the water didn’t care-
—Oh God no! scramble around the front of the roan, unbuckle the throat latch, yank the bridle abruptly from his startled head–
–she’d turned, she’d managed to turn oh Lord hang on and she was bent over the downstream ice, unable to find purchase, slipping, slipping, too fast too fast too fast–
–bowline knot in the end of one rein because one throw was all I’d get and she’d never get a grip otherwise. Her eyes were wide, panicked, fixed on me, slipping, in nearly up to her armpits no time to talk just get as close as you can wrap the other rein around your hand don’t lose it–
–the leather loop sailed too high, over her head, it was a miss bad throw and–she lunged up out of the water, twisting like a rainbow trout flashing at the end of a line, caught the loop between mittened palm and thumb thank God for opposable thumbs.
She got the loop cinched around her wrist and I pulled her from the water out onto the ice with a strength I never knew I had. She came belly-skidding toward me. I reeled her in, hand over hand, got us both to our feet. “The building,” I gasped. “It’s our only chance.”
Growing up Gunderson saved us. I was done in, likely couldn’t have picked her up to carry her if she’d fallen, would have had to tie off to her ankles and tow her over the snow like a deer carcass, but her legs pistoned with surprising power. By the time we got to the ruin, her teeth were chattering. Both of us stumbled through the wide doors, what the teacher at Fort Steel would have called French doors. They’d had glass in them at one time, but the huge panes were shattered now, only a few shards remaining. Both doors hung open, one leaning drunkenly where the lower hinge had been ripped out of the framing.
But there were walls, albeit with great open holes in them that had once been ridiculously oversized windows, and the roof seemed to be mostly intact. Splintered wood was everywhere, furniture and interior walls and doors that had been savagely attacked by no force of nature. Only humans with axes and maybe sledge hammers could have done so much wanton damage. Despite this, the exterior walls were amazingly solid, rows of great logs rising from a cracked concrete slab, defying the storms of twisted Man and fierce Mother Nature alike.
Not that I had time to think about all that. It was taken in while I was on the move. Neither of us said a word, knowing what had to be done. Julia picked a corner out of the wind while I began assembling smaller sticks in the huge central fireplace, a stone-and-mortar construction that must have cost more than an average laborer earned in a year. There were steel fire shields lying on the floor; I picked one up and blocked the windy-side opening. It was going to be close enough without battling the breeze.
Grunt’s teachings on our way west from Fort Steel proved their worth then. “Keep at least one weapon on you at all times, Dawg,” he’d said, “and the makings of a fire. You may not always be able to reach your stores in the wagon, or even the saddlebags on a horse.”
Tinder. Flint. Steel. He’d had me practice on the trail, and bless the man for that.
The tinder took, as did the table leg shavings added to it one by one. I had to fight myself, resist adding too much fuel too fast, a sure way to kill the baby flame before it could get a grip on this world. It wasn’t long in objective terms, I suppose, before the blaze was truly a warming fire, but to me it comprised an eternity of eternities.
“Let’s get–oh.” Julia was already beside me, kneeling, holding her hands to the fire. I studied her closely for a long minute, distracted only briefly by her profile. Until she’d come into my life, I’d never understood how a woman’s face could launch a thousand ships.
I got it now.
“Um…I need to go get the horses. If they’re still there.”
“They’ll be there.” Her buckskins were still dark-soaked from the lower hem to above her breasts. Despite being an obvious contender in any Wet Buckskin Contest she cared to enter, her quiet voice resonated with the calm certainty of a born adventurer. Amazingly, her teeth had already quit chattering.
“It’s nearly full dark already. We can’t count on your revolver after it–oh, we can’t count on it at all. Looks like its sleeping with the fishes.”
She glanced down at her hip where the holster gaped empty, mocking. “Tiedown strap should have held it. Live and learn.”
“Yeah,” I agreed fervently, “the operative word being live. I should have recognized the danger a lot quicker than I did.”
“You and me both, Michael Jade. But we’re here, so let’s celebrate that, eh?” She didn’t look at me, just kept staring into the fire, reaching to add another busted piece of furniture to the blaze as she did so.
“Yeah. Thing is, why don’t you take my pistol. And try to watch your back; that ridiculous doorway is directly behind you.”
“Nope.” She shook her head. “Not gonna happen.”
“But nothing. I’ve got fire here; if a varmint pushes the issue, I’ll stick a hot stick in its eye. Wild animals aren’t likely to push it anyway, not with the flames a-flickering.”
“But what about–” Man, I was thinking. There was a dead one of those just a mile west of this location. Who’s to say there might not be another idiot out here in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter?
“You’re wasting time…boss.”
She had a point. And an attitude. Besides, the last thing I wanted to do right now was argue with the woman I’d nearly lost.
Despite the appaloosa being trained to stand when ground tied, I’d feared with some justification that he might have wandered off by now, taking the entire pack string with him. Beyond that, Roan wasn’t even bridled; he could be anywhere.
I needn’t have worried. It was already full dark or close to it by the time I got back to the horses, my night vision finally adjusting after I’d destroyed it while getting the fire started. Still, the night was clear and the stars provided a surprising amount of visibility, especially reflecting on the pure white snow. Appy hadn’t moved at all, which meant the packhorses tied to him were still in place as well, and Roan–well, I didn’t see my rough-gaited mount at first and feared he’d taken off, leaving us in the lurch, but he hadn’t gone far.
He’d simply found a patch of tall grass and gone to munching. Not that he came to me when I called, but he didn’t try to keep me from catching him, either. “You,” I told him quietly as I slipped the bridle back over his head, “are the finest critter I’ve ever ridden.”
He snorted and tossed his head at that, possibly because I was leading him away from his awesome supper.
The building ruin was plenty large enough, several thousands of square feet at least, so we decided to bring the animals inside for the night. Not that Julia did any of the work. She wanted to, but I gave her a ferocious scowl and suggested firmly that she’d be better off drying her britches first. There was no barn, but there was a tumbledown corral out back. Most of the rails were rotten, but I managed to find twenty-one of them that were still pretty solid. An hour’s work with the camp axe had them and their rusty, ancient Before spikes hauled into the house and strategically nailed across the worst of the home’s idiotic openings. Any human could breach the crude fencing job easily enough, but it would hold the horses and give us a few seconds of warning if we came under attack.
All in all, we were more secure for the night than we’d been in the mine shaft. Julia had removed her boots and socks, drying them in front of the fire. Though nearly dry now, her buckskins remained in place; they needed to be worn during this process or they might not fit her in the morning. The packs and tack were removed from the animals and arranged around us in a makeshift mini-fort formation. “You’ve been busy, too, I see,” I said, plopping down on the blankets beside her and removing my own boots. I’d been so focused on what I was doing that I haven’t even noticed.
It was toasty here beside the fire, tucked into our little fort. I yawned mightily. “I should chop some more wood into lengths for the fireplace.” The fatigue was coming back with a vengeance. Let’s see, rifles beside us, along with extra ammo…”And then cook us up something to eat.”
She gave me a look full of love. That’s the last thing I remembered until daylight.
From my view of the stars and the quarter moon outside the south-facing windows, it looked like we had a couple more hours before daylight. My clothes were dry and I was slept out, full of vim and vigor and raring to go. Mostly, I wanted to have a go at Michael, but he still slept deeply beside me, snoring softly, warming my heart more effectively than any fire could ever warm my body. I gazed at him, a woman helplessly in love, studying his strong face and dark, tousled hair as he rested.
He’d been exhausted even before I fell through the ice. I’d seen that, worried though I knew it had to be what Mama Ruth called letdown, the crashing of the human body after its been pushed beyond its natural limits.
Michael had certainly pushed himself. He’d taken his duty to the law seriously, so much so that catching and stopping Rodney Upward had become nearly an obsession. His shoulder hadn’t even been healed from the fight with the tiger en route to Sentinel Peak Outpost when Grunt had drafted him for the posse. Then he’d fought the tiger again, the only one of us to face the great beast not once but twice. Then more hard days on the trail, followed by discovery of the atrocity at Red Horse’s camp, then even harder days on the trail, a sprint across open ground to kill one outlaw and wound another, followed finally by trailing a wounded man who might turn back on us at any moment, lie in wait, ambush his beloved.
Enough long-running stress to wear anyone out, fantasy novels notwithstanding.
The strain had told on Grunt, too. Between that and a bullet through his butt, I did not believe he would be taking to the Trading trail come spring. Perhaps not ever again. And Tommy, every day away from his beloved mountains had tortured him. Morning Lark might be able to tempt him to leave the high country, but nothing else would.
For me, it had been much easier. Yes, I’d fought with others against the tiger, but always I could look to someone else to lead. I didn’t have to think constantly about responsibility. At first, I followed my brother, and then the local legend, Big Jake, and finally my husband. That was the advantage of being a woman, of willingly following where a man led. What would it be like if I had to decide where we went next, how we went there, what we did–knowing that the wrong decision, or even the right one, might result in my mate’s injury or death?
I shuddered to think. Let me stay second banana, thank you very much. Not that I’d ever seen a banana, but the saying was alive and well in our family.
Still, I was restless. Far too restless to sleep. Besides, nature called. I slipped from the blankets, tucking them back around Michael to keep drafts away from his body. Put on my socks and boots. Belted on my sword, picked up my long shoot gun, and carefully climbed over the fence in the doorway.
When I awoke, I was pretty sure I must still be dreaming. The smell of frying liver filled my nostrils, more insistent than even the need to empty my bladder.
“Now how,” I asked, propped up on elbow to watch Julia as she held the skillet over the fire, “did you manage that?” We’d been out of meat for days.
“Plenty of deer feeding just up the creek a bit this morning,” she replied. “And not a coyote in sight.”
“I didn’t hear a shot.”
She smiled impishly. “It’s called still hunting.”
“What?” Where were my boots? Ah, there. “You hold still and the deer comes up, kills itself, and jumps in the frying pan?”
“Something like that.”
“Oh, I see.” Sock, sock, two more socks, boot, boot, and I was good to go. Really go.
“I used the sword.”
I stopped in the middle of belting my revolver in place. “Really.”
“What?” She arched a perfect eyebrow. “You don’t believe me?”
“Oh, I believe you. It’s just that I’ve never known anybody who could do that. Is that another Gunderson skill, then?”
“Kinda sorta. We all try to outdo each other. We’re a pretty competitive bunch. I’m the only one who’s learned to ambush whitetail deer with a sword. Managed it five times so far. My brother Speck is runner up. He’s got seven kills, but with a spear.”
“A thrown spear?” That was still impressive. Some of Red Horse’s people might be able to pull that off, though.
“Held spear. He’s killed sixteen deer and two elk with thrown spears. Seven without the spear leaving his hands. Which is still pretty good, but he’s got several feet more reach with a spear than I do with a sword, so I hold the Family Championship Belt.” She chuckled. “So far.”
“Huh.” I had a lot to learn, marrying into this family. “Be back in a minute.” My eyeballs were floating.
Later, well fed and thoroughly rested, I got to thinking. “Hon, what say we hole up here for a few days, let the horses flesh back out, give ourselves sort of a honeymoon right here by the fireplace.”
“You’re figuring to laze around, are you?” He eyes were bright with mirth and…something else.
“Wouldn’t call it lazing, exactly,” I said carefully. “It’s still a long trek to Graveyard Mesa. That’s the south side of the Before city I’ve been talking about exploring. It’s only just over the hill and another mile run from there to Fort Steel. One thing we don’t want to do is arrive in anything other than the best possible condition. The horses could use a rest period, I’m thinking, and so could we.”
“Sure.” Julia grinned ear to ear. “We can rest and…recreate.”
Oh. Oh! “Glad you agree.” I needed something to say to cover my sudden awkwardness. Looking around, the Soul of Innocence, I remarked, “Had to be idiot rich folks from Before who built this house. I never dreamed of doors and windows this big. How could they ever defend such a place?”
“They didn’t think they had to. We learned in school that there were so many people then that they had great numbers of law enforcement officers who would throw you in jail in a heartbeat if you so much as threw a rock through somebody else’s window. If you owned the property and beat up the guy who threw the rock, then they’d throw you in jail. It was sort of a vengeance is mine, saith the cop sort of mentality. People who had more money than common sense, they built these places to look out of, to pretend they were Lords of Creation when they were actually closer to being cretins, never once dreaming they’d need to be able to stop more than a sparrow in flight, or at most a crow. Coyotes were around but knew to steer clear of men to some degree because it was legal to kill them. Wolves had nearly been extinctified but a bunch of bleeding heart liberals got them to be protected by the government; it was safer to be a wolf than to be the rancher who shot one to protect his livestock. Even the great bears, the grizzlies, were mostly confined to National Parks, where tourists came on vacation to gawk at them and take pictures with magic picture machines and sometimes get themselves mauled. Michael, we simply can’t judge our ancestors by our own standards. It’s like they weren’t even the same species.”
No, I reckoned they weren’t. “Huh. Well, if we’re going to settle in for a bit, guess we’d best let the rails down and hobble the horses outside so they can eat. Too bad this creek doesn’t have a name on the map; it’d be nice to know where we spent our honeymoon.”
“That’s easy,” my mate said with a straight face. “You guys named that last watercourse Rhubarb War Creek after the battle, right?”
“We sure did.”
“All righty, then. Based on my up close and personal experience, I hereby dub this part of the country Cold Ass Creek.”