Grunt, Chapter 49: Smith Mountain

MICHAEL

The trails had already gone soft by the time we left tall timber country for the open foothills. Melting snow gave way to half frozen mud, then hoof-sucking muck that pulled energy out of our horses with every step. Closer to the City, it had already dried out, but I was dreading the return trip. It would be mostly uphill and mostly in mud, with every pack horse loaded heavy. Usually an easy two day ride, the journey from Library to Roost would more likely require three going back. I kept my eyes open, calculating, trying to select two good stopping points instead of one. It wouldn’t do to try pushing too hard; the price of an exhausted animal’s misstep could be high, a broken leg or worse.

Julia’s horse sense was infecting me.

Riding right behind me, leading the string, my mate spoke softly. “Looks like Lauren’s got the welcome mat out.”

And then some. We’d looped around back, avoiding the front entrance as always, stopping at the fence to clear away the pile of weathered human bones we’d stacked in the gap to discourage strangers. Slim and graceful as always, our lithe Wonder Woman stood framed in the doorway, wearing a long white dress that came to her ankles, its hem fluttering just slightly in the breeze. Stun me with an axe handle between the eyes, I was in love all over again, seeing those lips upcurved in a welcoming smile. Julia didn’t sound any less pleased than I felt, either; that still surprised me a little bit.

We secured the horses and headed on in, pausing only long enough to grasp hands in greeting. Hugs would have to wait; we were trail filthy and she wasn’t. We had made good time, though; it was barely midafternoon. “If you’d like to wash up a bit and eat before we start loading out,” she said softly, “dinner is ready.” The woman was prescient; she’d not only known we were coming but when we’d arrive.

“We thank you from the heart,” Jules spoke before I could open my mouth, “and gratefully accept. We don’t dare dawdle for long, though. Michael and I both sense need for speed; we’d like to be headed back out in a few hours at most, if that’s possible.” Neither of us was sure why, but we didn’t dare spend the night in the City. If we did, both of us were certain in something terrible would happen.

Neither of us dared ignore intuition as strong as that.

“I understand,” Lauren nodded, “and I agree. Scrub up and we’ll talk while you eat.”

Ah, the luxury of hot water! With soap! Hands and faces only, though; there was no time for complete showers. Nor would either of us consider stripping down for such; urgency rode us with flesh-piercing talons.

The meal was perfect, mashed potatoes with real butter, plenty of salt–we only had ten pounds of that at the Roost, severely rationed for now–along with slices of meat that fell apart on our forks. We chose not to inquire as to the nature of the beast from whence it came. Not beef, I thought. Not venison, not elk, not moose. Goat, maybe? I’d never eaten goat…but the point was that it was all hot, seasoned just right, and most importantly, went down fast.

Lauren started the conversation; our mouths were full. “Everything we discussed is ready to load, stacked in the storeroom closest to the door. I did broach the possibility of some of the Noehms joining us at the Roost–oh my. I haven’t asked; I presume you did succeed in freeing the slaves from Fort Steel?”

“Long story,” I nodded around a mouthful of mashed potatoes, “but yeah. Not entirely without bloodshed, but yeah.”

A shadow crossed her face; any killing brought her sorrow, no matter how necessary. To Laurel Evans, each snuffed-out life was a lost opportunity for the departed Soul to make progress toward returning to the Creator. I wasn’t at all sure Captain Finster’s lost opportunity amounted to much, as little interested in personal development as he’d been, but I did understand. Sort of. And her hurting…hurt me as well. I would have to kill again. She and I both knew it. But I shouldn’t have mentioned bloodshed.

Or…hm. Was her greatest pain for me? Concern that I might be backsliding down a spiritual slope with every man I killed? Somehow, that seemed likely. Hm. “Lots of women and children at the Roost now. Stockade wall up across the Throat and solid defenders to man it–not as many as we’d like, and all but one younger than me, but solid nonetheless. But you were saying about the Noehms?”

“Ah. Yes. None of them will be joining us, at least not right now. It’s a frightening thing for people who’ve lived sequestered underground, and here in this building, for their entire lives. There are two who might join us later, though, once there’s a library at the Roost they can call home. Fraternal twins, one boy, one girl, considered of age at fourteen. Their birthday is in midsummer and they’ve expressed strong interest. Their parents are not happy, but the Noehm leadership realizes their population is outgrowing this place. It’s practically bursting at the seams with Noehms; they’ll need to let some of their people go sooner or later, or face dire consequences.”

“So,” I mused, having swallowed the last forkful of meat on my plate. I could eat a lot more, but didn’t dare. Not right now. “Kiddie Noehms.”

“Not funny, darling.” Julia shook her head at me. She hadn’t quite finished; I’d pretty much inhaled my meal. “Don’t you start making gnome jokes.”

I held up my hands in surrender. “Sorry.” I really was; it had just busted out of me. Bad Jade. Laurel was looking at me with a wry twist to her mouth and a twinkle in her eye. Once we got back to the Roost, the beautiful miss Evans wouldn’t be traveling much, but I could already see that these two women were going to keep me firmly in my place whenever the three of us were together. Not that I expected to mind very much. “Laurel, you planning on riding in that dress?”

“That was just to welcome you.” She did smile big then, including both Julia and me in her radiance. “Michael, if you want to get started loading panniers, I’ll change and be there in a jiffy.”

She was, too. We left the dirty dishes for the Noehms to clean–Lauren assured us they wouldn’t mind–and headed out back. The process of loading the pack string was straightforward and fast, though it felt like time was screaming by at the speed of a flaming comet. There was no way I could load out as effectively as Jules could, what with her lifetime of guiding and outfitting and all, so I hauled the goods from the storeroom and she placed the loads however she wanted. Only one horse offered trouble, a cranky brown mare with PMS who tried to bite Julia and got a swift punch to the nose for her effort. Lauren reappeared within minutes, clad this time in some simple brown material that clung to her curves, the latter accentuated by a wide, black leather belt. I was relieved to see that; no bright red fur accents to mark her out for enemy eyes. She wasn’t lacking in awareness of danger, then; raiders would be on the move by now and she knew it.

The woman also had packing skills of her own. Nothing in the storeroom was random or loose; every item had been neatly bundled and labeled. Firearms, ammunition, seeds, cloth, tools including a two foot level, flint, a bit of steel bar stock, even a small forge. Coils of rope, boxes of nails. Needles, pins, thread, fish hooks, two small telescopes, and most of all, books. Books on carpentry, mining, farming, gardening, glass making, fabric extraction, loom construction, and more, more, more, always more. Of the seven pack animals, three were fully loaded with nothing but books.

One leather bound volume, however, went into one of her saddle bags. We’d brought the best of the stolen horses for her to ride, an easy going gelding with a big jug head and a star on his forehead, black as midnight otherwise, ugly as three kinds of sin but rock steady in the mountains and gentle as a kitten. The two of them bonded instantly.

I cocked a curious eyebrow at the book she obviously considered ultra special, but there was no time to fixate on it now. By the time we locked the door and replaced the pile of bones in the fence gap, at least two hours had passed. We’d be out of the City before dark, all right, but barely. Thankfully, or maybe not so thankfully if there were bad guys out there, it would be a nearly-full-moon night. We could and would travel a few hours by Luna’s light, but evil eyes might see us, too.

Still, there was nothing for it. We headed out in our usual formation, me riding point, then Lauren, followed by Julia leading the pack string. No rear guard, and I hated that, but we simply didn’t have the necessary warrior power. The back streets seemed familiar now, but that sense of urgency, of danger looming…that simply would not go away. The ruins seemed to be mocking us, snow-free as they were now, liberated to thrust their twisted, broken steel beams and occasional charred timbers out like so many gnarled middle fingers. Something was wrong, way wrong; every step the horses took pounded the message. No rear guard, too many corners boogey men could hide behind, something was wrong, something was wrong, something was wrong. Julia would be watching our backtrail as best she could, of course. I knew that and made every effort to focus my attention ahead and to the sides, but it wasn’t easy. I even found myself scanning the late afternoon skies, never mind that the days of aerial attacks by anything larger than golden eagles had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

When I did break down and turn in the saddle to take a look back, it was clear Julia shared my apprehension. Riding between us, in the rocking chair position, even Lauren seemed more tense than usual. Though that might have been my overactive imagination. I found myself frustrated with every noise made by Roan’s hooves; his clip-clopping along could well mask the stealthy approach of an enemy, or the cocking of a rifle in ambush.

By the time we left the buildings behind us, miles from the Library, I was a nervous wreck. Nor did it get any better. Shadows were long; nerves were shot. One would think escaping the City might have left fear behind, but no. Now the open country presented a new threat; we could be seen from miles away, depending on the observer’s position. My AK-47 carbine had one serious limitation, namely the thirty round banana clip that made it such a high volume, rapid fire shooter. Unbelievable firepower, yes, but not an easy saddle rider. The magazine had to be removed for the weapon to fit into the scabbard. No option there, not with paranoia clutching me by the throat, so I rode with the weapon in my hand, butt propped against my thigh, muzzle toward the sky. Thank the Creator it didn’t look like rain, what with the mostly clear sky overhead and all. Sky juice plunging straight down the barrel would not have been a good thing.

For a time, after the sun went down and dusk began descending on the land, the fear lessened. Stress sweat stopped rolling down my face. I began to relax, just a little. Then, just when darkness seemed deep enough to hide us safely from prying eyes, the moon came up. We’d known it would, but hey, couldn’t it have waited just a little longer?

It came as something of a surprise when I dropped over a low rise, down into the shallow bowl we’d selected as a possible camping spot. A small caldera, Julia called it, a former volcano blast hole.

Really old, though. Nothing to do with the volcanoes that had recently reshaped the continent. It would do. Nothing around to use as firewood, but this would be a cold camp anyway; I had no intention of lighting a fire out here in the open where its light might be seen from as far away as Fort Steel itself. Not with forest cover at least another half day’s travel away. Miles behind us to the City, miles ahead of us to the timber, and a top speed of maybe four miles per hour with the pack horses loaded as they were.

We all dismounted, Lauren awaiting my decision on our next move as Julia eased on over to ask the crucial question. “Standard cold camp arrangement?” That would be removing every bit of load and tack from the animals, hobbling them, chowing down on cold ham and bread provided by the Noehms, and trying to get a bit of rest.

“Let’s wait a bit,” I said. “I want to give our backtrail a good scout. There’s enough moonlight for the telescope.” Meaning the scope I’d been carrying all along. The new acquisitions from the Library might be better, but I didn’t have any experience with them yet. We were now hidden from every angle except the high mountain slopes to the distant north. With that in mind, I bellied down before snake-crawling to ease my head over the rim of the bowl, peering through the brass bodied scope, looking to see if any bad guys or maybe a herd of rabid grizzly bears and lions and tigers, oh my, had cut our trail. My breath sucked in sharply.

They had.

Not that the riders had seen our tracks. It was only moonlight, after all, and the snow was long gone.

They were a mile or more away, not following us but traveling south toward the City at almost right angles to our line of travel. It was impossible to be sure of the count in this light at this distance, but there had to be dozens of them. No wagons, not even any carts or pack horses, so they definitely weren’t Traders. Raiders, then, beyond a doubt. Why from the north? There weren’t any settlements up that way, at least that we knew about. Easier travel, maybe, or a better hidden route before attempting a raid on Fort Steel? Wait…there were pack horses, after all. But, simple travel supplies or loot from previous raids? And were they…yes, they were stopping, right smack on our trail. Making camp. Building fires; where had they gotten the fuel? Packed it with them? Must have….

Okay, time to tell the others. But what were we to do?

“We’re going to have to go on.” Julia was adamant. Not that I disagreed, and Lauren was leaving it up to us, but there were things we had to consider.

Such as, “We’ll be exposed for a time; it’s not possible to stay completely out of sight if we leave this hollow.”

“And it’s safe to assume they have telescopes, too.” Jules scratched the side of her nose, a nervous habit I’d only recently noticed.

“Reckon so; they’d be fools not to. They’re a big enough bunch, they might not even post sentinels, so there’s that. And the fires should night-blind most of ’em pretty well.” At that moment, inspiration struck. “If we bend low over our horses’ necks in the exposed spots, they might mistake us for, I don’t know, a small herd of buffalo or something. If they do spot us. As long as they don’t think hunting at night is a great idea, that might work.”

“Not just single file, though.” My mate pinched her nose in thought, another habit. Cute, and at least I knew she was thinking when she did that. “Single file just shouts human, unless it’s on a game trail in the woods. We could split up the pack string, you and me take a few each, leave Lauren the odd girl out–no offense, beautiful.”

“None taken.” Lauren Evans sounded amused. At least somebody could see the humor in this situation. Yay Lauren.

So that’s what we did. Nobody got any rest. The poor pack horses had to carry their loads through the night, but long before moonset, we’d reached the timber. Even the horses joined in as we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Still, we weren’t out of the woods yet, stupid play on words intended, and our troubles had just begun. Somebody in that bunch would notice our tracks once the sun was up; I’d bet on it. Worse than that, they’d camped smack dab on the trail we’d taken, indicating a high likelihood of at least some of them turning toward the Roost today. Raiders had been using the mesa for years. They might have loot loaded on some of those pack horses, loot they were figuring on stashing in the high country. Even if they didn’t, wouldn’t some be dispatched to checkout the hideout we’d appropriated?

Yes, definitely, the likelihood that we were going to have company was almost one hundred percent. I could only hope the force that came along was a mere splinter portion of entire gang. AK-47 or no AK-47, I didn’t fancy our chances against a bunch of outlaw hardcases who’d been living by the gun and the blade for years if not decades. What to do next?

It was Lauren who came up with the answer. “It’s going to rain this morning,” she said, and while I’d not bothered to think about that, I immediately knew she was right. “Hard, I think. Which means that if we were to leave this trail and cut upslope, away from the traveled boulevard in game terms, there’s a really good chance any pursuers would completely miss our defection.”

Julia and I thought about that for a while. Finally, there was nothing left but to state, “You have a specific route in mind.” It was not a question.

She did, and by the time she’d finished explaining, neither my mate nor I had the slightest doubt. We started moving again, Lauren riding so close behind me that Roan’s tail almost whisked her jug headed mount’s nose. I didn’t get the feeling Wonder Woman was exactly a hardened mountain scout, but she clearly knew this route, and I needed to be able to hear her slightest whisper as she navigated us through the woods. The horses weren’t spiffy-thrilled to leave the trail; like most of us, equines will take the route of least resistance unless influenced by exterior forces. But they didn’t object too hard, either, and within minutes we found ourselves climbing at a steep, oblique angle, forest floor must slipping sideways downslope from more than one shod hoof. It was hard for me to picture any ordinary morning rain that could obliterate sign that obvious, but just as Lauren directed us to another game trail leading in a far different direction than the Roost “highway,” I learned never to doubt the woman’s word. The rain started as a soft drizzle but kept increasing in intensity until I could barely see past Roan’s nose. And that was up here in the timber, where precipitation is by definition softened up by tall, soughing trees before hitting the ground. Before long, nothing could be heard over the crash of water; it felt like riding under a waterfall, then just standing there to get pounded. My buckskins, and Julia’s no doubt, were wetter than a mythical sponge from Before times.

I pulled Road to a halt. “There’s no going on in this!” Forget whispering; if you were going to be heard in this, yelling was the only option. How was Lauren surviving in her brown dress? That material had looked warm and comfy, but water cannon repellent? Not likely. There were stories, dimly remembered fro early childhood, about deluge quality rainstorms like this one, but no one I knew had experienced one in years.

She yelled back, though it took a moment to figure out what she’d said. “I think it’s slacking a little!” I had to keep wiping my eyes, holding the AK-47 in the same hand that held the reins so I had a free hand, then shading my brow with that same hand so I could at least try to look ahead. Huh. She was right. It wasn’t pretty on the trail ahead; every horse would have to be wary of every hoof planted in this sudden much, but maybe twenty feet of trail ahead could be seen now. More than anything, spank my ego and send me to bed without supper, I didn’t want to seem a wimp in front of Lauren. Which made now sense. I had none of that feeling regarding my wife. But then, Julia had grown up in the outdoors, mostly in the mountains, and she knew safety was never to be ignored in the wild. Lauren no doubt knew that, too, but oh well, seasoned magical Roost founder or not, guess I was still at least partly seventeen years old. It was the kid in me, the one that would rather die than look weak in front of his girlfriend, who slackened the reins and clucked Roan forward once again. Not that I’d ever admit as much, but hey.

Only then did it dawn on me: The Kalashnikov carbine probably had its barrel full of water! My bad. Trying to look casual about it, I shifted the weapon back to my strong side and tipped the barrel down to the side. Water poured out of the spout. Well. My reading on the iconic shooter had informed me of the way it had increased its already powerful credibility in combat during a jungle war in Asia. The AK-47’s hadn’t been used by American forces, but by the people they fought. Viet Cong would shoot at Americans all night long, then stash the weapons underwater in rice paddies–whatever those were. Then when sunset came once again, out came the AK’s, going right back into service. You couldn’t drown the things, couldn’t make them jam, just plain couldn’t kill these ultra reliable killers.

Which said nothing about the ammunition, but ammo waterproofing technology had improved greatly later on, especially with the development of Never Fail cartridges. I had to hope it all lived up to the hype. There were two more completely dry banana clips riding in my saddle bags, but exposing them to the rain at this point would be just plain stupid. As we rode on through the morning, the storm slackened until there was not evean a graay overcast; by noon, fluffy white clouds could be seen chasing themselves across a cerulean sky, at least when there was space enough to see up through the ever heightening timber. Ever heightening it was, too; where we’d first made it to cover, the tallest pine or fir–not many spruce trees in this part of the forest–had topped out at mmaybe forty feet above the ground. Now we were among relative giants, hoar-barked ancients towering eighty feet and more. Lauren had directed me to take half a dozen trail changes along the way; I had no idea where we might be. Thankfully, Julia was mountain born and bred. To her, this was likely no more confusing than a picnic stroll across a single meadow might be for me.

The sentry escaped my eye at first, allowing his rifle muzzle to track my brain pan long before I even knew he was there. Situated in a cunningly fashioned tree stand high up in a monster Doublas fir, upslope to the left, the fellow was camouflaged and then some. If I twitched wrong, bye=bye Jade. Story of my life, right?

Only thing to do was show no sign I’d spotted him even now. That way, with luck, I could always pretend later that I’d seen him long before I had. There was a songbird calling, not a species I knew yet, but a melodious little thing. That sentry was really good; I couldn’t have pinned the source of that birdsong to the tree stand on my best day. I did turn to look back at Lauren, shifting clockwise in the saddle to present my back to the sentry. What the hey, I gave her a big old wink, straight faced. I could swear she twinkled back, though the shift in her expression was so subtle the man in the tree could not have remarked it.

She knew about this place, then, the sentry no surprise to her, totally expected. I started breathing again.

When the forest suddenly opened up on a small mountain valley, though, I almost fell off Roan. An entire settlement nestled here, completely unknown to the outside world. Or at least I’d never heard of it; I didn’t claim to possess the sum total of the world’s knowledge or anything.

Corrals, pens, pastures, fences. A lively creek, almost enough to be considered a small river, sparkled through the botgtom land. Horses, cattle–no kind I’d ever seen, but with short, sharp, wicked looking horns–amd an impressive set of buildings, all hand trimmed log structures. Not a broader community, now that the first shock wore off and I could begin to see what was actually there, but the holding of a single sizeable and prosperous family. The barn could have housed every critter in sight on a wicked winter night, and probably did. A number of newborn calves nuzzled their mohters’ sides, working udders, while others gamboled as only the very young ever do, filled with the sheer joy of living. Equally young foals did the same thing in the horse pasture, several rowdy youngsters determined to outdo the calves and galloping on long legs not always under their full control at this age. The house…more than a house, really. A fortress. These people had built the structure out of logs nearly two feet in diameter. There were numerous windows, but all well off the ground and narrow, allowing light in and defensive fire out but giving no human attacker an entry point into the twelling. Two stories of the massive dwelling dominated the secene; here was the area’s seat of power and no question about it.

Workers saw us coming, setting aside their various tasks to gather near the house. The rifles Julia and I carried didn’t seem to worry them, though had Lauren not been very much in evidence…well, she was, and obviously well known here. I pulled Roan to a halt as the oldest man I’d ever seen strode out from the barn to meet us, halfway between there and the fortress-house. Tall, he was, striding purposefully on legs so long they didn’t even look human. His torso was as around as a giant pumpkin, with a smaller pumpkin for a head. What hair he had left, as much as could be seen below his work cap, was seriously grizzled. His skin was pure leather but cracked, age-furrows creasing every inch of his face and the backs of his hands as well. Those insane scissor-stilt legs stopped in front of me, though he’d nodded in friendly fashion to Lauren before he spoke.

“Welcome to Smith Mountain.” The age could be heard in his voice, but less than I’d expected.

“Th–” The headache hit without warning; I was pretty sure I jerked in the saddle. The world wouldn’t hold still. There were spots before my eyes. I struggled to get the words out, to acknowledge the old man’s courteous greeting. “Thank–

Somebody yelled, “Catch him!” What’s the matter with me?

The lights went out.