They hooked north after fording the Roil. Three men cut from the same cloth, three disparate women, and one envious yet rapidly maturing boy. All were mounted, with an additional string of pack horses trailing along behind, the drag rider eating the dust of the lot of them. Three camps later, their course altered, now pointing west by northwest. Michael Jade knew this country; they were back on the trail to Fort 24. Mace gave up his point position to scout ahead, ever choosing the best compromise between easy speed and nearby cover. Not that there was much cover here. They were in open prairie country with at least another week ahead of them before the fragrant pines, firs, and spruces of the mountain slopes would welcome them.
Julia once again filled the tail end Charlie slot, though Mudfoot often accompanied her. The firefight on the Roil had changed the boy. Screams of wounded and dying men, women, and children still assaulted his ears whenever he dared stop to think about it. Blood everywhere, bodies convulsing, and then the unbelievable carnage wreaked in return by Michael and the others. All he had to do to see limbs jerk? Close his eyes. That was all. He didn’t know if he’d ever sleep well again.
And then there was the deadly dangerous abducted outlaw woman, Gracie Stark. Bigger than life Gracie Stark, remembered from his much younger years, when she was a Fort 24 citizen who refused to take the abuse hurled her way by the powers that be. Escaped she had, and not only survived, but hooked up with the scariest raider on the plains, old King Arthur himself. Now Sandy Smith had claimed her as his own. Crazy bugger, that Sandy. Crazier’n a bedbug.
And yet, wow, if he ever tamed that wild one…wow. Just wow.
Mudfoot admitted it to himself. He was deeply in awe of Gracie, stunned at the audacity and power of Michael and the other Roost shooters, and somehow humbled in the presence of slender, beautiful Lauren. And he was drawn to Julia. Not so much as an object of lust; the amazon blonde could snap off his head like a praying mantis, even if Michael didn’t execute him first. But as a mentor and, dare he think it, a confidante. He’d never had one of those, not in his entire life. She was so good at everything, why not learn from her? Thus it was that he engaged her in conversation when he dared, observed closely when he didn’t, and finally began to pick up some of the tricks of the trade. Keep your head on a swivel. Keep your head in the game. Pay attention to your horse’s ears. Take note of what the birds are doing. Keep an eye on the weather. Check your horse’s cinch at every stop. Take care of your horse before you take care of yourself. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your eyes, ears, and nostrils open. Trust your sixth sense, which was something he hadn’t even known existed.
By far his most prized lessons were weapons related: Keep your powder dry. Break down your rifle every night before going to sleep, inspect, clean, and oil it, but not too much oil. Make sure the action is working smoothly. Never dryfire. Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Never assume any gun is unloaded. With knives, sharpen against the stone at the right angle. Cut away from yourself, not toward. Oh, the details were endless. Endless, but appreciated. He’d been allowed a rifle during the Roil firefight, and thank the powers that be, he hadn’t choked. Hadn’t hit anything, either, but he’d tried, and Michael had taken note. Now he carried his own weapons, given to him by Michael’s own hand. True, the carbine was a single shot and not overly accurate, but it was a gun. Coupled with the belt knife that only had one big nick in the blade, he was armed and dangerous, a real Rooster warrior.
It felt good. He wasn’t sure he understood this new feeling, but he liked it.
Dead ahead, a tiny figure topped the low rise that had hidden it. Coming our way at a trot. I raised my hand to signal a halt, then fished the telescope from its cushioned resting place in the right hand saddle bag. Yep. Mace, moving right along, but coming easy, no urgency apparent.
The scout slowed as he approached, turning his brown gelding to fall in beside me. “Mighty fine looking camp spot three miles ahead,” he announced quietly. “Little creek running through a stand of cottonwoods. Plenty of grass. Wouldn’t take much to set up a rope corral. Enough deadfall to fort up if we had to.”
I glanced at the sky. “I remember it, but there’s still a good four hours till sunset.”
“Thought we might want to settle in for a few days. Let the horses fill their bellies and take their ease. About a third of them are showing more rib than they should.”
“You’ve got a point.” We rode on in companionable silence for a few minutes while I thought it over. “All right. Why not? Better we don’t show up at 24 looking like beggars. Or worse, folks who don’t care for their livestock.”
Mace grinned. “Especially your in-laws, from what you’ve told me. Aren’t they the premier horse breeders in the area?”
“Yep. I wouldn’t want to embarrass Julia.”
“Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
“If you’ll take over point for a minute, I’ll ride down the line and clue the others in.”
I couldn’t help looking forward to resting up in camp for a few days. Maybe even a week. We hadn’t exactly been on the run, but we hadn’t been lollygagging either. Gracie Stark presented the only known risk, as a lengthy encampment would dramatically increase her chances for escape, wreaking revenge for the death of her man, or both. But she was showing progress. Yes, she could be a consummate actress; her wily exit from Fort Steel had proven that. Her softening toward us might be an act. Yet she’d begun speaking freely with Lauren, stealing appraising glances at Sandy, and had even found a civil word for me once or twice. Her limbs were no longer bound, either on the trail or in camp. Where could she go? Where could she find a better, stronger man than her erstwhile suitor? Sandy hadn’t yet told her she was the woman he’d been seeking for years; she wasn’t ready to hear that. Still, the woman was the ultimate survivor. She was no fool, either. Hooking up with a successful fighting force made sense.
Her grief at King Arthur’s death ran true, though. She’d been heard sobbing quietly at night for hours on end. Intellectually, she’d come around, accepted the fact that her paramour had signed his own death warrant by trying to kill us first, succeeding in killing the Smith family patriarch and nearly succeeding in killing Julia. Intellect, of course, had nothing to do with her emotional state. The two were clearly at war within her.
Sudden yelling, accompanying by thundering hoofbeats, whipped my head around so fast my neck cracked. Mudfoot was bent over his horse’s neck, flailing the reins, kicking the animal’s ribs furiously, shouting something at the top of his lungs. I couldn’t make out the words at first, but it was clear we had trouble coming. Sandy was pulling as hard as he dared on the lead pack horse’s halter rope while Gracie spun her mount out of line and back toward the rear, hooking up with Julia as both of them bellowed and screamed to get the string into a hard gallop. Mud was nearly to us by the time we could make out what he was saying.
“Dogs! Dog pack! Dog pack!”
Just as the boy raced past, eyes bulging with fear, Mace and I spotted our problem at the same time. A mile back at most, streaming over a low rise to our left rear, the pack resembled a gigantic, rippling serpent. There were fast movers in the lead; they’d be here in two or three minutes at most, and they had us in their sights.
“The kid’s panicked,” I snapped, pulling out the telescope to get a better look. “Is there a place we can make a stand?”
“Yes.” Mace whipped his horse around and took off like a shot. That brown gelding could scat. He’d be able to catch Mudfoot in time, steer everybody toward wherever he had in mind. The thunder of the pack string blew on by my position, leaving me sitting there alone, Roan not perturbed at all. We’d been through the wars together. With our crew gone, I could hear the hounds. Most dogs, I had read, saved their breath when running down prey, but this bunch had a few hounds in the mix, and hounds bayed on the trail. The sound was not comforting. “Dang. Must be a hundred bad puppies in that pack.”
“More than a hundred.”
“Wha–?” My head jerked around again. Ouch. Gracie Stark sat her mount quietly, just back in my blind spot, but I surely should have heard the horse blowing. A chill tap-danced its way down my spine.
“More than a hundred. Closer to one-fifty. Known as the Locust Pack ’cause there are so many of them. I need a weapon.” Her visage was grim indeed, but more fierce than frightened. I sensed a history, but this wasn’t the time.
“Here.” Hauling the .358 Winchester out of its scabbard, I held it out for her to take. She moved up and grabbed it, expertly levering a round into the chamber. “It kicks a bit.”
“Good.” She obviously understood that more kick meant more payload delivered downrange. “Ammo?”
“Yeah. Saddle bag.” She leaned over, fishing in the bag to haul out the container. Sixty-one rounds left for the heavy shooter. I had a little over ninety available for the AK-47, after which it would be down to the revolver and cartridge belt. It suddenly dawned on me that I’d just armed King Arthur’s common law widow with the same weapon I’d used to blow the man’s head off, but the awareness was fleeting. My eye was glued to the telescope again. The Locust Pack was streaming forward, but it was also strung out, hundreds of yards separating the leaders from the tail end Charlies. From the look of things, at least a dozen different dog bloodlines were represented.
“We really don’t want to make a stand here,” Gracie said firmly.
“Why not?” Seemed to me, plugging fifteen or twenty of the hot-to-trot canines would seriously discourage the rest, well away from our main horse herd.
“Two reasons. Our horses are going to panic and–see, they’re already splitting into two streams. We’re not much more than a light snack for them, so only a small part of the pack is coming straight for us now. The rest are going to race past after the others.”
Rabbit pellets. She was right. No more need to look stupid; I wheeled Roan around and put the spurs to him. Snorting in indignation, the rough-gaited gelding nearly shot out from under me. I hadn’t known he could do that. Maybe I was a little more scared than I’d thought. Might have sunk those spurs farther into his thick horsehide than I meant to do. Gracie kept up, but she didn’t try to pass. We were flying. I risked a glance back at the pack. No more than a half mile between us now. The predators weren’t gaining, but they weren’t losing much ground either.
Blowing around a gentle curve at the base of a low hill, we saw where Mace had elected to stand and fight. It looked like there would be two fights in a sense. Fight number one would be against the wild dog pack, but equally important, fight number two would be to keep the horses under some semblance of control. Equines can fight, but major canine attacks throw them into instinctive panic. Running is a horse’s number one survival tactic. Grown animals don’t fear coyotes much, but they run from wolves, and dogs are worse. The Before fairy tale books claim that dog is man’s best friend. The Before books are full of it.
In this part of the country, we fools had believed the dog species had all died out, mostly because it was taken as gospel that male dogs didn’t bring home food to mama when she was nursing blind puppies, resulting in death by starvation for the next generation.
So much for gospel.
Our last stand–strike that, our stand–was on a little bump that couldn’t be called a hill. Maybe a hillock. If we had a William in our group, it could be Wild Bill Hillock. The silly thought flashed through my mind; I quashed it. We did a bit of last minute shuffling. Mudfoot, Lauren, and Sandy Smith would do their best to hang onto the horses, only unslinging or drawing their weapons if there was no other choice. Outside of the horse huddle, the rest of us took kneeling positions in four different directions. Gracie informed us that the Locust Pack was both ravenous and extraordinarily intelligent; it was not unlikely they would encircle us, come at us from multiple directions. But Wild Bill Hillock gave us the high ground, sort of, and a clear shot for anything approaching within eighty yards or less. The sounds were wild and chaotic. Horses snorting, stamping, already rolling their eyes in fear. A stray bumblebee that winged its way past my left ear. My own breathing, not to mention an audibly thumping heart. The baying of the hounds.
They came at us like demons springing from the Earth itself. How they’d gotten this close without giving us a clear shot, who knew? Maybe they really were super smart.
But not smart enough to duck bullets moving at more than two thousand feet per second. To my left, I heard the unmistakable crack/boom of my own heavy rifle. Gracie had drawn first blood. Then the main wave came surging toward my portion of the shore and I had no more time to listen to anything. Sound disappeared altogether. There was only the leader, a rangy, curly haired beast, dropped by a double tap from the AK-47. Should have managed it with one. Waste not, want not.
Drop a wolf or two and the rest will generally disperse in a hurry. Not so with these dogs who ran in huge packs the year around. Their ancestors had not only reverted to the wild. They had mutated. Or gone to the Dark Side. Or both. Never had I been happier to possess a rapid fire, high capacity weapon like the AK. Yet even that was not enough. When the first magazine ran dry, I barely had time to swap out for a fresh load. A quick glance to my right showed that Julia was still in the fight, but to my left, Gracie was in trouble, her rifle empty. Three black giants, as tall as standard poodles yet as burly as Rottweilers, were nearly on her. I took out two of them, the third one dropping magically as Mace added support from the rear point of the diamond.
Just as my second magazine clicked empty, I got a reprieve. A lull. An instant of calm in the eye of the storm. The pack had finally gotten the message: Fast gun kill many puppies.
Julia, however, wasn’t doing so well. I fumbled, looking for the third magazine. Where was it? There wasn’t time; my woman’s AK-47 was on the ground and her sword was out, flashing in the sunlight, spraying red blood sparkles everywhere. I had no choice. She was good, more than good, but there were too many. AK down, revolver out of holster. I didn’t remember drawing it. Could only see the dogs, dogs, dogs–I fired, the .45 long Colt bullet lumbering across the interval between us, taking out a creature than had managed to circle around behind her, a bandy legged beast some shorter than most but thick through the body, with jaws that would give an alligator pause.
And then…and then…and then it was over. The predators, still scores upon scores of them, were in full retreat, running as low to the ground as they could get, fleeing the carnage.
Carnage indeed. Julia reloaded her AK-47, slung it over her shoulder, and began calmly checking for injured dogs that needed to be put out of their misery. Whines of agony and labored breathing, even the occasional snarl, went silent one by one. My woman the blademaster.
When we took stock, we found our losses to be acceptable, if such things are ever acceptable. One pack horse had slipped its halter and made a run for it, out past Mace’s position. It hadn’t gotten far. We found the carcass in a little hollow about five hundred yards from Wild Bill Hillock, being fed upon by half a dozen dogs who hesitated to leave their feast. Their mistake.
Only one human had been hurt. Sandy Smith had a badly bruised right leg, an injury occasioned by a kick from a panicked horse. Horse rassling is dangerous business.
We camped that night at Mace’s chosen spot. Tired as we were, it was deemed advisable to post two sentries rather than one, at least until we could be sure the Locust Pack had truly given up on us. They should have. We’d killed twenty-seven of the buggers. But shoulda-woulda-coulda didn’t buy no breakfast.
Mace and Sandy took the first watch. The rest of us settled in around the fires situated in a perfect little clearing that was large enough for cooking, tents, and all of our gear. We ate salted venison stew, sitting on or reclining against packsaddles, grateful for the meal and for having survived another day. I’d recovered my .358 from Gracie, replacing it with a spare tube-fed carbine we hadn’t had time to access before the dogfight. The woman had earned the right.
There were only thirty-three cartridges left for my Winchester, plus a similar amount for each AK-47. We couldn’t afford too many more engagements with the Locust Pack or its like. As I relaxed, several things began to surface, running through my thoughts. One involved Gracie Stark.
“Gracie, you’ve had dog troubles before?” It wasn’t a question. Not really.
“You could say that.”
She didn’t seem eager to talk about it, but I decided to push a little. “Mind sharing?”
“Ugh. Yeah, I mind.” She was an extremely attractive woman, I began to realize. Sandy Smith knew what he was doing after all. “But I’ll share.” She took a deep breath. “You all know I escaped from Fort Steel, back in the day, and hooked up with Arthur. But there’s more to the story. I had no idea how long I was going to live when I left the Fort. It was just, live free or die, you know?”
I nodded. I certainly did know.
“I don’t remember how long I was out there alone. Quite a while. Just kept walking west and south, decided to do that because it would get me to timber cover eventually and also ease me down out of the north country before winter set in. I had no illusions about surviving a north country winter alone, with no supplies and no skill set. I do know I found a creek, Trickle Creek, though I didn’t know its name then, and I tried to stay sort of close to it from then on. It would keep me from dying of thirst, and some of the berries along the banks were getting ripe, though I had to look out for bears and once almost stepped on a rattlesnake. I was terrified, especially at night, curled up wherever I could curl up. My strength was going. I didn’t have long to live.
“One morning, the sun was about halfway to noon, the dogs found me. I knew my end had come. You heard their baying today, the hounds that is, and so did I. The pack wasn’t as big then as it is today; they’ve been breeding like rabbits. But it was more than big enough for a lone woman. In the end, I was backed up against a tree, trying to hold them off with nothing but a stick, an awkward piece of branch I’d found lying on the ground. Climbing the tree would have been a good thing, but it wasn’t happening. The dogs were too close, they were right there, snapping and snarling and drooling. If I’d turned my back for a second to climb, they’d have had me. Besides, terrified as I was, I knew I didn’t have the strength left to climb.
“And that’s when King Arthur came. My tree was right near the edge of the woods. There was sunlight coming down through the needles, open spaces here and there. I heard this man bellow. Guns were firing. Dogs were dying or scattering, one or the other. He came busting though the woods on this big white horse. The sun was behind him, like a blazing halo. He was the most beautiful, glorious sight I’d ever seen in my life. Or will ever see. He had the key to my heart from that moment on.”
She fell silent, her head drooping, staring at the campfire flames. I felt like the lowest slime a snail ever oozed.