“Murder in the camp! Lock and load!” The cry rang out, loud and brassy, jolting us from our cozy blankets. “Murder in the camp! Lock and load!” Julia’s call. It was her sentry shift, hers and young Mudfoot’s. “Murder in the camp! Lock and load!” Heart thundering, I dove out through the tent flap, tucked and rolled, a fast-moving target just in case. Lauren would likely follow, more slowly and more carefully; staying under canvas was never a good idea when the shelter might itself be a target.
My woman’s voice had seemed to come from three different places. Most likely, she was yelling once, then moving before yelling again. Three times was enough and she knew it. All of us were combat-ready by now. To my right, Mace’s shadow ghosted silently under the quarter moon, staying low. Sandy would be a bit farther out, allowing the three of us to converge swiftly yet cautiously on the opening to the rope-and-deadfall horse pen. That left–
I didn’t like leaving Lauren unprotected, but she’d long since assured me that while she was no fighter, she was skilled at avoiding those who would harm her. Spiritual protection from some higher world guide or something, plus a personal sensitivity to the world around her. I wasn’t too sure about this invisible helper thing, but who was I to judge? For all I knew, I had one of those and just didn’t know it. It would explain a lot.
A low whistle alerted the three of us to Julia’s presence. Simple code, a single —wheet!–that got our attention without pinpointing her location. We closed ranks, Mace scuttling forward with me while Sandy watched our backs. Julia materialized from behind a fallen cottonwood tree, joining us at the gate. Mudfoot was on his face, crimson from his slashed throat pooling darkly against the lighter beaten-down grass. His buckskin pants, the first and last pair he’d ever owned, bunched around his ankles, his bare buttocks mooning the moon, flashing white contrast to the still-spreading bloodstain.
There was a startled gasp from behind me. Sandy Smith. I wasn’t the only one to put it together in a hurry. Without a doubt, we now knew where Gracie Stark was. Or rather, where she had been.
None of us moved to touch the body. The boy who’d begun to prove himself was no more. The four of us gathered together, not so close that one shooter could take out us all out, but near enough to talk with our backs to each other, a four-warrior square, three men, one woman, each nervously watching the surrounding darkness as we conversed in low tones. Julia gave her brief report first.
“We were patrolling at random intervals, standard protocol. I left him here near the gate, tucked in the shadows. Made a clockwise perimeter circuit, slow and easy, took maybe fifteen minutes. He was like this when I got back.”
The rest of us held position while Mace checked the horse herd. It didn’t take him long. “Blaze is gone.” A bay mare with a white stripe down her face, but….
No spare mount, then. The killer was riding a good, solid mare, but with no spare, she could be caught. If not in a day, then in a week.
“It’s my job.” Sandy Smith, voice full of Death. “She’d never have been with us if not for me.”
Not exactly true. With or without Sandy’s conviction that Gracie was literally the girl of his dreams, we’d still have had to interfere at the Roil, and taking her with us would still have been the only real option. But I knew soul-tearing guilt when I heard it. “She did save us from the Locust Pack,” I pointed out quietly. Had she not persuaded me to abandon my idiotic plan to make a rearguard stand away from the others, we’d have all been dog poop. Her fighting at my side should have counted for something.
It didn’t. I remembered handing her my own heavy rifle, the precious .358 Winchester. She could have shot me in the back easily. But she’d wanted to survive. Gunning down her group leader before a hundred and fifty feral dogs even reached us would have been a suicidal move, and suicidal she was not. Homicidal, obviously, but not suicidal.
None of us liked the idea of losing one of our trusted riflemen for an indefinite period, but that’s the way it had to be. Sandy would have it no other way and the rest of us understood. Mace did come up with an idea. If we took a ten-day detour, give or take, we could load the pack panniers with trade blocks cut from a secret salt lick in the mountains. I hadn’t realized the Smith family knew of several such treasure troves, not just one. This location was far to the west of the others. So far, or so they said, no other humans appeared to have discovered these deposits. Their father had found and mapped them all, decades before he was killed.
Zebediah Smith, the Great Salt Locator.
There were drawbacks to the plan. Most importantly, the extra delay in reaching Fort 24 might run us into snow before we made it back to the Roost, and it extended our travel days at the same time our fighting force was seriously reduced. But there were advantages also, the biggest one involving the fact that we hadn’t come across any buffalo, any major meat with which to load the pack train for barter at 24. Even if we had, salt was a much more reliable trade commodity than bison, at least while there was game in the hills and 24 had its cattle herds. And finally, the extra delay might allow Sandy to complete his deadly mission and still hook up with us in time for the return trip to the Roost.
By first light, our broken hearted warrior was on the trail. Would it be better or worse for the man if he succeeded in executing his murderous beloved? None of us knew, not even Lauren, though the sadness in her eyes was palpable.
I couldn’t imagine having to face something like that with one of my women. The very idea made me shudder and stomp on the thought with violent mental force.
A quick inventory proved Gracie was traveling light. One horse, the so-so tube fed carbine she’d been issued, thirteen rounds of ammunition for the weapon, a belt knife, five pounds of pemmican, and the clothes on her back. Tracks indicated she was heading south, keeping her horse at a steady trot.
Once the grief stricken avenger had taken the trail, riding his best gelding and leading a spare with a light pack, Lauren had breakfast ready. Sandy hadn’t stayed for chow, which we understood, but the rest of us needed fuel for the grueling day ahead. Mudfoot deserved a decent burial with a cairn of rocks overhead to keep wolves and coyotes and bears from digging him up. After that somber chore was completed, we’d be breaking camp, saddling up and hitting the trail once more, with at least a half-day of good hard travel ahead of us.
None of us even considered staying in this place which had sheltered us before becoming a horror scene worthy of a gruesome campfire tale. Silver lining? Maybe. When we returned to home base, we could tell our people honestly that Mudfoot had become a man before he died, or most of one.
We were halfway through the meal when Julia spoke. “I feel like a failure.”
Mace snorted. “Compared to how my brother’s feeling right now, you should be on top of the world.”
“Oh,” she sighed, “I agree. It just seems like I should have been able to sense something. I was wide awake, as alert as I know how to be, and the horse pen isn’t all that big. What, maybe fifty yards across? Yet I never heard a thing. That witch seduced persuaded the boy to drop his pants–which wouldn’t have taken much for a teenager full of hormones–then sliced him from ear to ear, left him like that, got Blaze to let her put on bridle and saddle right under my nose, and I didn’t sense a thing. Not one. Freaking. Thing.”
I couldn’t think of anything to add to that. Fortunately, Lauren could. The slim beauty spoke softly but firmly. “Taking out Mudfoot quietly wouldn’t have been a problem for her. She’s been friends with Blaze before we knew either one of them, and didn’t you say, Mace, that from the sign you believe she had the tack stashed well away from the pen?”
“So there you go.” She shrugged expressively.
We moved out a bit ahead of expectations, half an hour before high noon. As the only one of us who knew how to find the salt lick, Mace took point. Julia and Lauren handled the pack string; I settled in at drag. Watching our backtrail was second nature, unfortunately leaving plenty of time to think. Gracie Stark had crossed a line, but was she to blame? If we wanted to go the guilt route, there was plenty to go around. For example, how stupid was it of me to let her come with us from the Roil River in the first place? I’d blown her man’s head off, for cry-yi. Yes, she was a consummate actress and a proven hater, but would I have done any differently in her situation? Could I “let it go” if someone–anyone–had blown Julia’s or Lauren’s head off right in front of me?
Of course not.
Then there was the selfish, truly self-serving aspect of the situation. Had I refused to allow Gracie to travel with us, would Sandy have split off from the group anyway? I suspected he might have. And where would that have put Mace? He’d have been torn between loyalty to his brother and loyalty to the rest of his family at the Roost, and I’d have forced him into that position. This way, nobody seemed to be blaming me, and I hated myself a little bit for feeling relieved at that.
Leadership was not all it was cracked up to be.
FLIGHT and PURSUIT
Down the creek a mile and a half, veer southeast thirteen miles, then it was clear sailing all the way. King Arthur had used this route every year, southeast in the fall, northwest in the spring. Something like fourteen hundred miles to go, doable in twenty-eight days with a string of remounts and no dog pack encounters. Gracie had done it, riding side by side with the big man except when the well beaten trail narrowed enough to force everyone to proceed in single file. At those times, following close behind, she’d marveled at the breadth of the man’s shoulders, the way his dark hair spilled down over the collar of his shirt, the confident way he rode, erect and proud, monarch of the western plains. It was venturing into the mountains that had proved his undoing, tangling with the Jade bunch and coming out on the short end of what turned out to be an extremely sharp stick. The Force is strong with this one, jokester Bobby Hammond would have said. Michael Jade was not easy to kill. But she would do it, one day.
Unfortunately, she had no string of remounts. If a change of horses did not become available, it would take her closer to forty-five days to make the journey. Maybe fifty. A lone equine had to graze and rest regularly in order to keep on keeping on. Extremely inconsiderate of the critter.
But there would be a change of horses, sooner rather than later. One or more of Michael’s bunch would be dogging her trail for sure. They could not ignore what she’d done.
Nor did she wish them to do so. Yes, she would flee south, ending up in the mighty city of Gatorville, population eleven hundred during the summer, half that again in winter months as established groups of raiders and a number of legitimate traders returned home. They knew her there. She would be safe, though that was no priority at all. Her enemies must die. Savage glee filled her memory, inwardly joy as she relived watching the blood gushing from the stupid boy’s slashed throat. She’d cut him from behind before lowering him gently to the ground in the finest tradition of the United States Army, back Before, when there was still a United States. First the side thrust below the ribs to paralyze him in shock, her free hand cupping his chin and pulling his head back hard as the follow-up slice severed his windpipe and opened the bloodgates. I bet you were surprised, weren’t you, boy?
Most of three days passed before she spotted her pursuers. Luck was with her; she’d definitely seen them first. Aha! Even better luck was with her. “Them” amounted to two horses but only one rider. He was still a good mile behind her; she had time to pick her spot. This was fairly open country, cut by small gullies here and there, low-rolling hills but well away from any true mountains. Sagebrush everywhere. A few small creeks with tall grasses and occasional cottonwood trees along their banks, but those were no good. Whoever this was, he would be wary of such obvious cover. No, she needed a spot that would look completely ordinary until it was too late.
She found it twenty minutes later.
Sandy Smith noted the crow winging its way, crossing from right to left in front of him. An omen. A warning. None of the other Smiths believed in such things. He’d learned to keep his own counsel in order to prevent his brothers from mocking him. But a big black bird, crow or raven either one, going in that direction….
He slowed Chalk to a walk. Had the crow been a raven croaking as it flew, he would have thrown himself from the saddle without hesitation. His omen system was both complex and precise. Sandy’s head was on a swivel, searching, scanning. Thankfully, swapping mounts every half day and stopping when it was too dark to track had so far kept both horses reasonably strong. The first day, Blaze had distanced him considerably; the big bay mare was tough and Gracie was pushing hard. But his quarry had of necessity moved more slowly the second day. Now, four days into the chase, Stark was walking her horse, not trotting at all. She’d traveled a good part of the night, those first two nights, and now her transportation was paying the price.
If she can take you out, she’ll have three horses. He talked to himself like that, inside his own head.
He stopped, stepped down, studied the tracks. Blaze had a way of throwing her left hind hoof out sideways a bit, making identification simplicity itself. The dirt where she’d stepped was still crumbly-soft at the edges. Not far ahead. Close enough she might have spotted me already.
Eyes narrowed, he studied the terrain. Low hills and swales, shallow erosion cuts. Wherever sagebrush failed, short grasses and various shrubs took over, just beginning to bleach and turn brittle as summer wore on. No vegetation tall enough to hide a big horse like Blaze unless she was lying down in the sage. He thought about getting out the binoculars Mace had loaned him, but no. Those things narrowed his field of vision too much. Messed with his inner radar. Besides, the carbine his quarry was packing only had an effective range of 100 to 150 yards, 200 hundred at most. Better to simply keep the hammer thong off his revolver, his bolt action rifle out of its scabbard, and his unburdened eyes peeled.
The little wash wasn’t much, but it would do. Blaze’s ears pricked forward in curiosity as Gracie tied her reins off to a sturdy bit of sagebrush growing at the edge of the cut. The brush rose a bit above the mare’s head; she would be safely invisible from the trail. Scrambling, bent low, King Arthur’s widow–as she saw herself–moved quickly to her chosen spot, a tiny hump of dirt providing towering sagebrush camouflage to either side and a clear view for nearly two hundred yards of backtrail. She didn’t have much time, just enough to wet a finger and raise it to test the breeze. Good enough. What air movement there was seemed to be drifting from west to east, across the trail. It should not reach the nostrils of her quarry before she pulled the trigger.
Her pursuer hove into view first, leading his saddle horse with one hand, a rifle hanging in the other. Gracie Stark blinked rapidly. Sandy Smith? A nervous flutter butterflied her stomach. She gulped, swallowing with difficulty. Why Smith? Why not demon Michael Jade, or even better, that amazon blonde witch whose blue eyes had never fully believed Gracie’s conversion was real? That woman could track, but more importantly, dropping her would have ripped Jade apart. King’s bass voice echoed in her thoughts. Karma is as karma does. Hoe the row before you. Her man had never been able to explain karma to her satisfaction, nor had he worked a hoe since early childhood, but the sayings stuck nonetheless.
Ignoring the fear sweat trickling down her forehead, the dark-eyed woman lined up her rifle sights slowly and carefully. It wasn’t good that Smith was on foot. He could react much more swiftly that way, going to earth in a flash, hitting the dirt on either side of the trail. She would get one shot.
And she’d never fired this carbine.
A flash of terror roared through her consciousness. What if Jade gave me a busted weapon? Or faulty ammo? No. No. Please no. She was shaking; the rifle barrel wavered. Steady. Steady. Let him get as close as possible.
Smith looked alert, too wary. Gracie struggled to control her breathing, tried to remember to look away from him, to not-think of him because some men and animals could feel the hunter’s attention on them. Never let them know you’re there. He was coming on steadily, balanced on the balls of his feet, head turning ceaselessly from side to side. A hundred and fifty yards now. One twenty-five. Panicked, eyes widening, she saw him shift his rifle to a two-hand grip and come to a stop. Gracie fired as her target started to dive sideways. The bridle reins looped around the crook of his elbow pulled free as he fell.
Yes. Fell. The fates were with her. She’d nailed the cocksure fool. How, she wasn’t sure; he’d been a fast-moving target. But nobody being shot at would leave his legs sprawled in the open at the side of the trail if he was able to move at all.
She got to her feet slowly, levering another round into the chamber, realizing her mouth was open, her breathing deep and panting. I got him. I did it. Only at that moment did she realize she hadn’t been sure it would work. None of her adult enemies could be taken lightly; they were not horny, lust-blinded kids. Now she had two things she must accomplish. Smith’s horses must be secured and she must make sure the man was stone cold dead. She’d dropped him. She’d definitely dropped him. But no quarry could be presumed defunct until….okay, the horses seemed to be holding steady. They’d been through multiple gunfights and they knew her. Smith was first priority.
Consciousness returned with blinding pain and foggy vision. Sandy couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but he’d lived long enough to automatically presume the worst. If he was wrong, so much the better.
His rifle was in his hands, the safety off. A gun battle, then? Must be. Moving more than his eyes might give him away—ouch— but he had no choice. Chalk’s inquisitive ears were pricked forward, looking past Sandy’s booted feet toward the trail ahead. Trail? Yes, he’d been on a trail…footsteps. Slow, cautious, but her boots made a tiny bit of noise. Her? Her! Stark!
Pushing every molecule of his body as fast as it would go, expecting the bullet that would core his heart, he twist-rolled onto his back, bringing the rifle clear, over–there!
They fired as one. This time, her bullet missed. His didn’t. The hypersonic .270 caliber hunting round left his rifle’s muzzle at nearly 3,000 feet per second, snapping across the minimal space between them in too little time to calculate, tearing through the knuckles of her shooting hand, furrowing the length of her forearm, shattering her elbow. Her trim 130 lb. body half-spun from the impact, threw her off balance. She tumbled to the ground, blood geysering.
Then the screaming began.
“I can travel now.”
Sandy looked at me, skeptical. “Four days after I amputated your arm with a rusty bonesaw?” It had been neither rusty nor a saw, just his razor sharp belt knife–which had made cutting bone a real challenge–but he was obviously trying to make a point. “With all that blood loss and miscellaneous trauma? Alone? You couldn’t even change that dressing one-handed.”
“Wanna bet?” The words came out surly. I couldn’t help it. The man I’d tried to kill had bested me, shot my good right arm to bloody ribbons, then tied me down and whacked off the damage. More than anything, I hated him for seeing me pass out when he started cutting. My own screaming hadn’t bothered me. I only hoped it had deafened him on one side. I’d blow a hole through his bloody guts if the chance offered. Yeah, it was going to be a tough haul, but we’d crossed a bunch of tracks about twenty miles ago, tracks he might have recognized but which I knew like the back of my hand. Survivors from King Arthur’s round rabble, close to a dozen men, moving slow and easy, hunting and loafing their way south to Gatorville for the winter. No real eager beavers in that bunch. I could catch up to them in two, maybe three days. Wait till then for help with my bandage. In the meantime, eat in the saddle, pee there too, forget about number two. Pee too, number two, heh. Excretion jokes for dummies. My raiders would have stuff to fight infection, plenty of food, and plenty of interest in attracting the attention of their queen. At least half of those guys wanted me, and not for my arms. If I showed up without any limbs at all, those nasty boys would be happy to hang me on a fence post when they weren’t–
“I still haven’t decided.”
My lip curled in scorn. “Yes you have. You’re not going to kill me or you’d have already done it. You can’t take me back as your prisoner because it’s a long lonely trail and you’ve got to sleep sometime. When you do, I’ll find a way to stick a knife in your ribs.” The pain in his eyes…precious. Savory. “You can’t ride south with me to protect me against my wishes, either. Anybody willing to take me in will be somebody delighted to do you in. Besides, you have family obligations.” Yeah, right. Family obligations. Sucker. Noble fools make me sick.
The man shrugged his burly shoulders. He did have nice shoulders. Not King quality, but nice. “All right. Your logic is impeccable.” He paused for a long moment, looking around, his fingers going to the crusted blood where my first bullet had grazed his skull. All the bugger had lost was a bit of skin and hair; I‘d lost an arm. He had a long lasting headache; I had a stump.
Blaze was hobbled with his two horses. He would have to let me keep the mare and tack, help me mount up, give me a bit of food and a canteen of water. No shooter; not even Sandy Good Samaritan Freaking Smith was that stupid. “All right,” he repeated, “but first, you get to hear why I’m doing this.” His gaze returned to my face, focusing as if he intended to memorize my features. What the? “From the time I was a little kid, I dreamed of a particular woman. Beautiful. Stunning. A piercing gaze that could look right through you. Courageous. Loyal to a fault. Passionate. I dreamed of her again and again, probably close to a hundred times over the years. She was my perfect woman, or so I believed, and when I first saw you at the Roil River, there she was in all her feminine glory, never mind that she was screaming and crying for the man she‘d lost. My dreams had been fulfilled. But,” he hesitated, tears filling his eyes, “my dreams didn’t tell me her amazing loyalty was to another, to a man now dead who’d lived by robbing those who dared work for a living. Nor did they share a single hint about her dark side. Didn’t let me know she was capable of cutting up an unsuspecting man-child like a side of beef, no remorse, no conscience, no soul. I couldn’t love her after that. And I couldn’t stop loving her, either.”
I shook my head. “Yeah, well, it sucks to be you.”
“Can’t argue with that.” He got to his feet and headed for the horses. I grinned. Maybe I had hurt him more than just crease his thick skull a little. Despite the furiously throbbing pain in my arm stump, life was good. And I would be back.