June 15, 2121. Marcus and I were enjoying a leisurely lunch at his café, just the two of us, when Moon lifted his head and pricked his ears toward town. Five minutes later, Cam Staten rode up on the fat bay mare he now owned, having traded who knows what for a nag no prideful cowboy would be caught straddling in his worst nightmare.
“An ill wind blows no good,” I commented as the auctioneer and self trained defense attorney tied his horse to the hitch rail. Marcus just grunted. Our planning session for Derringer’s Independence Day celebration was going to have to wait; if there was one thing our fiery eyed pacifist visitor detested more than any other, it had to be blatant exhibitions of patriotism.
Nationalism, in Staten’s fiercely held opinion, was the cause of all the planet’s evils.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” he nodded affably enough as he walked in, brandishing what looked to be a holo disc. “I brought you a present.”
“A present, eh?” Grady’s voice didn’t come out as an actual growl, but close enough. His dislike for Staten seemed to get deeper with each passing day.
For my part, I was glad we had him. He was our community gadfly, the one voice guaranteed to declare that everything we did was wrong, no matter what. Irritating as it may be, any political entity–and that’s what we’d become, try to deny it as we might–needs somebody in the loyal opposition to keep things honest. Not that I was completely convinced Cam was loyal. He apparently hadn’t said a word to the people of Derringer about our end of April shootout at the café, though, and he was definitely opposition. Thus, I did find myself wishing he’d drop dead of a cerebral aneurysm sooner rather than later, but I also recognized his value. Heck, without Cam Staten, local miscreants would be out of luck when it came to obtaining competent legal representation.
“Does your Trassen still work?” Cam indicated the projector sitting near the south wall.
“Probably.” Marcus shrugged. “Haven’t had any reason to find out for some time now, but it was working last time I fired it up.” Without another word, he accepted the plug-in cube, walked over to the retro machine, and snapped the disc into the slot–“disc” being an outdated term, there being nothing round about it. Theodorus Trassen’s invention counted as retro retro, containing no magnetic components whatsoever, so it shouldn’t really have been affected by the Chinese EMP blast. Optical disc storage should still play.
Magnetic wouldn’t, of course. Magnetic was as dead as the proverbial doornail.
We didn’t ask what was on the disc. It’s a guy thing, but doing so would have made us look weak in front of our adversary. I could guess, though. Based on the auctioneer’s behavior these past six weeks, it would be one of two things, either a bit of footage showing war atrocities committed by Americans–never by the enemy, hypocritically enough–or some blither-blather about how we should all work for Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.
True to his liberal progressive roots, Cam Staten’s view of reality came pre-distorted through a twisted lens.
Not that either Marcus or I denied the horrors of war. He’d seen plenty of it during his active duty days. As if that weren’t enough, there was the matter of the Trinidad Trio. In early May, Corporal Bobby Yeager had made it home to Derringer, home from the war on the southern front, a war against the jihadist invaders he thought we might have brought to a stalemate. His report was considered invaluable by those of us who planned for Derringer’s defense. The 87th Airborne, along with elements of the Third Army, were dug in at Trinidad, Colorado, and held the pass; the Sharia Law bunch held Raton, New Mexico, but had not been able to penetrate farther north. Both sides had seen their numbers drastically reduced; Yeager believed there were maybe five thousand American fighters left alive, facing perhaps six or seven thousand MFA invaders. MFA, officially Martyrs For Allah, unofficially Mother F—— Assholes.
Bobby had brought two other soldiers from his unit, buck Sergeant Melissa Crumb and PFC Aaronson Tardaye. All three had been welcomed by the population of Derringer. All three were also deserters, arriving on foot, ragged and wounded, emotionally burned out, completely unfit for combat. But still, they were deserters; if the United States did pull itself together, we’d need to keep these people hidden from the legitimate authorities.
As it turned out, our newest residents had provided the inspiration for Cam’s visit. “We lost one on the hometown battlefield,” he explained quietly. “Sergeant Crumb ate her gun last night.”
We met his gaze, nodding in acknowledgement. “This song,” he said, “has been around for more than a century. My grandfather gave me a DVD he’d burned from YouTube, back when DVD’s were still the way to go and YouTube was still the queen bee for videos. I want you to know, I didn’t come here to pick an argument. I just…need to share this.” I realized tears were running down the man’s face.
By the time the song finished, he wasn’t the only one.
On his way out, almost as an afterthought, Staten added one more thing. “Melissa wasn’t from here, of course, so she doesn’t have any family in the area. We’re holding a memorial service at the Community Center at sunset.”
We said nothing to that. Once the auctioneer was mounted and gone, I turned to Marcus. “Now, where were we?”
He gave me a little half-smile. “Tori will be sorry she missed it.”
“That she will.” I left the café owner sitting at the table and got up to fetch the tea kettle. “But I couldn’t see any other way to do it. She had to stay at the Quonset with Mabel.”
“Still calling her Mabel?”
“So far,” I nodded. “I’ve got a slave name picked out, one that won’t sound familiar to anyone who might drop by in the future looking for one Deputy Mabel Lamesa, but I haven’t told her yet.” I hadn’t renamed Tori, obviously, because of her roots in the community.
“But you can tell me, right?” Marcus suddenly looked positively mischievous. He’d never had the slightest interest in owning a girl. In fact, he wasn’t sure he trusted himself to hook up solid with a mate in any sort of long term arrangement. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t get a kick out my situation. Being able to think about it without committing to anything was, I strongly suspected, porn for him.
“Sure.” I shrugged. Guy to guy confidences didn’t count.
“So, what are you going to name her?”
“Oh. Um. Tasta.”
“Huh?” He’d never heard of that one.
“Tasta, rhymes with pasta. Comes from the twentieth century Gor science fiction series. There’s a whole Gorean subculture out there, you know? Or used to be, anyway. In Gorean, a tasta is a kind of sweet candy.”
Marcus chuckled. “Deputy Lamesa didn’t strike me as being any kind of sweet candy.”
“You’d be surprised how a female can blossom under the right Master’s thumb.”
“And yet you haven’t taken her yet.”
“Nope. Not yet.”
How should I answer that? “My judgment is, she’s ready. Been ready for a while now. That girl was craving male attention for a long time, she craves structure, she needs a Daddy and I’m more than old enough to qualify several times over, all that. But Tori’s not ready. Not quite.”
“Who, Tori? Maybe. I think she’s past that, though you never can tell. No, the deal is, I’ve got to have those two girls locked into a strict hierarchy. Tori thinks fast, she can take initiative, and she reacts instantly when I give her an order or even a suggestion. But she’s having a little trouble thinking of herself as a leader in charge of anyone else. She’s coming along, but–the thing is, Mabel has got to be low girl on the totem pole all the way. She’s okay with that. It’s what she’s used to; Sheriff Penney kept her at the bottom of the deputy pile, paid her the least even when there was money for a payroll, gave her the least desirable assignments, all that. Part of my success in training her has been due to my recognition of her limitations. Instead of trying to change her, I’m reinforcing what she already accepted as her lot in life.
“But Tori keeps wanting to treat her as an equal. That won’t do.”
I fell silent, sipping my tea, thinking. Marcus studied me for a while. I could see the gears turning in his head; he knew me far too well. “Harrison,” he said, “what aren’t you telling me? And why do I have this feeling I’m not going to like it?”
Propping my elbows on the table and steepling my fingers, I told him straight out. “We’ll be able to pitch in for the Independence Day Celebration, but by mid-July, I’ll need to be gone for probably the rest of the summer.”
“Go on,” he urged, his eyes flat.
“We’re fighting blind, Marcus.” I got up from the table, the nervous energy too much to contain sitting still. My friend was going to have to hear this while I was pacing. “We’ve got what’s hopefully a fairly accurate picture of conditions to the south, thanks to the arrival of the Trinidad Trio…even if they are down to the Trinidad Duo now…and every shortwave broadcast we’ve been able to pick up confirms the destruction at Colorado Springs and points east. To the west, we’ve got the Rocky Mountain spine and no indications whatsoever that the coastal Chinese forces care to tackle any more mountain fighting, at least for the time being. But when it comes to the north and Highland West, we don’t know one damned thing. Yeah, we’ve heard Denver is in ruins, refugees from there have died in the wilderness or in a few cases set up little enclaves that are hanging by a hair, and feral gangs rule what’s left of the Mile High City. But beyond that, through whatever’s left of Cheyenne and points north, we don’t know one. Damned. Thing.
“Weaver’s radio broadcasts continue to extoll the virtues of Highland West as the finest freedom loving government ever. He makes the Wyoming bunch sound attractive to the fool who doesn’t know how to hear between the lines. By his lights, the Highlanders number in the hundreds of thousands at least, with democracy and rainbows for all. Not that what we’re hearing sounds all that much like a democracy, but it surely isn’t a constitutional republic.
“But how strong is Highland West, really? What are their true numbers? How many seasoned troops do they have, if any? Former National Guard? Citizen militia? How are they armed? Most importantly, what are their plans? One thing is undeniable; they’re good at keeping the wrong information from leaking out. We’ve not seen one stray traveler who could tell us one small thing about them. Everybody else, yes, but not Highland West.”
Marcus thought that over, scowling into his teacup. Eventually, he raised his head and asked, “So you’re going to scout them out? Is that what you think?”
“Harrison, you’re one helluva tactician on your home turf.” The burly man sighed, letting his admission out there. “I will admit I feel safer with you around. We’ve established a pattern; I identify the bad guys who need killing and you kick off the fireworks. If you’re gone all that time, I’m going to hate having to rely on Chief Deputy Jacobson. But most of all, how the Hell do you think you’re going to get away with it? One man, I don’t care who he is, one man with two young women in tow–one a little hottie still in her teens–dude, you’re going to attract plenty of the wrong sort of attention. I’m not saying you can’t be sneaky when you put a mind to hit, but…it’s a suicide mission, buddy. A pure dee suicide mission.”
“I didn’t say anything about one man alone.”
“What?” For the first time, he looked startled. “Who else has signed on for this insanity? Does this have anything to do with your trip out to the Nestossin Ranch last week?”
“As a matter of fact….” I grinned, letting it hang.
“If by him you mean young Cass Nestossin, heir apparent to the ranch and well known father of babies born out of wedlock, then yes, him.”
Marcus put his head in his beefy hands and groaned. “I don’t believe it. I don’t fricking believe it.”
“Believe it.” There were good reasons to choose Cass as our fourth. There were also good reasons for Cass to sign on for the mission. I’d always gotten along with the boy. He was wild as the proverbial March hare, but having grown up with Iron Grandma aka my old flame, Gwen Nestossin, he did know how to take orders when it was necessary. His health was extraordinary, his athletic prowess little short of phenomenal; I’d once seen him get thrown from a bronc, land on his feet, retrieve the reins, and launch himself back into the saddle while the horse was still bucking. Nobody outside of Nestossin Ranch personnel believed that, but I’d seen it; had he chosen to hit the rodeo circuit, he’d have been a sure contender for Rookie of the Year. He could fight like a demon–which he’d had to do more than once, as many girls as he’d stolen from other men–and his sense of humor was legendary.
Besides, he’d knocked up little Carly Westerland, a well built fourteen year old with three brothers bigger than the average draft horse. Nobody in the Westerland clan knew enough to stay down when he was hit, either. The boys weren’t figuring on killing Cass, but they wouldn’t fight fair. Worst of all, if they were ever able to sneak up and get the jump on him, young Nestossin would find himself married (by Judge Norcross in a civil ceremony, there being no pastor left alive in town). That, in the young cowboy’s considered opinion, would be a fate far worse than death.
He’d leaped at the chance to disappear from the area for a few months.
“He’ll be paying more attention to seducing Mabel and Tori–especially Tori–than he will to helping you all stay alive up north,” Marcus pointed out. “Cass doesn’t differentiate between single girls and those in serious relationships.”
“You underestimate the lad.” I hoped.
“Let’s hope so.”
“Bottom line, we have no better options. You can’t go; Chief Deputy Hiram would fall apart without you to back him up.”
“Now it’s you who’s underestimating the lad.”
“Marcus,” I sighed, “I’m not underestimating Hiram Jacobson. He’s a good one, no doubt about it. But there are elements in town who’d start thinking of ways to take him out if they didn’t know you were right here, just outside of town, ready to help him thump any gourds that need thumping. Temporary deputies from the ranches are all well and good, but it takes time to fetch them. Time that in a crisis you just don’t have. Plus, your café has become something of a gathering point when there are serious civic issues to be discussed that don’t require everybody and his dog to join in. So, as I said, you’re out.
“And frankly, there’s nobody else with the skills and common sense required to undertake a scouting mission. I’d had hopes for Melissa Crumb, if the Sergeant could have pulled herself together, but we know how that worked out. Who else? In this godforsaken one horse town, who else?”
Grady held his hands up in mock surrender. “I get it, Harrison. I just don’t like it.”
“Who the hell does?” I sighed, feeling the load pressing down on my shoulders. After the killings in April, I’d come down with a fever that had hung on for nearly two weeks, not quite knocking me out of commission but coming way too close for comfort. Just a wee reminder that the Lords of Karma were tallying things up as always, a tiny down payment on the debt incurred by taking the lives of my fellow human beings. The dead Double Crosser priest had been a challenge to block from my dreams, too; I’d had to innovate, coming up with a couple of brand new spiritual defense techniques I’d never even heard of before. “But we need the intel. We need to know their numbers and their intentions. Do we have time yet, another winter before the fit hits the shan, or are they planning a jaunt into Park County before the snow flies? The ruins of Denver should occupy them for years, but what if they decide to circle wide, just go around the city and leave it for later? What’s the road and bridge situation? Places to destroy or blockade the highway? Would the terrain allow us to use the Tarryall Reservoir as a weapon in some way, maybe by blowing it up?
“Basically, we have, what, two dozen capable fighters in the entire town, maybe a hundred total if the ranches all pull together and pool their manpower with us? No more than that. If Highland West sends enough troops at us, even half trained, we’re going down–unless we acquire enough knowledge ahead of time to make the area a killing zone long before they can reach the town itself. Even one full company of regulars hitting Derringer will wipe us all out in a single day or less. We’ve got to have the intel.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, “we do. Okay, let’s put off the Independence Day planning for another time. I’ve got a few things to show you. Tricks of the trade for infiltrating Indian Country and coming back alive, a wrist compass that doesn’t care about nearby magnetic fields, a super lightweight night vision monocle you’re not going to believe, a couple of specialty weapons. You’re going to need every edge you can get.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
The next four weeks weren’t precisely a blur, but they did pass swiftly. By July 13, Sergeant Crumb’s memorial service was a distant memory. The Fourth had been celebrated with fireworks, believe it or not, skyflowers plus a whole crate full of sparklers widow Corrigan had been trying to get rid of ever since her husband passed in 2119. Tori finally seemed to have the command of her inferior, slave Tasta, down to an art–and of course Tasta was no longer a virgin.
Cass Nestossin was waiting for us where the ranch driveway intersected the frontage road, sitting atop a plain brown gelding who was ugly as sin and a guaranteed sleeper; I was betting Keebler could outlast even Moon, day in, day out. The cowboy also held the reins to another gelding, a jet black animal with sturdy conformation, one white sock, and a small white star on his forehead. Star I knew; he’d been Cass’s favorite ride a few years back, before the randy rancher had gained his full height and weight.
Tasta still didn’t know one end of a horse from another. Star would have to teach her on the trail. My number two slave girl slid down from behind Tori, mostly into my arms–she wasn’t expert at dismounting yet, either–and took possession of the black with wonder in her eyes. Cass could have brought her any other mount, but he was never one to do things by half measures. Despite his respect for me, which I knew existed, he’d do his best to get into the girl’s pants. Marcus had been right about that.
She had my instructions. If she could resist, then resist. But if Derringer’s most notorious womanizer stirred her lust beyond her control, then hey, lie back and enjoy it…just don’t worry about the rumors going around town, the rumors that said Cass Nestossin had a tendency to pass herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, and the HIV virus on to his lovers.
The very thought of an STD terrified the former virgin deputy sheriff; Cass would not find her an easy conquest.
As for Tori, I doubted Cass would get very far with her. He wouldn’t try rape–that was not his style–and my little blondie was welded to me, heart, mind, body, and Soul. If she wasn’t inoculated against the charms of a cowboy Casanova, I’d eat my belt buckle and a double helping of crow to go with it.
Cass, of course, didn’t know any of that. Yet.
“Fine blue sky morning, Harrison,” he grinned at me, flashing the dimples that had distributed his gene pool all around this end of the county. “Couldn’t be a better day to go yondering.”
I grinned back at him. It wouldn’t be accurate to say he reminded me of me in my youth, but he definitely reminded me of the me I wished I’d been back then. “Better a saddle tramp than a hand in the hayfields any old day, eh?”
“You got that right, Hoss.” He tipped his black felt cowboy hat back on his head a ways, letting his abundance of thick brown curls spring forth. He’d caught a lot of females over the years, trolling with that curly hair. His blue eyes twinkled with a genuine lust for life, one of the many reasons I’d decided he had to be the fourth rider on this little expedition. Not that he couldn’t take life seriously, but his natural good humor would balance my grim approach to the mission.
“Rules of the road,” I explained, making sure we were all on the same page. “Where we can ride four abreast, like down the road as long as we don’t see anybody coming our way, I take the right flank. Cass, you take the left. Tori and Tasta in the middle. When it’s two abreast, Tori and I lead, Tasta and Cass follow, but again, Cass, you’re on the left side, I’m on the right. In the clothes they’re wearing, the girls may pass for boys or small men at a distance, but up close it’s pretty obvious they’re female. I want any attacker, human or animal or alien from Pluto, to have trouble getting to either one of them without a male warrior close by to contend the issue. When we’re on the move, talking stays at a minimum; we don’t want anybody hearing us who doesn’t have to, and we damn sure don’t want anybody hearing what we might have to say. Any time we can, use hand signals. This one,” I reached up with my arms, wrists crossed, fists closed, “means stop dead still right damn now. Clear enough?”
“Clear as crystal, boss.” Cass threw me a two finger salute, flipped out from under the front center of his hat. The girls just nodded; they’d already been drilled on the subject.
“Then let’s move out. Oh, one other thing. We’re starting in daylight today, but we’re not stopping when the sun sets. That is, we’ll make a meal stop, heat up some beans and bacon, let the horses graze for an hour or two, but then we’re going on. We’ll be night traveling, day sleeping, as much as possible from now until we get back home.”
Cass didn’t say anything to that, but he did raise an eyebrow. I explained. “We’re going into enemy territory. I don’t know exactly how soon, but back before the white man overran this country, the Blackfeet–maybe other tribes, too, but I know the Blackfeet did it–one of their young bucks would have a dream telling him to go have himself a war party. He’d gather up other youngsters like himself, all of them wanting to make names for themselves, and they’d take off, traveling by night, hiding out and sleeping by day, just like we’re going to do. The old histories swear some of those war parties would be gone for as long as two years at a time. They’d come back loaded down with horses they’d stolen, sometimes having raided as far as the Nez Perce country…without once having been spotted by the enemy. They were rampaging all over the place, but they were completely invisible, ghost warriors if you will. That’s what we’re going to do here. We need information, but we don’t need any of us getting killed.”
Cass was nodding now. He’d been sneaking around with girls and women of all ages for years, mostly under cover of darkness. Playing ghost warrior between dusk and dawn was right up his alley.
With that, I lifted Moon’s reins, turned the gelding’s head, and we set off to explore the great unknown.