Although we’d need to cover a heap of country before returning to Derringer, the first twenty-four hours on the trail would be taken slowly. Cass had practically been born in the saddle, Tori and I’d journeyed back and forth the eleven miles between the Quonset and Grady’s café regularly, but Tasta…well, my number two slave girl and former deputy sheriff was feeling the pain by the time we stopped at Runoff Creek for lunch, hobbling the horses and slipping the bits from their mouths so they could graze a bit. Counting our starting point as the Nestossin Ranch junction where we’d picked up Cass, we’d covered all of six miles.
Which made sense. Tennessee Walkers can cover some serious ground, but our mounts were averaging right at three miles per hour. That’s human speed, but it was all uphill, climbing the gentle but steady grade out of the Derringer Bowl that had been formed by the Great Quake of 2064. This part of Colorado was all high country; we were probably at something like 8,800 feet above sea level already.
Which was part of why the wars hadn’t come to us yet; most of humanity prefers lower terrain with greater oxygen concentration in the air. Not that the Pike National Forest, which we’d be entering shortly, didn’t have enough trees to recycle carbon dioxide, but nobody with COPD or asthma lived up this high. Even in the prewar days, they didn’t hang out here without portable oxygen concentrators to help them breathe.
Cass volunteered to help Tori rub Absorbine Jr. liniment into Tasta’s aching thigh and butt muscles, but both girls just shined him on. So far, it was all textbook behavior. I caught Tasta sneaking peeks at the tall, broad shouldered young cowboy whenever she thought nobody was looking, though. Rumors of Nestossin having a grab bag of STD’s might not be nearly enough to armor her against her own desires; the slave fires had been ignited in Tasta’s belly, and Cass was right there, reeking of hunka hunka good looks and masculine pheromones.
For his part, Cass was merely teasing; he was not yet in withdrawal. That would change, I reckoned, and before long at that. I was pretty sure he’d been getting action on at least a weekly basis for years.
“What do you think, Harrison?” he asked, squatting Indian style beside the little fire. The heat was for boiling Tarryall Creek water before we drank it. Lunch was cold CranPem, the trail worthy pemmican marketed by Pemmican Industries in Brookings, South Dakota. The college dropout who’d formed PI, LLC, had produced more than a million half pound bags of the stuff according to their website. No more, no doubt, but I had half a ton of it–guaranteed to last for decades–stashed in the Quonset. We might as well use some on the journey. I loved the product, the girls could tolerate it, and Cass ignored it, having brought his own supply of trail mix with jerky.
“About what?” The water was starting to boil now; before long, we’d be able to sip it hot and pretend it was something else, like oh man would I kill for coffee.
“About the forest.” His gaze was directed ahead, studying the tree line. This part of the forest was relatively young. In fact, it would still be pretty spotty, as I understood it, had not the New Forest Reseeding Act (NFRA) been passed in the 2030’s. “This is where the ranches quit and the unknown begins, wouldn’t you say? Few people lived in the National Forest before the war, but there might be some hiding out there now. And I’d think we’d look like a fat treasure target, horses and guns and packs and all.”
“It’s possible,” I admitted. “On the other hand, we’re all four heavily armed and showing it. No pack horses to run off; we left those out of the equation for a reason. I’d think most people savvy enough or scared enough to choose the trees as a hiding place would also be mighty wary of taking on our little group.” The girls weren’t butting in, but they were listening; I didn’t want them getting too spooked before I could see a clear need for them to do so. Right now, their eyes were sparkling; they were out in the great big world with two strong men to protect them. Despite Tasta’s saddle sores, they were having the time of their lives.
Cass, on the other hand, paid attention to his own worries. “I don’t know,” he mused. “Maybe it’s just that I’m all of a sudden realizing this isn’t any play adventure; we’re really taking on something that could get us all killed.”
“You’re not suggesting we give it up?”
“Oh Hell no,” he chuckled. “Where would be the bragging rights in that?”
“I did think of something.”
“Tarry Town. You hardly ever hear anything about them, not in recent years. But along about…I think it was 2081, ’82, somewhere in there…you read about the Muslim Persecutions in school, didn’t you?”
“Oh, right. There got to be such hatred and fear of any and all Muslims, not just the blow-me-up-for-Allah extremists, that–President Sjokim, wasn’t it?”
“In the flesh. He passed a bunch of Executive Orders the Supreme Court refused to declare unconstitutional and the Congress couldn’t get the votes to reverse. Took a bunch of federal acres, mostly in National Forests, and gave them to any Muslims who cared to build their own segregated town away from the hassles.”
“Yeah, I remember now. One of our teachers thought it was a great thing; the others thought it was downright stupid.”
“It was certainly controversial. But the reason I bring it up, there’s a place like that called Tarry Town, up the Tarryall Creek road, some miles above the reservoir. Off on the left, back in the trees with a loop of Tarryall Creek running through it, but they have mailboxes out along the road. Or used to have, anyway. They stayed under the radar as much as they could–it wasn’t a place for suicide bombers to go or anything like that. Mostly what they call moderate Muslims, true believers but not militants, people just trying to make a living in this great land of America.”
Cass thought that over, but he didn’t say anything. I followed his gaze to the trees. “If nobody’s taken them out, and I’m betting they haven’t, there could be five hundred or more people living there. Maybe a thousand. Not sure how they made a living.”
The young cowboy fingered the Colt .45 ACP at his hip. Like most folks from the Derringer area, he equated the word “Muslim” with the word “evil”. “When do you think we’ll be going past this Tarry Town?”
I shrugged. “Couldn’t say the exact hour, but sometime after dark. We’ll be well on the other side of their territory before daylight, the good Lord willing and the crick don’t rise.”
We crossed Tarryall Creek right at sunset, hanging a left on the rutted dirt road. In one of those monumentally incomprehensible moves by our marvelous government, the pavement had been pulled up and hauled off decades ago after the junior U.S. Senator from Colorado promised a pile of pork for Park County that would have covered the road with the latest Tec-97 composite. The bill never passed, and the reservoir road was never again paved.
Which was all right with me. The steel shod hooves of our horses weren’t nearly as noisy on dirt.
I called a supper halt at the edge of Tarryall Reservoir; there would be just enough light left to hide the flames of the cooking fire. Plenty of water in the reservoir. Big pike, too, but we weren’t ready to try fishing for our supper just yet. I eyeballed the terrain and decided my memory had been faulty; there would be no easy way to blow the dam and direct the flood anywhere except right down Tarryall Creek, which wouldn’t work as a weapon in any scenario I could envision.
Tasta declined Tori’s offer of more Absorbine Jr., moving stiffly but doing her share of the chores. Gwen Nestossin had sent along a few raw potatoes and a pound of smoked bacon; those provisions might as well be eaten now, lightening the packs and removing any worry about spoilage.
“Anybody needs a nap, now is the time to get it,” I advised. “We’ll be taking another rest stop around midnight, but I’m hoping we’ll be close enough to Jefferson by first light to glass it before we go to ground for the day.”
Nobody took me up on the offer. We did all check our horses over carefully, especially the hooves. Tasta just stared at the task before her, having no idea how to go about picking up Star’s hooves one by one. Naturally, Cass got to her first, showed her how it was done. He didn’t make any obvious moves, but his nearness shook her up all the same; she looked like her knees were about to give out. Which she could always blame on fatigue.
Some of our closest confidants, especially members of the horse-wise Nestossin clan, had asked me why I chose to make this daunting journey without any pack horses. Limited to the oversized rolls lashed behind the saddle cantles, we’d have to forage for food at least once a week. The slightest injury could end up depriving us of a mount, and so on and so forth. I’d replied that (a) leading a string of loaded pack horses would make us an overwhelmingly inviting target, (b) loading and unloading the pack string would take precious time out of every day we were on the trail, and (c) if we had to fight, leading pack horses and/or protecting them would make things excruciatingly difficult.
What I didn’t say was that horses could be replenished through thievery, presuming there were some around to be found.
Then it was pitch dark, still an hour or more before moonrise. Our supper camp was behind us, the fire well put out and the ashes scattered so as to make it less than obvious someone other than grazing horses had stopped there, and we were well along the trail. Oh, a road it was, sort of, a thin gray line on the map I carried in my right hand saddle bag, but rutted and in places cut clean across where the spring runoff had carved new channels. With no government entity pushing a road grader, it would get worse next year.
Did I ever mention that night riding through forest is not my favorite thing in the world? No? Well, it’s not. It’s better on horseback than on foot, of course; any surprised rattlesnake will be targeting a horse’s leg rather than my leg, and that’s a good thing. Besides, the horses I’ve known are impressively smart about not getting bitten. But every stump left over from the Selective Logging Reform Act (SLRA) becomes a hulking predator waiting to pounce. Every tree limb of appreciable size shouts silently of a hungry cougar eyeballing that scrumptious equine flesh, and the rider happens to be right there, smack dab in between the big cats overhead and the four footed Fancy Feast with the mane and tail. The nearly silent passage of an owl hunting mice is enough to spike a fellow’s adrenaline and make him piss his pants, nearly.
And night riding was 100% my idea. Way to go, Polson.
The state of the art night monocle Marcus Grady had loaned me…that did help, but I tried not to become too dependent on it. Yes, it brought the landscape to life, and it did confirm that the various scattered buildings we passed were all abandoned derelicts, and in full color at that. It was amazing just how fast a few busted out windows could turn a recently inhabited structure into a monument to decay.
The monocle also ran on solar power; my friend had assured me it would last through an entire night and recharge if left exposed to the morning sun for a mere two hours. But, using it only on my left eye in order to keep my shooting eye adjusted to the natural lack of light, it wiped out my peripheral vision on that side. True, Tori had that covered–we were traveling in a column of two’s on the narrow track–but the teenager was no Army Ranger. I couldn’t trust her despite her sixteen year old eyes (today was her birthday, wasn’t it?) most likely having much better night vision than I did.
Tarry Town, when we came to it, appeared to be not only up and running but well fortified, more than prepared to fend off an attack. Here I did use the monocle, stopping near the mailboxes to scan the premises. The driveway to the settlement ran some 500 yards or so before buildings sprang up around it. All around the town, though, or at least around as much of it as I could see, a hedgehog of sharpened stakes had been erected, pointing outward. Medieval but effective; no horse was going to get past those. A man might, but he’d be slowed…and there were most likely backup traps to stop him if he did get through.
The Muslims were definitely ready for war.
Nobody spoke, the others waiting quietly in their saddles, heads swiveling, scanning for trouble while I stepped down, tore a page from my journal, and wrote a note.
Greetings to Tarry Town,
If your community would be interested in possibly forming an alliance with the people of Derringer against future threats from either foreign troops or the anti-Constitution entity calling itself Highland West, or roving bandit groups for that matter, please tie a flag of some bright color to the gatepost. It will be a while before I can return, but I’ll be back this way before the snow flies. If the flag is favorable, I will ride up to your city gate alone, in daylight.
I assure you that the leadership in Derringer does understand the difference between a “Muslim” and a “member of MFA”.
City Council Member
There wasn’t any Derringer City Council, but I figured they wouldn’t know that.
I placed the note in the mailbox nearest the driveway gate, lifted the red flag, and stepped back into the saddle. Frankly, the Tarry Town defense measures impressed me. Could we do something like that at Derringer? No…not easily. Tarry Town was surrounded by trees, trees, and more trees; they had an abundance of wood available. Derringer would go nuts trying to cut and haul that much stake material down out of the mountains.
It was something to think about, though.
We ate nothing at the midnight rest stop, merely taking a few sips of water from our canteens and stretching our limbs while the horses drank directly from Tarryall Creek and cropped a bit of grass. A skunk waddled through the far side of the clearing that had given us access to the stream, identified both by its trademark odor–we were downwind–and the pure white stripes running down its otherwise black back. Cass and I evaluated its progress and decided it was moving normally in its hunt for edible bugs and grubs and such. It did not, then, have rabies. Tasta, too, seemed to be paying close attention to the critter. During her former life as a deputy sheriff, she’d no doubt had to deal with more than a few rabid skunk calls over the years.
Luck was with us; we reached the edge of the treeline just as objects were beginning to become softly visible, no longer unrelieved black but accented in deep shades of gray. I held up my crossed wrists. We all stopped, taking in the town of Jefferson. The little cluster of buildings, no more than a half mile long and a quarter mile wide, had housed 932 Souls at the last census, not that many more than Derringer but sporting many more commercial government and commercial enterprises. Both towns had possessed a Post Office, of course, but Jefferson had also supported several tourist trap curio stores, an Ace Hardware store, the High Country Bison Meat Market, and two thriving gas stations complete with convenience stores. How many survived…who knew? Riding into town in broad daylight to take a head count was not the plan.
We’d been sitting our horses, Cass and me glassing the place, for maybe ten minutes when the wind changed. We all looked at each other, able now to make out faces well enough to see the scrunched up noses. The town of Jefferson smelled worse than the skunk.
I turned back to scan the open…there. Looked like the town was piling its garbage in one huge pile, not more than 300 yards southeast of the last building. From the smell of it, that midden included an abundant supply of bones and offal left over from butchering cattle or game as well as the contents of countless bucket toilets used by residents whose flush toilets were no longer working.
It was not quite light enough yet for the flies to come out, but there would be thousands upon thousands of them filling the air shortly.
This is not a good sign. A community willing to ignore basic hygiene to such an extent would be…spiritually degraded. This was not the Jefferson I’d known forty years ago, but then again, I’d not been through this way in quite some time. Things do change over time.
Enough. I turned and led the way back down the road. A good half mile within the forest’s cover, far enough to get away from the stench of the Jefferson midden, we’d passed a side trail leading off to the right, up into the woods. My second wife and I’d camped up this way once, something like seventy years ago. Goose Pond Campground, it was called.
The campground was still there, including a building that housed restrooms for both men and women. The birds of the woods were well into announcing their joy at having lived to see another day. We were passing thirty yards to the left of the structure, heading for the sheltered level area near the pond, when Moon suddenly looked directly at the nearside doorway, ears pricked forward. I caught the sense of something scuttling back out of sight. My hand dropped to the butt of the Boone .22 holstered at my right hip, but I didn’t draw. In fact, I didn’t even slow down, just kept the gelding walking easily.
If that was a someone in there, and not a something….
The campsite was another two hundred yards farther on, distant enough that I dared speak quietly to Cass as soon as we were dismounted. “We need to check out that restroom building.”
He nodded. “There’s something in there, for sure.”
The girls both looked at us, wide eyed. They were both dog tired; no wonder they’d missed it.
It took us all of thirty seconds or so to decide on a plan. The girls held the horses; they would wait on the outcome of our search before setting up camp. Cass slicked his .30-.30 Winchester deer gun out of the scabbard and cat-footed off through the timber to find a position where he could cover the south side exit. Preferring .22 long rifle for most things, I settled on Tori’s forty round Whisper carbine and walked openly back to get a look at the north side we’d noticed coming in.
Cass located a lightning riven pine snag he liked, both for cover and to use as a shooting rest if necessary, and gave me an arm signal. I got myself situated next to a much healthier pine–just in case I needed to jump behind it–and called out,
“Come on out of the restroom! We won’t hurt anybody who doesn’t try to hurt us first!”
Silence. I waited, starting to feel stupid as the seconds went by and nothing moved. Probably nothing more than a squirrel in there, or maybe a raccoon. I thought about calling out again, or maybe bouncing a round off that steel door, flinging a bit of ricochet around to see what I could stir up. Which wouldn’t have been the brightest maneuver for a number of reasons, but I admit it, I did think about it.
I was sucking in breath to holler again when I heard the voice, small and young. The voice of a child. “You promise you won’t shoot me?”
“Scout’s honor!” I replied. Don’t ask me why that’s what came out of my mouth; it just did.
“Cross your heart and hope to die?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die!”
“Okay. Here I come.” The boy that stepped hesitantly through the doorway, out onto the concrete step, was maybe eight years of age. His eyes were big as saucers as he stared at the armed boogey man with the rifle cradled in his arms. His clothes were standard attire for a prewar little boy, but they were dirty, there were holes here and there, and they hung on him loosely, an indicator that either they weren’t his clothes originally or that he hadn’t had much to eat in a good long while. He had an index finger stuck up one nostril.
And he was black as the night through which we’d just ridden. I don’t mean brown; the youngster had some deep dark African roots.
“I’m Harrison,” I told the youngster. “What’s your name?” That wouldn’t have been the first question most men would have asked a kid in this situation, but I’m not most men.
“Paul,” he said, answering without hesitation.
“Well, Paul,” I smiled, trying to get it just right, hoping to project a bit of friendly without turning the grinning hyena loose, “do you think the others would like to come out and join us?” I was acting on a hunch; there was no way this little boy was here alone.
“They’re scared.” He shook his head. “They won’t come.”
“Well now, you know, I don’t blame them. I think I’d be scared, too. But we’re not very scary, and you know what? We’ve got food!” We didn’t have many granola bars with us, and what we did have were stale from last year, but the Very Berry Bar I pulled from my shirt pocket and held out for Paul to see…that must have looked to him like the Promised Land. His eyes had returned to normal, but they got big again. He came right to me, fueled by the power of starvation. I peeled the wrapper back a bit, squatted down to hand the bar to him. He grabbed it and pretty much inhaled the thing.
Over his shoulder, I watched the rest of them inch cautiously out, nervous cats in wild dog country. There were three of them, all older than Paul. A girl who’d not yet sprouted the headlights that would announce her passage through puberty, though she looked close to it. Another boy, this one in his midteens, big and strong and mixing in what looked to be a fair dollop of hate along with his fear. And the Mama of the clan, a strongly built–though, like all of them, emaciated–woman who stood five seven or five eight, with the full lips of her race but a sharp hooked beak of a nose that spoke of a different heritage entirely. None were as dark as Paul, though the younger girl came close.
All of them clutched clubs in their hands, rude sticks picked up from the ground. At a guess, none of them were skilled in the use of their weapons, but all of them were committed.
They stood outside in a tight little cluster until Cass stepped through the doorway behind them and announced calmly, “That’s everybody.”
White men may not be able to jump, but black folks snuck up on by a white man can truly grab some hang time.
It took us a while to cajole the bunch of them down to our campsite. Once they tasted the pemmican, though, they were sold. We didn’t rush them, let them get used to us while the water was heating, but once they were drinking hot black tea out of our trail cups–which meant we’d have to wait, but we could do that–they were convinced. We’d been walking on eggshells with them until that point, but now it was time to get to the bottom of things.
Which didn’t take long. Mama’s name was Shyra. “They’re going to hang him,” she said quietly, despair in her voice. I’ve seen people in pain before, but not like this.
“My husband. Jonathan Franklin Meeks, finest man on God’s green Earth. The Lord’s calling him home at high noon today.”
High noon. It wasn’t yet six a.m.; we had a little time to figure out what this was all about. “Tell us the story, Shyra. Please.”
She looked around at our earnest faces, both those of her family and those of the white people who’d just fed them. “Guess I should start at…Jon and I been married for fifteen years this past June. Grew up high school sweethearts in Cheyenne. The Army drafted him eighteen months ago. I hadn’t heard from him for nearly a year. The war came to Cheyenne, few of us lived through that, but our neighborhood got together and determined to hold on. The bombing hadn’t hit our block much, just one house flattened out of the bunch, and most of us had war shelters in the basements. We organized a watch, sent patrols out for food. You know, hunkered down and tried to stay alive.”
Shyra paused, a tickle in her throat triggering a coughing fit. Tori jumped up, poured her a second cup of tea. The tea helped. “There were fifty-eight people in our group on December first. By the time spring thaw came, we were down to twenty-three. Starvation. Sickness. Three different people went crazy, starting killing and had to be killed. I lost Paul’s baby brother Bronson to one of those killers, a white man who went wild with a machete before another white man beat him to death with a baseball bat. Jeremiah got there too late to save little Bronson, but he did save the rest of us. Some kind of flu got him, got Jeremiah, in late March.
“I kept my chin up for my babies, but I was scared. I was terrified. It was getting toward summer, we were scavenging enough to eat from day to day, but I knew we couldn’t make it through another winter. “And then…and then…”
Young Paul piped up. “And then Daddy came and found us like a knight in shining armor!”
“That he did, baby.” She reached out a hand to ruffle the hair on her boy’s head. “That he did. It was near sunset on the Fourth of July. I’d traded the last of my jewelry to a barter wagon for some real by God meat, a rump roast big enough it had to be from a cow or something, not from a dog or cat or anything like that. It was starting to turn, the meat was, but not bad yet; if I cut it in cubes and boiled it in a stew, it would be fine. I was cutting that meat, and I looked up, and there Jon stood, framed in the doorway, my knight in shining armor.”
Her own eyes shone with the memory. I was already having trouble keeping my eyes dry. Tori and Tasta weren’t even trying.
“At first I thought maybe he’d deserted, but no, he’d lost a hand at Milwaukee. He was an artillery sergeant, you know. Something slipped, some big hunk of steel. Smashed his hand, his left hand, and they had to take it off. But he didn’t mind. He’d rather be one hand short, home taking care of his family, than separated from us and killing Russians with two hands. I agreed; oh Lord, did I ever agree!
“Jon slept that first night, he was too worn out to do anything else, but the next day he told us. We got to get out of Wyoming, he said. Cheyenne’s an Armageddon ghost town already, and points north are all mixed up with this Highland West group. Jon told us we had to get south a ways and deep into the mountains somewhere, find a place we might be able to survive for the long haul. He’d seen it all. I knew he knew what he was talking about, and I started packing right then and there.
“This Jon of yours,” I observed, “sounds like quite a man.”
“Oh, he is, Mr. Polson. He is indeed quite a man.”
“Harrison, please. Call me Harrison.”
She gave me a long, considering look. “All right. Harrison. Anyway, we took what we could carry on our backs and in the wheelbarrow we had in the garage, and that was it. Didn’t have no gun; I never had liked guns and the Army surely didn’t give Jon his when they mustered him out. But we had a machete, the same one that had murdered my baby, and some good kitchen knives. Jon figured those would have to do. We’d hike by night as best we could, hide by day. Thought maybe if we could get to Salida, we might be all right; Jon has a cousin there, or did last time we heard.
“Tell you what, Harrison. If you’re going north, you’re in for it. All the way down through from Cheyenne to this side of Denver, it’s horrible. There’s devastation as far as the eye can see, buildings gutted, lots of them crashed down, lots of them burned out. Daylight is death; there aren’t many people, but what people there are seem to be gangs. Some sorted out by race, some mixed, but they’re all predators, Mr. Polson. Harrison. They’re all predators. They don’t go out much at night, but the wild dog packs do. You think wolves are something? I always thought dogs were cute fuzzy things till the night a big pack finally decided they were desperate enough to take us down. Only thing that saved us was Jon, his war savvy and the fight in him. He saw them coming, found a little entryway to a dead office building. The doors were locked, but he was able to tuck us all in there. He held against that whole pack–must have been twenty or more, the leader a huge thing he said was at least part Great Dane. One hand, one machete, and he held against them.
“He was still standing when they decided they’d had enough…and he ran out after them. The big Dane was wounded. He killed it with that machete, Mr.–Harrison, he killed it and we ate our fill for the first time in weeks.”
She stopped, run down, out of emotional fuel. We all waited for nearly a full minute before I spoke. “The hanging,” I prompted softly.
Startled our of her reverie, Mrs. Jonathan Franklin Meeks raised her head to look me in the eye. “Jefferson, Colorado. Coming down off Kenosha Pass, we were walking in daylight. We’d kept our night walking routine through Bailey and all the way up to the summit, but it finally felt like we were free. Like God had seen us through. From where we’d been, easing on down the downhill side into this untouched land–comparatively untouched–it was as close to Heaven as I’ve been in this lifetime, Harrison. As close to Heaven.
“We came to Jefferson yesterday afternoon. The stink from that bone pile–oh, you haven’t been up that far, have you?”
Cass joined the conversation for the first time since scaring them at the restroom. “Actually, we have. Bones, guts, and more than a few buckets of poop or I miss my guess.”
“That’s right.” She smiled briefly, but there was no humor in it. “That’s exactly right. It should have warned us, but we didn’t take the hint. Jon is a careful man, though. He had us wait in a little hollow just outside of town while he went in to talk to the men. There was a breeze coming our way. We weren’t that far out; we could watch from behind these little bushes and hear him talking with the people who met him at the first buildings. They’d seen him coming, and they hadn’t had a black man for entertainment in quite some time.”
“He’s being hung for his color?” I inquired.
She sighed. “No. Not really. I apologize. I should have said they hadn’t had a real man for entertainment in quite some time. They didn’t call him nigger or anything like that. In fact, they were acting fairly civil…until one man, a skinny little white man, but with a mean voice, he asked my Jon what he thought of Highland West. And Jon, him being a veteran and believing entirely in the United States of America as envisioned by the founders and empowered by the Constitution, he told him. He told those people, anyone involved with Highland West was a rebel at best and a traitor at worst, and every one of them should be hung. And it turned out they didn’t like that one little bit, they’re all Highland West supporters in Jefferson, they speak of that Weaver fellow like he’s John the Baptist prophesying the coming of Christ Himself.”
“So,” Cass interjected, his voice grim, “they decided that the man who thought they should be hung would instead be hung himself.”
I thought that over for a minute or two. The others left me to it. Tori would later tell me young Paul looked at me the whole time with adoration in his eyes, never once doubting I’d do something to save his Daddy. I wasn’t so sure about that; it could as easily have been a simple appreciation for a stale Very Berry Bar.
When I finally spoke, I had a plan. Sort of. “Shyra, you said you heard them decide to hang him at noon?”
She nodded. “Yes. At high noon exactly.”
That made sense. “They’d need a little time. To build a gallows, probably; just stringing him up to a tree wouldn’t be as…dramatic. Plus…you don’t know how many people are left in town?”
“Not precisely. I’d guess less than a hundred. Jenny, you counted, right?”
The preteen shrugged. “I sort of guesstimated. There were about twenty men present when they grabbed Dad. Whatever women and children were staying out of sight.”
“Well,” I looked at Cass, “that’s no more than fifty apiece. Piece of cake, right?”
The reckless young cowboy grinned ear to ear, hat tipped back and eyes flashing. “Portion of pastry, old man. Portion of pastry.”