“Okay, guys, here’s the deal.” Three faces turned toward me, barely visible in the deep dusk. Our horses were saddled and ready. They were also in far better shape than we humans were, having grazed and snoozed during most of the day. A good thing, that. A healthy horse can carry an exhausted rider; an exhausted horse cannot carry a healthy rider. “I’ve got, as they say, a wee problem. My knee got a lot worse ding than I realized. Must have landed on a rock when my bootheel got shot off.”
The girls froze, frightened. Incapacitating the leader of this little expedition, not to mention their Master, was not something with which they were prepared to deal, and I’d said nothing much about the injury until now.
Cass Nestossin, on the other hand, understood all about knee injuries. He’d played high school football and, more significantly, had grown up on a working ranch where on the job injuries were common and fatalities not unknown. “Crack the kneecap?” He asked.
“Hairline maybe. The bone is still smooth; I can feel that much. Main thing I can tell so far is that it’s swollen up about double size; my jeans are mighty tight there right now.”
Tasta sucked in her breath. As a senior deputy sheriff, she would have been fully trained as a qualified EMT; she knew most men wouldn’t go around palpating a seriously bruised area like that without whining about it. I grinned inside, pleased. Having a woman think of you as a tough guy is always a good thing for the male ego. She would also know that such a level of inflammation could spell the end of the mission; we wouldn’t be able to infiltrate Highland West country with a one legged commander.
“I’m okay as long as I don’t bend it too much. Which means I’m going to have to start mounting up from the right side. So Cass, first thing, is Moon trained for that?”
“Hell yeah. Grandma wouldn’t trade you a horse that wasn’t.”
“Just checking. If he was likely to spook, I needed to know before I stepped up. I believe I can swing the leg over okay, but lifting it up into the stirrup from the ground might not be the best plan. Okay, so here’s the deal. Wait, let’s mount up, make sure I’m functional.”
Nobody else moved until I’d settled into the saddle. I had to be a little careful turning my toe to find the stirrup, but all in all, not bad. Uncomfortable, yes. Throbbing, yes. “Tori, you’ve got our first aid kit in your left hand saddle bag. Can you get that out and find the aspirin by feel? I probably should take a couple.” An understatement, that.
“You bet.” She reached to undo the buckles on the bag while I finished laying out the plan.
“We’re going straight down the road until we get to just the other side of the midden. That’s damn close to town, but they’re not showing any lights, we haven’t heard any dogs, and the only real danger is some yahoo standing sentry duty with a night scope on his rifle. I’ll have my monocle on, scanning the area every second. We’re going single file; I don’t want us bunched up just in case. Past the midden, the ground is relatively flat and open; we’ll cut hard to the right and start putting distance between us and the Jeffersonians. Once we’re out of range, it should be clear sailing, and we’re only going about three miles total from the city limits.
“Up the highway a couple of miles, there’s a dirt road off to the left that leads to Baker Lake. It’s not that far from town, unfortunately, but it’s the best shot we’ve got. I can’t be sure of water any farther on, and we don’t know what to expect when we get to Grant. The Meeks family didn’t see anything moving when they came through, but we can’t count on that. We’ve got to be rested, ready, and alert before we tackle that. So, Baker Lake. It’s got some good features, fish up the ying-yang, plenty of trees, thanks to government reseeding back when, and it’s situated in a little volcanic caldera with ridges most of the way around the thing. We’ll have to hope some kid with a fishing pole doesn’t hike out from town before we’re ready to move on, if Jefferson has any kids left.”
I hesitated, unsure if telling them the rest of it was wise or not. Wise or not, though, they had to know. “I’m not one hundred percent sure if we’ll be heading on after we’ve gotten some rest, or heading back. Best not lose any more time here flapping my jaws right now, but we’re going to have to really think it through. After we’ve had some sleep.”
Nobody responded to that. What was there to say? I accepted the aspirin from Tori’s outstretched hand, took them down dry, and urged the gelding out of the trees and into the open. Flipped the switch on the night vision monocle. Marveled anew at the level of the technology; Marcus had gifted me with the ability to see by starlight better than any nocturnal cat.
Nobody shot at us. The flies were down for the night. A mild evening breeze pushed the worst of the midden’s smell away from our little group as we passed, though when I turned in the saddle, the monocle allowed me to see both girls riding with hands over their noses. Cass, like me, ignored the smell; he was utterly alert to the possibility of real danger.
Beyond the stink pile, moving steadily away from the dozens of rifles that had to be lurking in those buildings, the odor of defecation and decomposition rapidly and thankfully faded, replaced by the smell of woodsmoke. Jefferson Community Church was no more, though the pastor’s pyre was still smoldering.
Behind me, Dolly Parton blew, the particular sound that belongs only to a horse.
At first, I’d thought to take us farther up Kenosha Pass, then farther back into the timber, to Lininger Lake. But there were a number of houses there, mostly owned by part time residents. Some of them might still be occupied. Baker Lake, for all its shortcoming in its proximity to Jefferson, hosted no known dwellings.
I almost missed the turnoff, nodding in the saddle despite the throbbing knee and the need to bring my people to safety, but Moon saved me. Stopped dead, right in the middle of Highway 285, he did, looking to the left. I’d been–the term used to be road hypnotized. Maybe it still was; whether one’s transportation is four wheeled or four footed, a road is still a road. The moon was coming up, just lifting its pale golden sliver over the towering ridge. I waited for it; I’d forgotten to leave the night vision monocle out during the morning hours, and it had run out of juice.
It was a sign of our mutual exhaustion that no one questioned the halt. They merely slumped in their saddles, half comatose, though I could sense Cass’s head turning here and there. He had the instincts of the true mountain man, casting for danger always, never content to blunder into a mess unaware. Nine generations of Nestossins in this Colorado country, an unbroken line of ranchers tracing back nearly to the founding of the nation. Little wonder that he and his family stood as strong as Marcus and I did for the United States of America. But what had they been before that, the Nestossins? It dawned on me, sitting there three quarters asleep, my horse more than willing to sleep on his feet as well, that I didn’t know from what stock the Nestossin clan descended.
Such are the wanderings of a mind chained to a body that is no longer really there.
Coyotes sounded, the fierce excitement that accompanies a kill, not far off. My head jerked up. I hated that sound, had always hated it, but it certainly worked well as nature’s alarm clock. The moon was up; I could see the track to Baker Lake.
When we reached the lake, I settled on the first tuck-away clearing among the shoreline trees. It might or might not be the best camping spot, but we were done for; it would have to do.
“This is it, ladies and germs,” I announced quietly. “Let’s get the saddles off and the hobbles on.” A moment later, I added, “Cass.”
“I might need some help getting down.” The knee was worse, as I’d known it would be; we hadn’t been riding that long, but the blood in my body was all running downhill.
“Where do you want me?”
“Right side. Don’t want to take a chance on the leg going out from under me when I step down.”
It was good he was there; I nearly passed out from the pain as it was. He caught me from behind, hands up under my armpits, steadying me. “Okay. Thanks.”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t complain if you volunteered to take care of Moon, though.”
He did more than that; he took over. Before I knew it, he had our Feather Lite tent erected and was helping me get my boots off; my feet were a bit swollen as well. I felt more than a touch of gratitude…and decided it was time. “Got room for Tasta to bunk in with you?”
Cass froze. “I’m not man enough to leave her untouched, Harrison.”
“Of course not.” I snorted, more awake than I had been since we’d gotten clear of Jefferson. “She’s in nineteen kinds of heat, and I’m surely in no shape to settle her and Tori both. Flog her hard, cowboy.” The girls might or might not be hearing all this, I thought, but it didn’t matter. If they did hear it, I didn’t figure either one to be upset about it. “Just do me one favor.”
“That being?” Nestossin was still wary. That was good, he was still thinking with his big head. Some, anyway.
“Remember she’s a slave. Treat her as one.”
I could see his eyes go wide in the moonlight, the whites showing. “That’s real? Your Master/slave thing?”
That was the last I remembered. Some minutes later, Tori must have stripped down and slipped into her own sleeping bag, but I wasn’t aware of it. Bum knee notwithstanding, I slept for seventeen straight hours.
When I awoke, other than having to piss like a race horse, I felt pretty good. No. I felt amazingly good. The moon was up there somewhere, behind the trees that cast deep shadows over our campsite but splashing plenty of light out on the lake. My night vision monocle hung on a hook by my head; I slipped it on, eased out of the sleeping bag, and snaked out of the tent on my right side, careful not to test the bad knee.
Once on my feet, I discovered that knee wasn’t hurting half as much as my bladder. Hobbling away far enough not to insult my fellow campers, I let fly, barely suppressing a groan of pleasure as the dam broke. How I’d managed to go that long without taking a leak in my sleeping bag, I had no idea. My watch, a quartz Swiss gem, said it was a bit after three o’clock–a.m., presumably–on July 18. I’d been down most of one night, then, plus all of one day and most of a second night.
Nature’s call attended to, I tested the knee with exquisite care. Not bad. Being clad only in my skivvies, though I had no memory of undressing except for the boots, it was easy enough to take stock. The bruising was progressing well, already a mottled purple from roughly four inches below the kneecap to three inches above. The swelling was down, not all the way by a long shot, but a good seventy-five percent.
I thought about that for a while, shivering slightly but not really uncomfortable in the high altitude summer night air. My companions were all asleep, but it was clear they’d been busy earlier. Them thar younger folk, uninjured at that, had rebounded from our sleep depriving adventure a lot quicker than I had. The horses were standing asleep near the tents. Except for the palomino mare; Dolly Parton slept lying down. None of them wandered far in their hobbles, preferring to stay close to their humans. There was the smell of horse, the smell of my fresh urine, a bit of out-for-the-night campfire ash aroma, and…fish? Fish. Definitely fish.
Moving over to the stone campfire circle, I thought about squatting to investigate but fortunately remembered my knee in time. Cass knew better than to leave bear magnet food out for the taking, but….one of two small woodpiles was definitely not composed of pine. I leaned over, picked one up, inspected it closely. Crimson alder. There’d been a TV special on the species, what? A year ago? A hybrid cobbled together by botanists at Washington State University, combining the best qualities of high altitude Sitka alder and medicinally marvelous red alder, plus a genetically engineered twist. Even the Sitka wouldn’t grow above 7,000 feet elevation, and the red much lower than that. Crimson alder, however, would reproduce all the way up to the 11,000 foot tree line.
I hadn’t realized Baker Lake was one of the places where the Forest Service had introduced the species. There’d been a lot of political infighting; most of the plantings had been done under the radar.
An owl hooted, back among the trees. A coyote pack called, but in the distance this time, and not a kill cry. Wolves? We’d not run into any yet, but it was a rare mountain that didn’t host at least one pack these days.
It really was chilly out here. I eased back to the tent, limping only slightly, and slipped into the sleeping bag. Tori murmured in her sleep. I thought about waking her, zipping the two bags together, demonstrating my return to the land of the living. But no; she was deep in dreamland. Physical intimacy could wait. Besides, I was behind on my spiritual exercises. Contemplation, soaring out of body in full consciousness…that would do for now.
By the time first light came and my crew began stirring, I had the fire restarted, the pot heating lake water for tea. We still had a sizeable supply of water purification pills, but boiling on top of chlorination was generally a good idea.
“Morning, baby,” I smiled at my blonde as she crawled out of the tent, her hair tousled but her eyes bright, fixed on me with both adoration and relief. A man would take down a woolly mammoth with a wooden spear for a look like that.
“Good morning, Master.” She came to me swiftly, throwing her arms around me in a hug that said it all…and nearly knocked me off the rock on which I was seated.
Cass and Tasta came together. It didn’t take but one look to know that prying them apart with anything short of a stick of dynamite would be impossible. I’d lost a slave for sure. Tasta wasn’t the closest thing to a classic beauty the ranch heir had bedded, not by a long shot–but she was a trained slave. What she’d done for Cass had never even come close to being done before; I’d bet my good right leg on that. Once a man’s had a slave, free women lose their attraction.
I should know.
“How’s the leg?” Cass asked, bringing out what looked to be fish filets of some sort, skewering them and handing them out to each of us to warm over the fire. I’d not noticed the couple’s quick trip into the woods to retrieve the food bag from its bearproof location, suspended from a tree branch by a length of rope.
“Better than the time in the sack could account for.” I had it stretched out a bit in front of me, but I was fully dressed. My jeans weren’t stretched drum tight over the inflamed joint any more. “Crimson alder bark decoction?”
“Got it in one,” he nodded. “I shaved some into the pot, steeped it for a while. Tasta soaked your spare undershirt in it, made a poultice, and Tori laid it on you. You didn’t even stir. Not that we got that started right away, but we were up with the sun yesterday, got it going shortly after. Re-soaked the poultice every time it got cold, warmed it up good. Kept doing that the rest of the morning, then once an hour till sunset.”
“And I never felt a thing. That’s a marvel.”
“It is,” he nodded. “So is this here slave girl, by the way.” He said it with a straight face, but his arm was around the shoulders of the slave girl in question, and she was glowing.
“Uh huh,” I said noncommittally. “And did you know that there slave girl was once upon a time a Park County deputy sheriff?”
He blinked. Rapidly. A bunch of times. “No. I didn’t know that. Should it matter?”
“Not necessarily. But Tasta, you’re on loan to Cass for the duration of this mission, okay?” The joy that suffused her face was a pleasure to see. Cass didn’t react, though; he’d caught that word, loan. “Which means you’re free to tell him anything you want to tell him, or which he commands you to tell him.” I picked the pot from the tripod and began filling our cups; the water had been boiling for a minute or two. “As for you, cowboy, we’ll see how you feel about her at the end of our journey.” He didn’t like it. In his place, I wouldn’t have liked it, either. “You got more catch colts and broken hearts on your backtrail than the Chinese got slanty eyes. If you’re still wanting her come September like you’re wanting her now, we’ll see about transferring ownership.”
He started to open his mouth to protest. I cut him off. “Ain’t nothing worse for a slave girl than getting kicked to the curb, cowboy. I’m not about to take a chance on her swinging in the wind without a man to call her his own.”
“Okay, Hoss,” he said, his tone resigned. “I reckon I had that coming. But you’ll see.”
Yep. I probably would, especially since Tasta wasn’t totally his yet. Oh, her heart was; any fool could see that. But neither of them would go up against me directly; if I decided Cass hadn’t earned her, I’d strip her away from him in a heartbeat. Which would keep him on his toes, keep him in the hunt.
By all reports, he never could resist a challenge. I’d set the hook.
Yesterday, with the girls well in charge of treating my knee, Cass had gone fishing. We’d come prepared for that, plenty of hooks, a few lures, even a bit of the steel leader needed to land big pike–whose razor sharp teeth would bite right through any normal line. Pine sucked for smoking fish, but the stand of crimson alder had provided inspiration; he’d landed a pair of sizeable northerns (pike would strike at just about anything), shaved up a bunch of alder chips, and set to smoking fish for the trail.
We now had enough protein on board to carry us another full week.
When he explained all that, I finally got around to thanking him. “I do appreciate you saving my ass,” I said, “both when my bootheel got shot off and when my leg needed fixing. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Which reminds me. Just down off that ridge behind us, there’s what looks like an abandoned ranch. Glassed it for a while. Didn’t see anything moving. I bet if I was to ride on down there in broad daylight, look around a bit, I might be able to find something to cobble together, get a new heel on that boot for you.”
“Hm.” Not a bad idea. “Yeah. Let’s go for it.”
Which we did. I decided I’d best keep mounting from the right for a few more days, but stepping back down didn’t threaten to topple me like it had. The girls and I spread out at the edge of the timber while Cass rode down the steep slope alone. I had the .308 Savage Sniper out and ready, bipod steadying the front end. Eight hundred yards, the rangefinder said, nearly half a mile. A nasty elevation drop, too, close to 300 feet. If I had to shoot, the first round would be by guess and by gosh. Which made me decide to fish out one of the few tracer rounds we had and load it up the spout.
All quiet on the western front. Cass made haste without waste, disappearing into the main house first, reappearing after twenty minutes or so, then moving on to the barn, and finally what appeared to be a tool shed. Or maybe a chicken coop; it was hard to tell from here.
Keebler had his work cut out for him, climbing back up to our ridgetop position, but as I’d suspected from the beginning, he was one tough mountain bred critter. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
Cass reached into a saddle bag and pulled out an entire cowboy boot for my inspection. “Reckon we can pry the heel off, tap the nails back flush, and re-nail it onto your boot.”
I agreed. “Buck knife for a pry bar and the horseshoe hammer, yeah, that should do it.”
“Two people dead down there. Old couple. Been dead for a while. The man had a nine millimeter lying by his hand, bullet hole through her head side to side, looked like he ate it when she was done.”
“Murder suicide, then,” I said, stating the obvious, “or double suicide.”
“Double suicide’s my guess. What was left of ’em didn’t exactly look mad at each other. I looked around a bit, found a couple boxes of .22 shells. Brought ’em along. No food except a few cans wa-ay out of date.”
“No. Sorry. No long gun ammo at all. There was an old double barreled shotgun, but rusted out.”
We headed back down to our campsite. It was as good as any; I’d lucked out on that score. On the way, though the drop down to the lake was not a long journey, I found myself evaluating our situation. Considering the possibilities, we were more than fortunate. The tall pinto moved surely beneath me, my thighs clasping the swells of the saddle so sensuously that I suddenly thought I understood the oft-told tales of girls who got orgasms when riding bareback. My feet pushed down strongly against the stirrups as we descended, my knees–including the bruised one–holding strong as spring steel. Thanks to the medical expertise of my companions, there would be no need to abort the mission now.
Beyond that, the pines and not a few Douglas fir trees comforted me, greeted me as an old friend as we passed them one by one. A jay scolded us, left off, and was replaced by a nearly unseen squirrel, just the tip of his tail visible above a screen of pine needles as he protested this invasion of his domain. The air was balmy, as perfect as it could possibly be, the scent of the forest intoxicating.
Two days ago, I had watched a man die, drilled through by my own friend using my own rifle. Before this summer was over, we would likely kill again, perhaps many times. This had always been a warring universe; it was of no mind to change its behavior pattern any time soon.
And yet…and yet, I was at peace. So many of my fellow travelers lived and died without ever knowing such an absolute stillness, such a complete and utter resting in the presence of the Creator. I knew this to be true; the TV news, before the war, had made that as clear as the intentions of a grizzly bear during a salmon spawning run.
He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. So it had been said, and frequently at that. To which I would reply, What’s your point? We live as we must, each and every one of us. And then, too, who first coined that saying? A puke-faced liberal progressive type, I was willing to bet. It was certainly not literally true, at least not in all cases. Liver Eating Johnston, a mountain man in the eighteen hundreds, had once–with good cause–declared war on the entire Crow nation, killing many, including but not limited to all fourteen special assassins the Crows sent out against him. In Wyoming territory, alerted to the enemy’s imminent attack upon his dwelling of the moment, he once escaped up a hidden rock flume, leaving a batch of hot biscuits fresh from the oven…laced with arsenic. Twenty-eight Indians died that time, none of them prettily. Yet Johnston, for all of that, died of old age in his bed with his moccassins off, a resident in a California home for veterans of the Civil War.
Currus Dei, the church of my choosing, would not approve of my willingness to do battle. Were the national leaders to become aware of my current activities, I would certainly be stripped of my status as an ordained priest, forbidden to present myself as a representative of the faith. On the other hand, there was no certainty that the church had not already gone underground to survive; its headquarters had been located in Houston, Texas, where the Sharia Law folks were currently beheading unbelievers who refused to convert to Islam. I could and must rely only on the Viam Dei, found on the inner planes, with me always. I am never alone.
The campsite was not alone, either. We were within sight of the tents, glimpsed through the remaining screen of trees, but at the south edge of the clearing, standing in the middle of the trail in frozen shock, a boy stared at the unexpected sight before him. A fishing rod jutted forward from one hand. He wore a straw hat, bib overalls, and a stunned expression visible even from this distance. He was perhaps twelve years old.
We froze, waiting. To no one’s surprise, the boy shook himself from his amazed trance, spun on his heel, and took off down the trail at a dead run, kicking up dust with every step.
I eased the reins, urged Moon forward.
“Do you think he saw us?” Cass asked.
“Don’t think so.” There was no further discussion, except to explain to Tasta what we’d seen; her vision had been blocked by a sizeable fir tree. It took us precisely seven minutes and fourteen seconds to roll our gear, lash it all down behind the saddles, and move out. I know; I timed it. The kid had to have hiked up from Jefferson, just as we’d feared might happen. Amazing, that his elders would let him out this far, so soon after the firefight and killings and church burning and all, but then again, maybe he hadn’t asked permission. I know I wouldn’t have at his age.
Seven minutes and fourteen seconds. Roughly three miles back to town if he kept to the road all the way…which he wouldn’t. He might have come up the road, but with urgent tidings to convey, any country boy worth his salt would take the most direct route possible, down through the trees and across the open, straight as the crow flies. So, maybe two miles. If he could keep up a running pace all the way–not likely, but underestimating a twelve year old with alarm fueling his flight was never a good idea–he could possibly average an overland speed of six miles per hour. I couldn’t, but I lack wheels. Phineas and his Dad, I was willing to bet, could both beat that handily.
So, six miles per hour. Two miles to cover. One third of an hour, twenty minutes. The men of the town, such as they were, would take a little while to get organized no matter what. They might not dare venture out at all, but we’d not care to make asses out of ourselves by assuming. Running into an ambush at the Highway 285 junction would be a pissy way to end the day, especially since it wasn’t even noon yet.
Ten minutes. No way they’d get out of town in under ten minutes. If they came on foot, they’d have to get within half a mile of the junction in order to lob a rifle bullet in our general direction. We’d fought them once already and they’d shown no evidence of owning any heavy ordnance, so…. On foot, even double timing–which only trained soldiers were likely to do, and they were definitely not all that–say a mile and a half at an eight minute mile pace. Twelve minutes of slogging, and they’d not be shooting straight at the end of that unless they were competition biathletes, which they weren’t.
Twenty minutes, kid to town. Ten minutes to get organized. Twelve minutes on the road. Forty-two minutes at least; we had that much time…horses? No; we’d seen no sign of so much as a Shetland pony. They must have had some at one time, every Colorado settlement had a horse owner or two living somewhere in the vicinity. But not now. Maybe they’d eaten them, too, during the hard winter with no supplies coming in from the usual sources. Had there been horse remains in the midden? I wasn’t sure, couldn’t remember if there had been or not. The swarms of flies had disguised a lot of it.
Okay then. Forty-two minutes minus (round it up) the ten minutes it took us to get packed up. We were mounted, ready to head out. All of my calculations had been done while I was rolling my bedroll, wrapping the tent around it, and lashing it behind Moon’s saddle. It takes a lot longer to tell than it does to do. I pushed Moon into a ground-eating trot, then turned in the saddle to call out to the others strung out behind me, heedless of the noise. We were discovered anyway. “We should have at least half an hour to make it to the highway and up around the next curve. No need to fight our way through the trees that I can see.”
They all acknowledged, a wave of the hand or a nod of the head. I couldn’t resist adding one last thing. Tasta wouldn’t get it, not having seen the young fisherman, but the other two would. “Kid could have been Huckleberry Finn reincarnated, don’t you think?”
Cass called back, “Who?” Tori just looked confused.
“Kids,” I muttered, turning back to the task at hand. “What are they teaching them nowadays?”