Hiram Johnson learned three new things about his boarder long before the sun was up: Firstly, Dawg’s 16th birthday was today (he claimed, anyway), meaning he was of age to make his own decisions. Secondly, the young man was capable of dragging himself out of bed without much sleep when he wanted something. Thirdly, he wanted to get to the Sentinel Peak (aka 24 Peak) class meeting point early and would not be gainsaid, potential killer on the loose or no.
“You could at least wait for breakfast, son,” he objected feebly. His earlier protestations had possessed a good deal more vigor, but the teenager’s steadfast resolve had worn him down in a hurry.
“It’s nearly two miles to the Clarkson stable, from what I hear,” Dawg replied. “I don’t intend to be the last one there. We get to ride, and I don’t want to end up forking the most decrepit broomtail in the bunch.”
The other students were still cutting z’s, but Mrs. Johnson had been up for a while, getting the cookstove going and readying ingredients for breakfast. She passed behind her husband’s seat at the table, patting him on the shoulder in a consoling way. “I seem to remember you weren’t easy to turn aside at that age, honey. My father hated your guts for years, but you were right there, courting me like he didn’t even exist.”
“Dawg better not be courting no horse,” Hiram grumbled.
“Here.” Wilma handed Dawg a packet rolled up in a dish towel. The cloth was nearly too hot to touch. “The hotcakes won’t be ready for a few more minutes, and you wouldn’t hold still long enough to sit down and eat anyway. I warmed up some of the frybread for you to munch on the run.”
“Thanks, Mrs. J.” He smiled big, threw a half-bow of respect toward the grumpy head of household, and ducked out the door.
Not that he had any intention of being careless. If Rodney was out there with that pulley bow, who knew what he might do? Dawg slipped swiftly aside from the doorway, hearing the clunk of the bar coming down behind him as Hiram secured the building. The kitchen had been dimly lit, candles only, but he still needed a moment to let his night vision boot up. Which did not mean he should present a stationary target while that was happening. The only sign of the coming dawn was the morning star hanging low in the sky. An attacker wouldn’t be able to see all that much either, so he sidestepped once more, moving to the corner of the cabin where the log ends stuck out, and crouched carefully. Even a shooter firing an arrow at gut level would send the missile over his head.
Genetically, he’d been told on the trail, his night vision was better than most. It wasn’t long before he launched from his crouch, darting forward in a zig-zag pattern, nearly eighty yards to the brush in the nearest draw. He could slip from cover to cover here and still make good time; the only real danger might be literally running into Rodney Upward.
If the renegade redhead was out there in two inches of snow, camping in the red-barked willows, that is. Which was doubtful.
As early as he was, he did not arrive at Clarkson’s stable first. He’d beaten the other students, but four men were already saddled up and had been for some time. Another six pack horses serving as pack animals sported loads of dual panniers, woodcrafted boxes of at least four cubic feet capacity each. Three of the men had to be sentinels–three being the standard complement for a shift change at the Peak station–but all four were dressed similarly, each man’s heavy winter coat adorned with left arm patches sporting a painted portrait of a screaming eagle in full stoop.
“You look confused, kid.” The speaker was about as medium as they came. Middle height, middle weight–as far as one could tell, with all that winter clothing in place–middle voice range, even a middle sized beard.
Dawg thought about denying that, but no. “A little.”
“Understandable. I’m Emory, this here’s Beef, that homely fella is Turtle, and this tall drink of water is Shorty.”
“Uh–glad to meet you. I’m Dawg.”
Beef chuckled. “Like we couldn’t tell. Jake told us about you. Don’t reckon any of the other students fit your description.”
“Oh–” His pruny wrinkled face?
“Nope.” Turtle poked his head toward Dawg, making it clear where he’d gotten his name. “Nobody else would be packing two of Jake’s prized Sedlacek Specials, let alone show up before he had to.” He stuck out his hand. The teenager shook it, bemused.
“Bet you want first pick of the riding stock, eh?” Emory again, straight faced.
“Well…if that’s all right.”
“Why not? Show them others how it is, come on time and you’re late, ride what you get. If I was you, boy, I’d take the black.”
Were they pulling his leg? Trust was not something of which he possessed a great supply. “The black, eh? Mind if I look them over?”
Emory gave a go-right-ahead gesture. The students’ riding stock was clearly separated from that of the Sentinels in a simple way; none of them had been saddled yet. They were all haltered and tied to various corral posts, but the saddles, saddle blankets, and bridles were all in jumbled pile in a far corner. Testing and learning time, then; he could understand that. Barely noticing that tall Shorty had taken his leave and ridden off, Dawg eased into the corral, circling each horse warily, watching for the minute shift that would telegraph a fierce kick, love talking the critters.
There was a tall bay mare, good looker, a little too much fire in her eye and a touch overly nervous for steep mountain climbing; she might well spook at the wrong time. Looked tough, though, and her muscles under her hide were rock hard. And she was a touch pigeon toed in the front; her right hoof turned in a bit as she stood. Three pintos, two of them calm, heavily built, possibly lazy. The third one looked mighty staggy, had probably been cut late and still thought he was a stud; if he didn’t buck at every chance, it would be a surprise. One palomino gelding, flashy as all get-out, but he didn’t like Dawg and Dawg didn’t like him. Neither horse nor human could have said why.
That left the black. At the end of the line, he stood four square, stocky conformation but not muscle bound, winter shaggy more than the others. A solid mountain horse without question.
A glance over his shoulder revealed more students on their way. Half a mile, he estimated; he had maybe eight to ten minutes. The saddles were of all types, some he thought might have been produced locally, others clearly manufactured Before. He selected the plainest of the lot, no fancy work at all, just good solid leather with enough of what it took to keep a nominally competent rider from falling off. Ditto for a bridle. He’d only worked with mules in harness up to now, but he’d watched Grunt’s work with the big man’s monster stallion.
By the time the others arrived, he had the bay bridled and saddled and was leading her out of the corral.
Emory cocked an eyebrow at him, but he couldn’t tell why. Either the man was bothered that he hadn’t gone with the recommended black or he was impressed…or maybe he knew the tall mare was more horse than any greenhorn could handle.
Time would tell.
The sun was well up before the entire class was mounted and ready to go. Of the six students, only Dawg had managed to get his animal bridled and saddled properly without help. Lantern Jaw Man came close, Hank he was called, but the rest of them were messing in their diapers from the get-go. Dawg didn’t recognize most of them; it turned out that this class was not composed of only recent immigrants. Anyone interested could apply.
Hank had hung back, letting the others pick their rides ahead of him, which ended up giving him the big pinto stag. Dawg had called it right; the horse bucked the lean man off three times before settling down a bit. Even so, Paint and his rider were ready before anyone else except Dawg.
Before they headed out, Emory explained a few things. “First of all, folks, you’ve seen these screaming eagle patches. Sentinels who graduate honorably from the full curriculum serve many roles. We’re the military arm of Fort 24, acting at the direction of the civilian Council. We’re not law enforcement normally, but some of us will help out the Marshal and his Deputies as the need arises. And that brings us to the fellow we all heard about last night, one Rodney Upward.”
He paused, checking each face to make sure everybody was paying attention. Everybody was. “Shorty, one of the Sentinels on LEA duty–that’s Law Enforcement Assistance–informed us before you all got here that Mr. Upward is no longer acting alone. Best guess is that he met up with these other rounders while he was mucking stables last week. There are four of them that appear to have gotten together. Nobody else has been hurt like Jeb Strake was, at least so far, but apparently Jeb caught Rodney in the act of stealing his horse and that led to the scuffle.
“Now folks, our Marshal and his crew did their best to track these people down while y’all were sleeping, okay? The Marshal’s office has a small cache of high tech Before stuff, including this little machine you hand crank and it gives light. So they could follow tracks in the snow. Trouble was, of course, they had to be careful. Wouldn’t want to light themselves up and get more arrows stuck in ’em than a porcupine’s got quills, eh? So it was slow work, and the snow wasn’t helping. But the main point is, they don’t think Upward’s gang–or maybe he’s not the leader, but that’s the current thinking–nobody seems to think they’re going to run for it. There ain’t a real settlement within two hundred miles of here, and remember, these are people that don’t seem to want to work too hard for a living or follow the rules or any of that.
“So they may be looking to pick us off.” He peered at each face again, making sure they understood the import of his words. They did. “Yes, three of us are trained warriors, four if you count Dawg, and we do count him. For those of you who don’t know, he killed two bandits and seriously wounded a third on his way here with Big Jake Sedlacek. In Fear Trace. With nothing but them two spears you see in that scabbard on his saddle.”
Oh brother. Dawg didn’t know whether to feel good or bad about being singled out like this. It hadn’t occurred to him that his actions had been unusual in any way. Besides, he’d have been dead if Gloria hadn’t conked that first Tracer upside the head.
He lost some time, puzzling over that, but came to as they headed toward the tree line. Emory led, plenty of weapons adorning his person, with some kind of shoot gun resting across the saddle as he rode. The students were cosseted as much as they could be, with the exception of Dawg himself; two Sentinels in front, then three students including Hank, then Dawg, two more students, and finally Beef bringing up the rear. “It makes sense,” he thought, pondering his position in the parade while simultaneously appreciating the power of the bay mare under him. She would keep going when the others failed; he’d bet on it. “They really do see me as a proven fighter.” None of the unprovens would ever be far from somebody who’d faced combat before.
Assuming all of the Sentinels had done so, and he’d bet on that. Could be that’s what the class titled Sentinel 205 was all about. After all, the description was only two words: Field exercises.
When they reached the tree line, he pulled one of the short spears from the scabbard and laid it across his saddle bow like Emory’s shoot gun, ready to hand. If the renegades were all armed with weapons as deadly as Upward’s stolen pulley bow, they might end up dead before they knew they’d been targeted. But again, timber was timber, and anything could happen in the forest.