Despite their considerable expertise and an abundance of common sense, the Sentinels had it all wrong when it came to figuring out the renegades. They might well be forgiven for that, operating on the limited information available, but in truth the ragtag bunch would sooner have tried stealing a grizzly cub from its mama’s teat than tackle Fort 24’s elite soldiers directly. The shift change field trip was quite safe on that score, though the land itself was treacherous enough in its own right.
No, the quartet of miscreants hadn’t gone anywhere near the west slope trails used by Emory and his group. Instead, they were about as far away as they could get, clear on the other side of the valley, meeting in an abandoned barn and cursing the cold. They had no one to blame but themselves, of course, but that didn’t keep them from hurling verbal abuse toward those they felt had done them wrong. Not a one of them possessed the strength of character to accept the consequences of his own actions without complaining loudly about it.
Still, the three older men were glad to have a leader at last, even if he was a punk kid with the sourest attitude of all.
Rodney Upward, whom they’d met while working a slop job together, had a way of getting their attention. The young redhead lacked the formal education possessed by crosseyed Pen Garber, who considered himself a poet, but the kid got to the point the first day they worked Seligman’s calving yard, forking manure into a wagon for half a fort dollar a day. “The rich cats think they own us,” Upward had said, and Pen had been inspired, composing one his finest rhymes before the noon break.
I grew up here in twenty-four
Never knowing what was wrong
They taught me to do what I was told
And sing their same old song
But now I see through wise Rod-nee
What made me want to bawl
The rich cats laugh and put me down
While they just keep it all
Rich cats had become an instant hit with the others. Their anthem, you might say. Rodney clapped his hands when he heard it, and the other two muckers, the retarded Dotson brothers, fell right in line. Not that Jay and Joe were developmentally disabled; they were known as the retarded Dotson brothers from their habit of telling anyone with whom they disagreed, “You’re retarded!”
It hadn’t done them any good with their third grade teacher, nor had they progressed beyond that level, but they weren’t stupid. Well…not totally, anyway.
So the Dotson boys were idiots, retarded or not, and Pen knew himself to be a follower with no interest in the hard work of organizing and administrating, the very thought of which gave him a headache. He would leave that up to the kid. “What’s the plan now, boss?” He spoke with deference, a willing henchman seeking orders.
Upward’s inborn arrogance stood him in good stead in times like these. Hesitation in a leader could cripple a gang faster than peeing into the wind would get your legs wet. Having murdered his own mother in a fit of rage when she asked him to gather a bit of firewood one day, he’d traveled alone to the southern Fort Delta, presenting himself to that community as a poor widdle orphan just trying to keep body and Soul together. Not that he cared anything about Soul, if such a thing existed. When the trader had come looking for recruits, he’d seen his chance. None of the Delta natives were interested in migrating northward, and the trader turned out to be a real sucker for a sob story. After all, his Dad had died from a fever and his Mom had been carried off by a raider, doncha know?
Suckers. That was his story and he was sticking to it.
He hadn’t counted on Fort 24 being so rigidly structured, but all he had to do was get his gang outfitted properly and slip out, seeking a warmer climate and lots of easy pickings. It shouldn’t be hard; they already had one horse and a fine pulley bow, never mind that he could barely draw the string and likely couldn’t hit the barn wall if he let an arrow fly. Pen had slipped out of his flimsy shack with a sizeable backpack full of provisions and a hatchet, and having hunted from time to time, he knew at least some of the trails through the timber. The Dotsons hadn’t brought much, but what they’d managed was critical: Flint and steel, with the knowledge of how to make it throw sparks into tinder. They’d even managed a small fire in the barn while it was still dark, though it almost got away from them once and they had to put it out before first light or risk having the smoke seen. Things could be much worse.
“I’m hating the cold as much as the next man, boys,” he said, not catching the irony of a boy calling older men “boys.” He paused for effect. “But we won’t need to suffer it much longer. First things first. We need a name for our outfit. Something that’ll strike fear into the hearts of travelers so’s they don’t even dare think about resisting when we show up to relieve them of their goods…and maybe a pretty girl or two.”
That got their attention. “Girls? You’re retarded!” Jay or Joe, he had no idea which. The brothers weren’t twins, but close enough to fool the casual eye. They were both practically drooling at the idea of free women.
“You call me retarded again and you’ll be eating steel.” Rodney let his natural wellspring of endless anger bubble through his eyes, pinning the perpetrator in place. The man gulped. Upward wasn’t joking, either, though he’d not likely take on even a loser like Dotson face to face. He preferred to strike from behind, crushing a skull or slicing through a kidney with whatever was handy at the time. “How be we get ourselves known as the Demons? Any objections?”
“Demons it is, then.” He hadn’t expected anything imaginative from the others. “Pen, how long do you think it’ll be safe to use this building for cover?”
The older man put on his thinking face in an attempt to impress his new leader. “Depends. We got lucky last night, with the snow picking up enough to cover our tracks. It’s doubtful anybody but us was out and about, but even if they were, they couldn’t have followed us past where we picked up Jay and Joe. And that’s way the other side of town, a good four miles from here. But Marshal Bledsoe grew up in Lower Valley and knew the Chanrocks who owned these pastures before they moved to Upper Valley. He’ll think to check it out sooner or later.”
Rodney adopted his own thinking pose, but in his case the cogitation was real. It hurt, too; he much preferred to smash and run. That was his signature style, as he thought of it. But they wouldn’t last long trying that now. Not until they’d gotten themselves properly outfitted and rich enough and were ready to leave Fort 24 environs for once and for all. “Here’s the deal,” he decided. “You all need horses. In fact, we need pack horses, too. Out there in the world, most everbody is doing it wrong. Raiders are traveling light, usually just their mounts and what they can carry on ’em, if they’ve got horses at all. Or even mules. So they don’t last long between raids, they start to starve or get greedy and wind up putting themselves at risk, tackling jobs without thinking it through, sometimes getting dead from a bad case of the stupids. I ain’t against raiding, you understand, since that’s fixing to be my chosen profession, but I am against doing it stupid.”
His gang members all nodded sagely. Joe Dotson–he was pretty sure it was Joe–looked like he’d almost burst a blood vessel from the pain of not saying, “You’re retarded!” But he kept quiet, which was good. Killing a third of his own followers on the first day would have messed something fierce with his image of himself as a powerful gang leader.
He continued with his explanation. “The traders, not only the Fort 24 guys with their sneaky recruiting goals, but ever one I’ve ever seen, they go the other way. Teams with wagons, slow as sin on a hot Sunday, hard to defend and perfect targets for hungry raiders. Us, long term, we’re going right down the middle. We’ll leave here well mounted but also with a few pack horses loaded down with the best Fort 24 has to offer. You Dotson boys ain’t never forked a bronc, so we’ll have to get you some easygoing saddle mounts at first, till you learn which end of a horse is which. Pen, you know the valley from end to end, so you’re our navigator except when I decide a route you’re suggesting ain’t smart. I got a sixth sense, see, what they call intuitiveness or something like that, and I can smell trouble five miles away.” Except when his emotions blinded him, like last night when he’d stuck a knife into old Jeb and had to make his move early. But his henchmen didn’t need to know that.
Could they pull it off and get away clean, say in three or four more days? Sure they could. From the barn, it was no more than seventy yards to Butterfly Creek, and they could travel up that for nearly two miles before needing to show track one to anybody. The icy water wouldn’t improve any dispositions, but these fools needed to get in the habit of doing what he said, no matter what. He’d be high and dry on the gray the whole time, of course, and they’d all be grateful when he allowed them to start walking through a mere two inches of snow again, surprised that he’d thoughtfully carried spare, dry footgear for them to change into.
Work ’em hard and then show a little bit of kindness they never see coming. That had been his father’s maxim during his raiding days. It had worked wonders for the old man until his own son terminated him with extreme prejudice and a number two shovel.
Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek settled his oversized frame into the sturdy chair reserved for him whenever he was close enough to home to attend a Council meeting. His son Bradley grabbed one of the spare chairs and positioned himself at Grunt’s side. The younger man carried his father’s proxy when the trader was out on the trail but would merely be monitoring the proceedings today. Representing Upper Valley, Grath McIntosh and Harvey the Rabbit Man sat on the right side, with Lower Valley dignitaries Rob Speck, and Crush Miller seated across from their counterparts. At the foot of the table, Marshal Quentin Bledsoe, his great beak of a nose more noticeable than his shiny badge, plus Sentinel Captain…what was his name? Cumberland? No…Overland! Orville Overland, commonly called “Double Aught” behind his back. That only left–
“Sorry I’m late, gentlemen.” Momentarily framed in the doorway, Doctor Hiram “Hammer” Weathers closed the door gently before positioning himself in front of the fireplace.
“Hope you don’t mind if I stand,” he said with no hint of apology. “Only saddle critter we could catch for me to ride down here was Mark’s old mule, and that floppy eared cuss isn’t exactly smooth on the trot.”
Jake wondered at that, a little. Hammer owned two fine saddle animals and neither one of them had been available? Still, on to business. “Status on Jeb?”
The old doctor scratched his chin stubble before replying. “He’ll live. I asked him how he managed to get by with only one wound. He says the kid lunged at him with a kitchen knife, caught him off guard and his reflexes aren’t what they once were, but he managed to step back and twist to one side, knocking the blade down some in the process. Says it was aimed straight for his gut, like this Rodney Upward knew how to kill a man with a knife, but ended up sticking his leg instead of his vitals. Jeb didn’t go down right away but kept back pedaling, got hold of a fire poker, and Rodney took off. Guess that’s what they meant when they invented the phrase cut and run. Jeb has lost some blood, and that thigh muscle is a bit torn up. Give me a decent hospital operating room, a quality scalpel, and some decent sutures, I could repair him good as new. As it is, he might have some residual muscle damage for the rest of his life, but he should be able to walk okay in a couple of weeks. Foot races, not so much.”
Chrush Miller chuckled. “He never was much of a sprinter anyway.”
“So.” Jake steepled his fingers, considering the man at the other end of the table. “Marshal?”
“Do I have to get to my feet to say my piece?” He said it with a straight face. “My butt has been pounding saddle since third hour past sunset last night, but you don’t hear me complaining about free mule rides.”
“You’ve earned your sit-down,” Jake conceded. The others nodded, though nobody smiled. Serious business was afoot. “Let us have it.”
“You ain’t a-gonna like it much.” Bledsoe sucked in a great breath, let it out slowly. “I spent near an hour this morning, talking to the trader who brought our good friend Mr. Upward in from the Outside last month. Anybody remember who that trader happened to be?”
It took a moment for the light to dawn. “Oh, rabbit pellets,” Harvey the Rabbit Man muttered. He knew about rabbit pellets, raising as many of the long eared stew ingredients as he did.
“That’s right. Windy Higgins his own disreputable, loud mouthed, pea brained, couldn’t-keep-a-secret-if-his-life-depended-on-it self.” He let them absorb the implications for a while. Outsiders were all to be considered potential enemies of the State of 24 until or unless they’d lived in the community long enough to become part of it, with friends, jobs, families, the works. Which was why the iron clad rule for traders one and all was to operate on a strict need to know basis. Jake Sedlacek epitomized the ideal in that regard, politely declining to tell his recruits anything about Fort 24, preferring to wait and let them see for themselves. This approach gave him time on the trail to weed out a lot of undesirables. Doc Weathers had speeded up the process with the Fort Steel spy known as Weasel, but even without Hammer’s help, the fake slave would have been found out and run off long before he could so much as get a hint regarding 24’s location.
Arthur “Windy” Higgins knew the protocol, of course, but that didn’t mean he stuck to it. The man did purely love the sound of his own voice.
“What did he have to say, Quent?”
The beak-nosed lawman chuckled darkly. “Surprisingly little at first. Looked a heap nervous when I rode up to his place. When I suggested his testimony in Council might be helpful, I thought he was going to wet his britches. No, he couldn’t do that, he said, had to go hunting. The snow was driving the elk down out of the high country and he couldn’t afford to feed his family beef all winter. Had his horse saddled and a pack horse behind. Had I got there half an hour later, I’d have missed him complete. Ennyhoo, I decided to throw a bluff at him, told him he could either take a few minutes filling me in on his trip north with Rodney Upward in tow or I’d throw him in jail for obstructing justice. Which mighta been a wee stretch of the way our law reads, but Windy ain’t no lawyer. He just shoots his mouth off like one. He even invited me into the cabin, had his wife scramble up half a dozen eggs for me, and while I thanked her politely and ate breakfast at her table, I was giving Windy the evil eye when her back was turned. He opened up all right.”
“As bad as you thought it would be?” Crush Miller asked the question, elbows on the conference table, taking notes.”
Bledsoe snorted, an impressive sort of bugle coming from his oversized nose. “Worse, gentlemen. Way worse. I prodded him for near an hour; it took that long for me to get the full picture. Bottom line, that kid sucker-pumped old Windy bone dry. If he don’t know the entire layout of the valley, from our defensive arrangements to who owns which homes and where the herds are thickest, how the armory is protected and what we got in there, who the prettiest girls are and where they live, the political structure, every strength, every weakness…. I hate to tell you this, I really do, but if this punk kid gets clear of 24, it’s going to get ugly. He’s a wicked smart redhead, no joy to look at but sneakier than a rattlesnake slipping up on an unsuspecting prairie dog. Windy might as well have given the boy a schematic of our entire little civilization here and painted a big red bullseye over the middle of it.”
Silence fell for long moments, until Jake Sedlacek finally spoke. “What you’re saying is that he knows too much. That he could sell what’s in his head to the highest bidder, anywhere from coast to coast, from the Arctic Circle to the Isthmus of Panama, or he could even build himself up an army of raiders and see about taking us out.”
Slowly but surely, Bledsoe nodded.
“Then we have no choice. Rodney Upward was accepted into our valley in good faith, which makes him a PC, a probationary citizen, under the law. Which classifies him as a citizen, probationary or not. Which in turn makes his actions treason.” He stopped speaking long enough to make eye contact with each of the others. There could be no mistakes made here today. “Under the legal system that existed Before, our hands would be tied until the information the traitor carried in his head was passed on to someone else connected with some foreign entity. Under our Constitution, we have more leeway, thankfully. Therefore, I call for a vote: Shall Rodney Upward be exterminated with extreme prejudice for the safety of Fort 24?”
The only hands not raised were those of Marshal Bledsoe, Sentinel Captain Overland, and Doc Weathers, none of whom had a say in the proceedings.
“So it has been voted,” Jake finished, glancing at Crush Miller as the Council Recorder scribbled frantically. “So let it be done.”
“I best get on my way, then.” Bledsoe rose from his chair and began buttoning up his coat. It was warming up outside, all right, but not exactly shirtsleeve weather. “Gotta find the lad before we can bury him.”
“It might be best, Quent, if Upward did not make it to jail alive. We don’t have many bleeding heart liberals living here yet, but Mrs. Barton and her crowd would undoubtedly picket the dickens out of everything and everybody if she got the chance.”
“Preaching to the choir.” The Marshal tipped his hat, spun on his heel, and was gone, the Sentinel Captain two steps behind him.
“Out of curiosity,” Hammer Weathers said mildly, “since I don’t have any clout in these meetings–”
“Go ahead and speak your piece, Doc. Your input is always welcome. And needed.”
“Ah. Well, when it comes to Upward, I’d have voted right with you, if I had a vote. I’ve already met Lucia Barton and understand that, too; she’s a woman of strong if rather naïve opinion. But my curiosity pertains to this trader, Windy. What about him?”
“Yeah,” Crush Miller jumped in. “I’d say that’s our next order of business. Windy, and then the fools who’ve hooked up with the dead man walking. Pen Garber and the Dotson brothers are most likely looking to be criminals, but they’re certainly not newcomers and I doubt Upward would tell them much. From what I’m hearing, he’s not the type to give away knowledge for free; he just sucks it up and stores it like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. And Windy, he’s a damn fool, but he’s no traitor. Yet he may have inadvertently done us more harm than we’ve seen since the Founding, so now what?”
“So now we’ve got to find these yahoos, that’s what. Quentin’s got a good crew, and he can draw on all the Sentinels he wants, but I’m heading over to Canfield’s. I’d appreciate it if the rest of you could organize the criers with a new message: Anybody who knows what any one of this bunch looks like? They should beats feet over there. I’ll brief Canny, let him know we need the finest sketches he’s ever done in his life, for Wanted posters. We’d best put Armed and Dangerous on there, too.”
Doc Weathers let himself out. He needed to check on his patient. Old Jeb Strake was known to have a temper; he’d need careful handling when he found out his injury might have been caused by the wagging tongue of a big mouthed trader he never liked in the first place.