It didn’t take long for Rodney Upward’s panic to subside. The Gunderson pasture was lost to view behind them, they had decent cover for a while among the creekside brush and trees despite the seasonal lack of foliage…and most importantly, Joe Dotson’s horse could go no farther, requiring the head Demon to focus on making decisions rather than on the hornet’s nest they’d so thoroughly kicked. They couldn’t stop for long, but it should take their pursuers at least a little time to take up their trail effectively in the darkness.
“Well, Joe,” he said softly, studying the dark shaft stuck in the pony’s posterior, “you’re going to need a new horse.”
Joe Dotson nodded. “Coulda been me. But Rod, where are the others? Are we–”
“Your brother went down. Didn’t you see?”
“What? No, man, he was right there with me. He–”
“Joe. We’ll get him back. No man gets left behind by the Demons.” The words were out of his mouth before he realized it. His own father had kept to that creed, earned the loyalty and trust of every man under his command, which did much to explain the elder Upward’s success as a bandit leader for more than twenty long years. Kahn Upward might still have been out there, raiding any caravan foolish enough to come close enough to be noticed, except for his one foolish mistake; he had trusted his own son. Which was hugely ironic, since Kahn had killed his own father, albeit face to face, both with knives in hand. Looks like I’m just following family tradition. Sort of.
“We-how? How, Chief? How will we get him back from the entire Fort 24 establishment now that they’ve got him? You say he went down; he might not even be alive by now.”
“If he’s dead, we’ll recover his body. If he’s alive, we’ll free him before they can hang him. Either way, he doesn’t get left behind. Now shut up and pay attention. Pen went some other way, but he’ll find us if he can, or we’ll all meet up at his favorite waterfall. We were planning to head that way anyway. In the meantime, we gotta get you re-outfitted.” He was already stripping the bridle from the injured animal. “You take it easy, fella,” he said, patting the horse’s neck. “They’ll find you and fix you up. I ain’t got the gear to get that arrow out of your bottom or I would, okay?”
“Dude, you talking to the horse?”
“He’s the only one around here with an arrow stuck in him, ain’t he? You ain’t the only one gives a squinch about the poor dumb critters who get stuck with us humans. We’ll take the bridle and your spear.” He stepped into his own saddle and draped the bridle over the saddle horn, then leaned down to give Dotson a hand. “Now get your sorry self up here behind me. Old Satan can carry double for a while.”
Seated behind Rodney, trying to stay balanced without putting an arm around his boss–which Joe was pretty sure counted as a manly taboo–the worried thief tried desperately to figure out what his leader had in mind for a plan. He couldn’t make sense of it for the longest time…and when he did, his mouth went dry. First, they followed the streambed around the south edge of Lower Valley town. Then they went right through town, almost dead center, crossing the north-south main street at an easy trot–easy if you weren’t bouncing behind a saddle rather than in one–and then, oh Lordy, it couldn’t be.
But it was. Correctly reasoning that the Gundersons would have focused on chasing them westward, with maybe a couple of chasers following Pen Garber’s logical southbound trail, the redhead was gong to try stealing from them again!
“Are you crazy?” He muttered under his breath, but not quietly enough.
“Going to pretend I didn’t hear that…ah. Here we go.” And sure enough, the extremely organized Russ Gunderson had put a convenient gate in the north side fence, located exactly opposite the south side gate situated so much closer to the stable. “Should have hit this one first.” Of course, there had undoubtedly been a Gunderson watching this gate, too, but Rodney wasn’t about to let little things like facts bother his thinking space. “We were careless, eh? So, you see anything that looks like a guard?”
Joe gulped hard. “Chief, everything looks like a guard on a night like this. The fence shadows against the snow, every stray sagebrush plant, even the horses. I–”
“Joe. The question was rhetorical.”
“Horses like you. We saw that, right? So let’s ease this gate open just a bit. Here’s your bridle and two hunks of rope. Go pick out three good ones. We need saddle stock more than pack horses, at least for two of them. Think you can differentiate in the dark?”
“You got to be kidding.”
Upward held up his crossbow, cocked and ready. “This weapon is not kidding, and we ain’t got time to discuss it. I’ll be watching over you, ready to fire against any unexpected trouble, or if you prefer, if you’d like to refuse, if you don’t get going right now, I’ll put a bolt right through your yellow belly and leave you here for the Gundersons to find. Take your pick.”
“Well, why didn’t you just say so?” Shaking his head, Dotson slipped through the opening without further ado. Knowing the horses would sense his fear, he shut that side of himself down, focused on loving the critters who meant the difference between being caught and maybe not, and within minutes returned, riding a sturdy black and leading two more, the third horse’s lead rope being tied to the tail of horse number two.
To Upward’s amazement, others were following those Joe had caught. “Not bad for an amateur,” he admitted as Dotson rode through the gate.
“Let’s leave the gate wide open,” the older man grinned, teeth flashing white as the barely moonlit snow. Well…off white. It wasn’t like anybody had an approved dental plan these days unless you counted a pint of moonshine and a pair of pliers. “I’m thinking this is the lead mare. With luck, the entire herd will meander along behind for a while, maybe confuse our tracks a bit, you think?”
“Sounds good to me.” The redhead couldn’t understand why no Gunderson had yet sounded the alarm, but he had no idea he’d wounded their youngest girl, spurring every available man to take the trail against him. Plus, Dotson hadn’t worried the herd, so they weren’t showing any unusual behavior. At least, none that could be spotted at any real distance in the relative darkness. Daylight would be another matter, but they had hours yet before first light. In the meantime, fortune favored the bold, keeping Speck and Julia close to the big building, guarding the stable and the relatively defenseless women upstairs. “Never can have too much rope…here, Joe. I’ll hold these horses, you see if you can snag us a couple more. We’re going to need them.”
Twenty minutes later, the two outlaws were headed south once again, well mounted with three “extra” ponies in tow, none of them objecting overmuch, even when Upward picked up the pace. Joe Dotson did truly have the golden touch when it came to horseflesh. Rodney didn’t have to ask the more experienced Forter about Lower Valley town; he already knew it well. Jay Dotson, if he lived, would be deposited in the jail, accessed through Marshal Bledsoe’s office, down a hallway and to the left. Three blocks down and one street over, the saddler’s shop held pride of place. The sliver moon had set long since, following behind the sun by no more than a handspan at arm’s length, but by the position of the stars, which he understood well enough when he wasn’t getting himself lost, it looked like they’d have a couple of hours of pitch darkness left when they reached Lower Valley town. Raiding the saddlery shouldn’t be a problem, especially since the proprietor lived outside of town, not at his place of business.
The Marshal’s office, though…they’d need a distraction for that. Fire would be awesome, but Fort 24’s insistence on every structure being covered with nonflammable stucco made that idea a nonstarter. Wait a minute…yeah, that might work.
Marshal Bledsoe’s office looked like it had been decorated by cyclone. Piles of papers were strewn everywhere, all of the usual routine usurped by the four sloppy stacks of Wanted posters depicting the four outlaws. The artist had done himself proud, never mind Jay Dotson being in custody by the time the old Carrington press, found in a tumbledown museum by one of the Traders and requiring the type to be set by hand, had done its job of duplication. Fort 24’s own version of ink left much to be desired, breaking down and fading more rapidly than it should, but for now it was fine. If they hadn’t corralled Upward and his two remaining owlhoots by the time the ink gave up the ghost, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Only three men remained awake and present, which somehow added to the impression of mess. The clutter had been somewhat hidden when the room had been jam packed full of hard eyed lawmen, the press of human and sometimes aromatic bodies increasing the stench factor daily, now that the season for bathing was over except for the few rich enough to own indoor tubs and the patience–or willing women–to heat enough water over wood fired stoves. Jesse Trove, official jailer whenever anybody was behind bars, checked the steam kettle. “Hot enough for another cup if you’d like, Marshal.”
“Any more tea and my bladder will float out my ears, son.” Not that Trove was younger than his boss; it was an inside joke.
“Maybe one,” the Chief Deputy replied absently as he stared at the likeness of Rodney Upward he held in his hand. “Thanks.”
“Lead penny for your thoughts, Carve.” The Fort’s lead lawdog knew that look.
“Can’t quite put it into words. Just seems like…dang it, Bled, we shoulda had this kid yesterday before sunset. On the surface, I mean. I swear there has to be more to him, that he ain’t just some orphan. Nobody’s that lucky, not with us and three Sentinel teams out there tracking. Yeah, he’s made mistakes, like you’d expect a greenhorn outlaw to do. Tackling the Gundersons, for example–”
“And a dandy mistake that was,” his boss observed dryly. “Counting two of his three girls, himself, and all the boys, old Russ can field eleven fighters, every one of them meaner than a snake that hasn’t caught a mouse all year and every one of them purely at home on the trail. Heck, Carve, between you and me and the gatepost, I’d personally rather tackle all fifty-two Sentinels than I would those eleven Gundersons. And when it comes to paid law enforcement, you know there aren’t but nine of us including our on-demand jailer here.”
“Hey!” Jesse Trove objected on principle. He couldn’t put a finger on it, but he was pretty sure there was an insult in there somewhere.
“Easy, son. All I’m saying is we sent the deputies home to get a few hours of shuteye, but I’d lay odds there’s not a Gunderson alive that isn’t wide eyed and bushy tailed, out there looking for revenge right this minute, middle of the night be damned.”
“Not exactly the middle of the night any more, Marshal. Be first light in another couple of hours.” Jailer Trove was a literal sort of fellow. “Besides–” He broke off, listening. The others heard it, too; somebody was yelling, feet were pounding–
Carver moved first, his service shoot gun in hand as he lifted the bar and swung the heavy plank door open.
None of them could lay name to the man who came stumbling into the office, nearly tripping over his own boots, but his face was familiar. One of the low rent types who stayed drunk more often than not, usually working just enough to sleep somewhere out of the cold between drinks. Week’s worth of beard, scrawny build, wild bloodshot eyes, gasping, almost incoherent. “Marshal! Sad-sad-sadlery! On f-fi-fire!”
Then he collapsed to hands and knees, head down, sucking wind. A diet of 100 proof alcohol didn’t exactly condition a man to run marathons.
Bledsoe and Carver rushed outside; Jesse Trove did not. As the jailer, it was his duty to stay put, to make sure no one interacted with the badly injured prisoner in the cell down the hall, either to rescue or to harm the fellow. Not that much more could be done to harm Jay Dotson short of a lynching. According to the Gunderson boys, poor Jay had fallen off his horse a bunch of times on the way down from Upper Valley town, adding assorted bumps, bruises, black eyes, broken ribs, and a broken nose to the fairly serious arrow wound in his leg. Tricksy things, those horses.
For one brief moment, the two lawmen studied the faint glow visible above the rooftops, noted the smoke already blotting out some of the stars. Then Carver took off running, an easier pace with much better lung power than the barfly had managed. He said nothing, but his thoughts were rampant. Told that fool a thousand times he was gonna get burned, all those oils and sawdust in there along with the finished wooden racks for saddles and other tack, rawhide covered wooden saddle trees, firewood stacked inside instead to keep kids from stealing it. But could he be bothered to sweep up once in a while? No-o, not him! Every full sized structure in all of Fort 24 was pretty much impervious to fire from the outside, thanks to the strict regulations requiring thick layers of stucco over every wooden wall surface, but controlling what a man did inside his own place of business was not in the cards.
If there was one thing Chief Deputy Carver hated more than any other, it was seeing a good man wiped out by his own foolishness. Yet when he rounded the final corner, it became obvious the prosperous saddler was now penniless. He’d have to start over with nothing but his native skill as an asset, and that was a game for younger men.
Marshal Bledsoe wasn’t far behind, having paused only long enough to yank the messenger out by the scruff of his neck and tell his jailer, “Throw the bar, shoot the bolt, and don’t open that door for anybody except me or Carve no matter how long we’re gone. Got it?”
“Got it,” Trove replied cheerfully. In truth, he didn’t mind being snug and warm and safe behind a secure door in a secure building while the others were out there freezing their butts off in a lost-cause bucket brigade. Didn’t mind it one little bit. While the big dogs were gone, he’d just check on Dotson and then straighten up the place a little. One thing he couldn’t stand was a messy office.
Minutes later, no one was around to notice when two men exited the alley, one leading a saddled horse, the other a horse outfitted with pack panniers. The visitors strolled casually to the hitch rail in front of the Marshal’s office, where the lead ropes were tied off. The horses wore no bridles.
“You sure about this?” The taller man’s eyes darted nervously about the darkened street as if he expected a pack of werewolves to leap from the shadows.
Joe Dotson snorted softly, keeping his voice low. “Jay and I been locked up in this jail so many times, we know the drill inside out. Not to mention we used to practice mocking the Marshal’s voice to each other, we’d heard him so often. Sound carries down the hall to the cells as clear as a bell.”
“Well, get on with it, then.”
Dotson did. First, he silently trotted a dozen paces toward the fire burning in the distance, then turned and strode forcefully back on the boardwalk, his boots clumping loud and sharp in the crisp night air. Stopping at the heavy plank door, he rapped sharply on it three times, bellowing in a voice not his own, “Jesse! Open up!”
Seconds passed. Dotson hammered the door again, still three times but much harder than before. “Trove, you old pus wagon! I ain’t got all day!”
“That you, Marshal?” The voice from inside the office could barely be heard through the thick planking.
“No, you sorry excuse for a billy goat’s beard, it’s the freaking tooth fairy!”
“All right, all right, don’t wet your britches! Sheesh!”
Rodney Upward couldn’t believe it; he could hear the sound of the bar being lifted. The door opened just a crack, less than an inch. According to Dotson’s belief in the set ways of the elderly jailer, that would be the man’s right eye just peeking through the crack, ready to slam the door shut again, a shoot gun in his right hand behind his back.
Which did the part time custodian of criminals no good whatsoever. Joe and Rodney hit the door at the same time, the force of their combined rush slamming the heavy wood into the old man’s face first, followed by the rest of his body as he was flung clear across the office, falling backward over the Marshal’s prized desk, scattering piles of Wanted posters everywhere and spilling the ink jar. Jesse desperately tried to bring his pistol into play, but the redhead was too fast for him, twisting his wrist and taking the weapon from his hand quicker than he could blink. And he’d be blinking a lot, he suspected; his nose felt like it was broken for sure.
“Stupid Before-style training,” the young Demon leader observed, shaking his head in disgust. “You didn’t even have your finger on the trigger. Gun ain’t no good if you can’t shoot it.”
Trove didn’t respond to that; he was entirely focused on the pain in his face until he found himself trussed up like a Christmas goose and his own snot rag stuffed in his mouth as a gag, the belt from his pants wrapped twice around his head and cinched down hard. Only then did it dawn on him that he might die with his pants around his skinny ankles, not so much from deliberate murder by the outlaws as from trying to breathe through a nose flooded with blood. That was a new one, snorting blood, he’d never tried that in his long life.
The door was still open; Joe Dotson had forgotten that part of the plan and had taken off down the hallway to find his brother, cell keys in hand. Upward cursed, leaping to secure the door the instant his prisoner was tied hard and fast.
Jay Dotson was alive, but he wasn’t in any shape to ride. There wasn’t a spot on his face that wasn’t bruised. A thick bandage wrapped around his right thigh completely. They’d cut off his pants above the wound, baring most of the hairy leg. But at least he was conscious…sort of.
“Can you travel?” The question was rhetorical but had to be asked.
“Better’n hanging, damn betcha,” the injured man croaked, wincing as he tried to sit up. “Broken ribs. Nothing punctured, they said. Wanted me healthy enough to stretch rope.”
“Less talk, more skedaddle.” It took both Joe and Rodney to support Jay, one on each side, ignoring his teeth-gritted groans. Down the hall, peek down the street, coast clear, rassle the renegade into the saddle…where he promptly passed out, slumping over the horn and to one side.
“Steady him, boss.” Joe was already hard at work with the ropes they’d brought, tying his brother’s boots into the stirrups, his waist to the saddle horn in front with a loop low around the raised cantle in back and cinched extra snug with the saddle bag laces, hands to the horn. Jay was coming back around, but not all the way; at best he bowed low over the horse’s neck.
Seeing that job under way, Upward made a series of frenetic dashes back into the Marshal’s office, first dragging the old jailer unceremoniously down the hall to occupy Jay’s old cell, then emptying the office of everything useful. There was a lot of that. All the weapons were Before style, forty years old or more but in working condition with ammunition to match: Two double barreled shoot guns and thirteen boxes of shells, the jailer’s revolver with more than two hundred rounds for that, a matched pair of Winchester Model 94 carbines in .44 Magnum with eighty rounds for those, and most precious of all, some sort of long barreled rifle including two hundred and forty cartridges to fit. Three cleaning kits. A loaf of bread, a block of only slightly rancid butter, six blankets from the jail cells, three pillows, and a couple of pounds of buffalo jerky.
Joe hadn’t waited for his leader to finish looting, but that was part of the plan. Rodney had taken a few minutes that felt like as many hours to empty the law enforcement center, but he could lead his laden pack horse at a trot. Joe needed as much of a head start as he could get, trying to take it as easy on his brother’s ribs as possible. The only thing worse than riding with broken ribs on a trotting horse would be laughing.
Keeping his own pace to a brisk walk until he was out of town and under cover along the creek, Rodney Upward did laugh, a release of tension as much as anything. He’d ripped the lawdog off good, but more than that, he’d also managed to rig the bar so that it fell into place when he jerked the door shut. Even without the locking bolt, it would take them a while to get that door open again. And he’d taken the keys to the cells as well, pitching them into the not yet frozen open water in the center of the creek just before reaching the copse where Joe and the rest of the horses waited, now fully equipped with the finest tack Lower Valley town had to offer. Heck, if that fire did its job, they were equipped with the only tack the town had to offer!
Creeks. Heh. Sure was handy for raiders on the run, that human tendency to build near water. Nice of the Founders to pick a valley with so many little waterways rushing down from the higher peaks, too. Downright accommodating.
He glanced at the sky, calculating. They had little more than an hour before first light, but it should be enough. It was warming up; by noon the snow would be melting, making it that much more difficult to differentiate one track from another. With the fire encouraging townsmen to run all over the place like chickens with their heads cut off, picking up their trail now would be no easy thing. His hand moved to caress the butt of the revolver, a loving stroke any woman would appreciate. The authorities would have to open the armory to access weapons that could match what the Demons now carried, let alone exceed their firepower. Yes, relying on decades-old ammunition not to misfire, that might be an iffy proposition, but it beat trying to shoot posses with a stupid bow and arrow.
His father would have been proud of him…had he not murdered the old raider in cold blood, of course. There was that.