The downhill run from 24 Peak’s Sentinel outpost turned out to be as easy as the uphill climb had been difficult.
Rousted from his blankets along with the other students at first light, Dawg found his tiger claw wounds already on the mend, his shoulder stiff but manageable and the pain level no more than a throbbing ache, maybe a four on a scale of one to ten. The three Sentinels scheduled to go off duty were already packed and ready to ride except for breakfast. As his charges huddled around the fire pit, shivering and scarfing down hot sausage and flatbread, one of the outgoing Sentinels, the grizzled fellow who had treated Dawg’s wounds, identified himself as Younglook Torrington, the leader of the homebound contingent.
“You folks all slept right well,” he continued, “so you didn’t get to see what we were up to during the night. Usually you would have, but we figured you’d had enough excitement for one day and needed your beauty rest, being new to this sort of thing. Hoss and Jimmers and I were tending fire, you might say.
“See, once dark sets in, and if the fog hasn’t rolled, the night’s fairly clear and all, Sentinel Peak Outpost and our Lower Valley headquarters have a way of communicating. At each end, one man tends a nice, solid fire that can be seen easily from the other end. Then we use a blanket to block the brightness, and depending on how many times we cross the blanket in front of the fire and how long we do it each time, there’s a code. Before, they called it Morse Code. Fort 24 was fortunate; one of the Founders knew Morse well and taught it to others. Every Sentinel has to know the code. It’s all dots and dashes, and the sequences can be used to form words, sentences, et cetera.”
The students all nodded dutifully but weren’t really paying attention–until Younglook’s next words, which transfixed them. A couple even forgot to keep chewing the food in their mouths.
“The renegade kid, Rodney? No, they ain’t caught him yet. In fact, he’s on a tear, raided the Gunderson place twice of all things, home invaded an older couple, took all their stuff, likely torched the saddler, and even busted their partner who’d been wounded out of the Marshal’s jail.” A corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Don’t be looking at me like that, y’all. I’m just reporting what the signals had to say. We manned the code fires till the light started coming up. Nobody is sure where the outlaw gang is at this moment, so we’ll need to pay a bit of extra attention on the way home. Conventional wisdom would say they’re running by now, but this bunch is obviously anything but conventional. Dawg, he was in your Orientation class, wasn’t he?”
Now, how did he know that? Such a tiny detail for a Sentinel manning this most remote outpost to have acquired. “For about five minutes, he was,” the teenager agreed around a mouthful of breakfast.
With the Upward gang running amok and nobody really sure about the tiger situation, the crew heading home was keyed up more than a little…only to be disappointed. When they stopped at the site of the big cat’s attack, they found nothing; the entire horse’s carcass was gone. Nobody said anything, but they were thinking. There were other large predators in these mountains, but the most likely horse carcass mover had to be another tiger. The cub they’d seen had been too small to get it done and the big tigress had been too seriously wounded.
Which meant there was probably a daddy tiger out there somewhere, but they saw no sign of him. Nor did they run across any outlaws, who would have been unlikely to tackle such a heavily armed group in the first place.
They were home by noon.
“Good,” he was told by the Sentinel Captain who greeted the returning group as they were off-saddling. “You students can all make it to your afternoon classes.”
Dawg and Lantern Jaw Hank exchanged a wry look and got to work, ignoring the audible groans from the others. Whining was going to get anybody anything worthwhile.
Their class schedules were all different. After grabbing a quick bite of lunch, Dawg left the stable and double-timed it to his one o’clock. Later, he’d have to look at his notes to remember what it was about. By the time the sun was closing in on the western peaks, he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just Law Enforcement lecture to go and he’d be done for the day. The classroom was on the second floor, down at the end of a fairly lengthy hallway, and–what was that sound?
Music. It had to be music. He’d heard music before, both in his early childhood and during his later slave years. The beat of hide-covered drums, the haunting tones of hand-carved flutes made of various materials, but this? This was something different. Far different. And it seemed to be coming from that down-hall classroom, enough magic that at least half a dozen musicians had to be involved.
He glanced around. No one else was here yet; he’d arrived a few minutes early. Slipping forward, holding his breath, afraid to disturb whoever was making that sound, he eased down the hall, silent as a tiger hunting in snow. The sound was in his blood, stirring him in ways he’d never been stirred before, as powerful as a come-hither look from a pretty girl but stroking different emotions.
And then the voice cut in. Strong, male, joyous and soaring, a beauty he’d never considered possible from a human throat…and the lyrics were clear.
I have a thing for dangerous women
Who will stand up in a fight
Help me take down the enemy
And make sure things turn out right
I don’t need no wimpy doormat
I don’t need no country mouse
Give me a girl with a bladed weapon
Who can cut my troubles out
The voice stopped, the other music picking up volume again. Dawg risked a glance back toward the stairwell. Blast, there were other students already climbing the stairs. Nothing for it, then. He took the final two steps, turned into the classroom–and came face to face with Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek. The big man was leaning on the teacher’s desk, stroking some kind of oddly shaped wooden box topped with…wires? The sound couldn’t all be coming from that single hunk of shiny blond wood, could it?
But it was. It clearly was.
Jake stopped playing and placed the instrument gently into a hinged case made of some hard black material. Dawg had never seen anything like that before, either. Not wood, not metal–except maybe the hinges were.
“It’s called a guitar.” The big man had read his mind. “From Before. I’ve never found anyone in this era who knows how to make one. I snagged this sweetheart during a trading run a couple of years back when we dared to challenge the gods of evil and explored a town west of here, over on the other side of the mountains. But the strings on it, those wire things I was strumming, they were shot. Just found out one of our guys found a batch on his second summer run and saved them for me. At a fair trade, of course.” He gave a wry grin. “No Trader gives anything to another Trader for free. A pretty girl, she might take one of us for everything we’ve got, but we’re pretty tight fisted when dealing with our own. It’s a mark of honor, sort of.”
“What about the song? Did you write it?” Dawg’s question came tumbling out in a bit of a rush; he didn’t have much time. The other class members were mere steps away from the classroom now.
“Nah. It was a popular song once, came out the year before the first Capriosi vilify hit the news, by the High Country Hard Hat Band. I was just a kid, but I memorized it right off.”
Out of time; the others were filing in. Dawg grabbed a seat, right down front this time so as to catch every word the teacher tossed out. If Big Jake was the lecturer, it must be important; it wasn’t like the man didn’t have anything else to do.
They all knew who this giant Founder was. There wouldn’t be anyone dozing off, that was for sure.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Sedlacek began without preamble once they were all seated. “Law enforcement at Fort 24 is a multifaceted gem…except by the stars that shine and all that’s holy, right now law enforcement in our valley is looking like a fistful of fool’s gold in the pan of a desperate prospector. But.” he waggled a beefy finger at them, “Think you not for one second that this means our Sentinels who have remained two jumps behind Rodney Upward and his merry band of misfits, nor Marshal Bledsoe and his veteran jailer who were hornswoggled most thoroughly…no, think not that any of these men are fools. I personally know every one of them and there isn’t an idiot in the bunch.
“So then…what’s the real deal here? I bet you’d all like to know that, eh? Eh?”
Dawg risked a glance around the room. Yeah, we’d all like to know that. There weren’t many students present, fewer than a dozen, but small audience or not, Grunt had their undivided attention.
“Here’s what we know, folks. We know that our rapscallion redhead is on the run with his gang, including the seriously wounded Jay Dotson whom you would think ought to slow them down. We know that after raising seven kinds of unholy hell from here to Upper Valley town and back with at least one robbery in between, all accomplished in less that 48 hours from the starting point at Holdover House, the gang has escaped the valley.”
There was a collective gasp, a group intake of breath. One young woman in the back gasped, “What?!”
Big Jake nodded her way. “That’s right, my dear. The self-styled Demons left the valley in an uproar, boogieing on outa here, astride some of the best horseflesh our breeders have to offer, loaded down with enough weaponry to wage war on a significant scale, carrying all sorts of stuff with them–but without, so far as our people have been able to determine, enough food to feed a scrawny rabbit. None of us are certain as to why this is so. Oh, we’re not as surprised as we should be about them slipping out past our Sentinel line. After all, the valley has more than fifty miles of heavily forested perimeter and fewer than a dozen Sentinels to cover that much country at any given time. As it happened, Upward’s repeated lightning fast forays within the valley had pulled half of those off the line for posse duty–which was probably planned.”
The teacher paused, sitting on one front corner of his desk, studying his audience. It looked like he might be waiting for a question or even a comment from one of the students, but nobody had the temerity to speak up. For a long moment, the silence was palpable, interrupted only by the scratching of Dawg’s pen. No one else seemed to be taking notes. They just sat there, staring, one boy’s knee bouncing nervously under his desk.
“Cat got your tongues, eh? Well, let me enlighten y’all. This is the way law enforcement works. It doesn’t often stop crimes from being committed. Mostly, it reacts after the fact, putting a stop to a criminal’s nefarious activity only after some identifiable harm has already been done. So don’t any of you get your panties in a wad.”
Panties? Dawg wasn’t even sure what those were.
Their guest lecturer went on to explain that parents might stop trouble before it started if they had an unruly kid, providing they knew enough not to spare the rod and thus spoil the child, but other than that society functioned by stopping bad actors only after they’d acted badly…and now they had an identifiable bad actor to stop. Steps were being taken, the unfortunately disorganized pursuit was being organized, but the problem was manpower.
At that point, another man entered the classroom, followed by a striking young woman.
“Class,” Jake said, “may I present Tommy and Julia Gunderson.”
Along with the rest of the students, Dawg turned to study the newcomers. Tommy stood right at six feet, somewhere around 190 pounds of flexible steel. His eyes kind of shifted color, housed in a skull with high cheekbones and a jaw prominent enough to use as a plow. Broad shoulders, long limbs, thick waist. He didn’t really walk into the room but prowled like a cougar, lithe and sinewy, a man of maybe thirty who could likely take an axe handle across the eyes and keep on coming.
The woman, though, she was something else. Mid-twenties or thereabouts, female pulchritude in its prime, five-seven or eight and curvy, though likely not lacking muscles of her own, the way she handled herself. Mrs. Tommy? No, this Julia had those same shifting-color eyes, that same big-cat-on-the-move stride in her form fitting buckskins, albeit in a far more attractive package than her…brother? Yeah. Definitely brother. Both Gundersons were heavily armed, but it took no time at all for Dawg to forget all about the male of the species. Man, that girl was built! No slender willow this one, but sturdy, quick if she needed to be, and lord help him, he was in love. The long knife at her right hip was not made for fighting, just killing; it didn’t even have a crossguard. On the other side, set up for a crossdraw from a well worn leather holster…that had to be a Before revolver. Did the Gundersons own such treasures, or had the armory been opened to them? The hilt of a back-slung sword over her shoulder, the scabbard’s strap crossing under her left–
“What’s the word, Tommy?”
It took Dawg a second or two to get his head back in the game. What–
“We just got back in,” Tommy Gunderson began, stopping near Grunt’s desk and planting his feet like a full set of tree roots. Odds were an average guy could take a running start at the fellow and just bounce off. “Stopped by to see Crush Miller; he went with us to get access to the armory.”
So that answered that question….
“Took us all day to cut that renegade’s trail, Jake, but we done it. Sentinels were working in close, so we finally trusted our intuition and circled out wide. The gang slipped out through the timber between Sentinel patrols and headed for Weeping Widow Waterfall. Crush said he’d set everything right if you’d be willing to lead a detachment after them. Ain’t no doubt in our minds that they made it to the waterfall today. We can pick up their trail from there at first light.”
Dawg found himself full of questions. Fortunately, Sedlacek took his responsibilities as a guest lecturer seriously. “We got all night to get there, then?” Tommy nodded. “Then I can afford to take a few minutes to bring the class up to speed.”
He turned to address the group. “What we have here is a joint effort to make Fort 24’s law enforcement effective under extremely challenging conditions. It’s been agreed unanimously by the Council that we cannot afford to simply let these criminals escape and that they must be brought to justice, meaning a bullet, a blade, or a rope, no matter how far they run. The property they stole is the least of it, though replacing some of what they took would not be all that easy. More importantly, they’ve flaunted our laws and as a society we cannot afford to let a bad example like that stand. Most importantly, they know too much. It is never a good idea to let unprincipled people out into the world who can give potential enemies information about what we have that might be worth taking or, worst of all, how our defenses are laid out, where our weak points might be.
“But Fort 24 can’t just take a hundred men, or even a dozen, and go chasing after them, either. Marshal Bledsoe’s crew is needed to keep the peace internally, right here in the valley, and frankly few of them would last on the trail even if they were available. The Sentinels guard the valley’s perimeter but don’t really have enough men to do even that as effectively as we’d like. The Gunderson family is more than willing to contribute, but–well, you tell them, Julia. You’re the family’s expert on logistics, right?”
The woman took off her winter hat, running a hand through shoulder length sungold hair, making Dawg wish she’d let him do that. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call me an expert, but it’s simple enough. Our place has been attacked, twice, and one of us–Gabriella–has been wounded, so we’re not about to be left out of this one. But this is the time of year we call Gunderson Christmas, when everybody and his hound wants to go hunting. As hunting guides, we earn a huge percentage of our income right here, right now, during this next month and a half, give or take, until the snows get too deep and the game starts to either starve our move down to lower country. The elk especially are already drifting down out of the high country in droves; we can pretty much guarantee even a novice hunter will get his winter meat in a day or two at most.”
Julia paused, her gaze sweeping the room. “I don’t know how many of you run your own business operations, but for us, if we miss this, it’ll end up being a hard winter or worse. So most of us have to stay home, tend to the townspeople who maybe don’t even know one end of a crossbow from another, and make sure they keep their families fed. Dad can’t leave–which is driving him crazy, but he can’t. The rest of us drew straws. so the Gundersons can donate the two of us, no matter how long the chase takes. We will hunt down the rat bastards who hurt our sister, but we’re not stupid enough to think we can do it alone.”
Jake nodded his thanks, then finished his explanation. “Few Fort 24 families have anyone suited for what promises to be a long, hard trail with no guarantee of coming home. Some of the Traders could manage well enough, their winter responsibilities aren’t all that onerous, but except for me, they won’t.”
Wait a minute. Dawg raised his hand. “Um, are you saying the posse will consist of, what, just the three of you?” From the corner of his eye, he saw a couple of raised Gunderson eyebrows at his usage of the word just, but it was too late to take it back. Open mouth, insert manure stained boot.
“That’s right.” The big man gave him a look freighted with meaning, though he couldn’t decipher it. “Unless you’d like to make it four.”
“I’m in.” The words hung in the air, laughing at him. He’d had no idea he was going to volunteer for such a thankless task. Still, despite the prospect of sleeping rough in winter weather with a sore shoulder for possibly months on end while waiting for an arrow, a bullet, or a crossbow bolt to find him in the dark…no, he wasn’t exactly sorry he’d said it.
He just hoped he didn’t end up making a fool of himself in front of Julia Gunderson. That, he was pretty sure, would hurt far more than a knife in the gut.