Despite being determined to honeymoon in the ruined house on Cold Ass Creek for as long and lazily as possible, we were both restless and ready to hit the trail by the morning of Day 7. Frankly, I was more than a little sore from our loving and figured a saddle would feel good for a change. Not that I was about to mention this to my honey. He might have taken it as a compliment or he might not. Mama Ruth might deplore my tomboy-warrior ways, but she understood men. “You have to be cautious when it comes to their egos,” she’d told us more than once during our formative years. “If you’re not absolutely certain, keep your lips zipped.” I’d rolled my eyes every time she’d said that, but secretly I’d been listening.
Besides, give me a day on the trail and I’d be as good as new, hungering for more. My libido is powerful and I heal fast.
“Ready, babe?” Michael stood beside the roan, reins in hand, waiting for me to finish checking Appy’s cinch. The sneaky gelding always blew up his belly while I was pulling the latigo. A greenhorn would have missed that, resulting in a loose cinch and the saddle spinning down off his back the minute boot was set to stirrup. Not that we Gundersons minded; more than one obnoxious customer had ended up flat on the ground because we “forgot” to warn him about that. My man had seen something similar during his field trip to Sentinel Peak Outpost, though he hadn’t thought it was particularly funny.
“Just about,” I grunted, yanking the latigo up another two inches plus. Had we been in a hurry, I’d have kneed the silly thing when his belly was all puffed up, causing him to exhale abruptly. But we’d had the pack string to hook up, so I’d let my mount think he’d gotten away with it until it was time to go. He never was smart enough to puff up a second time.
Beauty conquers beast.
We stepped into our saddles as one, so slickly coordinated we could have performed as a two person drill team for public exhibition. Not deliberately; our minds were simply in synch that way.
Michael took point, the light barely enough to see by as the yet-unrisen sun hid behind a dull gray overcast sky. Still, his head swiveled back and forth, not constantly but frequently, scanning forward, left, right, and keeping an eye on his horse’s ears. Where those ears pointed, a rider had best be investigating.
Cold Ass Creek, frozen over as it was, wound generally northward through flat areas interspersed with low, rolling hills. Or rather, the stream bed headed southward, but we were traveling upstream toward the source of the watercourse. There was no trail as such, at least not that could be seen through an average eight to ten inches of snow on the ground. With the draw formed by the creek impassable for the most part, choked with brush and occasional stands of cottonwood trees, Michael chose to forge ahead on the east bank. Not a difficult route for our pack train, I thought, though no wagoner in his right mind would attempt it. For my part, once I’d made sure the pack horses were lined out and stepping right along behind me, I watched our backtrail. There shouldn’t be anybody else out here at all, but that’s what Rodney Upward thought.
And look where it got him.
Michael kept the pace slow but steady. It didn’t dawn on me until our midday lunch break that he was worried sick he’d miss the trail to Fort Steel. I had such faith in the man, it had simply never occurred to me. He’d selected a small, shallow hollow for our rest stop. No trees in sight, not even so much as a sage bush. A solitary crow winged overhead, without bothering to give us so much as a glance. With the horses catching a few bites of dried grass and our small fire warming a pot of tea and a skewer of frozen venison, I squatted across the blaze from my man and finally noticed the worry lines in his brow.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
He sighed, a long, slow exhalation like a bladder deflating. “Jules, we should have come across the Fort Steel trail by now. What if I missed it?”
Hm. “Do you really think that’s possible? You’ve traveled that trail, right? And it would have to be an obvious crossing at the creek, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, see, that’s where I’m at. Questions. Yes, I drove a wagon the entire length of the trail, but you saw how faint it was back where Rodney missed the fork. It all looks different under the snow. I was following Jesse’s wagon and maybe didn’t pay as much attention as I should have. Going one way doesn’t look the same going the other. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
The last thing he needed right now was a flip answer from me. I took my time, making it look like I was deep in thought. “Well…I don’t have any preconceptions one way or the other, but seems to me we haven’t passed a single spot where a wagon could have crossed. Either the banks down to the creek have been too steep or there’s been too much brush in the way or…no, Michael, I don’t think we’ve missed it. But.”
“But?” He looked wary, dreading what came next.
“But even if we did, we could just count it as part of our winter adventure. We have enough gear to survive no matter where we end up. We know that if we trek far enough north, we’ll run into mountains. At the worst, we won’t be lost…just maybe a little misplaced.” I grinned at him, my expression one of pure mischief. Let him make of that what he would.
“That’s true enough.” He smiled back at me. My grin did it every time; the man just could not resist it. “So I should quit worrying?”
“Nah. Keep on worrying. It makes you look all manly and stuff.”
She was right; I shouldn’t have worried. Not that her lighthearted analysis of our situation convinced me to cease and desist, but the Fort Steel trail popped up big as life and twice as unmistakable a mere hour north of our lunch stop. By unmistakable, I mean the lightning-riven cottonwood snag on the west bank was hard to forget. We had paused just long enough to water the teams here, then rolled on eastward another several miles before making camp that day. A wolf pack had howled in the distance, smack dab in broad daylight, but they’d been well to the north and heading away. The rear axle on my wagon had begun creaking the moment we exited the water, prompting Kiko to nag me to grease it that night. I’d greased both axles, a task that required levering each corner up enough for the wheel to clear the ground, unbolting the wheel, smearing grease around the axle and into the hub, and replacing the wheel before moving on to the next one.
It had been so late when I’d finished that I’d had to forego my spear forms practice that one night. Drove me crazy.
Once Julia and I knew we were on the right trail, we fell into a routine. Pitch camp as the light was failing, hobble the horses, warm up, eat, get some sleep, roll out before dawn, eat breakfast, load the packs and saddle our riding mounts, head ’em up, move ’em out, travel till noon, take a break, trek on until dusk. Rinse and repeat. The weather stayed gray for days, then turned clear and even colder, then warmed up and snowed. Rinse and repeat. I lost track of the number of days we traveled and had to ask Julia how long it had been. She laughed at me for my forgetful nature on that one count, but she always knew. My human calendar.
Nineteen days it had been, nearly three weeks since leaving our honeymoon hotel on Cold Ass Creek. Nineteen days, two separate storms, drifts that had slowed us down, but we were here.
“This is it,” I said, stepping down from Roan. “The campsite on Trickle Creek.”
Julia looked around with interest. “This is where you were freed by Grunt, right? And Doc Weathers showed up to unmask Weasel as a spy for Fort Steel?”
“Yep.” Every detail of this place was burned into my brain like a hot iron on a cow’s hide, but it looked way different in winter without any leaves on the trees. I’d have to rethink our defensive strategy. This close to Fort Steel, eight or nine hours at a steady walk for the horses, we couldn’t take any chances. Captain Finster’s troops had never run patrols out this far in the past, but things could have changed. “We have to keep watch from here on in.”
“So, no sleeping together?”
“No sleeping at the same time at all. If you’re on watch and start to doze, just remember what happened to Red Horse’s people. They would have seen Upward’s bunch in time to do something about it…if they’d only been wary enough to post sentries.”
“Uh-huh.” My woman was assessing the site as thoroughly as I was, but with a different eye. We’d get the horses hobbled and camp set up before I took first watch. “Good thing we’ve had lots of snuggle time up to now, ’cause we’re not getting any more for who knows how long.” My mind was already casting ahead, my thoughts a thousand pebbles rattling around inside my skull. The enormity of the task I’d set for myself–for us–was just starting to sink in. The rest of my life was not going to be easy even if we succeeded.
A scary prospect, considering my first sixteen years and seven months had been such a cakewalk. Heh.
Thankfully, my watch came and went without any event more notable than the bowl of stew Julia brought out to me as soon as it was done cooking. My nerves kept me waking up even after she’d taken over, rifle in hand, sword at her side, her blonde hair concealed by a sheepskin-lined leather parka. Unable to sleep, I was up a good two hours before dawn, building up the fire before finding my mate ghosting around the perimeter. She was probably a more effective sentry than I was, but I wasn’t about to tell her that.
“If you’d care to warm up and cook breakfast, I’ll take over here,” I said quietly, my voice barely loud enough to reach her ear. She nodded, turned to head into camp, then stopped at my side.
“Been wolves through here.”
“When?” I had no idea how she’d figured that out in the dark, but I’d already learned not to doubt the woman’s skills.
“Long enough to kill the smell in this cold and freeze the scat, frost it up good, but since the last storm. So not since we’ve been here, but sometime within the last three days.”
“Okay.” It would be too much to hope she’d been able to tell which way they were headed. Maybe after the sun came up, except we’d be moving by then.
“They came in from the northwest, milled around a bit, then turned and left toward the east. Toward Fort Steel.”
The same way we were headed. “How–”
“Touch, honey. Finger-tracking. It’s not a big pack. Four, five at the most. I couldn’t be sure of the exact number.”
She couldn’t be sure of– “Got it. Don’t suppose there’s much we can do about it, except stay alert.” I knew the girl had a sensitive touch, but come on.
“Just figured you should know.”
“Thanks.” Yeah, thanks, sweetheart. Just what I needed, another worry to add to my basket. I took up the slow patrol, pausing for long minutes at each cottonwood tree with a trunk big enough to disguise my silhouette, inching between them at a pace a three toed sloth from the picture books would envy, glacial enough to be mistaken for an unmoving stump by friend and foe alike.
Our small campfire was well hidden, no doubt one reason Grunt had picked this place. I’d made my third perimeter round when Julia gave a low hoot that sounded remarkably like a real owl, our prearranged signal to come and get it before she threw it out.
Why not? Though many a camp had been attacked under the light of the morning star, I seriously doubted anything nasty was close enough to give us trouble before we could eat, pack up, and get going. Coyotes were calling to the east of us, the gentle, almost mournful yells to locate each other. Had there been wolves in the area, the song dogs would have been utterly silent.
“Our first stop after lunch break should be at Graveyard Mesa,” I said around a mouthful of some kind of mush with venison bits in it. Oatmeal? They did grow oats at Fort 24, but I hadn’t realized we had–oh. She’d stolen some of the grain intended for the horses.
“Cheerful sounding name.” She didn’t look worried. The girl had way too much faith in me.
“What exactly we do when we get there, I don’t know yet. I’ve never even been there. But I do know the fork off the main trail that leads up to the mesa. No one at Fort Steel has ever dared break the taboo and actually enter the city, but some of the boys know about the graveyard. It’s part of their double dog dare mentality when they’re teens, especially during the spring in their last year of school. Sneak out of the fort, hoof it to Graveyard Mesa, and spend a night among the dead.”
“Boys,” Julia remarked, a heap of derision in her tone.
“Boys. In deep winter like this, they shouldn’t be a risk, but they do underscore the danger, the proximity to the enemy. One more small ridge after the mesa puts us in sight of Steel itself. A rifle shot is likely to be heard by Finster’s guards at the stockade gates if nothing else. If we run into something or someone and have to fight, your sword and my spears are our first line of defense. There’s no way we can outrun a five man patrol when we’re towing a string of pack horses behind us. Stealth is everything.”
“And that’s before we even enter the city?” She looked…excited? Had I hooked up with an adrenaline junkie? Huh.
“Nobody knows the city’s name?”
“Not the original. Unofficially, everybody calls it the Beast. From the Beast of Babylon in the Bible, or so one of the Christians told me. I don’t think most people have any idea where the name came from, though. It’s just the Beast to them, a monster to be feared and avoided, a place where Death and Destruction reigned as kings and to this day retain their crowns. Enter the belly of the Beast and ye shall die. Enter and return alive, and ye shall be shunned. Even if we find what we need in there, the finest weapons and ammunition Before money could buy, magical bombs and instruction manuals that teach us how not to blow ourselves up, we will be pariahs the moment anyone–anyone–realizes we’ve become Contaminated.”
It sounded worse when I put it into words.
“So,” Julia questioned, “we’re about to become the most hated people in the universe?”
“Well…maybe not the universe, but this little piece of what’s left of the world? Most definitely.”
“Close enough.” She stepped aboard her appaloosa and pulled her sword, extending it forward as far as it would go, a picture reminiscent of George Armstrong Custer charging the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Sioux at the Battle of the Greasy Grass. If George had taken his saber with him on that ill fated run. And if he’d been a woman. At least both of them had yellow hair, though my girl did fill her buckskins out some differently than old Iron Butt.
“Beastward Ho!” She grinned ear to ear, as crazy for the adventure as a young Evel Knievel outrunning cops through three states on his motorcycle long before he became famous. “Let’s Git ‘R’ Done!”