“Tell Sara I was thinking about her.”
–Last words of Zebediah Smith, spoken to Julia Gunderson Jade, circa 41 AF
The single string of green broncs plus all four pack strings were lined out on the trail, nearly a quarter mile from end to end with the lead string long since lost in the timber, when we set torches to the buildings. Zeb himself fired the house, Michael handled the huge barn, and I darted among the smaller outbuildings, arson incarnate. Then we walked as quickly as possible to where our horses were tied to separate trees, down by the trail. The need for speed included a desire to get on with our scouting duties as well as the advisability of putting a bit of distance between our mortal selves and the multi-pronged blaze we’d initiated. Thank the Creator it was overcast and raining; the clouds would keep enemy eyeballs from seeing the smoke and the sky juice would keep the inferno from escaping the headquarters clearing.
Still, we had to stop once we’d reached our mounts and climbed into the saddles. There’s something about devastation on this level of ferocity; you just can’t not look.
At first, it seemed like none of us was going to speak, but Michael finally did. “We need to figure out a way to make our buildings fire resistant.”
Zebediah Smith, watching the fruit of his family’s labors go up in massive, black mushroom clouds of sooty smoke, showed no expression at all as the home where his sons had been born crackled into brief life worthy of the tenth level of Hades. “I know a way,” he said without inflection, “if we can find a clay deposit somewhere near the Roost.”
“Clay, huh?” It was obvious my mate’s mental cogs were turning, though he never took his gaze from the blaze.
“Clay, or limestone. Have to crush the limestone, but we find that, I’ll teach y’all how to make stucco cladding.”
We couldn’t have loitered for more than a few minutes, by which time every building was fully engulfed. None of the precious goodies the Smith family had left behind would survive to nourish any Raiders who might come along; we had to be satisfied with that.
Less than an hour later, the rain didn’t seem like such a blessing. Thunder rolled, frequently overwhelming the lesser noises made by unhappy weaner pigs and equally discontented chickens in the rearmost pack string; the noise made our jobs as scouts that much more difficult. The trail itself, packed down hard by years of game hooves, was slick but passable. We three didn’t get to use that nearly enough, unfortunately. Our duties took us out through the trees as often as not, Zeb trotting among the dripping pines until he reached the front of the convoy and took up his point position, well out ahead of the rest of us. I rode drag at times, but dropped back frequently, Appy slip-sliding among the evergreens as I did my best to make sure no bad guys snuck up on us from behind. Michael had it the worst; he roamed the right flank, downslope a bit from the bunch of us, scouting full time. My man was uneasy, and so was I. Old man Smith probably was, too, but I couldn’t read him like I could read Michael. Besides, Zeb and I wouldn’t be seeing each other much until we reached the Roost, except for our one necessary night stop on the trail.
Not that there were necessarily enemies close at hand. It was just that such a long multi-string of animals, with the eight of us strung out single file for such a long distance…it would make any sensible person nervous. The inclement weather did help, and quite a bit at that. Raiders in general were no more eager to go foraging in the rain than anybody else, and visibility was cut down dramatically–especially on these wooded slopes where not that much sun got through on even a clear day. So our adversaries, if they were out there, couldn’t see us until we got awfully close.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t see them, either.
And the sound was very much not in our favor. Even worse, if we were attacked, it was going to be extremely difficult to come to each other’s aid, especially without losing one or more of the pack strings. Michael’s occasional appearances, when he popped up out of nowhere to ride close to me for a minute or two, did give me quite a bit of reassurance. He rode hyper-alert, using his eyes, watching his horse’s ears, the .358 Winchester in its saddle boot and an AK-47 carbine angled across his lap, the barrel tipped down slightly to keep rain from running down the barrel. A companion AK rode with me; between us we could surprise the everloving Dickens out of any Raiders who thought to overwhelm us with superior numbers.
If we saw them coming. Michael’s alertness was contagious; my head was on a swivel. Nothing to see but the big-spotted rump of the pinto pack horse ahead of me.
The animal’s panniers, the lids formed of chicken wire to allow the birds plenty of air, were loaded with chickens young and old. Plus point for the rain: As soon as the feathered critters realized they weren’t getting out of the wet–thank goodness there were a few holes drilled in the bottoms of those panniers–they hunkered down and mostly shut up, the younger chicks finding relatively warm, dry shelter under the wings of the mother hens, all of them becoming so quiet that I wondered if they were still alive. The pigs, riding atop horses in the forward part of the string, failed to follow suit. If they weren’t squealing, they were grunting. Or pooping, and the smell wafted straight back to pretty much stop up my sinuses. Pig poop has never been my favorite perfume. There was no way to tell what time of day it might be, but space was another matter. Even in this high timber country, there were landmarks.
When Appy and I passed the two huge, mossy boulders with the deadfall lying atop them like a bridge, or maybe a doorway into another world, I knew we were nearly at the clearing where we’d be stopping briefly to check the horses and their loads, cram a bit of jerky into our mouths, and get going again. On a clear day, we’d likely build a fire and heat up a pot of tea, but not under the Niagara Falls of the Gods like this.
In fact, the lead string should be turning off the trail any moment. Old Zeb Smith loomed up out of the rain to tell me as much. “Michael’s spelling me at point for a bit,” he explained. “Giving me a bit of a break. Thought I’d ride back on the upslope side, let you know we’ll be lunching momentarily.” He turned to angle back through the dripping trees, as vigilant as ever despite being soaked to the skin as I knew we must all be. Certainly I was, and my Gunderson buckskins were as good as any.
There was no excuse for it, but what with the unrelenting downpour and all, maybe my attention drifted just a little. I turned Appy back around for one last backtrail check, rode back the way we’d come, just around a single bend in the trail.
And ran smack into the Raiders.
The lead guy was just as startled as I was. Despite our caution and jittery nerves, I hadn’t really figured the outlaws would be ambitious enough to go a-hunting in this weather. Likely the gang had gone to Smith Mountain and found nothing but ashes and charred timbers. Or maybe they’d gotten there while the blaze was still going.
Not that it made any difference. I jerked Appy’s reins to turn him a bit, bringing the AK-47 to bear, but their point man was faster. We weren’t more than twenty yards apart. His features were clear, all pointy-nosed and squint-eyed, a weasel with a vole in sight. Left handed, too, but his long gun was in the saddle boot. He didn’t need that, jerking a short shooter from under his coat, drawing faster than I believed a man could move. I’d always figured those Old West gunslinger fast draw tall tales were just that, but obviously not. His piece belched flame and Appy screamed, went to bucking, trying as hard as he could to run off through the downslope timber. Maybe because I’d turned the animal, the shooter had missed me but tagged my horse somewhere. Or maybe he’d just hurried his shot a mite too much; twenty yards is farther than you think when it comes to pistol combat.
Not that I was thinking about any of that; I had all I could do to control my ride. Trying to shoot back was out of the question. I managed to hang on to the AK, but that was about it. Appy juked hard to the left, nearly slinging me out of the saddle. I didn’t see the low branch until too late; the fir limb clocked me upside the head and I was gone, off the horse–just enough awareness left to know that at least I hadn’t hung up in the stirrups as I crashed to the ground, mashing my right arm under my chest and ramming my gut right down on the hard steel of the carbine. Knocked the wind right out of me. With that plus the stars I was seeing, the over-brightness of the world as it appeared right then, I knew I was out of the fight and probably a dead woman; surely the Raider would make certain of his kill. Blast it, I was trying to move, to get the rifle out from under me, but my body wasn’t listening. Fickle thing. The thought ran through me: From mud to mud! Not the funniest thing on Earth, but it seemed hilarious at the time.
Then the guy who’d shot me was right there, standing over me, incongruously blocking some of the rain for the moment. “Danged if you ain’t a female!” His ejaculation of surprise was genuine, but not enough. High voice for a badman; bet he got beat up a lot as a kid. “Too bad we ain’t got time to tie you up.”
I stared up at him, no doubt still glassy eyed, still half stunned from the head hit. His short shooter came to bear almost lazily. At least he was aiming at my head, about as merciful a death as one could hope for under the circumstances.
Suddenly his coat jumped, punched forward in half a dozen places, holes appearing by magic. The distinctive chatter of a rapid fire rifle played in my ears like the sweetest music Heaven ever recorded; I watched him fall forward, landing across my legs, pistol dropping from his hand.
That hadn’t been an AK, though. The smaller caliber black rifle, the M16 Zebediah Smith carried? Had to be. He’d lifted that from a National Guard armory on his way out of a dead civilization, more than forty years earlier. That, and ammo that still fired reliably, remaining supplies of the .223 caliber cartridges weighing down one of the pack horses. My savior must have had a hunch.
And I needed to help him now. His weapon was still firing, more measured in its cadence than before. From the sounds of it, the whole King Arthur gang must be here, spreading out through the trees. No matter how good Smith was, he wouldn’t be able to hold out alone for long.
Thankfully, Weasel Face was a runt; getting out from under his corpse was less difficult than I’d feared. I had no idea where Appy had gotten to, so no extra magazines, but my carbine was loaded with a full thirty rounds. At a guess, there would be Raiders flanking the entire length of our convoy if they could, though that was a long run and they’d be stretched pretty thin.
I’d never really believed they’d come up behind us like that, and I cursed myself for not believing. But not for long. Survive now. Self flagellate later.
Leaving the timber for the open trail would be pure suicide. As near as I could tell, Zeb was on the other side, hunkered down…pinned down was more like it. I ghosted from tree to tree, ignoring the headache that was trying to blind my left eye. Vision was okay out of the right, and that would have to do. I shot right-eyed anyway.
There! Two of ’em, sneaking up on Zeb, altogether unaware of me in my prone position as I lay on the carpet of dead evergreen needles and stroked the trigger. Couldn’t afford to waste any ammo, so only one full metal jacket per target, but my Daddy hadn’t taught me to hunt for no good reason. Two down, both shot clean through both lungs. Three down, counting Weasel Face.
It went on like that for…approximately forever. Early on, there’d been distant firing, a lot of it, from what had to be somewhere near the front of our group. We’d been surrounded somehow. Had that been Michael? Had he prevailed, or was he dead? I couldn’t stop to think or care; intense focus was all that was keeping Zeb and me alive.
For now. I didn’t think we were going to last much longer. Our enemies were just too many, and they weren’t stupid. Zeb knew where I was now, in a general sense. I didn’t stay in any one place long. Shoot and move, shoot and move. Watch my back, too; my Mama didn’t raise no fool. Caught one fat fellow trying that, but he was looking too high. Easy target, too.
But still. Too many. Zeb was still firing to deadly effect, but he hadn’t moved. It finally dawned on me that maybe he couldn’t move, that he’d soaked up some lead that had him anchored in one spot. I couldn’t leave him, so my movement, though frequent, was limited in scope. The noose kept tightening. I started wishing I knew an Indian death song; it was about time to start singing.
A bunch of things happened all at once.
–Two new shooters joined the fray on our side. Michael’s distinctive AK-47 for one. He lives! The other had to be Mace’s big bore hunting rifle; none of the other Smith weapons I’d seen could have produced a roar like that.
–A surprising number of enemy fighters either screamed and died or retreated on the run. They obviously hadn’t counted on us getting reinforcements.
–A man’s bass bellow rang out, clearly heard by one and all. “Round Table! To me! Round Table! To me!” King Arthur himself. Had to be. I got a glimpse through the trees of a big man, tall and wide both, with a bushy black beard. Only a glimpse, or I’d have put a bullet through him. The Raider leader was no fool; he did not lead from the front. Whether or not his woman was with him, I had no idea.
We gathered around Zeb. He’d been shot all right. Shot to rags. Alive only through sheer will power. I plopped my weary wet butt down beside him, gathered him in my arms while Mace and Michael squatted nearby, on guard. The old man didn’t resist; his shooter slipped from his hands as his entire body went slack.
But he wasn’t quite gone yet. “You saved my life,” I told him softly.
“Worth the price of the whistle.” He smiled through the pain, except I was pretty sure he was already beyond pain. Blood transferred itself from his leaking body to my slippery wet buckskins; I didn’t notice. “Got…” He paused for a brief moment, gathering his will. The Beyond was calling, but he had something to say. “Keep an eye out for Mace, would ya? He’ll take this hard.”
I nodded. “I will.”
“The others…they’ll manage. Mace and me…had issues. Sara…. Tell Sara I was thinking about her.”
I squeezed his hand. “I will.”
He was gone. His head lolled, coming to rest against my breast.