Absolutely nothing went according to plan. We left the girls sitting atop the horses, moved swiftly through the brush, located the boat I’d selected, and discovered to our dismay that it had no oars. The owner had hidden them. My telescope surveillance had missed that crucial fact. We couldn’t find them and had no choice but to move farther upstream, hoping some other boatman wasn’t as cautious. Which he wasn’t, but by the time we shoved off, we’d lost at least half an hour. That scared us badly. None of us had timepieces, but every extra minute had to feel like an extra hour to the juvenile horsewomen who had to wait for our signal.
The current was swifter than expected, forcing us to row like mad to avoid being swept down below the bridge. When we finally reached the far shore, we were exhausted, barely able to hold the boat still as we tried to get our breath back without making any noise, hanging onto stray exposed roots on the steep bank–so totally unlike the eastern side–to keep our stolen craft in place. How Swako’s heavily muscled appendage was doing, I had no idea, but my right arm was water, my hand barely able to make a fist around the inch-thick root. If the dwarf lost his hold, mine would slide off without hope.
As soon as I could breathe normally, I leaned back to whisper in my partner’s ear. “Can you hold us in place by yourself? I’ve got to signal the girls.”
“Go for it,” he whispered in return. He was still panting, sucking wind like crazy, so I wasn’t the only one in trouble.
My hands were trembling. Time and again, the tinder carried in an ancient Before tin can failed to catch. Another ten minutes lost. I was as frightened as I’d ever been in my life.
Finally. I blew on the baby fire, ever so gently. Added a few shavings to create a flame no bigger than the end of a cigar. Tipped the can toward our young coconspirators across the river, knowing that even the glowing tip of a cigarette could be seen a mile away on a dark night. With my free hand, I covered and uncovered the signal spark three times.
Then I pushed the fire can over the side of the boat, down into the current, and let the soggy remains float away. All we could do now was wait. Had the girls seen the signal? Could they would they do their part? Belatedly, I remembered to take hold of the root again, giving Swako what aid I could. But disaster was in the wind. My original plan had been to let our youngsters draw the guards out from their three-sided shelters, into the torch light on the bridge itself. There were only six of those torches, three on each side, illuminating the first twenty feet of the bridge proper. With the two men positioned as night-blind targets, I’d figured to use my throwing knives. Maybe not killing throws, but enough to disable them, enough to allow me to gain the deck of the bridge and finish the job.
I now realized that was not going to happen. Could not happen. Strength was slowly returning to my arms but fine coordination was another matter. There was no way I’d be able to throw straight. There was still my revolver, but gunfire in the middle of the might was all too likely to bring militia reinforcements boiling out of their barracks like ants from a kicked anthill. Besides, I was still shaky enough to maybe miss with the pistol, too.
No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Who was I quoting? Some warrior from a great historical distance; that’s all I knew for sure. That, and the fact that the knowledge provided no comfort whatsoever.
Not until I got to thinking about how badly I needed to pee did we hear the girls and horses coming across the bridge. They weren’t performing according to plan, either. Instead of walking the horses and talking as they rode, they were trotting the animals–which clatter-noised the bridge considerably on an otherwise quiet night–and singing. Half asleep or not, the guards couldn’t miss hearing that, and they didn’t. They were already moving into the light, not even bothering to close an eye to preserve some fraction of night vision. I couldn’t blame them. The singers were clearly children. The horses were clearly sizeable. It made no sense.
For far too long–five, six seconds maybe–I sat frozen in place, listening to the cheerful, carefree song delivery. I’d never heard the tune before. Likely the guards hadn’t, either.
Well, I came down there with my hat caved in
Oh I’ll go back home with my pocket full of tin oh doo-dah day
Goin’ to run all night, goin’ to run all day
I’ll bet my money on the bobtail nag, somebody bet on the bay.
Well, the Camptown ladies sing this song doodah doodah
Ah the Camptown race track’s five miles long oh doo-dah day
Goin’ to run all night, goin’ to run all day
I’ll bet my money on the bobtail nag, somebody bet on the bay.
Swako poked me in the back, unlocking my brain.
“Let it float under the bridge,” I whispered fiercely. “Jump up and grab the deck when she goes under.”
When a plan goes down the tubes, it’s time for a new plan.
There’s an old saying: White men can’t jump. I had to hope that saying was wrong because plan B required me to launch from the drifting boat–hopefully without capsizing the thing, since Swako couldn’t swim–and arrive on the deck with an oar in hand. Both guards had moved farther out than I thought they would, drawn by the siren song of two little girls.
Big Black nosed into the light and came to a sudden halt just as I made my move. The distraction couldn’t have been more perfect. My leap couldn’t have been more clumsy. For long seconds, I hung there, one arm thankfully hooked around a railing post, the other clutching my oar aka improvised quarterstaff. Whether or not the dwarf had managed to find purchase, I had no idea, but at least I hadn’t capsized the boat. I didn’t think.
At last I managed to pull myself onto the bridge surface, ignoring a couple of slivers that graced my face, and got slowly to my feet. Both guards had their backs to me. They were hunched forward just a little, peering into the darkness, trying to make out the dim outlines of Gwinnie and Pet as the younger girl drew Handsome up alongside her sister. I could practically smell the combination of lust and greed rolling off of the men. They really did deserve to die, but my brain had no time to consider a plan C. I drove forward, low and fast, powering my attack with my legs. The far side guard sensed something and started to turn. The rounded handle-end of the oar struck him in the chest like the kick of a horse, driving him back and over the low railing. The only sound he made was a resounding splash as he hit the water. His short-barreled carbine had still been in his right hand when he went over. Presumably, that was now heading for the river bottom.
My move had put the other man slightly to my rear, never a good thing. Assuming he would either take a swing or try to shoot me, I let go of the awkward oar and dropped nearly prone as I swiveled, my leg sweeping out and around in a fast-moving arc. I’d assumed wrong but had gotten low enough to save myself anyway; his kick–slow moving but powerful, delivered by a guard weighing at least two hundred pounds and wearing heavy boots–riffled my hair and knocked off my canvas hat but missed my skull by a millimeter or two. My low roundhouse, sweep kick did not miss. It took out his only pillar, the single leg he had in contact with the deck. I was back up by the time he hit the wood, moving to stomp his gun arm wrist. Scooping up the weapon, which turned out to be a shotgun, I stepped back just a bit, pointed it between his eyes, and gave him a choice. “Water or lead.”
Grimacing but not hesitating, the big man demonstrated his intelligence by rolling under the railing, off into the river, joining his buddy in a Huck Finn adventure, sans raft.
I looked around. Gwinnie and Pet were sitting their horses solemnly, silently clapping their hands in unison. Swako had just showed up, gaining the downstream side of the bridge deck, not that far from where the second guard had rolled off. “Nice work,” he said.
The boy courier was still asleep. We gathered around his sleeping position in one of the three-sided shelters, studying his face. He didn’t look much older than Gwinnie. Dark hair. Olive skin. Bruises on his face, some new, some old, all indicating severe abuse. I felt anger surge within me.
Gwinnie leaned over and said, “Hey, kid.”
Commotion on the bridge hadn’t gotten through to him at all, yet the girl’s soft voice did. His eyes blinked open. Alert, wary, a child who’d learned the hard way to remain still until he knew which way the wind was blowing. I had no idea what Gwinnie was thinking, but she already had a plan. “You wanna get out of Gatorville?”
He blinked again. “Where would I go?” No rejection of the idea, just unaware of any options.
“With us. A long way from here.”
Well. The girl was assuming a lot, wasn’t she? Or so I thought at first. Her next words taught me otherwise. “You’re an orphan.” A statement, not a question.
“So?” A bit of defiance.
“So is she.” She pointed at Pet. “And me. These two,” she indicated “are good men. They keep the bad guys from hurting us.”
Huh. A fairly succinct summary, I guessed.
Moments later, we were on our way. Two men, three kids, five horses and a pony. Big Black gave me a dirty look when I stepped up on one of the horses the guards would no longer be needing, but until I knew them better, the girls were not going to be put at risk. Swako didn’t have his special saddle, but he could survive until we found cover. The boy, whose name we didn’t know yet, had his pony. And glory be, we’d also managed to steal a perfectly healthy pack horse. The packer had been tied to the hitch rail with the others, complete with pack saddle and a pair of large leather bags, one hanging down on each side. We abandoned the bags. They were City owned, used to carry toll tribute back from the bridge to the Council’s counting house. Every citizen in Gatorville would know them on sight. I hated to pitch such well made leather into the river, but that’s what we did.
Now we had to find cover before guard shift change at dawn, preferably close to the exit bridge over Nameless River, on the far side of the city. Stupid me, we were nearly at the Nameless bridge before I thought to consult the newest member of our party. A battered orphan boy might know every hiding spot in town. Or he might not, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.
“What?” We were momentarily stopped in a vacant lot, protected from discovery by continuing darkness. It was starting to rain. Nothing threatening, just a light drizzle.
“You know the city well?”
“Um, better than most. I lived on the street for two years before going to work for Captain Martin.”
Two years? “How old are you?”
“Twelve. You have to be twelve before they’ll train you as a courier.”
Hm. He was a mighty small twelve year old. Maybe lied about his age to get the job? “Those bruises part of your training?”
He laughed, bitter, without humor. “Not ‘ficially. Older couriers. Bullies.”
That made sense. “Well, let me tell you what we need. We’re not going to tackle the western bridge right now, so we need a place to hide for a while.”
To his credit, he didn’t answer immediately. Unaware that I could see him clear as day, he stood there, thinking, eyes reflecting the calculations going on between his ears. Anyone who’d manage to survive alone at his age had to be sharper than the average tool in the shed. He didn’t intend to say anything stupid.
“Uncle Joe’s might work.”
“Uncle Joe’s? You have an uncle who let you end up on the streets?”
“No, no.” He waved both hands in negation. “It’s just called Uncle Joe’s. Biggest stable complex on the west side. Houses an awful lot of horses when it’s full. Brings in a lot of income. The owner’s related to somebody on the City Council, I think. When I was younger, before Pa died, it was just a little thing. They built the big new building alongside the old one but the old one is still there. I used to sleep in it sometimes. Nobody ever came in there to bother me.”
“Worth a try,” I decided.
SWAKO THE DWARF
It was easy to see why the old stable had remained undisturbed for years. Ancient, stale mushroom fertilizer (aka huge piles of old horse dung) supported endless tiers of fungi. Blind in the darkness like all but Milo, I needed only my nose to realize there were enough spores in the air to found a colony on Mars. There was room enough for us and the horses, tucked well away from the sagging door frame–there was no door left–so we should remain unnoticed after the sun rose, but that was about the extent of the horsey hovel’s advantages. There was no hay for the horses. No water, either.
Worse, I had no idea what Milo thought he was doing. The black rider didn’t do anything without considering consequences. That was good. I just wished he’d had time to fill me in on plan X, or whatever plan designation we’d reached by now. It certainly wasn’t the original, which had called for us to be off the Nameless River bridge and headed north by now. Hurry up and wait.
Milo and the boy huddled together. The girls were with me, one clinging to each leg. We could hear the low conversation.
“If I slip around the barracks, I can listen in. They always talk. They’ll say what the bosses think almost before they think it. Then I can come back, tell you if you’re right.” The kid was volunteering to go scouting.
“You don’t think they’ll spot you?”
“Not a chance.” Cocky. Street urchin confidence.
“I’ll be back by midday.”
He went, brushing past us in the darkness. On foot. A courier’s official pony would hardly be stealth-enabled, especially after one was known to be missing.
Seconds later, Milo whispered in my ear. “Break out the back wall. I’m following Mr. Helpful.”
They were both gone, then. Relief flooded through me. Our leader had not naively accepted the wily little Gatorvillian–Gator Villain?–as an ally after all.
“What did Milo say?” Gwinnie, on my right.
“He doesn’t trust your new buddy. Let’s move all the way to the back.” It was slow going, easing past the horses, feeling our way. Handsome wouldn’t strike at us and Black probably wouldn’t, but the new steeds were still unknown quantities.
“Ah.” I felt the rough, crumbling wood carefully. The back wall–maybe all of the walls–had been built by nailing bark-on slabs to cross-planks, two by sixes from the feel of them. There were cracks between the vertical slabs, indicating the departure of bark, the use of green lumber in construction long ago, or both. Surprisingly, I was able to push the slabs away. The builder had gone for cheap, using nails that were far too short to do the job properly. It was a wonder the structure had held together this long.
Now, what to do about the cross-planks? I needed to remove two of them if the horses were to pass through without tripping or bumping their heads. If I could get one end of each plank loose, leverage would bring the other end out easily enough. With a bit of nail-screeching, no doubt, but short and quick and nothing like the noise hammering would make.
My strength came into play. Ten minutes later, give or take, the planks were gone. The way was clear. “Got a back door now,” I whispered to the girls. “Always good to have a back door.”
“Even gophers know that,” Pet agreed. The three of us sat there, glad to have the work done but worried about Milo. None of us liked it much when he was absent. He was not only our leader, I realized, but the heart of our little crew. Not to mention being our Night Eyes.
Gwinnie spoke, sadness in her voice. “Why doesn’t Milo trust the boy?” We still hadn’t gotten the kid’s name, but then, he hadn’t gotten ours, either.
I squeezed her hand gently. “The kid’s lived here all his life. He wakes up to find a bunch of strangers leaning over him. The guards on duty have disappeared and he doesn’t dare ask where, or how, or if they’re even alive. He gets promised a new life, but far away from everything he’s ever known. One of the adults has a bald head and wears black clothing, neither of which is common. The other is a stump-legged freak dwarf, spawn of the Devil. The girls look okay but they’re kids like him and he knows nothing about them, either. This mob of strangers steals every horse in sight without blinking an eye. He’s used to people being harsh, using him, abusing him, or ignoring him, lying to him, but never just offering him a sincere helping hand. Tell me, honey, if you were in his place, what would you do?”
Gwinnie was silent for a long time before she said, “I never thought about all that.”
“Of course you didn’t. You and Pet grew up with parents who loved you even if they couldn’t work out their own problems. Your great grandfather adored you beyond all else. Then Pet’s Sight encourages you to join up with us and that’s worked out just fine. You come from different worlds. There’s no way you could have guessed about this boy.”
We all jumped a little. Man, that Milo could walk cat-footed when he wanted to. “You’re back already?”
“It’s been an hour or more. Okay, troops, here’s the deal. The boy ran straight for the militia barracks, fast enough I had to move my butt to keep up with him. But he didn’t go there to scout for us. He went to turn us in.”
Somebody drew a breath in sharply. I think it was me. “We have a back door.”
“I see that.” Oh. Yeah. I still forgot sometimes. “The newer stable building has three back exits to it. All of them, and this one you made as well, lead to a big, square corral. At the far end of the corral, there’s a gate, which I’ve already opened. They had a dozen horses wandering around there, mostly third rate stock. Reserve animals, I’m guessing. Maybe rentals for Sunday riders. We’re going to move our animals over into the new building, the far aisle. Plenty of empty stalls there, but also quite a few other horses in residence. The owner lives in that fancy house out front, the stable hands in a bunkhouse off to the far side. Nobody should hear us if we don’t talk above a whisper.”
Wow. The audacity of it. “The crowbaits…we’ll make sure they find that open gate?”
“They’re already investigating. Let’s get moving.”
Move we did, our hearts in our throats the entire time. How long it would take for a squad of heavily armed thugs to arrive, that was the unknown, and the unknown was a fearful thing, especially during the hours of darkness that both threatened and protected us. Except for Milo. In his case, anyone who wished to challenge him at night was asking for trouble.
On the way through the gap I’d made, I looked up. Stars showing now, here and there. Still mostly cloudy.
They came just before dawn, every other man carrying a torch to combat the darkest hour. Risky, I thought, considering the stables were built of wood. Straw and hay were everywhere. A single errant spark could send the whole complex up in flames, possibly even spreading to neighboring buildings. They had a mystery on their hands that scared them more than the possibility of wildfire.
We were boogeymen of the lowest order, minions from the depths of Hades.
It didn’t take them long to find the gaping hole in the old stable’s back wall. Their voices were raised, upset, easy to hear as the four of us crouched in three stalls, weapons at the ready in case Milo’s brilliance turned out to be not so brilliant.
“You sure the wall was intact?” A big voice, gruff and demanding.
“Yessir.” Boy’s voice, trying to project confidence but quivering. It would not go well with him, should the squad leader decide he was lying. “There wasn’t no hole there.”
“Lieutenant!” Different man, not so gruff. “The lumber’s piled right here. Ground’s stirred a bit. Recent.”
“So they went out the back.”
There was no way to identify the tracks of our horses in the mushroom-topped duff. It wasn’t long before the entire squad was following the tracks of a dozen aging equines through the open back gate and down an alley. Corralled for years with nothing to eat but dry hay, the missing horses were simply seeking greener pastures.
I hoped some of them found it.
The soldiers, if one could call them that, left the boy behind. He could do them no more good. I was impressed with Milo’s crazy-like-a-fox thinking. Who would guess fleeing felons might simply step a few yards sideways and hide in more or less plain sight? I was less impressed with his decision to grab the kid.
Not that it was difficult. When you can see and the other guy can’t, you have options.
Milo’s voice provided the first clue that he’d left the stable and returned. “Yell for help and I’ll cut your throat.” The menace in his tone convinced me; I had no doubt his young captive believed every word. “Now, we’re going to have a little conversation. Give me honest answers and you live. Lie and you die. Got it?”
“Mmf.” I guessed the boy had tried to speak through a hand held over his mouth.
“Question number one. What’s your name?”
“Hank. Hank Watterson.”
“Question number two, Hank. Would you really like to leave Gatorville if you believed we were telling you the truth? Or are you a city boy through and through?”
“I ain’t leaving town. Unless you make me.”
“All right. Fair enough. Tell you what, Hank. You tell me a few more things, the truth this time, and you’ll get to stay in Gatorville for the rest of your life. But again, don’t lie to me. My knife is sharp and my temper short.”
At last, a language young Hank Watterson could understand. He told us what we needed to know.
WESTERN BRIDGE (NAMELESS RIVER BRIDGE), GATORVILLE
Two men rode out just before daylight, early enough to avoid meeting stable lads getting ready for the day but late enough to join the first groups of travelers leaving the city at dawn. They looked nothing like the band of merry demons Hank had described to the authorities, the particulars of which were posted at both bridges. Big Black wore a white star on his forehead and one white sock, applied with paint found in the stable’s tack room. On his left hip, a faded but clearly visible–and very fake–brand stood out, the G O mark that identified a Government horse on Official business. Milo’s black clothing was stowed away, replaced by nondescript shirt and jeans in faded blue. He wore a blue bandanna wrapped snugly about his shaven scalp, giving him a rather piratical look. Next, Swako on Handsome, the jugheaded brown gelding as unattractive as the black stud was flashy. The dwarf rode his own saddle, but the stirrups had been let out. Earth tone work pants stuffed with straw and mostly covered by brown leather chaps disguised his stubby legs and the fact that the boots shoved through both stirrups were not covering human feet. That left his own feet to camouflage, a difficulty that was solved by hanging several bridles from the saddle horn and draping a blanket over the lot. The idea was to present Swako as a somewhat grubby, low-end trader and/or undercover envoy to some northern community, escorted and commanded by the official-looking Milo.
With his non-rein hand, Swako led three horses, all plain bays with no points, every horse hung about with filled packs. There was no sign of the girls. Just two men, one on official business and not to be messed with, the other a money grubbing nobody, subordinate to the man on the Government black.
The full complement of ten guards saluted Milo as they passed out of Gatorville. Milo didn’t even look at them. They didn’t even look at Swako. Who cared about a ratty trader? They’d search his packs when he returned, tax him plenty plus a bribe or two, but outgoing? Good riddance.
It was still a long ride north, at least twelve miles, before his rider turned Big Black away from the Fort Steel road. Well out of sight, tucked into a tiny hollow nearly half a mile from the road, Milo finally stepped down. He gave Swako a hand first; it would not have been easy for the dwarf to dismount without assistance.
Leaving my vertically challenged partner to don his rightful boots–he’d been riding barefooted–and get his saddle squared away, I moved next to the first pack pannier. Gwinnie was more than happy to be let out.
“Man, that thing curled me up like a snail shell. Is Pet okay?”
Pet was. Hank Watterson, on the other hand, was not. “That wasn’t fun,” he announced after being lifted bodily from his cargo box and freed of his gag. He still looked wary, as well he should have. For all he knew, I intended to conk him on the head and dump his body in the brush.
Don’t think it hadn’t occurred to me.
I checked his bonds and redid them, providing him with hobbles that would limit his stride to no more than a foot in length. His hands were tied firmly behind his back, with my good winter mittens–which I’d not needed so far on this trip, but which my overly prepared mother had insisted I take–tied over his fists to further inhibit any attempts to untie his ankles. “The road is over yonder,” I pointed, “about half a mile. Get going.”
The wariness left his eyes. He glared hate as he turned and began shuffling back over the game trail we’d just used.
When he was gone, Swako asked his question. “Now what? You know he’s going to blab his story to the first freighter he encounters. And you just sent him on our own backtrail.”
“True enough.” I grinned, feeling light as a feather. “I’ll bet Gwinnie’s got it figured out.”
She did. “Little Mister Tattletale ain’t on our front trail.”
We’d left the militia horses (and pony) in the Gatorville stable, exchanging them for rides that were extremely gentle and a dime a dozen, unrecognizable anywhere. Okay, yes, we were now official horse thieves, the lowest of the low, qualified to be hung if they could catch us, but we’d made it through the corruption capital of the known world without killing anybody or our young female charges being abducted into slavery. That was good enough for me any day, clearly the lesser of two evils.
It took a few minutes to dump two of the pack saddles, lifting riding saddles from discarded bundles and bridles from the mess hanging on Swako’s saddle horn, but long before Hobble Kid could have made it back to the Gatorville road, we were on our way. Up the draw, picking out game trails, taking our time. Pet and Gwinnie were both promising to become excellent riders and were ecstatic to have horses and tack of their own, never mind how they were acquired. Pursuit might come, but Gatorville’s city militia was just that. It was not geared for chasing fugitives into the wild country.
Besides, whoever found the hollow would tarry there a while. We’d left a lot of valuable stuff lying on the ground. Few in this day and age would ignore free loot.