Squinting against the sun, I stared at the trail ahead. Or rather, the lack of a trail. The track I’d been following for at least five miles petered out abruptly. Poof! Dead end. My head hurt. Not as bad as a week ago. Not by a long shot. But still enough, apparently, to addle my thinking. Either that or maybe ol’ Sol up there, beaming down in ferocious glee upon my sweated brow. There was nothing for it. Jamming a hat down over my scabbed-over skull furrow was certainly no option, nor would it be until the love kiss from Gracie Stark’s almost-got-me bullet healed completely.
Well, foo. “Just wasted ten miles, horse. How ya like that?” The gelding flicked one ear back, mildly enthralled at my voice. Good think he didn’t speak fluent English. Wouldn’t do for the animal to realize my stupidity had just translated into more hours of work for him. Worst of all, Mace would never have taken a wrong turn like that. Scratch a few lines in a patch of dirt to serve as a map, let big brother eyeball it one time, and he’d be off to the races. Navigate a thousand miles without blinking or doubting. Sometimes I wished I’d been born an only child. Dad had been a towering presence, bigger than life, but even with him gone, Mace didn’t set the bar any lower. Sibling-hood sucked.
Amazingly, the other fork in the trail turned out to be the right one. Just as the sun was setting, my people’s horse tracks, easily identified by one of their own (that would be me) swung out from nearby foothills and trooped forward, toward the dreaded Fear Trace woods. Sort of dreaded. All we Smiths knew about the dangerous three miles of forest was what Michael had told us. He was the only one who’d made that run. Julia knew about it, but only from stories told by legendary Jacob “Grunt” Sedlacek and other traders.
I needed to find a spot to camp, but first, how far ahead was the pack train? Less than a day? Seemed like it. Mace could have pinned it down to an hour.
The sickness hit somewhere around the third hour after sunset. Food poisoning? More skull damage than I’d thought? It didn’t matter. What did matter was rolling out and getting my breeches down in time to avoid soiling them. Made it, barely. The vomit surged forth while I was still squatting, clutching a sage branch to keep from falling backward.
“Oh lordy,” I moaned aloud. Anyone or anything coming along now could take me out, easy-peasy. “Unh-h-h-h….”
Stupid horse ignored my misery, calmly grazing, crunch-munching dry, late-summer grass. The sound made me sicker. Then the breeze shifted and the smell made me sickest. It was not going to be a happy night.
By midnight, I was sure I was going to die. By first light, when the last of my mysteriously undigested supper finally decided to come up en masse, I only wished I could. By the second hour after sunrise, it was possible to stand and walk around–slowly–without feeling like my backside was going to explode at any second…though I’d not dare risk passing gas casually. The saddle weighed about half a ton. My own body was worse. But Old Faithful and I were under way. It looked like I was going to live, like it or not. Food poisoning, then. It didn’t seem likely brain damage would have given me even this much reprieve. Although, what did I know? Food poisoning. Had I failed to clean my little skillet sufficiently yesterday? I might never know.
What I did know was that my people were likely tackling Fear Trace without me. Not good. I kicked my trusty steed into a bone-jarring trot, gritting my teeth and clenching my buttocks as we picked up the pace.
Mace and Julia chorused as one. “You’re out of your mind!” Even slim, quiet Lauren gave me a disapproving stare.
I shrugged. “I said you wouldn’t like it.” It would be first light in minutes. We were camped a few hundred yards from the edge of Fear Trace, where scrawny scavengers ambushed every traveler they could, killing without compunction. Last year, I’d killed my first men here, if they could be called men. Leaving my .358 Winchester heavy hitter with Mace, I’d rigged Roan with weapons that would hopefully give me a necessary edge. Both short-hafted Sedlacek Special fighting spears rode in the rifle scabbard, loose leather pouches covering their razor sharp tips in case the horse somehow managed to come into contact with them. The AK-47 sported only one 30-round banana clip for maneuverability, with a second tucked in my pants for easy access. As backup to all that backup, a revolver rode at each hip. None of this impressed my compadres. Mace, for one, wasn’t giving up.
“Explain to us one more time why this is a good idea. Maybe our little peasant minds will be able to grasp your brilliance in tackling Fear Trace alone.” Smith was not usually a sarcastic individual.
“Okay.” I glanced at the sky. I had a few more minutes, after which it would be time to do this thing, dissent or no dissent. “We’ve got a dozen horses and one noncombatant human to move through the Trace without losing everything. The track between trees is narrow in there, barely enough to allow a standard Fort 24 style wagon to pass. Two fully loaded pack horses side by side add up to more width than a wagon, which means this is pretty much a single file proposition. We’re going to be all stretched out, no way around that, and a stretched-out supply line is always extra vulnerable, no matter where or when you are. Attack one horse in the string, say right in the middle, kill it with its lead rope fastened to the tail of the one ahead, its tail hooked up to the horse following–and boom, just like that, the entire train is immobilized. They can then pick us off one by one, taking their time, hiding behind trees and sniping.
“So the Tracers need to be thrown off their game. In about…two minutes from now, their eastern edge lookout is going to spot a lone rider trotting hard, looking over his shoulder as much as ahead, heavily armed but a clear fugitive with trouble on his trail. They’ll want to take this lone rider out before whatever stronger force behind has the chance to catch up. They’re half-starved, greedy, ruthless as Gollum protecting his Precious, and all eyes will be on me. With luck, they won’t know what an AK-47 is until too late. I should be able to take out a bunch of ’em, surely no tougher than fighting the Locust Pack, then get to work dragging the roadblock clear. They like to drop trees across the trail to start the ball rolling.” I didn’t mention the possibility of a hidden sniper dropping me with a single shot before I could get the Kalashnikov into action.
Time was up. They had nothing more to say and neither did I. “Let’s go, Roan.” The rough-gaited horse lurched into a bone-jarring trot, leaving unhappy loved ones behind me. None of them went so far as open mutiny. I was thankful for that.
Lauren maintained her outward composure but she wasn’t fooling me. Or maybe she was, in which case I was fooling myself. My anger at our man boiled inside, a witch’s cauldron filled with rattlesnake skulls complete with needle sharp fangs and full venom sacs. Nothing so benign as mere eye of newt. I tried to fight down my displeasure. My displeasure fought back, bare knuckled hammer blows. How could he do this? We were supposed to be a team. Just because nobody else had a better idea didn’t give him the right.
Mace hadn’t looked any happier when Mr. High and Mighty Noble Gotta Be the Hero had told us his so-called plan: Dash through three miles of twisting, timber-bordered Trace wagon trail, draw the attention of no-longer-human Tracers away from our pack train, take out the trash, rope-and-drag deadfall roadblocks out of the way, and voila! Clear path! Idiot. This had to be his way of getting back his manhood after the narrow salt mine shaft exposed what he no doubt thought of as cowardice. My thoughts churned. I’d been pondering, been meaning to discuss in depth a few facts. Such as the fact that he’d had no trouble at all, going underground back when he and I first hooked up. I didn’t think his terror had anything to do with being underground per se. Russ Gunderson, my father, would have scratched his chin and suggested Michael’s reaction might be a past life echo. Like, maybe he’d once met a horrific end in a hole like that, either squeezed and trapped or bound and dropped down on top of a ball of hibernating rattlesnakes or starving whatevers, stabbing, ripping him apart in the darkness while he flailed in agony, screaming for mercy that never came. Dad had a way with imagery.
A past life recall, surfacing from the subconscious, could do that to you. Or so he said. I had the feeling my sire knew from experience. Reincarnation and karma, the twin millstones of God, grinding slow but exceedingly fine.
How long had Michael been gone? Seconds, probably. Felt like hours. The sun hadn’t moved. Maybe time was standing still? No shots fired yet, but silence was not necessarily a positive indicator. Got him with an arrow? Noose dropped from overhead? Pit trap? Any one of those wonderful possibilities could have killed him already.
“Well, I’ll be.”
“Huh?” My head jerked around to peer back the way Mace was looking. A lone rider, coming up behind, his horse in the same exact trot Michael had used to leave us. But I knew that horse–“Sandy!”
The younger Smith brother wasted no words as he pulled his mount to a halt. “Where’s Michael?”
“Heading through Fear Trace as we speak.” From Mace’s voice, he might have been reporting the weather. His eyes gave him away. He’d been as worried about his brother as Lauren and I were worried about our man.
We all nodded, including Lauren.
The wagon road through the Trace looked wrong. Really wrong. I was barely out of sight of the others when I realized what was bothering me. There were no recent wagon tracks. Not a single trader had dared come this way in some time. There had been, back before the southern cutoff that led down and around the southern tip of the forest, adding days of hard travel to any westward journey in these parts. But we’d passed that cutoff after dark, slipping forward under the cover of night in order to reach our current campsite unseen, somewhere around midnight.
Closer examination revealed no horse tracks, either. Nor did a single human sign show itself. Nary a boot print. The land was reclaiming its territory, a profusion of grasses, herbs, and what Grunt had once told me were considered noxious weeds before the Fall of Man. Every one of those “weeds” had its uses, but had western civilization cared? Not hardly.
They were back now. Probably laughing at the short-lived folly of us two-legged types. I couldn’t blame them.
Around the second corner, a deadfall blocked the road, but this was no ambush. The downed pine was a small one. It had fallen naturally, its exposed roots still encrusted with dried earth and small rocks. My senses remained alert as I tied my lariat to that butt end and quietly urged Roan to drag it sideways, clearing a path wide enough for the pack horses to navigate, but I was becoming convinced there were no Tracers in the area at all. A sense of peaceful solitude pervaded the place. Deceptive, perhaps, but I didn’t think so.
But why? According to Grunt, and he should know, Fear Trace had been a woods infested with starveling bandits for decades. What had changed?
A young cottontail hopped out into the middle of the trail ahead of us, stopping to nibble a particularly pleasing bit of vegetation. It looked at us with more curiosity than fear, only moving off to one side of the trail and lying quiet as we passed. Its ears weren’t even laid back flat, as they would have been if a hawk had been spotted overhead. Another sign the Tracers were gone. If any were in the area, that half-grown bunny would have already been snared pot meat.
About a quarter mile in, it all became clear. I pulled Roan to a stop and sat, staring. “Whoa.”
We didn’t have to wait long. Five or six eternities, subjectively speaking. Maybe twenty minutes according to the climbing sun. Mace and Julia fingered their weapons, probably unaware they were even doing it. From the corner of my eye, I watched beautiful Lauren–not that Julia was any slouch, you understand, but Lauren Evans was almost ethereal in my eyes, some sort of fairy goddess who’d deigned to join scarred Michael Jade and the Gunderson girl in a ménage a trois or triad of power or something a mere mortal like me would never be able to fully comprehend. A battle-ugly combat vet, an Amazon warrior, and a fairy queen walk into a bar….
My musings were cut short by Jade’s appearance at the edge of the forest. His homely, Roman nosed, rough gaited roan came out of the woods at a sedate walk, ho hum, nothing to see here after all, folks. Michael pulled to a halt and swung his arm in a sweeping come on in the water’s fine motion. That was a surprise. A big one.
Well, this man was our fearless leader. If he said one of the deadliest woods in the entire West was suddenly safe, then it was suddenly safe. Though I noticed none of us relaxed our readiness one bit as we cranked up the pack string and headed on over to see what we could see.
He looked relaxed. When we got close enough for his voice to reach us without shouting, he said simply, “We’ll need to clear the road here and there, but the bandits are gone.”
When we stopped to stare in amazement, not that far into the woods, we saw why. Except for the eastern border, a sort of pie crust worth of trees we’d traversed in five minutes at most, the entire forest was gone. “Wildfire,” Lauren breathed. I happened to be riding right behind her; no one else could have heard. But that one word summed it up. For as far as we could see ahead or to either side, there was nothing but black. Black earth where grass had disintegrated in the fierce heat. Black timber skeletons, some tumbled flat, some still erect with spear-sharp black tips piercing the sky. Black rocks, presumably wearing coats of soot not yet scoured clean by wind and weather. Rolling black foothills that had been mostly obscured by fir, pine, and spruce until the flames had bared their bones. Yeah, black bones, too. Overhead, black ravens croaking in flight, searching endlessly–like vultures–for any remaining roast beast, two legged or otherwise, that might have been missed.
Why the eastern fringe of trees had escaped destruction, who knew? Wildfire has a mind of its own. As to how such a massive fire had started, again who knew? Lightning? Campfire negligently handled? Revenge upon his fellows by a crazed Tracer? “Cleansing” action by a trader with no scruples, or maybe a group of raiders?
We would not likely ever know. What we did know was that no one was likely waiting to ambush us here. No one could live here. Not until the heat-opened pine seeds sprouted and grew. Next spring, some of those would be taking root, bringing green back to this desolate dark side of the moon, joining the sturdier, deep-rooted grasses and herbs in joyous renewal. A few years from now, elk and deer would graze and browse this massive area in huge numbers. Birds would return, along with squirrels and fanged predators, creepy-crawlies and all the abundance of life that gravitated to fresh regrowth.
But for now, as Jade had said, we were safe. If the enemy of our enemy is our friend, then fire was our friend, at least for now. None of us would have deliberately turned a wildfire loose. Never. But despite a few uneasy thoughts about our own tree-abundant home turf, we were grateful that someone or something had done it for us.
The final week’s travel to Fort 24 was anticlimactic. No ambushes, no gunfights, no close grizzly encounters. Not even a single threat of snakebite despite this being the month reptiles were out and about in numbers, traveling to their winter dens. Only one pack horse went lame, a young mare we finally realized was pregnant. Her load was shifted to another, a tall, rawboned, hammer headed gray with an evil eye and a willingness to bite. He was solid on the trail, though, and as durable as granite bedrock. With luck, Julia could trade the lame mare to her family.
The Sentinel who challenged us at the rock cut marking the only decent road into Fort 24 turned out to be a surprise. “Michael Jade! You’re back!”
I squinted, studying the warrior leaping down from the rocks like some crazed mountain goat with a cougar on its tail. “Wesley? Wesley of the loose cinch?”
“None other!” Wes slung his rifle, grabbed my hand as I stepped down from Roan. and pumped furiously. “I made it into the Sentinels just three weeks ago.”
I felt my cheeks stretch in an ear-to-ear grin. “Congratulations, dude. Good for you.”
“You bet. Younglook Torrington is shift leader here at the Gate. For this week.”
Relief flooded my gut. I’d been stretched tight all summer, out on the trail, worrying about this and that, but now I was among friends. And family.
We did have to wait before heading on in, though. Torrington gave us the once over, inspected a couple of panniers, then told us we needed to wait for an escort. Our salt cargo was more valuable than we’d guessed. The usual salt traders hadn’t shown up this summer, and while 24 did have some reserves, it wouldn’t do to let the less savory residents get any avaricious ideas. “We’ll get this inventoried, give you a signed tally slip–sort of a receipt–and put it under lock and key. You and the Council can work out your trade deal tomorrow. In the meantime, Wesley, as soon as your replacement arrives, you go off Gate duty and head up to Jake’s. Let him know the prodigal Jade has arrived bearing treasures. Treasures and,” he eyed our AK-47’s appreciatively, “an uptick in the arms race.”
Arms race? What on Earth was he talking about?