“Get out of my way!”
Private James Gilson stared in consternation. The woman barreling toward him was barely half his size, but everybody in Fort Steel knew her, at least by reputation. Still, he had to decide quickly. To step aside and let her into the Council meeting, which certainly wouldn’t do much for his reputation as a guard, or to do his job.
He chose the job. “Stop right there!” He was proud of himself, pleased that his voice snapped with authority. Besides, anger was rising in him, fast and furious; how dare she try to ignore the rules? Rules were made to be–she was swinging her thumping stick at his head!
“Gah-h-h-h!” It had been a feint. Throwing both hands and shoot gun up to protect his skull had left his crotch wide open. “Urg-h-h-!” He doubled over in agony, dropping his weapon, the private’s hands now reflexively covering his privates, too little too late.
The witch was past him, shouldering through the door without breaking stride. The captain would have his hide, but right now he couldn’t force himself to care.
Inside, six men sat in conference, elbows on the table, ceramic mugs of potato vodka before them. Strator Tucker, of course, and Captain Finster, plus the top dogs from the foundry, weapons, livestock, and crops. The power elite for all of Fort Steel. “What is the meaning of this?” Tucker was going for a tone of mild inquiry. He wasn’t sure he’d achieved it. Mrs. Laura Compton was easy enough to get along with most of the time, but when she decided to go on a tear….
“You.” She ignored the Strator, addressing the Captain. “Your man on the front gate pulled his shoot gun on our wagon. Said nobody is allowed out of the fort without your say so or,” she gestured dismissively toward Tucker, “his.”
Captain Finster was puffing up, fixing to have himself a fit of apoplexy. He fairly spat out the words. “And for that you attack my man here?”
“Yes, for that.” The woman’s eyes didn’t blaze. Worse, they went flat. Dull. A look the chief of Fort security had seen before on men when they were truly ready to kill. “My Jeremiah is on his way in. He’s hurt bad, and I intend to go get him. Every second counts, so you open that gate or else.”
“Jeremiah? Oh. You mean Weasel. Wait, whaddayou mean or else? You gonna try thumping me with that sawed off pitchfork handle, too?”
“Or else,” Laura didn’t move her feet but did lean forward at the waist, thumping the end of her equalizer stick on the plank floor, “or else, Harmon thinks-he’s-so-high-and-mighty Finster, the next time you drop by my place of work to have that boil on your butt lanced, my needle is going to slip.”
Finster swallowed hard, then swallowed his pride. It would have been fascinating to watch the beet red in his face fade back to normal, but no one in the room was focused on that. They were all, quite frankly, frightened. If Laura Compton were of less importance to the community, she could be disciplined, maybe. But without her, people would die. They’d all seen what she could do. Limbs salvaged that should have been lost entirely. Infections whipped like they were nothing. She’d even managed to put young Thorson’s eyeball back in place after a plow horse kicked him upside the head and knocked it clean out of the socket.
And then there was Weasel. Nobody wanted to cross the Weasel. Mess with his woman and you would die; it was as simple as that.
Henry, the livestock man, spoke quietly. “You know for sure Mr. Compton needs help?”
“I do, Henry.” Her tone had moderated some; she honestly liked Henry Perfle. “Had a dream this morning. Now, Captain, are you going to order that gate opened or do I start killing?”
Finster capitulated. “I’ll go with you, give the order myself.”
They shot out through the doorway, neither of them sparing so much as a glance for the miserable private clutching his privates. Finster did make a mental note to have a word with the young man later, let him know that next time–and there would undoubtedly be a next time–just get out of the woman’s way. No use trying to mess with a freak of nature like that one.
Strator Tucker and the rest of the Council followed at a more leisurely pace. They climbed to the stockade catwalk. The Strator was the last man up the ladder, having swung by his office to retrieve the fort’s only telescope. Ignoring the light wagon and two-horse team charging away from the fort on the westbound trail, he focused on the farther reaches, the last few hundred yards before the rise of the land cut off his view. Nothing. There hadn’t been anything on that trail since the big man, Grunt, had taken his load west two days ago. Shaking his head, he passed the glass to Finster. “Nothing I can see.”
The captain didn’t reply. Compton’s fast moving wagon was stirring up enough dust to plant a crop in the sky, but aside from a red tailed hawk circling high overhead, Tucker was right. Nothing. Not every dream of the witch’s meant something. Still, she’d turned out to be right too often to dismiss her notions outa hand. If she hadn’t warned them about the raiders two years ago…”There!”
“Where? What?” Tucker wanted to ask for his telescope back, but he didn’t dare. If there really was somebody out there, Weasel or otherwise, it fell under the captain’s jurisdiction. Someday, he feared, Finster was going to “forget” who owned the precious long glass entirely.
“I think…I think she’s on target, Tuck. Somebody jist topped the rise, headed this way. Can’t be sure if it’s our boy, but he sure as heck ain’t moving right. Hm. Looks like…crutches, maybe. Got that swing to it. Bull snot! He’s down!”
Turning to leave the catwalk, he handed the scope back to the Strator, snapping orders and expecting his civilian counterpart to follow them. “Keep a sharp lookout there. If you see anybody else or any thing else, send out Squad B to back me up. I’m gonna run a patrol with Squad A.”
He was down the ladder and running across the parade ground in a flash, bellowing orders as he went.
Tucker heard a chuckle. Henry, the livestock chief. “What’s so funny?”
“Aw, nuthin much. Jist realized pore ol’ Private Gilson is not having a good day. Mrs. Compton smacked him between the legs right and proper, and now he’s gotta pound his family jewels out there on a saddle. He’s part of Squad A.”
Out on the trail, Laura Compton urged her team to ever greater speed, her children balancing on their feet in the box, clinging to the sideboards. “On, Dancer! On, Blitzen!” She didn’t know where the names came from; her family had been using those names for horses as far back as she could remember. The matched steeldust gray geldings were game, too, born with the need for speed and perfectly willing to lather up without so much as a flick of the whip. It wasn’t often their mistress let them cut loose like this; they intended to make the most of it.
Not that she drove blindly. Her glances toward the speck on the downslope more than a mile away were few; most of her attention was focused on avoiding the worst of the ruts, holes, and rocks along the way.
She hadn’t driven like this since she was a teenager, but you don’t forget.
The off side wheels hit a rock she hadn’t seen, enough to slam-bounce the wagon, a crunch loud enough to be heard over the thrumming of the horses’ hooves, their labored breathing, and the usual squeak-rattle-and-roll of a conveyance built with hard wood and scrap iron. For an instant she was certain the springless rough rider had broken an axle, but no, it clattered on. The distance to her struggling husband closed swiftly, closed far too slowly. She was dimly aware of Miah falling, fighting his way back up to lurch forward, falling again and…not getting up.
She nearly ran over the man she’d come to rescue before she could bring the team to a halt, their haunches dropping in fair imitation of a roping horse with a calf on the line, their front ends stiff-legging the hard packed earth–but they weren’t going to be content with that. Warmbloods, half Thoroughbred, half Percheron, they’d had a fine hot run and wanted more.
“Keep ’em steady,” she snapped at Davies, fairly throwing the reins at the boy as she leaped from the wagon seat, go bag in hand. At ten years of age, few youngsters could have kept Donner and Blitzen under control in a situation like this, but she had faith in her son. Wiry little bugger seemed more horse than human himself, sometimes.
Weasel hadn’t managed much after that last tumble, but he was up on one elbow, grinning like a loon. “Apollo’s chariot delivers my guardian angel,” he croaked, sounding bullfroggy with his voice half gone, “or is that mixing my mythology up too much?”
“You were always too much,” she snorted, already running her diagnostics, checking his injuries, noting dehydration, the beginnings of starvation, various scrapes and bruises. “What’s the damage under that wrap on the ankle?”
“Severed hamstring. But honey, no time to fix me up just yet. Raiders are here already, likely to hit the horse herd at sunset. Help me into the wagon; we have to warn the Fort.”
So that was the way of it. More to the story for sure, but first things first. “Nikki! Drop the tailgate and help me get your Dad into the wagon!”
The girl was their firstborn. Not half as talented as her brother, but rock steady, reliable through and through, and a whole lot stronger than she looked. With the eleven year old pulling, Mom lifting, and Weasel pulling himself up into the wagon bed with a surge of strength he didn’t know he had, they were moving within minutes. Judging that her husband wouldn’t die on her immediately, Laura Compton once again took the reins and eased the team ahead some forty yards. This took them farther from Fort Steel, but it was the first place on the trail wide enough to turn the wagon around safely.
Unless she’d have preferred backing everything up for nearly a quarter mile, which wasn’t really an option.
Donner and Blitzen were pretty winded, so she held them to a steady trot. Saving the fort’s primary horse herd might be important, but if she windbroke the Compton team, nobody was going to pay to have the grays replaced. It wouldn’t have made much difference anyway; by the time she had her horses up to speed, a full squad of Fort militia–with the Captain himself at the head, no less–burst forth from the gate, already in an easy lope.
The two parties came together almost exactly one mile from the fort. Weasel had managed to pull himself upright with the help of the wagon sideboard and a boost from his sturdy daughter. He didn’t waste any time with preliminaries. “Four raiders, Captain. Probably been here for hours already. Best guess is they figure to hit the horse herd just when they’re coming in from pasture.”
Sitting tall in the saddle, Finster recoiled. “Bug humps! With all the dust we’ve thrown up, they musta seen it. Could be going after our stock now.”
Fort Steel’s security chief might have been many things, but he held his post for a reason. There was no visible hesitation between that opening statement and the orders that issued from his mouth. “Harvey, Borders, you two escort the Comptons back to the fort. Corporal, you take the rest of ’em around the south edge; it’ll be faster gettin to the herders than goin through. Watch Carver’s Ravine and the brush along Willow Creek specially.”
The men were barely in motion before Finster had his horse wheeled around, facing the fort. His arms moved in what seemed to the Comptons a complicated series of exaggerated gestures, a code informing the Strator he hoped was watching. Raiders. Herd. Four. Send Squad B. Then he was gone, too, leaving the Comptons to make their way back to safety with their two man escort at a sedate walk. The emergency message had been delivered; there was no need to jounce the injured man around any more than necessary.
Twenty minutes later, they were through the front gate, the solitary guard swinging it shut behind them. Both militia men looked distinctly uncomfortable; no fighter liked being left out of the action at a time like this.
“Private Borders, what are your orders?” She flinched at the gaffe; he must heave heard that one a thousand times from his peers.
He gave no sign that it bothered him. “The Captain jist detailed us to git you all back safe, nothing else. Harve, whaddya think?”
Harvey Steen, all of sixteen years of age, shrugged. “Seems to me we should git up on the catwalk, patrol the wall. Jist in case there’s more of ’em out there and they try a sneak attack on the fort while the Captain’s out.”
“Horses won’t fit up there, though. We don’t wanna git seprated from them, doncha know.”
“Point. Giss one of us could hit the walk, the other, ride inside with both horses. Cuts down our number of eyeballs on the wall, but better that than git caught afoot iffen the Captain needs us in a hurry, or whatever.”
“Sounds like a plan, Harve. You think good.”
Laura Compton interrupted. “Before you climb the catwalk, could you carry a message to Strator Tucker for me?”
“The Strator?” Brad Borders, at twenty-six a veritable graybeard compared to his junior partner, tipped his hat back and scratched his head in thought. It looked like it hurt. “Yeah, reckon we could do that. What’s the message?”
“Tell him the Weasel will report on everything he learned, but not until I’ve patched him up as best I can and he’s had a night’s sleep.”
“He ain’t gonna like that, ma’am.”
“I don’t expect he will.” Laura pulled her team to a halt, right in the middle of an intersection. She needed to keep going on straight ahead for now, but the soldiers would have to take a hard left if they were going to get her message to Tucker. “But tell him three things. One, while the information Weasel has is important, it can wait.” She was guessing, but between the pair of them, they could cook up a story that sounded crucial even if it wasn’t. “Two, my husband will report more clearly and concisely if he’s had a chance to rest first. Three, I need to observe him for at least this one night to be sure he doesn’t have anything contagious. We can’t afford to lose the Strator to a stray bug I could have easily have caught and destroyed, now can we?”
Borders gulped. “You…you make a good point, ma’am.” Mentioning any sort of contagion was usually enough to cow the entire population of the fort. Capriosi vilify was no longer active–she was certain of that–but it had burned the possible extinction of humans by disease into the collective subconscious.
True, using the name of Lord Death in vain could be a double edged sword. Scare the forters too much and bad things could happen very swiftly.
Their home was made of twelve inch cedar logs, the oldest residence in the area and the only one that predated the Fall. Built by her family nearly a century ago, back when money meant something and the Schenks had tons of it, she thought of it as her dowry…and also her refuge, for good reason. William Johnson Schenk had selected and purchased more than two square miles of land back in the day, bribing and coercing both the State and the County with huge donations where they would do the most good. On paper, back when there were such things as States and Counties with building codes and nosy inspectors telling you what you could and could not do, right down to the size of a home’s windows or the angle of your driveway, Schenk’s Fort had managed to utterly defy the rule makers.
Or so she had been told.
Up front, it was a “moderately sized” 3200 square foot living space, with a giant chicken coop extending to the rear for considerable distance. Sixty feet wide and a full one hundred feet long, the unbelievably expensive “coop” was stupidly dark inside and had for years housed thousands of Schenk Special chickens that foraged free-range during daylight hours.
Yes, they’d lost a percentage of the birds to predators and other dangers on a regular basis, but Schenk Special “flyers and fryers” were no ordinary cluckers. A Schenk rooster frequently died facing down a hawk or even a crow to protect his hens, but the flock avoided a lot of attacks, too. Bred for success, the chickens were quicker to spot predators than most, and far quicker to fly up to a tree or scoot under one of the many strategically placed Schenk Raptor Blockers for cover.
W. J. Schenk had also happily waged war on predators large and small, ranging from snakes and weasels and coyotes to hawks and eagles and crows, protected species be damned.
Of course, there were no protected species any more, either.
But the entire chicken operation, as much as Schenk loved his “birdies,” was primarily set up as cover for the coop’s real purpose. No visitor to Schenk’s Fort would ever suspect the hidden space between human residence and chicken coop. A one hundred foot long area, only dimly lit even during daylight hours and filled with chicken noises and chicken excrement, hits a visitor’s senses no differently than does an eighty foot long space, only dimly lit even during daylight hours and filled with chicken noises and chicken excrement. The twenty foot deep “dead zone” between the coop’s rear wall and the residence’s rear wall, some sixty feet wide and enclosing twelve hundred square feet of secrets, was accessibly only through a hidden door in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet.
For a time, holding the huge log structure against all comers had not been easy, especially when her aunt Caroline and young Laura Schenk had been the only family survivors, Caroline sporting the blackface and poor eyesight without her glasses, leaving Laura to do the shooting when shooting had to be done. The only things that had saved them were the thick cedar log walls and the fact that their ancestor had built for defense.
Well…that and Laura’s powerful instinct for danger, her awareness of her dreams and their meanings, her willingness to act on the information provided by her sixth sense….
Then Miah had come along, young and strong and dashing, just beginning to establish his reputation as the Weasel, a small but bad man to cross. It amazed her that no one else could see through his act as she did, but then again, it wasn’t entirely an act. Try messing with his family, and he was a bad man to cross, every bit as much as he was in secret a sensitive, a romantic, the father of her children, and the only man for her.
“Hold the team, son,” she told Davies.
The boy complied, though his worried glance betrayed his concern. Dad was unconscious, pure dead weight. How was Mom–?
“It’s called a fireman’s carry,” she said, sensing his unasked question. With her husband draped over her shoulders, she headed toward the house, her steps slow but steady. “Nikki, get the door.” Her daughter complied with alacrity, but why did she have to be told everything before realizing she should do it? Any man who chose her for a mate would have to–forget that. A thought for another time.
For now, her family members were all home. Safe. And she had work to do.
Leaving the kids to park the wagon and put up the team, she settled Miah on a cot in the spare room and hustled her butt to the hidden door in their closet. The Citadel, as old man Schenk had dubbed it, contained a great library. Books were packed tight along the east wall, floor to ceiling, a total of four hundred and eighty linear feet. As a child of ten, her first year to know the family secret, she had actually counted these tomes three different times, coming up with a different total each time and furious with herself for not “balancing the books” with any certainty. The total count was somewhere between 5,473 and 5,498, though. She was sure of that much.
She was also certain she’d seen a book describing nonsurgical treatment for a messed up hamstring. She knew she’d find it. She also remembered it being a long, slow healing process the Weasel would not enjoy one bit. But he would heal, he would remain the Weasel, and the scuzz bags among Steel Fort’s residents would continue to fear him.
They couldn’t afford any other option.
By the time she’d found the book–Ligament Repair Throughout The Body Without Surgery and returned to the living room, sitting down to read by candle light as night fell, the kids were back from the barn, rustling around in the kitchen. Davies, younger brother though he was, handled the cooking, Nikki his willing and able assistant.
The kid could cook, too. Pot roast tonight, with potatoes and carrots simmered in the juice right along with the meat.
Laura looked up from her reading, acknowledging aunt Caroline’s entry into the living room. Old as the hills, the blackface was, and humpback-bent nearly double, a crone for the ages, stirring the cauldron, something bubble, toil and trouble. Yet the woman’s zest for life and a good joke remained, though sometimes she did have a bit of trouble remembering the punch line.
“Miah will be well, Caroline,” Laura said quietly.
Caroline snorted in response. “You got him here, girl. You’ll fix him up. It’s what you do.” Her gait was slow and ataxic, barely balanced, wobbly, yet she made it to her chair without falling, one more miracle for the day. Easing her brittle bones down on the padded seat, she asked, “You heard about the latest game in Hell for senior citizens?”
“No.” The younger woman smiled, playing along. “What’s the latest game in Hell for senior citizens?”
“Bobbing for apples,” the old woman cackled, revealing her two remaining teeth, “no dentures allowed!”