The old hog farmer and his wife huddled disconsolately in their bedroom, the back third of their simple two-room cabin, gloomily contemplating their fate. Their blackened faces gave testament to their survival of the Fall, but that was no guarantee of survival this day. No window back here, hadn’t seen the need to go to the expense or let in Fort 24’s long winter chill at the time Chawn Romers had built it from the ground up. No, he’d much preferred to save his few Fort dollars and a bit of hard work, pouring both into the pig sty that currently held twenty-seven porkers.
Well…twenty-six since the self-described Demons had arrived, forcing him to slaughter one of the weaners, then requiring Bella to cook her baby for them.
Cook her baby. That’s what Mrs. Romers called the small herd. Her babies, cared for like they were her own flesh and blood. Her husband wasn’t about to tell her he knew she cried every time a pig went to market, but at least they were killed and cut up out of her sight and well beyond her hearing. She hadn’t cried today, though if Bella Romers could have accessed a weapon more effective than her frying pan, the outlaws enjoying themselves in the front room of their home would have done some crying and squealing before they died. Pigs are people, too, she often reminded him, and far too many people are pigs.
He doubted her outlook would mellow any, should they happen to be alive come morning. Resisting the gang would have been futile; he knew that. They were farmers, not warriors. He’d never even hunted wild game, wasn’t sure he’d have been able to do any good with the bow even before the redhead confiscated it. There was nothing left in this room but the bed and an aura of despair; the invaders had searched it well before consigning them to room arrest.
At the kitchen table, Pen Garber saluted his boss with a toast, using a mug full of milk gleaned from the farmer’s lone cow. “Got to hand it to you, Chief. We’re living high on the hog now.”
“Some more than others,” Rodney Upward observed wryly. He was watching the Dotson brothers play with their food. Joe called his latest creation a Heaven Sandwich, several thick slices of bacon stuck between two bone-in pork chops. Those boys did purely love their pork. “Don’t seem to mind nibbling right around the bones, do they?”
Garber chuckled. Taking his cue from his leader, he’d eaten his fill but no more. In addition to the leftover chops and bacon, they’d be taking the remainder of the young pig as raw meat when they pulled out; in this weather, it would freeze and stay frozen until needed. There was no bread in the house, but the old couple had somehow figured out how to turn milk into cheese. “Reckon our boys are relieved to be able to eat as much as they like for once. Ain’t likely they’ve had that experience often.” Neither Jay nor Joe seemed to mind being talked about when they were right there. But then again, were they really there? The brothers gave new meaning to the phrase, “…really into their food.”
“We’re getting a good start, Pen. Everybody’s mounted now, we got you a saddle from that last place, and there are plenty more good days ahead of us.” They still needed a pack string, but he had a plan for that, too. His followers hadn’t understood the need to take just one horse at each place they stole from, but he wasn’t paying them to think. Okay, so he wasn’t paying them at all, unless you counted being able to ride like kings instead of walk like bums, and now being able to take it easy in a warm cabin while gorging themselves on a hardworking farmer’s pet livestock. That had to count for something.
“So…we’re on schedule?”
“Ahead of schedule.” As well as things were going, they’d be slipping out of 24’s area of influence within another two days at most. They’d be leaving here after dark, using the night to cover their midnight requisition of the pack horses and the rest of the needed tack. The only question remaining was whether it would be better to off the farmers on the theory that dead men (and/or women) tell no tales…or did the advantage lie in using the elderly couple to disseminate false information? Killing them might keep their raid on the farm house secret for days; the Romers weren’t known for socializing with their neighbors except at church on Sundays. On the other hand, a whole lot of Forters might take cold blooded murder unkindly, pursuing them with an intensity that knew no bounds. He shuddered at that thought. Some of the Sentinels and Traders had to be able to track fugitives effectively, didn’t they?
He had a sudden image of that old survivor giant, Grunt, putting his wardog on their trail. That wouldn’t be good.
In the end, they left the cabin as soon as it got full dark, carrying off whatever tickled their fancy but leaving their unwilling hosts alive. Another hog would have been nice, but they didn’t have the horsepower to pack the carcass. Yet. Rodney was chuckling to himself, already visualizing the raid on the herd that would provide their pack animals for the long haul to come. Pen Garber carried the old farmer’s bow, now strung, along with a quiver holding fourteen precious arrows. Jay had appropriated the only axe while Joe was left with a seven-foot spear that had been hung above the doorway, collecting dust. All in all, the gang was now fairly well armed.
No shoot guns, but all in good time. It wouldn’t be long now.
In the wake of the gang’s departure, Chawn and Bella Romers were already mouth fighting over the best course to take. “I’m the head of household here,” the old man insisted. “It’s up to me to trek on into town to let the Marshal’s office know those devil spawn hit our place. You sit tight, I tell you! Bar the door, lock down the shutters, and nobody’s getting in here. If they hadn’t snuck up on me when I was slopping the hogs–”
“You listen to me, old man!” Bella’s white hair flew about her face as she bobbed and weaved, gesticulating wildly, resembling nothing so much as a zombie martial artist in the Before film, Dead Bones Hit Hard. Surviving into old age had done the teenaged beauty no favors. “That was my Wibbles they murdered and ate! You think I’m letting you go alone, you’re out of what’s left of your feeble mind! Those scummies took all our sharp knives, but there’s still enough uncut branches out by the woodpile; we can grab a couple of clubs. Enough to bonk a marauding wolf if one tries to sneak up on us. Providing your old eyes and ears can pay attention to notice Little Red Riding Hood’s sharp-fanged grandmother, like you didn’t notice four men tromping through the snow in broad daylight.” She was getting her wraps on as she spoke. Chawn suddenly realized he’d better get a move on or be left behind. The Marshal’s office was what, nearly six miles from here?
Crazy old woman. Be just his luck she’d slip on the ice under the sliver moon and break a hip. Or worse, outpace him and never let him live it down. By the time he’d laced up his boots, she was already outside, moving mighty fast for an old crone. “They shouldn’t of killed her Wibbles,” he muttered under his breath.
Thankfully, the raiders hadn’t stolen their basic cold weather clothing. An oversight on their part, Chawn wondered? Or they simply didn’t have any more hauling capacity at the moment? The smart thing would have been to leave them unable to brave the freezing night, forcing them to wait in the cabin at least until daylight when the sun would hopefully warm things up a bit. Or had it simply never occurred to him that two ancient blackface survivors would have the stamina and determination to report their arrogant little home invasion immediately? If so, the redhead was a fool. Their nearest neighbor’s farm was just under a mile from their own, and there were others scattered here and there between the Romers’ place and Lower Valley town. Not that either victim considered stopping at a neighbor’s. A few of them had horses, but by the time they could be rousted from their warm dwellings–if they could be rousted at all–the time lost would not be worth it.
In their younger years, even after the Fall, either one of them could cover ground all day, seldom dropping below a four mile per hour clip. Bella had always been faster, though, and unfortunately for her husband’s ego, she still was. How she managed it, he had no idea, but his legs were killing him and his lungs weren’t too happy about the situation, either. He concentrated on sucking wind through his ever so tasty woolen scarf and keeping up with the enraged woman; if she were attacked and killed because he’d fallen too far behind to come to her aid in time, she’d never let him hear the end of it.
One thing about his beloved, though. She might show him up when it was just the two of them but she’d never let her man be put down in public. There were lights on in the Marshal’s office, not unexpected with the Upward gang on the loose, but Bella waited for him to catch up and call out, “Hello the Office!”
A voice came at them from the shadows near the corner of the building. “Go on in, folks. Nobody’s sleeping much tonight.”
“Thanks.” Even here in the middle of town, they were keeping a sentry posted? Or had the deputy just happened to step out to see a man about a dog at just the right time?
Marshal Bledsoe was seated at his desk. He didn’t get up, but he didn’t have to. Had they been bad guys, the lawman had a shoot gun lying on the desk within easy reach. One of those short ones from Before, a revolver they called it, and every one of the half dozen deputies in the room looked capable of whipping a wildcat barehanded and flossing his teeth with the feline’s whiskers.
“We got visited by the redhead kid and his bunch,” Chawn began without preamble. “Didn’t lay hands on us, nor did we give ’em reason to, but they cleaned out our larder, ate the better part of one of our weaner pigs, and carried off a fair bit of stuff when they left.”
The Marshal nodded, pulling a piece of paper from a pile at his left hand and grabbing a quill pen. Dipping it in ink, he began firing questions, writing down the answers without so much as glancing at what he was doing. Fair circus trick, that one. “Weapons?”
“Kid has a crossbow. Pen Garber helped himself to my old hunting bow, can’t say if the string’s rotten or not, ain’t strung it in years. Dotsons stole my chopping axe and the antique buffalo lance Bella inherited from her grandpappy.”
“All mounted. Dotsons were riding bareback, but they were on pretty good horses. One at least form Hacksaw Morton’s herd if I ain’t mistaken.” He went on with the descriptions of their mounts, then answered another half dozen questions before Bella interjected her own comments.
“Marshal, you might want to know what they’re up to, eh?”
Bledsoe’s pen stopped scribbling. “If you’ve got a clue, Missus, I’d be obliged.”
“Well then.” The old woman flipped back the hood on her coat, causing her white hair to pick up the candlelight in a sort of fuzzy halo. “This Rodney Upward, he seemed downright intent on letting us know his gang was called the Demons. Don’t know if he’s just a peon looking to move up in the dark world or what, but he seemed downright enthusiastic about that point.”
“Honey,” Chawn said, knowing already he should have kept his mouth shut, yet unable to stop himself, “that’s likely just the kid’s ego talking. Don’t you think the Marshal would more likely want to know what they’re planning? Like hitting Miller’s place for the gold everybody says he’s got hidden there?”
If looks could have withered, the old man would have become the poster boy for dessication, right on the spot. “You never could read between the lines, sweetheart.” Her tone fairly dripped with sugar and spice and everything nice. “Bet your old bones a Fort dollar to a donut hole, that redhead might be a quarter dumb and half ugly, but he knew we were listening to every word they said. Good Lord, how could we not, with us not knowing whether they intended murder and nothing but a hide curtain separating the two rooms.”
“You don’t think hitting Miller is likely?” The Marshal had resumed taking notes, but idly, his mind seeming to wander. Which was never the case; that’s how the man with the badge did his best thinking.
“Oh, I suppose it’s possible.” Bella waved an airy, blue-veined hand. “Anything’s possible. But not likely. The lad is rude, he’s crude, and he put me in a mood, but he didn’t come across as stupid or lacking in discipline. He’s a thinker, a planner, puts me in mind of one of those old-timey outlaws they wrote about Before. Like Butch Cassidy, who they say made careful plans and carried them out and that’s why he was never caught, and don’t you go believing that tale about him dying in Bolivia, no siree.”
The roomful of man exchanged confused glances. Butch Cassidy? Bolivia? Who and what?
Old Bella had been raised on wild tales passed down by word of mouth, generation after generation. Maybe she thought was she this ancient Cassidy’s distant descendant or something. She always had been more than a little kooky. But then again, that was true of more Survivors from the Fall than not.
Even so, Marshal Bledsoe knew how to keep a conversation on track, or how to get it back on track once it had strayed. With half an hour or so, he felt he had as much of a picture as he was going to get. This Demon gang was now mounted on solid horseflesh and more or less armed. Rodney Upward had a plan and he’d accomplished more in less time than any of them had thought possible. Twenty-four hours earlier, the lawman had been out there pounding trail in night pursuit of one reckless runaway teenager on a horse he couldn’t put to good use because of the pedestrian riff-raff following his lead. Now…now the picture looked a lot uglier.
Rodney Upward was a blight upon the land, a disease if you please, every bit as much of a virus as the old blackface population killer had been. The Marshal turned to one of the young men known for sheer endurance. “Roust the Criers,” he said. “Tell the Stable Master I need them mounted one and all. First word goes to the Sentinels, second to the Council, third to the entire valley. I hate to say it, but we’re going to Full Mobilization.”
Meanwhile, as the ancient Before radio show used to say, “….”back at the ranch….” Except it wasn’t a ranch. It was, instead, the central commercial stable for Upper Valley town, reached by the Demons via circuitous meanderings designed to throw trackers off the trail come daylight. In other words, Rodney Upward had gotten himself good and lost, intending to follow Fluff Creek but missing it entirely. Jay and Joe Dotson had been heard muttering about the sliver moon rising from the wrong direction, never mind the Big Dipper, but the words weren’t clear to their fearless leader and they weren’t about to try telling the redhead he needed to woman up and simply ask for directions. Ask them for directions, they meant, since they knew exactly where they were. But their bellies were full, the last barn they’d raided had yielded a pair of saddles, and who were they to complain? They were at this dark and chilly moment richer than they’d ever been in their lives and they had Rodney Upward to thank for it. For now, they’d ride along behind like good little henchmen and keep their comments between themselves and the gatepost.
Upper Valley, had the young outlaw but known it, maintained a rather strained relationship with Lower Valley. Political power, the seat of the Council, headquarters for both the Marshal and the Sentinels, first pick of incoming trade goods after the Traders took their ten percent cut…all of these and more marked the Lowers as rich and decadent in the eyes of the Uppers, once more proving the old adage that if you put three people together at dawn, two of them would be plotting against the third by noon.
Not that the level of disquiet rose to the level of active plotting per se. Nobody was talking about overthrowing the Council or rebelling against the various strictures in Fort 24’s Constitution. For the most part the citizens of the two towns understood and even appreciated each other. Still, the Uppers were on average just a wee bit hardier and more self reliant than their Lower brothers and sisters. Oh sure, bring an active outside danger against Fort 24 and they would all unite as one against those who threatened their mountain redoubt, but the slight differences between the two communities explained the fact that Russ Gunderson relied on no one but his own nuclear family–eight boys and three girls–to provide security for the horse herd pastured behind Gunderson’s Stable. Some few of the bunch were decent saddle stock, but most of his animals were used for packing. The Gundersons rented many an equine out to hunters heading into the high country. If you were a townsman and willing to pay for a guide, any one of the Gunderson boys–and two of the girls–could and would outfit you for a day or seven, lead you into the mountain fastness, and guarantee you’d come back with meat for your winter larder.
This was an important and thriving business in a growing population center where the beef cattle were mostly still needed for breeding and increasing their numbers, hogs couldn’t keep up with the demand either, and predators had so far managed to slaughter more than their share of the small mutton industry.
Here, also, the Fort 24 natives who should have been able to advise Rodney Upward…well, their knowledge of Upper Valley was sadly deficient. Pen Garber and the Dotsons all knew a man named Gunderson owned the stable and a whole lot of trained pack horses, not to mention the wooden panniers and assorted tack that went with mountain pack train work. They even knew that he had several sons, but not so many. They’d never heard of his daughters.
Thus it was that the Demons, running on fumes and needing sleep but trusting in their reckless young chieftain, rode boldly into town, or the edge of it anyway, before cutting off to the east, figuring to slip up on the Gunderson pasture from the south side where there were no other buildings, just open country and good creek drainage cover. Rodney felt his confidence returning, now that Pen had quietly informed him as to their location. He had not originally planned to hit the Gunderson place, but he wasn’t about to admit that. They were here, the best pack strings in all of Fort 24 were here, so why not.
“There,” Upward whispered, pulling his mount to a halt. Dimly seen, smelled more than anything as they were downwind, the great numbers of horses were right behind that jackleg fence. Many were standing asleep in the way of horses, a few were lying down–some horses do that–and even fewer were picking lazily at the hay scattered about the pasture, supplementing their basic diet of dried winter grasses. “My Aunt Hepzibah, there’s a fine bunch of ’em!”
“No gate,” Pen whispered back, entirely unaware that their whispers carried in the chill night air. The Dotsons behind them could not hear, but the sibilant hisses carried forward to the crouched herd sentry as surely as a geyser letting off steam.
“Yes there is. There.” Sure enough, fifty rods or so from the back stable door, there it was. Which was purely helpful, as none of the renegades had the slightest knowledge of fence construction or the tools with which to deconstruct the enclosure.
Unseen, the gate guard let them pass, silently watched them circle quietly around half a dozen sleeping ponies. Brother Tom should be coming back from his creek patrol any moment now; it would be best not to raise the alarm until the eldest Gunderson son’s assistance was at hand. In the meantime, a winter mitten was quietly slipped from a good right hand, allowing an arrow to be nocked. There was time; the pack horses were none too happy about being roused from their rest, but they moved just enough to keep clumsy outlaw hands from slipping ropes over their heads. None of them made for the open gate, either. They liked their pasture and the newcomers couldn’t exactly yell at them to spook them in the desired direction, now could they? The stable with its second story living quarters remained dark and quiet for now, but a single shout would be enough to poke the bear, eh?
Here, surprisingly, the Dotson brothers came into their own. Believe it or not–and neither Rodney Upward nor Pen Garber found it easy to believe–horses liked the brain dead duo, allowing them to approach closely where the lead Demons had failed. With two fairly docile critters tagging along behind Jay and Joe, the rest decided what the hay, they might as well join the parade.
“Would you look at that?” Pen Garber whispered, but Rodney simply signaled him to shut up and herd horses. Things were looking right promising; the Dotsons were nearly at the gate.
From the corner of his eye, Jay caught a flicker of motion in the barely moonlit night, heard the twang of the bowstring as it released. The arrow sliced through his right arm, just above the elbow, pinning it to his ribs with a nail of fire, and everything seemed to happen at once.
The wounded man screamed, spooking every horse within fifty yards and getting bucked off for his troubles.
In sheer panic, Joe Dotson let go of his pack horse’s lead rope and put heels to his own plunging mount, ignoring the shrill cry of the animal as it took an arrow smack in its right hip. He hadn’t seen his brother fall, didn’t know the man was down, and for that matter didn’t even realize his ride was hurt.
Gabriella Gunderson, fourteen years old and a fighter from growing up with so many older brothers, rose from her gate guard position, knocking a third arrow and yelling in a voice that could be heard clear across town. “Raiders! Gundersons to me! Raiders!”
In combined terror and rage, Rodney Upward gave up on horse stealing for the night and fired his crossbow one-handed as he pointed his horse toward freedom, utterly unaware when the bolt struck its target, piercing the girl’s thigh so that she staggered back against the fence but did not fall, her own fighting spirit raised to the point that she continued to shrill the alarm. “Raiders! Gundersons to me!”
Pen Garber, thinking for himself for a change, saw far too many shadowy forms converging and did not like the odds at the gate. The pasture was large; there couldn’t possibly be guards covering every rod of the perimeter. He turned his horse toward the creek, galloping across the little rivulet without slowing, urging the animal to jump the fence that loomed near the brush line. Surprisingly, the horse made it without tangling a hoof in the jackleg rails, and the rider gave thanks–after mistiming the jump and bouncing so high out of the saddle that when he came down he knew his odds of siring a family in the future had been considerably reduced.
Not one Gunderson horse left the pasture. Gabriella noted that with some satisfaction, refusing to let herself yield responsibility to others until she found herself surrounded by family. Tom was there, and Bobby, Thorn, Speck, Ace, Clancy, Reggie, Noodle, and even Julia. Iris would be upstairs with Mom, of course, but Dad–yes, burly Russ Gunderson was there, too, a big, comforting bear of a man, hairy where you could see him and you could see quite a lot because he wore a short sleeved shirt and short pants even in this weather. Crazy Russ Gunderson, they called him, the Abominable Hair Man, but never to his face.
“There’s one down,” she gritted between her teeth, the pain finally making itself known with a vengeance. “And I’m hit. In the leg.”
Torches, then. A haze filming her awareness of the man she had wounded being questioned none too gently by three of her brothers. Her father carrying her to the house, Clancy wrapping something around her thigh en route as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. She didn’t think the bone had been hit. Pray God the bone hadn’t been hit. That was her last thought as they reached the foot of the stairs, lamplight spilling out from the second floor doorway. She vomited all over her father’s best work shirt as he carried her up those stairs, and then she knew nothing.
When she regained consciousness, daylight shone through the windows. Sister Iris saw her eyes open and hastened to her side. “Status report,” the wounded girl demanded weakly, trying to not get sick all over again as she realized just how badly her thigh hurt.
Iris, the only girl’s girl in the entire family except for their mother, snorted in disbelief. “Status report? You mean how bad is your injury, or what? Mom, she’s awake.”
“I heard, honey.” That would be Ruth Gunderson, bustling around in the kitchen. With a family of twelve bottomless pits to feed three times a day, plus herself, Mrs. Gunderson was always bustling around in the kitchen.
“Stubborn as ever.” Iris shook her head. “Might as well tell the mule what it wants to hear. Dad got the bleeding stopped. You got hit with a crossbow bolt, but thankfully it wasn’t one of those super-slicey ones that would have shredded your leg. It went almost straight through. Dad says it curved a little, bounced off your femur, but didn’t break the bone as far as he could tell. Must have just grazed it. Bone ricochet. You screamed when they disinfected it, poured some of Tommy’s potato vodka right through there, but I guess you did it without waking up somehow. Mom stitched you up. They don’t think it’s likely to infect, but nobody knows for sure, so Mom wants you on every anti-infection herb we’ve got for a week at least.”
“Iris!” TMI right there; Mom’s herbal medicines tasted truly vile. She’d almost rather get shot again. Almost.
Misunderstanding, her sister snapped, “Oh, you mean you weren’t worried about your leg, miss Ultimate Warrior?”
“Honey,” Ruth called from the kitchen, “play nice!”
“You got it, Mom!” Iris smirked at her sister. She never could understand why Ri and Julia thought acting like boys was the way to go. “The raiders were sure enough the Rodney Upward gang like the Criers warned us about. Calling themselves the Demons, according to Jay Dotson–that’s man you shot–but they’re one demon short, and it sounds like they’re running like the Devil himself is after them now. There was another crier here just minutes ago. The Council had decreed a Full Mobilization even before they hit our place. Jay Dotson was pretty beat up after the guys got done with him, but Ace and Noodle threw him over a horse, tied him down, and headed for Lower Valley to see him locked up until he can be hung. Said they were hoping the remaining three members of the gang would try them. Every other Gunderson man except Speck is out there on the trail. Well, two trails; one raider jumped the fence across the creek, made off in a different direction than the others.”
A small thrill of alarm fizzed through Gabriella “Ri” Gunderson. “But Speck is here just in case? And Julia?”
“Yes indeedy. Armed for bear, cougar, and bison all in one go, too.”
Their conversation stopped as Mrs. Gunderson entered the room bearing a cup of strong tea and a small piece of frybread. “Don’t try the bread till you’re ready, and then tiny nibbles only,” she admonished, “but do work on getting the tea down.”
“Yes, Mom.” For a time she forgot her sister was in the room; Ruth Gunderson’s healing tea required absolute concentration to swallow even the smallest sip. Thinking aloud as she blew to cool the scalding liquid, she murmured, “Strike two.”
“What?” She had forgotten Iris, but Iris hadn’t forgotten her. They were siblings, after all, and the eldest girl considered herself something of a nurse.
“Mm? Oh. Strike two. From what the Criers have told us, Mr. Rodney Upward made his first mistake when he hurt old Jeb at the Holdover House. Strike one. Now he led his gang in a raid on our horses and already lost one of his men. Strike two.”
“What’s this strike stuff?” Iris looked genuinely puzzled.
“It’s from a game they used to pay people ridiculous fortunes to play. Remember? Grandma Norcross used to tell us about it, said her husband used to be nuts about it Before, until the blackface came.”
“They paid people to play?”
“Yes, Miss Incredulous. Guess you didn’t listen to Grandma’s stories much, eh? They paid them a lot, just to hit a little round ball with a stick and run around in circles all day.”
“You’re pulling my leg, Ri.”
“Am not. Anyway, each player would get three tries to hit the ball with a stick when it was thrown at him. If he swung and missed, that was a strike. Three strikes and you were out, you didn’t get to run around in circles, and somebody else took your place with the stick.”
Iris waved a hand to stop the ridiculous fairy tale. “I don’t believe you for a second, but if we’re talking strikes, then Upward’s gang has three strikes, not two. Ours was the third. The second was, they hit a hog farmer’s place, stole a bunch of stuff including one of the pigs, and never realized the old couple–don’t know them, but I guess they’re really old, actual Survivors and everything–they hiked six miles into Lower Valley and reported the attack less than two hours after the Demons left.”
“Huh.” Strike three, all right. She was pretty sure it was Upward himself who had shot her, and she knew her family. Law enforcement, even including a major assist from the military, that was one thing. Hurting “Crazy Russ” Gunderson’s youngest little girl was quite another. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, but she did know Rodney Upward was a dead man riding like the hounds of Hell were on his trail.
Because they were.