Grunt, Chapter 44: Scramble


Every boy lifted his head from his cot when the barracks door opened, its rusty hinges squeaking loud enough to wake the dead. Well, almost every boy. Crazy Aron kept on snoring. But then, he would. More than half of the young slaves woke quickly enough to see through bleary eyes as a dark figure slipped inside, cloud-scattered moonlight silhouetting his threatening form for just an instant, before the door was shut again, still squeaking. There was no sound but breathing. No one ever came to the boys’ slave dorm after dark. Various Fort Steel citizens did visit the women’s quarters regularly, or so they’d heard, but the boys were left strictly alone to get what little exhausted sleep they could before being roused at dawn to face another day of hard labor on short rations. Eleven hearts raced. Adrenaline flashed. But there was nothing they could do. Nowhere to go. Worst of all, the intruder had come in darkness, showing no light.

This could not be good.

And then there was light as the man’s lantern was unshuttered. The occupants almost wished it hadn’t been. There before them, the closed door at his back, stood a warrior exuding strength and menace, his dark eyes searching down the aisle, measuring each one of them to the ounce. A long shoot gun slung over his back, a short one at his left hip, a bone handled knife at his right. One hand held the lantern high, hanging it on the lantern hook as if he’d already known where the hook was, as if he’d been in this building before. In the other hand, he gripped a short spear, no more than five feet long, though it had a wicked looking tip that was nearly a short sword.

The specter spoke. “Howdy boys,” he said, and the spell was broken. It was more mature, reeking of confidence, but familiar all the same.

“Dawg?” Young Jock reacted first; he might be crazy, but he was quick. On the next cot down, Aron finally stopped snoring and cracked an eye open. “Is that you?”

“What do you think?” I walked down the aisle between the two rows of cots, looking each slave in the eye, greeting them by name. “Jock. Aron, if you’ll clear those dreams of girls in pigtails out of your head. Quince. Stubby. Mudfoot. Dishwater. Heron. Brain. Snuffy. Carp. Bolo. and….” He would be at the very end, occupying the cot that had been mine for seven hard years. The cot reserved for the leader of the pack. Outside, among the masters of Fort Steel, we were nothing. Less than nothing. But here, inside the barracks, especially after the door was barred from the outside, we had our own rules, our own society. “Bugs.”

Bugs was no more than half a year younger than me. For the past seven months, he’d been cock of the walk, and now here I was looking all free and armed and rich, clad in fringed buckskins, wearing strong-soled boots, daring to come across as both free man and warrior. He’d never liked not being able to take me out, to take over even such a miniscule fiefdom as we had inside these narrow, chamber-pot-stinking walls. Tonight, he liked it even less. And he wasn’t about to roll over for me, not without a fight at least. I’d grown a lot since we’d parted ways, but Bugs–so named because bedbugs and lice seemed to gravitate to him no matter what attempts were made to eradicate them–Bugs was a monster now. Five-eight, maybe, and I overtopped him by perhaps an inch, but he was barn door wide and all muscle. I’d give a pretty penny, if I had a penny, to know whose boots he was licking during daylight hours to get fed like that while every other slave starved.

He didn’t answer me. Just got right to the point, half snarling his question. “What are you doing here?”

I kept my eyes on him. None of the others would even think of interfering; they’d seen us fight before and it was never pretty. “Fort Steel is out of the slave business as of tonight,” I said quietly. “We’re leaving, going to a much better place. What do you say?”

The others gasped in surprise. Bugs did not. “I say you’re full of it as a Christmas goose. Ain’t none of us going nowhere; Finster’s troops would have us before we could even get close to the stockade gate. And I say you need to be taught a lesson, barging in here like some jumped up full of himself jackdaw. And I’d do the teaching, too, if you didn’t have all them fancy pig stickers and shooters.”

“Oh, that’s no problem. Here,” I spoke to Jock over my shoulder, handing him the spear, point up. “Hold that for me, please.”

Unfortunately for him, Bugs had always relied on brute strength in a fight. The lad might have a brain, but he’d surely misplaced it somewhere. Seeing me turn my head and even step my right foot back a notch to hand off the spear, he started to drop into his signature crouch, preparing to bull rush me, bear me to the floor where he could easily pound me to mush. Which he could do; I would never be a match for that mountain of muscle on the ground. But then, I had no intention of going there. The back-step had stretched me out just enough for the quarter spin, hybrid front thrust kick. Bugs had plenty of momentum when my boot met his face, his arms wide open for grabbing with no thought of defense. Most of his body continued forward until it fell nearly at my feet, but his head snapped back at an unnatural angle. The fool obviously hadn’t developed his neck muscles to match the rest.

Dead silence reigned, ten boys holding their collective breath. Stooping, I turned the body over, already knowing the bully of the barracks was stone cold dead. It shouldn’t have been necessary to take in the smashed nose, the obviously dislocated jaw, the broken teeth inside his slack, gaping mouth, the little pig eyes staring in surprise. I hadn’t meant to kill him. Not really. But he’d have killed me if he could; I would lose no sleep over this one. Besides, if this didn’t establish my authority over the rest of the slaves, nothing would.

Straightening, I scanned the room, asking, “Anybody else have an objection to leaving?”

Nobody did.



Not that I’d doubted Michael, but when he rounded the corner into the alley with ten boys trailing along behind him like he they were ducklings and he was their mother, I let out a sigh of relief.

Wait. “Ten? Weren’t there supposed to be eleven?”

“Bugs won’t be coming with us.”

Hm. So much for trying to avoid bloodshed. One down before we even made our move, and a slave casualty at that.

“Boys,” he addressed the group quietly, “this is Julia. I have to go run an errand, so she’s your boss till I catch up with y’all, okay?” There were quick nods; being handed off from one authority to another was a way of life for Fort Steel slaves.

“They’re all yours, Jules. Everybody else is mounted?”

“Yep. Lynn is at the back of the line at the moment, reassuring a couple of the women.” Not only had the Comptons come through, but Laura had contacted the teacher who’d been willing to educate Fort Steel slaves on her own time, after hours. Turned out the Strator had issued an edict three months back, forbidding that practice. Lynn Burch did not appreciate it; she was more than ready to split, especially if her favored students were also leaving. We were inordinately grateful; having her with us when we’d entered the women’s barracks made all the difference. If Teacher was going, it must be the right thing to do. Not that they weren’t all frightened half to death, except for those too young to consider it, but fear was part and parcel of a slave’s life anyway.

Weasel’s part was done, except for one thing. He would be waiting at their front kitchen window, watching for the first sign of Michael’s diversion. Which shouldn’t take too long, he said. It felt long, though. Massive clouds of butterflies frolicked in my stomach. Cloud cover was iffy, the moon providing light enough to see outlines at times, at others not enough to see anything at all.

Hurry up, love! I quashed the thought as soon as it formed. My man would be moving as fast as he dared.



Overhead, the sky cleared just enough to let me get a fix on the moon’s position. Not good. There was no turning back now, but still, not good. Weasel and his wife had made it possible, and thank them from the heart for that, but each little step had taken a few more minutes than I’d hoped. At best, we’d not have much of a lead before daylight.

But it would have to do. There were no do-overs in this game.

This row of sheds–did I have it right? Ah. There. On target, thank the Light. Near the foundry boundary, but not too near. Two disastrous explosions had been enough; though years ago, those had never been forgotten. Shed #16 held shoot gun primers, thousands of them, more than enough to equip every shooter in the Fort ten times over. Shed #17, which also covered the tunnel Julia and I had used to gain access to the Fort’s interior, held only a handful of heavy steel specialty tools, seldom used. Why those weren’t inside the foundry itself, I had no idea. Shed #18 was the one I wanted. Or more precisely, needed. Not even this building sported a padlock, nothing but the standard simple outside bar, though it did have a skull and crossbones design painted on the door. Garish red, if seen in daylight. As a slave, I’d come to know Shed #18 well.

One thing you did not do inside Shed #18 was carry an open flame or even strike a spark. Removing the fifty pound casks had to be done by feel alone. Fortunately, there were plenty of casks in stock this night; black powder production must have been booming for months.

I worked backwards, carrying the first cask a good hundred feet down the line and across the alley and around a corner. It was perhaps erring on the side of caution, but I truly did not know just how powerful the initial blast might be, and I would have to watch to make sure it happened. At least we were in no danger of being spotted by night guards; after dark, the gate sentries never left their posts and catwalkers were only on duty when a known threat was imminent.

It took three casks to mound a trail of gunpowder all the way back to #18. A fourth cask was emptied in a pile next to the remaining stock, with several of those upended, their bungs pulled to allow powder to provide a spill-trail to the mostly-still-loaded units. Someone had once told me–couldn’t remember who, but it stuck–that lighting giant powder inside a closed container, or even a mostly closed container, was the best way to get the most bang for your buck.

Nerves nearly got the best of me as I imagined the powder might take my face off at the touch of a still glowing coal from my hot pack, as we called it. Almost, I stood back and tossed the coal at the powder tail, but if the coal went out before igniting…no, not a good plan. Not a plan at all. Still, the twig-tongs were smoking by the time the contact was made. Thankfully, I didn’t lose my face. The powder snap-crack-fizzled in a satisfactory way, absolutely fascinating, burning forward at a startling rate. I watched the little sparks and listened to the fizz for a long time, until it disappeared into the open doorway of Shed #18.

Then I started running.



From the window, what could be seen in the fitful moonlight through the clouds made one thing perfectly clear. Dawg…Michael Jade had blown it. First gray light would be on them in another hour at most. Watch for a fire, the man had said, and that’ll be the diversion. There had been no sign of flames, not so much as a stray torch or lantern bobbing through the darkness. If they were going to make it, which never looked like a good bet to me, they’d have kicked off the party by now. Not that we’d been allowed to know precisely when the fire would happen, just that it would be before daylight.

At my side, my wife, Fort Steel’s premier healer, shifted to lean against my shoulder, her hand on my thigh. Not so much for reassurance; I was pretty sure she’d fallen asleep. The worst of it was that Lynn Burch was with them. Lynn was a talented educator and a believer in human liberty, but could she stand up to torture without telling about Weasel and Laura Compton’s involvement in the escape attempt? Because Captain Finster, at least, would not hesitate to go that route if our closest friend was discovered and labeled traitor. I knew the man far, far too well to doubt that.

Every time the moon broke through, even a little bit, moving shadows made horror-shapes in my mind. There, again, the sky opening enough to let me judge the time. There was no time left. I’d been wrong; first light would begin creeping abroad in no more than half an hour at best. It was over. I needed to–

The world exploded.

Not truly, but that was the first impression. Laura started up from her chair with a squeak; my butt was welded to mine. Hopefully, Davies and his sister were sleeping through this. They might; those two kids were deep sleepers and the home’s thick walls muffled anything short of an earthquake.

Not that Dawg’s diversion fell far short of that. Watch for a fire, he’d said. I’d thought he was going to torch a building; fire in a settlement of mostly wooden houses and outbuildings always meant panic time. This was more than that. Far more. The shock wave hit us at least one full second after the fireball bloomed upward, casting eerie reddish light over the entire area. The kitchen window didn’t break, thank the powers that be, but it did bulge inward visibly. The ancient log walls snapped and creaked from the strain and I was suddenly certain shakes were ripped from the roof.

Neither Laura nor I spoke. Instead, she scrambled to light the lantern while I threw on my coat and strapped the fixit boot firmly to leg and foot. She handed me the lit lantern and the spare bucket, opened the door for me, and I was gone, hobble-running toward disaster. Every man, woman, and child in Fort Steel would have felt that blast. Every able bodied man would be doing the same as I was, the only difference being they’d assume–at first–that the blast had been accidental, that the foundry overseer or the arms master or both had gotten careless with gunpowder. Again. As had happened twice in the past, though never a blast quite as destructive as this one.

Fool kid must have touched off a hundred kegs of the stuff!

Others would beat me to the site, some living a bit closer to the storage district and all being fleeter of foot than the cripple, doncha know. But it was crucial that I show up, take my place in the bucket brigade attempting to keep the fire from spreading farther than it already had. There was no wind, thank the Creator; even a stiff breeze would have fanned the flames to consume every building in town. But I had to be there, had to be seen doing my part, Weasel the upstanding citizen no matter the limp, sweating it out with the rest of them. I had to be there for that. And for one more thing.



The horses screamed, bucked, tried to bolt despite being tied nose-to-tail. At the front of the pack string, I had all I could do to hang on to the lead rope as Number One reared, striking out with his front feet, barely missing me. One hoof brushed my shoulder; I barely noticed, focused as I was. The explosion had shaken all of us. The younger children stayed safe in their panniers, but three of the animals dumped their up-top riders unceremoniously onto the dirt, ignoring their startled screams. Stepping on them as well for all I knew; it’s not like I had prior experience handling a mob like this during the End of the World.

It seemed like forever before the critters settled down, though common sense told me it couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes. There was no sound of running boots, heading down the main drag just one block over, but there would be. Soon.

“Lynn!” Despite the urgency, my call was not loud. I could hear people yelling now, but distant; we had to get moving. “Everybody okay?” I didn’t dare leave the lead horse; lose control there and it was all over but the dying.

“All alive. One broken arm where a horse stepped on it, I think. Getting everybody back aboard; give me a minute.”

“We’ve got to get going.”

“I know.”

There was a muffled groan back there, likely from the rider with the broken arm. Rider like a sack of beans is a rider; our passengers were just that. Passengers.

We started forward, finally, me walking as fast as I could, my legs stretching and reaching with every stride. A four mile per hour pace, enough to force most horses into a slow trot. Nobody liked that, getting jounced around in open topped wooden boxes–we’d sliced the leather hinges on the panniers, discarding the lids–or stuck in the middle atop a horse’s spine. Yet there were no sounds of complaint; even the mousiest slave knew we were committed now. Running might catch the wrong sort of attention, especially going away from the fire as we were, but moving too slowly meant sure capture, torture, possibly execution.

For Michael, at least, there was no possibly about it. Me, they might try turning into a brood mare. Try being the operative word. If things went south, I had no intention of being taken alive.

The slave barracks were situated in the northwest quarter of the stockade enclosure, though at the center west of that quarter. The sheds Michael had blown up were even farther east, at least a quarter mile, only far enough from the foundry to make folks feel safe.

Boots were pounding now, scores if not hundreds of men, and likely some women and older boys, racing to fight the fire. All of them seemed to be using the main street through town, though. Michael had guessed right, that they would do that.

The question was, would the front gate guards be drawn away as well? Ordinarily, the answer would be no, never, not ever. Which was why Michael had decided to blow up half the Fort. Okay, not really half, but it seemed that way. And another thing. Where was Michael? He should have caught up to them by now. The sounds of running and yelling had faded to nothing, every available citizen already having responded to the blast, galloping two blocks over from the alleys they traversed. But now was the critical moment.

We had reached the edge of the last building row. Ahead, across fifty yards of bare, open parade ground space, stood the western stockade wall, it’s huge gates barred firmly shut to keep out the terrors of the night. Was there a guard there, on the catwalk? I couldn’t see one, but if he was sitting down…no, no man would be sitting down with the other end of town burning like Cicero’s Rome. Or was that Nero? I never could remember which was which.

Still no Michael. He should be here. Might be dead–don’t even think that! I had a job to do.

Night torches burned brightly at either side of the gates. Cloud cover or no, there was no more sneaking now. I stepped forward, tugging Number One’s lead rope, starting the string into motion once again. If there was a guard still on station, he would know at a glance something was wrong. The very strangeness of our convoy might throw him off balance for a moment, at which point I would have to kill him. Make a bad joke to whatever he said, lean forward, flash a little bosom by torchlight to fix attention while slipping the .38 caliber revolver from under my shirt. Double tap, two shots to center mass. If I had to, I could do it. I would do it, knowing the nightmares would come later. Only the youngest, greenest troopers were saddled with night watch; I would be murdering a boy not much older than my mate.

Despite the chill night air, sweat slicked my palms. Not good; that could cause my grip to slip on the pistol’s handle. I wiped my gun hand on my buckskins, scanning everywhere along the stockade wall as we closed the distance to the gates.

And then we were there. No guard that I could see. No relief, either. Not yet. A certainty rolled through me, crushing in its doom; I was convinced we would be found out at this last, crucial moment. My breath came fast, little short of hyperventilating. I needed to pee, bad.

Where is Michael?

The great timber barring the gates was too heavy. I’m stronger than your average girl, a lot stronger, but this beam must require two big men to move it. Michael hadn’t mentioned that. Maybe he didn’t know about that. I almost cried in frustration…and then Lynn Burch was there, and three of the older boys. The bar fairly flew up, out of the way, Peter Pan taking flight.

Still the fear rode me; we were not out of the woods yet. Out through the gate, steady walk forward, heading toward the nearest rise a mile and a half away. We were on our way, our saddle mounts waiting half a mile out from the fort, tied hard and fast to a couple of the rare but sturdy, small trees sparse-dotting the gentle slope. For the first time, I dared to hope we might actually make it. First light was upon us, though, not enough yet to make out distant objects, but we’d be highly visible before we reached that rise.

By the time we reached Roan and Appy, I could make out the entire pack string. From here, there was no point in taking it easy; as soon as I was mounted, I heeled my precious transportation forward, tugging Number One’s lead rope, urging the entire pack string into a jolting trot. No more than that; we still had a mile to cover and fully loaded pack horses were never designed for speed. Some of the slaves would be bruised from this run for sure, but the alternative was highly unacceptable.

Roan was left, still tied to his tree. If–when Michael reached him, he would need everything the roan had. Where is he?



Consciousness came back slowly at first, then with a rush and a pounding headache. I could see the flames soaring above the buildings, could hear what sounded like half of Fort Steel working buckets as they battled the fire. Trying to clear my head, I shook it. Big mistake. Getting to my feet was no small accomplishment, but the .358 Winchester was still slung across my back. The shock wave had knocked me flat on my face, chin first, smacking a rock in the dirt or something. At any rate, there was a small gash in the lower left corner of my chin, oozing blood, and I felt like I’d been hit with an uppercut from Bugs.

Dead Bugs, I thought. My brain still wasn’t working right. I should have simply left it, but I found myself down on hands and knees, feeling around for the Sedlacek Special spear. I’d survived the Trace with that spear, and one like it, as well as–there it was.

Getting up wasn’t quite as hard this time. How long was I out? Only then did it dawn on me. Jules would have had to lead the escape without me. I had failed her. She would be worried sick. If I didn’t get to her in time, her death would be on my hands.

That more than anything got me moving.

It was jogging at best, certainly no sprint–my pounding head wouldn’t allow that–but the blocks fell behind steadily, if all too slowly. At the end of the final alley, I could see the stockade gates.

Standing wide open.

Relief hit me so strongly, it nearly buckled my knees. Nothing for it; I headed across the parade ground at a shambling run, ignoring the blinding headache, urging my battered body to go faster. The body wasn’t impressed, but I was through the gate now, without a bullet in my back. With every stride away from the stockade, I began to feel a little less doomed, a little more hope. Jules. Go! Go! Go! It became a mantra, a painful but rhythmic mental utterance with every other step. Go! Go! Go!

I spotted my horse from fifty yards off, cut my pace to keep him from spooking, eased up to the reins, love-talked the roan until I was in the saddle. Now I was a man again. Good horse between my legs, well armed, headache ignored if not forgotten. Far ahead, maybe half a mile, I could see the pack string moving along smartly. Smartly for pack horses. We’d catch up to them easily now; a steady lope would have us reunited before they topped the rise.

Wait a sec. I could see them? Turning in the saddle, I looked back to the east, over and beyond Fort Steel. No. First light was well on its way.

Desperation? Light is thy name. We started our lope, Roan and I. Even at that pace, usually a smooth rocking chair ride, the horse’s rough gait pounded my headache so hard it felt like gray matter was coming out my ears. But it wouldn’t matter if we were all dead; I had to rejoin the group. It was getting lighter by the second, or so it seemed. It’s possible they won’t look until you’re out of sight. I quashed the thought without mercy. Hoping for that kind of luck was as reckless as the historical whales in ancient Before times, blowing fortunes in a single night at Sin City casinos. Even on a normal night, housewives got up at first light, building up the cook fires and preparing breakfast for their families. On a night like tonight, they’d all be awake already, mostly looking toward the fire in the northwest quarter if they looked anywhere. But it would only take one. One man, woman, or child to look out of that western row of houses. I should have shut the gate behind me; they might not have noticed the bar was out of place. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t stop, not even for the thirty seconds it would have taken to do that.

No one would miss one of the two great gates standing wide open. No one.

My only hope was that Weasel was doing his part, or had done it already. Preferably the latter, but those flames still roared. Shed #17 was no more, but the ashes and charred bits of wood might well be too hot, still, for anyone to go poking around there. Our inside man had agreed to make sure the tunnel under that shed was discovered, hopefully leading Captain Finster to believe we’d escaped by that route. He would definitely know the slaves had disappeared by now, and probably fifteen horses, too.

I passed the pack string when it was maybe an eighth of a mile from the summit, easing back to a trot as I reached Julia in the lead. We kept moving, talking as we rode. It wasn’t like there was a real trail here anyway; we’d branched away from the main route, heading toward Graveyard Mesa. Not a great plan; we certainly didn’t want Fort Steel exploring our urban turf in force, but we wouldn’t be heading anywhere near the Library. Instead, we’d go straight through the graveyard, hitting the main trail on the other side, cutting off a bunch of distance, then loop cross-country around the western edge of the ruined city until we could lose ourselves in the foothills and, eventually, high timber leading toward the Roost.

“What kept you?” Julia’s grin was ear to ear, blinding in its radiance. Mine was likely just as wide.

“Long story.”

“I’ll bet. There’s blood on your chin.” We both turned, looked over our backtrail. “Figures.” I wasn’t sure which of us said that. Dim, dark dots were issuing forth from the fort, not easy to identify at this distance, but moving fast. Finster hadn’t been fooled, or at least he hadn’t been fooled for long enough. Although maybe…five…six of them. That was all, a fraction of the militia’s full force.

Talk about a brief reunion. “Take ’em on ahead, babe. When we hit the summit, I’ll find a spot to tether Roan and settle in to give those boys a surprise.”

She blinked, once, but then she nodded, her grin wiped from her face as if it had never been.

The entire pack string was blowing hard when they reached the top. Fortunately, they ought to be able to get their wind back on the mesa; Jules slowed the pace to a fast walk, giving them as much of a breather as she dared. Horsewoman born and bred, she knew a windblown horse wasn’t good for much.

Thirty yards in, I found a tree looming over a gravestone. Leaving Roan tied to a sturdy branch, I loped back to the summit, leaving the spear on the saddle but carrying three spare magazines for the .358. Four shots apiece. Sixteen rounds total. If I needed more than that…better not to think about it. Finster’s squad–A or B Squad, I wondered, though in truth it made little difference–closed the distance rapidly; they weren’t sparing the horseflesh, coming on at a full gallop. Finster considered a horse a tool, and he didn’t fret over a broken tool. Additionally, these were cavalry mounts, not pack animals; they might well be able to run flat out for a mile and a half without lasting damage. At half a mile out, horses and riders could be seen clearly, except for details. It looked like Finster himself led the charge, though I couldn’t be sure at this distance. It made sense, though; the good Captain took these sorts of things personally. At a quarter mile it was confirmed; no else sat a horse quite the way he did, and his uniform was flashier than the others.

Obviously, the pack string had been seen. I did not think I had, reversing course and bellying through the remaining snow–here there was some remaining–taking up a comfortable prone position with nothing for cover but dry winter grass. The grass was tall enough, though, and positioned as I was, I made a small target. Five hundred yards, closing fast. Four hundred, a bit of a long reach for the Winchester. Three hundred, well within range but no sure thing at a moving target, even a target coming head-on at the shooter.

Two hundred yards. The .358’s hair trigger eased back almost of its own volition. Fair kick to this rifle, but I never felt it; all of my attention was on the enemy. I knew the shot was good before it hit, the soft -whump- of a meat shot reaching my ears before the rifle’s report had died away. Dead center hit, or close enough with 200 grains of Silvertip bullet traveling at well above 2,000 feet per second. It didn’t blow the Captain off his horse; that sort of thing is for the fairy tales. Finster did hump over forward, though, and then slide down off the left side of his mount, the reins coming free, one boot hung up in the stirrup.

A galloping cavalry mount dragging dead weight is not a pretty sight, but then, I wasn’t watching. There were five more riders to consider. Jacking a fresh round into the chamber, I watched. And waited. The squad members sawed on their reins, bringing their mounts to a stop in short order. For a moment, all five of them sat motionless, in shock. I could have picked at least one more off easily; they were sitting ducks.

But this was Squad B. I could see that now, identify the troopers. Most of them were second rate soldiers even by Fort Steel’s questionable standards. Had the Sergeant been with them, or even the Corporal, they’d have scattered by now, possibly seeking cover where there was none but returning fire at any rate.

It seemed advisable to let the fear of the unknown work in them for the moment. These kids didn’t know where the shot had come from, obviously hadn’t seen the muzzle blast. They were looking around wildly, carbines in their hands, but they had no idea where to shoot. Finster had at least taught them not to waste ammunition if you didn’t have a target. I might have been able to down them all–maybe–but my promise to Weasel reverberated in my thoughts: No bloodshed if I could help it. I’d already had to terminate two people, one a slave and the other the Fort’s premier military authority, but popping these confused youngsters really would be murder.

Finster? Him, I didn’t care about. The man had led the raid on Fort Confluence, slaughtering my parents and enslaving me. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Yet there was no sense of satisfaction at his death. Just relief, knowing it would shake up the militia something fierce, having to promote someone else to Captain. I’d cut off the head of the snake–one of the heads, Strator Tucker being the other–but there was no need to perforate the thrashing body.

Whoa, what’s this? As one, the troopers turned their horses, presenting their backs to me as they chased off after the Captain’s mount. Finster’s body still bounced and flopped over the uneven ground as his big half-Thoroughbred galloped madly back toward the Fort. It didn’t look like his foot was going to come free any time soon.

“Well,” I spoke aloud, just a murmur, “that takes the cake.” The young troopers must have decided their best course of action was to advance to the rear, post haste. I held my position for a full minute more before getting to my knees and casting around to find my brass. Cartridge casings for the .358 were never to be wasted. I would find someone, somewhere, someday, who know how to reload.

Roan nodded his head up and down as we took to the trail, following the tracks made by the pack string. It might take a while to catch up this time, but we would manage it long before Fort Steel could organize stronger pursuit. They would pursue; of that there was zero doubt. Strator Tucker would see to that if the militia itself did not. But it would take them a while. Hours at least, maybe a full day. With Sergeant Blake in charge, most likely, though he might be promoted to Lieutenant first. How many troopers would they commit? No more than ten; the Fort could not be left undefended. But they would be ten of the toughest, the most seasoned, and under Blake they would not likely rush blindly ahead on the assumption their quarry was helpless.

We still couldn’t outrun them. The Roost lay a good 45 miles away, most of it hard country. With all the women and children, we’d be lucky to average ten miles a day, give or take. Four, five days on the trail. More men would die. But we had a chance, and we were going to take it.

Man, my head hurt.