I couldn’t take any more and neither could the horse. Pen Garber’s favorite bay mare from the Gunderson herd had saved my life but was laboring now, hopefully not yet windbroke but nearing the end of her rope. Trying to ignore the slashing pain in my shoulder wasn’t working, either.
“Easy, girl.” She was more than willing to slow from full-out gallop to a more sedate walk, sweat lathering her hide despite the chill air. We were no more than a mile from the Campsite of Death, looping wide around the south side of the lake. If they came after me now…but there was no sign of pursuit. That thrice blasted Dawg could have saddled one of the Indian horses by now, but he didn’t seem to be after me yet.
Yet. He would be. Baby slave boy, taking Garber down with a spear of all things, and then putting lead in me to boot. Which meant the big guy I’d tagged was probably old Grunt himself, high and mighty Founder, all full of himself. Bet he wasn’t feeling so chipper now, huh. It should have given me some small degree of satisfaction, knowing I’d returned the favor for his murder of Jay Dotson. Should have, but didn’t. Dawg. A kid, not even of age yet. Fear rode my spine, warring with the desire to get him back. I’d never been shot before, not once.
It didn’t feel good.
What? Turning my head to look back over my damaged shoulder, I saw the droplet fall, a tiny crimson gem arcing down and back, marking the snow as it landed. Blood. My blood, a stray bit that had rolled out along the bullet hole in my leather coat instead of running down my arm like the rest of it. Nausea hit hard then, the combination of pain and blood loss and realization slamming me in the gut like the kick of an angry bronc. It was all I could do to contain my vomit.
Blood usually didn’t bother me. Unless it was mine.
And then I became aware of the song running through my head, dear old dead daddy Kahn’s favorite tune of all time. Wanted Man, the song he said was inspired by outlaws in the long-ago Before days, during the Wild West period of America. A singer named Frankie Laine had made it famous, but Kahn believed every raider should memorize the lyrics even if he couldn’t sing worth sour beans. Said it summed up the life of any man who functioned outside the law. I’d thought I’d refused, thought the hateful tune hadn’t sunk into me like the sneaky proboscis of a mosquito.
Obviously I was wrong.
Bullet in my shoulder
Blood, runnin’ down my vest
Twenty in the posse
And they’re never gonna let me rest
Till I became a wanted man
I never even owned a gun
Now they hunt me like a mountain cat
And I’m always, always, always on the run
“Shut up!” I yelled into the empty prairie ahead, regretting it instantly. All it did was flare the pain even worse and leach out what little physical energy I had left. I was going to die out here, hunted down like a rabid dog, killed by Dawg.
I still couldn’t believe the little bastard had gotten the best of me. Couldn’t believe it.
I killed poor Jed Bryant
In a bad Laredo fight,
Killed him with my bare hands
For the girl I loved that night.
Jed’s brother’s out to get me,
He’s comin’ with a gang
I’d rather shoot it out, by God,
Than let ’em see me hang
Bullet in my shoulder,
Blood runnin’ down my vest….
Got to take stock. Got to do it before I fall off the horse. Fighting to keep from losing consciousness, I forced myself to tally my assets. One horse, a good one, saddled today only because Pen had wanted to cross the creek and drift down the other side, see if maybe he could scare up a whitetail deer. We’d been out of meat, eating the lake fish as soon as they were caught, so he’d prepared himself. Long gun in the scabbard, a single shot in .45 caliber, not up to the standards of the lever action I’d had to drop in order to climb into the saddle with only one good arm, the near-worthless left hand barely able to hold the reins. Ammo for the rifle in the saddle bags. Bit of pemmican. Flint, steel, and tinder. Bedroll lashed tight behind the cantle, just in case. A coil of rope. Good belt knife on one hip and an unreliable revolver on the other.
And not much else.
So. I was mounted, armed and dangerous though loading the rifle would be tricky with the injury, and I wouldn’t freeze to death come nightfall. If I made it that far.
My teeth were chattering. Shock?
She had spangles on her red dress
She had laughter in her voice,
When he tried to put his hands on her
My heart left me no choice.
But was she really worth it?
I guess I’ll never know,
She’ll be drinkin’ someone else’s rye when I’m six feet below.
Bullet in my shoulder,
Blood, runnin’ down my vest–
A wanted man….
“Damn you, shut. Up.”
…on the run.
Ugh. It couldn’t be morning sickness; Michael and I hadn’t been together that long. Besides, Mama Ruth’s special herbs for Ladies’ Eyes Only had never been known to fail yet except through user error, and I’d been faithfully ingesting the bitter mix.
The men were arguing and my stomach was paying the price. Give me an adversary to confront and I’m fine, but when the intense disagreement is between people I love with all my heart, it’s puke time. Or close to it.
“…no way.” Tommy’s voice, low but angry. I cracked an eyelid, just enough to observe the proceedings without letting the guys know I was awake. “If you go, my sister will go. It’s a death sentence.”
Still dark out, another hour till daylight by the stars, but someone had stoked the coals, gotten the fire up and running. They must have decided we were safe enough from attack for the moment. I could feel the heat of the small blaze warming my face. All three men were involved, Michael to my right, Tommy to my left, Big Jake across the flames from me. He was leaned over on his right side, resting on his elbow, that wounded left buttock well clear of contact with the frozen earth. I had a feeling Grunt knew I was listening, but he didn’t give me away. Nor did he contribute to the dispute between brothers in law.
Which meant he knew how this was going to go as well as I did.
Michael sounded as immovable as the butte where Red Horse’s people had their winter camp. “I wouldn’t like it either, Tom. I get it. But Jake’s in no shape to go after Rodney. He’s admitted as much himself. For that matter, if the renegade makes it to Fort Steel, he might be able to spin a tale that’ll have them looking to shoot the big man on sight.”
“You think he won’t be doing worse about you?” Gunderson snapped. “The former slave run amok, turned raider himself, death sentence deserved. And the tall blonde girl, you think they’re going to welcome my sister with open arms, treat her like royalty?” His eyes flashed. “They’ll take her slave in a hot second and you know it!” He was beginning to really get into it now, flaring his nostrils and bowing his neck, pawing the ground, red rims around his eyes as he prepared to charge. Metaphorically speaking, of course. The man was still sitting cross-legged, not overtly looking for a physical fight, but the infamous Gunderson Stubborn gene was in full play. Time for me to get up and ready to intervene before he did something stupid. Slipping out of my blankets, wishing they’d given me time to go squat behind a bush for a minute, I felt a butterfly-light touch on my shoulder. Morning Lark, ready to move as well, her eyes alight with curiosity.
“They don’t know about Julia,” my mate replied, his own voice dropping in volume, an almost whisper-quiet counterpoint to the other man’s near-bellow. “Rodney Upward can’t possibly know she was with us. He saw you and Jake at a distance, he saw me up close and personal, but he never saw Julia.”
Grunt still didn’t say a word. He looked more resigned than anything.
As for me, I’d heard enough. “Thomas Overmire Gunderson,” I announced, startling both Michael and my brother, “quit trying to duck your responsibilities.”
He looked highly offended at that, but it did interrupt his pattern. Which was kind of the point. “What–what the heck do you mean by that, sis?” I hated to see the sudden confusion in his eyes, but there was no help for it.
“Just this.” I stepped forward and folded my knees, sitting between the two hardheaded men but leaning toward my sibling, mirroring his body language. Morning Lark, I noticed, had slipped around the group, taking a position between Grunt and Tommy. Poor big brother; we had him sandwiched. “Jake, Slash, and Lark all need at least one hale and hearty fighter to protect them. We’re eight hard days’ ride from Red Horse’s camp; with the travois and also Mr. Sedlacek needing to take a break once in a while, you’ll be lucky to make it in two weeks. Any lone woman is a target as you well know, but Morning Lark even more so because of her size and her calling as a healer. Bad men see a woman and automatically think target, but they see a small woman and they think easy target. There’s not much meat left, so you’ll have to hunt for the group.”
“Michael could do all of that,” he protested, but weakly. He never could win an argument against his baby sister. I did wish he hadn’t pushed me to this, though; what came next was going to be hard for his ego to take.
“He could,” I admitted, nodding my head in agreement. “But he couldn’t do it as well as you could. You’re a Gunderson; you grew up breaking horses and hunting wild game as a way of life. Michael grew up being beaten for having a mouth on him and doing slave work inside a walled fort. Who do you think has the better chance of bringing down a wary whitetail buck? Him or you?”
Very much against his will, he had to concede that point. Lord love a duck, if only that were enough to convince the man. But it wasn’t and I knew it. “Now the flip side. Going east after a wounded outlaw, very much armed and dangerous, consider our assets. I’m a Gunderson, so yeah, I know how to hunt. That’s me, but Michael? We’re all fighters in our own way, but my man is flat-out deadly when he has to be. Despite his age, he’s already killed three men in close quarters combat and wounded two more. Two Tracers with Jake on the way to Fort 24, dead. One wounded. One Demon outlaw at Rhubarb War Creek dead, one wounded. He’s been successful with both bladed weapons and firearms, once even with a spear against a firearm. He doesn’t hesitate and he gets the job done. In a word, he’s a blooded, veteran warrior.
“And you, brother, as much as I love you, are not.”
Tommy looked stricken. “That’s…kind of a harsh summary, sis.”
“It is.” I spread my arms wide, palms up in a gesture of helplessness. “But do you deny its accuracy?”
Shaking his head, he heaved a great sigh. “I know I can’t stop you, Jules. When you get the bit in your mouth like this, nobody can.”
So now I was the one being stubborn? A flash of irritation surged through me. Thankfully, Jake chose that moment to put in his two cents worth.
“Michael,” he rumbled, “I presume you do have something of a plan, just in case Upward does beat you to Fort Steel?”
“More than a plan.” The teenaged hero of my dreams, both night and waking, nodded somberly. “I also have a goal.”
“Well. Enlighten us?”
“Sure.” He picked up a stick, poked at the fire with it as he spoke, looking not at us but at the vision in his head. “First of all, I don’t expect Rodney to beat us to Steel. Anything’s possible, but every horse he left behind was pretty much worn out. What he’s riding might be a little better off, but probably not by much. Would you agree, Tommy?”
“Yeah.” Was my brother being buttered up deliberately? Ask a Gunderson about horse stuff and you had his full attention every time. “The mare he’s riding is one of ours. She’s good stock, but not the best. She ain’t Super Horse.”
“So, he can’t run her forever or he’ll be on foot in no time. Then there’s his injury. I’m almost positive I shot him in the shoulder or close to it. At any rate, that arm didn’t seem to be of much use after he was hit, and he was bleeding, at least before he got mounted. We saw the blood trail.”
Again Tommy agreed. Wow. I’d bitch-slapped my brother in the ego, but my man sure enough had a handle on the rest of it.
“Will he set an ambush? Maybe, but I’m thinking not. Not unless he just can’t go any farther and decides to take his pursuers with him to the gates of Hades. But all of that is peripheral.”
“Puriff–what?” Tommy’s brows beetled together in concentration. I was pretty sure this was the first time he’d ever heard that word used in conversation.
“Um…it’s beside the point. We’ll make sure the Demon is good and dead, but whether or not that happens before Fort Steel…really doesn’t matter.
Tommy looked at him with an expression I could read as clear as day. The kid has lost his mind.
Not that Michael cared. I gripped his knee gently as he went on. “You all know my number one goal has always been to free my people, the remaining slaves at Fort Steel. But what you may not realize is that I know a dozen ways in and out of there, access points to which their military is completely blind. Captain Finster would have a cow if he knew what I knew. There are also sympathizers among the citizens, people willing to help. Not a lot of them, but enough, and some who hold positions of influence within the Fort.”
“So,” Tommy asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow, “what happens if you do get them out? Presuming Upward is already dead and that’s not an issue, do you really believe a couple dozen slaves can hold out against an organized military force? In the middle of a high plains winter?”
“No,” Michael admitted, “not a couple dozen. There are four, maybe five in the group who have potential as fighters. No more than that.”
“Four or five? Then what–”
“But they will need training. So until that can happen, there will be exactly two warriors to get the job done.”
“Me and Julia.”
He paused to let that sink in. Michael “Dawg” Jade might be only sixteen years of age, but he know how to milk a moment.
“You. And my sister.”
“It’ll be enough,” Grunt said, and I could have kissed his big hairy face, “if Michael is thinking what I think he’s thinking.”
“I probably am.” He grinned at his oversized mentor. “That taboo city just this side of Steel. Jake, you told me it had a population of nearly a quarter million people before the Fall, right?”
“That I did.”
“Tommy, I intend to check out that dead city long before heading sneaking into Fort Steel. Jake tells me hunters used to come there from all around the country back in the day, spent millions of dollars annually on permits, firearms, ammunition, camping gear, food, fuel for their Before engines, the works. And not only that, but the primary manufacturing plant for NeverFail ammunition was right there, one of the largest employers in town, second only to the regional major trauma center, what we would call an infirmary today, only on a gigantic scale.
“The manufacturing plant might have been looted, or trashed, or burned to the ground, but more than half of the local residents were armed and thousands of people hid one or more weapons for fear of their own government, for fear of a civil war, or maybe for fear of aliens from outer apace. But the point is they had them, they hid them, then they died…and we can find them. Neither Julia nor I have been trained in rapid fire shooters, what Jake calls semiautomatics, but we do know how to read. There’s bound to be a manual left somewhere. And when we’re properly armed and practiced and ready, we’ll go get my people.”
Tommy looked more than a little gobsmacked. “Okay, um, so, you get them out…and then what?” I noticed he wasn’t arguing any more. My honey’s passion had swayed his audience, once he’d been allowed to lay things out.
“And then,” Michael clench-jerked a fist to emphasize his point, “we rebuild Fort Confluence. We raise a memorial to those who fell there, my parents included, and we build strong, for both trade and defense, taking as our model Fort 24’s Constitution and modifying it to fit our surroundings.”
Tom Gunderson was blinking rapidly, trying to take it all in. “I gotta give it to you, kid. You may be bat guano crazy, but at least you’re not afraid to take a bite out of life.” Grunt was grinning, looking very much like a proud papa.
Me? I was bursting inside, a whole bundle of excited nerves firing off in my tummy. No Gunderson man could truly comprehend living full time out here away from the mountains, but I’d meant it when I’d told this man I’d be his Ruth to the end. So what if we had a little task or three to accomplish along the way? I’d found the one thing I’d never been able to locate in the mountain valley I’d called home since birth.
I’d found a man with vision.