Back Draft

Book 3 of the FIRE trilogy

By Pete Sartucci

©2010, Pete Sartucci

This is a work of Fiction, the third of a three-book series. It is based in part on the Alternate History World, known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Peter E. Sartucci in 2010, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental, except where it is intentional and has the knowledge and consent of the named persons, who already know who they are and are mentally ready for the nasty things done to their namesakes.

Thanks to S.M. Stirling for permission to use his setting and situations and for his (much appreciated!) encouragement. Few things are as supportive to a beginner as having an old hand around to urge him to get back up and climb on that horse again!

More thanks than I can rightly express go to Kier Salmon for advice and help with language, proofreading, and plot, and for her copious amounts of editing, and for many very good ideas. It’s a far better story because of you, Kier.

Thanks also to Jennifer Hansen for advice with proofreading and plot, and to Scott Palter for advice with plot and characterization, and to John Hamill for characterization advice, and to Karen Black of Norton Creek Farm for information on chickens

Special thanks to Randolph Fritz of Seattle for typesetting and editing help with the arcane mysteries of web posting, and to Mark ‘Animal’ MacYoung of Castle Rock for key suggestions about writing fight scenes. Special thanks also to William Haddon and Mike Paxton for solving my mountain battle choreography problem, and to William Haddon for the hyena joke.

Most grateful thanks to my loving wife Elizabeth, who tolerated far too many late nights while I labored under the lash of my muse.

And last but assuredly not least, my great gratitude to my best friend Brandon, who always believed I could do it. This isn’t the one you’ve been waiting for, but it’s the one I got finished.

All the dumb mistakes are solely mine.

❀ ❁ ❀

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 — Aftermath

Lyons, Colorado, the afternoon of the War, in early May, 1998.

Chapter 2 — It’s not over until…

Lyons, Colorado; the afternoon of the War, in early May, 1998.

Chapter 3 — Completion

Lyons, Colorado; the afternoon of the War, in early May, 1998.

Chapter 4 — Revelations

Sometime in late May or early June, 1998; somewhere between Hudson and Keensburg, Colorado.

Chapter 5 — Politics and Peace

One day and then three days after the battle.

Chapter 6 — Plowshares

Lyons, Colorado; three days later.

Chapter 7 — Swords

East of Lyons, Colorado; morning of the sixth day after the War, mid-May, 1998.

Chapter 8 — Crumbling Foundations

Lyons, middle of June, 1998.

Chapter 9 — Sustenance

Lyons, middle of June, 1998.

Chapter 10 — Into the Desolation

Somewhere south of Hudson, Colorado; late June, 1998.

Chapter 11 — Oasis

Banner Lakes State Wildlife Area east of Hudson, Colorado; late June, 1998.

Chapter 12 — Confrontations

Krug Lake north of Hudson, Colorado; late June, 1998.

Chapter 13 — Down the Slippery Slope

Greeley, Colorado, the same night, late June, 1998.

Chapter 14 — Just when things are going well

Lyons, Colorado; early July, 1998.

Chapter 15 — Markus and Patience

Loveland, Colorado; three days later.

Chapter 16 — The Storm

Loveland, Colorado; early July 1998.

Chapter 17 — Choices

Lyons, Colorado; mid July 1998.

Chapter 18 — Flight

Lyons, Colorado; mid July 1998.

Chapter 19 — Fire

On the Wall, Lyons, Colorado; middle July, 1998.

Chapter 20 — From Ashes Reborn

Greely, Colorado and Walden, Colorado; mid July 1998.

Epilogue — Next Year

Walden, Colorado; mid June 1999.

❀ ❁ ❀

1

— Aftermath —

Lyons, Colorado, the afternoon of the War, in early May, 1998.

Laura circled slowly above the Wall.

The napalm had burned itself out, but the chemical stink rose even here, more than a hundred feet up. Two of the mantlets were still burning at the ends, their centers collapsed into glowing coals. The other two were smoking embers. The foot of the wall was choked with broken ladders and corpses, some charred. The smell of burned human flesh was bad as the napalm smoke.

The battle zone was empty of moving men, save for one pitiful wounded Greenie laboriously hauling himself onto the road, his bloodied and useless legs dragging behind him. There were others still alive, probably, but they wouldn’t be going anywhere under their own power.

She sloped off to the cement plant, found its thermal and climbed for a while. A couple buzzards loafed lazily below her, the rest were already off at the battlefield. She wrinkled her nose as the updraft brought her more of the burnt-flesh scent — these birds must have already been feeding there. When she was four hundred feet up she sloped out and back over the water plants.

The northern plant was deserted but there were plenty of men in and around the southern one. Rows of wounded were laid out on the roof, there were probably too many to fit inside. Archers guarded the four corners. Faces like white blobs looked up at her. They made no move to nock their arrows — they knew by now no arrow could climb to her elevation. A small group was forming up outside, as she watched they moved off toward the gate. In the distance she could barely see the last of the Longmont units marching east down Ute toward the city.

I wonder why they left so suddenly? she thought to herself. Looks like that bunch wants to parley. Yep, there’s their white flag.

She banked over the toe of Indian Ridge. A big fan-shaped patch of mahogany was burned off and smoking. The fighting was over here too. Abandoned plank bridges still crossed the canals. She soared over the Gate and waved, went on toward town to catch another thermal. The afternoon promised to be hot and the breeze was getting choppy, that was lousy gliding weather. But she’d seen enough to report the gist to Sam. When she was high enough, she turned back toward Red Mountain.

“We won,” she said aloud, a grin breaking free. “We won!”

❀ ❁ ❀

“I think you’ve won,” Colotta told the Marshall, feeling very naked standing in front of the closed gate. He had his armor on but had removed his helmet, and left his weapons behind. The two men he’d brought along for formality’s sake were similarly disarmed. There were crossbows trained on them, not to mention the two damn flamethrowers. He didn’t enjoy the sensation at all.

The one they called the Marshall stood on the parapet above the gate, looking down. A trio of older men were at his side. Colotta thought he recognized Deputy Fire Chief Waters, who he’d vaguely known before the Change, and he knew Whit Yohansen from a business project. He hoped the group could make a commitment on behalf of the town, or this whole conversation was likely to be a waste of breath.

“We think we’ve won too,” drawled Lyon’s commander. “Are you here to negotiate?”

“Sort of, yes,” Colotta answered, and felt the tension rise in the men on the Wall. “I don’t know if I have the authority to pledge the Barony’s word — Baron Hugo Green’s dead, and Captain Sully too. And we have a report that Captain Blackbeard was killed when your southern army beat our flanking force.”

The Marshall nodded slowly. “Yes, I can confirm that.”

We are so screwed, Colotta thought. I hope to God that I’m doing the right thing.

“That means Murchison and I are the last two of the Baron’s Captains left,” Colotta continued doggedly. “I don’t know who’s going to end up in charge. He’s gone back to Longmont to fight off an attack from Boulder. If he wins that, the men will probably proclaim him Baron in Hugo’s place. I can’t promise he’ll honor any deal I make with you today.”

“Then what good are you?” called an anonymous soldier up on the Wall. Mutters of angry agreement came from left and right.

The Marshall raised a hand and after a moment quiet fell again.

“I’m still in charge of our men here,” Colotta said loudly. “And most of them are wounded. I ask you to call a truce and let us rescue our wounded from the battlefield, and collect our dead.”

“Who gives a shit about your wounded?” another voice shouted out of the crowd.

“Yeah, you attacked us!” yelled a man waving a crossbow. Colotta’s bannerman twitched nervously and the white flag fluttered.

“Silence!” bellowed the Marshall, in a voice that carried surprisingly well. He glared left and right and the grumbles and mutters died away.

When the crowd was still again the leaders put their heads together for a fast whispered conversation. Colotta waited tensely, trying not to look at the ranked arrows and bolts pointed at him. If they decided to ignore the white flag and just shoot him and his men down, there was damn-all that he could do about it.

“Agreed,” called the Marshall in a carrying voice. “Truce until sundown, you collect your dead and wounded and get them out of here.”

“We can collect them by then, I think,” Colotta called back. “But we don’t have enough wagons to haul them all back to Longmont. We need to use the water plant for a temporary hospital, at least for a day.”

There were more grumbles at that, but nobody shouted this time.

The Marshall nodded. “All right. Truce until tomorrow sunset — but from sunset to dawn, you stay east of Foothills Highway and the Palmerton Ditch. We catch any of your men west of those, we kill them, no questions asked.”

“Agreed,” Colotta answered. He turned away with a much lighter heart than he’d had approaching the Wall.

Work to do, he thought. If Murchison wins over the Reds and Boulder — and he’s got to win or we’re all toast — then what?

❀ ❁ ❀

“You there, — McGonigle, is it?” Marshall Duncan demanded of the loudest grumbler.

The loudmouth braced to attention and the anger abruptly faded from his face, replaced by apprehension. Burt sympathized — slightly.

“You like to shoot your mouth off, McGonigle?” the Marshall went on, spearing the trooper with his gaze. All the other men within hearing got really quiet.

“Yes, unh, no, sir!” the hapless McGonigle replied, his back so rigid he might have been poured metal. “I mean, no sir!”

“Good, ‘cause it’s plain that your brain isn’t in gear while your mouth’s working,” Duncan continued. “You want to spend the rest of your life sitting on this wall shooting at guys in green trying to kill you?”

“Sir, no sir!” McGonigle looked like he wished the earth would open up and swallow him.

“Then you’d better pray, McGonigle, that this truce holds, and pray even more that we get some kind of peace deal out of the Greenies. Cause if we don’t, you and I and every other man here are going to slowly starve while trying to stand off endless attacks. That something you look forward to, mister?”

“Sir, no sir!” spoken rather more devoutly.

“Good. Then next time you get the urge to open your yap, put a sock in it. You’re reassigned to wounded duty — go help the ambulance crews haul our injured to the hospital.”

“Sir, yes sir!” McGonigle saluted and backed away, turned and practically dashed off the Wall. A couple of faces smirked but most kept their eyes on their duties.

Marshall Duncan turned back to the two Trustees.

“What if they don’t keep the truce?” Burt asked him dubiously. “Can we trust these bastards?”

“Maybe,” Whit Yohansen said. “I recognize their captain, he’s John Colotta — he did some engineering work for the university last year on a construction project that I chaired. He was straight with me on that. Maybe he’ll be straight on this.”

“Let’s hope so,” Marshall Duncan answered. “We badly need some time to regroup, get our own wounded cared for, and re-provision. However, Mister Santini, I’ve a mind to speak to you right now about your single-handed pursuit of that Green swordsman who got through the tower.”

Burt hung his head in embarrassment. “I know, it was a real dumbshit move. He coulda turned around and killed me. But Ellie — ”

The Marshall cut him off. “But nothing. You should’ve either come to me for reinforcements to go with you, or simply sent word that an enemy was loose in our rear. I had a five-man squad already on the way from the signal pole, and could have diverted them to chase him down. Leaving your own post could have left us dangerously exposed, especially given that your only relief man, Clark, already had to fill in for Fowler Smythe. It wouldn’t have done us a bit of good for you to stop one man but let fifty more through the place you should have been guarding.”

There was nothing to say for that but “I screwed up, Matt. I’m sorry.”

Duncan frowned at him a moment longer, said “So don’t do it again. Ever.”

“Yes Sir.”

Yohansen stirred, stopped as if he was physically restraining himself, and was silent.

Duncan sighed. “You two gentlemen have a lot of political work before you, and I have a great deal to do here. I release you both from your service to the defense of the Town today. Go figure out what to do about our dead Mayor — and figure out what the hell we do tomorrow, when this truce expires.”

“I have to tell Susan her husband’s dead, too,” Yohansen said, dismay writ large over his face.

“I’ll do the same for Allison’s husband,” Burt volunteered heavily.

“And I for everyone else who lost a loved one here today,” Duncan finished.

Waters looked from face to face. “I don’t envy any of you, not one little bit,” he said.

“Nor I, you,” the Marshall said. “I’m assigning you to organize the burial details, and get me a list of the men we lost.”

“Oh.” Waters’ face was a study in dismay.

“Let’s get to work, gentlemen,” Marshall Duncan ordered. “By sundown I want us ready to get back on guard, just in case they try something at night. This war’s not over yet.”

❀ ❁ ❀

It was late afternoon when James rode back up to Red Hill pass. By then Sam’s force had mostly finished sorting the dead. A delegation of Greenies under a white flag, led by someone named Sargent Lehto, had asked for permission to gather the Longmont wounded, which Sam had given. The last Greenies were descending the south side of the pass carrying their last wounded man when James reined his horse to a stop.

Sam exchanged salutes with him gravely. “What’s the word from the Wall, James?”

“We won, Captain Hyatt, sir,” the tired boy told him. “They sent a parley.”

“How’d that go?” Sam asked urgently. Laura had returned an hour ago and given him her assessment of the situation, but direct confirmation would make him feel a lot more confident.

“We got a truce!” James said eagerly. “Marshall says for you to leave a lookout crew up here, and the rest to come back to town. Umm, then you get to stand down, and get something to eat.”

“And sleep?” Pat demanded, yawning a little. He had a bandage over one ear where a blade had gotten through his helmet and nicked off part of the ear-lobe, but except for bruises he was otherwise unhurt.

“Not yet, not for you.” Sam pointed to the breastworks. “I’m leaving you, Laura, Tim, and the three least-wounded members of the militia here as lookouts for tonight. Laura, you’re in charge, work out a rotation so you all get some rest. Collect what’s left of our food and water for your detail, and I’ll have more sent up if it’s not enough. If there’s anyone to spare, I’ll send more help up, too.”

Pat groaned theatrically but started collecting water bottles. Laura managed a wry smile and saluted.

“Yes sir, I’ll take care of it. Will you want more scouting?”

“Probably later. Right now let’s just get the wounded back to town. Drew, how many do we have who can’t walk?”

“Four,” he promptly replied, indicating Bruce and three of the militia men. “And Jesus shouldn’t be walking far, not on that leg.”

“I can take him back on my horse behind me,” volunteered James.

Jesus looked at the horse without favor — he’d never ridden in his life as far as Sam knew — but agreed.

“Then let’s do it. Come on, Jesus.” Sam boosted him up while the rest got ready.

Soon Drew had their seriously wounded packed two-and-two into the ammo carts. Those were now empty, the remaining bolts and arrows left behind for the Geils and Laura’s command. Within an hour Sam had the rest of the tired, aching crew slogging down Red Hill Gulch toward Lyons.

Ellie, I’m coming home to you, Sam thought tiredly. I hope everything’s all right there.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Got more wounded!” announced the leader of Ambulance One. “Got some bad hurt this time, from south of the river!”

“Ellie, triage them!” ordered Doc Brown, hurriedly stitching a sliced bicep back together. “Karen, how’s that leg?”

“He’s ready to be set,” she reported. “Splints and wrappings prepped!”

“Bieta?”

“Scalp is closing very good,” she answered abstractedly, making tiny neat stitches. She added “Please to hold him still, Mister Joseph!” as the young man under her needle jerked awake, groaning. The man holding him took a tighter grip and began whispering to his friend.

Ellie passed her still-steaming gloves to Marta, hands red and chafed from repeated exposure to hot rubber surfaces. The gloves got stiffer and rougher with each boiling, but it was the only way they could make them reliably sterile.

The first cart had a youth in it with a deep stab wound; his shirt was soaked with blood. The name ‘Harry Smythe’ had been hand-embroidered on the chest. The white thread was now mostly dark crimson. The wound wasn’t bleeding any more and he was too still. She sought for a pulse and found none.

“He’s gone, next!’ she said, trying not to see him as someone’s precious, immortal child.

They’re patients, she told herself, struggling to remain detached. Just patients, to be helped if we can and to be set aside if we can’t. That’s the purpose of triage — to focus our efforts where we can make a difference, and avoid wasting precious time on the hopeless cases.

“Here!” cried a near-hysterical woman in armor, clutching a bloodied hand in a cart. “You’ve got to save him!”

“Make room, let me examine him,” Ellie answered in a soothing but businesslike voice. The man’s abdomen had been slashed open for several inches; she knew immediately that this would be a bad one with little chance of making it. If the peritoneum had escaped injury — no, she could smell the fecal matter, his large intestine at least had been opened. Just patients. Just patients. Just —

“Ellie,” croaked a pain-wracked voice that was too familiar. Her eyes finally traveled to the face.

“Ken!” she cried out involuntarily. No!

❀ ❁ ❀

2

— It’s not over until… —

Lyons, Colorado; the afternoon of the War, in early May, 1998.

The Gatherers marched back into town in good order, Sam at their head.

“Company, Halt!” he called as they rounded the corner by the grocery store into Main Street. The whole group, his own troops and the militia members assigned by the Marshall, came to an attentive stop.

“I’m proud of the hard fight you all put up today,” Sam told them. “You helped save our town. In a moment we’re going up to the clinic, where I want all the wounded to check in and get tended. That’s most of you, I know. The rest are going to help out at the clinic if they can use us. I expect there are plenty of wounded from the Wall fight who need help.”

“Let’s hear it for Captain Hyatt!” Kate called out. “Three cheers for Sensei!”

Sam felt his face grow hot as they cheered.

“All right, all right, thank you all, but there’s still work to do. Let’s get started.”

He led the way down Main toward Fourth, where they’d turn toward the school. A familiar kid on a bike was pelting toward them, with a glad grin on his face.

“Dad! Dad!” Jimmy called, looping his bike around to come up beside Sam.

“Jimmy!” Sam hugged him with his free arm. “Good to see you, son. Where’s your mother?”

“Workin’,” Jimmy replied laconically. “She sent me back to the clinic for some more stuff. Wanna come with me, Dad?”

“Glad to. We’re headed there ourselves.”

At the clinic Sherry was nursing her baby and another woman was tending to a new patient while Maria and Jesse talked quietly. The boy was looking a lot better, though very thin. Maria broke off the conversation with a gasp when Jesus limped into the room, leaning on Sam. “Mi amor!” she cried.

“Don’t worry,” Sam told her. “It’s just a stab wound in his calf, he should be fine.”

My God! he thought, letting Jesus sit on a chair next to Maria’s cot. JUST a stab wound? Is this what I take for granted now, that my students will come home with stab wounds and worse?

“Sherry,” he said aloud. “I’m bringing you all of the Gatherers’ wounded, but also putting everybody else at your service to help with them.”

Fred maneuvered Bruce through the door, piggy-back again, and the rest trooped in carrying their non-ambulatory comrades. The other woman began efficiently directing them to cots while Sherry put her baby back in a basket.

“Drew patched them up,” Sam explained, “But he probably needs to do more work on at least a few.”

Drew nodded his tired head. “Is Doc Brown or one of the nurses around?”

“Nope, all down at the Wall,” Sherry told him. “Just me and Pam here. Looks like all of yours are stable, though, that’s good. Jimmy and Bran have been running messages, it sounds like things got pretty hectic down there at the fighting, but we won. We haven’t got any wounded sent up here yet, though I’m expecting that soon.”

Jimmy was hopping from one foot to the other, too well-trained to interrupt but too impatient to stay still. Finding a gap in the conversation, he jumped in with “Please Missus Bistek, Mama sent me to get some more saline stuff. She said you’d know where it is. They need it bad down there.”

“Then how about I help you with it, son?” Sam offered.

“Great, Dad!”

“In the kitchen,” Sherry told them, smiling. “Elaine’s got it all ready and cool.”

Jimmy anxiously towed Sam down the hall. Elaine had six one-gallon milk jugs ready, heavy with lukewarm sterilized liquid. More was boiling in the steam kettle.

“Take it,” she told him, stirring measured salt into the next batch. “I’ll get more bottled up for her as soon as it’s done cooking.”

Sam lugged the jugs out to Jimmy’s bike and tied four onto the back carry rack. He hefted the other two himself. Jimmy mounted up immediately.

“We should go fast, Dad, Mom needs this stuff,” he said seriously.

“Then you ride on ahead, and I’ll catch up,” Sam told him. “Two wheels beat two feet any day, so get along.”

“Okay Dad, see you there!”

Jimmy rode off, head down and face intent.

When did my little boy get so grown-up? Sam thought with a pang. He hefted the two jugs and began walking.

Some of the streets of Lyons looked almost unbearably homey and mundane. Three elderly women were laboriously digging up their lawns with spades, getting ready for the spring vegetable planting that Sam’s father-in-law had been coordinating. Maples and locust trees were in early leaf, pinky-green buds unfolding. Daffodils bobbed their fading yellow heads in big clusters alongside lumpy carpets of grape hyacinths; tulip buds were just starting to show petals. A pair of gray-haired women, one leaning on a cane and the other in a walker, were laboriously making their way up a hilly side street with six little girls in tow; they all waved at Sam and he waved back.

Other blocks were more surreal. He passed a row of half-gutted automobiles, their leaf-springs removed and turned into scorpions, swords, and crossbows. A stalled refrigerated semi-trailer had been emptied of its load of food early in the Change, then stripped of its siding, casualty of the town’s frantic metals-hunt for the Wall towers. More metal panels had been torn off the outside of a gas station, leaving the steel frame and interior insulation looking naked.

Smoke drifted toward him from the Wall, rancid with burned flesh and laced by a chemical reek that bit the back of Sam’s throat. A squad of men lined the stripped south bank of the river by the Wall’s bastion. There was a quiet steady purpose in their movements as they hauled buckets of water from the river and passed them up a stairway to the Wall. Another crew was doing something on Indian Ridge around the north tower, it looked like firefighting.

James came riding back from the Wall, paused next to Sam.

“Marshal says you should take some time to visit your wife, Captain Hyatt,” James reported. “He told me to tell you he’ll send some more men up to Red Hill in a little while, too. I’m ‘sposed to get more food and water and pack it up there for your crew still there. Should I bring blankets for them too?”

Sam shook his head. “We left plenty behind for them from last night.”

“Thank you, Sir.” James made a clumsy salute and Sam answered it, then the boy and his horse clattered off.

Just ahead of Sam two carts came over the High School bridge, wounded men groaning in them. Their gray-haired handlers turned them toward a sheet-metal building under a tall billboard advertising decorative stone. Somebody had painted a big red cross on the building’s door. Sam followed the carts and the wounded.

Stanto Abbaku sat on a rock outside the door, his gleaming spear leaning against the base of the billboard. He had several other weapons gathered around him, some already cleaned and others still crusted with dried blood. His busy hands were expertly cleaning one of Starry’s swords.

“Captain Hyatt!” he hailed Sam. “I am very glad to see you well!”

“The same to you, Stanto,” Sam told the Armenian, surprised by the affection he felt. My first follower, other than my students, he thought. “But what’s that bandage on your neck?”

Stanto shrugged, his hands never slowing their work. “A scratch, one of the devils was a little bit quicker than I thought him. Those helmets Starry made for us, they need to cover the neck better. Perhaps I may speak to him about it. But what of your battle at the pass? Speak!”

Sam shrugged uncomfortably. “Not much to tell. They attacked; we shot them up badly, then held the rest at the breastwork and butchered them until they broke. The Greenies didn’t have much notion of tactics except ‘charge’, so we held them off for a long time with barbed wire and cut tree trunks. And all that time we pumped arrows into them. Good thing the Arsenal turned out so many, we went through just about every one they sent up with us. The crew handled it real well; they all followed orders and remembered what to do. In fact, they fought more bravely than I’d expected, considering we were so outnumbered. I’m very proud of them.”

“And were you perhaps at the front of the fight?” Stanto asked shrewdly.

“Well, yes,” Sam shrugged again. “Where else would I be? The crew needed someone with experience to inspire them.” Sam remembered the gorilla at that bar fight outside Denver — it seemed much more than seven weeks ago. He felt again the crunch of the man’s skull under the bo, strangely muted now. I’ve killed many more than him by now. How many? I don’t know.

That bothered him. He didn’t want to be the kind of man to whom killing was casual.

Stanto was still watching him in that shrewd way.

“Fighting face-to-face at a wall, eh, I remember that from Karabah,” the Armenian nodded. “At the end, the devil Azeris came at us in waves, and we fought them back, killing as many as we could. They wanted us dead; we killed them first, for as long as we could. It is the way of it when — what is the right word, nations? Countries? No, when peoples fight for land.”

“I never expected to be fighting my fellow Americans, though,” Sam said slowly. He’d been trying not to think about that aspect of the fight ever since he first saw the three scouts through his binoculars.

Stanto paused his work and stared at him thoughtfully, one eyebrow raised. “Are they still your ‘fellow Americans’ when they want to kill you?”

“They were never my own neighbors,” Sam answered even more slowly. “I never lived here — but Ellie grew up in this town, spent more than half her life here. Some of them were probably her neighbors, people she might even have known.”

“I knew many of the Azeris in the old country, too,” Stanto pointed out, setting aside the clean sword and picking up another blood-crusted one. “The farmer who sold us our vegetables, the cobbler, the man whose wife baked sweetbreads, the mechanic who repaired our truck — I had lived my whole life among them, there in Nichevan. But I always knew they were devils in their hearts, we Armenians all knew it. When the Russian boot came off all of our necks, the first thing the Azeri devils did was try to kill every Armenian they could reach. We did the same to them.” He squeezed out a bloody washrag in a bucket and began carefully washing the hilt. “When we could kill them no longer, for their numbers were too great, we had to run, and ended up here.”

Is that what we’re becoming? Sam thought queasily. “I don’t much like the idea of having to kill my neighbors, Stanto.”

The Armenian snorted. “I did not enjoy it either, Sam, but when it was a choice between them and my family, I did not hesitate. Sevan hesitated, only a little, and they nearly killed him because of it. The man who took his leg lived next to us; his daughters worked for us when the spa was busy. He and another raped Sevan’s wife Yelena before they cut her throat. They let themselves become devils, so I killed them like animals. Those Americans outside the Wall have done the same to us here, and so once again I killed animals before they could harm my family. It is what a man does in this world, if he loves his wife and children, and if he is quick. You love yours, and you are quick, quicker than most men I have ever met. And so you did what you had to do. I am glad of that, and surely God decreed that those youths who follow you will live because of it.”

“All but Terry,” Sam lamented. “We lost him in the fight, and young Art, and Cindy, and four others who I barely knew. And the Greenies lost hundreds, mostly to crossbow bolts and arrows.”

“But the rest of your command lived?” Stanto smiled at his nod. “That is good news. So tell me, how did my nephew Giorgi serve you? Did he kill his man? Was he wounded?”

“He fought well,” Sam acknowledged, remembering. “He remembered my lessons and used his sword properly, which probably saved his life a few times. I saw him take down at least two Greenies at the breastworks, and he surely wounded several more. It’s a good thing we were better armed and armored than them, or we would have taken a lot more damage than we did. He did take one nasty cut on the face — no damage to his eyes or mouth, luckily, but he’ll have quite a scar.”

“Good!” Stanto approved heartily. “His father will be proud of him. And the men of the town will respect him, too, with a scar that can be seen like that. He is fortunate!”

Fortunate? Sam thought, trying to wrap his mind around the concept. The kid gets scarred for life and that’s fortunate?

The gallon jugs reminded him of his purpose in being here. “Did you see where Jimmy took the other jugs, Stanto?”

The Armenian pointed to the hospital door. “In there. Mike is guarding, right inside, so expect him to challenge you. He is a very good fighter too — the ambulance men told me there was a breakthrough and one of the devils got this far and killed three people, but Mike killed him. All of us did well today!”

At that moment the two ambulance crews came back out of the hospital and trundled their carts away to fetch more wounded.

“Thanks, Stanto. For everything.” Sam hefted the jugs again and went into the makeshift hospital. The afternoon light slanted through the plastic roof panels, leaving shadow inside the entrance. The place smelled of blood, shit, and disinfectant, and was warm and humid as a greenhouse. It was also a bedlam of groans, moans, a few screams, some shouting, and no little cursing.

“Halt — Oh! Sensei!” Mike stuttered, waving his weapons indecisively. He stood just a few feet inside the door where he could see anyone entering before they could make him out in the gloom. His sword and knife were drawn and ready, gleaming dully, and he had his armor laced up for action.

“Hello, Mike,” Sam smiled approvingly at him. “Glad to see you’re on the job. I brought some more saline. Where’s Ellie?”

“Unh, over there, Sensei — I mean, Captain Hyatt.” Mike waved toward the operating tables. “They’re pretty busy.”

“Dad!” called Jimmy, running up to relieve him of one jug. “Come on, Marta’s uncle needs these!”

He tugged Sam toward a roaring gas stove where Sevan tended a dozen pots that spewed steam into the muggy room. The maimed Armenian fished in a boiling pot with big steel tongs. He pulled out a pair of rubber gloves and drained them, then deftly draped them over a hanging rod. Next he used the tongs to pass Marta an already-cooled pair. He tossed the tongs over another rod to wait, and collected the saline jugs from Sam without comment. Sam noticed that Sevan added them to a row of three waiting jugs, and immediately opened one of those and began filling smaller plastic jugs with squirt nozzles.

“They’re already using the ones I brought,” Jimmy explained, gathering up a load of empties strung on a short rope. “I gotta go back for some more, Dad, okay?”

“Okay son, you do what you need to do,” Sam assured him, and Jimmy bolted away.

All this blood and screaming, he should be terrified, Sam thought bemusedly, watching his son’s purposeful exit. God Above, he’s only twelve! But he’s got a job to do and he’s doing it.

The wave of pride that washed over him was tinged with sorrow. Sam turned to look for Ellie.

She was on the far side of an operating table from Doc Brown, both working feverishly over the legs of a wounded man who gasped and cried, held down by two of his friends. The men both had the faintly sick look of strong men dealing with something they really didn’t like but couldn’t abandon.

The man on the table shrieked. Doc said “Got it!” and tossed aside a bloody shard that clattered in a waiting bin. Ellie handed him something and he began sewing, the patient letting out gasps with each stitch.

No anesthetic, Sam realized, flinching at another shriek from the table where Karen worked and cursed. And I’m not remotely sterile, so I’d better stay out of the medics’ way. Maybe I can help the wounded.

He made his way around the operating tables in a wide circle. There were a few dozen men on the other side of the big room, bandaged and splinted or in a few cases lying on makeshift cots. Most were sitting on a long row of chairs against the far wall, gossiping desultorily. Some of the ones on the cots were moaning a little in pain, many of them through clenched teeth. One man with a bandaged shoulder was moving among the cots offering shots from a whiskey bottle. He was getting lots of takers.

One of the men on the cots was calling for help. Sam went to him. Bandages covered the foot of the wounded man’s elevated left leg, propped up on a roll of something.

“What do you need, soldier?” Sam asked of the young Hispanic face. “Anything I can do for you?”

“Not me,” the vocal man replied indignantly. “Can you help the Lieutenant there? He’s hurt real bad, and they’re not even doing anything!” He matched action to outrage as he waved his free arm at the cot beyond his.

“Let it be, Martinez,” came back a familiar voice, weak with pain but recognizable.

“Ken!?” Sam said, scrambling around to kneel at his side. “What happened to you?”

“Gut wound,” Ken answered, his voice slurred and breath heavy with whiskey. “I’m a dead man, Sam. Only question — how long.”

Sam hadn’t lived with a nurse for fourteen years without picking up a fair background knowledge of medecine. “Peritonitis?” he asked, hating the word. It meant severed intestines, causing internal infections that could only be fought by risky surgery and lots of antibiotics — which Lyons didn’t have.

Ken nodded, winced, and said heavily “Yeah. That’s what Doc thinks, anyway. Ellie argued for trying, but he vetoed her, said any time they spend on me’d probably cost some other poor bastard his chance of living. He’s right, too. I am thoroughly screwed, blued, and tattooed.” Ken’s attention wandered away from Sam’s face for a moment, drifted back. “Can I have another drink?”

There was a water glass on the floor next to Ken’s cot. Sam raised it to his lips. Ken turned his face away from it. “No, something harder — get that guy with the whiskey to come back. It’ll leak right through me, but it dulls the pain the way water won’t.”

Sam called the liquor man over and extracted the last of the whiskey for Ken. The swordsman gulped it down greedily. “Ahh. I never appreciated JD enough before now.” His head fell back on the pillow and he was silent for a moment. The whiskey man looked at his emptied bottle, shrugged, and went off somewhere else.

“It’s not right!” Martinez insisted again, staring at Ken while a kaleidoscope of expressions passed across his boyish face. “You’re a hero! You saved us on the wall, that martial-arts Greenie would’da killed us all without you! The doctors should be saving you!”

Ken smiled sadly.

“Captain Hyatt, you got to make the doctors save him!” Martinez demanded.

Sam shook his head at the young Chicano. “They can’t, son. He needs complicated surgery, and a heavy dose of medicines that we just plain don’t have and can’t get.”

“But, but — there must be something to try!”

“Probably,” Sam said quietly. “But we’ve only got one doctor. Any time he spends on — on a high-risk case, is time he’s not spending on someone else. Likely someone with a serious wound that can still be fixed. He’s got to help those with the best chances.”

“And I haven’t got more’n a half-assed chance in Hell, Johnny,” Ken spoke up, his voice a little slurred. “Always knew that was the risk in a fight, just never really thought it would happen to me. Doc’s right, damn it.”

Martinez subsided on his cot, turned his face away. After a moment he pulled the pillow over his head and began quietly sobbing.

Sam considerately turned his back on the youth, studied Ken’s face while he tried to think of something useful he could do, or rather say, since it was surely too late for doing much of anything. How do I talk to a dying man? There’s no point to lying about it; he knows, but what can I say to help?

“I never wanted to be a hero,” Ken blurted out suddenly. “Well, I really did, but the story-book kind, you know? Rapier to rapier, fighting like in a good movie… me making the perfect riposte and dropping my enemy dead on the floor before he knew he’d even been cut. Not… dying, like… this.”

“I’m sorry, Ken,” Sam said lamely. “I was looking forward to getting to know you better.” Ouch, that sounds dumb, he thought.

Ken smiled again, a little, eyes unfocused and drifting. “Don’t know if you’d-a-liked me much if you had, Sam. I was real jealous of you, every time I saw you two together here when you came down from Montana. Visitin’ her folks, bringin’ your kids — I wanted to be the one making babies with her, not you, but I wasn’t good enough for her. Never good enough for the good ones, for Ellie. I watched you all, sometimes, where nobody could see me. Stupid, me.”

Sam felt a little like he’d just been punched in the belly. WHAT!? He thought, staring at the dying man.

“It‘s true too,” Ken rambled on, eyes wandering across the ceiling and speech slurring. “Richest boy in town, stupid spoiled brat, thought I was God’s gift to all of ‘em for a while. Took me years to figure out I wasn’t good enough for any woman, even the ones that stuck on me like leeches. All they were, really, those, but never Ellie. Didn’t let me get past first base — really stupid, that was, if I’da acted like a gen’lman mebbe she’d’ve dated me again, maybe I’d’ve stood a chance… I could’a been a good hubband too… maybe… but I was too shtupid. Not like you.” He sighed regretfully, whiskey halitosis and eyes half-closed and teary. “Los’ my only chance…”

“Unh, Ken, you mean you used to date Ellie?” Sam asked carefully. What am I doing? He’s dying; this is no time to grill him!

“Oncet… ’n High School… but she was too smart for me, dumped me… Dad was happy, he didn’t want me marryin’ a Catholic… dumbass… she woudda straightened me out, best thing ever couldda happen’ to me, but not… you’re a lucky man, Sam, bein’ good to her… kin see the love, wish I knew what it was like… wish I’d known… wish I knew…” His eyes drifted closed and stentorian breathing took over.

Sam swallowed. Dear God in Heaven, what the Hell am I supposed to do with this? he thought, and swallowed again. The nasty side of his brain whispered, Maybe it’s a good thing he’s dying! Instantly Sam was ashamed. He saved my wife from that asshole Grayson, helped save my kids from the Greenies — from our enemies. He taught half the militia how to fight with swords and crossbows, and without that my students and I would have been roadkill up on the pass. I owe this man, big time, and yet he’s dying of peritonitis and there’s absolutely nothing I can do for him.

“No, there’s one thing I can do,” he muttered aloud. “I can sit with him.”

Sam looked around, found Bran waiting by the side of the room, kicking his heels.

“Bran!” Sam made his way through the cots and hailed him. The boy trotted over like an eager puppy. He too, didn’t seem bothered by the stink and the moans. “Are you running messages, Bran?”

“Yes Sir Sensei!” Bran saluted inexpertly, but the intent was there.

“Can you run one for me? Not far, just over to the Command center? To the Marshal?”

“Sure, Sensei! What should I tell him?”

“Tell him I’m here sitting with a dying man, and if the Marshal wants me at any meetings, ask him to please just send a messenger over to get me.”

Bran nodded and repeated it back, twice. Sam wondered who’d taught the boy to do that. Bran hurried off and Sam commenced hunting for a spare chair, saw an empty one and appropriated it. He set it between Martinez and a sleeping Ken. Martinez had stopped sobbing by then, turned back to look at Ken, and then at Sam, eyes bleak.

“So tell me your whole name,” Sam said.

“Johnny, Johnny Martinez, sir,” the young soldier answered, his gaze dropping in embarrassment. “Unh, sorry I, unh, lost it there, Captain Hyatt, sir — the Lieutenant’s a hero, he saved my life, I just, umm…”

“Don’t sweat it,” Sam replied easily. “I’d like to hear about the battle. I was down south fighting the flankers. You must’ve seen the main action, there on the Wall.”

“Boy, did we ever!” Johnny Martinez nodded vigorously. “Let me tell you, sir, I could’ve shit myself when all those Greenies came marching outta the water plant. Must have been more than two thousand of them! But the Lieutenant, he just made a joke—”

Sam leaned back in the chair, kept one eye on sleeping Ken, and just listened.

❀ ❁ ❀

3

— Completion —

Lyons, Colorado; the afternoon of the War, in early May, 1998.

Colotta wiped his face for the fiftieth time. The afternoon was warm, he’d shed his armor and left his shield behind in the water plant. Partly it was a calculated gesture towards the Lyons men, dozens of them still lining the Wall. He’d had his men leave their shields behind too, and their armor and helms — no use pretending they weren’t working at the mercy of the enemy. Might as well take the extra step to keep that enemy calm.

Here on the south side of the bridge, the sinking sun threw the Wall’s shadow well out into the battlefield. The Greens had been collecting wounded men for three hours now, and were most of the way down the Wall. Quite a few were found half-buried under dead comrades — and those often bristled with crossbow bolts. The whole field was littered with astounding numbers of bolts, Colotta had tried to estimate their total and lost count. It couldn’t be less than ten thousand, and might be much higher.

Another stretcher detail slogged up, tired but still game. Colotta ignored the watching men on the parapet above and helped lift a groaning soldier into the stretcher, a bolt stuck in his left leg a few inches below the knee. The leg flopped oddly — probably a broken bone in there as well. Odds were he’d be losing that lower leg, or his life if he was unlucky. The docs didn’t have much antibiotic left and this poor sap had been lying in the mud for hours, hiding under his shield.

“Captain!” One of the stretcher-bearers jerked his chin north. “Someone coming!”

Collota turned and put his hands on his hips. A band of half a dozen Lyons men was approaching under a white flag, one of them trundling a garden cart. For a moment he half-hoped they were going to offer it, another set of wheels would be very handy right now. Then saw that three of them had already begun to pick up arrows and bolts out of the killing field, loading the cart.

Thrifty bastards, he thought acidly, then snorted mockery at himself. Yeah, and won’t I have my guys doing the same after we deal with the wounded? Them doing it now probably means they’ve got fewer wounded than us — which you’d expect, their guys being behind a wall when the shit flew!

He waited until the leader of the little group arrived. To his surprise, he saw that it was Yohansen.

“Good afternoon, Captain Collota,” Yohansen hailed him.

“Can’t say there’s much good about it,” Colotta answered shortly. Watch it, the two men with him are armed to the teeth, and there’s fifty more up on the wall with crossbows aimed down here, he thought. He made an effort and added “What can I do for you, Mister Yohansen?”

“I’m here to invite you to a formal negotiation to extend the truce. We know you’ve got your hands full today, Captain, and probably most of tomorrow too. But perhaps you could come meet with the Town officials tomorrow afternoon?”

Colotta blinked. “I’m willing to deal with Lyons, but I don’t know if I’ve got authority to negotiate on behalf of Longmont. I sent a messenger to Murchison but he hasn’t come back — wait, someone coming.” He shaded his eyes with one dirty hand and stared north. Sure enough, it was the same squire, riding on a tandem bicycle this time and pelting along pretty good for someone who’d just ridden the eight miles to Longmont and then back again. “Sure enough. Wait a minute and you can hear what he’s got to say.”

Yohansen turned and they both watched the cyclist, green tabard flapping. In moments the squire braked to a stop and saluted Colotta, who returned it gravely.

“Message from Captain Murchison for you, Captain Colotta,” the young man breathlessly reported, looking everyone of his sixteen years.

“I’ll hear it now, squire Jenkins,” Colotta told him.He’s just a kid — even his big brother the Lieutenant is just a kid… God, I hate putting kids in danger like this.

“Captain Murchison says to tell you, we broke the Boulder attack and sent them running, sir. He wants you to come back and meet him at the Mansion ASAP, sir. I’m to have you ride with me, they gave me this to speed it up.” He patted the tandem bike.

Colotta let out a gusty sigh, looked at Yohansen. “First good news I’ve heard all day. I think. Sounds like I’m being summoned.”

Yohansen looked uncertain. “Maybe I should extend the invitation to Captain Murchison too?”

“Just a minute.” Colotta turned back to squire Jenkins. “How did the men back in Longmont take the news of the Baron’s death?”

The boy wiped his face on his dirty tabard. “Unh, some of them were kind of ripshit about it, sir.” He carefully didn’t look at Yohansen and his two bodyguards. “Seeing as their buddies got chopped to pieces by Boulder and the Reds, sir. Those fucking bastards tried to backstab us, take the mansion, but Lieutenant Miles and my Dad held them off until Captain Murchison got there — sounds like he hit ‘em like a hammer, sir! From behind, too, the bastards didn’t have hardly any warning thanks to the bikes.” For a moment young Jenkins’ face glowed as he talked and Colotta guessed he’d had time to hear some heroic tales. “Then — well — there’s a lot of confusion — nobody knows what happens next. Some stories are going ‘round about flame-throwers and giant arrows and, and some are saying — um…” He glanced sideways at Yohansen.

“Speak up, Zachary,” Colotta told him heavily.

“Unh, sir, some are saying the Bar– um, that we shouldn’t have attacked Lyons and left Longmont so badly defended, sir,” the youth trailed off lamely. “A lot of folks got hurt, um, and what did we get for it?”

Already, Colotta thought. Murchison’s the hero who saved the day, Hugo’s the goat — all in a goddamn blink of an eye. And what the hell am I going to be? I think I can guess — backup guitar in Murchison’s band, if I’m lucky, and fifth sword on the left if I’m not. Or dead. Shit. I’ve got no choices at all.

Aloud, he said “Thank you, squire Jenkins. Give me a moment and I’ll be riding with you after you get that thing turned around.”

Colotta turned to Yohansen while the squire wheeled the tandem back around to face Longmont. “Look, Yohansen, I can’t make any promises, but I’ll take it up with Murchison when I get there. If I can. If he doesn’t just kill me. If he doesn’t decide to come back here to finish the job on you, too, though with a butcher’s bill like the one we got today that’d be fucking crazed. But I guess we’re all pretty fucking crazy ever since this Change-thing hit. So, if you want Longmont at a peace negotiation, I recommend you do one thing first, and do it fast.”

“What’s that?” Yohansen asked, eying him worriedly.

“Turn the water back on.”

Colotta climbed onto the tandem. “Let’s go, Jeffries.”

They pushed off and pedaled hard to get the heavy bike going. Colotta glanced back once, to see Yohansen watching him ride away.

Goddamn it, Colotta thought. A peace conference actually sounds pretty good, considering the shit we have for alternatives right now.

❀ ❁ ❀

“That’s the last one,” Ellie said wearily. “The ambulance crew says the whole Wall has been cleared of our wounded. Triage is complete, and all the Group Threes are treated and stabilized. Dad says the Greenies are collecting their own wounded and taking them to the water plant for treatment, so we don’t have to deal with them.”

Doc Brown mopped his sweating face with a cool damp towel proffered by Marta, sighed in relief. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s see what we can do for the Group Ones, the will-get-better-on-their-own crowd. Then if we’ve got any energy left, we’ll look in on the Group Twos.”

The dying-no-matter-what group, Ellie thought with a shiver. Ken.

Doc looked around at the blood-spattered workbenches and filthy floor. “Bieta, you put Marta and Sevan on cleaning up the operating theater, then see if the ambulance crew can start carting the immobile wounded up to the clinic. Probably have to bring these lousy excuses for cots along, too.” He shook his head a little and glanced at a row of motionless feet sticking out from under a long canvas sheet. “And I guess somebody should do something about the bodies pretty soon.”

“At least there’s no mosquitoes here,” Julia commented, rubbing her aching back. “Lordee, Jonas, if I don’t sit down soon I do believe I’ll fall down. Can we tend to the will-get-betters while we sit?”

“That is such a fucking good idea, you should get goddamn knighted, Julia, or something,” Karen groaned, stretching.

“We’ll try it,” Doc answered tiredly. “Ellie, you check on the surgeries, Karen and Julia with me on the walking cases. Let’s move it, people, for a little longer.”

While Doc, Julia, and Karen handled the Group Ones, those who had been set aside with minor wounds that were not life-threatening, Ellie took on the bedridden patients. There were nearly forty of them. Most had been bandaged after surgery and many of those were blessedly unconscious. No few of them stank of whiskey or wine, since the field hospital didn’t have any other pain relievers. She tucked blankets back into place on some of the more fitful sleepers, administered water and checked bandages as needed. In place of hospital charts they had scraps of lined paper scrounged from the school.

As night had fallen outside, Sevan had rigged gas lights by cannibalizing two of the feed lines for inoperable ceiling heaters. The naked foot-tall flames dancing just under the steel rafters lit the big room surprisingly well.

Or I’m just getting used to stumbling around in the near-dark, Ellie thought, wincing as she grazed a knee on the rough corner of an improvised cot. Luckily it didn’t tear her slacks. Where’s Sam? I saw him come in earlier, is he still here somewhere?

She found him slouched and dozing in a chair between the young Martinez and Ken. Martinez had lost two toes to one of the last Greenie arrows, Ellie had stitched the stumps closed and slapped a bandage on. She checked it now, they didn’t look seriously inflamed so hopefully he’d be fine. He was so soundly asleep that he didn’t even twitch when she unwrapped and re-wrapped his foot, just snored like a sawmill. If so many other wounded weren’t moaning in their sleep, it would’ve been distracting. Despite labored breathing, Ken slept more quietly, his pale face already slick with the sweat of the building fever that would kill him if the blood-loss didn’t do the job first. Her hands twitched helplessly as she stood at the foot of his cot and stared at him.

There is nothing I can do, she told herself again. We don’t have any antibiotics left, at least none that’ll handle this. There’s nothing anyone can do. Desolation crept over her. He’d turned into somebody kind of nice to know, and I think he did something pretty heroic out there before he got stabbed. Not to mention saving me from that crazy Grayson. Now he’ll be dead soon. Oh God, please, isn’t there something I can do!?

No answer came back, just the groaning misery of the room. For all but one man, it was at least a healing misery. Ellie rubbed her tired eyes.

“Sam,” she called softly.

He awoke all at once in that way he had, rising quickly to his feet and stepping to her side. Her arms went around his sweet familiar waist and pulled him against her, she needed to feel him near. His own arms obligingly enclosed her and squeezed gently. She rested her forehead against his bristly chin, inhaled the warm sweaty dirty aroma of him.

“Stanto took Jimmy and Bran home around sundown,” he whispered to her. “Your Dad left a while before that, he promised to read Jenny a bed-time story after he stopped to tell Allison’s husband the bad news.”

“Allison,” Ellie whispered, throat clenching on the word. “How many others?”

“Waters says thirty-nine militia dead, sixty-eight injured enough to be off the active list, and God alone knows how many minor cuts and sprains,” Sam reported softly. “Allison and two others killed here by that berserker. I lost seven more on the pass, and at least ten injured. Call it forty-nine dead total so far. One of them — was Terry.”

“Terry?! Oh, no!” Ellie had thought she was numb, but grief welled unexpectedly strong. I watched him growing from a gangly freshman to a prank-loving junior. He was a good kid!

The grief and fear that she’d been hiding away all day finally surfaced and for a while Ellie just cried, hugging Sam while his stained t-shirt sopped up her tears. Finally she stopped, rubbed her face against him and looked up. His own dear, familiar, concerned face was bare inches from hers.

“Jerry must be devastated,” she said.

Sam nodded. “He’s not physically injured — well, a few little cuts and bruises and scratches; Starry’s armor really saved us. So I assigned him and the rest to help their comrades and the others at the clinic. If I can keep him really busy for the next couple days, it’ll give him some distance and time to start getting used to being alone.” His arms tightened around her at the thought, even as hers did the same.

Alone. That has to be the most terrifying word there is, Ellie thought.

She looked at Ken. His breath was distinctly more labored now and his face looked even paler. Sam followed her gaze, turning a little in her clasp while keeping one arm around her.

“Ken’s been asleep for the last few hours,” he reported. “He had a lot of whiskey, and looks like he’s lost a lot of blood. Your dad sat with us for a while, but Ken didn’t wake up.”

“I’m not sure he will ever again, then,” Ellie answered, trying to look at the man on the cot as a patient again, and failing. His lower belly was visibly distended, raising the blanket a little. “Let me check.”

She let go of Sam, and he her, reluctantly, then knelt next to the cot. Ken twitched as she folded back the blanket. His slashed-open abdomen had been roughly bandaged, enough to keep his leaking fluids inside for a while. The bandages were soaked with blood and stank of early putrescence. The skin on either side was swollen and yellowish. She pressed a finger lightly, released it, and he twitched more strongly, but didn’t awaken.

“Peritonitis for sure,” she said quietly to Sam. “Blood and other matter collecting inside his abdominal wall — by now his organs are probably inflamed too. There’s pressure on his lungs, you can hear it in his breathing, probably on his heart too. He won’t make it to morning — probably not even to midnight.” The diagnosis made her ache. “There wasn’t anything we could have done…”

“I’ll still sit with him,” Sam offered. “Do you have more that you need to do?” He made a vague motion at the rest of the building, men moaning in their sleep, gas lamps hissing and steam still rising off boiling pots where Sevan and Marta washed bloody cloth and draped it on rods to dry.

“Yes…” Ellie looked at the next row of cots, six more wounded men fitfully trying to sleep through the pain. More patients. I need to help the patients.

“Go.” Sam kissed her with enormous tenderness. “I’ll be right here.”

She stumbled away, trying not to bark her knees on the furniture.

An unknown number of hours later, Doc declared the medical situation under control. The tired men on the ambulance crews, assisted by the walking wounded, had transferred most of the patients up to the town. There dozens of volunteers — many of them wives and children of the injured — had taken over caregiver duties.

“Time for sleep, people,” Doc ordered in a ragged voice, his face showing every one of his fifty-eight years. “Tomorrow’ll be here soon enough. If you don’t trust yourself to walk home, and it’s too damn cold out there for that anyway, just grab a cot and some blankets.” He followed his own instructions. Karen did the same, her exhausted cursing finally shrunk to a whisper. Julia was already asleep, her gray hair barely visible above a roll of blankets.

Bieta shook her head at Ellie’s offer. “I will stay up for the night shift; I am the least tired. You sleep, and I will wake you at dawn.”

“Okay, but first I’ve got check on one more,” Ellie muttered, and made her way back to Sam.

He was wide awake and still in the chair next to Ken. He stood up and hugged her. “Do you want to rest? Martinez left his cot for you,” he suggested. “Or have the chair — I’ve got another.”

“Chair first,” Ellie mumbled, and flopped into it gracelessly. Her knees and back protested, then discovered that they didn’t mind taking the weight off. She promptly spoiled that by leaning over Ken to check the dressings, drawing new grumbles from her abused body. Sam pulled up another chair, then held Ken’s blanket up for her examination. The bandages had dried to a stiff dark brown. An ugly yellowish color was spreading under the skin of his distended abdomen. She tried the pressure test again with one finger, released it, and the deformed flesh came back into place slowly. That was a very bad sign.

Ken twitched sharply and moaned.

“Sorry, Ken,” she muttered to him, covering him again.

“Ellie…” he sighed, opening his eyes suddenly. They were bloodshot with pain. His breath was a ketone-laced horror, a sign that his internal organs were failing.

She forced herself to alertness.

“Ken. Lie still, moving makes it hurt worse,” Ellie counseled, feeling helpless again. There’s nothing I can do, God! Why isn’t there something I can do!?! How can You leave us like this?!

His bleached-out face stretched in a caricature of a smile, sunken eyes fixed on her hungrily. “Doesn’t matter… Ellie. Thank… you … for bein’ here…” he breathed, faint and whispery.

“I’m your nurse, silly man,” she scolded him. “Where else would I be?”

The smile flickered again, faded. After a moment he whispered again, glancing aside briefly. “Sam… thanks… for staying…”

“No problem,” Sam answered. “I’m yours for the duration.” There was a peculiar intonation to his words, but Ellie was too tired to think about it.

“Dur… ation…” Ken sighed. His eyes strayed back to Ellie. “How long… I got?”

Tell him the truth! Ellie swallowed, prevented herself from looking away. “Maybe a couple hours. Maybe more — maybe less.”

“Less…” he sighed, then panted for a while, eyes flicking back and forth between them. Fluid dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. “Bad… inside. Soon… should say… something. Never could talk… straight… about… heart. Stupid me, eh…” He coughed suddenly and then writhed in agony for several minutes.

That’s probably torn some more internal tissue, Ellie thought. It’ll accelerate the bleeding. Her heart ached for Ken’s pain. God, this is a horrible way to die!

Sam passed her a damp washcloth, freshly wrung out. “Here — Sevan brought me this. I’ve been wiping his forehead with it now and then.”

She took it and did the same. Ken’s eyes tracked her hand and he relaxed a little at the cool touch. His skin was dry and papery beneath her fingers.

I should give him a drink of water, she thought, then countermanded the idea. No — he’s bleeding internally, any added fluid will end up there and just increase the pressure on his lungs and heart even.

Her fist closed on the washcloth in her lap and squeezed it helplessly.

Presently Ken got control over his voice back. It was even thinner now, barely audible. She had to listen close to hear him.

“Love … you… Ellie… kids too… Sam… kind to… me. Thank… you…”

He panted for a moment, staring at her while she numbly stared back. “Said… it.” A ghost of a satisfied smile twitched his lips. “Good… bye… Ellie.”

Ken closed his eyes. His breathing rapidly became ragged as she sat there mutely. Sam took her free hand and just held it.

A few minutes later Ken’s breathing stopped.

“He — all those years — he never said a word,” she blurted out, turning to her husband with her thoughts in a whirl.

“He did now, and that’s enough.” Sam raised her hand to his lips and gently kissed the raw, reddened skin.

❀ ❁ ❀

Candles lit the Mansion’s drawing room. There were bloodstains on the carpet where wounded men had been parked during the brief siege. Outside on the weedy lawn a reeking pile of enemy dead awaited disposal. Azaleas blooming under the broken windows sent out a faint perfume to compete with the residue of battle.

“Agreed,” Colotta said, putting his right hand over his heart, “My Lord Baron.” He bowed to Murchison, and the six other men in the room did likewise, including Miles and Jeffries.

Murchison nodded in weary satisfaction. “Good. I’ll confirm you all in those titles and posts tomorrow, but for tonight let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow we need to get the rest of the wounded back here, rework the defenses, and figure out how to deal with Boulder.”

“And Lyons?” Colotta dared ask.

“Lyons,” Murchison nodded again. “They offered to negotiate?” He drank from a glass offered by Mistress Demelza; cool and clean. The water lines had started running again not twenty minutes ago. “Ahhh. That tastes like a mighty fine opening offer.”

“We have to plant soon, my Lord, or we’re all going to starve,” Miles added anxiously.

“That’ll be our second priority,” Murchison nodded wearily. “But first, we’ve absolutely got to have the water. You know one of their guys, Colotta, so I want you to run the negotiations. If you can get them to guarantee our water supply, I’d rather not break any more of our teeth on them.”

“What about the farmland?” Jenkins asked. “There’s good irrigated ground out there to the west and north, and all the water for it comes through them.”

“Though we don’t need as much of it as we did a few days ago,” one of the other men remarked, a Sargent Lehto who’d been the highest-ranking survivor of Blackbeard’s doomed army. The grim gallows humor hurt too much for anyone to laugh.

“Safer to turn our backs on Lyons than on Boulder,” another man argued. “And what the hell’s happening in Loveland and Greeley and Fort Collins? They’re all a lot bigger than Lyons. For that matter, what’s going on in Denver? That scares me worse than all the rest put together.”

“We need more scouting,” Miles suggested. “Maybe Jenner?”

Lehto shook his head. “They took him prisoner, and he refused to return when I asked for him back. Coward’s gone and defected on us.”

“Shit,” Miles said. “I don’t think we’ve got a single scout left, then, Baron.”

“Then we’ll raise more. Captain Colotta, that’ll be your job to organize in a couple days. But tomorrow, you go figure something out with Lyons,” Murchison said, waving a bandaged hand. “Long as it’s reasonable, I can live with it.”

“I’ll do my best, Baron Murchison,” Colotta promised.

❀ ❁ ❀

4

— Revelations —

Sometime in late May or early June, 1998; somewhere between Hudson and Keensburg, Colorado.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned…”

Father Markus put a hand to his ear to better hear young Paul Duc Tho’s whispered confession. They had appropriated an almost-quiet space between the water wagons, on the upwind edge of the sprawling truck-stop parking lot that currently held Catron’s followers.

“Tell me the whole story, Paul,” he told the trembling young man quietly. “Leave nothing out.”

Paul nodded mutely for a moment, eyes shut in remembrance. A small tear broke free and trickled down one dusty cheek.

“I was walking through the camp just after we set up our family tents,” he began. “Father sent me to ask the quartermaster for some more water, when…”

❀ ❁ ❀

Paul craned his neck to look around as he strolled across the tarmac, stepping over occasional ridges of grass furring the cracks. Colored standards had been hung from dead lampposts to mark the various sub-camps of the warlords. Close at hand, O’Toole had a Saint Patrick’s-day banner blazoned with a neon-green shamrock. Farther away, Washington used a black satin sheet, and over to the left Johnson had a gold star, Rosario a Harley-Davidson shield, and Pardini an Italian flag. Ahead and right, guarding the food-wagons, Paco Miralles had opted for a red triangle that men were already calling the Bloody Fang.

Catron used no banner, but wherever he pitched his tent, a sword was hung on a pole above it. By now the blood on it had dried to a brown so dark it was nearly black.

Paul hurriedly averted his eyes from that. After they’d left Denver, the Sensei had allowed Paul to rejoin his family, now as rootless and desperate as the rest of the army.

“He is clever, that motherless dog of a warlord,” Paul had overheard his grandfather advising his father. “If we leave him, where is there to go? West into the mountains, where food does not grow? We would freeze and starve. East onto the dry lands, that are little better? We would still starve, and die of thirst in the summer heat. South is the desolation of Denver that we have left behind us — we know how little hope lies there! North — there may still be food. And north is where he goes, as fast as we could move without him. We cannot escape this tiger, my son, so cling very tightly to his tail, and pray that he forgets we are here when the Christ finally sends us our opportunity.”

The words still sent a cold spike of fear into Paul’s heart. He remembered the dead hopeless eyes of Catron’s women — girls, really, some no older than his own seventeen years — serving the Sensei’s appetities and those of his inner circle. Just for enough food to keep living a little longer. He had heard them weeping many nights, prisoned in his locked room in the old Highland Temple. He heard them still, here on the silent roads and parking lots that passed under the army’s feet day after day.

Paul shook his head to banish that memory. He looked around again at the teeming lines of the camp, packed with O’Toole’s men here, their women and children swarming around to set up this and tend to that. A dozen yards ahead there were a number of the big Irishman’s personal guards rolling dice outside their commander’s own tent, weapons close to hand. They wore the usual motley armor that most of the warlords had picked up — football helmets, leather coats thickly sewn with metal plates, even cowboy chaps and improvised arm guards and shields. Several had found big knives or machetes. Paul self-consciously touched the hilt of his grandfather’s third-best sword, the sword that the old man had given him to wear when he returned from Sensei’s household. Grandpa had taught him enough about how to use it that Paul had not disgraced himself in the last several fights. Papa had approved.

But swaggering in front of the Shamrocks, when he was alone, wasn’t smart. He dropped his hand again, looked away as his eyes caught purposeful movement amidst the chaos. A lithe willowy girl was walking towards him, balancing a plastic basket of laundry on her head.

Elanore, he mouthed her name silently. He’d crossed paths with her several times, knew her name, and her twin brother’s name Mark and knew that Mark had been a US Marine home on leave when the Change struck. He’d enlisted in Sensei’s army to buy a place for his sister and mother, but the mother had died soon after the long march started. I wish Elanore would look at me, he thought wistfully. Her black hair, so straight, it might almost be Vietnamese. Even her cheekbones are high, maybe she has a little Asian blood somewhere. I wonder if she’ll talk to me again? She’s only three years older than me.

He smiled in her direction.

Elanore’s eyes roved over the crowd, caught on his own. For a long moment he though she would just look away, and his heart began to plunge. Then her mouth began to draw up into an answering smile, and the plunge turned into a soaring hope. Maybe —

The laundry basket abruptly fell as rough hands seized her. O’Toole stood an easy foot taller than Elanore and she looked like a doll in his big hands as he swung her about. Paul didn’t even hear whatever the Irishman said as he dragged her into his tent. The raucous laughter of his men drowned it out. Only when her scream rose above their jeering voices did his paralyzed body react.

He’s raping her! The horrified realization burned in him as he groped for his sword. The bastard!

A hard hand descended on his sword hand, clamped down. Grandpa spun him half-around.

“Do not be a fool, Grandson,” the old man’s hard voice demanded in Vietnamese. “Remember your place!”

“Grandpa!” Paul stumbled over the words; he seldom even thought in his father’s birth-tongue any more. “That dog of a —” Elanore screamed again.

“I know what he is,” Grandpa interrupted, still in his native tongue, eyes boring into Paul’s like augers. Paul was suddenly conscious that the old man was a little shorter than himself — but his grip was rawhide and steel. “And I know where we are standing — deep within his camp. Surrounded by two hundred of his own sworn men, and dozens more that Sensei has assigned to him. You would be butchered before you ever reached him.”

“But —” Paul struggled to argue while his blood surged in answer to Elanore’s screams. The first had been startled. The second angry. The third, from within the tent, full of fear and pain. And it was quickly muffled. A short angry shout from O’Toole who swore viciously; a meaty thunk with a curious sound; like a rubber band snapping, barely heard over the guard’s laughter and jeers.

“He’s hurting her!” He tried to tear from the old man’s iron grip. Mark came charging through the crowd, pugil stick in hand and plunged into the knot of Shamrocks surrounding the tent entrance. Paul could see he was berserk with fury and fear. O’Toole’s men surged at him and he disappeared in a shouting, swearing wave of fists and bodies. Paul jerked, trying to run to help, but Grandpa did not let go.

It was over in moments. Paul’s hand fell numbly to his side as he stared.

O’Toole came out of his tent, blood dripping down his cheek. He hitched his pants closed, then stepped over to where three of his men pinned Mark to the ground.

“Elanore!” Mark shouted, struggling wildly. The men holding him heaved up with his thrashing, but bore him back down again. “Elanore! Answer me!”

“Bitch’s done with talking,” O’Toole growled at him, touching his bleeding face.

“You fucking bastard! What did you do to her? Elanore!” Mark shouted hopelessly, a sob catching in his throat.

“Broke her neck when she bit me. Stupid bitch,” O’Tool answered angrily. “Not like I was gonna keep her. If she’d spread her legs like she shoulda —”

Mark strained again, screaming curses, and nearly threw off his captors again. “I’ll kill you! I’ll cut your goddammned heart out! Elanore!”

“What is going on here, Jefe O’Toole?” asked a cold voice, and Sensei Catron stepped through the crowd. His four New Mexican followers were at his back, swords drawn, and all five wore their armor. Catron’s glittered in the sun like some kind of pagan god.

“Sensei,” O’Toole answered, bowing a little stiffly. “This shithead tried to attack me —”

“He killed my sister!” Mark shouted from the ground, tears in his voice. “He tried to rape her and then he killed her! Swear to God, Sensei, he says he murdered Elanore!”

Catron looked down, stared at Mark for a long chilly second. “Stand him up,” he ordered. Turning to O’Toole, he added “Show me the woman.”

O’Toole made a gesture and one of his men brought Elanore out of the tent. Her head lolled unnaturally on her neck, and Paul felt his heart freeze.

Mark reached for her, trembling, and O’Toole’s men let him. He touched her face tenderly and her head rolled limply. Fast as a snake his arm shot out and his fist cracked against the side of O’Toole’s jaw, hard enough to have broken it if the big Irishman hadn’t rolled his head aside at the last second. Before Mark could complete his lunge the three men caught him and dragged him down again. He fought them bitterly until O’Toole’s boot connected with the side of his head and knocked him dizzy.

“Enough,” Sensei Catron ordered. “Stand him up. Tie him to that lamppost.”

Ropes were produced and Mark’s arms bound above his head; when he tried to kick they tied his ankles to the steel pillar too. He sobbed and cursed O’Toole’s name again.

“I assigned you to this man’s command,” Catron told Mark in a voice that sent chills down Paul’s spine. “You struck your commanding officer.”

“Fucking bastard killed my sister!” Mark snarled, glaring hate at O’Toole. He arched against the lamppost helplessly, hands twisting over his head. Tears ran down his flushed face across the rising bruises. “Let me kill him!”

Catron stared up and down Mark measuringly, spoke to O’Toole’s men. “Get his clothes off.”

Two of them stepped up, ripped Mark’s shirt off, unbuckled his pants and pulled them down to his ankles; one hesitated a moment, then dragged his underwear down too.

Mark gasped as the air hit his exposed parts, wilted even as he protested “Sensei, he killed Elanore!” He was a strong young man, no fat on his body and in the prime of life, but the weight of his helpless nakedness crushed his spirit. Paul’s horrified eyes watched it drain away. After a while Mark’s pleading gaze fell and his head hung down, mortified.

Sensei left him standing here for a long moment while the crowd fell totally silent. It was like a spreading frost chilling a field of flowers — Paul felt his own volition draining out of him, replaced by an oppressive cold as heavy as lead. He barely felt Grandpa touch his shoulder.

Then Catron drew his sword.

“The penalty for attacking your commanding officer,” he announced loudly, “Is death.”

The sword swung so fast it was a blur. Mark’s lower abdomen split open from hip-bone to hip-bone. Glistening intestines spilled out. Mark screamed, long and loud, as his guts slithered towards his feet. A gasp ran through the crowd and the whole mass swayed back a little. Several people began to run. Two of O’Toole’s men turned away and vomited.

Grandpa seized Paul’s arm and spun him around roughly, began dragging him away.

“You wanted to do justice for that doomed fool and his unlucky sister,” Grandpa hissed in Paul’s ear. “But there is no justice here — only power! Keep your head down and remember your own family!”

Bile surged in Paul’s stomach. He staggered into a run that soon left his grandfather behind.

❀ ❁ ❀

Father Markus rubbed the bridge of his nose, shaken. The sheer calculated cruelty of it nauseated him. God! Be with that poor boy and his sister! he prayed. Take their suffering souls into your loving arms this day!

Paul knelt on the broken tarmac, head bowed over hands folded in supplication as he shed silent tears. “Forgive me, Father, but I did nothing. Nothing. I ran away.”

With an effort Father Markus collected himself and suppressed his own horror and revulsion. Words were critically important here. Leagalisms would not comfort the boy; it would do no good to offer excuses. Best confront the nature of the young Vietnamese’s problem.

“Do you fear that you may be a coward, because you let your grandfather’s counsel lead you away from overwhelming strength and terrifying violence?” the priest asked him quietly.

“Yes,” Duc Tho sobbed into his lap. “Mark — he was trying to be so brave, and I didn’t do anything to help him. And Elanore — she never had a chance!”

“Do you think there was anything you could have done that would have changed what happened?” Father Markus probed.

“I — I could have fought! I had my sword, I could have stabbed O’Toole when he wasn’t looking!” The boy wiped his eyes on his stained sleeve, glared at it fiercely. “From behind in the kidney, that’d stop him!”

“And then you would have ended your own life tied to the same pole, your own belly slit open,” the priest pointed out. “As your grandfather rightly feared. Perhaps thus endangering your own sisters, young as they are. Your little brother and parents, too, and yes, your grandfather.”

“I know.” Bitter tears ran down Duc Tho’s face. “I am ashamed — and afraid — and even more ashamed of being too afraid to help someone who deserved it. If I am a coward now, what will I become after I’ve run away a second time, and a third?”

“You have the age-old weakness of being one man who cannot fight an army, and must bow to it to protect others,” Father Markus told him gently but firmly. “But this weakness is not cowardice, Paul Duc Tho. It is tragedy, yes, and terror and horror, and you are right to weep for those whose suffering you cannot stop. But do not weep over your own limits. You did not choose them, they were set for you in Eden the moment Adam bit into the Fruit. We heirs of humanity all must carry that bitter legacy, and our only hope of peace is to accept the flaw. And we do not have to carry the burden alone. If you submit your will for strength to the inevitability of weakness, and then pray for God’s grace, it will be given.”

The youth was hanging on the priest’s every word with a desperate sort of hope. Father Markus led him back to the ritual, secured Duc Tho’s repentance and reconciled him to God again. They completed the absolution, Father Markus made the sign of the cross over Duc Tho’s bowed head, and sent the youth back to his post.

He sat and thought for a while, remembering his own near-encounter with another horrid slaughter two days ago. Catron had merely stood there throughout, his silver armor ablaze in the sunlight, and watched while the half-dozen young men defending a county store died under this army’s attack. Watched with that flat, almost reptilian, stare that had become his norm. Lately the priest wondered whether the New Mexican had simply retreated into madness and left some mechanical part of his personality behind to carry on. How is it that he can be so cold and yet sometimes hideously cruel at the same time? He asked himself silently. Usually the cruel take delight in their cruelty; but most of the time, now, Sensei simply does not seem to care enough for even that. Why? He had no answer.

The guard that Paco had assigned to the priest returned from his considerate distance, out of hearing but not out of sight. Father Markus was glad this one at least showed some respect for the sacrament. They walked in a companionable silence back to the medical cart, where two other armor-clad fighters stood guard on Doctor Eid and Nurse Lionheart.

Jefe Paco had command over the water and medical supplies and therefore had a position right next to the gaudy wedding pavilion that the Sensei had appropriated for his own. Under Nurse Lionheart’s continuous prodding Paco had become ruthless at maintaining sanitation. Father Markus suspected that might be the only thing saving the ramshackle excuse for an army from death by typhus, dysentery, or worse. Sentries patrolled the whole camp’s perimeter; two passed now only ten yards away.

The wind brought a wet smell of porridge cooking. The priest’s mouth watered. The army had been on short rations for the last few days. Hopefully someone would bring the medics each a bowl soon. Dr. Eid could really use more food. He was looking emaciated as he slept on a pad in the cart. Lionheart tucked an unzipped sleeping bag around him.

“I’m worried about him, Father,” she whispered softly, stroking Eid’s thin gray hair. She turned away and added in a more normal voice “I don’t know if he has some kind of systemic infection, or if this is more psychosomatic. It could even be due to interrupting some kind of medication — he refuses to talk about his own health. He moves like a sleepwalker whenever he isn’t working.” Her wrinkled face had added a few more lines.

Father Markus suspected the Doctor had nearly lost his desire to live. This desperate scrambling existence they now led weighed on the three of them, but possibly worst on the formerly-urbane and civilized Eid. Aloud, the priest said only “We should finish sorting those new supplies.”

He returned his attention to the box of salvage someone had brought them before young Duc Tho’s interruption. Band-Aids, ace bandages, disinfectant, and several bottles of various analgesics, all good. More water purification tablets would be even better, they were perilously low. All of their medical supplies were low too, but the steady trickle of salvage was keeping them stocked at a bare minimum.

He hoped the army wouldn’t have to fight again soon. The most recent serious fight, over a shopping center in Thornton, had been very bad. When the grocery store turned out to be mostly empty, Jefe Paco had been angry and O’Toole furious. Sensei Catron simply looked on the handful of surviving defenders, most of them badly injured, with that cold gaze for a long contemplative moment.

Then he ordered them all massacred. O’Toole led the way.

The priest suppressed another shudder at that memory. They hadn’t spent more than three days camped in the building’s shell before being forced to move on. The warm weather made bodies stink quickly.

“Padre?” a voice called. He looked up from his work on the medical cart. One of Jefe Paco’s men had appeared at the nurse’s shoulder, wearing a badge displaying the Bloody Fang just like the three standing guard. Sensei kept his medics under constant watch since they’d left Denver. The new man was not one of the usual guards.

“The Jefe wants you, Father. You and the nurse.”

“We’ll be right there,” he answered, and scrambled the salvage box back into the cart. Eid twitched in his sleep but did not awaken.

The new man led the priest, the nurse, and one of their two guards across the truck stop, behind the gutted building and down to the far end of the lot. Here the pavement gave way to gravel, which in turn merged raggedly into a weedy field that ran away north. A row of shabby semi-trailers straggled along the edge of the gravel. Most of them had been stripped of their sheet-metal siding. Sensei Catron and his jefes were perched atop the last one. A ladder leaned against it.

“Yeah, we can take that,” the priest heard O’Toole saying as he waved one hand negligently. “It’ll be bloody, swarming that fence, but we’ve got the men to spare.” He dabbed reflexively at the scabs on his face. That side of his jaw was puffy and bruised.

Father Markus thought the bite-marks might be infected, and wondered if he should mention that. Soon enough, he decided, O’Toole will come to the Doctor for treatment on his own.

“And we can rip the fence open in a couple places by using those spring-throwers Johnson made,” Washington pointed out. “Get a couple breaches to swarm through. They’ll fold fast once we’re inside.”

“Maybe we can get them to fold even faster,” Jefe Paco commented. He looked down and said “Join us, Padre,” beckoning Father Markus to climb up the ladder. At the warlord’s gesture, the other two men grabbed Nurse Lionheart’s arms and held her still. She looked from one to the other and set her jaw, her eyes glinting with suppressed anger, but did not struggle.

Father Markus carefully clambered up the aluminum contraption and scrambled onto the flat top of the trailer. It canted a few degrees off vertical, giving him the unpleasant sensation that he might slide right off the far side. He cautiously made his way along the trailer roof to the warlords.

He knelt before them and bowed his head. “What do you want of me, my lords?” he asked, adopting the formal title that most of them seemed to like.

“See that, Padre?” said Paco Miralles, pointing across the bare field.

Father Markus turned, shaded his eyes to get a better look.

Four big steel grain silos stood in a row, a long steel barn close behind them. Part of the near wall had been stripped from the barn and mounted on a chain-link fence enclosing the silos, along with a motley mess of other metal bits and pieces. In some places the chain link still showed through. Men were busily swarming along the inside of it, thickening and raising it with added bits of this and that. Father Markus thought he could guess where the metal from the trailers had gone. The upper corners of the steel barn sprouted rough firing platforms, partly enclosed with car body parts. Each featured a menacing archer. A rough gate was already dragged closed, men standing on something behind it so that they overlooked its six-foot height. A smoking sheet-steel chimney jutted through the roof of the barn.

“Tell him, Miralles,” Catron growled. His eyes remained fixed on the makeshift fortress.

“Padre, Sensei Catron wants you to walk up to that gate there and talk to those men guarding this place,” Paco Miralles explained genially. “Tell them they have two choices. The first is, they can join us — their leader will become a jefe in Sensei’s army. Their women and children can join the baggage train. We’ll all camp here with them until the food in those silos is eaten, then move on.”

Father Markus glanced briefly around at the wide fields on either side. Some were partly plowed, crude equipment hastily abandoned in the rows when the army came in sight. Whatever animals they must have been using were probably inside the barn already; he could hear cows bawling. “Not stay here, my lords? This looks like a place that could feed many people…”

“Too exposed,” Catron answered. “Not defensible enough. Somewhere there’s a better place. We keep going until we find it. Two choices only and they choose. They come with us — or, second choice, they die, down to the last child.”

Father Markus’ skin crawled at the flat words. The jefes didn’t flinch, but they all became very still. Catron’s cold eyes finally turned away from the makeshift fortress and found those of the priest. Father Markus felt again the chill of that dead emptiness — but this time it wasn’t empty. Whatever looked back at him hated all life with a terrifying stark purity too large to comprehend, too large for any merely mortal frame to contain. For an instant that trembled on the edge of an eon, the priest thought it might drag his own soul into the void and leave him equally empty. Then a veil was drawn and Catron’s dark brown eyes were there again, implacable but human.

“Please, Sensei Catron, please reconsider,” Father Markus managed to choke out, clinging to his shredding resolve. His thinking mind tried to marshal arguments for something less brutal, while the animal brain in the back gibbered and shrieked Teufel! Devil!

“No.” Catron turned back to his target. “Go.”

“Go, Padre,” Paco echoed, a hard hand urging him back and away. “Now.” The edge in his voice brooked no argument.

Father Markus swallowed any further protest, bowed and crawled backward to the ladder, his heart sick. He scrambled down it and found the ground again. Nausea welled up from his empty stomach and he leaned on the semitrailer. He was unsurprised to find his hands trembling.

Dear Christ in Heaven, please tell me what I am facing! he thought, fighting the temptation to vomit up his empty stomach. Do demons walk the earth in human shape again? Or have men become so debased that the difference can no longer be told? What is happening?

“Father! What is it?” Lionheart’s voice cut through the fog enveloping him. “Talk to me!” She worked her fists helplessly as the guards didn’t let her move more than a few inches.

“Sen — Sensei Catron orders me,” he ground out. “To deliver a message to the people inside those silos.”

Surrender, or be murdered? He thought. That is the alternatives I must offer these people? And just to remind me how little choice I have, Paco has you held by his men. That is surely another message — if I refuse, he will pressure me through threatening you. Perhaps hurting you? I think so. Lord, what must I do!?

“Wear your collar,” Lionheart demanded urgently, shifting a little in the grip of the two gangsters. “If they can see you’re a priest, maybe they won’t kill you!”

Father Markus groped in his pocket, found the little bit of flexible white plastic. His hands fitted it into the waiting slots in his collar. His clericals were filthy with stains and torn at the knees, but still looked like the religious uniform they had been.

And still are, he thought, drawing resolve from the frayed cloth. Perhaps I can save these people, if only I can persuade them to join the army. The trembling in his hands stopped and he stood up straight, gazed across the field. Lord, grant me the tongue of an angel, for surely nothing less will do!

“Good luck, Father,” Nurse Lionheart said, nervously glancing at the steel fort.

Father Markus paused, pursed his lips for a moment. “Nurse Lionheart, I believe in God’s grace. Perhaps he will gift me with some of it today.”

She grimaced and rolled her eyes, bit back a retort before it could escape her lips, and finally sighed and nodded. “Let’s hope so. You better go.”

A guard accompanied him halfway across the field, and then stopped. “From here on they can hit us with arrows,” the man explained. “Vaya con Dios, Padre!”

Father Markus thanked him and began walking. The field was muddy from recent rains, but not soggy, and the weeds had been mostly flattened by the winter. He was able to pick a way through it relatively dry-shod, but he had to pay attention. So he was a little surprised to find himself barely a dozen feet from the metal wall when he was finally challenged.

“Stop right there,” a terse voice demanded. “Who are you and what do you want?”

He looked up at a row of grim men, bearded, dirty, armed and armored. At least six, with dozens more to either side. Most of them had leather and cloth coats thickly covered with bits of metal sewn on in rows. Three held big knives, a fourth had a spear that looked like a big bread-knife bolted onto a rake handle, and one held a bow with an arrow nocked at the ready. The speaker had an unsheathed sword and was pointing the tip right at him. It looked disconcertingly large even from ten or eleven feet away.

“I am Father Markus Freiduei, by the grace of God formerly Catholic Chaplain of Denver General Hospital,” he answered with as much formality as he could muster, uncomfortably aware of his own general filth. It had been weeks since he had enough clean water to wash properly, and the terrifying encounter atop the semi left him feeling even filthier. “Now I am a prisoner and messenger of the warlord called Sensei Catron.” Who may be possessed by an evil that I can barely fathom. He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat, waved behind himself at the truck stop. “That is his army camped over there.”

The swordsman nodded, his blade barely moving. The hand that held it wore a plain gold wedding band and a coating of ground-in dirt. “I’m John Arryman. I’m the leader of the Hudson Defense Force, that’s us here in this barn. We saw you all coming a couple hours ago. We don’t mind you camping for the night, so long as you move out tomorrow.”

“I beg your pardon, but that is not exactly Sensei Catron’s intention,” Father Markus made a placatory gesture. “He sent me to you as a messenger, with a very different proposal.”

How do I convey this harsh reality to this man in a way that he can accept? the priest thought desperately. And his followers are listening, too. What will convey the seriousness of the situation? Perhaps I can use numbers?

“Proposal, eh?” Arryman sheathed his sword. He had a rough breastplate hammered out of something that had once been enameled. The enamel had mostly flaked off under the blows leaving a crazy web of lines and flakes. “I’m willing to listen, but I’ll bet he ain’t offering to marry us.”

“Actually, Captain Arryman, you could consider the Sensei’s proposal something a little like a marriage.” Father Markus pointed at the truck stop again. “Please look closely at the banners. Sensei Catron has enlisted eleven other warlords to follow him. Each has between two hundred and five hundred followers, and the Sensei has over two thousand men of his own. There are more than five thousand men in his combined army.”

One of the gate guards muttered and swore under his breath and the others stirred uneasily.

Arryman just crossed his arms and nodded slowly. “’Bout what I thought. Looks like about as many women and children, too.” His fingers drummed a little against his biceps, the gold wedding band flashed sunlight.

“Yes, many of the men have families.” Father Markus took a deep breath. “I am no military man, but I can judge the size of a congregation. You are outnumbered at least ten to one, probably more.”

“Mebbe so,” Arryman inclined his head slightly. “But we’re the ones with the steel walls.”

“Some of that steel is most attractive to the Sensei and his army, too,” Father Markus pointed to the four grain silos. “He believes that you have much grain stored here.”

“Excuse me,” interjected one of his men; a burly blond who the priest guessed couldn’t be much more than twenty. “Why should we trust this sen-say guy?”

Another man on Arryman’s left chimed in indignantly. “That’s our food! We worked for it, we’ve spent blood to guard it! And we’re not giving it up to some gang of robbers!” He glared furiously down at the priest

Father Markus paused while Arryman held a curt whispered exchange with the two speakers. The blond nodded; the more agitated dark-haired man on the left argued a bit, then shut his mouth with an audible snap. When the men’s attention returned to him again, the priest continued.

“Yes, it is true that the Sensei’s army has been taking what it wills. But consider this. Those eleven bands that follow the Sensei’s sword obey his commands, move and share together with a rough sort of justice. Much ill is committed, but these are desperate frightened men trying to save something from the wreck of all they once knew. They know there is not enough food left for all of Denver’s millions, and they are determined that they and theirs shall not be among those who starve. Yet the Sensei does not propose to simply fall upon you and slaughter you out of hand — though he can. Your walls are thin. He has an engineer who knows how to tear them open. You could try to stand against him, and he would simply crush you under the weight of his greater numbers. Had that been his preference, I think he would not have sent me.”

He paused meaningfully, praying that the words were truth, for why else would the Sensei even offer the choice? Arryman’s gaze was riveted upon him, and the men around him were silent and staring, hanging on his words. Lord, Father Markus prayed, Grant your grace to me now!

“Instead he offers to join with you,” he continued. “Sensei Catron invites you to become a twelfth band in his army. To come with him in search of a place that can feed and house the whole army, your selves included. Your women and children will be as safe as any of his followers. You will have the protection of numbers, and equal status with the rest of the army.”

“So that’s the bargain, eh?” Arryman said flatly, staring hard at the priest. “Join him, give up our food and take our chances on finding something better somewhere else. And if we say no?”

“Then he will continue doing as he did in Thornton, with the last group who refused him,” Father Markus said heavily. “None of them now live.”

“Well, that’s pretty simple, Father,” drawled Arryman. “You could have said it in three words — Join or Die.”

“Yes.” Father Markus strove to meet the other man’s eyes without hesitation, willing himself to believe. Please, God, show this man the way to a peaceful ending. Don’t let this turn into another slaughter like the shopping center!

Arryman was studying him closely. Abruptly he said “Who is this Sensei guy? Sensei sounds like a Jap title, but Catron’s not a Jap name.”

“He is not Japanese,” Father Markus explained carefully. “He is what many call an Anglo, from Albuquerque in New Mexico, where he was a karate teacher. The word ‘Sensei’ means teacher, I am told. But he is also a, a commanding man, and a very determined one.” Or possibly demon-possessed, or completely mad — but in a frighteningly effective way. “He has built this army piece by piece for months now, and nothing has stopped him for long.”

“You don’t much like him, do you, Father?” Arryman probed. “You called yourself a prisoner, so you’re not following him voluntarily.”

“It is not my place to ‘like’ him,” Father Markus said delicately. “And yes, I am a prisoner — one of the doctors from Denver General Hospital, and one of the nurses, and I, were sent to petition the Governor for help for the hospital, back in Denver. We were all three captured by one of the Sensei’s senior warlords. We are the only experienced medical personnel in his army. We will not be allowed to leave, even if we had any place else to go.”

“Do you trust him, Father?” Arryman’s gaze was very direct. “Can we trust him?”

“He — he is without pity or compassion,” Father Markus admitted, his voice and his gaze faltering. “The most ruthless man I think I have ever met. He frightens me, all the time now. But he is not capricious, he has kept his word to his followers, he has not mistreated me or those I try to protect. He can be cruel to those who thwart him, very cruel, but he seems to take no special pleasure from it. I, I do not think he cares about people as individuals, but he seems to have some purpose. He says he is seeking somewhere his followers can settle and survive.”

I must believe that his words are genuine, he thought, remembering the cold hating stare and desperately hoping that the man who hosted it was merely calculating, and not himself inimical to all life. But if I tell them what I most fear, they will surely reject it. “He is — perhaps the least-bad choice.”

“You’re not offering a real ringing endorsement there, Father,” observed Arryman. “You’d make a lousy salesman.”

“I am a priest of God, not any sort of salesman,” Father Markus answered with what dignity he could muster. “I will not lie to you. Sensei Catron is, I think, not a good man, or he could not have forged this army. I do not know his mind, and I fear him, but I think he means exactly what he says. He allows you only two choices — join him, or be slaughtered — and he enforces a rough equality among his jefes, his captains, no matter how many men they do or don’t have. And please let me assure you, he most certainly ‘means it’ when he states that if you fight, he will kill your people down to the last child.” The threat was bitter on his lips. Would that be better than possibly losing their souls to something worse?

“That’s plain enough.” Arryman glanced at the dark-haired man. “Jim, you got any doubts about whether this Catron guy means it?”

Dark Jim growled “Means what? Means to kill us and take what we worked for? Yeah, I believe the bastard means that. But we’ve still got the steel walls.” He glared at the priest, then at the field.

“Fat lot of good that does, Jim,” the blond pointed out. “We’re not done putting the place together. I told you we shouldn’t’ve spent time on plowing before we had all the holes plugged!”

“Are you fool enough to trust these bastards, Jake?” Jim demanded of the blond.

“I don’t know,” Jake answered frankly, then pointed. “But look over there. See what they’re bringing up?”

Father Markus glanced over his shoulder. The engineer, Johnson, and his crew were trundling their levered contraptions out into the field. Each had a long throwing arm driven by springs taken from stalled trucks. Men began pumping hydraulic jacks — when released they would drive the arms forward in hard brutal arcs. Rows of big darts with grapnel hooks were planted next to the siege engines, and reels of cable tied on.

Jim compressed his lips, and the lines around his eyes grew deeper. “Okay, that’s bad,” he conceded.

“Sensei’s engineer has built devices to pierce your walls and tear them open,” Father Markus explained with desperate diplomacy. “I can see that you are all brave men and will fight for those you love, but your walls will be only brief protection. Please, choose life!”

“I hear you, Father,” Arryman answered. “I don’t have to like it, but you’ve got a powerful argument. Only I’m not a dictator here, I’ve got to talk the folks here into going along with whatever I decide. That’s going to take a while. Are you willing to wait? Is your boss man?”

Father Markus grimaced. “I know of nothing better to do with my time than trying to prevent a tragic slaughter. I will wait as long as you need me, but please, I beg of you in the name of God, do not be over-long about deciding. At some point Sensei Catron will conclude that you do not intend to join him, and then… I do not think it will matter if I am still standing here.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Arryman answered drily, and turned away. Blond Jake and dark Jim went with him, their faces worried.

There was a hubbub of questioning voices, followed by indistinct arguments as the discussion moved away from the gate. The men who remained kept casting nervous glances over their shoulders, in between long scowling looks at Sense’s army. The scowls gradually grew more fearful as Johnson finished his setting-up and the jefes began to deploy their fighters in blocks behind his machines. Sensei’s army spread out across a thousand feet, men and weapons thick as grass.

Father Markus could hear an indistinct argument raging. At one point Arryman’s voice shouted “Look at them! How many can you fight at the same time?” The priest silently recited alternating Ave Marias and Pater Nosters in Latin and his native German, as he waited in agonized limbo. In between the formal prayers he interjected brief spontaneous pleas for humility and wisdom on all persons present. As he was completing the twentieth cycle, Arryman returned. The tall man stepped up on whatever they had behind the gate and looked down on him again.

“Maybe God really is with you, Father,” he drawled. “I can’t think of anything else that’d make my crew of misfits agree with me that fast.”

“Then your answer is?” He found himself holding his breath.

“We’ll join.”

“Praise the Lord!” Father Markus fought for balance against a sudden wave of dizziness. “Thank you, Captain Arryman.”

“Thanks for the promotion, but I was just a Sargeant in the County Sherriff’s office before the shit hit the fan,” Arryman said drily. “So what’s the first step?”

“I — I do not know for certain, but I would suggest opening your gate. I will give your answer to Sensei Catron. I think he will want some sort of ceremony, such as he held with some of the other jefes when they joined.” Father Markus had to force calmness on himself to avoid babbling in his relief. “I will ask.”

He ended up crossing the field twice more to negotiate details before Catron came himself. Arryman had the gate open and had cleared out much of the interior space, lining up his men in a semblance of parade rest. There turned out to be less than a hundred-fifty able-bodied men inside the steel fort, and over two hundred women and children. Sensei sent Jefe Rosario and her biker gang in first to take up internal security, which caused some odd bristling as the townsmen and the armed and armored women looked each other over. When Sensei and his jefes arrived, with a thousand of Sensei’s own men at his back, Father Markus anxiously accompanied him in through the wide-open gate.

The silver armor glittered in the afternoon sunlight, making it hard to see Sensei’s face even though he had the visor up. His four senior students were at his back and the other jefes flanked them. All were all armored too, but neither they nor Sensei had their weapons drawn — except for Washington, who fought with a big double-faced axe that couldn’t be sheathed. Arryman waited in front of his men, with blond Jake at his right and another, somewhat older, man at his left; the priest spied dark-haired Jim at the back of the crowd, looking aggrieved but cowed. Arryman had his sheathed sword in his hands, held vertically in front of him.

Father Markus introduced the two leaders to each other. Stiff words were exchanged, and then Arryman dropped to one knee and held out his sword to the Sensei. Catron took it, drew it a few inches, grunted, and then slammed the blade back into its sheath. He handed the weapon back to the Hudson defender and named him Captain. For a long moment he held Arryman’s eyes with his own and Father Markus saw the kneeling man grow pale. Then Catron broke the gaze with a dissatisfied grunt and Arryman sagged a little, and then forced himself to his feet. He backed away a few steps, eyes downcast and his face more than a little queasy-looking. His knuckles were white where he gripped the dark leather sword-sheath and his wedding ring glittered in the wan sunlight.

Sensei gestured peremptorily to Jake. The big blond slowly stepped forward, staring at Catron’s face. Catron pointed to the ground vacated by Arryman. Jake didn’t seem to notice, his eyes locked on Catron’s. Suddenly his features twisted in horrified revulsion. He ripped his sword out of its scabbard and started to slash at the Sensei — and Catron’s own blade came out impossibly fast, blocked it, then sliced into Jake’s throat.

“No!” cried Father Markus. He tried to push his way forward, desperately hoping to stop the madness before it could spread. “Don’t fight!”

Paco’s hard grip seized his shoulder, twisted him around and flung him on the ground. The jefe’s heavy foot slapped his back and held him there.

“Let me up!” he shouted, hands scrabbling in the mud helplessly. “I have to stop it!”

“Shut up, Padre!” Paco snarled above him, his own sword out and ringing. He shouted to his followers as the camp turned to shrieking bedlam. Steel grated on steel and struck flesh with sickening thumps. Something warm and liquid splashed the back of the priest’s head and threw red dots across his shirt-arm. Parts of three fingers landed in the mud bare inches from his nose. The rough nails had dirt caked under them — and one bore a plain gold wedding band. He stared at it in horror, and then raised his eyes to a sudden motion.

A little boy cowered under a tractor parked against the nearest grain bin, barely three feet away. He was half-hidden in the shadow of the rusting machine, staring eyes taking in the slaughter of his folk. Those staring eyes met the priest’s own, caught at his heart like hooks. Dirty little hands came up to cover the childish face and the boy curled into a ball behind the great rubber tire.

Paco’s foot came off his back suddenly as the battle shifted. Catron’s troops had poured through the gate and driven the defenders back. They fled into the barn where the battle continued. Father Markus struggled to his hands and knees, crawled forward and under the tractor. He enfolded the trembling little body in his own arms and held the child, both of them sobbing silently together.

He used me to get inside the gate, he thought despairingly. Or — It used me. Do demons truly walk the earth again? Are we fallen into the Last Days? I never believed that was anything more than a metaphor! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!

It seemed much later when Paco finally called to him. “Padre. Come out.”

Father Markus dimly realized that the Jefe had stayed there in front of the tractor all through the slaughter.

Protecting me, he thought dully. He crawled out from under the machine, not letting the boy go though that meant banging his head painfully on some machine parts. Then he had to struggle to his feet, little arms and legs clinging to him in trembling desperation. He settled the boy in his arms and met Paco’s eyes square. And you, Brutus?

The Jefe twisted his lips, spat sideways. His armor had several fresh scratches liberally splashed with drying blood. The sounds from the barn had largely ceased. A couple of Catron’s men, one of them the blond youth from Albuquerque, were methodically cutting the throats of the wounded defenders; one of those was the dark-haired man, Jim.

Beyond them, a woman suddenly flitted around the steel silo. She had a burning torch in her hand, and the other hand pressed to a bloody patch on her side. She limped to the open hatch of the silo, where grain trickled out into a tub. The blond youth looked up suddenly, swore and charged towards her.

Father Markus saw her thrust the torch into the opening with a convulsive effort just before the Albuquerque boy cut her down. There was a strange sound from the grain bin and the top suddenly split with a belling sound. Flame and black smoke billowed out mushily, more spewing from the hatch and narrowly missing her slayer.

Paco saw it too, and cursed. “That’s one less,” he snarled.

“There are three more,” Father Markus heard himself observe, as if from a great distance.

“Si.” Paco grated. He stared for a moment at the priest and the boy. “Much work to do, Padre. Go to the Nurse, she is with the Doctor. Tell them to get ready for our wounded.” He flicked a hand at one of his men and that fighter beckoned to the priest.

Somewhere Father Marcus found the strength to nod. “Yes, Jefe,” he mumbled mechanically, and turned away, clutching the boy to his heart. The bare field had a steady stream of Catron’s men coming and going, some whooping cheerfully and others grim and silent. The priest carefully avoided them and trudged back to camp, the boy warm and trembling against his chest. The guard walked behind him.

It seemed a very long distance back to the medical cart. Neither guard, nor boy, nor priest, said anything at all. Far off in the west, mountains floated. Their snow-streaked heads tore fruitlessly at dark clouds.

❀ ❁ ❀

5

— Politics and Peace —

One day and then three days after the battle.

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” Sam said morosely, holding Ellie’s hand as they walked into the school auditorium. “I’m not any kind of politician! How did I let your dad talk me into this?”

Ellie squeezed his hand. “Because you’re the best man for the job.”

“Huh.” Sam rolled his eyes. “What about Marshall Duncan?”

“He won’t do it; says we need separation between the military commander and the political command. Dad agrees with him.”

“Then what about Chief Waters? The militia doesn’t really need him now that the Wall’s built, and he’d be good at this. He knows a lot more than I do about how things work around this town.”

“Stop worrying, love.” Ellie kissed him as they took their seats. “You’ll do fine.”

Sam gritted his teeth, muttered, “I hate politics!” under his breath, and leaned back in the chair. Maybe a miracle will happen, he thought, and they’ll pick on someone else!

❀ ❁ ❀

Burt Santini took his seat behind the big table, last of the Trustees to arrive. He tried not to look at the empty chair where Pete MacClelland used to sit. Whit Yohansen was sitting in the mayor’s chair, since he was the Deputy Mayor. Somehow that didn’t bother Burt quite as much as he had thought it would.

When you fight for your life and your family, shoulder to shoulder with a man who’s doing the same, it colors things, he thought ruefully.

Rachel smiled sympathetically at Burt, then turned her attention to the Town Clerk, who was tapping a wind-up watch that somebody had provided.

“I guess we’d better call the meeting to order, Linda,” Yohansen said, swallowing the last bite of his hasty lunch and pushing the plate aside. He’d spent all morning poring over the paperwork left undone by Allison’s death, and barely had time to eat.

The Town Clerk nodded and stood up. “Hear ye all, this session of the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lyons is hereby called to order, the honorable Whit Yohansen, Deputy Mayor, presiding. Let all with business…”

Burt picked his teeth as the Clerk droned through the customary formalities, then the reading of the names of those Trustees present. With only five surviving, it didn’t take as long as usual.

James Palmer was there in his inevitable blue suit, which was looking distinctly the worse for a couple months of hand washing without benefit of electric ironing. Rachel wore flannel shirt and jeans, dusty and windburned from working with their desperately few spare horses and cowboys to maintain some kind of a guard on the Town’s northern frontier. Burt himself was muddy to the knees of his jeans from slogging around the canyon fields with their farmers, getting Starry’s new plows going. Susan Smythe was neatly dressed but her face was haunted — her eyes were red from weeping and she looked to have aged ten years since yesterday. The deaths of her son and husband both had hit her like hammer blows. Burt doubted that she had got much sleep at all last night — and wished he could forget Fowler Smythe’s face as the life drained out of it. Whit Yohansen didn’t look much better than Susan; he’d had to carry that news to her. Burt felt peculiarly grateful that Pete MacClelland’s wife had been visiting their daughter and her family in Iowa when the Change hit. She was probably still alive, but there wasn’t any way to tell her that her husband wasn’t.

Burt winced inwardly at the memory of telling Allison’s husband John Hamill about the Mayor’s death. The only saving grace there had been John’s knowledge of Allison’s cancer, which he’d shared with Burt after the news. John had looked shrunken, sitting in his big wing chair in the living room of their cozy house. But not surprised, no. He had shifted his cane from side to side, shook his gray head mournfully, and explained.

“She made me promise not to tell anyone, Burt,” John had told him. “The prognosis wasn’t too bad, a lot of brain cancers get cured these days, and even the one on her lymph node was pretty small. The first round of radiation therapy went really good. The doctors down in Denver said her chances of defeating it were something like seventy or eighty percent in favor. She didn’t like fuss, and she worried that there might be a flare-up of the old power struggles if she stepped down from the Board or from the Mayor’s office. But then this Change happened and she never got the second and third treatments. I wasn’t sure it was coming back at first, she didn’t complain, but once the anti-pain drugs ran out she started sleeping poorly again.” He made a helpless gesture with his shaking left hand. “She used to take them ground up in her morning coffee, because she didn’t like the taste, so I tried to sneak some of mine in place of hers, but she caught me and made me to stop.” He bowed his head. “She always knew her own mind.”

That she did, Burt reflected as the clerk droned on. And everybody else’s too, which was really lucky for us. How the hell are we going to cope without her? I’m sure not up to filling her shoes. Is Whit?

The clerk finished and Whit tapped the ceremonial gavel once. “Trustees, we’re now in session. Usually we’d go through all the formal department reports and such first, but there’s a peace conference coming at us in a couple hours and only one report that we really need to hear before it. With permission of the Board, I propose to suspend the normal procedure and move directly to emergency business rules. Once we do, we can invoke the emergency replacement laws and get this Board back up to full strength, and then decide what to do about our neighbor and recent enemy, the city of Longmont. What say you, Madame Joyner?”

“Do it,” Rachel answered laconically.

“Mister Palmer?”

“Highly irregular, but so’s the whole situation,” Palmer answered grudgingly. “And I suppose that this is the sort of event for which the emergency rules were created in the first place.”

“The new appointees will have to stand for regular election in autumn, of course,” Yohansen said, uncharacteristically soothing. “Do you consent?”

“I consent.”

“Mister Santini?

“I consent, too.” Not often I give in to any idea of Whit’s so easily, he reflected, but he’s right about this one. And he agreed with me last night about Sam, so let’s get to it.

“Madame Smythe?”

“I don’t care!” Susan burst out, followed by fresh tears. Palmer, sitting next to her, looked for a moment as if he was considering touching her arm, but then thought better of it.

Whit swallowed, looked at the Clerk. “And I vote yes. Linda, let the record show that an absolute majority of the Trustees approved operating under the emergency business rules.”

“So noted,” the Clerk intoned, scribbling rapidly.

Burt resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. Yeah, yeah, procedure has its place, but some days it sure grates on my nerves. I hope this doesn’t scare Sam away. We need his hard good sense on this Board. He sneaked a peek at his son-in-law, sitting very still in the second row next to Ellie. It had taken Burt and Rachel nearly an hour to persuade Sam to agree to this last night. I wish to God I’d had time to find a second candidate, too — what the hell are we going to do about Pete’s seat?

“The emergency procedure for trustee replacement is now available,” Yohansen continued. “As you all know, we lost Mayor Allison Hamill and Trustee Peter MacClelland during yesterday’s fighting to defend our Town from armed aggression by our much larger neighbor, Longmont. We have a tenuous truce with Longmont’s forces until tonight, and the word arrived this morning that the new ruler of Longmont, this Baron Murchison, will be sending a negotiator to meet with us this afternoon. I think we need to have a full and united Board to deal with that — that ambassador, and —”

“Objection!” interrupted Palmer, who had been swelling up like a toad and looked like he wanted to burst. “Longmont is as subject to Colorado law as we are, and nothing in the state Constitution or statutes allows home-rule cities and towns to make war on each other! Or to appoint ambassadors and other national or state functionaries! Their actions are utterly improper!” He spoke the last word like it was the foulest epithet he could imagine.

“Lotsa luck with that ‘united’ idea,” someone catcalled from the back of the room.

“I think we all know that, James,” Yohansen said to Palmer, ignoring the catcaller. “But it’s a reality with which we must deal. I can call him a negotiator instead of an ambassador if it makes you happier, but there’s no way around what happened. Law in Longmont is gone, there’s just a dictator there now, and he attacked us. He got killed and we killed a lot of his men besides, but another has replaced him, and if they keep attacking us, with their greater numbers, then we’re probably doomed. We have to get a deal out of them that allows our Town to survive.”

“Law is not gone here,” frothed Palmer, “Not while I have breath in my body.” He would have spoken more but Yohansen held up his hand.

“James, your objection is not directly germane to the issue which we are discussing,” the deputy Mayor said. “I therefore propose to table it until the immediate agenda item is resolved. Will you accept that?”

Palmer looked like he wanted to argue but after a long moment he nodded curtly and subsided.

Palmer’s living in a goddamned fantasy land, Burt thought sourly. Too many years in courtrooms, not enough getting dirt under his fingernails.

“Returning to the issue at hand,” Yohansen continued, looking around the Trustees table. “We have two vacancies on the Board due to deaths. The emergency regulations allow — in fact, require — those seats to be filled by a vote of the Trustees if the next regularly-scheduled election is more than ninety days away. Since it is, I propose that we comply with the law.” He shot a sideways look at Palmer. “To do that we must call for candidates and make the appropriate appointments. Do the Trustees consent to issue said call?”

Yohansen braced himself, obviously expecting Palmer to object. Burt expected the same, and was pleasantly surprised when the lawyer said, “I consent.” Susan did too, with a tense note in her voice that unsettled Burt. She stared from Yohansen to Burt and back again, or maybe glared would be a better word. Something going on there, Burt thought uneasily as he and Rachel made it unanimous. She’s blaming us for Fowler’s death. Damnit, it’s not my fault! What is she going to do?

“Very well,” Yohansen plowed on. “In accordance with the emergency regulations — Linda, insert a reference to the specific statute here, I can’t remember it.”

The clerk fumbled with a large black ring-binder.

“Municipal Code section nine, paragraph eleven, sub-paragraph one,” Palmer put in, his voice slightly smug.

I wonder if he actually knows it that well, or if he looked it up last night? Burt wondered, even more unsettled and wishing he’d had time last night to look up the details himself. Palmer looked torn between angry and pleased over something. Maybe he’s just showing off.

“Yes, thank you James,” Yohansen continued, darting him a similarly disturbed look. “Accordingly I call for nominations to fill the seat formerly held by Allison Hamill. Nominations must be made by the existing Trustees.”

“I nominate Jack Grasso,” Susan said breathlessly. Burt winced; Grasso was a conniving schemer interested first, last, and always in his own power. His previous term on the Board had been the most contentious in living memory. Allison and Burt had both defeated him three elections ago. On the other hand, he’d worked hard with the demolition crews up on Steamboat Lane, and made sure Starry got a steady flow of metal parts for the Armory. Maybe the Change had changed him.

“I nominate Sam Hyatt,” Rachel said an instant later.

“Point of order,” Palmer said. “All candidates must be registered to vote from an address located within the municipal boundaries of Lyons — Section nine-eleven-three. Is Mister Hyatt so registered?”

“I thought of that.” Burt smirked. “Linda?

“Mister Samuel Hyatt and Missus Ellen Hyatt became registered voters this morning,” the Town Clerk announced. “Address being the same as Mister Santini’s — on the edge of the city limits, but inside them.”

“Then the emergency laws give us a clear answer,” Palmer said regretfully. “Under nine-eleven-four, a candidate must have been registered to vote in Lyons for not less than thirty days prior to the nomination.” He smiled blandly. “Mister Hyatt does not qualify.”

“WHAT!” Burt slammed both hands on the table and rocked to his feet. “What are you trying to pull, you — you pickle-assed — !”

“Mister Santini! Please sit down,” Yohansen interrupted firmly, meanwhile darting an angry sideways look at Palmer.

While Burt sank back into his chair, barely hanging onto his temper, Yohansen turned to Linda.

“Is he correct about that?” he asked plaintively as she paged frantically through the Code book.

“Here it is,” she mumbled; peered, then read off the relevant passage aloud and concluded, “Yes sir, Mister Palmer’s right.”

Rachel cleared her throat. “Mister Deputy Mayor, in light of the emergency situation, I move that section nine-eleven-four of the Municipal Code be suspended.”

“Seconded!” Burt yelled, grinning.

“Point of order,” Palmer answered sweetly. “Changes to the municipal code require an absolute majority of four affirmative votes. Not three.”

Linda flipped pages. “Yah, section one, paragraph three, sub-paragraph four.”

Whit Yohansen’s mouth worked as if he tasted something foul. “Very well. I call the question. Those in favor?” Rachel and Burt raised their hands — and Yohansen did as well. “Opposed?” Palmer and Smythe raised theirs. “Motion fails to gather four votes. I’m sorry, Rachel and Burt, Sam’s nomination is not qualified. Are there any other nominations?” He cast a rather desperate look at Burt and Rachel.

In the audience, Sam audibly blew out his breath in a way that might have been relief.

Burt ground his teeth. Shit, shit, shit! He thought, his mind racing. We should have come up with a backup plan! If only there’d been more time!

“I nominate Joe Naccio,” Rachel said, visibly scrambling for an alternative.

“No way!” said the little grocer, standing up briefly to wave his arms negatively. He had a bandage on his head where a Greenie arrow had gouged his helmet on the Wall. “I mean, I respectfully decline.” He sat down again, shaking his head and muttering loudly “Wouldn’t catch me dead…”

“I nominate Sarah Withers!” called a voice from the audience. Burt winced — he’d had a few run-ins with Sarah over the years.

“Nominations must come from the Trustees,” Whit ruled, looking unenthusiastic. Sarah was his first cousin and Burt knew she’d made Yohansen family gatherings tense more than once. But blood was a hard tie to ignore.

“I’ll nominate Mrs. Withers,” Palmer said blandly, and Susan Smythe snapped “Seconded!”

“Move the nominations be closed,” Palmer added, and again Susan followed with ‘Seconded!”

“Slow down, James,” Whit protested. “Let the rest of us have a chance.” He looked desperately at Burt and Rachel.

That’s a switch, Burt thought bemusedly. Whit and I have been on opposite sides for so long. He tried to flog his tired brain into action. Who would make a workable Trustee, someone with a clue who could understand a crisis? We need more time, damnit! Whit, this rush is a mistake!

Someone was standing up in the audience. Rachel’s eyes lit up and she exclaimed “I nominate Stan Bickel!”

Burt swallowed. Bickel? Jeeze. Whit Yohansen shot her a betrayed look — he’d had a running feud with Stan for a decade. But Rachel thought well of the man. Shit. We should have planned better!

“With permission of my second, I withdraw my motion that nominations be closed,” purred Palmer.

“Agreed,” Susan said more slowly, clearly unsure of what Palmer was up to but going along.

“And I second the motion for Stan Bickel. We now have three nominations for the open seat,” Palmer pointed out. “That would seem to be sufficient, mister Deputy Mayor. I again move that nominations be closed.”

“And I second it again,” Susan barked.

Whit’s mouth twisted like he tasted something foul. “All right. Call the question; shall nominations be closed?”

“Aye!” Rachel said triumphantly, evidently thinking she’d succeeded in something with Bickel’s nomination.

Burt had a bad feeling as he added his own assent to those of Palmer and Smythe. I don’t know where this is going, and I don’t like it, he fretted privately.

“We have three candidates — Jack Grasso, Sarah Withers, and Stan Bickel,” Whit said unenthusiastically. “Traditional procedure is for each Trustee to vote for the name he or she most favors. A plurality of votes cast is required to appoint the replacement. Linda, let’s do this formally — call the roll.”

The Town Clerk pulled out her list of Trustees and began calling names in the order of seniority. That put Palmer first.

“Jack Grasso,” he intoned, then sat there poker-faced.

“Trustee Santini, how do you vote?” she enquired.

Burt swallowed hard. Bickel the well-meaning boob? He needs help to tie his own shoelaces! What are you thinking, Rachel, I can’t vote for him! Sarah the harridan? She’ll want to argue over everything! Or a schemer like Jack? God help us, he thought. Maybe he’s learned a thing or two since the last time. Aloud: “Jack Grasso.”

“Trustee Yohansen?”

Whit looked like the choices pleased him about as much as they had Burt. “Sarah Withers,” he said, throwing a bone to family and avoiding a vote for either of the men he despised.

“Trustee Joyner?”

“Stan Bickel,” Rachel said sturdily.

“Trustee Smythe?”

“Jack Grasso!” Susan said triumphantly.

“Three votes for Mister Grasso,” the clerk reported. “Jack Grasso is appointed to fill the vacancy created by Allison Hamill’s death.”

Everybody blew out his or her breath. Jack stood up in the audience — he’d been sitting right behind Stan Bickel as it happened — and strode to the Trustees table. Burt took his turn congratulating the man and they all sat again. Grasso had a very satisfied smile — but so did Palmer.

Uh, oh, Burt thought. Should I be worried about that?

“Okay, now onto filling Trustee MacClelland’s vacant seat,” Whit Yohansen said briskly. “Once again we need nominations.”

Burt racked his brain while Palmer and Smythe again nominated Sarah and Rachel nominated Bickel — with Palmer’s second. God — a choice between those two? No! “I nominate Hank Waters,” Burt said firmly. Grasso nodded his head almost imperceptibly.

Rachel looked doubtful. “Burt, he already said no to the job,” she objected.

“He might change his mind,” Burt argued. If I have to, I’ll change it for him.

“Candidates need not be present to be appointed, they merely need to be resident registered voters in good standing,” Grasso put in smoothly, and again nodded slightly to Burt. “There is no doubt that Chief Waters qualifies. I second the motion.”

Yes! Burt thought. He understands! Maybe there’s a chance! His eyes met Whit Yohansen’s and they nodded simultaneously. We can do this!

Rachel looked from Grasso to Burt to Whit and her lips frowned. She didn’t like to be crossed in public.

Come on, Rachel, suck it up! Burt thought angrily.

“We have three candidates again, Mister Deputy Mayor,” Palmer said, and moved to close nominations again. Susan seconded, again.

Whit looked a lot less like he had a lemon in his mouth this time. “Very well, I call the question. All in favor? All opposed? Done. Time to vote for our seventh Trustee. Linda, the formal roll again, please.”

“Trustee Palmer?”

“Sarah Withers.”

“Trustee Santini?”

“Hank Waters!”

“Trustee Yohansen?”

“Hank Waters.”

“Trustee Joyner?”

Rachel frowned at the two men, and at smiling Grasso, who winked back. “Stan Bickel” she declared angrily, and crossed her arms defiantly.

“Trustee Smythe?”

“Sarah Withers.”

“Trustee Grasso?”

“Sarah Withers,” he said blandly.

“WHAT!?” said Burt.

“That makes three votes for Mrs. Withers, two for Mr. Waters, and one for Mr. Bickel,” the Town Clerk tallied. “Mrs. Withers is appointed to be the seventh Trustee.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“That was a disaster.” Burt groused afterwards. “Why the hell did you vote for that idiot Bickel?”

“Why the hell did you vote for Grasso?” snapped Rachel. “You knew he was a twisty snake! If you’d voted with me on Bickel we could at least have forced a tie and maybe gotten a postponement!”

“We were all out-maneuvered,” Whit Yohansen said ruefully, coming up behind them as they walked away from the school. “And Grasso got everything he wanted.”

“The Mayor’s job, too,” Burt nodded morosely.

“At least you got to keep the Deputy Mayor’s job,” Rachel said to Whit. “And you and Burt will negotiate the peace treaty with Longmont.”

“I hope Colotta’s reasonable,” Whit fretted. “I wish I knew him better. I wish I knew this new Baron Murchison at all.”

“Just the two of you listen to Marshall Duncan and don’t give in on anything he thinks is important,” Rachel urged worriedly, swinging into the saddle of her horse. “I’ve got to get back to Doc’s place and figure out a way to keep the Little T covered. Longmont’s not the only bunch we got to worry about; last night some gang burned out another house north of the river. We could get a new wave of refugees from the small ranches if we don’t find a way to stop that pretty damn quick.”

She flicked the reins and clattered away.

Burt heaved a heavy sign and glanced at the sky. “Days getting longer — we’ve got to get seed in the ground. I hope Starry can do something with those old horse-drawn seed drills, or this is going to be an absolute bitch of a planting season.”

Will nodded. “Come on, Burt, let’s get to the peace conference.”

They walked down to the Gate and made it in plenty of time. Burt reflected that his legs had already grown a lot tougher than they’d been just a few months ago — a two-mile stroll seemed like nothing now. Yohansen was quiet, introspective. He had a folder stuffed with maps and notes hastily thrown together only this morning; Burt carried one like it.

At the gate they found George Towns, the irrigation superintendent for the whole Saint Vrain River, waiting for them. Gray-haired and wiry, tanned to the consistency of old shoe leather by a lifetime spent outdoors overseeing ditches and headgates, he lived in Lyons and had served on the Wall during the battle. He had a bandaged cheek and wrist to show for it. Normally a phlegmatic and laconic man who never used two words where one would do, he was nervously pawing through The Book, his field-record of all the ditches and water rights tapping off the river.

“Trustees, I don’t know about this. Burt asked me to advise you on what water we most need, but that depends on what lands you want to irrigate —”

“George, we just need you to tell us when any particular proposal won’t work with the irrigation system,” Burt interrupted him. “And to keep track of how much water has to go where. The old priority system’s gonna have to get chucked out a window, anyway.”

“What! You — we — I can’t do that!” Towns was horrified. He waved The Book. “There’s thousands of decrees, more than nine hundred priorities — the land owners won’t let you do that!”

“George, except for the hundred or so that we gathered into the Town, most of the farmers and ranchers in Boulder County are probably dead already,” Burt told him bluntly. “The ones in Weld and Larimer Counties probably aren’t doing a whole lot better — maybe worse. You think any enforcers from the Water Court in Greeley are gonna come here to rap you on the knuckles for irrigating a field out of priority?”

“But — bu-bu-but…” Towns struggled to integrate the past two months into his entire life’s work.

“Mister Towns, the facts are simple, if brutal,” Whit told him somberly. “This war has opened my eyes to them. There are no water Courts any more — the Town’s going to have to take over management of the river system as soon as we get time to organize it. State law, water law, even property law — it’s all dead now. Water decrees, land deeds, adjudications, augmentations, the whole structure we built here in Colorado over the last hundred-and-fifty years — it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on now. All that matters today and this year is growing enough food to keep us all alive. The County is dead, the State’s almost certainly dead, and much as it hurts me to say it, I suspect that the USA is probably dead by now too.”

The three of them just stood there for a long moment while Yohansen’s words hung in the air between them. Towns looked like he wanted to cry. Burt found himself trembling. God in heaven, I think Whit’s got it exactly, he thought, and fought back a sudden rush of tears.

“Along with plenty of other governments in the world,” Marshall Duncan’s quiet voice broke in. “Maybe almost all of them.” He joined the three men and held up one of Starry’s swords. “Look at this, gentlemen. It’s rough and ugly, but it worked well enough yesterday to save our freedom. Now this town needs you three to figure out how to protect its people for more than just one day, by striking a deal with our much larger neighbor and recent enemy, Longmont. Are you ready?”

Towns choked for a moment, blew his nose and nodded. Burt wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

“We are, Marshall,” Whit Yohansen answered steadily. “Please lead us to the conference table.”

Marshall Duncan had set up a negotiating place right in front of the overlapping parts of the Wall. He’d put out three chairs on either side of a long plank table made out of pieces dragged over from the medical station. Burt wondered if the rancid smell of dried blood came from the table or the soil, finally decided on the latter. There had been plenty of bodies hauled away from this spot only a few hours ago. Flies were buzzing around. Someone had found a huge blue plastic tarp and tied one end to the Wall, the other to a couple of long poles, making a functional shade for the conference. A trio of militia members were tying the last rope off to a crude stake made out of a busted Greenie sword.

“Phew, Matt, couldn’t we use some place less stinky?” Burt complained.

“We could,” Marshall Duncan answered grimly. “But we’re not letting them see the inside of the Wall — they might learn too much about it. I also want to keep our archers with the height advantage over theirs, just to maintain whatever edge we can in the bargaining. And lastly, it won’t hurt any of you negotiators to be reminded about this war’s cost while you’re cutting deals.”

Whit Yohansen, who’d been looking around unhappily, became solemn. “Very good points, Marshall. Thank you for making these arrangements.”

“Yeah, thanks for the work, Matt,” Burt added contritely. “Sorry I whined.”

“You are both welcome, Trustees.”

“However,” Whit Yohansen continued in a stern voice, “We need one more chair on our side of the table. This negotiation will need all four of us — you included.”

“Uh?” Duncan blinked. “I had intended to stay up on the Wall —”

“Unacceptable,” Whit declared firmly. “We need your military expertise. I need it — I don’t understand our defenses nearly enough to know what I can compromise on and what we must not yield. You must sit with us.”

Duncan blinked again. “When you put it that way — very well.” He called to one of the men guarding the Gate and after a while they brought out two more chairs, one for each side of the table.

Whit shaded his eyes and peered east. “I do believe I see the Longmont ambassadors. Negotiators. Whatever we choose to call them. Let’s all look alert, gentlemen. This poker game’s about to begin.”

And I stink at poker! Burt thought as he stood shoulder to shoulder with the others and watched.

Captain Colotta and a small cluster of Longmont soldiers and aides came riding up Ute Highway on bikes. They dismounted at the junction with Foothills and left their bikes leaning against the dead traffic lights. Colotta wore a bright green tabard over his clothes, but no armor, and carried no obvious weapons. He had two men with him dressed likewise, one of them a younger athletic-looking fellow wearing a backpack with rolled papers sticking out the top. The other had the wrinkled skin of someone who had lost a lot of weight much too fast, he was puffing and red-faced from the ride. The rest seemed to be six younger soldiers, all armed and armored, wearing much smaller green tabards — evidently the equivalent of a uniform.

Colotta looked at the waiting Lyons delegation, said something to one of the soldiers, who nodded and saluted, passed on an order to the other five. Those formed a parade-rest line at the bikes while Colotta, his aides, and the one soldier approached. They lined up facing the four Lyons men across the makeshift table. The young soldier found himself facing Marshall Duncan, the only one of the Lyons men wearing sword and armor. After a brief mutual stare of consideration, Duncan smiled slightly at the youngster — who didn’t look reassured.

“Good afternoon, Mister Deputy Mayor Yohansen,” Colotta spoke first, paused. “Or should I say Mayor?”

“It’s still Deputy Mayor,” Whit replied, omitting any mention of the Trustees’ meeting. “The other Trustees have authorized myself and Trustee Burt Santini to negotiate for the Town.” He indicated Burt with one hand, then the Marshall with the other. “Marshall Matthew Duncan here will be advising us on military matters, and Mister George Towns, here, will advise us on the irrigation system.”

Colotta nodded. “You were always organized when we worked on the Humanities Building at C.U. You know me, Whit, but for the rest of you, I’m John Colotta, formerly a day-time engineer and evening knight in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and a member of Baron Hugo Green’s household. Baron Murchison has confirmed me as a Captain of the Barony’s forces. Let me introduce Lieutenant Joe Miles, also of the SCA and the Barony — he and I will be negotiating on behalf of Baron Murchison. We brought along Squire Jenkins, who you met yesterday, his father is the Baron’s chief administrator for the city. And this is Mister Patrick Casey, who runs Longmont’s water system.”

Casey looked at Towns and smiled tentatively. “Hi, George. Glad to see you.”

Towns harrumphed and stared coldly at the Longmonters. “Wish I could say the same, Mister Casey. I was on the Wall during the fight. I got this —” he pointed to his head bandage “from one of your Greenie archers.”

Casey wilted — his loose skin made him look like an abused Basset hound. A chill fell over the assemblage. Jenkins looked hard at Marshall Duncan, the only other person at the conference wearing armor or sword. Duncan stared back, managing to look calm, bland, and dangerous all at the same time.

Burt could see Jenkins visibly decide he was over-matched.

Burt cleared his throat. “We’re not here to pledge undying love, guys. This is a peace conference. So let’s talk peace.”

“And please, sit,” Whit Yohansen gestured to the chairs, and took one himself.

The others followed suit, Jenkins last. Duncan relaxed into his chair and switched his attention to Colotta with a suddenness that left the younger man blinking. Jenkins shifted uneasily, frowned, fingered his sword-hilt, and finally sat back, tense and uncertain.

Junior bull in the pasture, trying to figure out if he’s just been insulted, Burt translated the little play mentally. And not sure what he can do about it anyway. Sheesh, kid, stop thinking with your balls! Then a colder realization hit. Guys like him have a hell of a lot better chance of surviving right now than any fifty-six year old farmer. If I want to live, and help protect my family, I’d damn well better find a way to get kids — no, young men — like him working for everybody’s survival and not against it.

Maps came out, with roads and streams and irrigation ditches inexpertly highlighted in neon colors. Yohansen and Colotta traded some platitudes about the recent war and the need for a working relationship between ‘two communities dependent upon the same river for our lives and livelihoods’.

“What y’all mean is, Lyon’s sitting on control of the water that we both need,” Burt inserted bluntly. “You can’t take it away from us without killing yourselves too, so you want a deal that you can count on us keeping. That means we both got to get what we need out of it, and enough more that we all want to keep the deal. Am I right?”

Whit looked at him with obvious irritation, but Colotta visibly fought down a grin. “A plain-speaking politician. How’d you ever get elected, Mister Santini?”

“By plain speaking. So, let’s look at the map.”

Burt put his left hand on the river, wrist atop Lyons and fingers spreading out along the lines of the five main ditches. “Supply, Highland, Rough and Ready, Palmerton, and South Ledge,” he read off the names. “Lower down, the Oligarchy and the Swede and James on the south. Every one irrigates some land close to us, and generally more land closer to you. So let’s split up the acreage first, then split the water to irrigate it, as far as it goes.”

“What about the claims lower down the river?” Towns asked, worriedly. “There’s three more ditches east of Longmont to feed too, and all the water that comes through Boulder Creek and Coal Creek. What about Left Hand Creek and the Little Thompson?” He was responsible for the whole network, Burt remembered, though Boulder/Coal Creeks had their own superintendent. Who nobody in Lyons had heard word one about for months.

Lieutenant Miles looked grim. “I don’t think we can rely on anything that passes through Boulder or the smaller south County towns. There’s still fighting going on in Boulder near as we can tell, and we don’t even know who the factions are, never mind who’s winning. The force that we fought off yesterday retreated to Niwot and set up there, so we guess they’re one of the losers from Boulder. The Reds that fought with them retreated southeast, toward Erie. The Baron’s sent a negotiator to both of them — we’ll see if that gets us somewhere. I don’t mind telling you, having a strong force allied with Longmont to block the Diagonal Highway would be worth giving up the lower Left Hand, and ditto for Coal Creek and Erie. South of that — we haven’t got a clue what’s happening. I don’t think we can defend any fields down there anyway — anything south of Plateau Road is just too exposed.”

Whit Yohansen winced. “Mister Santini can correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s over half of all the crop land in the county that you’ve just written off,” he pointed out. “And most of it was never in Lyon’s reach anyway, so that means you’ll be wanting more from us.”

Colotta shrugged. “We’re telling you the way it is from Longmont’s perspective.” He spread his hands. “We have frontiers to defend on every side. You’ve got your backs to the mountains. Not an equivalent situation, militarily speaking.”

Burt contemplated the shrunken part of the County that left to them. “Right. Okay, so the question is, who needs how much?”

“Ah. That’s a function of population,” Colotta said with grim humor. “You want to tell us how many people you really have behind that Wall?”

“No,” Marshall Duncan inserted smoothly. “We all know it’s a lot less than you’ve got. We can’t attack you and both sides know it — however big you really are, you’re always going to be too big for us. So you’ve got a lot less to lose by telling the whole truth. That means you should go first — tell us your numbers, let Mister Santini and the water-men figure out how much acreage you need and we need, and then we’ll split the remainder.”

Lieutenant Miles cocked his head at the Marshall. “Professionals study Logistics, right?”

Duncan nodded, smiling slightly. Miles frowned, looking unsure at the same time.

“You’ve got a good point.” Colotta drew a deep breath. “Okay, you want honesty, you got it — all of it. Squire Jenkins’ father worked up an estimate for me this morning. After the fighting losses, and assuming not too many of our wounded die, we’ve probably got just over seven thousand people left alive in Longmont.”

George Town’s face paled visibly. “Bu-but didn’t it used to be close to seventy thousand?”

“That’s right,” Colotta said flatly. “A little less than three thousand are working-age men, plus another four hundred of wounded men that will likely recover. About three thousand are women, and we’ve got almost seven hundred children and elderly — mostly children.” He raised an eyebrow at Duncan. “That probably tells you a whole lot about our capabilities that I’d prefer nobody else knew. It also tells you what we need. Oh, and on top of that, we’ve got around three hundred more people organized on farms close to the city. Here’s a map of what we’ve secured so far.”

Miles handed him a rolled-up sheet from the backpack and Colotta spread it out. It was a road map of the northeastern quarter of Boulder County, with Lyons and Longmont shaded in gray and the irrigation ditches marked with blue high-lighter. Fields close in to the big city were cross-hatched green, with notations.

“Here’s what we already control, marked in green,” Miles explained. “The little green circles are fortified farmhouses, about a dozen of them so far. Land we hope to control to the east, north and south, is marked in yellow.” There was no yellow marking on the land between the two cities.

“The green area’s not enough to feed us,” Colotta added starkly. “The yellow might be, if we have water for it.”

“Right,” said Burt, looking it over. “Okay, George, your turn. How much water do they need from each ditch to support these farms? Assuming that each one sticks with the same crops that they’re already raising. Maybe tell us a total share of each ditch.”

Towns flipped through The Book and scribbled notes, muttering to himself. “‘Bout a third of that’s watered by the Highland, add in the yellow parts and that’s half the ditch… no, more like three-fifths…’nother sixth of the Oligarchy, that makes five-sixths of it… hardly any Palmerton, but all of the MacIntosh Lake share… bit of R and R… ’bout half the James and a quarter of the Swede, bit more… okay, I got it.”

He read off a list.

Whit’s eyebrows climbed. “That’s more than two-thirds of all the irrigation share of the river, isn’t it?”

“Almost,” Towns nodded. “I didn’t count the Culver-Little T share in the Supply Ditch, that’d bring it down some if we keep that. And I left out all the Carter Lake water, don’t know if we’re even gonna get any of that—”

“Enough, George, let’s stick to the main ones first,” Burt interrupted. “We got a number — just to irrigate all the green and yellow areas you Greenies want takes a little less’n two-thirds of the whole irrigation water supply. If you also keep all of Longmont’s share of the drinking water, that’s about five-sixths of that part too. Way more than two-thirds of the whole river.”

Colotta stuck out his jaw stubbornly. “We’ve got more than three-fourths of the people.” He eyed his opposite negotiators narrowly.

“And more than three-fourths of the best land,” Burt pointed out. “You can grow more on it with that water than we can grow on the high benches close to town. So you’ll have more than three-quarters of the food, too.”

“Time for some horse-trading, gentlemen,” Whit put in. “Let’s concede all the green lands to you folks right now. In return, Lyons needs some things. Now for a start, let’s propose…”

The argument went on for more than an hour. Burt wiped his forehead with a salt-encrusted hanky when they were finally done.

“I think we have it,” Whit Yohansen summed up, scribbling a new note. “You keep most of the land east of Seventy-Fifth Street, with several pieces north of Ute Road and west of Ninety-Fifth for us, total about eighteen hundred acres there. The road itself stays open to use by both communities from Ute on south. With your land you get all of the Oligarchy, two-thirds of the Rough-and-Ready, eighty percent of the Highland, the MacIntosh share of the Palmerton, half the James and a quarter of the Swede, and a tenth of the Supply Ditch. We keep the other shares, all of the South Ledge, the upper Left Hand Creek waters, and the upper Little T. If you get control over the middle and lower Little T valley, we’ll deliver the Culver and Ish shares to you through the Supply Ditch, but if we organize any of those folks, we get that part of their water. Otherwise we leave it in the river as a reserve. We split the river’s main stem at Seventy-Fifth, too — you get all the water dedicated to the ditches farther down.”

Jenkins stirred. “That still puts our western boundary a hell of a lot closer to us than to you,” he groused.

“We’re not a threat to you — in fact, we’re an advantage,” Burt grumped. “If Hugo Green had been able to see that, we wouldn’t be sitting here in this stinking battlefield while we argue.” The flies and the stench were getting to him.

“Your eastern boundary’s wherever you can push it,” the Marshall pointed out. “Same on the south — and the north. That’s where your attention needs to be anyway, not on us.” His stare was cold. “If a few hundred casualties hasn’t taught you that, what will?”

Jenkins face twitched and his eyes dropped.

“You made your point,” Colotta answered heavily.

“We’ll run all the water deliveries and keep the headgates repaired,” Whit continued. “Any shortages get split proportionally to our river shares, and each town decides which fields to cut off when the river runs low on water. We’ll keep Button Rock Dam up and the other reservoirs in our territory, make sure the water gets stored for both towns, and run the water treatment plants — most of the surviving operators live here anyway. You’ll pay us one-tenth of all the barley left in the Coors elevator for that, and if we all survive into next year, you’ll kick in an extra thousand pounds of barley each future year to cover our cost for supporting the ditch and reservoir operators. We can convert any of that to other goods if you can supply them, pound for pound. And you can make any water deals you want with other towns and communities farther east, but those come out of your river shares, not ours. Except for the side deal with Niwot, if it happens.”

“Check,” Colotta nodded wearily, while Miles made notes himself. “Okay, I think Murchison can live with all of this. If we get an alliance with Niwot, or at least persuade them to be neutrals, they’ll get the lower Left Hand water.”

“The irrigation shares,” Whit specified, as pedantically as James Palmer could have asked. “The domestic water’ll have to stay in the creek until somebody restarts the Left Hand water plant — if Niwot wants it, they can have it, but we’ll keep everything north and west of the plant itself. Including the ranches in Left Hand Canyon and all of the Lake Ditch, and Potato Valley.”

“If you can keep it,” Colotta smiled mirthlessly. “Boulder’s raiding that area pretty heavily now.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Marshall Duncan nodded.

“Well, gentlemen, I think we’re done.” Whit looked at the map. “We just divvyed up forty thousand acres between the two towns.”

“Like a bunch of Conquistadors,” Miles muttered.

“And now our communities both have to plant, harvest, and defend it.” Marshall Duncan let loose a tight grim smile. “Shall we get busy?”

❀ ❁ ❀

6

— Plowshares —

Lyons, Colorado — Three days later.

Sam dropped the lead ropes of the two Morgan horses, stretched and rubbed his aching back. The sun was already gone behind Indian Head. He and Stanto Abbaku had been working in Apple Valley with Rina Durungian and her horses since sunrise.

“One more field plowed,” Stanto said in satisfaction, tying the reins to a gatepost. “That is thirty hectares today! How much is that in your American acres?” He began slapping his clothes to get the fine dust off, the inevitable consequences of following a plow.

Sam thought for a moment. “Seventy-five or so,” he answered, peeling off his shirt and snapping it vigorously. He had taken his own turns with the triple-blade riding plow and was no cleaner than Stanto. “A bit less, I think. A good day’s work.” He put the slightly-less-dusty shirt back on and fetched a bucket of water for the horses.

Inwardly he remembered his uncle’s wheat farm in eastern Montana, where they plowed and planted more acres than that every hour. But without engines, this is the best we can do, he thought. Let’s hope it turns out to be enough.

Rina was following them a row and a half behind on the riding harrow, clucking to Samson. The big gelding was lagging, sweaty and tired from hauling the machine. Its disks merely had to break up the clods that the plow’s brute-force turned over, and it weighed a good deal less than the plow too, but his snorts had been sending the same message for the past hour or so. I’m working all alone here!

Missy, the female Morgan, ignored the gelding, but her mate, Master snorted back, a sort of equine equivalent of Sucks to be you, buddy!

Stanto rolled the plow’s two-wheeled road dolly over. Sam braced himself and levered up the left side of the heavy machine while Stanto pushed the dolly under, then hustled around and did the same on the right. The fittings dropped into the preset slots on the dolly with a reassuring clank. They had the bolts set and lashing ropes in place by the time Rina pulled up next to them. The dirt-encrusted blades of the plow now hung several inches above the fresh-turned earth.

“Whoa, Samson. Good boy!” She climbed off the machine, stretching her own aching muscles, and quickly unharnesed the gelding. Samson twitched all over with joy at finally shedding the heavy load. Rina tied him to the other gatepost and fetched water for him, too.

Sam and Stanto levered up the lighter frame of the harrow onto its attached travel wheels, raising the disks out of the earth. Then they wrestled its front end atop the plow. A little more lashing and they had an ungainly but stable train of machinery ready for Missy and Master to tow. Rina finished rubbing Samson down with an old sack and tied his lead rope onto the back of the harrow.

“There, boy, now you get to follow it for a while,” she told him, patting the horse affectionately.

Sam looked back over the field. A long row of people were plodding across it, each one with a sack slung over one shoulder and a sharpened piece of aluminum rod to use for a digging stick. Little cross pieces fastened above the points told them how deep to make the holes. They then dropped in a measured amount of the Town’s composted sewage, mixed liberally with rotted horse manure. The person behind the digger dropped in a seed potato, pushed the dirt around it with one foot, stepped on it with the other to tamp it down, Both stepped forward a pre-measured distance and repeated the process. Bit by bit, they were planting the thirty tons of seed potatoes Sam and Burt had salvaged from the plains farms. There looked to be just enough land in this last field to handle the final ton.

Not enough able bodies, Sam worried. There’s still most of the barley to plant, and later the winter wheat to harvest. We’re pushing people too hard — but we’ve got no choice.

The canyon floor was entirely in shadow from the setting sun. Stanto and Sam took the lead ropes on the two Morgans and lead them out onto the cracked pavement of Apple Valley Road. They thundered over the arched bridge and turned right onto Highway 36, headed back to town with the plow and harrow squeaking behind. Rina walked along beside Missy, tired and quiet, while Stanto whistled a little tune over and over to himself. Occasionally he mumbled snatches of Armenian, enough that Sam figured the tune for some old-country ballad. Other than that, the three of them maintained a companionable silence bred from three days of exhausting labor.

Passing through Lyons, Sam noticed the progress of the garden project. There was scarcely a lawn left in the town, virtually all had been dug up and planted to anything that could be eaten.

Laura Munzer’s mother passed them heading the other way toward the school, her garden cart piled high with wild foods — mostly greens, as the stream banks and ditches were crowded with spring life.

“Sam!” She hailed him, lifting something greenish-brownish-white out of the cart. “Ever had cattail hearts before?” She had at least two burlap sacks of the stuff, dripping water out of the cart.

“No ma’am, but I’d guess I will tonight,” he answered politely. With store vegetables long gone or jealously hoarded against emergency, the whole town had been discovering new adventures in salad ingredients. Nobody had managed to poison themselves, so far…

“Little vinegar, some salt and pepper, you’ll love it!” she promised, grinning.

Given the alternative — “I surely will, Ma’am,” Sam told her. Got to taste better than tree bark, or pine needles, or whatever else the Indians used to eat around here.

“Baby dock leaves tomorrow!” she added cheerfully. “There’s a whole field of them by the cement plant!”

Sam managed not to wince. Laura had told him that dock was more bitter than kale or Brussels sprouts, which ranked pretty low on Sam’s personal preference list. He saluted her mother respectfully and kept on walking. It beats hunger, he told himself.

They trundled the plow and harrow down to Burt’s big equipment shed. Sevan had winched the dead tractor out and parked it where it could be disemboweled at leisure. Rina persuaded the Morgans to back the harrow up to the entry, where Sevan, Stanto, and Sam unhooked it and the plow. The three men literally manhandled both machines inside to be cleaned and sharpened. Rina rubbed the Morgans down, then got all three horses settled with fresh water and feed in the paddock that they’d made out of the smaller of the two fenced cherry orchards. She came back by the shed when she had finished. The long canyon twilight had set in. Sam had almost all of the mud scrubbed off the harrow and the two Armenians were just done sharpening the plow blades.

“Have you seen Burt come by?” she asked them.

Sevan grunted. “He is at the house with three of the farmers from east of the Wall. They have been planning the week’s plowing and planting with the men who run the irri-gation waters.” He made two words out of the term.

“Thanks!” Rina brightened and strode quickly toward the house.

Sevan muttered something in Armenian, squinted at the final plowshare and touched it up a little with a sharpening-stone.

Stanto chuckled as he honed a dented harrow disk. “And why wouldn’t she prefer the landowner? She is still young enough to bear him children, too.”

Sevan made a theatrical shrug, as if letting something go.

His brother laughed openly. “You should go back to chasing the nurse, Karen. She has better hips, is almost your age, and a healer besides!”

Sevan started to say something in Armenian, switched to English. “That one cannot even see me until she is done wrestling whatever demon haunts her. I will have to wait for her, and I’m as tired of sharing a bed with my son as he is of me!”

He shrugged again, openly frustrated this time, and both Stanto and Sam laughed at him. Sevan mock-glared at both of them. “Ah, the cold hearts of married men — no pity for the lone rooster without a hen!”

“There’s always the widow Thorpe next door,” Sam teased the younger brother. “She owns her house and land, too.”

Stanto made suggestive hand motions outlining a very ample female shape. “Every man must find his own field to plow,” he jibed.

“Ayy! That would be like marrying my own mother!” Sevan shuddered. “Worse — at least Mother sometimes stops talking!”

Sam finished scrubbing dirt off the last disk and tossed the heavy brush onto a bench. “Speaking of that, this rooster’s going to talk to his father-in-law and find out just what we’re supposed to plow tomorrow. I’ll see you two at supper.”

Stanto gave him a thumbs-up as he left, and Sevan another grunt-and-nod.

From the shop a path led across the big back yard to the rear porch of the Santini house. Half of the yard had been fenced off for a chicken pen, though most of Rina Durungian’s flock was kept in the large cherry orchard. There twelve-foot-tall woven-wire fences kept out foxes and coyotes as well as browsing deer. Here the available wire was much shorter, so Sevan had rigged four coops out of a row of small sheds. They all had doors that could be closed at night to keep out beasts hungry for chicken meat. Esmera, Yelena, and Jenny were shooing the chickens into their coops for the night, and scouring the grass and bushes for any eggs deposited since morning. A couple dozen of the hens had turned broody and hatched out clusters of chicks. Little balls of white and yellow fluff wandered around in peeping confusion.

“Daddy! Look at this one!” Jenny called to him through the fence where she knelt in the dirt with chicks all around her. “Isn’t he cute? I’m going to call him Sunny.” She cuddled the brightest-yellow fluff-ball to her heart and petted it.

“Better to name it “Dinner,” Esmera gently chided her, winkeling another egg out from under a sprouting peony bush.

“Esmera’s right, honey,” Sam told her, squatting and peering through the wire mesh. “They’re not pets; they’re food. You like chicken soup and roast chicken as much as the rest of us — these birds are what it comes from.”

“I’ll be glad to eat this one,” Yelena called, swatting an aggressive red rooster with a twig. “He pecks at me every time! Go on, you! Get inside your coop!”

Jenny considered this information carefully, made a face. “Okay, Daddy.” She petted the chick a couple more times and then turned it loose. She joined Yelena at the herding, happily swinging a stick at recalcitrant hens and roosters that didn’t want to go indoors for the night, and gently sweeping tides of chicks toward the open doors.

“Mister Hyatt, will you take these eggs to Grandma?” Esmera asked, passing him the basket. “She is readying the evening batch for the school kitchen, and it is almost time to deliver them.”

“Gladly, Esmera.” Sam took it and hurried to the house, leaving his muddy boots in the enclosed back porch with numerous other pairs. The only way to keep a farmhouse clean inside without vacuum cleaners turned out to be everybody having two different pairs of shoes, one for indoors and one for out.

In the kitchen Grandma Abbaku was busily counting eggs into a long row of cartons on the kitchen table. She seized the basket from his hands. “Good! This is just enough to fill that last one. Forty dozen eggs exactly, and another forty already packed.” Marta was already starting to pack the cartons into a big cardboard box that had been padded with shredded plastic and pasteboard boxes. Sam helped her, then carried the heavy box out to the front porch where a garden cart waited. It already had a box twin to the one he carried.

Mary came striding over from Maybell Thorpe’s place bearing two smaller boxes. “Here’s another twenty-four dozen.”

“Forty and forty and twenty-four — that’s only a hundred-four dozens, and Mrs. Hyatt asked for a hundred-ten,” Marta reported doubtfully.

“Well, this is what we’ve got, and we’re late already,” Mary argued prosaically. “Here she comes now — I’m betting she’d rather have most of what she wants, than nothing.”

Ellie pushed through the front gate and came walking down the sidewalk toward Sam and the girls. Something about the pensive way she stared into space disturbed him. The girls accosted her with the egg shortage news. Ellie shrugged, agreed that it would do, and Mary and Marta hustled off with their cargo. When she came up the steps onto the porch, Sam gathered her into a hug.

“Something wrong, love?” he asked.

“Mayor Grasso came to see me a little while ago,” she explained into his dirty collar. “Said he was concerned about ‘how much of a burden’ I’m carrying, and how the medical part of my duties were more important, so he had assigned my food-management duties to another volunteer.”

Sam tensed slightly. “Do you like that idea? Or is he forcing something on you that you don’t want?”

“A little of both,” Ellie admitted, squeezing him and then releasing. “Maybe it’s the volunteer he chose that upsets me.”

“So, who is it?”

“Sarah Withers.” Ellie made a wry face. “The whiner-in-chief, now running the food supply. Grasso made me give up my key to the store-rooms right then and there, too.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Sam muttered.

“Me neither, but…” Ellie hesitated. “Maybe I’m being unfair. She did all right working at the Armory, Starry said. Maybe she’ll do all right running the storerooms. As long as she sticks to the dietary regime Elaine devised, we should have enough food to get through to harvest.”

“Let’s hope so,” Sam said grimly.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie didn’t tell her dad until dinnertime, when the extended family assembled around the now-stretched dining table — kids in the kitchen, of course.

Burt hit the roof.

“That snake!” he stormed. “How could I have been such an idiot, to have voted for him? I must have lost my mind!”

He pounded a fist on the dining table, making plates rattle and the candle flames waver. Esmera paused in her serving — beef and barley soup, a change from the usual chicken and barley soup. Apparently none of the birds had died today.

“Easy, Dad,” Ellie cautioned, as Rina put a hand on Burt’s elbow.

Sam, remembering the afternoon conversation and catching the resigned expression on Sevan’s face, had to fight down a definitely inappropriate smile. He hid it by forking up a mouthful of the cattail-heart-slaw that Grandma Abbaku had made out of Mrs. Munzer’s gift.

“I could use more time in the clinic,” Ellie continued. “All of us are run pretty ragged, with all the injuries from planting. A lot of people weren’t ready for the heavy work they’ve been doing.”

“I’ll say,” Karen chimed in.

“That’s not the point, Ellie,” Burt grumbled, clenching his hands on the table. “This is the same kind of divide-and-conquer thing that Grasso tried to do the last time he was on the Board. I’d hoped he learned something from that fiasco! But looks like he didn’t. And now he’s Mayor, too. If the past is any guide, he’ll try to shift control of everything into the hands of his cronies, and then basics will start being handed out as treats to keep his followers sweet. And if you’re not one of them — well, given how stressed we all are, it could get hard. Gah!”

He shoveled in a mouthful of slaw and chewed furiously.

The rest of the table picked up their meals again, but quietly. Stanto said something softly to Grandma in Armenian and she replied.

Sam looked at the young men and women at the long table. Tim, Jesus, grim-faced Jerry, Mike, Pat, Kate, Darrin, Giorgi and more, all of them tested warriors now. And himself not the least of them.

They were all looking back at him.

He picked up his fork again. “We’ll see what happens, Burt.” He tried to put calm certainty into the words. “We’ll just have to see.”

It was a while before normal conversation resumed, in the flickering candlelight.

❀ ❁ ❀

7

— Swords —

East of Lyons, Colorado; morning of the sixth day after the war, mid-May, 1998.

The Marshall and Will Yohansen were busy dealing with a Greenie clerk at the Gate when Sam arrived with Stanto, Rina, and the plowing crew early in the morning.

“We’ve filled all the lawns you allocated us for burying our dead,” the Greenie clerk was saying, standing firmly in front of the half-open Gate. “But I’ve still got more than thirty bodies left. Can we have a couple front yards on the north side of the road?” He showed a map to the Town officials.

Marshall Duncan frowned. “That little rise has a good view, so I’m planning to put a guard post into one of those abandoned houses. I’d rather not have a cemetery in the front yard.”

“I think the Town would prefer you keep them all together anyway,” Yohansen answered doubtfully. “How about using the backyards too?”

“We already did that — I’ve allocated every foot of ground between the water plant and Cement Plant Road, right down to that ten-foot setback Mister Santini demanded along the riverbank.” The clerk waved a hand-drawn sketch of the new cemetery, pushed back his hat and scratched his head reflectively. “How about I use that vacant patch right east across Cement Plant Road instead, next to the conveyor and the railroad spur? It’s too small to plow, but big enough for maybe forty graves. That’ll keep our dead all on the same side of the highway, anyway.”

Will Yohansen glanced at Marshall Duncan, who nodded slowly. “That would work. Can you throw in some more salt as part of the deal? Say another four of those fifty-pound sacks?”

“Sure. We got a couple hundred tons out of that train that stalled on the south side of town. Okay, I make that field about an acre and a half, in exchange for two hundred pounds of salt.” They shook hands on the swap ceremonially. “Now, about the bodies — I’m still short five men.”

“Are you sure they didn’t just desert?” Marshall Duncan asked him bluntly. “That happens in a battle.”

“No!” answered the clerk in exasperation. “I already identified the probable deserters and we’ve taken them off the list. These five are known to have been killed in the battle before the Wall, their officers reported it.”

“Look, I haven’t got an answer for you,” Duncan patiently answered. “We already gave you all the ones that got over the Wall, and we sure wouldn’t want to keep any. We’ve had a hard enough time burying our own dead.”

Whit Yohansen interceded. “Maybe their friends and families took them back to Longmont.”

“Maybe,” the Greenie clerk grumbled. “How can I keep the paperwork straight if people go around doing things like that without telling me?” He stumped away, shaking his head and paging through his papers one more time.

Marshall Duncan shook his own head, refrained from further comment. Whit Yohansen shrugged wryly, nodded greetings to Sam and his crew, and went off to arrange a pick-up for the salt.

“At least the peace seems to be holding,” Sam remarked. “Did my grain crew get off all right this morning?”

“Yup. Tim, Jerry, Drew, and Fred, all on bikes, with Frank and Rachel driving the wagons.” Duncan jerked a thumb east toward Longmont. “Hopefully they’ll get six or seven more tons of barley from the Coors elevator today. So far as I can tell, Longmont is being completely straight about honoring the treaty.”

“About time we had some good news.” Sam shaded his eyes as he gazed up at the sky and the familiar floating hang-glider. “Look’s like Laura’s running a last aerial scout before she comes down to town.”

“Looks like,” Duncan agreed. “I dispatched a substitute garrison to Red Hill Pass first thing this morning, they should have got there an hour ago. She must have taken the time for a bit of fun after being relieved and before coming back to town.” His smile said that he didn’t begrudge it.

“Have a boring day, Marshall,” Sam told him, grinning.

“You too, Captain Hyatt.”

The Gate groaned all the way open. Sam checked his katana and warizaki, adjusted his bow and quiver, and then led the Morgans through. The plow and harrow creaked along behind the big horses. Rina had her mare Sunny on a lead rope, towing a garden cart loaded with seed barley and digging sticks — and a crossbow and bolt quiver. Stanto lead Samson pulling another cart similarly loaded, his own crossbow and his spear riding in it. A long line of townsfolk followed, ready to plant the field that Sam’s crew had plowed yesterday. Every third one carried a crossbow and quiver, too, and all but Rina Durungian had armor and helmets. All the men and several of the women had knives, swords, or both. Mike and Pat were the tallest among them, with Liss and Giorgi the youngest. Sam wasn’t willing to take anyone outside the Wall who couldn’t fight, not until he was iron-sure of the peace. He only excepted Rina because they needed her for her horses.

They plodded past the water plants and the former row of houses beyond, which once had been filled with elderly retirees. All were vacant now, those on the south side reduced to burned-out heaps of ash and rubble. Neat rows of graves covered the yards right up to the foundations and cellar-holes, with Longmont gravediggers still filling in the last rows along Cement Plant Road. The Longmonters paused in their work as Sam’s crew turned the corner and headed south, both groups watching their recent enemies warily. Sam saluted the Longmonters and after a moment’s hesitation one returned the gesture.

Someday that’ll just be a memorial park, like the one in town to the Civil War dead, Sam thought. Our grandkids will play there along the riverbank. He found comfort in the idea.

The Gatherers marched across a concrete bridge over the snowmelt-swollen Saint Vrain and then through the forested slough beyond it. Sam swung the horses into a wide left turn under the elevated conveyor that had carried limestone from mine to mill. They clattered over the railroad spur and through an open gate into a big field. Yesterday’s harrowed soil had settled a little; you didn’t want to plant barley into soil that was too loose. The garden carts stopped there and the planters gathered around them. Stanto and Rina followed Sam east along the riverbank to the next field, already sprouting green weeds in the spring warmth.

The three of them had a rhythm going now, they got the plow and harrow set up and ready in minutes. Sam took first lead on the Morgans, guiding them straight and true; it was a little harder work in his armor, and sweatier too. Before he and Stanto finished their first circuit of the field, Rina had Samson and Sunny following with the harrow. The sun climbed toward noon as the horses made their monotonous circuits, gradually reducing the field to harrowed rows. When it was his turn to ride on the plow, Sam gratefully rested and craned his neck to take in the view.

North the Saint Vrain roared in its rocky bed, spring-high and foaming. The land across the river sprawled gradually upward toward Rabbit Mountain on the northeast and Indian Ridge on the west, a huge bowl that the locals called Dowe Flats. It centered on the gaping pit of the limestone mine that had fed the cement plant, with lacy curves of new-green cottonwood trees marking the routes of the four canals. He could see the plumes of dust thrown up by the town’s other plowing teams at work there, doll-tiny at this distance.

East, the Saint Vrain valley widened toward the distant gray smear of Longmont. The sugar mill towers stuck up beyond it, white-painted concrete now blackened by soot, with a few surviving church steeples scattered through the grayness. There was relatively little smoke now, and most of that from chimneys instead of burning ruins. Distantly he could see a few low-hanging clouds of dust like the one his plow was throwing up.

The new Baron’s got his people out planting too, Sam thought. Should I wish the Longmonters well, after they killed Terry, Cindy and Art? That’s hard to do. He remembered Blackbeard’s horde pouring through the forest, surging toward the log barrier with desperate eyes and clumsy weapons. His arms ached in memory of the epic slaughter, stabbing half-armored club wielders that barely knew which end of their weapon to swing. All that saved us was having better weapons and armor, and fighting defensively. Otherwise we’d all have died there. I don’t want to fight them again, please God, and that’ll surely happen if they can’t grow enough to feed themselves. He said a devout prayer for a good planting and a good harvest for both cities.

He was glad to turn at the end of the field and put Longmont behind him for a while.

South, the land rumpled up out of the Saint Vrain valley in layered plains and plateaus. These climbed higher and higher till they ran up against the steep feet of Red Mountain. The gray ribbon of Foothills Highway wandered along the toes of the mountain, dodging in and out of view. Sam remembered plodding along it through the snow, not two months ago now.

Lot of water down the river since then, he thought, and shook his head at that view, too. At least we’re not living in a cave, eating trapped rabbits and hoping we can catch a deer. We’ve hung onto civilization, we can plant and harvest and know our kids will have enough to eat next winter. That’s worth a whole bunch right there. If farming is the best route left to me, then I just want to be a farmer. A farmer who fights when he has to, but not a career soldier like the Marshall. Maybe someday we can have a school again, and I could go back to teaching, but right now I just want some peace.

West the cement plant towered, an angular mechanical jumble spilled like the toys of a cyclopean child. Beyond it he could see the straight line of the Wall, and hidden behind that lay Lyons in its canyon. Red Mountain and Indian Mountain flanked the Wall and canyon protectively, like slumbering beasts awaiting some fairy-tale wizard to awaken them.

Laura’s hang-glider was gone.

Sam wondered if she’d made it back to her mother’s house for a well-deserved rest. He felt a little guilty for leaving her posted on the Pass for her third overnight in the last five days, but he had the most confidence in her as an independent leader — and she cheerfully admitted utter ignorance of anything to do with horses or agriculture.

Good thing we can each play to our own strengths, he thought, smiling.

A warm breeze ruffled his hair, gentle as a lover’s caress and ripe with the scent of green growing things. Blackbirds caroled from the cattails lining the riverbank, staking out territory and flashing their red mating patches. Mourning doves cooed on sagging barbed-wire fences, flew out to peck at uncovered bounty after the plow and harrow passed by. A gray thunderbolt stooped on one of them, missed, and the hawk climbed back into the sky with a frustrated shriek as the prey scattered. The warm spring morning and bright sun warmed his winter-chilled bones. Little by little the rhythm of the plowing crept over him and he sank into the Zen of the work, just ‘being’ as his consciousness flowed outwards into soil and air, water and sweating creatures. He wove it all together as if on a hunt, but without the edgy need to find and fetch meat. Just enjoying the luxury of time to watch and listen.

When lunchtime arrived Sam, Stanto and Rina joined the planting crew for the meal. The town kitchen had sent out rough sandwiches, flatbreads rolled around egg-and-diced-chicken salad liberally laced with spring greens like lambs-quarters, watercress, and dandelion leaf. There was a good bit of shredded cattail-heart drizzled with vinegar and mustard, and a couple mouthfuls of pickled vegetables per person. Two five-gallon coolers of mint tea washed down the meal. They shared everything out companionably enough, but nobody was quite satisfied when they finished eating.

“I liked Missus Hyatt’s lunches better,” Pat remarked wistfully, licking the inside-out plastic baggie before turning it in to the day’s designated collector for re-use.

His older brother nodded, looked like he wanted to say something more but thought better of it. Instead he began re-lacing the armor that he’d loosened while they sat for lunch. Big as he was, the armor was now a little oversized for him. Mike had lost weight even as he built up muscle with the constant work.

And so have I, and all the rest of the men, Sam reflected. Not enough calories for the work we’re doing, and our body-fat already burned away.

“We’ve got to stretch the food out,” he remarked to the air. “Better to be a little hungry now, than be really starving in July.”

Heavy sighs greeted that obvious bit of news.

“Time to get back to work,” Sam added ruthlessly, and the sighs turned to groans.

“Hey, someone’s coming,” Liss remarked. Several hands automatically reached for weapons before she added “Someone from town. Isn’t that Laura Munzer?”

It was, and she was armed and running, an easy lope that speeded up to a sprint as she approached. The expression on her face made Sam check his swords again. She puffed up to Sam, not badly winded by a three-mile run from town, paused for two breaths before exploding with “Sensei — Mom’s missing!”

Sam overrode the immediate babble of voices. “Quiet, everybody, let her talk.”

“I got back home from duty at the pass, found a note that said she’d gone out to collect more bugfood,” Laura panted. “Only, a couple hours ago I learned that she’d left it yesterday morning! Neighbor said she hadn’t come home last night. I talked to the kitchen and they hadn’t seen her. She didn’t bring in any greens yesterday, either. I looked along the stream-banks in town but the Garage guys said she’d collected her usual garden cart yesterday morning and never brought it back. She’s been out all night, without even a blanket! Sensei, she could be hurt or trapped somewhere — we’ve got to find her!”

“Did anyone say where she went yesterday?” Sam asked Laura. “Was she after anything in particular — wait.”

Sam racked his memory. He’d crossed paths with Mrs. Munzer the evening before last, returning from Apple Valley with the plow and harrow. She’d said she was going to pick something tomorrow-that-was-now-yesterday…

“Spring Dock,” Stanto repeated. “She said she would pick spring dock out here by the cement plant. What is this spring dock? It sounds like a place for a ship, not a plant that can be eaten.”

“This,” one of the women said, pointing to a weed at the edge of the field. “There’s a lot more growing over south of the cement plant, in the field above the ditch there.” She pointed again.

Laura scampered for the field.

I don’t like this, Sam thought. Laura’s mother was healthy as a horse, and she claimed to know every ditch and tree within five miles of Lyons. Aloud: “Mike, Pat, Giorgi, bring your weapons and come with me. We’re going to do a little scouting around. Stanto, keep the planting going and watch out for trouble.”

He followed Laura, the three young men at his heels.

A line of young trees and underbrush grew in the shallow ditch edging the railroad spur where it bordered the cement plant property. The shiny green growths blocked their view of the fenced industrial site. Laura had already reached the south end of the plowed field and hurdled the fence that followed a small irrigation ditch. Sam and the boys crossed both obstacles and joined her. This field ran farther west than the one they were planting, butting up against the south entrance road to the cement plant. It was also a couple feet higher than theirs, and clumps of trees and bushes along the ditch obscured their view of the planting crew working only a dozen yards away.

Laura was carefully studying the new field, weedy with spring growth.

This must have been used for pasture, Sam thought, looking around with his trained hunter’s eyes; the new grass was thick but nothing had been eating it yet. They didn’t dare pasture animals east of the Wall.

After a moment she pointed at something.

“Curly dock plant, with most of the leaves pulled off. Mom always left enough to be sure the plant would grow back afterwards.” Laura tersely counted several more; one thick patch had small dirt piles where every second root had been harvested as well. “Mom was here.” She looked around, but the pasture was empty.

“She couldn’t have come the way we just did,” Sam pointed out. “She’d never get a cart across the ditch or through the fence.” He scanned the west edge and found a gate. “This way, Laura. Men, keep a watch around us; if she’s here, she’s probably down, maybe hurt and likely unconscious.”

“Yes Sensei,” three voices answered.

The gate hung about half open, wide enough to admit a garden cart. Sam and Laura found wheel-tracks entering and exiting again, with small footprints from wafflestomper boots. Laura’s attention riveted on those.

“Mom’s boots. I gave her those for Christmas last year.”

The tracks were harder to find on the packed gravel roadway, but there were enough patches of mud to show the way. She’d come through the cement plant grounds, the wheel ruts passed right through the gate.

Which was closed — and latched from the inside. The gate was a rigid welded-pipe frame that rode on grooved wheels mounted to the left of the opening. When open it slid back parallel to the fence, rather than swinging wide from a pivot post. It was solidly built and the latch placed where nobody outside could reach it, even if they had arms skinny enough to go through the chain link facing.

“Why did she close it after her?” Mike wondered aloud, looking through the wires. “Phew, this place is stinky. Must be all the damn vultures.”

“I… don’t think she did,” Sam answered quietly. He pointed at the mud inside. Two large footprints marked it, much bigger than Mrs. Munzer’s little prints. One lay partly over a wheel rut. “Someone came along later and closed it after her.”

Sam studied the towering buildings of the mill. Vultures perched atop the piping and ductwork, resting. They looked sleek and well fed. He raised his eyes to the big kiln, where a small dribble of steam leaked out the top.

Steam.

Waitaminute — it can’t still be hot from before the Change!

His mind was racing, adding up bits and pieces that he’d been disregarding, and the total sent a wave of nausea through his gut and right up to his back-brain. Oh no. Laura could lose control over this — unless I do the right thing.

“Lieutenant Munzer.” Sam faced her, willing her eyes to meet his own.

“Sam?” Laura finally tore her gaze away from searching the cement plant grounds, and met his. Her eyes widened at his grim demeanor.

“Are you still under my command?” Sam challenged her.

“Sir, yes sir!” She stiffened to attention, almost saluted as her eyes grew larger. “S-sir, what’s…” She paused, swallowed whatever words she’d been about to say.

“Line up with her, soldiers,” Sam ordered the men, and the three hastily fell into a row at Laura’s side. He looked them over. The men had their armor and helmets, swords and knives. Laura had her katana and warizaki, but no armor at all, just sweats, and she had sneakers on her feet. Nervous faces stared back at him, apprehension thicker than the stink in the air.

I know what that smell is now, he thought, sickened. And it’s not coming just from the birds.

“Remember the afternoon when we went to Longmont to rescue Mister Santini from the hospital?” Sam challenged the three men. “Chief Waters told us he’d turned away a gang of five cyclists from Boulder. We saw their wheel tracks in the snow on Ute Highway, they turned down Cement Plant Road. We never saw any other sign of them — until that day we came out here to fetch cement for the Wall.”

Pat nodded vigorously. “Yeah, I remember that! Miz Joyner saw some guy, um, sir.”

“Who we lost track of in the snow.” Sam jerked a thumb at the closed gate. “But we never tried to search the rest of the place. If we had, I think we’d have found him and his four buddies in the only place likely to still be warm — the kiln’s roaster. Next to it, rather, by the gas jets. And I’ll lay odds that they’re still there, nearly two months later.”

“B-bu-but sir, what would they want with m-my mother? Sir?” Laura asked, fighting the knowledge. “She liked to help people, but she would’ve come back home by now, if she could…”

“They only had whatever food they were packing on their bikes,” Sam pointed out implacably. “Maybe a couple weeks worth, with careful rationing. Then they had to find something else to eat, something that kept them away from Lyons. There were some elderly people in the houses north of the plant, retirees that nobody’s seen or heard from for weeks. And this morning I learned that five of the Greenies' war dead have just disappeared. I think we can guess what five strong young starving men have been eating. Then yesterday Mrs. Munzer comes trundling through the plant with a cart loaded with greens and roots, looking like she knows what she’s doing. She must have seemed a godsend to them.”

Laura choked, nearly broke formation. “My mother? They ate my mother!?”

“Hold your position, Lieutenant,” Sam ordered her. He paused for a moment to stare her down, until he was sure she had herself under control. Then he added flatly “Think it though. She knows how to choose wild foods, what’s safe to eat and what’s not, and she’s brought them a whole cartload of it. I doubt like hell that they’d eat her. She’s far more precious as a teacher or a slave. A food-finding slave. They probably captured her without trouble — she’s a sensible woman, she wouldn’t try to fight five men. They’ve likely been gorging themselves on dock-leaf and roots, and keeping her on hand to show them how to get more when that’s gone.”

“Cannibals,” Laura groaned. “Cannibals have my mother. Sir, please sir!” She trembled.

She’s ready to climb over the fence and bolt for the cement plant, swords out and hair on fire, Sam thought. He held up one hand.

“We are going to rescue her,” he stated with all the calmness he could muster. “But we’re not going to be stupid about it; do you all understand me? We’re going to do this carefully, we’re going to be as smart as we can, and we’re going to come back out alive and with our target the same. Got it?”

“Sir, yes sir!” They all barked.

“Good.” Sam fixed Giorgi with a hard stare. “Giorgi, run back to your uncle. Tell him to gather everybody up — planting’s over today. He’s to send Rina with the horses and the un-armored folks back to town with a message for the Marshall. Tell him that we’ve got unknown persons in the cement plant who may — emphasize may — be hostile. Then Stanto is to lead the rest of the crew, including you, in through the front gate and start searching the kiln building, slowly and carefully, until you find us.”

Sam made him repeat the message back, twice, before letting Giorgi go. The young Armenian ran like a deer despite his armor.

“Right.” Sam turned back to Laura. “You, over the gate and let the rest of us in. Go!”

Laura swarmed over the gate like a monkey. Mike checked Pat’s armor while she tugged the stiff latch open. In moments she had the gate unlatched and shoved back far enough for Sam, Pat and Mike to get through. Laura hadn’t waited, but had instantly turned to follow the tracks of the cart. She was a hundred feet down the road, loping along, when she stopped and beckoned.

She pointed at the muddy road as Sam caught up to her. “Mom stopped here, see the way the footprints turn? And there — that’s at least three different boot-marks. They came out from behind that wall and closed on her — not too fast, but she must have seen that she couldn’t outrun them. Then she turned the cart and they all went that way.” She pointed at the kiln building, fifty feet away across a narrow graveled strip. Parallel ruts were plowed in the loose pea-gravel where the cart had passed.

They followed the trail to hard pavement in front of a big overhead door. It was shut, windowless, but had a steel man-door set in the concrete wall next to it. Everybody drew a weapon. Sam carefully tried the handle.

It opened.

He let the door swing outward, cautiously peering into the gloom, then slipped through with Laura on his heels and Pat and Mike on hers. They flattened themselves against the walls to either side while their eyes adjusted. Scents of old crankcase oil and machined metal pervaded the room, dominating all else.

Maintenance bay, Sam thought as the gloom resolved into angular shapes. The room was large but cluttered. Several unidentified chunks of machines lay on pallets or right on the concrete floor, some partly dismantled. The back wall held a long workbench, a stack of pallets, and various shelves and pegboards hung with this and that. A heavy track-hoist dangled from the ceiling. Something large and cryptic was parked on a shipping sled and wrapped in plastic. In the middle of the room a grimy pickup truck blazoned with the cement company logo sat parked.

Mrs. Munzer’s garden cart stood next to it.

Laura swiftly padded over, her sneakers nearly soundless on the concrete floor. Sam paused to shut the door behind them, reducing the light to what trickled in through two high dirty windows.

“Empty,” Laura whispered.

There were only two man-doors out of the room and they’d entered through one, so Sam pointed to the other. Laura padded over to it, pressed an ear against the metal and was still for a long couple minutes. Then she delicately tried the doorknob. It turned and the door sighed open to reveal a dark corridor. Sam put a hand on her elbow, pointed to the floor beyond. Small spatters of dried mud marked it.

“They carried her gleanings through here. Look for more mud,” he breathed quietly.

Laura, Pat and Mike nodded silently. The McCarthy boys checked to the left, Laura and Sam to the right. The mud spatters reappeared a dozen yards down the right-hand hallway, so Sam snapped his fingers once to draw the brothers back to him. They followed the hallway past several closed doors and around a corner. There it ended at an open stairwell with dim light filtering down it. There was more mud on the lower treads, and a single green leaf withering on the floor.

Sam jerked a thumb toward the ceiling. Laura slithered up the steps soundlessly, keeping to the outside of the metal treads. Sam did the same. Mike, bigger and heavier, had to step a little farther out, and the third step groaned slightly under his weight. They all froze.

Sam leaned close to Mike and breathed softly into his ear “Change the tempo of your steps, make it irregular. Regular sounds tip people off to movement, but buildings make irregular noises all the time, so those get ignored.” Mike nodded and passed the word on to Pat.

They went up two flights, three, folding back and forth, when the stairs ended at a door with a dirty window set in it. Laura peered through the window this way and that, finally opened the door into a larger space. A long pathway traversed the building, a steel floor with huge machines on either side. Intermittent windows high on the walls behind the machines let odd shafts of sunlight in, not so much illuminating the space as rendering it visually confusing. Dust lay everywhere and motes danced in the light, but tracks through the middle showed plenty of coming and going. The air was perceptibly warm, infused with the acrid bite of cement — and something rancid, like rotten meat.

Distantly they heard a voice, indistinct. A barely-audible monotone underlay it, at least two people talking.

Sam tapped Laura on the shoulder, pointed forward and to the right. He touched Mike and Pat and signaled left for them. They all glided forward as quietly as they could, moving irregularly and avoiding the lighted areas where dust motes danced. Occasionally the steel floor groaned a little beneath them and the whole group froze. But the vast concrete and steel building around them had its own slow chorus of groans and creaks, shadowed side warming and warmed side cooling as the sun crept past noon.

Something crackled under Pat’s foot. He froze, eased back, on the edge of one of the pools of light. Whatever it was lay just outside the light, in darkness. Pat prodded it gently with one foot, eased it into the light.

At first Sam thought it was some kind of big spider, then it snapped into focus.

It was a severed human hand. A small one, like that of a pre-teen boy or a small woman.

Pat pantomimed a retching motion, eased back into the darkness.

Somewhere ahead metal banged on metal, and a voice cried out in a hysterical shriek.

“I told you the truth! Look, see how I’ve been eating it myself? It’s a good vegetable, full of nourishment. But you can’t gorge on it like that, you’re making yourself sick!” A sharp smacking sound followed and the woman’s words trailed off in sobbing.

The voice was thin and feminine and familiar. Laura convulsively gripped her katana with both hands for a moment, trembling. Sam touched her elbow, restraining.

Not yet! he thought. We’ve got to learn more.

A low growling voice answered the woman, indistinct, and the sobbing sound changed as if she were nodding her head. A different male voice rose, challenging the first — Sam couldn’t quite pick out the words, the speaker had an odd accent. There was some sort of growling exchange, with a third male voice chiming in, then another sharp noise like a gunshot — or a hand slapping down on a metal surface. The argument stopped. The accented voice gave what could only be an order.

A moment later a door grated open across the far end of the open area, a hot red light shining through it. A tall man wearing badly fitting pants and a too-short jacket stamped through, making the floor ring, and dragged the door shut behind him. He didn’t look down the corridor to where Sam and the others waited, barely forty feet away and frozen in darkness, but stood there for a moment gnawing on something with a vague ‘so there!’ attitude about him. After an agonizingly long couple of minutes he finished and flung the thing in his hand aside, sent it bouncing down the steel floor towards Sam. It slid to a stop in one of the pools of light — a curved thing several inches long and about an inch wide.

Sam recognized it — a human rib, roasted so that the ends were burnt black. Nearly all the meat had been gnawed off. Laura let out a small mew of protest at the sight of it.

The eater didn’t even glance their way, just stamped straight across the hallway and opened another door. A shaft of light came through this, too, but it was diffuse sunlight that looked like it’d passed through a dirty window first. He leaned through the doorway, called inside while rubbing his gut as if it hurt.

“Josh! Get your cock out of the bitch and put your goddamn pants on, it’s your turn on watch!”

A fourth male voice, surly, answered “Fuck you, Dolph. I’ll go when I’m done. I haven’t even had lunch yet — gonna get me some more of this bitch’s dick-wad, if you pigs haven’t eaten all of him already.” The voice sank into a repetitive grunting.

“You can grab a rib on your way up; Bill saved you one. So go on, get up there and relieve Style.” There was a pause while the grunting continued. “I mean it, asshole! Arnie’s pissed off at both of us and I’m feeling pissed on, so move your fucking ass up and outta here!” He pushed through the door and it shut behind him, muting the conversation, which continued acrimonious.

In his own mind Sam abruptly reclassified the men ahead of him.

You two — you need to die, he thought. You and your cannibal buddies. I thought about trying to take you all prisoner, but it’s too dangerous and we’d just have to hang you later once people learned what you’ve done.

The decision firmed up in his mind with the kind of rightness that he’d felt when he’d shot Blackbeard at the pass.

Okay, that’s four accounted for. Where’s the fifth, this Style? On watch somewhere above us? If so, did he see us come in? Probably not, or he’d likely have been back here by now to alert the rest of them. So, four here, now, and split between two rooms at that. It doesn’t look likely to get any better.

Sam signaled to Pat and Mike, pointed to the door behind which Josh and Dolph still argued, indicated flanking it one on each side. Then he caught Laura’s attention, pointed to the other door and the both of them.

“Take ‘em down, hard and fast, on my signal,” he whispered. “Nothing fancy. Just kill them.”

The three of them grinned fiercely back at him.

They moved forward quietly, took up their posts. Dolph and Josh’s argument seemed to be ending, Sam caught something about ‘sloppy seconds.’

Time to move. He held up three fingers, folded them down one, two, three, and Laura twisted the doorknob. They slammed through the door together, into burning red light and horror.

The bottom end of the cement roaster dominated the room, a huge cylinder tilted up around forty degrees off the horizontal and extending through the ceiling. A giant cogwheel encircled its lower end, resting in a driver cradle with two other huge cogs flanking it. A big cowling had been folded back, exposing the interior. Two giant gas jets flamed, their gasses blasting up the inside of the cylinder. Hanging over them on a hoist-hook was a roasting hunk of meat — it took Sam half a second to identify it as a human leg, bent at the knee over the hook. Sizzling fat dripped down into the flame, giving off a hideously appetizing odor. The room was balmy warm, buzzing with flies and had an unbelievable stench.

Sam wrenched his horrified attention away. The men, where are the men!

Laura was already moving. Someone shouted, the commanding voice he’d heard earlier. Sam glided to the left toward a moving shadow — another tall guy, looked to be a little younger than Sam but with several week’s growth of beard, matted and greasy. The cannibal hefted a long piece of metal that glinted in the firelight, lunged at him.

Sam’s katana flickered, knocked the weapon aside and its barbed point clove air a few inches past his shoulder. He glided inside the weapon’s range. The former biker was good, he instantly pivoted the spear and tried to use it like a quarterstaff, lunging again with the crossed bar. Sam ran the katana just under the pole and speared the cannibal through his own navel. The man’s lunge checked and he doubled forward, smacking Sam’s arm painfully with the rod just above his gloved fist. Sam whisked the blade back out, around, and slashed the cannibal’s neck. The man let out a horrified squeal and collapsed at Sam’s feet, carotid blood gushing blackly in the firelight. Sam leaped over him and darted toward Laura.

Her target had a long spike of steel, not a spear but some kind of crude two-handed bastard sword made out of something that glittered redly in the firelight. He knew how to use it too, slashing the air in figure-eight’s that denied Laura the opportunity to pit her greater speed against his greater strength. She danced around the edge of his range, probing, her blade a flickering blur. Sam stayed left, forcing the man to split his attention. The cannibal skipped back a pace, then two, trying to prevent them from flanking him. Sam probed with his own blade and the man skipped back again, fetching up against one of the gleaming drive rods for the big cogwheels. He slid right, out of the firelight, and Laura found herself blocked by an equipment cabinet. She shifted left to come in behind Sam. The cannibal grabbed his opportunity to duck around a big motor into the dimness under the cylinder. Sam pressed him close, feeling for footing in the darkness. Alarm shrilled inside — he’s trying to lead me into terrain that he can use against me!

But the cannibal was too quick. Sam had to let him open distance rather than chance a lunge where he couldn’t see his footing. The man spun, leaped, and slammed out of the room through a door beyond the cylinder. No!

Behind him Mike and Pat surged through the entry. “Two down, Sensei!” Pat yelled, blood glinting darkly on his sword.

“Watch for the fifth one!” Sam bellowed and ran after the escapee.

Laura fell back, calling “Mom?!”

The passage was long, stretching due north below the kiln to service the tower that supported its upper end. Sam could see his opponent running down the hallway, boots slapping the steel floor. He raced to keep up. If he could catch him, or at least stay close enough that the man didn’t have time to stop, turn, and face him, Sam might be able to cut him down from behind. The steel floor shook as they pounded down it, dirty Plexiglas windows letting in bits of light to confuse the darkness. The cannibal burst out the far end into a wider space, with Sam almost close enough to have severed his hamstrings. The man jinked right, left, left, and around a corner, opening just enough room to spin and face Sam again. The bastard sword moved in figure-eights again, blocking any quick thrusts. The man had his back to a stairwell, a wall on either side, and a little bit longer reach than Sam.

He grinned. “Ain’t got me yet, copper,” he boasted in an odd accent, and waited, sword in constant motion.

Repetitive motion, Sam thought, keeping his own blade moving too. That’s a weakness. He drew the warizaki, more for the balancing factor than any virtue in the short blade — it would be barely possible to parry that bastard sword with it. But the combination changed the balance of his own movements, and in ways that were intimately familiar to him, but hopefully not to his opponent.

Sam drifted back and forth at the edge of the other’s range, probing. The cannibal refused to be baited, only blocking. He’s waiting for something, Sam thought. No — somebody! He heard footsteps clattering down the stairs. The cannibal, hearing them too, grinned — even in the dimness his teeth were hideous. His sword had fallen into a rhythm with Sam’s, a rhythm that could be broken thus

Sam thrust, catching the bastard sword on the warizaki just as it started a movement away from him. The cannibal was strong, but the heavy sword had its own logic of motion and for an instant too long its mass fought the wielder. Then the katana was past and sinking into the cannibal’s nearer forearm. The man flinched aside as Sam’s sword ripped through his arm and grated along ribs. His muscles surged as he fought to bring the bastard sword back to chop off Sam’s left arm, but Sam pushed deeper inside the cannibal’s range. The warizaki screeched down the metal edge of the bastard sword, bounced off the hand guard and slashed into the cannibal’s belly just under the diaphragm. Sam reversed the katana, punching at the cannibal’s face even as he ripped the warizaki upward.

Teeth crunched and broke against the pommel of the katana. Fluids gushed from the cannibal’s sundered gut. The man jabbed at Sam with his maimed arm, splattering Sam with blood and narrowly missing his jaw. Sam shoved back and the cannibal’s heels fetched up against the bottom step. Balance lost, he fell backwards, still trying to batter Sam with the bastard sword. Sam took the blow on his armored limb, swept the katana’s point forward again and slashed open the cannibal’s throat.

The man collapsed on the stairs, sprattling, just as his last companion thundered around the corner. A wiry athlete no taller than Sam and decked in expensive designer sweat-pants and shirt, the one the others must have called Style checked his headlong motion. He stared at Sam’s blood-flecked face and dripping blades. His eyes bugged out a little and he gabbled like a chicken.

“Surrender, Style,’ Sam panted at him, hearing Mike’s heavy footsteps rushing into the room behind him. “Cause if I have to chase you up those stairs, I’m really going to be mad when I catch you. And you don’t want to meet me when I’m really mad.”

The cannibal gulped and raised his arms over his head.

Sam made Style drag his comrade’s body back to the roasting room. It left a streaky trail of blood down the long corridor.

“Juicy pig, wasn’t he?” Mike remarked callously. “Wonder if this one’s the same?” He grinned unpleasantly at Style’s terrorized face.

Sam stared coldly at the man. “You ate like the rest, didn’t you?” Silence stretched. Sam twitched the katana. “Didn’t you?!”

“I did,” Style admitted, and hung his head in shame. “We were hungry, and we found one of the old folks frozen in the snow. Arnie said he wasn’t using his body any more, so we might as well get some use out of it. Then there was this old bag nosing around looking for a lost goat, she saw us and Josh knocked her over when she tried to run, broke her neck. So we ate her too. Then there were others, in the houses, and we captured that fam-“ He shut his mouth suddenly, belatedly aware that he wasn’t winning any sympathy points.

Mike prodded him in disgust. “Move!”

Back in the roasting room Laura was sitting beside her mother while the older woman clutched her and sobbed, weeping out the fear and horror of the last twenty-four hours. Pat oscillated back and forth between them and the open door, bloody weapons unsheathed. The younger McCarthy looked like he was trying not to breathe in the foul air.

“Drop him next to your dead buddy,” Sam ordered Style. “Then lay belly-down on the floor next to them. Arms and legs out, right, like that. Don’t move. Mike, watch him and if he tries to bolt, kill him.”

“Yes sir, Sensei,” Mike grinned, and took up a position just out of Style’s reach, where one lunge could put his sword into the cannibal watchman’s ribs.

There were thundering footsteps in the hallway outside as Stanto and the others arrived. Sam overrode the babble of voices.

“Stanto, get a couple of your guys to work shutting off that gas,” Sam gestured to the flaming jets. “Then take down that — that leg. Laura, get your mother out of here, take her downstairs to the maintenance bay and open the doors. Let’s get some air moving through this place.”

He looked around the gloomy room, picking up details he hadn’t noticed in his earlier adrenaline-fueled rush. There was a big tool bench over in a shadowy corner with something indistinct on it. His stomach heaved when he realized it was the butchered remnants of a man, torso dismantled down to the spine and one leg severed at the hip. The head perched on a shelf next to several others, most of them adult-sized; two were smaller. All of the facial features were mercifully indistinct.

Five more naked male bodies were stacked in a corner next to the bench.

At least I can tell that Greenie clerk exactly where his missing dead went, Sam thought morbidly.

“Sensei, there’s a woman in the room across the hall,” Pat told him diffidently. “I think maybe you should see her.”

Sam followed Pat out to the hallway, where Stanto’s men eddied in confusion and horror. Pat pushed through them and opened the other door. Two bodies that must be Josh and Dolph lay on either side of it. Sam stepped over one and through the open doorway.

The room beyond had been some kind of store room, tall shelf units covered two walls. High dirty windows let in slanting beams of sunlight — this side of the building must face west. Somebody had pulled together cardboard and old tarps and miscellaneous bits of clothes to make a kind of nest in the middle of the floor. Some of the fabric was still visibly green amidst the general dirt and squalor. Sam realized with a start that those were Longmont uniforms, almost certainly stripped from the dead soldiers in the roasting room.

A huddled human form crouched in the middle, wrapped in rags and with dirty emaciated hands covering her face. Small racking sobs issued from her as she slowly rocked back and forth, almost hypnotically. Sam pulled his gaze away for a moment, looked around the room. The place reeked of fear and sweat and human excrement; he noticed a five-gallon paint bucket set up in a corner as a makeshift privy. A steel pail in the opposite corner held water.

Sam knelt at the edge of the nest, within arms length of the weeping woman. He saw that she had a chain crudely fastened to one stick-like leg, its opposite end looped around a shelf-stanchion. The skin under the chain had been rubbed raw and crusted with dried blood.

“Ma’am?” he said softly. “You’re safe now, Ma’am, they’re all dead or captured. We won’t let them hurt you any more. Ma’am?”

The dirty hands finally came away from the skinny, starved face.

“They ate my boys,” moaned Mrs. Grayson. “They ate my husband and my boys.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Several of the planting crew had lost their meager lunches in the charnel house, so Sam sent them outside to dig the grave. There’d been plenty of shovels in the maintenance bay. Five of the collected heads had evidently belonged to elderly residents of the nearby houses, abducted by the cannibals while Sam had been gathering in farmers. Three more were Grayson and his sons. All of the skulls had been chopped open in back and the brains removed, before being added to the macabre trophy shelf. A scatter of bones and two more skulls were found on the roof of the cement plant, where the cannibals had evidently dumped at least some of their refuse. The vultures had stripped those bones clean, even the chopped-open skulls. But Dolph evidently hadn’t been the only one who was careless with bones. Bits of other body parts kept turning up in corners of the roasting room and around the big hallway.

Some were pathetically small.

It was nearly sunset by the time Sam and his crew got the fragments of other bodies buried in a common pit, the dead soldiers returned to the Longmont clerk, and Mrs. Grayson sent to the clinic. Sam finally just declared the operation over and cleared everybody out of the cement plant, after opening every window that could be opened, and smashing the others to let the clean air in. The vultures circled hungrily as his crew marched away up Cement Plant Road and back to Lyons.

Sam barely paused to turn over his prisoner to Marshall Duncan before taking his Gatherers back to Ken’s Dojo. Himself, Mike and Pat had borne the brunt of the dirty work. They’d ruthlessly used Style to haul carcasses, his comrades’ as well as their victims, but perforce much of the grisly work of collecting bits still had to be done by someone else.

Sam buried his head in the hot water spray of the Dojo’s solar shower, trying to wash the memory out of his brain. Mike and Pat had washed first and were desultorily dressing in the locker room, with long pauses when they both just sat and stared at nothing. They didn’t speak at all. Stanto had taken charge of their bloodied weapons and was busily cleaning and oiling. He’d set Giorgi to rolling the armor in a barrel half-filled with clean sand, to scrub caked blood out of the seams. Sam could dimly hear the barrel rolling back and forth across the floor of the main room, behind the back wall of the shower. The hot water felt so good, so clean…

A familiar voice called from the entrance to the men’s locker room. Mike and Pat hastily gathered up their things and left the room to the new arrival. Sam turned off the water and shook drops out of his hair, opened the curtain.

Ellie wordlessly handed him a towel.

He stepped out and took it, made a few token swipes at the water, then she ignored the rest and fiercely embraced him. He hugged her back, shuddering, and for what seemed like a long timeless time they just stood there, holding each other, while cooling water dripped off him.

“I saw Amanda Grayson at the clinic,” Ellie whispered to his neck, and shuddered for a moment herself. “How much more of this — this nightmare, is waiting out there? When will it be over?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled back, pressing her against himself with a lust that had nothing to do with sex.

“I just don’t know.”

❀ ❁ ❀

8

— Crumbling Foundations —

Lyons, middle of June, 1998.

Burt glanced up when Rachel entered the room, last to arrive at the Trustees meeting. She dropped tiredly into her usual chair next to him. She stank of horse-sweat and dust, and looked beat, but she responded to his touch on her elbow with a bare half-smile that lapsed too quickly. Her eyes were redder than usual.

She looks like it was more than just another hard day of work, Burt thought. More bad news coming, I’d bet.

Twilight still lit the high windows of the school but even with the longer summer days, the sun was already gone behind the mountains. Mayor Grasso immediately gaveled the meeting to order once Whit got the second gasoline lantern going.

“I know we’re all tired, Trustees,” Grasso declaimed, “So let’s all try to keep our reports succinct and get out of here before the lamps run out. Miz Joyner, would you start the ball rolling with news from the north end?”

Rachel rubbed dust out of her eyes. “It’s not good. Another bandit raid last night, that’s the fourth in the last ten days. They killed the Simmonds and took both of their horses and their last three cows — and Janice, the Simmond’s daughter, is missing. She wasn’t yet sixteen. The Harpers and the Geregs panicked and cleared out, animals and all, they’re at Doc’s place.” She grimaced. “That damn mansion of his used to seem so big, but it’s jammed full now. Anyway, that leaves nobody but bandits in the foothills north of the Little T and east of Blue Mountain. Last week the ranchers up by Rattlesnake Reservoir barricaded the county road in the pass north of Blue Mountain against that raid out of Loveland, and they’ve been trading us cattle for barley through the back road. If the bandits take out the Bar XYZ ranch, that whole area will be cut off from us. After the Geils, that’s been our second-largest source of beef.”

Sarah Withers frowned. “We’re very low on meat as it is. How does anybody expect me to keep people fed if you don’t keep producing?”

Whit shot his cousin an exasperated look and muttered “Sarah!”

Rachel just stared at Withers for a moment, shook her head and said nothing.

Grasso cleared his throat. “The larger ranches seemed to have escaped bandit attacks. Perhaps we should continue consolidating the ranching families into a few well-guarded places like Doctor Brown’s.”

“That’s what we’ve been doing for the last month,” Rachel answered with heavy patience. “Works well enough for the people. Problem is, the cows have to spread out to eat. In that rough country the damn bandits keep picking them off, one or two at a time — the animals just disappear. Doc’s lost almost a tenth of his herd that way, and with nobody but the Bar XYZ left to screen him from the north, he’ll lose more. The Bar XYZ’s lost nearly a quarter of theirs already.”

Rachel rapped on the table for emphasis, stared aggressively at the rest of them. “If this keeps up, there won’t be a cow left north of Apple Valley by the end of summer.”

“Perhaps Doctor Brown will finally agree to move into town,” Whit suggested. “We could find places for everybody up in the Little T basin if we have to. Pull our patrols back to the pass at Spring Canyon and abandon the whole basin. With no cattle to steal, sooner or later the bandits will starve.”

“More likely they just move closer to Town too,” Burt argued. “Right now we’ve got a frontier along the Little T that keeps the bandits well back — hard for them to raid Apple Valley when they have to cross the river and then four miles of country that we control. If we stop watching at least the south side of the river, sure as shootin’ they’ll set up somewhere closer to us and start raiding closer too. Remember that the north end of Indian Ridge hangs over the Little T canyon, and the lookout there’s been able to warn us of attacks trying to raid down into Dowe Flats. If we pull back out of the basin, that’ll leave the lookout post exposed on three sides instead of one — and if we lose that lookout post our grain fields could get raided next. Giving up on the Little T Basin starts a contest we can’t win — retreat, retreat, retreat, until we’ve got nowhere left.”

“So what’s the alternative?” Grasso probed.

“We’ve got to keep up a patrol on the south bank of the Little T, and that means people living there too, since resident eyes are the best guards,” Rachel insisted. “But we don’t have to keep as much of the cattle there as we do. If the Bar XYZ and Doc will agree, we could pull between half and three-quarters of their animals out. That’ll get their numbers down to something that can graze only on the most protected sites in the basin, the easiest to watch. That ought to cut losses a lot, by raising the risk for the bandits. We should do more to fortify Doc’s place too. If we have a strong base for patrols right there on the border, it’ll make it easier to get enough volunteers out of the refugee families to do the patroling.”

“Where would you put those cows if we bring them back to town?” Grasso asked.

“Set them up for the nights behind the Wall near the High School,” Burt answered promptly. “We kept that land clear to have a practice field for the militia, but the cattle’ll only be using it at night. We’ll have to herd them out to graze south of the cement plant during the day and bring them back at sundown. It’ll run a little weight off of them, but that’s better than losing them to bandits.”

“And who’ll do that herding?”

“The Harpers, the Geregs, and the other two families that already bugged out and ran to us for refuge,” Burt proposed. “They can sleep safe behind the Wall at night and be pretty close to it during the day, too.”

“Will they go along with that?” Grasso asked Rachel.

“If they don’t,” Rachel said bluntly, “Then they won’t be eating. They’ve gone through everything they had stored, and lost all their own cattle.”

They all digested that in silence for a moment.

Grasso stirred and said “I do not see a better choice. Talk to them, Trustee Joyner, and see if this would be an acceptable alternative for them. If so, we’ll figure out how to implement it at out next meeting.

“Now, I believe Trustee Santini has some better news for us. Burt?”

“The last field is planted,” Burt announced. “That’s five hundred and eighty acres of potatoes, about a hundred and ninety acres of other vegetables not counting the gardens in town, and twenty-eight hundred acres of barley. Add it to the forty-five hundred acres of winter wheat already growing in our fields and it should get us all through next winter with enough left over for spring planting. We might even have a surplus to trade to Longmont for other things.”

Smiles broke out at that news and the tension ebbed a little.

“I believe I can speak for the whole Board when I say that we’re all grateful to the planting crews for their heroic efforts,” Grasso declared piously. “So when should the wheat harvest start?”

“Oh, ‘bout another month,” Burt answered. “Right after the cherries come ripe. And speaking of fruit, I want to have Sam make an inventory of all the fruit trees in our territory east of the Wall. There’s a lot of little back-yard orchards scattered around, they could add a good bit to our diet if we can keep the water running to them.”

“Especially for next winter,” Whit chimed in. “If we can fetch in a few more tons of fruit from the plains, add it to Burt’s own production and dry it with the desiccators in his processing shed, we’ll have a good source of winter vitamins. Mrs. Hyatt can tell you how important that’s going to be.”

Yohansen deferred to Ellie and she stood up a little nervously in the audience. She was one of only a handful of citizens here today, Mike and Laura among them. Most people were so exhausted after the hard labor of the last two months that they just fell asleep after supper. Burt fought down a yawn himself.

“We collected a lot of vitamins from Naccio’s store and the abandoned houses,” Ellie explained, “But we’re going through them at a pretty steady clip. It’s been important to keep people’s immune systems up, when we’re all on restricted diets that are rather unbalanced. There’s so many folks living crowded together now that an epidemic could do us terrible damage. This’ll get worse when winter returns. If we get a good stock of dried fruit put by, it’ll be a regular source of vitamin C for the winter. We should make as much sauerkraut as we can manage, too, it’s another good way to get winter vitamins.”

Ellie consulted a piece of paper in her hand. “There’s another thing we need to do more of. We’ve been using the four massage therapists to help prevent our workers in the fields from developing torn or strained muscles, and it’s made a difference. That chiropractor, Farmer Bailey’s son-in-law, has been a big help too. But there’s only the five of them, plus the four nurses including me, and our one real doctor, Doc Brown. We’ve already had more injuries than this little medical staff can handle properly. We need to start a training program to make more nurses, and we need to find a way to recruit or train a younger doctor or two, also.”

Grasso nodded. “Excellent suggestions, Mrs. Hyatt. The Board will take these ideas under advisement, but I’m sure we’ll want to implement as many as it’s practical to do.” He looked around at the gathered Trustees, the handful of other official and quasi-official workers. The Marshall and Chief Waters were there, Ellie for the medical staff, and a few others.

Here it comes, thought Burt tiredly. How much of a fight should I put up? He’s got Sarah, Susan and James in his pocket already.

“Now that the immediate crisis of the spring planting is past, we have a little time to consider our manpower allocations,” Grasso began. “We’re only a month away from the start of fire season. Marshall Duncan has recommended that Chief Waters return to running the fire department, while continuing to supervise the quarrymen in building additions to our Wall, the new grist mills, and the construction of a true fortress at Red Hill Pass. As the Marshall is by far the most experienced among us in community defense matters, I propose to follow his suggestions immediately. There is the associated matter of policing the Town proper. As the Marshall is handling our rather sizable militia and its ongoing training program after the tragic loss of Ken Clair, and Chief Waters will be busy with three other tasks of his own, I propose to create a new post. We need a separate Chief of Police for the town. Therefore, I make the following motion — Linda, will you read it?”

The Town Clerk obligingly read off Grasso’s prepared motion. Palmer immediately seconded it.

Just great, Burt thought sourly. Step one — propose something completely reasonable that the rest of us can’t in good conscience oppose. Step two, on the other hand —

“Any debate on the need for this post, Trustees?” Grasso smoothly added “Please confine the debate to the question of creating the post, for now.”

“You know damn well the job isn’t going to be the argument,” Burt fired back. “It’s who holds it.”

“A separate and quite distinct matter that we shall presently have to address, but one which is pointless in the absence of the post itself,” Grass responded in his completely-reasonable tone of voice. “Any debate over the necessity of creating the post? All right, let’s call the question.”

Burt grudgingly added his ‘aye’ to the rest. The clerk tallied the votes and formally reported the unanimous outcome.

“Very good,” Grasso smiled. “Now we need to fill the post. And it happens that Gene Kelly has the proper training in police procedures to serve this function.”

“Your son-in-law,” Burt remarked. The worthless piece of shit who finished at the bottom of his class, he didn’t add aloud. >He only got a job here because you pressured Duncan’s predecessor into hiring him. If Gene hadn’t gotten your daughter pregnant you’d never have let him in your house.

“We are a small community, Mister Santini,” Grasso glanced tellingly at Ellie. “We must take our staffing opportunities as they come.”

“I nominate Gene Kelly for Police Chief,” Susan said, glaring at Burt and Whit.

“I second,” Sarah immediately followed. She smiled sweetly, which came out looking like a rather gross caricature on her habitually sour face.

Whit remonstrated with them. “Gene’s the second-lowest-ranking man in the department; how will the other officers feel about having him jumped up over their heads? This could be very bad for morale.”

“I nominate Bob Hailey,” Rachel said smoothly.

Burt nearly fell out of his chair with delight. “Yes! Second! He’s got more years of experience and way more qualifications. Not to mention a better disciplinary record!”

“Lieutenant Hailey also has an important post in the Militia,” Grasso replied silkily.

Marshall Duncan stirred slightly. “I could spare him. He is the most qualified possible candidate on the force, other than myself.”

“After the recent attack we endured, clearly the Militia must be our highest priority for trained personnel,” Grasso rejoined. “Time is passing and we still have more agenda items tonight. Let’s call the question. Linda, roll call please.”

The results surprised nobody. Palmer, Withers and Smythe voted with Grasso for Kelly, and Yohansen, Santini and Joyner for Hailey.

“Now that we’ve settled that,” Grasso purred, “There’s the livestock question raised by one of the Coyle brothers. I believe Mister Yohansen has a report for us on that issue?”

Whit stirred from his sour contemplation of the recent vote. “Our stock of horses and oxen proved barely adequate to the task of spring planting. A couple of steers ripped themselves up bad enough dragging plows that we had to butcher them afterwards, so we’re shorter now. If Starry gets his idea for horse-drawn reapers working, we’ll need even more horses for the harvest. So our horse mangers, the Coyle brothers, have requested that we authorize collecting more from the unregulated territory east of Longmont. I talked it over with Captain Colotta, who Baron Murchison has assigned as our liaison for all purposes between the towns.”

Palmer muttered something disdainful about Longmont’s system of government; the rest ignored him.

“Colotta’s got our problem, only worse,” Whit continued. “He’s already got people searching the area between Longmont and the river. They’re not finding much — it looks like most of the animals here along the Front Range have already been killed and eaten. So he proposes that we both send an expedition out east of Fort Lupton and see what we might be able to gather up off the high plains. As the summer dries out the natural water supplies will shrink and that should make capturing big animals, particularly horses, easier.”

“When does he want to do this?” Burt asked.

“In about two weeks. He’s got six men in mind to send, and wants us to add as many more. The only catch is, he wants to keep two-thirds of the animals we find. I bargained him down to three out of five, and we get the first two picks out of each five.”

“That’s actually a pretty good deal, Whit,” Rachel said thoughtfully. “Odds are most of the animals left aren’t going to be in the best of shape. In six months we’re likely to end up with at least as many surviving horses out of our top two-fifths as they get out of the bottom three-fifths. Maybe more.”

“Let’s not forget the proposal Mister Santini has already alluded to,” Grasso added. “That our Gatherers conduct a census of our eastern territory to determine what resources it holds. This Longmont proposal could match up with that very nicely. First we examine our own lands to see what we’ve got, then we send the men who know the most out to see what they can get to fill in the gaps. With reasonable luck, it can all be done before we need to harvest the wheat — and we’ll have more animals to do the heavy work. After the wheat harvest, our Gatherers will know where to look for other resources out east, which could be crucial for our winter preparations.”

That’s actually a good idea, Burt admitted to himself. “Sounds good to me.”

Rachel agreed readily.

Palmer added his voice to it, as did Sarah Withers, surprisingly. Unsurprisingly, she added waspishly “I can make a list of what we really need.”

“Mister Santini and his son-in-law can certainly work out the details”, Grasso inserted smoothly. “I recommend that the Board authorize this census and expedition in cooperation with Longmont. All in favor?”

Everyone but Susan Smythe said aye. She just sat in her chair, eyes downcast and visibly sunk in misery. A tear was trickling out of one eye.

“Opposed?” Grasso inquired gently, then when she still didn’t speak he firmly declared “Passed by acclamation. Mister Yohansen, Mister Santini, please arrange it.”

“Last item,” Grasso read from his notes. “Trustee Palmer proposes a list of emendations and alterations to the Town Statutes, as requested by the Mayor — James, is this an item left over from Allison’s tenure?”

“It is,” affirmed Palmer, scowling. “You tabled it at your first meeting. Time is up, it’s back on the agenda.”

Grasso peered at the rather dense set of notes. “Good Lord, James, there’s more than thirty line-items here! Can it wait a little longer? We’re all tired and it’s late.”

“We’re always going to be tired, Mister Mayor,” answered Palmer. He held up an antique wind-up pocket watch that had belonged to his grandfather. “And the time’s not even eight-thirty. It’s not like this is hard. We annex the Wall so that it’s actually inside the Town limits. We de-annex Steamboat Lane now that we’ve torn it down — we can’t serve it with water anyway. We exclude a few other bits that the city doesn’t service and usually hasn’t ever wanted anyway, like that silly oblong up the side of Stone Mountain that Artie Johnson got annexed when he thought he was going to build a tramway. I told everybody that was a stupid idea at the time, but did anyone listen? We annex the properties between downtown and the Wall that we’ve already taken over for different purposes, nullify a few other irrelevant statutes now that there’s no State government to apply them, and it’s done. Shouldn’t take more than an hour, hour-and-a-half for the whole thing.” He scowled, pointedly adding “I spent five times that long putting it together for Allison.”

“Can’t we just — lump them all together, or something?” Grasso asked, a little plaintively. “Would that be all right?”

Doesn’t want to cross his ally, Burt mentally translated, looking at the dense page that Linda was handing around — she’d handwritten one extra copy and had part of another, for the seven of them to share. Sarah peered over Grasso’s elbow and curled her lip; Burt thought she was about to laugh out loud, and she was carefully not meeting anyone’s eyes. Rachel crowded over next to Burt to see, while Whit perused the half page. Susan showed no interest at all.

“I’m sorry there wasn’t time to make more copies, Trustees,” the Clerk apologized nervously. “Everything takes so long now when I have to do it all by hand.” She wrung her fingers guiltily and looked at Burt, then looked away.

“It’s not your fault Linda,” he assured her absently. The gasoline lamps flickered in an errant breeze and Burt’s head ached just at the sight of the written motions. Most of the numbered actions had dense legal descriptions attached to the formal text. “James, this will take most of an hour just to read!”

Palmer rolled his eyes, exasperated and supercilious at the same time. “Very well. Mister Mayor, have it your way. We can do it fast and dirty, instead of deliberate and proper. I move to suspend the ordinary procedural rules and adopt the package titled ‘Item Four’, which contains thirty-four enumerated changes to the Statutes of the Town of Lyons, including twenty-six boundary changes. There, are you happy?” He crossed his arms and sneered at them all, grimly amused and more than a little vengeful.

“Seconded,” said Sarah Withers, sitting back with a pleased smile. She looked expectantly at the Mayor.

“Motion moved and seconded,” Grasso said rapidly, dropping the paper and rubbing his forehead. “Does anyone really want to debate this — legacy?”

“Well,” Palmer began sweetly.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Burt interrupted in irritation as one of the gas lanterns began to gutter.

Whit made a hushing gesture at Burt, said “Look, James, I’m glad you took Allison seriously, I respect the amount of work you put into this, but it’s late. Can we resist the temptation to argue about what really are trivial details?”

Palmer huddled back in his chair a little, gave them all a mulish look. “Details to you. But if law is going to rule here, then we have a duty to attend to the details — or at least clean them up now and then.”

“Then let’s ‘attend’ to them, and get this over,” Grasso interjected. “Hearing no debate, I call the question. Those in favor?”

Burt was tempted to vote ‘nay’ just to express his irritation. Whit followed Palmer, Grasso and Sarah’s ‘ayes’ with his own, and Susan came out of her funk long enough to say ‘aye’ when Palmer prodded her. Rachel threw up her hands and voted aye as well. Burt hesitated a long moment while Grasso gave him an exasperated look, then grudgingly made it unanimous.

“Finally,” Grasso muttered, folding up the agenda and stuffing it in his shirt pocket. He cleared his throat and added in a normal voice “That’s the last agenda item. I think we’re all agreed that sleep is the next order of business, so the chair would entertain a motion to adjourn.”

There was a chorus of those and Grasso gaveled the meeting to a close just as one gas lamp winked out. Everyone scattered for his or her beds. Ellie stepped up to Burt and Rachel, but the Town Clerk stopped Burt before he could leave.

“Mister Santini, you have the cleanest copy,” she said apologetically. “May I please have it for the archives?”

Burt handed it over absently. “Sure Linda. Want one of us to walk you home?”

“Mister Grasso promised to do that,” she assured him as she folded the agenda into her notebook and scurried away.

Rachel glanced curiously after her for an instant while Burt shrugged into his jacket, then turned back as Ellie spoke.

“Rachel, is Doc coming into town tomorrow? I’ve got a case he should see.”

“Um, sure, Ellie.” She looked at Mike and Laura, both in their armor and waiting to escort Ellie and her father home. The two soldiers had sat side-by-side and now stood rather closer together than necessary. Mike had casually put one arm around Laura’s waist. Rachel smiled. “Nice to see your bodyguards working so closely together these days.”

Mike’s tanned face reddened a little but he just pulled Laura a bit closer. She grinned back at Rachel and hugged Mike outright.

“I’ve decided to take him home to Mama,” Laura boasted. “After we walk you all home, of course. I think she’ll let me keep him.”

“Congratulations!” Rachel beamed, while Ellie chuckled.

“I hope Doc’s bringing his own bodyguards,” Burt suggested ominously. “We can’t take risks with our only doctor when there’s bandits out in the hills.”

“Dad!” Ellie winced a little. “Sam and Tim are out hunting in those hills.”

“Yeah, honey, but your husband’s deadlier than any bandit,” Burt told her. “And thank God for that.”

❀ ❁ ❀

9

— Sustenance —

Lyons, middle of June, 1998.

Sam’s senses were sunk deep into the forest when the thought floated to his surface mind.

Someone is following us.

Tim was moving through the forest a little to his left and down slope, doing an excellent job of making no noise and leaving no trace. This last month seemed to have been a breakthrough for his woodscraft. Sam knew how hard he had tried over the years and was glad to share his success. The young man moved now almost like he was a creature of the forest.

Button Rock Reservoir glinted off to their left, half a mile away and a few hundred feet lower. Right, the mountainside heaved up sharply. Here the ground was a mosaic of meadow and forest, patches of Gambel oak and little thickets of aspen among the ponderosa pines. Sam paused again to sniff the air eddying around them — the gentle breeze was barely moving but drifted steadily down-canyon. Last year’s dried oak leaves, new willow catkins, omnipresent pine needles, a musky patch of bear scat only a day old; the woods spoke to him.

A few dozen yards behind, a twig snapped.

Hunting us? Maybe.

He caught Tim’s eye, signaled forward. They moved a hundred yards further, over a little rise extending out of the mountain’s foot. The crackling behind resumed.

Whoever that is, he’s a lousy woodsman, Sam decided. Faintly in the distance behind the tracker, he heard the barest crackle of dried leaves brushing against something. Or… he’s a stalking goat for someone who is much better.

Tim closed up with Sam, they both crouched under a towering ponderosa shading an oak thicket at the edge of a pocket meadow. Tim pointed ahead through the oak, where three deer grazed on the far side, a very long bowshot away.

“Sensei,” he mouthed quietly. “We’re being followed. I think there’s two of them, but not together.”

Sam nodded, pointed as if at the deer, and whispered. “Circle the meadow left as if you’re going for those deer, but go to ground a hundred yards beyond them. I’ll start right, then double back to look for him — or them.”

They split. Sam eased along a few yards until a big juniper concealed him, cut further right up the slope to an aspen grove, dropped to the ground and stared intently through the tall grass, looking downhill onto his own trail. His own bow was nocked and ready in his free hand.

The first man came into view shortly, wearing a dull plaid flannel shirt that actually worked fairly well as camouflage in this forest. His face was gaunt and sunburned, veins stood out on the back of his hands — he plainly hadn’t been eating well. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and carried a green plastic target bow with a plastic quiver of shiny aluminum arrows. Though not very tall, he walked clumsily, like someone who had the theory of how to move in the woods, but not enough practice. Carefully he made his way to the big ponderosa, leaned against it and peered around it and over the oak thicket, not through it.

I dub thee Amateur, Sam thought. You’ll be lucky if those deer don’t spot you and bolt. And that little toy bow of yours will never get an arrow across that meadow.

Sam watched patiently, scanning the forest behind Amateur in the slightly unfocused way that let stray movements stand out. A branch twitched as a bluebird launched itself skyward. A squirrel chattered for a moment and went silent. Presently he made out the form of a second man rising slowly to his feet behind a juniper. He wore high-quality camouflage, grays, browns, and dark greens in a nondescript pattern. His tanned face was thin but not gaunt — he’d clearly been eating enough. Sam mentally dubbed him Professional. For a moment nothing happened.

I wonder if he even knows Tim and I are out here? We’re both better than either of them at moving silently. Has he been following Amateur for his own reasons?

Then Professional raised a hunting bow that he drew and fired in one smooth motion.

The arrow took Amateur right between the shoulder blades and nailed him to the tree with a solid ‘thock’. Amateur let out a shocked gasp and his arms fell to his side, bow clattering on the ground. The deer in the meadow beyond took flight, thundering away through the thickets.

Professional carefully scanned the woods around, evidently checking for any companions Amateur might have had. Sam stayed still, ignored the itch on his chin, and thought of trees and grass. After a while Professional evidently satisfied himself that he was alone, because he strode forward much less cautiously. He looped his bow over his own head and shoulders as he walked. Sam could barely see something swinging at his farther hip.

Amateur slumped against the tree, held there by the arrow through his chest cavity. Blood stained a big patch on the back of his flannel shirt. His weight was gradually pulling the arrow free of the trunk. Professional grabbed both of Amateur’s shoulders, pulled his body off the arrow with a strong jerk. He dropped the corpse without another glance, carefully pried out his arrow and checked it for damage. Then he crouched down and wiped it clean on the grass, set it and his bow within easy reach, and examined his victim. With a little snort he began looting the corpse, pulling off boots and pants, rifling the pockets. He made a pile of his loot — Amateur was a little bigger than him so Professional could clearly wear the same clothes. He moved with a swift economy of motion, as if practiced at these maneuvers. Sam kept trying to see whatever was hanging from the left side of Professional’s belt, it looked like a collection of small leather pouches.

Then he realized what he was seeing, and his own scrotum tightened in reaction. He was unsurprised when Professional took out a big knife, slit open Amateur’s soiled underpants, and castrated the dead man. The murderer was busily performing some detailed knife work on his prize when Sam loosed his own arrow.

Professional must have heard or sensed his danger at the last minute, because he started to move. The arrow that should have taken him in the heart instead pierced his right lung. He fell over, scrambled for his bow, tried to burrow into the oak thicket. Sam’s second arrow nearly missed as well, took him in the hip. Professional jerked, caught the first arrow on an oak branch and gasped as it yanked in the wound. He groped for his knife as Sam approached, tried to speak. Blood-mist sprayed from his lips.

“I don’t want to know why you did that,” Sam told him. “Just die.” He put the third arrow through Professional’s heart.

Then he gulped air for long moments. He sensed rather than heard Tim approaching and gestured him in. Tim came up, looked at the scene, and abruptly turned away to battle his stomach. After several deep breaths he slowly looked back, face pale under his tan.

“Shit, Sensei,” Tim choked. “He — he cut off — this guy was a real monster, wasn’t he?”

“Yes. He certainly was,” Sam answered. “Keep watch while I retrieve my arrows.”

Some messy work later, Sam cleaned his knife by thrusting it hilt-deep into the spongy forest floor under a juniper, then rubbed it down with an oiled cloth he kept in a belt pouch. He hesitated over Professional’s knife and bow — they were both top quality.

“These are too good to let them rot on the forest floor,” he decided. “Both pairs of boots, too. We’ll take them back. Leave everything else.”

Tim nodded, looking relieved.

Sam settled himself, breathed deeply to clear his mind. He studied the meadow and the woods beyond. The sun was starting to wester.

“Come on, Tim, let’s see about those deer.”

Hours later, under the moonlight, they finished butchering the two deer that they’d taken. Sam wrapped a last lashing around the rough bundle, hefted the front of the crude litter they’d made out of a couple young pines. Tim did the same at the back with a grunt — they had nearly a hundred-fifty pounds of meat to carry home, and miles to go before they reached the place where they’d hidden their bikes. They didn’t speak at all during the trek, both watching and listening for anything that might want to challenge them for their prize.

On the way back Sam avoided the place where the two bodies lay. He could hear coyotes growling as they fed, and he said a small prayer for Amateur’s soul, wherever it was now. None for Professional, though — Sam thought he could guess where that one was bound.

They were stumbling with weariness when they made it back to the bikes, still fortunately hidden, and rigged their litter to hang between the two. The empty road stretched down-canyon, gray in the moonlight, and they drove their aching bodies on mercilessly until they reached the guard post at the head of Apple Valley.

The moon was well nigh gone when they finally pedaled up to the dark house in Lyons, where a candle burned faintly in the kitchen. Grandma Abbaku had waited up for them, dozing lightly in a chair. She came to the back door immediately, carrying a couple stainless steel pans.

“Two deer, Grandma,” Tim reported proudly, unwrapping the first hide.

“We’ve broken them into quarters and torso, and gutted them,” Sam added. “Here’s the livers and kidneys.” He dropped them in the smaller pan. “Rib racks as well.” Those went into the large pan. “Eight quarters — four good venison hams, plenty of steaks and meat for the pot, just waiting to be cut up.” Sam unwrapped those from the second hide and put them into the waiting chest freezer. Though its refrigeration unit was dead as radio, it worked to hold ice from the supply Stanto had stashed in the basement before nights stopped dropping below freezing.

“Good, good!” Grandma cooed, adding a string of Armenian words as she happily received the organ meats. “Kidney pie, yes, and liver and onion with eggs for breakfast! We will make roast venison ribs for dinner! Sausage and stew! But first both of you wait outside.” She handed the smaller pan to a sleepy Esmera, just come to the door, and took the larger herself. The two women looked over the organ meat and ribs approvingly, muttering happy comments in Armenian, then Esmera took it into the kitchen and started to work on it, lighting another candle.

Sam and Tim stuffed the raw hides into a water-filled aluminum trough waiting in the yard, weighing them down with metal screens and a couple bricks. Fleas leaped frantically as the water closed over them. In days to come the fur and fat could be scraped off and the tanning process begun. When they got back to the porch Grandma had a big kettle of still-warm water waiting for them. She handed Sam a bar of astringent soap.

“Both of you wash thoroughly — your women don’t want the smell of blood on you when you come to bed, and I want no fleas or ticks in this house! Leave your clothes on the pegs,” she ordered. “Esmera and I will clean them tomorrow.”

Sam and Tim obediently stripped off their hunting clothes in the darkness of the back porch. Tim abruptly looked up as he realized that the enclosed second-floor porch overhead was where Kate, Maria, Karen and Marta slept. There was a stirring as at least one pair of feet thumped to the floor above.

“And scrub your hair — all of it, Tim, no foolish shyness — I’m an old woman who’s bourne five children, not a blushing girl! It’s dark anyway. That’s better. Dunk your whole head when you rinse! Good. Here are towels. Now robes for each of you; go find your beds.”

Sam belted his robe, stepped into the kitchen. “Thank you for the warm water, Grandma Abbaku. And for waiting up for us.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “My duty. You men did well for the family today.” She made a little shooing motion towards the front of the house and the stairs, then went back to sorting the meat. A yawning Marta came into the kitchen to help her mother and grandmother.

Tim’s shoulders went back a little and he stood more erect. “We did, didn’t we, Sensei?”

Sam forbade himself to smile. “We did. Get yourself some sleep, Tim.”

Tim nodded, started off towards Burt’s den where the bachelors bedded down. Following after him down the hall, Sam saw a pale arm come out of the empty front parlor and stop Tim.

“Tim,” said Kate. “I heard you come back.” She had a blanket around her shoulders over her nightgown. She stepped close. “You’re skin’s so cold.”

“Kate. I—” Tim hesitated, then his arms moved to embrace her. “Kate.”

“Good night, you two,” Sam whispered with a smile as he passed them, and trudged up the steps toward his and Ellie’s room. He tried not to waken her while crawling into bed but it didn’t work.

“Everything go all right, love?” she asked sleepily.

“No problems,” he answered, curling up against her. “Bagged two, Grandma’s dealing with the meat. Just an ordinary hunting trip.”

“Good,” she answered, snuggling. “The Trustees want to send you on some trips east of the Wall in a few days. Dad can tell you about it tomorrow.”

“Sufficient unto the day…” Sam muttered drowsily, and fell asleep.

A host of demons assailed his dreams, cannibals and Greenies, a biker thug and a camo-dressed murderer with grisly trophies, all wounded and bleeding even as they reached for him. But Ellie’s warmth drove them back, and Grandma guarded the home.

❀ ❁ ❀

Four days later Sam rode up to the front of Starry’s forge at the head of a creaking, screeching, rattling parade. Starry came out to meet them, his eyes lighting up.

“Hey, where’d you get this, Sam?”

“Out of a yard off Nelson Road.” Sam grabbed the lead rope on Doc’s quartet of Morgans, who’d been towing the huge machine, and gentled the snorting horses while Kit Coyle began unhitching them. “I’m pretty sure it’s a thresher.”

“Sure is!” Starry answered enthusiastically, stumping around it on his crutch. “Real antique, around a century old. Should be a big flywheel right about here, though.”

“Got that back here,” Carson Coyle put in from the next wagon. “Damned thing fell off halfway here, along with about ten other bits and pieces. I kept track of where they came from, as best I could.”

The thresher stood higher than the wagon, and longer too, dribbling rust and peeling paint. The iron wheels were taller than Sam and more than a foot wide, made of cast iron over an inch thick. The whole machine canted several degrees off vertical, one of the huge leaf springs was noticeably flatter than the others.

“I can fix that,” Starry assured them, running a hand over the geared wheels and levers. “Let me take this baby apart and I’ll find a way to fix or duplicate every part. Man, when we get this running, and that reaper I’m building, wheat harvest will be a cinch!”

“There was a coal-fueled steam engine too, looked like it might’ve powered the thresher, but the boiler had rusted clear through on the bottom.” Sam shrugged. “God only knows whether that kind of engine even works any more.”

The enthusiasm in Starry’s face faded. “It doesn’t, at least not well. I can’t get the school boiler to produce enough pressure to drive hot water to the second floor, no matter how I jigger it — takes everything it can do just to run the kitchen, and we’re spending almost as much natural gas to do that as it used to take to feed the whole school. Efficiency’s just dropped off like a rock much above ten bars — bit more than a bike tire. Pushing more heat into the water just doesn’t accomplish anything, near as I can tell, and I tried a couple little tricks here in my shop just to be sure. But horses work just fine, and I can rig a horse-treadmill to run this baby once we get the flywheel re-attached and the rust cleaned out.”

He looked over the rest of the parade, eyes bright and free hand grasping like an eager child. “What else did you bring me?”

“Another couple of plows in the wagon — wish we’d had those four weeks ago!” Sam explained, walking down the row. “What looks like some kind of a knife-grinder or something, pretty rusted, together with something that looks like a fruit press and a couple smaller odds and ends. Haykicker and horse-drawn hay cutter. The blades are rusted together but maybe you can do something with them. There was a diesel-powered baler but the axle broke when we tried to budge it, so I left it. Maybe we can salvage something from it. And a couple older tractors still there up on blocks — the cast-iron wheels looked sound, maybe we could pry them off and fetch them back here for you.”

“That’d be great!” Starry’s enthusiasm checked as he spotted an arrow sticking up out of the disintegrating wooden seat of the haycutter. “Had a spot of trouble?”

“Raiders out of Boulder, I think.” Sam shrugged, reached over his shoulder to tap his compound bow. “They tried to get into an arrow duel with us. We had the range on them.”

Tim, Drew, Fred and Bruce grinned savagely and fingered their own bows, while Laura, Kate, Maria, Liss, Darrin, Mike, Jerry, Jesus, Pat, Giorgi, Mark, and Shawn just grinned. “We let one of them make it back alive,” Fred boasted. “The others left their bows with us!”

Starry nodded. “Good work! And it’s lucky for us that you found this stuff. I’ll roust the boys out and see what we can do with it all. Thanks, Sam, and the rest of you.”

“Gatherers rock!” Mark pumped a fist in the air and the others cheered.

“Now it’s back to the Dojo,” Sam told them. “We’ve still got two hours before supper for sparring practice.”

They cheered at that, too, and Starry nodded his head in bemusement as Sam led his followers away.

“They’re an amazing bunch,” he remarked to Kit Coyle.

The horseman finished unhitching the Morgans, looked after the departing youths.

“We should thank the Good Lord for that,” he answered seriously. “Without them, and Sam, we would all be dead.”

❀ ❁ ❀

10

— Into the Desolation —

Somewhere south of Hudson, Colorado; late June, 1998.

Sam stopped pedaling, braced a foot against the bridge railing and wiped dusty sweat from his face. This was as good a place to rest as any — the county road crossed Box Elder Creek on a steel-and-plank bridge next to some big cottonwoods that gave shade. A couple of skittish ducks flew up from the creek as they approached. He was tempted to try a shot at one but they were moving fast and he didn’t want to spend half an hour trying to find the arrow. His mouth watered at the thought of roast duck.

“Ten minute rest stop,” he called out. “Kit take east sentry and Blake take west; Roger, check under this bridge and then take north. Drew, break out the filters, the rest of you fetch water for Drew. And make very sure you don’t get any of it on you until it’s been filtered.”

“But we’re way out in the country, Captain Hyatt!” Flynn Pauling protested; he wore the green tabard of Longmont over his leather jack thickly sewn with hardware-store washers. Most of a decade younger than Sam, he’d been an up-and-coming lawyer, polo player, and Society fighter before the Change, though not part of the late Baron Hugo’s household. Sam suspected that Colotta had sent him along as much because he’d guarded Longmont instead of attacking Lyons during the war. Flynn had a big notch in his left ear courtesy of the Boulder attack, but he must’ve given better than he got to still be alive.

“Look at the map,” Sam said patiently. “This creek starts southeast of the metro area, runs through Watkins and eastern Aurora before it gets here. God alone knows what’s gotten into it farther up. I wouldn’t have us drink from it at all except it’s the cleanest water we’ve seen since leaving Longmont. We don’t take any risks we don’t have to. Remember the Platte?”

Flynn’s face blanched, remembering the fouled and stinking sewer they’d crossed yesterday on Weld County Road 8. The spring floods had ebbed, leaving literally hundreds of decaying bodies strewn along the sandbars. Sam had intended to camp in the forest along its banks, but the reek was so awful they’d pushed on another couple miles east, camping in an abandoned house near what the map called the Brighton Lateral Ditch. That had been dry, of course; nobody was operating the head gates of any ditch that close to Denver.

Now they were nearly ten miles east of that, and three more south, on County Road 2 just west of Horse Lake and north of Boots Lake. Those were two adjacent plains reservoirs served by the Denver-Hudson Canal. They’d crossed the canal itself earlier today, twice, and it was dry as he’d expected. But irrigation reservoirs were usually filled over the winter, and they might hold water for a long time. Water would attract animals, especially cattle and horses.

Roger Ducat, another Longmonter in green who had run a horse-training and rodeo operation right outside the city, reported nobody under the bridge. Then he took up his station on it watching north and downstream. Roger was a quiet man; Sam thought he was a little older than himself. He had said little but pitched in for tasks without complaint.

Sam himself took sentry to the south. There was a small grove of cottonwoods a quarter-mile south of the bridge below Boots Dam. He planned to make it his first target when they began searching. He had a good pair of binoculars and inspected the grove thoroughly, half an ear listening while Drew and the others carefully ran creek water through a cloth filter, then a plastic one, then through two little camping filters intended to catch giardia and half a dozen other nasties. They couldn’t afford to have anyone come down with dysentery or worse, so he rigorously enforced water purification rules. His crew seemed to be doing a good job sticking to them. He’d made a point of explaining just how dangerous it would be for anyone to get sick out here when they were each completely dependent upon their own legs for movement.

Crossing the valley so far had been relatively easy, if you didn’t mind the sight of skeletons in every ditch. Thousands of people must have been caught away from home, even at that hour of a dark March evening. Many of the ones on side roads had tried to stay with their cars, caught hypothermia that first night, and died. Others had found temporary refuge in a stranger’s house, until the meaning of the Change dawned and their hosts turned them out to conserve scarce food. No few looked like they had simply sat down and died of cold, hopelessness and despair. Local crows, hawks, magpies, coyotes, and foxes were all well-fed and arrogant. By the end of the first day Sam had grown used to scraps of hair and cloth fluttering in the breeze, and the faint ever-present stink. He hadn’t realized how blessed they were around Lyons, where most of the farmers had gathered into the town and there were relatively few bodies littering the countryside.

Ten fit men on bicycles had been intimidating enough that bandits stayed out of their way. Five of the crew carried bows and the rest had spears, and all openly packed knives or swords or both. Sam had insisted on command over the expedition as the price of his participation, and Colotta had agreed with surprisingly little resistance. The Longmont men assigned were a mix of young and middle-aged, but all five had experience with horses. Sam had brought Jerry, Kit Carson, and his son Jesse, who all had roping experience; Kit could also play farrier. For his last man Sam had also brought Drew to be their medical back-up. After Drew, Sam figured he himself was the least knowledgeable about the nuts-and-bolts of actual horse capturing, but that was all right. His business was getting them all out and back alive.

When Sam planned this trip he’d chosen a route that avoided the towns and scattered rural subdivisions as much as possible. The few farmhouses that were still populated were mostly crowded with locals or refugees. All were constantly on the defensive, but they had been willing to let Sam’s crew pass as long as they kept on moving. One place standing amid a mile-long strip of derelict rural homes had stunk of shit and rotting meat — it reminded Sam disturbingly of the cement plant. He remembered how the three men visible in the windows had stared hungrily at his passing crew. He was grimly resolved that they wouldn’t be going that way again on the return trip — and wondering how many more such places there must be.

A flicker of movement under the cottonwoods caught his eye. Had that been animal or human? The forest was not particularly dense but it was thickly spotted with patches of tamarisk and scrub oak, all more than head-high and perfect for concealing an ambush. After a moment he caught the movement again and zeroed in on it. A coyote fed on what looked like a cow carcass. The skull was already mostly bare; this one must’ve been dead for a week.

They’d seen very few cows and fewer horses or other large animals in the main part of the valley. Desperate people had killed and eaten most of them in the first month since the Change. The handful that had survived were jealously guarded by spear-armed men, and taken behind locked doors every night. East of the river even those disappeared. All today they had pedaled through a huge zone empty of living humans. Not even a dog barked at them. It was creepy, as if something had sucked all life bigger than coyotes right out of the landscape.

Sam wished for a moment that either of the expert dog-hunters in Lyons had been young enough or strong enough to come on this expedition. It would have been handy to have a good hunting dog along. But both were past sixty and at the point where their energies were better spent training younger men to breed and train the dogs. A sheepdog could have been handy, but Ellen Morgan had the only pair in the county and wasn’t about to let them out of her sight.

He figured the expedition wasn’t likely to find any living sheep anyway. They were just too slow and stupid to survive the desperate hordes of two-legged predators.

Sam noticed that most of the houses out here were burned, too. The upper hillside just west and south of the spot where he stood had the bulldozed start of a rural subdivision cut into it, a couple of barely-started houses rotting next to the burned cellar holes that had been the row of official models. The sales signs flapped forlornly in the breeze. He wondered why anyone would have bothered to burn never-occupied houses set this far out in the country. Had there been a local equivalent of that arsonist they’d run across in Denver the first day after the Change?

Drew swapped Sam’s tapped-out water bottle for a fresh one. “This is the last, Sensei; I’ll have it full in a few minutes. Then where do we go?”

Sam indicated the rim of Boots Lake Dam to the south. “We’ll search that grove below the dam first, then the lake beyond. If we don’t find anything there we turn west. Horse Creek Reservoir should be just over that next ridge. If we’re lucky, there’s plenty of water in Horse, and with it, livestock.”

“Horses, yee-haw!” chimed in Jerry, practicing with his lariat. He’d been grabbing every opportunity for that, claiming he was rusty, and Jesse usually joined in enthusiastically. Tom and Carl, the younger pair from Longmont, regularly did their best to show up their Lyons rivals. Kit exchanged an amused look with Blake Jones, the eldest cowboy from Longmont, and said nothing.

“And if we’re really lucky, nobody else’s found them yet,” muttered Flynn. Sam suspected that he had been hoping for command of the trip himself, and wasn’t quite reconciled to playing second fiddle to a Lyons commander yet.

They turned off the county road onto a dirt track and followed it toward the woods and the dam. It was too bumpy for riding, and took a half-hour of pushing to get their heavily-loaded bikes to the woods. They’d brought along eight light saddles and bridles, hoping to catch that many animals at least. As they approached it the grove thinned out; it was really just scattered trees lining the creek for a couple hundred yards, nowhere more than three together. Sam kept his bow in one hand with an arrow loosely nocked, but there was nothing living in it save the coyote. That little scavenger was indecently plump; it skittered away as they approached. The cow carcass had been thoroughly stripped, nothing but rags of hide left around the head and disarticulated bones scattered about. Too few bones — and a dead campfire.

Sam prodded the pelvis with one boot. “Blake,” he called. “Come look at this.” He pointed to the numerous scratches on the remaining bones, and the way they’d been cracked open.

The older man had told Sam he’d been a hunting outfitter for a decade before taking a ranch job near town. Sam had felt an instant kinship with him. Now Blake’s eyes flicked across the mess, then back to Sam’s face.

“Butchered, and a real botched job, too. Somebody with a decent knife blunted the hell out of it carving up this cow.” He looked around, added “But they’re not here now.” He hawked and spit.

Sam waved the boys back as they started to crowd closer. “Don’t mess up the tracks. Flynn, Jerry, and Tom keep lookout.” He found a half-burned stick and stirred the ashes in the crude stone circle. White bits of bone mixed with the char.

“They roasted most of it, ate and then tossed the small bones in the fire.” He sniffed, caught the rank honey-pit scent and followed it to a crude fly-infested latrine behind a bunch of tamarisk. It was mostly dry. “They moved on at least three days ago.” He found several little trails through the dry grass, and one larger one on the far bank of the creek. It lead north, paralleling their route here but on the other side. “And they’re following the creek away from us, so they’re not our problem.”

The group sighed and relaxed a little until Sam spoke again.

“We split in two groups. Tom, Kit, Jerry, and Roger with me, the rest of you stay here with the bikes. Blake, you’re in command till we return. Let’s check out Boots Lake.”

Sam led them up the long slanting access road up the earthen dam, arrows at the ready and scanning the top. The stream was noisily gushing through the outlet works. The boys kept pace and even managed to move fairly quietly, without talking. Near the top he waved them to a stop, crouched and worked his way carefully to the crest. He found a gap between two larger clumps of grass and looked over the dam.

The reservoir was there, still more than half full, ringed by drying mud that spoke of a remorseless drawdown. The nearer shores were barren and only a few trees stood at the south end. Sam dug out binoculars and searched the shores. There were a scattering of tracks in the drying mud but no animals in sight. A one-hole vault outhouse stood near the far end, next to the blackened stump of some building and a small parking area with two burned cars. No smoke rose from it, but a little dust devil stirred up the ashes as it briefly skittered about and then collapsed. The outhouse door hung open; Sam could just see the white stool inside. And the white ribs of the body that kept it from closing. That one had been dead for at least a month and was picked clean.

“Damn,” he muttered, then stood up and waved for the others to follow.

They searched the small woods at the far end, avoiding the parking area. There were plenty of older tracks, plus a very few fresher ones that lead back east into the grassland. South and west a few burned houses were scattered across neglected fields gone to weeds. East, the rim of the high plains rose above them like a row of huge grassy waves.

“Cow and horse both,” Jerry said with satisfaction as he scanned the tracks. “And recently too! Can we go after them, Sensei?”

“Carefully.” Sam looked at each of them in turn. “As we get close to the ridge you keep your heads down. We’ll crawl the last distance to limit the chance that anyone sees us. Got it?”

“Yes, Sir!” answered four voices.

The ridge was huge and gently rounded. Some burned-out buildings crowned it. Except for a few charred sticks nothing stuck up higher than a couple feet. A dirt road led arrow-straight to the east, up and over the top between the buildings.

The grass around the ruins was patchy, tall and rank in spots but with wide stretches grazed down to stubble. Sam squatted down a good hundred yards below the top and crawled up a shallow swale. It was barely a crease in the landscape but the only shelter there besides the ruins. He went the last fifty feet on his belly, aiming for a point a couple feet left of a fencepost draped in broken barbed wire and tumbleweeds. Once there he found a hole in the weeds, carefully raised the binoculars and peered through.

Horse Lake was far larger than Boots. It didn’t look drawn down more than a few feet from its high-water point. Cottonwood trees spread in a band along the shore with patches of brush and cattails between. In the shade beneath —

“Second try’s the charm,” Sam breathed in satisfaction, staring northeast.

Eight, no nine, horses grazed contentedly, seven adults and two foals frisking among the trees. He studied the forest, the lakeshore, searching for any sign of people. There were a few other burned-out ruins nearby, but not a single standing house. Grass rippled in the little breeze, and a hawk quartered the land looking for prey.

He squirmed backwards to the waiting crew.

“Jackpot,” he told them, describing the situation. “Kit, Roger, come up and look. I want you two to make a plan for going after them.”

The two older men imitated Sam’s crawl and study, passing the binoculars back and forth between them and talking in whispers. After a while they came back.

“We can do this straight up by coming in from the northwest, Captain,” Kit assured him. “They’re all mares and geldings, a lot easier than dealing with a stallion. But we need our ropes, saddles, and the rest of the crew. These horses all look like they’ve carried riders before, except for the two foals. They’ll likely be a little skittish, but if we can catch two or three and get them saddled, we’ve got a good chance at the rest, too.”

It took more than an hour to fetch the rest of the crew and all the bikes. Sam had them ride north and around on the canal road, which crossed the big ditch on another plank bridge just above the point where the canal dumped into the reservoir. The route promptly dwindled to a two-track maintenance trail along the west side; they followed it back south until they were in sight of the horses. Then everybody parked the bikes, readied ropes and saddles, and started the real work.

Sam sent the three older men walking in as first wave, with Jerry, Jesse, and Tom to back them up. Flynn fumed openly at being relegated to second backup, those that only got to follow a hundred yards behind and be ready to rush in if there was trouble.

“Flynn, you told me all of your experience was with pre-trained horses,” Sam reminded him. “We don’t know what, if any, training these have had. That’s why the guys who’ve dealt with greenbreaks go first. That lets out me, Drew, Carl, and you.” Sam stared at Flynn until the younger man dropped his eyes. “Okay, everybody take your places, and stick to the plan. Anyone who screws this up for the rest of us gets teased for the rest of the trip.”

That sank home. Flynn’s attitude muted considerably and he shifted to careful watching. He’ll do, Sam thought. Just have to keep reminding him that this isn’t about being a hotshot.

They spread out and headed south and a little east across the rolling grasslands, gradually closing in on the herd near the shore. Following Kit’s suggestion, they were careful not to stare directly at any of the animals. Humans and horses had been allies for a long time, but horses never really forgot that humans were predators, too. When a predator stares at a herbivore, the grass-eater had better run. The two mothers became nervous first, whickering to their colts, but Kit and Roger stopped and waited while Blake slowly circled in. The little herd twitched and drifted a bit, went back to feeding, drifted a little more, and finally settled again. After a while one of the geldings let Blake walk up to it. He calmly talked to the big roan, gentled it, and showed it the bridle. The animal finally remembered being ridden and consented to wear the bridle again. Blake led it back to Tom, waiting with a saddle, then they both saddled the horse and Blake mounted up. Before he was in the saddle Kit came back with a mare, and in moments he and Jesse got her ready too. Roger caught another gelding and saddled it, and then the three of them used the horses to divide the remaining four adults. Tom, Jerry, and Jesse caught the two mares without foals, helped by the older men guiding their horses in a screen to block escape. After that only the two mothers and their foals were unsaddled, and the nervous way they drifted along ahead of the rest indicated that they had no great desire to be.

“Time to get serious,” Blake said quietly, and spit. “We can get them both with ropes, and the foals will follow their mothers. We tie them off to the saddle-horns and make ‘em stay with the rest, they’ll relax after a while and settle in.”

Kit and Roger nodded agreement.

“Then make it so,” Sam told them. Jesse and Tom readied their ropes, grins so wide their faces risked splitting open. Jerry, who’d lost the rock-paper-scissors contest, dropped back with Sam and the rest to watch. Naked envy played across his face, but he held his peace.

The next few minutes were exciting — whirling lariats and whinnying horses, clods of dirt flying as the two mares tried to dodge. With five on two it didn’t take long to capture them. The whole crew gathered again under the outlying cottonwood where they’d left all the bikes. The foals stuck tight to their mothers, snorting a little in agitation. The smallest butted at his dam’s udder, but the shriveled teats indicated he wasn’t going to find comfort there. Finally he disconsolately settled for cropping green grass at her side.

“Very good work, men, especially Blake, Kit, and Roger with those first three,” Sam congratulated them. “We’ve still got three or four hours of daylight. I want us to head south along the reservoir and see if we can find any more strays, while looking for a better place to spend the night.”

They broke down five of the bikes and lashed them onto the carry-racks of the other five. Then the crew rode south along the two-track paralleling the west shore of the lake. More than a mile later they came on an old hay shed at the edge of the trees, still a quarter full of bales from last year. It was the first intact building they’d seen all day. Judging from the pinpricks of light showing through the roof, Sam thought ‘intact’ might be a generous estimation. A dirt track led several hundred feet west to the same dirt road where Sam had first spied the horses. The barbed wire fences along it were mostly down, whether from neglect or vandalism Sam couldn’t tell. East through the trees the lakeshore glittered in a shallow cove barely a hundred feet away. Sam heard the sound of ducks again.

“Drew, Jerry, Flynn, and Blake, bring your bows and let’s see if we can get some supper,” Sam declared. “The rest of you set up camp in the barn. Quietly now.”>

The five archers stalked down through the forest to the shore, crouching behind a thin screen of willows when they reached it. Flynn turned out to have the least woodcraft, but he was clearly trying to be silent. They managed to take up positions along the shore without frightening away the ducks.

“Must be twenty of them,” Drew breathed in Sam’s ear. “Should we try for second shots?”

Sam shook his head slightly. “Don’t waste arrows — one shot only, loose when I do.”

He passed the word. Five men bent bows, nocked arrows, and chose targets. The ducks quacked and splashed, bobbing for food on the bottom, oblivious of the danger until five shafts stormed at them out of the thicket. Four found targets but Blake’s duck jerked aside at the last minute and his arrow disappeared into the lake. Ducks exploded from the water, flapping for air, leaving two dead floaters and two wounded thrashing about in the shallows.

Jerry plunged into the lake — one of the wounded birds was his, the other Flynn’s. He snatched up the two dead ones and flung them onto the shore for Sam and Drew, caught his own and pulled out his knife to give it the coup de grace. Flynn’s bird thrashed in circles that carried it slowly away from shore, one wing pinned to the body by the arrow. Flynn hesitated a moment, started to untie his boots.

“It’ll get away from you if you don’t move quickly,” Blake laughed.

“Boots can be dried,” Sam added, “And you don’t want to find a broken bottle in the water with your bare feet.”

Flynn grimaced but took the hint. He plunged into the water and waded out after the duck, now several feet from shore. Flynn caught it before the water quite reached waist deep, then swore suddenly and plunged a hand into the lake. He came up holding Blake’s arrow — with a foot-long catfish impaled on it.

“I meant to do that,” Blake told them all casually. His lips didn’t even twitch.

Jerry blinked at it. “Gosh, I didn’t know we were going fishing, too,” he deadpanned. “And me without my license!”

Drew snorted, busy gutting his bird. “Nobody here’s gonna complain to the game warden.”

They brought their prizes back to the barn. Kit and Roger had led the others to rearrange the hay bales to create two hollow squares inside the barn; a smaller one about chest high and the other nearly chin high. They’d tied off the horses to pillars inside that one, chivvied the foals in too, and closed them in with hay bales.

“If we fetch them water from the lake to drink, it’ll help get them used to us,” Blake explained to the younger men.

“What’ll we use for that?” Tom asked doubtfully. “Didn’t bring any buckets.”

“Sure you did,” Blake answered, grinning, and rapped Tom on the helmet. “You’re wearing one. Just pull the liner pad out first.”

Sam set the younger boys to hauling water while the older men finished arranging the defenses and cleared a place for a fire on the concrete floor. Flynn proved more adept at gathering wood than gutting his duck, so Sam set him to the task of finding only dry branches.

“We want it to be as smokeless as possible,” he explained, glancing at the burned ruins atop the hill. “The less attention we attract, the better.”

Flynn followed his gaze and turned solemn. “Yes, Captain Hyatt,” was all he said.

But Sam noted that he followed the directions, and gleaned enough dry wood for not just supper but breakfast, too. This turned out to matter, because the gathering afternoon clouds swiftly coalesced into a thunderstorm that soaked the neighborhood with brief fury, then slackened to a drizzle. They barely got their two tarps tied up in time to shelter adequate dry sleeping space from the leaks in the roof.

By sundown they had the ducks roasting, impaled two-and-two on swords and propped beside a shielded fire. Blake wrapped the fish in mud from the lake and roasted it right in the coals. Duck fat occasionally splattered into the fire, sending up little gouts of smoke, but those dissipated before escaping the shed. The whole crew fell to eating with voracious concentration.

Sam took an early turn on watch, paired with Flynn. The others unrolled their bedrolls and were soon snoring on the hard concrete floor.

Sam showed Flynn the trick of making a mark on one of the shed’s support posts, then lining it up with a tall dead tree branch. “When Venus, that bright star-like planet over to the left, is above and just a little east of the branch from here, that’ll be about four hours. We’ll wake Roger and Tom then; Kit and Jesse will have the third watch.”

Flynn gave him a look of respect. “How’d you learn a trick like that?”

Sam shrugged. “Years of hunting, and watching the night sky, first with my dad, last few years with my son. More useful than TV, and a lot of the time more interesting.”

Flynn snorted a little at that, but added seriously “I’ve been bow hunting a couple times before, Captain Hyatt, though never for ducks before today. I’ve done archery and polo for years, and won a few prizes, too. I saw the way you shoot — you’re good, better than any of us. And you know a lot of useful stuff.” He paused for a moment. “I think — I’m glad Captain Colotta sent me with you.” He straightened a little. “I mean to make you glad of it, too.”

“You’ve made a fair start on that already,” Sam told him, keeping his reservations to himself. “Just keep on using your eyes and ears, and don’t let your head become only a place to hang your helmet.”

❀ ❁ ❀

The hard cement floor under his sleeping bag was still dry when Sam turned in, and though the drizzle kept returning it seemed likely to stay that way until morning. He slept dreamlessly until Kit prodded his shoulder, waking just in time to stop himself from drawing his knife. It was still dark and cloudy, but the rain was gone and a pale glow marked the east.

“Whew. You meant what you said about waking you,” Kit whispered, squatting between Sam and Drew. “Captain, there’s something out there.” Drew awoke, listened.

Sam wriggled out of his sleeping bag and into his pants and boots, keeping as quiet as he could manage. Could it be feral cattle? Refugees from Denver? Or — he remembered a line from a story; when you have no data, guessing is illogical. He scooped up his bow and nocked an arrow before joining Kit and Jesse. Behind him Drew did the same, while the rest of the crew drowsed. So did the horses in their hay-bale pen; the beasts had done some damage by eating bits of it before settling for sleep last night. They seemed to find their renewed arrangement with humans mostly congenial.

Jesse stood at the edge of the barn where the hay-bale wall was only waist high, facing east. He had a spear in hand and ready. Low-hanging clouds were almost a ground-fog. The poles at the far end of the shed loomed ghostly dark and even the biggest of the cottonwoods outside were nearly invisible. The smoky scent that had been omnipresent in the valley since the first day of the Change was tainted with a new, musky undertone. Kit stepped up next to his son, Sam flanked his other side, and Drew joined them. The four of them stood tautly listening.

The roof dripped, trees dripped, and leaves rustled against each other somewhere behind and overhead as a vagrant breeze passed. It was half a minute before Sam heard the sound; a heavy thud, or several thuds so close together they overlapped. A short pause and it was repeated, then again.

Sam pulled Drew’s ear close and whispered “Wake the others — quietly. Everybody arms, but nobody shoots without my word.”

Quiet noises over the next couple minutes told him the boy was doing it. Sam vaulted over the hay bales, took a pace out into the dark and concentrated all his effort on listening to the night. The east was growing noticeably lighter when Flynn, Jerry, Drew, and Blake lined up at the bale-wall, bows and spears at the ready. The sound was getting louder now, and therefore likely closer. The odd scent was stronger, too, soaking the pale fog like the stink on an old dishrag. That wasn’t the scent of a feral cow, or a horse either. Sam cudgeled his memory as he fought to remember… something… The sound was very close now; he could make out the individual steps of very big feet. Lots of them.

I should be afraid, he thought. This is stupid, to be so exposed. Why am I standing out here? But his feet refused to move. Instead he felt a curious attraction, almost like an… invitation.

“Sensei, what is it?” Jerry barely whispered, his bow half-drawn and wavering from side to side.

Movement swirled out in the night, accompanied by a loud grunt. Sam froze as a massive head materialized out of the fog. Curving black horns, a huge mass of curly dark hair with one glittering eye stared at him from barely two yards away.

“A buffalo!” Blake exclaimed.

“A herd of buffalo,” Sam corrected quietly. “Stay still, be quiet, and don’t even think of shooting. If they stampede at us we’ll be crushed before you can do more than annoy them.”

The beasts materialized out of the brightening mist as if they were being created before Sam’s eyes, silvered with dew over shaggy black fur. Two, four, a dozen in all, not one of them shorter than Sam and most taller. Each at least a ton of muscle on the hoof, guarded by deadly sharp horns and a less-than-friendly disposition. Even the cows had horns. The big bull in the middle dwarfed the rest, it could have argued with a Mack semi and come off the winner.

It was also pure white.

Not like an albino, Sam had seen an albino cow once. This beast was impossibly white, like snow, like clouds, but with an earthy solidity that seemed denser than the continent under its hooves. Only its eyes and the tips of its horns were black.

The mist swirled and sparkled with refracted rainbows as dawn peeped across the lake. For a moment Sam thought the swirls formed the shape of a giant woman, walking at the king buffalo’s side. Her right hand rested lightly on his head. She wore a white deerskin dress beaded with rainbows, and long black braids worked with feathers swung against her shoulders. Her eyes seemed infinitely wise in a wrinkled brown face. Then she looked directly at him, and he saw that those eyes were filled with stars…

Every inch of Sam’s skin quivered under her gaze. It pulled at him like a hook in his gut, offering him something wild and free and terrifying and exhilarating. He dug his heels in the muddy soil, resisting. No — my duty’s to my men, my family, he protested. I can’t go with you! The gaze turned faintly approving as the pull subsided, like he’d passed some kind of test, and then she vanished.

The mist closed in and the sound of heavy hooves moved away. A dozen beats of his thundering heart later, it was gone. A breeze began to blow off the lake, dissipating the mist. The pasture rapidly cleared. There was nothing in it. A loss that was not a loss drained out of Sam’s heart, healing as it went.

“Sensei?” Jerry asked plaintively, staring around. “Where’d the buffalo go?”

After a long moment Sam stirred. “Away,” he answered. He shook himself, peered at the ground. Great hoof-marks littered the damp soil, fading into the drier grass on the slopes. The grass was trampled down in a long swath fading up the slope.

“Away,” he repeated. “Which is what we’re going to do soon. Get the fire going again and cook some breakfast. Tom, Carl, Jerry, Jesse, and Drew, water the horses. Kit, your turn as cook. Time to get going, men.”

While they fell to, he examined the tracks. They were all ordinary sized, as far as he could tell; none looked like they could be the prints of a giant albino buffalo. There were no human footprints at all.

Did I imagine that? I had to, right? But the detail!

Blake sauntered over, hands stuffed in his pants pockets. “See anything — unusual?” he asked in an elaborately casual voice.

Sam eyed him narrowly. “Like what?”

“Unusual tracks, I mean,” the older man clarified, studying the ground himself.

“Buffalo have big feet.” Sam measured his own against the largest of the tracks. It didn’t quite double his. Still far smaller than the king buffalo’s feet. There were no human tracks but their own.

Blake looked back and forth, a faint and forlorn disappointment on his face.

Sam decided to go out on a limb. He may think I’m crazy, but I have to know.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve seen her?” he asked, matching the other man’s casual tone.

Blake stuffed his hands in his pockets and was silent for a long moment.

“I think — once up in South Dakota, in the badlands south of the Black Hills,” he said in a low voice, looking at the ground. “Hunting with a couple rich oilmen, clients out of Okie City. They were both part-Comanche and a little Pawnee, too, brothers. It was the third time I’d taken them out. They didn’t talk much — liked to spend a lot of time just staring out across any place we hunted, ‘listening to the land’ they’d say. Good hunters both. It was a foggy morning like this, they were smoking pipes before breakfast, sitting on a rock outside the tent, when we saw — something. Scared ‘em both, they cancelled that trip and flew home the next day. I never saw ‘em again.”

Sam studied him. “Scared you?” he asked, probing.

“Nooo — and yes.” Blake met his gaze, brown eyes set deep in his weathered wrinkled face. “I didn’t want to stop, I’d marked a good set of bull elk and I was sure we could track ‘em to this little hole by the creek. The older one told me some prices are too high. He wasn’t talkin’ about my outfitter fee, either, they’d paid in advance and didn’t ask me for no refund.” He paused. “I was twenty-six, loose and wild — I don’t know why I saw Her, I ain’t got a lick of Injun blood, but I wanted to go with her. If I’d been alone… I would have.”

“And today?”

“Not so much.” He shrugged. “I got a wife and three kids back in Longmont. We signed up with the Baron right off after the city fell apart — my neighbor was one of them S-C-A guys and my eldest boy and his are good friends. I fought the Reds and Boulder, with both our boys — they’re sixteen. We pulled through. Herb — my neighbor got killed at Lyons.” Blake shrugged again, looked away. “But if I was younger — well. Maybe this time I would’ve.”

Blake fell silent. He’d said more words in the past couple minutes than in the whole trip so far, Sam reflected.

Without another word, they both turned back to the barn.

Sam’s crew broke camp less than an hour later, warm duck-and-barley stew in their bellies. Sam led them south around the length of Horse Reservoir, hoping to find other clusters of horses sheltering in the trees. They did find two more geldings grazing companionably near the south end. One had a distinct burn scar on its hind end, with part of his tail hair charred away. Both were eager to join the other horses, whickering plaintively. Blake and Kit were able to bridle them right off.

Sam looked around. There were a couple of short streets off the mile roads, lined with more burned-out houses. Whoever had been through this country had been wanton with the torches. That said something about them that he didn’t care for. There was a partially-burned barn with a small annex on one side, not far away from the shore.

“Kit, Blake, Roger;” Sam pointed to it. “Check that place out for any tack we might be able to use. I’d like to see if the mares will carry saddlebags or even a pack.”

The cowboys did and came back with treasures. Two pairs of genuine saddlebags, a bridle, and extra belly-cinches, even a spare saddle pad and a roll of tanned leather. “We can make a rig to carry four of the bikes,” Kit crowed.

“Do it,” Sam nodded, and half an hour later they lashed an ungainly bundle of disassembled bicycles onto the back of the calmer mare. She snorted, danced a little, and then settled down to it. Front wheels were tied onto the saddlebags and slung on the second horse, who took a little longer getting used to that. Blake kept her on a short lead rein for a couple hours, until she settled down. The burn-scarred gelding got a lighter load, which it accepted phlegmatically. When finished, they had three pack horses and six riding horses, and the four remaining bikes were stripped of most of their loads save the frames of two others.

“Not elegant, but it’ll do,” Blake pronounced.

“Good. Let’s head north.” Sam lead off on his bike, Drew, Tom and Carl following, and the horses fell in behind.

They had no more luck along the reservoir, so mid-morning found them stirring up dust on a road leading to the top of the huge rounded ridge just east of the lake. They still hadn’t seen a single other human, or an unburned house, but Sam realized that they’d passed several oil and gas wells. Most had storage tanks, or connected to bigger sets of tanks in little groups of two to six. Not one of the tanks was scorched, they looked completely untouched.

That’s odd, Sam thought. Someone burned houses, but left oil and gas alone? That doesn’t sound like any kind of arsonist.

They followed gravel county roads to a grassy rise, pasture on one side and spring wheat on the other. Sam scanned the lands to the east through his binoculars. Prospect Reservoir was down there, the third reservoir and second major target of their journey. The straight line of the dam leaped out at him through the lenses — dry and brown. He couldn’t quite see the bottom from this angle, but it didn’t look promising. The leaves on several of the trees lining the lakeshore were yellowing, plainly starved for water.

“Flynn, Blake, and Tom, go scout that and come back within an hour,” he ordered. “If there’s any livestock worth gathering we’ll all go down, but meantime let’s give the horses time to graze.”

The rest of the crew rigged pickets out of fence posts and turned the captured horses onto the grass to graze. The foals complained a little at the harsh dryness of it, but the rest ate willingly enough. There was a utility pole with a transformer mounted a dozen feet up, and old-fashioned lineman’s spikes to reach it. Sam swarmed up the pole and hooked a leg over the transformer, then raised the binoculars again.

This ridge was a long intrusion of the High Plains into the South Platte River’s valley. East and west the land dropped rapidly towards the flat valley floor. North it sloped down more slowly toward the distant South Platte River. The whole area below this height had been a vast mosaic of farms with irrigation ditches meandering along the slope of the land. Trees, a few ponds, and many small farmsteads sprawled over the landscape. Northwest he could see the town of Hudson, northeast lay Keensburg, connected by the gray ribbon of Interstate 76.

All of the fields were either gone to weeds or growing up in neat blocks of winter wheat. The trees were still there and mostly leafed out, but here and there one was already brown, feeling the stress of no irrigation. The contrast between growing fields and barrenness was striking from this height.

The two towns, on the other hand, were unequivocally wrecked. Fire blackened them, whole city blocks of houses reduced to foundations and rubble. Hudson didn’t look like it had an intact roof left, and Keensburg wasn’t much better. Their still-standing water towers presided over lonely desolation where clouds of gray ash blew on the breeze.

Fighting, he thought. Did they get into some kind of feud? Maybe beat up on each other until too few were left to hold either one?

He searched around among the farms; most of those houses were burned, too, or at least visibly scorched. The handful that had escaped were widely scattered. Even barns were often scorched — a steel one over near the interstate, next to a truck plaza, had vast black patches on the metal roof. Suddenly part of one patch flew up into the air and resolved itself to be a flock of birds.

Crows, he guessed, something about their movement spoke to that. Hell of a lot of them, and a bunch more perched on those four grain bins, too. Wonder why they’re gathering together like that?

He lowered the binoculars and thought about it. The dreary scene made the countryside near Lyons look downright hospitable.

Why is this side of the valley so much worse off than the west side? I can see they must have had more fighting; but why?

There was no obvious answer from his perch, so he went back down.

He studied the maps with Roger’s help. The cowboy had worked at or visited horse farms all over the east side.

“Used to be a couple smaller breeding outfits down there.” He jerked a thumb towards Hudson. “But the whole area looks trashed. I’d guess a couple of the mares we collected yesterday came from there, they’ve got the right lines to be from Cuthburton’s stock. The rest are just a random mix, look like they escaped from local families. Maybe the horse farms up near Milton Reservoir are doing better.”

Sam nodded. “Worth finding out. We’ll check out another place near here today, but if we don’t find much then we’ll head north tomorrow.”

Blake’s crew came back with a single dispirited gelding, muddied to the knees and alarmingly skinny.

“Found it stuck in the mudflats down near the outlet,” he explained. “Close enough to the dam that we could lasso it and tug it free. Don’t know if it’ll make it back home, but at least there’s a chance.”

“We’ll take it.” Sam nodded. “Let’s head north to the Banner Lakes, we might get lucky there.”

An hour later they eased down off the shoulder of the county road through a broken barbed-wire fence into the uphill end of Banner Lakes State Wildlife Area. The uppermost lake was completely dry and the next had shriveled down to a marsh, but the rest still had water. Green grass soughed in a warm breeze blowing up the little valley. Towering cottonwoods and long rows of Russian olive and dwarf willow fringed the lakes and various canals. Birds called, hawks hunted, and a badger hissed at them from the mouth of his tunnel. A startled fox darted away with long bounds. The air was heavy with the scent of honeysuckle, wild vines lacing whole groups of olive trees together into yellow-and-white thickets.

“Looks a lot more promising,” Blake remarked to Sam sotto voce, scanning eagerly around. The horses pushed willingly out into the grass and most of them immediately bent to eating.

“Natural subirrigation in these meadows, that’s must be why they’re so green,” Drew commented, staring around. A mournful bugling sound came floating up the little valley.

“Look, Captain Hyatt,” Flynn whispered excitedly. “There’s geese on the fourth pond! Can we go after them?”

Sam’s stomach rumbled — lunch had been a couple of hard biscuits and one-quarter of a Power bar for each of them, washed down with filtered water from Horse Reservoir.

“Sounds like the perfect thing for supper.”

He signaled to the other archers. Everybody dismounted, dropping bikes in the grass and tying the horses to trees. Kit and Jesse moved among the herd, checking their feet and general fitness. Sam nocked an arrow, crouched a little and commenced a slow sneak, Drew uphill of him and Blake beyond him. Flynn flanked them downhill, moving a little too fast in his eagerness. He was several paces ahead of Sam by the time they passed around the third pond. Jerry lagged a little, checking out a pheasant that dashed for cover in the tall grass.

Sam noticed the big house set well back on the hillside across the pond, sporting unbroken windows and a State Wildlife sign. Highway 52 lay just on the other side of the pond, he was surprised to see an unburned home so near an easy travel route.

How’d the local pillagers miss this one? He wondered.

And why are the geese all gathered in the middle of the water? A jay swooped and cawed above a cluster of olive trees along the shore, screeching offensively. They usually only do that when a predator’s nearby. And there’s a pair of ravens circling above.

The hair on the back of his neck twitched. A faint rank scent drifted by on the breeze. Without thinking about it he drew the big compound to full extension, far more than needed for a bird.

Orange and black lines in the grass —

❀ ❁ ❀

11

— Oasis —

Banner Lakes State Wildlife Area east of Hudson, Colorado; late June, 1998.

The shattering roar caught Flynn flat-footed as the tiger leaped out of the tall grass. Sam loosed and had another broadhead in hand when the arrow punctured the tiger’s chest. The beast spasmed in mid-leap, falling just short of Flynn and tumbling. Flynn tried to dodge but the rolling tiger bowled him over. Sam drew again, fired into the seething orange mass, no time to seek a vital spot, just fill it full of arrows and hope to God that you killed it. Drew joined with his own dart into the belly, while one of Jerry’s missed completely and thwocked into a tree trunk. Blake came sliding down slope into range and added another arrow to the tiger’s side. It roared again, weaker but still full of pain and anger.

Tom, Roger and Carl charged in with their spears, pinning the beast down. It batted ineffectually at the hard oak staffs, then one of them found its heart. It voided, quivered, and died.

Blake snarled “Heads up! There’s another!” and loosed a second arrow. The grass parted just a few feet behind Flynn, still trying to get up after having the wind knocked out of him. An even larger tiger arched up and backwards, clawing the air with an arrow in its face.

Drew shot again and clipped a bloody slash in its side before the arrow vanished in the trees. Sam shot a third time, transfixing its chest with his own arrow, and the second tiger fell over and threshed the grass in its death-agony. One outreaching paw clawed Flynn’s leather-armored shoulder as he frantically tried to roll away. The force of the blow flipped him completely over.

The second tiger shuddered and gurgled as Blake’s third arrow plowed into its chest. It spewed blood and died.

“Are there any more?” Jerry yelled frantically, trying to cover all possible directions with his bow.

Flynn tried to stagger to his feet. Tom abandoned his spear in the tiger and caught Flynn by the wounded shoulder. Flynn yelped and Carl slid around to his other side, the two helped him away from the dead beasts.

For several long minutes everyone tried to look everywhere, seeking the next attack.

“Keep on watching, everyone,” Sam said at last. “I’m going to take a close look at these two.”

He carefully squatted down next to the first, setting his bow aside but within easy reach, and drawing his sword. He prodded the body with it but the beast didn’t stir. The hide was fairly glossy, the tail long and supple, but the tiger was thin. Ribs were clearly visible beneath the loose skin. That hung on its frame like an oversized tent on undersized poles. The jaw lolled open, Sam could clearly see that one front fang was snapped off. The stump was already blackening with decay, clearly this had happened at least a couple weeks ago. The feet were astonishingly large, and something about the face looked underdeveloped. Glancing over at the size of the other, Sam made the connection.

This is a juvenile, not quite an adult yet. It probably didn’t really know how to hunt, either.

He stepped over to the other, substantially larger animal. Its hide wasn’t glossy at all — in fact, it had bare patches, and a significant rash on one hind leg. That rear paw was visibly twisted, as if from an old injury. The big tiger looked even more starved, all the ribs showing, and several teeth were missing outright. The line of nipples identified its sex.

Mother and cub, right, and both starving. The mother couldn’t hunt well, the cub didn’t know how, so they were desperate. Probably the only food they’ve been able to find is dead human bodies, and that gave them a taste for human meat. That’s why they jumped us.

“I think these two are all there is,” Sam told the others, and explained what he’d seen and concluded. “But Jerry, Blake, Tom and Carl, stay on watch, just in case — make a square back-to-back and each of you cover one of the compass points. Drew, see what you can do for Flynn. Kit, Jesse, how are the horses?”

“Calming down now, but that was a real near thing,” Kit said. “A minute more and we’d have had a stampede.”

“What the hell are tigers doing in Colorado?” Jerry jittered, still trying to stare through the trees.

“There’s a sanctuary place over by Keensburg.” Blake spoke up, carefully scanning ninety degrees of the neighborhood. “Takes a lot of old zoo animals and retired circus critters. I hear tell they’ve got upwards of twenty tigers behind their fences. Seen the place once, from outside — those fences are eighteen feet tall. How could any tiger get out of that, never mind an old one or a youngun?”

“Chances are, by being let go on purpose,” Sam answered thoughtfully. “A lot of those rescue places are run by volunteers who love their animals more than they love most people. If they ran out of food for the beasts after the Change, and couldn’t see a way to get more, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just let their animals out.”

Jerry shuddered. “You mean there might be twenty more tigers out there?”

“Not likely,” Blake assured him. “More than half of their tigers are so old they probably couldn’t even hunt. Worse off than this one. Those have probably starved to death by now, unless they found something dead to eat — in fact, they’d need a whole lot of dead things. Grown tigers eat twenty pounds of meat a day. I figure not more than ten of them were young enough to make it.”

He paused for a moment, then added reflectively “Of course, I didn’t know any of them had cubs.”

“You’re not making us any happier, Blake!” Roger grumbled.

Sam noted that the horses had mostly returned to cropping grass; Kit and Jesse moved among them, soothing and gentling. Good sign — they probably don’t sense any other tigers. Course, they didn’t sense these till they were almost on us.

“Drew, how’s Flynn doing?”

“Dislocated shoulder, Sensei,” the medic replied absently. “Give me a hand with it?”

Sam took his bow with him.

Flynn lay on the grass, teeth clenched and shoulder at an odd angle. Drew had opened his jack but not tried to get it off of him, he had both hands inside it on Flynn’s shoulder.

“Ready,” he said. “This is gonna hurt, Flynn. Try not to tense up if you can help it.”

Sam took the dislocated arm and tugged sharply in the indicated direction. Drew pushed and Flynn grunted a strangled “Nggh!” as the shoulder went back into place.

“Good, it’s where it should be now,” Drew declared, probing the abused flesh. Flynn unclenched his jaw and loosed an impressive stream of profanity. Drew just grinned. “We should take your jack off and wrap that, but I haven’t got any ice for it. Maybe I can soak a rag in water and the evaporation will help.”

Sam looked more closely at the jack. Several washers had torn free and there were parallel gouges in the heavy leather underneath, but the tiger’s claws hadn’t penetrated. “Good thing you were wearing armor, Flynn. It probably saved your arm.”

“Goddamn that hurts!” Flynn groaned.

“Just be glad it’s your left,” Sam advised him.

Drew looked at Sam. “He probably shouldn’t ride for the rest of today, Sensei. I’ll put damp cloth on him for a few hours and see how much it swells up. Tomorrow morning I can make a sling for him. Hopefully he’ll be able to ride by then.”

Sam glanced around. There was still that house, looking undamaged from here. If those tigers had taken up residence early enough it would explain why pillagers had left it alone. “I’ll scout that place, if it’s clear we’ll all move in there for tonight.”

He took Blake and Tom with him. They checked the tigers’ hiding place under the trees first; it was clearly a den of sorts, and had been used enough to pound down the grass. There were quite a few scats lying around too, the beasts hadn’t just moved in recently. Sam studied the marks.

“Only two of them here,” he pronounced. “But everyone look sharp just the same. Might be another who didn’t bed with these two.”

They carefully crossed the dam and scouted upslope to the house. It had a long front veranda with a couple benches and chairs. Four windows and a door looked out into it — all closed and undamaged. A sign on the door proclaimed it the residence of the Banner Lakes State Wildlife Area Game Warden. Sam tested the door — locked. He checked the windows but they were latched too. He circled the place to the back door and had no more luck there. Finally he returned to the front door, busted out a pane, and reached inside to open it.

The house smelled a little musty, like any place that had been closed up for a while. They explored it and quickly assured themselves that it was empty. In the kitchen Sam found a note on the table, weighed down by a sugar bowl. He picked it up and read it.

“Dad; Mom is awful sick and it’s been four days since things went wrong. We haven’t seen a car since then and hers won’t start no matter what Joe tries. We wrapped her up warm and we’re going to take her to Hudson in the wagon, Joe and I think we can pull her by ourselves. Please come find us there.”

It was signed “Karen,” in a firm but young hand.

A complex shudder went through Sam. There but for the grace of God—

Blake came in. “Upstairs is empty, three bedrooms and a bathroom. Still got water in the toilets and the tap. I think that tank on legs in the backyard must be their water tank — and it’s got at least something still in it.”

Sam turned away from the table, crumpling the note into his pocket. “Let’s move everybody in here for the night.”

Flynn managed to walk to the house under his own power. They bedded him down in one of the upstairs rooms — there were baseball posters on the wall and a teenager’s clothes hanging in the closet, too small for any of the crew. Drew worked on him while Sam arranged matters downstairs.

The garage was an old wooden two-car with a stained concrete floor. An overhead door squeaked loudly when Sam forced it up, but it worked. The little building was one big room, featuring a workbench at the back and a good seventy years of junk collected in the corners. There were only two tiny windows for light, both far too small for a tiger or a human to pass through. The space was just large enough to take all the horses.

“They won’t like it much, but they’ll put up with it,” Kit assured him.

“You and Jesse and Roger make sure they’re watered before sundown, then close them in for the night,” Sam instructed. “I don’t want any of us outside after sunset.”

Kit glanced around at the trees, bushes, and tall grass of the State Wildlife Area. “I’m with you there.”

They settled in for the few hours of light remaining in the afternoon. Sam organized a ruthless plunder of the pantry, finding more than enough food for the rest of their trip. Tom made the mistake of opening the refrigerator. After that they had to open all the windows to clear the reek out, and Sam made him duct-tape the thing closed so that they could stand to sleep in the house tonight. Fortunately a breeze came through and cleared the stench out rapidly. After that nobody even touched the big chest freezer in the back mudroom.

The stove turned out to be propane and still worked, like the sink. Once the kitchen was bearable again, Tom put together a meal that earned the whole crew’s forgiveness for the refrigerator.

“Where’d you learn to cook like that?” Jerry asked, cramming himself with refried beans and canned tomatoes in taco shells. Fried spam, canned black olives, and canned peaches and pears completed the meal. It seemed like ambrosia after months of barley soup. Sam could feel his starved fat cells stretching out again.

“I used to work at Alejandra’s Mexican restaurant in Lafayette, before everything Changed,” Tom answered, and fell silent. Sam remembered passing through the small town on their way out of Denver, and a different night in a gym where heat and water had still worked. Nobody in Lyons really knew what was happening there now, but there were no illusions. The few reports Longmont had gleaned from refugees spoke of riots, fighting, and starvation.

Later, sleeping in beds, on couches, and on piled rugs on the floor, most of the crew snored their way into well-fed oblivion. Sam took first watch again, patrolling quietly around the ground floor and watching the moonlight-silvered land outside. Drew mostly stayed on the second floor, changing Flynn’s compresses every half-hour and watching the front lawn through an upstairs window. An hour or so into the night Sam put a hand in his pocket and found the note again.

He pulled it out, reread it by a window.

Karen and Joe, I hope you made it, he thought. I hope your Mom recovered and your Dad found you. Even if I’m whistling in the dark. I’ve got to believe somebody else was as lucky as we were, making it to Lyons. I don’t want the whole world to be full of death and destruction. There’s got to be something good happening somewhere. Please, God. Please grant that something good’s happening somewhere.

A cloud drifted across the moon and the night darkened. He put the note away and continued his patrol until a yawning Roger came to relieve him.

Next day they let the horses graze a little more, under careful guard, while half the crew searched the rest of the Banner Lakes for livestock. Sam hadn’t really expected to find any, and they didn’t, but this was the greenest, brightest spot they’d yet found. They reassembled two more bikes to free up two more horses for pack duty. Then they loaded up the food and a handful of useful tools onto the horses, and headed north. Sam figured they had salvaged the equivalent of three weeks food for the whole crew from the forlorn house. He made sure they shut it up well before they left; it might be useful to somebody again, some day. His last act before leaving was to duct-tape a sturdy sheet of cardboard over the broken window in the front door.

“You think we’ll ever come back this way, Sensei?” Drew asked curiously.

“Somebody will,” Sam told him.

He had picked a route that took them between Hudson and Keensburg, past still more burned-out houses and weedy fields. They stuck to dirt county roads, those being easiest on the horses’ hooves. Only at the Interstate did they cross pavement, and that briefly.

Flynn rode a horse today, the gentlest of the geldings, grimly silent and suffering. His abused shoulder had swollen so much that he couldn’t get his jack back on. Drew kept soaking compresses in cold water and reapplying them.

“I think it’s doing some good,” he told Sam and Flynn around noon, as they paused for the others to capture a stray pony. “The swelling’s down a little from last night. But he shouldn’t use it at all, or even ride hard — the jolting would be really bad for it.”

“We’ll take our time,” Sam decided.

After lunch the chasers spent two hours pursuing a total of three horses and caught two of them; one mare and another gelding. The third, a handsome paint stallion with an unusually bold pattern of white and dark brown, was too wary, refusing to let anyone near it.

“Wonder what spooked him,” Roger grumbled, giving up after the third try.

Not half an hour later two cows turned up lurking near Box Elder Creek close to Krug Lake. One even had a calf, grown enough to wean, though the brown mama cow’s full udder indicated it hadn’t quite happened yet.

“Look,” Roger pointed out. “The black cow’s still putting out milk too. She must have lost her own calf recently.”

“Or this one’s nursing off both,” Blake suggested.

The calf blinked at them owlishly, bent its head and bit off a mouthful of grass.

“Ready to wean though.” Sam shook his head and chuckled.

“Look at this.” Roger prodded the black cow’s right rear leg and she rewarded him with a swat from a well-beshatted tail. Sam realized that foot had a badly-split hoof. It looked like she’d stepped on something sharp at least a few weeks ago. The cow could barely limp; Sam was amazed it had survived this long.

“She’s not gonna recover from that,” Roger opined. “And we’ll never get her home that way, either.”

“We could butcher her for fresh meat,” Blake suggested, looking dubiously at the beast.

“Steak,” sighed Tom and Carl, last night’s repast already fading from their memories.

The whole crew’s attention underwent a subtle shift as the cow went from ‘found prize’ to ‘dinner’ in their minds.

“Barbecued ribs!” Jerry suggested.

Sam looked about. They were on a bank just above the creek, a lazy flatland stream that emptied into Krug Lake a thousand feet straight north. The west shoulder of the lake’s dam had ruptured some years before and the pool was shrunk to a C-shaped appendix off the stream. Trees towered in clumps along the channel and around the marshy shore, where grass grew luxuriantly. From the manure piles Sam guessed that the cows had spent most of their time there. He wondered what had possessed them to wander a thousand feet up stream, where the grass was noticeably drier.

“Find us a place to camp,” Sam told Blake and Tom.

They turned up a good one just below the dam, on the east side where the old outlet channel had become a slough thick with watercress. The new channel from the rupture raced northeast to meet it, leaving a triangle of land a couple acres in size that had a broad base against the dam. Giant power lines marched past just to the north, some on steel towers and some on wooden poles. The only possible approach that didn’t involve crossing water was the east flank of the dam. It was already fenced off on the west and north sides and partly on the east, with both the stream and the slough inside the fence.

“Perfect,” Sam told them. “Okay, we butcher the lame one.”

They picketed the horses inside the fence and dragged the healthy cows over there too. The lame one didn’t make it past the lake, they got it as far as a big tree near the eastern shore. There Blake and Sam handled the slaughter and butchery, with aid from Jerry, Tom and Carl while the others set up the camp. Sam stripped to his underpants before taking his katana in hand.

“This is going to be bloody and messy,” he told the younger boys. “Cows are fatter than elk or deer and generally bleed more. Skin cleans easier than clothes. Now stand back while I cut her throat.”

Blake had tied a rope around the cow’s horns and flung it over a big cottonwood branch. Now he hauled on it, stepping back and away. The cow’s head was forced up, higher and higher, exposing her throat. Sam took the katana two handed, aimed carefully and slashed as hard as he could. The katana bit deep and severed the windpipe and both major blood vessels. Blood sprayed across his chest and side. The cow kicked once, sagged, and the red fountain pumped out on the ground. Sam aimed again, slashed, again, then a third time, and the head separated from the body. Tom flinched a little as the dead weight of the animal slammed to the ground, but he didn’t look away. Carl and Jerry were fascinated.

Blake lowered the head and untied it. He retied the rope around the cow’s rear legs and summoned all three boys to help him pull. The four struggled to raise the heavy carcass up enough to clear the ground while Sam studied it clinically. When they had the rope tied off around another tree Blake joined Sam again.

“Here and here?” Sam asked the older man, pointing to the belly. “Like an elk?”

“Yup,” Blake nodded, and stepped back.

Sam went to work with katana and warizaki. He soon had the carcass eviscerated and the hide peeled off. Blake spread it on the grass inside-up to dry. Then it was just a tedious job of sawing and chopping. Sam set the fine blades aside for the jointing and used one of Starry’s ugly but effective gladia for that punishing task. It took raw strength to hack muscle and bone apart. The blood splattering his skin was soon runneled by sweat as he took the cow to pieces. Blake and the boys carried off the parts as he separated each one. Blake named the cuts as they went, teaching the boys which were good for what. Sam stopped when he had just the two hindquarters left dangling head-high on the rope.

“That’s enough,” he decided. “We can carry the rest wrapped in the hide.”

He took the weapons to the shore, washed them thoroughly and gave them to Drew to dry and oil. Then he dived into the deepest part of the lake, swimming back and forth for a while but careful not to get any of the water in his mouth. God only knew what was breeding in it and Sam had no desire to try a round with dysentery out here in the devastated lands. Or worse. Back at the dam he carefully peeled off his underwear and cleaned all the remaining blood off of himself and it. Drew was waiting for him with a towel taken from last night’s refuge, and Sam’s one pair of clean underwear. Sam dried, dressed and joined the rest of the crew.

Blake had set up a drying rack made out of a bent piece of steel construction fence scrounged from a junk-pile. He and the boys were busily shaving part of the meat into strips to make jerky. Roger tended a long fire that sent hot smoke drifting through the hanging strips to cure them. A rack of beef ribs roasted over a wood fire, slices of liver fried in a pan. The smell awoke a ravening hunger in Sam’s gut.

An hour later the sun touched the mountains and the crew was stuffed.

“Kit, Jesse, and Tom, you get first watch,” Sam ordered “I’ll take second with Roger and Jerry. Blake gets third with Carl and Drew. Flynn gets another pass tonight. One person on each shift tends the fire and keeps the meat smoking. Let’s clean up and get ready for sleep, guys.”

They washed up in the lazy stream below the dam. Drew filtered more water to top off their canteens, then everybody policed the camp. There was a coyote peeking at them from the rise east of the slough, circling and sniffing at the blood-scent. Sam had the boys haul the hanging hindquarters higher for the night and left it — it would either be there in the morning or it wouldn’t, and it was far enough away from their bedrolls and horses that he wasn’t going to worry about scavengers. A couple of crows, disturbed by the work, settled back to peck on the carcass by the light of the rising moon. The remaining mama cow and the calf were tied to an old fencepost near the slough, already drowsing.

The crew went back over the dam to their hidden camp and those not on watch turned in. Sam checked briefly; Jesse stood watch with the horses, Kit tended the fire, and Tom was a moon-silvered sentinel against the stars along the crest of the dam. It seemed bare seconds later that Sam found himself sinking into a dreamless slumber.

He woke with knife in hand and his senses tingling. The chill night air had settled into stillness.

Something’s not right.

Kit drowsed by the smoking fire, head on his knees and a forgotten stick in one hand ready to be added to it. On the far side of the camp Jesse curled on his side, Flynn lay asleep and snoring amid the horses. Tom leaned on his spear atop the dam, silhouetted against the sky. His head slowly sagged down, then jerked up, then slowly sank again as Sam watched, mechanical as clockwork.

He’s asleep on his feet. Too much meat, Sam thought as his own uncomfortably-full belly nagged at him. I shouldn’t have let them all gorge on it like that. Hell, I shouldn’t have been such a pig either. What was I thinking?

He studied the camp. Everyone else was rolled in their blankets and sound asleep. The horses’ heads hung down, legs splayed to steady them, all sleeping too. The calf still knelt in the grass, sound asleep, but the cow —

Was missing.

Sam quietly pushed his blankets off and belted on his swords, lying at his side. He rose to an alert crouch, knife ready and hand on the familiar hilt of his katana. He opened his senses to the night air, listening, scenting, searching. There was only one way out of the fenced camp without crossing water. Presently he heard a faint noise from the east end of the dam; the thud of a cow’s hoof. The creature’s head began to rise against the moonlight, slowly plodding up the slope out of the shadowed little meadow. Sam could just make out a smaller shadow moving in front of it.

He glided quietly across the camp, glad he’d slept in his boots. The cow reached the top of the dam just as Sam tapped Kit on the shoulder. The horse trainer came awake with a guilty start, stared up at him. Sam put a finger to his lips, then gestured toward the camp with the warizaki. He left Kit scrambling to his feet. Sam sprinted after the cow, now disappearing over the east shoulder of the dam.

He topped the rise and paused just long enough to find the cow. It was right below him, stumbling down the slope to the flat meadow of the lakeshore. Something tugged urgently at the lead rope, a human shape only a few feet tall. Sam pulled in a lungful of air and shouted “Halt! Who goes there?”

The stranger startled, redoubled his efforts to pull the cow along.

Farther down the dam Tom woke, dropped his spear, and scrambled to find it.

Sam charged down the slope, knife at the ready. The stranger saw him coming and finally abandoned the cow. Stick-thin legs flashed in the moonlight, pumping like mad. Sam accelerated, gaining — and the stranger jinked left, then right. The second leap turned out to be a mistake, as one foot landed in a cowpat and the short form went sprawling. Something glittering flew from a hand and splashed into the edge of the lake. Sam ignored it and pounced on the body. There was a brief struggle and dirty nails tried to claw his face. That ended when he pricked a shoulder with the point of the warizaki.

“Stop that or die!”

The stranger went limp and began to cry in a high thin voice. Moonlight shone on a weeping face. Sam suddenly became aware of the form pinned under him.

“You’re a girl!”

The weeping got louder.

He sighed. “Girl, I nearly killed you. That was a dumb stunt you pulled.” He climbed off her, sheathed the warizaki. She immediately tried to bolt but he was ready for that, caught her arm and jerked her off balance and into an arm-lock. “Don’t try that again. Come with me now and you won’t get hurt.”

Tom hovered, spear at the ready and looking both alarmed and sheepish. The balance changed to mostly-sheepish when Sam favored him with a stern look.

“We’ll talk later about you sleeping on duty.”

He marched her back to the fire, one hard hand holding her skinny right arm behind her and the other gripping her left elbow like a vise. Kit had built up the fire. Sam forced the girl down to a sitting position in front of it.

“Now, first things first. I’m Sam Hyatt, Captain of this expedition. What’s your name?”

Dark eyes peered back at him in a round dirt-smudged face under a mop of dirty medium-brown curls. Her skinny arms and legs stuck out of cut-off jeans that hung below her knees and a too-big T-shirt, both about equally filthy. She wore battered sneakers without socks, and the kind of suntan that said she lived outside at least as much as inside. After a pause she answered “Margie. Margie Brown.”

“How old are you, Margie?”

“Fourteen.” She frowned. “Pretty soon, anyway. My birthday’s June fourteen — fourteen on the fourteenth, Daddy said.” She stopped and hunched down a little, frowned more. “Is it June fourteen yet?”

Sam had to think for a moment. “Yes, Margie, it’s pretty close to the end of the month. You’re fourteen years old now.”

Margie nodded. “Thought so.” She looked proud and sad at the same time.

“Why’d you try to steal that cow, Margie?”

“Wasn’t stealing!” She flared. “Bessie’s mine! Marble too, before you killed her!” She glared at him with the strength of true outrage.

Sam raised an eyebrow at her. “We didn’t know that. She — Marble, was wounded and going to die soon.”

“Them bad men did that!” Margie banged a fist on one knee even as her other arm clutched the other knee to her chest. Her lips began to tremble. “They chased her an’ she stepped on Daddy’s drawknife where he’d dropped it when — when — wh-“

She burst into tears, pulled both legs to her chest and buried her face in her knees. Between heaving sobs she shouted “Leave me alone! You killed my cow! I raised her from a calf, she’s mine! I hate you! I hate you!”

Sam waited while Margie cried, sobbing out more tears than he’d have thought her small body could hold. Though two years older than his own son Jimmy, she was shorter and slighter — except for her hips, already wide, and her beginning promise of a bust. This isn’t all about a cow. What’s she doing here, alone in this devastation? I think I can guess — and I don’t like the answer.

When the tears finally stopped, Sam spoke to her again.

“You look hungry. Would you like some food, Margie?”

Suspicious eyes peered at him from under her filthy hair. “Maybe. What you got?”

“Lots of jerky. A few ribs, and plenty of steak too. Some canned food — we could open something for you. By the way, I hope you don’t mind us eating Marble too much, but it seems a shame to waste meat.”

“Oh, that’s all right; we were gonna eat her in a couple more years anyway.” Margie shrugged. “Daddy told me from the start, I could only do four-aitch if I was okay with eat’m eventually.”

That’s a relief, Sam thought but carefully didn’t say aloud. Blake, listening from behind Margie, unwrapped a small steak and slapped it into a pan to sear on the fire. Margie stared at it hungrily while it cooked.

“You like doing Four-H, Margie?” Sam asked her, not wanting the flow of information to stop. What am I going to do with her? I can’t very well leave her behind.

“The rabbits were kind of fun,” Margie allowed. “They had the best babies, all warm an’ fuzzy, but I never liked chickens much. Good to eat, but they don’t got enough brains to be fun. Ain’t much alive that’s got less brains than a chicken. Cows are a lot more fun, and they don’t peck at you.”

Sam smiled. “My little girl actually likes chickens. But we eat the ones that peck too much, so the rest aren’t too bad about it.”

“What’s her name?” Margie demanded curiously. “Does she raise cows too?”

“Jenny; she’s six-going-on-seven, and my boy Jimmy is twelve. We don’t have any cows ourselves, but I bet she’d like to raise one, when she’s big enough.”

“Oh, she’s a little kid, then.” Margie considered that for a moment, then magnanimously added “I could show her how. Does she ride yet?”

“Just beginning.” Sam remembered Jenny’s delight when Rina had let her ride Sunny around the paddock in Lyons. He felt a brief stab of what could only be homesickness.

“I ride real good!” Margie boasted. “Pie’s the best horse!”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “We didn’t take your horse, too, did we?”

“Naw, there’s no way you’d catch him, he runs like the wind! And he can jump any fence there is — he’s always runnin’ around to visit the neighbors’ horses. But he always comes back to me. Mister Gehrig complained that Pie made his mares preggers, but Daddy said the old bastard shoulda paid me stud fees for the favor.” Her eyes widened and she put a hand to her mouth. “Oops, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone Daddy called Mister Gehrig a old bastard.”

“I don’t think your Daddy will mind too much,” Sam said cautiously feeling his way into the minefield. “I promise not to tell him.”

“Don’t matter; he’s in heaven now with Mama.” Her lip quivered again. “He can see everything from there, an’ hear too. Just like Mama. But now he can’t talk to me anymore, ‘cept in dreams.” Tears began to overflow her eyes again. “I hope he’s not sad that I told. I promised, but I forgot, I really did.”

“Where did you and your Daddy live, Margie?” Sam asked gently.

“The blue house with the purple trim.“ She pointed south, towards the last house they’d passed, a modular. The place had been thoroughly torched, but one corner still showed blue paint with purple trim. Sam remembered a human skeleton in the front yard, torn apart by scavengers and mostly gnawed clean. There had been a small skeleton with it, the skull looked like a dog.

Blake speared the steak with a fork, flipped it. “How do you like your steak, Margie?” he asked.

“Daddy says if it’s stopped bleedin’, it’s cooked too much,” she confided. “But I don’t mind if it’s a little more cooked than that.”

Blake found a plate, knife and fork, and after a moment transferred the meat and handed the assemblage over to her. She tore into it, still managing enough manners to say ‘thank you’ to Blake before stuffing in the first mouthful. Sam watched for a while as she ate in dreadful concentration. He wondered when she had last eaten anything. When she slowed down he slipped in a few more questions.

“Where have you been living since the bandits came, Margie?” Sam asked her gently.

She chewed for a while, swallowed, poked the much-reduced remnant of the steak with the fork. He noticed that she used her utensils with a neat precision.

“I got a hidey place,” she said evasively. “Daddy told me to run out the back door and go there when he saw the — the — the bad men coming’ up the road. They set fire to the neighbors, I heard Mrs. Muller screaming. She used to yell at her kids a lot, we could hear that sometimes, but not like — not like that. Like she did, that day. Willy was shouting, and little Ginny, then they stopped too.”

Margie paused and shivered for a moment. “Willy used to be mean to me — called me a retard ‘cause I got cee-pee, just a little. I never liked that. But I didn’t want him to… go to heaven.”

Sam’s heart ached. I don’t believe in karma; no previous life could be bad enough to warrant this for a child!

“Anyway,” Margie continued matter-of-factly, “Bessie had got out and gone looking for her calf. He kept getting through the fence and following the crik down here, and she’d get through too and go after him. Marble’s calf had gone with him this time, so Daddy said I had to go take care of the three of ‘em. Keep ‘em hid, away from the bad men on the road, he said. So I took ‘em to my hidey place. They didn’t all really fit, but I got the calves inside. I knew Bessie would stay close as long as her calf was there. She did, too, right in the bushes. The bad men came by but they never saw her, or us. They went on north to Mrs. Kunkel’s and broke the door, took stuff — I could hear ‘em whoopin’ and saying bad words. Then they burned her house, her barn too! Mrs. Kunkle will be real mad when she comes home. And they burned White’s too, I heard it but I ain’t gone over there to look. I waited till it was dark before I went home. Our house was all burnt too! An’ that’s when I — that’s when I — I found Daddy and Gert. He had his gun with him, it was cut up like somebody’d hit it with a big knife. He was cut up too, and so was Gert — she’s our collie-dog. That’s when I knew they’d had to go to heaven, like Mama, and — and I — I wasn’t gonna be able to talk to Daddy no more.”

She sniffled for a while, then remembered her meal. She cut up the last piece of meat into two dainty bites, and ate both of them.

Sam didn’t dare touch her. “What did you do then, Margie?”

“Found Marble,” the girl continued matter-of-factly. “She was in the front yard, had her foot stuck on Daddy’s draw shaver. He was workin’ in his shop an’ musta dropped it in the yard when he went for his gun. I pulled it outta her foot an’ brought her back to my hidey place. The bad men took Daddy’s horse June, and her foal, but my Pie got away. He came back to me that first night, stayed with Bessie an’ Marble outside the hidey place. He likes to run around in the day, and sometimes I ride him then, but he comes back every night. I left him there, tied to a tree, when I came here for Bessie and her calf.”

She lifted up the plate, started to lick it, then stopped with a worried expression. “Oh no! I forgot again! Daddy said not to lick plates in front of anyone but family!”

“It’s all right, Margie, we don’t mind. What have you been eating since the bad men left?”

“Milk, mostly. Bessie’s calf’s weaned now, and Marble’s is about to be, so I been milkin’ them both.” She rubbed her tummy. “S’not enough, though. I tried lookin’ in the ashes of our house but all the cans’re gone, same with Mrs. Kunkle’s.”

Drew spoke up. “Sensei, we’ve got two cans of peaches from that Wildlife place. I was thinking of mixing them in with the oatmeal for breakfast.”

“Would you like that, Margie?” Sam asked her. “Oatmeal and peaches for breakfast?”

Her eyes got big and she smiled like the sun, an expression almost wholly happy. “I’d really like some of that, Mister Hyatt. Why does he call you sen-say?”

“It’s — my title, it means teacher,” Sam explained. “I used to teach school before everything Changed. Now they mostly call me Captain, because I am the leader of this expedition.”

Margie cocked her head to the side inquisitively. “Is it nicer to be a leader than a teacher?” She yawned suddenly, and looked surprised at herself for doing so.

How do I answer that one? he wondered. Blake and Kit, the other fathers in the group, were giving him sly smiles across the firelight. Sam settled for saying “Most of the time they’re both a lot alike. Will you stay here with us tonight, Margie? We — I’d like to know that you’re safe.”

She frowned in concentration. “Daddy said never to go places with strangers unless they’re my teachers or doctors. You’re nice like Mister Hatcher at school, and you’re sort of like a teacher.” She thought about it for a moment, then smiled that sunny smile again. “I think I’d like that. But my blanky’s still in my hidey place. Can I go get it?”

“Sure you can,” Sam told her. “I’ll walk there with you.”

On the way she stopped by the lakeshore and fished out something. It turned out to be a paring knife. She had a small leather sheath for it concealed at her waist.

“Daddy said to allus keep my knife hidden ‘less somebody tried to hurt me,” she explained. “I thought you were a bad man at first ‘cause you killed Marble, but you were nice to me after you knew I was a girl.”

“I’m sorry I tackled you, Margie, and I’m sorry we had to kill Marble. I didn’t know.”

“See? That’s how I know you’re not a bad man.” She smiled that startling sunny smile again.

The hidey place turned out to be a hole in a long thicket of tamarisk. Margie had a slanting passage through the stems that concealed the hollow quite thoroughly from any point outside. Despite the westering moon it was too dark to see inside, so Sam waited until she’d fetched out her treasures — a battered polyester-wool blanket, a plastic ground cloth, a thick polyester pad, a small galvanized pail, and a little collection of toys in a plastic belt-pouch.

“Everything else burned up with our house,” she explained sadly.

Pie turned out to be the unusual paint horse that they’d wasted two hours chasing yesterday. He drowsed under a big cottonwood, tied to it by a slender piece of string that he could certainly have broken any time he wanted. Sam stayed well back while Margie put on his bridle and a blanket-pad, then leaped up onto his back.

“Don’t you use a saddle?” Sam asked in astonishment.

“He doesn’t like those, so I don’t,” she explained. She prodded the horse with her heels and they trotted elegantly back to the camp.

There Kit made an abortive effort to add Pie to the picket string, but the stallion wasn’t having any of that. He inspected the mares, ignored the geldings, and appropriated his own place to sleep.

“I don’t think this little fence is going to keep a horse like that inside,” Kit confided doubtfully.

“We won’t worry about it,” Sam ruled.

He made a place for Margie to sleep next to the fire, but after only a few minutes she got up and dragged her bed over next to his.

“There’s too much light there,” she complained, and fell blissfully back to sleep a yard away from him.

The next day Margie obediently helped with everything asked of her, and proved surprisingly capable. The only hitch turned out to be in the morning, when she wanted to wash. And use the latrine — which had no barrier to seeing eyes.

She stood uncomfortably on one foot, then the other. “Ummm, Captain Mister Hyatt-sen-say, I need to go.” She looked at the latrine — a log propped on rocks with a trench underneath — and frowned. “Where’s the door?”

Blake rescued the situation by finding a big tarp and some steel T-poles robbed from a fence. Together they soon made a rough enclosure with a door-flap that could be pulled shut. He grinned at Sam as he turned it over to Margie’s use with a flourish, after explaining to her how to use it. She asked for some warm water and a washcloth so Sam supplied her, giving her his one clean T-shirt as well. She disappeared into the latrine for a long while and when she came out the change was astonishing. She had clear tanned skin and she’d washed most of the leaves and dirt out of her hair — her drying curls quickly sprang out into a golden-brown halo. Her jeans were still filthy, but Sam could tell that she herself was as clean now as could be managed.

She was also very obviously female, a very young woman rather than a girl-child.

Sam winced. The CP that damaged her mental capacity seems to have advanced her physical maturity; she looks sixteen, not fourteen!

The boys noticed. Jesse looked at her in astonishment for a long moment, then turned beet red and abruptly got busy with the horses. Jerry, the next youngest, also seemed to pay a lot more attention to her existence. Carl was frankly bug-eyed, then embarrassed, but he kept sneaking looks at her. Drew and Tom each took one look and then carefully avoided looking directly at her at all.

Blake almost laughed at Sam’s expression.

“Never had girls or women along on a hunting trip, have you?” the older man asked slyly.

“Not till now,” Sam sighed. “This’ll be a first.”

Kit looked thoughtful. “Captain, she needs a home, and someone who can spend time with her. Better still someone who understands cerebral palsy — she’s obviously got a mild case, but that doesn’t make it less real. My wife Joan was a parapro for the handicapped kids at the school district. She knows what to do — and since we work with the stock, Margie’ll have more chances to do what she’d already pretty good at. My Sharon’s twelve and Joan would be glad to have another younger girl in the house. How about we take her in?”

Sam looked over at Jesse, still a little redfaced but sneaking occasional looks at Margie while she milked Bessie.

“Your son isn’t thinking about her like a sister,” he pointed out.

“I know.” Kit’s mouth twisted up wryly. “Runs in the family — Joan and I had his eldest sister when we were both seventeen, barely. We married early, but it worked out well for us. And now that farm life is pretty much the only future any of us are going to have any more, marrying young’s not a bad thing. If it happens, well, it happens. If she decides she’d rather have him for a brother, I’ll make sure that’s how it turns out too — Jesse’s a good boy. But you’ve got two kids of your own and a thousand responsibilities; you shouldn’t be the one to take on Margie.”

Sam recognized the truth of that. He glanced at Blake. The Longmont man held up both hands palm-out, made a pushing motion toward Kit.

“Your man’s talking good sense, Captain, I’d listen to him if I were you.”

Sam blew out his breath. “Right. We’ll ask her if she’d like that.” We’re disposing of a little girl’s future as if we had every right to do so, he thought ruefully. But what choice is there? No orphanages or court-appointed guardians to turn to any more.

❀ ❁ ❀

12

— Confrontations —

Krug Lake north of Hudson, Colorado; late June, 1998.

Over breakfast — the promised canned peaches and oatmeal plus fresh whole milk that Margie coaxed from Bessie — Sam broached to her the idea of travelling to Longmont to live with Kit’s family. She gravely considered it and agreed that, with home burned and Daddy gone to heaven, she should come to Lyons and meet Jesse’s sister, and Sam’s little girl. Sam pointed out the place in the distant mountains where Lyons lay and told her to keep her eye on it now and then to see it get closer. Then he had to explain that their day’s journey would actually take them farther away from it for a while.

“But we will get there,” he promised. “Sometimes you have to go farther away from a thing in order to come back closer to it than when you started.”

He looked around the campfire, picked out Jesse, Carl, Jerry, Drew, and Tom by eye. “Boys, I want you all to gather here.” When they did and he had their attention, he put a hand on Margie’s shoulder and formally said “This is Miss Margie Brown, who is our guest for the rest of the expedition. She’ll be travelling with us back to Lyons, where Kit Coyle and his wife will be taking care of her. I’m making all of you responsible for looking out for her until we get there. I expect you to be polite to her at all times, and I’m sure she’ll show you the same consideration. The paint stallion and these cows are hers, we’re all going to help her take care of them on the trip back as best we can. Is that understood?”

Sam caught the subliminal lessening of tension in the group — Margie had now passed into sacred status. She smiled uncertainly at them, not entirely sure what had just happened. Sam made introductions and she made a polite ‘Please to meet you’ to each of the men. She called Flynn “Mister Pauling”, and had similar formality for the three older men and Sam, but she called the five younger boys by their first names. She guessed right away that Kit was Jesse’s father, and asked both of them about their family. By the time breakfast was cleaned up she was one of the crew, though occasionally Jesse blushed and stammered when she asked him a direct question.

Blake rigged a bedroll wrapper out of a sack for her, and Kit figured out a way to tie it onto Pie’s saddle-blanket so that it would stay. The stallion fidgeted for a minute before deciding that this was acceptable.

“Nicely done, Captain,” Blake commented quietly as the whole crew climbed into a saddle or straddled a bike. Margie patted Pie’s neck and bestowed her sunny smile on everybody. “So, where are we heading?”

Sam pointed to the dead power-lines overhead, then west.

“We follow the service road till we hit the Beebe Canal, then north to Milton Reservoir. And everybody keep your eyes open for more livestock.”

Sam had expected the cow and two calves to be a constant drag on their movement, but Pie proved to be an excellent herding horse, and took it upon himself to make sure that they not only kept up, but that they stayed in the middle of the entourage. The new mare assisted him in this effort, without prompting.

Kit, Blake and Roger were ecstatic. “These two are worth their weight in gold,” Kit confided. “Training a horse to do that without a cowboy keeping him at it every minute is hard.

They rode west, under the dead wires, through a flat sandy landscape stamped with row after row of center-pivots, pumps, power lines, and other wreckage of industrial agriculture. Oil wells and storage tanks crouched in virtually every corner of the giant crop circles, and natural gas wells too. Pipelines occasionally shouldered their way out of the soil to receive connecting lines or sport control valves, then dived back below like metallic earthworms. Low-lying patches were green with collected moisture, but most of the fields were barren and brown. The triangular pastures in the corners of the pivots were sometimes gray with sagebrush, aromatic and dusty despite the rain less than two days ago.

This land used to feed tens of thousands, Sam thought. And heat their homes and fuel their cars, too. But nobody lived in it!

He shook his head at the irony, and pressed on.

In three miles of the flat landscape, Sam didn’t see a single house or even a barn. The silence was immense, broken only by gentle breezes soughing through the occasional cottonwood tree or making the stay-wires on the pivots hum softly. Not a cow, horse, or any animal bigger than a coyote crossed their path, and only one of those. That one stared at them impudently before sauntering away.

“Smart damn critter,” Blake remarked before he hawked and spit. “It’s figured out that we can’t shoot it anymore. That’s gonna be hell on any sheep that make it through.”

They found the Beebe Canal, a flowing ditch sixty feet wide and arrow-straight that barred the way west. The muddy water was low, barely covering the bottom. Sam turned the crew north and they left the power lines behind, to march through more empty agricultural country. Stalled center-pivots and oil wells and tank farms still ruled the landscape, but now they passed an occasional machinery barn or grain bin, and twice, houses. Neither had been burned, but at the first one spear-armed men stood around the yard and jealously watched the cavalcade pass in silence. Sam was glad that the moat-like canal separated them from that mob of bitter-looking farmers.

“They didn’t smile at me when I waved,” Margie told Sam in a disappointed voice. Her face got worried. “Are they more bad men?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Sam explained quietly. “I think they’re just afraid.”

The other house was more than a mile away and adjacent to a concrete bridge over the canal. Sam risked taking a mid-morning break to check it out. The place had clearly been looted so they spent little time there and continued on north. Soon the trees bordering Milton Reservoir hove into sight. They crossed paved County Road 30 and were again in the realm of burned houses and lifeless fields.

Margie looked at the first couple of ruins, sidled her horse closer to the bike Sam was currently riding. “Have the bad men been here too?” She frowned.

“Looks like it,” he affirmed. “But we’re going to do our best to avoid them.”

Milton Reservoir was down, much lower than Horse, with over half the muddy bed exposed to the sky. Vultures and crows picked at a dead cow mired in the inlet channel. Farther out in the marshes, more vultures covered an anonymous carcass that was probably a horse.

“Should we scout the west shore?” asked Kit, looking north along it through a gap in the trees.

“No,” Sam decided, leaning on his pedals. “Not many trees except on the islands, too much marsh, and we can see most of it from here. Let’s follow the east side around to the dam. There’s water there, and more likely to be living critters. Everyone alert; chasers be ready if we see anything.”

They followed meandering two-tracks from pasture to pasture, past a host of still oil wells and small tank farms. Dirt roads connected those to the county road on the east side, where a very few houses stood scorched and silent.

Burning, so much burning! Sam thought. Why? The waste of it. There must have been at least some things in those houses that could be used.

They didn’t find the least sign of horse, cow, or any livestock most of the way up the lake’s east side. The long slender forest along the muddy shore was luxuriantly green thanks to the reservoir’s water table, but the grass a little way back from it was mottled with yellow patches. The rise of the land to the east was already golden yellow and dirt brown.

Only June and the valley’s already drying out. Burt said the winter wheat will start to ripen in the first week of July. We’ll have grassfires for sure by August.

They searched three patchy miles of trees along the sinuous shoreline without finding anything bigger than a fox. Finally Sam paused in a group of tall trees a little south of the dam, where the lakeshore shelved more steeply and the exposed bottom was mostly sand, not mud. The cloudy yellow water at the south end of the reservoir gave way to clearer green here, with foot-long fish barely visible out in the depths. A trio of meadowlarks sang and a crow issued a single harsh croak, but otherwise there were no birds near.

“Let’s break for lunch,” Sam declared. “Blake, Jerry, Roger, scout around a little, make sure there’s no surprises behind any of these oil tanks. Drew, take charge of water again. Kit, you and Jesse check over the stock. I need to do some — thinking.”

The rest scattered to their tasks. Sam found himself a shady patch of cropped grass under the biggest cottonwood, stripped off his boots and socks. He let his toes sink into the moist turf.

Horses were here, he thought. They ate this grass down, dropped that manure pile over there, then left — at least a couple days ago, but not more than a week. That’s well after those houses were burned. So where’d they go?

He searched the far lakeshore with his binoculars, tuning out the give-and-take of the younger men filtering water at the water’s edge. The mud flats were enormous, nearly a half-mile wide for most of the distance, save on the northwest corner where an arm of water reached deep into the land. There was a concrete strip at its far end, a boat ramp. Geese and ducks drifted far out on the lake and flocks of other water birds picked at the edge of the receding water. Hawks dived at them. A bald eagle glided over the water, snatched up a fish and flapped its way to a dead tree on an island in the mudflats. Beyond, through frequent gaps in the tree line, he could see the rising land, mostly in yellowing pasture and wheat fields. Except for the ubiquitous oil wells and tanks, the land was as empty and lifeless as the eastern rise behind him.

The sun was past noon and reflecting fiercely off the water into his eyes. Sam dropped the binoculars, sank to his knees in seza position. He let his hands rest on his thighs, palms up and fingers open, and regulated his breathing. Bit by bit he sank his mind into the Zen of the land.

‘Empty yourself of desire, and the focus of that desire will seek you out,’ he remembered one of his teachers saying on Okinawa. Meditation was important to practitioners of the Empty Hand, teaching the student to center himself in the universe. Focused meditation sometimes produced startling results. He’d tried it while out hunting a few times, too; sometimes it worked. Let’s see what happens. His eyelids drooped as his breathing slowed.

The lake spread before him, shrunken but still large. He thought of its roots in the meandering swales that drained the long shallow valley stretching away south, parallel to the mighty main stem of the South Platte that had long ago stolen the headwaters that once filled this valley. Man had dug canals and diverted some of that water back into the valley, built this dam to catch it. The water paused here, delayed by heaped earth coated with concrete, but that couldn’t stop it for long. The spongy sandstone beneath was a briefer impediment to movement. Driven by the pressure of all those tons of water sitting above, awaiting release, some percolated through, and came up beyond in the form of —

“Springs,” he said aloud, opening his eyes again. “The horses are there, below the dam. Around the springs.”

Blake sat nearby, waiting, with Drew hovering protectively a little beyond. Blake raised an eyebrow at him.

“How’d you know that? I haven’t even told anybody yet.”

“Never mind.” Sam unfolded his legs, pulled on his socks and boots, conscious of the immense groundedness he often felt after a productive mediation. “Let’s eat, then go round them up.”

They washed down jerky with cold filtered lake water, then busied themselves preparing the horses. The packs were taken off, saddles arranged.

“Flynn, how’s your arm?” Sam asked.

The Longmonter grimaced. “Still stiff and sore as hell. I’ve been trying to stretch it out, but I don’t think I’ve got even a third of my normal range of motion; maybe a quarter of my strength.”

“You stay with Drew then, keep an eye on the cows and the other horses. Better luck next time.”

“Yes, Captain Hyatt.” Flynn looked morose but resigned. He winced as he tried to raise his hurt left arm again.

Sam took the new mare for himself. He was by no means a good enough horseman to manage her alone, but he knew how to give a horse her head. She took the saddle willingly enough but eyeballed him and gave a snort that was more than a little challenging.

“You’re in charge, old girl,” Sam told her as he swung into the saddle. “You make the decisions, I’m just along for the ride.”

She snorted again, a satisfied sound this time. The stallion danced up beside her with Margie on his back, and the rest of the crew fell in behind. Jesse, Jerry, Tom and Carl already had their lariats out and ready. Eyes and teeth flashed white as they awaited the order to move.

“Blake, your boys take the right wing, Kit gets the left. Let’s go catch horses.”

They rode over the shoulder of the dam and down a sloping dirt track to the bottom, concrete to the left and grass to the right. The valley before them was hummocky, spotted with clumps of trees and little swampy ponds in the low places. Blake and Kit bore to the sides and the group spread out, Sam and Margie in the middle. They all splashed through the outlet stream, filled bank-high with chilly water from the bottom of the lake, and thundered up onto the grassland beyond.

Ahead of them, horses raised their heads from grazing. One of them, a handsome palomino stallion, pawed the ground and whinnied. Pie bugled back a challenge, paused and shook himself. Sam reined the mare in next to him.

Margie obediently slid off his back. “He wants to fight,” she called to Sam. “He don’t want me in the way.” She stood there a little forlornly as Pie leaped forward and left her.

Jesse reined his gelding on her other side. “You wanna ride with me, Margie? This one can carry two, and we don’t weigh much together.”

She gave him that smile. “I’d like that, Jesse.”

The boy grabbed Margie’s arm and pulled her up behind him. “Hang on tight!”

Sam’s mare signaled that she was done waiting, so he relaxed the reins. The horse took off, angling to cut off a bay mare and her foal circling the far side of a long marsh. They chased the two back in time to see the climax of the stallion’s dominance fight.

The palomino was a hand taller but less muscled than Pie, and a little too slow. He bugled at Pie again. The paint horse lunged and bit him viciously on the neck. The palomino reared up and kicked. Pie dodged, reared, and kicked back, connecting with a thump that echoed back from the dam. The palomino staggered and kicked again. Pie dodged, circled left and rammed his rival from the side. This time he also bit the palomino’s ear, leaving it ragged and bloody. The two horses shoved and bugled some more but soon the overwhelmed palomino turned and fled. Pie chased until he was sure his rival wouldn’t come back. Then he trotted back, head up and proud, and whinnied loudly. Several mares drifted up, nuzzling their new harem master.

Kit rode up flanked by Jerry, each of them with a rope around a mare followed by a foal. Kit scratched his beard. “Well don’t that beat all. That paint horse did most of our work for us!”

Sam laughed. “I’ll take that bargain and call it good.”

Between Pie and the men they had the herd gathered, ordered and ready an hour later. Blake and Tom had captured the big prizes — a trio of Jersey milk cows and two Percherons that they found grazing alone. The mare was still nursing a purebred filly that, despite probably being younger than the others, was already larger. She herself loomed four hands higher than any of the bay mares, and her mate was taller still. The stallion had gray hairs around his muzzle, Kit guessed him at ten years old or more. Pie, flushed with his recent victory, promptly tried to claim the Percheron mare as well, but the old stallion was wise to that. He got his neck over Pie’s and leaned down, pinning the paint where he stood. An astonished Pie strained and barely managed to avoid being forced to his knees. The Percheron then used his greater bulk to simply shove the paint back, step by step, for twice his body length. Pie quickly decided that the old stallion could keep his one mare, as long as he got to keep the rest. The arrangement appeared to suit — from then on the two stallions ignored each other.

“Should we camp here, Sensei?” Jerry asked.

Sam shook his head. “I want to put our backs to water, or at least mud. There’s a peninsula over next to the boat ramp and I think we could close it in with a few ropes. We’ll take all the animals there.”

They herded the whole mass of horses and a few cows caught up with them, across a dry ditch and over the west flank of the dam. A dirt access road led along the deep arm of the lake for a half-mile to the marina, where the boat ramp ran down into a thin sheet of water reaching like a tongue up the muddy boat channel. There was a steel-roofed picnic shelter, a couple tables and barbecue grills, and a cement-block vault toilet with doors marked men’s and women’s, all next to an acre of gravel parking lot. The tree-fringed peninsula lay between the boat channel and a wider one that eventually narrowed into the inlet canal. A thin trickle of water ran through the middle of that, too, wandering its way to the lake. Sam guessed it was the tail runoff from the rainstorm two days ago, finally making it here through the gentle ditch system.

“Perfect. Drew, Jerry, Tom, Carl — make sure all the water bottles are refilled before we let the horses down that ramp to drink. Fill the cook pots too, we’ll boil those for washing water. When you’re done, Carl, it’s your turn to make supper. Flynn, Roger, you keep watch.”

Kit, Jesse and Blake got the animals settled. By now everyone was practiced at their tasks; Margie attached herself to Jesse and tended horses. Not long after they had water boiling over a smoky fire, Flynn called out “Captain Hyatt! Men on horses coming.” He pointed back along the dam road, where four horses trotted toward the camp.

“Everybody into armor if you’re not already,” Sam ordered tersely, lacing up his open collar. “Arm up — bowmen in back, spears front. We won’t start trouble but we’ll finish it if we have to, understand?”

He settled his helm and took up a position between the picnic shelter and the parking lot, where he could dodge back behind a table if the horsemen tried to ride him down. Drew, Jerry, and Blake climbed on a table under the high roof of the shelter to get a clear range of fire over his head. Jesse and Tom scrambled for their spears.

The four riders reined in at the far side of the parking lot, hesitated for a moment and conferred. They were all rawboned men in their twenties and thirties, wearing jeans and bits of makeshift armor. Three had steel breastplates hammered out of car parts, with bracers and vambrances and shin guards of the same. None had helmets, but they all had machetes or spears. Sam didn’t relax — he was pretty sure his crew could take them, but at some risk, and he had no desire to lose anyone.

“Roger, Flynn, keep a watch to either side in case they’re not alone,” he ordered.

“Yes sir, Captain Hyatt,” Roger answered loudly. Then “Margie!”

A curly head popped up at Sam’s shoulder. “Hey Mister Hyatt, that’s Julie’s dad!” she announced excitedly, then yelled “Hi, Mister Bauer!”

Sam reswallowed his heart and mentally kicked himself. I should have assigned her a place to go if we met trouble, he thought. Without one, of course she’d come to me!

One of the horsemen stared, urged his mount forward several feet. “Margie? Margie Brown, is that you?”

“Yeah! Is Julie with you?” Margie yelled back and waved.

“No, honey, she’s home with her Mom. What are you doing here? Is your dad here?” Mr. Bauer frowned at Sam.

“The bad men sent him to heaven,” Margie explained. “Captain Mister Hyatt found me and said I can teach his girl Jenny to ride like I do.” She patted Sam’s arm like she owned him. “He’s been real nice to me, and Jesse is showing me how to rope!”

Bauer rode up until he was only a dozen feet away. He had blond hair above the tanned face of a man who works outdoors a lot, a notable squint, and a black Stetson that had seen better days. He wore a leather jacket over flannel shirt and jeans, but plates of metal had been sewn onto the leather and a machete swung at his hip. A three-pound sledge hung by a leather thong from his saddle pommel. He sat there for a moment on horseback, scrutinizing the crew and Sam. “So, who are you, ‘Captain Hyatt’, and why is Margie with you?”

“I’m Sam Hyatt from Lyons, commanding a joint expedition from Lyons and Longmont.” Sam touched Margie lightly on the shoulder. “We found Miss Brown hiding along Box Elder Creek. Some bandits had gone through and murdered her father, burned her home and all the neighbors too. We couldn’t leave her behind, so I offered to take her home to my wife and family.”

“Those bastards hit down there too?! Goddamnit!” Bauer slammed a gloved fist against his knee. “They came across on Fortieth, murdering and burning, with their damned slave caravan pulling the loot wagons. We managed to clear some of the folks out and we stung the bastards enough that they went on by, but they did a shitload of damage.”

“We’ve had our own troubles on the Front Range,” Sam remarked noncommittally.

“From Lyons and Longmont, eh?” Bauer looked ambivalently at the news. “We haven’t heard much of anything out here. There was word a few weeks ago of riots in Fort Collins and Greeley, and some kind of civil war in Denver! I thought it’d died down, but there’s new fighting in Greeley since day before yesterday, we’ve seen the smoke. I got word this morning that Windsor’s burning, too.”

“Lyons has made it so far,” Sam told him. “Longmont took a big hit, but they’re still holding. The two towns are working together to get a crop in the ground and plan for a harvest. Defense, too.”

“Nice to hear something’s working,” Bauer snorted. “But let’s cut to the chase. What are you doing here? Other than taking a third of our horses?”

Margie gave him an indignant look. “I seen your horses Mister Bauer! Ain’t none of these is yours!”

Bauer reddened slightly. “I meant that the local people were planning on using these horses, Margie. We discovered ‘em last week — they must’ve been drifting in here for a couple weeks before. There’s actually three different herds. Most of my horses are running with the north one, along with Grainger’s stallion.”

Sam gave him a slight smile. “Only a third? We didn’t do a very good job, then. I thought we had everything but the palomino stallion. Margie’s horse drove him off before we could catch him.”

“That’s right!” Margie chimed in eagerly. “Pie wants to make all them mares preggers, so he chased off that mean ol’ palomino just like that!” She snapped her fingers. “They’re his mares now.”

Sam jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “We’re pretty desperate to get more stock for harvest. My expedition’s out here to gather strays, and we found a fair number before we got here, but the ones we got today will make the difference come harvest time. It sounds like you’ve got a lot more, and fewer people to feed, too.”

Sam let the implications of that lie there between them for a while. Bauer grimaced while he thought about it, glanced once at Margie. He also glanced back at his three companions, listening from a few yards away, and then at the armor and bows of the expedition.

No flies on you, Sam thought. Margie keeps both of us honest — but she knows more about you than she does about me. We outnumber you, but you can call for help and I can’t. Time to sweeten the situation a little for you.

“I do have something I can offer you,” Sam suggested. “Sort of a gratitude gift for these horses. We rode ten bikes out here, good ones all. We brought eight saddles, so we only need two bikes to head back. What say I leave you eight good bicycles? You might also want to trade us for armor and crossbows sometime — we have a smith and he’s good, built up a whole forge with eight guys working for him now. He made this helmet and armor I’m wearing, and these swords. I don’t speak for the Lyons Trustees, but I suspect they’d be glad to trade some weapons and armor for even more horses, if you folks decided to offer them. Longmont’s a little tighter on gear like that, but they’ve got the whole city full of stuff to offer, and only seven thousand people to use it. I’d bet they could trade you something you don’t have enough of.”

“Seven thousand?” Bauer’s eyebrows climbed. “Wasn’t it more like sixty?”

Sam smiled grimly. “And Denver had a million and a half. I wouldn’t bet on there still being seven thousand there now.”

They both fell silent, imagination filling in the unspoken with the unspeakable.

Margie felt the chill but didn’t understand it; she drew back a little from Sam, confused. Jesse had gradually moved closer, his spear in one hand. He touched her arm reassuringly with his free hand and she clasped it as naturally as anything.

Bauer noticed that too, and his lips twitched wryly.

“Guess I’ll take that deal,” he told Sam. “Just leave ‘em behind when you go, under the picnic shelter there, and I’ll send folks up to collect them.” His hand sketched a vague salute. “Captain Hyatt, good luck to you and yours. I expect we’ll be in touch again sometime. Armor and swords look awfully good right now, and we’ve got some horses to spare.”

“Thank you, Mister Bauer. Perhaps I should call you Captain Bauer?”

“Might be, in time. Be good to Margie, my Julie’s been worried about her.”

“We will,” said Kit Carson, stepping forward to put a hand on his son’s shoulder. Their family resemblance was unmistakable.

Bauer nodded, reined his horse around. “Goodbye, Margie, and all you folks too.” He snapped the reins and trotted back to his companions, who followed him away north again.

Margie and Jesse started chatting about horses almost immediately, still holding hands.

Blake stepped down from the table, came over to Sam. “That went pretty good. You got us the horses and maybe a deal for more.”

Sam nodded. “Let’s get supper going and feed this crew. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day — I want to see if we can make it across the river in one go.”

The next day they broke camp early, leaving the eight bikes as promised. Flynn’s arm was improved enough to wear his armor again, though there was still no way he’d be able to draw a bow. He loaned his to Jerry for the duration.

They followed the inlet canal to Road Thirty-eight and began the long slog back toward the mountains. The bandits had been here too and they rode through the familiar devastation. Sam shook his head anew. Eight or ten miles away north, Greeley burned in earnest, like Longmont at its worst. Bauer had said there was new fighting there. Sam hoped they could avoid all of it. Thirty-eight was packed dirt and gravel, easy on the animal’s hooves, so they followed it west like an arrow. Once it nearly disappeared and they had to detour through a construction supply yard to regain the path. The still piles of pipe, beams, brick, and gravel felt eerily like a graveyard.

Noon found them closing in on a decision. North now, smoke rose from a spot the map labeled Gilchrist. Platteville to the south also sent ash skyward. Half a mile ahead the four-lane concrete of Highway 85 crossed their path. Sam had everyone check their armor and tighten it up while they waited for the scouts to report back. Margie was subdued, tending to Pie and the new horses.

Blake and Tom returned from the north. “Gilchrist’s been hit,” the older man reported. “But it looks like there wasn’t much left there already. I’d say about half that town’s been burned down for weeks, maybe a month — and the rest looks like hell and smells worse. We didn’t go close — two horses might be too tempting, and I can’t shoot and ride at the same time worth a damn.” He shifted his compound bow to a more comfortable spot across his back.

Tom looked back along their trail, teeth set in a snarl and spear raised.

Half an hour later Roger and Jerry returned from Platteville with much the same news. “Looks like there’s still at least a couple dozen people there, though, in the south end by the highway bridge, Captain,” Roger reported.

Jerry added. “Bunch of hard guys — made me think of that place we passed north of Denver.”

“We dodge both,” Sam decided. “We’ll head west for the Wildcat Bridge and cut over to Mead. Colotta told me Longmont’s got a treaty with them now, but not with Firestone, so we want to stay north of State Highway sixty-six.”

The setting sun in their eyes, they hurried west. A gusty wind tossed ash and dust into the air and obscured vision. The county road changed to pavement after the four-lane so Sam turned them south on another gravel road, then west and south again. Pie felt the human’s nervous tension and responded by ruthlessly herding his mares and their foals closer together. The Percherons felt it too and stuck close. Bewildered Bessie, her two calves and the Jerseys found themselves sandwiched between Pie’s herd and the big horses, and constantly pressed to keep up. The expedition cut through fences and crossed empty fields to avoid a cluster of inhabited houses, losing time to the sinking sun. Sam could barely see Platteville in the distance, and prayed that nobody there could see his crew through the blowing dust. Finally they returned to pavement for just a few minutes at County Road 32.5.

How do they pronounce that here? Sam wondered briefly. Thirty-two-and-a-half, or thirty-two-point-five? And why the hell am I wondering about it when I’ve got more important questions? Like should we press on to cross the Saint Vrain too, or save that for morning? No, the light’s nearly gone, and we have to be able to see to camp. Anyway, the cows aren’t real happy moving in the dark, I don’t want to chance losing them.

They crossed the Platte on a long narrow steel-and-concrete bridge carrying the county road; a large sign warned “No Vehicles Over 10,000 Lbs”. The river twisted sharply above and below; forested banks offered no view for more than a few hundred feet.

At least this stretch of the Platte wasn’t choked with rotting corpses like south of Fort Lupton, Sam reflected. Not more than three strewed the sandbars, and scavengers had been busy cleaning up all of them. You could barely tell that the bodies had been human, except for their size.

They left the naked pavement as fast as they could for the cover of the riverside forest. Sam followed a barely-discernable track into the trees to find a clearing next to a diversion dam that served a canal across the river. Water roared over the dam more than a foot deep. Huge tangles of honeysuckle and tamarisk made a rough defensible wall around the clearing on two and a half sides, and the river made a third.

“Here,” he said. “Cold camp, ration your water, and Drew, make sure everything the animals drink is filtered too. Better yet, we humans’ll stick to the water left from Milton Reservoir, I don’t want any of us to drink out of the Platte at all. Double watches tonight, five on and five off — we’ll have to get by with less sleep.”

Nobody complained.

The wind blew from the east all night, erratically thrashing the trees and bushes and making whitecaps on the river. Raindrops occasionally spattered down and clouds intermittently obscured the waning moon. But the windows of heaven never opened. They stayed dry, if not comfortable, all night long.

Sometime past midnight Sam forced himself to lie down for a little sleep. Those off watch were curled up against the leeward side of a thicket, blankets and sleeping bags pulled over their heads despite the relatively warm night. Margie was sandwiched between Kit and Jesse, all three snoring. Sam found a place and rolled his own blankets around him, but ready to be flung open in an instant if need be. He was sure it would take half an hour for his tension-soaked body to fall asleep, but it was actually mere moments.

Then the dreams came.

A nondescript man stood in a cloud. He wore a vaguely middle-eastern robe of coarse gray, open to the waist to show the muscled torso of a workingman. The arms sticking out of his short sleeves were the same, those of someone who’d carried heavy burdens and worked with his hands from a young age. His bearded face radiated an astonishing peace mixed equally with transcendent exultation. It took a moment for Sam to realize that his brow was gouged and scratched. A pure white dove hovered at his shoulder, then perched, more like a beam of sunlight than a bird. Behind him the mist draped an impossibly vast personality that simply didn’t fit into the human eye. The man spoke no word, only pointed to the right, and as he did his robe opened a little to reveal a gash in his side. Sam followed the gesture to the man’s hand. His wrist had been stabbed clear through by something, the flesh around the hole mangled but not bleeding. His pointing finger drew Sam’s gaze on in a half-turn —

Another man stood there, or rather sat, upon a cloud, legs crossed in full lotus. His silken robe was distinctly not from the Middle East — or was it a coarse bark cloth? Tight curled hair covered his head, or was it a wispy white pigtail tonsured back to his crown? Beasts flickered into and out of existence around him, the dragon, the ki-rin, the egret, too many others to name. Behind him a vast wheel turned, weighty as the world. He raised his folded hands, unfolded them in a complicated gesture that for a moment was a blooming white flower floating on a serene lake. Then he pointed to the right —

And Sam turned to face the king buffalo again, whiter than snow, eyes blacker than night. The woman stood beside him, white deerskin dress beaded with living rainbows, black braids and wrinkled brown face. Her wise eyes filled with stars that overflowed like tears and washed him in a cataract more powerful than all the waterfalls of the world. The grief and joy in that flood spun him around, to face —

An aching void, a nothingness that hated, an emptiness that only took, and took, and took, and would never be filled. It reached out to claim him, but three brown hands held it back. Then a fourth face intervened, that of a middle-aged man with hair going gray at the temples, ascetic, tired, frightened, and dogged. He wore a tattered black shirt with a filthy Roman collar, and carried some kind of burden. The emptiness reached for him, too, and Sam found his own hands helping to push it back this time. In his right hand was his katana, then not…

He awoke to Blake prodding him, mist filling the camp and paling sky overhead. The river was loud.

“Almost dawn, Captain,” Blake whispered. “You said to wake you. Should we go now?”

Sam shook his head for a moment, listening to the damp air. Thousands of birds were beginning their dawn chorus, unperturbed. “Yes.”

They broke camp quietly, all sounds muffled in the river-mist and drowned by the falling water. Cold jerky and minimal water made a breakfast eaten on the move, though Margie found time to milk the cows and pass the pail around for everybody have a drink. Warm, butter-rich milk tasted like the food of the gods. Sam tried not to think about his dream, but the face of the priest stuck in his memory.

Is this a vision? Am I going to find a priest for Karen to confess to? What does it mean?

He scouted a path along the edge of the forest, through tall grass and little sloughs where the horses’ hooves made wet sucking sounds. They followed the river north and found a dirt road. The trees thinned out to an occasional giant, hoary with dew. The sky reddened, the mist dissolved, and soon they were walking through cool morning air between the river and a huge building behind tall wire fences. Metal signs proclaimed “Fort Saint Vrain Generating Station”, alternating with “Danger — Keep Out”. They passed another diversion dam, this one with a steel control structure, then empty fields. Power lines leaped the river and converged on the station, dead and useless to any but the occasional resting bird. Several old barns and empty, broken-windowed houses crept past.

No burning here! Sam realized, almost with relief. Have we finally left the bandits behind?

They came back to a paved road just a few hundred feet south of the abutments of Wildcat Bridge. Sam paused to gather all the livestock into a tight bunch again before setting foot on it. Tom and Roger were taking their turns on the remaining bikes. Margie rode next to Jesse again, Pie just barely deigning to acknowledge the gelding that the boy straddled. The three Percherons plodded phlegmatically at the rear, with Kit, Flynn, and Carl watching the back trail.

Road Thirty-eight starts again just across that bridge, he thought. We can take it straight west into Mead, then drop down into Longmont. Maybe five hours to safety.

“Most of the way home,” Sam said to the crew in a low voice. “Stay alert, be as quiet as you can, and we’ll make it.”

He led the way on the wise mare. They clattered up the rise and onto the deck of the long bridge. It was straight and clear, all the way to the far side of the meandering Saint Vrain. The horses’ hooves boomed on the asphalt, echoing in the morning air.

Five cyclists appeared between the far abutments. They were all armed.

Sam threw up a hand. Drew reined in his horse, bow in his hands almost before the gelding had fully stopped. Blake pushed up beside him, doing the same.

“Wait,” said Sam. “We don’t know how many there are, or what they’re armed with. Let’s see if they’ll talk. Anyone got something white?”

Drew fumbled one-handed in his belt pouch and pulled out a handkerchief. It wasn’t quite white anymore, but Sam unfolded it and wedged a corner between the top end of his bowstring and the bow. He raised it and waved three or four times, then waited.

The other force seemed to be led by a young man in red-colored armor, extensively scratched and dented. He responded to Sam’s white flag slowly, after much back-and-forth with the other four. Eventually he raised a bright yellow hanky on the point of his sword.

Kit Coyle chuckled. “I guess they don’t have a white one, Captain.”

“It’ll do. Come with me, Blake. The rest of you stay alert and keep your bows ready. Don’t forget to watch behind us too. If we can, I’d rather get past them without fighting.”

Sam urged his horse into motion, Blake next to him. They reined in a few yards before the end of the bridge deck, within easy talking distance but well out of sword range. Sam nodded to the leader in the red armor and said “Howdy. We’re not wanting anything from you but passage across this bridge and the road beyond. I promise that we won’t bother your people or take anything more than a little grass as we pass through.”

The leader flinched slightly, then shaded his eyes against the morning sun and stared at Sam with an odd sort of intense fascination. Wisps of blond chin-fuzz tried to form a beard, and something about the mouth, eyes, and nose above it was vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until the youth spoke that Sam realized why.

“Sensei Hyatt? Is that you?”

It was Sam’s turn to start and stare hard. “Billy — Johnson, right?” he answered slowly. “From Albuquerque?” Something wrong shrilled at the back of Sam’s mind. What is this kid doing here, in charge of some kind of patrol? Sam studied the scratches and dents. No, not kid; experienced warrior. He’s been through a lot of fighting, and got the scars to prove it.

Billy nodded, still staring. His four flankers cast nervous looks at Sam and Blake, towering over them — a horse made a lot better fighting platform than a bike.

Suddenly Billy grinned, said “Didn’t think I’d ever see you again. We figgered you’d all froze to death in Wyoming months ago.”

He seemed unpleasantly fascinated by Sam, and the sensation made the hairs on the back of Sam’s neck stir. Who’s ‘we’? he wondered but didn’t ask, suddenly feeling a desire to keep this conversation short.

“No such luck. Will you grant us passage, or make us kill you to get it? You’re outnumbered two to one, and we’ve got bows.”

“Oh sure, you can have passage,” Billy answered, grinning. “So, where’re you headed?” He still didn’t move, just stood there blocking the bridge.

“Away,” Sam answered bluntly, and turned his horse. Blake followed him back to the waiting crew wordlessly.

“Form up,” Sam told them quietly. “Swords out, but don’t use them unless we’re attacked first. No talking — don’t answer questions, volunteer nothing. Got it?”

Surprised faces nodded, turned wary. Blake and Drew readied their bows — the opponents couldn’t know whether they were good shots or terrible from moving horseback, and the reach-out-and-touch-someone aspect of a bow made it more threatening than a sword. Sam took up position at the head of the herd, gave the rest a moment longer to get in line, then faced Billy’s force with his katana upright. Billy and his flankers had dragged their bikes back and to the side, standing in the shade of a huge cottonwood. Sam prodded his horse into motion again and led his crew forward at a brisk trot. Hooves thundered on the concrete deck as they pounded across. Billy’s flankers crowded back down the bank a little, hanging onto their bikes with one hand and gripping their swords with the other, still sheathed. Billy himself stood on the very edge of the asphalt, yellow hanky still speared on the tip of his raised sword. Sam felt the boy’s gaze riveted on him even after he rode past, and couldn’t forbear glancing back over his shoulder. Billy stayed right there while the horses jostled inches away. The hanky blew off the sword in the wind of their passage. He just stared at Sam, that unpleasant smile still on his face. Sam breathed a sigh of relief once all had passed safely and the New Mexico boy and his men remained still.

“Mind telling me what that was about?” asked Blake quietly, riding close. “You knew each other, and I don’t think it was from something friendly.”

“Later,” Sam answered quietly. “We ride to that cutoff, then turn north. I’m going to loop north towards Johnstown, then cut west to make it look like we’re bound for Loveland. I don’t want him to know where we’re really going.”

Blake glanced back, nodded judiciously. “Best pick up the pace a little, then. All our horses are fresh, and they can take a couple miles on pavement without too much danger to their feet. Those guys’re getting ready to follow on their bikes.” He urged his own horse into a faster trot.

They rounded the corner and flowed uphill along Road 19, gradually widening the distance from their followers. The cows moaned but Pie and the mare kept them moving. Sam paused at the top of the hill, looked back with his binoculars. Billy and his flankers were doggedly pedaling up the long rise, losing ground but clearly intent on following. Sam couldn’t tell whether the blond boy was still grinning, but there was something aggressively eager about his movements. Like a dog on the scent of a juicy bone.

Sam pushed his crew up another mile of pavement and then dodged west on a county road. He had no intention of actually coming anywhere near Johnstown, or any other settlement of size. They dodged north again two miles later, after a fast water stop at a shriveled pond. Sam reined in at the top of a hill and studied their back trail. A mile away east sprawled a half-built subdivision on the near side of Road 17. Just south of it he could see Billy and his crew, tiny as ants in the distance. They’d turned north on the paved road instead of following west on the gravel. The quintet stopped for a moment and Sam was certain Billy looked back at him across the wide gulch in between.

Still tracking us, he thought. No question, he wants to know where we’re going. And it looks like he’s willing to risk getting close to Johnstown to do it. Does that mean he came from there?

Sam put down the binoculars and looked around his immediate location. Abandoned houses and barns littered the area. Most of them looked looted but few were burned; a couple even had people still in them, forted up and nervously watching Sam’s armed troops pass. The contrast with the land east of the Platte suddenly made sense.

Margie coaxed Pie up beside him. “Mister Hyatt-Captain?” she asked timorously.

“What is it, Margie?”

“I think I know that man in the funny red clothes. He — he — he was one of the bad men that passed my hidey place.”

“Of course. It all fits,” Sam said aloud as the evidence clicked into place. “Some big group came up the east side of the valley out of Denver. We came up behind them at Fort Lupton, followed them northeast and crossed their trail again back by Platteville and Gilchrist. They moved slower than us, probably mostly on foot, so we gained ground on them. They headed for Greeley while grabbing off everything they could use from the farms and small towns, then killed or set fire to what they couldn’t use. That’s why there’s new fighting in Greeley — they’re trying to take the place over.”

Blake nodded thoughtfully. “Must have been a lot of them, to cover so much ground. Damn destructive bastards. So who’s leading them?” He cast a sideways look at Sam, as if expecting an answer.

Drew and Jerry had drifted near, listening. “It’s Sensei Jerk-wad from Albuquerque, isn’t it, Sensei Hyatt?” Jerry interjected, scowling. “Him and his four little jerk-wads.”

“More like jerkwads-in-training,” Drew observed thoughtfully, a worried look creasing his brow. “At least Billy Johnson. And it looks like he’s found himself a lot more than four, to do the kind of damage we saw. I didn’t recognize any of those guys with Billy, but I could tell he recognized me.”

Unbidden, a dark thought rose up in Sam’s mind. I should have killed Billy and his men right there while I could. Now he’ll head back to his master and tell him we’re alive — and nearby. That’s bound to be trouble later — maybe bad trouble.

I should have killed them. Shouldn’t I?

His fists sought the hilts of his weapons, clenched as he grappled with the nightmarish thought. Could I do that, murder five boys just to prevent their boss from knowing I’m here? It’s not just me, either; can I lead my nine in a straight-out attack to kill for no better reason than my fear of what Catron might do?

The answer was bitterly unsatisfying, but the only one he could make.

No. God help me, I can’t just kill them because of — of a maybe. I’ve got to know that they’re up to something bad first. Something badder. I think they killed Margie’s dad, and a whole lot of others, but I don’t know that they did.

He looked east, where Billy and his flankers were pedaling north again, slowly. Watching.

Too late anyway. If they saw us drop the rest of the livestock and come after them, they’d take off quick. And they can outrun us, eventually, on bikes. My only chance was back there at the bridge.

“George Catron’s his name, not ‘jerk-wad’, Jerry,” Sam finally answered Jerry and Blake’s questions. “No matter what a scummy excuse for a human being he may be, he’s also a fourth-dan black belt.” Same as me. “And that deserves respect, if for no other reason than to remind you to be damn cautious of him. Never underestimate a man like that.”

Sam turned back to the road ahead. It swooped down to the Little Thompson River a mile away. “Let’s get moving. I want to put as much distance between us and them as we can, without tipping him off where we’re going.”

They thundered down the slope, across the flats, and clattered over the Little T on a wood and steel bridge. A band of farmers watched them from the front porch of one house but didn’t look disposed to interfere. Johnstown proper sprawled to the north, a higgly-piggly boom town like so many others in Colorado. They jogged west again on another gravel road to avoid it. After crossing the pavement of Road Thirteen a dry center-pivot appeared, the big wheels stalled a few yards from the edge of the road surface. The outer spray arm creaked overhead in the fitful wind. There was no fence bordering the field, not even a ditch.

Sam reined in, studied the sky to the east. A massive front was moving in, already engulfing Johnstown behind them. The five riders had disappeared in the advancing rain. “Tom, Roger. Can you manage to ride bareback?”

“Done it,” Roger puffed; the pace was getting to him. “Not real comfortable, but if I can get a blanket and rig a hackamore, I can manage.”

“Tom?”

“Never done it, captain.” His face looked a little alarmed — he had some idea what a challenge it was to manage a horse without stirrups.

“I have,” Jesse spoke up. “I can manage this horse that way. You take my saddle, I’ll keep the blanket. Just put your own blanket under it, or the horse will get sores.”

“Roger, Kit, Jesse, make it happen,” Sam ordered. “Use the biggest of the mares. Blake, Carl, take those bikes apart and get them on packs again. We’re going cross-country and I don’t want to leave bike tracks — or bikes, either.”

Not ten minutes later they set out again. A dirt road skirted the edge of the pivot’s great circle. Sam led his crew onto it and around the weedy field. They picked up another dirt track and followed it north to a hard-packed trail leading arrow-straight west.

“The old sugar-beet railroad spur,” Roger named it. “Rails been pulled up for ten years now.”

The storm front was less than a mile away and gaining. Sam led them west, hooves leaving little to no tracks on the packed gravel rail bed. Willows and cottonwoods grew a dozen feet high in the bar ditch, screening them. The route led right at and under the interstate highway, raised on two bridges to jump over the now-vanished railroad. There was a forlorn boxcar carcass, wheels gone, resting by the highway with a painted sign advertising a real estate development. They hurried through the tunnels and on west. Clouds covered the sun and most of the sky; the breeze from behind them was picking up. Spatters of rain hit the dirt, and them. They crossed another county road and plunged into the fields beyond, pushing west as fast as the calves and foals could take it. The latter enjoyed stretching their legs but the calves were growing weary when Sam finally let them stop by a steel barn next to the end of the old rail bed. Whatever siding had been here vanished with the rails but the gravel-ridden soil still marked its place. The rain began to drizzle.

“Captain, the cows and foals have got to rest,” Blake told him. “They just did fifteen miles of hard pushing. Even the horses are tired, and it’s about to rain heavy.” He jerked a thumb at the barn. “What say we get out of sight for a while?”

Sam looked around. The nearest house was a half-mile away behind some trees. Nobody moved in the fields, though the rising wind sent tumbleweeds rolling.

“Do it,” he agreed. “We’re way too close to Loveland for my comfort, but a little rest is worth the risk.”

The side door was locked but Blake knocked out the mechanism with a steel stake pulled from a fence. Inside he unlatched the overhead door and drove it up, squeaking, until even the Percherons could get through in one long rush of animals and people. He left it that way as the rain began to come down in earnest, sheets of water battering the sides and roof of the barn. The high windows didn’t admit much light and the open door helped.

The distressed calves both suckled at Bessie, who suffered the attentions as best as could be expected. Margie cooed over her, combing her fur with a broken curry-comb she found on the floor. The rest of the crew tended the other animals as best they could while the hard rain pounded down, quickly slackening into a steady patter. Sam studied it and the sky. The clouds were dark, heavy with moisture, but to the south there was sunlight. It might yet rain on Longmont, but it wasn’t right now.

“Quickly, all of you, search this place for plastic,” Sam told them. “Get out your ground cloths for raincoats, rustle up whatever we can find — in fact, cut the tarp in two and make a couple ponchos out of it. We’re going for a ride in the rain, while there’s still enough to both hide us and wash away our tracks.”

There were a couple mutters about that but they all fell to work. Tom found some black visqueen rolled up in a back corner and they squeezed enough out of it and their own plastic to cover everyone, even Margie. Kit rigged her something that could be called a hat, out of a hubcap and bits of cord. Barely half an hour later they started out.

At first it wasn’t too bad. The rain was chilly but the constant movement kept the horses warm and heated the riders. They continued west on Smith Road to County Line, headed south. Passing Newell Lake the yellow gelding began to limp. Jerry, riding it, got down and checked its feet.

“This doesn’t look good,” he called through the steady drizzle.

The road was awash in water but hadn’t turned to mud quite yet. Sam ached with impatience to move, but said “Kit?”

The horseman joined Jerry, felt the animal’s lower leg and looked dubious. “He’s almost out of it, Captain. Maybe if he doesn’t have to carry any weight, he might keep up.”

They shifted Jerry to a mare and kept on. The gelding moved slower and slower until they reached the pavement again at Highway 56. There it stopped and would go no further. One of the calves, the black that had been Marble’s, also set itself down in the grass by the road verge and refused to move.

Margie tugged at it, almost in tears. “Come on, Blackie, you got to keep going. Them bad men’ll find you if you stay here!”

The clouds were lifting slowly. The rain had thinned enough that Sam spied a group of moving bicycles issuing from the town of Berthoud only a mile and a half away.

“Somebody knows we’re here,” Blake warned.

Sam dismounted and hurried over to the girl. “Margie, there are strangers coming and we need to get away from them real quick. It might be time to say goodbye to Blackie and send him on to another home.”

“Are they going to eat him?” she asked, still tugging. “He isn’t even growed yet! Daddy said I don’t have to let them go until they’ve growed!”

“Bessie and Brownie still need your help,” Sam reminded her, while his nerves screamed for flight.

Jesse came over, held out his hand to Margie. “Margie, would you please come with me? I’d like that a whole lot.”

She looked at him and sniffled. “I’m only fourteen,’ she said, tears running down her face amidst the rain. “And I got a little cee pee. Willy said I’m slow and nobody’d ever want me but my daddy.”

“I’m fifteen and a half, but I can wait for you,” Jesse said steadily. “Until you are old enough. And I think my dad wouldn’t mind being your daddy until then.”

Margie looked at him round-eyed for a moment. Then that sunny smile burst forth. “Okay,” she said, and took Jesse’s hand.

Sam boosted her onto Pie’s back while Jesse swarmed onto his own horse. Pie bullied Bessie and the other calf into motion. The whole troop moved out only a couple thousand feet ahead of the Berthoud men. They made it across the Little T and up onto the plateau south of the town without more than token pursuit. Descending night cloaked their flight. They passed out of the rain a mile after the Little T, rode more slowly on toward the Boulder County line in the waning moonlight.

The horses were drooping and Brownie nearly staggering when they finally raised the barley elevator. The Longmont crew guarding it welcomed them and gave them all warm water with fresh-dried mint leaves in it. Kit, Blake and Roger checked over the tired horses while Sam set the rest of his crew to individually watering and feeding them from the garrison’s poor stock of fodder. Bessie and Brownie promptly bedded down in the corral, too exhausted even to eat. The four foals were so tired they just leaned on their mamas, heads down while they slowly chewed. Kit paid special attention to their feet, and was glad to report them undamaged.

“We pushed them hard, Captain, and those bits of pavement chewed their little hooves up some, but long as they can take it easy tomorrow they’ll be okay.”

“Best news today,” Sam nodded in the dusk. He turned to the garrison commander. “Thanks for putting us up for the night.”

“No problem, I was ordered to watch for you all in case you took the northern route back.” The man grinned as he shook Sam’s hand — he wasn’t more than twenty-five but had the gloss of a hardened battle veteran over an apparently-irrepressible youthful insouciance. “Lieutenant Jenkins got the Longs Peak plant working again. Plenty of water now! We got toilets too!”

The garrison’s cook obligingly stretched soup for thirty into soup for forty, adding bread from his day-old store to thicken it. He provided a couple radishes and a bit of dried apricot for each member of the expedition. It tasted like ambrosia after the hard trip. Jesse and Margie sat side by side and chewed slowly, their arms touching.

Kit shook his head and smiled. “Not what I’d expected for a daughter-in-law,” he confided quietly to Sam. “Which is what I suspect she’ll be in a couple years. But the way she rides, and as good as she is with animals — we could do a lot worse.” Sam left him smiling fondly over the two tired youngsters.

Sam found himself again standing in the second floor of the elevator’s office block, this time staring north out dirty windows along the darkening foothills while he spooned up soup. The rain was shifting north towards Fort Collins. The wan moonlight didn’t light up the landscape much and there were no lights at all in any of the surrounding houses — most of them mercifully unburned. A gasoline lantern turned low was the only illumination in the room. After a while Sam found himself contemplating his own reflection in the dusty glass.

Should I have talked more with Billy Johnson? he wondered. I could have asked him if Catron was still alive — only I think I know the answer to that. Billy wouldn’t have made it through the first month without Catron to teach him survival — not and still have that attitude. He was too cocky — too pleased to see us — to see me.

Drew and Jerry came over to flank him, their own empty bowls in hand.

“Sensei, you think those Albuquerque shits will track us here?” Drew asked quietly.

“I hope not,” Sam answered heavily. “That’s why we swung so close to Loveland — with luck, he’ll think we came from there.”

“But Sensei, even if they do figure out where we came from, what could they do about it?” Jerry argued uncertainly. After a pause he added brutally “Maybe we should’ve just killed Billy.”

“I don’t know,” Sam told them both. “And that’s the problem.”

❀ ❁ ❀

13

— Down the Slippery Slope —

Greeley, Colorado, the same night, late June, 1998.

I’m hungry, George Catron though. I’m always hungry, now.

He worked at the meal his women had laid out on the big table. Dill spears, canned olives, pickled mushrooms for an appetizer. Stoned wheat crackers with canned cheese spread. A rack of barbecued beef ribs. A green salad with baby carrots robbed from some garden in this newly-taken city, with olive oil and red wine vinegar for dressing. That ground cornmeal-mush the wops called polenta, cut in cubes and fried in beef fat. Most precious of all, chocolate brownies. He’d been eating steadily from it for twenty minutes now, and had made a considerable dent.

And I’m still hungry.

Abruptly he slapped the silverware down and pushed the plate away. The girl doing the serving trembled and flinched.

This isn’t what I want. She isn’t either.

He got up from the table. Despite maintaining a rigorous workout program and daily karate practice with his students, he’d still gained weight. He felt it on his belly as he strode to the big windows. This had been the main meeting room of the Greeley City Hall. Wan light through the tall windows was supplemented by gasoline lanterns. Those had been left by the previous occupants, whose heads were now decorating stakes on the front lawn. Catron gazed moodily across them; one of Pardini’s crew was still affixing the last one.

Stupid shits, he reflected. Didn’t think I meant what I said, did you, Mayor and Chief of Police and all your stupid City Council? Just as well for me. Now everything you had is mine.

He raised his eyes to gaze over the city spread out beyond. Several taller buildings in the downtown blocked his view. Rain drizzled down. The storm front had passed west and must be somewhere over the foothills by now. Leaves on the trees glinted in the early evening light. His sentries patrolled the street below.

My city now, he thought. A city I can hold. A city with lots of food — feedlots, slaughterhouses, farms, grain elevators, a sugar mill. I can hold on here, hold on for as long as I want. There must be at least eight, ten thousand people still here. And a good thousand farmers to the east. Add my six thousand followers, somewhere near fifteen thousand people. This must be the biggest concentration of people left in Colorado. And I can own it all, and probably gain more in time.

So why am I still hungry?

He turned away from the window, strode to the big mahogany council table. Maps were spread out on it, showing the city of Greeley and surroundings. One big road map of the entire area had been pinned to the wall. The previous occupants of the office had made marks on it — these farms controlled by the city, these ditches and roads, these neighborhoods evacuated, people resettled here and here; all neat and tidy. They’d even negotiated deals with their largest neighbors, the cities of Loveland and Fort Collins, over control of water plants and irrigation systems. Deals that he could now take over, or revise if he wanted; he had more people under his control than either city could claim now, maybe more than both of them together. He’d managed to salvage most of Greeley’s city management crew, too, so he could step seamlessly into control of the place.

I’ve pulled off a hell of a victory, he thought sourly. And who do I have to show off to? Idiot muggers, petty crooks, and their whores. Not even any of the black belts left to admire my work, since Kurt Parker got himself killed down in Platteville. I should have picked up a few more of the Association guys in Denver; should have made it a priority to find them. Especially Hyatt; he’d have been worth impressing, smug prig that he was. I could have used his kids, too, they’d have been valuable. Instead they’re all dead somewhere on I-25 in Wyoming, probably. If they even made it out of Colorado. Stupid waste. I need somebody to sharpen my skills against. He’d have been good for that.

His stomach grumbled, struggling to digest a full load of rich food. Idly he snagged a few more brownies and munched them. He’d left his silver armor off today after the beheadings. It was getting too damn tight even after he’d let the straps out to their fullest.

I’m still hungry. I want — I want — something. Something more. Somebody that can recognize my worth. I should be fifth-dan by now, I know I’m there. I can feel the change in my power; in everything I do.

He flexed his hands, his whole body, stretched until every nerve tingled. The raw power — it was better than smack. Why didn’t the others ever tell me it could be like this? he thought resentfully. They were keeping it for themselves, of course. Well, the hell with them. I’ve taken fifth-dan for myself.

I just wish I had somebody to prove it to. Somebody who’d understand.

There was a noise out in the hallway, voices arguing. The door opened and Billy Johnson barged into the room. Uninvited.

“What is it, Lieutenant Johnson?” Catron asked coldly. The boy was getting cocky lately. Might be time to take him down a peg at practice tomorrow. Nothing seriously damaging, just some strategic bruises…

“Hyatt’s here in Colorado, with his students!” Billy eagerly burst out. “I saw them on the road south of Milliken when I was out on patrol!”

Catron’s entire attention abruptly focused on the youth. “You’re sure it was him?”

“Yes, Sensei, I talked to him! He had around a dozen guys with him; they were herding horses across the Wildcat Bridge.” Billy strode to the wall map, pointed at the bridge. “They came across here. Hyatt threatened to kill my patrol if we didn’t get out of the way. He had numbers on us, and bows, too, so I let ‘em pass. Then I followed, up to about here.” He traced a zigzag line on the map, leaving a wet smear. “The rain came and we lost them, but by then it was pretty clear where they were headed.”

“Tell me,” Catron demanded.

“They acted like they were heading for Johnstown, but I saw them start to jog around it once they thought the rain had blinded me.” Billy smirked. “When it finally did hide them they were headed northwest toward Loveland.” His index finger stabbed the name of that city on the map.

“Well done, Billy.” Catron smiled at him, and Billy wriggled like a good dog under the praise. “Tell the watch-chief to send for the other Jefes, I want them all here tonight. Then go pick yourself another fucktoy. Be back here in this room tomorrow two hours after sunrise.”

Billy smirked again, bowing his way out of the room.

Yeah, he’s a cocky little shit, Catron thought indulgently. But he knows what I want.

“Griswold!” he called to his aide-de-camp.

The man popped through the door Billy had just left and bowed obsequiously.

“Find those city officials that I spared, get them over here,” Catron ordered. “The ones who handle the water lines and the irrigation. I want to know everything they know about Loveland.”

Griswold nodded and bowed again and left like a shot — he’d learned just how little patience Catron had for slack work. His bruises would heal, soon enough.

Catron returned to the window, gazed unseeing out across the darkening city. His eyes looked like pools of darkness in the reflection. The power — he felt it in every fiber of his being. He felt pumped up, like after a hard workout. Like he was bigger than his skin.

Oh yeah. I didn’t know it could be like this.

He grinned, and turned away from the window as plates rattled on the table. The serving girl looked up, dropped the sloppily piled plates and fled, screaming.

The hungry sensation had subsided, eclipsed by a more savage desire.

Now let’s see what I can find out about wherever you’re hiding, Hyatt? I’m going to give you a chance to eat your last words to me. I wonder how well you beg? Especially if I’ve got your wife and kids in my hands.

❀ ❁ ❀

Father Markus finished washing his spare clothes in the hotel’s laundry room. There was cold water still running and a little soap, and a large steel laundry sink with two compartments. He loaded the wrung-out clothes into a plastic wastebasket and carried them up three flights, his one candle wavering in the darkness. The room assigned to him was on the top floor, above the level where water still worked, but the toilet would flush as long as he hauled water up from downstairs. There was even toilet paper and unused towels and washcloths, and the sheets still had that fresh-pressed feel. Father Markus didn’t think the room had been used since before the Change.

The boy was curled up on one bed, covers pulled tight around his face despite the room’s July warmth. His dark eyes watched the priest warily. He had not spoken since Father Markus rescued him from the slaughter outside Hudson. The little bowl of food left on the nightstand for him was empty, as was the plastic cup, so at least he had eaten and drunk some water. In the weeks since the massacre he had remained closed and silent, nearly catatonic at first, then gradually opening up enough to watch what went on around him. He would do whatever he was asked to do, so long as it didn’t bring him into contact with any of the army’s soldiers. If a grown man appeared with weapons on him, the boy disappeared into whatever hiding place was most easily at hand, there to curl up into a fetal ball and shut the world away.

I still do not know if he is even capable of speech, the priest reflected. He cries, sometimes, so I dare to guess that words are possible for him. But is he so traumatized that he will never speak again? I wish I had a specialist’s knowledge to guide me! Since I do not, Lord, please lend me the grace to see clearly and choose wisely for his benefit.

Because the boy did not respond to any particular name, Nurse Lionheart had finally dubbed him Joseph. After a while the boy began visibly responding to the name when she spoke it, so Father Markus had begun to use it too.

“Would you like some more water, Joseph?”

The little head nodded.

“Let me spread out my laundry to dry, then I’ll bring you some more. I also need to refill the toilet so that it will work.”

He spread his meager laundry out in the bathroom over towel racks and the shower rod, collected his two empty plastic jugs and the candle and hurried back to the laundry room for water. Climbing the stairs again was awkward while holding the candle and two jugs. On the next trip he brought along the electrical cord from the room’s dead lamp and made an over-the shoulder sling for the water. The room was stiflingly warm and the air thoroughly stale, but Joseph shook his head at offers to open the window. Father Markus shrugged — at least that heat would help the clothing dry. He refilled the toilet tank in their bathroom — luxury! — and Joseph’s cup, as he had done on the previous trip. A tanned little arm sneaked out from the covers, brought cup to lips, and the water disappeared again.

“Please use the bathroom when you need it, but don’t flush the toilet tonight,” Father Markus explained. “We’ll flush it once tomorrow. Is that okay?”

Joseph nodded, and then lay still once more, just watching.

Father Markus went back for a third trip and returned with the full jugs. This time he knocked on Dr. Eid’s door. Nurse Lionheart answered.

“How is he?” Father Markus inquired.

“No better,” she answered. Her eyes were puffy with unshed tears.

“I brought water for the toilet.” He hefted the jugs.

She let him in and he carefully filled the empty toilet tank, and then went for a fourth load, then a fifth. He detoured to check on Joseph, refilled his cup and left one full jug on the bathroom counter. The toilet had been used; a good sign.

He brought the other full jug to the doctor’s room. There he moistened a waiting washcloth and brought it to the nurse. She sat by the edge of the double bed holding Eid, taking his pulse. An open window admitted sounds of the conquered city — raindrops tapping glass, sentry’s boots stamping on pavement, occasional screams, the wet crackle of a fire being slowly smothered by the rain, the hopeless sobbing of a girl in some soldier’s room on the lower floors.

They had barely been able to get the doctor up the three flights of stairs, even with both of them doing most of the lifting. Nurse Lionheart had got Eid into the bed barely before he collapsed into unconsciousness. Now she wiped his sweating forehead with the damp cloth. The Doctor’s normally cedar-colored skin was gray. His eyes were closed and looked sunken in his emaciated face. His breathing was hoarse and labored. They had not been able to get him to eat solid food for two days now, and he wouldn’t drink enough water. He twitched on the bed and muttered words.

“What is he saying?” the nurse asked, listening closely. “It sounds a little like singing, or something, but I don’t recognize a single word.”

Father Markus listened carefully. “I believe he is speaking in his native Arabic. His accent is thick and I am only catching a few words — ‘son’ and ‘love’ and something about Cairo, I believe.”

“You speak Arabic?!” Lionheart stared at him in astonishment.

The priest nodded. “Poorly, but I can usually make myself understood.”

“Where’d you learn that?”

“Jerusalem, eleven years ago,” he explained. Memories of the ancient city rose in his mind, the spicy smells of cedar trees and roasting lamb, the heat of the blazing sun, the ancient holiness of shadowed churches and tranquil tombs. Walking the same streets that Christ had trod two millennia ago — it could still make him shiver.

“Jerusalem?” Lionheart stared at him, astonishment in her eyes. “What were you doing in Israel?”

“I was assigned to the ecumenical program for the US Bishops’ chaplain training center. We hospital and military chaplains often have to assist with injured, often dying, persons who have no cleric of their own faith available. Sometimes our own flocks find themselves in that situation if no Roman Catholic priest is at hand. So the Church does as much ‘cross training’ as doctrine will permit, with compatible denominations at least. Eastern Rite, Coptic Christian, and various others acknowledge the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Atonement — what is commonly called Confession. I learned Arabic as part of the Coptic rite training, but I’ve grown quite rusty — there’s relatively little use for it in Denver.”

The nurse shook her head. “Well. So Dr. Eid speaks Arabic? Is he a — what’s the word, Muslim?”

“No, he is Coptic Christian.” The priest shrugged self-deprecatingly. “All of we chaplains at Denver General tended to keep close track of what religious faith the various doctors were, so that we could warn them if they were heading into an awkward, hmm, situation with a patient. Sometimes it was useful to ask one of them for translation assistance, particularly with some of the more personal issues of the patients.”

“I see. I think.” Her attention wandered back to the doctor and weary worry filled her face again. “Whatever he believes, he’s fading. I think he might be dying.”

“I’m sorry, but I think so too,” Father Markus replied gently. “He was unable to handle the needle when that wounded man was brought in for stitches today. Always before, putting an injured person into his presence was enough to give him focus again, but not today.”

He paused, then added “I know the Coptic Christian rite; perhaps it is time for it. Would you mind if I ask him? And is he still able to answer?”

“I don’t know.” She stood up, took the washcloth back to the bathroom. “Try,” she advised over her shoulder. She shut the bathroom door after herself.

Father Markus sat on the vacated chair and took Eid’s hand. Despite the warmth of the July night, it was cool to the touch. He gently called the Doctor’s name, first in English, then in his atrocious Arabic. The doctor twitched slightly at the familiar tongue, so the priest haltingly asked him if he wished the sacrament. The response was a little ambiguous, but Father Markus began the ritual. Eid muttered snatches as it unfolded, so Father Markus took that as true assent.

He led Eid through the reconciliation and absolution, feeling again the old sense of being a bridge to carry a weary soul safely across the River of Sleep. This time it was unusually powerful. One of the kitchen women had given Father Markus a little dribble of safflower oil. He had long since run out of the blessed chrism, but canon law permitted almost anything to be used in extremis. He anointed Eid’s forehead and wrists with tiny dabs, feeling the prayers pour through his lips like another healing balm.

Divine Father, gather this child safely to your heart, he added — one more prayer after they finished. Eid lay silent — his voice had grown noticeably weaker through the ritual. He has served You well through serving humanity in these horrible surroundings. If there is any stain remaining in him, let that service lead your Mercy to wash it away. In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

By that time the doctor’s face smoothed out a little and his breathing became easier. Father Markus washed Eid’s forehead and hands again, leaving the dabs of oil.

Nurse Lionheart came out of the bathroom as he finished. She stood for a moment looking down at the doctor’s face.

“I think you helped him, Father,” she said quietly. “I’ll sit with him tonight.”

“Thank you for that,” the priest answered, glad of the chance to catch up on a little sleep. “I will be next door with Joseph if you — or he — need me.”

He went back to his room and found the clothes nearly dry. Joseph was sound asleep, still curled up in the blankets, and from his snoring seemed likely to sleep till dawn this time. Father Markus opened one window to clear the stale air. He cleaned himself up for bed, blew out the stump of the candle, said his accustomed prayers, and lay down. The rain clouds had passed on westward and the skies were clearing. The moon drifted behind rags of cloud, fitfully lighting the room. Sleep did not immediately arrive, despite his exhaustion from climbing three flights of stairs eight times today. All the walking over the past months had strengthened his legs more than he’d realized.

He listened to the fading sounds outside the window and to Joseph’s soft child snores. He remembered Jerusalem, the worn stone of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The muezzin’s call from the Dome of the Rock, the rows of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. He had not been blind to the tensions between the three faiths. Tensions that led men to behave shamefully over even the smallest question, such as which religious body got to clean which door lintel, or whether a burned-out light bulb could be changed by the monks who managed such-and-such room, or was properly the province of another denomination. Despite it all, holiness lay on the city like a pure light, welling up from the stones along with the dust.

Is it still there? he wondered morbidly. Has this Change felled the Holy Land too, leaving starving monks and clerics to die inside the sacred stone walls? Are the muezzins silent now, dust blowing through bones before the Wailing Wall? I fear it must be so.

And what of Rome and her millions?

Does my Church still live?

He had to believe it did. I fear because I am alone — I have seen no other living priest since before this Change. The good priests of Saint Dominic’s parish were both dead by the time Sensei seized control over their neighborhood. I gave them last rites and buried them in their half-frozen garden as best I could, in the limited time Jefe Paco allowed me. Saint Patrick’s, Mount Carmel, Guadalupe — all were empty by the time Sensei controlled their neighborhoods. Paco’s men said nobody in the army knew anything about the fate of those priests, and I believe them.

But does that mean I am the last priest in Colorado?

The thought was terrifying, but he had seen too much death to reject it out of hand.

He groped for rational arguments. He hoped there might be a few priests still alive here in northern Colorado. Paco said there were over eight thousand people still alive in Greeley, and more in the other cities. Then too, the Diocese of Pueblo had nearly as many priests as that of Denver, spread across dozens of towns in rural southern Colorado. Surely most of them still lived, even if Pueblo had gone the way of Denver. There were small towns on the plains, Sterling, Fort Morgan, and others west of the mountains and in the high valleys. Alamosa, Monte Vista, Antonito, and all the old and isolated Hispanic towns. Somewhere, Catholic parishes must survive, in the agricultural areas where food was abundant.

If they weren’t overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees…

Reason is cold comfort, when the world has already been turned on its head, he thought wretchedly. Sensei does not rule the only gang from Denver, merely the biggest. I know nothing about what is happening even a few miles away, much less across the state, or elsewhere on Earth. But desperate men too likely abound everywhere, in their millions. I have seen how little priority they place on the care of those they call ‘useless mouths’.

I dare to hope I am not the last. Somewhere out there in the world, my Church must carry on, no matter how desperately. The Martyr’s crown is always waiting, and God never promised that it would be easy! But here, in Catron’s army, I am the only one. And only for so long as he lets me live.

He sighed, and faced the question that he knew was really keeping him awake. Had been keeping him awake for night after night.

And how long will that be? What is happening inside Sensei Catron’s mind? Can sin join with madness to manifest as a, a personality? And if so, what will it do with me?

Parsing it like that helped him face the problem. He wanted to analyze it logically. Rationally, like Saint Thomas Aquinas. Whatever had happened to the world in this, this Change — God must still be there. He wanted to believe that there must be a path through the darkness, one that the light of reason could discover.

I have studied psychology, and the human mind. I know that most of the ‘possessed’ people Jesus met must have been sufferers from various mental and physical illnesses. Such tragic souls have always been with us. I know that more brutal derangements, men such as Herod the Great, and Hitler and Pol Pot, have also haunted humanity all the long ages of the world. And now I watch a man make himself into such a monster, it seems willingly, by choice. Why, Lord? Why?

I cannot reason my way to an answer.

There is no ‘reason’ in this thing that has happened to us. Machines dead, guns powerless, it is a mad overthrow of all we thought we knew about the underpinnings of the universe. And not the most terrifying one, either.

The way he looked at me that day at the Steel Fort. Was that Sensei’s mind looking through his eyes, that hate-consumed thing I saw? If so — in that moment he did not wish me well — or any other Child of God. He talked of choices for the folk of the Fort, but he did not really offer them one. He wanted to slaughter them, and used me as a convenient tool to open their door.

For a moment guilt racked him. If I had refused, or simply failed, would that have changed the outcome?

No. Had I not been there, he would simply have found another, or assaulted the place in straight brutal fashion. I can still hear the voices of the dying inside my head like nails on a chalkboard. Like screams from the very Pit of Hell. I have read of the killing fields of Cambodia, the Rape of Nanking, seen the gas chambers of Auschwitz. And despite all that evidence, I had never really understood just how deep human blood-lust could run. How far from humanity it could take men. Until now.

He shuddered, got up and closed the window against the now-chilly night breeze. Back in bed, he said a quick chain of Pater Nosters to calm his mind before returning to the question.

I could attribute this horror to something else. Possession, perhaps, by a supernatural creature such as those described in scripture. Or by another kind of creature, perhaps not something even native to our world? What caused the Change? Did that cause originate here within humanity — or outside of us? Is this the work of enemies from outside our planet, wreaking destruction upon us through knowledge of nature more deep than anything humanity can claim? And if it is, how would I be able to tell?

No — those explanations simply beg the question. Defer it, by translating it into something that is unanswerable almost by definition. I cannot escape my dilemma that way.

Whatever Sensei Catron is becoming, it is a being that hates, hates all humans, and hates us with an all-devouring passion. It might be the very incarnation of Wrath filling his mind like a poison, or perhaps Envy, seeking to tear down all it sees merely because it cannot possess everything.

He shuddered again, imagination filling in possibilities that had never occurred to him before.

Is it my duty to free him of the grip of this madness? Perhaps, but I cannot see how to do so. He is no little girl, safely under the physical control of authoritative parents. He is a king in all but name, who can command death at his merest whim. For that matter, he is an impressive warrior in his own right. And none too patient. Did I start trying to remonstrate with him, there can be no doubt how that would end. He would merely ignore me, unless I annoyed him. In which case he would kill me, immediately and without regret.

What is my duty here, imprisoned between this — this nihilism of hatred, and the death of the technological world that bore me? Jefe Paco has made it plain — I will not be allowed to leave. Yet if I make myself a nuisance, I am not so valuable to them that I will not be killed. Could there be a more powerless position!

He pondered that for a while.

Joseph snored suddenly, twitched and settled into a new position, and went back to breathing evenly. Father Markus looked over at the boy. He had rolled over and was now facing the priest. His child face was smoothed out in sleep, the habitual fear and wariness eased away.

There is my answer, Father Markus thought wryly. I am an adult, a man with at least some freedom of action. I can resist evil in the most basic way — by countering it with my own capacity for doing good works. Such as caring for those in my charge. And one other thing lies within my power — to wait, and watch for opportunity. If God in his grace sends me a chance to escape with them, or send them away to safety and freedom, then I must be ready to seize that chance when it comes, and never mind the cost to me.

He turned over and slept. After a timeless while he dreamed, incoherent images with a few clearer ones embedded.

– A tired Cardinal surrounded by other priests, protected from a mob by rows of men in archaic uniforms wearing medieval armor and wielding antique weapons. The gray-haired priest had a craggy face, and clutched an antique bible to his chest. His eyes looked beyond the crowd to green hills in the distance. Determination burned in his eyes, a will that would drive his body on far past its natural abilities. Behind him, Rome burned…

– The Church of Guadalupe in Conejos, where he’d been once on a tour. Oldest church in Colorado, yet built a mere eye blink of time ago when compared to Jerusalem. A mass was in progress. The congregation overflowed the little sanctuary and spilled down the front steps. Horses and wagons, bicycles, and even goat carts were parked on the overgrown front lawn. An aluminum lamppost had been felled and the top lashed to another to make a long hitching rail for the beasts. The men bore swords and spears, their faces were stern and resolute; the women were the same. It struck him that they were worried, but not fearful — hard work lay ahead, but with it the promise of a future…

– A man, relatively young, his face weathered by outdoor work and with that indefinable ‘can-do’ attitude about it that marked so many Americans. He wore armor and bore two swords, reminiscent of some samurai in a period movie about ancient Japan, but his face bespoke European ancestors. Behind him rows of other young men and women stood, armored and weaponed but at ease. Their postures signaled a deep deference to the man, compounded of respect and love. Children and other women mingled with them, with the casual familiarity of family. The man’s eyes were gazing outward, searching, looking for something they needed — or somebody…

Then a familiar ravening Darkness boiled up before his eyes. It surged and grasped, hating life with a dreadful finality. It threatened them all, the determined Cardinal, the working congregation, the searching man… and Father Markus saw himself interposed between. The Darkness on one side, the searching man on the other.

He awoke sweating, wrapped in his blankets. Joseph’s little-boy snores continued from the next bed. The moonlight had passed, dim starlight remained.

What are you asking of me, Lord? he prayed. What must I do?

There was no answer, but when he fell back asleep there were no more dreams.

Next morning he awoke to a rough knocking on the door.

“Padre!” shouted Jefe Paco’s voice. “Wake up!”

“I’m here, Jefe,” the priest answered, stumbling into his clothes and opening the door. Paco was in his armor, weapons girted.

“Get the medical crew ready to leave in two hours,” Paco ordered.

Nurse Lionheart opened the next door. “Doctor Eid is dead,” she announced flatly. Her eyes were red.

Paco swore briefly, and then shrugged. “Then leave him, but get yourselves ready. We march again.”

“Yes, Jefe,” Father Markus answered reflexively, then added, “But why?”

“We go to attack Loveland.” Paco’s voice was flat, in the way that the priest had come to associate with those moments when Sensei was at his most terrifying. “Ask no questions — just get ready.”

Father Markus wondered, What is he doing now?

❀ ❁ ❀

14

— Just when things are going well —

Lyons, Colorado; early July, 1998.

Tim cleaned the last arrowhead, slipped it into his quiver and picked up his bow. It was a very nice reflex-deflex model he’d salvaged out of a house in the foothills above town. God only knew what had happened to the family living there, but the man had clearly been an avid bow hunter. Tim slipped the bow into the carrying loops on his back-harness, settled his sword and quiver, and strolled out of the former garage. His bike was waiting in the backyard behind the Santini house.

Jenner was there too, pushing another bike. He had his own camo gear on, the set he’d worn when Tim had captured him, and wore new moccasins twin to the ones on Tim’s own feet. And a borrowed bow and quiver.

“Can I come hunting with you?” The wildlife biologist asked almost fawningly.

“Why do you keep following me around like a damn dog!?” Tim exploded, glaring at the man.

Jenner hung his head. “I — I — I don’t mean to be trouble. I love the woods and hills, and — and I can help with the meat too, I’m a good shot now and I’m learning how to butcher a carcass properly. And —“

Tim flicked his hands up in a gesture he’d seen Sensei make when he was faced with a slow learner who had a lot to unlearn. “You’re, what, twenty-two, twenty-four years old?”

“Twenty-three and a half.” Jenner blinked at him, a little like an owl but a lot less dangerous. “Birthday in December.”

“I was eighteen five months ago. What the hell can I teach you that you don’t already know, Jenner?” Tim glared at the older man, three inches shorter and a little more lightly built than himself. “You keep following me around every chance you get. Are you queer?”

“No!” Jenner’s hands twisted nervously on the handlebars. “I’m just short! I like girls; I just — usually make a fool of myself around them.” He blushed a little.

“So what is it? You keep looking at me like I was something — I don’t know what. It’s pissing me off!”

Jenner ducked his head again, looked at Tim out of the corners of his eyes. “You’re so good at moving through the forest… I want to learn how to move the way you do.”

“Sensei’s better at it than me,” Tim shrugged aside the praise, uncomfortable with it. “You could learn more from him — that’s what I did.”

“Other things, sure, but not this. Maybe he used to be better than you, but not now,” Jenner disagreed, staring at Tim. “He’s got the skill, sure, and more than me, but there’s something more than just skill with you. You’ve gone farther than him, you know how to — to be in the forest, of it, the way you are now. I can see it when you walk — h-heck, even here on the farm, the moment you step into the cherry orchard you change, like you’re a deer or a cougar, or, or, or an I-don’t-know-what. It’s like you turn into something both man and animal, or the wind itself! Please, I’ve spent my whole life trying to learn to be one with nature like that.” Jenner took a deep breath, held a hand out palm up, beseeching. “Please let me learn from you!”

“Grrr.” Tim ground his teeth for a moment. I need to do this — do it today! — and I don’t want company! But the thought came, unbidden and unwelcome, but undeniable. Sensei took the time to teach me…

“All right!” Tim snapped. “You can come along. But, damnit, if you scare off the game, there’s gonna be hell to pay. I’ll — I’ll sic Grandma Abbaku on you!”

Jenner grinned. “Now there’s a threat to make me piss myself. I promise, I’ll learn — I’ll work as hard as I can.”

“Hope it’s enough,” Tim answered grumpily as he threw a leg over his bike and pushed off.

Jenner followed silently as they rode out of town, up the South Fork of the Saint Vrain this time. Tim turned off the highway onto a rutted side road and began the long slogging climb up to the Gall family’s upper ranch meadows. Sweat streamed in the warm summer air as his legs and lungs pumped, muscle and bone moving in smooth coordination. Stones and gullies tried to bar his way, but always he managed to slip between the worst rocks. Each time he found the easiest path across the gullies, without shedding too much momentum on the loose bottom pebbles. Jenner panted behind, struggling and bouncing over rocks that Tim missed. Brown cattle grazed contentedly on either side, following the drying vegetation higher and higher into the mountains. Gates had been left open to encourage the cattle to move on; the lower slopes were already eaten bare.

Clark Gall, one of the grandsons, challenged them at the top of the climb. He waited on horseback, a loaded crossbow ready at his shoulder. When Tim gave the current pass-signal the young cowboy lowered the bow and greeted them.

“Goin’ gobbler hunting?” he asked, chewing on a sweet grass stem. He was a couple years younger than Tim but sat his horse with the easy grace of one born to the saddle.

“Deer,” Tim answered, jerking a thumb at the pack-frame lashed to the back of his bike. “But if a turkey or three wander into my path, I won’t spit on ‘em. If we get any, your crew want one?”

“I won’t say no to that,” Clark allowed, grinning. “Don’t tell Gramps, but I’m startin’ to get a little tired of beef all the time.”

“Deal,” Tim nodded, as Jenner caught up, panting a little. The biologist was in excellent physical shape, and he even moved well in the forest, Tim thought, but he just didn’t seem to know how to find a true path to save his life. Always wasting effort going through, when he should be going around.

Tim nodded to the cowboy and pushed off again. The ranch road shriveled to a dual-track as they pumped into Antelope Park, a thousand feet above Lyons. Two more of Gall’s cowboys guarded the first few cattle in the park; by afternoon there’d likely be many more. Tim gave the password again and they rode on, sometimes dismounting to push the bikes through a particularly rocky gully. On the far side of the plateau they were back in the woods again and the wheel-tracks shrank to a horse trail. Behind them Indian Head and Coffintop blocked any view of the canyons where Lyons lay, but far to the east Longmont was a gray blotch near the edge of sight.

Tim dismounted then and told Jenner “Leave the bikes here.”

“Should we hide them?” The biologist obediently rolled his over next to Tim’s.

“Naw. Gall’s cowboys’ll be looking out for them. They been shooting first and asking questions later, so the wanderers and wannabe bandits’re pretty well cleared out of this stretch, unless somebody’s wandered down from Raymond or Allenspark.”

Jenner grimaced. “Nearly four months since anyone up there had any food — you think there’s more than one or two men still alive in the mountains?”

Tim remembered Pat’s story about the cement plant; Mike and Sensei hadn’t wanted to talk about it. And remembered poor Amateur over by Button Rock, and what the man Sensei had dubbed Professional had done to him.

“They could still be eating each other.” He spit to the side, clearing a bad taste from his mouth. “And deer, and turkey — maybe even squirrel, or bear, too. And there’s a lot of summer cabins up there, probably most had a few cans of this and that left in ‘em. I wouldn’t bet on the mountains being safe from two-legged trouble just yet.”

Tim shed his jacket, rolled and stuffed it into his fanny pack. He strapped on a pack frame, its shiny aluminum painted over with dark brown, then shifted his quiver to a more accessible position and clipped back the cover for quick access. He slung his katana over the other shoulder, clipped up on the pack frame, then took in the belt a notch. Then he strung his bow, tested the tension.

Jenner did the same, watching carefully at every step and saying nothing. His gladius would be harder to draw from the shoulder, but it was also shorter and less apt to catch on branches and shrubbery.

Good. At least he’s not pestering me with questions all the time now. The thought and the annoyance were both distant, already eclipsed by a rising sense of the trees before him.

The forest… I can taste it. I know it.

He took a deep breath, centered himself.

Okay. Enough stalling. Whatever’s out there — here I am.

He opened himself to the mountain. Test the air, watch the bob and twitch of the treetops, the slow drift of clouds. Scents of sage and grass and the cloying taint of bitterbrush blew uphill from Antelope Park. Eddies of sharp clean pine came back occasionally. Wind’s been curling around, mostly up out of the South Saint Vrain; deer’ll be drifting before it, towards Button Rock. The meadows on the north side?

He sniffed the air again, let the flow run across his face and hands, testing it. His nerves opened out further, drinking in the land.

No, not yet, been a lot of hunting pressure there already, he decided. They’ll head for that plateau on the south side of the lake, and the pocket meadows.

He didn’t know how he knew, but the estimate had a rightness to it that the trees and wind only confirmed. He set out, moccasins crackling faintly on dry pine needles. A few dozen feet into the woods, the humidity rose and the needles became quieter. The horse-trail fell away to their right, dropping off the back of the plateau, but Tim steered left and higher up the slope. He wanted to pass well above the dam.

Morning sunlight dappled the ground here and there as the treetops swayed above — this was third-generation Ponderosa pine forest, striving and growing. Occasional squirrels left piles of dismembered pinecones around the base of the larger trees, seeds pried out and husks dropped below favored dining spots. Three of the dark-furred critters chittered at him.

I could take them, if I wanted to, Tim thought casually, scanning the trees. Naw, too much skinning for too little meat.

The lowest pine branches had long since been shaded out, died and dried into curled black and gray noisemakers just waiting for something to brush against and snap them off with a hollow ‘tunk!’ Jenner struggled to avoid them, crouching and dodging and gradually falling behind. Something snarled impatiently at the back of Tim’s mind but he made himself wait till the biologist caught up. Just as he stopped a pace away, Jenner caught his bow on a dead branch and caused another hollow ‘tunk!’ Chagrin covered the biologist’s face.

“You’ve got to grow a better sense of where your edges are,” Tim told him, pitching his voice to barely carry to the other man’s ear. “That way you’ll dodge far enough. Also — squat lower when you go under branches.”

Jenner simply nodded, staring intently as Tim moved on again.

Higher up, Tim decided. There has to be a deer path there. He shifted direction slightly, and a few minutes later knew satisfaction. Yup, right here.

The deer had used this one for a long time, the route was braided — two and even three paths twined together. Most branches were broken off already and they could move faster. From the thickness of the duff Tim decided that recent use had been slight, which probably meant the local mountain lion had hunted it hard lately. Sure enough, a pile of scat on a hidden rock had a few deer hairs bristling out of the lumps. When Tim pointed to it Jenner squatted, looked closely.

“Young male, probably,” Jenner whispered. “But hunting openly, so he must have taken over the territory. Either kicked the old lion out, or it got shot and he moved in.”

Tim nodded, pointed ahead. He could faintly smell the spoor of the lion, the dried urine where it had relieved itself. Young, but more than that. He’s full of himself, too, cocky, drove the old lion off, and took his mates. But the deer are getting thin, everybody’s been hunting them hard, and cocky-lion can’t figure out where they went. He’ll be hungry…

They moved faster now. The wrinkled hillside undulated along, gullies running across their path and down to the North Saint Vrain and the reservoir. The path scattered into invisibility but the forest here was older, lower branches long since shed and weaker trees shaded out and fallen. Their trunks rolled down slope and fetched up against others, accumulating debris on the uphill side and making scattered ledges on the hillside. Tim and Jenner could walk upright here, avoiding occasional stubs of old branches on the smooth columnar trunks. Some of the trees were two feet in diameter. More rocks thrust up and out of the hillside, a few of them enormous. The vanilla scent of Ponderosa bark permeated the air, along with a faint elusive musk.

Deer nearby, Tim thought, and signaled to Jenner to slow down.

The slope flattened; they’d found the plateau. Trees were even taller here, this patch had been burned over but never logged. Several giants reared up eighty feet and more, rust-brown trunks over a yard wide and seamed with old black burn scars. Their branches didn’t even start until fifty feet above the ground. Between them younger progeny crowded, starved for sunlight under those spreading crowns and making walls of low-hanging greenery. Tim eeled around one and found — the meadows.

There were younger trees here too, pushing in from the edges to ultimately swallow the dry meadow. While it lasted, sagebrush, bitterbrush, and cinquefoil competed with grass for precious sunlight. Tim crouched, approaching the edge slowly, eyes and ears alert and nose tingling. Jenner hung back, watching, but Tim had dropped him from his consciousness.

There they are. Prey.

A little band browsed on the shrubs, three does and two yearlings not quite old enough to breed, and a pair of this year’s fawns already growing tall. A younger buck browsed nearby, not quite with them; one immature antler had an odd twist to it.

Meat.

Tim could almost taste the blood-rare flesh, meltingly tender in the fawns, dark and full-flavored in the adults. His skin tingled and something ancient moved in him, reaching out.

The oldest doe twitched nervously and scanned the forest, her fawn staying close. She raised her head and sniffed.

Tim thought of grass and pine needles, and lay completely still with the patience of a hundred thousand years. Behind him, Jenner, watching, froze into tense immobility. A trio of young pines shielded them, but if the doe tried hard enough she could find the men.

Don’t worry, Tim thought at her. Eat. Be at peace.

Presently the doe lowered her head and went back to nipping at the shrubs. She shouldered her way past the buck, which gave ground and moved a little closer to the hunters. The lone doe also shifted to the end of the bush she was working on, turning sideways to the hunters.

Perfect.

Tim drifted backwards several steps until he was close enough to put his lips to Jenner’s ear.

“Buck for you, the lone doe for me.”

Jenner nodded submissively, began to ready his bow behind the cover of a thick young pine. Tim drew one of his own arrows, nocked it, and began to drift forward again. This time he was fleetingly aware that the biologist moved at his elbow. A timeless rhythm fell over both men.

We hunt.

Insects droned, lulling sleep. The deer still browsed peacefully, unaware in the warming mid-day heat. Musky scent on the breeze.

Prey… my prey.

Tim’s bow flexed slowly, anticipation building, then the sudden release. The arrow soared true. The lone doe staggered, fell with the arrowhead piercing her heart. Her bewildered brown eyes stared at the sky as she died.

An instant later Jenner shot, but Twisted-horn was already alert. The arrow passed through the thinner flesh of a leg, nicked the leg-bone and scraped between two ribs before lodging just inside a lung. The shocked young male leaped, knowing he was hurt, but the shaft interfered with movement and he slipped and fell. Legs threshed as he desperately scrambled back to his feet, along the way tearing the arrow out of his chest. He jinked just far enough that Tim’s second arrow took him in the rump, hamstringing that leg. The buck thrashed through the shrubs, tripped again as Tim and Jenner ran forward. Bloody mist blew from the deer’s nose and he bleated and kicked. Tim dodged even as he drew his knife — a deer this size packed enough power in his legs to break a man’s thighbone if he connected. Jenner backpedaled, readying another arrow. Tim waited a moment, gauging the animal’s thrashing. Then he darted close, grabbed the nearest horn in a sure snatch and plunged blade into the buck’s throat. Carotid blood spurted. He twisted the haft and razor metal snicked through the jugular too. The deer kicked once more, weakly, then voided and died.

Jenner un-nocked his arrow and leaned forward, hands on knees while he panted. Between breaths he gasped “You’ve got nerve! If it’d kicked you —“

“I knew where his legs would be,” Tim answered absently, working the knife. Twisted-horn’s throat opened readily and his blood spilled out on the ground. It pooled between two shrubs.

Moved by some impulse, Tim snapped off a leafy branch, dipped it in the blood and flicked it in the four cardinal directions.

My thanks to you, Lord of the Horns, for this meat, he thought, not sure where the words even came from. A sense of vast satisfaction filled him for a moment, his own and more. Then it faded and he became aware that Jenner was talking again.

“— amazing! First you led us here like they were waiting for you, then you got off two arrows to my one, and you jumped right in and cut his throat with one slice —“

“Jenner,” Tim interrupted firmly. “Less talk. More butchering.”

The biologist closed his mouth with an effort, put his own arrow back in his quiver. Tim dug out a rope, trussed the buck’s hind legs together and dragged it over to a large tree. There was a big branch several feet up, the rope went over and Jenner helped haul the carcass up to a convenient height for butchering. Then he went back for Tim’s doe. Tim shrugged out of his pack frame, unsheathed his katana and leaned it against the tree, bow and quiver beside it and all ready at need. He stripped off his shirt to minimize the cleanup; butchering was always a messy business. The cool air was welcome on his skin anyway. He had the first incision under way when Jenner returned with the doe bumping along behind him.

“We ought to be careful of the blood,” the biologist remarked nervously. “There’s a wasting disease going around these herds and some of the early tests say it might be contagious to humans. The DOW had a warning out last fall, and word was they were gonna expand it to the whole Front Range this fall.”

Tim paused, sniffed the buck’s blood on his knife. “This one’s clean,” he pronounced, then knelt to pry his arrow out of the doe. He sniffed that too, wrinkled his nose and bared his teeth for an instant. “She’s not; we’d best drain her good and leave the organs behind.” He spoke with absolute assurance, not knowing how he knew but completely confident of the knowledge. He began tying another rope onto the doe’s hind legs.

“How — you — but,” Jenner stuttered, swallowed, then blurted out “How can you tell?! I’d have to send the blood sample into a lab for testing — man!” His eyes were very wide.

Tim shrugged, rose and flung the rope over another branch. He caught the end, then muscles bunched in his shoulders and back as he took on her weight and drew it up. “I just know,” he finally said as he tied off the rope, the doe dangling two feet off the ground. He carefully cut the doe’s throat open, split open the belly and chest and sliced into the big blood vessels, neatly dodging the red gusher of the aorta. Lastly he slashed the forelegs where they hung down. Only after he’d made sure all the blood vessels were flowing freely did he wipe his knife thoroughly on pine needles and grass, then return to the buck.

Jenner swallowed again, said nothing. The biologist braced the buck’s swaying carcass without being asked, held it while Tim peeled back the hide. Fleas leapt off the cooling carcass, some onto them; Jenner slapped and scratched one-handed. Tim just stuck to the task, cutting and scraping at the connective tissues under the thick supple hide. He didn’t bother with the outer legs, just cut around at the knee joints. When he had the hide off and spread inside-up to receive the good parts, he began opening the body cavity. Liver, pancreas, lungs and kidneys set aside carefully. The liver gushed out blood like a sponge when he squeezed it, clean and red. The rest of the offal wasn’t worth the effort to pack it out, he cut it free and flung it aside into the forest, long loops of intestine, gall bladder, and webs of tissue. The heart, though, he cut free of the main arteries and sliced apart, cutting a sliver out of the tough muscle.

“You want some of this?” he asked, chewing. The warm life of the deer flowed across his tongue, sustaining and rich. Thank you for feeding me and mine, four-footed brother.

Jenner gulped, nodded slowly and accepted the bloody gobbet. He squinted as he chewed, getting used to the taste.

Tim set the rest of the heart aside, went back to cutting.

“Man, you’re quick and sure at that,” Jenner observed a little hoarsely after he swallowed the heart meat. “Not a cut wasted, I’d swear. You hunted a lot, in Montana?”

Tim shrugged, squatted and began work on the forelegs. Forever. And yet… “Not really; last seven years with my Dad, and only in season. The last three times we went with Sensei. He always gets his buck, and Dad usually did too, but it took me a couple years to learn how.” Strange, Mom and Dad seem so far away, but I’m not worried about them any more, somehow.

“Do you always get one now?”

Tim shrugged again. “Or a doe.” He jabbed his knife in the direction of the hanging carcass. “She needed to be culled. I could tell.”

Jenner didn’t look like that answer made him any happier. He was silent while they finished jointing the buck, discarding the lower legs, head and pelvis. Tim wrapped the organs in plastic freezer bags brought along in his pack, the main cuts in bigger trash sacks, and set them aside to be packed out.

Then they tackled the doe. Jenner shuddered a little as he handled the peeled carcass.

“It’s weird to think she’s carrying something in her blood that could make us sick, maybe even kill us, and there are no more hospitals and medicines to cure it now,” he said apprehensively.

Tim paused, touching the carcass without quite looking at it. “We’re safe, long as we bleed her thoroughly and don’t eat her brain, spine or organs. Whatever it is, it’s only in the big nerves, spine and brain and the main trunks here and here. I won’t keep any of those.”

Jenner shook his head and trembled. “I believe you,” he whispered. “I’m a rational man, a scientist, there’s no such thing as magic, and I don’t understand how you can know that — but I believe you.”

Tim frowned at him, then before he could speak a scent caught his nose. He jerked around, leaped for the katana and came up in guard position, knife and sword ready.

The mountain lion growled, a low baleful sound, and stepped closer. It must have been nearly a hundred-fifty pounds, a big healthy male only a few years old, long and tawny and deadly. Claws bigger than paring knives fringed paws broader than human hands. White teeth long as a finger were bared in a red-and-black mouth wider than Tim’s head. The claws clicked on a stone as it stalked. Its tail twitched and yellow eyes glared.

Tim locked gazes with it and a long low rumble broke from his own chest, shockingly loud.

My prey, mine!

His nostrils flared and his own teeth bared, sword-tip moving in a tight circle. Fire awakened in his blood and he felt taller, limbs filling with a potency he’d never known before.

The lion turned aside, stalked around a tree, barely twice its own body length away from him. Tim growled again, louder this time, a challenge followed by a spitting shriek, and feinted a short rush at it, blades twitching. The lion recoiled, gave back a pace and then another, still growling. But now there was a tentative note to it.

That’s right, Tim thought at it, blades twitching and still snarling. I’m bigger than you and my claws are sharper. You can have the offal when we’re gone, but for now, keep your distance!

He stamped again, surged forward a step and snarled again, scalp prickling as his hair stood out. The katana whistled as it split the air, once, twice, thrice, throwing silvery shards of sunlight in the lion’s eyes.

The lion gave back another pace, growl sinking down. Abruptly the beast turned, snatched up a discarded length of leg from the dismembered buck and leaped away with it clamped between his jaws. It bounded off into the forest.

Tim sent a victorious snarl after it.

My kill! Mine all mine!

It didn’t turn back. After a moment he turned and looked at his companion, panting a little as his body burned away the adrenaline surge. Every inch of his skin prickled with exultation.

Jenner had frozen, one hand on the hilt of his gladius, the other on the doe. His eyes were wide and staring. He gasped, choked, shook his head and let go of his sword.

“It — it could have killed us both,” he coughed out, gripping the carcass for balance. Both swayed a little.

“Naw,” Tim assured him giddily, breathing deep as the battle reflex slowly faded. Blood still pounded through his veins. “No chance. I knew it was bluffing. Two of us, one of it, and it could smell our steel just as well as the blood. It wasn’t about to get down and nasty with me! It’ll hole up for a little while, come back when we’re gone.”

He blew out his breath in a happy gust, sheathed the katana and stretched luxuriously in the dappled sunlight. “We’ll leave the heads and big bones for brother lion. Only fair.”

Jenner said softly “What are you becoming, Tim Woods?”

Tim considered the question like he would a deer. A fierce grin split his face. “I don’t know. But I like it.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“This new leader concerns me,” Marshall Duncan told Sam. “What do you know about his history? Tell me about your own contacts with him as well.”

Sam leaned back against the chair and stretched for a moment, his armor clinking. The Marshall had pulled him into his office for a debriefing as soon as Sam’s crew came through the Gate. Kit and the others had taken the Town’s share of the livestock on to the stables, and Jesse was eager to introduce Margie to his mother. Sam had given Duncan a fast summary of the events of the expedition, ending with their escape from Catron’s spying student.

“I haven’t been around him all that much.” Sam shrugged slightly. “We’re both black belts in the same art. I remember hearing that he learned it during his military service somewhere in Japan during the seventies. He studied with three different teachers in Los Angeles and Albuquerque. I never knew any of them personally. His first teacher was an American who moved to Korea around eighteen years ago. His second was an Okinowan living in LA who died twelve years ago from some kind of drug-induced heart attack. I never met either of them. His third teacher was an American guy that Harry Chu, my teacher in Montana, had previously had trouble with. It was some kind of falling-out over the woman that Harry married. That guy did some time in prison in New Mexico about twenty-odd years ago, but I don’t know what it was about. Harry and that one didn’t speak to each other the few times we met at matches. Since our teachers mostly ignored each other, we students hardly spoke either. Harry clearly didn’t want to talk about it, so I never asked about the history.”

Sam stopped for a moment. “I should probably tell you how I got involved in the art, it might matter. I trained originally on Okinawa during my hitch in the Army, for about twenty-two months, just made it to brown belt at the end — fast, but no record. Then I studied with Harry in Bozeman while I took teacher’s college, he was from the same school on Okinawa but more than a generation older. His wife was from Montana, which is how he ended up there. He only had three students at a time — we got a lot of individual attention. I rented a room in his house too, so it was a pretty in-depth immersion.”

“My last year of teacher’s college I did spar with Catron in formal matches a few times. I won two and he won one, all on points. By that time I was already a second-dan black belt and Catron had been third for a while and was about to test for fourth. He was a little insulted by being beat by a second-rank and didn’t talk to me the rest of that meet. It may be that was why he didn’t make fourth that year, because his promotion didn’t show up in the newsletter until a couple years later.”

“Hmmm,” Duncan remarked. “Keep going.”

“Well, after that I graduated and went to work teaching in Billings. I married Ellie and we had Jimmy. I didn’t come to many matches for a few years, though I kept training on weekends with Harry, who was fourth-dan and soon to be fifth. His wife had family in Billings and they drove over frequently. He and I even hunted together several times in the Absarokas. He arranged my third-dan test as a surprise at the Association Regionals in Denver back in eighty-eight.”

Sam frowned, thinking back. “I remember Catron was one of the fourth-dan black belts there at the test. I was running the club team at Billings Central High by then and he had his own school down in Albuquerque. In fact, he’s had a couple. One of them went bankrupt, I remember hearing, and another got closed down over some kind of sex-scandal with a female student. I’d guess the boys he brought with him are from his third.” He shrugged.

“Anyway, he kind of inherited his old teacher’s grudge against my teacher. Years later I learned that he was one of the few ‘no’ votes at my advancement to third. I didn’t find that out until four years ago, after I made fourth-dan myself. That was at the Regionals, too, but only the three fifth-dans get to vote on a fourth-dan advancement. They don’t happen very often, most of us Americans stall at third-dan because we just can’t dedicate the kind of time it takes to go higher. Somebody started a rumor that I’d only been promoted as an honor to my teacher Harry. I never found out where it came from. Harry wasn’t one of the testers. He and his wife had both been killed in a car crash on I-90 that winter, a great loss. I still miss them.”

Sam fell silent for a melancholy moment, remembering. For a while the four years since seemed like nothing.

Duncan asked “What kind of dealings did your students have with his students over the years?”

“Only at the Regionals in Denver, and there are more than two hundred students there. I always brought my seven best along, generally only the juniors and seniors — we left nine others behind in Montana, I really hope they’re okay. But our school owned an eleven-passenger van, so I could bring my family and seven students while Catron usually just brought four. He probably drove his own car. Anyway, not a lot of interaction — until this year.”

Sam flushed with remembered anger at the memory. “Only the first place finishers in the categories get to go to the national competitions. Our school only ever produced one contender before, it was the year Jenny was born, and he finished fifth at National — very respectable, and we’re all still proud of him at home. This year I had two contenders — Kate took first place in Women’s single bo, and Tim would have taken first place in Men’s bare hand — he earned his brown belt back before Christmas. But the seven judges for each competition are chosen from the teachers, and they score every student but their own. Catron gave Tim a zero, while all the rest gave him tens. That lowered Tim’s score one point below that of Billy Johnson, the second-place finisher and Catron’s star. It was blatant cheating to get his own student into the Nationals, and of course somebody among the officials talked. Catron was sure to be suspended from judging by the National Committee later this year for that, but it got him what I guess he wanted — a shot at the Nationals.”

“In a small sport like yours, it’s likely that word of that behavior would haunt him for the rest of his career,” Duncan observed. “It seems like a lot to sacrifice for a not-particularly-great return.”

“That’s what I thought,” Sam admitted. “I think most of the other teachers were shocked too. That’s the kind of thing that’s just not done in Matsubashi Ryu — ah, in Okinowan Karate. I still can’t imagine what drove him to do it.”

“Given that history,” Duncan probed, “And the way you described his student looking at you, what do you think this Catron’s likely to do once he knows that you’re here?”

Sam mulled that one over for a while, not liking the thought of it.

“I don’t know. I guess I’m hoping he thinks we’re in Loveland. From what Colotta reported, Loveland’s held out pretty successfully. They’ve got almost nine thousand people still there, even after that fight they had with one of the Fort Collins factions. Whatever group Catron’s joined, it looks like they’ve taken over Greeley. I’d guess they’ll be busy for the rest of the summer consolidating that and getting a hold on as much countryside as they can. Lot of irrigated farms north and east of them, they’ve got plenty of water in the Poudre River, so they should do all right.”

“Always assuming,” Duncan noted, “That settling down is in fact their intention. Let’s remember how Attila’s Huns felt about the sedentary way of life.”

Sam liked that thought even less. Please God no, last thing Colorado needs is a bunch of Huns plundering everything…

Duncan stretched, glanced at the angle of the sun through the former gas-station’s window, and rose from his chair. “Until we have more information there’s no point to further speculation. Thank you for bringing me this information, Sam. I’d appreciate it if you made yourself available again later in the week, after I’ve had time to develop more questions.”

“Just let me know when, Marshall.” Sam paused a moment, moved by a thought he couldn’t quite name. Then he did something he hadn’t done since he left military service. He said “You’re my commander, Marshall Duncan sir,” and saluted.

Duncan gravely returned it. “Thank you, Captain Hyatt.”

Sam left the command post and headed up the old highway into town. There was hammering coming from the new grist mills along the river. Both were partly-framed and coming along well. Sam saw Chief Waters supervising the installation of a set of big truck axles under the future floor of the nearer mill, with toothed gears to transfer the rotation of the water wheels to the newly-cut granite millstones. It looked like delicate work so he stayed out of the way and left the crew to it.

We’ll have flour again soon, he thought. Bread… I never thought I’d crave it, but I do.

His stomach grumbled a little in counterpoint — he’d missed lunch by leaving Longmont before it was served there, but arrived in Lyons after the Wall’s garrison crew had already eaten. He nibbled on a bit of beef jerky and the last biscuit from the stock they’d brought on the expedition. He was thankful that there had been so much wild food available out on the plains. Not that Bessie could really be called ‘wild’ food, exactly. The crew at the Coors granary had feasted on steaks this morning, courtesy of the last two hindquarters that the expedition had lugged along all the way from Krug Lake.

It felt odd to be back in Lyons’ tight canyons and hanging foothills after a week under the endless sky of the eastern plains. As Sam walked up the highway towards the old town center, the place seemed strangely constricted and yet home-like too.

It’s ‘home’ only because my family’s here. But to me, it’s always been an odd little place, too cramped to be really comfortable. I like having mountains nearby, but having them hanging right over me all the time makes me itch.

He wondered if Ellie felt the reverse. She’d always seemed comfortable in Billings, but she liked their day-trips to the Montana mountains, too.

He turned down a driveway to the back door of Starry’s forge, past the much-shrunken coal pile. We’re going to have to do something about that soon, he thought. Can’t afford to have our smith run out of fuel! I hope that charcoal-making idea works out — God knows we’ve got enough hard juniper wood for it.

He went on in. The heat doubled, from early-July warmth to industrial-strength. Starry was supervising two of his sweating apprentices at the forge, planting pieces of metal in the glowing embers. Nearby two others alternated hammer blows on a red-hot slab bigger than a dinner plate, held by a third muscular young man with big tongs. Starry’s apprentices were growing into their profession.

“Sam!” Starry hailed him. “Good to have you back!”

“Good to be back, Boyd.” Sam answered, then flexed his armor. “Sorry to have to bother you, but the fasteners on my left shoulder are coming apart. Any chance I can get that fixed soon?”

Starry examined it, nodded. “We can do that today. I’ve got a load of hammered chest blanks ready to go over to the arsenal. Take this off and I’ll bring it along. We ought to have it done tomorrow morning. I’ve got some new cheek-pieces for your helmet that I want to rivet on, I think you’ll like them. Gimme the gambeson, too, and we’ll get it washed and mended while we’re at it.”

“Good news.” Sam wriggled out of the armor with Boyd’s help. He was left with stained and dirty t-shirt and jeans, much more comfortable in July. He scratched reflexively, feeling vaguely naked after so many weeks in armor. I need to trim my hair and beard, too, I’m getting shaggy. The kids and Ellie will hardly know who I am.

“I heard Kit Coyle driving those new horses you got down to the stables,” Starry remarked as he bundled up the armor. “Sounded like you guys brought us more than a dozen?”

“Nineteen,” Sam confirmed while he strapped his sword belt on again. “So how’s everything been going while I’ve been gone?”

Starry shrugged. “We’re plenty busy here, what with repairing that thresher you brought me, and making those extra swords Longmont ordered. And the thirty damned new suits of armor for the town police are keeping me tied up, too. I’d rather be working on my reaper, I still think I could get it to work, but the Mayor decided otherwise.”

“New armor? Thirty suits?” Sam puzzled over that one. “There were less than ten cops in this town to begin with, and most of them were in the militia last I knew. I thought everybody in the militia already had armor.”

“Mayor Grasso expanded the force, added a bunch of new hires. Can’t say they fill me right up with confidence, though.” Starry rolled his eyes, lowering his voice. “Gene Kelly hired his drinking buddies.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “I’m guessing that’s not a good thing.”

“Right, you didn’t know him before now,” Starry nodded. “Most junior man on the force, natural-born jerk, and not much brighter than a forty-watt bulb in the noon-day sun.” Starry glanced around. “Al Knoffler’s a buddy of mine, one of the older cops, and he tells me he’s none too happy about where the force’s going under Kelly.”

Sam frowned. “There’s only three hundred men in the militia — taking twenty or thirty out for police work will make a dent.”

“Most of them didn’t come out of the militia.” Starry waggled his eyebrows significantly. “In fact, I’m not at all sure what they were doing during the war, other than demolishing Steamboat Lane. Or what they’re doing now, except sitting on their asses any chance they get and lording it over the rest of the Town when they bother to walk around.”

“That doesn’t sound good.” Sam glanced at the westering sunlight. “But right now I’m headed home. Haven’t held my wife in two weeks.”

Starry grinned. “You earned a break today, Sam, go enjoy it. Your father-in-law says wheat harvest starts the day after tomorrow. We’ll all be working plenty hard then.”

Sam left the forge and cut across the block. His skin enjoyed the delicious sensation of cool air now that he was unarmored for a change. He ducked through a gap between old brick buildings, heading toward home — and Ellie.

As he hustled along he remembered Burt’s reaction to the new Mayor’s actions that night over dinner.

This new bunch of cops sounds like more of the thing Burt was worried about, he thought as he strolled out the far side of the alley. Grasso’s gathering as much power as possible into just a few hands, all loyal to him. But as long as he uses that power to do the things we need to be doing anyway, is it really so bad?

His thoughts were interrupted when a hand clamped down on his shoulder, tried to spin him around.

Training instantly came to the fore. Sam sank down and out of the grip. He let its force impart motion. His own muscles turned him around his body’ axis, into the pull. He dropped into a deep stance at the same time. Hips low to the ground, knees deeply bent, left arm up to block. Right fist back and tight with stored energy. The face at the end of the strange arm loomed above him — cocky aggression began to give way to surprise. It wasn’t a face Sam knew. He launched a deep strike to the groin and the man folded like paper. Sam’s knuckles complained — the guy had been wearing a cup, though it didn’t help him much. The man rolled on the ground clutching himself and gasping.

Another man in a blue shirt and a helmet had frozen with his gladius half-drawn, just standing there staring. Sam darted back a pace, drew katana and warizaki. Faced him, ready and waiting. Who are these idiots? What do they think they’re doing?

Blue-shirt gulped. “Captain Hyatt, I didn’t recognize you!” He resheathed his sword, held his hands out to the side. Pleadingly he said “You look different!”

“Who are you?” Sam demanded.

“Officer Gary Oldham — I used to be the Mayor’s night-time bodyguard,” he explained, fumbling at his shirt until his badge showed. “Mayor Hamill, I mean.”

“Who’s that?” Sam flicked a finger at the guy on the ground.

“Gene Kelly, Captain of the force. Lyons Police, I mean.”

Kelly sucked in air, let out an obscenity as he tried to get up and couldn’t. He gasped some more, looking remarkably like a fish out of water. Sam thought the man’s pop-eyes added a lot to the effect.

Oldham braced himself, offered a hand to help his boss to his feet. Kelly glared at him for a moment, then grudgingly took it. Oldham heaved him up, and Kelly nearly fell over again. Oldham helped steady his boss while valiantly suppressing a grin.

“You cocksucker!” Kelly choked for a moment, struggled to stay upright. “Waddya punch me for?” The last came out in a sort of angry, agonized whine.

“Why did you grab me?” Sam asked him reasonably, sheathing his swords but keeping his distance. Kelly didn’t look threatening in his current condition but there was an ugly glare in his eyes. “You could have had my attention just by talking.”

“Vagrants aren’t allowed to wander around town — Mayor’s orders, any strangers to be stopped and identified!” Kelly blustered. The effect was spoiled by his slight stoop and the way his hands kept stealing toward his crotch.

“And I’m not a vagrant,” Sam told him mildly. “I’m Sam Hyatt, Captain of the Gatherers, my crew’s been helping keep us all fed. The Board of Trustees gave me that job. Why didn’t you just ask me to identity myself?”

“You look like — I don’t have to explain anything to you!” Kelly sputtered, his face reddening further. “I’m the cop, I get to ask the questions!”

“Then you really should have been asking instead of grabbing, shouldn’t you?” Sam told him, forcing himself to be pleasant. Like Boyd said — not bright. “You wouldn’t have gotten hurt that way.” He waved toward the school building a few blocks away, added with just a touch of malice. “Maybe you should have the nurse on duty check you over.”

“I don’t need any help!” Kelly snarled, forcing himself upright and putting a hand on his sword. He glared at Oldham, who managed to keep a smile off his face. “What are you standing around for, Officer Oldham? We got work to do!”

“Yes sir, Captain!” Oldham saluted, not quite smirking.

The two of them moved off, slowly, as Oldham transparently held his pace down to Kelly’s painful walk. Sam shook his head in bemusement

I hope Gary can teach his new boss some sense. Meanwhile… Ellie.

❀ ❁ ❀

“What do you think you’re doing?!”

Karen’s outraged voice floated around the corner of the processing shed into the orchard. The tone set Ellie’s nerves a-jangle. She tugged harder on the handle of the garden cart, towing the latest load of cherries to the shed. Jennie, pushing womanfully at the back of the laden cart, had to quicken her step. The rest of the harvest crew were too deep into the orchard to hear. Everyone who could be spared from something else was busy picking ripe fruit before it either spoiled or the birds got it.

An indistinct male voice came suddenly into range.

“— need more fruit for the kitchen, you’re not sending enough,” someone was growling.

Sevan’s voice: “I did already send you the quota. Mister Santini’s plan says the rest of this week’s harvest is to be dried for later use. If the Town eats all the cherries in the summer, there shall not be enough for winter!”

“Which is when we’ll need it most, for the vitamin C to fight scurvy,” Karen added.

“That’s not my problem, I got my orders. Now either hand it over or get out of the way!”

Ellie came around the corner to find Karen standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Sevan, facing a quartet of men. All four were wearing blue shirts with a vaguely official look. Ellie knew the one at the back, John Stoner, a town fixture who’d been living up to his name for years. She vaguely recognized two others, beefy workers on the demolition crew that had taken down Steamboat Lane. The speaker had a police department badge and stood almost nose-to-nose with Sevan, prodding the much shorter Armenian in the chest with one finger. His other hand rested on his nightstick.

“That’s enough, Paul Withers!” Ellie told him sharply. She dropped the handle of the wagon and strode to Sevan’s other side. “A badge doesn’t license you to be a bully!”

Paul glared down at her for a moment, his angry features suddenly conflicted. Ellie stared right back, refusing to be intimidated. She remembered her junior year of high school, when he’d been a troublesome ten-year-old, and she had once broken up a fight between him and one of her cousins. She’d grabbed Paul by the ear and squeezed it hard enough to leave a bruise, holding his head down until he gave up swinging. Now his left hand went to that ear in unconscious remembrance. Then he flushed and jerked the hand away, started to draw the nightstick with his right.

Ellie froze like a deer in the headlights of his glare. He’s not — he is — oh my god! At her side Karen sucked in an astonished breath. I didn’t expect —

“Bad idea,” a cold voice cut in. “That’s my wife talking to you.”

“Sam!” Ellie swayed with relief.

He advanced up the driveway, hands hovering near his weapon-hilts, hard eyes staring at Withers. Stoner scrambled aside with a little yip, began fading backwards down the driveway. The other two men had hands on their own swords, hesitating. Sam’s head turned aside for a moment as he caught each cop’s eyes. Both blanched and took their hands away from their weapons. Sam stalked past them, advanced on Withers, who was staring in gape-jawed amazement. Sam closed half the distance between them before the officer reacted.

Then, clumsily, Withers drew his own sword. His two followers were behind Sam now. They took their cue from their leader and drew their swords too.

“Another bad idea,” Sam added tightly, fingers closing around the hilts of katana and warizaki. “You’d be well advised not to give me cause to draw these.”

“Listen to Sensei,” added Tim’s voice from the end of the processing shed. Ellie glanced that way to see him standing next to a heavily-loaded bicycle, bow in hand and arrow nocked and drawn. Even in that instant she thought there was something feral about the way he stood. At his side Jenner was readying his own bow.

Winters eyes flicked from one to the other and his sword wavered. “You’re interfering with the law!” He blustered now. “I got orders to fetch these cherries.”

Ellie took a deep breath and put as much skepticism into her voice as she could manage, desperately squelching the fear. “Orders from who? Gene Kelly? He’s got no authority over the food supply.”

“From my Mo- from Mrs. Withers, the Director of Rationing,” Paul answered triumphantly. But he gave back a pace as Sam circled him to stand next to Ellie. His two backups made an abortive effort as if to join him, then stopped with their swords wavering around and nervous eyes on Tim and Jenner.

Please God, Ellie thought, don’t let this turn into a fight! She seized the moment verbally, staring Paul in the eye and willing sense into him. “I’ve seen the Town rationing plan, I helped organize it. My Dad wrote half of it. Sevan already sent the quota, I saw it packed and shipped. Your mother has what she’s supposed to have — if she’s sticking to the plan like she told the rest of the Trustees she would. She is, isn’t she?”

“Uh — of course she is!” Paul looked confused, thrown off stride by the combination of armed men and unarmed women. He stepped back another pace, lowered his sword. He fidgeted uncertainly under Sam’s rock-steady gaze.

“Then she doesn’t actually need more cherries yet,” Sam inserted smoothly. His hands came away from his blades and made a little tent in front of him, fingertips to fingertips. Ellie knew it was a deceptive posture if you didn’t know how fast he could draw.

“And there isn’t enough storage space in the cafeteria kitchen anyway,” she added hastily.

“Mom’s got some more space in the school basement,” Paul argued. The men behind him were looking uncertain and Stoner was most of the way down the driveway. The other two began gradually slinking backwards. Tim and Jenner’s arrows tracked them.

Ellie pushed her advantage. “The processing shed’s got evaporating coolers and is a better place to store fruit than a basement — that’s what it’s built for. What you want to do will just waste the fruit.” She emphasized the word ‘waste’ as if it were an obscenity. “That’ll infuriate a whole lot of people when they hear about it. And this is a small town — they’ll hear. Including my dad, when he gets back — and the other Trustees.”

Paul’s face twitched at that, an expression oddly like the start of a smile. He sheathed his sword, crossed his arms in a way that he probably thought was authoritative but just looked like a caricature.

“Your Dad, huh? We’ll see — meantime, I’m not gonna be answerable for your interfering.”

“Fine by me,” Ellie answered, drawing strength from Sam’s patient readiness. “Take it up with the Trustees. That ought to be a real interesting meeting.”

“Yeah, I think it will.” Withers grinned and turned away. His three minions followed, glancing back uncertainly a couple times before they vanished down the alley to the street. Tim tracked them every foot of the way, then returned his arrow to the quiver with a studied nonchalance that Jenner tried to imitate. Ellie almost wilted with relief.

Only then did Sam relax his deadly waiting, turn and hug her. “Ellie,” was all he said.

She gripped him back hard. If you hadn’t come back just then, love, what would Paul have done? Beaten up Sevan? I think so. And me and Karen? Maybe…

Karen blew her breath out. “Thanks, Sam, Ellie. I was about to lose it all over that damn fool.”

“He’s still a wannabe school bully after all these years,” Ellie partly released her husband and shook her head regretfully. “What a waste.”

“Has more of this kind of thing been going on while I’ve been gone?” Sam asked her, taking one of her hands possessively in his own.

Her skin tingled a little at the familiar touch. “I’ve heard rumors… but nothing this specific.”

Sevan muttered something in Armenian, then repeated it in English. “This is the way the commissars tighten their grip on people. Threats, outright stealing. So it was in the old country.”

Sam’s eyebrows went up, then down. Under his beard Ellie could see his frown. “If they are trying this here, with us — what are they doing to people who can’t push back?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie answered, as a sinking sensation overtook her stomach. This is more than just a reaction to stress, she thought, shivering faintly. “I just don’t know. He didn’t look like he was much worried about defending himself before the Trustees, when he left.”

“What’s going on here?” A familiar voice inquired. Her dad had come out of the orchard towing another cart loaded with cherries. Rina Durungian was helping to push it. Fleetingly, Ellie realized that they’d been spending a lot of time together for the past couple weeks.

“Burt!” Sam hailed him. “We just had the damn- unh, strangest run-in with the new cops.”

“Paul Withers tried to take the dried cherries,” Ellie explained. “Said Sarah had ordered it, but Sevan already sent the quota!”

Burt frowned, took off his billed hat and scratched his graying hair. “What the hell is she trying to pull? Time for me to have some words with her.”

“Dad! Mom! Granpa!” Jimmy’s voice hollered from the driveway. He came pelting up it on his bike, stopped with a spray of gravel in front of the adults. “Doc Brown says you should come quick! Missus Smythe is dead! He says she committed sewer-cide!”

“Suicide?!” Ellie closed her eyes for a moment in shock.

“Damnation,” her dad said, his voice suddenly older and grayer. “Losing both Fowler and her son — I should’ve seen this coming.”

“Maybe Sarah Withers already did,” Sam remarked slowly. “I think we’d better get over there.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie shivered a little in the clinic, even though the temperature was plenty warm. The air had a faint smell of death, stomach acids and vague putrescence. A sense of invisible contagion hovered over all.

That’s just my imagination, she told herself sternly. Suicide isn’t catching!

“Susan must have had a hoard of barbiturates,” Doc Brown told them as he drew a sheet back over the cold form. “Mixed them with whiskey, that Black Velvet trash that Foster loved to drink. I’m amazed she didn’t vomit all of it back up, instead of only half or so. It’s not easy to kill yourself that way, but she managed to keep enough down to do so.”

Burt frowned at the sheet. “Doc, how long do you think she’s been dead?”

Brown pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “Probably since some time fairly early last night. Livor mortis was what you’d expect from someone who died in her own bed — her red blood cells all pooled on her back and the back of her legs, gives her that pasty look. Her body was already at air-temperature when Connie Oldham brought her in here a bit more than half an hour ago. Connie lives next door, got worried because she hadn’t seen Susan this morning. Rigor mortis has reached its extreme and begun to soften slightly in the eyelids and other small muscles — generally takes about twenty hours or a bit more for that to become detectable. Can’t pinpoint the hour of death a lot closer than that — twenty, maybe twenty-two hours ago.”

“Right around sunset last night,” muttered Ellie sadly, imagining the unhappy woman saluting the dying sun with a sleeping-pill cocktail. God, take care of her, she must have been out of her mind with grief. Sam took her hand again in wordless comfort.

“She was still working with the volunteers here at the Town building,” Burt frowned. “Somebody should have noticed when she didn’t show up this morning. Gone to check on her. She shouldn’t have gone undiscovered most of the day.” He peered out the clinic window at the sun, already nearly touching the top of Indian Head.

Doc shrugged again. “Not my department, Burt. Everybody’s been busy, too many things to do and not enough hours in the day. And besides, ahh, she hasn’t exactly made herself pleasant company since Fowler died.”

Burt grimaced unhappily and changed the subject. “Have you seen Whit around? Or Rachel?”

Doc Brown looked at him shrewdly. “You know, I’m not surprised to hear you ask me that. Rachel’s out at my place today working with the crew that’s moving the Bar XYZ folks south of the Little T. That fire up on Blue Mountain’s creeping south and west, between it and the bandits everybody in the North Fork canyon’s pulling up stakes and moving down here. I sent young Billy Wilder off on his bike to tell her, and sent Old Billy off to fetch Whit about the same time I sent for you.”

“He found me, too,” Whit Yohansen announced from the door. “I was down at the new grist mills.”

Brown showed Susan Smythe’s corpse to Whit. Stark sorrow etched the thin professor’s long face.

“She blamed me for Foster and Harry’s deaths,” he sighed.

“Both of us,” Burt corrected. “I really hoped she’d get over it after a while — I mean, life goes on and there’s work to do. Guess I was wrong. Anyway, we got a problem — and maybe an opportunity.”

“Both,” chimed in Mayor Grasso’s voice from the door. “And far too much work to get done, too, with wheat harvest almost on us. Mister Santini, we all know we face a very difficult decision choosing Mrs. Smythe’s replacement on the Board.”

“You can say that again,’ Burt growled, turning to face the Mayor.

For a moment the two men just stared at each other, Burt the barrel-chested farmer and the dapper official. Grasso had been dressing in white shirts with the sleeves rolled up ever since he had won the Mayor’s job. Ellie wondered how his wife was managing to keep them clean and pressed.

Aggressively her father demanded “Are you going to call a Board meeting tonight?”

“I thought about it,” Grasso admitted frankly. “And then I thought better. We have more than four thousand acres of wheat to harvest to keep this town from starving over winter — and whoever we choose for the seventh seat, it’s likely to be seriously divisive if done in haste. I can’t see anything good in forcing that issue right before we most need to work together. May I suggest that we mutually agree to wait until the wheat harvest is done, or nearly, in about two weeks? Which is when the next regularly scheduled Trustees meeting would be held anyway.”

Burt hesitated. “I was about to suggest we wait a few days, myself. I’m not so sure that any longer is — a good idea.”

“You want we should get into a big political fight right in the middle of harvest? With everybody half-ready to drop from working too hard, and the food supply still hanging in the balance?” Grasso gave him an ironic look. “How’s that any less volatile a moment than now?”

“You worried that people will be seeing more of me than you?” Burt needled. “Maybe it’ll influence the harvesters’ opinions, having me running around from field to field right with ‘em?”

“I can run around too, and be seen lifting a sickle with the rest,” Grasso rejoined. “Two weeks of hard work might help weld the town together a little more. It might also give us time to think of a compromise candidate that we both could accept. It’s not impossible.”

“Just difficult as hell,” Burt nodded slowly. “Whit?”

Whit squinted sourly at Grasso. “I suspect you know damn well you can’t get better than a tie vote at a meeting tonight —”

“That thought did cross my mind.”

“— and you’re hoping you can strike a deal with somebody that I’ll be willing to vote for, one that lets you hang onto the Mayor’s chair.”

“You’re a regular mind-reader today, Mister Yohansen.”

“Only what if myself and Burt make that deal with somebody else instead? James Palmer and I voted together for a long time. I might get him to side with me this time.”

Grasso rolled his hands palm-up and shrugged expressively. “I can imagine at least a dozen ways this issue could fall out, and most of them don’t look very promising for my job tenure. Or for anyone else who wants the Mayor’s job, really. Superior choices don’t seem to be available, do they, gentlemen? Right now two weeks of status quo look pretty good to me. If I lose a vote at the end of it, well, at least I’ll still be on the Board, and have an influence upon policy. There’re worse outcomes — and not just for me. I’d prefer to avoid them. What about you?”

Whit and Burt stared hard at Grasso for a tense moment. Ellie tightened her grip on Sam’s hand. They’re wrangling about Town politics over Susan’s dead body — literally! She thought, both repelled and fascinated at the same time.

“What about Sarah’s raid on my cherries?” Burt asked abruptly.

Grasso grimaced. “I just learned about that. I think you know I’m not dumb enough to pull a stunt like that — or to let her do it, if I’d known. I’ll have to lean on her to straighten up and behave — and tell Gene to put a leash on her son. In the meantime, I apologize for both of them.”

Burt grunted, a sort of sour acceptance. Ellie could tell he wasn’t any happier.

“Who knows?” Grasso added persuasively. “In two weeks of back-breaking harvest work, we might all find that we have more in common than we think. Or at least thrash out some kind of bargain that we can all live with.”

“I’m willing to wait two weeks, if you are, Burt,” Yohansen said deferentially.

“I’ll go along with it, assuming Rachel will too,” Burt growled. “But don’t go offering any of your stooges when voting time comes, Grasso. That’ll just piss me off worse than I already am.”

“I figured that out too,” Grasso acknowledged. “It’s a deal then.” He disappeared down the hallway without another word.

Ellie discovered that she’d been holding her breath. She let it out in a soft whoosh.

“Well, that was a pleasant little distraction from the autopsy,” Doc drawled. “Looks like you gents got a couple weeks of hot ‘n heavy politicking on your plates.”

“I don’t think it’ll actually be all that heavy,” Whit remarked, staring at Sam with a slight smile.

Ellie felt Sam’s hand tighten slightly. It was the only external sign he made.

Burt didn’t have to guess what he was thinking. “Yeah, Whit,” he drawled in return, turning to smile at her husband. “In three more days, it’ll be thirty days since we got you and all your crew registered to vote here. You’ll be eligible to serve on the Board whether James Palmer likes it or not.”

“That’s not going to work,” Sam protested. “Palmer is going to look at me as your ally, and he’d be right, Burt. You’re still going to have a three-three tie if you put my name in the hat — at best. Besides, I’m no good at politics!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Burt smiled. “I’ve watched you work and train with your crews — there’s a good chunk of ‘politics’ in running a group that size, you know.”

“And that’s not what you need for the Town,” Sam argued. “You want someone like the Marshall, who can keep an eye on the big picture. That’s not my strength.”

“Isn’t it?” Whit raised one eyebrow.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Burt chimed in, grinning.

“It’s sure not what —I— want to do,” Sam shot back.

“Alright, Sam, I see your point,” Whit conceded gracefully. “I won’t try to pressure you into it if you’re not willing, but you are more popular than you perhaps realize. Anyone you endorse is going to have a significant advantage in an election — and the regular fall vote is less than four months away. Grasso’s bound to be thinking about that already. I think this was his opening offer to strike a longer-term deal.”

“What kind of a deal?” Ellie blurted out suspiciously.

Whit shook his head. “I don’t know. I think it’s up to us, Rachel and Burt and me, and you two as well, to talk to other people. Find someone in this town who can be the neutral member of the Board, figure something out that keeps Grasso and his followers in line. If Sam lends his prestige to that effort, it’ll count for a lot with the younger men.” His face grew a little sad. “It’s really their world now, Sam. They need good leaders.”

“Ellie?” Sam looked at her a little desperately. He hated to be pushed into somebody else’s notion of duty — he had such strong notions of his own about the meaning of the word.

Ellie met his gaze. My husband is the real leader of those ‘young men’, she thought, and squeezed his hand. He just doesn’t realize what that’s going to require of him, yet. But I think I’m starting to…

She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and smiled tremulously at Sam. “Like Mister Yohansen says. We’ll figure it out.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Back at the house, Sam found Tim and Jenner washing up on the back porch while Grandma and Esmera chattered over the fresh venison in the kitchen. “Supper ready soon!” the old woman admonished through a window, then went back to work. The shadow of Indian Head already covered the house and yard.

“Sensei!” Tim hailed him while toweling off. “Sevan rigged us a shower for after-butchery clean-up. You look like you could use a bath — want a turn?”

Sam scratched absently, suddenly reminded that he hadn’t been able to wash thoroughly in weeks. Ellie had even remarked on his need for a bath…

“The water’s even warm,” Jenner added, stepping out of the flow. Tim casually tossed another towel to the biologist and Jenner caught it.

“Deal,” Sam answered, peeled down and ducked under the spray. The water passed through a long black hose draped over rows of pegs on the sunny southern side of the porch. It was pleasantly warm by the time it reached him. Sam just luxuriated in it for a few minutes, then lathered and rinsed.

Jenner and Tim bantered casually while they dried and dressed. When Sam finished Tim passed him another towel while Jenner fetched Sam some clean clothes.

“You seem a lot more comfortable with Jenner now,” Sam remarked, toweling. “More comfortable with yourself, too.”

Tim grinned, stretched like a young lion. “I think so, Sensei. It’s like I finally really know what I am.” He leaned on a railing to gaze over the orchard at the mountains beyond. There was an exultant expression on his face.

Sam’s spine was chilled by more than the drying bath-water. My best student — about to take a step into the wider world. A step with no return? He carefully dried his face before asking, “And what is that, Tim?”

“He’s the Hunter, who brings meat home for the family,” Jenner answered quietly, returning to hand over Sam’s clean clothes. “The forest archetype in my college literature class, the young brave of the Amerinds, the neolithic tribesman of anthropology. And—” He hesitated, eyeing Tim for a moment. “Touched by something more.” Jenner glanced at Sam, who was buckling his pants, then the biologist ducked his head slightly. “Like you, Sensei. Something… outside the normal… has touched you both. I don’t know what to call it — but I can see it.”

Sam paused, shirt in his hands, as Tim and Jenner both stared at him with something like adulation in their eyes. Abruptly Tim turned and faced him, dropped to one knee, put his palms together and bowed formally. Jenner imitated him, surprisingly well.

“Thank you, Sensei,” Tim said softly. “Please always show me how to walk the way.”

For an instant Sam saw again three ghostly hands — one pierced by a nail, one holding a lotus that was also a bird, one beckoning toward something unknown. He blinked, found himself confronting only two young men with hope in their faces.

Sensei means teacher, he thought. Aloud: “I’ll do my best by you; always.”

He glanced west from the back porch of his father-in-law’s house. Clouds gathered on the mountains, under-lit by the vanished sun.

“Looks like there’s gonna be a storm up there,” he remarked, shrugging into the shirt. “Hope it doesn’t damage the wheat.”

❀ ❁ ❀

15

— Markus and Patience —

Loveland, Colorado; three days later.

Another roar came from Catron’s tent, and another scream.

Father Markus winced, though his hands kept busy with bandage and disinfectant. The wounded men were lined up before him and Nurse Lionheart, a row at least thirty men deep. Loveland hadn’t fallen easily. In parts of it the fighting probably still raged. Sensei’s army had paid a steep price to take the city in two murderous days. Markus had heard twenty last confessions already today, and it wasn’t yet half way to noon. Five hundred bodies of Catron’s men had already been recovered by the mopping-up squads, and another hundred-plus of their wounded had died — so far.

The number of dead Lovelanders passed description. Father Markus struggled not to think of the screams that had haunted yesterday and last night. The city had built a rough wall around part of the urban core, backed up to the lakes on the north and the river on the south, and razed most of the buildings within two hundred feet of it. Then they had mounted big throwing machines on round turntables along it; one was huge, sitting on a bastion near the middle of the east wall. Catron’s engineer Johnson had been among the first to fall to it, crushed by a rock thrown unbelievably far. Half of the engineer’s artillery crew had been pulped along with their own machines before they finally retreated. Then O’Toole and the rest of Johnson’s men broke into the city at the north end, sending sappers across the lake at night. They’d butchered the big machine’s defending crew, then turned the device on the crude city walls. Catron’s army, bottled up before them for a day and a night, had boiled through the gap. Maddened to bloodlust, they’d gone on a day-long orgy of destruction. Ash drifted into the aid station from the smoldering ruins.

Sensei’s other Jefes hadn’t gotten off unscathed. Stevens and Pardini both took arrows in the assault and died on the field. Washington had received a fatal spear thrust through one armpit. The big black man lay on a cot wheezing his life away. Markus could see and hear one of his lieutenants arguing with the nurse right now. Jefe Paco came up with two men carrying a man on a stretcher just as the black lieutenant burst out with a stream of invective.

“Don’t gimme no lip, you ol’ ho! You save him right now!” His voice was heavy with grief and he knuckled one eye, dashing tears away, then raised a fist. Markus glanced left and right but none of their pitifully few orderlies were close enough to help. He tensed, ready to intervene. He knew he was no match for the big fighter’s strength, but he couldn’t let the man strike the nurse.

“He’s got a punctured lung, soldier,” Lionheart answered patiently, staring at her antagonist unflinchingly. Only the stronger French inflection in her voice betrayed her stress. “I don’t have any way to repair that, and even if I did, the infection would kill him.”

“You heard what she said, soldier,” Paco intervened. “Washington’s as good as dead. Let her help those who can be saved.”

“The brother needs it more!” the lieutenant argued. He was a tall fighter the color of burnt toast, easily a foot taller than Paco and with reach to match.

“Enough!” Jefe Paco snarled at the man. “She’s the medico, she decides. Stop wasting her time and get back to your place!”

The black’s hand went to his sword. Markus gasped aloud as a knife appeared in Paco’s hand. In one fluid move the Jefe stepped inside the other man’s reach and jammed the long blade up under the taller man’s chin. He jerked the knife back out as the black fell, dead before he hit the ground.

“Anyone else want to give me shit?” Paco shouted at the waiting men. “¿No? Good! You do as you’re told, ¿se comprende?

There were a few mutters but nothing more. Paco glared at the waiting men for a moment, then wiped off his knife and resheathed it.

“Nurse!” he snapped at Lionheart. “Here’s a captive. Sensei has more questions for him but he’s passed out. Have the Padre patch him up while you keep working on our own men. If he wakes up, send me a message.” Paco flicked a hand in a dismissive gesture and strode away.

Father Markus obediently turned to the cot. The man on it was scratched and bruised but didn’t seem to have any broken bones or major injuries. He was dressed in nondescript jeans and a ragged cotton shirt over a plain cotton tee, and all of the clothes seemed to have been laundered only a couple days ago. Loveland must still have running water, or the stranger was a fanatic about cleanliness. He had shaved recently, a luxury that the priest resisted the temptation to envy as he absently scratched his own close-trimmed beard. Markus was checking the stranger’s arms when the man awoke and grabbed the sleeve of his frayed clericals. A haggard face stared at his own.

“For the love of God!” the man’s voice croaked. His clutching hand trembled spastically, losing its grip on the sleeve. “I beg you! Keep it away from me!”

“Keep what away?” Markus asked quietly, though he thought he could guess the answer.

“That — that thing that looks like a man, that spawn of darkness — that — ah!” The stranger shuddered.

“Lower your voice,” Markus advised quietly, applying disinfectant to some bad scratches on the man’s right hand. “I am sorry, but this will sting.”

The man flinched at the chemical touch, shuddered again, then mastered himself as if the merely physical pain relieved him. He stared at Markus again, eyes roving over his face and neck.

“You wear — are you a priest, or a minister?”

“Priest. Father Markus Freiduei, formerly Catholic Chaplain of Denver General Hospital. Now chaplain of a sort to Sensei Catron’s army. Also prisoner, like yourself. And you?”

“Father Francis Xavier Murphy, of Saint John the Evangelist — at least, I was before it burned. I was working with the medical squad when those fighters wearing the red triangle took our station.” He shuddered again. “And the others, the green-shamrock men, they killed — they — it was worse than the Fort Collins attack! The triangle-men took me and Doctor Reilly prisoner and brought us here, to that — that monster’s tent — ah! He, it, that creature — raped her when she couldn’t answer its questions, and crushed her throat! Then it started asking me questions, asking and staring at me with those eyes out of Hell! And whatever he was doing — it was like claws digging through my brain!”

Father Francis covered his face and wept, curling onto his side in fetal position. Markus soothed him, pried the scratched hand free and finished bandaging it.

“I’m sorry, F-Father M-Markus, I — I’m — I’m cr-crying like a ch-child,” the Loveland priest whispered. “I never really understood — didn’t really believe — there could be evil l-like that, walking under the sun.”

“There is an old saying about ‘the times that try men’s souls’,” Markus answered patiently. “It seems clear to me that we are in one of those ‘times’, much like the struggles of World War Two but possibly greater and darker. I find that I can face that darkness and remain myself, woefully little though I can do to dispel it. But ‘little’ is not ‘nothing,’ Father Francis. You must find the strength within you to carry this burden God has set on you. I can help, but no-one else can carry it for you.”

The Loveland priest flinched, bowed his head. “I deserve that. I — I’m sorry, I didn’t know I could be so weak.”

“You have had a terrible shock, meeting Catron’s demon,” Markus made allowances, glancing carefully around. Lionheart was busy stitching up a bad cut and the orderlies were all occupied. The two priests were in a fragile bubble of quiet, ignored by all around them. “And yes, I have come to apply that name to it, demon, though I have no idea if this evil presence is the same thing meant by the word in scripture. But there is little time for recovery, you must find enough inner strength to stand and help me with the work. If you are actively being useful to the medical station, I can stall the moment when I must send a message to Jefe Paco that you are awake. I will buy you such time as I can to strengthen your will, Father, but strengthen it you must.”

Father Francis’ salt-streaked face worked and two fresh tears forced themselves out of the corners of his eyes, but he struggled to sit upright on the stretcher. Father Markus helped pull him to his feet. He noted that Francis walked with a distinct limp. One leg was clearly significantly shorter than the other, probably a long-term condition since he automatically compensated for it.

“Do you have any medical training?” Markus asked quietly.

“Basic first aid and CPR, renewed last winter,” Francis answered equally softly. “But very little hands-on experience.”

“Then you will gain experience rapidly. Here are the weak excuses for medical supplies that we have, and there is not enough so every bit must be stretched. Can you use them to aid men who only hours ago were probably killing your neighbors and parishioners?”

Francis checked and swallowed hard. “Is that the challenge God sets before me? To heal murderers?” There was barely-suppressed loathing and fear in the words.

“Yes, and there will be many more such challenges, believe me,” Markus explained in an urgent whisper. “Bear this in mind — very few of these men are wholly evil. Most act to protect women and children that they love, hostages to fate. They are every bit as trapped in this nightmare as we. I have heard their stumbling confessions, their weeping at night, seen their desperate embrace of their loved ones before they march off to commit slaughter. Neither you nor I can save them from this evil trap, but we can be their life-line back to sanity and absolution. If we are strong ourselves — and remember how to love.”

Francis stared at him with wondering eyes. “You — I’ve seen no other priest since Father Flaherty died two months ago, when his heart medicine ran out. You are harsh and yet you speak of love. You — I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“There’s no more time,” Markus answered, seeing Lionheart start to look around for him. “Begin now.”

That was the start of seven weary hours of bandaging and splinting, hearing an occasional confession, and several times administering last rites. Markus tried to keep an eye on Francis the whole time and was gratified to see that the man threw himself into the work, if not joyously then at least conscientiously. At first he flinched before the obscene ravings of some of the wounded, recoiled at their bloody hands and garments. But gradually that stopped and he became absorbed into the labor itself.

Good, he is not so broken that he cannot recover, if his attention is focused on something else, Markus thought. He has a resilient core beneath that soft outside. He may survive.

Jefe Paco did not reappear. Someone in the kitchen crew brought meals, which the medical crew swallowed without tasting. The sun was setting behind the top of Long’s Peak when they finally finished bandaging the last wounded soldier. Markus and Francis were cleaning Lionheart’s few surgical tools in a battered aluminum tub of hot soapy water when another roar came from Catron’s tent. This time a roar of triumph. No scream accompanied it.

Francis cringed, paused, then visibly mastered himself, and returned to meticulously washing one of their precious reusable syringes.

“I think,” Father Markus remarked quietly, “That Sensei Catron has found what he was looking for. I also think that perhaps we dare hope that he no longer has any need to question you further.”

Francis shuddered. “Please God!” he answered, and bent to his task with a desperate fervor.

Less than half an hour later Paco came stamping back through the camp, glowering in the fitful light of two lanterns carried by his aides.

Lionheart was lying on her bedroll on the cot they had used for Dr. Eid, already asleep. Father Markus was helping Joseph and Francis prepare a new bedroll that the boy had mysteriously produced without being asked. The hospital tent was full of moaning wounded but they had eked out a corner to bed down in. Newer orderlies had come to spell the exhausted day crew. Markus hoped they could be trusted to differentiate between those patients who really needed attention and those who were merely in pain. God knew the latter were too plentiful for three humans to succor.

The hispanic Jefe flicked his eyes across the hospital tent in a casual way that seemed not to pay attention, but which Markus was now sure missed nothing. Francis crouched tensely, back to the warlord and half-hidden behind Markus, unfolding the blankets with hands that trembled only a little. Joseph had disappeared again.

“Padre, make sure the wounded are made ready to send back to Greeley in the morning,” Paco ordered. “Then pack up everything. By noon we will move again.”

“Wha– Jefe, everyone is exhausted!” Markus protested. “The fighting men most of all. They are in no condition to —“

“I know that!” Paco interrupted irritably. “One of Loveland’s scouts reported seeing the fool cabrones that Sensei wants, the ones with the caballos — horses. We march south to take Berthoud, as soon as the scouts report back, which won’t be until a few hours past dawn. The wounded will go with the Slants for escort, and I’ve ordered Duc Tho to hold Greeley until our return. Find some extra men to help you with the gear — you can choose anybody you want from what’s left of Pardini’s company.”

“Who will stay with Loveland? Should I break out some orderlies for a skeleton medic staff?” Markus calculated needs against their inadequate supplies and winced.

“Forget Loveland,” Paco ordered. “We abandon it. If they get the fires out on their own, fine, there might be something left worth collecting later. I’ve got the foragers emptying their warehouses now, there’s enough to feed the army for a few months. We’ll haul part of it along with us, the rest goes with the wounded to Greeley.”

“Leaving the survivors to starve behind us?” Markus inquired softly. “Assuming that there still are any?”

“Yes.” Paco’s expression didn’t change but there was a faint inflection to the word.

He’s no happier with this madness than I am, but believes he is powerless to change it, Markus thought. And perhaps he is, powerless, against a demon, given his own lack of Faith. That does not mean I must be, does it? Aloud: “As you will, Jefe.”

“Good.” Paco flicked another glance across the tent and departed.

Joseph reappeared as Markus lay down on his own bedroll. The silent boy wormed into the blanket between himself and Lionheart’s cot and snuggled against the priest’s side. He was asleep in moments despite the soft chorus of pain from the wounded. Father Francis curled in his new bedroll on Markus’ other side, barely enough room between them to let the orderlies pass if they needed to. The new priest had his eyes closed but shifted several times, trying to find a less-uncomfortable position.

A question that had been nagging at the back of Markus’ mind finally surfaced. “Father Francis,” he whispered.

Francis opened his eyes, whispered back “Yes, Father Markus?”

“What did Sensei Catron ask of you? What did… he… want?”

“Somebody I’ve never heard of.” Francis twitched, rubbed his forehead. “A man named Sam Hyatt, and his family and students. He must be some kind of teacher. Martial arts, I think, though I’m not very clear.” He shuddered again, evidently remembering his interrogation, and visibly fought the temptation to curl up in a ball again.

“Hmmm.” Markus frowned into the darkness; the name meant nothing to him, but he remembered a face from a dream. Is that the one God showed me? What must I do?

Belatedly he realized that Francis was slowly mastering the dark memory. I’ve guaranteed him nightmares tonight, he realized guiltily. Contritely he added “Thank you, Father Francis. I am sorry to have awoken your bad memories. I should have saved my question for morning.”

“I — I have to face them sooner or later,” the Loveland priest whispered back dolefully. “And I’m so tired — maybe I can sleep anyway. Good night, Father Markus.”

“Good night, Father Francis.” Markus turned on his side, careful not to disturb Joseph, and gazed out into the dark.

The waxing moon silvered the ravaged city-scape outside the tent. They had pitched it on a dried-up weedy lawn next to a burnt-out foundation hole, part of an identical row. The next row had been pressed into service as mass burial pits for the army’s casualties. A squad still dug by torchlight, tossing chunks of desiccated sod over the rows of corpses. Most had been stripped of outer clothing, anonymous bloody bodies in soiled underwear. A few women and children wept by the mass grave, bidding farewell to their loved ones.

The Lovelanders were being left where they had fallen. Smoke from their burning city climbed high into the sky, red-lit beneath. Markus reflected that at least the screaming had stopped, then winced inwardly at the callousness of his own thought.

I have lived with horror too long. It becomes commonplace to me.

Lionheart slept. Father Francis tossed and turned on his bedroll. The rows of healing wounded moaned and snored in counterpoint to the sound of shovels.

Markus prayed wordlessly, helplessly, hopefully. Lord God of Hosts, send us your Grace that we may get through another day. Strengthen the good Nurse to cope with this throng of wounded men. Help Francis to sleep, and give him distance between his too-fresh memories and his frightened soul — I think he is a good man, but sorely tested. And guard Joseph another day; protect him from the evil that surrounds us. For myself, I ask only the grace to manage another day without giving in to the darkness myself. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

That was all he could manage before falling into a doze that quickly became deep sleep. He woke once after midnight, to find the moon low on the mountains and the sound of shovels stilled. A pack of dogs or maybe coyotes snarled somewhere in the ruins — his thoughts sheered away from the probable source of their dispute. Sleep returned.

And dreams.

The suffering Christ appeared again, wrists pierced and face exultant under His crown-of-thorns. The dove that perched on his shoulder spread Its wings and flew right at Markus, barely less swift than an arrow. It vanished in an indescribable wave of joy and the Christ smiled at him before vanishing too.

Markus awoke once more, briefly. Lionheart, Francis and Joseph slept deeply, relaxed and calm. Cicadas droned somewhere in the night. The moon was set and the stars thronged in their glory above the tent.

“Thank you, Lord,” he muttered muzzily before falling asleep again.

❀ ❁ ❀

The pull-out from Loveland was chaotic, but much better than Markus expected. The shrunken corps of engineers had found a set of stripped-down rail cars built by the Lovelanders to haul grain into the city. They gleefully pressed these into service to haul it back out again, lashing coffles of prisoners to half of the cars. One car had been modified to carry the large rock-thrower, Markus heard them refer to it as a ‘trebuchet’ and vaguely remembered hearing of such devices during his time in Jerusalem. The engineers happily loaded the machine onto the special car and set out with it at the head of the line.

The railcars changed Paco’s strategy for moving the camp — he ruthlessly crammed almost all of the wounded into two cars early in the morning, added two more full of grain, and sent them down the tracks to Greeley. Before noon they were back, empty, and Markus loaded the medical and kitchen camps into one while the other three refilled at the grain warehouse. The bulk of the army had already set out with the trebuchet and two equipment cars towed by enslaved Lovelanders. The army slowly vanished into the brassy day, walking along both railway and highway. The Loveland slaves towed the trebuchet and two more cars of supplies. The camp followers feverishly helped load the remaining cars, fearful of being left behind to the mercies of the surviving Lovelanders. Many of the women whose men had died had already drifted off east toward Greeley, hoping Duc Tho would take them in.

Father Francis worked as hard as any, though his bad leg handicapped him significantly.

“I used to have a special shoe for that foot, but I lost it during the attack,’ he explained, struggling to lift boxes onto the flat bed of the railcar. “Given what so many others lost then — I am blessed to still have a leg at all.”

Nurse Lionheart gave him a wintry smile. “Indeed.” She busied herself with the orderlies, lashing all in place. “Let’s hope this thing doesn’t break under us as we go.”

Father Markus eyed the car critically. It was a frame of lightweight aluminum rods and sheet metal grafted onto two four-wheeled trucks stripped out of a regular railroad freight car. Somebody with a welding torch had cut out every bit of excess metal from the rail trucks, leaving their steel frames looking like Swiss cheese. He remembered reading once that perforated metal could actually be stronger than solid metal.

“If it is done right, I suspect,” he murmured, then shook his head. It had worked well enough to haul seventy-five men to Greeley.

Finally the car was packed, barely ahead of the grain-cars being readied on the tracks behind them. The able-bodied kitchen and medical crew took up three long cables in front of the car; there were three more rolled up on the back. One row of pullers walked between the rails, the others on either side. There was a tight moment getting out through the narrow gap the wall-builders had left for the railroad, then some frightening moments crossing the long iron bridge over the Big Thompson River. Father Markus prayed all the way across, hauling in the middle of the central cable crew. Nobody fell over the side into the turgid river. They rolled along easily enough across the flat floodplain on an elevated embankment, looking down on burnt buildings and plowed fields. Loveland had kept the irrigation system running and there were vegetables growing there. Or rather wilting, since the weather was hot and there was no one minding the ditches now.

The waste of war, he thought, and shook his head. How many people might have survived in Colorado if Sensei and his army hadn’t been ravaging back and forth?

Their progress slowed to a crawl ascending the long curving climb out of the river valley. Several of the kitchen women called their children down off the car to help lighten the load — even the younger ones could keep up with this pace.

“Keep pulling, everybody!” he shouted as they plodded up the slope. “Left foot! Right foot! There’s a nice gentle plateau on top, think of that! Left foot! Right foot!”

Father Francis struggled along at his heels, wincing now and then as his bad leg troubled him. Nurse Lionheart pulled behind him, stoic save for occasional snatches of Haitian French that Markus pretended not to understand. Her temper had grown shorter as she struggled to carry the load Eid had helped bear; struggled and, too often in her own mind, failed. The orderlies Markus had plundered from Pardini’s shattered company and the kitchen laborers, many of them women, staggered over the uneven footing to either side. Yard by aching yard, they gradually hauled the heavy car up the long grade. Markus didn’t dare let them rest until they finally made the top, a long hour and more after they first set the car in motion.

Joseph and the chief cook’s boy ran around wedging wooden chocks under the wheels to prevent it from rolling backwards. Then the whole crew mostly collapsed where they stood. People lay on the hard ground and panted in the hot sun. The reek of unwashed sweaty bodies pooled around him, but Markus barely noticed.

“Water,” he croaked. “We all need water. Cook?”

She bestirred herself and put several of the younger women to work filling and distributing water in whatever plastic bottles came to hand. The main water wagons were on the highway with the army, but they had several full five-gallon jugs on the car.

And not enough purification tablets to keep refilling them, he thought tiredly, sitting on a rail with his legs folded before him. Tonight we’ll have to boil water for tomorrow.

Francis rolled over and propped himself up next to Markus. For a few minutes he just panted, then a water bottle came around and he swilled greedily.

“Not so fast!” Lionheart cautioned. “You’ll overload your stomach and throw it right back up.”

“That would be a crime.” Francis gasped, fought down his breathing while she took a drink, then took one more small swallow for himself before passing the bottle back to her.

Father Markus heard distant cursing as the first of the grain-cars labored up the slope behind them. He forced himself to his feet. “Everybody back up, let’s get ready to move on in a few minutes. The other cars are catching up.” Not surprising, they have more grown men on each line than we have for the whole car. Though they are hauling at least twice as much total weight.

The rest of the afternoon was easier, with long rolling slopes and gentle rises. Once the car threatened to get away from them on a down slope. Markus knew a moment of terror when he thought Joseph was going to try to chock it — a guaranteed derailment under these conditions. Just then the rails sloped uphill again and gravity allied with friction to slow the massive weight down. After that he had one crew on a back cable at all times, ready to slow the car as needed.

“Start rolling up front cables,” he called as the charred outliers of the little town flowed around them. There was a capable orderly on each line to do the job. The left one managed well enough and got the rolled cable securely into the hands of a kitchen girl aboard the moving car, now rolling at a steady walk. She started lashing it down as the car clattered over a siding junction. The slower right-hand man suddenly stumbled and fell across the rail. Two of the tired women tripped over him and tumbled into the ditch.

“All halt!’ Lionheart yelled at the back crew, who dug their heels in and slowed the car just enough that the fallen man could scramble out of the way seconds before being run over. But the abandoned right cable flopped across the tracks in wild loops. It vanished under the front wheels with a staccato bump that shook the flimsy car and threatened to derail it.

“Everybody, get to the back and grab the brake cable!” Markus shouted, putting action to his own words. Francis stumped along behind him, fruitlessly tried to find a handhold on the now-crowded cable. The mass of the moving car inexorably dragged the braking crew along behind it. Desperate hands grabbed on until there was a surging stumbling mass tugging backwards as the car rolled into Berthoud. Markus blessed the Lord for his foresight even as he strained backwards against the steel cable. It eased up behind the forward supply cars already parked on the tracks, slower, slower but still too fast, and banged into the rear one with a loud metallic crunch.

Lionheart clung on to the lashings and managed not to be thrown from the car, but the other kitchen girl collected new bruises as she was pitched onto the hard gravel. She lay there weeping.

“Ware the next car!” someone yelled. Markus glanced back to see the first grain car barreling toward them, dragging cursing lines of men after it.

“Get away from the rails!” he shouted, running around the side of the medical/kitchen car. Lionheart had climbed down and knelt next to the weeping girl, checking her over for damage.

The girl screamed as Markus scooped her up, staggering away from the car under her weight. Lionheart scrambled after, shouting something uncomplimentary in French. Then the grain car hit the back of the kitchen car with a louder crunch, and the lighter car flexed, bucked, and derailed. For a moment it tottered, almost tipping over, then settled back with the wheels completely off the tracks. A cascade of heavy boxes tore loose from their lashings and spilled over the side. Markus sagged to the ground and set the girl down on the weedy verge of the tracks.

“She has a broken arm, you fool!” Lionheart snarled at him, dropping to her knees on the girl’s other side. “She shouldn’t have been moved until it was set!”

“Then she’d probably have died, and you with her.” The priest pointed to the spilled boxes, lying right across the spot the girl had been moments ago.

Lionheart glanced back, started, and swore luridly. “Merde!” she finished. “I’m sorry I called you fool, Father. That should be my own name.”

Father Francis stumped up, sparing Markus the necessity of replying. “We’re here,” he panted. “Now what?”

“I’ll find out,” Markus replied, picking himself up and straightening the rags of his clericals. He squinted at the westering sun. “It will be a while before we get the car back on the tracks, so I suggest Cook and her crew should start preparing for a meal. There’s a big heap of firewood in that yard over there. I’ll go find Jefe Paco and ask for directions.”

They were stopped in an informal little rail yard among old warehouses and similar structures. Father Markus saw one of Paco’s men standing guard at the south end and hastened over to him. He made a respectful head-bow and asked for the Jefe, received general directions to head for the center of the little town. The paved highway crossed the tracks behind the guard. Markus followed it west into the tiny downtown. There was a barricade, now pulled open, then a couple blocks of old store-fronts, a dead traffic light, then a small park ringed with tall trees. A white-painted gazebo with wide steps shone in the hot sun near the center of the park. It was so Middle-American that his heart ached momentarily for all that had been lost.

The open space in front of it was crowded with Catron’s men. Sensei stood on the top step at the front of the gazebo, shining in his silver armor. With gauntlets and helmet on he looked more like a statue than a man, or perhaps like a machine. His two surviving New Mexico students flanked him and all five remaining Jefes lined up on the grass next to the little building. Most of the army troops were guarding a force of about a hundred men, all disarmed and sitting on the dry lawn under the leafy trees. Markus made his way through the throng of army men until he was quite close to the east side of the gazebo. When the last rank of men let him through he was forced to pause.

Three local men in jeans and work shirts knelt submissively before the gazebo on the dead grass. One was speaking rapidly, with broad hand-gestures.

“— saw a crew like you describe, one with a lot of horses, just a few days ago.” His words almost tripped over each other in his haste to get them out. He had a fresh black eye just starting to swell, and the others sported new bruises. “They came through in the rain, left a lame yellow gelding behind out on Highway Fifty-six east of town, and headed over the river and south toward Longmont. We figgered they must be foragers from Longmont, we’d have driven them off but they kept on moving. They had a lot of horses—“

“Enough.” Catron flicked a hand at the man. “Who got the closest look at them?”

The prisoners, evidently the community’s leaders, looked at each other. “Hafta be Joe,” one opined, and pointed to a skinny man sitting in the big guarded assemblage. “He was the scout who brought word and then took our militia out to pursue. He had the best chance to see them, leastways as close as any of us got.”

Joe was elbowed by his neighbors until he reluctantly got to his feet. He stumbled forward at Catron’s barked command, stopped in front of the gazebo. He hesitated a fraction of a second and the guards hissed, then he collapsed to his knees and bowed awkwardly. When he straightened up, Markus thought his face radiated apprehension.

As well it should, the priest thought, and shivered internally.

Catron came down the steps, boards creaking under his weight. He loomed over the kneeling Joe, looking like some kind of fantastic robot in the bright sun. Joe gaped up at him, craning his neck.

“You will show me what you saw,” the metal man declared in a cold voice, bending forward slightly. Abruptly silver gauntlets seized Joe’s head. The man yelped as the gleaming hands tilted his chin up, his own hands scrabbled helplessly against the grip. The silver hands forced Joe’s eyes to meet Catron’s. Joe’s hands ceased their frantic scrabbling, fell limp at his side. For a long frozen moment the two locked eyes. Then Catron released him.

Joe immediately fell over and curled into a ball, disturbingly like Father Francis after his own interrogation. Except that Joe sobbed and wailed loudly. The other Berthoud leaders drew away from him, some cringing. Father Markus winced in sympathy.

“It was him!” Catron boomed in satisfaction, his voice as hollow as if from beyond the grave. “We move on Longmont!”

The Jefes looked at each other for a moment. O’Toole of all people spoke up; Markus thought it the bravest thing he’d seen the big man do.

“Sensei, it’s almost sunset,” he offered, uncharacteristically pleading. “Our men are just too tired to make it to Longmont tonight. They’ve got to have food, and sleep, or hell, they’ll fuckin’ drop in their tracks. We’re not doing so great either, or your boys.” He jerked a thumb at the gazebo, where Billy Johnson swayed a little on his feet. “If we try to attack like this, we’ll just get massacred.”

“Cook has started supper,” Markus spoke up loudly, hoping it was true.

The mass of army men let out a hungry sigh at that news.

“One of the cars is derailed and must be lifted back on the tracks, Jefe,” he added, addressing Paco more quietly. “It may be damaged.”

Paco nodded curtly, not looking at him. “Sensei, we need fresh labor to haul the railcars tomorrow. Can we take these Berthoud men for that?”

Catron gazed off southward. After a long icy moment when nobody else spoke, nobody even breathed, the cold voice spoke. “Yes.”

One of the town leaders protested feebly. “But you said —“

Markus didn’t even see Catron’s sword leave its scabbard. The protestor’s head fell and his neck fountained blood across the dry grass before the body toppled over. The other leaders cringed away from it. Catron’s sword flicked again and three more corpses lay on the grass — Joe’s wailing was silent now. The huddled mass of sitting prisoners gasped, rippled as he turned his attention on them.

“Obey me, or die,” he simply said, raising the dripping sword. A long sigh went through the captive Berthouders and, in ones and twos and then in a rush, they groveled on the sod before him. Markus could feel the will to fight flowing out of them, cowed by Catron’s alien menace.

“Arrange everything, Jefe Paco,” Catron’s cold voice ordered. “Come to me at dawn.”

“As you command, Sensei,” Paco answered, bowed himself, and began giving his own orders. Catron walked off the field, flanked by his students and a squad of his own men.

Markus hastened back to the railroad. Cook had followed his suggestion and set up kitchen against one of the warehouse buildings. A standpipe on the side gushed clean water into a big plastic tub, a long fire had been started between rows of concrete blocks scavenged from another wall, and pots sat on it beginning to steam. Lionheart had the medical tent partly set up nearby. Father Francis struggled with a rope, trying to tension the balky canvas. Markus helped him.

“Do we get to rest for a while, Father Markus?” panted the Loveland priest.

“For tonight.” Markus tied off the rope. “Tomorrow the army goes to assault Longmont, and we with it.”

Merde,” cursed Lionheart wearily. “We’re out of almost everything, and he wants more fighting?”

“I dare not guess what Sensei Catron wants,” Markus answered, mentally adding: Not aloud, anyway. I wish I understood what I guess inside my head. Why does Sensei — the demon — both of them, want this man — and his family and students? What will he or it do with them if found?

I cannot doubt that it will be evil.

Somehow they fed the army, patched the day’s injuries, and collapsed into their beds again. Paco had chained the new prisoners in the warehouse next to the kitchen, and posted triple sentries during the night. Berthoud crouched next to the camp in terrified but silent waiting, its citizens outnumbered ten times over by the army even after the Loveland losses. The stench of hasty latrines and fear lay heavy on the hot dry air.

Holy Father, Markus prayed in his bedroll. Send your spirit to guide me. Is this Sam Hyatt the man I am sent to find? What must I do?

A vision of mountain peaks was his only answer.

❀ ❁ ❀

Catron rolled off the girl, spent but unsatisfied. The night was too warm for blankets so he simply stood up, ignoring her muffled sobs. He walked to the window of the second-story bedroom in the house he’d taken over. His personal men were camped on the wide lawns surrounding it, so many anonymous lumps in the moonlit darkness. The sentries were barely alert, sluggishly pacing the perimeter.

O’Toole’s right, damnit, he thought. They’re too tired to march on Longmont tomorrow, or the next day. I have to let them rest a while, feed ‘em up, before I tackle another place. I hate waiting, but there’s no help for it.

He felt a sort of pent-up fury at the delay, the unreasonable limitations of human material. He stared unseeing across the exhausted men; the window faced south and the waxing moon lit the street and neighborhood below. It was like any other American neighborhood, asphalt and bluegrass and maple trees. Easy to conquer, pointless to hold. He ignored it as his thoughts turned inward, brooding.

I used to like a good fuck, he thought morosely. Two or three, so much the better. But even a pretty bitch doesn’t turn me on much anymore. This one even squeals good, and I’m still bored. Third one tonight and I don’t care.

“Get out,” he told her, and was briefly gratified by the haste with which she obeyed. The red marks on her breasts and buttocks were dim in the moonlight; putting them there tonight had added only slightly to the sensation.

Fucking just doesn’t excite me much anymore. Food’s okay, and killing’s better; I still like that. I like that a lot. Maybe that’s what I need; more killing.

He snorted, remembering Loveland. Who am I kidding? I don’t even know how many I killed in Loveland. That didn’t work for long. I want… something more. The only time I’ve really felt good lately was when I remembered Hyatt. Thinking about evening that score. Oh yeah, that’d be good! Rub his face in it — I’m Fifth Dan now, bastard! Better than you! And I’ll stay better than you!

He absently scratched his crotch, staring out at the night as visions of wrath filled his mind. He’s got to suffer for what he did to me, suffer longer than any other man’s ever suffered. I wonder how many ways I could torture him? He’s pretty tough, he’d last a long while I bet. It’d be more satisfying to beat him first and maim him, cut off his hands and feet — and his cock and balls too! But leave him alive, make him beg for the lives of his family. Then cut out his tongue and make him watch while I kill everyone of ‘em, slowly. Yeah…

The visions became darker still, tinged with a satisfying violence that transcended anything else he’d ever known. Catron flexed his hands in the moonlight, smiling, and gave himself over to it.

Oh yeah. Soon.

❀ ❁ ❀

16

— The Storm —

Loveland, Colorado; early July, 1998.

Ellie passed up the thick sheaf of wheat. “Last one from yesterday!” she told Mary Durungian, who was kneeling atop the pile mounding five or six feet above her mother’s wagon.

“Got it. Good luck with today’s harvest,” the girl answered, lashing a final rope over the bulging load.

“We’ll be back with lunch for you all at noon,” Rina promised as her daughter slid down to the seat beside her and readied a crossbow. The older woman flicked the reins and the wagon creaked back onto Seventy-Fifth Street, groaning under the piled sheaves. Ellie watched it go for a moment, and then turned back to the half-reaped field. Grandma Abbaku was demonstrating harvest technique for the new folks on the edge of the standing wheat. That happened to be most of them — the past three days had been the last frantic bit of cherry harvest for most of the extended Santelli clan, only Stanto and Grandma out here teaching other harvest crews. Today those had been rotated closer to town; they were trying not to post people out here at the exposed edge of Lyon’s territory for more than a couple days at a time.

“You new reapers, watch me closely. First your empty hand does gather the wheat.” The old woman moved spryly. “Only so much as you can cut with the sickle. When you have your hand full, swing the sickle, twisting your wrist. Do not pull hard, that will tear up the roots and they are not wanted with the grain. When the stems are cut, reach back and drop the wheat behind you, like so. You want the bunch to stay together. Drop the next bunch with it, and as many more as you can reach before taking a step. Every third step begins a new sheaf. Now, you binders, when you are gathering the cut wheat to make a shock, start with your left hand —“

Ellie listened carefully, pantomiming the same motions without bending over. Soon enough her back would be aching. After the first two days of harvest had produced barely ten percent of the grain they needed, Dad had done a calculation. Lyons belatedly realized that they needed to throw every able-bodied adult into the harvest if they were to have a prayer of getting it all done. Longmont had already begun a week earlier, their lower-elevation fields ripened a little earlier than Lyon’s land. Today the old folks, children, and a handful with absolutely-indispensable skills or essential posts were keeping the town running. Everyone else worked in the fields, keeping a nervous eye on the weather. If rain came too soon they could lose a lot of wheat.

Everyone but part of the militia, Ellie thought absently. Damn those bandits up north! I hope the Marshall can put them down fast and let the men go back to harvesting. Thank goodness Sam’s crew gets a break from bandit-hunting today. I want him here with me, for my own totally selfish reasons.

Maybell Thorpe had the position just to Ellie’s right. She’d lost more than a hundred pounds since the Change, going from near-obese down to merely broad. Constant work tending chickens had helped her skin tighten up, but she still looked a little like she’d stayed in a swimming pool too long and gotten waterlogged. Ellie had known the woman all her own life and couldn’t remember her ever being this thin. Her normally cheerful personality had developed a little bit of a sarcastic edge with the weight loss.

“Where’s Mister Indispensable?” Maybell inquired, looking around the field.

Ellie frowned. “Are you talking about my husband?” she asked, an edge in her own voice.

“Of course not, honey,” Maybell answered in surprise. “I can see Sam right over there, giving the sentry a boost into that tree. Hope that kid doesn’t doze off and fall out, he’ll break his neck if he does. I was talking about Grasso, our indispensable Mayor. Said yesterday that he’d be here this morning.” Tartly she added “Trust that slimy politician to weasel out on a promise as soon as it gets inconvenient.”

“Sorry, Maybell,” Ellie said contritely. “I’m just a little touchy after my latest run-in with Sarah Withers.”

“Can’t blame you, honey, that harpy’s enough to put me off my feed, let me tell you. She’ll never get elected on her own, two-thirds of the town hates her, and with good cause, too. Never could imagine what Johnny Withers saw in her, maybe that’s why he checked out so quick, only fifty-two when he died, God rest his soul. At least my Gene was a decade older than me when he passed on, I couldn’t really be surprised, though I wish he’d listened to me about the vitamin supplements. Couldda bought himself another ten years if only he’d learned to eat right. Ahh, here comes my partner for today, and his brother and girl friend. Good-looking couple they make, and ‘bout time Laura found a man worthy of her, don’t you think?”

Pat, Mike, and Laura came sauntering over from Grandma’s demonstration, with Jack and June McCarthy right behind them. Tim and Kate, Jesus and Maria, Drew and Liss, and several other Gatherers made up the rest of the crew, twenty-eight in all. They joined Maybell and Ellie just as Sam returned from settling Bran, today’s sentry, in the cottonwood. The men all had sickles in hand. Starry’s shop had been cranking those out as fast as he could after he gave up on getting his reaper idea going. All the men and Kate, Maria, Liss, and Laura also wore their weapons, gladius and knife. Most of the crew had crossbows but Sam, Drew, Fred, Bruce, Jenner and Tim had bow and quiver instead. Bran in the tree vigilantly watched all around, tin whistle ready to call alarm if anybody or anything showed up that didn’t belong here.

Ellie shivered a little, glancing around the field. An abandoned car was half-wrapped around a fractured utility pole along Seventy-Fifth Street just beyond the fence. Its doors hung open as they had been since the night of the Change. The loosened electric wires hung down to the ground, inert. The windows of an empty house glittered with shards of glass beyond the north edge of the field. Its lawn was overgrown and brown except under the trees. Those didn’t look any too good either. The irrigation water had been diverted away from this field a few weeks ago by Charlie Towns’ crew, specifically to hurry the wheat toward harvest. Now everything around it was drying out, too, in the hot July sun. A vast silence ruled the neighborhood, except for the sounds of birds. Too many of those were crows, diving occasionally to pick scraps out of drainage ditches and weed patches where white bones showed. Vultures cruised overhead.

I have seen death, again and again, for months now, Ellie thought. Will I ever get used to it? Should I hope that I don’t?

The couples paired off and began working, the men cutting wheat and the women shocking it into little teepees as Grandma directed. Half the forty-acre field was already harvested that way from the previous day’s exertions. They were each cutting strips three yards wide and just over six hundred feet long, following marks and guide-posts that Burt’s survey crew had laid out when the farmers decided this field was ready. The men swung sickles and cut, swung and cut, again and again in monotonous repetition. They switched hands every fifty strokes or so and constantly moved their weapons to keep them in reach. Though Longmont’s territory across the road was peaceful, Boulder’s debatable borderland started only a mile south of the spot where they stood.

As the work warmed them everyone shed their jackets. After a couple hours the men began to shed their shirts too. Ellie tied her shirt-tails together and rolled the fabric up a little to expose her midriff and lower back to the cooling breeze — her Italian skin rarely had to worry about sunburn and she’d been spending plenty of time out of doors this spring and summer. Laura, Maria and Kate stripped off down to running shorts and sports bras.

Maybell paused to chuckle. “Lordee, honey, wish I could still carry that off.”

Laura grinned. “You’re still a fine figure of a woman, Maybell, just built on a bigger scale than me. I’d bet we could find a sports bra to fit you.”

“Haw!” Maybell hooted. “Four kids and thirty-five years too late for that, girl. If I tried it now I’d scare poor Pat witless, an’ probably give myself a couple black eyes into the bargain.” She stooped to gather the next shock. “Course, I do get some real nice views, following him around this way.”

Ellie fought down a grin as she saw Pat repeatedly peek sideways at Laura and Kate, while Mike and Tim just looked smug.

Grandma Abbaku, despite starting later than anyone else due to her demonstrations, had already reached the far side of the field and turned around into her next row. Sevan was acting as her gatherer, since his missing fingers made use of the sickle awkward. She glanced at Laura and muttered something in Armenian. Sevan, and Stanto and Esmera in the next row, all chuckled.

“My mother bets three boiled eggs that Pat will slice his own fingers before he finishes harvest today,” Stanto translated. “And four that he trips over his own — oh, what is the American word? Richard? Lance?” Esmera jabbed him from behind and he stopped, but the rest of the harvest crew fell into chuckles and giggles anyway.

“Five-minute rest,” Sam called a few minutes later as most of them reached the end, turned and started back on the second half of their strips. Grandma had already done twenty feet of her second row. “Everybody stretch and drink water.” They all straightened up gratefully and worked stressed muscles. Stanto refilled canteens from a big cooler of mint tea that Grandma had prepared last night. It was deliciously chill after sitting on the house’s back porch all night.

Sam and Ellie took turns rubbing each other’s backs, where the stooping worked them exceptionally hard. Several other couples did the same, Kate and Tim among them. Ellie smiled a little; Sam had told her about the pair’s tryst the night of the first deer hunt. She hadn’t been surprised; Kate had consulted with her about contraception beforehand. Yesterday the two had announced plans to get married. Ellie wished them well. She’d been glad to have Sam back the past few nights, while they made up for three weeks of absence. She let her hands linger on his skin after rubbing his back, enjoying the fresh memories.

“Nice view all around, from here,” Laura remarked, glancing around. “I haven’t seen so much good-looking man-flesh since the Special Forces.” Her gaze settled on Mike and stayed there. He obligingly flexed and posed for her, a goofy grin on his face. “Maybe not then, either.”

Grandma added another comment in Armenian that needed no translation; her sons’ chuckles said it all. Pat grumbled “Get a room!” at his brother, who merely sneered back.

“Killjoy time,” Sam called, smiling himself. “Let’s see if we can make it back to our starting side by lunch.”

They fell back to work. Now the sun was before them, but climbing. They worked on. A flight of some kind of little brown birds fluttered through, perching on and pecking at the ripe seed-heads of the grain. Evidently the wheat wasn’t dried to their satisfaction, though, since they flew off. Maybell began to lag a little, feeling her years. Finally she groaned and staggered upright.

“Pat, boy, I don’t think I can manage the rest of this,” she puffed, red in the face. “If I don’t lie down flat for a while I’ll likely break in half.”

Ellie hastened to Maybell’s side, examined her. “You’ve overstrained yourself, Maybell. I’m taking you out of the crew for the rest of the day.”

“Let me work on her back,” Sherry volunteered. “If she just lies down she’ll get more muscle damage.”

“Pat,” Sam said. “Let that row be and go fill in with Darrin for a while.”

They worked quite a while longer and were almost back to the starting point when Bran blew his whistle. The boy waved his arms and pointed — not south, but northeast, into Longmont’s territory.

“Weapon up!” Sam called, hurrying to the tree. He leaped up to the lowest fork and scrambled up beside Bran. Everybody gathered tensely below the tree, the warriors exchanging sickles for sword and bow. A few moments later Sam and Bran both descended.

“It’s a rider from Longmont,” Sam told the crew. “Headed this way across country, too. Their nearest harvest team is packing up and heading home. I think that means he’s bringing bad news. We’d better get ready to move ourselves.”

The horseman turned out to be Blake Jones. He reined in next to Sam and Ellie, exchanged brief greetings and got to the point.

“Word’s come from the Baron,” Blake reported. “Some gang’s come south from Berthoud and attacked the barley elevator. More’n a couple thousand of ‘em, Lieutenant Michaels said. They’re towing a bunch of cars on the railroad, strung out for miles, but armed to the teeth.”

Ellie felt Sam go rigid for an instant. “Did he say anything about who they are?”

“He didn’t stick around to find out. No way a dozen men could hold that place against an attack that big — that’s why we emptied most of the grain into warehouses in town, same as you folks did with your share.”

Sam relaxed a little. “Glad to hear his men got away. What about your harvesters up north?”

“They skedaddled too. Murchison’s calling everyone back inside, with whatever they can carry. Pretty plain this bunch aren’t here to play kiddie games. Their timing’s too bad to be an accident.” Blake spit to the side, bitterness in his face. “And we spent all that work making sure the new south wall was done!”

Sam looked grim. “Murchison going to hit them first, or wait for them to come to him?”

“We can’t wait, not during harvest. We got to break them fast and get back to the fields.”

“Agreed.”

Ellie’s heart ached with fear. Sam looked cold and grim now, gone away to the warrior place inside his head. He’s going to go fight.

“Everybody pack up,” he ordered his young warriors. “We start north on foot and hope Rina’s on her way with lunch. Gatherers, make sure your weapons and armor are ready.”

They practically leaped to obey, eagerly. Ellie bowed her head and gathered up sickles to carry back to Lyons.

I’d better report to the clinic.

She started walking back to town with the non-warrior women, juggling an armload of sickles. Smoke drifted in the sky from the fires in the mountains to the north and west.

❀ ❁ ❀

Two hours later Sam and the warriors of the Gatherers pedaled up to the junction of Ute and Ninety-Fifth Street, on Longmont’s north side. The condo complex on the corner that had stood here when they rescued Burt was now twisted blackened pipes sticking out of rubble. So were most of the subdivision houses that had flanked it east and west; Grace Church’s steel cross towered forlornly over ashes. The fields to the north were a sharp contrast — bursting with green life in orderly rows. A long line of women were frantically towing carts laden with wheat sheaves down Ninety-Fifth and south into town.

Sam put his bike on the kickstand, threaded the gauntlet of moving carts and went to meet the Barony’s watch. This intersection was too important not to keep it guarded. The lieutenant in charge of this fifty-man force turned out to be Jenkins, who greeted him with a salute.

“Boy am I glad to see you guys, Captain Hyatt!” The young man shook his hand fervently. “Tom Krenz here told me about you and the horse-collecting trip.” He glanced at Sam’s armor where a splash of yellow paint marked each shoulder. “Glad to see you all marked yourselves the way the Marshall promised, Sir. Without that it’d be hell to keep everybody straight when the fighting starts.” His own men had fresh green paint on their armor and shields.

“Friendly fire isn’t,” Sam answered succinctly, greeted the various Barony troops and got down to business. “Where are the — I guess we’d best call them ‘invaders’ — now, Lieutenant?”

“You can see them from here,” Jenkins answered grimly, and pointed east down Ute.

The sprawling single-family subdivisions that had crowded the south side of the highway were mostly gone. The few surviving trees were largely leafless from fire-damage and lack of water. Bindweed was already scrambling over parts of the ruins, staring the charcoal and ashes with tiny white and pink blossoms.

And won’t that be a nuisance for future farmers when they try to reclaim that land, Sam thought absently as he focused his binoculars. Ute Highway dipped in a long shallow curve that rose sharply more than a mile east. Beyond the rise it met Highway 287 coming south from Berthoud, with the railroad tracks another half-mile beyond that. He focused carefully; these binoculars were made by Zeiss, some of the best Lyons had managed to find. He could make out a phalanx of men across the top of the rise, holding station while a motley mass of spears and helmets moved past behind them. The gentle breeze blew from them toward him, carrying a faint sour stench and the rustling clatter and murmur of a great many men in motion.

“They’re headed down Main into the old Downtown sector, Captain,” Jenkins remarked bitterly. “Where we moved most of the barley. They already seized the first shopping center on north Main where we’ve been stockpiling part of the wheat harvest. Sargent Lehto had command there, I heard that they just plain overran him and his hundred men. I think a couple got out to bring word. Baron Murchison’s forming up our main force at the cemetery and marching north up Main to hit them head-on, sir. We’ve got more companies on the east side closing in under Captain Colotta, too, somewhere. I hope. Sir.”

This young man isn’t even out of high school yet, and he’s already had to learn how to be a soldier, Sam thought. And he’s doing a damn credible job, too — just like my students. We’re none of us real professional warriors — a hundred Army Rangers would have mopped the floor with us all before the Change. But they wouldn’t disrespect us, indeed they wouldn’t. There’s hope for us in this fight.

Gravely Sam asked “What are your orders, Lieutenant?”

“Captain.” Jenkins stiffened, then spoke in a clipped voice. “To hold here until the last carts come in, then withdraw down to Seventeenth Street, and hold it at the FAA station. The old Safeway is our west side food depot, and the Mansion’s only a couple thousand feet south of that. Sir.” Jenkins’ eyes sheered off from Sam’s slightly, knowing what those orders meant for Lyons.

Sam frowned; that withdrawal would leave the highway to the smaller community essentially open and unguarded from here to the Town’s outlying picket stations. He shrugged philosophically. “Very well. Thank you for relaying that, Lieutenant. We’ll just have to hope the invaders are just too preoccupied with Longmont right now to make a grab for any smaller prize.”

Jenkins nodded, screwed up his face and clenched his fists. “Thank you, sir. But — it’s just that — these fucking bastards — right in the middle of harvest! If it rains heavy, we could be screwed even after we win! Sir.” He cast an anxious eye at the brassy sky, then west where wisps of smoke were drifting over the foothills. Thunderstorms sometimes coalesced around dust and smoke particles here on Colorado’s Front Range.

Sam continued studying the massive army moving through the intersection. “They have to be feeding themselves somehow. A force that large has to have a big baggage train just for food. I don’t see so much as a wagon on the road with them yet.”

“Lieutenant Michaels said they were towing big carts on the railroad, sir. From his description they sound like those things we heard Loveland built to bring in their grain harvest.” Jenkins stabbed a fist in the general direction of the invaders. “Probably are the carts that Loveland built. We got a refugee who escaped the massacre there, told us about it. These — these monsters butchered most of the city, men, women and children! He hid out until the fuckers left, then fled down the back roads to warn Berthoud — only he got there too late. So he circled round, came down here to warn us and got here about five hours ago. He’s pretty badly injured, and all that walking didn’t do him any good — Mistress Demelza has him at the Mansion.”

“Carts on the railroad — they have to be guarding those pretty closely.” Sam mentally revised his estimate of the invader’s size upward by half — two to three thousand men. “They must have formed up as two spear-heads, one on the highway and one on the rails — but the railroad’s pretty narrow and lined with fences, not much room to march along beside the cars. They can’t move as many men along there and the ones they do’ll be slowed and strung out a lot more. By now there’s a good chance that they’re lagging behind the main force. That gives us an opportunity. Anybody left in your northern fortified farms?”

“No, sir. We’ve pulled everyone out of the Clark and Dee farms, and these sonsabitches overran the Yellowstone Road station on their way in.” Jenkins jerked a chin at the line of carts, then looked at him hopefully. “You going to hit the fuckers from behind, sir?”

“Sting them, anyway.” Sam glanced back at his force of forty riders. Against sixty times their number…

Jenkins nodded soberly, accepting the reality, and saluted. “Good luck, Captain Hyatt.”

“The same to you, Lieutenant Jenkins. Let’s both keep doing our homes proud, eh?”

“Damn straight, sir!”

Sam returned the salute and threaded his way back through the line of carts. It was thinning out, just a dozen or so left to pass through the junction.

I hope he lives through this, Sam thought. Jenkins’ is a good kid and working so hard to learn his place in command. Like my own boys and girls.

Sam surveyed his crew. His original class, Giorgi, Darrin, Mike, and Pat, Laura and several more townies, Liss and a handfull of cowboys including one of the Geils and two Gall grandsons. Thirty-four young men and six young women, all of them strong and healthy and work-hardened. Every one as skilled with sword, targe, crossbow and bow as he had been able to make them. They were busy checking each other’s armor, practicing swings and thrusts at roadside weeds, joking and laughing like this was one big lark.

“Captain’s back!” Laura barked. “Fall in!” They did, with commendable speed, too. Forty fresh young faces turned to him expectantly.

Full of beans and convinced they’re immortal, he thought wryly, watching their eager faces. But also armed and armored with the best that our Master Smith could make — which just may be the best, period. They can dish it out, boy can they ever, and they can also take it better than anyone else we’ve met yet. Please God, let all of my young men and women live through this too.

He returned his binoculars to the carrycase strapped between his bike’s handlebars while mentally estimating time and distances.

“All right, Gatherers,” he told them; they were all at their bikes and ready. “Keep silence as we go. We’ll head north up 95th until we find the tail of this beast, then look for a good place to sink our teeth into it. Follow my lead.”

Fierce grins answered him; even Maria and Liss had bloodthirsty smiles. They all pushed off and headed north.

The invaders mostly seemed to be armed with spears and clubs, some swords, not many bows, Sam thought as he rode. But lots of shields, and at least some excuse for armor. Closing with anything more than a scouting party won’t work for us. But they were keeping pretty good formation for a group that’s marched here all the way from Berthoud; they must have gotten rested up and ready for a day or two at least. And now they smell battle, they know their front’s already engaged inside the city. Let’s see how their rearguard’s handling it.

He led his troops north to Vermillion Road, turned east. This road also sagged down into a long shallow swale before climbing up again, then dropped on the far side of a rise down a half-mile slope to the highway. Longmont had kept the irrigation going on all of this area, and had fortified the Dee Farm on top of the rise. The road in front of it looked clear — but columns of smoke poured up from the farmstead.

“Stay alert,” he warned his troops over his shoulder. “Watch for ambushers behind trees and buildings.”

They dismounted just below the top of the rise, a bowshot short of the farm fence. That was big rolls of barbed wire mounted on a steel and wood framework that made a rough circle around the buildings. Trees had been cut to provide part of the fortification, but it was still mostly wire, not wall. The gate was open and through the wires he could see buildings wrapped in flame.

These bastards sure do love to burn things, he thought disgustedly. But how can I tell if Catron’s with them? “Okay, everyone ready your bows. Tim, to the top of the rise with me. We’ll stay low and keep to the shelter of the south ditch. If anyone’s watching we don’t want to give him any more warning than we have to.”

Tim grinned that feral grin and melted into the tall weeds at Sam’s heels. They crept up the muddy grass-grown drainage ditch, crouched and ready to bolt if they met opposition. A rabbit leaped through the fence and into the field, instantly hidden by the waist-high corn growing there. Tim’s hands twitched and for an instant he looked longingly after it before snapping back to attention. But the road and ditch both stayed clear of anything larger and nobody tried to ambush them. Over the rise the pavement sloped down slightly to the east. Sam worked his way around the hulking stump of a big dead tree, Tim taking the other side. He carefully trained the binoculars on the ragged end of the invading army.

And ragged it was, a mob of women and children and a few men trailing along behind the fighters and filling the width of the highway for most of a mile. Many of them were pulling small carts or other wheeled conveyances — Sam saw baby carriages and even what looked like a lawnmower with the engine stripped out and a plastic tub mounted in its place. They were laden with bedding and bags of this and that, dirty and starved-looking even compared to the Longmonters, who’d had a tighter food supply than Lyons. They eddied and surged along like a clogged stream.

Tim sank back behind the tree. “Sensei,” he whispered, his expression mixing pity and revulsion. “Are we supposed to attack THAT?”

Sam slid back to join him. “No. Killing unarmed women and children is not what we’re here for.”

“Whew.” Now Tim just looked relieved. “We probably couldn’t even get through them to get at the men.”

“And that cuts both ways, I’d bet,” Sam answered, an idea blooming in his mind. “Let’s go back.”

At the bikes again, Sam hurriedly explained his plan. “We’ll have to ride fast and hope they didn’t leave any rearguards to ambush us at the highway; there won’t be time to be subtle,” he warned. “Let’s go.”

It took more than half an hour to loop west, north, and east again around Terry Lake and back to the highway on Yellowstone Road. As Sam had hoped, the flood of camp followers was a bare trickle here — no more than a dozen individuals on foot, none with carts. All were moving slowly, carrying pitiful bundles of belongings and no visible weapons. Another trio of women and half-a-dozen little kids sat on the pavement in the shade of the jackknifed semi. Those gasped and scrambled under the vehicle as the Gatherer bicycles pounded into and through the junction, discarding stealth for speed.

Let’s hope I’m right about this ramshackle excuse for an army, Sam thought as his panting crew pelted east toward North 115th and the familiar route to the barley elevator. Catron never struck me as someone who paid a lot of attention to details. If this is his doing, then maybe we can bite him with that.

The elevator stood forlorn and empty — it’s steel and concrete wouldn’t burn, but a trickle of smoke through the smashed windows of the office block showed that the enemy had found at least something to torch.

“Drew, Jesus, Fred and Bruce — make sure the main building’s empty and then hit that tool room. See if there’s anything we can use for wedges,” Sam ordered as he unshipped his binoculars.

The shining steel tracks curved across 115th, bending south toward Longmont. A hard-packed dirt road paralleled them. Sam turned his gaze on the curve, just in time to see the last line of men marching away around it. They were all clutching a long rope or cable.

Braking it, he realized. The tracks slope downhill towards the river — what, five miles away and a couple hundred feet lower? The pieces clicked into place in his mind as the four fighters came running back waving four big steel wedges.

“Perfect,” Sam told them. “Okay, everybody listen up!” he called, gathering the whole crew around him. “Drink water while I explain. This’ll take some teamwork.”

Minutes later they headed down the dirt road paralleling the shining tracks. The thin film of rust that had begun to develop on them had been ground off by the fresh passage of many steel wheels. Arrows rattled in the spare quivers strapped to the panniers of Sam’s bike, echoed by the clattering of steel wedges in another. The Gatherers rounded the long curve and caught up to the rear-most crew of the last car, hauling backwards on their cable. A few faces glanced back as the Gatherers braked to a stop, dismounted and flipped their bikes around to face back the way they’d come. The rear-most trio of enemy soldiers dropped the cable and turned to face his crew, swords out and shields up.

“Bows ready!” Sam called as his crew formed up around him. Half of them stepped up onto the raised ties bearing the tracks, the rest stayed on the dirt road among the bikes. “Draw! Loose!”

Forty-one arrows and crossbow bolts sleeted down out of the sky onto the trailing tow-men. Missiles hammered into plywood shields covered with aluminum traffic signs, where most stuck. Others flew past and above to plunge into the backs of cursing men fighting the growing drag of the loaded car. More than a dozen of those went down, and one of the trio of shield-men too. The remaining two gave ground, pulling their wounded comrade to his feet and slowly stepping backwards, shields side-by-side to cover the three of them.

“Draw! Loose!” Sam called again, and another forty arrows arced over the shieldwall to fall on the cursing soldiers. That broke them — the cable fell and clattered on the ties as the mass of men dropped it in favor of drawing swords and finding cover. The car began to visibly accelerate even as half the crew tried to run around ahead of it.

The men without shields are running, while those with shields cover them and try to rally, Sam analyzed coldly. “Draw! Loose!” he shouted again, and the deadly rain fell once more. The enemy were packed into two narrow bands on either side of the tracks, fences impeding any effort to get out of the killing zone. Some had begun crowding close to the front shield-men and holding their own shields overhead to protect against the arrow sleet, but more were churning aimlessly amid conflicting shouts.

They aren’t really an army, Sam realized. More like a mob. Point them at something and they’ll try to swarm it, but they’re barely disciplined and badly lead.

“Draw! Loose!”

The more powerful bows and crossbows punched their missiles through shields and into backs, arms and faces; nearly thirty of the enemy were already down with arrows and darts sticking out of them. Screams and groans rose from the mass, oddly punctuated with the songs of meadowlarks in the fields to either side. All of the tow-men had dropped their ropes and let the railcar rattle on by now. They were trying to form up to attack. The rush of shield-less men crowding under and behind those with shields threatened to turn that into chaos.

The front group’ll shield-rush us in minutes, Sam thought, as he heard yelled commands somewhere in the swirling mass. Enough time for three more volleys, maybe four. “Draw! Loose!”

Two archers were trying to get position on Sam’s force. One sheltered behind a man with an unusually large shield, the other braved the arrow-fire to get a wider field of view. “Tim — take the left!” Sam ordered, then “Draw! Loose!” as his own arrow arched high. With luck it would come down right there —

His arrow dropped behind the shield and the hidden archer shrieked. The big shield wavered as the wounded archer fell against its bearer, then sank down a bit as the shield man tried to cover them both. Tim’s target dropped, the fletching of an arrow standing out of his unprotected throat.

“Draw! Loose!” Sam shouted as he took aim on the exposed neck of a man bellowing orders behind a too-small shield. The enemy leader dropped with an arrow through his larynx, carotid blood spraying. Sam spat dust and grabbed another arrow. “Draw!”

The lost leader delayed the shield-rush a few more crucial moments. Five men with heavier shields finally formed a line across the tracks, their more lightly-armed comrades gathered behind them with more shields held overhead. The formation made a defensive wall-and-roof. They wouldn’t be able to move fast, but they’d be almost invulnerable to arrow fire now.

“Final volley!” Sam yelled, aiming for a leg on the central shield-bearer. “Loose!” His arrow skipped off armor and slammed into something behind. “To the bikes!”

The Gatherers lowered their weapons, fell to their bikes and began pedaling. There was a moment’s delay as they got spread out and gained speed. Sam, now at the back, heard the gravel crunch and the fierce growls of the rushing shield-men. Without archers they had to actually catch their targets. He stood on his pedals and pumped. A flung spear thudded into the dirt bare inches to his left, the shaft bounced off his thigh with a sharp sting.

Then the bike formation began to spread out and Sam gained ground on the attacking invaders. Those stumbled to a halt moments later, shield wall dissolving into a mob shrieking curses in the Gatherer’s wake. Sam coughed in the dust of forty bikes and pumped his pedals.

At the paved road again, the crew bunched up, waiting for him. Sam pushed through, turned sharply right across the tracks. “Everybody take a drink,” he coughed, raising his own canteen. He sneezed and drank again, studying the tactical situation. Some of the Gatherers soaked handkerchiefs and mopped salt from their faces — the dry Colorado air sucked away exposed sweat quickly.

We can ride a lot faster than those cars can roll, given that their crews have to move at a slow walk, Sam estimated. Even covering twice the distance on the roads, we should be able to get there just as word of our raid makes its way forward. With luck, we’ll beat it there and surprise the cars ahead of this one.

“Head south to Vermillion Road, then west, and we’ll hit them again!” he commanded. The crew roared approval and set to their pedals.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Father Markus, are we going right into the city?” asked Father Francis, crouched atop the packed medical station on the swaying rail car. His bad leg had quickly rendered him nearly useless for towing, but they needed a watcher anyway. “It’s about a mile away, I think, once we cross this road coming up.”

“I don’t know,” Markus panted back at him, leaning a little backward against his tow-line as the kitchen and medical crews worked to brake the heavy car on the long down slope. Nurse Lionheart did the same on the adjacent line, both setting an example for the workers. “Let’s hope we get that signal that the leading car is supposed to send when we are supposed to stop.”

Francis stared south again, watching. Presently he craned his neck to report. “I think the next car is slowing down. Yes, there’s the red flag now!” He picked up his own red flag and began vigorously waving it in the air, to pass the message on to the long line of grain cars strung out behind them.

“Everyone begin braking!” Father Markus shouted, and increased his own efforts, leaning back against the cable as the car’s massive weight dragged them all forward. “Slow it down!”

The kitchen women and the orderlies bent their backs to the task, grunting and straining. Lionheart struggled harder, though her slight frame was of little use in this task. The front truck of the car clattered as it entered an intersection; a small white sign announced that this was Vermillion Road.

❀ ❁ ❀

As the Gatherers approached the railroad crossing on Vermillion Road there was a swarm of activity. One of the rail cars was just rolling through, clattering on the crossing apron. Its aluminum frame was piled with odds and ends of boxes and canvas, and had red crosses painted crudely on the sheet-metal side of it. A tiny figure sat atop a pile of boxes, waving a red flag and facing back north along the rail line. The long rows of men and women on the braking lines were crossing the road just as Sam pedaled close enough to make out faces. They passed out of sight to the south behind a house. Less than a minute later he signaled his crew to stop, reverse their bikes, and form up on the road. There was a fairly long gap before the following car arrived.

Decision crystallized in Sam’s mind. “Quickly, grab the wedges and march!” He led the way onto the crossing. The just-past car was barely still in arrow range but it was no threat; his attention was given to the one approaching from the north. “Wedges out, line ‘em up point-north and make sure they’re staggered so the wheels hit them one at a time.” Bruce, Fred, Drew and Jesus hurried to obey. Sam took up position on the north end of the crossing, studying the approaching car.

It had no crew at all on the front, only an observer who was facing backward at the moment. At the back Sam could see two long lines of brakemen struggling to slow the massive load — from the piles of sacks it must be grain, since he couldn’t imagine anything else in a sack that was worth this effort.

“First squad, line up on the left and start shooting as soon as they get into your range. Second squad, take the right. Third, back up Second, and Fourth cover all the other approaches. When they get to that second utility pole, First bugs out back to the bikes and gets ready to cover the rest of us. Got it?” he demanded.

“Sir, yes sir!” voices answered and the crew took up position. Laura grinned insouciantly at him from the head of First squad.

“Nice of them to bunch up like that!”

She sighted her crossbow on the approaching car and the swearing, struggling brake lines. The man with the red flag was still waving it at the car behind them; he turned, saw the waiting gatherers raise their bows, and lost his grip on the flag. It disappeared under the feet of the brakemen.

Sam grunted an answer at Laura, busy gauging the wind from bits of dry grass he’d tossed into it. Fairly steady out of the east — and hot and dry. “Remember your windage, everybody!” He studied the range to the observer on the car. That man was now shouting exhortations at the straining workers in between glances over his shoulder at the Gatherers. Sam raised his bow — he had a stronger draw than anyone else but Tim, who already had his bow ready. “Tim — the flagman. On my mark — draw — loose!”

Two arrows arched out, glittered at apogee, and plunged down into the flagman’s armored back. The sounds of twin punches were lost in the approaching bedlam as he collapsed onto the load, then rolled off the far side. More arrows flew from Laura’s squad, sleeting into the tight-packed men with deadly effect. There was a sharp increase in the volume of cursing and a good many screams, then a voice raised in command somewhere behind the car. A moment later the vehicle surged forward a little faster, then faster still as both lines of tow-men dropped their cables.

They’re letting it be a god-damned battering ram, Sam realized. Somebody out there has a clue, damnit! He snapped “First squad — fire one more round, then get back to the bikes and reload! Second and Third, fire at will!”

He launched one more arrow himself, then stepped off the tracks and behind Second Squad, who were shooting rapid-fire. First came streaming across the tracks behind him, a couple of them stumbing over the rails, then ran onward to the bikes. “Second!” Sam yelled, “Fall back from the tracks now!”

Second squad did, all but Jerry and Clark Gall — their faces were twisted in snarls as they fired arrow after arrow. The car bore down on Clark ponderously, Sam saw that it would miss but the first wedge was barely a yard behind the boy and would tip the heavy car towards him —

Sam elbowed Jerry sharply and grabbed Clark just as the cowboy reached for another arrow. Jerry stepped aside, remembered his duty and scrambled. Clark struggled in Sam’s grip for a moment, wanting to keep fighting.

“Obey, soldier!” Sam snapped and dragged him aside as the front of the car thundered past. Third squad had already retreated under Fred’s command. The leading wheel hit the first wedge, rode up over it and came down slightly off the rails. Metal hammered on metal and then crunched into wood as the wheel-flange bounced over the rail and bit into the crossing pads. The car jerked, slewed as the remaining wheels of the forward truck hit the next wedge and left the rails. The heavy flanged wheels crunched across the wooden decking of the road crossing. The aluminum car-body flexed and twisted under stresses too great for its jury-rigged welds, and abruptly tore with a teeth-grating shriek. The bed folded and tilted and then the whole car toppled, spewing a torrent of hundred-pound sacks each capable of hammering a man flat. Sam dragged a staggering Clark just out of range of the flying sacks — several burst and showered their legs with grain.

“Back to the bikes!” Sam shouted, shoving him ahead. “Form up!”

Squads One and Four were already there, bows drawn and firing over the heads of their fellows. Two and Three joined them while Jerry, Clark and Sam completing their scrambling rush. The running enemy was closing in on the junction, funneled by fences that a few of them were already vaulting.

“Two, Three and Four, volley fire!” Sam shouted, readying his own bow. “Draw! Loose!” Laura’s squad continued firing at the fringe without being told, picking off attackers almost as fast as they got over the fence.

“Draw! Loose!” twice more, slamming arrow storms into the approaching mob. They were bunching up behind shields, slowed by the bodies of their leading edge. One berserk hurdled the fallen and charged Sam’s line, sword out and arrow-feathered shield held tight below his glaring eyes.

“Draw!” yelled Sam one more time, whipping out his katana one-handed as he slung his own bow over his shoulder with the other. “Loose!”

Three more arrows sprouted in the berserk’s shield, a fourth bouncing off his Vietnam-vintage US Army helmet. He slipped on spilled grain, shield windmilling as his other hand thrust an old cavalry sword at Sam’s throat.

Sam batted it up and aside, feeling the wind as it passed a bare inch from his ear. He brought the katana down in a diagonal slash that ripped between helmet and shoulder. A leather neck protector popped and split and blood flew. The berserk fell at his feet, sword bouncing away, and Sam skipped back as the man’s shield banged one ankle painfully.

“To the bikes!” he yelled. The attacking mob was bottled up by fence and wreckage and their own fallen, but it wouldn’t be long. “Go!”

He scrambled for his own, straddled it and hesitated a critical second to make sure the others were obeying. Liss, already astride her own, had twisted back to fire one last shot with her crossbow, bringing down a bold attacker who’d leapt over the wreckage. Then she stood on the pedals and pumped, crossbow banging her side on its lanyard. Sam did the same.

Too close! He thought despairingly. They’re too close!

The enemy roared, a guttural sound that sawed at Sam’s nerves. A flung spear flashed past his head and clattered on the road, nearly upsetting Drew’s bike. Bruce barely dodged around Drew’s wild wobble, avoiding a pile-up by inches. Another spear struck Pat off-center, on the left edge of his aromor. By malignant chance the point slipped between two of the overlapping plates and burst the connectors. Metal popped and the shaft bounced aside with a red splash. Pat gasped, wobbled, and kept on moving, somehow.

Then the Gatherers opened the gap and got out of range. Sam pushed them on down the road, staying at the back with a faltering Pat and encouraging the bleeding youth. His throat was raw from shouting by the time they reached 115th again, where he let the troop stop. Youths leaned on handlebars, feet braced on the pavement, heads down and panting. The pursuers had stopped and turned back; there was no one else within half a mile.

“Lieutenant Munzer,” Sam gasped, coughed and spit.

“Yesssir! Helmets off!” Laura shouted, then hawked and spit dust before she continued. “Unlace your partner’s armor for rest-breathing! We’re all overheated, so start cooling down!”

Sam doffed his own helmet and groped for his canteen — more than half empty now — while he counted heads. Thirty-six, thirty seven, thirty eight.

“Where’s Fred?” gasped Bruce, looking wildly around for his cousin. “He was riding with Miguel, that new guy from the stonecutters!”

Shit! thought Sam.

❀ ❁ ❀

Father Markus strained back against the brake line, his every muscle working to slowly lower the speed of the rolling load. His steps, thank the Lord, were becoming shorter and slower as human muscle diverted kinetic energy into the earth beneath their feet. Lionheart stumbled along beside him, tugging on her own line, while Francis crouched on the boxes and stared silently behind them. Markus suppressed a momentary flash of irritation — the handicapped priest really ought to be keeping an eye out ahead, too, as he was the only one who could see directly in front of the car. But he resisted the temptation to snap at the man, counted to fifty, and then said “Father Francis, can you please tell me what is holding your attention?”

The younger priest started, dropped his gaze guiltily. “The next car — I think it’s being attacked!”

“What?!” Markus missed a step and had to skip to regain it, nearly tripping over the wooden ties. He managed to throw a quick glance behind them just in time to see the first grain car derail. Then he had to put his attention back on his own brake line as uncertainty rippled through the crew. “Hang on, everybody! Remember our task!”

Many others were throwing backwards glances and horrified whispers went around. “Fighting!” and “enemies!” and “they’re shooting arrows!” came to his ears. Their car had slowed to a crawl now, they were over a half-mile away from Vermillion Road when he risked a long look back.

The grain car was clearly derailed and broken, its front end twisted aside and both ends off the rails on opposite sides. The second grain car bashed into it as he watched, the sound oddly distant and small. Sacks flew in almost slow motion, and dust billowed, eerily quiet.

The wind’s blowing at angle to us, he realized. Carrying the sound away.

Then he stumbled and nearly fell over an uneven tie, and had to turn his attention back to the front.

“What should we do, Father Markus?” Francis asked helplessly.

“Signal to the front cars, let them know there’s trouble,” Markus urged hoarsely, his mouth dry. He looked around wildly at the few houses nearest the tracks but still hundreds of yards away. Are we about to be attacked too?!

❀ ❁ ❀

With a painful foreboding Sam looked back west toward the enemy. A knot of men were gathered on the road, much closer to the crossing than to his present position, where two fallen bicycles were barely visible. Spears were rising and falling as they took vengeance on something hidden by the sheer number of attackers. As he watched, sickened, there was a shrieking clash of metal on metal and a second railcar plowed into the wrecked one, more men pouring into the boiling mass of anger and pain.

Bruce made an abortive motion as if to go to his cousin’s aid, then stopped at the horrible pointlessness of it.

“Why?!” he yelled. “They didn’t have to kill him! They couldda taken him prisoner!”

His hands clenched and tears leaked out of his eyes to cut runnels through the dust on his face. Darrin put a hand on his shoulder, not speaking.

“Fred Anderson and Miguel Sepulveda both missing, Captain,” Laura reported in a determinedly businesslike voice that didn’t quite hide a slight tremor. She too stared at the rising and falling spears.

“Drew, how’s Pat?” Sam asked, forcing his eyes away from the scene he could do nothing about. He reached inside and drew icy calm over himself. “Can he ride?”

“Not well, Sensei,” the medic answered. He had unlaced Pat’s armor and opened his gambeson to reveal a nasty slash running for several inches across the young soldier’s ribs. Bone showed blue-white through the blood. “I can pack it but there’s no way he can ride if I stitch it — and if I don’t, he’s gonna keep losing blood with every turn of the pedals, even with the best wrapping.”

“How badly? Fast enough to stop him from getting home?”

“Maybe.” Drew’s hands busily packed cotton into the wound from their dwindling stock. “If I tape it and strap it both, it might bleed slow enough for him to get back. We really need some way for him to not pedal or walk.”

Sam looked around. There were a handful of abandoned houses scattered around the neighborhood, half of them charred by fires and none particularly close. To the south the road ran on to the crossing at Ute Highway — if Catron’s army moved east it could cut them off from Longmont at any moment.

But we aren’t likely to find anything out here to use for Pat. Have to head for Longmont and risk it, Sam decided. “Pat, can you take the pain for a while and keep pedaling?”

“Have to, don’t I, Sensei?” the young Irishman gritted his teeth as the medic taped absorbent cotton into his wound. “Shitfire, that hurts!”

Several of the troop chuckled sympathetically.

“Get him patched and he’ll have to ride for a while,” Sam ordered, then stared directly at Bruce Anderson. “Bruce, assume command of Squad Three.” I have to be hard — and so do you, soldier.

Bruce twitched, met Sam’s eyes, straighted, took a deep breath and nodded. “S-sir, y-yes, sir,” he stuttered slightly, then visibly mastered himself.

“Everybody get your armor open and aired out,” Sam continued, unlacing his own. “In five minutes we move again. When we do, keep your eyes open for something we can use to rig a stretcher between two bikes. Or a tandem, if we get really lucky.” The sudden coolness as his sodden gambeson gave up sweat to the air was inexpressibly wonderful. “Count to yourselves — ichi, ni, san, shi —“

They all did likewise, submitting to the internal discipline. Bruce closed his eyes while he counted, as if willing — not peace, but stillness — on himself. There’d be time for grief later.

Panting slowly gave way to normal breathing again. Every one of the warriors was in excellent physical shape thanks to his relentless drills, Sam reflected. It was paying off now. Though my metabolic bill’s a little larger than theirs — thirty-four’s just not as resilient as twenty!

He let the counting center him again, taking strength from long habits. A part of his mind offered up a prayer for Fred and Miguel, in the old words of his childhood catechism. Was it his imagination that the bobbing grasses in the fields momentarily looked like an outline of three great hands? He closed his own eyes and strove not to think, only to be, while his body worked its way back to equilibrium.

When the time was up and he’d given Drew an extra couple minutes to cool down after working on Pat, Sam had them run armor check again. Efficiently they all laced and strapped and in moments the Gatherers were as ready as they were going to be. Pat gingerly straddled his bike again, swearing softly; his damaged armor gaped open on his left side.

Still better than being naked, Sam thought. At least his right side’s protected.

Sam had them take it slow at first, wincing internally at the drawn expression on Pat’s face as he forced his wounded muscles to work. The route sloped gently downhill and they coasted as much as possible, but too soon were approaching the highway junction.

Sam sent Tim on ahead to scout; he rode back and reported nobody there.

“But there’s a railcar parked across the highway and a crowd of men around it,” Tim added, waving his arm west. “I can’t tell if there are others in front of it or not. That one with the red cross is parked behind it.”

“We head straight across, fast as we can,” Sam ordered. “Take point, Tim, and keep us warned what’s ahead.”

They plunged south across Ute Highway, Sam took a bare moment to stare west. The mass of men had a more disciplined formation than the crowd at the grain cars, which might have been the difference between men getting actively shot at and those just waiting for it. In any case, they were much too numerous for his crew to attack. He was glad to leave them behind.

This part of the city’s east side had been abandoned but was mostly unburned, though they passed through several places where whole blocks had been reduced to ash during the Red-Green civil war. Desiccated yards and dying trees testified to closed-off water lines; little dust-devils occasionally swirled in the street. It was eerily deserted, but sometimes down the side streets they could see and hear clashes in the western distance, as rearguard units of the Barony fought the invaders along a chaotic urban front. The Barony’s men wore green, the invaders only motley, and there were far too many of the latter.

Greens were our enemy only a couple months ago, Sam thought. But now I pray that they win against this bunch attacking us. It’s got to be Catron, we haven’t heard of anyone else out there with a large mobile force. What does he want? And what do I do if I’m part of it?

Pat pumped along, bloody seepage oozing through his exposed gambeson. His face was drawn with pain and determination. Drew and Liss rode on either side, keeping an eye on him.

If he collapses before we find help for him, how do we carry him? Sam wondered to himself. I am NOT leaving anyone else behind. Not if I can help it.

A green-badged force was drawn up at the junction with Seventeenth Street. Sentries challenged Tim, recognized the yellow patches and waved Sam’s crew through. Colotta stood in the midst of the mass, giving orders. Bands of men dashed away from him and took up positions. Sam dismounted and hurried to meet him.

“Captain Hyatt,” the greenie officer acknowledged him. “Glad to see you. Got news for me?”

“Likewise, Captain Colotta, and yes I do. We came around the north side and stung them in the supply train. They’ve got several smaller cars moving on the rails from Berthoud. There’s a medical car in the middle and a string of grain cars after it, with at least one troop car ahead. We derailed the first of the grain cars at Vermillion Road and broke it, then the second plowed into it. They’ll be a good long while getting that sorted out and the lead grain car’s probably done for. They’ve got a few hundred men with the grain, bottled up now; might take them a while to get them into the action.”

“First good news I’ve had today,” Colotta snorted. “Wish I had five hundred men to spare to go tackle them. We’ll just have to hope those sit on their asses until the party’s over. They’ve got a bunch more cars already in town, unloading troops — preliminary report’s at least three thousand and maybe more, between the rails and the highway.”

Sam grimaced. That was more than Longmont boasted, and at least some of theirs were probably tied up in far-flung harvest teams in the southeast and would still be trickling back even now.

“Our armor and weapons are better than theirs, thanks to your smith, but this is going to be a near thing,” Colotta continued, wiping sweat from his face with a big cotton hanky. “Can Lyons send a force at them from behind? Three hundred men would sure be useful right about now.”

Sam waved a hand at his thirty-eight. “We’re all that could be scraped up in a hurry — the best third of the militia is tied up bandit-hunting on the North Fork, the Marshal’s recalled them but it’ll be hours yet before they’re back at the Wall, and hours more before they can march here. The bottom two-thirds are mostly older men who can man the Wall but aren’t going to be any use in open battle after a forced march.”

“Shit,” Colotta said reflectively. “You really did stand Hugo off by the skin of your teeth, didn’t you? Never mind, right now I’m about to hit their right flank. We’ve got nobody on their left flank but Alan Jenkins’ company, some scounts, and Blake Jones’s little cavalry troop. Think you can circle south around behind the Baron’s force and swing up the west side? Even if all you do is sting them again, it might make a critical distraction.”

“I’m game, but I’ve got one wounded man who can barely ride. Can you evacuate him? Or can we get a cart or a sling or something?”

“Something.” Colotta whistled for a messenger, who returned in moments with a tandem bike. “It’s the best I can offer you right now.” He handed over a couple scribbled notes and a sealed envelope. “If you run into any of our men, here’s a safe-pass. This sealed one’s for Jenkins, be sure to give it to him as soon as you see him and make him read it right away. Then do what you can on the enemy’s west flank, and we’ll call it even.”

“Deal.” Sam shook his hand. “Good hunting, Captain Colotta.” They both bared their teeth in fierce grins, and Colotta turned back to his troops.

Sam put Pat and Mike on the tandem, abandoned the two worst bikes, and drove south deeper into Longmont. At Thirteenth Street they turned west and rode hard, crossing behind the battle front, which seemed to be fixed on Seventeenth and Main Street. A distant roar like surf was punctuated with clashing steel as the battlefront ate men. Sam waved the safe-pass at a couple of rear-guard units, dominated by older men who at least had the sense to talk first and stab second. Then he cut north and west to find Jenkins at the Safeway.

Sam pulled off his helmet as the guards waved him inside. The building’s interior was gloomy compared to the brassy sun outside, but welcomely cool. The front windows had been broken out during the rioring, now replaced by pieces of plastic — not quite weather-tight but enough to keep the birds out. Several older men and women worked at former checkout counters, others shifted wheat sheaves from carts to empty shelves. The dim space smelled of dust and grain. Jenkins and two scouts studied a map pinned to the side of a display unit under a skylight. Sam noticed that the shelves next to it were still mostly full of shiny batteries, untouched since the Change.

The young Lieutenant was itching for action and frustrated to have to spread his too-few men across a sixth of the city, just patrolling for enemy outliers.

“I’m trying to cover too much with too few,” he complained, stabbing the map with a gauntleted finger. “The city’s too big! Too many ways for them to flank us! We should have tightened up into a smaller area, built a shorter wall around it, one that we could have gotten done in time!” He pounded one leather-clad fist into the other palm and the metal plates riveted to the backs clicked.

“Those extra streets can be turned to our advantage,” Sam told him. “But first, Captain Colotta made me promise to give you this, and told me to make you read it right away.”

Jenkins tore open the envelope, eyes scanning the page within. The color left his face.

“Shit.” He swallowed, then bellowed “Dad!”

His father scrambled over from the checkstand where he was supervising several women compiling something on index cards. “Son?”

Lieutenant Jenkins handed the letter to him. “Captain Colotta says we’re to get ready to execute Plan F.”

The elder Jenkins peered at the handwriting, scanning rapidly, then glanced at Sam, who was looking from one to the other of them. “You’d better tell him, Alan; I don’t think he knows.”

The lieutenant nodded, turned back to Sam and visibly shook off his shock. “Captain Hyatt, sir. If the battle goes badly today, I am commanded to evacuate all the women and children I can to Lyons, and then put myself and whatever men I have left under your command, sir.”

“What?!” Sam stared at him, dumbfounded. Jenkins stared back, a wiry young warrior with a scared boy peeking out of his eyes. The warrior would do his duty. The boy just wanted someone to tell him what to do.

The elder Jenkins gave Sam a small sad smile. “Colotta’s a planner, Captain. He went over all the contingencies with me and the Baron a couple days ago, after we first heard about Loveland being attacked by the new rulers of Greeley, and before we knew for sure that army would head this way. We had thought we’d be fighting Boulder, sooner or later, but this isn’t all that different. Murchison’s no coward and he knew he’d have to lead from pretty close to the front in a big battle like this one; same with Colotta. If we don’t pull it out in time — Lyons is our families’ fallback. We haven’t got anyplace else.”

This — I don’t have the authority for this! Sam thought frantically. You guys were our enemies a month ago, we’re brand-new allies today! How the HELL can I become your commander?

And even as his hindbrain gibbered protest, the coldly reasoning front part weighed in.

I can’t say no. I just can’t. They’re offering me their most sacred trust — their wives and children. Their future. I cannot refuse that.

Sam swallowed hard. “God help us. God help us all.” He shook himself, drove away fear with an effort of will. “All right. I accept — but let’s all hope it’s unnecessary. First things first, there’s a fight headed towards you. Around a hundred men coming up Seventeenth Street behind us. They’re not moving fast but they’ll get here eventually. We’ve got maybe forty minutes to get ready for them.”

“Shit!” Alan Jenkins swore, slapped the shoulder of one scout. “Go fetch Blake Jones.” The youth — boy, really, not even a whisp of mustache yet — took off like a rabbit. “Got any ideas for dealing with that hundred, Captain Hyatt? I’ve got maybe thirty-five right here and Blake’s got twelve on horseback on the grass behind Spirit of Peach Church.”

“We can make that work,” Sam told him. “Here’s what I suggest.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Set up camp here,” Paco pointed to the big field next to the highway and the railroad. “There’s water in that hydrant there. Get started on a meal for the men and ready the medical tent, we’ve already got wounded heading this way.”

He had drying blood on his sleeve and fresh scratches on his armor, Markus noted. “Yes, Jefe.”

Paco nodded dismissal and turned on his heel, throwing back over his shoulder “I’m leaving Santiago and the Unos with you for protection. Move fast, Padre, this is gonna be a bigger mess than Loveland.”

Nurse Lionheart glowered after him. “With merde for supplies, too. Better start on the praying, Fathers, we’ll be losing a lot of them.”

“We can pray while we work,” Father Markus answered. Nurse directed the orderlies and Cook started bawling to her kitchen girls. Father Francis began unpacking the medical tent while Markus turned to Santiago.

“Will your men help us with the work too, my Lord?”

Santiago grinned, an expression that had little of kindness in it, but much of respect. “For you, Padre, they will. And if anyone doesn’t, I’ll plant my boot in his ass.”

“Thank you, Lord Santiago.” Markus bowed and the gangbanger surprised him by bowing back.

Then the wounded began to arrive and there was no time for anything else.

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam signaled to Laura and Tim, peeking out of the brittle bushes on the far side of Seventeenth Street. Blake Jones was already hurrying back to his cavalry, ready on a side lawn down the end of the block behind Sam. Jenkins’ men were falling back in good order from their set place half a block east, successfully baiting the invaders into following them in haste. That was the hardest maneuver. Just a few seconds more and it would be time to close the trap. Sam held his breath — Jenkins' force was pitifully small compared to the hundred or so men in the enemy’s front. But they held it together until Sam slashed his arm down. The freckle-faced kid behind him blew a blast on a french horn. For a moment Sam was reminded painfully of young Art, dead on the pass south of Lyons in battle against the same people he was trying to help today.

“Now!” he shouted, dashing the memory aside. Heads turned in the massed enemy as the best archers among the Gatherers stood up behind the shrubbery and began pouring arrows and crossbow darts into their north flank. Jenkins’ force abruptly stopped retreating and pressed forward — and Sam heard the clatter as Blake’s cavalry charged up the next street and hit the target in the rear. Sam drew and shot, drew and shot. It was no accident that he was the only good archer on the south side.

The enemy milled for a few crucial seconds, then somebody shouted ‘At them!” and pointed at Sam’s group. A mob two dozen strong or better split off and roared toward them.

“Swords out!” Sam shouted as he handed his bow to the signalboy behind him and drew katana and warizaki. Mike and the rest did the same — Sam had the smaller half of the Gatherers with him. They had two strategically-positioned cars blocking half the street, with inconspicuous barbed wire between and atop them and a thick hedge of rosebushes on the far side. Caltrops had been positioned along the cracks and ruts in the pavement and on top of the cars. On the far side, a woven-wire fence in the shrubbery and a couple more strategic cars blocked escape and held the invaders away from the archers. The charging men made one effort to tackle that barrier, recoiled, then boiled out of Seventeenth Street and funneled down the side street right towards him.

Mike met the first one with targe and sword, batting aside his attacker’s spear point and slamming his own sword into the invader’s gut. The spearman had enough armor to deflect it, but his charge brought his face in range of the targe and Mike cracked his jaw with it on the return. The stunned man dropped. Another had charged Jesus on Sam’s other side, spear stabbing. Jesus beat it aside with the short sword and stabbed deeply with the long, a perfect sai maneuver, then sidestepped the falling corpse.

Two swordsmen charged Sam, one with a shield and the other wielding a machete two-handed. The shield man came first, stabbing at him from behind flat plywood. Sam swayed aside as the sword probed, then kicked the lower edge of the shield, hard. It rammed back against the man’s knees, off-balancing him — his arms flew out to compensate. Sam’s katana licked forward and opened his throat. The machete wielder had a shorter weapon and tried to make up for it by charging over his fallen comrade’s back, blade swung high and slashing downward. If the stroke had landed it would have split Sam down to the breastbone. He swayed aside again, deflecting it with both blades, and the machete sank into the fallen shield man instead. The wielder let it go and tried to backpedal while he pulled out a knife, but the katana was long enough to slice open his forearm before he had it out of the sheath. The knife fell from suddenly-nerveless fingers and the wounded man kicked himself backwards desperately, crashing into another attacker on his heels.

Both fell and a third leaped over them, sword and knife out. Sam parried the first thrust on the warizaki even as his attacker blocked the katana likewise. There was a fractional pause as they sized each other up — the invader had jailhouse tattoos all over his exposed flesh, even on both cheeks and his forehead.

He knows what to do with blades, Sam thought dispassionately. And so do I.

He feinted left, then right. Tattoo blocked, blocked, and stabbed — running right onto the katana as Sam lunged. Tattoo’s own sword scraped along Sam’s armor, then fell as Sam pulled his blade out of the attacker’s armpit. Arterial blood gushed; Tattoo made a heroic effort to block with his knife as Sam lunged again. The katana stabbed through an eye and into the brain, and Tattoo dropped, dead before he hit the ground. The three corpses made a slithering heap that momentarily stymied the attackers behind them.

Sam flicked his eyes left. Mike and the four men to his left had a pile of bodies before them, were busily stabbing at four more men across them. Blood flew and it didn’t belong to Lyons — several of the attackers came in hobbled by caltrop-stabbed feet. Beyond, three men tried to hurdle the car barrier only to be met by Jenkins’ scouts, bearing spears; one teen Greenie was slashed down by an attacker but his compatriots stabbed from left and right and the invaders went down. To the right, Kate had dispatched more, with three others still engaged with Jesus, Bruce and Darrin. Liss, bleeding from the scalp and her helmet gone, stood behind Kate, cranking her crossbow, then brought it up and skewered another attacker barely two yards away. The dart blew right through the lightly-armored man and stuck quivering in the shield of another behind him. That one visibly decided he’d rather be elsewhere and began backpedaling — right onto Blake’s spear.

The battle hung on that moment. Sam saw it with crystal clearness, time stretching out as he swung the katana at another attacker boring in. There were only twelve horses but they loomed tall above the invaders. Fighting men in patchwork armor and weilding crude weapons could have brought down all twelve, at cost, if they had turned and swarmed them. Instead, they recoiled, tried to dodge, and broke as a fighting force. Then the remnants were fleeing back down Seventeenth Street as fast as their legs could carry them. Some threw aside their shields to run faster. Blake’s dozen horsemen milled, turned, and began running them down. Not more than two or three dozen escaped, by vaulting fences and dodging through dead cars and shrubbery. They fled as atomized individuals, all military cohesion gone, while Longmont and Lyons fought together.

Blake cantered back with a satisfied smirk. Each of his horsemen had a long spear with a cross-bar welded on just below the head, to make sure it didn’t get stuck in a torso. Every one was bathed in red. Their horses jerked and reared a little, frightened by the sound and the stink and by people waving metal; they weren’t ready for war. Luckily, they hadn’t had to be more than frighteningly large, or to go anywhere but the places human hands and knees sent them.

“That did it!” Jenkins panted, leaning hands on his knees for a moment. His sword dripped blood and bits of hair. He had a cut on his nose where a sword had banged off his helmet’s nasal bar, gouged places on his breastplate that had turned aside what would have been killing blows, and he limped slightly where one leg had been grazed by a spear. “They’re running!”

“Think they’ve left this flank open, Captain?” Blake asked, waving east toward the battle along Main. Murchison’s forces were being pushed back and Colotta was fully engaged on the far side — the din was incredible, even here nearly a mile away. “Should we hit ‘em there?”

“No — too many got away, at least a couple will get the word back.” Sam panted as he waved at the distant enemy lines. “They probably can’t see details, but they’ll know we won. They won’t send a second sally unless they can figure out how — and it’s got to be obvious to them that we’re small fry. The main events are east and south — so we should try to keep the west side distracted and trigger-ready, but not engage unless they’re stupid enough to fall for another trick. That’ll distract the enemy commander and distraction’s the best thing we can hope for.”

He stopped to gasp for air, pulling his neck lacings open. “So right now, everybody drink.”

Sam pulled hard at his refilled canteen — Longmont’s water was crisp and welcome cold. His eyes roved over the combined forces — five of Jenkins’ men were down with disabling wounds and three more were definitely dead, but the rest had nothing worse than bruises and cuts. The new armor had made the difference, effectively magnifying the small force by letting them survive more blows. The young scouts were helping several women load the Longmont wounded into carts to be hauled west, joining the one already carrying Pat. Tim and Laura and the rest of the archers were busy pulling arrows and darts out of the enemy, dead or not.

Other Longmonters were dispatching the enemy injured. Sam looked away; they wouldn’t be stopped by anything less than force, and anyway, the enemy had started it.

Jenkins got his breath, cleaned his sword and sheathed it, shambled over to Sam. “What should we do next, sir?”

Sam returned his canteen to his belt and made sure the rest of the crew had done the same while he thought.

“We’re still way outnumbered, Lieutenant. We aren’t likely to sucker them into a trap twice in a row. So distraction is still the best thing we can do for your men at the front. I suggest you have Blake Jones’ troop ride towards them down Seventeenth in a line and at a walk, nice and showy, then turn off a block before their front and race off north like you’re trying to flank them for a fast attack. Circle around to Twenty-First Street, cut across their tail on Main, then circle north another block and cut back across it again. Abort the effort if it’ll bring the horses in range of any archers — they’re too valuable to lose, and all we really can do is distract the bastards anyway. Keeping their archers wasted on guarding their flank is a gain for us. If your men and mine follow down Seventeenth at a slower walk, we can also cut left and make a couple feints at their flanks while the cavalry’s moving north. Nothing that gets us too close either, just spend some arrows on them and try to draw any remaining hotheads out to get slaughtered. Then we pull back and try the next block. Three probes, that ought to be time for the horses to make their own charges. Then we all turn back and regroup here.”

“Works for me, Captain,” young Jenkins answered in relief, looking around at the other listeners. “Everybody got it?”

“Sir, yes sir!” a dozen voices answered him, and the squads reformed.

Sam glanced down — something had touched his ankle. A dying man stared up at him, hands weakly scrabbling at the deathwound in his chest. His mouth moved.

“Mama, it hurts,” he whimpered, then his eyes closed and his head fell back.

More deaths on my soul, Sam thought achingly. I must be stained black by now. “Advance,” he ordered the Gatherers, stepping over the cooling corpse.

They moved away down the main road, cavalry in the lead, leaving the stench of blood and shit in their wake.

I hope this helps Longmont, Sam thought tiredly as the small force marched toward the battle. There’s not a lot more that we can do — we’re too few! Jenkins Senior had better have the women on the way to Lyons by now, and those food-carts, and Pat. If we lose this, there won’t be time to organize anything else.

❀ ❁ ❀

Cabrones,” Paco spat as the Longmont cavalry charged back westward again, slicing through his northern lines. The arrows from the west had been bad enough. “Motherfucking cocksucking cabrones. Keep alert against them, amigos, they’re trying to trick us like dumb peasants. Don’t fall for it! Hold this line!” He strode up and down the rows, making sure the west and north flanks stayed secure and trying to ignore the horrendous tumult behind him. The Longmonters were making another charge against the east flank — Sensei had pushed the south front more than a block down Main Street and the flanks were lagging, running low on men to keep more and more side streets covered. He was already forced to pull the northern flank south, leaving uncontrolled territory between the main force and the camp.

This better end soon, he thought, glancing up at the westering sun. They could already cut us off from resupply and the camp, if they push hard. Madre de Dios, let it be that they have no more reserves. And let ours get here soon — I’m taking a big risk, stripping the grain cars like that. At least they aren’t going anywhere — I swear every man in ten miles around must be here at this battle. God grant that Sensei finds his man soon, or finds him dead, I don’t care which. We can’t stand much more of this madness.

A shout from the north rewarded him. The five hundred men from the grain cars came marching down the big boulevard, filtering through the northern screen while weary fighters cheered them on.

All those little attacks from the west, they just jab and retreat, the putos! They want to draw us out, but they’re not going to hit us straight on. “Si, that’s it — a trick inside a trick! I’ve got to ignore them, hit the other side, where it’ll really matter,” Paco decided aloud. Time to roll the dice, me.

He launched the whole reserve against the eastern front, where O’Toole’s forces were being slowly ground to bloody paste. Shoulder to shoulder he pressed forward with them, urging the fresh troops on by example.

Yes! Gracias, Dios, it’s working! He exulted, as the eastern force pressed outward and the Longmonters’ line bowed. Abruptly the enemy collapsed, the Longmonters breaking and fleeing backwards. O’Toole’s tired men couldn’t catch them, but the reserves could.

“Get prisoners!” Paco shouted as he raced forward, reminding them. “Any officer, anyone who looks like they’re using karate! Bring them to Sensei!”

At the next street corner he managed to halt the charge, split the force into a core to hold and the majority to turn south. The enemy’s flank was uncovered now.

If I can roll them back on this side, Sensei can break the main front too! Paco exulted. “Attack, compadres! Attack!”

❀ ❁ ❀

The sun had long since disappeared behind the Front Range, and yet the long line of carts was still plodding through the Gate. Exhausted women and children had been dragging themselves and every wheeled thing they could find up Ute Highway for hours. These were mostly hauling sacks of grain and piles of personal effects. The pitifully small mass of wounded Lyons fighters, and three or four times as many Longmonters, had already been treated and lay groaning in Lyons’ hospital and clinic. Ellie stood on the new parapet of the Wall’s rebuilt northern tower next to Marshall Duncan as he pressed binoculars to his eyes. The dusk made it hard to see, but the moon was waxing and there was still some twilight. The smoke from the fires in the mountains didn’t obscure vision to the east, much.

“Is he there?” She had meant to keep silent but the words forced their way out anyway, driven by the knot in her stomach. Please, God. Please bring him home to me.

“I think — yes, that’s definitely Sam at the end,” Duncan answered, and jabbed a hand toward the row of bicyclists beyond the carts.

Ellie let her breath out in a long sigh, momentarily dizzy. Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, oh thank you.

Duncan lowered the lenses and clattered down the ladder and the circular stairs below it. Ellie followed more slowly, made her way to the gate itself. Along the Wall armed Lyons men murmured to each other, staring at the long line of refugees. Some of the words were harsh.

“Why’re we taking in the Greenies when they tried to make slaves out of us?” someone demanded quietly.

“Cause there’s worse behind ‘em,” drawled another.

“Enemy of our enemy, Marshall said,” interjected a third.

“Only who’s the real enemy?” retorted the first voice, faintly.

“Aw, Greenies’ve kept to the peace since we killed their first Baron,” the drawl said. “I’d cut ‘em some slack.”

“I trust the Marshall,” someone else said faintly. “Him and Captain Hyatt. You know they —“

The rest of the conversation was lost in the noise as Ellie hurried along. Duncan stopped her inside the huge metal-clad doors, out of the groaning stream.

When the last cart passed inside, the rearguard finally slogged through the torch-lit gate after them. Several dozen green-clad Longmonters were with the dozen rearguard Gatherers, everybody bruised and bloody. Ellie’s eyes darted here and there until Duncan singled out Sam, practically dragged him to a stop as the metal-clad leaves of the Gate boomed shut behind him. Steel I-beams groaned through their brackets and ground into stone slots, barring it for the night. Ellie slipped under the Marshall’s arm and embraced Sam, feeling his hard welcome arms enfold her.

He’s okay. Thank God he’s okay, she repeated as she fought back tears of relief. She dimly heard the Marshall talking.

“Captain, Hyatt, I’m very glad you made it,” Duncan told Sam. “Welcome back!”

Sam blinked at him owlishly. “All my crew inside?”

“All accounted for now that you last are here. Sorry to hear about Fred Anderson and Miguel Sepulveda — Maria delivered your message.”

“Pat’s in the clinic,” Ellie added in Sam’s ear. “I stitched him up. He lost some blood and he’ll be weak for a while, but he won’t be crippled.” She ran her hands over his armor straps — they were crusted with splashes of dried blood. But it’s not his, thank you God, it’s not his!

The Marshall added “And Blake Jones and the cavalry made it here a few minutes ago, towing those last barley wagons.”

Sam swayed a little on his feet, Ellie could feel his exhaustion even through the armor. She shifted to get her shoulder under his left arm, helping him stand.

“Love,” he whispered to her, arms tightening as if he’d never let go, “I’ve still got to —“

“It’s okay,” she told him. “Finish here first.”

“Good to hear that,” Sam answered the Marshall. “But Longmont’s fallen, and fallen hard, sir. It’s the same bastards who took Loveland and Greeley. They’re making about as big a mess of the place as we heard they did Loveland.”

“I suspected as much; we’ve been seeing the smoke,” Duncan answered dryly. “Who can speak for the survivors?”

“That’d be me, sir,” the green-tabarded youth next to Sam croaked. His outfit was slashed and filthy with bloodstains, most of them clearly not his own. “Lieutenant Alan Jenkins. I think — other than my dad, I think I’m the highest-ranking officer left from the Barony.” He also swayed on his feet — for a moment Ellie thought he might fall. But he caught himself and continued. “Is Dad —“

“No buts about it, you are,” Jenkins Senior interrupted, striding forward to hug his son, blood, sweat, and all. “I’m only staff, not line command, son. You’re the ranking officer of Longmont.”

“Zach?” asked Jenkins, hugging his father back desperately. Ellie’s heart went out to them.

“Your little brother made it here earlier — still ripped that he had to guard women instead of fighting with you, but he did his duty. Thank God you’re both safe!”

“None of us are that,” Sam said, forcing his exhausted frame erect with an effort that pained Ellie’s heart. “We still don’t know what they want!

“And we’re not going to figure it out tonight,” Duncan told him firmly. “We’ve got the Wall manned and ready. Time for you all to clean up and get some sleep. Let your wife show you what we’ve prepared.”

“Just a minute, sir,” Jenkins junior said, releasing his father and straightening up. “I have to do something first. My last orders from my lawful superiors were, if it came to this, that I am ordered to put myself and my men at the service of Captain Hyatt, sir. I have done this. Ummm. That.”

Duncan nodded to him slowly. “Fair enough. You understand our chain of command?”

“I think so, sir.” Jenkins rubbed tiredly at his face, rearranging the blood smears. “I just had to — I just had to —“

He swayed and would have fallen if hands hadn’t caught him.

“At ease, all of you,” Duncan commanded. “Everybody get to the medical station. Doc Brown is on duty there.”

“We’ve got showers rigged for you and beds set up,” Ellie broke in. “You can talk in the morning.”

She tugged Sam into motion and lead him away, as others collected the rest of the rearguard and brought them along.

“Morning,” Sam mumbled, stumbling along at her side. “We’ve got to figure out what they want, Ellie. It might be — it might be —”

“Shhhh, Sam. Tomorrow.” She guided his stumbling steps to and through the big metal door into the steel building. Warm humid air met them as she steered him into a newly-built alcove along one wall. He fumblingly tried to help as she unstrapped his weapons and armor and got him out of the stinking gambeson underneath. He couldn’t manage his own bootlaces so she untied them, ignoring the bits of foulness and gore. His t-shirt was glued to his sweaty torso, she literally had to peel it and the jeans, socks, and underwear off him, then push him into the hot shower. He almost collapsed then, water streaming across his face and sluicing the dirt away, then his hands found the soap and he slowly managed to wash himself. Others did the same for other men down the long row of showers; this was no time or place for modesty.

Ellie gathered up Sam’s gear and carried it off. Marta and a crew of Town girls were busily cleaning other men’s clothes and equipment; they took his in stride.

“Do you mind if I just leave it all with you?” Ellie asked anxiously. “I need to get back to him.”

“No problem, Miz Hyatt,” Marta answered cheerily. “We’ll have it ready by morning. I’ll set up supper for him.”

Ellie returned to cajole Sam out of the streaming water and into a towel. She helped him rub himself dry, taking the opportunity to check for injuries, and was relieved to find nothing more serious than bruises and scratches. He let her lead him from the shower to a room at the end of the building that had once been an office and was now fitted up as officer’s quarters. Marta had left a tray on the tiny table, a burning candle on it to augment the thin moonlight from the narrow window.

“Sit,” Ellie ordered her husband. “Eat.”

“Bless you, Ellie,” Sam croaked, then began spooning up barley-beef soup as if it were ambrosia. When he was done she tucked him into the bed. He gazed at her from the pillow, dear familiar face now stripped of the least trace of fat. A hard sinewy man’s arm reached up to gently take her work-reddened hand.

“If I were ten year’s younger, I’d pull you in here beside me and make love to you all night,” he whispered wearily. “Now I don’t think I can manage to stay awake another ten seconds.”

“It’s all right, Love,” Ellie chuckled, then bent to kiss him. “I’m still on duty until midnight anyway. I’ve got to go make rounds of the wounded. Get some sleep.”

“Later,” he drowsily answered, and was snoring before she carried the candle out of the room.

He’s okay, she told herself as she checked on other men snoring on cots, Longmont and Lyons all mixed together. He’s not hurt, he’s just tired.

She got hot water from the big tank Sevan had rigged next to the rough stove that had been their only source of cleaning water during what Lyons had taken to calling the Baron’s War. Thank God we still have running water and natural gas to heat it. We’re doing better too, the crops are growing and everyone’s got enough to eat. She washed several seeping wounds and re-dressed them, slathering on the natural antibiotic salve that Mrs. Munzer had cooked up from local plants. The herb-woman had trained several of the younger girls to find the right ingredients and had been manufacturing enough to keep up with the Town’s needs — at least until now.

We’ve run through nearly all of it today, Ellie thought.

A cool breeze blew through the room from the open doors and windows, carrying away the built-up heat under the metal roof. Ellie made sure there were spare blankets at the beds — Colorado nights were chilly even in high summer.

Then it was time to find a chair and wait for Julia to relieve her at midnight. Marta and the other girls finished up their work and headed home chattering, for all the world like teenagers after a dance rather then workers cleaning up the detritus of war. The building settled into sleeping silence in their wake, punctuated by a few snores.

And that’s what we’ve got, Ellie admitted to herself, staring out at the moon-lit Wall. War. Again. In the middle of harvest. She shivered. Oh God, what did we do that was so bad that you visited this on us?

An owl hooted reproachfully outside. Cicadas rasped and she faintly heard the click of sentries patrolling the hospital’s outside. Other soldiers talked quietly atop the stone bulwark that guarded her home. The rebuilt north tower loomed against the stars, new crenelations bared like fangs at the night.

We’ve lost so much already, she worried. Are we going to lose more? More of our men? Please, God, not them. Not him. Not my Sam. She closed her weary eyes and leaned her forehead against both hands. Please, God, Please.

Julia woke her that way; the hard wax candle had burned two inches down. “Ellie. I couldn’t sleep, so I’m on duty a little early. Go to bed,” the older nurse said kindly as she leafed through the patient notes. “I can handle everything here.”

“Mm. Got to check on Sam.” Ellie climbed to her feet and returned to the little room.

Sam’s breathing changed as she slipped through the door, letting it swing closed behind her. “Love?” she whispered, and began removing her clothes. “It’s me.”

“Ellie,” he whispered, fully awake in that way he had. She saw him raise himself up on one elbow, torso silvered by the moonlight. His dark eyes were flakes of obsidian in the night.

She found the edge of the bed, lifted the blanket and snuggled against his dear skin. “Just hold me, Sam.”

❀ ❁ ❀

The torches had burned low by the time Nurse Lionheart dropped her scalpel into the cleaning dish for the last time. “That’s all of them?” she asked Father Markus wearily.

“All,” he answered, his voice reduced to a whisper. “Sleep now.”

“Done,” she answered, staggered to the cot and collapsed. Joseph tugged a blanket over her. She didn’t even notice the legion of moans from the wounded.

“Padre,” said Paco’s voice, a gravelly shadow of itself. “Can you manage one more? It’s a Longmonter, one of their junior officers. He’s got a bad slash on his right arm.”

Markus forced himself to the table, where Santiago and an orderly were laying a stretcher containing the blood-crusted Longmont man. He was unconscious, but woke with a cry as Markus irrigated the wound with the last drops of their sterile saline solution. Cook could make more tomorrow, but all the kitchen crew was already asleep.

“Shhhh,” the priest soothed the wounded man. “You have a bad cut and your other arm is broken. Lie still as you can — I must stitch this up or you will bleed more than you can afford.”

Paco and Santiago held the Longmonter down while Markus sewed. The man was relatively young, athletic in a cultivated way, and wearing what Markus guessed must be some kind of rank insignia on his tattered green outfit.

“What is your name, soldier?” Paco asked in a friendly voice.

“Flynn,” the young man groaned. “Lieutenant Flynn Pauling, Barony of Longmont.” He jerked as the needle bit again, then Father Markus tied it off and wrapped the wound. Muzzily the youth added “I don’t have a serial number, so I don’t have to tell you nothing else.”

“No worries. We’re going to fix you up nice, Lieutenant Flynn Pauling,” Paco soothed. “Then you can rest here in the hospital tent, under guard. Tomorrow your new boss wants to interview you.”

Markus stilled the trembling of his hands before he palpitated the broken arm. Pauling jerked and gasped, tears starting from the corners of his eyes. The break seemed to be clean, Markus felt no bone splinters, so he began carefully stretching the arm to pull the bones back into place. He wished Lionheart was awake as the young solder gasped and cried when the fracture moved. When he’d got the bones as aligned as he could, Markus rigged a splint and bound it. Markus hoped the break was as clean as it felt to his inexpert hands, and hoped more that it didn’t generate a blood clot that would run through arteries and into the youth’s brain.

Or should I hope that it does? A small part of his mind wondered as his trembling hands finished the rough job. The splint would keep it from moving, much, but he though it really ought to be reset tomorrow. If this prisoner had a tomorrow, after being interviewed by Catron…

Flynn may have sensed his unease, for his pain-wracked eyes wandered across Markus’ face, then back to Paco. “I don’t have to tell any of you anything,” he asserted, groaning.

“Shhhh,” Paco said again. “Rest. Tomorrow we’ll see.” He turned to Santiago and whispered “Guard him well. He’s got to live through the night. Sensei will want him in the morning.”

Santiago and the other soldier carried Pauling out of the tent on the same stretcher he’d come in on.

The Hispanic Jefe turned to Markus. “Go to bed yourself, Padre. You did well today. Tomorrow we’ll see about getting you and the Nurse some more supplies.”

“Gracias, Jefe,” Markus mumbled, and stumbled off to his own bed as Paco left. Before unconsciousness took him a stray thought wandered across his barely-conscious mind.

Did I do the right thing, saving that poor boy’s life?

❀ ❁ ❀

17

— Choices —

Lyons, Colorado; mid-July, 1998.

Sam woke all at once, aware of a sweet familiar weight on his right arm. Pre-dawn light filtered into the room. Through the little window he could just see the first rays of the sun touch golden fire to the crenellations of the Wall’s north tower. Ellie nestled against him, back to his chest, her hair tickling his nose as her regular breathing shifted her head slightly on the pillow. He looked around the dim room, vaguely remembering it from last night. The trip back from Longmont had been a nightmare, fighting off roving bands of the invaders and trying to shield Longmont’s refugees. The last five miles of it were a dark blur; even trying to remember chilled his spine.

I’m… safe, Sam thought. Clean. Warm. Kind of achy. His left hand moved under the blanket, tracing his wife’s curves. Annnnnnnd. Horny.

“Mmmm?” Ellie spoke blearily, shifted a little and snuggled against him. “Mmmmm.” Her left hand found his and shifted it to an unambiguous spot. “Mmmmmmmmm.”

Sam kissed her behind her left ear, and then added more down her neck. Endorphins began to flow through his blood and his aches faded. “Good morning, beautiful,” he whispered in between kisses.

“No talk. Kiss,” she ordered, turning in the narrow bed to face him.

For a while they forgot the world, knowing only each other.

When he woke again it was to real sunlight and the sound of a gentle rapping on the steel door.

“Sensei?” called a diffident voice — Jenner’s, he thought.

“Be out in a minute,” Sam answered. “Um, make that five minutes.”

Ellie giggled softly. “Five minutes? Must be slowing down.”

“Yeah, you’ve just about worn out this old husband,” he smirked back, kissed her again. “Almost.”

Then he called to the door “Make that ten minutes!” and heard footsteps hurriedly moving away.

❀ ❁ ❀

It was closer to fifteen minutes by the time he found some clean clothes to change into — a towel, even a large one, wasn’t terribly suitable garb for most purposes. Yesterday’s clothes had been washed and hung up to dry by the big stove, his boots scrubbed and racked nearby. Several other men were gathering their own, all of them also in various states of undress. There was a general nod of respect in his direction, admiring glances and no few grins. Nobody said anything aloud, though, not with the nurses working within easy earshot.

Well, we are a bunch of men, he thought, grinning himself. I’m not sure I could explain that to Ellie, though, or to any woman. Hope I don’t have to!

Mike and Tim were conspicuously absent — Sam was sure they hadn’t slept here last night. Jenner came back just as he finished lacing up his boots.

“Sensei?” The biologist-warrior asked diffidently. He was fully garbed and armored, his gladius sheathed at his waist and gauntlets rattling inside the helmet he held in one hand. “Could you come to a meeting with the Marshall now? He’s been holding it for you.”

“Mgh,” Sam answered from the depths of his gambeson. “Whoops. Help me on with this and I’ll be right there.”

Ellie bustled over to help; she had simply put her own clothes from yesterday back on, ignoring the wrinkles. Everyone’s standards of neatness had taken a step down since all washing had to be done by hand now. Between her aid and Jenner’s, Sam was ready only two minutes later. He hastily kissed her, grabbed his helmet and gauntlets, and ran to the Marshall’s office.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie watched him go, a little smile on her face at the memory of the night.

My husband, she thought fondly. I picked a good one.

She hugged herself for a moment in satisfied delight, and then found herself wondering. Why am I so happy? And horny, too? Am I trying to grab every chance I have with him out of — fear? Fear that he’ll be taken away from me? But I haven’t felt this happy since — since — since we conceived Jenny.

Oh.

Oh, my. I was supposed to get my IUD switched out. I was going to do it right after we got home from the regional competitions! And then I forgot about it in all the trouble since.

She looked at Bietta and Julia, going over patient notes together.

Karen’s off-duty, she should be awake by now. I’ll go home and ask her to help me be sure.

❀ ❁ ❀

Burt, Whit, Grasso and Rachel were already in the command center when Sam came in, along with Waters and several other militia personnel. They were all gathered around the map table, polishing off breakfast. Marshall Duncan waved to a side table.

“Load a plate and join us, Sam. I’m going to lay out the situation while you eat.”

Sam did so — there was scrambled eggs and goat cheese, thin-sliced steak, and porridge moistened with milk and sweetened with dried cherries and new strawberries. They’d left him a reasonable portion of everything, so he scraped it all onto the last plate and wolfed it down while Duncan talked.

“You all know Longmont was attacked yesterday, and after a fierce battle in the north end of the old downtown, fell. We’ve been collecting refugees all night, and piecing together their stories. The picture’s pretty clear by now. Baron Murchison is confirmed dead, killed in the fighting. So is Captain Colotta, and most of the rest of their leadership.”

Sam paused eating for a moment of sorrow. Colotta had been a good man, one who had gone from enemy to ally in the last three months. He would miss the man.

“Other than a couple junior officers who are unaccounted for, Lieutenant Jenkins is the senior-most surviving officer from the Barony,” Duncan concluded. “For those of you who don’t know, his eighteenth birthday was three months ago.”

There was a mutter of dismay around the table. Sam gulped down porridge, remembering Flynn Pauling from the horse expedition. He’d been a fundamentally good man, just needed a little humility knocked into him. Death seemed a harsh route to that knowledge.

Unless he escaped to Mead or Erie, Sam thought hopefully.

“Their manpower took only a little less of a hit,” Duncan continued. “Estimates range from eight hundred dead up to nearly two thousand. The enemy took very few prisoners; most of the seriously wounded were evidently killed during or shortly after the battle, a lot of them when the medical stations were overrun. From the report of an eyewitness, Longmont’s doctor, Fierman, was killed then, and their only nurse. Therefore I suspect that the real number is closer to the high end of the range than the low.”

“Murdering bastards!” Burt exclaimed, joined by growls of agreement from Sam and the others. As far as Sam knew, Fierman had been the only other doctor beyond their own Doc Brown to survive in the whole County.

“Indeed.” Duncan consulted a paper and continued. “Longmont had around three thousand troops at the start of yesterday. We’ve taken in just shy of five hundred, almost half of them walking wounded, as of dawn, and will probably pick up at least couple hundred more as they filter in from the fields — call it seven hundred men, probably more than half wounded.”

“Seven hundred survivors? Out of three thousand?” Rachel Joyner looked ill at the thought. “Those — those —“

“Murdering bastards!” Burt repeated.

“The total’s likely a little better,” Duncan noted clinically. “Some probably also fled to Mead and Erie too, though I suspect not more than a hundred or so each. Apparently it was widely known in their force that Longmont’s women and children would be sent here — so most of the men found their way here too. We’ve taken in over twelve hundred of their refugees besides the troops, and we can be grateful that they managed to haul along enough food to feed them and their men for two or three months.”

Grasso looked worried and calculating. “That more than triples the Town.”

Duncan nodded. “Yes. Housing’s tighter than a drumhead already. Chief Waters and the Town Shop crew are rigging sanitation as fast as they can — luckily the sewer plant’s been under-used. We shouldn’t have an epidemic.”

“Thank God for that,” Burt rumbled.

“So what happened to the attackers?” Grasso asked. “How many did they have at the start — and what have they got left?”

“Estimates differ,” Duncan answered. “Captain Hyatt got a closer look at them than anyone else here, so I’ll call on him for a first impression.” He looked expectantly at Sam.

Sam swallowed the last bite of food and cleared his throat. “My crew got to directly contact their reserves guarding grain cars on the rails. We saw around two hundred men per rail car and there were three rail cars of grain, so a rough estimate is that they had a six-hundred man reserve with the grain. We probably cost them a good hundred casualties out of that, though likely no more than thirty to forty dead. It cost us two dead and one serious injury of our own,” he added, remembering Fred Anderson and Miguel Sepulveda with a stab of grief. My men… He rubbed his face and continued.

“When I spoke to Colotta during the battle in town, just before he led a flanking attack, he figured about three thousand for the enemy in the main engagement. They took a lot of casualties there — but I’ve no way of estimating what fraction it was. Jenkins’ troops and my force accounted for another seventy or eighty dead in raids on their west flank. As a round guess, I’d bet that they’re down about a thousand from that three-thousand-plus-six-hundred. Call it twenty-six-hundred surviving invaders, plus whatever was in their baggage train ahead of the grain cars. Anybody’s guess how many of those survivors are wounded, but their armor wasn’t as good as ours or even Longmont’s, so maybe a little higher ratio of wounded for them.”

Grasso was scratching numbers on a paper. His worried face brightened.

“Then we’ve got our own three-hundred-man militia,” the Mayor said. “Plus around three to four hundred unwounded of Longmont’s, or more — maybe seven hundred men we can put on the Wall and in Red Hill Pass. We held off Longmont’s twenty-seven hundred attackers with just our three hundred — call it three-fifty with the ranchers’ help. If they’ve got around five hundred too wounded to fight, then that’s our seven hundred against their two thousand. That sounds better than last time — and we won last time.”

“Timing,” Burt said. “They’re attacking right in the middle of wheat harvest. If we don’t harvest at least half of the wheat still standing in our fields, we don’t have enough food to get Lyons through the rest of this year and plant for the next one. With another nineteen hundred refugees and soldiers on top of our own eight hundred folks, we need to harvest at least a third of Longmont’s remaining wheat, too. And I already counted in what they hauled here. Plus, there’s the irrigation of the corn crop and everything else we planted outside the Wall — we can’t tend those fields while these invaders are squatting out there threatening us.”

“Have they actually done that yet?” Grasso asked. “Threaten us, directly?”

“Since they barely got finished with Longmont, we can reasonably hope they’ll wait a day or three before attacking us,” Duncan answered. “But we know quite a bit about their history, and it’s not encouraging. This same force came out of Denver, pillaged its way up the east side of the South Platte valley, and then doubled back through Greeley and Loveland to come down here. They left wreckage in their wake the whole way — generally burned what they couldn’t carry, and quite a bit that could have been useful.”

“But that’s simply crazy!” Whit protested. “The whole point of fighting an aggressive territorial war is to take what the other side’s got!”

“Only if it’s something you actually want for yourself,” Sam pointed out. “But if you can’t use it or don’t want it, and you don’t want anybody else to have it, well, then destroying makes a nasty kind of sense.”

“Mongol sense,” nodded the Marshall. “Let’s not forget that there are some very unpleasant historical precedents for this situation we’re in.”

Grasso frowned. “Are you sure you really know what they’ve been doing elsewhere? Have there been any exceptions? And how did you learn so much about these invaders anyway?”

“Exceptions?” The Marshall raised an eyebrow. “Only one. The only place they haven’t pretty well leveled behind them so far appears to be Greeley, which the best reports we’ve got say they’re still holding. Slaughterhouses, grain elevators, flour mills, bakeries — it’s the only sizable city in the whole valley that was a net food producer before the Change. It might be that the place is just so rich in food that they figure to winter over there. But Loveland, Milliken, Gilchrist, Platteville, Fort Lupton, Hudson, Keensburg — all smoking ruins. And Longmont’s already burning.”

Burt and Whit hissed a little at that. “Bastards!” Burt said again, as if wishing for a stronger word.

“As for the ‘how’ — Captain Hyatt can best fill you in on that.” Duncan waved a hand at Sam.

Sam shifted slightly in his chair. “Yesterday we finally got confirmation on who’s leading them, from a fighter that my crew captured just before we left Longmont. It’s a man they call ‘Sensei Catron’ — and his name and description fit someone I’ve known, a little, for years.”

Grasso scowled. “Explain.”

Sam did, an abbreviated version of the same report he’d given the Marshall. He added what they’d been able to learn about Catron’s army.

“Except it’s more like a big mob of looters being driven around by a smaller real fighting force,” Sam concluded. “From what I saw yesterday in Longmont, Catron’s got maybe eight hundred to a thousand reasonably capable fighters and a lot of badly-trained cannon fodder. I’d bet that second group took most of the casualties yesterday — but that doesn’t make them less dangerous. At least some of them really like to set fires. As long as there was always another city to loot, Catron seemed content to just keep going from one to another. Only there’s hardly anybody left on the Front Range for them now. Denver’s wrecked and stripped bare from what we can tell; it’s a good bet that Colorado Springs went down the same way, even with the Army to help. Fort Collins had a three-way civil war and also fought with Loveland, they’re mostly trashed by their own hands. Boulder’s had a six-way civil war. And every other group still alive in the valley is smaller than we are, and mostly neither as secure nor as well fed.”

“I could wish this Catron and his men on Boulder,” Duncan interjected. “But frankly there’s so little left there now that even we could probably take them. For Catron’s army, they’ll just be a snack — and a damn light one, too. The Boulder factions didn’t get hardly any planting done and they’ve been stripping the few wheat fields they’ve got in a totally haphazard way. By now they’ve been stealing from — and sometimes outright eating — each other so long that they’ve lost cohesion entirely. It’s the war of all against all there now.”

“Why am I not surprised,” snorted Whit, then “Never mind, old prejudices.”

Grasso pursed his lips, frowned at Sam. “So you know this Catron, and he knows you. Any chance you could negotiate with him?”

Sam grimaced. “Two chances — slim and fat. We weren’t friends — and at the competitions the day of the Change, he cheated to promote his boy Billy Johnson over my Tim Woods. And that was just the latest in a long line of sleazy, shady, and sometimes crooked actions over the years.”

He explained about meeting Billy during the horse-gathering, the feint towards Loveland and the trip home.

“I think I see,” Grasso nodded carefully. “So, Marshall, what are our choices?”

“Very limited,” Duncan answered. “We can just sit tight and hope they settle down to live as peaceable neighbors — I’d give less than one percent odds on that one succeeding. With the Longmonters’ help we can hold the Wall and Red Hill Pass through a straight-up attack, I’m fairly sure — call it a sixty-to-seventy percent chance in our favor. But unless that army leaves voluntarily, we’ll eventually starve here behind our walls. I see no way to drive them out of Longmont decisively, though we have already shut off their water again. Unfortunately, we can’t shut off the river, and if we shut off the ditches then the crops die. We can make them thirsty for good water, maybe hope they’ll catch an epidemic — though if they do then that’s a risk for us, too.”

“What about indirect attacks? Anything we can do without going head-to-head with them?” Burt asked.

“We can try guerilla tactics; raids, traps, even poisoning, that sort of tricks. That might make their lives miserable enough that either they leave, or they get maddened and attack us directly — I’ve no guess on the likelihood of either. Even if we win a straight-up fight at the Wall, it’ll come at a high cost in our own men. Catron has near a thousand experienced, dedicated troops — they probably won’t make the same mistakes the half-trained Longmonters made when they attacked us the first time. And if Catron simply decides to devastate the countryside and leave, we’ll just plain starve. There isn’t enough time to get a new planting in before fall.”

“That’s a shitty bunch of options, Mike,” Burt grumbled.

“You’re telling me.” Duncan’s impassive face cracked a small grimace. “Military solutions don’t hold out much hope here.”

“No, they don’t,” agreed Grasso, eying Duncan and Sam. “But for the time being, we don’t have better, so let’s improve our odds as much as we can. Marshall, you wanted to enlarge that fort in Red Hill Pass and extend the south end of the Wall — let’s throw whatever we can into both and see if we can get them finished. You also said we might get a couple hundred more Longmont soldiers who are scattered outside the city — gathering them up sounds like a mission for Captain Hyatt’s crew. Is there anything else we can do?”

“Not clear,” Duncan answered. “We need to know more about the enemy.”

“So we send out scouts.” Grasso looked at Sam. “Looks like you have two jobs.”

Sam nodded, looked to the Marshall, who nodded. “We’ll do what we can, sir.”

“Burt, can you organize feeding the refugees and all these new soldiers?” Grasso asked.

“If Sarah will stop bellyaching and start being useful,” the farmer growled.

“I’ll rein her in, you just get the work done. Miz Joyner, what about the north end?”

“If we’re not going after the bandits again, then all the cowboys and I can do is hold the line on the Little T,” she warned.

“Then hold it,” Grasso ordered. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and the Blue Mountain fire will burn them out for us. Meanwhile I’ll try to figure out if there’s some way to open some kind of diplomatic relations with this Catron fellow. If we can talk, maybe we won’t have to fight.”

“Beware, Mister Mayor,” the Marshall warned. “Mongols will promise anything, but their word is meaningless. They respect only the sword.”

“Talk is cheap and war is expensive, Marshall,” Grasso answered, standing up to leave. “If the effort gets us nothing, then we’re no worse off than before — and you might gain enough time to finish those forts, and do whatever you need to do with Longmont’s soldiers, before we have to fight. That alone makes it worth trying.”

“A point,” Duncan conceded, rising. Everybody else stood up too.

Sam put his helmet on. “My men and I will get busy scouting and gathering right away.”

“I’m hoping for the best results there,” Grasso told him as he walked out the door.

“Be careful, Sam,” Burt told him, putting a beefy hand on his son-in-law’s shoulder.

“Always, Burt.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“You’re pregnant. I'm not a gyn nurse, so I can't be as sure of how many weeks along you are, but the uterus is hard and stiffer. The cervix seems to be pointing backward, too, and I can wiggle it. I tried to measure the uterus, but it's not easy until you're in your third or fourth month; I think it's 8 or 9 centimeters. There's no tenderness that I can find associated with the tubes, so, pray God, you don't have an ectopic pregnancy.”

Ellie gasped. “Oh, that's common if the IUD fails, isn't it?”

“About half the time, I think. I had a patient with an ectopic last December. Messy.”

Karen washed her hands as Ellie stood up and straightened her clothing. She caressed her stomach wonderingly.

“We didn’t really plan to have any more kids after Jenny,” she remarked absently.

“Well, you’ve got one on the way now. Do you want to keep it?”

“Yes!” Ellie blinked with her own vehemence. “Unh, yes. I think Sam will want to, too.”

Karen studied her own fingers assiduously as she rinsed them off. “You’d better talk to him about it.”

“Oh, I will.”

“Good. I did take your IUD out, since you’re risking infection with it still in there during a pregnancy.” Karen attacked her own hands again with the strong lye soap that Grandma and Esmera had begun making. “Damn the lack of decent supplies! I hate smelling like, like fucking hamburgers all the time.” She scrubbed her red skin fiercely.

Ellie blinked again, studied her friend. She’s still bottling things up inside. The pressure’s causing her problems — and everyone’s noticing, too. How do I get her to talk about whatever it is? She’s dodged every effort I’ve made, and I’m not at all sure it’s a good idea to push her much more than I already have.

Instead she said “Do we both have clinic duty this afternoon?”

“Yes. Doc’s going to get some personal things out of his house up north. I’m glad he finally agreed to move into town.”

“Jenny and Margie will enjoy spoiling those horses of his once they’re here all the time,” Ellie smiled fondly. “Let’s pack up our things and go to work a little early — Bietta could use a little time off with her daughter.”

“Sure, Ellie,” Karen answered, drying her hands while avoiding her friend’s eyes.

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam tightened the lashings on the makeshift stretcher they’d rigged between his bike and the one Drew was riding. “Okay, load him in.”

Mike and Tim lifted the half-conscious Green soldier into it, with Drew hovering anxiously. They got the groaning youth — he was beardless, Sam figured him for not more than seventeen — securely strapped in.

“We’ll take it slow,” Sam told the Greenie’s two battered companions, who had brought him two-thirds of the way to Lyons before the Gatherers’ found them. “Keep up as best you can, but if you have to fall behind don’t worry about it. Just keep walking.”

“Did my Mom make it to Lyons, sir?” asked the younger one anxiously. “Mary Paxton?” His hollow face was grimed and he had dried blood clotting the scratches on his face and a bloody rag over his missing little finger. He had been carrying his wounded friend piggy-back when the Gatherers found them, bent almost double. From the mud on them both, they’d fallen a few times crossing the fields.

“I don’t know, son,” Sam answered gently. “We’ve got some of your people waiting at the Gate to match you up with your families and friends among the refugees.”

“Thank you, Captain Hyatt, sir, thank you,” the youth answered, almost crying. “Thank you.”

His companion, who looked to be four or five years older and had his shield-arm in a rough sling, saluted Sam gravely with his good arm. “God bless you, sir. Come on, Jim,” he added as he hitched his rough crutch back into place. “Let’s get moving.”

Sam and Drew mounted their bikes and pedaled onto the gravel driveway, joined the others waiting on the pavement at Ute. Most of the bikes were lashed two-and-two by other stretchers, or were carrying wounded men riding pillion on the luggage racks. A dozen more Green troops walked with them, most just scratched and bruised. As many more trailed behind, moving slower due to injury or just plain shock; many had buddies helping them along.

These are the lucky ones, Sam thought. The seriously wounded didn’t make it this far.

He led the whole mass west at a slow but steady pace. Tim cycled back to report another ‘all clear’ from behind, then returned to rear guard; he had his bow at the ready and rode with his eyes in constant motion. They hadn’t gotten up-close-and-personal with more than a couple of the invaders all morning; most of them were little two- and three-man patrols that skedaddled at once whenever the dozen-strong Gatherer patrol approached. Sam hoped Laura and Bruce’s patrols were having as much success.

He was glad to surrender his charges at the Gate and get his canteen refilled. A handful of dried cherries and strawberries and a rough biscuit made do for lunch. He was about to lead the patrol back out when Marshall Duncan hailed him.

“Sam!” Duncan had Whit Yohansen at his elbow.

Sam nodded to both men. “Marshall; Trustee. What can I do for you?”

“Take me to Longmont,” Yohansen answered grimly. He had a triangular white flag on a four-foot pole and pushed a bike with his free hand.

“Excuse me?” Sam stared at him.

“Mayor Grasso wants me to try to ‘open a dialog’ with this Catron,” Yohansen explained. “I want you to take me as far as their outer sentries, wherever those are. If they’ll agree to take me in, I’ll go on alone and you go back to rescue duty.”

“Trustee, with all due respect, that’s a dumb idea,” Sam protested. “They’ve been killing wounded Greenies all morning — we interrupted a couple of them at it only an hour ago. What makes you think they won’t just kill you too?”

“Maybe they will,” Yohansen answered bravely. “If they do, then you’ll know something. If they don’t, maybe I can learn something we can do to keep them away from Lyons. Or maybe I can’t and I’ll come back with a demand that we surrender, like the one Baron Green sent.”

“It might be branded on your dead body,” Sam growled. “These bastards don’t care about rules, or playing nice.” He thought about the bloody things he’d seen in Longmont yesterday, and around it this morning. “One of the guys we picked up told us they’ve got stakes set up on the Mansion lawn, with the bodies of Baron Murchison and Colotta and some others impaled on ‘em. He thinks the last couple were still alive when —“

“Somebody has to take that chance, Sam,” Whit Yohansen interrupted quietly, eyes meeting Sam’s without flinching. “Grasso didn’t pressure me into this — I volunteered.”

Sam blew out his breath. “Okay. I’ll get you there. Let’s hope you get back.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Catron released Flynn Pauling’s head from his grip. The wounded man promptly fell to the mansion’s carpeted floor, screaming. Paco shifted his boot slightly to keep the writhing form away from it — the Longmonter had soiled himself during the questioning.

“Good, good!” Sensei bared his teeth in what even Paco couldn’t call a smile. “He’s there, his family and students too. All the prizes in one pot! Fetch me the priest, Jefe Paco. And get a patrol ready to escort him to Lyons.” His eyes glowed darkly, disturbingly, with something that gnawed at Paco’s mind like endless rows of needle teeth. It was all Paco could do to face it; resisting it was useless. He had to fight the temptation to run away screaming himself.

“At once, Sensei.” The Hispanic Jefe saluted and bowed himself out.

In the next room he gestured to two guards. “Take the prisoner out.”

“Where to?” asked one, not adding any honorific.

Paco ignored that. “Until Sensei wants him again, back to the medical tent,” he ordered. They were Sensei’s own men, not his, but they would accept basic orders from him most of the time. He was careful never to push to find the edges of that obedience. There was something just a little — odd — about them, the same thing that he noticed in Sensei’s two surviving Albuquerque boys and more and more in his picked troops. They were all fanatically loyal, and increasingly strange.

Then he went to confer with Santiago before hurrying off into another room. The Padre sat in a chair there, beads in hand — he must have picked those up recently, since he hadn’t had any on him when Paco collected him in Denver. The good Father looked up at him, his eyes calm despite the screaming that had made the whole mansion ring.

You really are a good man, the Jefe thought as he studied the priest for a moment. And strong, too. But Sensei is stronger than any of us, caramba, including me. And so, good does not matter. “So,” he spoke aloud. “You are summoned, Padre — he has a mission for you.”

The priest pocketed the rosary and came to his feet. He was several inches taller than Paco — usually taller men made Paco want to bristle, just a little, as if their height was itself a challenge. But not this one. Sometimes just being near him made Paco feel cleaner than he’d felt since he led the Diablos to Sensei’s door. He let the feeling persist for a moment — it was pleasant. Then he shook it off and beckoned Padre Markus to follow him.

The two guards were just carrying the Longmonter out through the front hall; he was still weeping, clawing at his ears until they were both scratched bloody. That must be hard to do with a splinted arm, Paco thought idly. He blocked the priest from moving forward until the trio went out the mansion’s front door, then led him in to see their master.

Sensei had been staring out the front windows; he turned now. His eyes were bottomless pits of darkness.

❀ ❁ ❀

Markus bowed deeply before Catron, his own eyes sweeping the mansion’s floor. The antique carpet had fresh stains. When he straightened again he avoided meeting the Sensei’s disturbing eyes, letting his own rest, slightly out of focus, on the silver armor. It reflected the light in dissonant patches now, the result of many new dents and scratches. It also bulged in places where it wasn’t meant to bulge; Sensei had put on quite a bit of weight lately, and much of it wasn’t muscle. It made him look larger than life, even though he was actually a little shorter than Markus. He loomed like a shiny ink blot, though, despite the silver coating managing to seem both darker and larger than his mortal container.

I must not give in to my fear, Markus thought. But I cannot keep it from showing.

“Priest,” Catron said, and there was something horrible in his voice. “You shall be my messenger again.”

“What is your command, Sensei?” Markus asked, trembling. Another slaughter? Will you use me again as a convenient door-opener?

For a moment the warlord smiled, a hideous expression. “Still fighting despair, priest? Keep struggling so. It amuses me.”

Father Markus flinched slightly, lowered his gaze to the floor. Wait for it, he told himself. Simply wait. He forced quiet on his limbs and tried to empty his mind of thought.

He could feel the warlord’s disturbing gaze study him for a moment, a sensation like a painful itch.

“Go to Lyons,” Catron ordered in his coldest voice. “Tell them I want Sam Hyatt, and his family and all of his students. They can have until an hour past tomorrow’s dawn to bring them out to me. If they don’t — then I’ll storm the town. I’ll find Hyatt if I have to kill every man, woman and child behind that wall. Tell them that, and bring me their answer.”

“Y-yes, Sensei,” Markus answered, then firmed his resolve. “Am I to offer them anything for their cooperation, Sensei?”

“Their lives,” Catron answered. “They’ll pay me tribute, acknowledge me as their ruler, and supply men for my army. But they must give me Hyatt and all he — loves.” He spat the last word like an obscenity. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Y-yes, Sensei.” Markus swallowed acid at the back of his throat.

“Go.”

The priest carefully stepped backwards, one, two, three steps, before turning and departing. He breathed easier as soon as he left the room, as if there was more oxygen outside it. Paco was still at his elbow.

“I have bicycles for you and six guards,” the Jefe told him. “The leading units of the army will follow you. We’ve got some Longmonters who know that place. They fought Lyons before and can show us the best spots to set up. We’ll have the whole camp moved there by sundown.”

Paco put a hand on Markus’ arm, stopped him on the front porch of the mansion. “Padre. I’ll have the nurse and your little boy there with the medical tent. And your other priest, too. Don’t forget that.”

The Jefe’s brown eyes were just hard as usual, but there was something odd in them this time.

“It has never been far from my mind since Hudson,” Markus answered him quietly.

Paco seemed about to say more, when there was a loud shriek from the front lawn. Markus turned his head to see four of Catron’s men lifting the wounded Longmont prisoner up — Flynn Pauling, Markus remembered his name. They had stripped off his pants and underwear, were holding him with his legs pulled apart. Pauling tried to struggle as they positioned him over a sharpened stake in the front lawn — and rammed him down onto it.

Markus gasped, staggered and almost fell at the savagery of it. The sharp wood stabbed through Pauling’s intestines, piercing his vitals all the way to his lungs. Blood sprayed from his lips as he screamed one last time, then fell mercifully unconscious. His life poured out of his mouth in a red stream.

The four turned to the mansion’s front bay window and saluted. Markus saw a glittering reflection behind the glass. His stomach heaved and if he had had any lunch it would have come up.

“Padre.” Paco steadied him, a curiously gentle gesture for all its firmness. The Jefe held him until he could stand unaided, and then released him and gestured to a Red Fang lieutenant waiting at the bikes. “Go.”

They mounted. Markus had to try twice before he could get his feet on the pedals, and then would have fallen if two of the escorts hadn’t caught him and held him up. On the third try he managed to get the bike moving, and set out. He couldn’t look at the hideous ornaments on the front lawn as they rode down the driveway under towering catalpa trees. He almost vomited again as the trees’ sickly-sweet scent mingled with that of fresh blood. Somehow, mostly with the aid of his escorts, he managed to stay on the machine and navigate his way onto Hover Road. They turned north.

All the way through northern Longmont Markus struggled to erase the searing image in his mind. It helped that he had to get used to pedaling a bicycle again. It had been years — since his time in Jerusalem, in fact, when he had taken a three-day camping tour through the replanted forests of the Judean hills. The memory heartened him — hot dust, cedar incense, and ancient holiness — he clung to the old images, trying to banish the recent horror. It helped.

After a while the rhythmic demands of the machine took over his consciousness and he gave himself over to it. All this time with Sensei’s army he had walked everywhere, walked till his shoes, only a month old at the Change, were worn. It felt very odd to ride again.

The road to Lyons passed under him with remarkable speed on a bicycle; in minutes they covered a distance that would have taken him an hour on foot. Markus looked around, trying to fill his memory with fresh images. He was impressed with how orderly the countryside seemed — relatively few burned houses, fences mended and irrigation water running through ditches. Flowers bloomed, bees zipped about, and the air was fragrant with life. There were even a few men moving in fields, though all of them stayed far distant from the highway.

These people have survived the Change, he thought. And survived it well. They have kept their community going, maintained their farms, they are even prospering, if anybody can be said to be doing that now.

The thought of what Sensei would likely do to that was heartbreaking. His mind echoed with the memory of thousands of feet stamping pavement as the army formed up on Ute Highway at Ninety-Fifth. Before sundown this land would be in Sensei’s fist.

Santiago and five of the Unos — the Red Fang's elite group, provided his escort, or guards, or perhaps jailers or watchdogs better described them. The brawny Hispanic scowled as another party came into view ahead of them. Twelve, no thirteen riders approached on their own bicycles. Most wore armor with yellow patches on the shoulders. One carried a white flag; he raised it and waved it several times.

Markus and his escort slowed, stopped a little short of a concrete building with a steel water tank just as the others did the same. The steep hills ahead where Lyons lay nearly eclipsed the mountains behind them. The two groups were not more than a hundred feet apart now, well within arrow range. The Unos looked nervously at the bows worn by several of the strangers. The man with the white flag walked forward, an armored and helmeted man at his side. They stopped halfway between.

“I think they want to parley,” Father Markus told Santiago unnecessarily. “I had best go meet them.”

Santiago frowned, his eyes dark slits as he squinted into the afternoon sun. Grudgingly he nodded.

Markus put the kickstand down on his bicycle, dismounted and walked forward. Santiago accompanied him, hand on his sword. The armored stranger casually positioned his hands the same, but otherwise seemed totally relaxed. Markus studied the one with the flag. He looked determined, stubborn, his jaw thrust out and the flag held rigidly straight.

He is nervous, Markus realized. And why not? He has been sent out to parley with representatives of an army that has left ruin in its wake across a quarter of Colorado. He expects nothing good — and I have nothing good to offer him.

No. I have the truth. It is painful, and horrible, but it is still better than a lie.

Markus stopped, facing the messenger from a little more than arms length away. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Santiago studying the guard, and sensed his confusion when the man appeared to completely ignore him. Both of the strangers’ gazes were fixed on the priest.

That one’s not a guard, Markus decided. He must be a military leader for their community. These two must be political and military leaders of some sort, since the older one’s clearly not a fighting man.

“Greetings,” Markus told the emissaries, splitting his attention between them. “I am Father Markus Freiduei, sent as messenger for Sensei George Catron, overlord of Greeley, Loveland, and now Longmont. Are you the leaders of the community of Lyons?”

The armored man let out a tiny gasp, as if an invisible fist had struck him.

❀ ❁ ❀

Recognition struck Sam like a silent concussion.

He’s the one in my dreams! The one God — Buddha — the Buffalo Woman — the one they want me to help!

“I know you,” he blurted out, as flickering rainbows danced around the priest. Then he raised his hands to his helmet and pulled it off, exposing his face.

❀ ❁ ❀

“I — I know you too,” Markus croaked, nearly paralyzed for a moment. It was the face in his dreams, and for an instant that might have been no time at all, or half of eternity, the hot air above the asphalt roadway rippled and formed ghostly giant hands, cupped protectively over the stranger.

The vision disappeared almost before he was quite sure he had seen it. Markus blinked, looked around.

Santiago peered back and forth from one of them to the other, confused and suspicious. His hand had tensed on his sword, started to draw it, but the armored man simply looked at him, not moving, as if he were waiting. Santiago’s hand spasmed open again and raised a little, as if involuntarily fending off something dangerous. Suspicion was replaced by fear on his nut-brown face.

From the look on the fourth man’s face he was just as confused, if less frightened. Markus groped for his wits.

“We — we must have met somewhere, sir,” his words stumbled out of his mouth. “P-perhaps that will make negotiations easier. I, I must speak to you — your leaders.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Whit Yohansen’s eyes darted from Sam to the tall man who introduced himself as a priest. Something strange was happening. His spine prickled with more than middle-of-July sweat.

We wanted to talk to one of them; I volunteered to go try it. Okay, here’s one, he thought. So let’s talk — but not out here in the hot sun. He cleared his throat, swallowed dusty phlegm.

“We are some of the leaders of the Town of Lyons,” he explained diplomatically. He glanced sideways at Sam, who seemed slightly poleaxed. What the hell is that all about? “The rest of our leadership is back in town.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “If you wouldn’t mind, Father, we’d like to take you to them.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Yes, that would be good,” Markus answered numbly, barely hearing the other man. “I — we’ll follow you there.”

He started to bow as if to a Jefe, stopped himself, and stumbled back to his bicycle. Santiago stuck to his elbow; when they were out of earshot he hissed in the priest’s ear. “Padre! I don’t like this. Does the Jefe-of-jefes want you to go with these people? That one in the armor, ay! Ese güey es un chingon maton — that fucker’s more bad-ass than me!”

That was a remarkable concession from the gangbanger, Markus reflected.

“Yes,” he answered firmly. “Sensei sent me to them with a message. So I must go with them.”

He straddled his bike, pushed the kickstand up, and began to pedal. The others had already turned their bikes around and were leading the way, with many a backward glance at him and his guards.

Santiago climbed on his own bike and followed, sticking tight to Markus’ side with a scowl that threatened to crease his face permanently. It gradually faded as they rode up the highway toward the foothills, and hidden Lyons. His scowl came back when a mighty wall came in view.

Markus was impressed by it — he had seen bigger fortifications in the Holy Land and Europe, but this was here, now, and had obviously been built since the day of the Change. They stopped below it, on the end of a dogleg in the wall that revealed a metal gate more than three times Markus’ height.

“Ay caramba, this will be an ugly puta to conquer,” Santiago muttered, studying the fortification. His men clustered around him silently, also scowling at it.

The Lyons men lined up to enter as one panel of the great gate creaked open. Men with crossbows stood guard above, staring coldly down at their little party. The civilian man with the white flag frowned apologetically at Santiago and his men.

“I can’t let you all in; only the, the, ambassador is allowed inside,” he stated.

The armored man simply looked at Santiago, one hand resting casually on his sword. The other armed ones formed a line at his back, but Markus suspected they were totally superfluous to whatever passed between his guard and the man.

Santiago made a little head bow to Markus. “Padre, it is yours to lead now. We will wait out here for you — however long it takes.” He slitted his eyes, perhaps to hide the way his gaze slid away from the armored man. Then he glared at the politician, making it plain that it had better not take forever.

Of course, Markus thought. My jailers are polite to me, even respectful, but they are still my jailers. And I am still a prisoner — and will be, even inside this great fortress. I will still be Catron’s prisoner. For I cannot abandon Joseph and Natasha to death as the price of my own freedom. And Paco knows that.

Markus straightened his shabby clericals, made sure his Roman collar was securely affixed, and walked towards the great gate. The man from his dreams touched his elbow lightly, urging him through; his followers streamed after.

And they are clearly his followers, Markus thought as he saw the way they clustered around and behind the armored man. Deference to his leadership, yes, but there is something more to it.

They love him, or at least whatever he stands for. And he returns their love.

The big gate shut and bars boomed into slots. Markus found himself standing face to face with the armored man.

“I am Sam Hyatt,” the man said to him levelly. “I saw your face in a dream. More than once.”

“And I saw yours too, Sam Hyatt, though I did not know your name until now. I am the slave of Sensei George Catron,” Markus responded. “Who holds those precious to me in his grasp, and who means you nothing but ill. But I myself do not.”

Murmurs went through the group of young warriors gathered around the Gate. Hyatt stared at him as his thoughts visibly raced.

“Then we’d better go to a place where we can talk about it,” said the politician tightly.

“I agree,” interrupted a new voice from another armed and armored man. “I am Marshall Michael Duncan, Father, and I am commander of the Militia for the people of Lyons. Please come into my office.”

❀ ❁ ❀

The Marshall kept them all busy arranging seating and making introductions while he sent word up to the Town; Sam didn’t get another word in with the priest until the town’s leaders were assembled, or some of them. From the speed with which Grasso arrived, Sam guessed he must have commandeered a ride on a horse or a racing bike. Burt came in on his heels, and Gene Kelly, looking a little out of his depth and more than a little sullen about it.

“I’ve sent word to the other Trustees to gather at the meeting hall,” Grasso declared. “But I want to know what I’m dealing with before I drop it on them.” His face was carefully bland but his eyes were intent.

Duncan cleared his throat. “Mister Mayor, this gentlemen is Father Markus Freiduei, who has been sent to us by the new ruler of Longmont with a message. He hasn’t explicitly told us what it is yet, but I think we all have no illusions about how well we’re going to like it.”

Duncan turned to the priest. “Father Markus, this is Mayor Grasso, chairman of the Town of Lyons Board of Trustees. That’s Burt Santini sitting across from him next to Sam, and you’ve already met Whit Yohansen between them. They are two more of the Town’s seven-member Board.”

“The others are out and about in the Town,” Grasso added, scrounging some paper and a pen to make notes. He had appropriated a small folding table and set it in front of his chair.

He always seems to want a desk in front of him, Sam thought distractedly. Like he needs to keep everybody he doesn’t control on the other side of a barrier. His thoughts steered back to the priest. Ellie said Karen needs a priest, and here one walks right into town. I wonder if…

Duncan continued with the introductions. “This is Captain Waters on my right, who was and still is our Town’s Fire Chief so you’ll sometimes hear us call him Chief. And Captain Hyatt you’ve already met, here at my left; they are my most senior subordinates in the militia. Gene Kelly, there, is the Town’s Chief of Police. That’s most of the leadership of the community.”

Kelly, looking for some place to stand, finally took up position behind his father-in-law’s left shoulder as the Mayor sat down. Grasso visibly took over, continuing his earlier point. “The Trustees will all meet together later, but anything Burt and Whit and I can agree to will certainly pass the assembled Board.”

“So let’s hear this damn message,” Burt blurted out. “What does that murdering bastard have to say to us?”

“Burt!” Grasso looked like he wanted to curse but was too indoctrinated to do so. “Your manners!”

Father Markus raised a placating hand. “Please, Mister Mayor, Mister Trustee. I’m not offended. Mister Santini’s identification is closer to the mark than he may know. Sensei Catron is, in point of fact, a multiple murderer. I have seen this with my own eyes.” A spasm passed across the priest’s face and his right hand moved briefly as if to ward off a memory.

Sam thought of slaughtered Longmont. Murderer; check.

“His parentage I cannot address,” Markus continued diplomatically, “But the metaphor is apt. He recognizes no law but his own strength, and no limits on his appetites but those he sets — which are not many.”

Sam remembered the trail of devastation across the valley. Limits, none; check.

“And he sees no future beyond the one he carves with his own power,” Markus carefully added. “And what that may be — I find difficult to explain. I have watched him for months now, since I was taken prisoner only a few weeks after the Change. He began as a cruel and greedy man who has become a monster. One who glories in domination, degradation, and suffering. Lesser forms of vice no longer satisfy him; only wielding the power of life and death pleases him now.”

Power. Check.

“So, is that his message to us, Father?” Whit Yohansen asked, drumming his fingers. “An ‘I’m your worst nightmare’ message?”

“No; I was providing you with my own perspective.” The priest took a deep breath. “His message itself is more specific. Sensei Catron demands — this is not a request — several things from you. He demands surrender to his lordship over your town. He demands tribute — a part of everything you grow or make, and some of your men to fight for him.”

Markus turned to face Sam. “And he demands you, and your family, and your students, be turned over to him. To do with as he will, which will certainly mean some form of degrading death — probably for all of you.”

Sam knew he had feared that demand, even sub-consciously expected it. It wasn’t a surprise. And still the shock roared through him. My wife — my kids — my students. He felt his training lapse for an instant as his whole body went rigid. A screaming NO! Was trying to fight its way up his throat.

“Sweet suffering Jesus,” Whit whispered.

“No way. No fucking way!” Burt snarled, fists clenched and half rising from his chair. He turned to Grasso. “You hear me? No fucking way!”

Grasso looked irritated beyond bearing. “Damnit Burt! Of course there’s no way the Board would agree to that. You think I’m stupid? Give me some credit. Now please sit down and let the good Father finish.”

Burt glowered at him for long seconds, then let his breath out a huff and sank back into his chair, staring suspiciously at the Mayor.

Grasso turned his attention to the priest. “You might as well have said straight out that you know Lyons can’t accept those terms. Why did you tell us that, in a way anybody would be bound to reject? What haven’t you told us yet?”

Sam watched numbly as the priest nodded his head. “Something worse still, but I distrust myself. Are you spiritual men? Believers in your Gods and your holy scriptures, whatever they may be?”

“Yes,” said Sam, staring at the priest. And I think the god we share has been trying to get my attention — along with at least two more.

“Yes,” said Burt, simply and quietly.

“I don’t know,” said Whit, in frozen indecision, his eyes wide.

“No,” said Grasso flatly.

“Then put it down to my own delusions,” Father Markus said quietly. “To my training, my indoctrination, perhaps even my own wishful thinking. But I have watched as something has slowly devoured the man Catron was — from within. You may call it madness, or mental illness, or any other label you judge best. My own faith and training call this thing a demon.”

The men in the room stared at Father Markus. Sam thought a dropped feather would have been audible.

“You’re here as his messenger,” he said intently. “Why? How can you work for him? What is his hold over you?”

Father Markus smiled sadly at him. “There is a nurse, one I worked with at Denver General; a boy, one I rescued from a previous slaughter ordered by Sensei; and another priest, younger than me, who works with the rest of us in the medical tent. All prisoners like myself, all hostages for my return.”

“And yet you’d risk them by sharing all this with us?” Sam stared into his eyes, enormously weary eyes that still endured.

“When I became a priest of God, I vowed to resist evil to the best of my — very human — ability,” Father Markus answered him quietly. “This demon used me once, in my ignorance, to open a community’s gates simply so their slaughter would be easier for him. I will not be used so again. I don’t know whether there is anything that can be done to save you and your people, Sam Hyatt, but I give you the gift of warning anyway. God is mightier in the end than any demon, regardless of how much they may rampage through the affairs of Men. Perhaps, with his grace, you will find a way to do what I cannot.”

Sam felt a chill run down his spine as three hands flickered in the air about the priest, giant hands that were there and gone too quickly to see with the eyes. An after-image of mountains burned into his retinas.

Grasso covered his face with his hands for a moment, shook his head a little — perhaps in denial. Gene Kelly, obviously confused, shrugged it all off and stared into space indifferently. Burt twitched and crossed himself, probably unconsciously, more than a hint of fear in his face. Whit Yohansen simply shook; Sam thought he struggled with his own uncertainly, and felt a wash of sympathy for the Trustee. He had seemed an utter asshole when they first met, but the fires of the Change had tempered him. You’ve become somebody I can respect, Sam thought. Hang in there, don’t break now!

“How long,” Marshall Duncan asked heavily, “Do we have before we must answer these demands?”

“Dawn tomorrow.”

“And then he attacks us?”

“Yes. Even now the army is moving forward; they will be in position by sunset, ready to attack by sunrise.”

“He’ll pay quite a butcher’s bill to scale our Wall,” Duncan observed dispassionately.

“I am no military man, but he has brought a weapon captured from Loveland that they used with horrible effect against his army before they fell. It is called a tre- treb-“

“Trebuchet.” Duncan sighed. “Colotta told me that one of the scouts he sent out reported that Loveland had built some big ones. I really hoped they all burned with the city.” He sighed again. “So his tactic’s clear. He’ll stand back, keeping his troops to defend it, and use his rock-thrower to pound our Wall into rubble. Then it’s man against man — and he has more men than we do.”

Father Markus made a helpless gesture. “I’m sorry, I am too ignorant of war to understand the potentials.”

“But Catron’s not.” Duncan brooded, his eyes resting on Sam.

Sam’s spine prickled anew. Carefully he said “Commander, I will not volunteer my family and my students for torture and death.”

“Good,” Duncan answered. “I’d have thought less of you if you did. Evil isn’t overcome by giving it what it wants.”

Father Markus nodded sadly. “And even those who’ve given Sensei Catron what he asks for have not fared well; the Greeley City Council were executed when they tried to bargain with him after surrendering, and in Berthoud he beheaded the three leaders who ran the town, and enslaved the men to drag his troop cars.”

“Enough of this,” Grasso said, taking up his pen again. “It’s plain what we have to do. Our labor allocation’s completely screwed, we’ve got twelve hundred useless mouths parked all over the Town, and a madman’s coming to attack us. The Armory isn’t nearly ready, they’ll have to work double shifts tonight. I’m going to have to rearrange everything, and you are too, Marshall.” He scribbled busily as he spoke. “We have way too much work to do between now and dawn.”

“This isn’t some kind of administrative headache, Grasso!” Burt barked, banging a fist on the arm of his chair.

“Of course it is. I didn’t expect you to do the work anyway, that’s my job, and I’ll damn well do it,” the mayor answered sternly. “We’ve got to have a meeting of the Board and authorize an answer for this gentleman to carry back. And come up with some delaying tactics — any delaying tactics.”

Duncan looked at him in obvious bemusement. “Mister Mayor, this ‘madman’ as you put it, isn’t going to be distracted by side issues. He wants what he wants and he knows how to get it.”

“And is that the whole story?” Grasso shot back. “Can he see everything, know everything? I don’t think so. We still have a chance to salvage something worthwhile, gentlemen, if we’re willing to grab for it. Willing to try, even at great risk and maybe great cost. Marshall, you swore an oath to serve this Town. Are you going to keep it, or just give up?” He glared challengingly at the Marshall even as he scribbled another note.

Duncan held his gaze for a moment, then his eyes wavered and fell a little. “Yes, Mister Mayor. I’ll keep it.”

“Good.” Grasso stood up and shoved his notepad into Kelly’s hands, put his own hands on his hips. “Get everyone moving,” he barked at his son-in-law. “And all of you,” his gaze swept the room, “We’ve got a meeting to get to, the other Trustees waiting and the defense of this Town to plan. So get off your asses, get your brains in gear, and get up to the Town Hall. There’s work to be done!”

Sam looked at Burt even as his father-in-law looked at him. He could see hope blooming in Burt’s face, the will to believe.

“Right,” Burt said firmly, rising to his feet. “We’ll find a way, Sam. There’s got to be one.”

Please, God, Sam prayed anxiously. Let Burt be right. Show me a way to keep my family and my kids out of this monster’s hands.

Duncan turned to Hank Waters. “Hank — take command of the Wall until I get back.”

The priest looked around the room uncertainly, then his eyes came back to Sam. “What should I do, Mister Hyatt?”

“Come with us, of course!” snapped Grasso from the doorway. “You’ll have to repeat your words to the other Trustees. Sam, help him please. And start thinking about our options! What haven’t we thought of yet that could help?”

I don’t know! Sam thought, then offered an arm to help the tired priest out of his chair. Markus took it long enough to gain his feet but then walked unaided, as Grasso’s strength of will dragged them all out of the room and onto the road. What can we do? What haven’t we thought of?

Tim, Jenner, Mike, Laura, and half a dozen more Gatherers clustered around him, asking questions; more townsmen joined them, and plenty of refugees too. Word of the ultimatum was spreading like wildfire. Grasso was haranguing Burt and Whit at the front of the parade, one hand gripping each of their arms.

The priest craned his neck, gazing in astonishment at Lyons — the grist mills, the wagons of barley and wheat, the refugees packed into every empty spot. A swelling crowd was following behind them, easily two or three hundred strong by the time they reached the school that had served as town hall ever since the week of the Change.

Sergeant Martino was on duty with three of the new cops. He looked frightened. “Mister Mayor, there’s too many of them! They won’t fit inside! And they’ve got weapons—“

“Excellent points,” Grasso nodded. He climbed up on a decorative brick planter, faced the crowd and raised his hands for attention. The confused roar subsided, individual voices audible again.

“Simmer down, everybody!” Grasso shouted. “We’re going to hold a meeting and figure out what to do! There just isn’t room for everybody inside, and we don’t need any hotheads making the job tougher! So if you want to come in, you’ll have to leave your weapons outside!” Aside he asked “Marshall, Sam — would you two set an example?”

“Of course, Mayor,” Duncan said automatically, hesitated, then unbuckled his sword-belt. One of Gene Kelly’s cops took it.

Sam’s hands moved to his own belt, katana and warizaki in their sheaths. It’s a reasonable request, he told himself. So why don’t I feel better about it? Grasso’s right, we’ve got to think of ways to counter Catron’s advantages — there’s got to be one! And this crowd does have plenty of hotheads… but he’s also a tricky sneak.

But Burt was waiting in the door, gesturing him and the priest inside. Sam let Martino take the belt, thinking it’s not as if I’m actually disarmed, long as I have my hands.

“Now, there’s only room inside for so many folks, so you’re all going to have to take turns,” Grasso shouted. “Divide yourselves into groups of forty, get some paper and draw lots, the groups can come inside in order from lowest number to highest. Make it happen, people!”

He stepped down and tugged Whit through the door. “Come on!” he snapped over his shoulder. “Bring the priest!”

“Father?” Sam gestured to the door. Markus, looking a little bewildered, went through. Sam followed him into the gloom. The sun was just sinking behind Indian Head.

❀ ❁ ❀

Laura started to pick out a group, grabbing Gatherers out of the crowd. Other folks were doing the same, splitting into factions along the lines of friendship and acquaintance; the noise was deafening. Tim put a hand on her shoulder, squeezed until she gave him her attention.

“Let’s get together over there,” he shouted, jerking his head towards the kitchen end of the building. “Quieter!”

“Right!” she barked, and the mass of Gatherers followed her and Tim down to the end of the building. The noise level dropped substantially as they left the confused crowd behind. At the corner Tim turned and confronted her tensely.

“Did you all see what just happened?” he demanded.

His fellow warriors stared at him round-eyed. “What are you talking about?” Laura asked, her eyes narrowing.

“That fucker in Longmont demanded Sensei and Mrs. Hyatt and their kids and all of us be turned over to him,” Tim told them tightly. “Now Grasso took Sensei into this brick fortress, unarmed, and left all of us outside. And we’ll only be allowed in as a group, unarmed. Anyone else think this stinks?”

There was dead silence for a moment.

“Holy shit,” Laura gasped. “We’ve been suckered!”

“Not yet, not completely,” Tim answered urgently, shifting his bow on his shoulder. “But we’d better do something about it, and fast!”

❀ ❁ ❀

“I call this meeting of the Lyons Trustees to order,” Grasso said rapidly, banging the gavel. “We’ve got a crisis, folks. Listen to what this messenger from Longmont has to say. Father, please repeat your message for everybody.”

Markus stood up before the assembled trustees; they were seated at a long table in the front of the auditorium. Two more women and a silver-haired man made up the Board; there was one empty chair.

“Should I wait for your missing member?” he asked doubtfully.

Grasso shook his head. “We’ve got a vacancy, there are only six Trustees right now. Please tell us what you said down at the Gate, Father.”

The room was a fair-sized auditorium that could have held over a hundred people, even more in the little balcony above, but the police were filtering the mob in slowly, it wasn’t half full yet. Markus paused, then mentally shrugged. The leaders waited impatiently for his message, and they were probably the ones who would make the decision anyway.

“Certainly.” He repeated his warnings, Catron’s message, and his own fears. He could see the older woman dismissing the last part with a look of contempt; the younger was merely confused, and the older man expressionless. Markus noticed that Grasso whispered to the police chief once when that man came in briefly, then left again, but he didn’t interrupt the presentation.

When Markus finished speaking, Grasso immediately called on Sam Hyatt to corroborate. Markus sat in a folding chair and watched the leanly handsome man get to his feet.

He has to be one of the most centered individuals I’ve ever met, Markus thought. A born leader, even more so than the Mayor, and far more than the rest of these folks, though I think the Marshall comes closest. A man with charisma, and the restraint not to use it to excess. A rare combination. Is that why You’ve brought me to him, Lord?

Hyatt gave his own presentation while standing, in a relaxed but erect stance, all the while holding one hand of a woman who had come into the room while Markus talked earlier. They wore identical wedding rings. She was clearly frightened and struggling not to let it show. Another woman had come in with her, of similar age but more drawn, tired, and stressed. That one kept looking at him, staring with a sad yearning. When he finished Sam sat down again next to the one who was surely his wife. The other woman sat next to her. The room was nearly two-thirds full now, people crowding the front rows.

“So there it is,” Grasso declared. “The new ruler of half the South Platte valley demands that we surrender Mr. Hyatt, his family, and his students. If we don’t, he’ll storm the Town. If we do, we’ll still have to submit to his rule, and make the best we can of it. What says the Board? Sarah?”

“Well obviously we have no choice!” the older woman argued. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. We’ve got to protect the majority of the Town!”

There were boos and catcalls at that, but also a surprising amount of agreement; much of it came from a tight cluster of older people. They had filled in most of the center of the room, packed in a single mass like a flower arrangement. The ‘boos’ all came from the periphery.

Can these people actually believe that? Markus marveled. Wait, there’s something odd here…

“Sarah!” snapped Yohansen in disgust, staring at her like something loathsome that he’d found on his shoe. He spread the look to her vocal supporters in the audience.

“Don’t be a fool, Sarah!’ the younger female trustee said, whipping off her cowboy hat and slapping it against the tabletop. “This is a monster we’re dealing with. He’ll kill Sam and his family, and he won’t stop there!”

“Better that a few should die than all of us!” rejoined Sarah, glaring poisonously at Sam and his wife. Her noisy supporters egged her on.

“Like that would work,” Burt Santini sneered at her and them. “He’ll just demand more, and more — he wants to grind us all under his heel until every last one of us is broken! You think he won’t get around to you too, eventually?” He pointed at Sarah and then at her supporters. “That’s the way that kind works.” A different contingent in the audience growled agreement with him, but thinner — they were mostly confined to the back and the edges.

Markus suddenly realized. Wait — what if this audience is not a random selection of the community? Has it been hand-picked and deliberately seated in the front of the room?

Trustee Santini and Sam were both staring at the crowd in disgust — and, Markus thought, more than a little suspicion. What is happening here?

“I must agree with Trustee Santini,” Marshall Duncan spoke up. “This is not a fellow American we’re dealing with, it’s an amoral raider — no honor, no promises will bind him. He wants what he wants because he wants it, and if he gets it then he’ll just want something else next.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Markus noticed Kelly come back into the room, accompanied by another officer. He nodded tensely to Grasso. Grasso turned to the silver-haired man, who had been silent until now.

“Time, James,” he said. “Your thoughts, Trustee Palmer?”

“Point of order,” James Palmer said. “We haven’t called the roll.”

“For the love of — who gives a damn?” Burt Santini demanded angrily. “We’re the same Board we’ve been since Susan died.”

“Not as of yesterday,” Palmer answered. “As of yesterday, Rachel Joyner and Burt Santini have lived outside the Town Limits for more than thirty days.”

“What the hell? I’ve lived in my house all my life!” Burt snarled incredulously.

“Your house, and that of Miss Joyner, were deannexed by Board Resolution last month,” Palmer said pleasantly. “A motion that you both voted for. Thirty days have elapsed without either of you moving back inside the Town Limits, so your seats are now empty and your terms ended, by statute.” He smiled triumphantly. “You’re off the Board.”

A confused rumble erupted from the audience, boos and cheers and plenty of bafflement.

“But — But — You tricked me!” Burt fell back against his chair, stunned. “I didn’t — I wouldn’t — there was so much work to do…”

At that moment several policemen rushed into the room from the door beside the trustees’ table, swords and crossbows at the ready. Two were pushing small children ahead of them. Knives were held to both young throats. Sam leaped to his feet, then went very still as the girl started crying. Hyatt’s wife cried out “Jenny! Jimmy!”

The audience roared as more blue-shirts rushed in, weapons raised — many pointed at the crowd, especially those in the back. A sudden hush fell.

“Captain Hyatt,” Grasso spoke into it with sincere regret in his voice, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that, by my order and for the good of the Town, you’re under arrest. You too, Mrs. Hyatt. And you, Burt.”

Dear God, what is happening?! Markus thought, horrified as the orderly little town seemed to shatter into shouting factions. Brawls started in the audience. He stood up, waved his hands. “Don’t!” he shouted at the people. “Without unity you have no hope against Catron!”

Something banged overhead.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Hey, Gary,” Laura said pleasantly to the officer guarding the kitchen door. “What’s going on?” She sauntered casually closer, slowly, slowly, even though her nerves screamed for her to hurry.

“Hell if I know, Laura,” Gary Oldham grumbled. “Screwy orders — dragged me over here just as I was getting off duty, after a double shift too! ‘Nobody to be admitted to the school kitchen until further notice,’ that’s all. I swear Gene’s lost his marbles. I’ve about had enough of this shit.”

“Are you being punished?” She faked astonishment, stepped a little closer. “Why?”

“’Cause I’m not one of his drinking buddies,” Gary answered bitterly. “Me or Al. We get all the shitty jobs these days, just ‘cause we’re the last two real cops on the force.”

“He stuck you out here alone?” Laura marveled, moving in another step. Oops — that was one too many.

Suspicion flashed across Oldham’s face and his sword started to come out of its sheath. “Why do you —“

Tim materialized out of the shadow behind him. His doubled hands slammed down on the back of Gary’s neck, stunning him. Laura caught the man as he pitched forward, lowered him quietly to the ground. Tim grabbed both of Gary’s hands, twisted them behind him, and slapped the cop’s own handcuffs on him.

“Sorry, Gary,” Laura whispered in his ear, pricking his neck with the point of her knife. “Your boss is a crooked bastard and something bad is about to go down on Captain Hyatt. We’re going in to stop it, with your help or without it. I’d rather go with it. What do you say?”

“Urgh.” Gary twitched, felt the knife. “Ow. Jeeze, Laura you didn’t have to hit me — shit. Are you really gonna kill me?”

“Probably not, unless you force me to choose between saving Sam and not saving him,” she told him quietly. “Will you help us? I don’t think there’s much time.”

“Hell. You coulda asked first. Ow.”

“I didn’t dare. You’re too good a cop, Gary. If we didn’t surprise you I wouldn’t have had a chance.”

“Thanks for the compliment; flattery will get you anywhere.” Gary grunted. “Okay, fuck Gene Kelly and the horse he rode in on. Help me up. Al’s inside. I’ll call. Don’t hurt him, he’s a good guy.”

Tim nodded at her, helped lift Gary to his feet. Laura steadied him, guided the cop to the locked kitchen door. Gary jerked his chin at it and Tim knocked. “Al?” Gary called loudly. “Hey Al, it’s me. Got anything to eat? I haven’t had lunch yet nor breakfast either, and my stomach’s about to eat itself.”

The door lock rattled and Al Knoffler’s voice chuckled as it opened. “Sure, Gary, how about — ulp!”

Laura had her knife at Al’s throat and Tim slithered around him, put him in an arm lock. “No sound, Al,” she warned him. “We’re not after you two, we just want to save Sensei Hyatt. Something bad is going down inside this place. Keep quiet and you won’t get hurt.”

“I believe her, Al,” Gary added, quietly, standing in the open door. Though his legs were free he made no effort to get away. “We should help her, and to hell with Gene.”

Knoffler looked from Laura to Gary and back again. “Hell. And me only two years shy of my pension. Shit.”

Gary grinned. “I think you’re gonna have to count on your friends for support in your old age, Al. Who are they gonna be? Gene Kelly? Or Captain Hyatt’s crew?”

Knoffler snorted, softly. “You had me when you said you believed her, Gary, you don’t need to keep pushing. I’m in.”

Laura backed up, waved her knife-hand out the door as she pulled Gary inside. In moments thirty-plus Gatherers poured into the kitchen. Laura found Gary’s key and set him free of his own handcuffs. Tim released Al and backed up, ready as a coiled spring.

“Thanks, Laura,” Gary said rubbing his wrists. “What do you want to do?”

“Find Sam,” she answered tersely. “He might be in the Mayor’s office, or the meeting room.”

“Stoner’s watching the door out of the cafeteria,” Al volunteered. “But nobody’s on the back stairs. I don’t think anyone’s on the second floor at all.”

Laura nodded. “Then up we go. Quietly. Tim, you’d better take point.”

Tim nodded, turned and darted silently out the kitchen’s internal door and up the adjacent stairs. Knoffler watched him go, bemused. “Damn, he’s good,” the older cop muttered.

“Everyone else, single file,” Laura ordered quietly. “Dead silence, Sensei needs us. Don’t screw this up.”

They flowed up the stairs in Tim’s wake, spread down the corridor. Tim flitted through the gloom ahead — the sun was behind Indian Head, the shadow of Coffintop stretching over the town. Tim beckoned to her from the door to the auditorium’s balcony, began to ready his bow. Laura listened, heard voices — dozens of them, but was certainly Burt Santini. He sounded angry. Then she heard what could only be Jenny’s voice, crying, and the crowd roared again.

“In we go,” she whispered. “Show time!”

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam tensed, relaxed into the stillness of complete watchfulness. The two with Jimmy and Jenny were four long steps away — nearly fifteen feet, too far to cross in time. But Starry had fitted his armor with a couple extra features. His fingers began to drift, slowly. Frightened tears were rolling down Jenny’s face in slow motion, Jimmy’s half-scared/half-angry mouth began to contort as he started to yell.

Then a door slammed open on the balcony above. Most of the eyes in the room looked up, including both men with the children. Sam’s hands moved, fingers seized and released, and the two little knives floated almost languidly through the air. The eyes of the cop holding Jimmy remained fixed on the balcony above, right up to the moment that the first knife pierced his cornea. By the time the brain behind could react, the point had passed through the whole eye and sunk three inches into his cerebral cortex. The man jerked like a puppet with cut strings, dropped his knife and collapsed. Jimmy was knocked to the floor, outraged but unhurt.

Sam’s second knife hit Jenny’s captor almost as perfectly, but not quite on center. The blade sliced through the eye as well, but slammed into bone behind it and stuck. Part of the bone shattered into the brain cavity, but not enough to free the knife. The man staggered, knowing he was hurt but not quite how, until his nervous system fingered the eye. His hands jerked up in automatic reaction, his own knife point scratching a shallow gash in Jenny’s jaw as it passed. Then the rising hands brought the blade to his own face and it gouged him under the cheekbone. His hand jerked open and the knife spun away. His groping fingers found the naked tang of the throwing knife, curled around it, and pulled. It tore free of the bone, dragging his eye out of its socket as well. His mouth fell open on a scream as he staggered, disoriented, and tripped over Jenny.

Sam was already charging at Kelly, less than two yards away in the other direction. Kelly’s gladius was drawn and loose in his hand as he stared upward at the balcony. His chin came back down as he saw Sam move from the corner of his eye. He started to turn, to tighten his grip on his sword — too slowly.

Sam hit him in the groin knee-first, the heel of his right hand snapping up for a face strike as his target jackknifed forward. Kelly’s nose crushed, sprayed blood. Sam’s left hand seized the wrist holding the sword, twisted. Small bones creaked and muscles spasmed. His right arm continued its arc of motion ending at the sword, catching it just below the hilt as Kelly’s hand was forced open. Sam jerked it free and rammed the pommel against the side of Kelly’s head. Bone crunched in a familiar way and Kelly dropped.

Sam’s eyes were already sweeping the room. The crowd boiled with fights, most of the mob trying to get out but some in the back trying to push their way forward.

An arrow had slanted down from the balcony, slamming into another of Kelly’s crossbow-carrying cronies. The man dropped his loaded bow, the mechanism discharged and a crossbow bolt sped randomly away into the room. Another blue-shirt, sword drawn and much closer to Sam, had already begun advancing towards him and Ellie from under the balcony. Sam kicked a folding chair in his direction, lunged with the gladius — it felt point-heavy compared to his katana. His target batted the chair aside, his own sword swinging out of position. Sam slid past its point, feeling the shivering grate as the side of the blade sliced along his armor. His gladius took the man in the base of the throat just above the breastplate, ripping through carotid and jugular.

The gladius continued around as he pivoted, throwing an arc of red drops that seemed to hang in the air before the point bit into the arm of the next blue-shirt. The blade screeched across armor and thumped against a breastplate. The man staggered, knocked off balance, and hit another folding chair. He tripped over that and arms flailed wildly as he tried to regain his balance, then crashed into a window headfirst. Broken glass slashed him blind as Sam completed his spin, facing back toward Ellie.

She was scrambling toward the kids, mouth open in a silent yell. And Paul Withers was taking aim on her with a crossbow as she crossed his line of sight. The point of the bolt glittered as it was released, slow but inexorable — and Whit Yohansen ran right into the dart, arms waving at Paul and yelling “No! No!” The Trustee flipped backwards and hit the floor, taking the bolt with him. Another arrow blossomed in Paul’s chest, bodkin point piercing the armor almost effortlessly, and he began to fold as well. His face set in a childish petulance at the unfairness of it, before being scrambled by full contact with a corner of the Trustees’ table.

Mike dropped from the balcony, landing on a front-row folding seat which crushed beneath him as townsfolk fled left and right. The big Midwesterner sank with the broken seat, his sword swinging out to bite the leg of another Kelly crony — it struck behind the man’s right knee. Both hit the floor; Mike bounced up and stabbed down.

Jesus and Jerry landed a few feet apart, crushing more folding seats, leaped up and ran to guard Ellie.

Grasso was rising to his feet, mouth opening in a shout, as Sam surged toward him. An arrow clipped the Mayor’s moving shoulder, tearing cloth but no more, then slammed into James Palmer beyond. Grasso twitched at the close encounter, his eyes swinging to meet Sam’s. Sam saw the fear blossom and grow in those eyes as he charged across the floor toward the man. His captured gladius, the ugly thrusting sword that had carried Rome to victory, reached out ahead, shortening the distance.

“Don’t —!” the man started to say when the gladius-point slammed into his chest. He bucked, choked, and fell as Sam withdrew the steel. Grasso writhed, coughing blood across the table.

Sarah Withers reached for Palmer, but faltered as an arrow bloomed in her own chest and pinned her to her chair. She stared down at the feathers incredulously, then fumbled at them while her life spilled out.

Burt sat in his chair and stared at his three dying colleagues, shocked into immobility. Rachel had ducked under the table for cover and was trying to get his attention by banging on his knee.

“Drop ‘em!” Sam heard Laura’s voice shout from the balcony. His eyes swept the room. Kelly’s remaining cronies obeyed, swords ringing on the concrete. More Gatherers began lowering themselves from the balcony, dropping to the floor and fanning out across the room. Mike threatened two of Kelly’s lame excuses for cops and they stretched their hands higher. Jenner dropped from the balcony, moved on another blue-shirt sidling along the wall toward a door. The sweating thug threw up his hands and stood very still. Other Gatherers fanned out to threaten the rest, as allies from the audience fought their way through the chaos to offer help.

Sam circled toward Ellie, where she clutched both their children. Jenny was crying, hands patting her face where blood oozed. Ellie tried to wipe it off with her own trembling fingers. Jimmy produced a crumpled blue bandana from a pocket and gave it to his mother.

“Dad!” he said indignantly. “Those men came and got us, said Mom needed us here. But they were liars, weren’t they?”

“They were, son.” Sam carefully set his dripping blade aside on a chair, knelt down next to his family. “But your mother surely does need you here right now — and so do I.”

He gathered all three of them into a hug. For a long moment they all trembled together, clinging to each other.

We’re alive! We’re all alive! The thought was music and glory to Sam.

“Ellie!” Karen called, in a panicked voice. “I think you’d better come look at this!”

Sam released his family, pivoted as he rose to his feet and reclaimed his bloody weapon.

Karen was kneeling on the floor next to the stretched-out form of the Marshall. She beckoned with one hand — and it was red. “He’s been hit!” she yelled.

No! Not Duncan! We need him! Sam thought as he strode across the room.

Ellie followed more slowly, refusing to let go of Jenny; she scooped the girl up and carried her along. Jimmy tagged along, taking his weeping sister’s free hand and trying to reassure her. Jesus and Jerry flanked them, trying to watch everywhere at once.

Duncan lay on his back. The gray feathers of a crossbow dart stood out of his lower belly just below his breastplate — it had hit a millimeter-wide joint in the armor and sunk most of its length through.

“Abdominal wall pierced, and small intestine, maybe the large one too,” Karen reported feverishly, her hands searching for the armor’s straps. “Shit, shit, shit!”

“Don’t,” Duncan told her, stopping her hands. “Leave my armor on.” He was awake, perfectly conscious, and staring at Sam.

Same kind of wound as Ken Clair, Sam thought, battling sudden grief. Peritonitis, then death.

Duncan grinned at him suddenly, an expression so light-hearted it was shocking. “Well, Sam, a number of decisions have just been simplified,” he said humorously.

“Sir,” Sam began, kneeling next to his head.

Duncan raised a hand. “No. Am I still your commander, Sam Hyatt?”

“Sir, yes sir,” Sam answered, stiffening slightly.

“Then help me with my last few orders. First, which of the Trustees are still alive?”

Sam craned his neck. “Burt. Rachel — is Whit alive?”

“No,” she answered, sitting back on her heels next to Yohansen’s corpse. Tears coursed down her cheeks.

Sam looked at Palmer — pinned to his chair by the deflected arrow, which had passed sharply downward through his stomach just below the diaphragm. His mouth was open and he twitched feebly, drooling on his wrinkled blue suit. Then his eyes sagged shut and he went still. At his side, Sarah Withers was already dead.

“Rachel and Burt are all,’ Sam reported. “Whit, Grasso, Palmer, and Withers are all dead.”

“That’s it for the old Town government,” signed Duncan. “Just as well — too little vision there, too much selfishness. Get Burt and Rachel where I can see them, please.”

Sam called them over. Burt moved like a bewildered child; Rachel had to tug on his arm to get him in motion at all. Ellie and Karen knelt on Duncan’s left, Burt and Rachel came to his right. Father Markus hesitantly hovered near the Marshall’s feet. Duncan’s eyes flicked over them.

“We almost made it,” he told them. “Maybe if the cards had been a little different, if — but that wasn’t the hand we got dealt. Now we get to play the last round.”

“And I stink at poker,” Burt said hoarsely, rubbing his eyes.

Duncan smiled grimly at him. “So we change the game, Burt. Catron’s set up the table — but we don’t have to play by his rules. We can still choose a different game.”

“What do you mean, Marshall?” Sam asked intently. Is he thinking —

Duncan stared at him. “It’s obvious he expects you to fight, to challenge him back, or maybe even surrender yourself to buy your family and students freedom. But you and I know his kind never work that way. He thinks he’s got all the aces — more men, and that damned trebuchet to bust open our eggshell Wall. If the Town, and you, surrender outright, he gets what he wants. And if we fight him, then he just breaks in and takes what he wants. Anything else he can imagine you doing — just turns into one of those two choices. Endgame.

“But we can deal ourselves a few more cards, if you choose, Sam.” He smiled again. “Grasso claimed he wanted a different idea, and on the way here I thought I had one. Now I’m sure. The Town surrenders — but you don’t.”

Visions of mountains danced in Sam’s head. “You want me to run,” he said hoarsely. “Run like a rabbit for the hounds, drawing him after me. Through the town, away into the mountains.”

“Or like a fox.” Duncan raised an eyebrow. “Bait him, enrage him, make him want you so badly he forgets the rest of us and just lights out after you.”

I could hide Ellie and the kids, send my students twenty different directions away, Sam thought. “But — I can’t be sure he’ll follow me. He could stop, comb the town for Ellie and the kids, counting on me to come back for them. I can’t risk that!”

“Give him a big target,” Duncan said urgently. “You, your family, all your students, any of the Gatherers who want to go too. Take bikes, wagons too if you want. Leave a trail right up Highway Thirty-Six into the mountains. Let everyone see you take it. Then don’t stop. Make him run after you, trying harder and harder to catch up. Make him outrun his supply train, drive his men on till they’re reeling with exhaustion. Make him stretch himself thin, stick his neck out so far, that you can finally cut it off.”

Sam stared at him, gulped, looked around the circle of faces.

“I will tell him whatever you wish me to, Sam Hyatt,” the priest said gravely. “Perhaps I can delay him until his morning deadline — you will have the whole night to put distance behind you.”

The dusky air wavered, scents of pine trees and burning, and Sam saw again those ghostly giant hands. All three pointing at Father Markus. He saw himself in warding stance before the priest, katana and warizaki raised to guard — and three hands cupped them both. The image flickered and was gone in an instant.

It’s only inside my head, he told himself. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Lord Jesus, Buddha, White Buffalo Woman, whoever and whatever you three really are, I promise I’ll try.

“I dreamed of you,” Sam said hoarsely, getting to his feet and leaving the gladius on the floor. He held both empty hands out beseechingly. “God — the gods — somebody wants me to protect you. I can’t let that monster get a grip on you again. Come with us!”

Markus smiled sadly. “He already has me in his grip, Sam. Wrapped in a chain that I cannot break. By now his army will have arrived, set up outside your Gate, and Joseph and Natasha and Francis will be there working in the medical tent. If I do not return by sundown — very soon now — they will die. I cannot buy my freedom with their lives, and he knows that. I must return to him.”

Sam rubbed his face with both hands. “There has to be a way. You’ll be just across the Wall, only a couple thousand feet from us!”

Jenner approached, diffidently. “Unh, Sensei Hyatt, there is. A way, or really a kind of tunnel, actually.” His eyes darted to Markus and back to Sam. “I’ve been there, but I don’t know how much I should say, if, if he’s going back outside.”

“What?” Sam turned to him, took the younger man by the shoulders. “What are you telling me?”

Jenner gulped. “I found it during the trail study the Parks Department did last winter. I was crawling all over both ridges after the County bought the land for North Foothills Open Space Park, checking out possible trail alignments, and I fell right into it. It’s not even on the maps any more. I never told Baron Green — it’s too small for a bunch of men in armor to crawl through anyway. But for just a few folks, and if the enemy are camping in the same place Longmont’s army did — nobody could see you, especially if you came out of it at night.” He looked at Markus again.

“I —” Markus started to speak, when God took his mind again. Gently, irresistibly, lifting him out of himself in one enormous swoop, soaring like a feather in the wings of the Dove of Peace. A ring of mountains lay below, lazy streams amid hay fields, a tiny fortified town. Children gathered around himself in a sunny meadow outside the walls, his mortal frame gone old and gray, while he taught them catechism. A blink, and he was back in his body.

“I saw that too,” Sam croaked at him. “It’s possible.”

Markus swallowed hard. I held to hope for all this time… I can hold to it for another night. I can hold to it forever if I must.

“I will await you in the red cross tent with the hostages,” he said. He looked at Burt Santini and Rachel Joyner, gaping at the incomprehensible conversation swirling between himself and Sam Hyatt.

“Trustees, it might be best if I can truthfully report that the town leaders have not yet decided what answer to give Sensei Catron,” he told them gravely. “But if you’ll promise a response an hour after dawn?”

“But we’re not —“ Burt began, when Rachel hushed him.

“We promise. I don’t know what you’re all up to, but I trust Sam,” she declared. “We’ll do what he wants.” She jabbed the big farmer with her sharp cowgirl elbow. “Agree with me, Burt.”

“Agh — damnit, woman, quit poking me! All right, all right!”

“The sun is almost set,” Markus told Sam. “I had better hurry back.”

“Say to him for me,” Sam licked his lips. “I challenge him. Tomorrow. At a place of my choosing.”

Duncan, still lying on the floor at their feet, smiled. “I hope I live to see dawn,” he said.

❀ ❁ ❀

Catron sat on a simple stool under the canopy of his command pavilion, currently wall-less in the summer heat. The stool had been padded and draped with mink ripped from some rich woman’s coat. Thick oriental rugs had been laid down to soften the water plant’s parking lot, plundered from the Longmont Mansion. A sumptuous meal was spread on a folding table draped in fine damask. Candles were lit in brass holders that had been polished to a fine glow by his cowed women; they gave a softer light than the gasoline lanterns. Someone had even found real gold silverware for him to eat with. Someone else had lashed together an artistic fan of broken weapons from defeated Longmont, still caked with dried blood, and set it up as a backdrop behind his stool. Billy and Frank, the boys that had followed him all the way from Albuquerque, stood erect and on guard at either hand, red armor and brown.

My good dogs, he thought fondly. Trained by me. Owned by me. He stretched his arms luxuriously, enjoying the space everyone gave him, even as they groveled and waited on his merest whim. The Khans had the right idea, he thought. There’ll be no confining throne for me! Endless mobility; that’s the secret of success. I’ll make the world into one long buffet and graze my way across it.

He studied the fading sunlight. The wall across the canyon didn’t cut off the setting sun from this vantage, but any moment the mountains would. Shadows were already stretching out around his army camp, still settling in. He could hear the groaning wheels of the railcar carrying the huge trebuchet as the Berthoud slaves dragged it in. Johnson’s apprentices, what were their names? would need the night to get it set up, but there were plenty of torches to light their work.

A stir over by Lyons caught his attention. He saw the familiar lanky form of the priest approaching.

My slave. He savored the word. Invisible chains are the strongest, and he wraps himself in his perfectly.

Catron studied the man as he arrived, ducked under the low-hanging edge of the canopy, then knelt and bowed before his master. “What’s their answer, Priest?”

“Sensei, their leaders are rather uncertain over what to do,” the priest started to explain, his mannerisms perfectly subservient. “But they promise to give you a decision by your deadline.”

“You saw Hyatt, didn’t you?”

The priest blinked, nodded guardedly. “Yes, Sensei.”

“And his family? His students?”

“I believe so; a woman with brown hair, a boy around twelve and a girl perhaps half that age? There were several young men and women too, who followed him with … an impressive loyalty.”

Catron felt his lips skin back from his teeth involuntarily as he snarled silently. “That’s them. Good. What did he say?”

The priest still knelt before him, he had raised his gaze from the rug but only as far as his master’s chest. To avoid meeting my eyes — oh no you don’t. You can’t lie to me now — I’m Fifth Dan!

Catron reached out suddenly, grabbed the man’s head in both hands and forced it up. He dragged him closer by sheer strength, pushed his own face to within a few inches of the other’s. He could smell the fear-sweat on the priest, feel his trembling through the fingers and palms of his own hands.

“You’re afraid,” he crooned to the man, delighting in the brief struggle as his far greater strength overcame the other’s pitiful weakness. “You should be. You will tell me what he said, and you can’t lie to me about it. I’ll know if you try.”

The priest choked for a moment, off-balance; his frightened eyes were like dark wells. Wells that went down and down beyond the reach of any probe. Catron’s own gaze narrowed and he glared.

“Speak!”

“Sensei — h-he said to tell you, he’ll meet you tomorrow! He said he challenges you!”

“Ahhhhh!” The satisfaction was almost overwhelming; he nearly let the priest’s head go. “At last. Good, very very good! He’s coming out alone, is he? Like some hero in a movie, hah!”

“I — I don’t know, he said he will pick the place, but I think he’s bringing some of his followers, one or two anyway. He didn’t tell me!”

“Maybe his stars; yes, he’ll bring that little slut Kate with her bo, and his boy wonder, Woods.” Catron savored that. “Couldn’t be better! My dogs will rip them apart — while I break him.” He glanced aside at the red armor. “Would you like that, Billy? A rematch with Woods?”

Billy whimpered with desire from behind his crimson helmet. “Please, Sensei. I’ll feed him his balls, then choke him with a rope made from his own guts. Please!”

Catron chuckled. “Sure, Billy, as you like it. Frank can have the slut. You can fuck her after he’s done, too — we all will. I’ll make Hyatt watch. Then we’ll take his town, find his wife and kids, and the real fun will start.”

Billy whined again, eagerly, like a dog on a chain. Catron chuckled a third time.

He turned his face back to the priest. “Well done, slave.” Something flickered in the depth of the man’s eyes and Catron chuckled again. “You hope he kills me, don’t you? You’re ashamed of it, but you hope he kills me. Don’t bother denying it, slave. I can feel your defiance; you’re a stubborn one. Still hoping, still believing in your pitiful god. You’re helpless in my hands, slave. I could snap your neck right now.” He wiggled his hands suggestively. “Maybe you even wish I would, eh? Make you a martyr? You don’t get out that easily.”

He pushed the priest backwards, letting him sprawl on the rugs as he, his master, rose to his feet. “Crawl out of here. Tomorrow you’ll watch me break your hope of release. Then I’ll start the long torture on him afterwards, the kind the Hurons used to practice on your Jesuit buddies. I’ll have you watch, while I slowly slice and dice your hope into pieces. And then I still won’t let you go.”

He stretched luxuriously, delicious visions unfolding before his mind’s eye, and the shadows stretched with him as if reality prostrated itself to his will. Somewhere in the back of his head a hot flush started through his blood, better than sex.

“Crawl back to your cage, slave.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Markus crawled out of the pavilion on his hands and knees, too sick with fear to stand even if the monster had commanded it. He struggled across the pavement to a parked wagon and with its aid managed to pull himself to his feet. It was minutes more before he could walk without falling.

He searched the sprawling camp with his eyes, finally found the red cross on the white tent. It was stained and filthy, and he staggered off toward it.

Lord, he prayed. I am so afraid. Please grant me your grace to endure whatever is to come. And the courage to take whatever risks I must, to do your will.

❀ ❁ ❀

18

— Flight —

Lyons, Colorado; mid July, 1998.

Outside the school Sam could hear Rachel’s criers yelling the word of what had happened. Some in the milling crowd yelled back, but Chief Water’s troops were steadily quelling those. Most were simply quiet, stunned or confused, the stench of their fear detectable even inside.

Argument and weeping still roiled the death-filled auditorium where the handful of Grasso loyalists had first struggled to prevail, then tried to run outside and spread their version of events, and finally just sat cowed or threw temper tantrums. The mostly-young friends of the Gatherers and their allies in the militia kept the room locked down tight. Their mostly-older prisoners wept, shocked by their own helplessness in the face of naked threat from blade and bolt — or sickened by the stench of all-too-real consequences for the failed coup.

Sam fought down his own wave of bitterness and shame at the way he’d been caught by the man’s betrayal. I wanted to believe, and I nearly let my family and students get captured and handed over. What would Catron have done to my wife and kids? Never mind me! The things I saw east of the Valley on the horse-trip, and in Longmont, and heard about from Loveland… it makes my gut twist. And Grasso was ready to sell us into that, he organized it on paper even as we listened to Father Markus, and he had Gene Kelly arrange it while pretending to run a meeting.

The systematic dishonesty of it all sickened him.

You robbed your own Town, Grasso, Sam thought sadly. You broke its democratic government, gave it over to mob rule that only dressed up to look like a real government. The old law books are really dead. It’s the strong sword-arm that rules now, not the ballot-box, and leadership goes to whoever can win the loyalty of those who swing those swords. You saw that before I did, but you didn’t understand loyalty well enough to pull off your theft, and I should be grateful for that. I see now — and I’ll be damned to the hottest fire in hell before I’ll become the dictator you were aiming to be.

Doc Brown and the nurses Julia and Bieta struggled to stabilize Marshall Duncan in the clinic, hopelessly handicapped by the crossbow bolt in his gut. Sam had witnessed the commander’s orders; their brutal simplicity had humbled him.

“I need to live only until mid-morning — and if you won’t help me do that, Jonas, then you are my enemy. Choose right now who you’re going to serve — my control over my own fate, or your own selfish vanity in your skill?”

Doc Brown had reacted as if he’d been slapped.

Duncan hadn’t let him recover but had bored right in. “Well? I’ve known you fifteen years, Jonas. Time for honesty. Do you respect my free will, my choice in how I die, or are you going to try to control me, to make my death suit your own preferences?”

“You’re a bastard, Mike!” Doc had snarled back, clenching his fists. But the staring contest had gone on until Brown yielded. “Damn you. Yes, I’ll do what you want, even if it kills you.”

Duncan’s pained eyes softened. “Thank you, Jonas. Now talk to me about —”

Sam left them to it then, gathered his people into the cafeteria. All those who were most at risk; his family, his students from Montana, and those who’d joined him since. And their friends, at least those who were within easy reach and who weren’t desperately needed doing something else. They were all crowded onto the cafeteria tables and benches, hanging on his every word — his students, the Abbakus and Bisteks and McCarthys, all the locals who had joined up here in Lyons and their families. He had invited Jenkins junior and senior, and Blake Jones, because he owed them the consideration after accepting leadership over them. Boyd Starry and his wife and son had even come, sitting there in a corner with the Coyle brothers, whose sons sat with the mass in the middle. Kate and Tim guarded the school-side doors from unwelcome listeners, and Jesus and Maria the kitchen — those four had already decided and didn’t feel any need to be in the room. The rest were muttering and shifting restlessly in their seats, a strained hubub of fears and doubts, fed by excited rumors and shocked reactions. Tension lay on the crowd like a thick stench, stronger than the sweat of tired hard-working bodies or the acrid bite of the gasoline lamp vapors.

I have to respect their choices too, he thought, looking the milling mass over. I’m their teacher, their leader — but not their ruler, and for sure I’m not their owner.

Rachel Joyner came in, sat on a table a couple yards away from him and nodded.

“Everyone please sit down”, Sam called loudly. “Time’s short and I’ve got a lot to say.”

They quieted, mostly, and sat, mostly, on edge but willing to hear him; the room fairly sang with tension as the last voice died away. I’ve still got their respect, he knew. Now to build on it.

“Some of you just saved me and my family from an ugly death, and probably a slow one at that,” he began. “The rest of you are wondering what the hell is going on, and have heard a dozen rumors already. I’m going to give you what I think happened this afternoon, and then I’m going to ask you to make a choice.”

He took a deep breath and began, laying it out as best he could. Catron’s arrival and ultimatum, Grasso’s attempt to take power while knuckling under to Catron, and the fight that led to this moment. There were shocked exclamations but the crowd heard him out.

“And that’s when I called you all together,” Sam concluded his account. “Trustee Joyner’s the new Mayor, she’s going to tell you what the Town will do about it — and then I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.”

Rachel Joyner had sat with her dusty boots propped on a fold-out bench; now she stood up on it, the Formica creaking under her solid weight. A drying brown-red streak of Grasso’s blood splashed one jacket-sleeve. Her face was set in a grim smile that had nothing of humor about it. She’d lost weight, like everyone else, but it had merely sharpened her cowgirl looks. She radiated a calm stubborn determination that didn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.

“The Town can’t hold against the attack that’s coming tomorrow,” she told them bluntly. “With that danged rock thrower that the bastards have dragged here, Marshall Duncan’s sure they can knock our Wall to pieces. If we had time, mebbe we could build a bigger one of our own and heave rocks back at ’em — one thing we sure ain’t short of ’round here is stone!”

That got a sharp nervous laugh, but the crowd remained tense — and the mutters increased.

“But we don’t have ’nuff time for that, not nearly,” she continued. “Once they knock the Wall down, Marshall says, they’ll just rush us in one big wave and sweep us under. They outnumber us more than two to one even with the Longmont soldiers joining us, and a lot of their men are veterans of six or eight big fights by now.”

Her smile vanished. “If we fight straight up, odds are we just die.”

Moans came from a few places in the crowd, and several people closed their eyes briefly. Someone started to cry and others started to shout questions. Sam could smell the fear increase with the noise, rank pheromones mingled with sweat and dirt.

“Wait for it, people!” he bellowed, keeping his face impassive with an effort of will, and reined in the restless crowd enough for Rachel to be heard again.

“We’re not stupid here,” Rachel continued implacably. “And we’re not gonna throw away our Town and our kids’ lives on some dumb last stand. So we’re not gonna fight at those odds — we’re gonna find a way to survive instead. And that means, when that monster’s deadline arrives at dawn, Lyons will open our Gate and let him and his army walk right in.”

There was a new outburst of consternation at that, and Lieutenant Jenkins and his father looked starkly at each other.

“But it doesn’t end there!” Sam overrode the brabble, waving his hands for quiet. When he had enough of it he continued “That monster wants me, my family and my students too, probably more than he wants the Town. Slow painful death’s the best we can expect from him, and I’m not giving him the satisfaction. The Town will seem to surrender,” and here he stared sharply at the crowd.

“But Ellie and I and our kids — won’t, and I’ll rub his nose in our refusal.”

The brabble again, bewildered now and louder than before; he made a chopping motion and got silence, or close enough. Even the noise outside was fading as the militia took over.

“That’s the solution the Marshall has proposed; that I act as bait for Catron, try to lure him through the town after me, or at least to split his forces. It means my family and I and anyone with us are going to run, up Highway 36 into the mountains. On over them if we can, and moving as fast as we can while leaving a big trail — with painted signs and everything. I think odds are high that he’ll follow us — maybe with enough of his troops that those who stay behind can fight the rest of his raiders and win. Mayor Joyner and Chief Waters will organize those who stay behind to fight — because surrender isn’t really an option, it’s a feint. There’s no way out of this without risk of fighting. I’ll try to make sure that he at least does follow me, to give the Town the best chance I can when the fight actually comes.”

Quiet now, people listening hard and staring at him; he was the focus of more eyes than he’d ever had in any classroom, and it was far harder to bear than any first day of school. That life is behind me, this is my future… it’s been my future ever since Rachel drafted me to lead the Gatherers. Only now I really see that.

“It’s a risk. If he doesn’t follow me, or if the ones he leaves behind just start burning and looting like they’ve done everywhere else, then Lyons could still get destroyed. For that matter, he might catch me and everybody with me and kill us all — and then come back to finish the job down here. There’s no certainty either way.”

He studied them as the crowd digested that in silence. Faces were stark in the glow of the gasoline lanterns, staring at the choice between two forms of possible death.

“You all trusted me to teach you, to lead you, but this goes beyond that trust. I can’t just tell you what to do next. Each of you has to make your own choice. Who goes with me, and who stays with the Town? If you’re going, understand that you may die with me, exhausted and overwhelmed by Catron’s army, somewhere in the mountains. If you stay, you may simply get butchered by his army, or die fighting it against long odds.”

Sam pointed to his left, toward Ellie and his kids. “Those who choose to go, step over here.”

Burt immediately stood up next to Ellie, Jimmy and Jenny. “I’m going; got to help take care of my grandkids since their dad’s painting a big-assed target on himself. My farm… ” He turned to look at Stanto. “If you want it, it’s yours, Mister Abbaku.”

This provoked a hissed storm of Armenian among the Abbaku family, while Karen stood up and said “I’m sticking with Ellie and Sam.” A sob escaped her. “I’ve lost everything else.” She shook her head and strode over to join them. Ellie held her as Karen wept.

Jerry stood up even as Karen did, waited for her to finish before he spoke. “All of us who came here from Montana are going with Sensei Hyatt.” Drew joined him and added “We’ve seen this Catron guy before and we’re not letting him get his hands on us.” Liss stood up and added simply “Me too,” then took Drew’s hand and all three walked over to stand behind Ellie and Karen.

“I’m going,” Laura announced before anyone else could speak. “My mom too — she’s forty-five but can out-hike most people in town, a trip over the mountains won’t faze her.”

She took Mike’s hand and the two strode over while Pat limped after them. Mrs. Munzer followed, frightened and staring mutely at her neighbors in the audience. Jack and June McCarthy joined their nephews, with Darrin and Sherri Bistek on their heels.

James and Jesse looked at their fathers, at each other, conflict in their faces.

The rush of Armenian slackened. Grandma interjected tense arguments that shaded over into pleading, but Stanto shook his head. In English he declared “The monster saw us with you; our fates are tied together. My family has fled twice before, and survived; perhaps the third time will finally lead us to a permanent home. We follow you, Sam Hyatt.”

The whole family got up and joined. Burt looked at Rachel, face twisted a little. “Rachel, I’ll give my farm to you to assign however you think helps the Town. Try to do well by the old place.”

“I will, Burt,” she answered, and went back to waiting.

Others agonized a while longer. Bruce finally stood up, said “I can’t go — Dad’s still on crutches and Mom can’t walk that far, and I’ve gotta take care of Fred’s wife and daughter — she’s not even two.” He sat down again and buried his face in his hands.

“It’s okay, Bruce,” Sam told him, looked around the shrinking crowd. “You all have responsibilities of one kind or another; face those and make your choice without shame. Odds are you’ll find yourself fighting these bastards either on the road or here in town. It’s danger either way, but we can’t carry many of the very young or the very old; most probably have to stay behind.”

That broke the log jam; a dozen others declared, a couple to go and most to stay. The Coyles held a hurried family conference every bit as agonized as the Abbakus, and announced for both; Kit’s family to go and Carson’s to stay. Jesse and James looked like they were being torn in half when they went to opposite sides of the room.

That means Margie comes with us, Sam thought, and was obscurely comforted. He noticed Boyd Starry and his family leave the room, and felt a brief pang of regret. I’ll miss them, but with one leg he’d have a rough time crossing the mountains.

“My family’s going,” Blake declared. “We promised to serve Baron Murchison, but he’s dead, and the bastards burned our house and barn yesterday. Our horses and the clothes on our backs are about all we’ve got left. Might as well strike west and try someplace new.”

“Captain Hyatt.” Lieutenant Alan Jenkins saluted him and said, a little desperately, “What are your orders for me — us, sir? My men, and, and their women and children?”

“I can’t order you in this,” Sam told him bluntly. “But I do recommend you and yours to stay. You aren’t linked to me very closely and you’ve got too many wounded, they just can’t move fast. If you’ll accept it, I’ll pass command over you and your troops up the chain to the civil authority — that’d be Mayor Joyner, here.”

Rachel looked at the young soldier. “Lieutenant Jenkins, I won’t tell you what to do either, but I will demand that you choose one or the other tonight. Will you follow Sam, knowing that it means abandoning most of your wounded? Or will you stay and join the Town’s defense, which would give me authority over you?”

Alan Jenkins swallowed, visibly feeling the weight of command fall on his eighteen-year-old shoulders. He looked from Sam to Rachel to his father, and nodded his head soberly. “I — I’ll stay with my men, all of them, and take your orders, Ma’am.”

“Then I want you to take as many of the women and children to the new fort at Red Hill Pass as you can by midnight. Then you and your men come back here to town and join the rest of Lyon’s forces at the Armory. We’re going to have to play this by ear, but I’ve got some ideas.”

Tension had given way to acceptance, some of it accompanied by weeping, but much of the remaining crowd sat quietly now, surrendering to the peace of decision and listening to Rachel. Sam left them to it and stood before his reduced band of Gatherers.

“There’s not much time, and I’ve got something critical to do during most of it,” he began. “In two hours you’ve all got to be packed and ready to ride up Highway 36. Pack light — two changes of clothing, but extra boots if you’ve got them. Rina’s red wagon will carry enough food to get us over the mountains, and Pat can ride shotgun on it — he can still use a crossbow. We’ll bring a few chickens and extra tools and some baby potatoes and seed barley along too; if — when, we get there we’ll need to eat, and to plant. Cows stay behind, they’re too slow. Every spare arrow you can carry and all your bows, crossbows, armor and weapons beside — we haven’t seen the last of fighting. Blake, Kit, whatever horses you can bring to spell Missy and Master on the wagon, we’ll need ’em. Everybody get to it.”

“But what are you gonna do, Sensei?” Pat asked worriedly. Laura put a finger on Mike’s lips, silencing his barely-begun protest, then joined Jenner at Sam’s side.

“Killing three birds with one stone,” Sam answered. “Rescuing someone who deserves it, and someone we need, and making damn sure Catron follows us. You heard what Burt said — I’m going to paint a big target on my chest, one that I hope Catron can’t resist going for. That’s a target on all of you, too. Now go get ready — you’ve all got to be at the highway junction in two hours, with everything we need.”

They broke up in a purposeful rush. Ellie embraced Sam tightly.

“Come back!” she choked out, while Jimmy and Jenny pressed close.

Sam kissed her. “I surely plan to, love. But if I don’t — head for your brother’s place in Walden. Now go — you’ve got a lot to do, and I can’t be there for any of it. I’ll meet you on the highway somewhere this side of the Divide. Keep moving as fast as you can, don’t raise the risk to the kids and everybody else by going slowly — if I can move at all, I will catch up.”

Letting her go was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

Ellie gathered the children, stared at him for one more aching moment, and hurried out with her father and the others, including Jesus and Maria.

Tim and Kate, Jenner and Laura gathered around Sam in the emptied cafeteria.

“Right.” He blew out his breath, focused his attention. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We need at least eight bikes, nine if we can find a kid’s bike too… ”

❀ ❁ ❀

Markus heard Nurse Lionheart talking as he entered the medical tent. He wearily turned his head toward her, still struggling to recover his equilibrium after the meeting with Catron. She was working over someone on a cot at the far end of the tent. He cautiously plodded towards her, hoping to lie down on one of the cots himself for a while. His legs were a little tired from the unaccustomed bike riding and he would need sleep before daring tonight’s escape attempt.

“What did you think you were doing?” Lionheart growled at the man on the cot as she wound a stained Ace bandage around his ankle. “You should have let it fall and moved yourself out of the way.” She snugged the elastic bandage into place and pinned it, sat back to study her handiwork for a moment, then glared at the patient.

“Sorry, Nurse,” came a familiar voice from the cot.

Markus saw with shock that it was Francis, his formerly-good leg elevated on a pillow and swathed from calf to toes. “What happened?” he blurted.

“Foolishness!” snapped the nurse. “He tried to help unload the kitchen car, and sprained his ankle for his pains. He’s lucky he didn’t rip a tendon or break a bone, though that bruise makes it hard to be sure nothing worse did happen.”

Francis turned his head on the cot, looking sheepishly at Markus. “The women needed help with those heavy grain sacks. I cannot walk fast, but I though I could at least, umm —”

“ — be stupid!” Lionheart finished, frowning at him. “Trying to catch a falling grain sack — it must have weighed forty kilos! You could have done much worse than sprain your ankle! You’ll be very fortunate if you walk again in less than a week.”

No! We have to escape tonight! Markus thought, despair settling on him as he collapsed onto one of the cots. Now what do I do? He is not very heavy, but he’s too heavy to carry — and he can’t pedal a bicycle with one leg, and that one crippled!

“Father?! Is something wrong with you too?” Lionheart scowled at him, peering intently. She captured one wrist with practiced ease and began taking his pulse. Francis stared at him, sudden worry writ large on his face.

“No — no, I am simply… tired,” he protested, trying to withdraw his hand.

Lionheart glared at him, refused to let go and snapped “Hold still!”

Markus relaxed, allowed her to check the pulse, and then said quietly “Where is Joseph?”

“Right behind you,” she replied absently just as he felt a small form press up against his back. The boy stood on the cot and leaned against his back so he could peer over Markus’ shoulder. His breath tickled the priest’s ear.

“Come sit beside me,” Markus urged him, and Joseph willingly snuggled up against him, silently watching. Markus hugged him with a trembling arm.

Lionheart frowned as she released his wrist. “I think your pulse is slightly elevated, but not badly. Considering how hard you’ve been working, your heart is doing very well. What is wrong, Father?”

“I think you had best sit — here on the edge of Father Francis’ cot.” He indicated a place that would put all four of their heads within a yard of each other. “I have something important to tell you.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Kate, you’ll guard the bikes,” Sam told her quietly as he dismounted. “We’ve absolutely got to have them when we get back. If anyone tries to take them, don’t argue — just flatten him.”

“Yes Sensei.” Kate looked longingly from Sam to Tim and back, starlight glinting off unshed tears in her eyes. “I wish — I’ll make sure they’re here when you get back, Sensei.”

“Thank you.” Sam turned to Jenner, who had already stacked his own bike with the others in the deep shadows under the trailing cottonwood branches. “Lead on, Jenner.”

The biologist nodded and pointed at the bank of the Supply Ditch right above them. “This way.”

Sam, Jenner, Tim and Laura scrambled up the steep slope onto the foot trail on top. It was wide enough for a pickup truck, if the driver was careful; the north side dropped into the gurgling water and the south fell more gently through shrubbery and rocks down to the cottonwoods growing along the Highland Ditch below. The land between the two canals grew steadily narrower and steeper as they walked east, while the slope of Indian Ridge grew sharper above them. After a short while they saw the dark entrance of the tunnel that carried the Supply Ditch through the ridge. Steel bars covered it and the cold water swirled almost as high as the arched roof. Sam knew that the other end was barred too — the Town’s defenders had made sure nobody could get through, even if the invaders were somehow strong enough to fight their way that far against the current.

“We look like a bunch of Ninjas,” Tim whispered, his smile flashing in the moonlight.

Dark clothes, black ski caps, Sam thought, nodding. All we need is —

“Put some of this on your face,” Laura whispered back, extracting a small tin from a pocket. “It’s burnt cork — won’t make your eyes tear, and won’t sweat off easily.”

The four of them paused to blacken their faces, then Jenner searched on ahead. He stopped about a hundred feet before the canal tunnel, casting back and forth on the downhill slope. “It’s just about twenty feet below us,” he whispered. He began edging down the slope through the sage and bitterbrush. Leakage from the canals helped everything on this hillside grow huge, from the five-foot-high sagebrush to the hundred-foot cottonwoods at the bottom along the Highland.

“They took away the upper part of the old ditch when the Supply was built upslope; I guess it was more efficient to irrigate the land with the higher ditch,” he whispered nervously. “But they just put rocks and dirt over the tunnel mouth, and those eventually caved in. I found it by accidently stepping into the hole — nearly broke my ankle.” Jenner paused to light his candle-lantern before he pushed between two of the largest bushes. A moment later he added “Here it is. Watch out, it’s about a five-foot drop.” Then he ducked down and disappeared.

Sam held the bush aside for Laura as she scrambled after; there was a dark hole in the mountain’s side. Jenner’s head popped up out of it, underlit by the lantern. Sam caught a glimpse of a stone arch, then Jenner ducked down and disappeared into it. Laura sat on the edge of the hole and dropped in after him, disappeared. Sam followed her, found the arch by touch, and crawled into the Earth.

The entry was constricted by some rocks shoved to one side, but Sam squeezed past them into a wider space. The light from Jenner’s candle-lantern reflected from bits of mica in the rough walls, crudely shaped into an almost-rectangular tunnel about four feet high and six wide. The floor was mostly-flat, chipped stone carpeted with sand carried in by the ditch in years past when it had been running, and topped by dirt newly-washed in from the cave-in. Sam crawled forward and heard Tim come along behind. He strove to move quietly — the harsh breathing of the others sounded loud in the tight space. He tried not to think of all the tons of rock above him as he put one hand in front of the other, staying just a yard behind Laura. It hadn’t caved in yet…

The tunnel gradually grew wetter, until he passed through a dripping place where water splashed on his neck and pooled on the floor.

“I think we’re close to the bottom of the Supply, and it leaks through,” Jenner whispered back, his voice hollow. “We’re almost there, I’m putting out the light soon.”

A few minutes later he did so, and they crawled on through wet sand and over hard rock in inky blackness. Sam felt a movement of air on his face, warm after the chill stone. Then Jenner grunted and Sam heard dry leaves crackle. A moment later Laura pushed through a screen of overhanging branches, outlined by surprisingly bright starlight. Sam followed.

They were on a slope several feet above the Highland Ditch. Sam could see its waters glittering below between the bushes screening their exit. He stood up carefully and straddled the little streamlet flowing out of the tunnel, craned his neck. The massed mountain mahogany ended a dozen yards upslope where the fire had burned it off during Baron Green’s attack. A little further and the flames would have exposed this secret route. Traces of the napalm’s chemical stink still lingered, an acrid bite at the back of Sam’s throat. The slow-fading twilight behind Indian Ridge threw deep shadow miles out into the valley.

Jenner pointed to the south. “There’s a plank across the Highland a little way over,” he whispered. “Left from the war. Lucky they didn’t lay it any closer or someone might have found the tunnel.”

“Right.” Sam nodded. “You stay here, Jenner, until we return or until the moon passes behind Indian Ridge. If we don’t come back by then, go back to Kate and the two of you ride like hell for the mountains. Understand?”

Jenner’s blackened face looked doubly solemn in the starlight as he replied, his voice obedient though unwilling. “I understand, Sensei. Be careful!”

Sam found a way between the bushes and led Laura and Tim to the bank of the Highland where the plank ended. A ragged path had been forced uphill through the brush during the attack. The other bank was crowned with big tamarisks and dwarf willows, and a huge cottonwood stump with one living branch stuck up like a flag.

That’ll be our landmark to find our way back, Sam thought, and silently pointed it out to the other two. Laura, the lightest of them, crouched and darted across the plank bridge; it swayed a little and creaked faintly, but held. She paused on the far side, looking through a gap in the bushes, then slithered through. Sam followed, Tim after.

The far bank of the Highland dropped sharply for a dozen feet through brush into a flat meadow. Grasses grew right up to the toe of the slope, evidently grazed or cut to keep back the bushes. The flat meadow was long and relatively narrow at the south end, widening as it went north. Beyond it a wooden fence separated the pasture from Four Bridges Road. Most of the fence was invisible under a heavy growth of honeysuckle. Laura had already glided across thirty feet of grass and hidden in the shadows below the flowering mass.

Sam listened carefully, watching the road beyond. He could hear voices and other sounds not far away, but a screen of tall pines and spruces along the far side of the road hid the actual camp. He waited patiently and presently made out the crunch of feet on gravel.

A guard strolled along, head and shoulders just visible above the honeysuckle. The man’s gaze swung mechanically back and forth and he had a bared sword resting lightly on one shoulder. Idly he raised it and swung at the flowers with a short chopping arc, spraying white-yellow petals to float down into the darkness. He whistled a brief snatch of music as he sauntered away, presently disappearing in the distance.

Definitely not professionals, Sam thought. But then, neither are we, except maybe Laura, and even she’s never before done this with lives on the line. Jesus, Buddha, White Buffalo Woman, grant that we succeed!

Sam glided across the meadow in Laura’s wake. Tim followed more slowly, and Sam saw him brushing the patchy grass into a random pattern that concealed most signs of their passage. When he joined them under the hedge Sam touched Laura’s shoulder and pointed forward. They all moved in a quiet crouch along the edge of the meadow until they reached the gate. It was open — the Town had been grazing cattle in this meadow until the enemy approached. The herders had scrambled madly to get them all back inside the Wall, leaving no time for little things like closing gates. Laura went to her hands and knees just inside it, peered carefully around to examine the road. After a while she signaled all clear, rose to her feet and moved quickly across the gravel into the shelter of the pines.

There was a gap between two spruces where a tall fir shaded out undergrowth. The deep-piled needles crunched a little as they ducked beneath it and Sam cringed inwardly, but the noise couldn’t be helped. The evergreens made a band a dozen feet thick, with the Rough and Ready Ditch at their feet and another meadow on the far side — only this one was crowded with tents.

Catron’s army sprawled untidily before them. It filled all the space between the Rough and Ready and the north water plant, and ran right down to the highway. Sam looked left and right — there was another plank bridge a dozen feet farther on, he led the others through the trees to its near end and crouched behind the skirts of a convenient spruce.

Three tents crowded close to the plank’s far end, leaving barely enough room to get around them without brushing against anything. Snores came from two of them, a rhythmic grunting from the third. Sam carefully peered beneath low-hanging branches and decided there wasn’t any guard posted here.

Sloppy — and I’m not complaining!

The sprawl of tents and tarps stretched higgly-piggley across what had been another pasture. Board fences had been torn down, probably for campfire fuel. The chain link fence around the water plant had been gone since the Baron’s war. After some searching Sam finally saw a big dirty-white pavilion with the Red Cross painted on its roof. There were hundreds of tents between it and his hiding place. And thousands of people, men, women, and even a few children, though most of the camp seemed to be already in the tents, asleep or preparing for it. But many small groups still lounged around smoky fires, sharpening weapons, tending armor, drinking, and chatting. There were eyes everywhere.

How do we get through that without being seen?! he thought. There’s no place to hide. Sooooo… We don’t hide.

He crouched again. Laura and Tim put their heads close to his.

“Take off your hats and gloves and wipe the blacking off your faces,” he whispered, doing so himself. Laura passed around a small jar of cold cream to help remove it. “Then we pretend I’m sick and you two help me stagger to the med tent. Laura, complain about me; Tim, try to look like you think it’s funny.”

Moments later they were ready. They slipped across the plank with nerve-wracking-loud creaks, maneuvered around the three tents. Sam draped an arm over each of their shoulders, let himself slump as if he could barely walk. They stumbled off into the camp.

Sam’s spine crawled with the tension. Everyone was armed, many of the women as well as the men. Their own weapons caused no comments, as he’d hoped; they’d probably have stood out more without them. Rough men glanced at him as they sharpened blades on whetstones, anticipating tomorrow. He let his head hang as Laura grumbled at him in a nasal whine.

“I told you not to eat it, you dumbshit. But you didn’t listen did you? You better hope it doesn’t kill you. Next time maybe you’ll listen to me, you stupid shithead, hey?” Her voice droned on, grating and unpleasant, and Tim chuckled and grinned.

The watching eyes turned away. One or two called rude comments that Laura riffed on herself, while Sam just groaned. Nobody spoke to them twice.

They wandered through the camp, always toward the white tent with the Red Cross. The Palmerton Ditch blocked their way; Tim cast back and forth for another plank bridge and led them across it. It felt like hours but must have been only fifteen minutes before they reached their goal. Three men stood guard outside, all wearing the red triangle of the Bloody Fang. Sam hung his head lower and moaned softly as Laura berated him, then demanded to be let in to see the medicos. Grudgingly, the men shifted aside and let them in.

Sam carefully looked around as Laura and Tim dragged him inside. The long back wall of the tent was just a blank wall of the water plant, the canvas clearly omitted by tired orderlies during the set-up. There were two rows of cots, mostly empty; the priest was leaning over the farthest one next to a black woman dressed in blue jeans and the rags of a lab coat. Beyond them a draped blanket made a small dark alcove out of the end of the big tent. A gasoline lantern was the only light source in the long room. There was another man on the last cot, and for an instant Sam thought he saw a boy, who abruptly vanished.

“Hey!” Laura called out. “I got my stupid man here, he’s got a bad gut-ache from eatin’ what he shouldn’t. Kin you help him?”

The priest recognized them and beckoned them closer, an urgent gesture. The nurse glanced at him, stiffened perceptibly, and then visibly forced herself to relax as she studied the arrivals. She replied casually “Bring him here!” in a voice that made no effort to be quiet.

Sam and his followers gathered close to the priest and the nurse. The man on the cot looked at them, silent but with eyes wide; Sam guessed that he was the younger priest. The nurse began interrogating Laura about Sam’s alleged condition, and Laura embroidered a fanciful tale brayed in the loud whiney voice, with plenty of digressions into the faults of ‘her man’. Father Markus spoke softly to Sam under the covering conversation.

“Captain Hyatt; is there any way to carry Father Francis away with us?”

Sam thought of the guards, the prying eyes outside, the hundreds and thousands of armed men within easy reach of them this very moment, and blanched. And I didn’t see him in my vision — only Father Markus. It was hard to abandon anyone to Catron’s hands, but…

“Father — there’s no way we wouldn’t be noticed. I’m not even sure I can get both you and the nurse, and the boy, out the back door without being stopped by those guards — they look like they’re there to keep you in, not other people out. If we have to fight them — we’d have to kill them so fast they didn’t make a noise — and hope nobody noticed — and when do they get relieved, anyway? Father — we don’t dare!”

The younger man on the cot leaned his head back and closed his eyes for an instant; when they opened again they glittered with tears. He shuddered and whispered “I am so afraid. Is martyrdom what God requires of me, Father Markus?”

Markus touched his shoulder. “I don’t know, Father Francis.” Dispassionately he added “You have choices still; you could shout for the guards right after we leave, betray us to Catron, and he might well reward you.”

Francis chuckled softly. “And wouldn’t that blacken my soul irretrievably. No, I’ll drink the bitter cup. I hope and pray that my courage lasts to dawn; lying here alone with only my fear for company in this tent will be very hard.”

“You need not be alone,” Markus answered. “If you ask, I will stay with you, and send Joseph and Natasha away with these brave people.”

Sam almost choked at that, but Francis shook his head. “Get thee behind me, Satan! No, I’m not so much a coward that I’d drag you down with me. Go, I’ll stay here and talk to myself as if you’re here too. Only hear my last confession before you go.”

Nurse Natasha immediately moved several paces away in the tent, drawing Sam, Tim and Laura with her while Markus bent his head over Francis’ whispered words. She went through the motion of examining Sam and he remembered to answer her questions in a gasping voice, like a man racked with cramps. She puttered about a table of equipment, filling a hypodermic from a brown vial; Sam couldn’t help noticing that it wasn’t marked with a red label. When Markus made the sign of the cross over Francis and rose to his feet, she loudly announced “Hold still, you fool, I’m going to give you a shot for the pain, and you’re very lucky to get that. Now lie down on this cot.” She pushed Sam to sit on the cot next to the young priest but handed the hypo to Francis. Sam barely heard her mouth the words “Six hours sleep, no more — it’s the last dose.”

“How shall we do this?” Markus asked Sam quietly as Laura and Tim bent their heads close.

“Laura and Tim try to take her out the front door now, the excuse being to find out if there’s more food contamination where mine came from,” Sam ordered in a whisper. “If that works, we give them some time and you help me back to my tent, me pretending to be better but still not able to walk without help. We’ll meet up at the far side of the Highland where we came in. Can we have the boy tag along with us?”

Markus smiled slightly at that. “Joseph can come and go at will, and they never notice him. He’ll meet us outside.”

Laura nodded, looked at the nurse and jerked a thumb at the door. Natasha Lionheart stared briefly at the two priests, then smiled an ironic smile that suddenly took years off her face. “Mon Dieu,” she said, and “I’ll look for you, Father,” then turned to the door.

Sam listened tensely while she spoke to the guards; whatever she said, they bought it, and she, Tim and Laura disappeared into the night. Tim gave a last backward glance, his face worried, then the flap fell closed and they were gone.

They should make it, Sam told himself as he heard Laura resume her whining bray. He counted the seconds as the voice faded into the distance and was swallowed by the background camp noise. Father Markus sat on the edge of Francis’ cot, the three of them in a tense silence. Waiting.

Sam counted minutes. I have to wait at least ten, he decided. Enough time for the guards to get bored again, let their wariness fade. Every minute might increase our risk — but not waiting long enough will certainly increase it. He tried not to think about all that could go wrong — did Catron ever visit the medical tent? Or his students, Billy and Frank? What if real patients were brought in?

He’d barely counted out half that time when the boy, Joseph, suddenly reappeared. He laid his little hands on Markus’ sleeve and tugged, eyes flickering between Markus and Sam.

“What do you want, Joseph?” Markus whispered curiously.

Joseph dropped back into the dark alcove for a moment, came back with a bundle of pillows nearly as big as Sam. He pushed Sam to his feet, put it on the cot, and tugged a blanket over the bundle — as if someone was sleeping there.

Sam blinked as understanding dawned. He squatted next to the boy and whispered “You want us to do something, Joseph?”

Joseph nodded his head like a marionette, plucked at Sam’s sleeve and Markus’ both, and stared at them beseechingly. He moved toward the little alcove and waited.

Markus turned to Francis, gripped his free hand.

“God be with you, Father Francis,” Markus whispered, excitement tingeing his voice. “I think he wants us to follow him.”

“God be with you too, Father Markus,” Francis replied, shaking the hand and then releasing it with visible reluctance. “You’d better go.”

Sam followed the priest and the boy into the alcove, pausing only to turn the gasoline lamp down as low as he dared and pull the hanging-blanket ’door’ closed behind him. His last sight of Francis showed the young priest with his eyes shut, his lips moving in prayer, and his hand clutching the hypodermic.

Joseph pulled Markus to his knees by the back corner of the tent, then wiggled under it. The priest followed unhesitatingly. Sam unbuckled his swords, wrapped the belt around them in one fist, and followed him. He thought he heard voices behind him as the canvas dropped, but he couldn’t be sure.

The two men had to wiggle on their bellies under something broad and hard. Sam guessed it was the bottom of a vehicle, or maybe a trailer, parked there; it sloped slightly down to his left. His right shoulder brushed the concrete wall of the water plant; the fit was very tight. Grass crushed under his chin and he dragged his swords through it with each forward movement, trying not to bump them on anything. Then he was out from under, in a narrow space with stars above, cropped sod below, and ripstop nylon to the left; moonlight shone down. Markus was a silvery-black standing shadow, sidling along with his back to the concrete wall. Sam stood up carefully and imitated him, trying not to touch the nylon wall in front of him. A lantern on the other side of the tent shone dimly through the vaguely-translucent fabric.

Then Sam nearly had to swallow his heart when a shadow moved and the fabric suddenly dimpled at groin-level, almost touching his pants. He froze, heard muttered words a few inches beyond the nylon. Someone was tossing in his sleep on a cot against the wall and had thrown out an elbow. Sam held his breath for a moment, then breathed shallowly. He couldn’t move forward without his leg brushing the nylon and possibly waking the sleeper. For a long moment nothing happened, then the sleeper shifted again and the bump was withdrawn. Snores resumed.

Sam sidled past, painfully silent, and soon came to the end of the big nylon tent.

The wall of the water plant jogged back a couple feet here but the tents continued to be pitched in a line; there was room to walk. Cattle had grazed all this grass down to spongy sod. Joseph was tugging Markus along a little faster. Presently they came to the end of the building, and a chain-link fence running north to the bank of the Palmerton Ditch. There was a break in the tents and Joseph sidled through it, Markus close behind. Sam paused to strap his swords back on, then was about to follow when he heard a familiar voice among the dozens chatting nearby.

Billy Johnson!

Sam carefully leaned sideways to broaden his angle of view. Red armor gleamed in the light of gasoline lanterns; Billy stood a dozen steps away with his helm tucked under one arm, his back to Sam, talking with at least three other men. He started to turn and Sam hastily stepped back behind the tent and waited, tautly listening.

“Padre!” one of the other men hailed Markus happily in a distinct Hispanic accent. “¿Como está?

“Lord Santiago,” the priest’s voice answered; from the sound of it he spoke while bowing. “As well as can be expected.”

“What are you doing, walking around?” Billy’s voice asked, much less friendly.

“I am hearing confessions, Lord Johnson,” Markus answered submissively. “Several of the men requested the sacrament, and this evening would seem an appropriate moment to provide it.”

Billy made a rude sound, but Santiago’s voice overrode it with a still-cheerful “Bien, good for morale, eh? Gracias, Padre, you bring my men the good luck, eh?”

“May God grant it be so, Lord Santiago,” Markus’ voice answered.

Sam risked a peek around the tent corner in time to see Markus bow again, turn and walk slowly away between other rough rows of tents.

I don’t dare follow him directly, he thought. Not where Billy might recognize me. I’ve got to go around, and trust him to move slowly enough that I can catch up.

He faded back south several steps to a narrow path between two other tents. He had to step carefully over tent ropes in the dark — the moon had gone behind a cloud. That helped when he reached the open space in front of them. A bonfire blazed nearby with several more men gathered around it, blinding night-vision for dozens of yards in all directions. Sam avoided looking at it, instead glided boldly across the open space and between two more tents, then into another alleyway in the maze. He hurried past a half-dozen low dome-tents pitched cheek-by-jowl, firelight on the back of his head, and cut back into what he hoped was the path Father Markus had been following. He tried to move with the long stride that carried him at twice walking pace but didn’t look like running.

Several long minutes passed while he searched for the priest in vain, before a small hand slipped into his and Joseph brought him up short.

The boy’s eyes were huge in the moonlight; Sam breathed out a soft prayer of thanks. Joseph tugged again and Sam immediately followed. They circled another tent and found the priest on the far side. Without a word all three headed west again, following a curving line of tents that backed to the Palmerton Ditch. Eventually that led to the same plank bridge by which Sam had entered the area. They crossed one at a time while the wood creaked above the rippling water. Sam paused on the far bank for a moment.

Distantly behind him he heard Billy’s voice again.

“—swear to you, Frank, it looked like Hyatt! I just got a glimpse in the firelight, but it was the spookiest damn thing! Him just walking along like he owned the place!”

Another voice answered with something that included “–outta your mind!”

Sam kept his eyes firmly front, moved up to the priest and took his elbow. Markus responded silently with greater speed and they hurried down the next lane of tents. Most of the fighters had turned in by now, their blades put away and their campfires quenched. Sam gave thanks for that, though it made their movement stand out more in the increasing stillness of the camp. He almost missed the plank over the Rough and Ready under the deep shadow of the evergreens; the corner of his eye just caught a gleam of water cut by a dark band.

With someone approaching across it, right at them.

Sam’s hand stole to his warizaki, hidden by the loose black shirt he wore. Drawing the katana would be audible and showy in the moonlight, but the shorter blade —

Then he recognized Tim’s panther grace on the board and opened his hands, palm out in the gesture of peace. Tim stepped out of the shadow into moonlight, checked for the briefest instant, turned on the ball of his foot to fall neatly in beside Sam, and gestured silently toward the plank. They flitted across, Sam in the lead; Markus had to take it slower and more carefully, much less sure-footed in the deep shadow than either of the other men. Sam didn’t dare help him, the plank bowed enough under one man’s weight. Joseph scampered across like a squirrel. They bunched up again under the pines, against the scratchy branches of a spruce, and Sam carefully studied Four Bridges Road. The open gate to the narrow pasture was visible across it and a dozen yards west, but the moonlight was comming from the west at a sharp angle. He could see every back-lit pebble as a shadow in the dirt road, the honeysuckle making a dark band of shadow on this side now.

Tim leaned close, breathed softly “Sentry headed west just a couple minutes ago, I crossed right behind him.”

Sam nodded and made his decision, moved forward. If luck stayed with them —

They were almost all the way there when Markus’ foot grated on a patch of loose gravel, sent it rattling in the night. Earlier the camp-noise would have covered it, but now silence was growing complete. The soft clicking of stone rose above the dull insect-chirp, loud in the night. Sam pulled him and Joseph down to their knees behind the fence, under the covering honey-suckle, Tim at his elbow, and they all fought to control their breathing. The moonlight lit their strained faces; no friendly shadow here now to hide them.

“What the fuck?” came an indistinct voice down the roadway. “Did you just see something?”

Tim grimaced at Sam in the moonlight, crouched almost flat to the ground under the overhanging honeysuckle and almost on top of the priest. They were much too close to the gate, anyone who actually came through it could probably see them immediately. Sam touched his warizaki again, closed his eyes and prayed.

Not now, please God! Whoever, whatever You are, please, turn their eyes away!

A sudden crackling of brush came from the canal-bank, then a thump of hooves sounded in the meadow. For one instant Sam saw the buck hanging over them, eight-point rack against the stars, as it leaped the fence with a yard to spare. It landed clattering on the gravel road, stones spraying, then leaped again into a flat-out run past the startled sentries running toward them. Those skidded to a stop, scrambled aside as the buck charged between them and ran away down the road, pebbles flying. They turned and ran after it with loud exclamations in the dark.

Thank you, whichever One or Ones of you that was.

Tim flashed an excited grin at him and got to his feet, headed west along the fence. Sam tugged Markus and Joseph into motion, rose to a bent crouch and guided the priest along behind Tim. The two sentries were still chattering well behind them when he found the cottonwood tree and they scrambled up and across the Highland’s mirrored sky-waters. Sam boosted Joseph up the steep bank while Tim reached down a hand to pull the priest up. Laura waited on the far side of the plank with the Nurse, who had ditched her lab coat somewhere; the dark-patterned sweater she’d worn underneath it melding in the dark.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sam whispered, and they did.

The long tunnel didn’t seem nearly as oppressive on the way back, though Nurse Lionheart panted and muttered broken French phrases all the way through. Laura and Tim boosted her out of the tunnel on the far side, and they finally dared talk in normal voices.

“We did it!” Laura whooped. “Hot damn, that was good!”

“That was just the easy part,” Jenner cautioned nervously, looking back at the Wall as if he expected Catron’s army to pour over it that instant.

The black woman looked at them in the dark, her eyes and teeth startlingly visible; moonlight caught her graying hair as if it were ice crystals. “Ma Mere de Dieu, who are you people?”

“We’ve things to do and miles to go yet, explanations will have to wait,’ Sam answered firmly. “And Nurse Lionheart, I really hope you know how to ride a bicycle.”

Merde,” she answered, but nodded. “If it gets me farther away from him, I’ll ride anything.”

When they got to the bikes Kate seized Tim in a wordless embrace; he hugged her back, his face still exulted from the covert rescue.

“Sensei,” she managed to report over Tim’s shoulder, “Mayor Joyner said to come by the Town Shop on our way out.”

“All right,” Sam nodded. “Everybody mount up.”

He soon discovered that the only one who didn’t know how to ride a bike was the boy, Joseph. Kate took him up behind her on her bike and they left the kid’s bike behind. It’s too big for him anyway, Sam thought.

At the Town Shop, just off Main Street, Rachel Joyner met them at the side door.

“Sam! Ellie and the rest got off ’bout an hour ago,” she reported. “Here — take some paint along.” She pressed a big brush and a gallon can of latex highway paint into his hands. “I had a big arrow and your name by it painted right inside the Gate; if you put a few more along the road it’ll help keep him convinced that you’re just ahead.”

“Good idea! Thanks for thinking of that, Rachel.” He stowed both in the panniers behind his bike seat. “I hope this works — if he turns back and decides to catch me later, then you…”

“I’m — working on that,” she answered tensely, wringing her hands together. “Duncan has a plan to convince him you’re waiting for him up there on Highway 36 before the Estes Valley. Don’t — don’t take your time. Just run, Sam. Just run and don’t stop.”

Sam looked at her more closely. She was tense and antsy, making little abortive movements as she spoke. Behind her several men were hurriedly working in the garage and the open yard next to it, decanting gasoline from the raised storage tank that used to fuel the Town vehicles. They were putting it into glass bottles.

Molotov cocktails, he thought. She’s afraid, trying to hide it while getting ready for an ugly fight. How much of the Town will still be standing when it’s over?

“There’s no safety this side of the grave, Rachel,” he told her quietly. “You just do what you need to do here.”

“I — I will, Sam.” A small sob escaped her, then he felt how she forced herself to smile at him, her eyes avoiding his own. “Wind’s rising from the southeast, a front’s coming in; probably blew all the way from the Gulf.” She finally looked at him eye to eye; she was only a couple inches shorter than he. Fiercely she added “Just get yourself and your folks out of here, and don’t stop this side of the Divide, you hear?”

“Yes Ma’am!” Sam smiled and saluted, remounted his bike. Father Markus exchanged a few anxious words with the Mayor before returning to his own bike. Sam pushed off. His crew followed.

Dawn found them many miles west, slogging up the long grade through cool pine air.

❀ ❁ ❀

Paco woke in the pre-dawn darkness, knife in hand as he fought to clear the fog of bad dreams. His other hand was clutching his shirt over the the silver crucifix that he’d taken off a body, the one he oh-so-secretly had worn beneath his clothes these last few days. The crucifix that helped keep the dark dreams at bay, a little, enough so that he did not remember them after waking.

“Jefe,” a voice repeated nervously outside his tent. Santiago’s voice — he’d been posted to night-duty. Paco resheathed the knife.

,” he answered; levered himself up and pulled on his boots. He strapped on his sword and knife with a movement that had become as automatic as breathing, unzipped and flung open the nylon door-flap. The eastern sky was just paling and the moon had gone, but stars still ruled the sky. “Qué? What is it?”

“Jefe, I cannot find the Padre or the Nurse,” Santiago answered, his face dim in the washed-out starlight. “Their tent they are not in, I did search, and the other padre he sleeps and does not wake up!”

“Show me!” Paco commanded even as his heart fell down into his boots. I had them guarded!

Three nervous Unos stood around the medical tent, all looking like they’d rather be anywhere else. Santiago raised the flap and Paco entered, squinting against the harsh light of the gasoline lantern that had made the dirty red-and-white canvas glow from outside. He saw two occupied cots, and the usual blanket pulled across the little alcove in the back corner where the nurse slept. There was no sign of Padre’s brat, but that was normal — the little conejo had a talent for disappearing. The young priest had pushed his blanket partly off and was snoring on his back.

Santiago stepped to the other bed, whipped the blanket off and revealed a man-sized mass of pillows. He turned to the young priest, Francis, shook him hard enough to rattle teeth, but the snoring continued.

Paco stepped around to the cot’s other side, felt something under his boot. He fished it out — a hypodermic, empty. He pushed back Francis’ eyelids, the eyes beneath were big of pupil and rolled aimlessly, and the snoring continued.

“Drugged!” he snapped, then ripped back the hanging blanket to reveal the empty alcove. “Caramba! The puta — ay! They planned this!” He felt obscurely betrayed, and then wondered why. I knew he was a good man, but did I ever think he was a stupid one? No, it is me being stupid now. I wanted him to always be here, for me, and did not look at what he would want. Fool that I am! Wait, why did he leave the other padre behind?

The ankle-bandage answered that; the younger one couldn’t walk.

Sensei will… do what? Paco wondered. Can even he make a drugged man wake? Demonios! I will know soon. I hope I live through the learning!

“You three, Jose, Carlos, Miguel!” The three Unos looked at each other with dread as he began snapping orders. “Wake every Red Fang. Set them to searching the camp for the Padre and the Nurse. Look in every tent, wake every man and woman in the army, or nombre de dios, I will have your ears on my tent-pole.”

“Jefe — O’Toole’s men had sentry duty last night!” Santiago eagerly reported, openly seeing a chance to share the blame.

“Good. I will question them.”

Relieved smiles at that; anger shared might be anger halved, or escaped entirely.

“And Santiago,” Paco grated harshly, “When the time comes, you will go wake Sensei, and fetch him here. You will tell him that Padre Markus and la negra are missing and we are searching the camp.”

Santiago looked like he’d rather kiss a rattlesnake.

They woke O’Toole by waking his guards and sending them in to risk the ire of the big Irishman. It turned out he was badly hung over, from trying to drown the loss of most of his men in the big Longmont battle, using a bottle of plundered whiskey. His broken right arm probably hadn’t helped; his face was deeply furrowed from the triple pain of loss, wound, and hangover. Paco had to lash him with words to get him moving, identifying and gathering his sentries. The stars were washed out and the eastern sky glowing by the time the last one had been brought to the medical tent and questioned; by then the whole camp was beginning to rouse. Cook yawned and bullied her girls awake and to work in the kitchen tent.

The tale of the stag in the night made the two Jefes stare at each other. “Had to be a trick,” Paco said shortly. O’Toole’s blood-shot eyes and pale face grew more haggard still; he knew now where at least some of the blame would fall.

“Go, Santiago, wake Sensei,” Paco said, and his lieutenant left with the look of a man who goes to his doom.

And doom it may be, for all of us, Paco thought.

O’Toole groaned. “By now there’s no chance we’ll find them. They must have got back behind their fucking Wall hours ago!” He winced as his broken arm shifted in the sling.

They looked at each other, no more trusting than two scorpions in a bottle. It was a long ten minutes before Sensei appeared.

But when he did, the Army’s commander seemed strangely pleased.

“I told you I saw Hyatt in the camp last night!” Billy Johnson crowed to the other one, Frank, who answered with a surly snarl as the blond favorite added, “He snuck in to lift them right out from under our noses!”

Frank started to deny it while O’Toole began to babble recriminations against Billy for not sharing the word with him last night, but Sensei cut them both off with a raised hand.

“Shut up,” he said in a grating voice, then he lifted the sleeping Padre Francis to sit upright like a rag doll and pried back one eyelid. Catron stared deeply into it for long seconds. Francis stirred slightly, moaned a little, then jerked and cried out incoherently in his sleep. Sensei dropped him back onto the cot with a twitch of disgust. The drugged man curled up like a baby, moaning again.

“I believe you, Billy.” He seemed both angry and happy at the same time. “Yesterday Hyatt challenged me to a fight today; now he’s done something to really piss me off. Good!” He grinned, and Paco had to fight the desire to look away from the darkness in that smile. “It’ll add a nice dash of hot sauce to my victory plate. Get the army up and ready, all of you. I want everybody in ranks by the time the sun tops the horizon.

“I finish this today.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Catron strolled down the line of his elite troops, those everyone had taken to calling The Sword. They didn’t have uniforms and they were still armed and armored with anything they’d been able to pick up over the last four months, but they gazed on him with identical slavish devotion.

My Sword, he thought, flexing his arms a little inside his too-tight silver armor. The techs hadn’t been able to let it out any more, but he could manage. How long has it been since I met Hyatt in that Denver park? Four months? More or less, and who cares about numbering days any more? Better care as they see the numbers of my men!

The Sword were formed into a disciplined block with their backs to the southern water plant, ten deep and a hundred across, just over a thousand of them, able-bodied and ready. To the north, another twelve hundred auxilliaries were barely corralled by O’Toole’s surviving sixty Shamrocks and Paco’s two hundred-odd Fangs. They were all that remained of his other subordinate warlords’ forces, and stood by in much more ragged formations.

Formations? He spit mentally.

They were a mob. A tired, surly, cranky mob, one that had lost all their other leaders, been denied the chance to loot Loveland and then Longmont the way they wanted to, and were sullen about the whole deal. They followed him now out of fear and desperation, yearning for some kind of security in a devastated world — the very one that they’d helped him wreck — and resented his orders.

Fuck what they want, he thought dismissively. Their only job is to die for me. If they take down Lyons in doing it, that’s all I need from them. It’s not like there’s anyone else left to fight, unless I feel like bothering to mop up the dregs of Boulder or Fort Collins.

That thought made him obscurely sad. He shrugged it off.

Some of his Berthoud slaves were cranking a double windlass to pull down the long throwing arm of his trebuchet. His engineers were testing the weight of different rocks with a crude scale, chipping off sharp edges so they wouldn’t catch on the throwing sling. The defunct Longmont Water Department had put useful large rocks all around the parking lot of their plant, so there was plenty of ammunition.

The sun was a perceptible arc above the horizon. Almost time for his deadline. He glanced at the sun-lit face of the Wall; a couple of helmeted heads could be seen between the merlons above the hidden gate but the entire south side didn’t show a one. That’s odd. Maybe put the first rock right through that stone tower…

There was a flash of sunlight on brass. Horns rang out from the Gate. They were followed by a sudden squeal of metal as the bars were withdrawn, then a sharp double clang and a long groan as the gates creaked open. Catron used his binoculars but couldn’t quite see the opening from this angle. The horn-blowing men above the gate moved back and disappeared.

Silence fell.

Catron waited, watching through the binoculars. Not a single man could be seen anywhere, not even a weapon poking out. The eyes of the tower were completely blank.

The whole long fortification seemed deserted.

Suddenly it made his spine crawl. Where are they? He waited a few more minutes, listening, but heard nothing but the far-off sound of a couple horses galloping; then that too was still. A confused murmur swept over the auxilliaries — The Sword were too disciplined for that.

“Sergeant — send a scout to check it out,” he finally barked, and a man ran forward. He returned at a run a few minutes later, stopped in front of Catron and bowed, then puffed “Sensei — there’s nobody there!”

What the hell kind of surrender is this?

“Squad one, Company A, go take possession of that gate,” he ordered, and ten men hastened to do his bidding. There was a brief stir of men, the sound of feet on stone, then the squad leader waved from atop the Wall and signaled ‘all clear.’

Catron hesitated for a moment, made a preemptory gesture. “Company A, the rest of you join squad one.”

A hundred-ninety men peeled off and marched through; their heads soon crowded the parapet. The company commander signaled his own ‘all clear.’

Okay…

“Companies B through E, follow me. Jefes Paco and O’Toole, bring the auxiliaries along behind us.” He stepped forward, Billy and Frank at his side, and walked steadily across the empty pavement. The stamping of almost two and a half thousand pairs of feet came behind, marching into the dead silence.

The Wall loomed closer, then above him; he turned the corner and strode through the gaping metal leaves into the open space inside. The end of Indian Ridge rose sharply on the north and an old gas station and a metal building flanked the south side, with the river behind them. Scouts investigated both, reported some sort of offices and a clinic inside, but nobody there. A long empty road stretched ahead, partly lined with trees and the husks of cannibalized buildings. It bent slightly, obscuring the actual Town.

A big yellow arrow was painted on the gray asphalt, still fresh enough to smell of latex. It pointed up the road — and his last name was painted below it, Hyatt’s above it.

What the fuck? This better not be some sort of game…

“Paco, take command of the auxilliaries and this gate,” Catron ordered tersely. The Hispanic saluted alertly and Catron caught O’Toole’s jealous sideways glance at his supposed equal. Ha — you drunken piece of shit, your sentries let Hyatt get away with two of my prizes. If I had more time, I’d teach you just how much you should regret that. For now… “O’Toole, you’ll report to Jefe Miralles from now on.”

O’Toole went pale, then flushed and bowed his head; Catron spared a moment to revel in the rush of shame and anger and fear that rippled across the big mick’s transparent face. Paco was carefully not showing any emotion at all. Catron snorted, turned back to the day’s work.

“Men of The Sword, form up around me, Company B and C on my left, D and E on my right, and A behind.”

They did it almost without a murmur; meanwhile he could hear nervous talking among the auxiliaries despite the harsh commands of Paco’s men. The silence and emptiness were getting to them.

“Scouts deploy to the front, report back when you sight the enemy,” Catron instructed. “Forward, march!”

They set out with a stamp of boots on pavement, grinding the yellow arrow underfoot.

Had to be painted last night, maybe a couple hours before dawn… the priest said Hyatt would pick the place. Okay then, where the fuck is it? Middle of the town?

The Wall fell behind as he advanced, his men in lockstep with him. He could see them glance sideways and ahead, wondering. There wasn’t any sign of an attack, there wasn’t any sign of anyone, and he sensed how it made them increasingly nervous. The scouts forged ahead, some on bicycles; those quickly outpaced the army. The main body marched past a bridge leading to a big school-looking set of buildings south of the river, then passed two half-finished wooden buildings with big waterwheels right on the riverbank. The millraces were dry and the overshot wheels still.

The leading two bike scouts came pelting back, visibly excited. Catron tensed but didn’t stop marching; neither did his army.

“Sensei!” one scout bellowed. “There’s a man up ahead!”

“He’s alone!” the other added. “Sitting in a chair!”

“Anyone else?” he snapped.

“Nobody, Sensei!” The other scout nodded confirmation.

What the HELL? Can that be Hyatt? Where are his class pets?

He continued the march, barely noticing how the men began to draw closer together, narrowing the column as eerily quiet buildings rose around them. The highway forked into two one-way city streets with a triangular traffic island at the junction and a small shopping center between the roads. Another yellow arrow pointed to the right lane.

“Weapons out! Shields ready! Bear right, march!” he ordered. There was a teeth-gritting shiiing of metal behind him as almost a thousand swords or knives were drawn. His twenty bow-men put arrows to strings, but didn’t draw yet. The whole long line of men snaked past the traffic island and round a curve into the one-way street. The rising sun was warm on his back even through his silver armor, it would be another hot dry day just like the last dozen. He studied the upper tier of the shopping center, the second story of a house, the balcony of a church.

I’d have put snipers up there — or lookouts at least — but there’s nobody.

The street was only two blocks long, with a dead traffic light in the middle and a cross-boulevard at the west end, where Highway 36 turned sharply and headed up the North Fork canyon. The man was sitting in a chair in the farthest intersection. A third yellow arrow at his feet pointed northwest.

He’s not Hyatt. The disappointment was palpable, and so was the tension; Catron’s head began to ache. He ignored it and studied the man as they approached. Late fifties-early sixties, crewcut graying hair, kakhi shirt and dark pants under a chestplate and segmented groin armor —

With the tail of a crossbow bolt sticking out of his belly.

Those aren’t dark pants — they’re bloodstained!

❀ ❁ ❀

Michael Duncan, retired US Army Major, Marshall of Lyons, relaxed his fierce internal discipline just a little. Pain was unimportant now. His vision was beginning to fade around the edges, but he still had command of his body, or enough to do what was needful.

At last. He’s here. And in time. Thank you, Lord. Lend me your strength just a little longer — that I may plant the hook. Sam, he’ll be yours to reel in very soon…

❀ ❁ ❀

Catron stopped a pace away from the chair, his men parting around him to form a wide human moat. Dozens of them were staring, unable to look away from the dying stranger. The man smiled, spoke.

“Good morning, Sensei George Catron. Pardon me if I don’t get up.”

Catron saw that smile get wider, graven in pain but completely fearless. It gave him an involuntary shiver that he couldn’t suppress. He’s not afraid of me. Why isn’t he afraid of me? His gut roiled at the question and sent a wave of cold fear out to his fingertips, followed by a hot flush of hate.

“Where the fuck is Hyatt?” Catron snarled, his head throbbing. You should be afraid of me, you stupid fucking dead man!

“Waiting for you, at the place he chose. It’s a bit of a walk, maybe half the day.”

“Where is he!?” Catron hadn’t meant to shout, but the eerie silence and fearless smile combined to crack his internal discipline like nothing he’d ever met before.

The man’s left hand twitched, pointing up Highway 36 before dropping again as if even that small effort was too much. “Second crest, top of the big meadow,” he gasped. “Where you can see the Divide, and the Gods all have front row seats. He’ll wait for you, but not long. If you’re not there by sundown, he and his family and his students, and the priest and the nurse, will be gone. You’ll never find them.”

“I’ll find him! If I have to search every inch of Colorado, I’ll find him!” Catron realized he was shouting and stopped himself with immense effort.

“Only if you hurry.” The man panted, grinned a death’s-head rictus, then with a sudden convulsive effort he ripped the bolt out of his own belly.

Catron startled, recoiled as black blood gushed, spattering his legs. Then fury rose up to choke him and he dragged his sword free, slashed again and again and again and again, flinging the bloody breastplate aside and slashing and stabbing some more, until Billy finally grabbed his sword arm and stopped him. Black spots swam before his eyes, an unbearable cold fire was eating at his vitals. Through the roaring of the world he heard Billy yelling “Sensei, stop, he’s dead! Stop!” He shuddered, like some creature of the depths thrown up by a storm current to breach the surface in shock and pain.

Billy let go, stepped back, his face stark with terror.

Hyatt! What game are you playing? Where are all the people? Where are you?

The cold fire spread from his gut to every extremity, driving him to the edge of dizziness. He shook his head to clear it as every other consideration faded into the background.

Hyatt! You won’t get away with this!

“Men of The Sword, form up,” Catron shouted thickly. The frightened faces stiffened to attention again. “Right turn, march!” He set off up the highway, hot rage and cold dread battling back and forth inside him. He was vaguely aware that Frank and Billy hesitated a bare moment, then jumped forward and fell in beside him. The marching feet, a thousand men strong, parted around the pile of chopped flesh, and followed.

I’ll FIND you, Hyatt!

❀ ❁ ❀

19

— Fire —

On the Wall, Lyons, Colorado; middle July, 1998.

“It’s been hours and hours, Miralles — we goddamn should’ve fucking heard from him by now! Orders, a message, something!”

Paco shifted slightly as O’Toole clenched his good fist in frustration and pounded it on the highest windowsill of the north tower. There was no trust lost between them, but Paco had four times as many men personally loyal to him as the Irish gangster had left after Longmont. He was fairly sure O’Toole wasn’t crazy enough to try to take him out while Sensei was away — but not completely sure. If the bigger man hadn’t been hobbled by a sling on his busted arm Paco wouldn’t have agreed to come up here with him, even though it did give the best view over Lyons’ canyon. With all the trees in the town, that wasn’t saying much.

“Maybe,” he answered. “But what we have heard is what squeezes my liver, O’Toole.”

“Eh?” O’Toole turned to him.

“We’ve heard a lot of silence. No sound of fighting, no screams, no yelling. No clanging of metal. No victory yells, not one damn sound like a victory — or even a fight. Nothing at all, ‘cept some voices a couple times. If there’s a thousand of our men and who knows how many people in there — where’s the noise?”

O’Toole looked out the window again, stared at the trees and rooftops, coughed hard and spat out the window. “Fuck-all. I hadn’t thought about that.”

Paco smiled sardonically but resisted the temptation to say anything more. He clattered down the steel spiral staircase and back out onto the Wall. Striding along it he was reminded once again just how open it was from the Town side. Other than skinny board railings and four-by-four posts that held up the hoardings overhead, there wasn’t a bit of protection on the whole western side. It had been built for one thing and one thing only — to protect against attack from the east.

Paco scowled. But if I have to hold it against an attack from the west, I might as well be naked.

He remembered his grandfather’s stories, back after the father he didn’t remember died in a stupid car crash and before his mother took to the drugs. She hadn’t done that until the old man died too; then it was as if the last prop holding up her world had betrayed her. But he remembered abuelito’s tales of the Spanish Civil War, the escape from Barcelona, the lost estate in the Catalan countryside, not so different from Colorado. Could he even begin to understand the war I’m fighting here? I didn’t truly understand the war he fought… until now.

“Santiago, is the young Padre awake yet?”

“Sí, Jefe, I moved him and the kitchen crew into the big steel building as you ordered.”

“Good. Keep watch here — I’ll be there.”

Paco clattered down the wooden steps and crossed to the infirmary. The double doors were propped open, he could smell porridge cooking. Cook’s girls were setting up a serving line while pots boiled on a big metal stove. They had even found a bunch of clean ceramic bowls from somewhere, and spoons. In the far corner of the big room, near some dust-covered machines, a row of cots had been set up, and all the medical supplies piled. Only one cot was occupied. Paco stood over it and stared down at the man on it.

Father Francis stared back at him.

“You’re not as brave as he is,” Paco remarked idly.

“But I’m trying to be.” The young priest’s face was calm, despite whatever pain his leg might be causing. They hadn’t been gentle moving him here, but his life wasn’t in danger from that.

“What are they doing?”

“You mean, besides escaping Sensei? I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer, except to say they were going to the mountains. I don’t know which route they took.”

“The whole town?!” Paco demanded, wild surmise filling him. Is Sensei chasing a whole town into the mountains!?

“I don’t see how that could be. They must have wounded and children and elderly, and others who can’t be moved,” Father Francis answered thoughtfully. “But then, I don’t think it’s the ordinary townsfolk that he cares about, or he wouldn’t have asked for that man Hyatt and his people in particular.” He frowned abstractedly for a moment. “I wonder if demons even have a sex? They were angels once, before they fell, and scripture is clear that God created humans male and female as a separate act, after creating angels. Still, we have to use some kind of a pronoun; perhaps I should just call the one possessing Sensei it.

Paco’s head swam dizzily for a moment as implications fought their way through him. His hand clutched at the crucifix under his mail shirt.

You knew what you were dealing with, he berated himself.

“You think it — Sensei — ’s chasing those people he wants into the mountains? And just leaving the rest of us here?”

The young priest shrugged calmly. “I don’t truly know, but that is my best estimation. I believe that is what Father Markus expected to happen. He was not at all sure he and the nurse could keep up on such a flight, but was determined to try. I suspect they were to be bait, to lure the demon into splitting its army. I think… ” He cupped one hand to his ear. “By the silence, I think they must have succeeded.”

“If the town’s army is still there, then —“ Paco shut his mouth abruptly, turned on his heel and walked out into the morning sun. He stared up the road toward Lyons, looked at the Wall, then at the road again.

Caramba! I’ve got my two hundred good men and twelve hundred pieces of trash to hold this place? Against what? I don’t even know how much of the Longmont army got away to here, never mind how much strength Lyons had to start. Ay! What am I facing?

As he stared, something moved on the road. People on bicycles riding out of Lyons, hundreds of them — coming towards him.

Paco turned and ran for the Wall. “Santiago! Jose! Luis! Get everyone ready to fight!”

The next ten minutes were a mad scramble. Paco’s men and O’Toole’s screamed orders, bullied the dregs of the auxiliaries into some kind of formation in front of the Wall. The Lyons folks had carefully pulled the steel I-beam bars completely out of their sockets when they opened the gates, and ripped off the supporting brackets; the doors wouldn’t stay shut without them. Paco wasted no time trying to wrestle the heavy beams back in. Little bunches of ragged men were already slipping away through the open doors, racing for the camp and whatever they cherished. But most of them heeded commands, drew up in a block a dozen men deep that stretched across the road from the foot of the ridge to the old gas station, the Wall at their backs. He stared down on them from atop the stone, willing them into passable lines.

“Jefe!” One of his younger men came running up. “There are men on the south part of the Wall! They were hidden in the highest fort up there, they came down and grabbed everything south of the river!”

“Hold on our side of the arch, it’s narrow enough they can’t send more than one at a time against you.” Paco paced atop the stairs west of the Gate. There were two big flamethrowers flanking it, but no fuel for them. They left us with nothing here we could use but the Wall itself, he thought furiously. Should I withdraw to the water plants? That lets them face us from strength again, but I’ll still have the trebuchet…

One of the men who’d slipped away came pelting back, yelling up at them. “Jefe! They sent some men around us, freed the Berthoud men, and armed them! They’ve busted the rock-thrower and taken off toward the cement plant!”

“Fuckers!” O’Toole cursed at his side. The big man hefted his axe one-handed, awkward without use of his right arm, and glared at the advancing enemy. “We’ll kill them all!”

This was all planned, Paco realized coldly, looking at the advancing forces. A rough count showed a little under a thousand, anonymous in armor, but all of them bristled with spears and swords — and there were at least three hundred crossbowmen in the ranks, too, while he didn’t have more than six archers of any kind. And it worked. If they pile right in, it doesn’t matter that we outnumber them almost two to one — they’ll just hammer us against the wall until we’re all dead. It’ll cost them, but not nearly as much as it’ll cost us.

“We’ve got to charge them!” O’Toole yelled down at the milling men. “Now, before they get set up!”

The big Irishman started to wave his axe forward to charge down the wooden steps himself; Paco elbowed him to a stop, seized the axe in his right hand just above O’Toole’s left fist. For an instant they struggled atop the Wall, the sharpened head wavering back and forth between them; then O’Toole stopped and glared into his face.

“Don’t be a pendejo! ” Paco snapped, pointing with his own left hand. “With those spears they can hold off a charge, and their crossbows can shoot us up before we get there anyway. Look, they’re stopping — with us just inside their firing range.”

The Lyons men lined up with their right flank almost touching the big steel building, their left against the Highland Canal. Shorter spears in front, a double row, then two rows of crossbows behind them, staggered so both ranks could shoot, and then two more rows with longer spears, able to reach over the heads of the crossbowmen. A row of men at the back held drawn sword and shield instead of spear, ready to swarm forward between the gaps. Their armor was dull, hammered out of sheet metal, splotched and plain, but covered them completely from instep to neck. Every one had a helmet, turning them into so many metallic beetles. Their spearheads threw sunlight back from points and edges in long ripples as they approached. Paco thought it was weirdly like watching one of those chink-new-year dragons coming at him, only far more frightening. His balls were trying to crawl back up into his body at the sight. Even O’Toole hesitated a moment at the sheer intimidating power in the movement.

“They waited until the sun rose high enough so it wouldn’t be in their eyes,” Paco snarled into O’Toole face. “With that armor, each of them can probably take four hits for every hit our men can take. That’s like having four times as many men as they really do. They’re not outnumbered — we are!”

“You pussy!” O’Toole glared at him. “If I had both arms — shit!” He checked himself and looked away towards the Gate, glared down at the trickle of men already fleeing through the big doors. “Cowards!”

“You’d get your hotheaded dumb mick self killed, and the rest of us with you,” Paco told him contemptuously. “I’m in command here, and we’re doing this my way,comprendes?”

O’Toole growled but lowered the axe, bowed his head; his eyes dark. Paco hesitated for a moment, but there wasn’t any more time. He let go of the axe, stepped back, ready to pull out his blades if the Irishman moved again. But O’Toole just kicked one of the pillars holding up the hoarding, then glared at the enemy.

“Santiago, start pulling fifty of our men off the Wall and down to the gate,” Paco ordered, stepping back another pace. “Stop that line of cowards sneaking out, have Luis organize them into columns and make them march to the camp; start dismantling it. I don’t want to retreat but if we have to then by-God everything had better be ready — it’ll have to be by road, the rail cars are too easy to attack. Send all six of our archers and if any of these goat-fucking-excuses for a soldier bolts, tell Luis to shoot him down. Then you join me there.”

He pointed to a place a little forward of the gates, in the midst of the jittering mass.

“Si, Jefe!” His men swung into action.

Paco went back to studying the enemy while keeping O’Toole at the edge of his vision. They’d finished setting up their lines. Now two of the armored Lyons men stepped out from those lines, with a banner-bearer and a pair of crossbowmen behind them. The leaders paced forward just short of halfway to the ragged line of his own side, stopped, and waited with their backup a few feet behind. A nervous watchfulness spread over Sensei’s massed men; they all knew this meant attack wasn’t imminent.

A parley, that’s what that’s called, Paco thought. Madre de Dios, gracias! Now who do I bring with me? I need Santiago to manage this mess for me here, but going out there alone looks weak.

Paco sized up O’Toole; earlier the man had been tense, probably furious, but he’d held his tongue so he had at least that much self-control. On the other hand, the man had never been much of a talker, action was his style, and too many times Paco had seen him hair-trigger ready to do something violent.

But not this time. O’Toole simply stood there, the axe sagged down to rest on the Wall. He stared broodingly west at the waiting force, uncharacteristically still. It reminded Paco disturbingly of Sensei in a way that raised his hackles. He didn’t know why, but suddenly he was afraid of the Shamrock when he’d never been before. Leaving him behind…

Not a chance. I can’t let him out of my sight for a moment — he’ll give some stupid order and leave me with my ass out in the wind.

“Let’s go,” he said to the Irish gangster abruptly. “We’re the last of Sensei’s warlords. If anyone speaks for Sensei’s men, I do — and you’re my second.”

O’Toole seemed to hear him as if through a dream, his reaction delayed; then he nodded, slowly answered “Right,” and headed down the stairs.

Paco frowned, followed a careful four steps behind. He didn’t have anything like a formal standard but some quick-thinker had scrounged a red triangle and a green one and tied them to a pole — red uppermost, he was glad to see. The swarthy kid holding that flagpole couldn’t have been seventeen yet, Paco picked two grown men from his retinue to flank him, and wished he had even one crossbow in this whole misbegotten mess. But it was more important to prevent the army from melting away uncontrolled.

O’Toole glanced at the flagpole expressionlessly, turned to stare at their enemies. Paco blinked, rather surprised at the man’s calmness; his concern ratcheted up another notch.

Why does this suddenly feel familiar?

“Right, now you two follow us just like they did,” he ordered his guards, flicking a thumb toward the waiting enemy. He took a deep breath and stepped out, gesturing the wounded Irishman into motion at his side. O’Toole plodded along silently as they both studied their opponents.

The man in front of Paco, left-most of the pair, had green paint on his armor just like the Longmonters had used; he was young, too, but his armor was scratched and dented and he handled himself like a veteran. This one’s been there and lived to tell the tale, Paco thought. I won’t underestimate him.

O’Toole plodded mechanically at his side, still unusually calm. Paco glanced aside at him, caught a glimpse of his eyes and nearly missed a step. They were dark, pits of blackness like Sensei’s had become these last few weeks.

Madre de Dios! Is he posessed by a demon too? Paco found his right hand pressed against his armor over the hidden crucifix. Old prayers from his grandmother rose unbidden in his memory and panic nearly rose to drown him. Can it claim me too? Christo, no!

The other waiting soldier… was a woman, Paco realized vaguely as his mind raced. The armor hid the more obvious signs of her sex but there was no mistaking her face below the helmet, or her voice.

“I’m Rachel Joyner, the Mayor of Lyons, and this here’s Captain Jenkins, formerly of Longmont,” she declared in a musical tone. “Now who’re you two?”

She had a nice face, Paco absently noticed; a little narrow and windburned, but a generous mouth under those hard eyes. Meanwhile his mind raced. What does it want? What will it do? The last time I saw this —

O’Toole’s balance shifted before the big man moved, giving Paco an extra fraction of a second to react. The Irishman shrugged off his arm-sling, grasped the axe with both hands and raised it as he began to leap for Jenkins. Paco brought his right hand around in a vicious arc that ended with his knife planted in O’Toole’s groin. The Shamrock Jefe lost his balance, tripped and fell at Jenkins’ feet. His axe hit the asphalt inches from the Longmonter, bounced away. Blood sprayed, Paco had hit a major vessel.

Traitor,” grated the thing that was not O’Toole at Paco, as it tried to lever itself up and reach for the young soldier.

Paco snatched out his sword, stabbed through O’Toole’s left arm with all his strength, pinning it to the asphalt roadway. The point of his weapon found a crack in the pavement and sank deep.

Jenkins had stepped back, drawn his own sword and stood hesitating. The thing reached its right arm at him, broken bones audibly grating in abused flesh.

“Kill it!” Paco gasped, leaning on his sword. “It’s not human!

Jenkins wavered half a second and the creature lunged forward, tearing its left arm free of Paco’s sword. Jenkin’s sword slashed down, cleaving the head nearly in half. Incredibly, as gray-pink brains oozed to either side, both arms kept reaching and tried to sieze his ankle. The broken one grated and the broken bones popped through the skin with the strain.

The mayor stepped forward, her own sword raised, and chopped the right hand off. The other hand scrabbled for Jenkins, who stepped aside, raised his sword again, and severed the whole left forearm.

The creature that had been O’Toole writhed for a moment; went still. The darkness faded from the one eye staring sideways at Paco, and the body sagged down into the dirt.

“I’m glad you’re dead, stupid cabron,” Paco spat at it, panting. He looked up at Jenkins and Joyner, mildly surprised to find that he was still alive; the crossbowmen had raised their weapons but hadn’t fired, yet. “Sorry about that, Doña Mayor. I didn’t realize what he did turn into until I saw the eyes, a moment ago. Then I knew.”

She had pulled her sword back and was glaring at him narrowly, eyes half shut and lips pulled back from teeth — nice even teeth, he noticed, and all there. He thought she was shaken, but doing a good job of hiding it. Grudgingly she said “Thanks for warning us.”

“And I thank you for stopping it, muchas gracias,” he answered. “It meant us to fight, and that means it meant me and you two to die.” His stomach churned at the thought of his close call, reaction setting in. I can’t afford the time for this, he thought, fighting down a shudder. It took a huge effort to wipe off his sword and resheath it even while Jenkins’ bloody blade wavered at him not a yard away.

The mayor studied him narrowly. “What’s your name?”

“Paco Miralles, Jefe to Sensei Catron, who commands this — Army.” You’re a cool one too, he thought to himself. As well as good looking. Don’t want to underestimate you either. I could still be dead real quick. “I’m wondering where he and his elite troops might be, right about now?”

Jenkins grinned savagely, though grief shadowed his eyes. “Roasting in Hell. You see those clouds above the mountains behind us?”

Paco raised his eyes and studied the dirty-gray mass that was slowly swelling into the sky. The wind was at his back and he smelled nothing, but the color gave it away. “Fire?” He tried to keep the word nonchalant even as a chill touched his spine. Madre de Dios! It is huge!

“That’s right.” Mayor Joyner smiled, a little less savage but even more determined. “Sam Hyatt lured your boss up there, him and his thousand goons, and we torched the canyon behind them. The Little T canyon, too, and the Blue Mountain fire has already spread west onto Pole Hill. Any moment now all three will join up. Your boss won’t come back down except as floating ash.”

❀ ❁ ❀

The smell of smoke crept up on him gradually, so gradually that at first Catron didn’t realize it. Only when he began to hear coughing from the men near the tail of the long column, when his own nose and sinuses started to itch, did he recognize the truth.

They were slogging northwest up a long slope toward the first crest, a divide between two rivers, with a panoramic view behind. He called a rest break, stopped, turned, looked back over the straggling lines. Tired men with empty faces stopped in their tracks, panting, sometimes leaning over with hands on knees as they struggled to suck in enough air. Tendrils of gray smoke were drifting around the bend behind them, moving west and uphill. Even as he watched they grew thicker, and new columns began to rise from the forest to the south.

Shit! The canyon’s on fire behind us!

He glanced up at the steep slope to the east — he’d passed a dirt road cutting up it a few steps back, perhaps they could —

Great clouds of smoke were rising behind the ridge.

“Sensei!” Frank panted, pointing at it. “Looks like the mountain’s on fire.”

“The bastard! He led us into a trap!” Catron snarled. “They’ve fired the canyon below and the mountains to our east — and the wind is blowing northwest!”

“What’ll we do?!” Billy asked, voice strained.

“We move!” Catron raised his voice. “Everyone, double-time, march!”

He followed his own orders, steadily placing one foot in front of the other. His muscles stretched and burned — Albuquerque was nearly three thousand feet lower than this and four overindulgent months in Colorado hadn’t really gotten him acclimated to the thin air of these heights. Every step that took them farther uphill cut a little more oxygen from the scanty supply. I shouldn’t have eaten like a pig all these months, he regretted, feeling the drag of his extra weight.

His eyes didn’t stop moving. Spring snowmelt had littered the pavement with pine needles, windrows of harsh mountain sand, and stripes of dark loam, and no speeding summer tourist traffic had swept it aside. They were surely following a significant party of people, with horses and at least one wagon and a lot of bicycles. He counted dozens of different tracks in the mud.

There was a single yellow arrow painted on a clear patch of asphalt, empty can and brush abandoned beside it. He viciously kicked both aside and tracked through the paint; it hadn’t quite dried.

He’s right ahead of me, I know it, he thought grimly. You sonofabitch, I’ll catch you if it’s the last thing I do! Dark visions swam through the back of his mind.

He crossed over the first crest a mile later, puffing but still in control, and welcomed the downhill slope beyond. Billy and Frank held their positions and so did most of the troops behind him, but the rear-most were beginning to push forward, gradually collapsing the back of the formation. No panic, yet.

Maybe I should turn sideways, cut down the canyon instead? That’d take us out of the fire’s path and we could maybe circle around…

His stomach roiled coldly and a pounding headache beat on the back of his skull.

Then he spied the drifting gray whisps flowing up-canyon, probing the tiny hamlet at the bottom; an aluminum road sign proclaimed the place was once Pinewood Springs. There were recent small fire scars on the meadows and hillsides where several summer cabins had burned. That had probably happened soon after the Change while snow still covered the ground, since none had spread far. Bright green grass, yellowing now in the summer heat, showed where life already reclaimed some of those. The older meadows were shaggy with last year’s dried growth between the new stems.

Not wet enough for a fire break. It’ll sweep right through this place and not stop for shit!

A faint stink of decay emanated from a row of graves to hang over the pocket valley. Some of the graves had been shallow; the bodies piled next to them, dug up and cut apart. He bared his teeth at that; animals wouldn’t have piled them so carefully or chopped the bones so neatly. He called “Weapons ready!” and drew his own sword, plowed on. The downhill slope let him recover a little of his body’s oxygen debt.

But then we go up again. How high is it to that second crest? Damnit, it’s been years since I drove this road, it went by so fast in a car! I should have waited, settled Lyons, chased Hyatt and that traitor priest down later — maybe there’s a way to get out if we leave the road and run southwest UP the river into the higher forest —

A terrible dark rage welled up in him, a pressure that threatened to split his head.

NO! ON! KILL!

He almost staggered, dizzy, and the pressure slackened enough to get his balance back. I’m hallucinating, carrying too much weight, got to lighten up —

“Two-minute rest break!” he called, as his hand resheathed his sword unthinkingly. The whole mass of men ground to a halt, bunching up still more; many leaned on each other now, red-faced and gasping. “Discard armor and shields! Keep your weapons and water bottles, dump the rest!” he shouted.

His own fingers began to fumble with the catches of his armor as he panted. The helmet lifted off easily; he tossed it aside. The catches on his leg panels were within reach, he could undo those and kick off the shin guards and thigh guards, the intricate folding knee covers and the groin and instep protectors. Billy released his neck-protector for him, fumbled with his backplate, stripped both off, and started on the breastplate.

“Leave that! Arms and shoulders!” he snapped, and his good dog obediently released those buckles instead. Catron shook off the confining steel, stretched his arms and lungs while Frank and Billy released each other’s armor. With just the breastplate he could breathe much easier, and still had better than thirty percent coverage on his front.

The side toward my enemy.

Behind him men were flinging away shields, stripping off leather coats and jackets sewn with washers and chains and dropping them on the road. The clatter was astonishing.

“Form up!” he shouted when Billy and Frank were ready. Flame showed on a mountaintop behind them and gray clouds billowed higher. The men fell back into lines, better disciplined now. “Forward!”

They descended a road cut and crossed a bridge, bending sharply to parallel the far bank of the little river. Cool air flowed downhill along the gentle bottom of the narrow canyon, pushing the smoke back. Marching was easier here and he picked up the pace again as dark forest flowed past on either hand, towering cliffs above. They rounded a curve and broke out into another pocket meadow, leaving the stream behind as the road climbed away from its cool wet banks — into dryness.

Yellowing grasses surrounded them, spotted with dry pines that grew thicker ahead and spread over the slopes, a dense green kindling. Great billows of smoke were filling the sky overhead now, a spectral fist raised above him. The air bit his throat like a rasp, worse than before. Fine ash began to rain down.

The pressure in his head increased, a pounding headache, while the pit of his stomach sank into dark chill.

What’s happening to me? he suddenly wondered. I thought I was gaining power, but this… it’s more like something from outside, pushing at me… and I thought I heard a voice back there…

He started to stagger, but something took control of his legs, forced him back to balance. Terror rose in him as he tried to protest, to resist, and nothing happened. His legs moved, lungs pumped, entirely outside his control. The powerlessness turned to choking fear as he floated, disconnected, within his own body, his emotions and reactions fully his own for the first time, he realized, in months.

“Doubletime!” he heard his own voice shout as that body charged the slope. Behind his army, not half a mile away from the last straggler, ridges exploded in flame. Men cried out, screamed, and began to run wildly.

Hyatt! George Catron thought despairingly, even as his mind was squeezed inward by something vastly larger. What’ll happen when I catch you…

❀ ❁ ❀

“He’s not coming back. I betrayed one of the best men I’ve ever met to make sure of it,” the Mayor said with pain in her voice.

“You’re alone here with us — and we’re better armed,” Jenkins told Paco vengefully.

Paco’s mind stuttered over the news. Sensei, dead? Would he even be able to tell if it was true? But it didn’t feel like a lie — and he’d heard and told enough to know. The Mayor had bone-deep grief under her hard voice; what she’d done hadn’t been any half-measure. And this scraggly-bearded boy radiated hot exultation right down to his toes, like a hardboy who’d just made a hit and gotten away clean. And they’d put their army’s back to the town and the canyon.

Part of him screamed that Sensei’s death be true, wept and prayed for it. The rest coldly weighted the odds, and his choices. He could hear restive cries and some fights behind him, where the most loyal of O’Toole’s men protested their Jefe’s death and were put down by his own. The big mass of the other fighters muttered and stirred unhappily. Paco knew he wasn’t much liked there, but O’Toole had been hated; far more mutters were with the Red Fangs than against. He gauged the sound with a fraction of his attention, satisfied that his own were still in control. For a while longer; tension was building like a riot about to start. And the smoke clouds beyond Lyons were growing taller, bending north and west in silent threat.

“So, Doña Mayor, if Sensei is really dead, then I comand his men here. I have eyes, I am no foolish cabron, nor a green boy either.” That was a deliberate small provocation, and the way Jenkins’ eyes narrowed showed he’d caught it. I have cojones too, boy, and brains, so watch it! “I see your weapons, your armor, and the discipline in your men. I know what they mean. I have more men — but yours are better. Mine will cost you much if we fight — but yours will win. Still, we have little to lose, you have much, and mine will cost you many lives of your own. Might be, more than you can afford, eh?”

The Mayor studied him for a moment, and his men. Jenkins’ face looked etched in stone, but he waited for her decision. Good, he’d called it right — she really was in command here.

She feels it, and he too, the tension, he thought. She’s a hard woman, but a woman still. How will she choose? The contest of wills was weirdly like courting a very desirable chica; he was aware of a tightness in his crotch. I roll the dice for high stakes.

IF — we let you go, what will you do?” she asked.

“Retreat to Longmont,” he offered. “Leave you alone here.”

She shook her head, rocked slightly on the balls of her feet. “To have you for a neighbor? No way. We can’t live with you that close to us — better to end the threat now, whatever the cost.”

There was no humor in her face — or Jenkins’. They were ready to pay that price.

Paco swallowed grit, thought. Ay, esta Doña knows what she wants. “Then Greeley. It’ll take a few days, and we’ll have to have the grain cars we hauled here —“

“One,” la Doña Mayor said firmly. “You can keep one, to take with you. The rest stay where they are, to help the Longmonters rebuild.”

“One is enough,” he agreed. More than enough. One car would be easier to drag anyway. I wonder if — “We will take our weapons with us.”

“Personal weapons. Not the trebuchet. We keep it — we know how to fix it.” She bared her teeth coldly. “We’ll haul it inside, build it into our Wall. Maybe copy it; build more.”

“Take our personal weapons away with us,” he agreed smoothly. “For defense against bandits, of which there are many out in the valley.” And will be more, once half this miserable excuse for an army deserts me on the way back, but that’s a problem for mañana.

“You’ll leave now, and be back across Seventy-fifth Street by noon, and out the east side of Longmont before sunset,” she stated. “You can take the Sugar Railroad all the way from Longmont to Greeley. Camp tonight on the east side of County Line Road along the tracks, that’s where the water lines end. We’ll turn the water back on, but by noon tomorrow you’ll be out of sight of Boulder County. And you won’t attack Mead on your way, we’ve got a treaty to come to their aid if you do.”

He winced slightly. That route could be a challenge. But even if he only kept a few hundred out of the host, that was far more than any of the little towns could muster. If he kept the mob moving he could probably get to Greeley before anyone serious could get in his way, especially with the grain car. He’d have to strike a bargain with Duc Tho, but the Viet was a practical man — and without Sensei’s Sword, either of them would badly need help holding Greeley. He could build on that.

Sí” he answered grudgingly. “That track will work for us; it is shorter than going back to Loveland.”

“And the Berthoud men get to go home, free — as does that young priest you’ve got in our hospital. Or he can stay with us, his choice — we could use a priest.”

Paco grimaced internally. What else will this harpy strip from me?Caramba, you are as hard as diamonds and demanding as a curandera!”

“Nobody is safe, if anybody is allowed to keep slaves,” she told him. “You as well as us. Think about it. And I promised Father Markus just before he left that I wouldn’t leave Father Francis trapped with you.”

“Ay!” He threw up his hands. “You expect me to bend over for you on everything? No! The priest comes with me as far as Greeley — my men need the Christian sacraments too! In Greeley there are more priests, I can do without him once we get there. You send a shadow force to follow us, and I’ll turn him over to them at the Greeley city limits sign.” He stared directly at the military man, Jenkins. “I’ll put my name’s worth on that, me, Paco Miralles, Jefe of the Army.” Not Sensei’s army any more, but not mine either… yet.

Jenkins scowled deeper and exchanged some words with Doña Mayor, but she shook her head.

Good! The hard bitch holds your leash. And having you following along behind us will help me, too, by cutting down on my losses, for my dregs will think twice about slipping away when you wait behind to fall on them.

“If that is the last?” Paco asked with heavy politeness. “Good! All right then, we agree.”

Doña Mayor Joyner smiled then, and for a moment she had the look of his Catalan grandmother, hard and triumphant as she made a power play on his grandfather and got what she wanted. Ay, abuelito, I never understood before!

She said “We have a deal, Paco Miralles.”

She held out her hand to shake his — hers was work-roughened but pleasant nonetheless. He wasn’t surprised when Jenkins didn’t offer his own; that one would watch him like a hawk for any violation of the deal. He felt crazily safe turning his back on them both and returning to his men.

Much to do, he thought as he began barking orders. I may live out this year after all — if Sensei is really dead.

❀ ❁ ❀

Father Markus struggled up the last long rise, nearly exhausted. He and the Nurse had their bikes in lowest gear, and Tim and Laura were towing them as well. He felt every one of his nearly-sixty years — four months of walking everywhere was not enough preparation for this. Only grim determination kept him in his seat, legs still pumping. Joseph rode behind the young woman called Kate, who had a rear luggage rack on her bike; she had tied her folded jacket onto it to make a seat-cushion for him. His little hands clung fiercely to the back of her seat even as he stared enthralled at their surroundings. Sam Hyatt rode at the back and the young man called Jenner rode out ahead.

They shepherd us as if we were their most precious kin, yet none of them had ever met me or Natasha even twenty hours ago! God, it cannot be that I am worthy of such a gift. Miraculous are your ways!

He spared the extra effort to glance back over his shoulder. Sam pedaled steadily two yards behind and to the right, drawing on some seemingly-inexhaustible reserve. Sweat flowed as freely from him as any of them, but he seemed to have forbidden himself to get tired.

Markus noticed that odd clouds were beginning to form far down the canyon behind them, above the foothills, but he had no attention to spare for them. The highway was still blessedly empty of pursuit.

He turned back to the front, forcing his legs to pump another stroke, then another, in the endless rhythm that had carried them this far. The youth named Tim was bigger than his teacher and nearly as strong, but towing Markus’ weight was wearing him down. I must help as best I can to lighten their burden.

Ahead the two-lane highway rose in a long curve following the outside of a big meadow. Broken windows gaped in houses on the uphill side, summer homes that had long ago been plundered by the scattered survivors up here in the mountains.

“Captain!” Jenner gasped back over his shoulder. “I see the others!”

Moments later Markus did too, the wagon and the horses, the bikes, Hyatt’s students standing guard around them. It was a long slogging ten minutes more before he could drop his own bike among them and stagger off of it, weaving on the pavement. Hands seized his sleeves, led him to a bench seat incongruously pried out of a crashed car. Natasha collapsed beside him, rubbing her legs and muttering in abstracted French in between groans of relief. Joseph wedged himself between them, shy amidst so many strangers.

Markus put an arm around the boy, comforting him while they watched reunions all around them. Sam embraced his wife and children in a long four-way hug. A tall freckled redhead man seized the woman named Laura, who had so convincingly deceived Sensei’s men, and whirled her around before engaging in a rather passionate embrace and a decidedly intimate kiss. Other young men and women engulfed Kate, Tim and Jenner in a tangle of hearty congratulations.

Strange, he thought. Six months ago I would have perceived these young people as barely out of childhood. Now I see them as grown to manhood and womanhood. Ahh, Circumstance! What power it exercises over human perception!

“You should drink.” Canteens were pushed into Natasha’s hands and his by a woman who had been there in the auditorium during the terrible fight. Markus thought she was another nurse, but everything had been so chaotic he wasn’t certain of her name. He noted the absence of any wedding ring on her hands.

Markus made sure Joseph took a swallow before he relieved his own parched throat. It took a second try before he was able to speak.

“My — my devout thanks to you for the water, ah, Miss…”

“Karen McGuire, RN, Father.” She gave him a little deferential nod, produced sticks of something sweet-smelling. “Here, these are mashed dried strawberries and cherries rolled with cracked grain and sunflower seeds. They’ll give you back a little energy.”

Joseph almost fell on his, stuffing half of it into his mouth in one bite, then struggling to chew; his face blossomed into the first smile Markus had ever seen on the boy. He sampled his own and the sweetness was an explosion of joy on a palate long denied.

“Oh!” He chewed, and felt as close to tears as he’d been anytime since the Change. “Oh, thank you!”

Natasha chewed her own energy-bar, making a similar discovery, and Karen nodded a vague answer to her thanks. Markus noticed that the younger nurse seemed oddly focused on him, but he was too overwhelmed by the food to think.

“I’ll get you more,” she told him and hurried off.

Natasha glanced at him meditatively. “Now there is a young woman who wants something from you very badly, Father. Professional duty, I would make the guess — she keeps staring at your Roman collar.”

Markus blinked, strove to marshal his wits. “What?” he blurted.

Natasha explained patiently. “When you came back from Lyons and told us about this escape plan, I remember you said they didn’t have a priest in the town. Then there hasn’t been anyone to confess them since the Change, n’est ce pas? Think how much Catron’s army needed your sacraments, and consider what these people had to do to have survived this long, non?”

Markus swallowed the bit of fruit and grain, nodded. “Ah. Of course.” He wiped stickiness off his fingers as best he could. “Joseph, will you please stay here with Nurse Lionheart for a few minutes? There is something I must do.”

The boy nodded mutely and cuddled close to her as Markus stood.

❀ ❁ ❀

For long minutes Sam simply pressed his wife against him, as if he would never be able to hold her enough.

“I was so afraid I’d never see you again,” Ellie whispered tightly, for his ear alone.

“We made it back,” he told her, “And I mean to keep on making it back, every time duty drags me away from your side, love.” Then he stopped any more words with a long kiss.

The Abbakus had a small fire going in the dirt by the roadside; Grandma boiling water for soup in a kettle. Bran and Marta had dipped it out of a pond next to the burnt-out ruins of some kind of hotel or inn. Esmera had another pot already boiled with dried herbs for a tea, now cooled enough to drink.

“Lunch time!” she called, gathering in the multitude.

Sam and Ellie finally separated enough to join the throng, the kids tagging along. Bowls and mugs went around, Sam ate and drank ravenously, and was surprised to find Boyd Starry leaning on his crutch next to him.

“You came with us?!”

How went unasked, but Starry chuckled. “Kit Coyle brought his wagon along, with his farrier tools; it wasn’t hard to load my portable anvil and my best tools in it too. We’ve got a dozen horses to switch off towing both wagons, including those Percherons that Blake rescued from Longmont. I’ve been riding shotgun with their wives and mine while the horses do all the work. Good thing, too — we stopped here just short of the crest because Rina’s wagon shed a steel tyre. There’s no way her wooden wheel would last over the mountains without it. But I’ll have it fixed in a couple hours and we’ll be on our way again.”

“Our own Haephestus,” Sam answered, gripping the smith’s ham-like hand with gratitude. “I’m glad you came.”

Starry gave him a peculiar look. “How could I not? I’ve always served the champions — and all the Gods themselves will turn out for this.” He turned and stumped away then, checking the fire his son was busy stoking in their portable forge.

Sam blinked, shrugged, spooned up soup. Afterwards he offered to help with the work, but the rest shouted him down and sent him to lie on the grass by the verge of the road.

“You five didn’t get any more sleep than us, Sensei, and you did more,” Jack McCarthy told him severely. “So shut up and take a rest, will you? We’ve got pickets out, nobody can sneak up on us, we’ve all et, and it’s barely noon. Somebody comes along, we’ll wake you.”

Weariness fell over him like a dark blanket, warm food slowing his wits. We should keep running, we’ve got to stay ahead… But suddenly thinking was too much.

“All right,” Sam acquiesced sleepily, and stretched out on a blanket laid on the turf where a lawn was going wild at the edge of the highway. He drowsed in the sunshine for an indeterminate while, woke to hammering as Starry reformed the tyre, then slept again as others jacked up the wagon and refitted the wheel. He woke for the second time with Ellie and his kids curled against him, just as the repaired wheel kissed the pavement again.

“It’s ready!” Starry called, while his son heaved the coals out of the portable forge onto the shoulder of the pavement. “Hitch ‘em up again!”

Sam stretched, feeling surprisingly rested. Hunh. Food, a nap, and I’m ready to wrestle a bear again.

He kissed Ellie before he got up. Jimmy and Jenny bounced up and ran over to watch the horses being hitched up while Ellie folded and stowed the blanket. Sam looked the crew over; several were leaning against trees or just getting up from naps like his own. He blinked.

I know we were all tired, but…

Jerry called to Sam from the road. “Sensei? Look at that.” He pointed. “I’ve been watching it for a while, and it’s getting bigger really fast. Is it a thunderstorm? Are we going to get wet?”

Sam followed Jerry’s pointing finger to a bank of clouds approaching up the canyon. A dark, roiling bank of clouds that reminded him of —

“Smoke! The canyon’s on fire!” he exclaimed.

Then Blake came riding over from a little exploration of the west side of the pond, rubbing his eyes as if he’d just awakened. He leaned over in his saddle and spoke quietly to Sam, his face strained. “Captain, it’s not just south of us. There’s a huge cloud rising behind this ridge just east, looks like Pole Hill and Hell Canyon must be burning too. And the wind’ll bring it right at us. If we don’t get across the open space in Estes Valley pretty damn quick, it might catch up to us.”

“Right,” Sam nodded. He looked at the sun — well past noon now, a couple hours of daylight wasted. We were supposed to run far and fast, like the hare — and like him, we stopped and took a nap! Why in the Hell didn’t I realize it?

The lethargy that had seemed to infect the whole crew was falling away, blinking eyes rousing to full awareness. Chill certainty filled him.

Something — Someone? Delayed us.

He raised his voice, turned to the Gatherers. “Pack up, everybody, and get moving! Blake, take Jerry, Margie and Jesse ahead to scout, report back on the condition of the road. Kit, Rina, Burt, get the wagons loaded and ready. Everyone else get to your bike or your wagon, pronto!”

That seemed to finally break the spell; they all jumped into action. Karen and Father Markus had been sitting on a rock a little ways up the road, talking; the priest made the sign of the cross over her and they both hurried back to the group. Sam noticed that she looked to be at peace for the first time since he’d met her in the chill of Longmont’s disintegrating hospital.

At least one good thing came of this delay, he thought abstractedly. “Let’s get moving, people!”

Kit and his wife and son got the teams hitched to both wagons again, four horses per wagon. Those who couldn’t ride were loaded into them — wounded Pat, Grandma Abbaku, the smaller children — Ellie and Jimmy gathered Joseph and Nurse with the littler kids in the tail of Rina’s wagon, showed them how to feed the imprisoned chickens from a sack of wheat.

Father Markus rode in Kit’s own wagon, sitting on bundles behind the driver’s bench and facing backwards. Sam noticed Boyd Starry settle himself in the wagon’s tail, next to the anvil that he’d used to fix Rina’s wheel. It was the smaller of the two from his shop, mounted on a stump that father and son had wrestled out of the wagon for the repair work and now lashed back in place. Starry was idly turning a large hammer in his hand, and watching Sam. Something peculiar about his gaze —

A whiff of smoke blew through the group, setting several to coughing, but everyone was finally mounted and the wagons were underway. Sam glanced back down the canyon. The wind was steady and the fire was leaping from treetop to treetop, much faster than it moved on the ground. Even as he looked the ridgeline to the east convulsed with a loud roar as the flames crowned the top of the canyon wall.

“Move it!” Sam shouted, picking up and straddling his own bike again. Drew had thoughtfully returned his bow and quiver to the panniers, but his armor was still on a wagon. He began to pump the pedals, chivvying everyone ahead of him. God! It’s moving fast!

“Sensei?!” Jerry called again. “Someone’s coming up the road!”

❀ ❁ ❀

I see you, Hyatt, Catron thought, and the thing that controlled his body surged triumphantly. His lungs burned from breathing smoke and his hair felt like any instant it would turn crisp and fall off. Cold surged out of his belly and battled the heat back again, as it had done several times already. Repulsed, the flames fed in the trees over his head, leaped for the next, gaining ground in this deadly race. But the fierce updraft of the superheated skies sucked in clean air from the not-yet-burned land before him, throwing a racing breeze in his face. That and his controller’s own chill were all that kept him and his last few alive.

His body drove on in a tireless lope, like riding in a car where something else did all the work, except for his growing awareness of painful price it was paying. I’m being used up, he realized sickly, nauseated by the growing fatigue-poisons that his blood couldn’t shed fast enough. The terrifying unfamiliar sensation of being used was humiliating beyond words. He wanted to start screaming but his throat wouldn’t let him.

The double-time uphill near-run had carried him the last several miles. Frank and Billy were in the runner’s zone with him, eyes glazed, lungs bellowing, conscious minds nearly shorted out from ultimate effort, guided now only by his will — or the will of that which owned him now. A dozen men still kept pace behind him, half of them reeling and gasping, but most of his men had fallen back and been swallowed up; writhing corpses crisped in the inferno of his trail.

My Sword, my beautiful Sword, burned up!

Because of YOU!

His mind reeled as something used his brain to roar at him — no, at Hyatt! Whatever it was didn’t even care about him, George Catron, any more than he’d ever cared about a pair of socks. It was enough that they fit, and did their work, and when they wore out he threw them away.

The trees drew back from the road. He passed a pond and some ruins and entered blessedly open space where the air was a little cleaner. The fire slowed, this grass was moister and resisted combustion. Up the long crescent meadow he saw wagons and bicycles closing in on the crest. A vast space beyond… but they weren’t going to get there before he reached them. Catron moaned and wept in his prison as that terrible cold voice raped its way through him.

I’ve caught you! Now I’ll KILL you!

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam desperately studied the pass ahead. The road crested the north edge of the Little Thompson River drainage, fell down a long gulch into the Estes Valley toward the Big Thompson River itself. He remembered it from previous visits, the sweeping views, the dense forest crowded close about the crest where the long meadow ended.

Except the forest wasn’t there. Black trunks and stumps flanked both sides of the pass, ran far up the slopes to either hand. Another fire had already been here before the snow quite left, stripping the forest of needle and twig and even most branches. In its wake, spare black columns soared drunkenly over flower-decked grasses and ground-hugging kinikinik.

A fire break! Sam exulted. It’ll slow the big fire, maybe stop it!

But it won’t stop Catron. I’ll have to do that myself.

❀ ❁ ❀

The wagon Markus rode surged up the highway to a high pass where the road turned almost due west and dropped down again. He clung exhaustedly to his seat on bundles lashed behind the driver’s bench; he’d been so tired that he’d been unable to scale the wagon’s high side under his own power. Two of the stronger students had simply lifted him into the vehicle, doing the same for Natasha in the other. He craned his neck to look forward between the driver and his wife.

Across a deep, wide valley, soaring granite monoliths kissed heaven, their rough summits still streaked with the last patches of snow. Sunlight glinted off lakes and waterfalls, threw shadows in deep green canyons, lit a lonely thread of road zigzagging its way across alpine tundra toward the highest pass. For a moment the beauty of the scene caught at his heart and brought forth the Psalmist’s words.

When I consider your works, oh Lord… what is man that thou art mindful of him?

Markus heard the wagon-driver, a man named Kit, call “Whoa!” and then “Trees on the road!” He tore his gaze away from the spectacular panorama as the horses stopped, saw a knee-high tangle of charred fallen trunks strewn across the road where a wind or an avalanche had thrown them. The little canyon into which the road dived had been dense forest before the Change, but fire had since visited it and stripped it down to ashes. The one called Blake used his horse and a rope to drag a burnt log off of the highway; the girl on the paint horse did the same. Several more of the students leaped off their bikes and threw themselves into the work, three and four at a time grabbing trunks and heaving. The smith’s hulking son lifted a tree by himself, threw it aside like a spear. Slowly a path began to open.

Markus turned back to Sam and the others of the rearguard. The fire was roaring up the east side of the little valley, trees exploding and summerhouses going up like cardboard. Outliers crept up the west side too, more slowly but just as inevitable; the grassy floor burned in patches. The wagons were only a couple hundred feet into the burned-over zone of the previous fire.

Is that far enough to save us from the flames? Seeing no possible labor contribution within his much-reduced strength, Markus groped for his rosary. Blessed Mother, intercede for us! Please, hold back the fire!

The smith glanced back at him. “Good, Priest, you do your part. And it’s almost time for me to do mine.” He braced his crutch, stood up facing backwards. Markus almost stumbled over the prayers when he realized the man had been speaking classical Greek, purer than any he’d ever heard outside the seminary. Doggedly he continued with the holy words even as the smith raised his hammer.

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam set his bike aside; Tim and Laura and Kate and Drew doing likewise. The women cranked their crossbows, the men nocked arrows to their hunting recurves. Tim’s lips drew back from his teeth in a feral snarl.

“On my release,” Sam told them. “Aim for his followers, I’ll take him.”

He raised the Bear compound, threw his back and gut into drawing its hundred-pound pull until the arrow’s fletching touched his ear. He could feel the weapon’s sweet tension singing through his muscles, all the way down his spine to his groin and back again as the cable and wood stored power. The cams and pulleys of the compound creaked, the linen bowstring fairly hummed. Only six arrows left, got to make them count…

He centered his gaze on Catron’s chest. Silver armor, soot-streaked now — but the metal had to be thin, and this shaft had a bodkin point shaped like a miniature chisel. Sam felt for the moment, and — released.

The arrow soared free, its trajectory almost flat.

❀ ❁ ❀

Catron saw the bows raised, screamed silently in terror and hope, for death would be better than this. The thing snarled around him, he sensed it as words. Now I’ll show you some of what I can do, Champion! He felt the coldness growing within his gut, blood shut off to nonessentials like genitals and digestion, and realized the thing fully intended to use his body completely up.

The air heaved in front of him, shivered like an animal in pain, and Hyatt’s arrow veered upward and was lost. Those arrows aimed at his good dogs deflected by smaller margins; one tore through Frank’s right sleeve and carved a shallow gash. Two others sailed by and picked off the outermost pair of his remaining men.

He screamed in unison with his owner, terror yoked to rage. “Grrrraaagghh!

❀ ❁ ❀

“What the hell?” Laura snapped as she furiously cranked her crossbow. Drew cursed as he reached for a new arrow. Tim and Sam had theirs already on the string, they drew and loosed in unison. Both missiles bounced in the air in front of Catron and Billy, flicked harmlessly aside.

“Aim for the men in back,” Sam ordered as he reached for his third arrow.

Drew changed his aim slightly and loosed; a third Catron-follower went down. Laura and Kate fired their crossbows and took out two more — only six left at Catron’s heels now. Sam and Tim dropped another two, and the third round from the others dropped the odds to even. The last two of Catron’s fighters cowered behind their master, using him for a shield.

The distance was less than a hundred feet.

“Bows away, swords out!” Sam snapped. The katana Starry had made, had given to him the first week of the Change, came to his right hand like a lover and poised, gleaming, the warizaki a smaller echo in his left. There was a pounding in his veins, his ears, a sound coming from everywhere and nowhere. The fire swept through the trees to either side, enclosing them all like flies in smoky amber.

We’ve both got the two swords, but he’s got that breastplate, and I’ve got no armor at all, ran through Sam’s mind. This is going to be tricky.

Catron and his men drew their own swords and closed.

❀ ❁ ❀

Markus poured out prayers like precious jewels, calling on his God to save Sam and his students from the flames. The fire roared towards them all in a furious avalanche, storming the hillsides. It was moving too fast, they were too close, it would strike the burned zone any moment and pour through it unstoppably to sear their lungs dry, boil their blood, and bury them all under a sea of ash —

Then the Smith swung his hammer.

The anvil rang, a pure bell-like tone that reverberated from the hills, grew and grew. The very air shivered, moved, and the smith Spoke in a voice larger than the mountains. The wall of flame slowed, hesitated, obeyed. It halted at the edge of the burned zone, waited in writhing columns of darkness and light. Markus could feel the savage heat rise, peak, and decline as the fire burned off dry needles, bark, and branches — and began to starve. He gaped, stared upward as a column of smoke climbed, towered thousands of feet into the sky in a twisted whirl of destruction. Then a wind blew off the Divide, cold and clean as the morning of the world, a wind wholly new and pure, that took that destruction and gently, irresistibly, dispersed it back over itself.

Markus looked over his shoulder, beheld the snowcapped peaks trembling beneath the ghostly throng of a mighty host, led by One whom a human mind could not contain. Watching with the patience of eternity. Waiting with the sweet excitement of a child at a birthday party, eager for the present to be unwrapped.

His mind reeled and he turned away, back to where a double hand of men and women fought at the fire’s edge.

❀ ❁ ❀

Frank lunged at Drew, scoring a bloody slash along his left side as Drew parried incompletely. Kate caught Frank’s sword on her own, deflected him, and they were instantly locked in combat while Drew staggered away, bleeding.

Billy charged Tim, blade whirling, to be deflected in turn into the flashing dance of edged metal.

Both of the men at the back charged Laura, coughing and snarling as ash sleeted around them. Mike ran to join her, knives out and screeching like a banshee.

Sam met Catron’s eyes, saw horror and terror there for an instant before something cold and dread reared up behind them. It reached for him across the space between them.

Die, Champion,” said a voice that was not the Albuquerque Sensei’s, and behind it the faint echo of a sob. The man’s swords slammed into his own even as that darkness leaned on his mind and squeezed.

Sam grunted under the dual impact. His feet danced over the asphalt as he barely shunted the metal blow aside using strength he hadn’t known he had. His mind fought for its own balance under the suffocating assault. God he’s strong! He brought his own katana around in a looping slash only to be deflected in turn, again, and yet again. They traded a dozen blows in half as many seconds without effect. The dreadful eyes stabbed at him over livid lips that twisted back from bared teeth.

Break,” said that voice, slamming Catron’s black-blood-encrusted blade against Sam’s warizaki with a power that made his wrist creak; but Sam’s short sword flexed, rebounded, and the black blade quivered and chipped. Growling like nothing human, his attacker chopped furiously at him, raining strikes with blurring speed, and with each blow Sam’s swords glittered unharmed while they notched and chipped his enemy’s.

The monster paused, chest heaving and lips flecked with bloody spittle. “Interfering Greek!” that voice accused. Sam thought it almost petulant, if something colder than the dark between galaxies could be petulant. It charged him again, notched sword swinging.

God, Buddha, White Buffalo Woman, be with me now, Sam thought, and ducked sideways and under. His warizaki caught and lifted the black blade just enough that its passage only clipped a dozen hairs off his head with a brrrrr! He slid beneath the slash and his katana rammed up into the unprotected space under Catron’s armpit. The edge of the blade sliced leather straps as the point sank deep.

Catron twisted, leaped off the sword like a fish off a hook. A fan of blood sprayed as Sam’s sword sliced through muscle and fat but missed the body-cavity. The demon-sensei’s breastplate bulged, sagged, held now by only one buckle on that side. Catron landed sure as a cat, spun, brought his short blade around in a savage slash. Sam dodged back just far enough that it barely ripped his shirt and left a line of red beads welling on his chest. His katana caught the demon’s hand edge on, and bone and tendon parted with audible pops. The short blade flew free from a suddenly finger-less paw and clattered somewhere away to the side. Sam barely dodged the follow-up swing of the black sword, hot blood freckling his face.

He panted for a moment, backing slightly — but Tim was behind him fighting Billy beyond, any closer and Sam would give Billy a shot at his own unprotected back. And I can’t let Catron get close enough to backstab Tim either!

The staring face grinned hideously, began a charge.

Shit! He sees! He’s going for it! Only one chance now…

The black sword came up, poised, swung. Sam caught it on his warizaki, grunting as the force shoved him sideways, and Catron’s black blade snapped in two. Sam let the force of the blow bring his katana around. His point slipped behind Catron’s breastplate and grated between ribs, sinking through heart and lungs to ram into the inside of the spine. Sam’s elbow took the jolt as his sword stopped, transfixing the demon-sensei.

Got you!

Incredibly, the creature swung the stump of the black sword at him again. The snapped edge gashed Sam’s scalp as a beefy fist slammed the side of his head. Pain washed out his surroundings, but he clung to consciousness and to his swords even as his knees buckled and hit the pavement. The demon flung the sword-hilt away. Sam felt the awful strength as it scrabbled for his throat with its one working hand, meanwhile trying to batter his face with the fingerless one. Cold fingers clutched at his beard, seeking purchase. Sam ducked and drove the warizaki up beneath the breastplate into Catron’s groin, ripped it across. Femoral blood sprayed — and Sam’s unbalanced weight jerked his katana out of Catron’s body, slicing the other breastplate strap on the way.

The breastplate slipped free, fouling the demon’s good arm. Only the moment wasted while the monster freed it saved Sam. He fell over, converted it into a shoulder roll, and desperately kicked himself upright again.

How can he still be walking?! Sam thought wildly, as the big man bled out and still lunged for him. A slash with the katana lopped off his enemy’s remaining hand, and the return stroke hamstrung the walking corpse. Then it finally stumbled and collapsed. Even on the pavement it shuddered for a long moment, the stumps of arms reaching as if to batter what they could no longer seize.

Cham-pion,” the ravaged throat croaked.

❀ ❁ ❀

George screamed inside as the swords tore through him, feeling every slice as he hung in his prison. Abruptly the thing departed, dropping him like an empty husk, and the wreckage of his body crashed upon him as he writhed.

I’m dying! he realized, and tried to make his mouth work, but too much was broken. A different darkness rose to claim him, one just as cold as the other but empty of all intention.

❀ ❁ ❀

The malignant black eyes faded to ordinary gray, blinked once as a bewildered expression stole across the ravaged face. Sam gasped for breath, poised to swing again, but the life faded out and his enemy went still.

He looked wildly around.

Billy’s head pitched sideways as Tim’s sword passed through his neck, severing spine and windpipe and most of the blood vessels. Frank staggered back away from Kate, clutching his gut as his intestines leaked out; Kate hobbled after him, favoring one bleeding leg. Laura staggered from a glancing blow that laid her scalp open even as Mike knifed her remaining attacker; the first lay dead already. Drew swayed, clutching his bleeding ribs with his left hand while his gladius sagged in his right.

We’re all still alive! He sucked in lungfuls of sweet mountain air barely seasoned with smoke.

Then exhaustion claimed him as his students swarmed about, lifted him and the others and carried them to the wagons just before the waiting flames finally spewed across the battlefield. His last sight was of Ellie, bending over him in the jolting wagon bed with loving gaze and healing hands.

“Rest, love — we’re safe, and on our way.”

❀ ❁ ❀

They slept that night above timberline, where the stars thronged out in their glory and red embers down below flickered in the dark valley. It was cold but no-one slept alone; even Father Markus curled in borrowed blankets with Joseph on one side and Sam’s family on the other. Around and above them all was calm and still.

❀ ❁ ❀

20

— From Ashes Re-born —

Greely, Colorado; mid July, 1998.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the scrawny priest said. Paco briefly regretted again that he’d let Padre Francis go, but it had been worth it to convince Rene Duc Tho and that hard Doña Mayor that the word of Paco Miralles was good. That could be very valuable in the years to come.

The priest added “You may kiss the bride.”

Paco did so — the little Vietnamese vixen smiled, cat-pleased. Even through the hastily-assembled wedding gown he could feel the attraction of Duc Tho’s eldest daughter. She might be turned sixteen only yesterday, but she knew what her body was for, and had some idea how to use it. Caramba! She will do more than just keep my bed warm! This may work out very well, indeed.

They turned to face the gathered crowd on the long steps of the pillared County Courthouse, Paco’s men on the left and Duc Tho’s on the right. The Vietnamese Jefe had also gathered as many surviving Greeley headmen as he could find — Sensei hadn’t left many. They all cheered and some even threw paper confetti — no rice; they still couldn’t afford to waste food. But a wedding was a chance at life, at peace, that all desperately wished for. Even Paul Duc Tho was smiling at his sister, happy for her smug delight.

“We begin, father-in-law,” Paco said under the shouts. “Let’s see what we can build.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam welcomed a dirt road beneath their feet again as the Gatherers slogged alongside Long Draw Reservoir, headed for Cameron Pass. Crossing the Divide tundra with two wagons and dozens of bicycles had been a major effort. They’d avoided or dug their way through lingering patches of snow, and filled in spring washouts in the road with rocks and bits of wood, and then struggled through soggy wetlands and patches of tenacious aspen and dwarf spruce forest across a trail-less gap. They’d all made it, not losing even one chicken.

The mountains flowed around them, the Never Summers to the west and the last peaks of the Front Range to the east. This clean pine-scented forest was shielded from the east-side fire by the high barren peaks behind his back now. Warm sun was welcome after the bitter cold of high-country nights. Drew, Kate and Laura rode in the wagon with Pat, their bandaged wounds healing. But most were walking today, to spare the horses. The clear path and gentle downhill slope offset the thin alpine air and the big beasts could just loaf along. Sam held Ellie’s hand as they strolled, Jesus and Maria ahead, Giorgi and Mary to the left; even Karen was holding hands with Sevan as he stumped along, their heads close together and murmuring. Mike, Tim and Liss stayed close to the wounded, occasionally touching hands on the rim of the wagon-box.

“Be a lot of weddings this summer,” Sam remarked contentedly. “Good thing we have a priest to marry people. I expect there’ll be plenty of new babies next spring.”

“Including ours.” Ellie laid a hand on her belly and then hugged him.

A day later they crept up to Cameron Pass and looked down the long curving canyon that led to North Park and Walden. A group of men on horseback challenged them, armed with bows and crude spears. One of them was familiar, Ellie and Sam smiled to see him.

“Bill!” Burt hailed the man, weather-beaten and tanned from outdoor work. “How’re my other grandsons?”

“Dad?!” Ellie’s brother answered, glad and amazed. He pushed back his hat and scratched his head. “Well you’re just about the last man I expected coming down Highway 14, but I sure am glad to see you. And Ellie, and Sam! How’d you get through Fort Collins? What little we’ve heard is pretty ugly.”

“Didn’t,” Sam explained. “Came up through Estes Park, over Trail Ridge and bushwhacked to Long Draw.” His face turned grim and he added “But you’re right about the ugly.”

“We brought barley and wheat for planting, and baby potatoes,” Burt added. “And a farrier and a smith both.” He jerked his thumb at the gralloched deer slung on the tail of Kit’s wagon. “And plenty of hunters! We won’t be a burden on your people, son.”

“And chickens!” Rina added triumphantly, taking Burt’s hand. Just then the rooster crowed, expressing his outrage at all this confinement.

“Whew,” Bill answered as his men murmured hungrily. “Looks like a whole lot happened over there. You’d all better come on down to town with me and tell us about it. Joan and the boys’ll want to be in on everything.”

Sam waved a hand and the Gatherers surged into motion; began the last leg of their long journey. When the broad mountain-ringed valley of North Park opened before him he felt his heart lift.

We’ve walked from the streets of Denver to the top of the mountains, and now the most sheltered valley of western Colorado, he thought. But I finally feel like we’re coming home.

❀ ❁ ❀

Epilogue

— The Next Year —

Walden, Colorado; early June, 1999.

Father Markus paused while listening to little Jenny recite her catechism before the rest of the class. Memory struck him.

This was in my vision, or a part of it, he thought, gazing over his shoulder at the rampart of the wall enclosing tiny Walden. Me, teaching the Faith to children, outside this wall. He blinked, listening to the clangor of Starry and son forging more horseshoes, then returned his attention to Jenny.

“Very good,” he began when she was done, then a warning bell from the high gatehouse interrupted him. Someone was coming, and in a community of five hundred people where everybody knew everybody else, that meant someone from outside the valley. The children all scrambled to their feet, well-drilled in elementary safety in these Changed times. He was about to shepherd them inside when Jesse Coyle, today’s gate watcher, cried out in glad welcome. It was somebody known.

“James!” shouted Jesse from his high perch. “My cousin James is with them!”

Markus shaded his eyes and peered into the morning sun, toward a line of horsemen approaching on the grassy shoulder of old Highway 14.

“Let’s take a break from lessons today, and you all run and fetch your parents,” he told the children. While they scattered to the four corners of the enclosed Town he leaned on the open gate-post and watched the dozen strangers approach. This was as good a position to see and hear everything as any other.

A while later the men and horses rode up to the gate, thronged now with everyone in town who wasn’t doing something vital. Sam was waiting in his buckskins, swords on but armor set aside for real emergencies, with the rest of the town leaders at his back. Ellie Hyatt patted their youngest son on her shoulder, while their eldest, Jimmy, stood alertly by with the other youths, spears at the ready.

“Captain Hyatt,” the lead rider saluted, a young man leaning on his saddle horn. He had leather chaps and back-and-breast armor, a broad hat atop his head.

“You were Lieutenant Jenkins when we fought together in Longmont,” Sam answered, smiling at him. “I’ll bet you’re Captain Jenkins now.”

“Yessir, but you’ll always outrank me in my book.” Jenkins grinned back. “We’ve brought letters to you from Mayor Joyner of Lyons and my father, Mayor Jenkins of Longmont, and another from Father Francis to you, Father Markus.” The young soldier bowed in his saddle to both of them. “Also news, gossip, and some trade-goods you might find useful.”

“Then you’d all better come inside and sit for a spell,” Sam answered, smiling. “We’ve always got beef stew on the stove, I smell biscuits baking, and there’s a new barrel of ale ready for broaching.”

The visitors dismounted and were absorbed by the throng. Jesse Coyle dragged his cousin over to his father’s farrier shop to catch up on family business. Markus shooed the last of the children inside, lingered at the now-empty gate for a moment. He gazed on the ring of mountains that moated their tiny outpost of humanity.

We are in contact with the world again, he thought. I wonder what they’ve been doing out there?

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀