Fire Break

Book 2 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.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 — A Meeting in Lyons

Lyons, Colorado; a little before noon on Saturday, March 21, 1998.

Chapter 2 — Volunteers

Lyons, Colorado; a little before noon on Saturday, March 21, 1998.

Chapter 3 — Barley

East Boulder County north of Longmont, Colorado; late Saturday afternoon, March 21, 1998.

Chapter 4 — Kitchen Work

Lyons, Colorado; Saturday afternoon, March 21, 1998.

Chapter 5 — Paco’s Gang

Denver, Colorado; Monday afternoon, March 23, 1998.

Chapter 6 — Home

Lyons, Colorado; Sunday afternoon, March 22, 1998.

Chapter 7 — Hammer and Anvil

Lyons, Colorado; Sunday afternoon, March 22, 1998.

Chapter 8 — State Capitol

Downtown Denver, early evening, Tuesday, March 24, 1998

Chapter 9 — Duel

Southeast of Lyons, Colorado; Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 1998.

Chapter 10 — Priorities

Lyons, Colorado; Wednesday night, March 25, 1998.

Chapter 11 — A Man’s Castle

Denver, Colorado, Wednesday Evening, March 25, 1998.

Chapter 12 — Cement

Lyons, Colorado; Thursday morning, March 26, 1998.

Chapter 13 — The Freeze

Longmont, Colorado; Friday night, March 27, 1998.

Chapter 14 — Fools Rush In

Lyons, Colorado; early afternoon, Monday, March 30, 1998.

Chapter 15 — Survival

Lyons, Colorado; late afternoon, Monday, March 30, 1998.

Chapter 16 — Rites

Denver, Colorado, Thursday, April 2, 1998.

Chapter 17 — The Cost of Doing Business

Lyons, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

Chapter 18 — When all you’ve got is a Hammer

Longmont, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

Chapter 19 — Misunderstandings

Lyons, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

Chapter 20 — Contact

Between Lyons and Longmont, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

Chapter 21 — Taking Positions

Lyons, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

Chapter 22 — Billings

Billings, Montana, Early April, 1998.

Chapter 23 — The Home Front

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Chapter 24 — War Begins

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Chapter 25 — Dances with Targets

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Chapter 26 — Ash

Denver, Early May, 1998.

Chapter 27 — Opportunities and Screw-ups

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Chapter 28 — Come into my Parlor

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Chapter 29 — From the Jaws of Defeat

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Chapter 30 — Victory

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

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1

— A Meeting in Lyons —

Lyons, Colorado; a little before noon on Saturday, March 21, 1998.

“Order! Order! Quiet down everybody, let the man speak!”

Sam paused while Mayor Allison Hamill banged a gavel until the shouting subsided. She frowned at the room and then said, “Please continue, Mister Hyatt.”

Sam cleared his throat and picked up the thread of his narration again, deciding to cut it short.

“After we left the bike store, we rode north by way of Lafayette and stayed in a Red Cross shelter for the night. We only made it to Rina Durungian’s farm on Thursday before the snow caught us. She gave us shelter, later decided to come with us, and that’s why we had her horses and farm equipment along when we got here Friday. We were able to carry a couple hundred chickens and a ton of feed for them. They’re out in my fa– Mister Santini’s orchard right now. When we found he was in Longmont, a few of us went and fetched him out.”

“For which I’m very grateful, let me tell you,” Burt drawled.

“So that’s pretty much it. Denver is falling apart, Longmont too — nobody’s in charge there and it shows. We saw people fighting over food at the Safeway. The hospital’s a shambles. People with knives and spears attacked us just trying to get our bikes. Something’s taken away guns and engines and electricity, and left us all in deep trouble.”

Sam stopped and looked at the room. The town meeting hall doubled as the elementary school’s auditorium, or maybe the other way around. Currently it was crammed with nearly four hundred people — pretty close to every citizen of Lyons who could walk, and then some for the refugees that the town had already taken in.

Like us, Sam thought. Only not. We brought food, chickens, horses and tools, thanks to Rina Durungian. Most of the folks who came down the canyons barely had enough warm clothing.

Ellie and most of his students and the elder McCarthys sat in the front row on one side. When Burt had asked Sam to come tell the Trustees what he’d seen, Ellie and the others had come along for support. Rina had stayed behind with most of the Abbakus to organize the chickens, but Stanto was there listening intently and watching the crowd. Kate and Jerry were still bedridden, with firm orders from Ellie to stay that way until she got back, and Karen sitting in to enforce them.

Lyons’ seven–member Board of Trustees was gathered at a long table facing the audience. The Town Clerk sat at the end taking notes on a yellow legal pad instead of her shiny computer keyboard, which had been shoved into a corner and forgotten. Someone had put hastily scrawled cardboard signs with their names in front of each of the Trustees so the new people would know who was who. Remarkably, only Burt Santini had been out of town when this Change struck. He was there now, along with the Mayor and all the others; three women and four men. Burt was whispering to the man and woman flanking him.

A cold shower, a pan of warm water for shaving, and nine hours of sleep, had Sam feeling nearly normal again. The same had been less help to Burt. He still looked several years older and grayer to Sam than he had last year. But sitting at the council table, it came across as gravitas, the wisdom of age. Sam found himself rather glad of that at the moment.

“Before we let Mister Hyatt go, do any of the Board have questions for him?” asked the Mayor.

The man next to her raised his hand first. He had a long narrow face under style–cut hair and looked prissy.

“Trustee Yohansen,” The Mayor recognized him.

“I want to thank you for providing your personal observations to us today, Sam,” the man began with a smirk. “Alarmed as I am to hear you talk so casually of committing assault, burglary, and theft, I can understand that men in stressful situations sometimes make decisions they regret later. My greater concern is with the apparently wide–spread breakdown of respect for law and property that you report. It appears that…”

You’re a snarky bastard, Sam thought as the politico droned on for a couple more minutes about the importance of enforcing the law. Sam cultivated patience and contemplated the Trustee’s name–card. It said ‘Whitmer Q. Yohansen,’ and Sam wondered what had possessed his parents to saddle the man with that name, and how much it had to do with his high level of assholery.

When Yohansen finished posturing without actually asking a question, the Mayor recognized one of the women on the Board, whose card read Susan Smythe. She was petite but looked like she wanted to burst.

“Where’s the Government?!” she demanded. “What’s our ex–Texan Governor doing about all this? He should’ve put some state troopers on the roads, called out the National Guard, brought in the Feds for help! Doesn’t he know we’ve got trouble here?” She stared accusingly at Sam as if it was his fault.

Sam blinked. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know what the Governor’s doing right now, Ma’am. I don’t even know if he’s still alive. I’m also sure that, if he is, there’s not much he can do. No radio, no phones, no cars, how does he call out the National Guard? And if he does, how do they get any kind of details on what to do? I don’t think this situation was in anybody’s emergency plans. I’d guess every community’s acting on its own as best they can. Chief Waters and your Marshall have already recruited as many local Guards as they could find, but they’re pretty stretched just defending the town.”

Susan Smythe glared at him as if she wanted to argue, but settled for declaring “Somebody should be doing something!” and crossing her arms.

“Trustee Palmer,” Mayor Hamill said.

An urbane–looking gentleman spoke up; unlike everyone else on the Board he wore a formal suit and tie, a set that must have cost more than Sam’s weekly salary. It didn’t look nearly warm enough since the guy’s lips were almost blue. His name–card said ‘James W. Palmer, Esq.’ in a neat formal hand quite different from the others. Sam wondered if the man had lettered it himself.

“I want to caution everyone about proper legal procedure,” Palmer said. “I am concerned that Deputy Chief Waters may be running a bit roughshod over the civil rights of many of our refugees.”

“Civil rights?!” shouted someone in the audience. “Hell with that! Let’s throw all the road people out! This is our town!”

There was a confused roar in response to that, some agreeing and more disagreeing. The Mayor banged for order again, got it with the help of a few self–appointed sargents–at–arms, and nodded to Palmer again.

The lawyer was stubborn and not easily intimidated; he picked right up where he’d left off.

“I’ve expressed my concerns about Marshall Duncan’s carelessness with procedure before. I was opposed to the barrier that this Board authorized yesterday. Now I am alarmed to learn that Duncan’s put it out at the north end of Apple Valley — that’s more than a mile past the end of the Town limits. We have no jurisdiction there. We need to call in the County Sheriff for permission to do any such thing. This is likely to result in the town getting sued for violating someone’s civil rights if we continue over–extending our authority this way.”

Sam stared at him, wondering if the man had left his brain at home, or just his common sense. A number of folks in the audience seemed to agree, judging from the unfavorable undertone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please bear in mind that this time is for asking Mr. Hyatt questions about his testimony,” reminded the Mayor. “He has been kind enough to provide his observations, please make use of the opportunity. Trustee MacClelland.”

MacClelland wore blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He had the weathered face and hands of a man who worked outdoors, and he wore a jacket with the local gas company logo on it. He was one of the two Trustees that Burt had been whispering to.

“Thank you, Sam, for sharing your experiences with us,” he began. “I want to draw our attention to two things. First, you said you saw people fighting over food at the Safeway store in Longmont?”

“Yup.” The memory made Sam frown. “Looked like a riot — I think one group was trying to keep another group out and a lot of other people were milling around the edge. We didn’t stay long so I couldn’t swear to any details.”

MacClelland looked out over the crowd. “Joe DiNapoli — you run the grocery store here in town. My second point is, how much food have you got left on your shelves?”

A short round gray–haired man stood up for a moment. “Not a lot, Pete. My normal delivery is on Thursday, and that didn’t happen. I usually get my dairy and produce on Mondays and Saturdays. I’m low on bread and out of milk and eggs. Folks here in town have been buying heavier than usual, though my up–canyon trade has pretty well disappeared.” He looked like he wanted to say more but stopped instead.

“So how many weeks worth of dry and canned goods do you think you have? Especially if nobody drives into Longmont to get groceries?”

DiNapoli shifted from foot to foot for a moment. “I guess about two, three weeks, maybe. I had an extra ton of canned goods delivered last week — there was a good bargain at Sysco so I grabbed it. But we’re already digging into it to keep the shelves stocked.”

MacClelland looked around at the Trustees. “Two, three weeks, plus whatever people have in their houses. Then the town’s out of food, except for what we raise here ourselves. Which isn’t very much — Burt’s cherry orchard and those strawberries he grows in his greenhouse, those couple hundred chickens and that ton of chicken feed that Sam brought, five or six more greenhouses in people’s back yards, two more small organic farms, John Gall’s cattle, and Ellen Dunstan’s goat–cheese operation out in Apple Valley. Probably three or four dozen fruit trees in people’s yards, a few back–yard gardens. Maybe we grow enough food to keep a hundred, hundred–and–fifty people alive?”

“I think you could count the Geil’s cattle, too, and Doctor Brown’s herd north on Road Seventy–One,” Burt put in. “And Martha Rowe keeps sheep, and the Mecheks have those llamas.”

“Right, that might more than double the meat supply,” MacClelland nodded. “Let’s be generous and call it food enough for three hundred on a sustainable basis. And we’ve got around six hundred in the town? Another hundred in the surroundings, counting the houses out on Seventy–One? I haven’t even included anyone to the east, beyond Indian Ridge, on all those horse farms and estates. If we do, we pick up a couple wheat fields and a lot more pasture, but then we’ve still got almost three times as many people as we’ve got food.”

MacClelland turned to DiNapoli again. “So Joe, how much is money worth compared to food? Or checks? Especially if it’s a check drawn on money in a bank in, say, Longmont, or Denver, or Chicago?”

Joe looked torn. “Pete, I can’t feed my wife and kids with paper and metal.”

“None of us can,” MacClelland answered gently. “You’re one man among hundreds in the same situation. Right now the canned goods in our houses are worth more than all the cash in our bank accounts, because that food’ll keep us alive. The whole basis of our lives, working in a larger economy, has just been cut right out from under us.”

There was a stunned silence in the crowd, followed by a growing murmur. DiNapoli looked around at the crowd in sudden fear. Sam thought the earlier call to expel the outsiders might find more favor now.

Yohansen spoke up angrily. “I think I see where you’re going with this. Food ought not to be a government function! That’s what free enterprise is for! If the government stays out of it the market’ll solve the problem just fine!”

Sam shook his head slightly. He’d seldom seen a man cling to his own blinders with such conviction.

“You don’t need to lecture me on free enterprise, Whit,” answered Burt. “I’m a farmer and businessman, not a college professor. I’ve had hands–on experience with free enterprise all my life. And I know its limits. Pete’s just pointed out to all of us that we got a big problem. We can either face it, join together and maybe pull through, or hide from it. If we do that, there’s nothing to stop us ending up like Longmont is now. And I’ve seen that with my own eyes, and can testify that Sam hasn’t yet told you the worst of it.”

Mayor Hamill cocked her head and looked at him. “So what is the ‘worst of it’, Burt?”

“Those sixty thousand people aren’t gonna stay in Longmont, nor the hundred thousand in Boulder,” he answered grimly. “They’ll fight over the food they’ve got, eat it up, then any who can walk will spread out into the countryside and eat anything they can. Think about tens of thousands of ignorant, hungry, desperate city people coming up the highways to that barrier Hank Waters set up. How long’ll it hold them off?”

The murmur in the crowd grew to a confused roar, with some ugly tones in it.

Mayor Hamill banged her gavel again. “Order! Order!”

It took several minutes to restore quiet. When it returned, the last Board of Trustees member raised her hand for recognition.

“Trustee Joyner,” the Mayor said.

Sam looked at the woman with interest. She was fairly tall, his own height or maybe half an inch less, and even under her warm clothes he could see that she had the ropy build of an athlete, or judging by her wind–burned face more likely a cowgirl. He remembered vaguely that Burt counted Rachel Joyner and Pete MacClelland as his main allies on the Board.

“It’s time to take this bull by the horns,” she declared with a drawl that matched Burt’s. “Right now Joe’s wondering if he can keep enough food out of his grocery store to save his own family, while some of you in this audience are wondering if you can break in there tonight and steal some of it for your own. That sounds like the way Longmont fell apart.”

She stood up and stared at the crowd, which had gone totally silent.

“I say to hell with that!” Joyner roared. “We all make it or none of us makes it, and that means sharing — both food and work. Instead of fighting each other over the not–enough that we have, like Longmont, I say we reach out and get more food! Enough so that everybody in this town eats!”

The thrill that coursed through the audience was almost electric. Sam felt it; he was sure Joe DiNapoli felt it — the little man’s face went from apprehensive to hopeful in a heartbeat.

“We need to gather food,” Joyner continued in a clear strong voice. “And we’ll need to protect what we gather, so we also got to train a militia, and get ready to stand a siege from those that want take our food away from us. I make a four–part motion, Madame Mayor. First, that this Board authorizes the Marshall and the Acting Fire Chief to recruit that militia. Second, that we authorize the militia to build a better wall down at the mouth of the canyon, below the sewer plant and above the junction. Third, that we go after all the food we can get from the east county and bring it here behind the hills — and that includes everything left in Joe DiNapoli’s grocery store, so nobody tries to rob him to get it. And fourth, that we appoint Sam Hyatt as Chief Gatherer to go out into the east county to get that food.”

“Second!” said Burt Santini, while Sam’s jaw dropped. “Move to close debate and call the question!”

“Second that!” piped up Pete MacClelland, grinning at Sam.

The clerk was scribbling frantically.

“We have a motion on the table and a motion to close debate,” the Mayor said judiciously. “Closing debate takes precedence.”

Yohansen spluttered “You can’t do that!”

“Actually, it is allowed under the Town’s Rules of Debate,” pointed out Palmer pedantically. “The revised version that we passed two years ago when —”

“I don’t care about why, let’s do something!” Susan Smythe interrupted.

A groundswell of agreement came from the crowd.

“All in favor of closing debate?” Allison Hamill smiled.

“But!” Sam started to say.

“Trustees only!” She interrupted him. “All those in favor?”

“Aye!” said Santini, MacClelland, Joyner and Smythe.

“And I vote aye,” the Mayor said with a twinkle in her eye. “Opposed?”

“Nay!” snapped Yohansen, followed by Palmer’s more dignified nay.

“The ayes have it. Motion carried,” The Mayor declared. “Now, all those in favor of the motion itself?”

The same pattern of votes was cast. There was a cheer of approval from the crowd. Several dozen people actually applauded.

Allison Hamill continued “And that carries too. Be it resolved, the Town of Lyons will form a militia, build a wall, and gather food to withstand an expected siege. Sam Hyatt is appointed Chief Gatherer. I appoint myself to notify the Marshal, and Rachel to tell the Acting Fire Chief, and I appoint Burt to coordinate the food–gathering plans with his son–in–law. Pete, you talk to the guys at the Town Shop and see what can be done to aid the other functions. Susan, would you please see to passing word to the school principal that we’re probably going to need part of the elementary school for a food storage and distribution site? And then would you please arrange the crew we’re going to need to share it out fairly? I think the school dietician can help with that last.”

“Glad to,” Smythe answered. “I see both Ron Wirth and Elaine Shelly right up there in the crowd. Can we adjourn? I don’t think I can stand to sit in this chair one more minute. Let’s do something!”

“Second the motion!” said MacClelland and Santini simultaneously.

“This emergency meeting of the Town of Lyons Board of Trustees for March 21, 1998, is adjourned,” intoned Mayor Hamill formally. The clerk scribbled furiously, trying to catch up. The crowd began to break up in chaotic bunches, some moving toward the front and others toward the exits.

Yohansen slapped the table with a loud crack, rose and glared at Burt and his allies. “You all think you’re so clever, but I’ve got eyes. You planned this little socialist coup, but it’ll backfire on you. I guarantee it!” He stalked away.

Then Sam was engulfed by volunteers; his students and the McCarthys in the lead. Ellie hugged him. He took a moment to say “You might’ve warned me!” over her shoulder to his father–in–law.

“Wasn’t time,” Burt insisted with a big grin. “Pete and Rachel and I cooked this up after the meeting started, no time for planning. Good thing she’s got a talent for talking policy on the fly. Now, Mister Chief Gatherer, how should we organize this thing?”

“First let’s get a room here in the school and talk it out,” Sam answered, thinking as he spoke. “I’ve got the beginning of an idea.”

❀ ❁ ❀

2

— Volunteers —

Lyons, Colorado; a little before noon on Saturday, March 21, 1998.

When Ellie heard the Trustees appoint Sam to his new post, she shivered in fear. They’re sending my husband away from me! was the first thought that ran through her mind. As soon as adjournment was declared she jumped up and ran to him, grabbing him with all her strength, which seemed pretty desperately small and inadequate at the moment. She heard him talking to her father and wanted irrationally to say You can’t have him, Dad! He’s mine!

But the thinking part of her was adding two and two to get some frightening fours. When Sam said he had some ideas, she knew what kind of ideas they would be.

I have to help him with this, Ellie thought, frightened and excited at the same time. I just have to. He needs to know things, needs someone to organize notes and keep track. I always edited his lesson plans for him back in Montana — he knows how to teach, how to lead, but he’s lousy at the record–keeping side. Maybe having someone to do that for him will reduce the number of risks he takes Out There.

Sam called for volunteers for the work of collecting food to come down from the audience and join him. They ended up with at least sixty adults and older teens for what Ellie dubbed the Gatherers. She borrowed a note pad from the town clerk and volunteered to play secretary. Sam simply appropriated the double–sized classroom next door to the auditorium and let people squeeze into grade–school desks and chairs, or stand. He took over a blackboard and hastily sketched lines on it with chalk, consulting a map that Ellie’s dad had provided. Ellie settled at the teacher’s desk and started making notes.

“Okay, here we are in Lyons, here’s the main highways, here’s the foothills,” Sam announced. “Our assigned target is the area east of the first ridge, so what food is out there that we might gather in? I don’t know the territory so you’ll have to fill in for me.”

“More chickens,” June McCarthy promptly said. “Rina had more’n a thousand at her farm and we only brought less’n three hundred, counting the ones we et.”

Sam drew lines for roads and put the Durungian Farm on the board. “Okay, that’s one target; what’s another?”

“There’s more chicken farms out there,” someone volunteered. “A big place along 63rd, another out on Yellowstone Road, a couple more.”

Sam called the man up, consulted maps and the memories of other volunteers and put four more farms on the map. Ellie made a separate list.

“What else?” he asked the room.

“The sugar mill in Longmont?” someone suggested tentatively.

Sam shook his head. “Nothing inside the city. It’s too dangerous, too many people. Think about the countryside, the farms. Where can we find big food supplies?”

Ellie twitched in memory. “The Coors elevator,” she said. “Couple miles north of Longmont. They store barley there, right?” She knew she’d seen it a dozen times, but that had been many years ago.

Heads nodded. “Yup.” “Still there.” “Harvest wasn’t too long ago, either.” Someone chimed in, “Should still be closer to full than not, thousands of bushels at least.”

Sam’s eyebrows twitched as he marked it on the map. “That might be our best target. What else?”

A couple milk dairies were named, a goat dairy and cheese factory, several horse farms and a specialty potato breeder. Sam marked them all down and turned to Ellie’s dad.

“Burt, what can we grow in this soil here in the canyons? Should we go after potatoes? Barley? Wheat? Something else?”

“The first two’re best,” her dad told him. “We can grow potatoes between the trees in my orchard, and all across the bottom meadows in Apple Valley near the river — there’s plenty of irrigation water and some deep soil there. Barley’ll grow in pockets on the valley sides, below the ditches, it doesn’t need as much water, and we can plant it dry on some of those pastures in Stone Canyon. Won’t get as good a harvest as out on the plains, but it’s still worth it. We could pasture goats on the rougher parts of the hills, they eat anything.”

“Right.” Sam made marks on the chalkboard. “Now, we need as much transportation as we can dig up, and we need it today. Who’s got wagons, two–wheeled garden carts, heck, even bicycles with kiddie carts or side baskets?”

Ideas bubbled forth, names were tossed around. Some Ellie knew from growing up here, others were newcomers that she’d never met. She wrote furiously for a few minutes.

“Four priorities,” Sam declared. “First, we gather up whatever chickens are left at the Durungian farm, and any feed we can haul back here, and then any other chicken farms where we can persuade the farmers to join up with us. I’m sending Rina Durungian and the McCarthys on that task, with a couple of my students and a few others along as guards. Stanto Abbaku will be in charge.”

The Armenian nodded and smiled. Ellie scribbled him a list as Sam dictated it.

“Second, the barley elevator — I’ll take that one with the rest of my kids and every cart we can spare — most of you in this room will come along as labor and protection both. We’ve got to bring back as much barley as we can move, as fast as possible before someone in Longmont remembers the place and takes it away from us. Just haul it here and dump it in piles on the floors of classrooms. Most of the wagons will be assigned there too, except for Rina’s.”

Sam dictated another list and Ellie’s pencil sped across a fresh page.

“Third, the potato farm, and we send the sweetest–talking salesman or woman we have to persuade that potato farmer to move here with us, and his whole family too. That’ll be you, Burt, and as many of his activated Guardsmen as Hank Waters can spare to guard you. If the farmer says yes, then my crew goes for him as soon as we finish with the barley.”

Ellie’s heart constructed anew but she doggedly wrote out another list, thinking Dad…be careful.

“Fourth, the goat dairy. After we’re done with the barley and potatoes, while Rina’s probably still sweet–talking chicken farmers, Burt and I’ll combine to tackle that one. And meanwhile, everybody who goes out, no matter what job they’re on, tries to also gather in every horse we can get, and find any plows that they can pull. Planting enough barley and whatever to feed most of a thousand people is going to be a back–breaking challenge, people, and we need all the animal help we can get.”

More names, more lists, and it was done. Ellie rubbed and stretched her cold, cramped fingers between transcribing notes into instructions while Sam circulated among the volunteers, learning names. Several folks turned out to have surprising skills — when had little Laura Munzer taken up Akkido? Or Ken Clair learned fencing? Ellie was keenly aware of the decade and change since she’d last lived in Lyons.

A few minutes later Sam started to send the volunteers all out on their tasks, with orders to report back to the school ready to leave by two. Ellie mutely pointed to the stopped clocks and Sam twisted his mouth in chagrin. “This is gonna be a problem. Okay folks, as close to two o’clock as you can guess it. And bring your weapons — at least a knife, or a hoe or long–handled shovel — those will be useful for shoveling barley and also serve as weapons. Anyone who’s got anything that works as armor should wear it, as well. And dress warmly, with good walking shoes or boots — we’re all going to walk way more than we’d like.”

“Bags,” suggested Ellie. “The more grain we can put in bags, the easier it’ll be to handle and the safer it’ll be to store. Even pillow–cases would be better than nothing.”

“Perfect,” Sam nodded. “Bring along any burlap bags, cloth sacks, or pillow cases you have.”

Ellie tore off note pages and passed them out. The different groups gathered up their assignments and headed out chattering. Her dad borrowed Tim and Terry to help fetch a couple horses and a wagon that he knew of out on the north side of town.

When everyone had gone but Jesus and Drew, Ellie folded up the notepad and took Sam’s hand.

“C’mon, handsome, I’ll treat you to lunch,” she told her husband.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Where? Didn’t look like any restaurants were open when we walked here this morning.”

“At my dad’s place, of course, silly.”

“It’s a date!” He grinned at her and some of that icy fear inside melted, a little.

They walked in companionable silence out of the school — her legs were still sore but a night and a morning of rest had helped them recover somewhat. Jesus and Drew trailed a couple steps behind, rubbernecking at the town. The air temperature felt like it must be above fifty, positively balmy compared to Montana. The familiar streets of Lyons were older, a little more worn and patched than the last time she’d been back, except for one that had been repaved since last year with still–black new asphalt and bone–white concrete curbs. The sun had come out again and finished melting off the vestiges of snow on the road, except in shadowed spots. Angular white patches occupied lawns on the north side of each house.

Should I talk about this in front of the boys? she wondered. No, I can’t. I’ll get Sam alone at the house, somehow.

Quite a few people were working in their yards or garages, several helping neighbors. Just before the bridge Steve Ralston hailed her and Sam, asking about the meeting decision and what happened next. Ellie kept walking, towing Sam along as he rapidly sketched the Trustee’s decisions. Scarcely had they got across the bridge than someone else accosted them, having only heard the tail end of the conversation, and demanded the rest. Jesus and Drew were too shy of these strangers to talk, so Sam carried the word. Ellie resolutely dragged him away from that, too.

Then Martha Rowe came towards them, walking down Highway 7 towards town to find out what had happened at the meeting. She did an about–face and attached herself to Ellie and Sam like a magnet, peppering both of them with questions. Normally Ellie liked Martha, a spry woman in her early fifties who had outlived an older husband and seemed content to raise her heirloom sheep on her patch of irrigated meadow and mountain scrub. Today Ellie just wished the woman would go away. Ellie answered her questions in clipped sentences or single words, hung on to Sam’s hand, and resolutely plodded on. Thankfully, at the corner Martha split off and headed for home while the Hyatts turned left.

Just two more blocks, Ellie prayed anxiously, then I get to have him to myself for a while.

But Maybell was out in her yard with the McCarthy boys, stringing up chicken–wire.

“Ellie! Sam!” she hailed them cheerfully, leaning her bulk on the fence. “Rina assigned me a couple of strapping young men to fence in my yard. I’m going to raise some chickens! Lordee, I haven’t done that since I was a kid in 4–H!”

Ellie couldn’t bring herself to be rude to a woman she’d known most of her life, so she had to stop. Sam managed to get a few words in edgewise amidst Maybell’s prodigious outpouring of plans, schemes, hopes, gossip, speculation and worries. The McCarthy boys rolled their eyes and grinned while they just went on working; Mike was moving cautiously but seemed free from pain. Finally Ellie simply tugged Sam’s arm and dragged him away, leaving Maybell cheerfully answering her own questions.

The front porch of the old house looked like a refuge. With ill–concealed guile Ellie suggested that Drew and Jesus go see if Rina needed any more help with the chickens out in the orchard, while tugging Sam toward the steps. Thankfully Sam got the hint and seconded the suggestion. They managed to cross the threshold of the old house completely unencumbered by anyone else, to Ellie’s intense relief. Sam felt it too, because he turned to her with a little smile as he shut the door behind them.

“Now, what were you saying about lunch?” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively in a way that had nothing to do with nutrition. Ellie felt a warm spot start down in a place well below her stomach.

“It is waiting for you on the kitchen table,” Grandma Abbaku said as she bustled into the front hall through the living room. “But first you may perhaps wish to visit with Kate. Miz Karen is worried about her and asked that you be sent up as soon as you arrived.” She made a little shooing motion toward the stairs.

The mood vanished. Ellie had intended to drag Sam up those stairs, by main force if she had to, but now found herself lagging behind as he went up them two steps at a time. Her tired leg muscles protested and she had to fight down a sharp stab of resentment.

She had put Kate, Maria, Mary, and Marta in the west sleeping porch, an enclosed space over the den that her Dad had tacked onto the east side of the house a couple decades back. He’d glassed it in several years ago and it held the morning sun tolerably well. Kate was there, sitting up in the fold-out bed propped up on pillows. Karen had changed out of yesterday’s rumpled scrubs into some old clothes that fit her reasonably well and now sat on the edge of the bed examining Kate. The nurse was using some kind of little metal candle lantern to shine a beam of light into Kate’s eyes, first one, then the other.

“Damnit, I can’t tell what’s what with this piece of… Ellie, I’m glad you’re here,” her friend said. “Take a look at this.”

Ellie carefully took the hot metal lantern from Karen’s fingers and sat in the space she vacated. Kate had a half–rebellious, half–frightened look on her face. Was it Ellie’s imagination that she seemed paler than normal?

“Chin up, please, Kate,” Ellie said in her nurse voice. “Let me see your eyes.”

Kate obeyed and Ellie repeated Karen’s moves, once, twice, then three times just to be sure. She thought that there wasn’t any significant difference between the two pupils, but the light just wasn’t good enough to be sure.

I miss modern medicine already! she thought wryly. If I just had the right tools - and some electricity to run them!

“Try to stand up, Kate.” Ellie moved out of the way but kept her free hand ready.

Kate lurched to her feet and promptly tipped over, flailing for balance. Karen caught her and Ellie steered the girl back to the bed. Kate’s face became even paler and she looked like someone trying not to vomit.

“Kate, are you feeling nauseous?” Ellie asked, then had to repeat it as Kate sagged back against the pillows.

“Unh? Umm, yeah,” she finally mumbled. Her eyes wandered around the porch for a moment, then refocused when Ellie waved the lamp in front of them. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked in a plaintive voice.

“I don’t think it’s a major traumatic event, but you definitely have a concussion from that whack on the head that you got last night,” Ellie explained honestly. “Bed rest is the best way to cure it. Kate, I want you to stay in bed another day, with no eye–strain; no reading, no close–up work with your hands, or anything. Just sleep as much as you can.”

Kate rolled her eyes at that and scowled. “But this is so boring! There’s all kinds of work that needs doing, why can’t I help do some of it?” She picked at her covers as if she wanted to throw them off.

Out of the corner of her eye Ellie saw Sam administer a small frown to Kate, what the twins called his ‘Sensei-does-not-approve’ frown.

“Boring won’t hurt you,” Ellie told her firmly. “Falling over, or cutting yourself on a tool because your balance is shot, will. Don’t take pointless risks, Kate.”

Under their combined admonishment, Kate wilted and promised to obey. Ellie guessed she’d keep that promise, so she turned to Karen. The bloodshot eyes of last night had faded back to a more normal hue, but the other signs of sleep deprivation hadn’t gone away yet.

“What about you? You look beyond exhausted, on the ragged edge of losing it.”

“I am not losing it!” Karen protested irritably, pounding the sofa. The wickerwork jabbed her with a sharp rattan end and she swore at it.

Sam turned his frown on her, too. “Karen, you told me yesterday that your apartment burned up with everything you owned,” he pointed out. “And you were on duty at the hospital for three straight days while all your patients — died.”

There was something odd about his tone of voice but Ellie was too busy watching Karen to think about it.

“Karen, you’ve got all the classic signs of exhaustion and overwork,” Ellie told her. “Your patience is thin and you’re getting frustrated too easily. You’ve had a major load of stress and we both know it takes a while to bleed that off once you’ve built it up. How much sleep did you get last night, and since?”

Karen made a scowl that was a near-twin to Kate’s. “Around nine hours last night, no more since.”

“Then both of you lie down in here and take a nap,” Ellie instructed firmly. “Right now and preferably for at least two hours. I’ll check back later to see how you’re doing.”

Karen heaved a sigh, slung herself down on the sofa and pulled a couple blankets over her clothes. “You’re the doctor, Ellie.”

Kate looked a little nonplussed, but snuggled back down in her bed as well. “I don’t know if I can sleep in daylight, Miz Hyatt,” she protested feebly.

“Try,” Ellie advised, getting back to her feet. “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”

Sam patted Kate on one shoulder and then followed Ellie out of the room. The narrow hallway lead back to the upstairs hall next to the stairs, their room was just across from that. He paused to embrace her at the doorway and she felt that little warm glow resume.

“We should have an hour at least before your Gatherers get here,” she told him, putting her arms around him in turn.

As he started to speak, a voice yelled up the stairs. “Mister Hyatt! There’s some people here to see you and they’ve got a wagon and horses!”

Ellie closed her eyes and leaned wearily against him. “Oh, no. It’s — it’s not — damn it.”

“No clocks anymore,” Sam whispered in chagrin. “Nobody knows when they’re supposed to be anywhere.”

“Mister Hyatt?” called the voice again, and creaks came from the stairs. There were more footsteps in the downstairs hall.

They let each other go with extreme reluctance. Ellie leaned against the door frame as Sam stepped to the top of the stairs.

“Coming,” he said, his face twisted in a wry grin as he cast one lingering look at her, and then he descended.

I guess I’d better go eat lunch, Ellie thought resignedly. There’s work to do.

❀ ❁ ❀

3

— Barley —

East Boulder County north of Longmont, Colorado; late Saturday afternoon, March 21, 1998.

Ragged clouds veiled the setting sun.

Sam faced away from it. Yellowstone Road unrolled before him, a grey gravel ribbon. He knew from the map Burt had given him that it unreeled eastward across the north side of Boulder County for four miles. To his right and a little behind him heavy footfalls and creaking harness marked the three precious wagons and even–more–precious horse teams that Lyons had been able to muster. Three mules and seven more individual horses followed, each towing a small wagon or garden cart; collectively they could hold almost as much as the smallest wagon. It had taken more than two hours to get this far on the back roads, only half way to their target, and already the afternoon was far advanced. Sam had his doubts this project could be pulled off before the sun rose again. He suspected it would be later than that before he saw his wife once more.

Darrin wiped his hands after pushing the last car out of the junction. “Is that the place, Sensei?” He pointed at the metallic sheen of a distant barn.

“No, much farther,” Sam responded, folding the map. “We have to cross US 287 first.”

Sam looked back over his shoulder. Jesus and Drew were gathering behind him, remounting their bikes. The tangled trio of cars at the junction had taken so long to clear that the wagons had nearly caught up again. Sam hoped that the thirty armed men and women walking with them were enough to dissuade anyone they might meet from attacking on the way back.

“Let’s move out.” Sam made a thumbs–up signal to Rachel Joyner and her neighbor Frank, who was the owner and driver of the first wagon. Rachel wore her Stetson above a long leather coat, no stylish flimsy thing but a cattleman’s heavy winter working coat, stained and worn on the elbows. She held a long–handled shovel and was grimly sharpening the edge of the blade with a small whetstone. Frank had run a tourist service that used the wagon for hay rides; he was phlegmatically gazing at the road ahead. Rachel nodded in response to his signal so Sam turned and mounted his own bike.

Soon his crew pulled ahead of the creaking, slow moving wagons, their bikes eating the miles. They passed farmhouses and barns and a few rural McMansions. Those generally had much more expensive fences than the real farmers and ranchers, and far more elaborate gates. They approached and then passed the huge silver sheen of Terry Lake stretching miles to the south, obliquely reflecting the setting sun from thousands of ripples. Miles beyond it, smoke and steam still billowed from the Longmont fires.

A woman on a front porch stared at them until, driven by an old impulse, Sam waved at her. After a moment she waved back, and then hastily slipped inside the front door as if frightened of her own friendliness.

They crested a rise and saw 287 ahead; Sam paused to scan the territory. The cold air reeked of death and chicken manure from a set of big steel barns stretching north of Yellowstone Road, the northern egg farm. Sam ignored it for now. There was no point to collecting more chickens before they had the means to feed them, and the cold air would keep the dead ones here just as well as Lyons. Ahead a jackknifed semi and a handful of cars were strewn about the intersection. There wasn’t enough room to squeeze the wagons through without moving something.

They rode closer and he marked out the one car that would clear the way. As luck had it, that was a silvery Honda Civic nearly lost in the semi’s shadow, frost–covered and slippery. The windows were rolled up and doors locked. Darrin rocked the car but it had been left in gear and didn’t budge.

“Jesus — take out the driver’s window,” Sam ordered. “Then steer while we push.”

The big Hispanic boy punched the frosted pane in on the first blow. He started to reach inside then reared back with a startled curse, followed by a nervous laugh. He reached in again and hauled out a huge plush stuffed–animal of some kind, looking vaguely like a dog. A nervous titter erupted from Drew and was promptly squelched. Jesus tossed the toy aside and popped the hand brake, shifted the car into neutral. Sam and the others heaved and it reluctantly began to roll. Jesus strained to crank the wheel and they slowly forced the little car aside. Sam estimated that the resulting gap would pass the wagons with enough room to spare.

They remounted their bikes and pushed on east. The dirt length of Yellowstone Road ended at County Road 115, where they picked up pavement and turned south again. Half a mile away loomed the objective, a towering barley elevator. A finger of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the ten–foot–high letters on the tower, flowing white script of a famous beer. Sam took the lead, slowing as they approached a railroad crossing and then the entry of the elevator.

The tall steel building stood in a barren dirt parking lot completely bereft of cars. Chain link fence encircled it, with chain link gates closed by, of course, a chain. And padlock.

“It’s on the outside, Sensei,” pointed out Darrin, unfolding a big pair of bolt cutters. “Someone locked it behind him when he left.”

“Does that mean nobody’s inside?” asked Drew hopefully.

Sam shook his head, still scanning the windows. “No telling; there might be another entry, or it could just have been locked by someone clever. Cut it, and everyone stay alert.”

Darrin positioned the big cutters and snipped right through the chain while Jesus held it. The metallic ping seemed hugely loud in the still afternoon. Everybody paused and waited for several deep breaths. Then the two carefully unwound chain and lock from the wires and pried the gate open, trying not to make any clatter. Sam kept his eyes on the high windows of the office section of the elevator, the most likely place for anyone inside to be. Not a movement. When the leaves were pulled back as wide as could be for the wagons, he lead his followers into the yard. Pea gravel crunched slightly under their feet, loud in the stillness.

Rails cris–crossed the long bare yard, branching from the rail siding to run under a long loading gallery and all down the face of the building. A tall sheet–metal tower stuck up above the loading gallery, straddling the rails on thick steel legs to support a web of pipes that branched out across the face of the building. They reminded Sam disturbingly of some kind of angular silvery growth.

He and his troop parked their bikes against the outside of the loader, where they wouldn’t be in the way of the wagons when they arrived.

The office block was built into the southwest end of the elevator, three stories of steel wall and glass windows that pivoted on central hinges for ventilation. All were closed against the winter chill, and dirty enough that nothing could be seen through them. Setting sunlight winked off the panes in distracting patterns. Sam studied the second floor windows for a long moment — he thought he’d seen a movement in there, but it wasn’t repeated.

There was a heavy steel door a couple steps above ground level, the only apparent outside entrance to the office. Sam tested it carefully. Locked. He leaned over and tried to look obliquely through the nearest office window, but it was set too far away.

Gesturing to the rest to follow, Sam explored along the northwest side of the elevator. It had been built to parallel the rail, not the road, so it sat at an angle that meant there was no real north side, no side shaded all winter where ice and snow could accumulate shielded from the drying sun. Yesterday’s snow had already completely melted off the yard and building, nothing remained but a cold puddle around a downspout. Sam peered in it — no sign of any footprints in the muddy bottom.

They walked through the loader, glancing nervously up at big open pipes hanging over the rails. Sam found a second door beyond the loader, also locked, and three big overhead doors beyond that, locked again. He led his troop in a complete circuit of the building, approaching every corner nervously for a quick look before rounding it. There was another overhead door at the far end of the building axis, locked, and a fire–stair on the northeast side with a retracted drop ladder, hanging a tantalizing ten feet or more above the ground, but no other entry. The windows on the southeast side of the office block weren’t quite as dirty and didn’t have the sun behind them, so Sam risked chinning himself on a sill and peering through one of the cleaner ones. He was looking into a small office cubby, desk and chair and some shelves, and an open door through which a bigger room was visible beyond. There was no sign of anybody there.

There weren’t any other outside doors.

They completed their circuit to the main office door.

“Should we try to break it, Sensei?” Darrin whispered, hefting his prybar. The creepy silence of the place was infecting him.

Sam shook his head, led them back around again.

“I don’t want to make it impossible to shut the place up again behind us,” he told them quietly as they walked. “We’ll want to make as many trips as we can to get barley for Lyons, and we may need to keep it buttoned up in between.”

He stopped them under the fire–escape ladder.

“Jesus, Darrin, you’re close enough to the same height — stand here shoulder to shoulder, arms braced against the wall. I’m going to use you for a ladder. Drew, you’re going to give me a lift.”

The tallest two took up position and Drew readied himself. Sam leaned his bo against the wall and stepped lightly up into Drew’s interlaced hands, then lunged up onto Jesus and Darrin’s shoulders. Sam caught himself against the steel wall, tried to make sure his weight was evenly split between the two, then carefully looked up. The bottom rung of the ladder was still almost a yard above his head. Carefully he stretched, reaching, but came up short a few tantalizing inches.

“I’m going to have to jump,” he told them. “Take a deep breath and hold very still.”

When they were as still as they could manage, Sam let go of the wall, bent his knees, and leaped. He caught the rung in one hand, slapped the other over it and hung for a moment. Peeling paint flaked off of rust — this thing hadn’t been maintained in a while. As he’d expected, the sliding ladder was latched up above and didn’t budge at the sudden addition of a hundred–ninety pounds.

“Okay, move out of the way; if I have to let go I don’t want to land on you.”

When they’d done so, he chinned himself on the rung, got one arm through, and dragged his weight up it rung by rung by arms alone until his feet found purchase. Then it was as climbable as any other ladder. Once on the grating of the catwalk he found the release and tripped it, letting the rusty ladder descend with a little groan.

“Don’t come up until I call,” he warned them, leery of putting too much weight on the airy structure of the fire escape.

The catwalk ran just six feet to a steep narrow stair, almost a ladder itself. Sam began climbing. The whole structure was bolted to brackets on the outside of the building and it flexed a little as he went up it. Three flights up there was a door in the wall, this one with a six–inch–square window. A look through it revealed an indistinct space beyond, one that at least seemed to have a floor. Sam tried the knob; it didn’t budge either. The window was too far above the knob for him to try to break out the glass and reach through for the inner knob, even if he’d been willing to chance crippling himself on a shard. But this door was far flimsier than those on the ground level.

“Darrin,” he called down. “Bring up your pry bar.”

The space was ticklish to work in, with railings around each catwalk that didn’t even reach up to Sam’s hip. They were even lower on the tall Idahoan, who was sweating despite the chill air by the time he made it up three flights. He offered the pry bar to Sam while clinging to the stair rail with white–knuckled intensity.

Sam carefully probed around the lock. Its outer plate was almost flush with the door panel and offered no purchase for the pry bar, but the door didn’t fit the frame particularly well. With some patience Sam managed to work it into the gap and then heave. The door groaned and flexed slightly. He shifted the pry bar slightly and tried again. The gap was wider now and the metal groaned again, Sam felt the whole lock move this time. One more shift and a third pull, and the lock made a sharp breaking sound. The fourth try popped the door open.

The little room was chill and dusty. An open doorway on the inner side led to a branching steel catwalk high up inside the building. It threaded between tall steel storage tanks and bent out of sight in the darkness. Freezing cold air didn’t mute the dusty scent of grain, the vaguely musky odor of tons of barley.

Darrin had wormed inside after Sam, he seemed relieved to stop imitating a human fly. Sam leaned out the door and called down to the other two boys. “Fetch up my bo — and the candles.”

Drew ascended next with the bo, he had four small metal ‘bulls–eye’ lanterns and a dozen candles in his backpack. Jesus came last, hauling up the ladder with much creaking and groaning of rusty steel. They got all four candles lit and adjusted the louvers to shine only forward, then explored the upper works of the building.

The grain tanks were built in two long rows, but they weren’t all the same diameter, so the internal catwalk bent back and forth between them. Various branches went to the exterior wall at different places, generally with a window at each one. Big valves and various monitors, most clearly much younger than the building, crusted the outside of the tanks. They found more stairs that went both up to catwalks atop the tanks, and down. The down stair was next to a second door to the outside. Tim peered through the dirty window.

“Looks like the top of the loader,” he reported. “Some kind of balcony out there, anyway, and I don’t remember seeing anything like that from below.”

Sam thought for a moment, looking at the steps going down. The whole interior of the elevator was slightly gritty with grain dust, motes hung in the air. He remembered that open flames were a huge danger inside grain elevators because powdered grain could catch fire. If the density of air to powder was right, the fireball would expand explosively. But these motes were widely scattered, so he hoped that meant they were safe.

“Let’s all get down to the entry level,” he said.

He led the way down the steep interior stairs carefully, peering around as he went. Most of the space between the grain tanks was just empty air crossed by ventilation ducts big enough to walk through. The ducts led to giant fans along the outside wall, ready to flush the interior with outside air if the grain dust got too thick. More big pipes canted through between ducts, connecting tank to tank so that grain could be mixed and separated as needed. Drew rapped experimentally on one tank and was answered with a hollow echo.

“Hey, Sensei, what if they’re empty?” he called in alarm.

“Some probably are,” Sam answered. “Hank told us he heard that the place used to ship grain out once every week to feed the brewery. But it’s not very many months since harvest, so a fair amount should still be here, somewhere.”

The stair ended on a long flat concrete floor under the tanks, it ran the whole length of the building. The tanks all had tapered bottoms with big pipes descending vertically, and then branching. Every pipe had one sloping branch that stuck out into the space between the tanks and ended in an open mouth roughly ten or eleven feet above the floor. The concrete slab below them was marked with old muddy tire tracks, long dried. A row of dead florescent light tubes ran along a hanging frame just above the pipes, vent ducts above that. Big motorized valves controlled each pipe, with on–off panels mounted on the thick steel girders that held up the tanks.

“They drive trucks in here,” Darrin exclaimed. “Load them right from the tanks, drive them out again. That’s why the overhead doors. The railway isn’t the only way that grain comes and goes.”

Sam nodded, seeing it. “Darrin and Jesus, try to get the overhead doors open; that’ll give us some light to see by. If we can open a valve on a tank with barley in it, we can just drive the wagons underneath and fill them directly. That’ll save a lot of time and work.”

He turned to Drew. “Come with me.”

“What’re we going to do, Sensei?” Drew asked quietly.

“Make sure this place really is empty. I want you to cover me as we search the office block.”

Sam threaded his way through the maze of massive girders to the southeast side of the floor, and found the inner door to the office. As he’d hoped, it wasn’t locked; it was the kind that needed a key to lock and unlock. He had to lean on it to get it open. A piece of metal had got caught behind it and scraped loudly over the concrete floor.

Somebody’s alarm system, he thought.

Cautiously he peered through at a short stair leading up into the office building. The space at the top seemed positively flooded with light from all those big windows, at least compared to the dark elevator. He sniffed; the air was as cold and flat as that in the tank area, but instead of the musky barley–scent it had a dusty paper undertone that was mixed with more complex odors, including a whiff of human waste. He put out his candle lantern and Drew did likewise, then they both carefully ascended the few steps and checked all the main–floor area.

This turned out to contain one large room with three smaller offices off the back side. A long counter divided the room into a working space crammed with desks, and a waiting space with a long bench and a few metal chairs. A tiny bathroom was entered through the waiting space, probably meant for the use of the farmers and truckers. Nobody was in the lower level and the floor was too tracked–up to be sure whether anyone had been there recently. A steel and concrete stairway at the back of the big office led to the upper floors.

Sam examined it closely. The dust here had many fewer tracks and he thought a couple of them were oddly small. He when up it as silently as he could manage, Drew staying several steps behind. At the top it opened into a big room that looked like a lunch room, with a kitchen set–up along one wall and two bathrooms to the side. Two half–walled offices occupied the southwest corner, partitions only waist high from the floor. Nearly horizontal sunlight filled the western windows where the setting sun had dipped below the clouds and speared itself on the peaks. Sunset wasn’t more than twenty minutes away, Sam estimated.

He waved Drew to stop at the top step, carefully examined the room and the floor before stepping out into it. Moving with agonizing slowness, he glided out into the room and looked around. The counter top in the kitchen area was cleaner than the rest. The bottom of the sink was wet. Sam sniffed carefully; there was the perceptible odor of fresh human waste, probably coming from one of the bathrooms. The floor here held more dust and fewer tracks, but water had been spilled recently by the sink and was not quite dried. The congealed dust showed several tracks, and three were distinctly small feet. Two different sizes, he estimated. A couple of children, with at least two or three adults.

There was a very faint sound from the ceiling, almost immediately stilled. Sam looked carefully at the enclosed stairway to the third floor. It had a closed door at the bottom.

He returned to the down stair, gestured Drew to precede him, and descended without making any effort to be silent. When they returned to the main floor Drew started to speak but Sam waved him to silence, led him over to the outside door. It unlatched easily from inside and he stepped outside to see the first wagons approaching the gate.

Drew was nearly bursting with questions and his eyes kept lifting to the blank windows above. “Sensei,” he started to ask, but Sam made a chopping motion.

“Children and adults,” he said in a quiet voice that he hoped would carry only to Drew’s ears. “We’re not going to bother them so long as they don’t bother us.” He waved to the wagons. “You go bring our people in, and tell them everybody is to stay away from the office block unless I give specific permission.”

Drew nodded and hurried off.

Sam though for a moment, then propped the outside office door open with a brick clearly left for that purpose. He walked along the outer wall again past the loader, and found Darrin and Jesus had gotten two of the three overhead doors pried up. The fading light didn’t penetrate very far into the elevator.

Darrin and Jesus were using long pieces of angle iron to bang on the tank bottoms.

“These three all sound empty, Sensei,” Jesus reported, waving at a row next to the interior stair. He rapped one and it gave a hollow reverberation.

“But this one’s different,” Darrin called from the next tank down. “I think it’s full.” He rapped again, and Sam caught the inert ‘thunk’ with no reverberations.

Sam borrowed Darrin’s candle to relight his own, leaned back and raised it to study the valve assembly above his head. It had a geared wheel nearly two feet wide encircling a hexagonal shaft as thick as his arm, running through the steel wall of the valve. A big electric motor had a much smaller toothed wheel engaging the bigger wheel. The valve itself was canted about ninety degrees to the side and grain fell down into it straight out of the bottom of the tank — there must be a hell of a tonnage pressing on it when the tank was full, judging by the massive motor required to move it. He noticed that the hexagonal shaft stuck out an extra foot or so. But no merely–human leverage would move that while the motor was engaged.

“We need a smaller tank, one with less weight of motor and grain to overcome,” he told the boys. “And we need a tool with a hexagonal hole that fits on the end of those valves.” He pointed at it. “Maybe a length of steel pipe to use as a cheater, too. Spread out and look for a tool room.”

They found it a few minutes later, crammed under a pair of smaller tanks half–way down the elevator. Jesus quickly turned up an adjustable wrench nearly four feet long, a genuine spanner. Darrin brandished a heavy steel pipe about the same. There was also a stepladder that would let them reach the raised valves. Some fiddling got the spanner set properly, sticking out a little above horizontal. Sam slid the cheater over it until the whole was snug.

“Okay, Jesus, you jump up and grab it first.”

The Hispanic boy did so, hanging by his powerful hands. The valve didn’t move.

“Darrin next.” The rangy Idahoan added himself to the cheater, which flexed slightly. The valve still didn’t move.

Sam leaped up and added his own weight at the very end. For a long moment nothing happened, and then the valve let out a groan and began to turn. Just as the angle dropped enough for Darrin to touch the floor, the cheater slipped off and they all landed in a heap.

There was a hissing sound from the grain valve, rather like the world’s largest maracas or maybe buckshot in a tin can.

“That’s it!” Sam said, picking himself up. Darrin had even managed to hang onto the cheater. “Put it on again and let’s push this time.”

They did so and the valve groaned and rotated. By the time it had moved a full ninety degrees there was grain trickling out the end of the pipe.

At that moment the first wagon arrived, accompanied by an anxious Drew. Frank led his horses through the overhead door by hand.

Loudly he said “Where do you want the wagon, Sam?” More softly he added “Rachel’s passing the word. You think a couple people with kids are dangerous?”

“I know how dangerous I’d be if I thought my kids were threatened,” Sam answered quietly. “I don’t want to find out about these people.”

“Fair enough,” Frank nodded. “Where you want the wagon?”

“Under that spout.” He pointed and Frank began jockeying the wagon into place.

Without powered machinery the grain flow stayed comparatively sluggish, but it flowed. The sheer diameter of the pipe let it move through the valve fairly fast but then it collected on the gentle slope of the pipe and impeded the flow behind it. Sam finally had the boys move the ladder beyond the wagon, then reach across it with a hoe to scoop grain out of the pipe a little faster. After a while they got into a rhythm and nearly doubled the flow.

Dust billowed off the golden fountain. Frank wrapped a kerchief around his mouth and nose to keep it out as he stood on the wagon seat and used Rachel’s shovel to spread the grain into the corners of the wagon bed. Sam and Drew pried open the building’s end door and got an air flow going through to dissipate the dust. By the time the sun set they had filled the first and largest wagon. Frank drove it out into the yard while the next took up position under the cataract.

Rachel had thoughtfully brought extra candle lanterns, but Sam hesitated to use more than one or two, and those set well back away from the flowing grain.

“Don’t want to blow the place up,” he explained, gesturing to the grain dust. Rachel’s face blanched in sudden understanding and she hastily backed away with her own flame.

The second wagon went faster, and the third faster still when they got a second tank open. Rachel unloaded a big bundle of cloth sacks and set most of the crew to filling them from the growing piles on the elevator floor.

By the time the last tarp–lined garden cart was full of grain, the sun had gone completely behind the peaks. Stars were twinkling in the east and a chill breeze blew steadily through the elevator. Frank had the wagons lined up to depart. All the volunteers had put on extra coats and scarves against the chill night. The temperature was dropping fast.

“I want to leave you a few men, Sam,” Rachel proposed quietly, glancing at the office block.

“Two should be enough,” he told her. “We’ve only got four bedrolls, so two can keep watch while four sleep.”

She glanced doubtfully at the tall building, now silvery in the light of the waning moon. For a moment she started to say something, and then shook her head. “All right.”

Rachel told off Fred Anderson and his cousin Bruce, who were both weekend warriors — members of the Colorado National Guard. They were among those who had answered Sam’s call at the town meeting.

“Sam Hyatt is your commander until further notice, got that?”

“Yes Ma’am!” They both saluted her, then Sam, with serious expressions on their faces. They had their Guard camo outfits on, and from the wear on the knees and elbows Sam suspected they might use those for hunting camo too. Both carried only belt knives and pugil sticks for weapons, but had double canteens and good heavy clothing on under the uniforms.

Rachel turned to Sam. “Good luck.”

“You too,” he answered. “Watch out for trouble on the return trip.”

“You think somebody’s figured out what we’re doing?” She scratched her chin absently as she stared south toward Longmont under its smoke cloud, glowing faintly from fires.

“Maybe not yet, but sooner or later,” Sam told her grimly. “I hope it’s later, but better be ready for sooner.”

“You got it.” She climbed up into the lead wagon and saluted him.

Sam returned the gesture and the groaning wagon train headed off, trailing small amounts of leaked barley behind it. The remaining twenty–eight guards and drivers all looked alertly around them as they returned to the road and began the long slog towards Lyons. Jesus and Darrin dragged the gates shut again.

“How long do you think it’ll be before they get back, Sensei?” Drew asked nervously.

“I’m hoping before dawn,” Sam told him, turning back to the elevator. “Fred, Bruce, let’s all get the rest of those sacks filled, then see if we can shut the grain off.”

The first task went quickly enough, but the second proved a harder challenge. It took all the strength of six on the pry bar and cheater just to choke the flow down by half. By then the piles on the floor of the elevator had nearly reached as high as the spouts anyway. Sam hoped that once they did, the back pressure would slow the grain–flow to a trickle, or even stop it completely.

“Let’s just stop there a while,’ He panted. “Eat some supper, get some rest.”

They all retreated from the breezy elevator into the main–floor office, still sun–warmed. Drew put together the little gasoline camping stove they’d brought and started heating a pot of water drawn from the tiny sink in the little bathroom, where the water still worked. He cocked an eye at the ceiling when they heard the faint sound of a door closing somewhere upstairs. Bruce hefted his pugil stick, looked questioningly at Sam.

“What should we do about that, Sensei?” Darrin whispered, jerking a thumb upward and looking worried.

“Blockade,” Sam said succinctly. “Darrin, you help Drew with supper, the rest of you help me here.”

He, Jesus and the two Guards hauled old wooden desks out of the offices, dragged filing cabinets and bookshelves over to the foot of the stairs. There was no door here, unlike the upper flight, but they managed to fairly well plug the space with furniture. Sam was pretty sure no adult could get through without making a lot of noise, which was really the point of the whole exercise.

They’d saved out the largest table and six chairs to sit around. They ate supper by the light of one candle and took turns at the bathroom. The toilet tank refilled slowly but it did refill, so the local rural water lines were still working. Sam wondered how long that would last. He noticed that the toilet had been jiggered so that the water kept on flowing through at a slow and nearly–noiseless trickle even when the tank was full.

Probably done to prevent it from freezing in the winter months, he thought. I wonder how many other gimmicks there are like this in this building?

He was barely back to the table when the toilet in the men’s bathroom above flushed, then a moment later so did the other in the women’s.

Fred and Bruce tensed, put hands on their pugil sticks again. Jesus fingered his bo as he stared at the furniture barrier.

“Relax, boys,” Sam told them. “That’s a good sign.”

“Sign?” Darrin asked nervously, fingering the pry bar that he’d set on the table at his elbow, just in case.

“It means whoever is the leader up there has accepted the bargain I’m offering,” he explained in a loud voice. “The one I signaled when I had us build that barrier. He’s signaling back that he agrees. We’ll stay down here, and they’ll stay up there.”

There was a small scraping sound on the ceiling, then silence. Fred looked doubtful but let go of his pugil stick.

“Drew, thanks for making supper. You and Jesus will have first watch. Darrin, take KP and you and I’ll have second watch. Fred, Bruce, you’ll have third, and let’s get the elevator doors shut for the night,” Sam told them. “Everybody hop.”

They did, with gratifying speed. Both grain piles had backed up their silos and nearly eliminated the flow of new barley. The breeze had cleared out most of the fine dust. They shut up the doors and latched them from inside, turning the echoing elevator back into a dark maze of steel columns. A few windows high up between tanks let shafts of watery moonlight down inside. Sam thought that only made the space feel colder.

The office seemed positively homey once they were all back inside it, comparatively warm and enclosed. Sam latched the outside door too, and wedged that piece of metal back behind the inner door to the silos. The moon was in its last quarter and already well up the sky by then. Dim silvery light flooded the office, so Drew had blown out the last candle. The boys had piled up the dusty carpets to make a pad and rolled out their four sleeping bags at the end of the room farthest from the stairs. Darrin was already wiggling into his, while Drew showed Fred and Bruce to two of the remaining.

“Sensei,” Jesus asked him. “How do we know when to wake you and Darrin for your watch?”

Sam took him to the window, pointed to the moon. “When it sets behind the mountains it should be pretty close to midnight,” he explained. “That’ll do. I’ll use the stars to wake Fred and Bruce.”

Jesus nodded, his eyes large in the gloom. “Sleep well, Sensei.”

“Don’t you do the same, for at least the next four hours,” Sam instructed with a grin, and was rewarded with the Hispanic boy’s answering smile.

Sam slipped out of his outer pants, rolled them into a pillow, crawled into his assigned bag and carefully tucked his Ruana under the pants where his hand could find the handle in the dark. For a few minutes he listened to Jesus and Drew finding chairs in the dark room. Fred and Bruce both fell asleep with impressive speed, but Darrin tossed and turned for a bit before he got comfortable and finally slept. Sam watched the moonlight slowly creep across the floor and listened to Jesus and Drew’s occasional mutters for a while, then drifted off himself.

It didn’t seem any time at all before Drew roused him the way he’d taught him on hunting trips — carefully, prodding Sam with a bo stick from a distance. Sam had the Ruana drawn and was sitting up before he quite knew where he was.

“Moon’s down, Sensei,” whispered Jesus around a yawn, waving unnecessarily at the darkened windows. While Sam sheathed the knife again his students woke Darrin too, then stood back to wait a turn at the sleeping bags. Fred and Bruce snored on, oblivious.

Sam and Darrin dressed and pulled on their overcoats; the room was almost cold enough to make fog of their breath. Jesus and Drew gratefully wiggled into the warm sleeping bags and were asleep in moments.

Darrin stretched several times in a particular routine Sam had come to recognize from their time on the road to Lyons. Sam did the same, his own routine, then checked the barrier and the doors. Nothing had changed at either one, so he went to the southern windows and marked the position of a bright star with a line on a dusty sill. When the star completed an arc across the sky to about — there — then four hours should have passed. He made another mark and then looked out across the land.

The chill breeze was still blowing eastward, sighing around the windows and finding little cracks to whisper through. It carried a few rags of cloud up high, but mostly the air was clear, cold, and growing slowly colder. Sam’s breath condensed on the window when he leaned too close, staring into the night.

Longmont held his eye first, glowing embers under a vast dark cloud that streamed away slowly to the east. It was underlit in places, weirdly like a smoky campfire seen from outside camp. As his eyes grew used to the night Sam picked out others. First a glow that had to be burning Boulder, it reflected dimly off the foothill rocks they called the Flatirons. Then more distant glows south beyond Longmont, fires in suburban outliers of Denver. Far beyond those, enormous dark clouds were streaming east from Denver itself, fitfully lit by many more fires. Sam thought he ought to be able to see Pikes Peak from here, but Denver’s smoke concealed it.

Closer, barely a mile away, a wooden house burned in the night, silently, the latest casualty of people trying to rig a heat source after the gas pipelines died.

A small chill of horror crept up Sam’s spine. Hundreds, maybe thousands of folks were dying out there even as he watched.

But people die every day, hell, every minute, somewhere, he told himself. And not just in bed or in a hospital, either. This is just a bigger version of the same old thing. Isn’t it?

Somehow he wasn’t convinced.

Darrin came up beside him, stared out the window at the same scene, then turned his head to look west at the mountains. The snowy crest of the Continental Divide was ghostly in the starlight, like some vision of a magical place that wasn’t quite real.

“Do you think this is happening in Boise too?” Darrin whispered.

“Probably.” Sam shrugged. “Maybe in every city on earth.”

He thought of crowded Tokyo, where he’d spent a few days on leave during his hitch. It was supposed to have more than twenty million people now. Or New York, all those people on an island with no farms at all, and the trains not working. Or southern California — his heart caught; his younger sister Meg lived there with her husband Kyle and their two kids, his twin nieces Amy and Zoe. He and Ellie had spent their entire raises the year she married so as to fly to the wedding, carrying baby Jimmy in their arms on the plane. Sam remembered circling above the impossibly huge city, sandwiched between blue ocean, dark mountains, and gray desert. What was happening to them now? The choices were each worse than the other; size, he realized, did matter. His mind sheered away from the horror and he turned away from the southwest window.

Southeast the land rose in a low hill, cresting a couple miles away. There were no lights out there at all, just mottled darkness of field and patches of trees around houses. He crossed to the north side of the room and looked through the windows of the waiting area, north and west across more miles of farms and houses. Starlight silvered off a frozen pond, off the distant snows, off a handful of metal buildings here and there. The foothills bent slowly east in a vast irregular line, dark shapes hanging above the plains. There was a fire on one of them, another burning house. Another family suddenly, shockingly homeless in the deadly cold night. Or burned to death before they awoke. Or waking too late to escape, but not too late to know —

He swallowed convulsively, turned away from the cruel night. Darrin had sat down at the table again. Sam took a chair at right angles to him, where he could see the barrier at the foot of the stairs, and put his back to the windows.

For a long time the Idahoan was silent. Sam didn’t feel talkative either, so they sat listening to their four sleeping companions breathe. The towering steel grain elevator beyond the walls gave off soft groans and pings as metal contracted in the cold. After a while Sam realized that their own breaths were faintly visible in the room. Despite long underwear and warm pants, and what he knew was the excellent circulation of a man in prime physical condition, his feet were getting cold.

Upstairs Sam heard a door creak open, then a few moments later another. There was a soft splashing sound as someone used a toilet. Someone male and short, he thought, about the height that would go with the larger of the two littlest footprints he’d found.

“My folks live there too,” Darrin said suddenly, the whisper almost shockingly loud. “My little brother’s still at home in high school; he was a late baby — nearly twelve years younger than me. And my sister, she’s just three years behind me. She got married four years ago. Had a baby right away, teased me about how long Sherry and I were waiting. Little boy, they named him Roger. Cute kid. I worry about them.”

“We can both make ourselves crazy, Darrin, thinking about things we can’t control,” Sam said. “I think we’d be wiser to concentrate on what we can control. Like this grain, that’s going to feed our families once we get it back to Lyons.”

Darrin nodded in the darkness, his head a shadow among shadows, and puffed out a frosty breath in a small laugh. “Yeah, crazy’s the word for it. This Change–thing is just too big, too powerful. I feel like God just decided to do something crazy to all of us. Or crazy space aliens, or crazy Russian scientists, or — or — I don’t know. I keep coming back to that. What even could do this to us?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t believe it’s anything human,” Sam found himself saying. “Whatever did this, whether it’s some kind of natural event or something caused by Somebody, it’s too big for us to understand right now.”

“I always thought I could understand anything if I just worked at it long enough and hard enough,” Darrin whispered. “That’s how I got through electronic engineering — just slogging forward. I wasn’t the brightest student in the class, but I worked the hardest, and scored the highest, and that got me the job at HP. I was pretty proud of that, Sensei; highest math and analytical scores in my high school class, won a full scholarship to CSU. HP hired me for the big applications plant up in Fort Collins, right out of graduation. I met Sherry at school up there and we got married two months after I got the job. She told me my brains were sexy, but my body was pretty good too.”

They both chuckled. Sam remembered similar conversations with Ellie, years ago, and thought of the time together that they’d almost had today. His loins stirred thinking about it so he wrenched his mind away.

“Only now I feel dumber than a box of rocks,” Darrin continued. “And pretty feeble, too. We moved what, two or three tons of grain today?”

“More like four,” Sam answered, mentally toting it up.

“Looking at this place, it must’ve been built to do that much every hour, likely even more.” Darrin shook his head. “Feeble.”

“That’s the difference between us and our tools,” Sam commented. “Only now we’ve lost a few of the best tools we humans ever had.”

Darrin was silent for a minute. Sam listened; he thought he heard tiny sounds on the stairs, like small sneakers stirring up the grit.

“You’re sure right about that,” the Idahoan continued softly. “Electricity, guns, engines? I can’t imagine a single physical change that would cause all three of those things to quit. Two changes, sure — change the conductivity of metals, change the way gases work, those would do it. But what would do those two things? I can’t imagine, and I’ve been trying. It just shouldn’t even be possible.”

“We don’t have enough facts, Darrin, so it’s a waste of time trying,” Sam advised him. He was fairly sure there was a small puff of frozen breath between the furniture pile and the wall of the stairway. “Maybe someday we’ll learn enough to understand it, but right now we don’t have enough facts to even be sure just what’s actually happening. Whatever it is, today we’ve got to just live through it, as best we can.”

Darrin was silent for a minute. Sam listened and watched; the little puffs of breath remained constant. Far above, Sam thought he heard a sound on the third floor. Darrin sighed.

“I know you’re right, Sensei,” he whispered. “It’s just hard to give up the habits of a lifetime.”

“Time to start, Darrin,” Sam advised kindly. “You’re born again into a lot harsher world than the one the Bible–pounders promised us. Gotta deal with it.”

Sam heard a door on the second floor open and raised his voice, facing the barricade directly.

“And a certain little boy had better get back to his folks real quick now, they’ve realized he’s missing,” he told the vapor puff.

There was a startled scramble on the stairs, then a muffled squeak above and an incoherent voice, then a closing door and two sets of retreating footsteps. Darrin belatedly surged to his feet, turned to face the barricade with a startled curse.

Sam grinned.

“Gotta deal with the new world, Darrin,” he whispered. “But it’s not all dark, all the time. You just have to learn to use your ears differently.”

Darrin sheepishly resumed his seat.

They sat there, companionably silent, while the stars wheeled past the high windows. Sam checked his star–mark a couple times, and when he judged the time was up, woke Fred and Bruce. He explained about their night visitor as he wriggled into the warm space Fred had left him.

Fred smothered a chuckle. Bruce asked “You think he’ll be back, Mister Hyatt?”

“Doubt it very much,” Sam yawned. “But you two stay sharp anyway.” Darrin snorted ruefully as he pulled his own sleeping bag around his head. “And if you have to wake me up, do it from a safe distance. I’m likely to draw my knife before I’m aware.”

“Yessir.” The two Guards saluted Sam respectfully and donned their helmets. The last thing Sam saw before he closed his eyes was two round–topped shapes standing against the night sky shining outside the windows. It didn’t seem quite as cold as it had when his watch started.

He dreamed of darkness, and fire, but Ellie was there and his children too, and he knew he could take it. After a while the dreams faded and he just slept.

Bruce took him at his word; he prodded Sam awake with his pugil stick, standing safely far back. The room was washed in grey, the sort of pre–dawn twilight when the stars haven’t quite gone but there isn’t anything you’d call light yet. Sam came awake, re–sheathed his knife, and pried himself out of the sleeping bag.

“The wagons are back,” Bruce whispered. “Fred said I should get everybody up.”

“Do it,” Sam nodded, belting his pants and sliding on his boots. He shrugged into his heavy coat and went to check the star–mark. It’d only been around two hours since he’d gone back to bed, it couldn’t yet be even five o’clock. Bruce got the rest of the crew up while Sam stepped outside.

Rachel Joyner was there, swinging down off the lead wagon again with a tired but triumphant smile.

“Didn’t think you’d see us again this soon, I’ll bet,” she told him.

“I surely didn’t,” Sam admitted graciously. “How’d the unloading go?”

“Chaos at first, but we got it sorted out quick enough.” She shrugged. “I figured all the horses could handle a second trip and didn’t want to leave you out here for longer than I had to. And we picked up another wagon and two pair, too — Doctor Brown pitched in.”

Sam looked at the new addition as it rumbled into the yard, and whistled. It was a full–size Conestoga replica, big as a boat riding on wheels each ten inches thick and almost six feet in diameter. A matched set of four glossy horses pulled it, black even in the night. It would just about double their hauling capacity, he estimated.

Doctor Brown proved to be a big beefy man with a prominent nose and a grey Santa Claus beard spilling halfway to his belt. He reined in next to Sam and Rachel, and waved.

“Tell me where you want it, Sonny!”

The overhead doors on the elevator groaned open.

“I’m mighty pleased to meet you!” Sam told him.

It took almost two hours of back–breaking work to load the wagons this time. They first had to shovel down the piles that’d accumulated under the dribbling spouts. Sam ended up calling in the smaller carts first, since they could be filled more easily by shovel than the tall Conestoga. He had four of them back up to the first pile, where the valve had shut the farthest, and put eight pairs of shovelers to work filling them. Grain flew and rattled on plastic tarps, and the pile melted much faster than new grain leaked out of the silo. Two other garden carts at the second pile filled more slowly. As the first four filled Sam switched them out with new ones, traded off shovelers, and the pile melted away. By the time all the garden carts were filled they had the heap down to something that the Conestoga could back over.

Doc Brown proved to be a virtuoso at horse maneuvers. His team backed the huge wagon under the dribbling spout on the first try. Sam and the boys cranked it open again and let the golden flood pour forth. It still took longer to load the Conestoga than any of the smaller carts; the capacity was so much larger.

“How much can this thing carry, safely?” Sam asked as he waded around the edges distributing grain with a shovel.

“About four, five tons,” the doc answered cheerfully. “Maybe a bit more with it loose like that. The horses could pull more, iron–rim wheels on hard roads make it easy on them. We could heap it higher too, but the breeze would just strip most of that out anyway. I don’t have enough tarps to cover it completely.”

The wagon gave out a couple creaks as it settled under the weight of the grain. In the end Sam cut the flow off when the pile was right below the low place in the long sides. They pulled the Conestoga out, groaning loudly as the horses leaned into their traces, and Sam had some of the younger folks flatten out the cargo as much as possible.

Frank backed his wagon in last, grain flooding in while the dust billowed around him as a freshening breeze whistled through the elevator.

Sam eyed that billowing dust nervously. It was making a yellow–gray cloud sweeping out of the elevator, rising to half the building’s height before it settled over the adjacent field. The dawn light turned it golden. If anyone was watching, he and his crew had sent up a signal announcing their presence loud and clear.

Rachel Joyner had the garden carts lined up and ready to go, their contents lashed down as best as could be. She started them down the road as her crew swarmed over Frank’s wagon last.

“Sam, I think the horses will handle one more trip today,” she told him. “We’ve been feeding and watering them while loading and unloading, and they were mostly in pretty good condition to start. I don’t want to wait any longer than we have to before coming back again. Can you hold the place for another six–eight hours or so?”

“Hope so.” He glanced at the wind–carried grain dust. The boys had cranked the main valve shut again, the grain was down to a trickle and they were closing the overhead doors. Wind was dispersing the cloud, slowly.

The Conestoga groaned out after the carts, the other wagons following. Rachel swung up onto Frank’s wagon as it passed.

“Do what you can, but don’t be stupid!” she called. “I’d rather lose the rest of the grain than lose you. Ellie would kill me!”

“No fear of that!” Sam called back, then waved as the train groaned away. Grain trickling off the Conestoga rippled around in the road, collecting in crevices. Anyone would be able to tell where the wagon train had passed.

Sam turned to his crew. Bruce had his helmet off, mopping his brow with a hanky. “That was some hard work, Mister Hyatt,” he said. “Can we get breakfast now?”

Sam blinked as his own stomach growled.

“I sure hope so.”

Drew and Darrin had oatmeal ready in the office, and a tin jug of hot tea. Sam and the rest sat down to a meal at the table and wolfed the bowls clean.

“Water pressure’s getting low, Sensei,” Drew reported. He glanced up at the ceiling suggestively.

“We’ll do our part to limit our draw on the pipes,” Sam decided aloud. “Don’t flush the toilet after every use, let it accumulate a while first. And drink from your canteens. I want a couple of you to get up on that fire escape and keep a watch south; if someone starts coming up the road in force, I want as much warning as we can get. We’ll trade off every hour.”

The sun crept slowly up the sky. The office warmed as those banks of windows caught solar energy. Bruce and Fred started a card game and sucked Jesus into it while Darrin and Drew had sentry duty. Sam prowled through the ground floor of the closed–up grain elevator, sneezing occasionally at pockets of dust. In the rush they hadn’t packed most of the sacked grain, it still sat in a pile to one side. The top sack was a Spider–man pillowcase, he noticed. He also found a hidden stash of real grain sacks that they had overlooked, and shortly the card game had been suspended while he put the boys to work loading those too. The grain dust got worse and he finally opened one of the north–side doors to let it out, hoping the bulk of the building would hide it from view from the Longmont side. He thought about the man with the binoculars that he’d seen three days ago when they passed Longmont, and wondered how many there were like him. And whether any were watching north.

The morning seemed to drag past with agonizing slowness. Sam took a turn on the lookout platform with Fred, switching off every ten minutes to cross the internal catwalks to the top of the loader and scan the north side too. Drew made lunch and brought it up to them; Sam ate without noticing what it was. The little breeze died completely and the air became achingly still.

As the sun tipped over past noon and began the long slide down the sky toward the mountains, the Conestoga came back into view. It was accompanied only by the two biggest other wagons this time; the herd of small carts was absent.

Rachel’s eyes were bloodshot as she climbed down carefully from Frank’s wagon.

“I left the others behind for a rest,” she answered his question. “They were slower, their horses weren’t as good, and all of ‘em together couldn’t carry as much as Frank’s wagon anyway. Let’s load and get out of here.”

Doc Brown did his back–in trick again with the Conestoga and Sam and the boys grabbed the spanner and cranked open the valve once more. Sam opened the end door again but there was barely enough breeze to shift the dust out; it filled the building instead. They all covered their mouths and noses with kerchiefs again. Rachel remarked that they looked like a gang of desperados robbing a bank in some old TV Western, but she put on a kerchief too.

Sam set every extra body to hauling the filled sacks out to Frank’s wagon, waiting in the yard while the other two filled from the spouts. They weren’t more than halfway through when Bruce clattered down the stair from the lookout.

“Mister Hyatt! Sensei Hyatt!” he called into the dusty gloom of the elevator. “There’s people coming from the south!”

“Keep working!” Sam ordered the rest as he tore up the stairway.

At the fire escape Drew was on duty, nervously pointing south down Road 115. A little more than a mile and a half distant Sam made out a group of men walking along, a few under glittering spear points. They were towing several garden carts. He watched for a moment; they didn’t seem to have any notion of marching order and discipline was slipshod at best, but there were at least forty of them, and they were moving steadily. Some were puffing cigarettes, others trading water bottles around, but they kept on walking. Three men on bikes were leading them. They had some kind of red mark on their shoulders, looked vaguely like a circle but they were too far away to tell. Most of the walkers had it too. Sam though about the green cross he’d seen on the gang at the Hover Street mansion in Longmont. Gang colors? Or legitimate citizen’s militia? How could anyone tell? And was there a difference now, anyway?

“Shit. That tears it,” he told Drew. “You and Darrin gather up our stuff and pack the bikes, we’re all leaving in twenty minutes whether the wagons are filled or not.”

Drew scampered off to obey as Sam pulled the door shut behind him. It would no longer lock, but he took precious seconds to wedge it shut so that it looked like it was locked. Then he hastened down to share the details.

Rachel had everyone racing already. Frank’s wagon was nearly full of sacks. The smaller wagon groaned out of the elevator and men swarmed tarps over it. The Conestoga was still filling.

Darrin and Drew dashed out of the office with the bedrolls and gear, began lashing it to the bikes.

“Sensei, what about…” Drew jerked a thumb up at the third floor.

“I’ll handle it, you all get ready to go. Doc, that’s enough, pull it out now!” he called to Brown, who nodded. Sam heard the big horses surge against the wagon as he ran into the office.

He rushed to the stairs, dragged at the barricade. Furniture crashed as he flung it aside, then he leaned into the opening and shouted up the stairs.

“Men coming from Longmont! They’ve got spears, I suggest you clear out before they get here!”

He didn’t wait to see the reaction, just ran out the door again. Darrin had his bike ready, the Conestoga was already groaning out through the gate, Bruce and Fred perched on the tail and the other wagons were already thirty yards ahead of it. Grain dust continued to eddy out the open door of the elevator in vast slow puffs into the dead–still outside air. Sam could hear the silo spouts still pouring inside.

No time to do anything about it, he thought as he threw a leg over his bike and pushed off.

“Move!” he ordered, and they did.

His crew followed closely, they formed up behind the Conestoga and headed north. Bruce stood up on the high tail of the wagon, with Fred holding him steady as he shaded his eyes and peered behind them.

“They’re about a thousand feet behind us,” he reported. “I see somebody in the lead on a bicycle — no, three somebodys, they all look big and they’ve got spears and knives. I think the lead one is wearing some kind of armor or something, he’s glittering in the sun. Aha! He’s got chains all over his jacket. They all have red marks on their shoulders, can’t tell what they are but it’s not blood. Now they’re talking, slowing down — they’ve stopped to wait for the rest. They’re not chasing us.”

Sam glanced behind in time to see five figures leave the elevator yard. They turned right down Wasatch Road, keeping the bulk of the building between them and the approaching force. Two of the figures were very short. He lost sight of them down Wasatch.

The three wagons plodded on. Sam thought the drivers were hurrying the horses as much as they dared, but even so the caravan was moving much slower than a bicycle rider could manage. Rachel had only six extra men with her this time, all mounted on bicycles. Sam weighed the odds in his head if the approaching force decided to try to catch them. The three bicycle riders could catch up easily, but the Lyons mounted force had them outnumbered three to one, more counting the drivers and riders on the wagons. The forty marching men would have a harder time, but they could cut across country and the wagons had to stay on the road. If they guessed that his folk would turn down Yellowstone, they might be able to cut them off — and they had Sam’s group outnumbered nearly three to one.

“Bruce!” Sam called. “Keep talking. What are they doing?”

“They’ve reached the gate,” Bruce obligingly reported. “They’re turning in — God, there’s a lot of them. Two of those three on the bikes are stopped in the road, watching us, the rest are going in. They’re definitely not chasing us.”

Sam breathed a prayer of thanks. “Pass word forward — keep moving as fast as we can, until we cross 287. We’ve got to put as much distance between ourselves and these guys as possible.”

“Will do!” Bruce clambered forward over the grain to the front of the Conestoga.

They all pedaled grimly onward. They made the corner and turned west down Yellowstone without any sign of pursuit. The highway crept slowly closer, they passed the jackknifed semi and headed up a slight rise. When Terry Lake hove into view Sam passed word to rest the horses. He looked back at the top of the elevator poking above the bare winter trees.

“I think they’re more interested in the grain than in us, Sensei,” Drew panted.

“I think so too, but that’s not what worries me,” Sam answered. “Unless they’re smarter than they looked, any minute now–“

The steel walls of the elevator were partly obscured by the hanging cloud of grain dust, barely moving in the still air. That cloud suddenly glowed and transformed. Flames climbed the dust with deceptive slowness, rippling orange and black. Seconds later the sound reached Sam and his crew, an oddly muffled, almost squishy sound laced with a continuous popping crackle and the rattle of steel walls. Sam blinked — he’d been expecting a loud boom. The horses startled and twitched, shaking their heads at the strangeness. A huge belch of smoke climbed into the sky over the elevator.

“That’s what I was afraid of.” Sam shook his head. “All that grain dust, and idiots with cigarettes.”

Should we try to help their wounded? he thought. No. They might not all be dead, and the living are sure to all be mad, and we make a nice target to blame. Too dangerous.

Sam briefly felt dirty again, pushed it aside. We have to survive, ‘cause our own kids are counting on us. And I swore I’d do anything for my family. I just didn’t know it’d include leaving people to die, or killing them. But if I have to, I will.

The cold resolve that thought left behind was bitter as iron.

He turned back to his crew, who were all stopped still and gaping at the fire. Even Doc Brown stood on the seat of his wagon and stared.

“Let’s get back to Lyons,” Sam ordered. “We’ll have to hope we got enough barley; I don’t think we’ll be getting any more from there very soon.”

“Oh,” said Fred. He reached down into the Conestoga, held up the long spanner. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken this, then.”

Bruce, Drew and Darrin laughed. Sam shook his head in bemusement.

“Okay, maybe we will come back sometime,” he allowed. “Come to think of it, the grain in the closed tanks is probably undamaged. But we’re not gonna worry about it today. Let’s hope those guys bug out without realizing there’s still food there.”

They all rode off down Yellowstone Road as new smoke climbed into the sky behind them. Three hours later they were plodding up the last mile of Ute Highway toward Lyons. The trip back had been tiring but Sam thanked God that it had been without incident. He left Jesus, Darrin and Drew to watch their back trail while he rode up to Frank’s wagon in the lead to talk to Rachel.

“Thanks for loaning me Fred and Bruce,” he told her. “They were a lot of help, especially splitting watch three ways last night.”

“They’re not a loan,” she answered. “They’re assigned to you for your Gatherers.”

Sam’s eyebrows went up. “So I get to keep them? Am I going to get more?”

Rachel nodded. “I talked it over with Marshall Duncan and Chief Waters. We decided to split the Town’s forces into three parts — Hank’s in command of the Wall, Matt has the Town proper and the two up–canyon barriers, and you get the roving command east of the Hogbacks. Since your folks have to move the most, you’ll only get the most healthy and athletic. We’ll put all the older guys on the Wall when it’s finished, they’ll have the least moving–about to do.”

Sam thought about that for a moment. “Good. If we’re going to get much food from the east county before the gangs from Longmont find it, we need at least three groups out searching, and four would be better. Call it fifty–five to sixty men total, at least a dozen in each group — and if you’ve got any tough athletic women with a military past, I could use them too.”

Rachel cracked a smile. “At least two — Laura Munzer and me. And I can think of two or three more cowgirls that would give your boys a race for their money, too.”

“Good. But you shouldn’t be out with a group — aren’t you in command of the whole militia effort?”

“Hell no, that’s Matt; he’s the one with the real military command experience, he was a major. I just handled the politics of the thing at the town meeting.”

Sam was silent for a moment as they approached the junction with Foothills Highway; their road curved ahead.

“I think,” he said slowly, “That might be the most important part of all. You know this town better than I do, Rachel, and probably better than Ellie either — she hasn’t spent much time here the last fourteen years. How do you think the townspeople are going to react to what we have to do?”

“Doesn’t that depend on what that ‘have–to–do’ really is, Sam?” Rachel looked down at him from the wagon seat. “What are you thinking about?”

“Everything that needs to be done is going to be way more work than it was a week ago, when we had electricity and motors,” Sam told her. “Hauling grain, potatoes, whatever, taking care of horses, milking cows, planting, weeding, harvesting — it’s all really labor intensive. How many people in Lyons really work with their hands anymore, anyway?”

“Hmm, not more than a tenth, I’d guess, plus another tenth who did it recently enough that they remember how. And you got most of that as volunteers already. Maybe a third tenth that did it once but are too old now; we got a lot of retirees here. That leaves about, oh, seventy percent who’ve not done much more than mow their lawns and maybe play sports. Put the high–school kids in that too, even the athletes don’t do all that much real labor these days.”

“Around a hundred–eighty people out of six hundred,” Sam remarked grimly. “Maybe two hundred on the outside. And four hundred looking to be taken care of by the two hundred. That’s not going to work. We need to get at least four hundred people working to have any chance of pulling through, probably more than that. There’s just too much work to do, and I’m sure I haven’t figured out all of it.”

Rachel scratched her chin again. “Actually, I think Allison’s thinking about that. She’s a pretty smart old lady, you know. But everybody can’t work, Sam; we’ve got almost a hundred people over the age of sixty–five in this town, and a good eighty kids in the school system, not counting the ones who live up–canyon and get bussed in.”

“That still leaves more than four hundred who can,” Sam answered. “We’re going to need every one of them doing it, too. The high school kids can work, or learn to; they’ve got the strength. Some of the older folks can teach things like milking cows and planting seeds, or watch the little kids, or do things with their hands at tables. There’re going to be a lot of little things to do, I’m sure.”

He thought for a moment more. “You mentioned the people up–canyon; how many folks live up there anyway? A hundred? Three hundred?”

“About two hundred–fifty, maybe a little more. It jumps to over two thousand for the summer. There’s a lot of seasonal cabins and such up around Raymond and Allenspark, but hardly any year–round folks. A bunch more in Pinewood Springs, maybe half the winter total just there. Two busses come down–canyon to the school just on Highway 36, and another down State 7. Why?”

“In a couple of weeks those folks are gonna be right out of food,” he told her. “No snowplows, so they’ll take the easiest route out — to Lyons. What’s the Marshall doing with the ones we’re getting now?”

“I think you’ll get to see that right about now,” Rachel said, staring up the road.

Sam looked ahead. Indian Ridge was rising on their right, similar cliffs across the canyon to the south, and between the two a large body of men and women were clearing the land in a long line. Trees were being cut along the creek, a building torn down, and a trench dug where the new wall would go. On the road several men in National Guard outfits carried makeshift spears. They were pointing them at a band of men, women and children roughly a dozen strong, standing there arguing. The people were all bundled up in warm winter clothing, but virtually empty–handed, and their clothes were stained from mud, water and snow.

“You have food!” one woman was crying, tears streaming down her face as she held the hand of a little girl. “We have nothing!”

“Just get along down the road, folks,” one of the uniformed men said grimly, waving his spear suggestively. “Get going.”

A man spread his empty hands and asked in a bewildered voice, “Why won’t you share? We’re just asking for a little help!”

“No you’re not,” said another guard. “You’re asking us to take food out of our children’s mouths and give it to you. No way we’re doing that. We don’t have enough for them now!”

“How can you be so cruel?!” wailed another woman.

“Go!” shouted the first guard, making short stabbing gestures.

The crowd flinched back from him, milled for a moment as he advanced two steps, then one of the men clumsily tried to grab his spear. The guard twisted free and slashed with the point, and the man screamed as the knife–blade bit into his arm. White goose–down flew from his jacket, spattered with bits of red.

The other seven guards advanced in a line, closing up with the first, spears raised and faces grim. The crowd broke and scrambled away down the highway, crying and shrieking in fear. They swerved to Sam’s left and ran past the wagons, casting confused looks at them.

Sam found that he had his bo in his hand and had dismounted and taken up a guard stance before he knew it. The woman with the little girl gave him a terrified look and dragged her sobbing daughter along the edge of the pavement to avoid him. The little girl stared at Sam and for a moment their eyes made contact. Tear–filled dark eyes in a frightened little girl face stared at brown eyes in a hard man’s face.

Something in the back of Sam’s mind broke and ran away gibbering, but the cold bitter iron part of him stared back through a frozen mask. The little girl looked away, put her head down and ran with her mother. The whole crowd disappeared behind the last wagon, still running.

Sam swallowed hard. The guards stopped, some leaning on their spears and looking upset — one was outright crying even though his face was still set in a snarl.

“That,” said Rachel heavily, “is what we’re doing. And if you have any better ideas, I’d really, really like to hear them.”

❀ ❁ ❀

4

— Kitchen Work —

Lyons, Colorado; Saturday afternoon, March 21, 1998.

Ellie watched Sam and the wagon train head out of Lyons for the grain elevator. The afternoon sun was warm on her back but a winter breeze chilled her face. She watched until they passed around a curve and disappeared.

“He’ll be all right, Ellie,” her dad said kindly. “He’s a strong man, and tough as anyone I ever met.”

Ellie turned to him. His own group was organizing, five men picked by Hank Waters from the self-activated National Guardsmen and the town’s volunteer firemen. They all had good mountain bikes with heavy tires, and one was packing a bicycle pump and patch kit into a pannier. Hank had put Ricky Giles in charge, he held a sixth bike ready for her father.

Dad’s leaving, too, she thought. Dad’s leaving — Mom’s dead — Sam’s gone out to steal food — Dad — Mom — Sam — Dad —. For a moment the world spun loose on its axis, all certainty vanished.

“Everything’s Changed!” she blurted out, gripping his arm. I want my home back!

“Not everything, honey.” Her Dad looked at her with a furrow in his brow, the same one he always had when he was just a little worried but didn’t want it to show.

It was inexplicably reassuring. Ellie relaxed and found her feet were still firmly planted on the Earth.

“I’m more worried about you, Dad,” she told him. “How long has it been since you rode a bike? I mean before yesterday.”

“Not as long as you think,” he answered cheerfully. “Okay, probably most of thirty-forty years since I did it regularly. But I still remember how — made it back from Longmont, didn’t I?”

“How sore are your legs today?”

He made an abortive movement as if about to rub his right thigh. “Not too sore to ride again.”

Ellie snorted, turned to Ricky. “I want you guys to make sure he takes a rest every three or four miles, whether he wants to or not. And I mean ‘make sure’, as in ‘sit on him if you have to.’ This trip won’t work if he strains a hamstring or tears something. Don’t let him try to out-macho you, either.”

Ricky grinned. “Yes ma’am. Hank said pretty much the same thing.”

“Good.” Ellie turned to her father. “So don’t be stupid, Dad, and make sure you come back.”

“When did my little girl get so bossy?” he grumbled, giving her a big hug.

“When I started dealing with high-school kids about a decade ago,” she answered, hugging him back hard. “Promise me?”

“Okay, okay, I’ll rest every four miles.”

“At least every four miles, for at least ten minutes. Oftener if you feel sore.”

He threw up his hands while Ricky Giles and the other men grinned. “Okay! I promise.”

He climbed onto the bike and the little group pedaled away. Ellie watched them for a few minutes, then Tim came up to her.

“Miz Hyatt? Mr. Abbaku says we’re about ready,” he said.

Ellie tore her attention away from the receding form of her father and turned to the third group of foragers. Rina Durungian had her wagon, empty now, with the two horses rested and recovered from yesterday’s long walk. Terry was driving another, borrowed from someone her dad knew. It had two big Morgans pulling it much like Rina’s. Each wagon had a garden cart loaded into the bed, ready to be trailed behind to carry more chickens. Jack and Pat McCarthy and Giorgi all straddled bicycles at attention; Giorgi held an extra one for Tim. Stanto Abbaku was in front on another; Esmera had just kissed him and stepped back.

“You all be careful, too,” Ellie told them, blinking her eyes repeatedly.

“We shall return with all the chickens we can carry,” Stanto pledged as Tim mounted his own bike. He waved his spear. “Move out!”

Tim and Terry waved as the group pedaled and plodded away.

June McCarthy and Esmera Abbaku stood near Ellie, watching their own men depart.

“Don’t seem right,” June muttered. “Sending him away without me there, too. We been road partners for fourteen years.”

Esmera looked at her curiously. “You did travel with your husband when he worked?”

June nodded vigorously. “All the time. We got a little house on his brother’s farm back west of Davenport, but that’s just for in-between jobs. We really live — lived — out of the Peterbilt. Had a top-line extended cab, with its own toilet and shower! A kitchenette, too, the fold-out kind with electric stove and a little wash sink, and a compact refrigerator under the bunk. For the high-priority loads like TVs ‘n such we just drove straight from the loading dock in Long Beach to the big distribution warehouses in Des Moines and Chicago, sometimes Kansas City, an’ didn’t stop for anything but diesel an’ fresh water.”

She sighed nostalgically. “But I guess we won’t be doin’ that any more, leastways while this Change-thing lasts. I sure hope the truck’s okay. We left it locked, but anyone who tries hard enough could get in. All our stuff’s there, clean clothes an’ everything.”

“Ah, yes, to leave behind everything you have but what you can carry,” Esmera nodded soberly. “This is the second time when I must do that. It was easier than the last time, in the old country, when we lost Nichevan. But we had less here to leave, too.”

Ellie looked at the Armenian woman curiously. She started to ask ‘what’s Nichevan?’ when a hand touched her arm.

“Ellie dear, it’s lovely to see you again,” Allison Hamill said, beaming. “I am so sorry I did not get a chance to speak to you during the meeting earlier.”

The Mayor was past sixty. Usually she wore her hair in a frosted halo of curls, but it had been days since any woman in town last saw a functioning beauty shop. During the meeting Ellie had noticed that Allison kept a furry hat on the whole time — the auditorium hadn’t been very warm even with a few hundred people packed into it. Now the Mayor had a huge silk kerchief wrapped around the hat as well. It was tied under her chin to shield her head from the chilly breeze. Ellie first thought was that she seemed much frailer than she had last year. The second was that Allison still wore makeup, unlike June, Esmera, or Ellie herself.

“We were all busy, Mrs. Hamill,” she answered. “I want to thank you for supporting Dad and Sam.”

“No need, it was so clearly the right thing to do. It’s Rachel you should thank, for developing the idea in the first place.” Allison beamed like the grandmother she was, and then her expression turned serious. “I wonder if you would mind walking over to the school with me for a little meeting? There are a few things I’d like to discuss with you and the school people, some questions I didn’t think of until after the Town meeting.”

“Gladly.” Ellie matched the older woman’s slower pace as she led the way back into downtown. The rambling elementary school covered a whole city block. Allison led Ellie through the back door into the cafeteria kitchen. The big steel dumpster outside the back door had warmed in the sun and begun to stink.

Come to think of it, I don’t smell so sweet myself, Ellie thought ruefully.Still wearing the clothes I sweated in while bike riding yesterday — stained and everything. And my hair’s a mess! She ran her fingers through it again — she’d washed in cold water and combed it this morning but it still looked and felt greasy. It made her feel embarrassed to be so disheveled in public.

Elaine Shelly, the school’s dietician and manager of the cafeteria, was sitting on a stool at one of the big stainless steel preparation tables. Ellie remembered her vaguely from years past, a comfortable woman in her late fifties with a mop of dyed brunette curls that were currently tucked into a beaded hairnet. She had handwritten charts and notes spread over half the table.

“Allison!” Elaine greeted the Mayor, absently pushing a pencil back and forth. “Susan just stepped out to talk to some more volunteers. She’ll probably be back in a little while.”

“Elaine, do you remember Ellie Hyatt, Burt Santini’s daughter?” Allison said. “Her husband Sam was appointed Chief Food Gatherer by the Trustees this morning. I do apologize for rushing you, but I’m afraid we need to do some serious planning today. Do you think you could give us a preliminary estimate yet?”

“Pleased to meet you, Ellie; I voted for your dad every time he ran for the Board,” Elaine declared, shaking her hand. “If we could get someone with half his good sense onto the School Board my job would be a lot easier. Add that husband of yours, and we might even get something useful done in the District for a change.”

Ellie chuckled. “Thank you, Missus Shelley.”

“Call me Elaine. I bet we’re going to be working together, so none of that ‘Missus Shelley’ formality, you hear?” Elaine turned to Allison without waiting for a response. “No problem, this is actually good timing. It’s pretty crude, but I think I’ve got some numbers for you that ought to be reasonably close to reality. Look here.”

The dietician pushed aside some green-barred papers that looked like perforated computer print-out, closed a couple books, and uncovered a big flip-chart with a grid on it. There were crude column headings above numerous entries. Many were scratched-out and revised two and even three times. The last number in each column was carefully written in red marker.

“I wish the computer still worked,” she muttered. “The numbers took ten times as long to run without it, and would’ve been longer still if I didn’t have last month’s printout in my reference file. Okay, here I’ve made a calorie breakdown for typical daily minimum requirements, children here and adults there. Excuse the handwriting, been a while since I had to print everything by hand! Men and women are broken out separately in these columns. All calories aren’t equal. We need a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to stay healthy. Also, the mix will be a little different for the elderly than for working adults, that’s this pair of columns here. I’ve got good population numbers for the kids but I had to guess at the adults — I used six hundred able-bodied, half and half, plus ninety-four kids and a hundred elderly. The old ones will probably be split sixty-forty women-men — we do tend to outlive the men, don’t we, dearies?” She confided to Allison and Ellie with a sly wink.

“But dietary differences are less important after menopause. So all that gives us a set of daily requirements that come down to these numbers here — so many pounds of protein, carbohydrates, and fats per day. There will be calcium needs and other vitamin issues too, but these are the basics.”

Elaine pointed at the bottom lines, where an alarmingly large set of numbers was colored red. Ellie followed the addition across to a final row of digits.

“That’s over a thousand pounds — nearly fifteen hundred? Per day?” Ellie asked incredulously. Do eight hundred people really eat so much?

“Oh yes,” the dietician smiled mirthlessly. “That’s what we need every day in order to feed this town. Multiply it by seven, that’s per week.” She flipped over another page of the chart, pointed to it. “Multiply the daily by thirty, that’s per month.” She turned over another page. “If all the protein comes from eggs, chicken and beef, and all the carbs from barley, and we rely on the beef and chicken fat for our cooking fats too, then here’s how much we need of each, every day. I figured 45 pounds per bushel, three-pound net weight on the chickens after plucking and gutting, and medium-sized eggs. I also assumed half the protein comes from beef — might have to be more than that, we’ve probably got a lot more cows than chickens when you measure by sheer tonnage. Even after Sam’s Gatherers bring in whatever birds they can find.”

“Thirty-two thousand pounds of barley plus four thousand pounds of beef, chicken and eggs,” Allison read aloud. “Every month.” Her eyebrows went up. “My, that does sound like a lot.”

“It’s barely enough, for anyone who is actually working,” Elaine said grimly. “If we get smaller amounts off of each animal than the average number right there, then the numbers of animals we eat have to go up or people start losing serious weight. And nobody overweight is going to stay fat on this diet, either. These are minimums.”

“Dear God!” Ellie exclaimed. “We have to tell Sam, and Dad. They’ll have to find some way to move that much food — heavens, that’s sixteen tons of grain every month! Though we’ve got other stuff too, don’t we? The cherry harvest will be ready in June, Dad’s trying to get potatoes, and there’s cheese from Ellen Dunstan’s goat farm.”

“All that will help,” Elaine nodded. “The goats will be better for milk and cheese than for eating anyway since those will be important for our calcium. We can get more protein off one cow than all of Ellen’s goats put together, especially if we boil all the beef bones for soup stock.” She pointed at the huge steam kettle standing against one wall of the kitchen behind her. “If we can get this place working, we can serve about half of the town in shifts out of the cafeteria. We’ll have to figure out some way to spread the rest around.”

“If people have around a week or two of food at home, then we’ve got time to get a feeding system set up,” Ellie thought out loud, then stopped. “Oh. Are we going to need to collect the food from people’s houses, too?”

Allison frowned. “That is probably not possible, politically at least. After the meeting everybody will be hoarding, and trust in government is not exactly high in this community.” She made an irritated grimace. “I think we have to assume most of our people will keep whatever they’ve already got and live off of it for a while.”

“On the bright side, that will buy some time to get food hauled in,” Elaine nodded. “But at least a few people will be caught short just before they were due to go shopping. Somebody’s bound to run out in the first week — maybe today, even.”

“There will be a few empty houses, though, where people were out of town when the Change hit,” Ellie suggested. “If Dad brings back that potato farmer and his family, we’ll need to put them up somewhere. And if somebody knows there’s an empty house next door, sooner or later they’ll be tempted to break in and steal whatever food there is.”

“I don’t disagree,” Allison said. “But identifying the vacant homes will be a challenge. Before, I’d simply have ordered the Town Clerk to pull the electric and water meter numbers to figure out where nobody’s home, but the whole electronic billing system’s dead now. And we spent a hundred thousand dollars installing it, too! Ah well. I’ll see if we can organize some of the high school kids to go door-to-door and do a head count. We’ll need those houses for other people, too, Ellie. You aren’t the only one of our people to make it back here with more friends and relatives than will fit in your house.”

Ellie hesitated for a moment, then slowly said “Do you think some in the Town are going to resent having other people here, folks that weren’t living here before this Change?” She remembered the voice at the town meeting yelling to expel all the ‘outsiders’. The notion that someone might want to drive out the McCarthys, the Abbakus, her husband’s students, maybe even Sam and her own kids, didn’t sit well.

“You already know they will, Ellie,” Allison said gently. “But your husband and his people are refuting that kind of clannish thinking by bringing back food. I expect we’ll see all the refugees we’ve taken in working plenty hard, if only to show the natives that they’re worth keeping around.”

Ellie rolled the word around in her mind. Refugees. That’s what we are. It was disturbing to think of her own family the way people used to talk about earthquake victims in a foreign country.

“Then what happens to the ones who really aren’t worth keeping around?” Elaine asked. “I can think of at least one deadbeat brother of a neighbor who walked here out of Longmont the first day. Even if you held a gun to his head you couldn’t get work out of him. And I sure don’t feel much like feeding the parasite, let me tell you. Anyone who won’t work shouldn’t get to eat.”

Allison shook her head. “I don’t know. We’ll — the Trustees will have to make a decision. Just remember all the elderly here who can’t work, or at least can’t work much. We have to account for them, too.”

Ellie remembered that the Mayor’s husband was nearing seventy, and handicapped by a bad knee. Until Tuesday night Ellie had been sure that someday soon there’d be something modern medicine could do about that, but no longer.

“Okay, so when we’ve found the empty houses we can put some of our — refugees, in them,” Ellie went on. “But any house with only an electric stove isn’t going to be able to cook food. For that matter, most people aren’t going to be able to cook unless they’ve got propane or a wood stove.”

Elaine shook her head. “The natural gas is still running, Ellie. My gas stove worked fine this morning — my furnace too, though the fans stopped so I had to open my basement door and let the heat just drift up. I’d guess most people in town heat with natural gas — your dad’s house is an exception, being on propane. Maybe a fifth of the town cooks with natural gas, too.”

“Hmm. Pete MacClelland works for the gas company. I wonder if he can do something to keep it running?” Ellie wondered.

“It’s possible he already did,” Allison said slowly, her brow furrowed. “He disappeared that second day after the bright light, after Matt Duncan figured out that guns didn’t work any more. You may know we buy the Town’s gas as a cooperative, direct from some farmers over by Erie. I’ve no idea what pipes it gets routed through, but Pete would know, and know how to control it. He manages the contract for the Town.”

Ellie thought about the season. In Colorado the biggest snowstorms of the year were usually in March. Any day now there ought to be another one, it had been unusually mild for the past week. Without heat the town’s pipes would freeze, and they’d soon be out of water as well.

“It all fits together, doesn’t it?” she said wonderingly. “We have to keep our houses warm enough that the water keeps working, so people can stay clean, so we don’t have diseases break out. We have to be able to cook nutritious food and make warm drinks so people don’t get sick too easily.”

“And we have to juggle our people so that all the necessary work gets done,” Allison answered, patting her hat and tugging on her scarf in the first nervous gesture Ellie had seen from her today. “I dearly hope the gas lasts until spring — it would be a relief to have a few essential things that we don’t have to do without.”

“However the gas works out,” Ellie suggested, “I think we’ll still need to feed a lot of people who won’t have working stoves. I think we should organize them in larger groups instead of individually. We could group three families together, each with men in the Militia, based on who can still cook in their kitchen. Then we could have each of those groups adopt somebody older who can’t cook, or maybe adopt a family that doesn’t have an able-bodied man for the militia.”

“That should be possible, though deciding who to trust with feeding other people will be rather political, I’m afraid,” Allison remarked thoughtfully. “If we’re to make this work, there has to be some kind of rationing system, and enforcement.”

“That won’t please Whit Yohansen,” Ellie said wryly. “I can hear him shouting about communism already.”

“I can deal with Trustee Yohansen,” Allison said flatly. “A bigger problem will be the men who don’t volunteer, whether for the militia or anything else. It’s been a sore point with the volunteer fire department for the last ten years. A good half of the men in this town who are physically capable of serving in the department not only don’t, they don’t do anything else, either. In fact, I’d say quite a few of those folks didn’t even show up for the meeting this morning.”

Elaine and Ellie looked at each other, then back at Allison. Ellie vaguely remembered hearing some grousing about that very issue from her dad over the years.

“You think there are men in this town who won’t pitch in to help everybody through?” she asked.

“Not until they get hungry, I suspect,” the Mayor answered. “When their own food stocks run out — then we’ll see. Assigning jobs to our volunteers is likely to get very tricky if we have to rely on resentful folks who volunteer only because they’re hungry. That’s why I think the volunteer program has to be carefully managed by someone who can take some discontent.”

Ellie and Elaine looked at each other again, then both looked at the closed door that led into the cafeteria. They could distantly hear Susan Smythe’s raised voice out there as she argued with someone. The Trustee sounded angry and defensive at the same time.

“Ummm,” Ellie said.

“Yes, ‘Ummm’ indeed,” Allison nodded. “That’s my problem. I need you two to figure out the food-management side, and how to turn a school kitchen into a community grainary-storeroom. May I leave you to it? I will want to check back with you in the morning, but the rest of my schedule today is rather full.”

“Of course, Allison,” Ellie said.

The older woman left, pushing through the swinging door into the cafeteria.

“I wouldn’t have her job for love nor money,” Elaine remarked.

“I’m just grateful that she’s here to do it,” Ellie answered. “Now, let’s go over these numbers and see if we can figure out how to store everything.”

Ellie pored over the charts with Elaine, vaguely aware that the argument in the cafeteria was growing louder and closer. Abruptly the swinging door burst open and a red-faced man stormed into the kitchen. He was portly, unshaven, and his hair hung greasy and uncombed. He had food stains on his jacket and his breath stank.

“Where is it?! Give it to me!” He was shouting as he slammed the door out of his way. He stormed past Elaine, knocking her off the stool, and into the pantry where he began grabbing boxes and jugs. Allison, entering on his heels, ran to help the kitchen manager.

“What do you think you’re doing!?” shouted Susan Smythe, chasing after the man. “You wait your turn like everybody else!”

“My kids need to eat!” he yelled, trying to pick up half a dozen five-pound cartons of macaroni and two jugs of ketchup at the same time. He knocked a plastic jug of vinegar off a shelf and it landed on his foot. He swore luridly and danced, trying to clutch his foot without losing any of his prizes. Two of the macaroni boxes dropped and one burst open to scatter little elbows across the floor. He began edging toward the back door, macaroni crunching under his shoes.

Ellie flinched at the waste. Our kids could be eating that!

She groped in the open rotisserie oven next to her. She came up with two long spears ordinarily used to roast three whole chickens each. She grabbed the metal handles, swung the pointed ends toward the man as she blocked the door.

“Stop right there!” she ordered. “Put down the food!”

Elaine had gotten back to her feet and seized a big steel fork out of a drawer in the table. She passed it to Allison and another to Susan, then grabbed the long steel paddle out of the steam kettle. It had a four-foot handle and the leaf-shaped blade, though dull, looked remarkably like a spear.

The man paused at the end of the long steel table, looking wildly around. On one side he had three women waving sharp objects, on the other only one — and the exit was behind the one. He bulled his way toward Ellie, dropping another box of macaroni that also shattered.

Sam’s words came back to her during his home defense lesson, years ago: “Look him in the eye and make him know you’ll hurt him for real if he comes within your reach.”

When he was five feet away she lunged and jabbed the points of both roasting spears into his right arm. He recoiled, screeched, dropped the ketchup bottles and most of the macaroni. One bottle ruptured and he slipped on the ketchup, went down. His skull cracked against the base of an oven and he doubled up, clutching his head and moaning. The last macaroni box went spinning aside under the table.

“Get out of here right now!” Ellie commanded. “Move!”

He staggered to his feet, slipping on the ketchup and kicking macaroni boxes aside; a third one crushed under his feet. Ellie stepped back and to the side, waving the spears threateningly, and let him pass. He caromed off the steel table and fumbled with the door, all the while pouring out a mumbled stream of profanity, then bolted outside. Ellie heard him bang into the steel dumpster, then stumble down the driveway into the road as she latched the outside door.

“Whew!” said Elaine, leaning on the steel paddle. “Who was that?”

“One of the new folks who live in those big houses out on Eagle Road,” Susan said, putting the fork back on the table. “Jabbering about how there wasn’t any food in the house and none of the restaurants were open and he just had to have something for his kids right now.”

“Grayson, I believe his name is Grayson,” Allison said, putting down her own fork. “He’s not even a registered voter.”

“Oh, that’s the Graysons’ dad?” Elaine nodded in sudden understanding. “His boys are twelve-year-old twins, a couple of real delinquents. They’ve spent more time suspended from school than in it. His wife is this mousy woman who’s been in here three times that I know of, making excuses for them.”

“And now he’s left us a fine mess,” sighed Ellie, putting the rotisserie spears away. “Is there a mop and bucket handy?”

“Frank’s here, the janitor,” Susan said. “I’ll get him.” She hastened out the cafeteria door.

Elaine began fishing under the table for macaroni boxes. “She might’ve helped us clean instead,” she muttered sotto voce.

Allison sighed and went to the pantry, picked up the dropped boxes and the vinegar bottle. “Good thing this didn’t spill. Perhaps we should use some to mop up the ketchup.”

“No, use cleaning fluids for that,” Elaine answered. “We can’t eat them, and we can eat vinegar, and especially things pickled in it. Like the frozen vegetables in that walk-in freezer back there, which are probably thawing by now.”

Ten minutes later Ellie had filled the kitchen’s own bucket and mopped up most of the ketchup. Allison had just finished wiping ketchup off the last of the salvaged macaroni boxes. Elaine had swept up the shattered macaroni and was looking at the considerable mound it made in the big steel dustpan.

“Ordinarily I’d toss this in a minute, but maybe if we boiled it in a soup…” she speculated.

Ellie cringed, thinking of what must live in the cracks of the kitchen floor after all these decades of spills and dirty shoes. “We’re not that desperate. We don’t want to risk sickness, either, Elaine,” she said. “It won’t do any good to feed our kids if we give them dysentery, or something worse.”

“Good point.” Elaine sighed and dumped the pan into a trash barrel. All three of them stared at it for a moment, thinking how many meals fifteen pounds of macaroni could have made.

Susan returned with the elderly janitor, Frank. Elaine promptly bullied him into turning over keys to the two classrooms closest to the kitchen, both right next to the cafeteria. After some argument, settled by the Mayor, he did so and went off grumbling. Allison took Susan with her back to Town Hall for another meeting. Before leaving she made sure that Frank locked up the outside doors so no more Graysons could get inside the building.

“These won’t be the only keys,” Elaine remarked, handing the classroom pair to Ellie. “There’s bound to be five or six others, at least, counting teachers and such — and I’m sure old Frank didn’t give us his only keys, either.”

“We’ve got to have control over the food storage,” Ellie said, hanging up the mop after dumping the bucket down a drain. “I’m going to get Mr. Starry over here with his locksmith tools to change those locks. I figure one for me, one for you, and one for Allison ought to be plenty.”

“Good plan.” Elaine nodded as she locked the inside door into the cafeteria; the late afternoon sun was slanting across the big room beyond. “But we’ll have to take turns being here when the Gatherers start bringing in food. How long do you think it’ll be?”

“Not before dark, I expect; maybe as late as midnight? I’m guessing blind, Elaine. How long does it take to drive a wagon a dozen miles or so? And back?” Ellie picked up her outer coat and donned it again. For the first time she consciously realized that the heat thrown off by the stove’s gas pilot lights was keeping the school kitchen warmer than the outside air.

The dietician shrugged. “Beats me. Okay, I’m going to run home to tell my daughter she’ll have to feed her dad without me tonight. Maybe we can alternate duty here for the night, half-on and half-off. In fact, we’d better set up a duty roster for as long as the Gatherers are still bringing in food. Do you have anybody you’d trust with the temptation of staying here to hold the storeroom keys while you were home getting some sleep?”

“A couple, I think.” Ellie nodded, opening the outer door.

“Good, bring them back in the morning so I get to know them too.” Elaine followed her outside, turned and locked the kitchen’s outer door. “I’ve got a spare key to this kitchen at home, so I’m going to leave this one with you.”

“Thanks, Elaine.” Ellie pocketed it. “If I can find Mr. Starry, this shouldn’t take more than an hour or two.”

“If,” Elaine answered. “I think we’re going to be using that word a lot for the next few months.”

They walked away in separate directions.

It only took Ellie twenty minutes to find the locksmith; his shop was on the same side street as the school and two blocks down. But it took more than an hour to get him back to the school. Starry had only one leg and walked with a crutch. Despite that, he was energetic and athletic, moving with speed that said he didn’t let his handicap bother him. Unfortunately, most of his tools were kept in his working van, which wasn’t going to the school or anywhere else. After some rooting around in his garage he found an old play wagon. He rounded up his hulking teenaged son and put the boy to work loading up and hauling the items Starry selected from the van. The sun was sinking behind the peaks when she finally got them all back to the school.

Fortunately Starry was good at his work. He had switched out the locks and laboriously filed new keys before the light completely faded. Elaine had turned up some used candles, leftovers from the school’s Christmas pageant, and lit four of them to help, but it was still well past sundown before the locksmith finished. His son repacked while Starry handed Elaine and Ellie the new keys.

“Would’ve been ten minutes with power tools,” he grunted. “So who do I send the bill to?”

“The Mayor,” Ellie said, decidedly. “This is a Town operation, so the Town should pay for it.” It’s a sure thing the School District headquarters in Longmont won’t be paying any bills, she thought.

“Works for me,” Starry nodded, then grinned. “So what do you say to a price of two quarts of barley and a chicken? I was at the Town meeting.”

“I would have said it was cheap, a week ago,” she answered him wryly. “Now I guess it’s better than highway robbery. Come by here in a day or two to collect — better yet, do you know anything about plumbing?”

“Some; I do my own ironmongery. Whatcha need?”

Ellie pointed to the steam kettle. “If you can get that working, we’ll all be grateful — and if you can keep it working while the gas lasts, I promise your family will eat.”

“Sounds like the best deal going.” He shook her hand formally to seal it. “Me and my boy John’ll be back in the morning with my plumbing tools. I should talk to your husband, too, I’ve got some things he might find useful. Thanks, Missus Hyatt.”

“You should go home and get some sleep, Ellie,” Elaine said, unrolling a sleeping bag on a chaise lounge that she’d produced from somewhere. “I’ll take tonight’s shift. I haven’t been the one walking for three days just to get here.”

Ellie suddenly became conscious of her own aching tiredness. “You’re right, Elaine. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She let herself out and locked the kitchen door behind her. Elaine had put two candles in the window, hoping that would signal the Gatherers to bring their results to the kitchen.

Their loot, Ellie though as she trudged through the cold. That’s what Sam’s doing, looting and plundering so that we can eat. Oh God, watch over him and bring him back safe to me! Guiltily she added, And Dad too!

The night was frighteningly black without streetlights. Even after three days Ellie hadn’t gotten used to their absence. The wan moonlight limned potholes and ice patches. It also lit the flicker of movement down a side street.

Somebody else walking home, Ellie thought, picking her way down the middle of the road through the bitter cold while her breath made fog. It was a couple more minutes before she realized that the man had turned the corner and was following her. When she got a glimpse of a portly profile about Grayson’s height and build, her heart thumped once, hard, with fear.

This is not on his route home! She thought, then broke into a run. Why am I running? she wondered, until the footsteps behind her started running too. Gah, he’s chasing me!

Ellie dodged down Main Street, cut through the Conoco station. Her sneakers slipped on the sparkling icy concrete. She caught herself, staggered, kept going. Her rubber soles made gunshot-loud slaps going down the steep hill of Third Street. For a few moments she hoped she’d lost him, then he appeared behind her as she crossed Commercial Street and ran into the park.

“I see you, bitch!” Grayson yelled after her, panting. He waved something that glittered in the moonlight. “You stole my macaroni! My kids are hungry ‘cause of you!”

A knife! Where’d this jerk get a knife? Ellie thought wildly, jinking around a picnic table. She pelted across the grass, around a chainlink fence and turned down Highway Seven. Chill air set a fire in her lungs and her leg muscles were screaming. Grayson was gaining on her despite his bulk.

The old stone building Lyons used for a Town Hall-cum-police station appeared half a block ahead. Ellie cut across the lawn toward the front door. Grayson was bare steps behind her. She wasn’t going to make it.

“I’ve got you, bitch! Kid killer!” he gasped, slashing at her with the knife. He missed and she put on a desperate burst of speed.

Another form loomed out of the darkness, passed a scant foot from Ellie and slammed into Grayson. His knife flew free as he was seized, swung around, and body-checked against a tree. The agonized grunt as all the air left his lungs was the best sound she’d heard all day.

Ellie staggered up to the front door of Town Hall and slumped against it, fumbling for the handle. Candles burned in the sidelight windows flanking the door. Inside she could see Marshall Duncan talking with two of his policemen and Allison in the hallway, Ellie could hear the reassuring grumble of his voice. Glancing back, she saw the dark figure on the lawn twisting Grayson’s arm behind him, then seize the man’s other arm and start frogmarching him toward the door.

“Are you okay, Ellie — I mean, Miz Hyatt?” asked a familiar voice, and Ken Clair came into the light with Grayson. The slender man maneuvered Grayson’s bulk in front of him as if it were nothing. His hold must have been painful, because Grayson was mewling little kitten sounds with every step.

“Ken!” She panted, throat half-frozen on the cold air. She had known him in high school, they’d even dated once, but his proud intensity hadn’t been to her taste. He seemed to have settled down to a less vain adulthood since then. “What — what are you doing here?”

“Patrolling for assholes,” he answered. “And looky here, I caught one. Would you open the door for us, please?”

Ellie pulled herself together and pried open the door with shaking hands. Inside Marshall Duncan made a gesture and the two policemen hastily brushed past her. The Mayor exclaimed in surprise and helped Ellie stumble to a chair. She nearly fell into it, her lungs chilled and still panting. When Ellie next looked the two officers had slapped a pair of handcuffs on Grayson. The fat man was collapsed against a wall and weeping like a baby.

“I caught this fine specimen of manhood trying to kill Miz Hyatt,” Ken explained, detailing what he’d seen and heard with a few precise words. He produced the knife and handed it to the Marshall as he talked, both men handling it carefully.

Ellie nodded at the appropriate points in the narrative, still trying to recover her breath. Allison contributed Grayson’s name and recited the events in the school kitchen, dwelling briefly on the wasted macaroni and ketchup. Marshall Duncan frowned at the man, who’d stopped weeping.

“Grayson, you’re accused of attempted murder, by two witnesses. Do you have anything to say for yourself?” The Marshall asked him.

“She made me do it! She’s trying to starve my kids!” Grayson blustered. “Hogging all the food — my poor hungry kids!” His voice sank into a whine and he mumbled about how the town ‘owed’ him food, all the taxes he paid, it wasn’t fair, and so on.

The two cops and Ken Clair all rolled their eyes. “Yeah, right,” Ken sneered. The cops looked like they wanted to say the same but professionalism held them back.

The Marshall turned to the Mayor. “I could put him in a cell, we’ve still got the biker’s bodies stacked in the one but the other’s empty. But I think the moment’s arrived for that re-evaluation of law and order policy we were talking about. This worthless excuse for a citizen’s been a drain on the community for years, with his shoplifting kids and his threatened lawsuits. He’s now proven himself to be a physical danger as well. This town is facing a hard crisis that could kill the lot of us, and he can’t be trusted to help out. Are we going to face the threat represented by scum like this? Because if we don’t do it now, he’ll try again, and the second time he might get lucky.”

Allison looked at Grayson, who’d gone back to weeping. She sighed. “Put him in the cell and we’ll talk in the morning. I want to get Pete, Burt, and Rachel in on this — at least that’ll be a quorum.”

“Democracy’s not the issue, Madame Mayor,” the Marshall said. “Decision-making is. Too many people are on the verge of panic, and the town can’t afford — Hell, Allison, we can’t survive — a panic. If people don’t feel safe from jerks like this, and if those jerks don’t feel the fear of deadly force to keep them in line, they can destroy the whole place with a single riot. Either you’re seen to make forceful decisions right away, and stick to them, or you’re seen as weak and unable to protect the people under your care. Anyone who starts thinking you’re weak will start looking for someone strong to protect them, and an hour later the place will be torn apart by faction feuds. You know this community, Allison. Make the right decision.”

“Dear God, Matt, you’re asking me to sentence a man to death! Or nearly,” She protested. “I’m not even a judge!”

“You’re the closest thing we’ve got,” Marshall Duncan answered. “We sure can’t haul him to County Courthouse in Boulder. We can’t put him back on the street — listen to him, he’s convinced of his own righteousness, he’ll just try to steal food again, or attack somebody for theirs.”

“He was trying to kill Miz Hyatt,” Ken Clair pointed out. “Am I supposed to give him another chance? Why?”

“And he wasted that food in the kitchen,” Ellie found herself standing up as she spoke. “My husband’s out risking his life to get food for the Town, and this — this fool wasted some of it.” She stamped one foot and abruptly realized that her fingernails were digging into her palms right through her thin gloves. It took an effort to force her shaking fists to relax. She almost fell back into the chair.

I’m in shock, she thought. Someone tried to kill me and I’m in shock because of it. Right here in Lyons, by God!

“You see?” The Marshall said. “Allison, I’ve had to fight two men already this week who thought they had the freedom to beat on anyone they wanted, just because guns don’t work. I had to kill to stop them. My men and I may have to use force, even deadly force, on a few more of our local idiots before the next week is over, just to make it plain that law and order are still here. Because if we really lose ‘order’, even for a day, we’ll have to kill a lot more than a few to get it back. Are you going to make that necessary?”

“No!” The Mayor waved a hand like she was fending off something. “Damn it, Matt!”

“Exile or death are the only choices,” the Marshall patiently said. “We can’t afford to keep scum like this in prison and feed them when we don’t know if we can feed ourselves. And we’ve only got two cells anyway.”

Allison sighed. “It would be cowardly of me to try to dump the decision on you, wouldn’t it.”

“Also dangerous as hell. If you hand me the right of summary execution, you make me a dictator. It would fatally undermine your authority and add too much independence to mine,” he answered. “That’s bad for everybody, and I sure won’t thank you for it. Somebody has to act as a check on my judgment, somebody has to hold my reins. Nobody but you has the status and the clout to do it. Well?”

“Damn your habit of being right,” the Mayor grumbled. “Exile it is. First thing in the morning. We’ll have to make a damn ceremony out of it, I suppose.”

“That’d be best,” The Marshall agreed blandly. “But what about his family? As long as they’re here, he’s likely to try to sneak back, and we can’t keep watching them, we can’t spare the men. His sons may want to avenge their father in some stupid way, and they’re almost big enough to do it. As for his wife, well, she’s an anchor for him and the boys as long as she’s in this town. Same problem.”

Allison gritted her teeth. “Right. All four of them. Exile.”

“Very good, Madam Mayor,” The Marshall said formally. “I’ll arrange it.”

“You do that, Marshall,” the Mayor said stonily.

The two cops hauled Grayson to his feet and marched him down the hall to the tiny jail cells in back. The man babbled as they took him away, plainly not understanding what had just happened.

“You’re going to kick his family out of Town?” Ellie asked Allison, struggling to understand it herself. “Where’ll they go?”

“To Hell,” the Mayor answered tersely. “Or Longmont, whichever’s closer. Maybe they’ll walk to Boulder. I don’t know and I don’t — can’t afford! To care.”

“Oh.” Ellie swallowed hard. “Right.” He’s a crazy man who tried to kill me, she thought. He tried to kill me and he could try again. And he wasted food!

Allison drew in a deep breath, blew it out, and visibly changed gears. “Did you and Elaine get your plans ready at the kitchen?”

“Oh, yes,” Ellie answered, glad to change the subject. She explained the plan and handed over the third key.

“Excellent, Ellie. I think we’re finished here for today,” Allison told her. “Let’s walk home together.”

“Ken and I’ll walk you both to your homes,” the Town Marshall said in his gravelly voice as he turned from talking to the two returned cops. “Bob and Al have got night duty here.”

Allison gave him a look, then nodded her head in a single jerk. Ellie breathed a quiet prayer of thanks.

Marshall Duncan opened the door and carefully looked both ways through it, then stepped out and gestured to Allison. Ellie followed her out and Ken Clair followed her in turn.

The four of them trudged along silently. The two men were alert in that easy way Ellie recognized from Sam, watching all around them without making any great show of it. They saw nobody else outside in that whole distance, though many windows had candles lit inside. They passed one man busily splitting wood in his driveway by the light of a gasoline-burning hurricane lamp. He greeted both the Marshall and the Mayor by name, and they him. By the time they had covered the distance to the Mayor’s house Ellie was feeling like she was caught in a surreal dream.

A crazy man tried to kill me not an hour ago, she thought. But every man’s not a danger! I’ve got to get a grip on this — this Change.

Allison lived a block away from Ellie’s father’s house, and didn’t say a word until they reached her front step. Her husband, a silver-haired man who walked with a cane, met them at the door with another man in a National Guard outfit. Ellie recognized him as Gary Oldham, who’d been in grade school when she married; he helped her dad part-time with the fruit packing shed. The scents of cooking wafting around them and Ellie’s stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten in hours.

The Mayor turned at the doorway. “Thank you, Marshall.”

“Please get some sleep, Madam Mayor,” he advised. “Dawn will be all too soon.”

He turned to Gary, who stepped out into the night. “This is your post tonight, and every night this week. Mark’ll relieve you around dawn, you get to sleep in tomorrow. Get used to night shifts. Mr. Clair and I’ll walk Mrs. Hyatt home. Any questions?”

Gary saluted. “No sir!” He turned to Allison. “Madam Mayor, Mister Hamill has shown me around the house and yard and made sure I’m familiar with everything. I’ll aim to be quiet enough not to disturb you. I know about the squeaky side gate, your husband just got me some oil for it.” He produced a small oilcan.

“Thank you, Gary,” Allison answered bemusedly. “When did you cook this up?”

“Marshall told me a little after noon today,” he answered. “About an hour after the Town meeting. I took a long nap this afternoon to make sure I’d be alert tonight.”

“I see.” Allison flicked a glance at Duncan’s impassive face. “Very well. Ellie, come to my office after breakfast and we’ll talk. Goodnight, all of you.”

She went inside and Duncan gestured to Ellie. They walked away while Gary industriously oiled the squeaky gate.

“That was — interesting,” Ellie commented. “Back there in the Town Hall. You’ve put a lot of thought into this situation, haven’t you?”

Ken Clair chuckled. Marshall Duncan smiled drily.

“That’s a fair assessment, Mrs. Hyatt,” he answered her. “I studied leadership theory while I was in the Service. I believe Mayor Hamill has the legitimacy and the personal influence to keep this town together through what we’re going to have to do. Nobody else does. Without her, the Trustees would split into warring factions overnight — that’s what they were before she got elected, talk to your father about the last several years. If it happens again, getting enough people to work together to keep us alive will probably become impossible. That makes her the most indispensable person in this town. It also means she’s the only one who can step into the judicial function, since we don’t have our own judge. I think she knows that politically, but I don’t think she had thought it through until tonight, now that our lives are all at risk.”

“Dear God,” Ellie muttered. “That’s — that’s a stressful load to carry. I hope her heart’s in good condition.”

“I can’t do anything about that, you and Doctor Brown are our best hopes there. But if anybody wants us to fail, and some folks here are short-sighted enough to want just that, taking her out would probably do it.”

That thought shocked Ellie even more than his earlier words. No, she denied to herself. Surely nobody here could be so blind….could they? But a handful of names and faces came to mind; feuds spun out for years over foolishness, rumors of violence and arrest notices on the police blotter published in the local paper. She had always known that small town life wasn’t a Norman Rockwell painting, and today had been a forceful reminder.

They reached the front stairs of her father’s house. A jar-candle was burning in the living room window. Ken Clair bid her farewell at the gate.

“I’m on patrol on this side of town tonight,” he explained. “But once Sam gets back, the Marshall wants me to speak to him about putting a training program together for our volunteers. I’ll drop by for a visit tomorrow afternoon, if he’s back.”

“I’ll tell him to expect you, as soon as I see him,” Ellie answered, wondering just when that would be.

“By the way,” Marshall Duncan added. “I hope you understand that you’re not much farther down the list of indispensable people than the Mayor.”

“Me!?” Ellie squeaked, stumbling on the porch. The idea hit her like a bucket of ice water. She had to grab the doorknob for support. “I’m not indispensable!”

The Marshall inclined his head. “You. Please have one of those strapping young men from your husband’s class accompany you around town. They would be very good at discouraging anyone else stupid enough to threaten you.”

“But — that Grayson man is an aberration, surely there can’t be many more like him?” She thought, Please, God, don’t let there be — any — more like him!

Duncan snorted. “Mrs. Hyatt, today you’ve been handed control over most of the food this town’s going to eat for the next few months, maybe longer. Before tomorrow’s passed every soul in town will know it, too. Trust me in this, Ma’am; you will be a target. I hope it’ll be for nothing worse than flattery and begging, which you’ll surely get more than your fill of, but please don’t take chances.”

He touched the brim of his hat. “Good night, ma’am. Remember what I said about an escort tomorrow.”

“Wait!” Ellie said desperately. “What about Elaine?”

“Mrs. Shelley? I already sent a man to patrol the school; there’ll be two more by tomorrow night. I wish we were using something more defensible for our food-storage, but at least it’s fireproof. I’ll probably have to move the police station in there too. Without power those windowless offices we’ve got in the Town building just aren’t practical. Another reason not to rely on the jail cells after tonight.”

“Oh.” The reach of the man’s planning was frightening and reassuring at the same time. “Thank you, Marshall Duncan.”

“You’re welcome.” He stepped back and waited, pointedly, until she twisted the doorknob and went inside.

Then Ellie found herself doing something she hadn’t ever done in her parents’ house before. She turned the lock until the antique bolt slid home with a loud click. Through the little glass pane she could see the Marshall’s shadowy form nod approvingly and turn away. Ken Clair was already out of sight.

She leaned against the inside of the door and blew out her breath.

Is that what we’re going to come to? she thought, shivering from more than the cold. People attacking us while we’re trying to save their lives?

❀ ❁ ❀

5

— Paco’s Gang —

Denver, Colorado; Monday afternoon, March 23, 1998.

The sticks looked like a good idea. Paco Miralles knew they had to be a good idea. The way that gang of white kids on Federal had held them, the sheer readyness he’d read in their stances, the way they walked, told him as much louder than words. But how? Five days of trying hadn’t gotten him or the Diablos any closer to the secret. They looked impressive enough, walking around with sticks taller than most of them, but Paco knew it was a bluff. And bluffs had a bad way of getting called just when you couldn’t afford to pay up.

That first day after the bright light, when nothing worked, the sight of those white boys on Federal waving their black sticks around had been like a message from God. Not an hour later his Diablos had raided a lumberyard, found a good set of heavy closet rods and big dowels. They looked kind of like the sticks the white boys had, but he was beginning to suspect they weren’t close enough. Without guns, all his gang had to fall back on were knives and chunks of steel pipe, and Paco knew too damn well that nobody won a knife fight without getting cut himself. His left hand brushed his side unconsciously, touching the scar under his shirt and leather jacket. He’d lived and the Slant had died, but he knew it’d been a near thing. He didn’t care to take that kind of chance again if he could help it.

“Paco,” said his main lieutenant Chico at his right hand. “We gotta find somebody who can teach us how to use this shit.” He rapped the bottom end of the stick off the asphalt of the street they were crossing. Jose, walking on Paco’s left, nodded.

Chico had taken to wearing a football helmet since they got the sticks, and no wonder. Jose had nearly brained him the first day — none of them were ready for the sheer reach of the things. Sure, a gun had reach, or used to, but not the same way with a stick. Not as — personal. Jose and five of the other boys had rounded up football helmets too, but Paco couldn’t afford to wear something that hid his face. They were hanging on to their turf only because of his reputation, and to use a rep you had to show your face. He could guess where that was gonna go, too damn soon, too. He didn’t aim to wait for the shit-fall to find him first. That was why he and the Diablos were here, all fourteen of them that he had left. Cordova had disappeared with his woman yesterday, gone shit-knew-where, and taken Pico and his brother and his woman with him — and the largest of the gang’s three stashes, the one with the best heroin. Little Jose had broken into another and overdosed himself, dying in his own shit and vomit. Paco read the signs too well. It was time to merge with somebody stronger, before the Diablos shriveled and died, and he with them.

“Damn right, hermano. And I think this’s the place.”

Paco flicked a finger ahead of them. They were near the very edge of their turf. The rambling arch-roofed brick building in front of them had been a dance school when Paco first joined the Diablos, and before that he’d vaguely heard it used to be some kind of industrial shop. The three-story former hotel attached to it used to be a run-down flophouse, but all that’d changed when the karate school moved in. The Californios who’d taken it over didn’t have a drop of chink blood but they’d been fanatics about their ‘art’. After looking them over the day they opened, old Pedro, the former gang-leader, had decreed that the Diablos would stay away from it. When the Staties had shipped Pedro off to Canon City for a decade and change, Paco had taken over the Diablos, and kept up Pedro’s rules. They had far better places to sell the drugs, and it didn’t hurt them to avoid something that wouldn’t make them any money anyway. The school had settled down to a mutual avoidance — the Diablos didn’t hassle the students, and the school didn’t hassle them. For the last couple years it’d loafed along, probably barely breaking even on the rent, not even worth robbing if he had dared.

It wasn’t loafing any more. Now the place had energy you could feel a block away. In the week since the Change a new guy had taken over. The hotel had been mostly-empty for years. Now folks were moving in, joining up. There was a big hand-cart in the street, women unloading cooking equipment and food under the watchful eyes of three guys in some weird-looking armor. Two of them had long curved swords, and looked like they knew how to use them. The third had a stick, a little shorter and thinner than the one Paco held, and much darker.

Something different about the wood, he thought. Maybe that’s part of it. Those white boys had darker sticks, too.

A couple dozen voices bellowed ‘Hai!’ from somewhere under the arched roof, loud enough to be heard outside in the street. The biggest of the three in armor had noticed the Diablos approach and given an order, the women abandoned their unloading and scurried inside. That gringo had some kind of shiny red chink symbol on his helmet. He stepped forward and put his right hand on the sword-hilt.

Paco threw up his hand, palm out. The Diablos came to a dead stop, right away — he’d had them practice that. It never hurt to show your power in little ways, and power over your own people was the surest way to impress others. Paco handed his stick to Chico, stepped forward a few paces, hands empty and held palm-out and shoulder high. That put him just inside Red Helmet’s reach, he calculated, at least if that sword was as long as it looked. There was a good chance that the big man could cut Paco down before he could get away, but there wasn’t any prize worth having that didn’t carry a risk.

“Peace,” he said, flashing a smile at Red Helmet. “We’re not looking for a fight. I want to see your main man.”

Red Helmet stared at him for a long moment, not speaking. Paco let the stare slide off him like water on grease, outwaiting the intimidation as if he hadn’t noticed it. Finally the man grunted, spit out a word.

“Why?”

“He knows something I want to learn,” Paco answered levelly. “And I might have something to offer him for it.” He didn’t puff or strut for the man, but he wasn’t about to play I’m-just-a-harmless-little-wetback-mister, either. He kept his eyes on Red Helmet’s eyes in that loose way that let him also watch the whole man. I can dodge him, at least once, Paco decided. That armor’ll slow him down more than he thinks and there’s a gap right there by his left armpit big enough for my knife. One hit’s all I’d need. The thought ran a little more confidence into his back, put some extra ice in his eyes.

Red Helmet noticed, grunted, barked something that sounded like a name. The third man, the one with the stick, turned and jogged to the front door of the school. He went inside briefly, came back out with three others in those white pants and funny shirts that the students wore. Paco’s gaze went immediately to one of them, a beefy grizzled Anglo with black hair and short legs. Though it was a freezing cold day under a cloudy sky that threatened snow, he wore only the uniform and sandals. The chill didn’t seem to bother him any — he had a hungry look to him that had nothing to do with food, a kind of power-lust Paco had seen before.

The new boss, he thought, sizing up the man. Deadly, bet on that. Despite his carefully-thought-out resolve Paco felt his back stiffen and his shoulders go back at the mere sight of the man walking toward him. The gang leader’s balls tried to draw up and hide even while his chest puffed against the casual menace in the beefy Anglo’s stare. Paco had to work to let it slide off without reacting where the other could see — and even so, some chill sweat formed on his back.

This fucker’s not gonna be baffled by bullshit, either, he thought desperately. Truth alone with this one. He hated having to grovel, but it wasn’t the first time. Only not too soon; — he wasn’t going to hand the Diablos over to this bastard without keeping a place at their head for himself.

The beefy man had given him the same once-over, taking in Paco’s wiry build. His eyes flicked over the Diablos and noted the sticks with a small sneer. He stopped in front of Paco, jerked a thumb at Chico’s long closet rod.

“Gimmie that,” he said in a New Mexican accent that had generations of white ranchers behind it. He kept his eyes on the gang leader.

Paco hesitated, just long enough to make the point, then signaled his lieutenant to obey. Chico did, grudgingly, keeping Paco’s own stick. The beefy Anglo rolled Chico’s stick in one hand for a moment, then slapped the other end into his empty palm. Muscles flexed under his uniform. The long rod bowed, bent, snapped skyward and showered splinters. The busted halves clattered off the asphalt as the Anglo dropped it contemptuously and grinned at him. Paco fought to bring his own eyebrows back down, but he couldn’t hide his surprise. Broken like it was nothing … and in that moment hope flared brighter. Oh yeah, this guy has what the Diablos need.

“You want something?” the beefy man asked bluntly, hands loose at his side in a deceptively-relaxed way that the gang leader guessed could turn violent with no warning at all.

“I want to learn how to do what you just did, what you do,” Paco answered, fighting down the betraying eagerness that crept into his voice anyway. “We all want it. Guns gone, the cops gone, a gang war’s coming. The Diablos want to be on the winning side, and right now it ain’t us. But it could be you. I got fourteen men — you got more. Take me and my hermanos in and you’ll have not just more men, but men who know the territory. Teach us to use the sticks right, and we’ll show you anything you want to know about Denver.” He hastily amended “The west side, at least. All the good stuff.”

The man stared at him thoughtfully for a long moment, not speaking while he took his time looking over the Diablos more thoroughly. He was a good four inches taller than Paco, with a burly build but relatively short legs for his height that were also slightly bowlegged. There were flecks of gray in the black hair, the dude probably had a decade and a half on Paco’s age. The air of menace hadn’t gone, but something else flavored it now. Paco recognized calculation when he saw it, and dared to hope.

“Where’s the nearest warehouse with food?” the man asked suddenly.

Paco jerked a thumb to the northeast. “Leprinos is a couple miles that way. Wop place, lots of pasta and such.”

“Where’s the biggest knife store nearby?”

Paco pointed southwest. “Collas. Pawn shop over near Sheridan, little north of Colfax.”

“Where’s the water come from? Water in the sinks and toilets, that is.” He waved casually at the buildings around them.

Paco opened his mouth, closed it. “Unh, a few miles out on twentieth, I think — big brick place with a Denver Water Board sign.” He hoped that was right — it wasn’t anything he’d ever thought about before. He was surprised he’d even remembered it.

The man smiled. “What’s your name?”

“Paco Miralles.” He risked adding “Sir.” It seemed the smart thing to do. The menace faded a little, elbowed aside by amusement and something that looked very much like satisfaction. Paco’s hopes took wing and soared.

“Paco, you’ll call me Sensei Catron.”

❀ ❁ ❀

6

— Home —

Lyons, Colorado; Sunday afternoon, March 22, 1998.

“Sam! Dad!” Ellie almost spilled her lunch as she jumped up from the table and ran to embrace her husband. Both men looked tired and chilled from their forays into the plains.

Sam hugged her back, hard at first with his beard stubble scratching her face, and then more gently, with an oddly desperate tenderness. Ellie could see a chill in his eyes that had nothing to do with her, and wondered what had happened out there. He closed those eyes and buried his face in her hair for a long moment, just holding her. She found her answering grip was just as fierce. He stank of sweat and dust, and smelled wonderful.

“Elaine told us about that bastard Grayson,” he said into her ear. “If he’d hurt you…”

“He didn’t. Ken Clair caught him, and Allison exiled him from Lyons.” Ellie swallowed, remembering, and told them about the morning’s exile ceremony.

Five Trustees had been there at the school, all but her Dad and Rachel, and the Marshall and a lot of the activated National Guardsmen had attended too. Elaine, Susan, and Ellie had testified about the incident in the kitchen, and Ellie and Ken described Grayson’s attack. Palmer had objected to the irregularity of the whole thing, but Yohansen had been uncharacteristically silent, eyeing the grim faces of the Marshall’s militia and those of the few townspeople who’d shown up. Most of those were volunteer workers on the Wall, and they had no pity to spare for an attempted murderer. Grayson had whined like a child between shouting crazed threats against Ellie and every official in town — including Susan Smythe. That had simultaneously outraged and frightened the Trustee enough that she’d demanded the man be executed outright. Despite the Marshall’s suggestion last night, Allison had called for a verdict from the Trustees, and only Palmer had abstained. Grayson had finally been silenced by the four guilty votes. His wife had simply cried, in a thin hopeless way, clutching her frightened boys as Allison pronounced the sentence. Marshall Duncan and Chief Waters had taken grim delight in prodding the outcasts none-to-gently through the barrier and down the road. The last Ellie had seen of the Grayson family had been them plodding east toward smoking Longmont.

“I’m glad Allison didn’t wait for me,” her dad said. “Bad business like that’s best handled quickly.” He leaned on a counter, shaking his head sadly.

“You look half-frozen, Mister Santini,” Grandma Abbaku said, firmly directing the older man to a chair at the big kitchen table. “Sit! Eat! There is warm soup, and we have made fresh bread. Sit!”

He did so; Ellie noticed out of the corner of her eye how he half fell into the chair. Her father’s face was always wind-burned from tending to the orchard in all weather, but now he looked seriously drained as well. She guessed that he hadn’t quite obeyed her instructions to rest as much as he should have, and she resolved to cross-examine Ricky Giles the first chance she got to find out why.

Sam felt her distraction, came up for air. “Soup,” he croaked a little hoarsely into her ear, “Sounds wonderful.” He slowly released Ellie.

Ellie tugged him over to a chair next to hers, pushed him into it. She fetched more bowls and Grandma lugged the big soup pot to the table.

Sam looked around as he sat. “I came here as soon as I heard from Elaine at the school. Jesus, Darrin, and Drew’ll be along soon, I left them to finish the unloading. Is there enough food for them too? And we’ve added two new guys to our crew, Fred and Bruce Anderson, but they’re going to Fred’s house to wash up and change, I don’t know if they’ll eat there or here. Where’re our kids?”

“There is plenty of soup,” Grandma snorted. “And I have more bread baking. None will go hungry while I am cooking.”

“Jenny and Jimmy are out feeding chickens with the rest of the little ones,” Ellie explained while Grandma filled bowls. “Stanto and Rina came back an hour ago with at least six or seven hundred more of her birds, including around fifty dead ones, and four more tons of feed. Kate rounded up all the kids to help with the chickens while the rest of us women butchered the dead chickens; we finished just a few minutes ago. Esmera and Mary are making stock out of the bones in the packing shed right now, and Sherry’s washing feathers — she thinks she can separate out enough down for a quilt. I’m going to haul around half of the stock and meat up to the school kitchen for tonight’s inaugural community meal.” She grimaced. “Which is going to be chicken soup again. Probably tomorrow’s dinner as well.”

“Community meal?” Sam asked, lifting a spoon to his lips. He savored the warm broth for a moment, then swallowed and nodded. “Right, Elaine mentioned something about that while we were unloading. We got there just after you left this morning. I caught up with Burt in the street outside after he’d met with the mayor about his own trip.”

“Actually, Ricky insisted I should come home and he’d report to Allison,” her dad interjected around a mouthful of chicken soup. “After all, he was in charge. It went well, too; Bailey and Marazdek are both going to move here with their families and all their seed potatoes. Rachel and Sam and Rina are going to need two or three trips with every wagon we can scrounge to get ‘em all, there’s twenty or thirty tons.” He spooned up more soup, then abruptly caught onto Ellie’s earlier words. “How are they making soup stock in the packing shed? The fruit boiler’s electric, they can’t be using that!”

“Sevan did build a wood-fired stove out of some metal parts he found,” Grandma explained with pardonable pride in her youngest, while she sliced fragrant bread. “It will hold all four of your fruit kettles. He and Stanto are with them, making sure it works.”

“This I gotta see,” her father muttered. He bit into the fresh slice, chewed ecstatically, and added, “After lunch.”

Sam and her dad ate while Ellie filled them in on the happenings of the last twenty-odd hours.

“Elaine and I put together a food plan for all the volunteer workers and militia, including all of your crews,” she explained. “It starts tonight — all the guys working on the Wall and guarding the town get fed supper tonight and three meals a day from now on, so long as they work. Everybody who works can get fed, but only if their crew chiefs vouch for them. You’re going to have to sign off on chits for your crew so they can eat, Sam.”

He looked dismayed as he swallowed the last spoonful. “Wonderful. Bureaucracy.” He chased the last drops of liquid around the bowl with a flaky bread crust.

“Don’t worry, love, I already set it up for you,” Ellie told him, taking out a paper spreadsheet from Elaine’s master charts. “I filled in the names of everyone who you assigned to the Gatherers, I’ll just add your two new ones to the list now. Chief Waters and Marshall Duncan already did the same for their crews this morning, and we’ll keep adding people as we get more volunteers.”

Sam’s eyebrows rose as he looked the chart over. “I didn’t realize we had so many different people doing Gather-work. It looks pretty impressive all strung together like that.”

“The Marshall’s list is bigger,” Ellie told him, “There were a bunch more volunteers for the militia after the trial. And Hank’s list is bigger than both of yours, now. He’s hoping it’ll grow even more too, after we start feeding people, he says he hasn’t got half enough of what he needs to get the wall built. With no power tools, everything’s going a lot slower than it used to.”

Sam shifted his chair to look at the list. Ellie saw calculation in his eyes. “That’s maybe a hundred-fifty people total then, right?”

Ellie fluttered one hand. “A little more than that, counting all of us here.”

“That’s better that I’d hoped.” He nodded.

“I did put our people down as food tenders, see here and here, and we’ll be feeding our own folks and the volunteers from this immediate neighborhood here as a sort of secondary cafeteria south of the creek. Allison hopes we can add a bunch of the canyon farmers and ranchers and their helpers today — Ellen Dunstan, the Galls, and the rest.”

Sam looked alarmed. “Wait a minute — am I responsible for all of those people?”

“Actually, I talked to her about that. We really need a separate crew to manage things inside the town and the canyons, especially if you’re going to be spending time out in the east county, gathering.” Ellie swallowed a sudden lump in her throat at that thought and doggedly continued. “She thinks that Dad ought to take over that job.”

Both men looked thoughtful. Ellie covertly watched her dad chew that over while he slumped exhaustedly in his chair. She was glad to see him nod.

“That ought to work,” he allowed. “I know all the canyon farmers, pretty much, from being past president of the organic grower’s association. I get along with John Gall pretty good, which you can’t say about many others here.” He grimaced and stretched. “And it’ll be a lot less bike riding, to cover just the two canyons and the town. But somebody’s got to take care of this farm, too — I can’t do both.”

“My family will care for your orchard and greenhouse, if you wish, Mister Santini,” Grandma put in. “Sevan is already finding ways to make your packing shed work without electricity, and greenhouses are simple compared to our hot springs in the old county.”

“Sounds like a plan,” her dad nodded decisively. “I’ll go talk to them about it right now.”

He got to his feet, wincing a little, and went out the back door. Grandma began adding something to a pan on the stove with one hand while she stirred the soup pot with the other, a pleased expression on her face. Ellie hid a smile.

Sam looked thoughtful as he fingered the spreadsheet. “There’s about fifty other functions we should be seeing to. There’s a lot of stuff that runs on electricity but could be jury-rigged to run some other way, if we have people who know how. Sevan can’t be the only jackleg mechanic — there ought to be dozens in this town.”

“Well, I found one at least,” Ellie told him, serious again. “Boyd Starry, the locksmith, is good at plumbing and other metal work. He and his son John rebuilt the steam kettle in the school kitchen this morning so that we can run it again. That’s why we decided to start serving food tonight — Elaine thinks we can make soup in big lots between the gas stoves and the steam kettle, enough for three or four hundred people in a pinch.

“Oh, and Mister Starry wants to see you too, he said he’s got something for you in his shop,” Ellie remembered. “And Ken Clair wants to talk to you about a training program for the Marshall’s new volunteers — most of them don’t know much about fighting without guns, I guess.” She shivered a little at the idea. How much more fighting are we going to have to do, anyway?

Sam saw that and took her hand, raised it to his lips in silent acknowledgement and a promise. We’ll cope, somehow, love; we’ll cope.

Aloud he said “Do you need to go back to the school soon?”

“As soon as Rina has all that chicken meat packaged up. Jerry and Kate walked me to and from the school this morning and promised to do it again this afternoon. They’re both doing much better. I think she’s out of danger from the concussion, and his stitches are healing well — I changed the dressing just before lunch, at the new clinic Karen’s setting up in the school. He still shouldn’t use that arm too much, but walking would be good for him and shouldn’t hurt too bad. He doesn’t even look wounded when he’s got a jacket on.”

“Then let’s walk together.”

It took another quarter hour to get everybody assembled and the chicken meat ready. Rina had loaded it into one of the lidded steel fruit kettles from the shed, securely strapped into a wheelbarrow. Sam hefted the handles, nodded.

“Balances well, Rina, thanks!” he told her.

Ellie set off with Sam pushing the barrow by her side, Sherry and her baby on the other, Jerry in front and Kate behind.

My bodyguards, Ellie thought, looking at the two alert students. That’s what they are. It felt strange to walk to the school with someone to protect her from the very town she’d grown up in. My home, and now I need bodyguards, God help me. God help us all.

The streets were mostly deserted, but they saw another militia crew guiding some more canyon refugees through town. Sam set down the wheelbarrow well back from them and held her hand while they passed, a triplet of couples herded by eight stern armed men. The elder pair of the refugees looked hale despite their years, it was the middle-aged pair that were puffing and gasping. The youngest couple simply looked frightened. Ellie looked away, unable to meet their bewildered eyes.

We have to do this, she told herself. It’s our kids or them. God, if you’re watching, please forgive us!

At the school Sam manhandled the stainless steel kettle into the kitchen. Elaine already had water heating in the big steam kettle so they simply poured all the chicken in, washing out the Santini’s kettle with lukewarm water to get the last of the sticky gobbets. The raw chicken smell was bloodier than anything Ellie remembered ever bringing home from the supermarket.

“That looks like what, about fifty or sixty pounds of chicken?” Elaine asked.

“Fifty-two,” Ellie told her, sluicing out the last bit while Sam held the kettle. “Rina weighed it on the packing shed scale.”

“It’ll be a great start to tonight’s dinner,” Elaine said as she returned to dicing wilted-looking vegetables. “And tomorrow’s, too. Once we’ve got it cooked up we can divide it and save half. The freezer’s thawed but still pretty chilly, it’ll handle cooked meat for a day.”

Sam gave Ellie a quick hug while Elaine rattled on in counterpoint to her chopping.

“Which way’s this shop of Starry’s?” he asked her. “I want to leave Jerry and Kate here with you.”

Jerry’s face looked like he wanted to mutiny over being left to guard a kitchen for the second time today; Kate wasn’t a lot happier. Sam noticed and chuckled.

“You two are still on the injured list,” he reminded them. “That doesn’t mean you can’t practice. There’s lots of room in that cafeteria out there, so I want you to put in an hour of mirror-kata while I’m away. More if you’re able to without endangering your stitches, Jerry. Ellie will be the judge of that.”

“Hmm, I think I’ll get Karen in on the decision,” Ellie said. “We assigned her a classroom for the new clinic, she’s been organizing it since morning. Elaine, have you seen her since I left?”

“Sure. Made her lunch, like you suggested. She’s collected another nurse, I think, someone Allison sent over.” Elaine kept chopping vegetables.

“Good, let’s go check in with her right now.” Ellie gave her husband directions to Starry’s shop and bid him goodbye, then led the two students through the dim school hallways to Karen.

❀ ❁ ❀

7

— Hammer and Anvil —

Lyons, Colorado; Sunday afternoon, March 22, 1998.

Sam jogged through the streets of Lyons, looking for the address Ellie had given. It turned out not to be far. A muffled clanging sound echoed through the chilly air as he walked up to the front door of a little house at the dead end of a short block. A plump energetic woman with olive skin and raven hair answered Sam’s knock and directed him around the back.

The clanging sound turned out to come from a lot across the alley behind the house. It was entered through a big double gate in the back fence. A sheet-steel chimney smoked above a one-story concrete block building. There was a debris-jammed back area beyond the gate, with a well-worn pathway through the maze. Sam skirted a huge rack stuffed with lengths of scrap metal and circled a head-high heap of coal to discover a steel door in the building’s back wall. Cast-iron letters arched above it, proclaiming “Aethaleia — The Forge of Lemnos.” Sam thought for a moment, something about the second name caught at him but he couldn’t quite place it. Something he’d learned in that ancient history class he’d taken in teacher’s college. Still trying to remember, he opened the door.

Heat struck him like the breath of a dragon. A huge brick hearth glowed not ten feet away in the dark cave. High-piled embers belched sparks as a silhouette of a broad-shouldered man probed the fire with giant tongs. An enormous bellows creaked up and then down; the coals flared and more sparks flew. A moment later the figure found and withdrew whatever he sought, turned, and laid a glowing something on an anvil lit by a beam of light descending from overhead. The broad-shouldered man made an odd movement as he picked up a hammer and pounded the piece several times. Sam realized that he had only one leg, his body held upright by a thick crutch. Sparks danced lovingly around the looming figure as the hammer swung.

“The smith of the Gods,” Sam blurted, finally recalling the Greek legend. “Haephestus.”

“Better name than Vulcan,” the man cheerily answered. “I never could manage that forked-hand-thing, and I feel silly saying “Live long, and prosper”.

“Let it rest, John!” called the man, and the bellows sighed to a stop, revealing a teenager mounted on a fixed bicycle at its back. Sam’s eyes adjusted to the fire and the gloom, which turned out not to be nearly as dark as it’d first seemed. Two long banks of florescent ceiling bulbs overhead were dead, but a trapdoor between them had been wedged open to let in the beam of light. Something shiny up there reflected that eye-watering sunlight down through the gloom, making the rest of the room look darker.

The man set down the hammer, shifted on his crutch again, picked up the still-glowing metal with his tongs and plunged it into a barrel. Steam billowed. He turned back to Sam.

“You’re Boyd Starry?” Sam asked him, advancing a step closer.

Starry nodded as he set the tongs down and stripped off heavy leather gloves. They reached above his elbows and from the burn marks they’d seen plenty of use.

“The same. You’re Sam Hyatt, the Montana man Ellie Santini married, I saw you at the Town Meeting. Welcome to my forge.”

He stuck out a hand and Sam took it, felt the confident strength in it. Starry was no giant, Sam guessed him only a couple inches taller than his own five-seven, and the smith stooped slightly over his crutch. But he looked like solid muscle and bone, thick as a barrel.

“Impressive place you got here,” Sam told him. “I’ve never seen the like.”

“Thanks.” Starry glanced around with a proud proprietary look. “Built it myself, modeled on an old one I saw in Germany during the Service. Blacksmith there taught me a few tricks, I learned some more on my own. I’ve got a sideline in blade-making whenever the plumbing and locksmith work’s slow.”

“Blade making? As in knives?” Sam’s ears pricked up. A thought that had been in the back of his head since last night began to percolate.

“And swords, and a few other things.” Starry grinned.

“You forge your own steel blanks?”

“Reforge ‘em, really. You saw that big heap of scrap outside — I lucked into a mess of good-quality stock a few years ago and I’ve been reworking it ever since. Some stainless steel, some good black iron — let me show you what I do with it.”

Starry stumped over to another bench, handed Sam a shining blade longer than his own arm. It was a katana with a lovingly wrapped hilt and a little round shield between the hilt and the long, slightly curved blade. A wavy line ran down the length just a little off the sharp edge, and finer wavy patterns rippled across the length of the blade.

Sam hefted it. “Nice balance. Case-hardened folded steel, right?”

“The real thing — folded fifty times, right here in this forge.”

“Mind if I test it?”

“Go ahead. You could bend it double without breaking that blade.”

Sam set the point against a slab of wood mounted on the back wall; from the numerous nicks and gouges it’d been used for this many times before. He flexed the blade into a deep bow, relaxed, and it immediately sprang back straight again. There was a wooden stump in the corner with a stick of dry kindling standing on it. With one stroke he split it into near-equal halves. He savored the fine balance as he made several trial swings and lunges at a cardboard target on the wall. The sword responded as if made for his hand, an extension of not just his arm but his soul. Something that had dozed within him ever since those glory days in the dojo on Okinawa came wide awake.

“Wonderful.” Sam had to fight down a surge of greedy reluctance as he handed the magnificent sword back to the smith. “Even in Japan I never saw the like. You do amazing work.”

Starry held his hands up palm out. “It’s yours.”

“Mine!” Desire warred with honesty in Sam’s heart. “Starry, this must be worth thousands of dollars!”

“I used to sell them for seven thousand apiece, yup. Won’t be doing that any more; what good’s money now? But it belongs in the hands of a man who knows how to use it right.”

Starry lifted a sheath and a complex double-belt off the bench, passed them to Sam.

“Here, put this on. We had to guess at your size, we can redo it after you’ve practiced with it for a while.”

It was a belt-and-baldric device with a movable sheath that depended from a sturdy ring. The ring could be shifted up to hook just behind Sam’s shoulder, or let slide down the baldric to ride at his hip. Sam buckled it on slowly, caressing the fine leather. It had been expertly tooled and punched, with cunning little clips worked into it across the chest to hold small pouches and other useful items. There were two tiny sheaths sewn on for throwing daggers and a clip-on leather pouch at the left hip just right to hold three or four shurikens, closed by a stiff flap.

“You’re a master leather-worker too?” Sam’s eyebrows lifted.

Starry chucked. “Naw, that’d be my wife, Mary. She made this, just finished it this morning. It and the sword were both going to a client in San Francisco, but he won’t be seeing it now. She reworked it for you.”

“This — this is amazing,” Sam told him, touched more than he could say. “I’m — I’m deeply in debt to you.”

Starry tilted his head, stared seriously at Sam for a moment. “Just — please — keep my family alive. That’ll pay for these a thousand times over.”

Sam nodded to him slowly. “I’ll surely try my best. My crew all will. And if you’ve got any more like these, the odds of success for us will go up a good bit, too.”

Starry jerked his head in agreement. “There’s more all right, though the rest aren’t up to that quality. I’ve got two more katanas in the works for other customers, the steel’s made and the blades shaped but not finished yet, never mind the grips and wrapping. I’ve mostly been working on a big rush order, two dozen Roman Gladia for a broker I know in Texas. That’s number twenty-one that I put in the quenching barrel when you walked in, and the first nineteen are already hilted and wrapped and just need to be sharpened. I can get a hundred more, maybe a hundred-fifty, out of my scrap pile. The militia and your crew’s going to need armor as well. Chainmail would be best, but it takes too long and I don’t have enough quality wire. We can do some pretty good overlapping steel plates on leather backing if I can get enough volunteers to do the needle work, and there’s enough sheet steel in the cars sitting all over this town —”

There was a clatter in the back yard and the door opened again.

“Mister Starry! We got ‘em! Only a dozen so far, but there’s hundreds more around town!”

Half a dozen teenagers spilled through the door, each lugging a pair of long curved pieces of metal. Sam recognized leaf springs out of trucks and passenger cars. Curved springy shapes reminiscent of his Japanese bow, but far too stiff for any man to pull, unless —

“Crossbows?” he asked Starry.

“Yup, and scorpions to mount on the Wall.” The smith directed the boys to his son’s charge, then grinned back at Sam. “Chief Waters and the Marshall asked me about making some kind of mounted projectile weapon for the militia. We’ll make the small segments into blades, a little heating and pounding will flatten them right out. The lightest of the big ones will become crossbows, the heaviest I’ll make into scorpions. Anybody comes at the Wall trying to take us gets shot down at a hundred yards. And best of all, a scorpion doesn’t need a lot of strength or skill to operate. Just ratchets and cranks, and I can make those.”

“And I’ve butchered my aunt’s piano for the bowstrings,” added a new voice from the other end of the room. A door had opened there and someone was silhouetted against the light beyond. “Damn, Boyd, it’s black as night in here. You need some more windows!”

“Ken!” Starry greeted the newcomer. “Sam, this is Ken Clair — he runs the place next door. I’d have to bash out some concrete blocks to make ‘em, Ken — natural lighting wasn’t a real priority when I bought this place.”

“While I exhibited a bit more foresight in my choice of business accommodations.” Ken smirked as he came forward into the light from the trapdoor overhead and dropped an armload of wire loops on a bench. He shook Sam’s hand. “Please to meet you, Sam, and I’m hoping I can pry you away from this smoking hell-hole to see it.”

“See what?” Sam asked, noting the wiry strength in the other man’s grip and the grace in his movements. He had the centered look of a martial artist, so Sam was unsurprised when he heard the answer.

“My fencing school.”

Boyd Starry snorted as he pawed through the wires. “Foresight? You inherited that building from your dad.” He held up several loops, fingered them critically. “These’ll do. Okay, joking aside, Marshall Duncan likes his idea, Sam, so it’s probably at least half-baked.”

“You wound me, sir,” rejoined Ken with ostentatious dignity. “I’ve been working on it ever since the day after the Change, building on months of preparation before that.”

“So maybe it’s three-quarters baked.”

Starry’s son and the teenagers politely signaled for the smith’s attention at that point.

“Then let’s go look at this place,” Sam told the martial artist, and bid the smith goodbye.

“I want to thank you for saving Ellie from that maniac,” Sam said quietly as Clair led the way through the front of the smith’s shop, where plumbing and locksmith equipment vied for space. “If he’d killed her, I don’t know what the kids and I would’ve done without her.”

“No need. It was a pleasure to pound on that walking piece of shit,” Ken answered. “His wife enrolled those twin delinquents of his in my beginners fencing class last summer. They were smart-mouthed sneaky disruptive influences from day one, and then they cut half of the classes. I’m pretty sure they were the ones who vandalized my windows, too, cost me a six hundred dollar deductible to replace the glass. And their worthless dad refused to pay me for the second half of the class because his brats hadn’t ‘enjoyed’ it enough, as if I was a damn TV show. The town’s better off without the whole bunch.”

The street beyond was another short dead-end cul-de-sac ending at the riverbank, lined with shabby industrial buildings. The school turned out to occupy the second floor of a tall old red-brick warehouse that filled the remainder of the block south of Starry’s place. Clair unlocked the street door under a wooden sign that proclaimed ‘Lyons Akkido and Fencing School.’ He led Sam up a creaking wooden staircase, chatting all the way.

“The lower level’s a custom furniture shop,” Ken explained, “and their rent carried the building. My aunt ran a dance school on the top level until cancer took her a year ago. It was empty after that, and no prospect of getting real rent for it, so I had the idea of opening my own school. Around that time Laura Munzer got out of the military and was looking for a place that she could use for her own classes, so we combined our dreams. Here’s the result.”

He opened a door on the right side of the narrow hallway at the top of the stairs, and stepped aside with a flourish. Sam walked through and gazed around, then slipped off his street shoes to tread carefully across the polished floor.

The room was cavernous, at least a hundred-fifty feet long and sixty wide with a clear span from wall to wall. The roof girders began more than fourteen feet above the buffed hardwood floor and extended another five or six feet higher; long skylights separated every second girder. Half the floor was gleaming maple, half covered by worn sponge matting with a faded ‘Lyons High School’ logo in the middle. A disemboweled piano in one corner showed where Ken had gotten the wire for Starry’s crossbows. The entire south wall was lined with tall windows, the antique two-pane kind each with a sash and gleaming brass lock bolt; their lower halves were barred with interior grillwork. When he looked through one he saw the brush-and-tree-lined riverbank below. Plaster walls had been painted a pale yellow where they weren’t lined with big mirrors. After the outside chill and the darkness of unlit stairs and hallway, the room positively glowed with light and warmth.

Sam whistled, looked back at Ken still lounging in the doorway. “Nice. Your aunt set this up?”

“She did,” Ken confirmed, gazing around with pardonable pride. “Except for the mats. She ran a ballroom dance school here for a dozen years, ballet too. Subleased it out now and then to other operations, square dance, martial artists — including the guy I originally trained with. I wish he hadn’t moved to Santa Fe, he’d be real good to have around right now. I had to clean it up a lot, it got pretty run-down while she was ill, and I never did get the piano fixed — just as well now! I refinished the floors just a month ago, bought the used mats last fall when the high school wrestling team replaced theirs, and put up the last of the new paint not two weeks before the Change. Laura helped, she should be somewhere about —”

“Behind you,” said a sweet contralto voice about four inches behind his shoulder.

“My heart!” Ken leaped forward a couple feet, clutched his chest in a theatrical gesture. “Jesus, woman, don’t do that to me. You must’ve been a Ninja in your last life.”

“Possible,” the stocky woman answered cheerfully, padding silently into the room. “Mom’s half Japanese.”

She stood barely five and a half feet tall, not all that short for a woman, and despite her solid torso she moved with the sort of cat-like grace that Sam had seen many times in other black belts. Other than the black hair and high cheekbones she didn’t look particularly Oriental. He vaguely remembered her from the meeting at the school — she’d stayed in the background during that first hectic planning session. She had stopped at the edge of the maple floor, sizing him up at the same time.

“Laura Munzer? You teach Akkido?” Sam asked, returning across the polished floor in his stocking feet.

“Sure do — took it up in high school, got good at it in the Army MPs. You’re Sam Hyatt, the Karate guy the Trustees put in charge of gathering food. I don’t know if she’s mentioned it yet, but your wife Ellie used to baby-sit me and my sister and brother when we were little. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

She bowed shallowly, Sam responded the same. They shook hands. Her grip was calloused and strong, and he felt the tension. When she suddenly tried to jerk him off balance he was ready for it, countered the pressure, and she was the one who had to take a half-step. She laughed.

“Okay, I deserved that. You’re the genuine article, Sam. Third, fourth dan?”

“Fourth,” Sam admitted, releasing her hand.

She bowed to him again, deeper this time. “Very good, sensei. I’d love to learn from you, if we can find the time. From what Ken tells me, that could be in pretty short supply for a while.”

“Marshall Duncan’s coming here with a bunch of his new recruits sometime this afternoon,” Ken explained. “I’m supposed to drill basic saber work into the lot. I can do that, I’ve got some rattan and wood practice blades to start them on — I can even use dowels if we have to. But he may want more. I heard he was a Karate man himself in the Army, I’m pretty sure he wants ‘Empty Hand’ training for these poor slobs, too. That I no can do.”

“And while I can teach basics, Akkido’s pretty specialized for what he needs,” Laura added regretfully.

“Way too specialized,” agreed the Marshall’s voice from the doorway.

“You’re another one,” Ken complained. “Always sneaking up on people.”

“That’s how I catch guilty consciences.” Duncan smiled grimly at him.

“Hey, I haven’t been drunk-and-disorderly more than three, four times since my senior year at Boulder,” Ken protested.

“True — each time right up the road in Longmont, too. Chief Lewis there is probably wishing his problems were just you, these days.” Duncan’s gravelly voice went lower as he added to himself: “I hope he’s doing okay.”

“You talking about the Longmont Chief of Police, Marshall?” Sam asked, remembering something Karen had said.

“The same. Did you happen to see him while you were there?” The older man’s voice was hopeful.

“Karen McGuire told me he was killed the first night, a car wreck when the Change hit,” Sam explained regretfully. “She said the City Manager was killed with him, and the city council’s away at a meeting somewhere, Breckenridge I think.”

“Bad news.” Duncan shook his head, suddenly looking grayer. “Wally Lewis was a good fishing buddy. But that explains why everything’s gone to hell so fast over there. His deputies were good men, but they wouldn’t have been up to the challenge.”

Laura Munzer looked solemn. “My brother’s in Dallas, his wife just had a baby ten days ago. My little sister Alice flew down there to help them out for a while.”

“My sister’s in L.A.,” Sam said quietly. “If we all start thinking about what’s happening to people we can’t reach, we’ll go crazy.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” The Marshall sighed. “Back to business. I’m trying to plan for the Town’s defense. We’re getting good recruits for the militia, around fifty-five, sixty so far, and I hope there’ll be many more. All of them know guns, but that’s no use now. We need arms that work, and Starry promises me he can make swords. I need someone to teach the recruits how to use those swords, and you, Clair, are the only game in town for that. Unless Sam here can help?”

“I could,” Sam allowed. “I studied classical Japanese sword on Okinawa, katana and warizaki, and I’ve kept it up — we’ve got a little club in Montana, my students Tim and Jesus are both fairly good at it, too. But the swords Starry’s making for you are Roman gladia, those are straight thrusting weapons meant for sword-and-shield work. Katana work is mostly one- and two-handed slicing; that’s why the blade’s curved. And one katana takes a heck of a lot longer to make than one gladius. I’d guess that Ken’s type of sword-work is likely to be the most useful, depending on what kind of fighting you think we’ll be doing, Marshall.”

“That’s the question.” The Marshall thoughtfully rubbed his chin. It was clean-shaven, as was Ken Clair’s; Sam briefly noticed the itch of his own two-day stubble. “I’ve been expecting that we’ll mostly be facing starving mobs with little order, or bandits out of the cities. The news about Longmont makes that even more likely, except that Fred Anderson just told me about that band with the red circles that you faced out at the grain elevator. If it’s complete chaos in Longmont or Boulder, maybe the odds are that big gangs like those red circles will form faster. And any organized body of men can be far more dangerous in a fight than the same number in a mob.”

Sam nodded. “There’s where the Roman model likely serves you better than the Japanese, sorry to say. Get a line of your men standing shoulder to shoulder, sword and shield, and they can sweep up any mob before them. They can probably also hold their own against any group similar to them, though that’ll likely come down to training, strength, and practice. If Starry can give you a rank of crossbows to put behind the sword-and-shield wall, your militia can probably break anything that comes against ‘em. The Japanese traditional-model soldier takes more armor, more training, and would be a lot harder to do if you start from scratch. The kind of single-man martial arts that Laura and I teach aren’t really soldier’s skills at all, except for last-ditch defense if you get disarmed. But karate and akkido are both pretty handy for mobile small-scale fighting if you’ve got to keep moving and can’t dodge all of your opponents.”

Duncan nodded decisively. “I think we’ve got our answer. The militia needs to be a Roman legion. Your Gatherers need to be Japanese samaurai.”

“Looks that way to me too,” Sam agreed, thinking: Though ronin might describe our actual work better!

Ken made a wry smile. “Guess I’m teaching Romans. I can do that — rapiers are thrusting weapons too, and I’ve used swords not so different from a gladius. The mirrors in here would be handy for teaching line formations, but we’ll need a lot more room than I’ve got to drill fifty guys with sword and shield. Drill camp should be someplace outdoors, or if the weather’s bad, in the High School gym.”

“I’ll arrange that,” the Marshall said. “How soon can you start, Clair?”

“Now. What about Laura?”

“Japanese work is Sam’s department,” she said, jerking a thumb at Sam, then turned to face him. “Sign me up, please?”

“You’re in.” He looked around the room. “Ken, this place is sized to be a lot more useful to my crew than it’s going to be to yours. Mind if I take it over?”

“Eh, easy come, easy go; it’s yours. Laura can show you where everything is. Just try not to bust it up too badly, will you?”

“I promise.”

They shook on it, then Clair collected a couple armloads of practice swords and followed the Marshall back outside. Laura showed Sam the other rooms; there was a weight room with several free-weight sets, a cramped office, a pair of tiny locker/changing rooms with attached bathrooms, and a separate shower cubby in a small room of its own. Sam looked at the tiny hot-water tank mounted on the high wall right above the stall.

“That doesn’t allow for much of a shower,” he remarked wistfully. There hadn’t been time after lunch to clean up yet.

Laura pointed to a pair of insulated pipes running from the tank up to the fourteen-foot ceiling.

“Solar heater on the roof,” Laura explained. “Preheater actually, set up so’s the water circulates by temperature differentials and its own pressure. Pretty massively over-built for this place, Ken got it off some commercial building in Boulder for a song. Even on cloudy winter days it keeps us in hot water, or at least warm.”

“The Gather crew will be appreciating that, I expect,” Sam said thoughtfully. “Okay, what about the downstairs? He mentioned a custom furniture shop.”

“Oh, that’s a tenant; guy from Boulder runs it. Ken’s got a key to it, somewhere.”

She searched the office, found a thick ring of keys and took it downstairs to the entry, where an inner door finally yielded to the right key.

The shop was dimly lit by a row of dirty windows. Long workbenches held drill presses, lathes, and a dozen other power tools. There were bins full of dowels of varying sizes, blocks of seasoned hardwoods, pallets of plywood.

“Starry needs to see this!” Sam remarked.

Laura looked around. “Why? It’s just…wait, you talked about shields to go with the swords? Made from plywood, right?”

“Right. And wooden stocks for crossbows.” Sam smiled. “And shafts for making arrows. Mind if I take that key over to him?”

“There’s two, you take both. I’ll keep this one they got hanging on the inside wall; bet it’s the owner’s spare. How about I go see a carpenter I know? He’s up there in years, but he knows what to do with a place like this.”

“Deal. Show him around, introduce him to Starry, tell him what I want done here. I’ll see you both at supper in the school cafeteria.”

“Mind if I bring my mother, too? The pantry’s getting a little bare at home, I don’t want to start eating dandelion leaves and burdock root and whatever else she brings home after birdwatching.” Laura made a face. “Bugfood, that’s what it is. I swear, some of that stuff’s worse than an MRE.”

“Your mother’s some kind of natural foods guru or something?”

“Got it first try. Ever since seventh grade she’s been trying to stuff me full of greens and mushrooms and things she picks outta ditches. Bleah!”

Sam thought for a moment. “That could be really useful. Make sure she talks to Elaine at the school kitchen.”

Laura looked alarmed. “You want her to start making everybody eat bugfood?”

Sam smiled grimly. “It’s better than not eating at all — which we just might have to do for a while once all the canned stuff runs out. It’s a long time till harvest, and we can’t even plant yet.”

Laura looked thoughtful. “When you put it that way….I never have seen a starving bug. Maybe there’s something to her ‘natural foods’ thing after all.”

They locked up and split up.

Starry was indeed pleased. “I’ve been thinking about how I was gonna handle all those wooden pieces in this little shop; that furniture place’ll be perfect. Can you ask Ken to let me have it? I guess he owns it now. Or maybe the Mayor should nationalize it, or something.”

“I’m not going to worry about how we get it,” Sam shook his head. “Here’s a key, you figure out what you need and talk to Laura’s friend, see if he can organize it. We’d better get some kind of production line going for ammunition, else when the last arrow runs out our bows are useless.”

Starry nodded grimly. “I’ll get right on it. They going to start serving food in the school tonight?”

“That’s what Ellie told me. I’ll put your family on the list,” Sam assured him.

“Better add these high-school boys John’s got working on the crossbows. Three of them have worked here with me a little, I think I could train them up to be tolerable smiths. The rest can keep fetching and carrying.”

“I’ll need to make another list then.” Sam ended up scribbling down over a dozen names once he’d accounted for Ken, Laura, Starry’s family and crew, and Laura’s mother and unnamed friend.

He left Starry’s place in good spirits.

We can do this, he thought, jogging back through the streets to the school.

The chill wind blew in his face as the sun sank toward the mountains.

We have to.

❀ ❁ ❀

8

— State Capitol —

Downtown Denver, early evening, Tuesday, March 22, 1998

The State Capitol’s golden dome gleamed in the darkness, even seen a block away down an alley and across Grant Street. Lights glowed there too, a handful of gasoline lanterns at the doors, candles seen through windows. The remnants of Colorado’s government still fought to stem the tides of chaos with law and shriveled power. And in some places, they were winning, a little.

Joey the Knife couldn’t allow that.

He leaned against a back corner of the old Masonic temple and waited, idly polishing his new knife. One of his boys had got it for him from the wreck of a pawn shop they’d knocked over the morning after their escape from jail. It was a rare beauty, sweetly curved blade with twin blood-gutters, sharpened backside on the tip, elegantly curved knuckle guard, and a big cluster of gems on the pommel. He loved that knife, the gems especially, but it was tough to get the blood out of the settings. He licked at the gems a bit, trying to soften the dried crust, and savored the iron taste.

The last seven days had been the best week in Joey’s entire twenty-four years of life. He’d had more bitches in seven days that in the last ten years, killed more of them and their men than all of his life yet, and he wanted still more. The blood had been wonderful, shimmering fountains, but he wanted more.

They would try to stop him. He grinned in the darkness. He would stop them first.

“Rat,” he said, and the short man with the long nose nodded; he’d fallen under Joey’s spell in prison. The blood-fest last night had sealed the bond. “You and your twenty circle round to the north side, watch me and hit the Colfax entrance when I cross Grant. Lazy, you do the same on the Fourteenth Avenue side with your boys. I’ll give you both twenty minutes to get ready, then watch for the lighter.”

He flicked the Zippo he’d taken off one of his kills; he had jiggered it to shoot a six-inch flame.

“If the rest make it here in time to join the fun, great — if not, it’s ours alone. Go.”

They went, melting away through the alleys with long strings of men behind them. Joey’d always had a knack for picking out those who had to follow, and making himself their king.

He gazed up at the gleaming dome, smiled, and began counting.

❀ ❁ ❀

“That’s it. In summary, we’re almost out of medicines, bandages, blankets, and beds. No heat, no hot water for a week except what we can boil over a fire out in the parking lot, and not much cold water any more either. We’re desperately short on food, doctors, and everything else. The only thing we have in abundance is bodies, which have overflowed the morgue; they are now being stacked in the parking garage. If we don’t get some help very soon, I cannot see how Denver General Hospital can continue through the week.”

Doctor Eid’s presentation didn’t so much halt as collapse. Father Markus Freiduei unobtrusively put a hand on the smaller man’s arm and prayed strength into the physician. On the doctor’s other side he saw Nurse Natasha Lionheart doing much the same. They had both already given their own presentations when asked, here before the Governor and the rump remains of his administration.

The Director of Public Health thanked them and asked the rest of the cabinet if they had any questions. Glazed eyes in tired faces answered her with silent head shakes — nobody here had gotten much of a rest, a bath, or a change of clothes in the week since the Change struck. By now, Father Markus suspected, they were all grimly sure that they were on their own, with no-one to come to the rescue. He prayed that they were wrong.

“Thank you for coming,” the wan woman said. “Please return to your hospital. You will be contacted with the State’s decision.”

Eid revived at that, pushing himself to his feet. “Contacted? When? We need help now!”

The Governor spoke up testily, his Texas accent plain. “Tomorrow, when we’ve made a decision. There’s two more delegations waiting to speak after you, so go back to your hospital and we’ll tell you what we’re a-gonna do tomorrow!” The Governor rapped the table with a gavel and called “Next!”

Eid bowed his head and turned for the door. Father Markus and the nurse hurried to catch up and followed him out into the cavernous hallways of the Capitol’s second floor. The hearing room hadn’t been especially well lit, but the hallway boasted only a single gas lamp outside the door. Eid looked blankly back and forth into the dark.

“This way, Doctor,” Father Markus said gently, taking his arm. He suspected that the good doctor was less well than he admitted, but there wasn’t anything to be done about it here. Nurse Lionheart took the man’s other arm and they all groped their way to the rotunda and down the echoing marble stairs.

The vastness of the dome hung over them, dimly lit far above by moonlight and starlight peeking through a row of tiny round windows. Father Markus had always delighted in the huge murals of Colorado history painted around the interior, seeing in their optimistic message of accomplishment the power of redeeming grace to turn sin to godly purpose. Now they were formless chaos in the darkness, bereft of meaning. After a quick glance upward he turned away and concentrated on his footing.

“Which way is out?” Eid asked plaintively, looking around the dark hallways of the ground floor.

“This way, Doctor,” Father Markus said, and led them to the west entrance where they had arrived long hours ago. There had been delegations from five other hospitals pleading their cases before Denver General’s turn, and two more still to follow. The wait for their turn had been hard, the litany of desperate need, harder still to sit through, waiting. Every hospital in the city was nearing collapse.

Heavenly Father, Father Markus prayed silently, Lend us your grace, that we may somehow meet this terrible need!

The Capitol hallways gave back only the hollow echo of their footsteps.

A lone guard let them out through ponderous brass doors to the western porch. The afternoon sun that had lit their walk here was long gone. He gazed west over leafless parks at the silhouette of Denver’s City-County Building and the ranked skyscrapers beyond, glass towers refracting splinters of moonlight onto the granite grace of the older municipal architecture. Thin air gave up heat fast in the Mile High City and the little breeze was bitter. They had all dressed in whatever they could find to impress the Governor, which meant soiled white lab coats for the medical professionals and a black suit of clericals for the priest, with their hospital badges prominently displayed. Father Markus hoped the stains on his trousers didn’t show, but at least he’d found a fresh Roman collar to wear. Eid had even worn a stethoscope hanging from his neck, hoping against hope that this prosaic symbol of his profession would add weight to his arguments. Best of all, the day before yesterday someone had turned up an entire closet of thermal long underwear in the hospital basement, and outfitted every staff member in it. In the heatless building it had been enough; that wasn’t true outside, in the naked teeth of a night that still remembered the too-recent winter.

Father Markus maneuvered the doctor to a railing at the head of the great granite stairs, glad to see the nurse doing the same without prompting. Lionheart had proven herself to possess a steely determination and quick wits during the dreadful days since the Change had turned their world upside down. She was also an acerb skeptic whose faith in human goodness, never vast, had grown shallow indeed since electricity died. Father Markus found her embittered agnosticism a fascinating challenge, if sometimes wearying.

Eid let himself be guided by his companions, down the long flights of the Capitol’s west face to the plaza at the bottom, across Lincoln Street and Civic Center Park toward Broadway. He walked like an automaton and said nothing until they reached the cleared lanes. Someone had caused the cars to be pushed aside all down the center of the wide artery. As the nurse helped Father Markus turn the doctor to the south and the long trek toward Denver General, the Egyptian-born medic burst out in angry appeal, apparently addressed to the skies.

“Will they even do anything? Are we supposed to sit there while the hospital falls apart around us, and the government does — nothing!?” His voice broke into an agonized shout on the last word.

“They are bureaucrats,” the nurse answered bitterly. “What else can you expect of them, Doctor? Delay and argue is what they do.”

“Nurse Lionheart,” the priest reproved her. “That is unkind. The Governor’s reach is much shortened; it is a testimony to his integrity that he is nonetheless still trying.”

“He’s always been ‘trying,’ Father,” mumbled the nurse defiantly, as they plodded through the intersection of Fourteenth Avenue and left the park behind. The new Denver Library loomed on their right, as dark as every other downtown building.

Father Markus was about to offer a rejoinder in what he recognized had become a sustaining game between the two of them, when a movement at the corner of his eye made him glance left. Two blocks away, at the top of the hill, a large band of men were charging across Fourteenth through the intermittent moonlight, straight at the Capitol. He was so astonished that he just stared as Eid and the nurse drew him on two steps more, and then the angular corner of the State Supreme Court building cut off the sight. Father Markus stopped as a chorus of yells floated down through the city.

“Someone’s attacking the Capitol!” he said.

“Then don’t stop here! Keep moving!” she snapped. “We’ve got to get back to Denver General!”

“Nurse Lionheart, I hardly think — ” Father Markus began, when a low chuckle interrupted him.

Shadows moved out from under the east portico of the Library, surrounding them. Steel glittered, and black shafts as long as the priest was tall twitched suggestively in the moonlight. The three of them froze, then shrank closer together as the threatening crowd encircled them.

“What have we found here?’ asked the chuckling voice. “A nurse, a doctor perhaps, oh very nice, and what are you, tall hombre? Ahhh, my sainted mother, a priest! Catholic?”

Father Markus stood a little straighter. “I have the honor to be Father Markus Freiduei, Catholic Chaplain of Denver General Hospital; this is Doctor Solomon Eid and Nurse Natasha Lionheart. We are returning to the hospital from a very important meeting with the Governor, trying to get some aid for the many injured. We have nothing but the clothes on our backs. Please let us pass.”

Screams began to echo down from the Capitol. The nurse and the doctor flinched and Father Markus’ blood ran colder.

The voice chuckled again. “You are twice lucky then, to meet us, Padre. If you had stayed at your meeting very much longer you would now be meeting Joey the Knife, and I do not think you would enjoy that. Especially not you, nurse. He may be part Wop, but he has no respect for the opinions of God, no, none at all. Now, quickly, come with us, and be wise; be silent.”

Hard wooden shafts prodded them out of the road and under the portico, crowded them against the cold brick wall of the Library. Most of the men packed in close around them, but one shadow lurked by the outer pillar, waiting.

Long minutes later, they heard a rush of many footsteps crossing the park, clattering on Broadway and then the stairway as they charged up the hill to the Capitol. The western doors boomed open again and the shouting redoubled. The clashing sounds of steel and wood began to be heard.

The shadow drifted back to them and chuckled again. “Perfecto. Joey had enough time to get a good start, but the City cops busted up his party, so sad. He might even live to get away, maybe. If he does, it won’t take him long to guess that it was me who betrayed his little plan. Then he will have such a hard-on for me, Madre de Dios! That suits me well — he will be careless in his rage, and when I cut off his cojones he’ll scream and scream, sí! No more blood and murders for Joey the Knife. You should bless me, Padre, for I’ve done a good deed this night.”

“That depends,” Father Markus answered warily, “on what you plan to do with us.”

Nurse Lionheart spoke up. “May we please go to the hospital? We’re expected there, people need us!”

“Now why would I let you do something so foolish, hey?” Several voices chuckled this time, then the first one resumed. “Go there and you die, with the rest, cold and hungry, little nurse, and the silent doctor and the talkative priest, too. No, no, no, I have a much better use for you three, and you will be warm and well-fed, too. You are coming with us. It will be a little longer walk, but not so much.”

“Coming with you?” Father Markus’ heart sank. “Where?”

“You will see soon enough. You will meet a man, my main man, the head of our gang, the mightiest gang in Denver, and you will be very respectful, or he may grow annoyed and cut out your livers. That would be a waste, for we need a doctor and a nurse, and we could use a priest, too, to make our dead right with God. I would have to go find new ones, and that would be much more work for me. Perhaps it is God’s will that I found you three tonight, and Joey the Knife did not, hey?”

The gang members laughed again, harshly.

Father Markus swallowed carefully and said “We’ll meet this man; then what happens?”

“Why, you will call that man Sensei Catron, most respectfully, and you will call me Jefe Paco, and be respectful too, and you will do everything we tell you to do, if you are wise. Be very wise, my new friends. Now, you will begin walking.”

The hard staffs prodded them into motion again. Father Markus prayed as they plodded away amidst the watchful gang members.

Heavenly Father, send us your grace, that we may get through this alive!

❀ ❁ ❀

9

— Duel —

Southeast of Lyons, Colorado; Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 1998.

“That’s the last load, Sensei,” Tim reported, drooping.

“How many tons of seed potatoes was that, Rachel?’ Sam asked, stretching his tired muscles.

“Marazdek claimed twenty,” she answered, rubbing her lower back and wincing. “Felt more like a hundred when we were loading it. Add that to Bailey’s ten, we’ve got thirty tons of potatoes to plant. And we still have to actually plant them, though we can’t do that for another month.”

“Gonna be weird eating orange and purple mashed potatoes,” Pat remarked.

“I had weirder when I was stationed in Peru,” Laura told him. “Red-skinned ones with blue insides, a yellow one that had pinkish juice like a bloody steak! You wouldn’t believe how many different kinds they raise there. Makes these hippie organic growers look like complete amateurs, believe me.”

Frank flicked the reins and Doctor Brown’s Conestoga creaked out of the now-empty potato barn. Sam followed it, then turned to climb the long ladder leaning against the outside of the steel quonset. At the top he scrambled along the domed ridge to the bulky ventilator. Jerry Dozrty precariously straddled its rounded top, his back to the frigid breeze. He had binoculars to his eyes, peering intently at another farmstead a third of a mile away across the fields.

“What’re the Greenies doing now?” Sam asked him.

“About half of ‘em packed up the slaves and started ‘em moving about ten minutes ago,” the wounded boy said. “They haven’t gotten very far yet; here, you can still see them.”

He passed the binoculars to Sam, who hooked one leg through the busted-out louver and braced himself upright before taking them. They were small, but top-quality, a loan from Laura Munzer’s bird-watching mother. He quickly found the Longmont crew. There were a little more than two dozen armed men wearing a motley of sports equipment, biker outfits, and makeshift armor, all with green Xs painted on their shoulders. The same green Xs Sam had noticed at the stone mansion on Hover Road during his Longmont rescue trip. Now the Greenies herded a much larger mass of men organized into two long rows, all laden with sacks of grain drained out of a steel bin behind the farm house. The rows moved with a shuffling unison, steps shortened by the long clattering chains linking the right legs of every bearer. The front of the line had already reached the paved road and turned east towards Longmont.

“Slavers,” Sam muttered, the word bitter on his tongue. We’ve already come to this — slavery in America again. “There were nearly fifty of the armed ones; where are the rest?”

“They went into the farm house. I think Mr. Barnard’s wife and daughter are still in there,” Jerry said, and paused to swallow. “The screaming stopped a while ago.”

The cold breeze was moving easterly off the foothills. Despite it they’d all been able to faintly hear that screaming while they loaded seed potatoes. Barnard had refused Burt Santini’s invitation to join his neighbor in Lyons. When the Greenies arrived he’d tried to resist being plundered; the hacked remains of his body hung from a tree beside the house. His wife and daughter hadn’t been visible for the past hour or more, but at least one of them had owned good lungs.

Damn your stupid pride, Sam thought, turning his gaze away from the gory mess on the tree. Now your women are paying for it. But he had to wonder what he would have done if Barnard had said yes; there weren’t enough of the Gatherers to attack a band as strong as men wearing the Green X. The thought etched his soul a little more.

Sam glassed the two-story house carefully. A window on the second floor caught his eye; the glass had been broken out of the top and someone stood there, glittering. It only took a fraction of a second for Sam to realize that the other side had binoculars too, and were using them.

“Bastard’s watching us,” he muttered.

Jerry nodded, gingerly flexing his wounded arm to fight the chill-induced stiffness. “Yeah, that guy upstairs has been keeping an eye on us for the past half-hour. I don’t think they knew we were here when they arrived, but they sure know now. Question is, Sensei, do you think they’re going to do anything about it?”

The man in the window abruptly moved back out of sight. Sam studied the back door of the house. Presently it opened and a file of men came out; he counted twenty-two. Twenty-one of them formed up into a rough arc facing one, who made some kind of brief speech that ended with his arm pointing straight at Sam. They all began to move.

“Shit,” Sam growled.

“That sounds like a ‘yes’,” Jerry observed shading his eyes. “Looks like one too.”

“You get down, grab Terry. The two of you hop on your bikes and head after the wagons, tell each one that I told them to make all the speed they can without damaging the horses. The faster ones should pass the slower ones; don’t wait for ‘em. Then you get to the Wall and you tell Chief Waters that we’re fighting a holding action and we need a detachment sent down Foothills Highway to Hygiene Road, pronto. Have Terry lead them back while you go into town to tell the Marshall what’s happening. Do whatever he tells you to do next. Got it?”

“Yes, Sensei!”

Jerry slid off the ventilator and hustled down the ladder. Sam watched the approaching men a little longer. They were advancing across the fields instead of taking the long way around by the roads. Thankfully they didn’t seem intent on intercepting the wagon train so much as attacking the potato barn. They slogged through a muddy field of inch-high winter wheat, devastating the tender plants in a wide swath.

Bastards! He grimaced at the waste. They’re ignorant bastards, too! What do they plan to eat this summer? Are they doing any planning at all?

Their passage was impeded by ditches and fences that broke up the mass so he could see them better. He counted several spears and a lot of knives, including at least a dozen machete-like blades, but only one bow among them, and no crossbows. Two of the men carried shields made from stop signs nailed to plywood, and most had leather jackets or biker suits; more than half wore some kind of helmet.

They can’t see the wagon train from Barnard’s farm, Sam thought to himself. They don’t know we’re already done here. But they’ll figure it out soon enough. They outnumber us more than two to one and they’re better armored. And if it comes to hand-to-hand, numbers matter a lot.

“So I can’t let it get to that,” he muttered aloud.

He turned and studied Hygiene Road between the barn and Foothills Highway. It was almost arrow straight, dodging slightly around a reservoir, and for two long, hilly, miles it was cluttered with wagons and garden carts stuffed to groaning with seed potatoes. A strung-out and near-defenseless target including most of Lyons’ precious horses, moving barely as fast as a man could walk. If that! He could see the twins racing up the road, pausing next to each wagon to relay Sam’s orders. It wasn’t making a lot of difference to the collective speed, though the big Conestoga wasn’t last in line any more.

So we can’t stay ahead of them for long. Those Greenies are all healthy bastards; once they’re on pavement they can catch us for sure.

He raised his binoculars to the mountains. The peaks were mostly hidden this close to the foothills, but the whole mass had been blanketed by thick clouds all day. As he watched, one of the hilltops began to disappear.

Snow. Now, will that help us or hurt us? And will it get here in time to matter?

He scrambled back to the ladder; slid down it at speed. Tim and Rachel were waiting at the foot, the rest of the crew already mounted on their bikes behind them. Rachel had Sam’s bike, Tim held his sword. Sam paused long enough to strap the swordbelt over his jacket and hook the sheath to the top of the baldric.

“There’s twenty-two of the green-ex guys coming towards us,” he told his anxious crew. “All on foot, so we can outrun them on the bikes. Trouble is, the wagons can’t. So we’re going to stall them. All of you with bows, give me a count on your arrows and darts.”

Numbers came back; between the five bows and four crossbows they had eighty-four missiles.

Great. We’ll have to manage a twenty-five percent hit ratio to take them all out, Sam thought. With mostly unpracticed archers? No way. We’ll have to count on scaring them, and taking every chance to cut down their numbers. I hope it works.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.”

Twenty minutes later Sam stopped his bike a few hundred feet short of the junction with North Sixty-First Street. They were less than a thousand feet behind the last cart. He hastily put his bike on the kick stand, ready to mount and go. The crew made a row on either side of him and did likewise.

“Spread the bikes out, leave plenty of room between them; we’re going to move out fast when we go and I don’t want any of you running into each other,” Sam ordered.

An irrigation lateral ran along the south side of the road, separating it from the sharp rise of a nameless hogback. The ditch was tree-lined and deep enough to keep anyone from crossing it easily. To the north beyond a barbed-wire fence stretched an open pasture. East, the road sloped down in a long open path with nothing larger than fence posts and an occasional mailbox to hide behind. The nearest house sat just north and a little west, behind him. The nearest to his opponents, not counting a couple of burned-out ruins, sat a hundred yards back from the road, too far to be useful.

Perfect, he thought. Or as close as we’re going to find.

“Ready your bows. Those without bows stay back two paces and stand ready to ride again.”

Now, if I’m lucky, Sam told himself, their leader will see us waiting, on terrain that favors us, and halt. If he delays, trying to send his men around through cover to the south, we’ll let them get most of the way here and then shift west again. If I can tempt him into trying to send men southwest and up the hogback to flank us under cover, the rough country ought to buy us an hour or even more, and we can still pull out ahead of them. After that — we’ll be right on the wagons. This had better work.

They waited tensely as the Greenies approached. Sam scanned them intently through the binoculars. There wasn’t much semblance of a marching order to the enemy, just a mob hastening double-quick down the road. They’d seen the wagons and knew they were gaining on the Lyons folk.

“Why are they chasing us, Sensei?” Pat asked nervously. “They already got all Barnard’s grain!”

“I don’t know if they’re sure what we’ve got, but they want it anyway,” Sam answered, absently testing the string on the Bear compound with his free hand. And maybe their leader has more balls than brains. God, I hope not. If he’s willing to take the losses to get at us, the odds are all on his side in hand-to-hand.

Tim and Drew flanked him, good compound hunting bows in their own hands, with Fred and Bruce to the left with the last two regular bows. Sam was grateful to the nameless scavenger who’d donated those to his crew, and doubly grateful that the two Guardsmen actually knew how to use them. Mike, Jesus, Darrin, and Laura completed the line on Sam’s right, armed with Starry’s first four crossbows. Of the four of them, Laura was the only one who’d ever even used a crossbow before the Change. Rachel was busy breaking out the pitiful handful of extra bolts Starry had sent with them. Pat, bow-less, was trying not to jitter.

“Sensei, I think I can hit a man-sized target about as far away as that black mailbox,” Laura offered conversationally, hefting her crossbow slightly. “I practiced a little last night, and this thing has pretty good range.”

“Sensei, I’ve got about double that range with this,” Tim flicked his bowstring. “It’s almost as good as the Bear.”

“Good, but we don’t have enough arrows to risk many losses. If they keep coming, we wait until the lead fighters are inside the crossbows’ range before we open up. Every shot has to count.”

Sam lowered the binoculars, raised his bow. They waited tensely.

The oncoming troop didn’t slow down. The leader, a beefy twenty-something with a blond beard and a World War II-vintage helmet, hefted a shield made out of a stop sign nailed to plywood. He yelled something to his men and swung a machete viciously. Behind him their lone archer drew an arrow out of his quiver and nocked his bow.

Sam’s heart sank. More balls than brains for sure. Shit.

“Ready,” he said to his own crew. “The archer’s mine. On my signal.”

Sam raised his bow, put belly and back into the draw. He chose his angle carefully, felt rather than saw the others doing likewise. His mind sank into the zen of the bow, tasting the wind, the cold, the silent singing tension in the laminate limbs, the crisp taut pent-up energy of the string, the sleek deadly arrow.

Wind’s straight at our backs, right into their teeth. Just a few more steps…please, you fools, don’t make us do this.

The fighters passed the black mailbox. The archer slowed, stopped, planted his feet, and began to raise his own bow. The others spread out across the road, began to charge.

“Fire,” said Sam.

His own arrow led the flight, curving over the charging mass to hammer down into the archer’s right shoulder. The man collapsed and before he’d hit the ground Sam had his next arrow nocked. Left and right, other strings snapped and missiles flew. The arrows climbed in graceful arcs while the crossbows spat malignant darts on flatter trajectories, buzzing like wasps while their piano-wire cords sang. One bolt stood in the leader’s shield, piercing the metal but foiled by the plywood. Two arrows hammered into men to his right. Those collapsed, tripping another one behind them. Another bolt clipped a bloody slash through a Greenie ear and winged the man behind him, who likewise stumbled and fell.

The rest kept coming.

“Second volley,” Sam called, and drew. “Fire as you bear.”

He drew, felt the moment — that big guy with machete, football helmet and shoulder pads, yes, and the arrow flew true. The ratchets still clattered on the crossbows, they were slower to reload, but the compounds snapped again mere seconds after his own. Two more greenies went down, a third staggered about howling with a crossbow bolt in his arm. The leader kept coming, most of the men with him, but he still had most of a hundred yards to cover. At least two of his men had stopped to help the wounded.

Down by a third, but they still outnumber us. Sam drew again. “Leader’s mine.”

His arrow flew.

At the last moment the leader jinked sideways, the arrow tore past his shoulder and buried itself in the man behind him. Crossbows fired again, irregularly, and arrows and darts hammered into three more of the charging men. The leader was out ahead now, shield up in a berserker charge, five men still with him. The other effectives were slowing, beginning to hesitate.

Time for one more — maybe we can turn them. “Last volley,” Sam said. “Then to the bikes.”

He drew, aimed — the leader had his shield up high and tight, only his eyes and domed helmet above it. But he was a tall man, and the shield left his crotch exposed, so — the arrow flew.

The leader yelped in astonished agony as he collapsed. His shield slammed the pavement with a clatter and bounced away. The man right behind him tried to hurdle, tripped and fell likewise. The men to either side slowed as more arrows hammered into them.

“Ride!” Sam called. “Now!” He spun, pushed his crew back with the sheer force of his command. Darrin hesitated a second, fired his loaded crossbow, then scrambled to follow. Rachel was already chivying Pat to his own bike, countering his testosterone-loaded need to fight.

“Ride!” Sam repeated, slung the bow over his shoulder and straddled his own bike. The others climbed aboard their own bikes, began to move. He counted the seconds, hearing the clatter as the enemy took heart and renewed their charge. Then he stood on the pedals, pumped, once, twice, thrice, and began widening the distance.

The other side had some spears, and might know how to throw them. The skin between Sam’s shoulder blades itched as he pumped the pedals, but there was no point in trying to dodge on a bike. He was never sure how close the Greenies got before his crew pulled ahead. The bikes opened the distance rapidly, and the enemy stopped their charge.

All too soon Sam’s crew caught up with the last wagon, laboring up Hygiene Road towards the bend at the toe of Foothills Dam. It was a garden cart piled high with sacked potatoes and towed by a single horse, led by a frightened girl. The grinding shriek from the overburdened axle told Sam this cart wasn’t making it to Lyons.

“It’s busted! Leave the cart, take the horse!” Sam ordered. She began to fumble with the jury-rigged rope and leather harness, trembling and casting glances back at the remorseless enemy. Sam dismounted, drew his katana and slashed the rope lashings on the cart handle. The horse pulled free and began to run, the girl racing after it.

“Shit!” Sam said, then turned to look east. He still had the binoculars so he raised them to his own eyes.

The remnant Greenies had stopped, reforming and dealing with their wounded. There seemed to be some argument among them. The one with the binoculars had survived, and was standing in the road watching the Lyons group through them.

I’ve got to over-awe them, Sam thought. They can’t know how few arrows we have left.

His crew had stopped on their bikes, waiting for him.

“Dismount, set the bikes up like before,” he ordered. “Form the line again. Rachel, give me a count on the missile supply — quietly.”

They lined up again, stood there waiting.

“Thirty-one,” Rachel reported. “You’ve only got two, and Drew’s last arrow is in his hand.”

“I have six, Sensei,” Fred reported. “Take some of mine.”

“No — I don’t want them to see us trading arrows around, it might tip them off over just how few we’ve got left. Take your positions everybody, and get ready.”

They waited.

Sam studied the enemy through the glass, delicately adjusting focus. There seemed to be a struggle for leadership — two men were arguing heatedly, others drifting into knots backing each one. The binocular guy turned and walked back to the arguers, said something. Heads turned to look west, staring at Sam and his crew.

Look at us, we’re ready to do it again, Sam thought at them. You lost a third of your men and we’ve lost none. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back!

One of the arguers, the black-bearded one, abruptly turned on his heel, began walking east. His knot of followers followed, as did the binoculars bearer. The other hesitated, visibly counting. Sam’s crew outnumbered his remaining men now. After a long moment he too turned and walked away.

Sam blew out a breath, lowered the binoculars. His crew relaxed and lowered their bows.

“Stay ready, everybody,” he ordered. “We don’t let down our guard until they’ve left entirely. They could still catch the wagons if they try.”

Time plodded by with agonizing slowness as they waited. The Greenies saw to their wounded while Sam watched. The blond leader wasn’t dead yet, but with an arrow sticking out of his crotch it probably wouldn’t be long. The other men mostly gathered around him, kneeling, with the two disputants on either side. After a moment they both rose, one visibly deferring to the other; that was the black-bearded one who’d first turned away from the pursuit. The new leader drew his machete, said something to the dying man. He must have got an answer because he plainly repeated it to the gathered men. They raised a shout of some kind. Then black-beard hefted his machete two-handed, paused to say something formal, and brought it down hard on the blond’s throat. Even from the distance Sam could see the wet blood as he withdrew it. The men raised another shout, one of them making ululations of grief that a couple more copied. The new leader began to give orders. Wounded were gathered up or put out of their misery; the old leader’s body was lashed to a crude travois. The dead were stripped of armor and weapons, laid in a row and covered with whatever rocks and bits of earth could be pried loose from the barely-thawed ground. Half an hour later the remaining force of Greenies formed up and began marching back toward Longmont. Despite being burdened with three men on makeshift litters and two more walking wounded, they did so in noticeably better order than they had on the way to attack Sam’s crew.

“Damn,” Sam commented wryly, lowering the binoculars.

“Why?” asked Rachel, standing next to him and shading her eyes to watch. “I was beginning to wonder if they’d ever leave.”

“Looks like they’re richer by a new leader who’s got sense,” Sam answered.

“Ah. That’s going to be a problem, I suspect.” Rachel nodded wearily.

“For another day. Meanwhile, we’ve still got twenty tons of potatoes to get back to Lyons. Let’s see what we can do about getting another wagon back to rescue this lot before the snow hits.”

In the end they found another alternative to move the stranded potatoes.

Marshall Duncan accompanied Jerry and Terry back to Sam with a mixed contingent of his own men and whoever could be spared from the Wall, including four more crossbowmen. They brought along plenty of spare arrows and bolts for the crossbows, much to the relief of Sam and his crew. Rachel fell on them with a glad cry and began refilling empty quivers.

“Starry’s got the production line going good,” the Marshall briefed Sam. “I thought it was time I got a look at how things were going out here east of the mountains.”

They were standing on Hygiene Road near the top of the hill just east of Foothills Highway. Sam waved at the view, stretching an easy two hundred degrees from the foothills to Longmont and southeast.

“This is our primary source for getting food from the East County, the irrigated land north and south of the river, and reaching north of Ute Highway. Look there, over by Airport Road,” he pointed. “Those two pillars of smoke? Both those places were burned out today, probably by raiders from Longmont, raiders who may or may not be part of the Green-X guys who attacked us. Marazdek’s neighbor, Barnard, where that steel grain bin is, was looted by those same Greenies; we checked and the bin’s basically empty now. Won’t take very long before the Longmont gangs loot every farm within five miles of the city. Whatever we’re going to get from these places, we need to get damn soon, or there’ll be nothing left but the crops already in the ground.”

“Agreed.” The Marshall’s face looked grim. “But what do you want to do about it?”

“See these two guys leading the two horses I’ve got dragging the busted cart?” Sam indicated. “They’re the Coyle family, from that little horse-farm over there in the pasture. They saw the fight we had with the Greenies, saw the survivors head back to Longmont, and decided they didn’t want to wait around to get looted themselves. They’ve got ten more horses besides those two, and they came to me and offered to put ‘em all at the service of the town if we’d take their families in behind the Wall. I said yes, so they brought up a string of horses and we loaded most of the potatoes onto them, the last tenth are still in that cart. I don’t know if the axle will hold together till we get it home, but we just raised our number of horses by better than a third, and all of theirs are trained to saddle or to pull a sulky-cart.”

Sam faced the Marshall squarely. “You and most of the Trustees have been talking about keeping East-County folks out, and finding a way to get more of the townsfolk to do farm work, but we’ve got folks right here in these little farms who already know how to work the land, and who’ve got things we need. Not just potatoes; skills too. Marshall, we need to take in as many of these folks as we can get, and strip their farms while we’re at it, leave nothing out here for the Longmonters to take. Soon as the potatoes are delivered and we can swap out the tiredest horses, I’m bringing the wagons back to empty the Coyle’s place, and anyone else that will come with us. Will you back me with the Trustees?”

“Rachel?” Duncan looked sideways at her. “You’re a Trustee, and the Wall was your idea. What do you think?”

“Hell yes, Mike,” she answered frankly. “Sam’s sold me on his plan, I’m already thinking up ways to talk Allison around, and Pete and Susan. I’d bet Burt’s already thinking along the same lines, if he’s put any time into it at all. How else are we going to get enough planted, if we don’t recruit more farmers?”

“This way, we can keep their families safe in town while people walk out there to work the fields,” Sam added, pointing to the pastures on either side of the cement plant. A wisp of steam still rose from the giant kiln. “There’s about three hundred acres of winter wheat already planted out here, and twice as much in hay fields. We just need to tend and harvest it without leaving people exposed to raids from Longmont. For that, a lookout up on Indian Ridge with good binoculars can signal if he sees another gang approaching. That way our people can work out here at least a little bit safely.”

The Marshall nodded decisively. “I see it. I’ll back you. I wouldn’t bet on that wheat harvest going smoothly, but every bit’s a gain.”

“So let’s get busy.” Sam gazed calculatingly at the clouds hanging low over the foothills. “We’ve got a lot to do before the snow hits.”

❀ ❁ ❀

10

— Priorities —

Lyons, Colorado; Wednesday night, March 25, 1998.

A pair of Coleman lanterns burning gasoline lit the Mayor’s new office in the elementary school. Falling snow brushed softly against the windows, but lanterns and two dozen warm bodies kept the room moderately comfortable against the frigid night. The hot water baseboards ticked and groaned as the furnace Starry had jiggered pushed lukewarm water through them.

“I sure hope the gas holds out,” Pete MacClelland worried, feeling the baseboard radiators with one callused hand. “I did what I could, but if anyone in Longmont figures it out they could divert the gas to themselves. It’s not like we can hide the valves, dammit.”

“Nothing we can do about if it stops,” Mayor Hamill said practically. “Everybody’s eaten, let’s get this meeting started. Sam, fill us in on the gathering situation.”

Sam reported the conflict with the Green gang on Hygiene Road; there’d been enough gossip about it over the community supper that the Trustees and the rest of the leaders were pretty well informed already.

“Slavers,” said Susan Smyth in horror as he recounted the events. “Rapists and slavers and murderers, right here in Boulder County.”

“That’s what we’re facing,” the Marshall agreed pitilessly. “And we’ve no choice but to get ready for it.”

“We did get the last potatoes into town,” Sam reported wearily. “Thirty tons. Bailey and Marazdek and their families are here, they brought every scrap of food from their houses with them — Ellie’s got a list of it. We also picked up Bailey’s neighbors, the Simonsons, and all their seeds — enough vegetables to fill thirty acres at least, most of it heirloom varieties that ought to breed true. And we gained the Coyles, another farm family with fourteen more horses and a few cows too; they had a mess of horseshoes and Carson Coyle’s a farrier, the only other one we’ve got after Doctor Brown’s man out at his ranch. We brought all of the Coyle’s food and tools and they rescued that last load of potatoes for us, even dragged the busted garden cart back here. Maybe Starry can fix it.”

“Wait a minute, how many more people are you going to let in?” Whit Yohansen demanded from the Trustee’s table.

“Everybody we can get who knows how to farm or handle horses or cows,” Sam said bluntly. “We need them, and with the Longmont gangs roving the plains they’ll all get plundered and enslaved one by one if they stay out there. If we aim to grow anything at all east of the Wall, the people who do it are going to have to sleep on this side of it at night. And we don’t have enough land in the canyons to support the town; we have to use at least some of the land to the east.”

“I agree, and I’ll further say that anybody who brings us horses is well worth feeding, farmer or not,” pointed out the Marshall. “We’re desperately short on traction and transport for all sorts of purposes.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of these gangs,” Yohansen complained. “Why haven’t all the Trustees been kept informed?”

“Because those of us trying to save this town’re all working eighteen hours a day and don’t have time to write memos,” Burt answered snidely. “Or most of us are — ”

Yohansen started to swell up and turn red, but the Mayor cut Burt off and asked Sam to recount the story. Sam suppressed the temptation to sigh and instead filled the trustee in on the Red Circle gang out at the barley elevator.

“We haven’t seen the Red Circles again since the dust-fire, but we know most of them survived it,” Sam added. “And there may well be more gangs than those two — nobody’s seen anything yet out of Boulder but a few strays.”

From the looks on the Trustee’s faces, that thought didn’t cheer them; only Rachel and the Marshall looked calm about it.

“We’ll need every horse we can get when its time to plow and plant,” Rachel pointed out. “One horse is worth at least ten people when it comes to plowing, and they eat what we can’t eat anyway.”

Sam nodded. “Last thing we dragged in was a wagon-load of hay from the Coyles. They’ve got a flatbed trailer that they usually pull behind a truck, but they had harness and a hitch for horses to pull it too. That’s also a godsend, as we need to move some more hay down to town from Doctor Brown’s barn, for his horses that we’ve been working so hard.”

“And a lot of these farmers have an astonishing amount of food on hand,” Ellie added, waving a list of the new contributions. “Especially the Mormon ones like the Baileys — they kept a whole year’s supply on hand! If we can get more like them to bring it in, they’ll actually extend the life of the Town’s supplies.”

“I’d suggest we should take anyone who shows up at the borders willing and able to work, and lugging enough food for themselves and their dependents for three months or more,” Pete MacClelland proposed.

“That’s a risky calculation,” Yohansen objected. “We could also get swamped with people who turn out to contribute nothing.”

“Which could happen anyway, if we get more bandit attacks that throw up a lot of refugees,” Sam cautioned. “The Simonsons were pretty close to panic when we packed them up to move, those Greenies cut right across their wheatfield on the way to attack us. If folks start abandoning their homes and fleeing for Lyons any which-way, there’s no way my Gatherers can hold them back, and we likely lose their stored food too. That’s why I want to fetch the farmers in here with all their food, as a bunch of controlled evacuations instead of as helter-skelter refugees.”

“This is horrible,” said Smythe, her face twisted with repugnance. “It’s like something out of some third-world country! Bandits and slavers in America!”

“Also another reason to keep working on the Wall,” MacClelland observed. “Looks like it’s a race between recruiting farmers, and getting the wall up to keep out those Greenies and other bandits.”

“And that’s next on the agenda,” said the Mayor. “The Wall. How’s that going, Chief?”

Chief Waters spoke up. “We’ve got the foundation ready on both banks, from cliff to cliff. Nothing fancy, just a five-by-five trench filled with cement and broken rocks and as much rebar as we could scrounge out of the Highway Department depot. Near the sides we hit bedrock only a couple feet down, so that saved a fair bit of digging and cement-mixing. The river gap will be harder, but we planted barriers made from wrought-iron railings in the canals where they go under the wall, and we’re working on a bigger version to go across the channel. I’ve got tarps rigged on frames over the southern hundred feet of the wall and the crew is laying the sandstone core. Thank the Lord we have so many quarries around this town, there’s enough cut stone standing in stacks to build the Wall at least five feet thick and twenty high. The guys at the Town Shop rigged up a hand-trolley system and we’re shuttling stone out of Loukonen’s as fast as my workers can lay it. Which isn’t very fast. At this rate it’ll be at least eight to ten weeks before we get the full length done to the top courses, and longer still before we have the outside face coated with cement. Which we’re going to run out of long before we hit that point. We already used up most of the supply in the depot while laying the foundation. I robbed the supply at the sewer plant, too, because they don’t absolutely have to have it, even though that wasn’t much. But it was right close to hand, and saved us a day spent hauling from farther away. Right now I’m down to about two more days supply of cement, and then my crew is stopped dead.”

“So why not just take more from the Cemex plant? It’s practically on our doorstep,” asked Rachel.

Yohansen sniffed, muttered something under his breath about “flagrant disrespect for property rights.” Palmer nodded, but everybody else ignored them.

“We’ll have to, but half my manpower’s already going into hauling supplies,” Waters explained. “Cemex is more than eight times as far away from the Wall as the depot, closer to ten, so if I start hauling from there I’ll have to at least halve my actual building crew to keep the rest supplied, and more likely quarter it. That’ll double or quadruple the time it takes to finish the wall.”

There was a pause as everyone weighed the unpalatable options.

I should say something about gathering farmers and food being more important, Sam thought tiredly, but his wits just wanted to lie down and sleep.

Susan Smythe spoke up. “If we have to choose between them, then I say the immediate safety of the Town comes first,” she argued. “And that means the Wall’s the priority. Let’s send the Gatherers to fetch cement, as much as they can in one day; that way the Chief’s crew can keep going for at least another week, right?”

“That’d work,” Chief Waters allowed, looking askance at Sam.

“Yeah, we could do that,” Sam admitted, “But it’ll cost a whole day at least, right when we should be —”

“We don’t have good choices here, people,” the Mayor said firmly. “This sounds like a least-bad one. With snow falling it’s likely most farmers will stay put for a while, and it’d be more dangerous for the Gatherers to bring them in through a storm anyway. The cement plant’s close by, on paved roads, with less chance of getting lost in the snow. I think Susan’s right.”

There was a little more talk but Sam saw the handwriting on the wall.

“Okay, tomorrow’s for hauling cement,” he agreed, against his own foreboding. “I’ll use the new horses and give our old ones a rest. That ought to be enough to pull the three biggest wagons, and maybe we can get four trips in — cement is heavy. Twelve loads be enough, Chief?”

“I can work with it,” Waters allowed, smiling for the first time this evening.

“Done,” said the Mayor.

One of the gasoline lanterns sputtered out at that moment.

“Looks like a sign that we should all head for bed,” Rachel said. “I’ve got to get up early and swap out horses for Sam’s crew. Move to adjourn?”

The meeting broke up and soon Sam and Ellie were walking home with Burt. Kate and Maria had Ellie’s bodyguard duty this night, and took it seriously. The last couple days had made an interesting change in Kate’s attitude; she scrutinized everything and everybody that came near Ellie. Maria was visibly copying her; both had their bos constantly in hand while they were on duty. Remembering Grayson, Sam approved.

Sam took his wife’s gloved hand in his own as they walked. He could hear several of his crew chattering behind him as they exited the school and began fanning out in different directions to their homes and sleeping accommodations.

“Well that was fun,” Laura Munzer remarked cheerily to Mike McCarthy. “Meetings like that remind me of my term in the service.”

Mike cocked his head at her. “How’s that? My sergeant just yelled whenever he wanted something done. I don’t miss that part.”

“I mean the sense of getting things done, working toward a common purpose as a group,” she explained. “I was missing that, since I got out. Starting my own school with Ken was a little like it, but not enough. This — I feel weird saying so, but this is better.”

Ellie squeezed Sam’s hand. “Let’s go home, love.”

Sam squeezed back, sighing. “Right. Tomorrow will just have to take care of itself.”

The snow drifted down as they made their way through Lyon’s dark streets.

❀ ❁ ❀

11

— A Man’s Castle —

Denver, Colorado, Wednesday Evening, March 25, 1998.

“Yes, this is much better,” Catron drawled, looking around the grand hall of the Highland Masonic Temple. Fireplaces bracketed the ends of the long room, roaring now, and a light supper was laid out on a sideboard with a trembling slip of a hungry sixteen-year-old girl standing by to serve him, or service him, whichever took his fancy first. It would be a while before the fires dispelled the chill of the room, longer still before they made any difference to the rest of the building, but it was a start. Oriental carpets covered most of the marble floor, comfortable couches were strewn about among big leather chairs, and there were carved wooden end-tables and sideboards and coffee tables — there was even a fancy grand piano. The stately grandeur of the place pleased him.

“Well done, Johnson,” the sensei told the armored man waiting deferentially in the east doorway.

John Johnson nodded deferentially, his red helmet bobbing. Catron had assigned him to oversee conversion of the place for the gang’s use, mostly because he had been a general contractor before the Change. He was also a brown-belt at the old Denver School, a former head-cracker in the Navy MPs, and had latched onto Catron like a drowning man when the New Mexico sensei had taken over. Johnson’s wife and kids were moved in with the rest of what Catron mentally dubbed the ‘support crew’. All of the hundred or so non-warrior types had worked their tails off getting the whole school transplanted here, into this granite fortress of a building perched in the middle of nice open defensible space in northwest Denver. The Masons had never meant the place to be lived in, but it had a big basement kitchen, several large bathrooms, and lots of natural lighting from huge windows, every one of which had decorative iron bars over it. Walls could be moved, even plumbing relocated. Catron already had his eye on a nice suite on the top floor that also offered a magnificent view of the mountains.

Paco’s gang had been surprisingly helpful, too. Their women had pitched in with the rest to feed and clothe everybody without bitching, though Catron was fairly sure some of their muttered Spanish wasn’t compliments. So long as they did what he required, he didn’t give a shit how they felt about it. The men were working hard on bo-ken and blade work, and had hardly any bad habits to unlearn. Their motivation may have been helped when two other, smaller, gangs joined up. Catron privately figured that both the other gang leaders put together didn’t have as much on the ball as Paco Miralles, but he wasn’t going to let Paco know that. Keeping the second-tier leaders divided and uncertain was going to be key to ruling this ramshackle crew of bandits.

Bandits. Catron smiled fiercely. Paco’s connections in Denver’s gang world had already been very useful. Joey the Knife had been the perfect tool to take down the remaining State government before they could become a nuisance. It seemed pretty likely that he’d conveniently gotten killed when the city cops stormed the place, trying to rescue the Governor — too late! Paco had pulled that whole scheme off neat and clean, with none the wiser about his own role egging Joey on. Right now the Mayor even thought Catron was trying to help stabilize the city! At some point they’d have to do for that darkie fool as well, but there was time.

Billy Harris walked into the room, his helmet tucked under one arm. He was sweaty and filthy with crusted blood on his armor, none of which looked to be his own from the easy way he walked. The classy lacquered outfit came from the knife store that Paco had told them about. That place had been a treasure trove of weapons and even a few suits of armor, one of which fit the shorter New Mexican. Catron was mildly disappointed that none of it fit his larger frame, but he had plans to fix that. An amateur metal-worker had already volunteered to serve, in exchange for taking in the man’s family. That metal-artist had all the right tools and equipment to reproduce armor that would fit Catron, and a very handy how-to book for a guide.

“How’d it go?” Catron asked the boy — no; young man now, he told himself. He’s killed now, he’s a man and knows it. The thought gave Catron an almost-fatherly glow of warmth.

“Just right,” the blond youth answered, standing at attention. “The Muertos and those Diablos you assigned to me both obeyed me just like you told them to. We’ve got the warehouse sewn up, and all of our guards on it are armed with the best we took from Collas. We still don’t have many bows or crossbows, but those spears that Jose rustled up work just fine. We had to put down some dumbshits who’d tried to take the place over before we got there — they didn’t agree to join up, so once we busted in I offed all the fuckheads, or the ones still alive. The word’ll get around. Frank’s organizing the workers that he and John gathered up from that hotel place you sent them to, by morning they’ll be ready to start hauling food down here. There’s enough in there to feed us all for months.”

“Very good. What did you do with the bodies?”

“Hung ‘em from the corners of the building, just like you said. Worked out pretty fucking neatly — six corners, twelve bodies.”

“Good. When it warms up and they begin to stink, we’ll have to dump bodies somewhere else, but leave them there until then.” Catron smiled beneficently. “Good work, Billy. Pick yourself a pretty girl out of the collection down in the dining hall and keep her for your own fucktoy. Have her help clean you up before you break her in; blood might rot the straps on that armor.”

“Thanks, Sensei!” The blond youth bowed and then hurried away.

Johnson looked briefly jealous at the praise and reward showered on the youth, then smoothed his face out. Catron was amused, but let it be.

“Keep your crew on the remodeling,” he told the armored contractor. “Make sure you’ve got a good spot for yourself, some place convenient for your wife to get to the kitchens. I’m thinking about putting her in charge of a shift down there.”

“Unh — thanks, Sensei!” A brief smile lit his seamed face at this scrap of security.

“Tomorrow you get my suite finished and I’ll move upstairs,” Catron continued. “Dismissed for now. Send Rubio in with the lists while I eat.”

Johnson bowed and left.

Catron strolled over to the roaring fire and warmed his hands at it. He smiled. He’d told Hyatt that they’d see who was warm, and where. The goddamn prig was probably dying in the snow on I-25 somewhere in Wyoming by now, freezing his balls off in this storm and all his students with him. What a waste. Pity Catron couldn’t rub the bastard’s nose in it.

“Put the food on this table here.” Catron instructed the waiting girl. “Then take your clothes off and lie down on the couch in front of the fire. I’ll get to you after I eat.”

He hummed a little tune to himself and mouthed the words softly.

“Getting strong, now …..”

❀ ❁ ❀

12

— Cement —

Lyons, Colorado; Thursday morning, March 26, 1998.

Sam woke to grey pre-dawn light, softened by scattered flakes still drifting down. He stirred in the bed, feeling the chilly morning air on his face, and Ellie’s back warm against his chest. They’d nestled like two spoons after last night’s love-making, though at some point she must have gotten out of bed because she had her nightgown on again. The ends of her hair were tickling his nose slightly with every breath. He inhaled the warm scent of it, with a lingering hint of lilac from her last shampoo, days ago now. Her head was easy on his stretched-out arm tucked under her pillow, his other hand wrapped protectively across her stomach, enfolding her. He didn’t want to move, and for a long timeless interval he simply didn’t. The quiet warm not-doing time was wonderful.

Then a rooster crowed outside, and Ellie stirred.

“Mmmm,” she murmured sleepily. “What’s that I feel? A husband?”

“Yup.” He kissed the nape of her neck, moved his free hand suggestively.

She chuckled a little, stirred strategically against him. She wasn’t normally very easily aroused in the morning, and he always respected that, but they hadn’t gotten nearly as much time together the past couple weeks as either of them liked. Presently the nightgown slithered down to the floor and they tested the bedsprings again.

Several more roosters had crowed by the time real sunlight fingered the window, a brief crystalline sparkle on drifting flakes and the piled snow outside the panes. The sun was peeking beneath the edges of the snow clouds.

“Mmmmmmmm,” Ellie said, a profoundly satisfied sound. “No, stay just a little longer.” She moved her legs to bar him from departing.

He rested his weight on his elbows and knees, kissed her again. “Sun’s up, I hear Grandma downstairs. Esmera’ll probably bring us hot water again soon.”

“I locked the door, she can wait a minute,” Ellie answered, nibbling on one of his ears. “I don’t get you to myself enough anymore; I’m greedy for every little bit I do get.”

“Mmhm!” Sam nibbled back, added a few more languid kisses.

After a while he commented “The bit’s gotten pretty little, and I hear footsteps on the stairs.”

“Time,” Ellie sighed, releasing him.

Sam crawled out into the shivering-cold air, scooped up Ellie’s dropped nightgown and gave it back to her. The room was above freezing but not much. Goosebumps paraded across his naked skin as he scrambled hastily into sweatpants and fumbled in the closet for one of his worn terrycloth bathrobes. Ellie’s mother had lovingly patched this one after he’d inadvertently left it behind five years ago. It had lived ever since in this room, waiting for their infrequent visits. The memory of that gentle woman sent a pang through Sam’s heart.

“Nice view this morning,” Ellie commented as she wiggled into her nightgown again beneath the covers.

Sam grinned and winked; the thin layer of fat he’d been carrying on his gut was gone now, revealing the hard six-pack underneath. He hadn’t had this much definition since before Jenny was born. He shrugged into his robe, then strutted a little as he handed her own bathrobe over, and Ellie whistled appreciatively.

“Mister Hyatt? Missus Hyatt? Breakfast will be ready soon.” Esmera’s voice filtered through the door. “I brought you some hot water for washing.”

“Wonderful! Thank you, Esmera,” Sam said as he unlocked the door and opened it for her.

The Armenian woman bustled in while Ellie pried herself out of the bed and shrugged into her own robe. Esmera had brought a big ceramic bowl, two washcloths and towels, and a pitcher wrapped in a third towel. She set them up atop the bureau, and then bustled right back out. Steam rose invitingly from the pitcher.

Ellie poured a little water on one washcloth, opened her robe to the shivering chill and began to wash while Sam hung his own robe back up and commenced his morning stretches. She shivered a little at the cold air and said “Aren’t you exercised enough? Maybe I should have made you work harder…”

“I’d be okay with that, love,” he smirked as he bent sideways, but added seriously “I thought I was in solid good shape before this, but I’ve got muscles aching in places I’d forgot I had. The kind of lifting and lugging that we’ve been doing since the Change turns out to be a lot different than even welding work used to be back home. I hope all the students are keeping up with their own stretches, or we’re risking some damaged muscles today. Cement is really heavy, much heavier than sacked grain or potatoes.”

“We’ll have to check on them. Maybe I should team up with Karen to do a full-household check-up before we head over to the school.”

“Be sure to take Maria and Jerry with you when you go,” Sam reminded her, folding himself into a pretzel in a different way. “I’ve put them on bodyguard duty today.”

The word darkened Ellie’s world for a moment. Bodyguards, she thought. Danger — from people here in my own town. She shook off the fleeting gloom. “That’s a good idea. Jerry shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights with his arm yet, I was a little leery about him biking with you yesterday even if he only did lookout. And I think Kate’s recovered enough to do normal work again — nothing wrong with her muscles.”

“Maria’s either, but she’s just not in as good shape as the rest of the kids, or as strong,” Sam nodded, shifting stance again. “We’re all going to be sore as hell by the time we get this cement wrangled.”

“I’m mostly done,” Ellie announced, wetting the second washcloth for him. “Come on over here and let me get your back.”

They helped wash each other, snatching several fondles and one more lingering kiss, before they both hustled into warm clothes. Thermal underwear, double socks, and jeans, with long-sleeved turtle-neck shirts and flannel shirts on over those — Ellie could wear many of the clothes her mother had left behind, and they had scrounged extra clothes for Sam. While she worked her feet into her boots again, he poured the used water from the ceramic bowl back into the emptied pitcher. They carried the whole works down to the kitchen.

Ellie’s grandmother had favored a large kitchen, so more than fifty years ago her grandfather had used his World War Two bonus pay to push the back of the house out. Esmera and Grandma Abbaku had fallen on the kitchen with cries of delight when they arrived. It had a modern propane stove as well as the big enameled cast-iron coal/wood stove with its water reservoir on the back. Ellie didn’t remember her own mother ever even using the monstrous thing, though she had kept it polished as a sort of memorial to her husband’s mother. The large two-chambered sink was familiar from years of washing dishes while growing up — her folks hadn’t gotten a dishwasher until 1982.

Now the place exhaled warmth and cooking scents into the rest of the house. Rina was busily scrambling eggs at the propane stove while two teakettles hissed. Grandma was making pancakes on the wood stove’s huge griddle, showing Yelena how to flip them. Jimmy, Jenny, Bran, and the rest of the little kids were already lined up with plates. Ellie and Sam joined in the chaos of getting everybody fed.

“Eggs again?!” complained Jenny, peering at Rina’s pan. “I’m tired of eggs. We had eggs yesterday!”

“And the day before,” added Jimmy wistfully. “And the day before that.”

“And you’ll probably have them again tomorrow,” Sam told them, an edge in his voice. He had to consciously push aside the memory of that sobbing, bewildered little girl and her parents fleeing down Ute Highway toward hunger and death. His nostrils flared as he added roughly “Be glad you have anything to eat at all.”

His kids’ eyes got wider and they both shrank a little at his harsh tone. Sam immediately felt a wave of shame. He knelt down next to Jenny and took her hand while Jimmy looked over her shoulder.

“Honey, I’m sorry I snapped at you two,’ he said softly. “Remember when I told everybody that we were in danger, back there when we were walking out of Denver? And we didn’t know what was going to happen?”

Jenny nodded her head violently, her eyes huge and her face serious.

“I remember, Dad,” Jimmy put in uneasily.

“We still don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know that we don’t have a lot of food, and we just have to make the best of what food there is. Sometimes that’s going to mean eating the same things day after day, even week after week, until we can get something different. But a lot of the choices we used to have are gone now, and we all have to do our best not to make other people sad about it. It’s called ‘making the best of a bad situation’. Do you think you can do that for everybody? They’re probably just as tired of eggs as you are.”

Jenny suddenly hugged him, teary eyed, and wept a little onto his shoulder. Sam put his arms around her slender little torso and patted her back reassuringly.

“I can do that, Dad,” Jimmy said solemnly. He looked around the room. “I didn’t mean to make anyone else sad.”

“You haven’t, yet,” said Ellie quietly. “But if you kept on complaining about it, you would, so it’s best to stop complaining now, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, Mom, Dad. I won’t do it again,” Jimmy promised seriously.

“For today, something else we do have to eat,” Grandma Abbaku announced, producing a platter of steaming pancakes. “There is enough for everybody to have one, if the children will share between them.”

“And we still have a little bit of maple syrup left, and plenty of strawberry preserves that your grandma put up out of the greenhouse last year,” said Burt to his grandkids.

“After you’ve eaten some eggs,” Ellie added. “So sit at the kitchen table, please.”

Jenny allowed herself to be lifted into a chair by Sam, with a big phone book on the seat to raise her up. Jimmy squeezed in next to Bran, Tino, and Yelena, who were passing out flatware and plates. Rina handed a bowl of scrambled eggs to Mary, who made sure every child had a generous spoonfull. Maria divided three pancakes among the kids, and all five of them obediently dug in.

“Crisis averted,” Ellie whispered to Sam as they went into the dining room where the adults were being fed. She squeezed his arm sympathetically.

Sam blew out his breath in an answering grunt. “Sorry. When I think about — never mind. Let’s eat our own breakfast, while we’ve got one.”

There was fresh butter, soft and oozing a little whey. Stefan had improvised a churn and hooked it up to a giant version of a hamster wheel, and put Happy to work turning it. The two cows had settled down and begun yielding normally again, and Marta brought around a pitcher of the morning’s milk, heavy with cream. There were enough large pancakes for every adult to have one, and a pile of scrambled eggs. They hadn’t had any bacon for three days now, and Sam missed it dreadfully.

Burt slathered strawberry preserves on his own pancake as he commented to Sam “I wonder if we could make maple syrup ourselves? There’s lots of maple trees in this town, and all it really is, is boiled tree sap.”

“What about the labor?” Sam asked, thinking about the cement plant job as he waited his turn at the strawberry. “We’ve got so many other demands on our time, and nowhere near enough of that as it is.” He was reluctant to even think about any other tasks than stripping as much food out of the east County as they could get. The Greenies are coming, the Greenies are coming …ran through his brain, to the tune of an old comedy movie. It wasn’t funny any more.

“That’d be the problem,” Burt nodded, swallowed a thick bite of pancake liberally crimsoned with preserves. “But we’ll need to can as much fruit as we can for the next winter, and sugared preserves are one of the safest ways to do it. If we can make sugar. Maple sugar might be the simplest choice.”

“Anybody still grow sugar beets around here?” Sam wondered around a mouthful of scrambled eggs. A moment later he added “Or know how to get the sugar out of them?”

“Doesn’t it require a lot of lime, or something?” Ellie remembered huge waste piles of the stuff outside the defunct sugar mill in Longmont.

“We’ll see,” her dad said. Absently he muttered “Wish there were more pancakes.”

They all left the table adequately fed, but only just. Sam knew from the previous few days that this would wear off too soon under the lash of hard work, and by lunch he’s be ravenous again. Lunch, unfortunately, would be flatbread wrapped around goat cheese and whatever canned or pickled things Ellie and Elaine had decided to sacrifice today — olives and slivered pickled beets had been yesterday’s feature. They had planned the menus carefully and were being rigorous about seeing to it that the eggs and every other source of food got shared evenly across the growing corps of Town volunteers. Last night’s supper had been a kind of Chinese thing, egg drop soup, with a little bit of chicken and rather more diced canned vegetables in it, and a lot of broth. Sam suspected something similar was going to feature on many more nights.

An hour later he was leading the Gatherers out through the Wall, headed for the cement plant. He had bundled up in one of Burt’s old coats with a spare sweater underneath and a scarf wrapped around his neck, thankful for his good Montana fur-lined hat. The horses didn’t much like the chill breeze and the still-falling snow, but they moved along willingly enough. The two Coyle brothers were each guiding a quartet of their own horses hitched to the two larger wagons, with Frank on the Conestoga again with a hitch of six.

The skies were patchy, a mix of big clouds heavy with snow and occasional blue patches where brilliant sun shot through, briefly turning the world to sparkles. As the sun climbed it would disappear into the clouds. Sam estimated that would happen before they even got to the Cemex plant.

Ute Highway had little eddies of blowing snow on it, forming rows of small drifts each several inches high. It was just enough to make walking a challenge for the crew. The horses stolidly plodded right across it, kicking up small flurries with their platter-like hooves. It didn’t take long to reach Cement Plant Road and turn south. A concrete bridge carried them over the river, through a strip of trees and past a small pasture and into the grounds of the plant proper. The chain-link fences were spotted with bits of wind-blown trash and bore a huge sign, now half-obscured by gathering drifts. The wagons and Gatherers trudged right in past the abandoned guard shack, its door standing open and snow already drifted knee-deep inside.

The wind moaned among the angular gray structures, crushers and grinders and kiln and washers and driers and, a little separate from the rest, the long warehouse and bagging plant. A trickle of steam still rose out of the kiln, Sam guessed that snow must be blowing in and melting on the still-hot mass of unfinished cement. This place had used to run round-the-clock, three shifts providing the major employment center for the town. An overhead conveyor in a big pipe had carried finished cement from the manufacturing operation over a parking lot to the bagging plant. Flurries of snow and the dim morning light made the whole place seem vague and unreal.

Sam had never been this close to the Lyons plant, but the place wasn’t hard to figure out. He led the crew straight to the warehouse, made obvious by the long row of enormous loading doors. Half of them had depressed loading bays for semi-trailers, but some were meant for trucks to just drive in and out the other side. The big rolling steel doors were unlocked, so Sam, Darrin, Jesus and Tim wrestled one open wide enough to pass the Conestoga.

Inside was a huge concrete floor with steel walls all around; it occupied most of the building. About a third of the room was empty, enough to turn the wagons around with a little backing and filling. A useless quartet of forklifts parked against one wall weren’t in the way, much. The rest of the floor space was given over to row after row of pallets piled high with sacked cement, in at least four different bag sizes. Gloomy light filtered down from high windows in the steel walls.

“Looks like plenty of fifty-pound bags,” Sam estimated. “Good — less risk to our backs with those. We’ll leave the heavier ones. Let’s form a double line and pass bags hand-to-hand from the nearest pallets. Everybody watch your backs — if you haven’t done your morning stretches, be sure you get good and stretched out now.”

It took a while but they soon got into a rhythm. Frank and the middle-aged Coyle brothers (who were named Kit and Carson, which had brought a brief smile to Sam’s face and made Pat McCarthy laugh) tended the horses while the rest lugged bags. The Coyle brothers each had teenaged sons (named Jesse and James, which made Pat laugh harder) that they kept busy grooming the animals. Rachel and Frank had known all four for years; they’d been the primary horse suppliers for the dude ranch Rachel had run.

With more than a dozen strong backs working, the heap of bags in the wagons grew steadily. Sam watched the big leaf springs critically, when they were bowed just less than half way he stopped filling each wagon. They had enough tarps and ropes to cover the loads securely and keep snow out of the wagons.

Mike McCarthy wiped grey dust off his face — the place was rife with it, even though the crew hadn’t dropped a single bag yet. He hawked and spit to clear it out of his mouth, then asked “We waiting here for the wagons to come back, Sensei?”

“Nope,” Sam told him. “We’re the unloading crew too, so let’s get a march on.”

There was a chorus of groans, but they all fell in willingly enough. Sam left the steel door a little ajar, keeping the snow mostly out, and they slogged back across the parking lot. He paused at the gate to look back at the towering piping of the washer and grinder structure. A group of large black birds perched on the upper works.

“Vultures,” Rachel remarked. “Wonder why they’re here? They don’t usually hang out in this area.”

“Probably too noisy for them when the place was running,” Sam answered. “Nice and quiet now.”

She nodded as they plodded away.

Chief Waters had appropriated a former gas station a little inside the line of the Wall as his construction headquarters. They offloaded the wagons under the canopy and stacked the heavy bags in the repair bays.

“This is great,” Waters exulted as he counted bags. “Do you think you can manage about six times as much? That would just about cover what we need for the basic wall.”

Sam shook his head. “Maybe five times. I’m not risking damage to the wagons or the horses, so we can’t load them nearly as full of this heavy stuff as we did with the potatoes.”

“I can work with that,” Waters decided. “And we can probably dry-lay the core anyway, sandstone’s got pretty good dry adherence … yeah, I can make that work. If we come up short, it’ll be a few weeks away.”

“Were you a stone-mason once, Chief?” Sam asked curiously.

“Oh yeah,” Waters nodded. “For most of my time on the Fire squad, too. Didn’t give the business up and sell the shop until they made me full-time Deputy Chief of the department, ‘bout five years ago. I still kept my hand in with small projects in my spare time. Lyons isn’t very big, Sam, so there isn’t enough work here to keep most trades going full time. Except for the folks who worked for Cemex, most people here had to do two things to make ends meet. All the quarry workers sure did — cutting stone is good-weather work, too damn risky when there’s ice on the rocks.”

Sam nodded. “Not all that different from Billings, Chief. My dad never could get enough business to keep more than one other guy on regular in his welding shop.” He felt a pang thinking about his father, so far away now. Will he be okay? Will I ever know what happened to him, or will he ever learn about us, ever know that we’re still alive?

It didn’t seem possible in the vast confusion of the Changed world.

They slogged back to the warehouse.

The second load went a little faster even though Sam risked piling twenty percent more on the wagons this trip; they were still out in less time than the first. The breeze had risen to a detectable wind and the clouds darkened; it felt colder than it had in the early morning.

Kit Coyle surveyed the thickening snow from his vantage on the high wagon seat as they slogged. “I’ve seen this plenty of times before, Mister Hyatt - front’s coming in over the mountains. Lot more snow with it, too.”

“How long?”

The elder Coyle sniffed the air, his fifteen-year-old boy Jesse doing likewise with a serious expression. “Sometime this evening, probably, before it gets bad. Wind’s not picked up much yet, she’s a-moving slow. ‘Course, that could change.”

“Then we keep on working.” Sam’s stomach growled.

This time the unloading got interrupted. Ellie had brought lunch down to the Wall crew, with extra for the Gatherers; a bean-heavy chili with stale cracker crumbs and crushed fritos on top. It was still steaming despite being trundled a mile from the school in a garden cart, she’d wrapped it in dozens of terrycloth towels with a tarp over all. The Gatherers and Wall-workers all assembled in the cramped gas station, standing room only, and eagerly wolfed down their allotted bowlful. Many of them licked their emptied bowls to get the last scrap.

“Sorry there’s not more, everybody,” Ellie announced before taking the bowls, spoons, and scraped pot back to the school. “We’ll have more at supper time.” Maria and Jerry helped her pack, and the three of them disappeared back into town.

“Third load,” Sam said, and his crew slogged off in the opposite direction.

“Man, I can still taste the meat in that chili,” Pat remarked while they filled the wagons with the third load. “Smell it, too.” He belched loudly.

“Was it better the second time?” asked Drew, grinning.

“Tasty twice over,” Pat assured him.

Terry lifted a leg and farted. “Little hotter going out, though.”

“You guys are pigs,” Kate sneered.

“They’re born that way,” Laura explained. “Need a woman, or military discipline, to straighten ‘em out and make ‘em worth keeping around.”

The resulting quarrel went on amiably for a while; since the bags kept moving, Sam ignored it. After a while he rotated out of the line for his turn at a rest, and Frank beckoned him over to the open door again. Sam had assigned the older man to guard duty, not because he thought they needed one — the plant was obviously deserted and they had almost twenty men and women in the crew, all of them armed — but because he didn’t want to risk an injury that would hamper the older wrangler’s precious horse skills.

“Sensei Hyatt, I smell cooking meat,” Frank reported quietly, leading Sam outside into the falling snow. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I am now. Smell that?”

Sam blew his nose to get the acrid cement odor out of it, then took a long sniff. After a moment he caught it, faintly; a slightly ‘off’ scent that was clearly roasting meat. It disappeared again in the eddying snow flurries here on the eastern, downwind side of the warehouse.

“I got it. Smells odd.”

“I though it might be coming from town at first, but it’s over two miles, and this doesn’t smell quite like fresh beef,” Frank drawled. “I think it’s somebody nearer, maybe cooking up the last of some elk meat from their freezer.”

Sam nodded, vaguely repulsed by the smell. “They should’ve tossed it; I don’t think that’s very fresh. Probably been thawed out too long. Where’s it coming from?”

Frank shrugged. “Can’t tell in this wind, it keeps changing. I’d bet on one of those houses north of the river, or maybe one of the ones southwest beyond the plant. There’re still people living in them, and they must be getting pretty desperate for food by now.”

“Hmm. Well, nobody’s tried to bother us. Long as they keep to themselves, I’m not going to bother them. But if they keep eating spoiled food, they’re likely to kill themselves.”

It took a few seconds for the irony to hit him. If they don’t keep eating, they’d die anyway. He shook his head and went back to the loading.

They got the third load out and lugged it up to the Wall. The horses were holding their own but moving slower now, and Frank and the Coyles didn’t want to press them. Sam agreed, so it was well into the afternoon before they wearily returned to the warehouse for the fourth time. Their repeated trips had churned up the snow and the fickle wind had tried to drift more back into the tracks. It was getting deeper overall, more than six inches in most places and drifts a couple feet high against buildings and other obstacles. Sam decided that this would have to be the last trip today.

They were through all of the lightest bags by now, lugging eighty-pound sacks, growing tired and less careful. A couple sacks had gotten dropped, ruptured, and left a thin pall of acrid grey dust hanging inside the warehouse. People started sneezing and choking on it; the horses were none too happy either. Sam opened a door on the west side, just a few feet wide, to let the wind flush the dust out, accepting some snow inside as the price of clean air. That improved matters considerably, and they were nearly done when Rachel yelped.

“What is it?” Sam’s hand leaped to the hilt of his katana, riding at his hip ever since he’d left the house.

Rachel pointed at the west door, absently rubbing her lower back. “There was somebody there, looking in at us. A man, a big guy, I saw him.”

“Fred, Bruce, Terry, and Drew, check on Frank and the east door,” Sam ordered. “Tim, Jesus, Mike, and Pat — follow me. The rest — watch both ways and be ready to charge over at need.” He drew his blade and padded as quietly toward the west door as he could. The others readied their own weapons and followed his orders.

The door was open about five feet, a gusty wind blowing snow inside in a long fan across the dirty floor. Sam couldn’t see far out of it. He circled around the snow, peering first to the left and then the right, but couldn’t see anyone outside.

“Tim,” he summoned the other in a low voice. “We move back to back, on my signal, two paces out.”

They stood back to back at the edge of the snow, and when Sam whispered ‘Now’ they both sidestepped fast through the door, facing outwards along the building with weapons at the ready. They stopped two paces beyond the doorway, wary and ready for action, but nothing attacked.

Sam peered through the falling snow. There were several pieces of heavy machinery parked out here, and the back fence of the Cemex property wasn’t far beyond them. Sam thought he saw a flicker of motion near it, but couldn’t be sure.

“Footprints, Sensei,” Tim noted, pointing with his bo. “Recent ones, too — the snow hasn’t filled them yet.”

Sam beckoned the others outside, told off Mike and Pat to guard the door. Then, with Tim and Jesus at his back, he tracked the footprints. He wasn’t greatly surprised when they led in among the parked machines and over to a large ragged opening in the fence, one that had clearly been there for some time. Beyond it, a row of big cottonwood trees marked an irrigation lateral running along the west edge of the Cemex property. Smaller Russian Olive trees grew among them, just enough thickness of branch and shrub that Sam didn’t want to wade in blind among them. He thought the footprints hurdled the ditch and then turned left, but he couldn’t be sure. He was sure that there were two sets here, one coming in through the hole with short strides and meandering among the machines over toward the open door. The second came straight back from the door through the machines and out the hole, moving with longer strides.

“Somebody from one of those houses over by Foothills Highway,” Sam decided. “Looking to see what was going on here. Looks like we scared him off.”

He sheathed the katana, wiping snow off the blade as he did so, looked around. The back area was separated from the employee’s parking area by another fence, the same one the overhead tram went over before it entered the bagging area at the south end of the warehouse. Anyone coming up at the warehouse from the south would have had to either circle that fence to the east, the way Sam and company has entered from the front gate, or climb over it. Or go around through the west, through the hole.

“Let’s get back inside,” he said.

Rachel was waiting tensely. “Did you find him?”

“No. Can you describe him?”

“Unh, medium-tall, a little shorter than Mike but several inches taller than you. Had some kind of grayish pants on his legs and a poncho-like thing the same color on his upper body. Something on his head, maybe a hat, maybe a big knitted ski hat, I’m not sure. He had a dark beard, no glasses but just penetrating eyes, I looked right at him from the pallet, here.” She indicated an empty pallet about twenty feet away from the open doorway, and shivered. “It wasn’t a friendly look, either. He had something long in his hand, something with a metal thing on top, I think it was some kind of weapon.”

“He’s gone now. We’ll keep up a lookout, Rachel, you and Kate on the west door and Frank and Laura on the east one. Look sharp, but the rest of us get back to work.”

They loaded the rest of the cement, until the Conestoga creaked and settled low on its springs, and then shut the west door. When they were all outside and trundling away, Sam also shut the east door, then took a last look around the place.

The trickle of steam still rose from the big kiln, snow swirled across the parking lots, but nothing else moved. Just then a buzzard launched itself from the upper works of the kiln, circled briefly overhead, and returned to its perch. The deserted, industrial angularity of the place gave Sam a creepy sensation exacerbated by the irregular moaning of the wind through all the complicated structures. It sounded a little too much like the voices of the damned in a bad B-movie he had once seen.

“Screw it,” Sam muttered, and followed the rest out. He looked back several times before he crossed the bridge, but saw nothing but steel, concrete, and scavenger birds.

They slogged back to the Wall, delivered their last load, and took the horses and wagons back to Lyons. By the time Sam and the crew got everything put away and his weary folk had dragged themselves back to the school, the wall workers were trickling back too, and the night shift guards had already gone out. The snow was a dense curtain now, falling thick and fast, with hardly any wind. It was plain they wouldn’t be going back out in that tomorrow.

“Kit, how long’s this likely to last?” he asked the elder Coyle brother, as they stamped their feet in the school foyer and brushed snow off their clothes.

“Probably a day or two;” the weathered wrangler said judiciously. “Slow-moving ones like this generally dump a lot in the spring, then we get a warm Chinook, a wind, that melts it all. Roads’ll be plugged tomorrow, wet and messy on Friday, Saturday, but likely dry by Sunday or Monday. That’s Colorado.” He shrugged. “Good for the fields, though. And the horses need a rest, we pushed them a leetle hard today.”

“Agreed,” Sam nodded as they headed down the dim hallway toward the cafeteria. “Okay, tomorrow’s a practice day at the fencing school on Fourth Street, next to Starry’s forge. Pass the word, Fred, Mike, Laura, everybody; I want to see all of the Gatherers there after breakfast. Kit, if you and your brother and your boys are willing, I’d like to have you there too, after you tend to the horses.”

They pushed through swinging doors into the cafeteria, brightly lit by gas lamps and candles. Warm steamy smells of cooked food assailed them. Sam’s stomach instantly knotted with hunger. Ellie and Elaine and an enlarged kitchen crew served bowls of soup, thick with canned vegetable and pasta and just enough chicken to give it taste. Sam barely set the bowl down before digging into it, then paused after a few gulps to liberally sprinkle salt over the remainder.

“You’re all sweating away more salt than we realized,” Ellie observed, sitting beside him for a few minutes. “We’ll have to add more to the food.”

“That’d be nice,” Waters agreed, sitting across from Sam with his own bowl. “Your crew did good work today, Sam. I counted it up — thirty-eight and three-quarter tons of dry cement. Should be enough for a month of work, maybe enough to completely finish the Wall.”

“Glad to hear it.” Sam finished the bowl and rubbed his aching back. He surveyed the crowded room and added “Looks like you got some more volunteers, too.”

Waters smiled grimly. “Allison’s policy is working. More folks face a choice between working and eating, and not working and not eating. She sent me twenty-four more volunteers today, all men with families to feed.”

“And we got sixteen wives assigned to the School,” Ellie added. “Including four more massage therapists. Tomorrow Sherry’s going to set up therapy tables in the clinic with that crew, ready to work on overstrained muscles and trying to forestall injuries. With any luck, we won’t lose too many of our workers, new or old, to repetitive damages. That includes your crew, and you, so tonight I want you to talk to her about scheduling your whole crew to go next door and get a rub-down, husband-mine.”

“You don’t have to twist my arm for that,” Sam said. He took Ellie’s empty bowl and spoon, put it with his own on a passing cart pushed by a volunteer. Then he leaned companionably against her shoulder, their hands clasped together, and just sat for a long minute. The soup was filling, but he knew the sensation wouldn’t last long. Tomorrow they’d all be just a little bit hungrier.

“Let’s go home, love,” he said presently.

They gathered up their household, Ellie’s bodyguards and all, and headed back to the big house at the south edge of town. Snow was already more than ankle deep, drifts as high as their knees. White smoke rose from houses where gas furnaces burned, keeping the weather at bay inside the fragile shells.

God, thought Sam, looking at all the steamy plumes above Lyon’s rooftops. Please don’t let the gas give out. Just let us make it through till spring, that’s all I ask. Let us make it to spring.

Snow kept sifting down from the silent sky.

❀ ❁ ❀

13

— The Freeze —

Longmont, Colorado; Friday night, March 27, 1998.

“I told you, it’s too fucking cold for that, asshole,” the shivering man said.

The man who was now being called ‘Blackbeard’ by the Green followers backhanded the speaker, bouncing him off a wall. The smaller man fell in a heap on the dirty floor, glaring helplessly for an instant. Then his gaze fell before the pitiless eyes of the victors.

“You talk to Baron Green, you talk politely,” Blackbeard told other mildly; he wasn’t personally given to brutality for its own sake, but this gang had to know they were beaten, and know it so thoroughly that they’d not be a danger any more. “Now let him hear you say ‘Yes, Baron’, and sound like you mean it.”

The brass knuckles on the outside of Blackbeard’s glove had broken one of the smaller man’s teeth, which he spat onto the floor with a gobbet of blood. The sight of it, a gleaming white speck among the bloody spittle, seemed to embolden the defeated man. “You’ve killed my only brother, I’m dying anyway, so fuck you—”

Stupid shithead, Blackbeard thought. You’re too risky to keep around. His boot lashed out, connected with the defiant one’s neck. Bones snapped audibly even through the downed man’s heavy muffler, and he collapsed in a spasming heap.

“He was right about dying,” remarked Baron Green.

Blackbeard’s boss was a big man, one who looked even bigger bundled in a Gore-tex ski jacket over chainmail. He’d pulled his helmet off and pushed his ski-mask up. He surveyed the captives through cold eyes. He wore expensive Kevlar biker’s leggings over insulated pants, heavy boots, a thick leather-and-chainmail tunic with a steel breastplate that had seen use in the Society for Creative Anachronism back when he and Blackbeard had been just heavy-weapons fighters on weekends. Now he had an ostrich-feather plume mounted on his helmet and a luxurious thick mink fur collar. That last looked a little odd snugged around his gorget, but nobody was going to say anything. He carried a real steel broadsword, and had proven several times that he knew how to use it better than anyone else here. Blood still dripped sluggishly from the cold blade, slowly freezing in intricate patterns. Blood that came from the other man bubbling his life out on the floor, this pathetic band’s leader until ten minutes ago.

“And though his brother isn’t quite dead yet,” Green added, “I’d say he’ll be that way soon enough. Any of the rest of you dumbshits want to follow the two of them?”

The other members of the small gang shuffled their feet a little as their heads shook. One by one they cast their eyes down, to Blackbeard’s carefully-hidden relief. He didn’t relish having to kill them all, not when some of them looked to be useful.

“Good,” Baron Green smiled. “Now in a few minutes I’ll dismiss you all to follow my orders. I want all this food packed up and hauled to the Mansion. You’ll be put up in the fire station with the rest of the recruits, where you’ll be tested. Any of you that make the grade, and make yourselves useful, will be allowed to join up, same as my existing men but with provisional rank. If you prove yourselves when we fight the Reds, I’ll make that provisional rank permanent.”

A flicker of hope went through the eyes of the nine men standing weaponless in a row along the wall. They were dressed in layers of clothes against the biting cold, just like the Green troopers guarding them, but three were injured and all were bruised and battered. Four of their companions already lay dead behind the victorious Green troops, the unconscious fifth still bleeding out.

“But before that, you’re all going to kneel to me, one at a time, and swear an oath of fealty to me,” Green said, his voice hardening. “And if you break that oath, the world isn’t wide enough to save you from my vengeance. You in the red jacket, you got a question?”

One of the prisoners wearing a dirty red ski jacket had raised his hand, like a small boy in school. Though he cast fearful looks at Blackbeard and the thirty-odd men holding spears and knives at the ready, he dared to ask a question.

“Boss — ah, Baron Green, sir, unh, what about our women an’ kids?” Red Jacket shuffled and nodded his head deferentially, looking frightened by his own temerity. Several others looked tense, as though considering a last desperate fight for their families.

Green shifted his gaze to the huddled knot of misery at the other end of the room, watched by four more of his troops. The women and children were bundled up much like their men, layers of sooty clothes substituting for winter parkas on most of them. In this state he couldn’t tell whether any were good-looking or not. The dozen women had at least twenty children among them, all shivering in the wind that now blew into their violated refuge.

“Any of you that swear fealty will get to keep your women,” he offered. “And kids. Those that don’t — .” He left that hanging. “Now, who’s first?”

The defeated grasped at the straw of his offer and scrambled to kneel before him.

“Put your hands together, flat,” Blackbeard instructed. “One at a time, as I call you forward, say your name and then repeat after me: I do solemnly swear upon my life and that of my family, that I will obey my lord Baron Green — ”

The new recruits stumbled through the unfamiliar ritual, but they all swore fealty. Twenty minutes later they had all loaded up their hoard and stood in a line, still guarded by the Green troops. At Blackbeard’s signal they moved out of the busted-open back door in the downtown building where they’d been squatting, and began the long slog to the Hover Mansion.

The Green troops carried all the weapons this pitiful band had owned, including the prize — a real crossbow. It didn’t have any bolts left, but even so Blackbeard had hopes for it. He’d been trying to gather up such range weapons ever since those Lyons bastards had slaughtered a third of Nilsson’s crew during the grain raid. Blackbeard damned that hothead blond fool for picking a fight with archers, hadn’t he learned anything in the Society? But he had to admit that it had taken even himself and Green way too long, here in the crowded confines of Longmont’s suburban and urban terrain, to remember the power of missile fire. The debacle had made that mistake plain, and incidentally underscored Blackbeard’s now-moot objection to Nilsson being put in charge of the foraging expedition.

“Which one of them had the crossbow, Ed?” Green quietly asked his subordinate. “Red jacket?”

“You got it, milord,” Blackbeard answered. His real name had been Edward Teach before the Change, but in the SCA he’d had a privateer persona that was a lot more widely known. Since the Change that persona had been his life-line, and now the nickname was fast becoming permanent. It was a way not to think about his ex-wife and two kids down in Phoenix. He was working very hard at not thinking about that, and wished his commander wouldn’t keep undercutting him by using the old name.

“Good.” Green nodded, making the plumes bob atop his helmet. “You think he’ll pass the test?”

Blackbeard snorted. “I’ll make sure of it, even if I have to kick his stupid ass three times around the firehouse — we need some shooters on our side.”

“Hmmm. Think he’ll keep his oath?”

Blackbeard shrugged, a subtle gesture under all the layers of insulation and armor. “Hell if I know, my lord Baron. I’m not sure how many of these non-Society dipsticks even know what an oath is. I can make them repeat a string of words, but is it hooking them in the hearts the way it did us? Who knows?”

Green frowned. “Good point. Better find out which woman is his and put her with the Brown House crew.”

Blackbeard nodded. “That’ll keep her under our thumbs, and so him too. ‘Specially if he’s got kids.” He suppressed his own memories again.

Blackbeard surveyed that parade of prisoners and their loads. He estimated that the little gang had gathered nearly three hundred pounds of canned and boxed goods, enough to have kept them alive for another few months. As hoards went, this was one of the better ones Green’s troops had collected during the cleanup of the past couple days, though not a patch on the supplies they’d seized from the Safeway. Taking out this little enclave of resistance also evened out their front with the east-side Red gang, which was busily doing much the same thing across the tracks. Very soon there was going to be a reckoning between Green and the Reds, and when it came Blackbeard wanted his side to have every advantage he could give it.

The crowd of prisoners and captors slogged through snowy streets under dim gray skies. Baron Green followed in the trail they’d broken for him, scrubbing his swordblade with snow and then wiping it down with a dry chamois and then an oilcloth. By the time he sheathed the gleaming blade it was immaculate. Blackbeard silently approved as he walked beside his commander’s right hand, and hoped the rest of the troops would learn from the example.

Presently he asked his leader “What do you think about those Lyons fuckers?”

“You want me to admit that you were right about putting Nilsson in charge, don’t you?” Green looked at him sideways. “Goddamn it, Ed, just between you and me, okay, you were right. Satisfied?”

Blackbeard grunted. “Nice to know the baronial crown hasn’t gone completely to your head, my Lord. But that’s not what I’m after. After the Reds, those Lyons fuckers are the most dangerous opposition we’ve got, at least until somebody comes out on top in that free-for-all in Boulder. You given any thought to that?”

“Boulder? Too soon — we’ve got to wait for someone to win there, or else hope they all exhaust each other equally. There’re too damn many of them for comfort, but at least they’re at each others throats and not ours.”

“I meant Lyons,” Blackbeard explained irritably. “I told you about those archers of theirs, they shot the hell out of us before we got near them. If they’ve got more like that, it’ll be a stone bitch to take them, what with those hills guarding their town.”

“Have you got any definite intelligence on them?”

“No,” Blackbeard admitted. “But I can ask around among the crew.”

“Start with that,” Green nodded, glanced at the snowfall drifting remorselessly down. “Looks like we’re all going to be cooped up a lot for the next couple days anyway. When you really know something, talk to me. Meanwhile I’ve got to get ready to deal with the Reds — and we need to clear out two more little gangs before we’re secure on this side of the tracks. Lyons will have to wait its turn. They’re small fish anyway, so if they collect food and farmers, it’ll just make it simpler for us to take everything at once when the time’s right. And you’re already working on getting us archers of our own, right?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“It’ll have to do. Once Longmont’s under our control, then we can afford to go after the countryside and the little towns.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The two slapped their numbed hands together confidently as they strolled through the falling snow. The laden prisoners flinched at the sound, and slogged faster.

In the windows of iced-up houses, suffering eyes peered out of mounds of winter clothes and blankets, coughed and huddled closer together, hoping to survive another night. The temperature sank lower as the wind moaned and Longmont slowly froze.

❀ ❁ ❀

14

— Fools Rush In —

Lyons, Colorado; early afternoon, Monday, March 30, 1998.

“I’m really glad the snow’s finally stopped falling, Sensei,” Kate said, stretching. The interlocked plates of her new scale armor clinked beneath her covering smock, in a muffled chorus of steel against steel.

“Yeah, this armor’s cold enough when it’s not wet, too,” Tim remarked as he applied ski wax to his cross-country skis. His own scales clicked in a subdued rhythm with each stroke.

“Three goddamn days of snow in a row — and at the end of March, too,” Mike chimed in, testing the tension on the back bindings of his brother’s armor while Pat held up his own smock. “We hardly ever get that in Illinois.”

“Not unusual in Montana,” Sam answered. But I’m not going to start in with a back-in-the-day story now, he thought. Instead he said “Just be glad we were able to scrounge up enough cross-country skis to let ten of us get around on top of it.”

He finished waxing his own skis and passed the stick to Darrin, then looked around. The Gatherers had stopped to eat lunch and wax up their skis the junction of Nelson Road and North Sixty-Fifth. Sam vividly remembered passing through this same point on their way north from the Durungian Farm only two weeks ago. Today he had both McCarthy boys, Tim, Drew, Laura, Darrin, Kate, Terry, and Jesse Coyle. All were in new knee-length scale armor over quilted gambesons, with pale cloth smocks over the outside to keep the snow out of the scales and provide a little warmth. Each ensemble had been freshly turned out by Starry’s workshop, the last one finished only this morning by candle light. The ‘arsenal’, as Starry had taken to calling it, was now so well-crewed with volunteers that every one of the Gatherers had a bow or crossbow and a full quiver of arrows or bolts in addition to their armor. The growing Town Militia was nearly as well armed, though their armor would take considerably longer.

Tim and Laura carried the new katanas that Starry had hastily completed — the wrappings of the hilts weren’t elegant but would do. Mike and Pat had opted to stick with their big knives, while everyone else was equipped with one of Starry’s new straight swords. They all had sheet-metal shields mounted on plywood and slung on leather straps over their shoulders. It had taken a while to learn how to handle their changed centers of balance on skis. Helmets had been improvised, not fancy but serviceable once you wrapped a long scarf around your head for padding. Except for the weapons, Sam thought they looked like a mob of bulky monks carrying odd flat backpacks, out for an afternoon of skiing.

They were about to head north toward St. Vrain Road after visiting as many of the Coyle’s neighbors and friends as Burt, Kit, and Carson thought likely to listen. Sam had brought Jesse along to introduce the Gatherers to the names on his father’s list, and counted on the teenager’s earnest support to persuade as many of those farmers as possible to join Lyons. Sam worried a little about the boy’s protection; his armor had been meant for Jerry and didn’t fit well even laced as tight as it would go, and he handled his sword like a club. But so far the trip was going surprisingly well.

Or maybe not so surprising. The folks out here could see and smell the smoke rising from the burning cities. They had all had a while to think about what they’d seen or heard of the fight with the Green gang, and to hear about what had happened to the Barnard family. Jane and Susan Barnard had survived the gang-rape and been taken in by another neighbor, who had spread the word during the storm. There was news from farther south of raiders out of Boulder, and another family on Seventy-fifth Road near Longmont had been hit by some unnamed gang. A couple people had finally figured out that guns didn’t work any more, and were spreading that news — they’d met one today, on snowshoes, who was convinced that it meant Armageddon. The whole neighborhood was scared now, and wanted safety. Two-thirds of their contacts today had volunteered to come in just as fast as Sam could extend the invitation, and many of those were already packing. Sam hoped that the rest were thinking about it real seriously.

He ignored his stomach’s complaint. The small lump of cold food he’d had for lunch was seriously inadequate for a man who planned to ski better than twenty miles today. They were all hungry, all the time now, but tried not to talk about it.

“I hope the horses can manage this snow,” Sam added. “What do you think, Jesse?”

The young Coyle finished laboriously re-attaching his skis; he’d never done Nordic skiing before, but he caught on quick. Laura, who skied with the same gusto that she did everything else, had helped him tighten the clamps on the older skis that Ellie’s brother had long ago outgrown. Despite a decade and change sitting in the basement, they still worked well enough. Now Jesse’s brow furrowed as he looked around; he was keenly conscious of being the youngest here, if only by two years.

“If they’re towing wagons, it won’t be good for them, Mister Hyatt,” the boy answered seriously. “Even Doctor Brown’s big Morgans shouldn’t haul a lot of weight against the snow. It’s slippery and they can strain a muscle or even fall on this kind of footing, especially on hills. If a horse tears a ligament or breaks a leg, we’ve lost her. Dad and Uncle Carson’ll be a lot happier if you wait for most of it to melt.”

Mike looked around dubiously. “That’ll probably take a week, maybe two.”

“Not in Colorado.” Jesse lifted his sunglasses and squinted at the sun, even now burning its way through a final hazy high-altitude cloud to sparkle on the drifts. Some of those were a yard high or better against west-facing walls; even the open road had at least a foot everywhere.

“You watch,” the youth continued, “The sun will heat the pavement right through this, and melt it from the bottom up. The bar-ditches will flood and the fields will all go soggy for a few days, and the creek’ll come up pretty sharp for a while too. Then it’ll be gone, everywhere except north-side shady places. Might last into April there.”

“So how long is that melt-off likely to take?” Sam asked the young cowboy.

Jesse shrugged. “Two, three days, if the sun stays out, sir. More if we get clouds again. Feel the air, how much warmer it is now than this morning?” He stamped one ski on the snow-packed road. “Underneath, where the snow meets blacktop, the melting’s already started.”

Sam nodded slowly. “We can work with that. Okay, everybody, time to get moving again, we’ve got two more farms on the list to visit before we can go home. Make sure you’ve got your sunglasses on, as soon as that last cloud clears the sun it’ll be blindingly bright.”

They formed up and set out in a line, it was Mike’s turn to break trail for the group. Nelson Road was mostly a smooth unbroken sheet of snow, with a few animal tracks here and there — rabbits, cats, and a dog or two, Sam thought. At North Sixty-fifth they turned toward home again, gliding down each little hill and thrusting their way to the top of the next in a rhythm that had been exhilarating this morning, but was humdrum now. There was a long row of suburban houses on their left, most with tiny lots that had no hope of raising any significant amount of food. There were people-tracks in the snow here, folk visiting each other with news now that the weather made it more comfortable. Flickers of movement in a few windows testified that there was life here still, though three houses had burned down to their cellar-holes before the storm ended. This was the densest group of dwellings they had passed on this trip. Three men were chopping wood in a cleared space outside one house; they stopped and stared as the Gatherers skied by.

Sam resolutely ignored them. These folks were unlikely to have enough food to justify admitting them to Lyons, and they didn’t have enough land to grow what survival would require. He didn’t want the extra load of guilt that would come from refusing them.

I’m carrying enough of that already.

They found Galatia Road and turned west to schuss up it — there was an apiarist and chicken-farmer up here that Burt knew. The house was easy enough to find, but it was shut tight and frozen. The windows were clear, not crusted with ice on the inside as were most of those with people living in them. This place had already been stone cold when the storm arrived. The drifts showed that nobody had been in or out. Sam, Darrin, and Tim circled it, checked on the back yard shed. The wire gate stood open and the man-door hung from one hinge; snow had drifted inside. Though there were ranked nesting boxes mounted along both sides of the interior, there was no sign of any chickens.

Sam studied the door for a moment. The latch was hanging loose on its mounting, with fresh wood showing beneath.

“This guy’s gone, either before the Change or since,” he decided. “Then somebody broke in and took the chickens.”

Tim pointed his chin toward a row of white wooden boxes weighed down with stones and wires and half-buried in snow.

“Bee hives, Sensei?”

“Looks like it. Don’t touch them — we can’t cart them along with us, and the bees are probably hibernating. Last thing we want to do is wake them. We’ll come back another day for the hives.”

They glided back down Galatia to the main road. Something tugged at Sam’s subconscious as they approached the junction. There were fresh tracks crossing the road, tracks that hadn’t been there earlier.

“Incoming!” Laura bellowed, swinging her shield around with a fast motion.

Snow billowed as a row of men stood up from behind an evergreen hedge. They raised half a dozen short spears — javelins, made from sticks and kitchen knives, Sam realized — and two real bows. Strings twanged as Sam’s crew struggled to get shields in place. Something slammed him hard in the left shoulder, bounced off, before he got his own shield in place. He drew his katana with one swift motion, and then awkwardly tried to turn his skis to come at the line head-on.

A javelin stuck in Laura’s shield, nearly knocking her off balance. Another slammed Mike in the ribs and sent him careening into Terry; they both went over into the snow. Kate ducked another javelin, bent down behind her shield and fumbled for her bindings. Darrin, the most experienced skier among them, had managed to kick off his skis just before another javelin slammed into his hip and sent him staggering.

Sam closed awkwardly on the hedge. It wasn’t very thick but had a chain-link fence inside it; the nearest attacker was a good arms-length away on the far side, readying a second javelin. As the man’s arm went back Sam slammed the tips of his skis into the chain-link and squatted down to hit the release on his bindings. The man paused, his target out of sight, and then poked at Sam clumsily over the hedge. Sam dropped his shield, grabbed the javelin just behind the blade — a nasty sharp filleting knife — and pulled himself upright against it. Too late, the man thought to let go of it, and then Sam got the point of the katana into him.

Sam’s opponent screamed briefly as the sword opened his throat, spraying red wetness across his neighbor as he tried to turn away. The second man flinched, drawing away from the hot fountain in horror, which gave Sam enough time to get the point of the blade into him too. Both fell behind the hedge. A third man swung his javelin sideways with a vicious but clumsy chop that Sam barely parried; he felt the wind of it past his nose. Sam slid the katana down and under the shaft and slashed off two of the man’s fingers. He shrieked and dropped the spear.

Laura was at his shoulder, lunging against one of the archers, who jinked sideways and saved his life at the expense of his weapon. The severed bowstring lashed him across the face and he slipped and fell down.

Another javelin probed at Sam and thudded painfully against his bruised shoulder. He thrust back and slashed open the man’s forearm. Then there were no more spearmen within easy reach. Sam had to throw himself sideways through the clinging snow as an arrow went wheet through the place he’d been standing. He dimly heard it plink as it was deflected off someone’s armor somewhere behind him.

Kate was at the fence, exchanging thrusts with another javelin-wielder who was a good foot taller than she, with reach to match. He was using that to stay out of her range while still trying to stab her in the face. Suddenly an arrow blossomed in his chest and he fell backwards. Kate managed to grab the javelin in her off hand, using it like a parry-tool, and stabbed at the next man, shouting “Die! Die!” He suddenly staggered into her range as one of his comrades took an arrow and fell against him. She thrust again and he screamed.

“They’ve got armor!” shouted the second archer, standing there uselessly with a target-practice bow in his hand; his little arrows were just bouncing off the Gatherers. A moment later a crossbow bolt buried itself in his chest. He swayed, dropped his bow, plucked at the plastic-vaned shaft for a moment, and then collapsed.

The remaining attackers dropped behind the hedge and began to scramble away. Pat, finally freed of his bindings and with an arrow sticking out of his shield, tried to crash through the hedge. The fence stopped him and he fell into it in a tangle, swearing furiously.

Sam looked around, desperately counting heads. Kate and Laura stood at the fence, Tim beyond them, all with blades out and bloodied. Darrin limped over, using a ski pole as a crutch and awkwardly dangling his discharged crossbow. Drew was still on his skis, compound bow in hand and busily hunting for more targets. There was a javelin handle sticking up out of the snow between his legs, the point buried a foot behind him and the shaft bouncing gently against his inner thighs as he worked; he didn’t seem aware of it yet.

Terry had regained his feet, skis off, and was trying to cover both himself and downed Mike with a single shield. His sword was out and waving and he was trying to look in all directions at once while muttering “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”

Jesse was lying on his back in the snow, bleeding around a javelin stuck in his shoulder.

“Drew, help Jesse!” Sam snapped. “Tim, Kate, Laura, stand guard — bows out! Darrin, help Pat untangle himself.” He wiped and sheathed his katana, then waded over to Mike and Terry, squatted down beside the fallen man.

“Mike?” he asked, trying to brush snow aside so he could see the injury; Mike’s over-smock had been torn open for a couple feet across his side. There didn’t appear to be very much blood.

Mike struggled to sit up, groaned, and lit the air with a string of obscenities that would have done his brother proud. “My rib’s broken,” he ground out. “Maybe two of them. Sonofabitch, that hurts!”

He trailed off into more panted profanity as Sam carefully exposed the side of his armor. The javelin point had broken one scale completely and deformed two others, part of the broken one had gone through the gambeson, along with the spear-point, Sam suspected, though that had subsequently fallen out. The skin beneath was slashed but not deeply, most of the kinetic energy had been absorbed by the scale and the padding. His ribs didn’t look noticeably deformed but a massive red spot was developing around the cut, swelling as Sam watched. Mike continued breathing, obviously uncomfortable but with both lungs plainly working, so Sam hoped the fractures weren’t displaced.

“We’re going to have to get the armor off you to really see how much you’re hurt, but if you can stand the pain, I think you can ski until we’re a safe distance away from here,” Sam told Mike. “Terry, take his other side and let’s lift him to his feet.”

They managed, with some strangled cursing from Mike. His skis hadn’t even separated from his boots. Terry found Mike’s dropped poles and gave them back to him. For a moment Mike just stood there panting, then mastered himself and tried a short stride.

“Fuuuuuuukkk!” he hissed between his teeth, and then nodded as he panted “I can ski - at least - a little.”

“Don’t fall down,” Terry advised helpfully.

“Then you - better - catch me - smartass,” Mike answered.

“Terry, find something to strap around his ribs, under his armor,” Sam instructed. “It’s the best I can think of while we’re out here.”

He turned to Jesse. Drew had the boy’s smock opened and armor unlaced. Jesse lay on his side in the snow, eyes closed and breathing raggedly. There was a massive amount of blood on him.

“Sensei, help me with his armor while I hold the compress,” Drew asked distractedly. Sam eased the rent garment open over Jesse’s shoulder — thankfully the back lacings let it be opened completely, like a shirt, and the too-large size made it easy to move. “Damn, stop,” Drew said when the suit had cleared Jesse’s shoulder, “His arm’s broken. We’re going to have to leave it wrapped in the armor as a sort of sling. Let’s cut his gambeson open instead, here to here.”

Sam took out the warizaki that Starry had given him, carefully slit the heavy padded garment.

Drew muttered to himself as he worked. “Broken humerus, displaced fracture - looks like his clavicle’s fractured too but not as bad — the ligaments and major blood vessels look intact, thank God for that, but this cut’s gone through a couple of the minor ones — hold that like so, Sensei, yes — damn, I don’t dare pull that broken scale out, I think it’s plugging a cut vein — Sensei, this is more than I can deal with here, I can stabilize him for a while but we’ve got to get him back to Lyons. Fast.”

Sam looked around. “Laura. Do you know how to make an emergency sled out of Jesse’s skis?”

“Sure do!”

“Then get to it. Pat, stand guard in her place. Darrin, how’s your hip?”

“I’ll have a hell of a bruise, but everything’s working, Sensei.” He winced as he walked over.

“Good. You stand guard in place of Kate. Kate, help Laura — you’ve got the most skillful hands for detail work. Everybody, sacrifice your smocks to make some padding for the sled.”

Sam followed his own orders by peeling off his smock and handing it to Kate.

“Okay, Drew, get Jesse ready to ride.” Sam looked around.

Tim called to him suddenly.

“Sensei! Some of them are still moving behind the hedge!”

“Good!” Sam snarled roughly. “Drag one out here so I can talk to him.”

Three of the wounded men turned out to be still alive behind the hedge, along with the cooling bodies of the two whose throats Sam had cut and the ineffectual archer with the arrow in his chest. Two of the three live ones were unconscious but still breathing, though the blood flow warned that they might not remain that way for long. The better bowman had quietly crawled away, abandoning his companions and his weapon, which Terry promptly appropriated, along with the remaining couple of javelins. The last one was conscious and able to move, but lay practically paralyzed with fear. Tim dragged him around through a gate and stood him on his feet for Sam to question. The man was slightly taller than Sam but slouched so much that it was no problem for Sam to look him straight in the eye.

“Why did you ambush us?” Sam asked bluntly.

The guy was thin, pale, and gangly even inside his snow parka. One sleeve had been slashed open and the Gore-tex fabric was spattered with blood. Tim had dragged the hood back so the man’s face was plainly visible. The wounded man clutched his injured limb with his sound one and cringed, eyes darting from Sam’s armor to his sword and back again.

“George said you were marauders from Boulder, come to loot us,” he muttered weakly. “Said we had to take you out or you’d kill us and rape our women, take our food and leave our kids to die in the cold.”

“We ought to kill you,” Tim said venomously, giving the man a shake that made him gasp. “You damn well tried to kill us first!”

“And we didn’t even threaten you or anything!” Terry glared his outrage, waving his sword under the man’s nose.

Sam felt the rush of blood-lust that wanted to cut the fool’s throat himself. He fought it down, grasped for balance. I’ve got to center myself! He paused and forced himself to take three long slow breaths. Meanwhile Pat and Darrin chimed in with their own outrage. Somewhat to Sam’s surprise, Laura was silent.

“Terry, Pat, Tim, Darrin, stay on lookout,” Sam ordered. “He’s got fellow idiots who might come back.”

“Yes, Sensei,” Tim said reluctantly, then turned slightly so he could watch the house and still see the man out of the corner of his eye.

After a moment Terry did the same, first ostentatiously sheathing his sword and then planting the javelins ready to his hand.

Pat snapped “We oughta burn your fucking house down with you in it!” as he turned to guard.

“So, jackass,” Sam stared at the stranger coldly. “You’re telling me you attacked a bunch of innocent strangers just because you thought we were somebody else?”

“Well, you had weapons …” The man said lamely. “And you came up the road from the south, towards Boulder.”

Pat laughed coldly. “Keeps his brains in his ass, doesn’t he?”

Sam glared at the man. “That’s all it took? We skied right by a whole row of your homes without making any move on you at all, went up the Galatia Road to Halfords and came back without anybody screaming ‘help, murder, rape!’, or breaking windows, or anything else. And for that you jumped us?”

The man shrank a little more. “But you came from the south…..”

Sam shook his head wearily. “Look, jackass, we’re from Lyons, not Boulder, and we came down Foothills Highway and through Potato Valley to invite the farmers there to move in with us. Some of their friends to the north have already done so, for protection from the real gangs. We’re on our way back up Sixty-fifth, to visit with a couple more farmer friends and make the same offer. We don’t rape, or kill unless we’re attacked first, the way you attacked us. And we’re not here to steal anything from your homes. Good God, man, there are women among us, and a boy! Couldn’t you tell?”

The wounded one wiggled a little. “I didn’t know until the fight started; we were trying not to be seen by any of you. Then you were all — I mean … George said —” He hung his head, avoiding Sam’s eyes.

Sam sighed. “What’s your name? I can’t keep calling you jackass; it’s disrespectful to the animal.”

“Mike Keefe.” Keefe looked like he wanted to be surly but didn’t dare.

“Where’s this ‘George’ you think so highly of?”

“Behind the hedge.” Keefe wiggled again, terrified anew by memory. “You — you cut his throat,” he whispered, shaking at the vivid memory.

“Damn shame he can’t learn from that,” Sam told him caustically. Several of his crew laughed and catcalled at the comment, venting anger and fear.

These fools tried to kill us! They may already have killed Jesse! The thought raged through Sam again, and again he fought back to his calm center. Keefe just stood there, looking crushed. Sam breathed deeply again and let his anger turn to disgust.

“Look, Keefe, we want nothing from you.” Sam prodded him hard in the chest, centering the man’s attention. “Tell your neighbors, next time you see us, if you ever see us again, just leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. Now you go back to your house and repeat that to anyone who’ll listen. If they don’t listen, and attack us again, or even make us think that they might attack us, we’ll just kill them. We won’t rape your women, we won’t burn your houses; we’ll just kill you like the stupid scum you are. Got it?”

The Gatherers growled savage agreement.

“Yes sir!” Keefe trembled, but Sam judged that the promise at least was sincere.

“Good,” Sam nodded. As an afterthought he added “Your folks can come out and reclaim their wounded and dead, as long as they come without weapons. If anyone approaches us with a weapon, we’ll just shoot him — or her — dead. That’s the difference between us and the real bandits. Now go.”

Keefe staggered away through the snow and disappeared into the house behind the hedge.

Sam looked around at his crew. “That is the difference between us, and real bandits,” he said loudly. “We only kill idiots when we have to, not just because we can, or even because they deserve it. Remember it, all of you.”

There was a subdued scatter of ‘Yes, Sensei,” and Sam felt some of the crackling tension drain out of the air. The Gatherers were still ready to kill, but now he judged it was for the right reasons.

Presently a couple of bundled forms crept out of the front door, hands held out conspicuously empty, and began dragging the other wounded men back inside.

Sam had Tim and Darrin watch them carefully with loaded bow and crossbow at the ready. Soon Drew had Jesse as stabilized as he could manage. Kate and Laura lashed the boy into the makeshift sled, wrapped in all of their smocks to keep him as warm as possible.

“Thanks for staying calm and focused,” Sam told Laura quietly. “And for noticing that ambush before they struck.”

She quirked a small smile at him. “Hey, Sensei, I’m a professional, if kinda rusty. You handled these amateurs pretty good, though. Glad to serve under your command.”

Tim, Sam, and Pat tied ropes to the sled and around their waists, Laura did the same behind to control its movement, and they headed back to Lyons, abandoning the rest of the farms for today. Jesse woke up only a few minutes after they set out, screamed for a bit and sobbed for much longer, before finally passing into a numbed fog that left him exhausted, though not quite unconscious. Sam waited until they were back to Foothills Highway and reasonably sure nobody else was around to attack them, then sent Kate and Terry on ahead to warn Karen at the new clinic.

“As soon as you’ve done that, step down the hall to the Mayor’s office and see if Billy Wilder is there,” Sam added, thinking ahead. “If he is, send him to fetch Doc Brown out at his ranch, he’s supposed to be there all day today. Tell Billy to say ‘Surgery’ to the doc.”

And I hope he can get back to the clinic in time to help Jesse, Sam half-prayed, as the broken boy moaned behind him.

❀ ❁ ❀

15

— Survival —

Lyons, Colorado; late afternoon, Monday, March 30, 1998.

Two and a half hours of hard slogging after the fight, they were back in the Lyons school. Sam and Tim manhandled the boy out of the wrappings and onto a table in the new clinic. He came back to more-or-less full consciousness and wept again while Karen McGuire snapped orders, though pride enabled him to hold it down to a soft gasp in every breath.

Pat and Laura guided Mike onto a chair, his own face graven with pain from the long effort. Drew hovered at Karen’s elbow, reporting details in clipped medical-ese as she carefully peeled back Jesse’s field dressing. Jesse barely yelped.

“Shit,” Karen said. “Bietta, bring me the cleaning alcohol and then load those hot water bottles. Kate, go to the cafeteria and yell for Julia, tell her to get back here pronto with the warm blankets. Now you three, Sam, Tim and Drew, help me get him out of this monkey suit.”

Sam and the rest followed her directions, carefully stripping the pain-wracked boy out of his too-big armor and the gambeson beneath; it and his shirt were soaked with blood despite the dressing. Jesse looked paper-white and chilled. His bared feet felt like blocks of refrigerated putty in Sam’s hands.

Good God, Sam thought in anguish, He’s half-frozen. Did I get the kid killed?

The woman Karen had called Bietta bustled up with two water bottles wrapped in towels.

“Put one between his feet and the other under his knees, Sam,” Karen directed. “Then you and Drew wrap his legs in a blanket.”

They did so while Bietta followed other orders from Karen. Jesse lay limp and pale, eyes closed and so cold to the touch that Sam could have taken him for dead if his chest weren’t still moving.

Kate barreled back into the room, closely followed by an overweight middle-aged middle-American matron in scrubs carrying an armload of blankets. Bietta appropriated them, then Karen assigned Julia to examine Mike. She immediately started to scrub her hands and arms clean before doing so; they had five metal bowls set up on a counter against the wall, each with soap at hand. Sam was forced to step back a pace to make room while Karen and Bietta labored over Jesse. He hovered helplessly, watching while they scissored off the remains of the boy’s shirt and washed away crusted blood with steaming cloths. Jesse’s wound had broken open again while getting him out of his armor. Karen slapped a compress on it while she checked his pulse and Bietta wrapped the warm blankets around the rest of his now-clean body.

“Bietta, get the saline solution ready when that’s done,” Karen tersely ordered. “He’s going to need volume replacement. Damn, I wish we had some Haemaccel. When it’s done, you might as well type him — he’ll likely need a transfusion too, for surgery. Then check everyone here for a match. Julia, how’s the other one?”

“Looks like a possible partial displacement on number six rib, a cracked seventh, a bad gash, and lots of lateral muscle trauma,” she reported from Mike’s side. Terry and Laura had gotten him out of his own armor and gambeson and peeled off the blood-stained towel Terry had used for a rib strap, and his slightly less-blood-stained shirt. He’d lost far less fluid than Jesse despite being more active since his injury. He gritted his teeth in agony as the nurse swabbed his wound. “There’s no sign at all of pneumothorax, though, looks like the displaced bone stopped whatever cut him well short of the pleural cavity, and didn’t pierce him itself,” Julia concluded.

“Thank Christ for small favors,” Karen muttered. “Sam, what were the weapons?”

“Javelins,” He automatically said, then added “Kitchen knife blades mounted on sticks. They threw them at us, but they had lousy aim and the javelins had worse balance. Darin was the only other one hit, on the hip, but his armor turned it.”

“One of them bounced off you, too, Sensei,” Laura interjected. “How’s your shoulder feeling?”

“Me? Oh,” Sam said, suddenly aware of dull pain. “It was a glancing blow, I’m just bruised, I think.”

Laura rolled her eyes. “Doc, you want me to hold him down while you check him?”

Karen gave Sam a ferocious glower as she taped a temporary dressing on Jesse’s shoulder. “You goddamn idiot, why didn’t you tell me that earlier? You and Darrin strip off that armor right now and give me a look.”

Sam stifled a retort and obeyed, with Laura’s help. He was a little nonplussed to find a darkening bruise the size of his fist spread over the top and front of his left shoulder. In the few minutes since he’d stopped working hard to get here, it had already begun to stiffen up.

“Saline is warm now,” Bietta reported, hanging a plastic IV bag from a wire hook rigged from a dismembered coat-hanger. Karen plugged it into the IV she had installed in Jesse, and then moved over to examine Sam.

Karen carefully prodded the edges of his bruise and he suppressed a wince, holding perfectly still.

“I hope you’re not being all stoic about a real injury, Sam,” she told him tartly. “I don’t need any more dumbass maneuvers from stupid men.”

“Karen, it’s just a bruise,” he protested. “I’ve had plenty of them. Check Darrin, he’s worse off.” He angrily shrugged back into his shirt. What’s gotten into her, to make her so bitchy? He wondered, and then remembered red Morphine wrappers. Oh. Right. Jesus God, what a burden to carry. I wonder why I still trust her so, after that?

Darrin had a much larger bruise spread over his left hip, wider than his own hand-span. He strangled a yelp when Karen rolled down his briefs a little and poked at it.

“You’ve got a mass of subcutaneous trauma in there,” she growled. “Sam’s isn’t quite so bad, but I want icepacks on both of you as quick as possible. Twenty minutes on and twenty minutes off, and you at least should lie down and take the pressure off it for a while. Mike too, as soon as Julia’s got him cleaned. Oh, and all three of you take a couple acetaminophen, too — Julia, we’ve got some bottles from DiNapoli’s somewhere here.”

“If you’ve got some plastic bags, I can fill them with snow,” Kate offered. A moment later she was out the door with plastic in hand.

“The boy is Type A-Negative,” announced Bietta in heavily accented English.

“Anybody here A-Negative?” bellowed Karen. “Sam?”

“A-Positive,” he answered regretfully, looking down at Jesse’s pale face. I can’t even do that much for him.

“I am,” Mike spoke up from the table where he had lain down.

“Don’t be a total dumbshit!” his brother told him disgustedly, unlacing his own armor. “I am too, I’ll do it. Somebody help me out of this.”

“Bietta, crosstype them both with the patient,” Karen ordered, working at the compress on Jesse’s arm.

Laura and Sam stepped up and in a few moments they had Pat peeled down to shirt and jeans. He rolled up his left sleeve and Bietta took a small blood sample with a needle, mixed it into a bit of Jesse’s blood on a glass slide and put it into a large heavy microscope standing on the windowsill. She adjusted the mirror, peered carefully and presently reported “No clotting on Pat!” She took a fresh slide and began the same procedure with Mike.

“Good. All right, Pat, you’re elected first,” Karen told him. “Damnit, I wish Doc Brown was here, we shouldn’t have let him go back to his ranch today!”

Pat lay down where she directed, on another table, and bared his arm. “I’m ready for the vampire,” he announced.

“Funny boy,” Karen grunted as she swabbed his arm and jabbed the needle in. “I should ask you if you’ve got any diseases or other blood conditions, but there’s damn-all I could do about it if you do. Make a fist and keep pumping on this rubber ball.” She taped a collection bag so it dangled below the table.

“Hey, I’m clean!” Pat protested. “Never even had the clap!”

Kate snorted. “That falls in the ‘too much information’ category, Pat.”

Laura drawled “Oh, I don’t agree,” and grinned at the sudden discomfited look on Pat’s face.

The minutes dragged past as Sam alternately watched Pat’s blood collect in the clear plastic sack, and the paleness of Jesse’s face. Kate came back with snowpacks and Sam allowed Karen to tape one over his bruise, and then went back to watching. Bietta had packed a couple more hot water bottles around Jesse; she was heating water one pan at a time over a tiny cast-iron stove whose pipe went out through a boarded-up window. A pressure cooker hissed on the back of the stove. The fire inside scented the room with a vague smoky pine scent.

“That’s enough,” Karen declared, stripping the needle out of Pat’s arm and holding the tube up to drain it down into the bag. Bietta taped a cotton ball over the needle mark and Sam helped Pat sit up. Karen transferred the blood-bag to Jesse, hanging it above her head on another coat-hanger wire hooked into a dead ceiling fixture. “I hope the anti-coagulant works,” she muttered aloud. “Better yet, I hope we don’t need it at all. Yah, and that’ll be the day … where the hell is Doc?”

“Whoa, that’s a rush,” Pat said woozily, swaying. Sam helped him off the table and guided him to a folding chair. “S’like a couple-three beers. Don’t I get OJ or something?”

“You get a mug of chicken broth,” announced Ellie, carefully carrying a tray through the door. “Here, drink up, it’s warm.”

She passed a mug to Pat and set the tray on a table, then came over to Sam and hugged him. He winced a little as he returned the hug.

“Glad to see you’re all in one piece,” she whispered tightly against his ear.

“Little bruise, nothing worse,” he answered the same way, squeezing her warm softness against him for a long moment. “Mike’s got a busted rib or two and Darrin’s bruised more than me, nobody else got hurt but Jesse.”

“Thank God.” Ellie carefully squeezed him back, then let go and moved over to the scrub bowls. Bietta had just shifted the whole row down one, putting a fresh bowl of warm steamy water in the fifth position and dumping the first bowl out a window into the bushes below. Ellie religiously scrubbed her hands and forearms. Sam could see her slip effortlessly into nurse mode as she asked “What’s the status, Karen?”

Karen rattled off medical terms. Ellie finished, came over to look at the bags of saline solution and blood, asked a question.

“What the hell else can I do?!” Karen snapped. “We don’t have Haemaccel or anything else but a basic anti-coagulant, and I only thought to pack that at the last minute! We’re back in the dark ages here, Ellie. I hope to Hell that Doc Brown has as much stuff squirreled away as he claims, or he’ll be operating with pliers and a butcher knife!”

The room grew quiet at that explosion; for a tense moment nobody said anything.

“Hey, I just thought of something,” Pat remarked, pointing at the bag of his blood as Ellie whispered something to Karen. “My blood makes Jesse a vampire once removed. After the operation the kid can howl at the full moon with me. Blood of my blood, and all that.”

“Isn’t it werewolves who do the howling?” Kate inquired suspiciously.

“Vampires, werewolves, whatever,” Pat grinned disarmingly. “We’re all blood-drinkers of the night, rowf!”

“You are naughty boy,” Bietta admonished Pat with a raised finger and a glare, her accent redolent of Poland. “You would be sick und vomit if you drank real blood, und I would make you clean up mess. Be quiet now.”

“Nobody ever likes my jokes,” Pat complained.

“Pat,” Sam said, giving him the look, “Finish your chicken broth.”

The Midwest youngster quieted down, though the grin didn’t quite go away as he sipped. His brother rolled his eyes but said nothing, still panting in pain; the acetaminophen was working slowly.

“So, it looks like Jesse’s as stable as he can be until Doc Brown can get here,” Ellie said to Karen. “You want me to take over monitoring the compress while you and Julia deal with Mike? Can you get that rib set?”

“Yeah. Let’s find out.”

Karen joined Julia at Mike’s side, where she’d finished cleaning his wound. After some discussion they made him hold a big rubber eraser between his teeth.

“This is going to hurt like hell,” Karen told Mike bluntly. “And after we get the rib back where it belongs you need at least four or five stitches to close the wound. If you absolutely need to yell, I recommend that you spit out the eraser and just let it rip. Sam, hold his upper arm out of the way and don’t let him thresh around.”

Presently Ellie and Karen had manipulated Mike’s displaced fracture back together. From the muffled sounds Mike definitely did not enjoy the experience, though he only twitched a little in Sam’s grip and never spit out the eraser. Then Karen grasped a little pair of tweezers, clamped them onto a curved needle and thread that Bietta brought over in a pan of boiled water, took a deep breath, and began stitching while Julia swabbed with alcohol-soaked scraps of towel. Sam tried to admire the careful, precise way she lined up the stitches, and ignore the quivering human flesh that they were piercing. His own side twinged in sympathy.

“Okay, that’s done,” Karen announced, tossing the needle and tools back into the water. “Bietta, put it in the pressure cooker again, Doc Brown might want it for the boy. Sam, sit him up. Julia, wrap him. Ellie, I’ll take Jesse back now.”

Ellie said to Sam after Mike was bandaged, “Let’s get him on a cot and make him as comfortable as we can.” They helped Mike to stand, walked him to a cot and got him laid down again; he was breathing a little easier now. Ellie tucked a thick pair of blankets around him. The little stove and the anemic baseboards were keeping the room almost-warm, which wasn’t warm enough for comfort.

“Ellie, would you take this collection of damnfools out of my clinic?” Karen asked irritably, waving at Sam, Pat, Laura, Kate, Tim, and Terry, all standing or sitting around fidgeting. “Go feed them or something?” She scowled ferociously down at unconscious Jesse, added “Drew can stay if he wants, he might learn something when Doc Brown gets here.”

Ellie raised an eyebrow, visibly reconsidered whatever she had been about to say. “Sure, Karen,” came out, as she picked up the serving tray again.

Sam gathered the others up with flicks of his hand; Drew hesitated but then came with them. They took along the armor shed by the injured, crusted with blackening blood.

“Tim, would you please go find Jesse’s dad and tell him his son’s here?” Sam requested. “Try the stables first, then that house the Town assigned to the family.”

“Glad to, Sensei,” Tim saluted and hurried out the door.

Kate remarked “We need to clean Mike and Jesse’s armor, Sensei,” forestalling whatever explosion Laura had been about to make. “Where can we do it?”

“There’s hot water in the kitchen sink,” Ellie offered, then grimaced. “I can’t believe I’m suggesting you wash off blood in the place where we prepare food, but it’s the only running hot water in the whole building. Starry had to shut off the rest of the school just to make sure we got enough in there.”

“We’ll clean up afterwards,” Kate promised “Come on, Laura, guys, let’s get out of our own suits and then you all can help clean this. Let’s give Sensei a break.”

Ellie steered Sam to a seat at one of the cafeteria tables and went into the kitchen. Laura bit her tongue long enough to shed her own armor with the others. Sam heard her soto voce grumbling “What’s up with that bitch?” as the Gatherers passed through the swinging kitchen door with their bloody burden. Drew and Terry stacked everybody else’s armor in a corner and then followed the others. Quiet descended on the empty cafeteria; the late afternoon sun was slanting steeply across the plastic chairs and worn Formica tables. A moment later Ellie returned with mugs of hot tea; it smelt strongly of spearmint.

“Drink up,” she told Sam. “This is one thing we’ve got plenty of.”

Sam did, savoring the taste. The sweetness of the mint gave the impression of sugar even though it didn’t actually have any, and the warm bulk quieted his hungry stomach. Ellie looked introspective as she sipped her own. Sam guessed what was coming.

Now how do I talk about one of your best friends to you, love, he thought, Without giving away that I think she killed your mother? And that I think she was right to do it? His tired muscles ached in sympathy with his brain. You don’t need that burden too.

“I wish we had a priest here,” Ellie spoke abstractedly into the silence.

“Hunh?” Sam asked inelegantly, whipsawed by the non-sequitur. “Why?”

“Karen was raised a good Catholic, even more than me and you,” Ellie explained. “Her folks were both Irish, and ‘lace curtain’ at that - pretty fanatical. Until we went away to nursing school, I don’t think she ever missed Sunday Mass, even if she partied hard on Saturday. Her family used to drive into Longmont for it, since our local parish here in Lyons only had old Father Connor every second Sunday. It always bugged her mom that the Congregationalists and Catholics shared the same building here in Lyons, and the Catholics only got to use it on Saturdays. I think she was real glad to move to Dallas when Karen’s dad got transferred ten years ago. Anyway, the Church is sunk pretty deep into Karen’s subconscious.”

“Ummm,” Sam said, taking another sip of tea. “We’re not exactly indifferent to it. Unless we were travelling or I was hunting, we always went to Mass at least twice a month, usually more.”

“Not the same,” Ellie said firmly. “You picked up a lot of that Buddhism when you were in Japan. I’ve always known it, even though you always say the right things at church.”

“That’s — that’s the Art showing,” Sam answered lamely, struggling to follow the twists in the conversation and wondering why they were having this discussion now of all times. “Buddhism isn’t really right; it’s the native Shinto religion of Okinawa that actually colors Karate. Not that I particularly believe in Shinto, in fact I don’t actually know all that much about it.”

“Whatever and wherever it comes from, I’ve always known it was there in you,” Ellie continued implacably. “You’ve got roots that go down deep, same as your Dad or my dad too, for that matter. Karen does too, but into different soil. She always carried a lot more guilt than me, learned it from her mom I suppose. I think she used Confession as a way to deal with it. Now she’s had a really bad couple weeks, and it’s only a couple months after she and Jim divorced.”

“Well, I suspected he was a cheating bastard from the day I met him at the bachelor party,” Sam growled, remembering details that he’d never revealed to Ellie since that day thirteen years ago. He’d had to play the restraining voice at the party to keep it from degenerating into something he didn’t care to think about. Jim had always resented it and that had strained their relationship the few times the two couples had crossed paths since the wedding. “’Bout time she dumped him.” He stirred on the too-small cafeteria chair uncomfortably. Those exotic dancers Jim’s best man had hired … he pushed the unwelcome memory of temptation out of his mind.

“I’m not arguing,” Ellie said patiently. “But it cost her. And then I think she must have had to make some pretty horrific choices at Longmont United before you got her and Dad out.”

Sam swallowed, throat suddenly dry despite the tea. This was perilously close to the subject he didn’t dare mention. He took another swig.

“I mean, no machines, not enough drugs, and too many wounded to care for,” Ellie continued. “It must have been hell for her, and still is, her not being able to go to Confession afterwards, and so she’s carrying that around. We’ve got to find her a priest to hear her confession, or the divorce and the bad times will keep eating her up inside. Especially since the bad times aren’t over.”

“Ellie, we’ll be lucky to find enough farmers to keep this town fed, or enough volunteers for the militia,” Sam protested. “Now you want me to divert people to look for a priest?”

“No,” she corrected. “I want you and your crew to keep your eyes open in case you should happen to find one. There must be fifty priests in the cities north of Denver, and a hundred or more in the big city. ‘Man does not live by bread alone’, Sam. We’ve got to do something about people’s spiritual needs too, and more than a third of this town is Catholic. Nearly half of the volunteers, too, if that means anything. Lots of people are hurting! If we don’t do something about it, it’ll come back to haunt us all, sooner or later. For that matter, we ought to find a minister too.”

She’s absolutely right, Sam realized belatedly. Karen has to deal with the guilt somehow and this should do it. For that matter, I’ve got the souls of four dead men now on my own conscience, and I’d better find a way to deal with that pretty soon, too.

“All right, Ellie, I’ll keep my eyes open,” he promised. “If we find one, of any flavor, we’ll try to get him to come here.”

“That’s all I’m asking.” She sighed. “I still have to get this report done for the Trustees, and daylight won’t last much longer.”

“Then you get back to it and I’ll go check on my wounded again,” Sam suggested, and escaped.

As he hastened back down the hallway to the clinic, he wondered just how he was going to identify either a priest or a minister in the confused mess of Longmont, never mind bigger towns like Boulder or Denver. He hoped he wouldn’t have to go near any of them.

At the clinic door he met Doctor Brown bustling in, shaking snow off his outer coat and banging his hands together for warmth. He was followed by two of his cowboys lugging aluminum boxes of equipment with red logos on them, something in French: ‘Medecins Sans Frontiers’. A pre-teen that Sam recognized as Billy Wilder was leading them in, anxiously darting back and forth with the inexhaustible energy of youth. Billy stopped short when he saw Sam, stiffened to an imitation of military attention, and saluted.

“I got the Doc for your wounded men, Chief Hyatt — I mean, Sensei Hyatt,” the boy reported breathlessly. “He brought me back on his horse!”

“Good work, Billy,” Sam told him gravely, and returned the salute. “Better report back to the Mayor, she might have other messages for you by now.”

“Yes sir!” He scampered off down the hallway.

Doc Brown chuckled, shook the last few bits of snow out of his huge grey beard. “Good kid. Now, take me to your men, Sam.”

“This way, Doc.”

Sam led him into the new clinic. Karen practically seized the doctor bodily and dragged him to see Jesse. She introduced Bietta, who he evidently hadn’t ever met, and Julia, who he had; they exchange some words about Haiti in 1988. In moments he was out of his heavy winter clothing and into scrubs, his bushy gray beard tucked into a surgical mask as he scrubbed. Julia and Bietta spread out the contents of his two crates on fresh sheets and got Jesse ready for surgery, ignoring Sam entirely.

“Sensei,” Darrin said at his elbow. “I don’t think they need me in here, I’m B-positive. Mike’s volunteered to stay in case they need blood; Nurse McGuire doesn’t want to tap Pat again this soon.”

Sam nodded mutely and glanced at the windows — the shadows of Indian Head and Coffin Top Mountain were falling over the town as the sun slipped behind them. Bietta was lighting a gasoline lantern and raising it up over the operating table on a wire run over two of the dead ceiling fixtures. Mike was patiently waiting on his cot, the painkiller finally taking effect.

Jesse’s face was very pale, his eyes closed and sunken. Doc Brown rolled one up with a thumb, examined Jesse’s gums and fingernails critically. The boy barely reacted, only moaning a little.

“Shock,” Sam heard the Doc say. “Compounded by hypothermia. You got the anti-nausea into him, right? Good. But the blood loss is worrying, even though most of the time I’d rather not transfuse unless we absolutely have to. Karen, tell me about this blood bag.”

“Fresh donor, matches basic type, but I can’t test it for more,” she told him. “It’s been dosed with anticoagulant, Bietta knows the proportions. That’s the best I can say for it.”

“Shit,” the doc muttered. “I don’t want to risk killing him with a cascade effect. Got any dextran or Haemaccel, or even Ringer’s solution?”

“Nothing,” she answered with finality. “You saw what I brought out of Longmont United.”

“I was hoping I’d overlooked something. Shit, shit, shit!” He pulled tugged on his beard through his mask, frowning. “How many units do you think he’s lost?”

“Two, two-and-a-half units into the armor and his clothes. I don’t know how much he spilled before he got here. Sam?”

“Very little,” Sam explained. “Drew got him patched within minutes, and most of what Jesse bled stayed in his gambeson. Maybe half a pint got left on the ground? Probably less.”

“So less than four units total,” Doc Brown decided. “He’s young and he’s still breathing, he can make that up. Let’s just keep him warm, keep the saline running, and hope for the best. Julia, knock him out with the stuff I brought. Then we’ll get that dressing off of him and set some bones.”

Sam waited tensely, willing himself to stillness; it hadn’t been this hard in years. The medics ignored him as they worked.

“Okay, extractor … there, got it.” He pulled something out of Jesse’s shoulder and blood spurted. “Clamp that. Sponge. Okay, cauterizer now.”

There was a sudden stillness as the three nurses all looked at him.

“Right,” he said half to himself. “No electric, not even batteries. Down to branding irons and a hot fire. Shit.”

“I can heat a steel probe in the wood stove,” Bietta suggested slowly.

“Do it,” he said. “Make sure you wrap the handle good when you pick it up again. Goddamn this Change to hell and back.”

Twenty minutes later the sun was a fading glow behind the mountains as Doc Brown put the last stitch into Jesse’s shoulder.

“Wrap him, girls,” he said as he peeled off his bloody gloves. “Karen, Julia, make sure he stays balanced water-in-water-out. If his count isn’t up in a few days, then I’ll chance a transfusion.”

He patted the bag of blood mournfully. “No way to save this for later, is there?”

Karen shook her head. “Even the big kitchen freezer’s thawed by now, and I wouldn’t trust whole blood just to ice for very long, no matter what the regs say.”

“We’ll take the longer way; it’s safer. Damn shame to waste this, though.” He stopped for a moment. “Did that microscope ever get here?”

Bietta pointed to it on the windowsill. “A teacher sent one over from the High School,” she explained. “With slides, but they are not proper grade of glass.”

“I’ve brought some of those in my old overseas kit,” the Doc said in relief. “Okay, we can do a count at least. I’ll decide later if we should try real blood, meanwhile toss this — no wait, we should see if there’s a way to extract platelets and plasma from it. Might not work, but sooner or later we’ll have to try. While we’re at it, Karen, can you run a hematocrit on him tomorrow? I’d like to track his progress for a few days.”

Karen stared at him. “That’s a lab tech’s job, I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it. I was taught some stuff about it in second year but it takes time to learn it properly and I’ve never even had any practice.”

“Julia?”

She shrugged. “Sorry, Doc.”

“Hm. Bietta?”

“I was never a lab technician,” she said apologetically. “Do we even have the necessary equipment, Doctor?”

“Probably not; shit. We’ll just have to do without, like god-forsaken Haiti again,” he frowned, then shrugged philosophically and turned to Mike. “Right now, let’s check you over, youngster.”

Just then Kit Coyle and Tim arrived, stamping snow off their boots as they hustled through the darkened school hallway. Sam explained quickly what had happened and what had been done, and the elder Coyle grasped his hand briefly in thanks.

“Can I see my boy now?” he asked anxiously.

“Sure.” Sam made introductions, and told the nurses “I’ll wait out in the hallway if you need me for anything.”

He left Kit Coyle standing over his sleeping son, tenderly holding one chilly pale hand in his own tanned and callused one.

Sam leaned against the wall out in the hallway, eyes closed. Someone was lighting lamps in the cafeteria. A long finger of light stretched out from its double doors and lost itself in the gathering darkness. Distantly Sam could hear the Wall workers arriving for supper, and the sound of Tim’s voice talking to the other Gatherers.

God, Sam thought in one of his rare direct prayers, Take good care of Jesse. He should never have gotten hurt out there; I should have seen that damn ambush from a hundred yards away. Anguish burned at the back of his throat as he added one more prayer.

And if You really want me to find a priest, You’d better make him pretty obvious when I trip over him!

❀ ❁ ❀

16

— Rites —

Denver, Colorado, Thursday, April 2, 1998.

Father Markus moved among the wounded, cleaning and bandaging and occasionally hearing confessions. The Jefe’s troops were Hispanic to a man, and mostly Catholic in their superstitious Latin way. He switched from English to Spanish as needed, managing four different dialects among half a dozen men. These were those who had a chance to recover; the priest had already heard confession from the one that didn’t. That had been an improbably mahogany-haired but mature hard case with the lined face and callused fingers of a day-laborer. He had choked out a lifetime catalog of sins that once would have curled a younger Father Markus’ then-brown hair. “God’s mercy is infinite, if you truly repent,” the priest told the wasted man as his life bled away into his abdominal cavity. The man had certainly seemed to, before his eyes closed for the last time. Father Markus made the sign of the cross over him and recited the words; he had long since run out of anointing oil. When he finished he moved on to the next wounded.

This one groaned and cursed in a monotone that sounded like a mix of Spanish and some southern Mexican Indian dialect, probably Mam. Dr. Eid and Nurse Lionheart had splinted his broken leg and moved on to the next, leaving the priest to bandage the now-sewn wound. He completed the task with the ease of much practice and moved on to the next, a balding man with a splinted arm who was urgently asking for confession. This one spoke a broken patois of spanglish that the priest had to struggle to follow.

Jefe Paco stopped at the cooling corpse, seeming to ignore the rasped confession only a yard away. Father Markus was no longer angered by such presumption; the gang leader would do what he would do, and respecting the sanctity of the Sacrament wasn’t high on his list. But he did have the decency to wait until the bald man finished and the priest had time to absolve him. The doctor and nurse were still working on the last one, so the priest sat back to wait. Dr. Eid looked even frailer than he had when they were kidnapped, but Nurse Lionheart simply looked even more absorbed in her work, as if it enabled her to shut the rest of the world away.

“Walk with me, Padre,” Jefe Paco said.

Father Markus got to his feet, remembering to bow, and then fell into step beside the Jefe as he walked. Paco Miralles wore an armored suit now, a heavy leather coat and pants thickly sewn with steel washers in overlapping layers. It was scored along one side by fresh machete strokes from the same battle that had provided today’s crop of wounded. Several rings had fallen away but the leather had not been pierced. He carried a long curved sword in a scabbard at one hip and a short knife at the other. He had a steel helmet tucked under one arm; with his free hand he pointed at the dead man.

“You sent Jose off with a smile on his face, Padre,” the Jefe said with surprising mildness. “That’s good. He was my left arm in the Diablos; he deserved to be made right with God.”

The priest blinked, carefully said “It was my duty, Jefe.” He tried not to wonder how many of the dead man’s atrocities had gone to build up this one’s power.

The Jefe nodded and looked north, across the muddy lawn of the former Highland Masonic Hall, where Sensei Catron in his brand-new silvered armor was supervising the instructors he had put to drilling recruits. Men were pouring in to the receiving station on the northeast corner as Denver slowly collapsed around them all, eager to volunteer for anyone who offered order and food. The line stretched west to Federal and north for more than a block, and hadn’t grown any shorter all day. The Sensei was only accepting the physically fit into his building army, and only they and a few skilled types got to bring their wives and dependents along. The rest got the choice of serving as slave labor (for the men), or kitchen and bedroom slaves (for the women). Catron’s growing army had already overflowed the Hall and taken over the blocks of houses immediately around it, women and children packed in with their men. The Sensei had ordered many of them put to work bringing in supplies.

Looting, Father Markus thought to himself. I should be shocked by the slavery and theft, but I have seen too much to even raise an eyebrow at this horror now.

Catron had more patrolling the streets around the Hall in armed bands, imposing the peace of the mailed fist. He more-or-less controlled a big swath of the city west of the river now, from Sixth Avenue all the way north to the industrial district and Clear Creek, and was pushing it west into Lakewood and Wheat Ridge. More than half of it wasn’t even burned yet, rumor said. They had taken a water treatment plant somewhere in Wheat Ridge and enough Denver Water personnel to keep it running. Catron had even acquired a whole fire station crew and put them to work snuffing out the remaining blazes that had been too stubborn to be smothered by the recent snow.

But it’s not all going as he would wish, the priest thought to himself. I have given last rites too many times this week to believe otherwise.

“It’s not going as well as we wish,” Jefe Paco said, as if he were reading Father Markus’ mind.

The priest swallowed carefully and fought down the chill along his spine. Paco was alarmingly perceptive for a street thug. He made an enquiring noise.

“Those Columbine cabrones are pushing north,” the leader growled, sauntering tensely along the edge of the practice field. No one was near them at present. “And pushing the Slants and the Southies before them. We keep butchering both, but they keep coming, and they’re wearing us down. We’re still growing, but the spies say not as fast as the cocksucking Columbiners. And they’ve got their backs to the hills and the river on their east side; they can throw most of what they’ve got north, while we have to watch every side. If they push the Slants across Sixth, or cross it themselves, we lose our most defensible border south of I-70.”

That highway was north of where they stood right now, Father Markus realized with alarm. “That — does not sound good,” he essayed cautiously.

“You’re fucking right it doesn’t,” agreed the Jefe morosely. “Now that the goddamn river’s rising, the bridges are starting to go. Makes it easier to keep the Downtowners out, but it pens us in, too. I hope we succeed in taking the Coors brewery tomorrow; that damned cookie factory ain’t nearly enough to feed us all.”

“And elfin biscuits are so unsatisfying in the long run,” murmured the priest absently, remembering ancient legends of his boyhood home. “Especially without beer.”

Paco barked a laugh. “You got that right. Crazy TV commercial’s still running through my mind, too, piss-ant little elves and their ‘hollow tree’. Fuck it. I’m getting tired of eating pasta and canned tomato sauce and goddamn cookies. I miss the cerveza, all right, but I miss flour tortillas and good bread and fucking steak a lot more. And we got to get ourselves someplace where we can find some of that.”

“Wheat does not grow in a city,” Father Markus observed neutrally. “Nor do cows.”

“I know, Padre, I know.” Paco scowled.

There was no trace of the sing-song way the ganger had talked that night by the Capitol, Father Markus realized suddenly. The man wasn’t on any power-trip now, but coldly practical. It was more than a little frightening.

“We need some farmers, need ‘em bad,” Paco continued, “And we can’t go south, east, or west to find ‘em.”

“Ah.” The priest nodded slowly. “You wish me to suggest to — others, that we should move north. And soon.”

“That biker bitch Rosario would listen to you, and that wop Pardini,” the Jefe pointed out intently. “Pinnacate and O’Toole too, and maybe even Johnson.”

“Not Johnson,” Father Markus demurred. “To him I am a servant of the Whore of Babylon, the pity of it. He believes the Calvinist Heresy with his whole heart, I am sorry to say. He will not even speak to me. And he is very — involved, in the rebuilding of this place.” He nodded to the granite Hall. “He will not want to leave it.”

“Then fuck him,” Paco said impatiently. “If I can get a majority of the jefes> to agree with me, we can win the Sensei over. Maybe Moore and that negro, Washington, would go along just because it’s a good idea.”

“Washington was raised as a Baptist, but he has a measure of hard good sense,” the priest conceded. Under the shell of a cutthroat drug dealer and multiple murderer, but it is there, he thought but did not say. Now, is what Paco proposes a wise thing for me to do? He has been my protector and that of the good nurse and doctor, but he is still a murdering thug who grows too easily drunk on power over others. Yet there are many worse here in this camp, and this ruthless man at least does not seem to take joy from inflicting pain. He wants to control, and will use fear and pain to do so, but only what is required to keep himself in a position of power. And he does not seem to need any great power, either; I do not think that he wants to be ruler of all he surveys, just of enough to feel in control of his fate. Oh, such a seductive illusion!

Sensei Catron juggles these Jefes, these warlords he gathers, with a skill that is almost frightening. And he sets them to work that is sometimes good, or at least holds out hope, organizing water, food, and shelter for many who would otherwise die. Much as it terrifies and bewilders me, I think God has perhaps decreed that very many must in fact die due to this Change, and it is not for me to question the judgment of the Divine. But that does not make Catron good himself. His appetites grow more and more … alarming, with each passing day, and he shows no sign of caring for any human being at all, save possibly those four boys he brought from Albuquerque. Yet he is teaching them to become more extreme versions of himself, callous horrors bereft of conscience. How can I be serving God if I enable him to continue his wickedness?

What is the least evil action in this situation? If these men leave Denver they will carry their cruelty with them, and spread the suffering farther.

He looked at the long line of hopeful applicants shuffling toward the sign-up tables. Hungry men and their hungry families, frightened, enduring the long wait in chilly spring air just in hope of some food and a scrap of security. Several of Catron’s men walked up and down the line maintaining order, many with yellow strips of cloth tied about their waists as symbols of their allegiance. Those had been new recruits themselves, some only yesterday.

But many, even most, of their followers are not wicked people. And their fates are linked now. Anything I do to the detriment of the leaders will fall more heavily on the followers, whose only sins are hunger, fear, and desperation. The old world has failed them, and how can I blame them if they grasp for a new one?

One thing is quite clear. It would not be wise for me to inject myself between these two men. If I support anyone’s will, it must be for a clearly moral reason, and I must not be seen as anyone’s catspaw.

“I must think on this, Jefe,” Father Markus asked, sidestepping the conflict for the moment. “I do not believe you would find it desirable for me to do your purpose damage by poorly thought-out action.”

They had reached the north end of the block and now the Jefe turned around and faced south again. Paco gazed across the drilling formations on the lawn, now churned to more of a mudfield. He opened his mouth to speak and at that moment there was a horn blast down at the south end of the open square.

Father Markus shaded his eyes and stared, but couldn’t quite make out what was going on with the knot of men who’d appeared on Federal Boulevard.

“O’Toole’s men,” Paco said grimly, his younger eyes picking out details the priest couldn’t see. “He’s with them, too. Lot of them beat up bad, looks like. The Slants must have crossed Sixth, though that Irish bastard probably made them pay big for it. Get ready for more last rites, Padre, and think very hard about what I said to you. Don’t get used to that cubbyhole you got in the Hall.”

“God preserve us,” Father Markus said, and hurried back to his work.

It was not as bad as the priest feared, but not good either. There were eleven dead, and thirty wounded, almost all from the men still wearing the yellow sash. O’Toole had used his newest recruits as cannon-fodder to soak up the Slants’ arrows, then taken down the Vietnamese gang’s charge from the sides with his more experienced men. He was strutting around boasting about it. The invasion had collapsed soon after it started and the survivors withdrawn across Sixth.

O’Toole even had a live prisoner to show off, a Vietnamese youth with gang tattoos, a nasty gash that had ripped off half of one ear, and a broken arm. Though the boy couldn’t have been more than eighteen, he knelt in stoic silence, hands on his knees, and waited serenely as the blood ran down his head to slowly soak his shirt. Dr. Eid finished with the gang’s wounded and patched him up last, a fast and simple job that made no concession to cosmetic issues. The boy endured it with barely a flinch of pain. Suddenly his eyes focused on Father Markus as Nurse Lionheart wrapped a strip of gauze around his head to hold the bandages against his ruined ear.

“Dao Co-doc? Priest?” he asked. “Catholic?”

“Yes, I am Father Markus Freiduei,” the priest replied, stepping over to kneel in front of the youth with additional bandages for Lionheart’s use. “I am sorry, but I do not know enough Vietnamese to speak it.”

“I speak American,” the boy said. “I was born in Viet Nam but raised here. Will you hear my last confession, Father?”

“You are from the Catholic minority?” Father Markus asked curiously, intrigued. “I though most of your folk were Buddhist.”

“Most are, but that’s why my parents came here. Will you please hear my last confession, Father?”

“Of course,” the priest started to say, when a shadow fell over both of them. Further words died in his throat and he shivered involuntarily. It’s him.

Catron had a small wizened man by his side; the short one showed no particular genetic ancestry beyond a skin color that could only be labeled ‘brown’, but seemed to be at least sixty years old by his wrinkles and grey hair.

“Which one is he?” Catron asked. The small man whispered something to him behind one hand and the Sensei smiled.

“Paul Duc Tho,” he said with satisfaction. “Son of the leader of the Slants. A very nice prize you bring me, O’Toole.”

Paul Duc Tho pushed Lionheart’s hands aside as she tried to start another bandage on him. “I have a younger brother,” he spoke calmly, only a slight catch in his voice betraying him on the last word. “My father will not be broken by my death, no matter whether I die whole or in pieces. And he will take vengeance upon you for it, I swear that.”

“He won’t have to,” Catron informed him with just a trace of smugness. “I’m not going to kill you, at least not yet.”

“You’re not —” young Duc Tho swallowed just before his voice cracked. He stared at the big silver-armored man towering over him, and after a moment ground out “Why?”

“Because you’re going to agree to be my ambassador, to take him an offer,” the New Mexico Sensei explained, looking pleased. “An offer that will save his ass, his family, including you, and his gang. All he has to do is agree to serve me, and I’ll give him and every one he brings with him free passage across Sixth, up Federal, to Arvada. There you’ll all start organizing the place for me; he’ll be my chief phong hau for all of Arvada east of Wadsworth Boulevard when he’s got it organized.”

“But — but we know nothing about that place,” stammered the captive.

“That’s why I’m sending you there,” Catron drawled. “You’ll be dependent upon me for backup, and without it you’ll probably get eaten alive one bite at a time. Just like you are now by the Columbiners. But with my help, you Slants can hold the place. With my help, you’ll grow strong again, and make me stronger, because you’ll send a third of all the new men and material you collect there straight to me. Say to your father, ‘Do we have a deal?’”

The young Duc Tho gaped at Catron for a moment, stoic despair cracking apart as unlooked-for hope burst through.

“Oh, I almost forgot. One last part of the deal,” Catron smiled with a warmth that didn’t reach his eyes. “You personally will live here in my Hall as security for the deal. My doctor and nurse will take care of that arm for you, and when you’re back in shape you’ll join my household troops, for as long as I want you there.”

“Hostage,” the young man said flatly. “And my family works to make you stronger.”

“Exactly. There’s the deal, all out in the open, no hidden strings. Your dad can’t ask for more than that — and it’s a helluva lot more than the Columbiners will give him. So choose; will you carry my message?”

“I — I — I will carry your message,” Paul Duc Tho stuttered, hope and desperation warring on his face openly now.

“Good. In a little while I’ll have you escorted to the bridge over Sixth, and you’re home free, for now.” Catron turned his gaze on Father Markus, and for an instant the priest felt as seared by it as by Satan’s fire. “No last rites needed for this one, Padre.” The Sensei grinned like a shark. “At least so long as he behaves himself.”

Catron strolled away, humming a little tune that was vaguely familiar; he paused to speak to Paco, then went back to the training field. Lionheart glared resentfully after him, then finished bandaging the boy. Duc Tho sat there woodenly while he fought to clamp stoicism back over his betraying face. The little man disappeared, probably to spy on someone else.

Paco walked over, frowning. He stared narrowly at the priest.

Father Markus struggled back to his own calmness. “I do not think any of us expected that,” he remarked to the air. “And I wonder why we did not. I do think … that we should expect … an ambassador from the Southsiders soon. Perhaps the Sensei’s southern border will be more secure than it looks, Jefe.”

“Son of a puta,” Paco swore admiringly as he looked after Catron, then followed, smiling.

Is this your answer, God? Markus thought. That I must stay here and serve this monster, because he will save as many as can be saved? But saved for what purpose, Lord? Saved for what purpose?

❀ ❁ ❀

17

— The Cost of Doing Business —

Lyons, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

The setting sun painted long stripes on the clinic’s east wall, where a children’s alphabet collage still presided over the room with cartoon cheer.

“How’s Jesse doing?” Sam asked Julia quietly.

She made a little see-saw motion with one hand. “Could be better, could be worse. He’s got another fever, but it’s not as bad as the last two, and his wound hasn’t become inflamed this time, at least not yet.”

“Can I see him?”

“Yes, but he’s sleeping right now.” Julia looked askance at Sam’s armor and weapons, helmet under one arm and heavy leather gloves tucked into his swordbelt. “Please don’t wake him.”

“I won’t. I just want to look at him for a moment.” Sam padded over to the cot where Jesse had been laying the past three weeks. His eyes were closed in his flushed face, chest rising and falling under the blankets. He looked starved and waif-like after fighting off two bad bouts of fever. Despite the cool spring temperature he had partly pushed off one blanket, and there was a faint sheen of sweat on his face and neck.

“Get well, Jesse,” Sam whispered softly. He watched a moment longer, turned to leave, and then paused for a moment. Karen was at another cot down the row, taking the pulse of a too-still forty-something man.

“He’s gone,” she said to Julia. “Last of the diabetics — I thought he might make it, on that special diet Mrs. Munzer came up with, but I think he just gave up and let go. That makes two today.”

“Ayuh, I’ve seen that before,” Julia nodded. “Should I send someone to tell his wife?”

“Yeah, find out which kid is on messenger duty — no, get one of the old guys, this isn’t something a kid should have to do. See if Will’s down at Dispatch, he’ll handle it better, and there’s no hurry to deliver the news so it won’t matter how slow he walks. I’ll write the note. And tell whoever’s on body detail that we’ve got another one. Hope there’s still some room in the cemetery.”

Sam turned away and let himself out. The sun was nearly set, the living needed food, and there were a few more farms still to empty.

❀ ❁ ❀

18

— When all you’ve got is a Hammer —

Longmont, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

“That’s finally it for the Reds,” Baron Green said in satisfaction as he cleaned his sword. “Martinez, Guevarra, and Luis, all three — our worst damn problem finally solved. No men, no problem.”

“At least one of their lieutenants got away,” Blackbeard warned, cleaning Guevarra’s blood off his own sword. “And they didn’t have near as many troops as we expected; a bunch of those probably got away too, in the mopping up.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Green gestured to the room beyond the one where they stood in the derelict sugar mill. “Looks like they lost a lot more to the freeze than we did. There’s what, a couple-five thousand bodies in there? Before our latest additions?”

Blackbeard surveyed the heaped corpses critically. “Three thousand at least, and probably close to four. Gawd, what a stink. I didn’t think I still had a sense of smell, but unfortunately I do.”

“Convenient of them to spend so much time collecting the east-side dead for us.” Green nodded. “What with the prisoners we took, we can get the rest of town cleaned up in a couple weeks, before the spring thaw’s really warmed up.”

“This’ll be really bad by then,” Blackbeard warned, slapping at one of the ubiquitous flies. “It’s a damn menace already. We’ll be lucky if we don’t have a plague or something.”

“So put the prisoners on it first priority.” Green shrugged. “Get some more gasoline and soak the place good, light it up. When it cools we can dump more bodies in and light it again. These concrete walls are mighty handy. We ought to be able to clear the whole town of corpses that way.”

He paused, thinking, and sheathed his sword. “How many live ones do you think we got left, Ed?”

“In Longmont alone?” Blackbeard asked.

“Yeah.”

“Jeffries thinks it’s about eight and a half, nine thousand max, my lord. I’d bet at least a thousand of the Reds’ people will run away now that we control the whole city; the spics are bone-deep scared of you. We should end up with around four thousand-plus men, about thirty-five hundred women or a little less, and maybe four, five hundred kids and old people still alive. Probably less of those.”

In a reflex that was becoming automatic, he tried not to think about his own family in Phoenix. Live here, live now, don’t think about Joey and Little Ed, he told himself. They’re gone by now; that life is gone, and there never was anything you could have done. If you’d started riding the first day, you still wouldn’t be in Phoenix yet.

“And how many farmers?”

“About a hundred, maybe a few more; mostly on the north and south sides; though the Reds organized a bunch to the east too. We’ll have to get those under control. Maybe five, six thousand acres of land between them.”

“Hope it’s enough.”

“It won’t be,” Blackbeard predicted gloomily. “We’ve got nothing at all west of Seventy-Fifth, the Lyons crowd stripped out just about everything and everybody. Jenner’s scouts report nothing but empty houses out there. I need more time to organize what we’ve got, too — the damn Reds have kept me too busy. Pretty damn soon we need to start plowing, I think.”

“There’s time. We still had frost last night, so it’s got to be too soon to plant. We have to wait for the mechanics to make us more plows anyway. Now that we’ve got the whole city under control, I’ll put Miles on it. He’s got a clue about how medieval farms were actually run, or says he does. We can use the new prisoners to pull those plows, too.”

Green strolled outside, inhaling deeply of morning air that wasn’t saturated with death and decay, but merely smoky and stinky. The main sewer plant was only a short distance away across a dirt lot, and upwind at the moment; it had long since stopped working. Raw effluent poured into the river, as it had for days now. Green pointed to it.

“The stench’s not so bad, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m getting used to it,” he observed. “Flow is down, water pressure’s down even in the Mansion. Now that I control the city, I’d better do something about that. Did Jeffries find the Reds’ maintenance guys?”

“He thinks so, my lord.” Blackbeard pointed the opposite direction, north of the sugar mill. “Shall we go see him about that next?”

“Yes. Lucky for us the bastards never managed to shut the west side off,” Green commented as they climbed into the stripped-down hot rod that he’d adopted as a baronial coach. The engine and tranny had been pulled out, the front cut down and rebuilt. A long aluminum frame was welded onto the remaining chassis now, with a driver’s seat just behind it and a long pair of reins to a steerable pair of forward wheels. Twenty bicycle seats had been mounted on the frame with twenty sets of pedals all feeding into a big gearbox that drove a set of over-thick wire wheels that had come from God-knew-where. It wasn’t faster than a horse, Green had remarked after riding it for the first time, but it had more style.

Right now it also had three severed heads mounted above the front wheels.

“Let’s make sure all the remaining Reds can really see that they’re defeated,” Green added with vast satisfaction. “Ready when you are, Doyle. Take the scenic route.”

The driver checked to be sure both of his lords were seated and then cracked his whip. Twenty ragged men bent to the pedals, their chains clattering as they powered the contraption forward. Thirty of the baron’s household troops rode bikes on either side of them, mostly SCA fighters and hangers-on that Green had drawn to his banner with the promise of food and order. They rode up into the city, through streets still bloody from last night’s fighting.

Blackbeard was glad to see that Smith had got the corpse-collecting organized. Newly-taken and disarmed Reds were dragging the bodies of the froze-to-death out of houses and piling them on the curbs. Green troops with loaded crossbows and naked swords supervised them, ready to crack heads at the least sign of rebellion. Several of those prisoners stared in misery at the severed heads of their leaders on the front of the Baron’s coach. They bowed their own heads and went back to work when their guards shouted.

The first wave of prisoners that the Greens had taken days ago were already broken to the collar, shuffling along the street in coffles of twenty men each as they picked up the bodies and tossed them aboard the waiting wagons. Those had been made out of flatbed trailers from a rental place. Each was towed by another two prisoner-coffles, their chains clamped on to the trailer’s steel frame. Every man pushed a chest-high crossbar mounted along the jury-rigged aluminum tow-shaft. When the green lieutenant in command of it decided a wagon was full enough, he gave the order and the death-cart moved out, to be replaced by an empty one waiting nearby.

They had already passed two such wagons bearing their grisly loads to the sugar mill.

“Smith’s done good, getting this organized,” Blackbeard commented casually.

“Yeah. Slavery has an unfairly bad rep, it’s a lot more efficient than most people think, and I’m proving it.” Green nodded to himself, gloating a little.

Blackbeard slapped at a fly. “It’d better be. We’re sure not gonna get volunteers to do that job. Or to pull plows. I wish we had more horses!”

“Maybe we should wait another day or three before the burning,” Green speculated. “Give Smith time to get more of the bodies into the mill.”

Blackbeard slapped at another fly, and then deliberately used his old friend’s first name to make a point. “We’ve got plenty of gasoline, Hugo, and every day it gets warmer. Think about where these damn flies are breeding, and then decide if you want to wait some more.”

Hugo Green sneezed as an ash-filled breeze blew off a smoking ruin. “You got a point.” He spat over the side.

They piled out at the captured Red headquarters. The fighting had mostly been away from it and the building wasn’t burned. Jeffries, a slight accountant in his forties with glasses and a nervous twitch, had been accepted into the Baron’s service in part because he had a known talent for organization, and partly because he also had a eighteen-year-old son who’d had the good luck to be one of Green’s squires in the Society. The accountant had a dozen troops to back him up now. They had the Red workers lined up on their knees in the main room, waiting for inspection. Baron Green smiled, pleased.

“The water men first, Jeffries,” the Baron said.

Jeffries nervously singled out a short stubby fellow with the sagging skin of the formerly obese; there weren’t any currently-obese left in Longmont a month after the Change. “This is Casey, my lord; he worked in the central water office but came up through the ranks of the engineers. He says he knows most of the city system.”

“Casey!” Baron Green said genially. “This is your lucky day. You get to explain to me why the water pressure in my Mansion is so low. Start talking.”

“M-m-my lord Baron,” Casey stuttered, terrified. “You m-mean the Hover mansion, right?”

“It’s the Green Mansion now,” the Baron answered pleasantly. “But, yes.” He waited expectantly.

Casey swallowed. “Water pressure’s down all over town, m-my lord. Too many open valves, water pouring into the ruins of burned houses, lots of busted frozen pipes thawing out and leaking water even in the unburned houses. We’ve got to shut those all off if there’s to be any hope of getting the system back to normal.”

“I don’t need normal, Casey,” the Baron explained jovially. “I just need enough. You can shut off most of the whole east and south sides for me and that’ll be fine. I don’t need a city built for sixty thousand to house just eight.”

“Th-th-that shouldn’t be too hard, m-my lord,” Casey swallowed. “The main control valves are mostly on the west side anyway. We kept ex-expecting you to shut us off over here.”

“Really?!” Green raised his eyebrows. “I wish we’d known that. Could have saved all sorts of trouble if your Red leaders had come crawling to me for a drink, eh? I’d have an extra thousand workers and troops still alive. So where are these valves?”

Casey described three locations, adding “Those are the three main junctions, on the incoming supply lines from the three treatment plants. Everything feeds off of those, though we got — had, a pump-back line from Union Reservoir to the Reed plant for emergency water, and we run some of the Terry Lake water through —”

“Treatment plants,” Green interrupted. “You mentioned three water treatment plants. Where are they?”

“Over by Lyons, my lord.” Casey hesitated as silence fell.

“Holy fuck!” Blackbeard demanded. “You mean our water comes from those Lyons fuckers?!”

“Well, the Reed plant is on McCall Lake off of Ute Highway,” Casey explained nervously, adding “My Lord!” as the two Green leaders stared at him. He continued into the silence, bumbling along. “A-an-and the Williams plant is on the south side of Ute about a mile and a half farther west, just a couple thousand feet east of the junction with Foothills. The Lewis plant is north of the road right about there too, both west of Cement Plant Road. It has the big steel tank. They’ve got a shunt under the road so we can trade water from one to the other; there’s another shunt farther down near Reed. We don’t actually use Lewis much anymore, it’s just back-up now. Umm, they all take the water out of the forks of the Saint Vrain, most of it from Button Rock — I mean, Ralph Price — Reservoir on the North Fork. We store a little water there for Lyons, but most of it’s ours. The pipelines run through Apple Valley and right along Highway 36 through the town, you can see the emergency access cleanouts if you know where to look —”

“Stop,” Green commanded, and Casey chopped his own words off. “Let me be very sure I understand you correctly, water-man. Almost all of our Longmont drinking water — my water! — comes through Lyons?”

“Y-yes, m-my lord.” Casey swallowed. “That’s where all the farmers’ irrigation water comes from, too, except the Oligarchy Ditch that runs through town here. The transmountain stuff comes out of Carter Lake but that canal runs through Lyons too — we have a tap on it there. All the big ditches take off the river in or just below Lyons.” In a very small voice he added “I thought everybody knew that.”

Green and Blackbeard looked at each other.

“I didn’t know that,” Blackbeard said woodenly. “I wonder if those Lyons bastards know it?”

“Oh, I’m sure they do,” Casey burbled anew. “Half the treatment plant crews live there. Shorter commute and cheaper housing than Longmont, or used to be. I sure hope they’re still at work — the plants won’t run for very long without somebody on duty.”

“I see,” said Baron Green, with vast restraint in his voice over an undercurrent of danger. “Casey, draw up a plan for getting at least one of those plants back into shape if nobody’s been on duty for the past month. Lieutenant Jeffries, support him and make sure he gets it done by tomorrow morning. The rest of this will have to wait for another day, so use your best judgment on it until I call for you again, Jeffries. Captain Blackbeard, I believe we have some planning to do for our next fight.”

They walked back out to the coach. Green was dead silent the whole way. Blackbeard settled into the seat next to him and Green said simply “Home, Doyle.”

He turned to Blackbeard as the coach jerked into motion.

“Lyons,” Green said dangerously. “Don’t — say that you told me so.”

“Lyons.” Backbeard nodded. “I’ll need to send out some scouts.”

“You do that, Captain Blackbeard. As many as you want. I want that water under our control by the end of the week. You put an action plan in my hands by tomorrow morning, and I don’t care if you have to write it in goddamn crayon on a napkin; just get it to me. And send Jerome to me in the morning, too; I’ll want him to carry a message.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Blackbeard said.

It took him just seven hours to draft a war plan. He’d been thinking about it off and on for weeks already anyway. The longest delay turned out to be sending Jenner and his scouts out to check on a few things.

Green had assigned half-a-dozen horses to the Scouts, and by pure luck most of the riders and men were on hand when Green dropped Blackbeard off at the Brown House, where the Baron’s fledgling staff were housed, along with no few hostages. It was actually a cluster of old wooden homes gathered together in a sort of historic park, convenient to the Mansion. Even more conveniently, they all had fireplaces and 19th-century kitchens. The Historic Society records had been cannibalized for fire-starter and the new bureaucracy moved in. There were even stables and a smithy, though the Greens didn’t yet have a really competent blacksmith.

“That’s what I need, Jenner,” Blackbeard concluded his instructions. “How soon can you find out and get back with it?”

“Heck, I can answer most of it without leaving this house, Captain,” the scout leader answered, pushing his half-eaten lunch aside with a brief glance of regret. He’d been a County Parks employee renting an apartment in the basement of one of the Baron’s SCA household before the Change. He’d had the luck to fall into the role of chief scout because his landlord had brought him along to one of Green’s original organization meetings, and he owned his own horse and knew the land around town. “I’ve got a topo map in my room — I’ll put notes on it for you right now. The rest — maybe a four-five hour ride, round trip. I can take Joe and one of the new guys with me — risky to be out there alone any more.”

“Do it. Make your notes, then you report back to me in the Mansion when you’ve got the rest.” Blackbeard waited impatiently while Jenner hastily scribbled on a topo, then he hurried over to the Quartermaster’s office in another house. He preempted the Baron’s Armorer next, and was back at the Mansion and deep into his plans when Jenner returned as promised, around four hours later, with the missing information.

“They got some guys in the Reed plant, or maybe the water crew is still working, I don’t know which,” the tired scout reported, his Kansas accent coming to the fore. “The other two looked completely deserted, though we didn’t get close enough to look in the windows of the Williams plant. The Lyons folks are building something in the mouth of the canyon and they’ve got militia patrols out, and up on Indian Ridge too, one started after us so we kept our distance. A lot of the houses around there are abandoned, or look like it — and damn near every farm is, too. Somebody’s been scooping up people like a vacuum-cleaner, I’d say. Oh, and we came back by Hygiene, the place is forted up, barricades across the roads and men on guard with spears. Looks like they brought in a bunch of cattle for food, I could smell the manure and hear the lo-ing.”

“Time to pick them off,” Blackbeard nodded. “Can’t be more than a hundred people there, that whole town’s only a couple blocks long. But what about these Lyons patrols?”

Jenner described what he’d seen.

Blackbeard grunted. “I can work with that. Good job, Jenner. Keep your scouts ready and concentrate on the west side.”

“We haven’t nearly sorted out the east side yet,” warned the scout leader. “There’s still a bunch of the Reds scattered out there, and I heard that Niwot’s been hit by raiders out of Boulder. You want me to cover more ground, I’m gonna need more men and horses. If only we’d gotten to the Coyles before they packed up and left,” he lamented. “They had some fine horses.”

Blackbeard grunted sourly. “You may have your chance yet. I think I know where all those horses went — and it’s about time we did something about it. Dismissed.”

Jenner left and Blackbeard went back to planning. One of the Society women, the forty-something mother of two of the Baron’s teenaged squires, brought him some supper and more paper. He bolted the meal without tasting it and went back to working, by candle-light now. Some time later she returned and discretely cleared her throat.

“My Lord Baron desires to see you now, Captain Blackbeard,” she intoned formally. She wore a full robe with embroidered over-tunic and had her hair bound up in a cloth headdress, amber and gold at her throat and more on her wrists. She’d moved seamlessly from organizing Society feasts and medieval balls to running Baron Green’s mansion. If she had any reservations about the darker side of that enterprise she was smart enough not to let it show on her face.

“Be right there, Mistress Demelza,” he answered as he hastily gathered up his notes.

Hugo Green was waiting in the drawing room, reading over a letter. The room was largely as it had been when Green took over the mansion, ornate Victorian sofas and chairs with little carved tables scattered around, and a little writing desk. Only the historical placards had been removed, gone to feed the big limestone fireplace during the last snows of winter. The fire burning there now was mostly for courtesy; spring was here in earnest. The Baronial Secretary, an elderly Society woman with impeccable calligraphic skills, waited at the desk with a litter of drafts and crumpled sheets.

“Yes, that’s how I want it to sound,” Green declared, standing by a hanging lamp for light; sunset was fading outside the heavily-draped west windows. “Regal, but reasonable. Laying out all the reasons why they should be sensible and join under my banner. That ought to work fine, as long as they’re reasonable men too. Thank you, Mistress Marisela. Prepare a final copy and make it as impressive to the eye as you can — you’ve got the night, I won’t be sending it out until tomorrow.”

The gray-haired woman gathered her papers and pens, stood, bowed, and left. Mistress Demelza discreetly closed the door and left the two men alone.

Green turned to Blackbeard. “Okay, Ed, I know I’m premature here, but what’ve you got so far?”

“It’s not written up pretty,” Blackbeard cautioned, “But here it is. Jenner got me word on two out of the three water plants, but a Lyons patrol chased him away from the third — that’s the one closest to them. Jenner didn’t think anyone was there anyway, he says there’s trash drifted against the front door and it looks like it hasn’t been opened in a week. The north one is empty and Casey told us it wasn’t in use anyway. The Reed plant is the big one, and there’s some guys there, but Jenner thinks they might be the crew, still trying to keep it going.”

“If they are, then I want them,” Green declared. “Maybe I’ll make the place a Knight’s fief and put one of the older men in nominal charge, with a stipend from the Crown to keep the workers fed. I wish I’d thought to do that weeks ago, but there’s just been too much else to do.”

“Good thinking.” Blackbeard nodded. “So Jenner says the Lyons folks have regular patrols, men armed with swords and bows and crossbows. The group that ran him off today had a good dozen men and they were all mounted on bikes and wearing some kind of scale armor.”

“Scale?” Green raised an eyebrow. “Not chain? Does he know the difference?”

“Seems to. He lived in Robert the Black’s house for most of a year before the Change.”

Green nodded. “Okay, then he ought to recognize scale or chain when he sees them. So the leaders in Lyons are making scale armor, and they’ve got swords and crossbows for their patrols. Any estimate on how many men they’ve got?”

“Not more than a few hundred,” Blackbeard assured him. “Jenner says there were around six hundred people in the town, heavy on retirees, and around half as much again around it. From what those refugees said that we found on Ute a week ago, Lyons is evicting everybody around the town and in the canyons, so they probably don’t have more than three-four hundred men total. Even if they do the Swiss thing and make everybody a soldier, we’ve got ten times that.”

Green frowned. “And they still had someone who knew how to make scale armor? And they found enough crossbows and swords to arm a couple dozen men, too? That’s doing better than I’d have thought possible for a little town. I don’t remember them having more than a couple fencers in the Society, and no heavy weapons folks at all.” He poked a finger at the map. “What’s this thing they’re building in the mouth of the canyon?”

“Jenner thinks its some kind of wall,” Blackbeard explained. “Maybe a ditch-and-wall to block cavalry charges. They ran him off before he could get close enough for a good look. He couldn’t say how tall it is, but it can’t be much.”

“We can deal with a wall designed to block cavalry.” Green nodded. “They’ve got a lot of cut stone there, they probably just rearranged piles to make some barriers. That would slow us down, but not stop us. Even if it’s continuous, we can make ladders and go right over it.”

Blackbeard nodded agreement. “Now here’s what I think we’ve got, what we can mobilize in a day, and what it looks like we’ll be able to do with it when we get there.”

Green studied the maps and notes for a while, cocked his head a little sideways as he squinted at the topo map. “Good work. How much of this do you think Lyons has figured out, or seen? Do they have any idea how badly we outnumber them?”

His captain spread his hands and shrugged. “Who knows? If they’re smart enough to make scale armor and find swords and crossbows, then they’ve got somebody on the ball. Maybe one of those fencers? We haven’t exactly been parading around west of town, but we haven’t hidden anything either. And they must know that Longmont’s a hundred times the size of their little piss-ant town. Maybe more by now — we lost a lot of people to the freeze, they probably did too. Might only be a hundred or so left alive there.”

Green nodded judiciously. “Yeah. Those patrols might be most of their fighting men, wearing most of their weapons and armor right there. Wish I could remember the names of those fencers; seems to me one of ‘em moved to Al-Barran just a few months before the Estrella War.”

Blackbeard flinched slightly. The last time he’d seen his kids was at Estrella; Janelle had agreed to let the boys spend one whole day with him. Little Joey had been so excited he could have burst, but Eddie Junior understood more of it, as he proved with lofty seven-year-old explanations to his twenty-month younger brother. Blackbeard clamped down on the memory — I’ll never see them again, they’re dead with millions — billions! — of other people by now. They didn’t have a chance! That wimp that Janelle took up with couldn’t save them from an angry poodle, never mind a million spics fighting for food and water.

“Lyons might only have one guy with a clue,” Green continued, not noticing his friend’s brief anguish, “And a bunch of frightened sheep doing his bidding. All that, it feels to me like one or maybe two guys’ doing. Be good to get him, or them if there’s two, on my side. I’ve offered their leaders knights-fiefs if they swear fealty to me, maybe I should up that a little. Throw in a couple titles and land-grants, maybe — yeah, that’s the thing I need. Some sweeteners, to get them to submit.”

Blackbeard cleared his throat against memory’s constriction. “Ought to work,” he allowed. “They should jump for it, if they have any sense, seeing as how we can crush them if they don’t.”

Of course they’ll go for it, he thought to himself, relaxing. They have to be sensible men, to have gotten as much done as they have.

❀ ❁ ❀

19

— Misunderstandings —

Lyons, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

“Did I hear that right? He’s offering to give us our own land?” Burt Santini asked incredulously.

“What the hell is that ‘fee’ business anyway?” asked Pete MacClelland in astonishment. “And those titles — ‘Captain of the Western Guard’ and whatever that other one was — that’s just crazy!”

“It’s an insult, that’s what it is,” Burt angrily declared. “He’s mocking us!”

“Yeah!” Rachel Joyner chimed in. “The bastard actually expects us to bow to him?! Who does he think he is?!”

“But he’s got an army!” Susan Smythe said anxiously. “The Marshall confirmed it!”

“Madam Mayor, may we hear the message again?” James Palmer requested.

Allison Hamill nodded and waved a hand at the Town Clerk, who cleared her throat nervously and opened the letter again. It was handwritten on some kind of expensive lavender paper; she had held it up for everybody to see the first time, and did so again before the second reading. This time Sam noticed that the hand was distinctly feminine, but the scrawled signature at the bottom was very male, in a heavy dark ink. Sam was willing to bet that the scribe was not the writer. The clerk read out the message in a voice that trembled a little less this time. Sam let it flow through his ears, the cadence and terminology oddly archaic.

Pete MacClelland raised a hand to be recognized this time. “I never heard of this ‘Baron Hugo Green’ before, do we have anybody who knows this nutjob?”

Ken Clair cleared his throat. “Actually, yes. I know him, if he is who I think he is. There’s a Hugo Green who’s a court baron in the Society for Creative Anachronism, the SCA — medieval reenactment group, you know. Lives in Longmont, has a large SCA household and a bunch of squires — unh, he has a lot of friends and he’s really good at attracting young men to follow him who want to fight. He’s what the Society calls — called a ‘heavy weapons’ fighter. They wear real armor and fight with heavy rattan swords, in imitation of what a real medieval knight would have used for practice weapons. Green always wanted to be King of the Outlands — umm, he wanted to be the top fighter in the Rocky Mountains region. But the rules won’t let a contestant in just because he wants to fight, he has to have an acceptable consort, and, well, he always had really bad taste in women. Umm. Really bad. So they wouldn’t ever let the women he picked stand for Queen, which means they wouldn’t let him try for King, and …. anyway, he’s for real, sort of.”

The Trustees were staring at Ken as if he’d grown a second head.

“Medieval reenactment?” Allison plainly grasped at what little she understood out of Ken’s spiel. “Like the Renaissance Faire down in Larkspur?”

“Unh, sort of. Think of it as a club for guys who like to hit each other with sticks — hard, hard enough to break bones if they didn’t wear armor.” Ken tried to explain. “Only it’s pretty much run by the women, who organize just about everything, and they like pageantry and fancy dress-up. It’s expected for every King to have a Queen. And these are real volunteer jobs with real work to do, so if the Queen isn’t up to it, it can be a big mess for everybody else. Anyway, Green never could stay married, he’s gone through at least two wives and a dozen girlfriends over the last eight years. Rumor is, he’s got a cruel streak, too — there were a couple domestic violence charges, stuff like that.”

“Aha,” the Marshall said. “Now I recognize the name. He was on Chief Lewis’ domestic abuse list, and it was for more than ‘a couple’ of incidents, though I believe only two made the media.”

“Sounds like a real prize of a guy,” Rachel remarked soto-voce.

Ken shrugged. “He ain’t much of a role model that way, but he took the whole middle-ages knighthood-thing seriously. And he knows how to organize, he’s been a real leader for the local Kings during the big annual Estrella War contest down outside Phoenix — that’s where the different Kingdoms fight each other. Always willing to teach the young guys how to fight with sword, shield and armor. I expect that’s how he came out on top in Longmont; he started with a bunch of friends who knew what to do with a shield and a stick, and moved on to real swords. I didn’t know him well, I was a fencer not heavy weapons, but at events he was always courtly and polite to everybody. Word was that he lived up to his obligations as long as they didn’t involve being faithful to one woman. Hell, he was a banker in real life.”

Sam remembered something he’d once read. “Does he use a green ‘X’ as his personal symbol, his coat of arms?”

“Yeah!” Ken answered. “I should have put that together myself. His personal device — that’s what the SCA-ers call a coat of arms, a ‘device’ — has a green X on a black background, with some other stuff above and below.”

“The Greenies.” Sam nodded. “Okay, so now we know who’s come out on top in that big fight in Longmont. Question is, what do we do about it? Sounds like he wants us to bow down to him like to a real king, and I think that last part about ‘Feudal Levy’ probably means he expects us to pay taxes and provide soldiers for him.”

That got the attention of all of the Trustees.

“Taxes!” snapped Yohansen. “He has no right to tax us!”

“Nor authority to try,” Palmer added. “That would require a vote of the citizens.”

“And he wants our men for his army?” Chief Waters snorted.

“We can’t give him our boys!” Susan Smythe quavered; her high-school-senior son had volunteered for the militia. “What’ll he do to them?!”

“I believe we have a clear consensus,” the Mayor said, looking around at the Trustees. “Lyons is not interested in his offer of a ‘feudal relationship.’ Do we need to vote on it, ladies and gentlemen? I see we don’t. Let the record show that the Trustees of Lyons unanimously reject this invitation from the man self-identified as ‘Baron Green of Longmont’. Where’s the messenger who brought it, Chief?”

“Waiting outside the Wall,” Waters answered. “I wasn’t about to let him in to spy on us.”

“I’ll draft a response and get it to you within twenty minutes; you give it to him to take back,” she instructed. “I think that’s all for today. Motion to adjourn will be entertained by the chair.”

Three voices made it at the same time, and the meeting broke up. Less than twenty minutes later Sam joined Waters for the walk back to the Wall. The Chief had an envelope with the Town Seal embossed on it and the words ‘OFFICIAL COMMUNICATION” in gold letters.

“I’ll bet she was polite,” Sam commented.

Waters grunted. “Allison wouldn’t be anything else, even if she was telling the Devil to go to Hell. I sure hope this guy’s a big bluff. And if he’s not, then we’ve got big trouble.” He frowned worriedly at their elongated shadows, cast before them on the pavement by the late afternoon sun.

“At least the Wall’s finished,” Sam pointed out, waving to it as they approached.

“The clearing in front isn’t, we haven’t dug the ditches or set the traps that we planned on putting out there, nor most of the ones on the ridges to each side,” Waters answered abstractedly, like a man trying to redesigning a complicated plan on the fly. “Hell, there’s a dozen important things not finished yet.”

“One of which is mine.” Sam nodded. “Last farmer to gather in.”

“Better be quick,” Waters told him dourly. “I got a feeling tonight’s your last opportunity. You just might find out whether those tricks your boys have been putting together work or not.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“They refused! Can you believe it? Those idiots refused me!”

Green stalked back and forth on the drawing-room carpet, slapping the offending note into his callused palm over and over. Candles flickered in the breeze of his passage.

“I was more than reasonable, generous even!” He continued. “How can they be so blind?”

Blackbeard shrugged, irritated himself. There’s fifty things I need to do, but Lyons just promoted themselves to the head of the list, he thought disgustedly. Just great — now more of our men get killed straightening out these jerks!

“They really are idiots,” he said aloud. “So can we wrap them up quick? I’ve barely got Miles started on consolidating the east-side farms. We got to start planting pretty soon.”

“We can. Give the order,” Green commanded decisively. “Plan West, the whole army. Start mobilizing now and we move at dawn.”

“Everybody?!” Blackbeard’s eyebrows climbed. “What about holding Longmont? There’s still a bunch of Red troops unaccounted for somewhere.”

“Scattered and with their leaders dead, they’re no threat.” Green dismissed his concern. “Leave Miles behind with three hundred of the oldest men, that should be plenty. Mobilize everybody else.”

“Yes, My Lord.”

❀ ❁ ❀

20

— Contact —

Between Lyons and Longmont, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

Sixteen hours later Sam pushed back his helmet and mopped his forehead with a stained bandana. Unseasonable cold and unseasonable heat had followed each other in waves across Colorado since the Change. It couldn’t even be eight o’clock in the morning yet and he was already warm.

Or maybe it just seems that way, he thought. We’re all living a lot closer to the weather now than we used to. And we spent most of the night packing these damn wagons. We should have been out of here by dawn!

“No,” he told the farmer bluntly. “I told you, only necessities — work clothes, warm clothes, outdoor clothes, and sturdy shoes. Leave the rest. I don’t care how much your wife thinks she needs all that stuff, she has to fit it in one suitcase, and we’re not taking any steamer trunk. This is the last load, the last trip, and you knew what the deal was before we started.”

The farmer, one Neil Sigurson, looked unhappily at his truculent wife Moira, hovering protectively over a pile of luggage. He plainly didn’t have any idea how to get her to comply.

Sam sighed. “Laura, take Kate and Maria — repack for Mrs. Sigurson. Fast.”

“Yes, Sensei!” Laura favored the woman with an alarming grin that offered no humor at all. The three female Gatherers clustered around the pile and began to pull it apart. Moira protested, Laura spoke to her quietly. The woman shook her head violently, tried to grab a suitcase away from Kate. Laura struck like a snake, three fingers hard in the stomach, and Moira folded up with a shocked grunt.

Her husband twitched as if he would interfere; Sam said only “Wait,” and held the man’s uncertain gaze with his own hard stare.

Laura whipped out a pair of handcuffs and in moment had her target’s hands locked together. Then she prodded the protesting woman across the yard to the Conestoga. Giorgi and Drew helped hoist her in, still protesting. Drew dodged a kick as Laura shoved Moira over the rim. She landed on the piled grain sacks, cartons of canned food, and other family luggage, and her three daughters clustered around her anxiously.

“I told you the deal,” Sam repeated to Neil Sigurson. “I told her too. You’re in too far now to change your mind, and the time’s past for negotiating. Get in the wagon and help calm her down. She’s not getting those cuffs off before we’re inside the Wall. If she’s not ready to behave by then, she can walk back here alone — and probably get raped by the Greenies. Her choice. But we leave in two minutes.”

Laura, Kate and Maria were busily repacking, tossing pants suits and fancy dresses and strap sandals in a heap. In less than two minutes they had a single suitcase packed with practical dresses, jeans, shirts, underwear, socks and shoes. Drew hoisted it up and handed it to Giorgi, already in the wagon. He slung it on top of the grain sacks that filled most of the boat-like bed, beside Moira, who yelled something at him that he ignored. Then she burst into tears, her daughters huddling close around her and sobbing too.

Good, thought Sam. The experience of the past three weeks indicated that the ones who cried had a better chance of making the adjustment to their new home rapidly. He swung onto his bike, made sure his katana and bow were settled, adjusted his helmet, and then checked the rest of the crew.

Laura, Maria and Kate were mounting their own bikes, checking each other’s armor and shields. Jesus and Tim were falling back from guard position toward their bikes. Everyone else was already in motion, with the lead grain wagon out ahead guarded by other Gatherers, and more in pairs between and beside the other four wagons. The Conestoga brought up the rear, with Frank at the reins and Giorgi as guard. He looked pale and resolute under his helmet, sword-hilt clenched in his fist and ready to draw.

“Giorgi, relax your grip,” Sam called quietly up to him. “Stay loose and ready, not tense and ready.”

The Armenian boy relaxed sheepishly, returned to his vigilance in a better posture, Sam judged.

“The Greenies are moving down Woodland,” Tim reported as he pushed off on his bike. “They seem to be keeping their distance though. I know they can move a lot faster than they are. We outnumber them, maybe five to two.”

“They’re trying to herd us out of here,” Sam grunted as he pedaled. Fifty pounds of armor and weapons made it more of a challenge. “Or trap us between that force and their men in Hygiene. Any sign of Terry and Jerry, or James?”

Tim shook his head as he pumped along, his own katana slapping rhythmically against his thigh with each circle of the pedals. “Not yet.”

“That’s good. Keep checking behind, I’m going up front.”

Sam bore down harder on the pedals, slogged past the Conestoga and the next four wagons. The lead two had already turned the corner and were headed down North Seventy-Fifth Street toward Ute Highway. Fred, Pat, and Bruce had the point, he slowed and they made room for him to ride between Fred and Pat.

Fred waved at the empty length of road in front of them.

“Clear so far, Sensei. I wish we were closer to home, though.”

“Fucking Sigurson didn’t have his shit together,” Pat growled disgustedly. “If he had we’d have been out of there before dawn like we were supposed to!”

“Water over the dam, Pat,” Sam answered. He raised his binoculars to his eyes and peered ahead. “Yup, that’s James I see up there, jumping the fence; now he’s circling at the side road.”

Fred shaded his eyes and peered south. “Is he signaling?”

Sam sighed and dropped the binoculars. “Yes, unfortunately. He’s giving the signal for ‘hurry’.”

“Fuck-all,” Pat said. “I know what that means.”

Sam turned to Carson Coyle, driving the lead wagon with Art Howe, a new recruit, nervously sitting beside him.

“Speed them up, Carson,” Sam ordered, “And Art, get it ready but don’t release it until I tell you. Come with me, Pat.” Sam started to pedal harder. Pat kept up.

James was waiting on his horse at the entrance to Rabbit Mountain Road; the dappled roan sensed his agitation and snorted restlessly.

“Big band of men coming down Ute,” James shouted as Sam approached. “Maybe a hundred, hundred-fifty. Most on foot, but some on bikes — and the bike-guys all have shields and spears. About twenty of them have bows or crossbows, too. They’re maybe half an hour behind me — I cut across the fields and jumped fences to get here before you, they’ve got to make the corner on wheels.”

Sam stared west towards Indian Ridge; something glittered for a moment on the top, just north of the canyon mouth and about four hundred feet above the Wall and the town beyond. He looked north, estimating angles, then checked the wind direction.

“Blowing too much to the north,” he muttered. “Have to wait until Carson’s right here.”

He turned to Pat. “Tell Carson to pile on the speed and get here, then have Art launch the moment he turns this corner.”

As Pat rode off, Sam turned back to James, nervously patting his horse’s neck. His eyes had a kind of excited fire and he trembled with eagerness.

“You got them?” Sam asked.

“In my saddle bags!” the youth eagerly replied.

Sam pointed. “By that big tree. I’ll help.” He pushed off and pumped down the road while the younger Coyle circled his horse. James caught up to him easily — over short distances a horse could outrun a man on a bike, but the man could keep going a lot longer and eventually exhaust the horse. Even a well-conditioned runner on foot could do it, as Native Americans had proven when they caught and tamed wild Spanish mustangs centuries ago.

Sam stopped a few yards short of the tree; its shadow fell across the road, slowly shifting north and east as the sun rose. He carefully paced it off, estimating angle and time. Luckily the tree was a good three feet wide for nearly thirty feet up before it forked, with a web of branches above that that hung down again. They were thick with swelling buds, about to burst into leaf. It cast a broad and confused shadow, constantly shifting in the slight breeze.

James dropped his reins and his well-trained horse stood still while he stripped off the dual saddlebags. Sam took the first and opened it to find a big oval metal cookie tin, the contents carefully packed by one of Starry’s workers. The lid came off with a twang and revealed rows of golf balls from the Town’s defunct miniature gold course. They were now painted brown with four spikes driven through each one in such a way that no matter how it landed, one would point up. The points were very sharp.

“Caltrops,” Sam said happily. “James, you start laying them in a row from this side, just at the north edge of the shadow. I’ll start from the other side and come towards you. No more than an inch between the tips of the feet, and let the line waver back and forth a little to confuse the eyes of anyone who sees it.”

They got busy. Sam started his row more than a foot north of the shadow, hoping his guestimate of time and shadow movement was correct. He simply poured a long row of caltrops onto the pavement, then went back and filled in with the remainder, carefully plucking and tweaking them into place in a long wavering row. James copied him and in ten minutes they had a complete row all across the road. Five minutes more and it was reasonably consistent.

“Good enough,” Sam jerked a thumb back toward the approaching wagons. “Let’s go!”

They got back to the junction just as Carson’s lead horses arrived and began to swing round the corner. Pat, Bruce, and Fred peeled off to join Sam, as planned. Art had applied himself and was ready. Sam tested the wind once more, called “Let it go!”

A bobbing silvery sphere more than two feet in diameter rose from Art’s grip, reeling out on a leader of tough braided monofilament line bolted to a fishing reel on the back of the wagon seat. The empty helium tank clattered at Carson’s feet as the wagon swayed and bumped off the pavement onto the gravel side road. The weather balloon rose slowly into the sky, climbing, climbing — the breeze pushed it north but it still rose into the air, higher and higher.

Good thing there was still enough helium left in that tank, Sam thought. Now if this little trick works, we just might all make it back safely. I hope to God somebody on the other side knows Morse Code!

“Carson, remember the soft places,” Sam called. “Watch the peak, Art, and reel it down when you get the signal.”

Sam turned to James. “You do the same, and tell me when you see it,” he ordered, then pedaled back a little and stood his bike on the kickstand.

Sam paced, peering north and south. The other wagons had tried to speed up as well, but the horses on the fourth weren’t inclined to cooperate and it had fallen better than a hundred yards behind the third. The Conestoga, trapped behind it on the too-narrow county road, was maintaining its minimum distance.

South, the road undulated downhill towards Ute Highway, three-quarters of a mile away. Sam could barely make out the roof of the old brick Grange on the corner, long since converted to a restaurant. It could have been made over into a small fortress, and someone in town had suggested that, as a bulwark against the Longmonters. Sam had shot down the idea by pointing out three ways to take or destroy it without a frontal attack. He rather hoped that the Green troops would waste time taking control of it now — while his crew had been loading grain, he’d planted traps in it with the twins’ help, to occupy the enemy for a few minutes at least. Every minute he could get the enemy to waste was a gain.

On the other hand, if we’d all three been at the loading, would it have gone enough faster that we’d have been out of here before now? He wondered, then dismissed it. I’ll make myself crazy worrying about things like that.

The second wagon turned the corner into Rabbit Mountain Road. The Gatherer guards hesitated, but Fred waved them on and they followed the wagon.

“Sense! I see the signal!” James yelled.

Sam turned and watched the flashing light atop the peak. They’d dragged a yard-wide mirror up there and rigged a framework so that it could be pointed at any place east of the ridge that could actually be seen from the mountaintop. Now it was laboriously sending out a message in long and short pauses between flashes. The young guys managing it might or might not know Morse code well enough to devise their own message, but they could send a predetermined one. Sam read it off.

Warning — received — lake — garrison — alert — relieve — wagons — move — east — flank — Ute — conceal — ambush.

“That ought to confuse them,” Sam remarked cheerfully. The large mirror guaranteed that any message pointed at the balloon could be read for at least a mile and a half to either side, too.

The third wagon made the turn, its guards following.

The flashing message began to repeat. The silver balloon was sinking back toward Earth as Art valiantly cranked the fishing reel; Sam hoped he got it back on board before it popped against a tree branch. It might come in handy again some day.

“Why ‘lake garrison,’ Sensei?” Bruce asked idly, testing the tension on his bow. Fred was checking his armor straps, tightening some of them. Pat fidgeted with his crossbow. “We don’t have a garrison anywhere east of the Wall.”

“I’m gambling that the Greenies don’t know that,” Sam explained. “Remember there are three lakes between Hygiene and Lyons, all much closer to us than the Town is. The Green commander has got to wonder which of them our ‘garrison’ is at, and it’ll take time for him to check around them all. Meanwhile he’ll hesitate to advance straight down Ute where he might intercept us, for fear of leaving an enemy to his rear that could fall on him while he’s busy in front with us. Same issue if he decides to turn north on Seventy-fifth. Any way he turns he’ll wonder if someone’s about to corncob him.”

Sam turned to look back south.

“And here they come,” he added quietly. “Now let’s see what happens.” He raised the binoculars again.

There was a small cluster of advance scouts on bicycles visible in the intersection. At this remove they weren’t a lot bigger than ants even with the magnifying lenses, but Sam could see the green ‘x’ painted on the shoulders of every one. He studied their motions carefully. For a while they just waited there, gradually joined by more and more cyclists. Sam thought they were making a three-sided square, guarding all approaches to the junction.

The fourth wagon made the turn behind him and rattled off down Rabbit Mountain Road. Darrin and Mike looked anxiously at Sam and the others but stuck to their orders and followed it. As ‘walking wounded’ they were supposed to stay with the wagons.

The flashing message finished its third repetition and stopped.

“They’re doing something at the old grange,” Fred reported. “Look, a bunch of them have turned in to its back yard.”

Good, Sam thought, watching through the lenses. Spend lots of time there. Find my traps — the hard way, please.

❀ ❁ ❀

“They think we don’t have anyone who knows Morse Code,” Blackbeard remarked to Jenner while one of the mounted scouts read off the dots and dashes and another took it down. The Green leader smiled in pleasure at the tactical advantage that promised. “Okay, what are they saying?”

Blackbeard’s cheer vanished and he cursed as he read off the transcribed message. “Which lake, damnit? Are they in the water treatment plant? Jenner, why the hell didn’t you report this earlier?”

The scout leader shrugged helplessly. “Captain, I’ve only got four men with horses, we can’t cover everything. You just asked us about the main road and the water plants, and we only had time to check a little to either side of ‘em, Sir. They didn’t have more than one or two spies hiding in the Reed plant with a couple of the old crew, I’d swear to that on a stack of bibles. But long as they were careful, they could hide a hundred men back among the trees and houses, and it’d take us days to find them all.”

“Fine, fine, get your scouts spread out again and find that damn garrison, and get back to me fast,” Blackbeard growled. “I don’t have days, and neither do you!”

“Yes, Sir!”

The scout leader saluted and ran to his horse. He signaled to the other four horsemen and they began to spread out across the fields and woods.

There were dozens of small properties mixed into the farms around here, with enough weedy landscaping and derelict houses to hide two armies, Blackbeard reflected bitterly. It looked like the Lyons idiots were intent on making this harder than it had to be.

“Pickets to the perimeter,” he ordered. “Set watch on all three roads, line the ranks up behind us on Ute. Dolan, send a messenger down to Hygiene to look for Sully. He was supposed to meet us here after he mopped them up, so ask him, with all due respect, where the fuck is he? Now, as long as we’re standing around with our thumbs in our butts, let’s secure the Grange. Mayer, get your crew on it.”

“Yes, Captain!” Mayer saluted and gathered his men. They parked their bikes in ragged rows and began to enter the parking lot of the Grange.

Blackbeard studied the north road through his binoculars. There were several of the Lyons crew standing around a good three-fourths of a mile away; a big wagon was coming toward them from behind.

We’re between them and Ute, he thought with satisfaction. Unless they can get that thing across the fields faster than we can get down the highway, we can cut them off from the town. They’ll have to abandon it, and then we’ll be richer by whatever’s in their load. Damn, but I could use more horses!

He studied the group carefully, making small adjustments in his focus until he could resolve them individually. One of them had binoculars too. Blackbeard studied the man, while the enemy studied him right back. The other man seemed to be relatively short; he was wearing some kind of armor not too different from Blackbeard’s own, but with less chainmail and more scales. There was something familiar about the way he stood. He had a long sword at his belt and a compound bow on his back.

“Fucking-A,” Blackbeard muttered to himself. “It’s my opposite number from the ambush out at the potato farm. Are you the bastard who’s been scooping up all the farmers hereabouts? I think you must be.” He fought down a wave of anger at the unreasoning resistance of the man. What’s wrong with him? Can’t he see that Longmont and Lyons have got to be united to have any chance at making it? The bigger we are, the stronger we are! Aloud he said “This time I’ve got some archers too, bastard. And a lot better shields.” He grinned coldly. “Let me teach you a little lesson.”

Mayer’s troops had broken into the Grange through two of the front windows, leaving the door alone. About half of them were inside now, carefully searching the building. Suddenly there was a bubbling shriek, closely followed by two more. Men came boiling back out, one of them through the front door. That one promptly fell down the front steps, screaming and grabbing at his feet. Blood was dribbling from both. Smoke began to drift out the door and windows after them and inside he heard a rising crackle.

Mayer staggered over, choking and gasping. “Captain! They rigged the place to catch fire!” He hacked up a sooty gobbet of phlegm. “And they put tripwires and spikes in the doors!”

Blackbeard cursed himself, letting his binoculars fall back against his chest. “Tricky fucker!” He glared north again. “Time to take you out of the game. You’re too fucking clever!”

“Company A, mount up!” he shouted. “Company B, Murchison, get the medics to deal with Mayer’s wounded, and you hold the crossroads until Sully gets here. Then turn this place over to him, on my orders, and you head down Ute for the Reed plant, but carefully! If you get yourselves fucked from behind by the Lyons shits, I’ll have your ears for trophies!”

Blackbeard straddled his own bike as his men hustled into formation. A few moments later he pointed north, where the infuriating bastard still stood calmly watching.

“Company A, advance! Full pursuit!” he shouted, leveled his sword north, and charged.

❀ ❁ ❀

The Conestoga turned the corner and left the pavement empty behind Sam and his three companions as Drew, Laura, Maria, Kate, Tim, and Jesus rejoined the crew.

“That bunch of Greenies to the north stopped back at North Eighty-First,” Laura reported. “I wonder if they’re just a scouting party, maybe waiting for orders.”

“That’d be good,” Sam nodded, not taking the binoculars from his eyes. “The more timid they are, the better I like it.”

“Whoa,” said Bruce suddenly. “Something’s happened.”

Men came boiling back out of the Grange property. Sam watched them churn wildly for a while, then a contingent mounted their bikes and began to move out. It looked like at least fifty men, possibly half again that number. They headed straight up Seventy-Fifth.

“Damn,” said Sam mildly, lowering the glasses. “They’re coming after us. Okay, time for Plan B. Let’s move. James, go catch up with the lead wagon and tell each of them as you pass that we have pursuit.”

“Yes, sir!” James saluted and climbed into his saddle, then was gone in a whirl of horse and wind.

Sam led his crew down Rabbit Mountain Road. It was gravel and much narrower than the paved road, the wagons had perforce slowed down. At the first gate Sam pointed and said “Lock it behind us.”

Drew and Pat did so, using chains left for this purpose during the night. The padlocks were from Starry’s shop, and more of an annoyance than a hindrance if you had good bolt cutters. Sam hoped the Greenies didn’t, but even if they did, it took longer to open the gates than it did to lock them. His team hurried on down the road, gaining on the Conestoga, which had to move more cautiously than the narrower wagons ahead of it. Behind them they heard shouting and curses on the county road.

“They found our caltrops,” Sam observed. “Those ought to take a few of them out of action.”

Most of the crew chuckled and rode straighter after that.

They locked the second gate behind themselves, then followed the big wagon’s rattling passage across a concrete bridge over a deep lateral ditch. Water was flowing through it; Sam had made sure someone opened the sluicegates at the upper end of the ditch before they set out from Lyons. The gates on the lateral had also been screwed wide open, then their control wheels thoughtfully removed. The concrete bridge was the only way across a fast-moving torrent.

“Laura, Jesus?” Sam asked.

“Got it, Sensei,” she answered, and they rolled a fifty-five-gallon drum half-full of gasoline out onto the middle of the concrete span. A moment’s work with handspikes and the top was off, then the drum was circled with half-inch holes pierced slightly above the bottom, each spewing clear liquid. Jesus flicked a lighter on a wad of tinder, tossed it into the puddle. They rode on as the soft roar of flame made the bridge impassable, for a while.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Goddamn him, he’s a clever fuck,” Blackbeard swore, pacing back and forth in front of the roaring fire. His bike still had two working tires, but ten of his men were back by the big tree laboriously patching theirs once they’d plucked the caltrops out. Two others had the bad luck to actually step on a caltrop and were down waiting for the medics; a thirteenth man had been sent to fetch them.

I’ve still got sixty men to his couple dozen, the Green commander thought. “Jones, Barkovi, find something to bridge this goddamn ditch.”

His proteges saluted and fell to it — they were good boys, not yet twenty and both proud squires in the Society. Jones even looked a little like what Blackbeard fancied his eldest boy would grow up to be — would have grown up to be, if only — he cut that thought off as the ache started anew.

“The rest of you stand ready!” he bellowed.

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam’s crew was practically on the tail of the Conestoga now, as Frank carefully picked his way along the bank of the Highland Ditch. Carson and Kit in the lead wagons had dropped strategic sacks of grain in some of the soft places. More than once those made the difference as they crept along, keeping the big wagon from falling off the levee into either the ditch or the field on the road’s other side. Twice the crew stopped to lock other gates after themselves. The passage was nerve-wracking — they didn’t dare risk losing the precious wagon, or the horses and cargo, and Frank’s talents were strained coaxing the horses to step —just-so— around the meandering curves of the ditch road. When Mrs. Sigurson suddenly tried to demand something of Frank, Giorgi and her husband both instantly hushed her with dire threats.

Cottonwoods shaded them, buds swelling with spring, and there were crocuses and hyacinths in bloom in the sunny spots. The canal-water churned slowly, silt-heavy and cold as the mountain streams that birthed it.

They covered a mile and were almost to the down ramp back to a driveway when Tim reported “They’re behind us again, Sensei. They must have found a way to bridge the lateral to get around the fire. I can still see the smoke from it. I think they’re just lifting their bikes over the locked gates, not even trying to open them.”

“So now it gets harder,” Sam commented, shaking his head. “Okay, Plan C.”

They clattered off the canal service road and down onto a real road again, and locked another gate just to be difficult. The Conestoga picked up speed — it had fallen half a mile behind the other wagons in the slow passage of the canal road, but now Frank could let the horses stretch themselves. The driveway ran more than a mile between two fenced fields, leaving the Highland Canal behind now and angling slowly back toward the paved highway. On the far side of the fields they crossed another bridge over the Rough and Ready Ditch, also lined with trees, big ones this time. The Conestoga rattled on ahead, dropped down a steep ramp, and clattered over the Palmerton Ditch beyond and kept going, but Sam’s team stopped.

“Take your places,” Sam said. “Bikes below the downhill bank.”

They hid their bikes between the ditches and took cover behind the biggest trees. Maria scrambled up a set of old wooden rungs nailed to one cottonwood, it had once held a tree-house, now mostly collapsed. She lay flat on the remaining boards with her crossbow in front, watching the selected fence posts that had been paint-smeared only on the side facing the crew. Sam had his own view right through a cracked trunk in a tree that wasn’t quite dead yet despite the wind damage. When the enemy crossed those painted range-markers, the Gatherers would open up.

The Greenies climbed over the other gate, started across the field; then the leader realized the ambush potential and slowed to a stop — well short of the markers. They bunched there for a while between the fences, looking forward and to the sides. Sam was content to give them as much time as they wanted. The leader looked to be the same tall man with a bushy black beard that had been at the Hygiene Road ambush. More men trickled in behind the first few — Sam estimated that they must have fifty or more troops strung out all the way back along the canal road. Finally the leader divided the group in three and sent one third each to the left and right, leaving their bikes along the fences. The two groups climbed fences and began working their way around the far edges of the fields to flank the bridge, while the central group waited.

“Plan C — Monty Python version,” Laura mouthed quietly at Sam from behind her own tree, and he nodded. He watched the side groups carefully — any moment now one or the other would have enough angle to see the ambush.

One did, and began shouting. Both groups stopped, then moved farther aside, intent on staying out of bow shot. Maria fired her crossbow at the nearer one anyway, but the bolt plowed up soil a dozen feet short. She scrambled backward to climb down the tree, got most of the way there when a rung snapped off. She dropped the last ten feet, landed hard and fell over with a strangled shriek.

“Kate, Pat, help her to her bike,” Sam snapped, moving. He had more range than the crossbow, even with the elevation difference. He aimed and shot, and saw the arrow wing the rearmost man in that party right at the outside of his left leg. The Greenie yelped and tripped, rolled, and got back to his feet, limping as he ran now. Both groups scattered, most running for cover in the trees along the ditch, some circling back towards the main group while trying to stay out of arrow range. The main group howled and shook their weapons, but did not charge; they understood arrow fire now.

“Bugout,” Sam snapped.

They swarmed to their bikes, Maria struggling to pedal on an ankle that must be shooting fire.

“Pat, tow her,” Sam said, and Pat scrambled to tie a rope to both bikes. “Jesus, stay next to her and help keep her upright.”

“Drew, Tim, with me.” Sam waited below the bank for a few moments, gauging the time, then said “Aim for an unshielded body part. Now!”

They charged back up the bank to the Rough and Ready bridge, took their stances, and drew. Three cyclists were leading the pack toward them down the long alley between the barbed-wire fences. Three bowstrings slapped almost in unison and all three Greenies went down, creating an instant pileup as the followers ran into them. Other Greenies had bows out, strings snapped as they sent answering fire back — to be intercepted by the trees.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Bastards!” Blackbeard raged, untangling himself from the pileup. “Fucking bastards!”

Two of his archers had pulled their bows out, sent answering fire.

“Don’t waste the arrows!” Blackbeard ordered. “Wait until you’ve got a clear shot!”

Barkovi groaned and cradled a pierced arm while he rocked in the dirt. Another man had a broken shaft standing out of his leg; he was visibly fighting a scream as the pain hit him. Two more had incapacitating sprains or breaks from being thrown in the pile-up.

Jones lay dead in the road, half his face in the dirt and four inches of bloody arrow out the back of his neck. His one visible eye stared mutely at Blackbeard, and for a moment the young man’s face morphed into Eddie’s. Blackbeard’s breath caught in his throat as his heart tore — My boys, my poor dead boys!

He ignored the stabbing pain from his own kneecap — he could walk, so he could pedal a fucking bike. He stared after the retreating forces as rage rose in him like a possessing demon.

“Squad four, get the wounded clear! Stay and take care of them, the rest, back to the road!” Blackbeard roared, reclaiming his own bike. “We can catch these fucks!”

And I swear I’ll cut out their leader’s living heart with my own hands!

❀ ❁ ❀

“Go!’ Sam snapped, and they ran back to the bikes. Pat was awkwardly towing Maria away down the dirt road beyond the Palmerton, Jesus at her elbow riding one-handed and using his free hand to help hold her upright. Her good leg kept trying to pump her pedals on every other revolution while she wobbled dangerously. The others clustered near them, loath to leave them behind — Laura put out a spare hand and saved her from a near-fall on the opposite side. Sam, Tim, and Drew jumped on their own bikes, pedaled hard across the last bridge and soon caught up. On the far side of this field the dirt road joined a tree-lined and fenced asphalt driveway that lead down to the highway; the Conestoga was just turning onto Ute at the far end.

“Get Maria to the wagon!” Sam ordered, silently cursing the bad luck. “Put her in, and her bike!”

They wobbled downhill along the pavement, gaining speed; Maria was able to ride straighter on the level surface and Pat strained to close the distance. But at the corner onto Ute she lost her balance and slewed, clipping the cast iron gate on the right side and jerking Pat up short. Both fell onto the hard pavement. By the time Sam got them all organized and riding again, the Greenies had reached the top end of the driveway and were roaring down it towards them, seeing triumph.

Looking east down Ute, Sam saw Terry and Jerry on horseback pelting towards him, out of delaying tricks and nearly out of escape room. Behind them another body of Greenies were pedaling up the highway, much too close.

“Ride!” Sam said desperately, trying to push the rest ahead of himself by sheer will. They pedaled and Pat strained anew, gaining on the Conestoga but slowly, slowly. Sam dreaded a sleet of bolts and arrows from the Greenies any second. He spared one swift glance back, only to see the second band of Greenies join up with the ones even now pouring out of the driveway through the iron gates. Terry and Jerry had been forced off the highway, they’d jumped the fence and were circling wide through a weedy pasture south of the road, zig-zaging to avoid arrows dropped by a pair of Green archers.

Sam slogged desperately forward. An arrow fell between him and Kate and shattered on the pavement, his back itched at the expectation of another any second now —

Someone on a bike shot toward him in the opposite direction and skidded to a stop, shield raised and crossbow out. Another, and another, none with green paint on their shoulders. The Conestoga was slowing, stopping, as Giorgi reached down to help pull Maria on board. Men on bicycles, men in scale armor and none, men with crossbows and shields, poured down the road to form a wall behind it. Dozens of men, half a hundred, more. Sam stopped barely before he ran into the back of the big wagon.

Chief Waters was there, looking pleased with himself.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” Sam demanded in exhaustion.

“Rescuing your ass,” the Chief answered, grinning hugely. “The Lookout sent a message down that you needed it, so we came out and did it.”

Sam swayed for a moment. “Not — that I’m not grateful. But you’re taking a hell of a risk. What if they keep coming?”

“They’re already stopped,” the Chief pointed. “I’ve got seventy men with me, and fifty more coming up behind, every one with a crossbow and shield. We’ll fall back slowly, but if they charge us we can lay down half a thousand bolts before they close. The wagons are safe now, Sam; we’re only two miles from the Wall. Let’s get you home.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Seventy men already,” the scout reported. “A bunch more behind. These must be that garrison the message talked about.”

“No,” Blackbeard disagreed in disgust. “That was another damn trick. They never had any garrison out here at all. It was meant to slow us down, buy time for this force to get out here from their goddamn Wall and rescue their foragers.” I almost had them. If I’d ignored that lying message and sent Murchison on ahead to cut them off, I’d have that bastard’s throat under my boot right now! Acid churned in his gut at the thought of what might have been. My boys… Rage vied with sanity for a long unbalanced moment before he got himself under command again.

“We outnumber them,” one of the troops said behind him, tweaking a bow string.

“Not by enough,” Blackbeard growled. “And they’ve got too many crossbows. By the time we reached them, most of us would be dead on the pavement. Form up, get ready to retreat to the water plant. We’ll take it over and wait for reinforcements to come forward. The Baron’s organizing the main force, he’s only a few hours behind us. We wait there for him.”

❀ ❁ ❀

21

— Taking Positions —

Lyons, Colorado; third week of April, 1998.

“Glad to see you made it,” Marshall Duncan greeted Sam at the Wall.

Sam nodded wearily, looking around. Waters’ crew had the stonework finished, twenty-eight feet high from cliff to cliff, with the space in front cleared all the way to Foothills Highway. One stack of lopped cottonwood trees was still burning, smoke wafting up into the sky. Carpenters were hammering together hoardings, wooden roofs topped by sheet metal, over the walkway atop the wall, leaving regular opening for archers to fire up or down. A reserve crew of older men were frantically digging long trenches in front, parallel to the wall, throwing the dirt away from it, while a few more towed carts full of sharpened stakes and planted them in the trenches, points up and angled slightly outward. The trenches were well inside bowshot from the Wall. At each end of the wall metal-sheathed wooden stairways lead up to the cliff tops, where long narrow pathways through the mountain mahogany were still being cleared. Barbed wire had been loosely unrolled in a crazy zig-zag of coils east of the paths, interwoven with the mahogany and standing a few feet higher. It looked like a fragile defense of the flanks, unless you knew how nasty the shrub itself could be. And there were acres and acres of it carpeting the sides of Indian Ridge and Red Mountain between cliff-tops and the toe of the slopes.

Duncan followed Sam’s gaze. “I hope it’s enough. We really need to extend the wall right to the top of the ridges, with a pathway behind it.”

“No time, and not enough manpower,” Sam remarked. “Right?”

“Right. But there’s plenty we can do. You go get some food and rest now, but there’s a Trustee’s meeting in four hours, and after that I’ll want you to meet with me this evening.”

“Rest sounds good, and food even better,” Sam sighed. “Meetings not so much, but I’ll be there.”

“Good.” Duncan shaded his eyes and gazed east. “There are their scouts again. They’re keeping their distance for now.”

“That won’t last.” Sam turned toward the Gate, where Waters had overlapped the Wall by about fifty feet; the wagons had to make a sweeping turn to the left to go in through the first wooden gate sheathed in sheet metal, then another to the right after the second gate. The Conestoga had cleared both gates safely and his crew was lingering on the outside, waiting for him.

“How’s Maria?” he asked them.

“Frank’s taking her to the clinic,” Laura reported. “They have to unload the grain at the school anyway.”

Jesus cast a longing look to the west, but stayed where he was, on duty.

“Fucking Sigurdson’s wife was white as a sheet,” Pat reported happily. “Arrow went into the wagon-side ‘bout an inch from her hand. Looked like she could’ve shit herself.”

“They’re the Mayor’s problem now.” Sam looked his crew over; they were tired, dirty, sweat-stained and sleep-deprived after spending a whole night working and then the morning running and fighting, but also triumphant and satisfied.

Good, he thought. Now let’s make sure they’re still that way tomorrow.

“Everybody back to the Dojo,” he ordered. “Get your armor cleaned, restock from the Arsenal, and wash up. I want you all to take a good nap this afternoon. By sundown we’ll be back on our feet, and there may not be any rest for a long while after that. Jesus, you can have a half-hour break to check on Maria after you’re cleaned up.”

“Thank you, Sensei.” The swarthy Hispanic boy beamed in gratitude.

“Move it, people,” Sam told them, and they did.

❀ ❁ ❀

Baron Green leaned on the upper works of the Williams water plant, focusing his binoculars. From here the Wall was less than fifteen hundred feet away. The setting sun made it hard to see.

“They’ve been busy little beavers,” he muttered to Blackbeard and his other captains.

“Ain’t that the truth,” snorted Sully. “How’d they get that damn thing up so fast?”

“Brute force and lots of materials,” Blackbeard replied, glowering through his own binoculars. “Look to the left — Loukonen’s stone sales yard? Empty. Same with the cutting yard on the side of Red mountain. Every slab there probably went into that wall. And I’ll bet they took the cement they needed out of Cemex. With the river for water — piece of cake. A shitload of work, but a piece of cake to organize.”

Murchison looked south toward the blocky cement plant. “Maybe we should take that over ourselves.”

“No,” said the Baron. “It’s a distraction. We don’t need it, not yet anyway, and it spreads our forces out more. We do need the water plants, they’re close to the road and it’s easy to shift troops between them. Now, what are this Wall’s vulnerabilities?”

Five pairs of binoculars went back to five sets of eyes.

Presently Colotta said “The river. They’ve got a big gap there, looks like they put in a grid of steel beams with a sheet-metal sheath over the top half or so. It’s still nowhere near as solid as the stonework on either side.”

“I see the gaps in it too,” Blackbeard nodded. “But I don’t think they’re empty. See those sparkles? I think they’ve strung small wires across every opening. If we charge the thing and try to wade into the river and dodge through, sure as shit we get hung up on the wires. Then they just stand back on the inside and shoot us to pieces.”

“We could equip the lead wave with wire cutters,” the Baron remarked. “But we’d still lose a lot of men that way. Save that idea for later. Next?”

Sully volunteered “The whole thing’s pretty short, too. It looks to be less than thirty feet tall. We could build ladders to get up on top of it pretty easily.”

“Putting them up would be a bitch and a half,” Murchison replied. “They’ve got patrols on top, with those teeth-like things to hide behind while they shoot at you.”

“Merlons,” corrected the Baron. “The upright parts are merlons and the gaps between them are crenelations; the long roofs over the tops are called hoardings and they’re there to catch our arrow fire. Learn the jargon, Murchison, it’s the state-of-the-art in warfare again. Somebody over there has a clue about medieval fortifications, damn him.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Murchison bowed quickly. “But they’ve got lots of crossbows, a fuck of a lot of crossbows for a little town, way more than we’ve found in all of Longmont. How the hell are they managing that?”

“They gotta be making them,” Blackbeard growled. “I asked around among the Society boys. There’s a Greek guy there, a blademaker who did custom work for the upper-income Society crowd that could afford something more than a replica. I’d bet he’s been a busy little bastard, too.”

“I’ll be wanting him alive,” Baron Green said. “That’s an order. If we can find him, I want him alive and his shop undamaged. We need somebody like that working for our side. Those machinists we collected don’t know jack about making real swords, and my squires and other Society followers don’t include anyone with real hands-on experience at it. He’s worth more than his weight in gold. Okay, charging the wall’s another option that we’ll hold back on for a while. I think it’d work if we did a mass wave — we outnumber them at least eight to one, probably more, and the newer shields are pretty good at stopping crossbow bolts. We wouldn’t lose nearly as many men getting to the wall as they probably think we would. But we need to make a lot of ladders first and I’d rather not pay that butcher’s bill if we don’t have to. Now what else?”

Binoculars went back to eyes.

After a moment Sully said “The tops of the cliffs aren’t very well defended. I see some paths from those tower-things on each side, they’ve got people widening them with machetes. There’s some barbed-wire, but not a lot else but bushes. We could charge right through that. Hell, that’s the easy place to take the Wall; from each end, then down those towers.”

“Sounds logical,” Murchison agreed cautiously.

“In a pig’s eye it does,” Blackbeard disagreed. “You don’t know how clever these stubborn bastards really are. I got bit three different ways by them just getting here today. If those bushes aren’t pretty damn well trapped six ways from hell, I’ll be amazed. They already diddled us hard at the Grange; you can bet your ass that anything that looks undefended, isn’t. It’s bait, with a hook inside.”

“Well then, what’s your bright idea, Blackbeard?” snarled Sully, flashing a glare at the other man.

“That we scout,” he said promptly. “Get Jenner and his boys to look for ways around this thing, not through it. Look at these topo maps.”

He passed the paper sheets around; one had been covered with flexible plastic and had red circles drawn around the possible approaches, with Jenner’s notes on the margins mixed with additions from Blackbeard.

The men peered at the paper, then hit the binoculars again. “Damn, that ridge is steep,” Colotta muttered absently, scanning Indian Ridge to the north.

“Long, too,” Blackbeard grumbled. “Runs all the way to the Little Thompson, like a big wall. I marked the Little T canyon as our first alternative. Can we get an army through there?”

“Maybe one at a time,” Sully said. “I’ve been fishing there, once, and when the water’s up like it is now the dry land in that canyon’s really narrow and rugged. Take days to move a thousand men on foot through there, unless the river dries up in August like it does most years. You maybe could march them up the dry part of the riverbed, but you’d still be strung out like sitting ducks for an ambush, with cliffs hanging over you on both sides. Great way to get dead, with a whole lot of your troops by your side.”

“We’ll save that one too,” Baron Green remarked drily. “August is too long to wait. Farther north?”

“No through roads,” Sully promptly said again, pointing at the map. “Just some washed-out jeep tracks. Have to go all the way north to Carter Lake to get past the hogback cliffs, then it’s all steep, rugged, and open coming back, sagebrush country with trees on the ridges but none in the valleys. If they put a couple spies out, they’d see us coming days before we finally got through. And lots of good ambush sites where they’d have cover and we wouldn’t. Not saying we couldn’t do it, but it’d be a slow and painful crawl, and they’d have plenty of time to make it more so.”

“So what about the south?” Blackbeard asked, putting a finger on the map. “There’s this gap right here, just a few miles south along the ridges. I remember seeing it when I was driving. Looks like there’s a long grassy valley behind, running all the way into town well behind the wall. Even has an old jeep road in it.”

“Wide enough for an army?” asked Murchison skeptically, peering at the map.

“Bet it’s wider than the Little T,” Colotta answered. “And no river running through it, just a little gulch not much bigger than a piss. And the canyon that leads to it is a lot shorter than the Little T, too. They wouldn’t have much of a shot at ambushing us.”

“Those cliffs are small enough that we could just throw troops at them and take ‘em ourselves,” Sully suggested.

“I’d want to scout the valley before we head up it, but I think it’s the best shot,” Blackbeard agreed.

“Send Jenner, or better, take a small force and go with him. If you can seize this pass at the top, here,” Baron Green prodded the map a little west of Red Mountain, a few miles south of Lyons. “That ought to secure the whole valley to the south. We can move half the army in there and get ready to assault the town from two directions. And that reminds me, Jeffries mentioned something about the list of stuff the Reds had stashed in that HQ of theirs. I want to check that again. Okay, let’s get settled in for the night. Jenner can start the scouting, and we might have something tomorrow that helps. Get some food and get ready to sleep, everybody.”

He turned and checked suddenly. “Yes, Doyle, what is it?” Green asked his nervous driver, who had appeared, fidgeting, at the top of the stairs.

“Quartermaster says to tell you, the water’s stopped, my lord Baron,” Doyle answered, eyes downcast.

“Bastards,” Blackbeard hissed. “Fucking bastards!”

“We were expecting that,” Green shrugged. “We’ll cope — they can’t shut off the river. Now get busy, all of you.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Almost sundown, Sensei,” Laura said, prodding Sam awake.

He rolled out of the blankets and onto to his feet in a single lunge, crouched and ready to fight or spring before he was quite conscious.

“Whew,” she said. “Tim was right, I’m glad I listened to him. That must freak out your wife just a bit.”

“I don’t do it when Ellie wakes me up,” Sam told her blearily, then hurried off to the men’s locker room. After he’d emptied his bladder and washed the sand out of his eyes he was ready to face the night’s activities. The men of the Gather crew were filtering into the bathroom in ones and twos, yawning. Tim, Drew, Jesus, Terry and Jerry, Darrin, Mike and Pat, Fred and Bruce, Giorgi, James, and newbies Mark, Shawn, and Art, the last looking a lot younger than his seventeen years. On the other side of the wall he could hear Kate and Laura talking in the women’s locker room with their own newbies, Cindy and Lissa, the two cowgirls that Rachel had sent over. The whole crew assembled again in the big practice room where dying sunlight slowly yielded to shadows.

“Mike,” he singled out the taller McCarthy. “Not tonight. You’ve still got a ways to go with those ribs, and I expect a lot more fighting than we did on the last food run.”

Mike was dismayed. “I can hardly feel it any more, Sensei,” he offered hopefully.

“Not the smart way to go,” Sam told him. “Instead I’m putting you on bodyguard duty with Ellie. You’ll join her at the kitchen and replace Maria in the rotation tonight and for the next couple days.”

Mike brightened a little at that; being Ellie’s bodyguard was a high-status job.

“Now, everybody armor up,” Sam told the rest of them. “Check your ammo, check your kit, check your neighbor’s kit. We march to the cafeteria, eat, and go.”

An hour later they were headed for the wall, with full bellies or at least as close to that as the rationing allowed. Sam thought Ellie had cheated a little there, the meal had been noticeably fuller than those of late. He had spared a quick side trip to visit Jesse and Maria in the clinic. She was lying on a cot with her sprained ankle wrapped in cool cloths and elevated on a pillow, very uncomfortable but not in great pain; they still had lots of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Sam gave her a few encouraging words before he turned to Jesse.

The boy was still alarmingly weak and currently fighting off an infection with carefully-measured doses of their dwindling antibiotics, mostly the organic substitutes Laura’s mother had produced from her capacious supply of herbal information. Sam sent up another prayer for Jesse before he left.

He had all of thirty seconds to hug Ellie.

“Be careful out there,” she told him, pressing herself against his armor as if she could melt right through it.

“I will be,” Sam promised, carefully hugging her back and wishing he had better words. The fear was there, fear for his students, his troops now, that would be out in danger; for his family and all their friends and neighbors back here in the town; and distantly, for himself. “I’d a thousand times rather be back in our bed with you,” he whispered in her ear, and felt rather than saw her answering smile. Then there was no more time and the Gatherers had to go.

They bicycled in loose order down to the Wall. Sam left most of them to loiter under the gas station canopy while he went inside to the war council; at the last minute he took Laura along, hoping her local knowledge would be useful. Hank Waters and the Marshal hadn’t been at supper, both were nibbling on the last of some barley-bread sandwiches and poring over topo maps of the area. Waters had Ryder and Petroccelli, his chief lieutenants, with him. Rachel was there too, with two cowboys from north of town. There was the Mayor, her bodyguards, and a short beefy man with a weathered face that Sam didn’t know completing the set. A pair of gasoline lanterns provided light.

“Sam!” Marshall Mike Duncan hailed him. “Good, join us. This is Bart Geil, of the ranching family in Left Hand Canyon — Bart, Sam Hyatt, Captain of our Gatherers.”

Sam caught the slight emphasis on the title; there hadn’t been time to establish anything like a formal system of ranks for the militia in the mad scramble of the past few weeks, but evidently the Marshall had been thinking about it.

Sam shook Geil’s hand; the rancher’s paw was hard and callused from outdoor work. After the last month, so was Sam’s, with the added hardness of decades of karate. “Please to meet you, Bart. This is Laura Munzer, one of my lieutenants.”

“Pleased to make yore acquaintance,” Bart shook hands with her too, seeming a little ill at ease in the meeting. Sam suspected he was more comfortable in the saddle herding cows than dealing with a quasi-military staff session.

“Now that we’re all gathered,” Duncan continued, “Let’s make some decisions about how to fight this war. I’ve been looking over what we’ve built, and I’m worried that we may have done too good a job with the Wall.”

“Too good!?” Petroccelli barked. “What are you talking about?” The short man sat up like a terrier with a juicy bone who’d just been challenged by another dog.

Waters put out a hand to quiet his excitable assistant. “He means it’s so intimidating that they won’t attack it directly, Petro. But that’s why we’re hiding the scorpions, Mike, so that they don’t know how strong the Wall really is. I’ve already drilled the crews at lifting them into place and loading them.” He pulled out a wind-up stopwatch and flourished it. “We’ve got it down to twenty-six seconds average from dead start to the first bolts in the air. It’ll take the Greenies eight to ten times as long to rush us across that field, even without the traps and trenches.”

“The Wall’s still very obviously our strongest point,” the Marshall answered. “The place we can most easily defend. Since the enemy can see that too, then they may choose not to attack it at all — and instead flank it and attack us somewhere easier. Consider the choices.” He tapped the topo map for emphasis.

Everybody digested that thought for a moment and stared at the topo map.

“I’ve got the ranchers organized at the north end,” Rachel volunteered. “We’ve trapped and blocked every road and jeep trail in the Little Thompson. They won’t get through there without losing a thousand men to ambushes and traps — and the Little T’s high, too, the canyon itself is impassible.”

“South,” Sam said, pointing at the topo. “They won’t try the north, Rachel, they’ll try to flank us from the south and come through the valley behind Red Mountain.”

“We thought of that,” the Marshall nodded. “There’s a barbed wire fence across the pass and I had a crew string more of it around the slopes, and the Geils have helped add some in the forest. We also cut some trees and built a breastwork in the pass. It’s not the Wall, but it’ll sure slow down anyone coming up that hill.”

The Mayor looked at the rancher. “Can you and your cousins stop them, Mister Geil?”

Geil shifted uncomfortably. “Not if there’s more than a few, ma’m. We know the territory, but it’s too open down there. If they send fifty or a hundred or more, all we could do is pick off a few with those crossbows you traded us.”

“Right,” Sam nodded. “And the Greenies have got a lot of men. They’ll probably send a small scouting party first, but they have all of Longmont to draw on, so it’ll be followed by at least a couple hundred men. Maybe more; do we have any real idea how big a force they’ve brought? Or for that matter, how many people they’ve still got in Longmont to begin with?”

Sam looked around; Waters shrugged and said “The lookout on Red Mountain sent down a message that he saw at least several hundred, probably over a thousand. That pretty well matches what the Indian Ridge lookout can see, but neither of them has got a favorable angle on the water plants. We should have cut more trees than we did,” he finished regretfully.

“Wasn’t time, Chief,” Duncan said. “And I don’t want to risk sending a scout out now, so we’ll have to just make our best guess and keep moving on.”

Laura elbowed Sam in the side. “I got an idea, Sensei,” she whispered.

“What idea?” Sam muttered back. “Does it have to do with scouting?”

“Yes, Lieutenant Munzer,” Duncan asked with deceptive mildness. “What idea is this?”

“Sir, there’s one thing we could do to get an accurate count of their numbers and capabilities, sir,” Laura put in diffidently, looking from Sam to the Marshall. “Aerial scouting.”

The Marshall’s eyebrows went up. “How you propose to do that, Lieutenant? We’ve got maybe three tanks of helium left for the weather balloon, and it can’t lift even a child.”

Laura took a breath. “My neighbor Paul Mezzio likes — liked, hang gliding. I went up with him dozens of times. His spare glider, the one I used, is still in the garage behind his house — I looked yesterday. It doesn’t weigh much, we could pack it up to the top of Red Mountain and I could fly it over the enemy camp.”

“For how long?” Waters asked dubiously. “Wouldn’t you have to land sooner or later? And could you get back behind the wall before you did?”

“Yeah, with the thermals we get around these canyons I can stay up for hours, five or six at least,” Laura explained eagerly. “And I could get higher than Red Mountain even, I’ve done it plenty of times before. I could take along a pair of binoculars and a note pad, and a few empty tin cans. When I see something, I write a note, swing over the wall and drop it in a can with a red flag tied to it. Easy!”

“Sounds like a good way to end up like a pin cushion,” Petro commented.

“Not if I stay out of reach of the enemy’s bowshot,” Laura argued. “Arrows don’t climb real high against gravity.”

“You need daylight for that, right? Sunlight makes the thermals that you ride?” Asked the Marshall.

“Yessir.” She nodded.

“Then it can wait for morning. I know where Paul’s garage is, I’ll have someone fetch the glider over here while you’re out scouting the south valley.”

“Not here, sir; no place to take off,” Laura explained. “Better to take it up to the top of Red Mountain to the lookout post. There’s a nice meadow just south of him that’s sloped the right way, and from there I can get above the Greenies without too much trouble.”

“Good enough. I’ll take care of the staging, you just be ready to fly it after dawn gets here.” Duncan turned his attention to Sam. “Since she’s one of your crew, I’ll add aerial scouting to your duties, Captain Hyatt. But right now we need you to set up more archers in the south valley, and come up with any way you can to block or blunt it as an invasion route.”

“Yessir, my crew’s rested and fed and ready,” Sam agreed. “I’ve got a few ideas, so Chief Waters, may I take whatever leftovers you’ve got from the traps that you put on the wall’s flanks?”

“Sure. They’re waiting in a cart right behind this building. Take what you can use.”

“That’s it for the scouting then,” Marshall Duncan said. “Let’s turn to the militia; I want to change some allocations to give us some more flexibility….”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Still at it, Ed?” Baron Green asked, letting out a belch; supper had been heavy biscuits in beef gravy, they were low on meat. The sun was behind the mountains, a fading pale glow, and stars were out overhead. The temperature was dropping and the warm spring day giving way to a chilly spring night.

“You damn betcha, my lord,” Blackbeard answered. “And I think I’m glad I did. Take a look at this.”

He passed the binoculars over, pointed to Lyons in its canyon.

“Let your eyes get used to the dark, then look at the town itself — you can just see the south half of it.”

“Hmmm.” Green wrinkled his forehead stared for a while, finally said: “Okay, I’ll bite; what am I looking for?”

“Smoke plumes.” Blackbeard smiled grimly. “See any?”

“Hmm, there along the river…..wait a minute. There are hardly any. The ones I do see are more like steam, and they’re coming out of regular chimneys and stovepipes.”

“They’re not burning wood or we’d be able to smell it from here. They’re still burning natural gas,” Blackbeard said bitterly. “Might be propane, I’d guess some of it probably is, but there’s too much. Every house has a little wispy steam plume and hardly any of them are putting out wood smoke. By now they’ve gotta figure that they’re not getting any more propane any time soon, and they should be hoarding it. They must still have working natural gas.”

“And we don’t.” Green lowered the binoculars and nodded thoughtfully. “Well, well, they look like a more tempting prize all the time.” His teeth flashed white in the dusk as he turned and slapped Blackbeard on the shoulder. “Get some rest, Ed, by morning Jeffries should deliver us a nice little weapon to use against them.”

“You’ve been hinting about that all through supper, my lord,” Blackbeard answered with more than a touch of surliness. “Care to share it with your chief captain?”

“Now, now, Ed, let me enjoy my little surprise,” chuckled Green as he handed back the binoculars and turned away. “Go get some sleep. We’ll be starting bright and early in the morning.”

❀ ❁ ❀

22

— Billings —

Billings, Montana, Early April, 1998.

Matt Woods wiped his forehead on his dirty sleeve. Despite the cold Montana spring air he was sweating from the hard work of loading the family’s pitiful allowance of luggage. The makeshift cart he’d rigged to tow behind Sue’s bike was loaded as heavily as he dared, but mostly with light-weight things like clothing and spare shoes. He prayed it would hold together until they got where they needed to go.

Fifteen-year-old John towed a bigger cart and carried most of the heavy stuff. That included nearly all of their remaining food and the frying pan and four-quart pot that were their only cooking gear. But he was already taller than his mother and a budding high-school track star as well. Matt figured the hard part would be restraining the boy from out-riding the rest of the family.

Sue came out of the house shepherding May, their youngest at thirteen. May’s soft-sided carrybag was packed tight to bursting, but she only had the one. Matt knew she must have left most of her treasures behind. She handed it to him silently, the tracks of recent tears on her grubby face. None of the family had been able to bathe much since the day everything Changed. Matt lashed her bag onto the handlebars, since May’s bike didn’t have any baskets. She slung herself into the seat gracelessly. Her every motion radiated unhappiness. Sue’s lips tightened and she looked at Matt for a moment, but he just shook his head slightly. The girl was moving and that was enough.

May’s bike’s rear carry-bar was loaded with bracketed water jugs tied on by their handles. Four gallons of clean water, four more tied to John’s bike, and two on Sue’s. Matt hoped it would be enough to get them to the Pedersen farm. Fifty-eight miles by road, and he’d have to walk every one of them himself — they only had three bikes.

Sue locked the house — God, was there any real hope that they’d ever come back to it? Or that it would still be standing if they did? The fires were still a couple blocks away, but water pressure was nearly gone from their neighborhood.

“It’s a good thing the Pedersen’s folks agreed to take us in along with them,” Sue remarked, busying herself with her own bike.

“That’s for sure,” Matt nodded, shrugging into his pack. He checked to make sure his quiver was secure and his belt knife ready in its sheath. John had Tim’s knife, and Tim’s bow and quiver slung over his back, but he wasn’t strong enough to draw it full bore yet. Hopefully nobody they met on the way would realize that. Matt picked up his own compound bow. He was strong enough to put a full draw on it. If anyone threatened his family in even the slightest way, Matt had privately decided he would shoot first.

“Let’s go,” he said. “Dave Pedersen said they’d wait for us until the sun was overhead, and we’ve got three miles to cross to their house. Move out.”

For a moment deja-vu seized Matt, remembering the last time he’d heard those words. On that hunting trip to the Bob Marshall country with Dave Pedersen and Sam Hyatt, with their eldest boys Drew and Tim.

If only Tim was here…

For a bitter moment Matt closed his eyes. Tim, Tim, where are you? Will we ever see you again? Are you even still alive? Matt wondered, grieving. My eldest, my pride and joy — you were going to be the first in our family to ever go to college. And now….

A chilly breeze wafted smoke across the street. The fires were getting closer. Sue and the kids were waiting for him. He stepped out of their driveway into the empty street, and began the long walk into exile.

❀ ❁ ❀

23

— The Home Front —

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Ellie watched from the school’s front door as Sam and his troops marched away.

Troops, she thought. They’re mostly just kids! Kids whose scrapes and sprains I’ve bandaged and sent them back out onto the gym floor again. Only now it’s not a game. They’re fighting for our lives now - and risking theirs.

Mike stirred at her side, still looking after the others.

“I hope Pat’s okay,” he said anxiously. “He’s such a hot-head. He really needs someone to keep an eye on him all the time.”

Big brother worrying about little brother, Ellie thought, and patted his armored shoulder affectionately, though she had to reach up to do it.

She left him there at the door and went back into the kitchen. Elaine and the four cooks they’d assembled were poring over plans to feed the militia. They’d already sent supper down to the Wall with the crew of teenaged girls who’d volunteered for that daily task.

“Ellie, are the medics going to set up an operation down there at the Wall?” Elaine asked. “It matters for where and how much food we need to send. And how soon they’re going down there.”

“I expect so. I’ll go ask Doc Brown about the ‘when’ part,” Ellie answered.

She passed through the cafeteria again on her way. Several women and older men were still finishing supper. Some were workers at the Arsenal. Other older ones served on the salvage crew. Those were weary from another day spent pulling everything useful out of the new houses up on Steamboat Mountain. Without pumps the town couldn’t push water up to them anymore, so Mayor Hamill had ordered the whole row abandoned and demolished as a fire hazard.

Several of the older men and women were talking. Ellie heard Sarah Withers grumbling about something again and was about to tune it out. Then the words caught at her.

“— prancing around with bodyguards and probably getting all sorts of special privileges, it’s a scandal I tell you!”

“While we go hungry!” whined a woman with the hanging flesh of the formerly fat. “I hear they’re getting all the food they want!”

“We don’t get enough heat, either,” someone else growled. “They should’ve fixed this weird change-thing by now — if they’re even trying to fix it, which I doubt.”

“When’s the National Guard going to get here, that’s what I want to know!” complained a fourth.

“Nothing but a power grab, I tell you, they’re bullies lording it over the rest of us,” chimed in another.

“Shhhh!” said Sarah, motioning at Ellie.

Ellie stared at them for a moment, too appalled to form coherent words. Just then Karen bustled in. She took in the situation at a glance and her eyes flashed dangerously.

“You bunch of dumb gossips still at it?” Karen jeered. “Sitting on your asses while you bitch and moan?”

Some of the folks at the table stared back defiantly. Others looked away nervously, like guilty schoolchildren.

“I’m working dawn to dusk trying to keep us all alive,” Ellie said, her voice rising a little as she went on. “My husband is fighting men who want to make slaves out of us all — you too!” Stop! she thought and took a deep breath. People are never convinced by yelling at them, foolish people least of all. She dropped the rest and turned away. Allison should be dealing with this, not me. It’s not my job!

“My friends are risking their lives for you worthless goddamn idiots!” Karen snarled. “The least you could do is show some gratitude!” She stalked out of the room after Ellie.

They were both still angry when they reached the infirmary. Doc Brown and Julia instantly peppered Ellie with questions about the Wall and the militia.

“We’ve got only the foggiest idea what we’re up against,” the Doctor complained. “Swords? Arrows? Spears? I’m assuming a lot of stabbing and slashing wounds, but what’s typical of this kind of battle? What should we be ready for? None of my books cover this. I checked the MSF manuals and all they’ve got is some stuff about machete wounds! Nobody seems to have any idea what we’re going to be facing!?”

“That’s exactly it, Doc,” Ellie told him frankly. “We don’t know. This is new territory for all of us. I asked Sam and his guess is the same as yours — arrow wounds, slashes and stabs. Beyond that, who knows?”

“Marshall said to be ready for lots of bleeding,” Karen growled. “But all we’ve got is saline, and a tiny supply of plasma and platelets that we’ve strained out of our jerry-rigged excuse for a centrifuge. Maybe twenty or thirty patient’s worth, possibly fifty if we stretch it hard. Is that going to be enough?”

“There’s just no way to know in advance, Karen,” Ellie told her patiently, glad to bury herself in medical details after the unpleasant confrontation in the cafeteria. “At least we’ve got a lot of that disinfectant Mrs. Munzer made.”

“And if it’s not enough, then it’s not,” Doc Brown said grimly. He looked at Julia significantly. “Haiti again.”

The older nurse looked back at him and grimaced, then nodded. “When we were in Haiti the field hospital ran out of everything,” she explained. “It was bad, losing so many people who should have made it.”

“That does happen in many places in this world,” Bietta interjected. Her long face was set and cold-looking, her eyes turned inward as if at a bad memory. Abruptly her expression turned outward and she said, almost fiercely, “We can only do what we can do. But we shall do that well!”

Karen looked at her oddly for a moment, nodded decisively. “Right. Okay, Doc, we have what we have. So who does what, when, and where?”

“‘Where’ is a good question.” Brown looked at Ellie significantly.

“The Marshall sent me word on the ‘where’ during supper,” Ellie offered. “He’s set aside the big stone shop next to the old Phillips station as an infirmary. He said he’s having some of the young kids and the oldest volunteers clean it up, they’ll act as corpsmen for us.”

“That’s one piece of good news,” Brown grunted. “Okay, as to who goes and who stays. I’m minded to leave Julia here — ”

“Not on your life, Jonas!” the older nurse scowled at him. “I’ve got more field experience than anyone else here.”

“I must come too,” proclaimed Bietta. “I have served in worse conditions than this primitive war. I know what to do.”

“And if you think you’re leaving me behind to go stir-crazy wondering what’s happening, you’d better think again, Doc!” Karen flared.

“Doctor Brown, the Town will just have to fend for itself for a while,” Ellie quietly said, mentally adding And learn to be grateful for what they have! “We five medical professionals are all that Lyons has. We’ve got to be there for our men who are facing the greatest danger, and the Marshall thinks that’s going to be the Wall.”

“Not quite all that Lyons has,” said a voice behind her.

Ellie turned to find Sherry Bistek and one of the other massage therapists standing in the door.

“Pam and I both have first aid training,” Sherry said. “We’ll cover the clinic while you’re off at the war. We’re better than nothing.”

Doc Brown nodded slowly. “All right then. The four nurses and me, down to the Wall. Sherry, you and Pam and anyone else you can scrape up, tend to the clinic. Let’s pack, people, and pack carefully. How much ice do we still have in the freezer, Ellie?”

“Several hundred pounds, though it’s getting pretty shriveled,” she answered. “Good thing Mister Abbaku thought to stock that while we still had nights cold enough to freeze water.”

“We’ll take all the plasma and platelets, and everything else but about half the basic first aid supplies, and also leave the long-term care stuff,” Brown decided. “Start packing, and see if we can find a runner to go back and forth for us.”

Sherry cleared her throat diffidently. “Unh, I’ve already brought you two of those,” she said. “Come on in, boys.”

Ellie stared as Jimmy and Bran popped through the door. Her heart lurched. “But they’re just boys!” she cried. My little boy, running messages through a war zone!

“Boys are all we have, Ellie,” Sherry Bistek said quietly. “Every able-bodied man in town is already doing something else.”

“Please, Mom, we want to help,” Jimmy begged. “We’ve got our bikes, we can ride fast an’ we know where everything is, I showed Bran today. We can do it!”

Ellie swallowed her fear. My little boy wants to help — and his daddy is leading a battle miles away. How can I keep him home? He won’t stay there, I can see it in his face. Better he be near me, at least some of the time.

“Okay,” she heard herself say. It sounded like a sentence of doom in her ears.

“The when,” Doc Brown declared, “is now.”

❀ ❁ ❀

24

— War begins —

Lyons, Colorado, early May, 1998.

The setting sun still fired the edges of purple clouds in the western sky. Dusk already shrouded the valley behind the long lumpy summits of Red Mountain. A waning moon shone down on Sam where he lay prone in a gap in the barbed wire fence atop the little pass. He looked four hundred feet down the long rumpled slopes to the meadow below. Three little draws ran together to form Lykins Gulch, which sawed through the south end of Red Mountain to drain this pocket valley. The canyon it made was almost a copy of the entrance to Lyons, done in one-quarter scale. It had a tiny creek at the bottom instead of the snowmelt-swollen Saint Vrain River.

Rags of cloud intermittently veiled the moon. One drifted aside to flood the valley with pale light.

Sam wriggled a little more forward on his belly, carefully avoiding the loops and coils of wire. He propped his upper body on his elbows between two sage bushes and scanned the roughly-triangular basin through his binoculars. The sharp aromatic scents of crushed sage and rabbit brush filled his nostrils. He could dimly see the moonlit scars of old rock quarries down in the bottom, a few fence posts — and three horsemen. They had just cautiously made their way out of the canyon into this pocket valley. Now they were following the eroded dirt road that led to the pass where he lay. They had binoculars too, though the night made it doubtful whether they could see him. Only the sharp contrast they made against the short grasses enabled him to pick them out. Fitful breezes stirred the sage and rustled the pines on the mountainside, drowning out any merely-human sounds.

For a moment the scene was surreal. I’m lying on a mountainside waiting for men who want to kill me! he thought, his skin crawling. This is America, not Okinawa! He struggled for a moment to keep his center.

The disorientation passed and left a cold purpose in its place. I’m a commander leading troops now, leading them into war, he told himself. Too soon, they have to be ready to kill, and so do I. It was all theory when I trained — even the sparring with other black belts was never really dangerous to anything but my pride. But this….this is for real. These men coming at us have to be less than animals to me now, less than hunting a deer for winter meat.

Bart Geil crawled up next to him, and Tim wormed his way up on Sam’s other side. Both moved pretty quietly, though the rancher clearly had more practice.

“Three on horses,” Sam whispered to Bart. “I think there’s at least one more staying back in the canyon.” Sam pointed to the other way out of the triangular valley, a lower, broader pass to the southwest. “Are your kin still over there, back in Geer Canyon?”

Bart shook his head, a quick jerk, then made a vague gesture to the west. “Naw. We moved everybody to the upper ranch a couple weeks ago. Too many raids on the stock from city people. Maw and Aunt Bertha were pretty ripshit over abandoning their houses. But they’re just too close to the damn road. We packed everything that we could carry.” He added as an afterthought “My Susie ‘taint too happy about camping out neither, but my kids are lovin’ it.”

The three horsemen below began to move. They stayed in a tight cluster as they followed the old road toward the quarries. The rancher scowled. He glanced worriedly behind himself, toward a dirt side road that led up to the forested plateau where his family hid.

“These guys are looking for me and my crew,” Sam reminded him. “Not you. I think we’d best send you up the hill to get your folk ready for morning. Take that load of bolts and extra crossbows with you. We’ll meet back here at first light. I’ll need your folks in the trees along the west side, ready to shoot and fall back up the hill. And I need them mounted and ready to move fast, like we talked about.”

“We’ll be there,” the rancher promised grimly. He crawled backwards and faded down the slope behind them. Presently Sam heard heavy hoofbeats making their way up the mountainside, hidden in the trees.

Almost time to blood my troops, he thought. God help us all.

“Tim,” Sam whispered. “Fetch Drew, Fred, Bruce, and Laura up here, bows at the ready. We’re going to try to take out all three of these scouts, or at least their horses.”

Tim nodded, wriggled backwards and vanished. Sam watched the three scouts. They checked for a while at a barbed-wire fence above the quarries. The Marshall’s crew had wired that one shut entirely. Sam distantly heard the ping of wire cutters. The road carried them below a bulge of hillside for a few minutes. Sam took advantage of the time to ready his own bow and four arrows. Tim, Drew, Fred, Bruce, and Laura came crawling back. They took up stations to either side of him and did the same. Sam went back to watching as the twilight deepened. He ignored minor chafing from his armor, the itch of drying sweat, and a droning insect bumbling by. The moon disappeared behind another cloud and took most of the light away.

It seemed a long time but finally he saw dark shadows moving on the road. He heard the slow click of iron horseshoes against hard-packed dirt and rocks. The men had crested the lower rise and were crossing a long narrow meadow on the knees of the mountainside. They were a little more than a thousand feet from the pass and less than a hundred feet lower. They stopped for a while to cut more wire and Sam saw the glitter of binoculars again. He hoped his own weren’t similarly visible. After a few minutes they came on again. The spine of the little ridge narrowed as the riders climbed it. Soon they were riding a narrow grassy ramp snaking between hollows filled with mountain mahogany, coming straight towards the Gatherers. Any moment now. Clouds revealed the moon again.

Sam signaled and the six gatherers rose to their feet as one. Almost in unison they drew and loosed. Six arrows flew towards the three horsemen limned in moonlight. They struck with deadly effect. One man gave a bubbling cry as an arrow sank into his belly and a second ripped through his throat. Then he fell off his horse, one foot still tangled in a stirrup. That horse stopped, not sure what to do about the drag and the sudden release of weight.

A second man shrieked as one arrow took him in the shoulder and another slashed into his ribs. His horse shied off the trail into the mountain mahogany. It tripped on one of the hidden wires and threw the man into the thorny scrub. The shrieking went on for a while, growing wetter as it did. Sam’s stomach clenched and he forced the noise out of his awareness.

The third man swore as an arrow hissed just over his shoulder, barely nipping one ear, and then the second one hammered into his horse’s throat. The horse reared and nearly fell over backwards. The rider barely managed to kick his stirrups free and fling himself away into the brush. The horse tried to circle and run downhill, stumbled on loose rooks and crashed into the brush-filled canyon, nearly falling on its rider as the man crawled away.

Sam drew a second arrow, hunted the thrown man more by instinct than by sight. There was a thrashing in the brush. He aimed and loosed without thinking about it and was rewarded by a choking gasp. His stomach clenched again. How many more deaths on my soul tonight? Tomorrow? And the days to come? he wondered.

“Got all three!” crowed Tim, pumping a fist in the air.

“Recover our arrows,” Sam ordered, thinking, He needs to see what an arrow does to a man. “And collect the horses, if you can.”

Sam raised his binoculars again, searched for the straggler down in the valley and found him. The fourth scout was still watching his companions. As Sam found him the man lowered his own binoculars and flicked his reins. He turned his horse in a circle and hurried back out through the little canyon.

Sam kept scanning the valley, peripherally watching and listening as Laura led the crew down to the killing ground. The wounded horse thrashed down in the canyon, bleeding out twenty yards below the path. The horse that had stumbled over the hidden wire was pulled up, holding that hoof off the ground and possibly lame. The third stood still, looking back at its fallen rider in obvious perplexity. Drew went to it, took control of its bridle while Fred and Bruce disentangled the dead scout’s boot. The sage-scented air was harsh now with the stink of blood and shit as bowels relaxed in death.

Fred grunted a little as he pulled an arrow all the way through the dead man’s throat, handed the blood-dripping thing to his cousin. “Here’s yours, Bruce. That one of mine in his gut’ll be harder; I think it’s lodged in a bone. Lemme use your knife.”

Drew looked away and took a firmer grip on the horse, his expression faintly sick in the moonlight as Fred went to work.

Laura and Tim wrestled the shrieker free from the bushes, lugged him to the open path. The movement jostled the arrows in his wounds and he screamed louder. His bladder voided and dark iron wetness sprayed from his mouth. Tim looked nauseated as the man’s blood spattered over his arm.

Laura drew her own knife. “He’s a goner, Tim. We can either let him suffer until he drowns in his own blood, or set him free of the pain. I know which I’d rather have done to me. Can you make yourself hold his head still?”

Tim gulped and nodded, took a deep breath and grasped the screaming man’s head by the ears.

“Tip it back a little more. There,” Laura said. Then she stabbed her long knife up under the man’s chin and into his brain. The screaming stopped. The body sprattled for an instant and then went limp. She withdrew the knife and cleaned it on the man’s clothes. “That was just right, Tim, thanks. He’d thank you too, if he could. Drowning in your own blood’s a slow and nasty way to go, I hear.”

Tim shuddered and released the dead man’s head. He groped for a rag and began to clean the blood off his hands as Laura methodically yanked arrows out of the now-still body.

Bruce left Fred to finish with the first corpse and waded into the brush looking for the third man.

“Sensei?” He called up to Sam. “Where’d he go down?”

“Left,” Sam answered laconically, lowering the binoculars. He goat-footed his way down to the killing ground and then off the path, Bruce at his side. “Watch out for wires in the bushes.”

They cautiously groped their way into the scrub. Bruce cursed softly as he nearly tripped over one wire and then did trip on a second.

“Here,” Sam said, feeling his way around a boot. He sensed the abrupt tension in the not-a-corpse. He dodged back just as the wounded man stabbed viciously at him with a knife. The blade passed a hair from Sam’s leg. He kicked out, more by instinct than conscious direction, and heard the knife clatter on a rock as it bounced away. The man gasped, sobbed, and tried to lunge at him out of the brush. Thorny branches hampered his movements and turned a wild punch into a useless thrashing-about. Sam swayed aside as thorns clawed at him in turn. He caught a wrist and twisted. The man fell forward, arm suddenly doubled against his back. He cried out as Sam’s last arrow jinked in his leg and tore muscle anew. Then Sam had him pinned on the ground, sobbing and moaning.

“Surrender, you fool,” Sam growled at him. “Don’t make us have to kill you.”

Bruce drew his gladius and set the cold metal against the man’s neck.

“Listen to the Captain,” he advised.

Sam felt resistance drain out of the body under his knee.

“I surrender,” came back a muffled reply laced with pain.

Sam searched the downed scout before letting him move. There weren’t any other weapons in reach, even when he rolled the man over roughly and checked his coat. The arrow caught on a rock and snapped, the man nearly screamed as the stub jerked in his flesh.

“Hold still!” Sam ordered, then grasped the bloody shaft right behind the head and jerked the remaining wood through the wound. The man gasped and clutched at the hole in his leg with both hands. Blood welled darkly between his fingers but didn’t spray. Sam judged no major arteries or veins were hit. “Drew, patch him up enough so he doesn’t bleed to death. Now you,” Sam addressed the captive. “What’s your name?”

“Joe Flueger” came back. Drew knelt at his side and began slicing open the man’s pants leg preparatory to slapping a binding on the wound.

“Joe, you are now our prisoner,” Sam told him. “If you want to stay alive, you’d better stay peaceful. Try anything like that trick with the knife again and we’ll have to just kill you. You eager to die today?”

“No, sir.” The wounded man’s face was very white in the moonlight. Sam guessed that he wasn’t more than a couple years older than Drew, if that.

“Good. I’m going to ask you some questions. You answer them, then we send you down to town to get stitched up. Probably you’ll live. Your wound’s not too bad. Now, first question.”

Sam worked through who Joe reported to, who ran the Longmont army, who gave what kind of orders. Flueger talked willingly enough in a desperately scared sort of way. His answers were aided by occasional pricks from the point of Bruce’s sword. Drew finished the binding and left the prisoner alone as Sam got to the important part. “Now, why are you up here, Joe?”

The flow of words slowed. “To — to — to scout.”

“Scout for what, Joe?” Sam patiently asked.

“A way through.”

“A way to attack Lyons from behind, Joe?”

“Ummm, yeah,” Joe answered uncomfortably. “Sir.”

“And who’d be planning to use that attack route, Joe?”

“Umm, Captain Blackbeard,” Joe answered reluctantly.

Sam thought a moment, then described the black-bearded commander who had pursued his crew down the canal road. “That him?”

“Yeah! I didn’t know you knew him!” Joe answered, astonished.

“I don’t,” Sam answered tersely. “But I’ve seen him. How many men will he be bringing?”

Joe wiggled uncomfortably. “I don’t really know — Ow!” Bruce prodded him with the sharp tip of his sword. “Around three hundred! Maybe more — they say there’s more than three thousand in the Baron’s army.”

Sam felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. “Three — thousand? Does he have all of them here, outside Lyons?”

“No, just most,” Joe explained helpfully. “He left a few hundred behind in Longmont, in case of trouble with the Reds. Some of them got away after the big fight, you see. Lieutenant Jenner, he’s the scout commander, he thinks we got about twenty-seven or twenty-eight hundred here, counting everybody. Couple hundred of those aren’t fighters, though. We got some doctors and clerks and such.”

“So twenty-five hundred fighters, maybe, to attack Lyons,” Sam said flatly.

“Umm, yeah.” Joe looked around at the grim faces staring down at him. “I guess that’s more than you got, isn’t it?” he finished defiantly.

“Cindy, take the prisoner down to the Marshall,” Sam ordered tersely. “Tell him that we’ve got a report of twenty-five hundred fighters facing us beyond the Wall. We expect at least three hundred of them to make a flank attack from the south. Use the third cart; we’ve got it unloaded. Terry and Jerry, rig some way for this horse we just acquired to tow it. Cindy, keep a sharp eye on him. If he gives you any trouble you have my permission to practice your hog-tying on him.”

Cindy grinned speculatively at Joe. “He ought to be tied up at least a little right now, don’t you think, Sensei?”

“You be the judge, but please try not to strangle him by accident,” Sam cautioned the cowgirl. “The Marshall might have more questions,”

Sam left prisoner-management to her and started to turn away. His peripheral vision caught movement on the rough ridge of Red Mountain. Rocks clattered and a bush swayed as someone else beat a fast retreat down the east side of the mountain. The whole crew turned their heads to look.

“Shit, Sensei,” Laura said in a chagrinned voice. “They had more than one reserve scout.”

“I’m just glad he left now and not twenty minutes later,” Sam muttered. “Everybody keep your voices low. The wind probably masks what we say but let’s not take any more chances than we have to.” He turned to Laura. “Aerial reconnaissance just got even more important,” he said. “How soon after dawn can you get aloft?”

She thought for a moment. “Maybe an hour.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” Sam faced the rest of the Gather crew, who had come up from behind the log barricade. “Until then, let’s get busy.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“They march like a bunch of goddamned ducks,” Roger of Cambreath told Blackbeard, striding angrily at his left hand. “Wobbly, out-of-step, no coordination at all — I swear, Captain, if you hadn’t put most of the Society fighters at their backs to keep them together, we’d be strung out a mile or more.”

“Long as they fight, I don’t give a shit about how well they march,” Blackbeard grunted. “We won’t be on flat ground much longer anyway. Marching in the hills will be just plain impossible.”

He squinted ahead through the slanting morning light. Reflections glared off the broken windows of a handful of houses along the road. It couldn’t be much more than an hour past dawn. In his considered opinion it was a frigging miracle that this excuse for an army was even in motion this early. They were just about a mile south of Ute on Foothills Highway, and had settled into a pretty good clip. Blackbeard figured it would be about another forty minutes before they reached the side canyon through Red Mountain. He had sent Jenner and his two surviving scouts on ahead with orders to make damn sure there wasn’t another ambush waiting in the gap. He was grimly certain that there’d be one before they reached the pass to Lyons. Jenner’s report had given him an idea about that.

“How’s the armament situation?” he asked Roger. “You got a count on that yet?”

“They all have shields,” Roger told him. “Good one-inch plywood with traffic signs nailed over them, mostly, and at least a good club or rattan sword or a spear. Only about half of them have real swords, and that’s counting the batch that arrived from Longmont last night. I got priority on those from the quartermaster. A lot have belt knives too, maybe two-thirds. But we got exactly sixteen archers among the whole mob, and only a dozen of them are any good. And those are mostly Society, too, with some local bow-hunters.”

“That’s going to hurt us, Captain,” Dirk Adderhall commented, striding along on Blackbeard’s other side. Like Roger and Blackbeard both, the beefy man was a heavy-weapons fighter from Baron Green’s old SCA household. Also like Blackbeard, he found it easier to cope with the Changed world as his SCA persona, forgetting Dave Sullivan, the computer tech that he used to be. “And I’m not at all sure how good those shields are going to be against crossbows.”

Blackbeard hefted his own reflexively, tugging on the strap that held it against his back. Unlike most of the troops, he had a sandwich of rubber and high-grade plywood with aluminum cladding over it both inside and out. He hoped it constituted an improvement over the plain shields most of his men carried.

“Enough bellyaching,” he told his lieutenants. “It works or it doesn’t. Jenner’s scout said there were less than thirty of them. Even if they’ve doubled their numbers overnight, we still outnumber them five to one. We take that pass, it’s downhill to Lyons all the way, with damn little to stop us.”

Roger started to say something else but was interrupted by Dirk pointing skyward.

“Look at that!”

❀ ❁ ❀

The wind was cold in Laura’s face as the hang glider slipped through the morning air over Red Mountain. She had launched westerly over the back valley, banked into a thermal and corkscrewed up and over the top of the mountain with a hundred feet to spare. The lookout waved as she passed overhead and she waggled her wings a little in answer. Then she turned and proceeded south down the length of the ridge, still rising, and hunted for enemy scouts. The odds of catching one weren’t good. The top of the ridge had way too much mountain mahogany, broken rock, and stunted forest to hide in. But she wanted anyone down there to be nervous. That might make them miss things. When she got to the canyon of Lykins Gulch the search paid off. There were two Longmont scouts working their way up the east side of the ridge. They hadn’t gotten very far above the road yet. She banked and circled above them five times, the prearranged signal to let Sam know that she’d found somebody. Then she swung farther out over the highway and turned north toward Lyons again.

She soon found Blackbeard’s army.

Laura scrupulously circled above them. She took a rough headcount and noted weapons and armor. Despite good gloves her fingers were chilled by the time she finished her note to Sam. It was clumsier than she’d expected because she had to hang onto the control bar with three fingers while trying to write with the other two. She swung the hang-glider back over the mountain and loaded the note into a tin can. At the pass she looped in low and slow, loafing through the air. She aimed the drop can as best she could. A long streamer tied to it marked the descent and near-perfect landing just a couple yards below the breastwork. Sam gave her a barely-visible thumbs-up. Laura congratulated herself on her targeting as she swung back out over Red Mountain. It looked like Joe Flueger had been honest so far.

The Longmont water plants bracketed Ute only a few hundred feet east of the highway junction. Laura loafed over them both, high and slow. She gave the enemy army a good long scan with her binoculars. They’d packed a fair number of men into the plants themselves but had set up outdoor commissaries to feed them. The waiting lines were easy to count, the mob of men sitting and wolfing down their food only slightly less so.

“Damn,” she commented to herself. “They really do have more than a couple thousand here.”

She circled the main plant carefully, giving up a little altitude to get a better view. There was something going on in the middle of the big flat roof. A gang of men was unrolling a long piece of striped fabric while others wrestled something like an oversized laundry hamper. An archer fired at her so she sheered off and went to gain altitude in the thermal above the cement plant. A flock of vultures lazed there, their stink cloying her nostrils as she rose above them, her mind worrying at what she’d seen.

“That thing looks familiar, but what the hell is it?” she fretted.

When she was back above bowshot range she returned and loitered over the water plant. They had the basket thing on its side now, it had some kind of double-tube contraption above it. Abruptly the tubes vomited flames and the striped thing began to swell.

“A hot-air balloon,” she said wonderingly.

❀ ❁ ❀

“My Lord, it should be ready for launch in perhaps ten minutes,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got about four thousand feet of nylon cable for the tether.”

Baron Green surveyed the swelling balloon covetously. “Very good, Jenkins! This is going to be fun.” Doyle handed him a pair of binoculars. Green glanced up at the loitering glider, staying well out of arrow range. “Bring me those signal flags, Doyle, and the biggest crossbow we’ve got.” The servant bowed and hurried away.

“My Lord,” Jenkins ventured nervously. “Wouldn’t it be best if you stayed down here with your troops? We could send someone else up to scout.”

“Not a chance!” Green jovially told him. “My toy, my fun. You get to stay here and watch for my signals. When I’m satisfied that I’ve seen enough, I’ll have you pull me in.” He turned to Sully and Murchison. “Meanwhile keep your men busy on those siege ladders. It should take Blackbeard a few hours to break through the pass and get around behind the town. Once he’s threatening them there they’ll have to pull men away from the wall to stop him. That’s when we launch the frontal attack.”

“Yes, my Lord,” the two captains said almost in unison as they saluted.

“Everything is going splendidly.” Green smirked. His balloon swelled and began to rise off the roof.

❀ ❁ ❀

Laura swung wide for another pass over the enemy camp. The men were done eating and their sergeants had bullied them into long files. Some of those had already marched over to loaded wagons drawn by men in chains. As she watched, covers were pulled back to reveal big loads of lumber. The men began spreading the beams out on the pavement in rows. Tools were produced and sawing and hammering soon echoed faintly up to her ears.

“Yup, siege ladders,” she muttered, and swung back over to the Wall to drop another report.

She climbed another thermal before returning, playing tag with a hawk as they both rode the rising air. The bird glared at her contemptuously and soared away. She returned to the water plant and found the balloon slowly rising into the sky like a gaudy top. They had a big drum of neon-red cable anchored to the roof of the water plant and were gradually metering it out. Propane flames roared in the still air, heat fighting gravity to lift the bulbous fabric and its dangling contraption. It would be a while before it reached her elevation. She swung over the camp again.

❀ ❁ ❀

“There are men on horses in the trees,” Roger told Blackbeard. “Not sure how many, but at least a few.”

Blackbeard nodded. “I thought they might do that. Have the men keep their shields towards the woods as we move. Everybody formed up?”

“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” his lieutenant grumbled. Roger lowered his helmet into place. It looked like a tin can with a conical top and a grill of heavy wire mesh over the face. All of the Society fighters here had similar head protection. The main body of troops had a motley of football and motorcycle helmets, hard hats, a few Army or National Guard helmets, and even a couple turbans.

Blackbeard lowered his own helmet. It had an adjustable visor that he kept in the open position for now. Dirk checked it and handed him his shield, then Blackbeard returned the favor for the other man.

“All right, follow the plan. Shields up, and wait for my signal,” he said.

He drew his sword, flourished it to catch the eyes of his bugler, and pointed forward. The bugler blew a single blast. The whole mass of men began to move, slowly and untidily, but steadily, north and west up the little valley. Toward the pass where the Lyons defenders waited.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Here they come,” Sam said tersely, looking down from the slopes of the rocky knob named Red Hill. The breastworks in the pass were right below him. “Art, one blast on our own horn.”

The young Gatherer raised a French horn and sent a pure clear note into the still morning air. The men and women behind the wooden breastworks stood up straighter. In the forest, the Geils and their numerous kin began to move. The ranchers flitted from tree to tree as they filtered down slope toward the attackers.

Now which way will he move? Sam thought, watching carefully. He and all of his crew were already aching and tired from a frantic night of stringing wire and cutting wood. Two hours ago the Marshall had sent him thirty more men drawn from the younger militia volunteers. They were mingled with his Gatherers down the length of the extended breastworks. They’d loaded up the canyon on the east side of the hill with as much barbed wire as they could spare, counting on that, the broken terrain, and the mountain mahogany to keep the enemy from flanking the whole thing onto higher ground. Sam thanked God that the back side of Red Mountain was so treacherous with shattered rock. The enemy could have scaled the far side and dropped straight down the slope onto the defenders, but only at grave risk to their own legs, and with lots of warning. The only real risk to Sam’s eastern flank was the chance that some archers might find a perch and drop arrows down on them. He had sent a few of his own up there just in case.

The western flank, on the other hand, was a lot more vulnerable. He stared at it, calculating. The rough breastwork, really just a log fence, ran upslope to the lip of a sharp little canyon cutting among the trees. That canyon wasn’t even twenty feet deep, a mere wrinkle in the landscape, but it had a steep eastern wall and was floored with loose broken rock. The Marshall’s crew had pitched most of the cut branches down into that canyon during the breastwork construction, to make it still more treacherous for anyone trying to get around the defenders. But on the little canyon’s far side a long gentle slope continued up through the forest. The trees were thicker there but still plenty passable on horse or foot. That slope climbed slowly for a mile or more west, all the way up to the high meadows where the Geils had their women and children hid. A dirt road cut north around the canyon and upslope through those woods. Its lower end began right behind the breastworks. The attackers couldn’t see it from their position but it showed on the topo maps. Sam was grimly certain that the enemy hadn’t neglected to arm themselves with the best maps they could find. Longmont had plenty of outdoor supply stores.

If the enemy commander detached a band of men to slog the long way around through the forest and down that road, they could fall on the defenders from behind.

Sam had a few men posted up there, enough he hoped to give warning. There wasn’t time to do anything else about the problem. He looked back down slope at the valley. The enemy was most of the way across the floor, their vanguard almost to the lowest quarry scar. Abruptly the leader waved his sword. A bugle blew and the whole mass churned and faced west. Their unshielded right sides were towards the pass now, but too far away for even the longest bowshot. They began slogging uphill into the forest.

Shit! Sam thought worriedly. He’s a smart bastard. They’ll use the trees for cover and avoid our killing zone along the old road entirely. Now we find out how good our trap-work was last night. And how good the ranchers are this morning.

“Two blasts, Art, then three,” Sam instructed. I hope everybody remembers what they’re supposed to do!

❀ ❁ ❀

The maneuver wasn’t perfect by any means, but Blackbeard was tolerably pleased. The vast majority of his force had remembered his orders and made the turn without difficulty. Now they slogged slowly uphill through the thickening trees. Sagebrush and cinquefoil and scattered clumps of mountain mahogany clawed at them. Trees broke their formation into salients, but that was all right. Some clusters made better time up the slope than others. It turned his front into a giant saw-toothed advance into the forest.

Crossbows began to twang and darts slashed out of the trees. Blackbeard reflexively raised his shield a little higher. He felt a dart punch into it with a metallic crunch. A slight bump appeared on the shield’s inner surface a few inches below his nose. The crossbow bolt had almost made it through. He frowned. He was reasonably sure that his sandwich shield had more stopping power than the plywood versions his men were using.

Startled howls told the tale. Some of the bolts were getting through the shields all right. Men staggered and fell, darts feathering their screaming bodies. The rest slowed but didn’t stop picking their way over the rough ground. The wave of bolts tapered off. The sound of ratchets echoed through the woods as the shooters paused to reload.

“Don’t give them time, keep at them!” Blackbeard shouted. He gasped for breath a few times in the thin Colorado air, then pressed on uphill. He estimated that they were still well below the pass. A couple hundred feet more, and they could turn north again and come on the Lyons fuckers’ little wooden fort from above.

❀ ❁ ❀

The balloon climbed slowly, hindered by the growing length of nylon cable dragging below it, but it climbed. One of Jenkin’s men who had previous experience with balloons was operating it, leaving Green free to survey the widening terrain below. The gas jets roared overhead, drowning out any sounds from below. He could see his men busily sawing and hammering at the siege ladders a-building. He turned his binoculars towards the Wall. The balloon was nearly five hundred feet up now and beginning to catch the morning breeze. It slid slowly across the sky towards the cleared zone. The cable steadily unwound below as the surging fabric lifted Green higher. In a while he would have a good angle of view on the Wall itself. With some more aid from the morning breeze he ought to be able to see just what these Lyons bastards were hiding behind it.

The pesky hang glider had gone back to drop another message behind the Wall and gain some more altitude. Now it was turning towards him again. Green readied his crossbow and smiled savagely. This was a big commercial crossbow made for pig-hunting. The darts had four-lobed razor-edged heads and the springs packed plenty of power. It could probably put a bolt right through a man, lengthwise.

“Come closer, you little bastard,” he crooned under his breath, and stroked the stock. “I’ve got something just for you.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Laura banked out of the thermal and glided toward the gaudy balloon.

“Time to get a better look at you,” she muttered. “What are you trying to do anyway? Spy? Or drop things?”

She turned the glider into a long banked swoop. That would bring her past the balloon perhaps fifty feet from the basket and a little above it. The cold air slicked past, tugging at her hair and chapping her lips. She was glad she had goggles to shield her eyes. They did make it hard to see details. She squinted at the men in the basket. The smaller one was obviously operating the balloon, hands busy with the burner controls. The other, a big man in a green outfit of some kind, had something glittering on his head. She squinted harder, trying to make it out.

“Is that a crown?!” she blurted out incredulously. Then her eyes caught the thing he held in his hands, raising even now to point at her.

She tipped the glider sideways barely in time. The crossbow bolt sliced through the double covering over the air frame with a vicious szzt! The little glider twitched and her guts tried to crawl up into her mouth. For a moment Laura just tumbled away. She dove for speed until she was well outside his range again. Then she rebuilt her elevation in the thermal, gyring up among vultures and crows.

“Shit! That’s got to be the big numero-uno himself, Longmont’s own Baron Greed — I — mean — Green!” she exclaimed. “Bastard! You wait right there for Mama, ‘cause when I get back you’re going down!”

She turned the little glider toward the lookout station on Red Mountain. There was something she needed first.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Missed,” Green remarked, disappointed. Forgot about action and reaction. The balloon moved just a bit when I fired, he thought. Damn. Gotta watch out for that next time. Probably have to aim a little high to hit what I want.

The attendant, what was his name? — Josef! nodded nervously, plainly unsure whether he should even speak. Green dropped him from his awareness and went back to his binoculars. The hang glider was moving away now, probably intent on getting the Hell Out of Dodge. Green hoped the pilot had shit himself good and proper over the near-miss.

He turned his gaze back on the Wall. They were up a good seven hundred feet now. The breeze was tugging the balloon toward Lyons.

“Signal Jenkins to give me a little more slack,” he ordered. “Let’s get above them.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Never mind why I want it,” Laura snapped at the lookout in exasperation. “Just give it to me, and the cord too. If I can bring it back later I will. I promise your precious shelter will get built one way or the other. I’ll need your duct-tape for a minute but you can have that back right away. Now move it, soldier!”

It took a couple minutes to rig what she needed. Figuring out how to fasten it was harder. The glider was very sensitive to drag and balance. That was what made it so maneuverable in flight, and had possibly just saved her life a few minutes ago. She finally tied the cord off to the thick waist belt so that it would hang straight down in flight. Duct tape on the hole where the bolt had hit would have to do for emergency strengthening. The fabric hand’t let go when she landed so it was probably okay. But a little extra drag from the tape was worth it to guard against failure before she completed her task. What she planned to do would stress the frame enough at the best of times.

“Okay, now get ready to give me a push just like last time,” she instructed the lookout.

Five minutes later she was back in the air and corkscrewing up over the top of Red Mountain.

“Time for a rematch, suckah,” she crooned as she turned north on the wind.

❀ ❁ ❀

“We’re high enough,” Blackbeard declared, studying Red Mountain across the valley. “Signal right turn.”

The bugler went to work and the mass of men on the mountainside began to respond. Blackbeard had found a large-ish clearing with a big rock in the center. His lead troops were gathered around him. They kept the forest-men back enough that it was marginally safe for him to stand here exposed. He took the risk to get a better view and scanned the woods to either side for green-painted shields. There were a lot of them, but not as many as he’d started with.

He tried to guess how many of his force were down so far. There had been at least six or seven rounds of crossbow bolts, maybe more. The enemy were doing target-of-opportunity shooting now so he wasn’t sure how many times each bow had fired. The forest was loud with the sound of cranking ratchets and twanging wires. Some of those were the sounds of barbed wire and thinner trip wires being cut by his own men. He’d scrounged fifty wire-cutters and passed them out, and they’d come in mighty handy so far. The Lyons bastards had strung bits and pieces between practically every two trees. He’d probably lost a tenth of his men to enemy crossbows just because they had tripped on hidden wires and dropped their shields. It had slowed the uphill advance to a crawl, but now they were where he wanted to be.

Blackbeard waited a little longer. His rear-guard of Society fighters was strung along the slope, chasing the slackers ahead of them. When he thought they were just below him and the woods were thick with his survivors, he waved to the bugler again.

The brass tone rang out and the whole army turned again and began to move north, along the mountainside instead of up it. It was treacherous walking, left foot higher up the slope than the right foot. But they could keep their shields mostly on their left sides now, the way they were meant to be used. Gradually the men closed up into long lines of almost-overlapping shields snaking through the forest along the mountainside. The sound of crossbows slackened as fewer targets of opportunity presented themselves to the enemy. Blackbeard smiled. It had probably cost him seventy casualties to get here, but he still had a lot more men than his opponents.

Soon, he thought. Soon I’ll get a little revenge for Jones. For Eddie and Joey.

“Forward!” he shouted. “To the pass!”

❀ ❁ ❀

Bart Geil reined in his panting horse next to Sam.

“We took down a bunch, but there’s just a fuck of a lot of them, captain!” he shouted. “They’re coming along the slope right at you.”

“You’ve done what you could,” Sam assured him quietly. “Now pull out and get behind them. When you’re ready, hit ‘em hard and fast.”

“You got it! We’ll do the bastards but good!” the rancher vowed, and rode away again.

Sam turned to his crew, waiting tensely at the barricades.

“Stretch, everybody. Loosen up,” he ordered. “The main event starts soon, and you can’t afford to be tight and stiff.”

They took him at his word and began limbering up. Sam kept an eye on the rounded top of Red Hill looming over the pass. He’d sent Tim, Fred, and Bruce — his three best archers — up there, with orders to watch for enemies in the underbrush. He knew from Laura’s note that the Greenies had around fifteen archers of their own. The scouts hadn’t seen more than a handful actually with the army since they came through the canyon. The rest had to be somewhere.

❀ ❁ ❀

25

— Dances with Targets —

Lyons, Colorado, early May, 1998.

“It’s too fuckin’ far, Jenner,” hissed the lead archer. That was a buff thirty-something guy in camo who was named Dave Macky and had a face like a Marlboro commercial. He handled his compound bow like he’d been born with it in his hands. “And uphill besides. Even I can’t get an arrow up there. We’ve got to get closer to the top.”

“If we move straight up that ridge we’ll get into broken rock real quick,” Jenner warned him. Nominally the scout commander was in charge of this raid but Macky didn’t seem to recognize any authority but his own. Jenner wasn’t exactly afraid of him, but he definitely had the feeling he’d better not turn his back on this one for too long. Macky had the air of a special-forces guy with a bad discharge. Jenner unkindly wondered if it was because he’d ‘told’. The son of a bitch was too handsome to be natural. The scout leader continued “Most of the south and southeast face of the hill is steep and open just below the top. They got at least a couple guys posted up there watching. That’s why I led you up the gully when Captain Blackbeard peeled us off the main force.”

“Then we find a way up through whatever cover there is.” Macky didn’t quite make it an order. “You’re supposed to know this territory the best, so lead!”

“I’m doing that, if you’d just be a little patient.” Jenner fought to keep a whine out of his voice. “We’re gonna turn here and zig up this crack to the east face of the hill. There’s lots of cover if you don’t mind crawling through a few hundred vertical feet of mahogany. There’s a little rise at the top, then a saddle, then a rise to a long stretch, then another little saddle, and then the top of Red Hill. They’re forted up just on the other side of that.”

Macky snorted and then nodded, grudgingly.

Jenner led the way. He had to admit the son-of-a-bitch knew how to move quietly. The rest of the ten assigned to this squad weren’t as good. Maybe three more were competent and the others were no better than ‘weekend hunter’ in Jenner’s book. If they didn’t get better soon there wasn’t more than a fifty-fifty chance of making the top without giving themselves away. Jenner wondered if he ought to split the group. He could send the noisiest ones around by the long way just so they could get discovered and distract the Lyons men.

Macky seemed to agree. As they worked their way around and up the east face of the hill he kept dropping back and ‘correcting’ the noisier troops. Finally, halfway up the east slope, he crawled up to Jenner. They held a fierce whispered conversation that ended with the six men sent off to the north.

“There’s a little valley at the head of the next gulch,” Jenner explained to them. “Follow it to the top, you’ll be on the north side of the hill. Go right up it, the enemy are at the top.”

As they blundered away through the mahogany and cinquefoil, Macky looked at him with a vague trace of respect. “You move pretty good, Jenner. How long you been a hunter?”

“I’m not,” the scout admitted. “’cept with a camera. I’m a wildlife biologist, worked for the County Parks. This’s my usual beat right here, North Foothills Open Space Park — most of Red Mountain.”

Macky looked unbearably disgusted. “You’re a goddamn birdwatcher?”

Jenner shook his head. “Small mammals are my specialty, actually. Pikas, ground squirrels — ”

“Okay, okay, Christ on a crutch! I can’t believe I’m following a goddamned bunnyhugger into battle. Fuck! You’d better let me call the shots when we reach the top. You’ll probably get us all killed when you stop to admire a rat or something.” Mackey stared contemptuously at Jenner while he fingered his own knife, an oversized Buck model with a well-worn sheath.

The scout leader fought down a chill.

“Your choice,” he told Macky after he suppressed a tremor in his voice. “I know the way. I’ll tell you when we’re near the first peak.”

“Deal. Lead on, mouse-man.”

They went back to crawling uphill through the seemingly-endless thickets of mahogany.

And when we get to the top, we’ll see who gets killed and who lives, asshole, Jenner thought to himself.

❀ ❁ ❀

Laura banked into the next thermal, above Lyons itself this time. The asphalt and concrete of the town threw off plenty of warm air. It pushed her up fast enough to make her ears ache. She swallowed to equalize pressure, then began unwinding the rope coiled against her waist. There was about twenty feet of it, a little less with the knots. The metal object hanging on the end swayed dangerously close to her thigh before she got it safely lowered. Taking off with something that sharp so close to her skin had been nerve-wracking. It took a while with only one free hand but finally she got it positioned the way she wanted it. The wind drag made it hang down and about five feet behind her. She had guessed right about the balance. Gravity combined with the rushing air to hold the big bow-saw perfectly upright, teeth down.

She turned towards the balloon. It was three hundred feet lower and a half-mile away, and nearly over the Wall now.

“All right, Baron, time for you to go down,” she said grimly, and began the long dive.

❀ ❁ ❀

Green peered critically at the wall below. The long slack of the tether was trying to drag the balloon down and eastward, Josef fought it by flaring the burners at maximum. The balloon responded sluggishly; near the limit of its performance with so much weight hanging from it. The breeze was rushing past them now, pushing up-canyon around the floating obstacle. They were just over the Wall now, looking six hundred feet straight down on the tops of the hoardings. The defenders below ran around like ants, pointing upward helplessly. A few tried to fire arrows and bolts at him, but those were just a menace to themselves as they fell back, peaking out hundreds of feet below the basket.

“My Lord, the tether is awfully close to the ground back there,” Josef reported fearfully. “It could snag on something.”

“Anything it catches on is controlled by us,” Green answered absently, adjusting his focus. “It’s well clear of the wall and those stakes they put out. Now, what have they got under those tarps? A whole row of them against the back of the Wall, with a pair of ladders bracketing each one. Five, ten, fifteen — at least twenty-six, twenty-seven mysterious ‘some-things’ under tarps. No, those aren’t ladders; those are slide-ways. They’re hiding something that they plan to slide up to the top of the wall when it’s time to use it, but they don’t want us to see before-hand. My, my, my. Something kinda curved on the up end and a few feet long. You clever bastards — you built scorpions! Or ballistae, maybe — hard to be sure. That sure ups the cost of a front attack, yes indeed. Ed was right, you’re a tricky bunch. Probably be best to just massacre most of you, after he breaks in. Can’t trust tricky people to surrender and stay that way.”

Green lowered his binoculars and turned to his operator, shouting over the noise of the gas jets. “Okay, I’ve seen enough. Signal Jenkins to haul us in.”

Josef started to reach for the signal flags just as the balloon twitched. An odd scraping noise came from above.

“What the hell was that?” Green demanded.

The horrified expression on Josef’s face, combined with the direction of his stare, was enough. Green wheeled and saw the glider swinging away, something glittering below it.

“That bastard’s back again! What’s he trying to do?”

❀ ❁ ❀

Laura struggled to get the glider back into a climb. The saw hadn’t quite caught in the fabric, maybe scratched it a little but no dramatic slash like she’d hoped. The contact had still been enough of a jerk to throw her off balance.

She debated going back for a second attempt. It might not work at all, and every try brought her near the damn Baron’s crossbow.

“Suck it up, Soldier,” she muttered, and climbed the thermal.

❀ ❁ ❀

Green searched for the glider through his binoculars, found it, lost it, found it again as it corkscrewed up the clear sky. He absently wished he had managed to catch one of those thermals with the balloon. Then they could throttle back on the gas; the roaring was giving him a headache. Finally he focused on it and peered at the thing flashing in the sun below it.

“Something metal?” he muttered to himself. “Metal — oh shit, some kind of blade!”

He snatched up his crossbow and fumbled with the cocking mechanism.

The glider was sliding down out of the sky like a remorseless angel, straight at him, with the glittering deadly saw hanging below it.

❀ ❁ ❀

The first crossbow bolt passed low, many yards away. Laura ignored it, trying to stay on line and above the round top of the balloon. Maybe if she passed across it just a little bit lower this time, so that the saw scraped up and over, it would catch and cut better.

Of course, that meant she’d have to come within the Baron’s crossbow range, and stay there for some very long seconds.

“Just a minute longer, God,” Laura prayed as the wind roared past. “One more minute —”

❀ ❁ ❀

Green cranked the ratchet frantically, cursing himself for not bringing two crossbows. He slammed a second bolt into it, raised and fired just as the glider started to pass overhead. He’d always shot best when he let instinct take over, so maybe —

❀ ❁ ❀

There was a sharp ripping sound immediately followed by another one, and the tail of the glider twitched slightly. Laura corrected automatically without thinking about it. Then the teeth of the hanging ripsaw bit into the fabric dome below her, caught and jerked back as friction slowed it. The glider jinked in the air as though it had hit an invisible wall. Laura felt like some giant had suddenly tried to tear her in half at the waist. There was a ripping sound just below her. Then the glider fell past and sheered off to the left. She fought for control, vaguely aware that the hanging saw was whipping through the air scant feet from her fragile craft. A hundred feet lower and three hundred farther east, she got her equilibrium back and banked in a circle. Where was the balloon?

❀ ❁ ❀

“Oh shit!” screamed Green as his bolt slashed open the bulging side of the balloon, doing far more damage than the blade. A great belch of escaping hot air shoved the balloon west, then the cable jerked the basket back east. His feet left the floor as the basket railing struck him in the belly. He dropped the crossbow as he doubled over and grabbed for a hold — just a little too late.

❀ ❁ ❀

The balloon’s dome was split, deformed by outrushing hot air on the top and a yards-long gash in one side. Laura looked over her shoulder. There was a neat hole punched right through one of her tail vanes, edges flapping a little. She whistled and turned back to the target.

She was just in time to make eye contact with a small desperate face. The hapless operator clung to the basket and stared at her helplessly. Then the balloon’s collapsing fabric got too close to the propane burners and burst into flames. The mass and the man fell astonishingly fast, still pushed west by the breeze, and landed hard behind the Wall.

“Sorry, little man,” she muttered. “But at least we can scratch one Baron!”

Laura banked to the south. The folks at the Wall would figure it out pretty quickly, but Sam would want to know about this — and by now the battle at the pass should be nearly joined. She’d hate to miss it entirely, so she’d better hurry up and give the lookout back his saw.

❀ ❁ ❀

Become one with the land, the old masters supposedly said, or some such platitude.

Tim sat with his back to a huge boulder, his bow in his lap and face to the east. He gazed out from a little east of the top of Red Hill. The wrinkled slopes of the larger ridge on which it stood crested a mile to the north in the multiple peaks of Red Mountain. He’d seen Laura land there and take off again a while ago. Right now he struggled to quell his body’s constant urge to do, and tried to just be. Somewhere out there were a dozen or so archers unaccounted for. Sensei wanted them found. Tim knew he sure wasn’t going to do that by thrashing around in the mahogany, but maybe there was another way. He’d tried this a few times while out hunting with Sensei and his own dad. Distantly he tried not to wonder what was happening to Dad and Mom back in Montana.

Just sit, and be, and let the deer come to you, he thought. Sensei does it — he gets his buck every year, and an elk too. He taught you — you can do it too. He said to watch, and listen, and let the knowing come, and you can find whatever you’re hunting for.

Fred had taken the south face of the hill, Bruce the north. Tim knew where they were hiding, watching, but their missions were only superficially the same as his own.

He slowed his breathing, sank down into himself. He let the fitful breezes flow over him. Insect chirps grew louder, faded a little into a textured hum. It was rich with information about food and matings, good egg-laying spots and the terror of insectivores. Last year’s leaves crackled under the hooves of a deer. She was hiding in the mahogany barely fifty feet away. Her hungry fawn browsed beside her. Pikas and ground squirrels busily scampered among the rocks and shrubs. They were nibbling spring growth and starting to rebuild winter-drained fat reserves. A distant coyote skulked its way over a ridge and vanished, intent on something out of sight.

But they weren’t what he wanted. He tuned them down, pushed them to the background like washed-out mountains in a Musashi water-color. With the patience of a hunter, he waited, and searched, and waited. Vision sharpened and yet faded as he discarded what he didn’t need. Hearing grew, and scent with it — a thousand messages on the breeze. They too were mostly irrelevant. He concentrated on listening, and watching. Watching for the bush that moved against the breeze. Listening for the silence where the living things should not be silent.

There was an aching void out there on the mountainside. A place where the wild things froze and hid while their much larger, sweaty, meat-smelling, predatory cousins aggressively prowled their way up the slopes. Tim sought that void, that quiet place in a lapping tide of life where no quiet place should be. It was coming closer. Already it had crossed the far knob. It headed west along the little ridge that led to his spot on Red Hill. Closer now, he could make out individual cracklings in the greater stillness. Two, four, no, five men moved out there. Four closing in towards him with their own hunter’s patience. Two of those were already aware of him, changing their paths toward him. A fifth hung back, somehow reluctant. Another group moved much farther away to the north, somewhere, but they were easy prey for Bruce and so he ignored them. Five men crept forward under the mahogany.

They scared the wild things, grounds squirrel and pika, magpie and wren. Those chose silence and immobility in a desperate bid to remain unnoticed, or frantically took wing. Thus they revealed as much as would speech, had they had that gift. Shouts of silence and the occasional whirr of wings or flight of a deer marked the invaders’ paths.

Tim’s hands drifted to his bow.

Four were in range now. The closest one was making a dry crackling in last year’s mahogany leaves. That must be the man reaching for his own bow.

An arrow drifted into Tim’s hands, found his bow, loosed. He paused, shifted aim a little, waited. A crackling, a focus, and another arrow flew to land a dozen feet farther on. Both landed with meaty thunks. Brief thrashings came from the bushes, and Tim launched a third arrow, and then a fourth. There was a single discordant yelp — a branch had slightly deflected that one and the target wasn’t dead, maybe a lung pierced but not heart or brain. Gradually the trance loosened its hold on Tim, just a little, and he moved. The fifth man was crawling closer after a long hesitation, but not aggressively. He moved well, yet he didn’t seem to be hunting Tim. He was heading for the dead men. Tim heard the faint gasp of the last man’s horror when he found the first, yet that one kept on searching. He wanted something.

Tim melted into the mahogany, sliding through it like a deer — like a Hunter. He passed one corpse. The arrow had severed the man’s spine high on the shoulders, leaving the limp body with open eyes that glazed over even as Tim passed. He felt a remote satisfaction but there was no time for more. He stepped over the second — this arrow had nailed the man to the ground right through his heart. A small part of Tim’s mind flashed astonishment at making two such shots, but the rest ignored it. The Hunt wasn’t done yet.

The fifth man and Tim arrived at the not-quite-dead one in the same moment, but only one of them knew that. Tim paused, watched and listened through the last bush. The fifth man found the bleeding wreck, recoiled a little, then hesitated, touched it tentatively. The dying one awoke at the touch. His mouth bubbled rich coppery blood brimming with health. Brief regret touched Tim, remote as midnight dew. He ignored that too.

“Macky,” whispered the fifth man next to the dying one’s ear, trembling. “Macky, it’s Jenner. Tark’s dead, I think they’re all dead, Macky. What happened?”

“I killed them,” Tim said as he stepped forward and drew the bow in a single motion. He stared at the last man over the length of his fifth arrow. “They were hunting me, so I hunted them first.”

The fifth one, Jenner, recoiled in shock to find Tim looming over him. He groveled helplessly among the mahogany-stems, so prey-like that Tim nearly killed him then and there. But there was already more fresh meat than could be readily eaten. The song-dogs would scavenge well here for days, the magpies and crows with them. Dimly Tim marveled that he even saw it that way. Defense-of-the-pack wrestled at the back of his mind with something… else.

Macky opened his eyes, pain wracked, and drooled blood. His fading vision closed on Tim, held fast desperately.

“Lord…” he bubbled wetly, splashing Jenner with red specks. “…take me…”

“What?” Tim replied, startled into relaxing the draw. Something brushed his awareness like a mighty wind passing above, but the leaves were quiet. The dying man slumped and went still.

The one called Jenner twitched and shuddered. “Who — what — are you?” he choked, staring.

Tim blinked several times. “I — I’m Tim. Tim Woods. Yes, I’m Tim.” He felt like a man shedding water as he waded out of a lake. The achingly sharp scents of the brush faded. He lowered the bow. “You’re — ah, you’re Jenner?” he added questioningly.

The scout leader swallowed and nodded violently. “Y-y-y-yes-s-s” he stuttered. “Th-that’s my name. Please don’t kill me!”

Tim stared at him for a long moment while indescribable emotions chased through his heart. The killing had been so overwhelmingly real, and yet so distant. Then he said quietly, mostly to himself: “I don’t think that’s how it usually works for Sensei, or he’d have said something.”

Jenner just stared blankly at him.

Tim shook himself a little, addressed the scout leader more directly. “Unh, I won’t kill you as long as you surrender. Take off your knife, quiver, and bow, set them over here. Good. Now back up and lay flat while I collect them. Okay, now get up, put your hands on top of your head and keep them there, I’ll walk you back to camp — to the fort — to the others. Get moving.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam studied the forest through his binoculars. The Greenies were getting close. He could see flashes of movement through the trees.

We’ve hurt them, he thought. But what they really want is to close with us and overwhelm us. That’s the real danger. So long as we can stand back and shoot at them and they can’t hit us, we eventually win. So it’s the same as the fight on Hygiene Road — no matter what, I can’t let them close. Only they’re led by a man who’s seen how that plays out, and he’ll probably do anything he can to force us to close. So what do I do about it?

For a moment panic surged in him. I don’t know jack about military strategy, he thought, I’m way out of my depth, somebody better than me should be doing this! I’m a schoolteacher!

He fought the feeling down, breathed deeply.

I’m all we’ve got — so make it work.

He turned in a slow circle and studied the terrain.

He felt a brief regret for all the wire they’d spent on the south approach to the pass. It was completely useless now, with the Greenies already above it in the forest. The wooden breastwork was basically a fence held up on triangles made of short logs, each about four feet across the base and standing five feet high. Each pair of triangles had a dozen smaller trunks nailed between them to make a rigid box and then these were butted end-to-end. The row wandered east and west up the slopes, avoiding rocks and trees; extra logs had been used as braces here and there, and there was a pile of unused logs off to the side. The breastwork ended on the east side just below the point where the slope of Red Hill became too steep to walk. To the west it ran a few dozen yards into the forest and simply stopped at the lip of the small canyon. Unfortunately, the greenies could climb down into that, if they didn’t mind risking broken ankles, and come back up behind the defenders. It would cost, but Sam didn’t think Blackbeard would hesitate to pay that bill. And the little wall was too long for his scanty defensive force, at least six to eight feet of breastwork per Gatherer.

West and a little north of the small canyon a dirt road snaked up through forest toward the Geil’s high ranch. He had to avoid driving the Greenies that way, or the ranchers would flee the fight to rescue their families. East stretched the long, exposed back of Red Mountain, mottled with the rusty rock outcrops that gave it the name, leprous with gray-green patches of thorny mahogany. North the canyon of Red Hill Gulch dropped down three miles towards Lyons. The dry creek in its bottom would eventually dump into the Saint Vrain just upstream of the Santini orchard. The first mile was a long oval valley, steep on the south and north but grass-covered and nearly flat in between. If the Greenies caught Sam’s troops there they could surround and hammer them down. A long dirt road wandered down the valley’s center. Sam’s crew had dragged two garden carts up it loaded with arrows and bolts. They’d sent more off on horseback to supply the ranchers.

His gaze returned to the breastworks. It was too long….

“Gather around me, all of you,” Sam called to his crew. “We don’t have a lot of time. This is what we’re going to do.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“To the pass!” Blackbeard shouted for the third time, slogging forward along the slope. Four crossbow bolts stood out in his shield now, one poking all the way through, but none had hit him. The archers in the woods seemed to have given up and fled. There was only an occasional dart flying at the Longmont soldiers now. His men took heart from the fading opposition. They could hear hoof beats in the forest as the rancher-archers rode away. The mountainside was littered with their dead and wounded, but the living pushed on.

Blackbeard paused, his lungs and legs still burning after the bitter climb four hundred feet uphill. The slog was easier now as he struggled to hang onto the elevation so painfully gained. The forest still obscured their way ahead, but the valley was closing in. He could see the round top of Red Hill above the trees. They had to be close to the pass. He forced himself onward, waving his sword overhead and letting adrenaline carry him forward. He still had at least two hundred men with him. They were slowly coalescing into an army again as his Society fighters chivvied them from behind.

Screams rang out behind amid too-familiar twangs. The horse-archers had merely circled around and were attacking again. Half of the rearguard Society fighters fell in that first sudden onslaught, unable to turn in time and defend against this new attack. Blackbeard’s men hesitated, split, many turning to face the new menace from behind. That put their vulnerable right sides to the hill above and their backs to the pass.

Blackbeard hesitated himself, unwilling to risk breaking up his fragile command by pressing forward. Then red rage rose in him at this latest distraction.

We’ve got to close with them, where our numbers give the advantage, he thought. Or they’ll just keep picking us to pieces!

“Forward, men!” he shouted in desperate fury. “To the pass!”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Good enough,” Sam told them. “Toss the last logs out and everyone take your places.”

This is a hell of a gamble, he thought. If it doesn’t work, they’ll be through and on the town’s back side before anyone knows it. But whoever’s driving them forward wants us real bad. If I can just tempt him —

❀ ❁ ❀

Blackbeard slogged forward, panting, his vision tinged with red mist. The last trees were around him and his Society vanguard crowded in closer. The enemy should be behind a chest-high wooden breastwork of logs that Jenner’s surviving scout had reported. Where the hell was it?

He charged out of the trees, sword raised, looking wildly around.

Arrows and bolts sleeted into his men from their right, unshielded side. One took down his last archer, dropping the man like a dead tree. A second slammed into his own right shoulder, nearly breaking through his layered armor. It staggered him. He managed to hang onto his sword and drag his shield around to guard. Dirk Adderhall wasn’t so lucky. A bolt found a thin place in his armor and buried itself in his ribs. His mouth opened and he coughed blood, looked at it in surprise, then collapsed.

His face looked like Eddie’s.

Madness boiled through Blackbeard and he roared.

The other fighters pushed forward and took up places beside him. He dashed the weariness from his eyes, searched for his enemy.

The log breastwork had been dragged around into a much smaller configuration, angling across the pass with its back to Red Hill, and the north end bent back at a sharp angle. It stuck out less than halfway into the pass now, overlooking both approaches but leaving a lot more room to the south, where the dirt road came up from their start spot. That seemed hours ago. The whole west side of the pass was essentially open.

Or sort of open. The ground between him and the fort was strewn with stray logs and loops of wire. A row of sagging fence posts marched across the space, wires trailing from them as well, but over half the flat ground of the pass was now unoccupied. The defenders were concentrated into a small triangle, almost shoulder to shoulder above the shortened breastworks.

More arrows came flying at him out of the little fort. Blackbeard saw the short man that had so bedeviled his troops along the canal road. Was it only yesterday? The enemy stood there calmly, aiming a compound bow.

Rage surged through the Longmonter. You stubborn, unreasonable bastard! You made me do this! Die like you should! Die like my boys! Blackbeard’s knuckles cracked with the force of his grip on his sword.

“Green force, charge!” he bellowed, and surged forward.

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam’s gaze was drawn to the big leader as if directed there. He met that maddened gaze and it was like a too-close brush with lightning. The man was Blackbeard all right, sword and shield held high and charging.

He’s the most dangerous one, Sam knew with icy clarity. He knows what to do with that sword and shield. Take him down!

He raised the compound bow and threw his whole body into the draw. Composites creaked and the string seemed to pull back so slowly.

❀ ❁ ❀

Blackbeard panted, lungs on fire. He got halfway to the fort before a log rolled under his feet and tripped him. He managed to catch himself on his shield, at the cost of a sprained shoulder and a bad knock to the side of his head. It completely killed his forward momentum and he had to struggle back to his feet. He renewed the shout to charge, and this time got twenty feet farther before a wire loop brought him down. Another Green soldier fell over him, spasmed with arrow impact, and died.

Blackbeard had to struggle out from under the body. He lost his helmet in the process. He pushed himself back to his knees and looked up.

The short man was calmly drawing a bead on him, arrow aimed straight between his eyes.

Fucking bast–“ said Blackbeard, as his world ended.

❀ ❁ ❀

“They broke,” Bart Geil said wearily, sitting on his horse as if he was afraid he’d fall down if he tried to dismount. “Once those guys with the fancy armor at the back were mostly dead, the others started to run away. It was like those fancy guys were all that was holding them together. We must’ve killed a hundred or more while they were running. We plumb ran out of bolts for the crossbows. I don’t think more’n sixty, seventy got out through the canyon.”

Sam nodded just as wearily and thanked him for the news. The rancher rode away, more of his own to care for. Sam looked around and began to check over the camp, now sprawling outside the restrictive breastworks. Those had kept the enemy at bay for just long enough. By the time the Greenies closed and it became blade work, their leadership was mostly down and dead. The sword-wielders who had made it to the breastworks hadn’t been their best. It had taken them a little too long to learn to stay out of Sam’s reach, and that of Jesus Mendez.

Half of his command was slogging around sorting out the wounded from the dead. There were a lot more of the latter than the former. Quite a few of the enemy had simply bled to death from the arrows in their bodies.

Drew and Lissa were tending to the other half, mostly down with cuts and broken limbs. Darrin had a broken arm, Kate another. Giorgi had an ugly four-inch slash across one cheekbone that had barely missed his eye. Drew himself had a bandage over his lacerated left ear, and Lissa worked with a sprained wrist in a sling. Jesus was limping around with a stick to lean on, a bloody bandage on his right leg. Bruce had an arrow wound in his right leg. Fred had had to carry him down here on his back, his own bloody scalp wound unnoticed at the time and now wreathed in bandages. Eleven of the thirty militiamen assigned to Sam by the Marshall were down with cuts and fractures. The ranchers had brought in four of their own with similar wounds, and probably had a few more in need but still able to ride.

Tim was walking solidly back and forth, helping Laura to drag enemy dead into rows for burial. She’d arrived at the very end of the fight, slogging through the mahogany from the lookout station. She was visibly annoyed at missing most of the action. She and Tim were the only ones of Sam’s original Gatherers to escape injury entirely, at least on the outside.

Tim had stayed on the hill above the fort as ordered, but had fired every arrow in his quiver. Then somehow he’d found time to rob forty more from the enemy’s own archer-dead and fire those too. Judging by the number of enemy dead with their own green-feathered arrows stuck in them, Sam suspected Tim had the record for most kills in this battle. His face looked haunted. The prisoner he’d taken, some guy named Jenner, kept looking at him with a combination of terror and fascination. Jenner refused to leave Tim’s side despite the grisly work to which they set him.

Seven of the Lyons troops were beyond needing any more help. Four were men from the Marshall’s last-minute assignments. They’d fought as bravely as the rest of the gatherers, and died almost anonymously. Sam had had to ask their friends for their names. The fifth was Cindy, exuberant young cowgirl. A mace had smashed her pretty skull in and made a wreckage of her face. Drew had covered her with a scrap of cloth. The sixth was Art Howe, promising youngster and newest volunteer to Sam’s crew, hacked down at the breastwork. His face still had a faintly surprised expression above the bloody ruin of his throat. Sam had found the boy’s French horn, twisted from where someone had stepped on it in the savage melee, and set it on Art’s chest.

And the last was Terry, stabbed and slashed by Greenie spears when the remnants of Blackbeard’s vanguard finally made it to the breastwork. His twin sat by his side, holding one cold hand and weeping quietly. Sam carefully sat down beside Jerry, wincing a little — his knee was throbbing and he’d taken a whack that had probably cracked a rib, but with so many worse injured he was waiting to bring it to Drew’s attention. Sam put a tired hand on Jerry’s shoulder, and just waited. Time crawled by while the slender boy wept out enough of his grief to speak again.

“I hate them, Sensei,” he finally said dully. “I hate all of them, each and every one, forever and ever. I do, I really do.”

“Jerry, don’t — don’t give in to that,” Sam told him. “It’ll poison your life. Think on the good parts instead.”

“Good parts? What good parts?” The boy stared at him. “What’s good about Terry dying?!”

“Not his death; I mean his life,” Sam explained, struggling to think through his fog of exhaustion. “Remember the fun you two had together? When you filled that fake football with shaving cream and Johnny Benchley kicked it at Saturday practice, and it burst? Or when you two had that run of jokes going in the cafeteria and Kate laughed so hard she spewed milk out her nose?”

“Don’t remind him about that, Sensei,” Kate called over, her voice gray with exhaustion and pain but still capable of humor. “He might do it again. This time my arm might fall off.”

The grief lightened slightly in Jerry’s face and he nodded. “Yeah, those were good times. He’d cry for me if our places were switched, Terry would, but he wouldn’t hate the Greenies for being hyenas.”

Should I rise to that? Sam wondered, then wondered how he could refrain. “Why hyenas, Jerry?”

“Cause only hyenas attack lions,” Jerry answered.

Drew paused in his bandaging, mouth open and staring at Jerry. Kate began to snigger, screamed a little, then dissolved into mixed laughing and moaning. Darrin snorted, choked, then snorted some more. Giorgi’s forehead wrinkled as he laboriously sorted through it, then he too began laughing and moaning as he got the joke. Sam felt the laughter bubble up inside himself and just gave it free reign, roaring until he had to flop back in the dirt and hold his aching ribs. The laughter spread through the gatherers. Several people repeated the joke for those who hadn’t heard it, until they all ached with the humor.

Tim bestowed a perplexed look on the guffawing Laura. “It’s not that funny,” he protested. He looked aggrieved when this provoked fresh laughter.

It took the sound of hoof beats to sober them up. James Coyle came galloping up the valley from Lyons. He had been on courier duty for the militia and carried word of the victory down to town not half an hour ago. Sam sat up just as the young cowboy reined in and saluted. Sam struggled to his feet to hear him.

“The Marshall sends his compliments for a job well done, Captain Hyatt.” James rattled off the message as if he’d carefully memorized it. “He said to tell you the Wall’s come under attack. The enemy launched a full-scale assault just before noon. Marshall says to look sharp — this might not be the only one.”

Sam looked around at the weary faces of his troops. “It’s not over yet, people.”

❀ ❁ ❀

26

— Ash —

Denver, Early May, 1998.

“Torch it,” Catron ordered.

“But, Sensei!” Johnson looked like the very definition of ‘aghast’. “It’s the best Masonic Hall — ”

“Do it!” Catron glared at him. “The houses first and then it too. We’re not leaving anything behind that the Southsiders can use, understand me, Johnson? Burn it all.”

Father Markus thought he’d never seen Johnson really agitated before. For a moment he thought the man would refuse.

Catron held Johnson’s eyes in a long stare, and then the builder caved in. His face fell as he cast his eyes down and mumbled “Yes, Sensei.” Johnson bowed and turned away, one hand scrubbing at his eyes. He didn’t quite weep.

Father Markus sympathized. The man was proud of his work and he’d performed a minor miracle converting the Highland Temple into Catron’s headquarters. But the priest knew from previous experience that Johnson wasn’t prepared to accept sympathy from any man in a Roman collar. So he kept silent.

Catron gave a few more orders and men scurried to obey. Then he turned to the priest. His stare chilled despite the warm spring air. Father Markus had found it increasingly hard to bear as the weeks passed. There was something terribly… flat; flat and very cold, about the warlord’s eyes. It was stressful to meet them.

“Are the doctor and the nurse ready?” snapped Catron.

“Yes, Sensei.” Father Markus nodded. “The cart is loaded with all the medical supplies and ready to depart.”

“The three of you stay immediately behind my command group, understand?” This order was accompanied by an intent scowl. “No haring off to patch up somebody without my direct order. You – Stay – With – Me.

His gaze seared like sudden frostbite, an absence more unnerving than anger or hatred, and Father Markus’ eyes fell before it. “Yes, Sensei,” he answered, looking at the ground. Am I a coward, that I cannot long endure his attention? Or do I fear something else?

“Good. Now beat it.” Catron dropped the priest from his attention with an almost-audible thump.

Father Markus bowed and retreated, trying to quell a sick trembling in his stomach. Why do I feel such fear around him? He is only a mortal man… isn’t he?

He hastened back to the staging area on the northwest corner of the Masonic temple grounds. Dr. Eid and Nurse Lionheart were waiting, each with a hand on one side of the little garden cart that they’d been issued. Their white lab coats were stained and both were much thinner than they had been two months ago.

“So where are we going?” Lionheart demanded.

Father Markus shrugged. “He did not say, but the general direction is clear. North. We are ordered to stay with the command group — and we are forbidden to leave it without his direct order.”

Lionheart’s lips thinned. “The cold-hearted bastard. There’s a good thousand of these people who can barely walk. He’s just going to leave them, isn’t he?”

“He has ordered the buildings burned,” Father Markus told her heavily. “The water crew is right over there, with all of the Quartermaster’s people. Every remaining scrap of food is in those wagons. Sensei has already abandoned Denver, and anyone who stays behind in it will die.” Or wish they had. “Now there is only the walking, Nurse Lionheart.” He looked significantly at the doctor.

Lionheart followed his gaze, and her anger shaded over into concern. Eid wasn’t looking well and Father Markus and the nurse were both very worried about him. He stood there, staring blankly into space and seemingly unaware of the conversation, or much of anything else. They’d all three been exposed to so much illness the last couple weeks, it would be a miracle if they didn’t catch something themselves. And the antibiotics were getting low.

Smoke began to billow out of the houses surrounding the block that held the Highland Temple. There was wailing from a few, and weeping people milled in the streets, wringing their hands as the little safety they had known went up in flames. The jefes> had their individual troops ready, the men’s families crowded between double rows of disciplined soldiers. Paco Miralles commanded the first group behind Catron’s own household troops. He waved imperiously to the medics, pointing to an empty space.

Father Markus took the handle of the garden cart and began pushing it. Lionheart gently coaxed Eid into motion. The doctor stumbled for a moment and then more-or-less fell into a shambling motion, leaning a little on the cart. Lionheart walked on his other side, watching him carefully as they lined up behind the Sensei’s household and in front of Paco.

The whole unweildy mass of men, women, and children ground into motion. Sensei Catron walked near the front in his silver armor, both of his swords drawn. The glittering blades flicked slightly from side to side, short and long, long and short. For a moment the priest was reminded of a wolf he’d once seen at a zoo, teeth bared and pacing hungrily.

The four karate students who’d been with the New Mexican sensei at the start bracketed him left and right, their own armor variously red, black, and brown. The ones who’d joined up since then formed two lines behind him, enclosing the women and girls pulling two large carts. Father Markus steered his little garden cart to be right behind those. Paco’s men fell in to either side, moving with an easy stride in their motley armor. The fighters all bristled with weapons.

The cart was well-balanced and someone had seen to it that the axle was properly lubricated. Father Markus quickly found that he could push it without great effort. He looked around as he trudged, glancing back at the long line of food wagons between the troops on either side. Men in chains drew them along, thirty men to a wagon. Two big plastic tanks on wheels had been found somewhere. They were filled to the top with the last clean water from the city pipes. When that ran out, which would not be long, the already-high risk of illness would rise rapidly.

In between the food wagons walked other men in chains — Sensei was taking along all of his slaves that could walk. Overseers walked next to them, brandishing whips. From the pinched, starved faces of the slaves, Father Markus guessed that they’d already been on too-short rations for a couple weeks. He suspected that many of those men were fated to be abandoned along the way, used up and discarded so that Sensei’s chosen might live.

The spring sunlight was warm on his back. The air should have been sweet with blossoms — thousands of ornamental trees were putting out flowers all over Denver. But those living scents were a bare leavening to the omnipresent stench of death.

There must be hundreds of thousands of bodies already, Father Markus thought, shuddering slightly. And at least a million more starving among them. Now the water system has broken down. We had rain two days ago, but already the last puddles are drying up. There soon will be nothing for the starving to drink.

There were shouts from behind, the clash of metal on metal — and on flesh. Some desperate band of scavengers had realized there would be no scraps left in the burning buildings, so they attacked the rearguard. And were now being slaughtered with brutal efficiency.

Father Markus shuddered anew. I am fleeing, he thought. Running away, under the protection of a monster who none-the-less feeds me. Am I a coward, who turns my face from my duty to the dying just to preserve my own life? Do I thus also turn my face from Christ?

The cart bumped over an uneven place in the road, then one wheel dropped into a pothole as he maneuvered around a stalled truck that Sensei’s laborers hadn’t been able to move. The priest pushed onward, muscles straining just a little; he knew there would be worse to come when they left the zone that had been cleared. Eid stumbled and Lionheart caught his arm, helped him. The marching boots behind them didn’t slow, and Father Markus had the unpleasant sensation that they would walk right over the three medics if they fell. Lionheart glanced back, clearly thinking the same.

She could not push this cart, he thought. Not and help keep him walking. They need me, if they are to live. Or at least, they need someone willing to labor on their behalf! There would be no few to volunteer.

Thin pinched faces watched them from alleys and from windows. An elderly man in a wheelchair, a wounded youth leaning on a makeshift crutch, a woman with two small children too hungry to even cry any more. Despair etched their faces.

They know they are being abandoned to die.

Fire crackled behind, its smoke competing with the stink of decay and the scent of blossoms.

Oh God, he prayed, Send me a light in this darkness! What is the right thing to do, when all the choices are evil?

Then the morning sunlight reflected off a window and for a moment illuminated the faces of Nurse Lionheart and the doctor. Hers was seamed black, wrinkled about the eyes with gray strands in her hair and eyebrows, eyes shining like ripling water and alive with concern for the doctor. Eid’s face was paler, cedar to her ebony, with a foreboding dullness that yet slogged on, enduring.

If nothing else, I can help them, Father Markus thought. And together we can help others. And perhaps, in time, there will be something else that I can do to further Our Lord’s work.

I must not despair.

❀ ❁ ❀

27

— Opportunities and Screwups —

Lyons, Colorado; early May, 1998.

Ellie paused to wipe her face. The four nurses, Mike, and Doc Brown had hauled the meager pile of medical supplies down to the Wall in a couple of the Gatherers’ garden carts. Stefan and Marta had been on the cleaning crew of the stonecutting shop and helped unload. Stefan had been assigned by the Marshall to help run what passed for the machinery in their makeshift hospital.

“Missus Hyatt?” Marta asked, “What should I do with these jugs?”

“Those are saline; set them here at Bieta’s station,” Ellie told her, hastily throwing a sheet over a newly-cleaned workbench. Then she went back outside with the girl to lug in the last few jugs. They left the empty carts by the door. Those would serve as the closest thing Lyons had to field ambulances. “Thank you ever so much for helping, Marta. This would have been a lot harder without you and your uncle.”

“I am happy to help.” Diffidently Marta added, “and I would be glad to continue helping. I have done all my chores at the farm. Mother gave me permission to be here. If you will allow me to stay?”

“Marta, once the Wall is attacked, this is going to become a surgery,” Ellie explained carefully. “There will be a great deal of blood and pain. Wounded men often lose control over their bodily functions. It is likely to be very ugly.”

“I have seen blood, Missus Hyatt.” The girl tossed her head nervously but met Ellie’s eyes square. “When Uncle Sevan was attacked by the Azeris while we were fleeing Nichevan, Gramma had to sew up his wounds with darning thread. Papa held him still, and he bit on a broom handle to resist the pain. Aunt Yelena died of the wounds the Azeris gave her, and we could not even bury her properly. Papa and Giorgi piled rocks over her body; Mama and I helped. I was only six, but I remember, Missus Hyatt. I will not be afraid. I can help.”

Ellie swallowed hard. Only six, to live through such horror!

Then she thought of Jenny and the long trip to Lyons, passing cars with dead people in them and bodies in the snow by the side of the road. What will my own little girl remember of this, when she is a teenager? Ellie thought. She was suddenly very glad that Jenny was safe tending chickens with Grandma, Esmera, and the other children.

“All right, dear,” Ellie answered, fighting down a catch in her throat. “You can assist Bieta; she will be our support nurse. Have her teach you the names of the things you will be carrying for us. I am afraid it will get very dirty and messy. You’ll help clean the operating areas as we deal with the wounded. Since we have nothing but boiled water and a little alcohol for disinfectant, you’ll also need to help your uncle boil everything we can reuse. There’ll be a lot of blood-soaked cloth.”

“It’s heavy, dirty, monotonous work, girl,” Karen broke in roughly. “You won’t like it a bit.”

“But I can do it.” Marta squared her shoulders and nodded. “Uncle will run the stove, and I will clean.”

The stove was actually a big gas-fired space heater mounted against one wall of the steel room. Without electric fans the gas jets just flamed upright, so Stefan had rigged a slab of turkey-track steel over the open top as a heating surface. He was fiddling with the gas jets as they spoke, trying to get maximum heating across as much surface as possible. He nodded silent agreement at Marta’s words.

“Then let’s get started,” Ellie told them.

Marta started filling plastic buckets at a mop-faucet. They had a few large kettles and many small pots to boil the water. Stefan had scrounged an empty aluminum beer keg in which to cool it and meter it out again. Now he perched the keg on a steel chair and lashed it in place with duct tape. Bieta lifted the keg’s top, wrinkled her nose at the stale smell, and held it while Sevan poured in the first pot of boiling water to start the sterilization process. When he was done she attacked the interior with a long-handled brush and a squirt of liquid lye soap. Her lips were drawn back in a snarl that dared any malign bacterium to try to evade her. Marta began boiling the scalpels and other surgical tools in a big square roasting pan.

Ellie figured that maintaining any kind of sterility was going to be a nightmare in this former stone-cutting shop. It had years of rock-dust accumulated on the steel rafters. Even though the floor had been cleaned, gritty grains kept dribbling down.

“We’ve got to do something about that,” Doc fretted. “Can’t have sand falling into open surgeries!”

Ellie looked around. The band saws and rock slicers had been shoved back into corners to free up the main floor. Their long power cords, and several extension cords, were just heaped with them.

“Sevan, can you cut off those power cords for us?” Ellie requested, digging more sheets out of a box. “We can rig an awning over the operating tables to shelter them from falling dirt.”

It took a few minutes and Mike ended up playing stepladder for Sevan while they rigged cords from the ceiling, but soon they had canopies over the operating tables. Those were three heavy wooden work benches, scratched and dented and splashed with four different colors of paint. Ellie reflected that they looked older than the building, and probably were. She and Julia scrubbed them down with hot water and then carefully wiped them with alcohol. Afterwards Ellie ran a hand over the tops and was chagrinned to still feel fine grit, probably caught in the many scratches.

“At least sandstone’s relatively sterile,” Julia shrugged. “A lot better than the fly-infested tables we had in Haiti!”

Meanwhile somebody had brought in dozens of chairs from a nearby restaurant. Karen, Bieta, Jimmy and Bran rigged up cots by setting planks and plywood across them, four chairs to a bed. For mattresses they had only hacked-off chunks of carpeting laid over the lumber. There was no hope of sterilizing that, so Bieta spread a few of their very limited number of clean boiled sheets over the cots.

Ellie organized the five-station scrub bowls and filled them with boiled water that had been allowed to cool. Then she began cleaning her own hands, grimy from all the setup work. Doc Brown joined her in line, Julia and Karen soon after.

“Karen,” the Doc said. “You have the most emergency room and intensive care experience of the nurses. Take table number two, you’ll handle the middling cases and Ellie will assist. I’ll take table number one and the serious cases, with Julia. Table number three will be our flex table. Bieta, you supervise Marta and Sevan, and the three of you keep the supplies flowing to the surgery tables.”

For as long as they last, Ellie thought, scrubbing harshly with the rough soap as she mentally slipped into her nurse mode. At least we can boil the cloths and use them again.

There was a crashing sound outside and a great shout went up from the militiamen. They sounded savagely pleased. Ellie moved to the third bowl of hot water and tried not to wonder what had happened.

She was carefully drying her hands several minutes later when there came a yelling at the door. Mike hurried over and helped two militiamen carry in a bloody form on a wide plank. Someone pushing a tarp-covered wheelbarrow came close behind. Ellie hurried over to start triage.

“Doc!” bellowed a man in the blue sash that the militia had adopted as a uniform. “We got one for ya!”

Doc Brown was already hastening over, still drying his hands on a clean towel. “Tell me what happened to him, quickly.”

“He fell outta the sky!” The bellower sniggered. “Longmont spy, fell outta the sky!”

Ellie peeled back the strange scrap of red and white cloth covering the man. It felt like silk, but was charred around the edges. Underneath, his blood-soaked clothes were also charred on one side, and a good part of his hair had been singed off. The remnant stank. She cautiously peeled the carbonized clothing back, it was shredding into patches. The man groaned and opened his eyes, blood flecking his seared lips.

“Don’t try to talk,” Doc Brown urged him, expert hands counting the compound breaks in a shattered arm. “You have broken ribs.”

“Baron,” the man moaned, starting fresh blood from his mouth.

“What?!” Mike said, staring at the man in bafflement. “Is he that Baron guy from Longmont?”

“No, I think he means this one,” the man at the wheelbarrow said with a grim smile. He flipped back the tarp. Ellie looked, and then had to look away for a moment to regain her control. Blue-white bones and torn flesh scrambled together and oozing blood — that had been a human being once, before hitting something really hard. It was one step up from hamburger now.

The grinning man held up a dented circular metal band, dripping maroon blood. Bits of dark human hair were plastered to the inside of the ring.

“I think we don’t got to worry about Baron Green anymore,” he chortled.

Mike turned aside and threw up.

❀ ❁ ❀

Murchison, Sully and Colotta watched the balloon fall from atop the water plant. Doyle and the winch crew desperately tried to draw it in, but there simply wasn’t time. The nylon rope fell across the Wall as the flaming wreckage vanished behind it. A belch of black smoke rose above the Wall, and then tapered off. The winch operators continued cranking and the rope came under tension. It began to lift off the ground. Abruptly it sagged free again as a strip of sheet metal tore off the Wall’s roof. The loose end dropped to the ground and dragged along as they drew it steadily in, working like automatons. Finally the charred end of the neon-red nylon came over the parapet and dropped at their feet. Doyle fell to his knees, clutched it and wept.

“Could he live through that?” Colotta finally asked in a hushed and horrified voice.

“He must have been five hundred feet up!” exclaimed Murchison. “Nobody survives a fall from that high — and then being burned on top of it.”

“You don’t know that,” argued Sully, his eyes wide. “He wasn’t falling very fast until the end, there, and the fire was above him. He might be hurt, but he’s probably alive.”

“You’re fooling yourself,” Murchison snarled. “He fell out of the basket! For five hundred feet!”

“You want him dead!” charged Sully, raising his fists as if to punch the other man. Murchison’s face flushed and he started to raise his own fists.

“Stop it, both of you!” Colotta demanded, stepping between them and pushing both back. He was a beefy block of a man and they both gave way.

“We’re in big trouble and fighting each other won’t get us out of it,” he continued. “Think!”

“But what the fuck can we do now!?” Murchison demanded. “Longmont’s half-defended by old men, we’ve got a mess for an army, and we just lost our leader in plain sight!”

“Fight our enemy, of course!” Colotta answered. “Blackbeard’s knocking on their back door, they don’t have many troops, and we’ve got almost twenty-three hundred effectives to throw at them. We don’t need a perfect army, we can just swarm them under if we try.”

Sully nodded. “You’re right. We can take Lyons and turn the water back on, and get that blacksmith guy of theirs to make us good swords. Then the Greens will rule Lyons and Longmont both, in Hugo’s name!” He glared and shook his fist at Lyons.

Murchison swallowed hard and stared at the two of them. “Okay. I hope to Hell you guys are right.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“If you two don’t forget your politics and work together properly, I’ll knock your heads together as an example to the troops,” said Marshall Duncan quietly.

Burt Santini saw Whit Yohansen’s expression of outrage and knew his face mirrored it. Susan Smythe’s husband Fowler was trying to look invisible, something he did remarkably well, reflected Burt. He’d not been involved in the argument and Burt wasn’t quite sure he’d ever heard the man express an opinion, at least not one his wife hadn’t put into his mouth first.

“That is not a joke, Trustees,” Duncan growled softly, eyeing first Burt and then Yohansen, and ignoring Smythe entirely. “We are about to be attacked by a force that greatly outnumbers us. Our troops need every extra bit of morale we can scrape together for them. Hearing you two bicker undermines that morale. Hearing and seeing you two work together for the benefit of the Town builds it up. You both volunteered for the Wall knowing the need. Now live up to it.”

Burt’s gaze fell first, but he saw Yohansen follow him quickly while Smythe look away.

“Sorry, Mike,” Burt muttered, fidgeting with the sword he’d been issued. It was one of Starry’s most recent; mass-produced; plain and serviceable.

Whit Yohansen adjusted his too-large helmet. “You are quite correct, Marshall,” he answered stiffly, emphasizing the title. “I apologize.”

He turned his face to look down at the heavy Gate right in front of them. Burt followed his gaze. The Wall overlapped for fifty feet to make a two-sides killing zone right in front of the steel-sheathed wooden gate. The mouths of Petrocelli’s flamethrowers, that he called ‘dragons’, stuck over the wall on each side, trained on the space before the gate and reeking of the deadly incendiaries even now being loaded into them.

Burt eyed his fellow Trustee for a moment, automatically looking for hidden meanings in the words, then caught himself. Stop it! He thought. This is exactly what Duncan’s worried about! He heaved a big sigh. He saw something like a smile flicker across Smythe’s face. It was gone before Burt was completely sure he’d seen it.

“So, you were telling us about the command structure, and I wasn’t listening like I should’a been,” Burt admitted to the Marshall. “Please tell me again.”

Marshall Duncan favored him with a brief sour look, then waved at the Wall to either side.

“I divided the Militia into thirteen section commands, and never mind superstitions, Burt. Divisions Six through Twelve are on the Wall on the south side of the river, and Thirteen’s on the cliffs of Red Mountain. Two through Five handle the north Wall and the Gate. Division One’s spread out up there along the lower part of Indian Ridge above the Gate.”

“They don’t even have stone walls for protection up there, just some rock-and-timber bulwarks and a lot of barbed wire,” Yohansen remarked worriedly, craning his neck to look up under the edge of the hoarding roof. “If the enemy takes that ridge, they’ll be able to shoot right down on our backs. Is there any way to help our guys out more?”

“Those little bulwarks are a lot stronger than they look,” Duncan responded. “And our guys have a steeply-sloping sea of mountain mahogany at their feet to impede the enemy. We laced it with barbed wire and punji sticks. I expect an assault there to be a high-probability event, so I concentrated our military and National Guard folks up there with the best of Starry’s crossbows.”

“Good luck to you poor buggers,” Burt muttered, visualizing just how unpleasant that was likely to get. He shook his head slightly.

“We’ve also given them about a third of Petrocelli’s nasties,” Marshall Duncan added dryly. “I intend that approach to look weak and attractive, specifically to lure an attacker in where we can bog them down. The advantage there is far more in our favor than it looks to an uneducated eye. If we’re lucky, my opposite number out there will be insufficiently experienced to recognize the trap.”

Burt and Yohansen both smiled at that. Grim smiles, thought Burt. Smythe’s came more slowly, uncertain and with a queasy overtone. Burt wondered if perhaps he actually owned an imagination. Possibly it wasn’t completely stunted by non-use.

“The real problem,” Duncan continued, “is the tower stairs. We’ve fortified the top and front with as much metal as we could drag up there, but it’s still a choke-point for our own personnel movement and it has to be heavily defended in its own right. From hind-sight I wish we’d built it about ten feet farther back.”

Yohansen nodded. “But no human plan is perfect. Is the south tower the same kind of problem?”

“No, the step-up out of the canyon is only half as high and the main body of that tower is stone, with some steel sheathing over the incomplete parts at the top.” Duncan shaded his eyes from the morning sun and scowled as he gazed south. “Otherwise, Division Thirteen is facing much the same situation on the south side as One is on the north, but a lot more spread out. We were able to at least build a good long bulwark to extend the Wall there, it runs three hundred feet along the cliff-tops and ends in a fortlet. The enemy can flank it by slogging higher up the mountainside, but that leaves them at the top of a two-hundred foot cliff and too far from the Wall itself to shoot anyone in the back. They could drop arrows onto the fortlet from above, but it’s roofed like the Wall. We trapped the hell out of the slope below the fortlet and bulwark, all the way to the quarry cliffs. I almost hope they do assault that one, the killing ground’s deeper than the Indian Ridge side. The problem there is that Division Thirteen is spread too thin — they’ve got three times the distance to cover of any other. If we had more men I’d make a Division Fourteen and set it there, but we don’t.”

Burt digested that for a moment. “So, we’re here at the gate. Is this where you want us?”

“Yes.” Duncan speared them with his penetrating stare, added Smythe in with a lateral flick of his eyes. “Stay here on the back segment, between the tower and the gate itself. You can be seen by the men on the Wall and ridge both. If there’s to be any parley, the gate’s the logical place for it and I’ll want you both convenient to me if I need to ask you any questions. You’ve both got crossbows — be seen using them, but only on command. Neither of you is in charge of anything here but obeying orders — mine, as it happens, because I’m commanding Division Three and the Gate directly. You’ll stay right here at the left flank of the Division, right next to Division Two which is commanded by Lieutenant Black. They have the tower and the first five crenellations. You get number six crenellation, Mister Santini, and you get number seven, Mister Yohansen; Mister Smythe, you’ll take number eight, and Clark here will act as relief for all three of you. Please try not to get yourselves shot — an arrow in the eye is just as deadly as a bullet! When the assault comes, shoot until you run out of targets. Is that understood, gentlemen?”

“Yessir,” Burt saluted, followed a fraction of a second later by Yohansen and then Smythe. They all three hefted their crossbows. “But where’s the Chief in all this?”

“Chief Waters has direct command of the Bridge and the entire Wall south of the river.” The Marshall pointed to a small bastion built right on the south riverbank. “I assigned him twenty extra crossbowmen plus a scorpion, all with orders to keep the enemy away from the river-gate in the Wall.”

That was basically a big net of wires on a light steel framework, hanging from an arch-supported footbridge over the top. The whole thing was so frail that they had skimped on the hoardings just to save weight. Burt hoped the enemy couldn’t see that from outside.

“Now, to your places, gentlemen. I don’t know how soon the show starts, but I don’t expect it to be long.”

Out at the Longmont encampment a tremendous clatter began.

“Not long at all,” the Marshall said.

❀ ❁ ❀

“The idiots are going to try it head-on,” Ken Clair growled, pointing. “I guess we should be grateful.”

Long files of the Longmont men were marching out of the water plants, each file carrying a forty-foot siege ladder. They turned south on Foothills Highway, crossed the bridge and spread themselves out across the open ground along the near side of the road.

“Which we oh-so-thoughtfully cleared for them,” he muttered. “Outside our crossbow range, too, ouch.”

“But not outside the range of the scorpions!” Johnny Martinez gloated. “Chief Waters had us test them before these guys showed up. We can almost hit the road from here, and the ones on the Gate can almost hit the water plant!”

“Which is why we’re for damn sure not letting the Greenies find out about those before we want ‘em to.” Ken nodded. “And speaking of which, Company A, take your positions. When you’ve got your pair of scorpions unwrapped and ready to raise, Corporal Martinez, have your chief shooter signal me. Company B, stand by to do the same. You raise on my signal.”

Martinez saluted and his men hastened to obey while Ken watched them covertly. They were a mix of ages and capabilities. The corporal was a tough twenty-something auto mechanic who’d played soccer against Ken in the local league. His company’s lead scorpion archer, Tony Fusco, was the teen-aged son of a Boulder businessman whose father had never made it home on Change night. Morton, the man in charge of keeping Company A’s scorpion loaded, had to be in his late fifties, a balding insurance salesman with the now-shrunken remains of a pot belly. Three of the crossbowmen were hale sixty-plus farmers brought in by Sam Hyatt; two others were their forty-year-old sons. The company was filled out with two housewives. Those were long-time running buddies that Ken had seen around town for years. The two women were at least in excellent physical shape and probably stronger than the insurance salesman.

But their sword work — he shuddered. He’d issued the women crossbows like the rest — their aim was fine — but instead of swords they got long forked poles. He’d trained them to concentrate on pushing over any ladders that appeared at the Wall. Leverage mattered more than strength for that, and they didn’t need finesse.

Company B was a little better. Its core was five workers from the stone yards, strong men in the prime of life. Ken had drilled them hard on sword work and had some hope that they could best most of what Longmont had, though any really good Society heavy-weapons man could probably trash them all. Their lead scorpion operator, Jagelow, had been a real estate agent, and his supply man a grocery clerk. They had Stanto Abbaku, who was absolutely deadly with that big unwieldy spear of his. Ken figured he was Company B’s main defense against ladder-borne invaders. Polk, the company corporal, had been a kendo student for a couple years when he was in college. A youngster named Harry Smythe filled out the ranks, pathetically eager to help and with his head stuffed full of bad movies. Ken hoped he would remember that his gladius was for thrusting, not slicing.

Most of both companies had at least some armor. Ken had forgone everything but a steel helmet and a breastplate, preferring flexibility to armor — he wasn’t going to be standing in a crenellation firing a crossbow anyway. But he’d seen to it that Joyce and Hannah and the better fighters were fully-outfitted. Martinez, Polk, the farmers and stone-cutters and the kid, all had at least upper-body armor. Morton was still too fat to get into any of the Arsenal’s standard sizes so he just had helmet and breastplate like Ken.

Chief Waters came strolling along the Wall. Ken saluted as he approached.

“Division Nine ready for action, sir!” He reported, feeling a little like some actor in a movie. Only the cameras don’t stop if I flub my lines.

Waters nodded. “Very good, Lieutenant Clair. Let’s all stay sharp; it looks like they’re going to throw most of their force against the south side.”

“As you predicted, Sir,” Ken acknowledged, though he’d figured the same himself.

The river swung closer to the north side as it passed through the foothills gap, and three of the four canals ran under the Wall and across the limited open land between it and Indian Ridge. This made the north part quite a bit harder to assault on foot. Marshall Duncan had ordered the canal head gates opened and the big ditches were running four feet of water or more, adding to the enemy’s problems. To assault the north Wall, they basically had to advance on the paved road right into the teeth of Lyons’ strongest defense.

But on the south bank, not only was the Wall longer, but there was only one irrigation ditch, and it ran close to the foot of the cliffs. The open space was relatively flat, though spotted with tree stumps and bits of foundations and ash piles from the trees and sheds they’d burned during construction. It was the easiest place to carry something up to the Wall, such as a siege ladder.

Waters was studying the battlefield over Fusco’s shoulder. Suddenly he smiled.

“Ahh, there we go.” He nodded.

“Sir?” Ken waggled his eyebrows in what he hoped was an enquiring expression.

Waters waved a hand at the open land. Little rivulets of water were creeping over the ground from the cliffs that joined the south end of the wall. They trickled slowly towards the northwest, seeking the river.

“I ordered the South Ledge Ditch breached in a dozen places after it leaves the culvert that carries it through the Wall,” he explained. “This morning I had the sluices opened.”

“Aha,” Ken answered, enlightened. “The water will run onto the battlefield. Instant mud pit.”

“Not quite instant,” Waters answered judiciously. “It’ll spread out slowly, and we didn’t have time to carve channels so it’ll run any which-way, pooling in lower areas and leaving others high and dry. But it ought to be a fair handicap to the ladder carriers.”

“Thank you, sir!” Ken enthused, visualizing it with grim delight. He hoped the flow wasn’t too noticeable, so the Greenies wouldn’t realize firm soil was becoming clingy mud.

“It was Petro’s idea, originally.”

“Damn, that little wop’s sharp!” Ken exclaimed. “I’d never have thought of that myself. Glad he’s on our side.”

“I’d say the same about you,” Watters remarked quietly.

“Me?!” Ken was taken aback. “Hell, Chief, I’m just a spoiled rich kid who happens to know some sword tricks.”

“And how to teach them, and teach very well.” Waters jerked his chin at the long line of men and women atop the Wall. “Half the confidence these troops have comes from you, Clair. You showed us how to use weapons we’d barely heard of before this damn Change.”

“Yeah, well, everybody’s got a hobby.”

“Thank God for yours. It just might save us all. Carry on, Lieutenant Clair,” Waters nodded to him again and continued on his way.

Ken looked at the chaotic mass of the Greenies along the road, considering. “Well, okay, it does look to be a really useful hobby…” He muttered under his breath.

Polk was watching and listening to the Greenie officers who were shouting themselves hoarse. He turned to Ken and raised his eyebrows.

“A sad-looking bunch of gutter-sweepings,” he stated mockingly; he’d been a college literature professor but also an air force reserve man before that, and ran to obscure quotes that Ken had long since stopped trying to recognize. “We’ve got twice as much class, if I do say so myself.”

Ken nodded, following his gaze.

“But whatever they lack in class, they sure make up for in numbers.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Sully coughed and spat, trying to clear the dust from his lungs before shouting again. Most of this bollixed excuse for an army barely had any unit cohesion, no sense of discipline, and it was a miracle that they managed to put one foot in front of another. The SCA cadre and the handful of National Guard and ex-military that the Baron had managed to collect were stretched thin, providing sergeants and doing security to keep the less-willing from running way.

Distantly he could hear Colotta shouting at the half of the southern assault force that he commanded, nearly eight hundred men. Sully had the same number, and Murchison commanded over four hundred for the attack on the Gate.

Sully suspected that a quarter of the Green army would desert if given the chance, now that the likelihood of painful death was staring them in the face. Still, they looked pretty intimidating when massed together like this. Every one had a green-painted shield. Almost every one had a helmet, though most were little more than metalized caps and no few were actually plastic sports helmets or hard-hats. Most had swords, or at least clubs, but a lot of those swords were damn crude. Sully feared there was going to be a problem if the other side really had a genuine blacksmith. He’d seen a real sword shatter a fake one in a sparring contest once, and those two fighters hadn’t even been trying to kill each other.

“Archers, to me!” Sully shouted again. “Crews three and four get started! We haven’t got all day, you lazy maggots!”

The construction crews sorted themselves out and gathered at the supply wagons. Sully hoped what they had there would come as a terrible shock to the Lyons defenders. God knew the Green army could use a motivation lift. Word of the Baron’s fall and presumed death had gone around like wildfire. Men were scared, worried, feeling rudderless despite their commanders.

They’ll get plenty of direction from my boot up their ass! he thought angrily. Hugo would have had the right words, he always had, but Sully knew his own talents didn’t run to uplifting speeches.

His heart ached again, thinking about it. Hugo dead; it just didn’t seem possible. He’d always been so alive, at weapons practice, in tourney, and at the Wars. Sully had followed him to Estrella and Pennsic for half a decade. When he’d come to Sully two days after the Change and proposed creating the Barony for real, Sully had signed on right away. Now…

Now I’m motivated, plenty damn motivated. You bastards behind your Wall, you killed my best friend. Now I’m going to kill you.

“To work!” he shouted, and those within hearing flinched a little at the ferocity in his voice.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ken had no doubt about the Lyons Militia’s dedication. The word about Baron Green’s letter had gone around the Town, getting more exaggerated with each repetition. By now half the militia believed the man had demanded they sacrifice their children, put on slave collars, and lick his feet. They were motivated to fight, all right. But a good quarter of them were still downright clumsy with their swords and nowhere near as physically fit as they needed to be. Ken tried real hard not to worry about that, since there was absolutely nothing he could do to cure the problem now.

Add that to the little matter of us being outnumbered about seven or eight to one, he thought, staring at the Greens. This is going to be bitchin hard, yes indeedy, and I just plain don’t like hard work, y’know?

The more limber members of Company A had scampered down ladders and peeled tarps off the waiting scorpions. Ropes were tied on, looped over a pair of pulleys hung under the hoardings, and men stood by ready to haul.

Ken tore his attention away from the opponents, who were gradually reforming their rows under the screamed directions of their officers. He shot a quick glance down the long length of the wall, where other companies were getting their own scorpions ready. Then he looked toward the command flagpole. With the roof overhead to shelter his men from arrows, vision to left or right along the wall was severely constrained. Marshall Duncan had solved the problem of how to relay orders by putting up two flagpoles about a hundred yards behind the Wall. Each was attended by older men with binoculars, who could watch the command stations for orders from the Chief and the Marshall and repeat any signals they displayed. Waters had worked out a crude signal system and somebody had laboriously copied out large color-coded note boards for each scorpion station, translating the various flags into commands. Ken had his copy nailed to a roof-post behind scorpion number eighteen, where hopefully anyone watching the message flags could quickly reference it.

“The only problem is, we have to look away from the bastards attacking us just to see those orders,” Ken grumbled to himself. There was a bugle backup-system, but he suspected it would be pretty useless once the noise of battle got going.

Marshall Duncan also had a double handful of young boys to run messages if the enemy found a way to take out the flagpoles and the bugles didn’t work. Each Division Lieutenant also had one more kid to use as a messenger. It made Ken queasy to think about the children running back and forth along the wall during a fight, but there wasn’t much else they could do for communication. Everyone older already had a job to do.

Ken surveyed his assigned eighty feet of the Wall. Twenty troops plus himself for twelve crenellations, the two widest occupied by the scorpions. Every one of the men armed with a gladius at his hip and a shield slung over his back. Most of the troops also had a crossbow in their hands, all but the scorpion operators. Theoretically one man could hold each eighteen-inch-wide crenellation, if he was skilled and the enemy came at him only one at a time.

Ken swallowed hard. Theoretically.

He glanced back at the nearer flagpole. A detachment of fifteen men waited there, ready to charge to any part of the southern Wall that needed help.

And that’s it for reinforcements, he thought. Fifteen teenagers and geezers. So, the Greenies outnumber us about eight to one. I read the history books — this kind of a battle usually required at least four to one odds for the attackers to succeed, back in the middle ages. Well, history be damned. We’ve got homemade napalm and enough crossbow bolts to kill them all ten times over. We’ll just have to find ways to actually do it.

He shook his head and turned back to his men. “Fusco, watch the flagpole and let me know the instant they start to raise the red flag.”

“Yes sir, Lieutenant Clair!” The young computer salesman made a credible imitation of a salute. He turned and wrapped an arm around one of the support members for the roof, shaded his eyes with the other hand, leaned out over the twenty-two-foot drop to the ground, and stared intently at the flagpole.

Since the sun was actually behind Fusco, Ken wasn’t very impressed. On the other hand, the kid had listened to every bit of advice Ken gave him and worked hard at combat training. He was also an excellent shot, earning the second-highest score in the whole militia during the brief target practice they’d had before the Greenies arrived. Ken hoped the kid had better-than-even chances of living through his first real battle.

Ken shaded his own eyes and looked to the east instead, trying to figure out what the Greenies were up to, at least on this side of the river. Four knots of men were assembling something from a quartet of large wagons hauled by men in chains.

“Please, Ghu, don’t let it be trebuchets,” Ken said. “Or if it is, make damn sure they plant them within reach of our scorpions!”

“What’s a treb-you-shay?” asked one of the troopers, nervously twiddling the crank on his crossbow.

“A catapult,” Ken explained. “Used to throw great motherfu-, unh, big rocks at us to batter down the Wall.”

“That’d be bad,” one of the women remarked thoughtfully.

“Kinda!” the other snorted.

Ken ignored the byplay and stared harder, wishing he had some binoculars. Unfortunately there weren’t nearly enough of those for every division leader to get one.

When the Greenie construction crew raised a prow-like wooden shape and attached it to the back of the wagon, his suspicions crystallized.

“Shit, they’re building mantlets,” he muttered. “Big ones, too. They must have prefabricated the pieces yesterday. Those are going together way too damn fast.” He bellowed: “Messenger boy!”

Ken fumbled out a pad and pencil and hastily scribbled a note describing the enemy’s new trick, and explaining what it could do. A boy ran up, not more than eight years old, took the note, and dashed off to the Chief with the paper clutched in his skinny little fist. By the time he was gone the nearer mantlet was almost complete, a broad sloping wedge of heavy wooden timbers mounted on a wagon frame.

“It’s like a big mobile shield,” Morton remarked, peering through a crenellation.

“Exactly. Now how do I take out one of those with a scorpion?” Ken mumbled to himself.

“Can’t we just shoot right through it, Lieutenant?” asked one of the older men. “These things throw pretty hard, and we sharpened all the darts like knives.”

“Those timbers are a good foot thick, and the men pushing it will be completely hidden behind them,” Ken explained. “It’s got a wagon frame for support and mobility, and that’ll also help absorb our hits by rocking back a little. The blasted things might as well be tailor-made to soak up our darts, and we just don’t have so many that we can afford to spend fifty or more just to get through one mantlet. We need them for the ladder-carriers, who are more important anyway. All the guys behind the mantlet can do is shoot arrows at us. If they get it close enough to the wall to use it for a climbing platform, the timbers won’t protect them any more and we can drop arrows or that home-made napalm right down on their heads.”

Something twigged at the back of his memory, he struggled to recall it.

“That doesn’t sound so dangerous,” Justin Sorenson said doubtfully. He was one of the stone workers, and the best sword-and-shield man in Ken’s Division Nine force.

“Except the mantlets probably won’t get that close,” Ken told him. “See those little notches in the face? Those are archery ports. They’ll park that thing within easy range of the Wall, and then concentrate on trying to shoot anybody who might show their face between the merlons. Which includes our scorpion operators, damnit, as well as you regular crossbowmen. And women. When they’ve beaten us back enough, their ladder carriers will charge in and hope to get a few ladders up before we can push ‘em over, then swarm us. They’ve got enough men; they can afford to spend a few trying.”

“But what’ll we do?” someone asked in a panicky voice. It was the high-school youngster in Company B, Harry Smythe; Ken vaguely remembered that his mother was a city official or something political. His dad was a volunteer here somewhere too.

“We take their new toys away,” Ken answered, finally remembering what his mind sought. He pulled out the pencil and paper again. “Now here’s how we’re going to do this. Hannah and Joyce, put your forks aside and scamper off to HQ pronto, tell Petroccelli that the scorpions need as much of this as you can carry.”

When the women had left at a flat run, Ken turned back to the Greenies. He counted at least forty siege ladders, each carried by ten men. Another couple dozen gathered behind each ladder, standing on the road. On the far side of the road there were more files of men, waiting for the first charge to clear the way before they could run in. By rough count, the Lyons Militia, barely over three hundred strong, was facing over fifteen hundred opponents south of the river alone. Ken winced.

No, not opponents, Ken though. Enemies. They mean to kill us and take what we’ve got. That’s why they’re the enemy.

His own men tested their crossbows and loosened their swords in their sheaths while they waited. The armory had been working three shifts round the clock for weeks turning out crossbows and ammunition. Starry had five subordinate blacksmiths now in addition to his son. They’d torn through his scrap pile and every dead car and truck in town, salvaging leaf springs to make blanks for swords. Most of the new weapons were downright crude and ugly, but they were plenty sharp. Ken had seen to it that every man on the wall at least knew how to use a sword, no matter how gracelessly. That might distract their attackers long enough for the few skilled fighters to take down a couple men each. He really hoped it would be more.

Crossbow training had been easier. Teaching the actual gun-users among them to aim a little high had been the hardest part. Since the ammo was reusable, he’d drilled them till they were ready to drop. He figured every man in the Militia had practice-fired at least fifty bolts by now, and could cock and load blindfolded. Starry’s crossbow design was blessedly idiot-proof, they’d barely even had anyone mash their fingers in the springs.

Ken checked the reserve ammo. Three women with a cart were even now passing bundles of spare bolts up the ladders. They were supposed to have a hundred bolts per crossbow right at hand. With three hundred men on the Wall, that was thirty thousand bolts, which took up some space. Some of the taller men were stashing extra bundles in the rafters overhead, where the outside slope of the metal-covered hoardings drew down just above the Wall’s merlons. They only had a five-foot-wide path to walk on up here, with a flimsy two-by-four railing tacked between the four-by-four pillars holding up the hoardings on the inner side. If you went through or over that rail, you had a twenty-two foot fall to the ground. Hard ground, too, liberally sprinkled with patches of spilled cement and shards of stone too small to be useful for construction.

So what should I be expecting? Ken asked himself. How can they best attack us? Where are we the weakest?

What about fire? He considered. The wall wouldn’t burn. The metal cladding on the outside face of the hoardings wouldn’t burn either. But the wooden structure that held up that long metal roof, now, that was a different story.

Ken looked around. “Where’s the sandbags? And the water buckets?”

“Coming up the ladders now, Lieutenant Clair. Sir,” answered Martinez, growing more formal as the tension rose.

“Good. Polk and Martinez, make sure you’ve got sand and water on both sides of each scorpion.”

“Will do, sir,” the two corporals answered in unison.

Ken blinked at that, decided to ignore it. He turned back to watching the enemy. They had the mantlets finished, four of them in a row. One was lined up perfectly on Polk’s scorpion station. Ken hoped that was just dumb luck and the enemy didn’t know something that he himself did not. As he watched, the green-sashed files picked up their siege ladders. The mantlets began to move.

“Fusco?” Ken called over his shoulder.

“No flag yet,” the shooter reported. He leaned out a little farther, as if that would make the flag crew react faster. “Not yet. Wait, they’re doing something — yeah, the red flag’s going up, Lieutenant! And there’s the bugles!”

“Martinez! Go! Polk, get ready!”

“Haul away, boys!” Martinez ordered, laying hands on a rope with the rest of his crew.

The first scorpion rode up the wood rails and two men grabbed it from either side, lugged it forward and socketed it onto its mount. The shooter slapped on a pair of mounting nuts and spun them down the threads, then began pumping the cocking lever. His loader piled on too, the springs were heavy and took a lot of pumping to cock. Ken felt several obscene comparisons flit through his mind as he watched the process, but ignored them. The feeder handed the shooter his first dart, a lovely yard-long thing with its point honed sharp as a knife. Fusco slapped it into the firing channel and hunkered down to line it up with the approaching enemy.

Meanwhile Company B had hooked up their scorpion and bent to the ropes. It came over the rail just as smoothly and was socketed and loaded just as fast. Ken didn’t have a working watch, but he’d not quite finished a count of thirty when the second dart slapped into its firing channel.

He looked out through the nearest crenellation again. The mantlets were advancing well ahead of the troops lugging the ladders. Mantlets One and Two were already engaging with their sections of the Wall. Three was just now entering his Division’s crossbow range, number Four approaching Division Eleven. Strings began to twang up and down the wall as nervous men wasted crossbow bolts on the mobile constructs. They simply stuck in the thick wood.

The scorpion in Station Twenty fired prematurely, slamming a dart into Mantlet Four with enough force to make it rock back. The men pushing it paused for a moment, then put their backs to the wagon wheels and propelled it forward again. Over at the road a shout went up and the south wing of the Green army boiled with furious activity for a moment. Ken could hear Pete MacClelland, the commander of Division Ten, chewing out the careless shooter.

“Shit!” cursed Ken. “There goes the element of surprise. Goddamnit!”

Some of the southern files of ladder-carriers, those nearest Mantlet Four, were slowing, hesitating. They’d seen that huge dart appear and were suddenly scared. But the pressure of the men behind them pushed them forward and they resumed their pace. Ken didn’t think the Greenies north of the river had even noticed, nor the two northern mantlets, though Number Three facing his position was moving noticeably slower now. The gap between Wall and highway widened as you went south from the Gate, Mantlet One on the north was already stopped and dueling the crossbow crews. Those had opened up everything they had, showering bolts at it and the ladder-bearers, who had their shields up and tilted forward. This made them look like some weird centipede crawling across the mud, carrying their ladder like a rigid spine.

Mantlet Four rolled into a shallow puddle that hadn’t been there an hour ago, abruptly slowed to a halt as the soil beneath the wheels went soggy. It rocked for a moment, then started to tilt as the right wheels sank deeper. The farther flange of its protective side-wall began to rise into the air, exposing the legs of the men behind it as the side nearer to Ken plunged into a water-filled depression. The crossbowmen on the Wall to Ken’s right took advantage of that gap. A scorpion pumped a dart right under the mantlet’s raised wing. Water splashed high, Ken heard screams and the mantlet abruptly lurched even lower into the water. The far end of its wing now hung more than five feet off the ground. Ken guessed that dart had gone right under the wagon and smashed out a wheel on the near side. A couple more scorpions opened up on it now, trying to shatter the thing.

“They’re wasting shot!” Ken muttered in vexation. He turned back to his own crew.

“Keep your attention on the ladder-carriers, you shooters!” He called to his men. “Take them out first! The mantlets can wait till we have the right ammo!”

Mantlet Three had moved faster than unlucky Four and was now in position. It stopped moving and crossbow darts began spitting out of both firing notches. The metal roof overhead boomed as several bolts came down on it and either stuck or bounced off.

Ken grinned savagely. “Plunging fire doesn’t work on hoardings, fools!” he snarled at the Greenies.

The walking troops picked up their pace, funneling into the shelter of the mantlet’s wings. Fortunately there wasn’t room for all of them there.

Scorpion Eighteen spewed a dart, neatly spearing three men on the nearest ladder. The other carriers staggered on the treacherous footing as the front of the ladder dropped and dug into the muddy ground. Number Seventeen fired a second later and nailed another ladder, splintering a few rungs and killing at least a couple carriers. The other carriers dropped it, and there was a milling-about behind shields as the survivors tried to organize to pick their damaged ladder up again. Crossbow bolts took down two more of them. The Green troops were as spread out as they could manage in the constricted area. They still presented a far better target of opportunity than the defenders did behind the Wall’s merlons.

“Good!’ Ken yelled as cranking filled the air. “More!”

He ducked reflexively as an enemy bolt passed just under the roof to wing over his head.

One of the farmers gave a cry and reeled backwards, another crossbow bolt in his shoulder. He dropped his own bow and it broke on the stone floor.

Ken cursed and helped him aside.

“Can you make it to the medics on your own feet?” he asked. It was obvious that the farmer would do no more useful fighting today and they couldn’t spare anyone to guide the man.

The farmer nodded, teeth clenched, and began struggling down a ladder to the ground. The Marshal had given firm orders that the top of the Wall was not to be used for evacuations. The mobile wounded would have to walk up to the high school bridge to cross the river before coming back east to the medics. The immobile ones would have to wait for an ambulance crew to come for them. Ken hoped his farmer would make it, then necessarily dropped the wounded man from his mind.

Joyce and Hannah returned at that moment, scampering along the Wall with cloth sacks slung over their shoulders.

“We got it, Ken!” Joyce shouted exuberantly. “We’re giving six to each Division! Petroccelli says he shoulda thought of this himself!”

“Fine, fine!” Ken answered. “Hand the extras off to Hannah, she can keep distributing. You get three darts from each scorpion and spike the noses. Then grab your pole again, ‘cause we’re going to be real busy real soon!”

All the scorpions were firing now, chewing at the ladder carriers, but there were more ladders than scorpions. The shooters wasting darts on Mantlet Four belatedly realized that and redirected their fire to the ladders. Seventeen and Eighteen were firing steadily now, but Ken’s command had the bad luck to have five of the forty ladders concentrated within their firing zone. Three were stopped by darts, their crews halted in disarray, but the other two used Mantlet Three for cover, then sprinted past it. Ken’s crossbow men hit several of the carriers but not enough to stop the ladders.

Fusco cursed as his fourth dart missed ladder and men both to plow up muddy ground. The scorpions couldn’t be depressed far enough to hit anything within thirty feet of the wall. “They’re going to raise, Lieutenant!” The boy flinched as an enemy bolt ricocheted off a merlon and passed inches from his face.

“Prepare to repel!” Ken shouted. “Fusco, Jagelow, hit Mantlet Three with the new ammo — and aim low!”

Joyce handed Fusco’s loader a treated dart. It had a fist-sized mass of soggy fiber impaled over the nose spike. He slapped it in, Fusco aimed as his loader touched a burning splinter to the nose. Fusco fired half a second before Number Seventeen’s Jagelow did. The two darts slammed into the mantlet a little above the mud-spattered lower rim. Flame spurted and splashed across the wooden surface, dribbled a little and then caught. The mantlet began to burn.

“Sweet!” shouted Fusco. “What is this stuff?”

“Napalm-soaked polyester couch stuffing,” Ken answered. “Petro planned to use it for the river-gate’s defense, but I knew he had a lot. Repeat once more, then take aim at the massed troops with the next two charges, they’re about in range!”

The mantlet’s arrow output slackened as smoke blocked the archers’ view, then the second pair of flaming darts plowed into the mantlet. Fire got into the dry wood and suddenly turned it to a sheet of flame. Several men ran out from behind its now-useless protection. Company B slaughtered them all with crossbow fire.

The top end of a ladder swayed into sight and thumped against the projecting edge of the hoarding roof next to Scorpion Eighteen.

❀ ❁ ❀

28

— Come into my Parlor —

Lyons, Colorado, early May, 1998.

“This is working!” Burt shouted excitedly, cranking his crossbow.

“They’re making it easy for us,” Smythe answered.

Yohansen fired, began cocking his own. “About as challenging as shooting farmed pheasants on mowed grass,” he added absently, concentrating on his work. “Only there’s a lot more of them.”

The leading surge of the attackers had rolled down the highway and rounded the end of the Wall into the gap before the Gate. There they suddenly found themselves being shot at from three directions instead of one. Since none of them had more than one shield, they didn’t last long if they dithered. The leading line pressed on and began hammering at the steel-sheathed gate itself. Several of them had axes; booming thuds began to echo off the walls to either side. But out in the middle of the space, other men lost their nerve and began fighting their way backwards through their oncoming buddies. The attackers turned into a giant pool of struggling men, most holding shields over their heads, weaving and swaying in a cauldron of death.

There was a deep ‘tunggg’ sound as two scorpions fired simultaneously at an approaching mantlet. Burt aimed his crossbow again.

“Nothing quite like a target-rich environment!” he quoted, squinting. To his right, Smythe grinned and fired his own crossbow.

Their bolts streaked down into the bleeding mass of men before the gate. Then Petrocelli’s ‘dragons’ coughed and spat wads of burning napalm across the chaotic mass before the gate. It stuck to shields, armor, weapons, faces, and burned.

The boom of axes faltered. Shouting turned to screaming.

❀ ❁ ❀

Murchison cursed profanely as the scorpions set fire to his second mantlet with a double hit. It had barely cleared the culvert over one of those damn flooded ditches.

He had fifteen companies throwing themselves at a stretch of the Wall that couldn’t be more than four hundred feet long. More than a hundred men were hitting the Gate itself, every fifth one armed with an axe. Unfortunately, with the ditches flooded armpit-deep in fast, cold river-water, their approach routes were basically narrowed down to the few plank bridges they’d been able to throw down, or the highway. Some of the men had tried to wade across the ditches without bridges, lost their footing and been swept under. The rest were now crowded together trying to get across on the planks and the paved road, their shields locked together tightly. The packed conditions made for horrific casualties each time a scorpion fired.

“The men can’t take this, Captain!” shouted one of his lieutenants, Guererro. “They’ll break any minute! We’ve got to try something else!”

“Sound ‘fall back’ now!” Murchison ordered the bugler, who fell to with a will.

The rear-most troops gladly backed off and the mass slowly began to drain back out of the trap. The scorpions continued to fire while crossbows rained bolts almost continuously. The thrice dammed gadget at the gates coughed again and spewed fire across the now-retreating backs of his vanguard. Each time a scorpion dart tore a new hole in the ranks, a few men threw down their weapons and shields and ran for it. The Society cadre he’d parked at the back of the attack had their hands full stopping a rout.

“Get me the QM!” Murchison yelled over the bedlam, then turned to another young officer waiting impatiently at his elbow. “Jared, you organize Companies Sixteen to Twenty for a flank attack and point them at that cocksucking ridge! Make fucking sure they all have their goddamned shields!”

“Sir, yes sir!” the young former-Marine answered and saluted smartly, then dashed away.

Murchison cursed again as a dart plowed through more men on the road, watching in despair as most of the remainder threw aside their ladders and shields and became a mob. Each vied against the next trying to escape the deadly scorpion fire. The Society cadre gave back before the pressure and for a moment he thought the whole attack would collapse in chaos. Then, almost miraculously, shouted orders took hold, the rout slowed, and the rest managed to retire back out of enemy fire range in a vague semblance of order. The rain of bolts ceased, then the scorpion fire halted as well. The stench of burning napalm eddied back towards him, though most of it blew west over the Wall.

“All right you bastards, let’s see how well trapped the damn bushes really are!” Murchison snarled in the general direction of Lyons. “Blackbeard, where the hell are you?”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Joyce! Get your fork on it!” Ken shouted, pointing to the newly-arrived ladder. Hannah wasn’t back yet from distributing the rest of the fire charges, so he grabbed the second fork himself. Joyce rushed up next to him and copied his moves as he jammed the forked end against the exposed side-beam of the ladder. Through the wood Ken felt the trembling from men clambering up it.

“At a forty-five degree angle! Push!” he shouted, and they both threw their weight into it. The ladder stirred, shifted, and then slid sideways. Joyce’s fork was almost trapped against the stone merlon before she pulled it free. The ladder scraped along the metal roof with a long shriek. Ken shifted a couple paces, reset his fork and heaved again. Off balance, the ladder scraped along faster, then fell.

His crew cheered. Then another ladder thumped against the hoardings, making the metal roof ring. One of the flattened car hoods that comprised part of the covering tore partly loose and let extra sunlight through — and an arrow that cracked off the pavement a foot away from Ken.

“Watch yourselves!” Ken warned, then strode forward to set his fork again. Joyce joined him and they heaved again. This ladder moved more easily, but then got stuck against a merlon. They’d only managed to push it a few degrees off vertical. There were enough men on it that Joyce and Ken’s combined weight couldn’t budge it further.

“Murder-hole operators, drop the first napalm charge!” Ken ordered as he readied his fork for a different move.

Four of the men set down their crossbows and uncapped waiting jugs. They poured the sludgy contents down the preset holes at the foot of certain merlons. It gushed out on the face of the wall, spread into a wide fan by bits of stone left projecting outward in strategic places. Empty jugs were capped and thrown well behind the wall, where women from the Arsenal would collect and reload them later — if there was a later for Lyons.

“Fire in the hole!’ Shouted Martinez gleefully as he touched a match to one hole. A thread of flame leapt up, then was literally sucked down into the hole as the fire flew down along the surface of the draining napalm.

At the same time a face appeared on the ladder facing Ken. He slammed the fork into it and knocked the man right off the ladder. From the sounds that followed he’d taken the next two with him.

“Try again!” Ken reset his fork, Joyce with him, but the ladder still wouldn’t budge. A shield appeared in the crenellation and Joyce promptly bashed at it with her fork. The man behind the shield swayed but didn’t back down. He peered over the top of the shield and Ken promptly rammed him in the face with his own fork. That did it. The Greenie lost his grip and fell sideways off the ladder.

Smoke from the burning napalm began filtering up. Fusco swore as it became harder to see, but from the screams below at least a couple dozen of the enemy had been splashed with liquid fire that wouldn’t go out.

The ladder shook as the next man rushed up and threw himself shield-first through the crenellation. Joyce was knocked back against the railing, she dropped her fork.

The attacker had a good helmet, a spiked mace, and a large kite-shaped shield, obviously a Society fighter. He had fallen as he came through but landed on his knees with a ringing slam, his shield knocked aside for a critical second. Ken was too close to bring his own fork to bear so he kicked the Greenie in the head as hard as possible, hearing the helmet ring. The fighter sprawled but bounced back up gamely, trying to bring up his mace. Martinez shot a bolt point blank into the man’s back. The triangular head ripped through chainmail and came bloodily out through the opposite ribs. The Greenie collapsed, coughing crimson. The corporal grinned and passed the crossbow to someone behind him. Then he drew his own sword and readied his shield.

Another Greenie crowded into the opening, kicking feet forward. Ken dropped the fork and drew his gladius in time to stab at an exposed leg. He felt the point glance off some kind of armor under cloth and skipped back as the other tried to shield-slam him with a platter-sized targe. The Greenie surged forward to make room for another behind him, slashing at Joyce with a clumsy sword that he none-the-less knew how to wield. She screamed as her armor turned the blade, alive but shocked enough that she simply stood there.

Ken leaped in again and stabbed at the Greenie’s shield arm. His point hit a seam and tore open the banded armor, scoring flesh beneath. The fighter yelped and turned on him, the targe raised to block as he surged forward. Ken skipped back, trying to get his own shield in place. It was larger than the Greenie’s and more awkward to position. Morton stepped into the gap with mad bravery and stabbed awkwardly at the Greenie. He got a return slash that opened his left arm to the bone. Morton turned white and collapsed.

Ken got his own shield in place and stepped forward, but the Greenie held fast and they locked in a flurry of traded blows.

Another Green fighter had squeezed through the opening and faced Martinez. The corporal put his own sword and shield into play. Metal rang on metal. A third Greenie crawled onto the Wall and raised his sword at Joyce, who screamed again.

Another ladder thumped against the Wall somewhere behind Ken. He didn’t dare turn to look at it. The Greenie in front of him seemed vaguely familiar. Ken had probably met him in the SCA sometime. They might even have been friends.

Now he was just an enemy.

They traded two more blows, Ken feeling out the other’s movements. He held his right arm a bit too high. So, a little feint here and then —

Ken’s sword slid under the man’s guard and slammed into his armpit. The chainmail broke and the gladius sank several inches into flesh, cutting a major muscle group. The fighter’s shield arm fell and Ken batted his sword aside on the return, then lunged again as the man’s shield dropped. He took the fighter in the throat, a little off-center but a killing blow none the less, and the fighter dropped like a discarded puppet.

The one behind him had hesitated at Joyce’s scream. Realizing that she was a woman and had no sword, he swatted at her with the flat of his blade in a misplaced act of chivalry. She managed to duck by dropping to the floor, grabbed her fork and used it to block the next couple blows while she teetered on the back edge of the Wall. Ken stepped forward, nearly tripped over the fork that he’d dropped, and converted the motion to a stab right into the chivalrous fighter’s shield-shoulder. The man spasmed, tried to turn on Ken, and Joyce stuck her fork between his legs and tripped him. Ken stabbed the back of his neck as he went down, and the fighter lay still.

Martinez had taken out his man with help from one of the farmers’ sons. The two of them were bottling a fourth man against the ladder, preventing another from getting in. Ken stepped up, added his blade to the melee and the fourth Greenie went down. The fifth hesitated in the crenellation for a moment, then flung himself forward at Ken. Ken blocked, grunting as his shield took the other’s full weight, and then Martinez got his sword into the man. A sixth leaped through the Wall and immediately tripped over his comrades and went down, Ken got him with a stab to the neck. The seventh man got his shield jammed in the crenellation. Joyce was back on her feet, she lunged at him with the fork and he fell over backwards with a wild cry. There was a pause as an eighth fighter tried to get into the gap but Martinez got him before the fighter could shield. He and the farmer crowded up close, swords flickering as their feet trampled the dead.

Ken stepped back a pace, looked behind him. He was just in time to see Stanto Abbaku slam his blood-dripping spear into another enemy fighter that had exposed too much of his face above his shield. There were only two bodies piled below that crenellation and Polk was just withdrawing his sword from one of them. Ken stooped, grabbed the fork and set it against that ladder. He heaved. It swayed, one beam rising a few inches before it thumped back against the hoarding. He heaved again, felt somebody join him on the back of the fork, and this time the ladder twisted and began to slide sideways. He heaved again and it picked up speed, went over with loud screaming.

“Can I have my fork back now, Lieutenant?” asked a panting Hannah, leaning against him a little.

“Sure.” Ken let go of it, brought his sword back up and wheeled back to the other ladder. “Help Joyce with that one!” He coughed from the rancid smoke leaking through the crenellations. Napalm was burning more than leather and cloth down there.

Hannah added her fork to Joyce’s and they both heaved against the other ladder. A Greenie was climbing up onto the roof as the ladder bounced under him. The metal overhead boomed as he scrambled across the flattened car-parts. One of the crossbowmen pointed his weapon up, tracked the sound for a moment, and then fired. The bolt went most of the way through the thin metal and stuck, then was jerked the rest of the way through as the hapless fighter arched backwards and fell off. He struck the ladder as he dropped and several more fighters were knocked off. Joyce and Hannah heaved again and this time the ladder moved. They kept pushing and sent it over.

Ken paused, panting, to look around. There were no live enemies standing on the Wall in his station, or the next one to the north, but one of the enemy wounded was trying to bring a sword around to slash at Martinez’ legs. Ken kicked it aside, then kicked the downed fighter hard in the head. A helmet went flying and the wounded enemy collapsed. Another wounded man next to him was also still alive, but curled in a ball and weeping.

“Somebody shove these bodies over the inside!” he shouted, then spat to clear phlegm from his lungs. He looked back south and spotted Morton crouched against the inside of the merlons, holding his bleeding arm and staring at it blankly. Blood spurted in little pulses.

Ken grabbed a binding out of his belt, wrapped it around Morton’s wound and tied it off crudely.

“Get yourself down a ladder and over to the medics!” he shouted at the shocked man, shaking him into motion. Morton’s eyes came back to the present and he staggered over to the nearest ladder. Ken noticed one of the farmers pushing bodies off the parapet but had no time to spare for him or Morton.

The troops had managed to keep up a credible rate of fire throughout. The clack of ratchets and twang of bowstrings was loud. Fusco and Jagelow were still methodically firing the scorpions. The dart supply was down nearly halfway. One of the stonemasons broke open a new bundle of crossbow bolts and passed them around. The parapet was already littered with cut strings from used bundles. The napalm smoke was thicker and fouler, it had found more to burn and the breeze carried it straight up and over the Wall. Ken coughed.

Should have foreseen that, he thought. Damn!

Another ladder thumped against the roof. Hannah charged over with her fork, Joyce limping behind her, and they got it shoved over before a single enemy made it to the top.

Ken peered down the Wall at Pete MacClelland’s command next to his. There was fighting visible there. As he watched, it moved towards him. Young Harry raised his shield and sword and stepped into it.

“Shit! A breakthrough!” Ken exclaimed. “Martinez, come with me! Polk, you have command!”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Nothing fancy Jared,” Murchison warned the blond lieutenant. “Just grab the ridgeline and take that tower. Leave one company on the ridge to shoot at the defenders on the Wall, pour everybody else down the tower. We get the gate, we’ve got Lyons.”

“Sir, it shall be done!” Jared grinned and saluted his commander with his sword. His green tabard snapped in the breeze as he turned to the gathered sergeants of his command. “You heard the Captain, let’s get these maggots up that ridge!”

Murchison turned back to the water plant. The battered and bloodied remnants of the first fifteen companies were regrouping in the road and on the grounds. The Green’s handful of medics had set up on the ground floor and were overwhelmed with casualties. Murchison patted a few shoulders, clasped a few hands as he hurried through, hoping the effect on morale would be enough. Then he hurried up to the tower, his bugler at his heels. Doyle was waiting with the binoculars. Murchison grabbed them and began scanning the hillside intently.

They had already swept the lower slopes behind the Lewis plant, from the Palmerton Canal all the way up to the Rough and Ready Ditch. The Highland Canal ran farther up the slope, bank-full like the lower two but swathed in thorny scrub. It actually passed through the north shoulder of the Wall in a culvert that ran under the sheet-metal tower, but Murchison already knew from his scouts that tunnel was blocked with iron bars. Company Sixteen had long planks to lie across the ditch. He watched tensely as they worked their way up the slope, began bridging it and scrambled up the steep upper bank. Progress slowed to a crawl as they wormed their way into the thick growth.

❀ ❁ ❀

Burt was checking over his crossbow when Marshall Duncan came striding along the top of the wall. He was just steps away from Burt when the North Tower lookout burst out the tower’s open door and ran toward them along the Wall.

“They’re coming up the ridge!” he panted. “At least fifty of ‘em, probably more!”

“As you predicted, Mike,” Burt remarked to Duncan.

“Ayup. Now let’s see how our counter-plans go. Lieutenant Black, repel that invasion force! Santini, Yohansen, Smythe, Clark, and Joseph, shift five places north to cover Division Two’s stretch of the Wall.”

“Yes sir!” Yohansen snapped, grabbed up his crossbow and ammo and ran.

Burt followed, with Fowler Smythe on his heels, counting down the crenellations. They set up in their new positions, right below the Tower’s looming bulk. It was a few feet wider than the Wall itself and stood a good twenty feet taller, a rough tube filled by a steel spiral stair that Waters had ripped off of a restaurant’s exterior dining balcony. A truncated conical roof hosting a lookout platform capped the top. Behind them another flight of stairs continued down the back of the wall to the ground, since the tower itself stood over the canal. Burt craned his neck to look up at the construct from under the hoarding roof, wincing a little at the twinge this produced in aging muscles. The layers of sheet steel hammered over the wood frame gave the tower an oddly organic appearance, as if it’d been grown rather than made. Two slit windows looked out, the nearer canted slightly south toward the gate. The top of the hoarding was covered with looped and rolled barbed wire in piled masses that overhung the edge; it lapped up the tower wall like some weird frozen metallic wave, embracing the lower window.

“Great,” Burt muttered, looking straight out at the rising slope in front of him. Below he could hear the water gurgling in the Highland Ditch like a moat between his position and the mountain. Looking down he could see a narrow footpath along the canal’s outer bank, ending about eight or nine feet below his crenellation where the wall rudely cut across. The edge of the ridge rose high enough that an enemy standing on it above the canal and against the Tower would actually be almost face-to-face with Burt’s crenellation, about six feet away across the ditch.

If said enemy was a bit of a gymnast and a lot of a maniac, Burt reflected, he could probably leap across the space and grab the edge of the hoarding roof, daring the barbed wire, and maybe squeeze himself through the crenellation. Assuming nobody like Burt Santini tried to dispute the way, of course.

“Now it gets up close and personal,” Burt remarked to Yohansen, and readied his crossbow.

Yohansen blinked at him for a moment. “I’d rather hope not, Burt. Any enemy that I can kill from a distance is a good enemy.”

Burt blinked. “That’s…hard to argue with, Whit.”

The other trustee gave him a wintry smile. “I once thought all of my arguments were that way, Burt. Lately I’ve been forced by circumstance to reconsider.” He turned back to his crenellation, readied his crossbow.

Burt blinked again, decided there was no good answer to that, and turned back to his own crenellation.

There was a burst of shouting from above, beyond the tower.

❀ ❁ ❀

Murchison took time to scan the ridge-line, where Lyons men waited behind snarls of barbed wire in fortlets of timber and rocks. Someone must have reported his maneuver to their commander because the top of the tower began spewing crossbow-armed men. They clustered around the entry along a low bulwark. He counted at least fifteen in addition to the twenty that had already been dug in along the ridge. That made thirty-five against his sixty-plus. Their height gave them range on his men, they’d already begun showering crossbow bolts into the shrubs.

“Doyle!” he barked. “Carry a message down to Grubb in Company Twelve. Tell him to pull as many effectives out of Ten and Eleven as he can get in two minutes, and head up the ridge to join Jared.”

“Yes Captain!” Doyle scampered away without saluting.

Murchison turned back to the ridge. The leading edge of his men were mostly hidden, hunkered down in the shoulder-high mahogany. But their movements caused a continuous wave in the bushes. The defenders were targeting that. Murchison cursed. He could see Grubb down below talking to some of his men, then furious activity as they surged forward across the plank bridges and threw themselves against the ridge. He counted at least thirty men in the additional force.

“That ought to help,” he muttered to himself, anxiously watching their progress. The leading edge of Jared’s command was nearing the bulwark. He waited tensely as shields surged and swords came into play.

Behind him he heard Doyle returning, someone else with him.

“What is it?” Murchison snapped, not taking his eyes from the binoculars.

“Sir, it’s a survivor from Captain Blackbeard’s command,” Doyle explained nervously.

“A — what?!” Murchison tore his attention away from the ridge and spun around. He vaguely recognized the sweaty, dirty, bleeding man in front of him, one of the younger SCA cadres accompanying Blackbeard. “WHAT did you say?!”

“Sir, Captain Blackbeard’s dead, and his command is smashed, sir,” the weary man said, swaying on his feet. “They shot us up with crossbows, then broke us at their fort back there. Must have been a couple hundred of them, we couldn’t close with them, they just kept shooting at us out of the forest…”

“Dead! Are you sure?” Murchison exclaimed. He was vaguely conscious of the blood draining from his face.

“Yes sir, I saw him lead the charge.” The youth licked his blood-crusted lips anxiously. “I was near the middle, sir, I had a good view. Nobody in the whole front line came back once they hit that fort. They also attacked us from behind on horses, and shot up most of the Society guys before we knew they were on us. I didn’t know there were so many arrows in the whole world!”

The wounded man had the shaft of an arrow protruding from his armored left shoulder, Murchison noted. The broadhead had stuck fast in it without breaking through the gambeson beneath; he didn’t even seem aware of it. His armor was scored in a dozen other places and he had a huge abrasion down the left side of his face. His left arm hung limply, as though he couldn’t raise it, and blood seeped out of a round hole in the vambrace. A lot more of it was crusted across the metal.

“How many escaped?” Murchison asked urgently.

“About forty, fifty, I don’t know for sure. Roger of Cambreath was my direct commander, sir, but he fell too, sir, and Dirk Adderhall too. So Sargent Lehto’s taken command. He sent me on ahead to carry word, he’s bringing the rest back with all the wounded they can carry.”

“Did you stop and tell the other commanders this news on the way in?” Murchison asked sharply.

“No sir, I didn’t even see them. Sarge sent me to report directly to the Baron.” The youth’s face seemed to crumple a bit. “But now they tell me he’s dead, sir?”

“I’m afraid so, son,” Murchison told him regretfully. The youth began silently weeping.

Damn you, Hugo, Murchison thought. How did you get so many to believe in you like this? And why don’t I have that talent? Well, fuck your goddamned ghost to hell and gone, at least I can give orders.

“Doyle, take — what’s your name, son?”

“Etienne, sir, Etienne of Navarr — um, I used to be Paul Fickel, sir.” He swayed a little on his feet, his eyes leaking tears but too proud to give into open sobs.

“Eti — Paul, go with Doyle here down to the infirmary and get that arm looked at.”

“Yes, sir.” Paul/Etienne saluted weakly, then Doyle lead him away.

Murchison turned back to the battle, scanned the ridge with his binoculars. The slugging match along the ridge was fully engaged now, and throwing up dust that obscured the individuals until he couldn’t tell which were his own men and which the enemy. Men heaved and stabbed in treacherous footing, a few crossbows still cranked and twanged. Murchison checked the Gate — the defenders seemed as numerous as ever, those extra fifteen must have come from some kind of reserve.

How much more of a reserve have they got? If they could spare two hundred to defeat Blackbeard and they still have three hundred or more here, they had to have a bigger force to start with than we figured. How much bigger? Do we really have the seven- or eight-to-one advantage that we thought we did? What if we don’t? Hugo said it takes four-to-one offensive advantage to defeat a defended castle wall; what if we really only have a three-to-one advantage?

“Then we just might be fucked,” he whispered to himself.

Doyle came back, waited obsequiously at Murchison’s elbow.

“Doyle, find a messenger and send him to Colotta and Sully,” Murchison ordered, still staring through the binoculars. “Tell them that we’ve received reports of Blackbeard’s death and a general rout of the southern detachment. Tell them that I suspect we are facing a larger force than we think, behind that Wall.”

Doyle gasped faintly, bowed and hurried off. Murchison continued to stare at the battle on the ridge, straining to make it out. He thought Jared must have taken one of the bulwarks, the fighting there seemed ended and he was almost sure he recognized the young Marine’s armor through the dust. But the rest raged on with no clear resolution.

Doyle’s footsteps cane back up the stairs. There hadn’t been nearly enough time to send the message, Murchison thought furiously, ready to ream Doyle out. He lowered the binoculars and turned to discover the servant assisting an exhausted-looking man onto the roof.

Doyle’s face was white with fear. “Sir! There’s word from the Manor! The Reds are attacking, and Boulder’s with them!”

The messenger gulped air and nodded. He must have ridden straight here, eight long miles by road. He found breath to wheeze “Lieutenant Miles says he needs help, sir! At least five hundred men came up the Diagonal from Boulder, moving fast on carts on the railroad. Three hundred Reds joined them out of the fields, they must have been hiding from us after the big fight! They already took over the south side and they were about to march on the Manor when Captain Miles sent me to you. He needs help, sir!”

“Then we truly are fucked,” Murchison replied, with a calm that surprised even himself.

He thought furiously. It was too late to call back Jared’s command without sacrificing most of them. Mentally he wrote them off — they might or might not break through the Wall, but now he couldn’t spare the men to follow up.

He wheeled about and scanned the whole battle with his binoculars. A good half of the entire army was already engaged at the Wall, and Colotta and Sully were even now pouring more into the cauldron. Most of his own men were bloodied, but not yet winded — he’d pulled them back in time. And all of the bicycles were parked here, at least four hundred-fifty. If he pulled out the unwounded troops and had the wounded hole up in the water plant, there might be a chance to save most of them and still come to the rescue of Longmont.

“New orders, Doyle!” Murchison said. “Bugler, blow assembly, then join me downstairs.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“What the hell is that idiot doing!?” Colotta screamed at a messenger newly arrived from Murchison’s command. “We agreed on a strategy!”

“Captain Blackbeard’s reported dead and his army destroyed, sir,” explained the messenger, pasty-faced and obviously ready to shit himself. “In Longmont the Reds came back and Boulder’s with them. The Mansion’s under attack!”

Colotta went cold. “Oh Fuck!”

“Captain Murchison’s compliments, Sir, and he begs you send your reserves to join him,” the messenger hurriedly added. “He’s going back to save Longmont. There’s about a hundred-eighty bicycles left for your men, and any of Captain Sully’s that can be spared.”

Colotta stared around. He could hear the bad news spreading through the reserves right behind him, sense their rising wave of dismay. A tidal wave that would sweep this army away and leave a formless mess of desperate men running to save whatever was left of their homes and families.

“That’s it,” he muttered heavily, despair crashing down on him. “We’ve lost.”

❀ ❁ ❀

29

— From the Jaws of Defeat —

Lyons, Colorado, early May, 1998.

Bob Jared panted and leaned on his sword for a moment. He’d killed the last defender of this small bulwark perched on the cliffs. Behind it the ridge dropped away forty or fifty feet straight down onto big rocks and talus — he’d taken a quick peek over the side to find out. The meandering line of the cliffs ran steeply up to his right, and down to his left until it met the next bulwark, in front of the tower.

Below at the water plant he could hear the Barony’s buglers blowing Assembly — Murchison must be preparing to pour more men into the gap Jared had created. Unfortunately Jared knew he hadn’t yet taken the tower. The fighting still raged there, they’d taken down several defenders but lost well over double that number of their own, and the ratio was getting worse. The stupid and weak among the defenders were dead, but those who remained were smart and capable — some of them more capable than anyone Jared had seen since the Corps. He’d begun to realize that some of them probably were Corps, and was trying to decide just how he felt about that.

“Semper Fi, bastards,” he muttered finally, then inhaled deeply, trying not to cough on the dust. “But, sorry, I’ll just have to kill you all anyway.”

There were two more bulwarks farther up the ridge yet to take, too, including the largest at the top. Jared was careful to keep the lone scrawny tree shading this bulwark between himself and that higher one. Something was going on up there in the biggest, they’d nearly stopped firing arrows. He turned to scrutinize it, keeping his shield up when he moved out from behind the tree.

There was a surge of activity and then something tubular and black rose into view over the bulwark. Eight of Jared’s men including his best friend, Mark, and all four of his archers were working their way around the bulwark through the mahogany. Jared had sent them to find an angle above the damn position and start dropping arrows on it. Mark would do it too, he always delivered. He’d found that amazing whorehouse in Kuwait, the one with the Burmese girls who’d done things Jared hadn’t known were possible with —

The black tube suddenly spat a long stream that sprayed forty yards across the mahogany. Flame followed it, sheets of flame charring the new spring leaves, charring the men crawling through them. Screams beat on Jared’s ears, tore through his heart.

“Mark!” he gasped starkly, knowing the familiar voice among them. They’d fucked that girl together, front and back, you didn’t get to be better buddies with another guy than by doing that together, no matter what the fags thought, and now — “Mark!”

The stream turned in a wide fan across the slope, burning, burning, marching toward Ma Jared’s son Bob. He watched it in fascination — it was easily long enough to pass right across his position and reach most of the way to the tower, too. There was no point in running, not on this rugged slope. He could step backwards, off the cliff, and accept death on the rocks instead of death by fire. Instead he clenched his sword, brought it up and raised his shield a little.

“Fuck you all, cocksuckers!” he yelled as the liquid death approached. Heat washed across him, the stomach-churning chemical stink.

Then it stopped and reversed course.

He gulped for a moment, staring, then another crossbow bolt plowed into his shield. Of course — any closer and they’d also burn their own men in the lower bulwark. He crouched, moved crabwise downslope until he’d gotten below the tree again, then below his own bulwark. Burning mahogany flung ashes and the chemical stink mixed with burning flesh. The screams had stopped by the time he got below the burn area, and joined up with Grubb’s men. Grubb was down with a crossbow bolt in his chest, hacking out his lungs.

“He tried to get around the bottom side, but they got guys on the wall covering it!” yelled one of Grubb’s men wearing a Broncos helmet, eyes wide and staring at Jared. “They shot four of us, we dragged Grubb back here. Had to leave the rest — Jerry fell into the canal!”

“Lieutenant’s a deader!” another man said, checking Grubb’s pulse. This one wore a stainless steel pot hammered into a rough helmet shape.

The fire was coming at them, racing downslope through the tinder-dry mess of last year’s leaves under the mahogany.

“I’m taking command! Follow me!” Jared demanded, and Grubb’s men did.

They fell on the tower bulwark, fire at their backs and swords out. Jared stabbed a path through the defenders, twisting and blocking as two of them tried to turn and take him out. That let Bronco take one down, while Pot-head traded jabs with the other. Jared lunged at the one coming at him from the tower door, got past his block and slammed his dripping sword through the bastard’s chin, jerked it free of the brain-pan just in time to parry another from the side. He was forced back — the fucker was good! Desperately he dodged sideways to put the tower at his back. His attacker was fast, shorter than Jared but muscled like a leopard and twice as vicious. They traded six blows in five seconds. Jared’s shoulder plate cracked open in turning a blow that would have taken his left arm. He got the lucky seventh in under the cat’s guard and scratched the man, thus buying himself a couple seconds of retreat time. The door-frame was at his elbow, he dodged sideways through it. Pot-head moved to follow while Bronco attacked the leopard. Jared tripped on something in the dark interior, fell against a railing. That saved his life as somebody coming up the stairs stabbed at him. He chanced a wild slam with his shield, lost it but knocked his enemy backwards down the stairs. Pot-head came charging through the door — they’d forced the defenders back and sideways in the bulwark. Bronco followed, was blocked by the two in front of him, then enemy swords surged back and Bronco got his hamstrings slashed from behind.

Jared rolled himself under the railing and dropped feet first onto the next flight down. The one he’d knocked over was moving, Jared stabbed him indiscriminately in the dark.

“Follow me!” he shouted, clattering down the steps in a wild ecstasy of adrenaline and hate. Pot-head vaulted the railing just ahead of a sword and joined him, while Bronco vomited blood across the landing as another sword took him in the ribs. His helmet fell off and bounced down the stairs ahead of Jared.

❀ ❁ ❀

“What the hell is that?” Yohansen asked, loading a bolt into his crossbow just as a football helmet came bouncing out of the tower door.

Burt briefly tore his eyes away from the slope in front of him and paused with his own crossbow half-cocked. They’d shot at least four enemy troops on the ridge so far, counting the one who fell into the canal, and he expected more any minute. He risked a look back over his shoulder, peering around the curve of the tower looming over him. Someone was shouting up there and feet pounded the stairs on the other side of the thin metal wall.

“Shit!” he yelled at Whit. “We’re being invaded!” He dropped his crossbow on the bottom of the crenellation and grabbed for his sword.

The last word barely left his lips before a man slammed his way out of the tower door. He wore strange armor with green ‘X’s on the shoulders and a green cloth garment like a small poncho. One shoulder of his armor was split open, bleeding flesh showing through it. He was sprinkled with ash and stank of napalm, but mostly seemed unburned. Blond hair topped a face where lips were drawn back in a snarl. He stepped forward over the football helmet, a dripping sword held at the ready.

Whit Yohansen raised his loaded crossbow and fired.

The bolt snagged the outer edge of the Greenie’s shoulder on the broken side, ripped off the torn armor and staggered the man slightly. The bolt and the torn armor pinwheeled away directly into the face of a second Greenie who came through the door right behind the first. That one staggered aside, momentarily blinded, and tripped on the football helmet. His own pot-shaped helmet banged off the timber railing with a muffled clang that couldn’t have done anything good for his orientation.

The first Greenie laughed and caught his balance like the young man he so obviously was. Then he advanced on Yohansen, blade twitching, while the second scrambled to get his feet back under himself.

Burt drew his own sword, thinking: We’re dead! This one’s a killer! There was no time to reach Whit before the blond Greenie did, and then Burt knew he’d find himself trapped in a corner facing a man vastly more competent with a sword than any fifty-something farmer like himself could ever hope to be.

Yohansen didn’t even try to draw his sword. He raised the crossbow like a shield and caught the first lunge with it. The force bounced him back against the Wall. The blond Greenie laughed and whipped his sword around to start another lunge that wouldn’t be blocked - when Fowler Smythe lunged at him.

The middle-aged real-estate salesman held his own sword in the approved position that Ken Clair had been teaching them all, but he was far slower than his opponent. The blond Greenie slapped the point aside, stabbed back and caught Smythe in the left shoulder. Smythe’s armor snapped, slowing the blade but not stopping it, and the tip gouged a bloody furrow across his outer arm. But Smythe didn’t stop — he kept coming, inside the Greenie’s reach and closing as if he meant to grapple the man. Burt suddenly remembered that Fowler Smythe had been a champion wrestler in high school.

But the Greenie was no slouch himself. He danced aside, trying to prevent Smythe from closing while bringing his own sword back around. Then Yohansen slammed his crossbow forward and bashed the man’s left arm. It cost the Greenie enough balance that he had to stagger to his right a half-step. Smythe got a partial grip on his sword arm. For a moment they swayed, then Yohansen swung his crossbow again, this time aiming for the Greenie’s head. The greenie ducked, partly, and the crossbow only tore his left ear. It also knocked him further off balance and he staggered farther to his right.

Burt pulled his sword thrust just in time to avoid skewering Yohansen instead of the Greenie. He swayed, fighting for balance himself, as the Greenie savagely smashed a fist into Smythe’s face once, twice, a third time. Dazed, Fowler Smythe lost his grip and fell to his knees, still gripping the Greenie’s right hand. The Greenie punched him again, then desperately scrabbled at Smythe’s grip, trying to free his sword arm. He succeeded, and immediately stabbed Smythe in the throat.

Burt thrust again and stabbed the blond fighter from behind. His sword grated off the Greenie’s armor and skittered sideways, tearing the green poncho-thing and then slicing a piece of the armor free; blood spattered. The Greenie spun in place, whipping to bring his sword around to engage Burt’s. His greater strength slapped the blade aside and then slammed into Burt’s armored right side — just as Yohansen bashed again, this time a full roundhouse windup that knocked the Greenie staggering across the narrow walkway. He collided with the other Greenie, the pot-helmeted one who had just reclaimed his dropped sword and begun rising to his hands and knees. Blond-hair fell right over him and down the stairs. Pot-helmet nearly fell after him, but caught one of the pillars supporting the hoardings. He hauled himself to his feet, sword at the ready. Burt faced him, his own sword held up. The helmeted Greenie stared at him for a moment, then grinned coldly.

I’m going to die now, a small part of Burt’s mind gibbered. The rest of him ignored it and tried to figure out what his enemy’s first move would be. Maybe he could block it?

Abruptly the grin faded, replaced by a puzzled look. Pot-helmet dropped his sword, lurched forward, and then fell face-first on the pavement. His helmet bounced off and banged Burt painfully in the shins. A crossbow dart stood out of his ribs, its point buried in his heart.

Clark lowered his crossbow. “Damn, Burt, I was afraid to shoot the blond one for fear I’d hit you or Fowler.”

“Fowler!” Burt gasped, turned back to the fallen man.

Yohansen was already there, making a futile attempt to stanch the arterial stream from Smythe’s neck. Burt squatted down next to him just in time to see the consciousness fade from Fowler Smythe’s eyes.

“Dear God. Dear God. Dear God,” Yohansen was saying over and over. Then, holding out his bloody, shaking hands, he cried “How am I going to tell Susan?”

“Worry about that later!” Joseph snapped, peering over the back of the Wall while he cranked his crossbow. “I just missed that blond bastard. He picked up his sword again, he’s getting away — and he’s heading towards the hospital!”

“Ohmigod — Ellie!” Burt blurted out, and struggled to his feet.

❀ ❁ ❀

The four old men running what Ellie had dubbed ‘Ambulance Two’ rattled their garden cart through the big door of the surgery and began unloading two more wounded.

“Ellie! Take those!” Doc Brown ordered, his hands busy with a bone saw. “Clamp that!” he told Julia as blood suddenly sprayed.

Marta snatched up the blood-covered rubber gloves Ellie shed and carried them off to the sterilizer. Ellie began examining the new arrivals. One, an overweight lump, had a badly slashed arm and a stab wound that had torn open his armor along three ribs. Bone showed between the open lips of the slashed skin. Somebody had slapped a bandage on the slash wound and the man was unconscious, clearly deep in shock.

The second man had an arrow in his shoulder, his face was pale but he was awake and coherent. Two of the old men helped him to his feet, swaying a little but clearly still in control.

“Can you wait for a while?” Ellie asked him, examining the arrow. The point was well inside the meat of his shoulder but didn’t seem to have hit any major blood vessels. Only a slow oozing dribbled out around the shaft. “This other’s much worse off than you.”

“I can take it,” the man replied in a farmer’s drawl, and sat himself down on a chair.

Ellie thanked him and turned back the slash victim. “Let’s get him on Table Three, guys. Count of three; one, two, three.”

They heaved him up and lugged him to the table, laid him out on a waiting sheet. Two of the men helped her disrobe him and get him prepped for surgery while Ellie rattled off his wounds to Doc Brown, who shook his head.

“I can’t let this one go yet, he’s got an arrowhead still in his chest and I have to close off the stump of this leg or he’s a goner. Start on that one yourself, Ellie, and get him as ready as you can.”

Ellie swallowed and answered “Yes, Doctor,” in what she hoped was a neutral voice, and hurried to the scrub station.

“We need more help!” Karen bellowed in frustration as she sewed up a wound at Table Two. Bietta had already shifted from supply to directly assisting Karen, while still calling instructions to Marta and Sevan. A corner of Ellie’s mind wondered how the Polish woman was keeping it all straight, but the supplies kept coming.

“I volunteer,” said a voice, and Ellie turned to find Mayor Hamill at her shoulder.

“Allison! What are you doing here?!” she blurted out, splashing hot water.

“Helping,” the mayor answered succinctly. “I had my first aid update class only two years ago and I’ve helped out as a Red Cross volunteer ever since the Big Thompson flood in seventy-six. Tell me what to do.”

Ellie swallowed objections and waved at the scrub station with her left hand while Marta pushed a sterile glove over her right. “Scrub your hands and arms thoroughly, starting with the dirtiest water and moving to the cleanest. Don’t touch anything else, just have Marta help you put gloves and a mask on. Then join me there at Table Three.”

Ellie went back to the wounded man and began sponging him off with boiled water. It hadn’t had enough time to cool but was down to roughly body temperature so she used it liberally. The ribs weren’t displaced so she concentrated on the slash wound. An artery had gotten nicked and was seeping dangerously, probably seconds away from rupture. She managed to clamp it and get the wound set up for repair — the Doc would have to do that as soon as he was free, but now it would wait for him. She started cleaning the rib wound as Allison arrived.

“Here, finish irrigating this while I get a needle ready,” Ellie told her. “Make sure you get all the bits of cloth and dirt out. Then rinse it with alcohol from that jar there — be careful, we don’t have a lot, but make sure every bit of his exposed interior flesh is washed with it. Those washcloths are sterile, Marta just boiled them, and careful when you pick them up, they’re still hot. Used cloths go in that tray over there.”

Ellie kept one eye on Allison while she threaded a curved surgery needle and prepped a sterile clamp to hold it. The mayor did the task efficiently and with care, her trademark fur hat covered and tied on by a big scarf. Probably that’s not sterile, Ellie reflected, but there’s no time for perfection and we don’t have enough sterile cloths anyway.

Allison didn’t flinch while Ellie sewed the man’s torn skin closed, and helped hold the edges together with a commendable attention to detail. By the time they had the rib wound wrapped up, Doc Brown was able to come over to deal with the shoulder. He held his hands out for Marta to help him into fresh gloves, then examined the slash wound.

“Good work Ellie, Allison. You go triage that new bunch, Ellie, and show Allison how.” He indicated newly-arrived Ambulance One with a jerk of his chin. “I’ll finish this guy up myself.”

Ellie helped Allison out of the bloody gloves and gave them to Marta. They reached the door and had just begun examining the latest batch of wounded when there was a shout and a clash of metal outside. One of the old men from the ambulance crew staggered inside, bleeding and shoving a terrified Jimmy and Bran ahead of him. Then he turned and tried vainly to push the door shut.

“One of them Longmont nut cases attacked us!” He shouted. “He killed Pete!”

The door suddenly boomed and flew open, knocking the ambulance man sprawling. Jimmy and Bran ran in different directions — Jimmy toward Ellie, Bran toward his Uncle Sevan. A tall blond form shoved through, bloody sword held high in two hands. He wore the rags of a green tabard and had a green ‘x’ painted on his near shoulder. His left arm was bare and scratched as though half his garment had been torn off. He had no helmet and his scalp bled freely from a gash, wild hair matted around it. His eyes were so wide Ellie could see the whites all around.

This is not a sane man! This is not a sane man! Her mind gibbered. Her arms went around Jimmy protectively even as he hugged her. Mutual terror ran through them both like electricity.

“My name is Bob Jared and I’m here to kill you,” the fighter intoned, then laughed maniacally.

He brought his blade down on the ambulance man with a vicious chop that nearly split his abdomen open. The old man screamed once and then collapsed, passed out. The Greenie raised his dripping sword, glared straight at Ellie and Jimmy, and stepped forward.

The berserker looked at least ten feet tall to Ellie. She backed away one step, ran into the cart with the wounded inside and flailed for balance, trying not to release her son. Jimmy twisted in her arms, defiantly facing the man as if to protect his mother. Distantly she heard Mike shout, the slap of his boots on the concrete floor as he charged toward them. But he was too far away, and there was no time to escape before that gory blade could find her and her son.

Sevan was closer, though still too far. He flung the wrench in his hand, hard and straight. It bounced off Jared’s shoulder and the man swayed, hesitated a moment, then came on.

Allison was closer still. She lunged straight into the berserker’s path. It was so unexpected that the berserker fumbled his first blow, merely battering her with the side of his sword. She got inside his reach and threw herself in his face, grabbing for the tabard. He reacted then and slapped her aside, then swung the sword in a sharp powerful arc. Blood flew as he chopped at her left arm, but somehow her right hand had got a handful of his garment and her weight dragged him off balance.

Ellie scrambled around the cart, dragging Jimmy with her. She slipped and fell, her knees flashing pain when they hit the concrete, but she didn’t let go of her son. One of the wounded men was trying to sit up, yelling something, but she couldn’t think straight. Jimmy was shouting “Leave us alone! Leave us alone!” at the berserker.

Then Mike came barreling up, gladius in one hand and his big knife in the other. The berserker tried to turn to face him, slapping ineffectually at Allison, but she clung on, impeding him. The man paused to stab her through the gut and she finally lost her grip and dropped to the floor. By then Mike was on him, parrying the bloody sword with his own as he stabbed his knife deep into the Greenie. The man grunted, staggered, and nearly fell over Allison. Mike drew back and stabbed him again. This time he hit something more vital, the man folded around the blade and dropped his own sword. Mike let his knife go, took his sword two-handed, and split the berserker’s skull with it. The dead man dropped, sword stuck in his brain. Mike stood over him, teeth bared in a snarl, and panted a moment, then wrenched his knife and sword free and ran to the door. He looked through it carefully, blades at the ready.

Ellie scrambled across the floor to Allison’s side, still hanging onto Jimmy with one hand. Blood was fountaining from Allison’s left arm, nearly severed above the elbow. More spread from her belly, pumping in an arterial stream. Her hat had gotten knocked off and her head was shockingly bald, with a nasty lesion on the crown. Ellie’s numbed mind identified it even as she tried to improvise a tourniquet for the arm.

“Oh, God! No!” Ellie gasped. She must’ve been having radiation treatments before the Change!

Allison’s eyes fluttered open. She spoke.

“Better this way, Ellie. No cancer drugs left anyway, the pain was getting too strong….”

Her eyes closed again and she went limp.

“Doc!” Ellie screamed, leaning on her son.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ken charged down the Wall, sword and shield at the ready. Two of the troops from Division Ten were being forced back by someone better than they. One dropped and Henry Smythe stepped into the gap. Metal rang on metal and the other defender fell too, toppling right off the Wall and taking a piece of railing with him.

“Make way!” Ken shouted and then shouldered between them as the enemy stabbed Henry. The Greenie didn’t move like a Society heavy-weapons fighter, more like a mixed-martial artist. Ken barely parried a chop, then caught a stab on his shield. The man swayed aside from his own thrust, jerked his sword free and brought it around in a blurring slash. Ken barely knocked it aside.

Gods, he’s fast! Ran through his mind, then he sank into the fighting and there was no more time to think. They traded a fast flurry of blows, then Martinez edged up beside Ken. The stranger gave back half a pace, trying to lure the younger man forward, but Ken tipped the bottom of his shield aside to stop the corporal. The stranger feinted a lunge but withdrew another half step when Ken countered. Visibly the man switched to defense, waiting for more of his companions to climb the ladder behind him.

“He’s too much for you,” Ken growled out of the corner of his mouth. “I’ll take him, you guard me!”

Martinez stared at the stranger and swallowed hard, nodded. He brought his gladius up to guard and waited.

“I am too much for you, too,” the stranger stated. “May I have the honor of your name before I kill you?”

Ken didn’t answer. Speech could only be distraction, and distraction was deadly in the hands of this one. Ken let perception wash over him, the stranger’s hands, his feet placed just so, counters waiting in the flick of a wrist. Mixed martial arts for sure, and very good; the gray hair at his temples testified to decades of experience, at least.

The stranger smiled slightly. “Ahh, too wise for speech?”

He probably can kill me, floated through Ken’s hindbrain, but he ignored that too. There was only the sword and the man, subtly telegraphing his moves with the barest tension of muscle against muscle. Ken began to flow forward slowly, almost languidly, his blade in lazy motion.

The other raised an eyebrow. “Very good!” He slid aside as Ken’s blade licked out and then withdrew before the stranger’s could respond. “Very good indeed!” Respect flowed over the man’s face, and with it decision. “You shall be my greatest triumph.”

They flowed together. The blades barely rang against each other, each parry perfect. Sooner or later someone had to miss and the battle would end. The stranger’s self-assurance said it had to be him. A tiny sliver of doubt probed Ken. He ignored it. He sensed the coming change in strategy, but not its aim, until a movement started that could not be countered —

The stranger suddenly pitched backward, a crossbow bolt in his eye. He sprattled on the pavement while his brains leaked out, shocked out of the combat by this unbelievably rude interruption.

“Fuck you, smartass,” Joyce said, lowering the crossbow. “Get them, Ken!”

Ken danced forward, taking down one Greenie after another. Two, three, four, he left a trail of corpses. Martinez had his back, Joyce shoved dying Greenies off the parapet with her fork. They were closing in on the ladder. For some reason no new Greenies were coming up it. Joyce set her fork and she and Martinez heaved it over while Ken killed two more.

Pete MacClelland and another Lyons soldier were fighting a desperate action against the last two Greenies. One got through Pete’s guard at last, stabbed him in the throat just as Ken took the man in the back. The other tried to turn to meet the new threat, sword swinging, and slipped. That saved him for a second as his off-target blade slipped under Ken’s block — and under his breastplate.

The shock of the steel ripping into his gut penetrated Ken’s mind only after he took the man down.

“Oh shit,” he said, gazing down in dismay at his ruptured abdomen. He was vaguely aware of Joyce screaming. Then the floor came up to hit him indecently hard, and there was only blackness.

❀ ❁ ❀

30

— Victory —

Lyons, Colorado, early May, 1998.

“Ellie!” Burt yelled, running up to the makeshift hospital. “Ellie!”

A young man stood on guard there, a sword and a big knife in his hands; both were liberally coated with fresh blood, though he was busy cleaning them on a wet towel. It took a moment before Burt could recall his name — “Mike!” he suddenly remembered. “Where’s Ellie?!”

“Inside, she’s okay,” Mike said soothingly. “So’s Jimmy.” He didn’t move aside.

“Mike, let me in!” Burt half screamed, dropping his sword to push ineffectually at the bigger, younger, and stronger man. “I’ve got to see them!”

“Ahh…all right,” Mike said heavily, and stepped aside.

Burt shoved the door open and barged inside. He had to stop to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, despite the translucent ceiling panels. A familiar voice suddenly called “Grandpa! Grandpa!” and Jimmy ran up to embrace him. His twelve-year-old arms were trembling, but he was undamaged — Burt patted him a little to make sure, then hugged him back fiercely.

“Jimmy, where’s your mother?” he demanded.

“Over there,” the boy pointed. “Working.”

Burt stumped forward, half-dragging his grandson along for a couple steps before Jimmy twisted free and walked beside him. Ellie was standing, covered in blood to the elbows, working feverishly on someone laid on an operating table. Burt saw with shock that it was Allison. Her hat was off — the first time in months that Burt had seen the Mayor without her trademark fur hat. Her head was strangely bald.

“Ellie, it’s no use,” Doc Brown said, dropping bloody tools into a pan. “She’s gone. We’ve got others who need us. Let her go.”

“Gone?” Burt asked, bewildered for a moment. “Allison gone?” Then anger and sick certainty. “That blond bastard killed her, didn’t he!”

“Yes,” the doc said, stripping off his gloves. The daughter of his refugee guests, what was her name, Marta, was there with fresh ones steaming slightly in the cool air. “No time, Burt, we’ve got wounded to treat. Ellie, come on.”

Ellie turned to him blindly, stripping off her own gloves and accepting another pair from Marta. “Yes, Doctor,” she answered in a flat voice. They both hurried over to another table, where Karen was swabbing and swearing over a gray-haired man.

“Come on, Grandpa,” Jimmy tugged at him. “Mom’s gotta work. When she’s being a Nurse, you gotta just let her be a Nurse. Let’s go sit and wait.”

❀ ❁ ❀

“Come back, you cowards!” Sully yelled, trying to stop the fleeing men. The Green army was dissolving like sand in a tide as word of the Boulder attack swept over it. Men poured off the field, abandoning their fellows already atop the Wall, abandoning the fight. They were becoming a mob, fleeing toward Ute Highway and Home.

Red rage seized Sully. We were winning!

“Stop or I’ll kill you!” he demanded of two green-sashed swordsmen running towards him. They split to either side and for an instant Sully hesitated, unsure which to go after. Then both of their swords darted in and he could only parry one.

The two ran on and left him in the dirt. His final sight was of the Wall, standing smoky but unbowed, as the last siege ladder crashed down in ruin.

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀