Chapter 3—Through the Badlands
December 2, 862 AF
“More water. All you can get. And blankets. It gets colder than you’d think out there.”
Two wagons were already full of water barrels. Sam paused and consulted with Alen again. “And we’re going to need some tents to block the sun in the heat of the day. Just some big chunks of cloth we can string between the wagons.” There was a hidden spring on the way Sam intended to go, but it was seasonal and they were at the tail end of the season. Alen said it had water, but not that much. “Water up the pigs good.”
Hiram nodded. “We leaving tonight?”
“After the heat of the day and before dark. Get ahead of Wright’s spies as much as we can.”
Somebody must have let the baron know, because Sam’s lunch got rudely interrupted. The baron and his sheriff joined him uninvited.
“You’re under arrest for the murder of . . .” Sheriff Sims stopped as a low growl filled the room. He looked around. Every man in the bar had a gun ready to draw.
Walt Grange stood up and walked over to him. “Half the town council was here and saw the whole thing, Sheriff. Smiley and Tom had their guns out while Sam here was still sitting at the table looking the other way. The baron’s man shot first. It was just lucky they missed. It was self-defense, by God.”
“My men wouldn’t have done that.” Baron Wright was a dandified sort, all perfumed and pomaded. You could have greased a wagon wheel with the oil he had in his hair.
“You don’t have any jurisdiction here, Baron Wright,” Walt said. “However, if you wish to file a complaint, we can do a trial right this minute.” Walt picked up his whisky glass and emptied it in one gulp. “Probably a good idea at that.”
He banged the whisky glass on the bar a couple of times. “The superior court of the free city of Torton is now in session.” He looked over at Sam. “You want a jury trial, Sam? The town charter says you’re entitled to one.”
Baron Wright’s eyes narrowed. “You’ll pay for this. Taxes are due at the turn of the year, after Compensate. Another month and a half, after which this will no longer be a free city. Come the new year and I’ll own this flea-bitten dump, along with all the rest of the flea-bitten dumps in your town.”
“We’ll worry about it then. Right now, court’s in session and you’re out of order. If you attempt to interfere with this court, I’ll have you arrested.” Walt’s hand was on his gun. “I suggest you go back home . . . Baron.”
After Wright stormed out, they held the trial. It lasted all of about five minutes. Sam was found not guilty by reason of self-defense.
Walt grinned and shook his head. “Sam, you’re cleared here and that’ll be good enough most places, but the baron is not going to respect that judgment. Smiley was a friend of his, as well as working for him.”
Maggie snorted. “I heard Smiley was his boy, born on the wrong side of the blanket.”
December 6, 862 AF
Three days out of Torton, Alen reported. “There is a group of around thirty men on pigback approaching Dover’s Gap.” Dover’s Gap was a break in Demon’s Face Ridge. Sam hoped to reach it sometime the next morning and take the afternoon rest in the shadow of the cliffs.
Sam squinted. The heat was pretty bad right now. “What about Crag’s Pass?”
“No one is near it, save Smoky.” Smoky was a gray cragbeast that lived in the pass and was the reason for the name. Somehow, Smoky always disappeared whenever Sam approached the pass. He’d only seen it through the sensor set he’d placed on “Smoky’s Rock.”
“What about water?”
“That’s more difficult. I estimate you will run out a day outside Gilden. Still, there is Smoky’s water hole.”
“We don’t know where Smoky is getting its water.” Sam considered. “No choice, though. There’s no way we could get through Dover’s Gap with thirty men guarding it.” He rode back to the wagons.
“We’re turning here, folks. Heading for another pass I know. Follow me.”
Ed Wilton squinted up at him from the wagon seat. “Why?”
“Because I said so,” Sam answered. “You asked me to lead you because I know the desert.” He added after a moment, “Well, I’ve been thinking about it. Dover’s Gap is a good place for an ambush and I don’t want to chance it.”
“That’s a decision for the council,” Ed said. “We’re making good time. The baron would have had to ride almost twice as far to get men in place before we got there.”
That was true enough and the reason they decided to try Dover’s Gap in the first place. Sam wondered how the Baron got word of where they were going to his people so quickly. “Ed, I’m going that way. You folks can follow me or not, whichever suits you.” There was no way Sam could explain about Alen and the repeater stations and cameras he’d set up.
The wagons turned to follow him, but he could hear the drivers grumbling.
Jack Thornton took the expensive, eastern-made spyglass from his eye. “Where are they?”
“Maybe they got lost,” Charlie suggested, not sounding like he believed it.
Jack shook his head. “Not a chance. That stranger must know another pass.”
“They could have gotten delayed. Had a wagon break down, had to go back and have it fixed.”
“Nah. The baron would have sent another pigeon.” Jack tapped his fingers on his thigh.
Charlie’s pig snorted. He reached to pat its neck. “What can we do?”
“You take Dan and four others. Scout west along the south side of the Demon’s Face Ridge. If you spot them, send Dan back. I’ll have George do the same, going east.”
“They won’t have gone east. That would take them into the baron’s lands.”
Jack snorted. “That’s the way I figure it. Which is why I’m sending you and Dan west.”
December 7, 862 AF
“The men guarding Dover’s Gap have apparently sent out scouting parties. One west toward Crag’s Pass and I suspect one east,” Alen reported.
“Well, darn,” Sam muttered. “I can’t just tell them what’s happening. They’re already scared about my changing course.”
“Perhaps you could be responding to Porky,” Alen suggested.
“Worth a try.”
After the afternoon break. Sam called the leaders of the group over. “Ed, Walt, let’s do a bit of a scout, over toward the pass. Maggie, you keep the wagons heading northwest. Point the wagons at that tall rock.” Sam pointed out the specific ridge on the horizon.
Ed and Walt exchanged looks. They seemed a bit nervous, but it couldn’t be helped. “Come on.” Sam turned Porky toward Crag’s Pass. Ed and Walt followed.
Near Demon’s Face Ridge
December 8, 862 AF
Porky gave a furious-sounding snort and stopped dead in his tracks. Sam pretended to kick his sides, while Alen told Porky to back up. Porky did what Alen told him to do.
“What’s goin’ on with that pig of yours, Sam?” Walt was just behind him.
“Reckon he smells something.” Sam dismounted and stepped in front of Porky. “What’s wrong, boy? Do you smell something?”
Porky snorted and backed up another pace. “Is it a crag?” Porky shook his head. “Is it water?” Porky shook his head again. “Another pig?” Porky moved forward, snorting several times.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Ed glared down from his pig. “There’s no way that pig is that smart.” Ed dismounted and tried it with his own saddle pig. “Do you smell anything, Dusty?” Dusty, whose color lived up to his name, just blinked at him.
“Porky has saved my life a time or two,” Sam commented, fighting to keep a serious look on his face. “You might not believe him, but I’m not taking a chance. We’ll dismount here and climb up there to see what we can.”
Walt and Ed exchanged looks again.
Sam stared them down. “You two do what you want. I figure being careful is the right way to go.”
“I’ll be . . .” Walt peered around the rock. “Them sonsa . . .”
Five riders were getting close to the pass Sam wanted to use. “Told you. Porky’s got quite a nose on him.”
“Let’s get back to the wagons and get some more guns.” Walt began scrambling back down. “That is some fancy pig you got there, Sam.”
Sam grinned. “He knows the desert.”
Sam took a drink from his canteen, then peeked over the rocks. He had the other men set up along a ridge line, then got his crag rifle and moved off to the left of the main group. He took off his hat, pulled down the screen, then replaced it on his head. The cameras in the hatband gave him good night vision. The image projected on a screen that folded down from the brim of his hat. The camera built into the stock of his rifle would project a target circle on the screen as he aimed the weapon. It was darn useful, but couldn’t be used where people could see.
Sam knew that these men had come from the Gap and after having the baron’s bullyboys try to shoot him in the back he wasn’t minded to give them any more chances than he had to. The problem was that they looked like they might be a bunch of cragbeast hunters. “You sure?” Sam asked.
“Yes,” Alen replied. “They were sent to find you. One of them just asked how much farther they should scout. The leader wants them to travel a few more hours to make sure there’s no other pass you can use that will leave you enough water to get to the capital. The first one thinks you have already passed that point.”
That was enough for Sam. It might not be the fairest fight he’d ever been in, but he fired anyway.
Walt and Ed had not heard the conversation. They didn’t have Alen to amplify and clean up the sounds. They had good reason to suspect that these were the baron’s men, but not proof. They hesitated while Sam reloaded his rifle and the men below reacted.
Walt stuck his head up to better see the situation in the moonlight and was almost shot for his trouble. However it had started, the fight was on now. He and the others returned fire.
They were under cover and the men below were exposed. It was a one-sided battle.
Walt spat on the ground and glared at Sam. “Why the hell did you start shooting? We don’t know they were working for the baron.”
Sam didn’t know how to answer. He knew they were working for the baron or at the very least for the ambushers at Dover’s Gap. They hadn’t mentioned the baron. It was possible, he guessed, that they were just part of a group of bandits. All five men and three of the pigs were dead, but two pigs had run off.
He glared back at Walt. “If those pigs go back to Dover’s Gap, the gang waiting there will know something happened. If we’re not through Crag’s Pass before they figure out what, you won’t have to worry about it ’cause we’ll all be dead. Let’s get back to the wagons and get moving.”
Badlands, North of Demon’s Face Ridge
December 14, 862 AF
“Keep ’em moving.” Maggie just shook her head. She’d tied her hair back, but loose curls still bounced. “I dunno, Hiram. All he says is ‘keep ’em moving.’ I’m getting sick of this wagon.”
“We got through the pass, so he’s all right with me.” Hiram had some suspicions about Sam, but he didn’t much care about them. He’d seen crag hunters before and Sam didn’t have quite the right look. That coat and the hat, they weren’t natural. Not only was the coat too white, but it seemed to shed dust and dirt. So did Sam’s black hat with the funny hatband. Sam’s pig had to be the smartest pig in the world and that fancy pistol rig he carried . . . well, maybe it could be made in the east, but Hiram wouldn’t bet on it.
There were old tales about the badlands. They told about voices out of nowhere and a magic place that killed you if you got too close. If Sam had found his way onto Demon’s Butte, he was right to hide it. Some folks were kind of nervous about that sort of thing.
As to why Sam was pushing things, Hiram figured he knew that part. If Sam was right about where the five men they’d killed came from, the wagon train had every reason to move fast. Two of the pigs had run off, after all. It made sense that those pigs would head for the last place where there were people to take care of them. It all made pretty good sense if you started with the notion of ambushers in Dover’s Gap. That was the part that was sticking in everyone’s craw. No one wanted to admit that there had probably been ambushers in Dover’s Gap.
But Hiram remembered the fight in the bar. Sam had reacted first, before Walt or Ed—who could see Smiley and Tom come in. Somehow, he’d known before anyone else. If Sam could know that, he could know about an ambush in Dover’s Gap. No one else accepted why Sam was pushing so hard, but Hiram did. They needed distance before the Dover’s Gap gang realized what had happened if they were to avoid being caught in the desert.
Hiram took a sip from his canteen. “Miss Maggie?”
Maggie looked over at him. “Yes?”
“Seems to me that if you’re going to hire somebody to lead you, you ought to follow him.” Hiram sneaked a glance over at Maggie. “That, or you shoulda kept your money.”
“Sam, your transmissions are losing signal strength.”
“What does that mean?” Sam subvocalized.
Alen explained. While the transmitter at the Homestead could reach him, the smaller transmitters placed behind his ear and Porky’s, even the transmitter in Porky’s saddle were only strong enough to reach a few miles. The last repeater station he had placed was on the far side of Demon’s Face Ridge. Even with the digitalized signal and redundancy, it was unlikely that Alen would be able to receive his or Porky’s signals for much longer.
“I can talk to you, but I’m not going to be able to hear you much longer,” Alen said. “Not until you get more of the sensor net up.”
“Damn.” The wagon train had moved out of range of the sensor net and there was no way Sam could take off on his own to place more sensors and repeaters, not with all these people depending on him. They were already looking at him and complaining about the pace, except for Hiram. Hiram just kept on moving, doing what Sam told him.
Most of the others threw suspicious looks at him and complained about rationing the water. The exception was Maggie. Maggie threw him a look now and then, but it wasn’t suspicious. It was as though she hadn’t made up her mind yet.
North of Demons face
December 16, 862 AF
Maggie licked her dry lips. She was driving the lead wagon this shift. There wasn’t a bit of shade this side of the hill. It was nearly time for a rest, but they needed to get to the east side of this bit of ground before they could rest. Anything to help block the sun. She looked ahead, and saw Sam waving his hat from the top of the hill. “Demons, I hope he’s found water, Hiram.”
Hiram looked up, grabbed the wagon’s cover and stood on the seat so he could see farther. “Maggie! Maggie, I see green.”
The draft pigs grunted and oinked and moved a bit faster.
They crested the top of the hill and started down. The line of green trees along the Gilden River was the prettiest sight Maggie had ever seen. “We made it, Hiram.” She blinked back tears. “We made it.”