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DIES THE FIRE

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER NINE:

 

Men on foot were a lot quieter than galloping horses. That was the only way Havel could justify this last-minute dash through the night to himself; he prayed with every footfall that they were going to be in time.

Idiots, he thought. They're acting like idiots and it's making my job harder. Doesn't seem fair.

The bandits had flogged their horses on all through the night, even after they'd caught up with Will Hutton, halting only when they'd run into the ranger cabin half an hour ago.

Which meant that he had to stop too, to let them have enough time to lose fear of pursuit. Fortunately he'd been able to follow them through the open patches with the telescopic sight from his old rifle. He hoped it was the right thing to do, but he could feel sand grinding in the gears of his brain; it had been nearly thirty hours of hard effort since he last slept.

"Stop!" he hissed to Eric, sinking to one knee.

He'd blackened the heads of their weapons with mud, and now he held the spear low and level to the ground. From the edge of the pines that fringed the area around the old ranger station he gave the cabin a quick once-over, looking for the men on guard. There was light from the windows, firelight and lamplight, enough to endanger his night vision; he squinted and looked aside. Four horses were hobbled in the clearing near the cabin, looking tired and discouraged and nosing at the rock and pine-duff in a futile search for something to eat.

He could see two human figures there; one slumped near the steps that led to the broad front verandah, and another standing on it—a stout figure carrying a bow, but looking through the front window, with his back to the outside world.

A woman's scream probably indicated what was occupying his attention.

"Now!" Havel said, and ran forward. Eric followed.

Will Hutton was sitting on the edge of the verandah, his hands tied behind him around one of the wooden pillars that supported the roof. He'd obviously gotten another beating, but he watched the men coming across the pine-needles and rocks of the space between the trail and the cabin with a hunted alertness. He raised his feet and hitched himself around the post silently as the two neared, pressing himself down flat as he did.

Just a second more, Havel thought. Just a second and young Jimmie is dead meat and the odds are even.

Eric was making a lot more noise than his companion; he wasn't used to running in the dark. Fat Boy Jimmie turned when they were still ten yards away. Havel abandoned any attempt at stealth at his strangled whinney of surprise and just ran as fast as he could, but it wasn't quite fast enough; the young man managed to draw the bow to his ear.

Havel held the rough spear underarm with both hands, like a giant rifle-and-bayonet combination, hoping that the boy would be flustered or simply miss in the shadowy light with his eyes still dazzled from looking through the firelit windows—the bow wasn't a submachine-gun and he couldn't spray-and-pray.

There was no time to be afraid, but plenty to watch the archer's hands stop shaking, and steady with the three-edged blade of the arrowhead pointed directly at Havel's liver. He was using a snap-release glove, which argued for a distinctly uncomfortable degree of accuracy. Havel's snarl turned to a guttural roar of triumph as a foot lashed out and kicked the bowman behind one knee and the arrow flashed out into the night over his head, close enough to hear.

Will Hutton had just saved his life, before they'd ever really met.

Jimmie screamed and tried to dodge as Havel came up the last ten feet of rock path before the stairs to the cabin. The spearpoint took him low in his belly and he screamed again, high and shrill. The impact shocked up Havel's arms as the young man thudded back violently into the logs of the cabin and the point jammed in bone, bending back with the violence of the impact. He snarled in the ferocity of total focus, wrenched the kitchen-knife blade out of his opponent's flesh and then thrust again, with all the power of his arms and shoulders behind it and his weight as well.

It went in under the young man's breastbone and through a rib where it joined the spine and into the weathered Ponderosa-pine log behind, pinning him to it like a butterfly to a board and leaving the spearshaft stretched out like a horizontal exclamation mark.

His scream turned to a squealing babble; half a second later it cut off in a thump and gurgle as Eric's improvised naginata slashed down and glanced into the side of his neck before jamming for a moment in his split collarbone.

Jimmie's heels drummed on the planks of the verandah, making the dry wood boom like a slack-skinned drum as Eric wrenched his weapon loose with desperate haste.

Havel felt the vibration beneath his feet as he ducked under the spearshaft. It registered but just as data, like the rest flowing in through his skin and ears and eyes, like the spray of blood that spurted out for half a dozen feet in every direction from the huge flap of skin and flesh sliced off the dying man's neck. Havel's mouth was open too, showing his teeth. He left the spear—too big for close work—and flicked the door catch open, yanking the plank-and-iron portal towards him and bouncing back and to the side.

A chair flew through the open door, thrown from close range. The scrimmage on the verandah had been brief but noisy. Havel ducked forward again, stooping under the pole-and-rawhide chair, knife out and flashing up in the gutting stroke. The skinny tattooed bandit named Bob leapt backward in turn, hitting the floor with his shoulders and rolling erect; Havel crowded through the door quickly, before he could block it again, conscious of Eric coming in behind him.

The front room of the cabin was big, nearly thirty feet by fifteen, with chairs and a couch set in a U-shape around the fireplace; there was a blaze going in it, and a Coleman lantern on the mantelpiece over it. The thickset bandit was there, trying to stand and having difficulty with it. That was because Signe Larsson had him around the knees; he was wearing longjohns with the front flap open, and she had on panties and a set of scratches and bruises. He was swinging his fists at her head and screaming curses as he tried to wrench free, but she ducked her face into the dirty gray fabric covering his legs and hung on like grim death.

That couldn't last; the bandit leader weighed two-fifty at least, and not all of it was blubber. The blade of Eric's naginata came up by Havel's left shoulder; blood dripped off the whole length of the steel, and off the shaft and the arms that held it. The young man's face was white but set, and heavily speckled with red drops.

"Keep him off me," Havel barked, jerking his left hand at the skinny man.

In the same instant he vaulted over the couch. The bandit chief roared and flailed his arms at Havel, kneeing Signe in the face in his heaving panic. Havel stepped in, delicate as a dancer, taking the clumsy blow on his shoulder. The puukko stabbed twice with vicious speed—once up under the short ribs, then up under the chin as the man doubled over like someone who'd been gut-punched. The mattress-like beard parted easily, and the front half of the bandit's tongue flew out of his open mouth in a spray of blood.

Havel knocked the dying man over backwards with a grunt of effort as he shouldered past him; he fell with his head and shoulders in the fireplace and lay there with his hair burning and his blood frying and crisping and stinking on the hot iron of the log-holder.

That left Eric and Jailhouse Bob on one side of the sofa and Havel on the other, moving fast towards the bandit's end to take him in the rear. The man had been on the attack, ready to take a few cuts to get in under Eric's polearm with his knife and finish him quickly before the two men could gang up on him, just exactly the right thing to do.

He hadn't quite managed it, and there was blood flowing from a shallow cut on his cheek. Now he backed again, moving fast in a straddle-legged crouching shuffle, his head swiveling between the two opponents coming at him. The knife in his hand was nearly a foot long, almost a bowie, and sharpened on the recurve; it glittered in the lantern-light as he moved it in small precise arcs at the end of his long arm.

No fancy Ramboesque serrations on the blade or Klingon wings on the plain brass quillions; it was a professional's weapon, and even two-on-one Bob was likely to do some serious damage before he went down.

Behind him Astrid Larsson walked out of the hallway. She was entirely naked and spattered with blood; mostly someone else's, far too much to come from the bite-marks on her small breasts. There was an old-fashioned alarm clock in her right hand, and a collection of small heavy objects in the curve of her other, coffee mugs and paperweights.

She threw the alarm clock, hard; it jangled as it hit Bob's shoulder, and there was a look of dawning panic in his narrow hazel eyes as he flicked them back and forth, darting between the girl and the two armed men.

She followed it with a coffee cup, which missed, and a paperweight, which didn't. The skinny bandit made a sound, a scream of animal rage and fear.

Women scare him, Havel realized. That's why he hurts them.

"Kill him," Havel said to Eric, and moved in to do just that as a mug flew past Bob's head.
The bandit reversed the knife with a swift flip and threw it at Havel; then he turned and dodged Eric's thrust with the point of his naginata and jumped straight through the window, arms crossed in front of his face. He was lucky—you were about as likely to cut your own intestines out doing that as not—landed flat on the verandah, and took off running towards the darkness.

Havel twisted to let the big blade go by; you could get hurt by a thrown knife, but generally only by accident. Then he put a booted foot on the windowsill to follow; he didn't look forward to chasing the stick-thin killer in the dark, but he wasn't going to have him hanging around, either.

Astrid walked to where her bow and quiver hung by the door, put a shaft to the cord, drew, and loosed through the window. Her movements had the smooth inevitability of a sleepwalker's.

The arrow made Havel jerk aside in surprise; it went by close enough that he could feel the wind of its passage, and hear the whhhptt of cloven air.

"He wanted to rape me but he couldn't," she said with a calm like ice on a river just before the spring surge cracked it, ignoring the savage lash of the bowstring on her forearm.

"So he took me into Mom's room and he killed her; he said he'd be able to do me after that."

Havel completed the vault and dropped down onto the broken glass that littered the verandah; it crunched and crackled under his boots.

Twenty yards away, Jailhouse Bob lay in the pathway, pulling himself along on his hands. His legs were limp, and an arrow stood in his lower back. It jerked and quivered as he tried to drag himself along, looking over his shoulder with a snarl. Havel shook himself, as if he were coming out of deep cold water.

Eric Larsson was on his knees at the edge of the verandah, puking with a violence that threatened a pulled muscle in his back, and obviously wasn't going to be much use for the immediate future. He walked over to the middle-aged black man instead, and went down on one knee to cut the rope lashings that held him.

"My family?" Will Hutton asked, working his arms and rubbing at his wrists.

"Hiding out in a thicket by the road with most of your gear," Havel said. "Should be fine."

"Lord, but that's good to hear," Hutton said, slumping in relief. He began to offer a hand, then realized Havel still had the knife in his. "Many thanks..."

"Mike Havel," he replied, and waved the blade slightly. "Consider this my contribution to public hygiene."

Hutton had a heavy rural-Southern accent, but sharper and more nasal than Gulf State gumbo; Havel thought it was probably Texas originally. The Corps was lousy with Texans of all varieties, and he'd heard that slurred rhythmic twang a lot in some sandy and unpleasant places.

"I'm Will Hutton," the black man replied, standing cautiously and stretching. "Nothing broke, I don't think."

He looked out into the darkness. "You going to finish off that skinny peckerwood? He's a mean one, the worst of the lot. Best be careful, like you would with a broken-back rattler."

"No hurry," Havel said. "I thought I'd let him ripen a bit; he isn't going to crawl out of reach with an arrow through his spine."

He looked at his right hand and his knife. It was dripping, and in the faint light the whole of his hand and forearm looked as if they were coated with something slick and oily and darkly gleaming.

Some distant part of his mind realized that the sight would probably come back to him for years—when he was trying to sleep or eat or make love—but right now it wasn't particularly interesting.

He could just cut Bob's throat, but Havel didn't want to get that close without a good reason; Hutton was right—the man's legs were out of commission, but his arms were still working and his teeth too for that matter. Instead he carefully wiped the blade of the puukko on the clothes of the dead bandit pinned to the wall by the spear, and then sheathed it before he went back into the cabin.

Astrid was still standing with her bow, staring at nothing; Signe was huddled into a ball on the floor, staring at the corpse of the bandit leader. Havel went past in silence—there was nothing he could do to help at that moment—and checked the bedrooms.

Mary Larsson lay spreadeagled on her bed; the mattress was saturated, and it dripped thick strings of blood onto the floor. Havel took one quick look and then carefully avoided letting his eyes stray that way while he found a blanket and covered her.

I hope she died fast, he thought, breathing through his mouth against the smell.

Unfortunately that didn't seem very likely.

Her husband was trussed to a chair in the corner of the room; alive, not too badly beaten up, but staring with the look of a man whose mind had shut down from overload, and there were vomit stains down the front of his shirt and tear-streaks through the white-gray stubble on his cheeks.

Havel freed him with a few jerks of his knife, and pulled him erect.

"There's nothing you can do here," he said. "Come on, Ken." The older man's lips moved, almost silently.

Havel went on: "Astrid and Signe are fine."

Or at least alive. Technically speaking, they weren't even raped, I think.

"They need you, Ken. They need you now."

That seemed to get through to him; he stumbled along under his own power. Havel left him with his daughters in the living room as he hefted the dead body of the bandit chief and half-carried it out to pitch over the railing of the verandah; Will Hutton watched with somber satisfaction.

Then Havel pulled the spear out of the wall. The young bandit's body came with it; the point pulled free of the wood and the heavy corpse flopped down into the pool of blood and fluids, but the square shoulders of the knife caught on something inside. Havel put a foot on the body and worked it free, careful not to loosen the bindings; then he hefted the pole into an overhand grip like a fish-gig before walking out towards Jailhouse Bob.

He hadn't gotten far.

 

@@@

 

They buried Mary Larsson in the morning, and were ready to leave around noon. Her husband had come out of his shock a little by then, and none of the younger Larssons wanted to stay at the ranger cabin any longer than they had to; Hutton was anxious to get back to his wife and daughter, of course.

Astrid hadn't slept much. From the way she started screaming the moment she slipped out of consciousness that was probably just as well.

I'll give her some of the tranquilizers tonight, Havel thought, turning to look at her as she sat against the base of a tree, face on her knees and arms wrapped around her head. And being away from this place will help. I hope.

Will Hutton came up and looked in the same direction, nodding.

"Best get the horses back to the road too as fast as we can," he said, finishing his bowl of elk stew. "They need rest, but they need food a lot more, and they can't eat pine needles. I'll go take another look at the loads."

Havel waited until the Larssons had made their last farewells at the rough grave—most of it was an oblong pile of rocks. It was a bright cold day, with tatters of high cloud blowing in from the west; the long wind roared in the pines around them, carrying away most of the stink of violent death. He and Hutton and Eric had dragged the dead bandits out of sight, but nobody had been in a mood to clean up the cabin.

They had stripped it of everything that might be useful, from bedding and kitchenware to shovel, axe and pickaxe, and Hutton had improvised carrying packs for some of the horses. It was a pleasure to see him work with the animals; it always was, watching a real expert at work. He'd been a help rehafting the naginata and spear onto good smooth poles they'd found in the toolshed behind the cabin, too.

Signe came up to him with a brace of books in her hands. "Mike, take a look. I think these might be useful. They were on the mantelpiece, and I was reading them before... you know."

He did, flipping through the text and frequent illustrations. Frontier Living, by Edwin Tunis, plus Colonial Living and Colonial Craftsmen by the same author.

"You know, I think you're right," he said. "Pack 'em with the rest."

Astrid came out and gave him a cup of coffee; he took it, and cleared his throat as she turned silently away, slight and graceful in her stained leather outfit.

"Kid." Reluctantly, she turned back to him. "You did good. If you hadn't shot him, I'd have had to chase him down in the dark. He might have killed or crippled me and come back for the rest of you."

She nodded again; he went on: "I know you've had a real bad time, but we don't have the leisure for thinking about our hurts right now. You're the only one of us who can use a bow and we need more food, badly. We may have to fight again, too. We just can't afford you folding up on us. You've got to be functional no matter what it takes. OK?"

She nodded silently a third time; the huge silver-blue eyes seemed to be looking through to another world as much as at him. He shook his head:

"Let me hear it, Astrid. Don't go hiding in your head. We need you out here."

"I understand, Mike," she said, after taking a deep breath; he saw her blink back to being fully in the waking world.

Suddenly she spat: "They were like orcs!"

"Yeah, that's a fair description."

He restrained himself from tousling her hair. You're a good kid. Let's see if we can get you going on something you care about.

He'd never been of the talk-about-it-forever school when it came to dealing with really bad stuff; in his experience that just made you think about it more and compounded the damage. Hard work and concentrating on the future were the best way to handle trauma.

"What do you think of that bow we captured?"

It was sitting on one of the verandah chairs. Astrid looked at it and sniffed.

"It's a Bear compound," she said, with a touch of her old de-haut-en-bas tone, edged with contempt for the high-tech vulgarity of it. "Adjustable set-off, double round cams... with that, you might as well be using a gun."

Christ Jesus, how I wish I were able to use a gun, Havel thought. Guns I understand. Aloud he asked:

"Will it work?"

"Oh, it will work," she said. "It's easier to use if you're not a real archer and it'll shoot hard and straight... until something breaks. The riser is an aluminum casting, the limbs are fiberglass-carbon laminate, and the cams on the ends are titanium, with sealed bearing races. The string's a synthetic and the arrows are carbon-composite. I could make a copy of my bow, if you gave me time to experiment and the materials I needed. I don't think anyone in the whole world can repair that one, not now, and to make a new one—forget it."

Purist, he thought, hiding his smile and finishing the hot drink; it was lousy, but coffee was going to be a rare treat.

He went on: "You've got a point, but we'll use it while we've got it. You can give us all instruction."

She sniffed again. "Signe can shoot. Sort of. At targets."

Then she took the cup away for washing and packing; her orange cat slunk at her heels, looking thoroughly frightened.

Havel found himself obsessively running over the inventory in his head again; particularly the food, which was about enough for everyone for four weeks, if they were very careful.

Of course, the Huttons probably have some more back at their vehicles. And we can do some hunting. But we've got to get out to farming or ranching country, somewhere where there is food; if it's there we can get it one way or another. Now they can't ship cattle out there ought to be plenty, for a while. And farmers store a lot of their own grain these days in those sheet-metal things.

He'd only eat the horses if there was no other choice or the animals were dying anyway; they were too damned useful to lose. A lot of the medical kit had been expended on Mary Larsson, too. God alone knew what they'd do if anyone else got seriously ill or hurt.

Well, yes, actually we do know. The one who gets sick will recover or die. I hope everyone has had their appendix out, he thought grimly, hefting his spear and slipping on his pack. Let's get going.

Suddenly he was conscious that Signe hadn't left; she was standing by the base of the verandah stairs. The bruises on her face were purpling, and her lips were swollen, but she looked at him steadily. There was one new element to her gear; she had Jailhouse Bob's belt and blade. Unexpectedly, she drew it, looking down at the big fighting-knife with wondering distaste.

"It's a tool," Havel said quietly. "Just a tool. Anyone can use it. It's the person that matters, not the equipment."

"I know," she said. Then she looked up at him: "Teach me."

He made an enquiring sound. She went on fiercely:

"Teach me how to fight. I don't ever want to be that... helpless... again. Teach me!"

Her knuckles were white on the checked hardwood of the knife-hilt.

Problem is, I can teach you dirty fighting, and how to use a knife, he thought. If guns still worked, I could make you into a pretty good shot in a couple of months. But damned if I can tell you how to use a bow or a sword or a spear... which I suspect are going to matter more from now on.

Aloud he went on: "You bet. We've all got a lot to learn, I'm thinking."

Hutton had the horses ready and everyone was outside; decision crystallized, and Havel put his fingers to his mouth and whistled.

Everyone looked up, and he waved them over as he walked down to where the pathway to the cabin joined the Centennial Trail proper.

"Before we go, we ought to settle some things," Havel said, as they gathered around. "Mainly, what we're going to do—and if there's a we to do it."

Better than dwelling on our losses, at least.

He leaned on his spear and looked at the Larssons. "I figure my obligations to Steelhead Air and its clients have about run out," he said bluntly. "All things considered."

The younger Larssons looked stricken. Ken gave him a slight smile; he recognized negotiation when he heard it, and so did Will Hutton. Havel went on:

"So if we're going to stick together, we'll have to put it on a new basis. So far we've just been reacting to things as they happened; it's time to start making things happen ourselves. If you folks don't like my notions of how to do that, we can go our separate ways once we reach the highway."

Ken Larsson was evidently relieved to have something to think about but his murdered wife. His face lost some of its stunned, blurred-at-the-edges look as he spoke:

"Something has happened and not just around here," he said. "At least over a big part of this continent, and maybe all over the world. Mike, remember just before the engines cut out, they were reporting that weird electrical storm over Nantucket? I don't think that's a coincidence—and it's also thousands of miles from here."

He shrugged. "I can't imagine what could have caused a change like this, unless it's simply that God hates us... Maybe incredibly advanced, really sadistic aliens who wanted to take our toys away? Call it Alien Space Bats. But at a guess, it started there over Nantucket—probably propagated over the earth's surface at the speed of light. It's too... specific... to be an accident, I think. If it were an accidental change in the laws of nature, we'd most likely just have collapsed into a primordial soup of particles."

Will Hutton shook his head. "Hard to get my mind around it," he said.

"We have to," Havel said bluntly. "That's the difference between living and dying, now."

Hutton nodded: "I don't know any of that science stuff, but it occurs to me this might have happened before."

They all looked at him, and he shrugged. "If it happened back in olden times, who'd have noticed? Maybe this—" he waved around "—is the way things was for a long time. That'd account for folks taking so long to get guns and such."

Havel looked at him with respect; that wasn't a bad idea, although of course there was no way to check, short of time travel. He went on:

"So the question is, what does each of us want to do? Do we stick together? And if we do, what's our goal?"

Hutton scratched his head thoughtfully. "Not much use in trying to get back to Texas, for me 'n mine," he said. "Too many hungry, angry strangers between. Got my family with me, 'cept for my boy Luke. He's in the Army, stationed in Italy with the 173rd. All I can do for him is pray."

He winced slightly, then shook his head and rolled a cigarette, using only his right hand and offering the makings around.

"No thanks," Havel said. "Wouldn't want to get into the habit again—not much tobacco grows around here."

Once Hutton had lit up, Havel waved towards the cabin and the congealed pool of blood still left on the verandah:

"Stuff like this is probably happening all over the world. Most people aren't going to make it through the next year even out here in the boondocks, and it's going to be worse in the cities, a lot worse. I'd like to be one of the minority still living come 1999. That's going to mean teamwork. Sitting around arguing at the wrong moment could get us all killed."

Signe Larsson spoke up: "Dad, the rest of you, we should stick with Mike."

"Yup," Eric concurred. "I'm sort of fond of living myself."

Astrid nodded, silent. Her father spoke:

"Money's gone, the whole modern world's gone. We'd all be dead four times over without Mike. I'm for it."

Hutton took a drag on his cigarette and spoke in his slow deep voice. "Man alone, or a family alone, they're dead or worse now. I found that out. Mike here, I've got good reason to trust him, and I misdoubt he'll get drunk with power. So if he wants to ramrod this outfit, I'm for it."

Havel held up a hand. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," he said. A deep breath:

"We have to have someplace to go, and some way of making a living and defending ourselves once we get there. That means getting land and seed and stock and tools however we can, and I sort of suspect it also means fighting to keep it. OK, that's not something a man can do alone; and we here know each other a bit."

He shifted his shoulders, a gesture he used at the beginning of a task; usually he wasn't conscious of doing it, but this time he noticed... and remembered his father doing the same.

"But I'm not going to take responsibility without authority. If you want to stick with me, well, I hope I'm sensible enough never to think I know everything and don't need advice, but somebody has to be in charge until things are settled. I think I'm the best candidate. We're going to have to pool everything and work together like a military unit, and a camel is a horse designed by a committee."

He caught each pair of eyes in turn: "For? Against?"

The Larssons nodded, looked at each other, and then raised their hands.

"For!" they said in ragged unison.

Hutton puffed meditatively on his cigarette again and then raised his hand in agreement. "Count me in too. Think I can speak for Angel and Luanne."

Havel nodded. "Glad you said that," he said. "I don't deny you and your horses would be very useful; and your family were pretty impressive too, on short acquaintance. You're a horse breaker, I take it?"

"No, sir, I am not," Hutton said, with dignified seriousness. "What use is a broken horse? I am a horse wrangler and trainer. Anything a horse can do, I can train into it."

Then he laughed without much humor. "And it's a trade I took up so I could work for myself. Don't see much prospect of that here. I'm a stranger, and a black one at that. Might get a bunk and eats with some rancher or farmer, yeah, but not on good terms, I reckon. Share-cropping or something like."

"We're all in that situation," Havel said. "When there just isn't enough to go around, people will look to their own kin and friends first."

He ran a thumb along the silky black stubble on his jaw. "I expect some refugees will get taken in, especially where there aren't too many, but Will pegged it. They'll be the hired help, and hire will be just their keep at that, sleeping in the barn and eating scraps. It'll be worse, some places—human life's going to be a cheap commodity."

"We could all go to our place in Montana," Eric Larsson said. "The ranch... we've got horses there, and there's the grazing—lots of cows around there. Or there's the summer farm in the Willamette. The ranch is a lot closer, though."

Ken shook his head. "I don't think Montana would be a good idea," he said slowly. "We'd be strangers there. That land used to belong to the Walkers... and with nobody to tell them no, I suspect they'll simply take back the property and the stock; the area's full of their relatives and connections. They were always polite when we did business, but I could tell they weren't too happy about needing my money."

"Yeah," Signe said. "I know I dated Will for a while, sort of, or at least hung around him, but it was me who called it quits. There's something creepy about him, and his whole family."

Her father looked at her with surprise, then shrugged. "I'd go for the farm, if it weren't for all the people in the Willamette valley. Going on for two million... it'll get very ugly."

"What's it like?" Havel asked him. "A real farm, or just a vacation house?"

"My grandfather bought it for a country place back before the First World War, in the Eola hills northwest of Salem," Ken said.

For a moment he smiled, then winced. "Mary liked it... Nice big house—Victorian, modernized—and about seven hundred acres, two-fifty of that in managed forest on the steeper parts. Gravity-flow water system, about thirty acres of pinot noir vines we've put in over the last ten years—the winery is all gravity flow too, by the way—some old orchards, and then quite a bit of cleared land, all of it board fenced. In grass, we ran pedigree cattle on it and raised horses, but it could grow anything. Some sheds, barns, stables... We know the neighbors well, too, and get along with most of them; the Larssons have been spending summers there for a long time."

If any of the neighbors are still alive in a couple of months, that might be an asset, Havel thought. Unless someone's simply moved in and taken over.

Ken went on: "Long-term, there's something else to think about." He waved a hand around them.

"There's a lot of farming and ranching here in the interior, yes. For a year or two, or four or five, it's going to be better-off than most places. The Larssons made their first pile trading wheat from Pendleton and the Palouse down the Columbia to Portland. But a hell of a lot of the crops here these days depend on things like center-pivot irrigation, or deep wells... and the dryland farming... well, it only yields really well with mechanization on a big scale, where one family can work thousands of acres. That way it doesn't matter if you get a low yield, or lose every fourth crop to drought, because you're handling so many acres."

"You mean quantity has a quality all its own," Havel said.

Ken nodded. "If you're doing it by hand and horse, it takes just as much labor to work an acre of twelve-bushel wheat land as it does one that gives you forty. With the sort of pre-industrial setup we're being thrown back on, that's the basic constraint on your standard of living. And the lower the productivity, the harder the people on top have to squeeze to get a surplus."

Havel's brow furrowed. You know, that makes an uncomfortable amount of sense, he thought. And Ken Larsson is no fool. Not any sort of a fighting man, but he can think, and he's got the best education of any of us here.

"All right," he said. "Unless we see a better opportunity along the way, I'd say we head for the Willamette."

"Ummm..." Eric was a lot more bashful than he'd been. "What about all the people, Mike? Dad said it. The farm's only fifty miles from Portland and a lot closer to Salem."

Havel looked away for a moment, then met Ken Larsson's eyes. He gave a slight nod of agreement, and the younger man went on:

"Eric, it's a long way to the Willamette on foot; and I don't intend to hurry. By the time we get there... overpopulation is not going to be that much of a problem."

"Ouch," Signe said with a wince. "Still..."

"Nothing we can do about it, I suppose," Eric said; they looked at each other in surprise at their agreement.

Silence fell as they moved out onto the trail. Ken Larsson and Will Hutton were mounted, in consideration of their years and bruises; the younger members of the party were on foot, to spare the hungry, overworked horses. The only exception was Biltis the cat, who rode perched on one of the pack-loads, curled up on a pile of blankets strapped across the top and looking like a puddle of insufferable aristocratic orange smugness.

Eric and Havel carried their polearms, and Astrid her archaic recurve bow; Signe had the bandits' high-tech compound. Hutton carried a felling axe, the top of the helve against his hip and his right hand on the end of the handle.

"Right," Havel said, swinging the spear over his shoulder at the balance-point. "Let's make a few miles before dark. Thataway!"

 

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