Monday, February 10, 2020

Queen of the Cats 13. Of Observation and Arrivals

By the end of the night, Danny and Jason had found seven herds of the dead and twenty two men and women equipped as a rag tag militia. Well, not so rag-tag considering the number of guns and amount of ammunition they were toting along.

Only Daniel had a near run-in as a loose rock dropped out from under his foot and threatened to tumble him into a pit full of the dead. When the guards came to check out the noise, he had somehow managed to spider climb inside the overhanging roots of an ancient oak and hang there, silent and motionless. For half an hour, with gunmen above and hungry corpses below, he mentally recited his favorite speeches and monologues from Shakespeare to Dune, trying not to think of the pain gathering in his back and shoulder. By the time the militia boys had wandered back to their beers, Danny had silently slipped out of his hiding place and slithered back up to the leafy forest floor. He memorized all of their faces so he could be sure to personally terminate them in repayment for his pain and suffering. He was too old for this tree-dangling superhero crap.

He took counts on the herd then swiped a can of gas and box of ammo from the militia truck. He applied the contents of both quite liberally to the milling dead in the hollow, watching the gas soak into their clothing and the dry leaves below them. He really did admire how well their shuffling steps camouflaged the dumped rounds of ammo under the leaf litter. That, Danny thought with a grin, would be super fun for those assholes in camo to find.

Danny transmitted his intel by radio and made it back to the barn just behind Jason. Yep, he'd hear about that for at least a day. Back at the big table, everyone had gone quiet waiting for them.

     "So, seven herds?" Nix asked.
     "And 22 bad guys. Plus whoever shows up pretending to be selling produce for the Day family." Jason finished.
     "Well, shit." Nix groaned.
     "Yeah. Pretty much. But I have some really hilarious ideas" Danny tried to grin but grimaced while rolling his shoulder.
     "Oh? Enlighten me, brother" Jason smirked at his brother and slipped him a pill and glass of water.
     "Well, how many pressure plates do you think we can make in a day, rig to explosives and then bury under the cover of darkness right in front of militia idiots and hungry, hungry corpses?" Danny asked, swallowing back the pill and some additional offered naproxen.
     "Hmmm, at least seven. Eight or nine if we play some Norwegian death metal while we work." Jason nodded sagely.
     "Danny, can you do this with a reasonable chance of not killing you and your brother? I really don't want to have to keep up the house by myself." the General asked in a firm but not unkind voice. It was clear that he was a bit concerned.
     "Solid 70/30 odds, sir. Are you good without either of us being here? We are going to need to work at the house and well... deliver the pizzas directly to the kids" Danny answered, motioning his chin in the direction of the forest.
     "Hey Nix, save us some Applejack. We're going to earn it" Jason grinned.
     "Try not to die. Again." The General shook the hand of each son and exchanged some quiet words.
     "Just a head's up, we're going to take a roll by the Day farm on the way home. If it looks like any of the ladies are being held as captives we'll be doing a bit of captor extermination and hostage extraction." Jason's arms were folded across his chest. He was no longer smiling.
     "We have a bigger problem here, son..."
     "Dad, this isn't a negotiation." Danny cut in. "We'll take the ladies back to the compound and set them up in the bunk house and infirmary. We're not leaving them there a minute longer than necessary. They are good women, good girls, good neighbors and we aren't monsters." Danny finished and nodded to his brother. The General nodded to both. The guys headed for the truck then the General turned back to the gathered group. "Time to get back to work."

Once the good times special forces lads were gone, the setup for market day began in earnest. Outside, stalls were being staked out and canvas hung while trucks and carts were backed into place. Inside the barn, a 15 foot walkway had been marked out with rope, keeping a clear lane around the interior perimeter of the barn. Family and single sized sleep spaces were marked out and some were claimed by the early and vigilant arrivals. Members of the council were carefully spaced around the barn so that there weren't any dark corners left un-watched.

Stalls for horses and livestock were setup beneath the great hayloft and some solar powered lights were hung from the underside of the loft to illuminate this darkest area of the barn. A few stalls were taken up by teen boys who would make a little money by turning the stalls and doing feed and water runs. The barn had been set up so no one had direct access to the walls where they could be unobserved and the darkest sections of the space had been reworked with lights and young eyes to keep watch. It was the best they would be able to do on the short notice of 24 hours.

With that setup complete they didn't have to wait long for more excitement. Within a few hours two interesting things occurred. First, a small army of tired cats arrived, many carrying small bags and packets in their mouths. The odd parade of black and calico and tabby was led by Sampson and they ignored all manner of beasts and people, instead they just walked inside the barn, found Nix and followed her to her family size reserved space. The four walls had been hung with canvas from the partition rope above and James had helped her find some extra lumber to construct cat benches along the sides of the allotted area. The wagon had been cleared out for Nix to sleep in, her sale goods were stacked underneath and low, wide benches were covered in fresh straw onto which the cats hopped and settled down. Nix collected all of their small packages, kissed Sampson all over his face, and placed him in her own bed to sleep. Garibaldi climbed into the wagon and laid down in a guard position in front of his best friend. Sampson's sleep would not be disturbed.

About two hours later, the huge produce wagon from the Day farm came rolling up the track with a team of four massive warm blood horses pulling the heavy load where usually six were used. The harness and traces were jumbled and poorly strapped in places. The horses were sweat soaked and foaming, clearly having done more work than was meant for them. The members of the council looked askance at each other, each hating to see their awful predictions coming true. Nix felt like a stone had been placed in her heart so that it stuttered in its beating. James and other young men ran up to unhitch the horse team quickly. The horses badly needed water and to be cooled down and calmed down. Their wide rolling eyes began to settle under the hands of people familiar with horses and they allowed themselves to be lead away into the barn. As he passed, James gave Nix a long, meaningful look. He did not suffer well the abuse of animals.

Three people sat on the front bench of the wagon and had not helped a bit with unhitching. Now, with the work done, they began to gather their belongings and descend from the wagon. One man and two women stepped down and beamed their smiles at the gathered crowd. Not a single one of them was a member of the Day family.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Queen of the Cats 12. Party Planners

As she pulled up to the group of young people splitting wood and digging the fire pit, Nix halted her wagon. As a fellow lead homesteader, even just in his mid-20's also, James Early set down his ax and came forward to greet Nix as another member of the council. He looked a touch perplexed at the broad smile from the usually wry and sarcastic young woman, but as he started to open his mouth to ask if she had taken a fall and somehow become nicer, Nix rushed him with a boisterous greeting "James! I am so happy to see you! Come here! I have a present for you!". She hugged the young man fiercely as if reunited with a paramour and whispered in his ear "We have big trouble James, I need you to roll with my lead. Treat me like any other girl."

James pulled back enough so she could watch his face re-shape into a giant grin as he picked her up under the arms and swung her in a circle. As he placed her back on the ground he returned her greeting with "Oh, I bet you do Miss Alexandria" and planted a huge smack of a kiss right on her lips as Nix kept herself from biting him and only snarled a bit at the use of her middle name. She never should have drank that bottle of applejack with him, but that was a couple years and a lot of cares ago. "Follow me!" she winked and nodded for James to follow.

Rather than unhitching her wagon outside, Nix drove Cow and her wagon directly into the barn with James walking just behind, scratching Garibaldi who was a whore for his belly rubs. It was plausible that her wares were delicate and couldn't stay outside or could be ruined by the moisture of dew or a light rain. Nix drove straight to the far wall where the big council table was set up for any meetings or decisions that needed to be made.

"James, we have a big damned problem. Who else is here from the council is here? We need all of them and every map we have but we need to look calm and normal because we are very much being watched. and within 48 hours they will have slipped spies in among us." Nix dropped Cow's rope and sank into a chair, finally realizing the toll that even a few hours had taken on her. In them, she had relived the deaths of everyone from her childhood and imagined the deaths of everyone she knew as an adult dozens of times while trying to act like a regular person, a task at which she was already no good.

"Nix, what the hell? Who is watching us? Spies? What problem is this?" James looked confused but not panicked as he asked. He was not a young man given to sudden and thoughtless responses. "Well, someone has collected a bunch of dead folks in small paddocks spaced around this farm and those dead include the freshly killed Day men. I'm betting they are going to drop those dead herds on us during the harvest bonfire and win themselves a bunch of valleys and homesteads and goods all in one night." Nix rasped.

"Yeah. Shit. That's a big damned problem. I'll get everyone. You have a sit and a drink." James squeezed Nix's shoulder and slipped a flask into her hand. With a final ruffle at Garibaldi he took off with hands in his pockets, looking to not have a care in the world. He was a good man, even if Nix wasn't sure if she wanted to punch him or hug him from minute to minute.

In under an hour, James had passed the word around and all of the homestead representatives present had casually made their way into the barn, just happening to carry their bedrolls or other items from their wagons that served as excellent disguises for map rolls. After ditching their unneeded goods, they came to the large table and placed their maps into the patchwork so the whole system of mountains and valleys became visible.

Using stones, pipes, flasks, and other goods from pouches and pockets, the group marked out every homestead and important landmark. A box of colored chalk allowed them to sketch in paths, creeks, old roads and derelict buildings. Nix chalked in the herd of dead and four likely positions for the others. She talked out the routes, locations, and tactical plans she had considered for both sides, including the spies posing as Day farm workers and even the upsetting possibility of them creating a back door into the barn itself.

Just one question was asked. A middle aged woman with tight blonde curls and the strong body of a blacksmith queried "Are you certain it was the Day family and that they had just recently been killed? Sometimes we see the faces of those we lost or know in the dead and it sets our minds to terrible worrying." Nix turned to her respectfully and nodded her head. "Yes ma'am. I saw Richard Day bumping through that crowd of dead and his own dibble was sticking out of his chest right where his heart should have been. His face was clean and he was wearing that awful Grateful Dead shirt with all the holes that Karen keeps threatening to burn."

Off to the side, someone whispered "What's a dibble?" The piercing blue eyes of the blacksmith  flicked in the direction of the question as she answered "A dibble is a farm tool. It's a graduated metal spike on what looks like a pistol handle. It's used for planting bulbs and transplanting small plants to the field. Imagine a vampire stake made of metal and with a handle and you are about there. I made that dibble for him." The blacksmith frowned deeply. Several people flinched or recoiled as one.

The group at the table became very quite. No one laughed at Nix. No one dismissed her. Anyone who had survived on their own for this long after Revenant Day had good instincts and was probably not a hysteric. An older and soft-spoken man known simply as "The General" (because he had been) leaned forward and perused the map. Two of his sons moved forward with him and others stepped aside so they could get in closer. The General picked up the blue chalk which marked possible locations for dead herds and placed two more small X marks on the maps and then tossed the stick of chalk to one of his sons who snatched it out of the air, seeming not to have looked up. He added one more X and similarly his brother added two more. One known location and nine possible locations.

One of the sons, Daniel, nodded to his brother Jason and began "We both ran a couple of tours of special ops in the military." At this understatement, Jason smirked. "We'll go run recon tonight after dark. These sites are all close enough that if we split them up between us, I'm pretty sure we can put eyes on all of them. We have scopes and rifles in the truck. We'll get a look at their arms, placements, numbers and any other intel we can gather"

Jason continued "Let's number these sites one through nine." He turned to the General, "Dad, at 0300 I'll broadcast on CB channel 1. Two short, and then one long..." what followed was a complicated system of CB channel changes indicated by counted seconds of broadcast dead air and then counts of dead and living at each site given by a system of clicks, not unlike Morse code. However, as Jason and Danny were making up the code and channel hops right here, not using a set system, no one else would be able to follow them on the dial or understand what information was being transmitted. It was low tech, but so was everything these days.

James asked the General why Danny and Jason wouldn't just come back and give them the info, rather than this complicated system of radio communication. The General let out a long breath, watching his only sons plan a dangerous strategic mission in just 15 minutes, knowing they were the most likely to make it succeed. "Well," the General said softly, "it is very possible they can be followed, spotted, shot or captured. They are walking into a lot of area with almost no intel. Those boys have seen and done some crazy things, so even if they are chased or shot- they know they can keep moving and hiding for at least a few hours, long enough to transmit the information they have before they are killed. They know these woods and this valley better than whoever is out there and are likely better trained. Even if someone gets the drop on them, they will find a way to get us the information. Even if it kills them."

James looked at the men, impressed and suddenly understanding them so much better. Nix just nodded sadly to the General. She laid her hand on his arm, stood up on her toes and kissed his perfectly, regulation shaved cheek. "They are damned good boys. General, but you already know that." The General nodded once and turned to look at Nix. "And you, Miss Kobesky, you are a damned tough young woman and we are lucky to have you. That was a hell of a catch today. How did you find that herd all tucked up in a hollow like that?"

"Cats found them and led me over for a look." Nix nodded toward Garibaldi, now sprawled across the council table being absently scratched by Jason and Daniel as they planned their final details. Shaking her head slightly, Nix continued "They aren't always that... brazenly indolent." The General chuckled. "All those years we used dogs in the military. Maybe we should have had a few cats too."
Nix grinned "But then you would have needed cat ladies too, General."

Wrapping his arm around her shoulder and leading her back to the table, the silver haired man smiled and quietly promised "There is always a place for you in this old man's army." Jason and Daniel were standing up from the table and gave their father identical claps on his arms. He nodded and they walked off to go toss their truck for supplies. The General headed off to meet with other family heads to start setting up some signals and creating security measures that had never been used before. As Nix began to follow and took a slightly staggering step, the General pointed her toward a bench. "Sit. Rest. Drink. Food. Work more later."

Nix nodded and sat on an old bench. James brought her a sandwich and mug of coffee with something very alcoholic mixed in. She asked no questions, closed her eyes and leaned back to sip the potent brew, only half listening to the planning around her. James sat beside her in silence and Garibaldi hopped up between them on the bench. It was going to be a very, very long day.

13. Of Observation and Arrivals