Cover Of Night (Chapter 25)

Cate was astonished – you didn't just "go" rock climbing; it was something that took conditioning, preparation, and experience – but then she recalled a conversation they'd had when Cal opened the door to the attic stairs after she broke the key to it, just days ago. Days. Dear God, so much had happened it seemed as if weeks had passed. "You said you'd done some mountaineering." Mountaineering was different from rock climbing, but a lot of the equipment was the same. She supposed it was basically the same principle, too, just some different techniques. "Mostly mountaineering," he corrected. "Some climbing." Greed spun the notebook around in that decisive way he had and took up the pen. "Okay, let's make a list of what you'll need so nothing is forgotten. How long do you think it will take you to get through the cut and to a phone?" He looked at Cate as he spoke, because she had been on climbs here.

All the climbs she'd done had been day climbs, but she knew the terrain they were talking about. The mountains loomed behind her house, and she saw them every day. She could look at several of the rock faces and think, "I climbed you ". She knew how long it took to get to them, and how long to go up them. In some places the ascent might be easier than the climbs she and Derek had mapped out, because a challenging climb had been what they were there for. Memories flooded back, crystal-clear mental pictures of exactly what she was proposing to do, the climbs and hiking they would face.

She finally said, "I'm thinking a day and a half, maybe two days, to get to a point where we can start hiking. How far would it be to the cut, Roy Edward?"

He snorted. "As the crow flies, maybe five miles, but you're not a crow. With all the up and down, I'd say you're looking at fifteen, twenty miles."

"Daylight hours only," Cal said. "We won't be able to use lights. So… two days of hiking, and that's a hard pace. Four days total to the cut."

Four days. Cate felt sick to her stomach. That was too long, way too long. So much could happen in that length of time –

Neenah reached out and took her hand. "We'll be all right," she said firmly. "We'll hold out. no matter what they want or what they do."

"Damn right," Walter said. He looked tired, they all did, but there was also an undiminished fury in his eyes. They had been attacked, friends had died, and he didn't look inclined to throw up his hands in surrender. "Just about all of us have some sort of rifle or shotgun; we have ammunition – and more of it in the general store if we need it. We have food, and we have water. If those sons of bitches thought we'd be an easy target, they can just think again."

A muted chorus of "yeahs," "damn straights," and "that's rights" filled the basement, and heads nodded.

Cal scratched his jaw. "Along that line – Neenah, you have a good many fifty-pound bags of feed in the back of the store."

"Yes, I've started stocking up for the winter. Why?"

"Not even an armor-piercing bullet will go through bags of sand, which is why the military uses them. We don't have sand, but we do have those bags of feed. Feed won't be as good as sand – it isn't packed as tightly – but stack 'em two deep and you've got an effective barricade." He paused. "By the way, I chopped a hole in the ceiling."

She blinked, then smiled. "Of course you did. I wondered how you got to your rooms." She indicated his clothes. If having a hole in the ceiling of her store bothered her, she didn't show it.

Cal looked around the basement. "All of you can't stay here; its too crowded, and it isn't necessary. We'll pick out the safest houses, the ones with the least exposure, and spread out. We can use the feed bags to fortify the walls exposed to gunfire. That way you can function better and keep a better watch. Get some trenches dug, too, so you can move from place to place in safety. They don't have to be deep and they don't have to be long, just long enough to cross some open areas and deep enough for a belly crawl."

"We need food, too, and blankets, and clothes. Some people need their medications," said Sherry. "Show us how to get from place to place without getting our asses blown off, so we can start gathering stuff."

"I'll get most of it – " he began, but she raised her hand to stop him.

"I didn't say do it, I said show us how to do it. If you don't, we'll be pretty useless without you. We have to be able to hold down the fort."

"I have a lot of extra blankets and pillows," Cate said. "Food, too. And a bunch of mattresses that could be used for protection, if those are any good. If not, then drag them down and sleep on them."

"Mattresses are a good idea," Cal said, "for sleeping. Don't sleep in a bed. Drag the mattresses down on the floor."

"What else can we use to barricade the walls?" asked Milly.

"Things like boxes of old magazines, if you keep things like that. Books, packed tight in a box. Cushions aren't any good; they aren't dense enough. Furniture's no good. Think of things like rolling up your rugs as tight as you can, tying them so they'll stay rolled, and standing them at an angle against the vulnerable wall."

"Does anyone have a pool table with a slate bed?" asked Creed

"I do," someone said, and Cate looked around to see Roland Gettys raise his hand a little. He seldom said much, usually just listened to conversations with a slight smile on his face, unless someone asked him a direct question.

"A slate pool table is an excellent shield, if you can get it turned on its side."

"Weighs a ton," said Roland, nodding his head.

Creed looked at Cal. "I'll take care of getting this organized. You and Cate go get what you'll need." He looked down at his notepad. "I've written down exactly nothing. Do you need to make a list?"

"I don't think so, not for the climbing gear," Cate said. "1 could pack that with my eyes closed." She also needed something to wear besides pajamas, but she wasn't likely to forget clothes.

"That's it, then," said Cal, holding out his hand to her. "You handle the climbing gear and I'll handle everything else. Let's get moving."

Getting back to her house seemed easier, in one way, than her desperate flight the night before – she didn't have to run. Flimsy bedroom slippers didn't provide much protection for her feet, so she was glad to take more care as she and Cal slipped from cover to cover. Taking more care, however, meant taking more time, and the longer they were out there the more exposed she felt. It was incredibly creepy, knowing someone sitting on the side of a mountain over half a mile away could be watching her through a scope, tracking her even move, easing his finger to the trigger –

At that thought, she stopped where she was, shuddering. As if he were aware of her slightest movement, her position, at all times, Cal stopped and looked back at her. "What's wrong?"

Cate looked around. They were, for the moment, completely protected. Cal used every bit of possible cover, from rocks and trees and buildings to low places in the ground. Right now they were behind some waist-high rocks. This wasn't the same as the night before, when she and Maureen had been on the first floor of the house, with only wooden walls between them and a bullet. "I just felt as if someone was watching, as if the shooters could see us."

"They can't. Not right now."

"I know. But last night – when Maureen and I were upstairs – I felt the bullet coming, and I panicked and tackled her. It was so eerie. I could actually feel it, like something tickling between my shoulder blades. The window blew in, and after that we heard the shot. I just now had sort of the same feeling, but there's no way a bullet can go through these rocks, is there?''

"No, we're safe here." He worked his way back to her and crouched there, looking around, an intent expression in his eyes. "But don't discount that feeling, especially in a combat situation. I get 'em on the back of my neck. I always listen. So we're going to change course a little. It's longer this way, but if you've got the willies, we aren't taking any chances."

She nodded, absurdly pleased that he knew what she was talking about. He studied the ground for a moment, then got on his belly and began slithering away from the rocks at a ninety-degree angle, following a slight indentation that she hadn't noticed. Her pajamas would be beyond saving, she thought, and went down on her belly, too, to follow him.

Billy Copeland carefully scanned with his scope, back and forth. He thought he'd seen a flash of cloth around some rocks. The distance was at the far end of his skill, but a lucky shot was just as good as a skillful one, and in any case, as Teague had explained, they were now in the psychological phase of this operation: Work on their nerves, wear them down. He didn't have to actually hit his target to remind them that they could be touched from a frightening distance.

The decision he had to make was whether or not to fire without having a clear target. On the one hand, they had fired a helluva lot of rounds last night, and his instinct now told him to make every shot count. On the other hand, it would be fun to make someone piss their britches when they thought they were so well hidden.

His finger began tightening on the trigger, but then he eased the pressure. Not vet, not unless he knew for certain he'd seen something. No sense in wasting a round.

Her house was totally silent. Even at night when the boys were in bed asleep. Cate could hear the faint hum of appliances, feel a vague sense that the house was alive. Not now. It was empty and curiously dark and cold, despite the sunshine, because she'd pulled all the curtains against the night at sundown the day before. The curtains had not only kept the light at bay, they also had prevented the house from warming.

"Give me the key to the attic door," said Cal. "I'll bring down all the climbing gear while you're changing clothes."

"I thought I was going to get the climbing gear."

"You've been having the willies. Stay where it's safer. The attic has no protection at all."

She raised her eyebrows. "That makes me feel better, how? You'll be up there."

"That's right. And you'll be in your room. Just a little while ago you looked ready to fight half the state to keep me from going out by myself tonight, and I listened to you. That's the way I feel right now, in this situation, and you're going to listen to me." His voice was firm, the expression in his eyes cool and clear.

Putting it like that had just frustrated all her objections. She made a face at him and went to her desk in the foyer to get the key. "Does anyone ever win an argument with you?"

"I don't argue. Waste of time and effort. I do listen to opinions, though." He was right behind her and reached out to take the key.

She gave it to him without objection, but as he started up the stairs she asked, "Don't you ever get mad?"

He paused, looking down at her. In the gloom his pale eyes looked like crystal, without any hint of blue. "Yeah, I get mad. When I found that asshole Mellor threatening you with a gun, I could have torn him apart with my bare hands."

Her stomach tightened in a knot of shock, because she believed every word he'd said. She reached out and grasped the newel post, her fingers clenching on the wood. She remembered the look in his eve, the way his finger had begun tightening on the trigger. "You were really going to shoot him, weren't you?"

"No point in aiming a weapon at someone if you don't intend to pull the trigger," he said, and went on up the stairs. "Stay down while you're changing clothes," he called back.

After a moment Cate followed him up the stairs, then turned to the right to go to her bedroom. Obediently, she bent as low as she could manage and still walk. She didn't have the willies now. but that didn't mean anything. Nothing had happened out by the rocks; the night before had been a freaky coincidence, nothing more.

If she kept telling herself that, she might one day believe it. The spooky sensation had been too strong, too immediate.

She shook away all thoughts except those about preparing for the grueling challenge ahead of her. A recreational climb was hard work, but fun, and she'd always known that at the end of the day she would have a hot shower, a hot meal, and sleep in a nice comfortable bed. She'd gone camping once, and hadn't liked it.

When she had been climbing, she usually wore spandex pants and a snug tank top with a sport bra underneath, and her climbing shoes. Her first consideration was her shoes, because climbing shoes weren't for walking. Conversely, walking shoes weren't good for climbing. She had always worn athletic shoes to the site, then changed into her climbing shoes. That wouldn't work this time, because they weren't coming back down. They had to carry their food, water, and blankets as well as their climbing gear, plus whatever weapons Cal thought he needed.

She took a deep breath, not letting herself think how impossible this was. They wouldn't be tackling the vertical climbs; they would be looking for the absolute easiest way up – which would still be hell, but not quite the same degree of hell.

She didn't have any hiking boots, so her only other choice was her athletic shoes. Instead of choosing spandex pants, she prepared for spending probably three or four nights in the mountains, at an altitude that often got chilly at night even in the middle of summer; that meant sweatpants. She had a pair with pockets that zipped, so that was the pair she chose, and laid them across the bed. She added several pairs of socks, plus clean underwear. Maybe she was being silly, but she couldn't face wearing the same pair of underwear for four days. She put both pairs on. A silk T-shirt, tucked in. A hooded sweatshirt jacket, which could be tied around her waist. She tucked lip balm into one of the pants pockets, then fished around in her underwear drawer until she found her old Swiss Army knife; it went in another pocket.

Next she brushed out her hair and pulled it back in a snug ponytail to keep it secure; getting hair caught in any of the gear was painful. She stood there a minute, trying to think if she'd forgotten anything. Maybe her silk long Johns, in case the nights got really cold? They would be too hot to wear during the day, but they weighed nothing and took up practically no space. In fact, they would fit in the pouch pockets of the sweatshirt jacket.

When she thought she had everything, she got dressed. Two pairs of socks, one thin and one thick. The extra two pairs also went into her pants pockets. Then the pants, then her shoes, and finally she tied the jacket around her waist. Experimentally she stretched and twisted, seeing if her clothing hampered her movement in any way. It didn't, so she was good to go.

Next stop: kitchen.

Cal entered the kitchen while she was dividing muesli into zippered plastic bags. He was laden with gear, all the harnesses and belaying devices, the biners and pins and anchors, the chalk bags, plus coils of thin rope. "How old are these ropes?" he asked.

Just like that, her heart dropped into her stomach. "Oh, no," she said softly. "They're over five years old."

Synthetic rope deteriorated over time, even if it had never been used, and these ropes had been used. She and Derek had taken very good care of their ropes, hand-washing them in the bathtub, keeping them out of sunlight, but she couldn't stop the march of time. They couldn't climb with these ropes; it was as simple as that. A rope as old as these could be used for top-roping but not leading, but she didn't want to use them, period.

"Walter has some synthetic rope in the store," he said. "Maybe not exactly what we want, but newer than this. I'll get it now. How long?"

"Seventy meters."

He nodded. He didn't ask what thickness, so she guessed that Walter had only the one roll stocked. They would use whatever was there.

He disappeared out the front, and she left the food to inspect the gear. She hadn't touched it since putting it in the attic three years ago, when she moved here. He hadn't brought down the helmets, but she understood why: they were brightly colored, easily visible. A lot of climbers didn't wear helmets anyway, but she and Derek always had.

The old fascination returned as she sorted out the gear, and for a minute she felt the tug of excitement, the hue of sun and height, her skill and strength pitted against the rock. She had fallen, of course. So had Derek. So had every climber she knew. But that was what the ropes were for, and that was why she wouldn't climb with old ones.

She forced herself to turn away from the gear and go back to food prep. Water would be a big problem, because it was so heavy. A gallon of water weighed eight pounds, not counting the weight of the container. She had some bottled water, but no convenient way to carry it. They needed a waterskin that could be sitting on the back, but she couldn't think of any way to improvise one.

Maybe Roy Edward would know if there was running water on the mountains. There was, surely, aside from the bigger stream that formed part of Trail Stop's boundary before joining with the river.

Cal returned with coils of rope over his shoulders. He looked over her preparations and nodded. "I helped myself to some things while I was getting the rope. I have matches in a waterproof box, some things like that. How about blankets?"

"The ones I have are thick," she said. "I was going to take some back to the others, but they're too thick to carry while we're climbing."

He nodded. "I have a couple of thin blankets at my place, and a sleep pad that rolls up tight. Okay, that's it. We could use more stuff, but we can't carry it. Let's go. By the time we get ready to leave, we won't have much daylight left."

"What are we going to do? We can't climb in the dark."

"We're going to get into position, which could take a couple of hours. Whatever we can do tonight, that's time we'll save tomorrow."

He was right about that, and he had a brisk discipline to every movement, even his tone of voice, that told her he knew exactly what he was doing. He'd done this before, probably in circumstances just as dire.

When they made it back to the Richardsons', they found that Creed had organized the others with the same sort of crispness Cal displayed. While Cal took some of them out to show them the safest ways to move around, the angles they should use, and where they should be wary, Creed worked on the water problem.

According to Roy Edward there were several streams in the mountains, which helped, but they still had to solve the bottle problem. Creed looked thoughtful. The next thing Cate knew, Maureen was cutting the legs out of some of Perry's thermal-knit underwear. She tied off the end of one, and loaded bottles in the cutoff leg as if putting torpedoes in a firing tube. When each leg was full, she tied off the other end, then fashioned slings that could be worn across the shoulder and chest, with the weight of the water on their backs, Cate tried it out. There was more weight than she was comfortable with, but that would lessen as they drank.

Cal returned with two blankets and what she supposed was a sleeping pad, which looked much like a yoga mat. One of the blankets was rolled up and strapped to her, while he carried the mat and the other blanket. He put on his sling of Water, grinning at the solution, then looked at Creed.

"What's the closest place we can go for help, after we get through the cut?"

"My place," Creed said. "From my back porch, I can see the cut. Other than that, there's a dude ranch about six or seven miles off the highway, and Gordon Moons place is a little farther than that in the opposite direction. If you can find my place, you can use the phone there, but you'd have to use some dead-on course plotting, Marine."

Cal grinned. "If you happen to know the coordinates, I have a handheld GPS unit." He tapped the cargo pocket on his right thigh.

A slow answering grin spread across Greed's face. "Imagine that. It happens I have one, too. Wouldn't look good for the guide to get lost, now would it?'

"You remember the coordinates?"

"Does a kitty cat have an ass? Know em like my birthday.'