THE CLATSOP VOLUNTEER FIRING SQUAD
He had never killed a man, this tall but mousy youngster, Clyde Rasmussen. Proof of times of the mend, that a boy might make it to seventeen without a notch on a gunstock. The whittling had gotten close for many in the town of Story, those old enough to remember a shift in the moonlight and a heave in the earth it glowed upon.
Molly Po—D.D.S. ret., potato farmer, and warrant squad lead—was that old twice over. Fitting that big blond Clyde and his maiden death should be hers to supervise. Her score beat her years, thanks to the post, and to more. Fair, if tart, to call her a sage.
They took seats in the warrant office, in leather chairs patched up with saltires of duct tape. The furniture was salvage, as was the charterhouse itself, once a bank. It had been built in days of overstatement—cool marble floors and a vault that now held an arsenal instead of dirty pocket linen. The squad came from the ranks of the Clatsop volunteers. They were not sworn vigilantes, yet they had entry under that dog Latin door motto, nihil non ultionis, and a space of their own. A nod to the rule of common folk, the very breath of justice—and a stipend of ammo besides.
Molly spread the paperwork on a steel desk—dip pen and gall ink on a barrel-limed parchment. In cursive, of course. Writs were pretty once again, drawn up in a fairest hand that might do an executioner proud. Her own two ached and she worked them with a dry lather. The fingers were slow to curl and soon enough they would put her out. A matter of fairness, despite a lengthy tenure—a lady who called down fire should have some of her own, headshot aside.
“I understand you don’t care to go hunting, Clyde,” was how she began.
“Couldn’t say I don’t. Never done it, ’s all.”
“But you have a qualm.” She looked to the day-blue eyes and thought she read a search. “A misgiving. A doubt.”
“What about? I’m a Rasmussen. We’re a marksman family, aren’t we. A marks-family?”
Every month the hits went up on display, per custom. Clyde’s targets were best—tight grouping, head and chest, no lag or misfire on an unsighted bolt-action Rem 700. The vigilante quartermaster once thought he had missed his aim, which would have been an actionable waste of powder and brass. But it had turned out that two of the holes were multiples, and both of them in that magic apricot. Instant death, and from a handsome distance, four times over.
“I’m not forgetting your brothers,” Molly said. “They stepped up. Not to mention Marcelle, up there on tower duty. She could part your hair.” One of the volunteer snipers, his sis. And soon enough she’d wear the garter on an arm, same as those brothers had, once the jury held the yearly sit. In time that vote came to tap almost every man and woman on the warrant squad. Talent could not go to waste, even when it came from a matter of ceremony like a public execution. “But you’ve never gone out yourself. Fair to say you’ve never killed anything.”
“I fish. So I’ve got some fish on my conscience.”
“You’ve haven’t killed anything that could look you in the eye.”
“You could turn a trout to face you.”
There: the heart in him. Molly smiled. A joke was welcome but uncanny aim was what had brought the boy to her. Everyone else of age who had it that good had already done the stint. A society of volunteers shared both chores and risks. Otherwise it was a racket, a government, a cheat.
“Sure I’m nervous. But I gave my word and it’s as good as anybody else’s.”
A rankle, just hinting: better. “I’m not out to give you a time just for hoots.”
“I know it.”
“But I can tell just from the way you’re hunkered in that seat that you’re feeling it. You ought. We do what we can with what we have. We all get to shoulder it.”
“I think I want to meet him, Molly.”
What? “It’s allowable. Why would you?”
“Look him in the eye,” Clyde said, into hers.
“You’ve read the charges,” she said, calling the bluff. Most young folks were slow in letters—no fault, letters grown as rare as teachers.
He only smiled at her, at the desk, himself.
Molly picked up the sheet without a glance. “Let’s recap. A team went out—a co-op between the board of volunteers and the jury.”
“I know this much already.”
“Just listen anyway. They had leave from St. Helens to cross the borders on horseback, under an armed escort of course. The vigilantes couldn’t go along thanks to that skirmish in Tanasbourne. The team rode all the way into old Multnomah over the Tualatins. And right into the ghost.”
City, that meant. Clyde looked away, to whatever he might picture there. Bones, most likely—bones laid flat in sun-bleached clothes. A photo would pale. Molly had seen the before to that after firsthand.
“They came out the old depository with three tons of books. Too much of a load for the hills. So they went west through a tunnel they found open, more or less, and then the lowland—Twality.” It had been known as Washington County while there were parish governments and war heroes. “That’s where they met the rustlers—near a place called Dorman Pond, just before getting back into the trees. The one in the cell, he’s the only survivor from what Juryman Blank sent out. And we both know a cell is where he belongs. In a cell and on the docket.”
“Sure, Molly. You skipped past what he did.”
She searched the sheet to find her place. Even a juryman could get to lengths, same as lawyers had, perhaps more so now that pen work could boast it. Best summed up. “It was the animals they wanted. To get them they shot every member of the team but one. Her they raped until they thought she was dead of it. At the mouth and at the ass—don’t you turn from me, Clyde—not to mention the cut they made with a bayonet. From here to here. She had to crawl out of all the dirt they thew on her to smother her alive. Not to hide a body, you understand, but just to be vicious. By the time she got free they had been gone a while and everyone else had bled out. And the books—those they burned, right there in the wagons. That’s actually the interesting part to me. That they would even bother.”
She read the anger. A good start. It beat an unstrung mope into the floor.
“I want to meet him,” Clyde said again, after a moment.
So. “While you’re at it, talk to the man who fetched him back. Mister Virtanen. Hung around just for the date, I hear. He’s the one who took the statement from Patricia Carter, too, while she could give it. Annabel Carter’s daughter. Do you understand what that means, her dying? It means there’s no one left who knows how to run a goddam library. Not in all of Clatsop and maybe not anywhere. It’s bad enough a selfless young woman—”
Molly let it settle. Clyde would know Annie had been a friend—had helped Molly get to the coast and saved her life. Patty had been a swaddled face in the crook of Annie’s left arm. The right did the mothering with an autorevolver, out and ready. A death put off by thirty years—a decent enough lifetime, now—but to Molly it felt like time revoked. She was still out there, on the run with that baby and her ma.
Clyde knew of Annie, and he would certainly have heard of Otto Virtanen, by that name or by the one people used on the hush. The population stood just below a thousand. No one could be a riddle, not even someone so rarely there among them, whatever he had done abroad, and before.
A thousand: a tenth of a town under a fuller name. The houses inland were returning to the earth—trees breaking through. Those buildings had become part of the defenses. About them stood berms of car and sandbag. Climbable, but not without putting a head up into the hairs of a scope. Redband or volunteer, these were only matters of degree—guns were how the people of Story distinguished themselves. That and the fishing. A man or woman on the squad had to be among the best, short range or no. A matter of due and proper shown.
“So why do we shoot them, Molly? Once they’re in our custody. I never did ask. Why not just bust out some rope?”
“To show we still have the bullets.”
He sat without company save the paint he rode. Horsemanship had made a comeback, much like pretty script and banditry, and a man who went out was never far from the saddle. So it was with Mister Virtanen. He went by Otto when not as a gunman and a mister, which was not very often, not even among his fellow redbands. Few could cite all of his honors, but that did not lessen the respect.
The paint, Sampo, was nose-down in a patch of dandelions on a broken lot but within the reach of his voice. Even a smooch to the air would have fetched her over. Otto had woken in his riding gear, a chocolate duster and wide brim atop a dimpled ballistic vest. A guardrail served for pew. The stare he made that morning had long been a sacrament, skies permitting.
His campfire and his bedroll were nearer to the horse, at the foot of the overpass, where the east–west span of the slumping onramp blocked the sight. A pot steamed in the mound of embers, a fire built on the slab where a highway department building had once stood. In hand he had a full cup, and now for the first time in memory he took a sip of coffee.
The taste had grown strange in the time without it. He wondered whether it was the grounds that had turned, or the mouth, now coming on fifty.
While in Story he could have slept indoors. But doing so would not have let him brew in peace. Even a hidey-spot near the riverbank brought a risk. A chance breeze might go upslope through the wire. To beaten houses full of retirees—volunteers too old to share a load. A river view helped them sit pat and wait it out. They would know coffee. Come rummaging. Smells could not be quit, Otto knew.
This was all a matter of caution on Otto’s part, not just selfishness. But he saw the greed too and tipped his hat. A vigilante got to live on a jury provender and it gave him a sense of due. He took a swallow. Quite a view. Beyond a slaw of brickwork, where a motel had stood, and the weedy slips of a marina, a fallen bridge lay. The current rilled through the iron hump. At Point Ellice, six-some miles out, a stub made a fleck where all the traffic would have gone. One snag of white among a patch of them. Those river shallows were dotted up with wrecks, drifted through the broken dams to nuzzle at the bank.
No firelight ever showed out there, it was said. A silenced place, just as most in town took parts south of Tillamook. But Otto had actually been well past it, reconnoitering as far as the Siskiyou. There he had made friends and caught rumors—tell of places even further out. Save the forms—mountain, river, shore—no chart was up to date. Lands just across a sweep of water had become as coy as the surface of the moon.
But not as strange, never that. What held Otto’s eye every morning was not the scenery but yes the moon. Presently gibbous and eleven o’clock high, making west. Or best said the tilted disk thereupon.
It resembled the halo of that outer planet but without a single streak, and it threw a solid curve on a face no less unfamiliar. The dust had been scribed by lines that ran in parallel, laid on like a hatching. Any other feature—crater, mare, and mountain range—had been raked out for thirty years.
The bed was ever changing. What combed it went yet unseen. Except on dark clear nights with a new moon or thinnest crescent. The unlit part would show the craze in a faintest yellow glow. Strands no thicker than a silk, deep in airless trenches. Whatever had come, that was it, the fire of its camp.
That glimpse was too much. Those sort of nights were when none who remembered other times could bear to look, not even a man without remorse. Radio had gone out—every band a caterwaul—and then motors, in a flashless clap that took out anything too near. Distances grew long, hunger followed, and then came the rest. And never anything otherworldly on the ground.
Otto did not mind much. It was the shutdown that had let him thrive. His true temper had room to show itself where before it had none. But heartless or not even he felt raw at the sight of the trespass, no matter that thirty years had passed. So come mornings when the moon was up he stared it down, dared it, made a dissection of his fright. The drink had grown tepid in his grip.
Footsteps. A young man was on the ramp. Ambling up to meet the vigilante, it seemed. That boy and youngsters like him, they could look up without trouble. And so this one did now, to see what held attention in that new-made sky—a simple glance, and back ahead. Not so much as a shrug and never a question. In those eyes the moon was the moon, strange ring and all.
And Otto could marvel at that, too. He poured out the muddy cupful.
“Hi,” the burly young man said as he drew near. He brushed back the pale hair to show a smile and a scattershot of acne. “My name’s Clyde Rasmussen. Can I talk to you, Mister Finish?”
“Son, you’re not supposed to go and say that to my face.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Guess I don’t know what it means.”
“That’s all right,” the vigilante said, seeing as much. The kid had a foot and an inch and a hundred strong pounds on Otto and was no threat to him whatsoever. Hi, he had said, without mind to the scar, the steady eye, the hand pulling a skirt of the coat back from the holster. Otto decided to like him. “The joke’s in the number of ens, you see.”
“Letter ens? No, I don’t get it.”
“Fair enough.” There was no profit in explaining a country to a young man, not a place any farther off than St. Aitch or Tillamook and dead on a map. Not even to a young man with a surname that was only a few degrees of longitude off from his own.
“I’m on the warrant squad,” the kid said. “I wanted to ask about the prisoner.”
“That’s a first,” Otto said. He looked Rasmussen over again and nodded to himself. “I was on the firing squad once, back when we called it that. Let’s get on down to my horse. I found a full bottle on the last tour and it’s in one of the bags.”
“A full bottle of what, mister?”
“Burned some, didn’t they,” the Rasmussen kid said soon enough, once Otto had the dusty fifth and a second tin cup. The kid had the grace not to spew back on the treasure. He would not have heard of coffee, either, and no puzzlement showed at the traces where Otto had dashed the weeds.
That was the strangest thing—those deserters from beyond the Siskiyou, they had coffee on them, as well as the cups and the pot. They also had uniforms stripped of insignia and a kind of rifle no vigilante had ever seen. Something newly made from the look of it—gun-smithing with a die stamp code, maybe from a line. The bottoms of the cups had the same, nine alphanumeric digits struck on. None would dare run a motor, not under that moon, but industry might work given enough hands. Every detail made him uneasy, but none more so than those goddam beans. Familiar or not, and however sorely missed, they were two thousand miles out of any tropic where they could grow.
The Vanguard of Greater Alta California, Cass Mortimer had called them secondhand, through binoculars and up on the south face of Shasta. She had handed the lenses over. A flash of cannons out in Redding, past the hollows of silt the dam-store had laid.
“Burn some,” Otto said, coming back. “Funny you should say so, since I could have used this for a fuel. That’s part of what we do when we go out. Search the houses out there on the Twality. Bring back the weapons and anything else with a use. Burn the rest.”
That was the pretense of how he had come upon the victim by chance—Patty Carter, crawled up into the shade of a tree, trailing some behind her. The usual search and demolition, and whom should he meet. In truth he had set out to Dorman Pond when the rendezvous at Nehalem Valley was a day late.
“I know, mister,” Clyde said. “So outlaws don’t have a roof overhead. Not so close to the farms, and to Story.”
“Smart young man.”
Anything that had beams and uprights within two day’s ride had gone to torch. Soon it would be three days’ ride, save St. Aitch territory, and all the emptiness to their south. There were plans for the teeming wreck of Hillsboro, all those easily fortified office parks where squats kept watch.
“It’s what I’ve been told. So were they outlaws, Mister Virtanen? Rustlers? The ones who got Miss Carter and the rest?”
Otto took another snootful. It hid a smile. What he thought as the amber went down was, “Smart young man,” but this time he meant it past a remark. Strong plus clever, an uncommon mix. No doubt people took him for a simp. That, too, was an upper hand.
“Outlaws is a good enough word,” Otto said, “given what they did, whether there are laws or not. And they did have the horses. We checked the brands. But you suspect it otherwise.”
The kid took a moment. “Why go back another way, a less safe way, once you’ve got what you came for? Hills, we heard. But those hills are full of through-roads, being where they are and who-all used to live there. It’s not like pushing a heavy load up a bare-ass slope. I even heard they took a tunnel. That’s more like to cave than a graded roadway, ain’t it? And choked up besides, with what was left of all those cars? A lot more trouble, you ask me. And a lot more dangerous.”
Otto felt a relief. What had been noticed was manageable—part of a secret but not the secret. Let the kid suss it out—that would sate him. He found the right note of reluctance.
“They didn’t want to go back through St. Helens territory. Because they didn’t want to risk the books.”
Share. St. Helens would have got a cut—part of the deal. But twenty percent of something dear was a tithe double deep. Even a papacy in a superstitious age never took that kind of bite.
“You think the Saints are gearing up,” Otto said. “You think St. Aitch sent a raid because they were keeping an eye on our people and their progress—to get those goods one way or another. That it was a double-cross they had in mind all along.”
“That’s about right. Except the books got torched. It might have been an accident. Or one of our people might have done it out of revenge. I might have myself, once I saw it was no good.”
“The Saints can barely hold a line,” Otto said. “You wouldn’t know that, because you haven’t been out and surely not among that whole godbothering bunch. They don’t have anything like our stockpile. I’ve been carting firearms back into Story for almost twenty years now. If it’s been a race with St. Helens, that’s how we’ll have won. Fair salvage. Think on the world after the shutdown as a laboratory. Us here in Story, we’re one kind of try for a livelihood, and St. Aitch, they’re another. Running a civilization with pslams and ration cards, turns out it don’t pay that easy.”
“What about Tillamook?”
“Tillamook is a clan of families behind a stakewall. Not more than three hundred of them all told. Good folks—good with a sword and spear, too, whatever help a backhand would give them in a range war. Ben Macleod is a friend of mine. He’s put me and old Sampo here up more than once.” And the boss Mook knew the score. It was a nervous sort of friendship.
“So outlaws. Okay. I was aiming to meet him first.”
Well. No harm there: all the prisoner would do was repeat name, rank, and number—concepts that would play dumb to a seventeen-year-old from northernmost Clatsop. So his comrades had done once trussed. Played dumb and made the old rote, more a custom than a matter for any treaty.
Just as much a mystery as the beans, and no less troubling. The men were turncoats. They had torn off patches and aiguillettes, judging from the loose threads. Possibly fugitives from a drumhead court, which amounted to the same. And yet even in the hands of a vengeful enemy and under no little stress, they held to name, rank, number. They feared what they had fled more.
Long trade routes. A regular army. Production and supply. An agenda of expansion. Even the name Cass had forwarded along spoke too much. And unless the strangers had hooked in from the east—one hell of a detour—the fact that they had crossed the Umpqua River meant that the Siskiyou had fallen, and those people had been armed to the teeth. No defenses in Josephine and hardly any souls at all. Hooves and boot soles on the ground in the Willamette Valley, soon or now.
“Why do you want to meet him?” Otto said at last.
“Why do people keep asking?”
“It’s not a commonplace a man wants to know a victim. I’ve chatted up a fellow or two to pass the time, but only once everything had been decided. Usually he asks for a drink of water. And I’m only too glad to hand over a canteen. But after. Only after. Anything else and people might think you had a hankering for it. But that don’t factor and I can see it’s just the other way around. Maybe you’re not cut out, son.”
“I can do my bit,” Rasmussen said, which made Otto doubt it.
“You don’t see the issue,” he said. “And I’m guessing it’s about six foot eleven.”
Turnkey duty fell most often to an elder redband or to one who had lost a piece. The man on point at present was of both sorts—Roger Demerit, bald and hard and about as old, at sixty-three, as a vigilante could ever get. The sundered portions were a left foot, forearm, nut, and eye, all claimed by a squat’s nail bomb at Tongue Point. It had been close enough to Story for a medical doctor to come tie off a gusher and stitch a body up, which made the shambles that had survived it quite an exhibition.
Some might have put a spryer man on to keep a prisoner in check, but that late into things, townside killings only came a few times a year, and there was rarely much of a layover. Once a juryman put out a warrant, the matter had been decided. Charge and sentence were clauses on the selfsame sheet. A prisoner in a cell would only be waiting for Molly Po to call the hour.
Just a matter of scooting some bread through the bars and shooting a miscreant dead if need be. Roger could see it through, he and the shotty. Meanwhile he got to do a lot of sitting and reading, when someone who went afield could scrounge up a paperback. The coach gun lay in easy reach.
A sniper came into the jailhouse. Roger knew a sniper same-how as any. Even aside the precision rifle strapped to the back, a drum suppressor screwed in place, there was a matter of the eyes, the burnt cork smeared beneath them. Something to do with glare, it was said, but more about being set apart, truth be.
This one was a rather trim young lady of dark ponytail and no special stature, which made her no less frightening. She was a night sniper on top of it all—pale from lack of sun and dressed up in camo black from boot to fingerless glove. A death mime in military scrap—sexy. No garter on the arm yet, but that made no difference. Snipers were a cult apart, whether vigilante or just plain folk.
Marcelle Rasmussen, all grown up. It had taken Roger a beat to make her out. He was so tense, and maybe a bit smitten, that he hardly noticed the blond oaf come in behind her, who had three times the mass or nearly that. Smaller or not, she eclipsed him.
“My brother wants to speak to the prisoner,” she said.
Which would make him Clyde, last seen cutting shines on a squeaky trike. “Oh? What for?”
She only looked at him. The business had been stated.
“I’m on the warrant squad,” the oaf said through his drape.
“Well why didn’t you say so? I can’t give you privacy if that’s what you’re after. But walk on over if you like. I’ll be listening, mind.”
The sniper turned to face her absurdly larger brother. She gave his paw a squeeze and smiled up at his face. “Go ahead,” she said gently, and even Roger’s tuckered heart felt the warmth.
He did not rise from his desk or turn to face the conversation. He knew well enough what the prisoner looked like. Still in that stripped midnight blue and a wiry beard. He looked to Marcelle instead.
“I knew your father,” Roger whispered. “Remember me any? Whatever’s left?”
She paid him no mind, eyes to the cell. Roger glanced over. Past Clyde’s back and the iron bars the prisoner still lay in his cot, one eye shut, one arm and every finger left on it in a splint. As much mercy as he would ever get.
“Third noncom William Verge, aleph nine six six five seven two.”
There would be no further word, not even above a monotone, whatever threat the man was under. One of the vigilantes told Roger all that Mister Virtanen had done to test the sticktoitiveness. That mouth would part with nothing, save a ghost, come the mid-a.m. But Roger had to hear just what big dumb Clyde wanted.
“Um, hi.” Hi. Yeah.
“Third noncom William Verge, aleph nine six six five seven two.”
Roger supposed a “third noncom” would be a staff sergeant, if the outfit was like the marines. He himself had been one, and given how things had gone in the shut he could hardly fault a man for dereliction. What he could fault third noncom William Verge for was everything else. There would be a special order on the warrant squad, Roger knew. He had seen it before. That Molly Po could be a frigid one. A dentist once. That figured.
“Third noncom William Verge, aleph nine six six five seven two.”
“How tall are you?” Clyde asked.
Roger perked. He himself had thought just the same—what—but it had come from that rustler’s mouth. He reached for a pen and pot as nonchalantly as he could.
“How tall are you?” Clyde asked again.
“Why? You here to fit me for a box?”
“There won’t be any casket,” Clyde said.
“What do you do with the bodies after? Eat them?”
“Not for a while now.” There was a silence, and Clyde said, “That was a joke.”
“It was a dry one.”
“You go in the river. The current will take your body out past the bar. Like the whole drainage basin is giving you a shove. Why did you do it?”
“Kill them when you didn’t have to,” Clyde said. “Cut on Patricia Carter like that. Do all that to her, and what you did to the rest.”
“It’s a sheltered life you lead up here in the tits. You have no idea, none of you. For now. Third noncom William Verge, aleph nine six six five seven two.”
Roger set the pen down as Clyde stepped away. A few notes but nothing worthy of a juryman’s ear. Mostly Roger was surprised that a kid could know what a drainage basin was, least of all that blond gorilla, who had never seen a day of school. Roger scarcely had a notion himself. “Drainage basin.” It sounded almost read.
Marcelle gave Roger an eye as she led her brother out, but not the sort a redband would have welcomed. What she didn’t know was that the one whole ear he had left to him was pretty keen and happened to point in the right direction. So he made out the confidence she spoke just past the open doorway, and it chilled him fast into his seat.
“I could dot him before they get him to the post.”
“No, Marcy,” Clyde was saying. “It’ll have to be somebody. Might as well be a man like that.”
Molly had known she was getting on—a body failing out from under her—but the morning of the execution showed her a rickety mind. She had forgot to check the almanac and the moon was out—up and full, delivered in its monstrous bow, in a slow drop to the west. That might have been less of a grief, if not for the placement of the jury post at Smith Point and the seats for viewers.
A bridge had led an interstate across Youngs Bay, so-called, a mile and change. That whole span had gone to the bottom, same as most, but the portion that lay upon a groyne left an opportune walkway. The lonesome post stood in an old traffic circle, centered on a perimeter of brick, and this had been where vehicles got on and off for the transit. Dumping the condemned into the river had become a button put on the act—a flourish.
Well and fine, except this once. The witnesses would convene at ten a.m.—gather to bleachers set up with that walkoff in mind—and the moon would draw their stares as it swung low. It could only—it always had, save for youngsters. They had not learned well enough to dread a plain fact. But any of those thirty on up might take it for an omen. A spoiler for the dignity at very least.
A doorless house at the corner of Florence and Taylor gave the squad a place to wait. Better than the awning-tent they took along when they made the Clatsop circuit, for each town juryman’s region. They whiled the time mutely, most of all that poor pale boy, checking and rechecking the glide of his bolt. Every click rang in a pall set around him.
Molly was sure he would follow through. In a volunteer society everybody knew he had to. She loaded the handgun for the coup de grace. Annie’s autorevolver, brought out special. Far more firepower with that rare magnum round than needed, even dangerous with the ricochet, but no one would question it. She fed the gun back to the holster, also Annie’s, stained yet.
A redband woman brought in a carton, hand-milled .223. This was the sign that the team had drawn up to the post. Soon three vigilantes would chain the wrists behind the pole. Then they would doff the hood so that the man could see the full of it.
Molly handed out cartridges, one each, set into a shirtfront pocket for loading in the open. Something like a pomp but more like a show of cards before the sleight of hand. Per custom no one got a blank. But all of them did get a directive from Molly. It was spoken in an ordinary voice once the redband had left the room.
Clyde looked up as if he had misheard, then about himself. None of the other volunteers met his eye. Some had given the nod straight to Molly Po, and some lent it to the floor.
He looked to Molly. She looked back to him. And nothing else was said between them.
They walked out in a file of seven but without cadence. There was no snare. They were not soldiers. Molly followed, keeping pace six back.
The bleachers were not only full but in an overflow. Witnessing an execution was a matter of choice, same as anything else in town, but few turned it down save for crib, sickbed, or sniper duty. Two hundred in the bleachers, five hundred more behind them. None stood in front save a line of vigilantes and Nathangel Blank, the juryman, first and foremost of nine.
Molly thought little of Blank as she drew close—a stooped man with a cane, her own age though carrying it sour. His decree had brought them there and would send one off, but her eye went past the august old fart. The redband nearest, on the end of the line, had deeply seamed features and washed-out eyes, one in the hinge of a bone-deep scar. Otto Virtanen, also known as Mister Finish, so rarely come back to pay a visit.
She knew Virtanen well—and too much about what he had done, both there and away. He, like Blank, Molly, and many else, had been part of town since it took the name. They and other fugitives had come when it was still Astoria, and they had come in need. Their desperate roaming had made the fugitives better armed. Near half of their own and all the rest—that had been the bargain.
Evidence had long since gone to sea, some of it from that very post in the mop-up. None of the youngsters would ever know—no father or mother had to speak a pact aloud. Virtanen had been instrumental, though back then he had been little older than Clyde Rasmussen. There was a word for that sort of man in those sorts of times, and god help us, Molly thought, even in these. Necessary.
Virtanen was deep in study on that unnatural moon. The bleachers held a devout silence. No natter, no asides. Molly looked the crowd over: nervous and fidgeting, to a one. The damn moon. Only a threesome of snipers in the front row was intent on the approaching squad.
One of those was Marcelle Rasmussen. Molly could not see Clyde’s face from her position at the back, but she knew they exchanged a glance when a slight smile fell off. Whatever she had noted there in Clyde, Marcelle did not like. When those cork-marked eyes swung to Molly, they did so in a squint. She all but felt a reticle. Spooky bunch, the snipers—but indispensable.
The squad filed onto the circle green and formed a rank. Molly walked before them to take a position on the far end. A last inspection. She glanced at Clyde as she passed and saw an anger, eyes dead ahead. Good. Vital.
And then she saw the prisoner for the first and only time. Beard and uncut hair and a cancelled blue uniform. There was nothing remarkable about him save a courage. Some prisoners wept. Some searched the air above them, some the ground. Not he. Perhaps courage was not the word. Molly could tell from a flutter in his eye that an arm was paining him, bent back like that. A great swollen bruise around the other took out none of the shine.
A silence, a rest. The juryman held up his copy of the parchment and there read aloud words he had written days before, lengths and all. At the end of the dazzle, Blank called out, “If the condemned has anything he would like to say, he may do so now.”
All eyes off the moon and to the victim. Another silence, another rest.
The man gathered up his words. “My name is Billy Verge, drummed out from the First Gyrene Expeditionary of the Second Altan Fleet, sent forth to haunt you until a day of reckoning. Go fuck yourselves.”
At last a mutter rose but fell off quick. Molly turned to Blank to take his signal. Just past him she saw Virtanen’s face, and there she read something that made her hesitate. A worry. Second thoughts. Never seen there before, even in the purge. He had heard something he did not like.
The juryman thumped his cane and bowed his head.
“Load weapons,” Molly called out, facing her squad. All seven opened their breeches with a lever flick and reached into their high pockets. One and all they would be thinking back to that private command, that measure of justice. The bolts shut as one, firing pins cocked, safeties off.
Molly turned back to the post. She drew breath to say, “Ready—”
A gunshot. Hundreds gasping and cringing in the rolling echo.
Molly’s gaze had snapped back to the line. Only Clyde’s barrel was up. Unthreading with a gunsmoke. The rest in the line were looking on aghast. They stood back, one step, two. Their rifles drooped. Clyde took the sight down from his eye.
The prisoner at the pole was just beginning to slump. Blood ran into the beard from the wreck of a nose. Dead center on the medulla, Molly saw—instant, painless. The apricot.
Clyde had broken out of rank. The rifle lay on the grass where he had stood. His sister ran from the bench, flanked by two redband snipers who were walking slower and with an eye to their fellow vigilantes. No one else was moving.
Molly had no thought but a consternation. She watched Marcelle take Clyde by an arm and lead him off. Tears had tracked through the blacking on her cheeks, and his face was down.
“What is this?” the juryman was saying. “What the hell is this?”
She looked to him at last, for reprimand—and past again. The doubts had left Mister Virtanen’s face. Instead he seemed all too sure—the same care showed that he had worn for the defacement on the moon. But it was not the sky he was looking to, but the horizon, out past the jury pole. His alone in all that upset crowd, eyes toward the sea beyond the river mouth.
Molly turned about. High sails had come around the Clatsop Spit—a hundred, more.