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Cover Of Night (Chapter 19)

Creed heard the crack of the rifle and felt a hard blow to his left leg, just above his ankle, while he and Neenah were still literally in the air. The next split second there was a deep-throated BOOM! and they landed with a teeth-jarring thud on the ground behind the pump house, landed so hard he couldn't keep his arms locked around her and the impact sent her rolling. His leg felt as if a giant had taken a hammer to it, and a harsh grunt of pain tore from his throat, past his gritted teeth. Instinctively he rolled, grabbing for his leg even though he dreaded what he would find. "Shit! Fuck!"

His pant leg was already sticky with blood, and he could feel the wet warmth pooling in his boot. He clamped his hand as hard as he could over the wound, mildly surprised his foot was still attached. He'd seen too many wounds from high-caliber weapons, seen arms and legs literally blasted away, and in that first moment of realization that he'd been hit, he was outraged but curiously resigned to the damage he expected to find. Even though his foot was still at the end of his leg and not lying several feet away, the damage could still be severe and what he'd find when he cut away his boot remained to be seen.

The boot was interfering with his ability to apply pressure to the wound; it needed to come off, fast.

Neenah crawled to him, her hands patting over his chest and shoulders. "Joshua? Are you all right? What happened?"

"Fucker tagged my left leg," he ground out through the pain; then a whisper from his conscience managed to make itself heard. "Uh – sorry."

"I've heard the word fuck before," she said briskly. "I've said it a time or two myself. Where's that flashlight?"

"In my right pocket." He lay back on the ground and fished in his pocket, removing both the flashlight and his knife. "Cut my boot off so I can apply pressure."

"I'll do it." They both jumped in shock as the third voice sounded behind them.

Creed's right hand automatically reached for a weapon that wasn't there; then a dark figure went down with a sodden plop on one knee beside him, spraying drops of water over them as he did. Creed's subconscious pulled out that second shot he'd heard, the deep boom, and the pieces fell into place. "You sneaky son of a bitch, where were you?"

"In the edge of the stream," Cal replied, his teeth chattering with cold. He laid his shotgun on the ground, reached for Creed's knife, and gave the little flashlight to Neenah. "Shine this on his foot," he directed, and Neenah promptly obeyed.

"Why didn't the shooter see you?" Creed asked.

"I figure they have infrared instead of night vision; they lose their specific targets at about the effective range for infrared. So I got wet and cold."

Thereby losing his heat signature, Creed thought. Shafts of white-hot pain stabbed through his leg as Cal sliced off the boot, unavoidably jarring him. To distract himself Creed thought about the risk Cal had taken, gambling that the shooters didn't have night-vision devices. What if he'd guessed wrong? "You lucky son of a bitch," he said, and bit back a groan as Cal pulled off the ruined boot.

"Not lucky," Cal replied absently. "Good." The same old smart-ass but inarguable reply that Creed had heard a hundred times before threw him years back in time, to when they'd run countless missions in the dark and got their asses in some tight jams, which they'd escaped by a combination of skill, discipline, training, and pure luck. Creed was almost surprised to see Neenah on her knees beside Cal, her expression worried but her hands steady as she held the light; for a moment, he'd expected to see some of his men gathered around.

He glanced at his leg, and was genuinely surprised. He was bleeding like a son of a bitch, but the wound, while bad enough, didn't look half as bad as he'd expected. "Must have ricocheted and shattered," he said, meaning the bullet. He'd taken a partial instead of a full round.

"Probably." Cal turned his leg. "Here's the exit wound. Looks like the fragment hit bone and went sideways."

"Just wrap it up so we can get the hell out of here."

Likely the bone had been fractured by the force of the bullet. Creed knew he wasn't out of danger, because the bleeding still had to be stopped and there was the possibility of infection, problems from torn muscles, and so on; but overall, he wasn't in bad shape compared with how bad he could have been. He'd seen men lose legs from being shot in the thigh. Hell, on reflection, he was feeling downright cheerful.

"What will we wrap it with?" Neenah asked, an edge of panic beginning to show in her tone. So far she'd held up admirably, but the bad guys were still out there and could be getting closer to them by the minute, he was hurt, and Cal couldn't run interference for them and help him all at the same time.

Silently Cal peeled out of his wet jacket and shirt, his torso gleaming wetly in the slight reflection of light. Using Creed's knife, he sliced one arm out of his shirt, then made a cut and tore the fabric almost to the end. He placed the untorn end over the exit wound, which was bleeding worse than the entry, and began wrapping the torn ends around and around Creed's leg, crisscrossing the fabric and pulling it snug, then finally tying the ends in a knot with the knot placed firmly over the wound.

"Best I can do right now," he said, slipping back into what remained of his shirt. Cal should be taking his wet clothes off, Creed knew, to fight off hypothermia; the night was cold, and wearing-wet clothes leeched the warmth from someone faster than wearing nothing. The only reason Cal wasn't doing so was to keep those infrared devices from spotting him.

"Did you get the shooter?" Creed asked.

"If I didn't, I scared ten years off his life." Cal took the flashlight from Neenah and clicked it off, slipping it into his own pocket. "This is going to be tricky, at least the first part, because even if I got that one, the others still have some good angles on us when we start moving. We have to go that way," he said, indicating the river. "Get more houses between us and them, plus distance."

Cal was shaking with cold as he helped Creed upright, positioning himself on Creed's left to take the weight off the wounded leg, then picking up the shotgun with his left hand. Creed would have been worried if he hadn't seen Cal shoot left-handed before. All of his men had cross-trained, for circumstances such as this.

"He can't walk!" Neenah said with alarm.

"Sure he can," Cal replied. "He still has one good leg. Neenah, put my wet jacket over your head. I know it'll be uncomfortable, but it'll block a lot of your heat signature." Not all, but maybe enough to momentarily puzzle a shooter.

"Come on, Marine," Creed said, bracing himself for what he knew was going to be a long, cold, and painful trek. "Let's get moving

Cate and the others had made it to the Richardsons' house without sustaining any injuries or losses, though several times the whine of bullets nearby had made them hit the dirt. Stumbling, running, falling, and immediately jumping up to run again, they were like panic-stricken refugees – which wasn't far from the mark. They carried what they could, the blankets and coats Cate had grabbed, the first-aid box Cal had left behind. Cate carried that, despite its weight and despite how it banged against her legs. She hoped the kit didn't make the difference between life and death for someone, but was painfully aware that it might, and she didn't dare leave it behind.

The Richardsons' house was built on land that sloped down toward the river and, as a result, was the only house in Trail Stop that had a full basement. Some of the older houses had pits dug beneath them for storing vegetables, but the root cellars didn't qualify as basements and, if push came to shove, would hold a handful of people but not the twenty or so who made their way to the Richardsons'. The house loomed before them in the night, all pale walls and dark windows.

"Perry!" Walter called as loudly as he could as they approached the house. "It's Walter! Are you and Maureen all right?"

"Walter?" The voice came from the back of the house, and they turned in that direction. A flashlight shone across the rough ground, danced briefly across their faces as if Perry wanted to reassure himself of their identities. "We're in the basement. What in thundering hell is going on? Who's doing all that shooting, and why is the electricity off? I tried to call the sheriff's department, but the phone's dead, too."

The lines must be cut, Cate realized, shivering with horror as she realized the lengths to which Mellor and Huxley had gone in their quest for vengeance. This all seemed so unreal, so out of proportion to the provocation; those men couldn't be sane.

"Come on in with us," Perry said, indicating the way with his flashlight. "Get in out of the cold. I lit the kerosene heater; it's taking the chill off the air."

Gratefully the group stumbled forward, crowding through the basement's outside door. Like most basements, this one was filled with a jumbled assortment of cast-off furniture, clothing, and outright junk. The smell was musty; the floor was bare concrete. But the kerosene heater was putting off wonderful heat, and the Richardsons also had an oil lamp lit. The yellow light was dim and threw enormous shadows into the corners, but after the cold darkness the light seemed miraculous. Maureen hurried forward, a short, plump, gray hen of a woman, clucking in sympathy.

"My goodness, what do you make of this?" she asked of no one in particular. "I have some candles upstairs, and another lamp. I'll get those and some more blankets – "

"I'll do it," her husband interrupted. "You stay down here and help them get settled. Do you know where that old coffee kettle is? Might take some time, but we can make coffee on top of the kerosene heater."

"It's under the sink. Wash it out good – no, wait, we don't have water. We can't make coffee. Like everyone else in Trail Stop, the Richardsons had a well, and an electric motor pumped the water from it. No electricity, no pump. Walter Karl had a generator that he used when the electricity went off. and then he generously allowed his neighbors to get water from his well; but his house was on the side that was closest to the shooters and going there now for water was too dangerous.

Pern Richardson wasn't stymied for long. "We have a bucket," he stated, "and there's some rope around here somewhere. I reckon I still know how to draw water. If someone wants to help me. we'll have that coffee going in no time."

He and Walter went off to accomplish that chore, and Maureen promptly took a flashlight and disappeared up the stairs. Cate hesitated a bare moment, then followed.

"I'll help you carry things, Mrs. Richardson," she said as she got to the top of the stairs and stepped into the kitchen.

"Why, thank you, and call me Maureen. What is going on? What was that loud noise? It shook the whole house." She set the flashlight on a cabinet, balancing it on end so it was shining at the ceiling and illuminating the whole room, then got an empty laundry basket from a room off the kitchen.

"Some kind of explosion. I don't know what they blew up.

" 'They'? You know who's doing this?" Maureen asked sharply as she bustled around the kitchen gathering supplies and putting them in the laundry basket.

"I think it's those two men who pulled guns on Neenah and me last Wednesday. You heard about that, didn't you?" Belatedly

Cate tried to remember if Maureen had been one of the throng of neighbors in her dining room that afternoon. She didn't remember seeing her if she had been.

"My goodness, everyone heard about it. Perry had some tests done at a hospital in Boise that day – "

"I hope he's all right."

"He's fine, just some stomach problems from eating too much spicy stuff and then going to bed. That man never listens to a thing I tell him. This time the doctor told him the same thing I've been saving for years, and all of a sudden it's the gospel. Makes me want to kick him sometimes, but there you go, that's a man for you." She removed a plastic sleeve of polystyrene coffee cups from the cabinet, and added it to the basket. "Now, let's get some blankets and cushions rounded up. We can take the dining room chairs down, give people a place to sit, but I'll let the guys bring them down. Why would those two men come back?"

It took Cate a moment to realize Maureen's mental train had switched tracks. "I don't know, unless they were angry that Cal got the best of them. I just don't know what they could want."

"That's the thing about mean and crazy people; unless you're mean and crazy yourself, they just don't make sense to you."

Despite everything, Cate found herself oddly comforted by the woman's cozy philosophy regarding people, life, their current circumstances, and just about everything else as she followed her around the house, gathering blankets and towels, throw pillows, seat cushions, and everything else they could carry to make things more comfortable in the basement. She remembered to stay low and cautioned Maureen to do the same, which made walking especially awkward, laden as they were, but she knew bullets could go a long way and she wasn't certain this house was completely safe.

They made multiple trips to the top of the basement stairs, handing things off to volunteers who then passed them on down.

"Good," Maureen finally said, "that just leaves the sofa cushions." She started toward the living room.

Cate's stomach twisted with sudden panic, and she grabbed

Maureen's arm. ''No. don't go in there." She was taller than Maureen, stronger, and she began pulling her toward the stairs. "The room's too exposed, and we've pushed our luck being up here this long, shining the flashlight around." She was suddenly desperate to get belowground again, her skin prickling as if she felt a bullet speeding her way, the projectile boring its way through the barrier of air and walls faster than the speed of sound, heading straight for her as if it had a mind of its own, so that no matter how she twisted and turned it followed her.

With a sharp cry she plowed into Maureen, leading with her shoulder, legs driving, and took them both down to the floor as the living room window shattered and she heard the faint whine of an angry metal hornet a split second before it tore through the wall with a thhttt! sound.

Belatedly came the flat, deep crack of rifle fire.

Maureen shrieked. "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! They shot out the window!"

"Maureen!" came Perry's panicked bellow from the basement, then the thunder of his feet on the stairs as he rushed upward.

"We're okay!" Cate veiled. "Move back, we're coming down!" Without thinking, she was on her feet with her hand clutching the back of Maureen's shirt, lifting her up and pushing her forward at the same time, terror giving her a strength she hadn't known she possessed. She all but shoved Maureen at Perry, who of course hadn't moved back, and he staggered and nearly went down but was saved by the press of people behind him, all of whom had been rushing upstairs with him. Cate hurled herself through the doorway and down several steps, where she crouched to make certain her head was below ground level. She was shaking wildly, her nerves shattered by how close that had been.

"Cate wouldn't let me go in the living room," Maureen sobbed on her husband's chest. "She saved my life, she tackled me. I don't know how she knew, but she did – "

Cate didn't know either. She sat on the step and buried her face in her cupped hands, trembling so violently her teeth chattered. She couldn't seem to stop, even when someone – Sherry, she thought – wrapped a blanket around her and gently but determinedly urged her off the stairs and settled her on a cushion on the basement floor.

Her mind went a little fuzzy after that, worn out by shock and fatigue. She listened to the hum of conversation around her without really hearing it, she watched the blue flame of the kerosene heater, she waited for the old-fashioned camp percolator they'd placed on top of the heater to start boiling and making coffee, and she waited for Cal. He should have been back already, she thought, switching her gaze to the door and willing it to open.

At least an hour later – she thought it had to be an hour, unless something had gone seriously wrong with the progression of time – the outside door finally opened and a trio of people staggered in. She saw a head of shaggy, dark blond hair, a face pinched and blue with cold; she saw Mr. Creed, his arms thrown around Cal's and Neenah's shoulders –

Cate threw her blanket off and leaped forward, joining all the others who reached out to stop the three from hitting the floor. There was a confusion of exclamations and questions as Mr. Creed's weight was taken from Cal and Neenah and he was lowered to some cushions; then Cal swayed and stumbled and Cate found herself desperately gripping him, wedging her shoulder into his armpit and trying to hold him up.

"Joshua's shot," Neenah gasped, sinking to her knees and sucking in huge gulps of air. "And Cal's freezing; he's been in the water."

"Let's get him out of these wet clothes," said Walter, easing Cal away from Cate. Living where they did, they all knew how to treat hypothermia. Within seconds someone was holding up a blanket in front of Cal while he managed, with aid, to strip out of his freezing wet clothes. He was roughly dried, to which he made no protest; then a warmed blanket was wrapped around him and he was seated beside the heater. At some point the percolator had started perking, so Cate put some sugar in one of the polystyrene cups and poured coffee over it. The coffee was still a little weak, but it was hot and it was coffee, and it would have to do.

Cal was shaking convulsively, his teeth chattering; there was no way he could hold the cup. Cate sat beside him and carefully held the cup to his lips, hoping she wouldn't spill the coffee and scald him. He managed a sip and made a face at the sweetness of the brew.

"I know? you don't like sugar in your coffee," she said softly. "Drink it anyway."

He couldn't manage much in the way of a response because his entire body was engaged in battling the cold, but he dipped his chin in a nod and took another sip. She set the cup aside and stood behind him, rubbing his back and shoulders and arms as vigorously as she could without completely dislodging the blanket.

His hair was wet, and the night had turned so cold ice crystals had begun to form on his head. She warmed a towel over the heater; then used it to rub his head until his hair was merely damp. By the time that was accomplished the shudders had subsided a bit, though occasionally a violent shiver would rattle his bones and teeth. She gave him more of the coffee; he reached to hold the cup himself and she let him.

"How are your feet?" she asked.

"I don't know?, I can't feel them." His voice was flat, utterly drained. The savage shaking his body had given him in an effort to get warm had completed his exhaustion. He swayed where he sat, his eyelids heavy.

Cate moved to sit at his feet, and then folded the blanket back. Taking one cold foot in her hands, she rubbed and chafed and blew on his toes, then repeated the effort with his other foot. When they were no longer white with cold, she wrapped them in a warm towel. "You need to lie down," she told him.

With bleary effort he shook his head, and looked toward where Neenah was taking care of Mr. Creed. "I need to see what I can do for Josh."

"You can't do anything right now, considering the shape venire in."

"Yeah, I can. Get me another cup of coffee – black this time – and something to wear, and I'll be good to go in five minutes." His pale eyes flickered up at her and she read the steely determination in them.

He really did need to sleep, but in an instant of unspoken communication she knew he wouldn't until he'd done what he thought he needed to do. The fastest way to get him to lie down, then, was to help him.

"One cup of coffee, coming up." She poured more coffee, and as she did she looked around the basement at her neighbors and friends. They had been alarmed, disoriented, but ahead)' they were settling down to take care of business. Some were arranging cushions and pillows and distributing blankets, some were taking inventory of the number of weapons and amount of ammunition they had, Milly Earl was getting some food organized, and Neenah was overseeing Mr. Creed's care. They had cut away his pants and covered him with a blanket except for his injured leg, which was propped on a pillow. Neenah had carefully washed the wound but seemed at a loss for what to do next.

Cate went to Maureen and mentioned Cal's need for clothes. The jeans Maureen unearthed from a box were too big in the waist, but they would do. Perry made an upstairs raid – on his hands and knees, in the dark – and returned with clean underwear and socks, and a thermal-knit pullover shirt. Cal pulled on the underwear tinder the cover of the blanket, then threw it off to finish dressing as fast as he could.

Cate didn't let herself stare at his mostly naked body, though she couldn't resist one look, during which she noticed that all her carefully placed butterfly bandages were gone and the two cuts were oozing blood again. Sherry noticed her looking, and leaned close to whisper, "That's a man.'"

"Yes." Cate murmured in agreement, "he is that."

When Cal finished dressing, he moved slowly to where Mr. Creed was lying, and asked for his first-aid box. Cate braced herself, told her suddenly queasy stomach to take a hike, and went to help him.

"'What can I do?" she asked, going down on her knees beside him.

"I'm not sure yet. Let me see what the damage is."

Neenah moved to Mr. Creed's head, her lace white as Cal studied the two wounds and carefully prodded the bone beneath. Creed bit off a curse, his back arching, and Neenah reached for his hand. His big fingers closed around hers with a force that made her wince.

"I think the bone's cracked," Cal said, "but I don't feel any displacement. I have to look for any bullet fragments – "

"The hell you do," Creed snapped.

" – or an infection could cost him his leg," Cal finished.

"Fu – " Creed darted a look from Neenah to Cate and clamped his jaw shut.

"You're tough, you can stand it," Cal said with a remarkable lack of sympathy. Then he glanced at Cate. "I need more light, a lot more."

The light from candles and an oil lamp wasn't suitable for probing, so Sherry stood behind Cate with Cal's powerful flashlight and shined it on Creed's leg. Taking a pair of forceps from his tackle box, Cal probed, and Creed cursed. He found one sliver of bullet fragment, and a chunk of leather from Creed's boot, plus a tiny piece of blood-soaked cotton from a sock. By the time he finished, Creed was ghost white and covered with sweat.

Neenah held Creed's hand throughout the ordeal, murmuring to him and wiping his face with a cold cloth. Cate handed Cal whatever he asked for, and then held a saucepan under the wounds while he flushed them thoroughly. She swayed once and had to look away when he began suturing, though why a needle piercing the torn flesh should make her queasy, she didn't know.

She wondered when he'd learned how to suture a wound, where he'd gotten his medical training, but those were questions that could wait for another day.

Soon alter that, antibiotic had been applied to the closed wounds, Creed had been made to swallow some pills, both antibiotics and painkillers, and a neat bandage was wrapped around Creed's lower leg.

"I'll splint it tomorrow, give the bone some support," Cal said as he wearily climbed to his feet. "He isn't going anywhere tonight."

"I'll make sure he doesn't try," Neenah said.

"I'm right here, and I can hear yon." Creed said grumpily, but he looked exhausted, and he didn't protest when Neenah settled beside him.

"I need a couple of hours' sleep," Cal said, looking around for a quiet corner.

"That can be arranged," said Cate. She and Sherry grabbed a couple of blankets and a pillow, and Cate unpacked more of the old clothes from the box Maureen had opened, arranging them to form a rough mattress. They dragged over some more boxes to form a partial shield, stacking them two high on each side of the pile of clothes, then draped an old curtain over the boxes to form an enclosure that would keep out most of the light and give at least the illusion of privacy.

Cal watched all this with weary bemusement. "A blanket on the floor would have been Hue," he said. "I've slept in rougher circumstances than that."

"Maybe," said Cate, "but tonight you don't have to."

"'Good night," Sherry said. "Look, Cal, don't think you have to do everything. The other men have organized themselves to stand watch for the rest of the night. You can sleep longer than a couple of hours. They'll wake you if anything happens."

"I'll take you up on that," he said, and Sherry moved away to join the others.

Cate stood there awkwardly, suddenly not knowing what to say or do. She murmured "Good night" and started to follow Sherry but Cal caught her wrist. She froze, staring at him, unable to look away. Abruptly her heart was thudding against her breastbone His pale gaze moved over her face, settled on her mouth lingered

"You're tired, too," he said in his quiet voice, as with surprising strength he pulled her down and into his makeshift quarters •'Come sleep with me."

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