By Andrew Metzger
I knew it had to happen someday.
It's just that these things have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect them. I certainly wasn't expecting it now, in the middle of February during a snowstorm, on the road and in the heart of nowhere. It all came to roost when we got laid over in Hartford for a few days.
We had been making a run from Richmond to Hartford, and were expecting to pick up cargo there bound for Cincinnati. But the crates were tied up in red tape of some sort, so we were paid to sit for a few days. I should have known I was in trouble when Jack called Amy and me up to his room the first night.
"Listen you two, seeing as we have a few days off, and seeing as how you two are getting married in a month, why don't you two take off on your own for a couple? Look at it as a little vacation from the rest of the crew. Besides, your family lives up in Massachusetts, don't they, Amy?"
She shot a glance at me. "Uh ... yeah, they do."
"Well, then I think they ought to meet their future sonin-law, right?" Jack looked at me with that "say 'no' and you're walking dead" stare.
Amy also turned to me, with a different message in her eyes. "It sounds like a good idea to me, Ben." She definitely wanted this.
I glanced at both of them and smiled my best smile. "Fantastic! There's nothing I'd like to do better!" Except maybe suck on a firing Vulcan.
"Then that's settled. I don't want to see either of you for the next three days. "
We thanked him and left. Amy snuggled up under my arm and grinned. "Don't worry, my family won't eat you."
"I hope not. Was this your idea?"
"Not at all! Jack is just being thoughtful." The twinkle in her eye suggested otherwise, but she'd never lied before ...
We ate breakfast early the next morning, and went out to the garage to check on our truck. I call it Justice, and Amy and I have put a lot into it. I got the basic truck a few years back, before I met Amy. But that's a long story I don't like to tell.
And soon enough I found myself in Godknowswhere in western Massachusetts, with snow coming down. The trip up had been uneventful. Few bandits like to operate in the snow, and even fewer during a storm. An EDSEL chopper buzzed us once, and we passed a couple of couriers, but that's about it.
"Is there anything I should know about your parents? You told me they were poor, and you haven't seen them in a few years, " like since before she met me, "but is that all?"
She giggled. "Would you relax? O.K., they can be a bit gruff, but when you get to know them, you'll love them. And they'll love you, too."
Relax. Right. I'd feel more at ease riding into a stripping gang without ammo. Which, in a way, I was. "Just so long as my first view of your father isn't from the business end of a 12gauge."
We had left the highway about a half hour earlier, and the roads were getting rougher and rougher. Amy's parents had lived in the hills of western Massachusetts for well over two centuries, primarily as farmers and ranchers, I knew that they lived in the country, but I wasn't quite ready for this.
"Take that road up there on your left."
I looked at her and then back to where she was pointing. "What road? That's barely a path!"
"Just take it," she grinned.
I activated the offroad systems, and growled my way down the path, pushing my way through the snow and the laden branches that hung down over it.
As we rounded a bend, three trikes came tearing down the path, along with a couple of pickups and a few bikes. I slammed on the brakes and pulled over hard. There were pigs and chickens squealing and squawking in the back of the trucks, which were gasburners by the way they were spouting smoke.
Each vehicle had a large red oak leaf painted on it, and flew a black flag. They tore around us without pausing, and took off down the "road."
I turned towards Amy. "What th' . . ."
She was staring back down the path, her eyes wide and her knuckles white where she was gripping her dash. "Go! We've got to hurry! "
I hesitated for a second , but then punched it in the direction we were originally headed. I hadn't a clue about what was happening, but then again, I'm used to that feeling. Besides, I had never seen the look I saw on Amy's face before.
In just about a halfmile the path opened up into a clearing which held a large house, a barn and a few sheds. One of the sheds had a huge hole in the side, and some fences had been crushed. There was a wrecked cycle lying in the middle of the yard. I pulled up, and got out to the sound of a dog barking somewhere. By the looks of the destruction and the rippedup dirt and snow, I knew where the vehicles we passed had come from.
I heard the unmistakable "kachunk" of a shotgun cocking behind me. I spun with my Uzi in hand. Before I had completely turned around, I heard two things: Amy screaming "No!" and the roar of a shotgun going off.
I was knocked off my feet and ended up five feet back, sitting against the side of the truck. I could feel the bruise spreading across my chest under my armor. I shook the stars from my vision as Amy pulled me into her arms. "Paw! This is Ben! The one I wrote about."
Paw? I wondered what she'd said in that letter . I focused on an old man with a bushy white beard cradling a double barrel. It was one of the old wood and steel ones, too.
He squinted back at me for a moment, then turned, spat and said, "Ayuh," and walked slowly back to the house. "Well, I reckon you oughta get warshed up for supper then."
Amy helped me up and whispered, "See? He likes you." I still didn't see much beyond a few spots floating just outside my vision.
We walked around back to where there was a tub of water and a pump. While cleaning, my head cleared to the point that I could start asking some of the questions that were backlogging my brain. "Who the hell was drivin' those oakleaf crates? Why did they attack here? Why didn't anyone follow 'em? And what in the blazes is your father doing shooting at me? I thought you said he wouldn't do that! "
I was beginning to get steamed. Getting shot does that to me.
"Slow down, will you Ben. First of all, that was the Campbells we passed. They just raided the farm. The Walkers and the Campbells have been feuding off and on for almost 200 years. Back in ... 1867, I think, Jim Campbell shot a greatgreatuncle of mine, Sam Walker, for trespassing. Anyway, that's how I heard the story ... I hear the Campbells have a different version. Anyway, things have been like this ever since. They raid us, we raid them. It goes back and forth, and probably works out about even in the long run. Besides, it gives all of us clan folk something to do in the winter months. No one followed because that's just not how it's done. There'll be a counter raid. Probably tomorrow, if the weather's decent. Paw must have figured you for a Campbell that arrived late for the party. He did apologize."
I must've blacked out for a spell. "He what? When?"
"He invited you in for dinner, didn't he? Around these parts that's about as much apology as you're gonna get. Come on." She led me into the large wooden farmhouse.
The inside was as rustic as the outside. I've never seen so much wood furniture in one place. And they had a wood stove . . . and it really worked! Amy and I took our seats at one end of a long table that held about a dozen people. Amy introduced me to her two parents, four grandparents, greatgrandfather, aunt, two brothers, three sisters and the family dog. Then we heard about Mary, who married some Larry Snow and moved in with his family, Tim who got killed in a hunting accident, and Scott and James who, like Amy, decided to check out the rest of the world. It occurred to me that it was a good thing Amy and I weren't having a big production over our wedding, seeing as my family consisted of my father in Cleveland and one sister somewhere in Kansas.
Talk pretty much centered around Amy, which suited me fine. She talked about meeting me, working as point for Jack, and other such stuff. I concentrated on eating what must've been the best meal I ever had, adding a word or two when appropriate.
Supper finished with a discussion about how to deal with the Campbells. The two grandmothers, aunt and two of the sisters cleaned up. Amy's mother and youngest sister seemed to be accepted as full members in the battle council, however. So was Amy.
As we finished our apple pie, it became apparent that they were going to engage in a retaliatory raid at sunrise. It also became apparent that Amy was going to participate. I was about to open my mouth to offer my opinion as to her joining, when greatgrandpappy Walker spoke.
"Amy, can that young feller of yours handle hisself in the woods?" He looked like he must have been 150 years old, but sounded like he's win two falls out of three against Jack.
"Definitely." Thanks, honey. "Before he drove point for Jack, Ben did some ... uh ... work for a company that tested equipment, including offroad. Ben can handle most things on wheels."
He took a long look at me, and then said, "Ayuh. Well, I reckon he can use Tim's buggy then."
And that was that. Without any of the males in the family (other than Amy's brothers, who were in their teens) having spoken a direct word to me all evening, I was drafted into the raid. When the war council finally broke up, Amy and I walked outside.
"What's going on, Amy? Since when are we going on a raid tomorrow?"
She looked at me, batted her eyes and grinned. "Oh, I think it's since some time during your second helping of string beans. "
"I'm serious. And if we're going to do this, why can't I drive Justice?"
We had reached the truck, and Amy stopped and gave me a vary serious look. "You can't drive Justice because it wouldn't be fair." Huh?
"Ben, Justice is loaded with some of the best weaponry money can buy. We've got laserguided rocket pods that could flatten any house in these hills with a couple salvos, and fancy electronics . . . the targeting computers, radar and such. Our machine guns might be fair to use, except they're loaded with incendiaries. The buildings up here are all wood! The Campbell place would torch in a second, and it'd take a few hundred square miles of timberland with it.
"When you go on a raid, there're rules. You never use flame weapons, you don't attack buildings that people live in, and you never return fire with weapons heavier than the attackers'. It's just common sense. Mother Nature's the real enemy up here; you try to leave each other enough to survive the winter on. Remember those black flags the Campbells were flying? That shows that they are on a raid, and so the rules I told you apply.
"We'll fly black flags tomorrow. Don't worry. It's fun."
I was never one to pass on having fun. Besides, what would her 'rents think if I declined? We headed back inside and packed off to bed. She slept with her sisters, and I was in with her brothers. Bill or Bob I'm not sure which is which had cold feet. Bring on the fun.
We got up at 5:30 to pitch black cold. After a quick cup of coffee, Amy and I followed the rest of the clan out to a large barn, Amy's mother took me by the arm and led me to a little compact. "You can drive this 'un. It used to be Tim's, rest his soul, and handles well." It was a offroad buggy with a roll cage and no top. Two linked machine guns faced forward, and a gun rack was mounted on the back roll bar. There was a sort of cargo area behind the driver's seat. I lifted the hood to inspect the engine.
"It's a real burner, all right," Amy said, as she came up behind me. "Tim used it to go hunting as well as on raids. That's why there's that gun rack and the space for a deer. He took good care of it."
"I'll say. This engine is pristine."
Hope, Amy's youngest sister, came by handing out black flags. "Good hunting, mister."
"Call me Ben."
"OK, mister Ben." She handed a flag to Amy and moved on.
"Is she really going on this raid? She must be, what, ten?" I tied the flag to my roll bar and strapped my Uzi into the rack.
Amy smiled and said, "Nine. She's good on a bike. Besides almost nobody gets killed on a raid. We're after livestock, not bodies. " She slapped the shoulder of my armor. "Good hunting, Mr. Ben!"
"Yeah, you too. Just be careful, OK?"
We tore out of that barn and down the path. Our raiding party consisted of me in Tim's buggy; Amy in her trike; Hope, Bill (or Bob) and the greatgrandpappy himself on cycles; Bob (or Bill) in a trike; Amy's parents in a jackedup station wagon; and a ramshackle pickup driven by one grandfather with the other manning a tripod machine gun in the bed. All of the vehicles sported the silhouette of a buck's head the Walker totem.
The battle plan was simple. The trikes, bikes and buggy were to keep the Campbells busy while the other cars loaded up with as much livestock as they could carry, at which time we would all turn and run. Seeing as the heaviest weapon we were carrying was a machine gun, we weren't likely to run into heavy opposition.
We hit the Campbells a little after six, and things started out pretty much as planned. Ma and Pa Walker and the grandpa Walkers were stuffing their vehicles with chickens, pigs and sacks of grain from a shed they had rammed and its adjoining pen. The rest of us were simply tearing around the place, drawing the fire which seemed to consist entirely of rifles and shotguns, and occasionally letting off a burst to scare somebody back out of view. The first time I fired my guns I almost lost control of the buggy due to surprise as I was showered with a dozen or so brass casings. I hadn't noticed that these guns weren't using caseless ammo. It never even occurred to me that they might not. No one still uses cased ammo. Except up here, I guess.
The ancient Walker startled me by riding his cycle up the porch stairs and across the porch, driving some poor Campbell over the rail and into the bushes. He finished by breaking through the rail and jumping to the ground. Not bad for someone who had to be over a century old.
So far, there didn't seem to be any damage aside from the shed, a few fences and lots of bullet holes in buildings, trees and our vehicles. The closest anyone had gotten to being hurt was when the station wagon's windshield staffed from a rifle slug. It was kind of fun, in a crazy sort of way. We were the big bad raiders, tearing up this farm in clouds of snow,
The wagon had pulled out in a flurry of feathers and the pickup was just starting to go when it all hit the fan. The Campbell's had begun to get organized, and the hand weapon fire was stronger and more concentrated. Someone had gotten a tripod MG up, and was spraying the yard. I was making a final pass around the barn when I saw Amy put her trike into a ditch 50 yards or so behind me while trying to avoid the dog that was running around.
I slammed on my brakes and skewed the buggy around, so I could go help my loved one. White knight to the rescue and all that stuff.
Just as I was about to step on the gas, I saw Hope's bike flip about 15 yards off to my left, as her rear tire was shot out. She and her bike tumbled a moment, and then stopped. She didn't move, and her bike was smoking. I looked back at Amy, to see to my horror that she was trying to push her trike out of a ditch, with bullets flying all around.
This was not fun.
The sound of a rifle slug impacting on my hood jarred me into action. I made the only decision that I could; I jumped out of my buggy and sprinted towards Hope. As I reached her, flames started licking around the engine of the cycle, and the smoke thickened. I scooped Hope, who was still breathing but unconscious, out of the snow and ran back towards my buggy.
Just as I reached it, the cycle behind me blew up, tossing me against the side of the buggy and Hope into my seat. I fought off the blackness from the aching bruise on my chest, which was probably twice its size now. I got up and scooped Hope out of my seat and dropped her in the "trunk." I looked up to see how Amy was doing. and was relieved to see that she had just about freed her trike, and appeared unhurt.
I jumped into the buggy, and my heart jumped into my throat.
Some young Campbell had come out from behind the shed near Amy, and had her in his rifle's sights. My buggy's guns were facing the wrong direction. Time seemed to slow down as I reached for my Uzi.
I grabbed the Uzi and was raising it to fire when I saw him toss something to Amy, who caught it. She turned to climb into the trike, he turned to go back behind the shed, and I turned my Uzi aside, so the blast went harmlessly into a snow bank nearby.
She took off after the rest of the Walker clan, and I spun the buggy around to follow. Great Grandpappy Walker brought up the rear on his cycle.
We got back to the Walker homestead without incident. Hope had come around, and announced her left arm was broken. After a moment's examination her aunt agreed, and she was whisked into the house for splinting.
As Hope was being taken care off I stormed over to Amy's trike.
"Are you completely nuts, Aim? What did you think you were doing, climbing out of your trike under fire?" Amy has pulled some bizarre stunts in the past, but this topped them all.
"I was getting killed, I guess. Actually, I should say, aced. Here, look at this. " She tossed me a wooden plaque, about 3" by 5", and half an inch thick. On one side was carved the name "Joseph Campbell" inside an oak leaf. The other face was carved to look like an ace of spades. The carving was skilled and ornate. I remained confused.
"I told you, sweetheart, we're not out to kill each other up here. At least, not usually. They say that someone back around '05 or so got into a firefight, and tossed his opponent an ace of spades when he had him beat. He said, 'You're dead. Now get back to your place or you'll freeze out here.' So now we all make aces. Joe's ace meant that I wasn't allowed to do anything else in the fight except go home. I was dead on that raid.
"We take pride in carving our aces. On Mayday all the clans send folks around to collect the clan's cards. So far this winter we have seven Campbell cards, and they have nine Walker cards. So they still owe us.
I just stood there, staring at the wooden ace. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to this family. I tossed the ace back to Amy, and went back to the house. It's times like this when you know that anything you say will be the wrong thing, so I kept quiet.
The women were preparing a huge breakfast/lunch that smelled divine. Hope sat on one end of the table with her arm wrapped in a sling.
She grinned at me. "Ayup. Thanks, Mister Ben."
"Just call me Ben." I smiled back. "That was some nice riding. But I guess you're out of action for awhile."
"Ayup. " She grinned again. "But I get outta some chores, too! "
Good point. I went back outside. The rest of the clan had finished storing the profits from the raid, and were checking their vehicles. I went back to the buggy and rolled it into the barn. It had a few new pock marks from rifle fire, and a few rounds were spent, but otherwise was none the worse for wear. I popped the hood and began cleaning out the debris that had been kicked up into the engine.
I was working on the intake when I heard Amy cough and say, "Uh, Ben? Could you look up for a sec."
I stood up to find the eldest Walker standing in front of me, rifle in hand. "I seen what you did back at the Campbells. " This was the first words any Walker male over the age of 13 had spoken directly to me. He was not smiling.
What? Was rescuing Hope wrong, too? Or not blasting Joe Campbell? Or trying to?
Most of the rest of the clan had gathered behind him. Amy was standing next to her father, holding one arm.
"Gettin' Hope like that was damn decent of you. I'm speakin' for all the Walkers now. We'd like you to take this rifle. " It was a beautiful 3030 deerhunting rifle with a polished stock of real wood and a powerful scope.
I heard Amy gasp, and Bob (or Bill) whisper to his mother, "That was Tim's rifle!" followed by a grunt as she smacked him.
I almost protested, but clamped down on the words. This was it. The test of whether I was worthy of the Walker clan. And suddenly, I knew just what to say.
I took the rifle, and said, "Thanks, sir. I just hope I get a chance to use it on another Campbell raid."
He looked at me, nodded, and said, "I'm sure you will, son," and left.
Amy rushed over to me, and the rest dispersed after some wellwishing and assurance that Maw's little girl and I would take care of each other.
After that, we spent the rest of the day cleaning the vehicles and other chores around the farm. It was like I had been born a Walker.
The next day we packed up to head back to Hartford. We promised that we'd stop by the next time we were in the area, and they promised to keep Amy's trike and the buggy tuned up for us. Hope came up to me and handed me a wooden ace. I flipped it over, and saw that it had my name shakily carved within the buck's head.
"Just in case you ace someone on the way home."
I was speechless. "Thanks, Hope. It's beautiful."
We rode back to Hartford in silence. Amy was enjoying the beautiful white scenery, and I was pretty deep in thought.
We pulled into the garage, and Jack came out to greet us. He ran his hand over the black silhouette of a buck's head freshly painted on our doors, and asked Amy, "Well, how was the trip?"
She smiled, and said, "You'll have to ask Ben."
He looked at me with his eyebrows raised.
I pulled the 3030 out of the cab, and took Amy under my other arm.
"It was aces, Jack. Just aces."
The Walker/Campbell raid is typical of the hill clans of northern New England. These raids are usually nonfatal if each clan were really trying to kill off all the members of other clans, soon there would no longer be enough people left to run the farms or survive the winter. Rather, the raids are intended to "count coup" on the other clan, and to pick up some extra supplies for the winter in the process. As such, a detailed code has developed to regulate clan raiding, limiting the lethality while maintaining the seriousness of the attack. A summery of die "raider's code" includes:
A raider must always fly a black flag, and have the clan's colors or totem prominently displayed. This tells others who is attacking, and prevents panicked responses from anyone who is not the object of the raid.
A dwelling must never be attacked. This rule extends even to the point of combatants stopping a battle to help put out a fire that has reached a home.
Defenders may not use any weapon heavier than the heaviest weapon used by the attackers. Rarely will an attacker use anything heavier than an MG. To do so allows the defenders to use heavier guns, increases the likelihood of deaths and encourages others to later attack you with heavier weaponry.
Flame weapons are never, ever used.
If an opponent is obviously beaten, or taken by surprise, they are "aced." An aced opponent may do nothing except leave die battle by the fastest possible route. They may not participate in any combat for 24 hours.
Any wounded or captured opponents are aced, and then helped to the full extant of the capturing clan's resources. They are returned after they've been bandaged, and often even fed.
No raider will completely clean out the target clan's resources.
The above rules have no force whatsoever in a vendetta, which is a small but bloody, noholdsbarred war. Vendettas, however, rarely occur.
If the raiders code is violated, several clans my gang up on
the offender in a massive punitive raid. If the abuses are
particularly brutal and deliberate, vendetta may result.
Characters and Vehicles
Ben Thornton used to work as a test driver, and as such he has experience with many sorts of vehicles and their equipment. Due to a mysterious "mishap," he has been driving point for Jack Callahan's trucking company for the past few years. His skills are Driver +2, Gunner +2, Mechanic + 1, Handgunner + 1, Cyclist + 1, Hover Pilot, Engineering and Trucker. He wears IBA over an FP suit, and (now) carries a scoped rifle (regular ammo) and a battle vest holding a heavy pistol (regular ammo), two explosive grenades, two rifle clips (one with hollowpoint ammo and one with antivehicular ammo) and a bowie knife. He still keeps his Uzi stashed under the driver's seat of his van. If combat is unlikely, he can be found with just the rifle and a holstered pistol.
Amy Walker grew up in the hills of western Massachusetts. She
has traveled a bit around the rest of the country, as a gunner
for Jack Callahan, but her skills reflect her rural upbringing.
She has Gunner +2, Cyclist +2, Handgunner +1, Archery +1,
Climbing + 1, Survival + 1, Mechanic, Driver, Swimming and Animal
Husbandry. Amy also wears IBA over an FP suit and carries a
shotgun, a scoped machine pistol and a boot derringer. She also
wears a belt of ten extra shell and a bowie knife. Her hunting
bow and quiver of 20 arrows are never far away, traveling behind
her seat. (Hunting bow: $150, 2 GE, tohit 7. 13 damage; after
firing, it takes one second to reload. Hunting arrows cost $4
each, and every ten is I GE. Note: If the hunting bow is used
with regular arrows, or vice versa, damage falls to 12 points.)
The Justice is a topoftheline vehicle. Ben and Amy have
added to it over the years, so it now carries just about
everything the point man for a convoy could want:
Justice Camper w/CA frame, xhvy
chassis, sport power plant w/extra power cell, OR suspension, 6
OR solids, driver, gunner, VFRP w/AP rockets LGL to infrared
target laser in universal turret, 3 linked MGs w/ incendiary ammo
front, 3 smoke dischargers (F, R, L), 3 flame cloud dischargers
(B, R, L), spoiler, active suspension, overdrive, HD shocks, HD
and antilock brakes, roll cage, fake wheelhubs (F) and
wheelguards (B), standard hitch, LD radio, two hires SWC
(driver/MGs, gunner/VFRP), radar, radar jammer, computer
navigator, surge protector, spare OR solid, tool kit, medikit, 2
PFEs, bulk ammo crate w/MG incendiary ammo, bulk ammo crate w/AP
VFRP ammo (LGL tuned). FP/RP Armor: F30, R20, L20, B15, T25, U10.
Accel. 5 (2.5 w/overdrive), top speed 100 (120 w/overdrive), HC 2
(both on and offroad); 7,761 lbs., $19,887.
Tim Walker's hunting buggy is a basic gasburning compact
without any top armor (offering 360* hand weapon fire.)
Hunting Buggy Compact, hvy. chassis, hvy.
suspension, 150 cid engine, turbocharger, 15gallon HD gas tank,
4 OR solid tires, driver, 2 linked MGs front, roll cage. Cargo
capacity: 535 lbs., 1 space. Metal armor: F5, R5, L5, B5, T0, U3.
Accel. 10/15 w/turbo, top speed 142.5, HC 3; 3,535 lbs., $15,023.