The signal came like it used to, in the old days, during the war. The smoke burned a pale color tinged green. It rose in wispy clouds from the top of Blue Ridge. Quick winds brushed it out across the sky like watercolor paint on blue paper.
Jonah spied it not long after the sun had come up as he often had when the war was about.
He ate what was left of yesterday’s kill and finished off a strip of jerky he’d gotten from the Goodwife Hetty a few weeks before. She was the only one who bought things from him since Pastor Sykes had died.
He gathered his old musket, checked his powder was dry, and counted his musket balls: twenty—more than he had the powder for. There would be time to remedy that. He packed away his meager belongings and turned from the game trail that he had been following and began heading for the rally point.
It had been agreed upon long before that if the Blue Ridge Boys were ever needed again, they would meet at the old town by Clearwater Creek. There was a stone church there with an accompanying rectory and graveyard filled with headstones—none younger than five years.
It took him the better part of the afternoon to reach the creek and then an hour into evening until he came upon the church, just before the sunset.
Coming from the direction of the creek bed, only the steeple of the old church and a few treetops were visible. Jonah moved upstream of the church to an earthen dam made from the collapsed structure of a burned out millhouse. He looped around the village then walked up a small rise and found himself a space in between the trees to get a good look at the church before he moved in on it.
There were tents and people crowded near the church’s entrance. Horses and oxen were lined near the graveyard and lazily chewed grass. A few of the men carried muskets—mostly whitebeards mixed in with a few big farmer types. Women bustled about the camp, some cooking, some washing, a few others herded children.
Standing in the middle of them, he saw an unmistakable figure dressed in a summer blue dress. He would have recognized that dress anywhere, Mayor Montreaux’s wife, Dellah. She bustled to and fro, speaking with a number of people and gesturing toward the burned out buildings around her. In the dying light, her milk white skin shone as bright as the moon. Jonah grimaced.
He stood up from the hillside and hallooed, waiving his hat and holding his arms up in the air. A burly farmer pointed his finger at Jonah and shouted to the others. Soon the whole camp had their eyes fixed on the dark figure coming from the trees.
“Who goes there?” somebody shouted.
“Jonah!” the mountain man shouted back.
Nobody spoke to Jonah as he wended his way through the fires toward the church. A few ladies’ noses wrinkled when he passed them by—shopwives who preferred lilacs to the smell of a human being.
“Jonah, I almost did not recognize you,” Dellah called out to Jonah. He stopped and turned, head cocked to the side. She continued, “Have you got a moment to chat?”
In her prime, Dellah had been a beautiful woman, Jonah knew, but the years and the children she bore had dragged her down. She sagged a little more now and the gray on her head stuck out quite more noticeably than the last time the two exchanged words.
“Jonah, I am afraid I have some terrible news,” she said after a moment. “The Major is dead.”
“What got him?”
“Sad way for a fighting man to go,” Jonah replied. He glanced absently at the people around them. They looked back at him from the darkness with a queer curiosity in their eyes. A few of the younger ones, who didn’t know him, gave him wide berth.
“What is everyone doing here?” Jonah asked.
“Do you not know?”
“I live in the forest,” Jonah retorted.
“The Major was out Deer Valley way, out by the settlement. Said it was abandoned, said it looked like some trouble.”
“No, he said it was something else. We think it was the Natives. He had a wound, but he never said much about it until he fell over. He died only a few minutes later.”
“When did he die?”
“Two weeks back,” Dellah replied.
Jonah sucked in a sharp breath. Only two men were able to give the order to set the fires to the ridge: the Major, and Captain Lyon. And Captain Lyon was missing since the end of the war.
“Somebody killed the folks in Deer Valley?” Jonah asked when the silence ran too long.
“We think so. Coming from the Major, the news was worthy enough that my husband decided it was best we do something about it. The church will make a fine fortress while we wait for troops to arrive.”
“Has anybody else gone to Deer Valley?”
“We ran into Winston Meyers about one week ago. He went off to have a look and then vanished. They found his body on the northern road this morning. Terrible thing that.”
“I cannot say I really knew Winston that well,” Jonah shrugged. “Only shared my campfire with him once or twice.”
There was another long gap in the conversation. Then Jonah asked, “Has anybody else come into camp since this morning?”
“We only just arrived, actually.”
Jonah looked back at the ridge. A cloud lingered over it. It might have been smoke but more likely just a thin fog. Most nights the ridge was cloaked with mist.
The question of who had lit the fire played through Jonah’s mind. Most everyone agreed that Captain Lyon was dead, though when he had died was more of a mystery. The romantic theory was that he had lost his purpose in life after the war and ended himself with a pistol. Others contended that Lyon had simply run off. For his part, Jonah agreed with neither. Two years ago he came across an old campfire and found Lyon’s old troop jacket with about twenty patches sewn into it, rotting in the branches of a tree. There was days old blood nearby. It seemed simple enough.
Somebody had set that fire though. If it wasn’t the Major and it wasn’t Lyon, then another of the Blue Ridge Boys had and whoever that was, he wouldn’t have done it without a very good reason.
“Jonah,” Dellah said in a hushed voice, “I wonder if I might ask you a favor.”
“Word didn’t reach everyone at the same time about what was going on in Deer Valley. I wonder if you might set out tomorrow morning and head toward town and see if you can find them and direct all of those people here.”
“Be happy to,” Jonah replied quickly.
“Very good,” Dellah smiled that white smile of hers. “We have got a bit of food from the town stores, help yourself to some bread and pork if you like.”
“I would be much obliged. Could use some more powder as well. If you got it.”
“I’ll see what I can do for you.”
Jonah picked a stretch of ground outside the church that night and helped himself to a little firewood. He cooked a simple meal and prepared himself for the journey to town. It wouldn’t be far, just a mile by the old road and then another five or six toward town after that. As the rest of the camp settled into an uneasy slumber, Jonah doused his fire, spread the coals and slept in their warmth.
He woke just before dawn, when the air felt the clearest. The camp was quiet save for the crackling of a few fires. A few sentries were posted. Jonah chatted with them. They seemed more weary than nervous. None of them offered much more information than what Dellah had volunteered the previous evening.
When the sun began coming over Blue Ridge, Jonah struck out. He eschewed the forest and stuck to the road, where the refugees would be. He kept a shot ready in his musket and his tomahawk on his hip.
The road took a fairly straight path through the forest, occasionally fording small streams here and there. Where it connected to the main road, the forest gave way to river valley and farmland. It was a wide way and even sported a few sturdy bridges that had survived a flood or two in their day. The farmers had put up their fences here, built from stones taken out of their fields.
Not far beyond the junction, he found a pair of corpses—a boy, about fourteen, and his horse. The boy was laid out about ten feet in front of the animal. His neck had twisted back at a funny angle. At the corner of the child’s mouth a little blood had gathered and run down his cheek.
The horse was an old chestnut plough animal. It had collar scars from years of hard toil in the dirt. Blood crusted its nostrils and withers. Its hooves had churned up the road quite violently before it succumbed to death.
Jonah surmised that the boy, whoever he was, had ridden his horse too hard and it had faltered here on the road and thrown him head first into the hard pack. A farm boy ought to have known better.
Unless something scared him more than the thought of going over the ears of his animal.
Jonah pressed on.
The road toward Blue Ridge Township wound up the valley, following the river for a while. From there the Blue Ridge dominated the right side of the trail. It rose sharply from the valley floor, an impassable wall of rock and vegetation. The only way through it was Bear Gap, a narrow cut in the mountainside, large enough for most wagons to pass through.
Within sight of Bear Gap was the crossroads which led to Deer Valley to the north and Smokey Hill to the south. And it was there that Jonah saw the native man.
Coming up the road, there was little cover to approach. Farmers had long since cleared the area and an old inn stood on the corner. Jonah kept one hand on the sling of his musket and the other hovered over the head of his tomahawk.
The native man stood directly in the middle of the crossroads, a gun and rusted cavalry sword in his hand. When he saw Jonah, he made no effort to hide, nor did he raise his gun. He simply lifted his shoulders and stuck out his chin. Jonah recognized him then.
“Micah,” Jonah shouted. It wasn’t the man’s real name, but Jonah couldn’t remember his Native one.
“Something very strange here,” he said in unbroken English. Micah was a product of the Catholic school for Natives down in Smokey Hill.
“Where did you come from?” Jonah asked.
“Bridger’s Ridge,” Micah said, pointing to the opposite side of the valley.
“That is a fair distance.”
“It is,” agreed Micah.
“The Major is dead,” said Jonah.
“Yes.” Micah adjusted the musket on his shoulder. “I have lost my tribe.”
“I am sure that you can find them again.”
“I do not think they can be found,” said Micah. “Not where they are now, anyway.”
“I am going down into town. You want to come with me?”
Micah nodded slowly.
They started for the gap. From the crossroads the forest took over again and then it was about a half hour to the top of the little pass. From there the road descended rapidly into a grove of dogwoods and then spit its travelers directly into the main street of the Blue Ridge Township.
Before they ever reached the dogwoods, Jonah and Micah saw the smoke beyond them. The pungent odor of freshly burned wood clung to the air. Both men unslung their weapons and set the locks. They trotted down the road the rest of the way, feet silent as cats.
A few fires still burned in the town. The largest building, the mercantile, smoldered angrily. There were bodies too.
Three had died a few yards apart. The man closest to Jonah had fallen face first onto the hard pack. A savage blow had nearly taken his head off. It rested at a funny angle now. By the man’s hand was a musket, the flint still locked.
“They did not die so easy,” Micah said of the other two bodies, pointing with his sabre. They were two boys, maybe teenagers. Their cause of death was not so simple to ascertain as the older man. He knelt beside one of the boys. He laid face up, eyes open and his insides spilt on the street. Something had gnawed on his face a while and then given up.
“I think a dog has been at them,” Jonah said.
“No,” Micah said. He was at the other body. “They still have their eyes. No animal has been at them yet. This was people.”
“Why would people kill them? They do not look to be much of a threat. Unless they were¬…” Jonah stopped himself and looked at Micah.
“Natives?” Micah shook his head, “I told you that I have lost my tribe.” Micah stood from the body and looked about. “Did you hear that?”
Jonah stood. Micah unsheathed his sword. Jonah readied his musket. Except for the crackling of unspent fire, the town was quiet.
“Footsteps,” Micah whispered.
“Blue Ridge!” came a shout from nowhere. The surprise of it almost caused Micah to fire on nothing. The shout came again. “Blue Ridge!”
Jonah recognized the call. He shouted back, “Like ghosts!”
There was a pause, then a clatter of feet. A man emerged from the crumbling mercantile wearing a blanket of soot. He was broad, all muscles and power, and tall too. He dwarfed Jonah and Micah, even from a few paces away. In his massive hands he carried a prized long rifle.
“Jonah, that you?” the man squinted.
“That is me,” returned them man.
“What are you doing here?” Jonah asked. He lowered his musket and took a few steps toward Leadbelly.
“Saw the fire,” Leadbelly replied. His eyes switched toward Blue Ridge for half a second.
“You see what happened to them?” Jonah pointed to the bodies.
“No,” Leadbelly shrugged. “Looks like Natives.” He looked at Micah.
“No,” said Micah.
“Somebody did it,” Jonah said.
“If not Natives, who?” said Leadbelly.
“Maybe bandits. I do not know. The rest of the villagers are up…” Jonah paused. He felt a tickle in his ear just then—a whispered word that he could not discern. He turned around and looked up at the Blue Ridge.
Smoke poured from its top, tinged green. Leadbelly turned and saw it too.
“Is that the Major?” he whispered.
“No,” Jonah replied. He looked at the other two men. Their eyes were glued to the smoking ridgeline. “We should head for the old church now. The town folk are all up that way. They need to know what is happening.”
They left the bodies in the street and started for Bear Gap. By Jonah’s lead they shadowed the road on either side, moving quietly through the dogwood trees toward the open top of the gap.
As they neared it, Jonah heard the word in his ear again. He held up his hand for the others to stop. They looked at him with raised brows.
“You hear that?” Jonah asked.
“What?” Leadbelly replied.
Jonah held a finger to his lips and listened. Another sound came, a different sound, far away. It came from the other side of the gap. At that point, Jonah and the others were only a few hundred yards from the crest of the road.
“Musket,” Micah said suddenly. Then there was another pop. Leadbelly and Jonah nodded in swift agreement. Jonah felt a tingle go down his spine that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“Bandits?” Leadbelly asked. He started unslinging his rifle. “I will go have a look.”
“Do not be gone long,” Jonah replied. Leadbelly smiled and trotted up the road toward the rise. They watched from a distance. Micah produced a small spyglass from his pocket and followed Leadbelly’s progress up the road. Another shot on the air. Leadbelly paused then continued.
Just as his compatriot was coming to the crest of the road, Jonah felt a shiver in his back and something whispered in his ear—the words that he could not understand. A moment later, a man crested the hill, almost in front of Leadbelly.
Leadbelly fired and missed. He swung the rifle around and lunged at the man, using the butt as a club. Micah and Jonah were on their feet, running for the crest when a second man came forth and waylaid Leadbelly with an axe or pick. At the distance, Jonah couldn’t tell. The man fell on Leadbelly a moment later and an inhuman cry raced across the space between them.
Then there were more men on the hill, they shouted and chanted. Some stopped at Leadbelly’s writhing figure. The others had caught sight of the two approaching men and gave a screaming chase.
“Run!” Jonah shouted. Micah had thought of that already though and was sprinting full speed toward the forest. Jonah took off running in the other direction toward town. The men followed him, hard on his heels.
He scrambled through the dogwood patch and then broke into the open of the town at full clip. Fumbling with the musket, he turned and took a running shot at the first man through the trees. The ball went wide, clipping a branch instead.
Charred buildings raced by Jonah as he rushed through the town. He shot past the three bodies on main street, clearing the last one with a graceless leap, before diving headlong down an alley between a bank and the mercantile. On the other side the forest had grown close to the town and he sprinted for it. The cries of the savage men behind him diminished quickly as he wrapped himself in the safety of the trees.
Jonah kept running until his feet gave out. He sprawled out into a stream and bit down on his tongue, hard. He jerked his head up and pulled himself out of the water and onto the bank. Jonah wouldn’t wait there to catch his breath. He struggled upward and staggered onward. To where, he didn’t know.
Behind him, the smoke climbed higher over Blue Ridge.