Jonesy cursed as she spotted the crouching saber-toothed cat a few hundred feet away. The redhead had been waiting patiently with her hunting partner for a good shot. They had chosen several possibilities, wanting to pick off the weaker in the herd of deer.
The grazing animals milled about, sharing the vast fields of grass with other herbivores fairly peacefully but the animals sensed danger now that the cat was hunting them. The animals shifted uneasily, looking around in attempt to see where the danger would come from.
The human hunters cursed under their breaths, knowing that they would probably go home empty handed today. They watched the huge cat; coiled and prepared to take down the animal it had chosen. Jonesy looked around but saw no other cats. That was weird because they often hunted in packs. It must be a loner.
Suddenly the cat sprang from its hiding place in the tall grass and headed for an animal. The human pair saw the target was one of the llamas. The female seemed reluctant to run from the hunter but ran quickly after a moment of hesitation. It had hesitated too long. The hungry feline clawed its hindquarters, bringing it down before quickly trapping the neck of the animal and piercing it with the long canines. It was over.
The cat paced around its dead prey twice, looking at the terrain around her. She must have decided it was too risky to eat there and began dragging away the llama by its neck.
Jonesy and Ellen stood up wearily. The herds had disappeared for now and they had left the horses downwind several hundred feet away. Ellen slapped her cap onto her head and slung her rifle. “We may as well head back.”
“Yeah, may as well. We’ll try again…did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear anything. Wait, where are you going?” Ellen followed the tall redhead towards the spot the llama had been killed. Once there, Jonesy looked around.
“Well, that’s why the llama hesitated. Look,” Jonesy pointed into the tall grass. A baby llama was stuck in a deep mud puddle.
“Aww, poor thing. Something is gonna get it for sure,” the older woman commented.
Jonesy chuckled, “Yeah, me.”
“And what are you going to do with a baby llama for Pete’s sake?”
“Raise it. Didn’t one of the women say these things were the ancestors of the llamas in South America?”
“Why not raise it? It would make a great pack animal.”
“The damned things spit.”
“Afraid of a little spit? Besides, it’s cute.”
Ellen groaned. “Wait until Whitney sees that thing. She isn’t gonna let you bring that in the house with a baby in there.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Help me get it out of there.”
Joyce shook her head. She watched Jonesy feeding the llama with a baby bottle. “That’s a huge mistake,” the former rancher grumbled.
“You want it to be friendly to people when it grows up?”
“Of course, that’s why I’m bottle feeding it.”
“You don’t know a thing about those animals, that’s for sure.”
Jonesy sighed. “Why don’t you tell me then.”
“Llamas are funny animals. If they grow up thinking of people as relatives they treat them nasty. You need to leave it with the sheep in the pens. Only touch it when you feed it then get the hell away from it. Once it’s weaned you can start training it.”
“Nope. A lot of sheep ranchers keep llamas with their sheep. They keep away coyotes and such. Llamas look funny but make great guard animals for flocks.”
The redhead looked at Joyce and decided she knew what she was talking about. She picked up the llama. “With the sheep?”
“Okay, fine. I just hope the damned critter doesn’t start baaing.’
Carey and Maggie reached Sky Dancer Clan just before sunset. The sound of their horses brought out a few armed men but they relaxed when they saw the women.
“Hola!” one of the men greeted them. Agatha came out from one of the long houses with a smile.
“Well, hello! What brings you two here in the middle of winter?”
The riders gratefully dismounted and walked over to the older woman who was co-leader of the SDC. “We had a couple of teenage boys wander into the village yesterday.”
“Ah, I see. There are only two of them? We know there’s more than that.”
“Yes. According to the ones who showed up there should be three more out there. We wanted to make sure you’re okay. Plus the council wanted to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.”
“What do you mean?”
“We know the boys have guns and so do you. One of the kids told Robbie that someone took a shot at him.” Carey’s tone hinted that she disapproved of shooting.
Agatha sighed. “I know. Why don’t you come inside? It’s too chilly out here to stand around chewing the fat. The latrines are over there if you need them.”
“I’m fine for now.” Maggie shook her head no and they followed the older woman inside.
The long houses that the mountain people built were smaller and only meant for about one or two families. It took less to heat them and there was certainly more privacy.
“Nice. We might have to do this in the future, too.”
“We like them. We have less materials to build with at these altitudes so smaller is easier. Come, sit down and let me get you something warm to drink.”
The clan elder poured tea into fired clay cups and cut them slices of cornbread. Since they didn’t keep dairy cows the mountain dwellers used herbed seed oil for flavoring. Maggie sprinkled some sunflower oil sparingly onto her bread. She knew the clan had to be short on supplies after the raids. She mentioned that they brought a few supplies along for them and could bring more if needed.
“That would be appreciated. Those kids took a lot that last time. What they took should feed them for a month if they stored it properly.”
“Which I doubt,” Carey said.
Agatha nodded in agreement. “We keep the meats and grains in the supply tent. Luckily the jarred preserves and dried items like the jerky are kept in the homes. Those thieves didn’t get quite all of it. We’ll have to do some hunting to skim by until spring. We hate hunting this time of year since the animals have used up most of their body fat to fight the cold.”
“Sharon sent cornmeal, dried fruits and veggies, and some rice. We figured it would be the lightest to carry.”
“We appreciate anything you can spare. The adults I can handle being bitchy and hungry but when it comes to the children, well, it would be difficult.”
“What little we brought will only last a few days. Once we see the situation we’ll head back and bring a wagonload back. We just want to see what was happening out this way first.”
“We haven’t seen the boys since last week. They hadn’t shown their faces in about nine days so we thought they had moved on. But the first night we didn’t have a guard outside they stole us blind.”
“They’re a bunch of vultures,” Carey commented. “Tell me, what do you plan on doing about them?”
Agatha leaned forward and spoke softly. “The men have spoken about tracking down the boys and…”
“Killing them,” Maggie finished for her.
“Yes. They consider them dangerous. Sooner or later there will be shots fired and innocent people might get hurt.”
“Well, their plan is half good. How about we hunt them down and catch them? The boys have to sleep sometime. We can raid their camp and drag them back to our village. Cierra and the council can keep care of them from there.”
“I like that a lot better than shooting them down like rabid dogs.”
“Okay, come morning we’ll head out with your best hunters and find their lair.”
Carey was disappointed. It had been too easy because of the teen boys’ ignorance and laziness. The hunting party had simply followed the boys’ trail to their camp and grabbed them. The teens didn’t even have a posted guard so they were surprised and taken into custody.
The surly youths argued all the way back to the SDC winter camp, trying to rationalize why they had to steal in order to eat. Carey and the others ignored them.
Agatha and Peterbuilt came outside at the sound of the returning hunting party. The older woman took in the ragged appearance of the boys and did her best not to pity them. After all, their lack of respect and greediness had threatened her people.
“So these are the children that stole from us?” she commented. Regardless of physical age they were certainly not adults. The young men rankled at the term.
“You have no right to call us children. We’re not minors anymore,” the eldest spat at her.
Agatha walked up to the bound youth. “What is your name?”
The boy didn’t answer at first so one of the men who captured him gave him a hard nudge. The boy glared at the man and answered. “Phillip.”
“Well, Phillip, in order to be considered an adult you must first embrace adult virtues, such as duty and respect. Since you have not learned these virtues you can’t be considered adults. Until you do I will refer to you as ‘children’. Do you understand me, child?”
The people around the boys snickered and the three boys flushed in embarrassment. Peter sighed and spoke. “We don’t have any way to keep them prisoner unless they stay tied up. I hate to even tie up animals much less people.”
“Hmm, if they escaped then they could walk into another clan’s village. What if we marked them somehow?”
“You mean like a tattoo? Bad idea. They’d have it for life,” Maggie said.
“What about a metal collar? One that says ‘prisoner’ on it so if they do run off then anyone would know exactly what they were,” a man suggested. “We have someone here than can do it.”
Carey nodded. “Do it.” She turned to the boys. “I want you to understand something. I am one of the councilors for the Napa Clan. I have the authority to pass summary judgement on you. The smithy will put those collars around your necks and if you run off you won’t be allowed anywhere near another settlement for the rest of your lives, is that understood?”
The boys mumbled but didn’t dare fight them on this. Jeremy and Archer now regretted not leaving with the Yuma brothers. They knew they were in deep trouble and couldn’t talk their way out of it.
“In addition to being marked as criminals you will forfeit your horses to the Sky Dancer Clan. Queen Cierra might also add additional penalties at a later time.”
The boys gasped in outrage, the horses belonged to them or to at least their families. How were they supposed to get to the Napa Clan without them? They asked that very question of Carey.
She grinned coldly. “You’ll walk. You will keep up or else because we won’t slow down much for you. If you aren’t with us when we stop to eat you’ll starve. If you aren’t with us when we make camp you can sleep outside the tents like dogs, without even a blanket. This isn’t the Old World where the judges shakes a finger at you and calls you a bad boy then puts you on parole. We can’t afford to have people like you running around loose. If Queen Cierra doesn’t believe you are capable of learning social virtues then she could easily condemn you to exile or death. If I were the three of you I’d think over your life the last few months and what you lack morally.”
Phillip protested. All they had done was steal a little food. Carey gave him a look of disgust. She asked Agatha to bring out all the children in the camp outside. Several minutes later the children were lined up in front of the boys.
Carey walked behind the prisoners. “I want you to take a good look at those kids. The food you stole was meant to feed them during the winter months. By taking the supplies you endangered each of them. They could have starved to death. How would you like being the ones to watch them die a little bit everyday and grow thinner? To become skin and bones, like a living skeleton until they died?”
The boys slumped from the lecture. Carey saw the fight leave them and ordered the collars to be made. The men of the clan took the boys away.
Agatha urged the visiting women to come into her home for a meal. Now that the boys had been captured everyone could relax. She was just happy that the boys didn’t come from her Clan. The parents of those boys would be so disappointed.
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