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BEFORE THEY REACHED the outlet below the barn, Dard brought them to a halt. There was no use emerging into the arms of some snooping Peaceman. It was better to stay in hiding until they could see whether or not the enemy had been fooled by the burning house.

The passage in which the three crouched was walled with rough stone and so narrow that the shoulders of the two adults brushed both sides. It was cold, icy with a chill which crept up from the bare earth underneath through their ill-covered feet to their knees and then into their shivering bodies. How long they could stay there without succumbing to that cold Dard did not know. He bit his lip anxiously as he strained to hear the sound from above.

He was answered by an explosion, the sound and shock of which came to them down the passage from the house. And then there was a slightly hysterical chuckle from Lars.

"What happened?" began Dard, and then answered his own question, "The laboratory!"

"Yes, the laboratory," Lars said, leaning against the wall. These was relaxation in both his pose and voice. "They'll have a mess to comb through now."

"All the better!" snapped Dard. "Will it feed the fire?"

"Feed the fire! It might blow up the whole building. There won't be enough pieces left for them to discover what was inside before the blast."

"Or who might have been there!" For the first time Dard saw a ray of real hope. The Peacemen could not have known of this passage, they probably believed that the dwellers in the farmhouse had been blown up in that explosion. The escape of the Nordis family was covered—they now had a better than even chance.

But still he waited, or rather made Lars and Dessie wait in hiding while he crept on into the barn hole and climbed up the ladder he had placed there for such a use as this. Then, making a worm's progress crawling, he crossed the rotting floor to peer out through the doorless entrance.

The outline of the farmhouse walls was gone, and tongues of blue-white flame ate up the dark to make the scene daybright. Two men in the black and white Peace uniforms were dragging a third away from the holocaust. And there was a lot of confused shouting. Dard listened and gathered that the raiders were convinced that their prey had gone up with the house, taking with them two officers who had just beaten in the back door before the explosion. And there had been three others injured. The round up gang was hurrying away, apprehensive of other explosions. Peacemen, who prided themselves on their lack of scientific knowledge, were apt to harbor such suspicions.

Dard got to his feet. The last man, trailing a stun rifle, was going around the fire now, keeping a careful distance from the chemically fed flames, such a distance that he plunged waist deep through snow drifts. And a few moments later Dard saw the 'copter rise, circle the farm once, and head west. He sighed with relief and went back to get the others.

"All clear," he reported to Lars as he supported the crippled man up the ladder. "They think we went up in the explosion and they were afraid there might be another so they left fast—"

Again Lars chuckled. "They won't be back in a hurry then."

"Dard," Dessie was a small shadow moving through the gloom, "if our house is gone where are we going to live now?"

"My practical daughter," Lars said. "We will find some other place. . . ."

Dard remembered. "The messenger you were expecting! He might see the blaze from the hills and not come at all!"

"And that's why you're going to leave him a sign that we're still in the land of the living, Dard. As Dessie points out we haven't a roof over us now, and the sooner we're on our way the better. Since our late callers believe us to be dead there's no danger in Dessie and I staying right where we are now, while you do what's necessary to bring help. Follow the wall in the top pasture to the corner where the old woods road begins. About a quarter of a mile beyond is a big tree with a hollow in it. Put this inside." Lars pulled a piece of rag out of his wrappings. "Then come back here. That'll bring our man on down even if he sees an eruption going on. It tells him that we've escaped and are hiding out waiting to make contact. If he doesn't come by morning—we'll try moving up closer to the tree."

Dard understood. His brother daren't attempt the journey through the snow and brush at night. But tomorrow they could rig some kind of a board sled from the debris and drag Lars into the safety of the woods. In the meantime it was very necessary to leave the sign. With a word of caution to them both, Dard left the barn.

By instinct he kept to the shadows cast by the trees and brush which encroached on the once fertile fields. Near the farm buildings was a maze of tracks left by the Peacemen, and he used them to hide the pattern of his own steps. Just why he took such precautions he could not tell, but the wariness which had guided every move of his life for years had now become an ingrown part of him. On the other hand, now that the raid he had feared for so long had come, and he and his were still alive and free, he felt eased of some of the almost intolerable burden.

As he tramped away from the dying fire the night was very still and cold. Once a snowy owl slipped across the sky, and deep in the forest a wolf, or one of the predatory wild dogs, howled. Dard did not find it difficult to locate Lars' tree and made sure that the rag was safe in the black hollow of its trunk.

The cold ate into him and he hurried on his back trail. Maybe they might dare light a small fire in the cellar pit, just enough to keep them from freezing until morning. How close was the dawn, he wondered, as he stumbled and clutched at a snow-crowned wall to steady himself. Bed—sleep—warmth. He was so tired—so very tired—

Then a sound ripped through the night air. A shot! His face twisted and his hand went to the haft of the knife. A shot! Lars had no gun! The Peacemen—but they had gone!

Clumsily, slipping, fighting to keep his footing in the treacherous snow drifts, Dard began to run. Within a matter of minutes he came to his senses and dodged into cover, making his way to the barn in such a manner as to provide no target for any marksman lurking there. Dessie, Lars—there alone without any means of defense!

Dard was close to he braiding when Dessie's scream came. And that scream tore all the caution from him. Balancing the knife in his hand, he threw himself across the churned snow of the yard for the door. And his sacking covered feet made no sound as he ran.

"Got ya—imp of Satan!"

Dard's arm came up, the knife was poised. And, as if for once Fortune was on his side, there was a sharp tinkle of breaking glass from the embers of the house and a following sweep of flame to light the scene within the barn.

Dessie was fighting, silently now, with all the frenzy of a small cornered animal, in the hands of Hew Folley. One of the man's hard fists was aimed straight for her face as Dard threw the knife.

The months he had practiced with that single weapon were now rewarded. Dessie flew free as the man hurled her away. On hands and feet she scuttled into the dark. Hew turned and bent over as if to grope for the rifle which lay by his feet. Then he coughed, and coughing, went down. Dard grabbed the rifle. Only when it was in his hands did he come up to the still-coughing man. He pulled at Folley's shoulder and rolled him over. Bitter hatred stared up at Dard from the small dark eyes of the other.

"Got—dirty—stinkman—" Folley mouthed and then coughed. Blood bubbled from his slack lips. "Thought—he—was—hiding—right— Kill—kill—" The rest was lost in a gush of blood. He tried to raise himself but the effort was beyond him. Dard watched grimly until it was over and then, fighting down a rising nausea, undertook the dirty business of retrieving his knife.

The sun did not show when he came out of the barn with Dessie after some hours which he did not want to remember. From a gray sky whirled flakes of white. Dard regarded them blankly at first and then with a dull relief. A snow storm would hide a lot. Not that anyone would ever find Lars' poor twisted body, now safely walled up in the passage. But Folley's people might be detained, by a heavy storm if they started a search. The landsman had been a tyrant and the district bully—not beloved enough to arouse interest for a sizable searching party.

"Where are we going, Dardie?" Dessie's voice was a monotone. She had not cried, but she had shivered continually, and now she looked at the outer world with a shadow of dread in her eyes. He drew her closer as he shouldered their bag of supplies.

"Into the woods, Dessie. We'll have to live as the animals do—for a while. Are you hungry?"

She did not meet his eyes as she shook her head. And she made no effort to move until his hand on her shoulder drew her along. The snow thickened in a wild dance, driven by gusts of wind to hide the still smoldering cellar of the farmhouse. Pushing Dessie before him Dard began the hike back along his path of the night before—toward the hollow tree and the meeting place. To contact Lars' messenger might now be their only chance.

Under the trees the fury of the storm was less, but the snow packed against their bodies, clinging to their eyelashes and a wisp of hair which hung across Dessie's forehead so that she brushed at it mechanically. Food, heat, shelter, their needs made a pattern in Dard's mind and he clung to it, shutting out memories of the past night Dessie could not stand this tramping for long. And he was almost to the end of his own strength. He used the rifle as a staff.

The rifle—and three shells—He had those. But he dared not use the weapon except as a last resort. The sound of a shot carried too far. There were only a few guns left and they were in the hands of those whom the Peacemen had reason to trust. Anyone hunting for Folley would be attracted by a shot. If their escape became suspected. . . . He shivered with something other than cold.

Herding Dessie at a steady pace he fought his way to the hollow tree. There was no need to worry about the trail they had left, the snow filled it in a matter of minutes. But they must stay near here—for Lars' messenger to find them.

Dard set Dessie to treading back and forth in a space he marked out for her. That not only kept her moving and so fighting the insidious cold numbness, but it packed down a flooring for the shelter he built. A fallen tree gave it backing and pine branches, heaped up and covered with snow; provided a roof.

He could see the hollow in the tree from this lair and he impressed upon Dessie the necessity of watching for anyone coming along the path.

They ate handfuls of snow together with wooden bits of salted meat. But the little girl complained of sleepiness and at last Dard huddled in the shelter with Dessie in his arms, the rifle at hand, fighting drowsiness to keep his grim vigil.

At length he had to put the rifle between his feet, the end of the barrel just under his jaw, so that when he nodded, the touch of the cold metal nudged him into wakefulness. How long they dared stay there was a question which continued to trouble him. What if the messenger did not come today or tomorrow? There was a cave back in the hills which he had discovered during the past summer but—

The jab of the rifle barrel made his eyes water with pain. The snow had stopped falling. Branches, heavily burdened, were bent to the ground, but the air was free. He pulled back his top covering and studied Dessie's pinched face. She was sleeping, but now and again she twisted uneasily and once she whimpered. He changed position to aid his cramped legs and she half roused.

But right on her inquiring "Dardie?" came another sound and his hand clamped right across her lips. Someone was coming along the woods trail, singing tunelessly.

The messenger?

Before Dard's hope was fully aroused it was dashed. He saw a flash of red around a bush and then the wearer of that bright cap came into full view. Dard's lips drew back in a half-snarl—

Lotta Folley!

Dessie struggled in his arms and he let her crawl to one side of the tiny shelter. But, though he brought up the rifle, he found he could not aim it. Hew Folley—betrayer and murderer—yes. His daughter—though she might be of the same brutal breed—though he might be throwing away freedom and life—he could not kill!

The girl, a sturdy stout figure in her warm homespuns and knitted cap, halted panting beneath the very tree he must watch. If she glanced up now—if her woodsight was as keen as his—and he had no reason to doubt that it was.

Lotta Folley's head raised and across the open expanse of snow her eyes found Dard's strained face. He made no move in a last desperate attempt to escape notice. After all he was in the half-shadow of the shelter, she might not see him—the protective "playing dead" of an animal.

But her eyes widened, her full mouth shaped a soundless expression of astonishment. With a kind of pain he waited for her to cry out.

Only she made no sound at all. After that first moment of surprise her face assumed its usual stupid, slightly sullen solidity. She brushed some snow from the front of her jacket without looking at it, and when she spoke in her hoarse common voice, she might have been addressing the tree at her side.

"The Peacemen are huntin'."

Dard made no answer. She pouted her lips and added, "They're huntin' you."

He still kept silent. She stopped brushing her jacket and her eyes wavered around the trees and brush walling in the old road.

"They say as how your brother's a stinkman—"

"Stinkman," the opprobrious term for a scientist. Dard continued to hold his tongue. But her next question surprised him.

"Dessie—Dessie all right?"

He was too slow to catch the little girl who slipped by him to face the Folley girl gravely.

Lotta fumbled in the breast of her packet and brought out a packet folded in a piece of grease-blotted cloth. She did not move up to offer it to Dessie but set it down carefully on the end of a tree stump.

"For you," she said to the little girl. Then she turned to Dard. "You better not stick around. Pa tol' the Peacemen about you." She hesitated. "Pa didn't come back las' night—"

Dard sucked in his breath. That glance she had shot at him, had there been knowledge in it? But if she knew what lay in the barn—why wasn't she heading the hue and cry to their refuge? Lotta Folley, he had never regarded her with any pleasure. In the early days, when they had first come to the farm, she had often visited them, watching Kathia, Dessie, with a kind of lumpish interest. She had talked little and what she said suggested that she was hardly more than a moron. He had been contemptuous of her, though he had never showed it.

"Pa didn't come back las' night," she repeated, and now he was sure she knew—or suspected. What would she do? He couldn't use the rifle—he couldn't—

Then he realized that she must have seen that weapon, seen and recognized it. He could offer no reasonable explanation for having it with him. Folley's rifle was a treasure, it wouldn't be in the hands of another—and surely not in the hands of Folley's enemy—as long as Folley was alive.

Dard caught the past tense. So she did know! Now—what was she going to do?

"Pa hated lotsa things," her eyes clipped away from his to Dessie. "Pa liked t' hurt things."

The words were spoken without emotion, in her usual dull tone.

"He wanted t' hurt Dessie. He wanted t' send her t' a work camp. He said he was gonna. You better give me that there gun, Dard. If they find it with Pa they ain't gonna look around for anybody that ran away."

"But why?" he was shocked almost out of his suspicion.

"Nobody's gonna send Dessie t' no work camp," she stated flatly. "Dessie—she's special! Her ma was special, too. Once she made me a play baby. Pa—he found it an' burned it up. You—you can take care of Dessie—you gotta take care of Dessie!" Her eyes met his again compellingly. "You gotta git away from here an' take Dessie where none of them Peacemen are gonna find her. Give me Pa's rifle an' I'll cover up."

Driven to the last rags of his endurance Dard met that with the real truth.

"We can't leave here yet—"

She cut him off. "Some one comin' for you? Then Pa was right—your brother was a stinkman?"

Dard found himself nodding.

"All right," she shrugged. "I can let you know if they come again. But you see to Dessie—mind that!"

"I'll see to Dessie." He held out the rifle and she took it from him before she pointed again to the packet.

"Give her that. I'll try to git you some more—maybe tonight. If they think you got away they'll bring dogs out from town. If they do—" She shuffled her feet in the snow. Then she stood the rifle against the hollow tree and unbuttoned the front of her packet. Her hands, clumsy in mittens, unwound a heavy knitted scarf and tossed it to the child.

"You put that on you," she ordered with some of the authority of a mother, or at least of an elder sister. "I'd leave you my coat, only they'd notice." She picked up the rifle again. "Now I'll put this here where it belongs an' maybe they won't go on huntin'."

Speechless Dard watched her turn down trail, still at a loss to understand her actions. Was she really going to return that rifle to the barn—how could she, knowing the truth? And why?

He knelt to wind the scarf around Dessie's head and shoulders. For some reason Folley's daughter wanted to help them and he was beginning to realize that he needed all the aid he could get.

The packet Lotta had left contained such food as he had not seen in years—real bread, thick buttered slices of it, and a great hunk of fat pork. Dessie would not eat unless he shared it with her, and he took enough to flavor his own meal of the wretched fare they had brought with them. When they had finished he asked one of the questions which had been in his mind ever since Lotta's amazing actions.

"Do you know Lotta well, Dessie?"

She ran her tongue around her greasy lips, collecting stray crumbs.

"Lotta came over often."

"But I haven't seen her since—" he stopped before mentioning Kathia's death.

"She comes and talks to me when I am in the fields. I think she is afraid of you and—Daddy. She always brings me nice things to eat. She said that some day she wanted to give me a dress—a pink dress. I would very much like a pink dress, Dardie. I like Lotta—she is always good—inside she is good."

Dessie smoothed down the ends of her new scarf.

"She is afraid of her Daddy. He is mean to her. Once he came when she was with me and he was very, very mad. He cut a stick with his knife and he hit her with it. She told me to run away quick and I did. He was a very bad man, Dardie. I was afraid of him, too. He won't come after us?"


He persuaded Dessie to sleep again and when she awoke he knew that he must have rest himself and soon. Impressing upon her how much their lives depended on it, he told her to watch the tree and awaken him if anyone came.

It was sunset when he aroused from an uneasy, nightmare-haunted sleep. Dessie squatted quietly beside him, her small grave face turned to the trail. As he shifted his weight she glanced up.

"There was just a bunny," she pointed to small betraying tracks. "But no people, Dard, Is—is there any bread left? I'm hungry."

"Sure you are!" He crawled out of the shelter and stretched cramped limbs before unwrapping the remains of Lotta's bounty.

In spite of her vaunted hunger Dessie ate slowly, as if savoring each crumb. The light was fading fast, although there were still red streaks in the sky. Tonight they must remain here—but tomorrow? If Lotta's return of the rifle to the barn did not stop the search—then tomorrow the fugitives would have to take to the trail again.

"Is it going to snow again, Dardie?"

He studied the sky. "I don't think so. I wish it would."

"Why? When the snow is deep, it's hard to walk."

He tried to explain. "Because when it snows, it is really warmer. Too cold at night . . ." he didn't finish that sentence, but encircled Dessie with a long arm and drew her back under the shelter with him. She wriggled about, settling herself more comfortably, then she jerked upright again.

"Someone's coming!" her whisper was warm on his cheek.

He had heard that too, the faint creak of a foot on the icy coated snow. And his hand closed about the haft of his knife.

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