Degrees of Guilt

Part Three -- by Becky Ratliff

See Disclaimer in Part One


The high-pitched screams of a terrified child sent both men running for the back porch. It was coming from the barn -- and McQueen saw smoke coming out of the hay lift! He vaulted the porch railing and took off for the barn at a flat out run, by the time he got there the whole loft was in flames. He could hear Ephraim and little Abigail up there, screaming in terror. The ladder to the loft was burning, McQueen looked around for another way up and saw that the open framework of the barn wall offered just enough handgrips to get up to the loft. By then, the children were nowhere in sight. The hay stored up here was burning and the flames were spreading in the rafters. 

"EPHRAIM! ABBY!" He spotted a flash of white cloth -- the little boy's shirt -- they were huddled in the corner behind some barrels, sobbing hysterically. 

There was a rush of flames from overhead and a creaking, tearing sound. McQueen looked up -- the rafters were starting to fall, it looked like the whole building was going to come in. He threw himself over the children, knowing that would be a futile gesture if the barn roof caved in on all of them. It wasn't the whole roof, though, just a tangle of blazing rafters that blocked them from the edge of the loft -- so much for the idea to jump to the ground floor. 

He looked around desperately for some other way out. The roaring flames and blinding smoke were confusing, nothing looked the same as it had before the rafters had fallen. He got his bearings from the corner. The hay lift was the only other chance, but it was engulfed in flames. He stripped off his jacket and bundled the kids up in it, not an easy job since they were all coughing violently from the smoke. He stayed near the barn wall, hoping the floor would be stronger there -- less likely to plunge them through into the inferno below. There was a searing pain when his clothes caught fire, then he leapt out from the edge of the haylift and twisted as he fell, to make sure he hit the ground first to break the kids' fall. 

He hit hard and knocked all the wind out of himself. He knew he had to roll to put the flames out but he was too stunned to move. Seconds later, though, someone grabbed the children out of the way and smothered the flames with his jacket. It was Danny, of all people. Elizabeth Garrett gathered her children up in her arms. 

Danny tried to pull his shirt off, they realized at the same time that he was burned badly enough for it to be stuck. At that, Danny stopped messing with it and yelled "Hey, medic over here!" 

McQueen was struggling to stay conscious, but he was dimly aware of Benjamin Garrett shaking Ephraim. "You son of the Devil! How did you start that fire?" 

"I didn't!" Ephraim protested. "I was looking for Sister--" 

"Never lie to me, boy!" Garrett flung the boy to the ground and raised his walking stick. Elizabeth screamed, knowing he could easily beat the boy to death, but the blow never descended. Danny had crossed the space between them in two steps and grabbed Benjamin's wrist in a steel grip. His fist slammed into the big farmer's jaw, knocking him sprawling. 

"Get up, you son of a bitch," Wolfe challenged in a low, deadly growl. "If you want to beat someone up, why don't you try it with a grown man instead of a six-year-old kid." 

Garrett got up, Elizabeth grabbed at his arm and he backhanded her away from him. Those were both stupid moves, Danny Wolfe waited for Garrett to come at him and then quickly and thoroughly beat the living hell out of him. Elder Elisha knelt by his daughter, she was dazed but relatively unhurt. Both of them, kids in tow, scrambled over to McQueen's side. Elizabeth was crying hysterically and thanking him incoherently over and over again for saving her children's lives. 

The fire brought dozens of people -- settlers, Wild Cards and Wolfe Pack alike -- running from all directions. There was no way to stop the fire, but fortunately the barnyard was clear, hard-packed ground. 

After an initial examination, Christy decided it would be better to take him up to the house, rather than treat a serious burn in a dirty barnyard. He shook her off for a moment. "Damphousse!" 

"Here, sir!" 

"See if you can rig one of those big water tanks to the ISSCV engine unit, get this cooled down before it gets dark enough for the chigs to start IR flyovers. There's no way we'll stop their recon flights from picking up heat traces ... but if it's still this hot, we'd might as well radio them to start carpet bombing this location." 

"Yes, sir!" 

"West, get these people moving. I want the evacuation underway immediately." 

"Sir!" West replied. 

"Vansen. You and Wolfe put a couple of squads together and search this area. If someone set that fire I want to know who and why before it gets dark...something like this would have been a perfect signal to the chigs. If there's a traitor we need him alive." 

Danny nodded, not exactly acknowledging the order, more like agreeing it was a good plan. McQueen wasn't going to push the point as long as he got the job done. Vansen answered with an automatic "yes, sir", which got them both a teasing look from Cooper. He didn't say a smartass word out loud -- he didn't have to. He knew how well Shane understood the silent In Vitro informal "language" of looks and subtle gestures. All he said was, "Can you make it to the house okay, sir, or should I go with the Major?" 

"Go, I can make it." If someone had set that fire, McQueen wanted their best sharpshooter with Vansen, not baby-sitting him. 

Christy said, "Be careful", and gave Cooper an "I mean it" look. He grinned and put his hand on top of her head, he knew she didn't like being reminded of how short she was ... especially relatively to him! 

It was only when they started back up the hill to the house that McQueen realized how far it was down here ... wings of fear had carried him when he'd realized there were children trapped in a burning barn, it hadn't seemed nearly so far then. He told himself that he had landed a burning SA-43 with worse injuries than these and he was damn well going to walk up there under his own power. Some rebellious part of his mind piped up that less severe burns hurt worse because the nerve endings weren't damaged as badly ... very severe burns stopped hurting after a time. He told that little voice to shut the hell up. 

Elizabeth looked around. "Where did Benjamin go?" 

Elder Elisha said, "Straight to the Devil, I would hope!" 

She stared at him. "Father!" 

The old man's voice shook with emotion. "I've been so blind, Lissie. I should have protected you ... and the children .... I trusted Benjamin." 

"I know, Papa, I know. It's all right now...." 

By the time they got up to the house, McQueen was glad to lie down in the spare bedroom. His pants, like the jacket he'd wrapped around Ephraim, were fireproof, so the only really bad burns had come from the cotton shirt he'd been wearing. Christy soaked it off with water freshly drawn from the well. It was cold enough to numb the pain considerably, by the time she was done with that the worst of it had receded. Christy said, "God, you've had some burns here a few times before." 

"Twice," he replied without elaboration. The worst ones had come from his injuries on the Jupiter Line, but the acid burns from Marged had been almost as bad. 

Christy said, "These aren't as deep." 

"Don't use a gelskin unless you have to, how many do we have?" 

"Not a lot." 

"Then save them, we might need them worse later before this is over with." 

Christy nodded. She carefully patted the area dry and put burn gel on the worst of it, to protect it and help it heal faster. That was all she had ever done for the relatively nasty burns she'd gotten a few times while fighting forest fires. 

Before she had finished, the door creaked open. Elder Elisha stepped inside. "Colonel, Lissie found you some clean clothes when you--" He stopped, suddenly realizing that McQueen ... and Ames, now that he was looking ... were In Vitroes. Ames turned, her first duty was to protect a patient under her care -- and Elder Elisha realized she had every reason in the world to think there might be a threat. 

Everything he had believed for all of his life came into direct conflict with what he had just seen this afternoon. This man had put his life on the line to rescue Ephraim and Abby from the fire. In a very shaken voice, he said, "Colonel McQueen, I've said and done some terrible things since you came here, and you have never shown yourself to be anything other than a good and just man. You saved the lives of my grandchildren at the risk of your own, that kind of selfless courage comes from nowhere except our Lord. I owe you more than I can ever hope to repay. Before God, I repent of the sins I have committed against you ... and your people ... and of those I have led others to commit." 

McQueen turned and looked him in the eyes, all he saw there was honesty. He had thought of "the bigots" as a faceless enemy. But despite his prejudice ... whatever its roots ... Elder Elisha was a good man. After a moment, McQueen held out his hand, and the old man shook it firmly. 

The Elder said, "I'll leave these things here." He closed the door quietly behind him. 

Christy stared after him for a moment, then she got back to business. "You should rest. And there isn't any reason not to, until Shane and Danny get back to tell us something." 

"All right, but wake me as soon as they get back." 

Christy must have given him something to make sure he would rest, because although he was dimly aware when 'Phousse came in to sit with him, he couldn't bring himself around enough to talk. He realized that she wouldn't be there if she hadn't got the barn fire put out, and the ashes cooled down enough that there wouldn't be an obvious heat signature on infrared. He wasn't aware of anything else until she woke him by calling his name. 

"What the hell did she give me?" He winced and shook his head to clear it. 

She gave him her best "don't be silly" look, and knew that was plenty to get her point across. "Shane's back. They couldn't find any evidence of who started the fire, but someone did start it. Danny found a jerry can that someone had gasoline in. We're ready to make for the cave, if you can walk that far. Otherwise we need to find somewhere closer by to hide out tonight." 

"What about Wolfe?" 

"They’re busy with the evacuation." 

"Give me a minute, I think I can make it." Movement hurt, but not as much as it had before, with the gel and the pain shot still working. But the drug skewed his perception somehow, everything seemed muffled and distant. His jacket was thrown over a chair, there was the homespun shirt that Elder Elisha had laid out for him. Lissie had the foresight to choose an old one, which had already been washed out soft.  

Elisha had remained behind, he said that he had already sent Lissie and the children ahead to the cave. Shane was waiting in the kitchen, she had kept only Cooper and 'Phousse with her and sent everyone else ahead with the colonists. McQueen asked, "Are we the last?" 

"Yes, everyone’s accounted for except Benjamin. No one paid any attention where he went after Danny kicked his butt, and no one's seen him since. But the reverend said Benjamin's shotgun and a box of shells are missing." 

Cooper said, "Whatever trail he would have left was wiped out by all the people milling around the fire." 

Elisha worried, "If he's captured, he'll be able to tell the chigs where we're hiding." 

McQueen was concerned about that himself, but it was too close to dark to go out looking for him. It would be more likely that the search party would be spotted. 

Most of his gear had already been sent on ahead, but Shane had left him his rifle and reloads, as well as a camo tarp, some ration bars and his canteen. If something happened that he got separated from the others, that gear and the things he already had in his pockets would get him through the night in relative comfort, and still kept the weight he had to carry to a minimum. 

Now that he had been moving around for a while, he didn't feel quite so drugged as he had at first, and the fresh air helped too. Elisha led the way, and the pace the old man set wasn't too difficult for him to keep up. The colonists had taken different routes to the cave and entered by different ways, doing their best to hide their tracks. The path Elisha chose led along the river much of the way, and then through the forest, until they came to a small stream. 

McQueen asked Elder Elisha, "You're sure you don’t have any idea who would have burned your barn? As a leader here, have you done anything to anger anyone?" 

He shook his head, but answered thoughtfully. "I can't imagine. It was such a foolish thing for anyone to do, considering it will be a miracle if the chigs don't burn the whole town anyway. There was only one incident in the last couple of months. I would not allow Timothy to give his son Jonathan in marriage with Susannah the daughter of Samuel and Keturah. Wait and see, I thought, if there is more to the match than the lands by the river that she stands to inherit. Jonathan is only fourteen, while Susannah is nearly seventeen. That makes all the difference in the world now, but in five years -- hardly any! I told the young people to wait six months or a year, and see how things are then. Timothy was less than happy with me for that, he's a proud man and he's used to getting his way. But I think if he had a quarrel with me, he would confront me face to face, not try to burn me out." 

"Timothy? That would be the big man with black hair who stood by the window at the meeting this morning?" 

"Yes, that was Timothy." 

Off-hand, McQueen had to agree that the man didn’t seem the type for a cowardly act like setting that fire. It was looking more and more like the fire had been set as a signal to the chigs. "You must have had a reason for hiring the Wolfe Pack." 

Elisha said, "We barter with independent traders for goods we can’t produce here. Extra meat and leather goods especially are valuable back on Earth. Also, we pan for gold in the hills up around here. God has provided abundantly for us. But early this year, after one group of traders left, we found a young woman murdered. We can't deal with honest merchants without the pirates knowing about us as well, so we hired these people." 

The stream-bank grew steeper, and soon they came to a place where the stream flowed out of a small opening in the side of the hill. 

Elisha said, "You can get in that way, but it’s narrow and in water all the way." 

Cooper grinned, and McQueen guessed what he was thinking -- that sounded like a great place to set an ambush for chigs. 

Further up the hill, there was a narrow entrance into the cave. It was pitch black just a little ways inside the cave mouth. Shane let Cooper go ahead of her so that she could drop back with Ty, he gave her arm a little squeeze as they stepped inside. Vanessa brought up the rear. Cooper was as claustrophobic as she was afraid of the dark. He could barely handle it if he was either in the front or the rear ... but the last place he wanted to be was trapped in the middle of the group. 

They paused while Elisha lit the lantern he had brought with him. Shane turned on her light. They revealed a weird underground architecture like nothing to be found on the surface. Shane had gone through a tourist cave once, rather than chicken out in front of her friends ... but that cave had been furnished with electric lights and well-marked walkways. This place was just as nature had made it. The cave floor was rough and stony in places where a trickle of a stream had worn a groove into the floor, and slippery in others where the rock was more resistant and the water spread out across the tunnel. 

Cooper ducked to avoid a low place, and judged the height of the passage. He said, "If it's all this low, the chigs aren't going to like it any better than I do." 

Elisha said, "There are places like this all through the caves, but a lot of it is easier going. We're coming to the first big gallery now, we call it the Sanctuary because this is where we used to hold our worship services when we lived down here." 

Shane asked, "How long have you been here?" 

"The first of us came back in '38, there were only twelve families then. More of our brothers and sisters have joined us every year since then." 

Vanessa asked, "What if someone wants to leave?" 

"A few go back, now and then. They miss their families, or the homes they left behind. My sister went back when her husband died. Now and then, one of the young people will sign on with the traders. But, for most of us, this is our home. The last thing we want to do is go back where they call practicing our faith sedition." 

McQueen said, "The government isn't in the business of religious persecution, Elder, there’s nothing to be gained by it." 

"Not directly, no, but we don't believe in pledging our loyalty to the government. Our loyalty belongs only to God, we believe that it's sinful to put the works of man above that. Many of us have been arrested because we tell our children not to make that pledge, that's considered spreading sedition. Teaching our faith to our children is sedition? Refusing to make a pledge that we can't in conscience expect to keep is against the law?" 

The Marines looked at each other, no one had a good answer for that. They had any number of disagreements with the Salemites, but the right of people to worship according to their conscience wasn't one of them. McQueen said, "I'm no lawyer, but it sounds to me like you could fight that in court." 

"That's what some of us back on Earth think we should do, even though the Bible commands us not to sue one another. But those of us who came here felt led of God to shake the dust off our feet. I believe He has a purpose for us here, at New Jerusalem." 


The Sanctuary was a large gallery, Elder Elisha told Shane to aim her flashlight up at the ceiling. Aside from scaring a flock of bats -- or whatever similar animal lived on New Jerusalem -- this revealed a wide ledge, mostly obscured by rocks and stalactites, about a meter down one wall. "We called that the Choir Loft. At the other end of the gallery, it's only six or eight feet up from the cave floor, it’s easy to get up there." 

They looked from the Choir Loft to the narrow, low passage they had just left, and immediately took the Elder's meaning. That would be a perfect sniper's nest. 

They took a break there to rest a while, Elder Elisha was tired and out of breath and he said there was a steep downhill section after this. McQueen was just as glad for a break, although he wouldn't have been the first one to speak up and ask for one. 

Cooper got restless and decided to check out the Choir Loft. He switched on his light and poked around the other end of the gallery until he found a place where he could swing himself up to the ledge. There were just enough openings out into the Sanctuary that he didn't feel too closed in up there, but there was still plenty of cover. The chigs wouldn't see him up here until he took his shot, he was well satisfied that the first chig through that hole would be a dead chig if they had someone on watch up here. 

Cooper’s light caught a flash of white just on the edge of his peripheral vision. He directed the beam over there. 

Back in a shallow recess was a grinning skull. Suddenly one of the flying creatures that Shane had stirred up came darting out of the skeleton's rib cage and sailed right at his face. He let out a startled yelp and swatted at it, nearly fell off the ledge. That started his friends laughing. Vanessa teased, "Watch out, Coop, they'll get in your hair!" 

"Aw, they will not! There's a dead guy up here! That thing was in the skeleton!" 

Shane repeated, "A dead guy?! Vanessa, hold your light over here." She took the short way up, there were plenty of handholds up the side of the cave wall for an experienced climber. 

Coop helped her up onto the ledge. Shane had to admit, finding that skeleton and having a bat fly out at her would probably have given her a pretty good scare too. "Yeah, it’s a dead guy all right!" She poked around with her Ka-bar to be sure there weren't any more bats in there. These "bats" might well be poisonous or carry some alien disease. 

The skeleton was unclothed, but around its neck were two items -- a gold cross pendant on a thin chain, and a length of twisted vine. Shane took both items, without disturbing the bones themselves. 

They climbed back down to join the others. She gave the necklace to Elder Elisha. "Do you recognize this?" 

His eyes widened in shock as he looked down at the pendant. "Yes, I do. It belonged to Lydia. She disappeared the second year we were here while she was out gathering firewood, we believed she'd been killed in an accident or caught by a shambler when she didn’t come home and we couldn't find any trace of her." 

Shane produced the dried vine. "No accident. This was around her neck." 

"That’s how we found Sister Charity!" He exclaimed. "We blamed her murder on pirates ... but the killer must be one of us." 

McQueen said, "Let's keep that observation to ourselves unless we can prove who’s responsible, it will just create a panic down here otherwise." 

Elder Elisha stared at the cross pendant lying in his weather-beaten palm, and finally slipped it into his pocket. "You’re right, of course. I don’t like the idea of leaving Sister Lydia up there ... but after all these years, I don’t suppose she'll mind waiting a little while longer for a Christian burial." 

Vanessa said, "What I don't like is the idea of sharing this cave with some kind of a maniac. He probably knows it like the back of his hand." 

The Elder said, "I shouldn't think so, daughter. Otherwise, he could have found some out-of-the-way place to put Sister Lydia. This trail is one of the most commonly used -- and the Choir Loft is the first place you'd come to where a body could be hidden." 

McQueen said, "You could handle the average mad strangler, couldn't you, Damphousse?" 

She realized she was being teased and felt her face go hot. "Yes, sir!" 

Hawkes grinned, that was a little bit of payback for the bats-in-your-hair crack. After that, they moved on. 

The other end of the gallery soon narrowed and split two ways. Elder Elisha said, "That's where the stream entrance comes up. Most of that way is under two or three feet of cold water! We go down this way." 

It was a hard climb, the water flowed in a quarter-inch-deep sheet across smooth, slick rock that slanted down at a steep angle. The tunnel was just low enough for Hawkes to crack his head a couple of times, and too wide to brace against both sides. Elder Elisha was careful with his lantern. 

<End Part Three> 

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