In retrospect, it was inevitable that the expedition would be ambushed somewhere along their route. The expedition had been lulled into a sense of false security, first by the order familiarness of Capiche, then the peace-loving Amish and finally by the womb-like order and coziness of Bazylewicz's compound. Given their naivety, it was just a matter of time.
A day-and-a-half west of Bazylewicz’s compound, Walt was driving the wagon across the Wabash river. Steve was riding shotgun, literally. His Mossberg 20 gauge was laying across his lap.
Sally and Pup had just caught up with the wagon when five men popped out of the brush on the far side of the bridge, a scant 15 yards in front of them. The men all had rifles and shotguns and they were pointing them at Walt and Steve.
Sally spun around and saw two men step into the road on the east side of the bridge.
They were bottled-up, out-numbered and the bad guys had the drop on them.
Walt made a discrete movement with his left foot to slide his Ruger 10/22 deeper into the shadows beneath the seat. As a home-schooler, he had playeed soccer and was adept at looking one way and moving his feet in another.
As unpalatable as it was, the expedition had no choice.
Steve tried. “If you object to our using your bridge, we will very happily use a different one.”
The leader of the bad guys smirked. “Too late. We collect a tax on folks who cross our bridge. We would have to charge double if you went back and it don’t look like you can afford that.”
“First thing you can do is toss down your gun” the thug said to Steve. Steve tossed down his Mossberg 20 gauge. The man gave it a quick look over. Apparently, he wasn't too interested in shotguns because he kicked it into the ditch beside the road.
Walt was suddenly far more talkative than Sally had ever heard him be. “Taxes? So you are the government?”
“Yeah, you could say that” the man said.
“Meaning you are free-lancers” Walt concluded.
“Why are you taking our stuff?” Walt asked as the men were unloading the wagon. “You don’t look hungry.”
“We are taking it because we can” the man replied, succinctly.
A couple of the men were eyeing Sally but the leader kicked them in the ass. “We got women. She would just complicate things.”
The last thing they did was to untie Lucky from behind the wagon. “You got two. You don’t need this un.”
Suddenly, the expedition to Iowa was in deep trouble. They weren't going to get there without Lucky and without trading goods they would have to rely on the charity of others, a slender reed at best. Ironically, the one thing the men did not take were the fruit cakes.
A mile-and-a-half up the road, Walt turned the wagon onto a two-track that wove through a dense tangle of mulberry trees. They were invisible from the road after fifty feet.
“Seems a little close to the bridge” Steve commented.
Walt held his tongue until Sally showed up.
“I got a couple of questions that are important to me.” Walt announced.
Steve expected blame and recriminations. His experience had been that blame was like compound interest. The sooner dealt with, the less painful.
“What have you got?” Steve asked, with a wince.
“Did they look hungry to you?” Walt asked.
“No!” Sally said. “You asked them and they said they were stealing because they had the drop on us.”
Steve nodded in agreement.
“I am just checking my facts. The Bible is clear that three men...” here he nodded to Sally and said “...adults...are sufficient to convict.”
“Did they offer us anything in exchange?” Walt asked.
Steve and Sally both answered in unison “No.”
“Did they threaten us with deadly harm?” Walt asked.
“I don’t know if the guns were loaded or not” Sally said.
“Ma-am, hundreds of men have been killed with ‘empty’ guns. Whether they were loaded or not doesn’t matter.” Walt said, dryly.
“By that light, yes, they threatened us with deadly harm” Steve said.
Walt looked pointedly at Sally, who belatedly nodded in agreement.
“Why the big deal about what they did?” Sally asked.
“Ma-am, that was the trial” Walt said.
“I just want to do things by the Good Book so what I do is righteous and I won’t have anything I am ashamed of on Judgment Day” Walt said.
"Jesus said that he that live by the sword shall die by it. I aim to make that happen" Walt said.
Steve thought Walt was kidding.
“Why would that matter?” Steve asked.
“Because we just had a trial and I am the best man to carry out the judgment” Walt said as he checked to ensure the suppressor was tightly screwed on the barrel of his rifle. Then he popped out the magazine and shucked out the bullets, replacing them with hollow-points.
Walt still had a hundred of the doped bullets from his first battles with Chernovsky’s Defenders. The hollow-points had been stuffed with a mixture of lard, bacteria and ricin. Getting hit by one of those bullets was guaranteed death whether by gaseous gangrene or the poison.