[This follows “The Feral Sheep”]
Rafe pulled into the third lay-by she encountered. It was backed up against a stream overhung with willows. She unharnessed Snarge and pushed the dog-cart under one of the trees. Across the stream was a path that led to another road that ran parallel to this one. “Happy hunting,” she said as the dog headed into the underbrush. Rafe stowed the goat hair wig under the seat of the cart, pulled a scarf down over her forehead, and, still in her feral sheep garb, headed down the path.
The men were waiting, as she had expected, at the back of the camping area, facing the road. She saw Snarge as a shadow floating to the north of them. She headed a bit south and then turned to come at the men through the underbrush. Rafe kept her old lady voice as she said, “Hello, boys.” When they turned, Snarge stuck his nose up through the tall one’s legs, knocking him to his knees. “I seem to have you surrounded.” In a smooth motion, Snarge twisted, checking the other man who collapsed on the ground beside his cohort. Snarge took a seat on the man’s back and pointed his teeth at the tall man, still kneeling in the dirt.
“This isn’t how grandmas are supposed to be,” said the first man. “What do you mean by this? What have we ever done to you?”
“Are you stupid son?” Rafe made gave her voice a bit of puzzlement. “Not all grandmas are cookies and hot soup and ‘Let me take care of that for you.’” She had been hobbling across the dusty area as she spoke. “Some of us get cranky just want to make ends meet.”
The man started to reach into his pocket. “If all you’re looking for is a bit of money, then …” Snarge snapped at the hand.
“That’s right, dearie. Just you keep your hands out and about. No need to hide them in your pocket. I’ll be cleaning that out soon enough.”
“If you just let me open my pack then I’ll be able to …”
“Oh, my. Did you eat a big bowl of stupid for breakfast, poor thing. You don’t understand your situation at all. Let me explain. No, no. Just be quiet, like your friend there, under the dog. I’ll tie you up nice and tidy, then your pal. Then I’ll ask some questions, get some answers, and take anything that seems useful.”
“But you have no right!”
“Odd attitude for someone like you to have.” Rafe took a pair of thin leather straps out of her pocket and gave one of them to Snarge who chewed on it for a minute. “I’ve got to wonder how much of that stuff in your pack or pockets really belongs to you in the first place.”
“It’s all mine by rights.”
“Rights, is it. Fair and square? Or by fair means and foul?” She started to wrap a leather tie around the man’s right wrist while Snarge chewed on the other piece of leather. “Don’t you just love a good old slobbery dog?”
“Bill,” said the man under Snarge.
“Don’t use my name, nummy.”
Rafe made the man squat and tied his wrist to the left ankle. “There that ought to be plenty awkward for you. Now for your pal.”
Snarge released the other man and dropped the soaked leather into Rafe’s hand. She tied the second man left wrist to right ankle and plunged her own hand into his pocket. She brought out a flint and a knife. The flint showed signs of use and the knife was frequently sharpened. They were tools, not props. She quickly cleaned out both men’s pockets and removed weapons from boots and holders hidden under clothing. “I’ll go fetch some fire wood, so we’ll be comfy this evening, and anybody passing by will just see a couple of young men letting their poor old grandmother rest after a hard day at the market.” Rafe moved the packs into the edge of the woods and stuck them high in a tree. “Guard, Snarge,” she said and headed back into the woods.
As she searched for dry wood she paused now and then to listen for her captives talking. They were a chatty pair, hissing back and forth. She could hear their guard growl, in reply to sounds of scuffling around the lay-by. Once she hummed deep in her throat, finding the right vibration for a tree at the edge of the cleared space. It held a widow-maker ready to drop anyway and she helped it along. The crash almost on top of their heads quieted them down long enough for her to finish gather wood and return to build a fire. With the dropped branch she would have plenty to last the night, if she needed that long.
Rafe laid the fire, checked the bindings on the captives, retrieved the packs, and nodded to Snarge who bounded into the woods. “Let’s see what the two of you brought along for supper. With all the traffic along this road, I doubt there will be anything like squirrels hanging around, waiting to be picked off.” She started to pull out packets and open them. “Someone’s got a sweet tooth. I do love taffy.” She sniffed a piece, took a lick, then popped it in her mouth. She put the rest in a pocket in her skirts.
“That’s ours!” said the tall man. “You’ve got no right!”
“Still with the rights, is it?”
“What did we ever do to you?”
“Well, you seemed to be trailing around after me at the market, for one thing. Why would you be interested in a poor old woman?”
“Looks like we were right. You don’t seem to be really all that poor, or pitiful, or,” peering at her from his squat in the dust, “all that old.”
“Appearances can be deceiving, sometimes. You appear to be someone looking for a quick deal, for a bit of a trade, perhaps, or to pick up a pretty girl. But which of those is a lie?”
Snarge came back to the circle, at this point in the conversation, carrying a fairly large hare. Rafe skinned it quickly, gave the innards and head to Snarge who would already have eaten his own dinner at the kill site. Some of the fat she saved in a dish and put it near the fire to melt. She scooped a handful of salt from a sack in the short man’s pack. “You don’t mind, do you?” she asked as she rubbed the salt into the hide. “Never waste; never want as we old folks say.” She cut a long green stick from a nearby tree and skewered the meat. When the fat started to sizzle and drip into the fire, she caught some in the dish and added flour and water. She made up biscuits in the dish and set them to cook just inside the stone circle. Delicately she waved some of the smoke in the direction of the prisoners. “Have some of this. It will keep the bugs down.”
“You going to share that?”
“Of course. You don’t think I’d let Snarge, here, go hungry. What do you take me for?”
“With us.” His teeth seemed clenched.
“Why? You didn’t get enough to eat, wandering around the market, showing yourselves off?”
“Come on. Prove you really are a nice old lady.”
Rafe did laugh at that. “Okay. Fair is fair. Tit for tat. You answer my questions, I’ll give you something to eat.” She tossed Snarge a biscuit, turned the hare over the fire, and removed one of the legs and started to chew. “Needs salt. It’s lucky I found some.”
The two men stared into the trees and toward the road, but not at the cooking meat. Rafe continued to waft smoke in their direction and noticed that were swallowing regularly. She smiled, finished the hare and tossed the bones, by no means sucked clean, and a couple of biscuits to Snarge. She sorted through the two bags.
“Aren’t you going to ask us anything else?”
“Would you answer? I believe I’ve given you a chance, and I’ve got nothing else to bribe you with.”
“No. But you really suck at interrogation.”
“I am, as I said, a poor old woman. What would I know about interrogation? Food always worked for my kids, but it hasn’t worked for you. What else should I try?”
“I did that. And you wouldn’t talk. At least I got a full meal. What did you get? Hmmm?”
Rafe put anything she considered useful in one bag and the rest of the stuff in the other and hung them back on the tree near her.“Time for bed then. I’ll be up early.” She rolled into a ball. Snarge nestled down with her, positioning himself between her and the two men. She listened a while to their muttering.
In the small hours of the morning, when the men had tipped over onto their sides and had fallen asleep, Rafe got up, left the bag with remnants on the tree, and headed back down the road. She made it to the next lay-by and ducked through the far side into the woods. She found her cart, fastened Snarge between the traces and headed back to the barracks.