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Carlton Howard drove into the county of Surrey. None of the hailfellas he dealt with every day could have guessed that he was in fact the Earl of this county. A grin at the ironies of life flickered across his face. The nondescript blue sedan was making for their next temporary headquarters in Redhill. Beside him sat Tig, and there were two passengers in the back.


'I can take over the wheel now,' said the former member of Crusoe's Bobcats.


'No, Tig, you’re still recovering. You get yourself right first, old lad,’ said Carl. His chiselled features were wreathed in a charming smile. 


'What do you guys know about Prairie Dog?' he asked the two passengers in the back, flashing them a glance over his shoulder.


Lester and Lino registered a blank.


'Never heard of him?  Well, he's a Sansatchee Indian who has appeared once or twice on the Harvey Grimes radio show.' 


'Ah yes, I listen to Grimes all right,' said Lester, 'but I don't recall any Sansatchee Indians.'


'Well, they seem to think he's marvellous, and he’s had medicine men and chiefs on some of his shows. The audiences lap it up. The noble red man and all that. Anyway, the point is, this Prairie Dog came over here to help Sam Carstairs in his training efforts. You know the old boy was going to fight the Wild Man, right? Well, this Prairie Dog has been pretty helpful to the Royalist side of life lately. He talks about bringing some more of his tribe over from Oklahoma.’


‘He’s an asset, is he?’ said Lester.


‘Well yes,’ said Carl. ‘Who isn’t, if his heart’s in the right place?’


‘In that case, I’m glad we’ve got him,’ said Lester.


‘He’ll make great copy in the newspapers, if nothing else,’ said Carl. ‘And on the radio too. He’s a good speaker, and the hailfellas love him.’  


‘We could do with a few more allies like that,' said Lino.


‘Absolutely. The fellow also happens to get on well with the Prince,' said Carl. 'Yes, this Mr Prairie Dog should be waiting for us at the new HQ, or doss, rather.  I'll introduce you all and you can get to know him over a pipe of the old War Horse.'


In  Redhill they approached the battlemented  façade of the building that had until recent years served as the County Hall. Carl Howard swung the car around to the side of the building and down a lane where he parked in the grounds of a thriving body-building club.


Carl nodded towards the medieval-looking bulk of the stonework outlined against the evening sky. 


'The old place used to be the heart of local government hereabouts but it's fallen on sad days. Which is all to the good for us. Yes, boys, they settled multi-million county council budgets hereabouts and now the bat and the rat have inherited the place, along with a junkie or two.'

‘It’s a fairly impressive building,' said Lester. 'Don't they have wardens for places like this?'


'I don't know who's responsible for it,' said Carl.  'Even these days, even under the blessed Humphrey Crask, it's still got its Grade Two listed building status. But this just seems to mean that the outside can't be touched, and what goes on inside is anybody's guess.'


They approached the back of the former County Hall through the bicycle sheds which were now derelict.


'The only tough part is getting across this courtyard here,' said Carl.  'It's the spot where anyone in the houses opposite can see you going in. It's best to pass through one at a time, trying not to look furtive. Just act as if you've got a damned good heroin deal lined up and no one will think the worse, what?' 


He gave out that rasping laugh which was the legacy of many thousands of cigarettes. 


Casually, one by one, they crossed the courtyard and followed Carl through an unsecured door.


Inside, the place had been well trashed, with fireplaces torn out, wire stolen and wooden panelling stripped away. The branch of a tree was making steady progress through a broken window.


There were mattresses in one corner, and sounds of talking came from beyond a closed door.


‘That's some of our friends who like to play with the needle,' said Carl. 'We let them be and they let us be.'


They went down a corridor lined with undamaged stained glass windows depicting lords and princes of bygone days.


'Yes, County Hall and all its secretaries has been moved to a modern block known as Aspiration House,' said Carl, 'and we and the street people have inherited the place—for the time being.'


He opened another door and they walked into a room that had a table littered with the remains of a meal.


A slight, sallow man dressed in a suit and tie, sporting a pigtail, walked towards them.


'Prairie Dog,' said Carl, and Lester and Lino shook his hand and were introduced.


'Dog has laid his buckskins away for now,' said Carl, 'and he's better off than any of us in the way of suits. We got ours off the peg, but my father took Dog here to Jairus's for fittings, eh what? Jairus's of Hythe?'


The Indian smiled.


'Pixie is generous, and he has all the right contacts,' he said.


The place was lit by a couple of banks of candles. Carl addressed another figure that emerged from the corner of the room


'My father did the same for you, Craig, didn't he?'


'It was wonderful to be attended to with such care. Those old firms are always the ones to go with,' said Craig, a slim youth with a lot of elaborately-arranged fair hair.


Lester noticed that Prairie Dog stared at Craig lovingly. A little later he saw him squeeze the youth’s shoulder as he passed by.


The room beyond this one was a kitchen, and the water supply still functioned. A wonderful smell of meat and spices emanated from the direction of a portable gas stove that Prairie Dog had been operating. He was preparing white rice and meat balls in a curry sauce which he now began to serve up.


'Look at that,' said Lester as they were tucking in.


Lino glanced over at a set of yellow buckskins hanging from a coat rack.


'Those fringes and bits of beadwork create a wonderful effect,' said Lino.


'They certainly do,' said Lester, casting his eyes around the place as if in search of something.


'Are you looking for my bow and quiver of arrows?' said Prairie Dog with a smile.




'I don't have them with me. I've got the medicine pouch though,' he said, nodding towards a leather bag hanging on one of the hooks. 'And I've got these.’


He opened his jacket to show a tomahawk stuck in his belt alongside a skinning knife.


'My pony is back in Oklahoma too,' said the Sansatchee.


'Talking about ponies, we saw Danvers Pearce on horseback in Sene Park,' said Carl. 'He went galloping by with a lovely little troop of INTEG men.'

The Indian grunted.


'Prairie Dog has met our friend Danvers Pearce and did not really take to him,' Carl told Lino and Lester. 


‘It may be that I will have to destroy him and his medicine before he hurts me and those I care about,’ said Prairie Dog.


'If I were Mr Pearce I would be careful when entering into the orbit of the  tomahawk of our friend here,' said Lester.

[The above is an extract from Knights of the Backroads.]

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