Valentine's Rising (Page 1)
The Ouachita Forest, Arkansas, December of the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: The pines stand, colorless spindles under a winter overcast. The low mountains of the Ouachitas huddle dark all around, just touching the cloud sea. Water beads linger on bough, trunk, leaf and stone as though freshly dropped; the earth beneath the fallen leaves smells like decay. Birds overturn dead leaves and poke about the roots in silence, walking the earth as if too dispirited to fly. Brown ferns lie flat along the streambanks, under patches of frostbitten moss flaking off the rocks like old scabs. Even the wind is listless, seeping rather than blowing through the pines.
Naked outcroppings of stone, etched with lightning strikes of quartz crystal, project every which way from the ground like the work of titans who tried to pull out the mountain by its roots. The strata of the Ouachita slopes are jumbled, pushed up and twisted from a seismic pileup millennia ago. Thanks to the blind runs, box canyons and meandering crest lines of these elderly mountains, the landscape doesn't lend itself to habitation. These hills have been hideouts of liberty-loving Indians, diehard Confederates, and law-evading brigands -the notorious Younger gang used to hole up here with the James brothers. Between the stands of rock, the ferns' squashed-spider shapes lie in boot tracks and hoofprints forming a trail that suggests a similar hurried flight from authority.
The boot tracks have a source, noisily crunching over the hilltop's still-frozen ground. Six mud-stained figures walk with the oddly stiff motion of men on their last legs, strung out in front of and behind a lone horse pulling an A-frame drag supporting an unconscious man with blood-matted hair. Two dreadlocked men in blue-black uniforms share a blanket as they move, muttering to each other in the patois of the sunny island of Jamaica. Walking alongside the horse is the oldest of the group, a meaty-faced man of six-two, dark brown hair flecked with early gray and a boxer's shovel jaw. His clothing, indeed his whole body, has the look of having just emerged from a threshing machine. An improvised poncho is fixed about his waist with a wide brown belt. Dried blood stains the parts that dirt hasn't touched; bits of rag are knotted around wounds in his left leg and right arm. He moves the horse along with a switch, though the occasional lash does nothing more than send it lurching forward a quick pace and into the man leading it.
The lead shape, seemingly bigger than any two of the others put together, is of another species. So forbidding that one might think he was pried off a cathedral and placed among Arkansas pines as a prank, he moves along leaning toward his right side, one tentpole-length arm supporting his midriff. An even longer gun rides his shoulders, tied there by a bit of leather like an ox's yoke. He has bandages wrapped about the waist, a tight corset of brown-stained cloth that accentuates the width of the meaty, golden-furred shoulders above. The creature's eyes shift, widen, and even go a little wet as he spies a figure far away in the trees, jogging toward the file from ahead.
The young man the apish humanoid sees places his feet deliberately as he trots, for a trail in wet leaves on the hillside could be spotted by experienced eyes as easily as a line of signal flares. He favors his left leg, leading with the right up difficult patches of the hill. His shining black hair and bronze skin mark him as more than a spiritual relative of the Osage who once hunted these hills; he moves like them, flowing from spot to spot with the speed of a summer stream: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes deceptively still when he stops to examine the ground. He wears a simple black uniform, mud-splotched, set off by a strange bandolier of snakeskin with oversized loops, as if the sash had been designed to carry hand grenades, and carries a rugged submachine gun fed by a drum magazine.
His right cheek is scarred from the outer edge of his eye down. The wound, like a Prussian dueling scar, traces its pale way along the edge of his face, marring an otherwise handsome frame around brown eyes. The wary, intent gaze of a wild animal patiently reads the woods behind when he pauses to rest and lets the column come to a stop at its own pace...
* * * *
Have to turn again . The first zig left had been nine hours ago, to avoid a long string of soldiers walking at ten-foot intervals like beaters driving game. Then there'd been another left turn to avoid a watchtower looking over a length of old highway. Now he'd spotted teams of men and dogs combing the banks of an ice-choked stream.
They were boxed in, no doubt about it. Every step the survivors of his Texas column took now brought them closer to the area around Bern Woods, where they'd been ambushed two exhaustingly long days ago. Since then no one in his party of survivors had slept or eaten hot food, and there wasn't much play left in their strings.
His head ached. Fatigue or dehydration. He took a drink from his canteen.
"What passes, my David?" Ahn-Kha said, sliding up to him using his legs and one long arm. The Golden One doesn't look at David Valentine; he keeps his eyes on the forest-cutting road below.
"We're cut off. A picket line. Maybe dropped off from trucks."
The Jamaicans, ex-Thunderbolt marines named Striper and Ewenge, dropped to their knees, unconscious atop each other within seconds of the column's halt. The man leading the horse spat a white bubble onto the forest floor. William Post, Valentine's lieutenant since their service together on the old Kurian gunboat Thunderbolt, dropped his bloody switch and joined David and Ahn-Kha. The drooping horse blew a mouthful of foam out from either side of its bit.
"How's Tayland?" Valentine asked.
Post glanced back at the wounded man on the dragging A-frame. "Unconscious. Strong pulse still. The horse'll be dead before him."
"We've got maybe twenty minutes, and then a picket line will be on top of us."
"I heard dogs behind," Ahn-Kha said. The Grog was the only one who didn't look dejected. He rubbed a bullet tip on his bandolier with the large thumb particular to the Golden Ones' hands.
"That's it, then," Post said. "We can't get back to Texas."
"Listen up," Valentine said loudly, and his complement of six-as recently as two days ago he'd been leading hundreds-was brought to life by prods from Post, except for Tayland. "We're boxed in. We've got three guns with ammunition still between us"-Valentine still carried his old PPD out of affectation; it was as impotent as one of the quartz-etched rocks jutting from the soil-"and I've not seen a hint of friendly forces."
Jefferson, the Texas drover at the horse's head, asked, "How many are coming after us?"
"More than enough."
He let that sink in for a moment, then went on. "I'm going to have to ask you to trust me. The Quislings love nothing better than taking prisoners."
"You want to surrender?" Post asked.
"Worse," Valentine said. "I want all of you to surrender. We fight it out here and we'll just be dead. Giving up, you have a chance."
"They'll feed us before they'll kill us," Striper said. "I'll hold my hands high, if it means hot tuck and sleep." His mate looked down, blinking at tears.
"I'll follow. I expect they'll take you back to Bern Woods; we've been heading that way for the last two hours, and we know mat town is occupied. Perhaps something will turn up."
"I could play that I'm your prisoner," Ahn-Kha said. "They might keep an eye on me, but leave me free."
"No, I'll need you at the town."
"You want to see if there's any Quickwood left?" Ahn-Kha asked.
"I want the rest of our men. The wood will have to wait."
"How about a vote, Captain?" Post asked.
All Valentine saw was the top of his hat as the man spoke. "Yes, sir. I give up."
The Jamaican nodded. He took out a small eating knife and tossed it to the ground.
"Slave labor camp's not my style," Jefferson said.
"You're free to try to make it on your own."
"Okay then," Jefferson said. He knelt and relaced his boots.
"Tayland's still out," Post said.
Valentine handed Jefferson his canteen. "That leaves you, Will."
"Wonder if they'll send me back to New Orleans to hang as a renegade?"
"If that happens, I'll surrender and hang with you," Valentine said.
Post shrugged. "Sure. Don't do that though, sir. Just find my wife and tell her what happened on the Thunderbolt."
The only other refugee from the column couldn't speak. The horse just shifted a foreleg out and gulped air.
"That's it then," Valentine said. He walked around to the rear of the horse, and opened Tayland's eye. The pupil reacted to the light of the overcast, but the former Texas wagon-man showed no sign of regaining consciousness. Valentine nodded to Post, who untied the saplings from the horse's saddle. They lowered the litter to the ground, placing it gently on the winter leaves. Jefferson shook hands with everyone, accepted Post's pistol, received a few words of encouragement and some jerkey in wax paper from Striper, and ran southward.
"I couldn't run if the devil himself poked me," Ewenge said, watching him go. Jefferson waved as he disappeared from sight. The Jamacian marine mechanically removed the horse's saddle and wiped the sweat from its back.
"They'll be here soon. Walk around a lot and mess up the tracks," Valentine told Post. "If they ask about me, tell them I took off hours ago."
"What about me?" Ahn-Kha asked.
"You left now. Scared Grog running for tall timber."
"You'll leave tracks just like Jefferson, Captain," Striper said. "Maybe they follow you too."
Valentine nodded to Ahn-Kha, who was, as usual, ahead of his human ally's thoughts in throwing a blanket over his shoulders. Ahn-Kha bent over and Valentine climbed onto his back. He clung there like a baby monkey.
"One set of tracks," Post said. "Good luck, sir. Don't worry about us. Remember to find Gail. Gail Foster, her maiden name was. Tell her..."
"You were wrong," Valentine offered.
Post bit his lip. "Just 'I'm sorry.""
Valentine thought of telling Post that he could tell her himself, but with hope vanished from the Ozarks like the winter sun, he couldn't bring himself to offer an empty lie to a friend.
* * * *
Ahn-Kha ran, legs pounding like twin piledrivers in countersynch, clutching his long Grog rifle in one hand and Valentine's empty gun in the other. The trees went by in a blur.
They splashed up an icy stream, startling a pair of ducks into flight. If the freezing water hurt the Grog's long-toed feet, he gave no indication.
Valentine heard a distant shot from the direction of Post's group.
"Stop," he told Ahn-Kha.
Ahn-Kha took two more steps, and placed Valentine on a flat-topped rock midstream.
"You need a rest?" Ahn-Kha asked, blowing.
"I heard a shot."
"Maybe a signal?"
"Or something else."
Only the running water, wind and an occasional bird could be heard in the Arkansas pines and hardwoods. Ahn-Kha shivered. Valentine saw a fallen log upstream, felled by erosion so that it lay like a ramp up the riverbank.
"Let's cut back. Carefully."
* * * *
It was Tayland. His eyes were shut, and he had the strangely peaceful look of the recently dead.
They'd just left him in the woods on his litter, wrapped in blankets that would soon be disturbed by birds or coyotes, a bullet hole dead center in his chest. The tracks said that a group of men and dogs had turned after Jefferson, but no one had bothered to follow the lone Grog.
As he said a few words of prayer over the deceased, Valentine remembered Tayland, wounded as they fled the ambush at Bern Woods, cutting the horse free from the traces of a teammate with a big bowie knife. He rooted around at the man's waist, and freed the knife and its scabbard.
The blade was sticky with its owner's blood.
"Shall we bury him?" Ahn-Kha asked.
"No. They might send a party back to get the body. You never know."
"The tracks lead back to town," Ahn-Kha observed. A wide trail showed that men walked to either side of the short-stepping prisoners. They'd probably put them in shackles.
Valentine nodded into the big, enquiring eyes and the pair turned to follow the trail.
* * * *
If it weren't for the winter drizzle, the rider would have raised dust. Valentine watched him come into Bern Woods from the north, long coat flapping to the thunderous syncopation of his lathered mount's hooves. He clutched mane and reigns in his right hand, leaning far over his horse's neck so his left could wave a red-and-white-striped gusset above him, hallooing all the way.
Valentine waited and watched the guards in the south-gate tower smoke cigarettes. He felt strangely uneasy in his hiding place, near the foundation of a flattened house outside of town where he stowed his .45 automatic and clothes. He was concealed well enough, under a sheet-sized length of old carpet, planted with mud, leaves and twigs. He had used the carapace to crawl at a turtle's pace from the ruin.
It took only fifteen minutes of the forty or so before sunset for them to ride out again. The messenger trotted a new horse at the head of two clattering diesel pickups, beds loaded with support-weapons men, and tracking dogs riding in baskets tied to the cabin roofs. Behind the oil-burners a column of twos streamed out of Bern Woods, their horses tripping in the winter ruts of the broken road. Then a final figure appeared. Valentine drew an anxious breath. A Reaper. It strode out in a meter-eating quick-march, booted feet a blur under heavy cape and cowl.
The final figure explained his uneasiness while waiting. Something about a Reaper's presence gave him what an old tent-mate from the Wolves had called the "Valentingle." At times it was so bad the hair on the back of his neck stood straight out, or it could manifest as a cold, dead spot in his mind. It was a capricious talent; he'd once walked over a Reaper lying hidden in a basement without a hint of it, but in another time and place he'd felt one on top of a hill a mile away. The Reapers, the praetorian guard doing the bloody work of Earth's Kurian Order that raised, and devoured, his species like cattle, had the ability too. They could sense humans through night and fog, rain or snow. Only through special training could men hide their presence; training that he had started when he was nineteen, seven long years ago. Since the ambush he'd-
Stop it . Since the ambush, regrets about his misjudgments while bringing his convoy home, his eagerness to turn the men and material over to the first Southern Command uniform he saw, had tormented him hourly, and he clenched his fists in frustration until bruises appeared in his palms. Valentine called himself back to the outskirts of Bern Woods and watched the column disappear up the old highway.
Ahn-Kha must have hit the bridge post. They had scouted the blockhouses to either end of the old concrete bridge-it turned out only one was occupied; three soldiers mat hardly qualified for a corporal's guard-and Valentine told Ahn-Kha to pick off a man or two from the distance with his Grog gun an hour before sunset, before heading toward Tayland's body. The bridge was only a mile north of Bern Woods; they'd call for help from there.
His part was more of a challenge. After changing domes in a lonely, recently abandoned farmhouse-he'd found a suitably smelly set of overalls, a knit coat and a shapeless woolen winter cap, and muddied his boots sufficiently so tuey wouldn't be an instant giveaway-he kept the snakeskin bandolier, wrapping it about his waist beneath the overalls. He wanted to be within the palisade around the old border-town before nightfall. Once in, he would have to evaluate which options were likely, which were possible, and which were madness.
He started a cautious creep toward the wall, down a ditch beside what had once been a short road heading west out of town, still beneath his moldering carapace. Even after he was out of sight of the guard-tower he stayed in the ditch. He abandoned the carpet while still away from the wall, since a patrol would find it more suspicious up close than abandoned in the field.
Boarded-up windows and corrugated aluminum nailed over doors faced him from the backs of what had been the main street of the town. Many of me little roadside towns in the borderlands of the Ozark Free Territory were like this, walling the spaces between buildings with wire-topped timber blocking any ingress other than the gate; what had been a sleepy rural town was now a frontier fort.
It went dark with the suddenness of a clouded winter night. Valentine's night vision took over-another biological modification, courtesy of me Lifeweavers, the ancient enemies and blood relations of Earth's new masters. Colors muted but edge details stood out. The grain of the wall and blades of tired winter grasses formed their delicate patterns on his enhanced retinas. Valentine's nose picked up the town's evening aromas of wood smoke, coal smoke, tobacco, cooking and outdoor toilets. The last was especially noticeable, as his ditch served as an open-air septic tank at the end of a pipe running from under the wall. He slunk up on the sluice that served as the town's sewer from downwind. If a dog patrol came, there was a chance that the odor would mask his.
Valentine examined the sewer-pipe. The PVC plastic was not something he could wiggle through, but rainwater making its way into the ditch had opened a gap under that part of the wall. Child-sized hand-and footprints ringed the gap. He smelled and listened for a moment, then crawled for the break.
If he was lucky-which he hadn't been since leaving the piney woods of Texas, admittedly-the garrison of Bern Woods would be short enough on pairs of eyes that it would be all they could do to keep the gate, prison and tower manned.
Waiting had never gained him much, so he stuck his head under the gap. The sluice stood next to what looked to have been a chicken takeout, the remnants of its friendly red-and-yellow decor incongruous next to the Fort Apache palisade.
He drew Tayland's bowie knife and wiggled through. The fighting knife was the only weapon he carried. Being gunless kept him cautious and alert. It might also buy him a little time if he were captured. The only people allowed to carry guns in the Kurian Zone were those who worked for the regime; a quick harvesting in the grasp of the Reapers was the usual punishment for anyone else found with a firearm.
The town wasn't electrified at the moment. Valentine saw a few lanterns and marked the faint glow of candlelight from the upper stories of the buildings on the main street. He smelled diesel and heard a generator clattering some distance away to the south. Following his ears, he saw drums in a fenced-in enclosure next to a shed behind a stoutly built building.
Valentine got away from the wall as quickly as he could. The town seemed empty. He untied his long hair and mussed it with his fingers so it covered the scar on the side of his face, and pulled the hat down to his eyebrows. He took a slow walk toward the highway cutting the town in two, turning onto the main street at a gas station whose garage now sheltered broken-down horses instead of broken-down cars. He recognized the horse that had been dragging Tayland in an oil-change bay.
In the Kurian Zone you had to walk a fine line between looking like you were busy and drawing attention to yourself. He walked purposefully toward the one building lit with electricity.
A feed store still held feed, by the look of it, but the drug and sundry had been recendy boarded up.
The brightly lit building turned out to be the town bank, complete with drive-thru teller, though it had become an antique store sometime before the cataclysm of 2022, judging from an old, rain-washed sign painted where once tellers had stood behind armored glass to service cars. Blue banners, with three gold stars set in a horizontal white stripe, hung from the flagpole next to the door of the bank/antique shop. A painted sign jutting from a pile of whitewashed rocks announced its latest incarnation: Station 46. Red-painted gallows stood just a few steps from the headquarters at what had been an intersection, dominating the central street like a grim plaza statue. There was no trapdoor, just a pair of poles and a crossbeam.
A tall sentry with a forehead mat bore an imprint where it might have been kicked by a horse's hoof stood to one side of the door. Another man, proportionally older and rounder, sat in an ornate rocking chair with a shotgun across his lap. His sideburns were russet, but the sparse hair streaming out from under a pisscutter cap was gray. Both wore khaki uniforms with brown leather pads at the knees, shoulders and elbows, though the seated one had lieutenant's bars and a more elaborate uniform.
"Is this Station 46?" Valentine drawled, head tilted to match the poor leveling of the sign's face.
"Goddammit, seems like every day I hear that," the older man screeched. "The friggin' sign is out there, plain as paint, everything but a spotlight on it. But still I hear 'Is this Station 46?" from some shitheel six times a week and twice on Sundays. Never fails."
"So this is Station 46?" Valentine asked.
The aged lieutenant turned even redder. "Yes, dammit! This is Station 46."
"I'm to speak to the commanding officer."
"He ain't here, boy. I mean, that's me, seeing as he's out. Whatever the question is, the answer is 'no." Now get going before I jail you for breaking curfew, you dunk."
Valentine was happy to swallow the abuse, as long as the lieutenant stayed angry.
"I was told by one of your officers to speak to the commanding officer, Station 46. That's what I'm here to do, sir."
The lieutenant leaned forward in his rocking chair. "What about?"
"My boy's watchin' two pen of hawgs bit north of here, "round Blocky Swamp. There's a lot less hawgs in those pens thanks to some sergeant with a uniform like yours. He didn't pass any scrips or warrants, just took 'em. He told me if I had a problem with it to speak to the officer commanding, Station 46, Bern Woods. Walked all day, practically, as I do have a problem with someone just takin' my stock."
"What the crap, dunk? Haven't you heard yet? There's been some changes, boy. Southern Command's not riding 'round handing out scrip no more. That's all over and out."
Valentine widened his stance.
"I don't fight these wars, or know about it from nothing, and I keep my boys outta it too. I'm short salt and flour and sugar; thought I'd pick some up and catch up on the news after Christmas. But being short hawgs now too, I thought a trip to town was in order. I want to write on some papers and make a complaint."
"A complaint? A complaint?"
"That's correct, sir."
The old man wavered in perplexity, then looked at Valentine sidelong, under lowered lids, like a bull trying to make up its mind whether to charge or run.
"I'll take your statement," he said. "I don't expect you'll get the answer you're looking for, but I warned ya fair."
"Thanks. Would've saved us both some time if you'd done so in the first place," Valentine said.
The older man snorted and led him inside the command post. He held the door open for Valentine with a grin, and Valentine suddenly liked the aged lieutenant a little better, and hoped it wouldn't come to killing.
Little remnants of both the banking heritage and retail life of the building remained in me form of a vault and stock tables. Valentine looked inside the vault, where arms and boxes of ammunition stood in disarray from the hurried muster he had seen ride out of town. A few footlockers and gun cases with Southern Command notations on them huddled in a corner as though frightened of the new pegs and racks. Opposite the vault a row of rooms held prisoners, confined behind folding metal gates like those used to protect urban merchants' streetside windows from burglars. Valentine counted the men, his heart shrinking three sizes when he recognized their faces. Eleven remaining marines from the Thunderbolt sat in the bare, unlit cells-pictures of grubby despair. Post and the two Jamaicans occupied another cell. Two more, in Texan clothes, shared another; Jefferson passed him a hint of a shrug-he had dried blood from a cut lip in his beard. The other was a drover named Wilson. Guilt pulled at him with an iron hook. The marines took in Valentine with darting eyes but said nothing. The surviving teamster ignored him.
Valentine heard a hoot, and turned his head to see a pair of Grogs in loincloths. Simpler, shorter versions of the Golden One known as Grey Ones, they bore brooms and dustpans, cleaning rags and wood oil. They were the last of Ahn-Kha's team, the lucky pair who had made it all the way to Haiti and back. Not bright enough to understand Valentine's disguise, they chattered in excitement at his familiar face. Valentine took a step back.
"Hell, those things give me the creeps. You got them in town?" Valentine asked, feigning fright.
The Grogs gamboled up to him, hooting. Valentine put a long table between him and the excited pair.
"Must be the smell of pigs," the temporary commander mused. He pushed the Grogs off.
"Don't let 'em touch me," Valentine said. The fear in his voice was real enough. If the officer decided to point the shotgun and start asking questions, there wasn't much he could do.
"What's all d'excitement?" a musical voice asked, coming from the hallway behind the Grogs.
Valentine looked down at Narcisse. She was uninjured- assuming one didn't count the missing legs and left hand, old souvenirs of her escape attempts on Santo Domingo-and dressed in her customary colorful rags and bandannas. She "walked" by swinging her body on her handless arm, using the limb as a crutch. An accomplished cook was welcome in any army, and she'd been put to work, judging from the aluminum dish gripped in her good hand. Valentine's sensitive nose detected the aromas of hot peppers and thyme in the steaming mixture of pork and rice. Narcisse looked once at Valentine, and then turned to the officer, pivoting on her left arm like a ballet dancer on pointe.
The Grogs forgot Valentine at the smell of food.
"You ready to eat, Cap'n? Extra spicy, just like you asked."
The older man's nostrils widened. "Sure am." He picked up a yellowed piece of blank paper and a pencil, and handed them to Valentine. "Get lost, boy. Write down your complaint, then give it back to me."
"This isn't official; it doesn't have a seal," Valentine said.
"There's enough for your friend, Cap'n. He looks hungry."
He glowered down on Narcisse. "You're supposed to feed officers first, then the men, and the prisoners long way last. He can try for a meal at the church hall."
"Yes, Cap'n. Sorry, mister, I just do what I'm told. Thank you, Cap'n."
Valentine picked up the pencil. "Can I write this in here where there's light?"
"As long as you shut up and stay out of my way, you can do what you like."
Narcisse filled the officer's plate, and brought out a plastic water jug with a cup rattling on the nozzle. "You want me to take some to the boys in the tower, Cap'n?"
"No, they're on duty. We're short men with the Visor out with the riders."
"Yes, Cap'n. Apple cider?" For someone with only one hand, Narcisse acted the part of a servant with skill.
"There's some left? Sure. This is some fine spicy. I'm from Dallas, and I'll tell you that this is good cooking."
"Thank you, Cap'n."
The officer, who never corrected her when she called him "Cap'n," even ate with the shotgun in his lap. Valentine looked at the service pips on his sleeve, wondering why a man with so many years was just a lieutenant, and a junior one at that. Valentine wrote out his phony story in scraggly block capitals. The wall above him was festooned with wanted posters and poorly reproduced photos, perhaps a hundred in all. "Terrorism" and "Sabotage" looked to be the two most common crimes, though "Speculation" appeared on some. He recognized one face: Brostoff, a hard-drinking lieutenant he had served with six years ago when he ran with the Wolves of Zulu Company. There was a four-year bounty on him. Just beneath Brostoff was a half-familiar face; Valentine had to look a second time to be sure. A handsome young black man looked into the camera with calm, knowing eyes. Frat-listed in the handbill as F. Carlson-had a ten-year bounty on him for assassination and sabotage. Frat would be about twenty now, Valentine calculated. He'd last seen him when he brought Molly back to the Free Territory and reunited her with her family, when the youth was serving his term as an aspirant prior to becoming a Wolf.
Valentine watched Narcisse sneak a few spoonfuls out to the guard on duty, but when she stumped her way over to the men in the cells, the lieutenant growled at her. As she turned away from the prisoners' outstretched arms she gave Valentine a significant wink.
"Dix minutes," Narcisse said, under her breath.
Narcisse had shown her talents before in Haiti and beyond, where her curious mixture of herbalism and vaudou rendered surprising results. She had once put a man named Boul to sleep with a mickey in his chicken. He had also seen fevered men recover and be walking around in perfect health a day after one of her infusions. Biochemistry or magic, she performed miracles with food and the contents of her spice bag.
Valentine counted the minutes and continued his scrawled essay on the loss of his fictitious stock, punctuated by plate scrapings and burps from behind. At last he heard the utensils laid down.
"Aww, I'm stuffed," the lieutenant belched. Valentine crossed out a misspelled word and wrote a new one above it with an eye on the lieutenant, occupied exploring one hairy ear with a pinky. The oldster looked thoughtful, then doubtful, and gave a little burp.
The lieutenant stood up so fast his chair fell over backward. He went to the door at a quick walk, picking up the shotgun on the way. "Watch things in here," he ordered the man outside, handing over the pump-action.
The tall younger guard entered, the shotgun looking like a child's toy in his grasp. "He okay?"
"Just finished his meal and left. Shithouse run, I suppose."
The guard sat down and put his feet on the table, shotgun in his lap. Valentine tried to keep his eyes on the paper, rather than the odd crescent-shaped dimple across the man's forehead.
"Oh hell, I got 'em too," the giant said, standing up. "C'mon, can't leave you in here alone," he added, grabbing some keys.
"Out, pig-man, or I'll throw you out," the private threatened, his eyes bright with anxiety.
Valentine relented, and the man escorted him out, and turned the key in the lock of the steel door. It looked like the only modification to the outside of the structure in dozens of years.
Valentine stepped aside on the porch. The guard hurried around me corner, undoing his suspenders with the shotgun under his arm.
He heard the lock turn.
"Daveed, I thought you'd never come," Narcisse said, smiling up at him. "Let me show you where they keep the spare keys."
* * * *
The tall private returned, a little white-faced. His face drained even more when he unlocked the door and found a phalanx of rifles and shotguns pointed at him.
"You want to put me gun down?" Valentine asked from a corner, a tiny .22 automatic he'd found in a box marked "local confiscations" in his hand.
The private's eyelids fluttered and he toppled over in a dead faint.
"Beats shooting him," Wilson said, picking the dropped shotgun off the floor.
"About time we got a break. Andree, Botun, handcuff him and get him in a cell. Jefferson," Valentine said to the other Texas teamster, "keep your gun at his head."
"What did you put in the food?" Valentine asked Narcisse as his men tied the private lying against the bottom bars of a cell. Post was still in the vault, choosing weapons and ammunition for their flight.
"Cascara Buckthorn bark, child. Opens them up good."
They repeated the procedure when the lieutenant staggered back in.
"Fuck me," the old man groaned when he read the situation.
"No thank you," Valentine said, pulling the revolver out of the lieutenant's hip holster. "I'll leave that for the Hoods."
The man put hand to collarbone, as if to ward off the probing tongue snaking its way toward his heart already. "They'll have me."
"Like you care."
"Help me get past the gate and I'll let you get a running start for Dallas, Lieutenant. Or wherever. You might have a chance."
"Seems to me it's my choice of the frying pan or the fire," the old man said.
"A fight is the last thing I want," Valentine said.
"You're the leader of the column, right? Some kinda Indian scout for the commissary wagons? They said he had black hair and a scar."
"You going to trust this turncoat, sir?" Jefferson said. "I say we don't even give the Reapers the satisfaction. Leave the two of them hangin' with greeting cards for when they come back."
The old man stiffened. Damn, almost had him.
"Jefferson, make yourself useful in the kitchen, please. Narcisse is packing up, and we need food." He turned to the Quisling. "Look, Lieutenant... err..."
"M'Daw, mister good cop."
"I'm going to offer you a deal, M'Daw. Help us get away clean. You're a lieutenant; you must have some idea where patrols and so on are out. You get us out of this town without bloodshed, and I'll let you go in a day or two with food and water to walk to safety."
"Shove, dunk," M'Daw said.
"Let me finish. The alternative is we kill every man of your troop in town. There can't be that many of them."
M'Daw said nothing.
"Hard way it is," Valentine said. He beckoned one of his Jamaicans. "Ewenge, keep an eye on this man. Post!"
"Sir?" his lieutenant called from the vault.
"We need to be ready to move in fifteen minutes," he said, removing his boots. He slipped a spare box of .22 shells in his overall pocket and picked up Tayland's bowie knife, then found a towel in the little kitchen atop a twenty-gallon water cask. "I'm going to make sure the streets are clear."
The streets were clear enough-a Kurian curfew had that effect. After test-firing the pistol a few times in the clattering generator shed-the tiny pop of the .22 could hardly be heard over the buzzing rattle of the generator-Valentine crept along the town wall, listening all the way. Only half the buildings in the little widening-in-the-road town seemed occupied.
He got his first rats at the tower. A Quisling, maybe seventeen and in a coat too big for his shoulders, stood watch in the bullet-scarred gate-tower as faint snores echoed from inside. The muzzle of a mounted machine gun pointed toward the sky, a canvas tube on it to keep the on-again, off-again rain from wetting it. Valentine waited until he moved to another corner, and heard a faint sigh and a heavy step as the kid crossed the sleeping sentry.
Valentine didn't take the ladder to the tower. Instead he jumped from an outhouse and ran along a beam that reinforced the wooden palisade, a six-meter drop to either side.
The boy turned as Valentine swung into the tower. Valentine shot him three times with the .22, wrapped up in an old towel to muffle the shots. He didn't watch the kid go down, tried not to listen to the bubbling of aspirated blood as he used the knife on the sleeping sentry.
He held the knife tucked under his armpit, shoved the gun back in the overalls, felt the warm blood on the floor of the tower with his chilled feet. Deep inside his lizard-brain, the shadowy part of himself, the part of himself that the rest of his soul hated, exulted.
Valentine lifted the beltless machine gun from its mount and went to the other side of the tower, overlooking the gate. The gate guard stood there looking up, perhaps trying to make sense of the strange clicks and clunks from the tower. Valentine threw the machine gun at him, readied the now-bloody knife again and followed the weapon over the side of the tower.
He missed the third rat with his jump. The man saw him leap and ran-Valentine noted that he limped-and as he gave a shout Valentine was on his back, knocking him down with a body blow even as the knife went into the guard's kidney. The man let out a hissing scream as Valentine straddled him, reaching for the .22. He pressed the gun to the back of the guard's neck and pulled the trigger. The .22 cracked like a small firework. Valentine pulled the body into an alley and took its coat off. Once he had the guard's coat and hat on he reloaded his gun, looking up the street. He saw a faint outline in an upstairs window above a former Ozark Shop 'n Swap.
Valentine trotted to the other side of town, keeping in the shadows. He saw another figure, also in a Quisling fatigue coat, moving down the street equally cautiously. Valentine waved him over, but turned his back so he could ostensibly keep watch in the direction he'd come from.
The man took a few cautious steps and stopped-maybe he'd spotted Valentine's lack of boots. Valentine threw himself into a doorway, putting comforting bricks in between himself and the Quisling, and drew his gun. He followed its muzzle out and saw the man dashing across the street to Station 46. Valentine fired one shot on pure instinct-missed- and lowered the gun. Post was waiting within Station 46, and there was plenty of cell space.
* * * *
The residents of Bern Woods learned what was happening when they saw their neighbors in the street. Valentine posted Ewenge as a lookout, and as he returned from the tower he had thirty people vying for attention, for news, for some sign that the world they had known had been restored. They picked him out as the man in charge despite his mundane and musty clothes.
Valentine had no answers. The shadowy confusion reminded him of another night, in Oklahoma, when he'd had to leave the residents of the Rigyard after smoking out four Reapers. No matter which way he turned, another desperate face, another clutching hand-
"When are our boys coming back?"
"You can't leave us!"
"Reprisals. There'll be reprisals."
"They drained a man last week, right in front of everyone. Over a dozen eggs. A dozen eggs!"
He had no orders, no higher authority to consult. Instead of being a burden, it was liberating. The decision came easily. This time he could give them a running start.
He ordered Jefferson and Wilson to take what riding animals they could and arm the residents from the remaining weapons at Station 46, and then ride for the Texas pines as though the devil were at their heels-a metaphor not far from the truth. Trackers would follow the hoofprints, but the thick pine woods were only a few hours' hard ride, and every mile they went into East Texas would improve their chances of meeting guerillas-perhaps even the well-armed party he'd crossed Texas with.
Jefferson shook his head and showed Valentine a gap-toothed grin. "I left you once, sir. These Dallas brownshirts started a fight, took out three teeth. I want to be around for the finish. Wilson knows stock as well as I do, and any ten-year-old can figure out what direction south is."
* * * *
The survivors of Valentine's illfated wagon train left as soon as they had gathered their necessities. He'd hoped to find some of the precious Quickwood he'd brought back from the Caribbean, but found just a trio of shot-up wagons. Valentine trotted out to the house where he'd hidden his clothes and .45 to retrieve them, but didn't take the time to change out of the overalls. The troops out hunting Ahn-Kha might give up and return at any moment.
He returned to the remains of his command. They were laden with all the food and water they could carry; even a flour barrel slung from a hammock tied to a pair of two-by-fours. The Grogs carried this last, happy to be moving in the company of men they knew. Narcisse rode on a marine's shoulders.
Valentine, pistol held behind the bib of his overalls, fell into pace behind M'Daw; left-right, left-right...
They shut the gate again behind them. "What'll it be, M'Daw?"
"I think the healthiest thing to do is tag along with you."
Valentine carefully lowered the hammer on his automatic, relieved. He had been nerving himself to shove the pistol into the old man's stomach, muffling the gunshot with paunchy flesh. "I'm glad you said that, M'Daw," he said, quite honestly.
Valentine's Cat-eye night vision caught motion at the base of the wall.
A pair of figures ran toward them. Valentine brought up his gun, but marked a woman's long brown hair.
"Sir, you clearing out?" the unknown man said as it began to rain. He had the dried-out look of a man with a lot of outdoor mileage.
"Mister... uhhh ..." the woman put in.
"You can call me Ghost."
"My name's Rich Smalls," the man said. "This is my wife, Tondi. We got to find my boy."
"You'd better find him in a hurry. Mr. Wilson is leaving for Texas right now," Valentine said.
"We want to go," Tondi Smalls said. She was a short woman with straight, black hair below her shoulders, and pretty features marred by worry. Valentine guessed her to be six or seven months pregnant. "You're heading north, right? Our son's watching some horses in pasture. It's in that direction."
"We're going to be moving hard," Valentine said. "You sure you can keep up?"
"Would horses help?" Mr. Smalls said. "There's twenty or more horses in Patchy Pines. They'll be fresh and rested. Been on pasture for weeks."
"We'll need them. Show me, Mr. Smalls. You're a godsend."
"I could say the same about you, mister. It's been a hellacious year."
"I'd like to hear about it. Horses first. No tack, I suppose."
"Just rope, for leads."
"Bareback it is," Valentine said.
* * * *
Smalls led the way down a bridle track, and fifteen minutes' walk brought them to the pasture.
The meadow circled a little cluster of pines and rocks, and was in turn surrounded by thicker trees, forming a badly cooked doughnut. The cold rain had faded into a drizzle, which would become snow as soon as the temperature dropped a degree or two more. Valentine, the crisis in town past, felt suddenly exhausted as he led his wet column northeast into the clearing. He heard stamping sounds of nervous horses under the trees as they splashed across a tiny creek swollen from the winter rain.
The meadow was too close to town. Valentine hurried his men toward a fire set under a rock overhang. Old cuts of carpet hanging from the rock made a shelter somewhere between a tent and a shack. Smalls ran ahead.
"Hank, you there? Wake up boy, your mother's here."
"Yes, Pa," a sleepy voice said from under the overhang. Valentine saw a bow and a quiver of arrows hung in the branches of a nearby tree. Joints of meat, cut from an animal that was probably a mule, also hung in the boy's camp.
A blanket-draped boy emerged, looking to be about thirteen years old and in the midst of a growth spurt. He wore brown corduroy pants, topped with a leather-trimmed blue shirt decorated with a gold star, similar to the one on the flag outside Station 46.
"Don't let the uniform bother you, sir," Smalls said, closing up the blanket on the boy's shoulders so it covered the star. "He spends a lot of time out in the woods on his own, and it's better if he's in the Honor Guard."
Valentine didn't have to ask what the Honor Guard was. Most Kurian Zones had it in one form or another; paramilitary training and indoctrination for the youth. A good record for a child usually meant safety for the parents. Valentine had seen a dozen forms of it in his travels under an assumed identity in the Kurian Zone, but he found it obscene here in what had been the Ozark Free Territory, as if his childhood church had been converted into a brothel.
"Hank, these are some Southern Command soldiers," Smalls said. "They're going to take us with them." Mrs. Smalls nodded.
"Uhh, with the horses?" the boy asked.
"Yes. Go and start rounding them up."
"Just a second. Where'd these joints come from?" Smalls asked.
"Wounded mule. Wandered in two days ago with a wagon team; smelled out the other horses I suppose. I quick hid the wagon and the harnesses, and put 'em with our horses. Some searchers came through and didn't know the difference, so we're up five head for sly-trading."
"You say there was a wagon?" Valentine asked.
"Yessir. It was kinda shot up."
"Did the searchers find it?"
"Sorta. I put her the middle of the field like it'd been parked there when a team was unhitched. There wasn't much in it, just a big load of lumber, so they didn't look twice at it. They asked if I was gonna build a hut out here. I said it was for a smokehouse. I was more worried about them finding the Texas driving rig I'd tossed in the creek, or them noticing new horses missing brands."
"Where?" Valentine asked, so intensely that the boy shrank against his mother in fear.
"Sorry, Hank, is it? My name's David, and I was in charge of those wagons. Where is it?"
"Just the other side of these trees, sir. C'mon, I'll show you."
"Corporal Botun," Valentine ordered. "Keep everyone together here. C'mon, Jefferson, let's see what we can do with this rig."
Valentine followed the boy and Smalls, the tall Texas teamster at his side. At a word from Narcisse, the marine carrying her trailed along. They cut through a mixture of pine and hickory and came to the other side of the meadow ringing the boy's wooded campsite. The wagon stood there, its battered wooden sides dark and wet in the night's gloom. Valentine couldn't restrain himself. He ran and jumped up into the bed of the wagon like a mountain goat leaping to a higher rock.
A load of wooden four-by-four beams, coated with preservative resin, lay in the bed of the wagon. The raindrops beaded up and ran off like flowing tears. Tears that matched those on Valentine's face, concealed by the drizzle. He couldn't do anything about the dead men he'd failed. But now he could do something for those still living. Shaking, he turned to Narcisse.
"Quickwood," Narcisse said, looking into the wagon from atop the marine's shoulders.
"What kinda wood?" Smalls said.
Valentine sank to his knees in the bed of the wagon, running his hands along the beams. "Mister Smalls, I owe your boy a mountain of gratitude."
"Why's that? For finding your wagon?"
"A lot more. Hank might have just saved the Free Territory."