Valentine's Rising (Page 2)

Pony Hollow, Arkansas, Christmas Eve: One of the winter snowstorms that blows this far south dusts the Ouachitas with tiny pellets of snow. Less painful than hail and less treacherous than freezing rain, the snow taps audibly on the remaining leaves as it falls. The snowstorm provides the only motion in the still of the afternoon as curtains of it ripple across the landscape. Bird and beast seek shelter, leaving the heights of the rounded mountains to the wind and bending bough.

The ridges of the Ouachitas here run east-west, as if a surveyor had laid them out using a compass. But for the pines, the rocky heights of the mountains would look at home in the desert West; the mesalike cliffs rise above a carpet of trees, naked cliffs cutting an occasional grin or frown into the mountainside. Between the ridges creek-filled hollows are the abode of bobcat and turkey, songbird and feral hog. The latter, with their keen senses matched by cunning and surprising stealth, are challenging animals to hunt.

But one of the callous-backed swine has fallen victim to a simple speared deadfall of Grey One design, baited with a sack of corn. After thorough boiling, individual chops sputter in a pair of frying pans within a rambling, abandoned house. The fugitives enjoy a Christmas Eve feast -complete with snowfall. Horses are tethered tightly together in the garage, blocked in by the recovered wagon in what had been the home's gravel driveway.

A single guard watches over the animals from the wagon seat, a horse blanket over his head and shoulders. The hairy mass snags the snow pellets out of the wind as if it were designed to do just that. David Valentine, sitting under his sugar-dusted cape, whittles a spear point out of a piece of Quickwood with Tayland's oversized Texas bowie. His dark eyes look in on the celebrating men and Grogs.

* * * *

"Pork chop?" William Post, former lieutenant of the Quisling Costal Marines, asked. He had found enough rags to complete an outfit of sorts, though the mixture left him looking like an unusually well-stuffed scarecrow. "It's practically still sizzling."

Valentine reached out with his knife and speared the chop. The meat was on the tough side, even after being boiled, but the greasy taste was satisfying.

"Merry Christmas, Val," Post said, his voice flavored with a hint of a Mississippi drawl. By common consent the formalities were dropped when they were alone together.

"Same to you, Will."

"My wife used to make peanut brickie and pecan pies at Christmas," Post said, his incipient beard catching the snow as well. There was a pause. Valentine knew that Post's wife had run away when he became a Quisling officer in New Orleans. "Narcisse is up to something with a pot of rice. I saw sugar out, too."

"Station 46 had a good larder. Sissy emptied it."

"Wonder what happened to that tall guard," Post said. "He didn't seem a bad sort."

"Not our problem."

"I know that. Can't help thinking about the poor bastard, though. I spent more time under them than you did. The choices are difficult. A lot of them don't cooperate with the regime as willingly as you think. Every other man's got a blind eye that he turns if he can get away with it."

"Yes. Those fellows weren't frontline material." Valentine stared off into the snowfall. "Where do you suppose their good soldiers are?"

"I think there's still fighting here and there."

"We've got one load of Quickwood left. We should try to find it."

Post nodded. "The men can't believe you went back for them, by the way."

"I owed them as much. Stupid of me to drop my guard, just because we were back in what I thought was the Free Territory. The ambush was my fault."

"Done with."

Valentine let it lie. He looked through the narrow windows of the house at the celebrating men. They weren't a fighting force anymore, and wouldn't be for a long time. They were survivors, happy to be warm, fed and resting.

"How's the radio holding up?"

His lieutenant had found a portable radio back at Station 46. "The Grogs love charging it up with the hand crank. I think they like to watch the lights come on. Lots of coded transmissions, or just operators BSing. I've gotten more information out of M'Daw."

"What does he say?"

"The Kurians only sorta run these lands; they're in the hands of a big Quisling Somebody named Consul Solon. Even M'Daw had heard of him. The rest I don't have facts about."

"He know anything about Mountain Home?" Valentine asked. The former capital of the Ozark Free Territory was tucked into the mountains for a reason.

"The president is gone. Don't know if he's dead or hiding. Smalls said the Kurians passed around a rumor mat he joined up with tuem, but he doesn't believe it."

"Can't see Pawls as a turncoat," Valentine said.

"You ever meet him?"

"No. He signed my promotion. Used to be an engineer. He got famous before I even came to the Ozarks, the last time the Kurians let loose a virus. I remember he was lieutenant governor when I came here in '62. He became governor in '65 while I was in Wisconsin."

"Maybe he made a deal. Happened before," Post said. "Like the siege at Jacksonville when I was little."

"I doubt a man who lost his kids to the ravies virus would take to cooperating." Valentine tossed the gnawed pork chop bone to the ground. One of the horses sniffed at it and snorted.

"You coming in for dessert?"

"I'll sit outside a bit. I like the snow. We always had a couple feet by Christmas in the Boundary Waters. Kills the sound, makes everything quiet. I like the peace."

Post shuddered. "You can keep it." His old lieutenant returned to the house.

The Free Territory gone. It was too big an event to get his thoughts around just yet.

The idea of the resourceful, hardworking people having succumbed to the Kurians after all this time was tragic on such a scale that it numbed him. His father had fought to establish this land; Gabriella Cho had died to defend it, hardly knowing the names of thirty of its inhabitants. The risks he ran, his innumerable sins against God and conscience, all were in defense of these hills and mountains-or, more properly, the families living among them.

He kept coming back to the kids. He'd spent enough time on both sides of the unmarked border to know where he was just by a glance at the children. They played differently in the Free Territory, laughed and made faces at soldiers passing through-though they tended to be on the scrawny side. Their better-fed cousins in the plains or on the half-flooded streets of New Orleans or in the cow barns of Wisconsin startled easily and watched strangers, especially those with guns or enclosed vehicles, with anxious eyes.

Valentine preferred laughter and the occasional raspberry. The thought of Hank, turned into one of those painfully quiet adolescents...

All fled, all gone, so lift me on the pyre...

Defeat had always been a possibility, but the Ozark Free Territory had stood so long, it seemed that it should always stand. This is how the residents in the skyscrapers of Miami must have felt as they saw the '22 surge roll over the hotels of South Beach: It's been there my whole life, how can it be gone? There had been invasions in the past, some shallow, some deep. Territory had been lost, or sometimes gained, for years. He'd seen a grim battlefield after a big fight up in Hazlett, Missouri, and heard the tales of the survivors. But the Kurians were by nature a jealous and competitive lot, sometimes at war with each other more than the Free Territory. To coordinate the kind of attack that could roll up the Ozarks would require sacrifices the surrounding principalities weren't willing to make. During his years of Cathood in the Kurian Zone, Valentine had formed a theory that the Ozarks were a useful bogeyman for the brutal regimes. Death and deprivation could always be blamed on "terrorists" in the Ozarks, or the other enclaves scattered around what had been North America.

Had the Free Territory been on the verge of becoming a real threat? A threat that had to be eliminated?

Did the Kurians know about his Quickwood?

No. No; if they had, the Bern Woods ambush would have been carried out by swarms of Reapers, not Quisling red-hands.

Valentine reached into his tunic and put his hand around the litde leather pouch hanging from a string about his neck. He felt the peanut-sized seeds of the Quickwood trees, given to him by the Onceler on Haiti, jumbled together with Mali Carrasca's mahjong pieces. Had his mission on the old Thunderbolt not been so long delayed-first in New Orleans before the voyage and then later among the islands of the Caribbean-he would have gotten back to the Free Territory with a weapon that might have made a difference. Quickwood was lethal to the Reapers. The wood was a biological silver-bullet against the Frankensteinish death machines, aura-transmitting puppets of their Kurian lords.

Southern Command gone . Better than a hundred thousand men under arms-counting militias-defeated and apparently scattered or destroyed.

Regrets filled his stomach, writhed in there, like a cluster of wintering rattlesnakes clinging together in a ball. How much did the delay in Jamaica while the Thunderbolt was being repaired cost Southern Command? He could have pushed harder. He could have driven the chief away from his girlfriend; stood at the dry dock day and night, hurrying the work along. Instead he made love to Malia, rode horses across the green Jamaican fields, and played mahjong with her and her father. Malia...

Another if, another snake stirred and bit and he locked his teeth at the inner pain. Perhaps if he hadn't had his mind on the message from Mali about her pregnancy-I'm going to be a father, he reminded himself. He shoved the thought aside again as though it were a crime he hated to remember; he should have paid more attention to events after crossing back into what he thought was Free Territory, asked more questions, gotten to a radio. He might have avoided the ambush....

His droughts were turning in a frustrating circle again. He found he was on the verge of biting the back of his hand like an actor he'd once watched portraying a madman in a New Orleans stage melodrama. He was a fugitive, responsible for a single wagon rather than a train, running for his life with a handful of poorly armed refugees instead of the hundreds who had crossed Texas with him.

But he still had to see his assignment through. While he had never seen the plans, in his days as a Wolf he had been told that contingencies had been drawn up against the eventuality of a successful invasion. Southern Command had stores of weapons, food and medicines in the Boston Mountains, some me most rugged of the Ozarks. It didn't amount to anything other man a hope, but if some vestige of Southern Command existed, it was his duty to get the Quickwood into its hands.

There were obstacles beyond the Kurians. Getting north across the Arkansas River would be difficult. He had his shattered marines, a family with a pregnant woman, a Texas teamster and a Quisling he couldn't be sure of-and me precious wagonload of Quickwood. They were too many to move quietly and too few to be able to fight their way through even a picket line. He didn't know whether luck had gotten them this far into me Ouachitas or just Kurian nonchalance. The mountains were empty, almost strangely so; they had cut a few trails of large numbers of men, but only on old roads. If me Free Territory had fallen, he would expect the mountains to be thick with refugees: old Guard outfits, bands of Wolves, or just men determined to get their families out of the reach of the Kurians. Instead there was little but strings of empty homesteads in the hollows, fields and gardens already run to weed and scrub.

He looked down and discovered that he had finished his spear point. It was conical, and rough as a Neolithic arrowhead. They had no pointed steel caps for a tip of the kind Ahn-Kha had made on Haiti. Getting it through a Reaper's robes would be difficult.

* * * *

The Jamaicans were singing in the other room. One of them had found a white plastic bucket of the sort Valentine was intimately familiar with from his days gathering fruit in the Labor Regiment, and employed it as an instrument with the aid of wooden-spoon drumsticks. With the backbeat established, the rest of the voices formed, seemingly without effort on their part, a four-part harmony. The rest, military, civilian and Grog, sat around listening to the calypso carols.

Narcisse, in the kitchen with Valentine, scooped some rice pudding onto his plate. She used a high kitchen stool and a chair to substitute for legs, moving form one perch to the other as she cooked.

"I used to have one of these with a turning seat in Boul's kitchen. Got to get me another someday. You'll like this, child. Just rice, sugar and raisins," she explained, when he raised an eyebrow and sniffed at it. "Okay, a touch of rum, too. It's Christmas."


"I liberated the prisoners held in the officers' liquor cabinet back in town."

"You're a sly one. How did you make it inside that rigged-up jail? More magic?"

Narcisse spooned some more pudding into his cup. "Sissy's old, but she still has her game. Good thing I kept some coffee in my bag; those men back there didn't know a coffee bean from their earlobe. I ground it and brewed it, and before I knew it they had me in their kitchen. Just in case you didn't come back, I had them thinking that the Jamaicans were special farmers who knew how to grow coffee and cocoa and poppies for opiates. Was hoping to save their lives. Those soldiers believed me. Ignorance isn't strength."

"You know your George Orwell," Valentine said.

She shrugged. "Never met him. It was one of Boul's sayings." Boul was the man she cooked for before Valentine had brought her out of Haiti.

"Boul struck me as more the Machiavelli type."

"Daveed, you're troubled. You worried about the baby?"

Valentine was dumfounded. The letter Mali had left him with, with orders not to read it until he reached the Ozarks, had never left the pouch around his chest, where it rested among his precious seeds.

"Did Mali tell you?"

"Oh no, Daveed. I smell the child in her when we left Jamaica. She young and strong, Daveed; your girl'll be fine."

"It's a girl?" Valentine was ready to believe that someone who could smell a pregnancy could also determine the sex of an embryo.

"Daveed, you got to quit being a prisoner of the past. Forget about the future, too. Come back to the here and now; we need you."

Valentine glanced into the other room. Maybe it was the soft Caribbean tone of her voice, a bit like Father Max's. It reminded him he needed to confess. He lowered his voice. "Narcisse, there are people dying because I let them down. You know how that feels?"

Narcisse put down her spoon and joined Valentine at the table. Someone had spent some time varnishing the oak until the grain stood clear and dark-the Free Territory had been filled with craftsmen. The pattern reminded him of grinning demon faces.

"I've never been a soldier, child. Spent a lot of time run-nin' from them, but never been one. The men, wherever they're from, even those ape-men... they believe in this fight too. They're not as different from you as you think. They don't follow you blind, they follow you because they know that if it comes to a fight, they want to look out for you as much as you want to look out for them."

"Think so? Narcisse, I ran outside of Bern Woods. I got up and ran."

"No. I saw Ahn-Kha dragging you away with my own eyes."

"I still left."

"Dying with them wouldn't have done your people any good. You saved yourself for the next fight. You saved the wood, at least some of it."

"That was an accident. A lucky accident. An officer belongs with his men. If he doesn't share their fate, he hasn't done his duty to them. It's the oldest compact between a leader and the led. Goes back to whatever we had for society before civilization."

Narcisse thought this over. "Was it wrong of them to surrender?"

"Of course not. It was hopeless from the start."

"But you fought, they fought."

"Couldn't help it. It was instinct."

"When you left, Daveed, that was instinct too, no?"

"Not the kind you should give in to."

"The past can't be changed, child. You keep worrying at it, you'll be doing the same thing as you did at the fight. Running away. Don't pick at a scab, or a new one grows in its place. Let the hurt heal. In time, it'll drop off by itself. Better for you, better for the hurt. If there's one thing I know about, child, it's getting over a hurt."

The Vaudouist didn't refer to her injuries often. She answered questions about them to anyone who asked, but Valentine had never heard her use them as a trump card in an argument before. Valentine let her unusual statement hang in the air for a moment.

"Narcisse, it sounds fine, but... a bit of me that isn't quite my brain and isn't quite my heart won't be convinced yet."

"That's your conscience talking. He's worth listening to.

But he can be wrong ... sometimes."

* * * *

Valentine half dozed in front of the field pack with the headset on. Ahn-Kha snored next to him, curled up like a giant dog. Like most Quisling military equipment, the radio sitting on the table before him was ruggedly functional and almost aggressively ugly. Late at night the Quisling operators became more social, keeping each other company in the after-midnight hours of the quiet watches. Someone had just finished instructions on how to clear a gummed condensation tube on a still. His counterpart was complaining about the quality of the replacements they'd been getting: "Shit may float, but you can't build a riverboat outta it." Valentine twisted the dial back to a scratchier conversation about a pregnant washerwoman.

"So she goes to your CO. So what? She should be happy. She's safe for a couple years now. Over," the advice-giver said.

"She wants housing with the NCO wives. She's already got a three-year-old. She wants me to marry her so they can move in. Over," the advice-seeker explained.

"That's an old story. She's in it for the ration book, bro. Look, if a piece of ass pisses you off, threaten to have her tossed off-Station. That'll shut her up. Better yet, just do it. Sounds to me like she's-"

Valentine turned the dial again.

"... fight in Pine Bluff. Put me down for twenty coin on Jebro. He'll take Meredith like a sapper popping an old woman. Over."

"Sure thing. You want any of the prefight action? Couple of convicts. It's a blood-match; the loser goes to the Slits. Over."

Valentine had heard the term "Slits" used by rivermen on the Mississippi. It referred to the Reapers' slit-pupiled eyes, or perhaps the narrow wounds their stabbing tongues left above the breastbone.

"No, haven't seen 'em. I'd be wasting my money. Over."

Valentine heard a horse snort and jump outside the cracked window, the way an equine startled out of sleep readies all four feet for flight. The sound brought him awake in a flash. A pair of alarmed whinnies cut the night air.

Ahn-Kha came awake, nostrils flared and batlike ears up and alert.

"Arms! Quietly now, arms!" Valentine said to the sleeping men, huddled against the walls in the warm room where they had enjoyed dinner. He snatched up his pistol and worked the slide.

Ahn-Kha followed. How so much mass moved with such speed and stealth-

"What is it, my David?" Ahn-Kha breathed, his rubbery lips barely forming the words.

"Something is spooking the horses. Watch the front of the house. Post," Valentine said to his lieutenant, who had appeared in his trousers and boots, pulling on a jacket. "Get the Smalls and M'Daw into the cellar, please. Stay down there with them."

Valentine waved to the wagon sentry, Jefferson, but the man's eyes searched elsewhere. Jefferson had his rifle up and ready. Two of the horses reared, and he stood to see over them.

Three Reapers hurtled out of the snow, black-edged mouths open, bounding on spring-steel legs. Three! He and all his people would be dead inside two minutes.

"Reapers!" Valentine bellowed, bringing up his pistol in a two-handed grip. As he centered the front sight on one he noticed it was naked, but so dirt-covered that it looked domed. A torn cloth collar was all that remained of whatever it had been wearing. He fired three times; the .45 barked deafen-ingly in the enclosed space.

At the sound of the shots his men moved even faster. Two marines scrambled to the window and stuck their rifles out of the loophole-sized slats in the shutters.

A Reaper leapt toward Jefferson, whose gun snapped impotently, and Valentine reached for his machete as he braced himself for the sight of the Texan's bloody disassembly. Perhaps he could get it in the back as it killed Jefferson. But it didn't land on the sentry. The naked avatar came down on top of a horse; on the balls of its feet, like a circus rider. It reached for the animal's neck, got a good grip-Valentine almost heard the snap as the horse suddenly toppled. The Reaper's snake-hinged jaw opened wide as it straddled the fallen animal to feed.

The other two, robeless like the first and running naked in the snowstorm, also ignored Jefferson, chasing the horses instead. The Jamaicans' rifles fired in unison when one came around the cart and into the open, but the only effect Valentine saw was a bullet striking into a mount's rump. The horse dropped sideways with a Reaper on top of it. Some instinct made the wounded animal roll its heavy body across the spider-thin form and came to its feet, kicking. As the Reaper reached for the tail a pair of hooves caught it across the back, sending it flying against the cart. It lurched off into the darkness, clutching its chest and making a wheezing sound.

The third disappeared into the snowstorm, chasing a terrified bay.

"Stay with the others," he said to Ahn-Kha, who stood ready with a Quickwood spear point. He threw open the door-and held up his hands when Jefferson whirled and pointed the rifle at him, muzzle seemingly aimed right between his eyes. The gun snapped again.

Valentine almost flew to the feeding Reaper. It heard him and raised its head from the horse, the syringelike tongue still connected to the twitching animal. It lashed out. Valentine slipped away from the raking claw. The momentum of the Reaper's strike turned its shoulder, and Valentine buried his knife in its neck, forcing it facedown in the snow as the tongue retracted, flinging hot liquid like a bloody sprinkler. He ground the bowie into the Reaper, hearing its feet scrabble for purchase on the snowy ground. It tried to shrug him off. Valentine brought up a knee, pressed on the blade ...

The Reaper twitched as nerve tissue parted. In five seconds it was limp.

A blur-Jefferson's rifle butt came down on the back of the Reaper's head so drat Valentine felt the wind pass his nose. Jefferson raised the gun up again.

"It's done," Valentine said.

Valentine pulled his knife from the Reaper's corpse, and Jefferson clubbed it again. "Jefferson, calm down. You might try loading your weapon. It's deadlier from the other end."

"Sorry, Captain. Sorry-"

Valentine ignored him and listened with hard ears all around the woods. Years ago, when he'd learned the Way of the Wolf, a Lifeweaver had enhanced his senses. When he concentrated on his senses-hardening them, in the slang of the Wolves-he could pick up sounds others would miss. He heard branches breaking in the snow somewhere, in the direction of the Reaper who had been kicked and then run. Valentine tried to make sense of the behavior. They had attacked randomly and hit the biggest targets they could see. Evidently they were masterless; their Kurian had probably been killed or had fled out of control range and they were acting on pure instinct. The severed-necked Reaper gave a twitch of an arm, and Jefferson jumped a good two feet in the air.

"Just a reflex," Valentine said.

"Should we burn it or something?"

"Get inside. Don't worry about the horses for now."

The Texan backed into me house. Valentine put a new magazine in his gun and took a few more steps around the yard, still listening and smelling. Nothing. Not even the cold feeling he usually got when Reapers were around, but his ears were still ringing from the gunshots inside, and the snow was killing odors.

He rapped on the door and backed into the house, still covering the Quickwood.

"Anything out back?" he called, eyes never leaving the trees.

"Nothing, sir," Botun said.

He heard a horse scream in the distance. The Reaper had caught up with the bay.

"Post," Valentine shouted.

"Sir?" he heard through the cellar floor.

"I'm going out after them. Two blasts on my whistle when I come back in. Don't let anyone shoot me." Valentine caught

Jefferson's eye and winked. The Texan shook his head in return.

"Yessir," Post answered.

Valentine tore off a peeling strip of wallpaper and wiped the resinlike Reaper blood off the bowie. He considered bringing a Quickwood spear, but decided to hunt it with just pistol and blade: It would be vulnerable after a feed. He nodded to the Jamaicans and opened the front door. After a long listen, he dashed past a tree and into the brush of the forest.

A nervous horse from the other team nickered at him. He moved from tree to tree, following the tracks.

Valentine dried his hand on his pant leg and took a better grip on his bowie. He sniffed the ground with his Wolf's nose, picking up horse blood in the breeze now. He instinctively broke into his old loping run, broken like a horse's canter by his stiff leg, following the scent. He came upon the corpse of the bay, blood staining the snow around its neck. He turned and followed the footprints.

He didn't have far to travel. After a run that verged on a climb up a steep incline, he came to the Reaper's resting spot. Water flowing down the limestone had created a crevice cave under the rocky overhang. An old Cat named Everready used to say that Reapers got "dopey" after a feed, that with a belly full of blood they often slept like drunkards. This one had hardly gotten out of sight of the horse before succumbing to the need for sleep. He saw its pale foot, black toenails sharp against the ash-colored skin, sticking out of a pile of leaves.

Valentine heard whistling respiration. He put his hand on his pistol and decided to risk a single shot. He drew and sighted on the source of the breathing.

The shot tossed leaves into the air. The Reaper came to its feet like a rousted drunk, crashing its skull against the overhang. A black wound crossed its scraggly hairline. It went down to its hands and knees, shaking its head. Valentine sighted on a slit pupil in a bilious yellow iris.

"Anyone at the other end?" Valentine asked, looking into the eye. The thing looked back, animal pain and confusion in its eyes. It scuttled to the side, shrinking away from him.

Valentine tracked the pupil with his gun. "What are you doing out here?"

Harrrruk ! it spat.

It exploded out of the overhang.

Valentine fired, catching it in the chest. The bullet's impact rolled it back into the cave, but it came out again in its inhuman, crabwise crawl, trying to escape up the hill.

It moved fast. As fast as a wide-awake Reaper, despite its recent feeding.

Valentine shot again ... again ... again. Black flowers blossomed on the thing's skin at me wet slap of each slug's impact. It fled beneath a deadfall, slithering like a snake, trying to avoid the hurtful bullets. Valentine leapt over the trunk after it, bowie ready. He pinned it, driving the knee of his good leg into me small of its back, wishing he hadn't been so cocksure, that he'd brought Quickwood to finish it. He raised the blade high and brought it down on the back of its neck, me power of the blow driving it into the monster's spine. He tried to pull it back for another blow, but the black blood had already sealed the blade into the wound.

It continued to crawl, only half of its body now working.

Valentine stood up, and drove his booted heel onto the blade. If he couldn't pull it out, he could get it in farther. He stomped again, almost dancing on the back of the blade. The Reaper ceased its crawl, but the head still thrashed.

Urrack... shhhar , it hissed.

Valentine put a new magazine in his gun. It was beyond being a threat to anything but an earthworm or a beetle now, but he wouldn't let it suffer. He brought the muzzle to the ear-hole, angling it so the bullet wouldn't bounce off the bony baffle just behind the ear. He didn't want to risk the jaws without a couple of men with crowbars to pry the mouth open and a pliers to rip the stabbing tongue out.

He heard a sliding footfall behind, and turned, the foresight of the pistol leading the way.

It was the other Reaper, blood covering its face but cruel interest in its eyes. It squatted to spring. It had possessed instinct enough to approach from downwind.

Valentine emptied the magazine into it, knocking it over backward. Then he ran. Downhill. Fast.

It followed. Faster.

Valentine listened to it gain on him in three awful seconds, its footsteps beating a snare-drum tattoo. The footfalls stopped, and Valentine flung himself into the dirt in a bone-jarring shoulder roll.

It passed overhead, a dervish of raking claws and kicking legs. As he rolled back to his feet, he saw it fly face-first into a thick-boled hickory with a thunk Valentine felt dirough me ground.

Valentine had never felt less like laughing in his life. He continued his run downhill, blowing me whistle for his life, as the Reaper picked itself up.

He saw the house, and Post with the marines at the window. Jefferson, terror written on his face, pointed his rifle right at him.

Valentine dived face-first into the snow, sliding the last few feet down the hill.

Jefferson fired, not at him but over. More shots rang out, bright muzzle flashes reflecting off the dusting of Christmas snow like photoflashes.

The Reaper behind him went over backward. Valentine rolled over, pistol aimed in a shaking hand. Someone must have got in with a luck shot, for it lay thrashing, trying to rise. Failing.

"Hold your fire," Valentine panted. "Post, give me your spear."

"I'll do it, sir," Jefferson said, opening the bolt on his rifle and setting it down carefully. He reached behind the door and came out with a pick. "This is how we finish 'em in the Rangers."

"Careful now, Jefferson," Post said. "It might be playing possum."

Jefferson approached it, pick raised high. Valentine stood aside with his Quickwood stake. Jefferson needed this, after his fright earlier.

"Okay, dickless. Time to see what happens when you steal a Texan's horses."

"Damn, that fella right. That bomba doesn't have one," Botun said over the sights on his rifle.

Jefferson grunted, and swung the pick down. The Reaper brought up a limb to ward off the blow but the pick went home through its face and into the ground beneath. It stiffened into immobility.

Valentine turned to the marines at the windows. "Thank you, Post. Good shooting, men. Six shots, four hits. That's outstanding for a running Reaper." Valentine hoped the light-hearted tone didn't sound forced.

"On Jamaica bullets are rare, sir," a marine named Andree said.

He turned to look at the private. "In the Ozarks, men who can shoot like you are even rarer."