The men helped the brawlers to their feet. Randolph jerked his chin and put his hand on his pistol holster. Valentine walked off in the indicated direction, and the captain drew his gun. He didn't point it at Valentine, but the muzzle could be brought to bear easily enough.
Finner trailed along behind as they walked. Only Valentine had ears good enough to hear him click the safety off inside his rifle sheath.
“The General keeps late hours,” Randolph said as they approached a vintage twentieth-century house. Lights burned inside and sentries stood on the porch. Where a swing had once stood, piled sandbags and a machine-gun post dominated the parked vehicles in the yard in front of the house. Valentine smelled a barbecue pit in the backyard.
“We've got a LC just in from Texas to see the General,” Randolph said to the lieutenant who appeared at the other side of the screen door. “Or so he says.”
“I brought him in,” Finner added.
“Thank you, Sergeant, that'll be all,” Randolph said.
“Let them in, boys,” the lieutenant said. He had golden, braided hair and bare arms protruding through a Reaper-cloak vest hung with pistols and hand grenades. Four red diamonds stood out on the meat of his forearm. Valentine suspected he was a Bear. The lieutenant looked Valentine up and down. “I think I've seen your face. Can't place where though.”
“Red River raid, sixty-five. You Bears hit the power plant and armory while two companies of Wolves raided some of the plantations. I was the junior in Zulu Company. Never got your name though.”
“Nail's the handle. I was in Team Able. We had a hell of a skedaddle out of Louisiana on that one, as I remember, Captain . . . .”
“Ghost is what goes down on the paperwork for me,” Valentine said.
Nail held out his hand. “Paperwork. That's rich.” They shook. “Nice to see you alive, Ghost. Zulu got caught up in a fight on the Mississippi when all this started. I don'tâ”
“We can catch up later, Lieutenant,” Randoph interjected. “I'm sure the General would like to hear this man's report. Colorful as the conversation is with all the Hunter code names.” He turned to Valentine. “I take it you're a . . . hmmm . . . Cat?”
Valentine said nothing.
“Lots of us have family, beg your pardon, sir,” Nail said. “It keeps them safe.”
Randolph ignored the Bear and waved over an adjutant. Valentine's gaze followed the adjutant into the dining room of the house, where a long table piled with files and a sideboard covered with half-eaten trays of food and liquor bottles stood under dirty walls. Under a candelabra's light a man in red-striped trousers sat, a coat heavy with chicken guts draped over the chair next to him. He had a massive body and a small, balding head on a thin neck; the odd proportions made Valentine think of a turtle. General Martinez rose and threw on his uniform coat.
“Distractions, nothing but distractions,” the General grumbled. He had the most perfectly trimmed Van Dyke Valentine had ever seen, as if he made up for the lack of hair on his head with extra attention to that on his face.
“Sorry to add to them, sir,” Valentine said. “I'm looking for Southern Command.”
“You're talking to a piece of what's left.”
“My name is David Valentine, Cat codename Ghost, on independent assignment. I just came out of the KZ in Texas, sir. There wouldn't be a Lifeweaver associated with your command, would there?”
“They've gone to the tall timber, Cat. They're hunted even more than we are.”
“I got jumped just across the Red coming out of Texas. I've got close to twenty mouths to feed and have no idea of what to do with them. Fifteen are trained soldiers, including some Grog scout-snipers. The others are refugees.”
“Grogs? What unit has Grogs?”
Ad Hoc Rifles,” Valentine said. It was near enough to the truth and saved explanations.
“Never heard of them. Still armed?”
General Martinez wasn't curious about what he was bringing in from Texas. Which was just as well. Valentine wasn't ready to trust him with his precious Quickwood. While they wouldn't use it to fuel the stills, it wouldn't be used to hunt Reapers, either. “Yes, sir.”
“You said you came out of Texas?”
“Well, Cat, we could have used a little more warning about what was building.”
“I was further south. I only got to Texasâ”
Martinez cut him off. “You'd be better off back there. Seems like every Gulag gun's here stamping out the embers.”
Doesn't just look like a turtle
, Valentine thought
. Snaps like one too
. Then he felt guilty for the thought. He'd been operating outside the military hierarchy for too long: his superior deserved his respect.
“Couldn't make it, sir. I've got some horses that need shoes, and my wagon could use a new team. I was hoping to draw from your commissary. Food and clothing and camp equipment would be helpful.”
“None of which I can spare just now,” General Martinez said. He paused in thought. “Let's have your team here. You can draw rations from the common pool for now. You'll have to lose the civilians. I've got a militia regiment I'm trying to turn into regulars; you and your veterans'd be a help with them.”
“We'll keep heading north, sir. Can someone on your staff show meâ”
“No, Valentine. I need every man who can shoulder a gun. We're bringing you in, that's an order. You'll be safer with us.”
“I'm responsible for the civiliansâI gave my word.”
“Fine, we'll provide for them for a few days while we sort this out. I could attach them to a labor company, I suppose.” He reached up and rubbed his beard with his knuckles, stroking first one side of it, then the other, making him less of a turtle and more of a cat sizing up a cornered mouse. “Randolph, take your light platoon and bring them in. I'm sorry I can't give you more time, Valentine, but other matters demand my attention. We'll talk again tomorrow. You know what to do, Captain Randolph?”
“Yes, sir,” Randolph said, saluting and executing a neat about-face.
Faced with a direct order, Valentine could do little but obey. He saluted and left with Randolph. They descended the steps and joined Finner. “I feel like I've just been shanghaied,” Valentine said.
Finner grinned, with the
of a fox who has lost his tail seeing another fox lose his. “No, you've just been incorporated into the Bitter Enders. What's left they want to make sure stays till the bitter end. They've been shooting deserters.”
“In other words, if the enemy doesn't kill you, we will,” Randolph added. “Hate that it's come to that, but there you are. Six-bullet sentencing.”
“How does that look stitched on a brigade flag?” Valentine asked.
Randolph let out a harrumphing noise that was half squawk and half bark. “Don't question us unless you've lived what we've been through. Valentine, the more I see of you the less I like you as an officer.”
Randolph's light platoon was light on experience. Valentine doubted any of the soldiers were much over eighteen; beneath the dirt the majority looked like they should still be in school. They moved over the hills with youthful energy, however, and came upon Post's camp before noon the next day. Finner rejoined his Wolves, who appeared and disappeared in wary silence. Hank spotted the approaching column first, and when he saw Valentine he took off his straw hat and waved it.
“We've been ordered to rejoin Southern Command,” Valentine said to Post as the two groups eyed each other. “These kids are here to make sure we do it.” Ahn-Kha rose from a squat behind a wagon and some of the light platoon grabbed at their rifles.
“What are you doing with Grogs?” Randolph asked, hand on the butt of his pistol.
“As I explained to General Martinez, they're on our side and they're trained. They helped us in the KZ, and I expect them to be treated with the respect due any other soldier in Southern Command,” Valentine said.
“And we speak,” Ahn-Kha added. “Have those children take more care with their rifles.”
“Seems suspicious, you coming out of the Zone with Grogs.”
M'Daw rose from the campfire. “Misterâ”
“Quiet, M'Daw,” Valentine said. Then, to Randolph: “He escaped the ambush in his underwear, Captain, and the only clothes we could find that would fit him were Quisling. We don't have any dye, so I'd appreciate some, or a change in uniform for him. I don't want him shot by accident on standing orders.”
M'Daw sat back down and huddled under a blanket in such a way that his stitched-on name didn't show.
“Let's load up, Post,” Valentine said. “Ditch the lumber; we won't need to build shelters after all, and there's no point hauling it up that hill. Let's make Mrs. Smalls' journey as comfortable as possible.”
Valentine, Ahn-Kha, and the two Grogs unloaded the Quickwood while Post put the marines and the civilians in marching order. Valentine marked the spot, triangulating off of the peak of Magazine Mountain.
“Something wrong, my David?” Ahn-Kha asked as they threw another beam on the pile.
“I don't like the way this outfit we're joining is being run. I have no business challenging a lawful superior's methods, but . . . hell, I've seen groups of Chicago hookers that are better organized. I didn't come all this way to hand over the Quickwood to a bunch of outlaws.”
“Do we have an option?”
“Southern Command is finished, if this is representative of what's left. I'm thinking we might be better off with your people in Omaha, or maybe mine in Minnesota. In six more months this crew is going to be robbing towns and trains to feed themselves, with the meanest knife fighter calling the shots. I want to see M'Daw and the Smalls safe, then we'll talk about taking off.”
Ahn-Kha's ears sagged. “Better do it quickly. If they break the marines up into other unitsâ”
“Randolph is coming,” Valentine whispered. Ahn-Kha's ears pivoted to the sound of footsteps.
“Why's everyone got wooden spears along with their rifles?” Randolph asked.
Ahn-Kha growled an order, and led the Grogs back up to the wagon.
“For the feral pigs in these hills. Those are boar spears.”
“One of your men said it was for killing Reapers. That black cripple said the same thing.”
“Have to tell them something or they just run at the sight of one. They think it's got big medicine. But so far they've just been used on pigs.”
“Hope you boiled the meat good. I've seen men die eating wild pig. You might want to have your men check their shit. Our doc has a great remedy for worms. Just tell him you need to be sluiced out.”
“Thanks for the tip. Is there contact with any other pockets of resistance?”
“General Martinez gets his orders through special channels. When it's time to move we'll hear it from him. There's talk of a counteroffensive next fall, when the Kurians think the Ozarks are pacified.”
“Seems to me they're pacified already. How many do you lose each week?”
“You won't get far questioning the General, Valentine. The men love him. He's daddy and Santa Claus and Moses all in one. Have patience, the Promised Land is there.”
“The Promised Land is occupied. We don't have forty years. We shouldn't be acting like we have forty days. Inertia and illness are going to kill your General's army; the Quislings and the Kurians are just going to be buzzards feeding off the corpse.”
“Look, Valentine, I'm liking you less and less by the minute. You ever talk to me like that again and I'll deck you. You weren't here when it was raining Reapers, or when we got blown out of Fort Scott by so many guns you'd think they had enough to land a shell every six feet. Martinez took five thousand beat-up men who were ready to surrender and pulled us back together. Southern Command put him in charge of the central Ouachitas after that. He's keeping us fed and armed without any help from a rear that plain vanished on us. Quit questioning him, or I'll turn you in as a traitor.”
“In the Free Territory that trained me two officers speaking in private could criticize anyone without the word treason being thrown around. You swing on me anytime you like, as long as the men aren't watching. If you do it where they can see I'll have you up on charges for striking a fellow officer, Captain. Write up a report if you want. I'll be happy to repeat everything I've said word for word to the General.”
They returned to the wagon, both simmering. Post had Narcisse and Mrs. Smalls in the wagon and everyone else lined up behind it. Randolph's platoon had been dispersed to form a screen. When all was ready, they hitched the team to the wagon and set off. Valentine elected to walk beside Ahn-Kha and the Grogs, picking the way southeast and ready to chop a path through the growth blocking the hill road if necessary. They forded a river and rested the team after the crossing.