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-
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
, 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 sixâas recently as two days ago he'd been leading hundredsâwas brought to life by prods from Post, except for Tayland. “We're boxed in. We've got three guns with ammunition still between us”âValentine still carried his old PPD out of affectation; it was as impotent as one of the quartz-etched rocks jutting from the soilâ“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 that 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
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 âI'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'dâ
. 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 bridgeâit turned out only one was occupied; three soldiers that hardly qualified for a corporal's guardâand 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 clothes in a lonely, recently abandoned farmhouseâhe'd found a suitably smelly set of overalls, a knit coat and a shapeless woolen winter cap, and muddied his boots sufficiently so they wouldn't be an instant giveawayâhe 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 the 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 overâanother biological modification, courtesy of the 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.