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Authors: E.E. Knight

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BOOK: Valentine's Rising
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“You want to put the 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.”
“Hard luck.”
“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 ill-fated 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.
BOOK: Valentine's Rising
13.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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