“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.”
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 feastâcomplete 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 brickle 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.”
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 that he joined up with them, 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 mountainsâor, 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 throughâthough 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 little 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
not been so long delayedâfirst in New Orleans before the voyage and then later among the islands of the Caribbeanâhe 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 armsâcounting militiasâdefeated 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
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 pregnancyâ
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 thoughts 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 the most rugged of the Ozarks. It didn't amount to anything other than a hope, but if some vestige of Southern Command existed, it was his duty to get the Quickwood into its hands.