“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 the 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?”
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 the 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 the 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, the 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
Valentine felt through the ground.
Valentine had never felt less like laughing in his life. He continued his run downhill, blowing the 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
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.”
Magazine Mountain, Arkansas, January of the forty-ninth year of the Kurian Order: A Southern Command Station Post once stood here, huts and wooden cabins placed to take advantage of folds in the ground and the canopy of trees for concealment and defensibilty.
Servicemen walking about on their duties added life and color to the camouflaged buildings. The Guards, the common soldiers in their neat charcoal gray uniforms and regimental kepis, would march past files of scarecrow-lean Wolves in fringed buckskins. The Wolves, rifles cradled in tanned fingers, assorted pistols and knives shoved in belts and boots, and no two hats alike, struck one as sloppy-looking when compared to the disciplined Guards. A Cat might be sleeping beneath an oak, head pillowed on rolled coat and Reaper-killing sword, exhausted after two months spying in the Kurian Zone, but still coming to full wakefulness at a gentle tap. Everyone from cur dog to colonel of the Guards would make room when teams of Bears entered the post. Southern Command's shock troops, wearing uniforms of patched-together Grog hide and bullet-ablative Reaper cloak, the latter's black teeth hanging from neck or ear, were people one instinctively avoided. Perhaps it was the forbidding war paint, or the scalps of Grogs and even Quislings dangling from belt and rifle sheath, or the thousand-yard stare, but whatever the source the Bears had an aura about them demanding a wide berth. Then there were the others in camp, the logistics commandos: scroungers who went into the Kurian Zone to steal or trade for what Southern Command couldn't make for itself, driving their wagons to the commissary yards and yelling at women to get their children out of their mule team's path. There were always civilians in camp, families of the soldiery or refugees waiting on transportation to other parts of the Freehold. There would be pack traders and mail-riders, gunsmiths, charcoal sellers with black hands, hunters trading in game for more bullets and farmers selling vegetables for government buckchits. It was chaos, but chaos that somehow kept the soldiery fed and equipped, the civilians prosperous (by the standards of the Free Territory) and, most importantly, the Ozarks free of the Reapers.
But that was before.
By that dark, wet winter of '71, the base of Magazine Mountain had only rats and raccoons standing sentry over burned huts or nosing through old field kitchens that smelled of rancid cooking oil. Bats huddled together for warmth in SCPO mailboxes, and the carts and pickup trucks rested wheelless on the ground, stripped like slaughtered cattle.
Heavy equipment rendered inoperable had a large red
painted on it. The same might be done with maps depicting the Ozark Free Territory.
“Goddammit, another fallen tree ahead,” Post called from a rise in the road. He turned his horse and looked at Valentine for orders. One of Ahn-Kha's scouting Grogs squatted to rest.
“We might do better off the trail,” Narcisse said to Valentine from her perch in the Quickwood wagon. Joints of horsemeat hung from a frame Jefferson had added to the wagon bed. It was too cool for flies. “These roads are almost as bad.”
Smalls' son took the opportunity to put a taconite pellet in his wrist-rocket, a surgical tubing sling that he used to bring down squirrels. The boy ventured into the trees while Valentine thought. David looked at Ahn-Kha, who was sniffing the wintry air.
“Rain soon,” Ahn-Kha said.
“The Magazine Mountain Station can't be far,” Valentine said to Post. “Let's pull off the trail and camp.”
There had been no more Reapers since leaving the house. The refugees Valentine led made agonizingly slow progress through the ridges of the Ouachitas, with occasional halts to hide at the sound of distant engines. They had seen no living humanâthough they had come across a Reaper-drained skeleton lodged in the crotch of a tree, giving Mrs. Smalls a warmer coat once it was pulled off the corpse and cleaned. A pack of stranger-shy dogs tailed them, exploring the surroundings of the campfire and digging up the camp's sanitary holes in search of choice snacks. Valentine had tried to tempt them closer with fresher food than something that had already passed through the human digestive system, but the dogs would have none of it. Every now and then he saw a wary, furry face appear on the road behind, proving that they were still being tailed. Valentine wanted the dogs with them. Dogs hated Reapersâor feared themâand usually whined or bayed an alarm if one was near.
Valentine waved Ahn-Kha and Post over.
“Sir?” Post asked.
Valentine looked up at the flat-topped loom of Magazine Mountain. “Post, we're near one of the big camps of Southern Command. I'm going to take Ahn-Kha and see what, if anything, is left. Pull off out of sight of the road, cover your tracks and camp. We'll go on foot; give the horses a rest.”
“Chances are that fort's in Kurian hands.”
“I know. That's why I'm bringing Ahn-Kha. Having a Grog along might confuse them long enough for me to talk my way loose, or get the jump on a patrol.”
“How long you figure on being gone?”
“Less than a day. If twenty-four hours go by and you don't hear from us, act as you will. I'd say the Boston Mountains are your best chance, on the other side of the Arkansas River. If there's anything left of Southern Command, it should be there. Get the Quickwood to them. Don't forget the seeds.”
Post fingered the pouch around his neck, identical to Valentine's, though it didn't contain any mahjong pieces. “I'll see it through, Val.”
“Thank you. I'll probably be back in time for horsemeat and flatbread.”
He took Ahn-Kha over to the supply wagon. They each threw a bag made out of old long-sleeved shirts over their shoulders. The shirt-sacks contained bread. Mr. Smalls rose from where he squatted next to his wife.
“Everything all right with you two?” Valentine asked them.
“Just a little tired, Mr. Ghost,” Mrs. Smalls said, her belly prominent through the opening in the coat.
“We're stopping for a day or two. Fix yourselves up under the bed of the wagon. Looks like we might get some rain.”