“Hank's been picking up sharp quartz crystals; there's lots of them in these hills,” Mr. Smalls said. “If we attach 'em to the front of those wooden spear points, they might serve you a little better.” He reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out a spear point.
Valentine looked at it. The boy had set a piece of quartz into the front, carving the wood into four prongs, like a gem-holder on a ring. Valentine tested the point on the quartz. It was sharp enough. “How'd he fix the quartz in so tight?”
“He soaked the wood after he carved it,” Mrs. Smalls said proudly. “When it dried, it shrank down on the crystal.”
“Good thinking,” Valentine replied, handing it to Ahn-Kha for his opinion. The Golden Ones were accomplished craftsmen in their own right.
“This is fine work,” Ahn-Kha agreed, fingering the point.
“Have him make some more, if he can,” Valentine said.
Smalls nodded, and Valentine led Ahn-Kha off. They watched the Smalls boy search the tree limbs, but the squirrels were making themselves scarce. “Smart kid. In the Wolves we used to take boys on patrols, called them âaspirants. ' That spear point alone would have got him a place with my company.”
“He thinks quickly. Remember what he did with the wagon.”
“We could use another sharp set of eyes,” Valentine said. “Want to bring him along?”
“He'd have a better chance at a squirrel with us,” Ahn-Kha replied, his long ears twisting this way and that.
“Settled,” Valentine said. He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. “Hey, Hank, come over here.”
The boy ran up to them. “Yes, Mr. Ghost?”
“We're going out on an all-night scout. You want to come?”
“Yes, sir!” Hank answered, his voice breaking with excitement.
“Go on, ask your parents. If it's okay with them, catch up to us.”
“Thanks, Mr. Ghost,” the boy said, and ran off toward the wagon.
Valentine and Ahn-Kha moved off into the woods. After a hundred yards, Valentine touched Ahn-Kha's shoulder.
“Time for his first lesson,” Valentine said. “Keep going.”
Valentine held his sheathed knife in his hand and waited next to the trail. Ahn-Kha disappeared into the brush, leaving a Grog-wide trail. Soon he heard the boy's footsteps as Hank ran to catch up with Ahn-Kha's furry back.
As Hank passed, Valentine stepped out from behind the tree. Quick as a Reaper, he got the slim youth in the fold of his left arm and put the sheathed knife to the boy's throat. Hank let out a squeal of fear.
“Just me, Hank,” Valentine said, releasing him. “Don't pass so close to trees big enough to hide somebody.”
“You didn't have to grab me!” Hank said.
“Your heart beating hard?” Valentine asked.
“Yeah. I don't like being grabbed.”
“Then move a little more carefully when you're going through the woods. Long time ago, over on the other side of Arkansas, some friends and I weren't. They're both dead. The Hood stepped right out from behind the tree and grabbed Gil, as easily as you'd pick up a rabbit knocked out with your slingshot.”
“Hood? That's another word for a Reaper, right? We were supposed to call them Visors.”
“Do you know how it all works, Hank?”
“I know the Visâthe Reapers drink blood.”
“A Reaper's like a puppet. There's another person pulling the strings. We call them Kurians because they're from another world, a planet called Kur. They use the Reapers to feed because it's less dangerous for them when they get the energy. The donor puts up a fight.”
“That energy they get, it's something in us, right? Like our souls?” Hank said.
Valentine felt as if the boy had kicked him in the stomach. He thought back to the graves of his parents, brother and sister who fell in Minnesota when he was eleven. He had asked Father Max if their souls had been eaten. “Nobody knows. Yes, it's something humans have more of than other creatures. The man who raised me called it an âaura.' There's more aura in an intelligent being than there is in a dog or something. That's why they feed on us.”
”We walked past a Reaper once on an Honor Guard march. They had us out burning down houses. It didn't move. Just looked at us dead cold. Reminded me of a snake sitting on a rock.”
“Dead cold, all right,” Valentine agreed.
“So that's why everyone's scared all the time now. They're afraid the Reapers will get them.”
“That's why people cooperate with them. The people who serve them get badges, or cards, or pieces of jewelry that mean the Reapers can't touch them.”
Hank nodded. “Yeah, we heard some of that in Honor Guard. Our Top Guardian had some sorta certificate that signified his family was too important to reassign. I hated him, Dallas trash if ever there was.”
“You grew up here in the Ozarks, right?”
“Yes, in the borders. My pa would go out into Texas and steal, or trade for horses. He sorta worked for Southern Command; at least they gave him stuff when he brought horses in.”
“You remember what the Free Territory used to be like, right?”
“Yes, it all happened last spring, or last summer, really. I heard a lot of fighting. Then there were new people in charge. My pa was in Texas at the time; when he got back he said we had to do what they say for a while.”
“You liked it better before they came, right?”
“Yes. Momma was happier. She hated it when Pa was in Texas though.”
“I was gone for a couple of years myself. Now that I'm back I'm trying to find if there's any Free Territory left.”
“Are we going to live there? Is there anywhere safe now?”
“I hope so, Hank. If there is, we'll find it.”
They were refilling their water skins at a trickle when Ahn-Kha came back from his scout of the old camp.
“Everything's burnt out, my David. Picked clean. Lots of holes in the ground. If there were buried weapons, I'd say they've been dug up.”
“No one there?”
“Tracks. I smelled urine.”
“You speak really well, for a big stoop,” Hank said.
Ahn-Kha stood straight, towering over the boy. “We call ourselves the Golden Ones. I grew up trading with men in Omaha. I translated for my people when I was David's age.”
“What's old for a stoop?”
Ahn-Kha's ears folded flat against his head.
“About forty years older than you're going to get if you call him a âstoop' again,” Valentine said.
“You can call me Ahn-Kha, or Uncle, if that's too hard for you to pronounce.”
“Uncle? My ma would smack me if I called a . . . Golder Ones my uncle.”
Valentine decided to change the subject. “Hank,” he asked, “what kind of scrounger are you?”
“Haven't had many chances. We'd just burn when we'd go out on the Honor Guard sweeps.”
Valentine picked up a stick and put three parallel scores in the ground. He added a fourth, under them and perpendicular to the other three. “That's a mark for a cache. You know what a cache is?”
“Ummm . . .”
“It's a hiding spot. The mark would be on a tree or a rock. See if you can find one as we walk. Chances are it would be out at the edge of the camp. We're all going to go in and have a look around.”
The crossed a series of gullies and came upon the camp, folded into the base of the mountain in the broken ground there.
The camp was in ruins, inhabited only by the memories in Valentine's mind. The Quonset huts were gone, the shacks and cabins burned to the ground. The smaller branches of many of the trees in camp were black-barked where the flames had caught them. Valentine saw again the old faces of his platoon, remembering the smiles of his men over mugs of beer in the canteen and Sergeant Gator's slow, easy laugh. He was a Ghost haunting a Southern Command graveyard, and in a few more years there wouldn't be anything left to mark a place where legends lived.
Ahn-Kha picked up a handful of dirt at one of the burned cabins and let it trickle through his hands, sniffing it. “Jellied gasoline,” the Grog said. “Bad way to die.”
Valentine kept an eye on Hank, who was examining tree bark.
“Is there a good death?”
“Among my people's warriors, we have a saying. âA good death can come through battle, at a place that is remembered. A better death can come through heroism, sacrificing yourself in the saving of others. The best death comes late, after seeing grandchildren born, for then you've also had a life.' ”
“There's a lot to admire in Golden One wisdom. Beats
dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori
“What is that?”
“A phrase from Latin: âIt is a sweet and proper thing, to die for one's country.' That kind of death's neither sweet nor proper. Just ugly. Necessary sometimes, but not sweet and proper.”
The allies stood in silence for a moment.
“It will be dark soon,” Ahn-Kha offered as a change in subject.
“I don't want to sleep here. Let's make a camp farther up on the mountain. Somewhere we can hear.”
“We could make it back to the wagon if we hurried.”
Valentine found Hank's footsteps with hard ears. “I don't want to travel with the boy at night. I can hide my lifesign, and you don't show as human. Hank might get sensed if there are any more of those loose Hoods around.”
“That was odd, to run across three masterless ones. Do you suppose that many Kurians died when they fought here last summer?”
“I hope so.”
Valentine was getting tired of hoping. Ever since returning to the Ozarks, his hopes had been vanishing from his mental horizon like a series of desert mirages. Hopes that his Quickwood would make a difference in the war. Hopes that he might be able to return to the Caribbean, where Mali Carrasca was carrying his childâor daughter, according to Narcisse. Hopes that they'd find some vestige of Southern Command still in these hills. But if there was still hope to be found, it wasn't at Magazine Mountain.
Valentine ate his flavorless bread, and tried not to think of the plentiful fruits and vegetables of the Caribbean. Ahn-Kha was occupying Hank with the story of the Golden Ones' battle against the General in Omaha.
“They would have rolled over us. But our Ghost found the railroad cars filled with the men who were operating the Reaper soldiers. He blew up some, burned the others where they were parked. The Reapers didn't go wild, like the ones with the horses; they just dropped in their tracks. Took the heart out of the rest of the General's men; they were used to having the Reapers at the front of the fight. In the confusion my brothers broke their chains and rose against them. But if it weren't for David, wounded twiceâ”
Valentine tossed a pebble at the Golden One. “Don't leave out the other details. Be sure to tell him how I almost had my head shot off,” Valentine said, rubbing his aching leg. He pointed to the scar on his face. “An inch closer and the bullet would have taken the side of my face with it. Don't leave out the part where you found me in an interrogation cell, with my pants full of shit and a gun to my head. Ahn-Kha was the one who killed the General, Hank. I had a pair of handcuffs on at the time.”
“Just wanted to know how you became friends,” Hank said. “The stoâthe Grogs I've seen don't mix with men.”
“Grog is a word that covers a lot of territory, Hank. It's a term for the beings the Kurians brought to our world. Or maybe made, nobody knows, though the guys at the Miskatonic have some interesting theories. Technically you, a dog, and an oyster are all animals, but your similarities pretty much end there. Same with the Grogs. Some are as smart as Ahn-Kha, who's smarter than most men I know, but some aren't any brighter than a catfish. I think you're talking about the Grey Ones, like the Lucky Pair.”
“Your ape things with thick ol' hides? They're called Grey Ones?”
“In my tongue, yes,” Ahn-Kha said.
“The ones the Kurians use carry long guns. Fifty calibers,” Valentine said.
“ âThey'll take your head off at a thousand yards with 'em too, if you're fool enough to show yourself and not be movin',” a voice called from the darkness. “That's what Sergeant Samuels used to say, anyway.”
Valentine came to his feet, hand on his pistol. He looked up to see a shaggy man in buckskins, coonskin cap on his head and a sheathed rifle cradled in his arms. Valentine noticed his hand was inside the sheath, though, gripping it so he could get at the trigger easily. Nearly half of the man's face was covered with a stiff leather patch, but the remaining eye was familiar.
“Finner?” Valentine asked. “Jess Finner?” Valentine suddenly felt like a sore-footed recruit again; he almost came to attention with chest thrown out.
Finner's eye took in the whole campsite, not resting on any one spot for more than a fraction of a second. “Yep. Was Sergeant Finner, Tango Company, up to a few months ago. Last time I saw you, Valentine, you were eating a watermelon the size of an anker of rum in Missouri. Heard you got a commission in Zulu Company under Captain LeHavre. He still alive, I hope?”
“I don't know. I'm no longer a Wolf. You look hungry, Jess. You want to come down and have a bite?”
“Maybe. If I do, know that you've got three rifles on each of you.”
“Stand down, Sergeant,” Valentine said. “I don't want an accidental shooting.”
“Been watching your little procession for the better part of a day. Recognized you by the hair, at first. Limp's new. Saw you break off and thought it was time for a chat. I'm a bit curious about what you're doing out in the woods with a Grog, Valentine. What kind of rig are you wearing? That's not a Guard uniform.”