Way of the Wolf
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A few soldiers still poke and rake among the sooty ruins, their smoldering houses finally quenched by the morning's downpour. The salvaged Grog weaponry and equipment lay in three heaps: destroyed, repairable, and intact. Expert scroungers added to this mechanical triage as they gleaned further material from the surrounding woods and the road back to Cairo, Illinois.
The only bodies in evidence lay in neat, unshrouded rows lined up outside a wooden barn a half-mile outside the town proper, conveniently close to a water spring. The maimed and wounded inside, groaning their agony out on pallets, old doors, and even hay bales, envied the corpses now past all suffering. Two-man teams of battlefield surgeons, faces gray with fatigue and smocks brown with hundreds of bloodstains, fought exhaustion and sepsis.
The gravediggers adhered to their own priorities. The first day after the battle, they put to rest the dead of Southern Command: Bears, Wolves, Guards, and Militia. The second day, the dead Quislings were buried in a long common grave, dug by the prisoners spared after the fall of Hazlett. Finally on this day, the third after the battle, the gravediggers set alight a great pyre of Grogs, who shared the flame with putrefying dead horses, oxen, and mules inside a ring of firewood. Exhausted from the labor of dragging the bigger corpses out of sight and smell, the officer in charge decided to rest his detail before attending to the row of this morning's bodies outside the field hospital. The doctors couldn't save everyone.
Thus the miasma of burned flesh introduced Lt. David Valentine to the tableau of a battlefield. Three companies of Wolves, including Zulu, marched up from reserve near the southern border. Sent to help deal with the incursion, they arrived too late to do anything but shake their heads at the destruction of the little town and join in the services held over the bodies of the slain.
Chuckwagon tales told by the survivors of the Battle of Hazlett described a push into the valuable mining towns of the area from the tip of Illinois. The Quislings and Grogs made a fortress of the little crossroads town, and only a concentration of every available Bear in eastern Missouri backed up by Wolves and a Guard regiment forced them out again. It might have been worse, but Valentine learned that a company of Wolves had ambushed reinforcements at the Mississippi, sacrificing themselves to keep the road to Hazlett closed. Out of a hundred Wolves, a bare sixteen now licked their wounds on the banks of the WhitewaterRiver.
It was this destruction of Foxtrot Company that led Captain LeHavre, the senior Wolf officer in the area, to call Valentine into his tepee one afternoon. Zulu Company was preparing to return below the state line again, as an incursion in the northeast might mean an even larger one in the southwest.
Valentine wondered, as he answered the summons that afternoon, what the news would be. LeHavre always hit his officers, whenever possible, with bitter medicine early in the morning and saved the sugar for evenings. So an afternoon conference might be a trail-mix assortment of sweet and sour.
He found LeHavre by a commissary wagon, sharing a cup of coffee with an unknown, clean-shaven Wolf.
"David Valentine, meet Randall Harper," the captain introduced. "Sergeant Harper here is part of the Command Staff. A courier, to be exact."
The young men shook hands. Harper seemed a little young to be a sergeant, particularly on the Command Staff, but then Valentine was even younger to be a lieutenant. The courier had a lazy eye, which made looking into his face unsettling, but he wore a cheerful smile that brightened his whole face to such a degree that Valentine liked him from first sight.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," Harper said.
"Valentine, you are going on a trip. I need some young legs to accompany Harper here on a four-hundred-mile jaunt. All the way up to Lake Michigan, as a matter of fact."
"I've got two bags of mail and one of dispatches, sir," Harper added.
"Why me, sir?" Valentine asked, risking a rebuke.
"Normally an officer from Foxtrot Company and another Wolf would go, but as of these last few days, Foxtrot doesn't exist anymore and probably won't for another year or so. There's only acting-lieutenants in the junior position in the other two Wolf companies, and I don't know enough about them to pick one. And you're from the Great White North, so I thought you'd like a trip back up. I was going to send you up with Paul Samuels anyway on one of his recruiting sweeps, but this'll be a better experience for you."
"Mounted or afoot, sir?"
"With a little luck, you'll be mounted all the way. Three horses plus a spare is what you have, right, Sergeant?"
"Yes, sir," Harper answered. "The fourth will carry the mail and some oats. Or if we lose one, it'll be a remount."
"So a third man is going, sir?" Valentine asked. "Who will that be?"
LeHavre patted Valentine on the shoulder. "Take who you want, Valentine. Except for Patel. I need him, and he's too old to cover forty miles a day for long stretches anymore."
Valentine mentally ran down the list of Wolves in Zulu Company.
"I'll take Gonzalez, sir. He has the best nose in the company, and he's first-rate with his hunting bow."
"Take him with my compliments, Lieutenant. Let me know your needs. I realize the company wagons haven't caught up with us yet, but I can probably scrounge you up about anything. Questions?"
The only questions that came to Valentine's mind implied evading responsibility, so he remained silent.
LeHavre finished his coffee. "You two get together with Gonzalez and talk it through. I know you've made the trip a couple of times, Harper, so tell as much about the route to the other two as you can, just in case. You leave at dawn."
Harper accepted the possibility of his death, suggested by the just in case, with the same sunny smile. "Gladly, sir."
That evening, Gonzalez joined them in an informal camp-fire conference.
"Seems like a lot of effort to deliver a few letters. How often do you do this?" Gonzo asked.
"Two or three times a year. Southern Command tries to stay in touch with the other Resistance pockets, at least the big ones. This is information we don't want to broadcast on the shortwave. That's why if it looks like we're going to be taken, you need to pour the fluid in the flasks onto the dispatches and burn 'em."
"If the Reapers are closing in, I'm going to be too busy to start any fires, Sarge."
Valentine mopped up his stew with a slab of bread. "How long are we going to be gone?"
"Depends on the horses, and then the sailors. If we can come up with feed now and then, about two weeks per leg. But there's no guarantee the ship will be in WhitefishBay on time. The Lakes Fleet has troubles of its own. Luckily the Kurians don't pay much attention to the ships, unless they get too close to a city they care about. We'll just have to wait if they aren't there."
"Ever had any problems running the mail?" Valentine inquired.
Harper's smile returned. "A few close shaves. We should keep toward the Mississippi until the Wisconsin border or so. About all you have to worry about there is border trash, but they're mostly scared of everything. Wisconsin has the real Kurian lands we have to cross. Their pet humans farm that area pretty good, and of course the Reapers farm the humans. The shortest route would be up through central Illinois, but that's thickly settled, and unless you have a death wish, you'll want to keep away from Chicago."
Valentine and Gonzalez bade farewell to their company in the predawn gloom. LeHavre offered a final word of advice to his junior lieutenant.
"Keep your eyes open, Mr. Valentine," LeHavre said, solemnly shaking his protege's hand. "We never know enough about what is happening in the Lost Lands. Try and pick up any information you can, even if it's just impressions."
"Thank you for the opportunity, sir."
LeHavre winced. How many young men have you sent to their doom with those words on their lips? Valentine wondered.
"You can thank me by coming back, David."
The three Wolves mounted their horses, the excited animals stamping and tossing their heads in their eagerness to be off, and rode into the misty dawn.
During the first leg of the journey, they kept to the rough terrain of the MississippiValley. They conserved the strength of horse and rider, walking their mounts and stopping often. On the second day, they crossed the Mississippi in a hollowed-out old houseboat, well camouflaged with dirt and plant growth on its battered sides. The trio of old Wolves who took them across laughed as they listened to the secondhand story of the Battle of Hazlett over the labored putting of the aged diesel engine.
"That'll learn 'em," one of them cackled as he brought the houseboat out of its hidden cove and into the current at the "all clear" signal from his observer. "Hank and I, we've been puttin' up signs all over the west bank for miles readin' 'Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted' and 'No Solicitors Invited," but them Grogs don't read too good."
Once in no-man's-land, the Wolves traveled cautiously. They camped for the night when they found the right spot, not when the sun set. Daybreak never found them in the same location in which they bedded down. Each night Valentine ordered a camp change of at least a half-mile, and lost sleep was made up with a siesta each afternoon during the worst of the late summer heat. They set no watch, but relied on their senses to rouse them from their light slumber in the event of danger. They always cooked their meals before dark, knowing better than to call attention to themselves with the light of a campfire.
By the third night out, they were swapping life stories. Valentine had heard Gonzalez's before, but listened again to his scout's words as he lay in his hammock under a cloud-masked moon.
"I was born in Texas in 2041, out there in the western part. My parents were part of a guerrilla band called the Screaming Eagles, which my father told me was an old army unit and my madre said was a music group. They used to do a war cry... I would do it, but it's too loud for these parts. Too loud for the Ozarks, too. I don't remember much fighting when I was young. I think the Eagles stole cattle off the Turncoats. That was what we called the Quislings out there. Sometimes in the summer we went as far north as Kansas and Colorado, and in the winter we would be in Mexico.
"I was about twelve when the Turncoats got us. It was in Mexico. We were in this kind of bowl-shaped valley, a few old buildings and tents, with the cattle all spread out. They got some cannon up in the hills somehow, and pretty soon there were explosions everywhere, with men on horseback pouring down from the mountains. My father fought them, but I'm sure he was killed with the rest. There were just two passes out of the valley, but they had hundreds of men with guns hidden in the rocks. I don't think anyone made it out that way. My madre got me and my baby brother out over the hills. One of the Turncoats caught up to us. He attacked her, but I picked up his gun and shot him in the foot. He grabbed the gun out of my hands and was going to shoot me, but my madre brought a boulder as big as a football down on his head and killed him. God knows how she found the strength to lift it; she was a small woman."
Gonzalez fingered a small silver crucifix around his neck.
"We walked for days and would have died, but a rainstorm saved us. We hid for a while in a Turncoat village. An old man who was kind to us arranged for my mother to move into eastern Texas where his son lived. My mother lived with his son and had a child with him, but she never loved him as she did my father, even though he was very good to us. She gave him two daughters, but when I turned sixteen, she said, "Victor, you must leave this land, for the people here have forgotten themselves and God." We heard rumors about a place in the mountains where the Hooded Ones could not go, and I found this place on my own, but I fear it went bad for my stepfather, who let me ran away. But I know my madre still lives because I still live; her prayers protect me and keep me alive. With what I have seen, I cannot pray as she does, so when she dies, I will die, too."
Valentine told his story next, leaving out the fact that his father had been a Wolf. He described the cool beauty of the Boundary Waters' woods and lakes, and the challenge of living through a Minnesota winter.
"I hadn't seen much geography until I became a Wolf," Harper began. "I was born to a big family near FortScott. My pa was an officer in the Guards, and he tried to keep me in school, but I wouldn't have it. Everyone made fun of this eye of mine; you know how kids are. At nine, I tried to be an Aspirant, but they wouldn't let me. I hung out in Wolf camps whenever I could; my pa was away a lot, and my ma-Well, she had her hands full with the other children. They let me become an Aspirant at thirteen, finally. I was invoked when I was fifteen, and I was in the middle of it at Cedar Hill and then BigRiver. They made me a sergeant after all that. I was a champion distance runner, so I got put in the couriers. I made a trip to the Gulf in 'sixty-three, and did the run to Lake Michigan twice last year. I crossed Tennessee this spring going to the Appalachians, and that's the worst run I've ever been on. Took me forever to find resistance people in the Smokies. These trips should be run by just couriers, but we've lost so many out West over one thing and another that Command is short on messengers."
"I was wondering why you showed up with two empty saddles," Valentine said.
"Well, I'm grateful of your company. Mr. Valentine, you seem to be a right smart officer, afraid of all the right things, if you'll excuse me for saying so, sir. And Gonzalez-you, sir, have the most righteous set of ears in the Free Territory. I'm glad you're along to count the mouse farts, you know?"
Gonzalez proved just how good his hearing was somewhere east of Galena, Illinois. They had been traveling for a week when someone began trailing them.
"There are three or four riders coming up behind," Gonzo reported. "Haven't caught sight of them yet, but you can hear them. I don't know if they're right on our trail or just keeping with the old road."
The three Wolves rode parallel to an old road, now overgrown but still too far from tall timber for their purposes. Valentine debated the choices. An ambush would be easy enough to set up, but he balked at shooting down strangers in cold blood. Anyone close enough for the Wolves to hear would probably have cut their trail by now and would know someone was ahead. The idea of being trailed worried him.
"Do you know who lives around here?" he asked Harper.
"This far off the river? A few farmers scratch a living out here. On other trips we've crossed the trails of pretty big groups on horseback. I don't like thinking worst case, but this is just the kind of area a pair of Reapers might hunt."
"Yes, but they wouldn't be on horseback. And they wouldn't make enough noise for Gonzo to hear them," Valentine argued. As usual, someone else's opinion helped him form his own, for better or worse. "Let's go up the bluffs. If they're casual travelers, they won't follow. If they come up after us, we can get a good look at what we're taking on before we start shooting."
With that, the Wolves made a sharp turn east, moving into the wooded hills away from the overgrown road. Valentine removed his lever-action rifle from its sheath. Soon they were struggling up a steep slope, leaning far forward in their saddles to help the horses' balance.
As they ascended the hill, Valentine searched right and left. No rock pile or fallen trunk presented itself. Valentine cursed his luck at riding for the one uneroded hill covered with uniformly healthy timber in all of western Illinois.
Gaining the summit, the Wolves at last found a deadfall they could hide behind. The breeze blew fresh from the west hard enough to whip at the horses' manes and make the men clutch at their hats. They rode past the fallen log and looped back; tracks heading straight for an ambush spot would be investigated more cautiously. Valentine asked Harper-to hold the four horses out of sight behind the crest of the hill.
Dismounted, with weapons in hand, Valentine and Gonzalez walked back to the fallen log. Gonzalez held an arrow to his bowstring. With luck, the trackers had a single scout out front who could be silently dispatched with a feathered shaft.
"Keep your bow ready, Gonzo," Valentine said in a low tone. "I'm going to get in that oak above our trail. If there's just two scouts, I'll drop on one. When you see me leap, try for the other with the bow. If it's three or four, I'll let them ride past, and I'll backshoot them."
"Let me go up the tree, sir."
"I'm not much with a bow, my friend. I doubt I could hit a horse at this distance, let alone a rider. Just stay cool and wait for my signal."
Valentine scrambled to his perch among the thick limbs of the grandfather oak. He hugged the tree limbs like a lizard, pulling a leafy branch toward his face for concealment. Whoever the trackers were, they had four scouts ahead on horseback. Valentine listened with hard ears past them, but his nose helped even more. A large group of horses and men were somewhere out of sight, upwind to the west. He smelled some tobacco, and cannabis, as well.
As the scouts walked their horses up the slope and into view, Valentine decided this was no Quisling patrol. The shabbiness of man and beast, from worn-out boots to collapsed felt hat brims, indicated either the worst kind of Quisling irregulars or simple bandits. They carried rifles, but some of the guns looked like black-powder muzzle-loaders.
Whatever their deficiencies in equipment, the four scouts knew their jobs. One concentrated on the trail, two a little behind him searched the terrain ahead, and the fourth stayed far back in case of trouble. One of the middle scouts didn't like the look of the hilltop, and they pulled up to a halt. Binoculars and small telescopes emerged from their patched overcoats.
One of the four Wolf horses, scenting those below, let out with a high, questioning neigh. The scouts spun their horses and plunged down the hill.
Valentine mouthed obscenities.
A good second line of defense, Valentine maintained, is running like hell. He jumped from the tree and, waving to Gonzalez, ran up toward the four horses.
"It's border trash, I think. A lot," he explained to Harper as they mounted.
Valentine led them at something less than a flat-out gallop along the ridgeline. Their horses had covered a lot of miles in the past week, but perhaps were of sterner stuff and in better health than the beasts of the ragamuffins below.
He reveled in the mad inconsequence of it all. Their pursuers might catch them; he and the two Wolves might die, and the world would change or care not a whit. But it felt glorious to pound through the woods on a running horse, his legs tight in the stirrups and hands far up the horse's neck. Clods of dirt kicked up by the horses' rhythmic gait flew up behind like birds startled at their passing.
Harper is having trouble with the spare horse, the sane part of his mind reminded him. Valentine spotted a clearing on a prominence ahead and turned his horse toward it, slowing the pace to a trot and then a walk. Reaching the bare spot, they saw a ruined house, roofless and empty.
"We covered some miles," Gonzalez gasped. "Where the hell is the road?"
"Somewhere down to the west of us," Valentine said, waving vaguely at the descending sun. Trees obscured the road's probable location. "Let's take a breather and see how our friends are doing."
The overlook gave them a good view of the hills to the south. Valentine and Harper listened to the steady drum of hooves in the distance.
"Aw, shit," Harper said. "I always figured a Reaper would get me, not some grubby thugs."
Valentine looked at the house. There were good walls there, and only two doors to cover. The horses would fit in-side. "Okay, so their horses are fresher than ours. We've still got three guns and a good spot to shoot from."
He could now see distant riders galloping along the trail. He stopped counting after estimating fifty. "Let's get inside our new home and get ready to greet our guests."
Behind the house a pump stood on a concrete patio. "Oh, pretty please with sugar on it," Harper said, working the handle. It moved a little too easily; nothing came from the rusty metal spout but noise.
The main room of the house was filled with collapsed roof, but they were able to bring the horses through the back door into a room slightly lower than the larger one. The paneless windows were set so a man at the front could cover the main door, more or less, but the western exposure of rooms off the main one would have to go unguarded. Valentine posted himself at the front window, Harper at the side, and Gonzalez at the rear door. They manhandled an empty refrigerator into the doorway to the main room.
"We ought to be able to hold out for about two minutes now," Harper said.
"There's always the chance we'll make the price too steep for them," Valentine said, filling a pocket with cartridges.
"I was sick of riding anyway," Gonzalez said.
"That's the idea," Valentine responded. "If we can get them to wait until dark, we just might be able to slip out. Head for steep hills and thick woods. Maybe all they want is the horses. I know we can outrun them on foot, even carrying the mail. Whoever they are, they're not Wolves."
Their pursuers approached their refuge with caution. A thin man with a ragged straw hat bearing a single black feather in the brim trotted up toward the house, carbine at his hip. He turned his face suspiciously, first looking at the ruined dwelling with one eye, then the other. Valentine sighted on his dirty undershirt.
"That's far enough. What's on your mind?" Valentine shouted.
The thin man's long face split into a grin. "You boys want parley?"
"We're willing to let lead fly if you want it that way. Might be better for both if we talked first."
Straw Hat turned his horse and disappeared downslope. Valentine counted the minutes; every moment toward dusk helped their cause.
He heard horses moving through the woods below the hill. The pursuers were fanning out to surround the house. It sounded like a lot of riders.
Three heavy figures on tall quarterhorses approached the house. Even beneath beard and dirt, Valentine thought he saw a family resemblance. Their scruffy beards were black as coal, save for the center rider, who had two narrow streaks of gray running down his beard. Their hats also bore black feathers tucked in the left side of the hatband like that of the point man.
"Hello, the house," center rider called. "You wanted a parley, here it is."
"May I know to whom I'm speaking?" Valentine hollered back.
The man glanced at his younger associates. "Sure, stranger. My name's Mr. Mind Your Own Damn Business. This is my son Or I'll Tear Off Your Head and my nephew And I'll Shit Down Your Throat," he yelled. "That satisfy the rules of ettycute?"
A few guffaws broke out from below. "Charming," Harper said. "Why don't you plant him, Lieutenant?"
Valentine kept his concentration on the rider. "Thank you, Mr. Mind. Looks like you got us four in a box. Is there a way for us to get out of it without a bunch of you winding up dead?"
"Maybe there's four of you and maybe there's three. One of your horses is riding light, so maybe you got a woman or a kid in there to think about," the negotiator called back.
"All we're thinking about is how many of you we can take with us. The consensus is twenty. If you're smart enough to know what a claymore mine is, you'll agree that it's at least that."
"Son, we can smoke you out of there easy. You'll be better off to take my terms: leave us your rifles, and give us the horses and tack. You can keep all your food, all your water, and your handguns, if you got 'em. And your lives. Even your self-respect, knowing that you met the Black Feather Troop and lived to tell about it."
"You want the guns, you just try and get 'em," Valentine shouted back, trying to keep the calm assurance of Captain LeHavre in his voice. "You'll get plenty of the business end. How about this: We'll give you the horses and the tack, and walk out of here after you pull out."
"No bargaining! I'm giving you five minutes to talk it over. You're up a dry hill in a building you can't even cover all the sides of. Bring out your rifles, and we let you walk out and keep heading north," he demanded with the assurance of a man holding four aces.
Valentine knew he was beat on card strength, but he believed they wouldn't live to see the sunrise if they walked out of the house without their rifles. The men turned to him, having reached the same conclusions and wanting to go down shooting.
"Gonzo, Harper, get out your blades. There's something we have to do."
"Cut the horses' throats?" Harper asked.
Valentine decided there was still a chance at bluff. "No, we have to whittle."
Five minutes later, but with over an hour of daylight left, Valentine stepped out of the door with the three rifles in his arms. He inflated his lungs, threw out his chest, and let loose with a high-pitched shriek. The three Black Feathers startled at the cry, which didn't seem to echo off the hills so much as pass through them.
"Come and get your guns," Valentine called hoarsely, advancing a cautious pair of steps away from the door. His holster was empty; Harper covered him from behind with the revolver.
"You made the smart move, son," Mr. Mind said, trying to keep the satisfaction out of his voice. The three rode forward to claim the repeaters.
Valentine carefully placed them on the ground and stepped back.
The older man dismounted, covered by the guns of his younger relations. He knelt to pick up one of the guns. "So, there are only three of you. I thought so. These are mighty fine-"
He made a surprised choking sound and pulled his hands away from the rifle as if it were a rattlesnake shaking its tail.
Carved into the stock of each rifle was a small insigne, a reversed swastika identical to the one Valentine had seen on the canoe and discussed with the researcher at the Miskatonic.
He looked up at Valentine, lips trembling. "Where'd you get these?" he asked.
"Our Masters gave them to us. Their mark is on the saddles, as well. I even have a tattoo. We're scouting for them, you see. Eight of them moving west as we speak. So take them, but we'll have them back by morning. In good condition, too: They'll only be dropped once."
"Now, son, we had no knowing you had anything to do with the Twisted Cross. Hell, we're no enemies of yours. You might say we're on your side. Just this spring we caught a Cat out of the Ozarks. Real little spitfire; the boys ganged her, and we cut her throat, of course. You can ask Lord Melok-iz-Kur, in Rockford. We pay for what we take there with good silver, turned in runners even."
Valentine smiled. "It seems we've just had a misunderstanding here. No one was hurt, no one need know, Mr.-"
"It's Black Craig Lorraine, sir. At your service. If there's anything we can do to help you along, anything at all..." The Black Feather was almost groveling.
"Come to think of it..." Valentine mused.
Valentine returned to the house, holding the rifles. "He folded." Harper handed the pistol back.
"Eh?" said Gonzalez.
"They're letting us go. In fact, they're giving us some supplies. Problem is, they're cannibals, so I had to promise them Gonzalez, since he's the plumpest of us."
"Bad joke, Val," Gonzalez said. "That was a joke, right?"
That night the Wolves rode north with guns, horses, and a new shoe on the spare horse. They were also weighed down by bags of corn, grain, and food from the supplies of the Black Feathers.
"Jesus, Lieutenant," Harper said, voice tinged with admiration. "When you did that Reaper scream, I about crapped my pants. You could have warned us."
One of the Black Feathers, part of the dispersing ring to the north, waved in a friendly fashion. Gonzalez eyed him warily.
"That was a joke, right, Lieutenant?"