Way of the Wolf
Chapter Seven

 E.E. Knight

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:
Arkansas, spring of the forty-second year of the Kurian Order: Valentine spent the winter months in diligent pursuit of his commission as lieutenant. While learning about interior lines and maneuver in the face of the enemy in the classroom, he became acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of oxen and pack mules in the field. He would wheedle six different calibers of ammunition out of the arsenal during the day and construe Clausewitz at night. He finished a thesis on the argument for objective reality, defending Socrates against Protagoras and Gorgias after earlier arguing about the quality of the latest barrel of flour with the demanding camp wives.
An astute observer with a detailed memory, Valentine molded his conduct after the officers he respected. He admired LeHavre's methodical planning of every company movement, each leader knowing his assignment so well the captain would often issue just two orders in a day of march: "strike the tents" at dawn and "make camp" at dusk. The company functioned as a well-tuned machine from the moment its commander hit the on switch. He appreciated Lieutenant Mallow's role as senior in amplifying and following up on his commander's orders, and copied Brostojf's devotion to his men in supplying their every want. If he also avoided Mallow's indecisiveness in the absence of clear and specific orders from the captain and Brostojf's binge drinking, it showed that he could learn how not to behave, as well. His men liked him and, what was more, respected him for the simple reason that he showed them respect.
The Guards attending the Officer's TrainingCollege chided him for his drab deerskin clothing and his shyness. He avoided the boisterous weekend outings, a fixture of college life since education began, and kept quiet in class unless called on. He remained silent about his experiences even with the other Wolves who dropped in occasionally as students and lecturers. He grew to know the scholars of Miskatonic Hall, read some of their raw files concerning the Kurians, and listened more than he talked. These traits, but especially the last, proved rare among the alternately bitching and bragging young Wolves.
Still, he felt lonely and fell into the trap of pretending to prefer being alone, thus leading to further loneliness in a vicious circle of solitude that young men of a certain temperament build for themselves and then inhabit. But apart from the lack of companionship, he enjoyed his time as an acting-lieutenant more than anything else in his life up to that point. The constant challenges, physical and mental, stimulated him.
Zulu Company saw action twice that winter, but owing to his studies and lack of experience, Valentine remained back at the reserve camp with the sick and other dependents, commanding a squad of equally discouraged Wolves and being responsible for guarding the cumbersome wagons and baggage. Marksmanship contests for the noncombatants and rehearsing musical follies to welcome back the returning Wolves provided comic relief for the men's tensions, and every time one of his squad smuggled a woman into an isolated tepee, he pretended not to notice. By the first silent green explosion of spring, Zulu Company moved from Pine Bluff to the
Ouachita River, returning to active duty.
* * *
"Sorry, Valentine, you're staying behind again." Captain LeHavre put down his piece of chalk. The slanted rays of the falling sun gave his features a warm golden cast.
Behind him, the blackboard (which was actually green) had a rough map of southeastern Arkansas and the Louisiana borderlands. Dotted circles traced locations the other two platoons would explore on the long-range patrol consuming the rest of the month. Next to the young Wolf, Brostoff and Mallow exchanged comments in an undertone.
"Questions, gentlemen?" the captain asked.
"What are you leaving Val, sir?" Brostoff asked.
"His whole platoon. Just because he's staying doesn't mean he'll be unoccupied. In a sense, while we're out, he's the first line of defense of Southern Command. Once the rivers fall a little more, a hard-riding column could raid this place without us cutting their trail, let alone sighting them. The river needs watching, too. He needs men for patrols, running supplies down from Regiment and out to our caches, mapping and surveying these border farms."
"Bartering for rice, too, Valentine," Mallow said. "We'll all be sick of the stuff by fall."
"Beats going hungry. Time was there wasn't much more than trappers out here," LeHavre added. "Now there are some farms-plantations more like-and if we can get them organized, we might count the land out to the Mississippi ours. It would take a couple thousand men to garrison it properly, though, and unless they provide some irregular forces, that's not going to happen. You're a good talker, Valentine. Sound out a few of these locals and see if they'll accept arms and ammunition for a patrol service."
Valentine and his platoon saw the other two thirds of Zulu Company off the following dawn.
"Give my regards to the gators," one of Valentine's platoon japed.
"Leastways we'll be doin' more with our blades than whittlin'," countered one of the men from the southbound files, spitting sunflower seed shells.
Valentine's platoon worked the lines of the ferry the company constructed for the river crossing. Within weeks, the river would be wadable at a number of drifts, but LeHavre wanted to start exploring the southern borders with the Kurian Zone now.
Blooming dogwoods decorated the slow-moving river. Valentine rode across the river with the supply mules and surveyed the campsite from the opposite bank. Zulu Company's tepees and tents were hidden, set well back from the river. Even if the Quislings sent armed patrol boats up the river, they wouldn't know the Wolves were there once the raft and lines were hidden.
"You might think you've got the easy duty, but it's a serious responsibility," a voice said from behind.
Valentine turned. LeHavre emerged from the foliage, weighed down by map cases, a telescope, and the company's only submachine gun. The clouds had thickened, and the forest was a canopy of shadow.
"This is a tricky corner you're in, Valentine. The Kurians could float up the Ouachita, raid in from Louisiana, or come across the Mississippi. They have a big garrison at Vicksburg and the barges to float them. Your first job is to protect Southern Command by looking out for that kind of thing. If they come in strength, send as much information back to Regiment double-quick. Cause trouble for 'em if you can, but your men are worth more than Quisling conscripts, so make sure you don't get cornered. I've left you here for a reason, not because you're the junior. Fact is, another time I'd stay myself."
"Yes, sir. Hopefully it'll be a quiet summer."
A third man joined them, the bulky senior NCO, Sergeant Patel. "Everything's across, sir. Scouts are out and the column is ready to go."
"Thank you, Sergeant. I'll be along in a moment." He turned back to Valentine.
"Count on us being gone six weeks. I'll send you on a short patrol when we get back, so you can get some experience. I'm going to leave Brostoff out all summer watching the rivers, but I'll be back with Mallow and his platoon."
"The chickens will be fat by then, and I'm sure I can find some good-size watermelon."
"So young, and you already know how old soldiers think. Take care, Mr. Valentine," LeHavre said, returning Valentine's salute with his usual grace. "Don't let anything happen to Southern Command while I'm gone."
Valentine forced a confident smile when LeHavre winked.
With the patrolling Wolves departing and the day fleeing, Valentine supervised the team dismantling the ferry. They floated the lines and stakes back to the camp-side and rolled the raft out of sight.
"There's a new occupied farm two miles north of here, Lieutenant Valentine," Sergeant Quist reported. "Will we be paying them a visit?"
"Keep the men out of the henhouse, if you value your rank, Quist. You know how the captain feels about that sort of thing," Valentine said, clouding over like the sky above.
"Didn't mean that, sir. They know better. I meant a social call. Get things off on the right foot. We'll be moving up and down the river, and we don't want a gut full of buckshot by accident. He might want to trade for some grub, too."
"I see. I'm sorry, Quist, wrong conclusion. I'll make it the first thing tomorrow morning. I'll take Bozich; having a woman along will seem less threatening. Michaels is the senior Aspirant now, right? I'll take him, as well. You'll have to handle things while I'm gone, Sergeant."
It began to rain, and Valentine walked the perimeter of the camp. He enjoyed a warm rain, the feeling of privacy it afforded. He smelled the sentries' tobacco smoke even in the wet before seeing them, considered issuing an order against smoking on duty, then rejected the idea. The veterans knew when it was safe to smoke, and the newbies could be taught. Shelter, food, firewood, and security occupied his mind as he wandered through the drizzle, an ear always cocked for sounds in the camp. He used his nose as much as his ears, smelling which way cooking smoke and latrine odors drifted in the prevailing winds. There were Grogs who could hear and smell better than the Wolves. He would have to set still-watches on the river, build some kind of redoubt in case of sudden attack, and arrange for safe storage of ammunition and food supplies. Some kind of netting in the overhead trees might be a good idea, he thought, remembering his encounter with the Harpies in Weening. That made him think of Gabby Cho, and his good mood vanished like a lump of sugar in the rain.
The farm Quist had spoken of consisted of a single well-built barn, still under repair. Only a foundation remained where there had once been a house. The barn stood above a wet inlet from the Ouachita, and rice paddies flourished in the cleared land.
Valentine led Bozich and Michaels up the path from the river. Bozich had a hard face but warm eyes; LeHavre was thinking of making her a sergeant. She was the most diminutive of the Valentine's Wolves, but had stamina in inverse proportion to her size and carried a carbine with a telescopic sight. Michaels still had pimples and wheezed sometimes, but a little asthma would not necessarily disqualify him from future service. More important, he took his duties as senior Aspirant seriously.
The Wolves smelled cows and goats in the barn, but no pigs. It appeared that the farmers, whoever they were, lived above their animals, and pigs were not ideal livestock for sharing accommodations.
Dogs barked, and a tousle-headed girl in the yard scrambled up a ladder at their approach, calling "Momma! Momma! Momma!" like a wailing siren. A hairy face appeared at one of the lower windows, and the Wolves stopped.
"It's sojers," somebody yelled. Valentine's ears picked up at the sound of a shotgun breech being closed.
Two men emerged, both bearded, one a little more grizzled than the other. The elder held the shotgun Valentine had heard. Both wore faded rags, patched and clean but obviously pre-Kur salvage.
"Y'all out upcountry? Command boys?" the younger asked, within jumping distance of the barn door.
"Course they is," the armed one said. "Wearin' skins an' deer-booties."
"We're camping a couple miles downstream. Thought we'd pay a call," Valentine said, hand well away from his holster.
One of the barking dogs decided nothing interesting was going to happen and flopped on its side with a sudden motion, almost as if it had been shot. Bozich and the Aspirant snickered, and the dog's owners exchanged a look.
"That dog beat all. Goes to sleep like he's droppin' de-yad," the unarmed man said, showing a gap-toothed smile.
The ice was broken, and the men called out their families. Concrete Barn Farm, as the occupants styled it, consisted of two brothers, Rob and Cub Kelly. Their families and another unmarried young man worked the rice paddies, gardens, and fishing streams.
"We-uns think what's ours is ours," Rob Kelly, the younger of the brothers, said later, as the men and their wives sat with Valentine's team on the foundation of the house. Perhaps it had once been a front porch.
Cub nodded in agreement. "Couldn't take it up by y'all. Taxation, regulations. Law stopping by with empty bellies. Don't plant, don't pitch, but want it all the same. Paw took we-uns outer there."
Bozich opened her mouth, but Valentine shook his head.
"You're on your own down here, that's for sure. Lonely country, though, should the others come through."
Rob Kelly's wife tightened her mouth.
"Our boys keep good watch," the younger Kelly said. "We-uns too small fer them to bother with. We-uns jes' tell Steiner and his Beasts if'n anythin' dangerous shows up."
"Who's this Steiner?"
"His-uns got a few places in country. Half day's hard walk."
"I've got a box of shells for that twelve-gauge if one of your sons will take me to him. Looks like you could use some paint for that barn, too. I might be able to find some."
Cub Kelly looked suspicious. Of course Valentine had seen only two expressions on his face, suspicious and taciturn. He made up his mind and nodded to his brother.
"We-uns got a deal, sojer-man."
Cub Kelly's scarecrow-lean, half-naked son Patrick spoke as little as his father. All tan skin and searching eyes, he guided Valentine through a series of swamp trails. The boy carried a sling and a bag of rocks the whole way. Valentine watched the youth kill a watchful hawk atop an old utility pole. He retrieved the limp mass of talons and feathers, saying, "Sumpin' fer the boilin' pot."
Bozich whistled at the sight of the Steiner place. A cluster of buildings sat on a mound in the center of miles of rice paddies. The whitewashed buildings were in good repair, with aluminum-covered roofs surrounded by walls, and the walls in turn surrounded by a wide moat.
The Wolves observed it from a little hummock of land marking the end of the trail and the beginning of the paddies. A small cemetery filled the hill, neat little crosses in rows, interspersed with rock cairns. Some of the graves were tiny, in clusters, telling the usual tale of high infant mortality in a rural region, lying next to cross after cross with died in childbed burned into the wood. After a moment's study of the community's dead, Valentine turned back to the living.
"Have you heard about this?" he asked Bozich.
"We knew there were some big plantations out here, but this beats all. These aren't border squatters-this is years of work, sir."
"Wonder how you get in? Drawbridge?" Valentine said.
"A boat on a line, sojer," Master Kelly said.
"Thanks, son. You can take your hawk home to the pot now. Tell your pa he needs anything, we're always ready to trade."
"Sure, sojer," the boy said, tying his sling around the legs of the hawk and trotting back into the brush.
"There's the boat," Michaels said. "Under where the wall goes down to the water."
Valentine surveyed the walls with his binoculars. The stone for them had been quarried; they were fitted together with no small skill. He saw another head, binoculars held to the eyes, staring back at him. "They've seen us, too. No use looking timid, let's go find the landing."
The three Wolves zigzagged across the earthen dikes separating the rice fields. It occurred to Valentine that anyone attacking the compound would have to take a circuitous route to rush the walls if they did not want to flounder through the mud.
"Think these folks'll feed us?" Bozich asked. "The Kellys weren't too hospitable."
"We'll learn soon enough," Valentine said. "Michaels, you stay outside of rifle range. There's a funny smell to this place."
Bozich sniffed the air. "Smells kinda like pigs... I hope, Mr. Valentine. Really clean ones?"
"Smells like Grogs to me. Doesn't look like there's been a fight. But be ready for anything. If night comes, Michaels, and you don't hear from us, you skedaddle. You hear shooting, you skedaddle. Understand?"
"Yes, sir. I'll bring help."
"You'll tell Quist to alert Southern Command is what you'll do."
Dogs barked as they approached, not just the yips of mongrels, but the deep baying of hounds. A man appeared at the wall. He looked at them from behind a firing slit.
"Hi-yi, strangers. Whatever you're selling, we don't need any."
"We're buyers, not sellers. We'd like to speak to Mr. Steiner. We don't have an appointment."
"You don't have a what?"
"Never mind, can we come in?"
There was a pause.
"He says he'll come out."
Steiner was a sizable man with a shock of red hair grow-ing out of freckled skin. After a glance at the visitors, he rowed himself across in a small flat-bottomed boat.
Valentine guessed him to be about thirty-five. He wore rawhide sandals and a short wide-necked tunic that made Valentine think of pictures he had seen of Romans. It looked cool and comfortable.
"My guess is y'all are Wolves out of Southern Command. If you're looking to buy rice, I already sell mine up in Pine Bluff. I've got an agent there. And don't go quoting your Common Articles, this spread isn't part of Southern Command's ground. We built it, no help from you, and we hold it, no help from you. Last jumped-up bushwhacker that tried that ten percent routine walked up threatening and ran off yelping."
Valentine held the man's gaze. "You think you hold it, no help from us. How long you'd keep it if the Free Territory weren't still standing is another question. But I'll concede the point to save an argument."
"I'm done talking," said Steiner.
"Quite a spread you've got here. You must have room for fifty families or more. Is this a refuge if the Kur come through?"
"That's our business, Running Gun."
"We're a couple of tired Running Guns, Mr. Steiner. Hungry, too. Part of my unit is camped near the Ouachita, and I'm just trying to get to know the neighbors. I'm impressed. I've never seen a settlement quite like this in the borderlands. I'd like a better look."
"It took a lot of hard years, mister."
"Valentine, David. Lieutenant with the Arkansas Wolf Regiment."
Steiner considered. "Mr. Valentine, we don't take strangers in normally, but you seem a better sort than your usual Com-mand type. I'll offer you a tour and a meal, but I don't want your men showing up weekly, making speeches about how totin' a gun for Southern Command entitles them to a fried chicken dinner. You'll see things not many in your outfit have seen, or want to see."
They took the little dinghy to the island. More corrugated aluminum covered the wooden gate. Valentine wondered if Steiner knew his aluminum wouldn't do him any good against white phosphorus bombs.
They passed through the gate-
And froze. A pair of Grogs stood inside, cradling their long rifles. They wore tunics similar to Steiner's and pulled back rubbery lips to reveal yellow teeth.
Bozich gasped, reaching for her carbine.
"Wait, Bozich, leave the gun," Valentine barked, putting his hand on her barrel to keep her from raising it. His heart pounded, but the Grogs kept their guns in a comfortable cradled position.
"Don't worry," Steiner said. "These aren't the usual Gray-backs. They're friendly."
"I've seen a tame Grog before."
"These ain't tame," Steiner said, flushing. "They're as free as you and me."
Valentine looked at the homes. The village resembled Weening in its circular shape, but there were no barns, just henhouses and goats. A water tower stood in the center of the village, and the community focal point appeared to be the troughs where the women did the laundry. A female Grog (with just two breasts; Valentine had heard they had four teats, like a cow) pressed the water out of her wash with a bellowslike tool. People and Grogs stopped to stare at the strangers.
Steiner invited them up onto a porch of a small house and bade them them to sit down on a comfortable-looking wooden bench.
"Mr. Valentine," Steiner began, "a long time ago I came out of Mississippi with a Grog named Big Joke. He helped me and my wife escape a labor camp, and we found the Free Territory. Some of your Wolves picked us up in the border region, took both of us prisoner. Prisoner! After weeks of trying to get to this 'bastion of freedom," I had to go before a judge with the Grog who saved my life and beg for both of ours. I'm either convincing or she was liberal, and we were released as citizens of the Free Territory. Big Joke and I learned quick that there was no place for Grogs in your towns. The person- and he is a person, even if they think a little different than us-I owed my life to couldn't get a job, a bed, or a meal for love or money. Best he could do was 'work for food' on the docks. So my wife, Big Joke, and I headed south and found this land in the midst of these swamps. I'd spent years draining swamps and building paddies in Mississippi for them, so doing it a couple years for me came easy. A few others came down and joined us. That was the beginning of a lot of hard times, but we got this built."
"You lost your wife early on. I'm sorry."
Steiner's brows came together. "How-?"
"We came in past the cemetery. I saw a Lalee Steiner, who seemed about the right age. "Evergreen' was a tribute to her?"
"No, it was her last name. I lost her to a fever, after she gave birth to my son. Two years after that some Southern Command Johnny shot Big Joke dead from ambush. He had been out hunting. I tried to understand. A Grog in the borderlands poking around with a crossbow. If I didn't know better, I'd shoot first and ask questions later myself. But y'all got to start knowing better."
"How's that?"
"Your Southern Command. Old thinking. Maybe it's because it was built by a bunch of military types. They're trying to preserve a past, not create a future. The Grogs are here, and they're here to stay. I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, by now. Seems a long way off, but if we ever do win, what'll we do with 'em? Kill 'em all? Not likely. Put 'em on reservations? Good luck."
"Southern Command is trying to stay alive," Valentine said. He silently agreed with Steiner about Southern Command, but he could not publicly criticize it, especially in front of Bozich. "They don't have the luxury of looking too far ahead."
"Not that living with Grogs is easy. They have a lot of fine qualities, but their brains work different. They're the most day-by-day thinkers you ever saw. If they plan three days ahead, it's an act of genius. How'd you like to wake up every morning surprised? That's what they do, in a way. Though they're smart enough at solving a problem once they understand it. You two hungry?"
"Yes, sir," Bozich said, turning from the sight of Grog children playing with a young dog. Valentine looked out; the Grogs were mimicking the dog's behavior, gamboling on all fours and interacting with it through body posture better than a human child could.
Steiner took them in to the dim house. The homemade furniture had a rough-and-ready look, though someone with some skill with a needle had added cushions.
"Sorry it's dark. We save kerosene, and anyway it just heats the place up." Steiner rekindled the fire and placed a pot from the cool-room on the stove.
"Hope you like gumbo. It's the staple here. The rice-flour buns are pretty good."
Steiner offered them a basin to wash in while the stew heated.
"I get the impression you're responsible for more than just this settlement."
The redhead laughed. "I'm still trying to figure out how that happened. Once this place got going, and we had wagons going up to Pine Bluff and back, some of the other smallholders started tailing along. With them and the Grogs guarding our wagons, it made quite a convoy. We have some great stonecutters and craftsmen here, and the locals just started trailing in, especially once we got the mill going. They started coming to me for advice, and the next thing I knew I was performing weddings and deciding whose lambs belonged to whom."
"King Steiner?"
"The thought's crossed my mind. Seems like the worry isn't worth it, but then when you get a baby or two named after you, it appears in a different light."
It occurred to Valentine that Steiner hadn't mentioned his son. He had already pressed the man on the sorrow involving his wife, and the grief in his eyes then made him hold his tongue now.
The food went into wooden bowls, and the Wolves scooped the spicy gumbo into their mouths using one rice-flour bun after another.
"Guess they call you Wolves 'cause of how y'all eat," Steiner said.
"Ain't the first time someone's said that," Bozich laughed, gumbo coating her lips.
Valentine finished his meal and helped his host clean off the dishes.
"Steiner, if you don't want to live under the Free Territory, how about you live with it?"
"With it?"
"Like an alliance."
Steiner shook his head. "What do I need Southern Command for? We do all right by ourselves."
"You might need guns and ammunition."
"We make our own shells and shot. Better than yours, mostly."
"Someday this swamp might find itself with a Kurian column in it. What then?"
"They'd lose more than they'd gain taking this place."
"We could give you a radio, and Southern Command would answer a call for help in this part of Arkansas. Anything coming through here is on its way to us."
The redhead looked doubtful, then shook his head. "Don't want a garrison, thanks."
"No garrison. We could build a hospital... well, health center anyway. A full-time, trained nurse and a doctor. Not just for here, but for all the farms in the area. Might mean a few less crosses in your cemetery. You could do even more for these people, if you'll just give the okay."
"Who are you, son? You have that kind of pull?"
"I'm an officer with Southern Command. I can offer whatever I think appropriate to the locals as long as it'll be used for us and not against us. Maybe I'm overstepping what they expected, but if they're going to grant me that authority, I'll use it. We put a health center up near the Saint Francis a year or so back. Why not here? Every gun you have means one more gun Southern Command can put on another border. You feed, clothe, and arm yourselves. That's a savings in money and organization. I'll put it all on paper, assuring your independence. No ten percent tithe. You'd never have to defend anything but your own lands."
Steiner probed his teeth with his tongue and stared out the window at the wash troughs.
"Mr. Valentine, you have yourself an ally."
Lieutenant Mallow stared openmouthed as the sergeants quieted the excited comments of the men of First Platoon. Captain LeHavre shook his head, a wry smile on his face as the ferry pulled him and the weary men across.
LeHavre had sent a runner two days ago to let Valentine know the patrol was coming in, tired and hungry. The river was still deep enough to make refloating the ferry necessary. Valentine alerted his new ally at the swamp fortress to gather his militia for a meeting and review.
On one side of the landing Valentine had his platoon drawn up, at least the men who weren't working the lines and mules pulling the ferry across. On the other, Colonel Steiner stood at the head of three hundred men, women, and Grogs. Each wore a dark green bandanna tied around the neck, the only common item to the tatterdemalion Militia Steiner had christened the "Evergreen Rifles." To Valentine, the name had a certain amount of irony, as under half the group's members had firearms, mostly shotguns, and the rest carried spears, bows, pitchforks, and axes. A hundred more rifles were on their way from Southern Command, as Valentine had added several impassioned letters to the paperwork requesting heavier weapons, a health center, and a radio for the local residents. From the Wolf camp, smells of barbecue and cooking drifted out to the river. The first semiofficial gathering of the Evergreens would be celebrated with a feast.
LeHavre jumped off the ferry and splashed ashore.
"What's all this, Mr. Valentine? Grog prisoners, or a posse?"
Valentine saluted. "Welcome back, sir. Those are local Militia. Their commander and I are still going around to some other homesteads. We hope to get five hundred together before the summer is out. He's an influential man in this area."
"Leave it to you, Valentine. I leave you with a little over twenty men, and I come back to hundreds. What are you handing out, free beer?"
"Just freedom, sir."