Way of the Wolf
Chapter Three

 E.E. Knight

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The Ozark Plateau, the fortieth year of the Kurian Order: An island of sanity in the eye of a hurricane of death, the scattered farms and towns of the Ozarks are a civilization under siege. The heartland of the region is bordered by the blasted ruins of Little Rock to the south; in the west by a line extending from the western Ouachitas and Fort Scott to Springfield, Missouri; in the north by the far-flung foothills of the Ozarks and the Mark Twain Forest; and to the east by the Saint Francis River. Known by some as the OzarkFreeTerritory, and by the more military-minded as the Southern Command, the region supports three quarters of a million survivors. They are mostly farmers and ranchers connected by a network of poor roads and unreliable rivers flowing through the worn-down remnants of America's oldest mountains. Heavy stands of oak, hickory, and pine give these hills a bluish tinge, fed by cool streams winding through limestone gorges. The small mountains have bare patches of exposed felsite and rhyolite, rocky scars that symbolize the flinty hardness beneath the exterior of the inhabitants.
New farming centers have sprung up to replace the old. Little clusters of homes huddle together like medieval villages, stone walls with narrow loopholes facing the world; doors, windows, and porches facing the neighbors. The squatty settlements, perhaps built by men whose motto is
"Built for Safety, Not for Comfort," are linked by walls that do not divide home from home, but separate houses from the Outside. Corrugated aluminum barns and Quonset huts in the center of the ring of homes shelter livestock and machinery from the elements and thieves.
Some areas are electrified, and a substantial portion use natural gas. A ham radio network maintains communication. Telephones are back in action, but service is unreliable. The suspicious and tough-minded residents dislike strangers, and they sleep with rifles and shotguns handy. Pack traders traverse the area with stock on muleback or in gaily painted wagons, bringing basic necessities and few luxuries. Both necessities and luxuries are paid with barter, sometimes with greenbacks. Perhaps a measure of the success and fortitude of the inhabitants of what used to be southern Missouri and much of Arkansas is their acceptance of paper currency as being worth something. But as gold coins can be changed at two thousand or more dollars to the ounce, perhaps paper money's value is not what it once was. A regular judge advocate general, civilian relations (called the "Jagers " in a tone suggesting the word has an obscene connotation) Court rides circuit and brings some measure of order and law to the lives of the residents.
A few towns operate in the region, home to the artisans and technicians that keep society together. There is still singing in Branson, and a riverboat casino is in operation on the White River, paying out prizes in a system of Byzantine complexity. A governor resides in Mountain Home, Arkansas, trying to keep the roads open and mail running on shoestring budgets.
The Soldiery, as the residents know them, are concentrated in the Ouachita Mountains to the south, and in the broken Ozark ridges to the north. Ceaseless long-range patrols circle the area, picking up information and refugees from all points of the compass. Strong cavalry reserves train constantly in the center of the region, ready to go to the border to slow invasion or destroy a raid. Although the OzarkFreeTerritory is relatively safe, it is not impregnable, as small holders and settlements in the boundary areas learn the hard way.
The uniform combined the comfort of burlap with the durability of cheesecloth. How innocent cotton minding its own business could be turned into such a scratchy, sagging patchwork amazed Valentine. And the rifle! It was a single-shot breechloader, operated by a lever that flipped out the expended case of the bullet (woe to the recruit who failed to collect the hot brass thimble!) as it opened the chamber for the insertion of another round. At least, that was the theory. In practice, a few shots heated the action sufficiently to soften the thin brass encasing the heavy bullet, and Valentine became better at clearing jams than shooting the quickly fouled weapon. It kicked like a mule and aimed with the ease of a steel shovel. However, it had few moving parts and was within the manufacturing capacity of the OzarkFreeTerritory. The pay was the biggest joke of all. The recruits received multicolored military scrip, usable at the scattered-to-the-point-of-inaccessibility Southern Command Trading Post commissaries and accepted by a few pack traders desperate enough to take it in return for merchandise that failed the caveat emptor test everywhere else.
Fulton pushed them through two months' worth of drill in an exhausting six weeks. A few recruits bristled at the discipline and gave it up after the first week, either trying the dangerous trip home or finding work on the farms and ranches of the Territory. The majority finished their training under the supervision of bellowing NCOs. They ran and memorized the simple Common Articles that governed them and the Territory. They ran and sat through lectures about recent United States history, about the other knots of the resistance in Oregon, Arizona, the Appalachians, and New England. They ran and practiced with their rifles, as well as the captured support weapons and the simple cannon produced in inadequate factories. They ran and learned about camp life: brain tanning, drying and smoking meat, planting, foraging, and where to find medicinal herbs. They ran and learned about running.
Labor-Private Valentine learned to recognize the divisions of Southern Command: Guards, Militia, and Hunters. The largest body of professional soldiery was the Guards. They provided a solid core for the defense of the OzarkFreeTerritory. Sometimes the NCOs and officers were veterans of the Lifeweaver-trained Hunters. The Guards reinforced the Militia, the first line of defense for most communities. Most able-bodied adults, especially in the border areas, belonged to the Militia. They drilled with the Guards one day a month and stood ready to assemble at the call of drum, whistle, or siren. The Hunters carried war into the Kurian Zone. Trained by the Lifeweavers, they were divided into the Wolf, Bear, and Cat castes, each with a unique duty to the Cause. At talks given by members of the castes, Valentine learned that the Wolves carried out long-range patrol duties and maintained communication between the other Commands across North America. The Cats, rarely seen in the Territory, served as spies and saboteurs across the country, often leading double lives deep in the Kurian Zone. The Bears fought as the shock troops of the Cause, the Reapers' most fearless and skilled enemies. A Hunter usually started as a Wolf, and some of the best stayed as Wolves rather than moving to a different caste. There were a few that knew all three of the Hunter's Arts, as they named the Life weavers' disciplines. But all fought and sacrificed together to bring mankind back to a place in the sun.
Valentine experienced the uneasy symbiotic relationship between the military and civilians when the labor regiment broke up into work squads and were dispersed to the surrounding farms for the harvest. The military could not understand why civilians seemed to begrudge every mouthful that went into the bodies of the men prepared to give their lives to protect them. The civilians failed to see why so much of what they produced, barely enough to feed the community in a good year, disappeared into a machine that often failed to keep them safe, and showed flashes of competence and efficiency only when gathering the agreed-upon 15 percent tithe.
The harvest came and went in a whirlwind of dawn-to-dusk labor. Valentine, in charge of Cho and eight other recruits between visits by an overworked officer, helped a dozen hardworking families in an enclave near the Arkansas-Missouri border. They built and repaired houses and barns, helped get in the crops, and then butchered and preserved the summer-fattened livestock. Most of the grain and corn filled a pair of silos at the center of the little defensive ring of homes called Weening, but they also hid a reserve in a series of clay-lined pits set between Weening's barns. They covered the pits with tarps and dirt, and hoped the village dog and cat population would protect the edible buried treasure from scavenging rodents.
Harvest Feast followed the weeks of frantic work. For three days the recruits participated in athletics while daylight lasted, then joined the farmers at long tables laden with roasts, hams, turkeys, chickens, side dishes, and desserts of every description at dinner. Valentine sat next to Cho and gorged himself, then retired distended to the Militia barracks above the town stable for the nightly farting contest.
With the food put away, literally and figuratively, a brief period of repair and maintenance ensured that the blockhouse homes and barns would keep their inhabitants in some measure of comfort for the winter. All the while, the oaks and hickories of the area turned red gold, until a period of dry, windy days whipped the leaves from their tethers and left the twigs dead and empty.
Rumor suggested that Valentine's team would soon pull back into winter camp in the Ouachitas. The labor crews in some of the neighboring villages had either left or were getting orders to do so. The farmers' generosity began to run out as soon as the last root cellar was filled and barrel of salted pork nailed shut. A family named Ross gave Valentine a padded overcoat stuffed with goose down and coated with a waxy waterproofing. Valentine had spent some of his few spare hours that fall raising the Ross children out of semilit-eracy in well-remembered Father Max fashion, first reading to the kids from borrowed books and then having the children read the passages back to him.
Weening abutted Black River, a sandbar-clogged stream that flowed through a tunnel of black gum, oak, and river birch. Each night, even as the evenings grew cooler, Valentine waded out into one of the chilly, deeper pools for a bath. He had added another inch to his frame in the year since joining the Cause, and his long-limbed physique was leaving its boyish scrawniness behind. Lean muscle coiled up his arms and across work-widened shoulders brushed by his glossy black hair. His square-cut face was harder, and his bronze skin darker than he had ever seen before, but his eyes retained a youthful twinkle. Life in the FreeTerritory suited him: the work among the people of Weening was rewarding, and he had the memory of the Ross children swelling with pride as they sounded out compound words for him and their parents. He was happy.
One November evening, with a chill in the air promising an even cooler dawn, he waded into the scrotum-tightening current for his nightly bath. A few frogs started up their musical croaking, but it was far from the ear-filling chorus of the summer nights. A heron, standing sentinel on a snag in midstream, eyed him suspiciously as he plunged into his twilight revivification. He resurfaced with a "Cooeee!" torn from his lungs at the exquisite shock.
"Val, you're going to stop this nonsense by Christmas, I hope," Gabriella Cho called from beneath the tresses of a riverbank willow. "I'm all in favor of men that bathe. In fact, I wish you'd give lessons. But the river, in this temperature?"
He laughed, breathing hard in the cool water. "I can't pass up the chance for a swim in November. We couldn't do this in the Boundary Waters, not at this time of year. You should try it."
She stepped into the veiled moonlight, holding a wicker laundry basket. "I'll stick to dipping a piece of me at a time in a washbasin, thank you. It's slower, but I can do without the double pneumonia. Anyway, I brought you a treat, you nut."
Valentine waded up and out of the stream, toes pleasantly digging into the cool sand. He felt no embarrassment at being naked in front of Cho; they'd shared too many rough camps for him to worry about modesty. She knelt, unwrapping one of the bundles from her basket and then standing up again with the air of a magician performing a trick. The brick-heated towel she draped around his shoulders warmed him deliciously.
"Thanks, Gabby, this feels great! To what do I owe the royal treatment?" He began to dry himself off, goose-pimpled skin luxuriating in the welcome heat.
Cho retrieved the other towel, stepped behind him, and affectionately tousled his hair. "It's winter quarters for us soon. I hear they're going to split us up into apprenticeships or something in camp."
"That's the rumor," he agreed as she dried his back with a series of strong strokes. He found it easy to be agreeable with his skin tingling the way it was.
"You've filled out a little, Davy," Cho observed. "You used to be such a reed. Too much time cooped up in Father Max's library."
Valentine felt a spark. Are you going where I think you're going? he wondered, applying it equally to the direction of the conversation and her rubdown. Now aware of how close she stood behind him and drinking in her rich feminine scent, he thought with a little nervous thrill how easy it would be to turn around and embrace-
A shriek from the buildings on the other side of the belt of trees broke the moment like a thrown brick shattering a window.
"Fire!" echoed a second, more intelligible yell.
By the time Valentine pulled his pants on and stepped into his boots, a ting-ting-ting-ting sound rang from the metal tube in the gate watchtower that served as Weening's alarm gong.
"Flames, Val, and- Jesus, what's that?"
Something flapped across the night sky over the stream, bigger than a vulture, banking to make another pass over the ring of houses.
The two friends ran for the River Gap, a narrow alley between two homes that served as the smaller of the two entrances to the village. Cho ran three paces ahead of Valentine, who was still fumbling with his pants.
A shot flashed from one of the long rectangular windows just under the roof of the house overlooking the River Gap.
Cho staggered as the whipcrack hit Valentine's ears, a leg yanked out from under her as if someone had pulled it with a trip wire.
Valentine waved his arms above his head. "Don't shoot, don't shoot, it's us!" A second shot whistled past his ear.
He dropped to the earth, crawling for Cho. He found her writhing in the undergrowth, clutching her injured left leg. Oath after oath spat from her contorted mouth.
"Val," she gasped. "Val, my leg's broken, I think. Help me-Oh Christ, it's bleeding bad."
"Don't shoot anymore!" Valentine shouted into the flame-lit night. He pulled off his belt and cinched it around her thigh as a tourniquet. "Send help out here, damn it, you shot her!"
More shots rang out from somewhere, not aimed at them, thankfully. Valentine tried picking Cho up, but an agonized scream dissuaded him.
A scared-witless voice called from the window: "That you, Mr. Valentine?"
He started to reply with profanity strong enough to blister paint, but cut it off. "I'm coming in, we need to get some help out here. Dorian Helm, right?"
"Yessir. I'm sorry, but when you came up so-"
"Never mind. C'mon out here, I want you to keep an eye on her. Get a good look at what happens when you shoot without knowing what you're shooting at."
"Tell him to bring some water," Cho groaned up at him. "David, the bleeding's slowed. Please, God, let them have chloroform or something."
"And water, Helm. A canteen, anything," he shouted at the house. No response. He turned back to Cho. "I hope he heard me. Just hold on for a little while; the two of you stay under these trees. Those flying things are busy lighting fires."
"Knock a couple down for me, Val. What a dumb way to get hit," she said from behind closed eyes. Her lip was bleeding; she must have bitten it in pain.
"Hang tough, Gab. Back in a few."
The Helm boy, sixteen at most and wide-eyed with fear, let him in the tall metal gate that barred entrance to the west gap.
"Mr. Valentine, I'd never..." the Helm boy began, but Valentine had no time for him after seeing that the kid had recovered his wits enough to bring a blanket out for Cho.
He reached the center of Weening without further shots aimed at him. Smoke streamed from the top of one of the silos, where two men climbed an exterior ladder, laden with blankets wrapped around their shoulders. Flames licked at the side of the main bam, the largest building in the center of the ring of walled houses.
Two of his fellow reservists stood before the shed that contained their rifles. They were taking potshots at the bat shapes circling above. He ran for the shed, hunched over in expectation of claws digging into his head or shoulders any second. He retrieved his rifle and thrust a handful of cartridges into the pocket of his beltless pants, which threatened to drop to his ankles.
"They're throwing Molotov cocktails, I think, Val," Polluck, one of the would-be soldiers in Valentine's squad, warned. "You can see them bum as they come down."
"How many of them are there?" he asked, searching the skies. Thirty feet away, some of the residents worked the hose attached to the powered pump, directing a thin stream of water at the fire threatening the barn. At the other side of the village, a mountain of a farmer, gray-haired Tank Bourne, held his automatic rifle at the ready under his porch. The weapon looked like a toy pressed against his massive shoulder. Bourne aimed a shot at a shape arcing around the barn, diving at the firefighters, short leg-claws extended like an eagle after a fish. Valentine and his comrades' guns rang out at almost the same instant. The volley of shots brought the attacker crashing to earth.
Another flapper appeared on the slanted roof of the Bourne house, crawling down the shingles with leather-draped arms toward Bourne. Valentine chambered a fresh round, sighted, and fired. Bourne heard either creature or bullet, and came out from under the porch roof. Bourne pumped shells into the abomination. It turned over and rolled off the roof.
"That's two down," Valentine said, his heart pounding in his ears.
"The main hayloft's on fire!" someone shouted from the water pump.
Framed in the growing red-orange-yellow light of the burning hay, an ungainly shape waddled toward the upper doors from deep inside the loft. Tottering on short bowlegs, it pulled itself along with long arms like a webbed spider monkey. Two triangular ears jutted like sharp horns from its angular head.
Tank Bourne rested on one knee, feeding a fresh magazine into his rifle. Valentine and the reservists shot, apparently without effect as the bat-thing launched itself into the air. With a series of audible flaps, like clotheslined sheets whipped by the wind, the beast disappeared into the smoke above.
Bourne waved them toward the already burning barn. "We have to get the stock out of there!"
The hay, now well alight, threatened to take not only Weening's central structure, but much of its livestock, as well. Bourne, Valentine, and a handful of men dashed inside, throwing the lower doors all the way open. Rising heat whipped the wind inside. The men pulled, pushed, and cajoled the stupefied cattle, which stood frozen in their stalls, away from the flames. Weening's few horses needed little encouragement, but added to the Noah's Ark confusion in the great barn's lower level as they danced and collided in their rush for the door. Once they coaxed a few cows into moving, the rest took to the idea with a will and followed the horses, bellowing their panic into the night air.
The pair who dared climb the ladder, covered by every available gun, fought the fire on the roof of the silo. Valentine prayed there wouldn't be an explosion. Bullets felled two more bat-things as they tried to pluck the men from the heights. They extinguished the most immediate threat to the village. Layers of corrugated iron and shingles bought enough time for the coughing men to beat the fire into submission with water-soaked blankets.
As the gunfire died down, women and children emerged to help combat the blaze with bucket chains and another canvas hose. The main barn could not be saved, but the smaller buildings, coops, and pens that stood near it in the center of town stayed wet thanks to brave souls who dared the heat of the burning bam to douse them with buckets of water.
Bourne, rifle held ready at his chest, still watched the skies. "Those Harpies haven't been in these parts in years," he told Valentine. "When I was with the Bears, we caught a couple hundred of them in daylight. Burned them out of an old bank they were sleeping in. We shot them out of the sky in daylight easy. They're big, slow targets, compared to a duck on the wing."
"Slow?" Valentine asked.
"Yes, they're better gliders than they are fliers. Especially if they are loaded with grenades. They're pretty smart, at least enough to know when to attack and when to try to get away."
"Would they fly in the day?"
"I doubt it, too much chance of a patrol seeing them."
Valentine felt his pulse quicken. "They hit us within an hour of sunset. How far could they fly in that hour, Mr. Bourne?"
Tank looked at him, bushy eyebrow raised in interest. "I see where you're heading, young man. Hmmm, they'd be flying against the wind out of the east. I don't think they'd be more than fifteen miles away. Ten's more likely."
Valentine belatedly remembered Cho. "I've got a wounded man on the west gate. Can you help me get her in? After that, I want to find out which way they went when they flew off."
"There's a stretcher in the tack shed where you keep your gear. I'll help you bring her in, but we don't have a doctor anywhere hereabouts."
They found the young Helm boy propped up against a tree, eyes gaping and empty. His neck had a ragged hole in it just below the Adam's apple. The wound looked as if someone had probed his chest cavity with an oversize drill.
Cho was missing.
Whatever took place at the west gap had happened so fast that the boy couldn't even get off a shot with his carbine, which lay fully loaded and broken in half on either side of his body.
"There's a Hood nearby," Bourne observed coldly. "Poor kid, he was dead before he knew what was happening."
"Could Cho still be alive?"
"Maybe. It fed off Dorian here. Broke his neck then went for the blood. Chewed a hole in his neck and stuck its tongue right into his heart. Ever seen a Reaper tongue? Pointed at the end, like a big rubbery syringe."
Guilt hammered at Valentine with a string of precisely aimed blows. You left Cho unprotected in the open, watched by a kid who shouldn't even have been responsible for covering the west gate from a loophole. You pulled him out of his house and left him in his own backyard to get his heart pierced. Two people are dead because you couldn't stand hurting an injured buddy by moving her. Nice work, Valentine. The Kurians need a few more like you giving orders.
All the more reason to make them wish they had tried someone else's friends, a stronger part of him countered.
At the watchtower over the main gate, three farmers gulped at the roasted hickory nut drink called coffee for lack of a more accurate term. Valentine asked them for their best guess about which direction the Harpies were last seen flying and got three slightly different answers. The consensus seemed to be a little north of east.
Most of the town still worked to keep the blaze from spreading. The exception was the Helm family; the father retrieved his son's body while Mrs. Helm sat on the steps of her porch with her arms around her other two children, dully watching the flames consume the great barn.
Valentine climbed down from the watchtower. Bourne and the other eight reservists waited by the Militia stable tack shed. Recently turned earth next to the little wooden shack exposed two stout cases. Bourne gingerly examined the contents of one of the open cases.
"How is it, Tank?" Valentine asked.
"Still usable. We turned it this summer when we blasted the new drainage ditch from town. Quickest way I know to get rid of tree stumps."
"If I promise not to ask where you got it, will you spare us some of that bang?" Valentine knew the dynamite had probably been lifted from a Southern Command supply cave, perhaps with the aid of a small bribe to the resident quartermaster.
"If it means paying the Harpies back in their own coin, I'll tie up a couple of five-stick bundles and have them fused before you can say nitroglycerin. Part that worries me though, kid, is you wanting to take off right now. Wandering around in the dark with a Hood around, looking for something you aren't sure where it is-well, it's like playing blindman's buff in a room full of buzz saws."
Valentine squatted down and looked at the dynamite. "I want to hit them while they think we're still busy with this fire."
"Yeah, I buy that. One thing you got going for you, anywhere these things are holed up, it's sure to smell like a well full of dead skunks. They shit as much as pigeons, and you up everything proportional. I know they eat like crazy and their handlers aren't too particular about what they feed them."
Valentine's entire team volunteered for the duty, but in the end he took two. He asked two others to borrow horses and ride for the nearest Command post. The rest would guard against further attack in case the Harpies came back to finish the job. He just prayed the Reaper didn't decide to come back.
Valentine took Gil DelVecchio and Steve Oran with him. Steve Oran, a brassy young man who enjoyed hunting, had ventured many times into the borderlands east of Weening in search of game. Oran had the best knowledge of the land and excellent eyes. He'd once explored as far as the Saint Francis River, which marked the belt of uninhabited land surrounding the OzarkFreeTerritory. Gil was a powerfully built farm boy from the MissouriValley in the Dakotas. He exuded strength and could be relied on to keep his head in a fix. DelVecchio had been one of the two men to climb the silo: his sweaty skin was still stained with soot.
The three forced down a quick meal as they loaded up two days' supplies in rucksacks. With weapons, ammunition, dy-namite, and almost no camp gear, they could move quickly even in rough terrain. Valentine brought his pistol, with six bullets left in the magazine, and the best compass and map Bourne could provide.
They hiked out the main gate a few minutes after midnight, turning down an offer by the other Helm boy to go along as guide. Valentine told him he would help his family more by fighting the fire that threatened their house. He mentally added that while the killing machine that took his brother was probably elsewhere by now, perhaps striking again in the confusion of another Harpy attack, there were too many other risks in the eastern dark for Valentine to chance losing both of a mother's sons the same night.
The Reaper was much on Valentine's mind as the three men moved east. Oran picked the trail; Valentine followed several paces behind, making sure he stayed on course; and DelVecchio walked just behind, rifle ready for instant use. The Hood obviously worked with the Harpies, but would it decide Cho was a valuable prize to be taken for questioning? Her nondescript uniform differed little from any other impoverished resident's, and she carried no weapon. She was grabbed as a weak target that could not put up much of a fight, to be consumed at a later time.
Valentine prayed Cho had lost consciousness from pain and shock. He could not bear the thought of his closest friend being carried east to a dreadful end, screaming out her pain the whole way.
By three in the morning the men reached the wide Saint Francis River. A few ruined buildings that had been reclaimed by the wilderness more or less stood on its hilly banks. Valentine looked into the skull-like emptiness of a brick house, the interior nothing but humps of collapsed roof and saplings, and thought of the world-that-was. Fifty years ago, little cabin cruisers and fishing boats must have floated up and down the river, its banks under control and sandbars dredged. But with man occupied elsewhere, Nature had reclaimed her own. At a rest halt, he began to despair of their hunt. The Harpies could be anywhere.
"Val, there's a light on the river," Oran reported.
The three climbed a little promontory and looked north at the distant speck of light. It was near the western bank of the hundred-yard-wide river, but whether it came from boat or shore could not be seen at this distance. Who would be fool enough to burn a light right at the border? A guide for the returning fliers? Valentine wondered, suddenly hopeful.
They decided to check it out. Valentine and Oran readied their rifles and picked their way north, keeping under cover. When they got close enough to see that the light in fact came from a boat, they rested for a few minutes before creeping forward again.
"It's a small barge and a towboat," said Oran, who had the best night vision of the three, and therefore used the binoculars. They lay in a little hollow, peeking at the river from behind a fallen tree. "Looks like five men visible on the towboat. One's got a gun. No one is on the barge. It's riding light, must be practically empty. The light is on the barge, electric, not a lantern."
The towboat was attached to a ruined concrete piling projecting out of the lake, perhaps the last remnant of a dock.
Oran leveled the binoculars at the barge. "They got it anchored at the front and back. If anyone's in it, they're staying hid."
A gust of wind off the river made the men wrinkle their noses. They exchanged glances.
"I think we've found the nest," said Valentine.
They hashed out a plan. Valentine would take a bundle of dynamite and swim to the ship from the north end of the barge. When he set it off, the other two men would start sniping at the tugboat, with hope that it would be lit by the burning barge, and use the other bundle of dynamite on it from the shore. Gil said he was sure he could throw the bundle the thirty feet from the shore to the boat.
"Here, Val," DelVecchio said, pulling a hand ax from his belt. "You might need this. Who knows what might be in that hull?"
The weapon was light and handy, more of a fighting tomahawk than a tool. "Thanks. We'll meet back here," Valentine ordered. "If you're being chased, just go west like hell, don't wait for me."
"Hope you don't puke easy, if you're going close up to that thing," Oran commented, tension written in boldfaced capital letters on his face.
"Let's not waste any time. I want to get this over before dawn. Maybe that Hood sleeps in the barge."
Valentine stole past the lounging figures on the tug. If five men were up and around at this hour, perhaps ten more might be crammed below. Or were they out, somehow helping the Harpies? Once he had the bulk of the barge between him and the towboat, he crawled through vegetation to the water. The dynamite, matches, and his pistol rested on his back, in a pack that might keep the water out for a moment or two, if he was lucky.
Valentine kicked off his shoes and crawled into the cold water. It reminded him of his bath, and how Cho had dried him off afterwards. He took the comforting wood handle of the tomahawk in his hand and half floated through the water toward the barge, moving like an alligator with just eyes and nostrils out of the water, the pack making a sea-monster hump on his back. He felt as alive and alert as if he had just finished a light breakfast after a long night's sleep, rather than having been awake for eighteen hours.
It was a good thing he hadn't eaten recently. When he slithered close enough to really smell the barge, a horrible musky odor mixed with a sharper turpentine-like smell assaulted his nostrils. The hazy moonlight revealed details of the ancient barge, a mass of rust and paint and makeshift welds with M-33 painted on its side in three-foot-high letters. He shifted the tomahawk to his mouth, holding it between his teeth with straining jaws, and breaststroked into the river. He made for the stern anchor line. The gentle current assisted him with its chilly flow. He reached the cable, grateful for its hand-filling thickness. He climbed it, still gripping the ax in his teeth like a dog with an oversize bone.
The deck of the barge was as beat-up as its sides. It had a single hatch open to the sky. The battery-powered lamp, a conglomeration of what looked like a car battery and a truck headlight, pointed up into the night but seemed to bathe the whole top of the barge with an intimidating, revealing light. Valentine wished he had told Oran and DelVecchio to start firing when they saw him reach the barge; he could use something to draw the men's attention to shore. Still dangling, he gently placed the hatchet on the deck of the barge. Now or never.
He hoisted himself up on deck and crawled for the hatch. Expecting a shout at any second, he peered into the reeking hold. He could make out little in the dark, but there seemed to be floor six feet or so down.
He rolled over the edge and landed barefoot in sticky filth, ax ready. The hold stank like a slaughterhouse, and he had to fight down his gorge as he stood up in a cramped little area.
A gutter ran the length of the deck, filled with noisome excrement. The hollow interior was empty.
No. As his eyes adjusted, Valentine realized that a panting shape leaned against one wall. It was a Harpy, wrapped up in its own wings as though in a leathery cocoon. A trickle of blood pooled beneath its rump. Wounded, maybe dying. The debris on the floor included a melange of bones. A cluster of human skulls decorated a metal pillar, part of the barge's rusting structure holding up the deck. The heads looked like a yellowish bunch of coconuts. There was a door forward out of the hold. A body lay at the bottom of stairs descending from the door: pale, naked, and headless. But it was nevertheless familiar.
Valentine had found Cho.
An awful kind of warmth filled his stomach. He no longer minded the reek. He padded toward the sleeping Harpy with slippery steps. He could make out slit nostrils and a toothy, pointed jaw decorated with bristling catlike whiskers protruding from the tent of folded wings. Wet drool dripped out with its rapid, shallow breathing. He raised the ax and buried it in the face with a bone-crushing blow. The thing never knew what happened, falling nervelessly sideways. Valentine leaped on top of it, bringing the blood-and-brain-soaked tomahawk down again and again with a series of wet smacks. Flecks of blood splattered his snarling features.
A familiar flapping sound came from the hatch, and the light reflected from the deck lamp was obscured by a winged shadow. Valentine crossed the hold to the forward stairs to the door, keeping clear of the hatch. He could sit there, light the dynamite, and blow a few Harpies to kingdom come.
Shots echoed from outside. DelVecchio and Oran must have panicked at the returning Harpies and tried to prevent them from reentering the barge. Valentine somehow ignored Cho's body, took his pistol, and tossed the backpack onto the stairs. A Harpy flopped into the hold, one wing injured.
"Welcome home, fucker," Valentine cursed, putting a bullet into its stomach. The spent cartridge case pinged off the metal interior.
The Harpy screamed out a horrible, burbling kind of call. Language or pain, it brought answering shrieks from outside. Valentine knew he was drawing all kinds of ugly from the skies as well as the tugboat, but he wanted Cho's body to have a lot of company feeding the crayfish and gars. He heard, for the first time in his life, the chatter of a machine gun fired in anger. The tugboat crew must have a support weapon mounted on deck. He prayed that DelVecchio and Oran were smart enough to pull out now and head west.
He pounded on the roof of the hold, dislodging a shower of grit. "Dinner, dinner, come and get it!" he shouted.
The wounded Harpy pulled itself toward him, gremlin mouth open in vicious anticipation. Other flappers dropped into the hold.
Valentine took two steps backwards toward the door and found the bundle of dynamite and tin of matches. Grabbing a bunch of matches, he struck them against the rough side of the stairwell. They flared into life, illuminating the dank little closet space. Valentine lit the fuse, dropped the matches to the floor, and picked up his pistol. He fired a shot into the vague shapes collected in the hold. He placed the hissing dynamite on the first stair and pushed at the hatch.
He bashed at the hatch with his shoulder, closing his eyes to the expected oblivion that would blow him to bloody fragments, but the rusted lock gave way. He threw the door open and dashed onto the deck, then dived for the water on the river side of the barge. He felt a bullet pluck at him as it passed through his shirt at the armpit.
He was under water when the explosion hit. The boom sounded muted, but its force thumped at him even through the cushioning protection of the river, knocking the breath from his body. He surfaced, gasping for air.
The shattered rear half of the barge upended as pieces of its hull splashed into the river all around. The towboat was a mass of flame, the machine gun silent. The Harpies' incendiary bombs must have been on the towboats deck in readiness for another attack. Valentine got his bearings and submerged again, swimming for shore. No doubt a few very unhappy Harpies still circled above. His fingers struck the river bottom.
As his brain cleared, he realized that he was unarmed. His pistol was at the bottom of the Saint Francis, dropped when the concussion from the explosion racked him, and the tomahawk was probably landing somewhere in Mississippi. He gathered himself and ran out of the water and onto the river-bank.
Picking up a river-smoothed rock in each hand, Valentine hurried under the protective overhang of the trees. He felt defenseless as a rabbit with raptors circling above but made it to the little hollow without trouble. What was left of the tugboat was floating downstream in flames.
He crept to the place where he had left the other two and whistled softly.
An answering warble came out of the darkness. The pair joined him.
"Quite a show, Val," complimented Oran, returning Valentine's rifle. DelVecchio put the other bundle of dynamite back in his pack. Bourne could use it on more tree stumps or trade it for corrugated tin to build a new barn.
It felt good to have a rifle in his hands instead of rocks. "Oran, you need a break. I'll take point on the way back. You can keep us on course, and Gil, you cover."
"Sure thing, boss."
The light of the burning towboat faded as it sank behind them, and the three started for home. Not knowing how well the Harpies could see, hear, or smell, they stayed under the trees. Nothing dived at them or circled above. Later they sang softly as they walked through the shadowed woods, like young athletes returning home from a successful match. Beneath the bare-boughed canopy, Valentine felt safe from any of the surviving Harpies. But the trees made the Reaper's attack that much easier.
It stepped from behind a tree, plucking the gun from DelVecchio's hands and sending it spinning into the night. With its other hand, it picked him up by his backpack, holding the giant young man at arm's length like a filled diaper.
Valentine and Oran spun around, flicking the safeties on their rifles. The Reaper put the frantic DelVecchio between them like a shield.
"Drop him," was all Valentine could think to say.
"No! Wait! No!" DelVecchio was screaming. "Don't let him... don't shoot."
you might as well shoot, foodlings, the Reaper whispered, its voice all hissing air and menace, you'll all three be dead as soon as i take you.
"God, let me go," DelVecchio gibbered. "Val, get it off me!"
Valentine thought his heart was going to break out of his chest, it pounded so hard. His tongue felt dry, and his eyes seemed misted over. Only a burning sensation from the region of his kidneys prevented him from fainting dead away. He waved at Oran, motioning him to spread out. The Reaper couldn't hold DelVecchio in two directions at once. Oran, eyes fixed on the hypnotic yellow eyes of the pale, black-clad figure before them, did not respond. Valentine stepped backwards, rifle at his shoulder.
The thing turned its gaze to Valentine, bringing Oran out of his trance. Seeing Valentine stepping away, he turned and ran off into the night, discarding gun and pack.
run! i'll catch you, the Reaper breathed after him. hide, i'll find you. It turned to Valentine, shifting its gaze in a quick, lizardlike movement, shoot, and i'll pull your legs apart, one joint at a time, as easily as you'd yank off a fly's wings.
Valentine continued pacing backwards, lowering the gun barrel somewhat. He stepped behind a thick tree trunk, aiming his gun.
The Reaper laughed at the gesture, a sound indistinguishable from a cat's spitting fury: pha pha pha!
useless. It looked at Gil, the young man quivering in its grasp, you got one thing right, foodling, the predator said into DelVecchio's ear as it drew the thrashing figure close, i am a god!
DelVecchio screamed as it turned him around, pointed teeth tearing a hole in his neck. Gil pushed and flailed against the creature's grip, screaming the blubbery underwater screams of a man with a severed windpipe.
"Sorry, Gil. Hope you'd do the same for me," Valentine muttered, exhaling and squeezing the trigger.
The .45 shell found DelVecchio's backpack. The dynamite exploded in pinkish-orange light, throwing Valentine on his back with a warm, irresistible punch. Valentine's ears roared, and his head filled with light as he plunged into unconsciousness.
It was almost dinnertime when the exhausted residents of Weening heard a shout from the guard tower.
"Walker coming in." A moment's pause while the watchers in the tower employed an old telescopic sight. "It's Valentine. Alone."
The residents gathered, the still-smoldering barn behind them, to greet the strange apparition.
Barefoot, pants in tatters, shirt reduced to a few ribbons, and pale with fatigue, David Valentine walked into Weening. He held his rifle in one hand and bulging backpack in the other. He examined the crowd, looking for a face.
"Mr. Helm," he croaked, reaching into his backpack. "We killed the thing that got your son. And Gab. And Gil. Steve, I don't know about."
He pulled out a skull covered in sticky soot from the fire he'd used to burn off the flesh and hair. In everything but color it resembled a human skull, with an oversize forehead and an unusually long jawbone. The charred bone was bluish black and looked as if it had been carved from a block of onyx.
Randall Helm refused the offering and instead put his arms around the weary eighteen-year-old and walked him home.
That evening Bourne opened a jug of homemade whiskey and he, Valentine, and Helm took turns solemnly chiseling the names gilman delvecchio, gabriellacho, and dorian helm into the polished obsidian skull of the Reaper, still a little warm from its hours in the boiling pot. By the time the jug was recorked, the skull was mounted, slightly askew and off-center due to alcohol-impaired judgment, over the main gate of the village.
It stands there still.