Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter Twelve

The Piney Woods, December of the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: East Texas is covered with timber, a wood-scape more extensive than all of New England. The pines stand as straight as Baptists on Easter Sunday, their evenly spaced branches ascending the trunk like ladder rungs.

Texas saw its first oil boom in this part of the state, but before that a timber boom brought white men to sculpt the land with its first roads and towns. After mankind's fall, the gently rolling landscape went fallow, and vigorous young forests have sprung up again from the old ranches and farms scattered around Lake Texoma to Sabine Lake in the Gulf.

The Texas Rangers are active here, as well, raising hell all along the informal border with the Kurian Zone that runs the length of the Neches River and along the road-and-rail "Sabine Corridor" the Kurians maintain from Shreveport to Dallas. The Lifeweavers are present to help the Texans in this part of the country. The Rangers have organized their own teams of Wolves, Cats, and Bears to hunt the Reapers, passing material and information to and from Southern Command through the network of Logistics Commandos.

The far north of the region, between the Red and Sulphur rivers, sees the least guerrilla activity. There is little human habitation to speak of. Southern Command proper patrols this area from its forward bases along the Red River. A few hunter-gatherer communities-usually Native American or Louisiana Creole-wander the area, pulling up stakes every few months to avoid the depredations of the Reapers

and Quislings raiding out of the Dallas Paramountcy. With fall in its death throes and winter coming, a wet, muddy hush falls over the land. Snowstorms are not unknown to the Piney Woods, and man and animal both retire deep into the woods to wait out the cold.

The pines smelled like home. The crisp aroma in the chill breeze of an East Texas December tickled his nose and brought back memories of winter camps in the Ozarks and Ouachitas. It marked his first breath in the lands of the Ozark Free Territory in over two years.

Half his wagons ground along almost empty. The stores and supplies within had long since been eaten up, and with the ratbits of "Batch Fiveteen" having taken better than a wagonload of quickwood to fight their own war against the Kurians, the remaining wagons were traveling light.

Leaving the Ranch was not as easy as entering it. They had fought two nighttime skirmishes against the Grogs in the borderlands and hurried into the empty lands north of Dallas and Fort Worth. A team of rangers turned southeast to confuse the pursuit, and the Batch Fifteen rodents did their best to muddle the trail.

Valentine had some of the quickwood lumber turned into spearpoints and crossbow quarrels anticipating an attack from the Reapers, but the hunt never began. They broke into the cattle-drive routes running up from Texas and into the plains without incident. Valentine put a moratorium on further slaughter of the dwindling cattle, so from a distance they might look like another wagon train bringing beef and trade north to the railheads in Oklahoma and Kansas for shipment east. The Kurians in northern Texas, never thick to begin with this close to the Free Territory, seemed quiescent.

It was as though their enemies were hibernating out the winter: they did not send patrols or Reapers to trouble them. There was a nervous day at the Trinity River crossing when some riders observed them from a hilltop. They did not stay to identify themselves, but rode away before the Rangers on

their worn-out horses could catch them. But as this area could be considered no-man's-land between the Free Territory and the Kurian Zone, they could have been anything from smugglers to robbers to scouts from some fearful community hiding in a river valley, wishing for nothing more than to be left alone.

"How are you planning to get back?" Valentine asked Zacharias as a team of Rangers went out to ride an old highway running northeast out of the ghost town of Paris, checking for signs of human habitation. Valentine hoped to find one of the Southern Command Guard garrisons or a Wolf patrol somewhere near the Red River.

"We'll head south. Hell with the wagons-there's plenty more where they came from. Ride slow down south until we hook up with the Eastern Rangers. They'll fix us up with remounts, and then we'll slip through somewhere between Houston and San Antonio. Won't be that hard this time of year. If the story of the Rangers in this century ever gets written, this'll make an interesting chapter: Bargaining with ratbits over magic trees."

"Don't forget the elephants with two trunks."

"The elephants we'll never forget."

Valentine laughed tiredly. It was good to be able to laugh again. Just a few more days to tote the weary load-the line from Gone with the Wind had been running through his mind of late. "I hope you know how much the help you've given and the risks you've run mean to the Ozark Free Territory."

"Well, young Captain," Zacharias said, from the vast age difference of five years, "you want my advice, the first thing you use the quickwood on is a campaign with us. You saddle up every man who can hold a gun and every cannon that's got a shell, and hit Dallas from the northeast. The East Texas Rangers come in from the southeast, and we'll hit 'em out of the Ranch, since the Kur no longer seem to be running things there. Once we've got Dallas cleaned up, the rest of Texas will be pieces just waiting to be picked up. Then

we've got enough country to really live. Hell, old Kirby Smith held out against the whole damn Union that way, till the surrender. I expect we could do the same."

"I'm one of the squashed guys at the bottom of the totem pole, Major," Valentine said. "The idea sounds fine to me, but it's for men and women above my rank to decide."

They watched the wagon train go by. Narcisse waved to them from the back of her horse, and Valentine moved to put himself between the trail and a fallen tree trunk. A Texan admirer of Narcisse's cooking had rigged a saddle so she could put her stumps into a pair of cut-off rifle-sheaths, and Ahn-Kha fixed a quirt to her "short arm." Sissy had turned into an admirable neck-reiner in the last month, but had developed a taste for jumping-though often she ended up plummeting to the earth despite the horse mane gripped with her teeth. Valentine wanted her to arrive in the Free Territory with neck intact.

Zacharias stripped a handful of pine needles as he rode. "We gotta start winning somewhere. This is as good a place as any." He handed the needles to Valentine like a bouquet.

"Southern Command has grown into something that's like an egg. It can resist pressure as long as it's evenly distributed from all around. But if you rap it too hard in any one spot, it cracks. Your plan would mean all yolk and no shell for us in Missouri and Arkansas. I'll tell the brass-the Lifeweavers, even-everything I can about the state of things in Texas. I'll let them know you're ready. Napole'on once made a comment that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. Maybe they'll follow his advice."

"Yeah, I heard about that guy. Confederate general from out East, right? Rode under Bobby Lee?"

Valentine just chuckled again.

The scouts came back, signaling that the road was clear. The men of the convoy went about hooking up the oxen to the wagons one more time.

* * *

Valentine would always associate his return to the Free Territory with the old Shell Oil emblem. Three busted-up tankers were parked in a triangle blocking the road a few miles out from the Red River. The tankers had been turned into hollow forts, firing slits carved into the sides and sandbags mounted on the top. It was a typical forward post for Southern Command: easily created, transported, defended, and abandoned.

The watchpost stood on the reverse slope of a hill in the old highway. The road cut across the countryside; a long, straight ribbon placed over the hills and hollows as a testament to the days when engineers treated the topography as if it did not exist. The garrison must have thought them a column of Quislings, for they did not wait to greet them, but promptly retreated out, hustling down a culvert running along the road. Valentine watched five or six men run, with the bent-over stride of men keeping their heads down, appearing and then disappearing in gaps of the brush running along the road.

"So much for the valor of Southern Command," Valentine said dryly. Baltz coughed up something from deep in her chest and spat.

"If only the rest of our meetings were so simple," Zacharias said. "It would have been a faster trip. Perhaps your tall companion frightened them off. Shall I run them down?"

"No, spare the horses," Valentine decided. 'They'll be off calling on higher authority. Suits us either way. But I'd better ride ahead from here with just one or two. I hope they don't shoot before trying to identify us. Interested in meeting some animals from Arkansas, Baltz? They're a unique brand of razorbacks."

"Sure, son. I've done my job: got you across most of Texas. If I catch a bullet, it's no loss."

"Ahn-Kha," Valentine said, "better take your Gray Ones and sit in the wagons. They might take a shot if they see you."

"Understood, my David. Be cautious, I am more worried about you. Frightened soldiers do strange things. It would be ironic, but undesirable, to have all your efforts end with one of Southern Command's bullets."

The vanguard of the column reorganized itself. Valentine and Baltz, with Ranson a horse-length behind, holding a white flag, rode a half-mile ahead of the wagons. Groups of Texans rode before, interspersed with, and following the teams, with long files of Valentine's soldiers marching alongside the rattling wagon wheels, all moving at the patient pace of the plodding oxen.

Valentine looked at the rusting monument to the Texas oil industry. Weeds grew in the rotted tires; rust ran down the marred sides like red icicles. He smelled a fire smoldering inside the fort-they had caught the men at dinner, something even crackled in a pan...

"Ride. Ride like hell!" Valentine shouted, thumping his spurs into the horse's flanks. His horse leapt down the road, and the others caught its panic and joined in the flight.

A flash lit up the Texas countryside, followed by a boom that came up through the horses' legs and shivered him in his saddle. Valentine looked over his shoulder and saw one of the tankers rear up on its back axles, and another rolled forward into the ditch at the edge of the highway. The base of the triangle, facing the rear of the fort, stood intact.

"They fired whatever they had in their arms locker," Valentine said.

"Must have been underground. Looks like most of the blast went up. Dynamite, I'll bet."

"Handy for engineering or sabotage. Just as well we weren't in the fort at the time," Valentine said. "That's not like the Wolves. Usually they're cleverer with booby traps."

"New standing orders, maybe," Ranson said. "Destroy whatever's going to fall in the enemy's hands."

They camped that night next to an old marker that indicated the state-line border was a mere two miles away. A chilling drizzle began just after sundown. Valentine sat underneath a tarp in front of the shielded cooking fire just off

the road, part of the farthest-forward pickets with the convoy. He listened to the drops evaporate against the flaming wood. He felt drained, utterly and completely empty. Just a few more days, he told himself, and he could finally lay down his responsibilities and rest. His young body seemed as old and battered as the faded mile-marker.

"They are taking their time on the other side of the river," Ahn-Kha said. The Golden One had wrapped himself into a horse blanket. When wet, Ahn-Kha's fawn-colored hair matted down into a rain slicker, still keeping a precious layer of air in between the wet hair and his skin.

'They're watching us. There are two men with their horses about five hundred yards off, just east of here. I heard them come up once it got dark while I was circling the camp. Wind's blowing the other way, or you could smell them. I'll go out again with the white flag tomorrow- maybe they'll have worked up the nerve to talk."

The rain grew heavier. Valentine considered returning to the wagons, but it would be crowded enough under the beds. He had slept out in the wet before. It wouldn't hurt him to do so again. He threw a blanket over his head and did his best to ignore the rain.

He awoke with a sneeze. A Texas-size cold had come upon him in the night, and he blinked the gum out of his eyes. One of the pickets had a fire with a pot of hickory-nut coffee going under a piece of corrugated tin. The ranger handed him a cup without a word. Valentine drank, nodding gratefully and passing another cup to a second ranger on watch, and looked down the road. It was a sunless dawn. A sea-gray sky washed the landscape of its color.

Two men approached the picket line, keeping out in the open, guns across their shoulders like yokes. A few Texans recognized the attitude. In this part of the country, that meant parley. They wore charcoal-gray uniforms, mottled with streaks of pale yellow and brown, the winter camo of the Southern Command's Guards. One had a set of sergeant's stripes on his arm.

"You with Southern Command?" Valentine called when he felt they were close enough. His throat felt like it had a rough ball of twine lodged in it.

The sergeant narrowed his eyes. "You all smugglers?"

"No. Identify yourselves, and I'll do the same."

They exchanged looks. 'Third East Texas Regiment, Noyes Brigade, out of Texarkana."

"I'm a Cat coming in with priority cargo."

"That so?"

"You call me sir, Sergeant."

Valentine cocked his head, and the man with the stripes added, "Sir."

"Code name's Ghost, requesting immediate radio or telegraph contact with Southern Command GHQ. Can you assist?"

"That'll be for Captain Murphy to say ... sir. He's on the other side of the river. What's this cargo? Hadn't heard logistics were out on a raid hereabouts."

"I've got a dozen wagons back there that need guarding once we're over the Red. What's Captain Murphy's command?"

"We'll let him talk to you, sir, once your bona fides clear."

"Are there any Wolves around?"

"Not for us to say, sir. Even if we knew, asking your pardon."

"I hope you have more to say when your captain tells you to talk. Please inform him I need rations for a hundred eighty men when we get across the river. Thank you, Sergeant."

Valentine went back to the fire and let the Guards return to their command. He could get the wagon-train to the river, at least, and turn it over to Captain Murphy and his Guards. He had asked for a lot of supplies, but filling the Rangers' saddlebags was the least he could do before they parted. He took his shivering horse from its place beneath a pine tree and rode back to the wagon train, saddle-sore muscles protesting at the effort.

* * *

The crossing went slowly. Every bridge on the Red was down for miles, according to the Guards. Without a swing south to Texarkana that would eat precious days, they would have to cross at Two-Skunk ferry.

Valentine was sure there was an amusing story behind the ferry's name, but he was in no mood for fireside yarns. He wanted the psychological safety of the river behind him, and a warm drink in his belly. Then he would quit seeing Reapers moving between the trees at night and imagining converging columns of Quislings racing to cut his convoy off from the Ouachitas. The ferry was a small one pulled across by rope strung along the ruined pilings of an old bridge, and it could manage only one wagon and unhitched team at a time. At the rate the ferrymen-Guards doing labor they had little enthusiasm for-progressed, it would take all day to get the column across. He went over to Major Zacharias, who was sharing a cold meal with his men as they waited to push the next wagon onto the timber float.

"Zacharias, you've helped work a miracle. I can't ask you to do more, so feel free to go back south once we've crossed."

"Texas is as grateful to you as you are to her, Captain Valentine. Mission accomplished once you are across the river?"

"Yes. I'm told the captain of this company is finally arrived. Let me speak to him first, but I'm sure we don't need to bring you much farther. I'll arrange to have feed for the horses and rations for the men sent back on the ferry. There should be some supplies available here."

"Thank you, Valentine. I'd be grateful."

Valentine stood, idly scratching the ears of one of the oxen as the ferry pulled him across the Red River. The winter rains had raised its level.

"What kind of priority-one cargo is this, suh?" the ferryman asked, shifting his quid to a sagging cheek. "All's I sees is plants."

Valentine tightened his jaws in frustration. If a laboring ferryman knew mere was important cargo in the wagons, then word would spread to every housewife and postman in thirty miles in a day or two.

"New kind of food crop. Like the heartroot."

"Heartroot?" The ferryman looked at one of the Guards.

"That mushroom stuff. Not too popular around here, sir," the Guard said.

Three years ago, Valentine and Ahn-Kha had brought the Grog-staple from Omaha, and Valentine was surprised Southern Command wasn't still distributing the mushroom-like growth. It grew a breadloaf-big hunk of protein, fats, and carbohydrates out of any wet garbage from a pile of leaves to a slop pail, and it preserved well if properly dried.

Valentine stepped onto the east bank, nursing a headache that spoiled what should be a feeling of triumph. He had done it. He was finally to the Free Territory with what he set out to get nearly two years ago. He looked around. A few Guards stood at their posts around the ferry, watching the teams get rehitched.

Ahn-Kha joined him. "My David, I made a promise to Captain Carrasca. When we were back in the Ozarks, I was to give you this." Ahn-Kha extracted the flute she had given him from between his football-size pectorals and untied the leather thong that kept it around his neck. He upended it and gave it two vigorous taps. A waxy envelope appeared. "It is a letter for you."

Valentine trembled at the memories brought by her handwriting.

Ahn-Kha withdrew and left him alone under a riverside sycamore. With rain running down the back of his neck and soaking his shirt, he could hear the creaks and groans of the ferry ropes in their wheels, the calls of the rivermen, and the wet pot-iron smell of the Red was in his nostrils. And he'd remember it all for the rest of his life.

He opened the seal and took out the sheet of Captain Saunders's stationery.

Dear David,

If you're reading this letter it means you're home and safe. I wish I were there to congratulate you. You have two things to congratulate yourself about, actually. The first is the success of your journey. The second I kept a secret so the first would be completed. I'm sorry you have to find out about it this way, but the fact of the matter is you 're going to be a father.

David, deep breath and keep your perspective. I'll be fine. I'm not the first woman to have a baby, and I'm in a better position than most. We have a wonderful hospital with all the equipment, and what passes for trained doctors these days. Jamaica will be a safe place for our child (and many others) thanks to you. I hope it's a boy with your hair and eyes, but I'll take whatever comes, knowing that he or she 'll be pointed out as the child of a brave man who helped my harbor.

Right now, knowing you, you 're thinking about how soon you can get down here. Put this letter away and read the above again when you've had a few days. It would be good for me to have you here. It would also be very selfish. They wouldn 't have put you in charge of the quickwood if they didn't think a lot of you, and I doubt your Southern Command would be the better for you coming down here. Someone like that loudmouthed fool Hawthorne would probably replace you up there.

If the war ends, come. If you are badly hurt, come. If you grow old, come, and we'll warm our bones together under the palms. But don't come out of duty to me. We 're alike enough that I know you have a more important duty you must be true to, or you will never he happy.

Love, Malia

Valentine swallowed. His cold disappeared in a flood of emotion. He could leave the wagon train with Southern Command, take Post and Ahn-Kha and his Jamaicans, and go south with the Rangers. A boat wouldn't be that hard to get, they could sail with the prevailing winds-

A rider trotted past the ferry and turned toward the sycamore. A Guard in an officer's uniform with captain's bars and murphy stitched above his shirt pocket peered out from under the cowl of his rain slicker and pulled back the hood. The rider had tight-curled brown hair that reminded Valentine of a dog he had once known in Minnesota. Eighty or so men on winter-fat, shaggy horses sat their mounts behind him at the wagons. Valentine carefully tucked the letter back in the envelope and thrust it in his shirt.

The rider dismounted. "You must be this Ghost," Murphy said, offering his hand instead of a salute. "I'm Alan Murphy. They said you had the blackest hair this side of hell. It's an honor-I don't get to meet many Cats. Do I salute you, or what?" Murphy eyed the new snakeskin bandolier with its three quickwood stabbing-points across Valentine's chest.

"In theory, I hold the rank of captain, but I don't use it much, Captain Murphy. I'm going to need escort either to Fort Smith or Arkadelphia, whichever works better for your men."

"My company is at your disposal, Captain..."

"Just Ghost will do, if you have to put anything on paper."

Murphy explained he had already been in touch with Southern Command. He was expecting a delay while other troops could be brought up to escort the convoy. Southern Command couldn't pull troops away from a river crossing, even if it was the time of year when they did not expect action. Valentine made arrangements to have the Texans re-supplied, and he saw to it that bags of oats, sides of pork, and a generous quantity of beans returned to the south side of the Red with him on the ferry.

As he moved through the Texans, saying good-bye, trying to forget what he had just read, he felt a tug at his sleeve. He turned to find Eve behind him.

"Yes, Eve? Going to finally say something, are you?"

"Mr. Valentine, the man who works the lines on this side, he's bad."

Valentine groaned inside. He hoped the man hadn't done something reprehensible to the pubescent girl. "What did he do to you that's bad?"

Her face contorted in adolescent exasperation. "No, he didn't do anything to me. I said he's a bad man. Bad inside."

"How do you know a man can be bad inside?"

She shrugged. "I'm not sure. When I touch your hand, I know you're good. I can feel caring. That you do things to help people. I touched him while we were moving horses onto the ferry, and I knew he wasn't like you. He's done bad things to people."

"Sometimes soldiers have to do bad tilings. Sometimes they don't have a choice."

"Maybe," she said, as if turning the idea over in her mind. "But I do know I can tell who is good and who is bad in his secret heart. He's a bad man."

"Thanks for telling me, Eve. I'll watch myself. Just in case, take this," he said, reaching into the leather tobacco pouch he wore around his neck. "Here's a quickwood seed. You know what it can do, right? Plant your tree somewhere safe, where you can take care of it. Where only you know about it. Your people in Texas may need it. I need to talk to your aunt now before I go over the river again. Let's find her."

Baltz stood with Zacharias underneath a thick-limbed riverbank willow, eating plums from a jar of syrup. Valentine interrupted a conversation about the best route south.

"I'd feel better if we'd of run into some local Rangers. I don't want to be riding through the country blind," Zacharias was saying.

"They stay more to the south," Baltz said. "This patch is close enough to the Ozarks that they don't need to waste their time here."

"The wagons are getting across, slow but sure," Valentine said. "It's time for a last thank-you." He sneezed. Between the cold and Malia's letter-he was already desperate to reread it-he could barely stand to go about the formalities. He wanted the good-byes over with so he could think.

'Too bad all that rum's gone," Baltz said. "Sounds like you could use it."

"You have a supply of quickwood for the East Texans, right?" Valentine said, wiping his nose.

"Wish it were more," Zacharias said. "But this is good tree country. In twenty years, they'll have lots."

"Watch yourselves. None of the Free Territory boys are mixing with ours like they usually would. Maybe the Jamaican accents are making them skittish ... but I get the feeling there's something wrong."

"Maybe Southern Command's had a setback," Zacharias said. "Or the Quislings have tried ambushes by posing as incoming Logistics Commandos."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Baltz said.

Valentine wiped his nose. "Losses in battle somewhere else, possibly. That might be why we didn't run into any Wolves. Without their patrols here, you're going to have to be careful. Could explain why these Guards were so quick to hightail it."

"You worry about yourself, Mr. Valentine," Baltz said. "We'll be fine."

Valentine shook hands all around. Texas style.

The sign outside town said BERN woods. Their destination stood in a farmland clearing a few miles from the river.

It was a widening-of-the-road town: two lines of buildings facing each other with a few houses scattered along the side streets. Like many old towns, the uninhabited buildings provided spare fixtures, glass, and shingles for the others.

The outbuildings had a pulled-apart look where they had not been demolished entirely.

This close to the borderlands, the towns were walled, and Bern Woods was no exception. The plentiful pine provided makings for a tall stockade. Gaps between the brick buildings were filled with sharpened tree trunks and earth, with corrugated aluminum adding a fireproof layer to the outside. A tower stood at each end of town at the gates, looking out over scratch farmland and pasture.

Murphy waved to the guards in the tower, and the gate swung open. They passed one of the last outbuildings, a house with a faint piggy smell coming from it. Wire at the open doors and window showed that the old house was being used as barn.

Valentine hardened his ears and nose. His now-raging cold interfered with his sense of smell and hearing, but he could still tell an occupied pigpen from an abandoned one. This one was empty. It was hog-killing time, but why slaughter all the livestock? Did a family pull up and move? Were logistics punishing the town for hiding supplies?

He looked back at his men. Post, curious to see what Free Territory looked like, walked at the head of files of former Jamaicans and Thunderbolt marines, at least those who hadn't taken the Texas teamsters' places at the wagons, to either side of the transport. The men shivered in the winter wind. The men had a good chance of seeing their first snowfall that night if the temperature continued to drop.

The gates came to a rest with a thump.

A gallows. The sight of it froze him before his brain processed the structure. It stood in an open spot, like a broken tooth, between two buildings on the left side of the main street. Hangings were rare in the Free Territory, and only a few capital crimes merited them. Even Quisling officers faced the firing squad rather than the noose; the hangings that did take place went on in a prison, not a town square. The sight of a gallows was all too common in the Kurian Zone, however. Valentine's memory raced back to a story his first captain had told him, of a town secretly seized by the Kurians to trap the Wolves in his command.

"Kenso," Valentine said to Ahn-Kha. The word for "danger" was one of the few in the Golden One's vocabulary that he knew. Ahn-Kha's ears shot up in surprise, then flattened against his bullet-head.

Valentine held up his right hand. "Ho," he called, keeping the horse moving to allow the wagon train to come to a stop without collisions, even as his feverish mind raced.

"What's the matter?" Murphy said. If it was an act, it was a superb one.

"We can't outspan in town. You want all these oxen milling around people's porches? Could get smelly," Valentine asked.

"I'm headquartered at this town. There's two corrals and a barn or two. They'll fit."

Post approached, ready as always for orders.

Valentine ignored Murphy. "Mr. Post, we'll circle the wagons in that clearing there, if you please. Downwind from the town, as a gesture to the civilians. Thank you." Post stiffened at the formal tone and elaborate pleasantries. "That is, if you have no objections, Captain Murphy?"

Murphy looked around at his men, then up the road to the town. "Well... no, of course not. Why would I?"

Valentine got off his horse and led it to Post. "Mr. Post, let's snap to it," he said, and then lowered his voice, tilting toward Post with his chin jutting out, as if upbraiding him privately. "I can't explain, but I don't like the look of this. Keep your gun handy, and alert the men. I hope it's nothing."

Post nodded and turned to give orders to the sergeants in the wagons. If the lieutenant looked upset to Murphy, he hoped that the feigned reprimand would explain the startled eyes and stiff backbone. Valentine turned on his heel and led his horse toward the clearing, Ahn-Kha falling in behind like an obedient dog. Ahn-Kha made as if to loosen the saddle on the horse and instead loosened Valentine's submachine gun in its sheath.

The wagon wheels resumed their noisy journey, squealing their axle-joints as the teams turned off the road and bumped to the clearing.

The captain came to some kind of decision. Murphy herded his men to the rear of the column. When he turned them one more time, to face the tired men bringing up the rear, he extracted a wide-mouthed pistol and pointed it at the center of the column. Across the distance, the Cat met the mounted man's eyes and read his fixed expression.

'To arms!" Valentine bellowed.

The hammer fell on Murphy's gun, and a flare arced out, sputtering through the sky in slow motion. The former Thunderbolt men threw themselves down from the wagons, pulling rifles and pistols. Post vaulted into the bed of the front wagon, where men were already loading a machine gun. Ahn-Kha brought up his long rifle, swinging the mouth toward Murphy, but the turncoat came off his saddle in a blur of horseflesh as his men dismounted and let their horses run.

The flare hit in the center of the column of wagons, and lay there, sparking. It spat out a chemical cough.

A wave of gunfire ripped across the convoy. Valentine saw heads appear at the walls of Bern Woods. The gate towers sprouted men as if someone had touched a wand to the platforms. He pulled out his PPD as a bullet smacked into the horse's flank. The wounded beast leapt sideways, knocking him to the ground even as it lurched, hind legs collapsing.

Smoke began to pour out of the flare, as if in landing it had opened some underground reservoir of purple steam.

The sound of shooting grew like the roar of an approaching wave. Machine guns added their deadly mechanical drum roll to the air-rending sound of gunfire. Panicked oxen bellowed and died. Other teams of horses ran from the explosions, throwing drivers from the runaway wagons.

Valentine smelled his horse's blood even as he tried to shut out the high, whinnying screams. Ahn-Kha swung the barrel, and his gun cracked. The Grog didn't shoot the horse; he dropped a figure in the gate tower firing an assault rifle. Valentine saw a Jamaican fall to earth, dying in a pose eerily like a Muslim praying.

The flare, after its brief fireworks, sputtered out.

Valentine sent a bullet into his wounded horse's head, then took cover behind the body. Ahn-Kha rolled to his side.

A hissing sound, and something exploded among the wagons. The blast threw a severed hand into the air, spinning it like a tossed daisy. Valentine squeezed off burst after burst into Murphy's men, emptying the drum on his gun. The turncoats were firing shotguns and lobbing grenades into the rear wagons; confused men got up to run, and died.

Another hiss and another explosion among the wagons. Pieces of a team flew as their wagon reared up on its back wheels, falling to pieces even as it overturned. Valentine saw something like a stovepipe pointing out from the stone roof of the town's tallest building. A recoilless rifle? More men poured from the gates at both sides of the town.

"Ahn-Kha!" he said, slapping his aiming friend on the shoulder. Valentine pointed. Heads appeared briefly over the barrel as the weapon was reloaded.

Ahn-Kha slid a finger-length bullet into the receiver. An ear twitched on the Grog as he brought the gun up and sighted with a rose-colored eye. Sighting in the time it took to draw a breath, the gun snapped and shot. Valentine saw a hat, or perhaps part of a head, torn away by the bullet.

The backblast of the recoilless flared in a gray cloud, and the shell exploded by Post's wagon. Old Handy Sixguns and the machine-gunners disappeared in the blast. Nothing but body parts remained. Valentine's marines were crawling out of the cross fire, or throwing away their weapons and sheltering among the stumps in the clearing.

The precious quickwood was burning. Two wagons flamed, putting oily smoke into the colorless sky. Valentine clenched his teeth until his jaws screamed in agony, reloading and firing his gun with tears in his eyes. He saw a Quisling rider grasp Narcisse by the hair and jerk her from her saddle, ignoring the blows from the quirt fixed to her arm. Post gone, his Jamaicans cut to pieces. Nothing mattered now.

"Away, David, away!" Ahn-Kha shouted, waving at the approaching troops.

"The quickwood," Valentine said.

"No choice! The smoke is blowing this way-it will cover us."

A bullet hit the limp horse, its impact causing still-warm muscles to twitch. Horses dragging a wagon came around the shattered front of the column. A Jamaican lay in the bed of the wagon, working the reins from the shelter of the bed. Ahn-Kha dropped his gun. The Grog pulled Valentine to his feet-grabbing him by the collar like a disobedient child- and ran in pursuit of the wagon.

Bullets zipped through the air all around: insects buzzing in their ears for a split second and then fleeing. Ahn-Kha caught the back of the wagon with one long arm as he hauled Valentine in tow with iron fingers. He swung up in an apish leap. A bullet caught the Grog at the apex of his jump. He dropped Valentine as he tumbled into the wagon. The wounding of his friend brought Valentine out of his mental maze.

Valentine felt something pull at his sleeve. The bullet that cut through his clothing hit the back of the wagon with a splintering thwak. He locked eyes with Ahn-Kha as the Grog's ear flaps fell Ump. His friend toppled into the back of the wagon.

He ran. He jumped into the wagon just as one of the team was cut down by gunfire. Ahn-Kha lay groaning in his native tongue, hand pressed against his buttock.

"Sir! Sir!" the wounded Jamaican said, pushing a machine gun lying at the bottom of the wagon at Valentine with a bloody foot. "It's still got bullets."

Valentine took up the weapon. He rested it on the side of the wagon and turned it against Murphy's turncoats still burning and killing among the other wagons. The chatter of the weapon attracted bullets from all directions. Valentine waited for the inevitable impact. He would die with his mission, with the men he'd misled. Another flare landed by the wagon, spewing more purple mist. Mortar shells dropped, seeking his position.

Valentine heard hooves approach through the smoke, and turned the gun. Only a short length of bullets dangled from the belt.

"David!" Valentine heard a familiar voice call. "Captain Valentine! Men, find Captain Valentine."

Post came out of the purple haze, leading two horses. His clothes were in rags, and his eyes were bright in bruised sockets. Blood ran from a cut on his thigh. Another mortar shell exploded and the horses danced in terror, but Post dragged them on.

'Take Ahn-Kha with the other horse. He's hurt. I'm staying with the men."

"No use!" Post said, bringing the animals beside the wagon.

"Can't-," Valentine began, but Ahn-Kha's bloody fingers wrapped themselves around the snakeskin bandolier and pulled him bodily out of the wagon.

"My David, we go. I shall run. There's nothing else to do."

"No!"

The Grog hauled Valentine to a horse. He hopped on one leg, supporting himself with his other tree-trunk arm as though using a cratch. Post handed over the reins and helped the Jamaican into one of the saddles, then held the horse for Valentine to mount. Valentine saw blood running from Post's ear.

"No," Valentine said tightly, slinging his empty PPD and grabbing the horse by the throat latch. "You're hurt, you ride."

Post and the wounded Jamaican rode hard for the woods. A handful of others, including Ahn-Kha and Valentine, followed the two riders.

As they fled, a shell found the wagon. More oily smoke rose into the winter sky. Valentine ran with the rest, half-hoping his heart would burst from the effort. He ran from his enemies, from defeat, from his dead and wounded men. He wished he could ran from his failure, but it stayed with him all the way to the trees and beyond.

Behind him, the quickwood burned.

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