The coyote packs quit yipping and denned up for the day. After the night’s fiery work, Rooster Squad slept well. Except for those on sentry duty, of course. Neither Julia nor I stood sentry these days. Our own soldiers resisted, swearing it just wasn’t right and they’d feel safer if their commanding officer and his aide got their rest. Rank hath its privileges. Rank also hath its problems. Captain Gilson’s Naked Boys were on scouting duty this day, assigned to surveil Hooded Cobra, determining just what problems War Leader Venom Chang was having and how deep they ran. I’d even loaned Gil my long range scope so he could eyeball Hoodie activity from a thoroughly safe distance. It had snowed all night but stopped an hour after sunup. Chang could easily track the squad’s horses if they got too close.
In the meantime, we serviced our weapons, drank plenty of hot tea, made yellow snow, and worked out the kinks in our bodies. Nobody in the unit was over thirty-five years of age but even young bodies have their limits. We needed a day or two of rest. I was hoping.
By noon, I’d realized there was nothing much for me to do except read. I fished Journal Thirty-Two out of my pack. According to the Noehms maintaining the Library, William Johnson Schenk, financial backer of the scientists who’d developed the capriosi vilify virus that nearly wiped out humanity, had kept a stream-of-consciousness journal in addition to his lab notes. What I held in my hand was, they swore, a true copy of the original they guarded jealously and would not let me see. They also swore at me when I badmouthed old dead Schenk. The clan had little people syndrome when it came to the man who’d built the Library. W.J. Schenk was nearly a religion with them.
I started at the beginning. None of the entries were dated, just strung together as they occurred to the author.
#Wrong behavior has pattern to it. Indep. studies by Lou, Tommy, Sam, Olga all confirm my findings. CDC does not care. Ditto Pols. Suborned already? Pull in horns, prepare defenses.
#Land purchased. Planning underway. All eyes on me as hoped. Lou and Tommy in D-land, undetected so far.
#Numbers even worse than thought. Est. 99 percent. Three infil. Soylent.
What was he saying? I blinked. Rubbed my eyes, hoping for revelation. Schenk’s style, at least here in his personal journal, was written in common language. But time and the Fall turned it into a bit of a cryptogram. Wrong behavior…whose? His? A friend’s? No, the context made that unlikely. 99 percent wrong behavior? By a test population of some sort? Maybe. Indep…short for independent. Lou, Tommy, Sam, and Olga must have been some of the scientists who reported to him, but to what end?
Wait a minute. Sam? Could that be Samuel Jade, my grandfather? My adrenaline spiked, thinking about it. Back to the puzzle. What was the CDC? Something told me I’d seen that acronym before. CDC…CDC…Centers for Disease Control. I’d read about them. Couldn’t remember the details. No idea what Pols might be. Parrots? Pollys want crackers? It made no sense.
Pull in horns, prepare defenses, though…clearly, Schenk had perceived a threat great enough to motivate him. The land he’d bought had to be the site currently occupied by the ruined city, including the Library. He’d made his move, deliberately drawing attention to himself, a gigantic, neon diversion designed in part to provide cover for Lou and Tommy in their “move to D-land?” Had to be that. Capriosi vilify had–according to recorded history–been developed by two “scientists working in Germany.” And wasn’t the original name for Germany “Deutschland?” D-land. Not a cipher, just Schenk’s personal shorthand used for notes never meant to be seen by anyone else. Infil was obviously short for infiltrators, but soylent was a reference I suspected I’d never get.
I returned to the Journal. The next page was filled with quotations.
#The brilliance of man is exceeded only by his blind stupidity.
–physicist Landerson Quiville III
#You can’t fix stupid.
–comedian Ron Smith
#Stupid pet tricks are nothing compared to stupid human tricks.
–alien psychologist Snarttxx Blngaamri Thorlx
#So many scientists are atheists because they confuse religion with God. Their big brains make them stupid. Their vision narrows and they miss the big picture.
–Nobel Prize winning chemist and remote-viewing mystic Joseph Frey
I read on.
The sun was touching the horizon when Captain Gilson rode in with half of his squad. The other half remained on scout duty. Half a dozen of Wash Conroe’s Walking Dead were already saddling up, preparing to head out on the night shift. Stereotype or no, the African American fighters were pretty much invisible in the dark.
“Jake’s on his way,” Gil reported as he stepped down, “along with what looks like the whole army. They’ve topped Ripple Ridge. Should put ’em here in another hour or so.”
“The whole army?”
“Ah.” Every discrete MAP contingent carried its own flag, which meant one for the recent volunteers, another for Caption Roland Wickersham’s regulars. In accordance with our roving squad’s preference for guerilla tactics, often operating separately, each squad had a flag as well. Ours were smaller. When they were displayed–which was not often–they were affixed to shorter, slimmer poles than those carried by the foot soldiers. High speed cavalry maneuvers were not compatible with big rags atop ten-foot sticks. Still, the gold-on-blue designs were hard to miss, once seen. I hadn’t realized I’d missed Grunt’s presence until I felt my spirits lift. The courier must have gotten through. According to plan, Grunt and Wick would leave the bulk of the infantry hidden behind the ridge–though flaunting the flags for all to see, bright color against a gray sky–and finish the ride to our crucial confab alone except for escort detachments. This was good. They’d be in time for supper. “That’s good. And how is our esteemed foe?”
“Feasting,” Worrell Gilson said as he loosened his saddle’s cinch before finding a seat, “on horse meat.”
“Feast–” I started laughing. Couldn’t help myself. “Talk about unintended consequences. Last night’s maneuvers were certainly not planned as a way to supply our enemy with nourishing protein for the coming winter!” I’d never tasted horseflesh and never would. I’d die first. Or so I thought now. Put me through a winter like Randy McGee’s people faced in forty-two and see how well I did. Or worse, make me responsible for a thousand soldiers in enemy territory and see if I wasted good meat. Knock on wood. “Are they making jerky, too? Do they even know how?”
“Yes and yes,” the Captain replied. “We hit them harder than we thought, but this War Leader Chang is more resourceful than we thought, too. Here’s the list of their casualties. Estimated, but close. It’s impossible to count accurately at long range scouting distance, even with your long glass. Those Hoodies all look alike, you know.”
He said that with a straight face. Worrell Gilson had a sense of humor so dry it’d suck the moisture out of a cactus. Yellow men, black men, white men, couldn’t tell them apart. Heh. “Except for Chang, I presume.”
“Yeah. Hard to miss a big dude like that when he dresses in bright red armor and rides a bright red horse. Too bad Mace missed his shot.”
“Maybe, maybe not. The cosmos always has a reason.”
Gil had no response to that. He’d never been too sure about the existence of a Supreme Creator, or destiny, or any of that stuff. I studied the list he’d handed me.
1. Cavalry horses, 63 dead or put down.
2. Cavalry soldiers, 41 dead, 17 wounded
(est. 22 add’l. walking wounded)
3. Infantry, 16 dead, 4 wounded
(est. 11 add’l walking wounded)
TOTAL OUT OF ACTION: 63 horses, 78 men
It hurt to see the dead horse numbers, yet how better to cripple an army? At the outset, MAP held a distinct advantage in cavalry numbers, counting scouts, roving squads, and the cavalry elements of Grunt’s volunteer army. Now we had the enemy more than tripled in that category, but at the price of innocent animals whose worst offense had been to try to please their owners.
“Not bad,” I commented. The Smith brothers might have missed getting Chang himself, but they’d certainly done a number on the rest of their targets. The pit trap hadn’t likely accounted for more than half of the cavalry casualties and basically none of the infantry deaths. “Tell me the rest of it.”
Pet Bliss arrived with a steaming mug of beef broth for the squad commander. He accepted it gratefully, his eyes smiling at the child warrior. Someday-maybe–I’d figure out a way to rub Chang’s nose in that. How tough to you feel now, red-shell man? You were beaten by an army of prepubescent girl soldiers. Ah, fantasies. They sustained a man in times like these.
The Captain sipped his broth and winced. Too hot. “By the time the snow let up this morning so we could see what he was doing, Chang already had things in hand. He’d rounded up the camp followers, basically confiscating their labors and their limited goods all in one move. Some of them had wagons. Those wagons are now military supply wagons. I suspect they’ll be loaded with jerky and well guarded, once the drying is done. Somebody in that bunch knew how to set up drying racks and jerk meat. The camp followers have been put to what is probably forced labor, cutting the horse meat into strips and hanging them on the drying racks. But they’re eating well. They really are feasting, both the soldiers and the civilians. Most of the dead horses are turning into jerky, but several were cut up into roasts, steaks, and such. Chang drew his army well back into the burned area and brought the civilians forward. I suspect he’s intending to use them as human shields, but for now they have to be feeling fairly safe–the civilians, that is–if nothing else. They’re not only surrounded by soldiers, but they can see there’s no enemy nearby.”
“You really think he’s going to keep them, the civilians, tucked in with his military people? That’s hard to picture.” There would be fraternizing, no matter how disciplined his troops might be, no matter how severe the penalties for transgressing. These men were not exactly overrun with beautiful girls from back home. Fear of us combined with the raging hormones of virile men and available women would be an explosive combination.
“Don’t know.” Gil shrugged, trying his broth again. He didn’t wince this time. “Yet.”
I sat for a while, thinking. How to turn Chang’s latest move to our advantage? There had to be a way…. “Grit!”
“Yes sir.” The youngest Smith brother got up from seated conversation with Gwinnie Bliss and trotted over.
“Hop on over to Banty Squad. Ask Lieutenant Feldman if he’d be so kind as to loan me the use of Sergeant Howard for this one night. And advise Slim to bring his drawing materials with him, including paints for blue and yellow. And a few hundred sheets of that Library-quality paper if he can spare them.”
It wasn’t long before the pair returned. “I’d salute, sir,” Slim Howard grinned at me, “but my arms are kind of full.”
Sheesh. I’d had no idea the man’s sketching stuff amounted to that much. Where did he keep it all when his squad was on the move? It certainly wouldn’t fit in a saddle bag.
Well. Not my problem. “Can you draw a cobra with its hood flared?”
Light sparked in the beanpole-tall sergeant’s eyes. “Can a skunk stink? Never seen a cobra snake in real life, never want to see one, but the Hooded Cobra logo is known to every citizen in the Northwest Territory. I can draw a facsimile of that, which is what I’m guessing you want anyway.”
He was already seated, his “drawing stuff” spread out on the ground around him, papers weighted down with capped paint pots. I told him the rest of what I wanted and how I wanted it. A couple of minutes later, he handed me the sketch.
“Perfect.” On the left side of his sheet of paper, the Chinese cobra was coiled, ready to strike with its bright-eyed head raised and its hood flared as requested. A bit stylized, not as detailed as the one on Chang’s flag, but it didn’t have to be. On the right side, flying high, the MAP flag flew in the wind. The propaganda text was crude but workable. SUFFER UNDER THE SNAKE OR FOLLOW THE FLAG TO FREEDOM. Pet was hovering, extremely curious. “Go round up anyone who’s willing to color in the flag on these,” I told her. “We need to keep Sergeant Howard busy cranking out the black and white. We’ll want three people, one doing blue, one doing yellow, and one for green after we mix a bit of blue and yellow together.”
She darted off, returning within minutes, her sister Gwinnie and Grit Smith both in tow. That gave me pause as I finally got it. Grit and Gwinnie? Going to be a lot of broken hearts if that panned out. How would all those calf-eyed gals at the Gathering take that? For that matter, was Milo as platonically unconcerned as he’d always pretended, or…none of my business. Unless it began impacting military operations.
Slim kept on sketching. The Three Musketeers got settled and began coloring. I eyeballed their first finished sheet and smiled. It would do.
I’d hoped to rest an extra day, but no. Tonight would be the best time to distribute flyers, the first night of confused togetherness for Chang’s mixed military-and-civilian conglomeration.
Julia was busy fixing supper, along with help from two of the men since I’d shanghaied her usual assistants, but she was close enough to hear everything. Now she fixed me with a dirty look. She knew what was coming.
“No, honey,” I said sweetly. “You can’t get in on the action tonight. You’re on the rag. You knew somebody might smell that.”
If I’d been close enough, she would have hit me with a heavy wooden ladle. It was the truth, though. As on edge as the Emperor’s Glorious Army had to be, some fool might be awake, sniffing the air with sensory capabilities that cut right through the perfume of the latrines. Not too likely, but not impossible, either, and we had to get this done tonight, while nobody was quite sure who was who or where they belonged.
Julia wasn’t meekly accepting. I might be her commanding officer but she was still a woman who trusted no one else to have her man’s back. She sniffed at me. “Your smell is going to be different than theirs, too, white boy. Good thing they don’t have dogs. You’d have a canine snout up your butt in no time.”
From then on, though, she took the Kill ’em with kindness approach. Made sure I had enough to eat. Played up to Grunt when he arrived. At least she didn’t do that with Captain Roland Wickersham. Wick and Jules raised hackles on each other. Always had. I had no idea why. Gil and I briefed our guests on the Hoodie situation to date. Wick laughed aloud when he saw the propaganda sheets piling up. Big Jake just smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. None of us said anything about how much we hated having to kill horses.
The two armies were ready. “Hngh. One thing about the volunteers,” Grunt reported, “they’re motivated, so they learn mighty fast. Every one of those boys chose a life remote, away from civilization, ’cause that’s the way they wanted it. Having some jumped-up Easterners waltz in here and start throwing their weight around doesn’t sit well with them at all. They’d all heard of me, a few of ’em had met me, and they listen to what I say. They won’t hang around once the fight’s over but they’ll make sure the snake is stomped plumb dead and its head cut off before they head for home. They don’t like fighting as an army unit but they see the need for it when the enemy is on our doorstep. Or past the doorstep in this case. Getting pretty close to the kitchen. I’m ready to trust them in combat right now.”
“How about the regulars, Wick?” I had to ask. Couldn’t be leaving him out of the conversation.
Roland Wickersham was taller than me, though not nearly as tall as Grunt or even Slim Howard. The biggest thing about him was his voice. I didn’t believe the man could have toned it down for scouting, but on the parade ground or battlefield? Priceless. Dude didn’t need a megaphone. Those nearest him might need earplugs. “Ready to rock,” he boomed, and I winced inwardly. “The men are thrilled to be called into the fight. Drilling and patrolling for years on end was getting boring, you know what I mean? The army’s pretty much eliminated the last few bandit bands operating in the Northwest Territory. When we hung Casper Jefferson and his bunch, everybody else with bad intentions scooted south.”
“So you’re ready.”
The propaganda drive turned out to be both simpler and scarier than expected. Since we weren’t trying to sneak up on them but merely past them, Chang’s higher number of nervous sentries posed no problem. They were still stationary posts. Yeah, we left tracks and we’d left our horses well away from the enemy camp. The clouds had cleared away but the moon had already set. We did have to belly-crawl between two sentry posts, but Mace and Milo and I could see like it was daylight. Not a problem.
Once inside the camp, we sort of strolled along. There were no lights, no targets for snipers, so we were no more than shadows, slipping through. Milo did the tricky part, taking one propaganda sheet at a time, stick-pinning it to a blanket here, a pack there. I carried the pack of papers on one hand, a revolver in the other. As tail end Charlie, Mace carried both of our precious AK-47 carbines. If they were needed, he’d hand one to me. We might be able to shoot our way out. Maybe.
At least for this one night, the civilians were being held close. An occasional sleeper stirred slightly as we cat-footed to within arm’s length of his prone body. One young woman, tangled in the arms of a hairy-bodied fellow, even opened her eyes as we passed. But she was facing the wrong way and dared not turn her head lest she awaken the man who held her. At most we were ghosts, passing soundlessly in the night. Such spirits are not to be disturbed lest they wreak vengeance.
In a fit of mischief, bold Milo leaned over the pair, blotting out the stars as he pinned a flyer to the fellow’s shirt. The girl must have sensed him in her peripheral vision yet she remained silent and unmoving. She didn’t even blink. Milo hit the confiscated wagons, too, slipping sheets inside, pinning them to whatever would take a pin. Watching him work was a revelation. We moved from west to east, easing through the entire encampment, zig-zagging now and again.
And came, in time, to the tent of War Leader Chang himself. Yes, he had a tent. Quickly manufactured from civilian wagon canvas or I missed my guess, it shone white in the night.
The three of us huddled up, studying the layout. Guards ringed the command tent. The standard ten, but because the cobbled-together shelter was much smaller than the War Leader’s original version, these men stood quite close together, a mere six or seven feet between them. They were alert, too, just itching to pump bullets into a hopeful assassin. Inside, besides Chang, there would be the superior bodyguard, the swordsman who’d taken Private Chad Berger’s head. I wanted badly to paper that tent. But did we dare try? Mace thought not. Suicide.
Milo, our night seer, half-pacifist and full time mischief maker, thought otherwise. “I can do it,” he whispered, “if I can get a diversion. Mace, you’ve got the best wolf howl.”
Well, if the crazy–
After assuring Milo Grazie that he, Grazie, was certifiably insane, Mace handed me my AK-47. After I’d holstered the revolver, that is. We were nearly out of flyers anyway. Might as well go for the brass ring.
Ten minutes later as we judged it, the night air was split by the howl of a wolf. Loud. Close. Here in camp. But that wasn’t all. Close on the heels of that howl came the blood curdling sounds of a coyote pack fighting to kill. Here. In camp.
At the meat drying racks, in fact. The camp boiled to life. No soldier who’d been through the past forty-eight hours on this campaign was going to be left out. They wanted to kill something, anything, even a few canines trying to steal their meat. The wolf had gotten there first, perhaps, and sent a howl out to call his pack before the coyotes jumped him. Coyotes did not normally jump wolves, but every rule has its exception. Maybe this was it. Anyone who’s ever heard the falsetto battle cries of a coyote pack in full kill mode will never forget them.
Growing up on Smith Mountain, Mace must have heard those kill-cries time and again. That he could mimic them so closely was remarkable.
War Leader Venom Chang, though he must have heard the frenzy, didn’t even bother to exit his tent. The ten guards, as disciplined as any men could be, stayed on post. Still, their heads turned toward the sounds, listening.
That was all Milo needed. I watched in nervous admiration, my finger on the AK’s trigger and the safety off, as he snaked forward on his belly, crossing nearly thirty feet of open ground before slithering between two guards. This tent was crude. It took him no more than a couple of seconds to slip a flyer beneath the edge of the canvas. No pin this time, but no wind either. The night seer reversed without turning around, slithering backward as efficiently as he’d slithered forward. How did he do that? One of the mysteries of the universe, right there.
He’d barely reached the shadows where I lay in prone firing position when the guards snapped their attention back to business. All at once. I’d swear those ten were synchronized. Yet their sweeping glances passed over us and dismissed us, just two more Hoodie soldier-shadows catching some z’s, nothing to see here. Not every infantryman had roused when the coyotes sounded off. Sleep was important.
Plenty of folks had risen, though. It wasn’t long before we felt safe getting to our feet, strolling south out of camp, invisible in the commotion, checking out the army’s rear as we went. True, we were going against the flow, but nobody challenged us for a good long while. When somebody did, it was in the WJS section, the Jews. “Ain’t you going to see what’s up?” A voice asked, addressing both of us. To him, we were nothing but barely seen outlines, silhouettes against the stars, but we could see him just fine. “Nothing much to see, Isaiah,” Milo responded. I was shocked at his use of the name. Had my partner gone around the bend? “Just a coyote pack fighting a lone wolf over the horse meat. I’d go argue the point if that meat was kosher.”
“Huh. Well, I do believe I’ll go check it out anyway. Get some rest, you two.”
We exited the camp without further challenge. It was a long hike to where we’d left the horses, giving me time to ask my burning question. “You knew that guy?”
“Ayup. He used to stable his horses where I worked. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a feeling of entitlement. Never believed his old man’s money would run out until it did. Went into debt, a big no-no for any thinking Jew, but of course he wasn’t thinking. Blew everything he had on wine, women, and song. Trust me, you don’t want to hear him sing. He’d never recognize me, though. I was just the night stable lad, far beneath his notice. Sometimes when he was sober, he’d talk to the boss, brag about his plans for heading west and getting rich off the rubes. Live high on the hog, right? Looks like he finally got west, all right. First time I ever heard of a private’s pay making anybody rich.”
“Heh.” My bugeye night vision tech was irritating the bridge of my nose. Probably be a sore spot there in the morning. I really needed a day or two off. You know, lay around, eat, get fat, get frisky with my wife. With Laurel, too, if I could, but she was hundreds of miles away, tucked safe and sound at the Roost. If she missed us as much as Jules and I missed her….
Mace beat us to the rendezvous point. Had the horses ready to go. “What took you so long, slowpokes?”
“That’s no way to address you superior officer, soldier.”
He laughed. We got going, but Mace and Milo weren’t done yet. I told Smith what Grazie had done, snaking between sentries to paper Chang’s tent. That set both of them off, trying to out-story each other like a pair of third graders. Why those two got each other’s mischief bones going, nobody knew, but when no immediate danger was present they acted like competitive third grade boys. Sometimes I felt more like a school principal than a commanding officer.
We rode north, each of us wishing he could be a fly on the wall of Chang’s tent when the War Leader found that flyer in the morning.