“Rooster Squad is formed up and ready to ride.”
I looked up from the manual I’d been struggling to comprehend for the past three hours. Thankfully, a few of the Noehms caretaking the Library had decided I was okay, probably because of my connection with Laurel. Or maybe because I’d made it my routine to shower and clean my buckskins every time I visited the Library. They showed up now and again, slipping into whatever room I was occupying at the moment to give me assistance in one way or another before disappearing back into their hidden tunnels. Sallie Noehm swore that if I could comprehend the manual, it would be possible to spruce up and fire up the two precious pairs of Wraith 2300 night vision goggles stored in the armory. Priceless information if I could comprehend it, but my brain was fried. I’d begun to sympathize with early Before linguists who’d been utterly stymied by Egyptian hieroglyphics until the Rosetta stone showed up.
“Let’s go, then.” I rose from the reading bench, returned the manual to its slot among others of its kind, and buckled on my war harness. Julia handed me the .358 Winchester, without which I felt rather naked, and we were on our way.
It wasn’t necessary to lock the Library door. Sergeant Harmon James, current leader of the Library Defense Squad (LDS) took care of that. The squat farmer threw me a crisp salute. “Go get ’em, Cap.”
“Hold the fort,” I replied, returning the salute. My current war horse, a surefooted black gelding without a lick of white on him, turned at my thought before I could give him another cue. I rode through the Library’s multilayered defenses, my mate right behind me, Lieutenant Mace Smith leading everybody else. Twelve of us altogether. Me, Jules, Mace, his brothers Sandy and Grit, dumpy Jesse with her plethora of knives and newfound healing knowledge courtesy of her misshapen lover back home, Herman the Hermit. Milo Grazie waiting down the street, rested and ready to lead us in night maneuvers. Three boys too young for this sort of thing, though I’d been no older when I’d begun my career as a warrior. Fourteen year old Gwinnie Bliss, still unsuccessful at nailing Milo for a husband but edging ever closer. Much closer, now that she had all those woman curves and pheromones going on. And of course, inevitably, Swako the Dwarf, steady and reliable and sticking even closer to Milo, 24/7, than Gwinnie managed.
A few of the Gathering’s more shockable women had protested about that. In wide-eyed outrage, they’d asked me what I thought I was doing, accepting girl children as soldiers. Randy McGee had overheard, snapping at them. “Major Jade is the MAP Commander. He makes his own rules. Besides, Gwinnie and Pet are Roost citizens, nut gathering. Uh, I mean not Gathering.” The hoity toity women had collapsed in a fit of giggles, somewhat spoiling the effect Randy had intended.
I’d been proud of McGee. The man was growing a much thicker skin, a harder shell than he’d possessed originally. Not that he’d been informed, even yet, about the existence of the Library. I had no intention of telling him or Weasel. They were good men, yes. But they were also leaders of open-prairie communities where military considerations tended to favor attackers more than defenders. By default, they thought differently than did we of the mountains. The were also more vulnerable. If either community was overrun by the enemy in the coming war, torture could not extract information they didn’t have.
With the sun setting, our group’s shoulder patches were clearly visible. On the right sleeve, the MAP badge in black-on-green. On the left, the squad ID, a Barred Rock rooster, crowing in silent enthusiasm.
We’d been home for a rare break, able to be with our son and also with the woman we both loved, when Julia and I listened to Laurel’s idea. “Fitting, don’t you think?” She had suggested the mascot, pointing out that (a) we at the Roost did indeed live on a Rock that was Barred from intrusion by a stockade wall, and (b) “Rockies can be aggressive, very protective of their girls.” We were certainly going to need all of that aggression and protectiveness in the coming war. Despite the welcome delays, of which MAP had under my command taken full advantage, Hooded Cobra was indeed coming. Slowly, but inevitably. Their army would most likely arrive on our doorstep in early autumn, judging by the reports from various traders. The Rooster logo was adopted; our squad needed every unifying symbol we could get. Especially since more than half of my elite dozen had never killed before.
Each community provided fighters for a roving squad, all under my command but operating more or less independently for now, subject to certain guidelines.
Moss Feldman laughed when he found out about our Rooster Squad logo. Within days, they’d adopted their own chicken logo, a bright red banty rooster. “Bantams have little chicken syndrome,” he’d explained. “They’re so aggressive they’re used in cockfights. And since we at the Badge have the smallest population of any MAP member community….”
Big Jake Sedlacek liked the shoulder patch idea. He went with a head shot of a hairy Scotch Highlander bull for the squad from Fort 24. “They’re the best we’ve found when it comes to defending themselves against predators. Mess with the bull, get the horn.”
Jeremiah “Weasel” Compton just shook his head, not liking the idea of marking his men with bright-colored targets even if they were on shoulders rather than over hearts. The civilian Fort Steel administrator might have been better off if he’d consulted Lieutenant Gilson, Fort Steel’s newly promoted squad commander, but Steel uniforms remained unmarked except for the drab MAP patch. Which of course prompted his fighters to become known as the Naked Boys, a sobriquet they didn’t entirely appreciate. Gil could have told Weasel to stuff it. Compton had no real authority over the MAP lieutenant. But the young officer chose not to buck the man who’d given him orders for years prior to MAP’s inception and his men were now paying the price.
Randy McGee’s people, with Lieutentant Washburn Conroe commanding, came in last but not least. They’d chosen a walking skeleton, stark white on jet black, bony fingers flipping the world double birds to underscore the skull’s leering grin. The instant Randy proudly showed me those patches, I told him, “Get your ladies busy making a thousand of those, would you?”
He gaped at me. “A thousand?”
“For starters. One for every Empire soldier who steps foot across our southern border. Every kill we make, if at all possible, we leave one of these with the body. Like dropping a calling card, only better. Message being, you come with evil intent, you die. MAP will pay the seamstresses for their embroidery.”
His jaw snapped shut. “Done.” It didn’t take long for the African American leader to get from A to B, once you pointed him in the right direction.
“What inspired this design?” I thought I knew, but confirmation couldn’t hurt.
“Our first winter here. When we nearly went extinct, until your MAP relief crew got to us with all that beef and grain. Every one of us who made it was a walking skeleton that morning, me included. But what didn’t kill us made us stronger and now we’re double flipping the bird to anything or anyone who thinks they can take us out.”
Naturally, Washburn’s squad was heralded as the Walking Dead. Duh.
None of this branding would have come about if we hadn’t had several unexpected years of reprieve. As it was, we’d developed five solid roving squads, all volunteers, and drilled endlessly, both separately and together as a single unit with an eighty-conscript company to back us up. Every fighter was mounted, light cavalry, but also trained to fight on foot. Grunt, Moss, and Milo had worked hard to teach all of us a number of dirty tricks for close-in fighting, either on horseback or on foot. Blade work was practiced with short Sedlacek special spears and knives, with a couple of talented students learning the sword from Julia. Bow-and-arrow work was limited to those already proficient, namely Julia and the Smith brothers, all of whom could bring down a grizzly at a hundred yards with a recurve and a broadhead or two. The vulnerable southern border was endlessly patrolled by its own designated half-squad, six young but fierce boys whose sole duty was to ride like the wind with any reports of enemy sightings. More than twenty enemy spies had been identified and either neutralized (murdered, let’s call a spade a spade) or used to spread disinformation of our own. Physical defenses had been beefed up in every way possible, especially around the Library where endless rolls of recently discovered, razor sharp, still shiny concertina wire made access to the priceless building a nightmare for any invaders. Every settlement’s gates had been closed to strangers for nearly four years now; traders had to park outside, where our people would come to bargain with them rather than allowing possible spies to scope out what we had going on inside.
Allowing for necessary home guard contingents to remain in place, we could still field a mere 140 fighters, but sixty of us were truly elite, many of us blooded in prior combat of one sort or another, and all of us trained to exhaustion. We were lean, mean, and as ready as we could be. Best of all, every squad was led by an officer who’d heard the sharp crack of a bullet coming his way; there would be no buck fever or sudden cowardice among our Lieutenants.
I brought my thoughts back to the present when Milo slowed Big Black to give me the skinny. You’d have thought he’d have joined up with the Badge, his fellow Jews, but no. I’d wanted him as my night reconnaissance man and he’d been more than happy to make the jump. When I’d asked him why, he’d listed the expected reason–working closely with the overall Commander of MAP forces–but had surprised me with his second admission. For whatever reason, he and Slim Howard detested each other. It was a personal thing, no rhyme or reason to it that either man could see, but put them within a hundred feet of each other and the hairs rose right up on both men’s necks. They were polite to each other, had never shared an uncivil word, but the animosity was always there, boiling near the surface.
“Working hand in glove with Wizard Boy ever day would have led to disaster in pretty short order,” he explained. “One or both of us would have died. The mutual, automatic fury between us is just that strong. I don’t understand the reason for it, but…best to distance myself.”
Sounded good to me. Rooster Squad certainly benefited. Besides, his joining us fit the picture. Every misfit out there seemed to end up at the Roost, including me. Julia, for example, a stunning woman willing to leave our son with Mellie Tipton Smith in order to be with me while the squad was on the trail, which was most of the time. Herman the Hermit, the gorilla-pumpkin man, our brilliant herbalist. Laurel, so achingly beautiful and loving that my heart yearned toward the mountains every minute of every day while her sensitivity required her to stay far from open combat just to survive. Numerous former slaves. The list went on. It seemed fitting that we Rooster freaks fielded a roving squad that made the other four look ridiculous, as good as they were. Jake (Fort 24) and Moss (Badge) knew why, of course. Nobody could touch us when it came to night fighting because we had a scout who could see in the dark. The darker the better. But those two leaders weren’t telling their men, nor had either Randy or Weasel been told the secret. Loose lips and all that.
Every member of Rooster Squad knew, obviously, but we weren’t telling. Grit Smith in particular was a huge fan of our secret weapon, Milo Grazie. As a half-pacifist (that’s what we called him), Grazie was both protective of and protected by everyone else in our group. He’d also been working with Jess, learning as much as he could about combat medicine. The former teamster was a born fighter and also our lead medic. Yet the most skilled hand-to-hand fighter we had was “I don’t want to kill” Milo, who’d studied martial arts for years before being sent from WSJ as a courier to warn us of the coming invasion. The man might not have killed anybody–yet–but it was clear he knew how to get the job done. We all took lessons from him but Grit begged for more. Always more. He was definitely not over the thumping he’d received at the skilled hands of tall, thin Slim Howard. Which made two in my squad who detested Moss Feldman’s second in command.
Our group might, I thought, be the only squad in all of MAP to ride with two medics plus endless dedication to learning ever more of the deadly arts. That, too, was an edge I preferred not to squander. If we were going to be what we had to be, we needed every edge we could get.
When we pulled up, just west of Cemetery Ridge, it was deep dusk. Like a vampire released from its imprisoning coffin, Milo stretched languorously, a great hunting cat sniffing the night. I beckoned to Mace, a gesture he could barely see. “Gilson trying something new?”
“Ayup.” The question had been rhetorical. Gilson always had his Naked Boys trying something new. Against the other squads, his record was exemplary: Nine wins, five losses. Against us, no dice: Four losses, no wins. I needed to master that manual. Two more of us who could turn night into day…that might just win the war. When I got those things working, Gil was getting one. “His squad rode northeast like a bat out of Hell, about midmorning.”
“At first, yeah.”
We sat our horses for a few minutes while I worked through the ramifications. “Gotta be heading for Fort Confluence. That’s a normal two day journey, but they could be reaching the ruins about now if they really pushed it. We’re two miles behind their starting point, another forty or so to my childhood home.”
“You don’t think they’ll have stopped before that?”
“No, Mace, I don’t. But my gut might not be trustworthy. I saw my parents slaughtered there. It might be affecting my intuition. Pet?”
Our littlest solder eased her horse forward. We rode nothing but jet black animals, all geldings, no mares to throw off pheromones that might alert an enemy’s horse. Midnight shadows, demons in the dark, except for the younger Bliss girl. Few understood the bond between me and the hillbilly kids. Like me, they’d watched their parents die violently. I’d been nine when it happened to me. Pet had been two years younger than that, just seven years old. She and her sis were children in name only.
Her mount was technically a mare, but barren, or at least the five year old had never yet shown any signs of going into heat. Fifteen hands high–a good hand shorter than the animals most of us straddled–the dark bay with black points was as night-invisible as any other. “Feels right,” Pet said.
“Good enough.” Petula Grazie, eleven years old, had the Sight. My gut might be wrong. Hers never was. None of the other squads, not even Bull or Banty, realized we rode with more than one secret weapon. “So. Fifty miles.” By the rules of engagement we’d set between us, Lieutenant Gilson knew we’d never reach his position before daylight. Nobody could. It was impossible. I admired his thinking. He just happened to be wrong.
I glanced at the sky. Clear, stars out, but dark of the moon. Naked Boys thought they had us foxed this time. “We can catch ’em. All we need is a six mph average. Amble forward.”
Wait. It just hit me. Pet was twelve now, not eleven. Which meant Gwinnie was a marriage-ripe fifteen. Look out, Milo.
With an effort, I pulled my attention back to the task at hand.
One of several advantages Rooster Squad held secret from even our fellow MAP units was the six gaits natural to our horses. Most equines used only four gaits: Walk, trot, canter, gallop. Our mounts all came from Gunderson stock at Fort 24 but not even Jake Sedlacek knew everything about the “sixers” Russ Gunderson sold to me for Barred Rock use, thanks to his prettiest daughter being my warrior wife and the mother of his first grandson. Even little Pet’s dark bay had the gaits, differing from the others only in the matter of color and size. At what my father in law called the amble gait, we covered ground at a steady 8 mph. The running walk, as he termed it, could take that up to ten. And the animals could maintain either one for hours on end.
This night, they would need to do exactly that.
The amble was useless in the mountains, but over the open prairie between Fort Steel and the long defunct Fort Confluence, no other animal on earth could match them. Except maybe camels, perhaps, if any such mythical creatures still existed somewhere in the world.
Milo took point as always, the way clear and visible before him. I came next, then Julia, Mace, and on down the line to Swak the dwarf as tail end Charlie. We rode single file of necessity, each horse’s nose close enough to sniff the butt of the animal in front of him. I could see Milo in silhouette against the stars but no more than that. After a few hours, the usual stabbing ache took root beneath my right shoulder blade. Situation normal.
We took a midnight break for a cold bite to munch, a leg stretch, and a long, cool drink from a burbling creek no more than five yards across. Other than that, we did not stop until Grazie pulled Big Black to a halt near dawn. I eased Razor up beside him. “Low rise at two o’clock,” he whispered in my ear. “Sagebrush bench. Horses are well back out of sight somewhere but I can see all twelve men. Gilson’s split them up, 3-6-3 formation, two horns wide front, skull in the middle.”
I nodded, knowing he could literally see it. Our adversary for the night had a sensible view of combat tactics. “Can you get us positioned?” I whispered back. It would be tricky. If even one of his fighters escaped our net, the Naked Boys would have bragging rights.
“Sure. Bliss girls hold the horses.” Nothing new there but Milo said it every time anyway. He was even more protective of Gwinnie and Pet than I was. Naturally.
Never one to duck danger, Lieutenant Gilson, commander of Fort Steel’s Naked Boys squad lay belly down in the brush, field glasses in his hands. “Light’s coming up,” his aide murmured, peering through the sagebrush to scan the prairie. They couldn’t see far yet, but far enough. No sign of riders. “We done it.”
Gilson wasn’t so sure. “Let’s not get cocky,” he advised. “Give it till sunup. I’d say you’re right, though. Undefeated or not, Jade couldn’t possibly rush horses through fifty miles of darkness without something bad happening.”
“Impossible,” the corporal agreed. These endless maneuvers were grating on his nerves. Word was the invaders could hit the southern border before first snowfall. He hoped so. Real fighting and killing sounded a treat after all this unnecessary foofoorah. He thought about the food in his saddlebags. Most of all, he thought about sleeping for a week.
It didn’t take long. The sun behind them cast long shadows. Gilsoon got to his feet, stiff but jubilant. “Coast is clear as far as the eye can see. We finally beat ’em, boys.”
“Bang, you’re dead.”
All three men on the shallow trench whirled in disbelief. Their adversaries were backlit by the sun, half-blinding the soldiers whose ambush had backfired. Michael Jade stood at ease, a revolver in either hand. At his side, the Barred Rockette, Julia Gunderson Jade, female warrior and young mother, stood with her legs spread. The great Gunderson bow was in her hands, an arrow nocked but not drawn.
“Well, cuckoo crap on a crusty cracker,” Gilson observed in disgust. “You still ain’t gonna tell me how you do it, are you, Michael?”
“What, and ruin a good magic trick?” The Major holstered his pistols. Julia returned her arrow to its quiver. The Fort Steel men breathed soft, inaudible sighs of relief. Training maneuver or no training maneuver, it still didn’t feel good to be looking down the barrel of a big bore shoot gun or at the razor edge of a broadhead arrow point. Jess and Sako had taken the other three man horn, leaving their remaining squad mates to sneak on the six man skull. Most of the Nature Boys were shaking their heads in both chagrin and admiration. Among the Roosters aka Barred Rocks, the nickname depending on whether the speaker was in a hurry or not, nobody gloated or smirked or fist-pumped or any of that. It was understood by one and all. When it got down to brass tacks, Major Michael “Dawg” Jade was Commander in Chief, not just another squad leader.
Plus, getting outmaneuvered regularly by the Roosters aka Barred Rocks aka Black Squad aka Night Riders was hard enough on everyone else’s ego to keep them nicely sharp and irritated, motivated and thinking constantly. Every Rover had learned to pay serious attention to his non-sight senses, hearing, sniffer, and sixth sense included. Unless the invaders had working Before night vision equipment, no Hooded Cobra night fighter would be a match for any one of the MAP roving squad members.
They considered themselves the Navy Seals of the modern era, albeit more than a thousand miles from any ocean. They’d even learned to swim the rivers while keeping their powder dry, their only casualty in training a Fort 24 lad who refused to learn what Moss Feldman had to teach.
In what was becoming a standard post-maneuvers period of debriefing and socializing, the two squads ate a leisurely breakfast together. There was, however, a surprise this morning. “I’m shifting the squad positions for massed combat,” Jade told Lieutenant Gilson. “If and when, which may not happen at all, but if and when, I want you and your Naked Boys on my left. Grunt’s Bulls will take the wing on your left. On my right, things will stay the same. Moss Feldman with his Bantys, then Wash’s Walking Dead on that wing.”
“Okay.” Gilson belched. It had been a fine meal. “Mind if ask why?”
I shook my head. “Not here and now. I don’t mind at all. In the middle of a firefight, there won’t be time for Q & A sessions, but outside of actual combat, you better ask. I need every officer to understand my thinking on these things, especially in case I fall in battle someday.” He blinked, not liking that thought. I answered his question. “You’re an intuitive fighter, Gil. I kind of doubt anyone else would have thought to try just flat outrunning the Roosters. It turned out we weren’t slowed down by darkness, or at least not slowed down enough. But you couldn’t have known that, so you gave it a shot. Now you have one more piece of the puzzle, one more thing about the enemy–that would be me in these maneuvers–that nobody had before.”
“Okay.” The Lieutenant looked down at a beetle crawling across the earth between us as we sat cross legged, enjoying the scent of sage still damp with morning dew. He was embarrassed by my praise but, I hoped, also pleased. “What about the other squads? Their positioning, I mean?”
“Ah.” At that moment, Pet swung by, proud in her self assigned task, pouring hot herbal tea for everyone. I held out my travel cup without asking what herbs they’d used. It was always healthful, often invigorating, sometimes even enjoyable, its heat more than welcome at this time of day. “Every case is different. Grunt has the left wing so he can swing out in a flanking movement at the drop of a hat. Same for Randy’s Walking Dead on the right, except for one difference. Going through their starvation winter five years ago…they still haven’t gotten over that. Not completely. They feel they’ve got something to prove. Give them a target, like a whole army intent on taking the rest of their self esteem away, and they’re going to chew up Empire soldiers like empty-bellied grizzly bears tearing into a salmon run. Moss Feldman’s Bantys, riding next to me on the right, are like armor. Tough as nails, experienced, and their presence multiplies our effective firepower by a lot more than the numbers would indicate. But they don’t know the nooks and crannies of this country like Grunt does, or I do, so keeping them close should work best.” I did not add that Moss was showing subtle signs of aging that Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek did not. If his heart gave out….
“That’s a lot of insight. Certainly you’ve not shared all this with the other officers?”
“Nope. You’re the only one.”
“Simple.” I looked him in the eye. “I’m promoting you to Captain and making you my second in command. As of right now.”
While he stared at me in wide-eyed shock, disbelieving, I fished in a shirt pocket, retrieved the shiny brass bars, and handed them over. “I realize you can only wear these on parade.” Armies had learned centuries ago to quit outfitting their combat officers with identifying marks for enemy snipers to target. “Your written commission is in my gear.”
We both got to our feet. Despite being his superior officer, I saluted him first. It took a while for our new Captain Worrell Gilson to recover his composure, especially after the clapping began. Julia and Jess had done their jobs; every soldier had drifted over, unnoticed by Gilson, getting close enough to participate in the sort-of ceremony.
An hour later, Naked Boys headed south. We would find a place to hole up for the day rest of the day, then leapfrog forward during the night. By the time we drifted all the way down to the southern border, we’d have picked up the other roving squads and notified the eighty man Basic Army to tool up and get moving. Fewer traders had reached the Northwest Territory this summer. Of those who did, they spoke to a man of the slow but steady progress of Hooded Cobra, marching ever northward. The Empire had finished at Gatorville much sooner than expected. They wouldn’t beat us to the border, but we dared not dally any longer, either. We were done practicing. Now it was time to face the real thing. If this Venom Chang fellow decided to tackle Fort 24 first, we would be have to adjust, but I didn’t think he would. Surely his spies would have reported on the relative inaccessibility of the mountain community, embedded in terrain that heavily favored defenders over aggressors. Most likely, he intended to sweep north as fast as possible, overwhelming the Gathering and Fort Steel before turning his attention to the rest of us.
We had to stop him cold before he could reach Randy’s people. Their fortress on the bench could hold out rather well, I thought, but the people mostly lived their lives down closer to the river on relatively level ground. It would take them years to recover if Chang got the opportunity to destroy their crops and homes.
Two hundred and twenty-four miles from border to bench. At least eleven hundred march-hardened troops to face, allowing for a hundred or two left behind to garrison Gatorville and Great River. Dividing one by the other, that meant MAP’s miniscule army had to kill five enemy soldiers for every mile of ground the Empire gained. And we had to do it without a single casualty because we couldn’t afford a single casualty.
That was naught but a pipe dream. I knew that. It was my only way to cope. When you know every elite soldier personally, when one of them is your own beloved mate and the mother of your child, the alternative is too horrible to consider.
Of such desperate need is ruthlessness born.