March in Country

Chapter EIGHT

The Trails: North America is once again a land of trails. With so much wartime destruction and neglect to land corridors, outside of an individual Kurian Zone or the free territories, getting from here to there proceeds mostly in fits and starts. One makes a fast, exhausting dash of long days of travel to the next safe area, where packs can be refilled, animals rested and exchanged, fuel and munitions purchased-if they're available, that is. Complex does not even begin to describe it.

It's possible to carve out a new trail, of course. One just needs the manpower to establish waypoint bases for rest and resupply. There's already a well-established trail between Southern Command and Fort Seng; the only thing that changes are the river crossing points on the Mississippi and the Tennessee. Escapees from the Kurian Zone flow one way, a trickle of replacements and supplies travels the other.

What Valentine and company propose to do has not been tried before on this scale. Their plan involves establishing a one-shot "river trail" from the Mississippi bank north of Saint Louis to Evansville. There are no substantial Kurian forts on the river between the two points, as the area largely belongs to the Grogs. While the land route would be much shorter in miles, the river will allow speed, which could prove vital for transferring a stadium full of Golden Ones without it turning into a late twenty-first-century trail of tears.

"You know, David," Brother Mark said, "there's a fine old saying ripened by the distinction of years. Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is one definition of insanity. Which is how establishing a new freehold in the mid-South is beginning to look to these weary eyes."

The old renegade churchman smelled like mothballs and spiced aftershave to Valentine. It was an oddly comforting mixture, suggesting generations of familial secrets. He was bone tired from putting the fort back together after the air raid, seeing the worst of the wounded into the Evansville hospital, and finishing the plan with Ediyak. "I think 'if at first you don't succeed, try, try again' is even older."

The battalion officers sat in the big entrance hall to headquarters, overstuffed chairs pulled into a circle and sentries posted at the doors and windows. Lambert had finished presenting the plan she, Ediyak, and Valentine had worked out for moving whatever Golden Ones wanted to come to Kentucky.

"It might be wiser to pull back down the Ohio to the other side of the Mississippi," Brother Mark said.

Ediyak gulped and grew wide-eyed. She'd spent much of her life in the Kurian Zone, and when a churchman spoke, you listened and complied.

"The new freehold was your idea," Lambert said. "We military types, once we get hold of something, crack our heads against it until one gives way."

"Can't stop now. The Kentuckians have thrown in with us," Valentine said.

"Nobly spoken," Brother Mark said. "But we've brought with us all four horsemen, and they've had a run of the land. The Western Coal fields and much of the Pennyroyal is empty, thanks to the ravies virus."

"Depends on how you define empty," Devlin said, attending to represent their nearest allies, the Gunslinger Clan. "There are still a lot of legworm herds. We had a good spring for legworm leather. Maybe the cold kept parasites and rats out of the eggs, I dunno, but there's a record number of young legworms crawling. Those Wolves of yours make good hands for herding once they learn which end is which and how to move 'em along."

"They should be patrolling," Lambert grumbled. "I'll talk to Carlson about it."

"We're letting them keep some of the legworm leather from the eggs for their help. It's good for trade with just about anyone."

"We're getting away from the point. Ahn-Kha, how quickly can your people get set up here?"

"Two generations ago the Kurians promised us a rich, green land with good rock for building. I've never seen such limestone as is in the hills here. Rich deposits of silver sand, err, what is your word-"

"Mica," Lambert said. "Used for some glasses, drywall, electrical insulation, and so on," Lambert said. "Evansville's still doing a little of that on a shoestring."

"Mica. Thank you, my colonel," Ahn-Kha said. "This is good land. Very good. Certainly a milder climate than shivering Omaha. One season of growing, another of building, and we will have the beginnings of roots."

"The whole history of Kentucky is nothing but immigrants," Devlin said. "We're flexible, as long as you let us be. We adapted to using the legworms pretty darn quick. We'd rather have big fellas like Uncle here than the Kurians."

"Still, I'd better touch base with the provisional government and the Army of Kentucky," Lambert said. "Brother Mark, are you up for the trip?"

"My spirit never objects to seeing old friends again. My hips and shoulders, however ..."

"The hard part will be getting them to Saint Louis," Valentine said. "From there, we can use the Mississippi."

Over the next three days they finalized the plan. Valentine found himself in awe, yet again, at Lambert's command of detail. And the sheer amount of work she and her two assistants-camp scuttlebutt said she worked one until he keeled over, by which time the other had usually revived from his own marathon session. The three of them plus a secretary clerk for typing orders, produced a working plan.

Still, more had been left to chance than Lambert liked. Valentine had learned to trust luck backed up by tactical flexibility to see himself through difficulties, which would come one way or another.

Control of the river would make so many of these issues simply vanish. The Kurians had held the great rivers of the North American middle-what Lambert had compared to the central arteries of the circulatory system-for so long, both sides had grown accustomed to taking that as a given, like weather or seasons or growing cycles. Certainly, a talented smuggler like Captain Mantilla could get through with his anonymous and ever-reconfigured and repainted boat, but the barges of supplies that would make operating in Kentucky or Missouri or into the rusted-out cities along the Ohio would never pass without notice.

When was the last time anyone tried? Valentine wondered.

Any way they looked at it, use of the rivers would simplify matters. The tonnage requirements of moving such a population was nothing to a string of barges.

Still, their alternative was workable. Not without risk, but workable.

He and Lambert planned to divide the camp in two very unequal forces, minus those unfit or unable to make the trip, who would remain at Fort Seng.

Lambert would be in charge of "Force Heavy." Driving every young legworm they could gather, they'd cut across Western Kentucky two waypoints, one on the Ohio of the proposed riverine route, another overland. East of the Tennessee, Kentucky was dangerous ground filled with bounty hunters, legworm ranchers who hadn't joined, and patrols and troops from Memphis. They could buy stores of food from the locals with packaged and processed legworm flesh, hides, and some captured Moondagger weaponry and whatever footwear and metal cooking pots they could scrape together from Evansville's market.

A threat to sell derelicts to the Amazons might even improve march discipline. Certainly there wouldn't be any stragglers.

Captain Patel had put in two years as a corporal running reconnaissance in that region, and Valentine had been across it off and on ever since Operation Javelin was in the planning stages. Between Lambert's sensible orders and her subordinate's experience they should be able to cross in peace. If not, they had the guns to fight the underequipped natives. The Amazons considered Southern Command's forces minor enemies, territory for an occasional raid, compared to the major enemies in the northern part of Illinois or the gray Grogs across the river in Missouri. Attempted genocide tended to leave an impression on the genocidees.

But all that would take time. Lambert expected the hundred-fifty-mile march from New Harmony to take two weeks without fighting, and double or triple that if the Amazons proved hostile.

They'd have to live on WHAM!, flatbread, and Kentucky molasses, and possibly a culled legworm or two, but with a little luck spring vegetables could be found.

Valentine would take Ahn-Kha and a handful of others as part of "Force Light." They would go ahead and, using Dizzy Bee, the sole operational airplane at Evansville's former International Airport, and fly to a small Southern Command field Lambert had used when she forcibly "recruited" Valentine into her Special Operations force three years ago.

He could stay up all night counting the miles he'd travelled since reconnecting with his old schoolmate across that conference table.

Valentine would gather those Golden Ones willing to take a chance and move east across Missouri. There was a wide swath of no-man's-land there, patrolled by the Iowans and Grog tribes. Southern Command should be able to start them off well supplied, Lambert had already requested the rice and beans, and the Golden Ones had their own stores and herds, he imagined.

As the days to departure ticked off, Valentine looked forward to the relief of being in country. The endless details and questions coming at all but the night watch hours-he volunteered to pull duty at the base security and communication center so he could get caught up on his paperwork-maddened and exhausted.

Ex-Quislings were terrified of taking initiative. Even the small force remaining at the base had been thrown into a panic by the thought of being abandoned by Duvalier, Patel, and Valentine.

He squeezed himself, Ahn-Kha and Bee, Frat, and a trio of Wolves, two with communications ratings, Chieftain the Bear, and their assorted gear into the cabin along with Pellwell and her ratbits in their two big carriers.

Duvalier had come too, a slight figure wrapped in her coat at the very back of the plane, riding next to a seat carrying a duffel bag filled with Chieftain's guns, Valentine's Type Three strapped in between the two like a thin commuter making room. Valentine had lost the struggle with her, she told him in private that she'd simply tag along around Force Heavy somewhere.

Valentine knew luck figured into everything. Every time he'd had Duvalier along, somehow they'd found their way through to some mixture of survival and success and satisfaction. They combined, despite their differences, on some basic level like salt and pepper.

Bee, with her one eye full of fierce devotion, would pine like a loyal bluetick left home while the rest of the men and dogs went out for a hunt.

At least if she were under his eye he could make sure she slept and ate.

"You won't blow it for lack of muscle," Lambert said to him as she hung on the door. Outside the pilot walked around the plane with his mechanic, doing a final check. The wind sock showed a stiff breeze straight out of the west.

Valentine relished his role of navigator, even if the grizzled Evansville pilot gave him the controls in order to pour a cup of coffee from a red Thermos.

Valentine had learned to fly during a brief spell with Pyp's Flying Circus in the Southwest, and this was his first opportunity to be in the air since he'd left his autogyro, a parting gift from the officer whose life he'd saved, outside Seattle. The Evansville pilot, who went by the handle "Wizard," mostly told stories about all the fun he'd had shuttling higher-level Quislings around the Northwest Ordnance. The only interesting passages in three hours' worth of remembrances of liquor and ladies of his glory days were a few details about the Quisling who used to own the great Audubon Estate, now the almost garishly lavish headquarters of the Legion.

"Old man Cass made his money in coal and timber from the knobs. Plus he was one of the partners who originally developed WHAM! After his plant opened up in E-ville, he fixed up his piece of Henderson and set up with the nicest ass he could find between here and Pennsylvania. She popped out a few kids to keep up appearances and stay in the good graces of the Church, but none of them grew up worth anything. That's how it usually is with those captains of industry."

"You wouldn't know where he is now?" Valentine asked.

"Would I? I flew him out personally. He's up on the Michigan shore now living on some other industrialist's charity. Pisses him off that one of his kids is probably sweeping your floors."

"I thought they all fled?"

"Slim Jim Cass was one of the Evansville club-spinners. Of course, even when on duty, the spinning was at the local strip joint off River Row. He joined up with you guys to keep from getting hung."

Valentine didn't remember anyone named Cass in the command. He wouldn't be surprised if the Quisling had taken the name of a dead comrade or made something up. Still, the factoid troubled him. He took out his order book and made a note to contact Lambert about it.

Dizzy Bee struck weather over the Mississippi, making Valentine glad he wasn't at the controls. The pilot looked at the approaching cloud line, gave a verdict: "Not that bad," and altered course a little south in hopes of either sliding along the front or getting a little more distance should they be forced to set down.

In the end, the pilot picked a spot and plunged through. Valentine had a few bad minutes, wondering if his bumpy career would come to an even bumpier end.

Ahn-Kha made a terrifying howl, followed by a long wretch, followed by an even more terrifying smell. Valentine had forgotten to tell his friend to breakfast off something that wouldn't smell too bad should it come back up.

Suddenly the whole plane went wet with a loud smack of rain and the air steadied.

"Yeah," the pilot commented. "We'll be fine."

Valentine noted that aircraft pilots thought it wise not to tell their passengers if they thought it wouldn't be fine.

The little Southern Command airstrip was as much as Valentine remembered it from his brief visit before. A small Southern Command flag on a pole, a big wind sock on an even taller one-practicality forcing military pride to bend.

"Didn't anyone tell you? Sure the big fuzzies are under the protection of another Grog tribe. Only problem is, it's Deathring Tribe."

"Deathring?" Valentine asked. He'd heard the name somewhere or other back in the blurry memories of before he became a Wolf.

"They're the pet tribe of the Iowa Guard," Ahn-Kha said. "You and I encountered a few of their kind shortly after we met the Wrist-Ring Clan. Brass or bronze loops worn about the ear, neck, wrist, ankle, depends on the clan."

"You forgot mean as a gutshot wolverine," the sergeant put in. "Yeah, the poor Big Fuzzies-"

"Golden Ones is the correct term, Sergeant," Valentine said.

"The Big Fuzzies," the sergeant continued, "didn't have much of a choice."

"Sergeant, the Golden Ones saved my life. Call them Big Fuzzies one more time and I'll be very angry," Valentine said.

"General Martinez himself-"

"Isn't here," Valentine said. "But I'll send him whatever part of you I chew off if you don't start calling them Golden Ones."

"Hey, Sergeant, he's right," a Wolf corporal said. "They did plenty of bleeding 'gainst those Iowa brownrings. Show them some respect."

"Golden Ones, sir," Sergeant Durndel said. "They got pinned against the Missouri. A couple swam for it, we have one here on the base cutting kindling and scrubbing pots and pans, matter-of-fact. We got orders to get rid of 'em, but we hide the Bi-Golden Ones when brass shows up."

"What's your name, Corporal?" Valentine said, turning to the other.

"James, sir. LaPorte T. Portly, to anyone who used to wear the deerskin. I mean yourself, sir."

He was anything but portly, underneath a thick mane of dread-locks he looked as lean as a cheetah.

"Sorry, have we met?"

"No, but an old lieutenant of yours, Finner, he's a captain now and he trained me. Told me about you and Big Rock Hill and all that. I'm proud to meet you."

Big Rock Hill seemed an awful long time ago, especially when talking to a man who must have been shaving his first and only whisker when it happened.

"Thank you, Corporal James. If you're in the mood to get out from under Sergeant Durndel's eye for a week or two, you could take us up north."

"Your friend there want to look up a relative?"

"Something like that."

"Well, if it involves hunting a Reaper or knocking the Iowa Guard back to their corn silos, I'll grab my clean underwear and rifle, sir. This gin rummy playacting war is for the legworms, if you know what I mean."

Valentine didn't know what Corporal James meant, but he soon found out over a plate of salted pork and some unusually decent carrot soup.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not a malcontent or an insubordinate," James said. "But since Martinez started running the show, the only time our rifles are out of their sheaths is for inspection, Major. The shoe leather and coats are better these days, and the food's improved so much you might think we're back home with Mama. I'll give him this. General Martinez is crazy about food quality, he has every cook between Jasper and the Rio Grande shaking in his apron when his staff blows in. It's better. No more runnin' and gropin'."

Valentine recognized the old Wolf slang for running for a bush and groping for something to wipe with.

"You can call me Val, James. When I'm off my feet, we can drop the formalities."

"Well, there's someone came in special to meet you, sir. Major Brostoff. Said he used to serve with you under LeHavre in Zulu Company. He'll dock my ears if I keep you any longer, he's looking forward to sitting down with a drink or six with you."

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