March in Country

Chapter ELEVEN

The Grog Express: The Gray Baron's rail line describes the chord of his defensive arc running from the Mississippi River to the Missouri south of Omaha.

It is an unusual railroad, in that it connects no cities, Kurian Zones, or resources. Much of it did not exist before 2022; it's purely an invention of military necessity. The Gray Baron wanted a fast way to link his vast operational area and defend it with a comparatively small force. The answer was mobility.

The Iowa Guard believed it couldn't be done-a rail line largely built and worked by Grogs. The Gray Baron, with a few hired engineering guns and a lot of backbreaking labor, proved them wrong. With it, legworms even pull loads, drawing laden flatbeds in the manner of horses hauling barges on a nineteenth-century canal.

The Grog Express runs two kinds of trains. Fast diesel locomotives pull the battle trains, designed to shift artillery from one point to the next with his best-trained Grog and human elites. Slower-moving supply trains shift his companies of fighting Grogs, legworms, and the wounded and injured and supplies for other formations.

The Grog Express is fed through two supporting lines. One runs up into Iowa, the other to the Mississippi River, where it ends near the riverside wharf of a little town called-nowadays-Grog Point.

David Valentine watched the progress in the rail yard with something like satisfaction.

The day promised another thunderstorm. High white mushrooms above, a griddle of blue steel flat as the prairie beneath.

The Baron's Stronghold had a small but functional yard, communicating with his personal line and running back up to Iowa. The first order of business was to send Chieftain and a few Golden Ones a dozen miles up the line and tear up track, to prevent a surprise attack.

Unlike their Gray cousins, who had a Byzantine tribal network, Golden One families organized themselves generationally, making organization of the flight somewhat easier. Postpubescent males and females each formed a "circle" as Ahn-Kha translated it, then newly mateds, then females with the unborn, then families with young unable to survive without their parents help, then families with older offspring, then those who had lost one or the other mate, then senior males and females, and finally the truly elderly who needed the care of a younger generation. Each such "circle" had leaders and adjudicators who found help and settled disputes and spoke for their circle, more or less. The circles called on other circles for help, ancient "links"-such as widows and widowers naturally supervising the unmated youths, pregnant females seeking help from the senior females, unmated youth looking after the elderly ...

Little of it was codified; it seemed to be a tradition with the Golden Ones.

"What happens if a newly pubescent male doesn't feel like making sure one of the toothless elderly's food is properly mashed?" Valentine asked.

Ahn-Kha's ears went back. "Very little, as long as there isn't thievery or brutality of any sort. Just talk. But if such a link breaker should ever need assistance themselves, they may have difficulty finding it outside blood relations."

Graf Stockard had made himself useful as a sort of sergeant major in the confusion. He assembled the Baron's men under guard of a couple of armored cars and Valentine made the usual offers to take volunteers. The others would be locked up, packed into the old forced-labor holds and secure warehouses to be turned over to whichever of the Baron's forces or Iowa Guard reclaimed the camp. Valentine had more than enough to do without a few hundred extra prisoners to take care of. It wasn't quite lawful, but it would have to do.

Somehow, the difficulties of organizing the move sorted themselves out among the Golden One circles. Valentine and his team stayed furiously busy answering questions, often in mime for not one in ten Golden Ones even knew a few words of English. They wanted to know about weapons, about the trains, about canned heat and water purification, about tentage and cordage ...

The scattering of humans and masses of Golden Ones were slowly coming together as a team. Nothing like breaking a good sweat together in the outdoors to start an alliance.

They were such gentle giants, too. They reminded Valentine of horses, very careful of how they placed their feet and shy to the touch. As he explained coupling and uncoupling railcars and the attendant safety chains, a pair of juveniles, easily the size of a smallish man, held a plate of mashed heartroot and a pitcher of instant lemonade, ready to give arificially-flavored-and-sweeetened refreshment.

Whatever last doubts Valentine had buried in the recesses of his mind about the Grogs' ability to adapt to Kentucky were dispelled. The Kentuckians like those in the Gunslinger Clan would welcome such neighbors. Well, probably.

It occurred to Valentine that it would have been a good deal easier to simply relocate the Kentucky Legion to Northern Missouri than move the Golden One population to the more hospitable Kentucky soil. But the idea of abandoning Evansville and the Army of Kentucky ...

He wondered if the same doubts had plagued his father at the birth of the Ozark Free Territory.

They were able to organize two trains, plus a small third flatbed worked by powerful Grog muscles like a giant handcart. The first was full of warriors and had the fastest engine. Valentine and Ahn-Kha briefly considered attaching the armored battle cars and filling them with warriors, but the weight would slow the train. They elected to have it look more like a fast-moving troop train, with the warriors crammed into boxcars and a single armored caboose bristling with machine guns. A twin 40mm cannon on a crated-and-sandbagged flatbed was pushed by the engine.

Only one of the Baron's patrols came in during the process, and they were taken prisoner by armed Golden Ones before they comprehended the changes to the fortress. Thanks to the Warmoon Festival, there had been only a few patrols out. Every Gray One wanted to take his part in the rites to enhance his chances in the coming season.

Ahn-Kha thought it best if the experienced Golden One fighters stayed with their people and the "Express" was stuffed with Gray One warriors. The Golden Ones would be at ease with their families and the familiar command structure of their elders around.

The Golden Ones' commander-in-chief was a meaty, shrapnelscarred veteran named Wu-Dkho-no human could say his name on the first try. Valentine thought of him as "Napoleon." He was a little shorter than most of the Golden Ones, and he wore a heavy, pocket-lined coat with his chin tucked into his chest in a manner that made Valentine think of a painting he'd seen of Napoleon retreating from Moscow. Ahn-Kha explained that his stance was a little intimidating to most Golden Ones-to them that body language was more Gray One than Golden, indicating an angry bull-Grog ready to head-butt.

Valentine made contact with Cottonmouth and told them Buffalo would be on the move. He hoped to cover the forty air miles with his advanced elements overnight, and have the rest of the Golden Ones to Muddy Landing in three days.

"Muddy Landing," Captain Coalfield's voice crackled back. Valentine couldn't tell if there was relief in his voice. "Seventy-two hours."

"From dusk tonight," Valentine said.

They held a final meeting in the command caboose of the fast train. A chalkboard with a tracing of the eastern spur of the Grog Express was filled with the latest information about the expected schedule and the distribution of the population and soldiers between the trains.

On a sideboard, the Gray Baron's expensive array of ports and whiskeys had been cleared away and replaced with heartroot, nuts, and strawberries, plus the inevitable instant lemonade common to every Kurian Order organization Valentine had ever visited.

Old sweat clung inside his uniform. He wanted a shower, badly, but a sponge and a basin would have to do, and even that could wait until the Express was moving.

Duvalier stood in front of the chalkboard, looking like a small mannequin displaying the wrong-sized coat, examining the time-tables with her arms crossed.

"Forty miles in three days with this bunch is pushing it," she said. "We'll be crawling at foot pace."

Frat was there, along with a human engineer who wanted out at Saint Louis, Ahn-Kha and a messenger Golden One, Duvalier, Stockard, and Pellwell, the last because she and her ratbits were already designated to ride in the command car.

"Who cares if we're slower than shit," Frat said. "With those big bastards properly armed, nobody's going to mess with us, at least nobody who can concentrate in time."

"We'll move in shifts," Valentine said. "Apart from those riding full-time, we'll stop every three hours to let a few hundred rest."

"A drop in the bucket when you're talking about ten thousand-," Duvalier said.

"Nine thousand two hundred and seven, though we might see a birth very soon," Ahn-Kha corrected. "With enough water it can be done. Water is the key."

Which led to a technical discussion about the conversion of a pair of ten-thousand-gallon diesel tank cars to carry water.

Pregnant females, mothers of infants would ride in some comfort in the barracks cars.

"One problem remains," Valentine said. "Already, there are probably phones ringing in various Iowa headquarters about the silence from Gray Stronghold. If we could keep up some radio chatter, the usual business traffic between here and Iowa ... I wouldn't want to be in the coms bunker when the next Grog patrol comes in, under the Baron's officers."

"I'll do it, sir," Stockard said. "I've been trained on coms procedure."

"Thought you wanted to come with us, Captain? Get back to your son?"

"Yes. Very much. But having someone staying back, manning the radio will increase your chances that much more. They know my voice in Iowa. I've pulled my share of shifts in the com bunker."

"As long as you don't flip back to the Iowa side," Duvalier said. "A guy could win a brass ring, letting them know what happened and where we're headed. Once a Quisling-"

"Enough of that," Valentine said.

"You're too quick to judge," Frat said, glaring.

"I've been my own judge, jury, and executioner out there often enough," Duvalier said. "I don't trust. That's why I'm still around."

"Time is fleeing," Ahn-Kha said. "Perhaps we can bicker once we are on the waters of the Mississippi."

Valentine was tempted to ask Duvalier if she'd stay. Of all of them, she could be relied on to press, but not extend her luck. She knew Missouri well, and could either make a fast break for the Mississippi, get to Saint Louis, or take the short route back to the Wolves in the hills to the south and then make her way back to Kentucky at leisure.

Provided her health held up. She'd been limping, and her stomach wasn't keeping much down.

Then again, she didn't know radio procedure, and there were few women in the Gray Baron's command. Best to leave it to an experienced hand. But Valentine still wanted to give Stockard an out.

Valentine reached for a handful of nuts. His stomach was gurgling and suspiciously unhungry. "Nothing has to go down on paper about the circumstances of you rejoining Southern Command, Graf," he said. "On the report you'll be just another prisoner of the Grogs who was brought out with the Golden Ones."

"My son thinks his father's a hero," Stockard said. "If I make it back to him, I'd like to do it being able to call myself that as well. I'll stay. Leave me a bicycle?"

"Frat, scare him up some transport and fuel. Double- and triple-check it."

"No, a bike's fine," Stockard said. "I was in the bike troops in the Guard, back in the day. I still do it for exercise. Motors get noticed by our Gray friends on both sides of the Missouri River."

Ahn-Kha leaned over and whispered something in Stockard's ear. His homely face took on a shy smile.

"I'll stay as well. Two can travel more safely than one," Frat said, trying various field jackets of the Baron's troops. "I took a good look at your prisoner and heard a few words from him. Short of one of them showing up in person, I should be able to confuse the issue for those wandering into camp." He pulled a slouch hat on low and stared into Valentine's eyes. For just a second, he shimmered and Valentine saw the Baron's eyes and Pancho Villa mustache.

"Neat trick," Valentine said. "Teach me, sometime, when you get back."

"I would, if I only knew how I did it," Frat said.

By nightfall they were loading the trains with the riders. Supplies, weapons, and ammunition were distributed among the cars.

Valentine put the Baron in the first train. There were several grim, barred cars designed for transporting captives. Only one showed any sign of recent use, the rest were badly rusted. The Kurians were all too used to shuttling bodies around on rails in their aura-based economy, where humans served as currency.

It looked biblical, like something out of Exodus. The Grog elders organized their march so all the herders were on the outskirts, the craftspeople and food makers in the center, the very old, sick, pregnant, and very young on the train with their doctors and attendants, and the youths expending their energy running messages between the groupings.

Valentine wondered if Moses organized the Exodus with a headache and a mild case of cramps.

He suspected he picked up a nasty amoeba in the food or water. Both the Golden Ones and Gray Ones had good toilet habits-they dug shallow pits and buried, like cats-but their hand washing left much to be desired and the tufts of thicker hair at the knee and ankle joints would get befouled.

Had he been feeling better, he would have taken the scout glider up and tried the Missouri air. There was a fresh spring breeze the wide, nearly weightless wings could ride.

It was a fascinating device occupying its own flatbed on the command train. When the train was up to full speed, the glider could be launched into the wind at the end of a tether, rather like a kite, and rise and rise in altitude where a tiny ultra-lightweight electric motor could be turned on or off for extra power. The sailplane could easily scout for an hour or two then return to the train for recovery.

Valentine had done a good many hours while learning to fly with Pyp's Flying Circus in the Southwest, where gliders were towed to an appropriate altitude by a larger plane so new pilots could be trained without risking a precious aircraft.

Well, it would be dangerous to fly at night, or, more accurately, land at night.

At last the Express pulled out, with Valentine giving himself a sponge bath in the caboose and grateful for the built-in toilet.

The company of Gray Ones, the new Headring Clan, whined for action like hounds waiting to be shipped. Valentine did not know if they enjoyed fighting or were eager to prove themselves to their new master, but as the Express pulled out they hooted and yowled out their eagerness for action.

Bee, always eager to be of use, ululated her excitement with the rest.

"Rest now. Eat now. Fight later," Valentine told them as the train lurched into motion behind the armored diesels.

Everything depended on seizing control of the two strongpoints between the Baron's monuments and the Mississippi. There was a third strongpoint at the terminus on the river, occupied jointly by the Grogs and the Iowa Guard.

The strategic plan reminded Valentine, far too closely for comfort, of an allied disaster from the Second World War.

Valentine had studied the Market Garden-called by some of the soldiers "Hell's Highway"-operation at the War College. The plan, unfortunately, resembled his own in that everything depended on maintaining control of the rail line and seizing the strongpoints, rather than bridges, along the line.

The Allied Forces had managed to take the first fairly easily, had a bitter fight for the second, and never made it to the third, where the British Paratroopers lost eighty percent of their forces by the time their withdrawal was completed.

Valentine would have to do much the same thing, only without benefit of paratroops.

One predictable, but unplanned for, consequence of the Train March amused Valentine as mile after mile of train track twisted and burned behind his rear guard. With the Gray Baron's army decapitated and divided, every tribal chief called on his cousins to hurry and raid into the rich Iowa estates before control of Northern Missouri could be reestablished.

Valentine would sit and listen on the Iowa Guard shortwave channel and the AM stations in the larger cities, sending out muster orders for emergency home-county defenses.

Valentine stopped the car twice to run assault debarkation drills, once with unloaded weapons and then again with bullets in their guns.

When he was satisfied with the performance, he let the Grogs have the fun of knocking some cans off sticks with their weapons on fully automatic.

"The Baron didn't trust Groggies with full auto. Too much ammo for too few hits."

"Are you always this cool and collected?" Pellwell asked.

"How do you mean?"

"Bullets flying, Grogs running everywhere, and you're in the toilet shaving."

"I thought I should make an appearance," Valentine said.

Word passed around. Valentine heard two Wolves muttering to each other that he'd been so confident of victory he'd stepped into the bathroom so he could change his shirt and shave in order to tour the scene.

The second strongpoint was found abandoned. A halfhearted attempt to blow up the tracks had been attempted, but the railroad-working Grogs knew their business. An entire train car was devoted to railroad equipment, and they simply took rails and ties from a siding and transferred them to the main line.

They found a looted warehouse with a pair of fresh Grog cairns behind.

"Looks like word is spreading, my David," Ahn-Kha said. "I think those are Missouri Valley clans."

They found Grog Point defended, but not by Grogs. A hasty line of defenses was drawn up in a hummock between two hills that might charitably be called a pass, but it was hardly Thermopylae.

They backed the train out of sight and Valentine dropped out of the armed flatbed, field glasses in hand to take a closer look.

Valentine could make out red caps among the hastily constructed head logs and machine gun positions.

He deployed his Grogs and set up the light artillery. He sent a screening force forward to probe, with instructions to fight, then return and report what kind of troops they faced. His real infantry strength he kept back with the train and guns.

Pellwell tried to convince him to wait and let her ratbits explore the lines-they could get an exact count of men and machine guns-but Valentine wanted to probe and attack before they could be reinforced. They were so close to the Mississippi they could practically smell it, and the flotilla was waiting downriver for him to radio that the town had been cleared.

Firing broke out all along the line of fortifications. Sustained, panicky firing.

His probe pulled back as though they'd touched an unexpected flame, without firing. No need to reveal positions to the wildly firing machine guns. A grenade detonated somewhere in the middle and Valentine saw a rabbit run for the hills.

High-pitched cheering broke out along the defensive line. They went up and over their fortifications, some calling the others forward, others waving them back. They had camouflage ponchos, so oversized they looked like caftans, pulled over black uniforms.

"They're advancing?"

"Send the Grogs forward. Bring the train up for cannon support," Valentine told Chieftain.

Chieftain was getting along like a house aflame with the Grog Warriors. He pushed and shoved, showed his blades to get the toughs to back down, and head-butted others to laugh off a mistake.

The main force of Grogs went forward and a few confused seconds of shooting broke out. The ponchos didn't retreat, they ran. The armored train came forward and the cannons opened up on the fortifications. Explosions and black plumes rose from the machine gun positions.

They went forward cautiously. There were still a few sporadic shots from the head logs, but careful Gray One fire silenced the snipers.

They advanced into horror. They'd been fighting children, in neat, unblemished black school uniforms and red kepis. They lay in windrows, a fragile, fallen fence.

"Poor kids," the Wolf communications tech said.

Chieftain took the hat off one, ran a gentle hand through a boy's sun-white hair. "We just killed the local choir," Chieftain said.

There were a few disarmingly sweet, freckled female faces among the dead.

"What the hell are those?"

"Now what was the point of that?"

"Who are they?" Pellwell asked.

"Youth Vanguard. Jesus."

Two had survived their wounds. They were all nine- to fourteen-year-olds, the next generation out of the Ringwinners and Quislings in Iowa, proving their worth to the Kurian Order.

"Patch 'em up and take them along," Valentine said, taking his youngest POWs, ever.

Grog Point was theirs.

Valentine learned from the wounded that a military school in southeastern Iowa had turned out, and been rushed to Grog Point to keep order. They were supposed to be joined by Illinois troops and some artillery coming across the river, but the Illinois men never showed up. The school had either been sacrificed uselessly with lies, in the hope that they'd hold long enough for men to come downriver, or been caught up in a Kurian Zone double cross between rival Iowa and Illinois factions.

It took all the sweetness out of seeing the rest of his charges arrive and start to board the river barges. Valentine spent the next thirty-six hours with a bilious taste in his mouth, working like a fury to get the population organized and into the boats.

They'd put together quite a river fleet. Three huge, multibarge tugs under Captain Mantilla protected by six armed craft, plus the firefighting tug rigged out with a few guns, to do double duty as a close-in armed boat and emergency tug, if the need arose. The flotilla was under overall command of Captain Coalfield, a veteran Mosquito Fleet boatman whom Mantilla tempted out of retirement with the prospect of the biggest riverine operation Southern Command had ever launched.

Valentine was astonished to see Gray Ones taking precedence over the Golden Ones in space in the barges, tentage, and bedding. They even ate and drank first.

"None understand the Golden Ones," Ahn-Kha said. "We are peaceful looking-even our sports and games have none of the knockabout, violent energy of human and Gray Ones contests. We don't roar out our accomplishments in battle. When the hot blood comes, it comes fast and hard and fades again, like a flash flood."

Still, the Gray Ones weren't behaving as he would have liked. Clearly, he'd gotten the outcasts, all but the most ambitious or the outcasts had stayed with Danger Close. He'd try the Baron again, in the hopes that he'd take charge of the lot.

The Baron smelled. He hadn't shaved or washed himself.

"We're getting on the boats, Baron," Valentine said. "Nice easy trip on the water. You might avail yourself of it.

"A few days ago-was that all it was?-you told me you thought I had potential," Valentine said. "I see the same in you. I could use a man like you in Kentucky.

"What is your real name, anyway?"

"Ricard Anthony Alido, but my father's last name was Mairpault, of the Ithaca Mairpaults."

"I take it the Mairpaults were important," Valentine said.

"My father's brother chaired the Council of Archons for North America. Church politics. I was an embarrassment, so they sent me to a military college in Wisconsin. Always wanted a title, the Maripaults were always dropping titles like trump cards in bridge. Bridge is very popular with the churchmen. They sip their white tea and play bridge and eat sandwiches made of cucumbers and bread that's mostly air."

"I could use a good officer for these Gray Ones. Pick any or all of those names, and swear under it. From then on out, you're a new man. Like the Baptists pulling you out of a river."

"I told you I don't think too much of your definition of freedom. I was scratching-poor at the school and didn't care for it."

"Better than a POW camp in Arkansas."

"You'd hand me over to Southern Command's inquisitors? I've heard some funny things about you, too. Would your record survive that close a look?"

Valentine looked him in the eye. "No." He reached into his pocket and took out a key, knelt and undid the leg irons, unthreaded the chain to the wrist restraints, then undid those.

Quick as one of Snake Arms's serpents, he whipped the chain around Valentine's throat. Valentine felt a hand fumbling for his holstered gun.

Valentine let him get it. The gun came out of the holster and the Baron released the chain around his throat and backpedaled.

"Now you're-fuck!" the Baron said, fumbling with the plastic trigger lock Valentine had put on it. Quite an ordinary precaution before entering a prisoner's cell with a firearm.

Valentine drove a solid chain-wrapped right into the Baron's jaw, followed it with a roundhouse left. The gun fell, and Valentine kicked it back behind him.

"Can we stop this nonsense?" Valentine said, rubbing his chafed throat under his chin.

He quieted the soldiers calling from outside. "Stand down, we're fine in here. Coffee!"

They shared a cup-coffee was almost always decent near the river where traders and smuggling boats could come and go at will.

"We're boarding the barges. Next stop is Southern Command," Valentine said. Technically, the next stop would be Saint Louis, but no point revealing too much. He grabbed a small rucksack from one of the men standing guard on the car.

As they walked along the ticking, waiting train, Valentine took an extra step away from the Baron and removed the trigger lock from his pistol.

"Kind of you, Valentine," the Baron said. "I'd prefer the back of the head, if you'd oblige."

Valentine said nothing, but nodded to the man on the scout-plane car.

"Won't be the first ragged-ass general to wind up shot in a ditch. I'm in distinguished company."

"Not my style, Baron. We're saying good-bye now, but not the way you think."

He climbed up onto the flatbed with the glider. It sat on a little platform with a heavy spring. A line was attached just behind the landing wheel tucked into the bulbous canopy.

"You checked out on this thing?"

"I practically invented it," the Baron said, testing the air with a wetted finger. "We used to screw around with these as cadets in the kettles of Wisconsin. Just tell the engineers that in this light wind we've got to be doing over forty, or I might end up in the treetops."

Valentine tossed a gun belt containing one of the engineer's .357 revolvers into the Baron's lap and followed it with a box of shells. "There's a survival kit and dried food and water under your seat."

He gave a wave of the arm, and the engineer put the train in motion, taking it back to Missouri, or at least a siding where it would be derailed and have the driving wheels blown off.

Valentine watched the train pick up speed. The train had shrunk to the size of a dime held at arm's length when he saw the winged dot rise perfectly. It altered course to better catch the light wind and rose.

He felt a little jealous.

After turning a few lazy circles, the glider turned and headed back for its launching platform. For a brief moment, Valentine feared the Baron would end his flight in a suicidal crash dive into the engine, but he simply swooped low over the train to land in the clear of the siding.

The glider came to rest in the crackling rush of grasses passing under its smooth, glossy belly.

Valentine hurried to the cockpit, but the Gray Baron was already climbing out

"You called my bluff, Valentine. Always had this weird feeling we were going to end up working together, from the first I laid eyes on you."

He handed Valentine the gun belt. "I appreciate the gesture of letting me go, though I'm guessing you know I couldn't go back to the KZ, and scratching a living in the sticks isn't my style. Truth is, I love commanding those big brave bastards, and if there aren't perks that go with the job already, I'll earn some. How do I swear into this chicken run you call an army, anyway?"

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