Jesse had just tipped up the pot to dry by the fire when, above the wind, he heard the whistle. The old man grabbed his pack and picked up the pulse rifle. Before he left the campfire, he pulled out his short knife, unsheathed it, and placed it squarely before the dozing girl. It would have to serve.
A whistle told him at least two men lurked in the swirling darkness, a darkness for which the firelight left him blind. A signal also said they came from more than one direction. The intruders’ advantage lay in their numbers and firepower. Jesse’s advantage must lie in his ability to take back the night—to force the others to hunt him. For the time being, Malila would be hostage … and perhaps plunder. If he had brought Malila with him, the men would have hunted them both down, unwilling to linger by a ready-made fire with the prospect of a weak victim or a strong enemy in the neighborhood.
If hostile, they would try to block his escape. What he needed now were more weapons and many more diversions. One lone man not did inspire fear.
Pushing on into the teeth of the wind, Jesse pumped his legs through the deepening snow, north to where he might find some combat-ready weapons. It was blinding, painful, and cold, as it would be for his pursuers.
They caught you out good this time, didn’t they, old man?
The interstates were a wager. The odds should have been good this time of year.
Think maybe the size of the bet is bit too big, old fool?
Jesse had scouted the stream before the storm had closed in but approached the verge with care now. Being careless climbing over the snow cornice at the edge might send it and him to the stream below. Once negotiated, Jesse pounded down a firing step in the snow below the rim before clambering up to the roadbed again. After flailing around in the smooth snow cover, he again crawled back over the edge to his prepared step. Anyone coming after him would stop to read the narrative in the snow. The old man moved along the cornice until he could look back on his own trail unseen. He stamped down the snow to make another firing step and waited.
Think you are going to fool anyone with that old trick, old man?
Don’t have to fool him, just slow him down a mite.
A weak hand, bluff; a strong hand, sandbag. That is your strategy?
We play the cards we’re dealt.
The attackers would never miss his trail in the snow. Jesse hurried to harvest some winter-coppiced hickory shafts below the rim and some withies from a willow near the stream. One never knew when finding one’s way in the snow was going to be dicey.
He was sharpening the second shaft when he heard the man’s skis hissing along. His pursuer’s vision would be narrowed from the wind and snow and, most likely, from a close-drawn hood. Rather than hiding, Jesse froze in place, one more snow-covered shape.
His hunter approached and slowed, took off his skis, and kneeled to decipher the chaos in the snow.
When the hunter started to negotiate the snow cornice, the old man moved. Hammering the butt end of the spear into the man’s face as he looked up, Jesse toppled him into the ravine, the rifle shot and the man’s wail echoing around him.
To Malila, Bear’s demeanor was more irritated than concerned.
“Did that fool go and cross his skis someplace?” asked Bear.
Bear ordered three of his men to go together to find the missing George. Jimmy, her molester, earned himself a berth in the search party, leaving Malila alone with Bear and five other men. Jimmy, despite his enthusiastic mauling of her, had missed the short knife wedged into her belt in the small of her back. Malila sat by the fire and draped the bison hide around herself, trying to rebutton her shirt. Bear came and sat beside her.
“This can go bad or worse for you, girl. You can’t expect to travel alone with no protection. I’ll keep you with us until we get back to High Ground, and if you’ve been nice, we will probably sell you to a house in town, uncut. The boys will be tired of you by then. You will just be tired.”
Bear chuckled and stretched his hands toward the fire.
The other men shuffled around, the size of the fire growing as first one and then another threw more wood onto the flames.
It was then Malila heard the cry. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. A piercing, bizarre shriek continued for long seconds and worked its way into her marrow, rising and falling as if in agony.
“What was that, Bear?”
“Hush up, Billy; can’t be. Ain’t no wolves here.”
Trying to make her voice flat, Malila said, “When we started out, there were four of us. The wolves got the rest of my party, dragged them away as I slept.”
Just then, two of the search party returned on foot, dragging a body, presumably the “lucky” George. The third man of their party was bringing up the rear, burdened by the others’ gear. Malila watched the vague silhouette of the last man stumble and fall in the swirling darkness to the north. What was happening?
It was a while before the winded men gave Bear their account. They had followed a trail of ski tracks. It stopped or, rather, disappeared into a ravine. They had descended to find George dead at the bottom. His rifle must have fired as he’d fallen, and it was now, no doubt, at the bottom of a half-frozen creek, along with his skis and gear. George’s neck was broken, and his face was bloody and disfigured.
“He never was that smart. He was just supposed to cover us as we came in,” muttered Bear as he examined the body.
“Looks like he won’t be able to get first crack at our lady here,” observed a small ferret-like man, making an emphatic gesture.
The other men laughed.
“Where is Junk?” someone asked.
“He was right behind me as we was coming in,” said Jimmy.
Again, the weird cry echoed around them, reverberating inside the confined space. Despite herself, Malila huddled inside the bison hide, imagining death in the jaws of a savage outland animal.
“Maybe Junk met up with a wolf on the way back,” murmured someone from the back of the group.
Thunder echoed in the distance.
“Which one of you fools said that?” Bear asked.
Bear walked to Malila and slipped his hand through her hair, now long enough to offer him a purchase, and turned her face up to him.
Malila gasped from the pain.
“Where was the camp where you lost the men to wolves, girl?”
Malila had her answer ready. “It was right here, last night, before the snow started. I was too afraid to move. I just planned to build the fire up and stay here. I don’t have a rifle; you can see that.”
Malila did her imitation of a cringing civilian. The man stared into her eyes before flinging her head down.
“Gentlemen, we aren’t going to be enjoying Jane here if we have to worry about those wolves. If we go out now and kill a couple, it should make the pack scatter. The first wolves to attack are the leaders. Kill them, and the pack will have to sort out who’s top dog. That could take days.”
As Bear stared at each man, heads dropped in unenthusiastic submission. Malila used their distraction to ease the short knife from her belt and push it under the log she was sitting on.
“Harry, Jimmy, Pete, and you three … yeah, you, Jose, Manuelito, and Billy. I want you all to go out with the Knapps. Sam and I will keep the shotguns and make sure Jane don’t go anywhere. Go out the other way, south. Stay within a few feet of each other, like a pheasant hunt. Don’t let anyone get out of your sight. Got it?”
After a muttering of agreement there was a general bundling up, the men ensuring they could work the triggers of the rifles with split-finger mittens or gloves.
Jesse, no doubt, had run away when faced with overwhelming odds, saving his old blue skin, she thought. The first man had died from a fall, and the second one had disappeared. Junk might have a grudge against the others and be using the blizzard to settle scores. These men were beyond any law. Life was cheap in the outlands.
Bear looked down at her and licked his lips.
“Strip. Do it now!”
“What? It’s freezing. I’ll be dead of exposure in minutes.”
“Just my point. I need to watch my men, and I don’t need to be worrying that you’re going missing on me.”
“Okay. Take my moccasins.”
“And the rest of your clothes … this is not a parley.”
“At least let me keep the bison hide.”
“Okay, but do it now, or I’ll use a knife. Got it?”
The unequal bargaining left Malila feeling helpless. Finding a log still warm from the fire, she kicked off her moccasins as she stepped onto it. Bear followed her, and she looked him in the eyes as she unbuttoned and removed her coat and then her shirt and pants.
The man smirked as she disrobed.
“You really are cold, aren’t you? Here’s your buffalo robe.”
Bear took her clothes with him, standing guard at the other end of the underpass, staring into the dark, swirling snow.
The other men, after critiquing her body, collected their rifles and moved off in a group. Within half a minute, they were invisible. Malila, despite the thick robe and the fire, began to shiver, her jaw shaking, making her teeth click. Jesse was gone; she was alone.
Malila heard a cry … very human this time.
Jesse went through the dead man’s pack, scavenging food and ammo before pushing the pack into the stream. Sprinting away on the waiting skis, he saw a shadow of men approach out of the swirling snow, following the first man’s tracks. Heads down, the three men did not notice him.
Now, after circling back closer to the bridge, the old man waited for the next hand to be dealt. The odds on this one were against him. Risks were a part of the game. Jesse howled.
Frightened men returning to a bright, warm fire do not look too close at a random pile of snow, he thought. The last man in the queue was gasping for air even before Jesse stood up from his hiding place. It took strength to make the garrote a silent weapon. They might have caught him if they had been smarter. Jesse was well away from the light by the time he dropped the second body and went to make a shelter.
You just better hope you can get that rifle to fire, old man.
Jesse nodded, pulled off a mitten, and fished the firing glove out of his jacket. The scrap of deer skin was oddly shaped, just enough to cover his trigger finger, the back of his hand and the base of his thumb closely.
Jesse tied the glove on, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. He could feel the little window of human skin he had carefully tanned and sewn into the finger of the glove, tight against his own finger. A slight bulge for the ID chip nestled into the base of his thumb. Placing his hand onto the firing position of the rifle, it immediately showed the small telltale blink—red, red, red.
The pulse bolt disappeared into the snowdrift. Jesse’s heart sank at the thunderous report. He was about to sprint away when he noticed water gushing out at the entry point.
The tunneling laser had generated little cavitation in the snow, but the pulse itself had been massive and energetic. This Union technology was what the brass wanted from Sun Prairie in the first place.
The old man carved an entrance with his long knife, making it just wide enough to admit him. At the end of the tunnel where the bolt had buried itself into the frozen earth, Jesse carved away snow from the roof to raise a sleeping bench. The cold air would now drain away from anyone lying inside. He threw in the excess baggage and backed out, throwing a deerskin, fur side out, over the hole. The snow would cover the hide in minutes.
He was still in the card game. He had won two hands, but the odds were still eight to one against him. The next deal would be for the biggest pot, Malila herself … and it would be his deal.
Wrapping his climbing rope around the stiffening corpse and dragging it well east, he turned and climbed back along the smooth ascending slope of the east-west interstate until he was directly over the flickering shadows of the bushwhackers. It left him gasping for air. With two men down, the hostiles would break or send out a reconnaissance-in-force. He hoped they had a little more sand.
Avoiding knocking any snow down and thus alerting those below, Jesse stuffed one of the spears through the corpse’s belt and positioned the stiffening body, after a little preparation, on the edge of the overpass south of their camp. Jesse wedged the butt of the spear into the corroded railings and looped his own climbing rope to the butt. He moved to the north side, Malila’s side, and restarted the wolf calls. Swirling winds and fearful minds, he hoped, would confuse his location. With the rope in place and a self-belay set, he could set off this bit of drama at his leisure, whenever the number of men guarding Malila was at a minimum.
Until he had Malila away from them, he had to keep the men agitated—convinced that their enemy was not just one old man. If they settled in, Malila would suffer. If they thought she was an accomplice, she would suffer … and then die.
She will hate me for leaving her.
If she lives long enough to hate you, old man.
Malila had such odd holes in her knowledge. Lucky for them both, actually. Tanning fingerprints, grisly as it was, was fine work and had to be done as soon as you got the fingers. With a city girl, Jesse had been able to tan her platoon’s fingerprints under her nose without suspicion. The last thing he wanted to worry about was her mucking it up to strike a blow for the “glorious,” damned-to-hell Union.
Smart and pretty enough, Malila was like bad corn liquor: all fire and no finesse.
A line of dark shapes passed beneath him.