The despairing cry came to an abrupt end amid the crunch of breaking bones as a man plummeted to the ground. Rushing to the body, Bear and Sam turned him over.
“It’s Junk! Where are his eyes, Bear? The wolves took his eyes!”
This is insane. There is something about the cry, she thought.
Malila stooped and grabbed a smoking log from the fire before she ran into the swirling dark, the robe tied across her back. For long seconds, she ran before she fell for the first time. It was not until then that she sensed the cold … and the fear.
There’s something about the cry. She heard the three gunshot blasts behind her, hunched her shoulders without thinking, and ran on. She knew she was not choosing her death well. What were the chances she could hide someplace with just the bison robe for warmth? The unknown dark chaos was somehow better than an ever-narrowing certainty in the light and warmth of the fire.
She staggered on, her heat bleeding off into the darkness, snow foaming up to her breasts as her numbing legs churned beneath her. She fell again, the cold clogging her mind, deadening her reason.
She rose again and knew she was dying. So soon! She staggered, her knees a memory, her feet an illusion.
A sullen black shape emerged on her right, lean, predatory, rising up out of the snow itself. She stopped and took the log in both hands, the robe slipping off a shoulder. She steadied herself, like walking on stilts instead of her frozen feet.
The apparition advanced, and she slashed at it, putting all her will and force into the gamble, leaving nothing for a counterblow to fend off savage teeth and claws.
The dark form grunted with the blow, deflecting most of it, letting her fall headlong into the snow.
“No way to treat a friend, lass,” Jesse said as he stooped and peeled up a section of snow.
Almost at her feet, a large black hole in a snowbank opened up. She allowed the old man to get her up and bundle her in without a word.
It was a measure of her confusion that Malila crawled on unfeeling knees into the blackness. She found a light stick glowing when she entered a small chamber at the end. A narrow raised bench covered in hides, furs, and discarded clothes almost filled the space.
Jesse followed her in with the buffalo robe. Shivering uncontrollably, she allowed him to cover her up and slam an oversize and malodorous hat onto her head. The old man loosened his belt, pulled up his tunic, and grabbed her feet, holding them next to the naked skin of his belly. She felt his warmth as if from another lifetime.
“Damnedest thing, taking off lik that, lass! Ah was nae sure how we would dae it. But you solved that right well! Yer a wonder on earth, my friend.”
“You … you … left me for them to f-find! They … they were gonna f-fuck me, muckingfather! I coulda been killed, and you le-let them get me!”
The old man’s face bowed into the shadows in the eerie light of the cave.
“Forgive me for that, lass. I did what I thought best. You are the bravest lass I ever met and no mistake,” he said, his voice flat. Timid?
“You le-left me fo-for those me-men,” she stammered on.
Despite herself, Malila stopped her rant when the meaning of Jesse’s words defrosted a part of her mind.
“It is God’s ain truth, my friend, but you took an awful chance. Tell me, how many men are there? What kind o’ weapons?” Jesse asked in a rush.
“T-ten, no, no, eight now. Ri-rifle … fire s-slugs. Not p-pulse,” she forced through tortured breaths.
Jesse nodded and examined her feet, feeling the pulses and noting the pink flow of blood again. Malila, moaning as her feet warmed, now more fatigued than cold, allowed the old man to maneuver her under the pile of coats, tucking her in. He thought she was asleep when he kissed her and left the cave.
“N-not y-your friend,” Malila said to the muffled sounds of the wind before the shivering again shook her to exhaustion.
She lost track of time before her breathing steadied, allowing her to take several deep breaths. It stopped her shivering, getting around the oppressive edges of the cold. She readjusted the furs, sighed again, and slept.
Her dreams, fractured images of grunting men and the terrifying cold, woke her, hours later. It was better to be awake. Light filtered in along the tunnel entrance. It wasn’t cozy here, but she had been colder in the wind near the fire than she was now, surrounded by snow. To her relief, when she wiggled her fingers and toes, all digits reported in as operational. Throwing off one heavy jacket, she frisked the pockets, finding trail bread and a water bottle. She tried to think.
The old man was at war with Bear, some outlander rivalry, she guessed, and she had become a pawn in their game. Bear had tried to keep her a prisoner of the cold, but Jesse had given her the keys to her prison: clothes, food, water, and … weapons? Bear had miscalculated her daring. Jesse had miscalculated by abandoning her—twice.
In the dim light she sorted through everything left in the chamber, cataloguing food, water bottles that hadn’t frozen solid, clothes, furs, and a sheath knife to replace the one she had left under the bridge. In the dim light, her hand closed on the cold barrel of a rifle.
Malila smiled. It was a projectile weapon. She had trained with them as an ensign. Malila checked the magazine and went through the other coats, retrieving almost two dozen cartridges. The rifle would make her autonomous, free of these primitives’ feud, and impervious to the old man’s abandonment. For the first time in weeks, things were falling her way.
Malila ate, ravenous after her near miss in the cold. Only then was she warm enough to dress. She got into a pair of nondescript wool trousers and a plaid shirt, wincing as her still-tender breasts chafed against the coarse fabric. Stuffing the bulky shirt inside the pants, she found a wide belt to hold everything together. She cut strips of coat lining to keep oversize mittens from wandering around her hands and wider strips to wind around her feet in lieu of boots. They would have to do for now. Once ready, she spent long minutes listening for the sounds of movement outside her shelter.
It was time to move. The snow cave gave her no vantage point and no lines of retreat. Slipping the handy knife into her coat pocket, Malila racked a round into the chamber and put the safety on. Lieutenant Chiu was ready to reassume her proper role as she crawled out into the sun.
Bad Night and Day
It has been a bad night for a good conscience, Jesse thought as he skied back toward the underpass.
Immediately after leaving Malila tucked up, asleep and warming, he had started following her panicked tracks in the dark, back to the underpass. If the bushwhackers came his way, he might take a couple down before they got him … long enough for Malila’s cave to go unnoticed in the continuing snow. Bushwhackers’ woodcraft was brassic at best.
Instead, under the bridge, he found a chaos of men making hurried preparations for departure. Their sand had run out.
He dropped the first man into the fire and the second too. That served to keep the bandits nicely grouped and anxious to seek opportunities for shelter elsewhere. Bushwhackers, townies with guns, always had some place to hole up, warm and dry. The guy in the bearskins gave orders.
Once Jesse knew which way they were going, he set his traps. A mound of snow with a stick, on a dark night, became a waiting sniper. Firing just by the sound of the shot kept the hostiles from gaining too much ground and spread them out, while shots from the sides set them off killing each other in terror … a one-man Jerubbaal. He liked that. There were two more dead men from that business, making six.
The damned-to-eternity Union tried to rule here by threats and bribes, dividing people’s loyalties. The three survivors he found were a good example. They were small, frightened, wounded men by the time he called to them out of the dark. “Halloo, the camp. Don’t fire!”
“Who the hell are you?”
“The man who can drop you right there if you raise that rifle one more inch.”
The man ducked below the rim of a snow pit, near the fire that had made him night blind.
“You are surrounded. We can pick you off, one by one, like we did under the bridge, or you can throw out your weapons … now. Oh, and your captain comes with us.”
“Bear, damn his soul, took off hours ago, and he ain’t come back yet.”
“That so? Well, throw out your weapons, and then we will see what to do with you. Where you boys come from?”
“High Ground, sir. Leastwise I do. Jose and Manuelito are Demarcians, but we all started from there.”
Six rifles and two shotguns arced into the darkness, and there was silence for a space of time. Stars appeared through rents in the clouds overhead.
“Okay, speaker … You come out of the pit with your hands up. Walk backward until I tell you to stop.”
A small Demarcian came next, and after turning out their pockets, Jesse had both men kneel in the snow, their hands bound to their ankles. He entered the snow pit. Without a word, he examined and redressed the gunshot wound of an older Demarcian. He would live.
It was only after he regained the anonymity of the darkness that Jesse bellowed back to the frightened men, “The old man tells me that you’re a pretty sorry sight. Why shouldn’t we just scalp you and collect the bounty?”
There was a hurried chorus of counterproposals before Jesse stopped them, saying, “We will let you all go if … one of you shows us your cabin. We will burn it, and you’ll go back to Terra Haute and tell them that this here stretch of 74 is off-limits to your kind. Anybody gets caught from now on gets a face mark … or worse. Understand?”
The bushwhackers chorused back agreement.
“One more thing: if we find Bear, he dies. Okay, speaker, you go with the old man to the cabin. The other two stay put and keep your heads down. I see the hair on the end of your nose above the rim of that pit, and you get shot. Everybody understand the rules?”
After another chorus of agreement, the old man emerged from the darkness to unbind the two men and escort the younger Demarcian back to the snow pit. The rest of the night was simple. Jesse remained silent; the bushwhacker remained compliant. When they got to the cabin, Jesse let his guide have a sled, medicine, and some food. After taking some supplies for himself, Jesse burned the cabin and its arsenal. On their return, Jesse directed the bushwhacker to retrace his own tracks, slowly letting him get ahead in the dark before the old man angled away. Following the stars, Jesse started back to the underpass. The new day would be cold and clear.
He would feel a lot better once he got back to her.
“Stop or die!”
Malila tried to pull back into the snow cave, just before the hammer came down on her head. The absurd hat absorbed some of the blow, but she groaned from the pain. Bright light blinded her as the hat was pulled off and a booted foot kicked her over. Bear stood over her, licking his lips.
“Hello again, Jane! You ran off last night without saying good-bye … hurt my feelings. Now, crawl out, and no tricks this time.”
While she was still trying to get to her feet, Bear hurled her to the snow outside the entrance and waved a knife blade under her nose.
“Where are the shooters?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
He backhanded her. He looked pleased to see her blood come away on his hand. He licked his lips.
“Not very convincing, Jane. After you run off, someone killed four more of my men … and here you are. You know anything about that?”
“You outlanders kill each other all the time. You were going to rape me and sell me!”
Bear slapped her again. She moved with the blow. It hurt less.
“You’re in luck, Jane. We can still get that done. It is gonna be a few days before we get back to High Ground. I ’spect we will be really good friends before then. After that, I’ve a business proposition for you. Now get up, take off the coat, and turn around, real slow.”
He chuckled when he found the knife in the coat pocket, shook his head, and knocked her down. She felt unsteady, her neck aching from the blows. This time, when she rose, Bear motioned her to walk back toward the underpass.
Trying to ignore the veneer of hunger that masqueraded as nausea among those who labor between dusk and dawn, Jesse pushed on into the morning. Pulling all-nighters was getting old.
If the girl could be coaxed to ski, he thought, they could go fast and far as long as the snow lasted, maybe three days this time of year. At least it gave them a chance. He had to admit, the girl had done well last night. Malila’s desperate breakaway from the fire, bootless and naked in knee-deep snow, was unbelievable. In an instant, she had turned the two of them from jackals to panthers.
The snow cave would be safe if she stayed put and didn’t act stupid. Stupid? No. Never stupid. Immature, partisan, and dismissive, yes. She had never acted stupid, despite what he told her. She just needed some manners.
He had not acted entirely civilized himself. That was the problem with age, Jesse thought. As a kid, you guessed you could do better with time. As a man, you thought you could do better with experience. As an old man, you knew that you were never going to want to be as good as you thought you should be.
Jesse skied into the woods west and south of the I-74 / Old 41 junction, following the withies he had placed the night before. Removing his skies, he crept through the tangled underbrush until he could inspect the interstate.
It was a long, exposed expanse of whiteness he had to cross if he wanted to get north of the junction and into the snow cave. His silhouette was a perfect target, and, once across, he would be so easy to follow.
No use waiting, old man.
Almost noon. We are going to lose a whole day fetching her, he told himself.
’Course, if you’d left her in Wisconsin, we’d be toasting our feet in front of a fire at home by now! Old fool!
Jesse replaced his skis and then cut a few branches from several hemlocks along the verge, tying them together. He dragged them along behind as he zigged and zagged across the wide-open area of the abandoned highway, through a break in the rusted guardrails, and over the remaining distance. He made it to the woods on the north side, confident that anyone coming across his tracks in the next few days could mistake them for a deer, a hog, or a large wolf in the deep snow.
Once in the woods, however, what with blowdowns and snow-covered bramble, his progress slowed. Jesse finally gained position north and west of the junction, looking across at the underpass itself.
He settled himself to watch for a while before he would venture to the snow cave and Malila.
It was then he saw the sniper. Right at the junction, the highest point, blossoming up and hanging for a mere moment, was a plume of steam.
Malila’s mind raced. Bear skied along behind her, easily keeping pace as she laboriously toward the underpass with its burden of dead men. Bear was good at this: he was not so close that she could lunge at him nor so far away that she could make a run for it. Dripping wet despite the cold, Malila was about to duck into the snow-free cover of the bridge, when Bear motioned her to climb to the highway above.
“Up you go, Jane. We can go through the leavings after I am done with you. Right now, I need good light … and a good lookout.”
The snow here was deeper. Malila flailed on all fours, crawling to reach the highway while Bear paralleled her climb on the skis, stepping up lightly as she lumbered. At the top, while Malila was gasping for air, Bear again threw her down onto her back. He waved a small blade, no more than a fingernail of bright steel, under her nose, his voice becoming low, reasonable … almost friendly.
“Whores are a valuable commodity in the outlands, Jane. However, you being part rabbit is an occupational disadvantage, wouldn’t you say?
“We outlanders have a solution. My brand goes on your belly so that a man knows what you are and who you belong to. I ’spect the wound will heal in a few weeks if you are careful. The scar will look real nice if you don’t move too much right now. I’d hate to kill you—by mistake.”
His knife wavering before Malila’s eyes, Bear ripped at her clothes. She moved to stop him. Bear punched her, clicking her teeth together as a sour metallic taste invaded her mouth, and her vision dimmed . A dusting of snow washed across her breasts and belly, chilling her flesh, reviving her. Dazed, Malila watched Bear’s face against the dazzling sunlight. Sunlight flashed from the small blade … mesmerizing. Bear licked his lips.
The first cut was the worst, an electric singeing sensation as Bear made a short cut before stepping back to admire the effect. It was then that Bear’s face changed, his gaze jerking up to look at the horizon, his jaw hardening.
“What the … Must be one of them bastards! Look at him go!” he said under his breath. He dropped the knife, grabbed up a rifle, and raised it to aim into the distance. Malila watched the look of concentration on Bear’s face and saw his trigger finger, coated in her blood, tensing and beginning to squeeze.
An echo-less voice, odd, distant, and childlike, sounded in her head.
Malila closed her hand around the handle of the knife where Bear had dropped it … cold … slick with blood. She drove the small blade into the back of Bear’s knee, her arm arcing into him with all her weight behind it. Bear went down with a muffled cry, almost tearing the knife out of her hand. She felt more tendons sever as he wrenched himself away, falling backward. Bear would never walk on that knee again, without remembering her.
The rifle came up, aiming at her as if in slow motion.
Detached, emotionless, empty, Malila swept the barrel to the side and rolled onto the man’s supine body, kneeling on his wounded knee. Bear roared a wordless obscenity and jammed the stock of the rifle into her belly. He forced her back before rolling on top of her, crushing the breath from her. His hands encircled her throat, warm and slippery. Bear cut her breathing off in an instant. Almost at once, a mad hunger for air burned her lungs, and blood pounded in her ears. Her vision dimmed as she looked up into Bear’s grimacing face. He was yelling, but she heard nothing but the pounding. Even her limbs felt foreign to her now. In the smallest part of a thought, she knew she still clenched the tiny blade in her numbed right hand. She watched mesmerized as the short blade flashed up to the pulsing white flesh of Bear’s neck, writhed with blue veins. In slow-motioned indifference, the brightness furrowed into his flesh, fountaining red blood. She slashed on, like her sea avatar, coating herself in gouts of blood as she sought the killing blow.
She was again in the cold ocean, tasting the hot blood of her prey, feeling the scalding surge of life gush around her. When it stopped, she floated, lethargic, too depleted even to signal for help.
Malila’s vision blurred and went black.
The woods ended in the ravine, which, Jesse thought, should give him cover from the sniper. Winds have carved the little valley into long ridges of deep snow. The old man saw no trace of the death struggle from the night before, as a lowering sun left the ravine in deep blue shadow … slowing him further.
He slogged a hard-fought hour along the wall, above the icy stream. He stopped. He was sailing blind. He needed to check his position, make sure he was past the sniper. Jesse sidestepped up the slope, his head just below the level of the road … invisible to any sniper.
The snow cornice, even more precarious now than when he had taken the first bushwhacker, bulged out to meet him. He leaned in, piked a ski pole into the snow, and sensed it punch through to the other side. Clearing it of snow, Jesse placed his eye to the hole.
A good fifty feet separated him from where the curve of the road would hide him from the sniper. Another hour’s worth of work lay ahead before he could retrieve Malila. Leaning over to clear ice from his ski binding, Jesse felt the bullet hit.