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DIES THE FIRE

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER TEN:

 

 

Fourteen days since whatever-it-was, Mike Havel thought, looking around the clearing just off Highway Twelve where the Huttons had made their camp until the bandits came.

Christ Jesus!

The Lochsa bawled and leapt not far to the north, gray with silt and chunks of ice, with a smell that somehow stung in the nostrils beneath the pine-scent of the steep forested slopes that rose canyon-steep on either side. He looked at the sky, and blinked at a sudden thought:

I'll never fly again.

It struck him harder than he'd have thought; never again to feel the wheels lift, or the yoke come live in his hands as the controls bit the moving air...

The whole party had arrived late last night; the Huttons had slept in their tent, the Larssons in the RV and Havel in the hay of the horse trailer. Dawn had been gray and cold, but the noon sun had broken through the clouds, and it had gotten up to around fifty.

Havel shook his head and blew absently on his hands as he and Will Hutton walked around the flatbed they'd all spent the morning unloading; it had a two-wheeled bogie on either side, and Ken Larsson was underneath it, looking at the brakes. If at all possible they wanted to rig it for horse traction; that way they could take along a lot more gear when they headed west.

Will glanced up and smiled at his wife and daughter; he'd been doing that all morning too, and Havel didn't blame him.

He looked that way as well. They had a cookfire going and a big pot hung over it; Angelica Hutton was cutting elk-meat on a folding table, and dropping the pieces and carefully measured cupfuls of dried beans and soup-barley into the bubbling water. There had been bacon and eggs for breakfast, and toast made from bread that wasn't too stale to eat, but from now on it would be the limited dry goods from the Ranger cabin and the Huttons' RV, and what they could hunt or forage or barter. The remains of the elk would last them for a while, and the luckless mule deer they'd run into on the way back here. He suspected they'd all get very sick of game stew by then.

Angelica wore a jacket and a long skirt and a black Stetson with silver medallions around the band; her face was beautiful when she raised it from her work to smile back at Will. Then she stirred the pot, nodded, and put on the lid.

Luanne smiled in their direction fairly often too, as she sorted clothing. She even gave Eric a high-megawattage beam now and then. Havel could hear them laughing together, and then she play-punched him in the chest. He went over backward and mimed a death-rattle.

Havel blinked. For a moment he saw his own hand and the knife in it, glistening red-black in the firelight as if coated in oil, and remembered spitting out salt blood to clear his mouth. Then he shook his head and focused on the problem at hand. You had to do that, the way Larsson stopped occasionally and pushed the image of his wife's death out of his head with a visible effort of will. Acts of will repeated often enough became habit, and habit carried you through.

Dwelling on the bad stuff just made it stronger, and if there was one thing in the world he despised, it was someone who let their emotions get in the way of doing their share of the job at hand.

"You can't rig something in the way of a horse collar?" he went on to the wrangler.

Will Hutton had had a lot of spare tack, leather, cord and tools; even a hollow-cast anvil, although he disavowed blacksmith status, saying he simply did farrier work and a little smithing now and then.

"Oh, I can get somethin' rigged in the way of a collar," he said. "Carve it in sections from wood, I reckon, pad it, then sew some leather over it. Problem is that the pole on this thing is too low. It's meant for a towbar."

Propped on a chunk of wood to keep the trailer's bed level, the Y-shaped pole with the towing hitch was at about knee height. Hutton held his hand palm-down in front of his body at the solar plexus.

"We need a drawshaft about this high, otherwise the horses can't pull good and we'll chance hurting them if we load the wagon full. Too much weight on their withers."

Ken pivoted himself on his backside, so that his face and shoulders stretched out from under the trailer. His face looked a little less doughy this morning, and he'd shaved off the silvery stubble. He looked critically at the towing bar.

"And that'll come lose; it's bolted."

His finger sketched. "We could mount it upright instead of horizontally in the same brackets, with a little file and hacksaw work, use one of the roofing struts from the horse trailer, they're already curved and about the right width."

Hutton pushed back his billed cap and rubbed his chin; the calluses on his fingers scritched on the skin as his eyes moved, tracing out the structure Larsson proposed and the lines of force that would bear on it. When he spoke, his tone was dubious:

"Upright, it'll lever on them something fierce, a lot worse than a straight pull. Might be we could do it if we could weld the join, but we cain't. Those bolts'll tear through inside a day."

"You bet," Larsson said, getting to his knees and leaning over the bed of the trailer. "So we sink an eyebolt, you've got a couple in your horse-trailer, here—"

He thumped his fist on the midpoint of the decking, just forward of the axle

"—through the cross-beam under the plywood, then run some rope or cable forward to the top of the A-section."

"That a damn good idea," Hutton said, grinning broadly. "Not bad at all. Won't be pretty, but pretty don't count when it works."

He looked up at the sun. "Could do it by sunset. Ain't as if we were in a hurry."

He extended a hand, and Ken Larsson used it to rise, grunting a little; he was fifteen years older than the black man, and had twenty-seven on Havel.

"Right," Havel said. "Plenty everyone else can do while we're here."

Damn, he thought, as the two older men started rooting around in Hutton's capacious toolboxes, smiling a crooked smile to himself.

I got out of the Corps because I could see myself as Gunney Winters, with twenty years service hammering me until I fit perfectly into a Gunnery Sergeant shaped hole... and here it's going to happen anyway.

"You need any more help with the trailer?" he asked.

Hutton shook his head, and Larsson echoed him: he looked happy to be at something that used his knowledge, and Hutton had the matter-of-fact competence of a man who'd been at home around tools and tasks since before his voice broke.

"It'd go faster if we had someone to do the fetch-and-tote work," Hutton said, modifying his gesture.

"Strong back, simple mind," Larsson said, grinning. "I know just who."

He looked at Havel and winked. Havel put his fingers to his lips and blew a piercing whistle.

"Yo! Eric!" he called.

The young man had been helping Angelica Hutton and her daughter carry clothes down to the water's edge, where they apparently intended to clean them by soaping and then beating the wet cloth on rocks.

It was probably a skill she'd learned from her mother as a small girl and hadn't used much since; the RV had a neat little compact washer, and from what the horse-trainer had let slip the Huttons had a small ranch of their own in the hill country southwest of Austin, which they used as home base; they'd been solidly prosperous, in a hard-working, self-made, self-employed way.

Eric looked up from putting the big basket of dirty clothing down by the gravelly shore of the river. Havel gestured sharply, and he reluctantly headed their way.

"Amazin' how a little conversation can make a boy his age want to do laundry," Hutton said dryly, and all three of the men laughed.

As they watched, they heard a drumroll of hooves and turned to look west. A hundred yards away Astrid Larsson had twitched her horse into a hand gallop with an imperceptible tensing of her thighs on the saddle and shift of balance; the reins lay knotted on the horn. She flashed down the edge of the woods, her bow rising smoothly as she drew to the ear. The arrow flashed out towards a target Havel and Hutton had rigged from poles and mounted on a stout Ponderosa pine. It missed, but not by all that much, sinking half its length into the grassy turf just short of the tree.

Astrid shouted angrily in a language that sounded liquidly pretty even then, and stopped her horse with the same smooth combination of leg-signals and shifting seat. She turned it, trotted back to the target, bent out of the saddle to snag the arrow without dismounting, then set it back on the string and cantered away down the edge of the woods.

"Lord Jesus, but that girl can ride," Hutton said, whistling. "About as good as my daughter, and Luanne's got prizes for barrel-riding at four rodeos, she'd be up there with Sherry Potter and Charmayne Rodman if she wanted. Eric and Signe ain't bad at all, but Astrid there, she is fine."

He didn't say anything about Havel's equestrian skills, which was tactful, since they were no better than competent-journeyman by his standards. Havel was grateful; from what he'd seen in the past two days, what the black man couldn't do with horses just couldn't be done.

"Not bad with that bow thing, too, nohow," Hutton went on.

He paused, adjusting a wrench and handing it to the elder Larsson before taking up a hacksaw himself.

"What's that lingo she keeps mutterin' in, anyways? Ain't English or Spanish neither. French or something?"

"Elvish," Havel said, and Astrid's father laughed.

Hutton looked at Havel blankly; the younger man continued: "Elvish, Will, no shit. Girl's a Tolkien fanatic."

It turned out the Texan had only the vaguest idea of who Tolkien was; his reading ran more to books on horses and ranching, or on cavalry and other equestrian subjects, or to Western history, and fiction by Louis L'Amour and Larry McMurtry. Eric arrived while the discussion was still going on.

"Yup, Elvish," he said. "Probably something like Curse of the Valar upon thee, crooked Orcish shaft! That's the problem with a language invented by a professor from Oxford. No meaty, satisfying swear-words for poor Legolamb."

They all laughed at that, but Havel sobered as he walked away to where Signe was practicing with the captured compound bow.

Astrid is damned good with that bow, to come anywhere near hitting something from a moving horse. She's also acting a bit weird. Or maybe even weirder than normal would be a better way to say it. Only to be expected—

Havel had seen what happened to people exposed to the sudden violent death of friends; it had to be worse for a teenager with a parent. He'd been keeping an eye on her, but she hadn't quite blown a gasket yet. That could be a good sign, or a bad one.

"Mike?" Signe said, lowering the bow.

"I'm a bit worried about Astrid," he said. "The problem is that I don't know her well enough, and—"

Signe smiled: "And she acts weird all the time anyway."

Her face sobered; smiling hurt her, anyway, with the bruises still fresh.

"She had bad dreams again last night," Signe went on, then shrugged. "I just couldn't sleep at all. It... well, she's younger than me, and she actually saw what happened to Mom. And that crazy man with the tattoos—even then, he scared me worse than the others. And they all terrified me!"

"Yeah," Havel said, wincing slightly at the memory of what he'd seen of Mary Larsson's body—and that was just the aftermath, and she hadn't been much more than a face and a name to him.

"She and Astrid weren't all that close," Signe said, fiddling with the bow. "Mom... Astrid's always been moody and solitary; the sort who has one or two really close friends, you know? Just totally uninterested in boys so far, too. Mom thought kids should have an active social life; parties, and clubs, and activities, and volunteer work. All Astrid was ever interested in was those books, and her horses, and archery—Mom got worried about that, too."

"Archery isn't an activity?"

"Not if you concentrate on it too much!" Signe said. "Then it becomes an obsession. I went to archery club meetings. Astrid just walked through the woods shooting at stumps. Mom—"

She turned away, rubbing at her eyes. "God, I miss her, even the things about her that drove me crazy."

Havel put a hand on her shoulder for an instant, then removed it when she flinched and took the bow and looked down at it.

"Yeah, that's rough," he said. "My mother died of some sudden-onset cancer thing while I was in the Gulf, and I couldn't get back home. We'd fought like cats and dogs for six months before I left, too—she wanted me to go to college instead of into the Corps real bad. I know up here—" he tapped his forehead "—that it wasn't my fault. Nobody knew she was sick, she didn't know she was sick, but... A lot worse for you, and for Astrid."

Signe nodded jerkily. "I'm glad we've been so busy. Less time to think about... everything that happened. I just start feeling guilty, and then I get angry—imagining what I could have done differently, as if I could have saved her—"

"There was absolutely nothing you could have done," Havel said with flat conviction. "Apart from what you did, which probably saved Eric's life and maybe mine. Jailhouse would have gotten to him in another thirty seconds, and you saved me at least that much time."

"Sorry," he finished, as she paled and swallowed.

"No!" she said fiercely. "I've got to... learn to deal with it. I can't live with it clubbing me everytime I get reminded."

"Which brings me back to Astrid," Havel said, looking down the meadow.

She was wheeling about, tiny with distance at the northern end of the meadow. Still shooting from the saddle, he thought, but it was hard to tell.

"Sometimes feelings bleed off, like pressure from a propane tank," he said. "That's what happens with some people, at least. Brooders, they tend to build it up and then snap. I'd read Astrid for a brooder."

Signe gave him an odd look: "You're a lot more... well, no offense, sensitive, than..."

Havel grinned at her. "Jarheads don't have feelings?" he said.

He enjoyed her blush; she probably got extreme guilt-feelings herself when she found herself believing a genuine stereotype. That was insensitive.

"Actually, that's what got me thinking. You get real tight with the guys in your squad, closer than brothers—you live closer than brothers do, and you have to rely on the guy next to you to save your ass; and you have to be ready to do the same for them. Watching someone you're that tight with die... not easy. Some people seriously wig out after that, self-destructive stuff. I don't think Astrid will get careless with explosives—not now!—or get drunk and try and disassemble the shore patrol, but there are probably equivalents a fourteen-year-old can come up with."

Signe nodded. "I'll try and get her to talk... and meanwhile, shall we practice?"

"Right," he said.

He'd tried his hand at the compound; the offset pulleys at the tips made it much easier use than a traditional bow of the same draw-weight, and it had an adjustable sight. And he was strong, and had excellent eyesight, and was a crack shot with a rifle and very good at estimating distance.

Even so, he could tell it was going to be weeks or months before he gained any real skill with it, and that was frustrating—he might need it on a life-and-death level sooner than that. Given a choice, he preferred to do any fighting from a comfortable distance.

Signe had drawn a shaft to the angle of her jaw. He waited while she loosed; the arrow flashed out and thumped into the burlap-covered hay-bales. It sank three-quarters of its length as well, just inside the line marking the man-shaped target.

"Not bad," he said. You'd have lamed the guy, at least.

"I've done target archery off and on," she said. "Nothing like Astrid, though; she's been a maniac about it for years—since she was eight or nine."

"Yeah, but you'd look silly with pointed ears," he replied, pleased when he got a snort of laughter.

She'd been very withdrawn since the fight and her mother's death. Understandable, but...

"Right, let's take it up where we left off," she said.

The walked closer to the target; Signe had been practicing from sixty yards, and it was a bad idea to start at a distance you'd consistently miss—that way you couldn't identify your mistakes and improve. She handed over the bracer, and he strapped it to his left forearm, adjusting the Velcro-fastened straps. Hutton had rigged him an archer's finger-tab for his right hand, and he slid two fingers through it.

"We'll have to make some sort of moving target, eventually," Havel said. "And a glove fitted for this; I wouldn't want to be stuck wearing this tab thing if I had to switch weapons suddenly."

Signe moved him into proper position with touches of her fingers, which was pleasant.

"Rolling pie plates are what Astrid uses. All right, make a proper T... And she has things that run on wires, she had a bunch of them set up on our summer place, besides the stumps."

"Stumps you mentioned. We're not short of them, and pie plates we could probably manage too," Havel said.

Then he drew his first shot. The bow's draw-weight was eighty pounds, but with the pulleys he only had to exert that much effort at the middle of the draw. It fell away to less than forty when his right hand was back by the angle of his jaw, and he brought the sighting pin down on the middle of the man-figure's chest...

Whffft!

There was something rather satisfying about it; particularly this time, since he'd come near the target, at least.

Someday I'll actually hit it.

"You're releasing a bit rough," Signe said. "Remember to just let the string fall off the balls of your fingers—"

They worked at it for half an hour; when he stopped he worked his arms and shoulders ruefully. "This must use muscles I don't usually put much weight on," he said.

"You're making progress," Signe replied. "Any more today and you'd get shaky."

He nodded. "After a certain point you lose more than you gain," he agreed.

"And you don't mind learning from a girl; I like that."

A corner of Havel's mouth quirked up. "I'm not an eighteen-year-old boy," he said.

Their eyes went to the flatbed. Eric was standing with an air of martyred patience, holding something on the anvil with a pair of pincers while Hutton hit it two-handed with a sledgehammer; Ken Larrson observed, a measuring compass and a piece of paper in his hand.

The ting... tang... chink! sound echoed back from the steep slopes, fading out across the white noise of the brawling river.

"And I'm not an idiot either, if there's a difference," Havel went on.

This time Signe laughed out loud, probably for the first time in a few days.

"Knives?" he said briskly.

She nodded eagerly. They walked over towards the tree where the mule deer was hung.

They'd wrapped it in sacking, but there weren't many flies this early in the year. He went to the tie-off on the treetrunk and lowered the carcass from bear-avoidance distance from the ground until the gutted torso was at a convenient height.

Signe watched, a little puzzled, but eagerly caught one of the wooden knives he'd whittled. She fell into the stance he'd showed her, right leg slightly advanced, left hand open and that forearm at an angle across her chest. The knife she held a bit out and low, point angled up and her thumb on the back of the blade.

Havel took an identical stance. "Now, what are we both doing wrong?" he said.

She shook her head, wincing a bit as she bit her lip in puzzlement; it was still swollen and sore.

"We're about to fight a knife duel," he said. "Which means that one of us is going to die and the other's going to get cut up real bad, get killed too or crippled or at least spend months recovering. Yeah, I'm going to teach you how to do that kind of a knife-fight, eventually, but it's a last resort unless the other guy's truly clueless. I was real glad not to have to go mano-a-mano back there."

He switched the grip on his knife, holding it with the thumb on the pommel and the blade sticking out of his fist, the cutting edge outward.

"First let me show you something. Grab my knife wrist and hold me off."

She tucked the wooden blade into her belt and intercepted his slow backhand stab towards her throat. He pushed, using his weight and the strength of his arm and shoulders; Signe stumbled backwards, struck the trunk of the tree and grimaced as the point came inexorably towards her throat. Suddenly her knee flashed up, but he'd been expecting that; he caught it on his thigh and pressed the wooden knife still closer.

"Halt!" he said, stepping back; he was breathing deeply, she panting. "OK, you're what... five-eight? Hundred and forty-five?"

"Five-eight and a half," she said. "One forty-four, but I think I've lost some since the Change."

"Probably," he said. "Right, so you're a big girl, tall as most men, and as heavy as some; which means you've got plenty of reach, and there's no reason you can't get real fast—you've got good coordination and reflexes already, from sports."

"But?" she said.

He nodded. "But most men, even ones a bit shorter or lighter, are going to have stronger grips, and more muscle on their arms and shoulders. Speed matters, reach matters, skill and attitude matter a lot, but raw strength does too in any sort of close combat, especially hand-to-hand."

"So what do I do?" she said tightly.

"Don't arm-wrestle 'em and don't get into pushing matches. Your brother has reach and weight on me; he's nearly as strong as I am and he'll be stronger when he's a couple of years older. I could still whup his ass one-on-one—in fact, I did. Take the same grip on your knife I did and come at me; give it everything you've got."

She did—and stabbed a lot faster than he had, as well. He let her wrist smack into his right hand, and squeezed tightly enough to lock them together. Then he let her shove him back; she was strong for her size, especially in the legs.

As they neared the tree, he snapped his torso around and push-pulled on the hand that held the wooden knife, body-checking her as her own momentum drove her towards him. Then he bunched his knuckles into a ridge and punched her—lightly—right under the short ribs while she staggered off-balance.

"Oooff!" she said; but she made a recovery, coming up to guard position again.

"See, what I did there was redirect you instead of pushing back. That takes strength, but not as much as the other guy's. You just have to be strong enough. See the point?"

"Yes," she said slowly, nodding. "I think I do, Mike. You mean a woman needs a different fighting style?"

"Right; a woman, or a smaller man. I'll have Will do up some weights for you and Luanne, we need to get her in on this too, and Astrid—and between that and the way we're traveling and chores, you can maximize your upper-body strength pretty quick, since you're already fit. Meanwhile, we'll work on the skill, speed and attitude. You'll practice with Eric, too, and Will. Will's got a lot of valuable brawling experience, I think."

He went over to the hanging deer carcass. "I used to use a pig carcass for this, back on my folks' place when I was a kid. They're better, because they're more like a man in size and where the organs are, but this'll do. Doesn't matter if we mess it up, since it's going into the stewpot. Go round the other side and hold on—hold it steady—put your shoulder to it."

He drew his puukko and took a deep breath. Then he attacked, stabbing in a blur of motion, the carcass jerking to the force of the impacts. The steel made a wet smacking sound as it clove the dead flesh, ten strikes in half as many seconds.

When he stopped, Signe's face had gone white again, shocked by the speed and power of the blows she felt thudding through the body of the deer. She swallowed and pressed her hands together for a moment before straightening up.

Havel nodded approval. "That's how you win a knife-fight; you don't let it get started. Take him by surprise, from the back, or just get all over him before he can get set and kill the fucker before he realizes he's dying. OK, get your knife out and I'll hold the carcass."

He did, switching positions, although he gripped it at arm's length as she drew the bandit's long blade.

"We'll start slow. You've got to get real precise control on where the point and edge go, and get used to the feel of it hitting meat, and feel why it's a bad idea to turn it on a bone. He who hesitates is bossed, remember."

 

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Excellent focus, he thought, twenty minutes later.

She was streaming sweat, and there were shreds of deer-flesh on her knife-hand and spattered across other bits of her, but she was boring in without flinching, eyes narrowed and seeing nothing else.

"Jesus!" he shouted, leaping backwards.

Signe half-stumbled as the deer carcass swayed unexpectedly, but pivoted with fluid balance and drove the long knife home, grunting with effort as it sliced into flesh.

Only then did she turn to see what had startled him. A drumroll thunder of hooves announced Astrid's arrival once more, but there was a hoarse bellowing snarl underneath it.

The bear behind the horse was traveling very nearly as fast, its mouth open and foam blowing from it; an arrow twitching in the hump over its shoulders showed why.

It was a black, not a grizzly, but the point was moot—it was also a very large boar-bear, four hundred pounds if it was an ounce, and moving at thirty miles an hour. Astrid turned in the saddle as her horse Pounded by in a tearaway gallop, drawing her bow again and firing directly over its tail in what an earlier age had called the Parthian shot.

"No!" Havel shouted futilely.

Well, now I know how a horsy teenage girl snaps from combat stress. She goddamn well tries to shoot a bear!

Havel had hunted bear; he knew the vitality and sheer stubborn meanness of a wounded bruin. By some miracle, the arrow even hit—a shallow slant into the beast's rump, leaving head and feathers exposed. It halted and spun with explosive speed, throwing up a cloud of earth-clods and twigs and duff, snapping for the thing that had bitten it on the backside; that let Astrid's horse open the distance between them.

Unfortunately, it also pointed the bear directly at Havel. It hesitated for an instant, as he stood motionless; then its eyes caught the sway of the mule-deer carcass, and the glint of afternoon sun on Signe's knife.

It went up on its hind legs for an instant, narrow head swaying back and forth as it gave a bawling roar and estimated distances with its little piggy eyes. Then it dropped to all fours again and came for him, as fast as a galloping horse.

"I don't fucking believe this!" he cried, and then, much louder: "Spear, spear, where's the goddamned spear?"

 

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Copyright © 2003-2004 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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