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DIES THE FIRE

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


CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

 

"Well, shit," Havel said with profound disgust. "I was really hoping this wouldn't happen."

There were cars on Highway 12. The problem was that they were all stationary; he could see half a dozen, before the road curved out of sight along the steep canyon of the Lochsa. Several of them had been left with the doors open; not one was moving.

Eric halted beside him, gawking up and down the roadway. "Wait a minute," he said. "Do you mean that all the cars are stopped the way our plane's engines were?"

"And my GPS unit and the radio at the cabin," Havel said grimly.

He spat into the dirt by the side of the roadway. It seemed to be the only way to really express his feelings. Unless I get down on the ground and sob and cry and scream and beat my fists on the pavement, he thought wryly.

"But..." Eric's slightly battered-looking face went fluid with shock. "How are we going to get help for my mother?"

"You tell me," Havel said, throwing down his pack. "Shit!"

He sighed. "All right, let's check the cars."

They did; nothing remained but a few empty plastic wrappers. Hmmm, Havel thought, looking through another trunk, and then casting back and forth along the road for a hundred yards either way.

"No blankets," he said.

Eric looked at him; probably big-city families as rich as his didn't think about that sort of thing.

"A lot of people out here keep spare blankets or a sleeping bag in their trunks on a long trip," Havel said. "Or emergency supplies. None of these cars have anything like that. Five gets you ten everyone's car stopped at the same moment, then they hung around for a while and eventually started walking out when they realized nobody was coming to rescue them."

He swept a hand along the road. "They were crapping by the side of the road for a couple of days too."

Eric tried a shaky smile. "I'm not much of an expert at roadside dumps," he said.

"Spoor is spoor."

Havel felt his mind struggling to refuse the implications of what he saw.

How far does this stretch? he thought. How far can it stretch? All the way from coast to coast, or 'round the world?

The two men looked at each other. It was a relief when they heard the hollow clop of shod hooves, and the harder crunch on the gravel beside the pavement. The sound came from the east, down the road that stretched in from Lolo Pass and Montana.

Damn, it isn't the Forest Service, was his first thought.

There were six horses. Two carried pack-saddles; three bore men in outdoors dress, looking even more scruffy than Havel felt or Eric was. The lead rider had a brush of mouse-colored beard that fell halfway down his chest and... Havel blinked... an actual coonskin cap. He looked like a potato with legs, and rode like one, sawing at his horse's mouth as he pulled up; a lead rein from his saddle controlled the packhorses after a fashion.

His face was thick-featured under the matted hair, heavily pocked, with a nose like a smaller spud attached to the mass. His companions were a gangling stork, and a third man much younger than the other two, pinker and fatter as well; he carried a compound hunting bow with an arrow on the string and six more in the quiver clipped to the side of the weapon.

None of them looked quite like it was their first time on a horse, but...

It was what followed that made Eric swear under his breath, and Havel's eyes narrow. There was one more rider, a middle-aged black man with his feet lashed to the stirrups and his hands cuffed before him, with the chain of the handcuffs through a ring on the horn of his saddle. Two women walked beside the pack horses, also cuffed; the older looked Hispanic, or possibly Italian; the teenage girl beside her was darker, but had a family resemblance. All three of the captives looked like they'd been roughed up, and recently, with still-wet blood running from mouths and noses; the black man looked as if he'd have trouble walking at all, though even semi-conscious he rode much better than his three captors.

The saddles were Western-style, looking practical and battered enough to be real working gear, and the mounts were excellent; definitely of quarter-horse stock, but in the older style, with good thick legs and strong hooves, and big for the breed.

"Afternoon," the potato-with-legs leader said, as the party drew up; he halted within talking distance, but not close.

Havel waved a greeting, unobtrusively letting the rabbit stick fall into the palm of his right hand and handing it off to the left behind his back.

"Follow my lead," he said softly to Eric.

The young man nodded; Havel could tell he was trembling-tense, but he wasn't showing it much.

"Hello there," Havel went on. "Mind telling me what the hell's going on? We crash-landed up in the woods—" he waved his left hand back toward the wilderness rearing southward. "—about ten days ago, and just walked out. Is it like this all over?"

The fat rider with the bow threw back his head and yeee-hawed; Havel had heard it done a lot better. The older two laughed.

"It's the apocalypse, brother," the potato-man said, grinning. "It's the downfall of the Z.O.G., and the triumph of God's people! And yeah, it's all over. Far as we know, and we've talked with people from as far as Smithton, and over to Billings in Montana. All of 'em on bicycles, trying to get somewhere better, and not finding it. And they'd talked to people from farther east and west."

Uh-oh, Havel thought, schooling his face to polite interest. Bad news. And probably true, even given who's peddling it.

He recognized the breed; there weren't actually all that many of them in Idaho, but they made up for it in the amount of attention they attracted and the way they gave the state a bad name.

Z.O.G. stood for "Zionist Occupation Government". These three were obviously some variety of neo-Nazi/Christian Identity/Aryan Brotherhood types, one of the groupuscules that had set up redoubts in northern Idaho through the 80's and 90's as part of the survivalist wave—or the scum on the wave, to be more descriptive.

The redoubts usually consisted of a cluster of mobile homes and shacks on heavily mortgaged land, splitting and recombining as the quarrelsome lunatics anathematized each other over fine points of ideology and/or got arrested for credit card scams and death-threats to judges and process-servers, but the inhabitants could be dangerous enough when they weren't selling each other out to the FBI.

The tall thin one was riding with his jacket open over a bare chest, and the tattoos under it were pure jailhouse; all three of them looked hopped up, as if they'd done a major hit of coke or won the Powerball.

They have, Havel suddenly realized with a chill. If cars and radios and guns don't work, they've just inherited as much of the earth as they can take. No laws.

Eric bent, as if he were scratching at his leg; out of the corner of his eye Havel couldn't be sure, but he thought the younger man palmed a rock.

Good for you, Havel thought, and went on: "You mean everything stopping working?"

The man nodded. "Didn't we say it was coming?" he crowed. "And now we white original sovereigns are coming into our own."

"What about these folks here?" Havel said mildly, drifting a little closer.

"We got us a good husky slave here," the thin man said, grinning. "To look after these fine horses he brought us. He'll be real useful once we've cut his balls off to make sure he don't breed."

"Couple of nice fuck-toys too," the youth with the bow said. "I like the look of the young one."

"In your dreams, Jimmie," the thickset man said; apparently he was the leader. "But you can have her momma tonight while I break her in."

The tattooed man scowled. "They're mud people, Dan," he said, apparently a long-running argument. "They're unclean, most likely full of diseases. We ought to kill them right off, like we did those Indians."

"Now, Bob, we'll find us some good pure white women for bearing children," the leader said. "When we're settled in our stronghold waiting for the dying time to pass. Meantime, a man has his needs."

The black man was sitting slumped in the saddle, resting his cuffed hands on the horn and a good deal of his weight on those. His head was down as well, but his eyes peered up at Havel, flickered to Eric. There wasn't much hope in them, but there was thought, and he was probably noticing Havel's slow, inch-by-inch drift towards the riders. He looked to be about forty, with an outdoor worker's weathered skin and squint-lines beside his eyes, sinewy and strong.

He reminds me of someone... Glover, the actor who plays next to Gibson in that Lethal Weapon series, ran through Havel's mind at some level entirely aside from the swift calculation that filled the active part of it.

"Dying time?" he said, edging a little closer still to Dan. "Could you tell me what you mean by that?"

"Well, it figures that with all the technology gone, most everyone's going to die, except in the real backward places, bush-niggers in Africa and such. Even country-folk, without their tractors and pumps, and anyway those close to the cities will get eaten out. Without guns, they can't even defend their farms from the hordes. But up here in the National Redoubt where people are thin on the ground, we can survive and expand later. Lot of cattle and a lot of grain in Idaho. Not to mention game in the forests. I figure best thing is to hide out for maybe six months, then go looking for a place to live long-term."

Not necessarily a complete idiot because he's a total shit, Havel thought.

The man's eyes had glazed over with lust as he spoke; partly, Havel supposed, at contemplating the death of more of humanity than a nuclear war could have managed; partly at the prospect of being a big man among the survivors, after a lifetime of total failure; and partly a more human elation that at last he'd gotten something right, even if it was only improving his chances of surviving by moving to Idaho. From his accent, he'd started out in some East Coast city, although he was trying hard to westernize it.

You know, generally the people I've killed have just been a cost of doing business, Havel thought. Because they were wearing the wrong uniforms. But this bunch would be a real personal pleasure. Why is it that guys who think they're the Master Race always look like walking advertisements for retroactive abortion?

Just a minute more to get them relaxed...

"You two boys look like good original-sovereign stock," the leader of the riders said. "Why don't you—"

"Help us!" the woman walking by the pack-horse cried. "For God's sake, mister, please, help us! They're crazy!"

Eric wound up like a pitcher on the mound and threw his rock; he was too close to do a really good job, but his stream-smoothed lump of granite thumped into the shoulder of the bowman.

The archer loosed, the shaft flying inches wide of the back of the neck of the thin man with the jailhouse tattoos; that one did what Havel expected—clapped his heels to his horse's sides, heading straight for Eric. He had some notion of what to do in a fight.

The younger Larsson threw himself back with a yell, landing and rolling in the roadway and then dodging around a stopped car that stood with its doors open; he came right back through it, diving over the back seat faster than the inexperienced horseman could get his mount around it.

The knife flicked into Havel's hand and the rabbit stick into the other. The thick-set man's horse thundered down on him; he'd never been charged by a man on horseback before, and his stroke with the stick at the rider's knee went wide—fortunately, so did the heavy man's potentially bone-shattering kick with one cup-stirrup bearing foot.

That nearly unseated him, and he clutched at the horn of his saddle.

Havel leapt forward again, trying for a hamstringing blow, and the puukko's edge parted the leather of the leading rein instead. That set the packhorses lose; they went into bucking circles, their hooves a menace to everyone.

The heavy youth with the bow tried to grab the young girl by the chain of her handcuffs with his right hand and drag her up across the saddle in front of him while slinging the bow over his shoulder at the same time; she seized the hand in both of hers and sank her teeth into his wrist.

That made him shriek in pain and start trying to shake her off instead as his horse skittered sideways; and her mother added a series of ear-splitting screams to the confusion as she came up on the other side and began beating her clenched fists on his leg.

Who says the Three Stooges are dead? Havel thought. Christ Jesus, what a cluster fuck!

Mr. Jailhouse Bob was coming back into the fight; he had a machete out now, from a sheath strapped to his saddle. He also came straight for Havel, ignoring the rest of the milling chaos.

This one has a hard man's instincts, Havel thought, poising lightly on the balls of his feet, weapons ready. OK, he's target number one.

Fortunately Bob's time in stir hadn't included training in the equestrian arts, and he misjudged the speed of his mount. His roundhouse swing passed a foot in front of Havel's face—close enough for him to feel the ugly wind of its passage—and nearly took an ear off his own horse. Havel's return stroke with the rabbit stick cracked into his arm. The blow was glancing, but it was enough to make him drop the machete. Then he clapped his heels into his horse's flanks and circled out of the fight again, shaking the limb and cursing but looking quickly back and forth to get a sense of the action.

Damn, he really does think tactically, Havel thought—that was a gift, and not limited to good guys.

The black man made his own contribution; even without reins, he managed to get his horse moving west, probably hoping to draw the rest off from his family. He succeeded; Dan and young Jimmie turned the heads of their horses around and went after him, but Jailhouse Bob was in their path. Instead of trying to pass him the black man turned his horse up the Centennial trail to the southward, disappearing into the steep heights and the tall pines.

"Get the nigger!" Dan cried as he spurred after him.

Jimmie followed, turning in the saddle to loose an arrow that wobbled up at a mortar-shell angle and came down with a shhhrink into the roof of a car. Then he disappeared up the trail, leaving his tattooed elder to face four-to-one odds.

Havel dropped his rabbit stick and scooped up the fallen machete, starting towards the last of the bandits. Eric followed, picking up a few more baseball-weight rocks; behind him the two women were getting the pack-horses under control, despite the handcuffs, which argued for considerable skill.

Bob looked at the men approaching him with hatred that radiated from him like heat from a banked fire, then turned and followed his companions. Havel let out a long breath and shook his head, fighting down a wave of nausea and light-headedness. It had been a long time since he'd fought in a kill-or-be-killed situation, but it was just as unpleasant as he remembered.

Eric dropped his rocks. "Damn," he said. "I'm better than that with a baseball—I should have hit that fat fuck in the teeth or at least broken his collarbone."

"Not bad for your first real fight," Havel said, punching him in the shoulder. "Which it was, right?"

Eric grinned cautiously and touched his swollen nose and split lip. "Not counting you, Mike, yeah."

Havel nodded. "Only I don't think they had education in mind."

He turned to the women. "Ma'am," he said as the older of the two began to speak. "We need your help if we're going to rescue... your husband?"

She nodded; a woman of about forty, full-figured and with boldly handsome mestizo-Hispanic features, wearing riding jeans with a belt of silver medallions and a blousy white shirt. The teenager nodded too; she was darker, with a mass of frizzy hair, and would be quite pretty when she wasn't bloodied and terrified.

"Will, my husband. I'm Angelica Hutton, and this is our daughter Luanne," she said; there was a soft Tejano-Spanish accent under a Southwestern twang.

"Mike Havel. Eric Larsson," Havel said shortly; there wasn't much time for social niceties.

"What do you need?" Angelica Hutton said steadily.

"Tools, if you've got them; can't do anything until we bust you lose of those cuffs. And knives—one of them should be the biggest you've got."

There were tools; a jumble in one of the panniers, including a short heavy prybar and a farrier's hammer. Havel grunted in satisfaction and freed each of the women with a few short clanging blows, the chain of their handcuffs stretched across a roadside boulder.

As he worked, the woman spoke. He caught most of it:

"... just attacked us, they came down the road on bikes to where our trucks stopped; we'd been pasturing the horses and we were about to head out ourselves, we hadn't seen anyone else and they just attacked us. Will's gun didn't work, and the pistol... They took our horses and—"

"Any more of them?" Havel asked.

"Not from what they said. I think they'd been in a fight, and they were afraid some Indians were chasing them. They just took what they could grab and made us saddle up the horses and—they were going to—"

The pack-saddles bore her account out, heaped high and packed badly, with a mélange of goods and food and gear thrown on higgledy-piggledy. It was probably a very good thing for Angelica Hutton and her daughter that the Aryan Trio had been pressed for time.

Better keep them running, Havel thought, and looked at Eric.

"You can ride?" he said.

"Since I was six. We always had horses."

"Good. Are these saddle-broke?"

"Yes," Angelica said. "We were taking them to an outfitter in Lewiston, and the stallion, they didn't get that one. My husband and I raise and train horses. These two are the slowest of the bunch, though."

Havel nodded crisply: "Look, Mrs. Hutton, get these packsaddles off, and hide your goods up there in that thicket, behind the big rock—you can get up along the side with a little work. I'd advise you to keep extremely quiet and wait. I don't have time to argue. We'll be back when we've done what has to be done, but it could be a couple of days or longer. Are those lashings rawhide?"

They were thin and soft-surfaced.

"Wet them down for me as well, would you please? Put them in water, do that first. And get me those knives."

"Thank you, and los santos go with you," the woman said; she and her daughter got to work with the quick competence of people who'd handled horses and their tack all their lives.

Havel worked as well. He'd spotted suitable red cedar saplings down-slope to the north and not far from the edge of the road; the wood wasn't what he'd have chosen with more time, but it worked easily, and he'd been thinking hard about their brush with the three bandits. A few strokes of the machete at their bases felled both the young trees. After trimming the first he had a straight pole five feet long and another a little taller than he was.

A single swift hard chop split the smaller end of the first down the middle, leaving a cleft twelve inches long, and he repeated the process for the second, longer one.

Then he used the hammer and prybar to knock the wooden handle off the machete, and punch out the two rivets; the tang was solid except for those holes, a simple continuation of the blade. He forced it into the cleft of the shorter pole, trimming with his knife and waggling it carefully to seat it and then hammering in two horseshoe nails from a bag in the pack-saddles.

Angelica brought him the rawhide thongs, which had at least been thoroughly wetted down.

"Wish there was more time to soak these," he said absently.

Eric came up and helped hold the shaft while he bound the cleft with a double layer of leather cord, using the ends of the nails as tie-points and pulling the wet leather as tightly as he could with both hands and bracing foot. Then he turned the ends of the nails down with a few swift hammer-blows; there was no wobble when he shook the improvised weapon, and in a while the drying leather would hold it on like iron. The result was a shaft about the thickness of a shovel handle, with two feet of chopping steel fixed on the end coming to just over eye-level on the younger Larsson.

"Looks like a naginata," Eric said.

"That's the idea," Havel said. "I was stationed in Okinawa for a while back in '89. You ever trained with one?"

"Just a few times, and watching. Hate to have to use one and try to ride a horse, though."

"Better than nothing, and we'll get down to fight. These'll give us enough reach to get at a man on horseback; I ride a lot better than those clowns, and I wouldn't care to try and fight from the saddle without a lot of practice."

While he spoke he sorted through the knives; he knocked the handle off a good-sized pointed kitchen blade, and bound it into the second shaft as he had the machete. Now he had a spear as well, about seven feet long in all.

By the time the weapons were ready the horses were as well; they both had bags of food thrown across their withers.

Eric gave him a boost to mount, then sprang on with rather more agility himself; Havel was a good practical horseman, and he'd enjoyed wilderness trips in the saddle, but he hadn't grown up in a family who had a stable at a country property.

"Wait, and keep out of sight," Havel said to the two women. They ought to be OK. Plenty of food for a week or two. "If we're not back in seven days... well, do what you think best."

"God go with you," Angelica said, crossing herself.

They both pressed their thighs to their mounts and the well-trained animals moved, taking the steep section of the trail that joined Highway 12.

Havel looked up. It was about an hour to the early spring sunset; the sky was already darkening in the east, and the temperature was dropping—it might go below freezing in the dark, and they probably wouldn't dare light a fire, but the horses should help keep them warm.

"We've got problems," he said to Eric, drawing level with him.

The trail was broad enough for that, and soft enough that he could read the tracks fairly easily; one horse galloping first, and then three more strung out after it.

Call it tweny miles an hour over this terrain, but they can't keep that up for long, even though these horses are pretty fresh and well-fed.

"Tell me about it," Eric said.

The answer was probably rhetorical, but Havel took it literally:

"We've got a set of problems, assuming we don't get lucky and find the Three Demon Stooges lying with their necks broken 'cause they couldn't stay on. OK, first, there's the kid with the bow."

"He didn't hit anything," Eric observed. "And we were pretty close."

"Not from a horse he didn't, no. But he might be a lot better on foot. Those hunting bows are no joke—look what your kid sister did with one, and neither of us is as tough a target as a bull elk! That means we have to get real close before he sees us. Next, there's tall skinny tattoo-man. You noticed him?"

"He's worse than the others?"

"He's a real killer, not a wannabe or a blowhard; I recognize the type. I don't know if he's got any hunting experience, or whether he's got any brains, but he won't panic or freeze up—which the other two might. That's the difference between life and death when it's for real."

Eric swallowed; he was coming down from the adrenaline high of the brief chaotic fight, and looking a bit pale. But he was a sharp kid, and he probably took the point about freezing up better than he would if Havel had stated it openly.

"What's the third problem?"

"They're heading right towards your folks... stop right there!"

The young man reined in at the snap of command.

"We come barreling down after them, they're likely to hear us coming and ambush us. Right now they're going hell for leather after Hutton—the black guy. They'll catch him, he can't get off the trail tied to his horse like that, but they won't worry about us if we're real careful."

"Why not?" Eric said.

"Because to their way of thinking, we've got the women and the stuff; plus they don't know about your family. They may know about the old cabin, though. Three on two is bad odds. This is going to be real tricky."

He paused a moment. "You realize we're going to have to kill them all?"

Eric nodded abruptly, swallowing again; he started to speak, cleared his throat, and then went on: "Yeah, Mike, I do. They'll kill my folks if we don't, won't they? And rape my sisters. And they'll torture that black guy."

"For starters," Havel said.

The sun was setting on the mountains behind them, and the beauty of it made him shiver a little as the great trees threw spears of shadow before them. He'd told Signe that the forest wasn't hostile; and that was still true. But men, now... men had been suddenly thrown back each on himself. The cake of law and custom had been broken; now they were all on their own, and their true natures could come out, for good or ill.

"They're fucking monsters!" Eric burst out.

Havel shook his head. "No, they're just evil," he replied. "But that's close enough for government work."

 

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


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