“Sssst!” Michael Havel hissed, and held his left hand up with the fist clenched.
Footfalls stopped behind him as he peered into the brush and half-melted snow along the Centennial trail, in the cold shadow of the tall red cedars.
Just being on it was a relief; all he knew of this particular stretch of country was maps and compass headings, and it was an enormous mental load off his shoulders to be able to follow a marked trail—even if it was still wet with slush, and muddy. As a fringe benefit of being here between the end of cross-country skiing season and the beginning of hiking the animals weren’t all that wary, since they didn’t expect humans along.
He’d trimmed and smoothed a yard-long stick from a branch; it was as thick as Astrid Larsson’s wrist, and nicely heavy. He let it fall from where he’d been carrying it under his armpit; the end smacked into his palm with a pleasant firmness. The snowshoe hare made a break for it as he moved, streaking up the slope and jinking back and forth as it went; he whipped the stick forward and it flew in a pinwheeling blurr.
“Yes!” he said.
The throw had the sweet, almost surprising feel you always got when you were going to hit. The rabbit stick hit the hare somewhere in the body, and it went over in a thrashing tangle of limbs and a shrill squeal. He started forward, but Astrid’s voice checked him:
“There’s another one!”
The second terrified-rodent streak was much further up the slope; he waited as the girl brought the bow up, drawing in a smooth flexing of arms and shoulders as it rose. The string snapped against her bracer, and the arrow flashed out in a long beautifully shallow curve; he followed it with an avid hope born of days of hard work and short rations.
Damn! he thought; the other snowshoe jinked left at just the wrong moment.
Astrid muttered something under her breath as she recovered the arrow. Then she checked it—you had to keep broadheads sharp—and smiled at him in congratulations.
“Better luck next time,” he called to her.
He trotted to his kill and finished the hare off with a sharp blow of the rabbit stick; the animal was a young male, a little under two pounds, with the relatively small ears and big feet of its breed. He was crouched by the side of the trail getting ready for the gutting and skinning when the stretcher came into sight.
Eric Larsson was on one end, and his sister on the other. They both exclaimed in delight at the sight of the rabbit; even their father looked up from where he walked beside his wife and smiled.
“And that’s why they call it a rabbit stick,” Havel said, grinning and waving. “Take a rest, everyone, it’s time to change off anyway.”
He’d stripped off his sheepskin coat and rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt; it was chilly, but getting blood out of the fleece was impossible. There was a little hone in a pocket on the outside of his belt-sheath; the steel went scritch-scritch-scritch over it as he put a finer edge on the puukko and began breaking the game.
Astrid drifted off ahead; she could shoot rabbits easily enough now, and was certainly willing to eat her share, but she didn’t like to watch the butchering. Eric followed, probably to tease her—someone was going to have to tell the kid to lay off it, but Havel remembered what his brothers had been like and doubted it would happen anytime soon. The problem there would come when Eric got some food and rest and felt full enough of beans to try pushing at the older man, and hopefully this whole lot would be off Michael Havel’s hands by then.
Ken stayed beside the stretcher as he always did at stops, holding Mary Larsson’s hand: he and his wife talked in low tones, usually of inconsequential things back in Portland, as if this was just a frustrating interruption in their ordinary lives.
Which means Mr. Larsson knows his wife better than I thought, Havel told himself. Which will teach me to try and sum someone up on short acquaintance.
Biltis the orange cat also jumped up on the stretcher, burrowing down to curl up beside the injured woman in what Astrid insisted was affection and Havel thought was a search for somewhere warm and dry in this detested snowy wilderness. She made a pretty good heater-cat, though.
He grinned at the thought; the cat would come out for its share of the offal, right enough; it would even purr and rub against his ankles. Cats and dogs and horses were more honest than people—they really did like you when you did things for them, instead of faking it.
Signe Larsson came up; she leaned his survival pack against a tree—she carried it, when she wasn’t on stretcher-duty, freeing him up to forage—and squatted on her hams with her arms around her knees, watching him skin and butcher the little animal. She didn’t flinch at the smell or sight of game being butchered any more, either.
He’d roll the meat, heart, kidneys and liver in the hide, and they’d stew everything when they made camp—he still had a few packets of dried vegetables, and the invaluable titanium pot. You got more of the food value that way than roasting, particularly from the marrow, and it made one small rabbit go a lot further among six.
Plus Mary Larsson found liquids easier to keep down. The antibiotics gave her a mild case of nausea on top of the pain of her leg; he was worried about the bone, although the pills were keeping fever away.
“Who calls it a rabbit stick?” Signe said after a moment, nodding towards the tool he’d used to kill the hare.
“The Anishinabe,” he said, his hands moving with skilled precision. “Which means The People, surprise surprise—the particular bunch around where we lived are called Ojibwa, which means ‘Puckered Up’. My grandmother’s people; on Mom’s side, that is. I used to go stay with grannie Lauder and her relatives sometimes; she lived pretty close to our place.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s how you learned all this… woodcraft?”
She looked around at the savage wilderness and shivered a bit. “You really seem at home here. It’s beautiful, but… hostile, not like Larsdalen—our summer farm—or even the ranch in Montana. As if all this—” she waved a hand at the great steep snow-topped slopes all around them “—hated us, and wanted us to die.”
“These mountains aren’t really hostile,” Havel said. “They’re like any wilderness, just indifferent, and… oh, sort of unforgiving of mistakes. If you know what you’re doing, you could live here even in winter.”
“Well, maybe you could, Mike,” she said with a grin. “What would you need?”
“A nice tight cabin and a year’s supply of grub, ideally,” he said, chuckling in turn.
She mimed picking up the rabbit stick and hitting him over the head. He went on:
“Minimum? Well, with a rabbit stick and a knife you can survive in the bush most times of year; and with a knife you can make a rabbit stick and whatever else you need, like a fire drill. You can even hunt deer with the knife; stand over a little green-branch fire so the smoke kills your scent, then stalk ’em slow—freeze every time they look around, then take a slow step while they’re not paying attention, until you get within arm’s reach.”
“That’s fascinating!” she said, her blue eyes going wide. “Of course, the Native Americans did live here.”
The big blue eyes looked good that way, but… He gave a slight mental wince.
I’m too fucking honest for my own good, he told himself wryly. Also I’m effectively in charge here, dammit, which means I can’t play fast and loose. Not to mention her parents are watching…
“Even the Nez Perce starved here when times were bad,” he said. “Nobody lived in these mountains if they hadn’t been pushed out of somewhere better. I hope you don’t believe any of that mystic crap about Indians and the landscape.”
“Oh, of course not,” she replied, obviously lying, and equally obviously wanting to correct him to Native American.
“Indians have to learn this stuff just like us palefaces,” he went on. “It’s not genetic. But some of grandma’s relatives were hunters and trappers, real woodsmen, and I used to hang around them. Learned a lot from my own Dad too, of course. Though I figure the Ojibwa part is why I’m so chatty and talkative. It’s perverse for a Finn.”
He scrubbed down his hands and forearms with some of the snow lying in the shade of a whortleberry bush, trying not to think about hot showers and soap. She passed him his coat again, and winced a bit doing it, pulling her hands back protectively and curling the fingers as he took the garment.
“Damn, let me look at that.”
He took her hand in his and opened it. The palms looked worse than they were, because the strings of skin from the burst blisters had turned black. Havel drew his puukko again, tested the edge by shaving a patch of hair from his forearm, then began to neatly trim the stubs of dead skin; that should help a little, and reduce the chafing. There hadn’t been time for her to really grow any calluses yet.
“I told you to put more of the salve on them,” he scolded. “You’re pushing it too hard. When something starts bleeding, say so and someone will spell you on the stretcher.”
“I’m doing less than Eric is, Mike,” she said.
“You’re also forty pounds lighter than Eric, and most of that’s on his shoulders and arms,” Havel said bluntly. “I thought you had more between your ears than he does, though. You’ve got nothing to prove.”
And you’re certainly not the creampuff airhead I thought you were, he thought. Massively ignorant, but not stupid.
She learned quickly, rarely had to be told how to do something twice, and didn’t stand around waiting to be found work.
And she’s no quitter or whiner. Complains less than her brother.
“Eric may be bigger, but I’m a lot younger than Dad—I don’t like the way he looks,” she went on, leaning a little closer and lowering her voice. “Mike, he goes gray sometimes when he’s been on the stretcher for twenty minutes, especially on the steep parts. The doctor’s warned him about his heart. What will we do if he… gets sick… out here? Carrying him and Mom—”
There she’s got me, he thought, looking over at the elder Larsson.
The flesh had melted away from him, but it didn’t make him look healthy, just sort of sagging, and his color was as bad as Signe thought. Cold and the brutal work and lack of proper sleep or enough food was grinding him down, and he wasn’t a young man or in good shape.
And this isn’t the way to get into shape at his age. Much more of this and I wouldn’t bet on him coming through. But I can’t take him off carrying the stretcher for at least some of the time. There’s too much else to do and I’m the one who knows how to do it.
“By the way, Mike,” Signe said, obviously pushing the worry aside with an effort of will. “There’s something you should think about ‘mystical crap’, as you put it.”
His brows went up and she continued by putting her hand out, fingers cocked like a pistol and making a fffffumph between lips and teeth, uncannily like the way his gun had sounded when he tried to fire it.
Have to admit, you’ve got a point, he thought, and was about to say it aloud when he heard Eric’s voice, cracking with excitement:
“A deer! She got a deer, and it’s running away!”
Havel was on his feet and running forward in an instant, scooping up the rabbit stick and tumbling Signe on her backside with a squawk; she was up and following him half a heartbeat later, though.
He passed Eric, but the twins were right on his heels as he flashed into the clearing; their legs were long and their hightops were better running gear than his solid mountain boots. Astrid was a hundred yards ahead, sprinting fast with the bow pumping back and forth in her left hand; and the blood trail was clear enough for anyone to follow—bright gouts and splashes of it on snow and mud and last year’s dry grass sticking through both. He pushed himself harder, knowing all too well how the tap could turn off suddenly on a trail like that, unless—
He went through a belt of lodgepole pines, like seventy-foot candlesticks; the ground beneath them was fairly clear, and the wounded animal was following the trail; that wasn’t too surprising, since it was on the level and would make for maximum speed. Massive tree-boles flashed by him, and then they were out into bright sunlight with mountain ridges rippling away to the west and south like endless green-white waves on a frozen sea. Thin mountain air burned cold in his chest; Astrid’s hair was like a white-silk banner as he pulled past her. Then the trail jinked a little higher.
Good! he thought exultantly. Make him work at it!
The blood trail wasn’t dying off; getting thicker, if anything. Then he saw the animal in a patch of sunlight not far ahead.
That’s no by-God deer, he thought.
It was an elk; a three-year bull still carrying his rack, a six-pointer, and he knew it must be badly wounded—a healthy elk could do thirty-five miles an hour in a sprint, and twenty all day long. As Havel neared it staggered, gave a gasping, bugling grunt of pain, and began to collapse by the rear. Blood poured out of its nose and mouth; the forelegs gave way, and it lay down and groaned, jerked, and went still with its thick tongue hanging out of its mouth.
Astrid and the twins were only a few seconds behind him. “Stand back!” he said sharply, controlling his breathing.
As if to back up his words the beast gave a final galvanic kick; it was a little thin with winter, but sill magnificent—glossy reddish-brown on most of its body, with a shaggy gray mane on its thick neck and a yellowish patch on the rump around the small white tail. He could just see the fletching of the two-foot arrow against its ribcage behind the left shoulder; Astrid must have been lucky. The blade of the broadhead had struck with the edges up and down, slipping between two ribs and going through right into the lungs, probably cutting a big artery or nicking the heart too. The arrow could never have punched through the outer ribs if it had struck horizontally, not from a twenty-five pound draw.
Even so, that was a light bow and a short shaft to bring down something this size; bull elk were the size of a medium-sized horse. This one wasn’t quite full-grown, but it would dress out at four hundred pounds or more of steaks, roasts, chops, ribs and organ meat, enough to feed six people for a month. The main problem would be carrying it; in this weather it would keep a long time once he’d drained it properly and dressed it out.
Astrid was dancing from one foot to another and crowing with glee: “He stepped right onto the trail! He was only twenty feet away! Go me! Go me! I got him, I got him! ”
“That you did, kid,” Havel said. “That makes up for a hell of a lot of lost rabbits!”
Signe hugged her sister and danced her in a circle. Even her brother gave an admiring whistle.
“I take it back, Legolamb,” he said. “I’m gonna say ‘sorry’ with every mouthful.”
Havel nodded agreement and moved in to make sure of the elk with his knife; on the one hand there no point in letting it suffer, but on the other he didn’t want a hoof through his skull or six inches of pointed antler in his crotch either.
“Sorry, brother, but we needed it,” he said, in an almost noiseless whisper—he never spoke that aloud, not wanting to be thought gooey or new-agey – and passed his hand over the beast’s eyes and then his own.
Maybe we could camp for a day’s rest, he thought. Mrs. Larsson isn’t looking very good, and –
Then what he was seeing through the stand of mountain ash penetrated.
“Eric,” he said. “Come on.”
“What?” the young man said.
Havel pointed and grinned. “The ranger cabin’s just through there,” he said. “I figure we can get your mom into a real bed and start the stove in about twenty minutes.”
Clean underwear, even, Michael Havel exulted the next morning.
What was more, he was clean; it made his gamy clothes repulsive, but he pulled them on and padded out into the hallway carrying his boots and followed his nose to the kitchen, gratefully taking a cup of bad instant coffee from Astrid at the doorway.
The four-room log cabin had been built by the WPA back in the 30’s, and it had a big woodstove with a water heater, plenty of stacked firewood, a meat-safe and even some food in the pantry—flour in a sealed bin, canned fruit and vegetables, salt and pepper and baking soda, left for just this sort of emergency. There were blankets in a cupboard too; even in this year of Grace 1998 you didn’t have to assume vandals and thieves would be by, not in the middle of the Selway-Bitterroot you didn’t. That kind usually didn’t have the stamina for a three-day hike through frigid mountain forest from the nearest road.
For castaways like Havel and his passengers, the Forest Service would be forgiving.
The radio was thoroughly dead, and the batteries too—not even a tickle from the tongue-taste-test, which didn’t surprise him although it was annoying as hell. Right now he was satisfied with something besides MRE’s or cold rabbit stew for breakfast.
Signe Larsson was cooking; he’d done ribs and steaks last night, and started a big pot of ‘perpetual stew’ that still simmered on the back plate. If you brought it to a boil now and then, you could add fresh ingredients and water daily and keep it going indefinitely.
“Flapjacks,” she said over her shoulder; her wheat-blond hair was loose, and still slightly damp and touseled from washing with a scrap of soap. “And canned peaches to go with them—yum!”
“Food for the gods,” he said sincerely, accepting a plateful; his body craved starch, and sugar only a little less.
Eric and Astrid were concentrating on eating; like their sister, they’d bounced back with the resilience of healthy youth.
I did too, Havel thought. Only the rubber’s just the slightest touch less resilient at twenty-eight!
Ken Larsson was looking less like walking death; partly a night on a real mattress, even if there were only blankets rather than sheets, and mostly that his wife seemed to be doing a lot better too.
“OK,” Havel said, looking out the window, after he’d cleared his plate the second time. It was just past dawn, with sunrise turning the snow on the peaks opposite rosy-pink; if he hadn’t quit soon after he left the Corps, this would be the perfect time for a cigarette. It was a pity tobacco was so goddamned bad for you!
“We can make it in two days if we push hard,” he said to Ken Larsson. “The emergency people ought to get help back here a lot faster than that; there’s a year-round crew at the Lochsa Ranger Station, and Lowell’s only a ways down A-12.”
“Good luck,” the older man said. When Havel rose, he stuck out a hand. “And thanks, Mike.”
“Hell, just doing my job,” Havel said, flushing a little—and being careful not to squeeze too hard, because Larsson’s hand was as mucked-up as Signe’s or Eric’s. “You and your family are my responsibility; I’ve got to see you safe.”
“I won’t forget it, Mike,” Larsson said.
Havel grinned. “We’d better get going, before everyone gets all soppy,” he said.
“Yeah,” Eric said indistinctly through a last mouthful of pancakes. “Got to get Mom to a hospital.”
He glanced sidelong at Signe, who was just setting down her own plate. “Though sis here is going to be real disappointed we’re not going to Montana.”
“It’s amazing how repulsive you get when you’re not starving,” Signe said.
Eric laughed, and went on to Havel:
“The ranch next to our place there uses our pasture, and pays us by doing the maintenance and looking after our horses when we’re not visiting,” he said. “They’re real ranchers. And the owner’s son isn’t a bad guy, except that he had the bad taste to let my worse half her go mooning around after him making a spectacle of herself like a—hey!”
Signe Larsson held the opened salt-shaker over his coffee cup. “More?” she said sweetly.
“You ruined it!”
“Salt for bacon, Eric,” she said, in a tone that could have cut crystal. “And you are a pig.”
She was smiling when she said it, but her eyes were dangerously narrowed. Ken Larsson cleared his throat:
“You two can it. Remember that your mother’s hurt.”
They both looked abashed; Havel grinned mentally. Not that ragging each other does their mother any harm, but guilt is the Ultimate Parental Weapon,he thought.
The two sisters and Larsson accompanied their brother and the pilot out onto the verandah; everyone’s breath showed, smoking silver in the rising light, but with warmth and food that was exhilarating, not depressing. Havel set his pack with a shrug and a grunt; they could take the remaining MRE, three bouillon cubes, and the chocolate bar; it was enough to keep them comfortably all the way there.
“See you in three days, Ken,” he said. Then he looked at Astrid and Signe. “Hey, Astrid, you really did good with that elk. That was important.”
The girl glowed. Good, he thought, and went on:
“So now you’ll all have plenty to eat. Do not go hunting—” which she showed a natural aptitude for, now that she’d lost her inhibitions “—and in fact, I’d very much prefer it if none of you went out of sight of the cabin. It would really hurt my feelings if any of you got eaten by a bear before we got back.”
He caught Signe’s eye. The older girl nodded.
“I’ll keep an eye on her, Mike,” she said.
“Let’s get going!” Eric Larsson said impatiently. “We can’t stop now!”
“The hell we can’t,” Havel said, setting his pack down against a rock; it was two hours before sunset.
Right on cue, he thought wearily. Christ Jesus, we males are predictable sometimes.
They’d made better time than he expected; twenty miles at least, and they might make four more before sundown. At that speed, they could reach Highway Twelve sometime around noon tomorrow.
If they didn’t wreck themselves today. He went on:
“We’ll walk fast for an hour, and then we’ll rest fifteen minutes, and then we’ll do it all over again. A man can walk a lot further than he can run. Right now we’re at the fifteen-minutes-rest stage. We’ll keep going till moonrise, eat, sleep, and get going again at dawn, and make it by lunchtime tomorrow.”
“Who died and made you God?” the youth asked.
“I know what I’m doing here,” Havel said shortly. “You don’t.”
“I think you’re the hired help,” Eric spat back. “And that means what I say goes.”
Havel surprised him by laughing, deep and obviously genuine. “Kid, if there’s anyone I work for here, it’s your dad—and he has enough sense to listen to an expert.”
“And I don’t like the way you look at my sister!”
Havel laughed again: this time the sound was a little taunting. “It’s 1998. If you try to play whup-ass with every guy who looks at Signe Larsson with lust in his heart, you’re going to have to be a lot better at it than I think you are.”
Eric came forward an inch, then jerked to a halt, looking at the rabbit stick in the older man’s right hand. Havel grinned.
“That shows some sense.”
He tossed it to rest by the side of his pack, then held out both hands and made a beckoning gesture with curled fingers.
“Let’s get this over with, kid,” he said.
Eric flushed—the disadvantage of being so blond, even with a tan—and came in with his fists up in a good guard position, moving lightly for someone his size; he was six-one, long-limbed, broad in the shoulders and narrow in the waist. Very much like his opponent, except that Havel was built in nine-tenths scale by comparison.
The young man’s big fist snapped out; the blow would have broken Havel’s jaw and several of Eric’s fingers, except that the ex-Marine jerked his head aside just enough to let it brush by his left ear; at the same instant he stepped in and swept his shin upward with precisely controlled force, then bounced back lightly, moving on the balls of his feet and keeping his own hands open.
“Kill number one, kid,” he said, as Eric bent and clutched himself for a moment. “Or at least I could have ruined you for life. And never try to hit a man in the head with your fist. You’ll break your hand before you break his head.”
Eric was red-faced and furious when he straightened, but he didn’t make the bull-style charge that Havel had half-expected. Instead he set himself and whirled into a high sweeping kick; it was well-executed, except for being telegraphed, and a little off because his right foot slipped in the squishy mixture of mud and pine needles underfoot.
Havel let his knees relax, and the foot swept over his head. His hand slapped up, palm on the other’s thigh, and pushed sharply.
“Shit!” Eric screamed as he landed on his back, more in frustration than in pain.
Then: “Shit!” as Havel’s heel slammed down to within an inch of his face; the older man bounced back again, smiling crookedly as Eric rolled to his feet and backed slightly.
“Kill number two. This isn’t Buffy the Dojo Ballerina. All right, let’s finish up with the lesson. We haven’t got time to waste.”
Ninety seconds later, Eric Larsson wisely made no attempt to resist as the back of his head rang off the bark of a Douglas fir. Fingers like steel rods gripped his throat, digging in on either side of his windpipe, and he fought to drag air in through his mouth—the swelling had made his nose non-operational.
Havel looked at him with the same crooked smile; there was a pressure-cut on his cheek, but otherwise he was infuriatingly undamaged.
“Kill number six. And you forgot one thing, kid,” he said. “Never bring your fists to a knife-fight.”
Eric Larsson’s eyes went wide as Havel stepped back; something silver flashed in his hand, and the young man looked down at a sudden cold prickle; the odd-shaped hunting knife was touching just under his ribs.
“Kill,” Havel said. The knife reversed itself, lying edge-out along his forearm, then swept across Eric’s throat with blurring speed. “Kill.” A back-handed stab, letting the cold steel touch behind his right ear. “Kill.”
Havel stepped back another pace; the younger man was chalk-white and keeping himself from trembling by sheer willpower. He sheathed the knife and cocked an eyebrow, his expression cold.
“So, have we settled the ‘who’s the big bull gorilla’ question?”
“Yeah. Noooo doubt about it, man.”
“Good, because we’ve got things to do. Like saving your mother’s life, saving your sisters’ lives, saving your dad’s life, saving my life, and last and ‘way, ‘way least important, saving your life. Got it, Eric?”
Eric nodded, massaging his throat. “Yeah. Definitely. Most definitely. All the way. One hundred percent.”
Havel grinned suddenly, and extended a hand. “Actually… Eric… you’re not bad at all. You’re strong and you’re fast and you’re not scared about getting hurt. Get the right experience, and you’ll be a dangerous man to meet in a fight. Are we square?”
“Square.” Eric was obviously flattered by the man-to-man treatment and took his hand, starting to squeeze. Then he stopped abruptly: “Jeez, I hope I didn’t break that knuckle,” he said, wincing.
“Told you not to hit a man in the face with your fist,” Havel said, wagging a finger. “Punch him in the throat or the balls, or grab any convenient rock and use that on his face. But don’t sock him in the jaw unless you’re naked and they’ve nailed your feet to the floor.”
“Yeah, I see your point… actually, man, I saw too much of the sharp point. I wouldn’t mind learning how to do that fancy knife stuff myself. Is it Ojibwa too?”
He picked up the bundle of gear; Havel liked that, and the absence of pouting.
“Nah, Karelian,” he replied genially. “Force Recon refined my technique, but Dad taught me the basics of—” he tapped the knife “—the puukko.”
“Karelian?” Eric asked.
“Eastern Finland, or it used to be—where the poets and shamans and knife-waving crazies came from. Further west you get Tvastlanders, who’re so dull they might as well be Swedes like you.”
“I’m Yankee on Mom’s side—English.”
“Well, I’m sorry for you and all, but wouldn’t it be better to keep that quiet?”
They both laughed. He’s not a bad kid, Havel thought, settling his pack on his back. They started west again, side by side. He’s just high on testosterone and needed a thumping. Aloud he went on:
“Anyway, like it says in the Kalevala, real men use knives.”
“The Kalevala?” Eric asked, frowning as he searched his memory for something that rang a bell, but not a very loud one.
“Finland’s national epic. That great big thing that sounds like Hiawatha, only you can’t pronounce the names?”
“Now I remember,” Eric nodded. “We’ve got a copy at home; every line sort of repeats? Dad has it with his saga collection; he used to read us that stuff when we were little kids—that’s how Astrid got started on her schtick. The illustrations were cool, but I couldn’t get through it. I can’t remember anything about knives, though; I thought it was all witches and monsters and Santa Claus sleigh-trips with reindeer?”
“Yeah, the Old Country version could make sex sound dull, but the one my Dad taught me was sort of modified; it goes—”
He began to chant as they walked west along the trail:
“I am driven by my knowledge,
And my understanding urges,
That I should commence my fighting,
And begin my strong ass-whupping,
With a nice sharp slashing puukko,
Eric hadn’t expected to be forced to listen to poetry, but a smile broke through his frown of puzzlement as the words sank in. Havel cleared his throat and continued, in the solemn singsong shaman-type voice purists always used for the real thing when the old farts got together at the Suomi-American Society meetings:
“Fists are just for wussie girl-men.
Swedes and Danes and pansy girl-men…
Come and let us fight together,
And drink potato gin forever,
Or maybe made-from-pine-trees vodka,
In the dreary land of Pohja.
Let us clash our knives together,
Let us slice and cut our fingers;
Let us stab a cheerful measure,
Let us use our best endeavors,
While the young are standing round us,
Of the rising generation,
Eric Larsson was beginning to stagger and wheeze as they walked; Havel made a grand gesture with the rabbit-stick, declaiming:
“Let them learn the way of mayhem,
And of all our fights and drinking,
Of the booze of Väinämöinen,
Of the knives of Ilmarinen,
And of Kaukomieli’s pointy puukko,
And of Joukahainen’s broken bottle:
Of the utmost bars of Pohja,
And of Kalevala’s boozing cock-hounds…”
He carried on through the younger man’s laughter, remembering the way the sauna had run that night, him and his brothers and father howling out the verses in turn until the one reciting couldn’t go on, and falling back on the scalding-hot pine benches.