The healer bowed deeply before Alantethol of Tartessos, commander of the Hidden Fort of the West — in what the Eagle People called California. He inclined his head slightly in turn; she was a woman, true, but all healers were, and they were close to the Lady of Tartessos — uncomfortably close to the Crone, as well, the bright and shadow sides of the Divine.
“Will more of the ship’s crew die?” he said, shuddering slightly within.
They had found it in the river downstream halfway to the sea, aground on a mudbank; only by the favor of Arucuttag had the crew brought it that far, with so many dead or dying. Only by a for-once-merciful jest of the Jester had the ones who lived included the captain, with his knowledge of modern navigation and this secret place.
“I am not sure, my great lord,” she said, frowning. “Twenty-one at least will surely live. Of the other eight, they are still very weak — and badly scarred. Perhaps none will die, perhaps half. The healer –” her tone was contemptuous; the ship’s medico was not one of the Queen’s true pupils, merely one who’d had a few brief lessons “– did not recognize the sickness quickly, and she was not skilled in the understanding of innoculation.”
Alantethol inclined his head again, in thanks for the truthfulness not hidden behind honied lies. Best be respectful, if she was in turn. And this healer had been a pupil of the King’s wife, Rosita, who had learned her art on Nantucket itself.
The commander ground his teeth at the thought. The Islanders had humiliated him — taken his ships in that skirmish on the African coast, somehow turned his trap on him…
That had been before the war broke out openly, in the spring of the year past; the King had to pay ransom and then publicly upbraid him, dismiss him, lest the conflict come too soon. In private he’d been more merciful, especially when he learned that Alantethol had kept the secret of this outpost. The cover story had held — if the captains told them it was Australia, how could the men know otherwise? Only a few of the captives knew English, anyway, and speakers of Tartessian were even rarer on Nantucket, too rare for detailed interrogation of all even of the officers. Much less the common seamen; to them Australia and California were all one, and might as well have been the Land of Youth the stories told of.
Hence his appointment here. What better command to give to one who must disappear from public view than one so secret not a dozen people in the Kingdom knew of it, save those sent here for life? It put him out of the way, yes — this latest ship had left the homeland only a month after the fall planting — but it was a post of honor.
Nantucket was all things hateful and vile, a land on whom he wished every revenge. Yet also the source of all power, of knowledge beyond price. The King himself owed his rise to his stay there and his alliance with the Nantucketer renegade Walker. Alantethol himself had learned En-gil-its, and read among the books copied from the King’s treasure-store; the Art of War and Celestial Navigation, things of deep wisdom. Wisdom that had made the son of a fishing-boat captain a great lord, one of the New Men of the King.
The Tartessian noble stroked his gold-bound tuft of chinbeard. “So, you have this sickness of the small pockmarks under control?”
“Yes, lord,” she said, bowing again. “The vaccination has worked very well on our people and the barbarian slaves as well. It was very lucky that the Queen’s book contained that knowledge and that the cows here have the little sickness which guards against the greater, or many more of us than a dozen would have died. I beg the noble commander that word be sent to the homeland as quickly as may be –”
She paused to look around. Here was nobody to overhear, not even a barbarian slave ignorant of their tongue. The commander’s office was on the third story of his residence, that he might have solitude to ponder. As befitted his rank it was lined with plastered walls riotously painted, with bearskins on the floor and Shang silk on the walls, and much raw gold beaten into sheets. The workers came to clean and polish only under guard.
“…that this be done in the City and its tributaries as well, lest this new pestilence spread to our land.”
Alantethol considered whether he should reveal more, then nodded abruptly. “That has already been accomplished, by King Isketerol’s wisdom,” he said, bowing with hands to forehead at his overlord’s name.
The healer hastily followed suit; this was a new custom since Isketerol took the throne.
“The sickness of the small pockmarks has been reported in Babylon; this ship of ours called at Meluhha on its way here, as part of keeping this base secret.”
It had called at Meluhha, where traders came from all the eastern lands and men mingled. As a sheep defecates, promiscuously, everywhere, he thought. Undoubtedly that was where they had contracted the disease.
“Best to take no chances with the Jester’s jests,” he went on, in tribute to the King’s wisdom.
They both made genuflection to a small eidolion of the Lady’s favorite son where it sat grinning in a nitch. It was solid-cast in gold, and nearly knee-high to a man. That was an extravagance possible only here, where gold was like the dirt of the streams. Alantethol took a pinch of pine-resin and threw it into a small brazier at the feet of the statue so that aromatic blue smoke coiled upwards to please the God.
“But among the naked savages beyond our rule, the tiny daemons of this illness will spread like fire in dry summer grass,” the healer said. “It will reap them as the very knife of the Crone; their flesh will seethe in Her Cauldron like a rich stew.”
“This is not altogether bad,” Alantethol said, pondering. “Earth must be fed,” he added piously.
The savages who infested these lands — otherwise so much like home that even glancing out the window gave him a pang of longing — were not numerous by the standards of the lands of the Middle Sea, or even those of the yellow-haired barbarians of the far northern lands like Alba. They could not be, living as they did by the chase and gathering wild plants. But these were lands of amazing wealth in more than gold; rich in nuts and wild fruit, well-watered by many rivers, swarming with game and fish and flocks of birds, able to support a denser peopling than he would have believed possible without farming. And the Tartessians here were very few, even counting subject-allies brought from the homeland to bolster them.
And I do so count them, he thought. This far from home, differences that had loomed large in his youth became as nothing, and all Iberians were kindred. Still…
“We do need some of the free savages,” he said. “There are not enough of us to do all the needful work, even with the slaves we’ve taken. Hmmm.”
He sent a small prayer to the Lady of Tartessos, and another to Her brother Arucuttag of the Sea, who watched over Tartessians abroad beyond the salt waters. Hungry One, I will give you a strong warrior from among our captives, if you will show me a way… yes!
“Let word be sent to the tribes around us,” he said. “Tell them that we will give this treatment of the cow… but only if they cease stinting the tribute they pay for our protection.” Protection from us, he thought; but that was the usual way. “And, hmmm, deliver to us hostages, and… This can be turned to much good use in subding the savages, this pestilence of the small pockmarks.”
He grinned. “You say that this illness can be transmitted by the clothing of the sick, as well as their blood and breath and sweat?”
The healer nodded. “Unless such clothing is thoroughly cleaned, with boiling water and strong soap, and exposure to clean air and sunlight. The disease may lurk therein for years, otherwise. Or in the wood of bedsteads, the stuffing of a mattress… there are many ways for the daemons of this illness to wait like leopards waiting for prey by a waterhole.”
Alantethol laughed aloud. “Then let the blankets of those who had the sickness be preserved, in a dark warm place,” he said. “If any chief is stubborn, we will send him a gift — a gift of good wool blankets.”
The healer’s laughter echoed his own. “A jest fit for the Jester, lord,” she said. “So Arucuttag inspires the captains He favors in cunning trickery; in killing by stealth and by bold manslaying.”
She withdrew with another bow, and Alantethol sprang up from behind his desk — the Eagle People word came so naturally now that he did feel any jar in the rhythm of his thoughts — and paced. The King would be highly pleased if he increased the profits of the settlement without demanding expensive trade goods brought the long weary dangerous distance from the homeland — voyages took a hundred days and a score even when the winds were favorable, sometimes half as much again. The King would behighly pleased…
No, this is not important enough for the magic talker, not in time of war. I will send the report with the next shipment, in code. Scarcely needed, given the odds of encountering an Islander vessel, but the Tartessians needed no teaching from the Eagle People in the difference between bravery and carelessness.
Yes, the King will be very pleased. We need the quicksilver from this land badly, until the mountains at home are thoroughly pacified, and gold is always good.
He stopped at a redwood sideboard and poured himself a measured dollop of brandy, looking out the open shutters — even the commander’s house did not rate window-glass yet; the very goblet in his hand was a sign of privilege and luxury. Yet also a sign of how far the Kingdom had come; ten years before it would have been an unimaginable extravagance even at Pharaoh’s court. The only glass in Tartessos then had been beads.
Yes, the King is as fierce as a lion, but also as cunning and stealthy as a ferret, Alantethol thought with whole-hearted admiration. You could tell that he had spent his young manhood as a merchant, not lolling in a palace.
Where better to hide a secret such as this than on the other side of the Eagle People’s own continent? And within that wisdom, more wisdom to put it here so far from the sea. And to arrange that the supply ships remain offshore, sending in a boat to work upriver to set the rendevous.
If a single Islander ship did put in at the great bay where the river flowed into the western ocean, or even one did in every year, they would see nothing except in the fantastically unlikely happenstance that they came at just the same time as the meeting between the Hidden Fort’s barge and the Tartessian vessel… and how likely were they to come far inland, up that river and its northern tributary? Here he was midway between the gold of the mountains and the cinnabar ore of the coast ranges. Cinnebar, that precious stuff so necessary to make the newest of the new weapons, and to refining ore, and to trade with Great Achaea for powerful cannon.
He finished the brandy, relishing the bite of the spirits and the cold fire running down to his belly, but he was reluctant to return to the papers and legers just now. A thought tugged at him — ah. He must fulfill his oath to Arucuttag, and soon. No man was lucky who stole from the Gods, particularly that God. He would go down to the pens, and select the sacrifice.
Ranger Peter Giernas of the First Trans-Continental Expedition raised his bow, exhaling softly as he did. The arrow slid smoothly back through the centerline cutout of the weapon, wood and horn and sinew creaking slightly.
Cool morning air stroked his skin, throwing the shadows of the tall ponderosa pines behind him out onto the intense fresh spring green of the grass, starred with orange California poppies, cream-colored pasques, pink bunchberry, lavender waterleaf, golden asters, like a living Persian carpet swaying waist-high. The sappy resin scent of the pines was strong, mixed with minty yerba buena, his own smells of woodsmoke and leather, and a hint of snow and rock from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada behind him.
The elk in the mountain meadow before him raised their heads, ears flicking and jaws working as they glanced around, a few raising dripping muzzles from the little stream that ran through it. They were big reddish-brown beasts like scaled-up deer, with a pale yellowish patch on the rump and small white tails. The males had shed their antlers a while ago — it was late spring now, he thought the last part of May — but they were bigger, with shaggy chestnut-brown hair on their necks like a short mane.
About thirty, he thought.
No old bulls, it was too early in the season for them to stake out breeding territories, this spring of the Year Eleven. A round dozen cows with their calves, some of them new-borns, none more than a month or two, coming around to butt at their dams’ udders or frolicking clumsily. And the ones he was interested in, adolescents of a year or two.
The whole herd was alert now, looking up into the wind from the west and away from him. Then a bristling gray-brown shape burst out of the cover at the far end of the oblong meadow, followed by two more. They seemed a whole pack as they leapt the stream in flying wings of spray and dashed about, growling, lunging, barking. The elk milled backward in dismay amid high-pitched squeals of alarm from the calves, sharp barking sounds from the cows. They faced the dogs for a moment, waiting for a rush that did not come, then turned about and surged through the flower-starred grass that came nearly to their chests, their heads thrown high and eyes wide with alarm. The pace was more a fast walk than a run, though, and the predators made no effort to close or even to cut out a calf, nipping at heels instead. One of the smaller, younger canines rolled over yelping when a cow’s hind hoof caught it in the ribs with a painful, audible thump.
“Nice job, Perks,” Giernas muttered, rising smoothly from his crouch as the herd slowed; they were more confused than frightened.
The bowstring came back to brush the angle of his jaw, and the triple-bladed steel head rested above his thumb. The elk had no time to react to his presence before he loosed, and the arrow was a long arcing streak that ended just behind the shoulder of a two-year-old cow. He could hear the meaty thwack of impact, and the animal staggered, ran half a dozen paces, then collapsed with frothy blood pouring out of its nose. The herd scattered in genuine panic, the more so as the dogs abandoned their driving tactics and bored in, bellies to the ground, moving like blurred streaks with teeth. Giernas laid down his weapon and ran forward himself, drawing the long Seahaven bowie from its sheath along his right calf. He bounded past the elk he’d shot; that one was clearly dying fast. The dogs had another, a yearling cow; one gripped its nose, another a hind leg. The third, largest, had the neck, but it released its hold and backed away as Giernas came up. The man dodged a flailing forelimb, got his left arm around the animal’s neck and neatly slit the hairy throat with a looping motion of his knife before leaping back.
The elk collapsed to its knees, then to its side, kicked, voided and died. One of the dogs moved in and made as if to bite at the invitingly pale stomach; its bigger companion shouldered it away and gave a warning slash of fangs that didn’t quite connect, to remind it that the humans had precedence.
“Good boy, Perks,” Giernas said.
The dog was a wolf-mastiff hybrid six years old, huge-jawed and massive in a rangy long-limbed fashion; four parallel grooves down the right side of his muzzle and a tattered ear marked an indiscretion with a cougar.
And some of the other marks are from knives and spears, but nobody’s done it twice, he thought.
The Ranger had been training Perks since puppyhood, and the dog had walked all the way from the east coast with the expedition. Right now he gave a canine grin, then settled in to lap at the blood pooling around the elk’s throat.
Giernas turned and waved before stabbing his knife into the ground, then wiping it; on a handful of grass and carefully again on the hem of his buckskin hunting shirt before resheathing it. You had to be careful about that; if blood got under the tang it could start rusting pretty fast and then snap on you at an awkward moment. As he turned he was blinded for a moment by the sun rising over the salt-white peaks of the mountains; he flung up his hand against the light, grinning and waving a hand in a beckoning gesture.
Giernas was a big young man in his twenty-second year, deep-chested and long-limbed. The knife-cropped mop of ash-blond hair on his head was faded with sun-streaks, his close-cut beard a lighter yellow with hints of orange; his eyes were pale gray in a high-cheeked, short-nosed face tanned to the color of oakwood and roughened by exposure in all weathers.
Sue Chau led the three horses out from under the trees where she’d been on bear-watch. Like him she was dressed in worn, patched deerskin leggings, moccasins and long hide shirt cinched with a broad belt that bore cartridge-box, flask of priming-powder, knife, and a tomahawk thrust through a loop at the small of her back. Her hair was long and jet-black, eyes tilted and a cool blue; her father had been Eurasian, Saigon-Chinese crossed with Ozark-Scots-Irish, and her mother French-Canadian from a Massachusetts milltown.
In the crook of her left arm she carried a Westley-Richards flintlock rifle, and despite the friendly grin that answered his her eyes kept up their continual scan. There were a number of unfriendly creatures in these woods on the western slope of the Sierras. Locals sometimes; most tribes and bands were eagerly hospitable to the fascinating strangers, but fear or unwitting violation of some taboo or simple human cussedness could make trouble. Wolves and cougars weren’t likely to be much of a problem unless it was midwinter and they were very hungry, but Old Ep — the big silvertip grizzlies that swarmed here in the Year 11 — could be. The giant omnivores were appallingly numerous, they had little fear of man in an era of stone-tipped spears, and they’d far rather steal someone else’s kill than take the effort to hunt for themselves. If a ton of ursine bad temper came along, he wanted something more than a bow to deal with it, and to hell with wasting ammunition.
“Good-looking beasts, Pete,” Sue said, giving the dead animals an expert once-over. “They’ll dress out at a hundred, hundred and fifty pounds each, easy.”
“Ayup,” he said. “Tender, too, and they had time to fatten on this new grass.”
The two Nantucketers set to work with a silent, easy teamwork born of twenty months shared experience in everything from running battles to crossing rivers in flood. Each unlooped a rawhide lariat, snubbed it to a saddle-horn and used it to haul the elk to the edge of the woods. A convenient black oak stood there with a branch at just the right twelve-foot height; its spring leaves were tipped with fuschia and pale rose, long gold-green pollen-laden catkins hanging down from the branches. Giernas took his own rifle from the saddle-scabbard, checked the priming, and leaned it within convenient reach. Then they ran a thong between the hind legbone and tendon of each elk, threw it over the branch and used the horses to haul the beasts upward until their heads hung at knee-height. That made the messy task of breaking the kills easier; they both moved their firearms as they worked, never leaving them more than a step and a snatch away
“I hate it when I have to butcher on the flat,” he said, drawing his skinning knife from the belt-sheath rather than the bowie — for this work a five-inch slightly curved blade was best. He tested his by shaving a patch of hair from his forearm, then put his tomahawk within easy reach by flicking it into the oak tree at chest-height.
The clear thock of steel in wood echoed across the meadow… for the first time ever, he thought with an edge of wonder that never quite faded.
“The meat never drains really good if it isn’t hung up,” Sue agreed. “Always spoils faster. Borrow your hone for a second?”
She spat on the stone and scoured a finer edge onto her knife; for butchering it was better to use a soft low-carbon steel and resharpen often. They stripped to their breechclouts before they made the first long cuts from anus to neck, and they would have shed those too, if it hadn’t been for the extreme difficulty of getting blood out of pubic hair in a soapless wash. The dogs waited, sitting panting with their tails thumping the forest floor, then falling on their portions — stomach, gut, head — with happy abandon. The major bones and the spines were chopped out with tomahawks and discarded save for a few kept to roast for the marrow; Giernas took a moment to crack the skulls so that the dogs could get at the brains, since they weren’t going to take time to tan the skins with them.
A little less than an hour later the two elk were reduced to bundles of hide wrapped around the ribs, haunches, loin, heart, tongue, sweetbreads, kidney and liver and lashed tight with lengths of tendon. The Rangers carefully rolled up the broad white stripes of sinew that lay beneath the spine; it was useful for a dozen things, from bowmaking to sewing. After that they took a moment to strip off their breechclouts and wade into the stream, scrubbing each other down with handfulls of silver sand, squatting to work their hair clean and then standing hastily. This river was so clear that it was nearly invisible where the surface was calm, but it was cold, running down from snowmelt and glaciers.
“All clean,” Giernas said, resting his chin on Sue’s head and hugging her back to him with thick-muscled arms, very pale under their thatch of golden hair where the sun hadn’t reached; she was five-seven, which made his six-one just the right height for that. His hands roved. “And since we’ve been good doobies and worked real hard…”
Sue laughed, stirred her rump tantalizingly against him, then broke away. “You’re that anxious to get a grizzly’s teeth in your ass at a strategic moment?” she laughed. “Movement attracts their eyes, you know.”
“Ah, Sue, we don’t have to actually lie down, it’s such a beautiful morning, wonderful time for it…”
The young woman paused on the riverbank, hands on her hips and head cocked to one side. “Tell me something, Pete,” she said. “I’ve heard you use that line while we were holed up in a cave with a blizzard outside and no firewood –”
“Hell,” he said, his tone slightly hurt. “I said it would keep us warm, that time. It did, too.”
“…in tents while it was raining, on days hot enough to melt lead, and one time when we hadn’t had anything to eat but grass soup for three days… so we’d forget about how hungry we were, you said. So tell me something… is there any time you don’t think is just a peachy-keen wonderful time to fuck?”
“Hmmm.” Giernas pulled his face into a heavy pondering frown and stroked his chin in thought. “Now that you mention it… no.”
Sue kicked a strategically aimed splash of ice-cold water before she turned and walked back towards their clothes. Giernas yelped, swore, and waded ashore laughing, scooping up his rifle and belt from the edge of the brook. They tied on fresh breechclouts; that was simple enough, you wound a loop of the soft supple hide around your waist, then pulled a length up between your legs and tucked in through in front. And the good thing is you can just throw away the old one when it gets too smelly to try washing anymore. The bad was that soft doeskin wasn’t easy to come by.
Then they pulled on their hip-high leggings, tied them to the waistband portion of their breechclouts, shrugged into the buckskin hunting shirts, a little cold and clammy from resting on dew-wet bushes, belted on their gear, loaded their horses with the meat and set off upstream. Giernas carried his rifle now; the bow was back on the saddle, with the quiver. He used it to hunt, saving the precious cartridges and powder, but they weren’t hunting now. What he was worried about now was things trying to hunt them; the red-oozing bundles of elk meat were perfect bear-bait
“Perks, guard,” Giernas said as they set out, rifles in the crooks of their left arms and leading-reins in their right.
The wolf-dog was pleasantly full and plainly regarded it as time to do the sensible thing and curl up in the sun to doze, but he didn’t need telling twice. A heavy sigh, and the gray shape slipped into the underbrush, moving ahead and to the flanks. The younger pair of dogs followed their sire obediently; Giernas was the alpha of their pack, but Perks ran a close second.
Seen that often enough, Giernas thought — a punishing nip on the nose, or a brief wrestle that ended with an uppity youngster on his or her back, throat caught in a warning grip. With Perks around we’ve got discipline, by God.
The camp was half an hour’s brisk walk away, in a meadow much like the one they’d found the elk in. They hadn’t bothered to set up a tent last night, no need when they had good fires and sleeping bags lined with wolverine fur. He scrambled up up a rise a half-mile away and pulled out his binoculars. The others had the equipment packed and on the horses, all but one of the fires extinguished and buried, their rubbish likewise. Dogs milled around, woofing in excitement at the preparations for a journey into new country.
“Everyone looks ready, except for…”
“Eddie. Bet he’s waiting up for us?” Sue said.
“Do bears shit in the woods?” Giernas said, looping the reins up over Kicker’s saddle.
In his opinion horses were idiots every one, even by grazing-beast standards, but if you kept at them long enough they could learn. The horse rolled an eye at him, then kept moving stolidly up their own back-trail. The others, as was the nature of the tribe, followed the leader.
The humans split up, moving soundlessly into the shadows of the trees, flitting from one trunk to the next. Nothing… but after a moment Giernas caught a familiar sight; Perks frozen still as a statue, with his nose pointing to a big sugar pine. He moved behind the one at his back and poked the muzzle of his rifle around it.
“Peek, I see you,” he called out. Playing ambush kept you on your toes. So far he was one five-gallon barrel of beer up on points, and when they got back to Nantucket he intended to collect. “Hi, Eddie. You’re dead.”
“It’s a draw!” a man’s voice said from behind the tree, aggrieved.
“No it isn’t,” Sue’s replied… from behind him.
Eddie Vergeraxsson stepped around the pine, shaking his head and glaring at Perks. “Not fair, when you two’ve got a werewolf working for you,” he said.
Not entirely in jest — the slender hazel-eyed man with the queue of brown hair was a Zarthani chief’s son from Alba, brought over to Nantucket as a hostage/pupil after the Alban War. He’d been a citizen of the Republic for years, but that didn’t mean he thought entirely like an Islander born. He’d spent his teens in the Republic, and decided he liked being a Ranger more than being heir to the rahax of a Sun People tribe in what a later age would have called Kent.
“Hi, Sue,” he went on. “Hey, couple of elk, eka? I’ll get it on the pack-horses.”
Not entirely a bad thing that he still thinks a little like a charioteer down deep, Giernas thought. Eddie had a bad case of what some of the older generation on Nantucket called the Spanish Toothache, particularly during his frequent quarrels with Jaditwara, but there wouldn’t be any trouble over Sue. As far as he’s concerned, I’m his chieftain and she’s my woman and that’s it.
Another woman ran over to him as they walked into the clearing and threw herself into his arms. He grinned, clasped her to him with his left arm and swung her around until she squealed with glee and her blue-black braids flung out like banners. Spring Indigo was a full foot shorter than his six-one, her skin a bronze-brown-amber color, with a roundly pretty snub-nosed slant-eyed face. She was halfway to stocky… but I have absolutely no complaints about that figure, nosireee. Plenty to grab in all the right places, with the suppleness natural to a nomad in her seventeenth year. Smart, too. She’d learned English fast, and was picking up her letters quickly.
“Husband!” she said.
Her mouth lingered on his, tasting of acorn-bread and berries. Her people didn’t do lip-kissing, but she’d decided it was a good idea, during their long trek from the tall-grass prairies near where Independence, Missouri would never be. She went on:
“You are the rising stars in the sky of my night! I am the moon to your sun! You are the greatest hunter in the world!”
“I must be; caught you, didn’t I?” he said, laughing down at her face. Some of the things she said sounded a bit funny in English, but he’d learned to translate the sense of the words. “I love you too, honey. How’s Jared?”
“Fed, changed and sleeping,” she said. “I think he may be starting to cut another tooth, poor thing.” She turned to Sue: “Sister!”
That was a direct translation of what a second wife called the first, among the Cloud Shadow People fifteen hundred miles to the east, accompanied by an enthusiastic embrace and kiss — most grown men in Spring Indigo’s tribe had more than one wife, because so many young men died early, hunting or in raids. Some things just worked out for the best, if you had luck. He seemed to have the keuthes where women were concerned, thank God.
Absolutely no way I was going to leave Indigo back there, with my kid. The expedition had rescued her people in the middle of a last, lost battle with enemies out to destroy them, and one of the Islanders had been injured badly enough that they decided to winter there. The Cloud Shadow tribe had a lot of amiable characteristics, one of which was that they really did believe in gratitude. The outsiders had spent the fall and winter and early spring with them, saviors for whom nothing was too good, teaching much and learning a great deal too; two of the Islanders had settled down with them for good — keeping a third of the horse-herd, among other things. Sometimes he wondered what would come of that, and of the other things Henry Morris and Dekkomonsu would show them.
They’re good people, Indigo’s folk, he thought; he’d considered staying himself. There were worse lives than being a hunter of the Cloud Shadow tribe. They were critically short of adult males, after their losing war, and they would have been overjoyed to make him their leader.
Yeah, I considered it for about fifteen minutes, until I finished listing all the reasons not to do it. First, no beer, ever again, he thought. Or hot showers, and the thought of never reading another book… Wilderness travel was great, if you could take some time out now and then. But it’s damned good luck Indigo and Sue hit it off so well. A small party in the wilderness had to stick together. When they got back to the Island… well, they’d see. The arrangement was unconventional, true, but his people were pretty good at minding their own damn business, most of them. Hmmm. Sue wants kids too…
Spring Indigo broke away and shoveled dirt over the last fire, then brought him and Sue their belated hunter’s breakfast, cakes of fresh acorn-bread and mountain trout grilled over the fire on a framework of green sticks, with a slab of bark for a plate. He squatted on his hams and ate, considering the day to come. Chuckling a little as his son Jared woke on his rabbitskin blanket — his diaper was more of the same, stuffed with soft moss — pulled himself erect, tottered two experimental steps, fell on his belly and made a four-legged beeline for Perks.
“Perks!” It came out sounding more like Pewks; the boy was still having trouble with “r”. “Perks!”
It was amazing what the great scarred mankiller thug of a dog would put up with, including yanks on his fur and tail and small chubby fingers poked in his ears. With no more than a look of pained resignation, or sometimes pinning the boy down with a paw and licking his face. He didn’t even get up and walk away unless it got unbearable. Not at all the way he acted with adult humans who took liberties.
“Come on, kwas’yain-daz, strong little warrior,” Spring Indigo said, scooping the toddler up. Young Jared screwed up his year-old face and reached back towards the dog. “Ai-a, this child thinks he is a puppy, that Perks is his uncle! When his time comes to be a man, he will dream wolf-dreams and travel the Other Country on four legs. His spirit animal will be the Wolf.”
“He could do worse,” Giernas said.
“Dada! Dada! Fly!”
The infant scowl changed to a smile, accompanied by babbling sounds that were almost words, in three languages, and he reached for his father instead of the dog. Mixed in were real words, also in three languages, of which his father spoke only one; they’d made a campfire game of keeping track of how many. The latest tally had thirty-two in English learned from the Rangers, four in Sue’s occasional Cantonese, and twenty-one in Cloud Shadow dialect — that was a pretty steep learning curve, the Ranger reflected proudly, from a solitary “momma” in his tenth month. Giernas took the child, snorting when small fingers grabbed at his nose and beard, and whirled him around to cries of fly! fly!. He fluttered his lips against the bare pale-amber skin of the boy’s stomach and then handed him back wiggling and squealing. Spring Indigo efficiently transferred him to a sling across her back, and he yawned and went to sleep with a sudden limp finality, his cheek pressed against the back of her neck, utterly relaxed in the warm comfort of contact with his mother’s back.
“He can ride in the horse-basket later.”
Giernas nodded. Hmm. We ought to make the next settlement by sundown. He splashed his face and hands with water from the stream and dried them on grass, took up his rifle, and walked to the head of the column. With the elk-meat for a gift.
Most of the bands hereabout were hospitable and friendly, but an excuse for a barbeque never hurt, in his experience. They could lie up there for a couple of days, fix their gear and trade for some more acorn-flour, and then another week ought to bring them down into the lowlands and nearly to the coast. If he’d calculated rightly, there ought to be an Islander ship down on the coast of Peru trading for cotton and saltpeter about now; if the radio hadn’t gone on the fritz, they could have called — but it would check in at San Francisco Bay anyway. Once a year in spring, starting last year and continuing for four more, if there was no word. His eyes went to the pack-horses. One of them carried that equipment; there might be useable parts, irreplaceable pre-Event stuff, so they had to lug it along. Others bore carefully-prepared hide sacks, ready to be filled by panning the foothill streams near what the pre-Event maps called Sutter’s Mill. He didn’t intend to be greedy; just four… or five or six… or maybe a dozen… horseloads of two hundred pounds each. Enough to pay for the expedition, the way he’d promised the Chief, and enough to give everyone who returned a good solid grubstake; that had been attractive before, and doubly so now that he wasn’t a bachelor any more.
The doing, though, the doing, that was the thing…
The things we’ve seen and learned. My journal, Jaditwara’s sketches, Sue’s botanical stuff, the plants and animal specimens — He’d stood in one place on a knoll and rough-counted ten million buffalo going by, once. A single passenger-pigeon flock of a million and a half, crossing the Ohio…
The fourth member of the expedition was sitting cross-legged and leaning against a tree, sketching with charcoal on a flat piece of white pinewood. Their local guide, Tidtaway, stood a little way away from her, posing.
At least we actually know he’s called Tidtaway now. Since he’d been visiting them for months in their winter camp and travelling with them for weeks. The name probably translated as something like ‘Quick Tongue’.
Half the time they could’t be sure if what a local said when he tapped his chest was really a name, or meant something like ‘That’s me,’ or ‘I am your guide’, or ‘Hi, and who are you?” or ‘Wow! Funny-looking foreigners sitting on weird deer-like creatures!’
Or a phrase might be the name of his tribe or clan or whatever they had… just as the ‘names’ of local features might mean ‘that’s a lake’ or ‘why are you pointing at the mountain?’. It was frustrating, not being able to stay in one spot long enough to get past gestures, grunts and a few elementary words. But there were so many languages here, sometimes changing from one little band to the next, particularly up in the mountains; they’d barely got to an elementary-conversation level with Tidtaway. The Ranger thought that the guide’s tongue might be ancestral to the Penutian family of languages, but he couldn’t be sure; the sources on the Island had been frustratingly general, just the references from the Athenaeum and some private collections, and he himself was no scholar. He wished it had been practical to bring one of the pre-Event tape recorders along, so that students back on the Island could hear the actual sounds.
The Indian was a short dark man, muscluar and strong, with an engaging smile showing a gap in his white teeth. Giernas suspected it was something of a salesman’s smile; certainly Tidtaway had been trying to bargain with the strangers from the moment they arrived, and hadn’t stopped since they decided to winter near his band last fall.
Jaditwara of the Teluko lineage of the Fiernan Boholugi finished the drawing and shook back her long yellow mane, slipping on a beaded headband she’d gotten in trade for another drawing six months before, and picking up her rifle. Giernas chuckled silently to himself; among other things, the guide had tried to buy Jaditwara with three strings of oyster-shell beads, a volcanic-glass pendant and a bundle of wolverine pelts. Now he exclaimed in wonder at the drawing, wrapped it carefully between two pieces of bark secured with thongs, and added it to his bedroll — a large woven mat that also served as a poncho or cloak at need, rolled into a tube with a bearskin lashed around it. The lashings also held one of the grooved throwing-sticks with a hook at the end the Aztecs had called — would have called — an atlatl, and four feathered darts for it with wickedly sharp obsidian points that must have come from far away in trade. For the rest he wore sandals, a breechclout with panels falling fore and aft, and a belt that carried a steel trade knife and a stone-headed hatchet; his hair felt to the shoulders, confined by a headband sewn with plaques of bone.
“Let’s go,” Giernas said.
Tidtaway picked up a quiver of arrows and a short recurve bow; that had been a major part of his pay, that and showing him how to make and repair and use it. He trotted up to take point with the Islander leader, making a respectful circuit around Perks, who didn’t like him. Eddie fell back to walk rearguard; Jaditwara led the horses, all travelling single-file. After the first mile or so Spring Indigo judged Jared asleep enough and transferred him to a fur-lined wicker basket on one of the pack saddles. It was shaped like a recliner version of a child’s car safety seat, complete with leather crossbelts; versions of it had held the boy for better than two thousand miles of travel. She shrugged into a haversack arrangement that put another open-mouthed basket on her back and ranged alongside the pathway with a digging-stick, stopping now and then to collect a handful of clover or bulbs, or early flowers gone to seed, and toss them over her shoulder. When she saw something unfamiliar she’d call Sue over, and the handy little Field Guide to Western Plants would come out. Once or twice what they saw wasn’t listed at all, and a specimen would be carefully transferred to the drying press. The only problem were the colts, who had a tendency to wander and dash about. When Jared woke up, he’d point and say dis? dis?, his current all-purpose word for ‘information, please’.
The pace was easy enough, easier on the humans than pack animals still a little out of condition from winter idleness; all the Rangers were in hard good shape, and he’d found that Spring Indigo could walk any of them tired. If it weren’t for the needs of a nursing infant they could have made the west coast before snowfall last.
But we did have Jared along, and weren’t in a hurry, he thought.
They’d taken the crossing of the Plains in slow stages and made frequent long stops at campsites with good water and game, particularly when they got up into the high basin desert country of Nevada. It had been late September by the time they reached the Tahoe country, far too late to risk the Donner Pass route. Yet still plenty of time to build good tight log cabins, cut meadow hay for the horses and lay up supplies to supplement the horse-loads of bison jerky from the shortgrass plains. They’d discovered that there were few things that ate as well a fat autumn grizzly weighing in around half a ton — if you were carefully unsporting about shooting from a place they couldn’t get at –and the brain-tanned pelts made superb coats and blankets.
He smiled reminiscently; they’d also made skis, which had been fun and had impressed the hell out of the surrounding tribes, visited far and wide to trade or for feasts and ceremonies and study, hunted, chopped holes in the ice of streams and lakes to fish, spent hours cutting wood and hauling it on improvised sleds, sometimes had mammoth day-long games of snowball ambush. Periods when they were snowbound with week-long blizzards outside were spent resting, catching up on their notes and journals and specimen collections, playing with Jared and whittling toys for him, mending gear, entertaining visiting tribesfolk, singing, storytelling, playing chess, making love… not a bad winter, all in all. They’d all been glad for spring and snowmelt, though.
Today the path lay westwards and downwards, through pine-forest and meadow, with an increasing share of black oak as they dropped, and then an occasional blue oak as well. The mountains still stood snow-fanged at their backs, but now and then the way ahead gave a clear view, and he could see down and west towards the green-gold foothills and the long blue line of forest along the rivers of the Sacramento valley. The stream whose course they were more-or-less following bawled and leapt to his right, and sometimes the foot-trail was close enough that drifts of spray came through the thick growth of ferns and drifted across their faces. Near a stand of sequoia they stopped for lunch — grilled elk-liver and kindeys, wild onions, and more of the acorn-meal bannocks.
“God, but this is pretty country,” Giernas said, looking up into the swaying tops two hundred and fifty feet above and breathing in the cool scented air of their shadow. The thick straight ruddy-brown trunks of the grove were thirty feet around and more; he knew, because Sue had gotten out her measuring rope and sampled half a dozen. Above a pair of condors wheeled, winged majesty, their unmoving pinions spreading the width of a Coast Guard ultralight as they rode the foothill thermals.
“Rich, too,” Eddie mused, biting the last of a kidney off a stick and then prying at a fragment between two teeth with a fingernail. “And I don’t mean the gold; gold is good, but you can’t eat it or ride it. This would be a stockman’s paradise, and it’s getting better as we get lower. Even better than the plains east of the mountains, more sheltered, not so cold in winter — wonderful, wonderful, wonderful grass, Hepkwonsa hear my word. The horses are putting on flesh, even as hard as we’re working them.”
Giernas snorted. “You know, back when I was a kid, before the Event, I read about a party coming west — this was long before my time, a hundred and fifty years — who starved near where we wintered.”
“In the Donner Pass?”
“Yeah, the place was named for them. The Donner Party.” Donner, party of sixty-seven, your table’s ready, he quoted to himself; it would take too much effort to explain it to the ex-Alban.
Eddie looked baffled. “Starved? Even in deep-snow winter… that would be like starving in a stock-pen.”
“Natural-born damned fools can do that anywhere –”
They shot to their feet at the dogs’ baying and Tidtaway’s shout, wheeling and crouching. The horses began to snort and back, working their feet against the picket-ropes and hobbles. Giernas snatched up his rifle and thumbed back the hammer; the others did likewise, except for Spring Indigo, who grabbed a Seahaven crossbow they had along, with a bow made from a cut-down car spring. He’d adjusted the stock for her smaller arms. The pawl-and-ratchet cocking lever built into the forestock was easy to handle, and since bolts were reuseable she’d practiced enough to be a clout shot. She pumped it six times and slotted a short thick bolt into the groove, moving with businesslike dispatch.
“Old Ep, sure enough,” Giernas said grimly. “Perks, Saule, Ausra — back and watch! Stand!”
The hump-backed bear walked into the open shade of the great trees with a shambling arrogance, his silvertipped cinnamon hide moving on the great bones like a loosely-fastened rug. The big dished muzzle lifted, sampling the air with its strange, tantalizing smell of cooking meat and undertone of raw bloody flesh, and then he reared to his full twelve feet of height with a grumbling bellow.
Four .40 bullets and a crossbow bolt designed to punch through armor might be enough to take him down; or they could just make him very, very angry, and they could well lose a horse, or see someone badly hurt. Since there was very little apart from another grizzly that could meet a charge Old Ep didn’t have much of a run-away-when-hurt reflex. Ripping, tearing and squashing whatever hurt them into red goo was more their style. Giernas swallowed past a dry mouth, watching the bear, watching his reaction to the unfamiliar scents and sounds, to the three dogs making little snarling rushes and bouncing about just out of range of the piledriver paws. Sometimes grizzlies ran a wolf-pack off its kill…
Dane Sweet ought to see this, he thought. Hell, we’re the endangered species, hereabouts.
“I don’t think he’s angry, just curious,” he said firmly. “We’ll try and see him off. Jaditwara, you and I’ll fire over his head. Everyone else, yell. Sue, Eddie, Indigo, keep him covered.”
The shots blasted out, with jets of off-white sulphur-smelling smoke from the rifles. The butt thumped his shoulder with a familiar blow. Giernas’ hand went to the knob on the top of the rifle’s stock, pulled it up and the lever with it, and the brass plunger attached to the underside that filled the breech. That was blocked by the greased wad from the base of the nitrated paper cartridge, designed to seal the action against the backblast of hot gas; he dropped a fresh round into the slot and pushed it forward with his thumb, driving the spent wad ahead of it. A quick slap of the hand brought the lever back down; he pulled the hammer back to half-cock, brought the priming-flask up and thumbed the catch to drop a measured pinch of fine-grained powder into the pan, used the flask-head to knock the frizzen back to cover it, then dropped it to dangle on its shoulder cord while he brought the weapon to full cock.
That all took ten seconds, the fruit of endless practice. Meanwhile he could see and hear the others yell, jump, howl, shriek. The bear started violently at the hammer noise of the firearms, and more at the unfamiliar scent of burnt powder, falling to all fours and roaring with wide-stretched mouth, showing long wet yellow teeth in a pink cavern of mouth.
Tidtaway surprised him, turning to snatch the ends of burning sticks from the campfire in both hands. Whipping them into flame he ran forward, waving them aloft and screeching. Bears were afraid of fire. It began to back up, waving its dish-faced head from side to side on the long snakey neck.
“Sue, Eddie, more shots in the air,” Giernas shouted, keeping the bear’s right foreleg in his sights — he was pretty certain of breaking the bone, there.
Crack. Crack. A frenzy of reloading.
The grizzly flinched, and Tidtaway ran toward it, throwing a burning stick pinwheeling through the air. It landed in dry pine-duff not far from the animal. Sparks flew out, caught, and turned into crackling fire and smoke. The bear visibly decided that food wasn’t worth all this trouble no matter how good it smelled and turned, hurrying away with a shambling pacing gate that covered ground faster than a man could run, then breaking into a slow gallop, complaining gutturally. Giernas worked his mouth, whistled on the second attempt. The dogs halted, despite the almost irresistable attraction of the retreating grizzly’s rump; the last thing they needed now was the bear enraged by a mouthfull of fangs in the ass.
“I must be getting old,” Giernas muttered. “I’m learning to leave well enough alone.”
And the adventures had been a lot more carefree before Jared was born. Not just the danger of the child being injured, first and foremost and bad though that was. He found himself worrying about getting injured or killed himself and not being there to protect his son. If it hadn’t been for good friends who he knew would pitch in, it would have taken all the fun out of things.
Eddie came up, laughing as he eased the hammer of his rifle back to half-cock, the safety position. “Pete, that was one beautiful rug we lost there. Did you see the size of him! That hide would cover enough ground to plant barley, brew beer from it and get drunk on it. Perfect for in front of the fire in the place I’m going to build back home on Long Island.”
That was Eddie’s particular dream, land of his own and fat herds and tall horses and strong sons; in that, he was still Zarthani. When the gold was in the saddlebags he could do it, and quickly, although Giernas suspected he’d be bored. The other Ranger went on:
“And after I’d told her how I killed the beast single-handed as it charged, roaring like thunder, what girl could resist getting laid on it?”
Sue came up beside him. “Plenty, when they saw the scars where your face used to be before the bear ate it,” she said dryly. “You’re going to raise horses, so use a horsehide rug.”
He glared at her for an instant, genuine horror in his look. “Kill a horse to make a rug? Are you crazy or…” He caught the half-wink she gave Giernas. “Oh, the Lady of the Horses give you both arse-boils and bleeding piles, you scoffers!”
She shook her head as he stamped off, still taking the name of Hepkwonsa in vain; however assimilated in other ways he remained an obstinate pagan, convinced that Christian scorn for his tribe’s ancestral gods was both blasphemy and likely to bring bad luck to boot, at least for him personally. Sue enjoyed ribbing him about it occasionally, and it usually stayed good-humored enough.
“Let’s get moving, people,” Giernas called, in what he thought of privately as his head-of-the-expedition voice. He chopped his right hand westward and downslope. “Yo!”
Tidtaway resumed his position after they’d extinguished the fire with earth and water, and the party passed through a rocky field of boulders, over a ridgeback, down further on the westward path…
“Good, with the fire sticks,” Giernas said, in what he hoped was the guide’s language. He spoke Lekkansu fluently, the tongue of the tribes who lived along the New England coast near Nantucket. That had about as much relation to the languages hereabouts as English did to Babylonian. “Strong heart.” He thumped the fist of his free right hand on his hunting-shirt. ‘Guts’ didn’t usually translate well.
Tidtaway shrugged. “Bears… with long time,” he said, in atrociously accented English, and held his own hand out at waist level.
I think he means he grew up around ’em, Giernas decided. Since he was knee-high to a hopper.
The Ranger nodded; the smaller black bears were worth treating with respect, but these Western silvertips were a lot bigger and meaner. Most of the time they’d leave you alone unless you provoked them. Then again, they might suddenly decide you were edible, or just slap out at you like a man at a fly.
He snorted softly. The Lost Geezers, the way they talked about animals… Hell, I like animals. Wouldn’t want to be in a place where they were scarce. But Jesus, they’re not all little fluffy bunnies that’ll die if you think mean thoughts! Time to get to business, though.
He pointed westwards. “Your friends?” he said.
Tidtaway looked around at the landscape, then up at the sun that was sinking before them, throwing beams and trickles of moving light through the branches of the pines and black oaks. When he spoke, Giernas sighed and gestured to him to slow down. After half an hour, he judged he’d gotten a confirmation of previous conversations, if they weren’t just misunderstanding each other in the same way every time. The band ahead weren’t of Tidtaway’s people, and didn’t speak his language although it was related to his. But he’d visited years ago to trade obsidian and quartz for shells and salt, and he spoke their tongue a little, and they were hospitable to traders and travellers.
Hmmmm. Tidtaway’s getting to the edge of his useful range. Should we give him his stuff and pick up another guide for the rest of the way to the coast, or just pay him off and wing it?
The trail was widening, and they were in the real foothills now, growing less rocky and steep as the land flattened. The Indian looked around, increasingly puzzled.
“Where people? See hunter here, see woman here — crazy, where people?” he bust out at last, then a long sentence in his own language, and back to English: “Bullshit, man. Fuckin’ bullshit.”
They crested a rise and looked down into a valley bright-green with spring grass, streaked with orange-yellow drifts of California poppies. It was broad, opening out to the west into the Sacramento plain, with a river fringed by big live-oaks rushing over rocks to their right, falling to a pool and then meandering down the middle of it. Here and there it spread out in shallows that reflected blue from the cloudless sky overhead, lanced with tule rushes, great flights of wildfowl taking off and landing as he watched. The hills to either side were low and smooth, open savanna studded with round-topped trees, huge valley oak lower down and black oak on the summits. He unlimbered his precious pre-Event binoculars and scanned; at the far western edge of the valley he could see a herd of pronghorn antelope cantering, a hundred or so of them.
Wait a minute, he thought. There’s plenty of game here, and all, but they shouldn’t be that close to a lair of humans. H. sapiens was the top predator in any area, even one infested with grizzlies. Game should be a little wary, at least.
The glasses swept back to the Indian settlement in mid-valley. There were ten dwellings built amid the valley oaks for shade and shelter, circular domed huts of overlapping reed bundles bound on bentwood frames, with low doors closed by hide curtains on the southern side and smokeholes at the tops. Fairly small dwellings, six to twelve feet in diameter, easy to throw up in a few hours — the inhabitants would probably move on a set round with the warmer seasons, and shift these semi-permanent winter quarters whenever the surroundings got too noisesome. One hut was larger, and thickly plastered with clay over the reeds; probably a sweat-house. The site was a good one, dry even during the winter rains but near good drinking water and fishing, with marshes for wildfowl, grassland for elk and mule deer and antelope, and it looked to be good gathering country too. Certainly there were a clutch of acorn grainaries, like huge man-tall baskets woven around stout poles at their corners.
Where the hell are the people, though? There ought to be fifty or sixty in this band, from the buildings. Women grinding acorns, cooking, weaving baskets, out in the land about gathering fresh spring greens; men toolmaking, hunting, working on hides; both sexes teaching older kids by demonstration; younger children running about at simple chores or play. There isn’t even any smoke, goddamit. Locals never let all their fires go out — it was taboo, and just too much of a pain in the ass to relight, when all you had was a hand-drill. They couldn’t all have gone up into the Sierras already, it wasn’t quite the season, and even then some of the older folks would remain at the winter base to look after their stuff.
“Doesn’t look right,” he said, and handed the binoculars to the guide.
Tidtaway was worried too; he simply took the binoculars and used them, without any of the usual fulsome wondering admiration. Among his people, if you praised something highly the owner had to give it to you. He still had trouble really believing that Nantucketers didn’t operate that way.
“Nobody,” he said after a moment.
“War?” Giernas asked. Not likely, but…
Tidtaway made a gesture of negation, tossing his head, then remembered to shake it in the manner of Western civilization.
“War, kill one man one time, steal one woman one time out alone. Not whole bunch. Nobody here.” His face screwed up in bewilderment.
You look just how I feel, Giernas thought. A suspicion moved below the surface of his mind… No. Not here. That’s impossible.
“Sue, you come with me,” he said. “Eddie –” he unhooked the binocular case and handed it over. “You’re in charge here; keep watch. One shot for come running with fangs out and hair on fire, two for danger and stay put, three for run like hell. Perks, heel! Saule, Ausra, stay.”
The three of them set out at a steady loping wolf-trot, slowing a little as they came down into the valley flat. Giernas kept his eyes moving; there was nothing except the usual bugs and birds, grasshoppers starting up from his feet, a flight of butterflies, small animals; once a startled cougar standing on a rock that took one look at them and fled. The wind was steady at his back as they approached the Indian settlement.
Perks had been loping not far ahead with his usual casual alertness, panting a bit as the day grew hotter. Now he reeled in his tongue, slowed, stopped and stood stiff-legged, growling slightly, the thick ruff of fur around his shoulders and neck bristling. Giernas stopped himself, flinging up a hand, conscious of more sweat running down his face and flanks than a mere couple of miles run on a spring day should have brought.
“I’m going in alone,” he said slowly. Sue cut off her protest at the chopping gesture he made. “Tidtaway, wait here. Same signals.”
The Ranger walked forward, rifle in his hands — although he had a sickening suspicion that there was nothing ahead that a bullet could protect him from. Even against the wind, the oily-sweet stink of corruption warned him at ten or twenty yards out, and the buzzing of innumerable flies. He swallowed, clenched teeth, made himself move forward at a cautious gliding walk. The first body lay in the shadow of one of the great oaks, feet pointing at one hut and head at another. Small scavengers had been at it, and the flesh seethed with maggots, but from the dress — skirt of raven feathers, wand with a ruff of eagle feathers, elaborate head-dress, necklace of bear claws centered on the skull of a falcon — this had been a shaman. He looked back along the trail; you could still see that the man had dragged himself along until he collapsed.
Probably trying everything he could to save his people, Giernas thought with a deep sadness underlain with anger. He slung the rifle over his back and moved through the settlement, careful to touch nothing. Many of the bodies were fresher than the dead shaman; he pushed his head into one hut, then another, forcing himself not to gag, looking closely.
“Jesus,” he said softly, then spat to clear his mouth of the cold gummy saliva of nausea. He raised his rifle, fired, reloaded, fired again.
Then he found an empty basket, tore it into strips, built a little teepee of dry branches, crouched over it with the firemaker from his belt-pouch, winding its spring and checking that the flint was fresh and unworn. When he thumbed the release catch the mechanism whirred and a torrent of sparks flashed into the pan with its dried tinder. He blew softly on it, then tipped it into the basket shreds and blew again, glad of a mindless familiar task that let him distance himself from what lay about. When the fire was well-set he put the ends of thick branches in it, then used more to move — scrape would have been a better term — all the remains outdoors into the huts. Then he set those on fire and stripped himself naked; everything went into the blaze that was not wood or metal, even the precious ammunition pouch and the sheaths of his weapons, even the leather sling of the rifle.
He might easily have missed the last sign as he left, skin roughened with fear. But his eyes had been trained to watch for patterns all his life since the Event, and those skills unmercifully honed as the expedition travelled west across the continent. He stopped, went to one knee, peered incredulously. The mark was old, in the shadow of a clump of knee-high bunchgrass. Faded, nearly obliterated by the wind; a single footstep would have wiped out all trace of it. But there was no doubt of what it was. No other animal left that mark, the arched shape of a horse’s hoof… His fingers brushed over it lightly. A shod hoof at that, he could see the marks of the nails. The expedition’s horses weren’t shod — carrying that many blanks would have cut too far into their useful loads, so they’d just been careful. This —
Sue and Tidtaway watched him wide-eyed as he approached, naked save for the rifle and blades he carried in both hands.
“Stand back!” he called, from twenty feet away, then thought of the flies. Unlikely that they could come upwind, but… “Get back — get back a mile, then wait for me. Do it! Now!”
Neither hesitated. Giernas turned and ran for the river, found a spot where water curled clean over rocks and sand, checked carefully that no victim had crawled this way in the grip of fever, then washed himself and his tools again and again, gripped Perks by his ruff and forced the dog through the same despite whinings and squirmings and the occasional growl.
I hope this works, he thought desperately. God, I wish I knew more about smallpox.
All he knew for sure was that if it hit people who hadn’t been vaccinated, most of them would die. That was what the books said, and he’d seen far more proof than he wanted.