Bag Men: Siege (Book 8)

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Underwood Gaines, Sergeant, Yuma Army Camp

1:12 a.m., April 13th, 2070

Behind Underwood stood a squad of soldiers armed with hatchets. As usual, Underwood himself carried the only gun. The other men held up their torches as shields against the encroaching darkness of night and watched for any signs of movement while their sergeant busied himself with the task at hand.

Four bodies lay, spread-eagled, at Underwood’s feet. All men, soldiers for Yuma. One had been a lieutenant, one a corporal. Two wore the plate armor of the infantry. A closer inspection revealed that they carried a total of fifteen stab-wounds between them. The lieutenant and corporal each had died quickly: both men had had their jugular veins drained dry, spilling their life’s blood over their trail-dusted uniforms. The infantrymen had had it worse, it seemed. They must have seen the first two murders happen and had some time to react, though not too much; there were deep gashes on their palms and wrists, indicating they’d put up a fight but not been able to grab hold of their own swords, which lay a few feet beyond their limp hands. The defensive wounds on one of them were deeper than the other, as if he’d tried to grab hold of the wide-bladed knife of his attacker.

Underwood stooped lower to the ground. The frailty of the moonlight wasn’t exactly helping his investigation. The torch he carried in one hand sputtered, growing weaker by the second.

“Somebody bring me a fresh light,” he called.

A few moments later, one of the privates stepped up, saluted, and offered him the torch.

He took it and crouched, careful to keep the flame a good distance away from the dead men.

The infantry’s armor had prevented the assassin from getting a clean kill. Scratches along the warped iron plates showed where the knife had glanced off the metal and dug into leather, sometimes leaving superficial nicks on the flesh. Still, most the six or seven wounds done to each of them had dug deep into the gut, lower back, hip, armpit, and any other area that the attacker could reach.

“Reach” was the right word, wasn’t it? Whoever had done this stood about a head shorter than the smallest of the men killed. Underwood therefore asked himself, A woman?

One of the Wild-Childs, maybe? Who else would do something like this? And there wasn’t any sign that the Sackies had infiltrated the camp.

A bark drew him out of his thoughts and back to the cool night. He turned his head and said, “Armistead. What is it, boy?”

The white-spotted mutt trotted over to his master, carrying — what luck! — a piece of fabric. Looked like a torn off scrap of shirt-sleeve.

Underwood scratched the dog behind his ears and said, “Good boy! Good boy. That’s why you’re my best bud, Armistead, yes you are. Give it here, now.” He tugged the cloth free, gave it a cursory inspection, and put it up to the dog’s nose.

Armistead took about three whiffs of the sleeve before he set off running into the night.

“Follow that dog,” Underwood called to the men waiting behind him.

They all dashed after Armistead. Underwood would’ve joined them, gladly, but his hip really was giving him hell. He hadn’t exactly been easy on it, of course. Probably should’ve been in bed all day, or sitting down at least.

Well, shit, nothing for it. Not while there was a jailbird to put back in its cage.

Weaving between the alert men who crowded the camp like a blood clot clogs an artery, Underwood almost immediately lost sight of those he’d been following. There were just too many standing bodies to dodge, and all of them were strung out, ready to snap. You could see it in their eyes, white like their knuckles as they gripped at their weapons.

News of the murders had preceded Underwood and his squad. The lack of a clear culprit definitely had everybody on edge. After all, the fighting men of Yuma were outnumbered, technically. The army, in total, added up to just about nine thousand now (considering yesterday’s casualties), but actual subjects of the Yuman Crown accounted for only forty percent of that figure. The other sixty percent was composed of conscripts from the outlying territories, many of which had only recently been incorporated into the kingdom, and Wild-Childs. Some who’d marched to Sacramento were less than happy to be there, serving a king they were forced to revere — usually at the tip of a sword or business end of a rifle. In other words, a sudden upset in morale could become more significant for the prospects of Yuma Army than the escape of a couple dozen prisoners.

Since he had such trouble keeping up with the squad, Underwood had to rely on the one among them who kindly lagged behind the rest so he could follow. For several minutes, that’s how it went: Underwood scanned the middle distance for the private who waved to him while keeping an eye on the others. He’d duck under clotheslines heavy with yellow-stained long-johns and skirt patrols of scowling soldiers who were out for blood. Very few of them bothered to make way for him, despite his rank, letting him know that the general sense of unease was nearing its boiling point. How very useful of them to wander around, wondering what the source of the commotion was while adding to it themselves.

Away from the agitated mass of soldiers, Underwood felt like he could think straight again. His internal compass notified him that he was being led to the river.

A few short minutes later, red-faced and sweating despite the fresh night air, he slowed down. Hip burning like he’d been branded, he half-limped, half-jogged to a stop.

“What is it?” he called to the semi-circle of men, the squad, who stood among the high weeds of the riverbank.

Armistead barked his summons; he’d found something.

“Move,” Underwood grunted, and the others parted before him, muttering to each other and themselves.

Stopping short, Underwood couldn’t help but whistle through his teeth. What he saw before him was this: A man, Yuman soldier, long-johns’ butt-flap flapping like a flag in the sudden gust of wind. The air stank of rot and crap; the corpse bobbing in the river was too fresh to raise all that stink by itself, so the stench must have been due to some combination of fish, sewage, and general river backwash. The dead man dangled, half-squatting, from the spear that had impaled him from behind. He swayed slightly where he was pinned like a bug by a needle.

“What in the hell?” said one of the soldiers.

“Killed while takin’ a shit. Ain’t no way to go, for sure.”

Underwood rubbed Armistead’s chin. The dog let out a squeaky yawn and left his tongue lolling as he stared up at his master.

Beside the deceased soldier, a pile of rags — pants and a shirt.

“Whoever it was did this,” Underwood began, “was sharp enough to confuse our dogs by strippin’ down and jumpin’ into the river. See them footprints, there, in the moonlight? Lead straight to the water. Won’t be able to track them now.”

“So we go back and report failure?”

Underwood scowled at the private who’d spoken. “We stay alert, soldier. We keep our eyes peeled. And we don’t, for any reason, let this happen again. Clear? All o’ ya?”

“Yes, sir!” they answered.

Austin Alexander Whittom, Captain, Yuma Army

Field Hospital

9:11 a.m., April 13th, 2070

Underwood sat outside the field hospital, playing guard dog at the entrance. He hummed a tune everyone knew but no one could name, one of those old songs whose words you’d forgotten, but you remembered it had been important, once, worth preserving, so you kept it alive as best you could.

Austin, for his part, stayed busy drinking moonshine. It passed the time, and he hurt too much to sleep. His whole body was a pin-cushion, and God was seeing just how many pins would fit.

After a certain number of hours spent wallowing in semi-consciousness, Austin noticed an out of place able-bodied man enter the hospital. Before he knew it, the captain nodded off, waking only just in time to catch the soldier on his way out.

“You,” he rasped.

“Sir,” the private said and saluted. He was big. Not like Underwood, though, who was as sturdy as an oaken chest. This fella, by contrast, was almost oafish with a high center of gravity. Top-heavy, he swayed at the shoulders and neck. A half-formed man, he hadn’t quite filled out after his growth spurt yet. Those round, ruddy cheeks gave him away: green as spring grass.

Austin said, “Where you off to?”

“Came here to visit my friend Campbell, sir. Headed to my posting, now. Been stationed at Checkpoint Charlie.”

Northwest of camp, Austin reminded himself. One of the river outposts. He said, “So we’ve taken all the positions, then?”

“Yes, sir.” The private’s chest swelled with pride. “That genius maneuver with the Suicide Brigade gave us the time and distraction we needed. We got every inch of ground we set out to snatch ’n grab, sir.”

Austin cracked a smile that he felt in his ribs. Despite being sore everywhere, his spirits lifted for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours. He said, “Hell yeah, then! So, anyway, private…?”

“Altmiller, sir.”

Austin gave him another appraising stare. The kid definitely didn’t appear a day over sixteen. Austin decided to practice his fatherly tone. “Altmiller. Mind doin’ me a favor, son?”

“Absolutely, sir.”

“On your way outta camp, stop by Lieutenant Colonel Wynkoop’s in the officer’s quarters. Give him a note from me.” Austin, with great effort, reached over to the hospital table at his side, taking care not to knock over the precious jug of liquor resting on it. Shakily, he took up the notebook filled with crusty, yellowed, college-ruled pages and the pen on top of it. He tore out a page, set it on the cover of the notebook, and scribbled, Lt. Col. Wynkoop, pleze see me at ur erliest convenients. I need news like a man needs beer. Im dieing of boredom heer. – Youre frend, Austin.

He passed the note to Altmiller, who squinted at it almost suspiciously before folding it up.

“Who shall I say it’s from, sir?” said the kid.

Austin narrowed his eyes. “You don’t recognize me?”

Altmiller shook his head quickly. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s only my first tour. I was military police before I was brought in for the war effort.”

“City-side, huh? Yuma-bound, all the way?”

“Born and raised.” Altmiller gave a sheepish grin.

“Good man,” Austin said, absentmindedly. He hesitated; it might come across as weird if he didn’t give the kid his name, could make the contents of the note seem malicious. He tested the waters: “You really don’t know who I am?”

Blushing, Altmiller said, “’Fraid not, sir.”

Wow. He hasn’t heard the stories. Maybe there’s hope for me, after all. “Just tell him it’s from Austin. That’ll do.”

“Yes, sir. Glad to serve, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

Altmiller gave a snappy salute which put him slightly off-balance — his ankles were too thin to support his still-developing bulk. Austin returned it, albeit weakly, and the private swiveled on his heels and marched smartly outside.

The captain waited for the kid to exit before sagging back into his pillows with an exhausted sigh.

Austin and Claudius Wynkoop had known each other for years; the old man had been his unofficial mentor ever since he graduated from the academy. That’s why Austin could get away with an informal tone when talking to or about the widely glorified, if fairly elderly, lieutenant colonel. Army officers were given a lot of leeway, generally, especially if they were high-performing quick bloomers like Austin.

Free-talking friendly banter was discouraged among the rank and file, of course, as it represented a slippery slope to sloppiness and, inevitably, disorder. Thus, the officer class, to the best of each man’s ability, attempted to not blatantly abuse the privileges of camaraderie and free speech around the grunts.

Austin didn’t need to worry about Altmiller, though, what with his note being a written communication and all. The captain could have scribbled any old thing on that note and the kid would have been none the wiser. See, just as banter between lower and higher ranks was strongly discouraged (for anyone below a sergeant on the military food chain, anyway), so too was literacy a prize only bestowed upon the chosen. Only those who needed it to efficiently perform their jobs were taught how to read. Furthermore, what with all books being, at best, fluff and, at worst, heretical, only two works were considered necessary for the developing commander’s mind: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and The Prince, by Machiavelli — good ol’ Nicky Mack.

The strong foundation of every operation and thought process in Yuma was a combination of courage and unquestioning loyalty. It was a well known fact that the only thing really necessary for success in Yuman society was bravery. (Well, bravery applied in the right way to ensure success in war.) For nine tenths of the population, there was simply no room for book learning in that equation. What good would poetry do you when you ought to be sowing seeds and feeding chickens?

The talented tenth, however, was a different story. The ten percent of people who made the honorable sacrifice of absorbing the alphabet and learning their multiplication tables were necessary to the continued functioning of the kingdom. They formed the bureaucracy, the skeletal system of the living body that was Yuma. Theirs was a tricky job and, honestly, only the best and brightest were capable of doing it right. A born farmer or foot soldier just couldn’t hack it.

There’s no shame in admitting that you’re only suited for manual labor. No shame at all. Austin, on the other hand, had a natural talent for all those vital processes that kept the other ninety percent controlled and content. Someone had to make sure the bread was distributed properly and on time; someone with the right mind for it had to tell the civilians whom to fear, to hate, to love. Austin, and those like him, were simply born with superior gifts and — in the name of freedom and equality — had a God-given duty to enforce the law of the land. That meant learning, among other key skills, how to read and write, and how to think critically, abstractly.

Next came learning how to fight. Nicky Mac and Sunny Sue were good for more than blabbing about management techniques and strategy and tactics — these two ancient masters of the martial arts also showed the clever reader how to win a war. Austin understood this intuitively, where even many of his peers failed. Such mental sharpness was exactly why he commanded dolts like Altmiller, and not the other way around.

“He really didn’t know, did he?” said Underwood, suddenly appearing in front of Austin.

The captain jerked out of his daydreams. “Huh?”

Underwood was grinning that faint, fleeting grin of his. It occurred to Austin that he didn’t much like it.

Falling into the foldout chair, with a shrug, the sergeant said, “What’s the world coming to when kids haven’t even heard of ‘Training Wheels Whittom’?”

Now Austin felt sure he hated that shit-eating smirk of Underwood’s. However, given that the man had also shown some more admirable qualities, the captain decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Ah. So you’ve heard about that.”

“Who hasn’t?” said Underwood. He glanced toward the entrance flap. “Aside from snot-nosed newbies, that is.”

“Why didn’t you mention this when we met yesterday?”

“Seemed like you needed rest, sir. Besides, why would I wanna upset you? I’m not the type to bring up dirt without a reason.”

“Well, you’re upsetting me now.”

“Sorry, sir. I’ll back down. I know when I gone too far.”

Silence.

Then Underwood said, “But you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine. Count that a standin’ offer.”

Austin chuckled. Unbelievable; the sergeant was definitely one self-confident sonovabitch, raising the ire of a ranking officer like that. He sure was charming, though. Maybe it was those boyish good looks of Underwood’s — hidden though they were under all grit and grime — or something else entirely… Something prompted Austin to say, “You want the real shit, or the perfumed turd version?”

Underwood, still grinning, said, “Never been match for watered down gossip. And I hear there’s instructors teaching the turd version at the academy these days. ‘Cautionary tale,’ they call it.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s the moral of the story, then?”

“Vigilance. Eternal vigilance is the price of survival. And death…”

“Well, what about death?”

“…The price of freedom, for some.”

They stared at each other for the length of a breath.

“Alright, then.” Austin slapped his notebook and pen down on the hospital table. “The real shit it is.”

Hands on his kneecaps, Underwood scratched his pants but otherwise made no noise. He waited, patiently, for his superior to start his story.

Austin, clearing his throat, thought it was a little off-putting, how quickly they were coming to understand each other.

His mind was already wandering those gray-white, lemon-smelling halls again. He said, “Three months ’til graduation. This would’ve been in ’61, beginning o’ spring. You’ve heard one side of this story before, so you’d know that Major Hughes was gonna be the keynote at the ceremony. More importantly, though, he was givin’ us all — me and my class, that is — private tutoring. We were s’posed to be some new breed of officer: more ruthless, more capable than any before.

“Way back then, Old King Davis was already preparin’ for the wars that would come. He was lookin’ ahead, gearing up to crust the Vees and Sacramento. Too bad he didn’t get to live to see how far we’ve made it.” Austin paused. “Anyway, the king himself had special plans for me and my friends. Well, you know what they say: you wanna hear God laugh, tell him your plans. Upshot of the story is Major Hughes was infected the whole time. Turned right in the middle of a demo.”

“The mech suit,” said Underwood, his voice soft.

“Yep. Hughes was showing us how to use that newfangled merchandise we traded for — courtesy of the Armorers of Hell’s Gate. Cost us a full four hundred chickens and I don’t even know how many goddamn bales of wheat. That mech suit was one of several pieces o’ ordinance we bought. It alone lost the Kingdom enough dog- and coyote-skins to put clothes on the backs of a hunnerd men. At least.”

“I heard Hughes went screwball in the suit. Started wiggin’ out, swinging the arms.”

“That he did, that he did. Nearly took my fuckin’ head off. Saw him grab my buddy Thomas by the shoulders and tear him clear in half. In half. From head to toe, dammit.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Yeah. And he just… went on killin’ everybody in that room. It was locked, y’see. Part of the training. S’posed to psyche us out, motivate us to focus. Nobody was gonna leave that room until Hughes knocked on it and gave the word. As you can probably imagine, Hughes wasn’t about to let anyone go.”

“What was he like, then?”

“Droolin’ like a retard, but he was quiet. Not a peep outta him. I never been so scared before. And not since, neither.” Austin stared intently at the ground. “Worst part, in my opinion, was that Rich thought it was all part of the drill. Kept insisting this was just Hughes’ way o’ teachin’, even as he chased us around the gym in that death machine. Swingin’ knives the size o’ my whole goddamn body. Serrated blades fused with the thing’s horrible, long arms.”

“Fuck.” Underwood’s eyes widened as he realized what he’d said. “Sorry, sir.”

“I don’t want your sorry. ‘Fuck’ is right.”

Austin took another, longer pause.

Underwood broke the tension. “So, what happened?”

The captain shook his head. “After twice the length of the class had passed, the staff outside started to get suspicious. Figured they oughta check on Hughes and his protégés. See what exactly was takin’ all damn day. What they found was a whole mess’a blood, a murderin’ zombie pilot, and me, cowerin’ behind a stone pillar, huggin’ my knees.” He sighed. “You can’t imagine it. You have to have seen somethin’ just like it, or you’ll never know just what it’s like to see a whole fuckin’ gym smeared red. Ankle deep in body parts. They were my friends. My friends.”

For a long time, neither of them spoke.

Underwood, as usual, caved first. “But you got revenge, sir.”

“Huh?”

“You shot him, in the end. Didn’t you?”

Austin couldn’t contain the burst of laughter. He cringed as his leg spasmed in response. “No, I didn’t. I didn’t harm one undead hair on his head. I was a broken, gibberin’ idiot when the staff found me. And Hughes was bearin’ down on them even as they came to check on me. It was one of the guards, some random, unsung hero, who put one between Hughes eyes. Shot him as he was chargin’ like a bull. Right between his eyes. The suit crashed, Hughes, like, bounced around in that metal cage. Somebody had to hose him outta there later. Sprayed down the whole gym with alcohol and such, too. Whole wing of the building was condemned after that, though, what with the virus having taken Hughes’ mind.”

Underwood’s brow creased and his mouth was drawn into a thin line. “Why aren’t you dead, if it all went down like you say?”

“If it’d been anybody else, I would’ve been killed. But my group… we were special, like I told you. All that time, effort, all the resources poured into our educations… it had to mean somethin’. There had to be a payoff for the brass. So they kept me, the sole survivor, isolated for weeks and weeks, then months and months. When I didn’t turn after half a year, the nobles figured it was safe to let me out.” Austin shook his head and spat on the ground beside his bed. “That’s when I found out there’d been stories ’bout me. That’s when I heard that nickname for the first time: ‘Training Wheels Whittom.’” He snorted and rubbed his knuckles into his eyes. “I was told the ‘official’ story had me killin’ an assassin who busted in, commandeered the mech suit and started massacrin’ the students. The assassin got Hughes and all my classmates, but I fought and won. Killed the killer. Training Wheels Whittom — the poster boy for surviving impossible odds. There was an award ceremony and everything.”

“That’s not how I was told it.”

Once Austin’s off-key chuckled had petered out, he said, “Right. See, the whole Hughes bein’ disarmed idea didn’t sit well with a bunch’a people. Left a bad taste in the mouth. They just couldn’t stomach it. ’Not the Major Hughes,’ they’d say and gasp. So, the story had to be revised. Later ‘intel’ revealed that Hughes had been in on the plot the whole time, that he’d betrayed Yuma in exchange for amnesty and sanctuary in Sacramento. (By the way, that’s the only horrible thing we tell about the Sackies that ain’t true.) The reason for the new spin was simple enough: money. Hughes, as everyone knows, was one of the Founding Fathers. Why, by the end of his life, he owned near an eighth of the kingdom.”

Underwood sucked in a breath, nodding. “Now that stuff’s all back in the hands of the royal family.”

“You ain’t wrong,” said Austin. “And that’s where it should be, you ask me. Do a lot more good in the king’s coffers than in the hands of Hughes’ dumbass daughter. Besides, in a way, Hughes was a traitor. He endangered Yuma by getting infected and stickin’ around. If he’d o’ known he was finished, he should’a left, made himself scarce. Gone into the fuckin’ woods to die, like a sick cat — something! A man like Hughes should’a known. Instead, he nearly killed everyone in the academy. And he did manage to wipe out a big chunk of an entire generation of officers. Moral of the story? In Yuma, it’s easier to make sense of a hero turning traitor than him bein’ overpowered by an outsider. Kinda crazy. I mean, we’re badasses and all, us military types — but we ain’t invincible. No way. Certainly proved it that day, in training.” He gulped down the last of his water. “There ya have it. The real shit.”

“Goddamn, sir,” said Underwood, standing up to refill the captain’s cup. “Just goddamn.”

Austin took another sip of the fresh water (carried straight from Yuma’s newest asset, the Sacramento River) before saying, “Deal’s a deal, Gaines. What’s your horror story? Come on, man. Now’s the time to spill it. We might all be dead tomorrow.”

“Nah, sir. Men like us is gonna live forever. Look what we been through, already? It’s a damn miracle you’re alive, sir. Someone’s gotta be lookin’ out for you.”

“Tell me what happened to you in Bullhead, Gaines, and then we’ll decide who’s got guardian angels and who ain’t.”

Underwood snorted. “How much you know ’bout the Cleaners, sir?”

“I know you kill Zach wherever you find him.”

“That’s true. And we’re damn good at it, if I do say so m’self, sir. We’re K-9 specialists on account of animals bein’ immune to the virus and dogs bein’ real easy to train. So we send ‘em in first, tear the undead up, come back. They’re cleverer than us, know where to go, can sense Zach long before we can. Damn useful. Shit, we got them dogs out there right now, searchin’ for whoever killed our own last night.”

“Think they’ll find them, whoever it was?”

“Damn right they will, sir. Our dogs is the smartest in the world. They can find anything, but they’re best of all at pickin’ out Zach. It takes some gettin’ used to, they’re so good at their jobs. You could be half a mile away from the closest straggler, and suddenly your pup’s ears will go back and his tail’ll go stiff and his fur’ll raise and get all spiky. Half a mile.” Underwood smiled. “You have a good trained doggie at your side, you ain’t gotta fear any Zach in the world.” The smile faded. “’Least, that’s what I thought when I started. Before I was called back home to Bullhead.”

“What happened?” said Austin.

“I never feared no enemy, not man or Zach. That’s the Yuma way; I was schooled right. But when, in Bullhead, I had to put my own Pa, Ma, and baby bro in my crosshairs, I learned fear. For the first time, I was so afraid I knew nothin’ could get me out of it. I — I killed all of ’em, all three. I made sure I did that much myself. ’S only right, know what I’m sayin’? And we cleaned up the whole damn town, like we always do, when we’re called to a sick place, a place where the virus wants to take root. I never did stop bein’ afraid after that day. Not once.”

“You seem tough, though? Not knowing any better, lookin’ at you, I’d o’ said, ‘Why, nothin’ could crack that hide o’ his.’”

“Ain’t my hide’s cracked, sir, but my heart. Got a heart o’ stone, now. Haven’t felt a goddamn thing since I shot my family down in Bullhead City.”

“Yeah,” said Austin. He didn’t know what else to do.

Underwood leaned back and closed his eyes. “They were pleadin’, pleadin’ with me to have mercy. I tole ‘em this was mercy, what I was doin’ for ‘em.” He sighed heavily. His voice unsteady: “My baby bro didn’t understand what was happenin’, even right at the end when I—” He coughed. “They tried to attack me when they saw I wasn’t gonna back down.” Standing up with a wince, he sniffed. “Well, there ya have it, sir. Permission to answer nature’s call?”

Austin blinked. “Yeah. Yeah, ’course. Dismissed.”

He watched Underwood go.

Around an hour later, Austin stirred from dreams when he heard someone call his name. (The fever had gotten worse as the afternoon wore on. He was sweating like a hog; he could hardly think straight.) Whoever was speaking had a strange cadence to her voice, indicating English wasn’t her first language.

Wild-Child, Austin thought with disgust as he opened his eyes. He recognized the accent even before his vision focused; he’d had several brushes with this particular tribe in the recent past. Far too many.

The young blonde in front of him, in the traditional fashion of her people, wore hardly any clothing but many ornaments, most of which were knick-knacks and trinkets like a crown and bracelet of worn, yellow playing cards and a necklace whose beads were made of smoothed liquor bottle glass — blue, green, and amber. Her skimpy attire and curvy, plump body certainly got a rise out of Austin, but, on the other hand, her face looked like it’d been rearranged by mule-kick. Hell, for all Austin knew, that really was the reason — you never knew with these damn, dirty Wild-Childs. Lived like animals. A definite Butterface. The obnoxiously huge, blue ‘V’ painted from her forehead to her chin, crossing her nose on the way down, didn’t help her less-than-average looks one bit. Her beakish nose boasted a whole series of spider-veins; her eyebrows were thick, but platinum white, adding to her generally unappetizing appearance. Still, with cans like those, put a sack over her head and Austin wouldn’t complain too loudly.

Damn. He wanted to slap himself across the face. It had been too long since he’d got any. Too damn long. If he found a Wild-Child even vaguely attractive…

He smiled his best fake smile at her and said, “M’lady Full House, how nice to see you.”

The new Full House formed a ‘V’ with her fingers and placed them over her closed mouth: her backward tribe’s customary respectful greeting. She said, “Cap-tin Whit-Tome, I have word-paper from Wynkoop. Hmm, how say? Let-ter.”

“How unusual for a queen like yourself to play messenger. I’m honored.” He meant the comment to come off as a syrupy, ego-stroking compliment, but he didn’t care whether she understood. In the end, the Vees were only vermin.

“I do kindness to Wynkoop. He ask me give let-ter you.” She smiled. “It is good we serve Yuma, now. Card Carrying Vees are victory.”

Ugh, fuckin’ learn to speak English good, already. Austin thought. Goddamn ignorant savages. Doing his best to keep his choice of words simple so that even this idiotic, animal of a woman could understand him, he said, “Good to know you’re happy. We are glad we were able to make a good deal.”

“Yes, yes!” Her eyes widened and Austin had to stop himself from shrinking away. He was very glad Underwood had returned to protect him. The Vee princess said, “Have friend come to say greeting.” She then pulled from the sack dangling from her hip a human skull, picked clean and bleached. It, too, had a blue ‘V’ painted on it. “You know who?” She held up the skull to show Austin.

He frowned and said, “Sorry, don’t recognize him.”

She was dancing from foot to foot, practically balancing on her toes. “This old Full House. See, see? Can see where axe hit in head when miss neck. You see!”

Oh, right. How could I forget? Austin fought not to roll his eyes.

Of course, “Full House” was nothing more than a title inherited by the heir to the Throne of Lost Vegas. Carrying the torch of his father, the previous Full House — a sixteen-year-old brat — had led the Vees in war against Yuma, tooth and nail, until the bitter end. He’d lost, horribly, but his pride had cost the kingdom too many good men. When compared with that proud, quick, and precocious soldier-prince, the blonde airhead now in front of Austin was nothing more than a pathetic and empty parody.

Well, all compliments to that prince aside, he was a real motherfucker. And Yuma always gave people what was coming to them. Case in point: at Wheeler Ridge, one of the king’s men cut the old Full House’s snobby little head off.

The memory still sent tingles down Austin’s spine. Son of a bitch, rot in hell.

The execution had left the Vees in disarray. Succession became the primary concern, and it wasn’t an easy question to answer, by all appearances. Between Yuma and Sacramento, the past decade or more had not been easy on the tribe; many of the main families had been decimated, especially in the last few years, during their nomadic existence. Of course, Austin didn’t give even a quarter of a shit about any of this… except they had been declared important to the war effort by the king’s advisors. The Vees were a fierce people, they fought like demons — that much Austin had seen firsthand. There was a need, therefore, to redirect their hatred for Yuma toward Sacramento. They had to be made to serve.

Therefore, promises were exchanged. Goods changed hands. Weapons were offered to key players in the decision-making process. Most importantly, a candidate was hand-picked by the nobles, a candidate who would be easiest to control. Enter Butterface, as stupid as they come, but big sister to the old Full House. Also, she just so happened to be the last member of that family.

Very few Yumans knew any Vee-speak at all, let alone enough to understand the goings on at the “election” meeting, an all day and all night affair that had occurred a few months back. It became clear, through periodic reports from Vee informants, that the four elders (each being a head of a Suit of Cards) favored electing one of their own, someone who had experience in war, who could negotiate a fair shake with Yuma. Understandable, considering the Vees were, by that point, essentially slaves to the kingdom. Understandable? Yes. Acceptable? Hell no.

Two of the Vee elders — King Heart and King Diamond — had been “vanished,” one after the other, in the space of an hour, when they’d each decided to take a piss. The remaining two had taken the hint. Young, blonde dumb-dumb “Jackie Diamond” was thus elected to take the mantle of Full House. And, since then, along the whole, loathsome slog through the desert toward the final battle with Sacramento, she’d been trying to win the hearts and minds of her fellow Vees. Trying to warm them to the idea of becoming part of the Kingdom of Yuma.

The Vees, for their part, were stubborn; they knew she was weak and untried.

The Yuman strategists believed their plan had failed. Until, that is, some days before the main army arrived at Elk Grove, south of Sacramento, she succeeded in swaying them. Nobody knew what trick she used, or whether she came up with it on her own. No one cared, honestly. The brass was just thrilled that the Vees would throw their still impressive powers behind Yuma’s war effort.

But it had never sat right with Austin, who believed hatred and distrust of the Vees (and all Wild-Childs, for that matter) to be a necessary precaution. What if this was a trick? Because of his suspicions, he’d been wondering for more than a week now how New Full House had done it, how she’d brought her thickheaded tribespeople to her side, at last.

Now, staring at her vapid expression, he knew the answer before even she told him.

She said, “Ghost Full House speak to Vees, tell them serve Yuma good. Serve Yuma Lucky. Go to Roulette not. Go to casino, yes. Play games forever. Serve Yuma good, good. Prize for good serve. Bigly reward.”

Austin nodded with her, saying, “That’s great. Just wonderful. Thank you.” Great that you dipshits finally picked the winning team. But what does it really matter, in the end?

It had become awkwardly, painfully obvious to Austin that this new Full House chick was not only dumb but also a couple of cans short of a six-pack. She must have been talking to ghosts all day and night, because, during the battle yesterday, the Vees had been obliterated. They’d thrown themselves over the wall — Underwood had witnessed it — and none of them had returned. Apparently Full House couldn’t bring herself to comprehend the fact that she was the last of the Vees.

So, why keep her around at all? Austin and the other nobles thought of her like a trophy, a keepsake of a great and hard-fought victory: the last of the barbarians.

With this all in mind, he said, again, “Thank you.”

“Not me! Not me thank,” she shouted, holding up the skull. “Ghost Full House commands!”

“Be sure to thank him, too, then.”

That seemed to appease her. She wouldn’t leave, though.

Her presence in the field hospital had drawn a lot of weary eyes. Not every day you could see a Vee princess out and about. Still, some of the more alert men were beginning to creep over; they had a sort of hungry, wolf-like gleam in the whites of their eyes.

Women lead to nothin’ good, Austin thought. He’d best diffuse the situation. Quick.

“Anything else he’d like to tell us?” he asked, pointing at the skull.

Full House cocked her head and closed her eyes. She scrunched up her face as if listening hard. She looked at Austin and said, “Field runs red blood your enemy.”

“Uh, uh-huh. Thanks. And thanks for the message — the letter,” he said, flicking the scrap of paper held between his thumb and forefinger. “It was a pleasure seein’ you.”

With another strange ‘V’ salute, she bowed her head and flitted from the tent with fairy-light steps.

A series of disappointed murmurs wove through the hospital as the men realized the proverbial fresh meat had walked out of the butcher shop.

As if to give voice to what everyone had been thinking, Underwood said, “What an odd little thing. Definitely got a couple o’ smacks with a big ugly stick. Wouldn’t kick her outta bed, though.”

“I completely agree,” said Austin. “But I’d much rather Madison were here. Why, Madison could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.”

He and Underwood spent the next fifteen minutes describing and ranking their respective female conquests. They gained an audience of salivating soldiers in the process, each of them too eagerly imagining every vivid detail. Only at the end of that evocative branch of the conversation did Austin shoo them all away and tear open Wynkoop’s sealed envelope.

He read, slowly, laboriously, “Dear Captain Whittom, my apologies for not having made it out your way yet. The morning has been a busy one. I will stop by A.S.A.P. In the meantime, you should know that the war effort is in full swing. We have taken the river up to a mile north and south of the city. We have surrounded the walls. Today, however, we’ll sweat the Sackies out. We will sweat them out until they are dry, and then, when they beg for mercy, we will end them. We have the numbers; we have the momentum. All we have to do now is be patient. I ask you, too, to be patient with me, my young friend. I shall come visit you as soon as may be. For now, we prepare the final assault. Best, C. W.”

Austin folded up the letter and placed it under his sweating water cup. There, a makeshift coaster.

“What are you going to do with your share of the spoils, sir?” said Underwood, visibly trying to restrain himself from scratching at his bandaged hip. He was trying so hard. Little beads of condensation collected at his brow and ran down to the tip of his sun-burnt nose.

“Gonna buy me a woman. Wait, fuck that — a whole group of ‘em. Then, when I’m done slakin’ my thirst for poon, I’m of a mind to build a small farm north o’ here. Herd a few dozen head o’ cattle. Raise some dogs. I don’t want much, ’cept peace and quiet.”

“And bitches,” said Underwood, grinning again.

He leaned over and they clacked their tin cups together.

“And bitches,” said Austin with a laugh.

They drank.

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