Bughouse War Zone 1 The Troubles

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the great khan

A report echoed off the mountains and he dived to the ground. Fading with the distance, a man wailed in pain.

“Mister Ganian?” It was the little girl, the one who had scars from the whip. “Grandmother says ya all come to supper.”

“A man--”

“Might be.” The girl shrugged at his worry. “Someone in the traps, I’d say. We put warnings up, but the rapists wrecked them. They wouldn’t eat pork, but did eat long pig.” A gentle smile held no humor. She stepped back and Jess crawled over the gate. He moved to the house glancing in the direction of the scream. The door closed behind him, but he went for his weapons.

Holding a book, Linnet looked up. “Was it...?”

“Might be.” He leaned down to kiss her. “I’ll be back in an hour or so.”

She smiled and he walked out the back. The mother said something, but Linnet only muttered.

“...Hormone driven male ape.” He caught that much before he vaulted the snake fence.

Careful of leaving sign, he took the back trail. Paw prints cut over it, but they weren’t large. A big housecat cat, perhaps, or another ocelot. For now, provided there was plenty of feed, the cats would thrive. If bobcats returned, then the ocelot would become prey.

He ran in a crouch only to stop, frowning at a pair of luminescent eyes. The cat stared from a tree trunk. It blinked and crept around the trunk.

Hoping to see it again, he waited. The cat leaped down and ran into the brush, not by him, or away. It stopped again, frozen in the shadows. Giving it a small nod of thanks, Jess eased off the trail to press his back against the silvered bole of a tree. With a small grin at forgetting, he leaned away from it. If the animals were coming back, bark scorpions would, as well.

A trio of men stumbled along it. One moaned and staggered with the others helping him walk. They passed and Jess stepped out with the rifle up but they never saw him. Wondering at their blindness, he melted back into the trees.

“Who are you?

The men stopped. “Amil?”

“No.” Jess waited. “Who are you?”

“If you please, sir,” one said, his words accented and foreign, not American or Mexican. “We’ve come from the lord’s palace. We had food with us, goat lamb, but were waylaid.”

“They killed five of us,” one man said and sputtered in a language strange to Jess.

“Did you know them?”

“A woman. She was with them and killed one of us. A woman dared to attack followers of the Prophet, great is his name. She will be caught and whipped for this.”

A wry amusement rose in Jess. He said, “Why did you kill Miz Ann’s dogs and feeder pig?”

“Filthy, venal animals.” The speaker shifted and Jess fired, shooting a sword from his hands. The other man dropped the wounded one and sprinted into the trees. A thud came to them and he cried out.

Holding the hand, the speaker scowled. “I’ll kill you for this, you uncircumcised dog.”

“Rapists,” Jess said, his voice low. “Might be you will, but might be I’ll leave you for Miz Packer, too. She’s not one to haul a man’s freight, but wears moccasins of human skin. She’ll chew the eggs right off your body and laugh when you scream, and I seen her do it.” He snorted a laugh. “And you, you’re not one whit better, coming to trade meat for some meat. That’s all ya all wanted, ain’t it? A little sweet peach. But you got wrecked.”

“We brought it to buy the baby, if it’s a boy.” The man straightened. “Janissaries. Do you even understand the term, you unlettered swine?”

“Mama and Pa were well-read. Cowards who liked little boys would buy them or steal them from folks, then raise them to hate their parents. It’s an evil bunch to do that. And then hide behind the slaves when war came along.”

“It is an honorable way to make war.” The man stiffened and jumped throwing a knife. Jess ducked the knife coming up aiming the pistol. A crossbow bolt took the man in the back of the neck. Eyes wide with shock, he gasped trying to raise a 9mm only to stumble to one knee.

Jess walked by him to the wounded man. He had puncture wounds in his legs that smelled of feces. Pale hands lifted, pleading in silence. With a small grimace, Jess walked to where the third man lay. Something large and angry muttered and Jess froze. Averting his eyes, he walked slowly back and the bear returned to feeding.

“Bungee stakes?” Linnet stood from the wounded man. “You’re own people put in the trap. You should have known better.”

The man muttered something and looked away.

“I speak no English,” he said.

Jess took Linnet by one arm.

“Mrs. Packer attacked them and killed five, they say. These are the ones from the ranch Miz Ann spoke of. That one, he said they got the boys to train them as janissaries.”

“Oh, laws.” She raced back towards the house. When Jess came to the door, the women were arguing with Wainwright.

“Jess?” Wainwright turned his back on the women and went to his patient.

“Look,” Jess said. “How many were left at the ranch? You said a couple dozen, ain’t it? They must have women there, to care for the babies. It ain’t like they were alone. And you got worse troubles. There’s a griz out there hunting people. It killed one of them.”

The women laughed, but Jess said, “And old lady Packer. She killed maybe five and might be heading here. If she took out that many, then they have more men in the gang.”

“Most died in the war,” the mother said. “They went out with AK-Forty-Sevens and swords, killing any man they found on down to Sonoita. Only a few returned.”

The flame in the gas lamps burned a little brighter and she smiled.

“The methane bugs are feeding well tonight. Let the bear have its fill and we’ll collect the remains in the morning. I, for one, cannot think of a more fitting end. Those boys are at last some use to humanity, not just their own trashy greed.”

“Send ‘em to Hell,” her daughter said, smiling. “When the bear is done cleaning up the trash, he can go in the salt for hams and such.”

Head tipped back, eyes frowning, Jess said, “Which way to the ranch?”

“West of here, towards Green Valley. We’ll have to show--No,” she said when Jess scowled. “You don’t know the ranch roads. In the morning, pack the horse and half of us can go. The rest have to stay to guard the children and gardens.”

“Mind, Miz Packer might show.”

A gentle smile on her face, Ann said, “We’ll welcome her with open arms.” Her head tipped in the direction of the barn. “The gardens will grow the better with that sludge in the digester.”

Jaws clenched against a grin, Jess stepped out to stand on the porch and stare north, towards Tucson. He walked into to the trees towards the trail, but stopped. Frightened, yet angry the horse grunted. A weak stench like rotting corpses came through the trees. Jess ran to the corral. The bear rumbled a warning, but waddled by them.

Jess shook his head. “How did it survive those idiots?”

“Mister Ganian?” Ann came to the ramada.

“Mind the bear.”

“No one went out after dark. They feared demons after some ghouls stole one away.” With a small shudder, she said, “The screams… They ate him alive.”

“Creepers. They’re bad, but mostly cowards.” He grunted and rubbed the horse’s nose until it calmed before going in to sleep in the living room. In the mountain chill before dawn, Linnet whispered his name and he woke, waiting.

A hammer rang on iron in the yard and he looked out the window. Ann appeared almost demonic, pounding a bar of soft iron into a horseshoe. One of the women cut nail holes in it with savage raps of a ball peen hammer. She plunged it into a bucket of water and took it out to nail to the horse’s hoof. Done, she started a second and the horse shivered, dancing a little until the children calmed him.

Linnet brought Jess a bowl of cornmeal mush and he frowned at it. She smiled and added a handful of hot peppers. He grinned and ate. Before he was done, the horse had a second shoe.

“Why they doing that?”

“Women and kids; Ann said they done most all the work, anyway. The men sat around playing dominoes or talking religion.”

Jess looked down at the bowl. “Must be why they take so many wives and slaves.”

“M-hm.” She took the bowl and offered more, but he shook his head.

“I got a taste for lamb in my mouth,” he said and winked. He went out to dump well water over his head and shoulders. His teeth started to chatter. This was mountain water, not a stagnant pool in the rubble of South Tucson.

He shook the water from his hair and ignored the inviting looks from the woman and her daughter. Ann finished shoeing the horse and started to saddle the animal.

“No,” Jess said. “Make saddle packs. Who’s traveling? Get your gear and move.”

The woman packed weapons and stood with Linnet. Her daughter’s hand crept into hers. Jess nodded and pointed at the trail.

“We can back-track, but if you know a short cut that is a short cut, show me.”

“Cut straight over the hills to the mountains,” Ann said. “You’ll find the ranch just south of Riddler Peak, a chop shop. It was old Harry Kress’s place.”

“Near Kellogg Ranch?”

“One canyon to the south.”

Jess smiled and looked west. He nodded and set out west-southwest of the ranch. They stopped at noon to talk and eat, then went on.

#

Ann sank into the brush near a pitted aluminum stock gate. Jess looked it over. Linnet pointed at a stick that seemed too straight. They watched for an hour but it never moved.

A raven dropped from the sky to eye first Jess, then the rags. It picked at them and Jess wormed his way towards it only to be hit by a reek of decaying flesh. He tried to hold his breath and crawl. With a mutter, the raven hopped a few yards away.

A bundle of black rags held a stick painted black. A closer look showed it to be a woman eaten by sores and he frowned, backing from the corpse. The raven was quick to take advantage.

Ann waited and nodded. Jess told them about the woman and she looked away.

“Most likely a slave,” Ann said, her eyes holding no interest. “The Khan probably promised her a place in his house.”

“Women do the lion’s share of work and the fighting?”

“Only so much. They’re not allowed to kill men, even unbelievers.”

Jess looked at the sky and shook his head.

Ann led the horse up the road with the women trailing her. Black robes clutched in one hand, a tall, lean woman stepped from the rocks with a sword.

“Sister?” she said, eyeing the horse and then Jess. “A slave? The Great Khan has too many castrati. They whine and cry and are sick all the time. Chase it away.”

“All the men are dead in a raid.” Ann took a deep breath. “We caught the horse and this man helped. Can we get water or should we go? Home is gone to the raiders, and the gardens.”

“No more peaches?” The woman grimaced, but stepped aside. “The palace is there. You know the way. Peace be with you.”

“And you.” Ann set her face and trudged up the road. The sun blazed down but not a tree or shrub, not even dead ones, showed on barren hills.

The canyon opened to a narrow valley. Tree stumps showed, but the shoots of palms and olives grew from the roots. Up along a watercourse grew small green trees, but it was too far to see what they were. He nudged Ann.

“Something they brought up from Mexico. Capulin cherries.” She stared at a low adobe shack. “Please don’t say anything else, Mister Ganian.” She cut a hand at his groin, but looked away.

Fighting a grin, he stepped back to Linnet.

They rounded a bend and in the middle of a barren patch of land stood a low, sprawling mud house. It covered an impressive amount of land, but cracks covered much of the wall he could see and a whiff of billy goat made him frown.

Women screamed challenges from the roof, but no men appeared. Ann let the horse stop and shouted back at them. Coated with mud, a pair of gates groaned open and armed women swarmed from a compound.

“You,” one demanded. Dirty silk covered her from head to toe and she snapped her fingers. Gold and diamonds flashed in the sun and raw sores lay under the gold. “Why are you here, infidel? How dare you run from your men?”

Ann knelt and bowed her head to the ground.

“O great Queen of the mighty Khan, reeves attacked us. We escaped but your valiant sons were killed and eaten by the savages. We seek refuge.”

The woman’s voice grew shrill as she said, “We don’t have enough for ourselves, you hell-bound pig. Go, spread your legs for the savages.” She stepped back and the women ran in. Hinges creaked, but a shout went up and the woman muttered.

They led the horse in with Jess watching and pretending not to. Everywhere, hollow-eyed, starving children stared at them. Here and there, a few women huddled by looms or dried dung for the fires.

In a whisper, Ann said, “They’re not allowed outside and ‘re drying their own turds to cook with.”

Jess frowned, but kept his gaze down. A pair of emaciated men crawled from a wide doorway to kneel before the queen. She scowled and slapped one, but continued on.

Ann dropped the lead of the horse and cut a hand at the ground. Keeping a respectful two yards behind Ann, Jess entered a wide room with a low ceiling. The floor under his boots was smooth adobe and the room dark. Lounging in a pool of smoky light, at the far end sat a grossly fat man surrounded by girls too young to be called women. The queen fell to her knees and muttered.

Gold flashing, the man raised a hand. As Jess neared, silk shimmered. Clean silk, and the scent of tea was strong.

To Ann, the khan said, “You bring an uncircumcised male--a whole man no less--into my holy presence?” He snapped his fingers. A dozen men and women jumped at Jess.

He shouted, but they pinned him. One tore at his pants and a knife flashed.

“Wait,” Ann said. “I beg you, my lord, wait. Have mercy, o’ great one, he’s come to help. He knows where there’s a mountain of food, and his people will want him back whole and unharmed.”

Beady eyes regarded Jess, but the man nodded and Jess crawled to his feet. A fist knocked him down and he snatched at the .38, but Ann planted herself before him.

“My lord, we come bearing no gifts. His people will want something to trade. They’re wealthy--”

“What do I care? We take because unbelievers are to be our slaves.” He turned, picking something off a gold tray and ate it. Hungry eyes followed his moves but he ignored them. The pudgy face scowled and he spat it out on the tray.

“Take it.” He waved a hand. “Spoiled, rotting sweets, bah.”

A male slave crawled forward with a silver tureen of water and the khan washed his hands. He dried them on a pristine white towel and leaned on his side. Again, he watched Jess.

“What did you want, slave?”

Jess bristled at the icy tone, but looked at Ann.

“O great and mighty lord,” she said, staring at the floor. “They demand children. They’ll give equal weight food for children. They have wheat, great one. Sugar and dates, honey, and cattle.”

“A man of the one true religion does not own cattle except oxen.” He toyed with a ring on one finger. “How many children?”

“As many as the great warrior can part with.”

“Take the girls,” he said and women began to weep. Even his queen sat back, but kept her gaze averted from his face.

“My lord? Certainly not your granddaughters--”

“Useless. We need the food to continue--” He scowled. “Prepare them. They’re sacrifices in the great war.”

Ann cleared her throat. “My lord, they want the boys because their women have many daughters.”

He stared and Ann flushed, but was unmoving.

“...Male offspring are a blessing of the God. How could we part with the sons of my poor, dead sons?” He even shed a tear. “They are tall pillars and beautiful. Indeed, we need them to till the fields.”

Ann shook her head. “Beloved lord, if that’s the case, then I offer my grandsons as sacrifices so you won’t have to.” In a whisper, she said, “They have sheep, my lord. Fat-tail sheep with golden hoofs.”

Eyes hooded, the man shrugged, but stopped toying with the gold.

“We have no grandsons of yours.”

Ann stiffened and stared. The armed women frowned and her gaze dropped.

“My lord? But we sent you every son born in the house.”

“They died,” he said and tugged on the shirt of a male slave. “They were weak and did not survive the operation.”

The slave was a Mexican. Jess eyed him and the slave shivered, his eyes showing shame.

Ann choked. “Sire?”

“Your daughters are worthless except as breeders of whores. None survived the operation as a good male of my country would.” He raised a finger.

A stunned Ann was shoved out, followed by the rest. They entered a blaze of sunshine but the horse and packs were gone.

Jess stepped forward and several women aimed arrows at him.

“The horse is now the property of the great khan,” the queen said. “It is his to bestow on whom he wishes or keep or to use. Take yourselves to the house, there.” One ringed finger pointed at a hovel on the east side of the compound.

Ann trudged towards it. Jess threw the woman a cold look, but followed.

The door was low and narrow and Jess had to duck to get in it. Thick with dust, the floor showed pits and hollows. He started to speak, but Ann signed for silence.

The walls have ears, she signed. He survived a dozen assassination attempts back home, before the caliph ordered him here to colonize.

Jess grunted. He put his back in a corner and sank to his heels. Ann sank to the floor and wept.

After sundown, a small child came with bowls of watery soup. Jess winked and she stared, backing from him and ducked out the door. She peeped back in and grinned, but a shout made her hurry away.

Take care, Ann signed. He has a lot of opium. They traded it in Dark Water City “In Tucson.” For what they needed.

Wary of the food, Jess sipped and grimaced. “Not much more than water.” He sat it aside and tried to doze.

Before midnight, a pair of armed women kicked aside the door and shouted. They grabbed Jess, dragging him out.

“The khan,” Ann said, running after them. “Don’t fight ‘em, son. The khan wants to see you.”

Jess let them drag him into the palace and they threw him on the floor. Still reclining on the cushions, the khan frowned.

“We have been attacked,” he said. “Several women guarding the goats in the hills were carried off and the goats scattered. By who?”

Jess glanced at Ann. “Man, how would I know?”

“A large man was with them. He told the one he released that your name is Jess. He demands we turn you over to him or he will kill the women.”

“Then do it,” Jess said and Ann gasped.

“My lord? They’ll kill the women anyway.”

“No doubt. In any event, we do not want them back after being raped.” He raised an eyebrow and a slave knelt with a tray. The khan ate a few pieces and leaned back. “Who is the man?”

“Might be Jack.” Jess frowned. “His gang has been tracking us. They were the ones who attacked the boys you sent with goat meat.”

The khan looked to one side and nodded. A curtain shifted and Jack came out grinning.

“Hey, Jess,” he said. “Looks like I finally got ya.” He lifted the rifle.

Ann screamed. She jerked out the .38 and fired. Jack stumbled and the rifle snapped, shooting red flames through the room. The khan shrilled a terrified scream and women jumped at Ann, but Jess shouted. He pulled the crossbow pistol and fired at Jack. The man cursed and staggered. Screaming in hate, Ann fired at the khan and blood exploded over the cushions.

Slaves ran screaming from the room, but women burst in. Jess cocked the crossbow and grinned. He twisted to fire at the oil lanterns. They shattered, spewing burning chia oil over cushions and the wailing khan.

Shouts sounded outside and fire cast shadows over the compound.

“Freedom,” Ann shouted. “All you children, follow me.”

A horde of children raced from the flames and Ann threw aside the bar to the gate. Women and children ran from the compound. Fire burst through the roof and sparks snapped, sending more on the hillside.

Part of the roof caved in. Fire raced to every part of the compound. The horse screamed and Jess ran in. A few women huddled in the middle of the compound, but the horse was trapped. Jess ran towards the sounds of terrified animals. He tore open a door. Goats and two horses ran out followed by several slaves. Jess snatched at the mane of one horse and let it drag him up. A gun boomed. The free horse stumbled to the ground but Jess shouted, driving his heels into his mount’s flanks.

The gates burned, but Jess forced the horse out, through a ring of fire and down the canyon to Ann. Though limping hard, a skinny mare ran after them. A rifle cracked and the bullet burned the top of his shoulder. A happy grin on his face, Jess raised his middle finger in salute.


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