Bughouse War Zone 1 The Troubles

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the road south

State Route 83 was about as abandoned as Jess ever saw it. When Nina giggled too loudly, he frowned and scowled but caught himself before he scolded her. Linnet hushed her, but the baby crowed a laugh and that, they had no way of stopping.

He walked with the rifle resting in the crook of one arm. Nina found a raven feather, sticking it in his hair. If it was a sign, he prayed it was a good one. Raven was something of a practical joker, but usually on the side of humanity. He took his fun by tricking dark gods into helping where they meant to do evil. Or punishing them for doing evil, like the time he stole Coyote’s private parts to stop him from seducing young virgins. But, he lost them in a patch of cactus. According to Mama, that was why coyotes howled so shrill, remembering all those thorns. Jess rubbed his mouth to stop a grin.

Wainwright staggered and Jess raised a hand. Not looking in that direction, he pointed at a broken thicket of dead trees. Linnet herded Nina towards them and helped Wainwright to walk the short distance.

Taking the night-vision goggles, Jess shimmied up a tree to look over the land. Small dots that might mean life were there, but rare. A large one may have been a cow, or not. A glance up showed a flood of sparks coming from a mountainside. Bats. He smiled at them. Night-wing messengers sent by Old-Father to watch over them.

He climbed down only to stop. South, towards Sonoita a fire blazed. He climbed again to look. If it were a fire, it was a building going up. Sonoita lay five miles distance, in the valley of Cienega Creek.

He climbed down and a pack of dates sailed at him. Not the sugary ones he ate out of pantries, but drier ones. He nibbled them, then devoured the handful. The pits he spat at a dry rill.

“Canyon palms,” he said. “We had ‘em growing on the ranch.”

“Ann said the khan’s women picked them along the Santa Cruz River,” Linnet said, tossing one in her mouth and making Nina giggle. “They’re trying to grow foreign dates, but the long winter killed the male trees. No pollen.” Linnet offered more but he shook his head and swallowed a cup of water, then sank down near Wainwright.

“Here, old man, we’re almost to Sonoita.” His eyes twinkled. “You can die there. They got a real famous graveyard. Some of them yahoos go back to Father Kino’s day.”

“Just don’t bury me next to that old slaver.” Eyes closing, Wainwright sighed. “We could all use a good rest. Not quite that long, but nevertheless, a breather.”

Jess rolled onto his back to stare at the stars.

“Something burning in Sonoita. House, maybe. It was pretty big.”

“Eight kilometers.” Wainwright yawned and lay back. In moments, snores came from him. Jess took a blanket to spread over the old man. When they met, Wainwright was a chubby, aging Fredrick Douglass. No longer, now his face was angular and he looked somewhat like Solomon.

Linnet sat near Jess and signed, What’s his deal?

Old man. Family dead. Us or loneliness.

Linnet shook her head. Goes deeper. Doc is multi-layered, but no one lies to a True Human Being.

Niio. Jess grunted and rolled over drawing her down with him. She shook her head and took the night-vision goggles. The cell phone burned blue, but nothing more.

He watched her go, then allowed himself the luxury of sleeping outside. He frowned and Jack was there, smiling, drinking from a bottle he found. He offered some to Jess, who tried it only to grimace. Jack snorted a laugh and took the bottle, sharing it with Chuck and somebody he remembered only as Mike. Before it was drained, he crawled in their bedding. Jess covered his head and pretended the grunts were from a DVD.

A low mutter snapped him from rest. Jess yawned and sat up. He whistled a nighthawk’s song and Linnet answered from a tree. With more yawns, he opened the food sack and took dried vegetables from it and a sack of pinto beans. He smiled at them. Ann had been happy to have some for seed, but only a pound. That would give her fifty pounds and more back, provided they weren’t those GMO killers, as his mother called them. He scowled but shrugged. Unlike the Tarahumara, he wasn’t dependent on gardens to survive.

He tapped Wainwright’s shoe and the man came awake with a start. Linnet climbed down. Wainwright reached for the goggles. Jess shook his head and took them.

“Point,” he said and tapped a thumb on his chest. “We reach Patagonia, we find a hole and crawl in it for the day. Used to be a lot of baddies around.” He put a sleeping Nina on his back and she wrapped her arms around his neck in a strangle hold. Jess set off along the road, keeping close to the brush.

From drag, Linnet said, “Sasabe. Pa had family there, but it got so bad even before the Troubles, they left, abandoning their home. Cocaine Alley, that’s what they called the whole wildlife reserve. Not many animals or plants left by then, either.”

Wainwright stumbled. “We tried, but no one wanted to hear it.”

“Until it was too late,” Jess said. “Too much power and too much greed. Pa said that. That’s why he planted olives and cactus along the border fence. It stopped most, but they only went around it.”

After a quarter mile, they were all worried into silence. A thick, sinuous shape crawled off the road. Jess pointed at it as he passed the snake. Wainwright jumped onto the road and stumbled a little faster.

“Small mouths take small bites,” Jess said and chuckled. “It’s the little they leave behind that’s painful.”

“It was quite fat,” Wainwright said, staring behind him. “The feeding must be good.”

Jess stopped to give him the goggles. Wainwright put them on and chortled.

“Heavens, but the night is thick with life.”

“Always was.” Jess took back the goggles. “In the border country, you got to be tough and smart or you die young.”

He saw a flash of body heat and held up a fist. A large animal charged up the hill to be lost in the brush. It bellowed and Linnet was on her knee, aiming in that direction.

Jess smiled despite a wary feeling. “A steer or cow. It knows guns.”

Wainwright picked up the pace, so Jess walked a little faster. He glanced back. Linnet was twenty feet behind Wainwright, and something far longer than it was tall walked about fifty behind her.

“Company,” Jess said. “Six o’clock, girl.”

She spun and waited. The animal stopped. It snarled and dashed into the brush. Jess started to walk again, but kept glancing behind. The cat paced them for another mile, then ran into the trees. Jess stopped and eased to one side but signed for them to hide.

A cheery glow came from the area of Sonoita, and he frowned. It was early yet for monsoons, but they would come. A small storm sweeping up from the Gulf of California would be low enough to miss. Often, they were less than a hundred yards wide. A lightning strike could have started the fire.

He sniffed the air, but smelled nothing except aging pine rosin and a faint, acrid one of rodents. One foot moved and he began to walk. Light steps told him Linnet was a dozen yards behind him. Wainwright’s heavy tread followed hers, now. He glanced back and signed to switch. She nodded and dropped behind Wainwright.

Well-decorated with ancient bullet holes, a mile marker proclaimed Sonoita one mile distance. He grinned at that, having killed a few with his older brother. The smile died. Pepe, little Joe, went to Iraq and never came home. An uncle did, as well. Family living south of the border may have died, or not. For now, there was no way to tell.

He faded to the brush and stopped. A twig snapped and he sighed. Wainwright muttered an apology, another mistake. Jess signed for them to move a little deeper and make a dry camp. Linnet had to help Wainwright to sit.

Jess watched and a figure lumbered onto the road. It was upright, but this was no angry bear. Rifles over their shoulders, several more came out and they wandered towards Sonoita.

He sank into the brush to whisper to Linnet. She fed the baby pieces of date, and nodded.

“We got to cut west, then south,” Jess said, leaning over to kiss the baby. He got a sticky fist in the eye and winced, but kissed her anyway. “We can come back when we hit Patagonia to check the seed vault.”

Linnet grinned, but her eyes drew down in a shy look. Jess stared and his heart started to pound. He reached for her, pulling her close. Linnet eased back, but Jess only smiled and took the baby. The baby farted long and loud and he winced.

“Durn ya, Willy,” a man said. “Hush that racket.”

Nina eased deeper into the brush. Jess looked up, where the voice came from. Hidden behind a deer blind, there were only sparks of life.

A chuckle came from their right. A man walked through the woods. He passed Wainwright, who sat with head down and the cell phone buried under his coat.

“Hush what, you idiot?”

“The noise.”

The man stopped. “...I didn’t make any noise. It must have been the wind in your head.”

“Get back to your post. If I catch you sleeping again, I’ll gut you.”

Muttering under his breath, the man on the ground stumbled over Wainwright’s feet. As he picked himself up, his eyes widened. Wainwright popped an open hand under his nose and the man staggered, gaping as blood ran down his chin. He slumped on the earth and one foot trembled.

Wainwright glanced up, but the man in the blind remained quiet. Jess touched him and nodded. He crawled by the man and Linnet followed. Nina waited for them with a knife, and crawled up on Jess’s back to lay there. The musty reek of a creeper drifted in the air. Jess glanced around but saw none in the shadows. Before the bitter man crawled down in the morning, there would be little left of his friend.

Before they got to Sonoita Creek, Nina was asleep. Jess squatted to fill water bottles, tossing them back Linnet. She tied them fast and crept down to sip, then look, and sip again.

With trembling hands he signed, You are the doe in the morning.

She glanced at him but Jess crawled over the rocks to the other side. Linnet touched Wainwright. He tried to walk, but stumbled and crawled over. Nina scurried across and then Linnet while Jess guarded their backs.

They were a mile south of Sonoita when to Jess’s dismay, they came across a worn hiking trail. A lot of people used it, but there wasn’t a lot of sign, either. He prowled along it for almost a mile, then returned.

“Good water ahead and no sign of creepers.”

Linnet slid to her feet and took point. Jess dropped back carrying Nina and the baby. Wainwright struggled along with the packs when Jess stopped him.

“You got to load your back, not your shoulders.” He rearranged the packs and put a strap over Wainwright’s forehead. “Lean forward and walk.”

After a few steps Wainwright grunted and his pace grew smooth.

Nina sat on Jess’s shoulders. She looked around.

“You’ll make a fine one to run the trails,” Jess said. “You got good eyes for trouble and aren’t afraid to fight.”

“I like Miss Betsy,” she said, tapping the knife sheath. “Pa give me her, mister, and said to chop down any cowboy who so much as smiled at me.”

“What about city boys?”

Nina gave him a grunt of contempt. “Girly boys, ain’t they? If I grow up, I want a man to give me strong young uns. Them city boys, they die too easy.” She tapped the knife again.

Jess smiled.

Miles more and Linnet raised a hand. She dropped it, palm down and Jess eased into the trees. He helped Wainwright take off the tumpline and lowered the bundles to the ground. Wainwright sank down rubbing his neck.

“After today, I may need a good chiropractor but the workout is bar none.” He lay back and started to snore. Jess eased him to his side and the snores stopped.

Nina yawned and blinked. She curled up behind Wainwright and Jess put the baby between them. Linnet came in and squatted, but Jess signed for her to rest. She frowned, baring her teeth to hide a yawn.

Fighting a smile, he eased out to hide near the trail. Sonoita would be almost due east. Gangs tended to group where the pickings were easiest. While Sonoita was never very big, 83 had been an artery for Santa Clara County. Ten miles to the west as the crow flies, was Interstate 19. When they could still find gasoline and diesel, large gangs traveled the interstate and state routes. Jess eased to his other foot.

Mrs. Packer took a lot of fools who traveled the interstate. Summer and winter, for the first few years, traffic was heavy and the hunting easy. When that faded, Jack raided the state routes as far south as San Xavier del Bac. There, Tohono O’odham tracked down and killed five of his men.

Jess rubbed his face only to still, frowning at making a sudden move. Something clicked on the trail. He looked through his fingers at a deer. It was a doe, and she nibbled at dried fungi on a tree trunk.

He watched and smiled until her tail flashed and she dived into the brush bleating for a fawn. Two of them rose from hiding to flee after her. One paused to look back, then bolted.

A hawk rose with something in its claws only to dive into the treetops. Muscles growing tight, Jess waited, but smelled nothing remotely human. A faint buzz made him look for a bee. It came from lower on the trail, towards Patagonia. Minutes passed before he could tell it was a motor. It chugged and rattled, but rode the trail.

Wainwright crawled out. He squinted.

He grabbed Jess by the arm. “Military. See the colors? Desert camouflage.” He jumped up but Jess tackled him, dragging him back to the brush and held a knife at his throat.

Wainwright stared at Jess. Linnet came out alone. Nina would guard the baby and packs. She looked at Wainwright and then at the road. They crouched lower, easing back. Wainwright grimaced, but obeyed the knife.

A tan and brown jeep rattled by. Two men sat in the front with four in the back and all well-armed, but none wore uniforms. They were bored and despite the rocky trail one’s head nodded in sleep.

When the noise faded and nothing tailed them, Jess let Wainwright up.

Bitter, the old man scowled. “They were American soldiers--”

“No.” Jess shook his head at any argument. “They had a jeep, but if I wanted, I could get one. There’s a lot of them scattered all over. Ranchers liked them ‘cause they’re tough and the CAFE standards didn’t apply to military issue. They could take a hit by a bull and still ran good. Those boys were a gang, not our people.”

Wainwright sank to his heels with his face buried in his hands.

“I hope you’re wrong about this. God, but when the fighting broke out we had troops hidden along the border. Many were swarmed by drug lords armed with AK-Forty-Sevens and military issue M-Sixteens from Mexico.”

An arm over the man’s shoulders, Jess signed for Linnet to return to Nina. Weak sobs came from Wainwright and she winced, running into the brush.

When Wainwright’s shoulders stopped shaking, Jess gripped his shoulder.

“Git on back, Doc. Tonight, we might make Patagonia, if the traffic stays light.” He gave Wainwright a crooked grin. The man smiled back.

“Reality check. Thank you. When I sleep, I dream of an innocent time, but the nightmare grows in me, as well.”

“New day calls for new tactics. Pa always said that. Only animals think each day should be filled with ease and contentment. Without challenges, we act little better than animals.”

Head dropping in a nod, Wainwright slid back into the brush. Jess listened, but the old man was learning new tricks. Not so much as dead pine needles cracked under his boots.

Linnet came out with water and some cookies. He ate fast and drank. She signed for him to get some rest. Unable to argue, he crawled to where Wainwright lay pretending to be asleep. Nina had a cabin of twigs to play with, and Jess crooked a hand at the ground. The baby smiled but as soon as the sheet came over them, she yawned and began to snore. Nina crawled under the sheet and slumped. Jess held them both until sleep overcame him and the nightmare started.

One of the women shouted, and then pleaded. A baby wept and struggled. He stood in the window of the bachelor shack to listened. The weak cries stopped and the woman dissolved in tears. A little smoke rolled from the chimney. Mrs. Packer was cooking again. Whispers of shrill glee drifted through the nightmare.

Peter Parker played the piglet and packed his pecker in and parked a piggy.

Linnet whispered and he drew the sheet down to smile at her. The sun hung below the horizon. Jess crawled from the rocky bed grunting and stretching to loosen cramped muscles.

Sinking to his heels next to Linnet, he said, “Why did you let me sleep so long?”

She handed him a piece of dried corn fritter. “Doc’s on watch. When he wants, the man’s a curly wolf.” She moistened part of the fritter in her mouth and swallowed. The baby grabbed what was in Jess’s hand and he let her take it.

“More wildlife as we head south,” Linnet said. She took another fritter and pressed half in his hands. “Got to mean fewer people.”

“The mountains, they gather the clouds.” He glanced at the brush. “All the trees ranchers planted are growing mushrooms, so they’re feeding on that. High protein and sweet, what don’t kill ya.”

He ate, drinking just enough to stop a nagging desire to drain a swimming hole, and went to the trail. When he saw Wainwright’s bulk, he gave a low whistle. The man stiffened, but nodded. Jess crawled to him.

“Go eat and lay down for a few hours. We got to make Patagonia before dawn.”

Silent, Wainwright tried to smile and handed him the night vision goggles. Jess put them on and adjusted the strap.

About nine by the stars, the desert moon rose in all her bloody glory. Linnet came out followed by Nina and the baby. Wainwright came last. He was still angry but much of it was sadness. Jess pressed a finger to his lips. He pointed down the trail for Nina to look.

A coatimundi waddled over the trail and climbed a tree. Two more followed, and one had a baby scampering with her. Nina’s eyes gleamed. A bird made a frantic chatter and dead limbs creaked. Above their heads, the coatimundi raided a late nest of eggs.

Wainwright shifted and a stone moved under his foot. The coatimundi looked down the trail, then fled into the trees.

A turkey called and Jess frowned. He eased back but it didn’t call again. When they came out to the trail, he took point with the rifle held at arms and stayed there until well after midnight.

Linnet came up to take the rifle. Fists iron over the stock and barrel, Jess gave a weary nod and let her. He dropped back to see Wainwright with the cell phone. It glowed in the dark and he hissed. The old man closed the link, but tipped his head at Jess.

“Patagonia is roughly due east. There’s supposed to be a trail near here. A dirt bike could run it, but it’s narrow and too precipitous for a jeep.”

Jess looked at the sky. Stars were a white blaze, not a cloud in sight. No precipitation... Neck burning, he smiled. Precipitous.

“Mister, I reckon there’s a great much I don’t understand about my own language. What’s that word mean? Rough or only bad?”

“Steep, a bad angle.”

Jess nodded his thanks and behind him, Wainwright said, “A student interested in more than greed and selfishness. A man intelligent enough to want to learn. The changed world order is amazing. Amazing.”

Even more puzzled by Wainwright’s mutters than his English, Jess trotted up to Linnet to tell her. She nodded and signed she heard. He fell back to take drag. Nina yawned, but walked too close to Wainwright. Jess let it be, in part because the old man wanted it that way. If they got hit by a gang, they would nail the point man first so she could escape with the baby. Kids are more important than adults.

An hour passed before Linnet held up a hand. She pointed east and Jess ran to her. The trail was wide here, but as it climbed the mountain, it grew steeper and rocky. At one point, it curved around a barren shoulder. Below, it was exposed for a mile or more. Jess fought an urge to run and put Nina on his shoulders. Wainwright took the baby, holding her where she could cling to his hair.

Cracker crumbs dribbled down his neck and Wainwright shuddered, but smiled.

“Babies are like that,” he said. “Right from the start my two were both hellions. No mere parent was a good enough servant for the boys.”

They came to a place the trail sheered off the mountain, leaving a bald face. Wainwright scowled and was about to open the link when Linnet whistled. She touched the cliff and climbed out on it.

“Anasazi or Hohokam,” Jess said. “They liked shortcuts through the hills. It threw off their enemies.”

Eyes sunk deep into his head, Wainwright started to tremble. “I, as well.” Just the same, when Linnet reached the trail again, he clambered out with the baby in the sling and picked his way over. He waved from the trail. Jess put Nina on his back and looked for handholds. They were worn by the centuries, but cut deeply enough.

He reached the end when a rock cracked. Jess’s feet slid down the rocky escarpment and Nina grunted, hanging on.

Linnet whispered and reached for Nina. The child kicked away and Jess’s hand slipped. He hung there and didn’t look down. With a grunt, he slapped at a hole and pulled himself to the trail. Jess turned and opened his fly. Linnet gasped, hurrying Nina down the trail followed by a chuckling Wainwright.

When done, Jess caught up with them. He winked at Linnet, but she turned her face. A little ashamed of his actions, Jess took point. Smiling, Wainwright clapped a hand on his shoulder.

“I saw the map,” he said.

“And if we come across something the map didn’t tell you?”

“Then I call you up.”

“I’m more worried about booby traps than the trail.”

“I see your point, but no booby traps were on this map. I found them on the trail to Ann’s home, after we could restore the batteries.”

Jess gave a reluctant nod. “No stopping to say como esta to folks, all right?”

With a faint smile, Wainwright tipped his head.

At a steep place, Jess took out the rope, tying Nina to himself and Linnet to Wainwright. Linnet gave Jess a quick kiss but ducked from his smile. She edged out, picking her way down the slope. Wainwright followed but held back. She slowed, letting him find his pace.

“You ready, Freddie?” Jess said.

“Fine as frogs’ hair, Freddie Fender. I’m juiced to the gills and about t’ fry my soul on that sweet, sweet sound.”

“Just don’t start singing the Great Pretender.” Jess put the baby’s sling over his stomach and she giggled, tiny fingers picking at his shirt. She scowled, peering at what she found. Jess scowled and snatched a small scorpion from her fingers, flipping it in the air. Something fluttered over them to snatch it up only to dive from a screech owl.

The bird eyed them but flapped away on death-silent wings.

Dead yucca held a dangerous compliment of spikes. Jess walked around it looking for new growth, but saw none. The skeleton of a cholla hung over a steep place and the red eyes of a dove burned at him from her nest. He edged by that one. While not deadly as a roadrunner or hummingbird, they would attack, and do it sooner than a predator. She tucked her head under one wing and he caught sight of an egg. Jess smiled. At this time of year, it would be her third or fourth clutch. While pests in small grains, they also needed a lot of weed and grass seed. Even mesquite pods were eaten by them, somehow.

Halfway down, Linnet called a halt. Angry, Jess signed at her, but Nina sagged to the rocky earth with her head between her knees. He nodded and tucked the child under one arm to haul her down to Linnet.

He squatted next to Wainwright while Linnet coaxed water and crackers into Nina. A small, but evil giggle came from Nina and Jess looked up in alarm.

What gives?

Cookies. She needs the sugar.

Nina looked up and her eyes burned with the need to be bad. Jess shuddered. Nina was one of those people, a person who went haywire from sweets.

No more, he signed and slashed a hand at the earth. She’s gonna cause a wreck and then pass out.

Linnet frowned. We know how much to allow. Been there, done that, she signed and her eyes twinkled. Nina gave another evil giggle and Jess slumped.

Linnet slid up touching Wainwright on the head. He grunted and looked up. Even in the dark, the man’s eyes were dull and he sighed.

Jess offered Linnet the baby, but she shook her head and squatted, drawing Wainwright’s pack on her back. She edged out, along a gravel path when fire blinked in the brush.

They dropped, even Wainwright. Jess slapped him on the arm and grinned. Nina giggled again and kissed her knife. Jess thrust the baby sling at Wainwright and began to worm his way down the slope keeping to the earth and using what little cover grew there.

He brushed against a cholla and dead thorns came free as he moved from it, but there was no time to pull them. Just before he entered the brush, he looked back. Linnet and the others waited, invisible in the dark, but the morning star burned over the mountains.

He slid in and crept to where he saw the fire. A dark bulk squatted behind a screen made of rough-woven brush. The man stared up the slope with a rifle aimed hard at where the others would be.

Jess sniffed the air but the man was clean, scrubbed down with yucca or something that left no smell behind. Walnut hulls were good to kill a scent, but he smelled nothing like that.

Sliding the Bowie from the sheath, he eased up behind the man and jumped. One hand clapped over the mouth and moonlight winked on the knife just before it touched the throat.

“We only want to travel through. Got that?”

The man gave a small nod.

“We got a woman and kids and we’ll kill all ya all before we let you hurt a one. Can we spend the day?”

From behind Jess, a gravel voice said, “There’s a few thousand left here. If you ain’t lying, you can spend the day, but got to move on.”

Cold steel touched his left ear.

“Let Bull go, kid. Were I t’ shoot you it might make a mess.” Men chuckled, even Bull, who said, “A mess on me, ya mean. That Sharps would put the slug through the skinny kid and give me a bad bruise.”

Bull eased the knife from his throat to smile at a wary Jess. He grunted and tipped over, the heavy body sagging and eyes frowning. A report echoed over the valley and hard hands dragged Bull from Jess to shield the big man. Fire winked again. A man shot at where the others hid, but Jess kicked the rifle up.

“Eleven o’clock,” he shouted as the barrel clubbed at him. He twisted and jumped out. A bullet struck a tree, shattering dead bark. Two rifles popped, one from the men who caught him and Linnet’s.

A wild scream came from Linnet and the men chuckled.

“You miss,” a man said, his English rough. “Looks like the babe she better.”

“Yeah, so your old lady told me, OK?” Jess was given a rough pat on the shoulder, the one the barrel bruised. He scowled and got another pat, this one on the head. He slapped at the hand and a stick cracked over his bottom.

“Here, you pervert.”

The men chortled and shoved Jess at the slope.

“Let’s go see this sharpshooter, OK? If she looks as pretty as she shoots, you’re getting a divorce.”

“Only after your old lady is a widow,” a man said.

Behind them, Bull snarled. “Look, buddy, it’s hardly bleeding. Get your hands off me else something worse is gonna happen to you.”

“Shut up, infant, or Grampa’s gonna use that stick on you.” A lot of non-English followed and Bull stilled

Silent but grinning, men followed Jess up the slope. Three cut off and dropped to climb towards where the shooter tried to kill Bull.

“Bring me back a scalp,” Bull said, the bellow echoing off the mountains.

A man grunted. “Now he want to be Sitting Bull.”

“Bull hokey, ya mean.”

Bull shouted something in a language that was unfamiliar to Jess and the men chuckled, but slid to the earth and spread out.

Someone said, “Like Gramps, when they were island hopping back in World War Two.”

“Hey, them babes in Japan are sweet, especially in the hot tub.”


“Don’t let your woman hear that.”

Tight and harsh, an older man said, “Does anybody here know the meaning of stalking? Shut up.”

The men grew silent and Jess groaned with relief. The older man who caught him winked and nodded. He signed to move faster. The night is alive with eyes.

Jess signed, It always was. Night-wing messengers seek the souls of the evil to eat.

The man grinned but shut his mouth before shining teeth got his head blown off.

A scream came from one side of where Linnet waited.

“Yi-haw.” Guns cracked and then a dozen jumped to their feet to race up the slope, only to be cut down by singing fighters.

“My scalp,” Bull shouted. “My gramma was Comanche and I need one.”

“Then stop shaving your head, jerk.”

“Who said that?” Brush crushed under Bull’s hands. “You wait till I have to name all your kids.”

Jeering, a man shouted, “Spaniard.” In answer, Bull roared something that was probably vile in any language.

Men shouted laughter and some raced to the dead, striking them. They went on and more rifle fire crackled near where the cliff stood.

Jess whistled a code and a shaken Linnet answered. Nina popped up, only to be knocked down. The child screamed and even Bull stopped shouting. Eyes wide, the older man seemed to shrink back.

“She been eating sugar?”

“Linnet gave her a cookie.”

The man shuddered. “I got a half-dozen kids. Before the Cleansing, every time the old lady wanted to get back at me, she give them brats a mess o’ candy, just to set ‘em off.”

Jess chuckled and nodded. “Mama, too.”

“Grandpa’s revenge.” He wiped sweat off his brow. “Oi, vey.

Jess rose to his knees to wave and sign hello. Linnet dragged Nina to the ground and sat on her, then signed come-ahead and welcome.

Standing, Jess picked his way up the slope to Linnet and a trembling, dozing Wainwright.

“Halo angel,” Jess said to Linnet and smiled. “We found some friends, maybe.”

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