Not quit certain what the jeers were for, Jess gave Linnet a
chaste kiss on the cheek.
Shy, smiling, she threw the bouquet of plastic flowers over one shoulder. Harl yelped in terror. He ducked, but a woman jumped and caught them. Shouting a war cry, she waved them over her head.
Jess ducked from a hug from some woman and dragged Linnet out of the house. He glanced around but Linnet fled towards a patch of live brush. She looked back only to stumble. Jess caught her, hauling her to the trees and ducked down. A bower stood there, living branches woven into a hut. He knelt and let her go in first, then followed.
“Nobody’s there.” He started for the hospital again, but Linnet snagged him by the back of the pants and Jess froze.
With a grin, he dived in and she screamed, laughing at him.
It was dark out, the morning star burning bright. One hand reaching for his fly, Jess crawled out of the wedding bower and steel chilled the back of his neck.
“Hi, Jess. How ya doing, buddy?”
He looked up to see Jack squat before him. The man smiled and nodded.
“Heard ya got married. Do I know the lady? No, not yet. When Mrs. Packer meets her, then I’ll get a turn, right?”
Jess lunged, but Chuck swung and he stumbled to the ground. He came up screaming but Jack twisted and rammed a fist in his stomach, then on the back of his neck.
“Tie him up,” he said. “You, woman. Out here. Get out or I’ll cut his nuts off just to watch you cry.”
“No, run Lin--”
Chuck kicked Jess in the head and he was thrown back. Pulling on her clothes, Linnet crept from the bower.
A smile making her face tight, she cocked an eye at Jack. “A wedding bower is sacred, perv.” Drawling and happy, she said, “I got the right to kill all ya all for this.”
Jack chortled and tipped her chin up.
“Yeah, you’re a beauty, but too dark for my tastes. Jess, where’s your kid? Mrs. Packer wants her.”
Chuck dragged up Jess and he stumbled, but Linnet caught him.
“Mine,” Jess said, blood drooling out of his mouth. “And alive. But even if she were yours, I’d still want her for my kid.”
Jack frowned, but looked from him to shrug. “Don’t matter. She belongs to Mrs. Packer, not us.”
Linnet snorted. “A two-bit hooker what never had the class to make it as a free woman?”
Jack clubbed the back of his hand over Linnet’s face. Jess shouted and rammed him, knocking the man out of the grove. Chuck shouted in pain and Jess charged back to jump, grabbing the man with both legs and twisted, flipping them both over while Linnet screamed a war cry and fired a round in the air.
Jack bellowed and men swarmed over the walls while dawn eased into the sky. Gangs swept into town firing at Tohono and tried to burn the school. Screaming war cries, Tohono scattered and then charged them, driving them back against the school.
Jack dragged Jess up by the hair.
“Throw down your weapons,” he shouted at the Tohono. “Do it or he dies.”
Minutes passed while the sun warmed the mountains. Jess gave Jack a crooked smile.
“Kill me.” Jess shouted it. “Kill me, Jack. Do it and Linnet will burn your toes from feet from legs and then get nasty. Do it. You Pennsylvania sheep molester. I married a Wysoki and she’s hungry for revenge.”
Jack raised the pistol but Jess laughed. He licked blood from under his nose and swayed, but grinned.
“My old man was a Ganian. Mama is the granddaughter of Sahuaripa, a sacred-person from the Runners, the Tarahumara. You think you got an edge?” Jess spat a mouthful of blood on Jack’s feet. “Mister, you go ’head and kill me, but my ghost will dance on the sewer they bury you in.”
Jack pressed the muzzle of the pistol against his forehead.
“All we want is the food. OK? Just that.”
“We can’t.” Harl stepped forward. “The Solomon fella, he changed the codes until they can get a government boy in here. Army is taking over the area ‘cause al-Queda has soldiers around.” He pointed into the sun. “Fort Huachuca is only thirty miles.”
“It’s dead. I want that seed.”
“Seed, Jack?” Jess muttered a laugh and drawled, “Ya all ain’t from these parts, are ya?” He nodded at the mountains. “Plenty to eat. You can’t set that old bag up as queen of the maize, doling food out as you see fit. If you knew the land, you’d see what we saw. The deer are coming home. That means other animals are already thick. Man, the eagles are home. Ravens and hawks, owls, coyotes. I heard a wolf a week ago. A wolf, Jack. A lobo. If those predators are home, what do you think it means? Coyotes will eat anything, but wolves and hawks, they need meat. Plenty to eat, if you had the eyes for it. And now the Army is coming.”
Bitter and filled with contempt, Jack said, “Huachuca is dead. I come through Sierra Vista and they bombed the place to ashes. Not even the houses were left.” He pressed the gun to Jess’s head. “The seed. Give me the friggin seed.”
“You’re done,” Jess said. “Get out and live like a man, not a boy toy.”
A jet roared out of the dawn. It came in low enough people dived to the ground to escape backwash. Jess kicked Jack in the head and twisted from a shot. The Tohono cheered and swarmed the raiders, cutting them down.
Jess tore free of the rope and ran at Jack.
The raider aimed, but a rock hit his chest. He screamed hate. Nina and her friends whipped a cloud of stones at him. Jess charged him. Jack lunged for the wall only to drop. Chuck clambered down and threw him at the top only to be dragged down. Jack bared his teeth at Jess and jumped.
Jess climbed up in time to see Jack crawl into an Army jeep. It rattled off, gaining speed bouncing over junk on the road. He stood on the wall and raised his fists in promise. He hopped down into a happy embrace and a smile on Linnet.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Jack got away.”
“We’ll take him down,” Harl said.
“Yeah, you got the Army here, they’ll watch you.”
Harl choked, but gave a gentle, yet false smile.
“Well, it’s like this. No,” he said, scowling at someone. “I didn’t lie; every man over thirty is military. We got Army personnel, Marines, Navy and even a guy who was in the Coast Guard. It’s a man’s duty to protect women and kids. We do our duty. Even when that wienie was president and lost the country. I hope he stayed in Cuba. Old Castro, he liked sending blacks to the cane fields.”
Linnet helped Jess walk to the hospital. An old woman gave Jess a broad wink, but let them pass into the foyer. A nurse scowled, signing they shouldn’t stay long. Propped against a willow-twig back, a tired Wainwright looked up grinning.
“I’m sorry I missed that,” he said. “Looks like you had a little fun.”
“Well, it is the Fourth.” Harl held up four fingers. “July. And they even sent a jet. Scared hell out of those pervs, let me tell ya.”
“But Jack got away. Miz Packer, too.” Fighting a grin, Jess sank to the bedding. “’Scuse me, Doc. Guess Linnet just plain got me wore out.” Linnet cocked an eye. Jess shuddered at the chill, but winked and fire ate its way up her cheeks.
A woman came out to fuss over him, but Linnet took the basin and rags. She smiled.
“Laws, but I hope they have pine tar. It’s just the very best for burning the devil out of a man. A wounded man, I mean.”
“If we ain’t, honey,” the nurse said, “I’ll make it myself. Welcome to married life.”
Jess leaned over to kiss Linnet and she frowned.
“Not in front of the young uns, mister.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and did it again.
Wainwright sighed. “Welcome to the nose ring. When can I escape this harridan nursing staff?”
“Harridans, he calls us.” One woman sniffed, and said, “Compliments will get ya nowhere, ya greenhorn.”
Wainwright shuddered, but smiled. “We have a mission to complete. Then I can come back and let you torture me some more. Agreed?”
With a sigh all his own, Jess sat back to let Linnet finish doctoring him. She grimaced at some of the bruises, but nodded.
“A day or two, Doc.” She patted a damp rag at blood seeping from Jess’s left cheek. “I’m tired of sticking up for the Apache Kid, here.”
“Tarahumara,” Jess said, but someone snorted.
“And Mohawk. Them Ganians boys were from the Flint Hill People of New York.”
“Coffee was Cherokee, wasn’t he?”
“Shawnee. He was kin to old-man Crockett. But Miz Annie, she was--”
“Conjecture.” A nurse elbowed a pair of men out of her way and they grunted, frowning and rubbing bruised ribs.
She looked over Linnet’s work. “Good. Too bad we don’t have a school of nursing here. Those Jacksonite idiots closed the county hospitals as fast as they could and stole the funding. Everything was in the cities. Lot’s of luck finding even the books.”
“I have them,” Wainwright said. When the nurses scowled, he smiled. “Everything in the national library is in the cell phone. It was, ah, a gift from a friend, let us say. It contains medical texts as well as the official plant lists with medicinal properties.”
Nurses stared, then clamored to see it. Ill or not, Wainwright found himself hustled out to the vault to try to fix the mainframe.
Jess nuzzled Linnet’s throat where the collarbones formed a hollow. She breathed a sigh and let him. He started on something a little more serious and she eased back to the bedding. Nina screamed and both of them raced out.
She pointed at a dead baby crucified upside down on the wall. A second baby tumbled screaming from the wall.
Guards fired at three men, striking them down, but one crawled under the rubble of a wrecked home. Two guards charged the man only to be called to report. Thin whispers started, pleas to be fed. They stopped, eyeing the rubble and backed away. The raider scowled, but grinned and spat at the guards. Then stilled and frowned. With a shout of pain he tried to jump out. Emaciated hands dragged him shrieking back under the rubble and in moments, he grew silent.
Notes were pinned to the babies. One had been dead for days and was drying out, but the gray skin showed hand marks.
Mrs. Packer noted these were Jess’s children. Jack was sterile from radiation. Chuck, of course, preferred Jack, and she had had a hysterectomy. She even added a horned smiley and Have a nice day!
Jess stroked Nina’s head but slid down to look her in the eye. “Nina, did you see anyone else? Was a woman with them?”
She shook her head. “Just those bad men. They used slings. Can we go? I wanna go home.” Frightened eyes searched Jess’s face. “Please?”
“ASAP,” he said. “As soon as possible. Grampa Doc got to get some more rest.” He looked at Linnet. “Then we can go.” Rising, he reached for Linnet’s hand. She gave his a fierce grip.
“They can’t be yours, can they?”
“No. Elise was the only one that I know of. Jack claims all the kids in the garden were mine.” He scowled and shook his head. “Might be, he’s not as sterile as he thinks. Mrs. Packer had him, ah, deflower Danny’s sisters. Jane and Bea, though the girls were being used by that gang. She likes t’ watch stag shows.” Towing Linnet, he walked to the seed saver’s building.
Men were on the roof rigging the dish antenna. Shouts came from a broken window, directing them. Other men split logs to make shutters for the windows. Jess hung back, but Linnet went in and tugged him close.
Wainwright knelt on the floor splicing wires, while several men tried to open the link. One computer lay opened and a man used an artist’s brush to pick out dust and cobwebs. He finished and went to the others, doing the same.
“Next time we have a war,” he said. “Next time, we do it right and have the rooms sealed. OK?”
“Well, I wasn’t given much option.” Wainwright backed from under a desk and took a seat. It listed to one side but someone jammed a tablet under it. “Thank you.”
He grimaced and raised a finger.
“Break a leg,” he said and the finger dropped. The monitor shimmered blue. No icons appeared. Wainwright scowled, slipping the cell phone onto the desk. Breath trapped in his throat, he opened it.
A man on the roof said, “That’s it, Doc. The panel has a couple of bullet holes in it.”
Wainwright scowled and eyed the room. “We can make new panels from silicates. Some of the caves around here are full of them. But, we need the tools to make nodes for the panels, and how to do is in here.” He tapped the cell phone. “The entire set of How Things Work is here.” He groaned. “We need more electricity.”
“How about pedal power?” Jess leaned over a desk to frown at the cell phone. “Pa used to rewind electric motors. There has to be hundreds of cars and trucks around. The alternators should be good and the ladies at the school got a methane generator. Digesters make a lot of hydrochloric acid that could be used to wet the batteries. We’re gonna need a good converter, though, or it’ll burn everything out.”
Wainwright scowled and then closed his eyes.
“Five years of college. Another five learning how to be an engineer. Ten years working at computer development. Then another twenty for...” He gave them an innocent smile only to scowl at Jess. “And a kid with a Fifth Grade education is teaching me simple electronics.”
“Well.” Jess grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry, but I thought it might help.”
Wainwright jumped up and grabbed Jess in a bear hug and kissed him on one cheek. Jess shouted, shoving him away and grabbed for the .38, but Linnet snatched it from him. She crowed a laugh and jumped in his arms.
Wainwright hobbled from the office shouting for alternators. “A dozen or more. And bicycles. We can hook each one to a bicycle via the chain, and link the alternators to batteries, if any lithium units are intact.”
By nightfall, a cheerful light glowed in the offices. Wainwright smiled at the bulbs.
“Barely one step above one hundred candle power. They may not last long, but we’ve plenty of car lights around. They’ll work on direct current.” He sat at the desk and bowed his head for a moment. Jess squeeze Linnet’s hand and the monitor glowed. The cell phone opened to show a bored, drowsy Marine.
“Young man?” Wainwright tapped the cell phone. “Can you hear me?”
The man snapped to attention and saluted. Eyes edging around to look over the room, he scowled and the hand dropped.
“The computer, please.” Wainwright sat back. “Tell my son for the time being, we’re safe with the Tohono. I’m going to attempt to download medical texts and herbals from the cell phone library. If he has anything more than this, let us know.”
The Marine gaped and ran from the room. “Doctor. Doctor Solomon. Doctor Wainwright is making contact.”
Seconds later Solomon dropped in the seat grinning as he buttoned a wrinkled shirt.
“Sir, glad you could join us.” He nodded at someone off camera. “Medical texts?”
“The Tohono clinics appear to have survived, at least in the form of a top-notch nursing staff and two doctors. We may need more information. Is INMI still alive?”
“Yes, of course, though much has been lost. The auld reekie network is fried.” One fist clenched, Solomon grimaced. “Europe is a slag heap. The pervs used dirty bombs, hiding some for years. Odd, but they hated Europeans more than they did us.”
“Europe grabbed ankle, is why. As your grandmother often told me, without respect, there is no love.” For some reason, Wainwright shuddered. “But information of the Edinburgh medical college and from Yeshiva Medical was sent to all members of INMI. I haven’t a clue if this mainframe can handle it, but we’re working on a new generator. At this point, A-T-T-R-A’s S-A-R-E-S is vital. The summer rains will be starting, and the Tohono have been damming creeks and arroyos to slow the water. But, gangs are coming in and destroying much.” Wainwright grinned. “Thanks for sending the jet. It scared the devil out of Jack’s gang. They wanted to control the seed.”
Solomon’s eyebrows shot up. “A jet? What sort--a fighter? No, Doctor. All of ours are in hangers. I assure you, it couldn’t be one of ours.”
“If it came any closer I’d never need another haircut. A lot of the men here went Air Force. They know an F-22 when they see one. And, it was marked with the US flag and serial number. Six-five-one-three-two-B-A. Not a camel or swastika in sight, honest.” Teeth bared in a grin, Wainwright crossed his heart.
Solomon looked to one side. “That jet was lost right at the start, Comp said. A bogie tailed it from El Paso. When the war started, it knocked him out of the sky.”
“Then get on your knees and thank the angels. That was the fighter we saw.” Scowling at the man, Wainwright thumped a fist on the desk. “And I do not believe in ghosts.”
“All right, Dad, calm down. We’ll check it out, if it makes you any happier.”
The Rev stepped forward and smiled. “If I may, Captain Alex de Garza, USAF, stationed in El Paso Air Command, Reserves. He was my son, and if you can, tell him his father is fine.”
Solomon smiled and nodded. “I will, Reverend. But, don’t hold a lot of hope. It may have been a bogie or a pilot who wanted to scare the enemy, to make them think the military was after them.”
Face drawn, Reverend de Garza nodded and stepped back. Harl gripped him by one shoulder and both headed for the church.
The cell phone shivered, but Wainwright eased it back to normalcy. He turned and smiled.
“Jess, your name is going down in history as a hero of war.”
Jess stiffened. “I ain’t a hero. Just a hand, is all.”
Linnet whispered, “You are to me, baby.”
With a small frown, he started to deny it but Linnet sighed. His face scorched but what else could a man do? So he kissed her.
“Not in front of the kids, mister,” she said, but kissed him back.