Authors: Terry Irving
"Light 'em if you got 'em." Pete Talltrees waved them to a halt outside the little white wooden church in the center of Wounded Knee. He looked back as Rick began to probe inside his jacket. "And if you got 'em, give me one."
"No problem." Rick gave the soft pack of Winstons a snap to make the cigarettes jut out and offered them. Talltrees took three with an unapologetic grin.
"Real cigarettes are like gold around here," he said. "They cut off all supplies weeks ago, and the people who are sending backpackers like you don't seem to consider tobacco an essential."
"Are you kidding? Everyone knows it's one of the five basic food groups: sugar, grease, caffeine, salt, and nicotine." Rick took a cigarette for himself and lit both his and Talltrees’ with his Zippo.
Talltrees watched the up-down snap of the lighter with amusement. "Neat trick. All you Zippo freaks are alike. Do you do the one where you keep snapping your fingers?"
After a deep draw of smoke, Rick shook his head. "Nah, I'm a purist. Just the one trick."
"He's kind of a limited guy." Eve took the cigarette from his mouth. "One trick and he does it over and over and over. Says it's his personal juju. Protective medicine."
Rick got another cigarette and, a bit self-consciously, lit it with the Zippo. "How it started is a long story, but it seems to be a good-luck charm of some sort. You ever have anything like that?"
"What do you think I am? Some sort of primitive redskin?" Talltrees grinned and pulled a strap out from around his neck. A small leather pouch was tied to the strap. "Owl feathers. Takes the sharpness from the eyes of my hunters and lends it to me for a while. Had it looped around the joystick on every combat flight."
He tucked the pouch back in his shirt. As he did, Rick caught a glimpse of a thick leather thong and just the top of an elaborately beaded bag. He looked away. Everyone was entitled to secrets.
Wounded Knee had been through a war. The peeling white paint of the buildings bore mute testimony to that. All the way around, there wasn't a square foot without the splintered gouges of ricochets and even the fist-sized holes of .50 caliber machine gun bullets. The prevailing color of the land was mud-brown, either worn down by booted feet or humped into bunkers, trenches, and foxholes. Rick thought it was fortunate that the temperatures hadn't climbed much above freezing, or the whole area would have been a sea of sludge.
Everyone looked dirty, tired, and very easily irritated. Rick felt hostility like a force pushing against him. He figured some of the glares were due to the sight of a white guy with an Indian girl, or resentment of his stock of store-made cigarettes. Then he remembered the flu bug that they'd heard about from the women in the cooking area when they had dropped off their backpacks of supplies.
The women had complained that after all their effort to make at least one meal a day; at least half the camp threw it up right after eating. Concentrating on the camp odors for a moment, Rick could smell vomit mixed with the campfire smoke and the ever-present stench from the open pit toilets. There was just a hint of cordite from the gunfire of the previous night.
Rick leaned toward Eve and said quietly, "All in all, a delightful place to spend a day."
A sharp crack echoed from the surrounding hills.
Reflex dropped both Rick and Talltrees to the ground instantly. Rick rolled on his side and swept Eve's feet out from under her.
"Over there." Talltrees pointed at a puff of smoke drifting slowly away from a patch of disturbed earth on the eastern ridge. "The marshals are just keeping us on our toes."
Rolling over to his back, he blew a lungful of cigarette smoke straight up. "Most of those guys were Green Berets. If I didn't know better, I'd say they aren't trying very hard to kill us. It’s either that or they've forgotten everything they learned in sniper school."
He gestured at the church. "The only guy we've lost so far was hit inside the church. Poor bastard had only been here a day, and a bullet came through the wall and hit him square in the head as he lay on the floor. Cherokee kid from North Carolina, I think."
"My attitude is that any bullets fired within earshot are a punishable violation of my personal space." Rick looked over at Eve. "You OK?"
"Oh, I'm just ducky wonderful, trooper." She pulled up one arm and then the other, looking at the dirt on her heavy canvas coat. "Could you find a drier place to drop me next time?"
"Hey, better yet, next time some moron fires at us, I'll just let you stay upright." Rick smiled. "Of course, with my luck, they'd miss the little target and hit me anyway."
She kicked his shin without getting up. "Short jokes? It's not enough that I'm tired, filthy, and under fire? You have to start with the short jokes?"
Talltrees got up on one knee and did a careful scan of the surrounding hills. "You lovebirds can continue this discussion here if you want, but I'm going to move to a less exposed position. Like I said, I think they were just trying to keep us alert, but there's no point waiting for one of them to remember how to aim."
Rick stood and lifted Eve to her feet without any indication of effort. They followed Talltrees toward a building in the center of the little town.
It had been the general store and gift shop before the takeover, but three months of occupation had turned it into a single large room surrounded by bulletproof barriers of steel I-beams and packed dirt. Inside, the wreckage of tacky tourist items was mixed with the inevitable trash and garbage that gathers when too many people are stuck in a small space for too long.
"Reminds me of Marine Corps encampments," Rick said. "Never saw one that wasn't surrounded by a layer of crap. Everything from ammo boxes to newspapers just tossed over the wire."
"And don't forget the wonderful smell." Talltrees walked farther into the room where cots and mattresses could be seen. "That ineffable scent of gasoline and crap that means that somewhere a lowly PFC was torching those oil-drum latrines."
He gestured to the sleeping area. "You two better get some sleep if you're walking out of here tonight." He kicked a wooden chair upright, sat down, and leaned it against the wall. "I'll take the watch."
Eve looked surprised. "Keep watch? I kind of doubt those guys in the tanks out there are going to sneak up on us in the middle of the day."
"They're not tanks." Talltrees tilted his hat over his eyes. "They're armored personnel carriers. I don't think anyone would trust those people with real firepower. They'd probably miss and take out the state capital."
"Anyway," he added, "They're not the only dangerous people around here these days. Some clever bastard in the FBI decided to tell the press all about how many spies they have in here with us. Now everyone is on the hunt for informants."
Almost to himself, he said, "Wonderful. A bunch of sick, starving folks with guns and a raging case of paranoia."
Clearly having made a decision, he looked up. "I'll be going out with you tonight. I've spent as much time as I can in this dump."
They're right over there in the grass.
Get down. Down!
Freeze. Hug the ground. Shit, there's blood all over. Footsteps approaching
Don’t breathe He’s cautious
The heel and toe make distinct sounds as they crush the elephant grass.
Hands grab his backpack and flip him over. Fuck!
Rick was fighting the man crouched over him even before he awakened. He grabbed his attacker by the shirt with his left hand, spun him around, and pulled him down to cover his chest. His right hand came up, fingers crooked to strike at the eyes.
"Cool it, paleface!" A harsh voice yelled from the other side of the room. "Cool it or I'll stick a knife in your motherfucking girlfriend!"
Rick froze but didn't release the trembling man lying on top of him. Across the room, a tall man was holding Eve with his left arm across her chest and a large knife in his right hand poised at her waist. He had long straight hair held back by a blue bandanna across his forehead.
Rick turned his head and spotted two more rough-looking men. The chair where Talltrees had been keeping watch was empty.
The man pinned to Rick's chest complained, "Help me, Flick, this motherfucker is crazy! Shoot—"
His protest turned into a wordless gurgle as Rick shifted his grip to the man's throat and slowly levered himself to his feet, pulling the man up with him as if he weighed about as much as a bed sheet. Then he carefully stepped off the insecure footing of the mattress and put his back against the wall. Assessing the situation, Rick addressed the man holding Eve and ignored the others.
"Mind telling me what the hell is going on?"
"Sure, but let go of Henry first before he pisses himself."
Rick put his hands up—palm out. Henry moved so fast to get away that he stumbled and fell on the filthy floor, but even the fall didn’t stop him from his non-stop bitching. "You honky motherfucker. You're a goddamn spy, and we're going to show you exactly what we do with spies."
The man he'd called "Flick" said, "Shut the fuck up, Henry."
Then he said to Rick, "We do have some questions to ask. Are you going to come quietly or do I have to carve up your squaw first?"
Rick saw the anger build in Eve's eyes at the insult. Then she winced as Flick pressed the tip of the knife into her side and a small red stain blossomed on her shirt.
Rick wanted to kill the son of a bitch—that is, if he could get to him before Eve did—but he tried to convey calm as he brought his arms down, and began to dig for a cigarette. "First of all, she's not 'my' squaw or 'my' anything else. I've never seen her before. Hell, she wasn't even here when I went to sleep. Second, I'm not a spy. Why would I hump a load of supplies for 30 miles when I could just as easily watch everything you do through an 8 power scope like all those U.S. Marshals out there?"
Flick shoved Eve to the floor and stepped over her. "Yeah. Yeah. We're not buying that crap. We know you two came in this morning with that asshole, Talltrees. For now, both of you just shut up. You'll get a chance to talk to the Security Committee before we shoot your ass."
Henry had recovered from his fear and was looking for payback. He stepped forward and aimed a large cowboy boot into Rick's stomach. Rick tightened his abdominals and let the kick hit. A stomp kick like that was probably good enough for a bar fight, and Henry didn't expect anything but a doubled-over victim ready for a knee shot to the head.
Rick grabbed the boot with both hands when it was on the rebound with the large muscles of the leg relaxed and sharply twisted it almost a full 360 degrees. Henry threw himself into the air in a vain attempt to relieve the torque on his knee.
He failed, there was a crunching sound, and Henry began to scream.
Rick released the boot. "OK, now there's no need for this sort of mindless violence." He stepped back to the wall and raised his hands—palms out again. "Everybody just relax, and let's talk about this."
It looked like the two men closer to the door were willing to be convinced of the value of non-violence, but Flick was another matter entirely. He put the knife between his teeth and whipped off his denim jacket, revealing a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. Rick could see that Flick worked out and wanted everyone to know it.
Rick wasn't impressed. The bulges and veins on Flick's arms were a telltale sign that he'd lifted for bulk and looks. Rick's own workouts were programmed for flexibility, speed, and functional strength.
Flick grabbed his knife and dropped into a fighter's crouch. "Shit, man, you've just hurt one of my boys. White boy, I don't think we've got anything to talk about."
"You know, I was going to leave in just a couple of hours anyway." Rick stepped away from the wall to give himself some room. "How about we reschedule this little dance? I'm free tomorrow. I swear I'll come back just to keep the appointment."
The knife swept across in a horizontal slash. Rick kept his arms and hands out in front of him and arched his back. He could feel the blade pass by his abdomen, but it didn't touch him. Flick took a shuffle step forward and brought the knife back at head height.
Again, Rick evaded the stroke but the blade was almost instantly jabbing up, and he had to jump back to stay out of range. "Come on. Come on. We can all be friends, right? Red Power. Off the Pigs. The People United Can Never Be Defeated."
"Fuck you, man." That and another slash was Flick's response.
Rick felt fire streak across his forearm—he'd felt a lot worse—but he grabbed his arm and moaned as if he were completely blown away by the pain. He noticed that the two guys at the door were coming in to watch the fun—that meant he only had to keep Flick busy for a few more moments and Eve would be safely away.
Flick was silent except for slow, deep breathing. He shuffled in again, flipping the knife between his hands. Rick kept his attention focused on his opponent's eyes. The knife itself would just be a distraction.
He saw Flick’s eyes narrow just before the next strike, the knife reversed and coming down from over the man's shoulder. Rick stepped in, crossing his hands to block and then grab the wrist. He covered his moves by stumbling forward, trying to make it look like a clumsy mistake. He jerked Flick's arm, guided the knife past his torso on the right side, and pulled forward and down. Flick was pulled over his balance point and fell to the floor, flipping over on his back.
As soon as he came around, Rick landed on top of him with both knees—trying to drive his breath out. Flick was strong enough to prevent that and began to bring the knife over for a strike to Rick’s back. Moving as fast as he could, Rick caught Flick’s wrist when it was still outstretched. They were almost motionless as both locked their legs to gain leverage as they strained to control the knife. Rick was pressed so close that all he could see was the tattoo of a buffalo and a box-like group of small black scars on Flick's upper arm.
In one of those rare, still moments he'd found in the middle of chaos, he admired the artistry of the buffalo tattoo, eyes, horns and even the tangled mane picked out in shades of brown. While this was going through his mind, he had gained the leverage he needed and was banging Flick's knife hand on the wooden floor.
Suddenly, Rick felt something hard poke his waist, and a male voice said, "OK, we’ve all enjoyed this but it’s time to leave. Don't fucking move or I'll blow your nuts off."
Rick froze and—inches away—saw a smile growing on Flick's face. Very slowly, Rick released his grip and looked back. It appeared that he'd guessed wrong. One of the two men he’d thought would run away was holding a small revolver on him.
Irrationally, Rick thought it should have been a long barrel Colt like in movie westerns, but this was just a Smith and Wesson. He figured it wouldn't be very accurate with that short barrel. Then again, it didn't need to be exceptionally accurate when it was inches from his belt.
"Now, that's not fair." Rick stood up and raised his hands. "This was supposed to be a knife fight."
"You know there ain't no rules in a knife fight."
"You watched that movie, too?" Rick smiled. "Wasn't Newman great?"
The gunman in front of him said dryly, "Yup," and smashed his knee into Rick's crotch.
Rick felt fireworks explode in his head, his stomach twisted in a violent attempt to escape, and he crumpled to the ground, conscious but not terribly interested in the rest of the world.