Warrior (Freelancer Book 2) (5 page)

BOOK: Warrior (Freelancer Book 2)
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Eve touched his face and turned his head so she could speak into his ear again. "It's a girl." Her voice was rough, filled with tension and sorrow. "She's only six or seven, just a baby."

He touched her chin and, gently turning her head, whispered in her ear, "Should we carry the body with us?"

The answer came as soft as a breath. "No. She's been so badly hurt, but I think she's safe here." Rick could see her gesture upwards. "The mother, the Old One, is watching over her just as she is watching her own baby."

He could feel Eve move as she bent down over the child again, gently move her head to the side and, his fingers still touching hers, could tell that she was working at something under the chin.

Eve sat up again and breathed into his ear. "She was wearing a bag around her neck on a piece of string. Medicine of some kind. We’ll bring it back. Another mother is looking for her child and she’ll recognize the bag." She reached over and tucked the bag into the chest pocket of Rick's jacket. "Can you cover her back up? I just can't."

She took his hand and brought it to her cheek, so he could feel her silent shaking and the tears streaming down her cheeks. She rested her head against his hand until the silent weeping began to slow.

With the same care he had used to uncover the tiny face, Rick picked up and replaced the rocks. He wondered if they were doing the wrong thing, if they shouldn't uncover the girl and take her…where?

Slowly, he felt the presence change from watchfulness to approval. He placed the last rock over the closed eyes and brushed gently on the loose dirt to smooth away any evidence that anything had been disturbed.

He noticed that the normal night noises of wind and wood had returned. He hadn't realized that it had been silent for the last few minutes, as if the land around them had been waiting, grieving.

The mood was broken by the sharp and metallic sound of a military radio coming from the top of the ravine. Someone had turned it up or taken off headphones because it was unusually clear and very familiar, the commands and queries of the military in Vietnam transposed intact to a different land. As he listened, he began to pick out the speakers, the clipped no-nonsense voices of the FBI and marshals contrasting with the more laconic and relaxed tones of AIM security, sounding like they never finished half the words, just got tired in the middle and trailed off.

Abruptly, the familiar lisping voice came over the band, now resonant with authority and strong enough to cut through all the other chatter. "Ready. On my count: Five, Four, Three, Two, One."

CHAPTER 8
April 26, 1973, Wounded Knee, South Dakota

For a moment, Rick thought he was back in a nightmare as the soft chuff of mortars firing echoed all around him. Looking back toward Wounded Knee, he could see a blaze of white light, 40 or 50 parachute flares in a ring around the hamlet.

Then the guns opened up.

Above him, close, he could hear the sporadic hammering of an M-60 machine gun being fired by a professional who knew enough to keep the barrel cool. All around, he could hear other machine guns joined in song by the sharper sound of M-16s on "full rock and roll" and the single coughs of hunting rifles and sniper guns. Hundreds of rounds were being fired. Nothing he'd heard or read had ever mentioned this kind of furious onslaught by the hundreds of police, marshals, and FBI agents who had been surrounding the miserable hamlet for months.

Any shots coming from Wounded Knee were lost in the barrage. Rick suspected people there were trying to screw themselves deeper into the ground.

Then he noticed something odd. The sound of the machine gun over his head was altering slightly. It was hard to be sure, but it seemed as if the operator was swiveling and firing bursts in radically different directions. At this distance, any target within Wounded Knee was within a few degrees of arc. What were they shooting at that required cranking the sights over that far?

Then he knew.

A series of loud
thwacks
as bullets, many bullets, hit the rim of the gully above his head. For a second, he simply pressed deeper into the cold earth, but then he realized that he was protected in the cut while the firing was directed at what appeared to be a bunker on the top of the ravine wall.

The machine gun in the bunker fired back along the path of the incoming rounds. It was clear to Rick that they were firing at the surrounding hills and not at Wounded Knee. He wondered why the hell they were firing at their fellow law enforcement officers.

Whoever it was wasn't interested in a long battle; in just a few minutes, he heard the clattering of the M-60 being broken down and a quick scurry of boots fading away.

The rate of fire slowed as the ring of illumination flares sank to the ground. It didn't stop by any means, but it slowed.

He felt a firm tap on his shoulder. It was Talltrees. The pilot was on his knees, and he motioned for Rick to alert Eve and start moving again. They could move a bit faster with the continuing racket of gunfire to mask any sounds they made; and, after what Rick guessed was about a quarter mile more, the ravine ended in a vertical earth wall studded with rocks. The trees had grown taller as the ravine cut deeper into the prairie, so they had a solid canopy of leaves overhead. Talltrees removed his rifle from his shoulder, handed it to Rick, and slowly climbed, testing each rock for stability, until his eyes reached what was the ground level of the surrounding prairie.

Rick and Eve waited silently as the lanky Pawnee completed a careful survey and disappeared over the edge. It was a good fifteen minutes before his head reappeared, silhouetted against the Milky Way as he waved for them to follow. Rick handed up the rifle as Eve climbed quickly, using the same rocks and ledges that Talltrees had tested and confirmed were safe.

Rick could feel the injured muscles pull in his right side as he climbed but told himself he was making up for the weightlifting sessions he'd missed. The prairie was in full night now, dark and quiet.

It was a very different scene when they turned to look back. A few illumination flares were still hung up in trees over Wounded Knee, and the night was filled with light: red tracer rounds from machine guns in the bowl of low hills poured like liquid fire into the village and muzzle flashes marked the bunkers of the surrounding forces.

There were no answering flashes from the Indians. Their meager stocks of ammunition and a healthy sense of self-preservation doubtless kept them low and protected behind earth berms, steel bunkers, or just pits in the ground.

Talltrees tapped them on the shoulders, motioned for them to follow, and set off cautiously toward the west. Again, they passed tents and pickup trucks without being spotted although Rick suspected it was the distraction of the firefight behind them rather than any Lakota medicine song.

Slowly, the clamor of battle quieted, a combination of distance and diminishing gunfire. Rick thought that even the federal authorities had to run low on ammunition eventually after an exhibition like that.

Talltrees stopped so suddenly that Eve had to sidestep quickly to keep from walking into him. He sank to the ground and Rick and Eve gratefully joined him.

But Talltrees wasn’t taking a break. He had gone into a prone firing position with his rifle on his shoulder and locked on a target. Peering through the darkness, Rick couldn't see any threat until someone struck a match and lit a cigarette about 30 yards ahead and slightly to the left.

Footsteps approached, at least two pairs of boots crunching on the dry soil. There was no time to find better cover, so Rick put his head down to hide his pale face.

"Hell of a night." A cigarette-roughened male voice.

"About damn time we finally unloaded on those bastards." This one sounded younger, smoother. "Gave them something back for what they did to Lloyd."

"Yeah, that was a damn shame. Think he'll ever walk again?"

"I haven't heard anything since they medevacked him out."

The sound of boots came closer but further to the right. There was a decent chance they would remain hidden. Rick slowly turned his face away from the voices.

"So what've you been up to?” the older man asked.

"I was on radio duty like always." There was a short pause. "I gotta tell you something was weird tonight.”

"Strange?"

"Yeah. Command HQ came on a couple of times and asked about incoming fire on our positions from up here in the hills."

"Up here? Jeez, who the hell had their firing marks that far off?" A short laugh followed by a smoker's cough. "Man, someone is going to get their butts kicked for that. They're sure it wasn't the Indians?"

"Well, that was the strange thing. Command actually raised the AIM security team in Wounded Knee on the negotiation frequency. The Indians said that all their people had strict orders not to fire back because of the risk of exposing themselves. The odd thing was that they said they were taking incoming from the same locations. Command said the Indians thought it was someone out to piss off both sides."

"Well, that's fucking freaky."

"Damn right. Command warned about it on the open net and said they were giving the Indians firing coordinates."

"Firing coordinates?"

"Yeah. They know where we all are, so they could determine where the extra firepower was coming from."

At the sound of a long inhalation of smoke, Rick closed his eyes and tried not to think about lighting up. The voices began to move away.

"Ah, I don't believe it. Had to have been Indians in the hills making trouble."

"Probably." Another laugh. "And if they wanted trouble, they sure as hell got it."

"Hey, did you see that article in Sports Illustrated? They called the Mohammed-Norton fight 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Jaw'."

The voices faded as the two men walked toward a circle of tents about a quarter-mile away. When there had been nothing but the normal sounds of a desert night for 15 minutes, Talltrees slowly got to his feet and waved to them to continue the trek.

CHAPTER 9
April 26, 1973, Wounded Knee, South Dakota

There was a flickering light on their back trail.

At first, it was so faint that Rick had to watch it out of the corners of his eyes. If he stared at it directly, it would disappear in the illusions of shape and motion produced by the light of the stars. After about 15 minutes, it became clearer, and he stepped forward, tapped Talltrees on the shoulder, and pointed out the lights.

They all stopped, and Eve took a swallow from her canteen. After a minute, Rick could hear the chainsaw whine of a dirt bike engine, maybe two. They weren't revving high enough to be going all out, at least not yet.

Talltrees listened, then nodded, and walked over to Eve. He bent his head down and spoke softly to her for a minute or two. She looked up into his eyes, nodded, and then spoke to the tall Pawnee in a voice that was also too low for Rick to hear.

But Talltrees seemed to sag, and Rick knew she'd told him about the child’s body they'd found in the ravine. Eve put her arms around Talltrees’ shoulders, squeezed hard, and then walked a few yards farther and sat on a boulder facing the other way.

Talltrees came over to Rick.

"I can't fucking believe it. A kid?"

Rick just nodded.

"What do you think happened?" Talltrees sighed deeply. “No. It doesn’t really matter—I guess the only real question is who?"

"I don't really know but you heard those guys up above the ravine?"

Talltrees nodded.

"Well, that's where we found the kid and…I don't know, one of them just sounded…” Rick paused, "it sounds strange, but that one guy just made my skin crawl."

"It's not stupid. I've been having the same feelings for a while now." Talltrees looked irritated. "I can't explain it but the FBI, the marshals, even Wilson's goons—they're all just on the wrong side. These new guys are different. Worse."

The tall man shook his head. "We don't have time to figure these assholes out. I'm betting that whoever they are, they're the ones sending those bikes after us."

He jerked his chin toward the exhaust sounds, now noticeably louder. "I think they're hunting me. We're going to have to split up."

"Do you want me to set a false trail?” Rick asked. "Just take Eve with you."

"No, thanks for the offer, but I can feel the target painted on my back. It's like they have a radar-lock on my ass."

Talltrees laughed softly and then became serious. "I need to ask you to do something for me. Something important."

He reached into his shirt, pulled out the heavy leather pouch that Rick had noticed the other day, hesitated for a second, and then handed it over. It was about 18 inches long and three inches wide and carefully stitched closed with rawhide. In the darkness, Rick couldn't tell much more about it, but from the supple leather, it felt extremely old but carefully preserved.

"Put it around your neck and hide it under your shirt." Talltrees watched as Rick placed the pouch against his chest and buttoned his shirt. "I probably should have never come here—should have taken my responsibility more seriously."

He shook his head as if shaking off all regrets and doubts. Then he placed his hands on Rick's shoulders, held him in a firm grip, and looked deep into his eyes. "You are carrying one of the most sacred objects of the Pawnee and the Cheyenne tribes. I, Peter Talltrees, the son of World War II veteran Herbert Talltrees, and grandson of Pawnee war chief Many Tall Trees who fought against the Seventh Cavalry, was given this because I had proven myself as a warrior and as a man. I became an Arrow Man in a long and beautiful ceremony, and I regret I cannot perform it for you."

He took a deep breath. "You are now an Arrow Man as well—even if only for a short time—and I deem you fit because you have also proven yourself brave in battle and honorable in life. Others may disagree, but I am here and they are not. More than a hundred years ago, my people defeated the Cheyenne in open battle and took the four Sacred Arrows as spoils of war. After the Cheyenne gave the Pawnee one hundred horses, which was a fitting ransom, one was returned immediately. The second was taken from us in battle by the Lakota and given by them to the Cheyenne. These are the last two Arrows, and I need you to promise that you will bring them to the Arrow Men in the Northern Cheyenne Reservation as quickly as possible."

Rick nodded solemnly.

"The four Sacred Arrows were given by the Creator to Sweet Medicine, first leader of the Cheyenne. They are part of the magic that lies at the center not only of the Cheyenne but of all the First Peoples. The ancient and true leaders of the Cheyenne sought out the Arrow Men of the Pawnee earlier this year and asked if we would help them in this battle. They told us that there were strange and powerful forces moving against them, and our elders decided to forget the past and unite against a common enemy. With these Arrows, the medicine of the Cheyenne will be restored, and they will have the power to unite and reject the false offers of those who would tear their land like wolves and leave only poison and dust.”

He paused and laughed softly. "And with so few of us left, who knows when the Pawnee might need friends among the Cheyenne? OK, Private First Class Rick Putnam of the…BMW people, I think that's what you said, right?"

"Yes." Rick had never thought anyone would take his little joke seriously.

"OK, the Arrows are men's business, and no woman can see them or speak of them. When you get back to the reservation, send word to Charlie Walksalone—he's the Outside Man of the Council of 44—and he'll gather the Arrow Men and perform the appropriate ceremony. Will you do this?"

"Yes, I will," Rick answered. Talltrees seemed to slump in relief.

Rick looked back at the headlights behind them. He could hear more and bigger engines now. "Who is following us?"

"I honestly have no idea. I left Oklahoma with two others, but we lost one almost before we started, killed after he left a bar. It's sadly not all that uncommon these days for an Indian to die in a bar fight, but my father later told me on the phone that when they found his body, it looked like he'd been tortured. Cigarette burns all over."

"Shit." Rick shook his head. "That's two of you.

Where's the third?"

"Disappeared several days ago from right inside Wounded Knee." Talltrees unslung his rifle, checked the action, and then patted his pockets to confirm his spare ammunition. "That's why I felt that being out on patrol with the marshals shooting at me was a safer way to spend my nights. After I brought you two in, I heard that Flick had recruited his own 'Security Squad' and was out looking for trouble. When I heard his voice outside the general store, I took off out the back. Sorry, I didn’t have time to wake you."

He grinned. "I was about to come back in after you when Eve found me. Damn, but she's a tough woman. Made it quite clear that she was going to kick my worthless ass if I didn't. If you have any sense at all, you'll keep her around."

"I may not have much sense, but even I can tell how much that girl is worth."

"Good. Then I listened to those guys on top of the ravine. That guy with the creepy voice you mentioned?"

Rick nodded.

"Well, there is no way I’m going to be able to just vanish if that bastard already knows enough to be hunting for the pouch.” He looked back at the headlights, "I’m going to lay a false trail but they’re going to catch up. Damn dirt bikes are just too fast. Now, you take Eve and get the hell out of here. Hump to the south and then back west. There's an area of large rocks where you can kill your trail. I'll go straight and see how long I can outrun these bastards.”

Talltrees patted his rifle. "And when I can't outrun 'em, we'll see how well they can shoot. If I’m real lucky, I’ll get away but at the least, I’ll thin the herd a bit and give you two a running start. When you get to Elvis Iron Crow's house—you know, where you started out—tell him that I said to give you anything you need. He was my crew chief back in 'Nam. Could make those old A-1s move like bats out of hell."

Rick said, "What should I tell him about you?"

"If he doesn't see me in a couple of days, say I wished him well, thanked him for his work in the war, and to call my father so he can come and collect the Roadmaster." He laughed—a soft sad sound. "Nice car but no top end. You might suggest he tune it up."

Rick gripped Talltrees’ hand. "I sure as hell don't understand all this, but I owe you my life already so this is just payback. I hope I'll see you at the ranch, and I can give everything back. I would think that a man with an eagle feather on his ass and the protection of an owl should make it if anyone can."

"Maybe." Talltrees turned and began to jog to the west. "
Di di mao
, ground pounder, and let a flyboy do his job."

Rick walked over to where Eve was sitting. She stood up and very pointedly did not look at what was strung around his neck.

"Time to go," she said.

About a half-mile south, Rick spotted the boulder field on his right, potato-shaped rocks that had been tumbled smooth by long-gone glaciers. They turned west and started moving from rock to rock without touching the ground. They took their time in the darkness because a slip would mean a twisted ankle at the very least. Occasionally, Rick would have to jump a larger space, turn back, and pull Eve across.

The pace was maddeningly slow, and they hadn't gone far when the crack of a rifle shot stopped them. As they stood and looked north where the sound had come from, four more shots, spaced evenly. Rick could almost imagine Talltrees methodically pacing himself through the process: loading, setting his weight, aiming, calculating all the factors, firing, and starting all over again.

A sporadic crackle of shots responded, quite a few weapons and, from what Rick could tell, of different calibers. Pete's pursuers must have gone to ground and started counter fire. The steady pace of the rifle began again. Talltrees must have been able to find more targets by their muzzle flashes.

Rick turned back to see Eve regarding him gravely. She said, "Pete's a brave man. We need to make his sacrifice mean something."

Rick nodded, and they continued their steady, rock-by-rock progress. After a few minutes, the gunfire stopped. They looked to the north, waited a moment and then Eve took the lead, jumping to the next boulder.

In another half hour, the boulders ran out at a dry wash that drained to the west. They took a swallow from their water supply and, using the firm footing of the sandy soil, picked up their pace to the point where Eve was just short of having to jog to keep up. They hadn't gone more than a couple of hundred yards before they heard the whine of dirt-bikes; but, from the way the sound carried in the desert night, it was clear that they were far on the other side of the boulders.

Hours later, the rising sun behind them lit the small butte with a notched top that was their locator for the Iron Crow ranch. The sparse grass that had covered the ground for most of their walk was giving way to taller, almost waist-high stalks.

Keeping the sharp-sided mountain on their left, they headed on as the rising sun threw their shadows for miles ahead on the flat land. Rick found himself hunching his shoulders just slightly, feeling pressed down and exposed by the immense sky.

They crossed a dirt road, two paths cut into the grass, and he could see trash layered in the ditches—years of plastic, metal, and other modern debris that would outlast the road itself. Future archaeologists would probably wonder why the inhabitants had decorated their paths with such bizarre items.

Suddenly, Rick’s mental wandering stopped as he heard a shrieking mechanical howl—close, far too close. He threw himself backward into Eve, and they both fell into the ditch with the trash. Enough filthy slush was at the bottom to make the garbage moist and even more disgusting.

He didn't wait to signal, but took off on a belly-crawl into the grass, moving at a slant from the road so the path he crushed in the knee-high plants would be harder to detect. He could hear the scrapes and panting that meant Eve was right behind him. When the cycle exhaust rose to a crescendo, they froze, Rick rolling on his back with his face only inches below the waving tops of the grass.

Two cycles raced by. Rick was glad to see they were moving too fast to pick out their trail. The riders were young men without helmets. Again, Rick noticed that their identical pearl button snap shirts and boot cut jeans were new and unwrinkled. One man's jeans still had paper tags from the store stapled to the waistband.

He rose as the bikes' dust settled, only to be pulled back down by Eve’s firm grip on his collar. A second later, he realized why. Another engine, a car this time, was coming. It was a sedan, bouncing and shaking in the rough ruts. It looked like a big four-door rental car. He figured those inside couldn't have spotted anything. It was taking all their attention to brace themselves against the shuddering and wallowing of the car's soft suspension on the rocks and washouts.

This time, he didn't move after the dust settled. He looked at Eve and saw the weariness and sadness in her eyes. "We're too exposed to continue," he said. "Let's find a good hide and get some rest."

She nodded with relief. Crawling slowly and cautiously, he led her to a small solid clump of brush and stunted pines. Burrowing inside, they rolled together and immediately fell asleep.

BOOK: Warrior (Freelancer Book 2)
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