Freddie Pranger had seen the pile of dead children in the McDonald’s by Deer Creek Run. He’d seen the dozen bodies hanging from the bridge by Pierce. He’d found the barely covered pile of newborns in the ravine below Castle Greenwood.
This wasn’t worse, objectively, he told himself. Just another bad thing as they tried to restore civilization.
But more of this pile were people he knew.
It looked like Goncalves and the President’s Own Rangers must have taken the visitor center and held it for a while. Dead Rangers lay by every window, hole, and door, some hacked by blades, a few with arrows protruding, some with big holes in their backs.
Freddie knelt, looked, turned the body over, and swore. No mistaking the small, almost round entry wound and the exit wound you could put a fist into; it had been a slug from a heavy firearm. Apparently the Daybreakers were willing to compromise their religious objections to Mister Gun.
Again, he froze: there in the center of the improvised fort, a circle of bodies splayed outward to the compass points from the grim hedge of head-topped spears at the center. Walking forward, he recognized Goncalves and some others.
Pranger wasn’t normally a praying man; alone in the forest he often felt a presence in the loving silence, but seldom saw any reason to spoil that with yakking.
Nevertheless, when he gently lifted Goncalves’s head by the chin and occiput, letting the blood-matted gray beard stick to his palms like a rag from a butcher’s table, he said, “I’m sorry,” and when he set the head carefully beside the big man’s corpse, he murmured, “Be at peace” to Goncalves and added “Take care of him,” to the presence.
As he placed the last head by the last body, he said, “Help me get this right, Lord, they deserve—”
“Shit,” a voice said.
Freddie drew his hatchet and wheeled. No one. Nothing moved.
He turned slowly around, scanning methodically. Among one pile of bodies, an arm flopped away from a face. A Daybreaker? The face was tattooed in a domino mask joined to a spiderweb pattern—
But the torn, bloody shirt was fringed, with three stripes on the sleeve, and the shoulder patch was a star behind crossed lances: a TexIC. He knelt by the young man. “Scout Freddie Pranger, RRC, attached to Army of the Wabash. You look like you could use some help.”
“All I can get, Scout Pranger. I’m Dave McWaine, Sergeant, Texas Independent Cavalry.” Something about the tautness of McWaine’s brownish-bronze skin, or his innocent, stunned expression, implied he wasn’t more than twenty. His deep black hair was bound in a single blood-soaked braid. He rolled over, looking around. “Shit, not again. This
“Water?” Freddie asked, sticking to practicalities. “No abdominal wounds?”
“Yes water, no ab wounds, just the worst headache in the history of everything.”
Freddie gave the young man his bottle. “I just filled it at the pump, there’s plenty.” He let McWaine drink while he checked for broken bones and for wounds he might not be feeling yet.
“I gotta get back to camp sometime soon and I already have another wounded guy to take with me. Can you walk?”
The TexIC nodded. “I’m banged up, but not broke nowhere.”
“My other wounded man is a scout lying under a bridge with a broken leg a couple miles from here. Come with me, and tell me your story on the way.
“I don’t know if nobody gonna believe me.” The young man’s accent was strange, a hint of border-state south like Pranger’s own, but slightly flattened and guttural.
“Probably I will, if it’s true.”
“True as death, Mister Pranger. True as death.”
Freddie approved of the way Dave McWaine told his story while looking around constantly, never letting his voice rise in volume, pausing frequently for them both to listen. Before they reached the bridge, Freddie had heard it all.
• • •
I’m an enrolled Tonkawa; my mom made sure I’as enrolled. But she didn’t get along too well with her folks, and I didn’t exactly have a dad except biologically, so I didn’t grow up near any other Tonkawas, and the little bit that Mom remembered, she remembered all kinda-sorta and scrambled up. On my own later, I learned some of that tribal ways stuff off Goo-22 and Wikimondo on the Internet, but I didn’t always know what I’as reading.
Like, first time I got sent up to Corsicana, I had a guy do this tattoo on my face here. They said it was self-mutilating behavior and gave me another two months; I just thought I’as being traditional Tonkawa ’cause there was this thing on a web page about how they had lots of tattoos all over their upper body and face. I didn’t even
So I’as just back from my second stay at Corsicana, and busting my ass to finish a GED and get something else going because I’as through with the street kid crap and the stuck in a small town forever crap and the everybody knows you’re just a piece of crap crap and all the crap in general, and working for this guy Stan Krauss, a horse breeder, ’cause I loved horses, and Daybreak hit and Mister Krauss thought he was gonna be a big old rich guy, and I started working full time for him, ’cause I thought so, too, I mean, engines stop working, people’re gonna want horses, right?
So I’as doing okay, had a steady job, Krauss’s horse ranch was the most successful business in Grinder’s Hole, Texas, orders backed up five years in advance. There I was coming up in the world for the first time even if the world was going down, and then in the spring last year all these bush hippies started coming around by Mister Krauss’s place and giving us all this, like, threatening shit, like telling us we needed to free the horses for the wolves to eat, because horses were bred by people to make Mother Earth dirty. I think. Ain’t sure I ever got it straight, ’cause they shouted most of it, along with some threats. Well, but you know, that Mister Krauss, he was old school Texas-German, if you know the type, he just told’em to get the fuck off his land.
So one day I’as out chasing Redstone, who was the biggest pain in the ass you ever saw in a stallion and stallions are
I got all the horses out of the barn—the Daybreakers were just gonna let’em burn alive—and I’as standing in that yard with the horses around me, and me crying like a little kid and talking to Krauss’s body like I was right out of my mind, and Redstone stuck his nose in my back, and he’s standing there like he’s saying “I’m sorry.”
So I found a saddle that’d fit him, and him and me got the other horses into a string, and we headed into Grinder’s Hole to get the town militia and some help. Got there, and… well, there wasn’t no help. Shit, there wasn’t no Grinder’s Hole. The tribals had left some bodies and some burning buildings and taken off north.
So I went south, ’cause I had an idea how to turn those horses into some wealth. The government in Austin was gonna be starting the Texas Independent Cavalry, which a lot of guys wanted to be in ’cause it was like a big deal, but it was bring your own horse, so I figured some guys that wanted to join would want to trade for a horse, and sure enough they did, and pretty soon I had me a big account in the Bank of Texas and the only horse I had left was Redstone, which I’as the only one he’d let ride him.
And I don’t know if I’as drunk or ’cause all us rich guys were doing it, but Redstone and me signed up, and damn if I wasn’t pretty good at being cavalry, made corporal before we even left Fort Norcross and sergeant by the time we’as at Pale Bluff.
So yesterday the general told us to ride hard and hit’em before the main force of tribals got there. But they got there before us, and unlike your usual Daybreaker hippie dumbshits, these ones had some tricks. Right alongside the other TexICs, we rode in from the creek side. Redstone jumped that breastwork like he had wings. I pulled out two pistols like Buffalo Fuckin’ Bill to get it started.
But there’as more of’em around me than I could count, mostly with spears, and one asshole with a two-handed ax brung down Redstone with one hard chop to the face, and the rest drug me off and was beating me, and that was the last I knew for a while.
So I woke up and I’as in a pile of tied up TexICs and they told us we better scream and holler when they put us up on the wall ’cause we’as gonna be human shields. So I made up my mind to keep my mouth shut, but it didn’t matter ’cause next thing I know Goncalves and his Rangers come busting into the building where they had us, and a couple of’em cut us loose and found us guns and knives to help out with, I thought us TexICs were hot shit, but the President’s Own Rangers’re something else, man, something else.
So it seemed like we’as in that building for a million years, we took charge after charge, and a few’d die, and then a few more, and finally one Daybreaker charge got inside. I shot till I had nothing to shoot, I remember running out of ammo, and then it was hatchet work, and then, boom, something on the back of my head, right where I wear my braid, which I think maybe saved my skull and my life.
And that’s me.