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Pelagian felt relief that he didn’t have to kill the Californian. However, he maintained a close, unobtrusive watch on Lieutenant Jerry Yamato. So far the young pilot from the Republic of California impressed him. He could have killed the Russian tanker sergeant and it would have been the fortunes of war. The sergeant would not have hesitated, in fact had twice tried his best to kill the pilot and not succeeded. If he had there would have been two bodies to bury out here in Rainbow Valley.

Instead, they were all busy rigging a litter to haul Sergeant Rudi Cermanivich to Delta where he could get decent care without being jostled all over the length and breadth of Russian Amerika. Sixty-odd miles were nothing for a healthy person, a few days walk. But carrying a litter through what had suddenly become enemy territory might evolve into a much larger challenge.

Lieutenant Yamato had told them about the Dená revolution against the Czar, about the Battle of Chena, and the death of Slayer-of-Men, Pelagian’s good friend and cousin to Bodecia. His wife had not shown much emotion, but he knew what to look for on the face of the woman he loved. She had taken the news of the death hard, rock hard, and he pitied any Russian soldier who fell into her gunsights.

Along with their daughter, Magda, they had watched the sleek warplanes attack an unseen Russian armored column far above them on Baranov Pass near Rainbow Ridge. At the beginning there had been fifteen aircraft diving and firing. Only seven flew away to the north after the shooting stopped.

They had witnessed the destruction of three of the planes, including Lieutenant Yamato’s; the fourth had been destroyed out of their line of sight. Having been a military pilot in another time and another place, Pelagian knew how close the lieutenant must have been to the men who died back there. He would carefully choose the time to discuss the battle with Lieutenant Yamato.

Magda moved around Jerry like a cat, curious but very wary. Pelagian didn’t dwell on that aspect of the situation since it didn’t involve him. He knew his daughter could handle herself, physically and emotionally.

Bodecia finished testing the knots on the litter and gave him a long look and a sharp nod.

“Let’s go to Delta,” he said, and slipped into the harness bearing the weight of the front of the litter.


Jerry Yamato stumbled again. How far had they walked? How long had they been walking? The litter bearing the wounded Russian tanker sergeant had to weigh two hundred pounds at the very least.

Pelagian wore the parachute harness bearing the front weight of the litter as if it were a light cloak. The rope sling in the back cut into Jerry’s shoulders and he gripped the end of the litter, constantly lifting it with raw, blistering hands to ease the burden on his aching shoulders. He could barely move but he gamely continued.

Following the man wasn’t difficult; Pelagian inspired confidence.

The dogs, bearing a goodly share of the load tied to a pole between them, which supported the right and left sides of the litter, seemed as fresh as when they started the journey.

Bodecia, Pelagian’s small, sharply handsome, shamanistic wife, and Magda, their stunningly beautiful daughter, both carried heavy packs with the air of being on an amble in the park. Jerry refused to whine about his condition. He stumbled again.

Pelagian said, “This is a good place.” And everybody stopped moving. The women dropped their packs and immediately unslung the dogs from the litter.

The dogs wandered around and thoroughly marked the area. Pelagian nodded to Jerry and they lowered the litter to the ground. For the first time Jerry noticed the clear creek running parallel to their route, and the high grassy meadow surrounded by mountains in which they found themselves. Back and legs aching, he lowered himself to the ground and lay down.

“Lieutenant, wake up. You must eat.” Magda’s voice ended Jerry’s dream and his eyes popped open. She knelt next to him, holding out a wooden bowl full of steaming, savory smelling food.

He scrambled to a sitting position and took the bowl. “How long was I asleep?” From the warmth in his face he knew he was blushing.

“A few hours. Not to worry, you were exhausted. After we eat everyone will sleep.”

Pelagian and Bodecia already sat cross-legged on the ground, eating.

Nodding dumbly, he shoveled what proved to be stew into his mouth. Large chunks of meat enhanced by carrots, potatoes, and unknown herbs made for a completely satisfying meal. The worn spoon boasted the twin-headed eagle of Imperial Russia on its handle.

“Nice silverware,” he said, glancing at Bodecia and grinning. “The Czar give it to you for a wedding present?”

“No, I traded beadwork for it,” Bodecia said.

Jerry wondered if the woman ever smiled. He noticed Rudi still slept, but the bloody, fouled uniform had vanished and clean blankets covered him. Jerry hadn’t thought about what Rudi’s personal condition might be.

I’m trained in wilderness survival, yet I feel so stupid here, he thought.

“Is there a wife waiting for you in Castroville?” Magda asked.

“No. I had a girlfriend, but she ‘found somebody else’ just before the war started. In a way I’m glad I’m not tied down right now. You never know what’s going to happen in a combat situation.”

“Then the relationship was not serious to begin with?”

“I wanted it to be for a long time, but no, I don’t think it ever was.”

Magda frowned. “So why did you not seek a serious relationship?”

Jerry set his empty bowl beside him, contentedly patted his belly, and stared into her lustrous eyes. “I’m still working on it.”

She smiled and blinked. “I’m sure you are.” From behind her she produced two blankets.

“Here is your bedding. I’ll see you in a few hours.” She stood and walked away.

He watched her body move under the soft moosehide and wondered if there was a sweetheart waiting for her back in Delta, or wherever they called home. Straightening one blanket on the ground he wrapped the other around him and fell asleep as soon as he lay down.

His plane flew straight toward the flashing muzzles on the row of tanks but his guns wouldn’t fire, nor could he make the aircraft turn away from what was sure to be instant death in mere moments. Bullets hit his plane; chunks of metal ripped away, the canopy fragmented in silent explosion. He pounded on the stick to make the bird turn but it wouldn’t. Something hit his foot and he jerked out of the nightmare, still shuddering.

“Wake up, Lieutenant,” Pelagian said from somewhere in the clouds. “We’re leaving soon.”

Jerry let the dream ebb as he lay in his wadded blankets. The ubiquitous daylight felt cool to his sweating face. The aroma of cooking food brought him completely awake.

After rolling his blankets together he set them near Rudi’s litter. The sergeant smiled at him.

“Fighting dream battle, yes?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Have been in army long time, it happens to most.”

“How long until the dreams stop?”

“I’ll tell you when mine do.”

Jerry thought about that for a moment, and then shook his head. “So, how do you feel, Sergeant Cermanivich? You look better than the last time I saw you.”

“For first time since Colonel Lazarev’s tank was blown off ridge, I don’t hurt. People rarely appreciate lack of pain. But from now forward, I do.”

Bodecia walked over and handed them both bowls of food. “If you wish to heal, Sergeant, you will stay in that litter for two more days. Then you may walk on your own, if you are capable.”

Jerry looked down at his bowl, potatoes and six small eggs fried sunny-side up.

“I feel good to walk now.”

“If you walk today, you will be dead by the end of tomorrow. You have many injuries, which need at least that long to begin healing. Two more days in the litter and you may live to see grandchildren.”

“Where did you get fresh eggs?” Jerry asked.

Bodecia nearly smiled. “Birds lay them everywhere, you just need to know where to find them.”

“I’m glad you knew. Thank you.”

Bodecia actually smiled and nodded her head before turning back to her family sitting around the campfire.

“Please help me sit up,” Cermanivich said.

Jerry grabbed the man’s wrist and hauled him to a sitting position. It took much less effort than he thought it would. Rudi gasped, sat still for a long moment, then began eating and looking around at the same time.

“We are not in last remembered location. River is different, and ridge is gone. Who carried me here?”

Between bites Jerry told him about the dogs and the litter lash-up.

“You helped carry me?”

“I told you, our war is over until we can return to our own people. Don’t you agree?”

Cermanivich looked up from his food. “I agreed in concept, I never believe you mean it.”

“Oh hell, Rudi, I don’t mean it. I’m going to shoot you the first chance I get.”

“Do not believe that, either,” Rudi said with a laugh. “You are very different from other armies I have fought. I do not think you are good soldier, but you are good man, for which I remain grateful.”

“Thanks, I think,” Jerry said, running back over it in his mind, trying to decide if he should feel insulted.

Pelagian loomed over them before sitting next to the litter. “We will sleep in Delta the day after tomorrow, if you both can handle the pace. I realize that neither of you are Yukon Cassidy.”

Rudi lay back and grinned. “Is no problem for me.”

“Lieutenant?” The blue eyes gleamed at Jerry.

“I’ve had a night’s sleep and a full meal, you bet I can handle it.”

“Good. Today you wear the harness in front.”

“But I don’t know where I’m going.”

“Just follow Magda,” Pelagian gave him a wolfish grin. “You can do that, can’t you?”

“Definitely,” Jerry said, holding the man’s gaze. “Who’s Yukon Cassidy?”

“A warrior of legend, and he holds his own. I am honored to have him as a friend.”

“Will I meet him?”

“If you are fortunate.”

A half hour later they stretched out down the trail headed north. Jerry found his stride and, in addition to watching Magda in front of him, appreciated the landscape around them. They climbed a ridge and dropped down into a wide valley.

In the distance Jerry noticed a mountain he had seen from his plane. At this elevation it loomed even more majestically. He called ahead to Magda, “What do you call that?”

She glanced back to see where he pointed, followed the direction with her eyes and came to a complete stop.

“That is Denali. A holy place for our people and the heart of the Dená Nation.”

“Oh. It sorta reminds me of Mt. Shasta back in the Republic.”

She turned to him, eyes shining. “You also have a holy mountain?”

“Not everybody regards it that way, but yes.”

Bodecia walked back down the trail to them, her eyebrows arched. “May we continue now?”

Pelagian chuckled and said in a low voice, “I wouldn’t waste any more time if I were you.”

Jerry grinned back over his shoulder. “I thought you were in charge here.”

“A woman is not property, and husbands who think otherwise are living in a dream world. My friend Bob told me that and he was right.”

“He sounds like wise man,” Rudi commented. “Is permissible to sing?”

“No!” Jerry and Pelagian said simultaneously.

“You two worry me.”

The lower elevations of the valley brought more water, standing and active. They forded two cold, fast moving creeks. Jerry noticed early that they followed a trail; a mere suggestion in some places and well defined in others. Now the trail bore unmistakable wheel tracks as well as those of human and animal.

“How much farther to Delta?” Jerry asked Magda.

She dropped back and in a low voice said, “Just beyond the mountain you see in the distance there.” She pointed. They were going through a vast stretch of willows, more bushes than trees; the tallest stood no more than two meters.

“Why are you whispering?”

“Because we are very near a redoubt, and we do not wish to explain your presence to the Russians.”

“Listen to her,” Rudi said in a low voice. “They would kill us all.”

“Even you?” Jerry whispered.

“I am among enemies and still breathe, therefore traitor to the Czar. The Imperial Russian Army is bereft of nuance or sentiment.”

“Do you want to go in alone?”

“How to explain presence in this condition? I am too many versts from my command, perhaps deserter? No, I stay with you.”

A birdcall drifted back and Pelagian snapped, “Quiet! Get off the trail.”

Magda spoke to the dogs and they followed her into the brush. She led them down into a small depression and spoke again. All four dogs quietly lay down, tongues lolling. Pelagian slipped out of his sling and pulled a hatchet from the pack Magda had carried.

“You all wait here quietly,” he said. He disappeared toward the trail.

Jerry unbuckled the harness and gratefully let it slide to the ground. Not since flight school when he was a cadet had he expended this much effort on a continuous basis. He eased to the ground next to Rudi’s litter and fell into a light doze.

Something pressed firmly over his mouth and his eyes popped open to see Magda holding her other hand up, index finger over her mouth. He nodded his head and she took her hand off him. She handed him his automatic.

He dropped the clip enough to see it was still full. As he quietly pressed the clip back into the pistol butt, he looked around, finally catching Magda’s eye again. He elaborately shrugged.

She knelt down beside him and pointed toward the wall of brush between them and the trail. Suddenly he heard the voices. Unknown voices, speaking Russian.

Jerry slowly pulled the barrel back on the automatic until he could see the round in the chamber. He glanced around.

Rudi lay belly down on his litter, holding a huge revolver in both hands and aiming toward the voices. Both Pelagian and Bodecia were nowhere to be seen. Jerry’s heartbeat increased and his mouth felt dry.

The summer sun beat down from a cloudless sky and mosquitoes circled round them. Sweat stung his eyes but he didn’t move. The voices were no more than fifteen meters away; he could hear boots scuffing the small rocks and dirt on the trail despite the breeze high in the willows. The constant wind wasn’t strong enough to get down to where he crouched.

Time hadn’t slowed this much for him since he had to watch an ice cube melt when he was a child. Back then he had been restricted to a chair until the ice turned to a puddle. Now he had no idea what was required of him other than staying alive.

The voices receded slightly and Jerry’s heartbeat slowed. He smiled over at Magda just as she unsuccessfully tried to muffle her sneeze.

One of the unseen voices said something short and sharp. Silence grew and Jerry’s heartbeat increased. The barrel of his .45 trembled and he wished he could stop sweating.


Three Russian soldiers burst through the brush, nearly overrunning them. Two held rifles at high port, the third led with his machine pistol pointed forward.

Jerry, Magda, and Rudi all shot the man with the machine pistol, who fell flat in front of them, instantly dead. The other two soldiers jerked their weapons down toward the three. Multiple shots rang out and both men lost all coordination and collapsed, dead before they hit the ground.

Silence reigned as dust motes drifted and settled.

A hoarse shout in Russian from beyond the brush: “Shout out, comrades!”

More silence.

Abruptly a heavy weapon opened up, spraying the area with large caliber rounds. Three rounds hit the dead Russian directly in front of Jerry, causing the corpse to jerk as if it felt the damage.

Somewhere out in the brush Pelagian said, “Damn, they hit me!”

“Father!” Magda yelled and started to her feet.

Jerry grabbed her arm and jerked her back down.

She turned on him with bared teeth. “What do you—”

Thick fire stitched through the brush over their heads, blowing the small trees in half with single rounds. The sharp scent of sap and cut wood joined the light haze of cordite in the air.

“We have to put an end to that one,” Rudi said with a growl. “You go left, I’ll go right.”

Before Jerry could say anything, Rudi grabbed the machine pistol out of the dead corporal’s hands and wriggled into the brush, grunting with effort. Jerry grabbed one of the fallen rifles and quickly made sure it was loaded.

“Stay here and shoot anyone who comes crawling through the brush. We’ll be on our feet.”

Magda stared at him with wide eyes. “Da.

Jerry crawled through the dust and weeds, slowed when he came to an opening in the brush before him. This was another reason he hadn’t joined the infantry: he hated being dirty.

He stopped in front of the opening, listening intently. Panting, he heard pain being unsuccessfully suppressed.

“It’s Yamato,” he whispered and pushed through the opening.

At the side of a wounded Pelagian, Bodecia held a machine pistol, pointing at Jerry. As soon as she saw his face she aimed at the brush in front of them.

“He’s hit in the side,” she said a low, emotionless tone.

“I need the automatic weapon.”

They silently traded weapons.

“Thanks, I’ll be right back.” Jerry crawled as quietly as he could away from the couple before turning toward where he knew the enemy lurked. The heavy willows moved in the breeze and were easy for him to negotiate but he knew the top portion of the branches signaled his advance. He backed up and moved down into a small swale before stopping to rest.

The hammer of the heavy weapon followed the bullets chopping down willows wholesale, right where he had turned back. He shrieked, “Ahhh!” and hoped for the best.

The fire ceased and he immediately squirmed down the leveled path, appreciating how much the downed willows suppressed the dust. If the Russian gunner believed his cry, Rudi might believe it too, and do something foolish.

But what if the Russian didn’t believe his cry, what if he was waiting for a stupid first lieutenant to stumble through the trees so he could cut him in half?

His heart hammered and Jerry found it difficult to swallow. Heat suffused the entire universe and he tried not to think about water. Suddenly he ran out of the downed willows and stopped. With his mouth hanging open, he desperately listened for any sound beyond the bluish-green leaves screening him from the threat beyond.

The rattle of a machine gun belt carried through the dusty air. Jerry decided the gunner was reloading. He sat back on his haunches and rose to his feet, hunched over and terrified. He decided it was now or never.

He charged through the willows and into the open.

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