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Tuesday Teaser 6/20/17 Victoria’s Cat Part 23

Update on Victoria’s Cat. The rough draft is Done!

I want to break out the champagne and chocolate. But actually, I have a date with my vacuum cleaner and duster. 🙁  I haven’t cleaned since before I left for Ohio, and with three cats you can only guess at what color the carpet is.

The manuscript has been rushed off to the beta readers so I have a few days to recover before diving into revisions. Here is a good sized chunk of the second to last chapter. As I was highlighting to copy it, I saw several typos and mistakes. *head desk*  Be kind. I hope you can enjoy it anyway.


Chapter Twelve

 

Marty ran. The jagged edges of his heart stabbed him with every stride, but he ran. He had left his nephew, the man who was the brother of his heart, wounded behind him. Ray couldn’t run. He hadn’t even been awake. It tortured Marty to leave his nephew, but he knew Ray would want him to go without him to fetch help. He had taken only enough time to pull Ray away from the other dead men and build him a slight shelter so scavengers wouldn’t get him. He would return for Ray as soon as he could, but right now he had a mate to save. He had to get her back. He couldn’t do it himself. He needed help, so he left Ray behind and ran.

A mountain cat could cover a lot of ground even when bullets had torn chunks out of his chest and hip, even when a bullet had cut a groove in his skull. It hurt, but he ran because he had a mission. He was going to save Victoria, and punish the men who had stolen her and murdered so many from the train. The railroad tracks would lead him to where he needed to go, so he followed them with all the speed he could force from his broken body. Through the mud created by the early spring sun, he ran. When the mud turned to ice as the sun fell, he ran. He didn’t have time to baby himself, not if he was going to find the help he needed to save Victoria. With that thought alone in his mind, he ignored the pain of his wounds and followed the tracks to the place he knew he would find help.

*   *    *    *

“It’s cold this morning,” Gina commented. She curved her hands around a mug of coffee and shivered. “I don’t like living in tents.”

Victoria sat beside her at the table that had shrunk overnight. “I’ve spent most of my life living in a tent. I don’t mind it.”

Gina sipped coffee that steamed in the chilly air. “Last night you said something about Colby.”

Victoria looked around the main room of the harem tent, but no one was around except for she, Gina, Renee, and Anna. They were going to be paraded around in front of the men from Omaha in a few hours. It was past nine in the morning, and the other women were still in bed. Victoria couldn’t imagine sleeping that late. But any of them could come in at any time, so she lowered her voice, knowing that canvas dividers wouldn’t keep them from being overheard.

“Colby jumped out of the truck on the way here,” she whispered. “He’s alive.”

Gina’s hands fell limp to the table. “How can he be? I saw him. He was dead.”

“I thought so too.” Victoria looked at Renee for confirmation, and the older woman nodded. “I don’t know how, but he survived. He’s a wolf warrior. They heal quickly.”

Gina closed her eyes and let out a trembling sigh. “I’m glad, but it doesn’t make any difference. He can’t take me to his family now.”

“He’s a wolf warrior. You’re the mate his wolf chose.” Victoria drank coffee. “You haven’t seen the last of him. He’ll get you out of here.”

Gina shook her head slowly. “It’s impossible. You’ve seen what it’s like. And now you’re stuck here too.”

Renee snorted. “You don’t know the Clan.”

Voices came from outside the tent. Major Ellis entered. “Miss Gina, you look beautiful this morning.” He nodded to the rest of them. “I’m glad you’re awake. President Todd wants us to be ready to leave in ninety minutes.”

Eighty minutes later Victoria, Renee and Anna were in the back of a truck. Victoria had been reunited with her coat, which must have been picked up when the Kansas-Missouri soldiers scavenged the train. There were six soldiers in the truck with them, and an entire fleet of trucks growled around them. Victoria put her hand under her nose to try to hold off the fumes.

“Ugh,” she said to Renee. “I hope this won’t take long.”

“About half an hour,” one of the soldiers shouted cheerfully, but before he could say more the trucks roared to life, drowning out anything else.

There must have been at least forty trucks in this convoy, and the noise they made and the tracks they left would make it easy to track them. Todd must not be worried about keeping the location of his camp a secret. If each of these trucks held ten soldiers each, the President would have about four hundred troops with him at the parley, which left his camp still well protected by the rest of his soldiers. Victoria wanted to say something to Renee about it, but between the noise and the jolting she lost interest in trying to say anything. She amused herself by imagining how much fun it would be to punch Todd right in the teeth.

Her side was aching again by the time the trucks stopped. She, Renee and Anna were kept inside the truck for nearly another thirty minutes before the engine started up again and they moved over bumpy ground. The six soldiers dismounted from the truck first and then helped the women down. They were in what looked like a decaying ghost town. Victoria glanced at Renee. Her aunt would have walked through cities like this in the Times Before, when they were alive with people and technology that Victoria can only imagine.

“This way, ladies,” one of the soldiers said, and led them along an ice-rimmed path to a wide bridge.

“We must be in Iowa,” Renee murmured. “I think this is a famous bridge over the Missouri River between Council Bluffs and Omaha.”

There were soldiers stationed either side of the bridge, standing at attention with their weapons propped against their legs in a non-threatening position. Ahead Victoria could see a bunch of people standing in the middle of the bridge. They wore the Kansas-Missouri uniform. She assumed Ryan McGrath was there too, but he must be past Todd’s soldiers. She wanted to see what was going on, but the bridge must be a mile long, too far for her to see or hear anything.

The six men of their escort arranged the women single file and took up flanking positions on either side of them. It was a long walk to get to the center. They were halted twenty feet away from the men, and even with her height, Victoria couldn’t see anything except the dirty ice on the river on either side and the backs of Todd and his men in front.

A thin sound came from Anna, not quite a wail, not quite a moan. Renee stepped out of formation to put an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “It’s going to be okay.”

Anna put a hand over her mouth. “I want my dad. I want my mom.”

“So do I,” said Victoria. It surprised her, but she really did want her parents. Her dad would mow down the soldiers and take her home. “Let’s try to listen and hear what they are saying.”

They could hear Todd speaking, but even though his voice was raised to carry, the wind was blowing past them toward him, pushing his words away from them. Victoria tried to distinguish what he said but they were too far back. She recognized Ryan McGrath’s voice but couldn’t make out any of his words either. Tears leaked down Anna’s cheeks. “Dad,” she whispered.

There was a flurry of movement ahead of them and one of the men from Kansas-Missouri turned and waved at them. The six soldiers marched them forward. Victoria strained to see the group on the other side of the bridge. The bridge curved out into a roundish central place, probably so pedestrians could look out at the river. On the side closest to Omaha was Ryan McGrath, along with Captain Erickson and a few other men she vaguely recognized from the stage in the legislative chambers, and there were Hawk and Stone to one side. A breath seeped out of Victoria, and with it, some of her anxiety.

Hawk tended to be stoic, but when he saw Renee, his face turned to stone and his black eyes burned with icy fire. He was twenty feet away from them, but Victoria clearly saw death written in the flat line of his mouth.

President Todd gestured Victoria, Renee, and Anna forward. He draped an arm around Victoria’s waist and the other around Anna’s shoulders. Renee, mercifully, was spared being touched by the president. Good thing. Hawk might have lost his habitual cool if the slimy little turd had put hands on his mate.

“As you can see,” Todd called jovially, “your ladies are quite well in my care. I think we can reach some arrangement that will ensure they remain safe and well, can’t we?”

McGrath looked almost as stony as Hawk. “We’d like to hear from the ladies themselves. Send them over.”

Todd laughed. “I don’t think so. You can hear them just fine from here.” He nodded at Renee. “Is that your husband, my dear? Please, reassure him that you are being well treated in my care.”

Renee fixed her eyes on her mate. “He’s absolutely right,” she called earnestly. “We’ve been treated like honored guests. In fact, last night we were invited to dinner. It was the best meal I’ve ever eaten. I wish we had a cook as good as the President’s.”

Hawk blinked. “Uh. Good.”

Victoria hid a smile. That blink was the equivalent of another man gaping. “It’s true,” she agreed, loudly. “Except for me being shot, we’re fine.”

The was no hint of shock on Hawk’s face now. He was back to be stony. Stone’s usually mild expression matched Hawk’s.

She went quickly on. “I was shot on accident,” she assured them. “It’s not serious, but President Todd sent his personal physician to me. He couldn’t have treated any of his own wives any better. Cousin Anna and I are fine.”

McGrath’s gaze flicked to Anna and casually away, but his jaw was clenched. Todd was stiff beside her. He said in a low voice, “My dear, I think you’ve said enough.” His smile, directed at Anna, chilled her more than the wind. “Not another word, do you understand?”

Victoria swallowed and nodded.

“Excellent.” The president turned back to the party from Omaha. “I’m told this young lady is one of your people.” He nodded at Hawk. “But I think she bears a striking resemblance to Mayor McGrath.”  He put a finger under Anna’s chin and lifted her face to examine it before looking at McGrath. “Yes, she certainly does resemble you. How curious.”

The mayor of Omaha almost managed to look bored. “Return the ladies to us now and we’ll be much more open to negotiating terms that favor you.”

The president laughed. “Oh, no, that’s not how this works.” Todd’s arm gave Victoria a squeeze that nearly forced a hiss of pain from her. “You see, because I have your women, you will agree to whatever terms I want.  Then, after you have proven trustworthy, you may get your women back. It all depends on you.”

Anna tried to muffle her sobs against her shoulder. Todd patted the top of her head. “Now, you girls scurry back to your truck and let us men finish our talk.”

Girls? Us men? He’s going to die, Victoria reminded herself. Don’t get angry. It’s only a matter of time before someone kills him. She would be happy to do it herself. With great reluctance, Victoria let the soldiers form up on either side of them to begin the march back over the long bridge to the truck.

“Be patient,” Hawk shouted in Lakota. “We’ll get you back.”

Renee turned her head to search out her mate. “We know,” she shouted back.

The soldier beside Renee gave her a gentle but firm nudge. Obediently, they marched down the bridge to the trucks. Victoria kept her eyes open for any sign of the other wolf warriors skulking in the brush, but didn’t see them. They were around, she was sure. Rock, Eagle, Quill, and Sand wouldn’t be napping back at the Limit. They were probably up to something right now that would cause trouble for Todd.

They waited in the truck for another hour before the truck’s engine roared to life and the fumes of its fuel clogged their noses.

“We’ll be back to camp in less than an hour,” one of their escort remarked. “We should have brought some rations. It’s past lunch.”

“Supplies were just delivered last night,” another said. “There will be plenty of food waiting for us.”

Victoria’s shoulders slumped. It hadn’t been likely, but she’d hoped they would be returned to Omaha right away. Renee must have felt the same. Over Anna’s head she nodded grimly.

They had been travelling twenty minutes when a new stench cut through the engine fumes. Renee pinched her nose closed.

“Something’s burning,” she muttered.

The scratch at the back of Victoria’s throat turned into a cough. The light coming through the opening at the back turned dim. A haze of dirty smoke filtered in. Something was burning, but it didn’t smell like grass or wood. Victoria had seen more than one prairie fire in her life, but those occurred in hot, dry weather, not in damp springtime. She could tell by the way the soldiers readied their weapons that this wasn’t a natural disaster. They expected trouble of the man-made sort.

The truck picked up speed, jolting over the uneven ground. Victoria clenched onto the bench to keep from being bounced off the seat. After several minutes, they slowed to a crawl. Voices outside the truck were raised. Not all the words were clear, but shock and anger were. From the little she caught, the new supplies had been set on fire, and the fuel and ammunition had exploded.

She was dying to see what was going on, but the soldiers stopped her.

“No, ma’am,” one said. “You all stay put until we know if it’s safe.”

Two of the escort slipped out to find out what was happening.

“The Clan,” said Renee with satisfaction.

“Did all the food burn?” one of their escort asked another. “What about lunch?”

Victoria’s stomach growled, but she shared a smile with Renee. “The Clan,” she agreed.

The canvas at the back of the truck opened and Lieutenant Mott looked in. “Bring the ladies out,” he ordered. “Take them to the harem and make sure they stay there.”

Somehow the burning smell was even worse outside the truck. Victoria fanned her hand in front of her face to try to clear the haze. She could see the harem tent ahead and to the right, and to her left, President Todd stood with fists shaking in front of his face. That face was contorted into an ugly mask, clenched teeth exposed by curled lips, eyebrows pulled so low his eyes couldn’t be seen, and nostrils flared.

“That doesn’t look good,” Renee muttered.  “Is he foaming at the mouth?”

A glistening strand of spittle rolled from the corner of his mouth. Victoria took a step back. “Eeew.”

The President slammed his fists into the truck he stood beside. “My son,” he screamed. “They took my son!”

Victoria stared, repelled, while he threw himself to the ground, screaming. “Get them back. Get them back!” he shrieked, pounding the grass with his fists and slamming his heels into the ground. “I’ll kill them! All of them. I want them dead! Dead, dead dead!”

Anna was staring too. “My little brother Nick used to do that when he was two, but he doesn’t do it anymore.”

“Everyone I know outgrew it,” Victoria said. She watched the President writhe around, biting the collar of his uniform. “This is like a toddler tantrum, but worse.”

General Atwater hurried toward them. “Ladies, please go to the harem tent. It’s best that you aren’t in sight right now.”

Their escort bunched around them and herded them away to the harem tent. The soldiers looked nervous, like they wanted to be out of sight too. Renee paused when they got to the tent. Strangely, there were no men guarding the tent. “Wait a minute,” she said, when the escort turned to go. “What is going on?”

The soldiers looked at each other. “Dunno, ma’am.” The tallest one, whose name on his uniform was Smithers, shuffled his feet. “Our supplies were vandalized and the President’s harem was captured.”

“He said something about his son,” Victoria remembered. “I don’t think we met him.”

A different soldier answered. “Not born yet. Fourth Mrs. Todd is expecting. It’s the president’s first child.” He shook his head. “The president is going to flip.”

“Shut up,” muttered Smithers. “Ladies, please go into the tent and stay there until you are called for.”

Renee opened the flap. “Lunch?”

Smithers shook his head. “If there’s any food we’ll try to get you some.”

His voice said he doubted there was any food to be had. Renee led the way into the tent. The passed through the main room, down the hallway made by canvas hangings, to the room they had left only a couple of hours ago.

“Kind of creepy with no one else here,” Renee observed.

Victoria agreed. “Yeah. Let’s go sit down in the front room.”

After they were settled, Anna asked, “Do you think there really isn’t any more food? At all?”

“There might be some,” Renee said thoughtfully. “I bet the president keeps his food separate from the army’s supplies. But if he has three thousand men, his private supply won’t go far. Either they’ll have to go looking for more food nearby or wait for more to be sent to them from another place. Either way, the army will be hungry.”

“I’m already hungry,” Victoria put in.

“And hungry men aren’t as disciplined,” Renee continued. “Todd could face a mutiny. Or whatever it’s called in the army.”

“Did your husband do this?” Anna asked.

“My husband was on the bridge with your dad.” Renee jerked a thumb at Victoria. “Her husband might have. I suppose they came here looking for us to rescue us. When we weren’t here, they took the harem.”

“Yeah,” Victoria agreed. “Burning the food and the other stuff was brilliant, but I’m getting pretty hungry.”

Anna sighed. “Me too. How did your husband get the other women out of camp? There were lots of people here who would have stopped them.”

“That must be why they burned stuff. Everyone probably ran over there to save the food.” Victoria frowned a little. “Stealing women doesn’t seem like something they would do.”

Renee shrugged. “At least the harem will be completely safe with them.”

Victoria glanced at Anna. “True.”

Hours passed. Supper time came and went with no food and no news. Anna was snoring with her head on the table when a male voice announced he was entering. It was General Atwater and a younger soldier holding half a loaf of bread. The general gestured and the man set the bread on the table, gave a crisp salute and left. The general sat down. Victoria divided her attention between him and the bread.

“It’s interesting,” he remarked dispassionately, “how many big cat prints are around our camp. Wolf tracks I had expected. But big cats? No. What can you tell me about the cats?”

Marty! Victoria hid her elation behind a confused expression. “Cats? You mean kitty cats?”

“I mean lions,” the general snapped. “Don’t play dumb. And don’t pretend you’re sweet and helpless either. I saw what you did to Mott. Now answer the question.”

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