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Site Green, the Pennyroyal of Kentucky, February of Fifty-sixth Year of the Kurian Order: the violent winter, the worst in living memory for even the outdoorsy locals, has ebbed at last. Nothing that might be called spring warms the sky; rather, it is a quiet between-season pause, like the lassitude between the break in a life-threatening fever and actual recovery.
"Damn near as bad as '76 7," would, in time, become the new standard for calamity of war or weather, depending on how the individual in question labeled it. Youngsters would later recall the onset of the winter blizzards followed hard by the terrible ravies virus outbreak that blossomed in screams and death. Flight, cold, hunger, feareverything turned upside down in the deep snow.
While the disease strain was the deadliest yet unleashed on mankind, it did not have nearly the calamitous effect of the original appearance, in that dreadful summer of 2022 when the Kurians first appeared. Then, ravies struck like something dreamed up in an apocalyptic horror movie with terrible effect. The saviors-turned-soulstealers appeared in the wake of a perfect storm of natural disaster and disease, offering aid and comfort that soon transitioned to enslavement and death once they had the half-starved, bewildered population properly under their control.
But Kentucky of 2076 wasn't the civilized world of 2022. From the Bluegrass to the Jackson Purchase, a network of clans who ranched Kurian-introduced legwormsand yes, some horses as welltoughened by years of squabbles with each other and bitter fighting against those who tried to incorporate them into the Kurian Order grazed their herds and preserved their independence. Their wary, well-armed neutrality made this limestone-hilled country the Switzerland of the eastern half of the United States. Yes, they sold the Kurians legworm meat and allowed a few towers along the main rail arteries, but if a Kurian ventured outside the urban centers with their Reapers, they lost enough avatars to make "free-ranging" futile in the careful cost/benefit analysis of the Kurian Order.
When Kentucky dropped its guarded neutrality briefly enough to allow rebel forces to cross its territory with the aid of a few clans hungry for real freedom, Kur unleashed its furyfirst with the murderous Moondagger fanatics and, when that failed, with a virus designed to wipe the slate clean.
There were losses, whole settlements and clans wiped out, but it was not the cleansing the Kurians had hoped for, especially in the rugged fastness of south-central Kentucky.
However, much of the Western Coal Fields and the axe-handle of Kentucky's Pennyroyal region were emptied as what was left of the locals fled to the protection of Kentucky's military in the heartland or the tiny bastion of Southern Command south of Evansville.
With frost and flurries still washing across the state on cold mornings, the Kurian Order seeks to take advantage of the emptiness. Nature abhors a vacuum, the unnature of the vampiric Kurian Order exploits one.
The Georgia Control, a manufacturing center for eastern North America, has the audacity and the organization to swallow such a huge bite of territory. Why the Western Tennessee Kurians, a looser organization called the Nashville Concordance, agreed to support the endeavor that would add so much to the Control's dominance in the region is a matter of some dispute. The various Kurian states are notorious for their plotting and backstabbing. Georgia either offered up a king's ransom in auras or the Concordance Kurians believed that where their northern brethren had bled and failed, southerners would do no better and a weakened Georgia Control would be much to their advantage.
There are other less likely guesses, of course, but those disputes are for the philosophers. Let us return to the beginning of the latest bid for Kentucky's rich hills and bottoms.
Signs that spring might be ready to appear are all around Central City, what used to be a little crossroads town near the old Green River Correctional Complex. Geese and ducks alight in the lakes and swamps northwest of town, drawn north by the warmth to their traditional nesting areas. Yellow coltsfoot blossomsa local remedy for a lingering winter cough and sore throatare beginning to open along the old roadsides, as if eager for the sun, though the roads are little better than broken-up streams of pavement filled with scrub growth and mudslide, a jeep trail at best.
The abandoned prison complex now houses birds, bats, and a multitude of hornet's nests at the top and everything from wild pigs to black bears on the bottom floors, with rats running between. For the Kurians, putting the stout concrete buildings in order and installing new glass and flooring can wait. The raccoons and owls will reign for a few weeks more everywhere but one office the engineers cleared in order to complete a survey of what needed to be done to restore the structure.
The future Kurian tower will need holding cells and forced-labor housing.
Noisy activity can be seen and heard around the clock at a construction site outside the defunct prison, on a patch of earth where the ground begins to rise between the prison and Central City. Two small signs identify it as SITE GREEN, one just off old state Route 277 and one off 602, both of which have been cleared of brush and tree growth by hungry-mouthed chippers for easier passage of equipment.
Two wire-fenced camps, one for the uniformed soldiers of elite Nashville Concordance Guard on temporary lease to the Georgia Control and police of the Clarksville Border Troop and another for the worksite proper, snuggle side by side like a pair of pellet-chewing rabbits, both covered by towers, zeroed-in mortars and machine guns and ever-vigilant guarded gates. The military camp is thick with green tents. The construction fencing guards what is currently a deep hole and a few mounds of construction materials and piles of steel reinforcing rods, with a cement-mixing facility blistered out of the side like a growth.
The race to fill the vacuum is begun. It would appear the Kurians were first off their marks.
As the sun set at Site Green on, appropriately enough, Valentine's Day, the other team joined the race. It seems an uneven contest. On the one side in this bit of empty are five companies of hired professional soldiers in the light butter color of Nashville khaki, their support staff and heavy weapons crews, police and reconnaissance auxiliaries, construction machinery, experts, technicians, strong-backed laborers, and a few cooks and cleaners and supervisors.
On the other is a single man lying as though nested in a patch of hairy vetch, watching the camps turn off and in for the night. He's dressed in a curious assortment of legworm leathers, insulating felt vest and gaiters, canvas trousers, and a nondescript green service jacket with rain hood missing its drawstring. One of the canny, nettle-scratched, and well-nigh uncatchable wild boars who root the nearby Green River marshes might recognize a kindred spirit if he came snout-to-nose with the man. Both know they're a potential meal if they're not careful, both have a dozen tricks to throw off trackers and hunters, or better yet, to avoid being observed in the first place. And both can be unbelievably fast and fierce when cornered.
Scarred on face and missing an earlobe, weathered, and with a few strands of gray in his still-thick black hair, he has an uneven set to his jaw that can look humorous or thoughtful. At the moment you might say thoughtful, thanks to the slow-moving piece of fresh grass shoot working at the right side of his mouth the way a cow absently chews her cud. He's not looking at the military camp. What's behind that wire and passing in and out of the tents has long since been observed, estimated, and recorded in a battered pocket notebook.
Instead he gazes at the mobile-homelike cluster of temporary housing for the most important members of the construction staff, especially the extra-wide one with the words SITE GREEN CONSTRUCTION SUPERVISOR V. CHAMPERS stenciled next to the doorbell.
They're not wasting any time, Valentine thought. Maybe he'd wasted too much, first in Tennessee trying to trace the traffic from the Georgia Control to its terminus, then observing the construction site for two days, slowly devouring his precious suppliesmostly canned WHAM! legworm meat, uninteresting unless you liked faintly barbecued-flavor chewing exerciseshe'd brought.
After a long session of sassafrass tea-fueled negotiations with shifty backwoods family of smuggled-goods dealershe turned over the Pooter and its contents. He'd finally settled on a well-fitting pair of snake-proof military boots, two bottles of bonded bourbon, and a sum of Nashville cash he suspected was counterfeit, He kept only an Atlanta Youth Vanguard star-cluster leader key fob and a mobile file cabinet stuffed with papers and marked ASST. STAFF FACILITATOR MACON.
He'd spent a lot of time reading, while watching the construction site and getting a feel for its rhythms.
He waited, reading and watching, lying like a snake in the tall grass on an old saddle-sheepskin so dirty the mottled brown passed for camouflage. Dirty or not, it still protected his belly from the cold earth. Beside him, in a protective deerskin sheath, his Atlanta-built Type Three, 7.62 mm, four feet of match-barrel battle rifle, waited like a sleeping friend.
He hoped it would stay sheathed for the night.
When his hard-running Wolves had first reported the construction and military trafficone of the long-range patrols had cut across a road leading back to Clarksville recently used and partially cleared and sensibly followed it north to the sourcehe'd taken the matter up with Colonel Lambert. Their bloodied-but-still-training companies of ex-Quislings, sort of a "Foreign Legion" grudgingly acknowledged by Southern Command but at the string-knotted end of the supply chain, now had something much more ominous to face than a few ravies-addled psychopaths starving in the woods.
The under-construction tower was like a sandglass being filled from the heavens above. Once it was up, the Kurians within would control everything within a fifty-mile or more radius.
Putting a monkey wrench in the Kurian gears was a job for the whole brigade, or maybe just a few men. Valentine shaved that down to one, then reluctantly accepted the company of a wolf messenger and Alessa Duvalier as far as the outskirts of Central City.
"One?" Lambert had asked, her usual brisksome might say fussy, others attentivemanner shocked into immobility.
"I'm not going to fight. I'll go and have a talk with them," Valentine said.
That's still what he planned to do, go and have a talk, armed with information obtained from Macon's files. He checked the hilt of the fourteen-inch parang strapped to his thigh, the .45 automatic at his hip, and his quiet little silencer-threaded .22 tucked under his arm. The legworm pick was holding up some camouflage netting above his body.
One worry. There was at least one Reaper in the camp, and a man who left a Reaper out of his calculations could easily find himself dead and strung up like a weasel on a gamekeeper's gibbet.
Alessa Duvalier, a redheaded tangle of living razor wire who'd trained him as a Cat almost a decade ago, lurked somewhere alongside the road leading to the gates, ready to hunt the hunter should the Reaper venture outside the gate. While it could leap even the nine-foot-high fencing around the military camp, Reapers didn't like to exhibit their lethal prowess around their allies. It unsettled their underlings. They'd rather engage in quiet little murders in basements and abandoned barns.
Getting to the construction housing would be easy enough. The trailers had nothing of value to protect. No valuable machine tools and construction equipment, no carefully guarded armories. Only a few hard hats and their laundry and some greasy baking foil.
Night fell early, cloudy and cold, and he waited for the guard change, slowly chewing the last of his canned WHAM! to convince his stomach he'd eaten more than he actually had. He gave the fresh guards another two hours to become not-so-fresh, marked the location of the lone dog patrol, and wiggled with his rifle down to the construction camp fence.
The smell of new spring green was everywhere. Some wild daffodils had opened, their yellow bluish in the dark. Their sweet aroma invigorated him.
He made it to the garbage pit behind the construction camp and waited out the dog patrol.
Thanks to the heavy equipment, they made a good job of it. The pit was ten full feet deep and much wider. Already it was littered with refuse, packaging, and bits from the construction already under way.
Valentine lay at the lip, pretending he didn't own a working nose.
The stuff these Georgia Control workers tossed out! There was foil everywhere, smelling of a better grade of barbecue sauce than the WHAM! he'd consumed. In the United Free Republics, the make-do populace would never toss out practically brand-new foil. It would be washed, flattened, and folded by whichever kid had reuse chores that week. Once holed and useless, it would be added to the mass of insulation around an icebox or root cellar or compost pile, if it didn't end up expanding the capacity of some old-timer's still.
The Control, one of the richest and best-organized Kurian Zones, encompassing as it did much of the old Carolinas, the civilized northern slice of Florida, and a good piece of Alabama and Tennessee besides, had resources the hardscrabble free territories couldn't dream of. Ports for trade, overseas air, the rich coastal waters to feed their population
Then again, perhaps the Georgia Control had never fought a real war against determined humans choosing to die in battle instead of pierced by the tongues of the Kurian's Reapers. They could bite off pieces of their neighbors, but they might prove just an oversized band of vicious riot police. Everyone had thought the Moondaggers invincible until they fought real troops with real weapons.
The dog patrol passed, checking the overgrown ditches next to the road. Valentine saw a shape creeping behind, close to the brush, arms and legs splayed like a spider, wrists and ankles bent and fingers splayed in an unsettling manner
Reaper. Keeping watch over the dog and its handler.
This one scuttled more like a scorpion than its usual biped locomotion, moving so it couldn't be easily observed.
Valentine pulled back into himself, imagining his consciousness a blue ball of energy he could shrink to a marble and place in his pocket. Reapers hunted mankind, seeking lifesign. It was an energy given off by sentient creatures in response to their size and mental development.
The Reapers had the usual senses, of course. No one knew how good they were, though Valentine had some idea they lay somewhere between the handler and his dog. He'd taken in an infant Reaper after escaping Ohio, and his "son" was growing up near Saint Louis under the guidance of a woman who'd saved his life on Hispaniola.
The Reaper paused, rotated its head like a security camera, stared briefly at the garbage pit. Valentine, quiescent as a mushroom, saw a family of raccoons, a hefty mother leading her offspring, approach the ramp to the pit.
The Reaper cranked its head back to the forward position and scooted off after the dog and handler.
Valentine ceased relaxing. At last he could have his talk.
It was a homey little trailer, dark save for some light behind the bedroom blinds. The lock proved no more trouble than the polite gesture its manufacturer intended. One bedroom, a kitchen, and a cramped office in what he imagined was meant to be a spare bedroom at the other end. It smelled of pasta and vinegar salad dressing. The detritus on the counter showed everything but the bread and wine came out of a can, including the artichokes. There was a small bar buffet next to a comfortable chair with some ice melting in a cocktail shaker. Valentine picked up a yellow plastic ball and sniffed the lemon juice inside. That took the stench of garbage out of his nostrils.
Animal noises, the galumphing sounds and keening cries of lovemaking, pulsed out of the bedroom. Whatever was going on in there was vigorous enough to make the living room's main light fixture vibrate and one of the cheap kitchen cabinets swing open.
Valentine marked a little bouquet of plastic flowers.
These will have to do until the real ones appear in the spring, read the card.
He removed his new boots and waited in the dark, leafing through a digest of Kurian Zone newspapers by the floodlight coming in through the blinds. No sense spoiling everyone's fun.
A few strangled cries, a gasp, then a few murmurs. A dark-haired, pleasantly plump woman appeared nude in the hallway before shutting the bathroom door on Valentine.
He heard a shower curtain shut.
Her lingering sweat smelled like sex and verbena with a little bay rum.
Valentine picked up a plastic squeeze bottle of lemon juice on the bar and slipped into the bathroom. Moving fastfaster than an alert boxer could react, impossibly fast for a woman with soap in her eyeshe opened the shower curtain and grabbed the girl by mouth and waist. She froze in shock.
"It's okay," he said, forcing the plastic lemon into her mouth. "It's okay."
"There's only a twenty gallon tank for the hot water, Carrie," a male voice called from the bedroom as Valentine reached for the belt to a terrycloth robe.
Valentine bound her wrists with a strip of plastic, temporary restraints carried by every Kurian security man. She'd be able to chew through them once she worked the robe belt out from around her head and the plastic lemon out of her mouth.
"Don't signal for help while I'm here," Valentine whispered. "I'm not hurting anyone. I'm here to have a little chat with the construction supervisor."
He waved his brass ring under her eye. "I have powerful friends," he whispered above the shower. "Be quiet, now."
He left her tied to the toilet plumbing.
"What the hell," Champers gasped, sitting bolt upright as Valentine strode in, pointing his .22.
Champers seemed to Valentine more like an accountant that a construction hand. He had wizened eyes, a pale, angular body. He reached for some thick glasses.
"Don't be alarmed, Mr. Supervisor. I'm less your enemy than your bosses. Do you have any idea what your file says about you?"
"Carrie," Champers called.
"She's fine," Valentine said. "I didn't want her screaming out the window for help during our interview. It might help if you told her it's okay."
"That remains to be proved. So, what did I do this time?" Champers said.
Valentine sat down on an aluminum steamer trunk that smelled like mothballs. "I've no idea."
"Then why the midnight call. You make me think my time's up."
"That's not my department. I'm passing along some information I happened across. You've got below-acceptable evaluations in political activity and community service."
Champers swung his legs out of the bed, felt for slippers.
"Want some coffee?" he asked. Valentine stiffened as Champers' hand moved toward the bedside table, but he reached only for a pack of cigarettes and some matches.
Valentine had to admire the man's coolness, though he could still see a pulse going, fast and hard in Champers's temple. "Let's stay in here for the moment."
"Can I smoke?"
"It's your house."
"You with the Control?"
Valentine set the gun down on the trunk next to his thigh. "No."
"Champers, you're going to have to come up with a reason to abandon these works. Go fifty miles west toward the Mississippi, go fifty miles east toward Lexington. Just don't build here."
"How do I"
"That's not my problem. You're an expert. Say the ground's too soft for a tower of that height, or there's malaria in the river. You have men on your construction crew with malaria? Show them one. Hell, I heard the Control's mostly run by humans. Bypass this Kurian and take it up with the Control. Say Center City's a no go."
"You must be a Kentuckian. The rebels. You don't sound like one, you're more northern."
Valentine shrugged. "Doesn't matter. What does matter to me, very much, is that this tower never goes up. Now, we could stop it with a big fight, lots of explosives, God knows how many deaths. Or you could kill it with an engineering reason."
Champers cleaned his glasses with a corner of his sheet. "You really want this project stopped?"
"I can kill it. Permanent as a big air strike. But I need some help, and I need to get away. With my men. Every damn one of us, or the deal's off and you'll have to kill me and try your luck with the Control garrison."
Valentine felt control of the conversation slipping away. He'd intended to come in, bluff and talk round a powerful Quisling, and instead, purely by accident, learned a name of an engineer of top-rated technical competence but doubtful loyalty to the Kurian Order. A strange man to put in charge of a tower. He was either a Kurian agent under very deep cover or truly a brilliant misfit.
"Define help," Valentine said, smelling a bottle of bay rum aftershave on the dresser.
Champers adjusted his glasses. "You're with the resistance, right? Look, me and my crew's expendable. It's a bunch of men and women on their last legs with the Control. Records like blotting paper, all of us. They've put us out here on the spear tip because if we get sheared off, no loss, we're headed for the recycling bin anyway. Maybe once the tower's finished, we'll be the first official sacrifice. Just like the Control to save a tank of fuel bussing us back."
"I sat handcuffed in a recycling bin a couple years ago myself, Champers. I don't like to see others tossed into a black van."
The engineer's eyebrow went up. "The Control uses white."
"I didn't say it was in the Control. Why would they get rid of you? You look pretty healthy, except for your eyesight."
"I've got a reputation as a bit of an unmindful. I skip the Church and community stuff."
"Unmindful?" Valentine asked. Strange phrase, it reminded him of Orwell's doubleplus ungood. For a moment, he was back in Father Max's leaky one-classroom school in a forgotten stretch of Minnesota lake country.
"I don't toe the line. I've also kept my people out of the can. Not the easiest thing to manage. The Kurians are always getting rid of 'idle hands' in the building trades. Idle meaning not pulling a fifteen hour day, six days a week."
He seemed a little too eager for a guy who'd just made love to his woman and had a man barge in on him as he was considering a post-coital cigarette. That or he was a man who felt increasingly trapped, and finally saw a way out.
Valentine hadn't stayed alive in the Kurian Zone so long by trusting, but something about this man was sympatico.
"Can you trust your woman?"
"Carrie's been my admin for six years. She's made all the right paperwork disappear. Could have turned me in for a nice promotion hundreds of times."
"It's your choice. Maybe we should all have that coffee and see about arranging a long-term retirement plan from the Control. We could certainly use some trained construction engineers in Kentucky."
Champers had an engineer's mind. He adjusted to new factors quickly and settled on an efficient course of action. He'd argue for a new location for the tower's foundation. If they listened and switched, it would mean a week's delay or more. If they overrode him, he could arrange for an accident that would prove his original objection.
Meanwhile, Valentine would organize a breakout for the misfit construction camp.
With the woman named Carrie, he didn't seem so much the tanned accountant, more the attentive boyfriend. She needed it. Perhaps it was the strain of being assaulted in the shower and tied up showing, but she seemed terrified by the idea.
At the very least, Valentine decided, the works might be delayed until they could return with more forces. Then, if the Control put enough troops around Center City to meet an unknown threat, they'd have to weaken elsewhere. His companies or the Army of Kentucky could hit a weak spot then and really pour some fat into the fire.
Carrie had a hundred questions, but Valentine wasn't willing to answer any of them.
"He's trusting us on our end. We'll have to trust him on his," Champers said.
They worked out a dead letter drop, using a coffeepot in the garbage dump, shook hands, and wished each other luck.
"Honestly, how far can you set them back?" Valentine asked as he put his hand on the door.
The accountant look came back into his eyes. "Six weeks. Eight if they're careless with inspecting the heavy equipment after we've run."
Valentine wondered how much his battalion and the Army of Kentucky could accomplish in that time.
Well, he was but a major. The higher-ups would have to decide what to do about the Georgia Control.
He hurried away into the overcast night, around the garbage pit and under the wire fence, recovered rifle cradled in his arms. Just in case.
The light went on in the trailer's bedroom again. Maybe they were releasing nervous tension together.
"More power to you, hard hat," Valentine said, safe beyond the wire.
Of course, safe, anywhere near the Kurian Zone, was a relative term. Valentine's hair rosea sure sign of a nearby Reaper.
He didn't know where he got the gift of sensing them. Perhaps he'd been born with it. Some of the other things he could do came from the Lifeweavers, humanity's extraterrestrial allies against their Kurian cousins. His night vision, sense of smell, reflexes, healingthere were others who had been enhanced better than he. But he'd never met another Wolf, or Cat, or Bear who could tell by a cold feeling at the back of the head that a Reaper was nearby.
It was up on the hill. Near where he was supposed to meet Duvalier.
He risked a run, hoping the guards in the towers weren't looking his way with night vision.
Panting and dragging his bad leg, he made it to the crest of the hill. The brush was lighter up here.
Duvalier approached, hands shoved in the pockets of her big duster, smiling. Her sword staff was tucked under her arm like a swagger stick.
He held up a clenched fistdanger!
Was she drunk? Crazy? She ignored him, still shuffling forward as though trying to make as much noise in the soggy leaves as possible.
A black figure exploded out of the trees, running for her.
Too late, Duvalier turned.
She screamed. Not her battle cry, half wildcat screech and half foxhunt yelp, this was a shriek of pure terror.
The Reaper put long pale fingers around Duvalier's arms. It lifted her. She kicked futilely at its kneecaps and crotch.
"Hey!" Valentine broke cover, waving his arms, anything to get it off Duvalier. "You! Over here!"
It opened its mouth. Duvalier managed to get a hand up to ward off the coming tongue
The Reaper jerked back as though kicked in the head by a Grog. It fell with her, one arm still gripping skin so deeply blood welled up like a pitchfork thrust into rain-soaked soil.
Adrenals on fire in the small of his back he ran up, parang and .45 out, noise of the shots be damned, in time to see Duvalier sawing at the dead Reaper's forearm tendons with her own camp utility knife. Released from the death grip, she stood up and turned to meet him.
"You have your talk?" she panted, smiling.
Seeing red and needing a fight, he resisted an impulse to slap her. "What was that, letting a Reaper grab you?"
"Val, that was a hyper-alert Reaper. I saw him come out of camp. He was feeling fine and ready for a night in the bush. His master must be somewhere nearby to have such a good connection. Hope he felt it wherever those squids keep their appetite. Just a sec"
She vomited up watery bile. "That's better."
Duvalier had suffered for years from what she called a "delicate stomach." A combination of bad water and worse food while wandering the Great Plains meant that anything stronger than rice and stewed chicken gave her indigestion.
Valentine scanned the horizon three hundred sixty degrees, looking for something that might serve as a Kurian tower. "How did you kill it?"
She stuck the blade of her camp knife into its jaws, pried them open a little wider. The Reaper's stabbing tongue flopped sideways, like a broke-back snake smashed by a rock. With the jaws held open, Duvalier reached in and pulled out a blade about the size of a largish pen. It had a triangular base and narrowed to a fine point.
"Nasty little pigsticker Chieftain rigged for me." She rolled up her sleeve and showed the spring-loaded holder for a stiletto. "You have to hit a button. I'm glad he grabbed me by the upper arms instead of the wrists."
"I should think so," Valentine said, good and mad.
"Spit, the stick up your ass must like it there, I can hear it getting longer. I had it under control, Val. I've been hunting these dickless assholes longer than you. Stinkbait here thought I was easy pickins."
Valentine massaged his sore leg. "Thanks for the heart attack."
"Your heart! Ha. You're a little soft between the ears, and I can't speak for what's between your legs, never having been with you in the Biblical sense, but I think that heart of yours is unharmed and untouched as ever. You're all cold blood and hot steel, like those killer robots in the old whatchacallit we saw at the movie palace in New Orleans."
Valentine was examining the Reaper's dress. It wore a tight-fitting jumpsuit that reminded him of the padding a baseball umpire wore over his chest. It was almost stylized. The monk's robe look wasn't popular in Atlanta, it seemed.
"What's next, Val?" Duvalier asked.
"We strip your kill here. The material and the fangs will be worth something to the smugglers or the Kentuckians. Then we head back for Fort Seng and deliver the bad news. Georgia is on the march."