In his bower, undisturbed through the deep dark hours of the night, the wounded man slept, if not exactly the sleep of the just, at least the sleep of the utterly exhausted. Fatigue, taken far enough, beats willow bark for killing pain any day of the week. The thick pile of dead leaves and other detritus, now hidden beneath several inches of softly falling snow, provided one of nature’s most effective blankets. The willows were bare of foliage, but there were a lot of them, every one standing sentinel, guarding the one who had sought sanctuary in their midst like some wily old whitetail buck.
Not until the final hour before dawn did the dreams come. Jeremiah Baseline Compton didn’t move otherwise, didn’t so much as alter his breathing or twitch a finger, his eyelids shifting as he moved into the sleep level known as REM.
Then, suddenly yet cautiously, he was awake. One eye opened, a mere slit that revealed nothing. It was still dark outside and darker yet in his leaf-and-snow burrow. The rich smell of rotting vegetation didn’t even register; his nose had gotten used to that hours ago. So what had disturbed his rest, daring to remind him of burning aching pains throughout his body, not just in the slashed ankle, taunting him most of all with the need to empty his bladder?
A man spoke, near enough he feared the jig was up, and his bladder nearly emptied on its own initiative. Not quite, thank the Lord; the smell of human urine would give away his presence as surely as anything.
“I’m telling you, boss, them forters can wait. Sure you don’t mean we don’t got time for a cup of–”
“Can it, Steeg. We’re gonna take vantage of this snow while it lasts, and that’s that. Sides, you think I’m gonna hang round this Before midden any longer’n I have to? Git a move on.”
The grumbling didn’t quit then, but it did quiet down some. Under-breath muttering. Men relieving themselves, literally stinking up the place. The sounds of horses being saddled, packs lashed down, snow kicked over a campfire to sizzle it out.
The truth hit Miah Compton like a sledge hammer to the gut. They’ve been there all night. Must have come in not long after I did.
Raiders, obviously. He’d been saved by the snow, and possibly by the blackness of the night. They certainly knew how to break camp; within minutes, the killers were moving out, sounds trailing off into the distance.
Feeling like one lucky Weasel, he held off as long as he could, but his bladder was insistent. In the end, he surfaced from his earthy bed, scattering leaves and snow, kneeling to drain the lizard before slow-scraping his way back through the slender trees to see what he could see. Which wasn’t much at first, what with it still being early and the snow still coming down, but he wasn’t in any great hurry now. The leader’s remark about a Before midden had sparked his thinking box. Everyone knew the legends, that Death waited in the remains of population centers, the blackface disease possibly still viable there, ready to pounce the moment some young fool came wandering near. That, or hordes of monsters lurking in tumble down buildings, people who were no longer people, things that fed on human flesh. Which was why there were so few valuable Before items around these days, like that load of steel Grunt and his teamster woman had brought to the Fort.
No one wanted to test the monsters.
But every water crossing had piles of Before stuff lying around. Worthless, usually. Old skeletons, rotted shreds of clothing here and there, equally rotted wooden structures or tools or whatever, sun-shattered stuff called plastic that stayed in its original form under cover but couldn’t stand the heat in direct sunlight. A few miles upstream, where the highway he’d been told was once called a freeway crossed the river, the piles of junk were endless, even including rusting hulks of vehicles that had once been powered by magic, dumped into the water when one of the earthquakes hit hard enough to bring down the bridge. He didn’t have the strength to add that kind of detour to his eighteen mile odyssey…but much smaller junk piles were right here, right under his quivering nose.
Finding the first treasure didn’t require any snow-scraping at all. The outlaws had left it behind, a ratty old cloth bag half filled with hard biscuits and frozen weevils baked right in along with the flour.
Whoever says this kind of fare is a feast under these conditions is full of it, he thought as he nearly broke a tooth before hitting on the solution of pounding the biscuits to bits with a rock before attempting to eat them. But eat them he did, forcing himself not to gag. Half of them, anyway, washing them down with liberal drafts of river water. Using the drawstring on the holey bag, he tied off the rest to the rope belt on his slave tunic, in front, where he hoped they’d cause less trouble than elsewhere.
Both river water and biscuits stayed down, cramping his gut just a little. He hardly noticed.
A memory surfaced, grandfather reading a story to him, one of the tales from Before, about a man known as Liver Eating Johnston who’d been at war with the entire Crow Indian Nation…and had killed a whole bunch of his enemies by leaving fresh hot biscuits behind as he fled. The Indians had gorged themselves on the biscuits, unaware until too late that Johnston had laced them liberally with a poison called strychnine. Wolf poison.
He stomped on the memory–firmly, lest it unman him–and got back to work.
Another hour passed before treasure number two surfaced. Not that he could take much credit for the find. Frankly, he would have overlooked the barely noticeable lump under all that snow, but Spirit had other ideas. He’d tripped and fallen, heading for a much more promising snow lump, and banged his good knee on a rusty socket wrench. Not that he knew what a socket wrench was, but the equally rusty hacksaw immediately identified itself as something sharp to cut with.
He first cut a slice out of his slave tunic near the hem, ripping it from there, all the way around, a good long two inch strip of cloth. Cut that in half. Bound one hand, then the other, using his teeth to help tie the knots when he was done. The blisters on his palms were covered now, hopefully enough to let him crutch his way onward without destroying the flesh entirely.
Yes, crutch. Because he understood willows. Growing up, what boy did not? A first bow, not worth much but sometimes enough to kill a rabbit. Slim, flexible, strong wood. A switch across his rear end when he’d misbehaved, no holds barred and Oh help me God I won’t do that again. Cut right, nothing made a better crutch than a willow.
The hacksaw blade broke, but thankfully not until he was on the last cut, leaving him to badger that final branch back and forth until it finally gave up. The man known as Weasel looked down at his work, at the two sturdy, springy sticks with side branch supports for under the armpits and hand grips at just the right spots. He looked over his creation, and he cried.
Until this moment, he had not truly believed he was going to make it.
And as he cried, he prayed, thanking the Lord for His bounty.
Now, how to get across the river? With only two support points, the long pole and his left foot, there was no way he could have done it without drowning. But now…now, with three points, i.e. two crutch tips and that same foot…maybe. I’ll have to plant solid, all three points, sense it carefully before shifting one point at a time. I’ll be inching across like a crippled crab, not that I’ve ever seen a crab except in grandfather’s illustrated Shore Guide book. He’d thought it was bigger, farther across, but in this light it looked like maybe eighty feet. The snowflakes, slowing down now but far from quitting, could be throwing him off…
…but he had to get moving, one way or the other. The breeze, nothing fierce but enough to be noticeable, had shifted around from west to south. It felt warmer. If it warmed up much more, the snow would turn to rain, and everything would melt. He had to do it now or not at all.
As if to underscore the point, a shadow moved, far upstream, off to his left. A shadow he knew was in truth a barely glimpsed bear, not yet in hibernation. And why would he be? This was, after all, the first real snow of the season.
He eased the crutches into the water, one at a time, squirreling the tips down among the rounded river rocks, bracing them as firmly as possible, and took his first swing-lunge-forward step.
The water felt ice cold, far more so than the air, but there were benefits. His injured limb, dragging through the river behind him, liked it. Super-chilled river as hydrotherapy?
He made it past midpoint before he fell.
The downstream crutch had felt solid, like it was lodged between a couple of good sized rocks and resting firmly on another. He’d passed the deepest point of the river, felt like he was going to make it, the water running strongly but nothing close to white water rapids, not much above his knees. Focused as strongly as he was on not losing either crutch–a sure death sentence–he went under, panic spurring him hard, his lips and nostrils puckered as tightly shut as his sphincter. Before he knew it, he was being swept downstream, and that wouldn’t do. Another hundred yards and he’d be into deep water, slow moving but death roll deep, well over his head. Both arms flailed, crutch tips slashing down but slipping, his body weight pulling both willow sticks clear of any purchase they might have found. Rivers were killers. Had been killers in the centuries before Before, prior to the development of bridges. Had become so again After, the concrete and steel or even wooden marvels blasted apart by earthquakes or, sadly enough, by human survivors of the blackface fighting other survivors, especially in the early days when there were still lots of them around to kill each other.
His left hand stick suddenly caught, jammed between boulders if he had to guess, but ready to slip any moment.
Make haste slowly. Carefully, terrified he would either move too slowly or too quickly, his grip slipping as the current continued to tug at him fiercely, he brought the right hand crutch around, above the water, then forced it down into the same space occupied by its mate. Found purchase. Squiggled the left hand crutch into better position. His arms burning with lactic acid, screaming to give up and let go, he managed to bring one knee to his chest, angling the foot down, finding a rock that seemed stable on the fourth try. His injured leg had not been tested, but now it would need to do its part; there was no other option. Use the heel? Yes, he must. A toehold would stretch the sliced hamstring apart, right? Whereas planting the heel should push it together.
There was no foot pain. Couldn’t afford that, so he didn’t feel it. That could–and would, if he survived–come later.
All four points planted, the compact man arched his back like an inchworm, his core above the insistent waters for the first time in what seemed like hours. Time is relative, grandfather had told him, and for the first time (ha!) he knew what the old blackface had meant.
One stick repositioned. Then the other. And…again, head for the eastern shore.
Countless stick-pokes later, he stumbled and fell once more, this time on the sandy earth bordering the water. He had done it. For a long moment, ignoring the biting cold whipping his soaked skin and tunic, he simply rested, finally remembering what people called this place. Dead Man Crossing. He had no idea what they called the river.
When he sat up, he paused to consider the partial bag of biscuits tied at his waist. Not even a starving man could choke down that soggy mess now. He’d dragged the weevily biscuits all the way across for no good reason whatsoever. It took a little while to fumble the knot open, but the lost time was worth the price of the whistle. Every ounce of dead weight could turn out to be deadly, multiplied over the miles he had yet to cover.
Once again on his feet and moving, shivering uncontrollably but realizing the snow had stopped and the sun was coming out, he noted with something akin to pleasure the way the willow crutches improved his quality of life. A horse would have been better, or even a reasonably sensible mule, but short of that…not bad.
And his mind began clicking along, considering the path before him.
First, the raiders. They had referred to the forters. Fort Steel was the only true fort within hundreds of miles, which meant the bad guys had designs on his home stomping grounds. There weren’t enough of them to tackle taking over the place outright, so…a raid. Raid, raiders, duh. It had been easy enough to figure out how many of them there were; even a city boy like Jeremiah Baseline Compton could count the number of spots where men had bedded down. There were only four outlaws. Just four.
Enough to steal the horse herd and run for it, maybe. If they could get in position, then hit the Fort pastures just at dusk as the herd boys were moving the stock back to the Fort, driving the animals into the night. Killing a boy or two, possibly, but the rustlers would need to know exactly which route they were taking in their headlong flight.
It might not be even that hard. Captain Finster would be cautious in pursuit at night, knowing the enemy might well have a rear guard setting an ambush for his patrol.
Finster loved ambushing people. He wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about being on the receiving end.
But if he could get home in time to warn the Fort…doable. Hard to say. The outlaws were mounted and had at least a two hour head start on him. Yeah, he was clipping right along, crutching forward at a ripping two miles an hour now, but no way could he maintain this pace forever. Thirteen miles to go and a true miracle if he could it in ten. By which time the daylight would be gone, along with at least some of the Fort’s priceless ponies and possibly the life of a herder. Or two.
But there is a way, the voice in his head whispered. He flinched, not wanting to hear it. But he had to consider it, didn’t he? Yes. Yes, he did.
He was going to have to cut through the Graveyard.
So far as he knew, no Soul had done that since the Fall. The usual trail wound around, following Dry Creek Valley, the seasonal creek twisting back on itself a dozen times as it made the loop, scrupulously avoiding the ghost town on the mesa. Residents of the city had turned on each other like so many rabid dogs near the end, or so the legend went. Raping, pillaging, committing fratricide, patricide, matricide, and suicide with equal abandon. Blackface victims were murdered on sight if it could be done from a distance. Unmarked residents were murdered on suspicion of carrying the disease, or for a crust of bread. There was no food left, no magical shipments of just-in-time groceries to the great stores of myth. It was dog eat dog, and by the end, no dogs were left.
Not a place to party down these days. Nosiree Bob.
But the mesa route would cut nearly six miles out of the thirteen he had left. If he didn’t pass out from hunger, he could be home by midafternoon, in plenty of time to warn the Fort. And he didn’t believe in ghosts anyway…did he?
Sure he did. Everybody knew ghosts were real. The question was, would the ghosts on Graveyard Mesa trouble him sufficiently to impede his progress, trick him, trip him, or worse? To spook or not to spook, that is the question.
The snow had turned to mud by the time he reached the point of decision. Continuing on, just bearing to the right a little, would take him on down Dry Creek, skirting the boogey land of his nightmares. Cutting off to the left would face him with a stiff climb, nothing much on a good day, but this was not a good day.
Setting his jaw, he cut left and began to climb. The slope was steep enough to require his full attention but, he found to his relief, nothing at all compared to rounded river rocks hidden under rushing waters. Before he knew it, he had topped the rise, the first man in decades to look upon the Graveyard. The stories had not prepared him. Off farther to his left, extending for what looked like miles, nothing stirred in the ancient ashes. Here and there a steel skeleton of a once mighty building stood in defiance, rusting in angry silence, but no bird rested there. Not even a hawk, for there were no rodents to hunt in that place. The breeze was more noticeable here, winding among the girders, raising a low howl that seemed to be the dead population center’s ghostly voice. Overhead, the skies had cleared, heavenly blue a backdrop to the dark, stark remains of what had been a vibrant, bustling place.
Jeremiah Baseline Compton shuddered, ripping his attention away from the awful sight by sheer force of will, directing his eyes to consider the scene closer at hand, directly before him.
He rather wished he hadn’t.
As dark and dead as the burned city’s remains might be, they were nothing but a counterpoint to the green life sprawled across the southern end of the mesa. Grass both green and reddish, wildflowers in a dozen different hues, trees identifiable as fir and spruce and even a few weeping willows, birds singing and flitting their lives away with nary a care in the world. Cottontail rabbits over there, playing do-me-now tag, foo fighting. A stray raccoon, far ahead and a bit to the left, not far from the edge, barely glimpsed. Life, life, and more life…and forming dotted lines marching away as far as the eye could see, markers for the dead. Headstones. Some tall, some small, all durable and unmoved by the comings and goings of fragile humans.
He was going to have to crutch his way directly through the true Graveyard itself.
No time like the present. Gathering his strength and his courage in equal measure, the man known as Weasel swung his willow stick crutches forward and began to grave walk. Literally, stepping directly on one grave after another. Somebody just walked over my grave, grandfather used to say. Wonder what he’d think about somebody pegging over it like this?
For want of anything better to do, he counted headstones as he went. Fifty-six markers into the cemetery, he hurried past an old tumbledown shed and a huge pile of bone white…bones. Human bones, bleached white by sun, some disintegrating, some scattered about. They hadn’t been mere bones in the beginning, he’d bet. No, they must have once been full-on corpses, piled here but never buried because there weren’t enough people left alive to bury them. It reminded him of the tales of Before, in what they called the Wild West, when hunters slaughtered buffalo by the thousands, taking only the hides and leaving the rest to rot. There had been piles of buffler bones far greater than this batch of homo sapiens skeletons, that was for sure.
But this pile was eerie enough, close to twenty feet high and eighty feet long, who knew how far back it went? No ghosts spoke to him, but he was pretty sure the ancient buffalo were having the last laugh.
Thirty-seven headstones later, he stopped cold. Stared. And started laughing uncontrollably, his mirth disturbing an entire murder of crows into flight. Most of the stones were pretty dry, simply giving the dead person’s name, date of birth, and date of death. Tony Decker, dead at the age of twenty-one, was an exception. Weasel stared at the chiseled inscription for a long moment, memorizing it.
Here I lay me
Down to rest
I have to say
I’m not impressed
“Me neither, buddy.” He lifted a crutch in mock salute. “Me neither.”