It was after dark and I wasn’t exactly one hundred percent, so Tori and I spread our rolls on the dining room floor, zipped them together, and slept among the Derringer refugees doing the same thing. Either Hiram’s snores were getting softer or I was getting used to them, but my banged up ribs wouldn’t allow me to sleep on my left side. Which wasn’t so bad, since I favored my right anyway, spooning with Tori and letting her soft, warm body take the weight of my arm, easing the ribs a fair bit. Relatively speaking. I still woke up from the discomfort fifty or sixty times before first light came around again. But we were together, we were with friends, and we had horses. Life was good.
Not that we weren’t both a bit antsy. After breakfast, we saddled Moon and tied his lead rope off to the Chevy’s rear bumper. Tori would drive, which was fine, but I was a wee bit nervous about it. The old classic had a clutch, thank goodness, but low gear in a three on the tree 1957 Bel Air is not all that slow. Once again, I took the lead on Dolly Parton, leading Tex and instructing my girl to keep the car at least thirty yards behind us. We didn’t want that jumpy stud horse freaking out at the gold colored machine monster coming up on his tail.
We’d barely gotten started when it occurred to me that my little blondie might not know what thirty yards meant, but I needn’t have worried. Derringer High had fielded a football team over the years; she’d seen enough games to understand what a thirty yard gain from a pass play meant.
Thankfully, she was also more worried about getting it right than I was. Turning in the saddle, I could see her swiveling her head back and forth, watching me and watching her mirrors and even rubbernecking far enough to eyeball Moon directly. She didn’t want to jerk the horse when she let out the clutch, and mostly she didn’t.
Mostly. The pinto gelding did have to jump from a complete stop to a brisk trot a few times, till the girl got the hang of it.
Things got better after we swapped out the Chevy for the Dodge Power Wagon at the down country house. That old plow truck had a granny gear slower than she’d ever need; she actually had to use second gear most of the time.
Going uphill at horse walking speed, though, it took us almost three hours to reach the Quonset. Not that we were complaining; we turned the animals loose in the five acre pasture a few minutes before noon. I’d fenced those acres off for the purpose years ago, figuring I’d want horses someday though not knowing just when that might be. One of the springs was included, so they had water, and the new spring grass was coming up nicely. Gwen swore all three of them would come to the sound of oats shaken in a feed pan, especially if we whistled a special signal Little Dan had instituted on the Nestossin Ranch. It was a simple enough thing, basically one note as high as a pair of pursed lips could produce, followed by four reps of the lowest possible note, rinse and repeat as needed.
Rolled oats could be a problem eventually, but we had one fifty-five gallon drum of them on hand. I’d kept that topped off with fresh feed, changing it out annually, as part of my prepper work. Good for both horses and humans.
The Nestossins also planted at least forty acres in oats every year, so hopefully we’d be able to trade for more before we ran out. Although, if things didn’t get better, I didn’t really know how much grain a crew of twenty-something could harvest and thresh by hand. Wouldn’t be surprised if that bunch had an antique horse powered threshing machine in storage somewhere; for sure they had a couple of old mowers.
But that worry was for another day. There was a late spring storm coming in, but we’d beaten it home. I needed time to rest and recuperate, not just my injured ribs but all of me including my psyche. Wouldn’t mind some Tori and me time, either.
Nobody but the two of us knew my secret. I’d built the ship in a bottle home underground for a reason. Vibrations on the surface were too chaotic, too violent, too abrasive for me to survive indefinitely without long term damage. Our hideout was literally that, a place where the covering earth blocked all those ugly vibes, allowed me to rejuvenate in peace and quiet. It would serve as a defensive bunker if it came to that, but its primary purpose was…medicinal. And a spiritual retreat.
It likely didn’t work that way for everybody, but cave life kept me alive.
Tori figured it was me that kept her alive, so indirectly the Quonset helped her salvation as well.
This time, it took me several days to feel I was once again on top of my game, tuned fine, in balance, ready to rock and roll. The storm that had followed us home was long gone, the weather warm, a gentle spring rain dissolving snow into slush and streaking rivulets that coursed down the steep grades that led down-canyon. We had the big Quonset equipment door and all of the house windows open, enjoying the last of the day’s natural light, the fresh rain-filled air, the comfort of it all. I finished studying the topo map that covered a dozen miles of terrain west of Grady’s Café, tidied my desk, and sauntered down the hallway to the bathroom, the half-bobcat tom at my heels. He hadn’t been stopping by that often lately. It was, after all, spring. There were girl kitties in heat out there, business to be done.
Some of which he’d clearly been doing. There was a fresh tear in his right ear. I had confidence in my burly friend, however; I’d lay odds the other guy looked a lot worse.
I flushed, zipped up, opened the door…and that’s when I heard the sound. The cat’s ears were pricked that way, too.
“Tori?” I asked, stepping into the kitchen. “What’s the matter?” My girl was standing near the stove, shoulders hunched, hands over her face, sobbing miserably. She answered without looking up.
“I–I burned–burned the soup.”
Coug Mon and I exchanged one of those guy glances. What the–??
“Gotta be more than that, babe,” I said, crossing the room to enfold her in my arms. The bob kitty got there at the same time, rubbing against her legs, purring his great rumble. “Let it out.”
We somehow found ourselves seated, me on a kitchen chair, her in my lap, her face tucked lying against my chest. Coug Mon sat quietly, looking up, just watching.
“It’s…it’s…kind of everything, I guess.”
She didn’t seem inclined to clarify that. I was going to have to work a bit with this one.
“Your aunt Liza?”
“Death, disaster, destruction and doom?”
She giggled a little. “Damn right.”
“Time of the month, that bloody damn moon?”
There was a little snort this time, like she was trying not to laugh.
“Fear of the past, fear of the future,
fear I’ll come home with wounds you can’t suture?
Lack of a girlfriend, people in pains,
Missing my woman, the one we called Rains?”
She went suddenly, utterly still. That was it.
Her utterly distracting chest rose dramatically and fell with a deep sigh. Her head moved, eyes lifting to meet mine. “I just…Master, I was thinking about her, about how she talked to me about, you know, you and the relationship the two of you had. And how she must have known she was about out of time, and her last efforts on Earth were all bent toward taking care of you and me both by getting us together. And then I got to marveling at how much courage that must have taken, and how much love, and how it must really have been between the two of you, and how could I ever measure up to that, and I knew I couldn’t, and it broke my heart….”
I smirked at her. “And then the soup boiled over?”
“Yes!” Her blue eyes flashed. “Then the damn soup boiled over! What rotten bleeping timing! Stupid soup!”
We stared at each other for a long moment. I’m not sure where the laughter started, in which one of us, but I know it escalated, bouncing back and forth in ever higher waves until we were both clutching our sides so hard she almost fell off my lap and I almost fell off the chair.
Coug Mon, on the other hand, licked a paw, thought it over for a moment or two, and headed on out through his cat door. Humans, he had to be thinking, were indescribably weird.
When we got it back together, I told Tori, “Honey, you’re right about the relationship between Rains and me. But don’t you ever doubt yourself, either. We both had our eyes on you from the time you were nine or ten or so. We could see the quality, the potential, you know? Your aunt Liza did her best, we all knew that, but we also knew you had too much going on not to bust loose sooner or later. The other girls were so jealous of you–”
“They were jealous of me?” She sounded startled.
“Why’d you think they were mean?”
“Why–” I stared at the stunning young woman for a long moment. “Hm. Let me get my camera.”
“We don’t have time for me to edit them properly right now, but I want to take a few snapshots of you from various angles. Then when I can, I’ll run them through my computer programs, find a few keepers, frame them and hang them on the wall. You need to see what you really look like.”
“A picture is worth a thousand words?”
“Ten thousand. A million.”
During the photo shoot, I discovered that Tori Connors was extremely photogenic. The discovery also made me even more keenly aware that I’d need to be extra careful to keep her well protected during the coming years in our chaotic new world. We were already back in the Wild, Wild West, with a whole lot more to come. My own life was at increased risk, too; men with the restraints of civilization removed would eagerly lie in wait to put a rifle bullet through my back in order to get my little blonde knockout in their clutches. Even more so, I suspected, if they ever learned she was already slave trained.
Made me proud, knowing that. Stupid maybe, but proud nonetheless. In other words, a typical male.
Come daylight, we were headed down country on horseback. Nine miles of steep, three switchbacks, slickery mud most of the way. It would be a good test of our mounts if it didn’t bust us up in the process.
Happily, the Nestossins had not overstated Dolly Parton’s knowing “…enough not to step in a gopher hole”. The palomino mare handled the dangerous downslope like a pro, skidding here and there but never out of control, dropping her haunches as needed, picking her spots. Tori looked good on the horse, too, blondie on blondie, the girl fitting the Glenda Tinkerton barrel racing saddle like the 15 inch seat had been custom made for her.
Moon and I led the way, of course. The tall pinto gelding had a little different way of going, but he handled the mud at least as well as Dolly did.
We took it easy, this first dual jaunt not being the time to go crazy, pulling up at the down country house at 8:40 a.m. and taking the Chevy from there. Not that this didn’t involved a few critical logistical decisions. We were going to need the car, and being noticed with it if we were spotted on the frontage road wouldn’t be as damaging as being tracked back to our Quonset hideout, but my gasoline stash wasn’t going to last forever. Okay, the underground tank with the hand pump disguised as an old boulder (the boulder was fake and lifted off easily) still had most of its original 10,000 gallon capacity available, but none of the gallons used would be replaced easily if at all. Add to that the fact that we had to leave the horses locked in the garage as if it were one big barn stall…at least the horse shit would shovel easily enough, but we’d likely never get the smell of stale horse piss out of the concrete.
Still, it was the best we could do. We certainly didn’t dare leave our mounts out in the open; despite my threat, Dag Potter or another scavenger from Derringer would snap them up in a heartbeat, even if only for food.
Starvation wasn’t finished with the people in town.
Or maybe it was, at least for the time being. Marcus was hearing rumors that a horse drawn wagon had traveled the 90 miles to Colorado Springs and looted a number of buildings there, bringing back all sorts of goodies. Those same rumors also indicated the place was a ghost city, streets piled high in places with bodies of both Chinese and Americans who’d died from Quaglorin gas inhalation.
If my plan worked, we’d be able to interview the actual folks behind those rumors before long, see if they stood up. It would be good to know the true situation there, for sure.
Jerry Beeson’s place was three point five miles farther on down the frontage road and two point one miles up Narhawk Gulch. I knew this because (a) Jerry and I’d been friends for years and (b) the topographical maps, along with an old Road Atlas, confirmed it.
But knowing the distance wasn’t quite the same as seeing it this fine April morning in the Year of the Lord 2121. Potholes in the untended asphalt weren’t that plentiful yet, but a couple of them were doozies for size. If I’d dropped a wheel into one of those, we’d have been minus a tire if not an axle, a tie rod, or even an oil pan. In one place, a mudslide had brought half a dozen boulders down off the north slope, two of which I had to get out and roll aside before we could get through.
I say “I” had to get out and roll them aside because they were too big for Tori to handle and also because when I was out there in the open, exposed like that, my girl was eyeballing the timber and rocks that could easily have hidden an ambusher. She had instructions to simply yell a warning and take cover if she spotted something suspicious.
She hadn’t yelled yet, so that was good.
The Gulch itself was nasty, the Chevy fishtailing up the muddy road like a salmon returning to spawn, but we made it. Beeson’s two room cabin looked as shabby as usual, clearly untended for some time, once we’d ascertained that there was in fact no one around–and had not been around for some time by the look of it–my attention went to the rickety, leaning shed situated a few yards from the house. Adrenalin spiked in my gut as I forced the rusty door hinges to squeal themselves open, fear of failure sharp in my consciousness.
But it was there. It was really still there.
Like me, former Congressman Jerry Beeson had long believed in prepping for the worst. We were the only two people in a fifty mile radius, that we knew of anyway, who’d invested heavily in the latest IntensiSol energy systems, the kind that contained both energy gathering and energy storage in the same medium. Supposed to be able to last for five or six centuries, though obviously no one had put that to the test yet. Most likely we were the only two local civilians who could afford those, me having made my killing in the stock market after a thirty year career as a trial lawyer, him having gleefully taken enough payoffs during his six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives to make him next thing to a billionaire. This little dilapidated setup, including the Extreme Antique 1960 Ford F100, was Jerry’s way of hiding his hideout right under the noses of pretty much God and everybody.
I didn’t feel even a twinge of conscience about appropriating his vehicle. Former Congressman Beeson had been in Los Angeles, seeking medical treatment for an ailment that had stumped even the Mayo Clinic, when the war broke out on the West Coast. He was most likely long dead by now, and if he wasn’t, I’d make it up to him later.
Tori just stared at the truck, totally mesmerized. Truck Girl, right there.
It was one of the two tones, not a stock paint job but a flashy emerald green down low under a gleaming white top. As I knew from our time together, going to EA (Extreme Antique) car and truck shows for decades, Jerry had totally restored the beast. 292 V-8 with a 4 speed transmission.
There was no battery, or course, nor was there a distributor cap. Which was no big, since we’d brought along a battery and since Beeson and I’d long trusted each other with a few secrets here and there. I found the cap right where he’d left it, tucked behind the sixth rafter atop the northeast wall along with the ignition key.
An hour of piddling and fiddling later, I turned the key in the ignition and…”Damn.”
“What?” Tori’s eyes were bright, interested, curious.
“Starter solenoid is shot.”
She didn’t have a clue what I meant by that, of course. I sat in the driver’s seat for a time, thinking. That solenoid didn’t just decide to go kaflooey while it was sitting in storage. It would have been acting up for a while, and Jerry Beeson–before his innards started giving him Hell, anyway–would have intended to trade that part out the first chance he got. Clearly, he never got that chance, but he might have come close, in which case….
I stepped out of the truck and began searching through the various boxes stacked on the workbench. The eighth container contained a new solenoid.
But it would be better to get it back to our down country garage, where among other things our horses waited, before tackling the change-out.
“You get to be a tow car operator,” I told my girl. Her eyes gleamed; she might get a bit nervous, but she loved a new challenge, a chance to do something she’d never done before.
We had, of course, brought along a tow chain and a tow strap. Hooked together, they provided a combined 30 feet of length between the two vehicles and a bit of flexibility to soften the blow in case Tori jerked the tow cable taut instead of easing into it. As it happened, she eased into it like a pro, riding the clutch a bit but mindful of towing the horse along behind, like the Ford pickup truck was Moon the pinto. She learned fast.
I let the odometer come up to 5 mph, let the clutch out in third gear, and the old Ford fired right up. They don’t make them like that any more.
Come to think of it, they may not be making them at all any more.
On the way back to our place, me driving Jerry’s truck and Tori driving my car, one of those stray thoughts came flitting through my head. What about Europe? What about Africa? We knew the rest of the world was either aflame our pretty much out of it, but those two areas…? Maybe Marcus had heard something; he’d certainly been listening to more shortwave radio than I had.
With both vehicles safely ensconced in the now somewhat aromatic garage–not that I minded the smell of fresh horse piss all that much–we snugged up our cinches, locked up, and rode on to Grady’s, arriving dead on twelve noon.
The burly man waved a spatula at us when we walked in. He was back in the kitchen, cooking up what smelled like venison. Hiram Jacobson was working the counter while Holly Warburton carried plates of steaks and mashed potatoes out to the rest of the refugees sitting around in the dining room. Not that they always sat; Marcus was not the sort of man to feed anyone too lazy to work for his grub. The place was spotless, including, I was willing to bet, the restrooms.
Grady had his own well and enough solar energy to power the pump, so he’d not be running low on water for a while. On the other hand, there were no frills on those plates, just meat and potatoes.
And one new diner, the latest refugee from Derringer. “Walt,” I nodded to him. “Long time no see.”
The old man grinned. Okay, he was a lot younger than me, he still had most of his teeth and some of his hair, but he was still old. Walt Norcross had retired as Superintendent at DHS some ten or fifteen years ago. There were chairs available at his table, so we joined him.
I had to ask. “When did you get in?”
“Last night.” His voice was hoarse, raspy. Recent times had not been good to the former singer. When he hadn’t been running Derringer High, he’d been performing at competitions in four states, back in the day.
Tori spoke up. “I’m glad to see you’re okay, Mr. Norcross.”
“As I am glad to see you’re doing fine, Miss Connors,” he replied, “except for your taste in men. Couldn’t you find someone a little closer to your own age?”
Huh. Walt had always been surprisingly outspoken for a School World Politician, which is pretty much what all school administrators are–and bullies, often enough, in my not so humble opinion–but this was a new level of bluntness even for him. Not that I needed to be concerned; the teenager, sixteen since a week ago last Monday, was well up to the challenge.
“I tried, sir.” She batted her eyelashes demurely. “but you were taken.”
Superintendent Norcross blinked twice and capitulated. “Well played, Tori. Well played.”
Her impish grin came out. “I thought so.”
Speaking of Walt being taken…”Linda?”
“Passed two days ago, Harrison. Pneumonia. Or at least that’s what she and I both believed it to be.”
“Our condolences, Walt. Truly.”
Norcross looked down briefly, took a sip of his hot water. When he looked back up, his eyes were cold steel. “Never mind the condolences, Harrison. That is, I appreciate them and all, but what I want is revenge.”
Hm. “You’re not prettying it up by calling it justice?”
“No. I am not. Do you know why Linda died? She died because Dag Potter decreed that an elderly invalid like my wife could not be allowed access to the Derringer Defense Association’s hoard of antibiotics. That’s what he’s calling his band of merry thieves now, the Derringer Defense Association. Dee-fense!”
“As I recall,” I said quietly, “Linda was healthy as a horse. She was no invalid.”
“No. She certainly was not. Not that it would have made any difference to my way of thinking if she had been.”
“Of course not.” Sitting there, looking across the table at this outspoken man in his suspenders and faded slacks–he’d never worn jeans that I knew of–the final key fell in place. “You were Justice of the Peace for some years, along with singing and running the school, right?”
He eyed me narrowly, aware I didn’t need to ask about his JP years. After all, I’d supported his first all important election campaign, back when. “Yes. So?”
“So…how would you like to be a judge again? Mind you, this would be a bit heavier duty than most Justice of the Peace work. Might be a hanging judge decision or two in there before it’s all done.”
Superintendent Walter R. Norcross was not a stupid man. He looked me over for two or three milliseconds, then lifted a hand from the table, making a fist, giving me a “thumbs up” sign. The expression on his face never changed. “Do you know when Linda died, Harrison? She died on my seventy-sixth birthday, exactly. Happy bleeping birthday to me.”