When Dawg and Grunt began sniffing the air and checking our backtrail with increasing frequency, I began to wonder. What were they sensing? As sharp as Tommy was, those two seemed to outshine him when it came to environmental awareness, which was saying something since my oldest sibling had spent his entire working life outdoors, training horses and guiding hunters. Until this long trail ride as part of a dedicated posse, I’d never have believed Thomas Overmire Gunderson could be beaten at his own game.
Once I thought it through, though, it sort of made sense. Big Jake was old, more years on him than our own Dad by a bunch, had to be sixty or close to it. He’d lived through the Fall of humankind, survived horrors we younger generations couldn’t fully fathom no matter how skilled the storyteller or how many Before books we perused in school. On Dawg’s side of the equation, his story had gotten out fast in our home valley. His parents cut down in front of him when he was a small child, then years of slavery, and after that a month on the trail with Grunt himself, toward the end of which he’d killed men –if you could call them men–in the Fear Trace. He’d fought there, fought the tiger on a Sentinel Peak field trip, and fought it again with the rest of us just a couple of days later. With background experience like that, staying hyper-aware of your surroundings would naturally be ingrained in you, right to the bone, wouldn’t it?
I shivered, contemplating the lives those two had led. We Gundersons thought we were tough, and we were, but I wasn’t even sure Daddy had killed another man and he most certainly hadn’t engaged in close range combat with a freaking tiger. Grizzly bear, yes, and he had the scars under his shirt to prove it, but not a tiger.
So, what were they up to?
Tommy noticed but didn’t say anything. We would wait until they had something to say.
Grunt called a halt, signaling for us to gather ’round. Our horses blew steam in the cold, grateful for the stop. Out here in the open country, we all rode to one side of the trail or the other, seldom on it, unwilling to risk the possibility that Rodney Upward might have pulled another underhanded trick like salting the snow with caltrops to cripple our horses.
“Hnh,” Grunt began. “Storm’s on the way.”
It was? I didn’t turn to look but did notice that my brother did not look surprised. Of course, he was our family’s best card player; none of us could read him when he didn’t want to be read.
If there was going to be a storm, where could we take shelter? It looked awfully flat and desolate out there, not all of it covered with snow yet, but enough, and from what we’d been told about these prairie blizzards, there would be a lot more before long. Not to mention wind. I couldn’t see any cover big enough to shelter horses and humans, just sagebrush and shortgrass, maybe a patch of tallgrass here and there.
Fortunately, the old man knew this kind of country…and as it turned out, he knew this exact part of it as well. “We’re going to need to find a safe spot and hunker down for a day or two,” he said, watching our faces in that way of his that told you he was reading your innermost thoughts. I respected Jacob Sedlacek for sure, we all did, but there was something about him that had always made me uneasy. Not creepy uneasy like the perverts who were always checking me out at the corrals when we were getting them set up for a hunting trip, but creepy like he knew things about me I’d rather he didn’t. Like my most embarrassing moment at age six when I’d announced to my sisters in confidence that I was going to marry Tommy when I grew up. Gabby thought that was cool, but Iris? Little Iris ran right straight to Mama Ruth, blabbing her little mouth off, and next thing I knew, Mom had me in the corner of the kitchen, explaining that sisters did not marry their brothers. It just wasn’t done.
“There’s a place about a mile south of here,” Grunt was explaining, “but we’re going to have to leave the trail. Which chaps my cheeks to no end, believe me. Tommy, I’d say we’re no more than a few hours behind them, wouldn’t you?”
“Less than six for sure,” my brother nodded. He might not have traveled this country before, but Tom Gunderson knew how to read sign.
“Well, there’s nothing for it.” Grunt sighed, turning his big stud toward a low rise so that we barely heard the rest. “Maybe they’ll freeze to death if we’re lucky. It could happen.”
We’d crossed three or four of those low, rolling hills when we crested another and found ourselves heading down a steeper slope into a natural depression in the land, an almost perfectly round, hollowed-out bowl. A little mini-caldera? Tiny meteor strike? Alien bombardment? Images from my school days flooded through me; there was so much of the world I hadn’t seen, so many things to amaze.
The bowl alone would have reduced the wind considerably, but Grunt wasn’t done yet. He rode across the depression, into a rather miserable thicket of scraggly junipers…and into the side of the Earth itself. Or rather, he stopped at the tall, nearly square opening, got down from his horse, and led Buck in there, Slash the wardog striding at his side. It was obvious the pinto stud didn’t like it much, but he went after Jake spoke to him softly and tugged on the reins.
My mare didn’t like it any better. “It’s okay, girl,” I promised, anything but certain I was telling the truth. There were legends about such places, few of them with happy endings.
Still, I wasn’t about to go all wimpy on the guys at this point. Our fearless leader stopped just long enough to gather the fixings from Dawg’s packhorse and light a torch–fixings I hadn’t even realized were lashed to the load for that very reason, the possibility that we’d need to go underground–and moved on farther into the mine. Ghost stories and horror stories about cave-ins threatened to unwoman me, but no way was I going to show my fear. My horse didn’t need to deal with that and the guys didn’t need to catch me looking weak, either.
“This’ll do.” Grunt had stopped at a point some sixty yards in, far enough that the light from outside had long since disappeared around a curving corner. The tunnel had to be a good twelve feet wide and at least ten feet tall, the overhead rock low enough to crush our skulls if we were mounted on a batch of bucking horses but safe enough otherwise. If the mountain didn’t fall on our heads. Not that we were in the literal mountains now, but a small hill would be more than enough to turn me into a Julia pancake. To our right, a room I’d guess you’d call it, provided a camping area big enough for all of us, maybe sixteen feet by twenty, though with a lower ceiling than the big tunnel.
“What is this?” Dawg asked, his eyes glinting in the torchlight.
“It’s the old Bear Den Mine. Bunch of silver was dug out of here, back Before. Way before; she opened up in the late eighteen hundreds if I remember correctly. Politics eventually shut it down and sealed off the entrance, but survivalist types tore down the wall the feds, or maybe it was the state, had set up. A couple of shootouts here were in the news a few years before my folks died. It’s not a place of honey and sunshine, but it’ll keep the weather out.”
Tommy nodded thoughtfully. “Feels downright toasty in here. I’m kind of surprised.”
“Steady fifty-two degrees, or at least it used to be. Don’t reckon that’s changed much.” Sedlacek was already unsaddling Buck, so the rest of us moved to ease the burdens on our own horses. “There’s water farther in, but you can’t drink it. Toxic chemicals in the stuff, kill you deader’n a doornail. If Poison Boy Upward had a canteen full of deep mine water, he could taint enough food to kill, or at least sicken, a small army. Julia, if you could get the tinder and kindling out, start us a fire in the center here?”
“Sure.” My mare was happy to be saddle-free but wondering about something to eat. “What about feeding the horses? I presume we’ll have to melt snow in the kettle or something?”
“Or something. Takes a lot of time and patience to produce drinking water that way.”
“Preaching to the choir.”
“Hnh. Sorry. Wasn’t implying you didn’t know that. The horses are going to have to wait till the storm blows itself out before getting watered. There’s plenty of grass out there in the bowl, but we can’t risk losing a critter. Tommy, while Julia’s getting some light and heat going, you suppose you and Dawg could haul in some firewood and maybe cut a few armfuls of longrass with the machete? This room is kind of angled toward the portal; you’ll be able to see either the light outside or the fire in here from anywhere on the track.”
Dawg looked puzzled. “Track?”
“Well, used to be a track. That road we walked in on, you notice how it kind of undulated along, sort of bumpy almost?”
“Hnh. At one time, long Before, there were railroad ties, treated wooden posts or beams, set crossways, every few feet. And on top of that, narrow gauge steel rails for the tram to run on, hauling loads of ore and waste out from as far inside as the mine went.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” The teenager laughed and headed out, trotting to catch up with Tommy. I noticed neither of them went unarmed, both carrying shoot guns and edged weapons, including the camp axe. Nobody or no thing was going to catch these men unaware.
Not that I was any different. I’d unbuckled my hand-and-a-half sword but retained my belt knife, with my remaining weapons no more than two steps away. “Where will you be?” I asked Grunt, meaning nothing by it. Mom and Iris would have been scandalized, me being alone with an older man like this, but if I couldn’t trust Jake Sedlacek, who could I trust? Besides, if he made a stupid move, I’d just have to castrate him, right? The tinder had done its job; I blew on the tiny flame to help it make love to the kindling, suddenly realizing my lips were pursed and my butt was in the air and pointed at the big man as I crouched on hands and knees. Blowing. Crap.
“Now that you’ve got light, I’m going to take the torch and head on down the drift a ways.”
“The big tunnel. Side shoots where they mined the actual ore are called stopes. This room was just a staging point, or warehouse for timber, or some such.”
“Oh. Okay.” I’d made it back to rest my butt on my heels, torso mostly vertical as I watched the fire. It was still in the beginning stages, before things got really hot.
Double crap. Did I just think that? But it wasn’t the big man’s image affecting me; it was the memory of young Dawg, fighting the tiger in the middle of a hard-trail night. My sword had done its part, and I was thankful to have contributed, but that kid, he was fast. Never hesitated, either. Too young for me by a country mile, but then, what were my choices? I had suitors, sure, and I’d tried a few of them on for size, but none of them had ever measured up.
Could be I was setting the bar too high. Not many wimpified farmers or town clerks or paper pushers could match the Gunderson standard. Most of them were flat-out afraid of me, to be honest about it. And at twenty-five I was getting old; most women my age had families up and running.
“This drift runs more’n a mile underground,” Grunt was explaining. How much had I missed? “Probably nothing back there, and I can’t possibly check out all the stopes anyway, but I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t at least give the drift a looksee. Not all the way, but far enough to be fairly sure nothing is going to sneak out toward us while we’re sound asleep.”
Sneak out toward us? What? That didn’t sound good. I turned to ask him a bit more about that, but Jake damn-him-to-Hell Sedlacek was gone, his torch bobbing merrily down the way until it blinked out around the next corner, taking the giant wardog with him and leaving me with five horses, a baby fire, and butteflies in my belly.
Dawg and Tommy had each made four round trips before Grunt returned, Dawg lugging huge armfuls of firewood he’d trimmed to length with the axe, my brother hauling deadgrass hay he’d whacked with the machete. It seemed pretty obvious the two men were competing, each trying to make the most trips with the largest loads. As a result, we had enough juniper sticks and logs to cook supper and keep light going for a good twelve hours or more and the horses got a lot more feed than they’d expected. Tommy had made sure to bring the grass in as snow-laden as possible; our mounts would still be thirsty but not desperate.
“Storm hit?” I felt foolish for asking; fresh snow covered the men’s clothing and their noses were red.
“Like Thor’s hammer.” Tommy plopped down on the cold rock floor, grinning. “I don’t envy the Upward bunch. No matter what cover they found, it can’t be as good as this.”
“Hnh.” Grunt walked into the room. His torch was burned down to the nubbins; he’d cut it close.
“So, did you find anything?” I looked at him, smiling, willing the answer to be in the negative. I didn’t need any Bear Den Mine monsters threatening my dreams tonight.
“Did, actually.” He began shucking his wraps, having worn way too many layers for a long walk in fifty-two degree, no-wind underground mine weather. “There’s a big old black bear sound asleep about a quarter mile on in. Which explains the ponies being nervous. Surprised me a little; I’ve never seen Mr. Bear willing to go that deep underground before.”
We all gave him our full attention, my tummy turning flip-flops, but it was Dawg who asked the question. “Will he stay asleep with us here?” I was surprised Slash hadn’t freaked out when they’d found the bear, asleep or otherwise, but Grunt obviously had the oversized puppy under control. Either that or the canine figured if he could whip a tiger’s tail, a mere bear wasn’t much, ho-hum.
“Hnh. Never a guarantee, but odds are, yes. He’s well tucked off to one side and hibernating deep. Of course, if he does wake up, I reckon we’ll know about it. But that’s not the most interesting thing.”
“No?” Tommy was playing the game. We all knew Grunt was drawing it out, enjoying building the suspense. Jerk. Guess old geezers like him had to get their kicks however they could.
“Nope. Most interesting thing was farther in, at least another half mile–ah.” Pretending he’d forgotten, he stepped back out into the drift, retrieving a long wooden box. “If this here’s what I think it is….” He had his skinning knife out now, prying the boards up from the top of the box. “Ah.”
The rifle he lifted out was like none we’d ever seen before. Dawg’s eyes shone with undisguised lust. If I could get him to look at me like that…. Covered with some sort of greasy stuff, Cosmoline according to Grunt, used to keep stuff from rusting, the weapon was undeniably different. Functional. It looked utterly functional, even though I didn’t quite understand everything I was seeing. And it had s shine to it unlike any shoot gun I’d ever seen before.
Than the old man embarrassed me, right in front of Dawg and my brother. “Julia, you think maybe you got enough of those moon time rags in your saddle bags, you could spare one? I need to get this sweetheart cleaned up.”
What?! I’ll sweetheart you, you old– “Sure.” I turned to get the rag, my face hotter than the campfire itself. My brother had the gall to let his amusement show; I’d get him for this. After I figured out payback for the big man, that is. Mortification, thy name is Julia.
Dawg had the grace to keep his eyes averted, studiously watching the old man with the gun, but I’d swear he was blushing a bit, too. Surprisingly, that made me feel a little better.
Grunt began carefully wiping the Cosmoline away, explaining as he worked. “This is a Ruger M77 Gunsite Scout rifle in .308 caliber. Stainless steel, which resists rust. Ten shot box magazine, bolt action, meaning,” he worked the bolt, “it will shoot ten rounds as fast as you can do what I just did. Aperture rear sight, which is a miracle for old eyes as it helps a geezer like me focus. Blade front sight, which could be better; if I was wishing for miracles made to order, that front sight would be the W formation like the U.S. military used on their M14’s until Vietnam came along.”
I didn’t understand half of what he said, but his reverence for the rifle, perfectly preserved all these decades since the Fall, was more than obvious.
“And best of all,” he put the rag down and headed back out in the drift one more time, returning with another, much smaller box, “This should house ammunition.” Again with the knife, prying open the box. Inside, also smeared liberally with Cosmoline, rested a dull, dark green metal can. “Ammo box,” he said cheerfully, lifting the can clear. “And inside we find…let’s see…120 rounds of .308 ammo with 150 grain softnose bullets and lord love a duck, yes it is, NeverFail powder and primers! Lady and gents, this ammunition is the best they ever made. Shouldn’t have a misfire in the bunch, even after forty years or more of downtime. NeverFire had a lifetime guarantee on this stuff, bunch of patents, too.”
The men were all gaga over the thing. As for me? I’ve always trusted my edged weapons, am not at all bad with a bow, and can handle most shoot guns, but why this extreme enthusiasm?
“Jake,” I began timidly. He looked at me. Saw I had a question and had nearly burned supper while distracted. He nodded at me to go ahead. I pulled the skillet away from the fire and set it down on the rock to cool, trying to find the right words. “You obviously believe in this shoot gun. Okay, I get that it’s reliable, and that it shoots a lot without fail. But…well, so what? I mean, it’s not like the Upward bunch is unarmed, and they’ve got shoot guns too. So why does this give us the advantage? Because you clearly think it does.”
He nodded. “Sorry, Julia. I failed to mention the best part. Yes, we’ve got shoot guns galore, both them and us. And yes, the long guns they stole from the Marshal’s office will reach out and touch you just as quick as anything we were able to pluck from the armory. You know your yardage, right? And how far your weapons can shoot?”
“Sure. With the recurve, I can put an arrow in an elk at fifty yards every time if the animal is broadside, and eighty yards isn’t out of the question. One hundred is getting iffy and as likely to lose me an arrow as bring home meat for the table. The long shoot guns are as likely to misfire as not, but they’re pretty good at a hundred yards. Better than the bow.”
“Exactly.” He grinned ear to ear, about to spring the big reveal on us. “With this Ruger Gunsite Scout and this ammo, shooting from one knee, I can nail six-inch groups at three hundred yards. All. Day. Long.”
Oh. My eyes were wide, Dawg’s were twinkling, and Tommy was looking his usual thoughtful self. I got it now. Our posse suddenly had a sniper, a man and rifle capable of knocking down outlaws before they could even get in range. Hot damn!
“Um…” Dawg’s turn to look thoughtful.
“Just thinking. You didn’t just find those boxes lying all by their little lonesome selves, did you?”
“Nope.” Grunt waited for us to prod him for the full story, but we’d had enough. He broke this time, let us have it. “There’s a pile of skeletons back there. No meat or hide left and not much in the way of clothing, but plenty of bones. Counted a dozen and there might have been more. Bullet holes through several of the skulls. Rusted-out weapons, too, ranging from knives to revolvers, one long gun, a hatchet, you name it. Ribs broken. A few leg bones, too. Looked to me like either two bunches of Survivors tangled or one big bunch had a falling out, and nobody survived to take advantage of this rifle still in its box.”
We quit talking then, mostly, and got down to the serious business of eating. Somehow, don’t ask me how, Dawg and I ended up sitting next to each other, our backs to the rock wall, our legs stretched out in front of us on the rock floor. Tommy and Grunt were across the room, chowing down, pretending not to notice us, while Slash had picked a spot close to the fire. The dog seemed absorbed in his task of gnawing the elk bone Grunt had tossed his way, making sure he removed every bit of available flesh in the process.
“Awesome meal,” Dawg murmured, just loud enough for me to hear. “Don’t know how you do it. Same ingredients, but when it’s my turn it’s camp cooking. When it’s yours, I can’t wait.”
“Aw shucks,” I murmured back. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“I sure hope so,” he said, setting my lady parts on fire. What was it they used to call older women who liked younger men? Some kind of cat…but then, was this teenager really younger? I couldn’t comprehend the suffering he’d been through. That would make a man grow up before his time. Or destroy him completely.
Dawg sure as heck hadn’t been destroyed. He was already filling out, compact yet muscular, with maybe a bit more growth yet to come. I could work with that. Couldn’t I? On his feet, the young man seemed to be about five-eight, maybe one-sixty. There had been deep lines in his face when he’d first left Fort Steel, or so the rumors went, but I couldn’t see them now. Didn’t need to shave often yet, but in time he’d be one of those men with a five o’clock shadow. Dark skinned. Sizeable man-hands, broad through the palms and long through the fingers, the kind of hands that could succeed at anything from music to swordplay to–Don’t go there, girl!
“You know,” he went on, having swallowed a couple of bits of elk and a few fried potato slices, “Fort Steel makes shoot guns all the time, but they’re not accurate at long range. With a rifle like that Ruger, I could free the rest of my people at Fort Steel. Single handed.”
What? Did he just romance me and then dart off into Rifle Envy? The warm feeling I’d felt building down south took a dive into the cold rock beneath my butt. “You think Grunt would let you have it? After we’ve wiped out the Upwards, that is?” I sure hoped he wasn’t thinking of stealing from the Founder.
“No,” he replied, and my insides unclenched. “I would never ask that. The Ruger suits him to a tee. But,” he paused, shoveling in another mouthful of food, making me wait till he’d chewed and swallowed. Talk about mixed emotions. I hated waiting for what came after the word “but,” that notorious English eraser, but at the same time I loved the way he inhaled my cooking. I’d never understood the look on Mom’s face when she watched her huge tribe tuck into a meal she’d prepared, but it was starting to make sense.
He patted my thigh. He patted my thigh! “But there have to be other topnotch shoot guns out there. Maybe some even better than the Ruger. The Teacher at Fort Steel, she told us there were snipers Before who could take the head off a terrorist at a thousand yards. I know Fort Steel inside and out, know where to set up to best effect, how to get in and out, where they keep the slaves, all that.”
“And where do you plan to find this super shooter?” I tried to keep my voice light, but my heart was hammering my ribs something fierce. Something was happening, something I’d never foreseen but over which I had absolutely no control. “It’s not like there are a thousand Bear Den Mines to explore.”
“No,” he said, and we turned to face each other at the same time, boring into each other’s eyes. There was an intensity in his gaze that took my breath away. “But there are a thousand old towns and cities in ruins.”
“The ruins?” I almost squeaked. “You’d dare violate the taboos?”
“To free my people?” His voice had dropped to a whisper. “In a heartbeat.”
What I said next was no part of my life plan. It was insanity, pure and simple. My family would be aghast; they might even disown me. And yet somehow it felt like I’d known all my life it would come to this. “You’ll need backup.”