Nuclear War... and the centuries that follow in which mankind must struggle against the poisons of a forgotten society.
Above the doorway behind the counter was a large fan blowing cool air down and into the doorway. Once the Pistoleer and child stepped through they were buffeted with a wall of heat. Curtis was used to this, visiting the shop often, but the boy was shocked and stepped back through the doorway. Curtis went ahead, walking towards Angela where she hammered furiously on a length of red-hot steel just pulled from the forge.
“Angela, I’m sorry, but we’ve been sent on a mission. And now we’ve found this boy. He’s been through Downtown and is probably poisoned; do you have any trisodium syrup? If not then…”
Angela swung around and threw an object at Curtis. The pitch was wicked but the Pistoleer snapped it out of the air as if she had gently hefted it his way. It was a medicine bottle of gray syrup labeled BioShield: approved by the FDA and sponsored by FEMA and Red Cross. Below the label were the instructions in red type “BioShield contains adrenal glad hormone, calcium, and zinc in a trisodium formulae for irradiation treatment. Potassium iodine chalk is included for further thyroidal protection. Recommended adult dosage: Ingest one serving if radiation poisoning is suspect. If lesions or hair loss has occurred ingest two servings. Recommended child dosage: Ingest one half serving if radiation poisoning is suspect. If lesions or hair loss has occurred ingest one serving. Follow with twice the amount of purified water. Side effects will include vomiting, cold sweats, diarrhea, loose bladder, and runny nose. Note: bodily fluids may be dark or black in color. Side effects may include abdominal cramps, heart palpitations, temporary blindness, or death.”
The warnings and precautions went on, but Weston was familiar with the rest and needn’t read through it… he had only checked to see what the child dosage should be. BioShield was one of many war products that the old American government had stockpiled before the final war. Crates, warehouses, and fallout shelters were still being discovered packed full of such supplies, and BioShield was a medication that anyone who had stepped outside the gates of Springfield was familiar with. The expiration date was December 2020, but unlike most foodstuff and drugs the formulae had apparently been made to last.
The boy had entered behind Curtis and was squinting around the room as if staring into the sun. This was odd since the workshop was actually quite dim, although the heat was definitely suffocating. “Here,” said Weston, handing the bottle to the boy. “Drink this, and all of it. It’s for the poison in your blood and the sores on your arm. The stuff will taste horrible but it will make you well.” At least he hoped. Curtis only knew of one man who had died from drinking BioShield, but that had been a terrible death. The syrup had somehow liquefied his guts and the whole works had boiled up and out his mouth like stew.
The boy twisted the cap, the seal popped with a hiss of pressure, and took a gulp which he at once spit back into the bottle. “Rotten!” he gasped, and handed the bottle back to Curtis. Curtis simply pushed the bottle back with the explanation that it’s medicine, it’s not supposed to taste good. The boy considered the bottle before upending it and chugging the contents, an act that left him gagging and choking but emptied the bottle.
“Good job,” remarked Curtis, honestly impressed. He took the empty bottle and put a hand around the boy’s shoulders. “Now in about fifteen minutes you’re going to feel like you’re dying, so we’re going to put you in the bathroom. I suggest you stay seated on the toilet until everything passes, and keep a bucket nearby. If you make a mess take a shower and clean up after yourself, okay? And drink as much water as you can, you’re going to need it.”
The boy nodded, already there was a wash of sweat sweeping across his brow, as Curtis led him into a small bathroom and closed the door. The BioShield worked fast, basically absorbing any radiation in the body and flushing the victim’s system. The contaminated wastes would be sweat out, spit up, pissed or shat out and the remaining elements would help shield the body against further radiation. It was a marvelous drug, if not the messiest and most uncomfortable process.
Curtis turned around and was assaulted by Angela’s stormy gaze from across the room. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she snapped. “I haven’t seen you in weeks but you barge into my shop, tell me you’re off again to God knows where before we even say hello, and then you dump a little boy with rad poisoning in my bathroom? I don’t think you know who you are, Curtis Weston, but that star on your shirt doesn’t give you the right to be an asshole!”
Curtis had been walking across the room and as she reached up to push him away he seized Angela’s wrists, which in turn she grabbed his wrists with her free hands. Curtis forced her arms down, all of them, and kissed her on the lips. She resisted, her lips pressed, but then she softened and kissed him back.
“Damn you and damn me for being a fool for you,” she whispered, releasing his arms and turning to her workbench. In her rage she had hammered flat a rifle barrel she had forged, and she swept the length of steel off the table into a water trough where it hissed and boiled furiously. Her anger with the Pistoleer was cooling just as quickly.
“I’m sorry, love, but we’ve been called on a mission. It’s secret, but of course I trust you,” he said. He had taken her hands in his and was gently kissing each fingertip as he talked. “Perhaps you’ve heard rumors of Bennett Springs, how we’ve lost radio contact for more than a week. Scouts haven’t returned and we have no way of knowing what’s happened. Michael and I have our orders to sneak to the Springs and observe, not fight, any threat before we’re to return here. If pirates have taken the Springs a squad will be put together and we’ll take them out in numbers.”
“Bennett Springs,” she whispered doubtfully, “is a long ways off from here.”
“We’re traveling with Jeremiah Geiger,” he said, and at once Angela raised a sardonic eyebrow. “He has an engine, a tank, and we’ll travel through the back country. We’ll be armored and we’ll be off the trails that the pirates use,” he reassured, wondering himself if the words were true . “With a ride like that we’ll probably be back in twice the time, and if possible I’ll skip out on the return party that takes out any threat. We’ll spend some time together, the two of us.”
Curtis slipped a hand beneath Angela’s apron, sliding up a heavy work shirt and cupping a large breast in his palm. Angela didn’t have a row of tits like an animal or a cow, Curtis had nearly killed a man who had suggested the idea, but merely two very large breasts. Each mound of flesh was tipped with two nipples, however, which were growing hard between Curtis’s rough fingers.
Angela moaned and smiled at her Pistoleer. “You tease me, High Sheriff,” she sighed, “but I can tease back! Don’t forget that I’m used to working with irons.” And she reached between his thighs.
Curtis moved towards her, but Angela pulled away and strode across the workshop, her green eyes gazing wickedly back at him through a cascade of red hair. From a shelf she withdrew a large fold of leather, and Curtis at once knew what it was.
“We’ll play later,” Angela said, carrying the heavy package in all arms. “This is what you came for and it sounds like you’re to be off in a hurry.” At that she left the workshop and Curtis alone in it.
The High Sheriff stood where he was for a moment, willing the swelling in his pants to subside before he walked out into the gun shop to stand before his friend and Sheriff Michael Hammers. The woman had certainly gotten revenge upon him, the ghost of her touch would haunt him while he was away and he’d regret that he hadn’t had more time to bed her before leaving.
“So I hear that you’ve become a Sheriff!” exclaimed Angela, talking to Michael across the counter as Curtis entered. Michael glanced once at the High Sheriff, shooting him a crooked smile. Angela glanced at Curtis and then turned away. “Oh, grow up, Michael. Anyway, Curtis must have had some faith in you that you’d pass because he came to me a while back with a gift in mind.”
“A gift?” asked Michael, honestly shocked and embarrassed. He shuffled a bit and the floor creaked beneath him. “You didn’t have to get me anything. How long ago was it? You really knew I’d pass?”
Curtis was smiling as he took the package from Angela, shocked by the weight of it. He couldn’t imagine carrying something so heavy every day, but knew the big Sheriff would tote the load easily. “It’s a trade, really,” he said, thudding the package onto the counter and unlacing the ties. He unrolled the leather to reveal shinning mass of iron and steel. “I expect you won’t mind trading in your revolvers for these?”
The guns upon the counter were massive, almost ridiculous in size, but they had been designed and assembled personally by Angela to custom fit the huge hands of Michael Hammers. Michael picked one up, and indeed it fit well in his hand, the grip full within his fist and the large trigger and guard sized for his thick fingers. The barrel was long, heavy, and perfectly in proportion to the cylinder which would hold six of the massive bullets, larger still than the powerful .45 calibers that Curtis was armed with, that circled Michael’s own belt. Engraved upon the barrels of both guns was his name, Hammers, surrounded by intricate scrolls and ribbons.
“The grip is actually steel laced with titanium,” she remarked. “I was going to use wood but with that ammunition you carry I was worried it would splinter, and since titanium is lighter and stronger still than steel it was perfect.” Angela gestured to a twist bolt beneath the handle. “Of course if the weight seems off we can add a few plates here, but it should be balanced.”
“They’re perfect,” Michael said, and to demonstrate he spun first one revolver and then the other in his hands. He winked at Curtis, who only rolled his eyes at the foolishness. He knew what Curtis thought about gun tricks, that they were pointless stunts that often ended up with the distracted braggart getting shot or dumping his gun in the dirt. “These must have cost a fortune! How did you… oh, of course,” and again he smile ruefully at Curtis.
Angela had been paid well by the High Sheriff for the guns, but not in the way Michael thought. Few men in Springfield were wealthier than Curtis Weston. One of the benefits of a Pistoleer was the law that “Be it exile or death, the condemned’s possessions and evidence, not pertaining to the conviction or willed to living heirs, shall become the property of the Pistoleer who has exacted justice.” Basically, when a Pistoleer lawfully executes or exiles a criminal they get to keep what they want of the criminal’s worldly goods. Many Pistoleers worked exclusively with the law, serving more as bounty hunters and seeking out wealthy crime lords to claim.
Curtis Weston had simply collected his fortune out of habit over the decades as he administered justice within the Federation. Such collections as he had earned over the years was turned over to his contacts on Kearney Street to be sold at market, a commission being paid to the seller and the liquid assets handed over to Curtis himself. In a deserted section of Downtown, an area with a lower radiation count, Curtis had claimed an old bank, particularly for the working vault inside in which he stored his unknown fortune. Only he and one other, a full-time and fully reliable guard who lived in the building, knew the combination. Angela had been paid with gold coins from Curtis Weston’s collection.
Of course Angela couldn’t miss Michael’s leering glance at Curtis. “You’re a pig, Michael,” she said, coming around the counter. “Now hand over those hole-punchers you’ve been carrying… they’re only good for scrap at this point.”
Not without some regret, Michael placed the customized revolvers onto the swatch of leather and pulled his own well-used guns. The familiar machines were as massive as his new pair, but the difference was like a brick of lead to a brick of gold. The old revolvers had been passed to him when he became a recruit and earned his irons, relics from a former Pistoleer who had suffered from gigantism and stood nearly ten feet tall. While sturdy and reliable, the barrels were little more than steel pipes and the cylinders were literally round cylinders with holes drilled to fit the bullets. The grip of each oversized revolver was a square block of metal, the edges rounded only because years of use had just slightly worn off the sharp corners. Terrible death machines that they were, powerful enough to cripple the average gunman’s hand, still they seemed like thoughtless constructs of a back-alley metal smith.
Michael opened the guns and dropped the large bullets into an open hand, where they scattered like sausages on a dinner plate. Like a magician spreading cards he waved his hand over the counter, standing each slug on end in a neat row. The cylinders snicked shut, perhaps for the last time, and reversing the revolvers he handed them to Angela butt first.
Angela accepted them, the guns were as heavy as death, and stowed them beneath the counter. The Pistoleers might think she would melt them down, forge the metal into some other weapon, but Angela intended to keep the guns. The metal bore no mark; the smith hadn’t stamped a seal or sign upon the revolvers, yet they were immensely strong and almost noble machines. She would store the revolvers away, and perhaps their lethal brand of service would be needed in the future.
Michael reloaded the rounds into his new revolvers, an act so practiced that it flowed like a single movement as he juggled the irons and leads, and spun the cylinders. They whirled crazily, reels in a slot machine that may deal death upon the unjust, and a mad smile stole across the Pistoleer’s face. But Michael at once cleared his features, they became stony and serious, and the guns fell into their holsters until their special business was called for.
“And now we have more work to do,” announced Curtis. He found Angela’s eyes, the soft eyes of his lover, and she could see the pain in his gaze. She would forgive him as she had forgiven him a hundred times more already, for Curtis Weston was a tortured man who was racing to keep up with an agonized past. Whether he wielded his guns or they led him, neither was important for he was a Pistoleer, a High Sheriff, and she must let his talented, untamable hands go where they will.
The men turned for the door, heavy boots thudding and creaking upon the wooden floor.
“Pistoleers,” Angela called, and the men stopped. Michael turned to look back, but not Curtis. Angela was crying; tears that stung with embarrassment as they burned clean paths through the grime upon her cheeks. She was glad that Curtis didn’t turn, didn’t see her to remember her like this as a soft, weeping woman, but still she wondered if she would see wetness in his eyes, as well. “Do your business quickly and bring my man home,” she told Michael, who nodded.
The Pistoleers swept through the front door, past the barred windows, and were gone.
Angela stood at the counter, all four hands restlessly folding and unfolding the leather wrap, and listened to the bell over the door tinkle until it stopped and all was silent. She passed the back of a hand under each eye, smearing the tears and soot into large black streaks, and wondered if she should straighten up her workshop or perhaps start over on the rifle muzzle she’d ruined in her fit of rage at Curtis’s new mission.
All thoughts ceased, however, as she heard a cough from her back room. Instinctively her hand dipped beneath the counter where any number of hidden and loaded pistols, rifles, and shotguns were concealed, but then she remembered the child. The little boy with an unhealthy dose of radiation poisoning who was currently retching in her bathroom, his little body spewing radioactive BioShield sludge from every orifice.
Angela passed through the doorway and walked to the narrow bathroom door. “Hey, little guy, are you okay in there?” she asked, rapping a knuckle on the door.
It sounded like the boy tried to reply, but his voice turned in to a wet gargle followed by a thick patter of fluids. Angela prayed that he’d had enough sense to sit himself on the toilet and hold the bucket in his lap, otherwise her rug would be ruined. Tentatively she opened the door and peeked around, and the gunsmith could remember few more pitiful scenes.
The little boy had indeed made it too the toilet, where he sat half naked as he had kicked his worn sandals and pants into the corner. His shirt was plastered to his body with sweat, as was his blonde hair, and the fluids seemed to be streaming out of him. His wet, sore riddled arms were curled around the bucket on his lap, over the rim of which he hung his neck and slobbering mouth. The poor boy’s nose was running freely, as were his black, bruised looking eyes. He stared at Angela with a sorry, awful gaze before squinting his eyes shut and dry heaving over the bucket. Nothing emerged but strings of spittle as he choked, but a great gout of something splashed into the toilet.
Angela stepped forward and pulled the chain on the water tank high above the toilet. The stench in the room was rank, but with most of the waste going down the drain Angela knew that it would clear up for the most part. She picked up a small trashcan with a few bits of tissue in it, carefully switching it out with the half-full pail the boy held. This she careful upended into the bathtub, careful the poor the gray spew directly into the drain as she turned on the hot water.
Angela sat upon the edge of the tub, taking a towel from the hanging rack and using it to wipe sweat from the boy’s brow, arms, back, and legs. The sweat was contaminated and of course the towel would have to be thrown away, as would the boy’s soaked shirt that looked to be made from threaded fibers or grasses.
“You’re not from around her, are you?” she asked, and the boy shook his head weakly. “What’s your name? Mine is Angela Brewer and this is my shop. I’m a gunsmith.”
“My name… is Tony,” the boy gasped. The vomiting seemed to have eased for the moment, although his chest heaved and he still oozed with sweat. Angela went to the sink, filled a clay mug with water, and handed it to Tony. The boy looked at the water doubtfully, but of course he was thirsty from all the fluid loss, and downed the water quickly. The contents of the mug stayed in his stomach without complaint, and Tony handed the empty mug to Angela for more.
As Tony sipped at the second cup of water he asked Angela, “What is a gunsmith?”
Angela blinked. Of course Tony was only a child, but even the children of Springfield knew of guns and smiths. Most of the wasteland even knew of such weapons, although some by history rather than experience. Again Angela realized that Tony must be of a very secluded tribe, recently discovered and introduced to the rest of the world, but what was such a boy doing lost in Downtown Springfield?
“I make guns, such as the guns the Pistoleers carry. Pistols, revolvers, rifles…” she said slowly. “Do you know what guns are? Where are you from?”
Tony was admiring the clay mug, a tribal craft bought from a merchant on Kearney Street. He stared at the crude, clay mug and asked Angela. “Do your guns throw fire? Do they burn?” And Tony’s wide, black eyes looked up at her.
The boy’s eyes were so odd, totally black as they were, but in spite or because of their blank depths Angela could still see great sorrow and loss in his gaze, and she shivered against the chill that was raising hairs upon the back of her neck. She thought of muzzle flashes, gunshots, but she didn’t think this was the ‘fire’ that Tony meant. “No,” Angela said. “My guns shoot bullets, pieces of metal… not fire.”
Tony wiped sweat from his forehead; it dripped and ran down his arm, and handed the empty mug back to Angela. She had no way of knowing that his mother had made similar cups for his village of Sedalia, and he had always enjoyed the clay pottery because it retained heat longer than metal or wood. In his infrared vision the cup was blue in Angela’s orange glowing hands, but still his feverish handprint was a fading red fan upon the surface of the mug.
“I’m glad,” Tony said, staring into Angela’s mask of a face. He could see heat creeping up her neck, pulsing quicker and harder, turning her warm orange cheeks a hotter shade of yellow and he hoped he wasn’t scaring her. “I’m glad because fire guns are what burned my village. Everything burned, and everyone, and that’s why I came here.”
Angela gasped, she didn’t understand what Tony was saying, but if this boy’s village had been razed, if he was the lost survivor of an entire tribe…
Angela’s thoughts turned to Curtis and his mission to Bennett Springs, a station that had apparently dropped off the map, but before she could think of rushing away, rushing to call the High Sheriff back, Tony vomited a gray curdle of foam that missed the trash can and splattered across both their legs. Angela was busy, comforting the sobbing child as she wiped his mouth and face, and the Pistoleers were far gone and lost in the crowd.
At the very northwest side of Springfield, just within the city walls, was the Wal-Mart Firing Range reserved exclusively for the city guards and of course the Pistoleers. The site was a massive building, an ancient general store, of which now only the high walls remained. The roof had long since collapsed, most of which material was used to repair and reinforce the ancient concrete walls. The few goods and supplies that had survived looting and five hundred years of exposure had been removed, either for repair or recyling. Now the building was a coliseum, a huge expanse of open floor marked into lanes and tracks for paper firing targets. The high, plated walls kept most retorts and stray bullets from endangering the surrounding area.
High Sheriff Weston and Sheriff Hammers entered through large, front doors that were opened by guards. The guards were posted around the clock, a needless gesture since only the insane would dare attempt to raid the Range’s armory where heavily armed Pistoleers were often training throughout the day and night. Barrels of spent copper casings lined one wall, constantly being filled by recruits and scribes, armed with wide brooms, who swept the floors around the feet of those within the firing gates. The shells would be sorted, cleaned, and reused at one of many local munitions plant, returning in the form of live ammunition crated in each day.
A young scribe, the boy had a third eye, although bloodshot and probably blind, centered in his forehead, rushed forward with two pairs of ear mufflers for the Pistoleers. Curtis took one, shouted his thanks above the thunder of gunfire, and Michael waved the boy away. Curtis took the Sheriff’s pair and slammed them against Michael’s chest, and with all three eyes wide the recruit ran off to other duties. Michael muttered something that sank amidst the noise, and fit the mufflers over his ears. The strap didn’t fit over his large head, so instead must dangle awkwardly under his chin.
“So where is she?” Michael bellowed, the mufflers jouncing on his ears as his jaw moved. “Where’s this girl?”
Curtis had instantly picked her out, of all the children behind the firing gates only one wasn’t rushing madly about with the duties of a scribe or recruit. At the farthest lane, nearly fifty yards away and almost lost to site under a fog of cordite smoke, was a petite form flanked by several hulking guards.
Curtis set off for the last stall and Michael followed, the Pistoleers breezing through the gun smoke and flattening spent bullet casings beneath their boots. The girl was coming more into view, a slender frame that appeared to be bound in leather straps, black hair falling across her face and hiding her features. Also there was a Pistoleer leaning within an empty stall nearby, another High Sheriff that Curtis instantly recognized. For none could help but recognize Grinning Pete, who could grin only as well as a skull. At first glance Grinning Pete didn’t appear to have any flesh to his face, simply a staring skull, but in fact his bones were covered with a thin, tough sheath of albino white hide.
“Hail, fellas,” said Pete, whose vocabulary was a bit limited due to his lack of lips. “Nice day, ain’t it?”
Michael shuddered as Grinning Pete’s lidless eyes fell on him. He didn’t care what the High Sheriff thought, his looks gave Michael the creeps, who wasn’t all sure that the man wasn’t actually a zombie and not a mutant at all. Pete looked like walking death; a lipless, nose less, earless skull wearing a cowboy hat with clothes draped over the rest of it’s bones. But the man had his uses, such as this when often his presence alone was enough to keep prisoners in order.
Pete’s gaze centered stonily upon Michael. “I know ‘hut ya think of ‘y looks, kiddo,” said Grinning Pete, his tongue flapping behind bared teeth. “Ideas like that ‘ill get an asshole like yerself a ‘ullet hole in da gut,” he rasped. Pete took a shambling step towards Michael, who stepped back a pace at which Grinning Pete uttered a jaw chattering cackle.
Looking at Curtis, Grinning Pete tipped the brim of his hat with a white, bony finger. “High Sherihh ‘Eston, good day. Here I lea’ this charge under yer care for exile. Good day, I say again.”
Grinning Pete was striding off, and at perhaps half the distance to the door one of the guards said to another, “I’m glad that spook it out of here.”
Impossible to say how the words were picked up over the range’s cacophony of gunfire, but Grinning Pete turned back as he walked. A thin arched up and back, at the end of which was a long, slender revolver, and three shots were fired. The skeletal High Sheriff never broke stride, but walked out the open doors as he was plucking the hot casings from his gun.
The guard was motionless against the wall, his eyes ticking wildly from face to face as if for confirmation whether he was dead or not. He raised a hand to his chest, passed it up and about his neck, and it came away bloody. But not slick with blood, for fragments of shattered concrete had only peppered him where Grinning Pete’s bullets had embe dded in the wall. One bullet hole was directly above his head, and the other two to each side of his neck. The guard was lucky that none of the slugs had ricocheted to turn his brain into paste, a possibility that Grinning Pete may or may not have regretted in the least.
The guard looked at the Pistoleers, and could see the message as clearly in their expressions as if they’d said it out loud. ‘If he hadn’t taken a shot at you we had. No man has a right to slander a Pistoleer, even if they bicker amongst themselves.’ He clapped the hand over his bleeding neck and determined to stand there, framed by bullet holes, silent until the lawmen were gone and he was relieved of his post to tend to his wounds.
Curtis Weston was looking at the girl, however with little interest for the men. “It seems that trouble continues to follow you today,” he said to her, and smiled.
The girl did not smile back, but stared unflinchingly at the High Sheriff. She was certainly twelve or thirteen years old, perhaps four and a half feet tall, and rail thin. Except for a fading bruise under one eye and a crust of blood at the side of her mouth, her facial features were plain but clean and beautiful. And although it was hidden by a fall of straight raven-black hair, Weston was aware of the empty left eye socket that was a rite of passage amongst her people. From just below her chin to her toes she seemed to be clad in nothing but black leather belts. They wound about her torso and limbs, weaved and crossing each other. The buckles and eyelets were of a dull metal that threw little reflection or glint of light. Only her face and fingers revealed that she had any flesh at all and was not simple a knotting of straps and clasps.
“What? Did they bind her up?” asked Michael, also transfixed by the girl’s strange wrappings.
“Not at all,” replied Curtis, still rapt upon her gaze. He could not tell if she was in awe of his eyes or if her single eye was hypnotizing him. “In fact, I would pity any man who attempted to restrain a Mountain Marksman, even a child such as she. The belts are their uniform, serving as a perfectly unrestrictive armor and storage both. The straps are laid along the body almost as perfectly as muscles upon the bone, bending and twisting with the wearer’s every movement. Weapons and supplies are hidden and secured as well, in order that they may move with speed and stealth without equipment fouling their actions or revealing with noise. I’m quite positive that she is still heavily armed, though I’m sure these men did their best to search her.”
The guards looked uneasy at this and shuffled a bit. Curtis guessed that they had pulled quite a few knives, hooks, tools, bullets, and supplies from the girl’s armor but failed to find it all simply because they could not, dared not, try to unravel the multitude of belts. They would have to be assured that they had secured the bulk and that without her rifle she was mainly unarmed. Curtis knew this was a deadly understatement, and by the girl’s defiant gaze it was obvious she agreed.
“Whatever you say,” said Michael, and then gestured to a guard who sat slumped in a chair, massaging one shoulder. “So what happened to that guy?”
“Blake tried to use the girl’s rifle, sir, and the recoil nearly took his arm off!” replied a younger guard, obviously excited by a change in action. He was so jittering his own rifle upon his shoulder that Curtis was glad to see that the weapon’s safety was secure.
“May I please see this rifle?” Weston asked. He could in fact see it just well, it was on a table with a large sack that must contain the girl’s belongings.
“Of course,” said the fourth guard, much more sure of himself compared to the rest of his team. He hoisted the long rifle, a bit wary as if it may in turn do him some harm, and handed it to the Pistoleer. Curtis thought it odd that such a green squad of guards had been assigned to watch over this girl, a girl who had apparently caused so much trouble this morning, yet they had perhaps picked a perfect location in which to hold her. A firing range packed with armed guardsmen and Pistoleers, in one chose to make the wrong move they could find a hundred gun barrels trained upon their heart in an instant.
Although Curtis had seen such guns before, never had he held one. Few beings who were not of the Mountain Marksman clan had touched such a weapon, and it was doubtful that the men here understood the honor even if it was not rightfully theirs.
Curtis doubted if the rifle was steel, perhaps titanium or an alloy, and the stock was certainly composed of reinforced plastics. The entire gun was perhaps five feet long, longer than the girl was tall, most of which was composed of three barrels. The main barrel was large bore, perhaps for a large, armor piercing caliber, but there were two other barrels of different size forming a tight triangle. The barrels disappeared into a large, oddly shaped housing which seemed to be all of once piece. From the top of the gun swelled a large scope, and Curtis raised the rifle to his shoulder to peer down a vacant stall.
The rifle was far lighter than it appears, practically weightless compared to other guns of its size. As Curtis held it, though, he could sense the incredible strength and durability in its frame. Peering through the site he was at once granted with a sniper’s view of a paper target some seventy-five yards away. The vision was green, Weston wondered if the lens would show in the dark, and along with the crosshairs a series of letters and digits swam into focus to the left of his target. Two seemed to be acronyms for distance and height, as the number adjusted as he directed the sight. A few others were a mystery such as WND and ELV as well as PRB that currently had value of 100% next to it. Probably how accurate the shot would be? ‘Probability?’ Curtis wondered. The rifle had some sort of calculation device built into it! His finger slid past an array of small buttons and rested on the trigger. Curtis Weston didn’t need a computer to tell him his chances of hitting his target with a fine rifle such as this.
“Now hold on there, High Sheriff!” said the Guard, rushing forward and placing a hand on Weston’s free shoulder. Weston looked at the guard, who instantly snatched his hand away. “Sir, I’m just warning because the recoil damn near crippled Blake. I know that you’re more trained and all, but with a cannon like that I don’t see how any many could fire it without hurting himself.” At this the guard glanced at the huge form of Michael and considered if his statement was true .
Curtis brought the rifle about, he truly wasn’t sure if he had intended to pull the trigger or not, wasn’t even sure if it was loaded, but the excitement of firing a rifle of the Mountain people was overwhelming. There was no doubt that the weapon had done some damage to the seated guard, but Curtis couldn’t imagine that hunters and snipers such as the Mountain people wouldn’t have a trick for controlling such power. Especially if fragile children were to wield such firepower.
“Then we shall let the girl show us how it’s done,” replied Weston, and held the rifle out to the girl.
The guards gasped, Curtis was certain they had either witnessed or knew more than he about the young girl’s assault. But he didn’t fear the child, in fact believed it was she who had been wrongfully disarmed, and held out the rifle.
The girl’s eyes narrowed at the Pistoleer, her muscles tensing, and slowly but deliberately she accepted her rifle from Curtis’s hands. Her grip tightened around stock and barrel, the little knuckles whitening with resolve that they may not again part with her birthright, and she looked defiantly at each guard and Pistoleer. Then she looked down the alley, at the distant paper target, and approached the stall. She leveled the huge rifle, larger still mounted upon her small frame, and adjusted several switches. Then she worked the bolt release, and the shell that had so injured the guard was ejected.
The High Sheriff caught the spent casing as it spun through the air. It was large and nearly as long as his hand, such a bullet he’d only ever seen fired from wall mounted turrets and machine guns. The girl was watching him admire the casing, and her first smile for the High Sheriff crept across her lips before she turned to the target and fired.
The retort was deafening, and each echo from the range’s high walls was in itself like a shotgun blast. The girl hadn’t suffered the recoil, however, and hadn’t even stumbled. Nearly the entire stock rocketed backwards, the spring action slide absorbing the shock, and had Curtis been standing closer the hammer blow would have certainly broken his ribs. The slide ratcheted back forward, automatically ejecting the smoking bullet casing into the air. All could see, all in the range since all shooting had ceased with the thunder, that a hole the size of a silver dollar had opened dead center of the distant target.
“It didn’t do that before!” croaked Blake. “The little bitch rigged it! That piece of shit nearly took my arm off! It…” But he choked off into a coughing fit, holding his shoulder and slumping in his chair.
The girl wasn’t looking however, but had shouldered her rifle and was pointing at one of the nervous guards. She pointed, in fact, to the bandolier of 30 caliber rifle rounds he wore across his chest.
The guard pulled a bullet from the strap and looked at it as if he’d never seen a shell before. The bullet could easily fit inside the empty casing that had fallen from the girl’s rifle.
“Give it to her,” said Curtis, but then the girl held up four fingers. “Give her four of them.”
The guard’s hands were shaking, the Pistoleer noted with some embarrassment. “B-but they’re the wrong caliber. They won’t…”
“Now,” boomed the High Sheriff, and in an instant four shells were dropped into the girl’s outstretched hand.
The range was quite silent now save for the footfalls of additional guards and Pistoleers approaching the stall to see what the attraction was. Over this could be heard a soft whirring and buzzing as the Markswoman adjusted another switch on her rifle, during which she chambered the four shells. The gun grew quiet, it’s adjustments made, and the girl once again brought it to her shoulder. Rather than shoot at her target she stepped out onto the range and aimed away, far across the expanse to the most distant target, nearly two hundred yards away and hidden by a haze of smoke. She fired all four rounds in rapid succession and the retorts were muffled, almost silent. The spring slide device had been disabled but she expertly absorbed each recoil, her little shoulder adjusting with the blows.
The girl unshoulered the rifle and rested its butt upon the floor, the smoking barrel of which stood more than foot taller than she. Far down the range, the very last paper target was swinging slightly.
“Recruit!” High Sheriff Curtis Weston bellowed. Dozens of boys jumped to attention, and not a few guards and Pistoleers with them. “Fetch that target!”
A dozen boys took off at a sprint, but most fell away as a select few sprinted ahead of the pack and would apparently win the race. These few sped to the end of the range where they spun a wheel that hauled the desired target jerkily along a track to the gate. Perhaps they could have simply bolted across the now quiet range and snatch the paper, it would have been quicker, but either they had not considered the matter or would not dare break such a rule as to enter the range with so many of their superiors in witness.
The carriage which clasped the target slammed home and one boy reached out and snatched it, much against the jeers and hollers of his friends, before racing back to the large congregation of adults. The panting boy held the target out to Curtis, it was no wonder he had first reached it since one of his twisted arms stretched from his shoulder to the floor, and the Pistoleer took it with thanks. The smiling boy returned to his fellow recruits, some of whom patted him on the back while others kicked at his shins.
The results upon the paper were remarkable. The large, center target had been in use by the guard or Pistoleer at that stall, and a flurry of bullet holes riddled the bulls-eye and center rings. At each corner of the paper, however, were smaller targets, circles perhaps two inches wide. Centered in each of these was a neat hole.
Curtis looked at the girl, and in answer of his unasked question she nodded her head. It was obvious that they spoke each other’s language. Curtis thought that he may be able to perform such fine shooting, but only maybe and he wouldn’t make any bets unless he could brace the rifle against something and take time to center each shot. But this girl had casually performed four shots, any of which would impress a sharpshooter amongst the Pistoleers, and had done so standing and without time to recover and realign her sights!
“Marvelous!” someone said.
“Who the hell is she?” another asked. “Is she new? Is she a recruit?”
“No, she’s not even a citizen,” and at this voice Curtis was shocked back into reality. Although the girl hadn’t been kept private she was supposed to have been escorted quietly if not secretly from the city.
“You didn’t hear? You dunce, she’s the girl who beat up the guards this morning!”
“Of course! A Marksman… or Markswoman. She’s from the Mountain Clan in the south!”
“No! Are they here? Have they joined us?”
Curtis was turning about, ready to order silence and quell the rumors and gossip, but another voice boomed over the tumult.
“Now where do you think you’re going, missy?” a gravely voice asked.
All turned to see a beefy Pistoleer with a crust of scaly skin rising into his scalp lifting the Mountain Markswoman from the ground. The girl had somehow slipped beneath and between the crowd in the confusion and excitement, but Sheriff McGraw had been at the perimeter of the group and caught her as she emerged. Now he held the girl, one calloused fist clenched about the belts at her shoulder and another around the barrel of her long rifle.
The girl kicked her feet and swung out with the butt of her rifle, but the Pistoleer’s grip was firm and his reach long so her blows only stirred the air. Until she transferred the rifle to one hand, her other hand sliding to her hip where it summoned a small blade like some wicked magic trick.
“Fuck it!” croaked the Pistoleer as the girl slashed at his elbow. The thick leather of his jacket was in tatters and he was not about to see his flesh come to the same end.
The girl hit the ground running, dashing for the open doors… the guards of which had left their post and swore dumbly from within the crowd. Dozens of guns were brought up, however, all pointing at the back of a girl who didn’t realize she wasn’t going to live long enough to take three more steps.
“Hold!” barked Curtis, and the High Sheriff shoved away the guns and rifles as he came forward. “Someone throw a bola,” he ordered and was obeyed.
Guns were holstered as a few others pulled the less than lethal weapons from their packs and belts. Three bolas were flung after the girl, steel or wooden weights tied together by lengths of twine. The bolas whistled as they spun, and all three struck the girl almost at once. Two wrapped around her knees and ankles, the weights tangling her legs, but the third spun about her head until the weights cracked against her skull. The girl tripped and fell without a word, crumpled motionless on the ground.
Curtis reached her first, the crowd following behind him as he approached the Mountain Markswoman. He crouched and observed the steady rise and fall of her chest and the pulse at her neck. With one hand at the ready, in case another blade should appear in the girl’s fist, he raised her eyelid. The pupil contracted as the light shown in, and all appeared normal. Knocked stupid from the blow, he thought, and unwrapped the bola from her head. The cord moves the shelf of hair from her brow, and for a moment the girl’s empty left eye socket was bared to the Pistoleer. Curtis’s heart quickened for a moment and the skin upon his arms tightened with a chill.
“What the hell?” Curtis muttered to himself. He knew the Mountain people’s custom, knew that they removed their weak eye as a practice, and had seen plenty of men and women of the wasteland with empty sockets much more grisly than the girl’s. Yet it unnerved him, shocked him, and with a shaky hand he swept the hair back over the girl’s missing eye.
“Sir?” asked a recruit nearby.
“Nothing,” said the Pistoleer, and hurriedly untangled the bolas, which he then handed to the recruit. “See that these are returned and give my thanks,” he said as he stood. Curtis Weston stood over the girl and regarded the group that had followed him, and he folded his arms across his chest as he made eye contact with each of them.
Everyone present was an officer of the law, and none had to be told that the show was over; High Sheriff Weston’s forbidding gaze was message enough. Only a few had to be tugged away, a couple of eager young scribes, and as the crowd thinned Michael Hammers approached like a huge ship sailing in from the fog. Guards and Pistoleers had returned to their own lanes and firearms, and the booming racket of marksmanship practice again filled the range.
“Quite a shot!” Michael bellowed, as both stood over the girl. He didn’t believe if she was out or just playing opossum, but then again he hadn’t believed those shots she had made. The Sheriff reckoned that more than a handful of the men shooting at targets now would be trying to aim for the little bulls-eyes, and most would crumple their paper targets before their peers could see how often they missed.
“Indeed she is,” Curtis said, and once again bent to the girl. He pulled a long length of rawhide from a pocket, looping it around the girl’s neck, twisting, and tying each end to the girl’s wrists. Now she wouldn’t be able to move her hands far from her shoulders, not without strangling herself, and sure of this fact Curtis picked her up.
“We’ve a ways to walk, yet, Michael. Would you mind carrying our charge?”
Once again this little beast is our charge, Michael wondered. It was by sheer fortune that she hadn’t been killed twice over this day. Beating a bunch of guards senseless, they would have killed her later for their wounded pride, and now she had run from custody and even taken a knife to a Pistoleer. He knew men who had been executed for less, so fortune was certainly with this girl. “I’ll take her,” he said, “If you’ll take her goodie bag for me.”
Michael held up the leather sack and shook it, the contents clanging heavily as if it were full of kitchen utensils.
“Good man,” Curtis said, smiling, and they traded loads. He then picked up the long rifle, marveling at the weapon. The girl from the mountains had first shot that cannon slug and then the rifle rounds from the same chamber. Unbelievable! He’d never seen a gun that could chamber two different calibers of ammunition, had never heard of such even in legends, and he wondered what else the unique gun could do. Not so unique, however, since every man, woman, and child of the Mountain tribes carried such guns. Where did they come from? Curtis couldn’t guess, he could only wish that it was his, wish it was his right to take it apart and oil the works and see how such a thing could be. But it belonged to the girl and it would be released to the girl when she was released to the wild in exile. And God help her if she turned a weapon, rifle or blade, upon a Pistoleer again because Curtis Weston could not deny how eager he would be to blow the top from her skull and claim the wonderful rifle as his own. Neither could he deny the force of will it had taken to hold his own hand, a hand that had nearly been the first to rise when the girl had made her mad dash and would have certainly been the first to fire.
Curtis cradled the rifle in his arms, Michael carried the girl in his arms as if she were a pile of clothes, and the Pistoleers passed through the doors of the Wal-Mart Firing Range. Neither could know that the next time they’d step through those same doors that the air would be full of flames and the wailings of grown men.
Angela had finished the rifle barrel and it was cooling on the table. Before it cooled she would again dill out the bore, ensuring it was perfect before continuing her work. From the restroom she could hear that the shower water had stopped running, that Tony must be toweling himself off. The boy had finally quit puking and sweating, the drugs had done their work, and just to be sure Angela had stuck a RAD-Patch to the back of his hand like a bandage.
The RAD-Patch was a nifty little leftover from the Final War with the familiar phrase printed at the bottom “Made in China. Distributed by FEMA, U.S.A.” On the patch was a circular chart like a clock face but the numbers jumped from one to one thousand and was colored green, a green that started out nearly white and grew darker until it was nearly black at one thousand. Beside the chart was a legend stating the numbers were REM doses, but Angela only knew that they were the levels of radiation in the body. Around the chart was another legend that displayed zero to five as Normal, five to fifty as Avoid Further Exposure, fifty to one hundred as Seek Medical Treatment. When pressed the skin, the film at the center of the patch changed color, and whatever color on the chart it matched was the radiation level. Tony was currently just above fifty, but Angela knew that most people in Springfield, people who had never even left the city walls, had a constant REM level at or below fifty. Angela was actually surprised that it wasn’t higher, if Tony was truly a native of the wasteland.
Beyond one hundred the chart suggested the poisoned man or woman should Administer RAD-Out Tonic, Blood Transfusion, and even Bone Marrow Transplant. The blood infusion was possible, a few doctors could do it, but a marrow transplant was unheard of. The people of the old world may have been able to perform such miracles, but those same people wouldn’t survive more than twenty REMs of radiation on a daily basis. Beyond that the chart only listed Death as the cure, only varying in a matter of days as the chart got darker. Angela knew that was not always the case. Men and women had recovered from hundreds of REMs of radiation exposure, both with and without medications such as RAD-Out. Just as many had died, of course, and few had been transformed into Zombies, whose body then seemed to welcome such radiation. Angela knew of one such man, known only as Buck, who would win bets in bars based on his own radiation level. Buck would place a RAD-Patch upon his hand and show the patrons who were about to buy him his drinks how the film rapidly turned dark green and then deepest black. Then he’d laugh as the entire card itself would turn black, shrinking and shriveling upon his scarred hide like burning paper. Buck would laugh as he drank his won drinks, alone in the center of a bar where the remaining patrons gave him and his personal contamination plenty of room.
“I think you’re cured, little man,” Angela had said, pulling the sticky patch from his hand and dropping it into the puke pail full of his dirtied clothes, all of which she would throw away. Then she had shown Tony the shower, had demonstrated the knobs that turned on either hot water or cold and how to adjust them. The boy had watched, his black eyes wide with amazement and a happy smile lighting his face, and had laughed at the clear water that poured from the shower spout. Tony had been amazed and delighted by the shower, but not mystified as she would expect. Could his people in the wasteland possibly have running water? He’d unabashedly jumped into the shower and stripped, revealing his little boy privates to a blushing Angela, and she’d added the towel he had been wrapped in to the pail. For nearly an hour he had been in the shower, hooting and gargling and singing strange songs. Most of the songs were unknown to her, songs about desert winds and sands and bugs and snakes, but there were a few that were familiar. A song that was familiar, though most of the words were different from the version she knew, brought a smile to her face as Tony bellowed “She love you! Yeah yeah yeah! She loves you! Yeah yeah yeah yeahhhhh!” Some ghosts of the old culture had survived all the harsh years since the Final War.
The restroom door opened and poured a cloud of steam into the workroom. Tony floated out surrounded by the fog, clothed in one of Angela’s cotton shirts that hung below his knees. His own arms rattled within two bunched sleeves, but the second pair of empty sleeves trailed out behind him like limp wings. His dark eyes found hers at once, and he shot her a refreshed and radiant smile.
Tony began wandering around the workroom, his hand reaching out to touch various benches, tools, and materials. Angela spoke up to warn him to avoid a hot exhaust pipe that led outside, but his hand passed well away from it and went on. He neared the furnace and again she cringed; yet he crept by it like a ghost with his curious fingers well away from the blistering steel. Finally he’d circled the workshop and came to Angela’s workbench, where she watched him silently as he picked up and examined her various hammer and pliers. Tony was humming to himself as he looked over the wooden stock that would be part of the rifle she was making, he was feeling the sanded grain, and Angela was ready to snatch at his hand if he should reach for the barrel that was still scalding hot on the scorched cooling leathers.
But Tony didn’t even reach towards the hot metal, in fact it was the only item on the table that he didn’t pick up, and Angela marveled at this. Could he feel the heat better than she or anyone else? True that the furnace baked with heat, you could feel it before stepping within a foot of the steel, but the other items held a much more subtle, more dangerous heat. Angela herself had been burned too many times to count by picking up a tool that she thought had cooled.
“You bend metal!” exclaimed Tony, and Angela nodded. “We have a man in our village who bends metal, too… but not like this! People bring him metal and tools and he fixes them or makes them into knives with his stove.” Then Tony turned around and looked across the room. “You’re stove is much bigger, but it has too many leaks.”
“My stove?” Angela asked, and then followed his gaze to her furnace. “Oh, my furnace! Yes, that’s where I heat the metal to… Leaks? What leaks?”
“There!” Tony said, and pointed to three different area’s near the top of the furnace.
The furnace was a huge steel bubble that took up one corner of the room; there were three doors with various trays inside and several pipes for exhausting heat and pumping in fuel. Angela checked it often for leaks and cracks, but usually these were obvious by gouting steam or smoke. “I don’t see anything,” she said.
Tony turned to look at her, and his gaze said what he was thinking. ‘Fine, go ahead and doubt me,’ those dark eyes said. ‘I’m just a kid, that’s what everyone says, and what would a kid know?’ And without a word he turned to explore a rack of unfinished rifles and pistols, his bare feet already turning black with the dirt and grime upon the floor.
Angela was looking at the furnace, and then she looked at the thermometer. The workshop was hotter than usual, had been so for days, but she’d checked for leaks and dismissed the temperature change to the heat outside. Now that she thought about it, however, her shop should be cooler if nothing else. All across Springfield the order for firearms and dropped recently, many weapons smiths finding themselves with little to do except fill private orders. Usually the shops were frequented by Guards and Pistoleers either buying, selling, or maintaining their firearms, but their seemed to be few of either group within the city recently. So the furnace wasn’t kept hot and only one of the three kilns was kept stoked.
Angela unfolded a stepladder and mounted it near the furnace, climbing to where the strange boy had pointed. What she saw was a steel patch, bolted and sealed to the furnace years ago where an old beam had fallen from the ceiling and dented the metal. She’s forgotten about the patch over the years, and now that she was up here she could see that it looked a bit twisted and dented itself. Then she looked at the ceiling, and what she saw there caused her heart to lurch within her chest.
The beam and boards of the ceiling several feet above the patch was scorched black. Angela reached towards the beam, and she could just begin to feel the searing blast of superheated air. It was dark up here, but she could see how the air twisted and waved in three different jets around the loose patch as the furnace air erupted through. The patch wouldn’t have held for much longer, maybe a week, but before that the ceiling would have caught fire and burned down her shop.
“Told ya!” said Tony, and Angela jumped. She’d been wondering if the furnace would explode if that patch ruptured. Now she looked down to see the boy below her, grinning up.
“How…” she stammered. “How did you know?”
“I can see what’s hot,” Tony confided, and pointed a finger at each black eye. “The tools, your stove, the pipe you were working on, it’s all hot. Up there it’s too hot to look at, it hurts my eyes, and that usually means fire.”
Angela had heard of such things… snakes were supposed to be able to sense heat and there was even a word for it. Infrared vision. A Pistoleer had once brought her a rifle with an ancient scope on it that needed batteries, and when it was turned on the world through the glass was a molten landscape of colors.
“You have infrared vision,” she said, and the boy shrugged since is what he knew, just a different name. “You can’t see light or colors but you can see heat and temperature.” And to herself, ‘Thank God,” she thought.
Angela gingerly lowered herself from the stepladder, moving away from the furnace as if it were a missile, whole and undetonated within a shallow crater. She then began the process of shutting town the furnace entirely, something that she had not done in years. The fuel line was closed, the exhaust fully opened, and the furnace itself dampened. Almost instantly she could sense a change in the air, a lessening of pressure, and she was barely able to hear a high-pitched whistle die as the steam and heat leaked from the chimney into the sky above the building. Within minutes the shop seemed to be noticeably cooler and the roaring flames were no more. The only sound that the furnace made was an occasional tick and bong as the metal cooled and contracted.
Angela had been holding her breath for the most part, and it whooshed from her belly with relief. The furnace would cool, she could remove the bolted patch, and properly mend the blister or crack or whatever danger was hidden beneath. But in the meantime…
“God bless you and your eyes,” Angela said, and grabbed Tony away from the rack of guns he had been observing. The boy had been holding a long hunting pistol as she squeezed him to her chest, and with his face smothered between her full breasts and all the thoughts of Darla Minkin and her wet blouse vanished over the desert horizon. Somehow he was able to keep his weakening fingers firm around the pistol or else he would have dropped it to the floor in his surprise.
Angela released him, and Tony was looking everywhere but at the gunsmith as the blood fumed in his cheeks. “Now,” she said, leading him easily to a pair of wooden stools, “you should probably tell me where you come from and how you’ve come to Springfield. While you talk I’ll bandage the sores from your radiation poisoning, although it looks like they’ve already stopped seeping. The medicine should all be out of your system, too, so you should be ready to keep down some food by the time we’re done.”
The wounds indeed had stopped weeping pus and blood, the RAD-Out seemed to have done the trick, and the boy’s physiology had kicked back in and allowed fresh scabs to clot. Tony’s stomach was gnashing at itself with hunger, and the prospect of food perhaps as wondrous as Springfield and as Angela’s shop was nearly overwhelming. Tony began to tell the story of Sedalia, of the Pistoleers arrival and of the burning by some strange army, and as he talked Angela dabbed salves upon his wounds and applied bandages. But by the end she had forgotten her duties, and the bandages hung as slack as her shocked mouth.
The Pistoleers walked through the open ruins of the Springfield Regional Airport, the sun still high enough that their trailing shadows were long but not without human shape. They walked cautiously through the rubble and shells of buildings, but not with any real worry of ambush. The airport had been effectively stripped of resources over the centuries. Very little metal or plastic remained for salvage, and the buildings themselves had been demolished enough in the process that even the squatters and insanes looked elsewhere for shelter. Every so often some ambitious excavator would dig up a treasure or relic worth selling, but avoided the location’s background radiation. The airport had been a bombsite in the war, that was obvious from the craters in the runway and building, and would have been consumed by the earth if the contamination didn’t hold back the destructions of vines and roots.
Of course there were no planes and all the fuel had been taken or burned. Still the hangers remained, great shells of tin and aluminum too rusty and too hot to be worth salvaging. The Pistoleers were now making their way from one hanger to the next, searching for the chief engineer and his tank invention.
“He’s probably not here,” said Michael, clumping along with his load. He still carried the Mountain girl, she was still unconscious but breathing, and he also carried nearly a hundred pounds of gear. “I bet his new toy broke down before he even got out of the garage.”
At the city gates they had displayed their permits, their excommunication orders, and their supply and arms receipts before leaving the city. The guards would never permit such a suspicious party to leave the city, two heavily armed men toting an unconscious child, but then again these were no ordinary men. They were Pistoleers, and on top of that they had the correct paperwork.
They had been given rifles and cartridges of ammunition, canteens of water, packed and dried food rations, and little else. As Pistoleers they were already well equipped and fully armed, prepared to glean from the wilderness anything additional that they may need. Still, Weston was curious about the lack of surveillance equipment. No binoculars, no scopes, not that he or Michael needed such equipment but it would certainly be handy if they were to merely view the events within Bennett Springs before returning for their report. But it was of little issue, they were trained to use stealth and if needed there were the view scopes upon the rifles.
The gunmen passed another hanger, and within this one was a circle of ragged tends about the old remains of a campfire. Through the holes in the fabric they could see no supplies, no bodies, although the ground was stained with curious black patches of dried blood. Messy work had been done here, but long ago and the men moved on.
The Pistoleers circled about the gaping maw of the next hanger as Michael was saying “He’s probably got it stuck in a ditch, or wedged between a couple piles of concrete or something. That grease monkey couldn’t find his ass with a wrench if…”
Just as the men were regarding the shadows of broken crates and rusted machinery in the half-collapsed building, an engine roared into life and the Pistoleers were bathed in blinding light. Both men drew, Michael with only one hand as he juggled the girl’s limp body, and the thunder of their gunshots roared as the lights were shot out.
Perhaps half the blinding sources of electric lights had disappeared in shatters of glass and sparks before Geiger’s bellowing stilled their hands. “Awww, gawd, hold your fire! Dammit all to shit and fuck your crazy gunhands! Do you know how much lightbulbs cost? Dammit again!”
The engine had cut off, the lights dimming and going out, and the Pistoleers holstered their guns. Jeremiah Gieger himself jumped from within the wreckage, actually a quick camouflage, and witnessed the damage. Five, nearly half, of his tanks headlights were hopelessly smashed. “Shit shit shit,” he swore. “Well, I can just replace these but those two there are all smashed through the base and wiring. I probably have that damn cannon of yours to blame, Deputy Mike.”
“That’s Sheriff Hammers to you, grease monkey,” said Michael. “And don’t tell me that a pack rat like you doesn’t carry spare parts.”
The engineer glared at the boy and muttered something about a deputy before Curtis stepped in. “Enough, both of you. Geiger, are you alone? Did anyone see you?”
At once the engineer stiffened, even tossed a salute to the High Sheriff. “No, sir! The boys helped me get it into a trailer and then I sent them home, trucked the whole thing down the line by myself. I took tracks into Downtown, stowed the engine and trailer, and drove the Behemoth straight here. Can you believe there’s a hole in the city wall big enough to drive this beast through? Well, I mean, now there is… but there weren’t even and guards to see or hear the racket I made squeezing that concrete hole a bit bigger! It’s like they all…”
“What do you mean you drove that bucket through Downtown?” exclaimed Michael. The men looked at him and his eyes were livid with rage. “Through the radiation? That whole damn engine is probably hot, probably soaked it up like a sponge! We can’t ride that shit, we have a mission!”
Michael’s complaints evaporated under the burning gaze of Curtis Weston. The High Sheriff’s hard eyes told the story better than his lips could. There won’t be enough toxins to hurt you, they said. Quit your belly-aching, they said. Walk, if you’d rather, they said. And worst of all, the Pistoleer’s eyes said You’re a Sheriff, act like it or go home a Deputy.
Michael squared his massive shoulders and started forward, reaching the engineer before the High Sheriff.
“So where do we stow our gear, grease monkey?” he growled at Jeremiah. “Or do we need to dig your toy out of the trash before we’re on our way.”
Jeremiah glowered back at the Pistoleer, actually looking down upon his broad boulder of a skull. He chewed on his cigar for a moment, inhaled, and blew twin fumes of smoke into Michael’s eyes. “Throw your crap anywhere on deck, Deputy,” he growled back. “Just mind it doesn’t roll off and under a tread, ‘cause I won’t cry if your pop-guns get splintered. As for my tank, the Behemoth, she’ll pull herself out just fine. In fact, if you bend over, I’ll drive her right up… good God, is that a child you’re toting!?”
Jeremiah’s gaze had lingered over the limp bundle the Pistoleer was cradling, and as Michael looked down a small hand had unfolded itself from the twists and tangles of belts. Michael could have sworn they had tied those hands together, yet all the same the girl’s arm swung up. Michael tensed, waiting for a knife to appear, but he followed the swift fingers up to the girl’s face. For a moment he was staring into her visible eye, blue as the sky in ancient photographs but vacant of all emotion, before her fingers swept aside the curtain of dark hair.
Michael dropped the girl as any man may drop a stick of firewood from which a rattlesnake or wave of brown recluse spiders had emerged. The horror was in her missing left eye, a socket that was dark and empty but no worse than any other wound the Pistoleer had ever seen. Yet the hole of twisted scar tissue, the bundle of dried nerves in the back that quivered as if trying the move the eye that had long vacated the scene, seemed to ooze with a sense of revulsion. All of Michael’s attention, all of his world, was drawn into that void and enveloped in the darkness, hypnotized into his own personal blindness, and this is what he thrust away with a grunt and a bawling cry.
The girl landed easily, twisting like a cat, and as her feet found purchased she bounded backwards like an acrobat. She flipped over the scarred ground and fell into a crouch with a slim knife in each little fist. But the crackle of steel and iron had already seized the air, stopping time, and from where the girl stood she could see directly into the barrel of Curtis Weston’s revolver not ten feet away.
The High Sheriff had a bead on the girl who hunched under his aim, fearless and daring unlike countless men and women who had fallen before him. He sighed, a breath heavy with the weight of spent years and lives, and with a calloused thumb eased the hammer down and holstered his gun. The girl was quick, but there was no doubt in his mind that he could draw the revolver and put her away for good if she tried her quickness against his.
“Girl,” he said, and his voice was low and soothing. Not the way a Pistoleer would talk to a captive, but to a student. “You’re under arrest, and we mean to release you outside city limits. It just so happens that you’re now outside the city walls, which is really as far as we need to take you. But we’ve been asked to see you a few miles farther after the trouble you’ve caused.”
At the mention of the girl being responsible her eye flared with a red anger. So we’re not quite deaf and dumb after all, Curtis thought.
“Whether your fault or not,” he continued, and could just barely sense her relaxing, “You’re in danger in the city and a danger to the fools who misjudge you. If you want you can go now, away from us and the city, but if you do you do so without your fancy gun.”
At this the mountain girl’s fists began to tremble, almost vibrate, and though young the Pistoleer could imagine a mighty force bearing down on the handle of her knives. Her eye was also moving between each of the men, measuring her chances against their threats.
“Hold,” boomed the High Sheriff, and indeed the girl did grow still. “I say so only because we’d rather you not put a bullet in our backs or creep back into the city for whatever purpose you man. Come with us, come as a passenger without resistance, and once we’ve traveled our handful of miles we will return all of your goods to you.”
The girl stared at him, stared through him with that single large eye as piercing as a hawk’s, and Curtis’s skin crawled beneath the gaze. He felt as if she were picking him apart, peeling him in layers like a fruit, but the true source was that hidden and empty socket. Even through the black fan of hair he felt she saw more with that hole than the remaining eye, a vacant sight that saw through flesh and bone and beheld the High Sheriff’s soul as if it were an open book.
I swear, Curtis thought, feeling a weight in his chest as if her gaze were pressing like a thumb upon is heart. I swear upon the souls of my lost wife and son, give us no trouble and we will release you and your belongings as promised.
The girl’s eyes grew wide for a moment, a moment in which Curtis knew she had been reading his soul, and then she straightened. She uncoiled and stood upright, her knives sliding into unseen sheathes at her hips, and at once turned and jumped onto the treads of the tank. In a moment she was gone, vanished into the shadow of the camouflage.
Michael was stunned, still reeling from the odd power the girl had wielded over him. At his feet he could see two bits of rope, one even sliced and another ragged as if gnawed. Her nails, he thought. She clawed the binds around her wrist and then took a knife to those around her feet…and I was holding her the whole time.
“Where did she go? Is she gone?” asked Jeremiah, peering into the shadows above the Behemoth’s deck. “Is she waiting to jump us?”
“No,” said Curtis. He couldn’t see her but he could sense her, bunched up somewhere on the great machine and waiting. “She’s ready to be off, as we should be before the sun falls.”
Curtis followed the girl, stepping up onto the tread and lifting himself to the deck where his boots thudded upon the steel plates.
“Aye!” said Jeremiah, and knocked a forgotten length of ash from his cigar. “Then let’s haul some butt! Deputy, I suggest you move yours before I run it over.” With fit of laughter the engineer hoisted himself onto the Behemoth, throwing aside a sheet of rusty tin to expose his captains chair and controls.
“I’m a Sheriff,” Michael muttered absently, and kicked aside the twists of rope at his feet. “Fuck it, this day can’t get much suckier.” And the big man too hauled himself onto the tank, a machine burly enough for once that didn’t groan or shake under his heavy footfalls.
“High Sheriff,” Jeremiah said, catching Curtis’s eye. “If you would, please grab a seat here next to me. Deputy, I’d still rather see you under the wheels than over, but I guess you’d be less of a waste of space if you seat yourself on the forward deck. No, up near the nose, you idgit!” He laughed, and a bloom of cigar smoke circled his brow, upon which was perched a bright green cap with phrase John Deere emblazoned in yellow. “Where’s the girl? Where did she… oh, there she is!” He’d looked behind her, and near the boiler a single eye shined back at him. “’Ello, there, miss… er, what’s her name, Sir?”
Curtis looked at him, and then the girl, and had to wonder for himself. He had to give Jeremiah some credit; he hadn’t questioned them on the reason behind their mission, simply taken it in stride. Still, it was obvious that he was interested in the girl. Jeremiah hadn’t cursed once since noticing her, and Curtis knew him to be a pretty vocal man.
“We don’t know,” he responded, also peering back at the mountain girl. “She hasn’t said a word since coming into Springfield. We guess that she’s in shock.”
“Yeah, I heard about that business,” said Jeremiah, and cranked a couple of levers. The tank made little sound, not at all the familiar chug and gasp of a steam engine, but they could all feel a vibration under their feet. “How about this, little lady, I’ll call you Rosanne! Perhaps you’ve heard of Johnny Cash, he’s a famous musician, and his daughter’s name is Rosanne. Quite a strong woman herself, if I recall.”
Michael was sitting on the deck with his legs crossed and turned when he heard this. “What? That old fart you’re always playing on that radio of yours? You do realize he’s a dead man, was dead long before the war?”
“Nah,” said Jeremiah, and pressed down on a pedal, which brought the Behemoth’s engine into a shuddering growl. “He’s no more dead than Elvis, and you’re going to get to hear plenty of his greatest hits before we get where we’re going.”
Jeremiah released the same pedal, and the tank lurched forward with a belch of exhaust. Michael yelled as he fell back, his skull thudding against a handrail and knocking his hat askew. Jeremiah laughed, the sounds bursting from his belly like thunder, and throttled his machine on. The Behemoth, the furnace burning hot now, pulled free of its cover with the hull screeching against the tumbling junk that had been heaped to either side. It slid into the sunlight, rolling upon the ground like a huge armored sled, and Jeremiah Geiger adjusted the target on his dashboard. The beam of sunlight speared through the tiny target onto a painted bull’s-eye, and behind them all a set of glasses reflected the same movements and the same sun onto the boiler. The guts of the Behemoth grew quiet and slow as the furnace was choked off, but the gurgle and fuming of the boiler was picking up. The tank pushed on, building speed, and the laughing engineer piloted it northeast down a cracked and cratered runway, and Jeremiah began singing an off-key rendition of Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line.
Curtis Weston was smiling, amused by the engineer’s amusement, and in spite of himself Michael Hammer was also grinning at the excitement of the machine and its power. And behind the men, wedged between a handrail and a footlocker, the child markswoman from the Mountain tribe, perhaps ready to be called “Rosanne”, wore a smile of delight reserved only for innocent little girls.
For nearly an hour the Behemoth had been tearing a path through the backcountry, miles from the Interstate and well out of notice. The Pistoleers had first worried that the machine would make enough racket to attract every farmer and pirate in the area, but the tank was surprisingly quiet. The boiler chugged contentedly while the sun was out, and once dusk had fallen the furnace was merely a dull roar that fed the muffled hum of the engine. Far louder was the gnawing blade that ate away the undergrowth to be fed into the flames, buzzing loudly through the occasionally sapling or stand of briars unless Jeremiah paused the saws and let the tank crush over the obstruction.
The path they took was mostly clear; according to an ancient map they appeared to be clear cutting along an old farm road. Indeed, the road had been in service in recent years else the trees and grasses would be as thick as the forests to either side. For now, the road ahead, well lit by the Behemoth’s remaining headlights, was only slightly thinner growth than the woods to either side, and the path behind was an open and well-mowed lane. None of the men believed the sound of the Behemoth’s passing would travel too far under the canopy and cover of the forest.
The loudest device on the Behemoth, in fact, was Jeremiah Geiger’s sound machine. A relic passed down from his father, Jeremiah’s “compact disc player” was a singular device that often reserved the engineer’s invitation to parades, parties, and dances throughout the city. Jeremiah would tell the tale how his father had traded and bartered for hundreds of such devices, useless since they were so old as to be decaying and of course there was no power to operate the devices. Out of those hundreds of machines, Geiger Sr. had salvaged the working parts and set to work at cobbling a single operational unit. The thing was a tangle of wires and discolored plastics, but the engineer had fit the device with a power adaptor and when hooked to a working generator it would work! The real catch was to find the “compact discs” of music that hadn’t been destroyed over the centuries. Such plastic plates wear often worthless, most would simply result in the player’s tiny screen displaying the phrase “No Disc”, but occasionally a disc would work. Jeremiah’s father had handed down a collection of songs by Johnny Cash along with the player, and although other artists had been recovered over the years, Jeremiah still favored these.
The compact disc player was cradled in a cushioned housing next to the control panel, and Jeremiah would occasionally change a disc and sing along with a new set of songs. The girl, Rosanne, had come forward and sat upon the deck between Curtis and Jeremiah. She occasionally glanced yearningly at the rifle that the High Sheriff held hostage, its butt upon the floor and the barrel angling high over his shoulder. But more than that she was focused upon the engineer’s music player.
Rosanne had sat and listened as Jeremiah sang along with Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, Ring Of Fire, and One Piece At A Time. The other titles were garbled or lanced with static, and Jeremiah would remove the disc from the player and slide in another. Then it would be Folsom Prison Blues, Wanted Man, and others before he’d change again. All the while Rosanne listened and watched and the Behemoth ate its way through the forest.
“Here, sweetheart, will you change that last CD out for me?” asked Jeremiah, and held out one of the discs to her as the player spat more static.
The girl looked at him, blinking her single large eye. The red embers of Jeremiah’s cigar bathed his face in a feverish glow, and he showed her his smile as he held the disc out to her. The disc was nothing but silver shine on one side, reflecting light in colors like oil floating upon water. The other side was a scratched and smudged image of the artist, a dark man with haunted eyes and a large guitar. A thick thumb and finger held the disc by the narrow edges, careful not to touch either surface, and Rosanne’s slender hand rose tentatively from her lap. Her fingers hovered near the disc, and then she gripped it carefully just as Jeremiah did, by the edges, with her fingers as far from his as possible.
Jeremiah chuckled as he sat up straight and turned his eyes back to the path they were cutting, but he kept the girl in his peripheral vision. She turned the disc in her hand, looking at her own reflection, and then slid it into the player. She closed the lid and pressed the key with the engraved arrow just as she had watched him, and when nothing but static poured from the machine she pressed the key with the arrow against a wall. The disc skipped and found a song in which Johnny Cash sang about the Tennessee Flat Top Box. Jeremiah tapped his foot, and perhaps he thought he could hear the little girl humming just under the rumbling tank engine.
Curtis Weston huddled like a shadow in his seat and watched Jeremiah bond with the little girl from the mountains. He’d never seen the engineer with children, the man had no family, and the way he had taken to the girl was curious. Curtis loathed admitting it even to himself but he was a bit ashamed and even jealous. He had nearly shot this creature, young and pure as she may or may not be, and now here she was sharing a music box with a grown man. The jealousy was a confusing thing, why would such a child feel any loyalty to the man who held her possessions and her life in his hands, and who intended to cast all of it off into the wilderness as soon as possible. He had never cared for children, except for his own son…
At the thought of his lost son, the High Sheriff’s heart rolled in his heart like an unquiet corpse in a coffin. He looked away from the girl and the man who smiled down upon her, looked into the depths of the passing woods, and frantically shoveled more dirt upon the disturbed graves that were his past. They were memories that at once weakened and inflamed the man, and Curtis knew the havoc they could cause if brought to the light.
“Jeremiah,” Curtis said, still looking into the trees. “You realize we have to drop her? She’s comes with an order of excommunication and we’re to drop her at Northview hill.”
The engineer was quiet for a moment, and the Pistoleer could picture the big man chewing thoughtfully on his cigar. Perhaps gnashing at it. “Yes,” he husked. “I know. I can’t imagine casting her away, but I understand. It’s for the best, I’m sure… I heard that she hurt some rather petty men and I know how such wouldn’t be as pitying if they had their chance at her.”
The song had ended and another began, but although both men heard the words neither listened. Between them the girl was fully attentive and caught every word, both of the music and the men flanking her.