Behind the Ruins (Stories of the Fall)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind
the Ruins

 

 

By
Michael Lane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text copyright © 2012 Michael M. Lane

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For
Claudia, who believed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of
fiction, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

I will no longer
mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins.

--
Hermann Hesse

 

Chapter 1: Contact

 

Grey
expected to kill the three men.

He
lay concealed under a clump of juniper bushes halfway up the sloping wall of a
brushy gorge, and the bitter smell of the plant masked his scent. The trio
below didn’t seem to have a dog, but he took the precaution anyway. Crickets
chirred in the dry bunchgrass that tufted between the blocks of peach shale and
birds whistled in the larger clumps of brush. To his left, the mouth of the
Gorge opened out after a few hundred yards on a dry range of hills overlooking
the sweep of the valley and the long glitter of Lake Okanagan.

The
men moved up the path that Grey had descended an hour ago. They took their
time, and the birds continued to warble, undisturbed by their progress.

Grey
had glimpsed them an hour ago when they crossed his trail in the foothills and
turned upslope. He had looped back at a cautious jog to see if they were
backtracking him. It could be coincidence, but he’d never trusted coincidence.
He frowned and rolled his head to the right, onto the stock of his old rifle.

He
studied each through the telescopic sight. The man in the lead was thin to the
point of emaciation; muscles moved like bundled wire under the sunburnt skin of
his neck and arms. He wore ragged, filthy jeans, a colorless canvas jacket with
the hood pulled up and a pair of heavy boots. He carried a shotgun and moved in
a crouch, his head bobbing as his eyes flicked from the ground to the walls of
the gorge.

The
other two wore clothing equally dirty and hard-used, but they also wore packs
and carried folded hides for bedrolls. The last bore the greenish cylinder of a
rolled tarp. Both were heavily armed; belt knives, pistols and long guns. The
heavier, blonde-bearded man in the middle of the tiny column carried a black
assault rifle across a crooked elbow.

The
gully made a turn just below the hidden watcher; it was a blind corner and Grey
expected the three to pause there. They did. The men were close enough to smell
on the warm updraft: Rancid grease, sweat and badly cured hides. The rocky
walls of the gorge funneled sound to him, and he could hear each pebble their
feet dislodged.

The
scout spoke, and the watcher realized he’d been mistaken. The skeletal tracker
was a woman.

“This
is stupid,” she said. “We should just hide up on the hill here. We can get him
when he comes back through.” She gestured to the hillside where Grey lay
watching.

Beard
shook his head, glancing where she had indicated for a bare second.

“I’m
not crawling up a hundred feet of rock and brush when we can find his camp, get
comfortable and pop him when he comes back. Besides, he might not come back
this way.”

“Why
are you so set on killing him?” The tracker asked, straightening and rubbing
the small of her back. She propped the shotgun across her shoulder while she
kneaded knotted muscles with her free hand. “We’re supposed to be mapping and
keeping quiet. You remember what Harris said.”

Beard
spat. “Fuck Harris. I want his rifle, Ang.” His brow crinkled and a look of
dull cunning washed over his features. “Harris don’t need anybody running
around with sniper rifles when we come back.”

“Looked
like a deer rifle to me,” the tracker muttered.

Grey
sighed and slipped the rifle’s safety off.

The
second man cursed and turned away, fumbling at his fly.

“You
got a bitch?” Beard called, his voice ugly. The other man rooted around in his
layers of clothing.

“Naw
I just need to piss. You’re the boss, boss.”

“Don’t
fucking forget it,” Beard said. “Hurry up and let’s get moving.”

The
problem, Grey reflected, was that his camp wasn’t at the end of this particular
trail. If it had been, he’d have simply avoided these three; nothing at his
camp was that important. At the end of
this
trail was Doc’s cabin, and
these strangers weren’t the sort of visitors Doc needed.

He
exhaled slowly, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.

You
didn’t have to be much of a marksman to hit with a shotgun, so Grey swung the
barrel a few inches and shot the scout first. The bullet took her in the side
of the head and reflex made her straighten with a jolt before she fell. The
report of the gun thundered and echoed in the narrow defile. Grey worked the
bolt, nestled behind the scope again and swung to Beard, who had thrown himself
behind a boulder and was scanning the slope for a target. The other man was
trying to simultaneously button his fly, unsling his rifle and hide, and
managed to do none of the three. Grey ignored him for a moment and rested the
crosshairs of his rifle just above the shoulder of the rock that Beard hid
behind.

“Fucker!”
Beard yelled. “You shot Ang!”

“Yes
I did,” Grey murmured under his voice. “And if you’d just left it alone I
wouldn’t have had to.”

After
six or eight fumbling, near-tearful seconds, the third man had finally managed
to get his rifle unslung and his fly closed, and was backing rapidly down the
trail. His pants were wet down the front. Grey let him go for the moment and
waited.

“Fucking
coward!” Beard howled. It was dramatic, but Grey noted the man kept his head
down. He did lean the assault rifle over the rock and fired a brief, deafening
burst, but the bullets came nowhere near the junipers and merely dislodged a
few harmless rocks that galloped down the slope.

Wet-pants
was his downfall. Beard finally noticed his compatriot was edging away without
getting shot.

“Don’t
you run off on me, asshole,” Beard snarled. “You find cover and we’ll kill this
shitheel.”

Pants
gave Beard a bleary, white-eyed look and turned, starting a stumbling run down
the gully, his pack jouncing up and down as his feet slipped and twisted on the
jumbled rocks.

“Oh
you useless
fuck
,” Beard yelled, twisting around and aiming his rifle at
his friend. In doing so, he exposed the top of his head. Grey put a bullet in
it, and the effect made him grimace. He worked the bolt again, chambering a third
round, and sat up, resting the gun across his left knee for stability. The
bullet took Pants in the neck, just above the backpack, and his scurry ended in
two or three loose-limbed lunges and a clattering collapse.

Grey
worked the action a third time and then collected his spent brass, pocketing
the shell cases. He switched the safety back on, reloaded with three rounds
from a coat pocket, and took a pull from his canteen while dust settled in the
defile.

He
waited until the crickets and birds returned to their chorus before descending
to examine the bodies.

He
stripped the corpses, setting their belongings aside before dragging them into
a small washout. The crevice was an arm-span across, with crumbling earth walls
that fed into the main gully. Grey climbed the shifting slope and stomped back
and forth, sneezing in the clouds of dust. Enough loose earth and rock slid
down to cover the three after a few minutes of work.

Leaving
the trio to their shared grave, Grey squatted by the packs and heaps of clothes.
He examined each item before setting it aside in one of two piles. The sun set
as he finished, the sky shifting to a cobalt blue streaked with the irregular
weave of meteorites, and Grey filled one of the liberated backpacks with items
from the smaller heap of salvage. He used the pack Pants had carried; Beard’s
was sodden with blood. He tied the guns together with a bit of cord and lashed
them across the pack. The things in the larger pile followed their departed
owners into the washout, to be covered by another layer of dirt.

Grey
stood and stretched, his blocky silhouette made top heavy by the second pack
slung over his own, and began to follow the gully back into the hills. The
fading light slowed him in the shadowed bottom of the arroyo. It took him two
hours to reach Doc’s cabin.

*          
*          *

 

The
hilltop cabin was C-shaped, made of peeled logs, with stubby wings flanking a
huge red cedar. Grey approached it slowly. His eyes had adapted to the
moonlight, but beneath the trees that surrounded the building the shadows were
complete. No light escaped the cabin, but he smelled wood smoke.

Something
moved beneath the cedar, crackling in the dry fall bracken. Grey saw a dim
piebald shape, waist-high, approaching from behind the tree.

“Winston,
come here,” he murmured.

The
shape woofed quietly, and a heavy patter of paws followed. Grey leaned down and
scratched the broad head between its upright ears.

“Good
boy. You watching out for Doc?”

The
dog cried with the strangled yodel of a husky, circled Grey and sniffed at the
pack and unfamiliar guns he carried. It growled once, and then fell silent,
cocking its head and looking toward the cabin.

“Doc?
That you?”

“Grey?”
A rusty voice asked, followed by the sound of someone clearing their throat. “I
wasn’t expecting you back.”

“I
wasn’t expecting on coming back so soon. Can I come up?”

“Come
on up.”

Winston
padded off as Grey advanced. Doc waited until his visitor was inside the
cabin’s mudroom and closed the little antechamber’s outer door before opening
the inner. The yellow light of kerosene lamps made Grey squint, and he dropped
the pack and scavenged weapons with a clatter as soon as he’d entered. The
combination of smoke, cooking fat and the high acrid odor of herbs made him
sneeze. Cupboards and shelves covered most of the walls, many of them stacked
with the crumbling paperbacks Doc enjoyed. In one corner were stacked big
orange cases with steel latches;
Okanagan Fire and Rescue
stenciled in
white on each.

Grey
took off his own pack and coat and leaned his rifle against the pile.

Doc
was a thin fox of a man with steel-rimmed glasses and a perpetual stoop. His
eyes were still sharp under bushy white eyebrows and he paused a moment,
looking at Grey closely before turning and gesturing toward a plank table.
Flanked by five mismatched kitchen chairs, the table occupied most of the
cabin’s kitchen.

“You’ve
got blood on your pants, young man,” Doc said. “Do you want some chicory?”

“If
it’s made, thanks, I would.”

Doc
nodded and turned to the woodstove against the far wall.

Grey
pulled a chair out and sat. The oil lamp on the table drew deep shadow lines
around his mouth and eyes and picked out the wires of white hair among the
brown in his beard. Without his pack and knee-length deerhide coat, he was
still blocky; a broad-shouldered man a few inches below six feet with a
middle-aged paunch and weathered face.

After
a few rattles and clinks, Doc returned to the table. He sat down, and pushed
one of two old blue mugs to Grey. The contents steamed in the cool air of the
cabin.

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