Behind the Ruins (Stories of the Fall) (4 page)

Nights were getting
colder still, and in the slanting morning sun the mountaintop trees were faded
ghosts under a layer of frost. He’d turned north again, climbing the circling
hills around the brick ruins of a small town, when he saw movement.

Grey
settled behind a fallen tree, and checked to make sure the sun was at a safe
angle before peeking through his rifle’s scope. He twisted the magnification to
maximum and sought the flicker of motion that had caught his eye.

The
town had been built on a long straight main street, probably the old highway,
and was crossed by a handful of side streets. Trees and hedges had run rampant
over the years and many of the streets were choked with foliage going
autumn-yellow and brown. Near the center of the town another road came in from
the west, and a concrete traffic circle marked the intersection with the old
highway. It took him a moment to spot the men sitting at ease in the circle,
enjoying the afternoon sun.

Even
with the telescopic sight, it was too far to make out much detail. There were
eight or ten people he could see, all adults. They wore a mix of clothes; most
had hooded jackets, at least one wore a deerskin duster not unlike Grey’s. They
had horses, too, he realized after a minute. They were picketed under the
branches of some crowded cottonwood trees. Two chocolate brown dogs circulated,
and Grey discarded the notion of finding a closer vantage point.

If
they’d had a few hundred cattle with them, he’d have written them off as
drovers; maybe gone down to see if they had trade to do. There weren’t any
cattle, though.

Grey
watched until the sun set and darkness rose up the walls of the valley. Below,
campfires began to glow; five of them. The fires pinpointed groups he hadn’t
seen for the trees, and he realized there were probably two dozen men, maybe
more, camped in the ruins.

The
temperature fell as dusk passed and full dark came. Grey unrolled his blanket
and draped it around his shoulders, then settled to watch and nap. Overhead,
bolides drew hairline ghosts in the night.

 

The
predawn sky was pale rose when the distant rattle of hooves and the single bark
of a dog woke Grey. The men below were packing up. The watcher shifted a bit,
settling sore legs into a different position. He left his rifle propped against
the log, and watched the hurried scramble of a camp getting ready to move out.

By
the time the sun had cleared the far mountains, the group was making its way
south, six or seven horsemen leaving every fifteen minutes. He could hear
raised voices as each group departed, but the distance was too great to make
out what was said. The dogs went with the first group. Grey squinted at the
sun, riding into a faultless blue sky, and stayed in his cover. The ruins were
quiet within two hours; Grey made his way down the hill an hour later.

He
moved through the ruins, staying in the thick brush of yards choked with thirty
years of untrimmed hedges. The streets were still in fair shape. They had been
frost-heaved into swells and sudden dips, but much of the pavement remained.
The first yellow leaves lay drifted atop the mulch of past years in the
gutters.

Calling
crows led him to an old garage. Three corpses, a man, a woman and a little
girl, were piled inside, the bodies nude and a pale blue-white. Their eyes were
gone, and each had a section of electrical wire twisted into the flesh of their
throats. Their hands had been bound behind them with more wire. The bodies bore
the marks of other abuse, but Grey didn’t pause to study them.

He
found each of the fires he’d seen. The riders had camped in buildings that were
still roofed and built their fires in the street before them, leaving charred
circles. He moved through each of the campsites. Most had been homes; some
still had a few sticks of furniture. All smelled of rodent piss. One group had
camped in the stone shell of an old store. Empty shelves lay tipped like
dominoes within, but the counters at the front had been cleared to make space
for bedrolls. An old jam jar sat on the floor near the store’s entrance, a
scrap of paper tucked into it. Grey grunted to himself, walked around the jar
once, then stooped and picked it up. He spun off the lid and fished the paper
out. He scanned the note, stopping and re-reading it several times. He unzipped
his coat and tucked the paper into a shirt pocket.

"Well,
shit," he murmured. He heard the crow's rusty complaints begin again in
the garage down the street as he left the shop and headed north.

 

Chapter 3: The Port

 

Doc
found his reading glasses and studied the note Grey had handed him.

“Spelling
is optional with whoever wrote this,” he muttered, forehead furrowing.

Grey
shrugged tiredly and slipped off his boots. A toe peeked through a hole in his
sock, and he sighed. While Doc glowered at the note, Grey pulled off the sock
and began darning the hole.

“The
first bit’s clear enough,” Doc said, using a thumbnail to underline that
portion.

 

Wated
1 week – u 3 hurry an catch up. Meet at Rogers – or if gone hed to the Cassel.

 

“You
don’t know anyone named Rogers or something called the Castle?” Doc asked.

“Nope.
It’s south of here is all I can guess. And they were mounted, so could be a
long way.”

“The
three you killed weren’t mounted.”

Grey
shrugged. “The others were leading some spare horses. I think the three were
scouts, out on foot.” He bit off a hanging thread and then examined the sock
before pulling it on. “What do you make of the second bit?”

 

B.
says TG r looking for more & may come west summer after next. C will want to
move first. Hurry back. Make shur u bring the map or C will feed u to the dogs.

 

“Who
knows? Not enough to go by other than we have visitors scheduled for next year
and the year after,” Doc folded his glasses and set them aside. “If I had to
guess, the ones you saw are headed back next year to beat the others to us.”

Grey
scratched his nose and yawned.

“Well,
then I guess we better have a meeting and decide what we’re doing,” he said.

Doc
raised an eyebrow. “What can we do, really?”

“Run,
fight or just give up. That’s your three,” Grey said.

“What
about talking?”

“That
always leads to running, fighting or giving up.”

 

Getting
the word out meant talking to Maggie, and Grey set off to do so the next
morning. Maggie Foch ran horses on the tableland northwest of the lake. It was
four days around the eastern shore, or two across the old bridge. Grey decided
on the shorter route, despite an abiding and irrational hatred of the ruins of
Kelowna.

Just
half a day from Doc’s cabin and scarcely farther from Tillingford’s place, the
city ruins were a maze of collapsed buildings, trees run wild, stranded cars
and stink. Grey entered the city at dusk, waiting in the ruin of a manor-style
home that had occupied a central hill in a spreading orchard. The three-story
mansion must have been choice real estate in its day, but Grey found it filled
with the stink of mildew and the trash left by decades of squatters. The trees
were still there, shaggy and wild, and he’d picked up a pocketful of small,
sweet apples as he’d made his way to shelter. He’d seen a few others gleaning
the trees, but they kept their distance, as did he.

From
his hilltop, Grey watched the dusk settle in, and picked out the wink of fire
here and there in the dark smudge of the city as it spread out across the
bottomland to the blue waters of the lake. The bridge was a pale line that
stretched a half-mile across the narrow waist of the body of water. North, one
could walk thirty miles before reaching the lake’s head; the southern end was equally
far.

Grey
reached the old downtown section without incident, moving quietly in the dark.
The streets were overhung with trees, crowded with rusted vehicles and old
barricades and concealed his movements with little effort. He avoided fires,
chokepoints and any sounds of life.

In
the oldest area, things were still more open. Squatters had trimmed back the
brush, and a rude but growing port occupied the old marina, where a flotilla of
rafts and aging sailboats fished or hauled cargo. The port was surrounded by
makeshift walls topped with rusted barbed wire and broken glass.

Grey
stopped three blocks from the fence. If he made his way south he could avoid
the Port, and reach the bridge through the old highway corridor. He looked that
way, listening. The feeble night breeze came from that direction, bringing
faint scents of smoke and human waste. A rumble of drunken laughter and an
arrhythmic drumming came from the Port.

He
walked to the Port’s pallisade and followed it left, until he reached the front
of an old bus that protruded through the fence. He approached openly, his rifle
slung, and showed his hands at shoulder height. He stopped facing the vehicle
and waited.

“Well?”
asked a voice from the dark cavern behind the shattered windshield. “What do
you want?”

“Trade
and news,” Grey called. Silence followed and Grey felt the scrutiny of the
unseen eyes.

“You
know the rules?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.
Break any and we’ll dump you in the lake.”

The
door of the bus squealed open, and Grey lowered his hands and steeped up into
the long body of the vehicle. Two men with shotguns watched him, one in the
driver’s seat, the other in the extreme rear holding his weapon cross-body and
nodding to the rear door. Both were big, bearded men who wore the red bandanas
of the Port.

“Step
on through,” the one in the driver's seat said.

Grey
did, and exited the bus on the far side of the fence.

The
Port comprised three blocks and the old marina, walled off from the remainder
of the city. It boasted a saloon, a ramshackle warehouse that had been a motel
in a past life and a warren of shacks that had sprouted in the old city park.
It was the largest permanent settlement that Grey knew of in the valley, with
about four hundred residents and another hundred transients at any given
moment.

The
air stank of sweat, smoke and fish. Ranks of hundred-yard-long drying racks ran
down the beach, each guarded by the family that ran them. The racks were draped
and groaning under the weight of drying kokanee and lake trout. Beehive-shaped
smokehouses clustered near the racks, where the dried fish were finished after
a week or more in the dry fall air. Even at night, fishers worked and tended
the smudge pots in the smokers. Fires kept the beach lit and their smoke kept
the flies at bay.

Grey
watched for a minute before making his way to the docks, boots clumping on the
planks of the pontoon wharf. The drunken laughter had shifted into a tuneless
chorus of some local ditty that managed to mention fish and sex in each stanza,
and it swelled to meet him when he shouldered open the door to the Longliner.

Heads
turned and marked him with looks from the friendly to the feral, then turned
away. The bar occupied a long single room that ran half the length of the
longest dock, and was built of scavenged lumber on a rusty barge hull. Twenty
or so men and a scattering of women were drinking or playing cards at the
tables. The rear wall panels were open despite the lateness of the season,
giving an unobstructed view of Lake Okanagan and the moon as it dipped in the
west. Grey had seen the bouncers hurl problem drunks out the back and into the
lake. Sometimes they drowned.

He
walked to the bar, nodding to the lean blonde woman behind it. She had small
skulls – mice, maybe - braided into her hair. They clattered when she moved.
Her face was wedge-shaped, with narrow brows and tan skin crackling into crows
feet at the corners of her eyes.

“Josie,
how goes?”

Josie
smiled and leaned across the bar. Grey did the same and they exchanged a kiss.
“Hey Grey, what do ya say?”

“Little
as possible. Can you stow my stuff behind the bar for me while I wander
around?”

She
nodded, and he slid his pack across the chest-high bar, followed by his rifle.

“How
much credit do I have left off those hides from the spring?” he asked.

“The
doeskin? Let me look.” Josie clattered off, stopping to refill a mug on the
way, and returned with an old day planner thirty years out of date, according
to its cover. She flipped through the pages and stabbed an entry with a finger.

“There
you are. You’re still in the black. It was thirty beer or sixty fish, and
you’ve got ten beer left.”

“Well,
let’s make it nine,” Grey said, turning so he could watch the other patrons.
Josie nodded, took an enameled mug from the shelf behind the bar and poured it
full from a gallon earthenware jug. She raised an eyebrow and studied Grey.
He’d forgotten how her eyes seemed to shift from blue to green depending on the
light, and caught himself staring back.

“I
don’t see you very often, Grey. You spend more time in the woods than a bear.
What brings you in?”

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