Chapter 1

Clipper had known for some time he needed to get out of town. The signs were the same, the same as in other towns he’d been in ... bad signs ... shipments of food were late ... the Peacekeepers were nervous, and had hair triggers ... he knew it was time to leave. And he still almost got caught in the chaos, the madness, when it began. He could hear the dull roar of the crowd downtown, as he ran back to his flat, and yanked his pack from under the bed. He’d been packed for several days, waiting for the right moment, and this was it. At least no later than this. He got the hell out of there. On the edge of town he looked back, and saw the yellow glow as buildings began to burn. Shit. He walked away, into the night.

He slept in a ditch and the next morning, to his amazement, a long haul trucker picked him up. He was surprised, so few trucks were on the roads now, and he could imagine how few would actually stop for a hitcher. The man just wanted somebody to keep him awake, but it got him a good two hundred miles down the road, and right near the mountains. The mountains, where I should have headed long ago, Clipper thought. I can make a living, in the mountains. I can forage and hunt. I can survive. He wasn’t sure if simple survival was even worth it at this stage. But he didn’t know how to do anything else.

The trucker dropped him outside of a little community called Brighton, and he walked through, feeling eyes upon him. The locals didn’t seem friendly to strangers and he didn’t even try to talk to anyone. He just passed through. The hills loomed before him. He stayed on the road for another dozen miles, that day and the next. Out here, he thought, the damage doesn’t look that bad. Just a few wrecks, here and there. More vehicles had just simply been abandoned when they ran out of fuel. When the fuel dried up. Every great once in a while he saw houses off to the sides of the road. Every time, he was aware of being watched and he was sure more often than not, that he was being watched from behind crosshairs. He was used to it.

He went off-road and plunged into the forest. It was springtime here in the Smokies, and he loved it. The woods were lush and green and undergrowth carpeted the ground beneath the cover. The air actually had a smell, fresh and clean, nothing like city air. He had grown up just a hundred miles from this spot. He’d been up north when the Fall had begun and had spent months just getting back in the country. He had to finally sneak in, down from Canada which was an epic journey in itself. He didn’t want to remember most of it. He felt better and better the closer he got to home. Home, though, was an illusion, he didn’t have a home any more. And he was sure that he’d be treated no different than any other tramp, should he actually make it back to Falls Creek. The people there wouldn’t know him any more. Or care to.

He stopped for a while, and unpacked and re-assembled his bow. He felt better with it in his hands. He felt like he was ready for anything, even though he just had a handful of arrows. He knew his bow wasn’t a perfect weapon, but it was close. Silent and deadly. Range and reloading speed maybe lacked a little, but all in all, it was close to perfect to him. He loved it. He put it on his back, the string running under his arm. It fit like a glove.

He climbed and climbed, using his hatchet to make a walking stick. That made hiking easier, and also gave him another weapon, albeit crude and simple. He wasn’t anxious to advertise the .45 caliber automatic beneath his belt, it represented a hell of a lot of wealth in today’s economy. Illegal wealth, but wealth. People died for things like that. He didn’t want to die for a stupid thing like a gun. He wanted to die for another reason, like old age. He laughed. Old age was a luxury now, a luxury most people couldn’t afford.

He spent the night in a deserted cabin he found at the end of an overgrown dirt road. He thought about building a fire but it wasn’t that cold of a night, and sometimes smoke brought trouble. He knew he wasn’t the only person out in these woods. He slept with one eye open and his hand wrapped around the automatic beneath his jacket. The birds woke him early and he hit the road again. The cabin would have been a good fixer-upper but it was too close to the road for him.

He climbed higher and higher. He could feel the elevation in the sharp crispness of the air. He crossed a gurgling creek and filled his canteens with cold clean water. He passed within shouting distance of a small town but saw no one. Barbed wire surrounded it and he didn’t even bother looking for the gate. He just went on into the woods.

At one point in the valley between two mountains a boy scared the shit out of him. From behind a bush maybe twenty feet away the boy burst, running away from him and wailing wordlessly. He got the hell out of there, thinking maybe the kid was calling family or townspeople. He didn’t want to get caught in the middle of anything. He had a pretty good idea what people around here this far up in the hills would do to strangers. It wouldn’t be good.

At last he saw the bare stony ramparts of Candletop, poking through the clouds in the distance. Another four or five days probably. That was his goal. He knew of a cabin far up, almost past the treeline. He hoped it was unoccupied. He’d hunted there many times long ago, and he knew the game and the watering holes. He thought he could survive there for a while, at least. He was fifty-five years old, and he knew that he wouldn’t last another ten years, if that. Nobody did, any more.

His watch woke him up at three in the morning, and he carefully quietly hiked the last two miles to the cabin. He hid himself in a tangle of brush, and watched the place until the sun came up. It seemed to be deserted, no smoke from the chimney, and no signs of life. He knew that anyone, if they lived here, would have dogs and he saw no obvious signs of dogs. Good.

He watched until noon and finally stood, his back cracking and his joints stiff. He fitted a broad-head arrow into his bow, made sure that his automatic was easily accessible, and slowly walked to the cabin, every sense on high alert. Nothing. He turned the knob slowly, pushed it open suddenly and quickly jumped to the side. Still nothing. He darted in, the gun in his hand, and stood to the right side of the entryway, waiting for his eyes to adjust. The place was still in pretty good shape, and he was pleasantly surprised at how deserted it seemed to be. He’d halfway figured that someone at least used it off and on, if not lived here. It looked like it was his, now. He searched for anything edible or useable, finding silverware and pots and pans and a few packets of ancient popcorn in the cabinet. He remembered popcorn. He wasn’t sure if his teeth could have handled it, though, even if it was any good. Survival mode living wasn’t really right for taking good care of your teeth.

He spent the rest of the day cleaning. He even found a cache of blankets in the loft and aired them out and beat the dust out of them. He cleaned the fireplace and then lay on his back and looked up it to make sure it wasn’t blocked by bird’s nests or anything. The pump in the kitchen coughed up some muddy water, and he pumped until his arm almost gave out, until the water looked fairly drinkable. That was a big plus about this place, fresh drinking water without having to leave the house. He could survive a siege in this place, if not for those damn windows, he thought. Have to work on that. And, of course it was wood. He could always be burned out. Nothing was perfect.

To his great pleasure, in the closet he found half a dozen fly fishing rods and a box of tackle. He had fished the nearby creeks with these very rods and reels, years ago. He knew where the good holes were. He knew that he would eat well, just from this discovery.

The first time he saw the girl he thought he was dreaming or imagining her. He was outside chopping wood with his hatchet. She stood, maybe a hundred feet down the hill, where the thicker treeline started. Her dark hair, even from this distance, looked tangled and matted. Her clothes were ragged, but serviceable. She was carrying a cudgel, a stick with a heavy knot of wood on one end. She had thick waterproof looking boots on and she stood loosely on her toes, it seemed to him. He opened his mouth to say something to her, and she was gone, just like that. Damn. He wondered where she had came from, and where she lived. She had looked young to him, early teens, maybe. He hadn’t seen her good enough to be sure.

He wondered if he had neighbors, and what they would think about him taking up residence here. If they would care. They would know now that the girl had seen him. She would spread the word, among her social circle. He wished that she hadn’t found him so quickly. He’d liked to have had a chance to strengthen the cabin against attack. And most of all to dig an escape tunnel out of it. That had saved his life at Yankton, and he’d vowed never again stay inside any length of time unless he had a sneaky way to exit.

Well, what was done was done. He kept his bow and .45 close, and spent the afternoon chopping firewood. If people knew he was here now, he might as well have a fire. When the sun set, he started a fire in the fireplace, and worked on some snares in the dim light. He barred the door and hid himself in the loft as well as he could, his .45 at the ready.

The next morning he rose and bathed himself, heating some water in a metal bucket in the fireplace. No one had disturbed him. No one had shown up. He cautiously left the cabin, taking his bow, and went hunting. Two rabbits later the girl surprised him, and almost got herself shot. He yanked the bow up, holding the arrow back as she ran down the hill, zigzagging crazily among the trees. That told him a little about her, that she knew some self defense. He went to where she’d ran from, and found a crude lean-to, with a few empty tin cans, and a ragged blanket. Her running footsteps had long since died away into the quiet solitude of the forest. She was probably a mile or two away by now. He examined the nest carefully, and then turned and walked back to his cabin. He left her stuff alone.

He speculated the rest of the day about her. Had she gone feral? Was she a wild thing now? How long had she been out here in the woods? Was she really alone? How could a child, and a female at that, survive? It was spring, had she survived the winter out here? By herself? Why hadn’t she moved into the cabin? There were a thousand questions and no answers.

He skinned and quartered the rabbits and roasted them, building up the fire. He looked outside. Still an hour until sunset. On impulse he took half the meat and wrapped it in a fairly clean piece of tinfoil he had found in the kitchen. He grabbed his bow and left the cabin.

His unerring sense of direction took him right back to where he’d seen the girl that morning. He approached slowly, making as much noise as he could. He hummed loudly and stomped and kicked a few downed branches to let her know he was coming, if she was there. He arrived. She wasn’t there. He lay the meat on her blanket and left.

That evening he sat before his fire and thought of her, alone, if she was alone, out in the woods. He couldn’t imagine most of all, why she hadn’t moved into this cabin. He was surprised that no one had, actually. Why did folk stay in the cities, starving, killing each other, and dying in the millions, when there were places like this within a few days journey, even by foot? Crazy. People just didn’t know how to survive in the wild anymore, he thought. They didn’t seem to know it could be done.

He remembered the first big convulsion, after the fall. New York City. Over a million people had died in that one. The army had been called back into the country by then, to try and keep the peace, but to no avail. A million people had died, in what was later called a “minor” convulsion. The first big gun grab had started right after that, after ten thousand soldiers had been shot by angry, hungry citizens. Now it was an instant death sentence to possess a firearm, at least in the cities and urban areas.

He spent the next morning stripping the bark from branches and cutting them to length to set them into the window wells of the cabin. He made small peepholes, but the windows bothered him, the large expanses of easily breakable glass. He felt safer behind wooden walls. Concrete, of course, would be better. Concrete didn’t burn.

When he thought of the girl again it was noon. He took his bow and within an hour he had killed a wild dog, a large one. He field-dressed it and dragged it home. He roasted the haunches and began the process to turn the rest of it into jerky. Dogs made good jerky.

Clipper hadn’t really been an outdoors-man, before the Fall. He was just a regular guy, working in the oilfield. He hunted a little and was familiar with guns at least. When he’d snuck back into the country he’d picked up a lot of skills, much of it from a friend he’d made on the road, a true mountain man. Born on a mountain, raised in a cave, Dan Deemer had often bragged, and Clipper believed him. Deemer had took a bullet outside of Sturgis, though, and finally died on the road. Clipper thought how good it would be to have him here, to let him do his thing in these mountains. They would survive, and thrive. He hoped to do so himself, even without his friend.

He’d met Deemer halfway through Canada, before he had snuck back across the border into North Dakota. They’d paired up and traveled a few hundred miles of hard wilderness, in the fall, no less, with a harsh winter looming on the horizon. It was nothing to Deemer. He could build a fire, boil some water from melted snow, and whip up a tasty trail meal from wood chips and pine cones, almost. Clipper saw him kill a rabbit once with a throwing knife ... the man was that good. Life on the trail with Deemer had been enjoyable. Clipper had never been a big one for the whole male bonding thing, but it was different with the man. He was jovial, and good-natured, unless you threatened him. You could cross him, disagree with him all you wanted. If he was wrong, he’d admit it, except for the fact that he was hardly ever wrong. But, if you threatened him, you were a dead man. It was that simple.

Deemer had saved his life more than once. He remembered the man with a burst of warmth. A true friend. Once, they had been attacked by a nest of bandits, up near Rapid City, and Deemer had fought like a berserker. Three men had fallen just to his machete alone, and a few more to his throwing knives. Clipper had just stood by helplessly, his bow at the ready, afraid to shoot for fear of hitting his friend. The guy was in three or four places at once, literally crushing one man’s throat with his fist, and snapping another’s back over his knee. He was awesome. Clipper hardly ever used that word, but that was the one word that described Dan Deemer. Awesome. Clipper had held him and bawled like a baby when the man died. He still got a tear in he corner of his eye, thinking about his passing.

Deemer had died for a woman. A young girl they’d ran into on the road was being chased by a gang of slavers out of the Black Hills Forest. It had been a hell of a fight, and they’d won, but Deemer had taken a bullet in the gut, from the very gun that Clipper had in his belt, held by a bad guy at the time. The girl had died a few weeks later of Cholera, about the time Deemer died of sepsis. Clipper had told himself at the time to remember that, and don’t do that. Don’t die for a woman. It had been many years, though, since he’d met one he’d die for. Deemer didn’t die for that, not really. He didn’t die for a woman. He died because he was a nice guy, and he believed in doing the right thing.

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