The morning sun painted the distant hills with gold as Alex paused to survey the trail ahead. The buckskin blew a cloud of steamy breath from his nostrils as he pawed at the dust of the trail and tossed his head, eager to be riding, though he had already been going for more than three hours. The mule pulling Pops and his homemade wagon drew up alongside.
"Purty, ain't she," Pops observed from the seat mounted at the front of the old pickup box. The springs and pneumatic tires made for a reasonably soft ride, but the creaks and squeaks from box and its suspension grated on Alex's hearing. There were few roads in the countryside surrounding their Hidden Valley ranch, although there were plenty of them most everywhere else. Pops had once explained that the area had been a National Forest before the Sickness, and folks weren't allowed to build much there.
As far as Alex was concerned, eyeing the ruins of Show Low spread across the valley before them, they should have had the same rule for the rest of the land.
"Awfully purty," Alex agreed. "You reckon we'll run into any trouble today?"
"Ain't no use to spec'late," Pops drawled. "If we do, we do, but don't go lookin' for it, boy. It'll find you soon enough, an' then you'll be wishin' it hadn't."
"I was just remembering what Bart Mackey told Call last time we were in Show Low," Alex said. "I reckon that's been eatin' at Woodrow. Seems to me, he's the kind to stew over somethin' like that 'til he's got to do somethin' to prove it wrong."
Pops looked sidelong at his young protege. Alex didn't see the slow grin that spread across his face. "I reckon you got the right of it, son, but it weren't none of our doin'. If Call Woodrow figgers he's got to do somethin' about it, then he's got to do somethin'. I reckon we'll both know what to do when that time comes. Ain't no use to worry 'bout it."
To their relief, Call Woodrow and his two sidekicks were nowhere to be seen, as Alex and Pops finished their trading and were loading up the supplies. Then the morning air was rent by a piercing scream, just around the corner from them.
Alex heaved a heavy sigh when he heard the girl scream. He and Pops stopped loading the wagon and exchanged glances. Nothing more needed to be said.
Show Low had not been much of a city before the Sickness, compared to, say, Phoenix, and it was even less of one now. Most of the buildings were abandoned, and some had even started to collapse from neglect. Still, it had a store where one could trade for what was needed, so, every now and then Alex and Pops left the ranch at Hidden Valley and made the long trek into town. Of course, Show Low wasn't the only town they went to. There were three others that had some semblance of civilization within a hundred miles of the ranch, and they tried not to favor one over the others.
Springerville, to the north of the ranch, was the closest place where folks still lived, but the trading post there was pretty slim pickings, so they didn't get into Springerville very often. San Carlos and Safford were better, but still not as big as Show Low. Since all three of 'em still had good roads into Phoenix, they traded regularly with folks in the city, but since Show Low had more to trade, they generally had a better selection for the outlying places like Hidden Valley.
When he asked about the name of the place, Pops had told him that Show Low was named for a gambling game long before the sickness, when one of the gamblers won the place from another. According to Pops, that was even before they had cars and such, and folks carried guns a lot, like they did after the Sickness.
It was slow going, driving the wagon all that way, especially when they had to take the time to cover their tracks, but even with the small herd of cows they ran and the truck patch, they still needed things now and then. Some of it they just picked up at abandoned ranches, farms and ghost towns. Some of it had to be bartered for, and the surest way of finding stuff like sugar and flour was to go to a trading post. That was how come they went to Show Low.
Pops had taught Alex everything he knew about fighting, and as an ex-SEAL, that was quite a lot. The cache of guns and ammo they had, along with the machine shop and reloading equipment would let them fight a small war if necessary. The guns weren't the only things Pops had taught Alex how to use, either. Hand to hand or with almost anything your could hold in your hand, both of 'em were almost as deadly as with the guns.
Alex, being younger, worried about how long it took to get one of the semi-automatic sidearms that Pops favored into play. All those interlocks and safeties, to his mind, made them about a half-second too slow. That was why he had picked up those western style holsters and filled them with single action revolvers on one of their foraging expeditions. He chose single-action because they were less likely get fired accidentally, and since he could pull the hammer back while he was drawing the gun, it didn't slow him down any.
Pops laughed at him when he practiced drawing and firing them, pulling the hammer back with his thumb as they cleared leather.
"Son, you got six shots in each of those guns," he chided. "I got eight in my old .45 and fifteen in my M9. I'll still be killin' while you're reloading."
"I don't reckon I'm about to face no army on a regular basis, Pops," Alex replied, drawing both guns and firing from the hip. It was such a natural thing to do, and the Rugers, once he got used to the recoil of the .44 magnum rounds, were so beautifully balanced that it was just like pointing a finger. Two tiny rocks that had been balanced on the fence rail disappeared in a pair of puffs of dust, followed shortly by two more, then two more. "I reckon when the time comes to do any killin', it's a gonna come fast and hard, and I don't reckon it's gonna wait for me to get just the right grip and release a safety or two."
"Well, I gotta admit you're pretty good with those antiques, but don't be in too big of a hurry to go killin' folks," Pops spat at a lizard that skittered across a bare spot. "They ain't a lot of folks left an' we don't wanta kill the ones they is 'til they've had a chance to grow some new ones, if we can help it. Don't need to be drawin' too much interest to ourselves, either. We got a pretty sweet set-up here, and some of those folks that got in the habit of just takin' what they want when they was plenty to take, ain't quite got out of that habit now that the well's startin' to run dry."
Alex had heard it all before, but he didn't begrudge the old man his sermon. What he said made sense. Both of them had gone out of their way to avoid trouble. They had backed off so many times that they had reputation in the towns they went to of being soft. That rankled, but Alex was determined to honor Pop's wishes.
This was the third trip he had made with Pops to Show Low, and the last time, Call Woodrow and his two sidekicks had braced them, in front of others.
Even at sixteen Alex was half a head taller than Woodrow, but he was skinny as a rail. What Woodrow didn't know was that all the work he had done around the place at Hidden Valley had made him shoeleather tough and hard as nails.
"Well, looky what the wind done blowed into town," the scavenger said, walking around Alex like he was sizing up a side of beef. "Are you as yeller as that ol' man you been hangin' out with?"
It was one thing to take the taunts and jibes at himself, but to stand by and let Pops be called a coward was damn near too much to bear. If he hadn't seen the quick shake of Pops' head, he'd of sure as hell popped Call one.
"We don't want no trouble with you, Woodrow," Pops said quietly. "We just come into town for supplies."
Alex had stood there, trembling with rage, just aching to put all that training that Pops had given him to the test. It didn't help none that Call turned his back on them and headed for the drinking establishment down the street.
"Jest like I thought," he chuckled, motioning his two sidekicks to join him. "They's both lily-livered."
Tug Holly laughed, but Bart Mackey shot them a wary glance before he joined his pals. "I don't know Call," Alex heard him say as they walked off, "I think I'd steer clear a them two was I you. They didn't look a bit skeered to me, and that youngun, he was plumb mad. That ol' man mighta just saved yore life."
"Them two?" Woodrow snorted, "they'd ride ten mile out their way to keep from fightin'. Them guns they carry are just for show."
"Still, was I you," Mackey rejoined sullenly, "I'd give 'em a wide berth."
That was about six months ago. This trip, the three hard cases didn't seem to be around, and Alex was thinking they might get out of town without having to put up with Call's mouth.
Then the girl screamed, and they both knew their lives were about to change forever. Alex hoped it was for the best. There were just some things you didn't turn your back on, and a girl or woman in trouble was one of them.
She couldn't have been more than fourteen, from what Alex could see as he and Pops rounded the corner. The clothes she wore and the hat on the ground showed that she had tried to pass for a boy, but somehow, her tormentors had seen through her disguise.
Tug Holly held her by the arms while Bart Mackey fondled her budding breasts and Call Woodrow stood off to the side, grinning like a possum.
Pops' hand signals were plain enough, even if the others thought they were just the jerky movements of an old man's palsied limbs. He wanted to warn Pops about the M16 that Call carried slung over his shoulder. With the barrel down like that, he could swing it into firing position almighty fast, if he wasn't too interested in aiming.
Alex had his own worries, though. If Pops was taking Call, that left him to cover the other two and watch out for anyone else that might want to get in on the action.
"I'm guessing, miss," Pops said mildly, "that you are not pleased with the treatment given you by these men."
"You're guessing right!" The girl had some gumption, Alex had to give her that. "I asked them politely to leave me alone, and now I'm goin' to kill 'em if I get my hands loose!"