Read the beginning of The Postman by David Brin, the acclaimed novel detailing a moving post-apocalyptic tale of one man rekindling hope for a desperate nation.
In dust and blood – with the sharp tang of terror stark in his nostrils – a man’s mind will sometimes pull forth odd relevancies. After half a lifetime in the wilderness, most of it spent struggling to survive, it still struck Gordon as odd – how obscure memories would pop into his mind right in the middle of a life-or-death fight.
Panting under a bone-dry thicket – crawling desperately to find a refuge – he suddenly experienced a recollection as clear as the dusty stones under his nose. It was a memory of contrast – of a rainy afternoon in a warm, safe university library, long ago – of a lost world filled with books and music and carefree philosophical ramblings.
Words on a page.
Dragging his body through the tough, unyielding bracken, he could almost see the letters, black against white. And although he couldn’t recall the obscure author’s name, the words came back with utter clarity.
‘Short of Death itself, there is no such thing as a “total” defeat . . . There is never a disaster so devastating that a determined person cannot pull something out of the ashes – by risking all that he or she has left . . .
‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a desperate man.’
Gordon wished the long-dead writer were here right now, sharing his predicament. He wondered what pollyannish glow the fellow might find around this catastrophe.
Scratched and torn from his desperate escape into this dense thicket, he crawled as quietly as he could, stopping to lay still and squeeze his eyes shut whenever the floating dust seemed about to make him sneeze. It was slow, painful progress, and he wasn’t even sure where he was headed.
Minutes ago he had been as comfortable and well-stocked as any solitary traveler could hope to be, these days. Now, Gordon was reduced to not much more than a ripped shirt, faded jeans, and camp moccasins – and the thorns were cutting them all to bits.
A tapestry of fiery pain followed each new scratch down his arms and back. But in this awful, bone-dry jungle, there was nothing to do but crawl onward and pray his twisting path did not deliver him back to his enemies – to those who had effectively killed him already.
Finally, when he had come to think the hellish growth would never end, an opening appeared ahead. A narrow cleft split the brush and overlooked a slope of tumbled rock. Gordon pulled free of the thorns at last, rolled over onto his back, and stared up at the hazy sky, grateful simply for air that wasn’t foul with the heat of dry decay.
Welcome to Oregon, he thought bitterly. And I thought Idaho was bad.
He lifted one arm and tried to wipe the dust out of his eyes.
Or is it that I’m simply getting too old for this sort of thing? After all, he was over thirty now, beyond the typical life expectancy of a postholocaust traveler.
Oh Lord, I wish I was home again.
He wasn’t thinking of Minneapolis. The prairie today was a hell he had struggled for more than a decade to escape. No, home meant more to Gordon than any particular place.
A hamburger, a hot bath, music, Merthiolate . . .
. . . a cool beer . . .
As his labored breathing settled, other sounds came to the fore – the all too clear noise of happy looting. It rose from a hundred feet or so down the mountainside. Laughter as the delighted robbers tore through Gordon’s gear.
. . . a few friendly neighborhood cops . . . Gordon added, still cataloging the amenities of a world long gone.
The bandits had caught him off guard as he sipped elderberry tea by a late afternoon campfire. From that first instant, as they charged up the trail straight at him, it had been clear that the hot-faced men would as soon kill Gordon as look at him.
He hadn’t waited for them to decide which to do. Throwing scalding tea into the face of the first bearded robber, he dove right into the nearby brambles. Two gunshots had followed him, and that was all. Probably, his carcass wasn’t worth as much to the thieves as an irreplaceable bullet. They already had all his goods, anyway.
Or so they probably think.
Gordon’s smile was bitterly thin as he sat up carefully, backing along his rocky perch until he felt sure he was out of view of the slope below. He plucked his travel belt free of twigs and drew the half-full canteen for a long, desperately needed drink.
Bless you, paranoia, he thought. Not once since the Doomwar had he ever allowed the belt more than three feet from his side. It was the only thing he had been able to grab before diving into the brambles.
The dark gray metal of his .38 revolver shone even under a fine layer of dust, as he drew it from its holster. Gordon blew on the snub-nosed weapon and carefully checked its action. Soft clicking testified in understated eloquence to the craftsmanship and deadly precision of another age. Even in killing, the old world had made well.
Especially in the art of killing, Gordon reminded himself. Raucous laughter carried up from the slope below.
Normally he traveled with only four rounds loaded. Now he pulled two more precious cartridges from a belt pouch and filled the empty chambers under and behind the hammer. ‘Firearm safety’ was no longer a major consideration, especially since he expected to die this evening anyway.
Sixteen years chasing a dream, Gordon thought. First that long, futile struggle against the collapse . . . then scratching to survive through the Three-Year Winter . . . and finally, more than a decade of moving from place to place, dodging pestilence and hunger, fighting goddamned Holnists and packs of wild dogs . . . half a lifetime spent as a wandering, dark age minstrel, play-acting for meals in order to make it one day more while I searched for . . .
. . . for someplace . . .
Gordon shook his head. He knew his own dreams quite well. They were a fool’s fantasies, and had no place in the present world.
. . . for someplace where someone was taking responsibility . . .
He pushed the thought aside. Whatever he had been looking for, his long seeking seemed to have ended here, in the dry, cold mountains of what had once been eastern Oregon.
From the sounds below he could tell that the bandits were packing up, getting ready to move off with their plunder. Thick patches of desiccated creeper blocked Gordon’s view downslope through the ponderosa pines, but soon a burly man in a faded plaid hunting coat appeared from the direction of his campsite, moving northeast on a trail leading down the mountainside.
The man’s clothing confirmed what Gordon remembered from those blurred seconds of the attack. At least his assailants weren’t wearing army surplus camouflage . . . the trademark of Holn survivalists.
They must be just regular, run of the mill, may-they-pleaseroast-in-Hell bandits.
If so, then there was a sliver of a chance the plan glimmering in his mind just might accomplish something.
The first bandit had Gordon’s all-weather jacket tied around his waist. In his right arm he cradled the pump shotgun Gordon had carried all the way from Montana. ‘Come on!’ the bearded robber yelled back up the trail. ‘That’s enough gloating. Get that stuff together and move it!’
The leader, Gordon decided.
Another man, smaller and more shabby, hurried into view carrying a cloth sack and a battered rifle. ‘Boy, what a haul! We oughta celebrate. When we bring this stuff back, can we have all the ’shine we want, Jas?’ The small robber hopped like an excited bird. ‘Boy, Sheba an’ the girls’ll bust when they hear about that lil’ rabbit we drove off into the briar patch. I never seen anything run so fast!’ He giggled.
Gordon frowned at the insult added to injury. It was the same nearly everywhere he had been – a postholocaust callousness to which he’d never grown accustomed, even after all this time. With only one eye peering through the scrub grass rimming his cleft, he took a deep breath and shouted.
‘I wouldn’t count on getting drunk yet, Brer Bear!’ Adrenaline turned his voice more shrill than he wanted, but that couldn’t be helped.
The big man dropped awkwardly to the ground, scrambling for cover behind a nearby tree. The skinny robber, though, gawked up at the hillside.
‘What . . .? Who’s up there?’
Gordon felt a small wash of relief. Their behavior confirmed that the sons of bitches weren’t true survivalists. Certainly not Holnists. If they had been, he’d probably be dead by now.
The other bandits – Gordon counted a total of five – hurried down the trail carrying their booty. ‘Get down!’ their leader commanded from his hiding place. Scrawny seemed to wake up to his exposed position and hurried to join his comrades behind the undergrowth.
All except one robber – a sallow-faced man with salt-andpepper sideburns, wearing an alpine hat. Instead of hiding he moved forward a little, chewing a pine needle and casually eyeing the thicket.
‘Why bother?’ he asked calmly. ‘That poor fellow had on barely more than his skivvies, when we pounced him. We’ve got his shotgun. Let’s find out what he wants.’
Gordon kept his head down. But he couldn’t help noticing the man’s lazy, affected drawl. He was the only one who was clean shaven, and even from here Gordon could tell that his clothes were cleaner, more meticulously tended. At a muttered growl from his leader, the casual bandit shrugged and sauntered over behind a forked pine. Barely hidden, he called up the hillside. ‘Are you there, Mister Rabbit? If so, I am so sorry you didn’t stay to invite us to tea. Still, aware how Jas and Little Wally tend to treat visitors, I suppose I cannot blame you for cutting out.’
Gordon couldn’t believe he was trading banter with this twit. ‘That’s what I figured at the time,’ he called. ‘Thanks for understanding my lack of hospitality. By the way, with whom am I speaking?’
The tall fellow smiled broadly. ‘With whom . . .? Ah, a grammarian! What joy. It’s been so long since I’ve heard an educated voice.’ He doffed the alpine hat and bowed. ‘I am Roger Everett Septien, at one time a member of the Pacific Stock Exchange, and presently your robber. As for my colleagues . . . ’
The bushes rustled. Septien listened, and finally shrugged. ‘Alas,’ he called to Gordon. ‘Normally I’d be tempted by a chance for some real conversation; I’m sure you’re as starved for it as I. Unfortunately, the leader of our small brotherhood of cutthroats insists that I find out what you want and get this over with.
‘So speak your piece, Mister Rabbit. We are all ears.’
Gordon shook his head. The fellow obviously classed himself a wit, but his humor was fourth-rate, even by post-war standards. ‘I notice you fellows aren’t carrying all of my gear. You wouldn’t by some chance have decided to take only what you needed, and left enough for me to survive, would you?’
From the scrub below came a high giggle, then more hoarse chuckles as others joined in. Roger Septien looked left and right and lifted his hands. His exaggerated sigh seemed to say that he, at least, appreciated the irony in Gordon’s question.
‘Alas,’ he repeated. ‘I recall mentioning that possibility to my compatriots. For instance, our women might find some use for your aluminum tent poles and pack frame, but I suggested we leave the nylon bag and tent, which are useless to us.
‘Um, in a sense we have done this. However, I don’t think that Wally’s . . . er, alterations will meet your approval.’
Again, that shrieking giggle rose from the bushes. Gordon sagged a little.
‘What about my boots? You all seem well enough shod. Do they fit any of you, anyway? Could you leave them? And my jacket and gloves?’
Septien coughed. ‘Ah, yes. They’re the main items, aren’t they? Other than the shotgun, of course, which is nonnegotiable.’
Gordon spat. Of course, idiot. Only a blowhard states the obvious.
Again, the voice of the bandit leader could be heard, muffled by the foliage. Again there were giggles. With a pained expression, the ex-stockbroker sighed. ‘My leader asks what you offer in trade. Of course I know you have nothing. Still, I must inquire.’
As a matter of fact, Gordon had a few things they might want – his belt compass for instance, and a Swiss army knife.
But what were his chances of arranging an exchange and getting out alive? It didn’t take telepathy to tell that these bastards were only toying with their victim.
A fuming anger filled him, especially over Septien’s false show of compassion. He had witnessed this combination of cruel contempt and civilized manners in other once-educated people, over the years since the Collapse. By his lights, people like this were far more contemptible than those who had simply succumbed to the barbaric times.
‘Look,’ he shouted. ‘You don’t need those damn boots! You’ve no real need for my jacket or my toothbrush or my notebook, either. This area’s clean, so what do you need my Geiger counter for?
‘I’m not stupid enough to think I can have my shotgun back, but without some of those other things I’ll die, damn you!’
The echo of his curse seemed to pour down the long slope of the mountainside, leaving a hanging silence in its wake. Then the bushes rustled and the big bandit leader stood up. Spitting contemptuously upslope, he snapped his fingers at the others. ‘Now I know he’s got no gun,’ he told them. His thick eyebrows narrowed and he gestured in Gordon’s general direction.
‘Run away, little rabbit. Run, or we’ll skin you and have you for supper!’ He hefted Gordon’s shotgun, turned his back, and sauntered casually down the trail. The others fell in behind, laughing.
Roger Septien gave the mountainside an ironic shrug and a smile, then gathered up his share of the loot and followed his compatriots. They disappeared around a bend in the narrow forest path, but for minutes afterward Gordon heard the softly diminishing sound of someone happily whistling.
You imbecile! Weak as his chances had been, he had spoiled them completely by appealing to reason and charity. In an era of tooth and claw, nobody ever did that except out of impotence. The bandits’ uncertainty had evaporated just as soon as he foolishly asked for fair play.
Of course he could have fired his .38, wasting a precious bullet to prove he wasn’t completely harmless. That would have forced them to take him seriously again . . .
Then why didn’t I do that? Was I too afraid?
Probably, he admitted. I’ll very likely die of exposure tonight, but that’s still hours away, far enough to remain only an abstract threat, less frightening and immediate than five ruthless men with guns.
He punched his left palm with his fist.
Oh stuff it, Gordon. You can psychoanalyze yourself this evening, while you’re freezing to death. What it all comes down to, though, is that you are one prize fool, and this is probably the end.
He got up stiffly and began edging cautiously down the slope. Although he wasn’t quite ready to admit it yet, Gordon felt a growing certainty that there could only be one solution, only one even faintly possible way out of this disaster.
As soon as he was free of the thicket, Gordon limped to the trickling stream to wash his face and the worst of his cuts. He wiped sweat-soaked strands of brown hair out of his eyes. His scrapes hurt like hell, but none of them looked bad enough to persuade him to use the thin tube of the precious iodine in his belt pouch.
He refilled his canteen and thought.
Besides his pistol and half-shredded clothes, a pocket knife, and compass, his pouch held a miniature fishing kit that might prove useful, if he ever made it over the mountains to a decent watershed.
And of course ten spare rounds for his .38, small, blessed relics of industrial civilization.
Back at the beginning, during the riots and the great starvation, it had seemed that the one thing in inexhaustible supply was ammunition. If only turn-of-the-century America had stockpiled and distributed food half so well as its citizens had cached mountains of bullets . . .
Rough stones jabbed his throbbing left foot as Gordon gingerly hurried toward his former campsite. Clearly these half-shredded moccasins would get him nowhere. His torn clothes would be about as effective against freezing mountain autumn nights as his pleas had been against the bandits’ hard hearts.
The small clearing where he had made camp only an hour or so ago was deserted now, but his worst fears were surpassed by the havoc he found there.
His tent had been converted into a pile of nylon shreds, his sleeping bag a small blizzard of scattered goose down. All Gordon found intact was the slim longbow he had been carving from a cut sapling, and a line of experimental venison-gut strings.
Probably thought it was a walking stick. Sixteen years after the last factory had burned, Gordon’s robbers had completely overlooked the potential value of the bow and strings, when the ammo finally ran out.
He used the bow to poke through the wreckage, looking for anything else to salvage.
I can’t believe it. They took my journal! That prig Septien probably looks forward to poring over it during the snow-time, chuckling over my adventures and my naivete while my bones are being picked clean by cougars and buzzards.
Of course the food was all gone: the jerky; the bag of split grains that a small Idaho village had let him have in exchange for a few songs and stories; the tiny hoard of rock candy he had found in the mechanical bowels of a looted vending machine.
It’s just as well about the candy, Gordon thought as he plucked his trampled, ruined toothbrush out of the dust.
Now why the hell did they have to do that?
Late in the Three-Year Winter – while the remnants of his militia platoon still struggled to guard the soy silos of Wayne, Minnesota, for a government nobody had heard from in months – five of his comrades had died of raging oral infections. They were awful, unglorious deaths, and no one had even been sure if one of the war bugs was responsible, or the cold and hunger and near total lack of modern hygiene. All Gordon knew was that the specter of his teeth rotting in his head was his own personal phobia.
Bastards, he thought as he flung the little brush aside.
He kicked the rubbish one last time. There was nothing here to change his mind.
You’re procrastinating. Go. Do it.
Gordon started off a little stiffly. But soon he was moving downtrail as quickly and silently as he could, making time through the bone-dry forest.
The burly outlaw leader had promised to eat him if they met again. Cannibalism had been common in the early days, and these mountain men might have acquired a taste for the ‘long pork.’ Still, he had to persuade them that a man with nothing to lose must be reckoned with.
Within half a mile or so, their tracks were familiar to him: two traces with the soft outlines of deer hide and three with prewar Vibram soles. They were moving at a leisurely pace, and it would be no trouble simply to catch up with his enemies.
That was not his plan, however. Gordon tried to remember this morning’s climb up this same trail.
The path drops in altitude as it winds north, along the east face of the mountain, before switching back south and east into the desert valley below.
But what if I were to cut above the main trail, and traverse the slope higher up? I might be able to come down on them while it’s still light . . . while they’re still gloating and expecting nothing.
If the shortcut is there . . .
The trail wove gradually downhill toward the northeast, in the direction of the lengthening shadows, toward the deserts of eastern Oregon and Idaho. Gordon must have passed below the robbers’ sentinels yesterday or this morning, and they had taken their time following him until he was settled into camp. Their lair had to be somewhere off this same trail.
Even limping, Gordon was able to move silently and quickly, the only advantage of camp moccasins over boots. Soon he heard faint sounds below and ahead.
The raiding party. The men were laughing, joking together. It was painful to hear.
It wasn’t so much that they were laughing over him.Callous cruelty was a part of life today, and if Gordon couldn’t reconcile himself to it, he at least recognized he was the Twentieth-Century oddball in today’s savage world.
But the sounds reminded him of other laughter, the rough jokes of men who shared danger together.
Drew Simms – freckle-faced pre-med with a floppy grin and deadly skill at chess or poker – the Holnists got him when they overran Wayne and burned the silos . . .
Tiny Kielre – saved my life twice, and all he wanted when he was on his deathbed, the War Mumps tearing him apart, was for me to read him stories . . .
Then there had been Lieutenant Van – their half-Vietnamese platoon leader. Gordon had never known until it was too late that the Lieutenant was cutting his own rations and giving them to his men. He asked, at the end, to be buried in an American flag.
Gordon had been alone for so long. He missed the company of such men almost as much as the friendship of women.
Watching the brush on his left, he came to an opening that seemed to promise a sloping track – a shortcut perhaps – to the north across the mountain face. The rust-dry scrub crackled as he left the path and broke his own trail. Gordon thought he remembered the perfect site for a bushwhack, a switchback that passed under a high, stony horseshoe. A sniper might find a place a little way above that rocky outcrop, within point-blank range of anyone hiking along the hairpin.
If I can just get there first . . .
He might pin them down by surprise and force them to negotiate. That was the advantage in being the one with nothing to lose. Any sane bandit would prefer to live and rob another day. He had to believe they would part with boots, a jacket, and some food, against the risk of losing one or two of their band.
Gordon hoped he would not have to kill anybody.
Oh grow up, please! His worst enemy, over the next few hours, could be his archaic scruples. Just this once, be ruthless.
The voices on the trail faded as he cut across the slope of the mountain. Several times he had to detour around jagged gullies or scabrous patches of ugly bramble. Gordon concentrated on finding the quickest way toward his rocky ambuscade.
Have I gone far enough?
Grimly, he kept on. According to imperfect memory, the switchback he had in mind came only after a long sweep northward along the east face of the mountain.
A narrow animal track let him hurry through the pine thickets, pausing frequently to check his compass. He faced a quandary. To stand a chance of catching his adversaries, he had to stay above them. Yet if he kept too high, he might go right past his target without knowing it.
And twilight was not long away.
A flock of wild turkeys scattered as he jogged into a small clearing. Of course the thinned human population probably had something to do with the return of wildlife, but it was also one more sign that he had come into better-watered country than the arid lands of Idaho. His bow might someday prove useful, should he live long enough to learn to use it.
He angled downslope, beginning to get worried. Surely by now the main trail was quite a bit below him, if it hadn’t already switched back a few times. It was possible he had already gone too far north.
At last Gordon realized the game path was turning inexorably westward. It appeared to be rising again as well, toward what looked like another gap in the mountains, shrouded in late afternoon mist.
He stopped a moment to catch his breath and his bearings. Perhaps this was yet another pass through the cold, semi-arid Cascade Range, leading eventually into the Willamette River Valley and thence the Pacific Ocean. His map was gone but he knew that at most a couple weeks’ walk in that direction ought to bring him to water, shelter, fishing streams, game to hunt, and maybe . . .
And maybe some people trying to put something right in the world again. The sunlight through that high fringe of clouds was like a luminous halo, akin to the dimly remembered skyglow of city lights, a promise that had led him ever onward from the midwest, searching. The dream – hopeless as he knew it was – simply would not go away.
Gordon shook his head. For certain there would be snow in that range, and cougars, and starvation. There could be no turning away from his plan. Not if he wanted to live.
He tried hard to cut downslope, but the narrow game paths kept forcing him north and westward. The switchback had to be behind him, by now. But the thick, dry undergrowth diverted him farther into the new pass.
In his frustration Gordon almost missed the sound. But then he stopped suddenly, listening.
Were those voices?
A steep ravine opened up the forest just ahead. He hurried toward it until he could see the outlines of this mountain and others in the chain, wrapped in a thick haze, amber high on their westward flanks and darkening purple where the sun no longer shone.
The sounds seemed to be coming from below, to the east. And yes, they were voices. Gordon searched and made out the snakelike line of a trail on the mountain’s flank. Far off, he caught a brief flash of color moving slowly upward through the woods.
The bandits! But why were they moving uphill again? They couldn’t be, unless . . .
Unless Gordon was already far north of the trail he had taken the day before. He must have missed the ambush site altogether and come out above a side path. The bandits were climbing a fork he had failed to notice yesterday, one leading up into this pass rather than the one he had been caught in.
This must be the way to their base!
Gordon looked up the mountain. Yes, he could see how a small hollow could fit over to the west, on a shoulder near the lesser-used pass. It would be defensible and very hard to discover by chance.
Gordon smiled grimly and turned west as well. The ambush was a lost opportunity, but if he hurried he could beat the bandits home, perhaps get a few minutes to steal what he needed – food, clothes, something to carry them in.
And if the hideout wasn’t deserted?
Well, maybe he could take their women hostage and try to cut a deal.
Yeah, that’s lots better. Like holding a ticking bomb beats jogging with nitroglycerin.
Frankly, he hated all of his alternatives.
He started to run, ducking under branches and dodging withered stumps as he charged along the narrow game path. Soon Gordon felt a strange exuberance. He was committed, and none of his typical self-doubt would get in the way now. Battle adrenaline nearly made him high as his stride opened and small shrubs swept by in a blur. He stretched to leap over a toppled, decayed tree trunk, cleared it easily . . .
Landing sent sharp pain lancing up his left leg as something stabbed him through the flimsy moccasins. He sprawled, face first, into the gravel of a dry stream bed.
Gordon rolled over clutching his injury. Through wet, pain-diffracted eyes, he saw that he had tripped over a thick strand of looped, rusted steel cable, no doubt left over from some ancient, prewar logging operation. Again, while his leg throbbed agonizingly, his surface thoughts were absurdly rational.
Eighteen years since my last tetanus shot. Lovely.
But no, it hadn’t cut him, only tripped him. That was bad enough, though. He held onto his thigh and clamped his mouth shut, trying to ride out a savage cramp.
At last the tremors subsided and he dragged himself over to the toppled tree, gingerly hoisting himself into sitting position. He hissed through clenched teeth as the waves of agony slowly faded.
Meanwhile he could hear the bandit party passing not far below, taking away the head start that had been his only advantage.
So much for all those great plans to beat them to their hideout. He listened until their voices faded up the trail.
At last Gordon used his bow as a staff and tried standing up. Letting weight settle slowly on his left leg, he found it would support him, though it still quivered tenderly.
Ten years ago I could’ve taken a fall like that and been up and running without another thought. Face it. You’re obsolete, Gordon. Worn out. These days, thirty-four and alone is the same as being ready to die.
There would be no ambush now. He couldn’t even chase the bandits, not all the way up to that notch in the mountain. It would be useless to try to track them on a moonless night.
He took a few steps as the throbbing slowly subsided. Soon he was able to walk without leaning too hard on his makeshift staff.
Fine, but where to? Perhaps he should spend the remainingdaylight looking for a cave, a pile of pine needles, anything to give him a chance to live through the night.
In the growing chill Gordon watched shadows climb higher above the desert valley floor, merging and darkening the flanks of the nearby mountains. The reddening sun probed through chinks in the range of snowy peaks to his left.
He was facing north, unable quite yet to summon the energy to move, when his eye was caught by a sudden flash of light, a sharp glinting against the rolling forest green on the opposite flank of this narrow pass. Still favoring his tender foot, Gordon took a few steps forward. His brow furrowed.
The forest fires that had seared so much of the dry Cascades had spared the thick forests on that part of the mountainside. And yes, something across the way was catching the sunlight like a mirror. From the folds in the hillsides, he guessed that the reflection could only be seen from this very spot, and only in the late afternoon.
So he had guessed wrong. The bandits’ roost wasn’t in that hollow higher up in the pass to the west after all, but much closer. Only a stroke of luck had given it away.
So you’re giving me clues, now? Now? he accused the world. I don’t have enough troubles as it is, without being offered straws to grasp at?
Hope was an addiction. It had driven him westward for half his life. Moments after all but giving up, Gordon found himself piecing together the outlines of a new plan.
Could he try to rob a cabin filled with armed men? He pictured himself, kicking in the door to their wide-eyed astonishment, holding them all at bay with the pistol in one hand, while he tied them all up with the other!
Why not? They might be drunk, and he was desperate enough to try. Could he take hostages? Hell, even a milk goat would be more valuable to them than his boots! A captured woman should bring more in trade than that.
The idea was a sour taste in his mouth. It depended on the bandit leader behaving rationally for one thing. Would the bastard recognize the secret power of a desperate man, and let him go with what he needed?
Gordon had seen pride make men do stupid things. More often than not. If it comes down to a chase, I’m cooked. I couldn’t outrun a badger, right now.
He eyed the reflection across the pass, and decided he had very little choice, after all.
It was slow going from the first. His leg still ached and he had to stop every hundred feet or so to scan merging and crisscrossing trails for his enemy’s spoor. He also found he was checking shadows as potential ambushes, and made himself quit. These men weren’t Holnists. Indeed, they seemed lazy. Gordon guessed that their pickets would be close to home, if they maintained any at all.
As the light faded, the footprints were lost in the gravelly soil. But Gordon knew where he was going. The glinting reflection could no longer be seen, but the ravine on the opposite shoulder of the mountain saddle was a dark, treelined V silhouette. He chose a likely path and hurried ahead.
It was growing dark quickly. A stiff, cold breeze blew damply off the misty heights. Gordon limped up a dry stream bed and leaned on his staff as he climbed a set of switchbacks. Then, when he guessed he was within a quarter mile of his goal, the path suddenly failed.
He kept his forearms up to protect his face while he tried to move quietly through the dry undergrowth. He fought down a lingering, threatening urge to sneeze in the floating dust.
Chilly night fog was flowing down the mountainsides. Soon the ground would shimmer with faintly luminous ground frost. Still, Gordon shivered less from the cold than from nerves. He knew he was getting close. One way or another, he was about to have an encounter with death.
In his youth he had read about heroes, historical and fictional. Nearly all of them, when the time came for action, seemed able to push aside their personal burdens of worry, confusion, angst, for at least the time when action impended. But Gordon’s mind didn’t seem to work that way. Instead it just filled with more and more complexities, a turmoil of regrets.
It wasn’t that he had doubts about what had to be done. By every standard he lived by, this was the right thing to do. Survival demanded it. And anyway, if he was to be a dead man, at least he could make the mountains a little safer for the next wayfarer by taking a few of the bastards with him.
Still, the nearer he drew to the confrontation, the more he realized that he hadn’t wanted his dharma to come to this. He did not really wish to kill any of these men.
It had been this way even as, with Lieutenant Van’s little platoon, he had struggled to help maintain a peace – and a fragment of a nation – that had already died.
And afterward, he had chosen the life of a minstrel, a traveling actor and laborer – partly in order to keep moving, searching for a light, somewhere.
A few of the surviving postwar communities were known to accept outsiders as new members. Women were always welcome, of course, but some accepted new men. And yet there was so often a catch. A new male frequently had to duel-kill for the right to sit at a communal table, or bring back a scalp from a feuding clan to prove his prowess. There were few real Holnists anymore, in the plains and Rockies. But many survivor outposts he had encountered nevertheless demanded rituals of which Gordon wanted no part.
And now here he was, counting bullets, a part of him coldly noting that, if he made them count, there were probably enough for all the bandits.
Another sparse berry thicket blocked his path. What the patch lacked in fruit it made up for in thorns. This time Gordon moved along its edge, carefully picking his way in the gathering gloom. His sense of direction – honed after fourteen years of wandering – was automatic. He moved silently, cautious without rising above the maelstrom of his own thoughts.
All considered, it was amazing a man like him had lived this long. Everyone he had known or admired as a boy had died, along with all the hopes any of them had had. The soft world made for dreamers like himself broke apart when he was only eighteen. Long since then he’d come to realize that his persistent optimism had to be a form of hysterical insanity.
Hell, everybody’s crazy, these days.
Yes, he answered himself. But paranoia and depression are adaptive, now. Idealism is only stupid.
Gordon paused at a small blob of color. He peered into the bramble and saw, about a yard inside, a solitary clump of blueberries, apparently overlooked by the local black bear. The mist heightened Gordon’s sense of smell and he could pick their faint autumn mustiness out of the air.
Ignoring the stabbing thorns, he reached in and drew back a sticky handful. The tart sweetness was a wild thing in his mouth, like Life.
Twilight was almost gone, and a few wan stars winked through a darkling overcast. The cold breeze rifled his torn shirt and reminded Gordon that it was time to get this business over with, before his hands were too chilled to pull a trigger.
He wiped the stickiness on his pants as he rounded the end of the thicket. And there, suddenly, a hundred feet or so away it seemed, a broad pane of glass glinted at him in the dim skyglow.
Gordon ducked back behind the thorns. He drew his revolver and held his right wrist with his left hand until his breathing settled. Then he checked the pistol’s action. It clicked quietly, in an almost gentle, mechanical complacency. The spare ammo was heavy in his breast pocket.
A hazard to quick or forceful motion, the thicket yielded as he settled back against it, heedless of a few more little scratches. Gordon closed his eyes and meditated for calm and, yes, for forgiveness. In the chilly darkness, the only accompaniment to his breathing was the rhythmic ratchet of the crickets.
A swirl of cold fog blew around him. No, he sighed. There’s no other way. He raised his weapon and swung around.
The structure looked distinctly odd. For one thing, the distant patch of glass was dark.
That was queer, but stranger still was the silence. He’d have thought the bandits would have a fire going, and that they would be loudly celebrating.
It was nearly too dark to see his own hand. The trees loomed like hulking trolls on every side. Dimly, the glass pane seemed to stand out against some black structure, reflecting silvery highlights of a rolling cloud cover. Thin wisps of haze drifted between Gordon and his objective, confusing the image, making it shimmer.
He walked forward slowly, giving most of his attention to the ground. Now was not the time to step on a dry twig, or to be stabbed by a sharp stone as he shuffled in the dimness.
He glanced up, and once more the eerie feeling struck him. There was something wrong about the edifice ahead, made out mostly in silhouette behind the faintly glimmering glass. It didn’t look right, somehow. Boxlike, its upper section seemed to be mostly window. Below, it struck him as more like painted metal than wood, At the corners . . .
The fog grew thicker. Gordon could tell his perspective was wrong. He had been looking for a house, or large cottage. As he neared, he realized the thing was actually much closer than he’d thought. The shape was familiar, as if—
His foot came down on a twig. The ‘snap!’ filled his ears and he crouched, peering into the gloom with a desperate need that transcended sight. It felt as if a frantic power drove out of his eyes, propelled by his terror, demanding the mist be cloven so he could see.
Obediently, it seemed, the dry fog suddenly fell open before him. Pupils dilated, Gordon saw that he was less than two meters from the window . . . his own face reflected, wideeyed and wild haired . . . and saw, superimposed on his own image, a vacant, skeletal, death mask – a hooded skull grinning in welcome.
Gordon crouched, hypnotized, as a superstitious thrill coursed up his spine. He was unable to bring his weapon to bear, unable to cause his larynx to make sound. The haze swirled as he listened for proof that he had really gone mad – wishing with all his might that the death’s head was an illusion.
‘Alas, poor Gordon!’ The sepulchral image overlay his reflection and seemed to shimmer a greeting. Never, in all these awful years, had Death – owner of the world – manifested to him as a specter. Gordon’s numbed mind could think of nothing but to attend the Elsinorian figure’s bidding. He waited, unable to take his gaze away, or even to move. The skull and his face . . . his face and the skull . . . The thing had captured him without a fight, and now seemed content to grin about it.
At last it was something as mundane as a monkey reflex that came to Gordon’s aid.
No matter how mesmerizing, how terrifying, no unchanging sight can keep a man riveted forever. Not when it seemed that nothing at all was happening, nothing changing. Where courage and education failed him, where his nervous system had let him down, boredom finally took command.
His breath exhaled. He heard it whistle between his teeth. Without willing them to, Gordon felt his eyes turn slightly from the visage of Death.
A part of him noted that the window was set in a door. The handle lay before him. To the left, another window. To the right . . . to the right was the hood.
The . . . hood . . .
The hood of a jeep.
The hood of an abandoned, rusted jeep that lay in a faint rut in the forest gully . . .
He blinked at the hood of the abandoned, rusted jeep with ancient U.S. government markings, and the skeleton of a poor, dead, civil servant within, skull pressed against the passenger-side window, facing Gordon.
The strangled sigh he let out felt almost ectoplasmic, the relief and embarrassment were so palpable. Gordon straightened up and it felt like unwinding from a fetal position – like being born.
‘Oh. Oh Lordie,’ he said, just to hear his own voice. Moving his arms and legs, he paced a long circle around the vehicle, obsessively glancing at its dead occupant, coming to terms with its reality. He breathed deeply as his pulse settled and the roar in his ears gradually ebbed.
Finally, he sat down on the forest floor with his back against the cool door on the jeep’s left side. Trembling, he used both hands as he put the revolver back on safety and slid it into its holster. Then he pulled out his canteen and drank in slow, full swallows. Gordon wished he had something stronger, but water right now tasted as sweet as life.
Night was full, the cold, bone-chilling. Still, Gordon spent a few moments putting off the obvious. He would never find the bandits’ roost now, having followed a false clue so far into a pitch dark wilderness. The jeep, at least, offered some form of shelter, better than anything else around.
He hauled himself up and placed his hand on the door lever, calling up motions that had once been second nature to two hundred million of his countrymen and which, after a stubborn moment, forced the latch to give. The door let out a loud screech as he pulled hard and forced it open. He slid onto the cracked vinyl of the seat and inspected the interior.
The jeep was one of those reversed, driver-on-the-right types the post office had used back in the once-upon-a-time of before the Doomwar. The dead mailman – what was left of him – was slumped over on the far side. Gordon avoided looking at the skeleton for the moment.
The storage area of the truck was nearly full with canvas sacks. The smell of old paper filled the small cabin at least as
much as the faded odor of the mummified remains.
With a hopeful oath, Gordon snatched up a metal flask from the shift well. It sloshed! To have held liquid for sixteen years or more it had to be well sealed. Gordon swore as he twisted and pried at the cap. He pounded it against the door frame, then attacked it again.
Frustration made his eyes tear, but at last he felt the cap give. Soon he was rewarded with a slow, rough turning, and then the heady, distantly familiar aroma of whiskey.
Maybe I’ve been a good boy after all.
Maybe there is indeed a God.
He took a mouthful and coughed as the warming fire streamed down. Two more small swallows and he fell back against the seat, breathing almost a sigh.
He wasn’t ready yet to face removing the jacket draped over the skeleton’s narrow shoulders. Gordon grabbed sacks – bearing the imprint U.S. POSTAL SERVICE – and piled them about himself. Leaving a narrow opening in the door to let in fresh mountain air, he burrowed under the makeshift blankets with his bottle.
At last he looked over at his host, contemplating the dead civil servant’s American flag shoulder patch. He unscrewed the flask and this time raised the container toward the hooded garment.
‘Believe it or not, Mr Postman, I always thought you folks gave good and honest service. Oh, people used you as whipping boys a lot, but I know what a tough job you all had. I was proud of you, even before the war.
‘But this, Mr Mailman’ – he lifted the flask – ‘this goes beyond anything I’d come to expect! I consider my taxes very well spent.’ He drank to the postman, coughing a little but relishing the warm glow.
He settled deeper into the mail sacks and looked at the leather jacket, ribs serating its sides, arms hanging loosely at odd angles. Lying still, Gordon felt a sad poignancy – something like homesickness. The jeep, the symbolic, faithful letter carrier, the flag patch . . .. they recalled comfort, innocence, cooperation, an easy life that allowed millions of men and women to relax, to smile or argue as they chose, to be tolerant with one another – and to hope to be better people with the passage of time.
Gordon had been ready, today, to kill and to be killed. Now he was glad that had been averted. They had called him ‘Mr Rabbit’ and left him to die. But it was his privilege, without their ever knowing it, to call the bandits ‘countrymen,’ and let them have their lives.
Gordon allowed sleep to come and welcomed back optimism – foolish anachronism that it might be. He lay in a blanket of his own honor, and spent the rest of the night dreaming of parallel worlds.