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« on: November 10, 2014, 07:07:09 AM »


Title         : After the Fall

Author     : MeatBot

Keywords : Sci-Fi, Mf, fb

Date        : 20141110

Mail         : meatbot777 at gmail dot com

This story :
     HTML - http://www.kristensboard.com/forums/index.php?topic=22166.0
     text - http://www.asstr.org/files/Authors/MeatBot/AfterTheFall%20-%20Sci-Fi%20Mf%20fb.txt

My other stories :
     HTML - http://www.kristensboard.com/forums/index.php?action=profile;u=26255
     text - http://www.asstr.org/files/Authors/MeatBot/

Synopsis : After civilization collapses, a wanderer trying to survive meets a teenaged girl living in the forest. ( EXCRUCIATINGLY LONG, 345K )

Disclaimer : Copyright by the author. Permission is granted to archive, repost, or publish in no-cost or low-cost archives, periodicals, anthologies of this type of material if unaltered and attributed to the author. This is a work of fiction. The author does not condone any sexual activity among persons under 16 in real life.

These are just words, people. Just words. If you have a problem with words see a competent shrink or an English teacher. All this shit is made up. This is sci-fi crap, or really "futuristic fiction" or "alternative fiction". The emphasis in this story is more about the story than sex, so you might find it boring for the reasons you cruise this newsgroup for.


                              --==+==--


Chapter I


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.


Chapter II


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.


Chapter III


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.


Chapter IV


An hour before sunset, he took a haunch of roasted dog meat and set out for the girl's nest. She was there this time, he caught a glimpse of her running figure as she disappeared into the trees. He tossed the meat on her blanket and left.

The next day he did the same, and the next. He was leaving fresh dog jerky by then. The next day he killed a rabbit and he left her the whole portion. He thought each time she stayed a little longer before running away, and by the seventh day he saw her stop, and watch him from a few hundred feet away. He tossed the meat into her nest and waved to her before going back to his cabin.

The day after that he spent a few hours down the mountain a ways, calf-deep in freezing water. He re-learned how to cast, and to his surprise the fish were biting eagerly that day. He caught two nice-sized trout and tossed a few small ones back in. He had a fine meal of fried fish that evening and took the girl what he now thought of as her share.

Two weeks later he was still feeding the girl and he had no idea why. She seemed comfortable with their distance by now. He'd tried to bribe her by leaving a blanket at her place, but he wasn't sure what he'd hoped to get out of her. The cabin was finally in the shape that he wanted, and he'd even carved out his emergency exit, and started the tunnel, made difficult by his lack of a shovel. He was eating well, his snares were working, and he had located wild berries and even some apples. The game in this area was just unreal. Fearless. It was almost a crime to shoot or snare the rabbits even.

One day he was out, exploring the surrounding area, when he happened onto another deserted cabin less than two miles away. He watched it for a day or two and then broke into it. He was pleasantly surprised, he found tools, including a shovel and a full sized ax, and even some canned fruit that wasn't too rusted. Everything was covered with an inch of dust so he didn't feel too bad about looting the place. He had to make two trips just to carry everything back to his place. He even found a few bricks of .22 ammo, but sadly, no gun. He wanted a .22 bad, to hunt with. It didn't destroy the meat, and it was fairly quiet, and wouldn't attract attention like a big bore would. He took the bullets, anyway.

He returned to the cabin, just to see if anything salvageable was left. Behind it, he got another pleasant surprise. Someone, long ago, had planted a garden. He found wild potatoes, last years crop, and several other vegetables. He harvested what he could, and gathered some of the plants to transplant at his place to start a garden of his own.

He returned, fried some rabbit in a skillet and took the girl her dinner. To his surprise, he found her home. If her little lean-to could be called a home.

He approached, slowly. She lay wrapped in her blanket, and he could see her shivering from twenty feet away. He drew closer, holding the meat out for her to see. He was just going to drop it and leave, but when he was ten feet away, he could see that her face was deep red and feverish. She shivered violently beneath the blanket. She regarded him at close range with what he thought was pure terror, but she didn't run. He realized she was just too sick to run. She finally just closed her eyes as if she were giving up. It was like she was saying, go ahead. Do whatever.

He set the meat down, and knelt beside her.

"What's the matter, girl," he said, surprised at how rough his voice was. He was out of practice. Those were the first words he'd spoken out loud in a month at least.

She opened her eyes, and then closed them again. She didn't move. He carefully reached down and tried to pull the blanket back from her a little.

No one, he thought later, no one had ever taken him by surprise as well as she did. When everything stopped, he was frozen, extremely conscious of the knife at his throat. She was sitting on top of him, holding a butcher knife on him. And she was still sick, her breathing labored, pain written all over her face. But she was ready to kill him. He didn't move.

She moved slightly, and winced. He looked down, carefully, slowly, and saw the torn, bloody leg of her jeans. At least no bone showed through he thought. She couldn't have moved that quickly with a broken bone. She seemed to have all the symptoms of a massive infection. He could feel her hand on the side of his neck and even it felt hot. Burning hot. Something was wrong with her, that was certain.

He didn't really know what to do, from there. She didn't seem to, either. At least she hadn't slit his throat immediately. He hoped that his gifts of the last month had convinced her he meant no harm. He realized with surprise that he wanted to be her friend, he wanted to help her. And not just because she was cute and female, he wanted company. He wanted someone to help him, and someone he could help.

"I can fix that," he said, nodding slowly at her leg. "If you let me, I can make you better."

She just stared at him from the side, holding the knife at his throat in her trembling hand.

"You are sick," he said, trying again. "I have medicine. I can make you better. Let me help you."

"Laaaugh..." she said, a wordless moan. He wondered if she was touched, or retarded. He had never heard a sound like that from another person. She stopped, and tried again.

"Lee..." she said. She stopped. Again. "Leave me alone," she finally said, firmly and distinctly. Good, he thought. She can talk.

"I can help you," he said again, wondering how to convince her. She shook her head fiercely. She opened her mouth to speak and then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed onto him. The knife tumbled away. He stood slowly, and looked down at her. She was out cold but still breathing, at least. He wondered if the violent head shake had jarred her fevered brain and she'd knocked herself out. He tucked the knife in his belt, put the rabbit in his shirt and stooped, picking her up into a fireman's carry. Lord, I'm out of shape, he thought. She was heavy. He figured she weighed one hundred pounds, at least. She was a fairly large girl, within a head of his height. He set off for his cabin.

He was exhausted by the time he got her home. He started to do his usual survey for enemy activity but finally just went on in, hoping for the best. No one was there. He lay her on one of the downstairs beds close to the fire. He put some water on to boil and took his knife and slit her jeans from hip to heel. Something had bitten her it looked like, something had chewed her up pretty good. That was not good, animals usually had dirty mouths. He went through his backpack and fished out a bottle of antibiotics for when she woke up.

When she woke up ... that might not be good ... she might go berserk, being indoors, in what she saw as captivity ... he wished he could tie her up, but that would just make it worse. He made sure that all sharp objects were hidden away and he even pulled the .45 out of his waistband and hid it atop a cabinet. The water boiled, he let it cool, and then began to clean her up. Time passed.

The first time she woke, her eyes were unfocused, and she just seemed to draw further and further back into the blankets. She seemed more like a little girl to him than a big girl. She wasn't that big, he figured, he guessed her age to be fourteen to seventeen, maybe, judging by what he had seen of her body when he had undressed her and cleaned her. How on earth had she survived, out here, by herself? he wondered. How had she done it?

The second time she woke up, in late afternoon, she was very aware. Her body tensed, and she suddenly threw the blanket off. She seemed ready to run, but then she suddenly seemed to realize that she was naked, and she grabbed the blanket and burrowed back beneath it. He wanted to laugh at the expression on her face but he also felt a great tenderness for her and didn't want to offend her or make her mad.

"Listen," he said. He just stared at her and she finally met his eyes. "Listen. When you are well, you can go back. But you need to stay here and recover. I will not touch you. I am an old man. I am no danger to you. Please let me take care of you, and then you can go back. Understand?"

She just stared at him. I heard her speak English once, he thought. I know she understands me. She couldn't have forgotten the language that quickly. He wondered how long she'd been out here living off the land, living on her own. He was amazed that a child could survive. She had shown signs to him, signs that she had been on her own away from civilization for a while.

When he'd first stripped her down, her ass had been filthy. She'd just had on a pair of jeans, and no panties. Panties were a luxury item nowadays, as was toilet paper. Anyway, her bottom was filthy, and he'd spent a fairly enjoyable fifteen minutes cleaning her up with a rag and warm water. He had thought long ago that he was done with sex, but he felt a definite stirring from his nether regions as he scrubbed her cute little bottom. At my age, he thought, any bottom would look cute. But this one was pretty cool, pretty goddam cool. Tight, young and firm. He had spread her cheeks and cleaned her asshole, glad that she was conked out. He'd even turned her over and scrubbed her pussy clean, pausing for a moment to lean down and sniff it. It smelled pretty good for a feral pussy, he thought. Pleasant. Like he remembered pussy smelling, in the good old days. Nobody had told the pussy that civilization has died, he thought. It's still going on, just being pussy. Good thing, that.

All that notwithstanding, she was beautiful, he realized. Even if he'd just been allowed a single glimpse of her face, he'd have thought she was beautiful. Her skin was dark and smooth, and positively glowed, in spite of or possibly due to her living outdoors in the elements. Her eyelashes were long and would have cost hundreds, if you could buy them made that well. He remembered her eyes were brown, and he had hungered to see them open again. Black pupils and brown eyes, a good combination, he thought. It just looked like a dark ocean, to lose yourself in. He knew that most girls didn't like their brown eyes but he hoped this one did. Brown eyes were beautiful, to him.
   
Anyway. His mind returned to the present. She was still looking at him like she was afraid of him. Like she'd stab him if she had her knife. He wondered if she was mad at being naked, at it being so obvious that he had stripped her down.

"Girl," he said, thinking. "I didn't touch you, when you were out cold. I could have, but I didn't. Like I said, I'm an old man. I'm over that, now. You just lay there until you recover. Are you hungry?"

That was true, he hadn't touched any more than necessary to clean her. He'd sniffed her, true, but he hadn't touched her. And he wasn't that over it, not really. Seeing her naked and examining her as closely as he did when he washed her had awoken his libido. But, she didn't have to know that. He wasn't going to slobber over her... at least not when she was awake.

He had carefully cut up a ragged blanket he had found, and made bandages for her leg. The bite marks no longer looked that bad after he washed them. Still... infection, he thought. In the old days infection was fairly easily controlled. These days, infection killed people.

"Girl," he said, leaning down towards her, and speaking slowly, "are you hungry?"

She drew back her arm as if she was going to claw his face then seemed to relax. She lay her hands in her lap almost meekly. She looked at him for a long time and he searched her face for some kind of a message in her eyes.

"Yes," she spoke plainly and clearly. She just said yes. So much time had passed that he had to think for a moment to remember the question she'd replied to. Ah yes, he'd asked her if she was hungry.

He went to the fireplace, and pulled some of the wild potatoes from the flames. Sadly, he had no butter, but he did have salt. He put some dog jerky and some rabbit meat on the plate with the potato and presented it to her. She took it with trembling hands and wolfed it down, even eating the potato skins. Her eyes never left him. He got up again and fetched her a plastic cup with some fresh water in it. She had devoured all the food by then, and she handed the plate back to him. He handed her two of the antibiotics and she just stared at them.

"Medicine," he said, "antibiotics, for your leg."

He motioned for her to put them in her mouth and she did.

"Swallow them whole, don't chew," he said. She nodded, taking a drink.

An hour passed. They sat in silence by the fire. The next word she spoke was simple and to the point.

"Toilet."

He took a burning stick from the fire and led her outside into the blackness of the night, his hand on the automatic. All was peaceful. He took her around the house to the privy, and used the flame from the burning stick to check for critters and light a candle before he stepped aside and let her enter. He showed her the water bucket and the rags he'd collected and stepped out. He waited for her to finish, and she finally emerged. She was clutching a mostly toothless hairbrush she'd found. He led her back to the house. They resumed their quiet communion, before the fireplace. She began to brush her hair.

"Girl," he said, "what's your name? What do I call you?"

She was silent. He waited her out, but that one she didn't answer. Well, he thought, Girl it is, then. They sat in the dimness of the fireplace and he realized at last that she was asleep, halfway sitting up in the recliner she had moved to. He found another blanket and spread it over her, checked the door and went up to the loft.


Chapter V


Her fever had broke by the next day, but she didn't seem to want to stir that morning, still exhausted. He cautiously checked her leg, beneath the bandages, and was pleased to see it was healing up nicely. He left her and checked his snares, bringing back two squirrels and a rabbit. He was proud of the squirrels, squirrels were damn hard to catch, they were so clever. He skinned them outside, and went inside to cook them. She was gone. He was disappointed, wishing she would have stayed longer, at least until she had recovered a little better. And she was good company. Plus he had a million questions to ask her. He put the squirrels on to fry and sat, building the fire back up. He planned on digging on his tunnel some today, now that he had a shovel.

The door creaked, and he jumped, yanking the .45 out from his belt. She stared at it, and at him, and he put the gun back, embarrassed. She had two cans in her hand, and, of all things, a can opener.

"You shouldn't be up," he told her. "You are still sick." She shook her head, slowly and carefully this time. She put the cans on the counter-top, and climbed back into the recliner. She had his spare pair of pants on, he noticed. And a cord she'd found somewhere for a belt. She was resourceful. And she'd obviously been through his stuff, if she'd gone up into the loft and found his pants. He didn't mind, her pair was just rags, now. He wished he had a pair that fit her better. She had put her shirt back on, as filthy as it was. He climbed into the loft, and picked out a nice flannel shirt from his supply of four. He returned.

"Put this on and I'll wash your shirt," he told her and left, going back outside. When he returned a few minutes later she mutely handed him her shirt and he built the fire up under the hot water bucket.

After he had washed her shirt he took it outside and spread it out to dry. There was still plenty of sun left. He puttered around a while and spent two hours digging on his tunnel. The tunnel was coming along nicely, but it was going to be a hell of a lot of digging. At this stage it was just a trench, but when he got it done, got it dug out into the trees somewhere, he'd put a wooden roof on it, and then cover it with dirt. To provide for a roof, a few inches of dirt, and still be able to crawl through it meant he had to dig it pretty deep, though. He grew tired and went back into the house. He realized he was anxious to see her and to talk to her. He was anxious for her company. You idiot, he told himself. Don't get used to her. She's probably only here until she gets well, if that long. Don't make something of this that it's not.

She sat before the fire, wide-awake, bright-eyed. She dressed out nicely, he thought. And her hair looked much better since she'd brushed all the sticks and twigs out of it. Her hair floated in the still air of the room, standing up and out because of static electricity. Her whole body, to him, seemed to crackle and sizzle. She's hot, he thought. To him, she was. She watched him in silence as he bustled around, putting more water on to boil, and pumping water to fill the pitcher.

"Murder some," she said, and he looked at her, puzzled.

"What?" he said, and she looked at him like he was an idiot.

"Medicine," she said it better the second time, though.

"Ah yes," he said, and fetched the pill bottle. He counted out two and gave them to her and got her a cup of water.

"Where?" she said.

"Where what?" he said, when it became apparent that was all she was going to say. "Where did I get the pills?"

She nodded her head.

"I found them long ago in a burned-out drugstore, shortly after the convulsion."

She nodded again. He wondered if she had any idea what he was talking about. She was young enough that she probably didn't remember any life before the Fall. Maybe she remembered the chaos of the convulsions, but not life before.

They sat in silence before the fire. The sun set and darkness fell. Clipper got up and barred the door and made sure the plugs were in the peepholes in the newly blocked windows. The darkness was enemy as well as friend. When he was outdoors, creeping around and sneaking up on game or enemies, it was friend. When he was inside, trying to hold onto some semblance of a normal life, it was enemy.

He returned to the fire and sat beside her. She was within an arms reach of him, but the look on her face put her a million miles away. He wondered what she was thinking of. He wondered what had happened to her family. He wondered if she missed them.

"Girl," he said, and she slowly turned from the fire and regarded him. He didn't really know what to ask her. Well, he knew what, he didn't know how, though. He realized that she had only said about five words to him in the two days that she'd been there.

"Girl. Where are your people?" he asked. She just stared at him silently.

The minutes stretched. He opened his mouth to tell her, forget it, it doesn't matter, when she spoke at last.

"Dead," she said. That was it. Word count equals six, he thought.

"Sorry to hear," he said, and they sat in silence a while longer.

"How long have you been out here? Did you spend the winter out here?" he asked, one of his big curiosities about her.

The minutes stretched, again. He waited her out now that he knew her style.

She spoke, and he was gratified. She doubled her word count.

"Just a while. Stayed with... people."

"Your family?"

"No."

"What happened to them?" he asked.

"Dead."

Shit. Death seemed to follow her... or lead her. He hoped she wouldn't be telling someone else about him someday with that same quick terse word.

"Girl. Stay here until you get better. Until your leg heals. You can stay as long as you like. I won't bother you, I promise. Just stay here until you get better."

She just stared at him. He wondered if she was seriously considering what he said. He was surprised at himself, at how badly he wanted her to stay. He would miss her company if she left. He'd miss her one-word sentences, and her solemn gaze.

He got up and began fixing dinner. He opened one of the label-less cans she'd brought. Sweet potatoes. He warmed them up and fixed her a plate and one for himself. They sat before the fire and ate. Two hours later he crawled up into the loft. He'd shown her the hot water in the bucket and the rag he used to bathe with. She hadn't spoken another word the whole evening, and she just nodded then at the bath demo. After that she just sat and stared into the fire. She's good company, though, he thought. She's good for me.

That night after he'd climbed into the loft he heard her moving around downstairs. He fought with his conscience and finally peeked down out of the loft to see her bathing herself. She took his breath away. In the pale glow of the fireplace, she slowly scrubbed her naked body as he spied on her. How sad, he thought, that she's in shadow to me. He wished the fire was underneath him so he could see the illuminated side of her. She was still incredibly beautiful to him. She was the most beautiful thing he'd seen since... hell, since the Fall. Maybe before. Maybe ever. Maybe, hell. Most definitely. Her beauty was staggering to him, stupendous. And she didn't seem to realize she was beautiful either.

He realized he felt alive again, he felt a purpose again. He felt like he had a reason to live, again. Even if it was just to catch a glimpse of this every now and then, his life now had meaning.


                              --==+==--


The next day she put her huge boots on and followed him as he hunted. She was good in the woods, quiet and quick. She carried the rabbit he'd shot. How will I ever go back to being alone? he wondered sadly. I cannot allow this girl to grow on me. I might only have her a few more days, if that.

They were following some tracks beside a creek, when he heard something growl. He froze, as she did also close behind him. He pulled his bow back until the pull let off. He was ready to shoot. It sounded like a dog to him. He saw the dog beneath a large bush. It growled again at him and he aimed carefully for its heart.

Girl spoke from behind him, loudly, startling him. "Don't. Puppies."

Shit. She probably didn't realize how tender puppy meat was, he thought. But, she was right. He couldn't kill a mother with puppies. He looked closer at the dog and decided it was some kind of German Shepherd mix. How I'd like to have a dog like that, he thought. A nice big scary looking dog.

He reached for the rabbit and she gave it to him. He tossed it to the dog and they turned and left, to hunt more rabbits.


Chapter VI


The next day they were close to where they'd seen the dog. Girl was carrying two squirrels by then, and Clipper took one from her and they searched for the dog. They finally found her in a hollow under a log with a handful of puppies squirming around and clustering under her for safety. Clipper tossed the dog the squirrel and they left her alone. As they walked away he wondered if the girl saw any similarity between this situation and how he had gotten friendly with her.

On the fourth day, when they fed her, the dog picked up her squirrel and followed them. When it became apparent she was going home with them, Clipper and Girl slowed and the three of them, followed by six or seven tumbling, squealing puppies, made their way through the woods back to the cabin. Girl played with puppies while Clipper chopped a hole in a large wooden packing crate, and made the dogs a house. He placed the doghouse in front of the cabin, so the dog could greet visitors. Greet them, or bite them. Whatever. He was pleased to now have a dog. A whole pack of them. He got them a pan for a water bowl, and filled it. The dog didn't want to be touched but he figured after a few days she'd get more comfortable around them both. Clipper was pleased with the days work.

That night he sat before the fire with Girl in the recliner. She stared into the fire and he also watched the fire, and her. Mostly her. She met his eye on occasion, finally raising an eyebrow at him. He laughed.

"Girl. What do you wanna name your dog?"

She turned back to the fire. The minutes stretched. She does this every time, he thought. For the hundredth time he wondered if she was a little slow ... or if she was just really thoughtful. Just when he thought she wasn't going to answer, she said one word. "Fang."

So. Fang it was. The puppies would be harder to name and keep straight, there were seven of them.


                              --==+==--


The dog paid for itself within a week. That evening, just minutes before sunset, Clipper and Girl were relaxing in front of the fire, as they always did. As we've done for almost two weeks now, Clipper mused. Suddenly, outside, he heard Fang growl loudly and begin to bark. He knew the sounds dogs made and he knew that this was no ordinary bark. He knew that someone or something was out there.

"Girl," he said, picking the automatic up from the table, where he usually left it on evenings. "Have you ever shot one of these before?"

"No," she said instantly, gratifying him with her speed. Shit, though. She was defenseless. He stuck the .45 into his belt and ran to the counter-top and handed her back her original butcher knife. He grabbed his bow, with a ten broad-heads in the clips, all the arrows that he had.

"Stay here," he told her. She looked frightened. He wanted to grab her and hold her, but he went to the door and cracked it open. The dog was standing before it, growling, her hair bristling. The puppies were nowhere to be seen.

Clipper slid out the door, careful of his bow. The dog moved slightly to allow him out. She didn't even look at him. She was watching something in the woods, something to the north slightly, as she growled. He made out a shape that he thought to be a person. He had already picked an arrow from the clips, and fitted it, and he drew the bow, aiming off to the side, wanting the person to see it, to see that he was ready. He just hoped to hell that they didn't have a gun.

"You need to move on," he said loudly, "I can't control this dog much longer."

"We got a baby," a man said, plaintively. "Help us. We ain't got no food."

What the hell were they doing this far off the road with a baby? Jesus, he thought. Why me? Why us? Why now?

"We are pretty poor," he replied. "We don't really have nothing."

"You got more than us, you got a place to stay," said the man. He came out from beneath the trees. A woman in a long dress followed him carrying a bundle up at her chest. Damn, thought Clipper. How can I shoot, now, with a baby in the mix?

The man approached, and stopped maybe fifty feet away. The dog was quivering, growling deep in her throat. Clipper knew he'd just have to say one word, and the dog would charge the man and attack. He just didn't know what that word was, unfortunately.

The man approached a little closer. Maybe thirty feet away he stopped. Some kind of wailing sound came from the woman or the baby. The dog took a few steps towards the man.

"I don't wanna get bit," the man said. "I just want some food for the baby. You got any milk?"

The dog barked, a long screaming bark, unlike anything Clipper had ever heard. The dog charged at the man, and the man drew his arm back like he was going to throw something. Clipper remembered Dan Deemer doing that, right before he put a knife in a man's throat from twenty feet away. He threw himself violently to the side, and the knife thunked into the door, just inches from his side. The man had another knife out by then, and drew back to throw at Fang, who was at his feet, barking wildly. Clipper shot the man with a broad-head, putting it right into his chest. The man stumbled backwards and fell. Clipper knew he was as good as dead.

Clipper turned to the woman, already formulating an apology for shooting her man. Without conscious thought and purely out of habit he had nocked a new arrow and was drawing the bow when he looked the woman in the face. He was shocked to see the woman throw the baby to the ground and draw her arm back to throw. Woman? It was a man too, the cloth over his head had fallen away. It was a goddam man, wearing a blanket to look like a skirt. The man's knife flew harmlessly off to the side as Clipper's arrow slammed home in his chest. He stood, breathing in gasps as the dog turned and trotted back to her house to check on her puppies. He walked towards the two bodies, relieved that he wasn't going to have to take care of a baby. Sure enough, the baby was just a bundle of clothes. Damn. The bastards. The goddam knife-throwing fake-baby bastards. He hated them all the more for making him kill them.

He looked back at the cabin. Girl was peeking out the door, fear plain on her face. He waved at her, and waved her back inside. No telling if these guys have friends, he thought, though he realized the dog would have stayed on guard if others were around. He retrieved his arrows, pushing them through, unscrewing the points, and then pulling the shafts back out. It was hard work, and gory. Pushing an arrow through skin and gristle and muscle is hard, almost impossible, at times. He had to use the case of his knife to push on the arrows with. Bows are not for the squeamish, he reminded himself. He picked up the knives and searched the bodies for more weapons, finding over a dozen more knives. He gathered up the pack of clothes, and went back inside to Girl, and the safety of the cabin. The woods felt dangerous to him that night.

They were up late just in case the men had friends in the area. Nobody bothered them and Clipper finally locked the place down and they went to bed. Girl climbed the ladder after him and went to the bed at the back end of the loft. He went back down and got her blankets and covered her. She nodded her thanks to him in the dim light and he went to his own bed.


                              --==+==--


The next morning Clipper spent a few hours digging in the hard soil a few hundred yards behind the cabin. He dragged the two corpses back and dumped them into the hole. He didn't even bother to put up a cross or anything. Someday he'd dig one of them back up, and retrieve a skull to hang over the door, to ward off troublemakers. Nothing says "keep away" like a skull over the door.

Girl seemed troubled and she had a hard time leaving the safety of the cabin. She finally came out and played with the puppies. Clipper took her into the woods and collected a brace of squirrels from his snares to feed the dog. He felt like he owed the dog, big time. The dog had worked out perfectly, he thought. If they hadn't had the dog, the men would have been at the door before they knew they had company. Bad company.


                              --==+==--


"Darlin'," that night, he felt like he just had to talk to Girl about what had happened. About what she might face, out there. If she went back out there by herself.

She regarded him with a puzzled, almost petulant took on her face. Darling was probably a poor choice of words with her, he thought, after all my promises about leaving her alone and how sexless I am. He told himself to remember that, and call her things that sounded a little less sexually charged.

"Girl. I'm sorry." He started again. She nodded. "That's the world, Girl. That's what's gonna happen, more often than not, when people show up. I don't know what experiences you've had, what you're used to, but I've seen a lot of that. People are bad, now. Life is rough and hard. Some people can survive like we do, but some people kill to survive. Kill, and take. That's what those guys were here for. To take."

She nodded, staring into his face somberly. He gazed into her fabulous brown eyes, and just totally lost focus. He brought himself back with a start.

"I just want you to realize that, and realize you can stay with me as long as you want to. I like having you here. Life is easier with two. The more the merrier, in fact. I don't want you to get out there, and have something happen to you. Girls have a hard time in this world. They have to make choices, and often the options are not ... good, not friendly ... know what I mean?"

She regarded him for a while, and then solemnly nodded her head again. He wondered if she really did. He wondered for the millionth time how her life had gone up until a few months ago. If her people had been able to protect her from the chaos. Sometimes she adapted so well he thought that maybe she'd had a hard life so far, that she'd had to learn how to adapt to change. Someday, maybe she would tell him. Someday, if he could just hold onto her. If she would just talk, dammit.

That night she followed him into the loft again. Good, he thought to himself, good. He felt better with her behind him. They'll have to go through me first, he thought.


                              --==+==--


The next day, he nailed a board to a tree, and began teaching her how to throw knives. It was made difficult by the fact that he didn't really know how to do it very well himself, but by afternoon he felt that they'd made pretty good progress. She could stick a knife in the board more often than not, and now she just needed to work on her aim. Most of the knives he'd taken from the men were throwing knives, and some of them were well balanced and looked expensive.

Also, there was the pack of clothes the men had involuntarily donated to the cause. Two pairs of jeans were in it, and they fit Girl better than his pair had. The man pretending to be a woman had had a small build. When he had unwrapped the bundle and showed Girl the jeans, she had just instantly slid her pants, well his pants, actually, she'd just slid the pants she'd had on down her legs and stood there bottomless for a moment while she tried them on. He was surprised and shocked at how uninhibited she was, as gun-shy as she'd seemed to be earlier. She just didn't seem to think anything about it now. He felt that familiar twinge from long ago in his pants when she picked up one leg and then the other to put on the jeans and he glimpsed her cute fuzzy little pussy. Oh, he thought, don't do this to me, don't give me hope. He had to turn away and let her try on the other pair.

The men also had some money, the new money, Chinese gold stuff. It was useless, out here in the wild, of course, and Clipper gave it to Girl. She regarded it with interest, and put the tiny coins in her pocket. He laughed at her silently. We're rich, he thought. Whoopee.


                              --==+==--


Two days later, he watched her throw. She was damn good by now, way better than him. He'd drawn a circle on the board, and she could get the knife in it, or on the line every time. He gave her the belt that the first man had worn, and punched a new hole in it so it fit her. It had holsters on it for four knives, and she picked out her four favorites and hid it beneath her shirt. Well, his shirt, she was still wearing his flannel shirt. He didn't mind.

They ranged further and further on their hunts. He didn't want to hunt and fish the land out and he knew winter was less than five months away. Winter came early, at this altitude. He was getting more and more anxious for some bigger game, a deer or a pig or something. They would need lots of jerky to make it through the winter. And ham would just be too cool, he thought. A nice fat wild pig. Yeah. They descended further and further down the mountain now, when they hunted.

Clipper finally got his deer, one sunny morning. It was a stag, a huge one, and he put an arrow into its side from thirty feet away. They chased it halfway down the mountain before it fell, and he field dressed it, and built a travois to haul it home. Girl helped, and held his bow for him as he pulled.

He thought again that he needed to teach her the bow. The bow, and the gun. She hadn't been around guns, he guessed, since she had told him that time she didn't know how to use the pistol, that day the men showed up. He wished he had more than one box of bullets. He let her dry fire it a few times, conscious of firing pin damage, but she still needed to actually shoot it to understand it. And, he thought, we need to be far away from home when she shoots it. No sense in attracting attention.

They got the deer home, and spent the next two days working the meat. He began an industrial-scale jerky operation. He wanted another deer or two. But this was a good start.


Chapter VII


One day, they were far down the mountain, hunting. Suddenly they came out into a clearing, and there, right before them, was a small town. Clipper froze, and Girl copied him perfectly. They backed up a bit into the brush, and just watched for a while. Finally a person appeared, and walked down the paved street to what looked like a general store. It even said "General Store" on it. Damn, he thought. Damn.

"Girl," he said. "You still got that money in your pants?"

She nodded, and dug for it. He motioned her to leave it there for now.

"Girl. We're going shopping. Be very careful and follow me close. Watch my back and I'll watch yours, okay?"

She nodded again. They stood and casually walked the quarter of a mile into the town. Nobody seemed to be stirring. Nobody noticed them or seemed to care if they did.

They stepped up onto the boardwalk and went into the store. A bell on the door rang. A child, a young boy was playing in the corner, and he just stared at them. A middle aged man came out from a door and spoke.

"Kin I halp yew?" the man said in mountainese. Clipper nodded.

"Just looking for some staples," he said. "Salt, lots of salt, cheese, butter, cooking oil, or maybe some shortening. And some candles."

"I got all that," said the man, motioning here and there in the store.

They went up and down the aisles and Girl helped Clipper pick out stuff. The prices were incomprehensible to him, he'd never used the new money before, and he didn't understand it. He'd always just bartered, whether goods or labor. Girl pointed to a price on a jar, shook her head and put it back. Damn, he thought, she understands the new money? Interesting.

He had no idea if they had enough to pay for even one thing, but Girl assured him they were fine. He bravely took his choices to the register. The man rang it up, and said a number. Girl dug in her pants, and presented the man with a single coin, one of the larger ones. He placed it on the register, while he made change. Damn, thought Clipper, we even get money back? How cool. The man placed their purchases in a crumpled paper sack and stood back, folding his arms.

"Whar yew folks frum?" the man said, now deciding to be friendly. Clipper remembered he probably looked a bit fearsome with a few months of beard and a bow on his back.

"We live on the other side of the mountain," he said, carefully lying. "The old Ramstead place."

The man nodded like he knew. Like the place even existed.

"We never been here before," Clipper said. "Is there a restaurant in town? A diner?"

"Hell yeah," the man said. "Pete Sinclair's place, just down the street."

"Thank you. Thank you greatly," Clipper said, bowing slightly, and they left the store. They found the diner and sat, amid a gaggle of townspeople, and ordered a nice home-style dinner. Clipper showed Girl the menu first, to be sure they still had enough to pay. She seemed satisfied that they could order anything on the menu and pay for it. Damn, thought Clipper, those bad guys did us a favor. They gave us a pretty good stash of dough.

The food arrived. They ate, and Clipper laughed at Girl, telling her to slow down. It was good stuff. They had pie, even, when they were done. Clipper stretched and started to stand. A shadow fell over the table and he looked up. Two men stood before him. Shit, he thought. Now what?

"Nice bow you got there," the older man said, "that a Crafty?"

"Yeah," said Clipper, picking it up and letting the man examine it.

"Wanna sell it?" the man asked.

"Sorry, I have to have it. You understand. It's our life, out there," said Clipper.

"Yes, I understand. Keep me in mind."

"Sure, sure, I will."

"Where you folks from? Never seen you 'round here before."

"The old Ramstead place, on the other side of the mountain." Clipper was glad he could remember what he'd told the shopkeeper. He knew that it would be discussed by the whole town, before long. For his credibility, he knew his stories needed to match up. Strangers were news, and they were strangers.

"What's the name of this town?" Clipper asked the man.

"Devonsville," the man replied. Clipper nodded. He remembered the name from long ago.

The other man spoke. "You ever see the law on your side?"

"Peacekeepers?" Clipper asked, and the man nodded. "No, haven't seen one... hell, since I went down to Skipps. Months ago."

"Good, good," the man nodded. "We got a county sheriff a few miles down, we don't need no steenkin' Peacekeepers 'round here."

"Yeah," said Clipper. They all seemed to run out of things to talk about and he motioned for Girl to stand and prepare to leave.

The older man turned back. "This your daughter?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Clipper, "that's my girl."


                              --==+==--


They left the paved street, and headed into the woods. He went to the West, this time, not wanting to give anybody any idea where they were from. His last glimpse of the town showed him the two men, standing outside the diner and watching them depart. He knew the people would be curious about them. Like he'd said, strangers were news. Anything in a little town like that was news. He knew, he'd lived in small towns before. He guessed three or four hundred people lived here, judging by the number of houses he saw. And the people must have felt pretty safe, he didn't see any high fences or barbed wire. Well, this was the mountains, far from so-called civilization. Good.

They made it back home at last and Clipper put away the stuff they'd bought. Life would be much easier with a store in reach, although he didn't know what they would do when the money ran out. They still had a pretty good amount of money, though.

That night, they talked. He was pleased that Girl was loosening up somewhat, coming out of her shell. Most of her answers were still just one word but they carried out a reasonable conversation without those ten-minute gaps while she stared into the crackling fire.

She had finally gotten all the puppies named, a major undertaking. She told him a little about her life before, about going to school even. He was impressed, and asked her if she could read. She just stared at him like he was an idiot and said, "'course."

"Girl. Not everyone gets to learn to read. It's a dying art, in this area, I'm sure." He wondered if the town had a school. He'd seen kids, the kid in the store, and at the diner. He wondered if he should try to get Girl back in school.

Oh, Jeezus, he thought. Look what you're doing here. Yes, quite a little scene of domestic tranquility. You are treating her just like your daughter. You said she was your daughter today, and now you're acting just like it. Jeezus. Do not let this girl grow on you, any more. You have no idea what she's going to do, tomorrow or a year from now. A year from now she might just be a fuzzy memory. A week from now, she might be. She is not yours. She does not belong to you. Do not let her into your head like this.

He almost cried, though, thinking of her leaving. He was, once again, shocked at how badly he wanted her to stay. He wanted her to stay forever. He wanted her to be safe with him. He knew he could protect her as well as anybody. He wondered if he could even give her some semblance of happiness, of a normal life. Whatever that was, nowadays.

"Girl," he said, turning to her. She looked at him. "Did you hear me tell that man today that you are my daughter? Does that bother you, to think of it like that?"

She nodded immediately, without having to think about it. Shit. It bothered her? Why?

He laughed. "Why does that bother you?"

She did it again, she just sat there for the longest time. He wondered if she'd ever speak. He waited her out, though.

She turned back from the fire, and looked at him. The one word she said shocked him to his core, to the deepest parts of his being.

"Wife."

He just sat there, stunned. What did she mean? Did she want him to just tell the man she was his wife? Did she just want them to believe that? Or is that what she really wanted? He wanted badly to ask her, but he felt like he was on shaky ground. Thin ice. He wanted to know, but he didn't want to know.

They sat there for another hour, and then went to bed.


Chapter VIII


She came to him, that night. In the smoky, dusty, almost smothering warmth of the attic loft, she left her bed, and climbed in with him, waking him from a deep slumber. He froze, realizing instantly what was happening. She curled up and nestled beneath his arm, settling in, finally quiet. His every sense was attuned to her, he was painfully aware of her every move, every noise... every smell. At last he heard her gentle, even breathing, and realized that she was asleep. That was it? He was both disappointed and relieved. Sure, he thought, crawl right in. You can sleep with me anytime. He carefully put his arm around her warm, soft body, and hugged her to him. He loved her more in that instant than he'd ever loved anybody or anything, before the Fall or after. Shit, he thought, don't let me lose this. Don't let her leave, or let anything happen to her. If you are there, if you exist, oh great gaseous invertebrate, give me this, this last grasp of life, of youth. Let me hold onto her, let me hold her in my arms every night until I die. Give me this, sweet jesus, just give me this.

The next morning, it was just like nothing had happened. They had a nice jerky breakfast, and Clipper dug on his tunnel for an hour. They went hunting, passing time until early afternoon. Clipper, to his great pleasure, shot another deer, a doe this time. They dragged it back home. Clipper felt they were fixed up for the winter now. He'd always be able to get rabbits and squirrels, too, of course. He still wanted that pig, though.

A week later found them exploring up a bit higher, near the tree line. They did have neighbors, he realized. Maybe three miles to the East and half a mile higher up a large stone house stood. Smoke was pouring from the chimney. They spied on it from a half a mile away and didn't get any closer. He didn't want to get shot. A house like that, he figured, had guns. And dogs. The house and the neighboring barns and out buildings made it look like wealthy people lived there. Nowadays, wealth was possessions, food and livestock. These people even had cows, for god's sake. He hungered for a taste of fresh milk. If they had all this, they had the means of protecting it, though. He pulled Girl back into the woods, and they went on. He fixed the location of the place on the mental map of the mountain he was making in his head.


                              --==+==--


Clipper kicked himself later, at the ease with which they were ambushed. He was ten feet in front of Girl, headed along a ridge, when, maybe twenty feet in front of him a man stepped out from behind a tree and pointed a rifle at him. A gaunt, bony motherfucker. But he had a gun. Clipper had his bow down, but he had an arrow nocked. As he let himself fall to the side he yanked it back and fired from the hip, and to his satisfaction saw the arrow suddenly sprout from the man's waist. The man screamed a long high scream. Clipper turned to figure out where Girl was, and saw her already huddled on the ground. And, shit. Behind her were two more men, close behind, coming fast and hard. One was swinging a machete, and the other was brandishing an ax. Shit, he thought, fumbling for another arrow as he sat on the ground. Shit.

He knew he couldn't shoot from the ground, the bow was too long. He wasted a valuable second or two scissoring himself to his feet, feeling muscles and joints scream in protest. He knew he would never make it. The men were less than fifteen feet away, running hard.

Girl was just about back to her feet by now, also. She had seen him see the men behind her, and turned to face them. He saw her arm swing out in a long arc, and a man screamed and tumbled as her knife buried itself in his eye socket. Holy shit! Thought Clipper, impressed. The girl picks up quick! Jeezus!

The third man froze, after that. He knew it was over. He could have taken one of them out, but the other would get him. He opened his fingers, and the ax dropped to the ground. He slowly raised his hands up into the air, the universal symbol of surrender. Clipper had his second arrow ready, and his bow pulled back by then. All he had to do was relax his fingers slightly, and the man would die. The man knew it.

Clipper was pissed off. Why did these dumb fucks try this shit? Why were so many people forcing him to kill them? Should he let this man live? To come back later and cause trouble, maybe set their cabin on fire as they slept? Shit, shit.

"You stupid motherfucker," he said. The man didn't move or reply.

"Turn around and run," Clipper said. "I'm going to count to five, and shoot. If you're lucky and fast you'll live. One."

The man wheeled and took off down the mountain. Clipper looked at Girl, standing ten feet from him, still panting. She nodded her head. He took that to mean that she was okay with it, whatever he did.

The man was a pretty good distance away by five. Clipper aimed well above him, taking his time, figuring it was six or maybe even seven by then, and released the arrow. It flew high, and curved back down to earth, and to his great surprise slammed into the middle of the man's back. The man tumbled head over heels a few times, and crumpled to the ground. Shit. The fates had spoken. He wasn't even that good of a shot. Not at that distance anyway. Damn.

Clipper turned to the first man, who was writhing in agony on the ground, his gun forgotten. The arrow had gone completely through his waist, coming out on the far side. Clipper approached, with another arrow nocked. He didn't want to just kill the man in cold blood, looking him in the face. He was already feeling bad about the running man, shooting him in the back. He looked at the man on the ground. He'd already lost a lot of blood. Those broad-heads cut pretty severely, on the way in. He figured the man would be dead soon, just from blood loss. The gun was on the ground, a dozen feet away, and he recovered it, his eyes never leaving the man. The man grimaced at him, but he didn't beg. He just lay there, waiting for the killing stroke.

"You're a dead man," he told the guy on the ground. "Good luck in hell, fucker."

The gun was a .22, a Remington pump, with a scope attached. A goddam .22. They were gonna rob me, maybe kill me, with a .22? Of course a .22 could kill a man, but it wouldn't really be my weapon of choice, he thought. Shit. He looked the man over, as he lay, panting on the ground. He didn't look like he had anything else worth taking. He'd come back tomorrow, and search his body for bullets. But he didn't want to touch him, now, while the man was still alive. On impulse, he jacked the rifle. It wasn't loaded. The dumb fucks hadn't even had bullets, he thought in disgust. Jeezus. No sense in coming back tomorrow, then. He'd come back in a day or two and get his arrows, though.

He searched the other two men, and came away with a few more knives, the ax, and the machete. He put his foot on the second man's face, and pulled Girl's knife out, while she stood far away and looked off into space. It was gruesome work. She had thrown hard. They somberly tramped back home, backtracking a few times, checking to see if they were being followed. Nothing. Good.

That evening they sat in front of the fire, in silence. Girl seemed distraught, or upset, and he figured it was because she'd killed a man. His first had bothered him, too, he remembered stumbling outside and vomiting later, seeing the frightened look on the dying man's face over and over in his mind. He felt for her. But he wanted her to know that he was proud of her, too, and how well she'd handled herself.

"Girl," he finally said. She eventually looked at him. "Girl, you did good today. You saved my life. There's no way I'd have gotten another arrow off, before those guys were on us. You saved my life, and your own. Thank you." He knew those guys wouldn't have actually killed her... not right away. They might have fucked her to death, though. Or probably just fucked her and slit her throat and walked away.

Two tears streaked down her cheek, and she just stared at him. He opened his arms, and she flew to him and crashed into his body. He hugged her as she cried. She didn't cry for long. She hiccuped a few times, and then she was done. He held her on his lap, in front of the fire. She was soft and warm and smelled good. He was happy.


                              --==+==--


The next day he stripped the rifle down, and cleaned it as best he could with boiling water. It was filthy, and would not have fired in the condition it was in. Pumps were bad about having to be clean; shotguns were bad but rifles  were worse. And he had no way to clean the bore, unfortunately. He idly wondered if the general store in Devonsville might have a cleaning kit, for a .22. A highly illegal .22. He'd never have the nerve to ask. He needed to go back, at least, for some machine oil for the gun. He could use cooking oil, but it would gum up pretty quickly. He was glad to get the gun, though. It would make surviving the winter much easier. He had removed the fragile scope, since it looked like a cheap one, anyway. He much preferred iron sights, especially since a .22 was a fairly short range weapon.

They passed the next month simply surviving. Clipper finally got his pig, way way down the mountain, and it was a two-day chore just getting it home. It was a huge son-of-a-bitch, and he figured it would feed them the next two winters, if he could get all the meat cured, smoked, and put away. He was through with deer until next year. He still hunted rabbits and squirrels to feed the dogs with and that required a lot of meat since the puppies were now weaned.


Chapter IX


The dogs. There was a problem. They actually had too many dogs. Eight, counting the mother. Clipper had an idea one night, and the next day he had a long talk with Girl about the dogs. He still considered them her dogs since she had spoken to spare their lives.

That morning they made four leashes and Girl picked out four of the puppies. That was chaos, four dogs on the leash for the first time. She got them into some kind of order, Clipper grabbed his bow, and they sat off for Devonsville.

They arrived shortly after noon and walked to the general store. Clipper went inside while Girl waited outside with the dogs. The man was certainly interested and bought one of the puppies within moments of seeing them. Clipper took his money, pleased. Girl had told him what she thought the dogs were worth, and the guy gave him that price immediately. The man sent them down to the diner, with instructions to look for a man named Tom Shire. They walked down the street.

The guy at the counter pointed out Tom Shire to Clipper, and he waited for the man to finish eating before disturbing him. Shire was young and strong-looking, maybe in his late twenties. The two of them went outside where Girl was waiting with the dogs. Tom bought all three of them and seemed to be pleased with them.

"I've got over a hundred dogs in my barn," Mr. Shire told them, "if you ever need a dog, come see me."

Clipper nodded. He expected to be running his own dog factory here in a little while. They'd saved three females and one male. He asked Mr. Shire about breeding his puppies, in a few months, and received assurances that it would be no problem. Good, good.

They had lunch at the diner, and spent some money at the store. Clipper got his machine oil, and he bought three welding rods that he could break the flux off of and then use to push a rag down the bore of the rifle. On impulse, he dragged Girl over to the clothing department and finally got her a pair of jeans that fit and a couple of shirts. And, best of all, a pair of nice hiking boots, so she could get out of those heavy wader things she was wearing. She was pleased and he was, also.

They departed for home, carrying all their loot. Clipper remembered they'd headed West last time, and he followed that path again, still not wanting to give anyone clues about where they lived. That night he scrambled up some of the eggs he'd bought with potatoes and they had a dinner as fine as the lunch they'd had at the diner.

They settled in front of the fire after the sun had set and spent the rest of the evening in silent repose. His mind wandered. Girl was still sleeping with him every night, to his great pleasure. He loved wrapping his arms around her slender body and falling asleep with her breath in his face. He hadn't touched her other than that, and that seemed to be the way she wanted it. It was good enough for him, oh, heavens, it was more than good enough for him, just feeling her warmth up against his body was almost more than he could stand at times.

He loved her by now with a desperation, a yearning, something so strong that he couldn't describe it or quantify it. He loved her so much sometimes he almost felt like he wanted to be her. He wanted to melt with her, he wanted their minds and bodies to join and be one. He felt like they were as one at times, as they sat together during the long silent evening, he imagined what she might be thinking. He remembered, every time... he thought, I am going to crawl in bed with her tonight, with this beautiful creature, and wrap my arms around her. I am going to hold her all night. He hungered, at all times, for the feel of her body, and the smell of her.

He wondered, at times, if he could have stood it, if they had sex. If she let him make love to her. He didn't know if he could. It would almost be too much. He wanted this for a while longer, this ... chasteness, this simple togetherness. He felt his relationship with her, at the moment, was mostly cerebral, mostly communion with her. Right now, he thought, he didn't want to sully it with base, gross sex. Not yet. Maybe later he'd feel differently, but not right now. And, he admitted to himself, he was fifty-five years old. He wasn't sure if he could... perform. He sure didn't want that embarrassment. It was just better this way, he thought. He was happy just holding her. He was happier than he'd ever been in his whole life, just holding her. She was his life. That quickly, she was his life.


Chapter X


He trained her with the .45, as well he could without actually letting her fire it. He was planning that, though. He tried to get her used to the feel of it, the heft of it, and the feel of it inside her clothes. He let her sight it and he tried to train her to yank it out of her belt, sight it instinctively on something, and he even let her dry fire it again a few times.

One day he took her, the pistol and rifle, and Bear, her favorite puppy, far, far up the mountain, until he figured they were five miles at least from the cabin. He set up some tin cans he'd brought and took her back ten yards. He went over the things he'd told her again. He made her load and unload the .45 clip, then with her weak hand, even behind her back. He felt like she was ready. She loaded the pistol and stuck it in her belt, and faced the can like a gunfighter. She yanked the gun out, sighted and fired in one smooth motion, and the can flew into the air. He was stunned, just absolutely shocked. He just stared at her with his mouth open. She blew the smoke from the end of the barrel and just looked at him, laughing.

"Girl," he said, finally. "Are you sure you've never shot a gun before?"

She only waited a second or two. She said, "rifle, yes. Pistol, no."

"Shit. Do that again."

She missed the next two times, though. But the fourth shot sent the next can flying downrange. Shit, he thought. That's not bad.

He let her fire all seven rounds. The noise and recoil didn't seem to bother her in the slightest. He had her reload the .45, and stick it in her belt. He brought out the .22.

He wasn't sure of the ammo, it was old enough that the lead on some of the rounds had corroded, but he had her fill the tube with the .22 longs. She pumped the first round in, and sighted in on a tin can. They were back about fifty feet now, maybe more. She hit the can again, first try. She got it about every other shot after that, with the misses kicking up dirt nearby. Damn, he thought. She's good. She's good at every thing she tries. Damn. He was anxious to get her back to the cabin and try her out on the bow.

As they came down the mountain, Girl pointed, and Clipper spied a tiny figure, far in the distance, coming up. Then another. And another. They crouched, and he took Girl off at a ninety degree angle to their path and they lay low behind a brush pile. Twenty minutes later the men crossed in front of them, headed up the mountain. All three of them were armed, with what looked like deer rifles, at least. Shit, thought Clipper, shit. One of them he thought he recognized as the man who had asked to buy his bow in Devonsville, but he couldn't be sure from this distance. He wondered if they were investigating the shots Girl had fired or if they were just hunting. He wasn't going to follow them and find out. Ten minutes later they resumed their trek down the mountain and made it home.


                              --==+==--


Bow training, when it started, went as well as gun training had. He dropped the pull on the bow down for her, and she seemed to adjust very quickly to the feel of it in her hands. She seemed to have very good hand-to-eye coordination. Well, he told himself, she's young. Hand-to-eye is not that great when your hand shakes. Within a week she was nailing the center of the target every time and he began slowly moving her backwards, increasing her range. She was very good, he thought, and he was proud of her. He wished he could find a smaller bow for her and more arrows. He badly needed more arrows.

After a month had gone by, they trekked to the general store in Devonsville yet again. Mr. Peck didn't have any arrows, but he promised to use his contacts down the mountain and ask around. He had had other folks ask for them, too. Yes, he would do that. Good. They ate at the diner, and went back home, with another dozen eggs. Clipper wondered if he could somehow incubate a few fertile eggs, and get some chickens. Have to look into that. Fresh eggs from their own chickens would be nice. And chicken was much better than squirrel, or even rabbit.


Chapter XI


Summer was well underway. Clipper couldn't remember a time in his life when he'd been happier or more comfortable. He knew things weren't that great and he knew it was all because of Girl that it seemed like they were. The last two months had been better than any other part of his life he remembered. Life before the Fall now seemed like a distant memory, a former life or something. Like it was in black and white.

His chickens had been a success. After an inquiry to Mr. Peck, Clipper and Girl had walked home with a dozen fertilized eggs. From that they had ended up with ten chicks, and a trip to Devonsville and two dozen more eggs got them almost twenty more chicks. The original ten chicks were now just about fully-grown chickens and he knew before long they'd have fresh eggs, plus his own chicken making factory. He spent several days building a hen house, nailing it to the back of the house. Girl had to fuss at the dogs to get them to leave the chickens alone but at last all was well.

Every night it was the same. Even in summer, even when it was warm outside, they spent the evening in front of the fire. Of course, this high on the mountain, there was always a slight chill in the air. The fire felt good. Just sitting in front of it felt good. And when Girl sat on his lap, she felt good. Life was good.


                              --==+==--


One night, as they sat, Clipper spoke to Girl about life before the Fall. He could tell by her expressions that she didn't believe a lot of the crap he told her, about television, giant cities, interstate highways, computers, cruise ships, and space stations and just the sheer number of people in the world. It was beyond her understanding, her belief structure. And a lot of it seemed silly to him, looking back.

He told her about his life, before the Fall, and then his life after. Some of it, at least. He'd been up in Canada when the One-Day War hit. When Washington DC had melted in a nuclear fireball... when it became apparent that the Saudis were no longer our allies and the oil dried up. When foreign blood ran in the streets of every major and most minor US cities. The value of the dollar had begun a free-fall. The borders had closed. The Fall had begun.

He'd been up in the Northwest Territories, working on a rig just North of the Arctic Circle. It had taken him four months to hitch, walk and hop trains to the Canada/US border, and another month to find a place to slip across. Canada watched the border very closely, although they were more worried about people sneaking in than out. It had still taken all the stealth Clipper could muster, plus the just plain mountain-man smarts of Deemer to make it back into the country. Canada had seemed very unfriendly, to Clipper. He had learned several good fake accents, just to keep from being branded an outsider.

His life before the Fall seemed dim and distant, like a dream. He wondered constantly what had happened to his daughter. He remembered his last phone conversation with her, the night the Arabs had popped the nuke in DC. They both knew the future was now uncertain and grim. When the connection had finally died in mid-conversation, he took a deep breath, and resigned himself to never seeing or hearing from her again. And so far, he hadn't. He had loved his daughter. She had grown up in a separate world than him and chosen a separate path, but he had loved her. His ex-wife, now... he didn't miss her, much.

He had tried to find his daughter, he really had. He had wasted days, weeks looking for a hint of her. She had lived in Raytown, a suburb of Kansas City, which was almost a ghost town when he went through. He had visited the last address she'd stayed at, finding nothing but an empty house. He'd asked all the neighbors, what few were still there, and found out nothing. She'd just disappeared, with her kids and husband. Gone. Into thin air.

He stared at Girl, and thought of his daughter. How much alike girls were at this age. His daughter, of course, was now much older than Girl. But he had happy memories of having her for the summer, and the things they did together. He felt some of that, with Girl. He had tried to give his daughter a normal life, just like he wished he could do for this girl. Of course, for her, for Girl, a normal life would involve rifles, knives and killing predators, both animal and human. This girl is hard, though, he thought, and will have to get harder if she survives. He wondered if his own daughter had survived this long. It made him sad, but he thought... probably not.

"Girl," he said, "when's your birthday? What year were you born?"

She stared into the fire, her face blank. Finally she spoke, and just damn near made a speech, he thought.

"It's ... it's the other girl... the girl that was in this body before me ... her birthday. Her birthday was April sixth. Two thousand sixteen. I don't have a birthday."

"Ah. I see," he said. "You ... she, I mean. She was born a little before the Fall started." The girl was sixteen, then. Cool.

"Girl. That other girl, the one before ... what was her name? Do you remember?" He was starting to think that this was all a game, a game that her subconscious was playing with her, or a trick it was playing on her, maybe. Or some kind of mental thing to protect her or to keep her sheltered or insulated from something horrible that had happened to her. The whole third person thing. Her frequent distant stare frightened him sometimes, when she seemed a million miles away. He knew that she was pretty level-headed, though, and he tended to question his own sanity much more often than hers. He still wondered all the time just what went through that head of hers.

She sighed, and spoke. "Analisa," she said. "Her name was ... Analisa."

"Oh, Girl..." he was sure she could hear the tears in his voice. "That's a beautiful name."

The silence stretched. Finally he spoke.

"Why did she change her name? Why doesn't she have a name, now?"

The minutes dragged.

"It's a stupid name," said Girl. "A weak name. Clip ... Clipper. Names have power. You should know that. And when people know your name ... they have power over you."

He had no idea what she was talking about. He was sad that she seemed to hate her beautiful name. But, he understood. He understood the whole thing meant something to her, and that magic, magic of her own making, was involved. He was like that about some things too, he thought. Some things that he knew no one else would ever understand. Everyone has that stuff in their life.

He was interested to hear her speak his name. That was the first time, in his memory, that she'd said it. She knows my name, he thought with childish glee. She knows my name. He didn't remember ever telling it to her, although he thought he might have said it in front of her to the Devonsville residents. She was sharp, he thought. She has ways. I'll give her that.

It was silent again. He was willing to just let her be silent, now. She'd talked enough, for one evening. He would leave her alone now.





That night, in bed, she clung to him, and he clung back. She cried and cried, and he murmured things to her, and nuzzled her face with his, and tried to comfort her. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, she drew a deep, gasping breath, and crawled out of bed and stood beside it. What now? he thought. Is she going to go back down to the fireplace? Is she going to leave? Is she going to move back out into the woods? He held his breath.

Finally, her whole body shook, like she had coughed or something. She reached down to her waist, and unbuttoned the first button of her shirt. Of his flannel shirt, she was still wearing. She wore it night and day, even to bed. The only time she took it off was to wash it. Anyway, she unbuttoned the first button. Then the second. Then the third. and at last her fingers were at her throat, and there were no more buttons to unbutton. She paused a moment, and then shrugged her shoulders and slipped out of the shirt. It tumbled to the floor. She was also wearing a strip of cloth, something he'd never seen before, binding her breasts up like a brassiere. She unwound it slowly, and dropped it to the floor.

He had seen her breasts before, that day when she'd first come to live with him. When he'd undressed her, and cleaned her. He had no memory of touching them, although he did remember sniffing her pussy. He remembered that very well. If I sniffed her pussy, he thought, why didn't I at least squeeze her boobs? That's not like me. Crazy.

He lay in bed, and stared at her beautiful breasts, naked in the dim flickering firelight. He could see her puffy nipples clearly. He hungered for them, to touch his lips to them. How many years has it been, he thought, since I tasted a breast as beautiful as this? He knew the answer to that. Zero. He had never tasted a breast as beautiful as this one. All he could do was lay there and stare. He was aware that he felt faint, and he forced himself to start breathing again.

She unsnapped her pants, and gravity did its thing. The pants slid down her long legs. He could plainly see her little bush, her little patch of pussy hair. It was so cute he wanted to cry. He knew he was on shaky ground, now. The emotions blasting through his mind were as strong as the ones that she'd felt, the ones that made her cry. He felt like crying, now, at her sheer beauty, at the magnificence of her. He was beyond love, at this point. What he felt for her was way past simple love. Or complicated love, for that matter. He worshiped her, or something similar, possibly deeper. How sad, he thought. Language failed him, at this point. There is no word for what comes after love. There is no word to describe what I feel for her.

She lowered herself and crawled back into the bed. She cuddled back up against him the way she liked to. He cautiously wrapped his arms around her, very aware of her nudity. Her back was smooth and warm, where his arms rested on her. He wished his shirt was off, so he could feel her breasts on his chest. He just hugged her, and held her. At last he could tell she was asleep. That's it? He thought again. That's it for the night? He was starting to want more, but he was okay with it. Let it progress at her speed, if it was going to progress any further than this. If it didn't, so be it. He could live with this.

He relaxed, and tried to sleep, but sleep was not easy tonight. Not with a beautiful naked girl in his arms. An hour later, when he was sure she was deeply asleep, he ran his hands up and down her back softly so as not to waken her, feeling her beauty through his fingertips. He went lower and lower, and gently caressed her beautiful ass. She did have a fantastic ass, he thought, sometimes just seeing her in her jeans made his balls tingle. He rubbed and squeezed, loving the firm tight feel of it. She wiggled in her sleep, and sighed. He froze for a minute, and then resumed his slow exploration of her body, beneath the sheets.

 He wanted very much to touch her pussy and asshole, but he didn't go that far, he just rubbed her legs, as much as he could reach at the moment. He grew brave, and rubbed up her stomach until he reached her breasts, and slowly, cautiously he stroked them. Her nipples were incredible, hard, as they always seemed to be when she pressed up against him in bed at night. Her breasts were full and firm. Beautiful, just beautiful. He salivated, thinking of her breasts.

She giggled in her sleep, and he stopped. He hadn't thought he could stop, but he did, somehow. He wrapped her in his arms again, and felt her gentle breath on his lips. He loved her. As hard as he could, with all the power his mind could muster, he loved her.


Chapter XII


When he'd marked off thirty days on his calendar on the kitchen wall, they walked back to Devonsville, and went to the store. They used most of the last of their cash to buy some butter and cooking oil that they really needed, and another dozen fertile eggs. He thought at some point maybe he should get a rooster for fresh blood. They saved enough for one last dinner at the diner. Clipper had some ideas about going up the mountain a ways and panning for gold in the creeks and rivers that flowed down the mountain. Surely gold was still worth something in today's economy, he thought, since the economy ran on gold now. On the way back out of town he stopped at the store and asked Mr. Peck if anyone bought gold anymore. Yes, the man replied, the assayer stops by the last Saturday of each month. More than a few people in the area mined or panned gold. Good, thought Clipper. I know a few spots, here and a few peaks over. We can try that.

He had found a nice pan, in the stuff he'd taken from the other cabin. One day he took the pan, fishing rods, Girl and Bear, and went way up the mountain, higher than they'd ever been, until the earth was almost bare of vegetation, and the breath burned in his throat. He found the creek he was looking for, and he stood for an hour in the freezing water, panning for gold. He got some, at least, enough dust that he thought the day might be worth his time.

"Clip." Girl spoke. He turned to look at her, on the bank. She motioned down the mountain, and he saw three tiny figures approaching. Shit, he thought. Surely they've already seen us. No trees or even bushes around here. Shit.

He didn't really know what to do other than just wait. They looked like the same three men that had been carrying high powered rifles the other day, and he knew that Girl and he couldn't outrun a bullet. If the men meant bad business, there was really nowhere to hide.

It was obvious the men had seen them. They headed straight for the two of them. Clipper had dried his feet off and put his boots back on, and he motioned to Girl.

"Let's go meet them." They headed down the mountain, Clipper holding his bow loosely in his hand, with his ten last arrows in the clips. He knew the bow was futile against the rifles, but he wanted them to know he wasn't afraid of them. And that he was prepared for trouble. Girl followed close behind.

A hundred feet from the men, he spoke in a low voice to Girl. "Watch my back and I'll watch yours." She nodded, unbuttoning the bottom two buttons of her shirt, so she could reach her knives quicker. He didn't expect trouble but he wanted to be ready. This was just some hunters and gold miners meeting somewhere out in the wilderness. There should be no problems. He heard Bear growl softly and Girl shushing him.

Sure enough, it was the man from the diner, and his buddy. And another man they'd never seen before, an older man.

They all stopped, a few feet apart, and the man from the diner approached Clipper and shook his hand.

"Good to see you. Hunting?" the man nodded at the bow.

"No," Clipper laughed, self-consciously, "panning for gold, and fishing."

"Ah, a miner. I see." The man said.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't catch your name the other day," Clipper said.

"Ableard. Ableard Wilson." The man said, reaching his hand out again.

"Clipper. Just Clipper. Pleased to meet you. Again." Clipper said. The man laughed.

"Clipper, this is John Jerard, and Mr. Simmons." He motioned to the others, and hands were shaken all around. Clipper was conscious of Girl standing ten feet behind him with Bear.

"My... wife, Girl," he said motioning to her. He felt crazy saying it, but that's what he understood that she had wanted. He felt crazy, and proud. What will they think of me now, he wondered.

"Your... wife?" Ableard acted puzzled. "I thought she was your daughter."

"Yes, I did say that the other day..." Clipper laughed. "But, you know how it is. People don't always understand."

"I'll say. Damn." Said Ableard, laughing. He looked at Girl again, then back at Clipper. Clipper thought he saw admiration in the man's glance. "Damn," Ableard said again.

"Ableard..." Clipper started, not sure how to ask this. It might be sensitive ground. "Do you guys have trouble in this area with guns? The law, and guns?"

"Not really, as you can see," said Ableard, holding his rifle up. "For one thing, we never see the law. I think they're scared to come up here."

His buddy John laughed evilly. "They know there's a gun behind every rock and tree," he said.

"Believe it or not, up until a year ago, you could buy ammo at the store. I think Peck's finally stopped selling it, though, at least over the counter."

Damn, thought Clipper. Have to ask about that next time we're there.

"You have any luck panning?" the man known as Mr. Simmons asked Clipper. Clipper shrugged.

"A little. But I think this area's panned out."

Mr. Simmons laughed. "It is. Up until the Fall, I had machines in here. I made a fortune off this mountain. There might be some tailings left, though."

They talked a few more minutes until Clipper finally felt like it was time to leave. They departed amicably, retrieved their gear and headed back down the mountain as the other men headed up. Damn, thought Clipper, I still don't know what they were hunting.


                              --==+==--


That night, as they sat before the fire, Girl came to him and sat on his lap. She did that quite often, now. She was a big girl and he was a creaky old man but he loved it, he loved the feel of her body on his. He wrapped his arms around her and she relaxed, leaning back into him.

"Did you see," she said, and stopped. He waited. He knew how to play the game by now.

"Did you see the way that man looked at me?" she finally said.

He hadn't noticed. "Which man?"

"Silver hair."

Ah, the old fart. Mr. Simmons.

"Girl. You are a very beautiful girl... woman. That shit's gonna happen. Who knows, he might not have seen a girl in a year, up on top of this damn mountain."

"I guess," was all she said after that. Then, a minute later, she said, "he lives in the big house."

"The big stone house? Above us?"

"Yes."

"How do you know that?"

"The other girl knew about him. From before."

Ah, interesting. Her stories of her life before were so rare it was always interesting when something clicked and she talked. So she had heard of Simmons.

He had no fear of the men after he'd shaken hands with Ableard. They seemed like honest, dependable, righteous folk. Sure, they had guns, and there was three of them. He might have gotten his .45 out and surprised one of them, and maybe Girl could have poked another's eye out with her knife, but they were outnumbered. And these guys weren't just common, hungry criminals. Out there, in the wild, he'd rather not meet people period, much less three of them. But it had happened and it'd happen again.


Chapter XIII


He didn't know what the date was, he couldn't even say for sure what month it was. But, that night, he knew he would remember, forever. If there was a forever.

Nothing was out of the ordinary. He took his shoes off and crawled into bed, fully clothed, as he always did. She stood before him, and slowly, sensuously, he thought, she stripped. Everything she did now, to him, was sensuous. He had gotten a partial erection that night, just watching her wash the dishes under the pump. She crawled in bed beside him and he wrapped his arms around her, falling in love all over again.

Tonight, though, she shoved him back. He was surprised. She giggled, and reached down, finally finding the tail of his shirt beneath the blanket. She unbuttoned the first button, and then the one above it. He wiggled and writhed around on the bed and pulled the shirt off when she was done. Shit, he thought, oh shit. What is going on here? Shit.

She lay for a moment, then he felt her hands on the snaps of his jeans. Oh shit, he told himself again. He had to help her get them unsnapped and his zipper unzipped. He kicked his jeans down to the bottom of the bed, and left them. He was as naked as her. He was trembling.

"Girl," he whispered, taking her in his arms, "Girl, are you sure about this."

"About what?" she whispered back, her breath on his face.

He didn't know what to say, then. He didn't know what she intended. He knew what it seemed like, to him. But he just didn't know.

"Darling," he finally said. "What do you want from me?"

She stopped, and did her characteristic thinking thing for a while. He waited, patiently.

"Clip," she said. "You said I was your wife, today. That makes it true. That's all we needed. Now, since I'm your wife, act like it."

He realized that something had happened today that turned her world sideways ninety degrees. What a strange, strange child, he thought. How much power simple words seem to possess for her.

He just held her for the longest time, getting ready, trying to emotionally prepare himself for ... whatever. He wasn't sure if she really wanted to go all the way, if she even knew there was an all the way to go to. He had no idea. He knew he could do it, though, and judging by the hardness of his dick, he knew that he would be capable of it. Thank you, he thought to his penis, thank you for not letting me down. Keep up the good work. Keep up the hard work.

Her mouth sought his, and they kissed, for the first time. He was glad he'd scraped his beard off a few days ago, with a rusted dull razor. Have to talk to Peck about some blades. Back to the present.

On the second kiss, he felt her little tongue on his. He had to breathe through his nose to keep from passing out. He felt like he was going to pass out, anyway. How can this get any better, he thought. How can this get any better.

It got better. They had whiled away a good hour, just kissing. Well, not just, he was rubbing her ass, or squeezing her beautiful tits. But mainly kissing. The focus seemed to be on kissing, at the moment. He wondered if she just didn't know where to go from here, or if she just liked to kiss.

He wanted to taste her so bad he almost couldn't stand it. He slid down to her breasts, and killed another ten minutes kissing, sucking and licking. Her fantastic nipples were hard, stiff little nubbins of flesh. All the while she moaned quietly and her breathing became a little heavier. He could feel goose bumps on them. He would never get his fill of them, he knew. He'd just have to stop and go on.

He slowly slid down, past her sexy little belly button, stopping there for a while, just to make her giggle. He arrived at his goal at long last, sliding his tongue through her little patch of fuzz, stopping at the very top of her sexy slit. Oh, he thought, this is gonna be good. This is gonna be real good.

It was good. She tasted like heaven to him. Heaven is pussy, he thought, heaven tastes like pussy. He didn't even remember dying, but he was in heaven. He licked down the sides of her pussy lips, and down the crease of her legs. She tasted salty from sweat, slightly pissy, and it was the most wonderful taste he'd ever tasted. She tasted like heaven, there, too. Her smells and tastes were wonderful to him, and almost overloaded his senses. He fastened his lips around her fat little clit, and sucked. She shuddered.

That, too, he would never tire of. He slid down the crack of her cunt, running his tongue up and down it, tasting the juices that her body was secreting. The juices she was making, for him. He spread her legs further for her, and licked her perinium. She shivered, and pushed her hips up. He licked her asshole, loving the harsh bitter taste of it. Harsh and bitter, just a hint of shit. Just the right amount of shit, he thought. Assholes always taste a little bit like shit. It's just the nature of the beast. He loved it. He ate it up.

They paused for a few moments. He needed the rest. He needed a minute or two of recovery time. She continued to make some kind of wordless noise that sounded like a question, rising in frequency at the end like questions do. He took that to mean that she was ready.

He wiggled around. He was already pretty much on top of her. He wiggled and finally without any help from his hands it felt like his dick was poised at the mouth of her pussy. At the gates of her soul, he thought. He gently pushed, and felt the tip of it entered her body, in the slightest amount. He pushed a little harder, the head was in and he felt resistance. He stopped pushing.

"Girl," he said, leaning up and away from her a bit, so they could see each other. She opened her eyes, and looked up at him puzzled. He thought she was wondering why he'd stopped.

"Girl, if I go any further, you won't be a virgin any longer. Is that what you really want?"

She nodded mutely.

"It'll probably hurt."

She shrugged. He felt a love for her, at that moment, that was more powerful than any he'd felt so far. How, he thought, how does it just keep on coming, keep on growing? Is there no end?

He just stopped and hugged her for a few moments. She closed her eyes again, and smiled.

He tried to be gentle. He didn't want to hurt her. But he saw the moment, the very second that her hymen tore, her cherry popped. The pain crossed her face, and then a look of resolution, or resignation, or something... he knew it had hurt, but she was standing it. She was dealing with it. He gently pushed on into her body, feeling her silky wet softness on the cap of his cock and her tightness along the part of his shaft that he had managed so far to get in her. His hands were buried in her firm ass, squeezing and kneading her.

He felt his groin make contact with hers. He knew he was all the way in. I'm not John Holmes, he thought. I didn't have that far to go. He hoped he was enough for her. He hoped she'd remember this, her first time, as something special. He hoped he'd given her that much, at least.

She sighed deeply, and opened her mouth, breathing hard. He pulled out a few inches, and then pushed back in. Her eyes opened, surprised. He hoped it felt good. He pumped again, and again.

"Oh, do that. Do that," she whispered, and he laughed softly.

"Baby," he said. "I love you. I love you." He wanted to tell her that a few trillion more times, but he didn't want to bore her. He let it go at that.

She hiccuped a few times, and groaned. She moaned, and then slammed her forearms down on the mattress, grabbing handfuls of blanket. Her legs kicked, and her diaphragm jerked a breath into her body. She came. Her pussy muscles rippled and she was so, so tight.

He was surprised she came so quickly. Amazingly, he felt like he could go on for a while. He did just that, feeling her settle down a little, calm down. He kept pumping, stroking slowly in and out hoping she would have another. Minutes passed, and she lay beneath him, seeming to be asleep, except for the occasional moan, and convulsive breath.

He thought, god, now what, I've started something that it looks like I can't finish. He felt the familiar contractions deep in his groin, and he knew he was going to cum shortly. He tried to hold it off, but he was pretty close to the end. He sped up a little, feeling her body respond, her breath quicken, her legs tremble. Goose flesh rippled up and down her inner thighs. He buried his face in her breasts, sucking her hard nipple.

Finally, he realized, he couldn't hold it any longer. He began to cum, pumping his useless seed into her body. About halfway through, she came, hard and sharp, giving a little squealing moan. He gasped and sighed, seemingly filling her body, pumping his life into her. Well, it was no longer his life, he'd been snipped, but he managed to squirt her full of semen. Shooting blanks, he thought. Shooting blanks. It had been forever since he'd even had a wet dream, so he felt like he was washing her away on a wave of cum. Or whatever you called it now.

They lay, breathing hard, in each others arms. He rolled off her, conscious of his weight on her body, and took her gently in his arms. He rolled her on top of him, and just lay there, holding her. He thought she was asleep, until she half-way opened her eyes, and smiled shyly at him.

"Thuh thuh that's all, folks!" he said, laughing up at her. She didn't get it, she'd never seen cartoons before, but she smiled gently, and lay her head down on his chest. He could feel her fingers on his upper arms. He put his hands back on her ass, where they belonged. For the next hour she just lay there on top of him, snoozing. He didn't care, he loved the feeling of her body on top of him, and her flesh in his hands. He gently squeezed and kneaded her ass, tickling her asshole every now and then, making her giggle. Her breathing became still and even, and he knew she was asleep. He reached to the side, and pulled the blanket over her, and just lay there. He wasn't ready to sleep, yet. He wasn't ready to go all unconscious, and give this up. She might fall off, anyway. He just lay there, deep into the night, loving her, touching her. Feeling her. Loving her.


                              --==+==--


The next morning they made love again, after she woke him. This time she was slow, languid. He slowly, gently pumped in and out of her, his hands on her breasts, his mouth on hers. He could feel it building up within her, her toes curled, and her legs straightened out, and she began to tremble beneath him. She came, silently, just a few gasps for air, and a long trembling sigh. She smiled up at him, and then closed her eyes. He hoped she was happy. He hoped she was enjoying herself. She seemed to be. He kissed her, happy. He felt a great gratitude towards her, for the gifts she had given him. She had given him herself and he loved her for it. For that, and many other reasons.


Chapter XIV


He remembered when they went into town the next time, to ask for razor blades. He got them, and a few other things. Sadly, no watch batteries. The little jar of gold he'd panned had gotten them a lot of coins which had bought many things at the store. And they had more than enough for dinner. Way more. As they started to leave the store he remembered something.

"Mr. Peck," the man straightened, attentive.

"Mr. Peck. I am not asking this to get you in trouble. But a man I know mentioned you might know ... you might know where I could get some .22 ammo ..."

Mr. Peck seemed nervous. He hemmed and hawed a bit. At last he looked outside the window, as if he was seeing if someone were coming. Or listening.

"Mister ..." he stopped. He didn't know Clipper's name. Clipper would give him that, at least.

"Clipper." Clipper said. "No mister. Just Clipper."

"Ah, yes, ahem. Clipper. I am taking a risk, you understand. The legality of this item ... is in question, at the moment. To possess the weapon itself is a death sentence, I'm sure you know, in the wrong area. Here, in the wilds, the law is a bit more ... lenient. But I'm still taking a risk."

Clipper nodded.

"I know someone who might have a few boxes, back on a shelf somewhere, stuff that he hasn't gotten around to turning in yet... but you understand, this item is pretty pricey."

"How pricey would that be, if some hypothetical person were to want to buy a box?"

Mr. Peck named a number. It sounded pretty high to Clipper. Dammit, he still didn't understand the money. And he'd always thought he was good with money. Jeezus. He turned to Girl. She nodded solemnly, and held up a coin. The biggest coin they had.

"We can buy two boxes," she whispered, getting into the covert feel of the conversation. He nodded his thanks.

"Mr. Peck ... I have a friend ... who would like to purchase two boxes. If your source would place them on the counter, I'm sure my ... mysterious friend would leave the money, plus a tip for your trouble."

Mr. Peck laughed and nodded. They wandered up the aisle, careful not to look at the back of the store. When they went back to the counter, two boxes of .22 hollow-point long rifle lay on it. Mr. Peck was gone in the back somewhere. Clipper had a hurried conversation with Girl about what a slightly more-than-reasonable tip would be, and they left two coins on the counter. Clipper put the boxes in his pocket and they left.

The diner was buzzing. Ableard was there, and he came right over to Clipper and Girl as soon as they walked in.

"Clipper. You just come from your side? You been home since last night?"

"No, we been here all night, on this side," he wondered if Ableard was testing him. He knew that it was a full days trip, if not more, to the far side of the mountain.

"Skipps burned last night. Just wondered if you guys had heard anything."

"Damn. No, first I heard of it. That's bad news." said Clipper.

"Refugees will be pouring in before long. Good people, and bad." said Ableard.

It was never good when a major metropolitan area fell. The people just poured out, into the countryside, hungry and upset. This just meant lots of visitors. Lots of hungry, angry, homeless visitors. Shit.

"Thanks for the warning. You think they'll come this high? Or go down the mountain?" he said. He felt a kinship with the man, for some reason. He felt like he could trust him. They hadn't eaten yet, and he motioned Ableard outside.

"The smart ones will go down. We'll just get the idiots and the crazies," Ableard said, snorting.

"Ableard. I know I can trust you. The honest truth is we don't really live on the far side. We're about three miles northwest of here, up the mountain in a cabin I used to hunt out of. I want you to know the truth."

Clipper felt like if he gave the man something, he might get something back. He did, but not something good.

"Oh..." Ableard had nodded, and seemed deep in thought. "Are you in the old Kymes place?"

"Yes!" Clipper remembered that name from what seemed like a thousand years ago, when he used to hunt and fish out of the cabin.

"I see ... that's kind of what we thought, John and I ... Clipper, that's actually Mr. Simmons property ... I'm not sure what he might think of you living there ..."

Oh, shit. Well, if it was his property he didn't monitor it too closely.

"Shit. I hope he doesn't mind. I guess I need to talk about it with him someday." He wasn't sure if he wanted to do that or not, actually. His hold on the cabin suddenly seemed tenuous.

"Mr. Simmons is a ... peculiar man. He might mind, or he might not. As far as I know, he doesn't know you're there, yet. He said nothing about it last week, when we hunted with him. Don't worry, we won't tell."

"Isn't land ownership, in large tracts, a little difficult any more?" Clipper asked.

"Unless you've got lots of money. Clipper, some things never change. Society has gone to shit, but the rich still have privilege. And the rich still get richer."

"Yeah. True."

"Well." Said Ableard. "I didn't mean to rain on your parade. But the sooner you know something like that, the better. And, thanks for telling me where you actually are."

"Yeah, thank you. I needed to know. Do you guys often have... refugee problems here?"

"Not really, not since the last big convulsion. But this thing in Skipps, it means a lot of people will be on the road. We'll get our share, I'm sure."

"Yeah, I guess."

"The greatest fear is it might bring the law into town. And that's one thing that nobody wants, Peacekeepers on every corner. People always die, when that happens. Good people, as well as bad."

Yes, thought Clipper, and no more hunting rifles or target practice. Shit.

"Clipper." Ableard turned, and faced away from Girl. It was obvious he didn't want her included in the conversation. Hey, thought Clipper, we're a team. We're man and wife. What I know, she knows. He'd tell her later, whatever it was, anyway.

Ableard continued, speaking quietly. "Be very careful with your ... wife. Something happens in this town, this whole area ... to pretty girls. There have been over a dozen go missing, in the last few years alone. And your ... wife ... is the prettiest we've seen, in a long time. Maybe ever. Just be careful with her."

"Ableard. Thanks. We will be. She's ... surprisingly able to take care of herself ..."

"Clipper." his voice dropped even further. "I don't mean to pry, but is she ... is she the wild one?"

He laughed. So he wasn't the only one that had ran into her, out there in the woods.

"Yes. She was living in the woods when I came. I fixed her leg, gave her some medicine and a few rabbits and now we've ... we've gotten pretty attached to each other."

"You're a lucky man, Clipper. Take good care of her."

"I will, Ableard. And, thanks. Hey. Next time you guys are in the area, stop by. Just stand out front and yell so the dogs don't bother you."

"We'll do that. Thank you. Take care."

The man departed. Clipper and Girl went into the diner. After they had ordered, Clipper spoke to her.

"Did you hear what he said? About girls missing?"

"Yes."

"Know anything about that?"

"Yes."

Shit! What?

"Girl. What do you know?" he leaned towards her, keeping his voice low.

"Not here." she said. "Later."

Shit. Later it was. He wondered if it had anything to do with why she was living out in the woods. With why she was homeless and parent-less. Shit. He was bursting with curiosity. It was hard to just sit and eat, after that but he managed.

As they walked home he could barely wait until they got out of town to ask her.

"Girl. Tell me what you know. Please!"

She looked all around like she feared lurking listeners. She thought for a while like she often still did. At last she spoke.

"It wasn't here. Statesville. Down the mountain."

"Okay." he said, as silence loomed, again.

"A girl that used to watch me. Sit with me. She disappeared."

That was it? This girl was one of the missing girls? Why did she think these things were connected?

"Clip." She stopped, and turned to face him. "It's that old man. Silver hair. She watched for him, too. For his kid. In the big house. One day she went to his house, and never came back. She just didn't have anybody to miss her. Nobody watched her back for her. I think he did it. I never saw him, until the other day. But I remember his name. And I saw the way... the way he looked at me."

"Girl. If it was that simple, somebody else would have noticed, too. You can't just grab a girl off the street, even if you're rich and powerful. You can't just kidnap your kid's babysitter."

"I'm not saying that's what he did. But that's the last place she went to. And then she disappeared."

"Girl. Where is Statesville from here?"

She pointed down the mountain, mutely.

"It's probably, what? Another three or four miles down?"

She shrugged and nodded at the same time. She didn't know.

"That's a long way to go, for a babysitter."

"She went up there and stayed. For days. He paid her good, I remember that much. And that was when they used the old money."

"Shit. Well, stay away from the bastard. Remember, you didn't like the way he looked at you? Just stay away."

"You watch my back and I'll watch yours." She said. He nodded. He would.

They walked a thousand yards. He couldn't stop thinking, wondering.

"Girl." He gave her an appropriate amount of time to think.

"Girl. Did you grow up in Statesville?"

She took an equally long time to answer.

"Yes." Then it was just one word.

"You don't have any people left there? No aunts, uncles, cousins? Nobody?"

"Yes."

"Your..." he hesitated. He didn't want to make her mad, or make her think he doubted what she'd told him earlier. He continued. "Your parents?"

"Dead. The plague."

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Why was this just now coming up? Did he want it to come up? Did he want to know?

"Girl. You ever thought about going back to see who's there that you might know?"

"Yes."

"Why haven't you?"

"I got you now. I don't care about them. They never cared about me."

"Girl, Girl." he was frustrated. "It doesn't always work like that. I mean, you're a minor. Civilization, our civilization, has gone to crap, but there's still laws, kind of. Well, maybe not laws, but accepted patterns of behaviour. You're still a minor."

Shit. This was all he needed. Statutory rape, on top of everything else. Did anybody care anymore? Was there even a judicial system, around here? Would the sheriff care? And he'd just started calling her his wife, in front of these people.

"Girl. You're makin' me think that we need to find a preacher quick, and get married for real." Actually, he thought, you're making me think I need to stop screwing you, and deny it ever happened. But, for her sake, he didn't know if he could do that. She seemed to enjoy it as much as he did. And, hell. He did enjoy it.

He just shut up and they walked home. He spent the rest of the day digging in his trench and thinking.


Chapter XV


She was wild, that night. Sometimes she was slow and soft and gentle and tame and some nights she was wild. This was one of those nights. They had barely started kissing when she grabbed him by the hair and dragged his head down to her pussy. He got the message, and sucked her fabulous fat clit into his mouth, sucking it until it became a hard little stub. She moaned and groaned and even squealed a time or two and he laughed softly to himself. He upended her, and stuck his tongue into her wonderful asshole. God, he loved her ass, he loved the taste of her and the smell of her... he loved her holographically, every little bit of his love had the whole image, the whole picture inside it, the whole love.

He knew love was a mental thing, that it could never be measured or cataloged, but he knew that his love for her was off the charts, way off the scale. He had always thought that obsession came after love, but he realized that what he felt for her was way more than even obsession. He tried to think of a new word to describe what he felt for her, but everything he thought up was too ridiculous to say out loud, so he gave up. He thought, simply, I love you. How weak, how quick, how puny that is. I love you. That sentence should be a thousand words long, and long words, too, not simple three and four letter ones. He forgot all that, usually, and whispered in her ear, I love you, I love you. I love you.

He could feel her cute little asshole puckering under his tongue. He could taste the harsh, bitter, slightly shitty taste of her ass. He loved it. He loved everything about her, especially her ass. Her pussy was a close second. Tits were three. Anyway, he loved her ass. He remembered the first time he'd seen her ass, when she lay, unconscious before him on his couch. The poor girl had been reduced to using leaves to wipe herself with. Her ass had been a stinky, brown-streaked mess. A sexy mess. I know, I know, he thought, I'm a perv. But I loved that shit. I loved cleaning up that shit. I love her, and I love her shit. I admit it. He'd never actually admit it, other than to himself, though. He had certainly not admitted it to her. He didn't want her to think he was a weirdo. He curled his tongue into a tube shape, and drove it deep into her anus. She has to know I'm a little strange, though, he thought, if I'll do that. She wiggled and squirmed beneath him, and he sawed his finger in and out of her cunt, feeling her body twitch and writhe. He loved her. He loved the strong smell of her ass in his nose. He loved the taste of her slightly shitty sphincter on his tongue. He loved the feeling of her hard ass cheek in his left hand, and the feeling of her soft wet slippery cunt on his right index finger. He loved the whole her. He loved every atom of her being, ever cell of her body.

She grabbed his dick, and yanked it unmercifully as she crawled down his body. She took him into her mouth, growling. He relaxed, and tried to keep from cumming as hard as he could. Jeezus. She was very skillful, for someone self-taught, he thought. Then again, it's not rocket surgery. Even a crappy blow job feels pretty good. Hers were not crappy, though. They were fine, and elegant. To the point. Serious, and funny. He loved her tongue. He loved to feel it on his tongue, and on his dick. She had a fine tongue, a talented tongue. A young, firm, talented tongue. He sighed, and melted, trying to keep control of his balls. He was ready to cum. He knew he would still be expected to fuck the shit out of her, here in a few minutes. It's just the way she operated. Licky, licky, fucky. He knew the routine, by now. He knew the way she worked and he was a real believer.


                              --==+==--


The next trauma seemed to waste no time being upon them. One day they were fairly far afield, hunting squirrels and rabbits for the dogs, just killing time, really. Girl saw the man first, and touched Clipper on the arm. She was already hunkering down, holding Bear so he didn't give them away. They hid, and watched as the man approached from a tangent, headed off up the mountain from them. Bear, of course, had to growl, but he growled softly, low enough that the man couldn't hear it. Clipper had recognized him immediately, it was Mr. Simmons, from the big house. Mr. Simmons, my landlord, he thought. Shit. Might as well get this over with. He looked at Girl, and nodded. They stood, he and shouted "Hallooo!"

Mr. Simmons was very cool. He stopped, froze, and then turned. He was less than a hundred feet away. He was armed, but Clipper wasn't afraid of him. They closed, and finally stood together, shaking hands. Bear gave him a sniff, and then went off guard duty.

"Clipper, is it?" Mr. Simmons said. Clipper nodded.

"Mr. Simmons, sir," he wasn't sure if this was a mistake or not, but he felt like it had to be done. And the sooner the better.

"Mr. Simmons, I have a confession to make. I understand you own the old Kymes place, right northwest of Devonsville."

The man nodded. "It's on my tract, yes."

"Well, we are living there, at the moment. I didn't know anyone owned it. I thought it was up for grabs. I used to hunt and fish out of there, years ago ..."

"I see," said Mr. Simmons. "Yes, the other day Dean told me that it looked like someone was living there ... well, that is a problem ..."

"I would be glad to reimburse you, somehow, if you could see letting us stay there. Whether in labor or meat... I can give you eggs, even... or if you could come up with a number, I do have some income..." Shit, not much, though, he thought. He was already making plans in his head to build his own cabin, somewhere on up the mountain, On public land. If this guy throws us out, he thought.

"Well, let me talk that over with my tax guy." Mr. Simmons said, jarring Clipper's mind. Tax guy? People around here still paid taxes? Jeezus. "I had thought that someday maybe my son might move in there. It is a nice place."

"Yes, sir. I understand. Just let me know." Shit, shit.

"There are other... services that I occasionally require." Mr. Simmons looked squarely at Girl. "My daughter is just turning three. We sometimes require a sitter for her, a nanny, call it what you will. You, young lady, would be just perfect for that."

Girl nodded somberly, her eyes never leaving the man. Clipper felt left out, he could easily tell where the focus had shifted to.

"Well," he finally said. "Just let us know. I wanted to be square with you, once I found out you owned the place."

"Yes, I appreciate it." said Mr. Simmons, still staring at Girl. "I'll let you know. I know where you live now."

Shit, thought Clipper. You do that. You do that. They said their goodbyes, and the man turned and headed away. Clipper and Girl headed down the mountain. Scarcely three hundred yards had passed when Girl said, "The fuck I will."

Clipper stopped and turned and regarded her with bemusement. He'd never even heard her say gosh or golly before, much less fuck. He was scandalized, but he had to admit, he was kind of turned on, too. He liked it when girls talked dirty.

"You, young lady, have a potty mouth." he said, laughing, and grabbed her by the shoulder, leaning her down over his knee and kissing her. He pulled her back up, and hugged her to his body.

"I will never go to that house. Ever." she said.

"I will never ask you too. Ever." he said. She nodded.

"Thank you."

They trudged on home, and had ham and eggs for dinner. He said something about Sam I am and green eggs and ham, and she just stared at him blankly. What we have lost, he thought, feeling a great sadness. What we have lost.


Chapter XVI


The Skipps problem affected them instantly. Within a few days, the woods were full of people. Just like Ableard had said, hungry, angry, worried people. People that didn't know how to live off the land. People that needed help.

The dogs, at least, let them know when anyone approached the cabin. Even if someone was simply in sight, moving through the forest. The first few were men, and they avoided the dogs and moved on. One day Clipper and Girl were out back, and they heard he dogs start up. They went around to the front, Clipper nocking an arrow in his bow, just in case. A woman stood, two hundred feet away, and called to the house. A woman, and seven or eight kids. Jeezus, thought Clipper. How is she ever going to get anywhere with that crew. Jeezus.

He sent Girl in the house for beef jerky, and let her carry it out to them. He didn't want the dogs to bite any kids. He wasn't that worried about letting Girl approach them, not with seven kids. And he knew Girl was fairly capable of taking care of herself by now. Even so he kept maneuvering so that Girl was never between him and the group, blocking a shot. He just wanted to make sure that the kids were all really kids. The woman accepted the jerky, thanked them, and moved on. Clipper felt for her, but he didn't know what he could do other than that. She needed to get on down the mountain, and find a place with some kind of social services. Not on a mountain, jeezus. The kids hadn't even all been hers, some were different colors. That was generous of her, but jeezus. It was depressing to him, and sobering to Girl.

Over the next few days more and more folks passed thru. Clipper pretty much sent the men packing, but helped the women or people with children. He was never brave enough to allow anyone to spend the night or anything, though. He knew he couldn't afford to get attached to any of these people. As he aged, it would be all he could do to keep up with looking after Girl. He didn't need any more.

Only once did they have a real problem. Only once did Clipper, once again, have to kill a man. Night had fallen and Girl had needed to make her final trip to the privy. He'd accompanied her, as he always did, taking his bow out of habit. He stood maybe ten feet away, and when she'd opened the door she screamed. Out of the privy a man jumped wildly, grabbing her momentarily by the sleeve. She screamed again, short and hard, and pulled away from him, stumbling backwards. The man screamed wildly, a long Tarzan-like yell, and headed for her again. Clipper had his bow drawn by then, but was afraid to shoot, for fear of hitting Girl. The ground boiled with dogs by then, coming around from the front of the house. Girl had fallen, tripping over something, but, with the speed of youth, she leapt to her feet and disappeared into the night. The man was still going after her. He acted like he'd never even seen Clipper. Clipper was far enough to the side now to not worry about hitting girl, and he nailed the man with a broad-head in the lower left side, right below his ribcage, just as Fang seized his leg. The man fell, his fingers still scrabbling on the hard ground like he didn't want to give up the chase. Girl crept back, a knife in each hand, and her and Clipper stared at each other, panting.

The next morning he was digging another grave. The man had had nothing, no possessions, nothing but the clothes on his back. And they had been nice clothes, at one time. Clipper wondered why the guy acted so crazy, why he basically forced them to kill him. No idea. And that probably wasn't the only crazy thing they'd see, from here on out.

After he'd buried the man, he started on another doghouse. At least half the dogs needed to be behind the house. Half and half sounded good to him. He did not want this to happen again. He wanted Girl to feel safe, in her own home, at least.

Clipper also decided then and there to follow through with an idea he'd had for an indoor privy, a real bathroom. Water from the pump could flush, and he could just run the pipe down the hill aways, a few hundred yards or so. Just a matter of finding three or four inch pipe somewhere. He didn't want Girl to have to go outside, where it was dark and dangerous. That might be a good winter project.

Girl couldn't make herself go to the privy, the next night. Luckily, she was a morning person when it came to moving her bowels. Clipper let her use his gold panning pan to pee in, and then he poured her urine down the drain and pumped a few times. It surprised him that she was that scared, although he understood, it had been frightening. He was surprised that she hadn't managed to nail the guy with a knife. She was probably too close, though. Maybe next time, he thought. The guy must have been pretty sneaky to get to the back of the house without making noises the dogs could hear. Anyway, he vowed to never let her go outside after dark unaccompanied. He doubted that she would, after this.

The bad thing is, Clipper thought ... either one of us ... all we have to do is fail one time, and we die. One of us dies, or both. That was the bad thing about living like this. You could never be wrong or slow. And it wasn't a matter of simply being quick, you had to be the quickest, every time. Or you died.


Chapter XVII


Clipper was out back, digging on his trench, when he heard a "halloo" from the front of the house. He grabbed his bow out of habit, even though he knew that somebody warning of their approach probably meant little danger. He hoped, at least. He went around the cabin, and saw Ableard Wilson and his friend John standing well out of the dog danger zone. He went forward and greeted them and invited them in. The dogs behaved fairly well since Clipper escorted the men, and they went into the cabin and seated themselves before the fire, although it wasn't even a cool day. It still felt good.

They caught him up on the gossip around town, and he told them about the crazy guy in the privy the other night.

"We have had our share of that in town," said Ableard. "We had a crazy man climb the water tower the other day and both preach to and cuss at people on the ground."

The two of them laughed. Ableard shook his head. "John was gonna simply shoot him down but two of our former firemen climbed the tower and corralled him."

"What do you guys do then, with people?"

"Just take them to the edge of town, and run them on out, basically. There aren't any real social services left to deal with stuff like that."

"I saw that you guys had a water tower," said Clipper. "Does it work? Do you have water in town?"

"A generator runs a pump once a day and puts a little water in it. We try to limit usage, usually unsuccessfully. It's an honor system, since no infrastructure is in place for billing."

"I see. Are there a lot of empty houses in town?"

"Yes, a hell of a lot. The town is maybe a quarter filled up. I don't know exactly."

"Are the empty house just up for grabs, then?"

"Pretty much. The county doesn't keep records anymore. I mean, somebody might claim to own it, just because they owned it before..."

"I see. You said firemen. Is there still a firefighting service, at all?"

"Just volunteer. We keep a truck in running order, and water in it. We can't let the town burn, no matter what, even if society has gone to shit."

"I guess. Ableard."

"What?"

"Do you think... do you think it'll ever get better? Do you think the country will somehow get a grip, and rise again? I don't mean be a superpower again, I mean just be able to take care of the people."

"I don't know, Clipper," Ableard sighed. "I've given a lot of thought to that. All of us, who knew life before the Fall, have, I'm sure. Washington ... Washington is a dream of the past, now that China runs the world. Old-style local governments still seem to exist, in some places ... but the central authority is gone. I have no idea who pays the Peacekeepers, maybe they just run themselves. Now, it seems to me, local government exists solely on the strength of the personalities who run it. No authority exists except what people take on themselves. Take on, and are able to exert through force, basically. Just like the property tax guy. He comes around every now and then, to collect. But most everybody just laughs at him, since he has no authority or force behind him. And I wonder sometimes if he's just putting the money in his pocket if he gets anything. No idea."

The man was silent.

"What about China?" said Clipper. "Do you think things will change for the better or worse once they are completely in charge? Do you even think they'll eventually be in charge?"

"I dunno, Clip." Ableard looked deep in thought. "We are deeply in their debt, in many ways, not just monetarily. They cleaned the mess in Middle East up for us, I think to everyone's surprise, and they did a good job of hosing the bad guys out. A bit brutal, at times, but very decisive. On a national scale, they have helped us greatly. What little influence in the world that we have left is pretty much due to them. If not for China, we'd probably be having this conversation in Russian, right now. Or worse, Arabic. But, in twenty years, we'll be speaking Mandarin. Is that better? I don't know. No idea."

Ableard's friend John spoke up for the first time. "You wanna know who pays the Peacekeeper's wages? China, that's who. That's a well-kept secret, and a fact."

Clipper nodded. John was a bit intense, at times. And highly paranoid. Clipper had no idea if he was right, or not.

"Do you guys ever hear anything from overseas? How it's going in other countries?"

There was silence for a while. Ableard said, "Well, we all know China is prospering, of course. Russia? No idea. Surviving, last I heard. Europe seems to be doing okay, surviving, with occasional ... convulsions ... like we have had. The rest of the world? No idea."

"The last time I was in Skipps," Clipper said, not mentioning that it had been close to twenty-five years ago, "There was a large Hispanic population. I wonder how Mexico is doing."

"The last I heard, Mexico was doing okay," said Ableard. "It's kind of backwards. The first world nations suffered the most, when the fuel ran out. The poor countries, the countries that never had much to start with, just kept on going like they always had been. Crazy. Makes some sense, though, I guess. The more you have to lose, the worse it hurts."

"Yeah."

The silence stretched. Clipper was happy just to sit there and commune with them in silence. Girl left her seat on the couch, and came and sat on his lap, like she liked to do. He held her and breathed her scent in, loving her.

"You doin' okay, girl?" Ableard asked her, smiling at her. She smiled shyly and nodded.

"You are related to the St. Cyrs, right?" Ableard asked her. She nodded cautiously.

"I saw your grammaw the other day, down near Wellston. Seems to be doing okay. Said one of your aunts has a baby on the way."

Girl nodded again, even more cautiously Clipper thought. This was very interesting to him. He wondered if he could ever talk to Ableard alone about her. It seemed like to him that Ableard knew some things about her. Interesting. He didn't want to appear to her to be prying in her business, though. He wouldn't ask her, he'd decided before. He'd listen, if she wanted to talk, but he wouldn't ask her any more questions.


Chapter XVIII


The two of them and Bear were far down the mountain, hunting rabbits or squirrels or anything else the dogs would eat. They stopped, and sat on a hollow log, and had some jerky for lunch. Clipper fed the dog and they talked and laughed and argued, and Clipper teased her gently.

"Girl. You ever kissed a boy? Other than me?"

She just stared at him like she couldn't believe he'd just asked her that. She didn't turn red or anything, she just stared. He felt stupid, and wished he'd kept his mouth shut. She is not a simple teen-age girl, he told himself. She is something much more complicated. Be more careful with her. Then, she surprised him.

"Hell, yeah," she said.

Shit. Now what, he thought. Confession time?

"Wait." she said. "Did you say kissed, or kicked?"

"Heh." he was relieved. "You never kicked me, silly."

"Not yet." she said, standing and turning, backing up a foot to a good kicking distance.

He had just opened his mouth to say something, to be a smart-ass, when he saw the look on her face as she stared over his shoulder. His guts turned to ice. He knew instantly they had been caught with their pants down.

Girl slowly raised her hands until they were even with her shoulders. Her face was whiter than he'd ever seen it before. Her eyes were wide with fear. He slowly, carefully turned his head as far as he could. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the figure of a man standing behind him. A man, holding something. Shit, he thought. Oh shit.

He slowly raised his arms too, without any idea of why, other than that Girl had raised hers, and it seemed like a good idea because of that. He desperately wished the pistol in his belt was in his hands, but it was not, and he didn't see how he could have drawn it without it being obvious. He knew either a bow or a gun was aimed at his back, just from the fact that Girl had raised her arms.

He slowly stood in a half-crouch, and turned, looking at the man. You goddam bastard, he breathed to himself, staring at the man. You son of a bitch.

The man looked genuinely crazy. He had a beard, a wild unkempt beard. Shit. More crazy folks. The hills were full of them, lately. The man's hair, what of it he had, stuck out in every direction. His clothes were ragged, one leg torn completely off the jeans. He was grinning widely and somewhat insanely, and his teeth looked like a row of Corn-nuts. He was wearing an ancient, rotted pair of Nikes. Before-the-Fall Nikes. Jeezus. Clipper hadn't seen Nikes in fifteen years.

Clipper saw all that in an instant. But that was not what really scared him. What really scared him was the Russian-made assault rifle in the man's hands. An AK47. Sweet jeezus, he thought, an AK. He'd actually owned on of those, back somewhere in the mists of time. Where did this motherfucker get a goddam AK? he wondered. It even had a huge clip on it. Shit, thought Clipper. I am fifty-five years old, and this is the first time I remember ever looking down the muzzle of a gun like this. That guy with the .22 that time, that little hole? I didn't even notice it. But this? Damn. What a hole that thing has. What a giant freakin' hole in the end of it. A cannon. It looked like death to him. Not as obviously death as a double barreled shotgun might have, but death none the less. True death.

The man still hadn't spoken. He giggled, hysterically, though. That is not a good sign, Clipper thought. Clipper slowly moved, trying to shield Girl with his body. The man did not like that. Rage flooded his face, and he shook the gun with his bony hands and leaned forward like he was fixing to absorb some recoil from the weapon. Oh shit, thought Clipper. Is that going to be my final thought? Oh shit?

Something exploded from the log beneath his feet, and was over the log and into the air. The man fired the weapon, but the dog already had his arm in its mouth by then. The shot went harmlessly into the air, the sound echoing and rumbling down the mountain. The man and the dog went over backwards and by the time Clipper got over the log and retrieved the gun it was pretty much over. Bear stood over the man, panting, his sides heaving and his muzzle bloody. Clipper saw balls of dog hair floating away on the breeze.

A huge flap of skin was torn from the man's neck, and blood sprayed from it as the man writhed on the ground. Wordless noises and bubbling came from the hole in his throat as he struggled less and less. Girl smashed into Clipper's body from behind, and he brought her around and hugged her to his body, dropping the gun to the ground. She looked at the man, and then looked away. He held her. There was absolutely nothing he could do for the man.

Finally, after what seemed like forever the man no longer moved. Blood had ran down the sides of his neck and soaked the short grass beneath him. It no longer pumped out, though. The man was dead.

"Son of a bitch!" said Clipper. He just stood there dumbly, staring at the man and the dog.

"Girl," he said, "your dog just killed a man." He didn't figure the dog weighed eighty pounds, even. Shit. What a beast, though.

"I... I'm sorry, I guess." said Girl, puzzled.

"Girl." he laughed. "I'm not getting on you. He saved our lives. Shit. That fucker was getting ready to shoot me. Your fucking dog saved our lives. Mine, at least." He didn't want to think about what probably would have happened to her, after he'd been shot.

She made a face, and then laughed nervously. Clipper strode to the fallen man, and turned him over. He searched for more bullets, but found none. Just whatever was in the clip, he thought. If any. The poor fool even had a billfold in his pocket. He pulled it out, and read the man's name from an ancient driver's license.

"Albert Emerson, the third." He wondered if there was a fourth, somewhere, or if this was the end of the line.

"Poor Albert," said Girl.

"Yes, poor dead Albert. Girl, don't feel sorry for his stupid ass. He was just seconds away from killing me. I could see it in his eyes."

She nodded, and knelt, hugging Bear, being careful not to get blood on her shirt.

He laughed, pulling a thick handful of ancient, wrinkled bills from the billfold. He gave them to Girl.

"That's the old money, Girl. Hang onto that, those are hundreds..."

She regarded it with bemusement.

"Yes, I remember this stuff," she said. "how can paper be worth anything?"

"In the end, it wasn't worth diddly, but they fooled everybody with that shit for a long time." he said. He didn't really want to get into explaining the concepts behind currency here, out in the field. Maybe tonight.

"We gotta give that dog something special tonight," said Clipper, shaking his head. He stared at the dead man.

"What do we do with him?" Girl asked, also gazing at the body.

"This one? We walk away, and let him rot in peace."

Clipper slid the gun's sling over his shoulder, and retrieved his bow. He gave the dog the last of the beef jerky, and they turned back to the cabin. They had hunted enough for one day, he figured. The dogs could eat jerky tonight. Except for Bear. He'd give Bear a chicken, he'd already decided.


                              --==+==--


When they got back to the cabin, he stripped the bullets out of the clip, cleaned the gun as best he could and oiled it. It was a MAK-90, rather than an actual AK, which meant it was semi-automatic rather than fully automatic. That made it even better for what he'd use it for. He reloaded it and hid it away in the hiding place beneath a loose floor plank along with the .22. Almost thirty rounds of 7.62X39 FMJ had been in the clip, and one was in the chamber. This was a weapon he could hunt fairly large game with, he thought, and for self-defense, it could not be beat. He realized again how close he'd come to being a dead man, if not for that dog. Jeezus. He was glad all over again that the dogs had come to live with them. That the dogs had chosen them.




He held her, that night. He held her like he always did. She cried a little bit, like she did so often, for reasons he could not fathom. She seemed to shake it off, and her soft lips sought his. They kissed for hours, it seemed like to him, glorious hours, and he thought, I could die now, except that I know what's going to come next. I'll hang around, for that. He gently caressed her breasts, squeezing her nipples, the combination of hardness and softness lending some hardness to himself. She was ready long before he was, he could have done just the foreplay stuff all night. He would have been happy, with just that. She finally literally crawled underneath his body, her legs spread. He sought out her warm wet soft center without using his hands, and pushed into her tightness. Into the center of her soul. She gasped and writhed beneath him, like something in pain, but he knew there was no more pain for her, just pleasure. She was tight, jeezus she was tight... almost painfully tight. He felt like he could feel every little ridge and ripple of her pussy with the head of his dick. He pumped, slowly, and let the pleasure mount. She gasped and moaned and smashed her mouth to his. He tasted blood. Her tongue was in his mouth. His dick was in her cunt. He felt like they were even.

She began to moan a long, loud moan, with little hiccup things in it. He almost laughed sometimes at the noises she made, but he was glad she was uninhibited enough not to worry about silly noises. He was glad she was having a good time and he was glad he was giving it to her. When she came she shrieked, and he smiled with satisfaction and let himself cum at last. He pumped his impotent seed deep inside her body, feeling her jerk and twitch beneath him, feeling her lips on his, and her ass beneath his hands. For a moment he forget everything, even his own identity, and sunk into the ocean of her body without a trace. I am drowning, I am drowning, he thought, dying with pleasure, dying with love. I am drowning.





Chapter XIX


Sometimes Clipper got hungry for the open road. He'd never consider going, of course, with Girl and the stability the cabin gave him. He'd never expose her to that danger. But he'd always loved to travel, loved to see new things. He realized that this was very nearly the longest he'd stayed in one place since the Fall. Of course he didn't mind, he was happier than he'd ever been in his whole life, thanks to Girl. All he wanted was to stay here and finish his life out, holding her in his arms every night. But he still wished he could travel the area, at least. See what was over the next hill. It was a habit, almost.

One day, he was pawing through a drawer in the kitchen, looking for something to sharpen knives with, when he realized what the paper lining the drawer was made of. He emptied the drawer, and carefully pulled out the paper. It was a map, an old worn, torn, tattered yellowed map. And, to his glee, it was a map of the whole state. He was familiar with the area, having grown up near here, but having a map was great. Something he could judge scale by. He laid it out on the kitchen table, and spent the rest of the evening poring over it. Girl snorted at him, but he just smiled and bent over the map.

He found the mountain fairly accurately portrayed, and Devonsville was right where it should be. He found what he wanted to find, Wellston. Maybe three or four miles southeast of Devonsville. Interesting. He began to plan a long journey, maybe an overnight one.


                              --==+==--


That evening he assembled some supplies, and found his old backpack. He packed two blankets in it, and a few days supply of beef jerky. That night, he told Girl of his plans to scout the area, without telling her of his real intentions. He felt slightly guilty about it, this was the first time he'd consciously deceived her, but he felt like what he was trying to do was important. He just hoped and prayed that it wouldn't cause him to lose her. He didn't actually worry that it would, since the way she had talked made it seem that she wasn't anxious to return to her people. After the things Ableard had said about the breakdowns in social services and society in general he didn't think he could be forced to give her up by her folk. He was confident Girl had every intention of staying with him. But he felt like she needed to see her people again, to let them know she was okay. He just wasn't sure how she'd react when she realized what was going on.

The next morning, bright and early, he grabbed his bow, and they set out. He wished he had a way to lock the cabin, but he just had to trust the dogs would do well on guard duty. They hadn't let him down yet. They headed off down the mountain, sometimes led or sometimes followed by Bear.

Fall was just around the corner. He could feel it in the air. The morning was brisk and cool. He felt young, walking along beside her, holding her hand. Last night had been a wild one with her. He was glad, that meant it was short and sweet, along with wild. He felt like he'd gotten enough sleep for once. Sleeping with her was hard on him at times, because not a lot of sleeping got done. It wasn't like they had sex the whole time, often she slept, and he just lay there and held her, drinking her in, loving her. He realized sometimes that he was worshiping her. He did it for hours, just watching her breathe in and out. That would be enough for him, if that's all he had. It had been for a long time, he remembered. But now... now he had it all. He never thought he'd be this happy, before the Fall or after. But he knew the dangers in happiness, he knew how easy it was for it to be taken away. He could not imagine living with the desolation again, if she left him. He knew he would not survive it. He couldn't, at this stage.

He watched her as she walked. He liked to let her get a few feet ahead of him, so he could watch her butt as she walked. She looked fine in jeans. She had a fine butt. This is why the bad guys get the drop on you every time, he told himself, all you do is stare at her butt when you should be paying attention to your surroundings. It was a hard habit to break, though.

They quickly came to Devonsville, and walked down the main street to the diner. It was breakfast time, and pretty much the whole town was assembled in the diner, as usual. They left Bear outside to guard his backpack and bow, and he found Ableard, who invited them to sit at his table. They ordered, and sat, and passed a pleasant hour talking and listening to the local gossip. Finally, he stood, and Girl followed, standing also.

"Ableard. It's been fun, but we're hitting the road. We're going exploring, on down the mountain, and to the East a bit. We'll see you around, okay?"

His plan was to actually go East, for a while, and then go South and back West. He didn't know if he could fool her, but he was going to try.

They all shook hands, and Clipper and Girl collected Bear and his gear and departed. They left town, still heading South, angling off to the East as the day progressed. Clipper didn't want to just march directly to Wellston, that would be too obvious. He wanted it to look like an accident. Girl was no dummy, though.

"Are you taking me to Wellston?" she said, conversationally, as they walked through the tall grass of a meadow.

Shit. So much for the accident part, he thought.

"Girl. We'll be in the area. I think it's only right to stop in, and see your grammaw, at least. Let her know you're alright. It's the right thing to do."

Girl was silent. They walked further and further down the mountain. Clipper wondered for the millionth time what was going through her head.

She stopped, and turned to him.

"I'll do this for you, just because you've done so much for me," she said, staring into his eyes, her face set.

"Thank you," he said, because he didn't know what else to say.

"If I thought you were taking me back to stay, I'd gut you," she said, and he had a hard time keeping a straight face, although he knew that she was serious.

"Girl." He said, stopping and hugging her against his body. He felt like crying. "Girl, what did these people do to you? Why have you turned your back on them?"

"It ... it wasn't me ..." she said, "it was the other girl. They didn't treat her ... right. Sometimes she got beat on and shit. They didn't care about her much."

"Girl. The people that didn't treat her well... were they the people that died, of the plague?"

That was good for another five minutes of walking and thinking. Jeezus, he thought. I'm just ready to know this stuff, though. I want to know more about her. And she needs to work this stuff out of her head, and if I can help her, I should.

"Yes, mostly." She said. That was all? That was the end result of five minutes of deep thought?

"Well, when they died, that died with them. Girl, you need to forgive and forget. Well, don't forget, don't let it happen again, but don't let it run or ruin your life. You have to get over this stuff, or it just sits in your brain and festers and bleeds. Forgive them, and move on. They've moved on, right?"

"Right." she said. They walked another few minutes in silence.

"Clipper."

"What?"

"You said they've moved on. Where did they move too?"

Oh, jeezus. A philosophical discussion, now? As they tramped through the woods? Now she suddenly wants to talk fast? He had no idea what she believed, if anything. He'd never talked to her about church, or God, or what he or she believed. He wasn't sure if this was a good time, just because probably not enough time would be available. Wellston was only three or four more miles down the mountain. Good grief.

"Girl. I have to be honest with you. I have no idea. I have no idea what's out there, what comes next."

Amazingly, she came right back at him. Shit, he thought, she smells blood, like a shark. She's already moving in for the kill.

"Clipper. You have strong ideas about stuff. You don't have one about this?"

"Girl, I really don't. I haven't spent a lot of time on it. You know that I'm not a deeply religious person. You've spent enough time with me to know that. But I don't want to change what you believe. I want you to be comfortable with your... ideas. Your beliefs. I don't want to spoil anything for you."

"I don't have any beliefs," she said, "the other girl did, but I don't."

"Well, I hate to say it, but that kind of describes me. I may not be right, but I just don't know. I'm.. what's the word? Agnostic? There's something out there, but I don't think that any of the organized religions have it right."

She thought for another hundred footsteps. Lord, he thought, conversations with her can be wearying, at times.

"You remember what it was like before you were born?" she finally said. What a nonsensical question, he thought, but he treated it seriously.

"No, Girl. I don't."

"That's what it's like after you die." She said. She didn't say anything else for the next mile. He guessed the conversation was over. He understood what she was trying to say, but he felt a twinge of sympathy for her, that she didn't have some special, faith-based belief to sustain her. He knew she was strong, though, she'd proved that to him. He felt like he understood her just a little bit better. He felt like that every day.


                              --==+==--


He let Girl guide them. She took them, unerringly, straight to Wellston. They came out of the trees, and stood before a road that curved slightly, and led right into town. Maybe a hundred assorted houses and buildings. He was surprised Wellston had showed on the old map, it was so tiny. Girl never slowed down, she just arrowed into town.

They walked down a small main street. Not a soul was in sight. The buildings were old, old... from way before way before the Fall, not just simply way before the Fall. Jeezus, he thought. Amazingly, a burned out car even sat beside the road. Nobody cared enough to even clean the messes up. Girl turned onto a side street, and headed for a battered, dilapidated house. She was marching like a soldier, now, he thought. She was resolute. She had a purpose. He wondered if she was eager to see her people, or if she just wanted to get it over to please him, and then move on.

He followed her right up the porch, and she went right into the house without knocking. Shit, he thought, hoping they didn't get shot. He followed her, of course, after dropping his pack and telling Bear to stay.

"Grammaw!" It was the loudest noise he had ever heard her make, and it made him jump. She turned to him, holding her arms out like she was saying, "See? Nobody home ..."  when they heard a shuffling noise from the hallway, and out of the dimness a woman emerged. She was old, tired and worn, Clipper would have guessed her age to be anywhere between 50 and 80. Mountain people just aged like that, you couldn't always tell. The woman looked like she'd been through a lot. It showed on her face.

There was dead silence for a while. The woman just stared at them, mostly at Girl. She opened her trembling mouth, and said, "lawd ... mercy, lawd, chile ... is it really you? Analisa? Is it really you?"

Girl suddenly shrieked, and stumbled forward, wrapping her hands around the little woman. Clipper could hear her sobbing, and the woman sobbed back. Shit, thought Clipper, I am so out of here. He slowly backed up and went back out on the porch, sitting on a dangerous looking porch swing. He heard occasional wails and weeping through the screen beside him, but he ignored it. He felt tears in his eyes several times, but he wiped his eyes, petted the dog and thought about other things.

He figured a half hour had passed, when Girl opened the screen door. She was dry-eyed now at least. She motioned brusquely, and he stood up and went back in the house. He followed her into the kitchen and sat in a chair. Girl somewhat possessively sat in his lap and they watched as the old woman began to cut up a chicken.

"Bill Maize ... you remember him? You remember his daughter Jessi? She is having a baby in October, I think ... they moved into the Platt place just the other day, to be ready for it ..."

Girl nodded at the woman's stories. The stories went on for quite a while. Finally the woman lapsed into silence.

"Grammaw." Girl said quickly, to get some words in edgewise. "This is Clipper. He saved my life, more than once. I live with him now, like I said."

The old woman stopped, and regarded him for a moment. He could tell she was no simpleton, by now. He knew she was survivor, and that she probably thrived under conditions that would kill a flat-lander. These mountain folk were like that. They were used to hardship. This woman, he thought, she is no stranger to hard times. Civilization fell? The country went to hell? No problem for her, no real difference, the way she lived. The woman was a survivor.

"Pleased to meecha," the woman said, approaching. Clipper shook her bony little claw. "Much obliged, you taking care of the girl."

"It was ... no problem. My pleasure," he said, carefully. He didn't want to give too much away. He wished Girl hadn't sat on his lap so flagrantly. He felt like she was daring the woman to notice. Of course the woman noticed. Her sharp eyes probably noticed things he'd never see.

"Ana. Your room in the attic is just like you left it. I don't let folk go in there, without a reason."

Girl nodded. The woman continued.

"Poor little Vessica asks about you almost every day. I think it's habit, mostly, she prolly don't remember much about you, it's been so long. They will be over, in a few hours and you can see her."

Girl turned slightly to look at Clipper. He wondered if she was wanting him to say, no, we have to leave. He sure wasn't going to do that, not after this. He felt like he was finding more and more out about her. He was starting to wonder if her perceptions about being mistreated were misperceptions. He couldn't imagine her outright lying to him about it, but he knew how kids were. Sometimes their perceptions of reality weren't very accurate. He couldn't imagine this woman mistreating her. That the woman still loved her deeply was obvious to him. But most of all, he didn't want Girl to think that he doubted her. He didn't want anything to come between them. He felt more confident, at least, that coming here wasn't a mistake.

They sat in the kitchen for another hour as Girl's grammaw fried chicken and mashed potatoes. The front door slammed, and Clipper tensed up. Girl slid off his lap and disappeared into the living room. Squeals and cries soon echoed into the kitchen as apparently more and more people entered the house. Clipper turned his head back, and jumped. Girl's grammaw was standing barely two feet away, holding a large cooking fork in his face.

"Mister," she whispered fiercely. "If that girl wan't so crazy about you, I'd skin you alive. Carry'n on with a young'n like that!"

"Mrs. ... Miss ... grammaw ..." he said, unsure what to call her. "I treat that girl like my daughter. She's the daughter I lost, in the Fall. I've saved her life, like she said, but she's also saved mine, more than once. I owe her my life. I would never hurt her or abuse her. You must believe me when I say that I love her more than life itself."

The woman still glared at him, but he thought she had softened slightly. She can't know, he thought, she can't really know the depths of our relationship. She might suspect, but she can't know. He wished again he hadn't let Girl sit on his lap. That did look a bit suspect, he thought. He wasn't sure what she really meant by "carryin' on."

"Well, treat her nice. That little girl has been through a lot. Her momma was not always nice to her, and her daddy was a drunkard. You just be nice to her, or you'll deal with me. Hear?"

"Yes, ma'am." he said. "I promise you that. I can promise you that. No one will be nicer to her than me."

The woman brandished the fork one last time, and turned back to the stove. He breathed a sigh of relief. Lord. He hadn't planned on that, although he wasn't sure what he'd thought people's reactions would be, when Girl's relationship with him became apparent.

Girl burst through the door, holding a child on one hip and smiling. She motioned to him, and disappeared back into the living room. He got to his feet, feeling old and weary, and went into the next room.

The next two hours were a blur of introductions, hand shaking and even some hugging. Girl was treated like royalty returning from exile, and he was treated pretty well. He could see the frank, appraising glances from the adults, though. They all suspect, he thought, but they don't know for sure. Whew. Good for him. He still didn't really know how much law was left in this little corner of the world, but he sure didn't want to try and explain his relationship with Girl to a judge. He fervently hoped he wouldn't have to.

They sat at the table and had the finest meal that Clipper could ever remember, before or after the Fall. He knew his heart was probably pumping pure cholesterol but he didn't care. It was good. They all moved back into the tiny living room and talked until the kids began nodding off.

He talked shop with the menfolk, hunting and fishing and rifles and such, guy stuff. The menfolk didn't seem to have the reservations about him the women did. If anything, Clipper thought, they're probably jealous of me. He knew how attractive she was. He could see their eyes on her, when she was in the room. She glowed, she positively glowed, and every now and then she caught his eye and giggled. Sometimes she was carrying a baby, or maybe she was being led around by the younger kids. She seemed to be having a great time. He was glad.

At some point in the evening, Clipper stepped outside onto the porch, halfway to check on Bear, and halfway just to get out of the chaos of the living room. He heard the screen door slam behind him, and turned. One of Girl's aunts, he remembered by the name of Rachel, stood at the door. The woman strode right up to him, either fearless or crazy, he thought.

"Mister," she said, piercing him with her gaze. "What exactly is your relationship with my niece?"

Shit. Well, shit, he thought. Do I wanna tell the truth? Do I wanna just out and out admit it? Or do I wanna start lying about it? What he had with Girl was special and so powerful to him that he just didn't feel like lying about it. But, he didn't want to land both of them in hot water, either. Shit, shit. Stupid snoopy women, always having to know shit. Sigh.

"Mrs. ..." he waited, forcing her to tell him.

"Chilton. Rachel Chilton." She said.

"Mrs. Chilton, I love your niece very much, and have grown extremely attached to her. She is the daughter I lost, in the Fall. She has saved my life, and I owe that to her, that and many other reasons. She has given me a purpose, and reason to live again." He felt bad about some of what he said, since most folks didn't have sex with their daughters. But, he felt, in so many ways, it was the truth. It should never hurt to tell the truth. Well, the whole truth could be painful, at times. This was one of those times. He decided he sure wasn't gonna tell the truth about his relationship with Girl to this woman. Shit no.

"Well, I hope that you can keep a clear head on your shoulders, and keep your distance on those long winter nights." the woman said, still gazing at him suspiciously. Shit, he thought, what does she really want? Me just to come out and say it?

"Mrs. Chilton, the particulars and details of my relationship with ... Analisa ... are my business, and hers. But I will admit we are very close. I will gladly admit that I love her more than life itself. I will not harm a hair on her head. I will not mistreat her. That is not my nature, anyway. I can't, I just can't. Your niece is the sweetest and most precious girl in the world, and the time I spend with her I value more than anything else in my life. I love her dearly, and I hope that you can accept that. I love her, and I believe that she loves me."

He didn't really know where to go after that. The woman just stared at him for a few moments longer, and then nodded.

"I'll accept that. I guess I have no choice, things being what they are now." she said. They stood for a few moments, and it seemed to Clipper that she was sizing him up.

"Mr..." she said, doing to him what he'd done to her.

"Clipper. Just Clipper."

"Mr. just Clipper." she said. He didn't know if she was making a joke or not. He didn't laugh. "This girl has had a hell of a life so far, what with her mother and father loving the bottle so much. She has suffered much, for one so young. It doesn't always leave marks. Just be nice to her, for god's sake. Please be nice to her. She has suffered. I gotta admit, she seems like she's come out of her shell now. If you are the one that's done that, good for you... keep it up. But, please. Treat her right. Give her a chance, a chance to grow, and be something. Let her make something of herself. She's been stepped on too many times, way too many. Do you understand?"

To his embarrassment, Clipper felt two hot tears streak down his cheek.

"Mrs. Chilton." He said, struggled to keep his voice even. "She is the most perfect, most beautiful precious thing in my life. I will never hurt her, or let her be hurt willingly. I love her more than life. And, yes, I'll give her space. I'll give her the freedom and the chance to do whatever she wants."

"Clipper. Mostly we wanna know... did you bring her back to us, or are you two just visiting?"

He was silent for a while on that one. At last he said, "that's for her to decide, Rachel. That's for her to decide."





Everyone left at last. Well, kind of, two children stayed, children who apparently often spent the night with their great-grammaw. Clipper and Girl had a hurried intense conversation on the front porch.

"Clipper." Girl said, burying herself in his arms. He hugged her tightly, just wanting to remind her a little bit how much he loved her. How much he could love her.

"What?" they stole a quick kiss, hoping no one was watching. Well, he hoped that. He didn't figure she was that concerned about it. She still has, he thought, for all my talk, no idea of the trouble that she could probably get me in. Even as sketchy as the law is in this area. And sloppy kisses on grammaw's front porch probably aren't a good idea, either.

"Can we... can we stay tonight?"

"Girl. We don't have much of a choice. It's dark out there already. It's too late to make a camp. Plus, it's the right thing to do. Yes, we'll stay here tonight."

She nodded.

"The couch in the living room will be fine for me." he said. She had a surprised, almost petulant look on her face. He snorted.

"Girl. We are not going to sleep together here. In fact, I'm not touching you again until we leave town."

She pouted, sticking her bottom lip out. He knew she was just joking, hamming it up. He hoped she was, at least. They had to break it up, the two little girls came out on the porch about that time, looking for Girl. Or Ana, as the whole family seemed to call her. Clipper followed her back inside.

She helped him get Bear bedded down on an old blanket on the porch, and then he bedded down on the couch, next to the wood-burning stove. She slept with the little girls in the back bedroom. Girl's grammaw brought him a blanket, and he wrapped up in it, and let the hissing and popping stove carry him away. When he woke up, it was morning.


                              --==+==--


When they left, sometime in the afternoon after two more great meals, they turned back towards Devonsville. There was really no reason to pretend any longer, Clipper thought. Without talking about it, they headed home. Good, he thought. He was ready to go home. He thought, though, that the trip had been a success. Now her family knew, at least, that she was still alive and safe. He fervently hoped they believed that she was in good hands, with him. He hoped that the trip had accomplished some things, some good things. It was right to let them know that she was alright. It was right to let her enjoy some time with her family, as she had seemed to. The whole trip had more positives than negatives to him, even though he had taken some heat from her people. He knew that the age gap was the big problem. And, to most of them, she was still a child. He wondered what they would think if they had seen her slam her knife into that guy's eye socket. Or, if they could see her atop him, pounding away on him the way she did. Any more, kids didn't get to stay kids for long. Only the lucky ones.

They had to promise Girl's grammaw and most of the others that they'd return. Clipper didn't mind that, and he hoped Girl didn't mind. She'd seemed to have a good time, and she seemed very comfortable around the people. Her people. He was glad that he had given that to her, and to them. He was glad it had turned out so well. Most of all he was glad she was going back home with him.

That morning she had taken him up into the attic, to her room. It was tiny and already hot, but he understood the magic and symbolism of it to her. She'd sat on the little bed and looked around, and said, "I was happy here. It was the only place, sometimes. But I was happy here." That had made the trip worthwhile to him, that had made the trouble worth it. He knew he'd done the right thing. She stood and he hugged her to his body and they just stood there in the little room. She snuffled a few times but she didn't cry, and then she pulled away and they went back downstairs.

Girl never spoke, the whole trip home. He hoped that she wasn't mad at him for basically forcing the trip on her. And he hoped she wasn't mad at him for taking her back away from them. She was damn hard to read, at times... all the time.

When they got home, all was well. Clipper fed the dogs while Girl played with the big pretty-much-fully-grown puppies. She looked up at him, laughing, holding onto a wriggling dog by the neck, and he knew that she was okay. She was just fine. Nothing was between them because of the visit. Nothing was changed. He would hold her a little harder, tonight, to make up for that night he missed. He would stay awake just a little longer, and hold her.


Chapter XX


A few days after the meeting with Girl's people, Clipper got the itch to try some more panning. They were running out of a lot of things, and their cash supply was pretty low. He gathered up his pan, some jerky, his bow, fishing rods, and on impulse he strapped the AK on his back just in case something worth shooting showed up. They took off to the east along the side of the mountain into country that Clipper had never seen before. An Indian summer was in full swing, and the weather was beautiful. It felt great to be outdoors. Great to be alive, even. Bear bounded far and wide, investigating smells and noises as they tramped through the trees.

They found a creek immediately with a nice sandy beach, and Clipper spent an hour without turning up even a single flake of gold. As she often did when it was this warm, Girl stripped down and got full benefit from the water to get clean and to splash with Bear. It was distracting to no end for Clipper because she was so damn good looking, and it was hard to pan with a hard-on. He eventually quit in disgust for lack of color in the pan, and they moved on alongside the mountain. By afternoon they had tried two more creeks, with no success. He was already thinking to head West the next time. They got hungry enough to stop for a quick lunch, and then moved on, down the mountain a ways this time. Finally, they found a fourth creek, a river this time.

Within a few minutes he knew that this was the spot. Lots and lots of dust was in his pan, on the first dip and swirl. He worked it for several hours, not wanting to leave, but not wanting to stay out after dark either, especially this far from home. He gathered up their stuff, which now included half a leather pouch of dust and flakes and they set out for home. It had been a very successful day, he thought, and he fixed the place in his mind with every intention of coming back as early as he could. Maybe even tomorrow.

Bear began to growl softly, and looked ahead of them. Clipper looked, and saw nothing but trees. Silly dog, he thought. Probably a rabbit or something. Maybe another dog. Bear growled louder, and Clipper glanced at Girl, who did her "I don't know" shoulder shrug.

"Freeze!" a voice said, loudly and plainly, and they did. Shit, did they ever. Just hearing a voice, out here, in the middle of nowhere, would be enough. But a voice, barking out a command like that ...

Shit, he thought. Caught again. The bow was in his hand, but he didn't have an arrow nocked. The gun was on his back. He caught Girl's eye, and could see the fear on her face. He was sure he had a little on his, too. He carefully let the bow fall to the ground, and raised his arms high. He did not want to get shot on accident. Well, he did not want to get shot on purpose, either. He just plain did not want to get shot.

Twenty five feet in front of them, a man stepped from behind a tree, holding a M4 on them. Then another, a few feet away. Then another. Shit, oh shit, he thought. One was bad enough. Within a few moments he guessed six or seven men stood before them. Heavily armed men in uniforms. He knew the uniform. He knew that round red circle, on an olive green background. Peacekeepers. They had been downwind until the last second and in defilade from the trail so he couldn't have seen them, until Bear barely got a whiff at the last minute. Classic ambush. Clipper was unused to professionals this far out in the mountains.

Bear went insane, but at least he didn't charge the men. Girl spoke sharply to him, telling him to shut up and sit. He didn't sit but he calmed down a little, still growling deep in his throat. Girl motioned and told him to go! go! and he went a ways away from them, and turned, watching and still growling. Clipper felt sick, afraid that the soldiers would just shoot her dog, to keep from having to worry about him. One approaching soldier, he noticed, did keep his gun on the dog.

Shit, he thought to himself. Fucking Peacekeepers. On this mountain? Here, now? What the hell were they doing way up here? It was the single most hopeless situation he had ever found himself in. He knew that the AK on his back was a death sentence in the wrong area. In virtually any populated area. Technically, anywhere in the USA. It wasn't a law, there really weren't laws anymore, since there wasn't really a legal system anymore. But that's just the way it'd been the last ten years or so. Cops or Peacekeepers... if they found a gun on you, they popped you. It was just the way it was done now.

He looked at Girl desperately, and mouthed "I love you." to her. She replied the same way. If I must die I must, he thought. Just spare her.


                              --==+==--


A soldier approached him. The other soldiers clustered around them in a semi-circle, half their guns on him and Girl, the other half facing out scanning the area around them. A single man approached and motioned him to step back a few paces. He did. The man knelt and retrieved his bow, his eyes never leaving Clipper. The man did a turn-around motion and Clipper turned halfway, hoping he wouldn't get a bullet in the back. The man approached from the side, so he wasn't in the line of fire of his buddies and carefully took the AK from Clipper's back, lifting the sling over Clipper's upraised arm. He patted Clipper down, finding his folding knife and his two throwing knives. Clipper knew that possession of the rifle was bad, and he was glad that he hadn't brought the pistol today. The man searching him yelled "Clear," and another man approached keeping his weapon on Clipper while the first man took clipper's arms by the wrist and brought them down one at a time and placed a plastic tie wrap around his wrists.

Clipper was praying the whole time that Girl didn't do anything stupid. He wasn't too worried, she wasn't stupid. But he kept thinking of those knives beneath her shirt. There were just too many soldiers, though. And he thought it was a good sign that the soldiers hadn't just gunned them both down instantly. He knew that's the way it was usually done. He'd seen it done, before.

A man led him away, and stopped him a few dozen feet down the mountain. He could see Girl out of the corner of her eye as the first soldier approached her. He heard her voice, and the man's reply, though he couldn't understand them. The man immediately lifted her shirt and took the knives from her belt. Clipper was relieved that she had apparently told them about the knives and hoped that the men would be easy with her. They seemed to be. They did not tie her wrists, a man just led her with his hand on her upper arm. They joined Clipper and his escort and the half-dozen or so of them set off across the mountain followed by Bear, still growling. No one talked, so Clipper kept his mouth shut, too.

A mile later they passed through a picket line and then fifty yards past that came to a little camp. Five olive-green tents were laid out nice and square, and a fire burned as a soldier tended a large pot. It smelled like soup. The soldiers halted them in the clearing, and one of the men went into a tent. A minute later he emerged and motioned them inside. Before they went the man turned Clipper around and cut the tie from his wrist. Clipper hoped that meant something good. They entered the tent, followed by one soldier, who stood at the door. Bear followed them into the tent, and things stopped for a moment while Girl got him settled down in the corner. At least he had stopped growling.

A man stood in the tent. There was no furniture, just a cot. The man took a step, and shook Clipper's hand. Clipper didn't understand military insignias, but this guy had silver bars and other things that the other guys didn't seem to have. Obviously, he was the man in charge. His mannerisms gave that away, too.

"I am lieutenant Grady. And you are Mr. ...?" the man said.

"Clipper. Just Clipper," he said, and the man nodded. He turned to Girl.

"This is my wife, Girl." Clipper said, and the man shook her hand, too.

"I'd invite you to sit, but ..." the man said, laughing slightly.

"I understand," said Clipper, feeling more and more at ease. Maybe he wasn't a dead man. Maybe not yet.

"Clipper, I'm not sure what you are doing here. I would have just left you alone, had I been with the patrol. I think they just didn't know what to do with you. Sometimes that happens."

"I understand," said Clipper.

"We were stationed in Skipps, until a few weeks ago. After Skipps fell apart, they moved us to Beggs. Nobody knows what to do with us, now. We'll probably end up out of state, eventually. Right now we're doing an overnight thing, to change the batteries in a repeater on top of the mountain. The guys were hunting rabbits and generally making sure the area was secure when they ran into you. I hope you were treated... professionally."

"Oh, yes, yes, sir, no complaints," Clipper said, more and more relieved. I might actually live through this, he thought. The guy almost seemed apologetic.

"Clipper. I know that we have a bad rep among citizens. Times have been hard for all of us. But we're not the bad guys, I want you to know that. I want people to see that, and understand that we're here to help as much as we can. Resources are scarce and I know things have happened in the past, on both sides. If this country is ever gonna pull itself up by the bootstraps, were gonna all have to get along and work together."

"I agree, sir," said Clipper, when the man seemed to pause and wait for a reaction from him. He felt Girl's hand sneak into his, and he grabbed her and pulled her against his body.

"Hey, we're fixin' to have some soup. You guys stay, and eat with us? Yes?" Grady said.

Clipper nodded, relieved. They were going to live through this one, it looked like.

They sat on logs, with the soldiers, and had some really good, weapons-grade vegetable-and-rabbit soup. And crackers, even. Clipper and the Lieutenant chatted, and the guy complimented them on their well-behaved dog. Clipper was relieved that Bear was being so well-behaved.

"That dog killed a man a few weeks back." he told the lieutenant. The man raised his eyebrow.

"Seriously." said Clipper. "Some crazy, wild-eyed maniac. He snuck up on us, in the woods. He's where I picked up that AK. He was fixing to shoot me when the dog tore open his throat."

"Damn." said the man, looking at the dog with new respect.

"Lieutenant." said Clipper, curious. "When that happens, is there anyone I should tell? Anyone I can tell? Tell them there's a body out there in the woods, for instance?"

The lieutenant was silent for a while, thinking. At last he said, "no, not really. Unless you have a local cop or something. I mean, if we are in the area, we can deal with it... we'll bury the guy, at least, to keep him from stinking up the mountainside. Clipper. Living here in the hills, you don't really get the big picture. But things have really gone to shit in the cities. Dead bodies are a dime a dozen, in the urban areas."

"Yeah." said Clipper. "I saw some of that. I've only been up here in the hills for five or six months."

"I love it up here. My guys love it up here. So peaceful. But that's not what we're for. That's not what we do. I'm sure we'll get stuck in some shithole, when we leave here. Skipps ... Skipps was nice. I hated to see it burn. It was ... such a waste. So foolish."

"What started it?"

"No idea. There were some rumors about disease or plague or something, a few days before. And we heard a truck had overturned, a few miles up, and as you might guess, the only trucks that ran were usually carrying groceries. We figured maybe people were just getting hungry. Joe citizen does not handle hungry very well, unfortunately."

"Yeah." said Clipper. He'd seen that himself. He'd actually felt it himself, more than once. Hunger. He understood.

"Lieutenant."

"Yes?" the man could tell it was something serious.

"Do I get my gun back?"

The man sighed, and leaned back as best he could.

"Yeah, I'll give it back. I'm not supposed to, you understand. I'm supposed to confiscate it, and run you in on an illegal weapons charge. But out here, in the wild, it's different. You know it, and I know it. Everybody carries out here, and usually carries responsibly. It's not like you're a gansta in the 'hood, with a little pearl-handled .25. We realize that. Out here, your weapon is your life."

"Once I saw a man outside Memphis get his ass shot for possession by the local fuzz," Clipper said.

"Yeah, that happens, more often than not. But it's not the way it's supposed to work. Clipper. This country is basically under martial law, right now, when there actually is law. To get back to where we were, before the Fall, that's going to have to change, as well. And I know that the military has a bad rep right now, among the citizens. We have to work on that. We got stuck with the bad shit, when the shit went down. We have to change, as well. We all have to change."

Clipper nodded. "Well, you've changed my mind. But I don't mind telling you, your guys scared the shit out of me, at first."

"Yeah. We do that. We don't mean to, but we do that."


                              --==+==--


When they walked away, it was way later than what he'd ever intended on staying out. His AK had been returned, as had all their knives. They beat it for home, hurrying, arriving an hour after sunset. All was well. Clipper fed the dogs, locked down the chickens, and they barred the door and dropped onto the couch in front of the fire. Girl crawled on top of him, and he nuzzled and loved on her, making her giggle. He was glad to be alive. Glad, and relieved. He understood what the lieutenant had been trying to say, though. He, like the man, hoped for a better future. He felt like the whole country was ready. But it was going to take some time. Time, and hard work. That was for the young folks, though, he thought. I'm too tired. It's all I can do just to keep up. Girl sighed, and stretched, her nice warm round bottom in his lap. It's all I can do to keep up with her, he thought.


Chapter XXI


One brisk late afternoon found them a ways down the mountain, to the West. Unexplored territory. They hadn't really found much, not even wild game. They came out of a treeline into a wide clearing, and Girl grabbed his sleeve and yanked him down into the tall grass before he knew what was happening. "People." She said, motioning ahead of them. Shit. The dogs, Fang and Bear, even hunkered down, realizing something was up. He slowly raised up, and saw, sure enough, people. A whole shitload of people. Maybe two hundred feet in front of them, headed away from them, at least.

"Those guys are tied up," she whispered to him, and he raised again, trying to see, wishing he had binoculars or something. It was just too far away.

"What do you mean, tied?" he said, his voice low.

"There are seven people," she explained patiently. "The four in the middle were tied together. By the neck and hands, I think."

Tied? What the hell was that about? He slowly stood. The people were out of sight by now, deeper into the woods.

"Clipper," Girl grasped him by the arm. She pulled him to face her. "Clip. One of the boys. I know one of the boys. I'm related to him, kind of ... I'm sure it's him ..."

She could see that far away? She could recognize somebody from behind as they walked away? Jeezus, he didn't want to doubt her, but that was pretty sketchy...

"Girl. What do you want to do? Go home or follow them?" He actually wanted to go home, but he would do what she wanted. If this really was one of her people he didn't want her to feel like he'd turned his back. He didn't really want to get involved in this, though. Not outnumbered by one bad guy. He did have the AK, at least, with a full clip. And Girl had the .45, with six rounds in it. It would have to do, if that's what she decided.

"Clipper," she whispered. "We have to. If it's really Dylan, we have to."

Shit. They had to. Okay. He started out in the direction the crowd had taken. She followed. He shouldered the bow, and checked that the AK was ready for action. He checked the automatic, and handed it back to Girl. She slid it into her waistband, and tucked her shirt in behind it, where it was exposed and easy to grab. He saw her do the same with her knives. God, he thought, losing focus for a moment. She looked sexier than hell to him, with her shirt tucked into her knife belt, and her long dark hair blowing back in the breeze. The expression on her face was serious. She looked like a bad-ass, he thought. She looked like someone who should definitely not be fucked with. He wanted to stop the chase for a few hours and nail her ass to the ground, right then and there, but he couldn't. He made sure the ridge of his thumb was on the safety of the AK, and they moved forward.

They tried to be as silent as they could although they were hundreds of feet back. Clipper caught a glimpse of someone through the trees and they pulled back even further. After a few hours of trekking through the brush the group of people stopped. Clipper and Girl stopped immediately when they realized things had stopped. It was late evening, and pretty dark already. He wondered if the people had stopped for the night. He badly wanted to be back in his cabin, the door barred.

They closed in a little, relying on trees and the dark for cover. Girl unnecessarily quietly shushed the dogs several times, but the dogs seemed to implicitly understand that stealth was the order of the day. Finally, they could barely make out an occasional figure, moving around, doing stuff. He smelled wood smoke and realized that someone had built a fire. They were settling in for the night it looked like. He tried to see the prisoners, if prisoners they were, but he just couldn't make out anything. Girl, even with her superior eyesight, couldn't tell him anything.

They pulled back a few hundred yards, and held a hurried conference. Clipper knew the folks were bedding down for the night. He knew they'd be here for a while. About all he and Girl could do is wait out the night. A night attack would be crazy and full of chaos, he thought. Gunfights in the dark were not a good thing. He'd be lucky not to shoot the prisoners or Girl, if shooting started.

He decided, now that it was good and dark, to spy on the captors a little. They crept forward, being as quiet and unobtrusive as they could. Finally, maybe a hundred yards from the fire, Clipper dropped to his hands and knees and motioned Girl to do the same. They slowly painstakingly drew closer. It was hard for him, he had to carry the AK, and limp along on one hand, with the AK in his other. He didn't want it on his back, he wanted to be able to use it in a hurry, if he had to. Girl had the pistol, and crawling with it was easier for her. The dogs, at least, stayed behind her.

Clipper realized they were just ten or fifteen yards from the fire. He jumped slightly as a man spoke, and he could plainly hear and understand what the guy said.

"I don't care what Elvis says. The law is on this mountain, too."

Another man spoke. "Big shit. From here we just gotta go straight downhill. We got it made, when we hook back up with Darnell and his crew. We got a few goobers for them. They'll know we can pull it off, now."

"Fuck you," the first man said. "Fuck you with a stick. We ain't off this hill yet."

There was silence for a few minutes.

"That boy gonna make trouble tonight?" That was a new voice. The third one.

"I don't think so. I told him I'd poke an eye out if he fucked with us again. An' he knows we're serious, after that shit he tried last night."

"Yeah."

There was silence for twenty minutes. The fire burned lower and lower. Clipper wondered if they were going to simply go to sleep at some point. He figured they'd leave a guard awake, they had the manpower to stagger a guard rotation. He would do that, at least.

He drew Girl back a few dozen yards, and they found a light brush pile to hide in. He slowly, carefully, over the space of five minutes, whispered his plan to her. It wasn't much of a plan. She nodded, in the dim light. They lay back, in each others arms, and waited for morning. Clipper didn't worry too much about going to sleep, he was too keyed up to sleep. The dogs came in close, and kept them warm, at least. And, the dogs would let them know if anyone came close.

The hours crept by slowly. This would be horrible, he thought, if I weren't holding a pretty girl in my arms. He could tell at last that she was sleeping from her even breathing, but he never went to sleep, he was too keyed up. The Eastern sky began to brighten. He knew morning wasn't far away. He sat up, and then carefully stood, his joints creaking. Laying on the ground in cool weather was hard on an old man, he thought. Girl jumped up quickly and quietly, and seemed ready for anything. He envied her youth.

They moved over a little, to put a few large trees in between themselves and the camp. They waited a little longer. Clipper's plan was simple. He was just going to go in, put the guns on the bad guys, and walk away with the prisoners. He'd shoot the bad guys, if he had to. He had no idea if they were armed, or not. He didn't know of any other way, the prisoners had been right in the middle of the captors, last night. If the prisoners had been on the ground a few dozen feet or more away, he might have tried to sneak up and free them. But they hadn't been. He hoped that superior firepower and a couple of bad-ass dogs would tip the scales to their favor. He knew that guns weren't that common anymore. He hoped that all three of the men were lightly armed.

He seized Girl, and pressed his lips to hers. They stood and kissed, and kissed again. "Stay behind me," he ordered her quietly, hoping to shield her if things got out of hand. He carefully slid the slide back half an inch on the AK to make sure a round was in the chamber. He'd only ever fired the gun once, well, he'd let Girl fire it once, and he knew it functioned. He made sure that Girl had the .45 in her hand, pointing away from him and cocked. They turned towards the fire. The dogs were at his feet, as he moved slowly forwards.

Shit. When they came out into the clearing, only two men were standing. Where the hell is the other motherfucker? He thought. Shit, shit. Something snapped under Girl's foot, and the two men turned, surprise evident on their faces. Clipper could see Girl's arm alongside his head, holding the automatic on the men. He had the AK on them. The men wisely froze, one of them opening his mouth like he wanted to say something. About that time, the prisoners figured out something was going on, and three of the four of them began babbling and shouting. Shit, it was chaos, thought Clipper. And he still didn't know where the other guy was.

He said, "Shut up!" as loud as he could, and was rewarded with silence. The two men seemed to be smarter than they looked, and they were slowly lifting their arms into the air.

"What the fuck was all ... that ... about ..." The third guy said, suddenly appearing from behind his two buddies while zipping up his pants. What a time to take a leak, thought Clipper. What the hell. It's morning. Everybody pees in the morning. He should have thought of that and scouted more thoroughly. The third guy just stood there, blinking and staring in surprise.

"Get your fucking hands up!" Clipper yelled at the man. He plainly saw a revolver in the man's belt, and the guy suddenly jerked his whole body and made a grab for his gun. Clipper squeezed the trigger of the AK, flinching as Girl's .45 went off a thousandth of a second earlier just a foot from his face. Jeezus, I have to teach her better team shooting skills he thought. The guy had flipped over backwards as the two slugs smashed into him. The other two guys hunkered down, and there was a shocked silence, and then the prisoners started up again.

"Shut up!" yelled Clipper again. Dead silence once more, except for his ears which were ringing from the gunshot. A dog growled at his feet.

"Girl. Cut them loose. Your kin first."

She slowly lowered her pistol and dropped the hammer. She stuffed it into her waistband and went off to the side out of his field of vision, where the prisoners were. Clipper still felt a little danger, he didn't know if the prisoners represented any threat to her. He crab-walked to the side, and got behind the prisoners, his gun never leaving the two bad guys. Well, who he thought of as bad guys at the moment.

He heard Girl speak, and then the boy said something. It sounded like he said, "Okay." He heard a dog growling again softly from off to his left, and he knew that one of the dogs was with Girl. Good, he thought.

"Wait." Clipper said. "Girl. Give me your gun." He didn't want anybody grabbing it from her belt and using it on her. She came back and handed it to him without comment, a knife in her hand. He hoped she could take care of herself. His eyes never left the former captors. The two men looked more and more nervous. He realized that they would also get more and more desperate as they realized their plight. He tried to be ready for anything.

"Girl. Send one of those kids to me. The big guy." he said, and immediately the boy moved into his field of view.

"Yeah?" the kid said. Clipper motioned to the two men. "Go around behind them, and search them. Under their arms, and between their legs. Squeeze their balls, even. Make sure they don't have no guns or knives on them."

"Okay, but I don't wanna get shot by you either." the kid said. He was no dummy.

"I'll be careful." said Clipper. The kid took a wide semi-circle around his former captors, and came up behind them. He did pretty much what Clipper had asked, and Clipper saw the pain on each man's face as the kid squeezed their balls. He took that a little too literally, Clipper thought. The kid was thorough, pulling three knives off one man, and two off the other. The kid tossed them on the ground at Clipper's feet and then turned and went a few feet back to where the dead man lay. When he straightened back up he was holding the pistol the man had grabbed for. Clipper didn't panic yet because as far as he knew they were all still on the same side.

"Hey." he said. "Let the girl have that pistol."

"Nawww..." the kid said. "I think I'll feel safer if I keep it."

Shit. Clipper trusted the dog at their feet to keep the two kidnappers in line. He turned the AK on the kid.

"Drop it on the ground. Now!" he tried to sound intimidating. The kid looked at him for a second, or probably actually stared down the bore of the AK47.

"Shit. Don't freak, man." the kid said, casually. He turned, facing the kidnappers, and slowly raised the pistol, aiming at them. One of the captors waved his upraised hands, like somebody in a cartoon. It would have been funny, except for the reality of the situation.

The kid reached up and pulled the hammer back. Clipper held his breath. It wasn't doing any good to point the AK at the kid, the kid wasn't even looking his way. He felt like he'd lost control of the situation. The kid carefully sighted on the captor waving his hands, and the gun was loud in the still morning air. The man looked vaguely surprised, and his hands stopped waving. He fell, slowly. The other guy took off, wheeling and heading down the hill. The gun fired again, and the man kept running. The next shot nailed his ass, though, and he tumbled head over heels and lay on the ground.

"Shit. Shit!" Clipper almost shouted, frustrated. He was going to just let the guys go, not kill them. Shit, he thought, I'm too civilized for this age. I'm too old fashioned.

"Don't pop a 'roid, gramps." the kid said, turning, and tossing the gun at Clipper's feet. "It had to be done. You don't want them coming back and looking for you, do you? I don't. I did you a favor, man."

Clipper sighed, and nodded. He took two steps forward, and held out his hand, and the kid shook it. The kid was right, he thought. I don't want two pissed off bad guys searching the hills for me either. It probably was better this way. He bent over, and picked up the pistol, and stuffed it into his waistband.

Girl approached from the side, with the youngest boy in tow. "Dylan, Clipper. Clipper, Dylan." she said, and Clipper nodded at the boy. He looked to be thirteen or fourteen or so. He looked scared, but resolute. He was holding Girl's hand. The other three approached, including the boy that had shot the bandits. They all just stood and stared at each other for a few moments. The boy that had done the shooting looked the oldest, probably eighteen or nineteen. The other two were maybe sixteenish.

"What town you kids from?" Clipper asked.

"Hartshorne." said the oldest boy. The other two boys were from Beggs, and the kid, Dylan, was from Wellston. Clipper wondered why he hadn't seen the kid the other night, at Girl's grammaw's house.

Well. What to do, next. Ableard came to mind. Ableard would know, he knew everything. He'd know how to get these kids back to their people. Clipper turned them all around, and they set out for Devonsville in the cool, damp morning air.

As they walked, they talked, and Clipper asked each one his story. The oldest boy had been at a nightclub, when he'd met the men. They'd taken him out back with the promise of girls, stuck the pistol in his gut, tied his arms, and led him away into the night.

The next two been picked up as they walked along a road, after sunset. It was just pure chance with them, apparently. Dylan, the boy, had been in a deserted house the men had chosen last night to overnight in. Well, true, it wasn't deserted if he was in it, but they had thought it was. He was easily picked up, he was just a kid.

"But why?" Girl asked. Clipper wondered the same thing. Why had the men been out, gathering up young men? Boys? What the hell for?

"China, man." said the oldest kid, appropriately named Chance. "I heard them talk about China. They were gonna get Chinese gold for us."

Clipper wasn't sure about that. All money now was Chinese gold. Maybe the kid was just confused. Still, what the hell were the men going to do with them all tied up? And boys? He wondered why a girl or two wasn't in the mix.

Chance laughed. He answered Clipper's question without it being asked. "Man, they were pissed that we weren't girls. They wanted girls. Girls pay better, but they're harder to pick up."

Shit, Clipper thought. Things have gotten so bad there's a slave trade going on around here? He tried to remember what he'd heard one of the captors say. Something about Elvis? He couldn't remember. He knew they weren't talking about Elvis the Pelvis, from before the Fall.


                              --==+==--


The crowd was just starting to gather at the Sinclair diner when Clipper, Girl and the boys came out of the woods. Ableard Wilson was standing on the boardwalk, talking to some men, when they walked up. He motioned howdy to Clipper and Girl, raising his eyebrows at the crew of boys with them. He came over to them.

"Ableard." Clipper shook his hand. He pointed each boy out to the man. "Chance. Terry. Willis. Dylan." Ableard nodded to each of them. He shook Dylan's hand.

"This one I know. He's a local. What's up, Clipper?"

"We found these boys a few miles down the mountain. Three men had ropes around their necks and hands, and were taking them to somebody named Elvis. I'm not sure if that name's right, but they were prisoners, nonetheless. We were lucky to free them."

"Shit." Ableard just stared at the boys. "Clipper," he said. "man, you come up with the strangest shit." He shook his head.

His friend John was not so philosophical.

"It's the fucking Chinese slavers. They are moving through this area. The fucking judge in Hartshorne is in their pocket, man. Everybody in town knows that. He's a fucking crook, always has been. Best justice money can buy."

Ableard laughed.

"What's the judge's name?" Clipper asked, curious.

John turned to him. "Would you believe... Elvis Jaronecek? And I don't mean Elvis the singer."

Shit. Well, that was interesting.

"What happened to the men?" said Ableard. It was a logical question.

"Well... Girl and I shot one of them, he was going for his gun." He motioned to Chance. "Chance, here, got the other two." Chance blew on his knuckles like a gunfighter.

"Had to be done, man." He said. "Life's a bitch, and then you get shot by one."

"Ableard. How can I get these kids back to their people? Should we just walk them there?"

"Naw, we'll do it in the truck. You been up all night, right?"

Clipper nodded.

"Get your asses home and go to bed. John and I'll take care of them."


                              --==+==--


Clipper had Girl check her pockets, and she fished out a pretty good collection of little gold coins. The six of them, followed by Ableard and John, went on in the diner and ordered breakfast. The kids hadn't eaten in two days, and were famished.

"Girl." Clipper motioned her to his side.

"What?"

"What about this boy? Should we just take him to your grammaw's?"

"I guess we could... but I kinda thought we might just take him home," she said. She turned, and nodded reassuringly to the kid.

"Who does he belong to?" Clipper asked.

"He says he doesn't have anybody. He lived with his mom, but she went away with a soldier a few weeks ago. That's why he was living in that house where those guys found him."

"Why didn't he live with your grammaw?"

"He's from the other side of the family. I mean, she'd take him, she'd be glad to take him. But, why couldn't he live with us? You said the more the merrier, right?"

Shit. He had said that once. She had a way of remembering every little thing he'd ever said, and bringing it back up. You gotta watch that, he told himself.

He sighed. He'd be willing to try it, at least. The kid seemed well behaved, and bright and Girl was definitely attached to him. There's times when he'd be a real help. The only downside was a reduction in privacy. They'd deal with that, though.

"Sure, Girl, whatever you think. I don't mind." She smiled, and leaned over to kiss him.

"Girl. Not here," he said, and she giggled. She returned to the boy, and they whispered to each other. Clipper sighed again, and turned back to Ableard.


                              --==+==--


The boy worked out well. He acted like he was on probation, and was determined to impress. He helped with all the chores, virtually taking them over, feeding the chickens, keeping the hot water bucket full, and the fire stoked ... within days he made himself invaluable. Clipper finally had a talk with him, telling him basically that he had the job, he could stop killing himself. The kid just laughed, and kept on.

He was good company, too. He had his quiet thoughtful moments, but most of the time he carried on a good conversation about virtually anything. He was sharp, Clipper thought. The only thing he didn't seem to want to talk about was his situation, why he was on his own. Clipper understood. He didn't press him... it would come out, eventually. Dylan's mother was one of Girl's cousins, it turned out, so the two were related, but not too closely related. Clipper knew without thinking about it that that was good, for the future. He could tell, immediately, by their closeness, that their future was together. With each other. He was too old, for that nonsense. He just wanted to play, not make babies, which he couldn't do anyway. Thinking about it didn't really bother him, though, he knew that Girl was his, first. He had no fear of losing her.

Girl took it upon herself to train the boy. She dug through the knife drawer, and selected a few, and took Dylan out back, where they spent hours throwing knives. God, Clipper thought, the kids pick that crap up quick. Within days, Dylan was better than he ever was. Within a week, he was better than Girl, even. Clipper took the boy out, and let him shoot the .22 a few times, something he claimed to be good at. He was. They came home with a half dozen squirrels for the dogs, and they even had fried squirrel themselves that evening. He just let the boy have the .22, after that. Dog food was no longer a problem.

That quickly, Dylan integrated right into their little family. Within a month, Clipper couldn't imagine life without him. And best of all, he seemed to be good for Girl. He seemed to give her a purpose. He drew her further and further out of her shell. The two of them were very close, but at least Clipper never felt like his relationship with her was threatened. He knew that she was going to crawl into bed with him, at the end of the day. He never worried about that anymore. She owned him completely.


Chapter XXII


As the days shortened and cooled, Clipper began to pan for gold, seriously. He felt like they were fairly fixed up for the winter, food-wise, but they would need money. And panning for gold was the only way he knew how to make money. They returned time and time again to the big creek, to pan and fish, where they'd been the day they ran into the Peacekeepers. He had found another pan, and taught Dylan, and he and Dylan panned while Girl and Bear took baths and kept watch. To his pleasure he'd discovered that he could get his feet into Girl's original boots, the large plastic wader-looking things. They helped him greatly with both panning and fishing. He was fixed up, with those. The creek was a mother lode to him, and he actually wondered if it had been mined, before. It didn't look like it, at least not this spot.

Anyway. Soon his little bag of gold dust was over three quarters full. When the gold man showed up at Peck's store that month, they got a nice stack of tiny gold coins, to his satisfaction. They spent a good hour at the store, and Clipper splurged on winter coats for the three of them. Nice large arctic looking coats. He knew it would get cold, way up here on the mountain. He also got the three of them jumpsuits, to wear beneath their jackets. He got Girl a pair of heavy boots, winter-proof and waterproof, and Dylan a cheap pair of waterproof plastic boots for panning. He felt like they were ready for anything. Peck was working on a deal to get him more .22 ammo, and even some 7.62X39, if possible. He crossed his fingers.

Life with Dylan had it's ups and downs. The downs, at least, weren't very far down, thank goodness. About the only real problem, if problem it could be called, was the first thing that had occurred to Clipper when Girl first came up with the idea of Dylan living with them. The lack of privacy. Even though there was another bed in the loft, Dylan had taken to sleeping on the couch, in front of the fire. Clipper was glad of that, it gave them a little privacy, but not much since the loft was open, facing the fire. And Girl... he hadn't realized how noisy she was, until Dylan came.

The first night that Dylan stayed with them had been fine. He'd slid into Girl, and she'd been as silent as a tomb ... until fifteen minutes later, when she came. Then, she bounced around and squealed a little, and hiccuped and giggled ... all her usual noises, which of course sounded like gunshots in the quiet of the night. He put his hand over her mouth, which gave her another case of the giggles. They made it through the night, and he hoped for better for the next night.

He was disappointed the next night. She was even noisier. And every time she could tell it bothered him, she got the giggles. After about twenty minutes of that, he called down to Dylan. He had little fear that Dylan was asleep. "Dylan. Sorry about all the noise."

Dylan giggled some, then. "S'okay," he said. Jeezus, thought Clipper. He goosed Girl, and she giggled even louder.

Within a week, he wasn't quite as up-tight about it as he'd been. Dylan was the perfect house guest, he just lay down there and dealt with the noise. Well, thought Clipper, he'll get a little break, here in a few. Girl was freaky about her period, and Clipper did not have conjugal rights during that time. It was okay, he understood. She was freaky about some things, and way not about others. He felt like it was a fair trade, for the things she let him do. For instance he loved her sweet little asshole, and she loved to have his stick his finger in it when he fucked her. He did it every time, every night. It was just part of the game, to her. But he did give her privacy, when she wanted it.

Dylan had lived with them maybe two months when Clipper approached Girl with his idea. He had no idea how she would take it, but mainly he wanted her to know that he was okay with the idea. Whether or not she'd follow through with it, that was up to her.

One day Dylan was out hunting, and he drew her to the couch. He sat and she crawled on top of his lap, like she liked to do. He just held her for a while, loving her, breathing in her soft girlish scent.

"Girl," he said.

"What."

"We gotta talk about something ... about the future ..."

"Okay ..." she was already suspicious, he could tell.

"Girl. I'm not a young man, and I'm not getting any younger. You are a young woman, not even yet in the prime of life. Dylan is a young man, also not yet in his prime."

She was silent. She began to twist the hem of her shirt nervously. Her little mannerism endeared her to him so much that felt tears spring up in the corner of his eyes.

"Anyway. We're kind of a family, the three of us. I just wanna let you know, that whatever you choose to do is okay with me. Girl. You need to have some a life established that isn't centered around me. I'm not gonna be around that much longer. That's a reality that we have to face."

She was still silent. He hugged her closer. She looked at him, and he saw two tears streak down her face.

"Girl, Girl." He just held her for a while, and hugged her, murmuring to her.

"Girl," he said. "It's just life. It's the cycle. We have to accept it. What I'm trying to say, is ... if you choose Dylan, I will not stand in your way. If you choose to just share, or if you choose him ... full-time ... I will not complain, or stand in your way. I love you too much ..." Here is where he choked up, and had to wait a while to continue. "Girl. I love you, and I want what's best for you. I want what you want."

She seized him, turning her body towards him, and hugged him with both arms. She lay her head on his shoulder. She still didn't say anything, but he knew her style. He knew it'd come out, sooner or later.

Finally, twenty or thirty minutes later she raised up from him, and stared at him from just a few inches away. He'd stopped bawling by then and they just regarded each other.

"Clipper," she said, fiercely. "I love you. I love you, I love you. Don't make me choose."

"Girl... I'm not making you choose ... I'm just telling you that it won't bother me if you do eventually choose ... tomorrow, or ten years from now ... I'll deal with it ... I'll still love you even if I have to love you from a distance. I love you, Girl, I love you."

He really didn't know if he could give her up. He knew he could love her from a distance, that's how he'd started out. He didn't know if his life would matter, thought, if he had to give her up. But he knew he had to do what was right, for her. He had to offer at least. It was the right thing to do.

She lay her head back down on his shoulder.

"What do you mean, it won't bother you?" she said, tears in her voice. "Don't you care?"

"Oh, hell yes, I care," he said. "But I'll deal with it, I'll do whatever I have to do. I want you to be happy and I want you to have a normal life. Both while I'm here and after I'm gone."

He pulled her back and stared into her eyes.

"Girl. We have to accept that. I'm forty years older than you. I'm going first, like it or not."

More tears ran down her cheek. He lay her back down, feeling sad, knowing that he'd caused her some pain, but he felt like he'd said what he needed to say. He'd let her know. What she decided, now or later, was her up to her. He'd live with it. Now she knew.

"Clipper," she finally said. "I ... I wanna believe ... that there's more to it than just this ... if you do go first, I wanna believe that I'll see you again ... somewhere ..."

"Girl, Girl ..." he nuzzled her hair. "If there is, if it's possible, I'll make sure of it ... I'll wait for you, if I can ..."

He just sat there and held her while she cried. He cried a little, too. It was just one of those days.


                              --==+==--


A few days later, Clipper was outside with Dylan, holding logs down while Dylan sawed firewood with their bow saw. Dylan seemed introspective that day, thoughtful. Quiet. Clipper didn't think much of it until the boy found a stopping place, and dropped the saw. They stood together for a few moments, and then Dylan said, "Talked to Girl the other day."

"Yeah?" said Clipper, slowly realizing something was going on.

"She had some ... interesting ideas ..."

Clipper laughed. Yeah, he thought. I bet she did. Girl was always full of interesting ideas. They just hardly ever made it out of her, that was the problem.

"Yeah... and?" he said.

"Clipper," Dylan sat. "I appreciate what you two have done for me. You gave me a place to live, and more ... a place where I could belong, and do some good ... not just for myself."

"Well, Dylan, we're not totally altruistic ... we've benefited from it, too ..."

"Yeah, yeah," said Dylan. "Clipper. I did not come to live with you to ... to steal her ... from you."

"I know you didn't, Dylan ... that's why I told her what I did ... I'm not worried, I'm ... confident, I guess you could say. I know she's mine, right now ... but I just told her I was willing to share ..."

"That's a hell of a ... of an offer ..."

"Yeah, I know it is, but, Dylan ... times have changed ... we are living, right now, in ways that our ancestors, even just our forefathers could never imagine. We are having to make compromises that they never would have ... and it's even more severe, out here in the woods. We just gotta do what we gotta do, to survive."

"I will not take her from you," Dylan simply said.

"I will not let you. But I will share her with you. Not everybody, not anybody else, but you."

"Thanks, man. If she so chooses, Thanks."

"You're welcome."


                              --==+==--


One day when they were up the mountain panning gold, to Clipper's amusement Dylan and Girl got to splashing each other with the ice cold water. On a dare, Dylan stripped and leaped into the almost-frozen river. Girl stared at Clipper like she wanted to ask him something and he laughed at her.

"Go ahead if you're brave enough." He said, wondering if she was brave enough to strip naked, first, and then dive in the icy water. To his amusement, she dropped her pants, and stripped her shirt and home-made bra off. She waded into the water, moaning about the cold. Dylan came up to her and splashed her, and she shrieked and attacked him. Clipper just shook his head as the two of them wrestled around in the icy water. He knew he'd die of exposure if he joined in. He took Bear and went upstream to fish a little and give them some privacy, just because it seemed like the thing to do. He didn't expect them to do anything, not when he could show back up at any moment, but he wanted them to start to get ideas. Naturally. He laughed, even if Dylan was turned on by their nudity, it wouldn't show, not in that ice-cold water. Her titties should be plenty hard, though.





Chapter XXIII


As fall drew ever and ever closer, Clipper began to plan an epic hunt. He wanted at least one more deer for the winter, mostly for jerky for dog food. He'd take whatever he could get. He knew Dylan would be able to bag squirrels and rabbits, but it would set his mind at ease to have a large supply of jerky just in case.

Dylan was eager, never having hunted on that scale before. Girl was ho-hum, but she wasn't going to let herself be left behind. One crisp cool morning they set out, having spent the night before packing. They went to the west again,

Clipper was hoping to give Dylan some experience with the AK, as good as the kid was doing with the .22. Clipper was carrying the .22, and Dylan had the AK slung on his back. Girl had the automatic in her belt, just to round things out. Clipper felt like they were reasonably armed, should a situation arise.
 
Four hours later found them way down the mountain, struggling through thick underbrush. Five hours later, and they had come out into a magical, fairyland forest, with lush grass and low bushes under the tree canopy. Girl was enchanted, and it was beautiful. They walked along and Clipper wondered if they could find something in the area to shoot.

Unfortunately, something found them. They came around a large bush, and there, not more than twenty feet away was a campsite. Two men sat on a log, one facing them, and one turned away. The man spoke instantly, and the other man turned. Clipper was already bringing up the .22, not exactly pointing it at the men, but letting them know he was ready. Girl had been sheltered from seeing them by the bush, but she had noticed Clipper stop and raise the rifle. She peered around the bush to see what was going on.

By then both the men had stood, and, one of the men, to Clipper's surprise, raised an assault rifle. Clipper recognized the M4 variant of the M16 rifle. It didn't matter what it was, though, it was an ugly, dangerous-looking weapon, and it was pointed right at him. He slowly relaxed, and let the .22 muzzle fall back to the ground. He was pissed off. Every time, he thought, every time we go through this the bad guys get the drop on me. He desperately hoped Girl didn't try to draw the .45, he knew there was no way she could get it out before the muzzle of the M4 swung a few feet to her. The man motioned for her to come out from behind the bush, and she did, cautiously. Not that caution did any good at this point. Where the hell is Dylan? he thought.

"Jett. Get that rifle, and that Colt," the man with the AR said. The other man came forward, blocking them with his body more than once, giving Clipper a little hope that the men weren't professionals. The man took the .22 from his limp fingers, and yanked the automatic from Girl's waist. He took her knives, too, smiling at her, leering, really.

Where the hell is Dylan? Clipper thought again. He'd been right behind them, just a few seconds ago. Was he hiding behind the bush? Had he beat it for home? Surely not. Shit. That was his only hope. But Dylan was just a kid.

"Look," said Clipper, "we don't want no trouble. Just let us go on, and we won't bother you."

The guy with the M4 laughed, nervously, Clipper thought. Not a good sign.

"You can go, old man," the guy said. "But the girl stays."

"Uh-uh," Girl spoke. "I'm goin' with him." She grabbed Clipper by the sleeve of his upraised arm.

"The fuck you are," the guy seemed to get a little angry. "Your ass is mine, now. Get the fuck over here." He motioned for her to come to him. She didn't move.

"Girl ..." said Clipper. He didn't want her to go, but he didn't want her to get shot, either. The other guy came right over to them and grabbed her by the sleeve and began pulling her away. He was laughing and he stared at her frankly and appraisingly. Clipper looked at the two, measuring them up, wondering what he could do. He still had a couple on knives in his belt, but against a rifle? Suicide. The man held the gun on him unwaveringly. The other man pulled Girl over to the side, and Clipper thought at least she's out of the line of fire.

"Lay down, old fuck," the guy with the gun said. "Face down."

Clipper slowly, wearily, dropped to his knees, and then lowered himself to the ground. This was getting old, he told himself. Every goddam time they left the cabin, they ran into this shit.

The two men talked among themselves but Clipper couldn't understand them. He thought if they do leave and take her I can at least follow them. And where the hell is Dylan? He had a halfway hope that Dylan was hiding out somewhere behind them and he could hook back up with him when the bad guys left. When they left and took Girl. That, now, that would piss him off. He would spare no mercy on these fuckers if he got the chance. They were as good as dead, he thought, if they don't kill me first. I will not rest, he told himself. I will not rest.

"Hey, old fuck," the gunman said. "Sorry to do this, but we can't have you following us. Here goes ..."

Clipper tightened his whole body, in anticipation of the bullet. He wondered idly if it would be a head shot, or somewhere in his midsection. He'd never been shot before. He halfway wondered what it would feel like, if it would be insanely painful immediately. He realized that nothing mattered, if he was going to get shot. He tensed his body, and prepared to leap up and try and defend himself. He didn't get that far.

The shot blasted in his ears, and it was loud. Way louder than what he'd guessed it would be. He mentally felt along his body for the wound, wondering why he hadn't even felt a shock when it entered his body. Shit, he thought. Am I dead already? Was it a head shot? Or did the dumb fuck miss?

Two more shots followed, in quick succession. Clipper just lay there, amazed. I'm still alive, he thought. Why can't I feel it? Why didn't I feel the impact? Why doesn't anything hurt? Am I in shock? Shit!

Something fell on top of him, and grabbed him and rolled him over. It was Girl. She was blubbering like a baby. He stared at her, bemused. Behind her, he could see Dylan, the AK still at his shoulder. Shit, he thought, shit. That little motherfucker. Shit. Now I owe him big time.

He sat up slowly, hugging Girl, who was still sniffling. He turned and looked behind them. The two men were stretched out on the ground, one of them visibly bloody, one not. Jeezus, he thought. Thank you Jeezus. Thank you, Dylan.

Dylan stood over them, and reached his hand down. Clipper grasped it, and Dylan pulled him to his feet. He lifted Girl, holding her, letting her cry. He understood. His body was still flooded with adrenalin. His heart was still pounding in his chest.

"Man," he held Dylan's hand. "Thank you. Thank you for saving us."

"No biggie," said Dylan. "Let's get the hell out of here. We don't know if there's more of them."

"Yeah."

Dylan handed the AK to Clipper, went over to the dead men and took the M4 from the man's lifeless hands. It was a fine weapon. Shit. They were amassing quite a collection of firearms, Clipper thought. He just wished they all used the same ammo. He joined Dylan, and they searched the men, finding a Ruger .22 pistol on the gunman. And a handful of knives. The other guy had nothing. He must have been the flunky, Clipper thought. A backpack was next to the log, and Clipper opened it. Holy shit. It was full of .223 ammo, a thousand rounds, it looked like. That's literally all that was in it. Bullets. They were fixed up for bullets.

"Thanks, guys," Clipper told the dead men, grabbed the bag, and they got the hell out of there. Girl had settled down by now, and was back to her usual bad-ass self. They struck out into the woods, headed back up the mountain. They were all ready to go home, now, after that. As they moved through the woods, cautiously, now, they talked about ways to hunt and move about the woods with more safety. The woods felt dangerous to Clipper now, as many encounters as they had had. He tried to do better about keeping his eyes on the territory ahead, to see what they were walking into. Every time they were caught he hoped it was their last.


                              --==+==--


That night they curled up around the fire, and had a little discussion about the events of the day. Clipper remembered Girl's mood after she'd killed her first man. Dylan didn't seem bothered a bit, he thought. He seemed outgoing, and laughed at everything. Well, some people it affected differently. He was glad the boy didn't seem disturbed. They'd stripped down and cleaned the M4, and it was in the hiding place, now. The hiding place was getting a bit crowded, in fact. And all those bullets. Good grief. Clipper knew you could never have too many bullets. This was a good start. He'd let Dylan and Girl both have a little target practice, now. They could afford it. He sat back, feeling the warmth of the fire. Things were going well. Very well, if they could just keep from being caught with their pants down again.


Chapter XXIV


One evening, when Dylan was out squirrel hunting with the .22, Girl dragged Clipper to the couch in front of the fire. He sat, and she crawled up on his lap, as she often did. He put his face into her hair, and smelled her familiar scent. They had made love the night before, as they always did, without fail, every night. Well, almost every night, except for when Girl was bleeding. She still wasn't over that. Well, he could live with that. Making love to her was still incredible to him, every time was almost as good as the first time.

She nuzzled and rubbed on him for a while, and he realized that she was going to say something. He waited patiently, as he had learned to do.

"Clip. Clipper," she started with his name, as she always did. He nodded, and raised his eyebrows.

"I've been ... thinking ..." she said. Oh yes, you have, he thought. That's about all you do. She still went hours sometimes without saying a word, but he knew now that her mind was churning the whole time.

"About ..." he said, helping her along.

"Me. And Dylan." Ah, he thought. This is about Dylan. The Dylan thing. He would be interested to see what she thought, about the Dylan thing.

"Okay," he said, after a bit of silence.

"Clipper. You have been... fixed. Dylan is not. I don't think I'm ready, yet, and I don't think we're ready, yet, as a family. Even a family of three."

He knew what she meant. Babies. He agreed.

"I want to give Dylan ... something ... to let him know that he's part of us, part of our group ... our family..."

He felt like he knew what she meant. By "something" she meant sex, obviously.

"But I'm afraid of getting pregnant."

"Girl," he felt like he understood her problem and he agreed with her. Now was not a good time for dealing with a baby. Maybe in two or three more years, but not now.

"There is a clinic in town," he said. "Next time we go to town, let's go in there, and see if they still have access to medicine. To the pill, primarily."

"Birth control pills?" she said, and he nodded.

"There is another way ..." he said. "Have you heard of the rhythm method?"

She nodded. "Kinda. Where you keep track of your ... periods?"

"Yes. It's difficult to do, but about ninety percent effective, when done right. I'll help you with it, if you wish. We'll record your cycle for a few months, and then you can ... go from there."

"Is ninety percent pretty good?" she asked. "What is the pill?"

"I have no idea, I'm sure it's like ninety five plus, at least ... We'll go to the clinic, and ask."

"I guess," she sighed, and lay against him. He wrapped his arms around her, loving her.

"Clipper. If I get on the pill, what do you think about ... giving him one day a week?"

"Girl. It's not about me. I could be happy with just one day a month. Anything you give me I will be happy with. I love you. I want you every night, but I understand. If you wanna give him one day a week, go for it."

She looked at him, and laughed. "One day a month. Yeah, right." She said. He smiled.

"Girl. One day a week sounds fine, if that's what you want. It's a good start, at least. He's a growing boy. I'm sure he has desires, and... urges... I know I did, at that age."

Girl scooted down on the couch, and lay in his lap. She looked up at him. "I wish I'd known you, then." She said. "I'd have helped you with your ... urges ..." she giggled.

"The hell you would have. You wouldn't have looked at me twice if you'd known me back then," he said. "I was just a goofy-ass geek boy. I never even kissed a girl until I was sixteen or seventeen. I was scared of girls."

"Oh, I bet." she said, giggling.

"Seriously. Girl. You might not believe this, but I married the first girl that I ever ... fucked, pardon my French."

"You were married?" for some reason she acted like that thought had never occurred to her.

"Hell yeah," he said. "For two years, one month and twenty-two days." She giggled. He continued. "The most miserable two years of my life."

"Clip." she said. "I'm sorry."

"Oh well, I got a good kid out of the deal," he said. She acted surprised, again.

"You have a kid? Boy or girl?"

"A girl, Girl. She's ... let's see ... she'd be in her thirties by now ... I've even got two grandchildren, that I know of."

"What happened to her? To them?"

"I have no idea. That's the first thing I did when I got back in the country proper. But, no luck. Her neighbors said she disappeared overnight with the kids and her husband. One morning she just wasn't there any longer. I have no idea what happened to her."

Girl was quiet and introspective. He loved her all the more for her sympathetic nature. He just sat there and held her. She had lapsed back into thought, deep thought, he knew. He knew her looks, by now. She was a million miles away. He let her think.

Two knocks, a pause, and the door slammed open. Dylan was home.


                              --==+==--


Ten days later found them in Devonsville, and Clipper left Dylan at the diner and took Girl to the little clinic on Main Street. No one was there but a nurse, and she listened sympathetically as Clipper explained that his "wife" needed to get on the pill.

"At the moment," said the woman, "we have a pretty good supply line. But I'd advise you to lay up a stock of pills for those times when the truck doesn't show up. That happens, some months."

The woman gave Girl a cursory exam, to Girl's embarrassment, and they left with three months supply of pills. Clipper was pleased, and pleasantly surprised to see an operational clinic in the area. Not for himself, but for Girl's sake.


                              --==+==--


It was a month later. Clipper had started keeping track of what day it was, even what month for that matter. One Saturday, Girl caught him out back, when he was digging. She stopped him, and he hugged her to his body. Her warmth felt good on the crisp autumn day.

"Clipper," she whispered in his ear. "Can I ... can I ..."

"Yes," he whispered back. "Whatever the question is, the answer is yes."

"Clipper. Can I spend the night with Dylan tonight?"

He laughed. "Yes. I already said yes."

"Clip. You're sure about this."

"Girl. I'll say it again. You have to have a life when I'm gone. You and Dylan seem like a good match. You like each other and you get along. He's a nice kid. He has fit in well and he'll just get better. I'm happy for you. I'll feel better knowing that you're in capable hands. Yes, the answer is yes."

She sighed, and just stood there, being held by him. That Dylan's a lucky sumbitch, he thought. Even just once a week, he's lucky.


                              --==+==--


That night, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. They sat in front of the fire, and it felt good. It was getting pretty cool outside, at night. They talked and sat, and Clipper yawned and stretched.

"Goodnight, you two," he said, and climbed the ladder to the loft. He wondered if Girl would go through with it. Usually, thought, when she made her mind up, it was made. He figured she would. He puttered around a minute, and crawled in bed. Sleep seemed a million miles away.

Before long, he just couldn't stand it. He crept to the end of the loft, and got all the way over to one side and peeked down. Damn. It was really too dark to see anything, but from the dim light of the fire he could see Dylan's blanket moving around as shapes beneath it moved around. Something was definitely going on down there. He wondered if Dylan had any kind of sexual experience or if this was his first. He hoped it was his first. Girl was special enough to make for a memorable first.

Later he peeked again, and this time he saw that their efforts had knocked the blanket to the floor. He got a faint view of Dylan's pale ass pumping away into Girl, with one of her legs wrapped around Dylan pulling him into her. Her other leg was braced on the floor as Dylan pumped away like crazy.

He returned to bed, and lay there, feeling strangely alone. An hour later he awoke with a start and heard a strange but familiar moaning noise from below. He laughed quietly, knowing it was Girl making one of her typical sex sounds. It sounded different to him, probably because it wasn't in his ear. It turned him on and he sighed. Tomorrow night will not be here quick enough, he thought. A strong drawn-out grunt from Dylan signaled a successful end to the first of several rounds of sex for them that night. Ah, to be young again, thought Clipper, facing into the wall and trying to go to sleep.


Chapter XXV


Yet another epic hunt was in order, Clipper thought. He kept doing that, thinking just one more, one more, one more deer... another pig would be nice, since he was making enough friends around the mountain to share the meat, if he got another. One brisk autumn morning, he got Dylan and Girl up before dawn, and they armed themselves, grabbed their packs, and headed off down the mountain. Dylan carried the AR with a pocketful of extra bullets and Clipper had the AK. Mr. Peck had come through with some 7.62x39, and the clip was now fully loaded and he even had twenty extra rounds in his pocket, just in case. He only planned on shooting the gun one or two times, but it never hurts to be prepared. He had no idea how well that would prove to be true on this day.

But, starting out, nothing seemed amiss. They had Fang and Bear with them, and the two dogs bounded far and wide, probably chasing away everything for a mile or two. It didn't matter, Clipper didn't consider them actually "hunting" until they left Devonsville behind. It was ritual, to stop at Devonsville for breakfast. It's just how they did it.

The dogs began acting strangely when they came out of the forest, and approached the town. The hair on Fang's back stood up and she growled softly. Bear got more and more skittish and he began growling, too. The closer they got the freakier the dogs acted, until Clipper finally began to pay attention.

"Girl," he said, as they drew near to the general store. "Go back to the treeline, and keep the dogs there. Dylan and I are going to look around." He wanted her far away if any danger was near. Not that he expected any. But the dogs were acting really strange...

He grabbed her, and kissed her, hard and quick. She gave him a look like she wasn't sure she wanted to do what he said, and he nodded at her. "Dylan," she said, "watch his back." Dylan nodded, and she turned, calling the dogs to her. He watched her walk away, back to the treeline. He was distracted. That butt, he thought. Goddam. That butt.

He felt sure that nothing really big and bad could be going on in town. Could it? Sure, there were people around town, lots of people. But the dogs had been here before and not acted that way. What the hell, he thought.

He ducked into Peck's store, leaving Dylan in the doorway to keep watch. Nothing. Nothing, and nobody. He went all the way in the back to where Peck and his family lived, calling out as he went. Completely empty. A pot of soup boiled on the stove, and he turned the burner off, thinking. What the hell. That's what he thought, what the hell is going on here?

He picked Dylan back up, and they carefully made their way down the street. He realized that he was barely hearing a voice, something that sounded like somebody was shouting or possibly preaching. His curiosity was piqued even further.

They slowly, carefully walked down the street. Not a person anywhere. That wasn't that peculiar, this was a small town. It was early morning, everyone was probably at the diner. Yes, that had to be it. The boiling pot still disturbed him, though. He hadn't known a woman yet that would walk off and leave a pot boiling like that. It just wasn't safe, and it'd probably ruin whatever you were cooking.

As they approached the diner and he looked inside, expecting to see a whole crowd of folks sitting around eating. Nothing. No one. He peered into the window and to his amazement it was completely empty. There was food on the tables and jackets on the backs of chairs. There just wasn't any people. Not even the cooks or waiters.

He looked at Dylan. Dylan shrugged. He heard the voice again. It sounded like it came from behind the buildings, from the alley. He led Dylan around the next building and towards the alley.

Devonsville was a small town. The business district was about a block long, with maybe fifteen small stores. Behind that was pretty much nothing... a few acres of field, and then the treeline. The houses, the rest of the town, started a few hundred feet on down.

Clipper saw a man, standing in the field. He saw two more, as he passed further down the building. To his amazement, the men all had their hands in the air. Not real high, he noticed, about elbow high. Like they'd been doing it a long time. He pulled Dylan against the side of the building, not wanting to be seen.

He moved a little further down the side of the building. The voice was droning on, he could hear it but he couldn't understand what it was saying. He got to the end of the building. If he went any further, he'd be seen by the folks in the field. He could tell by now from peeks he'd taken that there were a lot of folks standing in the field, with their hands up.

What the hell? he thought. Dylan leaned towards him, and whispered, "Peacekeepers?" Clipper just shrugged. He had no idea. Dylan had a good thought, though. He wondered if this was a weapons sweep or something. He didn't want to get caught in it, if it was. He didn't want to give up his guns. And he sure didn't want to get in trouble for owning them. Unless it was those Peacekeepers they'd met that time ... but then again, even they might be forced to enforce ...

He motioned for Dylan to back up, and they moved back along the wall, further out of sight of the activity in the field. Dylan was watching, though, and he spotted the next peculiar thing. He motioned to Clipper, who turned around just in time to see an armed man walking around the edge of the field. Acting like a guard, looking in towards where he knew the people were. The man had what looked like a deer rifle, complete with scope. Clipper was doubly nonplussed, now. No uniform. So much for the Peacekeeper idea. Just a guy, in normal clothes, acting like a guard. Clipper knew that if all or most of the town was gathered in the field, there had to be more than just one guard. More likely ten or twenty. Crap. Just what the hell was going on here? he thought, for the umpteenth time.

They turned around the corner of the building, to the boardwalk. Some motion across the alley caught Clipper's attention, and he almost jumped out of his skin as a figure waved to him. He was glad his finger wasn't on the trigger of the AK, he'd probably have squeezed one off from sheer jumpiness. He was pretty keyed up by now.

It was Ableard Wilson, of all people. Thank god, he thought. Behind him, holding a deer rifle pointed at the sky, was his friend John Jerard. Ableard was making a shushing motion, also holding a rifle. Clipper judged that the angle of the alley would prevent him from being seen from the field, and he ran across to meet them, Dylan close behind.

"Ableard, what the hell is ..." he started, but Ableard broke in.

"Clip, I dunno, just some guys with guns. I heard some of it, the guy talking is calling himself "Captain Hook." I guess they think they're pirates."

"Is everyone there? Did they round everybody up?" Clipper asked.

"Pretty much. I think everybody was in the diner when they came into town. They probably already had Peck and his family, and Mrs. Cling from the seamstress shop. From what I understand they are now taking people one by one to their houses, to ransom family members the pirates are holding. They have threatened several times to shoot whoever can't meet the minimum in loot."

"Shit," said Clipper. "Ableard, what the hell can we do?"

His sentence was punctuated with a single gunshot, coming from behind the buildings. Oh shit, he thought, wondering who had just died. He wondered if the pirates were just making an example of someone. Ableard paused, and then continued.

"Clipper. We have to take out the brains. We have to get around to where we can shoot, without hitting people in the crowd. If we take out the leaders we'll be way ahead. We can do that if we take them by surprise. We have four rifles and there's about ten of them, but most of them just have bolt-actions, from what I've seen. You and Dylan have semi-auto's."

"Dylan," Clipper turned to face the boy. "Are you up to this?" He didn't want to offend Dylan, but he wanted to give him an out. He knew that Jerard could handle the AR just fine if Dylan didn't want to get into a firefight.

Dylan was ready, though. "Hell yeah!" he said, looking at Clipper like he was crazy to suggest such a thing. Well, I tried, thought Clipper.

"Dylan. Do everything Ableard tells you. Listen close," he turned to Ableard, expectantly. Ableard would know. He always knew.

"Hell, I don't know!" said Ableard. "Let's go to the end of the row, and see if they're in the clear, if we have a clear shot from there. The main thing is, we can't shoot our own people. That wouldn't solve anything."

The four of them went down to the end of the row of shops. Clipper saw Girl standing forlornly out at the treeline. He motioned to her, what he hoped was a kind of a stay and wait thing. He hoped she understood. Man, he thought, we need to all learn some hand signals.

They crossed the end shop, and started down the alley, hugging the side of the shops as they passed. Clipper started seeing men here and there in the field, with their hands up. He was surprised no one had seen them, yet. Maybe they had, and were just giving them cover. He hoped.

They stopped, with just one building left. Maybe a quarter of the crowd in the field was visible, at this point. At least no guards were in sight. Clipper knew if he could see them they could see him. The four of them crouched and held a hurried conference. The speaker's voice started up again in the middle of it.

"Okay." Ableard said quietly. "John's gonna take out Captain Hook. When he fires you guys start firing. Shoot to kill, we're not feeling sorry for these bastards today. Use the side of this building for cover, John at the top, then the boy, then you, Clipper, and I'll be on my belly, at the bottom. Select your targets from left to right, top to bottom, so we don't waste time shooting the same guy twice."

They had to stop for a moment and explain that to Dylan, and Clipper was kind of glad, because he hadn't really understood either. Basically, he had the third quadrant from the left, since he was third from the top. Got it, he thought.

Ableard lay down on his stomach, and crept forward. When he was in position, he motioned, and the rest of them peered around the building, guns at the ready, and tried not to get in each other's way. It worked out pretty good, Jerard was tall, and Clipper knelt down at his knees, straddling Ableard's body, to fit under Dylan.

The Captain Hook figure was strutting before the crowd. Nothin' but air behind him, Clipper thought. Clear shot. Good. On the ground before the man, a figure lay, twisted and crumpled. Clipper figured that was the shot they had heard earlier. The crowd seemed pretty large, he thought. The whole town, pretty much. Men and women, boys and girls, all the way down to small children held by their mothers. The pirates had been smart to make their approach at breakfast-time. They had gotten pretty much the whole town in one sweep.

No one had spotted them yet peeking around the building, or at least no one had given the alarm if they did. Obviously no bad guys did. He waited expectantly for Jerard's shot, already selecting his target. Some doofus with sunglasses, carrying what looked like a Mini-14. Not every one was carrying bolt actions, then. He aimed for the thick part of the man's body. He knew he wasn't good enough for a head shot.

Captain Hook's voice rose to a shout as one of his pirates pointed towards the four of them. Then the captain's skull exploded as the bullet from John Jerard's .300 Weatherby smashed through his forehead. Clipper fired, seeing the Mini-14 dude go down instantly, to his satisfaction.

From there, it was just chaos. The crowd wheeled as one and took off across the field. Clipper didn't blame them. Two of the pirates walked forward, firing directly at them, and Clipper could see the flashes of fire from their muzzles. Then both men dropped at about the same time. Clipper had no idea who got them. Probably Dylan. He heard bullets slam into the side of the building, disturbingly close to them. He felt splinters of wood in his hair. Something tugged on his shirt, beneath his arm, whining past.

Dylan was firing methodically, and if Clipper had been able to see clearly he would have seen a man fall each time the boy squeezed the trigger. The M4 was doing exactly what it was designed for, killing and wounding. Clipper got off another shot at a man who had just picked up a rifle and aimed it at them. There was a few seconds of silence, and then Ableard fired once at a figure far off in the distance, holding a rifle and running towards the field. The figure stumbled and fell. It was silent again.

They just remained frozen for a while, waiting to see what happened. A few of the menfolk from the town began to creep back towards the scene. Most of the women and children were in the treeline by now, hiding.

Clipper gave Ableard a hand and the man rose. Ableard strode out into the field and began shouting orders to anybody that would listen. Two of the townsfolk approached him and Ableard got a headcount on the pirates from them. He turned and shouted the number "Eleven!" to John Jerard and Dylan, who were checking the pirates, making sure they were dead. Clipper ran back down the alley and peeked out to make sure it was safe. Girl still stood there at the treeline, waiting like he'd told her to. He motioned to her, telling her to come on, and she took off running to him, the dogs leading and following her. A single shot rang out from behind him, making him jump. She got there, and he caught her, and she buried her face in his jacket. She was almost crying. He just held her for a while, loving her, glad to be alive.

"Girl!" he held her back from him, and looked her in the eye. She looked better than anything he'd ever seen. He seized her again and kissed her. And again, and again.

"I heard ... shooting ..." she said, and he nodded. He pulled her down the alley, trying to tell her all at once what had happened. She caught most of it.

When they came out into the field, Dylan and Jerard were dragging dead pirates to a pile, being helped by some other men. Jerard seemed to be cutting something in their foreheads. When Clipper got close enough he could see it was an "X". X marks the pirate, he thought. Some men were clustered around the man he'd seen on the ground, and it now appeared he wasn't dead. The nurse from the clinic took off at a dead run for her office and some men hoisted the figure up and followed her.

The pirates were not so lucky. Jerard and Dylan discovered another live one, and Dylan simply backed up a few steps and shot the man in the head. He looked up, to see Clipper regarding him with disbelief.

"What?" said Dylan, "he would have died anyway, he was gut-shot." Jerard and Dylan moved on. Clipper just shook his head. I am too old and soft for this age, he thought. Girl hugged him closer. He let her. He hugged her back. He didn't care what people thought, not now.

They approached Ableard. John Jerard came up, and said, "eleven, all accounted for," and walked away, joining back up with Dylan. Ableard turned to face Clipper.

"We got them all. The big question is, how can we keep this from happening again?"

"Well," said Clipper, "hopefully this has removed a major infestation from this area. Did anybody know these guys? Did they just happen onto us, or do you think this was planned?"

"No idea, although something of this magnitude would require some planning. The crazy thing is, what could they have hoped to gain? It's not like we are rich folks, hiding away here in little Devonsville. Some people did hear them talk, though, while they were being rounded up. They were looking for girls, also, pretty girls. They were picking them out of the crowd."

"Damn." Shit, thought Clipper. Everybody's on the prowl for pretty girls. He promised himself to guard his even closer, if possible. The sad thing was, he thought, how hard it really is. If people don't fear the law, they'll do anything. This proved it. And it's hard to fight against people who aren't afraid of anything.

"Ableard." Clipper spoke. "How'd you and John keep from being caught up in this? Aren't you usually in the diner having breakfast?"

Ableard laughed. "Pure chance. We had just took a load of pig slop out to the Amish farm for Pete, in the truck. When we came back, everybody was gone. John was armed, as usual, and he advised that I get armed, too. We'd just gotten back from my house when we hooked up with you two. You guys had the firepower we needed. Just the two of us, with bolt actions? We'd have died tryin'. Thanks again, Clipper, Dylan."

"Yeah. No problem," said Clipper, hugging Girl. Dylan nodded, pointing to Clipper's shirt, beneath his arm. A hole had pierced it, a bullet hole. He'd come that close to being hit, he realized. Things went to shit in a hurry when the bullets start flying. He was glad he'd been able to keep Girl out of the middle of it, at least.


                              --==+==--


Much later, they all sat in the diner, eating and talking. Everyone was back out of the woods, and all seemed peaceful again. A team of men was burying the pirates. An armed watchman was on top of the water tower, ready to give the alarm if he saw more trouble approaching.

Two other townsfolk had been hit by stray bullets, but none seriously. The first man that had been shot was in serious but stable condition, at the clinic. The whole town was buzzing, of course. Nothing this big had ever happened here before.

"Well," Ableard said, "a lot of changes will have to come from this. We are going to create a few new jobs. For instance, we might put somebody up on the water tower full time, just to keep an eye on things, and sound alarms when need be. And we might fence the town in, or at least the residential districts. More people will probably conduct their day-to-day business armed. That kind of stuff."

"Ableard," said Clipper. "Did anyone recognize any of those guys? Any idea where they were from?"

"Yeah, we got a few positives on ID," Ableard said. "Some of them were obviously locals. Well, not real local locals, but from the general vicinity. Several of them were definitely from Skipps, several people agreed on that."

"Is it really that bad, that armed gangs are basically roaming the forest, robbing people at will, and harvesting girls?" Clipper said.

"Appears to be. Let's hope that was the last gasp of chaos. And let's at least hope that we're better prepared, if there is a next time."


                              --==+==--


They sat around for a while longer, and talked. Almost the whole town was there in the diner, and conversations were buzzing.

"Oh, yeah," said Ableard. "Did you hear about your old friend Elvis?"

"The judge? In Hartshorne?" replied Clipper.

"Yes. Poor man was out tending his garden when a bullet from out of nowhere nailed him in the head. Must have been a thousand-yard shot or more. The neighbors said they barely heard the gun, it was so far away. Amazing. Poor guy."

"Yeah," snorted John Jerard, "poor guy."

"It's too coincidental to be anything but an accident, at that range. Nobody is that good."

"Yeah," Said John, with an evil grin. He slowly brushed his fingernails on his shirt. "Nobody."

Clipper laughed to himself. Well, justice had been served. The details didn't matter. No more payoffs for that judge, at least. Maybe the next guy would be a little more honest. Maybe the next guy would get the message. Karma was a bitch.


                              --==+==--


Clipper gathered up Girl and Dylan, and headed for home. The hunting trip could wait. He just wanted to hole up in his cabin with Girl and feel safe for a while. He'd let Dylan go on a hunt if the boy wanted to. The kid was turning into a regular mountain man, anyway.


Chapter XXVI


Finally, after things settled down and after a lot of thought, Clipper took Girl and Dylan on a long overnight trip around the mountain. He really didn't have any idea why he chose the route he did, he just kind of made it up as he went along. He packed the gold pans and the fishing rods, just in case, and he carried the AK while Dylan carried the AR.

They practiced ways of moving through the forest where they weren't all in a bunch, to break up targets. Clipper was working on hand signals and bird calls, too, to be able to communicate effectively and quietly at a distance. He did not want to be caught by bad guys, again. That was now his number one priority.

They had made it maybe three quarters of the way around the mountain, when far off in the distance on the next mountain over Clipper saw the mine. Once again, with no idea why, he changed their course.

Relatively soon, they descended down into the valley between the two mountains and then came back up. A day later, after a nerve-wracking outdoors camp-out, they came to the mine. It was a strip mine and it was huge. Damn near half the mountain was bare, with new, young trees just starting to creep back in to the mined area. Clipper wondered what they had been mining. Gold? For some reason he didn't think so. Gold didn't seem heavy enough in this area for mining on this scale. And the scale was huge.

Several miles away he spotted some building and machines. Just because it was interesting to him, and for something to show the kids, he headed that way. Plus, no telling what they might find. The whole place looked deserted.

A few miles later they stood on the outskirts of what was basically a small town. Sheet metal buildings were all around, with offices and huge warehouse-looking buildings where he figured the machines were worked on.

In the central open area, surrounded by buildings, stood some massive machines. Clipper recognized a few bucket-wheel excavators and lots of smaller backhoes and excavators, from massive sized to cute little baby ones. And, of course, lots of dump trucks.

He realized quickly that this was a surface coal mine, judging by the loads still in some of the trucks. He could even smell coal smoke, in the air. Shit, he realized. Somebody was burning coal. That meant somebody was here. He wondered if it was mine representatives, if the mine was still active in any way, or just simple somebody keeping an eye on it, for the owners. It was either that, or squatters. Really, he thought, a mine wouldn't be a bad place to move into and take over. Plenty of warmth for the winter ahead, at least.

They walked down the row of silent buildings. At the end was a truly massive building, with giant doors halfway open. He could see a few small machines inside, and one incredibly huge bucket excavator, partially inside. The machine was four or five hundred feet long, he guessed. It was a big building.

They went through the doors and went inside. Inside, against the far wall, was a stack of office buildings, halfway up the wall. The smell of burning coal was strong inside and Clipper had just opened his mouth to suggest they leave when he saw a figure standing in a doorway.

He nodded towards the guy, and Girl and Dylan saw him too. Dylan slowly, casually lifted the M4 from his back, and Clipper lifted the AK a little higher, placing his hand on the trigger assembly.

The figure in the door waved at them, and then started down a staircase, seemingly unafraid by their subtle show of force.

Clipper looked at Girl, and motioned her behind him. He kept an eye on the wall of buildings, for any more people to show up. Was it just this one guy?

"I'll watch your back..." he said, in a low voice.

"And I'll watch yours." Said Girl. They waited for the man to approach. The guy got to the bottom of the stairs, and headed towards them.

Guy? Man? It was a kid, Clipper thought, as the figure drew close. Maybe mid teens. He didn't appear to be armed, not even knives or primitive weapons. He seemed fearless, coming right up to them, and stopping maybe ten feet away. Jeezus, thought Clipper. He's still got pimples. He's just a kid.

The kid was gaunt, not starvation gaunt, just really skinny. He had long brown hair, which stood up in several spikes. Huge green eyes. A little pug nose. What Clipper had thought were tattoos on his neck and arms now looked like Magic Marker or Sharpie tattoos. Definitely homemade.

"Howdy," said Clipper.

"Howdy," said the kid. Girl and Dylan just nodded.

"Sorry to bother you," said Clipper. "We didn't know anyone lived here. We were just out hunting, and saw the mine. Thought we'd stop by." Girl suddenly grabbed Clipper's sleeve and tugged on it. He glanced at her to see her half turned, looking behind him. He figured someone was coming up, from behind.

"It's cool," said the kid. He motioned behind them, smiling. Clipper turned and looked, and his heart stopped. Behind them, a huge crowd had assembled in complete silence. Kids, mostly. Completely. He was shocked, both at the silent stealth with which they'd assembled, and their age. None of them looked to be over twenty. All of them seemed to be armed, whether just sticks or shovels, and a few even held axes. Shit, he thought. Girl had been watching his back, and she'd tried to warn him. He needed to remember to tell her thanks. Assuming they got out of this alive.

He turned back, and licked his lips. "Seriously. We mean you no harm. We are just visitors, passing through."

Jeezus, he thought. His mind raced. He looked at Girl for a second, and saw fear on her face. He was sure that a little showed on his, as well. These kids had them. There must have been a hundred of them, at least. They didn't even have that many bullets on them, at the moment. Not that he planned on shooting kids.

"You guys all live here?" he asked, and the kid nodded.

"Yeah, some of us been here a while. And some are new."

"You from Skipps?" Clipper asked.

"Most of the new ones are. I'm not," the kid said.

"So you guys live here then. Lots of coal? Other supplies?"

"Yeah, but nothing to give away," the kid said.

"We're not looking to take. Just wondered how you all made it. That's a lot of mouths to feed."

"We still have some food in the cafeteria. And we hunt. We have two bows. We need a rifle, though," the kid said, looking pointedly at Clipper's AK.

Clipper was silent. He wasn't going to just say, here, have mine. He felt for these kids, though, trying to survive out here on their own. He wondered why there weren't at least a few adults helping them.

"What you got to trade?" Dylan said, taking the initiative.

The kid thought a moment. He finally said, "coal," with a laugh. "Lots of diesel. A little gasoline, though it may be sour. Lots of hand tools, tons of them, literally. Oxygen tanks and masks. A half dozen generators, both gas and diesel. Building supplies. Lots of work clothes. Stuff you work a mine with... that kind of stuff."

"Clipper. Can we talk?" Dylan asked, and Clipper nodded. He looked back at the kid. "Give us a moment, okay?"

The kid nodded. "Sure. Take your time. We ain't goin' nowhere."


                              --==+==--


"Clipper. Could we use anything they have?"

"Hell yeah," Clipper said. "Coal would be nice to burn, though it'd be a bitch getting it home in any quantity. We could use a few tools, if they'll let us pick them out. And the folks in Devonsville could probably use gas or diesel, or better yet one of those generators."

"Clipper. We only got thirty rounds in the AK, at the moment, right?" Clipper nodded. Dylan went on. "If they want a gun, that'd be the one to give them. Enough bullets to hunt with, assuming one of them can handle a gun, but not enough to let them to take over the mountain or anything."

Clipper agreed. He hated to lose the AK, though. It was the ultimate defense weapon.

"Clip. Just loan them the AK, or rent it to them," Girl said. That was a good idea, Clipper thought.

"Yeah," said Dylan. He nodded at Girl. "Good idea."

"Okay," said Clipper. "We rent them the AK, for a load of coal, some tools, and maybe some stuff for the town, like a generator. And let's see if they got a truck, in working order, to deliver the coal. They got diesel, probably? From all these machines?"

"Probably," said Dylan.


                              --==+==--


Clipper turned back to the kid that seemed to be in charge. The kid was waiting expectantly. Clipper pulled the AK off his back, pulled the clip, and slid the round in the chamber out. He handed the gun to the kid, who took it gingerly.

"Okay," said Clipper. "We will... give you an open-ended lease on this gun, for a dump-truck load of coal, some tools, and maybe a generator. We don't need the generator, but the town near us might want it. Does that sound fair?"

"Hell yeah," said the kid. That seemed like a pretty one-sided trade, but the kid obviously knew the value of a gun in today's economy, Clipper thought. The kid motioned to somebody in the crowd behind them, and a large kid stepped forward, and took the AK. He examined it carefully, getting the first kid to hold the bolt open while he looked down the bore, even. He nodded, and took the gun. Clipper put the bullet in the clip and handed it to him. The kid disappeared back into the crowd behind them. Remember that, Clipper told himself, there's a gun at your back, now. He looked at Dylan, who nodded, still facing the crowd of kids, loosely holding the M4. He trusted Dylan. More and more, though, he trusted these kids, too.

"You guys got an operational truck?" Clipper asked. The first kid laughed.

"Hell yeah. We got fifty of them, probably. We just don't drive them unless we have to."

"Well, it you could load up a truck full of coal, and deliver it to my cabin ..."

"Easily," the kid turned, and pointed into the crowd. Another kid came forward.

"Go get the Unimog. The one at the far end, that's already fueled up. Here."

The kid had been fishing in his pockets the whole time, and he held up a ring of keys. The other kid took the ring, and disappeared out the door.


                              --==+==--


The boy took them to a nearby building, which turned out to be a machine shop. For ten minutes Clipper and Dylan pawed through hundreds of hand tools, picking out what they thought they might need at some point in the future. There was way more stuff than they could ever use, and choosing was a problem. They eventually settled for two handfuls, and Clipper nodded to the boy. They went back outside, and didn't wait for long. Finally they heard the roar of an engine, and a large dump truck pulled up in front of the door, and sat idling. The kid driving it barely looked old enough to ride a bicycle, much less drive a twenty-thousand pound dump truck, Clipper thought. The truck had high ground clearance and it shouldn't have any difficulties making it back to the cabin or the town.

"You got any more bullets at home?" the kid in charge said.

"Yeah. But just a box of fifty. I'll get it for you, when you drop the coal off." He wasn't too scared of giving the kids all his bullets. He figured they'd be sensible with them. And he could probably get more from Mr. Peck. So far, the kids had seemed pretty level-headed, to him. If they were all pretty much like this one, at least.

"Okay, cool," said the kid. "I've heard that William is a pretty good shot. We won't need a lot of bullets. We just want to get a deer every now and then, that kind of stuff."

"You know how to work the meat?" asked Clipper. "You know how to make jerky?"

"Not really..." the kid said hesitantly.

"Well, you get a deer, send a truck and get me. I'll show you how. I'll teach you, or several of you, better yet. You got knives?"

The kid nodded. "Yeah, we got knives and lots of cooking stuff. Pans and skillets and so on. There was a whole cafeteria here. That's kind of what we're living off of right now, in fact."

"I see."

"Yeah, if you could show us how to make jerky, that's be cool," the kid said, presenting his hand to be shook. Clipper shook it.

"Come on," the kid said. "Let's pick out a generator, and we'll load it onto the truck."


                              --==+==--


Clipper, Girl and Dylan followed the kid to another outbuilding. On the way, Clipper asked the kid his story. He was from a small town nearby, he didn't say which. He was the first to come here, and discover the whole mine open for the taking. He got some of his friends to join him, and soon other kids heard and joined them also. A few adults had come occasionally, but they left for whatever reasons. Mostly, it was just kids, or teenagers. The kids had problems, every now and then, with bandits and burglars, but mostly sheer force of numbers kept them safe.

When Clipper had asked the boy his name, the boy laughed. "I don't have a name, any more," he said, reminding Clipper of Girl. Why do these kids think like that? he asked himself. The kid continued. "Here, they call me the President. That'll do."

"Sure, Prez," Dylan said, and the kid laughed.

They stood in front of a selection of large diesel generators. Six large ones, and one small gasoline one. Clipper hemmed and hawed, he had no idea what to ask for. Finally he said, "load up the smallest diesel one, and we'll just go ask Ableard. He'll know."

The kid nodded, and half a dozen husky teenage boys later the generator was loaded in the back of the truck, sitting on a load of coal.

"Well," said the President, "crawl in, and tell us where to go."

The kid with the AK had already left with two other boys on a hunting trip. Clipper let the President climb aboard, and then he helped Girl into the cab, climbed up himself, and then held the M4 while Dylan climbed up. The driver kicked over the engine and off they went.

It was a long drive, and several times they had to detour to get around creeks and rough terrain. Part of the distance they were able to even drive on a worn-out, rocky road, paved, no less. Girl held onto Clipper's arm tightly as she sat in his lap, and he wondered if she'd ever rode in a vehicle before. Possibly not, anything with an engine was pretty rare nowadays, because of the fuel problem. But if these kids had taken over a working strip mine, there was probably lots of fuel, if nothing else just in the tanks of the vehicles scattered around. Some of those diggers probably had huge tanks. Clipper knew that diesel didn't go bad, not like gasoline.

They came out on the road to Devonsville, and Clipper didn't have to direct the driver any further. They drove down the main street, and stopped in front of the diner. People slowly filed out of the diner, staring at the huge truck. In fact, people were coming from all over the town, drawn by the noise the truck had made. The kid driving killed the engine.

Clipper climbed down the ladder to the ground. Girl and Dylan were already down. The President followed him, looking a little nervous at the crowd. Clipper nodded to him to let him know all was well.

"Where's Ableard?" Clipper said loudly, and John Jerard stepped forward to say, "he was in his garage a few minutes ago."

"Here I am," said Ableard, coming forward, "heard the truck. What's going on, Clipper."

"Ableard, meet the President," Clipper motioned to the boy, and Ableard shook the kid's hand.

"Ableard, the president's got a generator he's gonna let you have, if you guys can use it. I was thinking the clinic, mainly ..."

"Yes, that would be great," said Ableard, and they stepped to the back of the truck to look the generator over.

"If it's not big enough, we can get a bigger one," Clipper said, and the President nodded. "Of course, the bigger ones will use fuel faster ..."

"No, this is perfect ... it is diesel, right?" said Ableard. The President nodded. "Good," said Ableard.

Ableard directed the driver where to go, and got a few guys to help them unload the generator behind the clinic. They all loaded back up in the truck, and left the town. The last thing Clipper saw was John Jerard walking towards the clinic, with a snake's nest of extension cords in his hand.

"Good. You helped those people out a lot," said Clipper, and the president nodded.

"Send somebody out tomorrow, or in a few days, if you want to sell them fuel. I'm sure they'll listen to your offers. You're about the only game in town."

"Yeah, we can do that. There's stuff we can use, from their store."

"Yes, I'm sure you can work something out. Plus, there's a clinic, if you have ... medical problems."

The president nodded, thoughtful.


                              --==+==--


They pulled up in front of the cabin, and Clipper directed them around to the back. He had them just dump the coal on the ground. He'd build a roof over it, in time. This was going to be nice, this winter. There would be times when it wasn't easy to get out and find firewood. This would be their emergency firewood. Smokey and dusty, but good.

Girl retrieved the AK ammo, and they all climbed back aboard, and the driver fired the truck up. Clipper had thought about just staying home, but he still wanted to explore the mountain. In less than an hour they were back at the strip mine. They all piled out of the truck.

"Hey," said the President, "You guys gotta eat dinner with us. Come on."

The followed him back into the giant building. It even had a cafeteria. Damn, Clipper thought. The refrigerators even worked, he assumed they had a generator going somewhere. They all had a fine meal of canned and prepared food, sitting and talking. Clipper looked out the windows of the cafeteria, to the dusky twilight outside.

"You don't mind if we stay here tonight? You got room?"

"Oh, hell yeah," said the president. "We have a dormitory, just pick a room. Four beds in each."


                              --==+==--


They left the next morning, after breakfast. Clipper felt good about the whole thing, he felt like they'd accomplished something worthwhile, and done some good. He felt a lot of sympathy for the kids, they were just trying to survive, like anyone else. They were in a good spot for it, at least.

The had sat around with most of the mine community that night, talking, and answering questions, and asking a few. It wasn't cold, not that deep in the building, but a coal fire burned in a huge fireplace, nonetheless. Of course it did, he thought, this is a coal mine. He wondered if the kids planned on mining, after the coal loaded in the trucks ran out. It wouldn't be that difficult, he thought. It's not rocket surgery. And the kids seemed pretty sharp, pretty adaptable.

He got a promise that they'd send a truck for him, when they got a deer, so he could show them first how to properly skin it and then how to make jerky and a few other things. He wanted to help them, and not just so he could get stuff from them. He wanted to see them make it, to see them survive.

They turned to the West, to see what else they could find.


Chapter XXVII


Hours later they were struggling up the side of a steep slope. It leveled off, and Clipper breathed a sigh of relief. Trees were getting thinner, the higher they climbed. Finally, a quarter of a mile further up the slope, Girl spied a tunnel entrance, and called it out to Clipper. They headed for it, curious.

When they got there, it was even more surprising. It was just a hole, literally, cut into the rock of the mountainside. There were no buildings or anything near it. Not any longer, at least. Just it. Just a hole.

Clipper stepped a few feet inside it, far enough to see that it went on into the mountain a ways. When he drew a deep breath through his nostrils, the smell was hard and sharp. And familiar.

"We gotta get the hell out of here, now!" he said loudly, and headed for the exit. It was too late, though. Two shapes blocked the cave entrance. Shit, shit. He knew that moonshiners guarded their stills pretty closely. He did not want to get caught in a mess like that... but it looked like they had.

Dylan was to the side, and already had the AR raised. Clipper had his bow, an arrow nocked, as he'd taken to carrying it. He knew Girl had the automatic. The two men just stared at them, though, seemingly as surprised as they were. One of the men was carrying a shotgun, but he still had it pointed down at the ground. The men didn't seem to be a threat, not yet, at least.

"Howdy," said Clipper, trying to read the men, to read their body language. "We were just passing through, and saw the cave. Didn't mean to disturb anything."

One of the men, the old man, nodded. Neither of them spoke yet, though.

Clipper suddenly had an idea how to possibly befriend the two. And, he just plain wanted a taste.

"You got some hooch for sale?" he said, and both the men grinned and laughed. The old man motioned for them to follow, and the five of them took off through the trees.

Maybe five hundred yards later, they were in a small cabin, nestled back in some trees. It was small and primitive but homey. A woman was cooking something over a wood-burning stove, holding a baby on her hip. Two more kids peeked shyly out of the loft.

"I'm Clipper," Clipper said, shaking the old man's hand.

"Ah'm Cyrus Becker," the old man said. "This har's mah boy, Zeke. An' his wife, Thelma. Them young'ns don't need intro-doosin'"

They all laughed, and shook hands all around. While the old man talked, the younger man pulled jugs and jars and plastic bottles out of closets and off shelves, and piled them on the kitchen table.

"We don' get many visy-tors, way up har," the old man said. "Jes' folk from town, every now an' then, lookin' tuh buy."

Clipper picked out two one-gallon plastic jugs of moonshine, and asked the man how much. The man gave him a number than meant nothing to him, and Girl dug around in her pants for her coins.

"Yew folks shoot us a deer with that rie-full," the old man said, "And we'll fix you up with juice. We need a deer tuh make it through the winter. We got a rie-full, but we ain't got no more bull-its for it. Done runned plumb out."

"Tell you what." said Clipper. "We'll work on that. We can get you a deer, sooner or later." He wasn't really sure how well the AR would bring down a deer, but he could always nail one with the bow. He'd help these folks out, if he could. The more friends he had here in the hills, the better. And he knew this kind of people. He'd been raised by folk like this. He was mountain folk himself, though he'd left the mountains long ago. But it never really got out of you.

"Thelma. Fetch us sum glasses," the old man said, and the woman brought some drinking glasses to him. He cracked a jug, and poured everyone a few fingers of moonshine. Clipper breathed his deeply, the smell taking him back fifty years or more. Carolina Mist. He'd grown up sipping this stuff.

Dylan knocked his back in one gulp, and then bent over double, coughing. Girl just stuck her tongue in hers, and that was enough for her. Clipper sipped, and enjoyed the taste. Smooth as silk, he thought. The folks knew how to make some good whiskey. He reached for Girl's glass, and she handed it to him.

"Girl," he said, raising the glass in a toast. "This is some good shit. Trust me."

She laughed, and looked a little puzzled. He knew she couldn't believe he liked it, she probably thought he was saying that just being polite. He wasn't. It was good shit.

They sat around and talked for a while, getting filled in on all the local gossip around the mountain, at least what gossip made it up this far. The fall of Skipps was big news in this area, everyone had stories to tell about people passing through, both crazy folk and honest folk who needed help.

Before they left, Clipper bought another jug, for Ableard. The man gave him a short piece of rope, to loop through the handles, and carry the jugs with, over his shoulder. They departed, thanking the folks again. Clipper knew he'd be back, sooner or later.

They continued on their explorations of the mountain. Early the next day clipper shot a stag with his bow, and they built another travois to pull it on. Luckily, it was mostly downhill. Once again they approached the Becker cabin, and stood outside of dog range and shouted. Father and son came out, and inspected the deer, pleased. Clipper knew he didn't have to show them anything about skinning the deer, or making jerky. These guys were capable.

They got a promise of all the moonshine they would ever need, and set out on their hunting trip again. Clipper felt like he'd helped somebody, and done a good deed or two. He realized how rarely he'd felt that, in his life before the fall.


Chapter XXVIII


They continued on around the mountain. Clipper didn't even know the name of this mountain, the one they were on. It was one mountain to the West of Candletop, their mountain. It didn't matter. After half a day's walking suddenly they came out into a clearing and there was another small town. A road, crumbling and potholed, led into it, and a small sign said "West Harper". The place looked deserted, but that's how Devonsville usually looked, too. Any town did, when the folks were indoors. Or out in a field, being shook down by pirates.

But this town, when they got closer, really looked deserted. Almost every single pane of glass in every window was broken. Places just got to looking run-down, when people were no longer around to pick things up and care for stuff. That's how this place looked.

They cautiously went inside a few buildings, finding nothing worth taking. Everything looked pretty well picked over. They stood out in the middle of the street, and speculated on the town's demise. To Clipper, the death of the town looked even older than the Fall. It was obvious to him that people hadn't been here in a long, long time.

Clipper had an idea, though. He'd had it for a while, after using the loose floorboard in his own cabin for a hiding place so successfully. He took them into a run-down old house, but a house that had probably been fairly well taken care of, back in the day.

"Okay, look in the closets, in the store-rooms, places like that. And anywhere else you see a loose floorboard, or loose sheetrock on the wall. Try to think like a person that wants to hide something."


                              --==+==--


Well, it had been a good idea, he thought, as they walked away from the house. They'd found nothing except a old knife blade that Dylan had used to cut into the sheetrock here and there. Clipper led them to the next house. Time, at least, was on their side.

On the fourth house they hit pay dirt, kind of. Some peeling wallpaper had led them to a loose piece of sheetrock, and behind it-- pay dirt. Old, before-the-Fall pay dirt. Stacks and bundles of cash. Tens of thousands of dollars of dusty, useless cash. Clipper felt vindicated, at least. His theory was sound, people did hide stuff. There was stuff to be found, if you looked long and smart enough.

Five houses later, they found the real pay dirt. Girl had pulled a floor tile up, and Dylan had noticed a seam. They pulled a few more tiles up, and Dylan broke his knife blade, but managed to pull a large concrete block up. Darkness lay beneath. Empty space. But not totally empty. Before it was over, Dylan was deep inside a round hole in the floor, while Clipper and Girl held his legs. He began passing things up. The first few things were worthless, some jewelry, and a few thousand dollars in old-style cash and old coins. Then, the guns began coming out.

Shit. When it was all out Clipper just sat and stared, his mouth open. Girl giggled at him. Dylan was overjoyed, and was pawing through the stack of rifles. There were six guns, all in all, from a .22 target rifle to a monsterous .458 caliber elephant gun. No pistols, only rifles. And ammo, all kinds of ammo. Old looking stuff, in crumbling boxes, but ammo out the wazoo. Shit, Clipper thought. How are we gonna carry all this crap? Shit.

In the end, they put the .22, the elephant gun and one other gun back in the hole, and replaced the lid as best they could, attempting to keep it hidden. They'd come back through here and get them eventually.

Dylan had found a .300 Weatherby just like John Jerard's, with a ten power scope, and it was love at first sight. Clipper said, sure, it's yours. If you can stand the recoil, you can have it. He had taken another bolt action, something called a .256 Newton, also with a scope, for himself, and a 30/30 lever action with iron sights to give to the Beckers. That, and about forty boxes of ammo. He would never want for moonshine again, that was for sure.

They finally left the house, each of them carrying an extra rifle, and Dylan carrying his knotted-up shirt full of ammo. It was getting on towards mid afternoon. He turned to say something to Girl and Dylan, and behind them, for a fraction of a second, he saw a small child watching him around the corner of a building.

"Hey ..." he said, pointing, and Girl and Dylan turned. The child had disappeared by then, and they saw nothing.

"Honest." said Clipper, halfway wondering himself. "There was a kid there, just a second ago."

The three of them went to the corner of the building, but saw nothing behind it, either. The kid was gone.

"Come on," Clipper said. "There's only one way he could have gone." He set off down the alley behind the buildings facing the boardwalk. When they got to the end, they stopped. Girl suddenly pointed, and there, for a fraction of a second again, Clipper saw some movement behind an old house. They set off after it.

All in all, it was a pretty good chase. Clipper finally got nervous, wondering if they were being led, rather than chasing. He cautioned Girl and Dylan, and Dylan clicked the safety off the AR. Girl had the pistol, and of course, Clipper had the bow ready. Finally they dead-ended into an alley, and looking all around, saw no more of the child.

"He's got to be around here somewhere ..." said Clipper, and they began to search the houses and outbuildings that the alley led up to. They had given up when Girl made a funny noise and pointed into a small building. A flicker of movement showed from the doorway.

Clipper motioned Girl and Dylan back, and cautiously stepped up to the door.

"Anybody home?" he said loudly, and waited. The building was small, but he didn't want to just charge in, not knowing what he was dealing with. He knew a kid that small couldn't survive on his own. There had to be more than just the kid.

He called out again, after a minute, "we're not going to hurt you, we just want to make sure you're okay..."

He was just summoning up the courage to enter when a face appeared. A young girl stepped out, finally, screwing up her face at the bright sunlight. She wore a tattered shirt, and a pair of dirty jeans. Her hair was long and unkempt, and her face was dirty.

"Whut 'choo wunt," she said, staring defiantly up at him.

Clipper was totally taken aback. Although, he did want what he'd said. He wanted to make sure that whoever he found was okay, and help them if he could. About that time the boy reappeared, and came out far enough to hide behind the girl. The boy looked to be six or seven, and the girl ten, maybe, he thought.

"I want what I said," Clipper said, "I just want to make sure you're okay."

"Yeah," said the girl, "we're okay. You got any food?"


                              --==+==--


The five of them were sitting on the concrete blocks of some stairs, while the kids devoured stick after stick of beef jerky. They were both eating like they were starved, and from the thinness of the two of them, they probably were. Clipper gave the girl his canteen, and she nodded her thanks.

"Our momma stopped movin'" said the boy, and Clipper nodded. The girl had already said their mom had died. Clipper wondered if she'd starved to death, giving her food to the kids. He wondered how long they'd been on their own.

"Look, you two," he said. "We know a place where a lot of kids live, in an old coal mine. There's food there, and a warm place to sleep. And no adults, to tell you when to go to bed or stuff." He just threw that last part in on impulse. After all, he was trying to sell them on the idea.

"I dunno," the girl said. "Our momma told us to wait here, she said somebody'd come for us. Uhm. Are you them? Did you come for us?"

"Well, kind of," Clipper said. "We just happened onto you, but we want to see you taken care of. Like I said, this place I'm talking about, it's not to far away, and maybe when you grow up a bit you can come back here and see if anybody's here for you, anybody that you know."

"I dunno." said the girl, again.

"Okay, listen, then," Clipper approached from another direction. "We'll leave a note, telling your people where you are, so that if they come, they'll be able to find you. Is that okay?"

"Yeah ... that'll work ... I guess ..." the girl said. Surely, thought Clipper, in all these houses around here we can find a pen or a pencil. He told Girl and Dylan to look for a pencil, but the girl stood, and sent the boy back into the small building they'd been living in. The kid returned with both a pen and some paper, and Clipper printed a note that basically said Gina and Darrel were now living at the strip mine a few miles East of here.

"Did you live here, before? With your mom?" he asked the girl, and she nodded. "Where is your house, so we can put the note where people will look for you first?"

"I can take you there, but it smells bad ..." the girl said, and they set off, following her through the small town. They finally stood before a small ragged house. Sure enough, it smelled bad. It smelled like death, to Clipper. He knew their mother was in there.

"You guys stay here, and I'll run it in." he said, and took a few deeps breaths, and then pinched his nose shut. He ran up on  the porch, and through the door, and dropped the note in the middle of the floor, and went back out. He was glad he hadn't seen anything of the woman. They walked away, back the way they'd came.

"Kids. Is there anything you'd like to take? Anything back where you were staying?"

The two of them looked at each other, and nodded, giggling.

"What?" said Clipper, puzzled.

"Yeah, we got stuff. Stuff we found." The girl said, and so they started back to the hiding place. When they got there the girl said, "Wait here." and she and the boy went inside for a few moments. They came back out fairly quickly with a pillowcase that looked stuffed full. Dylan offered to carry it for them.

"Look at our stuff." the girl told Clipper, and he came forward, to see what she had to show him.

The bag was packed full of what looked like mostly junk, to Clipper. Toys and papers and office supplies, all kinds of shit. Most of it looked like stuff that would only appeal to a kid, to Clipper. Well, he thought, they're kids, what's valuable to them is going to be a little different than me.

"You gotta dig for the good stuff," the girl said, showing him, digging her arm deep into the sack. She felt around for a while, and then pulled her hand out.

"Ta da!" she said, holding something up to him. It looked like a rock. Except the color ... he looked closer, his heart stopping. He took it reverently from her fingers. It lay heavy in his hands.

"Girl ... Dylan ... look," the two of them had been off to the side, talking. They turned to him. He held the rock up to them, and Girl carefully took it, already assigning it value just from the reverence he treated it with.

"That is the single biggest gold nugget I've ever seen. Even in a museum," Clipper said, awe in his voice. And these kids had it in a pillowcase. Sweet jeezus, he thought, before the fall, that thing would have been worth an incredible fortune. Possibly even more now, now that the world ran on gold. He wondered how to insure that it stayed in these two kid's possession. People would kill for that damn thing, he thought. And kill quick.

"Gina ..." He said, staring at the nugget, now in Dylan's hand. Jeezus, he thought, it's the size of a baseball. He felt hypnotized by it. He'd found a nugget once, while panning, that was almost as large as a pencil eraser. He had been proud of it, until now.

"Gina ... where'd you get that?" he asked.

"We found it in a house. Well, Darrel found it actually. I just found dolls an' stuff."

"Gina. When we get you to the mine, I'm going to take that home with me, and put it in a safe place for you. When you get older and need it, the money it'll give you, I'll give it back to you. Okay?"

"Okay." The girl seemed puzzled why he thought this was necessary, but she went along with it. He didn't think the kids at the mine would steal it from them, but he wanted to make sure it was safely stored, and not stolen, or just frittered away. He trusted himself with it. He knew he wouldn't steal it from them.

"Did you find any more of them?" he asked, and she shook her head no. Jeezus, he thought again, this is enough. More would just be too much.

Dylan threw the sack over his shoulder. Clipper pocketed the nugget, as well as he could since it was so large, and they set off. They led the kids out of town, back towards the coal mine.


                              --==+==--


On their way back down the mountain they stopped again at the Becker's cabin. After this, Clipper thought, these folks will die for me. I'll be their hero forever. Zeke's eyes had lit up when they'd walked in, each of them with extra rifles strapped to their backs. Anyway, Clipper gave them the 30/30 and all the ammo for it, and the Beckers had thanked them copiously. Clipper knew that he had friends for life, now.

Cyrus Becker broke out the moonshine again, and while the kids played the adults got fairly toasted on hooch. Well, Clipper did, Girl and Dylan mostly just sat in the corner and shook their heads at him. He related the story of how they'd found the rifles, and eventually giggled a lot. The five of them spent the night there, Clipper and Girl stretched out on a beat-up old couch, while Dylan slept on the floor. Clipper didn't know where the kids stayed, up in the loft with the other kids, he guessed when he thought about it the next day. He didn't actually remember a whole lot about the evening the next day, in fact, and he had a headache. But, damn. It was worth it. Old man Becker made some good shit.


                              --==+==--


The kids at the coal mine absorbed the newcomers without a fuss, and the President let the kids pick out a room in the dormitory. Clipper knew that at least they'd get enough to eat now, and there would be lots of other kids to help them and befriend them. Clipper had seen enough older teen girls there and he knew that even some mothering would probably be available. And, they'd keep busy, at least, the President routinely posted work schedules, and even the young kids seemed to keep busy. Clipper felt like he'd done the right thing with the kids, the only way he could have done better was to take them in himself. At the moment, though, he thought this was the right thing to do.


                              --==+==--


Clipper thought about a side trip down to Skipps, just to see the damage and check on salvageables, but it was too soon since the town had died. He knew it would still be full of people, crazies, squatters, and good folk who just wouldn't want to leave their places. It would probably be nothing but trouble. They walked for two more days, and were finally back on their own mountain. At last Clipper was able to give Ableard his jug of hooch, when they passed through Devonsville. He told anybody who'd listen where he got it from, figuring the Beckers could use the business. They made it home just before sunset, and the dogs were glad to see them. Clipper was glad to be home, he liked traveling, but he had reasons now to be home. His main reason sat on his lap that night, in front of the fire. He was happy, all over again.


Chapter XXIX


He would remember the day that Girl disappeared for the rest of his life. Summer was winding down, and in a few days he knew fall would be in the air. Girl had suffered from allergies all summer and she had a headache that day and was all stopped up. Clipper felt sorry for her, and told her and Dylan to just stay home that day. When I leave, he said, bar the door, and here-- keep the .45. He took the .22 and his bow and went hunting for dog food. Scarcely three hours later he was back. He skinned two squirrels, quartered them, and tossed them to the dogs. He approached the front door, speaking her name to let them know it was him, and banged on the door. To his surprise the door slowly creaked open. Oh, shit, he thought, the first of a day of many oh shits. He went in cautiously, his bow at the ready, although he knew it was almost impossible to use indoors. Nothing. He dropped the bow and climbed to the loft. Nothing. He went to the door and out and around the house to the privy. Nothing. Shit shit shit, he thought, where the hell could they be? He just couldn't imagine her leaving, not voluntarily. Not as careful as I've trained her to be. And she just wouldn't leave me, not like that. He went back inside and retrieved his bow. He searched the whole area, piece by piece. Nothing. No sign of her or Dylan, no tracks, no nothing.

He charged out into the woods, going back to where he remembered her lean-to had been. It was still there, and her tattered blanket was still there. The kids weren't though. Shit! He was frantic, by now. He knew something was wrong. She'd never just up and leave, not like this. Never.

He hurried back home, and searched the cabin in detail. He checked the hiding place, and the AR was there, but not the .45 auto, which the kids had had. He stood in the middle of the cabin, and tried to look for anything, any sign or anything out of place. Anything that might be a message from her to him. Nothing.

He was almost crying by now, he was so shaken. He went back outside and searched the area near the cabin again, carefully and slowly, looking for broken branches or anything that might give him information. He was starting to have a sick dreadful feeling that he would never see her again. He just could not imagine that she had left him of her own free will. Nothing was wrong between him and her, they had no issues. None. Nadda. For the first time in his life he was in a totally equitable, peaceful loving relationship with no negatives. And now she was gone. He thought he was going to go crazy.

He wondered if she'd taken Dylan back to Wellston for some reason. Surely, though, she'd let him know before doing something of that magnitude. And he thought she'd take more than just the .45 if she did. If she did? She wouldn't, he knew. She just wouldn't up and do something like that, as careful as she was. As careful as he'd trained her to be. Dylan was still new, but he was just about as careful as Girl. He didn't doubt either of them.

It got worse when night fell. He felt like he had to do something but he was limited in the darkness. He went outside every few minutes and searched the forest as well as he could see. He even called out several times. He stopped and thought. The dogs. The goddam dogs. If somebody came and took her, the dogs would have stopped them. The dogs went crazy when strangers showed up, and everybody but Clipper, Girl and Dylan were strangers to the dogs. If somebody had showed up, they would have stood a fair distance away and called. Somebody like a refugee, a tramp. He just couldn't imagine her going out to meet them. He could imagine her slamming a knife into them, or shooting them with the automatic, but he couldn't imagine her going out to meet them.

He figured it was well after midnight. He went up into the loft, and just lay there the rest of the night. There was no way he could sleep, not without knowing where she was or what had happened to her. He felt bereft, as if an arm or something had just been ripped off his body. He felt lost without her, without having her there to love. He still loved her just as hard as he ever had, he just didn't know where she was. I will find you, he vowed. I will not rest until I find you.

He woke up well into morning and leapt up, angry at wasting time sleeping. He splashed his face with cold water, grabbed his bow, and decided to go into town to see if anybody there knew anything. He would make a wide circle around the cabin looking for clues, and then go into town. He walked out the front door and fifty yards down the path he turned, to start his wide circle. Something gleamed in the morning sun and he knelt, his heart stopping. There, on the ground, was a handful of coins. The tiny little gold coins that passed for money now. Scattered over a few square yards. He knew they were hers. She kept their money, usually in the front pocket of her jeans. She always had the money. And now, here it was. He knew this was not a good sign, but it was a sign. He knew for sure that something had gone wrong, something had gone horribly wrong. She had been taken down this path and at some point she'd reached in her pocket and dropped this money. For him, to give him a clue. To tell him something. It's all she'd had.

He squatted, and carefully picked up every coin he could find. I will give this back to you, he promised her. I will find you and give these back. He wasn't sure there was any point in going into town now. He marked the spot he'd found the coins in with a stick in the ground. He looked around as carefully as he could, making a mental grid of the area and examining every square foot of ground. Two dozen feet away, in damp soil, he found a deep footprint, a kind of skid mark made by a dragged shoe. A heavy tread mark was at the end of it. He racked his brain to remember what the tread on the bottom of her hiking boots had looked like. He went behind the house to the privy and looked in the dust on the floor. He lifted his own foot to see his tread. He moved over in front of the mirror. Only Girl used the mirror. To his surprise, because it was almost too easy, the tread he'd seen out front matched most of the other treads in front of the mirror. He knew it was hers.

There really wasn't a path out in front of their cabin. Not enough people passed through to wear one down. He went to where he'd found the tread mark and stuck a stick in the ground. He went back to where he'd found the money, knelt, and sighted along the sticks. To his surprise and shock, it pointed unerringly to where he knew the Simmons house was, a few miles away. Shit. Shit-fire, he thought, is it really that easy? Is it really that obvious? Or is it just chance? Did the kidnappers head this way just to throw trackers off? Or... could it possibly be? Jeezus, sweet jeezus.

He ran into the house, and stuffed his shirt with beef jerky. He ran back outside, and fed most of it to the dogs. He ran back in, and on impulse grabbed a blanket. He thought about it for a moment, and then fished the M4 carbine out of its hiding place. He checked the clip, and chambered a round, putting one more round in the clip. He'd left Girl and Dylan the automatic and he hadn't seen it anywhere during his searches of the cabin.

He wanted to carry something that could knock a person down and stop them instantly, although, he preferred the bow. The bow was silent and deadly rather than loud and deadly. The M4 beat the bow on range and stopping power. He wrapped the rifle in the blanket, his hand on the trigger. The bow was on his back. He had nine arrows left. He filled his belt with throwing knives, wishing he'd practiced more. On impulse he packed one of his most valuable possessions, a box of matches. Finally, he felt ready.

It was probably eight hours until sunset. He walked into the woods, far south of where the Simmons house was. When he thought he'd gone far enough, he turned ninety degrees and walked, finally seeing the chimneys of the house through the trees. He stopped and settled in under a brush pile, waiting for nightfall.


                              --==+==--


That night he crept as close as he dared to the house. He knew without ever having visited that they would have dogs. Anybody in their right mind living out in the woods would have dogs. He heard, to his satisfaction, growls and a few low-key barks from a dog. He knew he had been right. Shit, though. How could he sneak up on them, if they had dogs? Shit, shit. He got as close as he dared, maybe two hundred feet from the back of the house. When he figured out what he was looking at he realized a large barn was between him and the house. Good, he thought. Maybe that blocks me from the dogs. He double-checked that everything was tied down in case he had to run, and crept as close to the barn as he dared, moving slowly to keep from making any noise.

He knew at this point time was on his side since the night was young. At last he was up against the back of the barn. The barn was constructed of steel siding, but it seemed to be fairly old. When he touched it, he felt roughness, as if rust had set in in places. He slowly, carefully followed the back to the corner, hoping to look around at the house. When he peeked around, he saw nothing. The barn was angled where this side was also away from the house. Good. He crept along the side to the next corner and peeked around.

Goddam, he thought. These motherfuckers have electricity. Lights were on in the house, and he heard a faint drone that he recognized as a generator, although he hadn't heard one in years. Shit. The goddam rich fucks. He was disgusted at how much it impressed him.

He stayed there most of the rest of the night, watching the house, watching the windows. The windows were shaded, but several times he saw someone pass by the shades. He didn't really know what to do from here. Finally, at what he judged was well after midnight, the generator choked and died. The house went dark. He saw a lantern or flashlight, moving from one room to the next, and then all was dark. He waited another hour, and moved, as softly as he could out into the back yard, just to fix everything in his mind. He looked up. A quarter moon. That gave him enough light to see where the barn door was, and the back door of the house. Straight line. There seemed to be no dogs in the back yard. Made that mistake myself once, he thought. Rich folks aren't any smarter than us poor folks. They're just rich.

He backed away slowly, going back around the barn to where he was sheltered from the house. He slowly returned home through the darkened forest, taking his time. He racked his mind to think of anything he'd seen that might mean something. Nothing did.


                              --==+==--


He lay awake again the rest of the night. He remembered a thousand things about her, holding her, her sitting on his lap, his hands on her body, hers on his. And making love, god, making love to her. Sleep was impossible. He felt like his heart was breaking, thinking of where she might be. He knew that if she was still alive she was being held against her will. There was no way she'd go this long, without letting him know something. The idea of her and Dylan running off together occurred for a second but he dismissed it as insane. He couldn't imagine either of them doing something so crazy. Something bad had to have happened to her. To them. Nothing else fit, nothing else worked.

He woke early, this time. He found the scope that had been on the .22 and cleaned it the best he could with a rag. It would make a crude telescope, being only six power, but it was better than nothing. He put it on the counter. He arranged his knives, and checked his bow and his arrows. He was ready for the night.

Finally, in late afternoon he could stand it no longer. He had to do something. He packed up, and headed into the woods. He followed a slightly different path this time, much closer to a direct route, not wanting to be predictable. He thought that this would have been their path, had they been taken to the Simmons house. As he walked he tried to cover a wide swath of ground, and he was both surprised and gratified to spot something on the ground. Something very familiar looking. A .223 bullet, a single bullet. He'd seen Dylan with a pocketful of those things, more than once. He read the manufacturer's name on the hub. Same as what they used. It had to be from Dylan. He could imagine Dylan reaching in his pocket and dropping one every now and then, to leave a trail. He really kept his nose to the ground after that, and discovered two more bullets before he was close enough to stop paying attention solely to the ground. He felt like he was on the right track.

A few hours before dusk he was settled in, this time on the north side of the house, where he could see the back door and the barn. He had scouted the front of the house, from a distance, and seen nothing but a battered doghouse and a snoozing husky.

He settled in, hidden beneath a large fir tree, and waited for nightfall. To his surprise, an hour later the back door of the house opened and a man and woman emerged. The man was not Mr. Simmons. He was much younger and large and muscular. Clipper decided the guy was going for the "bad-ass" look. The woman looked mid-50's. The man was carrying a five gallon bucket, carrying it carefully, Clipper could tell. He could see through his telescope that the woman was holding, of all things, a stack of soup bowls, and what looked like some spoons.

Shit, thought Clipper, shit shit shit. What the fuck? What in the fuck is going on here? He watched them carefully through his scope. The man placed the bucket on the ground and pulled a large ring of keys from his pocket. He selected one and unlocked a large padlock on the barn door.

He moved aside to let the woman enter and then followed her in, shutting the door behind him. Clipper estimated they had been inside for fifteen minutes when they reappeared. The man was not so careful with the bucket, this time. Right before the door shut, Clipper heard a long, sad mournful wail. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. He imagined how loud it would have to be for him to hear it this far away. Damn loud. And what the hell was it? What the hell would make that kind of noise? What did these people have in this barn? Whatever it was, they fed it from soup bowls. It wasn't goddam milk cows. Shit, shit, shit.

He spent the rest of the night deep in thought, trying to make all this add up. He was certain that people were in the barn. Animals might use bowls, but they wouldn't use spoons. And the lady must have been carrying ten of the damn things, at least. The people so obviously in the barn... were Girl and Dylan in there? Was she being held prisoner in there? When the generator died he headed back home, still deep in thought.


Chapter XXX


Another nearly sleepless night. He awoke early. He was running on fumes now, having barely slept ten hours since she'd gone missing. He finally felt like he was getting somewhere, though. He didn't know what was going on in that barn... he didn't know if it had anything to do with her... but he was going to find out.

He realized by now that this was bigger than he was. He knew he would need help. Ableard rose to mind. Ableard was a friend of Mr. Simmons, that was obvious, but he felt like Ableard would do what was right, first and foremost. He had to have proof, though. He had to have proof something bad was going on in there, if it was. He had to first see if it was somehow. He racked his mind for a way in the barn. Sadly, he didn't know how to pick locks. It was probably a little late to learn at this stage. He didn't even have one to practice on. Tin snips? The barn was made of sheet metal. If he could cut a hole big enough to crawl through... he remembered running his hands over the rough steel sheeting of the barn. Every now and then, his hand had encountered... a bolt. A bolt or a nut. Hmmmm, hmmmm.

He got up and searched the cabin, coming up with something he'd brought from the cabin he'd looted. A large, rusted adjustable spud wrench. It would make a fine weapon, even, he thought, with the sharp point on the end. He cleaned it with a rag, and found his can of machine oil and lubed it up good, working the worm gear until it moved the sliding jaw smoothly. He slid it into a belt loop. He put the oil in his pocket, too, in case the bolts were rusted. Fine, fine. Shit. Night would not come quickly enough.

He puttered and messed around the cabin, impatient for nightfall. He fed the dogs, and gathered up his gear, including the AR. He thought about taking the pistol he'd taken from the slavers, but he only had two bullets for that one. Hardly worth carrying for just two rounds.

Dusk found him at the Simmons residence. He found his spot, and bedded down, waiting for the middle of the night. He hoped to see the feeding again, but he figured he was too late. That was probably earlier in the afternoon. The generator finally died, thankfully. He idly wondered where they got the fuel for the damn thing. Fuel was outrageously expensive now. Insane. He was sure it was a fairly small generator, it's not like the whole house was lit up or anything. Still, it was a gratuitous display of wealth. The bastards.

He waited another two hours, counting time to himself. The house was dark. The dog was quiet. Well, he hadn't heard the dog but a time or two, in the three days he'd snuck around here. He felt like he was ready. He crept from his spot, leaving his bow and the AR behind. He hated to leave the bow, he felt naked without it, but it was too dark. And he imagined he was in for a tight squeeze, getting into the barn.

He got to the back of the barn without incident, and went to the corner furthest from the house, where it seemed to be the darkest. He easily found the bolts in the darkness, and not so easily got the wrench fitted on one. He could feel the ridge just slightly over from the bolt where the sheet metal started, so he knew he was starting out right. Slowly, painstakingly, as quietly as he could, he removed bolt after bolt, until he'd gone up as far as he could reach. He figured that the panels were eight feet high, so he knew he couldn't reach the top bolts. But maybe he could get enough.

He tried to pry the sheet outwards, just to see where he was at. Shit. Bad discovery. It felt like it had been caulked together. Shit, shit. He slid a thin-bladed knife under it, and had some success. He pried with the sharp end of the spud wrench, and succeeded in pulling the sheet apart from the sheet it was overlapping. It was obviously not going to make a big enough space to crawl through, though. He located the next row of bolts, and began taking them out.

Half an hour later, he was on the third row. He felt like this would be enough, at last. He got the last one out, broke more of the caulking bead, and pulled the sheets apart. Down at ground level he could make a space of about two feet. He felt like that was enough to wiggle through. He slowly pushed his hand through the space, and boom. Disaster. Another sheet of steel. Shit. He felt all up and down it, and as far back as he could in the direction that the steel was still bolted in. Nothing. Just another wall of steel. This sheet was flat and smooth, though, and had no flex at all in it. He felt some space on the floor beneath. It was like it was something inside the building was pushed up against the wall, rather than the construction of the building itself. He was about ready to give up, when he heard a thump and some scrabbling right on the other side. The inside. Shit. What was that?

He took the wrench, and as loudly as he dared he tapped three times on the inner steel wall. After a few seconds of silence something clearly and distinctly tapped back three times. It sounded like they used knuckles instead of something hard, though. Shit, he thought. What have we here? That people were inside was now undeniable. He poised himself to run if someone came around the side of the building. A few minutes passed, and no one did. Good. He tapped twice. Two taps returned. He tapped four times. Four returned. Shit, he thought, goddam. I wish I knew Morse code. He tapped three shorts, three longs and three shorts, the SOS signal. After a few seconds, the sequence was repeated exactly. Then again. And again. It did not stop. Over and over. Three short, three long, three short. He felt sure he got the message. Somebody in there was in trouble. He tapped a few times to try and get them to stop and at last they did. He pulled the metal out a little further and stuck his head inside and put his ear up against the inner wall.

He breathed silently, straining to hear. Suddenly, from just what sounded like a foot away he heard a woman's voice. He couldn't understand what she said but he heard her voice. Another voice sounded, further away, a male voice, rising in inflection, like a question was being asked. Then the first voice again.

He sighed, knowing what he had to do. He found the wrench on the ground and carefully moved to the other end of the barn. He started to go around the corner and then thought, if it's blocking the back, it'll block the side. He started on a new row of bolts. Shit.

He figured two hours had passed, maybe three since he'd started. He feared the sun coming up, but figured he had a few more hours at least. He pulled out the first row of bolts and slid the knife down where the sheets overlapped, meeting a lot of resistance. This one was a bitch. The caulk guy had spent way too much time on this one. He got it, with the help of the wrench, and pried the sheets apart. He held his breath and stuck his hand into the darkness.

Thankfully, there was nothing as far as he could feel. He hurried as best he could and got the next two rows of bolts out. He lay down in the grass and tried to wiggled his way inside, finding it impossible since the sheet metal wanted to lay back down against his direction of travel. He pulled back out and took the spud wrench and pulled the sheet back as far as he could. It made a horrible loud squeaking noise and he imagined all the lights in the house coming on. He backed up a few dozen feet, preparing to run, and waited five minutes by count. Nothing.

He returned to the building and much more slowly pulled the sheet back and drove the sharp end of the wrench in the ground as far as he could. It held the sheet back, and he lay back down on the ground and wiggled his way into the building. He moved as slowly as he could in case he bumped into something, and was careful that none of his gear caught in the opening. When he got inside, the space seemed to be empty. There was a small amount of light in the building from the skylights in the ceiling, but he could see absolutely nothing. He stopped and waited, listening, straining every nerve in his body to hear something. Nothing. He fumbled carefully in his pocket and pulled out the box of matches. He selected one and struck it on the box. Immediately he heard a moan and a woman's voice.

Plainly, he heard a woman say, "Over here. Over here." He held the match up and carefully walked forward. The small circle of light moved with him. To his amazement, just to his right was a cage. An honest-to-god, serious-as-fucking-hell cage, welded together from steel beams and separated metal, with large, diamond-shaped holes. He raised the match, feeling it starting to burn his fingers. A woman was in the cage. Jeezus, he thought, a woman! She stared back at him, horror in her eyes. Sheer, abject terror. Jagged, diamond shaped shadows from the match light and separated metal played over her face as the match shook in his hand. She opened her mouth and took a deep breath as if she was going to scream, and he brought his finger up before his mouth, saying, "Shhhhh!" as loud as he could whisper. Amazingly, she shut up instead of screaming.

"I'm going to get you out!" He said carefully and slowly. He had to drop the match, and he fumbled for a new one. He struck it and raised it again. The woman was now plastered up against the separated metal, staring at him. She was shaking violently. Her hands reached through a food slot, and sought him out. He touched her fingers, careful not to let her grab him.

"Guh," she said. "Guh.... get me out of here!" her voice rose almost to a scream. He shushed her again, and strangely for the second time she shut up. God, he wished he had his automatic or the AR after that much noise. He wondered if the people in the house could hear the woman or if they cared. He figured it wasn't the first time screams had been heard from the barn. Not if it had people in cages in it.

"Who are you?" the woman suddenly said, conversationally. He was taken aback by her sudden change of mood.

"Clipper," he replied, before he thought about it, just to shut her up.

"Oh. Clipper," the woman said. "The new girl said you'd come. Hmmmf. What took you so long?"

Oh shit, he almost cried. He almost screamed. His heart, already beating madly, kicked into overdrive.

"Where is she?" the woman looked startled at the vehemence in his voice. She motioned down the row of cages. Another woman spoke about that time asking what was going on down there. From the cage right next door, another woman said, "It's a man!"

He lit a third match, and headed down the row of cages. In each one, a woman stared from within, most of them trying to talk or whisper to him. All of them reached out to him through the slots in the front of the cages. He got to the end, and there she was. He grabbed her hands, sticking through the food slot, holding onto her feverishly. She opened her mouth and he shushed her. He let the match fall, and kissed her through the large diamond-shaped separations of the metal screen.

"Darling! Listen! I have to go for help. But I'll be back in an hour. Just hold on! Keep these girls quiet about me, that I've been here. Don't let anyone know I've been here. Just hold on, okay? Where is Dylan?"

From behind her, hidden in her shadow, he heard the boy say, "right here." He was in the same cage, even. Goddam.

"Look, you two, I gotta go get help. Just hang on. Dylan, take care of her. I'm gonna go get the AR, and hand it through the slot to you. Through the food slot."

In a tiny voice she said, "don't leave me."

"I have to darling, I have to have help, with all these girls. I can't do this alone. There are too many bad guys here." He only knew of three, actually, and one of them was the woman who looked to be his age. Well, Simmons had said he had a little girl, also. He figured there was a wife, if there was a child. He was mostly afraid of the muscle-bound bad-ass. And, even though Simmons was an old fart, old farts could shoot guns as well as young.

"Girl. I have to go now. But I'll be back, I promise, I swear." He lit a final match, and picked the one on the floor up. No sense in advertising his presence here. He gripped her hand and kissed her, one last time. He then ran back down the row of cages to the end picking up the third burned out match on the way out. The women were all talking fiercely to him but he didn't bother to stop and listen. He already knew they all wanted out of the cages. He scrambled through the opening. He still tried to be quiet, but he was in a hurry.

Just as he stood, a powerful, resonant voice said, "well, well, what do we have here?"


                              --==+==--


He froze. It was the muscle freak. Goddam, goddam. He was aware of the throwing knives in his belt. That was all he had. The bow and gun were back under the tree. Shit.

In the dim light of early morning, he could see the man holding a weapon on him, from maybe twenty feet away. A real gun. It looked like a HK91 to Clipper. Damn. Big bullet. Shit. He knew he was just moments away from being a dead man. This time, he thought, I'll feel it. There's no one to save me, this time. He remembered Girl, that time in the woods. The easy, long swing of her arm, and a knife was in a man's eye. Shit, he wished he had time do that. He wished he had that much confidence in his throwing ability. I have to do something, he told himself, or I'm dead. I'm probably just seconds away from being dead.

Shit. Sometimes stupid tricks work. He didn't have anything else. A stupid trick would have to do. He looked at a point in space behind the man, and said plainly, "Shoot him."

The man spun, his rifle at the ready. Clipper yanked his shirt up, and pulled a knife out. He grabbed it with his left hand and transferred it to his right, holding it by the blade. He was thinking, oh shit! oh shit! the whole time. He yanked his hand back and threw, trying to aim for the thick part of the man's body. The man was turning back by now, realizing he'd been fooled. Clipper watched, in slow motion, as the barrel of the gun swung closer and closer. About that time, the knife hit, sticking lightly in the man's thick muscular neck.

Clipper was running by then, right past the fucker, headed for his nest in the trees. He zigzagged, but only slightly, not wanting to waste time. He fully expected any second to hear and feel the shot that would end his life. He slowed, and crouched for a second to grab his bow. Later he would wonder why he hadn't grabbed the AR15. But the bow was habit, pure habit. He felt more comfortable with the bow. He knew he could hit a target, with the bow. He'd never even fired the AR, and he wasn't familiar with it. Plus, the bow was silent.

He ran again, he ran like his life depended on it. It did. He could hear the man crashing through the underbrush behind him, cussing loudly. The stupid fuck, Clipper thought, he should have a least fired off a few shots to let the people in the house know something was going on. Idiot! But no, he wants to be a hero and kill me all by himself.

He felt like enough trees were in between the man and himself to stop and spin. He already had an arrow out of the holder and he nocked it and yanked the bow back, judging where the man was by the sounds he made. He tried to keep a large tree between them until the guy was close. At the last second he took a step to the side, and there the fucker was.

The guy looked surprised and was bringing his weapon up when Clipper's arrow slammed into his chest, going in a good six inches at the base of his throat. Now he really looked surprised. Blood was already soaking into his shirt, from the knife wound on the side of his neck. He just stood there, refusing to die. Just that he could stay on his feet and absorb the impact of the arrow told Clipper a lot about him. Shit. He was a monster. Clipper put another arrow into his gut. The guy still just stood there. That's enough of this shit, thought Clipper and put a third into the man's right eye. The man dropped like his legs had been removed at that, the pained and puzzled look no longer on his face. Clipper approached, straining to listen for any sign of additional pursuit. Nothing.

The man was definitely dead. Jeezus, Clipper thought, get your sorry ass on to hell. He kicked the man's foot, just to be sure, ready to dance backwards. Nothing. He put his bow on his back, leaned down, and liberated the assault rifle. He checked the clip. Full. One in the chamber. He went through the man's pockets, finding a handfull of .308 ammo. The bullets felt huge to him after the 7.62x39 and .223 of his other weapons.

He ran the hundred yards back to the barn, dropped the HK, and grabbed the AR from his hiding spot. He slid the weapon through the gap he'd made in the building. At least it was a little lighter inside the barn now. He scrambled to his feet and ran down the row of cages to Girl and Dylan's cage. Girl made a funny little squeak when she saw him and he stopped for a moment and kissed where he thought her lips were through the separated metal. He pulled the clip off the rifle, and passed it through the feed slot to Dylan, then passed him the clip. Dylan slammed the clip home, checked for a round in the chamber, took the safety off, and placed the rifle on the floor, laying a blanket over it. Good, thought Clipper.

"Don't use that unless you absolutely have to. And don't use it until they unlock your cage first. If you get out, go into the woods. Hell, go home. Go home and hide."

Dylan nodded. Dylan looked serious, as serious as Girl ever had. Clipper was relieved that the boy seemed so level-headed about everything. He felt like he was leaving Girl in the most capable hands that he could.

He kissed her one last time, and he and Dylan touched hands through the separated metal. Clipper ran to the gap he'd created in the sheet metal. He crawled out, carefully this time, looking for anyone. No one. He pulled the wrench out of the ground, and let the tin sheet lay back down against the barn.

He ran back to where he'd left the weapons. He left the bow, this time, and grabbed the HK. He turned, and never looked back. He ran.

Clipper was an old fart. He knew that. But he wasn't in that bad of shape, and his life since the Fall had toughened him up considerably. He knew his window of success was fairly small, though. He knew that he had to get back before Simmons noticed that the muscle-head was outside for too long. He knew that if someone found him the alarm would go out, and all the people in the house would be on their toes. They might even move the girls, who knew. He knew that Girl and Dylan had an advantage, now, they were armed. They were locked in a cage, but armed. But bad things happened when bullets started flying. He ran faster.

By the time he got to Devonsville, he was almost dead. He walked the last quarter mile, panting, trying to catch his breath, knowing he had to talk, and talk fast, when he got there.

He burst into the diner, and no one was there. Shit. Well, it was like seven in the morning. He ran to the counter, and almost grabbed the man by the collar. Almost.

"Where's Ableard? Where?" he said, unable to remember Ableard's last name.

The counterman looked at him like he was crazy. "He should be here any minute," he finally said. It seemed like to Clipper the man was acting slow just to piss him off. He realized that he was probably coming across a bit intensely. Hell, though. This was an emergency.

He was wondering by then if he should have just gone back to the barn with HK and the AR. He figured he could have liberated Girl and Dylan, at least, just shot the lock off their cage and got them the hell out of there. But all those other women ... he guessed there was seven or eight locked in there ... he knew he had done the right thing. He had no idea how many more people were in the house. But if he got back there and Girl were gone ... he didn't want to think about that. He'd just put a bullet in his brain, if that happened.

Several other men came in and he rose from his seat each time, hoping. At last he saw Ableard on the boardwalk, talking to two other men. One of them was his friend John. Clipper blasted out the door and they all looked towards the noise as the door slammed into the wall.

"Ableard," gasped Clipper, "you gotta help me."

"Sure, Clip, what is it?" said Ableard, looking puzzled. He looked at the rifle Clipper was carrying and his eyes narrowed.

Clipper took another gulp of air. "It's... it's Simmons! He's got Girl, Dylan and some other girls locked up in cages in his barn!"

"What?" said Ableard, like he didn't believe him. Shit! thought Clipper.

"Ableard! I snuck in the back of the barn and saw 'em. In his barn, out back of the house. He has these cages with girls in 'em. One of them has Girl and Dylan. I followed their trail to Simmon's place when they disappeared three days ago." Three ... four? He couldn't remember. It seemed like forever.

"Shit! Are you for fucking real?" said Ableard. The man seemed to tense, and expand, growing larger.

"As real as it gets! I killed his man, the muscle freak. I just killed him ... less than an hour ago ... we have to get up there before he moves the women, Ableard. Look, man, I know you're his friend, but this is heavy shit. You gotta see it to believe it."

"John. Get the truck," Ableard held out a key. John grabbed it and took off in a dead run.

"Bill. Get Tim and Verel. Anybody else that wants to go, anybody with a gun. Clipper, follow me."

Clipper followed Ableard, who was walking as fast as some people run. They went down a street, and ended up in front of an old house. Ableard went right in, the door wasn't locked. He grabbed a bolt-action rifle from a gun cabinet and checked the magazine. They left the house.

He heard the truck long before he saw it. Old and battered, pouring blue smoke from holes in the muffler... but it looked better than anything in the world to Clipper. John jumped out, and vaulted into the back. Another man tossed him his weapon and then the man and two more more men also climbed into the back. All of them were armed. Ableard and Clipper were in the cab by then, and Ableard peeled out, heading down Main Street towards the woods. He went right over the low curb at an angle, and Clipper pointed the way to him, the way he'd just come.

The truck did pretty well, although the suspension left a little to be desired. They still made good time, bouncing through the woods.

"Simmons was under suspicion many years ago, but he wiggled free," said Ableard.

"Suspicion of what?" said Clipper.

"One of his babysitters disappeared at his house, or something. I don't remember the details. There wasn't a trial, but an inquiry. An inquest? I dunno. But his lawyer got him off, even kinda made him look like a good guy, though the girl was never found. He's always been a smart-ass about his money and how he can bend the law in this area, what little law there is. I think he thinks he's the law, actually. A lot of people have tried, but nobody has ever been able to pin anything on him. He plays with shit, but he don't stink, know what I mean?"

Clipper nodded. Men were no different now than before. The Fall was nothing special. It hadn't changed human nature, only human conditions.

"Clipper," Ableard glanced at him. "If what you say is true, he's a dead man."

"If he's hurt Girl he's a dead man," Clipper said. "Ableard. What I've said is true. Get ready to have the shit shocked out of you."

The closer they got, the more nervous Clipper became. Had the man been missed yet? Had he been found? Had the alarm gone out? Were the girls still there? Had they been harmed? A million things went through his mind. He regretted leaving Girl, now. He wished he'd had just shot the lock off the cage and freed her and dealt with whatever came out of the house. Damn, he would have Dylan with him and the two rifles as well as the bow and Girl with his knives. He was starting to wish that he had gone back and freed the two of them, at least. The other girls could have come later.

He stopped them where the muscleman had fallen. He was still there, and Clipper hoped that meant that he hadn't been found yet. The men examined the body, surprise evident on their faces. Now do you believe? Clipper thought.

"On foot from here?" asked Ableard. Clipper nodded, wondering if the truck had been heard. He pulled back the slide on the HK, making sure a round was in the chamber. He felt for the safety, to familiarize himself with the weapon. He led the way, the others following.

From the treeline, they surveyed the back of the house. No movement. Clipper didn't look back. He strode right to the barn, and around the corner, glancing at the house to see if anyone was watching. Still no activity. Good.

He looked at the large padlock. He looked at the assault rifle he was carrying. It was a .308. The lock should be no problem. He placed the muzzle of the rifle on the top of the lock, and then rotated the lock ninety degrees with the gun. Ableard saw what he was doing, and motioned the others to stand back. They were all watching the house closely. Clipper squeezed the trigger.

The gun was louder than hell in the quiet morning. They heard that, Clipper thought. They heard that shit in the house. The lock had pretty well disintegrated, and fragments of lead had splattered painfully all over Clipper's face and arms. In the shocked silence after the shot, they heard a motor in the distance. Clipper ignored it, and charged through the door. He ran to the end, ignoring the screaming and shouting women in the first cages. The women were all going crazy. It sounded like a zoo in there. The other men stumbled through the door, and just stood there, staring, their mouths open. Like I probably did, thought Clipper, as he reached for Girl's hand. He just stood there and held onto her fingers while Ableard stalked up and down the row of cages like an angry god.

Shit. Thought Clipper. I cannot risk this any further. She has to be freed, and now.

"You two," he said. "Lay on the floor and put that blanket over your heads."

Girl and Dylan did exactly as he said, without asking any questions, except that Dylan covered Girl's head with his body. Clipper placed the weapon's muzzle on the head of the lock, exactly as he did the first one. This time he hid his face, though. The lock exploded into a million pieces, and Girl was in his arms and Dylan gripping his shoulder. He held her and hugged her, murmuring to her, wiping her tears with his chin. He felt Dylan take the gun from his hand.

"I knew you'd come," she leaned up and whispered in his ear. "I knew it was you when you knocked. I told Dylan and the girls that it was over, that you were here."

One of the men with them literally dropped his gun on the floor and stumbled forward.

"Donice?" he said, "my god... Donice?" The girl in the cage was crying. He touched her fingers, like Clipper had done with Girl. The man began to cry.

"Verel. Watch the house," said Ableard. The engine noise was loud by now, and it seemed to come from right outside. The man named Verel went to the door, and yelled to get Ableard's attention.

"It's Simmons and his boy!" he said, and brought his rifle down to the ready. Ableard strode to the door, and leveled his gun.

"Simmons," he said loudly, "put your fucking hands up."


                              --==+==--


Mr. Simmons slowly climbed from the cab of the truck. It was a nice big truck, a box truck. It had plenty of room in the back for the girls. Clipper realized that meant he was probably trying to move them. It dawned on him how close Girl and Dylan had come to being gone.

The rest of the men and Clipper, Girl and Dylan followed Ableard out into the yard. Ableard's gun had never wavered from Simmons' face.

"Ableard. It's not what it looks like." Simmons spoke.

"Simmons. Don't even try. Don't even fucking try," Ableard said. "If you want to live a few seconds longer slowly toss me the keys to those cages. Otherwise we shoot you, and just take them."

Simmons hand moved imperceptibly towards his pocket. He was going to stretch this out, probably while his mind raced for a way out of this mess. He slowly fished some keys out and tossed them on the ground at Ableard's feet. John stepped forward and got the keys without placing himself in the line of fire between Ableard and Simmons. He went back in the building to release the other women.

Simmons' boy dropped from the cab, blubbering. He just about got himself shot doing so. The guns went back to Simmons, all but one, which stayed on the boy.

"Ableard," Simmons tried one last time. "There is a lot of money in this... operation. Enough to make all of you rich men."

"Simmons," Ableard spoke one last time to his former friend. "See you in hell, motherfucker."

The shot was loud, in the still air. Simmons looked surprised for a moment, and then slowly crumpled to the ground, a small bloody circle on his chest. It's just a .243, Clipper thought. Not enough to even knock a man down. They all turned to look at his boy, kneeling on the ground.

"He made me do it ... don't shoot me ..." the boy said, crying. Ableard turned away in disgust.


                              --==+==--


They sat in the diner, talking. Pretty much the whole town was there, and everyone seemed to be talking at the same time. The imprisoned girls had been reunited with their families and were being left alone as they got used to life on the outside. Girl ate a piece of pie, her head down. She was not adjusting to the attention very well, Clipper thought. She had whispered to him that she just wanted to go home. He understood and he was ready to go home too but he felt like he had to clear some things up first.

Dylan seemed to be enjoying the attention. At least somebody is, thought Clipper. Pete Sinclair brought the boy another piece of pie, and he nodded his thanks.

"Ableard. Do you know what he did with them?"

"The boy said they went overseas, to the Chinks. To our new masters," Ableard said in disgust. "White girls are a status symbol over there, apparently. Something you are proud to own."

He told Ableard something Girl had told him, that Simmons had come in the first night they were there and held a gun on one of the girls while his son had sex with her. The boy had pointed at Girl and smiled when he left, and she fully expected him to return and rape her at gunpoint sooner or later. The little fucker was lucky he hadn't, Clipper would have killed him if she said he had. The kid and housekeeper were being held in the town jail while they waited on justice, Ableard and John Jerard style. Simmons' wife had disappeared with his daughter for points unknown, claiming ignorance of the whole affair.

"Why were some of them there for so long?"

Tim Donahugh's niece Donice had been in her cage for almost two years. Two long years, eating watery soup and peeing in a bucket.

"No idea. Guess she didn't appeal or something."

"Shit. Shit."

"Yeah. Shit," said Ableard, shaking his head. "Jeezus. You think you know somebody, and then..."

"Yeah. And then," said Clipper, finally.


                              --==+==--


The dogs were hungry and a little put out at being ignored for so long. Clipper spread the jerky around. It didn't matter, he had plenty of time to get another deer before winter. Girl hummed softly, following close behind him. She didn't let him get out of her sight, hardly. He understood. She had even left the door open when she went to the privy. He had just held her last night, drinking her in, loving her.

She told him, with great embarrassment, how easily they'd been captured, in spite of her mistrust of Mr. Simmons. He had showed up and shouted to the house, acting like he was afraid of the dogs. She had gone out to speak with him, thinking he was there with news about the cabin, about them living there. Once he had figured out Clipper was gone and the kids were alone he had simply put a pistol to her head while his man came from behind a tree and relieved her of her gun and her knives. Dylan couldn't do anything, for fear of harm to her, and he was searched and stripped of weapons, too. Within an hour, they were in the cage.

That night as he held her she had whispered her secret name into his ear. He was stunned by the beauty and perfection of it and tears streamed down the side of his head and dampened the mattress. Later, when they made love, he whispered it over and over to her, loving the rhythmic sound of it. She was just too much, sometimes, he thought. Sometimes she just blew his mind completely.

They had a long talk with the two of them about safety and procedures and who could be trusted. The list was pretty short. Clipper didn't know what the future might hold for them. He knew he probably only had a few more years with her, before he croaked. Maybe 10 or 15 at the absolute most. Maybe we should pick up a kid or two from these refugee folk, he thought. Maybe we should start our own family. He figured that eventually, with Dylan around ... she'd have a kid or two of her own. After all, she'd probably get that mothering urge, at some point. He knew that Dylan would take care of her after he was gone and he was glad again that Dylan had come along. He was confident enough in her love for him to share, even now. Plus, he was an old man. He needed all the help he could get.

Well, he told himself, we can worry about that shit later. The future is what you make of it. It's wide open. The future ain't what it used to be. He kissed her, again, and breathed in the smell of her soft, warm body. He was happy. He was pretty goddam happy, all in all.


                              --==+==--


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« Reply #1 on: November 10, 2014, 07:08:13 AM »

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« Reply #2 on: November 10, 2014, 07:08:49 AM »

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« Reply #3 on: November 10, 2014, 07:09:15 AM »

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« Reply #4 on: November 10, 2014, 07:09:48 AM »

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« Last Edit: June 20, 2015, 09:29:29 AM by meatbot » Logged

------------------ My stories ------------------
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Meatbot
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« Reply #5 on: November 10, 2014, 07:10:27 AM »

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« Last Edit: June 20, 2015, 09:29:42 AM by meatbot » Logged

------------------ My stories ------------------
http://www.kristensboard.com/forums/index.php?action=profile;u=26255
Meatbot
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Just a bored old fart who writes shit.


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« Reply #6 on: November 10, 2014, 07:10:54 AM »

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« Last Edit: June 20, 2015, 09:29:57 AM by meatbot » Logged

------------------ My stories ------------------
http://www.kristensboard.com/forums/index.php?action=profile;u=26255
Meatbot
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Just a bored old fart who writes shit.


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« Reply #7 on: November 10, 2014, 07:11:28 AM »

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« Last Edit: June 20, 2015, 09:30:17 AM by meatbot » Logged

------------------ My stories ------------------
http://www.kristensboard.com/forums/index.php?action=profile;u=26255
damndogs
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« Reply #8 on: July 16, 2017, 12:10:01 AM »

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:emot_kiss:Bloody BLOODY !!! excelllent, thanks for your time Smiley
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HppyHrryHrdn
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« Reply #9 on: July 22, 2017, 02:53:13 AM »

Damn 'bot.  That was way too good. This story made me late for work and in a hurry to get back to reading it afterward. The lead character has a goodness I wish I could write into a character. But i guess you have to have an inner goodness to write someone that kind. And long is a relative term, when you like a tale as much as i like this one it's not long.  Please keep up the excellent work, I enjoy reading your stories.
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I am everywhere. I am inside each and every single one of you. Just look in and I will be there waving out at ya, naked wearing only a cock ring.
John_Blue
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« Reply #10 on: July 26, 2017, 05:58:44 AM »

Bot just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed this story. It was well worth the read.  emot_weird Shocked emot_clap emot_ntworthy emot_smilio emot_beerchug emot_cheerlead emot_wave2 emot_101010 sign_yourock sign_terrific emot_bigokay emot_wow sign_wow sign_thankyou sign_outstanding emot_rockon emot_mdmyday emot_thankyou sign_greenwithenvy emot_urck
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wayne3218
2018 Writer of Year
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« Reply #11 on: October 06, 2019, 10:23:44 PM »

I miss reading your stories Meatbot, I wish you were still on KB writing stories.
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Littleluvr
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« Reply #12 on: October 08, 2019, 03:08:41 PM »

Wow just an epic story never stopped reading from start to finish !! Great thanks
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