This is a story about a FANTASY written for consenting adults. If you're not both of those, don't read it. Characters in a FANTASY don't get sick or die unless I want them to. You don't live in a FANTASY so be safe. The fictional characters in my stories are trained and experienced in acts of FANTASY - don't try to do what they do - someone could get hurt.
If you think you know somebody who resembles any of the characters here, congratulations, but you're wrong - any similarity between the characters in this story and any real person is purely coincidental, since all of these characters are figments of my dirty little imagination.
This is my story, not yours. Don't sell it or put it on a pay site. You can keep it and/or give it away with all of this information intact, but if you make money off of it without my permission, you're breaking the law and pissing me off.
Alex pulled himself another agonizing inch up the steep wall of the gully. Just a couple more feet and he would be safe, but every breath felt like a knife plunging into his side where his rib had been broken. The rest of him was in no better shape, either.
His left eye was swollen shut, and the flap of skin hanging from the cheek beneath it left bone exposed. There was hardly an inch of his body that wasn't deeply bruised and gouged by the chains with which the motorcycle gang had beaten him.
Black and purple thunderclouds loomed over the mountain above him and the time between the strobed flashes of lighting and the rumbling pressure waves of thunder was growing shorter and shorter. Looking up, he could already see the silver shroud of rain hanging from the bottoms of the buttressed cloud masses. It would not be long before tons of that rain collected in the smaller gullies uphill and cascaded into this wash, sweeping down upon him, laden with logs, rocks and other debris. Alex gritted his teeth and pulled himself further up the almost vertical wall. Below and behind him, he could still hear the grumbling engines of the motorcycles and see the sweeping beams of their headlights as the riders searched the countryside around Lakeside and Pinetop for him, or for his body.
By no stretch of anyone's imagination had Lakeside or Pinetop been big enough before the Sickness to have survived as a community in the wake of such a devastating disaster. They had, however, one critical resource that many other pre-sickness cities and towns could no longer claim: a year-round supply of fresh water. Thanks to Show Low Lake, Rainbow Lake and the smaller Lake of the Woods, a new, thriving community had grown up where before had been a scattered collection of 'vacation' homes and service businesses.
Alex had gotten the radio call about some kind of trouble there and had ridden into town unaware of what awaited him. The sudden roar of powerful engines and the darting of the nimble motorcycles had been too much for Buck. He had reared suddenly, dumping Alex to the pavement before his hooves clattered off down the street. Surrounded by the chain-wielding, leather-clad gang, Alex had not even had a chance to remove the thongs from the hammers of his twin six-shooters before he was pounded to a bloody pulp.
Knocked repeatedly to the ground by a dizzying parade of roaring, lunging motorcycles and their laughing, leather-clad riders, Alex had barely managed to throw himself into a ditch, and under cover of the darkness precipitated by the gathering storm, drag his battered body out of town and into the hills. Once it rained, there would be no trace of his passage. None of the bikers had shown any skill or inclination toward tracking, but there were others in the community whose aid they could coerce, as soon as they thought of doing so.
Now, the storm that would have saved him threatened to become his demise. He was well aware of the kinds of flash floods that such a storm could produce, and he struggled mightily, pushing the pain and the deathly weariness of his body to the background. At last, he threw an arm over the shoulder of the bank just as his ears picked up the ominous roar of rushing water. Grinding his teeth against the pain, Alex gave a final heave, but a rock gave way beneath his boot just as a solid wall of muddy water careened around the bend above him, sweeping tons of rock and debris before it. His broken ribs screamed in agony, but it was not in Alex's nature to quit. With one last effort, he threw his tortured frame over the lip of the gully, feeling consciousness slip away as the raging flood thundered past like a freight train, its muddy death only inches from his boot.
Alex did not know how long he lay unconscious, but when he awoke, it was pitch black and fat raindrops were pelting his battered face so hard that it felt like a repeat of his earlier beating. Ignoring the grating of bones in his side and the agonized protests of his torn and bruised flesh, Alex dragged himself to his feet and staggered uphill, seeking some kind of shelter from the raging storm. He no longer feared pursuit, since the water would obliterate all signs of his passing and chase his pursuers into shelter, but he was in no shape to travel especially in this storm, and his body needed healing rest.
Revealed by a flash of lightning, he made out the sharp outlines of a Yucca plant. His knife, thankfully, was still with him, as were his tied-down guns, and he cut several of the sharply pointed, fibrous leaves from the Yucca, tucking them under his belt as he walked.
Alex stumbled and fell a number of times as he staggered through the storm, and his pain wracked mind almost missed the overhang when it was briefly exposed by another flash of lighting. Wearily, in exquisite agony, he dragged his body on hands and knees under the stony outcropping, finding a dry, cozy nook about four feet across and two feet wide near its center.
The temptation to sleep was almost overwhelming, but he took one of the yucca leaves from his belt, and using a flat stone as a work surface, pounded the leaf gently with another, rounded, stone, occasionally pulling the pulped leaf through between the two pieces of rock to strip off the pulp. When he was satisfied that he had removed as much of the pulp as possible, Alex held between his fingers the sharp needle tip of the leaf, from which dangled a long tassel of hair-like fibers.
One by one, he stripped the outer fibers away until he was left with a single strand, still attached to the sharply pointed tip of the leaf. Carefully, he cleaned the remaining fiber of the last vestiges of pulp and sand, then, using his fingers to feel the edges of the cut on his cheek, he closed the hanging flap of flesh over the wound.
Ignoring the new pain, and working slowly by touch, he crudely sewed the piece of skin back into place, using the Yucca needle and fiber to suture the edges of the cut. With the last of his strength, Alex searched for other injuries on his body. The ribs, he could do nothing about, and the rest seemed to be small cuts and abrasions over large bruises, some of which he treated with more pulp from the Yucca leaves.
Satisfied that he could do no more, Alex found a reasonably comfortable position, and using his rolled-up gunbelts as a pillow, curled up against the cold. Even with the rain, the weather was mild, but evaporation from his wet clothes chilled him. Exhausted, Alex put the cold and his pain out of his mind as best he could and slept.
When he awoke, Alex was puzzled by his surroundings. He seemed to be in his own bed, but how could he have gotten from the hills above Pinetop to Hidden Valley?
"So, you decided to rejoin the living after all," Juan Quiñones said as he came into Alex's view, grinning from ear to ear.
A dark skinned, dark-haired woman entered behind the hill man carrying a steaming bowl of something. Smiling at Alex, she shouldered Juan aside, saying, "Hush, old man. He needs food, not conversation."
Turning to Alex, she sat on a chair near the bed and said, "Here. Have some of this soup. I did not think you would mind sacrificing one of your chickens for a hot meal. I am Flora. I am the closest thing that ugly Indian will ever get to a wife."
Far from being insulted, Juan smiled tenderly at her and replied, "You did not think I was so ugly last night, woman."
"In the dark," she snorted, "everyone looks the same. Don't you have chores to do?"
Flora blew on a spoonful of the soup and held it for Alex to sip. The broth was delicious and he suddenly realized he was ravenous.
Once his hunger was taken care of, Alex's puzzlement and curiosity returned. "How did I get here, Flora? Last I remember I was shivering under a rock in the hills above Pinetop."
"I will let Juan tell you that story," she smiled, smoothing the covers over him. "I hope you do not mind, but I cleaned up your sewing job a little. Perhaps the scar will not be too bad now. I did not know anyone still knew this way of stitching a wound with Yucca fiber. Did you also use the Yucca needle?"
"A man uses what's to hand," Alex shrugged, "but I thank you for fixin' my patch job. I never was much hand for sewin' and not bein' able to see what I was doin' was even more of a handicap."
"It is good you closed the wound. Infection might have set in, or worse. This time of year is bad for blowflies. You rest now. That is what your body needs most."
"I need to get some stuff together and get back to Lakeside," Alex said, starting to pull the covers back. He realized, as he did, that he was naked under the sheets, and hurriedly covered back up, his face red with embarrassment.
About that time, as Flora tactfully turned away, Juan returned, apparently having heard at least part of the conversation.
"Ain't no cause to be in a rush," he said. "You ain't got nothin' to do in Lakeside that can't wait another day or two."
Something about the way he said "another" caught Alex's attention. "How long've I been laid up?"
"Well, that buckskin of yours moseyed back in here a mite over a week ago. His saddle was wet and he was trailin' the reins. I come down to feed the stock that evenin' an' found him, just grazin' in the grass out front."
"A week?" Alex was alarmed, "I've got to get goin'! Them folks are countin' on me!"
"Now you just settle back, boy," Juan told him. "Sticks is keepin' an eye on them motorcycle boys. They've got the folks treed, right enough, but as long as they don't put up no fuss, they ain't gettin' hurt. They was a couple purty little girls that them boys wanted, but Sticks managed to sneak 'em out of there afore they got more'n just a mite embarrassed."
"I still don't understand how I got here," Alex said, somewhat mollified but feeling like he was missing something.
"Well, after I fed that horse, I put a fresh saddle on 'im and backtrailed him a ways. When we came to where the rain had washed out his trail, I just kept goin' the same direction, thinkin' I'd find your body somewhere beside the trail. Suddenly, though, Buck yanks the reins out of my hand and heads uphill, scramblin' over rocks and such where there weren't no trail. I had to get off my horse to follow him, but he musta smelled you, 'cause he led me right to that shelf you holed up under. I rigged up a travois* and ol' Buck just dragged you home. I reckon you slept through the whole trip an' a few days besides."
"Well, I've still got a job to do," Alex replied, "so if you'll hand me my pants, I'll get started doing it."
"You're as hard-headed as a mule, but I ain't gonna stand in your way," Juan told him, throwing him a pair of jeans. "You take it easy standin' up, though. Don't want you fallin' over an' hurtin' yourself again."
Alex struggled into the jeans, but had to stop and rest before he could even attempt to stand. When he finally got to his feet, he had to hold onto the chair-back to steady himself. After a few moments he felt stable enough to walk, and made a few steps toward the door before his knees gave out. Had Juan not been there to catch him, he would have found himself stretched out on the floor.
It took another week before Alex, working at it a little every day, felt he was almost back to normal. As he regained enough strength to take care of himself more and more, he saw less and less of Juan and Flora.
Finally, he could wait no longer. The people of Lakeside needed help, and during his enforced idleness, Alex had thought long and hard about how to give it to them. Those motorcycles gave their riders certain advantages, as did the sheer number of men in the gang, but they had their weaknessess, too.
Juan came by just as Alex was strapping his preparations onto a pack horse for the journey. Laying a hand on the heavy .50 caliber sniper rifle, Juan eyed Alex speculatively.
"Didn't think a little thing like a beating would snow you, boy," he said. "I never figured you for shootin' a man from cover."
Alex smiled and replied, "That ain't what I've got in mind, but if you're worried, you're welcome to tag along and see how I use this thing."
He patted the stock of the .50 cal and continued with his preparations.
Juan shook his head, surveying the other items that were strapped to the pack horse and said, "Well, if'n you get whupped again, I won't have to hunt far for poles to make a travois. What are you fixin' to do, fence them fellers in?"
"Easier to show you than waste the day explainin'. You comin' or not?"
"Wouldn't miss it for nothin'," Juan grinned, turning his horse back toward the gate. "I reckon ol' Sticks'll have him a ringside seat, too."
"Figured you might want to watch," Alex told him, wincing as he swung into the saddle, "that's why I packed some extra grub."
He lifted the reins a bit and applied a little pressure with his heels to Buck's flanks. The buckskin, rested and eager to get back on the trail, broke into an easy lope, the pack horse trailing along behind.
Alex didn't talk much, but looked back now and then to check on the pack and make sure nothing shifted. After Buck had gone a few miles, Alex reined him in to a fast walk to ease the burden on the pack horse. They had a couple of days' travel ahead of them and there was no sense wearing the horses out in the first stretch.
Buck, his initial energy only slightly abated, recognized the pace and settled in for a long trip. Alex, though he knew the country like the back of his hand, kept his eyes on his surroundings. One never knew who or what one would run into out here.
An almighty big chunk of humanity had died in the Sickness, but there was no rhyme, reason, or justice to the choice of survivors. At least as many bad folks had survived as good ones, and in his travels, Alex had met up with a number of the former. So many, in fact, that friends or family of some of them might be hunting him at any time.
Every few miles, Alex stopped and surveyed not only the country ahead, but that behind. Aside from two- and four-legged predators, he knew how fast a fire or lightning storm, a flash flood or a landslide could alter the terrain, and had made a habit of always looking behind him to see what the trail would look like coming back. Pops had taught him that, along with pretty much everything else he learned growing up.
Camp that evening, beside a small spring, was about as silent as two men can be who both know what needs to be done and don't need telling to do it. Juan took on the heavier chores, like gathering firewood and kindling, while Alex rustled up some beef and beans for their supper. They ate their dinner and cleaned up, then kicked dirt over the fire to smother it. No words were said as they rode on a couple of miles, then found a secluded, easily defensible site a little way off the trail they folllowed.
Both men respected the needs of those around them, no matter whether they traveled on two legs or four, and if they had slept by the watering hole, which might be the only water for miles around, they would have scared off some of those who needed water besides themselves.
They built no fire at the new site, but posted no guard, either. The horses would warn them if anyone or anything approached their sleeping position, and the likelihood of that was small.
They were up before the sun, and built enough of a fire for coffee and bacon, then buried the fire and headed out just as a faint tinge of salmon started to show in the East. They reached the hills above Pinetop as the sun was disappearing behind the western hills painting a few scattered clouds purple, gold and vermilion.
Alex felt a pang that had nothing to do with his physical hurts as he swung down and gazed at the colors painting the western sky. 'Cilla would have loved that sunset. Then again, she had loved dang near every one they had seen together, and after a while, so had he.
Sticks "Hallooed" from the bushes some yards away, then came stepping into camp with his long mountaineer's stride as they set out another plate for him. It was beef and beans again, but that beef, no matter how well wrapped, wasn't going to last for long, so Alex wanted to finish it up. Tomorrow, if he was able, they'd have ham.
"What you got in mind for them fellers, kid?" Sticks asked, leaning back and loosening the thong he used for a belt. "Seems to me they's even more of 'em now."
"I got me a plan, but it's gonna take some settin' up. You and Juan can help with that part. You're both pretty good at sneakin' around without gettin' caught."
Alex explained what he had in mind for them to do before they slept, and the other two went off to their bedrolls chuckling.
The next morning, they broke camp again at first light, and the two mountain men left leading the pack horse, minus the .50 caliber rifle. Alex balanced the heavy weapon across his saddle as he and Buck headed out to find a spot to set it up.
When he finally settled down with the bi-pod of the sniper rifle propped on a flat rock, behind which he lay, he was looking straight down the main street of new Lakeside. The old town had been scattered all over, but the part that was currently occupied was a single strip of buildings along a street that ran more or less parallel to the lake shore, some distance from the water.
Alex was looking down the length of this street from nearly a mile away. There was almost no wind, and what little there was blew directly toward him. He could tell this by the leaves on trees along that street down below as he looked through the scope on his rifle. A long line of about fifteen motorcycles was parked on that street, their rear wheels backed up to the curb. Taking careful aim at the third bike from the far end of the row, Alex drew in a breath, then let out half of it and gently squeezed the trigger of the rifle, taking up slack until, almost coming as a surprise, the hammer fell and the gun, despite its weight, bucked sharply against his shoulder.