A Tale of the Scorch
Dawn, December 30, 2071
Cookesville, The Scorchings of East Tennessee
Jesse hunkered down behind the hog shed, the occupants grunting at his presence but not troubled enough to set up a squealing protest in the dim light of dawn. Haywood and Reuben would rendezvous with him here once their own acts of sabotage were complete. The tall man shivered, as much from the cold damp air in this calm before dawn, as from Jesse’s realization at just how aghast his family would be when they learned of this exploit.
Three days ago, he had been a carefree student-on-holiday, slipping the bonds of his family’s Christmas celebration to connect up with these friends from his adolescence and find a little peace inside the Scorch.
It was not that he did not enjoy spending time with his parents and siblings. As the “baby” in the family, his accomplishments, triumphs, and defeats were viewed with a certain amount of amused detachment; there was always someone who had done what he did earlier and better. Theodora, eleven years his senior, was well into being a super-mother to her children, Jon Junior, Anthony, and Petra, becoming a political kingpin on the side. She had just triumphed as the campaign manager for Jon, her businessman husband in his first successful run for congress. Unattended, his niece and nephews ran riot around the small Tower Park apartment playing games and enjoying the holiday bounty—at full volume.
Celia might have understood. Celia, the nearest to him in age, could not come. Having finished her training in radiology at the new Mayo’s in Denver and landing a nice partnership there, she was the “new kid.” and on call for the entire holiday. Patricia, next oldest, was a government lawyer for the commerce department in Columbiana, the new American capital, and had a week-long holiday. Patty talked—incessantly—about office politics. David, his only brother, had just arrived Christmas Eve from his own engineering firm out of Tulsa, rebuilding the depredations of Unity destruction with solid and soaring architecture.
Jesse had been so taken with David’s civil engineering projects that his undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering. He had started to make plans to join David, until the “medical gene,” kicked in from his doctor parents. Mom and Da had been so proud—briefly—when he told them he had applied to medical school. They called in some favors. It had been enough, along with his grades, his name, and his notoriety to get him a place in the freshman class of the university’s medical school. Instead of taking off to build beautiful heroic bridges across the daunting great rivers of a new America, Jesse had bundled together his books, computer, and dirty laundry into a borrowed car and moved from his grubby apartment near the undergrad commons down Bascome Avenue to another equally grubby and smaller, apartment near the medical school, a couple of miles distant. No one in his family was much surprised— or impressed.
During the holidays, Jesse slept on a futon in the living room. The streetlights kept him awake.
While he would always be the kid brother, or “spare uncle,” at these holiday gatherings. Jesse still enjoyed them. He sat, gossiped about old friends and unremembered distant relations, worked jig-saw puzzles as an excuse to carry on the desultory conversations, ate his mother’s plum pudding and pumpkin pie, enjoyed the miracle of the Gift and when it was over, after all the hugs, kisses and tears, was delighted to leave on his own.
With one day to get to Lexington to rendezvous with Haywood Smythe and Reuben Alexander, a day to get horses and victuals, and a day’s travel northeast, Jesse and his friends expected to be within the Scorch for over a week. He looked forward to no responsibility, no test-taking, no crushing burden of memorization, and no fear of being found out as an unwitting fraud, the same fear shared by all the medical students he knew brave enough to confess it. No! He would be carefree, footloose and happy, if only for a few days, with men he knew within a place they all admired.
One admired the Scorch;no one loved the Scorch any more than you loved a rattlesnake. The Deep Scorch was entirely alien; one went into it only if dire need compelled you. The Scorchings, the areas affected by the Unity’s campaign of destruction twenty years before, were not the real Scorch, of course. People lived in the Scorchings, pushing back the changed plants season by season to plant the new agro and win back rich land to feed a beleaguered nation. He admired the people of the frontier, good stock who gambled that sweat and savvy could win them a living from the unknowable wilderness. He had grown up in the Scorch, or rather he supposed, the Scorch and he had grown up together. The Scorch, created by the effects of war and an experimental mutagen-herbicide, and Jesse, the youngest child of Alyssa Browne and Alexander Cameron McAlpin Johnstone, had been young together once.
Jesse would be, during a lifetime estimated to be one-hundred-and-seventy years, forever an object of notoriety, the first of the Old Ones. He had been the sole source of the longevity treatment, Ageplay, up until he was mid-way through college. Now he no longer had to be bled every three weeks to make the treatments for a nation. He was glad to sink into oblivion, if his six-and-a-half-foot stature would ever allow him to do that. Ageplay had left its mark.
A short hiss sounded to his left and Jesse hooted a short reply. That should be Reuben, sort of a slightly younger foster nephew, raised by David Johnstone, after Reuben was orphaned in the refugee camp in Lexington when Reuben was four. Still in his teens, Reuben had ridden as a scout for some of David’s hairier survey sweeps out west. Shorter, less substantial than Jesse, he was able to move through the forest like smoke. Haywood Smythe, quieter and slightly older than Jesse, signaled his own return with a bear cough on Jesse’s right.
Immediately, the three rose from their spots, met and strode together into the center of the huddle of small houses, barns, and livery stables. A small bell hung from a tall pole in the center. Without comment the three young men stopped at it and began to ring the bell for all it was worth. Within minutes they were surrounded by angry and worried frontier folk.
“We told you three to clear out! This time you will get what’s coming to you, I promise you!” said a red-faced man, Josiah Kirksen, the owner of the doomed pigs, as he pulled up his braces and buttoned is jacket.
“You ain’t supposed to ring that less’n it’s an emergency. Even you youngsters should know that. I am going to write a letter to the marshal—disturbing law-abiding folk on a Wednesday morning,” said a matron with a particularly uffish demeanor—a Mrs. Ottokar, unless he was mistaken.
The crowd, just the sort of no-nonsense dreamers who would bet their sweat, grit, and blood that they could win a farm out of the new wilderness of the Scorchings, began to encircle the three young men.
Just before things got ugly Jesse bellowed to the crowd, “People of Cookesville, do you know where your horses and mules are?”
“What are you talking about, Johnstone. Yeah, I know who you are. What do you mean ‘Where are my mules?’” said Kirksen.
“We took them all from you last night. The snow has covered their tracks. The only animals you have left are your pigs, chickens, and sheep. They are going to die. The Unis will kill them. But if you listen to me, you will live.”
“What have you done with them?” said a small ferret-like man, Shenberger—Paul Shenberger, if he remembered aright.
“You sound like you are making a threat, young man. I won’t have that. If you have inconvenienced me in any way I am going to...” said Mr. Ottokar, coming up to stand beside his wife.
Jesse interrupted, “If you stay here, you are going to die, not just your meat animals, but your milk and draft animals, your children, your wives and you. You have one day to get out of town before the Unis attack.”
“You said that before and we didn’t believe you then. Show me some proof and then we might listen to a bunch of scruffy youngsters from who knows where,” said Kirksen, drawing a few nervous laughs.
“Are you that daft?” asked Reuben. “The Unis ain’t gonna send you no invite! They are going to come over that hill,” he said, turning and pointing to the north, “and burn you out. If you don’t leave you will have killed everyone here!”
Haywood cut in, saying to the other two softly but easily heard by the farthest ears, “I told you these people were too damn stubborn, Jess. Let them die. Improve the gene pool. If we leave now we can get to Nashville ahead of the Unis and home free.” He turned to leave.
“Where are our mules?” someone said to Haywood’s back.
Jesse answered as Haywood left. “They are our mules, now. We’ll tell any folks we come on that they’re all we could salvage from Cookesville after the Unis wiped you out—you and Burkesville. Who’s to say different?”
“Burkesville is gone?” said a young matron holding a baby. “My sister lives in Burkesville— “
“Lived,” said Reuben, cutting her off.
“We are taking our mules as far away from here as soon as possible before the Unis get here. If you want to hitch our mules to your wagons, we can arrange it. You people have no say in this. We are gonna try to save your lives whether you want us to or not.”
“In the middle of winter? We could lose people out there,” said a robust older man, Jedaz Ackerman.
“You could,” agreed Reuben. “If you move yourselves now, you just might could avoid dying in your comfortable beds tomorrow. Your choice, Ackerman.”
“Why are you doing this to us?” said a woman who seemed on the verge of tears.
“’Cause I can and because you need me to do this for you.”
“I mean what are you getting out of this?” said the angry older man.
“Do you really want me to think too hard about that, sir? I don’t owe you the time of day. I’m doing this because you’re American.”
“We should vote on this,” said Mrs. Ottokar. “We don’t really know who these people are. All in favor of staying to protect our homesteads—” she said raising her hand.
“You don’t have time for that and it doesn’t matter. We are the people who have already stolen your mules,” said Jesse. “We are leaving here, with or without you.” The woman lowered her hand.
Jesse raised his voice, the sound echoing back from the few stout farm buildings, “At noon, six hours from now. We are leaving with our mules. We will not stop until we think we are safe from the Uni attack. We will not bargain. We will not turn back. We are not going to compromise. Come or not. We are giving you the last best chance to save your skins.”
The settlers grumbled, groused, threatened and then left to gather their clothes and food for the trip. A few chickens were saved from the Unis and a large family did a quick pig-killing, the meat freezing quickly in the weather. The rest of the pigs were turned loose, taking their chances with the Scorch. Reuben brought the draft animals down from a neglected summer sheep fold while Haywood stood guard over it. Jesse disarmed each settler before supplying mules for the trip, mixed up to reinforce his claim to ownership and to maximize the group’s speed on the road.
The people, now convinced the Unis were coming directly over the nearest hill at any moment, were ready to leave before noon. The road beneath the new fallen snow was frozen solid. They made good time. It was well after sundown when Jesse, in the lead wagon, found Haywood, acting as the scout, standing in the road with his rifle directing them to a little used trail and clearing to the south.
“No fires. This is a cold dry bivouac. Find a spot, eat, drink, and go to sleep as quick as you can, we roll at first light,” bellowed Jesse.
The frontier folk grumbled as the animals were unhitched and led away by a well-armed Haywood. At a distance, Jesse saw and unknown women bustle around, demanding children, newly woken from exhausted sleep, to bend their wills to hers. He smiled and then frowned as he saw beyond her several anonymous dark silhouettes huddled together instead of getting ready for a meal and a cold bed. They murmured.
Before he could investigate, he heard a new noise behind him: high pitched and stifled at times, it was the sound of weeping, the weeping of a child who no one comforted, and no one came to quiet. Jesse moved to the closest wagon, dark and abandoned, its people staying elsewhere. Pulling back the plastic tarp, he could see nothing. The crying immediately stopped. He turned on his head lamp, which he usually kept off to preserve his night vision. Mounds of crates and jumbles of clothes, furniture, chests, and bins of staple foodstuffs greeted his eyes. While he was trying to make sense of the jumble, he saw a quick movement out of the corner of his eye, like a hastily retracted bare foot.
“I have some food for you and a warm place to sleep,” he said gently into the shadows. Nothing happened. “No one is going to hurt you. I will be with you until we get somewhere safe.” Silence. Jesse turned off his headlamp, dropping him into a darkness made complete by the loss of his night vision.
Yet, he could still hear. The steps behind him stopped. He was a fool; he had nicely silhouetted himself in the darkness when he turned on the headlamp. He ducked down and turned to see nothing.
“You men best go to bed. I’ll be rousting you in about six hours.” He cycled the action on the Winchester—loudly – and continued. “I had a gunsmith re-cut the grooves in this old rifle about a year ago. Second time, too. Ammo’s getting too small for the barrel, though; bounces around a lot. It needs a new barrel, no doubt. Heck, gentlemen, I bet if I were to aim for you,” said Jesse, pointing toward the sound of the last crunch of snow he heard, “it might take you,” pointing the barrel belly-high and to his left, “right in the gut. Lousy way to die. I saw it once. Even if the bleeding stops, your belly is full of corruption. You start rotting from the inside out. Takes days to die. Nothing to be done out here, ‘course. Good news, though, ‘Bleeding always stops—eventually.’”
“You are holding us hostage! What’s going to happen to our farms with us gone? We could lose everything!” said a voice belonging to the crunching snow.
“You have lost everything but what you brought with you here. I watched Burkesville die. The Unis are here to wipe us all out. In a month, there’ll be nothing left to say this was ever America,” he finished, knowing how lame it sounded to the older men.
“Give me back my mules. I’m gonna take my chances,” said a voice on the left. Gradually, Jesse’s night vision was returning, and he could see the outline of a single large man belonging to the voice.
“No, Mr Ottokar,” Jesse replied softly.
“You can’t stop us all. We outnumber you!” said a determined voice.
There was a short shriek by his ear, from the bed of the wagon. Jesse brought the butt of the Winchester up and it connected with what must be the face of a dark shape in front of him. Unseen, another pair of hands closed onto his shoulders pinning him to the wagon, when the lights came on.
“Gentlemen,” said Reuben, his shotgun aimed almost casually at the three men in the light of his headlamp, “Now’d be a good time to show some more intelligence than you have demonstrated, heretofore. Let go of him, hands up, down on the ground, face down. Now!” Reuben gestured emphatically with his weapon.
Once they were down onto the snow, Jesse identified the other men as Shenberger, the small ferret-like man who he had not suspected was there on his right; Ottokar, the large demanding one on his left, and Ackermann, the snow-cruncher.
“You three, tell the others this was their one and only free sample. From now on, Haywood, Reuben and I will not palaver with you. We will shoot. Do you understand?”
“Leave them there,” said Jesse.
“We’re gonna freeze here!” said Snow-Cruncher.
“Life is full of trade-offs. Do you understand what I said?” Jesse demanded.
“Yeah, okay. We are your prisoners.”
Reuben gave a grim chuckle and said, “Slow learners, Jess. Let me sit with them for a while and see if we can come to some agreement.”
Jesse nodded as Reuben went over to the large man, Ottokar, and sat on the small of his back, hearing him wuff in protest. Jess went himself to solve a mystery. Turning back to the wagon, he pulled up the canvas again, letting it drop behind him.
“Thank you. You saved my life. I don’t know how to repay you,” he said quietly to the darkness.
And then the merest scrabble in a corner.
“If you come with me, I will keep you warm and fed until this is over.” Silence. No scrabble this time. After long seconds without a response, Jesse said, “I dinna blame you for not trusting me. You needn’t worry. I’ll tell no one we have a wee mousie in the house.” He turned to leave and thought he might have heard a giggle.
After each of the men had been pressed to offer up a solemn promise of cooperation and allowed to rise, and after the camp had finally quieted, only then did Jesse return. He coughed loudly, waited a few seconds to let the scrabbling die away and then ducked under the canvas with a half-dozen biscuits, a flask of milk, donated from the Gundersons’ cow, and a sweater he felt he could do without.
In the end, he lied, going back on his promise to the Mousie. He had Haywood ask around about an orphaned child. No one said anything for a day until a teenager, the eldest son of the Bickers family got Jesse alone.
“They run them off.”
“These people,” said the boy, shrugging, including all of the settlers. “They run off a colored guy, his wife and their little girl. The guy had a stake here but hadn’t put in the claim yet. These people,” he said with the disdain of the young, “ran them off and took over the planted fields because they had already claimed the plot when they went through Nashville. I don’t know what really happened. I heard a lot of shooting one night. No one wants to talk about it. One day the family had a nice cabin and fields green with new corn and then next thing I know the Darcy’s are living there. No idea what happened to the real owners.”
“Thanks for letting me know, son,” said Jesse. It felt odd to address a person a scant ten years his junior as son, but it came easy enough to him; he felt old.
While the villagers slept, their three young kidnappers stood “watch and watch” all night, alternating two-hour sentry duty over the camp and the animals and hurried attempts to sleep before being rousted to go back on duty. Jesse was perversely pleased with himself. Medical school had already given him a leg up. For the last semester he had lived on four hours of sleep a night for weeks on end, trying to devour the tsunami of names, processes, and relationships (did the Ulnar Nerve pass medially or laterally to the Trochlea?) without it drowning him. On Sunday he’d sleep in until seven, get a real breakfast from Aristotle’s on Choteau, and go to church before surrendering once more to the books. Other than a new mother, he figured, he had conditioned himself to undersleep anyone in the party.
They were on the trail by sunup.
Shivering from the cold wind, Jesse led the train across a low ridge just before hitting the Nashville Highway. Reuben would be up ahead, trail finding, until he got hungry and came back to relieve Jesse who would drop back to the end of the train to relieve Haywood, currently assigned the task of discouraging laggards and absconders. Hays would grab a biscuit or apple before taking point, assuming Reuben’s original mission. Jesse had gotten the first few wagons well down the other side when he heard the groans and cries from the people behind him. Retracing his steps, he crested the little ridge again and saw what was causing the commotion.
Dark, oily smoke rose into the pale winter sky in the still air behind them.
“Oh Lord, it’s all gone,” said a tall, substantial woman, Mrs. Tolliver.
“We are gonna starve. They must be burning everything. No seed corn. No pigs. No plows. Took me seven years to get that much for a stake,” said her quiet husband.
Paul Shenberger, the husband of the woman with the young baby, was silent as he glared at Jesse. His wife wept.
“Keep moving. The Unis can read the trail we left. A blind man could follow us. We need to keep moving if we want to live!” Jesse bellowed, startling the baby, who added its high-pitched yowl to the commotion. It’d be best for these people to work on what they could save and not think about what they’d lost, thought Jesse.
The real bad news came when they reached the Nashville highway.
People were streaming east out of the city. “The Unis are coming! The comm’nets say there’s gonna be a big battle to save Nashville! We were told to evacuate,” said a young man, about Reuben’s age, who was walking along beside his idling motorcycle, unable to ride in the crush of people.
Going against the flow of traffic, Jesse watched the frontier folk look longingly at the flow of humanity streaming around them, many on the motorized carts which had become popular after the the Meltdown and the wars. It was an hour before Reuben found them a road going south.
“Why di’nt you just turn around and follow the crowd?” asked a quiet man named Harvast as he was helping him unhitch his team that night.
“We’ve already been where they’re going. Do you really want to throw in with them? Ain’t none of them had even a paint gun,” said Reuben, working unseen on the near side of the team. Jesse was amazed that the stress and strain of the last few days had not reduced Reuben to useless apathy; it was more than he expected of his young friend’s seventeen-years. However, the stress did not mean he tolerated daft stupidity any the better.
“Then why not tell them they are going the wrong way?” asked Harvast’s woman, a short, raven-haired woman with a child on her ample hip.
“That’d be well on the way to killing us all, ma’am,” replied Jesse less harshly. “Doing that would have slowed us down. Most likely, we’d been in a stand-off with people who were ignorant of what we had seen but happy to argue about it, anyway. As soon as they see the smoke, they will scatter right enough. Some will die but the damned Unis can’t follow every track; they surely won’t follow our track.”
After that night, they no longer had to hold the animals hostage. The Cookesville men unhitched the teams quickly and without orders and led them to Haywood, who made a point of laying his rifle aside to help. They were not as hard on the mules—or the people. Fires and portable stoves were fired up for breakfast and dinner. The train stopped at sundown, before five o’clock this time of year, and did not set off until a good hour after sunup. People smiled. The ‘mousie’ still accepted the food without a word or a glimpse of herself. There was no murmuring.
The three young men agreed, after talking quietly that fourth night, that the party was finally safe enough. They’d cut them loose in the morning, calculating that after retracing the route to Lexington to drop off the horses, they would still have some time to enjoy each other’s company. They were wrong.
Jesse had just slipped off, more tired now than he had been when anxiety had kept him on the brittle edge of slumber, when Haywood touched his foot where he lay under the wagon where the mouse lived.
“Winds blowing up Jess, but there’s som’thin’ else as well. Do ya hear it?”
Jesse said nothing for a second, unwilling to form the words he was afraid to say. “Skimmers. Get the people up. Tell’em to scatter. No time to hitch the teams, jus’ git as many as you can mounted—and Hays?”
“Make sure we have horses for the three of us. Don’t let the terror make people greedy.”
Haywood left, and Jesse could hear both he and Reuben bellowing across the encampment and banging on the sides of the wagons to roust the sleepers.
Jesse stood and went to the rear of the wagon, lifted the canvas and ducked under it.
“Mousie. Wee Mousie, we have to talk. People are coming here, and they will destroy this wagon. You need to come away with me now. Do you understan’? I promise to keep you as warm, as fed, and as safe as I can. Please. There is little time.”
Silence. Around him men shouted for light and women for absent children.
Jesse heard a scrabbling.
Out from under a bale of gentiana novis, crawled a small child, no more than five. She was thin, painfully thin, her cheeks sunken, her eyes huge. She wore his old sweater; when she stood it came to her knees, her hands lost in the sleeves. She was shoeless.
Jesse spread his arms and the girl walked into them and started to weep. She stank. Ducking down to get under the tarp, Jesse wrapped his great coat around them both, still warm from using it as a mattress just minutes before. The child was so slight, he could fasten the catches of the coat over her as she clung to him. Reuben ran up and thrust the reins of Jesse’s horse into his hands without a word. Jesse mounted with difficulty, his center of gravity off from the slight weight of Mousie, twisting the horse in a circle before he could get his off leg over the saddle.
“Everyone’s away ‘cept us, Jess. We done what we could to save ‘em; now, let’s save us!” said Haywood
“Com’ on, Jess! We need to move!” echoed Reuben. And they did.
Already mounted, Reuben and Haywood sped off into the dark woods with Jesse close behind. Above the scent of pines, horse leather, and the unwashed Mousie, Jesse smelled the sharp scent of snow.
Mousie struggled beneath his coat and Jesse opened the top clasps until he could see dark eyes peering up at him. She quieted and clung to him as the horse startled. For a few seconds it was all he could do to keep it under control. Haywood and Reuben were out of sight by the time he had the animal calmed, but he could hear their hoofbeats and was confident that when they found the next clearing, they would halt to allow him to join up.
A noise, a noise he could not identify, prompted the young man to hazard a glimpse back for any sign of pursuit. Just as he did, a blast of light, twining green and scarlet bolts, so solid it made the air itself feel oily and incandescent, thundered into the circle of wagons they had just abandoned. The horse bolted in earnest this time, sending them, blinded by the blast, through the dark forest. Like malign forest spirits, branches whipped and tugged at him in his flight. Behind him, the popping of Uni rifles replaced, the blast-furnace roar of the pulse-bombard. Blindly, they rode on.
Gradually did his sight return, creeping back during that headlong plunge through the forest, itself a blur of dark forms looming at him as the horse sped on. He found no trace of Reuben’s and Haywood’s passage. They aren’t daft enough to waste time trying to find us, now.
It was left to Jesse to find his own way, for his and Mousie’s sake.
Some time, hours later, they broke into the open. By the light of a near-full moon that peeked from behind the clouds on brief occasions, Jesse glimpsed a wide treeless valley, covered in snow, jagged blue-black shadows of the pines stretching far across it. He could see no tracks. Jostling Mousie awake, he fed her a biscuit from his pocket. She ate it using both hands—nibbling it like her namesake, accepted a sip of water, and promptly fell asleep on his chest, her legs still clasped around him. Jesse turned to follow the edge of the clearing, downhill, away from any rendezvous he might hope for but more likely to find people for Mousie. Lexington seemed far away and unimportant.
Jesse followed the broad swale, guessing that it belonged to a frozen stream, and that it must have some western component to its course, flowing toward the Tennessee River. Just when dawn was suggesting itself to the eastern sky, the horse stumbling from fatigue, they discovered the first of the deserted towns, Only, Tennessee. Finding an abandoned high-ceilinged old house, Jesse brought the horse and Mousie inside, away from the usual Uni search patterns. They slept until the skimmer came.
Jesse woke as the shadow of the huge vehicle blotted out the feeble sun. The shadow hesitated over them and he was sure they had been discovered. The horse whinnied, but Mousie slept on, no doubt exhausted from the night ride. Ten minutes later, the shadow moved off, going north. They stayed all that day indoors with only the heat of the horse and each other to warm themselves. Jesse found some cans of beans in back on the top shelf of an otherwise bare pantry and it gave him enough hope and strength to go out to the barn, under a covered walk, to find the stalls filled with moldy hay. In the loft, however, he hit a gold mine: vacuum sealed oats and alfalfa. It took hours to haul the bounty back to the house. A sink in the kitchen had a working pump. By mid-afternoon, Mousie was up and scampering around, silent as her name sake. She solemnly accepted a can of baked beans from Jesse’s hands but complained vigorously when he washed the residual off her face in the sink—just as the skimmer returned. This time it circled through the town, blasting some buildings but leaving the majority, including the dilapidated old farmhouse alone. It was all Jesse could do to hold the panicking horse in one hand and a terrified Mousie in the other, whispering assurances he had no reason to believe himself.
They left the old house as soon as the skimmer had once more moved away, darkness following shortly thereafter as the sun, sliding to the horizon, showed itself briefly; dull, scarlet—bloody—in the black and white landscape. Its appearance did not cheer him.
Jesse led them north and away from the still burning Only, figuring that was the direction the skimmer had abandoned. They followed a trail of fire. Hoping to find helpful town’s people, they met the skimmer’s victims instead. Refugees streamed along the old interstate highway at Busksnort, where the road had been cut. Men and women carrying bindles of their possessions, pushing an occasional hand cart or leading an over-burdened mule, used the rubble to ascend to the hard, mostly snow-free road surface. After Jesse had done the same, the rest of the night was a good deal easier. With so many eyes, he just moved along with the speed of the crowd, warmer, less anxious, and surer that the nightmare was over for them. Mousie slept in the saddle, drooling onto the horse’s neck.
When they got to Jackson with the dawn, civilization was there to greet them. The rail yards were filled with trains being made up for the refugees, as waiting crowds surged back and forth in the streets around the station. The army was there; great cannon on rail cars had been moved to sidings, sweeping the skies in anticipation. Jesse rode slowly through the milling crowd with Mousie, from her perch in front, watching owl-eyed at the commotion but never showing a moment of recognition, despite that. He had one bit of luck; the American Livery, Inc. had a franchise across the street from the station. He turned in his long-suffering animal and retrieved the deposit. He would be able to buy books for the new semester coming up without calling for financial reinforcements from parents who would ask awkward questions.
Newly afoot and feeling the effects of the ordeal, Jesse led Mousie through the food line. There were shower lines but Mousie would not leave him, so they showered together. Her dark skin bore only healed wounds of burns, stripes and gouges. After drying her with donated sacking, he was forced to put the malodorous clothes back onto her. They boarded a train early the next morning, after standing in line all night. Mousie was invigorated by the food and the shower, standing at his side as they waited to board a train, but soon she fatigued. Before she dozed off in his arms, she sang for him, her lips mere inches from his ear.
Ring around a rosy,
Pockets full of posies
We all fall down.
They boarded in the morning after standing all night. By the time the train had crossed the Tennessee River, Jesse had surrendered his seat to a wounded man, carrying the little girl in his arms as she slept. Even in their extremity, the other refugees had smiled at him and offered him advice, presuming Mousie was his, he expected. He still had a few days of vacation before school started, but without Reuben and Haywood, he’d decided to just go back to Saint Louis and just sleep before classes started.
Numb with fatigue, he was grudgingly pleased with himself. He’d kept his word to Mousie; he’d made sure she was warm and fed until she was safe. Mousie, cut adrift in the chaos of a wounded America, would be one more story of which he would neither know the beginning nor ending. She had, no doubt, clung to him, like debris does in even the wildest of torrents; one strand clinging to another and both pulled from where they belonged. She still feared to talk to him, still snatched whatever food or drink he gave her as if bait from some trap. The good people of Cookesville, despite their own tragedies, had a lot to answer for. Mousie’s personal hardships would, most likely, never be mended. Her parents murdered, she had lived on the edges of the settlement like a rat in a corn bin. If he had not arrived, she would have died during the winter, unmourned and undiscovered until spring. As badly managed as their rescue had been, as little as the settlers could retrieve from their lives, at least one injustice had been thwarted.
He was unable to focus his eyes, due to fatigue, by the time the train arrived in Memphis and ground to a halt. Jesse let the rest of the people leave, their packages and bundles proceeding them out of the car like some bumbling caterpillar. He had been awake for more than three days.
As he emerged, there was a shout from the periphery of the crowd. “There he is!”
They did. The American marshals surrounded him and took Mousie away from him, still sleeping. They bound him and took him into custody.
The jury, all good folk of the city, smiled at him as they filed into the court room.
“The defendants will rise and face the jury,” intoned the judge, a plethoric and well-fleshed man who, Jesse estimated, had never seen a man killed in anger or despair.
“In the charge of murder by the defendants Johnstone, Alexander, and Smythe, in the deaths of Paul Shenberger, Mary Wirz Shenberger and the infant, Felicity Anne Shenberger, how do you find?
“We find the defendants not guilty of murder. We find the deaths were righteous.”
The audience was quiet except for a few anonymous ones in the back and away from the judge’s eyes, hooting and booing. Jesse, Reuben, and Haywood remained quiet where they stood.
The judge brought a stop to the outburst with active gaveling, getting himself red-faced in the process before pronouncing, “Jesse Aaron Johnstone, Reuben Aloysius Alexander and Haywood Beverly Smythe, by the powers vested in me by the state of Tennessee, I wish to personally thank you for your services to the people of Tennessee. Your fortitude and courage under trying circumstances are a lesson to us and our nation. Therefore, I release you from the capital charges of murder and remand you to the executioner for the completion of your sentence. This court is adjourned.
The smiling guard bustled them off, still in manacles.
The executioner, in his top hat and frock coat, smiled at the three young men as they sat retrained in straight-back chairs, broad bands binding hands, legs, chest, neck, and forehead to sculpted pads, making movement impossible. They sat in an unroofed enclosure in front of the Statehouse, the tall walls made of muslin stretched between poles. Clothed in thin striped prison garb, under a cloudy sky, Jesse waited. Thankfully there was no jeering audience; the rows of seats he had to face were empty.
“This won’t hurt but a little, son,” said the long-faced man as he prepared to carry out the sentence.
“’S’all right, sir,” said Jesse. “Not your fault.”
Jesse closed his eyes to the watery winter light and tried not to shiver; it would be seen as fear by the warmly dressed executioner. Jesse would be the first. That would be proper. Reuben and Haywood had taken his lead. The executioner started on the bridge of his nose and worked the instrument down over his cheek. He would be marked, they all would be marked, for life as man-killers but not murderers. They had endangered the company by their actions, for good or evil, and it had cost a life, three lives. The Shenbergers had been found huddled a thousand yards from their burned-out wagon, untouched by the Uni zombies but frozen together, clasping their daughter between them. He had promised to save their lives, and he had failed; his arrogance and incompetence causing the death of his fellow creatures. He would go through life with this tattoo, a thin but vivid blue stripe from nose to jawline as a warning to all.
“Killing changes a man.” The mark gave others a chance to gauge their chances in a lawless land.
The executioner mopped up the blood and ink on Jesse’s face with a red bandana, grunted at his work, and went on to Haywood. Jesse, unable to move, heard Reuben, still a boy, weeping in anticipation at the other end of the line.
Jesse’d never know. Mousie was now beyond his grasp or ken, swallowed up by the conspiracy of government and matrons, who dealt with orphans in this new America. She was at least alive. He’d been unable to save the town or even all its people. He’d been unable to protect Reuben or Hays from the consequences of his poor decisions, but he had kept his promise to Mousie.
It was a shock when he realized he was no longer becoming.
Becoming. He had always been becoming. His efforts from his earliest memories had always been staked on some future time toward which he struggled to arrive. Every action, every effort of his past was directed to deliver him as a mature, competent, confident and capable adult to that future. It was never to be. He was now branded as a monster, a warped and defective man, never to be allowed within the walls of the real world, and more hideous because he was a caricature of what he had meant to become.
A breeze rippled the cloth of the enclosure and blew across his face setting his tattoo to burning. He tried not to cry. His family, as much as he loved them, would not understand. They would not console. He knew only one to whom he could confide, and he was not human.
Speaker, a monstrous creature of the deep Scorch, a Sage Man, would be slow and dumb this time of year, counting the suns until the spring awakening. They had discovered each other when Jesse was hardly older than Mousie. Like all of the Scorch, Speaker would kill if not carefully watched and appropriately bribed, but Speaker would listen. He understood Jesse.
He would join Speaker for a season.
Monsters should stick together.
In Malila of the Scorch, Book Three of Old Men and Infidels, you will learn what Speaker and Jesse had to say to each other. This story takes place after the Meltdown, when all global commerce comes to a halt, and after the Great Patriotic War (or the Second War of Secession depending on your viewpoint) where America eviscerates herself. It occurs before the Devastations, a period of increased Unity aggression during which many new outposts of a revitalized America were razed by the utopian Democratic Unity.
Keep getting older!