Feb 21 2013 5:00pm
The road and the map gave the number 80. For a time he knew where he was by the map’s lines and tracings. He alone would have to know where he was going from now on.
I followed him from the day he took me. Now I will need to lead, even if it is just myself and Horse.
Horse grazed by the side of the broken and cracked highway.
The short days were cold and it was best to let Horse eat when they could find dry grass. The Boy considered the snowcapped mountains rising in the distant west.
Sergeant Presley would’ve had a plan for those mountains.
You should be thinking about the snow, not about me, Boy.
The voice of Sergeant Presley in his head was strong, not as it had been in the last months of his life when it was little more than a rasp and in the end, nothing at all.
You’re just remembering me as I was, Boy.
You can’t think of me as someone who can get you outta trouble. I’m dead. I’m gone. You’ll have to take care of yourself now, Boy. I did all I could, taught you everything I knew about survival. Now you got to complete the mission. You got to survive. I told you there’d be mountains. Not like the ones you knew back east. These are real mountains. They’re gonna test you. Let me go now and keep moving, Boy.
The sun fell behind the mountains, creating a small flash as it disappeared beyond the snow-capped peaks. Horse moved forward in his impatient way. The Boy massaged his bad leg. This was the time when it began to hurt: at the end of the day as the heat faded and the cold night began.
Sometimes it’s better to ride through the night, Boy. Horse’ll keep you warm. Better than shiverin’ and not sleepin’. But stick to the roads if you do go on.
The Boy rode through the night, listening to Horse clop lazily along, the only sound for many hours. He watched his breath turn to vapor in the dark.
I should make a fire.
The Boy continued on, listening to Sergeant Presley’s voice and the stories he would tell of his life before the Boy.
“Ah got caught up in things I shouldn’t have. You do that and time gets away from you. It shoulda taken me two years to get across the States. Instead it’s taken me almost twenty-five or twenty-eight years. I’ve lost count at times. How old are you, Boy? You was eight when you come with me. But that was after I’d finished my business in Montana. That took me more than twenty to do. Maybe even thirty. Nah, couldn’t have been that much.”
“We fought over San Francisco maybe ten years. After the Chinese kicked us out of the city and dug in, that’s when the general sent us east to see if there was anyone left in D.C. My squad didn’t make it two weeks. Then it was just me. Until I met you, and that was up in Wyoming.”
“I spent three years fighting in a refugee camp up near Billings. That’s where I lost my guns. After that it was all the way up to Canada as a slave. Couldn’t believe it. A slave. I knew that camp was doomed from the start. I should’ve topped off on supplies and food and kept moving. Cost me all told seven years. And what I was thinking going back to get my guns after, I couldn’t tell you to this day. I knew there was no ammo. I didn’t have any ammo. But having a gun … People don’t know, see? Don’t know if it’s loaded. I musta walked a thousand miles round-trip to find out someone had dug up my guns. Stupid. Don’t ever do anything stupid, Boy.”
Later, the Boy limped alongside Horse thinking of “Reno,” and “Slave Camp” and “Billings” and “Influenza” and “Plague” and especially “Gone,” which was written next to many of the places that had once been cities. All the words that were written on Sergeant Presley’s map. And the names too.
In the night, the Boy and Horse entered a long valley. The old highway descended and he watched by moonlight its silver line trace the bottom of the valley and then rise again toward the mountains in the west. Below, in the center of the valley, he could see the remains of a town.
Picked over. Everything’s been picked over. You know it. I know it. It is known, Boy. Still you’ll want to have your look. You always did.
For a long time the Boy sat atop the rise until Horse began to fidget. Horse was getting crankier. Older. The Boy thought of Sergeant Presley. He patted Horse, rubbing his thick neck, then urged him forward not thinking about the slight pressure he’d put in his right leg to send the message that they should move on.