We are pleased to run an extended excerpt from WR Flynn’s Buck: A Survivor of the Shut Down, just released this May. The novel is a sequel to Flynn’s earlier Shut Down: A Story of Economic Collapse and Hope, which we reviewed last year. Enjoy.
“Joe, look!” Chris Saunders said, as he nervously drew his handgun for the first time in nearly two years. He was an avid collector of rifle accessories but never really did a whole lot of shooting in his spare time.
“Whoa,” replied his friend, Joe Hancock. It was the last thing they expected as they tried to catch a few trout or an early-running summer Chinook salmon.
It was late morning, warm, and would soon get hot as they fished along the shore of the snowmelt-swollen Sandy River. The river was still flowing fast, but in two weeks, by mid-July, the river level would drop and, as the summer Chinook became more numerous, they would become easier to catch.
The two men had been up since early morning working on Joe’s family vegetable garden, getting their hands dirty in the early cool air. Summertime meant long hours of hard work but they didn’t complain. Everyone in town pulled their weight working on farms, fishing or hunting with bows to make sure they had enough food to feed everyone.
Prior to the sudden economic collapse, Joe’s family farm grew blueberries, selling them to local markets and overseas wholesale buyers. For years, as a hobby, Joe’s mother, Mary Kay, tended a small vegetable garden alongside her family’s well-maintained early-twentieth-century Sears Craftsman farmhouse.
Since the disaster struck, the Hancock vegetable garden expanded. It grew from a few hundred square feet of tomatoes, peppers and zucchinis to five acres featuring dozens of assorted organically grown vegetables. Next year they planned to grow corn, which meant cultivating ten acres. The blueberries still grew in nice straight long rows meandering over the easy rolling hills of western Corbett. They would soon ripen with little help, but their vegetable plot needed constant coaxing, especially during the annual spring and early summer planting period. It was one of many small vegetable farms that had sprouted up in Corbett over the past two years. Work crews would be tending the crops every day all summer and well into fall. As the morning grew warmer, a walk to the river was a welcome break from the backbreaking farm labor.
Chris and Joe began fishing for the summer Chinook a few weeks earlier when the first ones arrived. When fishing line grew scarce, the way people fished had to change. There were still plenty of quality, pre-disaster fishing poles to use, but many now preferred the short, simple, birch-branch pole, like the one Chris made during the past winter. Since fishing line was in short supply they no longer casted. Instead, they dropped short lines along the shore, always bringing the lines home afterward.
Since midmorning they had caught only one, a twenty-pounder, so they tried their luck downstream. They moved to a point where they could look across the river at the trees and aging picnic areas of Oxbow Park along the opposite shore. Each time they fished along this beach they felt the ghosts of the dead. The shore they stood on was the site of the old battles. Thinking of the hundreds of dead, Joe usually became misty-eyed as he walked nearer and today was no exception.
As they settled in and went to work preparing to drop a few fishing lines, Chris glanced downstream a short distance and saw him first. The man was barely visible, lying prone on the riverbank partially shaded under a low-hanging birch tree branch. He was facedown and motionless between a few large river rocks, barefoot, both legs in the water. His scraped and bruised feet stuck out of badly tattered pants. Two filthy hands reached out through the sand toward the trees. His long, greasy dark hair and filthy grey t-shirt were wet and bloodstained. He was an outsider; someone they didn’t know. And that scared them.
“He looks dead,” Joe said, whispering back to Chris while clutching his well-worn fishing pole near his skin-tight tan sleeveless t-shirt.
“I don’t recognize him,” Joe replied.
“Me neither,” Chris said, “but I don’t know everyone. With over three thousand people in town I still meet new people all the time.”
“He looks like a stranger,” Joe said.
“Yeah,” Chris said.
“We better check him out,” Joe said.
“His pants’re wet. So’s his shirt. Looks like he just washed up,” Chris replied, as they both moved cautiously closer along the shore of the river.
“I dunno, Chris. He may’ve been here all night. Hard t’tell. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen a dead body on this beach,” quipped Joe, referring to the ferocious battles fought along the banks of the Sandy River one terrifying afternoon two summers back.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anyone at all,” Chris said.
“Let’s hope it stays that way. But when there’s one ….”
“True,” replied Chris, as the two of them carefully scanned with their eyes in all directions, barely moving their heads.
Two hundred and fifty men had been killed that day two summers ago when a small Corbett foot patrol stumbled upon and quickly slaughtered a battalion-sized invasion force of freed jail inmates. Their guards had waited helplessly as they sat for days in their cells and dormitories slowly starving to death. Food shipments had stopped when the nation’s trucking system ran out of fuel and collapsed. When the inmates were finally turned loose by good-hearted jail guards, they quickly organized and set off on a manic search for food, drink, drugs and women.
A massive Monday morning wave of bank closures, which shut down the world’s fragile financial system, released humanity from its once-powerful social bonds. The sudden unraveling of human civilization was worldwide and struck without mercy. Within a few days everything had fallen apart in a historically unprecedented orgy of death and destruction. Riots and looting exploded unchecked in nation after nation as social order vaporized and the Four Horsemen saddled up for yet another ride, their best ever.
Immediately after hitting the streets of northeast Portland the newly-freed, rag-tag army of thugs went on a brutal rampage, looting, raping and burning their way east during two intoxicating weeks of pure mayhem. They were on a winning streak and optimistically thought Corbett would be easy to take, too. After all, northeast Portland, Fairview, Wood Village and Troutdale fell with little resistance. However, when it came to terrorizing Corbett they were dead wrong. Two weeks after the collapse nearly all of them were slaughtered moments after crossing the Sandy River along this shallow stretch of riverbank.
The attackers were giddy with excitement as they waded across the Sandy River and clambered over thick logs deposited by past floods. Their anticipation grew as they danced and joked their way to Gordon Creek Road, which meandered near the river at this point. They carried little other than a crazy assortment of looted rifles and handguns, some of which were unloaded. Few knew how to shoot the ones that were. Nevertheless, they were an intimidating force made up of violent wannabes, social outcasts, toothless drug addicts and other assorted Multnomah County rejects. Luckily these days it’s becoming easier to fight the war against drugs with things like urine drug tests.
During the two weeks of looting they had shed their jail clothes and were nicely dressed as they strolled north up the road and prepared to attack. After weeks of rummaging through abandoned suburban closets, most looked like they had climbed out of a Columbia Sportswear or an Eddie Bauer catalogue, while others wore casual business attire, some for the first time in their lives. Their meager possessions were carried in colorful convenient daypacks that once held schoolbooks. Many packed sharp knives pilfered during their two weeks of freedom, knives littered with the DNA of their countless victims.
A well-armed, well-trained, six-member Corbett foot patrol spotted them. They knew the terrain very well and they knew their weapons even better. After silently taking solid cover positions alongside the road, the local militia waited, hidden in the bushes behind logs, boulders and trees until the noisy mob drew near, then all at once they opened fire. Moments after the shooting started, five members of another nearby foot patrol heard the gunshots and rushed to join them. The one-sided battle lasted only a few minutes. One defender died on this particular beach: Steve Nelson. He had taken a stray bullet in the forehead. He’d died during the first of two one-sided battles fought near the same beach where the filthy barefoot outsider just washed up.
Chris had been shot, too. His friend, Alison Lee, also took a round, but she was saved by her father’s Kevlar vest and remained in the fight, bruised but otherwise uninjured. Chris had nearly lost his left arm during that battle along this wooded stretch of beach, but he kept fighting, firing away with his good arm until the battle ended. He’d taken a bullet through the bicep. If not for his inner determination to recover and the loving care of Denise Song Bird, the Native American town veterinarian he later married, he would probably now be fishing one-armed.
At five-foot nine and a lean one hundred and fifty-five pounds, Chris now sported a shiny black, foot-long ponytail. A few dozen short wispy black hairs sprouted randomly from the chin and cheeks of his round unscarred face. He once scaled in at a chubby, yet clean-cut, one-ninety. However, with a primarily vegetarian diet and the loss of junk food he, like nearly everyone, lost his body fat. His new weight left him lean and muscular: ripped, in fact. Barefoot and shirtless in his orange-brown deerskin pants, the baby-faced former soldier now looked like an adopted Indian child standing alongside his much larger, light-skinned, bald-headed and blue-eyed friend, Joe.
At the time of the collapse, Joe had been packing nearly two hundred and fifty mostly fat free, muscle-bound pounds on his thirty-something superhero frame. Premature baldness had slammed Joe hard, leaving only a stray hair or two on his squarish, sun-reddened head. Always standing straight as a totem pole and well over six feet tall, he was once a mighty presence wherever he went. Heads would turn as he passed by with his nineteen-inch neck and twenty-one-inch arms.
However, with the daily foot patrols and hard labor, combined with the limited diet following the disaster, he had lost fifty pounds, reaching a weight he hadn’t been since he graduated from the Navy’s BUD/S training ordeal over a decade earlier. Others had lost even more, but a hardened, intimidating two hundred was how Joe stood since. Along with his father, Joseph, who likewise lost a wheelbarrow full of body fat, he nevertheless continued to hit the weights hard, so Joe and his dad, now nearly sixty, were still considered among the toughest men in Corbett.
Sadly, as the months passed, walking was gradually becoming more and more of a minor annoyance for Joe, but when asked why he would always brush it off. Over the last two years he had developed what Denise simply called a nervous disorder. It caused him to walk with a slight rhythmic limp reminiscent of those suffering from a mild case of cerebral palsy. She told him it could worsen over time but, although running fast was no longer possible, he could jog slowly and otherwise get around just fine. Still, if folks needed something heavy lifted or someone friendly to talk to, they often turned to Joe.
Joe and Chris quietly moved closer, then stood staring at the stranger from about ten feet away. They once again silently scanned around a moment, listening to the nearby woods and looking in all directions to see if anyone else lurked nearby.
“There’s no trespassing,” Chris said. “What should we do?”
“He isn’t trespassing. Just washed up on our beach. Look. His head’s bleeding,” said Joe, pointing at the blood on the man’s face and in his hair.
“Maybe he hurt it crawlin’ outta the water,” replied Chris a bit louder, as he set down his homemade fishing pole alongside Joe’s tackle box and much longer, fiberglass pole.
“I doubt it, it’s partly scabbed up, but he looks harmless. Skinny. Bony, like he hasn’t eaten much in weeks. I think he’s hurt bad. You have your gun. Cover me. I’ll roll him over, check him out,” Joe said.
Chris still held his Glock nine in his hand, careful to always have it ready after what occurred two years back. “Wait. What if he’s sick? Maybe we shouldn’t take the chance. Remember the old rule about newcomers? We aren’t allowed to go near anyone ‘til we find out if they’re sick,” explained Chris.
Joe had stopped carrying his handgun long ago, but he always felt safe as long as his friend Chris carried one. After hearing the man’s story, he’d never again go out without it strapped to his faded baggy blue jeans. “Okay. Let’s find out if he’s sick. Poke him with a stick, Chris. See if you can wake him up. We’ll ask him.”
“Let me look at him first,” Chris said, as he approached closer. “Let’s see here … hmm, no weird rash, he’s not sweating, his hair isn’t falling out, he’s not leaking from the nose or mouth … he isn’t shaking or nothing, either. He’s breathing weak, but steady, too. I don’t believe he’s sick at all.”
“Well, go on, poke him, Chris. Get him to wake up.”
“No, you poke him,” chuckled Chris.
“Fine,” said Joe. “I’ll poke him.”
“I’ll cover you.”
“Okay, but I want you to stand over there,” Joe said, pointing to a sandy area not far from the man.
Chris stood where he was told. Joe then walked a short distance back and broke off a small branch from a nearby shade tree. He then stretched out his right arm and carefully aimed the stick at the man’s ribs.
“Hey, wake up,” Joe said, as he gently jabbed the man in the ribs a few times with the stick.
The man offered no response.
Joe then spoke a bit louder while repeatedly tapping the man on his head with the stick. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap and tap, “Hey! Get up!”
The man groaned once and slowly turned his head. He faced Joe, staring hard with one eye barely cracked open. The other, black and purple, remained firmly swollen shut. He looked an inch from death.
“Why are you hitting me?” asked the stranger.
“We’re asking the questions, buddy,” said Chris in a stern voice as he stepped back cautiously, standing behind Joe, glancing up at the back of his friend’s head while holstering the gun.
“I’m hurt,” said the man.
“Are you sick, or hurt?” Joe asked.
The man simply mumbled and pointed at his upper left chest with his grimy, sandy right hand.
“What he say?” Chris nervously asked.
“I dunno,” Joe replied.
“I said I’m shot.” It was much clearer this time.
“Shot? Where? By who?” Joe quickly asked.
“Where I’m pointing, you idiot,” the man softly replied. “I can barely breathe. Please help me. I’m not sick. I’m shot.”
“Can you walk?” Chris asked.
“What’s it look like?” asked the man, as he clutched the sand and softly groaned in pain.
“Let’s get him to Denise. Chris, help me get him up.”
“Are you sure you’re not sick?” Chris asked.
“Not sick. Shot. Arrow in the back. Came out my chest. Can barely breathe. Hurts.”
“Who did it?” asked Chris.
“Dunno. Upriver. Yesterday afternoon. They chased me. Shot arrows at me. Got hit by a couple. One bounced off my head. One went in my back. Pulled it out my chest. Made it to the river. Started swimming. Where am I? Who are you people?”
“This is Corbett,” Chris said. “We live here. Where are the people who shot you?”
“I dunno. Upriver. By Sandy. How’s Portland?”
“Portland’s gone. We saw it burning from the Vista House. How many of them were there?”
“Yeah, gone. How many were there?”
“Lots. Didn’t count, they chased me, I ran. Portland gone? Oh, no. I used to live there. Roses, mom and dad,” he mumbled as his head flopped back into the sand.
“He’s losin’ it, Joe,” Chris said.
“Okay, we’re gonna get you to a doctor,” Joe said. “Right now.”
Joe turned to Chris. “We’ll walk him up the hill together.
Leave the fishing stuff. We can get it later, but bring that
salmon. We can’t waste it. It’ll rot in the heat.”
Joe straddled the stranger. Then he put his massive hands under the man’s arms and stood him up.
“I can walk,” said the man. “I just can’t stand up.”
Joe caught him as he started to fall.
“Joe, look at your hands! Blood!”
“Whoa! We better get this guy up the hill fast. Let’s go.”
Chris slipped into his moccasins. He then picked up the canvas bag holding the salmon with his weaker left hand and together with Joe helped gently lift the man over a few logs. They half walked, half carried the man the rest of the way up the riverbank to the hot, smooth pavement of Southeast Gordon Creek Road. They could retrieve the poles later.
When they reached the road, the man stumbled and nearly fell on the asphalt.
“Hey, buddy. It’s only a few miles. Stay awake. Talk to me,” Chris said, as they helped him up.
“C’mon, man. You can make it. We’re gonna make you okay again. You’ll be fine soon. Denise Song Bird will fix you up good as new,” Joe said.
“Hey, I’m Chris. This is Joe. What’s your name?” Chris smiled and asked.
“Baccellieri. Michael. I hate ‘Mike.’ Don’t ever call me ‘Mike.’ Please, don’t.”
“Okay. I can’t pronounce your last name. How do you say your last name, again?” Chris asked, staring at the bloody-faced stranger.
“‘Bah-chel-lee-air-ree.’ It’s easy,” Michael slurred.
“‘Buck-lee-airy.’ Hey! That’s easy to pronounce,” Chris smiled, at what he thought was a small linguistic success.
“No. No. It’s, ‘Bah-chel-lee-air-ree.’”
“No, Chris, say it right. It’s ‘Back-lee-air-ee,’” Joe said.
Michael glanced up at Joe, then over at Chris. He shook his head, “Hicks. You two friggin’ idiots are killing me. Just drop me. Let me die in the road. I can’t take this anymore. Is Denise Song Bird, the doctor, anything like you two? Hey, you look like a Native American.” Michael groaned toward Chris.
“Chris, he’s about to pass out. We should just help him get to the clinic and kinda ignore what he says right now,” Joe said.
“Around here we prefer the term “Indian,” not ‘Native American,’ if you don’t mind. And yeah, she’s my wife,” Chris replied, ignoring Joe’s advice. “We’re from different tribes. I help out in her veterinary clinic.”
“C’mon, really, now. What is this place? Am I dead? Yeah … oh yeah, fer sure. Did I drown? Was it the arrow? I’m in Purgatory, aren’t I? Damn it, knew I wouldn’t make the first cut: must have been the crap I pulled in high school, or in the army,” he slurred.
Chris spread his arms out, palms up, as if carrying an invisible bag of onions. He then looked at Joe and shrugged, not quite sure what Buck was talking about.
Joe laughed. “No. You’re not dead yet. You’re hurt bad, but you’re gonna live. Denise is really smart. She’s helped lots of us get better. For a vet, she’s doing a really good job as our doctor.”
“I have an arrow hole through my chest. My head’s bleeding and it hurts. I can’t see out one eye. My boots are gone. I ain’t eat’ in two days. And you morons are bringing me to a damn country veterinarian?”
Joe, dumbfounded, glanced at Chris and shrugged. “Hey, I’m sorry. It’s all we got. She’s our doctor now. You’ll get better soon. You’ll see. Hey, would it be okay if we just called you ‘Buck?’”
“‘Buck.’ Yeah, I guess so. That’s fine. Cool. I’ll live with ‘at. You guys jus’ call me Buck.” Michael slurred.
“Okay, Mike. We’ll call you Buck,” Chris said. “By the way, Buck, where’s Purgatory?”
After Chris spoke, Buck glared at him briefly then lost consciousness, dreaming of the men with the bows.
They came from the south, always hungry, walking through ghost towns and along abandoned roads in search of food. This wandering pack of feral men was thirty strong now. As they moved, they would lose a few, then pick up a few more as they travelled meal to meal. Always moving, always searching, always hungry, their craving for food was purely primal. Sometimes getting lucky, they would stumble across an overlooked hoard in a rail yard shipping container or a freeze-dried stash cleverly hidden in a basement or sometimes secreted in the dusty attic crawlspace of a long-gone survivalist’s home.
Moving through what was once called California had become too dangerous, even for these savage, silently moving feral men. The once-cultivated fields had long since dried. The battles for dominance during the past two years had provided victory to none. The bloody struggles over the scraps ended when the scraps were gone. However, countless individuals and a few small groups still roamed the countryside in search of food. This no-name group from somewhere in California was one of the last, and the only one still scavenging in Oregon.
The California Central Valley heat was deadly during the summer, and getting hotter each year, so they moved north, to a cooler place, into the Willamette River Valley. They had one objective: survival.
To reach there they walked north, skirting the western Sierra foothills. They occasionally encountered farming villages, isolated heavily-armed small groupings usually numbering under one hundred, although some were larger, all of them remnants of the horrifying decimation two years earlier. The members of these colonies worked hard, struggling nonstop to survive. Most defended themselves, vigilantly guarding their perimeters and brutally turning away outsiders with well-aimed rifles, especially those looking like this band of thirty-odd hard-faced men. Few let them get anywhere close.
It was becoming routine for this marauding band. Some communities made the deadly mistake of welcoming these strangers, offering them food and shelter. Those who did lost everything. The feral men would then gorge themselves and move on, packing the remains. The fortunate ones learned from their misplaced kindness and got a chance to start again, wiser and more cautious about where to direct their compassion. The others became one with the ever-present wind and dust.
As the feral pack moved north, through the eastern side of the Willamette Valley, the few survivor colonies they found were unfriendly, armed and well-guarded, allowing no one near. In April, three of their pack had been shot and killed approaching one small, but well-organized farming village south of Lebanon.
They approached the crude, makeshift gate, handguns hidden under tattered shirts. One man walked well ahead of the other two while waving a white shirt high over his head as if coming in peace. It was a clever entry tactic they had successfully used: approach with a white cloth waved high, draw close, and then kill.
They were ordered to stop twice, yet their simple plan and burning hunger drew them ever nearer to the vigilant town guards. The lead man was thirty yards away. Next, the other two moved closer. It was a tactic that had worked well before. The three kept walking closer, waving the white cloth, smiling at the guards as if they were old lost friends. Twenty yards away. Now ten. One of the sentries ordered them once again to stop yet the three kept drawing closer. The three sentries then opened fire at once, stopping them cold when they ignored the final order.
After that, the ferals avoided the well-defended towns unless their situation became truly dire, in which case they would attack a few less-defended homes on the outskirts. Instead of overpowering the armed guards, they would wait until night then attack poorly defended homes on the edges of towns under the cover of darkness, quickly taking what they could and then fleeing like rats into the night.
They had yet to move past the first level of Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchical needs. They accepted no women or children into their band. “Maybe later,” they kept telling themselves. Maybe when they found a place to retire, a place to stay for good. That was a distant dream, often talked about, but few believed it would happen.
The men had become desperate, hungry, as they moved north to the Sandy River, near the ghost town once called Sandy. The town was the last food stop along the Mount Hood Highway. In the days and weeks following the collapse, tens of thousands of starving people arrived, fleeing the chaos in the city. Its orchards, farms, markets and homes were stripped bare. Only a few families survived.
Scouts moved ahead of the main group in twos, searching, listening, ever on guard. They heard the distant rhythmic cracking of axes barely echoing in the silent air. They found a few sets of fresh footprints along a river beach near their camp, one set, human, another set, dog. They followed them for a time, then returned to the main pack with their walking bounty, sharing the exciting news that a town was near.
Most of their ammunition had been spent hunting deer and other game during the past winter. Their remaining bullets were divided, loaded into inaccurate rifles and rusty handguns. Bows were inspected, once again. More arrows were made ready as they cooked a scrawny mongrel over a small, carefully burning fire. Tired of eating undercooked stray dogs and raccoons, they were now excited, preparing for yet another attack.
Then, an emaciated stranger approached, a threat to their planned raid. “Kill him!” one of them muttered. Grimy hands dipped into deerskin quivers. Arrows rained on the man. The men saw one arrow strike his head. Another pierced his back. They saw him fall into the river and float away, and thought no more of him.
Joe carried him the final mile and a half down the middle of what was once the Columbia River Scenic Highway, past the school buildings, past the Mount Hood Christian Church, finally reaching the town clinic midafternoon.
They turned off the highway and onto the cracked concrete walkway leading to Chris and Denise’s home, which served as the community clinic. It was an off-white, classic, one-story early twentieth-century home with a wide covered porch supported by thick wooden pillars. The roof was still sound but the outside needed paint that would never get applied. It faced north, the shady side, but the two bedrooms used for patient examinations faced south. Large picture windows allowed bright sunlight to fill the patients’ rooms giving Denise and her assistant, Kelly Lee, plenty of light. The third bedroom, the one Denise and Chris shared, faced east, welcoming the morning light, but in the afternoon it was shaded and cooler during the summer. People needing long-term care were treated a few days then sent home. Few remained longer than one night. She and Kelly also treated farm animals, riding their bicycles to the town’s farms, but very few animals were actually brought to the clinic.
Kelly was tall, five-ten, with a cheeky, round face blessed with a full lips and a delicate nose. Her athletic, twenty-three-year-old physique was maintained with daily martial arts practice and regular jogging. She was the youngest daughter of a Chinese family, one of only three in Corbett. Her degree in biology from the University of Oregon made her a natural for working at the clinic.
Joe shouted out loud to no one in particular as he stood near the closed screen door with Buck slung limp over his right shoulder as if he were a light jacket, “Hey! Denise! Kelly! We have a wounded man! Shot! Hurt really bad!”
“Denise, are you home?” shouted Chris.
Denise Song Bird became the town’s only veterinarian when the other one, a senile seventy-nine-year-old alcoholic, died the previous summer after falling face-down and suffocating in a pile of fresh cow dung with an empty bottle of grape wine still tightly gripped in his right hand. Denise became the town’s de facto doctor when it became known that, other than an eighty-four-year-old neurologist who could no longer remember his own name, not one single medical doctor lived in Corbett.
Denise and Kelly had cared for sixty-eight pregnant women, delivering fifty-six babies in the past two years. The high infant mortality rate was not unexpected. Sadly, two mothers died during labor. Without modern medical care these tragedies could not be avoided.
She opened the screen door, stared a moment at Buck, then glanced briefly at Chris and Joe. She was shoeless at home, as usual. Like Chris, she preferred to walk barefoot during the summer. She was wearing the same style of deerskin pants as Chris, along with a loose-fitting faded black t-shirt. Her single-braided raven-black hair just barely brushed the top of her pants. She was a full-blooded Native American, but, like Chris, preferred the term “Indian.” Everyone simply called her Denise. She fell in love with Chris while treating his wounded arm. Chris fell in love with her at first sight months before that, but Denise didn’t know Chris until he was driven to the clinic. It was his last ride in a motor vehicle. She often joked that Chris was very lucky to have been shot. Chris always nodded his head in agreement.
“What happened? Who’s this?” she asked both men.
“A stranger. Found him on the Sandy, across from Oxbow. He’s hurt, took an arrow clean through the back. Joe carried him here,” said Chris.
“Before you bring him in, let me take a quick look, see if he’s sick, first. If he’s sick, we all get to live in a tent out in the woods for a few weeks.” Denise went inside, grabbed a few things and returned to the porch, quickly looking Buck over, pausing a short time at the arrow wound and listening closely as he breathed. She opened one of his eyes and analyzed it a moment. Then she did the same with the other eye. She took his temperature. Then took his blood pressure and pulse.
Denise finished taking his vitals, nodded, and led them down the short dark hallway and into the small clinic’s stark-white, sunlit examination room. “Bring him back here. Room one. He’s ninety-eight point four. One twenty over seventy. Pulse sixty-five. Nice. I can’t believe it. He’s certainly not sick. But he looks like his blood pressure and pulse should both be zero. The arrow seems to have threaded between the major arteries and missed his heart and lungs. Let’s get him on the table and strap him down tight. His arrow wound needs work. I can’t have him waking up and squirming around.”
While Denise opened the nearby five-foot gun safe and prepared the slender cleaning rod, the men carefully removed his soiled t-shirt and gently placed him face-up on the crude, wooden, waist-high planks. A short, yet thick, two-inch wide dark leather strap dangled from the middle of each side. The hole in his chest bled little, but it looked angry-red and was beginning to swell. As dirty as Buck was it was no surprise there was a bit of infection. The wound was about a day old, but the way it looked could mean bad news for Buck. Except for an impressive collection of minor cuts and scrapes, an ugly scabbed-over half-inch divot above his left ear, and a swollen-shut left eye, he appeared otherwise uninjured.
Without waking him, Denise used the two loose-hanging leather straps to firmly attach Buck’s wrists to the sides of the dark, splotchy-stained, wooden table. The two-inch round, hand-drilled holes in the sides of the table secured the straps and had been used many times since the clinic opened at the start of the emergency two years earlier. They had been worn shiny and smooth from repeated hard pulling and twisting from her more seriously injured patients struggling against pain.
Due to the chest wounds, Chris buckled the thick, well-worn brown leather belt across Buck’s lean waist instead, securing his hips firmly to the table. Denise and the two men thought he might awaken very soon. Electric lights no longer worked so the heavy table had been placed next to a large, south-facing picture window so patients were nicely illuminated in the warm sunlight while strapped to the table. Unconscious and suffering from pain, exhaustion, hunger and shock it was a miracle Buck was still alive. But somehow, he clung to the tiniest thread of life and Denise intended to treat and fully heal him. It was time to begin.
“Kelly, can you put the sterilized hot water on the floor? I don’t want him knocking it over.”
“Sure, Denise. The small, sterilized rags are soaking in it. I ground up a piece of lavender soap. Stirred it in, too. You’re all set,” Kelly said. “The blackberry leaves are in a bowl on the gun safe.”
Kelly was tall, five-ten, with a cheeky, round face blessed with full lips and a delicate nose. Her athletic, twenty-three-year-old physique was maintained with daily martial arts practice and regular jogging. She was the youngest daughter of a Chinese family, one of only four in Corbett. Her degree in chemistry from the University of Oregon made her a natural for working at the clinic.
“Oh, this is going to really hurt him a lot. He might get lucky and stay unconscious for this. If he was awake I could give him some of that pain stuff, but he’s out cold and won’t wake up so I can’t. First, I’ll flush out his arrow wound. I’m going to try to clean it all the way through, sterilize it really well,” said Denise. “Joe, could you please get ready to hold his head down? Chris, his legs. I don’t wanna get kicked again.”
“Okay,” said Joe, as Chris moved into position.
Pain-killing drugs and anesthesia medication were a sweet memory of the past, so seconds after Denise started cleaning the arrow wound, Buck awakened in a flash, violently arching his body. He opened his one good eye wide in terror as he suddenly emerged from his peaceful empty dream. He tried his best to avoid crying out in pain, finally surrendering, screaming loudly while Denise Song Bird flushed his piercing arrow wound. She used the hot water and homemade soap to gently yet thoroughly probe through with her cloth-tipped, twenty-two-caliber rifle-cleaning rod, flushing the slender four-inch deep hole that started just below his left collarbone and ended just beyond the last place a man’s right fingertips extend when reaching over his left shoulder to scratch.
With tears flowing down his cheeks, Joe, who never directed an unkind word toward anyone, cried while Buck screamed. He cried whenever he saw anyone suffer. “He’s just really sensitive,” Chris would sometimes say. Fighting back tears, he kept one massive, meaty hand firmly on Buck’s left shoulder, inches from the wound, while keeping another pressed down just above his sternum. Buck couldn’t move.
As Buck screamed, Chris helped by holding the wounded and weakened man’s skinny legs firmly in place on the other end of the waist-high, solid and smooth eight-foot-long, two-by-sixteen planks that had long served as the clinic’s operating table. Chris had built it last summer to allow Denise and her assistant, Kelly Lee, to hold the slow but steady flow of injured among those living in Corbett. It was strong enough to support a struggling patient, preventing Buck and those treated before him from falling off and further damaging themselves while they thrashed in pain. It also prevented Denise and Kelly from getting their teeth kicked in.
“Done,” said Denise, as the screaming thankfully faded. “Now all I have to do is bandage the two holes.”
First, she stacked layers of trimmed young blackberry leaves over each arrow hole. Then she placed two three-inch pre-cut squares of cloth taken from what remained of an old, yet clean, bed sheet and placed them over each wound. She secured them in place with a cut power cord wrapped several times around Buck’s chest and left shoulder. The clinic had used up the last of its tape and bandaging months ago, so wounds were now bandaged with whatever makeshift supplies they could find.
“He’s stronger than he looks,” said Joe. “I think he has a decent chance.”
“Is there anything to kill the pain, Denise?” Chris asked, listening to Buck.
“I’m trying to save it for operations, but I still have quite a bit of that stuff left from the war. Maybe I could spare a little for Buck,” Denise said, referring to the bags of brown powder they found on a few bodies after the war.
After the battles, the security patrols found several pounds of drugs on the dead invaders. Denise disposed of three hundred grams of what Corey and Tweedy believed to be dangerous, chemical-laden methamphetamine. The drug find also happily included two kilograms of cocaine, which the town dentist, Dr. Stan Bohnstedt, and his assistant and wife, Karen Bohnstedt, occasionally used as a local anesthetic and, of greater use to the clinic, a roughly equal amount of what Denise believed to be fifty-percent pure heroin; a very effective pain killer, similar to morphine and pure enough to be inhaled when they ran out of syringes. Both were kept locked in her gun safe.
She walked to the far corner of the operating room and reached into her heavy black gun safe. It held several rifles and handguns as well as the remaining drugs and a few supplies. She reached in and removed a large Ziploc baggie, partially filled with a powdery brown substance. “This is all I have left for pain. It’s the stuff Corey and Tweedy collected after the war. Remember? They knew exactly what it was as soon as they saw it. Anyhow, I can only use it a few times on each patient, unless they only have a short time left, then it doesn’t matter. It’s too addicting. I think Buck’s gonna pull through, but first he needs some food, then rest. This’ll give him rest. Chris, sweetheart, could you mash up a small bowl of potatoes and some blackberries, too? We just picked our first early berries. They’re great! Buck’ll like ‘em.”
Buck screamed, once again.
“Okay, be back in a jiffy.”
“You gonna inject him? I’ll hold his arm steady, if you want,” Joe said as Buck fought through the pain, stoically glancing back and forth between the two men and Denise.
“We’re all out of syringes. Used the last one on Rigo Gomez when he had that horrible ear infection last month. It was bad. Fighting his infection used the last of our antibiotics, too. All I can do now is try to get him to inhale twenty milligrams of this stuff. That should free him from the pain and give him a few hours of peace. Give us some peace, too. But my rule is two doses only. So he gets one more after this one. I don’t want anyone getting addicted and attacking my gun safe with a crow bar or some dynamite.”
Chris returned with the two bowls and fed Buck with a shiny spoon, just like one would a sick child. Denise held his head up a bit so he could swallow easier. She wiped away his tears. Buck, who hadn’t eaten in two days, was overcome with hunger. He had both bowls empty in no time. After topping off his meal with a few pieces of dried salmon and a few ounces of water, he began to look a bit better, yet he was unable to speak clearly, still suffering with terrible pain.
Denise dipped a butter knife into the baggie and scooped up a tiny pile of the powder on its tip. She turned toward Buck while holding the knife in her right hand. “Buck. Listen to me. Buck, please listen to me. I know you’re in a great deal of pain. I have a narcotic that will make the pain go away for a few hours. I know it’s strange, but you gotta inhale it. Understand? Sniff quickly and deeply when I say so. Understand?”
“Quick. Deep. Okay. I’ll try,” Buck said as he fought the urge to cry out in pain.
“Okay, here it comes.” Denise moved the tip of the knife just under Buck’s right nostril. “It’s on the tip of this knife, a small amount of pain-killing powder. I’m holding it just under your right nostril.”
She gently touched the tip of the blade to the tip of his nose. “Ready? When I say ‘now,’ I want you to breathe out and then sniff in really hard through your nose. Okay? ‘Now!’”
Denise briefly pulled the knife away while Buck exhaled and quickly brought it closer as he inhaled as well as he could through his nose. The small pile vanished up his nostril and soon the terror in his eyes faded. An emotionless smile then began to brighten his face just as his one good eye closed. Soon, a wonderful, healing sleep overtook him.
The room quieted.
“Okay if we untie him?” asked Chris.
“Yeah, but let’s put him on those blankets on the floor. It’s shady there and he won’t get sunburned … don’t wanna add sunburn to his long list of injuries. Anyhow, there’s nothing more to do. It’s up to Buck now. All I’m able to do now is monitor him, feed him, and keep his wounds clean,” Denise said. “And, we can’t have him roll over in his sleep and fall on the floor like Tweedy did. Remember that? Hey, could you two stay with him while I go wash up?”
“Sure,” Joe said, as Denise walked into the kitchen.
“Hey, Joe, remember from last summer?” Chris said, cautiously. “Tweedy … that was too funny, guy gets a crazy-bad headache. Hadn’t slept in three days. So, he comes in with his friend, Corey, to have Denise try an’ fix it. He walks in crying. Holding his temples. She rubs some peppermint and lavender oil on his temples. Then she has him drink some lavender extract tea and lie down on those planks. He drinks the tea, climbs up on the planks and falls asleep. Just like that. Crazy. Denise then walks out of the room and what does Tweedy do? He rolls to one side and right off the planks. Splat! Pancakes it on the hardwood floor.”
“That was hilarious. Blam! He nailed his head on the floor. Blam! Corey screamed like he just saw a monster. Then, of course, the impact wakes Tweedy up and, ‘voila,’ no more headache. Yeah, that was friggin’ insane,” Chris added, while they both giggled like school kids.
Joe couldn’t tell that story often enough and went over it once more, a bit louder than Chris. “Yeah, that was funny as hell! He walks into this room and lays on the platform. Denise leaves the room to get something. He falls asleep, rolls over, falls, konks his head on the floor and his headache’s all gone! It might have been Corey’s scream that cured him. Denise was so embarrassed.” Joe laughed again, as he unbuckled Buck’s wrist straps while Chris laughed even louder as he freed Buck’s body strap. “He had a huge lump on his forehead for two weeks. In like, no time at all, his usual big grin came back, still shinin’ bright today.”
Chris suddenly put his index finger to his lips, “Joe, shhh. Quiet. Denise is coming. She don’t like that story. It really freaked her out when he fell off her table, coulda’ killed him.”
“What are you two laughing about? I could hear you all the way there in the kitchen. I bet Rueben could, too,” Denise walked through the doorway and asked, referring to Rueben’s home and workshop across the highway and a short walk to the east.
“Oh, nothing, just a joke. Hey, Denise, what about his head? Where the other arrow hit him. Is there anything you can do about that?” Joe asked, changing the subject, as he and Chris gently picked up each end of the planks and placed Buck and the heavy wooden platform on the hardwood floor. The two men gently lifted Buck, carried him over to the side a few feet and onto a bed of thick blankets where he could safely enjoy his dreams and hopefully heal.
“No. The scab looks pretty good. Solid. No more blood. It’s a fairly deep wound, but it didn’t penetrate or fracture his skull. So, while he sleeps, I’m going to just clean it a bit, put some blackberry leaves on it, and let it go at that. Same for the rest of his cuts. Just clean ‘em, place a few leaves on each, and let ‘em all heal while he sleeps. That’s about all.”
Joe stood on the front porch looking down at the stained, dark green canvas pouch containing the salmon they caught earlier. He smiled and picked up the pouch. “Hey, Chris? I’m going to Rueben’s. Get my boots adjusted and give him this salmon. I’ll be back in a while. I’ll wanna see how Buck’s doing.”
“Okay, sounds good. I’ll stay here and help Denise and Kelly with Buck. We’re gonna clean some more of his wounds while he sleeps.”
“See you soon, unless I get a shave,” Joe said, as he scratched his tangled, half-inch brown beard and limped along the narrow concrete path leading to the highway, salmon pouch in hand.
The highway, as the former Columbia River Highway was now called, had always been the main drag through town and still was. The few new businesses in town faced it, as did the now-busier-than-ever Mount Hood Christian Church, the now-closed old Country Market and the fire station, which served as an occasional gathering place for the town firefighters.
The school, which is what locals called Corbett Public School, occupied a sprawling site on the south side of the highway across from the church. Before the collapse, it taught students from kindergarten through twelfth grade. It still did, but far fewer students attended, and it only operated for a few months during spring and fall. The students learned math, English and history. Everything else they needed to know was taught hands-on. “If these kids don’t learn math, there is no future!” Ralph McAfee, the school’s high school math teacher, warned. During summer there was far too much work to do, and in the winter it was simply too cold in the classrooms.
If you wanted to find someone in Corbett, this was generally the road to take. Without upkeep, it was starting to age. Thin lines of grass now grew like bright green varicose veins meandering through the long fractures and fissures that were forming in its asphalt. They grew deeper each year. Soon, the lines would change to golden-brown as the grass dried in the hot summer sun. Years ago, hot tar was poured into the cracks to keep rainwater out, but no more. Now, the cracks were becoming home to grass and weeds. Soon it would be bushes and trees. Since cars and trucks no longer moved, no one bothered to pull them out, except for the hugely invasive blackberries. They had to go. Quite a few bicycles still moved goods and messages along the highway. Everyone still relied on the roads for one thing or another. Blackberry vines could tear a bike tire apart quick, so they were pulled while still young and easy to yank.
About half way to Rueben’s, a dandelion pushed a bright yellow flower out of the faded centerline and toward the sky. Joe paused. He saw more growing near the highway. He walked to the bushes alongside the road, bent over, left the flowers alone, and picked a small handful of the lush green leaves. He stood back up and chewed on them as he crookedly walked the short distance to Rueben’s front door. Dandelions grew everywhere. After Bryan and Shari, the owners of the Dancing Roots organic farm, gave countless talks about the wealth of vitamins and minerals found in various native plants and weeds, people began eating dandelion leaves as an anytime snack while they moved about during the day. Joe remembered his mom reminding him, “They’re a great source of vitamin C. And always remember: don’t eat the ones growing in the road, Joe. They’ve got road-oil in ‘em. You might get sick.”
After carrying Buck and holding him on the table, Joe was exhausted. Thankfully, he didn’t have far to go to reach Rueben’s. Because of his newly acquired, uneven walk, Joe was a regular visitor at the town cobbler. His good friend Rueben Moreland, who had lost the lower portion of his left leg in a severe motorcycle accident a few months prior to the collapse, could no longer move well or travel far. Wanting to be useful, he assumed the housebound role of town boot maker. He taught himself to become a master at crafting strong, comfortable boots from deer hide and used tire tread. He became damn good at it, too. Several dozen automobile and truck tires decorated his front yard in neat stacks, competing with the tall grass for airspace and light. He did the quick math and figured there were enough tires in town to last him thirty years or more as long as the tires didn’t crack and fall apart sooner.
Joe saw Rueben often. He was continually wearing down the front-right edge of his right boot. He planned to visit Rueben that afternoon and have a replacement tire tread sewn onto what remained of his old, well-beaten, black Danner military boots. Rueben had become highly skilled at boot repair since taking on that task and would soon have Joe back at work, especially if he only fixed the right boot. All anyone had to do to get new moccasins or replacement soles was to bring him a few tires, a salmon or some deer meat. Interestingly, since Rueben still clung to the fantasy that precious metals were valuable, a silver coin or two really got him excited and hopping, so he accepted those, too.
Rueben’s vegetable patch and dozen fruit trees offered a decent supply of vitamins and minerals, but no protein and not quite enough variety. He cared for and tended his orchard as if the trees were his children. One tree near his bedroom window was guarded more than the others because a box buried underneath it sheltered his growing silver collection.
In addition to making and repairing footwear, Rueben recently started to serve as the town’s barber. Using a pair of scissors and a Heribert Wacker Anno 1890 straight razor, found in one of the late Steven Rogers’ six bathrooms, he could quickly trim Joe’s thick, light brown beard to a nice, trim, half-inch, then, with the sharp blade, shave his head and neck smooth in exchange for an occasional fresh salmon, like the one he brought.
Cutting hair and making shoes was much less stressful than his earlier post-crash occupation. When the bullets started flying two years earlier, someone had to process the dead. Rueben had been working as a part-time apprentice mortician in Gresham. While working odd jobs, he had been studying on the side to become a mortician, a course of study offered at nearby Mount Hood Community College.
In the months after the crash the population of Corbett fell by the hundreds. During the first winter, people were dying at the rate of twenty a week. Some died from lack of medicine, others from old age, a few, like the wealthy Steven Rogers, from sadness. A few new mothers didn’t live long enough to witness their child’s first day on earth.
Since the previous summer, the population had stabilized at around three thousand five hundred, which was roughly what Alison Lee, after she did her population sustainability study, believed the town could support, long-term. The dead needed to be treated properly. People generally turned to Rueben to assist Reverend Golphenee, the minister of the Mount Hood Christian Church, in this sacred duty. They still did, but it was no longer a daily task.
The door to Rueben’s south facing home was wide open, allowing the air to flow through his small, yellow, one-story First World War era home. There were no screen doors, so bugs flew freely in and out. Summers were brief in Corbett, lasting about twelve weeks, so fresh air was a true luxury enjoyed by all, even with the annoying yet harmless airborne visitors.
A weathered grey four-by-eight rectangle of plywood covered what was once a large glass picture window on the north of his house. Rueben had planned to replace it two years ago, but the collapse changed his plans and he couldn’t locate another window the same size. Another large picture window let the sun shine into his home and offered a full view of the highway. His home was on the north side of the highway, so during colder months, the sun shining through the large front window warmed his south-facing front living room. His shop faced south, too, and was in the former master bedroom, so it was well lit during the daytime; this made it easy to precisely punch slender holes through leather and old hard rubber.
As he approached the front door, the constant rhythmic tick, tick, tick, of Rueben’s six-foot-tall, hundred-year-old wind-up grandfather clock that he inherited from his long-deceased grandmother entertained the front yard. The ornately carved and still unscratched rosewood clock hadn’t moved from its perch near the fireplace since nineteen seventeen when it arrived at the then newly built house on a flatbed commercial delivery wagon pulled by two horses. His great-grandfather carried it into the house with the help of the teamster. It was believed to be the only clock in town that hadn’t stopped running since the power went out two years earlier. Rueben swore it told time accurately and few doubted it. People once regularly knocked on his door to get the correct time, but as time ticked by, fewer and fewer cared.
No one except Rueben, Pete Roth and a handful of others counted minutes and hours any longer. Pete needed to know the time because his ham radio buddies around the country, a few overseas, too, connected with him for a few minutes a week on a strict schedule. Mostly they shared farming and self-defense ideas, but few personal details about themselves or their communities, Pete included. But, it was nice to stay in touch, to know others were successful in re-starting civilization. The nearest ham radio operator was in Sweet Home, Oregon.
Pete once asked him his name. “Larry Brown,” he said. “My wife’s name is Maggi.”
“Larry Brown?” Pete asked.
“Yup,” he replied.
“Well, that’s certainly a common name. Mine’s John Smith. My wife’s name is Mary.”
“No, really. It’s Larry Brown.”
“Okay. I’ll call you that, if you like.”
Pete later found out they were friends of the Lees. The Browns agreed to chat every Saturday at noon. One day, in the not-too-distant-future, they would meet.
Most now simply called it Year Three, which began the day before, on July first. Everyone still counted the days, weeks and months, but few spoke in terms of hours and minutes. Instead, they used general terms, which worked well since there was no longer a need for precise timekeeping. Time was now broken into the general segments of the day such as, “midmorning” or “late afternoon.”
After the disaster cell phones and plug-in clocks no longer worked. Since few owned self-winding or solar wristwatches, or wind-up clocks for that matter, hardly anyone ever knew the exact time or even cared. So gradually, over the past two years, fewer and fewer used the ancient Egyptian system of minutes and hours. Eventually they would all stop using it. The next generation would have no idea what waking up at six in the morning meant.
“Hey Joe!” Rueben called out from his kitchen, where he was busy chopping a few of the remaining onions from last year’s harvest. “I’m making an onion and fava bean soup. Want some?”
“Heck yeah!” Joe replied. He was known by all to have absolutely, positively never refused an offer of free food. Over the past year, however, an interesting new tradition had begun in Corbett. Although some did this before the collapse, it was now universal. Anyone visiting another person’s home was offered food. Not making the offer or, even worse, declining the offer, was considered rude, so the offer and the acceptance had now become universal. It started during the first winter when food was in short supply and it stuck. “I didn’t bring any silver, but I do have a fresh-caught summer Chinook. Plus, my boot’s worn out again. And I could use a shave.”
“I knew it all when I saw you walk up the highway. Well, except I didn’t know about the salmon, but I did see the bag, wondered what was in it. Let me have a peek at that salmon.” Rueben was glad the salmon was for him. Everyone knew Rueben couldn’t walk far from home since his fancy but fragile pre-collapse prosthetic leg fell apart. He now hobbled around with the help of a wooden peg leg, which he cut and sanded from the branch of his front yard birch tree, and a sturdy cane cut and shaped from the same tree. The cut the doctors made was four inches below his left knee yet it still hurt to walk far, so he rarely did. He couldn’t hunt or fish, but he could make fine footwear, so a community deal was forged. Then, when he acquired the razor from the town recreation hall, which used to be the Jeffery Rogers mansion, he became downright popular with the women for occasionally shaving coarse beards off their men. Since the disposable blades everyone used had long ago worn out, the town gossip held that a visit to Rueben’s meant good news was heading someone’s way, especially if the guy walked in with a good pair of boots on his feet. That, sadly, wasn’t the case with Joe.
“Boot’s worn out again,” Joe said, as he walked inside. “But check out this Chinook! It took me and Chris a long time to get this one. In a few weeks there’ll be so many you’ll be able to walk across the river on ‘em.”
“Set it in the sink for me, Joe. I’ll deal with that little rascal later.”
“Hey Rueben, early this afternoon me and Chris found a guy washed up across from Oxbow. Shot with an arrow. He hasn’t said much, but when he wakes up, if he wakes up, we’ll have to find out who did it and why.”
“I heard. Is he gonna live?”
“Denise thinks so, but he don’t look too good. He looked dead when we first found him. I thought he was. It reminded me of the war. I still get nightmares from that.”
“You’re a warrior, Joe.”
“That’s what people always tell me, but I sometimes wish I had done something else for a living. Like, fix shoes or cut hair.”
“No adventure in that, Joe. You saw the world. Not everyone can say that,” Rueben said.
“I saw the pits of the world, mostly. Oh, I went to some nice places, Germany, Singapore, Japan … but I pulled the trigger in the worst places.”
“Well, those days are over, Joe. We have a colony, now. And, we’re damn lucky!” Rueben said, pointing his right index finger at Joe’s ripped chest, protruding through the openings where his t-shirt sleeves had been cut off. “Tell me more about this guy.”
“He told us his name’s Buck. Well, actually he said his name was Bucklary, or something like that. He said we could call him Buck, so we do. Guy got kinda sad when me and Chris garbled up his name. He’s a really nice guy, from what little I saw. He sounds Italian, looks Italian, too … something like that, maybe. Talks like he just got off the boat from Venice. Right before he passed out he said he’s a Catholic. I know quite a few Catholics in town, but there’s definitely no priest. He woke up when Denise was cleaning his wound, and he ate a bit, too. Then he passed out right after Denise gave him some medicine.”
“The heroin? Stuff knocks a guy out cold. Sometimes too cold. Better keep a close eye on him. And don’t give it to him too many times or he’ll be going after Denise for more.”
“Denise and Chris are. Anyhow, we may have trouble on our hands. You might wanna lock and load, at least until we figure out who shot him.”
“Don’t have to ask me to do that. Always ready. Let me look at that boot.”
Joe took off his right boot and followed Rueben into the cobbler shop, limping even more with one boot off. Joe peeked at his left boot. The left one was fine. Lots of tread remained. “The right one’s worn out already. Only been a few months.”
“Lucky you. If you still weighed two hundred and fifty pounds you’d wear ‘em out in two weeks. Looks like only the right one, again. Simple fix. I’ll do it before the clock chimes again.” The clock read two thirty-five. “Let me chisel off those face-hairs after, okay? Maybe lower your ears, too.”
“Thanks, Rueben. My head’s like an oversized ball-peen hammer with a collar of bristly brown string sticking out.”
“Can’t argue with that,” said Rueben as he started skillfully tearing into Joe’s right boot. Some people dropped their boots off, picking them up later. Joe liked to wait. Once Rueben started talking he couldn’t stop, so Joe sat on a short wooden stool, as usual, and listened courteously. “I’m getting good at fixing these boots of yours. Good thing the uppers are Danner Acadias. They last forever. What’s this? Your tenth tire tread? Easy to fix, too. I like the Fort Lewis boots even better. The tall ones. Bill Hartigan has a few pair. Dan Long has a set. He’s saving his cuz he always wears moccasins. Anyhow, now that he’s not patrolling every day, Bill ain’t wearing ‘em out like he used to. Incredible boots. Ya can’t fix the junk Walmart boots people bring in. Someone brings me a pair of those I tell ‘em to throw ‘em out and bring me a deer so I can make ‘em some moccasins. Can’t figure out why they bought ‘em in the first place. Pure junk. People who bought those’re all wearing moccasins or going barefoot if they won’t trade somethin’ with me. Too late now, almost everyone’s athletic shoes are all worn out, too. And the women? Most of ‘em never owned decent work boots. Wasted their money on dress shoes. Fashion shoes. Completely worthless garbage. Ever see anyone wearing ‘em now? Of course not! Wore ‘em out the first few days after the crash. People paid hundreds, sometimes more. Now they’re trash. A few months walking in the woods or working on the farm kills ‘em all. Now these boots of yours, Joe, three hundred bucks and they’ll last you for decades more as long as we keep solid tread on ‘em. Anyhow, here ya go. All done.”
Rueben paused briefly and handed the boot to Joe.
“That was quick,” Joe said, as he stuffed his right foot into the size twelve boot just as the grandfather clock began to chime. “Hey, three o’clock. Don’t mean much anymore, does it?”
“Nope. But that beard of yours. Gonna take me longer to mow that than it did to fix your boot. Next time, why don’t you take a pair of scissors to it first, before you see me. Might have to start charging you two salmon instead of one,” Rueben joked.
“I just keep forgetting. Next time, I’ll have it trimmed back before I get here. It’s my problem walking. That’s all I think about anymore, Rueben, but it’s embarrassing. It’s getting crooked and I wear my boots out fast. I’m not sure what to do. Nothing Denise or Kelly can do, either.”
“Let me ponder that. Can’t fix the crooked walk, but there must be a way to make your boots last longer. I’ll think of something. Maybe a steel plate cut from a car door? It’d be noisy on pavement, but quiet in the woods and might last longer.”
“I better get back, an’ see Buck. We have to talk to him. The Chief and Reverend Golphenee should know, too. They may want to ask him some questions, too. See ya, Rueben.”
“Hey, let me know what’s up with Buck. And the freaks who shot him. A stranger shows up shot. I don’t like this at all. I hope it isn’t the start of another war. I don’t wanna be the town battlefield mortician again. I hated that. I just wanna fix boots and cut hair, but if they make it this far, well, Mr. Colt will have a word or two with ‘em.”
— WR Flynn, Transition Voice