The Outrider; Volume One: Chapter 2

 

The girl was asleep when Bonner hefted Hatchet's dead weight onto his back and started for the door. Along with the corpse, Bonner carried his three knives and the cut-down stockless, Winchester pump that was pre-bomb if it was a day. It was reliable and it could saturate an area with shot like a hailstorm. The gun was slung over his back too, resting in a worn leather holster.

Slowly he made his -way down the stairs and dumped Hatchet's body in the street and hoped that he wouldn't be there when he got back. Parked in front of the old building that Bonner called home, was a car, a Toyota, pre-bomb by a good ten years. Bonner knew every piece of machinery that remained in the ruins of Chicago and he didn't know that one. It must be Hatchet's. He paused to examine it and approved. It had been modified by inelegant but skillful hands. They had stripped away anything that reduced the vehicle's speed—all the fancy stuff that Mr. USA wanted in a car back in the days when everybody had one.

Bonner peered into the gas tank and laughed to himself. Leather hadn't given Hatchet enough gas to make it back—because he knew that Hatchet wasn't coming back so why waste the gas? Sometimes Leather had a funny sense of humor.

The streets were dark and littered with the refuse that nobody ever bothered to pick up. There was no law in Chicago and that was fine with the residents. Bonner picked his way through the streets, ready at any moment to pull the Winchester from his back. There were always a couple of street-men around looking to steal whatever you had and they didn't care a hell of a lot if you got hurt. You carried a gun. It was a fact of life. The shotgun the girl held on Hatchet was hers; it would have been like carrying a purse or a wallet in the old days.

Bonner knew his way through the dark streets, but even if he had not, he would have been able to reach his destination by sound alone. There was a bar in Chicago, called Dorca's—Dorca being a bear-sized old smuggler who decided to settled down—and that was where you went for a drink, a girl, information. It never closed and it was always just this side of a riot. Dorca made sure though that things never got too much out of hand. But he was tolerant.

"Hell," he would say, "these boys deserve a little relaxation."

"These boys" were Chicago's elite citizens.

Chicago was still the center of the country—only no one called it a country anymore—now it was known as the continent. Where the United States of America—the place forever eradicated by the bomb— had been there were sow four or five little kingdoms and all of them were bad places ruled by worse men. Leather called himself the President of the Slavestates, and he was about as bad as you can get. The survivors that lived there stayed because they were too scared to get out. They figured that it was safer to put up with the troubles where they were—even if that meant enslavement to thugs like Leather and Hatchet— than to risk crossing the wastelands to get away. But, if you had the guts to go, you headed for Chicago.

Chicago was an open city and the men that lived there were the only daredevils or free spirits or whatever you want to call them that still lived on the continent. In the old days you would have called them criminals. But hell, thought Bonner, everybody these days was a criminal, or a corpse or a coward. It was in Chicago—or what was left of it—that you found the smugglers and the border raiders and the road guides and the runaways.

If you made it to Chicago you were pretty safe from the enemies you might have left behind. If the . Lightning Squad from the Snowstates or the storm-troopers from Leather's Slavestates came looking for you, they would have to face every gun in Chicago. Over the years the stormers and the squadsmen and the Devils from down in the Hotstates, realized that if they didn't get you before you crossed the city line they weren't going to get you at all. The permanent residents, the regulars at Dorca's, figured that if you had made it that far, you deserved to stay. Staying alive once you got there, well, that was a different story.

If you were smart and tough and had strong nerves and didn't have too many qualms about taking somebody else's property or life you might make a smuggler. All you had to know was where stuff had been hidden before the bomb—and it might be deep in the Slavestates or in the middle of the desert in the Hotstates—go get it, and blast your way back to Chicago. If you came back with liquor, meat, ammunition or, best of all, gasoline, you could sell it in the city and make a fortune. You got your money up front in gold or silver only, but then you had to worry about keeping it. There were smugglers who had fought storm-troopers or squadsmen for a thousand miles only to lose their haul to some joker with an ancient Smith & Wesson they happened to meet on the streets of Chicago.

If you were dumb and liked to fight you could settle for being a raider. All you had to do was get a bunch of boys together, make sure they had enough ammunition and then wander into one of the States and have a look around to see what was worth stealing. Smugglers knew what they were going after and they had a fair idea of where it was; raiders didn't care, they would bring back anything they thought might be worth something, even people. Sometimes they brought back women and settled down to make serious money just pimping.

Bonner was a smuggler and he was the best. Back when he was an Outrider—when there had been Outriders—he had covered every inch of the continent. He knew which roads could still be travelled, where bridges still stood, where people still lived. There weren't many people left and there were probably fewer now so all the stuff that had been stockpiled before the big war was still there, all you had to know was where. If anyone knew, it was Bonner.

He missed the old Outriding days, but they were gone for good now. Today, it was kill or be killed. Steal or be stolen from. Leather had been an Outrider too and the first one to realize that he had the power to take a piece of the whole continent for himself. Leather had been the first to kill; the first to steal . . .

As Bonner pushed open the door of Dorca's he saw a dozen faces he recognized and didn't trust.

"Hey, Bonner," a wiry man with lank black hair called out.

"Evening, Comer," said Bonner, making for the bar. Dorca's was crowded and the air was thick with smoke, bad tobacco that had been going around ever since Lawson and his raiders had brought in a ton of the stuff from down south somewhere.

"Bonner," shouted Comer again, "there was a guy in here looking for you. Guess who it was?"

Bonner looked at Comer with contempt. Comer was a street-worker who had made raider and finally set himself up as pimp. He was rich because his prices were low.

"It was Hatchet! Fucking Hatchet!" screamed Comer. "He said he'd be coming back here when he had found you."

"He'll be along," said Bonner.

Dorca sat at his usual place at the end of the bar, keeping an eye on things. Resting against his knees was an old mahogany table leg, once the comer of some proud Chicagoan's pool table. The table leg, when used with Dorca's own brand of finesse, usually managed to keep order.

"You're up late, Bonner."

"Going on a job, Dorca."

Dorca's great wide face split in a happy grin. Bonner was Dorca's best supplier. Always quality stuff and the price was high but fair. "What you going after?"

"A little of this, a little of that." Bonner smiled.

"Sure, Bonner, sure. You know my standing order ..."

"Yeah." Bonner smiled. Dorca would take any amount of liquor or food that Bonner could bring in. But more than anything, Dorca wanted sugar: honey, candy, raw cane, it didn't matter. Once Bonner had found chocolate, a whole half pound, and had given it to Dorca as a gift. The big man had looked as if he was going to cry when Bonner gave it to him. He had taken the bar in his hand as if it had been gold or a holy relic. "Hershey's . . ." He had said that word as if it had been a prayer. There wasn't anything Dorca didn't know about the different kinds of candy that had existed before the bomb, he was a confectionery historian. The wrappers were all over the bar, in frames, like works of art.

Once Bonner gave him that candy bar, Dorca was his friend for life. It had been a good investment, Bonner thought, because Dorca knew everything and everyone in Chicago. Where they were going, what they were going for ... But he never asked Bonner and Bonner never told him.

"What can I do for you?"

"Dorca, any idea where Seth is?"

"Headed south a couple of days ago . . . Bad candy country the south. It all melted years ago."

"Too bad," said Bonner.

"Besides, that fucking contraption he rides around in gets so hot if he found any candy it would melt on the way back."

"Shit," said Bonner, "I wanted to talk to him too . . ."

Dorca looked suspicious. "Where you going, Bonner?''

"A long way in, Dorca . . ."

"You usually travel alone. You wanted Seth to ride you some place in that thing ..."

"Locomotive."

"Yeah ... the thing. Where you going?"

Bonner whispered: "If Seth comes in, tell him I'm headed east."

"How far east?"

"All the way . . ."

"You fucking crazy? Bonner, not even you can go right into the Slavestates. Fool around on the edges, maybe. But Leather has that place wrapped tight . . . Wait a minute, that guy that came in here tonight, he's with Leather, isn't he?"

"He was," said Bonner.

"I knew he looked no good. Bonner, where you going? Boston? Philadelphia? Don't say New York . . ."

"Washington, the Capital."

"You've lost it, man ... You're dead already. What's so fucking valuable in the Cap? What are you going after?"

"Dorca, I'm going after Leather." "Then say goodbye now, Mr. Bonner," said Dorca solemnly.

"Bye, Dorca," said Bonner with a smile. "I'll bring you back a whadyacallit, a Charleston Chew."

After Bonner left, Dorca slammed the table leg on the bar—there was already a sizable dent there, witness to many previous outbursts—bottles and patrons jumped at the sound and wondered what the hell was biting Dorca's ass tonight.

 

 

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