We started up early the next day and passed through Wiretown on Old 6 just after dawn, and then we hiked another twenty-five klicks down to Owen Sound where we stocked up on provisions at a small trading center in the western outskirts. Instead of passing through town, we decided to follow a trail to the top of the West Rock cliffs to take in some views of Georgie Bay before jumping back on 6 to start a pretty straight run down to Hamtown the following day. At least that was our plan. There were a couple of sites up along the cliffs that we could have camped in, but we found the first one free, and if we hadn’t been so dog-tired and had hiked on to the second, our lives might have forked down a whole different road, and this story–that is if I had a story the least worth telling or, for that matter, lived to tell it–would be a whole different tale.
Dunc took second watch that night. I’m a light sleeper and it was his snoring that woke me up near dawn. I felt a heave of panic as I imagined how anyone could have snuck up on us while Dunc was roaming around in dreamworld. I don’t know how long he’d been asleep, but deep asleep he was, his back against a mossy jumble of rocks, his chin on his chest, and his gun propped up next to him. So as not to alarm him, I roused him by pishing quietly, blending in with the birdsong which had begun to fill the treetops. Eventually he stirred and then gave a sudden jerk and scrambled up grabbing for his gun. I just shook my head and wrinkled up the middle of my face in disgust. He scurried over to my side, quietly at least, I’ll give him that, and started to apologize.
“Sorry, sorry–” he began, wagging his head, but I wasn’t in a forgiving mood and hissed, “We could’ve gotten slaughtered ‘cause of you. There’s nothing more for you to say now, so get breakfast going if you can handle that.” He cast his eyes down and shuffled off to start a cooking fire.
I walked over to a little stream to fill our canteens and wash off yesterday’s grime. I was parched as well and tempted to drink right from the stream, but of course you never know what’s upstream and through what muck the water might have passed, so I fought down the urge. When I got back, Dunc was stooped over the small fire he’d got going to boil water for drinking and steeping our grub. He looked up sheepishly, but I was still fuming over his dropping off on watch and wasn’t having any of it. I handed him the canteens without a word.
“C’mon, Travis. I’m sorry, but we’re still alive, right? No harm done, right?”
“No thanks to you. We’re lucky is all. This time.”
“I know. Won’t happen again, I promise.”
At least he wasn’t making excuses. He looked about to say more, but I put my finger to my lips, suddenly aware that we weren’t alone.
Dunc shut up and tensed. We took up our guns and made ourselves as much a part of the woods as we could. I closed my eyes and opened up my ears. I heard nothing unusual, but I still sensed a threatening somebody or something sussing us hard. Now it could have been a coon or a fox nosing around, but it felt more like eyes with a calculating brain behind them had locked on us. A minute passed and then I heard a quiet voice coming from somewhere above and behind us, and I silently cussed myself and Dunc for letting someone get the jump on us. At first I couldn’t make out what the voice had said, but I didn’t think it was likely to be any kind of friendly greeting.
I’m young, but no fool. From the time we kiddies could understand anything, the olders and teachers threatened that if we didn’t learn how to fit into the farm’s way of things, we could either leave on our own legs or get tossed out the east gate. We were told that the Big Woods was crawling with vicious and dangerous creatures, some of them only sort of human and some not at all, but all of which would cheerfully mangle and eat us top to bottom, hair and nails, gristle and bone. The olders first put woods boggarts, the Green Man, and Flies in our nightmares and later inserted the real baddies like the Meeks and bandits and city gangs.
Alone, we were taught, anybody amounts to nothing, all meaning and purpose coming from playing an assigned part in community life. Again and again we had it drummed in our heads that only the most stupid or wayward idiot would want to risk being doomed to certain, quick death in the woods–quick, that is, if you were lucky. Everybody had to learn survival and woods skills, sure, but it wasn’t to train us for taking the gate by choice. Everyone practiced the skills in case of the farm’s being overrun by outsiders with the woods being the only refuge for survivors.
I’d grown to scoff at what I thought were mostly bullshit stories, but I guess I must have taken those early lessons to heart more than I’d thought because as Dunc and I stood rooted there, I felt those old fears of the woods rippling coldly along my spine. Who knew what human or monster might be the last thing we were about to see, unless, of course, it had decided to put some nasty projectiles through our backs.
The voice came again, sharp and now clearly irritated: “Not going to ask again. You two ready to change worlds?”
I had no idea what the hell that was supposed to mean, but before I could ask, laughter rolled over me and my neck hairs prickled up. I eyeballed Dunc who looked brainless with fear and gave my head a little shake as if to say, just please don’t do anything stupid. I lay my gun on the ground and nodded to Dunc to follow my lead. I put my open hands up slowly, turned around, and waited motionless and quiet, Dunc doing the same. I looked the woods over and saw nothing. Then I glanced up and saw a slight fella that looked like a rover from his getup sitting on a tree limb about three meters off the ground. A tight smile played across his dirty face, and then he gave a whistle which brought a sizeable mutt out from behind the tree. It trotted over midway between us and the rover and stood there all alert and bristly while the rover swung down.
His head was topped with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail, and there were three thin parallel scars below his right eye which could have been the result of a clawing. But I knew that some gangs cut or burned a sign into members they booted out to show that the bearer was not to be trusted. A small puckered scar on his other cheek suggested he’d probably had a cancer trimmed off by a cutter in one of the roadway towns or marketplaces. His hands were small but strong-looking and they held a shotgun, an Old Days pump-type design few gunsmiths still bothered to make. It was now pointed at a spot I estimated to be directly between my eyes.
I stared down the big muzzle, imagining a load of shot or a great walloping slug exploding out the back of my head and then Dunc’s and splattering our brains all over, our limp bodies crumpling up, and the dog sniffing and worrying at them. Sometimes I wish I had no imagination. I wondered if it would hurt bad or if I’d live for a few seconds thrashing around or die instantly–that is if the rover decided to shoot us down.
I took a deep breath and gave myself what I hoped was a little invisible shake that wouldn’t give away my fear. I wanted to say something to save our asses, anything, but I knew that I’d better not. I didn’t want to chance annoying the rover, so I struck as submissive a pose as I could with my hands over my head and my eyes cast down. The rover circled back of us, keeping a bead drawn on my head, I was sure. The dog stood motionless maybe five meters in front of Dunc and me. It looked more intently at me, I thought, all set to rush and climb up my front and tear my throat out if I made a move on its master.
The rover talked to the dog while he inspected us. “Oh, don’t these two just gotta be farmers, Stashi. Look at those hands all beat up from grub work. But no fight marks. I’m gonna make a wild guess they haven’t been off the farm for long.” And then to us: “No moves now if ya want to keep your asses in just the two pieces. Where ya comin’ from, why’re ya here, and where the hell d’ya think you’re going?”
I responded polite-like and to the point: “I’m from up north outta White Cedars farm and going down the road to see what’s what. My friend here comes outta Catfish farm. We’re traveling together, and we just stopped here for a rest. We’re not looking to make any trouble, brother.”
The rover jeered, “Brother? Brother me not! I’m nobody’s brother. And nobody’s fool. Just what’re you two so curious about down the road?”
I had no answer that’d sound sensible, so instead I started to talk confidently as though Dunc and I were going to just walk away after putting aside a few little details and clearing the air. “Look, we’re just a coupla farmers passing through. We’re not looking to bother you, believe me, and–“
“That’s enough.” The rover cut me short, finished his circuit, and stood beside the dog. He sunk two holes in my forehead with a stare, and then he gave an unjolly laugh. Donkey crap and so long, world, I thought. I just knew this guy was going to do us bad, so I was surprised when he said to the dog, “This one sounds like he’s a good boy, doesn’t he, Stashi? Just out here looking for a little excitement, and out here that’s easy to find, innit.” I began to hope that Dunc and I would be spared and thought, he’s still talking, not shooting. Then he shifted the gun to the crook of his arm, and asked more friendly-like, “What’s your names, farmers?”
I noticed that his finger was still on the trigger, and he was scanning us intently, so rather than try to take him and the dog on, I stayed still and respectful. “I’m Travis and this here’s Dunc.”
“Travis, is it? And Dunc? Does your friend Dunc have a working tongue?”
“I’m talking for both of us to keep things simple,” I answered.
“Simple I like. So, Travis, what’s it gonna be? I don’t know why, but I’m a little inclined to think you two are harmless, so maybe I won’t lay you out just yet.”
“We’d be grateful for that,” I said, but stood ready to make a move if he twitched the wrong way. I could have my blade out in a second, and then I’d find out if my years of fight training had taken. All I had to do was reach under my arm, draw my knife, and see if I were still alive one second after that.
“I said ‘maybe,’ Travis, so don’t go thinking about doing what you’re thinking about doing.” He eyed our gear and pointed at our bags with his chin. “Whatcha carrying?”
“Just the necessaries is all.”
“I’ve got some grub, medicine, bug dope, ammo–you know, that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah, that too, some.”
“What kind of ‘some,’ Travis? C’mon now, you’re making me ask too many questions.”
“Sorry, but I haven’t done this before. Mostly I’ve got some herb remedies the farm makes and a few odds and ends. I’ve got some skin fix you might be interested in.” I knew this would appeal to him, given the scarring on his face. I thought, lucky me if I can trade herbs for our lives. Maybe Dunc and I could walk away from this. But the rover didn’t seem interested. “By the way, what’d you mean about changing worlds?”
“That’s something my people say. Nobody dies. They just change worlds. Get it? But never mind about that. You got any other weapons?”
“None to speak of.”
“Well, that’s a lie, innit, Travis? You’d better learn to lie better’n that if you’re gonna play at it out here.” His gaze shifted to my vest just below my left armpit. He pulled his lips back from his teeth in a false smile and in a mocking voice said, “What’s that I see there? I think it’s a bulge. I think it’s a bulge of a handle of a wicked sharp knife. Am I right?”
Damn, I thought and tried hard to sound a little bit surprised at my own stupidity. “Oh, that. So used to carrying it, I didn’t even think to mention it.”
“Course you didn’t. And you wouldn’t even dream of using it on me or my little friend here, either, would you?” He swung his gun around and pointed it at my gut. The dog bristled up and growled, ready to have a go at us.