After The Fall
JOHN PHILLIP BACKUS
© 2012, 2017 by John Phillip Backus – All rights reserved.
Everyone has a path that is uniquely their own, as individual as a snowflake, each person unlike any other. To find one’s unique way in the world, that is the secret, that is the key: to discover one’s calling and to know beyond the shadow of a doubt exactly why you have come into this world…
WHEN THE FIRST West Coast caravan arrived in New Eden after spring thaw, Anna Planchet was ready. She’d been feeling strange—slightly agitated or off balance, and dissatisfied with her life somehow—her perfect life, in this perfect place, in this wide, imperfect world. Her restlessness had been brewing all winter. No matter what she did, it was not enough. Whatever this longing was, this angst, she had no clue, but something inside was stirring, impatiently trying to emerge from within her soul and she just had to let it out. It didn’t matter to Anna what it was, just as long as she could be delivered of it and return again to her peace.
The instant she saw him she knew. He was beautiful. His thick black hair, plaited in twin braids down to his mid-chest, was adorned with feathers and wrapped in ermine skins. His clothing was tailored and fringed—deerskin leggings with moose hide moccasins and long deerskin over-shirt belted at the waist with a finely-woven sash.
He was of Native blood from the Pacific Northwest, a bit older than she, perhaps twenty-five. Strong, lean and muscular, with straight white teeth and an easy smile revealing slight dimples in his beardless cheeks. His skin was the color of copper with a sheen as smooth as silk and the most remarkable eyes she had ever seen—eyes as blue as the ocean, or the deepest blue sky, with little specks of gold in them reflecting the sun and twinkling like tiny sparklers in the dark embrace of his long, black eyelashes.
She hung about his wagon pretending to shop. He was a woodcarver by trade and crafted the most incredible masks and totems, flutes and pipes—all from western red cedar—which she inhaled like perfume when she picked up his offerings to examine them more closely. She ended up choosing an ingeniously carved box with mother-of-pearl inlaid lid, copper hinges, and colorful designs etched into the top and around the edges.
When she asked how much, he just looked at her, smiling—those amazing eyes gazing deeply into hers—and she felt a tremble within and was transfixed there in his presence, waiting, unable to move from that spot. Finally, he spoke and placed the box gently back into her hands, “It is yours, sister of the sun,” he smiled assuredly, bewitched by her strawberry blonde locks and hazel eyes, “I made it for you.”
Anna never questioned it—and from that moment forward never wanted to leave his side. Now, one month later, the couple was headed northwest, angling toward the coast and then north up into old British Columbia, Canada to join his people there. Anna was learning him, understanding him more clearly each day. Their nights were filled with loving and he gave her ecstasy and release beyond her wildest imaginings. Her yearning within was gone and her peace had returned in full measure. Within her womb a tiny life now grew, multiplying its cells moment-by-moment. She felt anointed and blessed, and wondered what a child created from their pairing would be like.
Skye Ravencloud was a man of many talents, many gifts. Life was his opportunity and his challenge, and he lived it with purpose, reverence, and dignity. Back home with his People, he was recognized as a shaman—a spirit-talker—and the magic flowed from his fingertips as he fashioned his art, invoking his spirit guides. Where the power came from, he never questioned, knowing as far back as he could remember that all things came from the Great Spirit.
He was a man of peace, not of strife, though was not known to back down from a just fight. He’d rather give than receive and didn’t ask why he was in the world. He understood that he was simply a conduit channeling something greater than himself and he accepted that for what it was.
For Skye Ravencloud there was much work to be done, much wisdom to gain, and the calling provided insight into that which was and that which was to come. He had traveled to old Colorado because his spirit guide, the Raven, had landed on a tree branch outside his shop one day, and spoke plainly to him that it was time to take a wife—and so he went forth and found her.
She was the one for him, for sure, his spirit bearing witness when she chose the cedar box, the one with the special markings foretelling of his mate. Now they were heading back to his village on the coast, to his People, and the road was before them—each day an adventure, each night like heaven in the arms of his golden-haired goddess, Anna, his sun-sister, who carried their offspring in her fertile womb.
She had talked him into a detour on the way back—to pass by the Wind River Range up in Wyoming to visit her sister, Elise, and Elise’s partner, Hunter, whom Anna hadn’t seen since their last visit to New Eden, two summers before. Skye arranged for friends from the caravan to escort his mules and wagon back by the overland road where he would pick them up on the coast road near the Gathering in three month’s time. Anna provided their mounts and pack animals from the community herd, and with her family’s blessing, they headed north towards South Pass.
She recounted her previous journey along this way, and Skye was surprised and encouraged that his Anna was such a fearless and able woman. He learned her history a little at a time, and was impressed when she shared the battle of New Eden and the heroics of Elise’s man, Hunter. He looked forward to meeting such a mighty warrior, who could do whatever he decided was necessary to honor an oath once given.
The weather was mild this time of year, and the days passed pleasantly with temperatures in the seventies—dropping into the fifties at night under wide open skies alive with brilliant stars and planets. Occasional rain showers were rare here with most of the precipitation taking the form of snowfall during the long, cold winter months.
The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful in its vastness, rich and varied in red and yellow sandstone canyons with towering granite mesas and stone monoliths refusing to succumb readily to the weathering of time. Big skies stretched the limits of one’s eyesight, and there was always something interesting to see among the myriad native plant and animal species.
Around the campfire in the evenings, they would sit together sharing stories of their lives and speak about how they felt and what they believed in. He told her the ancient tales of his People, and how they first came to be The People in the mists before the reckoning of time. She spoke of her family and community, and their struggles and triumphs, of the End War and the Siege. In this way, they came to know each others’ histories, hopes and dreams, and made plans for their own new chapter in this unfolding human saga of generation-following-generation since time immemorial into whatever distant future lay in store for their descendants.
After South Pass, they skirted the foothills of the Wind and rode north toward the Tetons and Yellowstone Valley—and beyond that, Skye’s old Canada. The snow-covered peaks of the Continental Divide towered to the east as they drew ever closer to their interim destination, with Mt. Gannet, the tallest of them, rising 13,800 feet into the blue. At the Green River they turned east and followed it up to the headwaters, crossing over the ridge into Hunter’s valley.
From the crest, Anna looked down and spotted the two-story stone and timber cabin that Elise had told her they were building. She was excited to see what they’d accomplished in their five years together here. It looked like a respectable ranch—with a barn, sheds, corrals, a garden and orchard, and goats and sheep wearing tinkling bells, wandering about the hillsides.
Someone exited the house and Anna immediately raised her mouth to the heavens, calling out a long coyote greeting. Skye looked on surprised, and even more so when, far off, Elise returned the spirited howl, beckoning the travelers, who nudged their curious horses forward down the faint trail towards the bottom.
HUNTER CROUCHED IN the shade of a massive rock overhang, senses poised, crossbow ready, waiting for a clear shot. The wounded cougar was out there, hiding in the scrub, camouflaged in the jumbled rocks and sagebrush of the rugged mountain pass. It was lying very still, very close, watching. Wound up tight as a spring and ready to explode in a bursting flash of fury; as dangerous and unpredictable a threat as only an eight foot, two hundred pound wounded mountain lion, armed with three-inch fangs and two and a half inch retractable claws, could be.
Hunter knew it was badly injured; he saw his bolt pass right through its body before it jumped sideways off the kill and vanished into the bush. He’d checked over Elise’s badly-mauled foal for any sign of life, but the three-month-old filly was already gone, its spine crushed by the big feline’s vise-like jaws. Hunter immediately gave chase, tracking its blood sign into the rocks. He glanced at the height of the sun in the stark azure sky, droplets of perspiration beading up on his tanned, wind-blown brow.
In the blink of an eye, the enraged lion sprang across the rocks and Hunter shot it straight through its heart as it flew through the air above him. In the nick of time he rolled left and the beast fell dead where he’d been kneeling a moment before. Removing its hide, he opened the skull and took out the brain, wrapping it in the skin to be used in the tanning process to make the pelt feel baby soft. Heading home, he pondered the best way to present Elise with the bad news about her precious filly and decided that there was no easy way to go about it. She so loved that little thing—but that was just her way.
* * *
AN EXCITED ELISE cantered out to meet Anna and Skye on her newly saddle-broke mustang mare. Walking the pretty paint beside her sister’s chestnut gelding on the way back, the two siblings chattered a mile a minute. When introduced to Skye, Elise could tell at once that he was the perfect match for young Anna, who had blossomed into the fullness of womanhood in the years since seeing her last.
When she heard the news about the baby, Elise was thrilled for her sister, but was inwardly wounded by the reminder of her own disappointment at still being childless after five years with Hunter. She’d always wanted to have children, but not way out here alone, away from community—so perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Children needed others their age to grow up and play with, and to come of age with in this world, but her longing for tribe was a pain she bore quietly alone.
When Hunter arrived home a few hours later, he was surprised and happy to see Anna and glad to meet her man. They were welcome to stay as long as they liked, and he could see the joy it brought Elise, who he knew suffered greatly, though stoically, from the lack of female companionship. It was a touchy subject between them and avoided most of the time, but there was nothing to be done about it. He had never been comfortable around a lot of people, especially since the End War. Not much of a herd animal, Hunter was more the solitary predator type, preferring the quiet solace of the wilderness to the constant busy comings and goings associated with towns.
Well aware of his self-imposed social isolation and its effect on Elise, Hunter had tried to accommodate her in other ways. Like moving from cave to house, for example, or in his embrace of a more agrarian lifestyle than he would have personally preferred. When he received the happy news about the baby, he smiled and nodded his head, remaining silent. He and Elise had hoped to have children, but there was something not working right—he wasn’t sure what. Maybe they couldn’t. It was a fairly common scenario since the End War, and even before, that some couples weren’t blessed in that way.
After supper, they sat around the table and Anna and Skye shared their vision of the future out on the Pacific Northwest coast. Elise listened with rapt attention and Hunter read between the lines. He was interested and curious to know what was happening out there, and was rather surprised by some of what Skye related.
Civilization, it seemed, had returned. Towns and villages were vibrant and all manner of arts and crafts had experienced a tremendous renaissance. There were blacksmiths and brewers, carpenters and masons, jewelers and potters, glassblowers, basket makers, weavers and tailors.
Shepherds tended flocks and herds, and wineries and orchards prospered in the mild micro climates of the Willamette and Yakima valleys. Northern old California still grew plenty of pot and a powerful cannabis guild coordinated with its northern sister guild in old B.C. to set prices and keep the quality of the bud at a premium level—to the enjoyment of all.
Amidst this period of cultural renewal and human industry, there was, of course, the usual chaos. Bandits plagued the coast road, hijacking wayfarers and kidnapping women and girls to sell or keep for themselves. Slavers were an even worse scourge of the new world, indiscriminately taking the young and strong of either gender to sell to work farms and plantations down south and back east.
Walled towns and communes were well armed with organized defenses against depredation. From their base on Vancouver Island, brash pirates plied the seas in swift vessels, raiding up and down the coast by night, plundering and pillaging whoever and wherever they could.
Notwithstanding the challenges, the Pacific Northwest Coast was reasonably hospitable and navigable as long as you kept your wits about you and knew how to take care of yourself. Traveling alone was not recommended, so folks banded together in caravans if their journeys were protracted. A common defense force of sorts had evolved along the road, with stockades and guardhouses positioned along the highway where travelers could stay the night, safe from the ubiquitous creepers and leeches who sniffed out an existence on the fringe—conscienceless predators, stalking the edges of the safe zones for unwitting prey.
And then there was the Sisterhood, a controversial, cavalry of warrior-women, sworn to avenge crimes against the weak and helpless—women and children in particular—and dedicated to “making the world a safer place for the fairer race.” Many admired their courage and supported their cause while others felt threatened by their methods and maligned them unjustly.
Men without malice towards those less physically powerful than themselves need not fear them. It was the misogynist who quaked at the knock on the door in the black of night, when they’d come for you, hundreds strong, and there was no hiding from their vengeance. Their symbol was a red winged triangle within a circle, with an all-seeing eye in the center and an inverted cross at the bottom.
Highly trained in the martial arts, they were silent weapons experts, specializing in the short bow and throwing knife, and especially abhorred slavers, pirates and pimps. They had been known to coordinate ferocious large-scale attacks on their strongholds and brothels to free their sisters from bondage. Their numbers grew larger—and their army more powerful—each season, as rescued women and children found love and acceptance within their ranks. Some towns and communes refused to allow them inside their walls for fear they would lose wives and daughters to what the less enlightened inaccurately referred to as that man-hating lesbian cult.
New forms of self-government had randomly sprung up across the region, decentralized and responsive to those whom they immediately served. Ruthless warlords, too, as in the Middle Ages, ruled certain districts with an iron fist, coveting the resources of others and subjugating entire populations by use of force. Their brutal private armies were another scourge upon the land, and as they squeezed their people for some sort of tax or tribute, woe unto those who refused to meet their demands.
Without a national anything, or a mass communications capability, news traveled slowly and conversations took place face-to-face. Books were treasured, even revered. Libraries had become irreplaceable repositories of knowledge—cherished by all those with a view towards a brighter future.
Within the various enclaves, tremendous ongoing creativity and invention took place, and the ingenuity born of necessity resulted in the unusual, and unexpected, use and reuse of components from the old world. Some locales had even restored some form of electric power, either through the repair of a dam, or by salvaging bits and pieces of wind and solar systems.
The most well known of the new cultural creations in the region was the Gathering, something unique in the world. The sprawling walled city, declared neutral territory by its Keeper, had become the vortex for a constant stream of bustling humanity. Anything needed or wanted could be found there.
A town had grown up around it, the place where deals were made and news was passed along. It had evolved into a commerce and communications hub where merchants brought their goods and received credits, which they could trade for desired goods offered by other vendors. Twenty years after the End War, the Gathering was a vast living entity, inhaling goods and services and exhaling the dreams and desires of the neo-culture.
* * *
SKYE AND ANNA stayed three days and Elise was overjoyed to have someone with whom to share her secret thoughts. On their final evening together, they all sat at dinner enjoying some tender lamb chops and fresh salad from the abundant garden. In the midst of the meal, Skye stood up and walked over to stand behind Elise’s chair. Hunter half stood, unsure of what was happening, but Elise gestured to him that it was okay. Skye closed his eyes and spread out opened palms toward her lower back, speaking words unknown to the others in a sing-song voice. After a minute or so, he ended and returned to his seat. Afterwards, Elise experienced a warm tingling within her belly and a realization that some kind of quickening had occurred inside her body. For some inexplicable reason, she had the definite sense that her barrier to conceiving a child was now somehow removed.
She turned to tell Anna and they embraced while Hunter sat back observing, curious, but skeptical, not knowing exactly what had happened. Later that evening when they were alone, Elise shared what she believed had occurred within her and he was intrigued, though not yet convinced, trying to work out with logic how Skye could have made a difference in her longstanding barrenness. Hunter was familiar with how babies were made and his understanding of the process didn’t include faith healing or magic. It wasn’t until a month later, when Elise was late and the morning sickness began, that he really got it.
* * *
WITH THE COMING of their child, Elise understood that her life with Hunter was about to undergo a significant transformation. He, too, began to experience a growing restlessness, a stirring desire to go someplace new. Not that he wanted to suddenly embrace community, but he had been living in the wilderness for seventeen years in this same territory, and the familiarity—though comforting in many ways—was also limiting to his innate curiosity and yearning for discovery.
The intriguing conversation during Skye and Anna’s visit had altered his perception of the world beyond his mountains. The biowarfare viruses seemed to have played themselves out, with those having lived through them developing an apparent immunity. The social landscape, as well, was evolving rapidly and transforming itself in many positive directions and ways. The Great Purging had done a remarkable job in selective adaptation, bringing out the best in the human DNA and psyche. There was a brand new world out there to be discovered and Hunter had a growing realization that perhaps he had been in exile long enough.
When he informed Elise that he was ready to travel to the coast to see this new land of milder winters, abundant water, and game-filled forests for himself, she almost fell out of her rocking chair! She had wrestled with the thought of joining Anna and Skye and his People up in old B.C., and had even considered going there alone, just until the baby was born and old enough to return. She was completely taken by surprise at Hunter’s decision to move on and was pleased beyond words.
What to do with their livestock and belongings that would remain behind was another challenge that resolved itself rather nicely when Hunter suggested that they offer the livestock they wouldn’t be taking with them to a young couple who had arrived in the territory about three years earlier, and who had a modest spread two valleys west. When Hunter and Elise traveled the twenty miles to their homestead, the young couple was overwhelmed by the generous offer, and returned to see what they would be inheriting. Two weeks later, Hunter and Elise said their goodbyes to home and valley, heading northwest with a string of mounts and pack animals to rendezvous with Anna and Skye in old B.C.
THE SLENDER WOODEN vessel skimmed buoyantly across Beggar’s Bay under full sail, heeled slightly to starboard, slicing the whitecaps with her sharp, gracefully curved dragon prow like a Norse warship of memory past. Her mainmast was spruce, tall and solid, her ivory sails stretched, lines taut as she chased the wind down the coastal waters south of Vancouver Island. Lars was her captain, strong and steady, with curly, red-blond hair and beard and eyes like the sea that he loved. Sometimes bluer than the deep water, at other times gray like the storms that pounded the rugged coastline in winter, but mostly they were a misty sea-green like the foaming breakers churning up the kelp beds where harbor seals chased fish near the shore.
He stood amidships at the helm, hair blowing wildly in the brisk onshore breeze of morning, eyes concentrating, counting the rock formations jutting from the water on both sides of his ship. He steered her through the passage with precision as he had a hundred times before, each voyage risky, each journey flirting with disaster. His course was strewn with shoals and shallows, and half submerged rocks and shipwrecks, all just waiting to rip the keel out of his darling—his mistress. She had taken two painstaking years to build. Piece by piece, board by board, a labor of love for a man who was only at peace on the ocean, riding the swells, surrounded by endless horizons.
He’d discovered his prize while scavenging a dilapidated marina north on the coast road. She was hidden beneath a rotting tarp in the back of a custom shipyard, in a large warehouse near the wharf, where someone had commissioned a wooden sailboat fitted with the upswept dragon prow of a Viking ship. The frame was already in place atop a rolling gurney that would facilitate moving her to the water when complete. Her owner had left behind a detailed set of plans and all the lumber and hardware necessary to finish her. So there he lived and there he worked, the inherited genes and skilled hands of his finish-carpenter father helping the vessel take shape, day-by-day, beneath the skylights of the lofty warehouse ceiling with the huge bay doors rolled open, inviting in the mist-soaked world.
When his beauty was finally complete, he moved her from the workshop to the water on the gurney, rolling her out to the end of the wharf with a series of cables and winches all the way to the launching ramp where she slid down, crashing into the cold waters of the Pacific, bobbing sweetly on the gentle swells.
He had done it alone, without any help. Lars didn’t need help—didn’t need people, couldn’t trust them. Besides, he was alone here. Stepping the mast on his own was a bit of a challenge, but the shipyard was filled with all manner of useful tools, supplies, and equipment, and he used his wits and the laws of physics to his advantage and got the job done.
When the End War came nearly two decades earlier, everyone who didn’t die right away moved down south, fleeing the brutal two-year nuclear winter, but eight-year-old Lars followed his father north. Sven Morgan led his wife, Jenna, and their four boys in the opposite direction of the migration, striving to get as far away as possible from the throngs of desperate survivors. Here they lived much better than most on the old world’s leftovers. When the thaw finally came, they turned to the sea for food and lived off her bounty. With rod, net, or speargun, Father taught them to fish for cod, flounder and salmon, or don a wet suit and scour the bottom to harvest crabs and mussels.
* * *
SUNRISE PAINTED THE dawn sky crimson and the onshore wind blew a steady ten knots, smelling of rain. It was mid-April and still cold enough to wear layers. Lars was very excited, for today was the day. Everything had been made ready. He looked his graceful ship over and was pleased. His final task was to painstakingly paint her name across the stern in dark green oil: Windsong and was she ever a beauty.
Thirty-three feet long at the waterline with an eleven foot beam and four-foot draft made her nimble in the wind and agile in the water—responsive to his slightest touch. She was well-provisioned and well-appointed, having spare sails and lines, spare hardware, and two extra anchors with chain, all in waterproof lockers on deck. Belowdecks was a forward cabin, an amidships galley and bath, with an aft captain’s cabin hosting a king bed. Windsong was set up for a single man to sail her, which at first, Lars found challenging, even harrowing at times.
After going over his mental seaworthiness checklist a dozen times, he decided to make a practice run over to an island about twelve miles off the coast that on a clear day, perched atop the old lighthouse ruins on the cliff, he could barely make out with his telescope. From a set of laminated charts scavenged from a former harbor patrol office, he’d plotted a course and made final preparations to get under way.
Lashing the helm to starboard with a bit of line using a quick release knot, he cast off the dock lines and ran back to tighten the slack jib sail. As Windsong came around, the wind blew the luff out of her sails and she jumped ahead, cutting nicely through the swells on a WNW heading away from the dock. Minding the rocks and shoals, he headed her out into the straits, referring constantly to chart and compass, tacking toward the distant island, wind off his starboard bow, full mainsail and jib taut and lines humming.
On the western side of the rock-guarded isle he cut back some sail with his windlass and slowed, discovering a perfect little inlet, protected by a curved rock jetty, built sometime in the distant past by men and machines long since forgotten. Inside the half mile-long cove was a rocky shoreline with a sturdy dock at the far end next to a narrow darkened opening that appeared to be, yes, a cave.
Back and forth, plastered to the cliff face, a steep stairway zigzagged eight hundred feet or so to the only house in sight, perched precariously on the extreme edge of the precipice and underpinned by what appeared to be the massive beams and footings used in bridge building. Putting out the bumpers, he coasted in next to the cedar and redwood structure and jumped to the dock, tying Windsong off to the tarnished brass cleats that, surprisingly, still held firmly to the wood.
With adrenaline kicking in, Lars swept the rocky beach for signs of life or recent activity, but came up negative. Just in case, he strapped his sidearm to his waist and grabbed an oil lantern, heading towards the narrow cave. Inside, it was dark, and he held the lantern aloft as he climbed the aluminum steps that ran along the beach side into the grotto. Beyond the tiny entrance, it opened up into a roundish, playing field-sized cavern with high ceilings and he was surprised to see another small dock hidden safely within, perfect for tying up Windsong out of the weather.
From inside the grotto, a second set of stairs led up and out a rusting metal door near the roof. He scouted these stairs which emerged from the cavern to join the stairway that was visible from the water, scaling the cliff to the house perched on the edge of the world. He decided to go on up and take a look, and was pleased to discover that the stairway infrastructure was also aluminum and, thus, practically corrosion-proof. Still, he took no chances, and made his way carefully to the top, checking for loose fittings, or storm and weather damage as he went along.
Cautiously ascending the last few steps to the top, he came to a large balcony decked with composite flooring—apparently some sort of acrylic or epoxy planks designed to look like wood. The house itself was amazingly intact, with huge floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the water below. He looked down to see Windsong resting peacefully next to the dock.
Trying the door, the handle turned freely and he stepped inside. The stale smell of disuse and dust assailed him and he covered his mouth with his shirt. Relighting the lantern, he scouted the place, which was larger than it looked from below. Upstairs was a bedroom loft with a second covered balcony boasting an expensive high-powered telescope on a tripod. Looking through it out to sea, he felt like he had just returned home from a long, trying voyage, and he dubbed it his Crow’s Nest and claimed the house, cave, and docks all for himself.
Over the next few weeks, Lars investigated the small island and found it deserted, but for a few skeletons and a mummified corpse or two, and aptly named it Skeleton Island. The fourteen luxury vacation homes occupying the rocky paradise were more or less intact—some faring better than others. It seemed that no one had been back here since the End.
Before the War, all food supplies must have been ferried or flown in. There was a small helipad down on the far side of the island which was approximately two miles wide and five miles long with high cliffs and small rocky beaches here and there, covered in huge piles of driftwood logs and trees. There were several freshwater springs supplying drinking water and even a small waterfall.
The fishing here was excellent and he was content with plenty of everything he might need. Lars enjoyed nothing more than taking Windsong out everyday, weather permitting. Sailing was an incredibly in the moment experience—in total concert with the natural world, gliding through the water, wind on his face and salt spray in his hair.
* * *
AS SUMMER PROGRESSED, he further familiarized himself with his island paradise and fixed up the Crow’s Nest to better suit his needs. One bright day, with a ten knot breeze out of the west, Lars was a couple of miles offshore, hauling in an overnight net he’d set the day before, when he saw something moving out of the corner of his eye. Reaching for his binoculars he scanned the horizon and spotted some type of low-riding vessel passing by—a large canoe with outriggers—about a mile away and heading toward the mainland, but coming from where? He watched it until it disappeared over the horizon.
He was puzzled and went to his maps and charts to consider the possibilities. Whoever they were, he wasn’t sure they’d spotted him, since his sails were down and the varnished hull was reflecting the colors of the sea and sky. Who could they be? he wondered, not happy about the prospect of having other seafarers in his territory.
If they navigated the ocean currents, they could find him. If they found him, they could make trouble—maybe even ransack his place when he was out fishing, or worse. There must have been several men aboard to paddle the forty-foot sea-going canoe. He had seen such a vessel in a book once; the oceanic islanders had used them long ago on long-distance voyages from Polynesia.
Lars spent the next ten days fortifying the Crow’s Nest and beefing up his defenses. He devised several alternate battle plans, customized according to how many attackers might be in the raiding party and their assault approach. Finally, he felt very well-prepared.
When the End War had arrived almost two decades earlier, residents of his island had either fled, never to return, or died here. One of those who had chosen to stay on was apparently a gun aficionado, who died, literally with his finger on the trigger. Lars added two battle rifles to his personal arsenal from the corpse’s collection, selecting an M-25 sniper rifle in .308 Win. with a Leupold Mark 8 scope, and a heavily upgraded Adams Arms AR-15 in .223 caliber/5.56 millimeter with a Trijicon ACOG ECOS scope plus Doctor RMR red dot. There were ten cases of vacuum-sealed ammunition for each rifle, plus a case of .45 ACP’s for his pistol and a thousand 12 gauge shells in various configurations—slugs, double-ought buckshot, and birdshot—depending on the specific application they were to be used for. With the mummy’s remaining stash worth a fortune in barter value, Lars removed all of the remaining weapons and ammo to a hidden location in the center of the island. He made sure the weapons he took for his own use were clean, well-oiled and functional, and had full bandoliers with loaded magazines ready to go.
Down below in the cave, he prepared some oil bombs—Molotov cocktails made from wine bottles filled with spirits pilfered from a house hosting a full bar, with a piece of cloth stuffed into the top that he could light with one of the ubiquitous butane lighters he always carried with him.
Two uneventful weeks passed and he began to relax when a three-day storm moved in, bringing torrential rainfall with lots of thunder and lightning. The morning of the fourth day dawned clear and sunny with a mild breeze and sparkling waters. Deciding it was time to get back to a normal routine, he prepared to take Windsong out for a little fishing when he heard something unusual in the distance.
Looking out to sea, a dark ship belching smoke suddenly appeared from around the jetty guarding the little inlet’s entrance, powered by some type of motor. It was a forty-five foot pilothouse motor-fisher and Lars could make out several people moving about on deck. As it headed into his inlet, he turned and started sprinting back up the steps, headed for the Crow’s Nest where he could watch her through the telescope. He made the top, breathing heavy with his heart jumping out of his chest, and peered down through the scope.
It was halfway across the inlet, heading straight towards his dock. He could make out a crew of about eight men and it looked like they had two or three women on deck with them. His mind raced through twenty different scenarios. They might try to assault the house––no, if they did that they would be exposed the entire way on the stairs. He watched her approach, and as the noisy boat got closer, he counted at least ten heavily armed men and three scantily dressed women, probably slaves.
The unfamiliar smell of exhaust fumes from the internal combustion engine eventually reached him through the open window and he wondered where the hell they were from, amazed that people were still able to maintain that old technology––but why not? Motors had been invented back in the 1800s. Fuel was easy to distill. There were tons of spare parts and tools lying around if someone had the knowledge and skills as a mechanic. It made sense, but did seem bizarre, almost as if he’d suddenly been transported back to civilization before the Fall.
He heard gruff voices over the sound of the motor as she tied up alongside his dock and several of the crew jumped off, heading toward his cave. He’d forgotten about Windsong! What if they tried to take her? The cave entrance was too narrow to drive their wide beamed boat into, but the men disappeared into the opening, reappearing a few minutes later carrying armloads of his precious supplies.
He turned and picked up his long-range sniper rifle, resting the bipod on the deck railing. The crack of the warning shot echoed off the cliff walls and rang out across the calm inlet. Down below, the crew dropped their pilfered goods and raced back aboard their boat. He could hear the captain in the pilothouse yelling at his men to hurry as he pulled the exhaust-belching, steel-hulled workhorse away from the dock, heading back towards the entrance to the cove.
Suddenly, one of the women broke free from the others and leapt off the side into the sea. He watched the crew run to the rail, yelling and gesticulating wildly. The girl swam hard for shore as the captain turned his boat around to go back for her.
Instinctively, Lars took careful aim at the roof of the pilothouse and slowly squeezed the trigger. Boom. He blew a large hole in the cabin roof, top dead center, and the boat swerved back toward the mouth of the inlet. Her captain increased her speed and drove in a zigzag pattern to avoid being picked off. The crew hustled the remaining females belowdecks as the boat made fast tracks towards the open sea. Down in the icy water, the young swimmer was nearly to the dock. Grabbing a towel and an extra sweater off a peg, Lars dashed out of the house and raced down the stairway to the beach.
Excerpted from The Gathering-After The Fall, Book Two, © 2012, 2017 by John Phillip Backus.