Trax stood up and turned to the miner. "Where's Riscofftison?"
"We come here for comfort and to be left alone," the miner objected.
"Where is he?" Trax took a step towards the miner.
"We mind our own business here!"
"Riscofftison." Another step.
"We don't bother a body and we expect the same."
Another step. They stood close now. The miner showed no fear.
Trax's hand shot out and clamped around the miner's throat. He squeezed, applying pressure slowly and steadily. The miner, who had seen most everything, done most everything and figured he had nothing to live for, saw the room grow dim and in that fading light realized his own mortality. The miner emitted a faint gurgling sound.
"What?" Trax released his grip slightly.
"On the left," the miner choked, pointing.
Trax released the miner who fell back gasping for air, his hands at his throat. He regarded the miner for a moment, looking for some trace of deception - he saw none.
He walked to the door on the left and tried the knob - locked. He took a step back and raised a booted foot. He kicked the door and it sprang open with a crash and a splintering of old wooden moulding. In the room there stood a bed and on the bed was an old man mounting a woman from behind. Their faces instantly turned to the door in frightened surprise. Only then did Trax notice that it wasn't a woman at all, but a young boy. Nor was this the old man he was looking for. Wordlessly he closed the door and looked accusingly at the miner.
"I reckon I meant the other left," the miner said timidly, backing away a step, hands returning to his throat.
The stranger moved to the door on the right and kicked it open. It was another comfort room furnished with a bed, a chair, a table and a lamp. On the bed lying side by side was an old man and a middle-age woman. Though they had never met Trax knew the old man to be Riscofftison. The woman, obviously a comfort hostess, sat up, the blanket pulled up to her ample but sagging breasts. She smoked a thin cigar and looked at the stranger with heavily mascara-coated eyes.
"Riscofftison," the stranger said.
She nudged the form next to her. "Passed out," she replied.
He entered the room and looked closely at Riscofftison. The old man's hair had long ago started to grey but there still remained a trace of colour. The old man stank and lay on the bed half dressed.
Trax picked up the old man's clothes and threw him over his shoulder.
"He owes me for five days," the woman said.
Trax reached into his pocket and tossed a handful of bills onto the bed. He left the room and passed the middle door not caring to think what he might find behind it. When he reached the stairs, he found his way blocked by the muscle-bound hulk he had encountered when he came in. Hiding behind the creature, the small bald headed man said, "You wrecked the place and drove off the clientele. You won't get out of here alive! I'm going to have Roscoe here do you slow. Very, very slow."
If he had not been carrying Riscofftison, Trax may have tested Roscoe, but things being as they were he simply pulled his gun and pointed it at the men barring his path. "Back away," he told them calmly, and he began to ascend the stairs.
Roscoe was either too stupid to be afraid or had never seen a gun before. The giant did not back away.
"Get him, Roscoe!" the little man commanded, and the beast moved forward.
Trax knew he was in a vulnerable position. He fired one shot into Roscoe's chest. The giant halted slightly but did not fall. Another shot produced a small, round red hole but still he kept coming. Trax raised his weapon and placed a bullet between the glassy eyes of the giant. Roscoe faltered, swayed like a branch in the wind and fell over collapsing the railing. The bald man threw up his hands in fright. He was hardly worth a bullet. Trax shot him anyway. The thin body collapsed like a straw man and fell to the landing by the alley door.
Trax reached the top of the stairs. With Riscofftison still on his shoulder, he bent down and retrieved the Steinbeck novel sticking in the waistband of the bald man's trousers.
The night air was a welcome relief from the stale, fetid smell of the comfort house. Trax walked to the edge of town where he had left the buckboard, deposited his burden into the rear of it, then climbed into the front. He gave the reins a light snap and the horse, a sad-looking old nag, started on its way. In the dead of night they headed south drawn by an unerring instinct too strong to question.
Early the next morning, before the sun could rise high enough to turn the sky a dull grey. Trax reined the horse to a stop. Fresh water was scarce but they came upon a small pond fed from an underground source.
Trax knelt by the water's edge, scooped up a handful, sniffed it then tasted it. He spat the water out, tasting the salt in it. The ocean lay a short distance to the east and he looked in that direction accusingly. Obviously the ocean had seeped into the underground stream salting the supply.
Trax walked back to where the old man still lay snoring and offering only an occasional grunt of discomfort. He picked up Riscofftison and threw him onto his shoulder, carrying him over to salt pond and unceremoniously dumped the old man into it. The pond was not deep and the salt kept Riscofftison from sinking to the bottom. He went under a bit but bobbed up, choking and gagging on the salt water and flaying his arms and legs, cutting quite a comical figure.
Trax did not smile. He stood watching dispassionately while the old man uttered cries for help between foul oaths and curses. After three attempts to regain his feet Riscofftison climbed out of the pond and up the small bank to where Trax stood.
"What's the big idea?!" the old man sputtered. "What's the meaning of this?!"
In response, Trax straight-armed Riscofftison to the forehead, driving him back into the water. After a repeat of his previous performance the old man dragged himself out again.
"You want to tell me what this is all about?!" he spat angrily.
"You're not ready yet," the tall man said and pushed him back in.
This time Riscofftison stood up in knee deep water and announced, "I'm not getting out until you tell me what you want!"
"Suit yourself," the other said and walked back to the buckboard.
Riscofftison stood up soaking wet tasting salt on his lips. He became painfully aware that his head ached and throbbed. He gripped his empty belly as it growled protestingly. The old man did not know how many days, or weeks or months he had spent in that comfort house, but he was sure it had been considerable.
The stranger stood feeding the horse a handful of grain from a sack.
Riscofftison looked at the man. He knew he had never met the tall man, but there was something oddly familiar about him. He had no idea what the man wanted or why. In the back of his mind, he feared to know.
Riscofftison knew only that he was no longer of any use to anyone. He asked nothing of no one and expected the same in return. That was why he sought refuge in the comfort house. He had turned his back on society and to what some ironically referred to as mankind. Riscofftison knew this man was not kind.
Reluctantly, Riscofftison sloshed his out of the water and walked up to the stranger.
"Either tell me what you want or take me back to town!"
"I'm headed the other way," the stranger said.
"To hell with you!" Riscofftison exclaimed as he turned and began walking back the way they had come.
"Long walk back," Trax called after him, to which the old man saluted him with a finger.
Riscofftison walked about two hundred yards before he realized the magnitude of his trip back. Soon the heat would come, accompanied by the wind and the dust. With no food or water he knew he would not get far. He could not be certain how far they had come and he was in no shape for a long hike. He looked ahead and saw nothing but the empty horizon. Riscofftison turned around to see the stranger standing by the buckboard and he started back toward it.
"Get on," the stranger said when Riscofftison returned.
"Where are we headed?"
Trax cocked his head down the trail. Riscofftison climbed onto the buckboard and the two sat side by side riding in silence for some time before the old man asked, "Who are you, anyway?"
"You really don't know?"
"I stopped playing games when I was nine years old," Riscofftison said, perturbed. "Do you want to tell me your name?"
Riscofftison almost started, and he stared at his abductor.
"Search your memory," Trax told him. "You know me."
"No I don't!" Riscofftison protested.
"You know me the same way as I know you. Do you remember the dream?"
"Do you remember me?"
"No, I don't!"
"I was in the dream."
"It was a nightmare!" the old man confessed and he began to sob.
They rode on, Riscofftison clearly shaken and Trax allowing him to be.
"I tried to forget it, to deny it," Riscofftison said finally. "From the beginning I tried to deny it. It frightened me and I hoped to forget it in the house of comfort."
"That's where I found you."
"You should have let me be!" Riscofftison shot back, his manner bordering somewhere between fear and anger. "I want no part of it, or of you either!"
Riscofftison jumped off the moving vehicle and hit the ground on all fours. He scrambled to his feet and ran off. Trax brought the buckboard to a stop and jumped lightly from the seat. In long-legged strides he caught up to the other man and laid his hand on Riscofftison's shoulder. The gesture startled the old man who screamed as if the devil were chasing him. He hit the ground again. Trax stood over Riscofftison and turned him over so that they faced each other. Trax grabbed and shook him by the lapels of his jacket. "You're a part of it," he said calmly but authoritatively. "It doesn't matter if you want in this or not. It's decided. I don't know why you and I don't care. I just want to get the job done."
Trax hauled the man to his feet. "Now you promise not to run away again and I won't have to tie you up."
"You wouldn't dare."
Trax made no reply. None was needed.
They continued south, never straying far from the coast to avoid infringing on the Farm Co-op. Like all the major conglomerates, they guarded their borders jealously, forcibly. The two men followed an old road lined with rotting hydro poles. Electricity no longer ran through the down lines but the wooden poles remained standing in a row leaning this way and that. Like the road to Rome lined with crosses, Riscofftison thought. But this road did not lead to Rome. Where did this road lead, he wondered; to glory or perdition?
After a few days they passed a row of stacks once part of a antique nuclear power plant. They stood like long dead sentinels petrified in time. Like electricity, nuclear power was a ghost of the past, it belonged to the old world.
Riscofftison proved to be a reluctant companion. He did not want to be there nor did he try to be the least bit cooperative on the road or when they made camp.
They did not again speak of the dream. Trax found it unnecessary to speak of it, Riscofftison feared to.
Past the power plant stacks, they entered the foothills and on the second night while sitting around a small fire they heard a sound, as if God had given the wind a voice to sing its sad song. The sound began low and soft escalating into a mournful wail that split the night. Riscofftison started. For an instant he thought it was a wolf but determined it sounded more intelligent, almost human.
"Toxins," Trax told him. "They were driven into the hills to live apart from people. They probably smell us."
"What do they want?"
"Nothing," Trax lied. "They won't bother us tonight."
He could see that Riscofftison was shaken. He saw no point worrying him with the truth. The two turned in for the night.
Riscofftison shook Trax. "Wake up!" the old man urged, his voice tinged with fear.
"Did you hear that? They sound closer."
Trax heard the wail of the Toxins, and Riscofftison was right, they sounded closer.
"Build up the fire," Trax told him. "They're afraid of fire. I'll scout about and try to scare them off."
Trax left Riscofftison secure in the belief that a good blaze would keep the Toxins from the camp. The moon rose full and its dull yellow glow allowed Trax to pick up the Toxin's spoor. They led him through the hills, never letting him get close enough to get off a good shot. Frustrated, Trax returned to camp after some forty minutes to find the fire no bigger than when he had left. His first indication that something was amiss came when he called out to Riscofftison and received no answer. Trax cautiously entered into the circle of light, one gun drawn. With a trained eye he read the story in the dirt. He saw strange footprints mixed in with Riscofftison's. He now realized that the Toxins were a wily bunch. They had led Trax away on a merry chase while others sneaked into camp and made off with Riscofftison.
Trax set off, following the trail that led deep into the hills. He knew why they had taken Riscofftison and it was a fate he would not wish on anyone. The Toxins were a race of human beings adversely affected by toxic contaminants in the air, food and water, but mostly by the obvious leaking of the old nuclear reactor plant they had passed. Some people developed no severe affects from the contaminants, but the Toxins were men, woman and children who developed terrible side affects either mental or physical, most times both. Webbed toes and fingers were common amongst the Toxins, along with puss oozing boils, third eyes, extra fingers, no fingers, no arms or legs, even second heads. Their physical impairments were compounded by their mental disorders. Some were only slightly retarded while others developed into dangerous psychopaths. Some were barely affected mentally at all. The mating of Toxins resulted in even more horrible mutations. They were a race becoming less and less human with each generation. The Toxins were not without their enlightened leaders and it was these leaders who had decided that to preserve the Toxins as a race of people they must mate with normal human beings.
That is why the Toxins had taken Riscofftison; they wanted him for his sperm.
The moon disappeared behind the clouds and the ground became rocky. Trax lost the trail and it was well over an hour before he picked it up again and another hour before he came upon their camp in the hills.
It was a large camp of crude huts and underground dens they used to hide from the daylight. No fire lit the camp but Trax was close enough to see figures moving about. Once, he thought he heard Riscofftison cry out. Trax waited another hour. There were too many for him to rush the camp single handed. The sun would be up soon and he would wait for the Toxins to go to sleep.
Certain that the Toxins had bedded down, Trax approached the camp still under cover of darkness. He walked sure footed and silent, with the ease of a jungle cat. Every muscle in his body flowed with grace and precision, his hat pulled down low and his dark coat wrapped around him like the night.
He found Riscofftison tied spread eagle on the ground in a half conscious, half naked state. Riscofftison's trousers lay around his ankles, his manhood exposed for the female Toxins to use at will. He had been knocked around quite a bit but those wounds would heal. The old man's mental state concerned Trax the most. Who knew what effect their multiple rapes on Riscofftison had had on his mind?
Trax squatted down beside Riscofftison. The old man emitted a low moan. Trax clapped a hand over his mouth. "Shhhhhh," Trax whispered, hoping to reach Riscofftison's mind. "Lie still. I'll get you out."
Trax reached back behind his neck and pulled out a hidden knife. The well honed blade sliced through the crude cords binding Riscofftison's hands and feet. Trax slipped the knife back into its sheath. Riscofftison began to mumble inarticulately, desperately trying to say something.
Trax hushed him. "Quiet! You'll wake them."
Riscofftison mumbled on. "B...be...behi...behind you."
Trax turned in time to be struck by a tree limb squarely in the face. He saw shapes; stars and dots blinked on and off before his eyes. He became aware of bodies rushing at him, laying inhuman hands upon him. Trax instinctually went for his guns but they were not there, his coat had been torn off his back. His fists struck out as he vainly tried to defend himself from the blows that rained down on him. He smelled the Toxins sick, rotting flesh, could catch glimpses of twisted, deformed bodies, and felt their slimy, filthy diseased skin as they bore down on him. They emitted half-human grunts as they maddeningly tried to hammer him into submission. By shear weight of number, Trax was born to the ground and he struggled on his back, kicking and flailing blindly, but there were too many of them. With his guns he might have stood a chance, but dazed and weaponless, he suspected they would either beat him to death, tearing him limb from limb with sharp claws and teeth, or they would render him unconscious to be used for captive breeding like Riscofftison- he was not sure which fate he desired more.
Trax lay bruised, cut and bleeding. He continued to strike out weakly until he became aware that the Toxins were no longer on top of him. He sat up and through bleary, puffed up eyes he felt blinded by twin miniature suns. When his eyes adjusted he thought he was seeing things. Was he dead? In another world? For there in front of him he thought he saw himself. The hat and coat were his and the figure dressed in them emitted fire from each hand. Trax gained his feet and stood unsteadily on wobbly legs. He shook his head and blinked, trying to focus. It wasn't himself he saw but Riscofftison! Riscofftison had donned his hat and coat and was brandishing two road flares he'd obviously found in the coat.
The Toxins were cowering back from the flares. Trax saw their dull, lustreless eyes. Their deformed faces showed fear but Trax knew if only one of the mob rushed at them they all would join in on the attack. All it took was one Toxin with a remnant of courage and he and Riscofftison would be done for. Trax caught sight of Riscofftison. Trax read anger and revulsion on the old man's face. He had gone through a kind of degradation that would destroy most people. Only this brave act kept him from becoming a broken man. He gripped the flares with trembling hands. To Trax he seemed on the verge of becoming hysterical. He just might drop the flares and run. Trax hoped he wouldn't.
"Is there anything you don't carry in this coat?" Riscofftison asked Trax with as much humour he could muster, then said more seriously, "Can you walk?"
"Get behind me and take us out of here!" Riscofftison shouted, his nerves starting to fray at the edges.
His courage seemed on the verge of collapse, Trax thought. He might still bolt.
Back to back, they exited the Toxin camp, Trax leading, Riscofftison covering their rear. After a dozen yards or so, the old man threw one of the dwindling flares into the mass of Toxins who yelled and scattered.
Trax barely got them back to their camp before he passed out. Riscofftison rolled him into the back of the buckboard, hitched up the horse and struck out south just as the sun rose in the east. It hung heavy in the dull grey sky and slowly climbed upward.
Past noon, Trax wearily climbed into the seat next to Riscofftison. Neither man looked at the other or spoke a word. Trax's face was a mass of purple bruises and bloody scratches. His lower lip was split and one eye swollen closed. Riscofftison carried his own emotional scars from the night before and they would haunt him. He would add those to the others.
After a time, Riscofftison said only: "Trax." And in that word he thanked the man for saving him from a fate worse than death.
Trax, himself a man of few words, acknowledged this and thanked Riscofftison in return by saying, "Yep."
Second Coming now available on Kindle!