It’s Sunday, so it’s time for a sample. I have the first chapter of Masters of the Sun posted up as a pdf here, but I’ve learned over the years it’s always better to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). In keeping with that mindset, here’s Chapter One for this week’s #SampleSunday:
Jack awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright. He could still hear screams ringing in his ears. He sat still for a moment, cradling his head in both hands, then with a quick inhalation, he wiped the beginning of tears from the corners of his eyes and stood up.
Pre-dawn light, visible through the cracked window glass, glimmered in the east, casting a pale illumination into the room. It was a small room, but serviceable. His narrow pallet, covered with rough blankets, a chamber pot barely visible underneath, stood against the wall opposite the window. A pump-action shotgun was propped against the wall near the head of the bed, several boxes of cartridges neatly stacked nearby. In the corner next to the foot of the bed was a table with a washbasin and pitcher beneath a cracked wall mirror. In the other corner, near the window, stood a small wood stove. A wooden rocking chair was nestled near the stove, along with another small table stacked with a pile of books. Along the wall next to the window was a series of hooks and pegs that held his clothing.
Jack moved mechanically to the washbasin and half-filled it with water from the pitcher. He swirled the water for a moment with his fingers, thoughts wandering. It had been ten years now. Ten years dreaming the same dream. Ten years waking up in a sweat early every morning, no matter how chilly or warm the weather, the grief and pain fresh in his mind. Memory was hard to shed, the more so since it was literally burned into him. He looked up from the basin to the mirror, his gaze lingering on the scars that adorned his chest, neck, and the left side of his jaw. Three days of stubble adorned his chin, patchy where the scars prevented growth. The lines on his forehead and at the corner of each eye seemed deeper than he remembered. He looked like hell. Old, beat up, tired. Better than it could have been. Better than…
With a snort, he got about his business. That was enough belly aching, and there was work to do. He shaved quickly, gritting his teeth at the combination of cold water and a dulling blade. He really needed to put his razor to the whetstone one of these days. First things first. Moving with a purpose, he washed his teeth with a rag near the basin and ran his hands through his hair. Then he did his business in the chamber pot, donned a shirt, a patched leather jacket, a pair of jeans, and stomped on his boots. He grabbed his shotgun and overnight backpack and plopped a wide-brimmed hat onto his head. Then he left the room, a slight limp in his stride.
A narrow flight of stairs outside his door took him to the first floor. The house itself was small: just the one room upstairs and downstairs a common room and two more bedrooms. And the bathroom and kitchen, for all they mattered. The remnants of the last night’s fire still smoldered in the fireplace in the common room. A fairly large stone model, the fireplace was old-fashioned, in keeping with the rest of the décor. The spit and cooking rack in the fireplace was obviously a change from its original design. Several pots and pans hung from hooks installed in the mantel, another recent change, and an ample supply of firewood and kindling was neatly stacked off to the side next to a standard set of fireplace tools. Aside from the fireplace, a simple wooden table with four chairs, an old sofa, its stuffing sagging in several places, and a full bookshelf completed the room’s furnishing.
Jack set his shotgun, hat, and pack down on the table and knelt in front of the fireplace, wincing slightly as he bent his right leg. Grabbing a poker, he stirred the smoldering embers, then blew into them slowly. Next, a handful of kindling went into the fireplace and, within moments, a small flame flickered to life. He set about building the fire with more stout pieces of wood. It only took a few minutes for the fuel to catch and he stood with a satisfied nod.
On one of the hooks over the mantel was a roughly made cast iron teapot. Jack filled it from a water barrel in the kitchen and sprinkled in some tea leaves from a small box on the counter, then hung it to heat from the spit in the fireplace.
The teapot began to whistle as he returned from the kitchen again, a loaf of bread and several strips of jerky in hand. Placing those new items on the table, he went back to the fireplace and removed the teapot. He had just returned to the table with the pot and two cups when the door to one of the bedrooms opened and a man stepped into the room.
Older than Jack by a large margin, well into his sixties probably, the man’s hair was mostly silver, with a few strands of black remaining. It hung limply to his shoulders, framing a deeply wrinkled, but strong face. Blue eyes that were still sharp gazed at Jack beneath bushy eyebrows.
“Got the tea ready for me, I see. Did I ever mention I like that you get up early?”
“Every morning,” Jack replied. He poured a cup and handed it to the older man. “Good thing for you I do or you’d miss half the day.”
“Bah! I’m not so far gone as that. Not yet, anyway.” Sitting down at the table, the older man sipped at his cup and pursed his lips slightly. “You don’t have to come today, you know. No one will think less of you.”
Jack sat opposite him, his own cup steaming in his hand, untouched for the moment. Drawing a deep breath, the younger man shrugged. “I owe you better than that. I’m coming.”
“Hmmph. Whatever debt you think you owe was paid years ago. Ain’t nothing holding you. I’ve often wondered why you remain here. You must have kin in the country somewhere. Some of them may have survived.”
“You wouldn’t last out here on your own and you know it. Remember the raids last spring?”
The older man made a dismissive gesture, snorting with derision. “A few lads barely off their mama’s tit. Wasn’t a one of them had anything but a stick or a couple rocks. One shot from Vera and they high-tailed it.” His eyes flicked toward the wall near the door to his room, where a scoped, bolt-action rifle hung on a rack. Looking back at him, the older man pointed a finger meaningfully at Jack. “And you know I coulda taken any three of them together bare handed, if it come down to it.”
“That’s not how Billy and Steven tell it. They said there were a dozen of them, some with pistols. Good thing Billy had his machine gun with him.” Jack shook his head. “I should have been here. If those two hadn’t come by to deliver eggs…”
“Those two tell tall tales and you know it, boy. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Besides,” the older man’s eye twinkled in the firelight and he grinned mischievously, “you had prettier company to attend to.”
Jack’s face darkened, his lips turning down into a scowl. “I want none of her.”
A loud snort was the older man’s initial retort. “It’s been long enough and you ain’t getting any younger. Why…”
“No!” Jack slammed his cup down onto the table, splashing his tea. His scowl deepened, his gaze dropping to the floor. His jaw worked and for a moment he struggled to find the right words to explain himself, to no avail. Instead, he shook his head forcefully.
“Alright. Alright. Have it your way. But when you get my age, don’t come crying to me if you find yourself wishing you’d done different.”
Jack just grunted.
Both men sat in silence a time, eating breakfast and sipping their tea. Finally, the older man pushed his plate away and stood. “Well. We’d best get to it. Caravan’s due in town around noon and we don’t wanna be late. I’ll get us some grub for the trip.” With that, he strode into the kitchen. When he returned, Jack was still sitting at the table, nursing his tea and his thoughts. The older man laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Come on, youngster.”
Jack started, then stood as well, managing a half-grin. “After you, old man.” He took the food and stuffed it into his backpack, then hefted his shotgun and, once more donning his hat, followed the older man out the door. As they got outside, they paused momentarily on the porch as the older man slung his rifle over his shoulder.
“Don’t know why you keep wearing that hat. No one’s gonna mistake you for anything but a city boy.”
“I like the shade.”
The older man chuckled and stepped from the porch. In front of the house was the rusted hulk of a pickup truck. Weeds grew up through the engine block and the tires had long-since decayed away, but amazingly the windshield was still intact. Jack eyed the remnant of days past as they turned left toward the pasture and the waiting cart.
“So much lost,” he murmured to himself.
The older man heard though. “It can come again. Don’t think it can’t.”
Jack shrugged but made no other reply. He turned toward the curing shed, leaving the older man to retrieve and hitch the horse. Swinging the door open, he beheld the fruits of the last six months of his labor. Meats from a number of game animals hung from hooks in the ceiling, carefully smoked to preserve them. Through a door at the back of the shed were the pelts. He and the older man spent many a day in the woods beyond the property, trapping and hunting. The older man was right: in some ways Jack was still a city boy. He’d always considered himself a fast learner, but it seemed like it took forever, once he was back on his feet, to learn how to do it right out in the woods. It had helped to have a task to focus on though, and eventually he’d gotten to the point that even some of the more adept locals in town remarked at his prowess.
It took an hour or so to load the cart and hitch the horse. The sun was fully visible above the tree tops as the older man clucked and shook the reins to get the horse moving. Jack checked that he had a cartridge chambered in his shotgun. Even though there hadn’t been a raid in months, that didn’t mean there couldn’t be raiders lurking in the nearly seven miles between the house and town.
Once that was a quick drive, hardly worth considering. Now the road, once paved in asphalt and at least marginally maintained, had deteriorated through years of neglect. The pavement was pitted and cracked and weeds poked through in numerous places. In one or two places, a bush or sapling had managed to take root and grow up through a deep crack. Nevertheless, it was still faster than traveling cross-country. And certainly it was faster than three years ago, before the older man traded for the horse and cart. For a moment, Jack’s shoulders and back seemed to ache from the memory of exertions required to get their wares to town using just a litter. This way was much better. If they were lucky, they’d make it with an hour or more to get set up before the caravan arrived.
The caravans were a recent occurrence, also. They first appeared five years ago, a meager band of two carts and one litter filled with various items the caravan masters had dug from some old Walmarts and Kmarts. Where they had found stores that hadn’t already been plundered, Jack had no idea. But in the years since, the caravans had grown in size and frequency. Based out of Forest Hills, about one hundred miles west of town, they claimed to make a circuit of every pocket of civilization in a 200 mile radius. Even the raider camps saw visits from the caravans, or so the rumors said. These days, they came to town twice a year, bringing with them items and money.
Barter was the main way folks did business in town before, but now most dealt in Forest Hills Caravan Scripts. They were just little pieces of iron with “FH” stamped on one side and a number indicating the value of the script on the other, all but worthless in and of themselves. But back when there was a USA, what was a dollar but a piece of paper with some ink on it? Jack had some schooling in economics, back before the Troubles, and he understood that it was the idea behind the currency that was important, not its physical makeup. All the same, he found it fascinating how quickly people began to place value in those scripts. Some held out, decrying their neighbors for exchanging the products of their labor for something so seemingly useless. Others resented the influence of those living so far away from the little world of the town and its surroundings.
Still, there was no denying that life after the caravans was better than life before. Jack could almost begin to think that maybe the older man was right. Maybe it was possible to rebuild to the way it was. Except that every time the caravans came through, there were fewer old-tech products and more that were obviously handmade and of lower quality. Fewer products were made from metal; how many had the equipment or skills to run a forge? More and more products were wood or stone-based. The decline from high-tech to stone age was obvious, and as far as Jack could see, there was little to be done to stop it. No, it was better not to hope for what could not be. Better to accept things as they were and make do.
The journey passed quickly, with little conversation. The road to town from the older man’s property had never been heavily travelled, even in the good days before the Troubles. At first, the road passed through woods and an occasional field, but after a couple of miles they began passing houses, long abandoned or burnt out, then an old shop or two. Finally they reached a sign, faded but legible, announcing the town limits. Still there was no sign of habitation, save the carcasses of years past, until the road turned a corner around a fair-sized hill.
It had been almost a month since Jack last came into town, but the older man had just returned from the town council meeting four days earlier. Jack was surprised to see a pair of towers as the central, inhabited area of town came into view. The towers were nothing spectacular; more scaffold than anything else. They stood about ten feet tall, with a rising gate blocking what remained of the road between them. The beginnings of a low palisade wall extended from the towers in both directions. Jack assumed it was meant to make a circuit of the main population area. An armed man was posted in each tower and a third at the gate.
“What is this?”
“Don’t tell me you forgot the talk on defenses after the raids that convinced you I couldn’t survive on my own.”
“I remember nothing got done, whatever the council talked about.”
“Too true. Well, at the last meeting, Beatrice got pissed and told the other council members they needed to put up or shut up. Everybody claimed they wanted a wall, but no one was willing to give the time and effort to make it. So she announced she was putting her hands on the project, on her own if need be. I tell you, that shook things up. Old Geoff Crenshaw wasn’t having none of that. You know how he and Beatrice have it out for each other and he wasn’t about to let her have all the credit for getting the wall built. Once he got onboard, the rest just fell in line and pledged to get started construction the next day.“ The older man wiped his nose on the back of his hand and gave Jack a wry grin. “Guess they really did it.”
“Crenshaw’s younger than you, last I checked.”
“Well he don’t act like it most days.”
The cart neared the checkpoint and the guard at the gate raised a hand in greeting. Olive-skinned, with dark hair and eyes, he was short, but solidly built. He carried a bow and Jack could see a full quiver over his shoulder. No surprise there. With ammo becoming more and more scarce, bows were common now. In the years since the Troubles, folks from town had scouted out all the sporting goods stores, Walmarts, and any other place that might have ammo within a day in all directions. Those that hadn’t already been looted during the Troubles had only limited supplies, so the town was basically left with what it had. Fortunately, Kevin Westfield figured out early how to make bows and fletch arrows after reading some old wilderness survival books in the library. Still, it would be nice to have more guns. Back at the house, Jack and the older man were also starting to run low on ammo and they hoped the caravan might have some. Shooting a bow was all well and good, and a man got more bragging rights for being able to hit accurately with one than with a gun, but Jack preferred to keep his shotgun for as long as possible, thank you very much.
“Hello, Tobias. Jack.“ The guard nodded to both men in turn. “Been a while. Things okay out there?”
“Nothing worth complaining about, Percy,” replied the older man. “How’s guard duty?”
“Boring, but it beats pulling weeds in Beatrice’s field.” Pushing down on the counterweight, he swung the gate’s arm up out of the way. “You’ll want to get a move-on to the market field. More outriders from the caravan arrived an hour ago. They’re making better time than they thought and will be here in a half hour or so now.” He glanced at Jack, his lips pursing slightly. “Don’t want to have trouble, right?”
The two men in the cart exchanged glances. “We’d best get moving, then. Thanks Percy,” said Tobias as he flicked the reins.
As the cart pulled through the checkpoint, Jack noticed Percy’s eyes following him, an almost expectant expression on the other man’s face. Shaking his head, Jack breathed a soft curse. “Looks like no one’s forgotten.”
“Hard to forget about that, youngster.“
“Maybe Ortiz won’t be with the caravan this time.”
Tobias snorted. “Fat chance of that. He’s the security foreman, after all. Don’t worry. He’s a professional. Doesn’t hold grudges.”