Read The Savage Boy Online

Authors: Nick Cole

The Savage Boy

 

The Savage Boy

Nick Cole

 

Intermezzo

For those who have read and loved

The Old Man and the Wasteland
,

you will find this novel a bit different.

This time the apocalypse is personal.

I thank you in advance for this brief indulgence.

God willing, we may yet hear more of

the Old Man.

 

1

Y
OU TAKE EVERYTHING
with you.

That is the last lesson. The last of all the lessons. The last words of Staff Sergeant Presley.

You take everything with you, Boy.

The Boy tramped through the last of the crunchy brown stalks of wild corn, his weak left leg dragging as it did, his arms full. He carried weathered wooden slats taken from the old building at the edge of the nameless town. He listened to the single clang of some long unused lanyard, connecting against a flagpole in the fading warmth of the quiet autumn morning.

He knew.

Staff Sergeant Presley was gone now.

The last night had been the longest. The old man that Staff Sergeant Presley had become, bent and shriveled, faded as he gasped for air around the ragged remains of his throat, was gone. His once dark, chocolate brown skin turned gray. The muscles shriveled, the eyes milky. There had been brief moments of fire in those eyes over the final cold days. But at the last of Staff Sergeant Presley there had been no final moment. All of him had gone so quickly. As if stolen. As if taken.

You take everything with you.

The cold wind thundered against the sides of Gas Station all night long as it raced down from mountain passes far to the west. It careened across the dry whispering plain of husk and brush through a ravaged land of wild, dry corn. The wind raced past them in the night, moving east.

A week ago, Gas Station was as far as Staff Sergeant Presley could go, stopping as if they might start again, as they had so many times before. Gas Station was as far as the dying man could go. Would go.

I gotcha to the Eighty, Boy. Now all you got to do is follow it straight on into California. Follow it all the way to the Army in Oakland.

Now, in the morning’s heatless golden light, the Boy came back from hunting, having taken only a rabbit. Staff Sergeant Presley’s sunken chest did not rise. The Boy waited for a moment amongst the debris and broken glass turned to sandy grit of Gas Station, their final camp. He waited for Sergeant Presley to look at him and nod.

I’m okay.

I’ll be fine.

Get the wood.

But he did not. Staff Sergeant Presley lay unmoving in his blankets.

The Boy went out, crossing the open space where once a building stood. Now, wild corn had grown up through the cracked concrete pad that remained. He crossed the disappearing town to the old wooden shamble at its edge, maybe once a barn. Working with his tomahawk he had the slats off with a sharp crack in the cool, dry air of the high desert. Returning to Gas Station, he knew.

Staff Sergeant Presley was gone now.

The Boy crossed the open lot. Horse looked at him, then turned away. And there was something in that dismissal of Horse that told the Boy everything he needed to know and did not want to.

Staff Sergeant Presley was gone.

He laid the wood down near the crumbling curb and crossed into the tiny office that once watched the county road.

Staff Sergeant Presley’s hand was cold. His chest did not rise. His eyes were closed.

The Boy sat next to the body throughout that long afternoon until the wind came up.

You take everything with you.

And . . .

The Army is west. Keep going west, Boy. When you find them, show them the map. Tell them who I was. They’ll know what to do. Tell them Staff Sergeant Lyman Julius Presley, Third Battalion, 47
th
Infantry, Scouts. Tell them I made it all the way—all the way to D.C., never quit. Tell them there’s nothing left. No one.

And . . .

That’s the North Star.

And . . .

Don’t let that tomahawk fly unless you’re sure. Might not get it back.

And . . .

These were all towns. People once lived here. Not like your people. This was a neighborhood. You could have lived here if the world hadn’t ended. Gone to school, played sports. Not like your tents and horses.

And . . .

There are some who still know what it means to be human—to be a society. There are others . . . You got to avoid those others. That’s some craziness.

And . . .

“Boy” is what they called you. It’s the only thing you responded to. So “Boy” it is. This is how we. . .

Make camp.

Hunt.

Fight.

Ride Horse.

Track.

Spell.

Read.

Bury the dead.

Salute.

For a day the Boy watched the body. Later, he wrapped Staff Sergeant Presley in a blanket; blankets they had traded the Possum Hunters for, back two years ago, when their old blankets were worn thin from winter and the road, when Staff Sergeant Presley had still been young and always would be.

At the edge of the town that once was, in the golden light of morning, the Boy dug the grave. He selected a spot under a sign he could not spell because the words had faded. He dug in the warm, brown earth, pushing aside the yellowed, papery corn husks. The broken and cratered road nearby made a straight line into the west.

When the body was in the grave, covered, the Boy waited. Horse snorted. The wind came rolling across the wasteland of wild corn husks.

What now?

You take everything with you.

Horse.

Tomahawk.

Blankets.

Knife.

Map.

Find the Army, Boy. All the way west, near a big city called San Francisco. Tell them there’s nothing left and show them the map.

When he could still speak, that was what Staff Sergeant Presley had said.

And . . .

You take everything with you.

Which seemed something more than just a lesson.

 

2

T
HE ROAD AND
the map gave the number 80. For a time he knew where he was by the map’s lines and tracings. He alone would have to know where he was going from now on.

I followed him from the day he took me. Now I will need to lead, even if it is just myself and Horse.

Horse grazed by the side of the broken and cracked highway.

The short days were cold and it was best to let Horse eat when they could find dry grass. The Boy considered the snowcapped mountains rising in the distant west.

Sergeant Presley would’ve had a plan for those mountains.

You should be thinking about the snow, not about me, Boy.

The voice of Sergeant Presley in his head was strong, not as it had been in the last months of his life when it was little more than a rasp and in the end, nothing at all.

You’re just remembering me as I was, Boy.

I am.

You can’t think of me as someone who can get you outta trouble. I’m dead. I’m gone. You’ll have to take care of yourself now, Boy. I did all I could, taught you everything I knew about survival. Now you got to complete the mission. You got to survive. I told you there’d be mountains. Not like the ones you knew back east. These are real mountains. They’re gonna test you. Let me go now and keep moving, Boy.

The sun fell behind the mountains, creating a small flash as it disappeared beyond the snow-capped peaks. Horse moved forward in his impatient way. The Boy massaged his bad leg. This was the time when it began to hurt: at the end of the day as the heat faded and the cold night began.

Sometimes it’s better to ride through the night, Boy. Horse’ll keep you warm. Better than shiverin’ and not sleepin’. But stick to the roads if you do go on.

The Boy rode through the night, listening to Horse clop lazily along, the only sound for many hours. He watched his breath turn to vapor in the dark.

I should make a fire.

The Boy continued on, listening to Sergeant Presley’s voice and the stories he would tell of his life before the Boy.

“Ah got caught up in things I shouldn’t have. You do that and time gets away from you. It shoulda taken me two years to get across the States. Instead it’s taken me almost twenty-five or twenty-eight years. I’ve lost count at times. How old are you, Boy? You was eight when you come with me. But that was after I’d finished my business in Montana. That took me more than twenty to do. Maybe even thirty. Nah, couldn’t have been that much.”

“We fought over San Francisco maybe ten years. After the Chinese kicked us out of the city and dug in, that’s when the general sent us east to see if there was anyone left in D.C. My squad didn’t make it two weeks. Then it was just me. Until I met you, and that was up in Wyoming.”

“I spent three years fighting in a refugee camp up near Billings. That’s where I lost my guns. After that it was all the way up to Canada as a slave. Couldn’t believe it. A slave. I knew that camp was doomed from the start. I should’ve topped off on supplies and food and kept moving. Cost me all told seven years. And what I was thinking going back to get my guns after, I couldn’t tell you to this day. I knew there was no ammo. I didn’t have any ammo. But having a gun . . . People don’t know, see? Don’t know if it’s loaded. I musta walked a thousand miles round-trip to find out someone had dug up my guns. Stupid. Don’t ever do anything stupid, Boy.”

Later, the Boy limped alongside Horse thinking of “Reno,” and “Slave Camp” and “Billings” and “Influenza” and “Plague” and especially “Gone,” which was written next to many of the places that had once been cities. All the words that were written on Sergeant Presley’s map. And the names too.

In the night, the Boy and Horse entered a long valley. The old highway descended and he watched by moonlight its silver line trace the bottom of the valley and then rise again toward the mountains in the west. Below, in the center of the valley, he could see the remains of a town.

Picked over. Everything’s been picked over. You know it. I know it. It is known, Boy. Still you’ll want to have your look. You always did.

For a long time the Boy sat atop the rise until Horse began to fidget. Horse was getting crankier. Older. The Boy thought of Sergeant Presley. He patted Horse, rubbing his thick neck, then urged him forward not thinking about the slight pressure he’d put in his right leg to send the message that they should move on.

Other books

Dream Dancer by Janet Morris
The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
Haven Creek by Rochelle Alers
Frankie by Kevin Lewis
Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher
Sea Monsters by Mary Pope Osborne
G-Men: The Series by Andrea Smith
Lips Unsealed by Belinda Carlisle
Vulcan's Forge by Brul, Jack Du