The night air coursed cool over Bonner's hot skin as if it was water from a refreshing clean mountain stream. His eyes flickered open and he looked into the worried faces of Starling, Clara and Cooker.
"Phew," said Starling, "I was afraid the Mean man had hit you too hard."
Bonner struggled to his feet, rubbing his throbbing head. He had taken a lot of punishment in the last twenty-four hours and his body felt bruised from head to toe. "Who didn't make it?"
"Five of the Sisters," said Starling, "and Harvey." Clara's big face ran with fat tears. "Sorry, Sister Clara," said Bonner softly. "Not your fault. Brother Bonner. The Sisters knew what they were getting into ..."
"We have the same enemies now," said Bonner. Clara raised a clenched fist. "Damn right, Bonner. I'm going to hit Leather again and I'm going to keep hitting him."
"I'll help you," said Bonner.
"Me too," said Starling.
"Hey, fuck that," said Cooker, "we gotta get out of here."
Bonner looked around the clearing. "Do we have any idea where they are?"
"I got the Mean Brothers posted so they can't sneak up on us. But it's a cinch that the Stormers and leps are sure to have cut off the city to the north and the south. We can head east but we'll just run into the sea . . . We might be able to swing north but the roads are going to be jammed with Leather's men. We could try it on foot, but we need the speed. Leather's probably screaming for blood because we hurt him bad . . . He's not going to let us get away easily."
"West," said Bonner.
"West!" said Starling.
"Bonner, due west of here is the firelands."
"Yeah, I know."
"Bonner," said Clara, "you know there's no way through the firelands . . ."
"There's no easy way," said Bonner, "but there's a way."
Starling leaned forward, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You done it? You done this path through the firelands?"
"Yep. Me and Seth."
"Jeez, Bonner," said Clara, "the firelands? I dunno ..."
Bonner squared his shoulders trying to throw off a yoke of pain and fatigue that seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders.
"You got a better plan?"
Leather writhed in pain, bucking off the bed as a few of his harem girls tried to attend to his terrible wounds. He was spread out on a huge bed in the big house, the bandages on his arms growing more sodden with blood as the moments passed. Colley, the general in chief of the Stormers, stood over the bed, big blobs of sweat sliding off his grimy red face. Jojo stood by, a worried look in his eyes.
"Five!" screamed Leather, "we got five! We got five of those fucks? Five!"
The gas dome exploded again like summer thunder. "How many did we lose?"
"Leather, come on, they caught us with our pants flappin'. They surprised us ..."
Leather rocked from side to side. "Goddammit, I hurt like fucking crazy." He chewed on his lips. "It hurts so bad."
Colley considered taking out his revolver and blowing Leather's brains out. Shoot him and take over . . . But he had a feeling that the two Radleps that stood guard in Leather's bedroom wouldn't let him get out of there alive.
"How many, Colley?" screamed Leather. "Ninety or so," he mumbled. "Ninety! Ninety! Ninety! Ninety! And we got five? Goddammit, Colley ..." Leather pointed his bandaged stump at his general. Leather saw his mutilated arm and screamed again. "Goddammit that fuck cut off both my hands." Leather wept tears of hate, pain, frustration. "Colley, you get him. You get him by morning or you are grease. You are dead meat, do you hear me?"
"Leather . . ."
"Don't fucking argue with me, man. I don't want no excuses. Goddam, it hurts so much ..."
"Leather . . ."
"Shut up and listen. We got Beck, right?"
"You and Jojo go to Beck. You tell him that he's got whatever he wants if he gets me Bonner. Freedom, slates, gas, anything . . ."
Another explosion roared across the Cap. Colley's eyes flickered toward the broken windows. He wasn't sure how much gas the Slavestates had left.
"Leather, Beck is a fucking maniac. If you give him a weapon there's no telling who he's going to turn it on."
"Goddammit, Colley, I am going to blow your fucking brains out . . ." Leather reached for the Smith and Wesson he always kept on the night table and realized he couldn't pick it up. He bellowed in frustration.
"You want me to do it," rasped a Radlep.
Leather's chest heaved and he screamed at Colley. "You get me Beck and you make sure he gets Bonner. No arguments. Do it."
"Leather," said Jojo, "Beck and Bonner were pretty tight once."
"Yeah, I know. So was me and Bonner. Beck will go to the highest bidder. Colley, you go with him. If Beck makes one false move, grease him. And you" Leather gestured toward the Radleps "you go with Colley. If he lets Bonner get away, you bring me Colley's head."
The Radleps grinned. "Okay." Shooting a Stormer general would be a pleasant diversion.
"Now get moving."
"Okay," sighed Colley, "it's your country, man."
They didn't come any bigger than Beck. He was a huge granite boulder of a man, standing a good foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than the Mean Brothers. Six stormers, M-16s at the ready, stood constant guard on him, day and night. The giant was bound with a double length of chain that ran across his wide chest. A long black beard cascaded down off his chin. Beck smiled constantly as if he was pleased by the neverending fear he inspired.
Leather was fascinated by him. He would often go to the prison house that was the old Interstate Commerce Commission building and stare at Beck, watching with close attention as the huge man roared at the Stormers guarding him and strained at his heavy chains. Apart from his unbelievable strength. Beck's greatest skill was in tracking. He could track anything or anybody, anywhere. It was almost as if buried in his brain was a sensor, a tight bundle of nerves that seemed to lock onto the intentions of another man and follow them as closely as radar.
Colley and Jojo stood back from the man giant and looked nervously at their captive.
"So, Colley," roared Beck, "seems to me you had a hot little party tonight. I hope you and Leather got your mangy little asses sliced to shit."
"It was hot," said Colley.
"We had some unexpected visitors," said Jojo as the gas dome vomited up another explosion.
"Bonner, the Sisters, Starling and some crazy little fuck with a flame thrower."
"Bonner! Haw haw haw," Beck showed a couple of rows of teeth the size of tombstones. "Fucking Bonner! Starling! The Sisters! They took you on? Haw haw haw." The room seemed to rock with the giant's laughter. "Did you take them down?"
"Some of them?"
"Some! Haw haw haw . . ." Beck's barrel chest strained against the chains he was laughing so hard.
"Look, Beck," said Jojo, "Leather has a deal for you."
Beck listened in silence, thought it over for a moment, then laid down his conditions. "I want 100,000 slates, gold. I want it now. And I want a machinegun, a good one. And I want fifty men. And when I get back I want five, no ten, of the best-looking women you got in this town."
Jojo shook his head. "You got it all but the money. How do we know you'll come back?"
"How do I know you won't grease me when I get back?"
"Hey," said Colley, "we could have done that a long time ago."
"But you knew you'd need me some day."
"And we'll need you again," said Jojo diplomatically.
"Good, then give me twenty thousand slates now."
Jojo wavered and Colley spoke for him. "Fine. Twenty thousand now, eighty when you get back with Bonner and the rest of them."
"Awwww, I'm just an old softy," said Beck.
"So what's your first move?" demanded Jojo.
"Jeez, I'da thought a smart man like you woulda been able to figure that one out, Jojo."
"Which way is Bonner headed?"
"I'd say south," said Colley, "there's plenty of country he can get lost in down there."
"You dumb fuck," said Beck. "This is Bonner we're talking about. Not some pissant Stormer or raggy Radlep. Think, you dick."
"Uh . . ."
"West, man, the firelands ..." said Beck impatiently.
"Come on," said Jojo.
"It's Bonner. The man ain't scared of nothing. The firelands don't bother Bonner."
"He ain't so tough," said Jojo.
"He sliced your ass to ribbons, didn't he?"
"You mean you're taking fifty men into the firelands?" asked Colley.
"Yeah." Beck smiled. "Hey Jojo, you wanna come?" He spoke pleasantly, as if he had suggested a day at the beach.
They followed the highway out of Washington, passing through the overgrown suburbs that had once housed a few hundred thousand government workers, back in the time when there was a government. Beck was not yet on the job when they made their move so the Stormers never figured that guarding the roads into the firelands was necessary. Bonner and his gang headed west unopposed for the first few miles.
So far so good, thought Bonner. But he knew that there weren't too many miles between them and the smoky hell of the firelands. He sniffed at the cool air of the early morning and looked admiringly at the rosy-fingered dawn rising behind them. Make the most of it, he told himself, because it isn't going to last.
They tore down the open road ever widening the distance between themselves and the Stormers that were sure to be looking for them. They crested a ridge and Bonner muscled his car to a halt. Below them, perhaps a mile or two away lay the first smoky ridges of the firelands. As they looked down the odd bit of gaseous blue flame bubbled up out of the ground like a little volcano.
"Not the prettiest country," said Starling laconically.
"Where to?" asked Clara.
"We follow the road into the fire a ways then we cut down onto a dry river bed. That acts as a natural fire break. That should take us far enough in . . ."
"Far enough in for what?"
"To get rid of them," said Bonner looking over his shoulder. Far behind them on the road were a pack of riders. From that far-off distance they looked like a cloud of furious gnats.
"They picked us up damn fast," said Starling.
"That's because they have someone good leading them," said Bonner coolly. "Cooker, you are going to have to leave your tank here."
Cooker looked astonished. "The hell I will. I got maybe three fifty gats left in this baby."
Bonner sighed in exasperation. "Cooker, you can't tank a load of gas that big into the firelands. The first time you hit hot ground you're going to go up like a match. We're taking a big enough risk as it is driving in."
"Well, I ain't leaving it."
"Goddammit", Cooker," yelled Clara, "you'll kill us all." Starling was watching the riders in hot pursuit. "There's a whole lot of 'em, Bonner, and this time we don't have surprise on our side."
"Cooker," ordered Bonner, "get off the tank."
"No fucking way."
"Means," said Bonner gesturing toward Cooker. The Mean Brothers grabbed the little gas-hound and carried him wriggling and swearing to Bonnets car.
Bonner climbed up onto Cooker's tank and wrestled with the heavy steering, gunning the engine until the ungainly, elephantine vehicle was athwart the road.
"Starling," he called, "you got any arrows left?" "Not a one."
"Too bad. You take Clara and Cooker and the Means down the road a ways. I'll catch up." "What are you going to do?" "I'm going to shorten the odds a little. Make things a little more fair."
Cooker wailed. "You're going to blow my tank, aren't you? Aren't you? Bonner, you fuck!" Cooker started to get out of the driver's seat of Bonner's car but the beefy hand of one of the Mean Brothers restrained him.
"You staying with me, Cooker, or are you going with Starling?" asked Bonner.
"I'm not going to stand here and watch you destroy my property."
"Good, you go. Mean Brothers, you too." The Mean Brothers shook their heads. They wanted to stay behind. "Fine with me," said Bonner. "Bonner," said Starling, "we'll all stay." "What for? Now go."
Starling and Cooker, riding in the pillion, roared off followed by Clara on her big bike. Bonner sprinted to his own vehicle and started the engine. The Mean Brothers squatted on either side of the roll bar and watched as he stripped off the canvas cover and slapped a belt of ammunition into the breech. The air slowly filled with the thrumming of cycles. The Storm-ers were getting closer.
They slowed when they approached Cooker's tank, the fifty big engines dropping down to idle. They couldn't see Bonner, the big truck stood between him and his pursuers. He wondered for a second if he hadn't parked a little too close to the tanker. Well, he thought, too late now . . .
"Don't go near it," ordered Beck, "it could be booby trapped."
Beck, thought Bonner, and half hoped that the big man would live through the inferno that was about to erupt. Bonner cocked the big .50 calibre and let fly. The first big bullets slapped into the rusty tanker tearing great holes in its side. The gasoline within seemed to hesitate a second, then it went up, a great sheet of flame that seemed brighter than the morning sun. Bonner was behind the wheel of his car in second, jamming his foot down on the gas and eating up the road. The big twin exhaust pipes snorted behind him. The Means were hanging on for dear life.
Bonner rushed past Clara and Starling where they had pulled over and they fell in behind him. At an incredible rate of speed they broke through the first clouds of smoke that marked the opening of the firelands. The smoke poured into their lungs and clogged their eyes and Bonner prayed that they could keep up enough speed to avoid suffocation. He didn't know the firelands well, but he knew them well enough to know that the fire burned in waves, in parallel lines, along the old coal seems. If you could get through one you would have a little respite, a little almost fresh air before you got to the next.
Behind them the ruin of Cooker's tank burned furiously, but every one of them knew that it wouldn't hold them up for long. It was just the opening shot, the first blood of the second, and Bonner hoped, last roundthis time, at least.
Beck laughed to himself as the tank went up. Just like Bonner to slap you around when you least expected it. Bonner was acting like it was he who had the fifty rifles, he that had the entire power of the Slavestates behind him. Beck floored the gas pedal of the jeep he had been assigned and shot through the flames. Draped around his neck were leather saddlebags that held the twenty thousand slates he had been issued not an hour before. He laughed his big brawny laugh again and felt the engine of the jeep surge under him. This, he thought, was the life.
Bonner directed his crew off the road and they tumbled down the steep bank that separated the road from the dry river bed. Once on it they found that the air was a little easier to breathe although on both sides of the dead stream flame rocketed out of the ground. The bed was uneven and strewn with steaming boulders so they had to slow down to a crawl. That worried Bonner, although the path behind them seemed to be lost in a haze of grayish smoke. But he knew he couldn't fool Beck. He would be right behind them on the river bed.
Beck pushed his jeep over the edge of the road at a reckless speed and expected the Stormers following him to do just the same. Colley followed, his heart in his mouth as did the two Radleps. They thought nothing of it at all, he noticed, but there again Radleps didn't give a shit about living or dying one way or the other. A couple of Stormers were thrown from their bikes as if their road horses had tripped and they fell onto the flaming fissures, first their clothes and then their skin igniting on the liquid rock.
The Stormer force bounced down on to the river bed, the engines of their bikes screaming in protest.
The heat was unbearable and Bonner could feel rivers of sweat pour from him. His clothes were soaked, then dried by the lick of flames, then soaked again. He prayed silently that he would recognize the point that Seth and he had discovered that would lead them on a clear path out of the thick of the firelands and home. Behind him came the ominous roar of the Stormers. Through the thick haze came the first zing of bullets. Bonner knew they were firing blind but the Stormers knew that their prey was somewhere ahead of them and even a wild bullet could hit its mark.
Keeping one hand on the top of the wheel Beck vaulted his huge body up in the seat of his bucketing vehicle. With one hand he steadied his big rifle on the windshield and fired into the clouds ahead of him.
Bonner heard the thunderous report of the gun, even over the growl of his engine. They were getting close. He gestured at the Mean Brother sitting next to him. "Can you take the wheel?" he yelled.
The Mean Brother touched his chest. "Me?" he was asking.
Bonner nodded vigorously. A look of sublime pride spread over the Mean Brother's gargantuan features and he nodded. Bonner held the wheel, keeping the speeding vehicle more or less on course while the Mean Brother lumbered into his place. The giant grasped the thick steering wheel in both hands and hunched forward as if cutting a path through the mist with his eyes.
Bonner grabbed for the roll bar to hold on and took up the .50 calibre. If the Stormers were going to fire blind, then he would too. The big gun started chugging bullets into the smoke. Bonner hoped they hit something. The first spray did not, but the second did. Two Stormers slid from their cycles as if hit by a low branch.
"That's my Bonner," screamed Beck into the smoke. Another short line of tracers slid through the smoke and tore up the hot sand before Beck's tires. "Haw haw," laughed Beck and yanked the trigger on his powerful weapon. The shot knocked Cooker from the back of Starling's bike.
The little gas-hound danced on the hot sand feeling the searing pain of a bullet in his flesh. Starling, unaware of Cooker's sudden departure, rode on. Suddenly it seemed to Cooker as if things were very quiet. Bonner, Starling and Clara roared off into the mist, and Beck and his force was not yet upon him. Cooker lay sprawled on the hot river bed, caught in a miasma of smoke and pain.
Tears rolled down his cheeks. "No promised land," he said slowly, sadly.
He struggled to his feet, tottering slightly under the weight of the pain and sorrow he felt. This was the end. Cooker was no fool, he had tried to make it happen and had come damn close . . . Too bad. He pumped up his tanks for the last time.
"Well," he shouted, "I ain't going alone." The first Stormer broke through the mist and Cooker fried him. The bike and rider went up in a blinding sheet of flame as if they were a single unit. Cooker hit another, before he staggered and fell. He felt his blood pumping from him into the thirsty sands. The heat hit the tanks and he heard an ominous bubbling right behind his ears.
"Uh-oh," he said and the gas on his back blew. He was dead in a split second and a charred pile of ash a second beyond that. He last thought flashed through his brain: "So this is what it's like. . . ."
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