Bonner tensed as soon as he heard the street door of his building open. Four stories below him he heard the heavy steps of two men. One of them mumbled to the other as they started up the stairs. As they did so, he picked up the girl's worn old shotgun and held it before him.
A voice from the stairs: "Hey Bonner, man, chill out, it's us ..."
Bonner relaxed. The girl looked at him quizzically. "Who?"
"Seth and Starling."
She jumped out of bed and sprinted for another room. Bonner saw a quick glimpse of her long white legs, like a retreating deer. He swung out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants and a soft denim shirt. He was hauling on his boots when Seth and Starling arrived at the door.
"You're up early," said Bonner.
"We got plans, man." Seth was a black man about the size of Bonner, a couple of inches over six feet. He had the same powerful frame but was a little more developed. He had colossal biceps, and his chest, belly, and legs were tight with muscles. Other riders drove cars, Seth used a locomotive, a fiery contraption he ran himself, single-handed, doing the driving and the stoking of the hell-hot coal furnace. It was the kind of activity that made a man more than just strong; it filled him with an almost limitless reserve of force and will. He knew the rails the way Bonner knew the roads. Seth knew which lines were still passable, which switches still worked, which bridges still stood.
"Plans?" Bonner had heard that before. Plans always meant several thousand miles and several thousand rounds of ammunition, as well as a lot of blood, pain, and death. The riders always had plans. Bonner had even had a few himself over the years.
"And we think you might be interested," said Starling.
"Tell me about it."
"Okay," said Starling, "remember our last time out?"
"I'm not likely to forget it."
"Yeah." Starling's eyes glittered. "Remember how we picked up Cooker just inside the Slavestates, inside the Borderlands? Right after Trash Alley ..."
"Yes, I remember." Cooker was a cranky, ornery gas hound. He was one of a few of a hardy breed, the gas hounds, the tank men, a group of men who looked for gasoline the way the old prospectors searched for gold. They rode old, homemade tank trucks, filling them where they could, then bringing the stuff back to Chi and selling it at exorbitant prices. Cooker had been the most driven, the most single-minded of the gas hounds. Starling and Bonner had rescued him from a Stormer patrol the last time out.
"Do you remember what he was babbling about when we found him?"
"He said he had found a gas tank farm."
"Yeah," said Starling enthusiastically, "what was it he called it?"
"The promised land," said Bonner.
"That's right! The promised land."
"Well," said Seth softly, "we want to go keep the promise. We want to find the tank farm."
"Be my guest," said Bonner.
"Yeah, now look Bonner, we want you to come along."
Seth laughed. "Bonner, we already know that there are Stormers rampaging out there. No one brings down Stormers better than you."
"I think you guys can handle it."
Through the thin door the girl, listening to the men converse, relaxed and closed her eyes as if giving thanks. Bonner didn't sound like he was going. Good, she thought, keep him here, with her, safe. . . .
"It would be a big help if you came along," said Starling. "Come on, what else you got to do?"
Bonner gestured around the book-strewn room. "I'm trying to catch up on my reading. I've got plenty to do."
"I know you, Bonner," laughed Seth. "There's only so much quiet you can take."
"Chi is never quiet."
"You know what I mean."
"Bonner," said Starling, "think of it, we could really score big on this one. Cooker wasn't kidding. It's out there, the gas, all you have to do is find it. No one knows the roads better than you. Man you could be rich."
Bonner shrugged. Seth spoke: "That's the wrong tactic, Starling. You know the man don't really care about money."
"We need you," said Starling simply.
On the other side of the door, the girl screwed her fists together tightly. Leave him alone, she wanted to scream, leave him here with me. She was worried. Bonner could never resist a call on his friendship. He had few friends, but those he had he was loyal to. If someone killed a friend, then Bonner killed his killer. It was that simple.
"You know the roads, Bonner, better than anyone."
"No," said Bonner, "there's someone a little better."
Seth and Starling looked puzzled. "Who?"
"Leather." "Yeah, and he's probably out there right now looking for our gas."
Seth seized on this. Here was the tactic that would get Bonner to go along. "Yeah. You never know, Leatherman himself might be out there. In the open. You could take him, Bonner. This time you could get him."
The faintest sign of pain flitted across Bonner's hard features, as if Seth had found a bruise on his lean body and had pressed on it. "Leather won't leave the Cap."
"He'd leave Washington if he had to. If he knows the roads better than anyone, even you, it would seem plain to me that, he would be the one to lead the expedition."
"Look, Seth, you know what we did to him, I mean him personally, when we were in the Cap."
"I cut off his hands. ..." Bonner held his own out in front of him. "What is he going to do on the road without any hands?"
"He'll be protected," said Starling.
"Sure," said Bonner, "but Leather has to have a gun in his hands to feel like a man. He won't show himself outside the Cap."
"You know the man," conceded Seth, "but if things got that bad, if only he could lead the Stormers, then he would have to go. Man, the Slavestates run on gas. If he can't get any, he's a dead man."
Bonner looked at him. Seth and Starling could see Bonner's blue eyes provide his own silent extension of that statement. Leather was a dead man already. One day Bonner would get him, and kill him. The jury had returned its verdict, the judge had pronounced his sentence: Leatherman would die, Bonner would be his executioner.
Seth's voice was husky. "He's out there man, he's out there. ..."
"And you could take him," said Starling, leaning forward.
A thousand different thoughts raced through Bonner's mind, each a good, balanced thought: he wondered about the number of people Leather would have with him, he wondered if Leather would ever allow himself to leave his power base, he wondered if the three of them could ever find Leather in that vast shattered continent, he wondered about the odds. . . . But all of that was washed away in a single blood-red tide of hate. Leather must die. Bonner must kill him.
Bonner exhaled heavily. "Okay guys, you just bought yourself an old Outrider."
"Good," said Seth, smiling broadly.
"Awwwwwright," said Starling.
Behind the door the girl laid her head against the wooden frame and felt hot tears flow into her eyes.
One day he would leave and he wouldn't come back. She cursed Starling and she cursed Seth, and deep down inside her, somewhere in the center of her love for him, she cursed Bonner and his burning sense of duty and revenge.
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