A futuristic western novella I’ve been working on. An homage to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mackenna’s Gold, Tom Sawyer, and the Dylan song All Along the Watch Tower.
I’m Beamo Romer and I’m a scavenge man just like my Dad was a scavenge man before the new pit he was excavating caved in on him and he left me the business the winter of my twenty-seventh year. Five weeks after he got killed, I had a crew digging near a mound of factory rubble I discovered way out past the trace of the ancient Merican freeway in the prairie wild lands north across the I-wa River.
Old Tone and the rest of my seven-man digging crew got us down ten feet, just below the black, half-inch-thick layer of ash and burnt dirt that meant everything underneath would be from ancient Merica. Old Tone reached down with his wrinkled right hand then brought his fingers up to his tongue to taste the natural brown dirt that’s below the black line. He knew steel was close just by the taste. Sure enough, we dug some more and uncovered the greatest big-rig ever found. Gargantuan machine wrapped up in thick plastic tarp laying there ever since some factory manager buried it eleven hundred years earlier to protect it from the Nil brigands who were burning down everything what was left of civilization after the Slow Pox plague swept through the entire world.
Almost too big to dig out with our five piddly little at-vees, I’ll never forget the sight of it nine days later when we finally got the whole thing into clear cold March afternoon sunshine. The six tires alone stood over two stories tall; this big-rig was basically an enormous dump truck they used in ancient days for strip-mining the land for coal. Two sets of metal ladders lead up to the cab. Right inside on the brown leather seat before the controls was an even greater treasure. A little dusty but otherwise just like the dude left it there five minutes ago, a fragile device, an I-Phone Nine, the ancient Merican English read. Lucky for me I went to school all the way to eighth grade and was well taught to read our Ozark script, which is real close to ancient Merican script that I was now expert at reading.
After the auction my perfectly preserved glass cell phone and four-hundred-ton steel finds went to a Eurasian dude named Tem Tang, our local salvage rep from New Sing. He shipped it by wooden barge down the Missysip and then across the oil–slick Carib Sea and then over a jungle tow-road across the narrow isthmus of Panam and then out into the great nuuk-taminated Pacy-Fic Ocean to the island continent New Sing, now the most advanced nation in the world.
I never heard what they did with my finds but I now had more silver than I ever had before. Enough silver to buy passage through the gates, get inside that twenty-five-foot-tall wrought iron security wall that mocked us who grew up in the city down below the hill. If I wanted to, I could walk past the armed guards into a new mansion in Heights Bluff. That’s the ploosh section overlooking my hometown Payday City, now thirty-seven thousand population, the capitol of Crans County, the nation I was born into.
A few months later, on a hot-mug late August evening, I was coming back on my brand new custom 500 cc cycle from a scouting pedition over by the Ill-noise Swamp. Found nothing that day but poison sumac trees growing like a knarled tangle up against hundreds of miles of black stagnant water that was full of Merican toxins from those ancient factories.
First shot rang out when I slowed to go around a broken sycamore blocking the trail. I put my cycle down and flattened out on the ground. Three more close range shots made sawdust jump from the dead wood in front of my face. Small caliber but who wants to get shot up even with a small caliber so I belly crawled into an eroded rut. Crawled back out, smooth, perfect timing, slid my Ak from its scabbard on the right side of the cycle, fed a bullet into the chamber from the curved paw-clip and started shooting back aiming at where the muzzle flashes came from then ducked back down behind my termite rotted tree. The shooting ceased and I worked my way around the underbrush in the growing dark and came upon a wreck of a beat-up at-vee with an old woman lying on the prickly pair cactus covering some open sandy ground behind the hill she was shooting at me from. Her rifle was a little .22 semi-auto lying next to her and I saw I had hit her.
Never felt bad about shooting somebody shooting at me but I did then. I got to her and she was still awake. Her hair was salt-pepper grey and long and her handmade raggedy dress was soaked with blood. Close-up I could see she had a hand-carved fake nose and fake lips strapped with thin leather strips to the back of her head, which meant she had been a captive of the Mutant Angels.
Yous afta ma map, ant yous? she spit out, wiped the blood leaking out of the gash in her pale forehead to clear her eyes so she could get a look at me.
What damn map? Woman you shot at me, what worm crawled inside your brain? Then I recognized her. You shooting at me for your grandson Bonehead? Tee Sal put you up to this?
Yous workin wit hem! Hem ones trying to kill me to git the map. She died then, mouth open trying to say more, her old blue eyes surprised. Most common look on a newly dead’s face is surprise.
I pulled out my flashlight, set it to red filter to remain low profile, and felt around for what she was talking about inside her bag. The loose fabric lining next to the old cracked leather had something. I carefully cut it out with my small knife. It was an ancient folded map of Merica, all the old freeways and highways and small towns and giant cities were there in faded color print. What they used to sell in the “gas stations” eleven hundred years ago. I unfolded it very carefully, the faded paper so old it was coming apart in my fingers. I studied the map and the script written on it and knew what it was supposed to be: Area 51, spooky Merican spirits, otherworldly lights flying around day and night protecting the lost Fort Knox gold. Legend said after the Nils started firestorms in all the cities and the poison black soot rained down, the despairing Merican Government flew all its gold bars on their giant flying machines two thousand miles west into an ultra-secret desert canyon base their Air Force kept hidden so they could do periments on crashed ailian spaceships. Obsess-type stories for the brainsick, I never thought of pursuing those old tales myself.
Bright white flashlights hit me then. If I had shot they would have blown my shi smooth clean away. They flicked off their flashlights. Hands up, as my eyes cleared I watched Tee and Bonehead come out of the woods. I had to give it to them; they had come a long way if they could ninj me after I was hyped up just after a shooting fight. This was not my first dance but it is true I hadn’t been in a shooting fight since the last big Mutant Angel raid a couple years ago.
Tee was taller than me by an inch, six-two, and younger than me by a year. He was holding his Ak by the pistol grip with one hand, pointing at me just like Bonehead was as they marched up to my position. Tee was an outlaw genius now. Him and me had been best friends in school but I voted to stay in town. Lean and almost swarthy, his dark brown moustache and long wavy hair made him the most popular black flagger in the Midwest. He was grinning now but not as big a grin that split Bonehead’s face. Low IQ Bonehead still had his red-blond bangs that he used to cover the boney ridge that ran above his eyes. He was younger than Tee and me and had been a major small-animal-torturing psycho even before his teens.
Their smiles instantly turned upside down into frowns when they saw me scarf the eleven-hundred-year-old brittle gas station map.
They worked me over, but not as bad as I figured they would. Had worse from my Dad and worse than that from other situations. They put me hogtied on the back of an at-vee and took me to their hideout on a peninsula deep in the Ill-noise Swamp. Surprised Tee would be hiding out this close to Payday City.
That morning they started a big bonfire and tied me up upside down, hung me from a huge burr oak tree branch, the right side of my head too close to the fire they kept adding branches to. They knew I valued my wits and this particular torture would scramble my brain like eggs.
Yous killed muh Gram, you dirty Romer phuk! Bonehead had been screaming that at me all night.
You were chasing her and she shot at me thinking I was working for you. You killed her. My reasonable reasoning just made him meaner and stupider, which is what I wanted since I was looking for him to make a mistake. But Tee stood there overseeing and smoking his high-end cigar. He knew I knew he was too good a chess player.
Come on, Brokus, Tee said to me almost like we were best friends again. Brokus is old slang meaning street brother. I know you’re a stubborn badger but so are my friends here. We’ll smoke you out sooner or later. Why not just donate a contract to us?
You want me to escort you out to the fairyland filled with tons of gold far away in the Shining Mountains in the Land of the Setting Sun without fee. Not this Brokus, it ain’t happening, Tee. I don’t slave for nobody. Tee stepped up close and put out his cigar in my chest. I didn’t flinch, eyeballed him good even though I was upside down. Burned like a hot poker though. Put a hole right through my new blue heavy-duty work shirt.
Bonehead was now smoking his breakfast reewana joint and an even worse twenty-year-old psycho nicknamed Chuckles standing next to him waiting for a puff started laughing at me. He was always laughing at something or somebody if they were getting hurt.
Shut up you cripple-duck phuker. That got him. The rumor was when he got kicked out of his parents’ house at thirteen he had been out hunting and his dad caught him bunny-humpin a broken-winged female mallard.
Bullshi lie! Bullshi! The lanky, zit-faced kid picked up a burning hunk of wood and came at me but Tee tripped him and then he ran off into the woods to sulk or look for wounded waterfowl; I wouldn’t care to speculate which.
You take us there and then we let you go with a fair cut. Tee was getting close to his final offer. Blood rushing to my head and the bonfire heat starting to scramble my precious grey matter. Close to pass out-time and then permanent brain damage.
What about those malevolent old Merican spirits? They say they send their goblins to do stuff to you you can’t imagine, Tee. The Merican dead are vengeful possessive of their precious metals. I had heard that from another scavenge man a long time ago. Legend said the old Mericans in life didn’t care for their fellow citizens–even a lot of times their own families–only loved their gadgets and money, and death just magnifies what you were in life.
You rob from the dead all the time. You’re still here. Tee turned around like he was going to walk away. True, I had seen a lot of ghosts. Just about everyone who left town at night saw a ghost sooner or later. They never came after me but just looking at one made you feel like you were going to fall down a hole that had no bottom.
I ask permission from the Source before I dig. I decided I had to make my offer: Cut me loose and give me back my cycle and my guns and all my other stuff.
No guns. Tee didn’t turn around.
Let me have my Bowie knife then.
Phuk you, Tee. Go west where you don’t know anyone or the lay of the land so you can die a miserable long death. You always were brainsick. Just then I felt hands at my back turn me to face the bonfire. Thought I was gonna get pushed into the flames face-first but instead felt a knife cutting my hands free. Then the rope wrapped around my knees was sawed through and I fell. I rolled over cussing, away from the fire, and looked up.
Lytle, Tee’s kid-half-sister, now all grown up. Her nickname was Little Bit. She had been a skinny, precocious girl, followed Tee and me around everywhere. She hadn’t been interested in what kids her age were doing and dropped out of school early but she liked to read and I used to give her Merican books for kids that we found from time to time in our digs. She knew my secret, which was I was addicted to reading books and I collected hundreds over the years. She called books “Beamo’s Gold” to tease me. Funny thing was she never told anyone else and I appreciated no one else knowing.
Enough bullshi, both of you!
She looked down at me with a pose that didn’t give me anything. Nineteen now, looking lithe as lightning with pistols holstered on each perfect hip and her lengthy pig-sticker knife in her left hand reflecting the fire just like her sage green eyes. Kinda mesmerizing. Her long, thick hair a magical combination, threads of saffron and copper weaved into the brunette. Whatever crush she had on me when she was eleven was gone now. I had been a scout for the Crans County Militia that had hunted her big brother Tee and his Piasaw Gang after he kidnapped Soosey Journ, the ploosh platinum blonde who happened to be the daughter of the richest family in Payday City. Fank Journ her Dad was the owner of the Payday City Trib newspaper, among many other prizes. Little Bit sat a bottle of good whisky, not cheap local moonshine, in front of me and walked away, disappeared behind a standing foundation of bricks. I got to my feet with the bottle as fast as I could.
Around midday I was made to kneel at the grave of Philindra Lick, Bonehead’s grama whose demise I had caused the previous evening. Bonehead gave a rousing funeral oration to all the Piasaw Gang and their doll-molls, twenty-one scruffy characters sweating in the high-noon swamp mugginess: In her yute muh gram Philindra run a band of outlaws long before even Tee’s dad, Mand Sal. Afta hem de-man Mutan Angels swooped down an capture her thiry years ago she managed to poison the liquor of the ten skull-faces that was gang rap-pin her. She always kep her potent death-shrooms hid in a sheepskin baggie in her privates for these kina casions. Hem Mutan Angels’ home base was a thousand mile west. She cut off all hem privates of hem dead and dying skull-face skum, used hem for snacking on after she stole the boss’s giant cusstum cycle. Somehow she rode hard with her mutil-it-id face through the Great Plains wind all that way back the first month of winter. Bonehead looked around and then said, I jus wush she hadn’t held out on givin us that map she fund in boss skull-face’s cycle. Bonehead walked over and booted me in the gizzard and then I was free from further punishment over this particular incident. It wasn’t a very hard kick and the whiskey afterglow helped me shrug it off.
A little later Tee and Bonehead got me into a private meeting inside Tee’s spacious tent. A well-drawn map was on a blackboard and Tee’s father’s revolutionary artwork decorated the inside walls. Explained my plan of running through the Blills’ gauntlet using the Snake Road that ran past the Giant Four Faces. The thought picture scared the ruddy out of Bonehead and Tee didn’t like it but I convinced them it was the only way to prevent a hundred to thousand Mutant Angels on fast cycles running us down. I told them we would need to get four sets of spare tires for each cycle just to make it to the Vada Desert. The tires citizens were all riding on the last three hundred years since Ozark county-nations traded in horses for cycles and at-vees were made out of artificial rubber that wore out fast on rough terrain.
No, we can get real rubber tires, Tee told me then. I didn’t believe him at first. No real rubber had made it to our continent in over eleven hundred years; very few even knew it existed. We can get real rubber smuggled in from New Sing at Mo’s Island in Mich Lake. Tee meant it so I believed him.
Figures the outlaw island would get it first, I said. Then I brought up the touchy subject. I won’t ride with her; she’s out-of-control psycho. Tee knew I meant his snatched doll-moll Soosey. A month ago Soosey had gone extreme-brainsick with her Ak. Mowed down a bunch of unarmed citizens at the Kank County Bank on the Bash River three hundred miles east. Tee and Bonehead couldn’t stop her. Murdered ten or twelve dirt farmers waiting to deposit or take out their hard-earned silver coin at the only bank for a hundred miles. I looked at Bonehead and even he caste his blue eyes down in shame.
I don’t wanna ride with her ather, Bonehead said. This dent in time had given the whole Piasaw Gang a bad name. Gave all of our Crans County people a bad name, for that matter. Otha thin is she kent ride fast enough, Bonehead put in. Slow us doewn so hem skull-faces ketchus and then thas it.
I took her guns away! Tee raised his voice almost loud enough to travel out of his tent. He ran his left hand through his sable hair and shook his head. That was the cleanest, sweetest juicy I ever had or ever will have! His olive eyes misted up.
What did you think was gonna happen when you snatch a seventeen-year-old pampered ploosh from Heights Bluff? She’s snapped. At least if you get rid of her now you have a better chance of surviving this pedition and she will too. You’ll both be alive to remember the good stuff. Maybe.
He ordered Bonehead to fix her cycle but it had to happen before we got to the Giant Four Faces on the Snake Road. No one else can know. Bonehead nodded and he slipped out of the tent eager to do the dirty deed to get his mind off his fear.
Tee stared at one of his revolutionary father’s heroic triptych drawings posted above his cot. First was of the working citizens rising up to claim freedom from forced labor to support county businesses; second one freedom from taxes used to pay for ploosh people’s protection from Mutant Angels and other snatch gangs but not the working citizens, third one freedom to criticize the Big Men behind the walls.
One more thing, he said standing tall now, his steel composure coming back. Stay away from my sister.
I paused just long enough and then said, That’s low-IQ, Tee. Getting with her would mean I’d have to join up with you and your merry band of black-flagging knuckleheads. That ain’t ever gonna happen. She’s loyal to you and you don’t deserve it.
Get out, Beamo, he ordered so I did.
We woke up with the sun. Birds singing raucous in the swamp trees and the white clouds high in the dry sky again. Little Bit brought me breakfast of roasted cattails, scrambled pheasant eggs, bacon, and hot chicory in a wooden mug. For a special treat she included a bowl of paw-paw mush that she knew I craved because those trees only ripened a few weeks in the late summer. We sat down together on a log and she noticed I was looking away from her just like every other man looked away from her because of who her brother was.
You got you a boo yet? I asked.
No boo, Beamo. She didn’t explain, knew I knew why. How bout you, you still tapping Dessie Vall’s juicy? She smiled a sneaky smile when she talked dirty.
No, me and Dessie are history. Let her go two months ago. Burgundy-haired Dessie had been my ambitious bookkeeper. I went on, Des always wanted me to check in and out. Played me by the numbers like she was keeping books on me like she did the business. I couldn’t live like that. I guess I’m too complicated a free spirit to keep a woman.
Little Bit snickered and then said, You could have tamped that down if you had concentrated on it.
I guess I judged the investment wasn’t worth the payoff, as she would put it. As Little Bit was snickering again Chuckles walked by. He stopped, walked backwards, stooped to glare at us with his ugly zit-face. Excuse me, Lytle, I said. I have to go get in more trouble now. I stood up and hollered, Quaaack! Means no!
Chuckles lunged his entire skinny weight at me, his Bowie coming out of its sheath in his right hand. I met him with a roundhouse to the right ear that dropped him like a heavy sack of shi.
Let it be known! I shouted out so all the outlaws could hear, I’m under contract with the Piasaw Gang now and that means I don’t have to take nothin!
Just stood there eyeballing all them outlaw dudes. Respect earned as Chuckles dragged himself up and stumbled away, his greasy dishwater hair covering his acne infested face. I turned around, Little Bit was gone and there was Soosey Journ. Her platinum hair in a riding ponytail, she scowled, two doll-moll toadies flanking her scowled too. Eighteen now, her indigo eyes gave me the same feeling as the blue-eyed, white tiger’s twitchin tail did right before she charged me. That happened when I rode off west on my own after my mom died my twenty-second year. The close-call took place in the vast, well-preserved ruins of a desert Merican city they had called “Phoenix.”
You are the garbage-digging man that saw the map, she said. I told them to cut off your feet so you won’t run away.
Her eyes had bags under them. Heard from one of the outlaws that she didn’t sleep much. She was still a beauty with her long legs but her face had too much of fat-cat Fank for my taste. Luckily, like Tee said she wasn’t allowed to carry guns anymore but her psycho bloodshot eyes were serious; it was not a joke. I had felt sorry for her after she was snatched and got a warrant to scout for the militia to try to rescue her from my former best friend. Started to wonder if the outlaws needed rescuing from her.
I smiled a knowing smile that she read but couldn’t figure out where the danger to her would be coming from. I just kept smiling and gave a fake bow, moved back to let them pass.
I don’t trust him, she said to her two doll-moll toadies. She started to walk away with chin up high then turned back and pointed at me. I will be watching you and you better stay away from Tee’s sister.
The call to ride went out. Felt good to be back on my new custom cycle, my right hand gripping the boar tusk throttle. Little Bit was on the other side of the mob of bikes and bandits, sunglasses on and her hair up wrapped in a blue bandana.
Tee ordered everyone to wear their Piasaw Gang patches out on their leather vests. The patch was Tee’s design, a giant eagle with a panther’s snarling face swooping up with the left talons full of silver bars and the right talons holding a naked ploosh girl.
Somebody yelled, How kin we ride straight to Mich Lake in broad daylight with our patches on? Thar three different county militias trolling tween us and the big lake in daytime!
I bought us passage through, Tee said. He looked sly at me, wanted me to know I wasn’t informed of everything in order to keep me off balance. He signaled for me to ride up next to him. Still probably thought I would try to slip away, which in fact I had been considering.
Hey! Soosey shouted as I rolled up beside the bandit leader. I should be up front riding next to Tee!
He’s not riding alone; he’s got me now! I shouted back and everyone except Tee and Soosey started guffawing.
Stay back there. It’s safer in back. Tee looked over at the two men filling up the go-juice –wood alcohol– jercans. The still was already packed away. When they finished he raised his right arm and shouted, We ride!
Nineteen cycle engines roared together and we rolled down the narrow trail single file. Bonehead was point, me next, then Tee. Started getting the hint of how strong you felt riding with a gang.
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