Apollo Stone Trilogy, Book 2, Chapter 1.

I’m making solid progress on draft 4 (or is it 5?) of book 2 of the Apollo Stone trilogy. I wanted to give a taste of what life was life shortly after the asteroids impacted Earth so I came up with this opening. It’s still a bit rough, but let me know your thoughts.

JUNE, 2032. Minnesota-Ontario Border Region

“Faster, damn you!” cursed the old man as he pulled on the pack mule’s reins, wet strands of long, gray hair falling before his eyes. Though in his early sixties, the man was strong and energetic. He had broad shoulders and a barrel chest, and the hands inside his heavy gloves were large and rough. On his face hung a tangled, patchy beard of mottled gray and brown whiskers. As the man pulled the reluctant mule forward, he shot furtive looks to the right and left, searching the surrounding spruce, fir, and pine trees for signs of danger. Heavy flakes of snow fell all around, swirling in the light breeze and adding their weight to the heaps that had already fallen during that long, harsh winter.

He cursed the mule for having forced him to abandon his intended destination, a well-hidden hut of logs, earth, and pine branches built into the southern side of a hill. But if he could get to the nearby lake, he knew of a network of caves below a rocky promontory where he could hide. Of course, he might have to contend with a black bear or a few Timber Wolves also seeking shelter therein, but one problem at a time.

Looking ahead, the man saw the familiar collection of boulders, now covered in a thick blanket of snow yet still discernible to his searching gaze. Heartened by the sight of his goal, he laughed lightly to himself and muttered a few lines of a favorite old song he hadn’t heard played in nearly a year. Then the mule stopped and pulled hard on the reins, nearly pulling them out of the old man’s hands. The man stopped his humming with a grunt and turned around to face the creature, which was laden not only with his bedroll, rifle, and gear, but also the body of a small buck the man had shot, gutted and cleaned a few hours earlier.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” he growled as he gathered the reins in his hands. “You wanna stay out here and freeze to death? Or maybe you’re just trying to get me killed. Those boys won’t be any kinder to you than I am, I promise you that.” He pulled the reins once again but the animal pulled back and brayed loudly in protest.

“Shut your damn fool mouth!” hissed the man.

He took hold of the harness’ bit and gave a hard tug, but the animal refused to move its quivering legs. The last four hours of trudging through the snow, sometimes as deep as the mule’s chest, had so exhausted the beast that it could not take another step. With a sigh and a curse, the man pushed his way through the snow and stood at the mule’s side. He placed a hand on the buck’s neck and slowly stroked its fur. Then he took off his gloves and untied the rope that held the dead animal on the mule’s back.

“You’re really gonna make me carry this buck? You couldn’t make it a little farther? We’re at the lake now. We just need to get down the slope and into those caves.”

“What’s your hurry, old man?” said a loud voice.

Upon hearing those words, the old man slipped his right hand inside his coat and grabbed the hilt of the revolver tucked under his belt. Then he turned his head and looked down the trail he and the mule and cut through the snow. Three men stood shoulder to shoulder facing him. The two on the sides each held rifles but the one in the middle appeared to be unarmed. The old man started to draw his weapon.

“Whoah, pops!” said the man in the middle, raising his right hand pointing a warning finger. “Not so fast.” He was shorter than the other two by a head. Black hair stuck out from under his gray stocking cap and reached as far as his shoulders.

The old man froze as the two men raised their rifles and pointed them at him.

“We nearly lost you about three miles back, but Vick here saw how you sneaked along the lee side of the ridge. ‘Course once we found your snow trail, it was just a matter of time.”

The one named Vick, a slender man with blond hair and sunken eyes flashed a half smile. “Thought you could outfox us, eh old man?” he said as he nervously adjusted his grip on his rifle.

“State your purpose,” replied the old man in a loud voice as he freed his pistol from his belt, though he kept it hidden under his heavy brown coat.

“Our purpose?” asked the man in the middle with a laugh. “I think it’s pretty obvious. We want that buck and the mule. I was thinking of letting you keep your rifle and gear, but because you were so uncooperative and made us walk all this way, we’ll be taking those too.”

“How about I hand over the buck and we go our separate ways?” said the old man. “These woods are big enough that we’ll never see each other again.”

“Not good enough,” said the man as he and his two companions, rifles held at their hips, walked forward. “Now take your hand out from under your coat and step away from the mule.”

The old man scoffed. “Not likely. It seems to me the only thing keeping your friends from shooting me right now is my proximity to this animal.” Then he drew his pistol, a black .38 revolver, and pointed it at the three men. They halted their advance but did not lower their weapons.

“Now listen to me, and listen good,” continued the old man as he pulled back the hammer of his pistol. “I will shoot any man who takes another step. Now turn around and head back the way you came.”

For a moment, there was perfect silence. The only movement in the forest was that of the gently falling snow. Then one of the rifle barrels erupted in smoke and flame. The old man immediately returned fire, hitting one of the riflemen in the leg. Then he turned and ran, hoping to find cover among the large rocks overlooking the lake. A rifle bullet whistled past his ear. He lowered his head and stretched his legs as far as the knee-deep snow would allow. He pushed aside a pine branch heavy with snow then veered slightly right. Another slug ripped through the air just above his head. Almost there, just a few more steps. Once behind the rocks, he could creep between the boulders and slip down the far side to the relative safety of the caves below. They’d be fools to follow him down there. Why risk their lives now that they had his most valuable possessions? He’d wait until nightfall and make his way back to his little hut where he’d stockpiled a few canned goods, a spare rifle, and a little ammunition. Of course, he would sorely miss the mule, but there wasn’t anything to be done about that now.

With only a few steps between him and his goal, the old man’s hopes were dashed when a third slug bit into his flesh and lodged itself in his left shoulder. Screaming in pain and anger, he spun around to face his assailants. Now tumbling backwards, the old man aimed and fired his revolver, but he was wide of the mark. Another rifle slug tore into his chest, shattering a rib and sending shards of bone into his heart and lungs. With a curse on his lips, he collapsed onto a large flat rock overlooking the frozen lake, his face directed skyward. Coughing blood, he lifted his head and tried to sit up, but his ruined body would not obey his will. He took in a few ragged breaths and watched as snowflakes emerged from the gray-brown mist above and landed on his bare face. How beautiful they looked, how peaceful, how timeless.

A few hours later, Vick reached his knife forward and cut off a piece of venison that had been cooking on a spit over the fire they had built. “Shame about Joe,” he said.

“Yeah,” said the other man as he held his hands up to the heat of the flames. “Bad luck. The old man’s slug must’ve hit an artery or somethin’. Bled out damn fast. Nothin’ to be done.”

“We should have shot that old man right away instead of given’ him a chance,” replied Vick. “Maybe Joe’d still be alive.”

“Quit talkin’ shit, Vick,” snapped the other man. “What’s done is done. Joe’s dead. The old man’s dead. And the way this damn winter’s goin’, we’ll be joining ‘em both soon enough.”

“Don’t get all pissy, Bill” retorted Vick. “I’m just sayin’ it’s a shame about Joe.”

Bill grunted in reply and spit into the hot coals.

Neither man spoke for a few minutes, preferring to stare into the fire and lose themselves in their own thoughts. Without looking up, Vick said, “You think this winter’s ever gonna end?”

Bill looked around at the snow-covered ground, at least as far as the firelight could push back the surrounding darkness. “Hell, I don’t know. First those damn meteors come crashin’ down all over the damn planet. Then everythin’ from the Mississippi to the Rockies gets burnt to hell. Then the sun disappears behind all that smoke and dust. It’s new goddam ice age.”

“World’s been turned on its head,” said Vick. “This time last year I was a goddam electrician down in Grand Rapids. Now I’m killin’ old men for a mule and a few scraps of venison.”

Bill scoffed. “You wanna survive to see the spring, take my advice; forget what you were last year. It’s a whole new ball game.”

A flash of yellow light suddenly split the night like a bolt of lightning. Terrified, the two men looked away to shield their eyes then scampered to their feet. Vick grabbed his rifle and Bill pulled out the pistol he’d taken from the old man’s hand. Each of them stood gun at the ready for whatever might happen next. But the light was gone as quickly as it had appeared and the forest was perfectly quiet, aside for the popping sounds of their fire.

After a few moments, Bill pulled a branch out of the fire and held it out in front of him. He slowly walked in the direction from which the light had come. Not wanting to remain alone, Vick followed. They walked toward the collection of boulders overlooking the lake, and soon they were standing before the large flat rock upon which the old man had died.

“What the hell?” whispered Bill as he extended the burning branch over the rock. The snow had disappeared, but he could see tendrils of steam coiling their way up into the frigid air.

“What’s that?” asked Vick, using his rifle barrel to point at something in the middle of the rock.

Bill held the burning branch closer to where Vick had pointed. They saw the singed remains of the old man’s clothing, but the body was nowhere to be seen.

“What’s goin’ on around here, Bill?” Vick’s sunken eyes darted left and right as he searched for whatever could have taken the old man’s body.

“How should I know, Vick?” replied Bill.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Vick, his voice trembling. “There’s some crazy shit goin’ on here, and I don’t want anything to do with it.”

“Yeah,” said Bill as he raised the burning branch and look up into the starless night sky. “Pack the mule.”

Vick turned and ran toward the campfire, his rifle in his right hand and mumbling nervously to himself while Bill took a final look around. He took a few steps after Vick, but then he stopped. He turned around and walked back toward the large flat stone and looked at the clothing. A slight shift in the wind brought the scent of burnt wool fabric to his nose. Bill held his breath and leaned forward. He carefully laid the old man’s revolver on the still-warm slab of rock next to the clothing.

“Sorry old man,” he whispered. He backed away from the rock, his eyes focused on the revolver as if it too would disappear in a flash of light. Then he turned and fled.

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