Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 20

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

Lucy convinced the sheriff to help look for Sonja. It took some browbeating, but the man finally caved in when Lucy invoked her position as Queen Elizabeth’s aide. The sheriff’s reluctance was based on the fact that he thought chasing after a stupid Valley Dweller was a waste of time.

“Let her go back to where she belongs, and good riddance to her,” the lawman grunted.

When Lucy had the sheriff sorted out, we decided to spit up. Lucy and I would ride together, while Tonya and the sheriff teamed up. They would ride in a horseless contraption the sheriff called an ‘any terrain vehicle’. I watched Lucy as she saddled one of the mules, she seemed competent and experienced. I guessed I was staring at her a little too long, because she put her fists on her hips and turned to face me.

“I knew this was how it was going to be,” she said crossly.

I looked at her, a confused frown on my face.

“Pardon me?” I asked.

“Yesterday, I met a man from the slavery days, and today, he has me saddling a mule to take me away from home. Where will I be working Master, the house or the fields?”

I was thunderstruck for a few seconds, until I saw the corner of her mouth twitch, and suddenly realized she was shining me on.

“Neither,” I said, trying to sound lecherous. “I keep healthy, fine looking wenches like you for my personal enjoyment.”

Lucy broke out laughing at my reply. When she finally stopped giggling, she returned to cinching up her saddle. She was determined to keep me off balance with her remarks.

“Maybe we can pretend that’s the case tonight,” she said seductively.

I enjoyed the flirtatious banter with Lucy, as it distracted me from worrying so much about Sonja. We made short work of preparing our mounts and preparing for our trip. I insisted we take at least three days worth of food, even though it was only a day and a half trip if we went all the way back to the university in the valley.

When we were ready to mount up, I took my pistol out of my saddlebag, inserted a loaded cylinder and strapped on my holster. I loaded my stagecoach gun with double-aught buck and slung it diagonally across my back. Lucy watched me with big eyes as I assembled my weapons.

“You are so nonchalant and casual while handling things designed for killing. Are you the same way when it comes to using them?” she asked.

I shrugged. Lucy did not seem overawed or frightened by my guns, she just seemed curious.

“I’m never blasé when it comes to gun fighting, but I don’t hesitate to shoot if it becomes necessary. I would rather be the one lamenting having shot someone, than be the one planted in Boot Hill.”

Lucy digested that for a second then shocked the hell out of me when she replied.

“I can understand that. Maybe you can teach me to shoot one day.”

“No problem,” I said, “matter of fact, once we find willful Miss Sonja, we’ll fill the scatter gun with rock salt and use her hind end for a target.”

Lucy was an excellent horsewoman, who rode western style. She was also a boon companion, with a wicked sense of humor and a delightful flirtatious way about her. I liked the hell out of her. We rode out of town on the same road I’d arrived on just yesterday. I was not at all happy with Sonja for putting us through this ordeal. I was at a loss whenever I tried to apply logic in my dealings with the Valley Dwellers. I shared my frustrations with Lucy. She had some insight that made a heck of a lot of sense.

“Liz says that most of the valley people are victims of their own success, in that the genetic modifications have robbed a significant percentage of the population of drive and initiative. They don’t think about how to make tomorrow better, instead they dwell on how much better things were yesterday. With each new generation, the malaise increases. According to Liz, they are going to fade away into oblivion, still yearning to manipulate what is unchangeable.

“The mindset among most altered people is why Liz dropped out of their society and started this one. The outlanders already had small towns set up on the same principle as the city states, so Liz’s challenge has been to meld towns, villages and clans toward a common purpose. As you can see, she has done an extraordinary job of that. Liz is a visionary and an extraordinary leader.”

The more I learned about these outlanders, the more I agreed with them. That was very troubling to me, because I considered myself as loyal as an old dog, and I owed some allegiance to the Pleiad, even if I thought they were headed for ruination. I guess that was something I needed to work on when I returned to the valley. One thing is for certain, Sonja’s little ploy was not going to provoke me to return a minute sooner than I wanted. If necessary, I would deliver her as far as the Larson’s ranch, but I was coming back.

Once we cleared the cultivated fields in close to the town, Lucy took a side trail that she said was rougher, but shorter than the main road. We had been traveling about two hours, and were a good ten miles from New London, when a device on Lucy’s belt started chirping. She snatched it off her belt and held it to her mouth.

“State your emergency, Sheriff Greer,” she said into the device.

The thing in her hand continued to emit an occasional chirp, but despite repeated attempts to get the sheriff to answer, no voice came out of it. Lucy frowned and held the thing in front of her, parallel to the ground. She swung it back and forth in an arc from north-east to south-east. On the second sweep, she stopped with the instrument pointing towards the east-north-east. She looked at me somberly and explained her actions.

“These devices are not as sophisticated as the Valley Dwellers’ vid-phones, but they have an emergency paging feature with a homing beacon function. Sheriff Greer activated his emergency alert, but he isn’t answering his radio. According to his beacon, he is about five miles from here in that direction,” she said, pointing north-eastish.

My heart flopped in my chest, because Tonya was with the sheriff.

“Try calling Tonya on that thing,” I ordered.

Lucy shook her head negatively.

“Can’t,” she said, “the units are not compatible.”

That was news not to my liking. I aimed my mule in the direction she pointed and nudged him forward.

“Nothing to do but go find them then. Lead on, we can be there in forty minutes if we hurry,” I said, my voice much calmer than I felt.

The outlands of California were much different than the bad lands of Colorado and Wyoming, because there was much more water here. Where much of the high plains of where I was from were semi arid, the plains here were green and teeming with wild life. Part of the area was even forested with small stands of redwoods and lodge pole pines. To take my mind off Tonya, I asked Lucy about it.

“Why do the people in the valley call these the outlands? This area seems perfect for farming and settlement.”

“It’s getting there,” Lucy said. “Looking around now, you wouldn’t believe that a hundred years ago, this was all barren tundra. It is also still slightly contaminated with the fallout from the Bison River Nuclear Power Plant meltdown. If we get a better handle on what the weather will be like, we might start farming here in a few years. Right now, run off from glaciers and mountain snow melt keep the springs and creeks flowing all year. But if the temperature rises another degree or two, the glaciers will be gone and snow will stay on the mountains for less of the year. If we don’t start receiving more rain, this area will revert to high desert for most of the year.”

We picked our way down a big game trail through one of the small forests, and exited the woods a hundred yards from the main north-south road. I stopped her when she started to ride out to the road.

“Check where they are before we expose ourselves,” I said softly.

Lucy did another check with her multipurpose little device and indicated toward the north.

“We are within four hundred meters of the Sheriff, Jeremiah. What do you want to do?” she asked in the same tone of voice.

“Let’s dismount and work our way north on foot. We’ll stay in the wood line until we spot them or the road curves away from us,” I replied.

Leading the surprisingly light-footed mules, we skirted the edge of the woods, moving as quickly and quietly as we could. It took us only about ten minutes to spot the sheriff. He was face down on the edge of the road, about fifty yards from where we were. There was no sign of Tonya or his strange horseless contraption.

I had to physically restrain Lucy from running over to the unmoving lawman. I spun her around towards me and away from where he lay.

“Take out your stunner and cover me, Lucy,” I said forcefully. “Stay right here and keep a sharp eye out. Alert me to any danger you see.”

Lucy was in shock, but she gathered her wits enough to agree to what I said. When I had her in a good covering position, I unholstered my revolver, edged my way out of the woods and rushed, bent over towards the sheriff. When I was within reach of him, I dropped down to the ground and lay prone for a good minute, carefully studying the woods opposite where we lay. I knew as soon as I dropped to my belly that I did not need to hurry on Sheriff Greer’s account. His oddly twisted neck and dull, unfocused eyes made that obvious to even the casual observer.

I holstered my pistol, reversed my stage gun until it hung by its sling in front of me, and then gingerly rolled Greer onto his back. I gasped at the sight of him, because the front of his shirt was slit in a number of places and drenched in blood. His face was battered beyond recognition and his neck was broken. Someone had made a sporting production out of killing him. I took a quick look around then hurried back to where Lucy was kneeling.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

I nodded as I pulled a blanket out of my bedroll.

“If you can reach New London on that thing, call someone out here to pick up you and Greer’s body. I’m going to see if I can figure out what happened here,” I said.

Lucy was operating in a daze, but she was still functioning. She took out her communicator and made a call directly to Liz. I left her to explain what had befallen the sheriff, and went over to cover his body with the blanket. That unpleasant chore done, I started looking around where he lay, trying to make some sense of what happened, and maybe find a clue about Tonya. As sorry as I was for what had happened to Greer, I was ten times happier that Tonya wasn’t lying there beside him.

It did not take long to find where Greer’s carriage had stopped. At least four people had set upon the man, judging by the signs on the driver’s side of the carriage. I could plainly see where they dragged and beat him. The other side of the vehicle’s wheel tracks showed a scuffle with a like number of people. There were also pieces of torn cloth scattered around and the ground was splattered with dark red blood. My heart sank at that sight.

I walked up the road a few dozen yards and found the tracks of two other vehicles and a couple of horses. The tracks ran from the road to a stand of trees and back. It appeared as if the Juicers (the only group I knew of in this time that could mount violence to this degree) had lain in wait and ambushed the sheriff. The only thing I couldn’t figure was how they got him to stop in the first place. From where I stood, I could clearly see the tracks of the vehicles and horses leading off to the north. Based on the time that had elapsed since Lucy’s communicator started chirping, they had less than a two hour head start.

I turned around and walked back to where Greer lay. Lucy was standing over his body, but had not moved the blanket covering his face.

“Liz has activated a detachment of the militia, it’ll take them five or six hours to assemble and get here,” she said.

Her voice was stronger and more controlled now, so I thought she would be fine.

“That’s too long. Tonya will be fifty miles away by then. I’m leaving now to try and catch them. You stay here and wait for the militia and then sent them after me,” I said.

Lucy gave me an inscrutable look and shook her head.

“I’m not staying here alone, and there is nothing I can do for the poor man anyway. Besides, you are going to need me and my communicator.”

I did not argue with her, because leaving her here alone was an ill conceived idea anyway. The bunch I was chasing might not be the only juicers in the area, and I did not need another woman to go missing on me. When we retrieved the mules, I was surprised when Lucy unwrapped a cloth from around the weapon I took from the juicer two days ago. She turned the weapon on its side and fiddled with a small metal knob for a second, then slung it over her shoulder. When I looked at her inquisitively, she shrugged.

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