The two men attacked the thick tree trunk with a weary savagery. In the bright sunlight, glistening spatters of sweat flew from them as the old axes bit alternately into the wood.
Blackie stood nearby, on the gravel shoulder of the highway, rubbing his short beard as he considered the depth of the white notch. Turning his broad, tanned face to glance along the patched and cracked concrete to where squat Vito kept watch, he caught the latter’s eye and beckoned.
“Okay, Sid--Mike. We’ll take it a while.”
The rhythm of the axe-strokes ceased. Red Mike swept the back of a forearm across the semi-shaven stubble that set him as something of a dandy. Wordlessly, big Sid ambled up the road to replace Vito.
“Pretty soon, now,” boasted Mike, eyeing the cut with satisfaction. “Think it’ll bring them?”
“Sure,” replied Blackie, spitting on his hands and lifting one of the worn tools. “That’s what they’re for.”
“Funny,” mused Mike, “how some keep going an’ others bust. These musta been workin’ since I was a little kid--since before the last blitz.”
“Aw, they don’t hafta do much. ‘Cept in winter when they come out to clear snow, all they do is put in a patch now an’ then.”
Mike stared moodily at the weathered surface of the highway and edged back to avoid the reflected heat.
“It beats me how they know a spot has cracked.”
“I guess there’s machines to run the machines,” sighed Blackie. “I dunno; I was too young. Okay, Vito?”
The relieving pair fell to. Mike stepped out of range of the flying chips to sit at the edge of the soft grass which was attempting another invasion of the gravel shoulder. Propelled by the strength of Vito’s powerful torso, a single chip spun through the air to his feet. He picked it up and held it to his nose. It had a good, clean smell.
When at length the tree crashed down across the road, Blackie led them to the ambush he had chosen that morning. It was fifty yards up the road toward the ruined city--off to the side where a clump of trees and bushes provided shade and concealment.
“Wish we brought something to eat,” Vito said.
“Didn’t know it would take so long to creep up on ‘em this morning,” said Blackie. “The women’ll have somethin’ when we get back.”
“They better,” said Mike.
He measured a slender branch with his eye. After a moment, he pulled out a hunting knife, worn thin by years of sharpening, and cut off a straight section of the branch. He began whittling.
“You damn’ fool!” Sid objected. “You want the busted spot on the tree to show?”
“Aw, they ain’t got the brains to notice.”
“The hell they ain’t! It stands out like one o’ them old street signs. D’ya think they can tell, Blackie?”
“I dunno. Maybe.” Blackie rose cautiously to peer over a bed of blackberry bushes. “Guess I’ll skin up a tree an’ see if anything’s in sight.”
He hitched up his pants, looking for an easy place to climb. His blue denims had been stoutly made, but weakened by many rips and patches, and he did not want to rip them on a snag. It was becoming difficult to find good, unrotted clothing in the old ruins.
Choosing a branch slightly over his head, he sprang for it, pulled, kicked against the trunk, and flowed up into the foliage with no apparent effort. The others waited below. Sid glanced up occasionally, Vito idly kicked at one of the clubs made from an old two-by-four.
The other lay beneath the piled jackets; but enough of the end protruded to show that they had been chopped from the same timber, gray-painted on one side, stained and gouged on the other where boards had once been nailed. A coil of rope lay beside the axes.
High in the upper branches, Blackie braced himself with negligent confidence and stared along the concrete ribbon.
From here, he thought, you’d almost think the place was still alive, instead of crumbling around our ears.
The windows of the distant houses were dark, unglassed holes, but the sunlight made the masonry clean and shining. To Blackie, the ragged tops of most of the buildings were as natural as the tattered look of the few people he knew. Beyond, toward the center of the city, was real evidence of his race’s bygone might--a vast jumble of shattered stone and fused metal. Queer weeds and mosses infected the area, but it would be centuries before they could mask the desolation.
Better covered, were the heaps along the road, seemingly shoved just beyond the gravel shoulders--mouldering mounds which legend said were once machines to ride in along the pavement.
Something glinted at the bend of the highway. Blackie peered closer.
He swarmed down the tree from branch to branch, so lithely that the trio below hardly had the warning of the vibrating leaves before he dropped, cat-footed, among them.
He shrugged quickly into his stained jacket, emulated in silent haste by the others. Vito rubbed his hands down the hairy chest left revealed by his open jacket and hefted one of the clubs. In his broad paws, it seemed light.
They were quiet, watching Sid peer out through narrowly parted brush of the undergrowth. Blackie fidgeted behind him. Finally, he reached out as if to pull the other aside, but at that moment Sid released the bushes and crouched.
The others, catching his warning glance, fell prone, peering through shrubbery and around tree trunks with savage eyes.
The distant squawk of a jay became suddenly very clear, as did the sighing of a faint breeze through the leaves overhead. Then a new, clanking, humming sound intruded.
A procession of three vehicles rolled along the highway at an unvarying pace which took no account of patches or worn spots. They jounced in turn across a patch laid over a previous, unsuccessful patch, and halted before the felled tree. Two were bulldozers; the third was a light truck with compartments for tools. No human figures were visible.
A moment later, the working force appeared--a column of eight robots. These deployed as they reached the obstacle, and explored like colossal ants along its length.
“What’re they after?” asked Mike, whispering although he lay fifty yards away.
“They’re lookin’ over the job for whatever sends them out,” Blackie whispered back. “See those little lights stickin’ out the tops o’ their heads? I heard tell, once, that’s how they’re run.”
Some of the robots took saws from the truck and began to cut through the tree trunk. Others produced cables and huge hooks to attach the obstacle to the bulldozers.
“Look at ‘em go!” sighed Sid, hunching his stiff shoulders jealously. “Took us hours, an’ they’re half done already.”
They watched as the robots precisely severed the part of the tree that blocked the highway, going not one inch beyond the gravel shoulder, and helped the bulldozers to tug it aside. On the opposite side of the concrete, the shoulder tapered off into a six-foot drop. The log was jockeyed around parallel to this ditch and rolled into it, amid a thrashing of branches and a spurting of small pebbles.
“Glad we’re on the high side,” whispered Mike. “That thing ‘ud squash a guy’s guts right out!”
“Keep listenin’ to me,” Blackie said, “an’ you’ll keep on bein’ in the right place at the right time.”
Mike raised his eyebrows at Vito, who thrust out his lower lip and nodded sagely. Sid grinned, but no one contradicted the boast.
“They’re linin’ up,” Blackie warned tensely. “You guys ready? Where’s that rope?”
Someone thrust it into his hands. Still squinting at the scene on the highway, he fumbled for the ends and held one out to Mike. The others gripped their clubs.
“Now, remember!” ordered Blackie. “Me an’ Mike will trip up the last one in line. You two get in there quick an’ wallop him over the head--but good!”