A bit more from the scene in my last post. I’m not sure why this contingent of the horsemen are there, either. With dinner over – my wife made stir-fried pork with fried rice – I’m going to pour and glass and try to listen in along with Nichole…
For their stop the next evening, they’d followed the old Interstate away from the river. On the far side of the ghost town of Boardman, Bakke paused under a sign that said ‘Clarke’ with an arrow pointing left.
“Good a place as any to stop!” His meaning not lost on anyone as Nichole heard a hundred male voices laugh.
She laughed along with them, swinging off Toast and getting her kit ready for her tent. Still, she paused a moment to look once more at the slip of paper that the couriers had passed onto her that morning: they didn’t write back this time, but it was something better. Mackenzie had used one of her smaller sketchpads and, in no more than two dozen lines, sketched images of her and Gil holding a note with an ‘N’ on the back. They both look so sad! Nichole noted that Mackenzie had drawn herself with her hair in twin-tails, a style she’d never used before. Odd.
My poor friends!
There was a tiny hill to the east of their camp. She abandoned her tent work to take a look in the waning light. She detected less dust and higher humidity. They’d been passing through what had once been farmland for some hours now.
The four meter elevation confirmed her suspicion: circular patches of former irrigation were all about her, seeming for miles. She knew of another dam, about ten miles east-northeast, and the reactors of the Tri-cities along the Columbia, after it turned sharply north into the former State of Washington.
Seeing her vantage point, she returned Bakke’s wave as he trotted out of the laager and up the little hill.
“All the irrigation here? Electric power?”
“Yep!” Not the slightest bit winded. “When the grid failed, the people died.”
“A cavalier tone for the starvation of your countrymen,” Nichole allowed herself to be annoyed.
“You think they gave a cup of water to their Brown fieldhands when things went to shit? I doubt it.”
“Because you wouldn’t have,” she continued, not liking him right now.
He took a moment to look around.
“I doubt it,” he agreed, looking opposite from her.
Why such hateful candor now? She wondered.
“That’s our next stop,” he said, pointing southeast to a line of tall hills. “Just past Pendleton. It will take time to get my men up the mountain…”
His voice had taken on doubt. Nichole turned to look where he was just as he lifted his field glasses to his eyes.
About ten miles out were tents. Hundreds of tents.
“What are they doing on this side?” he hissed to himself. Then louder: “They are not supposed to start moving for months yet!”
Ignoring Nichole he ran down the little hill, shouting orders. It was too late to move camp, so he wanted their lines smaller and tighter. Significantly, he wanted Jones to get the link up. Not to contribute to the uncertainty, Nichole followed at a controlled walk.
“Clarke!” Bakke yelled from some yards away. “Move your tent to the center!”
Before she could acknowledge the order he’d turned away to bark at the rest of his command. When Jones called to him, he put the radio headset on.
“Sir. Hundreds of tents just west of Pendleton. No, no contact yet – ”
“Major!” came a shout from the picket along the highway to the southeast. There was little light left, but Bakke leapt into a cart and looked through his glasses.
“Horses and riders! Carrying torches!” A pause. “Estimate thirty to forty!”
An embassage, Nichole thought. Or, a demand for surrender. Ignoring her tent she went to Toast, zipping up her flak vest as she did. She unhooked her helmet from the saddle and seated it firmly onto her head.
“I’m going to war. Again.” She said with some despair.
Bakke was still calling out orders. “Check safeties!” significantly to the machine gunners. Their horses tethered amongst the wagons were spooked and were snorting and stamping.
A sudden silence fell. A few battery-powered electric lights came on in the direxion of the approaching horsemen. Nichole reached back and pushed her ponytail under her flak vest before wrapping the cloth around her nose and mouth for concealment. With no fixed post, she moved unobtrusively to where she could see, and hopefully hear, Bakke standing with his leftenant and master sergeant.
Nichole counted ten torches approaching.