While I was waiting for my obsession with Plato's chariot metaphor to wear off, I worked on a post-industrial, equine-focused novel titled Wild Rose Ranch. It centers on the descendants of characters from an earlier experimental novel I wrote for self-indulgent reasons and a small audience. Of course I'm writing this for pure pleasure too, but I hope it'll appeal to a broader audience. In other words, I am not writing as an academic. My goal is high class trash--something closer to a Dick Francis novel than to Middlemarch.
I hope you enjoy the first chapter. I've been pressed for time and had problems dropping my MS into this blog format, so there may be glitches. I'm breaking a (the?) cardinal rule by not having thoroughly proofread my material, so please let me know if you find any formatting, typographical, or any other type of problem, mechanical, structural, you name it. Comments welcome!
This is copyrighted material.
As food started getting scarcer, Tom started looking for cats whenever he went to town. When people get hungry enough, household pets begin to disappear. Cats disappear first, then dogs. Finally, everything remotely edible goes. As a child, he’d begged Grandma Rose to tell and retell the story about the decapitated but otherwise whole mouse some twentieth-century archaeologist found in preserved human feces somewhere around Chaco Canyon. The story prompted giggles of disgust in a little boy who’d never been hungry, but now—
A bicyclist zipped by, nearly clipping a pannier on Max. Tom said a few words to the old mule, mostly to steady himself. At thirty-two, Max was so steady he’d probably ignore an attack by alien space bats. Tom, on the other hand, felt himself becoming more skittish with each trek. The willingness and stoicism of Max and the other stock at the Villages comforted him, but outside people worried him more and more.
That woman, he thought. Why was she still riding her bike at the edge of the pavement? Why ride in the still faintly marked bike lane when a car came down the road maybe every hour or so? The little electric carts and scooters he’d seen during earlier trips weren’t as fast as her bike. The Worse Times were getting even--worse, and people were still as stubborn as—
Looking over at Max, he corrected himself out loud, “Apologies, Max. People are stubborn, not mules.” He curled a hand around the base of one of Max’s slowly flopping ears and pulled it up and off the ear, displacing flies without disturbing Max’s rhythm. “Ninth trek into Boulder. Been a long twenty years. Think maybe I should send you by yourself next time?” Max flicked his other ear, dislodging more flies.
“I know,” said Tom. “My last one too. We’re both too old for this anyway.”
After the harrowing eighth and ninth trips with gangs on mountain bikes pursuing them into and out of town, he’d taken a chance going in with Max alone. Bicycle police intervened during the eighth trip, but on the ninth, he and Sue Lou, his saddle mule, had to jump ditches and scramble up a jagged rock incline, dragging Max, in order to escape. This time their scanty information indicated the gangs were no longer a serious menace and one scrawny, dun mule would attract less attention than two, especially when one of the two was the tall, sleek Sue Lou. Of course, they’d also heard that bicycle police went away about the same time as the gangs, so Tom now carried his pistol.
The lone cyclist disappeared around a corner and the road was utterly quiet. So far, Tom was glad he’d left Sue Lou guarded and grazing in a high meadow, many miles away.
Max plodded on.
“You take change a lot better than I do, Max. Gangs. Riots. Eerie calm. Everything’s the same to you.”
Even Grandpa Tom hadn’t expected that level of levelheadedness when Max was foaled at Wild Rose Ranch in 2037. Back at the turn of the century when Grandpa Tom first bred his Akhal-Teke mares to a jack, most horsemen didn’t know what an Akhal-Teke was. Those who did expected them to be “difficult.” Hot bloods all, most of them needed quiet, expert handling, but lanky and tough, they could take heat, cold, altitude, and distance, and Grandpa preached that if any horses could make it through the Bad Times, those with Gelishiki strain Akhal-Teke blood could. Max’s mother and her kin had proven him more than right, and Grandpa’s mules were tougher yet, outlasting even their already tough horse and donkey parents.
Of course, people knew, whether they acknowledged it or not, that not many animals of any kind were going to survive much longer, people included. Almost nobody talked about it though, at least not with strangers. So on his last two treks into town for supplies and information, he watched for cats.
Boulder was once full of house cats, most of them sleek, a few even plump. On their first visit, Max, always flat-ribbed and skinny looking, attracted attention because he looked starved. Of course, any sort of pack animal was a rarity back then. Up until a few trips back, Boulder was still a city of bicycles and aged hybrid cars, a university town. During his middle trips, a few people showed up at the Mall on horseback. The first riders he’d seen came in pairs, riding well-bred horses. One person shopped, the other tended the saddle horses. He never saw them buy much since they had, at best, small saddle bags.
Back then, the riders were mostly teenage girls who looked to be having fun. They always waved to him. Some blew kisses. He smiled at the memory. Grandma Rose always told him he looked like Grandpa Tom, only better. Of course they might have been blowing their kisses to Max and Sue Lou. Horse-loving young women would do that.
Tom hadn’t seen any elegant girls on elegant horses at the Mall since his sixth trek. After that he saw a few makeshift pony carts. This time all he’d seen so far were a few skinny bicyclists. The fields along the highway into town were all scraggly corn and parched wheat. He’d seen no cows or horses pastured anywhere. Not surprising. The Worst Times had to be close now. That woman on the bicycle hadn’t been just trim.
Gaunt, Tom thought, probably hungry enough to eat a—
As they plodded past the outer subdivisions, he looked for cats. Finally, he passed a house with a milk goat nibbling on rose bushes in the front yard. A man sitting on the front porch with a shotgun across his lap lifted a hand and waved to him. Tom waved back. Did he recognize him from his last trek three years ago? Was the shotgun loaded? Might not have been a couple of trips ago. Probably was now. The gun in Tom’s shoulder holster sure was.
Still, Boulder remained a civilized place, not much gunfire. Not like Denver. Yet. In fact, on a good day, things looked pretty much the same as they had before the Worse Times started when, in a matter of months, the price of a gallon of gasoline went from an average day’s pay to all but unavailable at any price. Everything fell apart so suddenly that few were ready, even among those who’d spent decades preparing. World-wide Jensenite terrorist attacks hit gas pipelines and oil refineries, leaving most of the world with strangled dribbles of already scarce fossil fuels. Nuclear exchanges over water rights wiped out much of Pakistan and India. Desperate importation of food by China drove up prices across the globe and eventually introduced hunger even to the United States. And that, thought Tom, was on top of the collapse of commercial fishing, the refusal of the Middle East to export its remaining oil, crop failures everywhere from disease, pests, superweeds, fracking, eroded soil, droughts and floods everywhere. “Expect the space bats any day now, Max. Why not? Everything else’s happened.”
Even in Boulder with its large tracts of agricultural open space and dozens of organic greenhouses, most people panicked. The panic was reasonable of course. Even in years when there was irrigation water, even when cattle and horses provided manure, most of the soil in Colorado—where there had been soil in the first place--still eroded. Too much wind. Too much heat. Too little water. No way was it going to sustain hundreds of thousands much less millions. Many of the newest residents packed up and fled to other states, trading their last valuables for space on the few trains that still ran. More than a few piled into boxcars that’d once rolled in stuffed with consumer goods. A few retreated to remote second homes. All too many stubbornly dug in.
Last trek, Tom guessed the population was maybe a quarter of what it had been the time before. Down way more this time, he thought. Abandoned buildings, homes and businesses, now housed chickens or squatters. What had been exotic blue grass lawns were now vegetable gardens. Salvage wasn’t his job, so he didn’t know what was left inside these houses, but this town still looked better than most places he and Max had seen. The now commonplace tangles of squash and beans surrounding some of the decaying Victorian houses had a beauty of their own, an Alice in Wonderland look.
Tom always enjoyed looking at these urban gardens. Now though, he noticed people, not scarecrows. In each yard sat a child or an old woman. Guard people, thought Tom. The guy with the goat—
Last visit, he’d had dogs. Tom walked on, no longer looking for cats. He passed a block where all the gardens were dead or dying. Parched. On the other side of the street, lush grass was growing, so he stopped to let Max graze. Leaking waterline? Was there even a utility repair division these days? A city government?
The Mall was only a couple of blocks straight ahead. Tom could already see some of the brightly colored tents that now dotted the asphalt parking lot. “Looks more like that National Geographic picture of the Middle Eastern bazaar every time, doesn’t it, Max? Only not as prosperous.”
Every few feet now, they passed bicycles chained to trees and metal fences. A safe distance away from the petty thieves who haunted the Mall? Hardly likely. But at least the thieves would be out in the open here. Tom shortened Max’s lead rope and, despite the pain in his knee, quickened his step.
He went to the hardware store first. Like most of the stores in the Mall, the window was long gone, but the hardware store, once a travel agency, now sported a welded grill to keep out all but the most determined thieves. The guard in front of the store asked Tom for his list.
Reaching into the leather pouch on his belt, Tom said, “Nails. Do you have five pounds of twelve penny? And same of sixteen penny if you have ‘em.”
Without answering, the guard said, “What you have to trade? We don’t take Boulder scrip anymore.”
“Don’t have any scrip anyway. What sort of trade items work here?”
“Got some salt,” said Tom. He unfolded his list and read off the trade items Max carried. Tom never knew what would go first or at all, but from the eagerness in the guard’s voice, he knew the waterproof matches would be hot items this time. The sewing thread and hemp rope too.
Tom told the guard he’d be back to barter after he talked with the other vendors. Tom said, “Anybody got livestock stuff, vet supplies? Books?”
The guard pointed across the lot to the outer few tents. “Guy on the right’s got some animal stuff. Over to the far left, books.”
As Tom turned towards them, the guard said, “Salt. We’ll take some of that for sure.”
As Max shuffled along, little puffy clouds erupted from the inch or so of tan dust that’d settled on the asphalt, Tom surveyed the wares in the tents. Too many small shoes were on display. Same with small appliances and fancy cooking pans.
Outgrown or were children dying? No electricity or gas? No food? Tom knew better than to ask. That just wasn’t polite in the Worse Times.
Finally approaching a likely pile of metal, Tom glanced at the wiry blond man standing behind his wares. Rail thin, but fit looking, and youngish, he was staring intently at Max. Tom bent down to examine the items, but he kept checking on the vendor. In a few minutes, Tom dug out a nearly new hoof rasp and some good nippers, but every time he looked up, the vendor was still staring at Max.
On alert, Tom stood up, smiled at the blond man, and said, “What you want for these?”
The vendor, his eyes still on Max, settled for so much less than he’d expected that Tom made a show of fondling the nippers. “Not much work for farriers these days, huh?”
“Or vets either. I’m a veterinarian. Or was. Nice mule.” He turned toward Tom and extended a hand. “Nathan—Nate—Murphy DVM.”
Tom grinned. Without subtle, careful indirect inquiries, without even starting a serious search, the item at the top of his real shopping list had just introduced himself. This’d never happened before. Of course, this man might or might not be a vet and, even if he was a trained vet, he might not be what the Villagers were looking for.
Beginning the vetting the vet process, Tom said, “Would you mind taking a look at Max’s teeth?”
Talking fast, and looking all too eager, Nate said, “Not at all. Not at all. Anything I should know about him? Mind having his tongue grabbed?”
“He’s good.” Tom rubbed Max’s forehead and steadied him, watching carefully as the man deftly encouraged Max to lift his head a bit and slipped a hand into his mouth. He grasped Max’s tongue and pulled it sideways, first to one side and then the other, so that he could inspect teeth while Max couldn’t bite without taking off his own tongue.
OK, thought Tom. He’s done this before.
Letting go of Max’s tongue, Nate said, “Doesn’t even need a touch up much less a full float, and he’s got quite a bit of age on him, doesn’t he?”
“And still working.” Nate whistled in appreciation. “With teeth like that, he might make fifty.”
“I like to think that,” said Tom. But he knew Max wouldn’t. If they got back, Max would be assigned lighter duty that might give him more years, but the Villages couldn’t afford retirement for anyone. The end of productive life was the end. Period. All too often now Tom’s dreams were nightmarish visions of Max’s Recycling Ceremony. Max was a hero, so it’d be elegiac, as grand as they could make it, and recycling would mean new boots and much needed blood and bone meal for the vegetable gardens, but losing Max was going to be like losing his best friend, an experience Tom knew and dreaded.
Nate, once again ogling Max, talked faster and faster. “Your mule looks like— Ever hear of the Tevis Cup? One hundred mile endurance race in California. My dad finished Top Ten twice. Even finished the last one ever. My grand-father had a Tevis buckle too, and they used to talk about this greyhound-looking mule. Slab-sided. Looked half starved. Beat both of them, beat everyone. Can’t remember his name.”
“Turkey Day,” said Tom. “Won in 2014 and again in 2020.” First with Grandpa up, and then with Dad. Tom didn’t say that. Rider names didn’t mean much to most horse people anyway, and he still needed to be careful, but Nate was looking more and more like a good fit.
“Turkey Day! That’s the name.” Nate stopped talking for a few seconds, then started up again. “This guy crossed pure-bred Akhal-Teke mares, some of the rarest mares in the world, with his feral jack. Big sucker apparently, but feral.”
Tom took a deep breath, and then they started comparing stories, tales from times past and places far away, places they’d never see. It’d been years since Tom met an outsider who’d even heard of the great Western States 100-Mile One Day Trail Ride. Once, riders trailered horses from all across the continent to scramble up and down steep trails across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to tackle Cougar Rock, to ride the last miles by moonlight.
Then times changed. In 2011 the ride was postponed for the first time because of erratic weather. The planners were as tough as the horses and hung on for a couple of decades more, but finally, gas prices, crumbling roadways, and the ever more erratic climate turned Tevis Cup adventures into fading memories, tales told to the young.
Tom stopped talking again and just listened while Nate went on. Occasionally he looked up at the mountains just west of the town and thought of the wasteful stupidity of putting a horse or mule in a trailer and hauling it from Colorado to California and back in order to ride a hundred miles across mountains. Like his father and grandfather, Tom lived in serious mountains, but unlike them, he was never going to ride in a recreational endurance race. He didn’t have a truck or a horse trailer, never had, never would, but he and Max had gone over serious mountains time and time again, and many of their treks made the Tevis sound easy.
Listening to Nate, Tom found himself wanting to brag about his family and Max’s, but he needed to get his work done first. First snow shouldn’t come for at least a month and a half, but these days it could come any time. He and the other teams needed to start back soon, so, with practiced ease, he shifted the conversation, picking up the bits of information he needed to make his decision.
The more Nate talked, the more he sounded like a prize. Listening to Nate answer questions about Max’s feet and incipient arthritis, Tom decided. Not only degreed and state certified, but up on acupuncture, massage, herbs, and making things up as he went along. Recently widowed too.
Nate added, “Pneumonia. No reserves left. She went just like our daughter last year. Nothing I could do.” He fell silent, still staring at Max.
Thinking about the small shoes he’d seen at the Mall, Tom said, “No other kids?”
Nate shook his head and said, “No. Just me, two dogs, a few chickens, and my mare. Eight years old. Endurance bred. Still pretty fit. I live in the low foothills. Have to take her out for miles morning and evening to find grass. No hay providers left. She’ll never make it through the winter.”
“Sorry. Sorry for everything.” Tom was sincere, but wary. The endurance mare clinched Nate’s fit. They might not even need one of the spare mules. Not only an equine vet, but good looking and unattached. Nate would perk up the young widows back at the Villages. But it sounded more and more like Nate was giving him a resume.
Had he guessed Tom’s mission? This could be good or bad. Didn’t matter that much. The teams had safeguards in place. Lots of them. Faking a laugh, Tom said, “You sound like you’re applying for a job.”
Nate turned to stare at him. “Well, you are a Collector, aren’t you?”
Tom felt his back stiffen. Looking straight into Nate’s glacial blue eyes, he said, “What sort of dogs?”
“German Shepherd and Border collie. Both bitches, both young. Breeding stock. Not spayed.”
“Leave the German Shepherd. Trek’ll kill her. Bring the collie if you like. She might make it.”
Tom quickly outlined phase one, telling Nate to keep his business routine the same, but to ride out each evening wearing extra layers of clothes and carrying saddle bags filled with vet equipment, medicines, whatever essentials he had left. “Guns and ammo are welcome too. Jacob will stop by your tent later today and give you drop points for your stuff. Don’t ask him anything you don’t have to. Don’t talk to anyone. Just follow instructions and shut up.”
“You make this sound like a top secret military operation.”
Tom wanted to slap Nate, but he wasn’t sure whether on the back or the across the face. “Phase one takes three days. If you make it to phase two, I want you to tell me how you knew I was a Collector.” Tom stuffed the nippers and rasp into a pannier and headed toward the book seller’s tent.
Once there, Tom ground-tied Max and stepped inside the small brown tent. He took a deep breath and rubbed his hands on his jeans. As he squatted down and started running his fingers across the titles in the first of dozens of boxes, he heard a thin voice say, “How many pounds are you looking for? All my stock is perfectly dry and mold free. Ready to burn.”
That bad already, thought Tom. He stood up slowly, his knee aching now, and turned toward the voice. “Not looking for fuel.”
“Something to read.”
The nondescript middle-aged woman’s eyes began to tear up, but, in a strictly professional voice, she said, “Well then, what subjects interest you? Fiction? Non-fiction?”
“Don’t get a lot of readers anymore?”
She shook her head. “Almost none. I thought it might pick up when the internet went down, but it hasn’t.”
“When’d you lose the internet?”
“Fourteen months ago. I don’t know if it went down because of electricity problems here or elsewhere or if we lost a satellite or what. Our electricity went down completely shortly thereafter, apparently never to return.”
Unlike most, she looked like she wanted to say more, so Tom said, “How’s it going here otherwise?”
She turned her gaze to Max but without much interest. “Some of us may survive. There is work, but mostly for security guards and farm labor. Sharecropping seems to be our future, but a good many won’t perform physical labor even though that’s about the only way to keep eating these days. Some still think the filling stations will reopen, the power will come back, and they’ll go back to their desk jobs. They aren’t exactly well informed.”
Suddenly looking straight at Tom, she said, “How is it where you live? As a traveler, do you have any information to share?”
Tom smiled. “Teacher?”
“I was a librarian at the university. Now I’m a looter, a slayer of books. What sort are you interested in?”
“Texts. Classics. Good fiction. Pretty much anything. I love books.”
The librarian pinched off an incipient smile and said, “My private collection is in the back. Follow me.”
“Could you just point and watch my mule?”
She smiled and went to the front of the tent where Max was dozing.
At least half an hour later, Tom emerged from the back of the brown tent with an armful of books. “What do you need for these? I have salt, plastic glasses, and—“
“Just take them. Enjoy them.” She flicked a hand, shooing him away.
Tom thanked her and she retreated to the back of her tent.
He put the books down beside Max and opened the near-side pannier. “Don’t worry, old man. I restrained myself. Only a few more pounds. Wanted lots more, but they weren’t on acid-free paper. Scored a couple of good essay collections. Hard to teach the Great Books without having a taste of critical commentary to get people started. Indulged myself a bit, but stuck to the list. Mostly.”
Reaching into the pannier, he pulled out a couple of cylindrical containers of salt. The blue paper covering them was faded and peeling, but for the most part intact. “Have to give her something, don’t we? Too bad we don’t need a librarian.” He stuffed a few books into the near side pannier and then walked around to Max’s right side to stuff the rest into the off-side pack. “Gotta balance your load and ours though.”
With Max repacked, he stepped back into the tent, handed the woman the salt, and said, “A great trade item. Maybe you can save a few books.” He left without giving her time to respond.
Walking back to the center of the Mall, Tom glanced up at the sun. “Still early, Max. After we meet Jacob, we’ll have plenty of time to explore.”
Over the next couple of hours, Tom wandered, perusing wares and fishing for information. Quite a few vendors talked optimistically about the upcoming harvest, but Tom had seen the fields. Their hopes for vegetable bounty were wishful thinking. Nate and the librarian were right. Most of the remaining population would almost certainly starve over the winter.
Leaving the Mall, Tom headed, not east as he’d entered, but west. He thought about stopping by the creek that ran through the town, but tales of transgendered fish and the risk of being too high profile stopped him. “Hang in there, Max. With luck, they’ll think I’m local and just headed a little further up.”
Once out of Boulder, he headed up a steep trail. At the top of a rise, he stopped to see if anyone was following. Seeing nothing, he went just over the rise and sat down behind a moss-covered rock watching the hillside above him. Nothing moved. After a few minutes, he edged back towards the top of the rise and again studied the terrain below. No movement below him either.
“Doesn’t look like anyone wants nippers, nails, or some scraps of window screen, Max. Thought someone would want you though. You must look even skinnier than I thought.”
After checking a couple more times, Tom reversed course, going back down towards the plains, towards the highway. He headed north, back towards the team’s main camp in an arroyo a couple of hours north.
As he passed the agreed upon checkpoint, he waited for the Watcher’s signal. From high up on a rock outcropping came a single flash. He started counting. The second flash came at the assigned time. All clear.
He and Max eased their way down towards a gnarled group of Russian olive trees. A couple of tents were visible among the trees, but only if one looked for them. Tom stripped off the packs, hauled them into the trees, and led Max to the creek bed. It was almost dry, but green grass still edged it, and on the far side a rivulet still glistened among the stones. Tom scooped out a hollow, and, as it filled with water, Max put his muzzle down and began gulping. “Take your time. We’re going to relax for a couple of days. Jacob’s turn now. But you better hit the grass before the others get back.”
Around three, a man younger than Nate walked into the vet’s tent and said, “Nate? Jacob. Tom sent me. Directions to your place?”
Without saying another word, Jacob started writing. When his pencil stopped moving, he said, “Neighbors?” His eyes never left his notepad.
“The closest are about half a mile down the trail and about quarter of a mile to the south of it. We’re pretty remote.”
“Great ones,” said Nate. “I plan on leaving Sadie with them.”
“Sadie?” Jacob looked up. His fine, almost effeminate features clashed with his military brusqueness.
“My German Shepherd. Sadie.”
“Tell me about her.” Jacob’s eyes were once again on his moving hand.
“Tom said to leave her, why—?” Remembering Tom’s warning, Nate stopped and began again. “Sadie’s three. Seventh generation DNA-certified for perfect hips. Hundred and ten pounds. Over standard but trained to Schutzhund Three standard. If there were still tests, she’d fly through them all--obedience, protection, and tracking. No aggression unless she’s under orders. I leave my horse with her. A thief’d kill me easier than Sadie.”
“OK. How many chickens?”
“Seven.” Nate was feeling more and more uneasy, but he relaxed a bit as Jacob shut his notebook and shoved it into a shirt pocket.
Looking up, Jacob asked if he had three coats and a light poncho. When Nate nodded, he said, “Good. Wear everything you can under one coat every ride. Wear the poncho over the top or tie it to your saddle. You’re skinny. I’ll bet three, maybe four layers of everything and you still won’t fill out the coat like you did a few years ago. Good clothes are hard to come by in the Villages and new boots come at great cost. Ride home in the poncho. It’ll be dark. With luck, nobody’ll notice you’re naked and barefoot.”
“Can I wear my pantyhose back home?”
“Pantyhose?” After a moment’s silence, an amused expression crept across Jacob’s face. “Oh, that’s right. You ride a horse, not a sweet, smooth mule. Tom said something about you and endurance riding. Didn’t know anyone still had pantyhose. Sure, wear them. How many pair do you have left?”
“Something like fifteen pair, maybe more. Don’t wear them much anymore.”
Jacob actually laughed. “Well, you probably will for the next couple of weeks. Bring all you have. Talk about trade goods. Some of us have horses back home, so those may make you a rich man by the time we reach the Villages.”
He handed Nate a map with drop points marked. “This is day one. Start tonight. Fold and leave the pile. Repeat. On the third night, add your best sleeping bag. Just stay put and keep quiet. We’ll come for you.”
“OK. But Sadie–”
”I’ll come for your German Shepherd and the chickens tomorrow around six.” Jacob added, “Since she’s attack trained, you better be there.”
Nate felt a chill. “When Tom said ‘leave her,’ I thought I could leave a note. The neighbors could use a guard dog.”
“You’re joining us. We could use her too.”
“For meat?” The question escaped before Nate could stop it.
“It’ll be quick. And we don’t expect you to eat her. You’ll get chicken. Hunting was
thin the last couple weeks and everbody’s—”
“I know.” Without being aware of it, Nate straightened his own back, and said, “I understand.”
Jacob’s expression softened. “I don’t think any place on earth values animals like most
of us. I know how you’re feeling. We perform Recycling Ceremonies for our animals. If you want, give me a copy of her pedigree and achievements. See you tomorrow.”
Tight-lipped, Nate nodded ever so slightly as Jacob turned and walked back towards the center of the Mall.
As he layered clothes for his first drop, Nate considered hiding Sadie. He considered putting her down himself. But on his way home with both Sadie and Jet trotting alongside his bay mare, he decided to let Jacob to take Sadie. Barefoot and cold, Nate conceded this was necessity not cruelty. This was no longer a time when people could be either sentimental or wasteful. Instead of two of the last dogs around, he’d have just one.
He comforted himself with memories from vet school where he’d read about the early part of the century when pet owners, stressed by the Bad Times, began flooding animal rescue centers with surplus animals. Big and expensive to feed, horses created a huge problem for the vet community. Horse slaughter was illegal then, and the rescues were quickly overwhelmed. To the collection of lame, crippled, and just plain old animals already crowding these rescue facilities came a torrent of young, sound but starved or neglected stock. Few rescues were courageous enough to prioritize, to concentrate on salvaging the savable and recycling the rest.
These are harsh times, thought Nate. But that earlier era was worse, a time of both impractical sentiment and careless excess. Animal rescue groups bankrupted themselves wasting limited resources on permanently incapacitated horses, and once prosperous breeders left elite stock to starve in overgrazed fields with white vinyl fences and fancy steel barns. Dogs and cats died of thirst or starvation in foreclosed houses. Despite this, he’d read about the public outrage when many vets started hosting low-cost, even free euthanasia clinics for pets large and small. The realities, the limitations of the population, human or animal, sank in slowly, but within a couple of decades, most cities had local horse slaughterhouses once again in place and outrage died down, replaced by acceptance or denial or raw self-interest.
Now, people and animals, wild and tame, were disappearing at an ever-increasing rate. It was a fact. A Recycling Ceremony suddenly sounded grim but all too reasonable. Nate crawled into bed and called for the dogs to join him.
On the second night, Nate waited for Jacob. After telling him Sadie’s commands, he muzzled her and handed the leash to Jacob. “She knows I OK’d this, so she should do anything you ask. Tell her once and she should stay on the porch while you handle the chickens. Want help with them?”
Jacob said no, and with that, Nate yelled for Jet, spun around, and, in his many layers of underwear, shirts and jeans, went to saddle his mare for his evening ride. With Sadie lying on the porch and Jacob chasing chickens, Nate pushed his mare forward and didn’t look back. On the way home, he dismounted and let Aziza graze for a long time as he huddled in his poncho with Jet against his legs.
On the third night, he once again rode out. At the last drop point, a grove of long dead, beetle-killed pine trees in the low foothills, he stripped to one layer of clothes and put his coat back on. With Aziza grazing on a long line, he sat down on a rock with Jet to wait.
Shortly after full darkness settled in, the nearly full moon rose above the eastern plains to create faint shadows. Watching the moon climb, Nate felt Jet suddenly tense beneath his hand. Aziza whinnied and Nate jerked the line to distract her, quickly reeling in her long line as he whispered to Jet to silence her. He heard the shuffle of hooves on the hillside. Two, three, then four human-mule teams emerged from the darkness. He recognized Max and Tom as the lead pair.
Nate snapped on Aziza’s short lead and grabbed Jet’s collar as the teams approached.
Without a word, Tom signaled for Nate to fall into line behind him.
The trail was easy, mostly old forest service roads, nothing challenging for man, horse, or mules, but they all walked for hours in silence. Nate had fallen into the single file line without even considering climbing onto Aziza, but watching Tom begin to limp, he tightened Aziza’s girth and jogged up beside Tom.
Nate offered her lead to Tom. “She knows this trail and she’s fine in halter alone.”
Tom handed Max’s lead to Nate. After reflexively slipping a hand under the girth to check it, Tom mounted the bay mare and said, “So tell me how you knew I was a Collector.”
“Max’s brand,” he said. “Can’t remember when I last saw a brand. Everyone used ear tags or RFID chips right up until there was nothing left to use them on.”
Tom looked down at Nate, pointed up the trail, and said, “Keep going.”
Nate clucked to Max and started walking. “So I had this batty old great aunt. Sometimes, when I was little, Aunt Cee would tell me bedtime stories. Fairy tales, tall tales. When I was five, maybe six, she told me a story about a pair of wizards who lived high in the mountains. Back before the turn of the century, they bought this cattle ranch and started collecting ‘useful’ animals, ‘useful’ plants, and ‘useful’ people. I can still hear her whispering ‘useful’ like an incantation. Weirder yet, the wizards were green.”
Tom blew air through his nose but said nothing.
“Auntie Cee said it had to be our secret and she swore this was all true. She said she knew the wizards, knew they’d keep sending out Collectors way into the future. She told me if I became ‘useful,’ they might collect me one day. She said to watch for ‘the Raptor and the Roses.’ I thought about green people with wands for a long time after that, but I’d almost forgotten the whole story until I saw that.” Nate pointed to the brand on Max’s hip. “That’s almost standard but not quite, more like a Mexican script brand. I was thinking Flying V, Running V, but the V is too flat, and the Os or circles under it are more like overlapped amoebas. Then it hit me—not a V, a bird in flight. Not Os. Flowers. The Raptor and the Roses.”
Nate kept walking, waiting for Tom to speak.
They walked on for a long time in silence. Finally, Tom said, “Wild Rose Ranch isn’t exactly Shangri La.”
“A valley in Lost Horizon, a 1933 novel by James Hilton. Utopia. An earthly paradise.”
Thinking of Sadie, Nate said, “I’m not expecting anything like that.”
“Good,” said Tom. “Wild Rose Ranch pushes close to nine thousand feet. Even with climate change, the growing season’s still too short. But at least it hasn’t gotten down to fifty below for a couple of decades now. Summers are actually pretty decent sometimes. Can’t grow corn yet, but we’re worried that’ll come soon enough.” Tom swung off the mare and flexed his knee. “Much better. Thanks.” He handed the mare back to Nate and reached over to rub Max on the neck before taking his lead. “Camp’s right ahead. Tomorrow we start the long ride home. We have to cross the Never Summer Mountains and—”
With an excited yip, Jet suddenly charged ahead. As Nate opened his mouth to call her back, a familiar answering bark came from just ahead of them. Nate yelled, “Sadie!”
“Good guard dogs are useful,” said Tom. “But we may still have to eat her.”
Leading their small column, watching the two dogs play, Tom and Nate waded into the crisp grass of the gently sloping mountain meadow.
As they neared a cluster of small tents, at least a dozen grazing mules glanced up at them and returned to eating. Buckskins, duns, a few blacks, all had coats that caught the moonlight with an unusual metallic glint.
Without quite knowing why, Nate said, “We aren’t going over the Never Summer Range.”
“Course not. No need to tire the mules these days. Pretty mountains though.” Tom pointed and said, “We rigged a pen for your mare over near the trees. Get your bag. After introductions and food, we’ll talk. If you don’t like what you see and hear, you can still ride back tomorrow.”
“Nice to know.” Nate had caught a glimpse of Tom’s shoulder holster earlier. How bad were things in the Villages? Wild Rose Ranch? Where was it and what was it?