Northern Tier (1)

Three riders come over the mountain.

They pedal slow and easy, strong downstrokes, high posture. No rush today. No deadline, no delivery due. They’ve kept the same pace the whole way up the mountain and not one has broken sweat.

There’s still a powder of snow in the air but the trees are budding, sky’s gone summerblue. In a few days the mountains will shine with green. Down in the lowlands on either side the farmers are just starting to claw at the earth. The passes are clear. Time to open camp.

Three bicycles. They’re lightloaded, no panniers down, nothing on the front racks but a few loaves of barley-bread covered in cloth and tied down with strips of leather. On each rear rack they have their kits. Tent. Tools. Everything a cycer needs or might need out on a cross.

They each have a rifle slung across their back.

They’re in a little valley, nestled between Hogback and Prospect Mountains. High ridges to either side, sky close enough to run your fingers through. A mountain stream of clearwater runs through the valley. So does a road, and it’s good enough to ride on.

Used to be a little town. Gas station, roadside motel, for the cars making the drive between Bennington and Brattleboro or passing through on their way to Albany or Boston. There hasn’t been a car on this road in two hundred years. The town dried up. Now in summer it’s a cycer camp, and in the winter: nothing.

The camp isn’t much, even when there are cycers there. Camps never are. Having nothing to take tends to cut down on the taking. Doesn’t stop some from trying, bandits or barons or brigades. At the very least it makes sure they leave disappointed.

This camp’s built around an old church, high stone walls that haven’t much felt the wind or weather while every other building has fallen to fir-trees and frost. The riders coast up in front of it, dismount but keep their bikes close. A cycer never goes far from his bike. Otherwise someone might ride away with it – or if something happens, the rider might not be able to get away.

The cycers pull out their rifles. One’s all steel, little pieces welded into a light frame; the other two are walnut, stock the full length of the barrel. The two cycers on the flank spread out to give the middle cycer cover. He’s a big guy, muscular, with thighs like boulders underneath pants of light grey wool. He doesn’t look like he talks much. Cycers look like that.

He sets down his bike and goes barrel-first up to the great church door. Pulls down a crossbeam with both hands and drops it down. Takes a breath, then pushes open the doors.

Nothing.

He goes inside, the other cycers covering him from behind.

It’s the way. Three cycers to open a camp. It’s about the only thing they do where they aren’t alone.

The room’s empty. Little left but a few sleeping-palates, a pile of dry wood with a pile of wood-axes beside it. Three bundles hang by rope from the rafters, dangling. There are a few ropes that have been gnawed through or cut. Not surprising.

Light comes in from tall arched windows. Some years ago they took out the stained glass and sold the panes to Brattleboro. They’d kept the plexiglass that had covered the panes, through which came the blue-white light of early spring.

They secure the door behind them, spread out and check the building. Nobody. Nobody’s made their home here during the winter. No bears down from the mountain. No squatter come up the frozen pass through neck-high snow. They were more worried about the bear.

The big cycer goes out and brings in their bikes, one by ones. One’s painted a mottled dark red, like mud or last year’s leaves, the first color to fade into the darkness each nightfall. It belongs to a guy with an orange beard and a knife-sheath, long, thin, strapped to his bicep. The other bike’s galvanized, flashy, with white leather handlebar-wraps and a black leather saddle. It belong to a girl with black hair in a ponytail and a snubnose revolver on her hip.

The big cycer’s bike is spackle-painted, black and sky-blue. It could use a new coat of paint, new handlebar-wrap, a good polish to the saddle. He’ll have plenty of time this summer. He’s the camper.

He’s the one who’s going to spend the next five or six months at the camp, however long until the snows close the passes again. He’ll be the one to welcome cycers who are passing through, give them food and shelter before they go on their way. He’ll be the one to give out assignments as they come to him, parcels to deliver, letters to carry. He’ll be the one to keep the camp supplied from the nearby towns, to keep the peace with the towns, to make this camp a safe-haven so the cycers can ride out and through. Deliver their packages. Carry their messages. Earn their fees. Keep trade and commerce and communication open across a very big piece of land that used to be a country.

Orange Beard grabs a ladder, pulls out his knife and starts cutting down the ropes from the ceiling. Inside the parcels are rows of jars: flour, lard, Baja lemon juice, Anacortes tea, gunpowder, break lube, chain grease. Enough to last them until the first team of oxen comes over the mountain, bringing winter wheat from Brattle or Bent, to replenish their stores for another summer.

Ponytail unstraps her sleeping-roll from her rear rack, unrolls it gently on the dusty floor. In the middle is a copper spyglass. She telescopes it open and then fixes it to her rifle. She throws Orange Beard a big salute, which he smiles at and then ignores, and she goes to climb the steeple and hold the fort.

The big guy, the camper, goes over to the corner and starts counting stacked firewood. Nice of the last camper to leave them so well stocked. He got ambushed last winter, somewhere on California One, carrying a lead envelope full of Americium-241 pellets. The cycers didn’t know just what happened and probably nobody ever would.

Ponytail’s voice comes down from the steeple: “Oi!”

It’s not an alarm. But it’s the first word any of them have said in six hours. In a single motion Orange Beard’s got his feet on the ground and the camper’s got his back to the firewood. They both pull up their rifles, and get their fingers through the trigger-guards.

Then, down from the steeple: “There’s a cycer on the round.”

Orange and the camper just stare at each other, waiting for it to make sense. It doesn’t.

“On the round?” Orange calls.

“Riding.”

Some non-cycers have bikes. Not many. None ride like a cycer.

At every camp there’s a ride-around, a riding-round, a place where cycers can ride. It’s a mile-long track bent into a circle. Same at every camp. It a cycer’s at a camp for a week, a month, they need to keep up their stamina, keep their chains moving. At a big year-round camp, like Missoula or Salt Lake, the whole camp will be surrounded by high walls and covered by towers with lookouts day and night. Up here at Green Mountain they’ve got pine trees that come up to within twenty feet of the track. Best you can do is hope that an army doesn’t emerge from the woods. Or if they do, that you can get to your bike, and run.

Thirtyeight cycer camps. Each with a round. Those thirtyeight mile-long rounds make the best thirtyeight miles of paved road left in America.

“Anything else?” the camper calls.

They wait three minutes before Ponytail calls down: “No.”

Orange and the camper look at each other. After a time the camper puts down his rifle. Orange doesn’t.

They open up the back door and step back out into the end-of-winter air.

Up here the earth’s still frozen. They walk to the side of a fieldstone path to keep their cleats from scraping. They walk over a little wood-plank bridge to go over a mountain stream. There’s only a hundred feet of the round visible through a tree-break.

A rider flashes past.

They both stop. Orange glances at the camper and grins sheepishly. The camper doesn’t. He waits, unmoving. And he counts.

Three minutes later the rider flashes past again.

Exactly one hundred and eighty seconds. The camper’s eyes go wide. Not that the rider can hit such a speed. Not that they can maintain it, lap after lap. But that the rider is pacing themselves to exactly twenty miles per hour. All cycers are good. Some are the best.

The camper walks forward, Orange follows just behind. They come to the edge of the clearing and look out over the round.

They see a rider in grey shorts, a piece of grey fabric pulled across her chest and tied behind her back. Her bike is milk-white. She’s tanned a pale gold all over. The fringes of hair beneath her white helmet are chestnut-brown. She’s covered in sweat.

On her rear rack, tied firmly in place, is a pyramid of small steel girders. They’re each two inches square and a half-foot long. The camper knows they weigh six pounds eight ounces each. Cycers just call them “weights.” He can’t count them exactly but he knows there’s a lot of them. Maybe ten of them. 65 pounds. Probably half her weight, or twice the weight of her bike.

Her lungs are pumping, chest rising and falling like a bellows. She notices them, Orange and the camper. She doesn’t stop, doesn’t even break stride. Orange and the camper look at each other, then the camper shrugs and sits down on a tree-stump by the side of the round. It’s good manners – and they don’t have much else to do.

They count her going around eight times. Orange does pushups. The camper goes into yoga poses, stretching his legs, flexing his core. Then, just before she passes them, she moves the bike to the very side of the pavement and reaches back and pulls a length of thin rope and lets it drop. The weights come flying off, scattering on the ground, clattering like warring churchbells. One lands about ten feet from Orange’s head. The camper catches her smiling as she passes by.

She takes three more laps, one at speed and two at a gentle coast. She comes to a stop about fifty feet from them. She gets off her bike, goes over to a little bulge in the stream that’s been lined with fieldstones. She takes off her helmet and her gloves and her cleated shoes. She takes off her clothing. She doesn’t seem to care that they can see her. She must be trying to make a point, Orange thinks. The camper thinks: she must be so wired or exhausted that she just doesn’t care.

The pool’s not deep. She cannonballs in, her knees just glancing off the bottom. Stays under for ten seconds, fifteen, twenty. Then comes out sputtering, pulls herself out of the water, runs a rag over herself and then pulls on heavy wool pants and a sweater, then another sweater, then steps into a pair of slippers made of rabbit-fur. She’s forestgreen now with roan feet and short brown hair plastered to her head. Her face is bloodred from the cold and the wind and the work.

She ties her riding-clothes to the back of her bike and loops the straps of her helmet over her deep drop handlebars. She puts her left foot onto the right pedal and gives a kick with her right foot. She coasts the fifty feet on a single push, and is before them.

“You the camper?” she asks the big guy.

He nods.

“Good,” she says. “I’m up.”

Means she’s ready for a dispatch. Ready for work.

“How long have you been here?” Orange blurts. The camper’s too curious to care.

“November,” she says.

“Alone?”

She nods, a few times.

“Why did-”

The camper cuts him off.

“What’s your name?”

She holds his eyes. “Slip.”

Most cycers use nicknames. He’s heard most of them just from being a camper. Checking them as they come in, head out. Sending checksheets out with every rider to every other camp. He’s met most every rider and knows the names of the rest like they were his brothers.

He knows her name.

“You’re dead,” he says.

She gives him a wry smile.

“How?” This from Orange.

***

Somehow they’d figured out what she was carrying. Three kilograms of raw brown opium from the fields of Sun Valley, heading to the hospitals of Gloucester and Buzzard Bay. They came on horseback down from Hamilton. She heard them coming. She ran.

Hid in a farmer’s barn. Paid him to boil milk down into paint. Coated her bike, again and again. Waited for snow, days, days, hiding in the belfry with a spyglass and a pistol drawn. Headed out through the snow, pedaling madly, west and then north and then doubling back towards her endpoint at a run.

Cut through Buffalo, glow-in-the-dark Buffalo. Road through the snows. Stuck to dead roads. Stayed out of towns. Got to Bent to find the passes were closed. Didn’t stop, not even to look back. Put together a trailer and headed up.

Took her five days. Got caught in a two-foot blizzard. Nearly froze to death. Made it to the camp, dug out a side-window and broke in. Made a fire with hands almost gone to frostbite. Sealed the window with layers of cloth soaked in oil and caked with cinders.

Hooked her bike to a hobble, and road in place for six months. Rigged a pole from two beams, played on it like a trapeze, stayed limber. Rationed her food. Read the four books they had, again, and again.

For six months.

***

Orange is just staring at her.

“Camped here for the winter,” she says. “You’re low on butter.”

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~ by davekov on 5 June 2014.

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