Northern Tier: first chapter (current draft)

1

Two riders come over the mountain.

They pedal slow and easy, long downstrokes, high posture. No rush hauls today, no deliveries due. Easy as swans gliding over still water. They’ve kept the same pace the whole way up the mountain.

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.

Two bicycles. Racks front and back, panniers down on either side. Seatpost bags, one has a pouch in the triangle of his frame. To hold 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, there up in the 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.

Used to be a little town there. Gas station, roadside motel, for the cars passing through on their way to Albany or Boston. Hasn’t been a car on this road in two hundred years. The gas dried up. So did the cities. Now in summer it’s a cycer camp, and in the winter: nothing.

The camp isn’t much. Camps never are. If you don’t have anything to take it tends to cut down on the taking. Doesn’t stop some from trying, bandits or barons or brigades. At least it makes sure they leave disappointed.

This camp’s built around an old church, high stone walls that don’t look like they’ve felt wind or winter while every building around has fallen to fir-trees and frost. The riders coast up in front of it, unclip and 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’s black walnut, iron sight, stock the full length of the barrel.

One of the cycers walks to the side, drops to one knee, gives the other cover. He other cycer sets down his bike and goes barrel-first up to the great church door. He’s a big guy, muscular, with thighs like boulders beneath pants of light gray wool. He doesn’t look like he talks much. Cycers look like that.

He 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 cycer follows, gun at her shoulder, ears pricked for noise from any side.

Light rushes into the hollow of the church. All the pews have long since fallen to the fireplace. A row of cooking-pots, a pile of dry wood with a pile of wood-axes beside. Crates in the corner, filled with supplies. Silence.

They secure the door behind them, spread out and check the building. Nothing and nobody. No bears down from the mountain, no squatter come up the frozen pass through neck-high snow. Nobody waiting to jump out at them, kill them, steal their hauls, steal their bikes.

The big cycer goes out and brings in their bikes, one at a time. His bike’s painted a mottled dark red like mud or last year’s leaves, the first color to fade into the night. The others is spackle-painted, black and sky-blue, with white leather handlebar-wraps and panniers and saddle. Showy.

The big cycer’s bike could use a new coat of paint, new handlebar-wrap, a good polish to the saddle. He’ll have plenty of time to fix it up over the summer. He’s the camper.

He’s the one who’s going to spend the next six or seven months at the camp, however long until the snows threaten to close the passes again. He’ll be the one to welcome cycers as they pass through, give them food and shelter before they go back on the road and on their way. 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 that cycers can ride out and through. Haul their packages. Earn their fees. Keep trade and commerce and communication open across a very big piece of land that used to be a country.

The camper grabs a ladder, pulls out his knife and pries open the nearest create. Inside are rows of jars: flour, lard, Carib lemon juice, Roseburg tea, gunpowder, tooth-powder, break lube, chain grease. Enough to last them until the first team of oxen comes over the mountain, bringing winter wheat from Brattle, bringing whatever the camper’s bought for his cycers.

The other cycer takes off her helmet. Her ponytail’s tied with a little piece of white leather. She unstraps her sleeping-roll from her rear rack, unrolls it on the dusty floor. In the middle is a copper spyglass. Telescopes it open and fixes it to her rifle. She throws the camper a big salute, which he smiles at and then ignores, and she goes to climb the steeple, hold the fort.

The camper goes over to the corner and starts counting stacked firewood. The last camper seems to have left them understocked. He got ambushed last winter, somewhere on California One, hauling letters for rich men and coded words for merchants and ampoules of novocaine that had been found underneath a hospital. The cycers didn’t know what happened to him. Probably nobody ever would.

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

It’s not an alarm. But it’s the first word either of them have said in six hours. In a single motion the camper’s got his back to the firewood and his shoulder pressed to the rifle-stock.

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

The camper stares at the ceiling, waiting for more, waiting for it to make sense. It doesn’t.

“On the round?” he calls.

“Riding.”

At every camp there’s a riding-round, a quarter-mile circle of good pavement. Same at every camp. If a cycer’s at a camp for a week, a month, they need to keep fit. Keep up their stamina. Keep their chains moving.

Some people have bikes. Not many.

Nobody rides like a cycer.

“Anything else?” the camper calls.

He waits. Ponytail scans the horizon, first with her eyes, then with her gunsight, inch by inch. A cycer’s slow, methodical, patient. That’s what lets them be the fastest things in the world, hour into hour, day after day.

He stands still, waiting in the silence. Then Ponytail calls down: “No.”

Ponytail climbs down, jumps the last few ladder-rungs. They go back out the front door and into the end-of-winter air. They walk around the church, frozen grass crunching under their boots. There’s a path of fieldstones green and white with lichen. They walk on the grass beside it to keep their cleats from scraping. They cross over a little wood-plank bridge to go over a mountain stream. Behind the church there’s enough land to plant a big salad-garden, graze half a hundred sheep. Then there are spruces, green and tall, with just a few feet of the round visible through a tree-break.

A rider flashes past.

They both stop. Ponytail glances at the camper. The camper doesn’t move. He waits, unmoving. And he counts.

Fortyfive seconds later the rider flashes past again.

Exactly fortyfive seconds. The camper’s eyebrows arch. Many riders could hit that speed. Some could pass it. Some sustain it. This rider is pacing themselves to exactly twenty miles per hour. Like a pianist with a metronome. This rider is a cycer.

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

They see a rider all in gray. 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 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. Sixty pounds. Half her weight. Triple the weight of her bike.

Her lungs are pumping, chest rising and falling like a bellows. Then she notices them, Ponytail and the camper. Doesn’t stop. Doesn’t even break stride. The two of them look at her. 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. Don’t interrupt a cycer at her exercise.

They count her going around eight times. Ponytail drops and does pushups. The camper goes into yoga poses, stretching his legs, flexing his core.

Without warning the rider moves her bike to the edge of the round, reaches back and pulls a piece of rope. The weights come flying off, clattering like warring churchbells as they roll and scatter. One stops about ten feet from Ponytail’s head. The camper catches the rider smiling as she passes by.

She takes five more laps, three at speed, two at coast. She stops about fifty feet away. She gets off her bike, goes over to the stream. There’s a section about ten feet long that’s been lined with fieldstones to make a flowing cistern. She takes off her helmet and her gloves and her cleated shoes. She takes off her clothing. She jumps in.

The water’s not deep. She tucks into a cannonball, her knees just glancing off the bottom. Stays under for ten seconds, fifteen, twenty. Feels the current pulling her. Feels daggers in her chest, her throat, her eyes. Starts to feel nothing. Starts to feel clean.

She bursts out of the water, rises sputtering, pulls herself out, gsaping, pulls a cloth over her body as she fights not to shiver. Bends down to a pile of clothing and pulls on heavy wool pants and a sweater, then steps into a pair of moccasins lined with 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 ride.

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.

“I’m up.”

Means she’s ready for assignment. Ready for a delivery. Ready to haul.

“How long have you been here?” Ponytail asks her.

“November,” she says.

“Alone?”

She nods.

“Why did-”

The camper cuts her off. “What’s your name?”

She holds his eyes. “Slip.”

Most cycers use nicknames. The camper’s met most of them, heard of even more. He knows their names like they were his brothers, because they are.

He knows her name.

“You’re dead,” he says.

***

Somehow they’d figured out what she was hauling. Six kilograms of raw brown opium from the fields of Sun Valley, heading to the great hospital in Newbury. They came on horseback down from Hamilton. She heard them coming. She ran.

Heard more coming up ahead. Surrounded. Hid in a farmer’s barn. Paid him to boil goat’s-milk down into paint. Coated her bike, again and again. Waited for snow, days, days, hiding in the belfry with a spyglass and the farmer’s hunting-bow by her side. Snow came. Headed out, pedaling madly, west and then north and then doubling back towards her endpoint at a run.

Cut through the Buffalo glow, ruined city, ruined roads. Stayed out of towns. Rode through snow-white winds. Got to Bent to find the passes closed. Didn’t stop, not even to look behind her. Put together a trailer and headed up.

Took her five days. Got caught in a two-foot blizzard. Pulled her bike through the piling snow. Inch by inch. 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, pikes, pushups, stayed strong. Rationed her food. Read the four books they had, again and again.

For six months.

***

“Guess I gave ’em the slip,” she says.

Ponytail is just staring at her.

Slip ignores her. “You’re low on wood and butter.”

“Do you still have your haul?” the camper asks.

She nods. Looks behind them at the open church. “How are the roads?”

The camper gives her the cycer’s thumbs-up: four fingers splayed up into the air.

She looks at the sky. It’s about three in the afternoon. It’ll be dark in two hours. Not much time to ride.

“Heading out,” she says. Gets on her bike and rides back to the church, leaving Ponytail and the camper to stare after her.

“Slip,” the camper says to himself.

“Six months,” says Ponytail. “Six fucking months!”

The camper watches her as she rides away.

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~ by davekov on 12 June 2015.

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