Home > Shadows (Ashes Trilogy #2)(12)

Shadows (Ashes Trilogy #2)(12)
Author: Ilsa J. Bick

“Easy, boy,” she said, hooking the sorrel’s halter. Bobbing, the gelding snorted and stamped. “Guys, just take it—” The words died on her tongue.

“Lena?” Greg looked at her over Night’s saddle. “You okay?”

“Fine,” she said. The word came out a bit flat, almost unreal, which was how she felt, too, because what she now spied on Nathan’s saddle didn’t quite compute. She knew John rode the dapple gray, and the chestnut was Jess’s. John’s rifle was still in its red saddle scabbard. Chris’s gun was seated in a scabbard on Night’s off-side, barrel down and butt at horn height. Jess’s chestnut mare had no scabbard. The sorrel gelding, Nathan’s horse, did: a short leather tube with big brass buckles. The scabbard held a pump shotgun—and there was blood, a fair amount, smeared on the stock. Hair, too. Some was long and gray, which would tally if Alex had smashed Jess hard enough to break her face. But there was also a gluey clump of shorter, very dark hair.

Chris’s hair was black. Chris had a head wound.

But John said Night kicked him. Her eyes dropped to Night’s hooves. Clean as a whistle. Of course, the snow might’ve scrubbed away blood and hair. But nothing explained the shotgun, and she’d found that shell. So was this gun Jess’s? It might be, and that meant Nathan and the guards were lying about Chris. But why?

“Got it,” Greg said. The olive-green walkie-talkie was rectangular and bulky, with a whippy antenna. Head cocked, Greg listened to the clicks a moment, and then his mouth sagged in shock. “Oh shit.”

“What?” A door slammed and she saw Nathan and John spill down the stairs, coming for their horses at a dead run. John had his handset out, too. Dread knotted her stomach. “Greg, what?”

“Peter.” Greg’s face was white as chalk. “It’s Peter.”


“So now what? We, like, totally bombed,” Tyler said as his horse minced over rutted ice. The kid said he was fourteen, but Peter thought Tyler was lying. Still, the boy had stamina, and that was lucky. The majority of Peter’s men were wheezy geezers who hunted and knew their guns, but that was it. Only two, Lang and Weller, who’d found their way to Rule a week after the world died, had combat experience. A lucky break, too. Both were grizzled Vietnam vets who’d served in the same unit. After hearing that, Peter had given them sanctuary on the spot. Although Lang was from Wisconsin, Weller was from Michigan and had worked the old iron mine south of Rule once upon a time. Of course, the mine was way before Peter’s time, and Weller was his grandfather’s age, which translated to older than dirt. But Lang and Weller were good men who not only knew weapons but understood battle tactics. These days, men like that were gold.

The old Yeager mine was ancient history, too: closed for decades, blockaded to keep out the curious. So, of course, the place was a complete kid-magnet. It was only after he was a deputy that Peter recognized the mine for the freaking death trap that it was. But when he was a kid, the mine possessed an irresistible draw: a fabulous and forbidden warren of decaying, labyrinthine tunnels that were as dark and mysterious as a Roman catacomb. That he might actually die in a tunnel collapse; that one misstep might send him hurtling down a hidden escape shaft or forgotten blasthole to bust on the rocks like a blood balloon or, even worse, only break his legs so that he died from thirst slowly and in great pain; that given the right conditions, a tunnel could flood in a few minutes and much faster than any kid could run; that a person could keel over from swamp gas and suffocate before he knew what hit him—all that danger added to the thrill. Peter and his friends—and later, their girlfriends—had spent a lot of time there, exploring, partying, smoking, drinking. Making out. There were all sorts of interesting things you could do in the dark. Every kid in the area knew the mine, which, he now thought, explained an awful lot.

“We did okay,” Peter said to Tyler now, but he was worried. Okay translated to not enough to keep people in line. Out of four wagons, only two were loaded. One swayed under several hundred pounds of gasoline-splashed hay—probably a loss, but Peter hoped to salvage feed from deeper in each bale—and four baaing sheep. The other wagon was chockablock with a motley assortment of propane tanks, a couple roadside flares, canned vegetables, sacks of flour and dried beans, bottles of cooking oil. They’d salvaged some puke-awful crap from a dinky Hmong place outside Clam Lake in Wisconsin: cans and jars with labels of nasty things he didn’t even know were food.

The problem was he needed the other settlements’ cooperation. Never mind Rule. If he couldn’t dole out supplies to those outliers, groups that were too small to be true villages but still large enough to be useful, they wouldn’t keep up their end of the bargain. If that happened? Bad news for everybody.

“I guess.” Tyler hesitated, then said, “I keep seeing that old lady, you know? Like, I dream about the fire and the animals, how they screamed and then she . . . when she took her gun and—”

“No one told her to eat that bullet.”

“But we killed her husband.”

“Hey.” Indignant, Peter took up his reins a little too fast.

Surprised, Fable snorted then slithered, her hooves clattering on ice. Dead Man’s Alley was steep as a ski jump but a straight, fast, twenty-mile shot all the way back to Rule. Given his druthers, he wouldn’t be here, for all kinds of reasons. Still, he was reasonably sure the Changed were bedded down for the day by now, and he just didn’t like the looks of that pewter sky, or the smell of blued steel. The storm that had been brewing and dogging them ever since Wisconsin was coming for sure. “That old guy shot first, and then we had no choice. It’s not rocket science.”

“But we were taking just about everything they had,” Tyler said.

“Who said life is fair?” Peter said. The butt of a Desert Eagle fisted into the small of his back. He’d pried the weapon from some guy they’d found slumped on the steps of a Winnebago. At least, Peter thought the body was a he. No head, minus a foot and the left hand, just some leathery tendons and skin hanging off long bones like bark curls from birch. But the weapon was sweet, a real bone-breaker, judging from the exit craters blown out of two kids sprawled nearby. The kids were popsicles; scavengers didn’t touch the Changed. Anyway, he took the Eagle and a couple bricks of ammo he found stashed in the trailer. “It’s us or them, me or you. Now, I’m sorry about that old lady and everyone else I’ve had to shoot, but I got a responsibility. What I take from others, I put into your mouth.”

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