It’s mid-morning by the time we clear the Pendleton gates; about half an hour later we reach the first fork in the road. Granite is straight on, west along Route F towards the coast; we need to follow the old 99 north towards Junction. We’ve gone a bit out of our way, having to pretend we’re going towards Granite, so we go north on an old side-road that eventually meets up with old 99.
Used to be that Pendleton — the city what was there before Pendleton grew up — was bigger than Junction, but that was a long time ago, before the war. Most of the city that was there before — Eugene, maybe — got levelled in the war and Pendleton got built on top, originally as a base for the military, then later the city grew up just to the west. Junction wasn’t such a big target and mostly survived intact; after the war it spread out from the existing city, so now it’s the biggest city mid-Commonwealth.
The Junction-Pendleton road is more heavily trafficked than the one between Granite and Pendleton; with Junction the biggest city this part of the country and Pendleton an army base, I’m not surprised when we’re passed repeatedly by military vehicles and convoys. Doesn’t keep my stomach dropping to my toes and my heart leaping into my mouth every time one comes into sight, though. No one looks at me and Daka twice, since we keep to the side of the road when the vehicles go by and don’t get in anyone’s way.
About an hour and a half out of Pendleton, just after the turn north, I pack away my bomber jacket and sling my knife bandolier across my shoulder. My long knives get belted around my waist. Daka wants me to carry the gun, but I’m still not real comfortable with it, and anyway I can explain away the knives by declaring myself a travelling knife player, with the juggling skills to prove it. The gun is more problematic, because I’m sure as hell not a good enough shot to claim to be a sharpshooter. So the gun stays at the bottom of Daka’s pack. Daka keeps his flick knife in his trouser pocket and wears his hunting knife at his belt, but you’d have to be pretty stupid to mess with him.
Having traced the route on the map, I know it’s about seventeen miles all told to get to Junction; at the rate me and Daka travel, it’ll take us something like six hours, so I figure we’ll kip outside the city and investigate the trains in the morning. I don’t like the idea of trying to hop a train when we’re both tired; I’ve got a bad feeling we’ll end up on the wrong train. Heading south towards Sanfran is better than getting caught, but it’ll add days, if not weeks, to our trip north. The more I think about it, the more I reckon that hopping more than one train isn’t a great idea — the more trains we hitch on, the more chance we got of getting caught, and I don’t like that one bit.
This late in the summer, the land between Pendleton and Junction is dry and brown; the tarmac of old 99 is covered over by a thin layer of dust that swirls up around the hovers as they pass and resettles back down in new patterns. Me and Daka leave footprints in the dirt alongside the road that are swept away as soon as a breeze picks up. It’s turning into a real hot day with not a cloud in the sky, and I’m grateful for the trees that crowd up against the tarmac since they offer at least a little shade. We pass a creek about midday, dried up to barely more than a trickle, and we follow it off-road a little ways where it’s a little less dusty. We fill our canteens, drain them, and fill them again. Pendleton doesn’t lack for resources, and Granite’s smack between two rivers; the walk between the two is mostly forest and fields, with plenty of water and shade, so never in my life have I been as worried about water as I am now. Owen’s drilled it into my head that we need to take care to get water wherever we can. I reckoned he was exaggerating things to make a point, but having gone hours seeing little more than dust and dirt, I’m starting to think maybe he wasn’t exaggerating after all.
We sit by the creek with our backs up against tree trunks and eat the lunch Owen packed for us. I save half of my chocolate brownie for later; I love chocolate and don’t know the next time I’ll get any. Owen also found ration bars for us; they’re a funny grey-brown colour, weirdly chewy, and tasteless, but they’re also designed to keep you functioning when you don’t have time — or the resources — to deal with real food, so they’ll come in handy if Daka and I find ourselves in any kind of food trouble. I’m not looking forward to that day.
We’re not in any real hurry to get going again, seeing as we’ve nowhere to be tonight, so once we’re finished with lunch we lounge around for awhile. Daka naps while I keep watch, and then I try to nap once he wakes up. No luck — I’ve never been real good at napping, so instead I tell Daka to go back to sleep and watch the ants climbing up and down the tree in front of me.
When Daka wakes up again, we pack up and stuff our rubbish down inside our bags. We’ll find somewhere to get rid of it in Junction. The ration bars come with compostable wrappers, so when we get to that point we can just bury them and be done with it. Before we leave, I dunk a bandana into the creek, wring it out, and tie it over my hair before settling my hat back on my head. Daka does the same, though he strips off his shirt and soaks it first. He catches my look and laughs.
“It’ll dry in ten minutes once we’re back on the road,” he says.
He’s right. It’s even hotter now; the tarmac radiates heat, as do the passing convoys, and pretty soon Daka’s shirt and our bandanas are bone dry. That doesn’t last real long, though; we’re both sweating something awful. There’s a trickle of sweat between my shoulder blades, dripping down to gather at the small of my back; I’m used to the heat, but I’m not used to walking for hours in it, and I hate the feeling. Daka doesn’t fare much better than me; his face is shiny with sweat and there are big damp spots on his shirt. It’s too hot for conversation, so we just walk in silence along old 99 for hours. I’m grateful for my alliskin boots; they’re maybe not the most breathable material, so my feet are real hot, but they don’t rub and I don’t have even a hint of a blister even after hours of walking.
It’s about seven when we hit the outskirts of Junction. Old 99 stretches straight ahead and I can just see the gates to the city in the distance, shimmering in the heat. We strike away from the road, west, following the curve of the edge of the city, until we find a sheltered copse of trees to pitch camp. Daka leaves me to figure out building a fire and by the time I’ve worked it out he’s back with a brace of rabbits. I circle the camp and find a few wild mushrooms and some blackberries while he skins the rabbits.
It’s just getting dark when I hear something crack in the woods. I lower my knife, which has a chunk of rabbit speared on it, and nudge Daka. He looks up and I nod towards the trees. We sit quietly for a few minutes, but don’t hear anything, so go back to eating. About twenty minutes later, I hear the noise again.
“Someone’s in the woods,” I say to Daka, real quiet.
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