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The Postman (Bantam Classics)by David Brin
Gordon's smile was bitterly thin as he sat up carefully, backing along his rocky perch until he felt sure he was out of view of the slope below. He plucked his travel belt free of twigs and drew the half-full canteen for a long, desperately needed drink.
Bless you, paranoia, he thought. Not once since the Doomwar had he ever allowed the belt more than three feet from his side. It was the only thing he had been able to grab before diving into the brambles.
The dark gray metal of his .38 revolver shone even under a fine layer of dust, as he drew it from its holster. Gordon blew on the snub-nosed weapon and carefully checked its action. Soft clicking testified in understated eloquence to the craftsmanship and deadly precision of another age. Even in killing, the old world had made well.
Especially in the art of killing, Gordon reminded himself. Raucous laughter carried up from the slope below.
Normally he traveled with only four rounds loaded. Now he pulled two more precious cartridges from a belt pouch and filled the empty chambers under and behind the hammer. "Firearm safety" was no longer a major consideration, especially since he expected to die this evening anyway.
Sixteen years chasing a dream, Gordon thought. First that long, futile struggle against the collapse . . . then scratching to survive through the Three-Year Winter . . . and finally more than a decade of moving from place to place, dodging pestilence and hunger, fighting goddamned Holnists and packs of wild dogs . . . half a lifetime spent as a wandering dark age minstrel, play-acting for meals in order to make it one day more while I searched for . . .
. . . for someplace . . .
Gordon shook his head. He knew his own dreams quite well. They were a fool's fantasies, and had no place in the present world.
. . . for someplace where someone was taking responsibility . . .
He pushed the thought aside. Whatever he had been looking for, his long seeking seemed to have ended here, in the dry, cold mountains of what had once been eastern Oregon.
From the sounds below he could tell that the bandits were packing up, getting ready to move off with their plunder. Thick patches of desiccated creeper blocked Gordon's view downslope through the ponderosa pines, but soon a burly man in a faded plaid hunting coat appeared from the direction of his campsite, moving northeast on a trail leading down the mountainside.
The man's clothing confirmed what Gordon remembered from those blurred seconds of the attack. At least his assailants weren't wearing army surplus camouflage . . . the trademark of Holn survivalists.
They must be just regular, run of the mill, may-they please-roast-in-Hell bandits.
If so, then there was a sliver of a chance the plan glimmering in his mind just might accomplish something.
The first bandit had Gordon's all-weather jacket tied around his waist. In his right arm he cradled the pump shot gun Gordon had carried all the way from Montana. "Come on!" the bearded robber yelled back up the trail. "That's enough gloating. Get that stuff together and move it!"
The leader, Gordon decided.
Another man, smaller and more shabby, hurried into view carrying a cloth sack and a battered rifle. "Boy, what a haul! We oughta celebrate. When we bring this stuff back, can we have all the 'shine we want, Jas?" The small robber hopped like an excited bird. "Boy, Sheba an' the girls'll bust when they hear about that lil' rabbit we drove off into the briar patch. I never seen anything run so fast!" He giggled.
Gordon frowned at the insult added to injury. It was the same nearly everywhere he had been--a postholocaust callousness to which he'd never grown accustomed, even after all this time. With only one eye peering through the scrub grass rimming his cleft, he took a deep breath and shouted.
"I wouldn't count on getting drunk yet, Brer Bear!" adrenaline turned his voice more shrill than he wanted, but that couldn't be helped.
The big man dropped awkwardly to the ground, scrambling for cover behind a nearby tree. The skinny robber though, gawked up at the hillside.
"What . . . ? Who's up there?"
Gordon felt a small wash of relief. Their behavior confirmed that the sons of bitches weren't true survivalists. Certainly not Holnists. If they had been, he'd probably be dead by now.
The other bandits--Gordon counted a total of five--hurried down the trail carrying their booty. "Get down!" their leader commanded from his hiding place. Scrawny seemed to wake up to his exposed position and hurried to join his comrades behind the undergrowth.
All except one robber--a sallow-faced man with salt-and-pepper sideburns, wearing an alpine hat. Instead of hiding he moved forward a little, chewing a pine needle and casually eyeing the thicket.
"Why bother?" he asked calmly. "That poor fellow had on barely more than his skivvies, when we pounced him. We've got his shotgun. Let's find out what he wants."
Gordon kept his head down. But he couldn't help noticing the man's lazy, affected drawl. He was the only one who was clean shaven, and even from here Gordon could tell that his clothes were cleaner, more meticulously tended.
At a muttered growl from his leader, the casual bandit shrugged and sauntered over behind a forked pine. Barely hidden, he called up the hillside. "Are you there, Mister Rabbit? If so, I am so sorry you didn't stay to invite us to tea. Still, aware how Jas and Little Wally tend to treat visitors, I suppose I cannot blame you for cutting out."
Gordon couldn't believe he was trading banter with this twit. "That's what I figured at the time," he called. "Thanks for understanding my lack of hospitality. By the way, with whom am I speaking?"
The tall fellow smiled broadly. "With whom . . . ? Ah, a grammarian! What joy. It's been so long since I've heard an educated voice." He doffed the alpine hat and bowed. "I am Roger Everett Septien, at one time a member of the Pacific Stock Exchange, and presently your robber. As for my colleagues . . ."
The bushes rustled. Septien listened, and finally shrugged. "Alas," he called to Gordon. "Normally I'd tempted by a chance for some real conversation; I'm sure you're as starved for it as I. Unfortunately, the leader of our small brotherhood of cutthroats insists that I find out what you want and get this over with.
"So speak your piece, Mister Rabbit. We are all ears."
Gordon shook his head. The fellow obviously classed himself a wit, but his humor was fourth-rate, even by post-war standards. "I notice you fellows aren't carrying all of my gear. You wouldn't by some chance have decided to take only what you needed, and left enough for me to survive, would you?"
From the scrub below came a high giggle, then more hoarse chuckles as others joined in. Roger Septien looked left and right and lifted his hands. His exaggerated sigh seemed to say that he at least, appreciated the irony in Gordon's question.
"Alas," he repeated. "I recall mentioning that possibility to my compatriots. For instance, our women might find some use for your aluminum tent poles and pack frame, but I suggested we leave the nylon bag and tent, which are useless to us.
"Um, in a sense we have done this. However, I don't think that Wally's . . . er, alterations will meet your approval."
Again, that shrieking giggle rose from the bushes. Gordon sagged a little.
"What about my boots? You all seem well enough shod. Do they fit any of you, anyway? Could you leave them? And my jacket and gloves?"
Septien coughed. "Ah, yes. They're the main items, aren't they? Other than the shotgun, of course, which is nonnegotiable."
Gordon spat. Of course, idiot. Only a blowhard states the obvious.
Again, the voice of the bandit leader could be heard, muffled by the foliage. Again there were giggles. With a pained expression, the ex-stockbroker sighed. "My leader asks what you offer in trade. Of course I know you have nothing. Still, I must inquire."
As a matter of fact, Gordon had a few things they might want--his belt compass for instance, and a Swiss army knife.
But what were his chances of arranging an exchange and getting out alive? It didn't take telepathy to tell that these bastards were only toying with their victim.
A fuming anger filled him, especially over Septien's false show of compassion. He had witnessed this combination of cruel contempt and civilized manners in other once-educated people, over the years since the Collapse. By his lights, people like this were far more contemptible than those who had simply succumbed to the barbaric times.
"Look," he shouted. "You don't need those damn boots! You've no real need for my jacket or my toothbrush or my notebook, either. This area's clean, so what do you need my Geiger counter for? I'm not stupid enough to think I can have my shotgun back, but without some of those other things I'll die, damn you!"
The echo of his curse seemed to pour down the long slope of the mountainside, leaving a hanging silence in wake. Then the bushes rustled and the big bandit leader stood up. Spitting contemptuously upslope, he snapped fingers at the others. "Now I know he's got no gun," he told them. His thick eyebrows narrowed and he gestured in Gordon's general direction.
"Run away, little rabbit. Run, or we'll skin you and have you for supper!" He hefted Gordon's shotgun, turned his back, and sauntered casually down the trail. The others in behind, laughing.
Roger Septien gave the mountainside an ironic shrug and a smile, then gathered up his share of the loot and followed his compatriots. They disappeared around a bend in the narrow forest path, but for minutes afterward Gordon heard the softly diminishing sound of someone happily whistling.
You imbecile! Weak as his chances had been, he had spoiled them completely by appealing to reason and charity. In an era of tooth and claw, nobody ever did that except out of impotence. The bandits' uncertainty had evaporated just as soon as he foolishly asked for fair play.
Of course he could have fired his .38, wasting a precious bullet to prove he wasn't completely harmless. That would have forced them to take him seriously again....
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