Writings of Kevin McArthur

Subtitle

Return to Devastation

 

In December of 2014 I intend to release the sequel to my most popular novel to date, Devastation. Read an excerpt from Return to Devastation below:

 

 

Prologue

 

Journal entry:

May 7, 2010

Today marks five days since Black set out on horseback for Illinois. Although Catherine and I realize Jason intends to return to the River Settlement, I suspect he had another destination in mind before he left though he never once hinted where that might be.

I’m thrilled that Catherine has chosen to remain here in Utah for now. She lives on the lower floor of our home, a three-room basement apartment. I enjoy time spent with her, cooking, cleaning and hanging out with my daughters. They’ve come to call her “Aunt Catherine,” but to my daughters Black is still “Black.”

Jason agreed to carry a few items to the settlement upon my request, letters to Hailey and Hattie, and a couple of items that I pray will make Hattie’s life more comfortable. How I wish she were up to a return trip! It’s strange sometimes how we happen across folks who we seem to have known forever. Although Hattie and I spent only a few short weeks together, she will always hold a special place in my heart.

Our once united country is now a dichotomy, split by the Rocky Mountains and the destruction. States west of the mountains have survived relatively well. Life continues much as it always had. While gasoline, meat and vegetables remain in high demand, survivors still purchase life’s necessities. Everyone is learning to economize, to spend little and make use of every resource.

States east of the Rockies however are a barren wasteland. Citizens regroup in major cities to rebuild. Life in the east is rough. Black had read the newspaper reports before he left. Denver will be the first city he encounters on his eastern trek where the military has built a stronghold. The Denver we rode through last year had been dead and lifeless and Jason mentioned he looked forward to seeing the change.

Our hearts and prayers go with Black. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to repeat such a journey; but Black is Black and try as we might, Catherine and I couldn’t convince him to stay. Ooh rah, Marine!

 

 

Chapter 1

 

On a high mountain peak, a lone coyote hunts several feet below a warming snowline. Snow melt drips from the frigid ragged edge onto the wet grass. The animal had fared well through the mild winter. Tufts of scraggly winter fur clings to his under layer and will eventually drift on the wind to leave a darker and thinner summer coat.

For now, his belly aches with hunger. A small blue grouse he had brought down the previous morning had not satiated a hunger from meager cold weather hunting. Though the winter had been mild, his body has used up his stored fat reserves. Survival through the coming weeks will hinge on successful hunts.

The coyote’s nose reads the ground scents. A forest hare had passed this way not long ago; and here, a meadow mouse had scampered to the snowline then back downhill. A mouse wouldn’t be worth the energy to pursue. The hare however, will see him through another day.

The coyote alerts, raises its head and peers down the mountainside. With its ears trained forward the animal searches to identify sounds from below that are foreign on his mountain.

The coyote surveys large tracts of land and spies a movement fifteen-hundred feet below that drifts slowly from clearing to clearing. His gaze trails ahead to an opening where on its present course the animal should emerge. Instinct urges the coyote to flee but curiosity holds him fast.

The coyote backtracks a few yards to provide a better view of the opening where the animal, no, animals, should eventually appear. Yes, he hears three now, three distinct sets of hooves treading heavily on the soft forest floor.

Deer, even elk would not make such a ruckus and survive. These are disparate animals; prey unfamiliar with wilderness survival.

A shape enters the opening. Not until the following animal appears does the coyote’s distant memory identify the creatures: horses.

A man sits atop the first horse. The trailing two carry sawbuck pack frames, each draped with a pair of panniers, saddlebags and various sundries.

The coyote has rarely seen the animals since dangerous men nearly always accompany horses. Still, as a pup he had chased one until his mother had bowled him over in a meadow and had forced him to follow her into the safety of the black timber.

The figure mounted on the lead horse is undoubtedly one of the dangerous men. Even from this distance, the coyote sees the hat pulled low and the rider’s body sway in the saddle as though he may drift to sleep and fall to the ground.

Men are dangerous but a horse’s hoof can deliver a lethal blow even to an experienced hunter like himself. This man doesn’t look dangerous, then again, the man has no idea that he is being watched. The predator lowers its head and slinks downhill before vanishing into the dark pine forest.

Far below, the rider, Jason Black, knows he had ridden on horseback through these Uintah Mountains less than a year ago, though he is unable to recall the journey. More precisely, he had ridden the eastern end of the mountains until an encounter with a mountain lion had nearly killed him. After that, Kelly Cordova had provided the details he knew. He knew Kelly as ‘Rocky’, a childhood nickname she had acquired from her father.

She said that after the attack a mysterious and wild man had rescued them. A “mountain man” she had called him. What nagged Black the most though was that the man’s name was Luke. The coincidental name haunted him because his brother had been killed in the Iraqi war. Luke Black had been a marine as Jason had been.

Jason wondered, as he often had, that if had he chosen college instead of the marines if his brother would have enlisted. Jason, or “Black” as most people called him, had never been one to consider “what if” or “should have been.” Jason sees the world as it is. Even after the great comet had struck the earth and destroyed most of America, he hadn’t once considered ‘what if it hadn’t happened? Where would he be now?’ He would leave such thoughts to the dreamers.

To embark on this mission he had left his new bride of six months behind in Utah. When he had considered the insanity of returning to the shattered world east of the Rocky Mountains, Catherine had supported his decision.

What in his spirit drove him east again? To leave his beautiful wife and civilization for an untamed wilderness isn’t the reason of a rational man. Still, for him, there could be no other life until he fulfilled a vow to his brother and a promise to himself.

He came to the mountains to find the wild man, Luke; to repay the man for saving his life and he had no idea how he might do that.

Jason had little to go on to find the stranger. He had never met the man since he had been unconscious at the time. He had no memory of landmarks. The clues provided by Rocky were scant; the cave where the wild man lived had been fairly close to their last camp. Since the area had been blanketed in dense fog his last time through, simply finding the place where they had camped would be akin to finding the proverbial needle.

Rocky had mentioned crossing a river a day after they had left the cave. After studying maps, he and Rocky had both agreed that it must have been the Duchesne River, the only major river between Salt Lake and the Green River, which she and Jason had crossed before the mountain lion attack. They had forded the Green River somewhere below the Flaming Gorge dam, and, he estimated, not far below.

On this journey, he had crossed the Duchesne two days before and was reasonably certain the cave must be behind him now, since without pulling a travois and trailing a man on foot as Rocky had, he would have made better distance on horseback.

He remembered following a mountain ridge that traveled east and west, a range unique to the high Uintah Mountains. Other ranges in the United States trailed north to south, only the Uintahs lay askew. He recalled that before camping they had entered a tree line where trees stood tall, where the trees behind them had fallen from the great wind. They had set camp at the edge of a small grassy meadow, an uncomforting fact since he had crossed a hundred similar clearings. The search area could cover a small state; only by finding some familiar place, some small plot from his memory could he retrace their journey to the last camp.

The horses began a long descent. Trees stood tall on each side of the trail; a sign that he had yet to enter the destruction zone. From under the wide brim of his cowboy hat, he caught a glimpse of a winding ribbon of green water below. Horse hooves plodded the trail bringing him ever closer to the aptly named river. “No river is as green or as cold,” Rocky had once told him.

When the trail leveled, he rode through a narrow canyon mouth to a path paralleling the river. He pulled the reins gently. “Whoa, boy.” The horse fidgeted before lowering its head to graze at the river’s edge. Jason dismounted with a groan and held fast to the saddle horn for a moment to allow his legs to adjust to his weight. The two pack horses began to graze. Jason shrugged off the full-length oilskin duster coat, a covering more suitable for his last trip through the foggy mountains than it had been during this ride. Catherine had insisted that he wear the coat and he admitted to himself that it had come in handy on cool nights.

Today the sun shone brightly and the sky, while still showing a gray hue, had returned to a nearly blue tint as it had been before the wind.

He draped the coat over the saddle, swiped the cowboy hat from his head and wiped his damp brow with his shirtsleeve. He knelt beside the river, dipped the hat in and scooped water. He lowered his face to the hat and drank. Since leaving the Utah Valley he had learned to use the hat for more than a head covering. He had drank from it, used it to fan fire flames and as a container to gather berries, mushrooms and edible greens.

After their return to Utah, he had learned as much as Rocky could teach him about wild plants which she had learned from Hattie back at the Ohio River Settlement. Maybe the old girl had known a thing or two. Jason’s concern for now wasn’t food, since he had loaded enough on the pack horses to see him well across country. Before settling into camp for the night though, he practiced by gathering what fauna he could and sampled each to make certain that he had picked the right ones. Should he go wrong and pick poisonous mushrooms for instance, well, the world is what it is.

Jason set the water-filled hat on the grass. He reached into a pannier box mounted on a packhorse and pulled out two biscuits and several strips of beef jerky. Rocky’s daughters had baked the biscuits for him. The biscuits remained soft and may last several more days, he imagined.

He spread the duster over the grass and sat on it. Downriver a series of white rapids suggested a shallow place to cross. He turned and looked upstream to where the river curved and vanished behind a hill. He had carefully followed a map that he had brought and had set a course for just below the Flaming Gorge dam. The dam would be near if he had figured right. Once he located the dam, he intended to ride downriver to find the canyon that he and Rocky had followed into the mountains. With luck, he would locate their last camp. From there, he intended to search for the cave, a goal less likely to succeed. He had a lot to hope for and precious days ticked by as he searched for one sole purpose, to say ‘thank you’ to a man who had likely forgotten him by now. Still he owed the man something. A few cans of beef stew or chili, of which he had packed many. He could offer a can of beer to wash down the chili or a box of crackers. The man was welcome to everything he carried.

Examining the horses, he knew he had packed more than needed for the trip. He figured that when he eventually reached Illinois the three horses would serve as beasts of burden while he rebuilt the farm. He saw no sense in leading two horses cross-country without loading everything he might need. The extra canned food he intended to use as barter. Food could be traded where money was worth little. Folks east of the Rockies had little or no use for money, food they did. He had loaded as much as one horse could carry.

The remaining horse carried useful items for building: boxes of nails, a hammer, a T-square, a hand drill, screwdrivers and screws. He had loaded two hundred feet of rope, a small handsaw, one forty-eight inch two-man crosscut saw and more miscellaneous items that escaped him. He had wanted a longer crosscut saw but couldn’t figure how to tie it safely to the saddle packs.

He chewed beef jerky, finished the biscuits, and drank most of the water in his hat. He tossed out the remainder and shook the hat before replacing it on his head. The horses ceased their grazing and stepped into the river to drink when he rose from the duster. He waded in and tied the duster behind the saddle, then, he mounted. Though he didn’t intend to make it a habit, he had learned from an old cowboy that if you mount a horse in water, “she’s less likely to spin and stagger, unsure footing and all,” the man had said. Rocky had never mentioned this handy trick.

Jason pulled the reins toward the bank. The horse followed his lead and climbed back up to the path with the pack horses trailing. Back on the trail, Jason steered the horses upriver.

He rode the riverbank for more than an hour along a winding and well-worn game trail. A low rumble of rushing water reached him before he rounded a turn and the towering dam came into view. Steep hills flanking the river forced Jason and the mounts into the shallow river.

The sheer size of the concrete structure caused the rider to gaze in awe while the animals plodded along the stony riverbed. Finally, he reigned up the gelding just downriver from the concrete blockade.

Unlike other river dams of his experience, this one had no spillway from above, nor fish ladders. Water surged from the base of the structure in a controlled flow. To his surprise, at the foundation base a small concrete building reverberated with the hum of hydroelectric generators.

He knew from reading about the dam that the structure held back water to form the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, a massive lake that stretched ninety miles into Wyoming. The articles hadn’t done justice to the enormity of the barrier. The five-hundred foot-high arched behemoth stretched across a thousand foot wide canyon. Jason felt tiny in comparison.

Large trout undulated below him in the clear cold water. He craned his neck to see birds soar high, but below the top of the dam. After a time, Jason coaxed the horses to turn and retrace their steps.

When the horses scrambled onto the riverbank, Black pulled a map from the saddlebag and studied it for a moment. He noted an ‘x’ mark that he had made where he and Rocky had figured they had entered a canyon after crossing the river. He rode quietly and studied each canyon opening as they passed. Soon, he reached the canyon that he had ridden in earlier and continued. Forty minutes later, he approached the map-marked canyon and paused to examine the narrow snaking path that looked similar to many others he had seen. Eventually he nudged his heels to the horse’s ribs and turned him up the trail.

The path rose rapidly as he remembered, winding upward into the trees. Scrub oak gave way to towering pines and aspens. The rider entered a darkened tree line and continued deep into the forest. The rise leveled below the flanking mountain peaks, then began a slow descent.

Unlike the previous ride, the forest seemed alive with birdsongs. A squirrel scolded as he rode past. Ahead, the occasional rabbit or rodent crossed the trail. Upon entering a clearing, he marveled at the bright sky and an eagle soaring overhead. He crossed the clearing and entered the forest with and unmistakable sense of someone or something watching him. The short hairs tingled on the back of his neck. He smiled remembering Rocky’s paranoia of the watching wolf during their last trek.

The horses stumbled across a narrow stream, which seemed to signal that he followed the right path; then again, the trails all looked similar up here.

Light dimmed in the early evening. His stomach grumbled from hunger and he began to sway limply in the saddle. The horses and rider broke from the trees and crossed a small meadow. Then the gelding paused and focused its ears forward. Jason peered ahead and there, situated at the edge of the tree line and just off the path, the remnants of a large, burned out campfire.

Jason examined the site from a distance before nudging the mount closer. He surveyed the surrounding trees, attempting to recall the last campsite from his memory before he had gone into the fog to hunt. His stomach knotted.

Black dismounted and tied the lead horse loosely to a low hanging branch. The animal bowed its head to graze. Next, he hobbled the two pack horses to graze freely.

Jason studied the ground around the charcoal pit. A few charred remnants of tree branches lay at the edge of the fire pit; the ends of branches that had been too far to the edge to burn.

He knelt a short way from the pit to examine the ground and clearly located a hole, just larger in diameter than his finger where a tent stake could have been. A dozen feet away he found an identical hole. He studied the trees off to the side, stood, and then searched the soft ground around the trees. He knelt again, tracing a hoof print with his fingertip. Each sign seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces. While uncertain that this was the campsite, it seemed too simple to stumble upon; a needle in a haystack doesn’t just jump into your hand.

Black removed his hat and looked to the sky that had taken on an early twilight glow. After setting the cowboy hat on a boulder, he unloaded the pack horses and then unsaddled his mount. He erected the tent at the side of the fire pit, the hobbled horses grazed toward the center of the grassy clearing. When the saddle horse had nipped grass beneath the tree branch to nubs, Jason unraveled a long length of rope and tied the horse’s halter to a tree giving the animal freedom to roam further into the meadow.

Jason gathered wood and built a fire while he searched his memory and the campsite for some clue that he had found the right meadow. He reached into a saddle pack and removed a can of chili, another can of sliced peaches and an apple. He opened the chili can with a P-38, a small military issue can opener. Being an ex-marine, Jason knew the story behind the P-38, possibly the army’s greatest invention. Simple to use when opening any aluminum can, they were first invented by the U.S. military during WWII. Old veterans referred to the P-38 as a “John Wayne” since John Wayne, the famous actor, had demonstrated its use during a WWII training film by opening a can of C-rations.

He set the can beside the fire to warm, bit into the apple and lay against the packs to watch the horses graze. The animals had worked hard on the ride today, pausing to graze only for short intervals while he dismounted to rest and to eat. A night of good grass would refresh them for the journey tomorrow.

The saddle horse was a large appaloosa gelding he had chosen to ride due to its size and manageable disposition. If pressed, Jason would admit he liked the red spotted rump over a white blanket. The beast had the chest of a bulldog and the head of a Roman warhorse. The previous owner had named him Rampage, though Jason couldn’t imagine why. The horse had ridden as gentle as an old dog thus far.

The man had said that all three horses had experience in mountain riding, used often for big game hunting in the high mountains. The pack horses, both mares, were young and fit and so far handled the loads well. Pack horses were followers; the gelding was a leader with a mind of his own at times. He wouldn’t have made a good packhorse due to being male, Jason figured. The owner had also said that while the mares were dependable, the gelding had a stubborn streak that would carry its rider out of any tight scrape he might encounter. That was the type of horse Black could admire, stubborn and hardheaded, but dependable.

In the still air, he noticed the smell of his sweat and recalled Rocky’s admonishments to bathe on the previous journey. He made a mental note to find a stream in the morning to freshen up, not that anyone would notice out here. The horses would need water first thing, too. For now, he imagined, they would get enough moisture from the grass.

When he finished the dinner of chili and sliced peaches the forest darkened with a half-moon illuminating the meadow. He stacked a few large branches on the fire, laid the duster coat on the ground and spread a sleeping bag on top. He drew a pack close for a pillow and stared up at the night sky with visions of Catherine until he fell asleep.