Excerpt: Ashes on a Distant Wind

The radio in his hand crackled, and Donovan Riggs pressed the button on the side. “Where the hell are you?” he demanded, his voice sharp with impatience. The radio gave another sputter of protest as it grudgingly cut through the static.

“Don’t get snippy,” came the cheerful retort. Beau sounded even younger over the radio than the roughly twenty Riggs had him pegged for. “I had to go the long way round. Fresh debris. I’m almost back to your location now.”

Riggs swallowed a curse as he set the radio back down, dropping it beside the torch that had run out of fuel just shy of cutting through the last sheet of metal. Fresh debris could only mean this section of city was even less stable than they’d figured. If it was bad enough to send Beau forging an alternate route, that meant getting out through crumbling suburbs and shattered streets would be an arduous task at best.

Riggs considered for a moment, then yanked his thick work gloves off and added them to the pile of equipment. He could complete the job when Beau returned. There was more fuel in the back of the truck, enough to let him finish cutting. This was a smaller haul than their last, but it would have to do. Riggs prayed it would be enough to barter, assuming he and Beau could find their way out of the dead city and back to what passed for civilization.

His long leather jacket was also on the ground beside the radio, and the brown fabric contrasted starkly with the crumbled gray pavement beneath it. Riggs was tempted to shed one more layer, down to the thin T-shirt clinging to his skin, but he resisted the urge. For all that he was too warm from his work, the air was chilly enough to make it a bad idea.

The growl of an approaching truck drew his attention, and he leaned down to fish the loaded revolver from the pocket of his coat. There was no mistaking the sound of that engine, but he clicked off the safety just the same. Always brace for the worst. It was a good philosophy for staying alive in a world gone wrong.

He didn’t put the gun away until Beau had backed the enormous pickup right up to the ready pile of scrap, parked, and hopped out of the cab. For all that Riggs had been doing the heavier work in his absence, Beau looked just as bedraggled, both from the heavy air and his own exertions. His dark hair looked nearly black where sweat plastered it to his neck and cheeks, and his narrow face was gaunt in a way that said Riggs had better plan to cook up a little extra when they stopped for supper tonight. Beau was smiling, but the expression was too tight to herald success.

“You didn’t find any gas,” Riggs surmised, tugging his gloves back on as he moved to unlock the tailgate.

Beau’s smile faded behind a more somber look, and he shook his head. “I checked seven gas stations, three parking garages, and a car dealership. This place is tapped out. I found some kerosene and a stash of non-perishables, and I grabbed some fresh clothes while I was at it. But no fuel for the truck.”

“We haven’t run out yet.” Riggs dropped the truck’s lower gate with a thud, then propped the upper securely open. “We’ve got plenty to reach Almstead. We’ll just have to trade for more when we get there.” The prospect wasn’t ideal. Food and gasoline were the two steepest commodities in the crude barter economy that stood as the only way to do business. Workable metal only offered so much value by contrast, and he and Beau had little else to trade. This wasn’t the first time things would be tight, but repetition didn’t make the uncertainty any more appealing.

They would manage somehow.

“Come on.” Riggs moved for the first pile of metal, each piece already cut down to fit the space available in the top-covered truck bed. “Let’s get this scrap loaded and get the hell out of here.”

“That’s what I love about you, Riggs.” Beau tugged his own thick gloves on as he approached the opposite edge of the pile. “You really know how to have fun.”

Riggs only glared.

They worked efficiently, but it was still more than two hours before they finished, cutting down the last couple scraps, loading and locking their equipment securely in the back of the truck alongside the fresh haul. Riggs shrugged back into his coat. He stifled an exhausted groan as he climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the door behind him. Beau gave him a knowing look as he slipped in through the opposite door, settling in on the passenger side of the worn bench seat.

“Fine. Next time I’ll cut the scrap and you can fail at scavenging.” Beau’s expression was bland, but there was a hint of challenge in his voice.

Riggs snorted and turned the key in the ignition, gunning the pickup to life. The gas gauge had been broken for months, but he knew there was enough fuel in the tank to get them to the nearest bend in the river. They could stop there to refill their tank from the gas can in back. The river bend was familiar ground sandwiched between pieces of nowhere. It would be relatively safe, with good cover for a night’s rest.

The sun was just beginning to sink, but assuming they could find a way out of here at all, they should make good time. Beau rolled down the window despite the clinging dust of dead city all around them. Riggs threw him a quick glance and then did the same.

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