by Ray Langseth
It's time, he thought. Straightening up, he looked down at the blood he had just vomited up. "Yeah, definitely time to go. Guess I better get things organized."
Flushing the toilet, the man known as Trader looked around, taking in the few possessions he actually kept in his room. Not much to speak of, considering the vast underground bunkers he and his crew had raided over the past thirty years. A US Army issue footlocker sat in one corner of the room. His bunk took up one wall, while the third wall, over his table, held shelves with maps and a few nicknacks.
Turning to the trunk, Trader knelt down and opened it, noting with a grimace the layer of dust that had accumulated on it in the past couple weeks. "Getting damn sloppy in your old age," he muttered. Rummaging around inside, he pulled out an envelope. Peering at it, he knew he had the right one. The writing on the front made no sense to him, since he'd never learned to read or write. No, it was the ketchup stain that told him that this was the letter he had paid to have written for him. The one addressed to his young lieutenant, Ryan Cawdor. Old One-Eye, as some called him. Although not many said that to his face and lived to talk about it.
Trader smiled gently at the thought of Ryan. The son he'd never had, Ryan had joined up with Trader's crew about twenty years back, just a young pup full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on the world by himself. Over the years, Trader had managed to help mold him into the strong man he was today. The man who in a few short minutes would be the new leader of the remaining members of the caravan of War Wags. Yeah, he thought. Ryan will be just fine. He's got Dix and all the others to help him carry on.
Pulling on his coat, Trader stuck a cigar in his mouth and picked up the battered Armalite from the chair next to the table. With a slightly trembling hand, he placed the farewell letter on the table where Ryan would easily spot it. The hand hovered over it hesitantly, until he pulled it back with a sudden jerk. "Not gonna back out now, damnit! You made up your mind about this, and now it's time to see this thing through."
Moving quietly, so as not to wake the rest of the crew, Trader exited War Wag 1. Pausing for a moment outside the door, he took a deep breath of the clear mountain air. Funny, he thought. No pain. Although most of the crew knew about it, none had ever dared approach him about the rad cancer that had been eating away at his guts for some time now. Well, guess it's better to leave walk straight and tall than to have to crawl away on my belly.
Moving silently toward the trees, Trader spotted the sentry. A skinny, long haired man with a big flowing moustache sat facing the woods. And, considering the hell they'd all been through earlier in Mocsin, it wasn't really all that surprising to find him dozing off. Eyes popped open wide as Trader laid a hand on his shoulder.
"How's it going, Abe?"
"Um, all quiet so far, Trader. What brings you out so late?"
Trader peered into the trees for a moment before answering. "Thought I'd take a little walk. Enjoy this beautiful night a bit before going to sleep."
Abe nodded. "Yeah, it sure is peaceful out here. A man could get used to this country."
Trader laughed and slapped the younger man on the shoulder. "I hear ya. I hear ya."
"Um, you want some company?" Trader shook his head.
"Naw. I might be gone for a while, so don't get excited if I'm not back right away. You stay put and keep an eye on things. The rest of the crew's depending on you." Trader took another deep breath, exhaling slowly. "Well, see ya around, Abe."
"Sure thing, boss."
And that was that. Trader started walking through the woods. Within moments for leaving Abe's side, he spotted another man, this one wearing a long coat with fancy patterns on it. A braid hung down from either side of his head. A single white feather was woven into his silvery hair.
"Greetings, Trader. It is good to see you again." The Indian's jet black eyes seemed to bore into Trader's.
"Well, I'll be damned! What the hell are you doing here, Latonka? Long way from your normal stomping grounds."
"The Spirits came to me in a dream. They told me to embark on a journey to meet an old friend. That I was to help him prepare for the next phase."
"'Next phase'? That what you people call taking the last train to the coast?"
Latonka smiled. "The next phase can mean many things, one of which is passing on to the spirit world. Whether or not that is what it will be for you remains to be seen. Come. We have much preparations to make." With that, the Indian turned and began walking. Trader fell into step beside his old friend, pausing only long enough to look back toward where the wags were parked. He waved toward where he could see Abe sitting up, trying to make out what was happening. The little guy waved back hesitantly, and Trader turned and walked off into the night.
One year after leaving his former life behind, Trader was once again moving across Deathlands. This time, however, he wasn't in command of the armored wags that had taken up more than half of his fifty-plus years. Now, he was playing the part of a hired secman, helping guard a wagtrain of people moving west. And for the first time in years, he was relatively pain-free.
Latonka had put him through a series of rituals designed to cleanse the body and soul, preparing him for "the next phase". Trader had gone willingly, fully expecting to die in the process. And yet, here he was, feeling like a man ten years younger. For the most part, it seemed like the rad cancer that had been eating away his insides was gone. No more puking up blood, no more racking cough.
But the rituals had changed him in other ways as well. He found himself making mistakes more and more. Mostly just little mistakes, like forgetting someone's name. Which tended to piss him off. Trader had always prided himself on his memory, and to see it starting to slip away was not something he liked. Being a man of action, the more he got pissed off, the more he began to lash out. He became increasingly more brutal in the way he handled things, especially when it came to killing.
Still, being back on the open road had lifted his spirits considerably. It wasn't easy for a man known the length and breadth of Deathlands to maintain anonymity, but Trader did it, and had some fun at the same time. People popped up now and then who thought they recognized him as the leader of the armored wags. People who had had dealings in the past with Trader. But by the time they had parted company, their suspicions had been laid to rest. This man wasn't the Trader. He was just another nameless secman for another wagtrain. The Trader was dead.
The fun started when the wagtrain reached the ville of Fargo, once the largest city in old North Dakota. This area of the country hadn't been hit nearly as hard as some parts had, mainly due to the fact that there wasn't much military-wise for miles around. On the western side of the state, Minot had been hit the worst, simply because of the missile silos that ringed that area. But that was three hundred miles away. Ninety miles to the north, Grand Forks had taken a nuke because of it's Air Force base. But Fargo wasn't considered a threat.
The wagtrain had been following old Interstate 94 up from the remains of Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota, the Twin Cities as they had been called before Skydark. Crossing over the Red River had proven to be easier than expected. The bridge was still mostly intact, and the only problem during the crossing was when one of the lead wags got a little to close to the edge and one of the wheels slipped a bit. It was a hair-raising couple seconds, but the horses proved dependable and pulled the wag safely from the precipice. As it was getting late in the afternoon, the wagmaster decided to make camp in Fargo. He said that a couple miles farther along was where old Interstate 29 crossed Interstate 94, and about a mile north of that was an area that was once the main commercial and tourist district for Fargo, complete with scads of old motels and hotels. The wagtrain headed in that direction, and sure enough, the man was true to his word.
They decided to hole up for the night in one of the larger buildings still in use as a hotel. Part of the sign was missing, but there was enough Ed, one of the other secmen, to recognize it as what was once called Holiday Inn. It was a big, rambling building, with an enormous lobby. After the wagmaster had gotten everyone set up with a room for the night, Trader decided to take a look around the place, to get the "feel" of it, just in case some kind of trouble arose. Wandering around, he passed room after room. To someone who didn't have a knack when it came to directions, it would have been easy to get lost for hours in the place. But Trader moved about like he'd lived there his entire life.
In a central courtyard down the hall from the front desk, he looked in through a door, which amazingly still had all it's glass intact, and spotted the swimming pool. From where he stood, he couldn't tell if the pool had water or not, but he suspected that latter to be the case.
Finishing up his recce, he wandered into the bar, when several members of the wagtrain were relaxing with some cheap homebrew. Getting a glass from the bar, he pulled up a chair and began to fill it from the pitcher on the table.
"Well I'll be dipped in shit! If it ain't the Trader!"
Trader concentrated on filling his glass, acting as if he hadn't heard the outburst, hoping the man would think he was mistaken and simply drop the subject. No such luck.
"What's it been? 10 years, Trader?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man approaching the table. And the people from the wagtrain were looking at him as well, trying to figure out what was going on. No sense putting it off any longer, he thought. Setting the pitcher down, he picked up his glass and turned to the man.
"You talking to me?" he asked, putting on a confused look as he took a sip of the sour homebrew and looked the man over. Short and fat, with long greasy black hair. Squinting eyes that were bloodshot from too many nights of drinking. A nose that had obviously been broken several times. Grey shirt, brown pants, both of which had seen better days.
"Damn straight I am! What brings you this way, Trader?"
"I'm afraid you have me confused with someone else, friend. Name's Jenkins. Bob Jenkins. I'm a secman for a wagtrain heading west, not some trader." The man's face scrunched up a bit as he tried to comprehend what "Jenkins" had just said.
"No way. You're the Trader. Got them there big old armored wags and that mean, one-eyed bastard of a lieutenant. What's his name? Collins? Caffee? Cawdor! That's it, Cawdor."
"Jenkins" smiled. "Oh, you think I'm the Trader. Well, friend, you ain't the first person to make that mistake. Fact is, just last month, a feller down in Chitown said the same thing. But the way I heard it, Trader's dead. Heard he got knifed in the gut by some gaudy down Sonora way. Probably rotting in some unmarked grave in a Mex cemetary."
"Really? Trader's dead? I didn't think that old bastard could die."
"Hell, he was only human. Had to go sometime, right?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Damned if you don't look just like him, though. If you ain't him, you best step real careful. Lotta men respected the old buzzard, but a lotta others would as soon blown his head off as looked at him. They might make the same mistake I just did and chill you without any warning."
"I'll try and remember that," Trader replied, nodding his head as though contemplating the man's words. "Thanks for the advice."
After that, Trader's "death" took on many different forms. A gunfight in Florida. A rockslide in the Cats. Shot in the back by some secman after a deal with a baron went sour. Trader died a hundred deaths in a hundred places, and all of stories behind them could be traced back to one man. A man now known as Bob Jenkins.
As the weeks past, Trader managed to pick up news of Ryan and the others. But the stories didn't make any sense to him. For some reason, Cohn seemed to be in charge of the WarWags now. Ryan, J.B., and some of the others evidently got separated from the convoy up in the Darks, and shortly afterward, reappeared in the bayous of Louisiana. Then they were in Oregon, then the east coast, then the southwest. They appeared for a couple days, and were gone, moving across the country faster than humanly possible, especially in these days when gas-powered wags were scarce. Probably just a bunch of rumors, just like my "deaths" are, he thought.
Trader finally parted company with the wagtrain in Oregon. It had been a long, hard road, and he decided he wanted to spend a little time to himself for a while. Local rumors had it that there were still people up north around Seattle. Maybe I'll head over that way. Never been there before. Plus, he had heard rumors that Abe, who had been wandering around with Ryan and his group for a while, had gotten it into his head that despite all the stories, Trader wasn't dead and he was gonna find him. Either that, or find proof that he really was gone for good.
"Yer a damned fool, Abe. Why can't you just leave me be and get on with your life?" he wondered out loud. Still, it would be good to have someone from the old days to talk to again. And since Abe was headed in the general direction of Seattle...
Turning up his collar against the cold, Trader headed north toward Seattle, and a date with destiny.
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