As Token approached the rusted out water tower, he thought the late summer sun was playing tricks on his eyes. He wasn’t used to such heat, so he pulled the brim of his hat down over his forehead and shaded his face. No mistake. There was a female alone up on the water tower, and even stranger was the fact that she seemed to be peering into the very hydroelectric plant he was supposed to be investigating.
As he watched, one of the workers from the plant spotted the ladder she had apparently used to ascend the short tower. Without looking up, he came over and hoisted the ladder onto his shoulder to carry it to a nearby shed where he laid it under an awning, then returned to the meter and pipes he and his co-workers were adjusting.
Fascinated by the drama unfolding before him, Token still had work to do. Seeing the girl was in no danger, he went about his business, keeping one eye on her but staying out of sight. When he had finished making the sketches and notes he needed, he waited in the shade of the shed until the workers had moved on to a location farther from the water tower. Silently, he replaced the ladder and made the climb to the platform then circled round to where the girl was standing.
He took a moment to stare down at her, wondering if she would be startled, but she refused to look at him or even acknowledge his presence. This intrigued him. Here she was, clearly in violation of about a dozen rules he knew to be strictly enforced in this area, yet she had the moxy to pretend he wasn’t there and she hadn’t been stranded.
At last, he grew tired of waiting. “What are you doing up there? Are you insane?” He tried to keep his voice down, since the water tower was not high enough to assure him that his voice wouldn’t carry to the workers below. The machinery they were working on might mask his voice, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
“I’m checking something out, not that it’s any of your business. Who are you, anyway? Are you the one who stole my ladder?”
“I didn’t steal any ladder. While you were on the other side of the water tank, one of the workers spotted the ladder and moved it. Do you know how long you’ve been stuck up here?”
“That’s none of your business. And I wasn’t stuck. I wanted to be up here. I was plenty busy.”
“Oh, really? I’d just love to hear about the important job you’re doing up here on the water tower platform.”
“That’s none of your business either. Now, if you could just shove off and leave that ladder, I’ll be done in a minute. Don’t worry. I’ll take the ladder with me when I leave.”
“You’ll come down now.”
“I’m not done. Leave me alone.”
“That’s the whole problem, little lady. You are alone and I happen to know that’s against The Ridge Rules. Nobody is allowed to be outside the walls of the compound without permission.”
“Well, I have permission.”
“Maybe you had permission to be out with that group of ladies harvesting pumpkins and melons, but I’ll bet nobody knows you sneaked over here.”
That got her attention. She glared up at him. “How did you know about our work party?”
“I’ve got eyes, haven’t I? Now, we’re getting down.” He took her arm in what he hoped was a firm but respectful manner.
She jerked away from him as if he had scalded her with his touch. “Let go of me!”
“As soon as I get you on the ground.” It suddenly occurred to him how strange it was that no search party had been sent out for her. Further, he didn’t like the look of those workers or the thought of what they might do if they found her spying on them. Only one solution came to mind and it certainly held quite a bit of appeal. He scooped her little waist up in his long arm and hoisted her over his shoulder. Predictably, she stiffened and kicked at him, so again, he took the first course of action that popped into his head. He whacked her on the fanny. “Stop struggling!”
“Ouch! Stop that! Ouch! Ouch! What do you think you’re doing?”
He could almost have swung down without the ladder, but with her over his shoulder, he wanted to be safe, so he got a better grip and put his foot on the top rung. “Popping your backside. It was the only way I could think of to get you to be still so I could get you down the ladder without breaking your blasted neck.”
“I could have gotten down by myself and not been in any danger.”
“Oh, really? How were you going to do that? Fly? Oh, I know. You were going to ask those nice men down there. I’m sure they’d love the fact that you’re watching them. They’d be so happy that they would have gladly brought you a ladder. Maybe you think they’ll invite you to sit down and share a picnic lunch with them.”
“No, of course not. I was going to wait until they left. Then I could have climbed down, but somebody took my ladder.”
He reached the ground and thought to put her down, but she felt so good in his arms. Besides, he reasoned, she might not want to come with him. Carrying her was easier than dragging her. “So I noticed. Is this the thanks I get for saving your life?”
“Don’t be so dramatic. You didn’t save my life.”
“So how did you plan on getting down?”
“I… well… I would have waited up here until a search party was sent out. It wouldn’t have taken that long for someone to come.”
She mentioned the idea of a search party, a topic he didn’t want to address just yet. She was already agitated. He didn’t want her alarmed. “And what did you hope to accomplish with this little adventure, anyway?”
They reached the cover of the trees that lined the path around the compound when she stopped pushing at his shoulder and said, “I’m going to report those men to my father. At least, I was going to, but I couldn’t get a good look at them. That’s all your fault. Now, put me down. Ouch!”
The more she ordered him around, the more determined he was to thwart her. He was having more fun with this female than he could remember having in years. “If I carry you, I can claim that I found you in the woods and you were hurt. You got separated from the group and had to wait to be rescued. Maybe then you wouldn’t get guidance from your father.”
“Ha! My father doesn’t give me spankings anymore. He knows I don’t need guidance.” Her words were tart but their tone was tentative. He knew he had struck a nerve.
“He’s probably just given up trying to curb your silly behavior. He’s not as young as he was.”
That comment made her go still. He had her attention now. “You know my father?” she asked, amazed.
“I know about lots of people at The Ridge. Let’s see: dark hair, pin-up girl figure, queen of the world attitude. You must be the daughter of the High Elder and founder of The Ridge, the most successful town since the Collapse. I know you have electricity, running water and excellent organization but very lazy guards if they let you get away from them this easily.”
“Very funny. But seriously, you’re not one of us. If you were, you’d know that this isn’t the path back to the compound.” She pushed herself up off his back for a moment as if to look around.
“I’m not taking you back to the compound. Not yet anyway. The guys who are stealing your electricity are probably going to be using that path any time now. If they see us, they’re not going to be happy.” How he wished he could have seen her face when he made that little announcement.
She lowered herself down again abruptly which was almost as satisfying to him. “So you knew about the theft of the electricity?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“Are you the one buying it from them?”
He popped her again for that bit of sass. He couldn’t help it. It was just too tempting and he wanted to keep her angry rather than afraid. The continued lack of guards was increasing his anxiety by the minute.
She jerked again, but he supposed she must be getting tired from being carried upside down like that because her reactions were losing their strength. “Ouch! Stop that! You have no right!”
“Not yet, I don’t. But some day someone will. You’d better get used to it. Your father may have a blind spot where you’re concerned but at twenty-one years of age—”
She was getting tired. There was no doubt now. She barely turned her head to say, “How do you know that?”
“—it won’t be long until you’ll have to get married and I don’t think your husband will suffer his delusions. Here. I’ll set you down if you promise not to bolt.” He stopped abruptly and put a hand on her arm as if to lower her down, then waited.
“What’s it to you whether I bolt or not?”
“I can’t just leave you alone out here. We’re outside the wall and technically in the Wild. I’m taking you round the long way to the eastern gate. The only question is whether I’m going to carry you or whether you’re going to walk.”
“I’ll walk, thank you very much.”
“Works for me. There.” With a heave and a shift, he set her down before giving her bottom one more swat.
“Ouch! Quit that!”
“That little tap didn’t hurt. You’d better brace yourself, little lady. Married life at The Ridge is going to be a rude awakening for you.”
“Yeah, well, if you know anything about The Ridge, you know they’re going to make an exception for me. I’m the High Elder’s daughter. I won’t have to get married and I won’t have to accept guidance, ever.”
Just the way she said it struck him as hilarious. Did she have any idea how she sounded? He didn’t want to mock her, but couldn’t stop his bark of laughter.
“Don’t laugh. It’s true. If you knew as much about us as you claim, you’d know that.”
He looked down at her to make sure she had gotten her breath back before continuing down the path. “I know Harlan VanWyck isn’t going to go against his entire council just to let his daughter run wild. He hasn’t spent over a decade building up the best town since the Collapse just to let you start it on a slow road back to chaos.”
She followed close behind him, a haughty expression on her face. “We’d be the best town with or without the Guidance Principal. And one little exception to the marriage law isn’t going to reduce us to chaos either.”
“What does your father say when you tell him that?”
She wrinkled her nose and gave a small shrug. “Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t repeat such language even if it were any of your business, which it isn’t. Quit laughing. It’s not funny.”
When he could stop chuckling he said, “I tell you what. I’ve heard of other girls changing affiliations when they’ve run out of eligible men and don’t like their choices. I took a Dust Cave lady with me to Blanton’s Crest just last month. I’ll bet I could make arrangements like that for you if you wanted.”
The look of shock on her face told him in one instant what she thought of that idea. “Leave The Ridge? For Dust Cave? I don’t think so. They haven’t even got reliable electricity.”
“Their river isn’t strong enough and they don’t have the parts for the small dam they have built.” He held back a bramble that had grown across the path.
She went right by without acknowledging the gesture. “And no running water either. They have to pump water into their cisterns. Hand pumps! Ugh!”
“You’re obviously too young to remember how it was just after things fell apart. Were you born at The Ridge?”
“No, I wasn’t. It took Father a while to establish an actual community after everything calmed down. In the Before, he lived in the country and knew how to build or grow most of the things he needed anyway, so when the Collapse came, he just expanded on what he already knew.”
“But you don’t remember living in the Wild, do you?”
“No, of course not. No one lives in the Wild except bandits and rejects.”
“I live in the Wild.”
How she could manage to look down her nose at him when he was at least a foot taller than her amazed him, but she did. “My point exactly.”
“If I were a bandit, you wouldn’t be smiling right now.” He caught her eye and held it to make sure she understood.
She shrugged the moment off and kept going. “Good grief! I know you’re not a bandit. I’ve figured out who you are. You’re the trader they call Toke.”
“At your service.” He sketched a mocking bow.
“You can keep your bows to yourself. Tall as you are, you’re likely to knock something over.”
“Sassy little thing, aren’t you? Just like I’ve heard.”
She shot him a suspicious look. “You’ve heard an awful lot for a drifter.”
“Information is as much my stock in trade as my pocket knives and my pillows.”
“Get much call for pillows out in the Wild?” she asked, eyebrows raised and tone sardonic.
“Sarcasm? From the girl I’m going to risk my reputation for by telling whoppers to the gate guard?”
“Your reputation will only be enhanced by being with me, and as for lying, well, if you don’t want to hang around, you don’t have to. I can go through the gate on my own.”
“Not without a major hassle, you can’t. If you have an escort, maybe you’ll get through. No woman is allowed outside those walls unescorted and for very good reason. The Ridge Security Force may have put Polk and his marauders in their place a while back, but they’re still active in the area.”
She looked around, a note of trepidation in her voice though her expression remained haughty. “That’s because they know we’ve got things worth taking. All the crows try to come stealing from the richest corn field around.”
“Crow? How you wound me, fair maiden!” He winced dramatically.
She shrugged but softened her words with a sympathetic smile. “If the shoe fits…”
“Thank a cobbler. I’m not denying that The Ridge is the most prosperous community in the area. In fact, you’re making my point for me. There are dangers outside that wall. You need to be inside it, and so do I for that matter. Night’s falling.”
“There’s no hurry. The lights along the path will be working.”
A moment later they rounded a curve in the path and he saw that she was correct. The gate was indeed lit up as bright as noonday. In the glow he could see her expression had changed from companionable to wary. “Why don’t you know about the lights? Anybody who’s been to The Ridge ought to remember about the lighting.”
It was his turn to shrug. “I’ve never been to The Ridge. Never said I had.”
She narrowed her eyes at him as they stood facing each other on the path. “Then how do you know so much about us?”
He threw back his head and sighed, hoping it would mask his thorough visual search of the area. “Ah, lass, that’s a fascinating tale and much as I’d love to tell it to you, at length and at leisure, I’m afraid we’ve arrived at the gate where I must leave you.”
“And not a moment too soon for my taste. This conversation was getting creepy.”
This comment snapped his full attention back to her. “I don’t want you to be frightened of me. Never that. Ask Josh McAllen about me. He’ll set you straight.”
“You know Josh?”
“I do indeed.”
“Then I’ll be sure to ask him. He’s my friend’s husband and I’m sure he’ll be able to tell me all about your sordid past.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
“Because I don’t have one. Not a sordid one, anyway. I have a past but I’d call it more on the surprising side than sordid. You tell him Toke sends his regards.”
She gave him a quizzical look. “Why should I do that?”
“He’ll get a laugh out of it, for one thing.”
“Is that your goal in life? To get a laugh?”
“It’s not a bad goal to have as far as I’m concerned, but no, that’s not my main goal. I also want to find things out and to use that information to help my business. It’s my way of giving back to the world.”
“How does your finding things out help the world?”
“What helps my business helps me and those I do business with. I’m boosting world trade.” He put on his most officious manner, straightening an imaginary tie and waving his nose in the air.
“How very noble of you.” She gave him a mock curtsy and an unwilling smile.
“Yes, of course. I’m a noble kind of guy. I pay the highest prices to people who provide items for me to trade. I do my best to make sure that only the rightful owners of said items are paid for them. In short, I provide a valuable service for humanity.”
“Humble, too,” she declared, rolling her eyes.
“I’m not afraid to admit it. I profit by the honest sweat of my brow. I use some of that profit to make the wheels of commerce go round. If everybody has more money to spend, everybody will spend it, thus making more demand for my services.”
She held his gaze for a moment, as if wondering how much of his speech actually had held a hint of sincerity before turning to go. “Well, I don’t have any need for your services, so I’ll say good night.”
He put a hand under her elbow and gestured for her to proceed. “And I’ll say that I’ll see you safely inside. After you, my lady.”
“You can lay off the ‘my lady’ stuff. And—oh!” Even in the lights from the gate area, the path was still uncertain. Olivia missed her footing and leaned heavily on his arm.
“Needed my arm after all, didn’t you? That could have been a nasty fall.”
“Well, I wasn’t looking where I was going. I was looking at the gate. It’s closed.”
“It’s late. I was afraid it would be closed.”
“No, we don’t lock the gates until it’s really dark. I’ve come in at twilight like this loads of times. Something’s wrong. Come on.” She pulled at his arm, but he held her back.
“I don’t think we should approach,” he said, trying to sound calm but serious.
“Do you see that banner with the big black X in a triangle? It’s the universal sign for quarantine. Exactly how long were you gone? Out by yourself, I mean. How long ago did the rest of your work crew go in?”
“The women’s group was only out until noon. Wait, what? Quarantine?” Even if he couldn’t see her clearly, he could hear it in her voice. He knew that feeling, the heart-pounding, fact-denying dread that turned the stomach and robbed the brain of reason.
“Since noon? That’s plenty of time for a medical emergency to develop.”
“If there had been an emergency, I would have heard the alarm bell.” She tried to pull away from him again, more forcefully. He could feel her fear radiating from her.
Holding her with both arms now, he spoke slowly, trying to let the first wave of shock pass over her. “And gone running straight toward it. That’s just what they didn’t want you to do. They wouldn’t ring the alarm bell for a quarantine. Here, stay back. Let me think. Ah, I know.” Once he knew she would stay away from the gate, he left her for the shelter of the trees. She followed him at a short distance but he didn’t try to hide from her the backpack he had concealed in a large tangle of underbrush. He had to remove several articles before he could put his hands on what he wanted.
“What are you looking for in that backpack? A tent to pitch?”
He brought out a small skillet and a black pot. “No, not this close. Here, bang these together. That should get someone’s attention.”
She complied while he repacked his bag. By the time he turned around, someone had appeared on the wall. They approached cautiously, getting close enough to hear the man shout. “You on the path! Stay back! We’ve got Hayle’s fever!”
Olivia’s hand flew to her mouth. “What? Who’s got Hayle’s fever?”
The man on the wall answered with a question of his own, shining a high-powered flashlight down on them. “Is that you, Olivia?”
“Yes, it’s me, Phil. What’s going on?”
“Who’s that with you, Olivia? Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I’ve got the trader called Token with me.”
“Just hold on right there while I get somebody to send word to your father. He’s been half crazy with worry.” The man disappeared abruptly.
Olivia turned back to Toke. “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to wait here like the man said, Livi, and stay well back. Hayle’s fever is highly contagious.” Toke put an arm around her shoulders and guided her to a fallen log where they sat.
“It’s Olivia,” she said automatically, as if with only half her will. “No one’s ever called me by a nickname.”
“Then it’s high time someone did, Livi. Now, once this Phil gets back… by the way, who is he? I don’t think I’ve heard of him.”
“He’s a warehouse supervisor. If he’s manning a gate, that means a lot of people must be sick. It must be bad.”
“Hayle’s fever is never good. It comes up quickly and hits hard. Haven’t you heard of it before?”
“Only the name. We’ve never had a case before. I wonder how they know it’s really Hayle’s. Maybe there’s some mistake.” She sat forward, tense, uncertain.
“Josh could tell them. He’s seen it.”
She turned to him, suddenly giving him her full attention again. “How do you know that?”
“I was with him in quarantine a few months ago.”
Olivia relaxed slightly. “Oh, I remember. Last year, he was gone quite a while once on one of his trading trips. Was he in quarantine? He never said that.”
“Some people don’t like to admit they’ve been near Hayle’s. Makes people antsy just knowing you’ve been around it.”
“So how long does a quarantine last?”
“Once Hayle’s appears, it’s about two months before it runs its course. The quarantine should last a bit longer than that, just to make sure.” Toke kept his eye on the top of the wall. At last, a figure appeared there. “Look! There’s Phil.”
Olivia jumped up and approached the wall, Toke right beside her, keeping her from getting very much closer. “Yes, Phil! Tell me! Who got sick?”
“The Korbinski’s. That new family from out west. Look, hang on right there. I’m sure your father will be here in a jiffy. Lord, girl, what are we going to do? I mean, I’m glad you’re not in here at risk for catching Hayle’s but you can’t stay outside the wall all alone!” The man leaned on the chest-high wall, looking over at them with obvious concern.
“I’ll have to go back to the power plant, I guess. They have quarters there.”
“They’re in quarantine, too. Mike Korbinski started working there two days ago. He’s still over in the power plant compound. His missus and their kids are here, all sick. As far as I last heard, he’s not sick yet, but since he was exposed to them, we’re not taking any chances. Everybody has to stay put. Which leads us back to you. What are we going to do?”
Toke knew what he had to say, and found that he didn’t mind the thought too much at all. “I’ll have to take her with me to Blue Valley.”
Phil straightened up. “Not yet you won’t. Who are you again?”
“I’m Scotty Porter, better known as Token.
“I’ve heard of you. They say you’re tall enough to look down on the corn to harvest it. Hard to tell from up here.”
“That’s me. See the backpack? It’s pretty famous, too.” Toke gestured to the pack on the ground. “Treasures from around the world in here.”
“Well, just hold on, Mr. Better-known-as-Token. High Elder Harlan will be here shortly. In fact, here he comes now.”
The thin figure who joined Phil on the wall was still unmistakably tense, even at the distance and in the less than adequate light. “Olivia?”
“Thank goodness you’re all right. I suppose I have you to thank for that, sir. I’m Harlan VanWyck. Can’t tell you how grateful I am for you taking care of my daughter.”
“An honor to make your acquaintance, sir. Scotty Porter, here. Is there anything we can do for you before we leave? Anything you need?”
“No, we’ve got supplies enough. There’s nothing you can do except get her to a safe distance.”
“We’ll be safe enough right here for the night, then I’ll take her over to Blue Valley in the morning.”
Olivia took another step in the direction of the wall. “Father, I can’t leave! The Ridge needs me! You’re High Elder. Make an exception. Let me in.”
They could see him shake his head. “I wouldn’t do that, even if I could, Olivia. You go with the trader here. Josh McAllen says he’s trustworthy. When he heard the name ‘Token’ it even raised a smile out of him and believe me, on a day like today, that wasn’t easy.”