The kids were unusually quiet the morning after our trip into the valley. We’d all be so unnerved when we got back to the little hamlet that we decided to forego the tents and sleep inside the little house where we’d discovered the information about the derricks and refinery business.
I hadn’t slept well, trying to remember if I’d hit the switch that would turn off the generators in the basement of Station One before leaving the control room. I knew I’d turned off the ones controlling the derricks…
I asked Sid and Penny, and even Mae. They hadn’t noticed or even realized that there was a switch at all. I had discovered it and turned it on while we were just getting started with our explorations, and I suppose I didn’t make a grand announcement or anything.
It was bugging the crap out of me. Did I turn it off?
If I didn’t, they ran all night. By the time I could get Vance and Dale back out here, they’d be out of fuel for sure.
Damn it. I didn’t want to go back down there.
In the end, I couldn’t let it go. Sid and I mounted our dirt bikes and made the ride back down into the valley while the others packed up our camping gear.
We made quick work of checking the place, turning the gennies off—I had left them on, damn my hide—and getting back to the village.
When we got there, things were ready to go. Sid was pale as a ghost, and Penny said, “So, it’s really just awful there, then? We weren’t imagining it?”
“It’s awful,” Sid agreed, and I nodded. The place was spooky as hell.
“Why are we telling Mister Vance, then?” Ashley asked. “Can’t we just…forget about it?”
“Vance knows things,” I said.
“What things?” Penny asked.
She raised an eyebrow and studied me suspiciously, but she didn’t press the matter. She would later, I knew that, but I was grateful she was going to hold her tongue for now.
“Should we do some hunting on the way home?” Danny asked.
What a nice kid. He was trying to change the subject and get us focused on something more mundane. I said, “If we see something, we won’t pass up the opportunity, but I don’t think we need to go out of our way for it today. This was supposed to be a little vacation.”
“Ha!” Ash snorted. “I feel like I need a vacation!”
“Me, too.” Mae looked exhausted. “I’m going to crawl in bed the minute we get back.”
Dawn studied each of us in turn and shook her head. “I’m glad I didn’t go down,” she said. “I slept like a baby, but you all look like crap.”
“Thanks a heap,” Penny said.
“For the record, Pa,” Sid said, “I don’t really care if you tell or not, but I don’t want to go back down there.”
“That’s cool, son. I don’t either. And I’m not going to, unless Dale…er…persuades me.” I sighed. “That’s going to take some doing, I’ll tell you that.”
I took the rap. I didn’t tell Dale that the kids had discovered the town before I went there with them. I didn’t tell him that we’d found anything at all before our little camping trip. I didn’t want the kids to be in trouble, but I didn’t want to be in trouble myself, either. If they knew the extent to which we’d gone to keep it secret just so we could get there first, I figured they wouldn’t trust me with the kids anymore.
Maybe they shouldn’t.
Nah. I’m good with the kids, and this was a lapse in judgment. I think Vance or Dale would have done the same thing. It’s exciting to make discoveries.
Still, this is one I wish we hadn’t made at all.
“We were excited when we read about derricks and refineries,” I told Dale. “So we rode down to have a look, to make sure it was real.”
Dale was leaning on the table, across from me, his big hands folded in front of him. If he leaned in any closer, he could probably tweak my nose. I leaned back in my chair, just in case.
Vance was to my right, sitting back with his arms folded across his chest, scowling his “I will slug you,” scowl. I refused to look straight at him, in case it set me on fire or something.
“You should have come back to get us,” Dale scolded.
“To be honest, I didn’t believe we’d find anything.”
Vance pointed to the pile of papers in front of Dale. “You read those—what made you think there was nothing to find?”
I shrugged. “Look at the dates—it’s been years! Plus, the bridge, man—when you see it, you’ll understand.”
I stood up. “Look, that’s my report, and I should help the kids unpack. We will want to go back and check out the warehouse and the trucks. I’m sure there are things we can use. But I’m not…I can’t…”
“What?” Vance asked.
“That valley, dude? I’m not going back down there. I’ll help with any salvage in the town, but you guys can figure that place out yourselves.”
“What about the other road?” Dale asked. “Don’t you want to see where it leads?”
“I am out on further exploration,” I replied firmly. “Salvage? I’m your man. I’ll recruit some people and we’ll see what we find. I’m telling you—I know there’s probably oil down there. But I don’t think we need it, not if we have to…”
I looked at Vance. “You know about spirits and curses. See how you feel when you go down there, and tell me if you think it’s worth it, okay?”
Vance’s jaw dropped and he studied me. It didn’t take him long to decide I wasn’t pulling his leg. “What did Penny say?”
“She won’t go back. I’m not even sure I can get her to join the salvage team.”
Vance told Dale, “She’s sensitive.”
Dale nodded. “Sounds to me like you don’t have to be particularly sensitive in this case. The kids are spooked.”
Vance turned back to me. “You’ll go to the town with me?”
“Hey, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Dale shrugged. “One thing I am not is sensitive. Just ask Patty.” He stood up and went to the bookshelf, where he located a ledger. “I’m thinking we’ll ask Bruce and Angus to go down with us. They’ve got some experience in oil field technology and engineering. If there is a refinery somewhere, it could be very useful.”
I shrugged. “I’ve been on board for the horse and buggy project Gage has going on at his compound from the start.”
Dale nodded. “Your boys are getting pretty decent at blacksmithing. Although, I’ve noticed Sid prefers swords to wagon wheels.”
“Who doesn’t?” Vance laughed.
“Look, just let me know when you get a team together, and I’ll be ready with my team.” I stood up. “I’m glad to get you to town, and then you’re on your own. I’m all about the toothpaste.”
“Yeah, there’s a story…” I hastened to the door. “We looked around the town, you know.”
Dale frowned. “You were awfully busy yesterday, boy.”
“Yes, sir.” I opened the door. “Summer days are long…”
“Let me know when you want to go!” I was out the door and heading for the underground entrance as fast as my short ol’ legs would take me. I didn’t want to answer more questions or risk sticking a foot in my mouth.
When I got back, the kids were waiting and full of questions. I held up both hands to stop them before they could bombard me. “Number one—we found everything yesterday. Everything.”
“Absolutely,” Sid said. The others nodded.
“Number two—we salvage, they explore.”
“Yes!” Penny nodded enthusiastically. “I’m okay with warehouse duty.”
“I might go down with them,” Sid said.
We stared at him. “But you said—” I started.
“I know. I don’t want to go down to the valley with them—I didn’t mean that.” Sid drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “But I want to see where the other road goes.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Penny said.
Dawn said, “Well…he could give me information for maps.”
“So could Dad.”
“Do we want him to know about the maps?” Mae asked.
“That’s why I went in the first place,” Dawn reminded her.
“I know that. But he doesn’t.”
“Let’s keep it that way,” I said. “The explanation for that is Dawn carries drawing supplies with her everywhere.”
“That’s not a lie,” Danny offered.
“Bonus.” Ash grinned. “I don’t like this, for the record. Maybe we should just confess.”
I looked at him, long and steadily. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Finally I asked him, “You want to go first?”
“Never mind.” He took a deep breath and added, “It’s not like we did anything wrong…”
I cleared my throat loudly.
“It’s not that we did anything very wrong…”
Sid grinned. “Shall we make a list?”
“I said, never mind!” Ash was still grinning, but it wasn’t very convincing.
“If it ever comes to that,” Penny interjected, “I’ll take the rap.” She shrugged. “I lost my temper. That always gets me in trouble.”
I shook my head. “Forget it. Couple of old men trying to shut the barn door after the horses escaped—that’s what led to this.”
Dawn said, “What does that—?”
“Just forget it.” Sid and Penny, Ashley and Mae wore deep blushes on their faces, and not a one of us cared to explain anything.
“So, we’re going back?” Mae asked, changing the subject. “Just to check out the warehouse and trucks, nothing else?”
“Yeah.” I looked at each of them. “We’ll need a crew, if you want to get some volunteers together.”
“Can I stay home?” Dawn asked. “I’ll help unload and put away whatever you bring back, but I…”
Her voice trailed off.
“She’s had enough outdoors for now,” Danny finished. “That was hard for her, you know?”
We knew. Dawn and the outside world are not well acquainted, usually.
“I’m proud of you, kiddo,” I told her. “You can stay here and work on the maps.”
She smiled and nodded, talked out for the time being.
“I’ll go with you,” Danny said.
“Are you sure, Sid?” Penny asked. “You don’t have to go with Dad and Gramps.”
“I feel like…I guess I just want to see for myself.” Sid wore a determined look on his face, and I kind of admired him in that moment.
I said, “Better you than me, kid.”
I don’t know about you, but I was expecting this to be a great and happy discovery. But…
Sometimes stories don’t follow the path you start them out on! Now what?