AGRO Date 845.
The wind pretty much blew itself out last night, so I got up early, broke camp, and made it to Ashburn in time for a late breakfast.
Like most of the small towns surviving in a world without gasoline, Ashburn had actually seen a resurgence in the past few years. When people had been forced to consider distance as an obstacle again, they moved closer in to where they worked and shopped. Farmers and ranchers still lived further out, of course, and trips in to town had once again become weekend events that warranted planning, preparation, and a party.
Ashburn had two restaurants that served breakfast. I chose the busier one, partly because logic said it would have better food, but more because I needed information.
As usual, my arrival did not go un-noticed. Strangers are rare in the Autocalypse. Getting by is a lot harder than it used to be, so anybody wandering around was usually wandering around with a purpose. The noise level dropped as I walked through the door and headed for the counter, with a lot of "who's that?" and "never seen him before" mumblings. Someone said something about my bicycle, and they all looked towards the street for a while as the waitress came over.
"What'll ya have, hon?" she asked. I smiled at her, pleased to see that that the diner waitress archetype could survive any global catastrophe.
"Tall stack, bacon, two over light, and milk."
"You got it," she answered with a wink. Five seconds later, she brought my milk, and I drank deeply.
"Contented cows," said a man as he sat down to my left said. He was wearing rumpled khaki pants and a blue work shirt, no tie and no hat. His brown boots were well broke in, but fairly clean.
"That's the secret?"
He smiled and nodded, gesturing to the waitress for a glass. "Yep. If Momma cow ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."
I drank again. "Well, Ashburn must do right by its cows, then."
He turned back to me. "It's a nice town. Always was quiet. Some things have changed in the last few years, of course. But we always had enough water, good dirt, good weather, and people willing to work an honest day."
I smiled at him. "Sounds like more than just the cows are happy here, then."
He just smiled and nodded at this, then got to it. "So ... what brings you here?"
"I've got a package to deliver. You know where I could find John Miller?"
The man's smile shifted a bit. "Ah, sure. Yeah, everybody around here knows where the Miller place is. Starts about 10 miles west of town on 239. Goes on for another 10 miles, but you can see the house from the road."
"Glad to help," he said. He drained his milk glass and headed for the door. Whoever he was, he apparently didn't have to pay for milk.
The waitress brought my food then, and I dug in. Sometimes, you just don't know how hungry you are until you've got a big plate full of food in front of you. More than once, I thought how much better it all would have tasted with a couple of cups of hot coffee to wash it down. There were still beans coming up from Central America, but they rarely made it out to smaller towns like this.
After paying my bill, I headed out to my bicycle. A couple of guys, about my age and size, were looking it over.
"Nice bike," one of them said. Something about his tone made it feel like an insult.
"Thanks," I answered, making nice. "It gets me there."
"Where's there?" the other asked, using that same unpleasant tone.
I sighed. I don't like people knowing my business. Never have. Usually, it made it easier to do what I do for a living now.
"Yonder. Sometimes, it's hereabouts. Other times, it's a far piece."
The first one smiled, like I'd stepped into his trap. "You bein' smart, buddy?" He and his friend closed ranks and moved closer. Bad move, I thought.
"No," I answered. "I just don't like you."
"Well, maybe we don't like strangers around here," he said. "Particularly if they're friends of the Millers."
He reached out to push me, then. I moved back with it, and then brought my right leg up in a low round kick to his left hamstring. He dropped to the pavement, yowling in pain, and I moved to put him between me and his friend. He came for me, but had to avoid his writhing buddy. This distracted him enough for me to slide in with a side kick to his solar plexus, which ended everything.
Suddenly, my milk-drinking buddy was there. "OK, that's enough," he was saying -- who he was saying it to was not very clear, however. I had not noticed the badge in the diner, and I certainly had not seen the gun on his hip then.
"Look, sheriff -- or chief of whatever -- I was just ..."
"Yeah, yeah," he said, pulling out a pair of handcuffs. "Tell it to the judge."