The roads were mostly memories, scars through the landscape. But the rough, pockmarked surface generally grew smoother around settlements. It made sense for the route to and from the fields to be easier.
They had just rumbled off rough track onto a tarred single lane which arced away to the right, disappearing behind the gentle roll of hill down to the valley floor they travelled along. The surface change made little difference to the quality of the ride in the wagons. The big wheels and long travel suspension soaked up the ruts and potholes with ease. Maxine accelerated, and the pitch of the whine from the electric motors and rumble of the tyres rose. Behind her, Remy said, “Let’s not go so fast. Something is not quite right here. I’ll go up top and have a look.” He turned in his seat and stepped directly onto the short ladder to the roof hatch.
In the passenger seat, Chloe watched as Remy stood, halfway up the ladder, whilst the captain’s chair unfolded from its storage place in the roof. She turned to Maxine, who was now sitting up straighter, paying more attention to the road ahead and off to the sides. “What could be wrong?”
Maxine opened her mouth to say that she didn’t know, but recognised what her father had seen before she spoke. After a knowing nod, she said, “There’s no crop in the fields, just wild grass. They haven’t been tended.”
Remy reached down to the rack beside the ladder and took one of the hunting rifles, then climbed all the way out onto the roof. The hatch slammed down as he kicked it into place. Maxine reached down to the centre console and clasped, without looking for it, the pistol she had stowed there. She nodded, reassured by its presence, but it was a move that had Chloe wondering where her catapult and darts were. “There’s probably nothing to endanger us.” Maxine said. “Farms and settlements are abandoned all the time. We just like to be on alert when we spot things like this. Just in case.”
“I’m going to get my catapult.”
Sat with the catapult in her lap while she twisted a dart in her hand, Chloe felt silly. Inadequate, certain she would be no use if there was any trouble. She looked across at Maxine, watching the way her eyes scanned the road ahead, then darted left and right, checking the fields and the slope of the hill. She told herself that she wasn’t going to fall in love with this pretty, dark woman, the way she had with her friend Tania. Probably not, anyway, she only had a few days on the road with her.
“Smoke up ahead.” Remy’s voice came from a speaker above them, making Chloe jump so that she poked the dart into her thumb. Maxine looked across at the noise, to find Chloe shaking her head with embarrassment.
“Hold tight.” Maxine warned, as she spun the steering wheel hard and they turned sharp left off the paving and into the grass. The tall vehicle leant a long way over, and Chloe held tight to the arm rest. She hoped Remy was strapped in up above.
They could see buildings up ahead now, and the wagon straightened out to head toward them. Chloe pulled herself up straight in the seat again, and looked out of the window to her right. Wagon two had accelerated to catch up with them, but was still running along the road.
The grass was wild and high, it would have come up almost to Maxine’s shoulders. But it barely reached higher than the bottom of the doors of the wagons. They left a cloud of chaff behind them as they cut a line across the field.
There were two buildings ahead, at right angles to each other, with a gap between them filled in by a low wall. Both single storey, they were constructed from jigsaws of light brown stone with roofs a patchwork of red tile and corrugated metal. The shorter building had two storeys and several windows, whilst the longer one was a tall single story with blank walls facing them. Something on the other side of them was burning, sending a dark smudge of smoke up into the sky.
Ahead of them, the colour and texture of the foliage changed, to the golden green of wheat nearly ripened. Maxine slowed the wagon and turned left to keep from going through a viable crop. “Track ahead of us.” Remy said through the speaker. Maxine pulled on the steering wheel to stand up from her seat a moment, nodding when she spotted the stone littered line her father had been referring to. She aimed for it, heading for a strip of darker greenery that ran parallel.
They reached the deep green strip, and the wagon tipped forward. Suddenly, the foliage was as high as the windscreen. Chloe’s hand slapped the console in front of her as she stopped herself being thrown forward. Remy shouted some words she didn’t recognise, and could only presume were curses.
Just as suddenly as they had dropped into the gulley, they hit the bottom, splashing into shallow water. Maxine twisted a control on the steering column, sending more power to the motor driving the front wheels, and they soon regained their lost momentum. The grass and reeds were denser and taller in the stream bed, but they gave way to the mass of the wagon. They started climbing the opposite bank.
As the wagon left the channel, its nose reared up, front wheels off the ground. Maxine twisted the power controller again, transferring drive to the rear pair of axles. They passed the point of balance, and the front end came back down again, bouncing once before Maxine had the power back to all six wheels equally and they were accelerating away from the obstacle.
Now they were raising dust, rather than hay, as they raced along the track. A spur from the gravel covered road turned sharply around the end of the farm house. Maxine scrubbed off speed as they approached, then turned in sharply. They stopped sharply on the cobbled yard, and Maxine was out of her seat almost immediately, pausing only to grab her 9mm from the middle console.
Pickers 2: The Trip is available from Amazon on July 18th. Pre-order it now.
Pickers 1: The Find is available now.