The cold sapped the gin out of him, for which Gates was grateful. There was no rest for him tonight. Hike back to the warehouse and start prepping for the journey. They would travel light, follow US 40 out and down to the tracks, crossing them about two miles north from where they saw the train. Both he and McGavin doubted the train moved very far. As the night deepened into the pre-dawn hours, he went over possible scenarios. He kept returning to the obvious – a lark. Somebody screwing around with an abandoned locomotive. When the world ended, the computers dying with civilization, the trains would have been crippled. There was probably an old freight train that came to a standstill out there in the woods, thrown out of contact with the railroad and afraid to move blindly forward. Somebody had found it and fixed it up.
He and McGavin always kept an eye out for trains. They’d traveled days looking for a train in the early years, hitting Frostburg and following the tracks west along the weaving Mt. Savage Road to Cumberland. They found a few boxcars there, but something had happened to Cumberland. When they first followed Parker up I-70 and west along I-68, the Cumberland gap was announced from nearly 100 miles away by a high column of black smoke. Roads and trains came together at the historic chokepoint, the high overpass for 68 a maze of abandoned cars. From above the gap, at the Ali Ghan Freemason temple, Parker and her people peered down the interstate at a burning town. Fires glowed through the night as they sought shelter in the temple and, the next morning, they braved the gap. Bodies littered the overpass, and the town below was consumed. Smoke enveloped them, billowing up through the joints in the concrete, and they had to inch through with the trucks, pushing cars away and ignoring the corpses as they were crushed beneath the wheels. It took most of a day to work their way blind across the elevated section. It was only a mile long before rising up out of the Cumberland Pass once again, but that mile seemed to never end. The black smoke followed them up and over the ridge and down, again, towards La Vale. They didn’t breathe fresh air again till they hit Frostburg, perched up on its mountain. There they collapsed and watched the smoke from burning Cumberland.
Half a year later, McGavin and Gates made it their business to sift through the wreckage. There wasn’t much. The town had been brought to the ground, the Potomac black and oily as it flowed through and on down to DC. Even the houses on the heights had been methodically torched.
The purification of Cumberland. Clearly done with a purpose and a plan. Was there a sickness? A gang of <i>Mad Max</i>-style lunatics? In the past decade, there had been no answers. No people ever returned to the spot, and there was never a sign of other scavengers.
One thing was for sure – no trains would be going east ever again, or coming west. Fires had been set beneath all the tracks, Civil War style. They were bent and warped beyond repair.
From Frostburg, the tracks led north, crossing into Pennsylvania, turning west. The problem is that they were through deep forest, with limited road access. They’d already explored what they could from the road. Would they now have to hike along them? Hopefully not.
US 40 crossed Finzel Road, running parallel to I-68 as a sort of glorified frontage road. It meandered through the countryside into Frostburg and, from there, they would take the local roads running along the tracks for a few miles. But then, about three miles south of where Everett claims to have seen the light from the locomotive, the tracks take their own route through the forest, now grown wild for a decade.
Gates didn’t care about the train. He was happy where he was – feeding off of Parker’s community and not responsible for anything, as long as he kept bringing crap back from the dead world. He wasn’t happy in his old life. He didn’t miss it. A wage slave who parked himself in front of the TV every night. Trying to kill time…all of it. 24 hours a day. After a while, youth left his soul and he just simply dreamed about retiring. Get a government check and drop out. Be a grumpy old man in some rural community. Fuck the world.
The Fall was a breath of fresh air. An escape into a second chance at life. He never tired of exploring the dead countryside. Since Parker set up her community, he and McGavin had been as far East as Hancock, picking up Interstate 70 and always tempted to return to DC. Surely, after a few years, it was a ghost town as well. Nobody wanted to stick around the cities. They’d gone as far west as Morgantown, north deep into Pennsylvania, and south into other parts of West Virginia. They were the kings of the Alleghenies, the lords of western Maryland. All hail the empire of ashes.
The early light of dawn had just begun to creep into the mountains by the time the Land Rover was packed and, begrudgingly, running. McGavin gunned the gas, which burned thick and dirty. Largely homemade shit that they brewed up behind the warehouse. Jacob was wrapped in patchwork coats in the backseat and Walter Murray was leaning against one of the old trucks, smoking a joint, staring at the mean machine with a wary smile.
McGavin shouted something Gates couldn’t hear over the clattering roar of the engine, but the meaning was clear. Time to move. He climbed in with Murray, McGavin let out the clutch, the damned monster stalled, then they waited five minutes before it could start again. When it did, it puked black smoke out of the exhaust and from beneath the hood, then all was okay. They pulled onto the cracked, potholed macadam of Finzel Road and turned south towards the interstate.