In the dystopian future, the government has collapsed, cities are burning, and a roving gang called Mau Mau is marauding across America. A drifter named Walter Stone finds refuge at a lakeside camp, where the survivors of a plane crash have met up with other refugees, and are struggling with a constantly changing cast of leaders, as well as limited supplies. Across the lake stands the palatial Valhalla, a mansion well supplied with food and ammunition, where a wealthy junkman and his daughters live. The goal is to take control of Valhalla. The obstacles are certain death across the lake, rootless bands of killers threatening the camp, and a way of life that is quickly slipping away.
“A commanding writer of unusual power and delicacy.” —The New Yorker
“A born storyteller.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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About the Author
His 1976 novel Cutter and Bone was filmed in 1981 as Cutter's Way. The New York Times called Cutter and Bone "the best novel of its kind for ten years." Another novel-to film Beautiful Kate was filmed in Australia in 2009 and starred Bryan Brown and Ben Mendelsohn. It was directed by Rachel Ward, who is Bryan Brown's real-life wife.
Thornburg died on May 9, 2011, a few days shy of his eight-second birthday.
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Even looking through his binoculars Stone could not make out the town name on the small white road sign, for it was sieved with bullet holes, as were the walls of the building across the blacktop, a cement-block drive-in with fierce brown smoke stains rising from gaping windows and smashed-in doors. In front of the structure an orange signboard, dangling from a chain at one end, turned in the early fall breeze. Tiny's Shake 'n Burger, it read. Y'all come.
Stone lowered the glasses. He was crouched among some cedars near the crest of a hill bordering the road, which ran straight into the small town, so he was able to see the place clearly: the neat little rows of burned-out houses, the abandoned cars and pickups and campers, the litter of clothing and furniture and junk the inhabitants had dropped or left behind, to be picked over by the marauding gangs moving through, the blacks or whites or whatever. The only sign of life he saw anywhere was a pack of dogs savaging something caught in a shed behind a three-story Victorian brick house gutted of all its wood, its roof and porches and gingerbread, and standing there now like some prim local old maid stripped and violated in these unbelievable last days of her life. Stone hoped it was only another dog in the shed, one of their own kind, weakened, fair game, because he knew that he would do nothing no matter what it was, not even if it was human. He had not got this far, probably sixty miles from the city, by taking chances. Any one of those sad little buildings might have a few Mau Mau in it, or locals, or even a loner like himself, some half-mad refugee who had spent most of his time these last weeks learning that survival depended to a degree on the non-survival of others, what food and weapons he could take to see him through the next hours or maybe even days ahead, if he was lucky, if he was inclined to dream large dreams. So Stone would not enter the town. He would go around it. The only problem was which way, whether circling to the east or to the west would offer the safer route, the one with better cover and less chance of surprise. Also he was looking for a burned-out farm with some woods around it for a safe approach, for he had not forgotten what the dying old man had told him yesterday about some of the farms having root cellars buried in the ruins and overlooked since, possible repositories of potatoes and canned goods and other treasures. And then too there was always the chance an old cat or dog might have returned to its homeplace and would be there waiting for him, as convenient as a carryout at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Maybe he would even risk a fire. The thought of meat, cooked meat, made him salivate. He was not weak yet, thanks to Miller's almost eccentric providence, the One-a-Days and Vitakaps he had included in his survival cache, along with Spacefood Sticks and Planters Jumbo Blocks and Sunmaid raisins. Now only the vitamins and four small boxes of raisins were left, enough to keep him moving and that was about all. No more than they could fill his stomach could they slake the hungers of his mind, the visions of long noon lunches at Harry's and the Black Angus forming constantly in his path.
After adjusting his backpack, he picked up his rifle and started down the hill. He moved across the road and entered the overgrown, almost wooded pasture that was his main reason for choosing the easterly route. Wherever possible he stayed away from open ground, respecting the accuracy of the locals' deer rifles, the thirty-thirties and aught-sixes they were not at all loath to fire at a man, for this after all was their country, their land and homes and families they were defending. It had reached the point now though where most of them had abandoned their own places to join forces with other farmers and their families in what Stone could only characterize as forts, usually large farms with live water and enough buildings to hold all the new members and the provisions they had brought with them, the food and livestock and feed and of course the weapons, the means of securing such awesome wealth against the roving bands outside. Stone had seen a few such forts during the past week, from a safe distance of course, and the thing that had impressed him even more than their startling unburned walls were the birds he saw surrounding them, crows and vultures feeding on those who had been foolish enough or hungry enough to venture too close.
So he made it a point to avoid large unburned farms. He held to wooded areas, to high grass and brush. And he moved slowly, looking carefully about him. There were times in fact when he felt as if he had become some other species entirely, something small and vulnerable, creeping in the shadows. Though he had been carrying the Winchester ever since the freeway incident — it too, along with a thirty-eight pistol, had been Miller's — he had yet to use the weapon except on wild dogs. He had come upon a number of loners like himself and occasional groups of two and three, and they in turn had seen him, silent starings across the fields of fear and suspicion. But nothing had happened. Perhaps it was the gun or simply their common animal reluctance to chance the unknown, to risk all, ever. Stone knew that he had much worth killing for, chiefly the guns but also the binoculars and canteens and other backpack equipment, plus all the imagined food inside. So he resisted the societal urge, the hunger for companionship, and kept to himself. The one exception had been the old man, whom he had come upon the previous afternoon, beaten and robbed, lying beside a sulfur water stream, talking to it as if it were his family, his own blood running past. Stone had tried to make him comfortable and had given him sweet water and a precious last piece of Jumbo Block, which the man had promptly vomited. But mostly all Stone did was sit and listen through the long cool night to the man's contented litany of inhumanity, contented because it apparently confirmed his fundamentalist theology, the final hegemony of Antichrist, the coming of Armageddon. He died while Stone slept, and Stone buried him in the morning, more like six inches deep than six feet, but even that was more than a man had any right to expect, now, in these first days of the new age.
Early in the afternoon Stone came upon the crashed airplane, a twin-engine Cessna stuck like a giant plow into the earth. One wing had been sheared off and the cabin door hung open behind the battered, half-buried nose of the craft. Climbing up on the jagged base of the missing wing, he peered into the cabin and saw one body amid the clutter, a fortyish man pinned to the pilot's seat by the shattered trunk of a small white oak. In death the man had gripped the tree, as if he had hoped to pull it from his chest, like an arrow. Otherwise all Stone could see inside were broken seats and scattered luggage. On the ground, under the door, one suitcase lay open, with its contents tossed about. Rifling through it, he found men's shirts and toiletries, including a Norelco shaver. The shirts all bore the label of I. Magnin. There was also a book of hundred-dollar American Express traveler's checks, an artifact that Stone found almost touching. Some people simply could not accept that it was all over now, done, as dead as the Age of Pericles. Paper money was good for starting fires, and that was all.
Stone took only one item, a lined suede shirt-jacket he knew he would be able to use in the weeks ahead, as the weather turned colder. Stuffing it into his backpack, he wondered idly who had gone through the bag before him — the owner, or someone like himself, someone wandering through? He looked back at the swath the plane had cut across the field, a hundred-yard gash bordered by uprooted bushes and broken saplings and the one large tree that had claimed the Cessna's wing. From the raw dark look of the open ground he judged that the crash had occurred within the last twenty-four hours. And the length of the swath indicated it had been more a crash-landing, a doomed attempt to put down in a field that from the air must have looked reasonably flat and safe. He imagined that there had been survivors, and that they had moved on, leaving their dead for the birds and wild dogs to dispose of. Well, he would do the same. If a man wanted to, he could have spent all his time these past weeks digging graves and mumbling obsequies. But Stone had more important things to do, chief of which was not to join those in need of burial. So he walked on, still circling east of the small town.
He had gone less than a half mile when he saw the woman in the distance, standing in the doorway of a barn ruin like a high-fashion model on assignment. He raised Miller's eight-power Nikons and studied her more closely, struck by the incongruity she presented against the decay and detritus all around her: young and honey-blond, dressed in high, brushed leather boots and a tan safari jumpsuit set off with a scarf of iridescent purple. Though she did not even look rumpled, he figured she was one of the survivors of the crash and was using the ruin for shelter, such as it was. Roofless and crumbling, the structure was little more than the rock and concrete foundation of an ancient dairy barn, a victim not of the collapse but of time. Beyond its thick gray walls stood a huge old tiled silo and beyond that another ruin, this one of a house and garage, recently burned.
Stone moved on across the field toward her, not missing the fact that as she saw him she reacted hardly at all, neither calling out nor pulling back into the doorway, which made him wonder if she was playing the decoy, trying to draw him into an ambush of some kind. So he released the safety on his rifle and he watched carefully for any movement behind her or in some other part of the ruin. As he drew close, she continued to stand there watching him.
"Hello," he said. "That your plane back there?"
"Can I help you in any way?"
"Why? You a doctor?"
"No. You got people hurt?"
She did not answer immediately. She turned and looked back into the shadows of the unroofed room behind her at a man sitting on the dirt floor with his knees drawn up and his head resting on his arms.
"Him," she said finally. "He hit his head. He can't see. And he's been in shock, I think."
The man looked up, in the direction of her voice. He appeared to be about Stone's age, mid or early thirties. And like the woman, he too could have been a fashion model, had that kind of snotty, finely chiseled features and the whippet build to go with them, as well as the once de rigueur mop of curly slave-boy blond hair. He also had a bump on his forehead, along with a black and swollen eye. His faded denim outfit was torn and dirty.
"Eddie?" he said. "Eddie, you there?"
As he spoke, Stone caught the woman's uneasy glance to her left, behind the open doorway, and he quickly pushed past her, crouching, swinging his rifle in that direction just as a two-by-four board sliced through the air a millimeter above his head and shattered against the concrete wall. Stone's finger involuntarily started to close on the gun trigger, almost blowing away the feisty little man who stood glaring at him now like a cornered wolverine. And he had that same animal's face as well as attitude, the pugnacious snout and ready mouth and fearless button eyes. Balding and long-haired, there was nothing of the fashion model about him.
Stone brutally prodded him with the rifle. "Why'd you do that, huh? Why?" He was feeling sick with sudden anger, not so much at how close the board had come to braining him as how close he had come to shooting the little creep. Once more he drove the muzzle of the rifle into the man's chest.
"Why, huh? Tell me!"
The wolverine, trembling, somehow managed a sneer. "Your fucking gun, that's why."
"You wanted it?"
"I wanted not to get killed with it!"
For a few moments longer Stone held him there. Then he lowered the gun and backed up, moving past the woman again. The blinded man was still calling for his friend.
"Eddie, you there? You still there, Eddie?"
"It's okay," the woman said to him. "Everything's all right now. Eddie tried to — "
She broke off as the little man roughly brushed past her, getting down on the ground with his friend and hugging him, patting him on the back.
"I'm right here, Jag. It's okay now. Don't worry. I'm right here."
The blinded man began to weep. "I can't see," he said. "I can't see, Eddie."
"It'll be okay, Jag. I promise. It's just a bump. Tomorrow you gonna see again. I promise, man. You gonna see just like a hawk again."
The woman went outside and Stone followed her.
"They go way back," she said. "They're very close."
Stone was not sure about the note of derision in her voice. It could have been only weariness.
"You don't recognize him?" she asked.
"Jag. Haden Jagger. He used to be a pretty big tennis player. Family's got a lot of money — or had anyway. I don't know what the rules are anymore."
"The only rule is no rules." Stone looked back into the room at the blinded man. He thought he might have heard the name somewhere, sometime, but he had never been much of a tennis fan, not even when the big tournaments were still being held and telecast. "No, I don't recognize him," he said. "He can't see anything at all, huh?"
"Light and dark, I guess. Like the walls inside and the opening — he can see the difference. And he can see shapes. He can make us out as we move in the light."
"Well, that sounds pretty good. Maybe when the swelling goes down —"
"You his wife?"
She looked off in the direction of the crash. Her fine large gray eyes gave nothing. "No, his girl," she said. "For now, anyway."
"My name's Stone," he told her. "Walter Stone. And you can forget the Walter."
She did not smile. "Eve Williams."
Her coldness put him off. "Well, what about it? You want any help, or should I keep moving?"
"We don't have any food."
For the moment he ignored that. "When was the crash?"
"Yesterday, at dusk. We stayed in the plane till this morning. Then we came here."
"What about the pilot?"
"What about him?"
"You just gonna leave him there?"
"What else? We haven't got any shovels. We haven't got anything."
"Where were you headed?"
"Oklahoma. One of his father's ranches. Jag's."
She nodded, looking bored. "He's in real estate. Everywhere."
"Eve!" It was Eddie, calling from inside. "He wants a smoke."
Eve looked at Stone. "He won't talk to me. Not since the crash. Everything comes through Eddie."
Going back into the room, she got out a pack of Salems and flipped one up. But Eddie took the whole pack instead and began to shake cigarettes into his pocket until she snatched the pack back from him. He lit one of the Salems and carefully placed it in Jagger's mouth.
"Here you go, buddy."
Stone, watching all this, was almost swooning with hunger. Cigarettes were one item that Miller, a great drinker but a non-smoker, had not included in his hoard of Armageddon supplies. And they were scarce, in fact had regained their World War II status as one of the few currencies around, almost up there with gold and silver coins. Stone, a smoker for almost twenty years, had not had one for a day and a half. So he was direct.
"I'd like one of those."
Saying nothing, she held the pack out to him and he took one, lighting it with a match, a precious fire-lighting match he would not normally have wasted in so frivolous a cause. But a day and a half was a long time. As he inhaled, holding the delicious smoke in his lungs, the girl's eyes suddenly filled and she turned away from him. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"Listen, don't worry. I'll stay with you for now. We'll get him to a doctor, and get you some food and a roof over your head."
She glanced back at him, the tears still in her eyes, and for the first time she looked lovely as well as beautiful. She looked human.
"All we know is tennis courts and country clubs and bars," she said. "The three of us, we're like babies out here."
Stone smiled ruefully. "I'm afraid that's true for everyone. We've got to learn to walk again."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Valhalla"
Copyright © 1980 Newton Thornburg.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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