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Chapter 9: The Story of the Salt Fields
A lone motorrad was crossing a world of white.
It was blinding, brilliant, and endlessly flat.
The land was made of salt.
Hard, dry salt encrusted the ground like a massive glacier. The salt field stretched on to the horizon in all directions.
The sun was shining in the clear, spotless blue sky.
The motorrad was headed due west, with nothing standing in its way. Compartments hung from either side of its rear wheel, atop which was stacked a suitcase and a sleeping bag, along with fuel and water.
The rider was wearing a brown coat with the ends wrapped around her thighs. On her head was a hat with ear flaps. A pair of goggles with yellow lenses and a bandanna shielded her face from the searing sunlight.
A rifle-type persuader on a leather strap hung from her neck in front of her. It was long and slender with a wooden stock and a scope.
“Behind us, Kino. Seven o’clock direction,” the motorrad said suddenly over the roar of the engine.
Kino slowed slightly and looked back.
“I can’t see. How far?”
“Pretty far. They’re on normal horses. They look pretty desperate to catch up, although they won’t,” the motorrad replied.
“Then we’ll lose them, Hermes.”
Kino let loose. The motorrad accelerated, although the unchanging landscape made it hard to tell.
“So the information was right,” said Kino.
“Yeah. They really did show up,” Hermes replied, sounding entertained.
Kino rode until the sun set.
Once it was too dark to see into the distance, she stopped on the salt flats to set up camp.
She dug deep into the hard salt, parked Hermes a slight distance away, and built a campfire in the pit with a lump of solid fuel.
Then she lay her persuader by her head and fell asleep under a blanket of stars.
The next day.
Kino and Hermes continued westward towards the horizon.
The landscape had not changed in the least. The sky was clear and cloudless, without even the slightest breeze. When Kino shut down Hermes’ engine for a short break, the silence was deafening.
They continued on their way, until Hermes spoke up around noon.
“Again. Eight o’clock direction, Kino. By car this time.”
Kino looked back. She could see a dot in the distance. It was slowly growing larger.
“You think they’ll catch up?” she wondered.
“Yeah. The car’s faster,” Hermes concluded.
Kino shook her head.
“Well?” he asked.
Kino set the accelerator and took her hand off it to release the safety on her persuader.
“I knew it.”
“I don’t have much of a choice, Hermes. I don’t know why they attack travelers—and I’d love to know, but this is all I can do right now.”
Putting her hands back on the handlebars, Kino looked back again.
The car was even closer on their heels. A wisp of white smoke suddenly rose from it.
“They’re shooting, Kino!”
“I know. But they’re too far. If they make a shot from this range…”
Kino smiled. “Then they’re really lucky.”
“This is no time for jokes, Kino. You have to fight back,” Hermes pleaded. She told him to wait.
The car drew even closer. More wisps of smoke rose from it, signaling gunfire. Kino pressed forward, pausing on occasion to look back.
“All right. Now!”
Without warning, Kino let go of the gas and swerved left. Hermes’ left flank was completely exposed.
“What are you doing, Kino? You’re practically asking them to hit me,” Hermes complained. Kino said nothing, setting the accelerator again and letting go of the handlebars. In the blink of an eye, she picked up her persuader, took aim, and pulled the trigger.
The car’s right tire burst. Shreds of rubber went flying in every direction.
Kino grabbed Hermes’ handlebars again and swerved right.
The car’s wheel leaned forward and the front bumper hit the ground, leaving a long gash in the salt flats. The driver did not turn the steering wheel in time; the car tipped over on its side, spilling some of its passengers to the ground.
“It’s stopped,” Hermes said.
“Then it’s time to make our getaway.”
The next day, Kino and Hermes continued down the salt flats.
In the north and south, they could make out distant mountain peaks rising like islands. But there was still nothing to be seen in the west.
Hermes spoke up around noon.
“Ahead of us, Kino.”
Slowing down, Kino asked Hermes what he saw. He paused briefly before answering.
“I can’t tell. Maybe they’re trees? They’re standing in a line. I don’t see any people, though.”
Kino pushed herself up on her seat curiously. She eventually spotted a long dark line, hazy in the distance. As they made a cautious approach, Kino realized that it was a line of stakes driven into the salt. She stopped.
The stakes were about the height of a child, driven at intervals just narrow enough to prevent cars from passing through. The long line across the salt flats started in the southeast and headed west.
“Wonder what these are,” Hermes said.
Kino was clueless. “I’m not sure. Maybe they’re signposts? But they’re stuck too close together for that.”
“No one said anything about them?”
“No. They only told me about the attackers.”
“Oh well. We have to go west anyway, so let’s follow the stakes for now.”
Kino started Hermes. He advised her to not follow blindly, in case the line led in a completely different direction later.
Soon, they spotted someone.
Hermes saw him first and warned Kino. She released the safety on her persuader.
A small vehicle loaded with stakes was parked ahead. Beside it was an older man with bronzed skin, wearing a pair of sunglasses. He was hammering stakes into the ground with intense concentration.
The man turned when he heard the engine. From his perspective, Hermes seemed to pop out from behind his truck.
“Hello.” “Hello.” Kino and Hermes greeted the shocked man.
The man raised his hammer. Kino pointed her persuader. He ground his teeth and lowered the hammer, roaring, “Damn you! You can kill me, but you can’t take this property! It’s mine, I tell you!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. We’re not here to take anything from you,” Kino said as she pulled down her bandanna, waiting for the man to finish.
The man accused her of playing dumb.
Kino politely explained that she did not want to do him any harm or take anything away, and asked him to calm down.
“So you’re traveling, just passing through here?” the man said, his anger finally subsiding.
“That’s correct. We have no intention of settling here or taking anything from you,” Kino said. She had slung her persuader behind her back and left her coat unbuttoned to reassure him.
“All right, that’s fine, I suppose,” the man said, “But I do think I deserve an apology, the way you just rolled into my property.”
“Your property?” asked Hermes.
“That’s right, everything north of this here line,” the man said, pointing at the stakes. Kino and Hermes were standing south of it.
“Er…this is your property?” Kino asked.
The man was incredulous. “You’re damn right it is.”
“But what’s there to own?” asked Hermes.
The man shook his head. “Like rider, like motorrad. Stupid, the both of you. I’m talking about the land.”
“But there’s nothing but salt here,” Hermes pointed out.
“Precisely. This here salt’s my livelihood! You’re telling me you’ve been coming all the way through the fields without even knowing that?”
“I’m afraid I had no idea,” Kino said with as much courtesy as she could muster, “Could you please enlighten us?”
The man snorted. “Heh. Can’t fault you for honesty. Guess I’ll have to make a special exception. See, I used to be a traveler. Or, we used to be. There were about a dozen of us.”
“Really?” asked Hermes.
“We got sick of our homeland, so we packed up and left town. We had a few cars and a few horses.”
“And then what happened?”
“None of the countries we visited, well, none of them would accept us. We were just wandering for heaven knows how long. Tired, exhausted, angry at each other and broke. We even considered banditry. That’s when fortune smiled on us.”
“How?” Hermes asked.
“Do I have to spell out every last thing for you? This field! We made it to the promised land here, see?” the man declared. “We got salt here and started selling it to the countries in the north and south. Paid real well, I have to tell you. We got paid a fortune for carting around this stuff. Didn’t need to find a country to live in, no sir. We could just buy all the food and fuel we needed from the countries with the money we made from the salt. Been living like that ever since.”
“I get it now. But where’s everyone else?” asked Hermes. The man snorted again.
“Them? Broke off.”
“Cause I got sick of their shenanigans.”
“What kind of shenanigans?”
“Things were all right for a while. But then they split into groups and started trying to take all the salt for themselves. Sure, they were talking nice about unity and fraternity. But they were trying to drive us like slaves behind our backs. We had a falling-out after that and split. We’d all get a chunk of the land and sell to whatever country we liked. I tell you, I’d have turned into one of those underhanded cowards if I’d stayed. Good riddance.”
“So your old companions are scattered around the fields, mining for salt. And that’s why they attacked everyone on sight,” Kino concluded.
Hermes whispered, “Now we know why travelers kept getting attacked here.”
“That’s right. Did you meet ‘em?” asked the man.
“Yes. They opened fire without warning.”
“Can’t expect anything less than stupidity from those noggins. Probably assumed I sent you or something. Dunderheads, every last one of ‘em. They’ve been dunderheads since they could barely talk.”
Kino was surprised. “You’ve known them that long?”
“Course I have. They’re my sons. All five of ‘em. Their wives and kids are with them too. I was traveling with my family, see.”
Kino and Hermes were silenced.
“They’ve got no sense, none of them. Just digging up the salt without any plans, not planting stakes and drawing up lines like their clever old man. Attacking anybody they spot. And somehow they can still live with themselves, the monsters,” the man spat.
“Thank you for all the information. On that note, could I ask for your permission?” Kino asked.
“Permission for what?” asked the man.
“We’d like to ask for permission to cross your land as we head west. And although we had no idea, Hermes and I intruded on your property on our way here. We’re very sorry, and want to ask for your forgiveness.”
“Hmph. Should have been that polite from the beginning, and I might not have gotten angry. All right. You’ve got my permission,” the man said.
“Thank you for your kind understanding. If you’ll excuse us.”
“Bye now. Do your best.”
“Don’t need you to tell me that.”
Kino pulled her bandanna over her face again and climbed onto Hermes. She started the engine and took off.
Once the motorrad was gone, the man planted another stake in the salt field.