13

Halfway over the rust-eaten Black Ridge Bridge, Norrie stopped her bike and stood looking at the far side of the cut.

“We better keep going,” Joe said. “Use the daylight while we’ve got it.”

“I know, but look,” Norrie said, pointing.

On the other bank, below a steep drop and sprawled on the drying mud where the Prestile had run full before the Dome began to choke its flow, were the bodies of four deer: a buck, two does, and a yearling. All were of good size; it had been a fine summer in The Mill, and they had fed well. Joe could see clouds of flies swarming above the carcasses, could even hear their somnolent buzz. It was a sound that would have been covered by running water on an ordinary day.

“What happened to them?” Benny asked. “Do you think it has anything to do with what we’re looking for?”

“If you’re talking about radiation,” Joe said, “I don’t think it works that fast.”

“Unless it’s really high radiation,” Norrie said uneasily.

Joe pointed at the Geiger counter’s needle. “Maybe, but this still isn’t very high. Even if it was all the way in the red, I don’t think it would kill animals as big as deer in only three days.”

Benny said, “That buck’s got a broken leg, you can see it from here.”

“I’m pretty sure one of the does has got two, ” Norrie said. She was shading her eyes. “The front ones. See how they’re bent?”

Joe thought the doe looked as if she had died while trying to do some strenuous gymnastic stunt.

“I think they jumped,” Norrie said. “Jumped off the bank like those little rat-guys are supposed to.”

“Lemons,” Benny said.

“Lem-mings, birdbrain,” Joe said.

“Trying to get away from something?” Norrie asked. “Is that what they were doing?”

Neither boy answered. Both looked younger than they had the week before, like children forced to listen to a campfire story that’s much too scary. The three of them stood by their bikes, looking at the dead deer and listening to the somnolent hum of the flies.

“Go on?” Joe asked.

“I think we have to,” Norrie said. She swung a leg over the fork of her bike and stood astride it.

“Right,” Joe said, and mounted his own bike.

“Ollie,” Benny said, “this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind,” Benny said. “Ride, my soul brother, ride.”

On the far side of the bridge, they could see that all the deer had broken legs. One of the yearlings also had a crushed skull, probably suffered when it came down on a large boulder that would have been covered by water on an ordinary day.

“Try the Geiger counter again,” Joe said.

Norrie turned it on. This time the needle danced just below +75.

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