I did not feel guilty for what I had already done that day, nor for what I was about to do, but I didn’t feel any kind of righteousness either. I wondered about it for a moment and then decided that it wasn’t the time to go all philosophical. I was just a soldier helping to protect my community from a real and present danger. Bottom line was I was seeing myself as part of a solution not a tool of retribution; any issues of revenge I would live to God where they belonged since He was the one in charge of Judgment Day. There was no way to make up for what Kemper’s people had done, no way to bring the dead back to life, no way to unburn Tina’s house or make good on all that Kemper’s people had stolen from others, the destruction they had caused, the families that had been torn apart. There was no going back, only forward. And for us all to move forward, Kemper and his people would have to be moved out of the way.
We came up on a group of three that were already lighting a Molotov cocktail to throw. Kemper’s people had lied yet again; they were not waiting an hour before they attacked but were only lulling their prey into dropping their guard. I heard Thor mutter, “Waste of good hooch” as he brought his rifle to his shoulder. When the man raised his arm to throw the bottle Thor’s bullet shattered it spraying all three men with the contents that quickly caught fire from the lit rag stuffed in the mouth of it.
They ran around screaming, running into each other then falling to the ground trying to put the flames out that were cooking their flesh. Their terror and pain driven screams caused the rest of Kemper’s people to reveal their locations. Those that immediately moved to aid their fallen comrades we shot nearly point blank. Those that had held their position kept their lives a bit longer, but not by much.
We weren’t quite an hour flushing out the final member of Kemper’s squad. Stro and Mr. Hefling joined us once it turned into a hunt. The battle may have been over but the war wasn’t. A man road up and stopped Mr. Hefling and then rode on.
“We’ve had word that at least three other places were hit by Kemper’s people today. Neighbors are starting to check up on one another,” Mr. Hefling told Thor.
I looked at Stro and said, “Add Tina’s house to the list.”
Stro stiffened but before he could ask I told him, “She’s with Lawson and the twins down by the old wheel house ruins. I need to go bring them in, the kids are bound to be cold by now and Granny C …”
“Who’s taking my name in vain? Is that the Charbonneau girl?”
I laughed and said, “Yes ma’am. Would you like me to bring Tina around to give you some help?”
“Well, would you please? Girl has sense and a willingness to work and that’s the best kind of help I need right now.”
I looked at Thor who had a small smile on his lips despite the seriousness of the situation; Granny C had that affect on most people. I told him, “I’ll go bring them in while you and Mr. Hefling do your thing.” I stopped after I had taken a step away and turned. “Don’t you dare leave me out.”
“Would I leave without my right hand?” he asked. I knew he was exaggerating but I didn’t care. No way was I going to let anyone keep me out of it just because I was a girl … or for any other reason.
It didn’t take me long to collect Lawson and the others and return to Granny C’s place. I noted out of the corner of my eye that Stro and Tina were friendly and polite in a kinda tippy-toe around each other way but I kept telling myself it wasn’t my problem. They’d either work it out or not. I was too flaming big to play Cupid. My job was to bash heads, let someone else take on the job of mending hearts.
That didn’t mean that ignoring Stro’s problem was in my nature and I fought the itch to do something to help. As I went through the pockets and packs of Kemper’s people it ate at me, preventing me from focusing like I should have. Granny C must have sensed my dilemma because she came over and patted my arm and said, “I’ll fix ‘em up, you just keep your head on straight. Reckon I don’t want to deal with that long, tall one you got caught by if you get hurt. He seems like he’d make a powerful bit of noise about it all.”
I couldn’t stop the blush that crept across my cheeks. “He’s a good ‘un Granny.”
“I reckon he is if he managed to convince you to let him catch ye. You got him tied up good so it seems.” She said it with a smile of approval. Like Momma, she’d always said one day love would come my way when God thought I was ready; guess she was right.
We pooled the ammo and guns and then ate a light meal by combining the odds and ends we’d collected from them all. It wasn’t what you’d call regular rations, more like stuff that people were keeping back or were hiding from the others. By the time we got everything mixed together it honestly looked a little bit like dog food mixed up with lima beans and diced rutabagas but it filled the holes and it wasn’t like I hadn’t eaten worse while on the road. It just didn’t look at it too close as it was going in.
While we ate we formulated our plan. Thor, speaking to Mr. Hefling said, “I have a good idea of where Kemper’s site is as far as a map goes but as Rochelle’s already warned me, what looks right on a map is different actually getting there on the ground.”
Several local boys … well I guess they were actually young men as they were about my age or older … had arrived to be included in the posse. Lawson had run across some running traps down near the river and they’d spread the word. One young man whose name was JJ said, “Don’t sweat it Mr. Thor, we get tourists that show us maps all the time and say ‘this here map says there is a road’ and all we can do is tell ‘em it may look like a road on their map but it ain’t nothing but something that used to be a road or maybe a road used to be there but the NPS or forestry service fenced across it or rerouted it at some point.”
JJ’s twin brother RJ agreed and then added, “My uncle says they do it on purpose just to drive folks crazy and make the map people richer.”
Mr. Hefling said, “Whatever the reason it’s more true than not. But rather than going by the road it is shorter to follow the river up because it runs in behind that resort they took over. We’ll have to cross the river beforehand because it broadens and runs fast right there. The people that built that resort graded flat a good bit of ground but it hasn’t been kept up since things fell apart and Kemper’s people have put up tents and drug in travel trailers all around the main building to go along with the outlying cabins. It’s not hard to sneak in close if you’re careful … certainly easily within rifle range if it winds up being better to snipe the compound.”
The guys all seemed to like that way too much for my comfort. I looked at Thor and then at the others and said, “Look, at the risk of everyone looking at me like I’m a girl, we need to get our goal straight here. Are we out to do the same thing that Kemper did or are we out just to cut the head off the snake?”
From behind me I heard a voice from the past. “That’s using your noggin for something besides a battering ram.”
I twisted around and grinned. “Coach!”
“Introduce me Rocky … didn’t get a good chance at it last time.” I reintroduced Coach and Thor and they sized each other up a bit before he said, “Seems to me you might have some experience in these types of operations.”
Thor hesitated before saying, “I do. But I’m not about to stir up an ant hill. I’m done being irritated by that group but I won’t be part of wholesale slaughter. We don’t even know if Kemper is still in charge.”
One of the other guys broke in and asked, “You got some reason to think he ain’t?”
Before the others had to lie to cover up what had happened in town I said, “We overheard a group talking. Doesn’t seem like everyone is thrilled with the way things were being operated … or at least they thought they could do a better job of it.”
Coach said, “That jives with what I heard from the group that tried to attack the Lindenhall place.”
“Is that one from today or another attack?” Thor asked.
“Yesterday. The barn is a total loss but they got the animals out.”
Thor looked troubled. I asked, “Thor?”
“Either no one is in charge or the one that is has more bravado than brains. As a group these attacks are too reckless, they don’t hold together. The way these attacks are occurring are more like separate bandit groups rather than a well organized tactical team. If you count up all the bodies today alone they’ve lost over two dozen of what would be considered soldiers, their most valuable community members.”
A guy, one of Sand’s crowd, said, “That’s bad but it isn’t like they don’t have replacements. They have over 200 people.”
I shook my head, “Not anymore they don’t.”
Then we had to put everything together for everyone there. It was a rush job without a lot of detail but it was enough.
“So,” I summed up. “They were down to a hundred and thirty. That number included old folks and children. Say even if three quarters of that whole number were adults you’re gonna have some of those be people that either won’t or can’t fight. Between the women unable to fight and a few men too unskilled to fight say you take off another fifty percent. That left them with about fifty fighters. They’ve lost half that number today alone. That leaves them with twenty-five real fighters … or soldiers. We’ve got nearly twenty right here between us and that is without even trying. Which brings us back to my original question. Do we go in there and bully up on a lot of people that most likely don’t stand a chance against us or do we just go in and cut the head off the snake and … er … dissuade them from continuing their current actions?”
Thor, Coach, Mr. Hefling, Sand who had shown up a few minutes before, and a couple of the other more experienced men all nodded. It was Stro that said, “It might be easier to just go in and mow ‘em all down but I’d like to be able to look at myself in the mirror come morning. Last I heard God ain’t sent down a message that we should go in and kill every man, woman, and child like the Amalekites.”
Not everyone got the Biblical reference, including Thor, but they understood the general idea of it. Some of the young men were still gung ho but the reality had begun to sink in to most of them. I pushed on, “I don’t know how many of the locals are left up there. We know that all of the group that split off are either dead or close to it if that virus takes the same path it did before. I don’t know how many locals left to go with that group but some of the people left however are bound to be from around here. I know they done wrong but I don’t want to start any mountain feuds by killing someone that ain’t an immediate threat to me or mine.”
Thor, while sympathetic, said, “Hon, we don’t have all day. Do we go in or not?”
I knew Thor was talking at me but he was really talking to all of them. There came a time to end the talking and start the walking. “Well, if my opinion counts I say we go in careful and take out their defenses, get whoever is in power, and then back off and let them lick their wounds … assuming they’ll let us show them that kind of Mercy.”
Mr. Hefling and Coach both snorted at the same time. I turned to them and said, “Well? It’s the truth. If they are attacked directly most likely they are going to fight back. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that some innocent – or at least relatively innocent – people aren’t going to get hurt. The trick is going to be getting in and out and hurting as few people as possible but making the ones we do hurt count on the proper column of the stat sheet.”
It was decided. We broke up into groups. Coach took a lot of the younger guys and would be the rear guard. Another man took some of the group and would bring them up behind the resort. The rest of us … Thor, myself, Mr. Hefling, Stro, Lawson, Sand, and a young man the Lindenhall family had taken in when his had been killed in the original riots … would start the battle.
We all took horses or mules but left them with two of the youngest boys before we crossed the river at an old bridge. Some of the animals were high strung and being out and about around all the other animals appeared to be making them edgy so Jimmy Ray was also asked to stay behind and he seemed relieved to do it. It’s not that Jimmy Ray wasn’t a fighter, the battle that lay ahead was simply well beyond his sheltered experience. The three groups made their final split and ours headed cautiously forward. The trail we followed would take us along a small tributary to the river and just above the resort. The smell reached us before we caught sight of resort.
There was a sudden violent rustling in the trees and Lawson almost shot one of the boys from the group that was supposed to be heading around to the back. Huffing and puffing Jimmy Ray’s younger cousin said, “I think someone’s done gone completely crazy Mr. Thor. We cain’t get around the way we were going ‘cause there’s a fire in the trees. Mr. Beaumont says that he’s going to take us back to hook up with Coach in case the fire sweeps around. So far it is only traveling slow because of all the recent wetness but he’s not sure if it’s going to run all the way to the peak or not or if there’s enough snow left to stop it from going up and over and down into the next valley.”
Mr. Hefling shook his head worriedly and sent the boy back down the path we’d taken to hook up with the rest of them. “This ain’t good.”
We needed to see for ourselves so we finished climbing to the vantage point that had been our goal to begin with. We had no sooner gotten there when I noticed something weird. “No animal I know makes holes that neat and uniform.”
“Those aren’t holes Hon, someone …” He looked over at Mr. Hefling who nodded in agreement. “Those aren’t holes. They’re either mines, boobies, or …”
He never finished as there was an explosion on one end of the resort and then those holes started exploding as well. I nearly yelled but caught myself in time. Stro spoke for us all when he said, “What in blue blazes?!”
Mr. Hefling nudged Thor and then handed him a high powered rifle scope and pointed. I couldn’t see much through the smoke but Thor muttered, “Idiots.”
“Want to fill the rest of us in?” Stro asked in irritation.
Mr. Hefling said, “Watch it son.”
Stro sighed and said, “Sorry Dad … Thor. It’s just this was going to be hard enough as it was … did we need them folks to find a treasure box of stupid pills?”
That was one of Coach’s favorite phrases when any of his players did something really stupid off the field. Both Lawson and I snorted and when Thor looked at me I told him, “Inside joke, something Coach would say, I’ll explain it later. But it’s the truth. Do we continue with the plan or come back another day when things aren’t so … so …”
I wasn’t sure what to call it but Thor said, “No. It needs to come to a stop now. Someone down there has what looks like a box of old dynamite.”
Mr. Hefling broke in, “Probably from the quarry but it ain’t been stored properly if the boxes are any indication. TNT starts degrading after a year and from the looks of that I would say that stuff is at least twice that old, maybe more. Idiots was being too kind.”
Another explosion went off outside of the resort’s perimeter and people stopped running around and took refuge again. “What is going on? And let’s not bother with who so much as why they are blowing up their own people?!”
“They may not be doing this on purpose if those explosives are unstable.”
Just then an explosion larger than the other ones rocked the whole area and when things stopped falling from the sky and the dust cleared it looked like half the main building was gone. Sand had been relatively quiet up to this point but he finally muttered, “Oh crap.”
The explosion had thrown burning debris up into the surrounding forest including some that rained down around us. Pines and cedars are highly flammable and that is primarily what had been used to replant with after the lumber companies had cut over this area about fifty years previously. There weren’t a lot of pines left of that age but there were some, the rest were descendents of those planted pines and the forest floor was deep in pine needles making for a potential tender box.
Some snapping and crackling above us warned me. “Move!” I yelled with all the authority I could slam into my voice while I used my body to slam Thor and Stro backwards.
We just barely avoided getting crushed by a piece of debris that had lodged in the top of a pine. It had started a blaze in the pine forest canopy that was already spreading … this time towards town rather than away from it. But it wasn’t moving fast because of the remaining snow mass that remained on this shaded side of the hollow.
Sand said, “That was close. I’m thinking we need to get back and start building fire breaks and pray the river keeps it on this side.”
I asked, “Who is left on this side of the river? Is anyone left?”
“None that I know of,” Mr. Hefling said thinking as he looked at the renewed commotion down in the resort. “Weren’t that many to begin with after the Forestry Service and Fish and Wildlife forced the lumber companies to put all of this land in a trust.”
“I thought they did that in lieu of fines and taxes,” I said rattled enough to lose my focus.
“Nah. The state wanted the land after they found that big vein of copper ore. But times a wasting. Do we stay or do we go?”
I looked at Thor who was still calmly watching the goings on below us. “There’s a fight going on.”
“There’s some kind of shoot out going on. Look … there’s a small group there by the side of the big building. Now see how there are several shooters looking their direction. There. Did you see that? They’re being careful but they are taking shots at each other.”
Sure enough they were but none of us could tell, from this distance, how serious they were. Suddenly Lawson says, “Look! That’s Kemper.”
Sure enough a handful of people were taking off out of back of the main resort building. Kemper wasn’t the only one I recognized either. There was a woman I recognized as a teacher from the middle school, Kemper’s daughter, two men I didn’t recognize … and then Janie. I glanced at Stro and found his face hard.
But hard turned to absolute shock when a man jumped out of the trees and cut them all down with an automatic rifle. The man started shouting, “We got him! We got Kemper!!” Then he too was taken down by a shotgun blast from his buddy who shot him in the back. That man grabbed Kemper’s backpack, ripped it off the body, and started running up the trail in our direction.
I looked at Stro and he and me and we stood up and positioned ourselves on either side of the trail. Thor was asking a silent question but I winked at him. Not even a minute later the assassin was puffing up the trail dragging Kemper’s pack. Stro and I sandwiched him and the guy made a funny bleating sound as the air was forcefully slammed out of his body before toppling over. I pulled an old, brown extension cord off the guy’s belted and hog-tied him by two arms and one leg after throwing Stro a piece roll of duct tape to cover the guy’s mouth with.
Lawson grinned briefly at Thor’s raised eyebrow and whispered in a snicker, “Not too many people got up after getting caught between the Freight Train and the Brick Wall.” Thor’s sardonic “I imagine not” had me giving him a look that promised him all kinds of rewards for acknowledging my abilities rather than denigrating me for them.
Mr. Hefling’s soundless whistle had us turning to him. “Well, well, well. Apparently Kemper was holding out on his people. Idiot. What did he think this stuff was going to be worth anyway?”
In the pack were stacks of large bills … and I’m not talking about the kind that belonged on a duck. In the bottom were some collectable coins sealed in plastic but mostly it was just stacks and stacks of paper dollars in large denominations. If I had collected all of that I’d seen since I had left San Francisco I could have repapered the inside of the house and still had enough to do all the outbuildings too and had a year’s worth of toilet paper on top of that. From what I had experienced paper money wasn’t worth the ink it had been printed with.
“Anything actually worth anything in there?” I asked.
There wasn’t except for a couple of coins that looked authentic enough that they might be valuable some day. Thor divided those up between those of us there and then retied the pack shut. The guy that Stro and I had mashed had regained consciousness and when we threw the pack into a pile of embers he started having a fit. We ignored him. There was no reason for making such a fuss over just a bunch of burning paper.
Looking around at what remained of the situation I laid it on the table. “OK, Kemper’s dead. The compound is badly damaged and probably not fit for habitation this winter. They’ll be lucky to dig out enough supplies to get them through a few more weeks at the rate things are burning down there. It looks like they won’t be able to reorganize since from what we can tell they fell apart from within. The number of real fighters they have left is negligible. And the sense of those that are left is questionable at best.” That last was said looking at the fool that was still trying to drag what was left of the pack out of the embers with his free foot.
Thor and Mr. Hefling seemed to be communicating silently and I remembered why people found it annoying when Stro and I did that. Sand seemed to be on their wavelength however and said, “That still leaves people that are going to be looking for a hand out … whether it’s willing or not. Even with the best case scenario we are going to have community-wide problems from this.”
In a strained voice Stro said, “Depends.”
“On what?” I asked.
“On that,” he responded pointed down the path. He’d been looking at Janie’s body and had been the first to see the fire break through the wet litter on top of the dry duff. When we turned it was to see lots of flames begin to break through. It was time to move. The sound of squealing had me pulling out my Bowie. Lawson reached towards me but Stro grabbed his arm.
The Bowie sliced through the electrical cord in one smooth cut and our captive was up and running. Sand startled us by yelling, “Not that way!” But it was too late.
The man had run off into the underbrush. In only a moment he had lifted the damp litter away and let oxygen into the smoldering layer beneath. The flames leapt all round him and then engulfed him. In his rush to escape he hadn’t even bothered to tear the duct tape off of his mouth and that’s probably the only thing that held his screams in.
We didn’t have time to be fully impressed by the horror because we were off and running ourselves, trying to get to the river before we got cut off. We didn’t dare get off the path for fear of having the same thing happen to us that happened to the man we’d left behind, melting in his own refusal to listen to Sand’s warning.
Slipping and sliding we ran down and we could see the bridge a half a football field away. On the other side were the other two groups. Mr. Hefling slapped Lawson and said, “Go! Tell ‘em to set up fire breaks along the narrow point of Left Fork!”
Lawson, despite his bulk, had been one of the fastest wide receivers in our division. And as I watched him pound down the path I thought to myself, “The boy can still fly.”
We were only ten yards from stepping foot on safety when a great whoosh of heat nearly knocked us off of our feet and a wall of flames sprung up, rushed across our path and cut us off.
“Dad!!” Lawson frantically screamed, but he was held back by Coach and a couple of the other grown men. Then it came to me and I brought a fist down on Sand and Stro’s shoulder and made a hand motion at Lawson who nodded and started running. He was followed by a couple of the guys on that side.
I grabbed Thor’s arm and Stro grabbed his dad. Sand grabbed the Lindenhall kid. We started running along the river bank, doing our best not fall in, all three of us thinking the same thing.