renewal 9 delay tactics

Renewal 9 – Delay Tactics

By J.F. Perkins

Copyright 2011 J.F. Perkins

Kindle Edition

 

Website/Blog: http://www.jfperkins.com

Twitter: @WriterJFPerkins

 

 

Renewal 9 – Delay Tactics

Chapter 9 – 1

Terry crept through the darkness. A sinister orange glow drew him onward. He did his best to move silently through the underbrush as he followed the low murmurs of fevered chanting. Soon, the crackle of flame buried his worry about being heard and replaced it with the worry of being seen. He need not have worried. The white-robed figures were fully involved in their ritual of obscene pain. One layer of leaves from full exposure, Terry watched the center wooden cross crackle and spit, burning bright in the black woods.

Terry sat absolutely unmoving until the figures on the side crosses forced a ragged gasp from his throat. He reached for his automatic and prepared to die. He had never met the victims, but he recognized them from Bill’s stories. On the left cross was Arturo, and on the right, little Jimmy. Terry was struggling to reconcile the fact that they matched his imagination perfectly. He would have known them anywhere, and yet he could not possibly know.

As he judged the timing for his attack, the center figure of the ritual spun around to face him. He knew he was caught, most likely recognized. He rose to his feet behind the bush, his upper half in plain sight of the entire white-robed crowd.

“Terry Sheffield,” the figure intoned, “So nice of you to join us.” He pulled the pointed white hood from his head, and Terry sagged back to his knees. The leader of the ritual was Bill Carter. He waved Terry into the clearing.

Terry stepped around the bush and walked forward until the heat of the burning cross became uncomfortable on his face. He was surrounded by a hundred hidden men, all wearing the white robes of the Knights of the White God. As Terry scanned the crowd he picked out eerily familiar eyes peering from holes in the hoods. He was lost. Everything he believed in his rapid transformation into a member of Bill’s carefully built community was overrun by the revelation that Bill was no different from the enemy. These men could burn him, for all he cared. His hope for the future was shattered.

Bill Carter spoke again. “I’m glad you’re here, Terry.  We didn’t know how much longer we could pretend to be the good guys.”

What? Terry felt the cracks forming in his reality. The others began removing their hoods. There was Kirk. There was Sam. There was Jeffry and Seth. John Hall pulled his hood and leered at Terry with a purely evil grin. The hood to Bill’s right came off. It was Dusty Baer.

Wait a second. Dusty is dead. This is wrong.

Bill glanced away for moment and back again. “Wake up, Terry. Wake up!”

A dream. It was a dream. The open window was black. Terry physically shook to rid himself of the last vestiges of the horrible dream. He heard gunfire outside. With his mind still mired in the twilight of sleep, Terry let his body drive. He pulled on his clothes and weapon belt. He sat back down on the edge of the bed while his hands laced his boots. Another part of his mind heard scuffling sounds from down the hall. When he turned the knob on the bedroom door, he stepped out into the hall and was nearly knocked over by a slender redhead in full stride.

Sally looked angry at first, and then they both laughed at the collision for a second or two. Then they remembered. Gunfire. Sally slid past Terry with her hand lingering on his shoulder. He followed her down the stairs, still struggling to pull his head out of the wild dream. Down through the kitchen and out the back door. They listened to the firecracker pop of weaponry to the west, and headed out in that direction.

The whole of Teeny Town was only four hundred feet wide, east to west, and two turns later, they were standing at the massive barn that served as the main vehicle storage and western defensive gate for the town proper. Beyond the barn was a flat series of crops fields, everything from beans to corn, mixed for maximum efficiency and synergistic support. The town nestled in a valley that started up at the main road to the south and drained gradually to Brewers Creek to the north. Outside of the crop zone, pastures ringed the hillsides and ended at fences that were situated so that they were just out of sight from the road. The community had stayed hidden for more than a decade just by the simple advantage of being situated in that valley.

Peering around the barn, Sally could see muzzle flashes at the western gate. She gave Terry a rapid fire sequence of hand signals, which he only vaguely understood. Although Teeny Town kids were raised into entire systems of action, Terry was a newcomer. While he had already proven himself in important ways, he was still weak on the fundamentals. He matched Sally step for step as they advanced toward the source of the gunfire. The moonless night made it easy to find the problem, but hard to navigate through the fields. More than once, Terry lost track of Sally in a patch of corn, and was forced to stop and listen for her quiet rustling movement through the tall stalks. That was how he detected another sound. Off to the right, he could hear a group making their way in the opposite direction, back to town. He stepped forward and grabbed Sally by the shoulder. She spun around to shake him off, and saw him holding a finger to his lips. Then he pointed in the direction of the sounds.

Sally picked it up instantly. The group was talking in low murmurs, which told her that whoever it was, they were not from the community. Thanks to old teaching from an ex-Marine named Arturo, Teeny Town used hand signals in combat. She made a slicing motion, back in the direction they had come. Terry  pivoted and set out in a slow, hunched walk back down the corn row. Quickly, they were standing at the edge of the field. A broad strip of grass and gravel separated the field from the barn. They had been outside long enough to develop decent night vision, and a few dim electric bulbs from town provided more than enough light to see.

Terry was fully awake now, thinking fast. They had two enemies to worry about. The first was the wealthy families of Coffee County. These families had gained early advantage as the countryside recovered from the Breakdown. They had used their advantage to essentially subjugate the entire surviving population of the county, so that in modern Manchester, Tennessee, most people existed at the pleasure of a ruling elite. The families had fought among themselves for years, trying to gain the leadership role among those elite. Eventually, the Jenkins family managed to consolidate power and to make it look legitimate to anyone who cared to look from outside the county. Of course, they abused that power to keep the population on the edge of starvation and completely dependent on the families for survival.

Two nights ago, Terry had taken  part in a raid on the Jenkins farm. Although the raid was launched in retaliation for the abduction and tortured death of Dusty Baer, a key member of the community and someone he considered a friend, Terry could not feel good about it. The raid had gone off without a hitch, unless you considered a banshee woman with deadly knife skills a problem, but it was out of character for Terry’s idea of morality and for his idea of what the community should be. This, right now, was different. Someone was attacking his new people and that was a fair fight, by his standards.

The second enemy was newer, the result of an unplanned mission into Nashville. Terry had been a part of that one as well. Under the leadership of Bill Carter, Terry and five others had successfully attacked a much larger group of particularly sadistic men from the Columbia area and had rescued seventeen state police officers from whatever horrible deaths the bad guys had in mind. The leader of that group, known as the Grand Dragon, was captured and later compared notes with the head of the Jenkins family while in the state’s jail in Murfreesboro.

Because of that connection, Teeny Town was up against both groups at once, which was a situation for which they had never planned. In the raid on the Jenkins farm, most of the first group of Dragons had been literally blown to bits, but the leader and son of the Grand Dragon had escaped to Columbia for reinforcements. Thanks to some spying by Kirk, Terry knew those reinforcements were not due until the next day, which left Terry to conclude that he was listening to the minions of one of the Manchester families crunching their way through the corn field.

Sally moved  three rows to the right and dropped to a prone position in the deep shadows of the corn stalks. Terry backed up to give her a clear field of fire and followed suit, drawing his 9mm in the process. The first of the group emerged from the corn, and Terry recognized the man from school. Definitely the families, Terry thought. As seven other men filed out into the open, the picture became clear. Two of the men carried heavy metal fuel cans while the rest covered those two. The men were casting their eyes around in every direction, looking almost comically guilty as they began to cross to the barn. There was no doubt in Terry’s mind that the men intended to burn as much of the Town as they could. The skirmish at the gate was just a diversion, and once again Terry was stuck right at the heart of the problem.

Sally had apparently come to the same conclusion. Terry jumped as her rifle barked, just eight feet to his right. The man he recognized crumpled, solving a small moral dilemma for Terry. At least he wouldn’t have to shoot a classmate, no matter how big a jerk the guy was. Terry already knew from experience that, depending on the situation, he was either the world’s best shot or the world’s worst. Up until now, the difference between those two states was completely out of his control. Terry was gifted with a natural ability to enter a very focused state of mind when he, or someone he cared about, was in danger. If he was in that state, he was blur-fast and accurate. If not, then the huge barn wall was probably safe.

Sally, on the other hand, got her skill the old fashioned way; training and practice, and she was very good. Terry knew this because, while he was thinking, the second man fell from a rifle bullet through the sternum. Through a long session with Kirk, who had the same kind of gift, Terry was supposed to be learning how to enter that state of focus at will. Since everything felt fast and chaotic, he knew he wasn’t there, but he wasn’t helping Sally either. He aimed and squeezed the trigger, knowing he was thinking too hard as he did it. Someday, someone would find his bullet down by the creek because it missed his target by a mile. Damn it.

By the time he had gone through this mad rush of thought, Sally was pulling the trigger on the third man, and the entire group of bad guys had begun to orient on Sally’s position.  Several rifle rounds zipped over Terry’s head, low enough that he expected to see that Sally was hit. In the tiny space of time it took for him to turn and look at her, the world slowed down. He saw the rounds cutting through corn stalks in slow motion and plowing into the dirt just beyond Sally. His head swung back around to see the third man slowly crumpling under Sally’s latest shot. His handgun, almost of its own accord, lined up on the fourth man, cracked and flamed, and sent the spent casing tumbling through the air. Again, three more times in the space of time it took that first casing to bounce on the dirt. One man left.

The last man was too stunned to drop the fuel can. He dragged it back into the corn and started running for the gate. For a few seconds, Sally couldn’t shoot because Terry was in the way. She waited and tracked the man entirely through the sound he was making in his headlong retreat. Terry saw her rifle swinging in time with the man and scrambled out onto the grass to clear her shot. Her rifle barked one final time. Terry heard a metallic “spang” and a liquid thud. Then the man hit the ground and started spewing a long string of obscenities.

Sally said, “Crap! Fuel’s spilling in the corn.”

Terry’s own response was a little less practical, but he kept it to himself. He got to his feet, and ran in the direction of the wailing man somewhere in the field. He was scared right to the brink of panic as the corn whipped his face. If he had Sally’s training, he would have done it differently. Terry almost stepped on the man before he saw him sprawled on his back, dappled in dim light split by shadows of corn stalks. The fuel can was flat on the ground by the man’s left hand and a handgun was four feet beyond the man’s right. Thinking of Sally’s last concern, he reached down and set the can upright, feeling for the telltale wetness of diesel fuel.

Terry called out his discovery. “Hey Sally! You just dented it. There’s only blood in the corn.”

Sally didn’t answer. Some alert members of the community had come out to help. Sally explained in a rush, and someone pulled a truck out of the barn to shine headlights into the field. The fallen man was revealed to be a sorry looking thirty-year-old in a trucker’s cap with a ragged gash across the top of his thigh. Terry thought about helping the man, but the bastard was still shouting foul language at the top of his lungs.

Kirk was the first one to arrive on the scene. He took one look at the man and said, “Shut the hell up.”

The man kept yelling.

“Quiet, or I’ll kick you square in the nuts,” Kirk said loudly.

The man stopped.

“Better.” Kirk waved to a couple of his men who brought in a canvas army litter to carry the man back to his fate.

Terry hit the wall of post adrenalin and staggered out of the cornfield. He spotted Sally over to the side and walked straight to her. Sally was weeping softly and trying to hide it from the gathering crowd. Terry stood between Sally and the others, helping her to keep her secret.

He brushed her copper hair from her eyes and quietly said, “It sucks, doesn’t it?”

She looked up at him for a long time. He watched tears roll from her reddened eyes. “It does suck. Why do we have to do this?”

“I don’t know Sally, but I think we do.” Terry pulled her close and let her bury her face in his chest. Terry couldn’t tell which one of them was hurting more.

In a few minutes, she pulled herself together, sniffed and said, “Let’s go see what he has to say.”

Chapter 9 -2

It was 3:30 in the morning when Terry and Sally arrived a Teeny Town’s medical clinic. The man Sally had shot was on one bed in the glaring white room, and to Terry’s dismay, his friend Rob was on the other. Rob had been one of the team in Nashville, and Terry knew him better than most. Terry reckoned that he had been on gate guard when the attack occurred. Bill and Aggie Carter, essentially the community’s leading couple were also there. Bill was still on his crutches, but Terry quickly noticed that he only used them when he thought about it. The rest of the time Bill was hobbling around, gathering information from the assembled people. He waved at Terry and Sally, and they both took it to mean that he would debrief them soon enough.

Terry went to Rob’s bed and saw that Rob’s ear was bandaged. No other wounds were apparent. Terry greeted his friend. “Hey, Rob. You ok?”

“Oh, sure. Can you believe I got shot in the ear?” Rob grinned to show that he didn’t see it as a problem.

“Will they be able to save it, or are they going to amputate?” Terry asked with a smile.

Rob reached up and pulled the bloody bandage back. Terry leaned in to look. Rob had a perfect half circle clipped out of the edge of his right ear. “I think they can save it.”

“That’s going to be the finest scar in town,” Terry said.

“You think the ladies will like it?”

“No doubt, Rob. No doubt.” Terry looked over his shoulder briefly. Then he turned back to Rob. “What happened?”

“I guess they snuck in between patrols. I was on duty with the inner patrol on the southwest, which means they got past us. Anyway, they started shooting at the gate guards and we came running. They had our boys pinned down when we showed up behind the bad guys. Once we started shooting, it was pretty much over. The only problem is we were shooting from the ditch and we had to stick our heads up to get shot. That’s where I got my new ear hole.” Rob spun his finger around his ear. “Luckily, I was the one with the first aid kit. I slapped one of those old plastic bandages on it and called it good. By then, the fight was over. We had a live one for a minute, but he did something to spook one of the young guys at the gate and got himself shot. I heard the whole thing was a diversion.”

“Looks that way,” Terry said. “There was a group toting two big cans of diesel looking to burn something. Sally and I were heading for the fight at the gate when we heard them in the cornfield.”

“You took ‘em out?” Rob asked.

“I got a few of them, but Sally did the heavy lifting. She shot that one,” Terry jerked a thumb over his shoulder, “through ten rows of corn.”

“Is she doing ok?” Rob asked, and Terry knew he meant the emotional strain of killing, not her physical wellbeing.

Terry waggled his hand back and forth and said, “Ok, I guess. Man, she can shoot.”

“You don’t have to tell me. She spent the last ten years making the rest of us look bad, except for Jeffry. Nobody shoots better than that guy.” Rob squirmed around on the hospital bed, trying to make himself comfortable.

“Yeah. I guess she earned her reputation.” Terry replied. “Well, I’m sure we need to get in on the questions over here. Tell Sue to make sure you have a good scar.” Terry smiled and gave Rob a pat on the shoulder before he turned to the crowd around his foul-mouthed prisoner.

Bill gave Terry a nod as he stepped to the prisoner’s bed. Sue was cleaning the man’s ragged leg wound. She was doing a thorough job, but she wasn’t one to waste anesthetic on bad guys. The man was gnawing on the edge of his pillow and moaning as she worked. Kirk was playing his hardened killer routine to the hilt. “Don’t be such a sissy, man. It’s just a flesh wound.”

The man opened his eyes long enough to give Kirk a nasty look, and he saw Terry. He almost came off the bed in his attempt to strangle the younger man. “You son of a bitch! You shot me!”

Terry took a single step back and said, “No. If I was doing the shooting, you’d probably still be running... See that pretty girl over there? She shot you. You never had a chance.”

The assembled group laughed knowingly at Terry’s remark.

The man’s face turned red with fury, but he didn’t reply. He grabbed the pillow with his teeth and went back to chewing.

Sue flushed the debrided wound and started stitching. The man switching from moaning to merely hissing and wincing each time the needle passed through flesh. Kirk continued to taunt the man until Bill gave him a pointed look. Bill preferred to get some cooperation when the questions started, the taunting would not help. The other option for interrogation was something Bill would avoid at great cost. One of the prisoners that Terry and John Hall had taken at the Jenkins farm was not cooperative, and Bill had chosen to leave him imprisoned on a platform in the woods rather than resort to physical torture, although one could argue that the platforms amounted to the same thing after prisoners were exposed to the elements for a few days. The other, a mid-level officer in the Dragon’s organization, had broken under a steak dinner and spilled the beans on what he knew, which was better than nothing, but not incredibly detailed.

As far as Bill could tell from those earlier interrogations, the actual family members would resist any questions strongly, since it was their own flesh and blood at stake. The employees, however, were not always treated well and lived with the jealousy of being considered lesser men than the family members themselves. They would generally spill the beans if treated decently. Bill seriously hoped they were looking at a lackey on the emergency room bed. They could really use some information.

Sue finished her work and left the man with a fully bandaged leg. He looked around the room, probably trying to guess what would happen next. He rattled the cuffs against the bed rails in reflex. He couldn’t reach his head to wipe away the sweat trickling into his eyes.

Bill turned to the room. “Everyone, come take a close look at this man on your way out. If you see this man limping around within a mile of here without an escort, you will shoot him.”

The milling crowd formed into a line and filed past the bed. He was  forced to endure a long series of hateful expressions and a smattering of hostile comments as the room slowly emptied. Terry, Kirk, and Aggie remained with Bill at the bedside. Sally sat quietly in one of the row of plastic chairs by the wall. Terry wanted to go to her, but there was still work to be done.

“Well... I guess you know where we stand on people who try to burn our town,” Bill said. “Let’s start with your name.”

“Fuck you.”

“Ok, Mr. You. Let me introduce you to my brother, Kirk. Personally, I’d prefer to have a polite conversation to learn what I want to know. Kirk here is not so interested in polite. He’s keenly interested in knowing what he wants to know, and I can tell you from past experience, he really has no limits to what he will do to get that information. You’re looking a simple choice, really. You can answer the questions, or you can suffer more pain than you ever knew existed.” Bill said it very calmly, as if he were simply explaining how to plant a seed. “Do we understand each other?”

The man nodded in a rapid, jerking motion.

“Good, now what’s your name?”

“Cooper. Jared Cooper.”

“That’s better, Mr. Cooper. Maybe your day won’t be so bad after all,” Bill said. “Who are you working for?”

“Wyatt Jenkins.”

“And?”

“That’s it. I swear. He came by the feed docks and offered good money for an easy job. All I had to do was follow those men and carry the gas can.”

“Well, since Mr. Jenkins is short on men these days, I need to know who the other men were.”

“I don’t know. A couple of guys I knew, but they were like me. Hired off the docks,” Jared Cooper said.

Terry nudged Bill’s arm to get his attention, then whispered the name of the man he had recognized in Bill’s ear.

Bill leaned forward and said, “I’m not sure I believe you, Mr. Cooper. Why would you come out into the country in the middle of the night with people you don’t know? Dig deeper.”

“Ok... There were some Talley boys... And some Coxes in the bunch.”

“What was the plan?”

“Wyatt Jenkins said you burned down his place, that you deserved the same. We were supposed to set fire to as many places as we could. When we got tangled up at the gate, somebody sent me and the other boys down the hill while they kept your people busy.”

“Did Mr. Jenkins tell you that the reason we burned his place down was because he kidnapped Dusty Baer, tortured him nearly to death, and then dumped him out of the back of a moving truck. You know Dusty?”

“Sure. Everybody knows Dusty. Good man.” Jared replied with a wince.

“Well, Dusty didn’t make it. He died right in the bed you’re occupying, covered in Jenkins branding iron burns.”

“I didn’t know. I’m... Sorry, sir.” Jared had turned a ghastly shade of white.

“All right, Mr. Cooper. I’m about to make a decision about your fate. Do you have anything to say that will make me think you deserve to live after you attacked my people and my town.”

“No, sir. Now that I know the whole story, I made a big mistake. I reckon I don’t deserve any special consideration. No money is worth what I did.” Jared’s chin dropped to his chest. Bill watched silently as tears began to mingle with the sweat on Jared’s face.

Bill looked at his wife, then his brother. Some kind of silent accord was reached. “Ok, Mr. Cooper. I’ve made my decision.”

Jared looked up and tried to wipe his tears on the shoulder of his shirt.

“I think you’ve learned your lesson. I’m letting you go. There’s two conditions...” Bill said.

Jared nodded and watched expectantly.

“One. You are not welcome here. If you come within a mile, my order still stands. Maybe someday we’ll invite you back, but until then, stay away.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Two. If you tell this story, you tell the whole story. I don’t need people thinking that we go around burning places for no good reason. I’ll need your word on it,” Bill said.

“You have my word, sir,” Jared replied.

“Fine. Somebody will give you a ride back at sunup. Until then, you may as well relax. I don’t want you out where someone might take a shot at you.”

Jared was still nodding gratefully as Bill hobbled away.

The small group followed Bill out the double doors of the clinic. Terry stopped along the way to lend his arm to Sally. She got to her feet, picked up her rifle, and leaned heavily on his shoulder as they walked out. Only the faintest hint of light broke the eastern horizon as they gathered in the gravel lane.

“You two all right?” Bill asked Terry and his daughter.

“I’m fine, Bill. Not so sure about Sally,” Terry said.

“Sally?” Bill asked the implicit question once again.

“I’m ok, Daddy. It’s just... Well, it’s different than I thought it would be,” Sally said with a sigh.

“It always is, sweetheart. It’s always hard and it never gets easier. If you think about it, that’s a good thing,” Bill said with a sad expression. He was thinking how nice it would be if his precious little girl never had to kill another human being, and how unlikely that had always been.

Aggie leaned over and hugged her daughter hard enough to squeeze air from Sally’s lungs. “I love you, Miss Sally.”

“I love you too, Mama.”

“Sally, why don’t you head home and get some sleep. It’ll help,” Bill said.

She brightened a bit and said, “Can I take Terry with me?”

Bill looked shocked for a second and replied, “Uh, no...”

Even Kirk laughed at his uncomfortable reply. Terry gave Sally a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek under the watchful eyes of her parents. Then Sally and Aggie walked slowly towards their home.

Bill returned to business. “Kirk, set John up for another raid. The Talleys and the Coxes need a visit. It occurs to me that I went off half-cocked on the Jenkins. We’ll do it differently this time...” Bill filled him in on the details, and Kirk went off to find John.

“Terry, if you’re up to it, I’d like you and Seth to take Mr. Cooper home. Be friendly. I’m hoping that letting him go is a good idea. Anyone who knows what he was doing will see us bringing him home, and maybe with a little luck, Dusty can still help us out from the great beyond.”

Chapter 9 - 3

Twenty minutes later, Terry was caught in the state between post-adrenalin exhaustion and brain-humming wakefulness. Most of the townspeople had wandered back to their beds as the guard organized a cleanup detail for the sad remains of the late night defense action. Terry considered trying to grab an hour of sleep for about the fifteenth time when he wandered into the town square and saw Bill sitting on the front steps of the church. Bill’s wooden crutches were leaning against the wall behind him. Terry angled in that direction.

Bill appeared to be deep in thought, but he looked up as Terry approached and patted the step beside him. Terry stepped up, spun around and sat in one smooth motion. It seemed to be a quiet time for Bill and Terry refrained from speaking to respect the moment.

After a couple of minutes, Bill finally said, “You know, I’ve been expecting something like this for a long time, but now that it’s here, I think I’d almost rather pack up my family and leave someone else to make all the hard decisions.”

“Yeah, I understand that feeling, and I’ve only had to think about it for a couple of months. You’d think it would be easy for me. All I have to worry about is myself,” Terry said.

“That’s not true. I can tell that you worry about everyone and everything already,” Bill said.

“Well, let’s just say that it’s just as true as the idea that you would leave anyone else to handle things,” Terry replied.

“Ah, ya’ got me. I couldn’t do that. There’s a reason that the hard decisions are so damn hard. People get hurt. Not many people want to decide to hurt people. I sure don’t.”

“Way back at the beginning of your story, you were telling me that one of the reasons the old country failed is that no one was willing to make the hard decisions. You said that our leadership stood around pointing fingers at each other while the whole world spun out of control. That idea stuck with you all this time. Must be an important one,” Terry said.

“It is an important one, but it’s like the difference between simple and easy. I can recognize all the important things that my parents taught me with my mind, but my heart is the one that sits on top, trying to make sure that my brain doesn’t do something I can’t live with. It’s simple to put the facts in order, but it sure isn’t easy to make the call.” Bill dug around in his pocket for a pipe, and slowly packed it with tobacco.

“Like the Jenkins place?”

“Yeah, just like that. I’m sorry you had to be there, but I’m sure glad you were there, if that makes any sense at all.”

“It does. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the sick feeling I had after I watched all those men blown to bits,” Terry said. “But, I still understand the reasons, and I agree with them. It’s like you said, heart and head.”

“Heart and head. I guess I go on a rule that sounds like this... Sometimes you have to use your head so that later, it’s safe for your heart, and all those others hearts around you,” Bill replied with a rapid puff on his pipe.

“You know all those hearts are with you, right?”

“Yeah, I know and I’m grateful. Lots of good people around this place,” Bill said. “I hope I don’t kill too many of them.”

“Nobody expects you to be perfect, Bill.”

“Nobody except me...” Bill said with a faraway sound in his voice. “But speaking of hearts, I’d say you’re not all that far away from having a family of your own.”

“I think you have a tad too much interest in that subject, Grandpa. Instead, let’s hear a little more about little Miss Aggie.”

Bill laughed, busted at his own game. “All right, Mr. Shelton. Where were we?”

Chapter 9 – 4

Sprouts were growing in our homemade greenhouses. Sally was explaining everything in great detail to whoever would sit still long enough to listen. For the most part, that meant Lucy, followed by Mom and two of her traumatized women from Eugene Curfman’s prison shed. I never heard the details, but word got around that Eugene was not the worst of the men in his camp. In fact, he seemed to be using the poor women to keep his gun-toting followers happy.

In late August, it still was nothing like a typical Tennessee summer. The wind was cold when it blew. It rained more often than it had in years past, and except for three days of highs in the 70’s, the daytime temperatures were hovering in the 50’s and 60’s. The good news was that, unlike the previous year, we were approaching September without a freezing night in sight. Dad often wondered out loud about how bad the winter would be with mumbles about the rate of atmospheric clearing and other terms that meant nothing to me.

What I could see for myself was that a few adventurous plants finally decided to venture forth in early August. We saw buttercups and cable briar and even some poison oak popping out on tree trunks, but the trees themselves stayed locked up in sleep. We only had Sally Bean’s word on that. For all I knew, the trees were dead. A few crops sprang up in the open garden beds, but they were volunteers left over from the previous year. Sally had not bothered to do any real planting in a year with no summer. She watched them carefully for her own education, and occasionally talked to them when she thought no one was around. As a kid in a shattered world, I took it at face value even though I knew my folks thought talking to plants was weird. I spent idle moments wondering what Sally Bean was learning from those brave plants.

All I knew for sure was that we, the males in our group, were allowed back into the house at night. With the nervous chattering and ranting of one of the rescued women named Jackie, I was tempted to head right back out to the hayloft every evening after dinner. Kirk was even less tolerant. His habit was to rise from the dinner table and declare himself on watch. He would lace his boots and carry his rifle out the front door before anyone could think of an argument. In any case, if he was on watch, that meant no one else had to stay out in the chilly night air.

The other two grown women, Margaret and Jones, seemed to have adjusted just fine. They had developed an uncomfortable gratitude to all of us, but poured most of their daily thanks on my mother, who was beginning to tire of the role of heroine. Aggie became my best friend after that first introduction on the swing. We spent as much time together as our farm chores would allow and made a point to ride the rusty swing every afternoon in the rare down time between endless tasks and dinner time. It was nice, and for some reason, we never ran out of new things to say. Of course, she did most of the talking. I was just smart enough to know that the less I said, the smarter I would look.

We didn’t see much of each other during August. Dad, Arturo, Kirk and I were still on hay collection. We finished gathering the hay up at the Carroll’s farm and moved our work down to Joe Miller’s place. Joes farm, more of a ranch really, was within easy walking distance of our new home at Sally Bean’s farm. We had met him when he was in the throes of a tough case of pneumonia. He had come to Sally’s house to warn her of the men who were threatening local survivors in the effort to find us. Sally had given him some concoction of tea to help with his sickness, but I remember Sally telling Mom that he had no better than a 50-50 shot at recovering.

By the time we were gathering hay at his place, Joe had already beaten the odds. He was still coughing and resting every five minutes, but he was up and around and helping us with the job, teaching us a lifetime of tricks as we began the long process of rounding up his animals and hay. On a lunch break, we had the opportunity to listen to him talk about himself.

“So, Joe... You’re giving us all your livestock, and all your hay. What are you going to do with your time now?” Dad asked in the middle of the conversation.

“Well now, David. I know it seems a little crazy to give away the farm, but you gotta understand. I’m 72 years old. I’ve been working this land since my daddy left it to me in 1960. I know the world has gone all nuts, but I don’t care. I’m tired of farming. I’m ready to retire.”

“I’m not arguing, Joe, but money is gone. Land is the only currency we have for the foreseeable future, unless I’m wrong and the government is still up and running.”

“Never did count on the government for anything. About the time I got smart enough to tie my shoes so they wouldn’t come undone, we were in the middle of Viet Nam, and that’s when I figured the government was about as useful as spilled whiskey.”

“Still no argument, but I’m serious. If you’re not working your land, how will you survive? You need something to trade, again assuming people start trading again,” Dad said.

“Oh, I’ve been giving it some thought, and I have something to trade,” Joe replied, tapping his skull with a long bony finger. “I know pretty much everything there is to know about farming, one way or another. I’ve tried it all. There have to be lots of people who need to know that stuff these days. Ain’t no more running to Kroger for the groceries...”

Dad’s eyes grew wide as he understood what Joe was saying. “I never thought of that, Joe. You’re right. I spent my whole life before the Breakdown selling my knowledge, but I never once thought about selling knowledge after the fact. We’re your customers. We know we need this hay, but we don’t know the first thing about what to do with it, or how to get more when it runs out.”

“Exactly. You’re in good hands, by the way. If anybody knows more about charming food out of the ground than Sally, I never met ‘em,” Joe said. “My daddy died suddenly, accident here on the farm, and stupid kid that I was, I never paid enough attention to what he was telling me. I was planning to be a reporter when he died. Sally and her husband got me right up to speed. I’m still learning from her, come to think of it.”

“You know she’s kinda sweet on you...” Dad said with a smile.

“Aw hell, I know it,” Joe replied. “She’s been flirtin’ for years, but I figure it ain’t me she’s flirtin’ with. She’s after a connection with Fred and maybe just a chance at not being alone. I’m an old man in the neighborhood is all.”

“Maybe... Maybe not,” Dad said.

“Well, if you don’t buy that argument, then I’ll give you my side of it. Fred was my best friend. There are men who would say that makes it my duty to look out for his widow, but I say that makes it my duty to stay out of her bed. It’d feel like cheating. Plus, there’s my wife, rest her soul, and I can’t imagine anyone who could eve replace her.”

“I understand, Joe.” Dad looked at the man with respect. “That still doesn’t answer the question of what you’re going to do.”

“I wanted to be a reporter so I could travel, see the world. When the farm fell to me, I gave up on the reporter part, but I never stopped wanting to travel. Later, I dreamed of trading this whole place for one of those big old recreational vehicles. I planned to travel with my wife, all over the country, stopping wherever the mood struck us. When the cancer got her, I sorta blamed myself. It was like that RV dream was part of what killed her, so I dropped that one too. Towards the end of the winter, when I thought I was gonna cough myself to death, I realized that was stupid, that she’d want me to travel, to see what she never got to see. Well, the picture is different now, but I’m gonna do it just the same.”

“You’re telling me your plan is to travel around the country – on purpose?” Dad’s face changed from respect to incredulity.

“Yep. That’s what I’m telling you,” Joe answered with a tight grin. “Listen. I’m old. Who’s gonna worry about a single old man walking around? I may be the safest traveler left. And, if they do mind me, and they decide to shoot me for sport, I’m still an old man. No big loss to the world, and I end up with my wife, up there.” Joe lifted his finger to point at the sky.

“Well, I guess that makes sense, but the more I listen to you, the more I think it is a loss, Joe.”

Joe Miller just shrugged and said nothing.

Chapter 9 – 5

Terry took great pleasure in rousting Seth out of bed. First, he had to get past Seth’s mother, who left little doubt about where Seth had gotten his massive muscular frame. Terry told her why he was knocking on the door at 6 AM and she gave him a dubious look. Apparently her long experience at waking her son left her with a faint hope for Terry’s continued good health. Terry had to admit it was like waking a bear from hibernation in the spring. At Terry’s first poke to his shoulder, Seth made a sound that was somewhere between a snore and a grunt. By the time Terry resorted to full-on shoulder shaking, Seth sounded like both sides of a dog fight. Finally he opened his eyes and saw that it was Terry. Seth blinked twice more and grinned at his friend.

“Come on, Big Seth. We have work to do.” Terry gave him a friendly smack on the shoulder and stepped back to give Seth plenty of room.

Seth got to his feet and stretched a few muscles, releasing a series of loud pops and cracks from his joints. “What’re we doing?”

“Man, you sound like you’re held together with popcorn,” Terry said.

“Makes me flexible...”

“We’re taking last night’s prisoner back to town,” Terry said.

“Prisoner? You mean them guys from the Jenkins place?”

Terry rolled his eyes and said, “Seth, only you could sleep through a firefight in your own backyard.”

“They were here?” Seth was suddenly wide awake.

“Yep.”

“What happened?”

“Come on. Get dressed. You can ask the guy yourself.”

Seth followed Terry to the clinic, asking questions all the way. Terry tortured his friend by failing to answer any of them, but he finally stopped in front of the clinic to explain.

“We’re supposed to be nice to this guy. Bill thinks he may help our cause if we treat him right.”

“Be nice? I’m always nice,” Seth said with an angelic expression.

“Is that what your new girlfriend says?”

Seth blushed and Terry knew he had hit the target. Seth said, “Man like me... I don’t have girlfriends.”

“First time for everything, Big Guy. Don’t think I missed the brown-haired bundle on your mama’s couch. Maybe there’s a reason you slept through the gunfire.”

Seth’s response was an embarrassed growl followed by a mumbled, “Nosy son of a..”

Terry laughed and said, “Good for you, Seth.”

“Let’s just take this guy home,” Seth grunted. Terry thought it was hilarious watching the biggest man in the whole community pouting.

They went inside and found Jared Cooper still cuffed to the bed, snoring loudly. Sue Jacobs was going through supply drawers for the tenth time that morning. She looked angry, or at least concerned.

“Hi Sue,” Terry greeted her. “Did you get any sleep?”

“Hi Terry. I grabbed a nap in my office. Hello, Seth. I hear you found yourself a girlfriend.”

“I am going to kick my mama’s ass,” Seth said. “Her mouth never stops running.”

Sue laughed in a high musical tone. “Good luck with that. You were just little boy when somebody tried to steal the knives from her kitchen. She darn near beat that guy to death with a broom.”

“Yep. That’s my mama,” Seth replied with a grin.

The laughter woke Jared. “What’s happening?” he asked groggily.

Terry turned to face the man. “Morning, Mr. Cooper. I’m Terry, the guy who didn’t shoot you, and this is Seth. He slept through the whole thing, so you can’t blame him either.”