What I expected to be as bad as a few such occurrences had been on the road turned out to be a non-event … at least in the beginning. After the others had left and I had come back, Thor only had to grab the guy by the scruff of his jacket collar before he started practically begging to be allowed to answer questions.
Thor tied his hands together behind him with his own belt and I tied his boot laces together. He might get his hands loose and try to run but he wasn’t going to just unknot the laces without someone noticing and giving us time to stop him. Sand whispered, “Simple but effective.” I shrugged having learned the trick from Evans during his hours upon hours of stories. But Thor started interrogating the man and my attention refocused from the past to the present.
“Are you from Kemper’s group?”
“Kemper’s don’t exist no more. Most everyone is dead or running towards Volney or Troutdale, looking for a place to stay for the winter. But mostly everyone is dead.”
“Did they die from being infected?”
“That was the splinter group. Mostly those of us that stayed got caught in the crossfire when Calhoun over there tried to take over or from some explosions and fire that came about when some of Kemper’s people tried … I don’t know … it was like they decided if they couldn’t have the compound and supplies then no one could. They destroyed everything and then set what was left on fire.”
“How did you escape?”
“I followed Calhoun. He was ape @#$% crazy half the time but it didn’t stop him from knowing what he was doing and getting the job done. He fed our group when Kemper started cutting people off.”
“Where did he get the supplies?”
“We … uh …” When no one would help him he said, “We salvaged some things and … er … raided for others.”
“Who did you steal from?”
It was cold but the man was sweating anyway. “I don’t know man, just some cabins and stuff that we’d run across. Usually they’d give us what we wanted just to make us go away.”
“Did you burn people out when they wouldn’t?”
“Huh?! No way … that was Kemper’s crew. If Calhoun was crazy, Kemper and those he kept close were way on the other side of it. It wasn’t like that in the beginning; people were different back then. It was … it was like going away to summer camp. We were safe and felt like we could trust each other. After his wife died things started going downhill. Eventually we realized that Kemper was mostly a fake. By then though it was too late.”
“Too late how?”
“Winter was coming and the old timers wanted to know what kind of supplies we had to get us through. They wouldn’t shut up about it no matter how much the lieutenants started to threaten them. When Kemper wouldn’t tell how much he had left rumors started going around and then someone broke into the storage rooms and … and we found out there wasn’t no way all of us would be making it on what was left. That’s when people started getting mean, taking sides, talking about mutiny in whispers and then right out in the open. Kemper would send work groups out and people would go missing or the group wouldn’t come back at all. Everything turned freaky. Some of the pressure was let off when a bunch of people opted to break off from the main compound. They swore they’d still be loyal to Kemper but they’d also be run independent. Then somehow they got infected. The people that Kemper sent to reclaim the food that group had taken got infected too. More people started disappearing and even kids. No one knew what to do. Then Calhoun stepped up. He said all we had to do was wait until there was a deep and long freeze and we’d be able to get into the splinter group’s came and the bodies wouldn’t be infectious anymore. We just had to survive for a little while longer then we could have all the food we wanted until the military show up and fix things.”
I mean what do you say to someone who is that delusional? The truth? They wouldn’t believe the truth if it slapped them across the face. They didn’t want to know what the truth was because they couldn’t handle it.
“How did you find the farm?”
“This place? We got lost. My wife is going to kill me ‘cause I promised her I would be back last night. When we saw the smoke we decided to … just do the same thing we’d done every place else only … only … things went wrong somehow.” The man was really sweating bullets at how wrong it had gone started sinking in.
“How many more of there are you?”
The man clammed up. But what he saw in our faces loosened his tongue right back up. “Calhoun’s brother stayed behind with the women. Him and the women make six. You done kilt the rest.”
I asked, “Any kids in your group?”
“Huh? Naw, Calhoun’s daughter never made it home from college. My step kids are over in Richmond with their ol’ man. They were disrespectful to their ma so she turned her back on ‘em and told them they could just stay where they were and we headed out to try and reach my buddy’s hunting cabin.” His speech went from righteously angry to suddenly thoughtful, “Maybe they had the right of it after all.”
“And the others?” I prompted.
“Dead or run off if they thought they were old enough to make it on their own. Lots of the kids wised up to Kemper before the rest of us did. They didn’t like all of the rules or being told what to do all the time. They wanted to be with their own kind I reckon, back in the cities where they could have the run of the place.” He swallowed hard and then asked, “You’re going to kill me aren’t you?”
Thor said casually, “You haven’t given me any reason to keep you alive.”
“Wh-wh-what kind of-of-of reason would c-c-convince you?” he asked. The terror coming off of him was strong enough to smell.
“That’s not up to me to decide. You gotta prove it; make me believe you are worth the trouble of not killing you.”
He swallowed so hard you could hear his adam’s apple click. “I-I-I-I …”
Then all of a sudden he jumped up and ran. Or should I say tried to run; he’d forgotten his shoe laces like most people did when they panicked. With his hands tied behind him he didn’t have anything to break his fall and none of us were fool enough to step in and give him a hostage.
He hit the ground with a thunk but then didn’t move. We all had weapons out and aimed at him but still he didn’t move. Thor reached out and toed him but he didn’t react. We each aimed at a vital spot and Thor took his boot and rolled him over and we saw there was good reason for him not to be moving.
His eyes were full of mud and his forehead had an odd concave shape to it. Under the mud he’d fallen in was one of the never ending crop of rocks that people around here harvested every year. It was large and egg-shaped with smooth edges … an old flower bed border stone that had gotten displaced sometime in the last several generations and then gotten covered by years of dirt and mud. The man had come down just hard enough that his skull had fractured on impact turning his frontal lobe area into one giant bruise. He just stopped breathing from the shock of it and had gone to answer a Judge whose decry would be eternal.
Thor stood up and walked a ways off and I turned to Sand, “Strip and dispose. We can haul ‘em to the burn pit.” He nodded and then I walked over to Thor who was still in that dark place.
I put my hand on his forearm lightly. He asked, “You OK?”
He rumbled and then said, “I was prepared to do what was necessary.”
“Of course. You always are.” Then I added quietly, “This time God let you off the hook. Just accept the gift and don’t worry at it.” It took a moment but he straightened and turned to look at me. The darkness left the back of his eyes and he nodded and we went to help the guys.
In death it was apparent just how pathetic they were. Their clothes we salvaged as best we could but given the mess I had made of them most of it followed them into the burn pit except for the pieces that could be used for patches and rags. They did have ammo for their weapons but Thor and I carried more just walking around the farm. The weapons themselves were nothing special and were in need of cleaning and some repair. They didn’t have any food on them, not even Calhoun. The rest of it was just a small pile of odds and ends … a compass, pocket knives, utilitools, and the other mess that people carried around with them when they have more pockets than sense.
The burn pit was snapping and sizzling and was a bit much so we all walked back towards. I leaned against the outside wall and said, “This is getting real old real fast. If they hadn’t tried to just take stuff we might have worked a deal. We don’t have feed for the steer, they could have worked a day helping me to slaughter it and then taken some back to their people.”
Stro said, “You don’t understand these out-of-towners Rocky. When they got here they just acted like they could take whatever they needed, most of them didn’t even think they should have to pay for it. From the way this guy acted it doesn’t seem like they’ve learned any different since then.”
I said, “But Calhoun wasn’t an out-of-towner, not really.”
Sand shook his head. “Might as well have been. When he moved away he burned a lot of bridges if you know what I mean. I think his brother took him in only because he felt some family pressure to do it. Then they joined Kemper, the rest is the same story we’ve heard a couple of times now.”
Thor asked, “Has anyone else had trouble with people left over from Kemper’s group? Stro, your father was mentioning something this morning.”
“Oh, there’s been a few come begging family to take ‘em back, but not many. And sometimes they get taken in and sometimes they don’t. Guess it depends on how they left things when they joined up with Kemper or what the circumstances were. Dad wants me to go check out the old compound and see what’s left of it but salvaging from the town is more important right now. There are only so many folks to do the heavy work and there isn’t anyone that can work on it all day every day because we got responsibilities at home. Come spring it’s going to be even worse and next harvest season worst of all.”
Thor gave a wry look and said, “You’d be surprised how many wars get put on hold during planting and harvesting times. That’s assuming there is anything to plant or harvest.”
Adding my two cents I said, “I hope people had the forethought to save enough seed for spring planting. It’s not as if the feed depot is going to be getting in anything new anytime soon. Hopefully folks have their head on enough.”
Stro had a look that made me ask, “What?”
“You remeber what we were talking about? That morning you took sick so bad?”
Thinking I said, “That … that triage thing?”
“Yeah. That’s what I was trying to say. For all the stuff people went through since the power stopped working there’s a lot of them still living in la-la land. Take Tina’s father for instance. The thing she’s told us … he was delusional or something, still holding onto the idea that the military or FEMA or some such was going to come driving in like the cavalry and that even if it was a year or two things would eventually get back to some version of what used to be normal.”
Disgusted I said, “Then people should hear some of the stories that Thor and I could tell them from what we saw crossing the country.”
Sand nodded towards Thor who was taking apart one of the rifles and looking it over. “Thor’s been answering questions but starting yesterday and today … people stopped asking. It’s like they couldn’t handle the answers. When there wasn’t any information coming in they could pretend but they can’t pretend no more and it ain’t setting well with them.”
Without looking at us Thor said, “I noticed there were some that didn’t show up for the work crew today.”
“Their loss Stro said without concern. If they want to stick their head up their … uh … in the sand then that’s their right. It’ll kill ‘em but when someone really wants to die there ain’t nothing no one is going to be able to do to stop it.” Stro had a well-loved cousin that committed suicide even after receiving some very high quality counseling. It was a hard way to learn such a profound lesson in life.
We all came to attention when we heard a wagon come to the gate. A whistle split the air and Thor whistled back making me realize that the guys must be teaching him our old signals. For a moment, just a moment, I felt left out but not for long because Johnson called, “Give me a hand!”
While the others jogged over I walked. I was two hundred percent better than I had been but all of the exertion had taken what little new found energy I had gotten back.
“Confound it you crazy ol’ mule!!” Johnson called right before he was nearly pulled off his feet.
“Johnson! Take it easy. You’re only making him more ornery,” I told him when I saw what was happening.
“Me making him ornery?! This beast was born ornery! Confound it all!!”
“Where did you find them?” I asked.
Johnson got a stricken look on his face. Sand asked, “Johnson?”
“That couple that lived down Briarpatch Lane. He … um … he didn’t show up today you know and Coach had us go by because he was going to give him what for.”
“And?” I asked after Johnson just stopped talking.
He sighed and then shook his head. “Looks like he went on a drunk last night on some of that case of whiskey he found and claimed yesterday. He … uh … it was a murder/suicide. Looks like he, you know … First his family and then himself.”
“Oh Lord,” I muttered.
Thor tried to hide the look on his face but I still caught it before he slipped his mask on. I stepped close and said, “Don’t. Just don’t. It isn’t your fault he couldn’t handle the truth. And some people are bad drunks.”
Stro added, “No way man. This ain’t your fault. Robb was always a … well, I suppose speaking ill of the dead ain’t the thing to do but you know how he was Sand.”
Sand nodded, “His family lived on the dole around half the time Thor. I went to school with his sister, the family was a mess for as long as I can remember taking notice. The idea that he’d have to make his own way in life nearly overwhelmed him several times over the summer. He went through bad DTs when his pain med supply dried up. Maybe we should have kept the liquor from him but … you saw how he was and … we can’t babysit people like that anymore. If anyone is stupid enough to say otherwise then I’ll suggest they could do the babysitting from here on out and we see how fast they tough up their stance.”
Thor finally relaxed and nodded. “Just the same. I think I may be less free with information in the future. I always hated the idea of hiding things from people because they couldn’t handle them … but maybe that’s more true than I wanted it to be.”
“Nah man … tell it like it is. Tell it like it is, if people can’t handle it then that’s their problem.” My friend Stro had certainly developed a hard streak but then again, in his own way, he’d been put down his whole life for something that wasn’t his fault either. Maybe people reap what they sow and Stro reserved what softness he had for people that had never hurt him … like Lulu. I just hoped he could make room for forgiveness for people … people like Tina.
I finally couldn’t stand Johnson’s approach with the mules and walked over and took them both by their bits and just stood there calmly. “Now that’s better,” I told them when they stopped prancing around. “I bet you’re just dying to get this gear off, kick up your hooves, and relax a bit. Come on and I’ll let you in the corral so you can drink and nibble. You’ll meet the horses in a bit and can have a good gossip.”
As I walked away I heard Johnson say, “Now I know why Jimmy Ray said to take those crazies to Rocky. She always took care of the mules during 4H too.”
I was thrilled to death to take in the two appaloosa mules. I’d always wanted some but Dad said they were too expensive and after seeing the price tag on some of them at the fairs I had to agree. But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth no matter how bad a pun it was.
When I got back the guys suddenly shut up when they saw me. “OK, whatever it is better be that important for you to act like I should be kept out of it otherwise you can forget the fudge brownies I made this morning.”
Johnson whimpered, “Brownies?”
Johnson looked at the others who were all giving him “the look.” Then I said, “That includes you Thor.”
The man in question couldn’t help it, his lips started quivering and then they were smiling and finally he was laughing. “You don’t know how to play fair do you?”
I put a real innocent look on my face and said, “I’ve known these guys most of my life. We’ve worked hard together, played hard together, and covered each other’s backs. And the one thing I’ve learned is that none of them can bake worth a darn. Cook yes, bake no. And I make really, really, reeeaaaalllly good fudge brownies.”
Johnson, the most susceptible of the bunch complained, “Aw come on guys … it’s brownies.”
Sand just shook his head and looked at Thor. Thor rolled his eyes, “How did I get volunteered?”
“Hey, you’re the one that married her,” Stro said while his eyebrows disappeared into his bushy hair.
Thor turned to look at me, smiled, and said, “Yes I did.”