© 2010, 2017 by John Phillip Backus – All rights reserved.
Six Months From The Present
KEEP MOVING AND don’t look back he told himself, his breath coming in ragged gulps as he sprinted along an empty street in a blacked out city, the hour after midnight. A pale quarter moon hovered timidly in the dark expanse above as the young man scanned the shadows ahead and to the sides, desperate to avoid capture, certain of his fate if caught out after curfew. His mind was reeling with the incredulous events of the past few days, still having a hard time accepting the finality of it all.
Gone… it was all gone. The whole damned system had collapsed—destroyed. The radio said it… before it went dead. Major cities hit by nukes—wiped off the map.
He heard a woman scream from a building off to his right, followed by shouts and gunshots, but he kept on running, heading for the bridge—Got to get to the river. Up ahead on the road he saw lights. Ducking into an alley he crouched behind a dumpster and tried to quiet his breathing—Got to think… Don’t panic.
Men with flashlights passed by speaking in low voices he couldn’t decipher. He waited another minute before moving cautiously back to the street and down towards the water. Ahead he could see torches—watchers on the bridge. He left the roadway and slipped down the bank, angling towards the abutment. At the water’s edge, he took off his shoes and tied the strings together. Wearing them around his neck, he started to step into the river when two figures suddenly rushed out of the shadows, tackling him to the ground. He fought like a cornered animal, but they quickly had him pinned and bound hand and foot with duct tape.
A few minutes later they hoisted him up on the side of the bridge with a noose around his neck and roughly shoved him off. “NOOOOOO!” He screamed, plummeting until the rope snapped his vertebrae, severing his spinal cord. The young man’s corpse dangled there alongside dozens of others, young and old, male and female, foolish enough to try to escape. The two hangmen went back to cutting rope and fashioning nooses.
On a hillside overlooking the bridge, Hunter peered through a set of night vision binoculars with thermal capability. He could see the activity on the bridge as clear as day and counted six guards here and another six on the opposite side. Strung out along the riverbank, a dozen two-man teams lay in wait to nab anyone hoping to make it to the river—and freedom. All wore red and black armbands. Looks like someone’s already formed up a militia, he surmised, stashing the glasses back inside his jacket.
Hunter relaxed and waited. The time to make his move was two hours before dawn when the night was darkest and the sentries most tired. Snapping off a bite of protein bar, he sipped slowly from his canteen, thinking how lucky he was to have been away when it all came down. He glanced over at his newly acquired weapon lying beside him on the ground —a silenced .308 with night vision scope above match grade iron sights. In his backpack were magazines filled with ammo— lots of ammo. He sat with his back against a tree and closed his eyes. It was hard to believe it had only been four days.
He’d received the news while returning from a long weekend solo-backpacking trip in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, catching up on some of his favorite outdoor pastimes—hiking, trail running and rock climbing. His wind-up emergency/weather radio came alive on the way back to his truck and at first he thought it must be some kind of a joke. The Emergency Broadcast System warning sounded, and a voice came on saying that major war had erupted, ordering everyone to remain calm and stay inside their homes to await further instructions. It apparently started somewhere in the Middle East—a place he was entirely too familiar with—but this time had spread like wildfire all over the world until all major nations and governments were involved.
When he got to the truck, he tried the radio, but the FM band was silent. He picked up an independent AM station from a small town somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert that was continuously transmitting the National Anthem followed by short news ashes. Hunter was stunned by the disjointed reports:
- Washington, D.C. and other major cities had been leveled in midnight nuclear attacks.
- The national electrical grid was down.
- Military command and control centers had been bombed and were presumed destroyed.
- Satellite communications were down.
- The president, vice president, full cabinet, and members of Congress were missing and presumed dead in the attacks on the capitol.
- The federal government was virtually non-existent.
- With only limited CB radio communications, state and local governments were paralyzed.
- Police and military forces were in complete disarray.
- Chemical weapons were reportedly used in several cities.
- Suspected biological warheads had been deployed.
- The financial system was gone.
- The transportation/distribution system had halted.
- Air transportation had stopped.
- All media, cable TV, Internet, the GPS system, and cell phone service were down.
- Social order had devolved into total chaos.
- Mass hysteria engulfed the population.
- Riots and looting were widespread.
- Thousands had died in mob violence.
- Plague-infected throngs were fleeing the cities.
Hunter sat motionless a long while as time stood still. He would always remember the date—June 21st—the summer solstice. When the station faded into static, he knew that this was really it, and he was on his own. He quickly compiled a list of essential equipment and supplies he’d need short term. Longterm—well, that was another prospect altogether. He just wanted to make it through the next forty-eight hours alive and in one piece.
He headed for a local sporting goods store where he sometimes bought ammo for target practice and the little hunting he did. When he got there, it was almost dark. Somebody had backed a delivery truck through the front wall of the place, and there were several bodies on the ground beside it and more in the gravel parking lot outside. Spent shell casings lay all over, and he spotted a handgun partially hidden beneath one of the vehicles.
Grabbing the Glock .40, he cleared the chamber, checking the magazine: Empty. He picked up a chunk of the smashed brick façade and threw it into the building: No response. Low-crawling to a nearby body, he discovered that it was cold and stiff. He squeezed under the truck in the half-light, carefully picking his way along the floor into the store. There were more bodies inside. There must have been quite a fight—blood and spent casings everywhere. He made his way to the counter and sat on the floor with his back against it.
Waiting there in silence for a good ten minutes, he listened, hearing nothing. As darkness fell, he switched on his flashlight and sat it on the counter, dropping his hand away quickly in case someone was hiding there waiting: Nothing. Picking it up, he checked around behind the counter. Another body lay sprawled there, a big guy with his hand still wrapped around an empty .50 Desert Eagle; it was the owner. Hunter checked his pockets for keys. He found what he was looking for on a thin chain around his neck. He knew the guy had a safe in a room in the back where he kept the good stuff—they all did.
Grabbing a new black range bag off the shelf and a couple of shotgun bandoliers, he checked the paneling along the back wall for smudge prints. Spotting the not-so-hidden latch, he opened the door. The back room was filled with crates and boxes and lined with shelves. Rows of rifles were lined up on racks against the far wall.
In one corner was a gun safe. The key turned the lock, and Hunter tried some numbers on the digital keypad. Street address: Nothing. He went back and got the guy’s wallet. He tried his birth date: Nope. He tried the last 4 of the guy’s SS#: Nada. He went to the filing cabinet in the opposite corner of the room and looked for a file folder with information on the safe: Bingo. He looked through the file, and the original combination was there in the warranty paperwork. Not obvious, but discoverable if you knew where to look. Maybe the guy had been too lazy to customize it, as many people were. He entered the numbers and the thing beeped as the light turned green: Yes!
Opening the safe, he hit the jackpot—a stack of cash in various denominations, a small pouch of assorted gold sovereigns, a pair each of the latest night vision goggles and binoculars, a concealable twelve gauge shotgun with ten inch barrel and pistol grip, a fully-silenced .308 SR-25 rifle with scope, bipod, sling, and a silenced, laser-sighted .45 Baretta in a custom holster with extra mags. He gathered the weapons and grabbed a bulletproof vest with ceramic plates off a rack before heading back to the front to fill up on ammo. Finally, he loaded a large backpack with the ammo and other useful items from his list and made his way back outside.
It was pitch dark and deathly quiet. A light breeze blew from the east, the air cold and wet, foretelling of rain. He checked the street for movement with the binoculars; nothing was there, but he would have to clear out fast. He was sure others would be showing up anytime, and he wasn’t interested in being here when they did.
He spent the rest of that night collecting what he needed from the pharmacy, grocery store, outfitters, hardware store, gas station and military surplus. By daybreak he had everything on his list and drove northeast on the back roads for an hour, towing a loaded utility trailer. Backing up into a secluded draw in the middle of nowhere, he caught a few hours of sorely needed sleep. When dusk settled in again, he headed back out on the road.
Driving at night and sleeping during the day, he crossed the mountains near Lake Tahoe and continued through the Nevada and Utah backcountry, heading to the secluded forty acres and small cabin in western Wyoming he’d purchased while still in the military, as a place to retire to someday. Looks like someday came sooner than he expected.
Hunter drove with the truck lights out, wearing night vision goggles, and removed the brake and back-up light fuses so he would be nearly impossible to detect in the dark. Along the way, he passed several wrecks and abandoned vehicles, and coming around a curve, he nearly ran over a dead man lying in the middle of the road in the middle of nowhere. On the outskirts of a small town, he heard the report of a rile and floored it all the way through to the other side. The only people he saw were dead ones from a distance, usually sprawled out in diner parking lots or gas stations along the way. On several occasions, he pulled off the roadway and stopped when he saw headlights approaching in the distance. Those driving the speeding vehicles were definitely not into stopping to check him out.
As the third day dawned, temperatures continued to drop, and a hard rain mixed with sleet started to fall. He pulled down a deserted farm lane and parked. Donning long underwear and cold weather rain gear, he slept in a hammock up a tree fifty yards from the truck cradling his rifle —just in case. In the middle of the fourth night, he reached the Wyoming border.
Approaching the river, he stopped a half-mile back from the bridge adorned in bodies and climbed the hill to check it out. From his vantage point above the bridge, he panned back across the steel span, re-counting the guards and checking their placement. Getting across that bridge won’t be a problem, he reasoned. Doing so without bloodshed? Hunter smiled grimly. He wouldn’t want to bet on it.
14 Years Later…
THE CRIMSON DAWN swept silently across the vast North American wilderness, brushing the eastern sky with a hint of pink, changing to red and orange, until finally giving way to a perfect cobalt blue. The advancing line of sunlight moved steadily west, bathing the sheer granite walls of the Continental Divide in dazzling brilliance and sending long, golden fingers of warmth down into deep forested valleys to chase away the last remaining shadows of the night.
High on a windswept slope, a single shaft of sunlight filtered down through frost-tipped branches, stabbing onto the angular face of the motionless figure below. Seventy feet above the forest floor, Hunter lay motionless in his hammock, cataloging the sights, sounds, and smells of his immediate environment. A cool breeze sifted through the brilliant autumn leaves, as throughout the highlands, active woodland creatures carried out their early morning routines with boundless enthusiasm. On a nearby branch, a western jay hopped nimbly about, plucking crispy black ants from the gray bark with great relish. Sixty feet away through the canopy, an animated red squirrel frantically chased its mate round and round the trunk of a mature lodgepole pine, chattering loudly all the while.
Satisfied that all was well, he eased out onto an adjacent limb and untied the netting that secured his night camp. Balanced there, he stowed his sleeping gear into a sturdy leather backpack, with his senses attuned to his surroundings for any sign of danger or threat. This habit of constant vigilance, second nature to him now, ensured his continued survival against the odds in an unforgiving environment where a mo- ment’s carelessness could very well be his last.
Propping his pack against the trunk, he stood and reached inside his vest for the dwindling supply of dried venison. Standing on the wide limb, he bit off a mouthful of the salty meat, replaced the bundle, and climbed into the uppermost branches of the old tree with the uid grace of a large feline. Soon he was perched atop the ancient oak, halfway up a steep shoulder of land belonging to a series of tall ridges that formed northwestern Wyoming’s Wind River Range. From this lofty vantage point, he surveyed the surrounding territory with a pair of well-used field glasses.
Far below, the valley floor lay covered in golden grass sweeping south towards the foothills. A sparkling stream snaked through the bottom like a shiny, silver ribbon pulled along by gravity towards the distant Colorado River. A small herd of deer casually ambled through the vale, nibbling choice shoots and grasses on the way to their favorite morning resting spot half a mile downstream. He watched, amused, as a trio of yearlings chased each other through the early-September grass, their fading white spots of fawn-hood barely visible against the reddish-brown umber of their young adult coats.
Standing off from the rest, a battle-scarred buck in full rut and armed with razor-sharp antlers and deadly hooves, remained alert. As a dominant male, he divided his time between mating, marking his territory and sharpening his antler tips in anticipation of crushing the next foolish challenger who would inevitably arrive to test his readiness. He raised his nostrils to sample the wind before lowering his regal head to drink from the rushing brook.
Beyond the stream on the far side of the valley, the land rose steeply, dotted with boulders and clumps of dark green cedar and juniper. The ridgeline was topped with sharp granite outcroppings like shattered shark’s teeth stabbing the stark blue sky. High above, a hawk sounded a plaintive cry, and Hunter quickly located her as she wheeled and plummeted earthward, returning to the sky with her struggling prize. As she passed out of sight beyond the far ridge, he turned to put away the binoculars when something unusual caught his eye. Panning back across the horizon, he froze.
The gray-white column of smoke drifted lazily above the skyline. His pulse quickened. After a long, careful look, he replaced the glasses, quickly descending the forty-odd feet to his equipment. Retrieving one piece at a time, he consciously brought his accelerating thoughts under control and pondered the significance of the smoke with mixed emotions.
Hunter had been alone here now for more than seven years. Prior to that, occasional run-ins with ‘outsiders’ taught him to avoid all contact with what was left of the human race. Call it antisocial, but merely surviving the untamed wilderness was a danger-filled activity. Introduce a stranger into the mix, with unknown motives and intentions, and the risk factor multiplied exponentially.
He was alone by choice. Living near others was dangerous, relying on them, suicidal. Sometimes late at night a part of him still longed for human companionship or at least the tender touch of a lover, but the days of friends and lovers had long since passed.
Now he guarded his solitude, secure in his self-imposed exile at a time when even a casual contact with someone unwittingly exposed to one of a host of mutant viruses could prove fatal. Such designer plagues had wiped out entire populations during the waning hours of the End War when automated weapons systems dumped obscene arsenals into Earth’s atmosphere in a last ditch effort to annihilate “the enemy.”
Today’s sign of a foreign human presence was the last thing he had expected, and the abruptness of the intrusion was unsettling. Shouldering his pack, he cinched the hip belt and positioned a quiver stuffed with arrow-like bolts at his side. Stooping down, he picked up one final piece of gear.
The impressive-looking crossbow was powerful enough to drop an adult grizzly bear at fifty yards and accurate well beyond that, thanks to the rifle scope mounted above its polished hardwood stock. For a dozen seasons, it had saved his life more often than he cared to remember. Sliding the formidable weapon into position over his shoulder, he was now ready for whatever might await him beyond the next ridge.
With a final scan of the oak’s immediate surroundings, he swung out onto a stout branch and dropped, landing lightly on the balls of his feet. Without hesitation he moved downhill through scattered trees towards the meadow. Sheepskin tunic and leggings made no sound against the twigs and briars that tugged at him. The naturally tanned clothing blended well with the muted colors of the rugged mountain landscape. Tough moose-hide moccasins protected his vulnerable feet and ankles, while flexible leather soles enabled him to sense his way along the ground, avoiding dry sticks or loose stones that might otherwise reveal his position to a potential enemy.
Thirty minutes later he crouched at the edge of the mead-ow, surveying the valley. The deer had moved on, piles of steaming pellets and bent grass pathways the only visible evidence of their passing. Hunter hesitated. A direct route across the open eld would leave him exposed and vulnerable. Under normal circumstances he would keep to the cover of the trees and skirt the meadow to a more concealed crossing point, but today was far from normal. Bending forward at the waist, he moved quickly, stopping just long enough at the stream to fill two canteens before continuing across and up the opposite slope. Climbing rapidly, he melted into his surroundings, taking full advantage of rock outcroppings, clumps of brush and stands of trees. An hour later, he caught his breath in the shadow of a massive boulder overlooking an open plain.
A half-mile below, two figures crouched before their smoldering fire. The smoke drifted lazily into the morning sky, dangerously visible for miles. A makeshift lean-to, barely large enough for one person to lie down in, was their only shelter against the elements.
From the look of the trampled grass, they’d come in from the south arriving at the hills on foot. But from where? There were no permanent settlements within hundreds of miles. At this distance, fine details were difficult to make out, but the two appeared to be rather slight of build and poorly equipped for a protracted journey into the wild. With his curiosity piqued, he scoured the terrain below for a route to take him closer to the strangers, while remaining undetected. Selecting an observation point, he headed for a stand of conifers midway to the base of the slope.
He descended the rocky terrain slowly until bisecting a well-traveled game trail, winding around boulders and angling down through dense patches of scrub. On it, he moved smoothly through the rugged landscape as troubling questions bombarded his mind. Who are these travelers and where are they from? Are they truly alone or just the bait in a cunningly devised trap? Pondering the possibilities, he circumvented a recent rockslide partially blocking the trail.
Hunter had learned early on not to be too inventive when traversing the backcountry. The deer and elk populations and the predators that shadowed them knew this region far better than any human being ever would. Since the passing of the last Ice Age, their generations had been eking out an existence here, and their trails were the most efficient routes through the otherwise trackless mountain passes. Sticking closely to them generally guaranteed that you wouldn’t wind up at the edge of a four-thousand-foot cliff and be forced to retrace your steps, which could add hours or even days to your trek, and might prove fatal should you happen to be injured or pursued by any one of a number of potential enemies.
Dropping through a well-nibbled section bounded by wild grape and raspberry, he moved down across the slope, pausing often to listen and observe. He was puzzled by what he had seen from the crest. The travelers could not have survived long on their own without sufficient gear or an effective means of defense, nor could they have journeyed any great distance on foot. The balance of power among species had shifted dramatically during the fourteen years since the End War, and the fear of man, especially among the larger carnivores, had already diminished.
With the passing of modern civilization, diverse animal populations flourished and expanded into new habi- tats bringing a new natural order to the Earth. Thundering herds of bison and pronghorn antelope again migrated across North America, west to the Pacific coast. Wild horse and burro bands shared millions of acres of former ranch lands with deer, elk, and moose. At the higher elevations, Rocky Mountain goats and bighorn sheep thrived, no longer challenged by two-legged enemies with large caliber rifles and telescopic sights.
Hunter was content with this new balance in spite of the constant danger it represented. He considered Man’s fall from grace fitting retribution for the millennia of havoc his fellow humans wrought upon each other and the natural world. It rather comforted him to know that the heavens were no longer cluttered with satellites and warplanes, and that, across the globe, airliners rusted on the tarmac, over- grown with vines and thorns, inhabited by snakes and birds and other wild things.
Rounding a sharp bend in the trail, he startled a female wild pig grubbing for roots among the berries. Grunting an alarm, she stared back at him with black, beady eyes and trotted warily across his path closely followed by her string of snorting piglets. Briefly tempted to harvest one for later, he changed his mind and let them pass. Moving forward cautiously, he remained constantly on guard for a potential surprise attack by a hungry lion or irate grizzly—or even an agitated bull elk—all life-threatening situations that generally seemed to occur when least expected.
Closing in on the stand of trees, he doubted the two wanderers were actually on their own. More than likely, their companions were off hunting or scouting the foothills. Probably have a couple of well-placed guards nearby. The thought suddenly struck him that the two might be on the run, which would explain their meager camp and apparent lack of escorts or provisions.
Switching back across the mountainside in the opposite direction, the trail wound down through scarred granite boulders laced with quartz before opening up again into sagebrush and mesquite. Working his way through a final tangled berry thicket, he arrived suddenly at the edge of the trees.
Crouched in the shadows, he loaded his crossbow, preparing for an ambush that may or may not materialize. Once under the trees, he moved wraith-like from shadow-to-shadow, forefinger playing lightly upon the trigger of the effective weapon cradled comfortably in his callused hands.
A quick reconnoiter of the small wood revealed nothing. Red squirrels chattered. Ever-present jays went about their lives. Nearby, a seeping spring revealed plenty of deer and elk sign among bird and rodent tracks, but nothing distinctly human. Unloading the bow, he scrambled up into a gnarled old cedar to have a better look.
High in his wind-blown lookout, straddling a wide limb with his back against the scaly trunk, Hunter’s glasses again swept the plain. At three hundred yards, the camp jumped quickly into focus. From here he could clearly distinguish details and was shocked to discover that both travelers were female, a fair-haired girl in her mid-teens and a dark-haired young woman, probably early to mid-twenties. Both wore travel cloaks and riding boots, but their mounts were nowhere to be seen. Searching for clues, he spied three mugs on a at rock beside the fire. Concentrating on the lean-to, he surmised the third person’s whereabouts and waited.
For the remainder of the morning, he sat in his lofty perch, curiously watching the mystery travelers do nothing unusual—beyond the fact that they weren’t really doing much of anything. As the column of smoke dissipated, they moved quietly about their camp, tending the small fire, preparing a quick meal and washing their utensils in a nearby stream. Eventually, the fair-haired girl ducked into the shelter for a few moments before rejoining her companion at the fire. Afterwards, they seemed to be willing to make more noise, and Hunter caught faint fragments of conversation on the wind. Every so often, the dark-haired young woman would stand, shade her eyes and stare off towards the south. Are you waiting for friends, he wondered, or perhaps afraid of being followed?
At regular intervals, he closed his eyes and absorbed the sounds and smells swirling and echoing around him. Against the backdrop of the intermittent swoosh of the wind, he identified a dozen bird species as they sang or called out to one another in unique feathered dialects. High in a nearby tree, a western woodpecker hammered away at the tough outer bark, using his specially designed beak and the weight of his skull as a battering ram to get at hidden insects and their larvae. Down below, sparrows, chickadees and jays flitted about from tree to shrub to ground, devouring ripe berries and seeking fat, juicy earthworms and grubs under bits of rotting bark or leaves on the shaded forest floor.
Beyond the small glade, beneath sagebrush and dry grasses, jackrabbits, striped ground squirrels, field mice and many other small earth-bound creatures carried on active lives, nibbling favorite flowers, leaves and shoots, completely undisturbed by Hunter’s presence. High above in the cloudless sky, winged predators cried out in eerie solitude, relentlessly stalking their prey with patient, telescopic ad- vantage.
A mile out on the grass-covered plain, a dark, undulating mass slowly edged towards the camp; the outer boundary of a bison herd, numbering in the thousands, grazed contentedly in the cool autumn air. Beyond the shaggy horde, just at the outer limits of his vision, Hunter estimated several hundred pronghorn antelope, probably just the fringe of a larger group, reveling in the afternoon sun.
The relative quiet was punctuated by the nearby trumpeting of a bull elk, declaring his superiority and warning challengers to stay away. Behind him, up the hill, a lion’s vicious snarl was followed by the squeal of pigs and silence, as the food chain played out its never-ending drama of survival of the fittest.
Aloft in his tree, Hunter relaxed and drank in his surroundings. Through the years, he’d come to know this place —its rhythms and secrets—and was constantly renewed by its magnificent beauty, nurtured and sustained in body and soul by its bounty, yet honed and toughened by its violence and unforgiving finality. He felt a connection to the nomadic tribesmen formerly inhabiting this land who relied solely on nature to provide for their needs. During his constant scouting of this territory, he often came upon evidence of their passing, in stone implements, arrow and spear points, and bits of broken pottery. Most intriguing of all were the ancient markings and images painted or etched on rocks or hidden cave walls long since abandoned and forgotten.
High in the swaying cedar, the sun hit its zenith and dropped a notch while Hunter remained relaxed, yet focused. A short time later, his patience paid off when a third young woman emerged from the shelter carrying a bundle of furs in her arms. More perplexed than ever, his bewilderment turned to shock as a tiny cry wafted up to him on the afternoon breeze; the bundle she was holding was a baby.
This unexpected development stunned him. Dark memories of an intentionally forgotten past seeped through his carefully constructed emotional defenses, ashing pictures of small children running and playing and laughing—STOP! The painful images stirred long-buried sensitivities he chose long ago, never to revisit.
He consciously choked back the unwanted feelings until there was only the Present. Always the Present, the Now. He could deal with the present; this he could do something about. The past was gone. What was done was done. In the present, he could control his destiny, surviving one day at a time, responsible only for himself. Such was his life now.
However, on this fine autumn afternoon after so many years alone, he was suddenly faced with more than he had bargained for—a child. So many died during the Dark Time, their frail, helpless bodies wasting away as anguished parents tried in vain to comfort and love them better. He let the sad pictures fade to black and looked out again at the flimsy little camp nestled in the ocean of grass.
For the first time in many years, Hunter realized that he was in trouble. To happen upon three travel-worn drifters crossing the mountains was one thing, but three women and an infant alone in the wild after all of these years? This presented a problem. For what could a child represent but the future? Who then was responsible for that future, but those with the skills and determination to fashion one from the post-war rubble?
He focused his thoughts and began a swift descent from the tree. Loud and clear he heard the warning: Run! Leave! Forget you ever saw them! Unfortunately, it was too late for that. He had to know whether the unprotected camp was a ploy or if they really were on their own and possibly on the run. If so, he could not just leave them here defenseless, but neither was he ready to take them all under his wing, or was he? Long ago he’d written off the human race, yet here were fellow beings in need, and, regardless of his bitterness towards the mistakes of the past, he found himself unable to simply turn his back and walk away.
Besides, it had been more than seven years since he’d spoken with another human being—man or woman—and almost twice that since he’d laid eyes on a child. Hunter knew that he had no choice; he must go out to meet them. Hell, he’d known it the instant he’d seen the smoke, but he would damn sure be careful!
Flight into Danger
ELISE AWOKE LATE and immediately noticed the smoke. She roused her younger sister, Anna, to help collect dry kindling to get the smoldering fire going. Elise gathered what tinder she could find nearby and knelt at the edge of the fire, adding the driest sticks and twigs, and cursing herself for not making sure the coals were out before bedding down for the night.
Shading emerald eyes against the sun’s mean glare, she surveyed the gray-white column floating high above the camp, and anxiously scanned the horizon feeling vulnerable. Leaning forward, she blew evenly on the stubborn embers, nurturing the growing flames beneath the suspended tea kettle. Glancing at the height of the sun above the hills, small furrows formed across the young woman’s forehead, betraying her troubled mood.
They should have been packed and moving by now, but she hadn’t the heart to wake Sarah, her fragile sister-in-law, whose vitality seemed to be ebbing away with each passing day. Enduring a difficult pregnancy and delivery, Sarah never fully recovered her strength. However, the rigors of new motherhood were nowhere near as devastating as the recent disappearance of her husband, William, Elise’s older brother. He was the light of Sarah’s life, and his unexplained absence had caused her to withdraw, even from Elise, her best friend since childhood.
With Sarah and the baby asleep, Elise boiled water for tea and waited. Anna joined her at the fire with an armful of sticks to fuel the growing blaze. Elise placed a comforting hand on her sister’s shoulder, mindful that the normally cheerful girl was uncharacteristically somber this morning. “It’ll be alright Anna, everything will be fine—don’t you worry!”
Elise gave her a big hug, and the anxious girl held on tight, drawing courage from Elise’s strength. At almost seventeen, Anna implicitly trusted her older sister, who all but raised her when their mother was suddenly taken from them the day after Anna’s eighth birthday. She looked up to Elise, admiring her ability to handle people and situations, and was especially impressed at the heroic job she’d done in bringing them safely across the trackless wilderness.
“I know, Elise. I don’t mean to be down,” Anna paused and looked around at the vast emptiness of their surroundings, “but I’m just so worried about Sarah.” She held back the tears threatening to cascade down her pale cheeks, “and without knowing what’s happened to William or what’s going on back home with Father and the rest, I just…” The distraught girl had reached her emotional breaking point. “You know I’ve been positive all along until now.” She braved a smile at Elise. “But ever since the horses ran off and now that we’re running out of time…” Overwhelmed by the situation, Anna broke down and began to quietly weep, her face buried in her sister’s chest. Elise just held her as she sobbed, gently stroking her beautiful, golden hair.
“There, there, Anna, it’s okay. I know how you feel… I feel the same way myself sometimes.” She spoke in her most soothing voice, hoping they wouldn’t wake Sarah or little Jamie just yet. After a minute, Anna pulled herself together, drying her wet cheeks on the sleeve of her cloak. Elise maintained eye contact, smiling and speaking calmly in a determined effort to bolster Anna’s forlorn spirits. “Besides, we’ve still got each other and we’re nearly there now!” She smiled warmly, encouraged to see the mist clearing from Anna’s red, swollen eyes and a hopeful countenance return to her innocent face.
“We’ll make it back home to Father, and find William, and Sarah and the baby will be just fine! Everything will work out somehow, I just know it will!” She stood before Anna, clasping her sister’s hands and exuding a conviction that was beginning to wear thin. “You’ll feel much better after a cup of herb tea and a bite to eat.” She smiled with an air of con dence and serenity that belied her hidden worries, and Anna managed a small smile in response, drew a deep breath and left to gather more sticks.
Elise placed three ceramic mugs on a at rock and opened her small leather pouch containing the last of their precious tea. Keeping back one nal pot for later, she only half lled the ball, suspending it in the boiling kettle. Replacing the lid, she set the pot off to the side to steep and focused on their immediate dilemma. Though careful to keep her feelings hidden from the others, she was beginning to have grave doubts about the outcome of their mission, painfully aware that they were rapidly running out of options. If they were going to succeed, they must quickly locate the person that Father had sent her here to find.
The days were getting shorter with overnight temperatures just above freezing. Elise knew that there was abso- lutely no way to make it all the way back to Colorado on foot before the merciless Rocky Mountain winter stranded them in the open. Faced with these growing concerns, she reflected on the events leading up to their journey that began on a moonless night more than three hundred miles to the southeast.
Back home in New Eden trouble had been brewing for months. The community founded by her parents had always been her safe haven and a steady source of strength and inspiration to the three hundred or so settlers living on the several hundred acre retreat. However, since they’d stopped accepting new members, things had taken a drastic turn for the worse.
Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation, her father devised a desperate plan. Elise would lead the others from the swiftly eroding safety of the compound and travel north on horseback under cover of night. They slipped out during a midnight storm and, over the next ten anxious days, covered nearly eighty miles of rugged terrain. To avoid roving patrols, they rested during the day, moving only after sunset.
After two challenging weeks of scant sleep and the constant fear of discovery, they put the immediate threat of capture behind them and were able to switch to daytime travel. On a good day, depending on the weather, they might cover twenty miles over fairly level ground. During the occasional thunderstorm, they made no progress at all while huddled inside their tent waiting out the deluge. In rugged topography, they were lucky to get ten miles before being forced to seek shelter.
For weeks, they pushed north, grazing the horses during the halts and following the natural lay of the land as much as possible without deviating from their course. Every few days, a new mountain range appeared on the horizon, and they sought out river valleys and passes to help negotiate the foothills and ridges as necessary. Crossing into southwestern Wyoming, they kept the Rockies on their right and pressed north as their precious supplies slowly dwindled.
Masterful at both the bolo and spear-thrower, Elise supplemented their provisions with fresh antelope or deer. They camped with backs against boulders or in defensible rock shelters with large bon res out front to ward off passing carnivores that mostly hunted at night.
Anna brought more sticks, breaking her reverie, and went to nd more. Elise watched her go and checked the horizon again. According to Father’s map, they must be very close to their destination. After six weeks of rigorous travel, she’d brought them through intact—well, almost. Two nights back, a pack of wild dogs ran off their horses and pack mule, forcing them to continue on foot, with Anna and Elise bearing their necessities on their backs in makeshift packs. Since then, after only two or three miles, they would collapse to the ground, unable to proceed without rest.
Looking around now at the vast panorama swallowing their tiny camp, Elise knew that they were at the end of the line. The crude map, thrust into her hands on the dark night of their departure, guided them faithfully north through steep shadowed canyons, across wild rivers and into the foothills of the Rockies themselves. As the terrain rose to meet the peaks to the east, the passes were harder to distinguish on the map, which showed fewer landmarks and details the farther north they went.
Elise stood and turned aside so Anna wouldn’t notice her distress. A single tear balanced on the rim of her lower eye- lid, threatening to spill onto her translucent cheek. Deeply concerned about the fate of family and friends back home, she was uncertain of what they might find upon their return.
Scanning the open horizon for answers, she fought the overwhelming sense of despair, settling over her mind like a shroud. Drawing on deep inner reserves, she pushed back fear and willed her heart to be strong. As the eldest and leader of this expedition, she recognized her responsibility for its ultimate success or failure. She was up to the task. She’d promised her father. However, after many arduous weeks in the wilderness, traveling hundreds of difficult miles from home, Elise was beginning to fear that she might now fail them all.
HUNTER CROUCHED BENEATH a thick stand of crimson sumac at the edge of the open plain. Here, on the flats, concealment was a bit more challenging, but he knew that looks could be deceiving. While the landscape appeared level, it was scarred by hidden gullies and ravines sculpted by centuries of erosion.
Moving forward through waist-high grass and sage- brush, he soon bisected a shallow wash heading in the gener- al direction of the camp and followed it for several minutes. When the gravel-bottomed gully eventually veered west, he abandoned it, pushing ahead as silently as a ghost. Minutes later, he slipped through a thin screen of willows a hundred yards from the camp. Taking a long pull from his canteen, he reviewed his plan, preparing to circle around and make his approach in plain sight.
As he started forward, he immediately became aware of the unmistakable sound of fast-approaching hoofbeats, followed by a woman’s frantic cry of alarm. Instinctively, picking up the pace, he swept his primary weapon from his shoulder and loaded it in one well-rehearsed movement. Sliding to a halt beside a fallen tree, he crouched on one knee, peering through a ragged wall of brush and nettles not eighty yards from the commotion. Several more cries ripped the air as a mob of horsemen charged through, raising fine clouds of dust and hollering like a tribe of Banshees. He dropped noiselessly behind the bleached trunk, slipped out of his backpack and witnessed the unfolding drama through binoculars.
Through the haze, he counted at least a dozen heavily armed men tearing the camp apart. They were a rough lot, dressed in ragged clothes and poorly-tanned hides. Someone shouted orders, and they gathered their spoils into a small pile near the collapsed shelter. The baby’s cry rose above the din and confusion. Hunter slipped across the log and crept closer as adrenaline ooded his bloodstream, readying his body and brain for battle.
In any halfway-civilized society, the raiders before him would be considered criminals and parasites at best. How- ever, here in the wilderness—far from any law or justice— they were much more dangerous than that. Hunter viewed them as he would a vicious pack of dogs; though in defense of the four-legged species, canines acted purely out of instinct, not having the benefit of a human conscience.
In stark contrast, these men terrorizing the camp obviously existed solely at the expense of others, taking what they wanted by force, regardless of the misery left in their wake. He could only imagine their long legacy of victims waking in the night with throats slit, their terrified loved ones desperately begging for mercy from men whose dark souls knew none.
Years earlier, during his migration, Hunter had buried several such victims when it was too late to do anything more. What of his own fate had he not been patient in approaching the camp? He blessed his intuition and sense of timing for once again keeping him alive. At least now, he had a ghting chance to live out the day.
Creeping forward to a position within earshot enabled him a better view of unfolding events. As the raiders quar- reled, a single voice rose above the bickering and, but for the muffled cries of the child, the camp fell silent. A giant bear of a man, dressed in matted furs, climbed down from his lathered black stallion to tower over the others. He was an impressive figure, with muscular arms folded across a broad chest and legs like tree trunks spread in an arrogant stance. Long, raven hair was divided into two thick braids framing a face all but hidden by a full black beard.
The women were brought before him, anked by two of the raiders. The child, sensing his mother’s fear, cried in her arms despite all efforts to calm him. As the bandit chief took a stride toward Sarah, she shrank back and twisted away, trying to protect her baby from the hideous person before her.
Cruel obsidian eyes glittered in their dark sockets, despising all within their eld of vision. Foul breath and an unwashed stench assaulted her nostrils as he grabbed Sarah by the arm and hoisted her close to his face. He grinned at the frightened woman, exposing broken, decayed teeth and lifted the covering from the infant’s body. “It’s a boy!” he declared to his leering men, “A beautiful son you have there, ma’am.”
She blanched as he jerked her towards him, lifting her off the ground and drawing her close. A sawed-off shotgun dangled from his belt, and his massive right hand held an axe.
“And where would his daddy be, my fine little lady?” He shook her around like a rag doll, nearly causing her to drop her son.
“Please don’t hurt my baby!” the frantic woman begged, eyes wide with fear.
The giant man mocked her with a huge voice: “Please don’t hurt my baby, please don’t hurt my baby!”
His men found this comical and joined in, jeering and mocking her until their leader raised his hand for silence. He lowered the panicked woman to the ground and threatened, “You will tell me how many men are in your party and where they have gone, and I will let the child live. Now! Or I’ll split him in two like a soggy piece of rewood!” He raised the axe above his head and reached out to pull little Jamie from Sarah’s arms.
“Touch that child and die!” The words pieced the air like bullets. The savage brute’s mind froze, stunned that anyone would dare defy his iron will. He turned his head slowly and all eyes were upon the speaker.
Elise stood tall and unafraid. She stepped forward with confidence, placing her hands on Sarah’s shoulders and spoke in a cool, even voice that commanded attention. “I don’t care who you think you are, barging into our camp and behaving like this, but we are a free people here and have every right to remain so. Where our companions go and when they return is no one’s business but our own. And I would suggest to you and your men that, if you plan to see the sunset, you withdraw yourselves at once!”
Lightning ashed from the slender woman’s eyes, and a dynamic quality could be sensed in her voice. Visibly shaken, the bandit leader returned her unyielding gaze; their two wills locked in psychological combat under the bright afternoon sun. After several awkward moments, he inched and lunged forward, striking her hard across the mouth with the back of his clenched st.
Up to this point, Hunter had been transfixed by the rapidly evolving chain of events. The woman’s surprising courage, in the face of such overwhelming odds, held him in awe. Now, as the situation rapidly escalated out of control, and being well acquainted with the bestial nature of Man, he silently moved forward, rapidly closing the gap.
As two lackeys pinned Elise’s arms behind her back, their leader reached out with both hands and grabbed the front of her tunic as if to rip it from her body. The crowd shouted its approval and drew closer, urging him on.
Without warning, Elise struck with booted feet and immediately her two guards went down, writhing in agony. In a fluid blur of motion, she brought both sts up hard, breaking the grip on her blouse. From somewhere within her clothing, she suddenly produced a dagger and, slashing upward, sliced deeply into the brute’s cheek just beneath his right eye!
Stumbling back out of range, the goliath’s shock quickly turned to rage as he touched his stinging face, and his hand came away covered in warm, sticky blood. Discarding the axe, he leveled his double-barreled shotgun at the she-devil and, for a split second, seemed to hesitate, thrown completely off-guard by her vicious attack; but he’d surely have his revenge. The cruel eyes gleamed with murder as his finger closed on the dual triggers.
Elise crouched low and prepared to hurl herself at her adversary. She realized the futility of her desperate stand, but would do her best to disable as many as possible before being inevitably overwhelmed. As her enemy prepared to re, a silent feathered object ashed brightly across the camp, entering his half-opened mouth and embedding itself deeply in the soft tissues at the base of his brain.
Twirling about in spasms, the bearded tyrant involuntarily tightened his trigger finger, blasting one of his cronies nearly in half. The savage recoil sent the scattergun cartwheeling off into the grass as the mortally wounded leader clawed at his face and pitched heavily forward, dead before his body hit the ground. For one frozen moment, everyone stared in disbelief as the impact drove the steel point out through the back of the giant’s skull. With that, instant pandemonium erupted as the raiders scrambled for whatever cover they could find.
In the confusion that followed, Elise suddenly found herself unguarded as the bandits scattered into the grass. Leaping over the repulsive chieftain’s still twitching corpse, she rescued the fallen shotgun and wrestled the heavy body onto its side to remove a bandolier of shells. Struggling with it, she noticed a beaded leather pouch tied around his neck, identical to one her brother William had worn for as long as she could remember. She quickly slashed its cord and stowed it deep inside her cloak. Hugging the ground, she rejoined Anna who had managed to rescue two of their backpacks and, together with Sarah and the baby, they melted into the dense underbrush.
As Hunter had anticipated, an immediate counterattack never materialized. History was rife with examples of despots failing to appoint a second-in-command, and today was just another case in point. When waging war he preferred to hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting. Being so greatly outnumbered, the element of surprise was his primary advantage. So as his first bolt struck its mark, he backed up and circled around to the opposite side of the camp. Having acted in the travelers’ defense, he was now committed to their rescue and forced to design an offensive strategy on the fly.
Consciously slowing his breathing, Hunter defined his objectives: Rescue the travelers. Destroy the raiders. It was a simple enough plan, but he wasn’t altogether certain that the bandits would cooperate—nor even the women for that matter. Judging from the position of the sun, roughly six hours of daylight remained. It was likely to be a long afternoon. Crouching low, he moved just beyond the grazing horses, keenly aware that, if any of the riders managed to gain their mounts, with or without captives, he would be hard pressed to stop them.
As their enemy circled them, the leaderless outlaws found themselves at an extreme disadvantage. They were effectively pinned down out in the open by an unknown number of adversaries, with only prairie grass, sagebrush and an occasional rock or two for cover. Not that they were ready to surrender by any means—all were hard men, seasoned killers spoiling for a fight, but this was not their usual style.
Though no one dared lift a head above the vegetation, Hunter spotted suspicious movement near a big chestnut gelding with dark mane and tail. The grass seemed to wiggle unnaturally, and the horse jerked his head up, glanced over, and took a couple of steps away from whatever he saw there. Hunter scanned the grass, wishing for higher ground.
Just then, the back of a man’s head slowly rose up out of the cover, fifty yards beyond the camp fire. He swung his bow up and aimed at a point eight inches below the base of the skull. He pulled the trigger and heard a gurgled shriek before silence once again shrouded the plain. Hunter aimed back toward the grass near the chestnut with another bolt in place. He waited for movement. His third shot left the bow and someone immediately started to scream and thrash about.
“My leg—Somebody help me!”
A carefully aimed fourth shot neatly finished the job, and the day was quiet once more. Reloaded, Hunter slithered forward toward the animals. Someone called out in a hoarse whisper a few yards ahead, and he slowly eased toward the sound. A man with thin, greasy hair was seated with his back to Hunter with a blade stuck in his waistband and some sort of rearm resting beside his hand on the ground. Beside him was a pair of legs belonging to a second man, lying on his stomach and looking off in the same direction as the first.
“I swear I saw one of them, Hank,” whispered the bald- ing man, “just for a second, but I know I did.”
“Well, I don’t want to see any of the sons-a-bitches, Andy,” the other whispered back.
“Shit! Bear shot right through the mouth like that—and from a hundred yards out! Man, that guy can shoot I tell ya! Well, I told ya this wasn’t gonna be no easy pickins like them last girls we got, but nobody ever listens to old Andy, nope…. Hell, if you and Floyd hadn’t used ‘em so bad, they would still be …”
“Shut up, ya old bastard, before I put another hole in your face!”
Hank glared at him, and Andy believed that he would do it. He’d seen some of Hank’s work, and the man definitely had a sadistic streak, for sure.
“Now be quiet and stay put. I’m going out to round up the others.” Hank crawled away, leaving Andy alone. Nice guys, thought Hunter as he slipped his heavy throwing knife from its sheath inside his tall moccasin. He hurled it through the air, hitting his target hard between the shoulder blades with the haft. The old man gasped and tipped over onto his side. Seconds later, Hunter was on him, his recovered blade at the stunned man’s throat.
“How many…?” Hunter whispered, inches from his face. “Fourteen,” the terrified bandit squeaked.
Hunter struck him hard on the side of the head, and a nasty goose egg formed across the limp man’s temple. He tied and gagged Andy, deciding he may need to extract information from this one should any of his partners escape. He collected the knife and revolver and stuck them in his belt.
He ran some figures in his head: four dead and this one unconscious, leaving nine, including the two injured by the woman’s kicks. Somewhere off to his left, a man stumbled and a shotgun blast tore the silence. Make that eight.
“You got him, you got the bastard!” a gleeful voice announced, and several gures ran over to the already dead body.
“Shit!” someone said as they all ducked out of sight, “Willie’s dead!”
Hunter fired twice into the crowd in rapid succession and two men shrieked, briefly thrashing about in the brush. One of them stopped screaming as a shotgun boomed again. Eight down, six to go.
Suddenly Hunter noticed smoke drifting past. Turning around, he saw a wall of flame ten feet high, fifty yards away and advancing towards him, fanned by the afternoon breeze. The spooked horses whinnied and kicked up their heels, heading north ahead of the re. Hunter hated to see them go but knew he could track and catch them later.
Backing off, he circled around to where he’d last seen the women. With visibility cut sharply by the smoke, he moved with extra caution. Whoever set the grass re would be watching, waiting to strike if he showed himself. Soon a second blaze appeared, closing in from the west. He’d need to be quick or they’d all end up trapped!
Passing a large clump of sagebrush, Hunter froze. Detecting a faint rustle, he threw himself sideways as Elise lunged forward. They collided in mid-air and hit the ground grappling, her lethal blade stabbing the soil just inches from his neck. Grasping her wrist, Hunter twisted, rolled, and pinned her down with his lower body, while pressing his free hand hard across her mouth.
“Easy!” He whispered, his face pressed inches from hers. He held her writhing body down with superior weight and strength but was amazed that a person her size could attack with such fury. “I am a friend—I shot the leader,” he whispered, willing his truth into her ashing green eyes.
Noting the crossbow and quiver, Elise stopped struggling. She nodded her understanding, and he removed his hand from her mouth and rolled to the side. Wincing, he clenched his fist, and she noticed the red mark where she’d clamped down hard with her teeth. She looked sheepish but, with a wave of his hand, Hunter indicated that it was nothing, just a scratch.
Replacing the dagger inside her waistband, Elise unconsciously rubbed her wrist where Hunter’s vice-like grip left an angry welt. He pretended not to notice and, using sign language, asked about her companions’ whereabouts. She motioned for him to wait and disappeared into the brush. After a long minute, she returned, leading the others. Hunter noted with interest the bandolier slung across the blonde girl’s chest and the familiar way she held the shotgun, as if she knew exactly how and when to use it. Who are these women? He wondered, unavoidably impressed.
The growing prairie fire closed in from two directions as wind-whipped flames reached fteen feet into the air. Waves of stinging smoke reduced visibility to almost zero. Hunter panned the tops of the grass for sign of the enemy. Across the camp, Andy became a human torch as supercharged ames painfully ended his miserable existence.
Veering away from the approaching inferno, Hunter led the women from the smoke-filled plain, backtracking along his original path, recovering his pack and continuing on until reaching the game trail that crisscrossed up into the hills. When the breathless group reached the mixed stand of trees, he had them wait beside the spring while he made another brief recon before guiding them quickly through the small glade and into the higher hills beyond.
On the way up, Hunter thought he heard something on their back trail, and they took cover behind a large boulder while he went to investigate. A few minutes later, he reappeared, wiping fresh blood from his knife on a scrap of dirty cloth before casually discarding it in the brush beside the trail. He smiled grimly, mentally adding another corpse for the vultures to pick clean. In a hushed voice he said, “I don’t think we will be followed again. Come, the sun’s getting low, and we’ve still got a long way to go before we can rest.” Bristling with adrenaline, crossbow at the ready, Hunter pushed off briskly up the hill, his newly rescued charges following in strained silence on his heels.
Excerpted from Hunter-After The Fall, Book One
© 2010, 2017 by John Phillip Backus all rights reserved.