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CHAPTER 25 – Billy Ray

Sadness. Grief. Anger. Bite—kill. Sadness and longing. Destroy bad ones. Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!

Matti had no doubts about what was stirring up the storm in Satan. She, too, felt a rekindling of emotions as she gazed up at Kathy’s bedroom window at the front of the Wells house.

The huge dog seemed to have settled in well when they made the move to The Judge’s house the day before, and everyone there went out of their way to dote on him. This morning she had thought about leaving him behind when she returned to the Wells house to retrieve a few things, but he wouldn’t have stayed. She wasn’t good enough, yet, at her new skill to conceal her intended destination from him, and besides, their relationship was not such that she could order him to stay anywhere. He went with her to the Victorian because he wanted to, and he could leave whenever he wanted to. She could sense his growing affection for her, and everyone could see how he stayed close to Emmie, but his ties to Kathy were still pretty strong. Even knowing that pain awaited him, he had still joined the expedition with eager anticipation.

Satan visit Kathy while Matti and others go into house? She projected the actual words along with remembered images of Satan at the grave and of imagined images of Matti, Emmie, and Charlie entering the house.

The dog turned his head and looked up at Matti, grunted, and began walking towards the gap between the house and the burned wreckage next door. Only after he had rounded it and was headed into the back yard did Matti explain to Emmie and Charlie why he had left them.

At the front door, Matti had another fluttering-stomach episode when memories of her first touch of the doorknob and all that ensued flashed through her mind. Inside, the first thing she noticed was that someone else had already been there. She hoped they hadn’t claimed the things she had come for. Then, when it occurred to her that someone may still be there, claiming the house and everything in it, she paused and motioned the others to stay where they were just inside the door. Maybe it was the guy with the rifle at the corner house. Things could get tricky. Just how badly did she want extra denims and underwear? Maybe she could head off a confrontation.

“Hello!” she called out. “Anybody home? I just came to get some of my stuff, if that’s okay.”

With no response after a full minute, she waved the others on in and led them on a repeat of her first search. No new damage was evident; just some things had been moved from where Matti remembered last seeing them. Probably just scavengers looking for scraps, she decided. Not surprising, with things getting so scarce. When she found the food-stores gone from the kitchen, she just shrugged her shoulders and nodded her head. When she found the bag of dog kibble missing about a quarter of what had been there when she last fed Satan from it, she wondered if the scavengers had a dog. As unlikely as it was, she hoped that was the answer. She didn’t want to think about the desperation for food that would drive a person to eat dog kibble. But, then why didn’t they take the whole bag? If they had a dog, they would have. Most likely, they tried it and decided it wasn’t worth risking a broken tooth for. She well remembered being near that stage, herself, and wished such despair on no one.

Well, maybe with one or two exceptions, she corrected herself as she remembered Mickey and his friends.

They all peered out the kitchen window at the shaded grave near the back of the yard and Satan lying beside it, his head unmoving as it rested on his front paws. No one spoke as they followed Matti into the first-floor bedroom where she had slept. Happy that the scavengers were only after food, she recovered the extra pants, underwear, socks and shirts she inherited from Kathy’s mother.

Before leaving the house for good, probably never to return, Matti led the way up to Kathy’s room. She noticed the water level in the tub of the hall bathroom was down a few inches. Pondering, she decided the scroungers must have filled some containers, but they must be staying in a better place, so they’d just return when they needed to refill. Made the most sense. Glad to see they hadn’t just drained the tubs. There would have been no reason to do it except meanness, and, of course, there was plenty of that around. She could imagine someone like Mickey doing it after satisfying his own need. With Emmie and Charlie waiting just inside the bedroom door, Matti paused at the wheelchair and rested her hand on it. Well, Kathy, I wish –”

Suddenly, sounds of pounding footsteps approaching on the street outside brought her from her reverie, and she looked out the window.

At first, she saw only two men running side-by-side down the middle of the street. When she poked her head past the remaining curtain, she saw four more about a hundred feet behind the first two. The situation was clear enough from the way they waved their knives. When the staccato of shoes on pavement grew louder and with the addition of shouted curses and threats, Charlie and Emmie joined her at the window.

The two men had gotten only a few feet past the window when they slid and stumbled to a stop. They glanced back and forth between the men approaching from behind and two more coming around the next corner ahead. After only a few seconds, while the small one stood panting with his hands on his knees, his much larger companion dashed over to the burned house straight across the street and wrenched loose a five-foot length of a lightly scorched two-by-four stud. Still swiveling his head to watch both groups as they moved in at a walking pace, the big man cocked his weapon over his shoulder. He must have said something to his friend, because the smaller one moved over to stand behind him.

Matti half-turned from the window. “Oh, god! It’s another gang like Mickey’s, and I don’t want to watch the slaughter. Those poor men.”

After a moment, Charlie said, “There’s liable to be some blood spilt, all right, but you might want to save some pity for those poor fellas doin’ the chasin’ that must not realize what they’ve gone and stepped in.”

“Do you know them, Charlie? The others?” Emmie asked.

“One of ’em. The big one. Oh, yeah,” he replied with a crooked grin and a shake of his head. “And they’re about to.”

Matti looked back down on the game still developing in the arena below.

The big man was tall, nearly as tall as The Judge and about as old as Charlie, and he had a girth that belied his speed and agility. She could picture him wearing a lineman’s uniform of one of the NFL teams. In fact, with his massive belly and quick, unpredictable movements, he reminded her of a football: oval shape, tough-hide, and about as yielding as bedrock.

The smaller man appeared to be a few years older, maybe fifty. His just under average height and slight build, the conservative glasses on an unremarkable, bland face with receding chin and hairline, and his slope-shouldered posture would have made him all but invisible on a crowded street just a couple of months earlier. Now, in the world outside Kathy’s window, the man’s meek appearance fairly screamed “prey” to all the predators and scavengers. He ran both hands through his thinning, mousy-brown hair, sweeping it from his fear-lined face.

Matti recognized one of the gang members. She remembered Mickey calling him Angie when he moved in on Nate and her while holding the loops of a hose. She couldn’t see the other faces clearly enough to determine if any were survivors of that encounter.

“Well, as much as I’d like to stay up here in the bleachers and watch that bunch get some justice, I s’pose I aughta go down and give him a hand. There could always be some fluke of luck go against him and cost him dearly. You two stay here, now, ya hear?”

Matti had no desire to play macho again and was quite happy to stay in Kathy’s room. Although, if Emmie hadn’t been with her, she didn’t think she would have let Charlie go down there alone. She looked back out the window.

While the smaller one knelt among the debris of the ruined house that had provided the two-by-four, the big man moved in a constant shuffle in the center of a shrinking circle of men. He was doing his best not to allow any one of the gang members to remain out of his view for more than a second or two.

Matti didn’t think that would keep him alive all that long, though. She had seen the tenacity of these predators. They were like a pack of rats, each one eager to jump in at the leanest opportunity to draw first blood, then second, third, and so on. With his protector disposed of, the smaller one would soon be available to provide the pack with more leisurely entertainment.

The big man started moving toward the house where he had gotten his weapon, closer to his friend, forcing the men on that side of the circle to back up as he made little lunges toward them. The formation had gotten just over the curb when the attackers apparently realized the man’s plan: to put a wall to his back. With increased jabs, they herded him back into the middle of the street.

It cost them, though. When one of them jabbed in with his knife to knick the man’s arm, the immediate response was a whistling swing of the club to the side of the attacker’s head, impacting it with a sound like a dropped melon. At least he died knowing he had scored first.

The next one, Angie, was on the opposite side of the circle. By the time his lunge reached his target, the big man, still swiveling back and forth, had moved. The two-by-four came down on Angie’s extended arm, breaking both bones of the forearm.

Another knife came in from behind and slashed across his massive shoulders, a missed stroke at his neck. He flinched, spun, and swung, but the knifer expected it and ducked in time for the deadly board to miss him by two or three inches.

Two others came in at the same time from opposite sides, and the success of one cost the other a crushed face. But the stab to the big man’s thigh had an immediate effect. He continued to turn about, doing his best to confront the last three who spaced themselves equally around him, but with a noticeable limp.

His harassers circled faster, forcing the wounded man to put more stress on his leg. His limp grew worse until he finally stumbled and almost went down. He had to know if he ever did hit the ground, he would never get up again. He tried to carry his weight on his good leg as much as possible, using the crippled one only to reposition himself. But, with the men moving faster, it would be only a matter of time – probably countable in heartbeats – before they closed in for the kill.

Matti felt like she was watching a wolf pack trying to bring down a bull moose. She had seen such contests in films and documentaries, and she couldn’t understand how anyone could enjoy watching such a killing. She understood that the wolves had to eat, that they had no other way of obtaining food for themselves and their pack. She understood it was Nature, but it was still brutal. But the spectacle below was not a quest for food – she hoped. These wolves were simply out for sport, for fun, and that made it doubly cruel. Although the moose below had put a high price on his blood, she didn’t think the wolves were going to leave without their meat.

Angie crawled and shuffled over to the curb in front of the Wells house and turned to give shouted support to his colleagues as he cradled his misshapen arm.

Suddenly, the doomed man charged one of his tormentors. The move was so unexpected the two-by-four came down on the top of a knife wielder’s head with a horrible, crunching sound and a splatter of blood before he could dodge. The other two, caught off guard, failed to take advantage of the brief exposure of the man’s back. He spun back to face them, and they took a couple of steps backwards. The odds were getting awfully close to even.

“Damn, Billy Ray, what’s taking you so long? You getting old or something?” Charlie’s voice from behind Angie’s slumped form froze everyone for a few moments.

Angie scrambled around to face the new arrival, and then, once on his feet, shuffled backwards out into the street. The two remaining attackers continued to back away from their prey, their heads swiveling to keep him and the new threat in view.

Charlie matched Angie’s pace but stopped at the curb. “You gonna keep ’em all, yourself, you big ugly, or are you gonna share?”

“Aw, hell, Charlie, I was just startin’ to have fun. You can have Clumsy, over there, if you want,” the limping and bleeding moose said as he pointed toward Angie. “He’s sorta broken, but you might still have some fun with ’im.”

The odds, numerically, were now dead even, not counting Angie.

A movement near the corner of the house below her caught Matti’s eye and she watched Satan stride out and stop beside Charlie. When Angie saw the devil-dog, he staggered backward like he had been struck. Having survived that hellish hound before only by sheer luck and the sacrifice of a fellow gang-member, he began to stumble backwards down the street, clearly unwilling to expose his back to the animal.

The other two ran past Angie without so much as slowing to assist their battle-injured comrade.

Shouting for the other two to wait up, Angie hobbled down the street behind the only two wolves that had come through unscathed. Billy Ray flung his two-by-four side-arm just a couple of feet above the ground. Spinning like a boomerang, it slammed into Angie’s feet and lower legs, and he took what Matti knew had to be a painful tumble as he tried to protect his broken arm with his good one. She just knew he dearly wanted to lie there on the ground with his agonizing arm and now a few good patches of road-rash and catch his breath, feel sorry for himself, maybe even cry a little. But he scrambled back to his feet and shuffled after his rapidly receding friends.

By the time Matti and Emmie burst out the front door and down the steps, Charlie and Satan had joined Billy Ray, who sat on the far curb next to the smaller man.

While Charlie wrapped a strip of torn shirt around the thigh puncture, Matti cleaned the slash on the back of the broad shoulders as well as she could with no water. She got up to go after water from the house, but Charlie told her not to bother.

“Billy Ray’s a tough bird. He’ll be okay ’til we get him to Vonnie. You able to walk?”

Billy Ray looked at Charlie as if his old friend had asked him if he still liked beer. “O’course! I learned to walk before I was two. Why, you don’t think this little scratch bothers me, do you? Hell, I nick myself worse’n that shavin’ ever’ mornin’. Just give me a hand up, will you? Hi, sugar,” he said with a smile to Emmie and a wink at Matti when they reached out in unison to help him lumber back to his feet. “Good lookin’ dog, you got over there.”

Satan sat on his haunches and watched from several feet away.

“How about you, sir?” Matti asked the other man who rose to his feet with them. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine, thank you. It’s my friend, here, I’m concerned about.”

“You a friend of Billy Ray’s?” Charlie asked the man.

“We only met an hour or so ago, but, yes, I’d certainly be happy to call him a friend. I’m Ronald Newman, by the way.”

“You say you’re gonna take me home, Charlie?” Billy Ray asked. “Last time I seen that pretty wife o’ yours, she damn near seared my hide off for keepin’ you out so late and bringing you home with a split lip and puffy eye. She gonna let me in the door?”

“Aw, hell, of course she will. Hey, that was some night, though, wasn’t it? You weren’t the only one to catch hell, neither. And you got to get it all in one dose and be done with it; I slept on the couch for a very long and chilly week. Anyway, we’re not at the house, anymore. It burned down. Us and some others moved in with The Judge.”

“The Judge? Dammit, Charlie, you know me and that old –”

Matti had to exert a little extra effort to get the big man hanging on her shoulder to keep moving.

“Oh, don’t go getting yourself all worked up,” Charlie said. “You and The Judge’s differences are a thing of the past, now. Besides, how long has it been since you two went eyeball to eyeball? Hell, he’s been retired for years.”

“Yeah, but I ain’t likely to forget him sittin’ up there like a king on his throne, passin’ judgment on all us lesser folks.”

“Well, hell, you big dummy, he was the judge. It was his job to put drunk hell-raisers in jail once in a while. Besides, it got you dried out, again, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, but –”

“And he got you that job on the Backus place, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, but – wait, he what?”

“Well, you didn’t think you got that job on your pretty face, did you? Matter of fact, he’s asked about you quite a few times, like how you’re doin’ out there. He told me about how he figured you needed some place far enough from a bar that you could stay sober from one day do another, so he asked one of the members of his lodge for a favor. You knew Les Backus was an Elk, didn’t you?”

“Well, yeah, sure I knew. He didn’t keep it no secret when he went into town to the meetings and dinners and things. Ah, hell, now I’m gonna hafta think about this. … You okay back there, Ronald?”

“Yes, I’m doing just fine, thank you. This young lady and I are simply getting to know one another.”

Matti glanced back at Emmie. Even loaded down with a bag of Matti’s recovered clothing and half a bag of dogfood, she was keeping pace with the stumbling trio from several steps back. She met the unspoken question in Matti’s eyes with a nod and a smile. Matti silently berated herself for forgetting the young, vulnerable girl that she and Charlie had left, not alone, but close enough, with the stranger. And the fact that Billy Ray had known him for an hour or so didn’t really vouch for him. Still, Emmie did seem to be okay. Although he managed the second bag of recovered clothing, okay, the man calling himself Ronald Newman didn’t look like he could overpower even Emmie. And that wasn’t even considering Emmie’s not inconsiderable ability to probably toss his can across the street or suspend him twenty feet above it if he tried anything. Plus, of course, there was Satan, never far from his new best friend.

They had gone less than a block when Billy Ray slumped to the ground between Charlie and Matti. They had been supporting much of his weight, but the pressure on his leg was apparently still too much.

“Damn!” he growled as he sprawled out. “I cain’t unnerstand how that little pinprick takes so much outa me.”

“Well, it is right into one of the main muscles of your leg,” Charlie said. “Might have even nicked a nerve or something. Just be glad it ain’t bleeding too much.”

“Just rest for a few minutes, and we’ll try it again,” Matti said. “Maybe you can lean on us a little more.”

“Hell, I reckon if I was a mite smaller, I could ride on that dog. That’s the biggest dang thing I ever saw that wasn’t pullin’ a plow. But, I’m afraid if I was to lean on you any more than I been doin’, I’d squash you flat.”

“Hey, Matti,” Emmie said. “How about if I try my canteen trick with him?”

Matti started to say no, but Charlie jumped in, “Can you lift that much? He’s an awful lot bigger’n you.”

Again, remembering her own experiences, Matti started to warn them both about revealing too much that might cause misunderstandings.

“I don’t think it matters that much,” Emmie answered. “Remember what Matti told us about how Woody held the truck up?”

Matti watched the look of confusion line Billy Ray’s forehead and felt fear begin to churn her stomach. But what surprised her more was the lack of surprise on Ronald’s face. She started, “Don’t you think –”

“Give it a try,” Charlie said. “Oh, wait a minute. Billy Ray, we’re gonna do something to get you home. Now, I promise you won’t get hurt, and you’ll understand things in due time. Meanwhile, don’t go to screamin’ like some frightened girl, okay?”

“Uh … yeah, sure,” the big man said.

Charlie whispered to Matti, “If he thinks it makes him sound like a sissy, he won’t utter a peep.”

However, when his considerable bulk, still supine, rose a couple of feet above the ground, his suddenly opened mouth and eyes showing whites completely around the irises gave Matti reason to fear he would give in to his primal fear to start screaming like a very terrified girl. She remembered the sudden feeling of helplessness that overwhelmed her when Woody lifted her and floated her above the river. The feeling of weightlessness, disorientation, and being totally beyond her own control was terrifying. Would this big man’s machismo be enough to overcome something so far beyond his comprehension? And would Emmie be able to handle the venomous accusations of witchery and devil-craft?

“Ohshit! Ohshit! Ohshit!” Billy Ray muttered. But he didn’t scream, and he didn’t wave his arms about and make a fuss. He simply jerked his head back and forth as he locked eyes with each of them, possibly searching for further assurances that he had not fallen into a nightmare.

After a moment, at Ronald Newman’s urging, Emmie settled him back onto the littered ground.

Matti was preparing to defend Emmie from charges of witchery when, again, the stranger amazed her.

“It might be better,” Ronald said, “if he looked like he was standing and walking. It shouldn’t matter if he’s horizontal or vertical if you can manage his weight. Try to just hold him up enough so his leg doesn’t make him fall, just skimming the ground. All he has to do is swing his legs to look like he’s walking. If someone sees him floating along on his back, they might think one of us is a witch or something.”

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