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CHAPTER 26 – They Got Him

From across the room, Billy Ray said, “I’ll be dogged if you don’t look right natural feedin’ that kid, Charlie. D’ya do floors, too?”

Charlie maintained a serene smile as he jockeyed Lazaro around in his arms. Resituated to his satisfaction, he picked up the bottle of milk Matti had just set on the end table. His son eagerly took the bottle in both hands, exerting his own inexpert control on his world while Charlie’s hand merely ensured that the bottle remained upright. Finally, he responded, “Sure do, buddy. Fact is, soon’s my boy, here, is done, I was plannin’ on repayin’ The Judge for his fine hospitality in havin’ all of us here by moppin’ all his floors – with your sorry ass. I figure you can’t run away too fast for me to catch like you did from those poor fellas you maimed this morning.”

From her position sitting at the other end of the sofa from Charlie, Matti smiled at the bantering as the situation just naturally fell into prose in her mind. Even as the shield maidens tended to his ghastly battle wounds, Billy Ray’s raucous laugh echoed through the house like the uproarious celebrations of a victorious Viking – which he resembled more than a little, missing only a scraggly beard and horned helm. She shook her head as she laughed inwardly. I wonder if I’ll ever stop putting everyone and everything into manuscript. Sure would be nice to be able to just sit down again and write. … Maybe someday.

The baby in Charlie’s arms glanced over at Billy Ray’s guffaw without losing a beat in the rhythm of his suckling. Billy Ray poked Vonnie gently with his finger, causing her to look up from the chore of cleaning his stabbed thigh. “He could do it, too,” he said with a slow, severe nod of his head. Then, with a broad grin, “Even if I had two good legs,”

Shaking her head at the barroom bantering of her husband and his friend, Vonnie returned to her task. She dropped one washcloth into the plastic bowl of pink water that Rachel held for her and picked up another clean one to dab at the blood still seeping from the wound. After a moment, she pronounced the leg wound superficial, if painful, and picked up her sewing kit. Holding it up for Billy Ray’s viewing, she said, with an only slightly covert grin, “You might feel a little stick or two.”

The big man eyed the needle, which was many times smaller than the knife blade had been, and he cringed. The curvature of the thing that Vonnie had so carefully bent for properly inserting sutures gave it a definite talon look. “Uh oh! I’ve got a feeling you’re gonna enjoy this.”

Rachel started to walk away with the bowl, but then stopped and turned to Erin. “Do you think Emmie might be able to work her thing like she did with me?”

Erin paused for only a moment before turning to Emmie beside her. “What do you think, honey?

A grin lit Emmie’s face. “Sure.”

“Hold off with the needle, Vonnie. You might not need it.” Then Erin moved with Emmie to kneel facing Billy Ray’s leg.

Matti leaned forward like everyone else, and her curiosity became anxiety. Although she was confident that the Victorian held no lynchers, it was hard to dismiss the reality that some people are more easily shocked than others. What new bit of magic was the small girl about to demonstrate in full view of the assembly without warning or preamble? And how well did anyone really know about this gathering of strangers and what each one would accept or tolerate?

With some reluctance, Vonnie withdrew her hands and the tool of her trade that they held. However, she didn’t withdraw her attention. Maintaining her seat on the other side of the injured leg from Emmie, she watched the girl lean close to the seeping wound and move her hands even closer.

From Matti’s position no more than five feet away, she could see over Vonnie’s shoulder after she rose up and sat on the arm of the sofa. Emmie’s eyes were locked on the leg, on the gaping wound from which a slow line of blood made its way down the side. Her small hands hovered mere inches above it as though poised to grasp the torn and tender flesh, but they held off. Matti was certain that Vonnie was only seconds from slapping them away, fearing the damage even the lightest touch might do. Even an infection from an unsterile touch could ultimately be fatal in this new world. Still, Emmie held her gaze.

It took a second or two for Matti to realize the red line down the side of the leg had stopped growing. At Vonnie’s gasp, Matti craned her neck, raising her head another inch. Then she gasped. She had to hold her own gaze on the wound another second to be sure, but that was all it took to be certain; the wound was closing – on its own!

She was only vaguely aware of others in the room inching forward when she rose to her feet and edged up directly behind Vonnie.

Erin had risen to her feet and was using her outspread arms to keep everyone from crowding too close, but without much success.

Matti heard several muted gasps as well as “oohs” and “aahs” of admiration among whispered comments, but no shouts of condemnation or accusations of witchcraft. Even Billy Ray just sat there with a growing grin.

When Emmie withdrew her hands, Vonnie wasted no time in testing the results. She ran her finger along the bright pink line that was on its way to becoming a scar and gently prodded it. Looking first at Erin, then The Judge, Charlie, and around the room, said with awe hushing her words, “I know you told us back at the museum about how it went with Jason’s leg, but it one thing to hear about it and quite another to see it with my own eyes.”

Emmie sat back and rested her hands in her lap after a couple of minutes. She said nothing until Vonnie looked up at her after examining the now closed wound. Then she said, “Maybe you can do it, too. You know, like with the canteen.”

With a shake of her head and a wistful smile, Vonnie said, “Oh, how I wish … but I don’t think so. I’d know if I could, wouldn’t I?”

Matti moved back to sit on the sofa, but she continued to follow the conversation.

Emmie shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. I didn’t know I could until I did it, just like all the rest of it.”

“Uh …” Billy Ray held up his hand like he was asking to be excused to go to the restroom. When Vonnie and Emmie looked at him, he said, “That was about the best parlor trick I’ve ever seen. Does it mean you don’t have to take that claw to me, now?” and pointed to the threaded needle still in Vonnie’s hand.

Vonnie glanced back at the wound and shook her head. “No, I’d say you no longer need stitches. How does it feel? Tender?”

He poked his finger around the site but was careful to avoid pressing the actual wound. “It’s a mite sore, but not too bad. More like it was week old instead of a couple of hours.”

Erin said, “Jason’s leg still bothers him. Of course, it was a lot worse; a lot deeper and a lot more tissue damage. He might always limp, but he manages okay.”

Vonnie said, “This is closed up, and it appears to be well into healing, about like it would look after removing stitches but without the stitch marks. It could still take another month, or more, to be pain free. Jason’s leg might need another two or three months. Meanwhile, I want you to stay off it as much as possible, at least for a few days. Maybe that will keep you two out of trouble – at least for a few days.”

With the bowl, cleaning cloths and needle no longer needed, Vonnie moved over to sit on the sofa between Matti and Charlie where she watched her new son’s face with a look of rapture on her own.

Matti thought she recognized the sparkle in Vonnie’s eyes when the woman had looked from Billy Ray to Charlie. It was the same that Matti had seen in her Momma’s eyes when she gave Matti’s dad a hard time about some remark he had made when the person he was talking to was Adam. They could get pretty macho in their assessments, at times, when they got into reminiscing about some of the stupid things they had seen. But even when Momma told them to grow up and to speak kindly about those unfortunate souls who lacked their own talents, foresight, strength and judgment, she could never conceal her affection for the two men at her table.

Matti returned Emmie’s smile as the girl returned to her seat over in the corner beside Ronald Newman. Right after they had all hobbled into the Victorian an hour earlier, he had explained his casual acceptance of Emmie’s strange ability by simply saying that he didn’t believe in witches, that everything had a logical explanation, and that he prided himself on always keeping an open mind. This seemed to satisfy everyone else, so Matti told herself she should accept it, too; not the wonder of Emmie’s magic, but Ronald’s lack of awe for it. She had seen nothing from him, no action, no word, no look that gave her any reason to think he might be anything other than the friendly and grateful man he seemed. It just bothered her the way he always seemed to hang around Emmie. He could be a weirdo sex pervert, she pondered. Or, maybe I’m looking for monsters, again, where there are none. She reached down to Satan lying on the floor beside her. Dropping her hand over the end of the couch to where Satan lay like some immobile, misshapen Sphinx gazing at the unfathomable humans in their inscrutable—oh, give it a rest! She gave the top of Satan’s head a quick rub and scratch.

On the rollaway-bed in The Judge’s immense parlor, Billy Ray rose up on an elbow and asked, “So, Doc Vonnie, can I get outa bed, now? Layin’ around all day is okay, but only if I don’t have to.”

“I think you’ll be okay to do some light walking. You shouldn’t climb the stairs or do any heavy straining for a couple of days, though.”

“Good. Then, I think I’ll just stay here for a bit. Don’t suppose The Judge’s got any beer?”

“I’m afraid not, Billy Ray.” The Judge said as he and Jason walked into the room. “That should probably be on our list of things to look for, though. I could use a good cold one, myself, about mid-afternoon.”

“Hell, yer Honor, I’d be right pleased to share a six-pack with you. Maybe I’ll take a light walk after a bit,” he said as he winked at Vonnie, “and see what I can come up with. I can’t imagine a world without any beer. Don’t think I want to.”

Jason limped in behind The Judge and eased down next to Erin on the arm of the plush club chair before addressing Billy Ray. “You said, earlier, that a large group of men raided your farm. Do you think they might still be there?”

“Christ knows. There was plenty of food, but no women. They seemed to be after women as much as food. Maybe more. Course, they could keep that little valley as a base, making raids on other farms and returnin’ there with full sacks.”

“Do you know for certain that Missus Backus is dead?” The Judge asked. “Could she have survived, maybe even joined their group if they would let her live?”

“Naw, I was right across the room from where they was rapin’ her. I couldn’t see real good, ’cause a shotgun muzzle was trying to find its way up my nose. When that asshole holding it laughed and told me I could have her next if I’d join ’em, I durn near hit him with one of the others that was holding me from behind. I mean … well, Missus Backus and her husband were good folks. They gave me a job – sleeping place and vittles and all – when not a whole lot of others would have.”

Matti noticed he made gave no indication that he knew of The Judge’s role in his getting the job. Maybe he was embarrassed, although she couldn’t imagine that, or maybe he just got a kick out of letting The Judge go on thinking he had put one over on the town’s biggest hell-raiser.

Billy Ray went on. “I’d been with them for five years come next month. Les, that’s Mister Backus, would work right along aside me in the fields, doin’ nearly as much as I was. He couldn’t toss the hay bales onto the trailer like me, but he somehow did what needed doin’ if I wasn’t handy. Anyway, yeah, I know she’s dead. That’s when I did hit the one holdin’ the shotgun with the other one, when I seen the one that had her slice her throat damned near clean through just ‘cause she was still fightin’. I think maybe she put a knee into his ba … uh, his tender parts. Anyway, I sorta went a little crazy, I guess, ‘cause I don’t remember much after that except a lot of bodies flyin’ around and a lot of yellin’ and some shootin’. I wish I’da stayed and got the rest of ‘em. I rightly do. I feel like a coward, now, skeetin’ out like I done.”

Jason said, “I doubt that you could have done much if you had stayed around. Probably get yourself killed. Do you think the other farmers and ranchers in the area might have gotten away?”

“Probably some. I don’t know. Some might have even joined that mob of scum, although I didn’t see any that I knew. Hard to say what folks’ll do when pushed.”

“And, you said you found other groups between there and town?” The Judge asked.

“There was a barricade across the road about half way to town. Lotsa cars and trucks were there. Mostly drove or pushed off to the side or into a field; all shot up, too. I seen Mister Backus’s truck. Not him, just the truck. His wife died not knowin’ he had never got to town for help, or why he never came back. Or any of the others that followed him, either. Maybe it’s just as well, her not knowin’. Same as her and him, and me too, not knowin’ what happened to their girls. Those were good girls and not deservin’ to be raped and killed. But, I s’pose that’s probably what happened to ‘em, anyway, back east where they was visitin’ their grandma. That’s if they didn’t get burnt up on that first terrible day. Too bad, though.”

Jason asked, “Do you think those groups may have been associated? Were they all one big group?”

Billy Ray’s laugh of derision was a single snort. “Not likely. Last thing any of ‘em were lookin’ for was some self-appointed general orderin’ ‘em around. Hell, even if I had joined the bunch that raided the Backus place, the next bunch to come along was as likely to kill me, or any of the others, as not. They’re worse’n a wolf pack on a feedin’ frenzy. At least wolves have a leader that figger’s out what’s best for the lot. Give ’em another month and they just might all eat each other up.”

Jason said, “Trouble is, we might not be able to wait another month. The Judge and I have been talking, and we’re afraid things are going to get pretty lean here in town. Pickings are getting scarcer. More and more survivors are willing to fight and to kill in order to get what they believe should be theirs. Charlie, The Judge and I went over to the Veterans Memorial while you bunch were getting Matti’s things. All the stuff you two hauled over there is gone. No sign of who got it or where it is now. I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave, and soon … find some place where we can be more secure and self-sufficient. We were hoping the farms and ranchland between here and the coast would be good.”

Billy Ray nodded at first, but then shook his head. “Sounds good. But, even if those gangs don’t hang around, the farmers and ranchers that are left would fight you just like they would the gangs. You couldn’t just move in on someone without kickin’ ’em out, first.”

The Judge peered about the room before saying, “And, I hope I speak for all of us when I say we will not do that. I think we could hope to be welcomed wherever we go. We have a wide variety of skills to offer. Any group of survivors legitimately attempting to re-establish some sort of community should be open to anyone of like mind, especially if they had something to contribute.”

Charlie said, “Except, Judge, everyone’s gonna be real careful about who they welcome. They gotta. We gotta.”

“That’s right, they should be very careful. But, at the same time, they can’t just shoot first and ask questions afterwards. Look at the way our Victorian group has grown since we’ve been open to anyone who comes along, even if they can’t contribute any particular talents. Only those with clear harmful intent have been turned away.”

“But, Charlie’s got a good point,” Jason said. “We should probably be more judicious in accepting any more. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to infiltrate our group then bring in confederates later, either individually as new members or as a raid some night.”

With a wistful smile, The Judge said, “Ah, yes, one of the basic weaknesses of human society. I’m afraid it has always been so, whether on the frontier or in our greatest metropolis.”

Nate spoke up. “Not just for coming into our little bastion, here, either. Everyone that goes out for more scavenging is going to be an walking target. Even Billy Ray, as big as he is, got jumped. I agree that we need to get away from town. Before much longer, it’s going to be an open killing field. And, with the food stores quickly disappearing, there’s really no reason to stay.”

“How many guns do we have, Jason?” The Judge asked.

“Number of guns is not the issue. You can walk along the street and pick them up where the owners went down shooting. The problem is ammunition. Most of those you find are empty, and there’s probably not much left waiting to be scrounged.”

Nate stood up and walked to the window, rubbing his jaw, before saying, “Everyone would have the same problem, though. Right?”

“Sure. I suppose so.” Jason answered. “Unless they’ve found a stash in a sporting goods store or something. But, I’m afraid they’ve all been pretty much incinerated.”

“Then, whoever has the best alternative weaponry will have an edge, wherever they go.”

“Probably. Why, Nate? What’d you have in mind?” Jason asked.

Nate turned and addressed the entire room. “While the various rat packs are scrounging around for diminishing supplies of ammo, we should work on something that won’t become useless in another week or so.”

Charlie handed his son to Vonnie then asked, “Like what? You find some of those weird ray-guns the kryls had?”

“No. But we can arm ourselves with hand weapons that will be effective against anything likely to be used against us, unless someone does have guns. And, how long will it be before those guns are nothing but fancy clubs?”

“Hand weapons?” Billy Ray asked.

“That’s right, hand weapons. They can even up a lot of odds if you know how to use them. I can teach you. I’ve been doing that for fun for years. Now, I can do it for real.”

The Judge asked, “Are you sure you know enough about them to be able to teach the rest of us?”

“Tell you what, Judge. Jason, Erin, and Emmie already know about my past. But, now, so you and everyone else will know what I’m talking about, let me tell you a bit about myself. A long time ago, an old guy named Tom, who became a good friend and teacher over the years, introduced my wife, Patty, and me to the world of the Renaissance and the darker times that preceded it. He lived right here in Petaluma, and he owned a considerable collection of weapons and artifacts. And most of them were quality replicas, made with modern steel.”

He began to stroll about the room as he spoke. “With his sponsorship, Patty and I became members of the Squire’s Wench Order of Remembered Days Society, otherwise known as the S.W.O.R.D.S. It was a loose association of like-minded folks that thought medieval times had a certain charm. We created roles that we would play when we got together. Not just for an evening’s entertainment in some member’s living room, either, although, we did do that, too. Actually, that’s when we would further refine our characters’ histories while we worked on our costumes and accoutrements. We also did full productions that we encouraged the public to attend – got a lot of new members that way. There are … were lots of similar groups all across the country. Some of ’em were fairly large, but ours was just a small, local bunch.”

“We’ve been to a couple of Renaissance fairs,” Vonnie said. “Is that what you mean? Remember, Judge? You and Charlie found a booth that sold that ale you liked so much.”

“I remember. A marvelous brew, it was, too.”

“Good,” Nate said. “Then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Patty used the name of Helga, and I was Dagar. … Damn, I can’t …”

He stopped strolling next to Matti when the mist in his eyes coalesced in two slow-moving drops. He slid the silky, green scarf from around his neck and gazed at it draped over his open hand. With his eyes closed, he kissed it with the tenderness of love aged in maturity. “She had the greenest eyes.”

Everyone remained silent while he focused on the ceiling for a few moments.

He retied his scarf around his neck and resumed pacing. “We created the characters of a weapons master and his wife who had fled from an abusive tyrant in their Viking homeland and wound up in the service of some fictitious English duke. I actually got pretty good, too.”

“I’ve seen him in action,” Matti said, smiling as she recalled how she had fretted about the diminutive and wrinkled old man she had drawn into battle. “He is good.”

“Um … yes.” His wan smile was slightly crooked. A frown hooded his eyes. “Shedding real blood is a mite different from make-believe games, I’m afraid.”

Matti reached out and laid her hand on his arm. She said, “I’ve seen a few of the corpses those animals left around town. They weren’t pretty. And they weren’t just going to kill me. They had a few other things in mind, first. I don’t even want to think about what you saved me from. Thank you.”

Nate silently nodded and took a deep breath.

“Anyway, those were wonderful times for Patty and me. We both really got into the spirit of the whole thing, immersing ourselves in our roles, becoming those other people. I learned an awful lot from Tom, even got involved in martial arts, and I used it to teach others over the years: swordplay, dirks and daggers, halberds, quarterstaffs, even a little archery. In the absence of firearms, bows and arrows will give us range. They can be very accurate and very lethal.”

“I’ll say,” Jason said. “When we went out that first night the kryls were here, I saw what a man can do with a bow and a couple of arrows. Even in smoky moonlight, he put three arrows into that kryl in about five seconds. Too bad that guy in the train depot took off like he did; he could have come back here with us.”

“You gotta be kidding,” Matti said with a laugh. “You saw someone run from the depot … that first night?”

“Well … yeah,” Jason answered. “Someone. Couldn’t see who it was, just that it was a human. The kryl had him cornered inside, I guess. Looked like it was playing cat and mouse, the way it kept running back and forth from one window to another. Then when the guy came bursting out a door, Adam shot the kryl just as it was taking aim. The guy from inside went around the corner about the time the first arrow hit, and he never looked back. He probably didn’t even know we were there. Anyway, that was some shooting, even for a navy SEAL.”

It was like someone had thrown a bucket of ice water in Matti’s face. She fought to catch her breath as she rose slowly to her feet and covered her mouth with the tips of her fingers. She whispered, “A SEAL named Adam? Was his last name Rainger?”

Jason glanced about and hesitated before answering, “Uh … yeah.”

Nate was still at her side, and his arm slipped softly about her shoulders. “Did … do you know Adam?”

Matti nodded slowly and peered around into the old man’s eyes. It was becoming impossible to ignore the poker switching from fiery hot to icy cold as it stirred her insides. “He was my dad’s best friend. I’ve known him since I was a little girl. He’s like family. That was me – I’m the one that was in the train depot. I had no idea anyone was out there except that – that thing. Where is he? Where is Adam?”

She knew the answer before she heard it. It was right there in Nate’s eyes. “I’m truly sorry, hon,” he said. “There’s no easy way to say it. They got him.”

She couldn’t breathe. She had thought attacks of sudden and intense grief were finally over, but that old, too-familiar feeling of a sour taste, icy chills, and a heavy, smothering weight bearing down on her was there again. The world of the normal, the standard she had come to accept as the new natural began to recede from her while a fog of uncertainty and terror began to coalesce about her. Her eyes brimmed until tears rolled in streams down both cheeks.

“He’s dead? Adam is dead?” she finally got out, her voice barely a squeak. She had accepted the inevitability of Adam’s death along with everyone else’s. But, until she heard the words, it was still only an abstraction. It had just become real.

Nate paused for a moment as he glanced about at the pained faces in the room. He said, “I imagine everyone would like to know what happened.” He walked her back over to the end of the sofa. After she lowered herself back down to the cushion, Nate sat on the arm beside her. He kept her hand folded in his while he closed his eyes as though praying. After a few moments, he lifted her hand, kissed it softly, and released it after a couple of pats.

When she looked up into his eyes, she could see he was hurting, too.

“I don’t think he is dead,” were his first words. “But I really don’t know one way or the other. He was alive when I last saw him … I think.”

With a lingering gaze out the window and into the destruction surrounding the Victorian, he began, “When they came up here on that last day and flushed us all out like a covey of quail, we split up and took off in all directions. There were a lot of us, and a good many not able to run or get away because of age or injuries. I hate to think of all those good people dying like that. But, I guess now they just blend in with the rest of humanity. Judge, you went with Charlie and Vonnie and the baby. Jason, Erin and Emmie stayed together. I saw Evan and Leroy go with Doreen and Claire. I went with Adam.

“Two of those things got on our tail and we couldn’t shake ’em. Seemed like no matter which way we tried to go, there was another one of ’em to head us off and get us going back the other way. We ran all over hell and gone, but then Adam and I finally wound up in one of the buildings downtown.”

Matti nodded as she remembered how she had tried to get out of town before winding up in the train depot.

“No matter how we zigged and zagged about, they were always back there. One had a green sash and the other one was smaller, a glurrik, like the pair we captured back in the library we told you about. Anyway, we tried to lose ’em in the smoky maze inside the building, but they must have had our scent; although, I don’t think either Adam or I have any of the magic they are able to track, so I don’t know how they stayed on our trail, but who knows? Finally, when Adam found a length of rope, he thought we might get away by going airborne. So, he tied it off and tossed it out an upstairs window. He let me go first. I lost my grip half way down and slid the rest of the way. Cost me a good bit of hide off my palms, it did. When he came down, it was fast, too. I think he might have twisted an ankle or something, ’cause he didn’t run that fast afterwards. He might have just been getting tired, but I don’t think so. And our airborne trick didn’t work, anyway. A block or two farther, and they caught up close enough for a shot. It hit Adam.

“I was close when it hit him, and I didn’t hear a sizzle or smell the burnin’ like when others were killed. It was just a soft pop. But Adam went down like he’d been knocked on the head. I started to try to revive him, or even drag him away, but those damned things were too close. I ducked around a corner just as it took another shot. I thought they were going to keep coming after me, but they didn’t. They stopped at Adam for a moment; then the bigger one picked him up and carried him off. To their base, I’d say, from what I’ve learned since. I couldn’t follow ’em all the way because another one popped up in my way.

“Now, I can only surmise that he was alive. I guess they can put those laser-things they had on stun or something. If he was dead, I don’t think they would have taken him like that. You remember what we told you about the kryls taking selected people to other worlds for hunting?”

He looked about the room, catching the eyes of The Judge, Charlie, Vonnie, and several others that knew Adam. When his eyes turned down again, Matti’s were closed and leaking tears.

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