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Bughouse War Zone 1 The Troubles

By Martin H. Slusser All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

The Troubles

He was eleven and running down the hill near the fort. If they caught him, he was dead. They would do to him like they did Pa, gut him and slow-roast him over an open fire. Mrs. Packer would tell them to.

Jess gasped and sat up. He blinked but more sweat blinded him. Raw, cold sweat soaked the ragged bedding under a naked body. One hand gripping his belly, he eased out of musty blankets and drew his legs under him to stand.

Blankets slid to the bedding on the floor and he staggered, almost stumbling over one of the boys. Mrs. Packer’s workers, perhaps. Her hands, she called them, as if this were a ranch. Jess threw a sour look over the men. Each slept with his weapons and each knew their time would come. The future was not bleak; it was worse.

Lone Mountain wasn’t this bad. Or was it? Gaze restless, staring through cracks in the window, Jess frowned. Hundreds of laying hens scattered through the brush. Unmoving but for a few wind-twisted feathers. Funny, he would think of them first. A woman’s thing, poultry. But, his mother’s egg money often carried the family through where Pa’s livestock lost money.

Cattle dead, horses lay where they fell. Blinded goats covered with sores. Bees, dead. Plants withered in death.

One hand out, cracked nails on his fingers just brushing the wall, he went to the window to peer through the dirt. Dead trees and wisps of sand were all that remained of Tucson. Tsuk-shon. Dark Waters. Coyoteville, for the coldness of politicians. Odd, how the enemy bombed the city. It was a college town and trade center, the military bases being miles east. Jet pilots trained at Davis-Mothan Air Force Base, but they used it for another reason, too. Tourism, maybe. He had a toy jet, once. That much he remembered. An emergency landing for a space shuttle. Pa and Mother took him to see it land. Screams and cheers, frightened prayers when one of the pilots had to be rushed to a hospital. Mrs. Packer carped on the other use, but his mind shut her out.

The shuttle went… there. Unbidden, one finger traces a line from earth to sky. Jess smiled at the stars.

A light winked in the women’s house. Down to two, now. Only two women to keep the boys happy. For a moment and only that, he wondered what happened to his mother. She disappeared after a huge shouting match with Pa. He frowned and something about a baby came to mind, but the child died.

Elise was in that shack. His woman, if he dared call her that. Fat bellied, geezis. Maybe his, maybe not. Chuck and Bill, they shared her on their nights. …No, Bill didn’t care for women.

Greenish light snaked through the sky to foretell of dawn. Above that, the dawn star stood hours from the horizon.

A man grunted. Jess didn’t spare him a glance.

“Something going on,” he said, muttering.

“One the gals.” A broad yawn cut off the voice. “New kid coming.”

Jess frowned and looked down. He glanced to the right, the entrance to the cul-de-sac. Outside of the rubble wall, forty-three tiny skulls in rows over sandy earth. The bones were interred with care, after being cooked near to chalk. Again, the hand gripped his stomach.

The woman screamed, a protracted wail of agony that died to silence. No keening, so maybe Elise survived. Come again, Mrs. Packer wouldn’t care for that. Young women were competition for an aging madam.

He went back to his bedding and squatted on his heels. It was March, maybe, and the nights turning warm. That was something to be thankful for. He lay back with his hands behind his head.

Tomorrow or the next, Jack would start plowing Elise again. Five of the tiny skulls came from her body. His kids, not Jack’s. Jack was sterile from radiation. When the bombs hit he was in Huntsville, some place in Texas. A lot of guards got fried, he said.

Eyes drifted shut and he frowned, running, sweat pouring from his body in a flood that chilled him. The nightmare was back. He tried to force it from him but arms and legs a blur he dived into a culvert and clawed his way deeper only to drop into a dark hole. Stunned, he lay waiting for the boys to find him.

It was Mrs. Packer calling, whispering that they had his mother. If he came out, they’d let her live. He crawled to his feet trying to find a ladder or something but it was so dark and cold he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. The desert is never that dark, only caves where monsters lived, waiting to eat naughty little boys who played in them.

Sometimes they whispered, as Mrs. Packer whispered, enticing starving orphans to come near to trap them. In the nightmare Jack walked next to Jess chattering about some new goose hunt old lady Packer came up with. With all the plants dead and no animals around, life grew desperate. No headshops left, no weed, no spice, and she ran out of horse over a year ago. The man grabbed him by the arm and Jess shouted, jumping from sleep to swing a hard fist.

Jack bellowed and ducked. He backed off laughing, but had a fist cocked, as well. An older man, his beard now gray-streaked but kept trimmed by Mrs. Packer.

“An’ g’ morning to you, too.” He winked and in a thick Northeast accent, said, “Freekin scare’t ya, hain’a?”

Jess shook off the haunting and forced a grin.

“Sorry, old man, but if that face gets any uglier, it’ll scare you, too. Of course, you did give up shaving.” Jess cocked an eye. “Cracked another mirror?”

Jack’s face tightened, but then he chortled. He knew the value of a good sense of humor.

Mrs. Packer started to sing. She had a sweet enough voice. “Peter Packer parked his pecker in a private place to part her legs and play the pig and parked a piglet in.”

Elise shouted and the song broke off. Jess was on his feet but stopped, waiting to see what happened next. No matter what, Chuck and Bill would defend the woman. Jack was an unknown. Or was he? Wary eyes grew hooded. His mother often demanded to know what Pa dreamed. A Tarahumara, she set a lot of store by old-Father God speaking in their sleep. Chilled despite the early warmth of March, he shivered but killed it before anyone else could see. Almost, he could feel the heat of burning coals shrivel dead eyes.

Elise grew quiet, not weeping, and he backed from the door. As his feet touched the bedding, he sank to the floor, sitting on his heels with his gaze fixed on the door.

A baby wailed a thin, piping cry. Baby Sis died under Packer’s hands, strangled to death. That was how Mama’s last child died. The skinny infant neck snapped with dry sound. Jess forced his body to still. But his spine itched with that gun-aimed-at-it feeling.

He turned a cold smile where Bill and Chuck shared a bedroll and not because it wasn’t their week to lay with Elise.

Jack whispered a small laugh. He held a rifle on the men.

“Cool it,” he said. “Or I’ll chill you both. Be good eating for a week, then, hain’ it?”

With a sullen look for Jack, Bill slid the pistol in a worn nylon holster and lay back. Chuck muttered but he rolled over for the man.

Jess looked from them to the door. Once, they held him down and tried seduction, then to force him. Not no more never huh-uh. Once, there were four men in their clique. Now there were two. Accidents happen. Raiding the Y could be deadly. With a grim satisfaction, Jess pulled a dirty blanket over naked shoulders and let his head drop in a light doze. Almost, he could hear tiny grunts of a feeding infant.

In his dreams, he watched Baby Sis at Mama’s breasts. But, she choked. Milk ran from her mouth. The upper lip was splint all the way to her nose. Her eyes were odd, as well. One blue and the other dark but murky. And then Jess heard Mother weeping as a dry snap came from the child. The woman pleaded while men held guns on her. Wailing, she still tried to save the child only to be beaten and dragged to the bedding. He listened, but Mrs. Packer was at last silent, asleep or plotting a small feast.

A little of the edge of darkness had faded. Jess stood to draw on tattered jeans and much-repaired leather sandals. He pulled a serape over his head and strapped a pair of gun belts over that.

Already dressed, Jack muttered in disgust. He rammed the toe of a boot in one man’s back. Bill rasped a small cry, but only glared at him.

“Git on,” Jack said. “Go check the trap down towards the Y.”

“Screw off, con.” Bill turned from him. Jack cocked the rifle and the bolt snapped home.

Face set in neutral lines, Bill jerked on his clothes and crept around Jack to the door. He threw the older man a bitter look, then bared his teeth at Jess. Chuck was slower in rising, but followed him out.

“Man, Jack. It’s cold out.” Chuck frowned at Jess, then gave a small gesture. Instead of asking something, he followed Bill out to the road.

Jack pressed his back against the wall to peer out the window. He gave a low chortle.

“Might be time to teach those punks a lesson.” He winked. “Tender meat. They had it pretty easy, being Ms Packer’s suck-boys.”

Gripping a manzanita wood bow, Jess snorted a laugh.

“Where to, old man?”

Jack shrugged. “Might try the Convention Center.”

“It’s off our turf.”

With a smile, Jack said, “I seen sign there last week. Might be something to catch.” He signed for quiet and peered out the window. In sign, he said, “Shadow on the wall. Give me the bow.”

“Creeper?”

Jack grunted and Jess handed him the bow and slid an arrow from the quiver. It was a good one, fiberglass with a razor steel hunting tip and natural vanes. Whoever it was, he crawled on all fours, not walked upright. The thrill of the hunt grew like ice in his stomach and Jess ached to be the one to shoot.

Jack drew the bow and grunted, trying to draw it all the way to his chin. He scowled at a dry chuckle from Jess, but fired. A howl came from outside and then Mrs. Packer shouted, shooting into the dark. The men dropped to the floor until her gun snapped on spent shells.

Jack and Jess crept out the door along the wall. They split up, each going wide, then converging on the place the shadow had been. A dark blotch stained the dirt, but no body. Jack sniffed the ground and shook his head. Jess didn’t bother. Creepers all smelled the same, rotting feces and corpse. He crawled along the wall to the corner to peer around it. In the distance, Bill and Chuck plodded in the center of the road towards the Y. Jack gripped the bow.

“He’s gone,” he said. “Should of figured, they get thick when a baby’s being born.” He looked at the pair again and smiled, but handed back the bow. “We’re getting too weak. Some day them redskins are gonna run us over.”

“A creeper, not a ‘skin. They don’t like traveling at night, but creepy-crawlies only come out after dark.” Jess slid the bow in the quiver and stood. “Any tracks?”

“Lawn is too hard.” One hand swept out to take in crumbling grass and packed sand. “Good thing, too. I never did learn to love a lawnmower.” He winked. “Not when a match would do.”

“City boy. With that attitude you’ll never make it in all this easy suburban living.” With a smile, Jess went back for water jugs, filling them from a cistern under the house. He sipped murky water from one, but capped them. The jugs hung over one shoulder and a strap tightened around them, he crawled backwards, out of the cistern. He took no food, but left his share for Elise to eat when she cleaned the place.

By instinct, sandals picked out hard places to step and avoided a rare patch of glass or twigs. Eyes peeled to look for trouble, Jess trudged towards the Convention Center.

Before the sun tipped over Wild Horse Mountain, he saw light burn on cracked windows at the heights of the Center. He paused to sip again, this time from the other jug. They balanced over one shoulder and he strapped them in place.

He edged towards buildings, picking his way over shattered brick and sand-etched glass. Something flickered in the building, but this early the light was still tricky. He stopped to look, waiting until he saw it again.

Jess crept to within a hundred feet of a camp. A half-dozen travelers huddled around the embers of a fire. Their packs were light but they had enough weapons. He closed his eyes to listen. After a quarter hour, his patience paid off. Boots shuffled out of the dark. A man slipped by Jess to the fire to crouch and warm his hands.

Inching back, Jess kept his face low to cover his eyes. Human skin glowed in the light. Once far enough back, he glanced over the camp and fled in a crouch towards home.

As he neared the fort, he blasted a whistle to signal danger. No one answered and he dived into the shadows of a house to peer at the wall. Dead cars and bricks, chunks of concrete and even macadam from the road made this side.

He whistled again, this time a sharp blast. Someone whistled come-ahead. Still wary, Jess stood and waited for the second part of the signal. When it came, he walked to the gate and tried not to see uncertain rows of tiny skulls. One of them, the first, was little Sis.

He walked in with arms up and Jack coughed. But for the rifle, the man was naked and smelled of woman and sex. He flashed a grin at Jess and shrugged.

“Ms Packer wants a new lamb from Elise. Go to her tonight.”

Jess nodded, but walked by him. Jack caught at his arm.

“Look, kid, she runs things.”

Jess scowled at the hand and Jack dropped his arm. When the older man only frowned, Jess went to the old woman’s mansion. A pillared shack, most of the roof slates had blown away in a short, but unforgiving nuclear winter. He cleared his throat and rapped a fist on the doorframe.

“Yeah?” At the screech, Jess winced. “Come on it, honey.”

He opened the door to a seething heat and reek of raw feces. To one side of the door was a wide living room. Elise slept on a bed there. Despite the heat, Mrs. Packer filled an overstuffed recliner. Eyes half closed, she listened to Rock hiss from the speaker horn of a windup Victrola. It was something Jack found in an antique shop. A lot of stuff came from similar shops here on Mansion Row. More hisses than music now, a record muttered on about cocaine. Another devastating blow to her moral, records soon wore out; the Victrola arm was too heavy.

She sighed and cast a cool look over him. She smiled then, the professional, and the silk bathrobe slid open. Heavy breasts lay flaccid over white rolls of flesh.

Jess trembled with hate but smelled the musky odor of a man on her. Careful not to disturb the sleeping Elise or the baby that lay next to her, he stepped in.

“Miz Packer, I seen a bunch of men at the Convention Center.”

Now cold, she sat up. “Get Jack.”

“I’m here,” Jack said from the door and Jess gave a small start. He threw Jess a warning look and stepped next to him. The rifle was cocked and Jess’s spine crawled, but he only nodded.

The footrest thudded shut. “Where’s the others?”

“Sent ‘em to the Y,” Jack said. “We ain’t checked the trap for a week. Might be something there, ya know?” He winked.

“Go get them.” She stumbled to the living room to frown at the baby, then squatted to lick one swollen nipple. Elise lay with her eyes clenched shut. Grunting at the effort to stand, Mrs. Packer licked her lips off.

“Well?”

Jack spun and ran. Jess was a little slower, but followed him to the road. He glanced back. Mrs. Packer stood in an upstairs window. Faint but lurid, curses came through the broken window and the sound of a hatchet striking wood. Only barrel and head remaining, a mummified corpse tipped out the window to break on the steps.

Jess moved to take it, to throw it out.

With a sullen grunt, Jack said, “Leave it.

“Man, it’ll draw creepers.”

Balling a fist, Jack turned north, walking towards the Y. Jess dropped the remains on the road to race after him. Jack moved in a jog to an intersection. The steel T-post was broken off, probably to make arrowheads. The cheap street sign lay half buried in sand, all lettering blasted off by monsoon dust storms. Jess marked it in his mind. The steel was low-grade, but a hot fire and hammer and it would make arrowheads.

Jack then cut east, passing it and then north again. Silent, Jess ran with him. Both men paced with ease, avoiding dead cars and their occupants. Part of a skeleton lay on the road and as Jess ran by, he saw marks that meant something gnawed dried flesh from it.

“Always something new in the ‘hood,” he said, pointing at the marks.

“Mighty low eating,” Jack said, and chuckled, but not much. Enough mummies were stacked in the mansion attic against lean times.

Gaze sliding from it, Jess shrugged.

“The ranch would be better than here.”

“It’s dead, kid.” Jack hopped over part of a body. Somehow, the woman managed to crawl from her home before radiation killed her. “Just like that broad. Grass, trees, animals. Even the wetbacks, and they could survive about anything. All dead and all we got left is to survive till we die, too.”

Face set, mouth tight, Jess ran in silence. Dying houses stood around them, waiting in silence, helpless. Glass blown out by the war and tornadoes of the ‘winter, doors broken, dead landscapes. Jack frowned but Jess ignored it. The only living thing to thrive was the wind, freed from trees and brush. Maybe the ranch was dead, but so was living here.

It was past noon when they stopped to drink and listen. Jack glanced at Jess, then away.

It was on the tip of Jess’s tongue to demand why Jack lied about Elise. Jack was forever an unknown. When he at lat screwed up enough courage to demand an answer a gun cracked. Both men dived into the rubble and crawled deeper. A shout went up, the words English, not border Spanish or Apache.

A long scream rising with pain echoed off wind-torn buildings. Hoarse, amused men started to laugh. Smoke rode on the wind and Jess shifted. Whoever they roasted still jerked on the spit, but not for long. Ten feet from him and behind part of a wall, Jack hissed and Jess settled in to wait. A low whistle made him look back. Jack signed, hog too fresh. Jess only nodded.

The screams became shrieks that made Jess grit his teeth. After long minutes they faded to choked sobs. Jess settled in to nap but the stench of burning flesh made his stomach growl.

Jack chortled. “Yeah, it does smell like Ms Packer’s cooking, ain’t it.”

Jess grunted and remained silent. Why did Jack lie? Every man an island. Pa used to say that. At least when talking about women. Where a woman was concerned, a man had no friends lest he wear the horns. It wasn’t until meeting Mrs. Packer that Jess knew the meaning of the horns.

Nostrils flared, he cocked an ear. The hog was silent now, dead or beyond protest. He slid up and scowled. Jack was gone. Careful of moving so much as brick dust, Jess crawled over the ruins. He slid to where Jack’s smell was strongest and sniffed the ground. Waves of summer’s heat rose from the street and buildings. Black with burning fat, smoke boiled into a faultless sky.

His lips drew back in contempt. The arrogant died first. Sheep who lived with cops between them and the poverty-stricken. Some died in their beds and never knew what happened. Most put a gun in their mouth and popped a cap. Those who survived, the poor, the people who lived a distance from cities, they died, as well. They died feeding those crueler than city people, the invaders.

He moved out, around the debris. The sun had him in full, stark relief, and he huddled closer to sweltering pavement.

The crowd was quiet now, knives cutting strips of flesh from the hog. They gnawed scorched, bleeding flesh and muttered. When done, they belched and crawled into the shade to snore.

When the last dozed off, Jess saw a movement beyond the fire. A knife in one hand Jack rose grinning to his feet. He walked right to the body while Jess looked away. He crawled back to wait for the man.

After a hand span of the sun, Jack crawled into the rubble offering something to eat. Jess nodded his thanks. Warmed by the heat of the day, Jess took a can that had only the ghost of glue on it and no label. He worked it open with the Bowie and found mixed vegetables. He drank the liquid and swallowed the sludge without trying to chew. When Jack offered more hog, he took it, gnawing it, no questions asked.

In sign, Jack said to get some rest. Night comes, he signed, they too close to home, we have some fun. Teeth showed in a grin that died when Jess only nodded.

Jess curled into a ball and let the man take first watch. Jack belched, but kept it quiet. He drank and ate more, but never too much. Never more than a mouthful at a time then waited long minutes to eat or drink again.

He scowled at Jess and in a low mutter, said, “Buddy, I do like I’m told. A man alone is dead.”

Not looking at him, Jess said, “Yes, sir.” He rolled over and Jack grew silent.

Hours passed with the heat building before Jack tapped him on the foot. Silent, Jess crawled up to take watch. Jack lay on his back with the hat over his face and rifle resting in his arms.

The crowd stirred only to saw more meat from the hog or mutter to each other. Jess’s eyes widened. Faces gray and hair in matted tangles, several women stood among them. When a man snapped his fingers, one woman jumped to him and dropped. He flipped her dress up, hunching over her. He rolled off but by then the other men were busy, as well.

They drank from bottles and shouted, eating and using the women until one rose to point at the Center. Exact and precise under orders, the group filed into it. Military, maybe, but nothing showed of uniforms. Jess tapped a foot and, one finger on the trigger, Jack raised the hat. Sinking to his haunches, Jess muttered what he saw and Jack scowled.

He sat up peering at the camp. The carcass yet hung from the pole, what remained of it. Jack sank back frowning.

“They know where our place is.” Maybe, maybe not; he raised one hand, empty, asking Jess for his opinion.

“Bill or Chuck?” Jess pointed his chin at the barbeque site.

Jack grinned. “Bill. He was still breathing when I took a little.”

“A strong man, then.” Bitter but hiding it, Jess looked away. “You should o’ give him the mercy. No,” he said to Jack’s scowl. “He was one of us, no matter he would o’ killed either of us.”

Jack shook his head. “I did, I put the knife through his heart. Geezis, kid, what do ya think he was doing when they started the fire? They gotta know where headquarters are and how many of us are left.”

He crawled away and Jess frowned. Something about Jack’s attitude made acid worm through his belly.

Jack grunted and Jess crept after him to the edge of the rubble. The sun stole behind the mountains and they sat outside the building watching the doors for sign of life. An hour passed before shards of glass grated under a boot. Jack signed contempt, his middle finger pointing down.

Jess raised one hand palm up. What now?

With a grin, Jack nodded at what they left of Bill. Scorched out by the heat, empty eye sockets stared at the men. When Jess only looked away, he settled down to doze.

Chin resting on his knees, Jess frowned but kept his eyes open, watching for others attracted to the feast. Creepers whispered soft moans. They pleaded for help but there was none. Nothing but the end of life. His gaze crept around to Jack. From all outward appearances, the man slept. Jess shifted and Jack’s eyes open a mere crack. He shrugged at the older man and shifted again, his back easing from the heat of the wall.

Jack frowned, but raised his head to stare at the sky. He signed, One, and pointed up.

Jess nodded and let his head drop to his knees and tried to rest. The hair on the back of his neck crawled. Jack still watched. One hand gripped the heavy bow. No less wary of Jack as those inside he remained still.

When the stars said one o’clock, he looked. Jack rose, stretching in silent yawns to loosen iron muscle and oxygenate a racing heart. One hand cutting at the door, Jess gave a low bow.

Jack grinned and cupped a hand behind an ear. The sounds of a sleeping man were light, but there should have been none. Jack sauntered in to stop by a man sprawled on a spot clean of glass. Jess moved by him to frown at crusted waves of dirt that covered a once-fancy Center. A lot of taxes went into the building, only to die with the city. A lot of people suffered to pay those taxes. Too many had to beg help because of taxes. His frown deepened, wanting to hate the place.

He followed a line of tracks only to halt, pointing at where one set stopped, the toes of the boots showing where he jumped to the right. A careful scan showed where the man landed. Jess moved towards the prints, but Jack gripped him by the arm.

The man pointed at the stairs and they followed the trail in that direction. Door long since gone, the offices were there. Jack looked in and ducked back. He sank to a crouch before creeping in. Jess was on his heels when Jack stopped and fell on a body. Blacker than the night, one hand came up and dropped, the knife driving into a naked chest. Charcoal dust sifted over the body.

The body shuddered, but by then Jess was over a man and cutting into a heart. The next lay on his side, curled around a woman. Jess covered the mouth and drew the knife across his throat. The man shuddered and the woman groaned a protest, but death throes soon gave way to a small sigh. The woman slid back to an uneasy rest. Jess found two more men before looking for Jack.

Jack crept out the door. He signed to Jess to take the one by the door and Jess headed for the man. The spot lay empty and he stopped, frowning. Jess melted back among crumbling furniture and frozen rills of dust.

Jack crawled deeper into the convention hall and disappeared in the dark. A shout went up, then curses. A movement made Jess jerk around and fire the arrow. A small grunt came from near the door, but the ghost was fleshed with pain.

Jess took the .38 and waited. Small gasps came from near the door. He sank to one side, listening to the man try to stop them. Dust sifted and glass cracked. Jess eased to the other side and a gun exploded. Firing at a flare of red, Jess rolled and dived a few feet closer.

“Tom?” the man shouted. “James, Robal?”

Yards from them, Jack chuckled. “Bleeding into the carpet, dude. Come on and die. Ol’ Bill was a waste; man, he was a waste, but one of us.”

The stranger grew silent. Jess tensed and tried to see him amid the shadows.

“Danny?” A woman cried and shouted again. Another hushed her but she shouted louder. “Danny? Answer me. Please, son.”

“Mama?” The man was still. “I’m all right. Get down till this is done.”

Instead, the woman moved into the center. Jack came up behind her, dropping her with a fist to the back of the neck.

“Mama?” The man shouted and surged out of the shadows. Jess jumped up with the .38 straight-armed at him. The man stilled, scowling at them.

Jack raised the rifle but Jess lunged, tackling the man. Danny punched him on the jaw, knocking his head back only to get Jess’s knee rammed in his groin. Clutching at his groin, Danny gave a strangled cry and curled in a ball.

Then Jack stood over them. Eyes blazing, he kicked at Jess. Dodging the kick, Jess rapped the pistol on his shin. Teeth bared, Jack hopped back scowling, but shouldered the rifle.

Smiling a dark promise, he turned. “You. You women, cut the hogs and drag out the guts. I don’t want the best friggin trap we got getting stinked up.” With a cool look for Jess, he stalked out to hack at Bill’s body.

Jess prodded the man with the bow. A fist swung, but Jess clubbed him on the head. Hands clutching at a knot on his head, the man sank back.

“Git on,” Jess said, aiming the gun at him, but looking for the women. “Move, Danny. You heard the man. Help the women with the hogs.”

Danny crept to his feet. He threw a sullen look at Jess, but stumbled to the offices and in. A small fire cast flickering light over scabby walls and what furniture remained. The woman had the bodies stripped and gutted. One took a length of rug to haul the offal out, dumping it in the street for creepers to find.

The man, Danny, choked, but used a hatchet to cut them to pieces. It was bundled into ragged cloth and dragged out.

“Cut a travois,” Jess said. The man frowned and Jess nodded at dead trees. “Two poles, maybe twenty feet long. Tie the tops together and make a small scaffold near the bottom. We can load the hog on them.”

Wordless, the four hacked down two spindly mesquites and did as told. They loaded the bundles and Jack nodded at Bill.

“Him, too,” he said. “Where’s Chuck?”

Danny looked away, but the woman, the mother, said, “We don’t know, sir. We saw only him.”

“Yankees?” Jack cut a bitter look at Jess.

Chin jutting up, Danny said, “Coloradoans. We’re from Telluride.” Looking from Jess, he said, “The snow drove us out.”

Jack snorted a laugh. “No freekin wonder ya was easy to bust. City jerks playing games when the Troubles hit.”

Mouth growing tight, Danny looked from them. At a nod from Jack, he picked up the end of the travois, bending under the weight to drag it down the street. With an eye out for more strangers, Jess took point. At a low whistle from Jack, he stepped aside.

When Danny came close, Jess said, “Follow the road down to I-Ten. Don’t go up on it. There’s folks traveling in the night.”

Danny nodded. “We saw them.” He hesitated, looking away before he said, “Why are you helping now?”

One fist tapped what was left of Bill. “We took you because o’ him,” Jess said. “If you want to live, mind me. When you see the ramps, hide. We’ll find ya all.”

Ignoring them, he walked back to Jack. A book in hand, the man stared at the Center. Dark forms stole from buildings to drag away the heads and offal.

“Creepers.” Jack scowled, and spit in contempt but the scowl died to a frown. “People,” he said, staring away from them, his voice growing tight. “Or once were.” Then, pale eyes filled with contempt, he grunted. Jack turned and ran down the road.

Jess paced him and Jack muttered in anger.

“We’re too weak, man.” Jess looked over the buildings and empty parks. “You said so yourself.” Shadows shifted in shadows and the skin on his back began to crawl.

“Maybe.” Jack coughed. “Yeah. Just the same, don’t get between me and a freekin kill again.” He grinned, but it was a cold thing, filled with promise. “Don’t you dare.”

The book flipped in the air. Jess stepped aside and Jack lowered the rifle. Legs flashed and Jack charged ahead a hundred yards. Jess snatched up the book. The covers were black and smeared with blood. Gold leaf picked out Bo___ _f _Mor_m_n. Jess gave him a lazy smile, crooked and easy. He whistled and Jack dropped to a walk, but didn’t slow enough to join him.

He stopped to eye a shadow in a window, but it was the rags of a curtain. Only a slight movement, the rags shifted but shouldn’t have moved at all. Walking on, his spine crawled. Given the mood Jack was in, whoever it was, was safer without being exposed. Just the same, he was careful not to look back.

They caught up with the strangers near 36th Street. Jabbing at emaciated buttocks and spines with the rifle muzzle, Jack prodded the women to a faster walk. Eyes cold, he started to herd them west towards the VA complex and home. They slowed to pass ruined buildings.

Danny grunted and stumbled to one knee. He choked back a cry and rolled clutching the knee.

Jack scowled and kicked him in a kidney. Danny coughed and tried to stand. Blood dribbled from a tear in the knee of his jeans and shadows crept inside of shadows. The whispers started, the pleas for food, to wait a moment and help them. Jack raised the rifle, but lowered it to pull a knife.

“Leave be,” Jess said but frowned at the woman. “Man, we got too much to haul now. You, ma’am, take the travois. You two,” he said, scowling at the girls. “Help your brother. We got to make tracks.”

Jack frowned, but it was more puzzled than angry.

In a low voice, he said, “Man, she ain’t gonna like this.”

With a small shrug, Jess dropped back to take drag. Shadows flitted in empty houses and he scowled, notching an arrow but not drawing it. They weren’t creepers. They moved into alleys and dead gardens. Jess turned from them to trot after the dead rasp of wood on buckled pavement. A rock clattered on the road. Jess spun with the arrow at one ear, the tip aiming in the direction the rock came from.

Jack stalked far ahead and the two girls stumbled under the lean weight of their brother. The mother sagged, but trudged on. Jess pushed one of the girls on the shoulder.

“Help your mama,” he said, putting an arm around Danny’s waist.

She nodded and ran to the woman. Jess pulled Danny over to lean on him and walked faster.

“We maybe got company.” When the girl started to look back, Jess snarled and she straightened, casting a frightened eye at him.

“Never let ‘em know that you know,” Jess said. “You folks was arrogant, or plain stupid, camping in the biggest building left in the area. It’s a trap. Like the Y on the interstate, it draws in folks and we nail ‘em.”

Danny grunted. Frowning, he said, “We were not arrogant. It was James, Albert, and Robal. They thought to draw you out when the man didn’t return home. But, they thought you’d not show until dawn.”

“Bill.” Jess said it softly, but with an edge. “The man was Bill. He was a fool, but knew better than to walk into a trap. Not after laying so many.”

Danny frowned at Jack. The man was too far to hear, but the kid said in a whisper, “No, he signaled us, claiming he wanted to talk. That was several days ago, back near a housing development to the north. He and another man, they said they were from a Mrs. Packer and invited us to join them.”

Softly, Jess said, “A trap.” But for who? Head tipped back, he studied Jack and the hand on the bow tightened.

The younger girl shivered and stumbled. Jess pulled her upright. They moved through more familiar territory and Jess whistled for Jack.

Jack whistled back and a shot rang out. Jess piled them on the ground and came up aiming at where the flare came from. A .22 or one of them would be bleeding.

Whistling, Jack signaled him to stay low. They waited an hour or more but there was no sign of a raider. At last, Jack whistled come.

Jess stood helping Danny and Bea from the ground. In the heat, the hog was a little ripe. Half an hour later, they hobbled through the graveyard of infants. The women whispered, but grew silent when Jack scowled. He took them to the mansion. Naked under an open bathrobe, Mrs. Packer stood in the doorway scowling.

“More company? I hate nigs, dears, but here’s the welcome.” Still smiling, she raised a pistol. Jess knocked her arm up and the shot sang off into the sun.

“You friggin turd.” Eyes shocked, Mrs. Packer backed into the house and slammed the door shut. “Kill him,” she said, screaming through the door. “Kill those freekin darkies.” The locks snapped shut. Fists pounded on the door and it shuddered. “Hang them, you pinhead. Hang them hang them hang them.”

Jack looked from Jess and pounded on the door.

“Now, Ms Packer, we brought muscle,” he said, pleading with her. “A lot of gangs are on the run and god knows from what. With Bill dead and Chuck gone, we’re down to just the kid and me. There was a dozen last week, all armed and some rode horses. Come on,” he said, the hoarse voice dropping to a mutter. “Open the friggin door or I’ll kick it in.”

The locks snapped open but the woman stayed well back. Jess motioned for the strangers to go to the men’s shack and followed them. Jack closed the door and Mrs. Packer screamed. The baby started to wail. She screamed at the child and Jess scowled. He leaned towards the mansion. One of the women coughed.

“Sir?” It was Danny. “What do you want us to do with th-the h-hog?” he said and choked.

Not looking back, Jess said, “Bone the meat and dry it for later. You can start a fire to roast the bones, if you want. Save the grease.” He stepped out to cooler air to lean on the bow. Mrs. Packer grew a little calmer and Jack’s smooth baritone sweet-talked her until she muttered, not shouted.

“Sign of dozens more,” Jack said, his voice filtering through a broken window. “We don’t know what the freek they’re doing yet. Maybe these people can tell us. Geezis, but what if it’s the friggin Apaches? What if they joined with the Tohono? Honey?” he said, his voice dropping low, begging her now. “We’re caught between two grindstones. You know that.”

Too low to hear what she said, Ms Packer’s mutters choked with loathing. Jess retreated into the shed but stayed near a window. When Jack remained in the mansion, he sank to his heels to rest.

A cool hand smelling of blood touched his shoulder and he popped a fist at a face. The girl gasped and leaped away. In lieu of an apology, Jess grimaced.

“What did ya want, missy?”

“Th-The h-hog is done, sir. What now?”

“Hang it on the rack there.” His head tipped at rods wedged in the cracks of two dead cottonwood trees. The branches were long gone, but kept the mansion well supplied with firewood.

Two to a blanket, they trudged out and hung the flesh on the rods, then retreated to the shed. They slumped on the floor. Jess pointed at his bedding and Bill’s.

“Take them. One’s mine,” he said and eyed the older of the girls. She was close to his age, but skinny. He tossed the book at the woman. She frowned at it, then tried to hand it back.

“Ain’t yours?”

The woman shuddered. “No.” She frowned again, then tossed it in a small fire pit heat opened in the concrete.

Hoping for word of Elise, Jess stared at the mansion.

Mrs. Rollins whispered something and he looked in her direction.

“Ma’am?”

“That was Mrs. Packer? Is she always so...” Trying to not frown, the woman looked away with a touch of fear.

“As a bedbug.” Jess grinned, but shrugged. “Jack’s her brother and till he says otherwise, she’s got to be let be. OK?”

Nods came from them and he turned to watch the mansion.


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