Mistake at Shooting Creek
Gavin Johnson was squatting behind a boulder, aiming, his rifle cold in his hands, but he couldn't get a good bead on them. They were too difficult to make out.
The moon glinting off of the trees wasn't enough to see by and he was working his hands to fend off the bone chills. He had to keep his trigger finger warm.
Laughing was coming from lean-to. A large campfire roared out front. The fire kept casting shadows, making it impossible to figure out where they were. Johnson knew that they were all drunk inside. Probably all staring at the fire. Telling jokes.
Pretty stupid, he thought. Getting fire blinded like that. He couldn't see all four of them inside, but they had to be there. Flickering faces moved in and out of the dark lean-to, catching a bit of fire light, smiles dripping with his hooch. Liquor he’d found and they’d stolen, being wasted.
Maybe he should just chance it. Just blast away. No, he thought again, I have to do this right.
The girl was tied to stump about ten feet away. She was slumped over, nearly naked, streaked with grime, whimpering softly. Another causality in this post-apocalyptic hell. A common sex slave. Probably taken from some farm up this way or one of the hell cities.
It didn't matter, he realized. She was their girl, until they were done with her. Until she was used up. Then they'd just cast her aside, dead. Maybe cook her up and eat her. Gavin felt a new chill work into his gut. One he just couldn't let go.
Surely they would be fire blinded by now, sitting there facing it like that, sipping his whiskey and eating his canned meat. Cans he'd collected. He'd found. Life giving food.
He could just walk right up. Shoot them slow. One at a time. He considered it for a moment, but changed his mind. I'm too cold. Not fast enough. I could miss.
They must be from one of the dead cities, Gavin thought. Maybe they had finally run out of people to kill and were moving to another city or town. Just passing through and he got caught up in their little web.
He should have moved in deeper. Should never had gone into Shooting Creek yesterday before sunset and talked with that lone stranger. The one with the wacky eyes. The one who seemed nervous and stoned. The one who smelled like meat and dung.
Then he wouldn’t be here tonight. Wouldn’t have to do this again. Wouldn’t need to kill people, Gavin thought.
Starvation, extermination, radiation, disease -- wasn't it enough? Enough dying? Were we on our way to extinction now? He dismissed the thoughts. Even in all of this, some still needed killing. The bad seed had to go.
“North Carolina, is that where this is?” That's what the weasel faced man with the wacky eyes had asked him in Shooting Creek yesterday. His breath made Gavin rub his nose.
“Yes, that’s where you are,” Gavin said. “Shooting Creek. Not much here.” That was a hint. It meant get out of my town, I found it first. But wacky eyes was ignoring his tone.
It had been a few years since Gavin had seen anyone and it was distracting and welcoming at the same time, even if a bit peculiar, to actually talk with another human. He was glad he still remembered how to talk. English anyway, but he'd picked up a little Korean as well, when some of their troops came through a few years back.
“Whatcha name?” Weasel face was too curious. Wasting time.
“Gavin." His hairs started to stand on the back of his hand.
“You?” Gavin asked. The weasel face just smirked. Small warning bells started to go off then, but Gavin didn’t listen. Just smiled and casually glanced around. His back was to the old flea market. The streets were quiet.
Then they spoke of other matters. The best way to get to Sky Valley. The stranger said that’s where he was headed. They spoke of good water. The weather. What travelers usually talked about, but something wasn’t right. He should have listened to his intuition.
“What did you say your name was?” Gavin asked again and paused. The stranger kicked his boot into the gravel. That was the signal. Gavin recognized it too late.
They descended on him like pack of wild coyotes. They’d been hiding next to stall in the closed off flea market. It was quick.
Gavin swung on the weasel face once and missed. Then one of them blindsided him with a baseball bat. The others just used him for a punching bag. He counted four of them.
Gavin was crawling on his elbows trying to escape. Too late. They dragged him back, shoved gravel into his mouth and screamed. One tried to ride him like horse.
“Giddy up, Grandpa! Giddy up!” Then laughter. Boots to his groin now. White hot pain.
Moments passed. They let him recover.
“Fancy meeting someone out here,” weasel face said.
“Where’s the water old man!” It was the big one. He looked like a cross between an baby elephant and sumo wrestler, with the face of a gorilla. But had the soprano of prepubescent choir boy. It confused Gavin for a moment and that earned him swift kick to the ribs.
“Jeez, this old cat was loaded. Look at this,” the skinny one said. He was holding up three revolvers. “A Ruger, a Colt and...what the hell is a Stechkin? Russian? All full of bullets too! Where did you get bullets old man?”
Skinny kicked Gavin in the leg. He grunted. Rolled away. Skinny laughed, spun the wheel guns. “Damn, I haven’t seen one of these in years -- a working one anyways.”
“Water, old man. Where is it?” Now the first one was talking. Weasel face. He’d appeared like a ghost when Gavin rounded the old flea market with a box of canned meat and three bottles of whiskey.
Gavin had been about to cross the highway to hide his stash at the church. Should’ve stayed in back until night, he thought. Getting too brazen these days. Too damned cocky. Striking up conversations with drifters who materialize from the shadows. Only these were worse than drifters.
Gavin didn’t talk and they eventually hit him too hard.
When he came to, he was in the church, tied to a pew. Bruised sides, caked on blood on his forehead where he'd been kicked and swollen lips. He glanced outside to see that the flea market across the street was on fire. Red hot ashes were floating down near the window.
On the pulpit stood the sumo wrestler guy, tapping the butt of knife in his palm. It was getting dark outside now and they had lit the candles behind the cross. Jesus was looking rather eerie in the semi-darkness and the glow of the out-of-control fire was threatening to cross the street.
“You’re awake?” Sumo said. He lowered his head. “Your eyes are open, I think." He leaned down, looked at Gavin. "Thanks for the guns.”
“Uh huh.” Gavin said. He stretched his neck, tried to work out a kink, but couldn't. His head throbbed. Gavin’s eyes adjusted to the faint light.
“Sorry about that,” Sumo said. “My guys get a little mad when they don’t get a straight answer.”
“I won’t tell you about the water,” Gavin spat blood onto the floor. “You can find plenty on your own.” His head wound started to bleed again.
Sumo stood and walked over, still tapping his knife. Gavin looked around, but the others were not visible.
“We can find a lot of water, old man, but I want clean water, not the irradiated crap that makes you go bald and impotent.”
Gavin coughed. “Find a mountain stream, look for a well…”
“Shut up!” Sumo guy backhanded Gavin. He saw small sparks in the air, like a dense cloud of miniature bees dancing over a fire, just in front of his bleeding nose.
“Now you see what you did? You made me punish you. I hate punishing, but I need your stuff man.” He pointed at the fire. "Or I'll leave you here to cook."
“Stuff?” Gavin asked. He winced, sniffled, then sneezed. A mist of watery blood sprayed the pew in front of him.
“That’s gross old man.” The sumo guy scrunched up his fleshy face.
“I don’t want just your water, old man. You know that. I want your stash man. Not just this little bit of canned meat and cheap whisky? In a church? No man I want it all! Where are you holed up? Let’s make this quick.” He raised his hand, then changed his mind. He lowered it. “Naw, you knock out too easy and I ain’t got all night.”
The memory of that incident made Gavin trace the healing knife scar along his forehead. He was still hunched behind the boulder waiting for them to pass out in the lean-to, but the big one, the sumo one, was bellowing now, telling story after story. How he killed this guy. Used bungee cords on this other women. Laughter. How he once raped a girl. Then tied her to a tree and when they came back they discovered that something had eaten most of her. It was an unending tale of conquest, lust, boozed laughter, survival of the meanest and abject cruelty -- by men who had traded civilization for insanity.
He tracked them over the mountain last night, keeping low and out of sight and spending most of the time in the river, water up to his navel. His legs still ached from the chill of it. Now he was belly down in the dirt and gravel, working his way to the ridge, just above them, still thinking about how he was going to do this.
“You know,” the sumo guy said, when they were still back in the church and Gavin was tied to the pew, “I’ll give it to you old jerk, you done pretty good.” He was carving something in the pulpit now. Bits of wood flaked away as he worked. Then he glanced at the blade.
“But you and I know we're in a world of nothing now,” he continued. “Nothing at all. Just dead cities, roving gangs, no rules any longer. No cops. Hell, no nothing.” He chuckled to himself. “My kinda place!”
Gavin said nothing. He heard the others now. They were in a side office and someone else was with them. Sobbing. It was a girl.
“Waddaya think old man?” Sumo asked. “Don’t mind them, they are just relieving some stress.”
“Think about what?” Gavin said. He was distracted by the girl’s crying now.
He pointed the knife. “Watch your lips old man or I’ll saw them off!” Then he smiled, stuck his tongue out, worked it around his cheek and began to stab his knife in the pulpit again. He calmed.
“What is going on out there?” he asked.
“In the world, you mean?” Gavin answered.
“Yes. Are we still under attack? Was their a freaking zombie apocalypse? What the hell is going on?” Sumo guy jammed his knife in the pulpit this time. It stayed there, vibrating.
“I’m not sure.” Gavin stared at the cross behind the pulpit. “I don’t think anybody knows for sure.”
“What?” Sumo answered. “Nobody knows?”
Sumo yanked his knife out of the pulpit. Dusted it off. “Screw you old man. We were attacked. That’s what happened and people like you did nothing so we ended up like this.”
Sumo jumped off of the steps, leaned his face in close. His breath smelled of rotting teeth, booze and tobacco.
“I ought to cut you up and leave you out in that street and watch what happens…” He drew back.
The slice across the forehead was unexpected. Immediately Gavin began to bleed profusely, momentarily blinding him. He blinked it away. Hoped it would stop.
The girl in the side office screamed at the same instant.
“Jesus,” Sumo guy said as he turned. “I told them to save her.” He dashed to the door, yanked it open, hurried inside.
Gavin felt that his ankle was loose. He shook his foot. The ropes fell away. They were careless.
Sumo continued yelling at his gang. “I told you,” he yelled. “We keep this one for now!" A pause. "Gimme that!"
Gavin’s hand came out and still, Sumo was banging around in the side office. “Fix her up. Stop using those damned things on her. Look at her. We need her till the next one.”
Gavin kept wiggling. Praying. Just a few more seconds.
“But you said…” It was one of them arguing.
“I don’t care what I said!” Sumo bellowed. “Clean her up! If we could grab another then you can play I said.” Then quiet sobbing.
“Have you seen any babes since we came up in these mountains, you idiots?"
Silence, then, “Can we just take care of the old man and roll, I’m tired of this place. No action.” Footsteps then.
Gavin was loose now and wobbling toward the entrance, holding his head, trying to stop his bleeding. He made it to the front doors. Pushed through. Started to run. He made it to the house next door in a half crouch.
It was dark, nearly moonless. He kept running. Into the woods. It was darker in here. Up a hill. He passed yet another home. Also abandoned, unlit. Windows broken. Birds’ nests in the corners of the eve. His heart pounded. Felt like it was ricocheting off of his lungs.
Then he heard them yelling. Gunfire. More hollering. But they weren’t coming his way. they had no idea which way he went. The yelling faded.
He didn’t stop running until he reached the foothills and began to climb Arch Ridge. He’d lost them, but then he did something he never thought he’d do again. He began to circle back. Worried.
The girl, he thought. It was always something. Something that needed doing. And besides, they, the thugs, might be a problem in the future.
Gavin broke into boarded up home on the way back down. Busted in the big bay window, climbed in, scraping already sore ribs on the frame. He didn’t know the residents in this town. Had never been here before. But it was on his list of small towns to check for supplies, and people.
Using sheets from a bed, Gavin dealt with his knife wound. Then he searched the home for guns. Found a gun case. As he had often discovered, it was rare not to find guns in small town homes. The former residents had taken time to board them up, thinking they’d be back in a week or so, but hadn’t always taken their weapons.
He lowered his head. The residents had never seen it coming. Never understood that they were being systematically exterminated. Marched to the camps never to return. Later, at least in the big cities, before everything descended into chaos, the military began remove the guns and other valuables, from the abandoned homes. It was as if everyone had prepared their homes for a storm, only to be shuffled peacefully, into the belly of the actual beast.
Gavin loaded the rifle he’d found. Put the shotgun in a laundry sack with four boxes of extra shells. Then he moved. It was critical, he thought, to do this at night. Right now.
Chasing the Moon
It hadn’t worked out, however. They were gone. The church was empty. Out of curiosity he went to the pulpit. There, carved into the oak, was a symbol. A peace symbol. He moved the bible over the scar, nodded to the cross behind him, put out the candles and made his way out the side door. This is pure insanity, he thought.
He picked up their trail by the girl's screams. They hadn’t gone far. He followed at a distance, keeping out of the moonlight. They were strung out in a loose line. One was way back, so Gavin kept on him.
A few hours later they turned into the mountains. Shuffled up between the trees, but not in any hurry. It wasn’t long before they decided to bed down. Why they chose a lean-to, rather than an abandoned house didn’t fit. Maybe they were trying to get over the mountain tonight and thought a hunter’s blind was a good as anything. When laughter started, Gavin knew it wouldn’t be long. They were into the whiskey. No doubt about it.
He worked his way to the ridge, after hiding behind the boulder. He wasn’t noticed. Located a good spot between the rock fall and the scree. Brought his rifle to bear and adjusted his scope. Five rounds, he thought. I can’t miss. How many yards? Maybe a fifty?
Gavin checked on the girl. If the gang hadn’t noticed him, she had. There was an uncomfortable moment in the moonlight when he realized that she was staring right at him, holding her fist in the air, shaking it. He couldn’t make out what she wanted. Then she turned and watched her captors. Face glowing in the dying campfire.
The big one had finally passed out. The bottle held tightly to his chest. Even in sleep he was worried about the others. He had one of Gavin’s revolvers in the other hand. The other three were apparently already comatose.
Gavin put the red dot on the big man’s belly first. He slowly pulled the trigger. There was no kick, but the report was like a peal of thunder. Instantly the other three awoke. But they were slow to react. By the time the one nearest to the big one understood what had happened Gavin shot him through the chest. He flopped over, dead.
Two more. Now panic set in. Gavin tried to put the red dot on the one on the end, but he was moving toward the back. Hollering at the other one. He switched to weasel face, who was desperately searching for something in his sleeping bag. The next shot rang out. Weasel face fell backward, holding a revolver.
One left. Gavin looked into the lean-to, but if the last guy was there, he was tucked into the corner and he couldn’t see him. Gavin looked at the girl. She was facing the lean-to. No, she was nodding at it. A specific part of it.
He had two shots left. Maybe the last guy would go for the revolver in weasel face’s hand. Maybe he had one already. Gavin waited.
Suddenly, the girl moved back. Her chains stopped her and she fell. A shot rang out. She screamed. “You missed you…”
Gavin aimed at the back corner and fired. Immediately, the last man launched himself toward the girl, but tripped in the fire and rolled. Gavin tried to get a bead on him, but he scrambled up went for the girl again, pointing his gun at her. She screamed and looked as if she was throwing something. Sand?
The man’s hands went to his face. He stumbled. Caught himself. Tried to rise, gun still in his hand. He started to fire wildly. The girl dove to the ground.
The round caught the last man in the back and knocked him forward. He was almost up and had twisted away by then. Unfortunately, his attempt to rise and the resulting strike from the bullet knocked him off balance. He landed on the fire. His body lay still as the flames engulfed him.
The girl was standing now. Waiting. She was looking nervously at the bodies.
Gavin worked his way down to her. Once there, he released her from her chains after finding a key in the fat one’s pocket.
“They are all dead,” Gavin said.
“Thanks,” she said. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Gavin said. Then he thought better it. He slung his rifle over his shoulder. "Thing is if I hadn’t made the mistake of going into town yesterday afternoon, like an idiot, well...I guess some mistakes are good ones…”
Gavin started to limp away. She walked over, put her shoulder under his and they slowly made their way down the mountain.
The sun began to rise.
© 2017 jgshorebird