I made it over to see the Gunters today. Marta is dead.
When I stopped at the house, there was a drift against the front door. I went around back to find Jake splitting wood.
“Hey, Jake,” I tried to keep my voice friendly, “How’d you guys fare during the storm?”
Jake scowled, “How do you think?”
Man, that guy has a major axe to grind. My apologies for the wood-chopping pun.
“Not sure,” I replied. “That’s why I asked.”
“Well, that Mexican woman you dumped on us died yesterday,” Jake dropped the statement like a bomb.
“Marta’s dead?” I guess I really wasn’t too surprised.
“Yeah, she started bleeding from both ears not long after you left her here,” Jake was still blaming me. “She was in a lot of pain before she finally died. There wasn’t much we could do for her. Karla thinks she had a brain hemorrhage.”
The way she hit those stairs … or the way I hit her with the Glock … a brain hemorrhage certainly wasn’t out of the question.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Out in the woods,” Jake gestured with the maul in his hand.
It appeared that some of his strength had returned. We’d hauled over quite a bit of food and water. I hoped that the women were doing just as well.
“How about the boys?” I was almost afraid to ask.
“Ricky’s still in quite a bit of pain from that missing finger,” Jake looked at me like I’d gotten one of his daughters pregnant. Oh, wait, no … that was Ricky.
“Why in the world would he be so protective of Ricky,” I found myself wondering.
Maybe it was like the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” or something to that effect. In this case Ricky was my enemy so Jake had befriended him. Never mind that Ricky had gotten Jake’s daughter pregnant just weeks before. What an idiot.
“Any problems with either of them,” I dug a little deeper.
“No,” Jake responded. “They were fine before you disfigured them and killed their mother. They’re doing as well as can be expected.”
“You know what their mother did, right?” I was amazed by Jake’s thick headedness.
“I know what you said that she did,” Jake wouldn’t give an inch.
“You think I would lie about that?” pretty much all of the friendliness had drained out of my voice.
“I don’t know what you would lie about, Johnson,” Jake took a step in my direction the maul held at his side.
I looked at the maul and then directly into Jake’s eyes, “You sure you want to do this?”
Jake feigned shock, “Do what?”
“Forget it,” I was trying to remember my New Year’s resolution … something about bashing skulls … or not. “As long as everything’s OK with your family, I’ll just leave you alone with your angelic little Mexican boys.”
I could see a vein throbbing in Jake’s forehead.
“Get off of my …” Jake began.
“Your what?” I cut him off. “Your property? This isn’t your property. You’re here on my family’s good graces. If it wasn’t for your wife and daughters, I would have sent you packing back in December.”
Jake turned red and then started to go purple.
“Don’t overstay your welcome, Jake,” I warned and took off toward the remote OP.
“You can kiss my …” Jake was fuming.
“Jake!” It was Karla calling from the back door. “The fires are dying. We really need that wood.”
I heard Jake sputtering as I walked away with my back to him. One more problem to add to my list of a hundred.
One of the positive things about the remote OP is that you get a little bit of time to yourself. I’ve always been a bit of a solitary person. Although, I like being around family and liked spending time with friends before the crash, I also need some time alone now and then to decompress.
We call in a channel check from the OP every hour. Beyond that, you’re alone with your thoughts and a landscape covered in snow. Occasionally, a hawk will swoop down and grab a mouse or a rabbit from the ground. Every now and then a squirrel will scold from up in its nest. The wind will make its music in the treetops but, other than that, it’s peaceful and quiet.
My shift gave me some time to think about my “hundred problems”.
Hernandez was coming. I was sure of that. The only questions that remained were: How soon, with how many, how well armed and how well trained?
Jake seemed to be making himself into a bigger and bigger problem. After today’s conversation with him, I was relatively certain that he and I were going to have it out at some point in the not-too-distant future.
We are spread way too thin. Regular guard duty and chores were plenty. Now, we had three feet of snow to contend with as well as remote OP duty. Most of us are only getting six or so hours of sleep a night. I’d survived on less for considerable periods of time but that was when I was younger. And, there were several in our group who really needed their eight hours of sleep to function at a normal level. The lack of sleep was starting to show. People were more on edge than normal. Nearly everyone had black circles under their eyes. We needed more people or fewer duties.
More people, if they were the right people, would help solve a couple of the problems at the top of my list. If we could make contact with another trustworthy group of people ….
What was I thinking? We don’t really have much more space to house people. What group of people in their right mind would want to join us to start a war with a drug lord? Two strikes already. I’m sure we could come up with a third if we tried hard enough.
Maybe, though ….
What if there is another group of people out there – not too far away – who have their own sanctuary and who have had a run-in with Hernandez’s people? The law of averages puts the probabilities of such a group down in the “slim-to-none” category but it isn’t out of the question.
A group like that wouldn’t help with our regular guard duty or chores but they might be willing to help with remote OP duty in an effort to capture some of Hernandez’s people and find out more about his gang.
But, how could we reach out and find such a group? Hernandez obviously had military grade communications equipment. Would he be monitoring commonly-used frequencies? Would he even know what the commonly used frequencies were?
I sat back in the blind and sighed. In these times of solitude, a little bit of prayer never hurt. As I began, I heard a horse exhale.
If you haven’t spent time around horses, you’re probably not familiar with the sound they make when they exhale heavily out of their nostrils. The nostrils vibrate as they exhale and it sounds … like an old man blowing his nose, I guess. I can’t really think of a better way to describe it.
The sound of the horse wasn’t close. Sound carries a long ways in these hills when the acoustics are right. I guessed the horse was perhaps 100 yards off.
Everything else was silent. No squirrels scolding. No hawks swooping. Even the wind seemed to have stopped blowing. Not that the wind was blowing hard before, but it seemed as if it had come to a dead calm just as I’d started to pray.
Now, I could hear the crunch of the horse’s hooves as they broke through the deep snow. Maybe 75 yards away. The horse was moving slowly having to pull one leg out of the deep snow and lift it high before sinking back down again.
I carefully inched forward in the blind lifting my binoculars as I did so. I scanned the entire area thoroughly. Nothing.
Was it behind me? Sound reached me primarily through the opening of the blind. It was possible that my ears were fooled because of this. I had initially thought the horse was ahead of me and to my left – to the northeast, near the abandoned house.
I had zero visibility to my rear. The blind was covered in snow. Had there been no snow, the crest of the hill would still have blocked my view.
I held absolutely still. The crunching had stopped. There wasn’t a sound for miles, it seemed.
Then, barely audible, there was a tiny little jingle. The bit? Some other piece of metal tack? Probably, but I still couldn’t get a reading on the direction it was coming from.
I checked the safety on my AR. Ready to rock.
I started to slip the mitten off of my right hand so I could fire my weapon more easily. Typically, when hunting in the cold or pulling guard duty, I wear shooter’s mittens with tips that peel back, exposing an inner liner that is basically a fingerless glove. In this kind of weather, I also wear very thin glove liners for a bit of added warmth. In the silence, removing the mitten sounded like someone tearing heavy fabric. I stopped.
“Don’t move an inch!” The voice was deep, a little raspy and muffled. I still couldn’t get a bearing on the sound’s direction.
“Who are you?” I responded.
“Never you mind, just now,” came the reply, still muffled, still directionless.
I cursed silently.
“I’m assuming you’re armed,” the voice sounded closer.
“Heavily,” I replied. “If you’re looking for trouble, you found it.”
“Maybe,” he was non-committal.
I still couldn’t get a bearing on his location. He had to be behind me. I decided to bluff based on that.
“I heard your horse probably a hundred yards off,” I said.
“Yup, she ain’t very quiet,” came the reply. “You’ll see her off to the south, down near the bottom of the hill in a minute or two.”
Sure enough, a sorrel mare plodded out from behind the bottom of the hill about 80 yards to my south.
“Sneaky,” I said.
“I’m half injun,” he chuckled.
“Sioux?” I asked.
“Lakota,” a bit of pride crept into his voice.
“I had a buddy who was half Lakota in high school,” I responded. “He was a sneaky S.O.B. too. Always coming up behind me, trying to scare me, never making a sound.”
The guy chuckled again. I was starting to get a read on his location.
“Sounds like my kind of guy,” the chuckle continued, infecting his speech.
I was pretty sure I had his location nailed down. He was just over the crest of the hill, on my side, and about five yards to my northwest.
I exhaled slightly, preparing myself, then ripped off my mitten, rolled over and out of the blind and came up on one knee with my AR sighted right were I thought he was.
I’m 50 years old but, like I’ve said before, I’m no slouch. In my mind, that move was slicker than snot. Fluid, fast … it should have taken him completely by surprise. But, when I pointed my rifle … there was nothing there. I wasn’t 100% sure that my bearing was accurate but it should have at least been close. Not even.
Somehow he was behind me. I still don’t know how he did it … and I never could figure it out back in high school either.
The half-Lakota that had distracted me with his horse and snuck to within feet of me without me hearing a thing was my buddy from high school, Pete Olsen. His mother had been a full-blooded Lakota Sioux – a beautiful woman – who married a local farmer. They had five children. Pete was the youngest and nearly my same age. Our birthdays were only one day apart. Pete had three older sisters and one older brother. The sisters were all beauties just like their mother. I think one of them even ended up marrying an NBA star.
None of that is really relevant now. What is relevant is that Pete had stayed near our home town and become a feed and fertilizer salesman. He’d been pretty successful, eventually buying the company from the original owner, and settling on his family farm about four miles due west of ours.
A friend in need … we hugged one another vigorously.