December 18, 2014: Contact
We had our first direct contact from outside this week. While we’ve had fairly regular radio contact since the crash, we haven’t laid eyes on a single person, other than those here at our location, since early June.
Isolation, like this, takes some getting used to. Once you get used to it, though, outside contact almost seems strange. I suppose we’re also naturally suspicious given what’s happened over the last several months – another aspect of the new normal. Anyone you don’t know is automatically viewed with scrutiny and distrust. As it turns out, a bit of healthy suspicion isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
We processed the five deer from last week’s hunt. Some of the meat is in the smoke house. Some we put in plastic bags and hung from the rafters in the barn. Some we canned.
Did you know that meat can be canned? You have to do it with a pressure canner to get the meat hot enough, but it’s a great way to preserve meat if you have the ability to do it. We soaked the venison in salt water for a day and then sliced it into one-inch strips, cutting across the grain. We then cubed it into pieces about two inches long to make sure it would fit easily into our quart canning jars and roasted it until it was brown on the outside, but not fully cooked. After that, the meat went into our hot canning jars, covered in broth, leaving about an inch of head space. We adjusted the jar caps and then canned the meat at 10 psi for an hour and a half. Canned venison, like this, can be stored in our cellar for at least a year.
We also store canned fruit and vegetables in the cellar as well as root crops like onions, yams and potatoes. Our cellar is absolutely essential to preserving food since we’re trying to conserve energy. It’s dark and cool – two of the things that help preserve food for relatively long periods of time. We do have to keep an eye on the lids of the canning jars to make sure they don’t corrode as it’s relatively damp in the cellar.
Back to our “visitors”. Heather, who was pulling hilltop guard duty, spotted six riders on horses approaching our gate from the north at about 10:00 a.m. Tuesday morning. We’ve had some milder temperatures over the last week and a good portion of the snow has melted. The roads still have probably two or three inches of snow on them but they are far more passable, now, than just a few days ago.
I should probably describe some of the defensive precautions we’ve taken here at the farm. We have a guard station just below the top of the largest hill on the farm. From that location one can see almost the entire farm, with the exception of a few of the low-lying areas, as well as the three roads that border the farm on the west, east and north and the entire driveway until it reaches the thick stand of trees surrounding the old farm house. The person pulling guard duty in the hilltop guard station can communicate directly with the person on duty in the yard, where the houses are located, via military surplus field phone. We each take turns pulling guard duty on the hilltop as well as in the yard. The “yard guard” is considered easy duty because you can sit inside the farm house in the winter time to keep warm. In warmer weather, the yard guard will be able to sit out on the screened-in porch of the farm house.
We decided to utilize wired field phones as our primary communications means between the two guard stations in order to avoid having any of our communications picked up by outsiders with radios. The field phones are useless for mobile communications but they allowed the hilltop guard to communicate with the yard guard relatively securely.
The farm is surrounded by a four-strand barbed wire fence. This type of fence is common in the area – particularly for farms that have cattle. The farm’s driveway is perpendicular to the gravel road on the farm’s western border. As you may recall we have not cleared the snow from the driveway. A casual passer-by – if there is such a thing any more – would look at the gate, notice that the driveway had not been cleared and probably assume that no one lived on the farm.
The old farm house and the three cabins are nestled in a bowl and completely surrounded on the north and west by trees. There’s an open area to the south of the houses and then more tree cover to the south and east. Again, to a casual passer-by, the farm’s buildings would be all but invisible. The only sign of improvements visible from any of the roads is the farm’s windmill.
Of course, once someone gets close enough to the farm, the sounds of livestock become evident. It’s difficult to train roosters not to crow, cattle not to moo and goats not to … make goat sounds.
As a second layer of defense, inside the barbed wire fence and about 40 yards out from the houses, we installed a number of entanglements. Some of the entanglements are natural abatises, made from deadfalls. Others are made of wire strung low to the ground in patterns meant to entangle the feet of any potential attackers. Generally, our entanglements were placed near the bottom of hillocks that surrounded the houses and yard. Near the top of those same hills, we established firing positions that provided both cover and concealment from anyone coming through the entanglements toward the houses.
The driveway is really the only clear path into the yard. Even the driveway, though, is a fatal funnel. The trees to the west of the houses also cover about half of the driveway. With dense trees and entanglements on either side of the eastern half of the driveway, it’s unlikely that an attacking force would deviate from the narrow driveway making it very difficult for them to flank us or spread out their attacking force. Essentially, any attackers would be forced to stay in a stacked column giving us the opportunity to take them on one or two at a time.
We also installed a couple “fail safes” along the driveway to discourage anyone who felt the need to enter it without invitation. Maybe I’ll discuss those at a later date. For the moment, I want to describe what happened with the six people on horseback.
Heather spotted the riders as they topped a hill nearly a mile north of the farm. Although she couldn’t make out a lot of detail at that distance – even with a good set of binoculars – she could tell that they were carrying rifles across their saddles and traveling in a column.
That message worried me a little bit. But then, it wasn’t entirely illogical for anyone traveling, given the recent circumstances, to be armed. I know if I was out there on the road, I would have been armed. I probably wouldn’t have stacked everyone with me up in a single column, though. The phrase “turkey shoot” comes to mind.
We responded defensively – not knowing the intent of the approaching riders. Everyone dropped what they were doing and armed themselves. We only had a few minutes to get in place. After the riders topped the hill where Heather spotted them, they would drop into a valley and have a restricted view of our location. This was our brief window of opportunity to get into place. Everyone hustled like their lives depended on it.
Heather switched to short-wave radio for communication. I snatched a handheld up out of a charger and jogged off toward my assigned spot.
While everyone got into position, Heather kept an eye on the movements of the riders and gave me updates by radio.
The farm across the road from ours to the west had been abandoned. From a topographical perspective, it was nearly the opposite of our farm. Rather than sitting low and protected, the house sat high on a hill visible and approachable from every direction. Rather than a hill that sloped downward and away from the road ditch like ours, the farm across the road had a high berm that sat about fifteen feet above the road ditch. Our ambush party, Joseph, Levi and Sam – my three brothers – and my uncle, Terry, got in place on the west side of the berm, hidden from sight. On our side of the road was a small ditch – affording very little cover – and then our four-wire fence – preventing hasty escape in that direction. Joseph, Levi and Sam were all armed with AR-15’s with at least four spare 30-round magazines each. Terry had his son’s (one of our extended family members who hadn’t come back to the farm) M1 Garand and a half dozen extra loaded clips.
My dad, my father-in-law and I rolled one of the many unserviceable vehicles from our farm across the road, blocking it. As with many farms, we simply parked old vehicles in the trees when they stopped running. We’d moved a few of them out to the edges of the farm so they could be used as roadblocks or cover, if necessary.
We hunkered down behind the vehicle for cover. My dad and my father-in-law both had Mossberg shotguns – my dad a 930 SPX and my father-in-law a 590A1. I was carrying a SIG SAUER P556 pistol that fired the same rounds as the AR-15’s. My trusty Glock 20 was on my hip.
The Glock 20 … never leave home without it. I can see Karl Malden in the commerical now.
I could hear Heather in my ear, “They’re nearing the crest of the hill.”
Sure enough, within seconds we could see the tops of their heads coming over the crest of the hill. They didn’t look like they were expecting any danger. The guy in the lead reined in his horse pretty quickly, though, when they saw our old Chevy pickup blocking the road.
He turned his head and said, “Hold up!”
Unable to see anything but the faces of the rest of the group, I sized up the leader. He looked older than me and taller but almost frail under his heavy winter coat. His hands didn’t move. His rifle, a bolt action, remained rested on his saddle. That was a good start.
Remember those friend or foe drills from my Army days that I talked about? Guess where they taught us to look first when assessing a potential threat. The hands. Look at what is in their hands. Is it a gun? Is it a hammer? Is it a cell phone – OK, no one had handheld cell phones back in 1984, but you get the picture. If the potential threat is carrying a weapon of some sort and the hands are moving … bang, bang – double-tap.
To this guy’s credit, he kept his hands as still as stones. He turned his head again, “Everyone stay where you are. Don’t move.”
How nice. He was doing my job for me.
I stepped to my left, exposing myself from behind the bed of the truck and showing the guy my P556. I kept the gun at the ready, but not threatening, barrel pointed to my left and down, finger indexed along the receiver above the trigger, off-hand on the handguard.
If you’re not familiar with the SIG SAUER P556, it’s pretty much what gun-hating liberals have nightmares about when they dream about “assault weapons”. Anyway … it’s basically a short combination of the AR-15 and the AK-47 (military-type rifles) without a stock. Some people don’t like this style of weapon because they feel that the lack of a stock makes it inaccurate. Much like the point shooting technique I used to shoot the big buck, I’d spent countless hours practicing with this type of weapon and liked it a lot for relatively close-quarters work like the current situation. Technically speaking (in pre-crash legal terms), the P556 is a pistol. However, it fires a rifle round – the same round as the AR-15 or the U.S. military’s M4 – with a 5.56mm bullet. In fact, mine happened to be loaded with 30 rounds of 62 grain, military grade, “penetrator” ammunition. While he had no way of knowing what kind of ammunition was in my weapon, the guy in front of me could easily see that I could probably get off ten or twenty rounds by the time he could get off one and work the bolt on his gun to chamber another.
Peace through superior firepower, brother.
My dad and my father-in-law, squatted behind the wheels of the pickup and rested their shotguns on the bed and hood, pointing them in the direction of the riders.
“Is this the Johnson farm?” the guy asked tilting his head in the direction of our place.
“Why?” I responded simply.
“I’m Jake Gunter. This is my family behind me. I used to hunt here. We’ve been trying to find shelter and I finally thought of this place about a week ago.”
“When did you hunt here?” I asked.
“Back before 2010,” Gunter replied.
I knew Jake Gunter. As a matter of fact, I grew up with him. He was the older brother of my best friend in high school. This guy didn’t look much like the Jake that I remembered. I mean time changes all of us, but I remembered Jake as having the build of a linebacker. This guy was about the right height but the weight was all wrong. Granted, I probably hadn’t seen Jake since about 2010. A lot had happened in those four years but this guy looked like more like a scarecrow than he did a linebacker.
“Tell your family to show themselves. Slowly.” I instructed. “Tell them to keep their hands on their saddles.”
Jake passed along my instructions.
Five more riders came over the crest of the hill – three women and two men. Every one of them was bundled up in winter clothing but obviously gaunt underneath. Their eyes were sunken and rimmed in black. Their cheeks were hollow and from what I could see of their skin the color was pretty much gone.
As hard as it was to believe, this probably was Jake and his family.
Jake and his family had attended the same church as my parents. My dad began to step around the opposite end of the pickup.
“Hold on a minute, Dad,” I said.
I kept my eyes on Jake but I could hear the snow stop crunching in my dad’s direction.
“Jake, all bundled up like that it’s hard to recognize you,” I started, “Why don’t you take off that scarf and hat so we can see your face. Do it slowly.”
Jake nodded and slowly lifted his hands to his face. He unwrapped the scarf to reveal an emaciated, frost-bitten face. It was his face, all right, but it would have been hard to pick him out of a lineup if someone hadn’t told me he was in the lineup.
“Jake, I hope you understand. I have some folks on the hill above you to your right. They’re going to point their rifles at you. My dad, my father-in-law and I are going to take your rifles. OK?” I wanted to make sure he understood what was going to happen.
“OK.” Jake swallowed hard.
He hadn’t recognized that he’d led his family into an ambush until just that moment. I could see it in his eyes.
My brothers and uncle revealed themselves and trained their rifles on Jake’s family, over our heads, as we approached Jake’s family from their right. We took each of their rifles butt first and leaned them against a tree in the ditch by the side of the road.
“Any other weapons, Jake?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, “the boys and I all have pistols.”
“Let’s see ‘em. Nice and slow,” I instructed.
We gathered up the pistols without incident.
“All right, Jake, you and your family rest easy there for a minute while we discuss what we can do to help you.”
I gathered with my dad and father-in-law while my brothers and uncle kept an eye on Jake and his family.
“Obviously, we can’t just turn Jake’s family back out onto the road,” my dad spoke first. “They don’t look like they would survive much longer.”
There had been a bit of bad blood between Jake and me when we were growing up. Like I said, his brother, Luke, and I had pretty much been best friends in high school. Admittedly, I was something of a hellion growing up. I think Jake thought I was leading his little brother down the wrong path so he turned me in to the cops for some stupid stuff that I’d done. I spent a night in jail and ended up going through a diversion program to get the arrest wiped off my record. But, after that, you can see how I wasn’t exactly jumping at the chance to trust Jake.
Now, Jake’s wife, his two daughters and their – apparently – husbands … I had no quarrel with them.
“You’re right, Dad, we can’t just turn them back out on the road.” I replied. “Then again, you know how I feel about Jake.”
“That was decades ago, son.”
“Uh-huh, it was,” I agreed. “While I don’t necessarily still hold that specific incident against him, I also don’t trust him. Once a rat always a rat.”
My dad glared at me. I think he always felt that Jake did me a favor – saved me from a worse fate. Maybe he did, but he was still a rat in my mind.
“How about this,” I proposed, “We let Jake and his family take up residence in the Hanson place. As I recall, it has a big fireplace. They’ll have a roof over their heads. They’ll be able to keep warm. We’ll make sure they have water and food. We’ll have Laura give them all a check-up.”
My aunt, Laura, had been a physician assistant before the crash. Although she was about as high-strung as a Stradivarius, she had been as good as any doctor in the region – maybe in-part because she was strung so tightly. That woman had done it all – delivered babies, stitched up chainsaw cuts, performed minor surgery – you name it, she’d done it. She had such a wide range of experience, in large part, because it was so difficult to attract “real” doctors to our little corner of the world. She was now our family physician and a very valuable member of the group.
My dad nodded, “Sounds like a good plan.”
My father-in-law agreed.
“Heather, did you catch that?” I asked. The mic on my radio had been on VOX the whole time.
“Sure did, David. You want me to relay it to the house?”
“Yes, please,” I thanked her.
“I’ll go talk it over with the rest of the guys,” I said.
I walked up to the ambush position and laid out the plan for my uncle and brothers. None of them were aware of the bad blood between me and Jake but they all thought it sounded like a workable plan.
“No problems, here,” Heather reported.
I guess she knows that there’s something between me and Jake now. Mental note: It’d probably be best if I discussed it with her before much more time goes by.
Back down by the Gunter family, I laid out the plan for Jake. He looked up at the house on the hill and then back at his family.
“Yeah, I guess that’ll work,” he said.
“Welcome to the new normal,” I replied.