America – the near future – the United States has experienced a complete economic and social collapse, clean water and abundant food, relics of a dying age. Small groups of survivors struggle to stay alive in a world rampant with starvation, disease, and violence. “Travelers” live amongst them, savage gangs that roam the countryside, always searching for fresh prey.
Traveler is the follow up to my novel Joshua, not a direct sequel but set in the same deadly world.
Below I have posted the first chapter of my book. If you enjoy what you read here I hope you will buy a copy, it is available in paperback or on Kindle.
“You don’t really know what you’re capable of … you really don’t. Not until you’ve gone days without a thing in your belly. Not until that hunger in your gut starts driving you out of your mind. It won’t let you think straight or let you sleep at night. You don’t know what you’re capable of … not until you accept the idea that you’ll do whatever is required to survive. Do you see what I’m saying? Do you know what I’m talking about, kid?”
The boy stared up at him; he was small and scrawny and appeared fifteen or so. His hair was cut short and rather rough, and it was quite obvious he did it himself. “Well …”
“Hey, what’s your name?” A friendly looking man offered out his meaty hand. He was tall; about six foot even and somewhere around fifty. He wore an honest smile but his hardened face gave the appearance of someone that had seen a lot of the uglier side of life.
Around them were seven other men of varied ages from their twenties to fifties, and one boy. They all stared him down, not one offering a word. The men were dressed in camouflaged fatigues, no two exactly the same. Among them was an assortment of patterns and colors on their clothes and gear. A wide-ranging collection of what the US military had produced in the last forty years.
“I … I think I know …”
“What’s your name?” He continued to stand over the boy, graciously offering out his hand.
“James?” The stranger’s smile grew wider as he reached out and took hold of the boy’s reluctant hand. He gave it a larger-than-life shake. “James, I like that, it fits you. My name is Robert, Robert Delby. All these guys just call me ‘Boss.’ But you can call me Rob if you want.” After a long pause, he loosened his grip and the boy took back his hand. “James what?”
Staring up from the ground, he studied the soldier hovering over him and those all around. Then he looked back to the stranger, trying with no success to hold back the tears in his eyes. “Mister, what do you want from me? I don’t want no trouble. Please … just tell me what you want.”
The older man seemed unmoved by the tears as he continued with his friendly tone. “Well, first, I want you to tell me some things, and you can start with your full name. That’s not asking much, is it?”
“No, I guess not … my name is James Leightman.”
“James Leightman. Is that what people call you, James?”
“Yeah, I guess.” James scanned all of their intense faces, and when he noticed the repulsed expression of the younger boy staring at him was suddenly quite embarrassed. He turned away and hastily wiped his runny nose and eyes. “Mister, you checked my bag. You know I’ve got nothing. Can’t you just let me go?”
“Maybe, I’ll tell you what, why don’t you just answer the rest of my questions, and we’ll go from there.”
“What else do you want to know?”
“You could start by telling me how old you are.”
“Seventeen? You look younger than that. I would have thought at least a couple of years younger.”
“No, I’m seventeen. I guess I’m just small for my age.”
“Yeah, it’s called malnutrition. There’s a lot of it going around. Are you all alone?”
“No parents, no family or friends either?”
“No, it’s just me … now.”
The older man sat down in the grass next to him, still speaking with his kindly voice. “Your parents, they were both killed, afterwards, I mean.”
“Yes … my dad … he died when it first really got bad, when we were trying to escape South Bend. My mom got killed about a year after that.”
“And you’ve been on your own ever since?”
“That was four years ago, so you’ve been fending for yourself for three years now? Since you were fourteen?”
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight. For the last three years you’ve been surviving this nightmare all by yourself, with no help?”
The man offered out his hand again. “Kid … James, I just want to tell you you’ve got some guts. I know plenty of grown men that couldn’t survive out here alone for very long, and you’ve done it for three years now.” Rob shook his hand again and this time it seemed more sincere, the boy felt a little more at ease.
“James, let me ask you something … and I need you to be completely honest, okay?”
“You think we’re bad men, don’t you?”
The boy shifted his gaze between all of them, “No … no,” and back to where the question began. “No, I don’t think that.”
“James, don’t lie. I can see it in your eyes … the way you’ve been looking at us. You think that we’re bad.”
The boy continued to passionately deny it, “No!”
“James, I know you’re lying, but I’m not mad at you. I understand what you’re thinking and why you think it. We’re not really bad people, James; we’re just trying to survive, like you’ve been doing for the last three years. If anyone knows how tough it is out here, it’s you. You know, don’t you?”
“Yes, I know …”
“And you know sometimes to survive you’ve got to do things you don’t like, things that you’re not proud of.”
“Yes …,” he dropped his head in his hands, “I know …”
“I’m not judging you, James. I want you to know that none of us are judging you. You did things you’re ashamed of; you must have if you’ve survived this long on your own.”
“You’ve probably begged, stole, cheated … only you know the awful things you had to do to survive.”
“Yes.” The tears returned to the boy’s eyes.
“James, I want you to know we understand what you’ve gone through. We don’t hold anything against you. We understand you were just trying to live … and we would hope you could do the same for us. You could, couldn’t you?”
He lifted his head again, and now, for the first time in a long while, felt that maybe someone understood what he thought. “After the things I’ve done, I couldn’t hold anything against anyone.”
“I knew you would feel that way. That’s why I asked so many questions. That’s why I want to offer you something.”
“I’m offering you a chance to have a family again.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’re always looking for people for our group. I think you’re just the kind of people we’re looking for. I think that you would fit in real well with us.”
“I don’t know.”
“I understand your apprehension, James. You’ve been on your own for so long. It’s kind of scary to think about relying on others.”
“Yes … yes it is.” The boy looked around at the men surrounding him again; there wasn’t one smile among them.
“But let me tell you something, it’s a lot easier out here when you have others you can count on, friends that can share the burden. I think if you gave it a try, you wouldn’t ever want to be alone again.”
“Maybe, but …”
Rob got a little closer to the boy. “Let’s try this, you come with us a few days, hang out and see if you like it. I think you will, but if you don’t you can go your own way again. But like I said, I think once you get used to being in a group you won’t ever want to go back to what you were doing before.”
The older man pulled a canteen from a pouch off his belt and offered it to the boy. “Here, thirsty?”
James reached out and took it, “Thank you,” drank less than he wanted and handed it right back.
Rob took a sip himself, “Does that sound like a fair deal to you?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“Good, here’s what we’re going to do. We’ve got a camp hidden in those trees down past that creek. We’re all going to go back there and we’re going to give you a hot meal. How long has it been since you’ve had one?”
“Uh … actually this morning.”
“This morning?” The older man’s friendly face now had a question. “Well now you’re going to have another. I bet it’s been a while since you’ve had two in a row.” He punctuated the sentence with a boisterous laugh.
The boy laughed too and for the first time wasn’t afraid. He thought maybe this could all work out.
“Okay, so we’re agreed, that’s what we’re going to do. You try us out for a couple days. If you want to join us you can, if not, well, you can go your own way again.” Rob picked himself off the ground and snatched up the boy’s bag. The rest of the group got up in unison, as if following a silent command. He helped the boy up and put his hand on his back, “Come on, James, let’s get you that meal.”
They sat around a small campfire while one prepared the food. Two others acted as guards, their rifles in hand. The rest sat together in the low light of the fire, most quietly laughing and joking like friends.
Rob and James sat close together as they ate their meal, beans and rice with a scarce few bits of Spam on top.
Softly, they continued their discussion. “Remember, James, try to keep your voice down. We wouldn’t want any unwanted ‘guests’ in the middle of the night,” he paused for another hardy laugh. “Well, I guess I should introduce the guys. First, guys this is James.”
Some, but not all, waved or mumbled a restrained hello.
Then ‘The Boss’ singled them out one at a time.
There was Peavey, D’Cruz, and Alton, they were all in their twenties, in the prime of life. Rob made a special effort to single out John Alton from the others. He was tall and had athletic good looks; it wouldn’t have been hard to believe he was once a football star. He said Alton was an Army veteran like him, the only other one in the group. He also noted the young man was twenty-nine and the only person here with prior combat experience, stating that at this time seven years ago he was over in Afghanistan. Alton waved another modest hello but seemed quite uncomfortable with the extra attention he was now getting.
Martinelli was in his thirties and looked like a regular guy, one you might see cheering a car race from his sofa, a beer in his hand. The only feature that really set him apart was a smooth burn scar that ran from the bottom of his left cheek right down to the edge of his jaw. He looked quite odd to the boy with a bald spot in the middle of his face where his beard wouldn’t grow.
Rudd and Cornwell were both in their forties and seemed about the same as the others, except maybe a little more battered by life. Cornwell was the cook that night and as he dished out the food seemed happy with his job. Rudd had a gruff demeanor and his body appeared entirely covered with crude tattoos, everywhere as far as the boy could see, everywhere but the palms of his hands. James didn’t like the way Rudd was looking at him. It gave him a chill he could feel right down to his bones.
McCain, Albert McCain, was the oldest of the group. Robert said he was fifty-five years old. He just silently stared at the boy never even offering a simple “Hi.” James couldn’t help but watch him there by the fire, searching to find anything there in his dark, lifeless eyes.
The men were all dressed out in military equipment and clothes, which looked like it had been used hard. All of them had their hair cut short and in a military style, and with the exception of three, they made at least some effort at being clean shaven. Martinelli, Rudd, and McCain did have beards but still they kept them cut close enough that you couldn’t use it against them. To a man, every one of them was lean, fit and tanned; obviously they had all spent the last few years working hard at staying alive.
Finally, Rob announced he “was saving the best for last” as he pointed out the only boy amongst these hardened men. The entire group clapped and gave a restrained hurrah as he briefly stood up and took a flamboyant bow. Rob said his name was Nicholas Mayer and he was ten. He described “Nicky” as “the best guy I’ve got.” James laughed at first as he thought it was a joke but was quickly set straight again.
“I’m not kidding. Look at him. That kid can go anywhere. He can walk right into places the rest of us couldn't shoot our way in. He makes all of our jobs easier … sometimes too easy.” Robert addressed his men, “Right guys?” and they all wholeheartedly agreed, giving the boy an even louder cheer and slaps on his back.
“Just look at that face.” Rob continued to stare at the child, “I tell you that kid can talk anybody into anything. It’s a shame he has to grow up.”
James didn’t know how much of what he heard was true or not. The boy wasn’t much to look at, that was for sure. Nicky was just a skinny little kid with a mop of dark blond hair and pale blue eyes, to James he looked exactly like the youngest son on that home improvement show.
As they were finishing their plates, the conversation got around to James again. Robert addressed him with that friendly voice, “James, earlier you said you already had a hot meal today. Where did you get it?”
“I … uh … I made it myself.”
“Really? What’d you have? How’d you make it?”
The boy gazed around, trying to think up an answer, “I … uh … well …”
“James, you really should stop lying. You’re no good at it.”
“I’m not lying.”
“When we picked you up you didn’t have a thing on you except one can of condensed chicken noodle soup. You don’t even have a pot to put it in. How did you heat a meal?”
“I … uh …”
“Come on, James, we’ve played fair with you. We did exactly what we said we were going to do. We brought you here, fed you, treated you like a friend. We deserve the whole truth. There’s something you’re not telling us. What is it?”
“I promised not to tell.”
“It has something to do with that town you just passed through when we found you. Doesn’t it?”
“Do you know why we picked you up? Why we picked you up right there?”
“We came through that same town two days before you did. We searched it pretty good but didn’t find a thing. We certainly didn’t find anyone living there. But you know what happened just as we were leaving?”
“We smelled food. We couldn’t track down exactly from where but we could smell someone cooking food in that town. So you know what we decided to do?”
“No, what?” The boy was becoming nervous now.
“We just kept walking, like we didn’t know nothing, like we didn’t know someone was there hiding in that town. Once we left we set up this camp to hide ourselves, and watch. We set up teams on both ends of town. What do you think we were watching for?”
“I don’t know.”
“We were watching for someone to come out of that town, and that someone was you.”
“No, it wasn’t me.”
“Come on, James, like I said, you’re not a good liar. We watched you go into town last night and come out again this morning. You’ve got food stored away there, don’t you? You’ve probably got a nice little place, maybe in a basement somewhere, topped off with food and supplies. But every once in a while you’ve got to come up for air, maybe to go out foraging for more stuff, or maybe just to keep yourself from going nuts.”
He could now hear the ire growing in Robert’s tone, “This isn’t fair, James. It’s not fair you’re holding out on us. We fed you, and I want you to know the offer we made was real. We want you to join us. We want you as a friend. But you’ve been lying all along. You didn’t want to be friends with us. You just wanted to take from us … but you didn’t want to share what you have.”
“No!” The boy looked around at all those angry faces staring at him, lit by the fire, and then back to Robert who was now standing over him.
“You never did want to be friends with us. You just wanted to use us!”
“No! It wasn’t me, I wouldn’t do that to you guys; it was the Whitmans! It wasn’t my food! It was theirs!”
Rob sat down again, curiously the anger now gone as quick as it came, “Who’s the Whitmans?”
“Come on, James, just tell us.”
“I promised I would never tell.”
“If you’re really our friend, you will tell us. Come on.”
“Come on, James …”
After a few more moments of all those stares weighing heavy on him, the boy’s resolve was at long last gone, “Mark and Sarah Whitman.”
“They live in that town?”
“Yeah …” The boy wouldn’t look at him, instead staring at the ground.
“Where exactly do they live?”
“At Chestnut and Main, there’s an old brick building on the corner. It’s three stories tall and there was a pharmacy on the first floor, and there were apartments above that.”
“Yes, I remember the drug store, we searched it real well. It was burned out and the stairs to the second floor were destroyed too. They’d completely collapsed. Are you saying they live above it?”
“Yes, the first two floors are trashed, they live on the third floor.”
“So how do they get in and out?”
“They have a rope ladder they lower from a window down to the ground.”
“This is hard to believe. How did you ever find them?”
“I didn’t; they found me. I was searching that pharmacy too and as I was leaving Sarah yelled out. I guess she felt sorry for me. I probably looked pretty pathetic; I hadn’t eaten in three days. They dropped the ladder and let me climb up. They searched me for weapons, though, I’m sure that was Mark’s idea. They gave me a meal and let me sleep there last night. This morning they fed me again but said they couldn’t help me no more. They said I had to go. They gave me that soup and made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone about them. When I made that promise I thought I could keep it.”
“It’s okay, James, you tried.”
“You’re going to rob them, aren’t you?”
“Yes, we are. Does that bother you?”
“Have you ever stolen from people, James?”
“Yes … but I never hurt anyone.”
“Taking their food, that’s not hurting them?”
“You know what I meant. You’re going to hurt them.” The boy continued to gaze at his frayed tennis shoes, the tears coming again.
“James, look at me …” Robert waited until the boy grudgingly stared up at him, “I want you to know we’re not going to hurt them, unless they try to hurt us. It’s one of our codes.”
“We have codes we live by, James. When we join this group, we take an oath; if you decide to join us, you’ll take it too. One of our codes is that we never hurt anyone if we don’t have to. Unless your friends decide to fight us, I promise you they won’t be hurt.”
“I promise … so tell me all you know about them.”
“I don’t know anything else.”
“Sure you do, you probably don’t even know how much you do know. You’re sure it was just the two of them? How long were you there?”
“I was there over twelve hours. I didn’t see or hear anyone else the whole time. I’m sure it was just them.”
“Do they have some kind of alarm, or maybe a dog? Do they have any kind of animal that might warn them?”
“No, I don’t remember any animals, or alarms.”
“Do they have guns?”
“Yes … Mister Whitman had three I could see.”
“I don’t know anything about guns.”
“Come on, James, describe them to me.”
“Well, the one he carried around with him most of the time was a shotgun … I’m pretty sure of that. He kept calling it his ‘twelve gauge.’ He had a handgun too, in a holster on his belt. I didn’t get a good look at it though.”
“Was it a pistol or revolver?”
“A revolver, maybe, he never took it out.”
“You said there was a third gun, what was it?”
“Another long gun, maybe a rifle, maybe another shotgun, I don’t know. He had it standing in the corner next to the window facing Main Street.”
“You don’t know what it was?”
“It must have been a rifle because I think I remember it had a scope on it.”
“Okay, James, is there anything else you remember, any other kind of weapons like knives, or maybe a bow and arrows? Did they have any kind of booby traps on the windows or doors? Did they have a lot of food?”
“I saw some kitchen knives, but nothing else, no traps either. They had plenty of food though. Their kitchen cabinets and counters are crammed full, their closets too. Lots of store bought canned stuff and home canned to boot, you know, in those glass jars with a metal lid. It makes me hungry thinking of it all. I was so disappointed when they only gave me that one can of soup. I thought they were going to give me a whole lot more.”
“Okay, James, you’ve done good. Hasn’t he, guys?”
James felt a little bit better when everyone agreed and gathered around to give him a few pats on the back.
Robert sat there in the dappled light of the fire and thought about it a moment, then he turned to John Alton. “Alton, I want you to do some reconnaissance. Pick two guys and head out early in the morning. I want you there before the sun comes up. Watch the place all day and come back tomorrow night and give us a report.”
Without delay Alton stood up and looked around, “We’re going have to leave early if we’re going to get there and find a good observation spot all before sunrise. D’Cruz … Cornwell, you’re with me. Get some sleep, we’ll be getting up at three hundred hours.”
After that the group broke up and started making their beds, except for McCain who had the first watch.
Robert was making his own bed when he noticed the boy still sitting by the fire, watching everyone else getting comfortable for the night. “James, you don’t have a sleeping bag, do you? Not even a blanket?”
“No … a couple stole mine about two weeks ago. They stole my good pair of shoes too. Don’t worry about me though, it’s not so cold, I’ll just sit here by the fire.”
Rob went right to a large two-wheeled cart there at the edge of their camp. It was an odd-looking thing filled to the top with all the pilfered valuables they had stolen through the years. Affixed to the back was a large plastic drum that held the group’s water supply and strapped along each side were two long stout poles. James would later discover they were there so the men could carry it on their shoulders when the terrain was bad, or if they needed to move in a hurry.
He rummaged through it a few moments then quickly returned with something under his arm. “James, here’s a sleeping bag. It’s not much to look at, but it will keep you warm. I want you to have it …”
“No, you can keep it. I want you to have this whether you stay with us or not.”
With a smile, James lay out next to his new friend, kicked off his dirty shoes and settled in too. Just as he was falling asleep a nudge to his side woke him again.
“James, I forgot to tell you something. You remember when we came here this afternoon and there were those trip wires we had to step over?”
“You don’t know where they are, and you’ll never see them in the dark. You probably don’t know what to look for anyway. If you’ve got to piss later just go in that open area right over there. Don’t go anywhere near the trees; we’ve got so many trip wires around us you’re bound to set one off.”
Later in the morning the boy woke again, and now he had to go. He looked around in the dim light from the dying fire. Martinelli was on guard now, sitting there watching him, and Alton and his men were long gone. He thought about getting up and relieving himself but just couldn’t, instead deciding to wait for daylight and go behind a tree. James lay there wide awake the rest of the morning, holding his urine until the sun came up.
That next day they waited for their team to return but still had many things to do. McCain, Peavey, and Rudd went out to observe a nearby road. Many of their best leads would come from refugees they caught wandering the highways.
The rest stayed in camp as there was work here too. Checking their traps and regular maintenance on the weapons, cooking, even their guest found he had some chores of his own as it was only his first meal that was free.
James spent most of the day boiling water he had to haul from a nearby stream. Making thirty gallons of sanitized water was quite a job when he could only carry five gallons at a time.
By dark the men started returning; Martinelli was cooking and had them all a hot meal ready as McCain and his guys walked into camp. McCain said, “The pickings were thin today.” About ten minutes behind him Alton and his men came wandering in. After they were all fed, Alton pulled a tablet out and everyone encircled him there by the fire.
“Okay, Boss, this is how it looks. First, James’s intel was right on the money.”
James found himself the recipient of a few more friendly pats on the back.
Alton began pointing out features on the handmade maps on his pad, “It took us to nearly daylight to find some good observation spots, but we did find some. I hid in an old flower shop, right here,” he pointed it out with his pen, “on the other side of Main, about twenty-five meters north and east of the drugstore. It’s probably the best observation spot near the building. I had D’Cruz set up down the street on the west side. I sent Cornwell the other way, one block south and east so he could watch the back of the building.”
Alton continued to point landmarks out on his map and then Rob interrupted as he handed him a fresh cup of freeze dried coffee. “Were you able to confirm what James told us, it’s only the two of them?”
“I would have to agree with that. We were there thirteen hours and the two of them were all we heard or saw. If there’s anyone else they must be in a coma because we didn’t hear one other peep.”
“Okay, tell us about the layout.”
“It’s just like James said. They’re in that old brick three story on the corner and they’re dug in real good.”
“How many ways in?”
“There’s two windows each facing north and west. As far as I could determine they are the only way in … or out. The south and east sides of the building have no windows at all. That east side has another building next door and a narrow alley between them.”
“Could we climb to the windows from the roof of that building?”
“No, it’s only one story tall and it just can’t be done.”
“What about coming at them from underneath?”
“I thought of that too, late in the day I snuck in through the back door to confirm what I already thought.”
“That you can’t get at them that way either, there’s just too much junk to get through. There is a door where the top of the staircase was but it’s nearly impossible to get to. It might be conceivable to get at them that way … but there’s no way to do it quickly, or quietly.”
“We’ve still got some bug bombs, think they might work?”
“I thought of that too, I don’t think they would work either. You would have to throw them close from the street into a third-story window. Trying to put one through a small window from fifteen … twenty meters away, and probably with someone shooting back at you, not much chance of success. Just going to waste them … and get one of our guys killed.”
“How about throwing them into the drugstore underneath?”
“Again, not much chance of success, I doubt the fumes would even get to the third floor.”
“Okay, so what’s your opinion, how would you do it?”
“Well, Boss, there’s only two ways as far as I can see. Like I said, they’re dug in pretty good. So we’re either going to have to wait them out, or we could try a Trojan Horse, but I don’t really want to put Nicky in danger.”
“Well, we agree on that. I’m not going to send Nicky up there. I’m sure he could talk himself in …” Robert stopped and ruffled the mop of hair on the smiling boy at his side, “but that husband sounds very cautious. James looks harmless enough and he searched him. He would probably search Nicky too … and what if he got caught trying to lower the ladder down? That could turn into an ugly situation, quickly.”
“Yep, that’s how I saw it too.”
“Okay, so you think we should wait them out. How long are we going to have to wait? Did they even come out when you were there?”
Alton finally took a sip of his coffee, “No, they didn’t,” then stroked his chin. “How long are we going to have to wait … well, that’s the big question, isn’t it?”
Robert sat there a moment rubbing his short cropped hair and turned to James who was at the back of the crowd. “James, do they have a toilet?”
“They’ve got one but it doesn’t work, they’re using one of those camping toilets … you know, like a bucket with a lid on it.”
“So they have to empty it. Did you see anywhere in the apartment where they might empty it out?”
James thought about it a moment, “I don’t remember seeing anything like that … or smelling it.”
Robert turned to Alton again, “Did you see them dumping anything out the windows?”
“No, not a thing.”
The boss was deliberating while they all watched, “Well they’ve got to do something with it. They must be coming out and dumping it somewhere.”
Surprisingly Cornwell had something important to say, “When I was watching the back I noticed something, didn’t think much of it at the time …”
He now had all of their attention, especially the boss, “What?”
“Back behind that building is an empty lot, there was a shovel stuck in the ground, and it looked like there were several small holes that had been dug and covered back up.”
Robert had a plan now. “They’re burying their waste back there. All we have to do is wait until one of them comes down, then we’ll take them hostage. Once we have one hostage we can make the other one surrender.”
Rob and Alton worked out the plan while the others took note. It was decided they would get some sleep right then because this time they would all be waking at three hundred hours.
James lay there in his bed a while unable to sleep, wondering if he just got somebody killed.
At five hundred hours that next morning, they approached the edge of town, only two blocks down from their intended target. Nicky, James, and Peavey were left there with the cart, and told to settle in but come running when they were called.
The rest of the group got ready, taking only their guns, ammo, and several days’ worth of rations with them. Then they silently crept through the dark alleys taking their assigned positions, and waiting.
The first day was a long one and nothing happened. James spent most of the day sitting in the shadows keeping out of the sun, wondering if this would ever end. That night he hardly slept at all, every unknown sound unnerving him. Peavey and Nicky on the other hand had no trouble sleeping. In fact, the child lay there, wrapped in a blanket on the hard concrete, peacefully dreaming.
Just after seven hundred hours that next morning, things started stirring. By 7:35, it was time for the show.
Robert softly spoke into his radio, “This is Wolf, radio check, everybody check in.”
Through some static came Alton’s voice, faintly, “Coyote, checking in, you’re good.”
After another few seconds the silence was barely broken again, McCain this time on the other end, “Jackal, checking in.”
Hidden amid the garbage in the front of the flower shop Robert coordinated the attack. “They’re looking out the windows right now. Everybody stand by. They’ve checked every one and now they’re in the east Main Street window.”
With another minute of the tension building, and more than a day of waiting, it finally started happening. Rob was quick with the play by play, “Okay, here we go. They’ve lowered a bucket down to the ground with a rope. Now they’ve dropped the ladder. Coyote, they’re using the window closest to the alley, so this will be your show. Jackal, you stand by, if they try to run west you be there to stop them. But everybody remember, there’s another one up there with a gun, so whoever comes down grab them quick and get back out of the line of fire.”
Now a figure appeared in the window, feet first, clumsily lowering himself to the ground.
Rob was still quietly giving orders from the trash strewn storefront, “This is it. It’s the man. He’s armed with a handgun on the right side of his belt. He’s also got a shotgun slung across his back. Coyote, this guy is yours; I’ll let you know when he’s almost on the ground.” With another few seconds the time for discretion was gone, “COYOTE GO!”
Just as the man dropped to the pavement he found three men atop of him. D’Cruz and Cornwell knocked him face down on the ground and fixed him there with his arms twisted back and his mouth clamped shut.
Alton snatched the revolver out of the holster and shoved it into his own waistband. He pulled a knife and hastily sliced through the sling of the shotgun, taking it right off his back. The three hurriedly got him on his feet and rushed him back into the alley, all before he had the chance to make a sound.
Right then came a desperate yelling from the third-story window, it was the woman’s, “Mark! Mark, what’s going on?! MARK!”
Alton used zip ties to bind his arms back behind him while Cornwell held him against the wall, D’Cruz held him too and covered his mouth with his hand.
“MARK?! MARK, ANSWER ME!”
From the broken out front of the old flower shop there came an unfamiliar man’s voice. “We’ve got your husband, if you want to see him alive again you’ll come on down.”
Without warning, three loud shots rang out in quick succession. She had no idea where the voice was coming from and was firing wild. Still, everyone got down. She screamed out at the unseen stranger, “Where’s my husband?!”
Robert gave her a moment to settle down and then tried to calm her with his reasonable voice. “We have your husband, lady. We haven’t hurt him, and we don’t want to. We don’t want to hurt him or you, all we want is your stuff. If you come down, unarmed, you have my word that neither of you will be hurt.”
The woman wasn’t entirely believing as her screaming became even more frantic, “Where’s my husband?! You killed him, didn’t you?! WHERE IS HE?!”
“Your husband is fine.” Rob got on the radio with Alton, “Coyote, let the guy talk, maybe he can calm her down.”
Alton signaled D’Cruz who let go of the man’s mouth, “I’m okay, honey. They haven’t hurt me. Stay calm.”
“Where are you?!”
“I’m in the alley, three guys are holding me. Stay where you are! Don’t come down! Whatever you do don’t come down!”
Robert was back on the radio again, “Shut him up!” and then right back to the wife with his sensible tone. “That would be a mistake, lady. All we want is your stuff. We don’t want to hurt either of you. But, if you don’t come down right now you’re going to make us hurt him. Please, come down. You have my word if you do no one will get hurt.”
The husband broke loose of D’Cruz’s grip, “Don’t believe them, honey! They’re liars, they’ll say anything! Stay where you are! You’re safe right there! They know you’d kill all of them before they could get to the top!”
The boss was on the radio again and now he could hardly contain the anger, “SHUT HIM UP! I’m coming over!” Robert could see the woman as she was hanging out the window, trying to peer around the corner. He stood up, and jumped right through the broken storefront. Rob hit the ground at a sprint, dashed across the street into the alley and made it to cover as a single shot rang out. The bullet was ten feet behind him. Then he got back on the radio again, “Jackal, from your position can you still see all the windows?”
McCain had watched it all from the opposite end, “Yes, we can see all of them.”
“Okay, just continue watching them for now.”
He turned to the husband; D’Cruz and Cornwell held him while Rob tried to talk some sense into the man, “I want to have a sane conversation. You think you can talk without screaming or name calling … or cussing or spitting?”
The man gave a nod.
“D’Cruz, let him go. You know you’re going to get your wife killed, you know that, don’t you?”
“You’ll kill her anyway … if you get a hold of her. No telling what you monsters would do to her. But you won’t get her. She’s a good shot, she’ll kill all of you before you get anywhere near her.”
“I told you I don’t want to hurt anyone …”
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t believe you. I’ve seen your kind before, and I’ve seen what you do to people, especially women. So no, I don’t believe it when you say you won’t hurt us.”
Rob was frustrated, and it showed, “Okay, I can see it’s no good talking to you. D’Cruz.”
D’Cruz shut him up again.
He thought things over and after a moment Rob got back on his radio, “Jackal, do you still have some of those incendiary shotgun rounds?”
McCain was quick with a reply, “You mean those ‘Dragon’s breath’ rounds? Yeah, I’ve still got some.”
“From where you’re at, can you put some through one of the Main Street windows? You think you could set the curtains on fire?”
“Yes, I could do that, It’ll have to be the window furthest from you. I’ve got a much better shot at that one. Do you want me to kill the woman when she tries to put out the fire?”
“No! Don’t kill anyone. Just set the curtains on fire. Give me five seconds and do it.” Rob grabbed him by his collar and all of them moved the husband to the front edge of the alley, barely peeking around the corner. “Watch this.”
Just at the designated time, McCain stepped out around an old van with his favorite weapon, a well-worn Remington 870 with the barrel professionally cut down to twelve and a half inches. Without delay, he shouldered it and began; it threw a stream of fire thirty-five feet right through the window. After rapidly shooting four rounds, McCain dropped back down out of sight.
He made the husband watch the horror of it all and immediately dragged him back into the alley. Then Rob’s men held him against the wall and kept his mouth shut. Rob seized the man by the neck and got right in his face. “You’re going to get her killed. You’re going to get her shot … or worse; you ever see somebody burn to death? It’s not pretty. It’s not quick, and it’s not painless. Now imagine watching the woman you love dying like that. This is your last chance to get out of this alive. I’m giving you this chance because I made a promise. If you’re smart you’ll take it. I know you’ve seen ‘my kind’ before so you don’t have any real reason to take my word for it, but you better. And this is it. I’m giving you my word that you or your wife will not be hurt if you give up now. You can either take my word for it, or we can go back around the corner and you can watch your wife die.”
Rob got back on the radio again, “Jackal, what’s going on?”
McCain answered, “She put out the fire. I had a perfect shot but now she’s stepped back from the window.”
Rob turned to the husband again, “What’s it going to be? D’Cruz, let him go.”
Mister Whitman was beaten at last, “Okay, I guess I don’t have a choice.”
“No, you really don’t.”
The husband talked his wife down and the two to them were searched and tied to street signs, sitting on the sidewalk with their hands locked behind them. Rob made sure they were shaded from the sun.
After that was done, they yelled for Peavey and the boys to bring the cart up. Robert, along with McCain, D’Cruz, and Martinelli, stayed down on the ground while the rest shimmied up the rickety ladder. After a few moments, an assortment of loud hoots and cheers could be heard when the men first saw all the treasures that surrounded them.
As Peavey and the boys were coming around the corner, the husband got the first good look at his betrayer. James was startled, but happy, when he saw both of them were still alive.
Mr. Whitman had some things to say, “I knew it! You miserable little bastard! I knew you were the reason for this! We fed you! We took care of you … and you betrayed us! I hope you rot in hell for this! You hear me?! ROT IN HELL!”
James stood there silently taking the abuse, until finally Robert had to intervene, “Okay, that’s enough!”
“Enough?! Not nearly enough! Rot in hell! You hear me, you betraying son of a bitch?! ROT … IN … HELL!”
Rob gave Whitman the back of his hand, “Not another word! So, he did tell us about you. What kind of loyalty were you expecting for a can of soup? For the record, he didn’t volunteer a thing, we had to trick it out of him. You might also want to note he’s the one I promised that you wouldn’t be hurt. If it wasn’t for him, I’m reasonably sure the two of you would be dead now.”
Two stood guard while all the rest labored at emptying the apartment. It took the rest of the day for the work to be done. They searched it all, going over the Whitman’s home like locusts, and when they left nothing of value was to be found. The men and boys loaded up the cart, and their bags, with all they would hold. Food was the most valuable commodity, but they still had room for so much more.
They took their guns, a Mossberg 590 shotgun with an evil-looking bayonet attached. Then there was a blued six-inch Colt Python revolver Robert kept for himself, a scoped Winchester Model 70 in .30-06, and a Ruger .380. There were a few hundred rounds of ammunition for each, except for the Ruger, which had less than half a box.
There were other prizes to be found as well, first aid supplies, and toiletries like soap and toothpaste, those the men hadn’t seen in a while. A few odd gems were discovered too: a nice pair of binoculars, water purification tablets, and several pairs of quality boots. They even found five bottles of Scotch whisky and two bottles of vodka, and it was the first time Rudd had smiled in quite a while.
At last done, late in the day and laden down, they were ready with just enough time to leave before the sun went down.
Robert looked at this couple, and then up to their apartment that held the tangled mess of what was left of their lives. “If you’re smart you won’t try to follow us.” He then focused on the wife, speaking to her with his sensible voice. “You seem like the more rational of the two of you. I’m telling you now, don’t come after us. Talk your husband out of it. That’s what he’ll want to do, but I’m sure you can persuade him not to. I promised not to kill you and I didn’t, but if he comes after us, all bets are off. If you don’t want to be a widow, you’ll talk him out of it.”
He took out his long trusted KA-BAR from the sheath on his belt and cut the zip ties that held her there. “Yes, we stole your possessions but you still have your life. This is the last time I will say it, if you’re smart you won’t follow us, you’ll just get on with your lives.”
An hour after dark they arrived, weary under the heavy burden of all their plunder. They started a fire and a well-deserved feast, picking only the best from their new stores. They all sat together, eating, laughing, joking, and having a grand time. Even the sentries were in on the fun. For once in a long while they were all full, finally satisfied. Nicky even said he was feeling a little sick from eating so much, the first time he could remember that ever happening in his young life. The men passed around a bottle taking well-mannered sips, except for Rudd who swallowed great gulps. They all babbled on about their never dying friendship and this most successful mission.
At long last Rob stood up with the bottle, moved over, and sat down by James, who looked a little uncomfortable amidst these rowdy men. “Want to try some?”
“No, that’s all right.”
“It’s okay, James, we’re not going to make you. You can be yourself with us.” With one hand he gave the bottle to Peavey and put the other around the boy’s shoulder, and scooted up closer to him. “So this is what we do, James.”
James just sat there, stiff as a board, “Yes …”
“This is what we do. We steal from people. That’s what we do. Do you think you could do that? Do you think you could do what we did today? Most importantly, do you want to be one of us?”
The boy sincerely answered, “I’m … I’m still not sure.”
Rob got closer to the boy. “I understand your hesitation; it’s not an easy decision. I don’t want to put pressure on you, I really don’t, but the time has come to make up your mind. I really like you, James, I do, but I can’t let you hang around freeloading off of us anymore. It’s not fair to these guys, or to you. So we need a decision right now.”
James looked at his almost new friends staring back at him from the flickering light. Nicky and some others were urging him with their quiet pleas to “come on.” Finally after a very long minute considering it all, he said, “Yes … okay,” and with that most of the group gave out a hurrah.
Robert was now wearing that large honest smile as he stood up again and addressed his newest friend. “James, stand up.”
The boy stood up too and the entire group surrounded him there by the fire.
“James, repeat after me. I … state your name.”
“I, James Leightman …”
“Do swear my loyalty to the group ...”
“Do swear my loyalty to the group ...”
“And promise I will defend my friends, with my very life if need be ...”
“And promise I will defend my friends, with my very life if need be ...”
“And I will only harm others to protect the group from harm …”
The boy paused for only a moment and went on. “And I will only harm others to protect the group from harm …”
“And promise I will put the needs of the group before my own needs, always, this I swear.”
“And promise I will put the needs of the group before my own needs, always, this I swear.”
As he finished, Rob pulled out his knife and handed it to the boy. “Now, cut the palm of your hand and drip the blood into the fire.”
James took it, hesitated briefly, and without another thought committed himself fully. He split open his hand and made a fist, squeezing his blood into the fire. As his blood sizzled on the rocks below, the entire group gave out a resounding cheer that must have been heard for miles.
The young man looked around at all these dissimilar faces, his new family all, and for the first time in his seventeen years felt like he belonged.