Approaching the checkpoint close to I-40, he turned off and took the street that wound up to the substation. A battle had taken place here only the day before, and the Asheville militia who’d taken over the checkpoint were jumpy at the best of times. They were liable to shoot him first before checking whether he was friend or foe, and in the current atmosphere, he wasn’t sure how he’d be classed anyway. It was better not to take chances with the new authority that ran the town.
Crossing the bluff where the substation sat, he took a dirt path up onto the old toll road where he began his ascent, his knee aching. It was with relief that he reached his property, set back from the road and nestled among the trees. The light from the swinging lantern showed up the graves at the side of the drive, and while he’d gotten used to seeing them, he didn’t want to dwell on the names inscribed on the wooden markers. His wife, his mother-in-law and his son represented three generations that had been wiped out in a single winter, and the event was too recent to take lightly. Indeed, unlocking the front door of his empty house was enough to bring painful reminders of what he’d lost. Standing in the hall and listening to the silence was difficult to bear, and while he’d resisted all attempts to rehouse him closer to town, he still delayed coming home, so that each day his journey got later and later. In time, when his heart was less heavy, he might appreciate the precious memories that resided there. He certainly didn’t want to forget. But for now it was just too much to take, and he needed to stay busy, returning home only when he was tired enough to guarantee instant sleep.
Setting his lantern on the kitchen table, he reached up to open a closet. He’d opened a can of tuna in the morning and he figured it was better to finish it off before it attracted mice. There were some cans of meat, vegetables and peaches, but no sign of the tuna.
He must have eaten it all and forgotten. He forgot a lot of stuff these days, his weary mind simply refusing to retain information. Deciding against opening another can, he took his lantern and headed for bed. His hunger could wait till the morning.
Entering the cold bedroom, he put the lamp on the dresser, propped up his shotgun and removed his coat. As he half turned to drape it on a chair, he froze, catching his breath.
A stranger sat on his bed, pointing a pistol at him. The empty can of tuna sat on the nightstand.
Jim stared down the barrel of the gun. He considered turning quickly to snatch up the shotgun, but the hand that held the pistol was rock steady, and the barrel never wavered. He recognized it as a Glock, and the finger was on the trigger, already depressing the safety lever. One twitch, and Jim would end up with a hole in his chest before he’d even dropped the coat.
The stranger was dressed in army camo with an armored vest. His breathing was silent and his posture was easy, like turning up in people’s bedrooms was something he did all the time.
Jim swallowed and ventured to break the silence.
“How did you get in?” he asked.
The dark eyes in the stranger’s unshaven face never blinked, and Jim’s fear intensified at the menace they radiated.
“What do you want?” Jim said, his shaky voice sounding higher than he would have liked. He didn’t want to show this stranger that he was afraid, but his vocal chords betrayed him. “If it’s just the food …”
“Shut up,” said the stranger, his voice leaden.
Jim bit his tongue.
“You’re the mayor,” continued the stranger.
It came across as an accusation.
“No,” said Jim.
“Yes, you are.”
“No,” interjected Jim hastily. “Not anymore.”
This seemed to pique the stranger’s interest, and he waited for Jim to continue.
“I’ve been replaced. I’m not the mayor anymore. They, uh, they’re sending another guy to replace me. From Asheville.”
The stranger took this information in. “Move across to the middle of the room, away from the shotgun,” he said calmly.
Jim shuffled across, still holding his coat.
“Now sit on the floor and cross your legs.”
Jim did as he was told, his knee twinging as he forced his legs into position. He was now at eye level with the Glock, which wasn’t a position he relished, and any attempt to lunge for his shotgun from here was fraught with risk. On the other hand, he was closer to the nightstand. In the small drawer, he had his .38 revolver, and he was at the right height to reach across and draw it if the opportunity arose.
The stranger’s eyes missed nothing, catching Jim’s guarded glance to the nightstand. Keeping the Glock immobile, he reached behind him with his other hand and held up the revolver. Jim’s heart sank, and any hope he had for getting out of this situation alive evaporated.
“Tell me about Asheville,” said the stranger.
“If you shoot me, there’s militia nearby that will surround this house in an instant.”
“I said, tell me about Asheville.”
“Well … what the hell do you want me to say?”
“Who’s in charge?”
“I don’t know. Some goddamn senator and a two-bit general.”
“How many troops?”
“I don’t rightly know. The military guy …”
“… that’s the one. Well, he said he had four platoons around Black Mountain. And they sent fifty of our militia to Biltmore for training. And maybe there’s more. Wait … you know this guy?”
The stranger said nothing, and something dawned on Jim: “You’re the guy they were after. You attacked the town!”
The stranger’s silence neither confirmed nor denied the deed.
“You’re the raider from Round Knob,” added Jim.
The stranger took offense to this and leaned forward ever so slightly, an action magnified by the undercurrent of anger in his voice. “I’m not a raider,” he said.
“I didn’t mean that,” stuttered Jim, even though he had. He thought hard, trying to figure out what this stranger could possibly want with him. “I had nothing to do with the attack on your camp, okay? I didn’t order that. My people were not involved.”
The stranger’s eyes bored into him. “A woman was detained here yesterday. Where is she now?”
“A woman?” Jim’s feverish mind sorted through the jumble of memories. “A woman. Sure. They took her to Asheville. They say she’s going to be tried for murder. She’s going to be hanged.”
The stranger’s hand tightened on the grip of the pistol. “When?”
“I don’t know. I’m not in charge anymore. They don’t give me that information. They’re still holding some of our people in Asheville. Kids, mainly. I don’t like this any more than you do. We didn’t ask for this.”
The stranger looked at him for a while, and Jim wondered if he was weighing up whether to kill him or not. He thought about his own shotgun, though he was careful not to look at it this time. If this was truly the end, it would be worth lunging for it. The gaping barrel of the Glock, however, suggested otherwise, and Jim knew he wouldn’t make it.
As if reading his mind, the stranger stood, and, with the pistol still aimed, strode to the shotgun. Holding the pump-action grip, he jerked the weapon up and down, ejecting cartridges onto the floor until it was empty. Then he tossed the shotgun onto the bed, causing the unloaded loose rounds of the revolver to jump in the air, chinking together as they landed. Jim could see there was nothing worth reaching for now.
“Get up,” said the stranger, “and put your hands behind your head.”
Jim had developed cramp in his legs and he had difficulty standing. As he straightened up, he considered a last act of resistance. He was under no illusion as to the likely outcome, however, and it would be an undignified end in his own family home. Wearily, he lifted his head.
“If you’re going to kill me,” he said, “let me die by the graves of my wife and child.”
The stranger acted like he hadn’t heard. Taking the lantern, he said, “Move. Toward the back door.”
Followed by the stranger, and with his own shadow preceding him as he walked through his home, he unlocked the back door and stepped into the yard.
“Keep going,” came the stranger’s voice.
Jim walked stiffly across his overgrown lawn, opened the gate and continued walking into the woods. Without his coat, the cold seeped quickly into his clothing. He shivered once, but it wasn’t because of the temperature. His shambling shadow foretold a fate he hadn’t imagined for this night. In the recent past, while mourning the deaths in his family, his thoughts had touched on the possibility that he didn’t want to be around anymore, that maybe it would be better if he could join them so he wouldn’t have to endure the pain he felt every day. Now, however, with a gun at his back and low branches brushing past his face, the very idea of his demise filled him with sadness. The times he had walked with his wife through these very woods, the moments of seeing his boy grow up, all those memories were suddenly vivid and raw, and the thought of having them snuffed out in a moment nearly dropped him to his knees. To lose such things seemed like the greatest injustice in the world.
“Stop right there,” said the stranger.
Jim halted, swaying. Breathing hard, he tried to think of a prayer to recite, but he’d never been much of a church-going man, and various phrases tumbled through his mind, each failing to connect. As he tried to find something to mentally grasp, the seconds crawled by until he could stand it no more.
“Shoot, damn it,” he said. “If you’re going to do it, do it now or go to hell.”
He received no reply.
A breeze sighed in the branches. Jim’s fear and anger boiled over and he turned to confront his antagonist.
But he wasn’t there. Only the lantern that had been placed on the ground.
Jim looked around, thinking the stranger was still nearby, staying in the shadows and toying with him like a cat with a mouse, offering him the illusion of freedom. Nothing moved, however, and he couldn’t hear a thing. Tentatively, he moved toward the lantern, hands still clasped behind his head. When nothing happened, he slowly lowered them and picked up the lantern, holding it before him. The sweat that he hadn’t even been aware of trickled cold down his face, and his eyes darted left and right.
It didn’t matter how long he waited, though. The woods stayed silent, and it was like the stranger had never even been there.
“There’s no telling what a man like that is going to do.”
Chuck put wood on the fire beneath the bubbling pot. Doug, with one arm in a sling, gazed into the darkness, the light of the fire playing over his pensive face.
“What can he do?” he said. “He’s got Red and a couple of other guys with him, but that’s about all. We’re in no shape to fight.”
Chuck straightened up. Figures emerged from the forest, bringing more firewood. The cabins and lodges of Camp Grier were silent and dark, the atmosphere somber. Only the building that Sally and Harvey had turned into a medical clinic showed any signs of life, candles burning in the windows. There were many wounded to tend.
“No, we’re in no shape to fight,” admitted Chuck, “but you try telling him that. They’ve got his wife.”
“It’s a damn shame,” said Doug. “And who is this Connors guy, anyway?”
“Rick’s old commanding officer, by all accounts.”
“So he’s military as well? Surely, this has to be some kind of mistake. They’re both on the same side. If Connors really is an officer, and not some bandit, then he can be reasoned with. Maybe we need to send some kind of delegation to explain. We can set up a dialog and find a solution to this that doesn’t cost any more lives. Maybe even get some help for Scott,” added Doug with a glance toward the clinic.
Chuck stooped to pick up a basket, and Doug helped him with it, tipping blood-soaked bandages and towels into the boiling water.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy,” said Chuck. “There’s something about Connors that doesn’t sit right with Rick. At least, that’s the impression I got. They’ve got some sort of history together, and I think it’s kind of dark.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like to pry.”
“Me neither, but … well …”
“I know. A little more information would be useful right now. I don’t know what else to tell you. I’m worried that Rick’s going to get himself killed.”
“Can you talk to him?”
“I don’t know him that well. I mean, he’s a nice enough guy, but … he’s not the same right now. Even his own son is afraid to approach him. He’s volatile. I think he’s ready to take the fight to Connors, whatever the consequences.”
“This is something we don’t need now.”
“It’s out of our hands.”
Doug picked up a stick to stir the pot’s contents. The sharp metallic odor of blood rose from the simmering water. Wrinkling his nose in distaste, he leaned back as he prodded the roiling cloths.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “It’s bad medicine.”
A guttural cry of pain from inside the clinic caused him to flinch.
Chuck sighed deeply. “I think any kind of medicine would be good right now,” he said.