I cast a quick glance at Lorna as she also slipped out of bed, feeling a thrill at the side of her bare skin, even after all these years together. It was also a good feeling to know that when I opened that door, she would be there to support me, whether it be to welcome a guest or meet an enemy with a blast from the rifle she grabbed even before slipping into a leather shirt of mine she liked to wear around the house. On her it hung halfway to her knees.
Casting her a quick smile I stepped to the side of the door. "Who's there?" I called out softly.
"It's Steve, John," he called back. "Pathfinder has found another one."
I turned sick and cold inside. Over the last two years we had found the bodies of three of the Savages Women. They had all been sexually tortured and repeatedly raped, before being mutilated and killed. Savages is what we called those of us, mostly younger ones into the drug culture, who had become brutal savages when the world ended with the biological strike utilizing psuedo-rabies. No one came through that unaffected, those of us who survived.
Unbolting the door I stepped back to let Steve come in. Steve elected not to notice the .45 I had in my hand, nor the M-14 Lorna had casually centered on him. A man would be a fool to take offense at such common sense measures in these times.
Steve was white under his heavy tan, and Lorna poured him a glass of our precious supply of brandy, so hard to come by these days. Without a word he took it, tossing it down at a swallow.Coughing and choking, his eyes filling with tears Steve settled gratefully into the chair I pulled out from the table. Steve, our treasured doctor, rarely drank at all, and I braced myself for what was to come.
As he told me what Pathfinder, a rather eccentric character who had wandered into camp one day and attached himself to us, had discovered, I hurriedly dressed, being sure to strap on my battered and patched bullet proof vest under my hunting shirt. To my right shin went the little five shot .38, and on the left my slender stilleto. I have been teased more than once about the way I arm myself, a legacy of the aftermath trauma, but I owe my life to them many times over. The .45 went in a shoulder holster, and around my waist the big .44 magnum, a gift from the Tinker. Kissing Lorna good-bye, I grabbed up my own rifle and went out to saddle Gray.
We rode in silence for the three miles or so, to the lonely hill where Pathfinder waited, leaning on the longbarreled .50 Hawken he was so expert with. Silently he swung into the saddle, leading us into a hidden glen where the poor little body lay. This one was worse than the last! My attempt to hold down what little I had in my stomach failed and I leaned against a tree retching.
Just then my son Pauly came riding up. "Mom said you found another one," he said by way of explanation. His woodcraft bordered on the uncanny, the way he could follow a trail. I had found him, barely five years old, crying over the body of his mother, and raised him as my own. Seventeen now and a man grown, he was enough to make any father proud! Although he had a wild streak that worried me at times, I chalked it up to his youth.
He walked over to the body, squatting to get a closer look. I quickly dismissed what seemed to be a look of fleeting satisfaction, chalking it up to a case of nerves. Pathfinder, though, kept studying Pauly in a way that made my hackles rise.
"Is she one of Broken Nose's people?" I snapped unnecessarily harshly.
Pathfinder gave me a look I found hard to interpret and only nodded. "Get her wrapped in a blanket," I ordered. "I'll take her to her people."
Over the years I had developed a sort of shaky armed truce with the local savage groups. They all knew John Wolfe as a man of his word and an implacable enemy.
Without another word I climbed back astride Gray and accepted the pitiful burden Pathfinder handed up to me. Softly he whispered, "He is getting careless John." I looked at him questioningly but he said no more. You didn't push Pathfinder. If he had nothing to say the Devil himself could get no response save a hard stare that would make even Old Nick take a step back. Pathfinder claimed he could trail a snake over a flat rock in a rainstorm, and had been chagrined to find no recognizable traces of the perpetrator before this. I knew he would tell me when he was ready and not a moment before.
Kneeing Gray, I sat out for Broken Nose's camp. It was two hours of riding, my mind racing in all directions, and it seemed like no time at all before I reached the camp. I knew there were sentries out there, and my shoulders tensed waiting for the impact of a slug from an overeager sentry. They had reverted a long way into savagery and I wondered if I would be able to keep my hair where I like it. They had taken up the quaint habit of scalping and other less pleasant things for their enemies.
Broken nose stood silently waiting before his lodge as I approached, his crooked nose a legacy of our years long relationship. My side still aches from where I carried away his knife that day. He seemed to bear no enmity toward me, rather he seemed to glory in the fact that he had fought me to a standstill, hence the name he adopted of Broken Nose.
He looked grimly at the burden I carried, only his fierce eyes displaying any emotion. At a gesture, two men came forward and gently took the body, carrying it into his lodge. At a shriek of mortal agony from inside he stiffened, rage and sorrow flashing across his face.
"Who did this thing?" he snapped hoarsely, his failing to use the broken English he adopted showing the extremity of his upset. As the broken hearted cries came from his lodge I knew, with a sinking heart, that it was his own daughter I had carried home in my arms.
Stepping down from my horse I stood to face him, one big hard man to another. One father to another, my heart went out to him. Pulling my knife I slashed my wrist, another quaint custom they had revived and said, "By my blood I swear I will find who did this, by the blood we shed in battle, one warrior to another."
He stood for a moment watching the blood drip from my arm, and then suddenly jerked out his own knife and slashed his wrist deeply so the blood flowed freely. "By this the blood we have shed together, I hold you to your bond," he said softly. And then surprising me even more he grabbed my arm, pressing our wounds together, letting the blood mingle as it dripped to the ground. "Our blood is one, our cause is one. Our hearts are one. Go and do what must be done."
Giving my wrist a solemn squeeze he released it and I mounted Gray and rode out, a chill racing along my spine as I wondered what I had committed myself to. I did not stop to bind the wound until I was well outside the camp. To have done so, I felt, would have been to have cheapened the offering. I had a strange sense of foreboding as I rode back to Wolfe's Burrow. I guess my subconscious already knew what I was not yet ready to face.
I rode up to the cabin to find Lorna waiting anxiously for me. "John, I can't find Pauly," she said, concern in her voice.
"He's probably out with Pathfinder trying to track whoever is doing this," I brushed her off lightly, sliding wearily out of the saddle. Not as young as I once was, I noted wryly to myself.
"What's he doing out there?" she demanded angrily. "You know he was supposed to cut up those poles for the stove today. Besides, you shouldn't have taken him out there in the first place!"
"He's nearly a grown man Lorna," I soothed. "Getting all grown up and independent. Wants to be out on his own like Susan. Be wanting a family of his own soon."
"I know," she said softly as I put my arm around her shoulders, both of us thinking of the lonely little grave up on the hill, where little David lay. Not strong from birth, he had just faded away in spite of everything Steve could do. Steve took it hard, as he did every loss to our community, and felt he had failed us. Truth to tell, most of us would have been gone long since without him. More than once he patched me up, not to mention the time he saved my arm. He still chuckles when he thinks of sweet little Susan standing over him with her shotgun, so he wouldn't amputate the arm.
Soft footsteps interrupted our reverie as Pathfinder walked up behind us. That man can move like the shadow of a ghost! I knew he had deliberately made known his presence out of courteousy. As I turned to meet him, he placed that long rifle of his butt down on the ground and leaned folded arms on the barrel. Made me cringe every time he did it, but it was a part of his character. "Need to talk to you John," he said slowly.
I knew that it must be important because he never talked much, usually just sitting there quietly, sort of soaking up the company. He might come for dinner, eat, sit before the fire, and then suddenly be gone, having scarcely spoken all evening. Yet I trusted him with my life, and would have exchanged mine for his.
Susan was the only one ever to get a spark of animation out of him. He had attached himself to her when he first came to us, why I am just not quite sure. Woe betide anyone who displeased her when Pathfinder was anywhere around! An itinerant trader passing through and stopping for a meal, we never turned anyone away hungry, nearly paid for his quick feel with his life. One second Pathfinder was sitting in the corner, apparently unaware of anything, and the next he had this fellow by the throat, lifting him off the floor with one hand, preparing to drive his huge Arkansas toothpick through the man's chest.
I know of no man who could have stopped that massive arm, but the gentle touch of Susan's hand halted him in mid swing. "Please," she said softly, and Pathfinder dropped the traveler in a choking heap and walked out. As soon as he could breathe the traveller left, hurried along by the men who happened to be in camp at the time.
Susan did have to be careful though, in what she said around Pathfinder. She only had to hint at needing something and he would be gone on one of his many trips, only to turn up later with the very thing she needed.
I had a stern talk with her about it after Pathfinder disappeared for three months, to reappear travel worn, a festering knife wound in his arm, and a bolt of blue silk. Susan had mentioned in passing how much she would like to have a blue silk wedding dress.
You can see then why I was somewhat surprised when he spoke so directly. It was apparent by his nervous manner that he didn't want Lorna to overhear so I walked slowly up the hill with him, out toward David's resting place.
"He's got to be stopped John," he said, abruptly. I was surprised to see what looked like the glimmer of tears in his eyes.
"Who?" I asked.
"Pauly," he choked out bitterly.
"What are you talking about?" I snapped, taking a step closer.
Looking me levelly in the eye he said, "He's the one killing those girls John. I found this in the last ones hand," and he held out a tuft of corn yellow hair.
"What is that supposed to mean you old fool?" I yelled, my fists bunching at my sides. I could feel the veins swelling on my forehead.
"Its Pauly's hair John," he said sadly. "See how its braided a little here and has this little bead strung on one strand? I taught him how to do that when he was a boy. You know how proud he is of that hair. Like he was daring the savages to take it."
"Damn it man, that proves nothing!" I yelled through gritted teeth.
He looked at me sadly and said, "I would kill any other man for that John," and walked silently off.
I could tell from the stiffness of his back that I had hurt him, but I was too angry to care. I stormed around the hillside, looking for something to kick, trying to work off my anger before I went to face Lorna. Finally, I took hold of myself and forced myself to look at things rationally, not an easy task these days. Quick anger was a trait that the psudo-rabies had seemed to amplify in me.
Leaning back against a tree, I took deep cleansing breaths, trying to overcome all the pieces of the puzzle that had been nagging at me, and failing. Pauly had always been a wild one from the time I found him. He had frequented the woods from an early age, like some predatory animal.
Troubling small things began to swirl together, my mind finally bringing to the fore all the seemingly insignificant things that I had denied as Pauly being a little wild. Thinking back I realized that he had been at the scene of every killing. Examining the body for clues he said.
In fact, I had come upon him once, kneeling over a freshly killed girl. He had jumped quiltily to his feet, I had put it down to adolescent embarrassment, and stammered something about stumbling across her and trying to see if he could do anything for her. The blood had still been dripping from the remains of her breasts, and although I searched the area with Pauly's help, his woodcraft borders on the uncanny, we had found no sign of anyone else being around.
The same scenario had been repeated at each scene, neither Pathfinder nor Pauly ever finding a clue as to who had done this monstrous thing. The helpless victim was always tied and gagged in the same way, with pieces torn from her clothing. In the same fashion in fact, I suddenly remembered, in which Pauly's own mother had been bound and killed by the savages. I cursed myself for seven kinds of fool for even thinking such a thing. Pauly would never be capable of that! Yet every piece of evidence, every bit of reasoning cried out with the same answer.
Lorna found me still there as the sun was setting. Ever sensitive to my moods she sat down beside me and leaned up against me. Taking her in my arms I pulled her tight against me. "I love you," I said, pulling her tight to me. And then all my anger, my guilt, and my loss came pouring out and my body was wracked with sobs. Lorna looked puzzled but she knew I would tell her what was wrong in my own time. I loved it about her that she never pushed, and I envied her ability to put up with my moods.
I cried myself out, there in her arms. Grieving over what might have been and wondering where I had gone wrong. With her supporting me I got a grip on myself, much as I had years before when I found Shari and the kids gone forever.
I was chief of security for our little group and it was time to face the music and pay the piper. First though, I had to apologize to an old friend.
Drying my eyes I hugged her close and said, "I have to go find Pathfinder."
"Just see that you get home in time for supper!" she said mock sternly as she headed back for our cabin.
I found Pathfinder sitting by a communal fire in the center of camp, dragging on a pipe filled with a vile mixture of his own concoction. Sitting cross-legged on the ground beside him, I silently stared into the flames, reminded of the first time he came in from the shadows and sat by the fire. Finally I said, "I didn't mean what I said back there."
"I know," he grunted.
"Pathfinder, I am sorrier than I can say. But he's my son!"
"That boy was the closest thing I ever will have to a son John," he said so softly I could barely hear him. "But he has to be stopped."
"Yes," I sighed. "He has to be stopped."
How long we sat there I really don't know. Pathfinder finally stretched and walked off, characteristically saying nothing, yet by that very act saying that I was forgiven.
My feet were leaden as I made my way up the path to the house. Light from the windows shone on the porch, and I hesitated long before the door, getting up my courage for what I must do. Figuratively girding my loins, I opened the door and stepped in. Although it was late Lorna had kept dinner waiting for me. Coming into my arms she nestled against me in comfort, sharing my hurt, making my burden lighter.
Six year old Michael lay stretched before the hearth, sound asleep on the deerhide rug. "Where's Pauly?" I asked resignedly.
"He came by while you were gone, said something about meeting Pathfinder," she said. "Said he wanted to straighten Pathfinder out on a thing or two."
"What? When?" I snapped, fear and foreboding crashing down on me. As sure as I knew anything, I knew that Pauly knew what Pathfinder had found.
"Oh, maybe an hour ago," she answered puzzled.
Picking up my rifle, I headed out the door. "Where are you going?" Lorna asked, frightened by the look on my face.
"To do the hardest thing I have ever done," I said, dashing out before she could ask any more questions.
It took me nearly an hour to find where Pathfinder had bedded down in a thicket. Except in the most inclement weather he preferred to sleep out. I had a general idea of his location, and a low groan drew me warily to him.
"Pathfinder?" I called softly, to be answered by another faint groan. Hurriedly I made my way to him. He was lying half supported by a small sapling. By the faint moonlight I could see the haft of a knife sticking out of his chest, and there was blood trickling from his mouth.
"Pauly," he whispered. "Should have......... been.... more careful."
"Don't try to talk now old friend," I said. Slinging my rifle I eased him up in my arms, trying to hurt him as little as possible. I knew better than to try to move the knife. It was probably the only thing keeping him alive right now; keeping him from loosing his precious life's blood. I carried him to the house, the front for our highly fortified cave complex, and was met at the door by Harry and a harried looking Steve, the lookout having noted my approach. With one sweeping glance Steve ran to the infirmary, formerly known as the den, and flipping on the lights, powered by the wind generator, motioned me to put Pathfinder on the table.
Taking scissors he cut away the jacket, revealing a scarred mass of muscle. "Will he live?" I asked anxiously.
"You're asking the wrong person!" Steve snarled in the voice he used when he felt most helpless. "If he weren't such an onere old cuss he would be dead already. Now get out of here and let me do my job!"
'Yes,' I thought grimly, 'and let me get on with mine.'
My first stop was the stable. Just as I had figured, Pauly's horse was gone. Grimly I saddled Gray, who seemed a little put out that I wanted t go out in the dark when he had just settled in for the night. I led him out and up to our cabin, forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other, my heart like a leaden weight in my chest.
As I stepped through the door Lorna gasped, "John! Are you all right?"
I had forgotten the blood on my shirt. The blood of a friend, joining all the other blood that was on my hands because I had been so blind. "Paully found Pathfinder before I did," I said softly, as I packed smoked meat and biscuits in my saddle bags.
"I Don't understand John," Lorna said. When I failed to respond, she put her hand on my arm and said, "John, you are scaring me!"
Tossing the saddle bags down on the table I said, "It's Pauly Lorna."
"What do you mean? Has something happened to him?" she asked anxiously.
"Yes," I said. "Something that left him twisted and evil. Pathfinder found out he had been killing those girls, and he tried to kill Pathfinder. Steve was pretty nasty, so he doesn't think there is much hope."
"Hold me John," she said. Taking her in my arms we held one another, drawing comfort from what I feared might well be a last embrace. "What are you going to do John?" She asked softly.
"Go after him and stop him!" I said
"Can't someone else go?" she snapped. "Why does it always have to be you?"
"A man shoots his own dogs Lorna," I said. I felt her stiffen in my arms as the implications of what I had said sank in.
Clearing my throat I stepped back, filling my eyes with her beauty, thinking of all that had gone before. "I have to go after him," I said sadly. "I love you more than life itself Lorna, but once I find him, I'll keep on riding if that's what you want."
"You wouldn't be the man I love of you didn't go after him," she said. Putting her hand on my cheek she said, "Of course I want you to come back you silly man."
And then her eyes blazed up and she slapped me so hard my eyes watered and my head seemed to spin, "And that's for even thinking such a thing!" she snarled like a lioness.
I stood there woozily for a moment and then did the only thing I could. I hugged her close and told her how much I loved her. Kissing her tenderly, I picked up my bedroll and saddle bags and got ready to set out on the trail. I was already fitted out with my vest and weapons. Now all I had to do was figure out where Paully might be. Although it seemed crazy, I had a strong hunch he was on his way to Broken Nose's camp, hungry for another victim. I only hoped I would be on time.
Riding slowly in the moonlight, I had plenty of time to think about what lay before me. Praying to God that this would not be, and for the strength to face reality. It was a hard world we were left in, and a man had to be hard to survive. I just wasn't sure if I was hardened enough.
It was not far from dawn as I approached the little valley where Broken Nose and his band had set up camp. I had pulled up to rest, loosening the girth to give Gray a rest, when I saw his ears prick up and his nostrils flare as he prepared to neigh in greeting. Quickly I grabbed him by the nostrils, pinching them closed and cutting him off in a whuff of displeasure. He was smart enough to know though that I wanted him to be quiet.
Leaving him standing there in the shelter of an oak, I eased forward in the darkness, my rifle in my hands, fearing what I might find. I had not gone far when I heard a horse snort in the darkness ahead, and soon made out the form in the grayness of predawn. Easing up to him, I saw that it was indeed Paully's horse, Old Blue.
It was all I could do to force myself to go on. My heart was so heavy that it seemed a leaden weight in my chest. A muffled groan ahead drew me on and I soon found myself looking at a scene from Hell.
There in a little clearing a young woman was lying naked on the ground, bound and gagged by her own clothing. Blood dripped from a shallow cut on her breast, and from the knife in Paully's hand as he stood over her. I stood frozen for a moment, unable to believe what I was seeing. Some slight sound must have caught his attention for he turned to me, his eyes flashing in the morning light as one possessed.
"Just couldn't keep your nose out of it, could you old man?" he snarled, shocking me. Paully had never spoken to me like that in his life. "Get out of here while you still have the chance!"
"Can't!" I said softly.
"Then keep out of my way!" he screamed insanely, slashing the girl with the knife.
"Paully, No!" I yelled, the rifle coming to my shoulder.
"What are you going to do, shoot me?" he laughed, jabbing the girl lightly in the other breast with his knife.
I could hardly see for the tears streaming down my cheeks and I guess the boom of the rifle surprised me as much as it did him. The impact knocked him back away from the girl.
Dashing the tears out of my eyes, I hurried over to them. A quick glance at the girl showed that she was more scared than hurt, the cuts superficial. This once I had been in time! I quickly cut her hands loose, leaving her to take care of the rest of her bonds as I knelt by Paully.
He was bleeding profusely, and I shakily applied a battle dressing to the ugly wound in his abdomen. His eyes fluttered and he looked up at me. "Papa?" he called. "Papa, it hurts!"
I cradled his head in my lap, brushing the hair back from his eyes. It had been years since he had called me Papa. His eyes had lost their mad luster and he looked like an innocent young child. "I'm scared Papa," he said.
"It's all right son," I said softly. "I'm right here with you."
His eyes got suddenly wide and he said, "I love you Papa!" and then he went limp in my arms.
How long I sat there holding him to me, I don't know. The hot sun was beaming down on me when I finally realized that Broken Nose was kneeling silently across from me. Paully's horse and Gray were tethered behind him.
Without a word he lifted Paully in his arms and handed him to me when I had climbed wearily into the saddle. Riding slowly, leading Old Blue behind me, I set out on the endless journey to take my son home.
About the writer in his own words:
BIO: I'm a Former Marine, there being no such animal as an exMarine. Have worked as a school bus driver, maintenance mechanic, and copier technician. I hold an AAS in Broadcast Electronics Techniology, a Lifetime General FCC License. Since a diabling injury I have turned to writing as a creative outlet and have earned an AA in Journalism thus far. The BA will take a little longer. I currently live in rural central Illinois with my wife, daughter our cat and the watch monster out back, where I write a weekly news column for the county paper as well as some freelance articles. In the summer you can often find me out in my garden tending the vegetables. To date I have had two short stories published, Bellgrade's Landing and the sequel, A Ranger's Debt. I am working at getting a novel published in the future.
Robert can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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