Authors: Scott B. Williams
Into the River Lands
Darkness After Series
Scott B. Williams
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and events are all products of the author’s imagination and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Scott B. Williams
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
Cover photograph: Mississippi woodlands
Scott B. Williams
banglds, file #28021993, fotolia
Cover and interior design: Scott B. Williams
Editor: Michelle Cleveland
This one is for Houston
paddle out of the water at the end of her stroke and let the canoe drift midstream while she tried to think. Her ex-boyfriend, David Green was in front of her in the bow seat, and it was all she could do to refrain from using the paddle to smack him so he would shut up. He wasn’t helping her paddle, and he sure wasn’t helping her find what she was looking for.
“I think we made a terrible mistake, April. We’re never going to find that farm and now we’re lost out here in the middle of the woods with nothing and no way to get back.”
, David! I told you, I’m just not sure exactly which bend in the creek it is. I’ll know it when I see it. That’s a lot different than being lost!”
“Not if we don’t find it, it isn’t. What if we’ve already passed it and you just didn’t know it? We’d never be able to paddle back upstream against this current. We’ll end up who knows where if we just keep going.”
passed it, David. I’m certain of that. The path isn’t obvious and it isn’t visible from the creek. Mitch said that was deliberate. His dad didn’t want just anyone floating down the creek to find the way to his land. He said they always had to keep an eye out for poachers and other trespassers. But the trail
there. We have to just keep stopping at every bend that looks like the one I remember, and by looking in the woods just beyond the creek we’ll find the path when we’re at the right one. I’m certain that it’s close. I told you that I remember it being just a few miles past that last bridge we went under.”
“I hope you’re right, because if you’re wrong, we’re all going to die out here.”
“We’re not as likely to die out here as we were back in Hattiesburg. You know that. You saw what was happening. There’s no way they can defend that building indefinitely. The whole city is a death zone. Besides, we’re here now and there’s no going back!”
“Maybe, but I’m still not convinced we’re any better off. You don’t even know if that redneck kid is even going to be there if we find his place. He may be dead by now for all we know.”
“I told you not to call him that again! He may live in the woods, but he’s
ignorant or stupid, and he’s definitely not a
. He’s more mature than most adults of any age that I’ve met. And yeah, something could have happened to him, but I doubt it. You just have no idea what’s he’s capable of. He wouldn’t do anything foolish because he’s got his little sister and her friends to take care of. He’ll be there, I’m sure of it.”
“And I’m sure you can’t wait to see him. He’s still under age and he’s still too young for you, even if he does act mature!”
“Just shut up and paddle, David. All you’re doing is pissing me off with your dumb comments. What I do, I do for Kimberly. She’s all that matters to me anymore, but she needs us both right now, so let’s just focus on that, okay?”
April was frustrated and angry, mostly with herself, but listening to David’s “I told you so” smart aleck remarks most of the evening and the day before had really pushed her over the edge. She was sick of looking at him and sick of hearing him talk, but that was really nothing new. What was more infuriating was that after coming this far, and getting this close, she still hadn’t found the place she was looking for. April couldn’t believe how much everything out here looked the same, and nothing in particular stood out despite her having traveled this exact route just seven months before. Of course, she remembered there was pretty much nothing but trackless forest on both sides of Black Creek for mile after mile. She remembered that landmarks such as bridge overpasses were few and far between along its course, but she had not imagined it would be so hard to locate the one specific bend in the waterway she was searching for. It stood out in her memory as a bend with a low, shaded sandbar on its inside radius and a dense thicket of bay trees in the understory of the forest beyond. The problem was that they had already stopped and investigated at least nine or ten such bends that looked just like the one she remembered, and all led to nothing. There was no hidden path leading through the bay thicket away from the creek bottom, no rusty barbed-wire fence beyond, where the hardwoods transitioned to pines, and no Henley pasturelands past that. All she and David found were trees and more trees in a silent forest devoid of all sounds of human life.
Though she wanted to beat herself up for not remembering, April kept reminding herself that not only had it been seven months since she’d been here, but that it had been her one and only time to canoe
river. Before the events that led her here that first time with Mitch Henley, the woods to April were just a blur of greenery seen from the car window while driving down the highway. She was a city girl in her previous life, all of her nearly nineteen years of it before the world changed completely. Now, life in any city was too dangerous to consider, and living in an artificial environment in such isolation from nature was virtually impossible anyway without the endless supply chain feeding the incessant demands of the population. Reality had changed in the course of just one night when a bombardment of electromagnetic pulses from the sun shut down the power grid, along with most every modern technology from transportation to communication. Now, like everyone else lucky or resourceful enough to still be alive in the nightmare of the aftermath, April was doing what she had to do in order to survive. But above all, she was doing it for Kimberly, the eighteen-month-old daughter who was the light and the purpose of her life. David Greene had fathered their little girl, but whatever she’d felt for him at the time that led to that event was long forgotten. He was here only because she felt that two parents were better than one, especially during such a perilous journey. She knew full well it was dangerous to travel anywhere, alone or not, but this was a journey she deemed necessary. When she’d passed this way all those months before, all that had mattered was getting
Kimberly. Now, with her baby sleeping quietly in a blanket between her feet in the bottom of the canoe, getting back to the Henley farmhouse was a matter of life or death. She was certain that Mitch Henley would be there, and that if anyone could keep her and Kimberly safe long enough to find out if they had a future, it was Mitch. All she had to do was find him—a task so simple and yet so hard out here in this vast river land forest he called home.
wounded doe collapsed in a pile of bloody leaves at the bottom of a deep ravine. Another half hour and he would have lost hope of finding the animal at all. Dusk was fading rapidly to the darker shadows of night and the sporadic blood trail was hard to follow, even for a tracker with his skills. Without hesitation, he drew his longbow and unleashed the hunting arrow that was already nocked and ready on the string, finishing a job someone else had so badly botched.
Mitch had been scouting rather than hunting that late fall afternoon, though he never left the house anymore without a weapon at the ready for just such chance opportunities as this one. He first jumped the doe while threading his way through a thicket along the creek bank on his way back home to his family land. It had been a long day of exploring and marking trails, and he was anxious to get back to the farmhouse to tell the others about an impressive stand of old-growth cypress he’d found along a hidden slough far from his normal hunting grounds.
The chill in the air had him moving faster than usual that day, and with a little less caution than if he were seriously hunting for food. It was the first real cold of the season; a blustery north wind stirring the treetops above him, rattling branches and sending leaves and pine needles spiraling softly to the forest floor. He was ready to call it a day and get back to the warmth of the fire, and so he was momentarily startled when the small deer burst out of hiding without warning just a few yards in front of him.
Mitch knew immediately from its erratic gate and stiff hind leg that it was hurt, but there was no time for a shot before it disappeared in the undergrowth. The leaf litter where it had been resting was soaked in blood, and scattered drops left as it fled provided just enough sign for an experienced hunter to follow. But Mitch slowed down and took his time doing so, knowing if he pressed it too close the deer might still run for miles. He figured the animal had been hit in the leg or some other non-vital area, and though it would eventually bleed out and die, it might take hours. Mitch hated the thought of wounded game going to waste, and that’s exactly what would happen to this deer if he didn’t track it down before dark. But more than he and the others needed the meat, he needed to know who the sloppy hunter was who’d wounded it and with what kind of weapon. He hadn’t heard a gunshot all day, but from the speed the deer was still able to run when he’d startled it, he doubted it had been very long since it was hit by whatever caused the bleeding.
Now that the doe’s final run was over and he had caught up, he lost no time in ending the animal’s suffering. When his arrow struck home, the shaft buried itself almost to the fletching in the soft neck, and no doubt would have passed all the way through if not stopped by the ground behind it. The deer would be dead or nearly dead by the time he climbed down to reach it, but out of habit, Mitch nocked another arrow, just in case. He’d been careful the whole time he was following the blood trail, stopping often to look and listen for minutes at a time—not only to avoid spooking the terrified animal into running farther—but also to stay alert for any signs of the hunter who’d started this. He hadn’t heard or seen a thing, including any evidence that anyone else had attempted to find the deer, but he was much too cautious to let his guard down now. Mitch did not at all like the idea of a stranger in these woods so close to home.
He carefully made his way down the steep bank of slick red clay, using exposed roots as hand and footholds. When he reached the fallen deer it was still, but just to make sure its suffering was over, he drew his hunting knife and opened the jugular to bleed it out. Then he rolled the carcass over, searching for the source of the blood that led him here. What he found explained why he had heard no report of a rifle or shotgun. Protruding from the animal’s hind quarter was some six inches of broken carbon fiber arrow shaft, the broad head tip no doubt lodged in the pelvic bone. Someone had made a lousy shot or else the deer jumped the string at the last second, not quite fast enough to avoid being hit entirely.