Authors: Scott B. Williams
The lightweight composite arrow was typical of the projectiles modern sport bowhunters used with compound bows, if such high-tech machines could even be called bows. Mitch didn’t like them, preferring instead his traditional longbow with its heavy, sixty-pound draw weight and no mechanical advantage to make it easier to pull, hold and aim. The simplicity of a simple stick bow, one of mankind’s oldest and most effective weapons, also meant there was nothing to break but the string or the bow itself, both easy to replace from available materials. High-tech compound bows were far too dependent on complex materials and manufacturing to be viable in this new reality.
Besides, even if the bow itself held up, anyone using such a weapon now would not be doing so indefinitely. With no easy way to procure or make more arrows capable of handling the tremendous asymmetric forces generated, such technology would soon be useless. At least with his simple weapon Mitch could use primitive arrows fabricated from river cane, and there was an endless supply of that growing for the taking along the banks of Black Creek.
Satisfied with his examination as to the cause of the doe’s wound, Mitch set to work with his knife to carefully open the abdominal cavity and remove the entrails, separating the heart, liver and kidneys and wrapping them in some big magnolia leaves before stashing them in his small daypack. The hunting was good in the vicinity of the Henley property and Mitch’s prowess with the bow assured a steady supply of meat. But living on a largely carnivorous diet, he and the others craved the fatty and nutrient-rich organ meats that were far too precious to discard as many did in the days before the collapse. Tonight, they would eat well and he would come back for the rest of the venison tomorrow. With the cold front moving through the area, the lows would be at or near freezing before dawn, and the meat would be fine until he could pack it home.
Using a length of rope he kept in his pack, he tossed one end over a high branch and hoisted the carcass out of the reach of scavengers. He would be back for it early, but at first light in the morning, he would backtrack the blood trail from where he’d jumped the deer. Mitch intended to find out who shot that arrow and where he or she had gone afterwards. The security of everyone who depended on him to look out for them required nothing less.
for a good hour since their last argument, but April knew it wouldn’t last long so she wasn’t surprised when he started complaining again as the afternoon light faded.
“We’ll never find anything in the dark, that’s for sure. So what are we gonna do now?”
“Find a place to camp, that’s what? What do you think we’re gonna do? Kimberly is hungry and you’re right, we can’t keep looking in the dark. We can’t take a chance of passing that trail. We’ll stop at the next sandbar and start looking again in the morning.”
April had quickly learned to make herself comfortable sleeping in the woods during her brief, but intense journey with Mitch Henley. Though it was only a few days they spent together, there was so much excitement, adventure and danger packed into those days it had seemed much longer. But despite the risks and the overwhelming odds they encountered, Mitch always seemed to know just what to do and he never hesitated to follow through with doing it.
April doubted she would be alive now if not for Mitch Henley. The day he came into her life was the day that she left the blacked-out city of New Orleans in an attempt to drive north to Hattiesburg—a trip of less than two hours on a normal day. But by then, just four days after the pulse event, there
no normal days. Even attempting the one-hundred mile trip through the mostly rural and wooded countryside of Mississippi would have been out of the question for a city girl like her if she had no working car, like the vast majority of the stranded population. The damage caused by the pulse did not spare the electronic components that control modern engines, and most vehicles new enough to be in everyday use had rolled to a stop within seconds, coming to rest where they ran out of momentum; abandoned by their occupants soon after.
April was among the lucky few who had access to a still-running antique; David’s classic 1969 Mustang that had no complex electrics and therefore was unaffected by the surge. The carburetor had been in pieces where he had been rebuilding it, but the new parts and instructions were all there. Working with determination born of desperation, April put it all back together and got the car running all by herself. She had no choice. David was not there to do it, and with him was the one thing in her life that mattered more than anything—her precious daughter, Kimberly. How could she have known when he left with her to visit his parents in Hattiesburg that the world would change forever in a matter of hours? That she would wake in the morning to no working phones, lights, computers, television or radio? That she would have no way of knowing what happened or when it was all going to be fixed, assuming like everyone else that it was simply a temporary power outage?
It took a full day for the reality to sink in and then a couple more for her to get the old Mustang running, but when she did, she got out while she could without telling a soul of her plans. Starting the car before dawn the forth day after the grid went down, she made her way through the obstacle course of stalled vehicles that clogged every route out of the city. Dodging throngs of pedestrians and nearly hitting several who stepped into her path trying to force her to stop. April gunned the hot rod V-8 and peeled rubber as she shifted gears. She was not shy about letting anyone who dared get in her way know that she would run over them before giving up the car.
Somehow, she made it out of the city and across the interstate bridge leading to Slidell without getting carjacked. The number of stalled cars and people walking the roads prompted her to leave Interstate 59 at the first opportunity however, and once across Lake Pontchartrain, she turned off to take the older route north, a two-lane highway David had shown her on one of their leisurely Sunday trips to visit his parents.
April felt a lot better about traveling Highway 11. It was much less congested even though it was smaller and only a two lane. Soon she was out of the cities and suburbs, rolling along past mixed forests and farm fields. All was well until the Mustang sputtered and then died, rolling to a stop within sight of a single, isolated farmhouse. April knew the fuel gauge didn’t work, and David had run out of gas once before because of it. She had no way of knowing how much was in the tank when she left, so she was hardly surprised that it was empty now. People had said you couldn’t get gas from any of the gas stations anyway, without electricity to pump it, so refilling before she left had not been an option. As she stepped out in the middle of the highway among several other abandoned cars, April knew she had to find a way to get some fast.
The three men that emerged from that house at the sound of her approach had other plans that didn’t include helping her on her way, however. Cornered and alone on that deserted road, April was determined to fight to the death to deprive them of the one thing they wanted. The first to lay a hand on her paid with blood when the big folding knife she concealed in her back pocket found his throat. April used the moment of shock to try and run from the other two, but one was faster and she was thrown to the pavement and disarmed. She was certain she would have lost the fight if not for the surprise that came next in the form of deadly arrows from an unseen archer. Both men fell before they knew what hit them and April leapt to her feet to face the new threat. It was then that Mitch Henley showed himself, stepping out of the concealment of the roadside bushes and walking towards her with a reassuring wave, his bow arm relaxed at his side.
Thus began their brief but intense friendship, a bond strengthened by a long and difficult journey that involved more blood and death, but brought her at last to be reunited with her precious Kimberly. It had been a sad day when they parted outside the gates of a fortified church in Hattiesburg where David and his parents had taken Kimberly for refuge. But April had known all along Mitch wouldn’t stay there and that she couldn’t follow him—at least until all these months later, when life in that fortress became unbearable and too dangerous to remain.
Getting out of the city at last and finding her way back to Black Creek with Kimberly and David had been hard enough. And now, just when she’d thought the journey was almost over, April simply could not locate the obscure path to Mitch’s land. It was incredibly frustrating, but there was nothing else to do but to camp for the night and keep searching in the morning.
All of them were tired, and Kimberly’s needs had to be taken care of. David knew no more of camping and river travel than April did before the blackout, so she made the decision as to where they would land the canoe and where they would sleep for the night. She picked a high, narrow sandbar with a stand of tall hardwoods behind it, pulling the canoe well above the water’s edge in case an upstream rain caused it to rise overnight. They would sleep on the open sand at the edge of the woods, because Mitch had told her that the big diamondback rattlers that were common in these parts were nocturnal and on the prowl on the forest floor at night. April knew he said they sometimes ventured out on the sandbars too, but she felt better sleeping on the white sand that reflected the moonlight so well and at least made it possible to see a snake before stepping on it. She would have much preferred a tent with securely zippered doors, but they were lucky to even have blankets and those would have to suffice.
need to stay here, Lisa. Jason and I can handle this,” Mitch said. “It was probably just one guy, and he has probably moved on by now anyway. But in case he hasn’t or there are more of them, the two of us can move faster and quieter than four.
“But if there are more, you might wish you had our help, Mitch!” Lisa argued. “Why do we always get stuck staying here, guarding the house?”
“Because somebody has to, that’s why. I could do this alone, but Jason is getting a lot better at tracking and stalking and this will be a good drill for him. You know we’ve got to be ready when these trespassers and poachers come around. We’ve been through all this before.”
“Corey and Samantha can guard the house. It’s not like they’re doing anything else useful.”
“Don’t be so hard on them, Lisa. They’ve been through a lot. And you know as well as I do that we can’t leave them here in charge of watching the place with everyone gone. They have no experience with guns or any other skills they would need for the job. You and Stacy do, Lisa. That’s why I trust you with a responsibility that’s just as important as what Jason and I have to do. Besides, we won’t be gone long at all, and if we don’t find whoever shot that arrow, all we’re going to be doing is packing deer meat back home anyway.”
Mitch finished his breakfast of fresh eggs and venison steak and stepped out into the cold of the morning. The pale edge of dawn was just beginning to push back the darkness that enveloped the Henley farm and the forest beyond. Jason was already outside, anxious to get started, armed with the Smith & Wesson AR-15 that was Doug Henley’s state-issued patrol rifle. Mitch knew his dad would be glad they had the weapon, but he also knew that if he could, Doug Henley would much rather be here using it to watch over them himself.
Seven months had passed and every day Mitch had maintained hope that his mom and dad would arrive at the gate to the property, somehow making their way back to south Mississippi from Houston, Texas. But though he wouldn’t let the hope die, Mitch couldn’t deny the probability that his parents were no longer alive. For all he knew, they had died that first day of the blackout, victims of a plane crash caused by solar flare’s powerful pulse. No one could have imagined the devastation wrought by this unseen force; planes falling from the sky…cars and trucks stalling on the highways and city streets…cell phones and lights shutting down for keeps…. The EMP destroyed practically everything electronic, and consequently, all systems dependent upon and controlled by computer and electrical circuitry.
Mitch didn’t know if his parents’ connecting flight from New Orleans had landed before it happened or not. If it didn’t, his parents wouldn’t have had a chance. Though he tried not to think about it too often, this seemed the most likely explanation as time went on. Doug Henley was as good a woodsman and as dedicated a lawman as any man could be. Mitch knew that if he were alive, his dad would do everything in his power to stay that way and keep his mom safe too. And Mitch knew that aside from that, he would make it his mission to get back home to him and his little sister. Nothing would stop him from doing so, but seven months was a long time, even without transportation and even with all the obstacles anyone on the move would surely encounter. If they were okay, Mitch was sure they would have arrived long before now.
But until they got here, if they ever did, keeping his sister safe and protecting the house and livestock from marauding looters was Mitch’s responsibility. He was managing so far, but each new unknown, each new variable like this mysterious hunter who had wounded a deer so close to the house, was a potential threat to their safety that had to be investigated without delay.