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The Last to Die
Author's note: I studied Wilderness survival from books such as "Hatchet" "My Side of the Mountain" and survival manuals to create the most realistic experience possible. I certainly hope you enjoy this book.
Gareth Allred sat in the grey ashes of his Texas home, his eyes closed, trying to focus on nothing but the sounds of the charred remnants settling.
He looked about him. He plucked at a bit of ceramic tile and pulled it loose from the ashy plaster socket. Gareth realized he was in his bathroom, roughly where he had been when he had smelled smoke and jumped out the window about three hours ago.
His whole family had died in the blaze, as far as he knew. There were no remains of his mother, father, and sister. Not even bones. He had found a few of their possessions among the ashes though, a twisted sheet of metal from his dad’s bookshelf, the melted silverware that his grandmother had passed on to his mom, his sister’s giant picture frame, curled up like a scroll. He could still see the image of their family, charred, but protected by the relatively thick glass. Funny thing though, he had been burnt out of the picture, leaving only his other three family members. “How ironic!” he thought to himself as a fresh wave of tears came to his eyes.
Suddenly, in the distance, he heard the loud yelling of the rebel radio program emanating from the car radio. From the loud blaring sound, he could tell they were heading in his direction.
Scrambling up out of his kneeling position, he swiftly jumped behind a small portion of the wall which had been left standing. A small puff of grey dust, nearly undetectable, floated up from the impact, swirling in the light wind.
The car quickly passed, squealing around the corner into a different street in the burnt neighborhood.
Gareth’s fists shook with rage as he stood up, scanning the horizon. The rebels burned everything in their wake, and had the nerve of returning to survey their handiwork.
It was that moment, as he stood in the acidic cinders of his ruined home that he decided he would do everything in his means to survive, so that he could make sure this outrage was never forgotten; the scourge of thousands, the bane of his family.
They would be brought to justice. He walked, in a hot daze to the back of his car, and pried open the trunk with his hands, the weakened metal snapping under his fingers.
Under the hood, most items had survived, only slightly covered with ash and smoke. He pulled out his family’s survival kit, throwing the straps over his shoulder, and adjusting to its weight.
Without looking back, he trudged down his street, to the woods that he had grown up playing in, and that he knew like the back of his hand.
Avoiding the few rebel cars that cruised through, Gareth made his way through the remains of cars, houses, and people that were strewn across the road.
In a few long hours of eerie silence, he arrived at his destination, the family’s 100 plus acre plot of land.
He would have driven if he had found an unburned car somewhere, but all of the vehicles were either torn apart by bombs or burnt. He was only 15, but he had his driver’s permit, and it would have been better than walking in the harsh ashy air.
He had wrapped a portion of his ripped jacket around his face, which was helping keep some of the stuff out of his lungs, but his throat still burned and screamed for water.
He now knelt at a basin of water, naturally formed by years of water wearing away at the limestone, and washed the gritty grayness out of his eyes, and hair.
When he was finished washing, he went upstream for a short distance, and drank from the cool water that pooled out of the aquifer.
After he had taken his fill, he climbed slowly up a grassy hill of soil, and looked out on the property. Not a single blade of grass had been damaged, it seemed, and the same for the adjoining plots of land, up until the distant country road where he could see little burned houses and cars off in the distance.
The rebels only made it worse for themselves, Gareth thought, looking about him. They went wild and killed and burned everything, leaving nothing for themselves or anyone to eat, leaving nobody to help them if they were hurt or sick.
Sadly, that also meant that Gareth wouldn’t have any processed food either, for who knew how long, and he’d have to survive off of what he could find in nature.
This thought fresh in his mind, he stooped down, plucked a tiny, shriveled wild carrot from the ground, and began to chew on its bitter white root.
Gareth trudged down the hill, still chewing his carrot, and sat down by the stream’s edge again, prioritizing things he must do in order to survive in his mind.
There were six fundamentals to survival: food, water, fire, shelter, signaling, and navigation.
Food was all around, in its different forms, wild carrots and onions, the jackrabbits, deer, and coyotes that roamed the fields, water he could collect from the spring, and, if need be, from the many prickly-pear-cactus around him, he had two different kinds of fire starters in his backpack, not including a pack of strike-anywhere matches, and a tinderbox, signaling was out of the question, considering it would draw the rebels to him, and if it came to navigation, he knew these woods better than anyone else in the world, other than his friend Derek, who spent a lot of time out in the woods with him, camping and fishing.
“Speak of the devil!” Gareth thought, as he saw a sleeping bag propped up under a tree.
He shouted with joy and ran over to greet his friend. Derek struggled to get up, but fell back down, crunching the dry juniper needles with his weight. Gareth leaned over and put out a hand to help Derek up.
Derek made no move to take his hand, but lay, face up, eyes closed, in the hot sleeping bag. “Need water!” he whispered through parched lips.
Gareth saw the signs of heat stroke, the heavy sweating, and the spots of damp sleeping bag and juniper needles that were damp from vomiting, and the way his eyes were dilated, darting crazily back and forth, a sign of the dizziness and headache he must be feeling.
He immediately jogged down to the stream, and emptied the contents of his backpack out onto the ground, fishing around until he found his water-skin and filter. He filtered the water carefully into the skin and charged back to his friend, sloshing a little in his haste.
He poured half carefully in Derek’s mouth, and then pulled him out of the sleeping bag, pouring the rest all over him in an attempt to break the fever. Derek sighed with relief and opened his mouth to thank Gareth, who was already going back to the river for more water.
After several hours of trying to cool Derek down, Gareth finally stuck his strip thermometer in his mouth, and the reading came out 98.9, a normal temperature.
He then took his vomit soaked sleeping bag downstream from where he planned to drink, and washed it thoroughly, hanging it from a gnarled live-oak branch to dry.
“First things first” He said to himself, putting his gear back in his backpack. Gareth took out his tarp and draped it over an overhanging branch, making a large lean-to shelter.
He hung his Tritium “Beta light” keychain off of the main rope of the lean-to and took the first watch, glancing at Derek when he moaned or shifted in his sleep.
Sometime in the night, he drifted asleep, and he woke to the calming sight of the beautiful southern sky, its dark canvass light by pinpricks of ethereal light.
And there were the night noises of the stream and scrubby forest all around, the clicking of crickets, the chirping of little frogs on the banks, and off in the distance, a pack of coyotes barking.
As he strained his ears to gauge the distance of the coyote pack, he heard something that chilled him to the bone; the unmistakable crack of a high-powered hunting rifle.
He scrabbled across the tarp to rip the beta light off of the roof, and he shoved it deep in his pocket where the light wouldn’t show.
He found the macro-binoculars in his backpack and scaled a tree, holding the binoculars strap in his mouth. He surveyed the area, looking for any sign of life, and saw it; a lone headlight out on the edge of his ranch by the county road. Whether this belonged to a car with a damaged headlight, or a motorcycle, he couldn’t tell, but he was sure that for a second he saw the outline of a man, looking in his direction, with a rifle over his shoulder.
“What’s happening Gareth?” Said Derek, propping himself up on one elbow weakly.
“Well, Derek,” Gareth started, keeping his voice down, “you got heatstroke from lying in that sleeping bag of yours in the middle of the day, so I set you up in a lean-to, and I was keeping watch, and just heard a gunshot.” He paused. “There’s a pickup about a mile down by the county road.”
“Oh.” Said Derek, sorry he’d asked. He stretched and lay back down on his chest, propping his head up on his folded arms.
“Is he coming this way?”
“Well, it’s hard to tell at this point, but I think he’s camped for the night.”
After a while of silence, Derek’s breathing became heavier and Gareth sat in a more comfortable position, wrapping his camp quilt around his shoulders more tightly up in his tree perch.
He knew he wouldn’t be drifting off again, after what had just happened, but he felt his eyes become heavier and heavier as the night progressed.
In the morning, he took out his binoculars and looked down at where he had seen the light.
There was a huge, muddy, jet black motorcycle with leather storage containers on the sides. There was, surprisingly enough, an old-fashioned sidecar full of items, with a small browning machine gun mounted on the front.
This had to be a renegade. This could be either good news or bad news. Most renegades were people fighting the rebels by themselves, who weren’t part of The People’s Militia.
Others were just as bad as the rebels, except they preferred to travel by themselves, to take all the spoils instead of sharing.
He surveyed the landscape near the motorcycle until he found a perfectly camouflaged shelter, covered in a brown mesh net.
Gareth was spooked by Derek yawning and standing up, hitting his head on the taught canvas above. He rubbed his head and looked at Gareth inquisitively.
“How long have I been out?”
“All yesterday and last night.”
“Is the guy still there?”
There was a long, sleepy silence as they watched the orange sun rise over the horizon.
Gareth started to fall asleep, but was snapped awake by the distant sound of the motorcycle purring to life.
He scrabbled back up into the tree watching as the renegade pressed the gas and started driving; straight toward them.
Gareth dropped the binoculars, catching them only by the strap on his neck. He scurried to stuff all of the loose items into his backpack, and Derek, seeing Gareth’s dismay, did likewise with his sleeping bag and started to disassemble the canvas shelter.
The motorcycle with its sidecar, and the dust it raised was now easily seen from their position.
Both boys looked around for somewhere to hide, but couldn’t see any option than to run.
They charged through cactus and mesquite alike, getting scratched and bloodied with every step.
When they had gone a few yards into the thick scrub, the motor stopped, and the boys could hear someone walking towards them.
Gareth peeked out from behind his dense mesquite bush, and saw the renegade clearly for the first time.
He was garbed in a green wool trench coat, with an ammunition utility belt. He was about six feet tall, lean, and muscular, and he appeared to be in his late thirties. He had his brown hair cut short, without any particular style, like he had cut it off with a knife.
And he was tracking them; pointing the long steel barrel of his bolt-action rifle along the path of his footsteps.
Gareth saw him make the connection between the footprints and their hiding place and grin.
“You may as well just stand up and walk out from behind that scrub!” The man said. “And don’t try anything stupid, I’m not here to kill a couple of boy scouts.”
They both stood, knowing it was pointless to stay where they were, and stepped cautiously from behind the mesquite bush, scratched and covered in mesquite and cactus wounds.
The man held his long rifle at his waist, pointing it at them as they walked to his position.
“What are two boy scouts doing out here in the sticks?” He asked, chuckling to himself.
“Surviving.” Gareth replied.
“You sure don’t look like it!” He said.
It was true. The two boys were scratched and bleeding, their clothes torn, and Derek was still pale and weak from his bout of heatstroke the day before.
“We were doing fine until you came along!” Gareth said, rubbing his bruises ruefully.
“Well, it’s about to get dark, so how about you come help me set up camp.” He said, lowering his gun.
“How do we know we can trust you?” Gareth asked.
The man didn’t answer, but took out the bolt of his rifle and tossed it to Derek, who barely had time to catch it.
He then turned and walked towards a tree-covered hill, not looking back at all.
Derek looked at Gareth, shrugged, and they started after him.
The hill was ringed by scrubby live oaks, and had a flat, grassy clearing in the middle. A perfect hiding place from any enemies.
Derek and Gareth set up their small tent, and helped the renegade put up his large one after he had pulled his motorcycle up the hill.
When the renegade started to dig a bucket-sized hole near the tents, Gareth and Derek looked on, wondering what he was doing.
“Are you digging that for a latrine?” Gareth asked. “Because that is definitely not the right place for it.”
The renegade only smiled and dug another hole a foot from the first one, this one the size of a water glass, and connected the two holes with a tunnel about the size of his fist.
He pulled a tin from somewhere inside the voluminous confines of his long, flowing jacket and removed a cotton-ball from it.
Then came a silver wick lighter, with which he lit the cotton ball.
He placed it in the larger hole and added grass, then twigs, and then larger sticks until he had a powerful roaring fire, fed by the air flow from the smaller hole he had dug.
“A dakota hole!” Gareth mumbled, recalling a diagram from a survival manual he’d read.
The man looked Gareth in the eyes with his piercing gaze and nodded, looking impressed.
A dakota hole made it so that flames were not visible to searchers, and burned so hot that it left little smoke hanging in the air to give them away. They could also make a mesh of sticks above it and grill some meat on it.
That is, if they had any meat. It was then that Gareth realized how hungry he was. He hadn’t eaten since that gnarly wild carrot the day before.
He was snapped out of his daze by the renegade who was now talking.
“Come sit down!” He was saying. “It’s starting to cool down, and I’m eager to hear your stories.
They both walked the few paces to the fire through the thick grass and sat cross-legged, their hands extended to catch the bright warm glow of the fire.
The renegade looked up at the two boys with a melancholy expression.
“My story first, I suppose, since you two know each other. My name is John Ranald, and I was a War Historian employed by The University of Texas until recently when they were destroyed by the gangs.”
He paused and looked down thoughtfully, mindlessly drawing in the dirt with a twig.
“I never married, but I adopted a boy, who just turned ten a month ago. I was at a meeting, and I had left him home by himself; just for an hour.”
“When I came back, he was gone, and the house was looted.”
“I found a few threads of a green bandanna, and I traced it down to a gang that was set up in a hotel in San Antonio.”
“I managed to sneak in, disguised as a member of their gang, and got audience to the leader, where I held a knife to his throat. He told me that everyone from my part of town had either fled or been killed.”
“I went to every place he might go, but he’s nowhere to be found.”
“Right then and there, I vowed to fight back, to prevent things like this from happening to others. Because that’s they only reason I still fight for my own life.”
He wiped his face with his sleeve as though there had been a bug on his face, but Gareth noticed it come back down wet.
He smiled and said, “Well how about you two? What’s your story?”
Gareth told them his story and Derek looked at him with a sorrow that can only be felt for someone that you know as well as yourself.
Then two pairs of eyes shifted to Derek’s face, and he knew that it was his turn to give his story.
He looked down nervously, and shifted his legs.
“As Gareth knows, my parents are divorced, and my mom got full custody. I came home from school one day, when it was getting bad, but they hadn’t closed the system down yet, you know?”
“And my house was looted; everything broken or taken. But they didn’t even touch the fridge or my camping gear, so I brought all I had, and headed out here, because I knew how to live off the land sort of, from what Gareth showed me, and I knew the terrain well.”
“Well, when I arrived, I remembered I had my phone still in my pocket, and I turned it on. Well, I had like, I don’t know, fifty messages, and they’re all from my dad right? The first ones were him asking if I was ok, but then he accidentally locked himself in the storm basement when he was trying to hide from some gangs, so he wanted ME, his 15 year old son to go save him.
“And the messages just went on and on. And he…” Derek broke down crying now, the grief he had been hiding creasing his forehead. “He left the phone on while he killed himself.” He finally burst out in a barely audible tone.
Gareth patted Derek on the back awkwardly, not really knowing what to do.
Derek recovered himself in a minute, and looked up sheepishly at John, waiting for his answer to the two boys’ tragedies.
John just sat and twirled the twig between his callused palms, his brow creasing with deep thought.
“I’m so sorry.” He eventually managed.”
A few seconds later, an owl felt compelled to join in the mournful tales and began to hoot miserably.
John stood up suddenly, scaring the owl off of its perch and dragged a dry tree branch to the fire site, adding more sticks to the hot orange coals.
“Well, I think we can make a little agreement here.” John said looking down at them as he dropped twigs one by one into the fire. “We’ve all been through a lot, and lost our families. And we’re all prepared to do what we must to survive. So let’s make this chance gathering a team. Add me to your group and you have extra protection, more supplies, less time for watch shifts, and the added physical labor and problem solving I can contribute.”
Gareth felt in his heart that he could trust this man. His story had seemed true, and the man could have killed them if he had wanted to.
“Unless Derek has anything against it, then I think that would be great!” Gareth said, smiling up at him.
Derek nodded at John, who couldn’t help smiling. He pulled out a sack of flour and a paper package of brown sugar from his sidecar.
“Then this calls for a feast, my friends!” John said, his face glowing. “And the last one we will have for a long while, I should think! These rations won’t last forever with two hungry teenagers to feed!”
He then set to work adding more wood to the hungry fire and erecting a framework of metal to hold up his titanium cooking pot.
The two boys set to work collecting more firewood from the immediate area, gathering a large pile by the time John had finished his feast.
The “feast” consisted of half a can of chicken noodle soup, and a metal bowlful of peach cobbler. It was the most delicious food they’d ever tasted, they thought as they crunched through the flaky, sugary bread of the cobbler.
After their meal, John insisted upon taking the first watch, and so he did. Staying awake an hour after his shift was over.
Gareth took the next shift, and it was during the second hour when he saw the flashlight beams cutting through the darkness.
Gareth ran in a crouch to where John slept, prodding him heavily until his eyes flickered open, when he held a finger to his lips to signify silence. John nodded and sat up slowly, looking down across the field at the flashlight beams as they passed across the wild grass.
He slinked out of his sleeping bag and laced up his boots quickly, gesturing for Gareth to wake up Derek, which he did promptly. Derek made a low groan at being woken, but realized there was trouble immediately as Gareth clamped his hand over his mouth.
They all rendezvoused behind the motorcycle and its sidecar, beginning to talk in hushed voices as they surveyed the intruders.
“Who do you think they are?” Gareth spoke in the silence, casting a worried glance in John’s direction.
“The gangs usually wait for daylight, and wouldn’t typically bother searching a country property where there isn’t anything to loot.” John said, scratching his dark grey whiskers and looking worriedly into the distance. “I have no idea who they are.”
“Do you think they want a fight?” Derek asked, his voice cracking in his nervousness.
“There’s no way to tell, but let’s get prepared, just in case.”
John unstrapped his long rifle from his back and lay down, crunching the dry grass, peering through the scope at the visitors.
Gareth and Derek stood in silence looking back and forth from their ally and their possible enemies, their breathing shallow and uneven.
“I still can’t tell who they are, but they’re definitely armed.” John called out in a loud whisper. “There are six men out there, and they’re all packing pistols, except for one shotgun.”
“Sounds like we’ve got this in the bag then, if they attack!” Derek said, shifting his weight to his left leg nervously.
“I think we could handle them with the browning and my sniper, but it would likely be fatal for one of us to get injured badly out here, and that’s not a chance we want to take.” John countered. “We will wait this out, but just in case, one of you take the pistol out of the sidecar, and the other get in the sidecar with the machine gun.”
As soon as the last word was off his lips Derek jumped into the sidecar and handed the pistol to Gareth, favoring the powerful weapon and metal protection. Gareth stood tall, to the side of a strong oak, cocking the pistol and bringing it off of safety as the lights grew closer.
“Bad news boys!” John exclaimed, bringing his gun off safety as well.
“What?” Derek asked, his eyes wide with worry.
“They’ve started to follow the motorcycle tracks. And they’re following them the right direction too! They’re coming to us.” John finished, the look on his face grim.
As the holders of the flashlights grew closer, Gareth was soon able to make out the figures of their pursuers, and was even able to make out the long arm of the lead searcher pointing directly at the hilltop where they resided.
“Be ready, but do not fire until they do, you hear?” John said, his voice tense.
“Yes sir.” Came Derek’s reply.
“I’m ready.” Said Gareth, no longer bothering to conceal his voice.
The flashlights all blinked off within one second of each other, and the night became eerily quiet.
As Gareth stared into the darkness, fear beginning to grip him, a spot of hot flame caught his eye, followed milliseconds afterwards by the crack of a powerful gunshot, and then the sharp “Thunk” of a bullet lodging itself in a nearby oak.
Gareth held his fire and pushed farther behind his cover tree, and as he did so, John fired into the night, creating a wild death cry not far off.
More shots were quick to follow, whizzing past the defenders and often striking the trees around them, answered by the discharge from John’s rifle, and once Gareth’s pistol when he thought he saw a shape approaching him.
Derek fumbled with the machine gun, attempting to fire it, and succeeded, giving away his position in a flare of light as he shot the weapon into the night sky. He pushed it down, and waited until one of the men shot at him, striking the joint connecting the motorcycle and sidecar. Then he fired to where he saw the flash, holding down the trigger in short bursts until he heard bullets striking metal.
He fired again at where he thought the men were, and came into a taller and taller crouch in the sidecar, attempting to see down the slope of the hill.
His concentration was brought to a screeching halt by the gun on its pivot being wrenched from his hands by an exploding bullet, and his head being thrown back by hot shrapnel, digging heavily into the skin and bone of his forehead, creating springs of hot blood which gushed forth out of the rifts.
I’m going to die was Derek’s last thought before the blackness engulfed him from all sides.
Bright light began to break through Derek’s eyelashes, and he turned his head slightly to escape the glare, cracking the crust of dried blood that had congealed to the surface of the leather, upholstery of the sidecar, gluing his head to it.
A tiny rivulet of fresh blood drizzled into his eye as he blinked out the fog that filled his vision.
The first thing he became aware of was that it was midday, the bright sun hanging high above him on the hill, and the second was that he was in great pain, originating from his forehead, where he had been hit with shrapnel the previous night.
Shrapnel! Last night! He thought wildly, looking around for John and Gareth. They were nowhere to be seen, and as he cautiously stood, and scanned the immediate area, he saw no one at all.
Where John and Gareth had been, he saw no blood, and upon examining more carefully, no signs of struggle in the grass.
The food was gone, and so were the sleeping bags and John’s tent. Gareth’s tent was now a bent network of charred metal poles with melted plastic cloth hanging to them, collecting slowly in pools on the ground.
First things first, Gareth had taught him, I need to take inventory.
Derek was still in the sidecar, which was still attached to the motorcycle. The motorcycle didn’t looked damaged in the slightest bit, which was a miracle. The weapons and ammunition were gone from the leather storage pockets on the motorcycle, but some assorted medical supplies were left, along with one Beef Stew MRE and a can of tuna. Derek still had his belt knife attached to his belt, and inside John’s tent he found a blanket, a coil of rope, and a large folding shovel.
At least that’s something. Derek thought. As he clambered out of the sidecar, he realized he had overlooked the obvious. He surveyed the surrounding area, and seeing no one near, he squeezed the trigger of the machine gun, which did not respond, the bent and cracked metal where the bullet had hit the action the night before having compromised the weapon.
Feeling another sharp twinge of pain as he grimaced, he unbuckled his belt knife and observed his forehead from its reflective surface. Brutally pocked and marred with bloody streaks, his brow was a messy network of wounds.
He reached into his pack and removed a bottle of water, tenderly wiping the congealed blood from his pate.
When he was done, he dried his face with his bandanna, and placed bandages with antibiotic on the three deep scars, not bothering to check for shrapnel which he did not have the skill to remove.
The antibiotic stung, but he grit his teeth, and revved the motorcycle, letting his foot hit the gas lightly as he followed the foot trail marked by heavy boots cutting through dry grass, and blood, taking care to avoid the three dead bodies that lie in the grass.
With a horrible rip of guilt, he noticed that one was riddled with machine gun holes.
None of the dead held weapons, so he carried on in his search for the men who had taken his friends. The men who had wrongly counted him among the dead.
Derek followed the light tracks through flat country for miles on end, often having to cut through rusty fences and go around dense shrubbery to keep on his path.
The sun blazed hot above the Texas countryside, the wispy clouds weak and sparse, providing no cover for the fatigued hunter. After the sun had rose to its peak above him, Derek covered his already sunburnt neck with his bandanna, sheltering himself from the burning light.
Time slipped by hour by hour, track by track, until dusk crept up on the young man. He grew more and more tired as the darkness smothered him, the only illumination pouring out of the golden headlight of his BMW motorcycle. The tracks were growing too difficult to read in the angled beam, and the light made him visible for miles. He did what the captors were most likely doing, he found a clump of vegetation, and bedded down for the night, drinking in a deep draught of sleep that contained no dreams.
He woke up the next morning with an aching back, surely from leaning hunched over the handlebars, examining the light footprints in the hard-packed earth.
Besides the aches and sore limbs, he felt refreshed by his sleep, and it had done well for his mental health. He woke that morning with a new commitment to the challenge that faced him and his friends.
It was with this confidence that he straddled the painfully hot black leather seat, and kicked the motor into life, riding towards the sunrise with a new vigor in his mind that showed on his countenance. The lightest touch of a grin played across his lips periodically, and his brows were brought together, his eyes bright in the shadow beneath them.
This confidence remained unbroken until the sun shone above him at noon again and the previously steady engine began to sputter, the loud purring broken by gaps of condemning silence. Derek reluctantly shut off the engine, and braked the metal beast to a sudden stop, the dry dirt crunching under its oppressive weight. He undid the clasp on the dusty leather storage container, removing the final gallon gas can. He sloshed its contents around, and peered into its gloomy depths. Less than half full. He took this time to reassess his entire inventory. Not only was he low on gas, but also on food and water.
He had only three small pieces of tough beef jerky, and a mere bottle and a half of water left. So far, Derek had only come across muddy puddles that smelled of manure, all of which he had turned his nose at.
Although Derek did not have the love of the woods that Gareth did, his best friend had taught him some things about wilderness survival. If I could only remember what he’s told me! He thought, cursing himself for his forgetfulness.
No time spent in thought however, could help Gareth now. Derek walked to around to the front of the motorcycle on the right, the opposite side from where he had dismounted. As he began to swing his left leg over the seat, he noticed small torn sheet of ruled paper, skewered on the cruel barb of a mesquite sapling.
Derek stumbled in his haste to grab the note, toppling the heavy motorcycle and spraining his ankle in the fall. Holding his tongue from uttering a curse, he stood gingerly on his foot, and tore the note from its perch. He unfolded it once, twice, flipped it over, and began to read.
“To our pursuer on the motorcycle.
We, John Ranald and Gareth Allred, have been captured and beaten by gang members wearing blue bandannas around their heads, and a deep scar cut into each cheek. There are two of us and three of them, but we are weak from want of food and water, and they hold the weapons. They keep a vigilant guard. I warn you! They both hear your motor and see your light at night. I beg you to give up the motorcycle before they kill you or us, and either give up this chase, or pursue on foot. I am writing this in the hope that you mean to do good, even though I’m sure you stole that motorcycle, and pried the dead gunner from the sidecar. He was my best friend. I certainly hope you buried him. I will know you received this message if I don’t hear the engine anymore, or if you flash the lights tonight. If you do save us, there is reward in it for you in the form of weapons, ammunition, food, water, and gasoline.
Your possible allies.”
Derek tenderly folded the note, placing it in his shirt pocket. He wheeled the motorcycle into the brush where it would be hidden, removing his pack with its contents, and began to plod along in pursuit of his friends and foes alike, feeling like an idiot for his carelessness with the loud, cumbersome motorcycle.
Although he felt bad for his stupidity, he was reassured in the fact that his friends were still alive, or had been when they had written the note. Also, Derek realized, if they heard his motor and saw his light, they must be within a day’s journey of his current position.
These things drove him forward in his search, and though heat, hunger, and dehydration mercilessly weakened him, he pressed forward, rationing his remaining bottle of water and two pieces of jerky.
As Derek trudged on, he began to look up at the horizon more often and less at the tracks, hoping to see the party that he chased; and as the sun began to retire beneath the gradual incline of the earth’s sphere, he did not stop, nor did he slow but pursued his friends doggedly.
When the last rays of amber sunlight slipped away from the plains and sheathed themselves behind the hills, he was forced to slow and examine the earth more carefully for the often smudged prints of boots it held. The kidnappers had started a vain attempt to clear their trail behind them by scraping the tracks out of the sand with a branch, it appeared. These scratches only made the trail more apparent, but the direction of the prints were often made difficult to decipher, angling him off the path more than once.
He went on this way for hours until something caught his eye atop a hill in the distance. Derek swung his head in the direction of the spark he had seen for a moment.
He stood erect, his eyes boring into the shroud that lay over the scape of hilly earth.
Another flash, sparks, sparks, then a tiny wavering flame, visible for only a few seconds before it was extinguished.
Derek knew this was one of his friends signaling him with a cigarette lighter, and could barely repress the urge to run to them. However, he faced three armed men with nothing but his knife and his wits. If he was to save his friends, surprise would be his only asset.
He worked his way around the hill, coming at it in a crouch from the direction where the flame had shone forth from. By the dim light of a waning moon he saw four men laying on the grass in his side of the hillock, with one tall slouching one standing on above, watching the surrounding area, his back turned to Derek.
Derek silently slid the straps of his backpack off, pondering the situation. The guard startled him as he stretched his arms behind his back, and stamped his feet to wake his leg muscles. It came to Derek’s attention that he had no gun on him; and further observation revealed the form of John’s sniper rifle, leaning against a wispy mesquite sapling.
In an instant he formulated a plan, and turned silently on the balls of his feet, digging into his backpack for what he needed.
Derek ran in a crouch, trusting the vegetation and darkness to hide his presence. He came to a stop about a hundred yards away from the hill, on the opposite side from the sleeping men, directly under the gaze of the men. He placed the half empty gas can behind a large limestone rock, tying the small signal flare gun to the can, where the discharge from the rear of the flare would ignite the fumes pouring from the open cap.
He then cocked the flare, gingerly tying more cord around the trigger and looping it around the base of a prickly-pear cactus, angling the rope so that the trigger would be able to be pulled from a distance. Before he ran to his launch point, he dumped his remaining flare cartridges into the gas can.
He then crept away from the area, letting out more and more parachute cord as he went until he was about twenty feet away. He cut off the remainder with his belt knife, and sat on the balls of his feet, ready to leap into action.
He gave a sharp tug on the line, and a blinding flash of orange and white flame cut through the night, followed an instant later by the ground-shaking explosion of the gasoline can and pyrotechnic powder in the flares.
Derek ran faster than he had ever run before, as the red light shone garishly on all the surroundings, in a curved route towards the hill, where all the figures had risen. Derek arrived, his knife drawn as John and Gareth both tackled one of the gangsters, their hands bound. Derek moved in quickly enough to stop the second snoozing guard from standing, dispatching him with a heavy blow to the head with the butt of his knife.
The man who had been keeping watch now had the gun in his hands, and was fumbling with the action, a cartridge falling from his hands. Derek reached down where John, Gareth, and the man fought, sprawling and cursing in the dirt, and picked up the Beretta pistol, cocking it and pointing it at the scoundrel in one fluid motion.
The man looked at him, wide-eyed with terror, taking a step back and stumbling, clouds of dust brought up by his boots, which shone red in the dying light of the flare.
Derek saw this and took a bold step forward bringing the pistol a few feet from the man’s face, a grim expression on his own.
The man let the long rifle sag to the ground, tears of weakness showing forth as he staggered and fell to the ground, retching and gagging in fear.
Derek kicked the rifle away, and kept his sidearm pointed at the groveling man while he turned his head towards Gareth and John. John lay prone on the ground, his eyes shut and his mouth open, obviously knocked unconscious by his assailant, while Gareth and the other man struggled fiercely, Gareth barely able to keep the tip of the long switchblade from cutting his face which the man now bore. Derek acted without thinking in his anger, bringing the pistol to bear with the new threat and ending him in one shot, which took him in the neck.
Gareth looked at Derek’s blank face, a look of disgust and shock that hurt him to his very core. He turned around and faced the man who was groveling on the ground, pleading for his life.
He did not have the heart to point the gun at him again, but motioned for the teary man to stand, shoving him roughly against a tree and securing his feet and hands to it.
The man fainted in his own unnatural fear as this was completed, and Derek was left with no excuse but to look back at his friend, who sat on his haunches wiping his prior assailant’s blood from his jaw and neck, which had been sprayed on him.
He looked defeated and scared, like his innocence had been stolen from him in the moment that he had watched the man die.
Derek thought back to the gunfight that had burst out the first night, and remembered that Gareth had been reluctant to shoot, keeping behind his cover at all time.
He too felt an enormous guilt from the two men he had killed in the past few days, and went to comfort his best friend. As he sat by his lifetime comrade, he lost all of his grim confidence and began to sob, hot tears rolling down his face.
Gareth saw his friend’s guilt for his actions and patted him on the back, utterly defeated and sobbing himself.