As night falls the people of Stumpland turn to their festivities. They light a towering bonfire and beside it construct a low funeral pyre for the blond giant killed earlier that day. November begins the Gathering with a beautiful and elegant dance, her thick necklace of coins shining in the firelight and jingling with every movement.
Far on the edge of town, BRT hunkers down with Kal, Lizard, and Sway. He looks over at the hut just beyond the gator pits. A single light illuminates the interior. According to Matilda, the man he seeks, the man who murdered his mother, is in there. Buck.
He turns to Lizard, instructing the scavenger to sneak into the house and steal Buck’s weapons.
“This is pretty crazy,” she says nervously. “But I owe you. I’ll see what I can do.”
As she and Sway disappear into the darkness, Kal casts a nervous eye back at the Gathering.
The sound of propeller blades can dimly be heard as November finishes up her last dance. Gator recognizes the distinctive sound of Gunge’s airboat. A few minutes later the lanky supplier appears out of the gloom and wanders over to him.
“Did I miss it?” the one eyed man asks. “Is she done with her set?”“Yeah she just finished,” Gator tells him. “Too late.”
Gunge frowns and scratches his arm. “I was really looking forward to that.”
“You snooze you lose.” Gator turns to him, the firelight casting horrid shadows across his mangled face. “Why are you late?”
“Just avoiding the pythons,” he says. “It’s mating season. I don’t want to get mixed up in a tangle.”
“Got anything new?”
“I got some stuff I found. Here and there,” the thin man says looking over the heavily armed warrior. “How are you doing for supplies?”
“I’m doing pretty good. I could use a bullet.” Gator adds, “you missed all the excitement.”
Gunge sighs. “I guess this town is going to be a might bit dry.”
Gator nods. “Yeah some people are starting to freak out already.”
Gunge looks over the crowd scratching at the vacant hole where his right eye should be. “Maybe next time I’ll unload some of my moonshine.”
The warrior agrees that there would be a ready market in a couple weeks.
Gunge wipes his forehead with a dirty sleeve. “So a bullet? That’s not much. I’ll throw it in for free if you can get me an introduction.” He looks meaningfully in November’s direction.
On the other side of the Theater, Violet has found someone receptive to her philosophy. Hammer, Rover’s grandson, grew up on stories about the Golden Age and is easily convinced that trying to rebuild the once great nation is a worthwhile endeavor.
“Yeah, we should restore democracy,” he tells her.
“Not a democracy,” she corrects him. “A constitutional republic."
“Oh yeah, that’s what the other guy said too.” Hammer fills her in on the visit by a member of the Militia last spring. They seem to be also recruiting and are imposing a rough sort of justice throughout the region.
BRT and Kal listen to the alligators move in the muddy pools behind them, waiting for Lizard to return. Kal checks his pistol for the tenth time. The scavenger tells Kal that the two of them will confront Buck once he has been disarmed.
A shout comes from inside the house.
“Okay, not good,” says BRT. “Kal, let’s move.”
The pair quickly run up to the hut as two or three voices shout back and forth from within. BRT goes on ahead and peers through an open doorway.
Inside he sees Sway knocked to the ground, trying to crawl away. Lizard faces Buck, her arms raised, pleading for mercy. Buck not has only his shotgun out but also a grenade, with his finger ready to pull the pin.
“I’m always happy to bring some lightness,” she says, wiping her brow.
“I should also thank you for smoothing things over with Bowdy for me.” He reaches into an alligator skin bag. “I don’t have much at the moment but here. It doesn’t have a charge but it still works.”
November takes the cold metallic device. The book sized screen is smooth and black, while the scoured silver back still shows a partially eaten apple. “Oh wow! I haven’t see one of these in ages.”
“So I got another thing to ask you,” he says. He stops, his eyes drawn to approaching silhouette of Gator. “I’ll ask you about it later,” Hurricane tells her as he heads off.
Gator walks up to her trailed by a tall thin man with a single eye.
“Evening, November,” Gator says.
“Evening, did you enjoy the show?” she asks.
“Yes, a nice performance. A good counterpoint to today’s events.”
“Yeah, it’s good to lighten things.” She glances as the man standing behind Gator. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend?”
“Yes, this is my buddy Gunge. Gunge, November.”
Gunge steps forward and extends a shaky hand. “It-it’s nice to finally meet you.”
“Finally?” she asks.
“Well in person. I’ve seen you before,” he explains. “Seen you perform that is.”
“Nice to meet you too Gunge,” she says and listens to him stumble over his words as he lists off the various places he has seen her dance.
“I’m sad I missed your show tonight,” he finishes.
“Oh,” she says softly. “I don’t know if I’ll be doing another one soon. Things are little bit crazy around here and I am going to be moving on. I’ve been here for three weeks already.”
“Where to?” he asks.
“I don’t know yet. I need to see who is traveling in the near term.”
“I’m planning on leaving town soon myself,” Gator says.
“Maybe we can go together,” November suggests.
“I’ve got a boat,” Gunge points out.
“That would be nice,” says Gator nodding. “November, you knew that guy Dustwich
“Kind of,” she says. “I knew him by a different name, when he was running a town up north. He seems to have changed a lot though.”
“Know where I might find him? As you know, I kind of have a little score to settle with him. Plus it’s not right what he did to Jackbird.”
“No but I have a way of calling people to me,” November confides. “But I don’t necessarily want to bring him to me now. It wouldn’t be right to the people here.”
“You’re saying you can get him to come to us?” Gator says surprised.
“Yes. He’d come to me,” she says, “so I’d want to make sure things were right and tight before that.”
“That’s understandable,” says the scarred warrior. “So where did you meet him?”
“The Lucky Palms up north. He was trying to build it up as a gambling establishment. He went by Silver back then.”
“If you can bring him to us I don’t care where we go,” Gator says.
Gunge interjects. “I know a place. I know a good ambush point.”
The three quickly agree to the plan of leading Dustwich to Gunge’s ambush point where Gator can kill him.
“How are you going to deal with him?” November asks.
“I’m going to shoot him and hope bullets work,” Gator says. “Get him before he does the whole lightning aura.” He lets them know that Dustwich dropped the glowing field when he left town.
Suddenly the crackle of the bonfire roars in November’s ears merging with the murmur of the crowds and the cool breeze of the night air into a cacophony of sensation. In the psychic maelstrom, she feels the presence of another mind. There is contact. Then only pain.
“It was definitely not what I had hoped would happen,” Violet admits.
“Thankfully everything worked out,” the older woman says glancing toward the edge of town. “Where is your uncle? I was expecting him by now. He’s been busy all day with the gators. They have been demanding extra feedings.”
“Why is that?” Violet asks.
“They have been hungrier than normal,” Julia explains. “"Buck":https://shackles-1.obsidianportal.com/characters/buck-jefferson says they might lay eggs soon. I suppose that will mean more meat for next harvest. Assuming Hurricane can get the truck running and deliver the tribute up to Deg. You are going out tomorrow to look for that axle right?”
“Well hurry,” her aunt says. “Hurricane hasn’t told many people this, but we were supposed to get the shipment out yesterday. Deg will be sending someone to check on us in a day or so when it doesn’t show up.”
Violet raises her voice a bit. “Why didn’t he say something?”
“He wants to seem like he has things under control I guess,” she shrugs. “He’s a man.”
Violet shakes her head. “But if we had known about it sooner, we could have taken care of it earlier.”
“You tell him that. Well anyway, I am going to check on your uncle.” With that, Julia begins to walk to Buck’s hut.
The older man backs off calmly, raising his hands and pointing the shotgun at the ceiling. He keeps one hand on the grenade. “Hey what’s going on?” he asks.
BRT shouts out to the others. “Hey Lizard, why don’t you get out of here? I’ll handle this.”
As the two women quickly vacate the house, Buck focuses on Billie Ray. “What are you doing breaking into a man’s home?”
“Can we sit?” BRT asks calmly.
Buck gestures at the round table in the room. Three rough wooden chairs surround it. BRT slowly walks over and sits down. He places the gun on the table between them, his hand on top of it.
In the doorway Kal’s eyes flicks between Buck and the grenade. Buck calmly walks over, carefully leaning the shotgun against the wall before settling into the opposite chair. He keeps a firm grip on the grenade and pin.
BRT looks into Buck’s dark eyes. “I wanted to disarm you before we had this conversation.”
“That ain’t happening,” the rough skinned man replies.
“I’m aware of that now.” BRT takes a deep breath. “Buck you have a tattoo.”
“What about it?”“A man with that tattoo killed my mother,” BRT pauses, “I need to know if you are that man Buck.”
“I killed a lot of people,” he says stroking his graying beard with his free hand.
Slowly BRT describes how his mother died. The name of the holding, the layout of the house, what his mother looked like the day she died. The man who killed her wasn’t looking for her, he wanted what she had: four healthy goats. The man killed her anyway, while BRT watched from under the floorboards.
As BRT finishes his story, Buck licks his lips. “Those were some mighty tasty goats.”
Shocked, BRT decides to end this. He rises, firing at the grenade and knocking it out of Buck’s hand. As it bounces across the room, the grizzled biker thrusts his uninjured hand at the scavenger and kicks up the table. A knife hidden up his sleeve flies to connect with BRT’s pistol sending it also skittering about the room. By the time BRT regains his bearings, he finds himself alone in the house with Kal scanning the darkness from the doorway.
BRT shouts at Kal to grab Buck’s shotgun. As the teen scrambles for it, BRT snatches up his gun and the grenade. Then the pair head after their quarry.
November’s choked off scream disrupts the Gathering as she collapses into a twitching heap. As she writhes on the ground Gator thrusts his hand inside her mouth to stop November from swallowing her own tongue.
Violet moves with the crowd to see what is the matter.
Then a shot rings out from her uncle’s house, in the same direction as where her aunt just went. Violet runs to find out what is going on.
“Yeah that’s for hella sure,” the shaking teenager says.
“It’s kind of crazy that he just admitted to it outright,” BRT says in disbelief.
November pushes him away gentle and props herself up.
“What happened?” she asks as the pain recedes.
“You had a fit,” he explains, “and started trying to eat your own tongue.”
In the flickering light she makes out a knot of people around her and a slowly moving crowd peering past the gator pits.
Hurricane looms over her. “Is she okay?”
November smiles and slowly but gracefully stands up. She apologizes to Hurricane and the others for worrying them.
“You gave me a scare,” Hurricane says.
“I must have overexerted myself,” she says, dusty off some of the wet dirt.
“May have,” Gator says. He turns toward the gator pits. “Where did that shot come from?”
“Shot?” she asks.
“So Violet’s camp,” Gator says.
Hurricane looks around at the crowd. “She’s not here. She must have headed over there.”
“I hope she’s okay,” November says.
“Want me to come along?” Gator asks.
“You can come if you want,” the big man tells him.
“Just saying. no charge.”
Hurricane nods and they head off into the darkness.
“Okay,” the teen nods eagerly and turns to leave.
The scavenger grabs him by the shoulder. “And that he admitted to killing my mother.”
“Yeah I’ll tell him,” Kal says before bolting off.
BRT starts walking away from town, keep his eyes open but with his mind on his hidden bolthole. With Buck on the loose, Billie Ray would need to lay low for a bit. But now at least he knew who killed his mother.
As the scavenger makes his way into the swamp, he notes the wooden shed on the edge of Buck’s plot of land. It was empty when he scouted it earlier but a faint light glimmers from under the door.
An engine revs inside the shed moments before he hears the sound of wheels scraping against mud and gravel. Without thinking, BRT pulls the pin on the grenade and rolls it toward the structure.
Violet catches up to her aunt as it detonates. The darkness before them lights up as a burning motorcycle flies from the explosion, colliding with BRT and knocking him to the ground. The debris, including the smoking remains of her uncle, skid to a halt in front of them.
Violet blinks and looks over the devastation. Where the shed stood is a smoking crater. A short distance away BRT slowly rises to his feet.
“What the hell just happened?!” she shouts at BRT.
Her aunt sinks to her knees and screams, “You killed him!”
“He deserved to die,” the scavenger says. “He killed my mother.”
Further away the crowd draws a collective gasp as the boom of the explosion reaches them. Gator draws his submachine gun and continues toward the flames.
As the crowd surges forward, November notices the glint of green in Gunge‘s eye. She tenses as she recognizes ’the spots’. She forces herself to calm down, biding her time to get away from the infected man.
Violet confronts her uncle’s killer. “You thought killing him would solve your problem?”
“He murdered my mother," BRT says calmly. "There was no problem this would solve. This was justice.”
“You killed him!” Julia shouts, rising to her feet.
As her aunt pulls a knife from her boot, Violet says, “listen to that. You know what happens you kill for revenge?”
The scavenger dusts himself off and steps away from the still smoldering shed. “Not for anything Violet, but she’s benefited from everything he’s ever done.”
“You bastard!” Julia screams, stalking closer. “How could you kill him!”
“The more you kill the more you have to look over your own shoulder,” Violet says calmly. “My uncle was no saint. I know that. But that doesn’t make what you did right.”
BRT stretches his shoulder wincing at the pain. “Violet that’s the only person I’ve killed not in self defense.”
“But you killed for revenge and that begets only more revenge.”
Aunt Julia moves in front of Violet, her dress dirtied with mud and Buck’s blood. As she points her knife at BRT, she says, “you are going to regret this. I will see you suffer. You will beg for your life. You have no idea, no idea who you just killed.”
“Stop,” Violet says moving forward. “Wait until the others get here.”
As Violet trains her gun on BRT to dissuade any escape, her aunt continues, “Billie Ray Tallahasee. I hope Hurricane doesn’t kill you. I’m going to make sure whatever happens, you survive.” She spits at him.
BRT stands his ground as the crowd approaches. He spots Kal babbling out the story to Hurricane. “Like I said BRT went to confront Buck. He said that Buck murdered his mother. And he admitted it too. I don’t know what happened next. I left before whatever happened. But they were trying to kill each other."
“Seems legit,” Gator says. “He’s too freaked out to tell a lie.”
“You are probably right,” Hurricane sighs. “People and their vendettas. Let’s go see what happened, who is alive and who is dead. I want no one else dying in town. At least for a day.”
The crowd finds Violet with the situation well under control.
“What’s going on here?” Hurricane says. "Okay I see what’s going on here. So did he do it?”
BRT nods. “I did it.”
“He threw a grenade at him,” Violet explains.
“It was his grenade. It was that or get run down by his bike.”
“Did you have to take it into your own hands though?” she asks.
“Where you going to do it for me?”
“You could have brought it up with Hurricane,” she tells him.
BRT turns the town’s leader. “Hurricane this man killed my mother while I was 9 while I watched in some hole you’ve never heard of. Do you want to do something about this?” The scavenger turns to Violet. “That’s not his place, this is his place.”
”In retrospect more than I want to deal with this,” Hurricane says rubbing his brow.
“Well maybe we need a system,” he says.
“Well you are looking at it," Hurricane says. "Lucky for you Kal has confirmed your story or at least Buck’s admission of guilt.”
“He killed her for goats Hurricane. For fucking food.”
“So he committed a crime against you and the facts, such as they are, support you. You did blow up part of my town though. And murdered one of my wranglers.”
Hurricane moves to address the crowd as well. “So here’s where we are at. This is a lost property issue as far as I am concerned. I can say nobody is going to inflict violence on you in this town. At least to the limits that I can control. But you owe Stumpland and therefore you owe me. You already have a job you are going to do for me and that’s going to be for free. And you are going to owe me another scavenging run. That’s the price.”
“No suicide runs though," BRT says.
“Of course not. How you choose to obtain an item is your own affair. I’m not going to ask for something like that. Alright everybody, hear that judgement has been done, the law’s been laid down. I expect no reprisals.”
Hurricane surveys the crowd but Julia is absent. "There will be no violence against this person in Stumpland. And we’ve all had plenty of excitement tonight so let’s all just tidy up and get some sleep. Some of us have business to take care of in the morning.”
As the crowd disperses, Violet disappears in search of her aunt.
Hurricane hesitantly approaches Gator and November. “I have a proposition.”
“I’m listening,” Gator says.
“I have a pair of short term gigs for the two of you," he says. “As you might have heard the food delivery for Steelside is late. Deg’s boys will be here before that axle does. I need someone to deal with them, with whoever they send down. Ideally that will be peaceful. We will send them back on their way with the food and everything will be good. November would you be willing to do the negotiations for me?”
As she nods, he continues, "Gator, they might not agree to negotiate. I have a bit more manpower now but I know Deg, we will still be outnumbered. Would you be willing to bodyguard Stumpland for a couple days?”
“I’m amenable. It will cost a little bit though.”
“Right,” Hurricane says tiredly.
“I could use some gator jerky.”
“I could spare a bit.” With his piece said, he adds, “let’s all get a good night sleep and see what comes in the morning.”
Gator and November walk with the big man back to the center of town.
“Just to be clear you want as little blood as possible?” Gator asks.
“Ideally no one gets killed but," Hurricane trails off. "If you can send them on their way with Deg none the wiser that’s great. Otherwise I don’t want to see any of them to make it back.”
“They disappeared in the swamp. I get it,” Gator says with a smile. “You sure you don’t want me to send them running?”
“If that’s what has to happen then that’s what has to happen. I mostly don’t want anyone in Stumpland to get killed. No one else.”
“I get you.” He looks to the dancer. “November you are plan A.”
As the Stumpland uneasily settles down for the night. Violet creeps through her aunt and uncle’s disheveled home. A strange crackle emanates from behind a closed door. Pressing her ear to the rough wood, she hears her aunt saying, "-killed him. Crimson, they murdered him. Billie Ray Tallahasee
A faint distorted voice replies amid a hiss of static. Violet pushes the door open a crack. She sees her aunt crouched over an old bulky radio.
“He’s one of those half slant eyed kids,” she says as Violet walks in on her. “I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
Julia stands up and asks, "What is it Violet?”
“Who was that?” the survivalist asks.
“An old friend.”
“Who is Crimson?”
“Crimson is the leader of the Wild Eyes, the meanest biker gang this side of the Mississippi,” julia says with a hint of pride.
“You’re not asking-”
“It’s already done,” Julia says. “That man will be running in fear for the rest of his short miserable life.”
“One day I hope you’ll understand,” Violet says with a sigh. She turns and slams the door behind her.
Violet shifts in her sleeping bag, her teeth still clenched when the early morning light breaks through the thin canopy surrounding Stumpland. As the fog burns off, the long descent from her tree top camp reveals itself. Rubbing her eyes, she slips out of the bag and begins the climb with practiced ease.
“So yeah,” she greets BRT checking her sights.
“Morning,” he replies cutting off the awkward silence.
“I have some bad news for you,” she says, stowing the last of her tools.
BRT sighs. “What’s up Violet?”
“Your aunt has a hidden radio?” BRT comments.
Violet frowns and ignores his question. ”I’m not quite sure what to think about last night. He probably had it coming but he was my kin.”
“I’m not a murderer,” BRT tells her. "I feel like shit. But you live with that shit for your entire life, it messes you up. I’m not made for this world.”
He gestures around to Stumpland, “I like the ruins where I don’t need to worry about all this. If someone paid me to do regular work, I’d do it but I don’t trust Hurricane."
He turns to the two men beside him. “No offense guys.”
“Well things aren’t perfect,” Violet says.
The other nod and the crew gathers their things. BRT leads them into the swamps and east to the highway.
BRT comes up alongside Violet. “You think this Crimson guy is going to come for me?”
“Probably. Be careful. Frankly I feel weird saying that to the guy who killed my uncle.”
“Don’t spare it two thoughts,” he says. "Your uncle would have killed you if you had something he wanted.”
“You have a point there.”
“If he had only said something else,” BRT says slowly.
“Mom always said Uncle Buck would come to a bad end if he didn’t change his ways.”
Back in Stumpland, November approaches Hurricane as he talks to some of the citizens of the town about the next harvest. After they disperse, she says to him, “I’m concerned. I think Gunge might be infected. It looks pretty early though.”
“So he’s got the climbers,” Hurricane says scowling. "Alright, I’ll get him out of here.”
“I’m not even sure he knows,” she adds.
“Well he’s about to find out," the big man says. "He’s got a boat, he’s got money, he can go find his own cure.”
With that he strides out to the center of town.
High up above central Theater of Stumpland, Gator scans the perimeter for any approaching threats. Nearer by, he spots Hurricane walking over to Gunge. His friend and employer talk amicably for a minute but the conversation soon sours. Too far for him to hear what’s going on, Gator watches as words become shouts. Hurricane gives Gunge a shove and points off into the swamp. One of his enforcers, Smoky, walks over and points a pistol at Gunge.
Gator tenses, placing the thick bearded man with his crosshairs. Gunge however backs off and heads for his boat. Gator pulls up his gun and quickly climbs down.
A moment later, he catches Gunge just as he’s readying his rusted airboat to cast off.
“What was that about?” Gator asks.
Gunge focuses on starting the engine. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’re not going to tell me what that was about?”
Gunge shrugs. “I’m just going to back to my place and getting drunk.”
“Why man?” Gator says from the dock.
“I’ve just had enough of this place. They are unfriendly.”
“Fine, I’ll just ask Hurricane and see what he has to say,” Gator says.
“Fine, fine ask him,” Gunge says spitting over the side. The engine roars to life.
Gator approaches Hurricane as he discusses the defense of the town with Smoky. The big man turns to him. “I thought you were up on the boat.”
“Yeah but I saw something going on with Gunge.”
Hurricane looks him the eye. “Yeah well he’s got the climbers
“Ah fuck really?”
“Yes, November told me. You can see it, barely, in his eye."
“Start of the spots?" the warrior asks.
“Exactly,” Hurricane says. “You know how it is.”
“I understand.” Gator turns back to the dock. Gunge casts off. “That fucking idiot is doing the wrong fucking thing. Hold on, I’ll be back.”
Gator runs along the muddy bank of Stumpland after the boat. As it passes under a twisted and bent over willow tree, there is a crash.
The boar ways and Gunge starts as Gator appears on the deck. The armored warrior brushes off leaves and small branches as he rises from his crouch.
“Hey, fucking idiot,” he says to the one eyed man.
“What are you doing jumping into my boat?” Gunge says.
“You are about to do something stupid,” Gator tells him.
“What business is it of yours?”
“Where would I be without your valuable service? You going off to die is my business.”
Gunge gives his friend a good push. Unready, the heavily armed warrior tumbles off the boat. As he sputters up to the surface, he sees the air boat driving to the East at top speed.
Gator makes a note of Gunge’s bearing and struggles his way back up onto the muddy bank. Cussing he makes his way back to Jackbird’s. Once he reaches the bridge, he focuses his attention on the guns, quickly cleaning and oiling them. As for the bullets, he would just have to hope.
The sun slowly descends as BRT marks the last tree trunk with some spray paint. Dice and Kal trudge slowly behind him, their boots caked in mud. Violet peers ahead at the old highway in the fading light.
The withered corpses of climber victims decorate the listing street lamps to either side of the wide overgrown roadway. Endless lines of rusted cars and trucks sit empty, their driver’s side doors wide open, just as on the day their owners stopped, stepped out and began to climb.
Billie Ray turns to the others. “Okay guys, I don’t like being out in the open once the sun goes down. We can push through and grab it before the light fades, but we’ll probably be caught out in the open. Or we camp here out of sight and head out in the morning.”
“I’m all for waiting until morning,” Kal says looking at the desiccated corpses blowing in the wind.
Dice stows his machete in his overstretched belt. “Let’s just get that axle and that way we can try to book it.”
Violet considers how likely it will be to outrun someone while carrying the axle. She votes to camp.
BRT leads them to an underpass and they build a secluded camp amid the brambles.
That night their sleep is disturbed by the passage of several vehicles overhead. BRT listens to the rumble of the engines and guesses that it is a convoy of two cars or trucks accompanied by a pair of motorcycles.
They hunker down and soon the sound of the convoy disappears into the north.
November spends the night in one of Hurricane’s spare rooms. The chorus of crickets intermingle with the splashes of the alligators in their pens. Carefully she begins to pack up her gear, stowing her share of the gator jerky away. She considers her next step and looks out to Jackbird’s and her possible traveling companion.
Gator meanwhile finds his watch disturbed by a recurring vibration through the ship. After a half hour he tracks the source to the door in the back of the bridge, the one leading deeper into the boat.
Gator puts his hand to the door and feels the vibration. He reaches out with his mind but finds only something metallic and foreign. The door opens easily, revealing a set of stairs leading down. A whiff of salty air rises from below. Somewhere deeper down he hears a pair of people talking.
Gator grabs one of the chairs on the bridge and props the door open.
He sneaks down the dark corridors following the echoing voices deeper into the vessel. The ship gently sways as if it were out at sea. Continuing on he tracks the voices to a bulkhead door.
Gator opens up the door. In the well lit room he finds two people or at least their remains. The pair of strange men seem freshly dead, slouched in their gray coveralls. One hangs out of wall while the other has fused with the floor at his waist.
Gator backs away. A loud creak echoes through the boat and the light flickers out. Gator pulls his submachine gun out and quickly turns to leave.
As he hurries back, he hears something scratching along the metal floor. Gator shines his flashlight in that direction, catching sight of two green glowing eyes.
The scarred warrior carefully scans the area until the light reveals a small black cat.
“Jeez,” he says as he slows his breathing. “Get out of here.”
The cat meows at him.
“Alright out is this way,” he says, continuing toward the stairs. The cat follows him and the pair exit the bowels of the ship.
As he steps through the door, it shudders. The chair is knocked aside and the door slams shut. As he contemplates what happened, the cat rubs against Gator’s leg.
“Good morning, Rabbit,” November says.
“Good morning,” Rabbit says, her eyes flicking to and from November’s face.
“How are you doing?”
“Good, good.” she says quickly.
“Any signs of Deg’s boys yet?”
Rabbit looks north blankly. “No, but they’ll be here soon.”
“Good to know,” the dancer says.
Rabbit turns to November, her eyes focused beyond her. “I think he saw you.”
“Who?” she asks.
“What?” Rabbit says.
“Who saw me?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
November shelves that for later. “I hope you have a pretty good store of booze.”
“I’m making it last,” she says with a smile.
“OK, good for you.”
November goes looking for Hurricane, finding him by the gator pits. She asks him about Deg’s men and who their leader might be.
“Why what is he like?” she asks.
Hurricane runs a hand through his blond hair. “With a name like Ork? You know, piercings, mohawk, kill them all.”
“What’s he like?” she presses.
“He’s a rough customer. Deg sends him out when he wants someone pounded into the ground. Not one for the finer things. If they send Ork, I’ll be glad I paid for Gator
November quizzes him about Ork’s vices. Hurricane explains Ork is a rough and tumble type. “He’s a hard drinker, that I know. As for Franky, she’s more civilized but not the nicest of people either. I don’t really know what her angle is. She’s always been all business with me.”
November then asks where Gator might be.
“He’s been spending time on the boat,” he tells her. “It is the best vantage point in town.”
November turns to the stranded ship and waves. She then tracks down Rabbit and quickly negotiates for some of the booze she stole from Jackbird’s shop.
“It’s kind of the last of the booze," Rabbit protests feebly. "But I guess things are kind of tough. I’ll bring it out if you need it. Maybe we could spend some time hanging out together until they come?”
“Sure that sounds nice.”
That task accomplished she climbs up the side of Jackbird’s boat. Gator quickly waves her onto the bridge.
“A sniper’s perch isn’t good if people can see who is in it,” he tells her as she joins him in his hiding place.
“Hey, I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about these people who are coming. Franky especially.”
“Ork is pretty dumb,” Gator tells her. "Ork is just a bag of muscle. Franky though likes her betting.”
“She bets on anything if it’s interesting?”
“I have an idea,” she says.
The noonday sun finds November practicing her sleight of hand against Rabbit with Hurricane’s antique set of playing cards. Gator turns his gaze to the horizon. A smoke trail announces the arrival of Deg’s posse.
Earlier that day to the east, BRT and his crew start scouring the overgrown highway for a usable axle. The early morning sun slowly cuts through the morning fog, revealing the hanging dead to either side, their arms and legs still clenched tight around the top of the rotted lamp posts.
An hour later they find an old ambulance with the right sized axle. With effort they flip it onto its side and get started removing it.
Halfway through the process, Dice slaps BRT on the shoulder. Down the road, they see a bald man stumbling down the highway. He drifts back and forth across the road, occasionally climbing up a decayed car before making his way further down the road. He makes no note of them or the bright red sunburns across his skin.
Violet leads the others to cover.
Billie Ray leans over to Violet. “He’s got the climbers
Violet puts a finger to the wind. A gentle breeze blows in their direction. “We need to get on the other side of him.”
“That’s nasty shit,” BRT says. “We need to put him out of his misery.”
“Not while we are downwind."
“Let’s go this way,” he says leading them off the highway and into the brambles.
He takes them on a circuitous path around the sleepwalker, watching as he continues north, clambering over the wrecks as he goes.
When they get back on the highway, they find him atop of the truck they just flipped.
“For reals?” BRT says shaking his head.
Violet pulls out her rifle, carefully taking aim at the man’s head. Letting out a sigh, she pulls the trigger.
The shot misses barely, blasting off the man’s ear. Startled awake, the climber flees into the bushes.
“Let’s work fast,” BRT says.
They hurry back to the truck. Setting Violet to keep watch, BRT directs Kal and Dice to help him remove the axle.
Fifteen minutes later BRT pops the last bolt and Kal grabs the heavy automobile part as it falls, Dice grabs the other end and the team quickly make their way back into the swamp.
November sets a hand of cards on the rough wooden table where she and Rabbit are sitting. As she rises, the leader, a lean muscular woman with bright red hair, steps forward.
“You’re late,” Franky says.
Hurricane comes down from inside his hut. “It’s not my fault," he calls. "The truck broke. We’ve got your food all nice and ready. You can just take it back with you.”
“Do I look I’m going to haul stuff back?” she snorts. “I’m here to make sure you know the price of not getting your food in on time.”
November scans the crowd but sees no sign of Ork. ”I think this would all go a bit smoother if we sat down and had something to drink,” she says with a nod to the table.
Franky cocks her head and smiles. “I’ll take that drink. But as I was saying I don’t have time to take that food back. It’s not my job. I’ve got other holdings to go to, other people who owe food.”
“It’s perfectly clear,” November says as she pours and hands over a glass. "I’m sure we can work something out. Hurricane is not trying to hold out on you at all. You guys seem to have been travelling a ways. Why don’t you take a rest?”
“You’ve got to give us another week. We’ve got people coming in with the parts and we’ll jury rig something up.” November adds that they might pack a little extra food just for her and her posse.
Franky gives November an appraising glance.“You are right, it has been a long hard slog down this way and we’ve got a good deal of riding left to do. If you could give us a bit of comfort on our way back, that would be good.”
“I’ll play you for it,” November says with a smile.
As they sit down, Rabbit deals out a hand to both of them.
“I don’t know how you feel,” November says looking over her cards, "but I’m not going to serve all you guys. But let’s play for it. You win we’ll give you some fun on your way back. I win well we had some fun this time.”
The two skillfully play back and forth but November clearly has the advantage. In the winning hand she turns over an ace to crush Franky’s play. As she holds it up for all to see Gator puts a bullet through the card.
Franky accepts the loss and the posse drives south to their next stop.
Back in the swamp, Kal and Dice plod through the mud. The weight of the axle plunges their feet six inches into the muck with each step. Violet keeps glancing back for the climber while BRT leads them from tree marking to tree marking.
Violet stops. She hears a splashing noise in the waters off to the right. Silently she directs the others to take cover.
Once off the path, she tells them there is something large moving in water.
“That’s either a gator or python,” BRT says as an extra large splash can be heard. “Whatever it is, it is large.”
They put the axle down. Dice pulls out a 9mm pistol while Kal readies his new shotgun.
As Violet readies her rifle, BRT asks, “You guys know the tree markers, right?”
“Right,” Kal says.
“I’m going to try to distract it. When I distract it, don’t just run, shoot it.”
“Right,” the kid nods.
The scavenger goes down the path, beating the bushes. He finds not one large python but two entwined and rather intimate snakes. They lash out at the disturbance. As the hail of gunfire hits and drives them off, one manages to bites him. It gets a mouth full of leather before tossing him into a rotten tree. As it disappears into the water, everything goes black for Billie Ray.
Violet rushes over to the face down scavenger. BRT coughs up some water but doesn’t respond to her shakes. Not willing to stop, she directs the others to get the axle moving again. She hefts BRT on her shoulder and follows the trail toward Stumpland.
“As conflicted as I am there is not much else we can do," she mutters to the others. “We have to keep this baggage train rolling.”
The group slogs through the mud for a half hour, getting closer and closer to Stumpland. Violet scans the water for more pythons. Then she hears something pushing its way through the brambles behind them. She looks for cover but the muddy path is surrounded on both sides by half submerged brambles.
“Keep moving,” she urges the others as she covers their retreat.
Dice and Kal strain to move the axle at a slow jog. Violet spots the sunburned climber stumbling through the foliage behind them. She glances at the still leaves on the trees about them.
Seizing her chance, she drops BRT to the muddy ground and brings up her rifle.
While the scavenger becomes dimly aware of pain and movement of people around him, Violet shouts, “Don’t come any closer!”
The man stumbles forward, unaware or unafraid. A single shot rings out. He collapses into the mud, his blood mixing with the swamp.
BRT’s eyes blink open and he forces himself up. His head rings with the shot and a massive bruise covers his left temple. With Violet’s help he stumbles along until they are 20 minutes out from Stumpland.
“Guys stop a minute,” he calls out. As they pull up to a halt, he continues, “Kal, I’ve got a deal with your uncle. I don’t plan on reneging on it.”
“OK,” the teen says uncertainly, setting down the axle for a moment.
“On the full moon,” BRT says, steadying himself on a tree.
“Yeah, that’s 3 weeks from now,” Kal says.
“Right just tell him to leave a message here then if he needs me to do a job.” BRT pulls out a knife and marks a tree with a symbol. “Tell him I won’t be coming around if I see anyone around.”
“I don’t think he’ll be happy with this arrangement. Why are you running out?”
“I’ll be in the area. I just don’t trust the people in town. Tell him I’ll throw an extra job in for free.”
“Alright, I’ll let him know.”
The scavenger then leaves the path, following a muddy route into the swamp.
Violet calls out, “don’t you go killing anyone else for revenge!”
“Only one man killed my mother Vi!” he says. "Only one man killed my mother.”
A few moments later he disappears into the foliage.