Jared walked into the clearing to see everyone gathered together. Their voices were subdued, at least, but emphatic hand gestures showed that several people were upset. Seeing him, the rest turned their attention toward him.
“Was that really necessary?” Angela asked. “Killing those men in cold blood like that, right here in front of us? In front of the children?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Jared asked. “What else was there to do?”
“There’s never any excuse for killing someone, Jared,” William Bottoms supported his wife. “It’s uncivilized. It’s wrong.”
“You may have noticed that those three intended to harm us,” Jared pointed out. “They apparently don’t subscribe to your views, Bill.”
“That’s no excuse for us to sink to their level,” Angela snorted.
“Fine, next time try to reason with them. Pam and I will leave you to it. And I do mean leave. If that’s your attitude, then we’re out of here at the first sign of trouble, make no mistake. I’m not letting her be put in danger like that because the two of you are squeamish.”
“Now see here. . . .” William Bottoms stepped forward, but jumped backwards as an arrow landed at his feet. Startled, everyone turned outward.
“They would o’ tol’ ever body where ya’ll are,” the kid said softly from ten feet away. “Ya’ll make too much noise.” The shock of him speaking left the group in silence. A soft and genteel southern drawl, almost soothing despite the situation, seemed to captivate them all for a few seconds.
“Thank you,” Jared spoke quietly, and Pam nodded her agreement. The kid nodded, but offered nothing else.
“Who are you, anyway?” Angela demanded haughtily. “And what gives you the right to kill those men like that?”
The kid looked at her for a moment, then simply turned and stepped into the brush. By the time he’d taken three steps, he was invisible. Jared couldn’t even hear his foot steps.
“Of all the. . . how rude!” Angela Bottoms snorted.
“Yeah, funny how that works,” Pam told her, her voice saying what her words didn’t. Jared embraced her, noticing she was still shaking.
“I’ll take first watch,” Jared spoke easily, “if no one else wants it. We’ll have to set a schedule. We can’t expect our young benefactor to keep showing up to rescue us.”
There was some mumbling among the men, and they soon had a watch schedule worked out. Some of the women walked to the fire and started to put a small meal together. They were working to make what they’d been given last, but with so many, it went fast.
“Jared, what are we going to do?” Pam asked softly, her voice trembling. “We’re not safe here, anymore than we were in Memphis. I’m scared.” He hugged her to him tightly.
“Me too, babe. Me too.”
He had no answers for her.
The evening passed uneventful, other than the on-again, off-again ‘discussion’ about the days events. Jared didn’t bother to get involved with those talks, choosing instead to listen and learn.
Despite the fact that they were all neighbors, and had been for five years or more for the most part, Jared realized as he listened that he really didn’t know these people all that well. The occasional bar-b-que, HOA meeting, or party was simply no substitute for truly knowing someone well. Some of the attitudes in the group surprised him.
Eventually he tuned the talk out, reclining gently on the wall of the hut, hugging Pam to him under the blanket they shared. The fire kept the hut fairly warm, but it was always cooler near the wall.
Since he’d taken the first watch, Jared was done for the evening. He grew sleepy, finally, and stretched out on the cedar boughs that made their bed. A few minutes later Pam joined him, and the two were soon asleep. Whatever the group wanted to talk about, they weren’t interested. Jared had a lot on his mind as he went to sleep that evening.
The next morning Jared was awake first, which was becoming the norm. Rick Bells, one of the men who had helped haul the three dead bodies away the day before was sitting cross legged at the door of the hut, and the fire was a low but well banked pit of cinders. Bells nodded at Jared, then stretched out to get some sleep himself.
Jared took the cooking pot and started out to collect fresh snow for drinking water. He was almost unsurprised to find the kid sitting on the same log as the day before. He was busy skinning two rabbits and three squirrels, animals he had obviously killed that morning.
“Morning,” Jared said softly. The kid looked at him, nodding, then continued with his work. Jared hesitated for a moment, then walked over to sit next to his. . .friend? Protector?
“Why are you doing all this?” he asked softly.
“Doin’ what?” the teenager asked softly.
“Everything,” Jared waved. “Protecting us, feeding us, helping us to survive.”
“Christian thing to do,” he shrugged.
“I never put much stock in that sort of thing,” Jared admitted. The boy looked up sharply.
“Reckon I’d start, if I was you,” he said simply. Jared simply nodded.
“What’s your name, anyway?” Jared asked. “I don’t like calling you ‘kid’.”
“Good a name as any,” the boy shrugged.
“You’ve got to have a name you’d rather be known as,” Jared insisted. The boy kept working for moment, then stopped.
“Zachary,” he said finally. “Zack,” he amended. “That’s my name.”
“Well, Zack, I’m Jared. Nice to meet you.” He held out his hand, which the boy shook after wiping the blood on his hands off on his camo pants.
“You people are in a world o’ hurt, Jared. You know that, right?” Zack’s voice was calm and soft, but the tone held a sense of urgency.
“Yeah, I had noticed that,” Jared smiled grimly. “I figure if not for you, most if not all of us would have died that first night.”
“Most like,” Zack nodded, intent on finishing his work. “You know ya’ll can’t stay here like this much longer, don’t ya?”
“That’s crossed my mind as well,” Jared admitted. “I just don’t have an answer. I don’t know where we can go, or what we can do.”
“Few empty houses around,” Zack noted. “Folks that ain’t comin’ back for one reason or another,” he shrugged. “Some food scattered here and there in them houses that are abandoned.”
“You think we could find a safe place, and enough food to make it through the winter?”
“Might,” Zack nodded. “Have to be able to keep others from takin’ if from ya, though,” he added. “No offense, but ya’ll don’t seem like the type for that sort o’ thing.”
“None taken,” Jared assured him. “We’re not.”
“Reckon I can scout around, next day or three, see what’s there and what ain’t.”
“I’d appreciate that very much.”