The U.S. of After Chapter 35

Ethan

A pecking crow was my alarm clock.

Actually several crows.  I opened my eyes and craned my head around to see one pecking at the wound on my leg.

“Get off me, you bird!”  I screamed, and I guess he figured I wasn’t dead, so he flew off along with all his other buddies.

I think I fell into the river at some point and then tried to get up on my knees when the current took me.  I don’t remember what happened next, or how my hands got free from the zip tie which was still wrapped around my left wrist, but all I knew was that I was further down the river and didn’t really know where that was.

I sat up with some effort, propping myself up with my arms, then I stood cautiously and winced at the pain in my thigh.  I swore that if I ever found that kid, I’d pop a cap in him.  I’d have to kill those two other kids, too for leaving me as they ran out of there, bullets zipping by.  I reached up and felt of my neck.  It wasn’t bleeding anymore but it was sure swollen.  I coughed a bit and used the water to wash my face.  It tasted bitter and coppery.

I realized just then that I was on my own with no gun and no hope of finding that group again.  I swore that if I did, I’d cap all of them for leaving me.  They were all freaked out by the militia group, but that was no reason to do what they did.  I had yelled right at that Ralph kid and he just kept moving.  I swore I’d strangle him.

I figured I’d walk on down river to see if I could find those boats they were talking about.  Man, I’d love to get on one of those boats, or any boat for that matter.  I’d heard about New Orleans being a safe place, but had to get there somehow just like everybody else.  I found a long stick floating in the water and used it as a crutch.  It sort of helped with the pain in my leg.  I’d have to get it looked at by a doctor.

“Sure,” I laughed to myself out loud.  “I’ll just stop at the next town, call nine one one and get some help immediately.  Maybe they’ll put me in a hospital room and feed me three squares a day.  Then that cute nurse will come in and fluff my pillow if you know what I’m saying.”

A horse snorted.

I looked up and saw two hillbillies wearing camo, sitting on black horses.  Each of them had a gun and it was pointed right at my face.  If I ran, they would probably shoot me, so I did what I do best.

“Gentlemen,” I said as calm as I could.  “I got lost from my unit when we were attacked by some militia men, and am in need of assistance.”

“Shut up, army,” said one of them, spitting tobacco juice, the liquid making a fine arc that fell a few feet away from his horse.  “Get on yer knees and put yer hands up on the back of yer head.  Don’t make me tell ya twice.”

I did as I was told, my face trying to keep from flinching into a wince of pain as I knelt down, dropped the stick and did as I was told.  The two of them dropped to the ground, walked over to me and put yet another zip tie on my wrists.  Before long I found myself wearing part of a burlap sack for a mask and positioned helpless on my stomach.  I lay across the back of one of the horses after they zip tied my ankles together as well.  The horse bobbed along a path for a while, on pavement where the hooves clop-clopped along, and then I was pulled down and thrown on the ground, my hood pulled from my head.  It was dark so my eyes didn’t have to adjust.  I sat face to face with a wild haired man with mirrored shades, a greasy grey mustache that grew down on his cheeks, and a yellowed grin that looked every bit the same as a great white shark right before it bites down on a helpless seal.

“Good day to you,” he said calmly as a young man sitting beside him unskillfully sewed the skin of his right shoulder together.

The Captain did not wince at all, focusing that predator gaze on me, waiting for his prey to make a false move.  The young guy, his blue ball cap on backward and his tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration, looked as if his life depended on the quality of each stitch.

“Good thing I found you, Ranger,” said the Captain, placing his sweat stained white hat over his tousled gray hair.  “Y’see I lost a group of people that owe me quite a share of taxes, and Tully here tells me that you were in cahoots with them all.”

Tully repositioned his rifle enough to give me a short wave of his hand and a grin full of teeth that had seen better days.  The glint in his eye made my stomach drop into my shoes.

“No,” I said as calmly as possible, realizing the word was not spoken to this guy very often.  “Well, I just kind of fell in with these people just a few days ago.  We were trying to get some food and water from them when you guys att… I mean came to collect your due.  I just happen to know where they are going.  I help you, you help me.”

This sentence caused them all to burst into raucous laughter, and it was only then I noticed just how many of them stood around us in this makeshift campsite.  I felt a cold finger run down my spine.

“I’ll tell ya what, son,” said the old Captain, his voice the sound of gravel dumping into a quarry full of dead bodies.  “I’ll bargain with ya, but you prob’ly won’t like what I have to offer you in return for your…services.”

This caused more laughter from the group, a raucous hyena sound from one of those National Geographic documentaries.

“You’re gonna take us to where they are going to let out and then we’ll set up an ambush there.  Hopefully they won’t have mother nature on their side this time.  I’m tired of these people slipping our grasp, so to speak.  Won’t happen again, will it boys.”

A mumble of approval chattered through the crowd of men and he continued with his speech.

“Now in return, you get to serve this fine outfit until we see fit that you have earned your term of service.  Since you’re a Ranger already, then we’ll put your talents to good use.”

I played along.

“Yes sir,” I said as firmly as I could, straightening my back.  The motion made my leg flare up and it was just too much to bear.  I let out a little yelp that could not be taken back.  The crowd found it amusing.

“Looks like this boy’s in need of some doctorin’!” he shouted, producing a long bladed knife and cutting the string that the young man had tied into a knot.  “Doc!  Fix this boy up.  I’ll be in my tent drinkin’ Jack.  It’s gettin’ late.”

“Yes, sir,” said the young man.  They cut me loose and I went with the “doctor” to get “fixed up.”  Three tylenol and a branding iron later I was nearly as good as new.  Doc was out of thread.

Keeping up the act of being a soldier was more than I cared for.

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