Title: “Raggedy Creek”
Summary: It was just a hunting trip. Something Jake and Eric had done dozens of times before.
Spoilers: Takes place at some non-specific time between “Rogue River” and “Black Jack.”
It was just a hunting trip. Something Jake and Eric had done dozens of times before.
The town had been sending out hunting parties regularly the last few weeks. The days were getting shorter, the nights colder, and food was harder to come by in Jericho. Sometimes the party would come back with a couple of turkeys or a deer. Sometimes—too often—they’d come back with nothing at all.
Today Jake and Eric were going out to try the area up by Raggedy Creek. It was farther than the other hunting parties had gone—almost twenty miles—but Jake had always had good luck finding whitetails there in the past. He had a good feeling about it.
That is until their dad had asked to borrow Jake’s car so he could check on the people at some of the outlying farms. It wasn’t like Jake could very well say no to something like that.
“What do you want to do now?” Eric asked, watching the old man drive away in the Plymouth. “We could try the woods along Cedar Run.”
Jake shook his head. “Frank and Stanley were out there yesterday, didn’t find so much as a squirrel. We need to go out farther than that.”
“Too cold to take the horses,” Eric said.
Jake kicked the dirt with the toe of his boot. He did know someone with a truck. She’d probably let him borrow it if he asked. But that would mean talking to her, something he’d kind of been avoiding.
He sighed and dropped his pack onto the ground at Eric’s feet. “Wait here. I’ll go get us another car.”
Even though dawn was just breaking, Heather had been up for hours. She hadn’t been sleeping well since the bombs went off and after tossing and turning for half the night she’d finally given up on sleep and decided to embark on yet another project in her never-ending quest to make herself useful. A couple of years ago she’d found a recipe for making homemade soap on the internet and bought all the ingredients, but never gotten around to actually doing it. Now, she figured, was as good a time as any.
She was just cleaning up when there was a knock on her door. Tossing her heavy rubber gloves into the sink, she headed into the living room and pulled open the front door.
“Jake,” she said, doing her best to sound normal and not, in fact, totally surprised.
She and Jake hadn’t exchanged more than a few words since she’d kissed him a few weeks ago and she had the distinct impression he’d been avoiding her. It seemed pretty obvious why.
“Hey,” he said, then frowned and made a face. “What is that smell? Is that coming from inside your house?”
“Yeah, I was just making some soap. Or trying to, anyway. I’m not sure it turned out quite right.” She swung the door open wide to let some fresh air into the house and stepped out onto the porch with Jake. It was cold enough that she could see her breath in the air and she shivered under her sweatshirt.
“Is it supposed to smell like foot odor of the undead?”
“No, that’s just a special bonus feature.”
Jake grinned, causing Heather’s heart to skip a beat and a half. “You’ve got some, uh... stuff on your face,” he said.
Heather swiped self consciously at her cheeks. “Where?”
“There,” Jake said, pointing. “On your chin.”
“Oh, thanks.” She rubbed a blob of oily goo off her chin and laughed nervously. “Lard. Part of my new beauty routine.” God, no wonder Jake wasn’t interested in her.
“Uh, listen,” he said, shuffling his feet to keep warm, “I was wondering if I could borrow Charlotte for the day.”
“What happened to your car?”
“Dad’s using it, and Eric and I were hoping to find some deer up by Raggedy Creek.”
Heather brightened. “Wow, I haven’t been deer hunting in years.”
Jake nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Used to go all the time with my dad,” she added.
She watched him expectantly, hoping he’d take the hint. He didn’t.
“I’ve got my own gun,” she said stubbornly.
Nothing. Jeez, it’s not like she was fishing for a date, she just wanted to contribute. And this was something she could do.
“I can make my own deer musk, you know.”
Jake’s mouth curled in amusement. “Hey, Heather,” he said, “would you like to come hunting with us?”
“Hell, yeah,” she said, punching him in the arm. “I thought you’d never ask!”
An hour later, Heather’s old truck was carrying them through a withered landscape of skeletal trees and brown winter grasses. The early morning sun peaked through the cloud cover, cloaking everything in a wan, grayish light.
“Can we turn the heat down?” Jake asked, tugging at the collar of his coat. He was uncomfortably warm, and it was only partly due to the hot air blowing on him.
“Sorry,” Heather said. “Vents are jammed so they blow the heat in directly off the engine block. It’s murder in the summer, let me tell ya.”
“Then can we crack a window or something?”
“No way,” Eric said. “It’s 35 degrees out. And anyway, it’s not that hot in here.”
Jake huffed irritably and slumped down in his seat. He was sandwiched in the middle and acutely aware of every little lurch and jolt of the truck that seemed to press him closer to Heather, sitting beside him at the wheel. He’d been reluctant to invite her in the first place because he was afraid things would be awkward between them, and now that they were crammed together in the cab of the truck he was was wishing he’d followed his first instinct.
As she downshifted to steer the truck around a rough spot in the road, her hand inadvertently brushed against his thigh. Jake jerked his leg away.
Heather glanced at him sharply, the flinch obviously not escaping her notice. “How much farther do we have to go?”
Jake looked away. “Couple more miles.”
They’d turned off the highway a while back and were driving on a narrow back road that followed the course of the creek. There was a decent-sized patch of oak trees up ahead that always used to drop a lot of acorns. And where there were acorns, there were deer.
He leaned over for a better look at the dash. “You sure we’ve got enough gas for the trip back?”
Heather stiffened. “You’ve asked me that three times already.”
“Sorry.” Jake scooted over towards Eric, claiming some more of his brother’s side of the seat. “I’m just paranoid. It’s not like we can call AAA for a tow.”
“I can read a gas gauge,” she said tersely.
“I said I was sorry.” Jake caught Eric giving him a funny look and decided to shut up. Yeah, good thing this wasn’t awkward.
“Uh oh,” Heather said a few minutes later.
“What?” asked Jake and Eric at the same time.
Heather pulled the truck over to the side of the road and hopped out. Jake trailed after her, waving his hand to clear away some of the steam that poured off the engine as she propped the hood open.
“Careful,” he said. “It’s hot.”
“No, really?” Heather snapped.
She used the sleeve of her coat to open the scalding radiator cap and pulled her hand away quickly as a fresh gout of steam poured out. When it was clear she leaned in for a closer look, standing on her tiptoes to tinker with the engine. “Coolant’s low. Looks like one of the hoses sprang a leak.”
“Can you patch it with something?”
She frowned and shook her head. “Not out here. But if we fill the radiator with water and keep a close eye on the temperature we should be able to get back home.”
“Great, let’s do that,” Eric said, coming around from the other side of the truck.
“Yeah, small problem.” Heather rubbed her forehead, leaving a black smudge behind. “Cold water, hot engine, if we add it now it’ll crack the engine block.”
“We’ll have to wait for the engine to cool off,” Jake said.
“I’m really sorry,” Heather said. “The hoses are brittle from the cold and I swear I just checked them the other day.”
Eric gave her a sympathetic smile. “It’s not your fault.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jake grunted, hauling their gear out of the bed of the truck. “We’re out here for deer, anyway, and we can walk the rest of the way from here.”
Heather placed one careful foot in front of the other, treading slowly through the grass as she kept her eyes peeled for deer. A movement up ahead caught her eye, but it was only a bright red cardinal flitting through an elderberry bush. Cheep, said the cardinal, eying her curiously. She took another step and it flew up into the branches of a mistletoe-draped cottonwood tree, where it was joined by its less-colorful mate.
A few yards to her right, she saw Jake stop and slowly raise his gun to eye level. She froze instantly, not wanting to be responsible for scaring away whatever it was he’d spotted ahead.
He aimed the rifle with an almost chilling focus and fired. A split second later a whitetail bounded out of a patch of cedar nearly 200 yards away. Jake slammed the bolt forward, chambering another round, and fired off another shot at the fleeing animal. Unhindered, the deer disappeared out of sight.
“Dammit!” Jake punched the trunk of a nearby tree with the heel of his palm.
Eric came running over from Heather’s other side. “Did you hit it?”
Jake clenched his jaw and shook his head.
“It’s okay,” Heather said, trying to rub some warmth back into her cold nose. “We’ll get the next one.”
“That’s the only deer we’ve seen all day,” Jake said bitterly. “This is hopeless.”
“At least I got a rabbit,” Heather said, holding up the small, furry carcass she was carrying.
“Great, you gonna eat off that the whole rest of the winter?” Jake snapped.
“What is the matter with you?” Heather demanded. She was cold and she was tired and she was long past fed up with Jake and his pissy mood.
His mouth twisted sourly. “Let’s just go home, this whole trip is a bust.”
She crossed her arms stubbornly. “You’ve been sulky and irritable all day. Is it because of me?”
“You know, I think I’m gonna go take a leak,” Eric said uncomfortably. “I’ll be back in a few minutes and hopefully by then you two will be done with whatever it is you’re doing.”
“It’s because I made you bring me, isn’t it?” Heather persisted when Eric was out of sight.
Jake tilted his head back in exasperation. “You didn’t make me—”
“But you didn’t want me to come. I mean, you’ve made that pretty clear.”
He looked taken aback. “No, that’s not—look, it’s just... it’s not safe out here anymore and I didn’t want to have to worry about you.”
“Oh, please. I know for a fact you took Emily hunting last week.”
“We only went as far as Mill Pond, it’s not the same thing.”
“No,” Heather said quietly, “it’s not the same. Look, it’s okay. I know you don’t feel that way about me.”
He froze for a second. “I don’t know what you—”
“Don’t play dumb. So you don’t like me the way you like Emily. It’s fine. It’s not like I’m over here pining for you or anything. It was one kiss, no big deal.”
“Really?” Jake said slowly. “’Cause it kinda felt like a big deal.”
She shrugged. “I was just testing the waters, you know? And I’ve figured out by now that the water’s cold, so I’m not diving in.”
“Come on, Heather, it’s not like that.” He stepped closer, close enough that she could feel his breath on her forehead, and took her gloved hand in his.
She was torn between the instinct to pull away and the urge to kiss him again. “What’s it like, then?” she said. “Please just tell me.”
He shook his head and looked heavenward, like he was hoping for some kind of divine assistance. “Everything’s so crazy right now. I just... I don’t think it’s a good idea to get involved in any... complications.”
Complications? That’s all she was to him?
She swallowed hard and jerked her hand out of his grasp. “I’m not asking for anything from you, Jake. It’d just be nice if you’d act like my friend again. You think maybe you could do that?”
“Heather,” he said miserably, but didn’t seem to have anything to follow it up with.
She thrust the dead rabbit at him. “I have to use the little girl’s tree before we start back.”
Jake watched her walk away and for a moment he almost went after her. But then he stopped himself. Heather was right, it’d be best if they’d just try to act like friends and leave it at that.
He sighed heavily and sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree. Somewhere behind him a woodpecker drummed urgently against a rotten tree. The sound echoed in his sinuses like the first throb of a headache.
“Man, you’ve got it bad,” Eric said, walking up behind him.
Jake busied himself prying a clump of mud off of one of his boots. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Eric grinned. “Uh huh.”
“You heard all of that, didn’t you?”
He shook his head ruefully. “Great.”
“Remember in middle school when you had that crush on Jennifer Pringle?”
“She wore those white Keds with the bright pink laces,” Jake said, smiling at the memory.
“Yeah, and you picked on her so bad she started crying in the middle of the lunchroom.”
“That wasn’t just because of me,” Jake protested.
“Whenever you like a girl, you get scared and start trying to push her away. What is that, bro?”
“I don’t know,” Jake said.
He did know, but he wasn’t going to admit it to Eric. The only woman he’d ever really let himself get close to was Emily. Stubborn, strong-willed Emily, who’d pushed him back. Pushed back so hard he hadn’t been able to let her go. And look how well that had turned out for her.
Eric shook his head. “It’s a wonder you ever get laid.”
Jake laughed. “Whatever happened to Jennifer Pringle, anyway?”
“Got married a couple years back. Moved to Denver.”
The smile slid from Jake’s face. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Eric said, sitting down beside him. “Look, Jake, with everything that’s happened, I’m just saying, maybe you should grab onto the good stuff while you still can, you know? And Heather’s pretty great.”
Jake squinted into the westering sunlight and didn’t say anything. Off in the distance, the woodpecker had finally fallen silent.
“Fine, clam up, but you know I’m right,” Eric said. “Sometimes, the only thing that gets me through the day is knowing that Mary’s waiting for me at the end of it.”
A sound teased at the edge of Jake’s awareness, sending a warning prickle down his spine. He was just starting to reach for his rifle when four men stepped out of the trees around them, automatic handguns leveled. They were rough-looking, and obviously used to handling the weapons they carried. Remnants of Jonah’s gang maybe, or more escaped prisoners, Jake thought. Or maybe just ordinary men driven to violence by desperate times.
“Don’t move,” said the one closest to Jake. “Keep your hands where we can see them, and don’t even think about going for that rifle.”
“Take it easy,” Jake said.
“What are you doing here?” demanded the man.
“Just looking for some deer,” Eric said calmly. “Without any luck, as you can see.”
“Did catch a rabbit, though,” Jake added amiably.
“Where’d you come from? How’d you get out here?”
Jake met Eric’s eyes and shook his head slightly.
“Probably from Jericho,” said another of the men. “They had to have driven out here.”
“Where’s your car?”
Jake stared at him, but didn’t answer.
“Silent type, huh? How about you?” He looked over at Eric, who also remained stubbornly silent. “Fine. Don’t wanna talk to me, you can talk to Virgil. Gerry, Dan...”
He gestured and the two men in the back came forward and relieved them of their rifles, then bound their hands behind their backs with duct tape. This day keeps getting better and better, Jake thought. He just hoped that Heather managed to stay out of sight, and that she had the sense to get back to the truck and get herself safely home.
Heather crouched behind a stand of cedar and watched as the four men with guns bound Jake and Eric’s hands and led them away. When she was sure they were gone she started running, as fast as she could, back towards the truck.
Charlotte was still there where they’d left her, by the side of the road. She grabbed a jug of water out of the cab and threw open the hood. She was just screwing the cap back onto the newly-filled radiator when she heard the hum of an approaching engine. Thinking fast, Heather grabbed everything out of the truck that she could carry in one armload and ran for cover.
A minute later an old wrecker pulled up next to the truck. Two men got out and spent a few minutes nosing around in the cab and checking under the hood. Then Heather watched helplessly as they hooked up the wrecker and hauled Charlotte away.
“Crap,” she said to no one in particular.
She took an inventory of the gear she’d managed to salvage. One sleeping bag, a gallon of water, one box of ammo, a hunting knife, four protein bars and a box of waterproof matches, plus her rifle. She packed it all up, walked back to the road and stared glumly at the place where Charlotte had been. All that was left was an empty water jug and a pair of fresh tire tracks. Sundown was only a couple of hours away.
Heather threw her pack over her shoulder and started walking.
“How much diesel do you have in Jericho?”
Jake blinked and pressed his lips together. Blood was slowly trickling into his eye from a cut on his forehead, clouding his vision.
It was full dark now, and with the moon momentarily hidden behind a thick bank of clouds, the only light came from a campfire nearby. The apparent leader of this particular band of highwaymen, a tall, square-jawed man named Virgil, glared down at Jake, his features oddly distorted in the flickering light.
“What kind of security do you have up there? I know your sheriff’s dead. How many deputies you got left?”
Jake shook his head. “Why would I tell you anything?”
“Because it’s the only way you’re gonna get out of this alive, son.”
Jake shot a look at Eric, standing beside him with his jaw clenched and a fresh bruise reddening on his cheekbone. “You’ll just kill us anyway, as soon as we tell you what you want to know.”
“Whatever happened to the benefit of the doubt?” Virgil said with forced geniality. He bent his head so that he was almost nose to nose with Jake. “Now, you and your friend help us get the supplies we need from your little town and I’ll let you go on your way. Cross my heart.”
“Go to hell,” Jake spat.
Virgil punched Jake in the stomach. He doubled over and fell to his knees, gasping for air. Before he could recover Virgil hit him in the jaw, hard enough to send him sprawling on the ground. The side of Jake’s head ricocheted off something hard and the world went black.
Continue to Part Two