It must’ve been mid-day before I could no longer smell the smoke. For the better part of the morning, I trudged up one hill, down the other side, side stepping trees along the way, only to find another hill waiting for me. Pa taught us many things, but he never taught us how many hills there’d be between our property and Lincoln. He just said it’d take a lot of days. After a few hours, I did the mental math. That was an awful lot of hills. Our property was up somewhere near Drift Creek – or wherever Drift Creek used to be in the old days. At least, that’s what Ma and Pa said. “Head due west”, Pa told us. “If anything ever happens – Just head west to Lincoln. There’s still a settlement of normal folk there. They’ll take you in.” I hoped he was right about that. But Pa sure did forget to mention all the hills in the west.
It didn’t take me long to feel bad about not keeping my word to Pa about not complying with his rules. And I don’t mean the not complying with the rule about Timmy either. That was bad. I knew it. I didn’t burn Timmy. He was going to come back, but I at least thought the shed would hold him, so I wasn’t too concerned about that at that moment. What I was concerned with at that moment was the other rule. Always carry fire. They’re afraid of fire. That was known. I took the matches, yes – but that did me hell a lot of good when I had shit all to light them with. The Rattlers (that’s what Pa called them) were all over the countryside. How was I to make it all the way to Lincoln without fire to keep them off me? I knew I needed to think of something – and fast. I stopped, knelt, pulled off my shoe, then one of my socks. It was sweaty, so I’d have to dry it out. Another mile or so of walking would probably draw more attention than I could afford, so it seemed better for my health to sit and wait a while – which is what I decided to do.
I leaned against a tall shady tree, hung my black sweaty sock from a low hanging branch, and then fetched a jar of Ma’s preserves from the sack that was now resting in my lap. I was happy to see it was her peach preserves when I twisted off the lid. I scooped a two finger-full helping into my mouth. My eyes rolled back it tasted so good. I’m sure she would’ve hit me in the head if she ever saw me making the face I made, but it really was that delicious. I helped myself to another scoop. Then another. At some point – I don’t really remember when – I drifted off.
I don’t know how long I was sleeping, but when I came to, the sun was low in the west, and a man was standing over me.
“Well, hello there,” the man said. “Are those peaches I smell?”
The Man’s name was Brock. He was travelling with three other men. Their names are unimportant, for reasons that’ll become clear soon. For now, I’ll just call them the fat one, the dumb one, the skinny one, and the extremely dumb one.
They took me to their camp. Brock set me next to their fire, gave me a bowl of soup while the dumb one set off to get more wood way out in the woods (way farther than anyone should ever need to go). There wasn’t a spoon, so I lifted the wood bowl to my mouth, sipped the warm broth. It was good. The fat one bustled over to me.
“You like it?” He asked? “It’s my mom’s recipe.”
“It’s really good,” I assured him.
“You want bread?” He asked.
“I’m okay.” I said.
“I’ll go get you some bread,” he said, and left. I took another sip of the broth. It really was quite good. Brock, who was sitting right next to me gave me a little nudge on the arm.
“So,” he said, “where you from, kid?” Just then, the skinny one walked up to us.
“He say where he’s from?” He asked.
“I was just asking him.” Brock said. And the skinny one shrugged and wandered off. The whole thing kind of had me a little more than confused. They were kind of – maybe a little – unorganized.
“Is the dumb one coming back soon with the wood,” I asked, then caught myself, holding my hand over my mouth. Brock appeared taken aback.
“The dumb one?” he said. “and which one is that? Rick? You calling Rick dumb? Little man, you better hope that “dumb one” gets back here with wood soon or it’ll be your ass that feels stupid.”
Just then, I heard the dumb one, or at least I think it was the dumb one, Rick – I mean (the one gathering the wood). A terrible scream erupted from the woods. Brock grabbed me, pulled me up into the nearby tree, put his hand over my mouth. After that, there were a lot of screams. I saw the fat one eaten alive a few yards away from us. The extremely dumb one (John, I guess his name turned out to be) walked up to the base of the tree, talked up to us in the middle of all the chaos. He was attacked by at least ten Rattlers – then torn apart in front of our eyes. The whole time, Brock had his hand over my mouth – which was a good thing too, because I surely would’ve screamed. By morning, the rattlers were gone. Off to hunt in greener pastures. I found it ironic that the one thing they were afraid of (fire) was also the one thing that let them know that easy prey was close by.
“Stay here” Brock said. I didn’t argue. He climbed down from the tree. Over night. We talked a bit. He asked about my family. I told him everything. I told him about Ma. I told him about Pa. I even told him about Timmy. He said he’d help me get to Lincoln. I was good with that. He climbed halfway down the tree, then jumped down to the ground. And that’s when the rattler jumped on him. The screaming, kicking, thrashing lasted minutes, but seemed to last for hours. When it was done, Brock’s half-eaten body lay in my perfect view – as well as the twisted form of the rattler that ate him – my brother, Timmy – looking up at me, his tongue slithering out his hungry mouth like some kind of python. He blinked twice, then skittered into the woods. I stayed right where the heck I was.