The four travelled on foot throughout the night, Will leading the way, Ed walking trail about 10 yards behind. The women walked in between them; Mary’s left hand held her daughter Lucy’s, and in her right hand she carried a .357 Magnum.
The group made frequent stops to watch and listen as they neared each danger area – at the tree line before crossing a field, or before they crossed a road, a field, or a hedge. As the sun came up they reached a banged up Jeep hidden in a blackberry thicket and covered in camouflage netting.
As Will stood guard, Ed uncovered the Jeep, then took a small garden trowel from his pack and dug up the battery, which he had buried under a nearby rock to keep thieves from easily hot-wiring the vehicle. He replaced the battery and then unlocked the burglar bar from the steering wheel.
From the back of the Jeep he removed a heavy satchel from a steel storage locker. He passed it to Mary: it was full of bread, fruit, cheese, and a bundle of jerky. Before he sat down to eat he whistled a good impression of a whippoorwill. In a short time Will came back to join the group.
Ed began tending the fire in the base of a chimney kettle. The air flowed up through the jacket steamer, which allowed it to boil water in a couple of minutes, and it kept the fire hot and nearly smokeless. Though they had been quiet throughout the night, more concerned with safety than anything else, it was Mary who spoke first.
“How is he?” Mary asked as she nibbled an apple slice. She looked near death. Both of her lips were busted in several places, and her mouth looked raw and tender. She had two black eyes which were beginning to heal, and it looked as if a handful of hair was missing from the left side of her head. Her other injuries, the more terrible and enduring ones, Ed knew, were concealed.
He smiled and said, “I think we could all use a little coffee first, don’t you Mary?”
“Is he dead?” she asked bluntly as she passed a slice of apple over to Lucy.
Ed exhaled and then shook his head. “No, but Matt’s hurt pretty badly. I’ll be honest – if he’s alive when we get back, it’ll be a miracle. I’m sorry to tell you that, but you know the odds as well as I do.”
Lucy said nothing at first, but her face, battered as it was from the assaults of the raiders, looked even more tortured, if such as thing were possible. She grimaced, sobbed, and then swiped at her tears. Eventually she said in a weak voice as she stared her lap, “How long until we can get back there? I want to see my daddy.”
Will was slicing apples with his buck knife. He looked uncomfortable and mostly stared at his lap too, but he tried to help. He gestured at the forest behind them and said, “It took us two days to make the distance, but we were moving pretty carefully then. Couldn’t be more than a day going back, maybe less. Dad?”
Ed nodded in agreement. “Roads are bad and getting worse every day. Farms are getting picked off all the time and we’ve got to be careful or we’ll get ambushed on the main roads. Still, we can make it by sundown today, I figure, even if we use the back roads and trails.”
Mary reached over and put her hand on Ed’s arm. She was a strong woman, and possessed an honest beauty Ed had always admired, even today, under all the bruises. Though she had a fierce look to her because of the injuries, it softened as she spoke.
“Ed, Will, we can’t thank you two enough for what you did. Lucy and I both owe you – “
Ed broke in quickly and said, “Mary, don’t. Don’t say a thing. We are glad we could help. I’m just sorry we couldn’t get in there sooner.” His voice cracked a little, and he paused, collected himself, and then started again. “We had to wait until they were all passed out . . . there was no other way.”
Mary smiled weakly. He could see by the morning light that she’d been worked over pretty badly, with blood between her teeth, and layers of bruising on her cheek and forehead.
“Ed, you saved us. You too, Will. They would have . . . killed us . . . eventually.” Seeing the look on Will’s young face, she added almost in a whisper, “You both did what you had to do." Then she looked at Lucy and squeezed her hand. “We all did.”
Ed took the chimney kettle and poured water from it into two canteen cups. He poured in a bit of instant coffee and added creamer and sugar from a few condiment packs. He passed one cup to Mary and the other to Will.
Mary stopped and wiped tears from her battered face, but then a change seemed to come over her. When she looked up Ed could see a firm set to her jaw. She sipped from the coffee cup, and took a deep breath, as if to savor the morning air, and the hot coffee.
“But that’s all in the past, . . . all in the past. It can’t be changed anyhow. We are alive this morning, thanks to you men. And that’s enough,” she said.
She then looked over at Lucy, who was nearly as beaten and battered as she, and said, “And all wounds heal . . . over time.”
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