Chapter 1

Mike is seven years old. It's late spring of 2019. He has a baby sister named Mary Ames Mathews named after her maternal grandmother. Shirley and I continue to live our life together in Preservation and enjoy being with our friends and family.

The Sinclair's have a daughter, Jennifer, who is two years younger than Mike and follows or tries to follow him everywhere. It's fun to watch. Jim has become the head radioman. He is also our most traveled community member.

Janice and Bennie haven't had any children. Doctor Anne says she may not be able to have any. Janice dotes on our two and Jen to the point where they go to her as if she were their mother. Shirley and I call her, "Daughter" even though she's not ours by birth. I gave her away at her wedding to Bennie and she is at our house when she's not with Bennie at the machine shop or out in the woods. She has developed into quite the outdoors person and a very capable shooter. She is so good at hand﷓to﷓hand combat that no one in Preservation will take her on. She's quick and strong. Our Janice is, according to Shirley, a passionate, intelligent woman who does everything with that passion and intelligence fully applied.

For instance, we had a man come to Preservation who became drunk and made the mistake of making a pass at her. She didn't kill him but did break his left arm and his nose plus gave him a few interesting bruises and contusions on other parts of his body. He doesn't drink any more.

The other thing about Janice is that she is stunningly beautiful. She was pretty as a teenager when we met her. At twenty-three, she was even more a beauty than ever. She is a bit too quick to take a dislike to being ogled and Shirley finally sat her down and explained that, just because a man stared at her, didn't mean he had designs upon her. Now, she lets them made a first, mistaken move before she hammers them unconscious!

Bennie has told me more than once that he is lucky to have her as his wife. She is devoted to him and every man in Preservation envies him. Bennie is no slouch himself in any area.

They make a dynamic couple and compliment each others' skills quite well. Both have become excellent in the woods, practice their shooting, and work on hand-to-hand combat skills. They enjoy it as good fun. It allows me to utilize them to check out any issues on the fringes of our land as well as act as cops on the very rare occasions that need has arisen. In my opinion, we have a duty to protect all who we accept as part of our community.

Other items of news are that the Internet is pretty much gone. Power outages around the country and the rest of the world have removed many connections and made most sites simply go away. Battery back ups only last so long. Preservation has a number of smaller water generators and we power almost every house in the community as well as a few things in town. Michael and Ben have the machine shop. It is a hard working place with its products in much demand.

We still run our radio nets, both local and distant. In the old United States, we only hear the Salt Lakers now. It seems everyone else with a radio is a member of Preservation. We have a strong two-meter net for local news and information and to be sure our outlying people are okay. Our two﷓meter repeater situation is composed of four linked repeaters to allow complete coverage of our area. It made for a lot of traffic until Jim added some more localized repeaters for each area. By design, they are not as powerful and are just to cover a section of Preservation.

We maintain a loose listening watch on HF and on our main repeater at the house. Our office has a feed from our radio room for us when we're in it instead. Shirley has a similar feed into the kitchen. I carry a HT when outside working on the farm, as does Shirley.

We have expanded down the I-85 corridor toward Alabama and toward Macon to our east. Very little movement had occurred to our north beyond I-20. We make occasional trips to Atlanta since it is still a great source for parts.

It was mid August when we started hearing the first suggestions of some trouble. One of our south and eastern most farms reported that they were having trouble with their crops being raided. After some discussion, I asked Janice and Bennie to go over there and scout around.

They left on horseback the next morning. We would have made gas available for this trip but they preferred horses for their ease of mobility. As Bennie said, "A horse doesn't care about roads and can travel in narrower places than a vehicle."

They would be in constant contact via two-meter radio so we would have information on a regular basis. They had HT's with them as well as a HF station to set up with a good dipole antenna. Dan, the farmer down there, and his wife, Cheryl, were looking forward to Janice and Bennie visiting and, hopefully, locating their problem.

Bennie reported in that afternoon that they had reached Dan's farm and had made a first glance at the damage. He said, "It looks like animals but there is something more going on because it's so orderly. Janice and I will go out tomorrow morning and check further south. We checked out Newnan on the way down to be sure no one is living there now. It's empty. We might check out some other places though we will try to track where the raids are coming from first. Dan and Cheryl's farm is our outer﷓most farm so we need to find out. I think you said something about some folks heading beyond them soon. Is that right?"

"Correct." I agreed. "There are two couples who want places and there's some good land down there. Keep me informed and thanks."

Bennie signed off and I went about my other duties for the day.

Bennie and Janice reported that another raid took place that night and more crops were gone. Bennie told me that it looked like the crops were harvested though crudely. They felt there was a pattern as the most harvest ready crops were the ones taken. He and Janice would follow the trail of the raiders, which was clear to them though Dan hadn't able to track them much at all. They felt that they were tracking animals from the tracks though there was an intelligence issue that they didn't like.

Bennie and Janice were out on the trail when they called in. Bennie said, "Jack, we are worried. The tracks are all animal but there is intelligence at work here. Janice and I don't understand it. I know you're not here but tell us what you think."

"Bennie, I trust your sight on the tracks. This does present a new issue perhaps. We won't know until we see our raiders. We know that zoo animals were released and escaped both. Monkeys and chimps are both smart. Could they be somehow directing the activities?

"Tell me what types of tracks you are finding."

"Poppa, there are animals that we can't identify in this group. Also, it is a pack and there are many different types of animals' tracks mixed in. You've started my mind on a different track." Janice said.

"Jack," asked Bennie, "what should we do when we find this pack?"

"I would be very, very cautious. Sneak in and sneak out. Don't be risking yourselves. Try to figure out what's going on and how they are led. Then, report back and let's talk. You two have the skills and experience so I will lean heavily on your advice."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence. I hope we can manage to deserve it without too much pain." Bennie said dryly.

They signed off and continued on with their task.

They called me in the early evening and told me that they were still on the trail but have stopped to camp for the night. The distance explained to them why the raids were not nightly. They told me that they knew they were going much slower than their quarry but they were south of Macon by their reckoning though still well to the west. I again reminded them to be careful. Bennie suggested that a party be gathered together to follow them prepared to fight or make peace as the occasion might arise. I told him I would get together a group in the morning and we would start their way the day after that at the latest.

I gathered some of the usual suspects including, much to my dismay, my wife who left the children with my mother. Shirl said, "You don't go off to face the unknown without me."

There were fifteen of us when we saddled up. We could have taken trucks, also since gas would have been made available. Bennie suggested horses because of the lack of roads on the trail he and Janice were following. We left in that morning at a reasonable clip for Dan and Cheryl's farm, our first stop.

We arrived that afternoon and Dan took us over to look at his last crop loss that Janice and Bennie had seen. I went on foot and agreed with Bennie's earlier statement that it looked like animal tracks only but also agreed that it looked intelligently directed.

We were gathered and ready. I called Bennie and said, "We are at Dan's farm. What do you suggest?"

"Did you look at the tracks?" he asked.

"Yes, and I agree with you on both points."

"Good to know you agree. Janice and I are still following them. It's nice to know that we aren't nuts about how they are acting. I would suggest that you follow the tracks south. They don't follow the roads in the area. It's almost as if they are avoiding the roads. On the other hand, they take easy routes as they go. We still haven't seen any prints to suggest humans or any type of monkey."

We pulled out of the farm area following the tracks south. I was tracking as best I could with Ted's help. We saw no tracks of horses except for Bennie and Janice's two. There also were little cattle but a lot of deer tracks and what looked like bear tracks and some other clawed animal. It made no sense but the raids were causing Dan to not have enough food without help. He was a good farmer and should be able to prosper as a farmer and did well last year.

At the end of the day, I called a stop to our group and called Bennie. "We're camping for the night. We've covered about ten miles today. Ted and I have been looking at the tracks pretty closely and we've seen no sign of horses except yours."

"That fits what we've seen, Poppa." Janice replied.

"Also, Ted and I didn't see much in the way of cattle but lots of deer and what we think are bear tracks."

"Poppa, that's why we asked for reinforcements. We have counted at least fifteen different bears in this pack. With the deer, that makes no sense. I believe we're about a half day ahead of you. We're going slower because we are concerned about ambushes and want to get a better idea of what we are facing."

"I understand. Do you want to wait for us to catch up tomorrow and then you can work point for us with us close enough to provide some hope of backup?"

There was a pause and she came back on. "Bennie and I think that's a good idea. We would like some company."

"Okay, Janice. I will look forward to seeing the two of you around noon. Keep being careful. I love you. Hang on, Shirl wants to talk to you."

"Okay. I love you, too."

"Hello, Janice." Shirley said.

"Hi, Mom!" She responded brightly. "Where's the kids?"

"I talked Jack's mom into watching them because I was going with him on this trip."

"I bet it wasn't hard to talk her into it." She laughed into the mike.

"Not really. Now, I want you and Bennie to be very careful. This situation is strange and you need to be safe. If it's all animals, then they will be stealthier than strange men. I want you to be careful of strangers, no matter who or what."

"Yes, Mom. We will."

"Okay, you two have a good evening and we'll see you tomorrow. I love you."

"I love you, too, Mom."

"Okay, Shirley is clear."

"Janice is clear."

The night was quiet and it was fun to be in a tent with Shirl. As it happened, it was the first time we had ever camped together. We zipped our sleeping bags together.

We started out heading south the next morning after a quiet night.

We had stopped last night a bit north and west of the old town of Zebulon and continued south in the morning. I noticed that Janice and Bennie were right as usual. The route avoided roads, the few towns, and even houses. We came upon a stopping point for the pack that was at the edge of a pine grove. Looking at the signs there, it appeared to be animals bedding down for the night. Some of it looked almost like a deer herd though other parts did not. I saw the clawed tracks that Janice and Bennie identified as a possible bear and I agreed though I had never seen bear tracks in real life before.

We met up with Janice and Bennie as they rode north to meet us around lunchtime. It was good to see both of them safe and in good spirits. After hugs, we sat down and talked. Janice and Bennie went over the tracks with Shirley, Ted, and I trying to determine speed, number, and species. As best we could determine, it was an amalgam of different species.

They seemed to travel together in a pack with species intermixed but without fright or fighting. None of this was normal. We moved south with Ted joining Janice and Bennie a couple hundred yards in front of the rest of us. Other than being watchful, it was a quiet and enjoyable ride. We covered a number of miles pulling up at a small lake in, as best as I could figure, Talbot County. We would stop here for the night finding a boating area with small weekend houses and open covered areas. The small lake was beautiful and, except for this small area, natural. From the signs, we determined it was a day use area for mostly locals. There were a couple of pontoon boats docked that hadn't sunk. We could see sunken fishing boats at other docking points as well as a couple that had gotten away and beached themselves on shore. The tracks went along the edge of this area and there was a bedding point further on where a field and the woods met.

The next morning, we talked about what to do over breakfast. Bennie and Janice suggested that we were catching up to the pack and that they and Ted should go out to try to get close and determine more about this strange group. The other line of thought was for those three to take the lead and all of us follow reasonably close behind so we could offer support if needed.

The later idea made more sense to me and that's what I chose. We all packed up and Janice, Bennie, and Ted led us further south. I did mark this spot as a particularly nice spot wanting to return at some point.

We spent all that day moving at a rapid clip. Our three point persons were not trying to determine more about the tracks other than to follow them and try to watch for any leading off the main group and for how close we were to them. We didn't want to be ambushed or to suddenly come upon them.

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Story tagged with:
Romance / Drama / Violence / Travel / Post Apocalyptic /