Authors: Robert Schobernd
Kira and I were up before dawn, as usual, the next morning. Tentative knocking at the door interrupted our breakfast of bacon, eggs and the last of the potatoes from the root cellar. I removed the two stout beams holding the door closed and opened it. Verlie stepped inside from the light snow. A cold blast of air carried flakes inside with it until I closed the door tightly. The near zero temperature kept the snow dry; it was light and fluffy, and at least four inches had accumulated in the past hour. Verlie stomped her boots before she turned toward the table. In the dim light cast by the flickering flame of a single candle, tears ran down her cheeks.
Kira ran to her and clasped her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"It's Doc. I checked on him this morning. He died during the night. He's stone cold."
I hugged both women tightly. "I hate to lose Doc, but at least his suffering is over. We'll have to clean him up, put clean clothes on him and put him back in bed. This evening before dark, we'll have an hour long visitation for everyone to stop in and say their good-byes."
Seven-year-old Kat ran barefoot to Kira and clung to her for attention as she rubbed her eyes.
Kira said, "Sorry we woke you, baby. Come to the table and sit on my lap to stay warm."
To both I said, "It's too cold to bury Doc. We'll let the fire die in his cabin and leave the body there until the ground thaws."
I poured Verlie a cup of chicory and wheat grain coffee "I made his casket two months ago along with two extras. After the service, we'll put Doc in it and lay him in the back room. That portion of roof stays in speckled shade and should help keep the body frozen. That's all we can do for now. It's early March. In another month, spring will roll in and the frost will leave the ground."
The visitation was held that evening . Most people came with their children and stayed about fifteen to thirty minutes to visit. Toward the end, approximately ten adults and their children squeezed into Doc's bedroom with a small overflow in the living room. John Alton read several passages from the bible he'd begun toting around. Most of the group sang four old hymns I recognized from attending church forty or so years before, back when I was about six. When the mourners were gone, Shane and I placed Doc in the wood casket and set it on the floor in his patient treatment room. I'd hidden the remainder of our elderberry wine in Doc's medical cabinet earlier. I retrieved it, and we sat on Doc's pine casket. As Shane and I traded stories and remembrances of our years with Doc, we toasted his memory until the quart jar was empty.
The late March temperature turned warmer, and the ground thawed enough to dig. Shane and his son Larry joined me and my son-in-law, Mitch, to dig Doc's grave. His gravesite was a hundred yards from the cabins on a small rise above the riverbank where Doc had often sat in good weather. Anthony Margherio and Marilyn Jarnigan were interred nearby. With four strong, willing men, it was only a few hours work. The surface dirt was wet and muddy, but the deeper we dug the firmer and drier the soil became. After lunch, our entire group gathered for Doc's burial ceremony. It was a long ceremony because so many of his friends had testimonials to recount about their interactions with Doc. John Alton read from his bible to the accompaniment of several "Amens." Copious tears ran down sad faces as the unadorned wood box was lowered into the excavation. All four of the excavators stuck around after the service to fill the hole with the dirt removed only hours earlier. We finished stomping the dirt down before I hung my head and said my own version of a prayer for Doc. Lastly, a wooden marker was driven into the soft soil to mark his final resting place.
Shortly after dawn several days later, I partially filled one of the huge steel wash kettles with clear river water and then built a roaring fire under it.
Shane rode off as I lugged the final buckets of water up the riverbank. He planned to spend the day, and maybe another, hunting deer and wild hogs. We'd talked several times about becoming suppliers of meat to the other survivors in exchange for their services, and we were close to implementing it with an announcement to all our friends. It was time for each family to start taking responsibility for themselves. They'd have to develop their own skills to trade for the meat we'd furnish.
Our three kids played with several others near their age while Kira stirred the dirty clothes submerged in water and lye soap. We'd taken to wearing clothes much longer, often weeks to a month or more. The materials had to last as long as possible and we'd learned harsh washing methods damaged the cloth faster than wearing the articles. Only when they became too odorous or stiff from sweat or external dirt did we change to clean garments. We didn't like it, but that was one of the minor changes forced on us by the damn'd zombie invasion.
After getting Kira set up, I milked three Jersey cows, fed them, a bull, and four horses we'd assumed responsible for.
Exiting the horse barn door, I came belly to belly with Jesse Pitchford as he entered. We stopped abruptly an inch short of slamming into each other. Solemnly I said, "Good morning, Jesse."
He glared at me, stepped aside, squeezed past me, and stomped into the building without a word. I smiled slightly. He was still pissed off about his whiskey operation being destroyed. After I few seconds of soul searching, I decided I could live with that.
Toward our cabin, I saw clothes hung on one of the community clotheslines. The fire under the kettle was out, and the area was clear of buckets and our plastic clothes baskets. The sun had been peeking through clouds when I entered the barn; now droplets of rain began to fall. Kira had bucketed most of the water from the kettle, so I dumped it over on its side to drain it.
The ground was still too wet to plow the next day, so I spent the morning making minor repairs to the cabin and doing other chores that had popped up during the winter.
While working at the cabin, I heard a disturbance from behind the horse barn and near the river. Someone yelled, "Oh my God, help, get Marcie! Hurry, boy!"
I dropped my tools and ran past the corner of the cabin. Sarah, my seven-year-old granddaughter, ran toward me while Tom Jr. ran flat out toward Marcie's cabin.
Sarah grabbed my hand and tugged me toward the barn. "Uncle Shane's hurt bad, Grandpa. Hurry... he's terribly bloody."
We cleared the end of the barn and I saw Shane's blood covered body on the ground; his clothes were torn and soaked with blood. The horse he'd ridden stood twenty feet away. I looked across the river and along the ridge but didn't see the pack horse he'd led when he left. I knelt beside Shane as Marcie, Carmen and several others arrived. The nurses nudged me away so they could work. It was difficult to recognize my friend even though I knew him so well. I quickly surmised he'd been attacked by a bear; no other animal could have inflicted the massive damage done to his body. Shane's scalp was lacerated and partly torn from his skull, his face had deep cuts and tears, his right arm was mangled from the shoulder down and his left leg had a compound fracture below the knee. I couldn't see other substantial damage, but his bloody clothing was ripped all the way down his torso. I barely recognized the sound of the emergency bell as someone rang it to alert everyone of the tragedy.
A loud, high pitched scream erupted behind me. I spun around as Vivian ran down the slight grade from the barn. I stepped in front of her and caught her in my arms and hugged her tight. Verlie passed us to join the other nurses. From the yammering crowd of people surrounding us, I assumed all the survivors had gathered.
Vivian stared as she sobbed and collapsed against me, "My God, what happened?"
"I can't say for sure, but it looks like a bear attacked him." Morgan appeared with an old, green Army canvas stretcher.
Shane's children gathered around Vivian and took control of her. Kira and our kids were mingled in with Shane's family. I turned toward the nurses as Carmen motioned to me; she needed men to put Shane on the stretcher and carry him to Doc's old surgery.
We transferred Shane onto the examining table as carefully as possible. He groaned and flinched from the manhandling but didn't awaken. I stepped to a far corner as Verlie shooed everyone out. I met Carmen's eyes and waited; she stepped over to me. "I can see he's in terrible shape. Is there any chance he'll survive?"
She barely hesitated. "None. In this primitive setting, there's little we can do for him. He's lost too much blood and he's in shock; his body is shutting down. It's a miracle he made it back. He had to be running solely on willpower."
Carmen's cheeks were wet as I asked, "Can Vivian come in and stay with him?" She nodded then turned away.
I stumbled out of the caregiver's way and into the adjoining room. Vivian stood and looked at me pleadingly. I shook my head, then pulled her close and hugged her tight. Over her wails of pain, I said, "You can go in and stay with him. I believe you're the only reason he made it back here."
I sensed her inner strength as she straightened and moved away from me. She hesitated at the doorway with her right hand on the doorframe before she took a deep breath and then entered the surgery. The door closed behind her.
My family was with Vivian's. They'd all seen and heard my bad news delivery and their spirits were crushed at the thought of losing such a wonderful father and friend. He and I had always been as close as natural brothers, and my kids even called him Uncle Shane. This was an even bigger personal loss than the day Ed was taken from us.
Hours later, I don't know how many, Carmen, Marcie and Verlie joined us. Shane had passed on.
Dusk was still a few hours off. I whispered to Kira then left. At the tool shed, I selected a sharp spade and walked to the knoll where our other friends were buried. I scratched lines on the ground to form a rectangle several feet from Doc's grave and started digging. It was hard to see the rectangle through blurry eyes. Before long, five other men joined me. There was no good-natured banter between us. When one tired, another quietly jumped in the hole and took his place without being asked.
As we cleaned and oiled the shovels to put them away, I announced, "The burial will be tomorrow morning an hour past dawn. Pass the word to everyone. As soon as it's done, I'd like Richard, Mitch and Larry to saddle up with me and try to find where Shane was attacked. There's a man-eating bear close by, and it needs to be killed before it attacks anyone else."
Before going home to eat supper, I went to Morgan's cabin and spoke to him. "Tomorrow after the funeral, will you ask Jesse and Vernon to begin plowing the garden plots? I'll ask Tony Osmond to get Barlow and Able Jones to start with another team. The ground is dry enough and should turn well. When they're far enough ahead, Tony can start behind them with the disk and harrow. Glen and his boys should be available, too. I expect to be gone at least all of tomorrow maybe two days; I'm taking a crew to the area Shane told me he was going to hunt. We need to find the bear that attacked him." Morgan agreed, and after speaking to Tony, I headed home.
Shane's funeral was a somber and sobering affair because it vividly pointed out how precarious our daily existence was. We'd gotten past the zombie threat, and no renegade humans had found us at our new homesite, but then a damn'd wild animal attacked and mangled the best male friend I'd ever had. Kira held a position above all others as friend and lover.
After testimonials, prayers and several hymns, more than enough help stayed to fill the grave. As soon as the hastily carved marker was driven into place, the four of us saddled up and headed out. I had mixed emotions about the task at hand. On one hand, our mission was to ensure the safety of all our survivors; on the other hand, a less noble feeling drove me. I wanted that damn'd bear dead as my personal revenge for it killing my best friend.
It was about forty degrees as we rode up ridges and descended into valleys. I recalled details of when I'd first learned Shane was injured. The packhorse and both of his weapons were missing. Had the other horse been killed? Had Shane wounded or even killed the bear before escaping to make his way home? Questions, but no answers. Speculating would do nothing; we'd learn the details only if we found the site where Shane was attacked.
The sun rose in the sky and was nearly overhead when I looked across the valley we were moving downward to and saw movement. A pair of black bear cubs wrestled on the steep hillside. Three other sets of eyes focused after I waved my left arm overhead then pointed at the cavorting black balls of fur. I raised my binoculars. Farther up the valley to our right, a horse lay on the ground, its halter tethered to a sapling in front of it. The carcass of a deer was tied across its back on the pannier. The horse's head moved; it appeared to be alright.
We dismounted near the packhorse and tethered our mounts. The packhorse struggled to stand before Mitch and Larry removed the deadweight from its back. They gave the animal water and grain while Richard and I got our bearings and made a plan.
Huddled closely, I told our party, "The cubs up the ridge indicate the mother is likely nearby. She could be dead... or wounded and pissed off. We'll go up the hill thinking the latter and that she might charge out of the underbrush at any second. Stay alert. If she charges, shoot and keep firing until she's on the ground and bleeding out. She'll likely be so close there won't be time to aim, so point at the center of her chest and shoot. Let's go, and don't hurry."
We fanned out six to eight feet apart and advanced up the steep grade to where we'd seen the bear cubs. Richard and I were in the middle, Mitch on my right flank, Larry on Richard's left flank.
We couldn't avoid making noise as the four of us clambered upward toward the top of the ridge. Trees and bushes provided handholds while loose rock and dirt let our footing slide away. At the sight of us, the pair of cubs stared, froze and then scampered off out of sight.
In another minute, I saw Shane's M4 on the slope right in front of me. Ahead was a relatively flat space on the hillside. Slightly below the flat there was a groundhog hole. Dark brown blood stained the surrounding dirt, and a deep scuff mark led downward into the hole. As we rose above the flat space, blood was strewn around a large area. Shane's .45 caliber Glock lay a few feet ahead of me. Three bullets were missing from the magazine.
Suddenly, a mighty and ferocious roar bristled the hair on my neck. It was so close, it sounded like it was almost on top of us. From our left, another loud outcry followed seconds later. It was louder that the first and approached that of a human screaming from pain and fear. I froze in place and stared in the direction of the angry bear noises. As if appearing out of thin air, the female black bear charged, running low on all four legs. Her first leap from twenty feet away spanned half the distance to us. Mitch was slightly downhill behind me and didn't have a clear shot. Larry, Richard and I fired our assault rifles from the hip at the carnivore's torso and shoulders. The bear continued its horrific growl as it charged the last few feet. The bitch stumbled and fell. Its nose hit the dirt, and then it tumbled end over end directly toward Larry and Richard. Larry turned and scampered down the hill, one arm flailing wildly. He was barely a foot or two ahead of the large female. The bear tumbled down the hill, tripped Larry, and rolled over his prostrate body. He yelped loudly as the bear's heavy, pliant carcass continued tumbling down the slope another twenty feet until it wedged against a tree trunk and stopped. Larry rose as he sucked in several breaths to replace the air squeezed from him by the three to four hundred pound bear crushing down on him. Red-faced, he swiveled his upper torso around and gave us a surprised, sheepish grin.
We gathered on the flat ground and solemnly stood where Shane had been injured. I walked to where the bear had appeared. Richard followed me. There was a narrow cleft in the hillside where rain water had washed dirt and rock away over the years. Blood soaked a small portion of the ground. Forty or so feet past the cleft, a den was dug into the hillside. Both cubs huddled in the near dark and growled at us weakly.