Authors: Robert Schobernd
I knew more atrocities were about to be revealed from the tears and fearful to hateful looks on the survivor's faces. "There were eight men and three women and they...they gang raped Molly, Lisbeth, and Merriam. The girls screamed and fought, but they were no match for that wild bunch. Even those women took part in raping them."
I asked, "How did all of you escape?" Vernon said, "In all the commotion of what was happening, me and Sarah snuck out the back door of the barn and made it to the woods. We made it to near the top of the ridge and hunkered down where we could see but not be seen."
He nodded at Adam to speak. "I was squirrel hunting and heard the large bore shots. I snuck back over the ridge and saw bodies on the ground and what was being done to the women. There was no way to stop it, all I had was this .22 caliber squirrel rifle. When Sarah and Vern ran from the barn, I joined them. As we watched from up on the hillside, they tied all the prisoners and put them on the front wagon. Then those killers ransacked the cabins and stole everything they could carry before they set fire to the buildings. While that was going on, several more gathered the livestock and got them ready to travel. It was well past lunch when they were ready to leave; A big guy who looked to be their leader yelled, ‘Come on damn it. Get a move on. I wanna get back to Poplar Bluff while this weather holds.’"
Sarah questioned me, "Are you going after them?"
I glanced at the faces watching, "Are we?"
Heads nodded and I heard, yeses, hell yeses, and damned right we're going.
The whole group looked to me. "We want our young people back, but we can't run off and let our food rot in the field. We'll work dawn to dusk for the next week getting these crops in. I'm guessing we could be gone a month. The hard part will be locating these assholes after we get to the Poplar Bluff area. It's about two-hundred miles from here. That's six to eight days by horse, considering we'll need to take wagons along. We'll leave five people here to continue the harvest, feed the stock, and take care of what...thirteen kids? We'll travel as fast as the horses can hold up, but we can't afford to injure them by pushing them past their endurance; we need them healthy to extract vengeance on those rogues and then get back."
I hung my head and exhaled as I shifted back and forth on my feet. I looked at the four newcomers. "Several months ago, you chose to stay with the liberal, religious, pacifist group. When we find these killers I need to know if you can stomach a no holds barred, take no prisoners assault. Think about it overnight and let me know in the morning."
"There's no need to wait till morning, Tom," Adam said as he stood grimly and swiveled to engage the crowd around him. "We talked about this on the way here. All of us stayed only because we didn't want to hurt our family members who were adamantly opposed to violence. I asked you for directions to get here before you left because I knew I would leave at some point and join you. We agree that none of those cold-blooded murderers should be spared." He looked to each of his traveling companions; they all nodded, some more aggressively than others. Allen stepped forward and hugged his brother. Tears ran down Adam's cheeks as he said, "Vernon said they made Dad get on his knees before they shot him in the head."
Morgan turned to Able and Richard, "If it's any consolation, Barlow's family wasn't in the group that was murdered. They all died about five weeks ago. Verlie and Marcie thought it was from food poisoning. They got sick and went downhill fast."
Richard was silent for a time. "Accidental food poisoning, I understand. But murder by a bunch of low-down thieves is too despicable to ignore. I'll be riding with you." He turned to his wife. "Carmen, we'll need you, too, in the likely event we have causalities."
She smirked, "As if there was a chance in hell that I wouldn't go." Carmen's kids and several others grinned at the feisty woman's retort. Able was silent, but the tears flowing down his cheeks revealed his pain from the loss of his parents and two siblings. "I'm going, too. I want my little brother and sister back, if they're still alive.
A short time after daybreak, our convoy rode out. Saying our good-byes to Kira, Junior, Vivian, Adam and Sarah was painful because we had no idea of how many of us would return. Ten days seemed like it should have been enough time to adjust to the planned separation, but it wasn't. Junior and Adam didn't want to stay behind, but they saw the need for mature men of large stature to stay with the women and children. Kira and Vivian were both strong and exuded confidence, and both were excellent shots. But if another group of roving outlaws caused trouble, I wanted two men like Junior and Adam to face down the intruders. Of course, that would only work if they weren't outnumbered by eight or ten people. We didn't need another massacre while we were away righting a previous slaughter. Besides all that, Vivian was closing on being seven months pregnant with her and Shane's last child. She had no business taking a lead roll in confronting aggressors.
Me, Richard, Mitch, Paige, Suzie and Vernon were on horseback and the other ten people were distributed on two supply wagons. Each rubber-tired wagon was pulled by four draft horses and carried our food, heavy weapons and other supplies for a month long campaign. Four aggressive dogs trotted along and disappeared at times while they chased a wild animal. Eventually, they reappeared. Sometimes they'd have fresh blood stains around their jaws from whatever small animal they'd eaten.
The old concrete roadway was slowly pitting and flaking, not from heavy traffic but from the ravages of weather over time. The terrain was hilly and the jury-rigged hydraulic brakes were used often on the downhill grades to lessen the burden on the trailing pair of horses tasked with holding back the weight of the load.
A few hours before lunchtime of our second day, we arrived at our old burnt-out camp. Bloated bodies of the murder victims had been attacked by scavengers. The stench was nauseating. We ate a quick cold lunch up wind and then set to digging graves at the expanded cemetery where seven of our friends were already interred. The work was tiring in the hot, humid, late August heat. One at a time, the eleven maggot infested corpses were rolled onto an old plastic tarp and dragged up the slight grade to their final resting place.
While supper was being prepared far upwind, we gathered briefly to say good-byes to our departed friends and relatives. Without speaking out, I wished my disillusioned friends could have appreciated the precarious situation they had placed themselves in by refusing to acknowledge the horrible and deadly dangers surrounding us.
The burial detail finally finished. A large pot of stew simmered over a low fire while the men stood guard along the rivers edge. The women disrobed and then waded into the cold, clear water to scrub off the stench of death. Before they emerged from the river, their clothing got a dousing. They put on clean clothes and hung the wet ones on the clothes lines that were still intact. Then it was the men's turn to wash before supper while a small group of women stood armed guard.
For our third day of travel, we rose at dawn. Before breakfast was cooked and eaten, it was apparent the sky would stay overcast. We lingered longer than we should have and were late getting started. Most likely, we would never visit that desecrated spot again. Previous good memories had been overshadowed by the recent horrible acts inflicted there.
A strong breeze blew from the south and the air smelled cleaner, as if it had been filtered through a rain storm. The temperature hadn't risen much since dawn, and we all felt rain was imminent. The wagon crews took the threat of rain seriously and searched for our rain gear from the piles of supplies while we rode.
We'd been on the road about two hours when, as expected, a fine drizzle began. Within the hour sporadic summer showers pummeled us and most of us were soon drenched to some extent.
At lunchtime, we pulled in under the leaky roof of an abandoned gas station at a small, wide spot in the road to eat our cold meal in a relatively dry space. Smoked meat, cornmeal tortillas and watermelons made for a quick meal while we vigilantes joked and bantered back and forth. No one joked about the intent of our mission. That was too personal to speak about lightly.
Traveling had become easier for the horses when the road gradually left the hills behind us and flattened to a rolling prairie. We moved on from under the awning thirty minutes later and continued in the rain for two more hours until we entered West Plains. The deserted city had claimed a population of twelve thousand inhabitants prior to the Zombie Apocalypse. Now it was just another ramshackle remnant of what had been. As we left the east edge of town, sunrays shone through the dissipating cloud cover, and the temperature rose noticeably. Water quickly drained away, and steam rose from the warm pavement. I was relieved to get rid of the sweltering raingear.
Before supper that evening, my ratty, well-used twenty-two year old edition of a road atlas lay spread across a soiled counter in a ravaged Shell gas station. The distance left to Poplar Bluff was close to ninety-miles. I figured three days of riding would put us near the city. Then we'd be faced with the difficult task of finding the murderous scum we had come to deal with. We spoke about the possibility of being detected first and walking into an ambush. Everyone was charged with scouring the areas around us and being vigilant.
Three days passed uneventfully as we rode toward Poplar Bluff. The weather was still hot in early September but cooled nicely after dusk. By the position of the sun, I guessed it was about three in the afternoon when our destination became visible across the eastern horizon. We made camp on a knoll west of the outskirts of the city where large trees provided shade. An adjacent open area provided tall grass where the horses grazed on long tether ropes. The horses had enough water from the recent rains pooled in a clogged roadside drainage ditch.
I held a group meeting to discuss our plan for locating the murderers we sought. We would form three, three man crews on horseback to conduct a cursory search of the city proper. The group we sought wasn't expected to be in town, but we needed to assure ourselves of that before we searched the rural area. Richard, Morgan and I would lead the crews. Vernon and Adam would ride with me, Mitch and Paige would go with Morgan, and Larry and Bryon would be with Richard. Adam, Paige and Bryon had volunteered to ride three of the draft horses bare-back. The draft horses weren't nearly as fast as the riding horses, so if a crew encountered the renegades they would likely have to dismount, take cover and fight. Hopefully, the rest of us might hear the gunfire. After two days of crisscrossing the city without seeing any signs of human activity, we changed our search focus to the areas outside the city limits.
The city's municipal building had been ransacked years earlier. The nine of us converged on the building in the morning hours of our fourth day there. After we'd searched through cabinets and desk for over half an hour, Paige discovered a cache of local county maps in the office of the mayor's secretary. With detailed maps of the area in hand, we returned to camp and planned our search. We split the area into nine sections. Each crew would canvass the roads in an assigned sector and ride approximately thirty miles from the city. As I feared, the first two days were unrewarding.
At mid-morning on the third day, my crew was north of the city and back in another section of the Mark Twain Forest. We rounded a sharp bend on an oil and chip country lane. A lone rider stood dismounted while his horse drank from a nearby pool of water.
Vernon immediately drew his assault rifle from the scabbard and sighted on the man thirty feet away. He yelled, "Don't move you son-of-a-bitch or I'll cut you in half."
It was clear from the tone of his voice that we'd hit pay dirt. As Vernon spoke the young man's hand quivered and edged toward a holster on his right leg. I'd drawn my Glock and then fired two rounds into the ground between his feet. "If you touch that gun, I can just as easily put a bullet between your eyes. It's your choice; do you want to live or die?"
He raised both hands over his head and glared at me uncertainly.
Adam was on the ground and held his Glock inches from the young man's head. "You killed my dad and a bunch of my friends. Make a move, and I'll gladly blow your frigging head off."
I dismounted and then cut a length of rope four-feet long. Our prisoner was in his early twenties, pleasant looking with long blond hair and a short scruffy beard. His horse was an Appaloosa, I thought
When our prisoner's hands were tied behind his back, Vernon lowered his rifle and shoved it back in the scabbard. He dismounted and strode to our prisoner and spit in his face.
Before I could act, Vernon's right arm cocked back, and he delivered a vicious punch to the man's stomach and followed it with a left to his face as he doubled over and fell. "That's only partial punishment for killing my parents and grandmother and raping my sister and cousin."
Vernon had set the pace for what needed to be done. The dirty but necessary interrogation fell to me. I drew my hunting knife with my left hand as I squatted and placed my right knee across the man's throat. The heavy, eight-inch-long stainless steel blade flashed in the sun as it raised and then plunged down into the outside flesh of my victim's left leg. He screamed loud and long and quivered as the blade tore through flesh. The blade was twisted and he screamed louder. As his breath ran out, the scream subsided. I hesitated for effect before the blade rose cleanly; blood spurted from the incision.
I asked, "What's your name?"
He summoned enough bravado to say, "Fuck you."
My demeanor was harsh as the blade plunged into the inside flesh of the same leg. The young man screamed even before the blade entered and was again twisted for maximum pain.
"Your real name Mr. You?"
His face paled, and he was more talkative. "Everett."
I stared into the young man's eyes and saw indecision mingled with fear. I spoke softly with an edge of coldness, "I'll ask you a question. If I think you're lying, I'll slaughter you like a hog at butchering time.... Where's your group's camp?" The knife withdrew and was poised high above the right leg.
Loathing and pain were clearly evident on the man's face; his body quivered and sweat formed on his brow. He summoned enough courage to not speak. The knife fell and the first two inches of sharp, pointed steel punctured his leg. He screamed and his face contorted. "Now, Dammit talk to me or I'll keep punching holes in you until you do!"
His vision swiveled between me, Vernon and Adam, as tears flowed. "I didn't want to do it, my dad and the others made me."
I leaned on the knife and forced it down another inch. His eyes widened and I placed my right hand over his mouth as he screamed. "Focus, Everett. I asked you a question, and I want an answer. If you keep screwing around, you're going to bleed out before I can patch you up."
He sweated profusely. "Up this road about three miles to the
The blade dug deeper and twisted again. "And then?"
He grimaced and whimpered. "Take a left and turn right at the second road."
"The fifth dirt lane on the left."
Tears flowed freely down Everett's cheeks. "The cabins are a quarter mile back in the woods."
Five minutes later, I had a head count of the number of people in their gang, how many were currently onsite and the number of buildings in the compound. Everett claimed two men and five women were watching the captive women and tending to the children.
We cut the prisoner's shirt and pants off and used the cloth to slow the blood flowing from three punctures. He was none too clean. He'd live until we got him back to our camp where Carmen could stitch him up. He was only alive because I didn't trust him to tell the truth. Woe be to him if he'd lied to me.
Before we left later that night, I'd explained to Everett in graphic detail what would happen to his testicles if he'd lied to me about the location of their compound. The hammer and nails in my hands gave my threats impetus. He swore he'd told the truth. I read the fright in his wide eyed stare and believed him. Well after dark, Richard and I rode back to where we'd found and abused Everett. We rode ahead under a clear sky and a full moon until we saw an old, weatherworn sign pointing left toward the
Pleasantdale Baptist Church
. It was difficult to read in the feeble moonlight because of the large number of bullet holes in it. So far our directions were spot on.
At the second road, we stopped and listened for ten minutes before turning right. All we heard was the chirping of night insects and the hoot of a hunting owl. Our pace was slow and cautious up to the fourth lane on our left. We turned into it and followed the rutted trail through brush and saplings for what we judged to be approaching a quarter mile. The saplings beside us grew close together and many were over fifteen-feet tall.
Ahead in a clearing, a two-story frame house stood silhouetted under moonlight. Outbuildings lay scattered around it, and a large ramshackle barn overlooked all of it. Looking closely, we saw the barn's roof was swaybacked and partially collapsed on the near end. We dismounted and tethered the horses to the post of an old, rusty barbed wire fence. Cautiously, we approached the house with rifles in the ready position. Up close it was apparent the farm site was uninhabitable. I pointed in the direction of the fifth lane and set off with Richard covering our rear. We stepped over the decrepit wire fence strands and moved stealthily through the dense stand of weeds and saplings.