“I can’t believe I blacked out and then slept the day away.” Michael picked fretfully at the blanket covering his legs. Tall young Grit Smith, six-four if he was an inch, rangy and strong, had carried my mate into the house. Mrs. Sara Smith, in her forties and one arm in a permanent sling yet no more than half her husband’s age, had insisted he be bedded down on a cot in the enormous kitchen, where he’d still be in the hub of activity when he woke. Which he had done little more than an hour ago. Nobody had tried to prevent him from staggering outside to use the privy, but he’d been surprisingly meek about returning to the cot after relieving himself, being served a fragrant bowl of some sort of pleasantly spiced soup and a mug of water. Michael Indstructible Jade was scared.
So were we. Lauren and I sat side by side, our chairs close enough to allow us to quietly hold hands. This man was our rock; if he shattered, so did our entire world, including the scores of Souls at the Roost. That he’d held up until arriving at Zebediah Smtih’s hold, a place of safety protected by well crafted defenses and seven deadly shooters…a miracle indeed. The hand of Spirit? I chose to believe so.
“Something like that will get your atention, all right.” Ancient Zeb, patriarch of this clan, took a long pull from his tea mug before going on, but there was no question of anyone else interrupting while he hesitated. There was love and respect in this family, all for one, one for all. They had been attacked by raiders only once, just last summer. Zeb and Sara had once had seven sons; baby of the family Benjie was buried out back of the house, and mother Sara’s arm had been permanently injured. “I’ve got some thoughts on it, though, if you’ve a mind to hear them.”
Propped up on his pillows, Michael nodded slowly. “More than a mind.”
“Well then.” Zeb looked for all the world like he should be puffing on a short stemmed pipe as he talked, but of course that wasn’t happening. But had he done so, back in the Before times? “I probably should give you a bit of my life story. My family has heard it so many times they may roll their eyes a bit, but I’ve found it helps if you know why I…um…I’m eighty-three years old, if I haven’t lost count anywhere. So far, I haven’t met anyone else as old as I am for…quite some time now. I was nearly forty years old when the first Capriosi vilify death was reported. I’d been to college, and been a practicing psychiatrist for more than a dozen years.” He paused there to make sure Michael understood what a psychiatrist was, seeming impressed that the seventeen year old warrior did. “It disgusted me, observing my supposed peers. Many of them worked for Veterans Affairs, and a sorrier lot of self-absorbed, arrogant, god-complex, cardboard excuses for human beings–well, I didn’t like them very much, and they returned the sentiment. But I had my own practice, none of this so called public service, and the soldiers who came to me got the very best I had to give. I drained myself every day, but more vets sent me thank you cards and letters over the years than…excuse me, Michael. I’m rambling. Let me cut to the chase. Your lovely Julia had to get a nap, and she did, but I grilled her for hours while you were out, learning your personal history. I also gave you a pretty thorough physical examination, and I’m reasonably confident in sharing my diagnosis.
“In my considered medical opinion, you have PTSD.”
“Petey what?” Yeah, I’d read about psychiatrists, but only in books. I had no idea what Petey had to do with anything. At the same time, conflicting emotions hit me when he mentioned Petey. On the good side, old Zeb Smith sounded like he might actually know what was up with me, and that brought a burst of hope. Is anything scarier than not knowing? On the bad side, he said I “had” something, and that didn’t sound good. I definitely did not want to “have” something, especially if it was a terminal disease or–
“Post traumatic stress disorder.” Zeb steepled his fingers, studying me like I was a bug under a microscope. Not that I’ve ever seen a microscope, but it had to be something like a reverse telescope. And I didn’t think it boded well for the bug to have a reverse telescope aimed at it by a curious human. “It almost has to be that.”
“Almost has to?” Julia, winging in from the back, her tone fiercely protective. “Why?””
The old man leaned back in his chair, reaching for the mug of tea his wife had topped off while he wasn’t looking. He was looking way too relaxed; this was going to take a while. “First,” he addressed me and Julia both, though I had no idea how he’d managed that, sitting far apart in the room as we were, “before we get to you specifically, let me bring you all up to speed on PTSD, what it is and how it works. It’s been known to warriors since time immemorial, though for a long time it was called shell shock or some other name. When the term PTSD came along, though, the term stuck. It’s descriptive. It happens after, or post, one or more traumatic events in the life of the victim, and said victim certainly does not have to be a warrior, or even to have swung a fist even once in anger. A serious accident, a near death illness, mortal combat of course, but any of a thousand different abrupt strains on the human can produce the disorder.
“A lot of folks used to believe it was all mental and/or emotional, but the physical component has always been there. Bang the body around, that’s trauma. Shock the mind and the senses, that’s trauma. And so on and so forth.”
I didn’t want to interrupt but couldn’t seem to help myself. “So I’m sick in the head?”
“Did I say sick?” Smith looked angry. “I called it a disorder, and that’s what it is. Something that’s out of order. In your case, I suspect the load has been building on you for years–it often happens that way–and you may have physical damage to your body, even to your brain. Let me tell this in my own way; it’ll go faster.”
I didn’t say anything more.
“Here’s the thing. Michael, you’re as prime a candidate for PTSD as I’ve ever met. At least when he was still functional, anyway. One of your earliest memories was the horror of watching your own parents slaughtered in front of your eyes. Trust me, you can’t unsee that stuff. Then that was immediately followed by brutality heaped on the minds and bodies of you and every other one of your surviving peers, the new slave contingent from Fort Confluence. During your long years in captivity, when you should have been growing up laughing and maybe fighting a bit with boys your own age, you were worked nearly to death. To add injury to insult, there was something in you that wouldn’t let you keep your neck bowed, so you were whipped and beaten more than any other slave boy at Fort Steel.
“Hang on; I’m just getting warmed up. You get traded away from Fort Steel and given your freedom, but within weeks, you have to fight for your life and those of your companions in Fear Trace. You become a killer, which you had unquestionably dreamed about, but the reality is not the same as the dream. You think you’re fine because for years you’ve had to compartmentalize, but your body and the subconscious part of your psyche know better. Every blow received or taken is remembered, every drop of blood, scream of agony…everything. But your outer world is going so well, you keep on keeping on. Then you battle a tiger, no less…twice, once in the middle of the night where things go bump and terrorize the best of us. Then you kill and kill again, pursuing and taking down the Rodney Upward gang. Still no clue, though. As far as you know, you’re still doing fine. But you’re not; the trauma pile is getting higher all the time. You get the slaves out of Fort Steel, and by the way, kudos to you on that one, but you nearly blow yourself up in the process and do get knocked out cold. Head trauma for sure on that one, something to go with the whip scars on your back.
“Then you have to kill again…but finally you get your people to this place you’ve named the Roost, and you feel safe for the first time in forever–because you hadn’t felt one bit safe as long as your people were still enslaved, but now you feel safe.
“And so,” Zeb pointed a gnarled index finger at me, almost as if he intended to poke me in the chest, though he wasn’t really close enough to do that, “you finally feel safe. You and Julia go off hunting, there’s a load of responsibility waiting when you get back to the Roost, but you feel safe on the hunting trip…and as soon as you feel safe, you collapse. Sleep around the clock, of necessity leaving your mate to do the hunting. You recover, continue as usual, then black out once the most recent threat seemed to be avoided. You trust Lauren, with good reason I might add, she trusts us, and by extension you trust us on sight. So pow, lights out.”
My mind worked furiously, trying to process everything the man was saying, but his discourse on the subject of PTSD was far from finished. We talked for hours, my strength slowly returning so that by the end of it, I was off the cot and straddling a chair backward as we talked. It seemed there were good things about the way the disorder expressed itself in my case. So far, I hadn’t crashed until I felt safe. Knowing that was a significant relief until Zeb explained that the symptoms could progress and might branch out laterally as well. Some PTSD sufferers became violent, and not only violent, but unpredictably so. Lovers and even children had been murdered in cold, twisted blood by people they’d long trusted. Suicide was not uncommon.
Cheery thoughts, those. Thanks, doc.
“Lower your stress levels,” Smith recommended, but how was I supposed to do that? The entire population of the Roost depended on me now; that was not a situation designed to encourage transcendental meditation.
“Surround yourself with people you can trust. Really trust,” he added, “and delegate. Allow the members of your inner circle to add their energies to your own, thus diluting the fuel PTSD uses to power your symptoms.”
The discussion went on well into the evening hours, by which time I was on my feet, strength flowing back into my limbs, determination sprouting in my heart. It didn’t hurt that when I made it far enough to take a seat at the big kitchen table, Julia and Lauren flanked me immediately, their love and support permeating my thoughts, squelching my fears. We had to get moving at first light. Thankfully, I was now certain I’d be able to move then. Holding it all in for all these years, albeit unintentionally, had literally knocked me out of the saddle. Letting it all out there, hearing what sounded like a common sense diagnosis from a man who seemed to know what he was doing…the poison wasn’t all purged, not by a long shot, but the pressure level was lowered noticeably. I had much to be grateful for, including the sure knowledge that erratic, possibly deadly behavior was not part of my way of expressing this disorder, this post traumatic stress disorder.
And then Zeb Smith sprang the big one. “Could you Roosters do with a few friendly neighbors and allies?”
I blinked at him. “What? I mean, yeah, sure, that could be really helpful, but what do you have in mind?” Did he know somebody, some group of people, who might be both suitable neighbors and possibly interested in settling near the Roost? On those high, steep, thickly timbered slopes?
He looked at his wife. When she nodded almost imperceptibly, he explained. “We’ve been thinking for a while, Michael. It might be time for our entire family to move on outa here. Two of the boys and I explored the country where your Roost sits, three or four years ago that was. There weren’t enough of us to dare claim the place; we couldn’t possibly have defended it long term. Especially not when half of us men roll out every summer, spend the warm months as Traders. We have three big freight wagons stashed where nobody’s ever found them so far, and every fall we tuck them back into hiding. Haul our take from the summer up here on pack animals. Usually takes half a dozen trips, but we get a lot of necessary goodies that way.”
My brow furrowed. “Okay, but why would you ever leave here? I mean, this place is a fortress, you’ve got good, arable land, plenty of outbuildings and livestock and water…I can’t imagine uprooting from a Garden of Eden like Smith Mountain.”
Mrs. Smith poured us fresh mugs of tea, some sort of tasty herbal mixture, as we talked. Her slung arm didn’t seem to slow her down one bit. Zeb sighed deeply and admitted, “Couple of years ago, I couldn’t have pictured pulling up stakes, either. Smith Mountain has given us a level of stability entirely lacking in the world after the Fall. I honestly believed I’d stay planted here until I was…well, planted. But last year disabused all of us of that notion. A harsh wakeup call it was, us Traders arriving home to find raiders had struck. They were driven off, those that didn’t take up permanent residence as fertilizer, but our youngest boy, the baby of the family, paid the ultimate price. My wife’s elbow joint will never again be completely whole. And worst of all in the long run, the word got out. Some of the raiders got out of here alive. They’ll have spread the word. There’s treasure here for such types, and sooner or later they’ll show up in numbers too big to beat. Not this time; they obviously didn’t succeed in following you, and we’ve not seen them coming by the known route. But sooner or later, they’ll wipe us out. If we stay.
“As for the Roost, there’s no way we’d settle exactly there. Every one of us is used to roaming free in the mountains; living even on a sizeable acreage like your mesa would feel like prison to us. But on up the trail, not more than half a mile from the Roost as the crow flies, there’s a spot we could claim. A little lake, mosquito hell in summer–at least it was when we saw it–but pretty as can be. Deep, too, with fish in it. Spring fed, probably, plus there’s a seasonal creek that hits it strong with spring runoff every year. We’d need to clear a lot of timber around it to have enough graze for the animals, space for the truck garden, and a clear field of fire against attackers, but my boys and I all understand the business ends of saw and axe. Country gets mighty rough a bit past that spot, so it’s not likely any raiders would come upon us before they spotted you folks. But however that fell out, we’d be mere minutes away from each other on foot, never mind horseback.”
He fell silent, letting us think it through. What he said made sense…mostly. Julia squeezed my thigh to let me know that whatever I decided, she was with me. On the other side, Lauren patted my arm. Talk about stress reducers. “Clearing out of here would take a whole bunch of trips, wouldn’t it?”
“That it would. Herds, flocks, tools and equipment, household goods. I’m not even sure how many runs would be required.”
“And you’re all up for this?” I scanned the table. As always, one of the sons was out there in the tree stand sentry post, but that left five plus, of course, Zeb and Mrs. Zeb. I really needed to get their names figured out; being passed out for most of the day hadn’t exactly kept me up to par on my social obligations.
There were solemn nods all around. I was impressed; leaving a place like this would have torn me apart, had I lived here as part of a functioning family from birth.
“We’d love to have you as neighbors and allies,” I said finally. “One suggestion. Could you stand the prison atmosphere of the Roost long enough to store your livestock and other goods inside for a while? Just until you can get your land cleared and a structure or two built, maybe some corrals? Because I’d hate to even think about the difficulty of defending your stuff out in the open.”
That triggered more discussion. Only four of the Smiths could be taxed with the responsibility for moving everything to the Roost. Zeb’s wife would go immediately, start getting to know her new neighbors while supervising everything from livestock to groceries, but three men would need to remain on Smith Mountain at all times, until the very end. They would rotate sentry duty as well as use their “spare” time packing stuff for the next trip, but most importantly, they would be tasked with holding the homestead against any and all possible attackers until the last spoon had been emptied from the kitchen cupboard.
Then, and only then, they would fire the beloved home that had sheltered them for their entire lives. Fortress-house, barn, storage sheds, nothing would be left standing. It would still be early enough in the season that there wasn’t much chance of the fires getting out of control, but even if the odds had been worse, the buildings could not be left standing. No raider group we’d ever heard about would put in the back breaking labor to build their own log home, but if they could move in and take over one that was ready made and virtually impregnable if defended by even a few men? Yeah, they’d jump on that opportunity without a moment’s hesitation.
None of us much cared for the idea of dozens of lowlife scum relaxing a mere day-and-a-half ride from the Roost.
Part of me wished we could help them with the move, but that wasn’t in the cards. By now, the Roost had undoubtedly been scouted by the advance raiding party who’d been on our trail. The leaders of the gang wouldn’t like hearing about a sturdy stockade blocking off the throat; sooner or later, they would show up with a mind to do something about it. With luck, we’d get home after the enemy scouts had left and before the outlaw leader, or leaders, decided to come teach us a lesson.
The Smiths didn’t waste any time. When we headed out at dawn, trailing our pack string in the usual fashion, we did not go alone. I was still working on memorizing everyone’s name, but at least I now knew the monikers of those in this first group. Mace, either the eldest or second eldest, took point as he knew the way. Then me, Lauren, Sara Smith, Julia with the pack string, and behind her, more than fifty head of cattle, most with spring calves toddling along behind their mothers. Hawk worked the right flank of the herd, Grit the left, which kept both men threading their way through tall timber most of the time, while Eagle rode drag. The trails were still muddy and would be for some time; spring thaw didn’t exactly happen overnight.
We traveled throughout the day with only one noteworthy incident. A sizeable bear–a black bear fresh out of hibernation, thankfully, not a griz–stood on its hind legs and watched us pass from no more than forty yards downslope, visible only because the timber gave way in that area to scattered willows along a mere rivulet of a stream. Spooked the horses something fierce, and the Smith drovers had their work cut out for them, keeping the herd from charging the bear–range cattle, without exception, recognize any bear as a mortal enemy, and they’re not shy about using herd instinct to teach Mr. Bruin a lesson.
The meadow showed up right at sunset, right where Mace said it would. Two of the Smith brothers, Eagle and Grit, changed out to fresh horses, then began circling the herd slowly but unceasingly. They would hold to this task until midnight, at which time their siblings would relieve them, allowing them to grab a late, cold supper before sacking out for the few hours until daylight.
The rest of us got the packs and saddles off the horses, hobbled every one of them, rigged a rope corral for the considerable remuda, and only then flopped our weary carcasses down by the fire. Julia, Sara, and Lauren had a feast ready. Elk steaks, real fried potatoes, and for dessert, dried apple pie. We all gorged a little.
I’d volunteered for first shift on sentry duty, figuring the Smith drovers had all they could handle with making sure the cattle were okay. But before I left the firelight to begin making my rounds, I had to ask Mace a question that had been burning my insides all day. “Mace?”
“Yeah?” The man was tall and lanky, with a hollow leg. He never seemed to get full, no matter how much he ate. At the moment, he was eying the remaining dried apple pie. He wouldn’t get greedy and eat it, knowing it was for his brothers when they came off nighthawk duty, but he could dream.
“What really motivated you guys to make this move? You were all right there, ready to go, but I just can’t truly understand why.”
“Well….” He tore his eyes away from the remaining pie, turning to meet my gaze. “I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea at first, but then you said something that really got my attention. Got all our attention. Didn’t he, Hawk?”
The stockier brother grinned at his sibling. “He sure did.”
They were playing me, stretching it out, but I didn’t care. I had to know. “And that something I said?”
“Ah. You said there was treasure at the Roost, treasure beyond compare, treasure like you just don’t find in these mountains. Not ever.”
“Treasure?” I was pretty sure I hadn’t mentioned any treasure.
“Treasure. Michael, you told us there are women at the Roost. What did you think six single men who’d never seen a woman other than their mother…what did you think we’d do, eh?”
“Oh. Thanks. I just had to know.” I adjusted the sling on my AK-47 and headed out, mentally rehearsing the route I would take around the camp this night. Women. Of course that would do it. I already had not one but two of the finest females on God’s green Earth, so maybe I could be excused for not realizing how powerfully the news of available women would impact a bunch of lonely, horny young bucks.
Things at the Roost promised to get downright interesting, right soon.