The Caretaker

A Short Story by Andy Betz

I packed my Chevy S-10 with guns and ammo, bows and arrows, picks and shovels, flares, tires, tools, how-to manuals, can goods, clothes, knives, first aid kits, medicines, gasoline, propane and butane tanks, silver coins and a box of various springs, Raman noodles, bottles of beer, bottles of Jack Daniels, tequila, beans, beef jerky, camping supplies, toilet paper, ropes and climbing supplies, batteries and hand-held radios, maps, a roll of heavy plastic, a cooler, two lanterns with fuel, and as much water and barbed wire as would fit.

Then, and only then, I departed Atlanta and drove for the mountains taking only back roads.

My goal was to make the North Georgia Mountains by night and establish a defensive perimeter.  By morning, all hell would break loose and everybody else would be trying to escape whatever wrath would befall the stragglers.

Just after sunrise, the shooting began.

I parked overlooking a small town so the sunrise would be at my back.  I heard the gunfire and saw the first fires at the most distant buildings.  The screams could be heard even from my position.  A few rifle shots ended the chaos, but not the crazed exodus on the roads exiting the town.  I didn’t have to listen to the radio to learn the cause or the order of events transpiring.

All of that information was useless to me.  A historian might find comfort in knowing the truth when facing the end of civilization.  I find comfort in remaining mobile or hidden; preferably both.

My maps (roads and trails) are of the TAG area.  At the border of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, the TAG hosts a variety of caves, streams, cliffs, nooks, and crannies in which a man could shelter unseen for as long as his provisions provided, then life off the land afterward.  I had enough on my old truck to last two months, maybe three, if rationed.  I knew of a few caves in which I could drive my truck into and seal the entrance from prying eyes.

I would have to rig a few booby traps and a few decoys to prevent survivors from discovering me.  I wish I had a dog, a German Shepherd or Jack Russel, for company and alarms.  I would have jettisoned the propane and butane I loaded (meant for trade and for starting fires) for the canines and what they offered.

It would have been worth the trade every day of the week, twice on Sunday.

By noon, I found the dirt road leading to where I wanted to go.  Traveling in daylight is dangerous at any time in the backwoods, twice as so today.

However, I did not have the choice. 

Once I crossed the first wooden bridge, I took my car jack and separated a few load bearing beams and watched it collapse.  On foot, a few might still pursue my tracks, but via a car, they had better find another place to go.

I am not much for sharing today.

A few more miles and I dislodged a few choice rocks on the road.  Today, they will offer a choice to people wishing to wheel supplies toward my destination.  After a rain or two, their presence will cause erosion of the road and wash it out.  Even by foot, only the most determined would find me.  By the time they did, they might find more than they bargained for.

By sunset and I found the caves and my first thought.

I kept going to the smaller caverns further ahead. 

If anyone else knew what I know, and in these parts, they most certainly did, they would set up camp here.  The large caverns can shelter RVs and campers and the lot.

They cannot defend them though.

When I finally backed my truck into the small cavern, I took a pistol and a rifle and made my way back down the road to erase my tracks with some bushes I cut to sweep the road.  The wind was picking up and it was going to rain soon so the road would tell no tales.

A few strands of old barbed wire from a downed fenced, tied with more discarded beer cans (to rattle when bumped) and I was ready for first watch.

Then second.  Then third.

It was supposed to be a silent night tonight.

Just past midnight, I saw the headlights of three cars through the trees, up-road from my position.  More were coming.  Within twenty minutes, the parlay of the people turned to gunfire (it echoes it the hills).  I watched a total of seven cars with headlights slowly dim over the next two hours.  Maybe those people tried to keep a calm head and sleep off their differences.

Maybe not.

By morning, I used my binoculars to get a better look.  The cars were rough, but intact, and the camp fires still smoldered.  It took a few more moments to see ten people piled on the roadside.  Two men with shotguns gave a kick to each so their bodies would roll down the ravine into the dense woods.

These two were dangerous and too assured to be this obvious.  If I were part of their party, I would remain hidden and look for movement from the hills.  They displayed no supplies and no qualm about murdering to acquire some.  I remained inside my cave, behind the brush I used to cover the entrance with last night, still, and waiting.  If someone was watching for movement, they would not find mine.

These two, now three, when the third emerged from under a car, noticed the smoke from what must have been a campfire or two back at the larger cavern.  Rarely does the smell of smoke pique curiosity more than now.

With shotguns and rifles in tow, the three got in line and began the short walk.

They never made it.

Before I left home, I outfitted my Remington 742 Woodsmaster with a nice 40x scope and a standard 4 round magazine filled with 180 grain 30-06 shells.

I could miss but once.

My first shot entered the leader’s skull and dropped him instantly.  He was last in line so when he fell, the other two hesitated for a second.  That second was all I required to acquire the first man and hit him square in the chest. 

The middle one did not know which way to turn.  He won the lottery when I missed with the third shot.  I guessed he would retreat to the cover of the cars.  He tried and then thought differently.  When he broke in a full run forward, he was too easy to miss.

I reloaded the rifle and holstered my pistol before moving toward their bodies.

I couldn’t do anything for the ten they killed last night.  The bloodstains on the far side of the cars mimicked knife wounds.  The blood stains in the back seat of each of the three cars came from something much worse.

I guessed I had but a minute before someone came tracking the shots.  If they found me, I would be victim number 14 this day.  I grabbed two of the shotguns and a pistol and ran back to hiding.  By leaving a rifle and their provisions, whoever did come would guess these three died while looting, or at least during the attempt.  The disgust of the cars and the smell from the other victims might turn them away.

If their stomachs could withstand the carnage, they might take the cars and strip the bodies and leave the scene better equipped than when they arrived.

If their brains were made of lesser stuff, they might come looking for me.

I now had more firepower than the ability to use at my disposal.  But use it I would.

Fortunately, the group of six that did arrive (4 men and two women) wore the clothes of vacationers without access to a washing machine.  They vomited from the scene, a few made the sign of the cross, and the rest stripped the bodies of the three on the road.  They even managed to get all three cars started.  By the sounds of the engines and visible oil smoke, they wouldn’t last for long.  The youngest of the four men dragged the three naked dead men and pushed them over the edge into the raving with the rest. 

It wasn’t the most moral disposal of remains, but it was the most logical.  Most likely, word would spread of the corpses up the road a piece, dissuading all but the most inquisitive from my part of the road.  If the sight could not protect me from visitors, the smell most definitely would.

It took the better part of two weeks for the wild critters and bugs to decrease the smell.  Occasionally, one or two people, looking very thin, would use a wheel barrow to carry the recently deceased to my area and properly bury them. 

In essence, where I lived in solitude was now the new “Boothill Cemetery” of Old-West fame.

What this meant for me was no additional worries of accidental discovery.  I went a bit further up the road and gathered berries and set traps for small animals.  I updated my maps and charted water sources, the direction of their flow, and their purity.  With each foray, I refilled my empty bottles and the single bucket I brought.  With each foray, I chanced someone would be waiting for me at my cave so I dispersed my provisions into 3 interior locations and 3 exterior locations.  Each cache, wrapped in a plastic tarp, with the food, water, a few tools, and a single weapon lay ready for an immediate withdraw should I find myself on the run.

By September, there was a chill in the air and leaves began to fall.  Cover became a scarce commodity.  By October, I saw the last of the funerals from the large cavern.  I did not recognize the lady, but I did the men with her.  They looked raged.  I saw a few shotguns in tow.  I also saw three sets of bare feet.  It took nearly four hours for the men to dig the pathetic, shallow grave they laid the women to rest in.  I set my binoculars down and removed my cap in respect.  I saw their best effort that day.

Perhaps, it was time for them to meet me.

The first snowfall came early and I had just finished insulating my cave the best I could.  My original provisions, not parceled in hiding, were almost at an end.  I still had the alcohol and the propane.  Maybe I could offer them in a trade?  All I had to do was design an opportunity for first contact with my neighbors.

By what I guessed was Christmas Eve, I saw a single young woman walk the road toward the graves.  She prayed over a few, but left a note on the rocks covering the last grave.  She placed a yellow painted rock on top of the note, turned around to scan the hills, and began her walk home. 

I waited three days before I made a midnight run to retrieve the note.  To help fool the girl, or anyone else, I left a similar blank sheet of paper in its place.  I even took a circuitous route back to the cave, should I be tracked.

It was all for naught. 

She was standing at the false entrance to my cave.  I created this illusion to trap intruders in a much smaller version of what I call home should they prove hostile.  I could wait them out or burn them out (if need be).  Today, all I had to do was ask her to come out.

“Come out with your hands up” was my only order.  She complied and exited with both arms upward and palms facing forward.  He coat was threadbare and her shoes did not match.  I had the shotgun pointed at her when she spoke softly.

“We are in need of your help.”

Then, she fainted.  I had to carry her into my cave and seal the entrance with a few timbers and the weight of my truck.

I laid her on my cot and began checking her for wounds and diseases.  To the best of my knowledge, she was malnourished and hypothermic.  I could not build a fire with the front entrance sealed, so I used my only bottle of butane to light my camping stove and provide heat.  I boiled some water and dropped in a bouillon cube for taste.   If she came to, the beef jerky and a few boiled beans would be hers.  I gave her my wool blanket and moved to watch both her and the entrance.

Then I waited.  Then I read her note.  It said what she previously said.  I returned to waiting.

It was morning before she awoke.  She did not scream or move about when she saw me with my 12 gauge.  All she did was smile.  I pointed to the “soup” and the jerky and made the motion to eat.  She sat up and kept covered while eating both.  I didn’t press her when she finished.

I didn’t have to.

Ann, she introduced herself, said she was sent by her father to find me.  She called me the Caretaker.  When I asked why, she said it was obvious.

“That day my family walked here when they heard the gunshots was not by accident.  We wanted to do a bit of exploring before the ugliness came to this part of the woods.”  She let that sink in while she adjusted the blanket.  “We saw what you did that day.  Father told me to look to the hills and not the men on the road.  He is, I mean was, a police officer before he retired.  I was to remain far enough back so as not to be seen, but to warn the rest if you did not do what you did.  I saw the muzzle flash from this cave.  I didn’t know it was you, at first, but I knew you took care of those men.  Thus, the name, Caretaker.”

Now it was my turn.  “You spoke of needing my help.  What kind of help do you need?”

“Father told me not to spend so much time searching for you.  That is until last week.  Our radio is still working.  We have heard of those who are sick are coming.  They will soon overwhelm us.  Father says then they will infect us.  From what the radio reports, it is not their fault they became infected, but it is our duty not to become so.  We have some supplies, but what we need most are firearms, ammo, food, and clothing.  Can you help us?”

“How do I know any of this is true?  This could be a ruse to lure me out in the open?  Why should I trust you?”

She picked up the cup of my “soup” looking for a few remaining drops.  I did the same with coffee back when I had time to let my mind wander, forgetting I already finished my coffee, forgetting about the world and all of its problems.

“I have no proof with me.  However, if you come with me, you can meet Father at the large cave.  Listen to the radio and make your own decision.  Until you do, I am at your mercy.  You can kill me now; I know you have the ability.  Or, you can do the right thing and help.  Remember, once the sick finish with us, they will come for you.  Maybe not immediately, but from what the radio says, the sick are like locusts.  They will find this place.  I did and that’s all the proof you need.”

I fed Ann then clothed her to withstand the cold December wind.  She said her father taught her how to shoot, but I was not yet ready to arm her.  I informed her I would go to her camp and speak with her father.  Ann could carry one of the cached supplies that was on our way.  I would carry the firearms and ammo.

By midnight, I heard the broadcasts from her father’s radio and designed a plan with him.  He would send Ann and three of her brothers back to my cave to arm, eat, and eat again before returning.  To help, I gave Ann the keys to my truck.

“Let your brothers ride in the back with the supplies.  Distribute it to everyone as you see fit.  I have more elsewhere.  We will meet there if all goes poorly.”

“Caretaker, where will you be?  I want to be with you.”

I figured it was her mother that the brothers buried that day months ago.  Ann’s family died that day.  I never had an inclination to be in that position of caring for others, watching them die.  Ann’s father saw a few of the supplies I brought for something special.  His face revealed his understanding.  I didn’t need to tell him.  He would tell Ann if I couldn’t.

I took enough to lace the road leading to the main cavern with enough booby-traps, punji-sticks, single shot shotgun triggers tied to strings, shotgun shells buried just under the ground positioned over a board with a nail on the primer, metal springs ready to launch a bundle of rocks, and finally, a few sections of thin ropes strung both high and low in the woods to trip or decapitate mobiles who needed to be slowed down.

Then I waited.  I am always waiting.

But not for long.

The sick may be physically problematic, but by no means mentally impaired.  Some walking in pairs, some alone, one was even riding a bicycle.  The rest either pushed shopping carts with a few supplies or walked with wheelbarrows loaded with something important enough to walk with.

I fired the first shot.

Then the next 29 from my Romanian SKS.

I had 10 of these magazines loaded just for this type of contingency.

I dropped only the vanguard of the invasion.  The rest soon arrived in vehicles.

I quickly retreated to the next stage.

I climbed the hills and began firing with my Remington.  No sense saving the 30-06 ammo for the only gun using this caliber.  When I finished, I left the rifle so as not to encumber me on my next dash.  Being healthier than the sick, being armed, and knowing the landscape, I had the advantages.

During my next extraction, I retreated to a wooden bunker of fallen trees and my full propane cylinder and pump 12 gauge.  I opened fire with the shotgun before I opened the valve on the cylinder.  I then ran into the woods.

The first vehicle moving through the propane field ignited it exactly as planned.  The car and its occupants burnt quickly.  The remainder of the invaders halted in retrospect and began to flank the road, oblivious to all of the hidden traps.

By my count, who remained numbered a few dozen, but between the noise and the fire, more would come.  All I did was purchase a few days of time.  Even victory would come with a price-tag of eviction. 

Many of the sick fell prey to the traps in the woods.  Eventually, even the most insistent retreated from whence they came, evidently to regroup.  I found Ann’s family packed and ready to depart from the large cavern.  The brothers were already setting fire to anything they could not bring (it wasn’t much except for their broken-down RV and the salvaged remains of three bloody cars). 

We all rode in my truck back to my cave.

Formal introductions aside, I offered all I had to the five of them, for I had now thrown my lot with them.  We fought a few more skirmishes with more of the sick while we still had the advantage of a defensive position.  However, and there always is a however, by the time mid-January rolled in, we had to roll out.  Ann bid farewell to her mother and others buried near the road.  We dug-up the remaining supplies and each of us carried our share.  Ann and her Father road in the truck while her brothers and I walked. 

Starting with half a tank of gas, maybe two weeks of food, maps detailing nothing in the direction we decided to travel (West), and a few good firearms and ammo, we began our trek.

The last radio broadcast from the truck indicated most of civilization was damaged beyond repair, looters thrived in the towns and streets, the sick owned the cities, and the six of us began living our lives one day at a time for as long as possible.

I had but a single day to prepare for today.  I hope to make the most of it.

Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 30 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 28 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.

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