READ FOR FREE IN ITS ENTIRETY! NEW CHAPTERS TO BE POSTED WEEKLY.
“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Jess sat up in bed. The house was dark and cold, the fire long dead. Next to her lay little Brooke and Sharon, both asleep. Jess looked to the window. The blackness of the sky and the brilliance of the stars told her it was about three a.m. She sat on the edge of the bed and listened, the only sound being the synchronized breathing of Brooke and Sharon. Then, far off, she heard the siren-like squeals of a pack of feasting coyotes. She sat up, her senses piqued by the eerie calls. The high-pitched yelping and howling carried on for a minute, then trailed off into stillness. Jess laid back in the warm bed and pulled the covers up over her, waiting for her senses to calm and sleep to take hold again.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
She sat up again, instinctively reaching down into the nightstand to grab her revolver. She pulled the hammer back and pushed her stocking-clad feet into the boots she always kept at the side of her bed.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Sharon heard it too and woke up. “Who is it?” she whispered to Jess.
“Stay here.” Clutching her revolver, Jess put on her robe and silently crept down to the door.She listened with her ear against it, pistol in hand. She turned her head to look through the peephole. The black figure she saw was backlit by the light under the carport. It was holding a rifle. Jess’s heart began to pound while an icy wave ran down the nerves of her arms and legs.
“Jess,” whispered the voice from outside. “It’s me.”
It was Mr. Croukamp.
“What is it?” Jess asked.
The sound of broken glass traveled up the valley, piercing the stillness.
“They’re coming,” Croukamp whispered.
“Who’s coming?” Jess replied as she unbolted the door.
She let him in and bolted the door behind him.
“Is your daughter safe? Is Sharon here?”
“They’re upstairs in the loft.”
Just as Jess said that, she heard Sharon come down the stairs and turned to see her carrying a candle.
“What should we do?” Jess asked.
“Blow that out, first” Croukamp urged. Sharon blew the candle out and she disappeared in the darkness.
“Give me a moment to think,” Croukamp said.
Sharon and Jessica waited, each of them ghostlike figures in the night.
“We could run for it,” Croukamp suggested. “But we’ll lose everything.”
“Should I get Brooke up?” Sharon asked.
“I’m not running,” Jess replied.
“Then we must fight,” Croukamp declared.
“Are you going back to your house?” Jess asked.
“No. We should stick together. We’ll have a better chance. Your house is closest to them. Hear that?”
Jess heard more broken glass and some unintelligible shouting.
“They’re two lots down now. Look out the window.”
“How many?” Jess asked.
“Four of five, maybe.”
A diesel engine started up.
“See their truck? They go to each house, loot it, load it onto their truck, and go to the next. They’ve probably been at it all night.”
“What do we do, then?” Jess asked.
“If we’re making a stand then I believe we have two options. We can let them come up the road this way to where I can open fire. Hopefully that will scare them off. If they don’t take off, and they can tell where the bullets are coming from, then they’re probably coming here figuring we’ve got something worth fighting for.”
“What’s the other choice?”
“Let them come and take it.”
“We let them come in. Let them think it’s easy loot. Then, when I get the opportunity, I’ll open fire, probably when they’re in your living room here. If I get them all then I’ll drag them out and bury them somewhere.”
“What if you don’t get them all?”
“They’ll burn the house down or come back later for revenge. That seems most likely.”
“I don’t like that proposition.”
“I don’t either. Not with Brooke here.” Croukamp spoke to both of them. “Go upstairs. Keep Brooke quiet. If someone comes in, you shoot until he’s dead or he runs off.”
“Where’re you going?” asked Jess.
“To the back bedroom. I can see them coming up the road from there. I’m going to open fire when they get to your neighbor’s house. Hopefully they’ll get the hint and take off.”
Croukamp went down the hall to the back bedroom. He slid open the screen-less window, sat on the floor and rested the carbine on the sill to check the line of sight. He pulled the charging handle and aimed down the road. The bandit’s diesel rumbled behind the trees two lots down. The thought of his house left unguarded made Croukamp anxious. But Fitz would be barking soon and that might lure the looters into thinking his shots were actually coming from there.
He thought it better to be taking a stand in Jess’s house. It was on higher ground than his and he believed it afforded him a better chance to turn them back. If successful, he would try to convince Jess to have the four of them all live in her house, at least at night.
He heard the truck grind into gear. The engine revved. It crawled up the road, about to appear out of the trees, illuminated in the starlight. Should I shoot the radiator? he thought to himself. No. If the plan is to scare them off then they need a means of escape.
The truck appeared between the trees. Its bed was filled with loot. Croukamp zeroed in. The rig stopped at the neighbor’s drive. Two shadows jumped out of the bed and ran down to the house. One swung a sledge hammer into the door. It flew open and they charged inside. Croukamp watched their flashlights bob and sweep as they tore through the interior. He couldn’t discern if there were two men or one in the cab. Probably two, he assumed, with a spotter riding shotgun. Croukamp felt a compelling urge to open fire on the cab. He aimed but he held fast. There was no chance of getting the two inside the house. Still, even the notion of firing his weapon only as a warning filled him with internal conflict. It ran counter to everything he had been taught.
One looter emerged, carrying a bundle of clothing. The other came out a minute later with something wrapped in a sheet. They unloaded at the truck and both ran back into the house. Minutes later they emerged again with bundles and dumped those into the bed. One looter hopped on the pile while the other got in the cab. Croukamp regretted not sneaking up behind and taking them all out, but he reassured himself that he had made the best possible decision.
The truck began to back up the neighbor’s driveway. It turned out onto the road and Croukamp heard the gears shift. Now was his moment. If he waited any longer, letting them come further up the road, they would be much more likely to see his muzzle flash and return fire, endangering everyone in the house. The truck lurched forward. Croukamp centered the pad of his index finger on the trigger and exhaled calmly. Seven rounds ripped off into the darkness. The truck immediately braked.
“Idiots.” Croukamp muttered.
The bandits sat in the roadway, lights off, engine idling.
“Fucking morons,” Croukamp muttered again as he took aim. They were sitting ducks. The urge to fire into the cab burned and tormented him, but he couldn’t do it. If they were too stupid to retreat from an ambush, then they were probably stupid enough to come into the house; either that, or the bandits had a fourth spotter on foot who was trying to locate the source of fire. A terror of regret gripped Croukamp. What have I done? I’ve endangered the women and the girl. They should have fled when they had the chance. Now the looters would have to be drawn in close so that he could get them all. If he even could.
Croukamp inhaled, listening for anyone coming up behind the house. He heard Fitz barking. The truck’s engine grumbled. Croukamp was about to yell out a warning but then thought better of it. How much fear would the ultimatum of an old man’s voice instill in them? Probably not much. It was best to preserve the mystery, to get them pondering all the possibilities.
One of the gang started cursing from the truck. “You’ll die, motherfucker! We’re coming for you!”
Croukamp took another breath.
“You hear me? You’re dead.”
Croukamp spotted him shouting towards the sound of Fitz’s barking, popping his head up over the cab just long enough to get his words out, then back down behind it.
Croukamp’s 5.56 would punch right through the aluminum body of the truck, or through its windshield. He took a series of shallow breaths. He aimed. The pad of his finger pressured the trigger.
“You hear me?” shouted the bandit.
Croukamp reached the end of an exhale and pressed. Five rounds volleyed towards the truck, just above it. He prayed he would not regret wasting the ammo. The bandits fired back towards his house. Croukamp ducked below the sill. When they had emptied their handguns, he rose and fired again until his magazine clinked empty. He ejected it, pushed in the next and took aim. The bandits had reloaded and fired another blind salvo, but Croukamp heard the truck grind into gear and whine as it backed down the road into the darkness.
Sharon came into the room.”Are they leaving, Ian?”
“It looks like it.”
“Will they come back?”
“I hope not. If they do, then I’ve blown my best chance to take them out.”
“Why didn’t you do it?”
“Let’s just hope they try to find softer targets.”