The Warning Nobody Heard

Info silverhawk
06 Aug. '20

The woman with the black backpack carrying a bow didn’t see the tiger stalking her, but from where I stood on the low hill I could, and for a second I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  There weren’t supposed to be tigers in the Smokey Mountains, but that’s what it was.  I’d suspected there were cats bigger than a cougar in the mountains now, because I’d seen tracks on the bank of my stream too big to have been made by a normal-size cougar.  I’d already seen one lion and seeing a tiger made the current situation even more scary.

It wasn’t that the woman wasn’t looking because she kept scanning the terrain in front of her.  That’s how I happened to see the tiger because I was doing the same thing while I hunted for a rabbit with my own bow.  The difference was I always stopped every few steps to listen and take a look behind me.  My grandpa had taught me to do that because of bears.  

I wasn’t sure how she’d react if I yelled at her.  I hadn’t seen another person in months, but if the old movies had been accurate, any men still alive might be looking for something besides food.  That was especially true if you were a woman.  She might turn and run, right into the jaws of the tiger.

I couldn’t just stand there and let things play out though.  There were probably few enough humans left to risk losing another.  Nobody thought that could ever happen, but it had.

Instead, I put two fingers to my lips and made the shrill whistle I learned as a kid.  When she looked up at me, I waved my arms and then pointed behind her.  The woman turned, and in a second had spotted the tiger.  I didn’t think the bow she carried would be any match for the tiger, but she drew the bow and let an arrow fly.  The arrow hit the tiger in the chest and plunged in most of the way to the feathers.

The tiger leaped into the air and started for the woman at the same time I did, but the tiger made it only about half the fifty feet or so before collapsing.  By the time I got there, it was nearly dead and I could see why.  The angle of the arrow path had most likely put the arrowhead through its heart and maybe through a lung.  From what I’d read though, tigers were notorious for killing you after they were themselves technically already dead, so I was still more than a little surprised until I examined the twitching body.

The tiger was pretty old as evidenced by its condition.  It was thin as a rail and also appeared to be afflicted with some sort of disease because patches of its fur was gone.  That would explain why it was stalking the woman, and probably why it died so quickly.  A sick one like this would have been unable to bring down much more than a rabbit if that.  The woman had been moving pretty slowly, so the tiger had probably decided she would be an easy meal.

I’d run past the woman intending to finish off the tiger with my revolver if I had to, and didn’t know she’d walked up beside me until she spoke.

“Is it dead?”

I looked up and saw her standing there with another arrow with a wicked looking broadhead knocked to her bowstring, and that arrow was pointing at me.  

“Yeah.  You always shoot that good, or were you just lucky?”

She smiled, something I hadn’t seen a human do for I don’t know how long.

“I usually hit what I’m aiming at, if that’s your question.  Don’t try anything or you’ll end up like this tiger.”

I raised my hands and smiled back, though I’m not sure my attempt at a smile was successful.  It had been a long time since I’d smiled too.

“Hey, I could have just let this tiger have you for lunch.  Instead, I warned you in enough time you’re still alive.  You don’t need to be afraid of me.”

She lowered the bow a little, not enough that she couldn’t still use it, but enough to make me feel a little more at ease.  I tried to strike up a conversation so she’d relax a little too.

“Ma’am, I don’t remember seeing you around here before.  You just passing through or do you live around here somewhere?”

She frowned.

“Why is that any of your business?”

“Well, I’m just trying to be neighborly in case you’re a neighbor.”

The woman un-knocked the arrow and stuck it in the quiver on her right hip, then pulled the arrow from the now still tiger, wiped the blood off in the grass, and stuck it back in the quiver with the rest.  When she turned to face me, she was smiling again.

“I take it you do live around here.  If you want to be neighborly, you got anything to eat?  I haven’t seen so much as a squirrel all day and I’m sure not gonna to eat this tiger.”

I stood up then.

“Yes, if you like rabbit.  I snared a couple this morning.  Let’s go to my cabin.  It’s about half an hour’s walk from here.”

As we walked, I was thinking about what I’d just seen.  First it was a grizzly, then a lioness with cubs, and now a tiger.  It appeared that in less than a year, the US had changed from a thriving human society that kept wild animals for conservation and entertainment to an animal dominated land where humans were more likely to become prey.  I was wondering if lions and tigers could survive in the Tennessee mountains because of the cold winters when the woman spoke.

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

When I looked up, she was smiling again.

“I was just thinking, that’s all.”

“What about – me or the tiger?”

“Both, but mostly the tiger.  I can’t figure out how a tiger got to the mountains unless it came from a zoo.”

She frowned then.

“It probably did come from a zoo, just like the other strange animals I’ve seen on my way here.  In Chicago, the zoos knew the animals would die because there was nobody to feed them, so their answer was to turn them loose.  Probably most of the other zoos did the same thing.

“The first thing the animals in Chicago did was go where they were comfortable and that meant the city parks because they have grass and trees.  That’s also where the mass graves were.  I didn’t stick around to see that part.  I said to myself, Morning Star, it’s time to get your butt out of this city.”  So, I put what I could carry in a backpack and started out.”

I stopped walking then and turned to face her.

“You’re from Chicago?  How come you didn’t get the virus and die, and how the hell did you get from Chicago to Tennessee?”

She cocked one hip and then sighed.

“It’s a long story.  You gonna keep me here starving while I tell you or can it wait until we get to where you live?”


When it happened, I was working weekends at fixing up an old house by a mountain stream in East Tennessee.  I’d bought it and the fifty acres it sat on to use as a fishing and hunting camp for myself.  It took five years of working as a carpenter to realize I needed someplace like the house beside the stream.  I liked being a carpenter.  I liked building things.  What I didn’t like was being told what to do, how to do it, and then half an hour later, being asked if I was done yet.  My only respite was a week long fishing vacation to a mountain stream in the Smokies in the summer and a few days deer and turkey hunting there in the fall.

I’d learned to fish and hunt from my grandpa, a man who lived through the Great Depression and said he fed his family through those years by hunting and fishing when he wasn’t running his farm.  Grandpa also taught me where to find plants that were edible and taught me how to fix them.  He said it wouldn’t hurt me to know how to do all that if for no other reason than so somebody would have the knowledge, and someday it might come in handy.  He couldn’t have possibly known how prophetic that statement was.

Anyway, on one of my fishing trips, I happened to see a “For Sale” sign on one of the roads leading back to a stream I’d never fished so I drove back to look.  What I found seemed like paradise.

According to the realtor’s sign, the parcel of land was fifty acres with a house and a barn and the stream ran through the middle of it.  The house wasn’t very big, only two bedrooms, and it was in a pretty sad state of repair, but I was a carpenter, now wasn’t I?  There was no electrical service to the property, but I figured I could live without that for a week or two.  I’d just buy some battery lanterns for light and carry water from the stream.  My cell phone wouldn’t work that far out in the boonies anyway, so I wouldn’t need to charge it until I got back to my apartment in Knoxville.  

The house had a fireplace and a wood stove for cooking, so all that would cost me was a few hours work cutting and splitting firewood.  I’d miss a refrigerator, but I could survive for a week at a time with canned goods.

At the time, I figured I’d just use the place as a fishing and hunting camp instead of roughing it in a tent. On my way out of the town down the road, I stopped at the office of the real estate agent that had posted the sign and asked what the owners wanted for the place.  The price the agent named was low enough I could afford a significant down payment, and my credit score was high enough he said I probably wouldn’t have a problem with a loan.  A month later, I wrote a check for half of my life savings, signed a thirty-year note, and took the keys from the owner.

The more time I spent at my new place, the more I wished I could live there all the time.  It was really restful to drive up on Friday or Saturday night after work, fix something to eat, and sleep with only the sounds of the crickets and the occasional hooting of an owl instead of the sounds of city traffic.  It was even better to wake up to the singing of the birds and spend the day making my place exactly how I wanted it to be or fishing if that’s what I felt like doing.  I’d been doing that every weekend for six months when, as the survival people say, the shit hit the fan.  

When I drove home to Knoxville that Sunday night, all I could get on my car radio was news of another flu type illness that had originated somewhere in Asia.  Nobody was sure where it started, but the WHO said it was extremely infectious and more fatal than the regular flu and everybody should stay home to minimize infections so the hospitals wouldn’t be overrun with sick people.  They had named the virus COVID-26.

Interspersed between repeated readings of the WHO statement were several analysts who had differing opinions.  

Several commentators theorized the WHO was attempting to increase their funding since the US stopped giving them money because of their failure to correctly investigate and analyze the impacts of COVID-19 in 2020 and were again wrong about COVID-23 in 2023.   The latest reports said there were a total of about two thousand cases and those were spread between Atlanta, Chicago, and New York City.  A few people had died, but it appeared to cause only a little higher death rate than the normal seasonal flu.  

The President even broadcast a message that nobody should be alarmed because the US was much better prepared for any virus than ever before, and that people should continue to live their lives as they always had.

I could understand the skepticism. I was in high school during COVID-19 pandemic and the world had basically stopped for almost three months only to find that crippling their economies really didn’t do much except maybe for a few large cities.  When the dust settled and all the data was sorted out, COVID-19 was worse than the normal flu, but not much worse than the worst year on record for normal flu.  Most of those who were seriously affected or died were older people with pre-existing conditions.  I didn’t know anybody who’d caught it, much less than anybody who’d died from it.  

I was out of trade school and working as a carpenter when the COVID-23 pandemic was supposed to be looming on the horizon.  COVID-23 ended up being pretty much a dud though the WHO declared it a pandemic a week after the first reports.  The pandemic never materialized.  

It was later determined that COVID-23 was just a mutated strain of  COVID-19.   Most of the population already had some immunity or had been given the immunity via the COVID-19 vaccine developed in 2022 that finally got it under control.  There were no at-home quarantines ordered except in a few states, and those were quickly lifted when only a few cases materialized.  A few people did contract it and die, but the numbers were so low as to be just a blip on the normal death rate.  Knoxville had a whole nine cases of COVID-23 and all recovered in about two weeks.  

Now, it seemed as if the WHO was attempting to redeem its reputation by raising the threat of another pandemic, this time worse than anything since the Spanish Flu Epidemic of the WWI years.  I guess they had nothing to lose.  If the world reacted with another lockdown and the WHO was proven wrong, all that would be lost was several trillion dollars in the world GNP and the increase in anger of the countries already mad at them.  If the world didn’t react and the WHO was right, they could smile and say “We told you but you didn’t listen.  Now, give us more money.”  

I wasn’t worried anyway.  I’d only driven back to Knoxville for a supply of groceries for my fishing trip.  I’d decided to take a long vacation since I’d finished work on the last house and we weren’t due to start framing the next one for another couple weeks.  I made one trip to Walmart for groceries and to fill up my truck, stopped off at my apartment for some more clothes, and then headed back to the mountains.  I did take along my radio that receives NOAA weather forecasts along with AM, FM, and several short wave frequencies.  I didn’t have my roof finished yet, and wanted to have some advance notification if a rainstorm was coming.

What a difference a week can make.  I got busy with finishing up some of my repairs during the day and fishing during the evening and forgot about the radio until Friday night.  It looked like it might rain that night, so I tuned in the nearest NOAA station on my radio.  What I heard instead of an NOAA weather report was a recorded message from the CDC.
The large cities with international airports were in a shambles and most other cities were quickly becoming that way.  Apparently COVID-26 was a lot more infectious and lethal than even the WHO had foreseen.  In less than a week, the US had recorded over half a million cases and the number of cases was increasing by a multiple of ten every day.  The currently estimated death rate was nearly fifty percent within ten days after infection.  As if that wasn’t shocking enough, the CDC had determined the virus was transmitted by all body fluids and the virus was active on any surface for about forty-eight hours.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine how the number of infections could increase so quickly.  About two and a half million people fly in and out of the major US airports every day.  If, as the CDC said their initial studies indicated, the average traveler was in close contact with at least ten other people a day, within a couple of weeks, the entire population of the US would be infected.  It would only take a few more weeks before most of the world had been infected by the virus.

The death rate was a different story altogether.  I couldn’t fathom a disease so insidious that it would kill you within ten days of being infected.  Apparently that was the case though.  According to the recorded message, all hospitals were over capacity and with no beds and no known treatment had resorted to only making infected people as comfortable as possible in tents pitched in the parking lots.  The dead were piling up faster than they could be buried so most areas had resorted to mass graves with body bags instead of coffins in order to cope.

The last part of the message was an advisory.  If you were in a place with no other people or at least with people you positively knew hadn’t been anywhere for at least two weeks, you should stay there.  The prediction was that the virus would have run its course in about a month because there would be very few people left to infect and any residual virus would have been rendered inactive.

On Saturday, I could get nothing on either the AM or FM bands or the weather frequency, so I tried the short wave bands.  I found one guy transmitting from his home in a remote spot in Texas, and what he was saying wasn’t good.

He was using a solar panel and batteries to operate his transmitter because the electrical grid was down all over the US.  He said the AEC had shut down all the nuclear plants on Tuesday of the week before, and the coal and natural gas plants had shut down the following day because there was nobody left to safely operate them.  Even the wind and solar generators weren’t working because there no workers to operate the interfaces to the grid.

There were none of the riots for food and other staples that had been predicted before COVID-23.  That was because the virus had spread so fast there weren’t enough healthy people left to riot.  He and his wife felt reasonably safe because they hadn’t been anywhere for at least a month and had enough food and other supplies to tide them over for a year.

When he started repeating his report, I shut off the radio and sat down to think.  It was pretty obvious I was on my own now for at least a month.  I took stock of what food I had and decided if I rationed myself and caught some fish, I could last for at least a month.  After that…

What to do after that was a problem I really didn’t want to face, so I didn’t.  It’s amazing how you can rationalize a bad situation into something not so bad so you don’t have to think about it.

The CDC had said the virus would be gone in a month.  I figured in a month I’d just go back to my apartment and get on with life as best I could.  Knoxville was a big enough city that even with a fifty-percent death rate, there would still be a lot of people alive and doing the same.  It would probably be a while before the economy started working and I could start building houses again, but I still had some savings that would tide me over until then.

I didn’t think about it for the first two weeks.  I worked on my house and fished.  Once in a while, I tried the radio and got nothing, but I figured that was because the electric grid was still down and it would take a while to re-start the power plants and get it back up and working again.  

It was the evening of the third Wednesday that the reality of the situation began to sink in.   I’d tried to tune in NOAA, but all I got was static.  It was then I realized that couldn’t be right.  It didn’t make sense that NOAA wouldn’t have generators to power their transmitters because even the smaller AM and FM radio stations did.  Even when the tornado went through Knoxville in 2022 and knocked out all power for a week and a half, the radio and TV stations were still broadcasting.  Lack of generators couldn’t be the problem.  Lack of people to operate the stations could be.  

My supply of canned goods was almost gone, so I decided I had to go back to Knoxville.  I’d restock my supplies and at the same time see just how bad things really were.

That Friday I drove back to Knoxville and realized things were much worse than I’d led myself to believe.  There was no traffic, and I don’t mean there were just a few cars on the road.  I didn’t see a car, truck, or even a bicycle on the way from the mountains to my apartment.  Coming down from the mountains I did see a bear, but this wasn’t the usual black bear I’d seen in the mountains before.  This bear was brown and at least half again as big as a black bear.  It had to be a grizzly bear, and there had never been grizzly bears in the mountains.  I couldn’t figure out how that could be.

I also saw packs of dogs roaming the streets in my neighborhood.  They’d not been there before and most were wearing collars.  I figured they’d either been turned loose by their owners or had escaped when there was nobody to feed them.  

By the time I got to my apartment, the full impact of what had happened had hit me.  Apparently, almost all the people in Knoxville were dead or had left for somewhere secluded.  There wouldn’t be any going back to work in another couple of weeks, if that ever happened.  I had to get ready to fend for myself for a long, long time.

The stench in my apartment building was so bad I threw up three times while I was cleaning out everything I might possibly need for the foreseeable future.  I didn’t check any of the other apartments.  I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want to see what I was sure was causing the stench.

The Walmart I went to next wasn’t open, but one of the back doors was unlocked.  When I got to the grocery section, the produce and meat had rotted in the cases and that smelled pretty bad too, but not like my apartment building.  It took me an hour to pack my truck with every canned good I could find.  Tucked tightly into the area behind the seat was as much toilet paper as I could squeeze in.  The only spot in my car that wasn’t completely full was the passenger seat, and I had a reason for not filling that space too.

My next stop was a sporting goods store.  It was closed too, so I broke the window in the front to get inside.  If there were grizzly bears in the mountains and the stories I’d read were true, I needed some protection.  I didn’t like thinking about the possibility, but the memories of the old movies about a post-apocalyptic world were also there in my mind.  I picked up another shotgun the same gauge as the 12-gauge pump I kept at the house, two .22 rifles, two 30/06 rifles with scopes, and two AR-15’s.  Those were joined by four pistols – two nine millimeter semi-autos and two revolvers, one a .357 Magnum and one a .44 Magnum along with holsters for all four.

I’d stowed all the weapons in my front seat and was going back for all the ammunition I could find when another reality set it.  It was likely any other survivors would eventually do what I was doing, so after a while, there would be no more ammunition for any firearms left.  I would need to hunt game for fresh meat, but that could quickly use up what ammunition I had.  What would I do when that time came?

I saw the answer when I passed the archery section.  A bow needs only arrows, and I could make arrows if I ran out.  I could probably make a bow if I had to, but it wouldn’t match the quality of bows I saw hanging there.  When I left the store, I had all the ammunition for my firearms I could find along with three recurve hunting bows, all the arrows and arrowheads in the store, and a couple of quivers.  I’d bypassed the compound bows.  They were lethal looking, but they had too many mechanical parts that would eventually break.

I also loaded my car with as many knives, axes, hatchets, sharpening stones, fishing equipment, and all rope and twine I could stuff into the few empty spaces.  Under my feet were four kerosene lanterns and all the fuel the sporting goods store had.  Then I got in my truck and drove back to the mountains.  I felt a little like Robinson Crusoe scavenging the shipwreck, and I wasn’t sure I liked the feeling.

The next winter went as well as could be expected.  I spent most of my time in the fall felling trees and splitting firewood, so I stayed mostly warm through the winter.  When it got too cold to fish, I spent some time teaching myself how to shoot my bows, and by the time spring arrived, I was adding rabbits and the occasional turkey to my dinners.  Most of the rabbits I caught with snares like Grandpa had shown me.  The turkeys and one deer I took with my bow to save my ammunition.

I never ventured far from home without the .44 Magnum on my hip.  I kept seeing bears, both black bears and the occasional grizzly, and wanted something to at least make a bear think twice about making me his lunch.  

Over the next few weeks, I found three deer kills that couldn’t be the work of bears because a bear would have covered the kills to be eaten later.  I knew there were at least a few cougars in the mountains, but a cougar wouldn’t cover its kill and it wouldn’t leave paw prints as large as I saw around the kills.  I hadn’t seen any big cats at all, but they were there and whatever it was had to be eating the deer.  

The proof came one day the next spring when I was out fishing on the stream.  My normal way of fishing was to bait a hook with a worm I dug up behind my house, cast it upstream with a bobber, and then sit back and wait while it floated on the current.  That’s what I was doing when I saw movement on the other shore.  

At first I couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing, but there it was, a full-grown female lion walking down to the water to get a drink.  A few seconds later, two cubs joined her.  They got their drink and then faded into the trees again.

The only place she and the grizzly bear could have come from was the Knoxville Zoo, but the only way that could happen was if they escaped somehow, and that raised another concern with me.  This one was raising two cubs so apparently the environment was suitable for that.  If there was a male lion in the vicinity, they’d be breeding again and the population of lions would increase.

I was thinking about that again as we walked, and when I got the woman back to my house, she confirmed my suspicions about where the exotic animals came from.  While I was roasting two rabbits in my fireplace, I asked her again about Chicago and how she got to the Smokey Mountains.  

“OK, while dinner’s cooking, tell me how you got from Chicago to here without catching the virus and dying.”

She smiled again, and I was starting to like seeing that smile.

“I worked at the “American Indian Center” in Chicago as a curator of native exhibits.  The exhibits were mostly the work of current Native American artists.  I’m half Peoria and half Ojibwe and I’m also an artist, so they hired me to help decide what exhibits we'd display.  

“When the virus started infecting people, one of the older curators told me I should do what the WHO said.  He’d lived through COVID-19, but a lot of Native Americans in Chicago didn’t.  He was a smart man and I believed him, so I bought a month’s supply of groceries, locked myself in my apartment, and sealed all the doors and windows with duct tape.  I didn’t have to worry about central air conditioning, because the building was older and had only window units for cooling and radiators for heat.  After the first week, it didn’t matter anyway because there was no electricity.

“I stayed there for that week listening to what was happening on my radio until the batteries died.  One of the last things I heard was they were going to release the animals from the zoos in Chicago.  I grew up in Oklahoma, so I knew what cougars could do.  Cougars have killed people before and I figured if they were going to release those animals along with bears, lions and tigers, people would be in real danger.  I decided it was time to get out before things got really out of hand.

“It was going to be hard to carry much, but I remembered what my grandfather used to say.  He said, “Our ancestors survived for centuries with almost nothing.  If you have a knife, can hunt and make a fire, you can survive about anywhere”.  He taught me how to do that, so I packed four changes of clothes, a knife, his old flint and steel, and of course, my bow and arrows.  The only food I had that wouldn’t spoil was a box of raisins and a big jar of peanut butter.  I figured I was gonna be hungry for a while, but it was better than staying in Chicago until I died.  The last thing I put in my backpack was an old atlas I’d kept because by then my cell phone wouldn’t work.  I needed a map of some sort to figure out where I was going.

“I started out at daylight the next morning, but I didn’t intend to walk out of the city.  It was risky enough to walk through some areas when everything was normal and I figured it would be worse now.  I wanted to stay away from people as much as possible and the only way I could figure out how to do that was to use Lake Michigan.  The Columbia Yacht Club wasn’t far from my apartment, so I walked there that morning.  It was closed, of course, but there were the little boats tied up at the dock the rich people used to get from the shore to their big boats tied up out in the water.  I guess I’m a criminal now because I picked the biggest one and stole it.

“I rowed down the Lake Michigan lake shore for the next three weeks until I got to Indiana Dunes.  I’d row until I got tired or it looked like it was going to storm, and then look for a place to pull in for the night.  Usually that was house on the lake shore because when I passed some of the parks, I saw wild animals like zebras and kangaroos and figure there would be others I didn’t see.

“Like with the yacht club, there wasn’t anybody home at most of the houses, so I helped myself to whatever I could find that I could use and then spent the night there.  Usually that was canned food, but I did find a couple of good knives in one.  It was easy to just break a window, climb inside, and go through the house.  After two weeks, I didn’t even knock on the door before breaking a window.  From what I could see, there weren’t any people anywhere…well except for this one house.  I was going to go inside, but as soon as I broke the window, the smell…

“Anyway, when I got to Indiana Dunes, I beached my boat, sorted through my stuff for what I could carry and left the rest.  What I wanted to do was stay as far away from people as I could.  By then, I realized about everybody was either sick or dead, so a house in any town or city would probably give me food and a relatively safe place to sleep, but there was still a risk of meeting other people.  I also wanted to go south, because it would be easier to live where the winters weren’t as cold as in the north.

“In general, I followed the major highways on my atlas, but walked around the towns unless it was getting close to night.  I didn’t have to worry about meeting other people because there were no cars on the roads at all.  Once I got into the Indiana farmland, finding food got easier because there were more rabbits and other wild animals, and sometimes I’d find a chicken or a duck at a farm.  I just kept walking and surviving and that’s how I got here.”

It was a fascinating story, especially since she was a woman.  Not many women I’d known would have the courage to start on such a trip.  I guess the fear of death can spur you to do things you normally would never consider, but still…

“Did I hear you say your name was Morning Star?”

She smiled that smile again.

“Yeah, Morning Star White Cloud.  My dad’s last name was White Cloud and Mom thought I should have a Native American first name too.  Most of you white guy’s think it’s silly, but I like it.  My boyfriend back in Chicago thought it was cute.  Are you going to tell me your name, or do I have to guess?”

“I’m William Hayes but I like to be called Will.  If you had a boyfriend, why didn’t he come along to help you?”

Her face sort went blank then, like she was remembering something she didn’t really want to remember.

“I called Matt to tell him he should stay with me.  He said he had to go to New York for a meeting but he’d stay with me when he got back. That was the last I heard from him, so I figure he’s dead.  I guess it’s a good thing he didn’t come back and stay with me.  If he had, I’d be dead too.”

It was obvious she was upset by that, so I tried to change the subject.

“So why did you head for the Smokey Mountains?”

She wasn’t smiling when she answered.

“I stopped for the night at a farm in Indiana and the people who lived there were inside and dead, so I didn’t go in.  It was too late to keep going, so I spent the night in their barn.  The next morning, I heard voices outside, and when I looked through the barn window, there were three men with guns going into the house.  They came right back out for the same reason I didn’t go in and they left in a truck then, but they scared me.  Here I was, a lone woman with only three knives and a bow, and there were men still alive and roaming around with guns.

“If they’d found me…Well, I decided the safest place for me would be somewhere there weren’t a lot of people living.  People didn’t live in national parks, and the mountains of the Smokies would probably keep anyone else from going there to live.  

“You surprised me by being there today.  I hadn’t seen anybody else for at least two weeks and that told me I’d made the right decision.  Why are you here?”

“Well, I think the rabbits are about cooked, so I’ll tell you while we eat.”

I went through my story though it was a lot shorter then Morning Star’s.  She listened quietly until I got to the part about taking things from the grocery store and the sporting goods store.

She chuckled then.

“I guess I’m not the only criminal left in the world then.  I kept worrying that someone would see me and then the police would chase me down.”

I had to chuckle myself then.

“Morning Star, from what I saw when I went to Knoxville, there aren’t any police left.  I don’t think you’re in any danger of getting arrested.  Eaten by another tiger or a lion or a grizzly, but not arrested.”

Finally, she smiled again.

“Well, I feel better about what I did now anyway.  I didn’t think it was wrong to do those things to survive, but it still bothered me.”

I was curious about some other things, and it was nice to have some one to talk with for a change.

“So, did your grandpa teach you how to shoot a bow too?”

Morning Star shook her head.

“No.  It had been so long since the Peoria people used bows and arrows he didn’t know how to use one.  When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t know anybody so I looked for something to do where I could meet people.  I found an ad for the Chicago Archery club and I thought since my ancestors used bows and arrows, it fit me.  I joined and started taking lessons.  I competed for almost a year before the virus shut down everything, and I’m pretty good.  I won the last women’s match.”

“So I saw, but your arrow was tipped with a broadhead like mine.  I didn’t know target shooters used broadheads.”

She sort of frowned.

“We don’t, but one of the guys in the club was supposed to take me deer hunting that fall, so I bought two dozen arrows with broadheads and this hunting bow.  I used a dozen to practice with so if I broke any, I’d still have the second dozen left.  I didn’t break any so when I left I put them in my quiver with the target arrows I had.’

I had another question I wanted to ask her, but I was a little leery of asking it.  I didn’t want Morning Star to think I was suggesting anything even though I liked her in spite of the fact we hadn’t known each other very long.  Probably it was the human contact I missed, but it didn’t hurt that she was easy to talk with.

There was another reason I liked her, and it was a rather unusual feeling.  After she’d killed the tiger and while we were talking, I’d had a chance to look at her up close.  What I saw stirred something I hadn’t felt in a long time.  I know that’s not what men are supposed to think about when they see a woman, or at least that’s what the girl who did our payroll told me, but it’s basically impossible to ignore something that’s biological.

I can’t say Morning Star was a beautiful women because she wasn’t.  In her jeans, a button up shirt and hiking boots, she just looked like your average woman, but she was still very attractive to me.  I still don’t know if it was the long, black hair that she’d pulled back with a headband or her brown eyes or her face, but the attraction was there.  She also seemed to be very confident, and that impressed me a lot.

“Now that you know I’m here, what’s your next step?”

Morning Star looked at me for almost a full minute before answering, and I could see she was trying to figure out what I was really saying.  When she answered, I was a little surprised she’d understood so quickly.

“What you really want to know is if I’m going to stay or leave.  That’s it, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t look her in the eyes so I looked down at the table.

“No…well…yes.  I mean, I wouldn’t try to keep you here, so if you want to leave I’ll give you anything I have that will make your life easier.  If you wanted to stay here…well, there are a lot of good things here.  I have the stream for fresh water and fish.  There are plenty of rabbits, squirrels, turkeys and deer.  I still have a lot of canned goods left so you wouldn’t starve.  You’d uh…you’d also have somebody to help you if anybody else happened to come around.  You could probably do a lot worse than staying here, at least for a while.”

She started to chuckle and ended up laughing.  I asked her what was so funny.  She stopped laughing and grinned.

“What you just said is so unusual I had to laugh.  I’ve had six men ask me to move in with them, and none of them said they wanted to feed me and protect me.  They just wanted me to live with them because they liked having sex with me.  Are you sure that’s not what’s on your mind?”

I shook my head.

“Morning Star, I’d never ask you for something like that.  We’ve only known each other for a few hours.  I’m just saying this would be a good place for you to stay until you figure out what you want to do next.”

She twisted her lips while studying my face for a while.

“You really mean what you just said, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

Her smile came back then.

“Then I’ll stay for a while.  Where do I sleep?”

I showed Morning Star my second bedroom after I cleared the table and washed our plates.

“It isn’t fancy, but it has a door that locks so you’ll feel safe.  I have clean sheets and a couple blankets you can use, but we’ll have to figure out what to do when winter gets here.  The blankets are what I used last winter and we’ll both need more when it starts getting cold…if you stay that long, that is.”

Morning Star sat down on the mattress, then bounced up and down a couple of times.

“It’s better than that barn I slept in so it’ll work.  One thing though.  I could use a potty right about now.  Where is the bathroom?”

I pointed down out the window.

“It’s the outhouse out back.  There’s paper on a peg beside the seat.  Just go easy with it.  I don’t have much.”

I thought she might say she couldn’t do that, but Morning Star just grinned.

“I grew up using an outhouse when I went to visit Grandpa.  I suppose you have some sort of lantern?  I kinda like to see where I’m going, so to speak.”

I left Morning Star to herself after giving her one of my kerosene lanterns and showing her the way to my outhouse.  She wasn’t gone long, and she didn’t say anything when she came back inside.  She just went to her room and closed the door.  I assumed she was making the bed with the sheets and blankets I’d put there while she was gone.

It gets dark in the mountains as soon as the sun dips below the treetops.  I usually didn’t stay up much after that in order to conserve my kerosene.  If I wanted to read, I’d toss a couple pine logs on the fire and read by the flames.  That night though, I was beat, so I went to bed.

As I lay there, I was thinking about how things were going to work out.  I had no reason to think Morning Star and I would do much different than what I’d been doing for the last several months.  We might not even do anything together.  She might be more comfortable hunting by herself while I was fishing or something like that.  I hoped we’d become closer than that, but Morning Star was definitely her own person.  After all she’d done to get to the Smokey Mountains, it was obvious she really didn’t need anybody else.    

When I thought about it some more, I realized I’d become pretty independent since the virus started to spread.  What I knew how to do I did and congratulated myself on knowing.  What I didn’t know how to do, I figured out by myself.  I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about having another person around all day every day.  Would Morning Star try to change how I did things?  I didn’t think I’d like that very much.

I was almost asleep when I heard my bedroom door open and it scared the hell out of me.  I reached for the .357 Magnum on the little table beside my bed and said “Stop where you are.  Who are you and what do you want?’

The soft voice, almost a purr, said, “It’s just me, Morning Star.”

I put the revolver back on the table and sat up.

“Is something wrong?”

I couldn’t see her, but I felt her sit down on the bed beside me.  Then, I felt her hand sliding down my belly.

“Yes, something’s wrong.  I haven’t had sex in months and I need to be fucked.”

“But it was only when I said I’d never ask you for anything like that you said you’d stay, and now you want to have sex?”

The hand on my thigh found my cock through my underwear then, and a second later, was working down inside my waistband.  Her voice purred in my ear.

“I didn’t say I didn’t like having sex.  I just said that’s all those men wanted from me.  I don’t want to have sex, Will.  I need to be fucked.  I hope you know the difference.  Now, lay back down and stop talking.”

Since she pushed me down on my back, I didn’t have much choice.  A second later, Morning Star pulled the blanket and sheet down to my feet, then pulled on my underwear until she got them off too.

I couldn’t see her in the dark, so I didn’t know she was naked until she straddled me and I felt hair brushing my cock.  That brought my cock to half-mast, and when Morning Star pulled my hands to her bare breasts, it rose all the way.  

It was more out of instinct than anything else because I was still taken aback by what she was doing, but when my finger tips touched her small nipples, Morning Star moaned.  A second later, I felt her hand guiding my cock between her soft, wet lips, and when she found the right place, she started slowly impaling herself.

She caught her breath, raised back up a little, and then started lowering herself again.  She didn’t stop until she was sitting on my thighs.  Then, she murmured, “Oh, God, I need this”, and began raising her body up.

Now, I wasn’t an expert at sex, but I wasn’t totally ignorant about how women react.  I’d always found that a woman needs some stimulation before she’d ready to be penetrated.  Evidently, Morning Star wasn’t like the other women I’d slept with.  If she hadn’t been so tight, I wouldn’t have felt much because she was so wet and slippery inside.  As it was, though, she was still getting to me because it had been a long time for me too.

It was the way she just abandoned herself to what she was doing.  I’m sure she wasn’t really thinking about me, because everything she did seemed to excite her even more.  Before I knew what was happening, she was grinding her crotch into the base of my cock and moaning when she did, then lifting her body up until my cock head caught in the tight ring just inside her.  She’d sort of gasp then before starting back down over my cock.

I knew she was close when she leaned down, pushed her right nipple into my face, and whispered, “Suck and I’ll get there fast”.  I did and she did, and it was pretty fantastic.  I was pretty much just laying there with her nipple in my mouth when she started speeding up her strokes.  A second later I was feeling little contractions around my cock and she was starting to hold her breath until she was down all the way and then gasping.

I’d been doing my best to hold back, but when Morning Star gasped, “Oh God, now”, I couldn’t anymore.  She was stroking up and down so fast, and I was feeling those contractions get stronger, so I finally gave up and met her stroke with my own just before my cock throbbed out the first spurt.  Morning Star gasped again, and her legs started to shake.  She rammed herself down over my throbbing cock and then rocked her hips really fast.  When I made my second spurt, she was shaking all over and mewing like a kitten.  A second after my third, she collapsed on top of me, still shaking and still rocking her hips.  That continued for a while as did the contractions around my cock.  When those almost stopped, Morning Star lifted her head and whispered, “Thank you, Will.  I really needed that.  Can I sleep here tonight?”

When I woke up the next morning, I was sure it had all been a dream, but when I rolled over, there was Morning Star on her side, holding herself up on one elbow, and smiling.

“Did you sleep as well as I did, Will?  I haven’t slept like this in months.”

It took me a while to answer because she’d pulled the sheet and blanket down enough her breasts were bare.  I hadn’t seen them the night before, and when she was dressed, she didn’t look all that big.  I guess she must not have been wearing a bra to hold them up.  

“Yes, I slept really well, but I kinda need an explanation for what happened last night.”

Morning Star stuck out her lower lip.

“Didn’t you like it?  I thought it was great.”

“I thought it was great too.  I just can’t figure out why it happened.”

She smiled again.

“Well, it’s just how I get sometimes.  I’m not always so forward, but when I’m under a lot of stress, that’s the only thing that relaxes me.  God knows, I’ve been under stress for months, so it kind of built up.”

I chuckled then.

“How often does this happen…just so I can be prepared?”

She grinned.

“Oh, I don’t know.  I get stressed pretty easily, so maybe once a week or so.  Still want me to stay with you?”

I smiled.

“I wanted you to stay no matter what.  Still do.  This just makes it a little more complicated, that’s all.”

Morning Star stroked my chest with her index finger.

“What makes it complicated?”

“Well…you need to know I can’t have sex with a woman without starting to feel something for her.  If this is going to be a regular thing, I’ll never want you to leave, not because of the sex, but because of how I feel about you.

“The other thing is we’re out here all by ourselves.  What happens if you get…if nature takes its normal course?  There probably isn’t a doctor in a hundred miles even if there are any left.”

Morning Star rolled over beside me, pressed her breasts into my chest, and hooked a thigh over me.

“If I didn’t like you, this wouldn’t have happened, so I already feel something for you.  As for the other thing, I figure people are about done unless the people who are left do something about it.  Women have been having babies for thousands of years without doctors and I could too.  It would be nice to have another woman with me, but I think between the two of us, we could manage.”  

Morning Star then pulled the sheet and blanket off me, found my cock, and started gently stroking it.

“Could we do this again?  I need to.”

As the seasons flowed from spring into summer and then into fall, Morning Star and I sort of started acting like man and wife.  I kept setting snares and catching rabbits and kept fishing so we’d have some variety in our diet.  We did hunt deer once fall came, and got four with our bows.  I was a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to eat all those deer fast enough to keep them from spoiling even though it was below freezing most nights. Morning Star said she needed a smoke frame to fix that and told me how one was constructed.  Once I built what she wanted, she spent two days slicing deer meat into thin strips and hanging it over a fire beside the house.  She said her grandmother taught her how to smoke meat like the early people had done.

Morning Star never did sleep in my second bedroom.  After that first night, she slept beside me.  Usually that meant sex before we went to sleep.  Usually, it wasn’t “fucking” like she’d said we did the first time.  It was sex between a man and a woman who care about each other and show it by making love together.

It was pretty strange at first.  I mean, I’d always been taught that a man had to court a woman for a while before thinking about marriage, and that the man and woman should be married before they had sex.  I believed the first part and it was hard to understand how Morning Star had been attracted to me so quickly.  

At first, I chalked it up to being the only man she’d seen she wasn’t afraid of, but as time went on, we sort of got comfortable living with each other.  It was like I remembered Mom and Dad being.

The second part about no sex before marriage I didn’t believe, and I don’t really think Mom and Dad did either.  That was because they’d told me they lived in a commune during their “hippy” days, and from what I’d read about those days, everybody was into having sex just for fun.  There was also the fact that I was born seven months and four days from the day they were married.  Unless I’d been really premature, and I wasn’t, they’d had some fun before they were married too.

That part with Morning Star was a little strange too.  I could rationalize why she stayed with me.  With me, she had somebody to talk with and somebody who could give her some security.  The sex…well, I wasn’t complaining, but it was still a little hard to figure out.

I figured we’d just live together until hopefully things got moving again.  Here again, I was trying to rationalize the situation using what I knew of the past.  That I was completely wrong about our situation was proven one day the next spring.

Morning Star was working on the two deer hides from the deer we’d taken the day before.  She wanted to try to make leather like her grandmother had taught her.  I was fishing in the stream to catch lunch.

I heard a human voice from up the road to our house.  There were some turns in that road, so I couldn’t see who was talking, but I decided it would be safer to be cautious and ran back to the house.

I told Morning Star what I’d heard and she looked terrified.

“It might be like those men I saw in Kentucky.”

I tried to calm her.

“Now, Morning Star, we don’t know that and they might be friendly.  Just the same, let’s go inside until we know for sure.”

I’d kept both my AR-15’s with the magazines loaded and ready, just in case, and I picked up one and loaded a round into the chamber.  Then I opened the window facing the road and crouched down behind it.  Morning Star got her bow and quiver of arrows and did the same by the other window.

It took a little over five minutes before they came into view in front of the house.
There were four men and one woman, and what I saw didn’t look very promising as far as them being friendly.  Each man carried a firearm.  I saw a double-barreled shotgun, a revolver much like like mine, a pump shotgun, and what I recognized as an AK-47.

The woman had her wrists tied together and a rope led from her tied wrists to one of the men.  She was dressed, but barely.  It looked like at some time in the past her blouse had been ripped open because it was gaped open enough I could see most of her breasts.  Her jeans were ripped too, though that may have been just the style.

They stopped walking and I heard one of them say, “Hey, Bill. There’s smoke coming from that chimney.  Somebody must live here.”

Bill was the tallest of the group and also the one with the AK-47, so I figured he must be the leader.  His reply confirmed that.

“I ain’t blind, you dipshit, and you can’t smell worth a fuck.   I smelled the smoke way back past that last curve in the road.  Why the hell do you think I kept walkin’?  Since you think you’re so fucking smart, you stay here with Emma so’s she don’t run off while Walt, Harold Eugene and I go take a look inside.”

They were half way from the road to the cabin when I called out, “Stop walking and tell me what you want.”

I saw the man called Bill grin.

“We was just passing through and smelled your smoke and thought we’d say hello.”

He hadn’t answered my question, and that put me even more on the alert.

“Passing through to where?  This road ends around the next bend.”

He was still grinning.

“Just passing through.  Ain’t no law says we gotta walk on a road.  Hell, there ain’t no laws anymore even if there used to be one.  Maybe we was gonna walk through the woods and get us a deer for dinner.”

I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I tried to keep this Bill guy keep talking while I figured it out.

“That rifle you’re carrying – it doesn’t look like any deer rifle I ever saw.”

Bill just chuckled but the look on his face told me he was running out of patience.

“These seemed to work for the Commies pretty good.  If it’ll put down a man, it’ll put down anything I shoot at with it, anything from rabbits up to anything…anything the size of a man.”

There was the threat I’d been waiting to hear.  Morning Star heard it too.  I glanced over and saw her starting to draw her bow.  I decided they had to leave, but I couldn’t let them take the woman with them.

“Why do you have a woman on a leash like a dog?”

That’s when Bill’s grin changed to a firm mouth and he lifted the AK-47 from pointing at the ground to pointing at the house.

“That’s none of your fucking business and you’d do well to forget about her.”

“Looks like she doesn’t want to be with you.  Tell you what, you leave the woman here and then turn around and go back where you came from.”

He now had the AK-47 at waist level and pointing at my window.

“Can’t do that.  She stays with us, and we’re done talkin’.  We want whatever you got, and if you play nice, we’ll let you keep living here and doing all the work.  We’ll live her too, of course, but you’ll get used to us… either that or you’ll get dead.”

Well, that pretty much eliminated any chance they might just leave.  For an instant, the memories of those old movies about the breakdown of society flashed through my mind.  There was only one solution and I didn’t like it.  If we let them get close enough, there were enough of them they might overpower the two of us.  They didn’t know about Morning Star yet, and I intended to keep it that way.

I yelled back, “I’m not in a position to give you anything.  If you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk back down the road and leave me alone.”

Bill fired one round at my window before I heard Morning Star’s bow twang.  The bullet hit the side of the house above the window, and a second later, an arrow appeared in his chest and he fell to the ground.

The other two had raised their weapons, but hadn’t located where the arrow came from yet.  The one with the shotgun didn’t get a chance to look very long.  Morning Star’s second arrow hit him in the throat and he went down without a sound.

The third, the guy with a revolver, fired in the general direction of the house, but he only got off one shot before I fired three times with my AR-15 and he fell to the ground

The fourth, the guy holding on to the rope tied to the woman, dropped the rope and came running with his shotgun.  I took him out with three shots to the chest before he got halfway to the house.

When I looked up at the woman of the group, she was standing there shaking like a leaf and holding her hands up in the air.

“P-p-please don’t kill me”, she yelled.  “I’m not one of them.  They tied me up and forced me to go with them.”

I whispered to Morning Star, “You stay here while I make sure they’re all dead.  Then I’ll go talk to the woman and see if I believe her.”

Morning Star just grinned and shook her head.  I know the two I got are dead and that woman’s scared to death.  She needs another women to talk with her, so you go check your two while I talk to the woman.”

Morning Star still had her bow with an arrow knocked, but she was carrying it at her side when she walked toward the woman.  I was checking Bill when I heard her say, “I heard them say your name is Emma.  My name is Morning Star and that’s Will looking at those guys.  Emma, you’re safe now.  We won’t hurt you.  Let me untie you and then you come in the house with me.  It looks like you could use some new clothes and something to eat.”

I’d checked all four men for a pulse and found they were all dead.  As bad as it sounds, that was a relief to me.  Shooting someone who was shooting at me was something I didn’t like but knew was necessary.  Shooting a man who was still alive was too much like murder, but there was no way I was going to help him live.

I was picking up their weapons and searching their clothes and packs for anything useable when I saw Morning Star with her arm around Emma’s waist and leading her to the house.

After going through their pockets and packs, I figured they’d just been walking around and scavenging whatever they could find.  They didn’t have much ammunition for anything except the shotguns, but that would be because a lot more people have shotguns than have AK-47’s and revolvers.  The revolver was a .357 magnum and the shotguns both 12 gauge, so they could use the ammunition I already had.  Bill had about fifty rounds for the AK-47.  

They all carried knives too, but I didn’t find any food in any of their packs.  They were probably hungry, and if they’d just told me that, I’d have given them some deer jerky.  I guess they figured force would serve them better, and probably had in the past.  Now, they were all dead, but I couldn’t feel sorry for them.  If anything, I was mad that any human would sink to that level.  In my mind, I knew it was probable there would be some, but I figured they’d all be in the larger cities, not up here in the Smokies.

I took the backpacks and weapons back to the cabin and found Morning Star and Emma sitting at the table. Emma was wolfing down the stew Morning Star had started for our dinner.  Morning Star looked at me and put a finger to her lips, then got up and walked over so she could whisper.

“Her name is Emma Moore.  She and her husband lived on a farm in one of the valleys south of here.  Those men killed her husband and then made her go with them.  They kept her tied up and…well, you can imagine what else they did to her.  She’s pretty shaken up, so it would be best if you don’t talk to her for a while.  She needs to understand you’re not the same kind of man first.  When she’s ready, she’ll talk to you.

“Now, what do we do with those men?  We can’t just leave them laying in the front yard.  I left a bucket of hot water, soap and a towel, and some clean clothes in the other bedroom for Emma.  Lets go do what we’re going to do while she’s washing and getting dressed.

It would have taken us a week to bury all four men, so we didn’t try.  What we did was drag them a couple hundred yards into the woods and then down into a ravine.  I’d have liked them to be further away because they were sure to attract the bears we’d seen from time to time, but by the time we got them that far, both Morning Star and I were beat.  

For the next few days, Morning Star and I would do what we usually did, and we wouldn’t see Emma except for at meal times.  Then, she’d come out of her room, eat as quickly as she could, and then go back.  I’d usually hear the click when she locked the door.  

On Monday of the second week, Emma came out of the bedroom when she heard Morning Star starting to fix lunch.  I was outside, so I didn’t hear what they said, but Morning Star told me Emma thought she should do something to help out.  When I went in for lunch, they were both sitting at the table and talking.

It was two days later that Emma finally said something to me, and I felt pretty good about what she said.

“Will, I should have told you this sooner, but I was so afraid you might be like they were.  Thank you for getting me away from those men.  After the first night, I wished they’d killed me like they killed my husband, and it only got worse.  Thanks to you, they only had me for four days.

“Morning Star told me you were ready for them and that’s how you were able to kill all of them.  It’s good that you did.  They were talking before they started for your house.  They were going to kill you and live here.  If they’d done that, they’d probably have made me and Morning Star bury you like they made me bury my husband while they sat there and watched.  They’d have both me and Morning Star then and I don’t know what we could do about it.  I don’t even know what I’m going to do now.”

I smiled and held out my hand.

“Emma, I appreciate your thanks, but we just did what had to be done to protect ourselves and it was pretty obvious you weren’t with them because you wanted to be.  As for what you’re going to do now, you can do whatever you want to do.  If you decide to stay here, you’ll be welcome as long as you help out with things.  If you decide to leave, we’ll give you as much as we can spare to help you get where you’re going.”

I saw tears starting to form in Emma’s eyes.

“You’d let me stay with you?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t we?”

“But what those men did to me…no man would want a woman who’s been…who’s had four men…  My husband would never have taken me back if he was still alive.  He’d think I was dirty or that I didn’t resist enough.”

I smiled.

“Emma, I don’t know what kind of man you think I am, but I never said anything except that you should help out.  What I meant was to help Morning Star and me with what we do every day, nothing more.  What can you do?”

Emma wiped her eyes.

“We moved to that farm after 2020 to raise goats for milk and to raise chickens for meat and eggs. Jim wanted to be self-sufficient because he said the economy was going to collapse because of the policies the government kept implementing.

Jim’s job was to raise the crops to feed them and my job was to take care of the animals, but you don’t have any animals to take care of.  I planted a garden every year too, but you don’t have a garden.  I can sew, but I don’t know where you’d find any material to make clothes or thread or buttons.  I guess about all I could do to help is do the cooking and cleaning.”

I shook my head.

“You’d feel like you were our maid, and I won’t have that.  Neither would Morning Star.  You’d have to feel like you were an equal part of our group.”

I had to pause then, because a thought had just occurred to me.  It would present some risk, but if it worked, it would be worth that risk.

“Emma, how far away is your farm?  Would some of your animals still be there?”

She nodded.

“Bill didn’t want to walk very fast so it took three days to get here, but I could walk it in maybe two.  The animals should still be there.  Those men killed one of my goats and several chickens to eat, but the rest should still be there.  The goats were in a pasture with a creek so they had enough to eat and drink, and the chickens ran free except at night.”

“How about your garden?  It’s still pretty early in the year.  Did you plant it yet?”

I think Emma was beginning to understand my idea because she smiled.

“Yes, but I still have plenty of seeds left over.  Every year, I saved enough seeds to plant for two years, and I never planted all my seeds so I’d have some for the next year in case something happened.”

The trip to Emma’s farm only took a long day, but we were walking down hill most of the time.  When we got there, Emma ran to the barn, and then came running back to us smiling.

“I still have six goats left – five mama goats and old Rascal, the billy.  The chickens are still there too, not as many as before but there are a dozen hens and three roosters.”

While Morning Star and Emma went into the house, I looked around for anything else we could use, but there wasn’t much. There was a small tractor in the barn, but the battery was dead and it was out of gas anyway.  I didn’t find any gas cans around except empty ones.  The plow and other implements would be useless without the tractor.

There were some hand tools like hoes, shovels, and normal carpentry tools.  I already had enough carpentry tools to build a house, so it wouldn’t be worth carrying them back to our house.  The hoes, shovels and the pick and mattock I found probably would be useful since I didn’t have any.  The two-man buck saw I found would make cutting firewood a lot easier if I could convince Morning Star to help with the other end.

The only real prize was several boxes of nails and screws of different sizes.  I’d brought a lot of nails and screws up to my house when I started rebuilding it, but I’d used most of them and there wasn’t any way to get more unless I went back to Knoxville.  Even if my truck would have made the trip, and I wasn’t sure it would even start, I wasn’t ready to go back anyway, not after our visitors proved there were still people left and some of them were dangerous.

I was wondering how many trips it would take to get everything back home when I saw the little wagon sitting off to one side.  It was a copy of an old-time horse-drawn farm wagon, but it was only about half the size.  That wagon was how I could get what I wanted back to the house.  It would probably take two of us to pull it, but at least we wouldn’t have everything on our backs.

The wagon would also come in handy for the animals. The goats we could probably lead or drive, but the chickens would have to be caged and that meant we’d have to carry them somehow.  I made a mental note to ask Emma if they’d had any cages.

Morning Star and Emma were busy stuffing a laundry basket with clothes, and another basket full of stuff was sitting on the table.  I chuckled and asked how they were going to carry all that stuff back up the mountain.  

Emma smiled.

“Didn’t you see the little wagon in the barn?”

I nodded.

“Yes, I saw it.  It’ll hold quite a bit, but it’ll be hard to pull.”

Emma grinned.

“No, it won’t.   I got tired of carrying chicken feed from the truck to the barn and chicken doo-doo from the barn to the compost pile, so I had Jim build the wagon.  He bought the wheels and axle things, but he made everything else.  Then I trained two of my goats to pull it.  I’ll lead the two on the wagon, and the rest of the goats will follow them.  What we’re taking isn’t that heavy anyway.  It’s just clothes, my seeds, all my sheets, blankets, and towels, and my sewing stuff.”

I asked her about chicken cages then, and Emma nodded.

“When we got the first chickens, they came in two wood cages.  They’re up in the haymow of the barn.  They’ll hold all the chickens I have left.”

I found the cages in the haymow, like Emma had said, and also found another prize – several coils of rope in various sizes.  I’d taken all the rope in the sporting goods store before leaving Knoxville, but it was all small stuff like you’d use for tent ropes.  This rope was a lot bigger, some even an inch or so in diameter.  I didn’t know what I’d use it for, but I wasn’t about to leave it behind.  I still find it odd that things you never thought about before, like nails, screws, and rope, were now more valuable than their weight in gold.

Emma said it would be easier to catch the chickens once it got dark, so we decided to spend the night at the farm.  There wasn’t much left to eat there.  Bill and his crew had eaten everything they could find.  We ate the deer jerky Morning Star had put in her backpack and washed it down with water from the stream in the pasture.  

Once it got mostly dark, Emma went to her chicken house and caught the chickens with a hook on a long pole.  She’d hand each one out the door to me, and I’d stuff it into one of the wood cages.  I counted fifteen when she said that was all that were left.

We were all dead tired by that time, but I was uneasy about all of us sleeping at the same time.  Before, I’d not been worried because I’d only seen one person – Morning Star – in almost two years.  Now, since the farm was pretty easy to get to, I didn’t want to be surprised again.  Morning Star said she’d stay awake until about midnight and then wake me so I could stand watch.

Thankfully, nothing happened that night.  By daylight, we’d all had some more deer jerky and were loading the wagon.  Once that was done, Emma went to get her goats.  They followed her like puppies after their mother, and the two that were to pull the wagon stood like statues while she put the harness on them.  By the time the sun was peeking over the trees, we were ready to start for home.  

Emma took one last look and then said, “I used to love this place, but I can’t stay here any longer.  Let’s go.”

The trip back to our house went a lot smoother than I expected.  The goats didn’t seem to be having trouble pulling the wagon, though Emma helped them on the steeper slopes by pushing on the back.  We had to spend one night in the open, and like at the farm, Morning Star took the first watch and I took the second.  Emma stood guard over her goats most of the night I think, but we didn’t see or hear anything like a bear, lion, or tiger.  I figured any lions and tigers would be down in the valleys where the deer and any stray cattle and hogs would be.  Any bears would probably stay away from the fire I built in the middle of the road.

We got back to the house a little before dark, and while Emma and I put the goats and chickens in my barn, Morning Star fixed what she could for us to eat.  

Well, that was almost twenty years ago, though I’m not real sure about that.  It’s hard to keep track of the date when you don’t have a cell phone or a radio to keep up with things like that.  The three of us just live with the seasons because it’s easier.  

It took a lot of work, but I built a pole fence for the goats, and we now have about thirty.  We have fresh milk every day, and once a month, we slaughter a young kid.  Emma can do wonders with a goat carcass, so we eat pretty well.

The chickens did fine too.  Emma let most of her hens sit on their eggs, and our flock became self-sustaining. We have all the eggs we can eat too.

It was pretty late that year to put in much of a garden, but after I spent a week digging up a plot, Emma planted green beans, beets, and spinach.  She dried the green beans we didn’t eat right away, and the beets went into a box of sand in a hole she had me dig.  It was great to eat something through the winter that didn’t come in a can.  Every year after that, we’ve had more vegetables than we can eat, so a lot get dried for the winter or stored in a root cellar I built.

The only thing that’s really changed much in the twenty years is we’re now seven people instead of three.  That all started when one night Morning Star told me she thought she was pregnant.  I was both happy and worried.  I was happy because I’d given up any hope of a son or a daughter, and worried for Morning Star.  She just laughed and said between Emma’s experience with helping her goats give birth and her own good health, everything would turn out fine.

It actually did work that way.  Eight months later, little Ronald White Cloud Hayes was born.  I think it was harder on me than on Morning Star.  When Morning Star went into labor, Emma kept telling me things were going like they should, but until she said I had a son and he and Morning Star were just fine I was worried sick.

It was two months after Ronnie was born that we were sitting at the table and talking about what having a new baby meant.  What Morning Star said set me back on my heels.

“Having Ronnie is like we’re starting people all over again.  I think that’s a good thing.  From what I saw coming from Chicago and from what we’ve seen here, there aren’t many people left in the world.  If there aren’t any children, when we’re gone what will be left?”

I said there were bound to be some people left, but they’d be in remote places just like we were.

“So there need to be younger people who can find them to find husbands and wives,” she said.  “If there are going to be young people, there are going to have to be babies born.”

I chuckled.

“Well, that means you’re the first around here.  How many are you planning on having?”

Emma had been quiet through most of the conversation, but when she spoke, I understood why.

“Morning Star and I have been talking about this and I agree with her.  Any woman who can have children should have at least some…including me.”

I looked at Emma and then at Morning Star, and they were both smiling.

“You mean both of you want me to…with both of you?”

Morning Star reached across the table and touched my hand.

“Will, we know it isn’t something you’d probably even think of doing in the past, but given what's happened, we both agree there isn’t any other choice.  We haven’t seen anybody else except for those four who kidnapped Emma.  It might be years before any other people find their way up here, and we can’t afford to wait.”

I tried to be logical.

“But won’t that just cause you to be jealous of each other?”

Emma touched my other hand.

“Will, if anybody’s going to be jealous, it’s me, and I am.  What you and Morning Star have is something I always wanted.  I know she’ll always be first in your mind, but at least I can share a little of what she has.  I won’t be jealous if I can do that.”

Morning Star nodded.

“We already worked all this out, Will.  Emma and I will alternate nights with you, but sometimes it will be just sleeping in the same bed.”

She giggled then.

“I know you like sex, but we don’t want to wear you out.”

Well, I’ll tell you, I had some reservations that night when Morning Star hugged Emma and then went to the other bedroom to sleep.  Emma half-smiled and said, “I guess this is how we start.  I’m probably not very good at this, but if you give me time, I’ll try to get better.”

Emma was a lot shy when we went to bed.  She asked me to blow out the lantern before she undressed.  When she got into bed, I could feel her shaking.

“Emma, if you’re afraid, we won’t do anything tonight.”

I felt her hand on my bare chest.

“No, I’ll be alright.  It just been a while and the last time was…”

She cringed when I touched her breasts, but then sighed a little.

“Morning Star said she liked it when you did this, but I didn’t understand why.  Now, I do.”

I don’t think any man had ever really tried to arouse Emma, because she seemed to be really surprised by everything I did.  A light brush of her nipples with my fingertips made her catch her breath, and when I closed my lips around one, she gasped and her hips rocked a little.

Cupping her hip and squeezing gently made Emma shiver, but then roll to her side and press her breasts into my chest.  It seemed like she wanted to be kissed, so I kissed her.  The effect of that kiss on Emma was amazing.

She kissed me back, not a really erotic kiss, but a kiss that told me she was giving herself up to what she was feeling.  She balked a little when I slipped my tongue between her lips, but when I gently rolled her nipple in my fingers, she opened her mouth.  As soon as our tongues touched, Emma gasped and I felt her mound pressing into my thigh.

From then on, I think Emma was just reacting to what her body told her to do.  She wasn’t at all like Morning Star.  Morning Star knew exactly what she wanted and she knew how to get it.  With Emma, it was more like I’d try something and see what happened.  

She liked my hands on her inner thighs.  As soon as I stroked up the right one, she draped it over my legs so I could reach both.  When my fingers felt the hair on her lips, Emma caught her breath, and then opened her thighs a little wider.

When I slipped my finger between those hair-covered lips, Emma caught her breath, and then made a soft moan.  I was a little surprised that she was already pretty slippery, but I didn’t rush her.  This first time, I wanted her to be completely ready and willing.  

I lifted the breast nearest my mouth and sucked gently on her nipple while I slipped my finger slowly into her entrance.  That got me another moan and another rocking of her hips.  As my finger went deeper inside her, Emma started pushing into my hand a little.  I’d moved that finger in and out a little when she suddenly got really wet and slippery inside.  After slipping my finger back out and massaging her little button a few times, Emma was pushing her mound into my leg and starting to breathe faster.

I figured it was time, and pulled her up enough I could get my cock to her entrance.  I penetrated her slowly for the first couple of strokes, and only went in as deep as the tighter spot just inside her lips.  After those slow shallow strokes, Emma moaned and sort of pushed herself over my cock until the base of my cock spread her lips flat against her thighs.

After that, it was me trying to arouse Emma to an orgasm while trying to stave off my own.  I always had to hold back with Morning Star too, but that was because she was a very active participant.  Emma wasn’t, but it was the way she kept sighing or holding her breath as I stroked in, and the way she started to pant.  All that was telling me she was basically just letting her body do what it wanted and enjoying the results.

The only time Emma said anything was when I felt her start squeezing my cock with little contractions.  It was just a murmured, “Oh God, I feel like I’m going to explode.”  Four strokes later, she did.  Her hips began to rock into my cock at a very fast pace, fast enough I couldn’t begin to keep up.  Emma held her breath for a couple of seconds, and then cried out as the waves of the orgasm wracked her body.

I couldn’t hold back any longer, and with one deep stroke and a groan for each, pumped three spurts into her clasping passage.  I think there was a fourth spurt, but Emma was shaking so hard it was difficult to tell.

I kept slowly stroking my cock in and out of Emma’s contracting passage until she stopped shaking, and then kissed her on the forehead.  Emma raised up enough to kiss me again, and then snuggled close with my cock still inside her.

“Is it always like this”, she whispered.

I stroked from her back to her hips.

“If I do my part, it usually is.”

Emma buried her face between my neck and my shoulder.

“If it is, I want to do this a lot.”

We did do it a lot, and two months later, after Emma had panted and writhed out another orgasm, she whispered she thought she was pregnant.  About eight months later, Selena Anne Hayes entered the world.  We were now a real family, not what a family was before Covid-26, but a family fit for the times we were living in.  Over the next three years, Little Fawn White Cloud Hayes and Jimmy Alexander Hayes joined our family.  

We still live like we started out to live with a couple differences.  I’m the builder, and right now, I’m building on a bedroom for the boys and a bedroom for the girls.  Selena is fifteen and Little Fawn is almost thirteen and both have become  women.  Morning Star and Emma say the boys and girls need a bedroom all their own.

It’s a lot of work because I don’t have any sawn lumber and there’s really no good way to get any.  Ronnie, Jimmy, and I are building both rooms as log cabins out of the trees we cut down, but they’re young and strong, so it’s going pretty fast.  I’ve taught them both how to be carpenters, though I think Ronnie would rather hunt and fish.

Morning Star usually does any hunting we need to do.  She brings down a few deer in the fall and then smokes the meat into jerky.  The rest of the year, she hunts turkeys and rabbits so we don’t deplete Emma’s flock too much.  Morning Star is also our schoolteacher and holds classes every day for the four kids.  She’s teaching them proper English, math, and about the history of our country, and also teaching them survival skills.

Emma is the real farmer of the family.  She takes care of the goats, milks them twice a day, and takes care of the chickens and gathers their eggs.  I’m going to have to build a real chicken coop for her once the other bedrooms are done.  She has about forty hens and since we don’t need more than a dozen eggs a day, she lets most of them hatch out their chicks.  Each year, she gets about  three dozen hens and three dozen roosters.  She culls out the older hens and they make great roast chicken.  Most of the roosters end up as roasters too.  Emma also raises the garden that seems to get bigger every year.  She’s teaching the girls how to do what she does with the animals and garden.

Other than that first tiger, the lioness and cubs, and the grizzly I saw, we haven’t seen any other strange wildlife.  My guess is since the antelopes and zebras prefer open grassland, those big predators followed them down to the valleys.  We still see the occasional black bear, and if I get a chance, I’ll shoot one every fall.  Bear meat is pretty good, and Morning Star renders the fat in to grease that doesn’t go rancid.  

The bear hides also make good coats for winter and that’s a good thing.  Most of our clothes wore out long ago, but Emma figured out how to use rabbit hides, deer hides and bear hides to make more.  We probably look like the original pioneers now in our leather shirts, pants, and moccasins, but they’re comfortable and wear well.

We haven’t seen or heard of any other people since that first group, but I think that’s going to change.  Ronnie is seventeen now, and he confided to me the other day that he wants to go looking for a wife.  He asked me not to tell Morning Star because he doesn’t want her to worry.  He’s been looking at the atlas Morning Star brought with her, and wanted to know where I thought other people might have survived.
I told him there had been some people before who called themselves “survivalists” and lived in remote parts of the country, but I wasn’t sure there were any close by.  The only one I knew about was the guy on his short wave radio, and he lived in Texas, and I told Ronnie that was at least a thousand miles from our house.

Ronnie just grinned.

“That’d be a long walk, but I could do it easy.  Mom did.”

I’m usually a little envious of Ronnie’s optimistic spirit, but now, it has me worried.
I understand what Ronnie wants to do and why, but I’m not sure I’m ready to let him go off on his own.  I know he’s capable.  He shoots a bow as good as his mother, has learned everything we taught him about hunting and fishing and finding food and building things.  He’s healthy and strong.  He made his own bow and arrows.  What he lacks is maturity…or maybe it’s just that I don’t want to admit he’s mature beyond his years.  It seems like yesterday he was playing with the goats and teasing his sisters.  Last fall, he stayed in the woods for three days by himself, killed two deer and then brought the dressed carcasses back on a sled he made from branches lashed together with vines.  Kids grow up way too fast.

He told me he was thinking of starting next spring, and that when he found a woman who’d come with him, he’d bring her back home. I know there’s no use in trying to talk him out of going.  He’s as stubborn as his mother once he’s made up his mind.  I guess I’ll have to wish him well and hope for the best.  Maybe he’ll have a story to tell when he gets back with his wife.