Episode XIII

You remember that old saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” right? I never gave it much credence myself, until the apocalypse showed me the light.

We were hiking through an area that had once been a small farmstead. Paul was struggling with the skid ahead of me along the edge of a hay field gone wild. The farm house had been abandoned a few years prior. Blackberry climbed up the sides of the house and garage all the way to the roof. It lined the edge of the field where forest was trying to retake the land. Here and there, game trails sliced through the scene. We followed them as best we could. Our skid didn’t handle well in the hay, grasses, and other field plants. Plus, recent rain had muddied the ground. The skid was sticking and catching every few feet. We were too far in to turn back and look for another route.

“Look,” Paul said. “If we can just make it through this next field, we should hit the old BML road. I just need help keeping this thing moving.”

“What if I unload my pack and we unload another pack from the skid, leave them here, and work together to pull the skid to the road.”

“Great idea. We’ll probably be able to come back, pick up the packs, and make it back to the road with at least an hour before sunset.”

“That’ll give us time to make it to the orchard before dark. We can eat a cold supper to avoid attracting attention. It should work out fine.”

So, we set to unloading. My pack was full of knitted gun cozies, socks, hats, scarves, some spinning supplies, and the first aid supplies. We unloaded the bed rolls, a pack of clothing and a few of the toys we’d found to trade at the winter gathering. Even with the two of us pulling and all that extra weight set aside, it was slow going. Harvey loped along beside us for most of the route. By the time we finally parked the skid at the road’s edge, we were beat. We took a short break, then hiked back for our packs.

“Didn’t we leave more than this?” Paul asked when we reached our things.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “It just seemed like more. That skid was still pretty heavy.”

“All right, but I could swear I’d unloaded the clothing and that sack of trucks for the kids.”

“I dunno. What I do know is that light’s falling soon so we best get.”

With that, we loaded up and began the hike back. Harvey ran off ahead, disappearing from sight as he was wont to do. The walk back was easy, until a chorus of barking and yelping rang out across the field.

Paul and I broke into a run. We broke through the trees and undergrowth that marked the field’s end to find our skid mostly empty and Harvey thirty yards down the road barking furiously into the brush. I checked on Harvey while Paul took stock of our skid.

Harvey and I followed the trail into the woods about a hundred yards to a clearing where we found a huge no trespassing sign posted. The gun shot and shells through out that area were enough warning for me. Harvey wanted to press on.

“No,” I told him. “We’ll have to let it go, boy.”

He didn’t like that answer one bit, but he followed when I headed back the way we’d come.

We found Paul cussing a blue streak over the skid when we returned. I told him about the clearing, and he agreed it wasn’t worth chasing them down.

“What’d they get?” I asked.

Food.” Paul said. “All of it’s gone. And the toys. The gun and ammo. They even took that jug of hawthorn tincture you’d made up for the Grizzlie Crew’s old man and the cherry bark cough syrup and the willow bark tincture.”

I rummaged through what was left.

“At least they left the dried herbs. Probably didn’t know what they were. And, we’ve got our clothing and bedrolls and cooking gear, not that we’ve anything left to cook.”

“They left the water, too.” Paul said. He heaved the second of our five gallon jugs of water onto the skid.

“Damn, this makes me mad.” I said. I picked up the last bed roll and crammed it onto the skid. A bag of dried apples fell out. “Oh, look, they left us something. Dried apples. Mmmm, that’s good eating.”

“Come on,” Paul said. “It’s near dark. There’s nothing we can do about it now. ”

We gathered up the last of our things and hiked up the road a piece until we came to a wee creek. We followed it off the road maybe fifty feet into the understory and made camp. Dried apples and water made for a poor supper, but I suppose it was better than nothing. None of us slept well that night. Even Harvey was restless and angry over our loss.

Paul rose with the sun the next day. He set out a way down the creek to see of he could catch a couple of fish for breakfast while Harvey and I guarded the skid. I’d built a small cooking fire and brewed up a nip of nettle, oat, and elderberry tea to go with our breakfast when i heard bickering in the brush just up the stream.

“It ain’t my fault y’all up and left your stuff just sitting by the road like that,” a shrill voice spat.

“You stole all our food. How are we supposed to survive without food?” Paul asked.

“I’m sure I don’t know. It’s not my problem. I’ve got my own problems.”

“Damn right, you’ve got problems,” Paul said.

A ruckus of splashing and cussing broke out. Harvey ran to the edge of the brush and began barking. In no time, Paul emerged from the undergrowth along the creek’s bank gripping a wiry, red-headed, squirrel of a man. He couldn’t have been more than a hundred pounds. He struggled like he’d just gotten himself caught in a snare and he was spitting mad.

“This runt here’s from the gang of thieves who stole our food and supplies,” Paul announced. “I say we haul him back to their compound at gun point and trade his sorry ass for our stuff.”

“Good luck,” the man said. “Unless you’re hiding a pistol up your sleeve, you ain’t got no guns. My brothers took ’em all and your ammo to boot.”

Paul shook him violently and cussed. The man lashed out at Paul. They struggled a few moments longer, cussing a blue streak each. Paul won out. My man’s got a determined grip when he sets his mind to holding on.

“He’s got a point, Paul,” I said. “I hate to agree with him, but we don’t have anything more than a couple of knives, the club, and the lawnmower machetes. Maybe if we tie him up here, cut off an appendage, and use that as a bargaining chip they’ll give in.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” The man spat. Paul just stared at me.

“Yeah, are you out of your mind?”

I shrugged.

“Clearly they didn’t think we were worthwhile, ‘else they’d have left us more than this sorry bag of dried apples. Why should we care about one of theirs?”

“Listen,” the man said. “I told them to leave some of the food behind. It’s just the three of us, and I’m the only one not sick with the runs. Bill and Bob are in sorry shape, and you saw…I’m just no good in the woods. We ain’t had a decent meal in weeks, and now the cellar’s near empty. There’s no reason to go cutting off anything. Let me talk to them.”

“Let you talk to them? Hell, if they’re in as sorry shape as you say, they’re probably too weak to put up much fight. We could just kill the lot of you and take our stuff back,” I said.

“Wait a minute there,” Paul said. “We’ve been in worse shape and survived. We aren’t going to start praying on the sick now. It’s our job to help them, not kill ‘em.”

“You don’t need to be killing anyone,” the man said. “I’m sure if you just let me talk to them we can work this out. Please, they’ll listen to me. I know they will.”

“Why don’t I go take this runt back. Maybe he’s right and we can work this out.”

I looked at Paul. He looked like he was genuinely worried I really was planning to go on a killing streak.

“Fine,” I said. “You go. Harvey and I’ll stay here. If you’re not back in an hour, I’m comin’ after you intent on killing the lot of ‘em if I find even one hair on your head outta place.”

Paul and the man set off. I never got the full details of the negotiation, but it turned out that those boys had a mild case of dysentery they’d caught drinking from a bad well. I patched them up with a load of blackberry leaf, walnut, nettle, and burdock tea. They gave us all our things back plus three gallons of cider vinegar and a hunting bow with a quiver full of arrows to boot. Plus, they asked us to stop on by the next time we passed through for a proper night’s rest. I don’t know that we will, but Paul sure felt a lot better about how things turned out. I have to admit, it is better to part amicably than to have blood at our backs.

What had saved the wiry brother, you might ask? Apples. He’d been eating apples everyday from an old apple tree at the edge of their territory. It’d toned his digestive system. He’d also been drinking from their ample stores of cider vinegar, which probably meant he’d drank a lot less of the bacteria-ridden water than had his brothers, with whom the taste of cider vinegar had never quite agreed.

So it turns out that an apple a day may well indeed keep the doctor away.

May you be well,

Zombie Hunter C.

Publisher’s Disclaimer: This column is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 

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