James Lawson was nothing if not a proud man. In the light of a clearing dawn, with low fog down by the river, he looked over his domain with satisfaction. The house had been a small, sagging, moldering frame dwelling in a dark stand of fir trees when he'd chosen it. Crowded in by lilacs and vinca, roofed with moss, trash all over. But in the right kind of place, the top of a rise, with ground steadily dropping away in all directions. Now it was encased in thick stone walls with steel-shuttered windows, with a commanding view across his clearing to the woods beyond; there was no dead ground between. Most of the work had been making the clearing; now anyone approaching would have to show their hand.
Here he had chosen to stop running and make a home for his wife and three boys, now almost grown, and the five of them had gotten by on deer, fish and small game, some wild greens and foraged fruits, and God's own clean, clear water, which could be hauled up from their hand-dug, stone-lined well right in the kitchen. It was a crowded house, but James felt things might not yet be settled out there in the world; Soon, though, the boys would become restless. They'd want their own domains.
Where would they come up with women?
Not from those damned socialists over the hill, that's for effing sure. Effing commune! With taxes, no less. They all brought their crops to the old-timers in that old sawmill they used for a castle, like the prancing nymphs and centaurs in the old Disney movie. Godless left-wing commies; it's enough to make you sick.
They'd recruited him, too.
You all come on over here, they'd cooed, oh, yeah, lots for you to do for us and our lords and masters, you bet. His sons had looked interested, too, dammit. Maybe 'cause he'd explained to them about the loose morals of those folks. He'd had to lay it on the line for all and sundry. No moving in with tax-obsessed socialists, no commerce with 'em, no nothing! He, James H. Lawson, was a man whose soul stood within the saving grace of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who would provide all things in season. Ask, and ye shall receive. And they had.
How did it go? The prayers of a righteous man accomplisheth much? Some such. A bible in the top bedside drawer of every effing motel in God's own country and he hadn't managed to bring one here. Or teach the boys to read, either. But he'd taught them how to kneel and pray, praise Jesus, hunt, fish, tan hides, make and keep a fire without matches, and use a kettle and tripod. They were all set. Now if only some good folks would come along and they could get a church going...
The two queers, that half-black abomination and the blond one, had made sad faces and gone off, and the next morning one of his boys had found a bag of oats on a stump. Didn't have a way to grow any, really, but it had come in handy last winter for porridge. Hated to keep it but it would have been a waste in a tough land, and it hadn't changed his mind any.
James came out of his reverie with a snap. Somebody was watching him, he was sure of it; and not that nosy little Creek kid on the mountainside, neither. Something was in the woods to the west.
His wife, sallow-faced, hard bitten – but who wasn't – a hard worker in whom he'd found a godly helpmeet, came to the door, drying her hands in a long apron. A wisp of her gray hair, which had been tied in a tight bun, hung over her face.
"Charity, get me the Winchester. Quick." From the corner of his eye, he could see all three of the boys coming up from the river, one of them carrying a steelhead, still flopping. Too close together, dammit! Their dog, an old yellow lab, had been frisking at their feet, sniffing at the fish, but suddenly gave attention to the woods to the west, and advanced in that direction, barking.
Charity turned inside and came back to the door with Lawson's old, oiled, loaded, and much-beloved model 1892 carbine. It was never used to hunt now – not enough rounds, and they didn't always go off. She reached it to him on the stoop.
"Get back inside and grab your bow. Now."
She opened her mouth as if to ask what could be the matter, but a small hole appeared in her cheekbone and she fell back into the living room.
As she did so, her husband heard the crack of a rifle. James Lawson spun around, jacking a .30-30 into the chamber of his carbine, but there was no target to be seen along the long line of cottonwoods to his left, nor beneath the distant line of Douglas fir and bigleaf maple to his right. His three sons should'ha dove into the tall brown grasses of the clearing at the first shot, but they seemed momentarily frozen.
"Down. Down!" he shouted, but the distant rifle cracked again, once each for two of the boys, who fell over like puppets whose strings had been cut. The third one threw away the fish and ran back.
James had by this time assumed a prone position behind a steel tub that lay upside down in the dooryard. He still could not find a target. The distant rifle spoke. The barking stopped. Still no one to be seen. The tub leaped. A hole appeared in the steel, right in front of his shoulder, and he felt the bullet's impact before he heard the weapon's small thunder one more time.
James crawled for the house, carbine cradled in his arms. His crawling slowed, his breathing rasped, and he found himself fighting tunnel vision. Charity's bare right foot lolled in the doorway; he'd have to climb over it. Getting up those two steps was going to take enough concentration as it was, with so much water – where was all this water coming from? bubbling up his windpipe. Why was he dribbling? Jesus, help me. Help me get those bastards! Effin' queers, I knew they were stringing me along. Effin' backstabbers.
A sandaled foot appeared in his narrowed vision. "'Scuse me, bud, I'll take that."
A hand reached down, secured the trigger of the carbine, lowered the hammer gently with its thumb, and pried the weapon from his failing grasp. Another hand grasped him by the hair on the back of his head, and tilted his face upward. No one he'd seen before. Beard; cheekbones painted black. Sad, expressive eyes.
"Hi. Name's Wolf. I'd ask ya yours, but ya don't look like you'll be needin' it any more."
And then James Lawson became no one at all.