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Authors: Arthur Bradley

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Mason smiled, but it quickly faded. Even the mere mention of Boone reminded him of Ava. Her passing had extinguished a light in a world that was already dangerously close to being overrun with darkness. He fought off the melancholy. The time for mourning was over. Survivors had to pick up the pieces and move ahead. There was no other way.

“Coffee will be ready in a few,” he said. “Make yourselves at home while I get cleaned up.” It was a long drive from Boone to his cabin, so Mason figured there was no need to rush into any sort of discussion. A few minutes more probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.

He grabbed a set of fresh clothes and went into the cabin’s small bathroom. The shower was still hot from water in the boiler, and when he came back out, he looked and felt more like his old self. He poured everyone a cup of coffee before sitting in a rocking chair across from his guests.

“All right,” he said, “let’s hear it.”

Vince blew the steam from the top of the cup and took a sip of the coffee. He pursed his lips and nodded, indicating that it met with his approval.

“This here’s Connie West,” he said, motioning toward the young woman. “She’s come all the way down from Ashland, Kentucky.”

Connie gave him a small smile, showing off a set of perfectly formed teeth as white as piano keys.

“Marshal Raines.”

“You’ve come quite a piece, Connie.”

“I heard that Boone had somehow managed to restore law and order. I had to see it for myself.”

“That only happened with the marshal’s help,” said Vince.

She nodded. “Which is why I convinced Officer Tripp to drive me up to see you.” She glanced over at Vince. “He assures me that you’re the right man for the job.”

“Ma’am, I believe I said that he was the right
kind
of man for the job. What the marshal does and doesn’t do is his own business.”

“And what kind of man is that?” asked Mason.

Before either of them could answer, Bowie bumped the door with his nose and began whining to come in.

“One second,” Mason said, standing up and stepping over to the door. He eased it open a few inches, and Bowie slipped in. “Be good,” he warned.

Bowie looked up at him, tilting his head to one side.

“You heard me,” he said, returning to his seat.

Bowie followed closely behind and sat next to Mason’s chair, studying their guests.

“I believe that’s the biggest dog I’ve ever seen,” she said.

“Yes, and like all large creatures, he sometimes forgets his manners. If you give him any encouragement whatsoever, you’ll have a hundred and twenty pounds of smelly dog on your lap.”

“He looks well enough behaved to me. Have you had him long?”

Understanding that he was the topic of conversation, Bowie started to stand. Mason reached over and placed a hand on his back, and he reluctantly sat back down.

“Not really,” he said, smoothing the dog’s fur. “I found him at a gas station not far from here, standing guard over the body of his previous owner.”

She studied Bowie, and he studied her back.

“He seems very intelligent.”

“No question there. He’s smarter than most people I know.”

Bowie turned and licked Mason’s face.

“He heard you,” she said with a laugh.

“He hears everything,” he said, scrubbing under the dog’s chin. “Unfortunately, he only listens to what suits him.”

“Like I was telling you, Miss Connie,” said Vince, “Bowie and the Marshal helped to save Boone. They’re both bona fide heroes.”

“That’s good, because a hero is exactly what the good folks of Ashland need.”

Mason took a long sip of his coffee before setting it on the small coffee table between them.

“How about you start by telling me what’s going on?”

She stared at her cup for a moment, choosing her words carefully.

“We have a situation in Ashland. Something like what you faced in Boone.”

“You’re overrun with convicts?” It wouldn’t have surprised him to hear that they were, given the countless number of prisoners who had been released when the correctional system collapsed under the strain of the Superpox-99 outbreak.

“Exactly the opposite. We’re being terrorized by lawmen.”

“Lawmen?”

“A man named Joe Ward, along with his three sons.”

Mason looked over at Vince.

He shrugged. “Never heard of them.”

“These men hide behind badges,” she continued, “but they’re nothing more than ruthless vigilantes.”

“What exactly are they doing?”

“They came down from Portsmouth a couple of weeks ago, promising they would help to stop the violence. Everyone welcomed them with open arms because we desperately needed law and order.”

“That’s true of most everywhere.”

“Exactly. So as you can imagine, townspeople came out of the woodwork with grievances against their fellow survivors, thinking that justice would be done. I don’t think most people meant any harm by it. They were just looking for a way to sort out disagreements.”

“I take it that’s not how it worked out.”

She shook her head. “Hardly. These men acted as judge, jury, and executioner, showing little mercy to anyone brought before them.”

Mason hesitated to draw any immediate conclusions. People had used similar words to describe him on occasion.

“There has to be order,” he said.

“I wouldn’t argue that point with you, Marshal. But is cutting a man’s tongue out with a skinning knife order? What about smashing a teenage boy’s foot with a sledgehammer? Or branding a young woman for taking food from a house that she thought was empty?”

Mason frowned.

“I’m not talking about justice, Marshal. This is something else, something awful.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, I believe you. The question is what do you want me to do about it?”

She turned to Vince. “You said he would help.”

“No,” he corrected, “I said he
could
help.”

She looked back at Mason.

“Marshal, it’s your duty to come to our aid.”

Mason met her stare. “Miss, I can assure you that I am not a man who needs to be reminded of my duty.”

“They’re criminals. You’re a lawman.” She left the rest unspoken.

“That may be true, but the entire country is overrun with criminals, hundreds of thousands of them I would think. I’m not able fight every enemy or right every wrong.”

“What are you saying? That you won’t help?” Her lightly freckled face was beginning to turn an unpleasant shade of red.

“I didn’t say that. I was merely pointing out that a man’s duty only reaches so far.”

What he didn’t voice was the reason for his reluctance. He couldn’t allow anything to get in the way of finding General Hood. Every soldier knew the importance of completing one mission before taking on another. While her cause certainly seemed worthy enough, he had an even greater one already set before him.

“You’d rather sit here in your cabin and drink coffee than rescue a town being tormented by the worst of men?”

“I didn’t say that either.”

A thought came to her, and with it, a grin that was anything but kind.

“You’re afraid. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Vince scoffed. “Ma’am—”

Mason raised his hand. “No need.”

“Look,” she said, “I don’t mean to offend you. I came here to find a special kind of man. One who would stand up for those in need. The people of Boone assured me that you were that man. Were they wrong?”

He let out a deep breath before answering.

“I have something to see to in Lexington.”

“Ashland is on the way,” she blurted.

While that wasn’t entirely true, he didn’t argue the point.

“Please, Marshal. The people of Ashland need you.”

“Even if I come to Ashland, what exactly would you have me do to these renegade lawmen?”

“I don’t know,” she said, wringing her hands. “Convince them to leave us alone? Maybe tell them that you’ll watch over the town? Anything to make them go away.”

Mason studied her for a moment.

“No,” he said, “I don’t believe that’s what you want at all.”

“What are you talking about?” The redness began to return to her cheeks.

“This isn’t about talking or convincing anyone of anything. You believe that if I confront these men, there’ll be bloodshed. You’re seeking revenge, Connie West.”

“And how would you know that?”

“Because I can see it in your eyes as clearly as I’ve seen it in my own.”

She glared at him, but her anger slowly subsided as tears pooled in the corners of her eyes.

“Fine. You’re right. I do want revenge. I want it more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my entire life. And I will have it, I promise you.”

“Why?” Before she could answer, he held up a finger. “The truth this time.”

Rather than answer his question, Connie slowly unbuttoned her denim shirt and slid it off one shoulder. Above her left breast was a patch of flesh the size of a silver dollar, blistered and swollen, neatly burned in the shape of a five-pointed star.

Vince gasped. “It was you they branded.”

“Yes,” she said, wiping at her eyes. “And I will see that they pay for what they did—not just to me, but to the others as well.” She looked at Mason and gently rubbed her fingers over the blistered flesh. “Marshal Raines, are you the kind of man to let this go unpunished?”

Mason stared at the wound, imagining the hot iron pressed against her tender flesh as she screamed in agony. Perhaps it was true that he couldn’t right all the wrongs of the world, but some injustices could not be allowed to go unanswered.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s go make this right.”

CHAPTER

2

After safely delivering the children to their mothers in Salamanca, New York, Tanner and Samantha had been adopted as lifelong members of the small community of survivors. With that honor, however, came a host of duties, including running off a couple of questionable men who had been eyeing the women, retrieving gasoline from abandoned cars, fixing the pump handle on an old water well, and helping to stockpile cupboards with food left behind by neighbors who had died during the pandemic.

While Tanner might have been justified in blaming their stay on the string of newfound chores, the truth was that both he and Samantha quickly grew to enjoy the comforts of home-cooked meals and soft beds. Also, it didn’t hurt that he had the added benefit of sharing his bed with Ona, a beautiful American Indian woman whose affection seemed boundless. To say that she and Tanner had found love would have been stretching the truth. Nevertheless, it was a relationship that left both better off than when they had started.

After a week in Salamanca, however, both Tanner and Samantha knew that it was time to move on. Like all visitors, they eventually came to feel less like honored guests and more like an imposition. So, with a few hugs and warm goodbyes, they were once again on their way.

As Tanner steered their newly acquired Acura MDX onto Highway 219, Samantha let out a faint sigh.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was just thinking about all that delicious food we’re leaving behind.”

“We’ve got food,” he said, glancing at a couple of sacks stuffed full of cans and boxes.

She reached across the back seat, retrieved a can of SPAM, and began to read its label out loud.

“Pork with ham, salt, water, modified potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite.”

“Sounds delicious.”

She wrinkled her brow. “It sounds like a military ration.”

“You know what soldiers used to call SPAM?”

“What?”

“Ham that didn’t pass its physical.”

She snickered and tossed it back into the bag.

“Mind if I ask you something?”

“Probably, but go ahead anyway.”

“Why didn’t you go and see your ex-wife while we were in Salamanca? It wouldn’t have taken hardly any time at all.”

He sat, quietly considering her question. What she said was true. It would certainly have been easy enough to go and see his ex-wife, Grace, who lived in a nearby Amish community.

“Would you two have argued?”

He smiled. “Probably.”

“Why? What could you possibly have to argue about after all this time?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The ingredients in Oreo cookies?” He chuckled.

“Huh?”

“We once argued over whether or not Oreo cookies contained any real chocolate.”

“Of course they do.”

“You sure?”

She squinted. “I… I think they do.”

He laughed again. “The point is that Grace and I used to argue over the silliest of things. I think we both wanted to be right more than anything else. Or maybe we just wanted the other to be wrong.”

“That’s weird.”

“Yeah. But it was our way.”

“And that’s why you didn’t go see her? You were afraid that you would argue?”

BOOK: Madness Rules - 04
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