Here is Chapter One of The Craze for your reading enjoyment (about 3100 words).
Again, this is not fully edited, so keep that in mind.
I need some comments/feedback if you want more!
Oh yeah, Mentone, Alabama is really a great little town with terrific scenery.
Click here first if you haven’t read the Prologue.
A Visit to Scenic Mentone
The cruiser pulled to an angled stop behind a large van that made a wedge, along with a late model pickup, blocking both lanes of the highway. A lookout with a set of binoculars stood on a platform atop a twenty foot tall square tower on the far right edge of the mountain roadway. It was a literal wide spot in the road with a bordered sign made from a natural rock that read: Mentone. The tower was built as far out toward the edge of the slope as possible to allow a good view farther down. The man could see a wide view of both the road where it curved back to the left, hugging the mountainside, and the whole panorama that made up the area down below the mountain; which included what was left of the community that had been known as Valley Head. He looked down as the Sheriff climbed out of the car.
“What have we got, Dan?” the Sheriff asked.
“Looks like four of ‘em,” the man in the tower replied, “One man with a woman and two teen girls. They’re about half-way through the gauntlet.” He turned back to his observation of the group. “They’re carrying some decent sized packs, and pulling a wagon with some gear. Looks like can goods and water in it.”
The Sheriff put his hat on to block the afternoon sun and made his way to the small gap between the vehicles. He gave the two men standing just on the other side a quick nod. “Randy, Wade.”
Up ahead, the road was lined on both sides with vehicles that curved away like two parallel mechanical snakes. The space between was so narrow and twisted that it was impossible to drive even a bicycle through it. It could be walked though. They called it the gauntlet.
As they stood waiting for the group to come around the bend, the Sheriff took stock of the men manning the outpost. Dan kept his binoculars in play from the top of the tower, his rifle close to hand. Another small platform, reinforced with heavy sheet-steel, was set up in the pickup where two more men with scoped rifles stood at the ready. Senior Deputy Randy Miles and Deputy Wade Smith both stood in front sporting shotguns as well as holstered revolvers.
Everyone was sweating as the summer made its last gasping presence known. The first day of fall was just around the corner, and most people were glad to see it come, especially those who had to pull roadblock duty on a regular basis. Even so, the mountain was probably fifteen or twenty degrees cooler than the valley below with the humidity as high as it was.
Another man emerged from the blue porta-john that had been set up in the shade near the edge of the scenic overlook pull-off on the outer edge of the road. He too carried a rifle. He made his way forward with the rest. The Sheriff stepped to the side to get away from the smell he had brought with him.
“Jesus, Herb! Stand down wind ‘till the stink blows off ya!” Wade chastised the newcomer as he too sidestepped. The man, Herb, just smirked at him and gave a chuckle.
After a few minutes, they could see the heads of the oncoming party as they weaved their way through the maze of vehicles. Once the man, who was in the lead, stepped fully into view, the Sheriff spoke loudly to them. “That’s far enough, folks! Hold where you are! No sudden moves now, and don’t be reaching for any weapons!”
The man halted and lifted his hands out to the side. “We don’t want no trouble! We do have one gun, but it’s in my pack. We only use it for defending or hunting. We could use a safe haven.”
“You got family in these parts?” the Sheriff asks.
“No sir. We’re from Georgia. We’re making our way home. We got stuck at a friend’s cabin over on Sand Mountain when the shelter-in-place order came down. We stayed there as long as our supplies held out. We got resources back home to survive with once we get there. We still have a long way to go.”
“Sorry to hear that, friend,” the Sheriff replied. “I truly am. The problem is we have a whole town that’s survived here. Zero infections and zero casualties. No Crazies and no Carriers. We intend to keep it that way. And we have one very simple way of doing that. We don’t let anybody in unless they’re family of someone here. And we don’t let Crazies or Carriers in for ‘any’ reason. But, I’m sure you saw the signs on the road at the foot of the mountain telling you all that already. I hate you wasted time and energy climbing up this far, but that was your choice to make. So, I’m going to have to ask you turn around, and find another way.”
“Look, Sheriff, I understand your caution. Hell, I applaud it! But I swear to you, none of us is sick, or even has been! We haven’t had contact with anyone. We’ve been moving at night to make it easier to avoid the Crazies. We’ve only seen a couple since we started out, and they were way off. We’ll stick to the center of the road, all the way through. Put on masks… whatever precautions you want us to take. Hell, if you have a vehicle, we’ll ride it through with the windows sealed up. Just don’t make me take my girls back down that mountain. There’s a gang of bikers with some Crazies on leashes down there. There’s too many for me to fight, and they’re doing some awful things to folks.”
The Sheriff looked at Randy and said, “Shit, those damned Brotherhood bastards are back again.” He thought for a moment, and then spoke with the man again.
“Look, I can’t let you come through, but I can give you directions for another way. It’s a tougher hike, and you’ll have to cross the river by finding a boat or climbing up the mountain near the falls, but after that it’s clear of Crazies ‘till it comes back onto Hwy 117. Couple of creeks to cross, but they’re not too deep right now. I’ll draw it up on a map for you. Wait there.”
The Sheriff went back to his cruiser and dug in the glove box for an old roadmap. It was faded yellow, and looked like it had some coffee stains. It was an antique that had been stuffed away since the advent of cell towers and GPS. An antique that was now relevant again. He sketched out a thick line showing the route to take that would cross the mountain while skirting the town’s perimeter. He made sure to route them near his own checkpoints just to keep tabs on them. Once done, he took a two liter re-purposed soda bottle filled with water from his trunk. He walked them both to a point about half-way between the group and the roadblock. He sat it on the ground and spoke to the man again.
“Wait ‘till I’m all the way back, then you can come get it. Oh, and don’t try to go up that steep road on the left about half a mile down. It’s barricaded so good a billygoat would have trouble getting up it.” He returned to his men by the vehicles and then motioned for the man to come ahead.
The man retrieved the items and returned to his group, handing them the water bottle. They immediately began to share it around while he studied the map. A dark frown came across his face, and he looked up at the Sheriff. “Sheriff, this ain’t going to work. I told you we can’t go down again, even to circle around! Those men are set up right at the bottom of the mountain. They’re using an old building as a base, some kind of old grocery store or something. We had a hell of time sneaking by them on the north side and up a steep slope just to come here. We can’t get across the road to go around this way!” He waved the map in the air.
The Sheriff thought for a moment, and then give a sidelong look at his Deputies. “OK, there is one other way, but it’s harder, and there’s risk. About a tenth of a mile or so before you get to the bottom of the mountain there’s a drive off to the left. You got a compass on you?”
“Yes, we have one,” the man answered.
“Good. You’ll see a white tank tower thing. Put it between you and the road, and then sight due west. There’s a game trail that runs up the ridge. Follow it. It’s steep and dangerous in places, but it will lead you to another blacktop road. You can see that on your map. Turn right. Do NOT go left. You do and you will not live to regret it.”
“Hmmph,” grunted Herb. “Got that shit right,” he growled in a low tone.
The Sheriff eyed him, but kept explaining “After that, follow the blacktop to the Gap and turn left. That will take you back on the route I marked. Got it?”
“Yeah, OK, that should work. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. There’s one more thing. That house down the road… the old man that lives there survived and turned Crazy. He’s real territorial, so you best be damned careful once you turn in there. He won’t come out to the road, but he’s not afraid of the dark like most of them, so don’t count on that helping you out.”
The man turned and began talking with the four women with him. One of them could be heard sobbing even from this distance. He put his arm around her as she sank to the pavement in distress.
The Sheriff spoke to the men near him, saying “Give ‘em a few minutes, but I want them on the other side of the gauntlet before anyone leaves their posts. And make tonight’s shift a three man. I don’t like it that we have those asshole bikers at our doorstep again.” He went back to his car and radioed the town to give them the all-clear. He was about to start the engine and return to town himself when he heard Deputy Smith shout.
“Hold it! Step back from that bag, right now!”
Smith had drawn his gun and aimed at the man down the road, who was leaning over his rucksack. The others at the roadblock drew also as soon as they heard the shout.
The man lifted his hands, and backed up. “I’m just getting out my pop-up tent. My wife is too hot. We need a bit of shade for her to cool down in.”
“You’ll have to do that on the other side of the cars,” the Deputy demanded. “Now close the flap… one hand only, then pick it up and be on your way.”
“Look, it’s safer here on this side,” the man pleaded. “We’ll just stay until the sun’s behind the other ridge, then we’ll go.”
“No deal, asshole! You been told to git! Now git!” said the ever-diplomatic Herb. He’d aimed his rifle at the man and was looking quite trigger-happy. His aim, however, was none too steady. It seemed that the smells from the porta-john had also contained a bit of smoke, which was now affecting his balance somewhat.
The man stopped for a moment, and carefully replied, “I’m sorry folks, but I just can’t do that. I’ve got my family’s safety to think about, and for me that trumps your fears or your inconvenience. So, I’m just going to set up this tent for a few hours,” he said as he carefully reached into the bag and began lifting out a small bundle. “…then we’ll be out of your hair and…”
BANG! The sound of Herb’s rifle echoed loudly off the side of the mountain. He had been aiming for a head shot, but, fortunately for the newcomer, was too unsteady. Instead, the bullet tore through the man’s left bicep and into the window of the car behind him, creating a crimson spattered spider web. The force of the impact spun him around and flung the bundle from his hand. As it released from its package, the small, flex-rod pop-up tent expanded in mid-air, landed sideways, and then rolled onto its top across the pavement. The man fell against the car, and yelled for the women to get back. Then he crawled after them, his now hysterical wife pulling him forward. Her ‘help’ elicited an agonized scream from him as she pulled the very shoulder that had been shot.
The Sheriff ran to the front where the other men stood. “Goddamn it Herb! You stupid son-of-a-bitch! That’s not how we agreed to handle things!”
“Sumbitch was going for his gun!” he shouted.
“That’s a bunch of horseshit, and you know it. That’s a damned tent in the road you moron! What was he going to do, pitch you death with it!? Now we have to put somebody else at risk to help them!”
“Screw helping ‘em! They probably damn Carriers anyway,” he snarled.
“You don’t get to decide that shit either!” He took his hat off and wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve, then placed it back. “Jesus, I can’t believe I let folks talk me into bringing you out here. You may be immune to the Craze, but you got a crazy mean streak in you, boy. Now take your ass back to town.”
Herb got a mean look on his face and glared at the Sheriff, who ignored it. He spoke to one of the other men in the back of the truck. “Get the damn environment suit on and take the med kit to that guy. Tell the others to back off while you do. After that, check ‘em all and if they pass, we’ll put ‘em in the Hostel on the far side of town ‘till this guy can move on again.” He nodded to Deputy Smith and said “You suit up too, you’re going with him as his guard dog.”
“Sumbitch…” the deputy grumbled, “…damn thing is hotter-n’ hell.” He glared at Herb. “Oughta make him do it… ah Hell naw, he’d probably just shoot more of ‘em. Dumbass!”
Noticing Herb again, the Sheriff said, “Why the hell are you still here, Herb. Get going. I don’t want you out here no more.”
“I’ll go when and where I damned well please ‘Sheriff’. Somebody with some friggin’ guts has to stay around and make sure you lame-brains don’t let the Crazies get to the rest of us. What’s the big idea trying to send these Carriers toward my house anyway, huh?”
The Sheriff walked up to Herb, getting right in his face. “You may think you’re a bad-ass when you beat up on your family, but you ain’t scaring me one bit, boy. I said leave. And you will. Know why? Because I’m in charge here, and you…” he emphasized with a sharp poke to Herb’s solar plexus. “Are…” He delivered a second poke, but slightly harder. “Not!” And with that he shoved against his chest with his whole hand, making him stumble back despite the one hundred pound weight and four inch height difference between them.
Herb, his face reddening with anger and embarrassment, coiled up his fist and said, “Yeah, well maybe I oughta be!” He pulled his hand back to throw a punch, but the clicking sound of the cocked revolver hammer on the gun pointing at his belly button caused him to freeze in place. He looked down at it, then at the Sheriff and ground his teeth together in frustration. The Sheriff took the rifle out of his left hand, and then the automatic pistol from his right hip holster, handing them both to his Deputy.
“You’ve been told to git. Now git!” said the Sheriff, throwing his own words back at him while waving his gun up the road.
Herb growls and backs off, talking while he walks backward. “You know, I been thinkin’ it’s past time for some new elections, ‘Sheriff’. Some folks are getting’ a bit too uppity ‘round here. Think they got more power than they do. Come to think of it…” he said with a questioning tone and sneering smile, “I don’t think you actually got elected in the first place, now did you?” He turned and looked half-over his shoulder as he kept walking. “Oh, that’s right, I remember now! You inherited your badge when you got the ‘real’ Sheriff killed!” He completely turned his back, and continued up the steep paved grade. “Guess we’ll have to remind folks about that at election time. See you at the polls, ‘Deputy Dawg’!”
The Sheriff waited a few seconds after Herb rounded the corner, and then holstered his weapon. He turned to his senior Deputy and said, “Randy, take the cruiser and go fetch the Doc back here. Give that asshole a ride to his turn-off and send him home.” He picked up Herb’s guns, cleared them of ammo, and set them in the back floorboard of the car. “Give him these when you let him out. If he asks for the ammo, tell him that his donation to the community fund will be recorded.”
“You know him, and his whole inbred family, are eventually going to be trouble, right?” the Deputy asked. “Maybe we ought to keep these?” he nodded at the guns.
The Sheriff nodded. “Eventually, but ‘till then we need them to keep the Crazies off that road up the mountain they live on. As for the guns, if we keep ‘em, they’ll start screaming to the Community Council that we’re illegally confiscating property. I’ve had enough of that particular fight for a while. Now, get going, and hurry back with the Doc. Don’t know how bad that guys down there is.”
The Deputy nodded, climbed into the car and tore off back up the mountain toward town.
Sheriff John Barnes sighed with a weariness that came from deep inside. He sure hoped that those five people tested negative for the Craze. If they didn’t, then what he had to do next made him nauseous to even consider.