-A Ship Story -

#2: Blackberry Wine

Read Time: 55 min

Valerie and Mathias are a young couple who decided to settle down and try their hand at homesteading. But when a handful of unwelcome strangers arrive at the house next door, their lives will never be the same. 

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“I’m so damn tired of all these bugs!” Valerie slapped herself in the forehead, killing three mosquitos at once.

“It’s just the summer hatch, Val. It’ll die down in a week or two,” Mathias grunted as he piled another bag of beans onto the cart, hollering across the yard, “But if we don’t get the rest of this picked and replanted before then, we won’t have a harvest!”

It had been a great year for growing, with a mild winter and an early spring. But that was good news for the insects too; without much cold to kill off the lazily-laid eggs, even the dumbest bugs’ offspring survived the cold holiday months.

The couple had made a fair bit in good trade last year, and they had the eggs and chickens to show for it. Mathias had tried his hand at making furniture, but there just wasn’t a market for it this far away from the city, despite his own insistence. Plus, if he was being honest, it wasn’t nearly as good as some of the old hardwood stuff you could find if you went looking far enough.

Valerie tied off her sack of beans for Mathias. She was surprisingly strong for her small, limber frame. Still, there was no point in hefting the heavy bag so high when her fiance could probably do it with one hand.

“Got another one for ya over here, Matty!” she called out, standing upright among the beanpoles.

Mathias could barely see Valerie’s light brown hair peeking up over the foliage, “That makes six so far?”

“Maybe six total, by the looks of these last few rows,” Valerie chastised herself out loud, “I knew this ground was too soggy for pole beans. Dammit.”

“Well if those ones are in sorry shape, we can keep ‘em, and dry the extra for winter again.” Mathias said in a buoyant tone.

“Again? What do you mean, ‘again’?” Valerie laughed, “Have we had a year where we didn’t end up with extra beans?”

“They say, ‘too much is better than not enough’, and it’s true. We don’t know if it’ll come down to beans-or-nothing one of these years.” Mathias tightened his jaw, and shook off dark thoughts.

Letting out a quick sigh, he smiled and went back to his usual, upbeat demeanor, smiling broadly, “But probably not this year.” Grabbing the bag of beans, he slung it up over his shoulder and walked off to pile it with the rest near the stable, where they kept their horse, Thunder.

The air was fresh from a storm blowing through earlier, but Valerie could feel the heat settling in over the area again, and it felt like it was going to stay hot for a long stretch coming up.

She was enjoying the day’s cooldown, peeling potatoes on her back porch, looking out toward the wide creek that used to separate one neighborhood from the next. Both banks were overgrown with cattails and tall wild grass, and an old concrete bridge still stood, extending across the water. It was most often used by the local wildlife, but there was sometimes occasion to go wandering across, usually for a less common piece of scrap wood or something they couldn’t jury-rig themselves.

Out in the wilds, people were largely self reliant, and for good reason. It wasn’t often that you ran across other people, and if you did, you made sure you were ready for trade or trouble.

Trade or trouble.

Valerie remembered her father saying that sometimes, especially when they encountered shifty or shady-looking people on the road. Usually you could just feel it, bad intentions coming from a group of guys. Sometimes they’d size you up, and you couldn’t be sure what exactly they had on their minds, but it was nothing good.

Growing up, it never seemed that odd or particularly dangerous to her, going around the wilds on horseback, picking up odds and ends for sale or trade. Then again, as a child, it never really seemed odd that her father had a horse and a working gun, let alone having two different kinds of each.

Half the time, her dad got a bad feeling, and instead of making the meetup, he just reminded her “always trust your gut”, and kept moving on.

She thought of the antique hunting rifle her dad had given her, hidden under the floorboards. She recalled all the times it had put food on the table growing up, and all the high-risk trades she and her father had made, just for more bullets.

Sometimes it seemed like getting ammunition was more work than it was worth, and she frequently heard traders remark about ‘people being tied to their guns’. But more often it was the grumbling of empty stomachs, or complaints of not enough food.

Valerie never had that problem growing up, so she never begrudged her dad his roaming ways. But she always fantasized about the idea of having a place of her own. A safe place.

Valerie tensed up, hearing the boards on the deck slowly creaking behind her as Mathias approached, his sneaking miserable as usual. He always tried to startle her, and somehow it always worked. She stopped peeling the potato in her hand, and tried her best not to hold her breath.

Something about imagining him sneaking up behind her always got her more and more on edge, even though she knew what he was up to.


She screamed and hopped three inches, landing with a thud.

“Goddamnit Mathias!” she laughed, still shooting him a nasty look, “You’re lucky I moved my knife, I could’ve cut my thumb halfway off! Next time I hear you creepin’, how about I just point it right at you?”

He grimaced, sucking air in between gritted teeth, “Geesh, sorry. I didn’t see what you had there,” he tried to look sheepish and changed the subject, “Hey, ol’ Annie stopped by this morning and asked if we wanted her to make us a fresh loaf of bread in exchange for a few extra eggs, and I just couldn’t turn it down.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t,” Valerie smiled, looking up at Mathias’ matching grin.

Mathias made an exaggerated sniffing motion, “I don’t know if I’m just imagining things, or if I can actually smell it cooking all the way from here, but I’m heading over to grab that loaf. I’ll be back around dark.”

“Hopefully before then?!” she cocked a sharp eyebrow at her fiance.

“It’ll be quick, promise. And I’ll be coming back with more than bread,” he winked, “‘ol Annie said her next batch of brandy is ready too, and you know she’ll want to have a drink. I’ll indulge her a little, it’s the least I can do. You know she gets lonely.”

“I know, I know. I still don’t know how she plays the loneliness card after being all by herself for so long without seeing anybody besides scavvers.” Valerie went back to peeling, “But if it means a bottle of liquor for us, I’m all for it. Food won’t be ready until dark anyway.”

Mathias ducked down for a kiss, “See you then, babe.”

“See ya.”


Annie was an old hand at making blackberry brandy. She had helped her own grandmother make it as a little girl, and it was the oldest recipe she knew.

It wasn’t hard to make, but you had to know how, and that’s something that most people just didn’t. How much mash, how long, how hot, how not to blow yourself up… she prided herself on that sort of know-how, and she kept it all written down to pass on someday. She thought she might give it to Matty tonight, for his wife.

“She’s your wife! I don’t know why you kids bother yourselves with this stupid ‘fiance’ crap.” Annie took another sip and rocked back in her wooden rocking chair, setting her glass of liqueur on an old restored end table.

“I know Annie, I know,” Mathias chuckled, “You don’t have to browbeat me every time I come over. It’s just… Valerie’s dad was a traditional guy, and so were my parents,” he shot her a look, “And they raised us to keep with tradition. You can sympathize with that, at least a little,” he held up his glass, “You kept this tradition alive,” he said, draining the last of the brandy.

Annie laughed, her old voice creaking along with her chair, “That’s true enough I guess. My grandfolks were traditionalists, but they did make an exception for the spirits,” She winked and let out another, high pitched laugh. “It got them through it, during tough times though.”

“What did? The religion or the brandy?” Mathias laughed with a mischievous smile.

“Probably a bit o’ both,” Annie cackled.

Mathias felt the alcohol bringing out his talkative side, and he decided he’d better make his exit. He walked over and grabbed his still-warm loaf from on top of the oven.

Annie followed his lead, getting up slowly and walking across the wooden floor to an old dresser. She opened the topmost drawer, pulling out her old recipe book and holding it up for Mathias to see.

“This is for your Valerie.” Annie’s dry voice cracked, “Now don’t go ruining this thing, some of those recipes are older than me. To this day I still don’t know what half the ingredients are, but here. It’s a gift.”

Mathias was taken aback, “Annie, but…we couldn’t.”

“You can and you will, you little shit,” she winked and let out another giddy cackle, tapping her temple, “I’ve got everything I need up here anyway. Take it.”

She extended the recipe book, smiling through missing teeth.

“I… Well, thank you,” he tucked the book under his arm, “We have paper, we could copy down everything, and have it back in a few days. Val’s got great handwriting, she’ll jump at the chance,”

“Nonsense. It’s a gift, and gifts are meant to be kept.”

“I know Valerie’ll love it,” Mathias looked out the window into the darkening twilight, “Speaking of Val, she’s probably waiting on me, and it’ll be my butt if it’s all cold before I get back.”

“Well run along Matty. You know what they say… ‘happy wife, happy life’.”

“I didn’t know they said that, but they’re probably right.” Mathias replied with a smile, “Anyway, see ya later Annie!”

“Stop by anytime,” the old widow replied, “You know I’ll be here!”

Mathias heard the back door swing shut as he walked down the wooded shortcut home, and began whistling a tune.


“Good stuff babe, good stuff.” Mathias’ stomach was over-full, thanks to the warm loaf he had brought back from Annie’s. He patted his stomach dramatically and stretched.

Mathias had gotten back later than he said he would, and Valerie was still a little miffed. She had already ribbed him about the bottle of liquor he had forgotten, but took the compliment in stride, “It isn’t as good as fresh baked bread, but I sure like having eggs on the regular.”

“No kidding,” Mathias looked at his empty plate, “And there’s just something about eggs and potatoes together that hits the spot, you know?” he nodded thoughtfully, “Anyway, I’ll head back to Annie’s and grab that bottle, unless you think it’s too late?”

Valerie thought about the recipe book, “No, no, I’ll go. Annie’s a night owl. Plus you’re stuffed. You can clean up dinner,” she thought about him scrubbing the eggs stuck on the cast iron as payback for being late, and smiled wickedly, “And I’ll go thank her for the wedding gift.”

“Wedding gift?” he eyed the recipe book skeptically.

“I’m sure that’s what she means by it. Why else harass you again about our being engaged?” Valerie threw on a light jacket, and moved toward the door to leave, “Anyway, Annie’s probably feeling pretty chatty by now and I have a few questions about these notes. Some of these ingredients are things I’ve never even heard of.”

Mathias stood up and started to grab the dishes, “Well don’t let her keep you up all night, we’ve got a long trip to make tomorrow.”

“After I have a couple drinks, I might keep you up all night,” she winked, grabbing the recipe book, “I’ll be back in a bit.”


There was a path along the creek that made for a good walk; Annie’s place was far enough away that they never had to worry about seeing or hearing each other’s business, but close enough that it wasn’t ever too much of a hassle to visit.

The path was becoming more well worn every year, although during the winter and rainy spring, nature tended to reclaim a bit of ground. Some of the deer in the area had tested the new thoroughfare, but usually the wildlife travelled along the other side of the water, where nobody had lived since before ‘ol Annie’s time.

Just as the light of the old woman’s house came into view, the hairs on Valerie’s arms stood on end, as she caught the unmistakable sound of rough male voices.

She felt like she was in one of her dreams.

No! Not here.


Like a nightmare, Valerie felt herself drawn closer to the danger, taking a dozen sneaking steps closer to the voices. Staying out of the light cast by Annie’s oil lamps, she crept toward a hedge to get a better listen.

“Dumb ol’ bitch got me good. I’m gonna need to get back and get stitched up before I lose too much blood. God freakin’ dammit!” the sound of smashing glassware prompted another voice.

“Aay! Knock it off!” the crashing sound stopped, “That’s alcohol abuse!” said the other voice. A round of laughter erupted from inside.

At least four, plus anyone who didn’t laugh. Plus the bleeding guy.

Val’s thoughts were like a familiar whisper, but another part of her mind was reeling too. She had to get back to Mathias, and she needed to go there now.

“Well at least you’re alive to whine about it, Drip,” a third voice chimed in, “Manny over here’s deader than a doornail. Got him in the neck.”

The first voice, presumably Drip, spoke up again, drawing a tight breath, “The old bat put up a pretty good fight, I’ll give her that.” he said, clearing his throat and spitting, which led to even more laughter.

Val backed further into the shadows and turned around toward her house. She felt her fingertips tingling with a familiar sensation she hadn’t felt in years: panic. She continued moving away quietly, but as soon as she was sure she wouldn’t be heard or seen, she broke into a dead run.

They didn’t have a gun. If they did, they didn’t use it. You would’ve heard.

She tore down the moonlight-stippled path, dodging over fallen branches and rocks. Her breath seemed insufficient to keep her from feeling faint, but she somehow managed to keep her feet.

Just as the path ended, Valerie saw the lights of her house, including a lantern in the front yard. She stopped short.

It was Mathias, speaking with two men. Or arguing.

She could see Mathias set down the lantern and raise his hands defensively. But she knew it was already too late.

The blast from the raider’s handmade shotgun took Mathias in the chest, and he crumpled to the ground, dead.


Upon hearing the sound, rowdy cheers went up from inside Annie’s homestead, and the raiders raised a toast of commandeered blackberry brandy to their dead friend Manny, another casualty of war.

In hindsight, Valerie might have been able to get to her rifle, or sneak up on one of them in the darkness with a garden tool and take the shotgun for herself, but that was no help now. She had to hide.

Valerie knew that there were things worse than death out here in the wilds, and a woman being captured by raiders was one of them. She slowly crept backward along the path, feeling trapped, certain they’d find the trail soon.

Considering her current options, Val decided that if it came to it, she’d rather starve to death than be captured by raiders. If one of them saw her and called for others, they’d never stop; she had to escape, even into the wilds if necessary. Continuing a couple hundred feet down the path, she ducked into some thicker woods, towards the tall grass near the water’s edge.

Val didn’t know if mud leeches were very active at night, but she didn’t want to swim across and attract attention with the noise, so she waded slowly and quietly into the squishy, murky water, being careful not to splash.

As she felt waterlogged branches snap beneath her feet, she imagined bones, and a memory of her father telling her and her sisters “zombies in the muck” popped into her head; a kids’ story about zombies still out there, just waiting for someone to step on them in the muddy water. Probably to keep kids from drowning, she thought to herself.

Move, Val. Keep moving.

Shaking off the memory, she went as quickly as she dared, now nearly up to her chest, half-floating in the middle of the stream.

She saw a raider’s lantern making its way down the path, coming from Annie’s. Fighting the urge to swim and give herself away, she continued walking slowly across the bottom of the flowing creek, hoping the soft burbling of water along the banks would be enough to cover the sound.

She reached the far bank and came up among the cattails, moving into the darkness. The lantern-light moved past her and down toward her house, and she relaxed enough to begin shaking again.

Val slunk into the shadows of an old collapsed house, legs covered in mud, shivering with cold and shock. She knew she was supposed to think… something. But now that she was safe, all she could do was keep replaying the cruel laughter and the echoing sound of the shotgun blast in her head.

She saw Mathias over and over again, setting down the lantern, raising his hands in a calming gesture; and a single muzzle flash in the darkness.

She imagined Annie, face down in her living room, with a bunch of filthy sweaty animals drinking her last batch of brandy.

After a while, her thoughts extended beyond just those two repeating images.

Val remembered telling father she was going to try her hand at farming in the outer wilds, with Mathias. She remembered the look he gave her too; almost like he knew this exact day would come.

She recalled the first time they’d met ‘ol Annie, friendly as could be, pitchfork in hand as they rolled up the road in their wagon, with Thunder leading the way. Annie had offered them some brandy that day too, and a promise of pickled vegetables every year, if they’d settle down nearby. Her husband had died some years back, and Annie had found a perfect part-time helper around the homestead in Mathias.

Now Mathias was dead, and Valerie was alone.


Morning birds don’t know about suffering, they just know when the sun is rising, and then they sing their little tunes to spread the word.

Sometimes Val loved the sound, while at other times it was a reminder of another sleepless night coming to an end. Most of the time when she couldn’t sleep, she just lay in bed with Matty until the sun rose. Occasionally though, she would come outside into the darkness and watch the sky slowly turn from black to dark blue or gray, listening to the tittering birds among the trees.

Tonight Val noticed the sky begin it’s change even before the songbirds, as she crept low, moving slowly along the bank of the creek, towards her home.

Valerie had learned about loss, growing up in the wilds. She’d left her father on her own accord, but she lost her mother before she could even remember anything. Val’s oldest sister was gone too, moved southeast with a group of travelers looking to start up a settlement of their own somewhere in the mountains, away from the decay and rust.

She and her dad travelled together for years, scavving and price-hustling at the various trading posts and settlements along the main highway. More often than sticking to the beaten path, they’d go off of tips from other travelers about good salvage sites, or which places hadn’t been picked over recently, or little known communities.

They’d once spent a summer out to the far northeast, where some of the people treated The Ship like it was an old wives’ tale. Not surprising to Val or her dad, considering how most of the folks in their secluded communities spent their whole lives there.

Most of the trouble she’d seen growing up was handled by her dad. He sheltered her as much as he could from danger, but never from the truth. He told her what he knew about the world as soon as she could handle it, and not a day later.

On the road, you were either an asset or a liability, and he told her as much. He tried to find a woman, but after a couple years of looking for love and striking out, he finally decided to make Val a part of his living. He figured knowing the road would serve her even after he was gone.

The first thing he taught her was how to use her head.

He said it was often the small decisions that end up making the biggest difference. That meant you needed to think ahead for the future.

All of these memories passed through her head, and she did think of her future.

It was blank. Black. With only the flame of a shotgun barrel, burning in her mind.

The funny thing was, somehow it kept burning. Through the near-numbness of shock, and the cold. Through the shivering, shaking fingers. While picking the leeches off of her legs, she felt a fire growing inside. She could almost feel the heat of the shotgun blast replacing the cold emptiness in her heart. As she peeled off the wet denim jacket, she stopped shivering, and started considering her situation with a new purpose.

She recoiled in horror at the memory of Annie’s glasses breaking, but let the shattering sound break the silence of the night, and make room for a few more measured breaths. And then a few more.

I have nothing left.

She ignored her fading doubt as she took in the early dawn air, channeling a killing-fire in her mind, burning away the weakness, using it as fuel.

Bullshit. I’ve got some hunting to do.



The moon was lower in the sky than it had been earlier, and Valerie took advantage of the darker shadows before sunrise, as she caught sight of her fields.

She moved closer, still hidden in the shadows on the far side of the water, and saw a lantern bobbing around by their wagon. She strained her ears listening for voices, but there were none; at least that she could make out.

Looking upstream she saw the old bridge, a pale gray standing out against the hazy black of the creek and woods that lay beyond.

The lantern went from the wagon to the porch and back to the wagon a few times before she realized that the man carrying it was loading her and Matty’s valuables into the cart, alongside the sacks of beans.

She watched in silence as the thief piled the last of the plunder onto their wagon, hitched it, and led Thunder up the road the long way, toward Annie’s.

Valerie needed to get inside her house, upstairs, to the hidden spot beneath the floorboards. Unsure whether the raider or his friends were coming back or not, she decided to make her move.

As soon as the loaded wagon had gone out of sight, she ran along the well-worn deer trail toward the bridge. Ducking down along the side of an old rusted guardrail, she double checked to make sure there were no other raiders still hanging around, and used the last of the dawn’s murkiness as cover to cross.

Val was able to see better by the moment as the sun continued approaching the horizon. Once she crossed the small bridge, there was an eerie stillness that she couldn’t put her finger on. It was only after she got closer that she saw her chicken coop door broken in. Her chickens were gone. Some lay dead, apparently killed just for fun, and the rest were likely taken back up to Annie’s in the wagon.

She thought she heard a voice, and ducked quickly out of sight.

The smell of blood and straw were thick in the air as she peered out from inside the coop. Again, she was listening, looking out between the narrow slats for signs of anyone else that may have hung back.

After a tense few moments, Val decided it was just her nerves.

Or a voice carrying on the wind.

Valerie peered out and made a break for her house, hoping to get in and out as quickly as possible. For all she knew, these raiders were planning to take up permanent residence here, eating the beans she’d cultivated, fishing in their creek, and trying to figure out how to work Annie’s distilling rig.

She needed to grab her things before that even became a possibility.

Val crossed the yard like a bolt and hurried inside, rushing up the stairs, trying to block out the images of her ransacked home. She saw the furniture Mathias had made, broken but still somewhat intact. She remembered how he took pride in the sturdiness of his work; but pride was for another time.

She went over to what was going to be their future nursery and moved a few pieces of wood that were blocking an old antique nightstand. She slid the nightstand out of the way, and rolled back a dusty grass throw rug to reveal some conspicuous looking floorboards.

Valerie pulled them up, and nestled into the space between beams was her loaded rifle. Next to it was enough ammunition to hunt for years, as well as her old emergency bag, still packed for the road.

Every last one of them.

“Damn right,” Val replied to herself aloud, “Every last one.”

She spent the next few minutes grabbing a few more items; a thin wool blanket from their broken bedroom chest, what little food hadn’t been taken, and a bit of rope. Using a trick she’d learned growing up, she quickly bundled it all together, hurrying to the front kitchen window, to see if the coast was still clear in the now-full morning light.

She had taken too long; it was too late for any kind of real planning. Through the glass she saw a pair of raiders halfway down the hill, walking toward her house.

One of them was carrying a shotgun.


Valerie ducked down and stayed out of sight. She wanted to get a clearer view of the two men, and to see if any more were coming. Not wanting to be spotted, she crept to the back porch to get a different vantage point. She noticed her potato-peeling knife, and stuck it in her waistband as she went outside with her rifle.

Keeping the house between herself and the two men, she stole down the steps and peeked around the side and up toward Annie’s. Three more men were coming down the hill about two hundred feet behind the first pair.

That’s five. There’s at least eight.

“That’ll have to do”, she whispered out loud, setting down her bags and taking another practiced breath.

Uncapping her scope, she sighted in the rough distance, just as she’d done deer hunting dozens of times in her life. Estimating where the first two raiders were likely to be, Val slowly leaned out, around the corner of the house.

Her subtle movement at that distance went unnoticed, as the first two raiders began to cross the yard near Mathias’ lifeless body, fully unaware they were being tracked. Valerie waited, watching through the scope.

The man with the shotgun had a bushy moustache, and was rail-thin for a raider. His eyes were wide and angry with the look of someone who spent their time sleeping, strung out, or needing another fix.

She moved the crosshair further back up the hill and saw that the three stragglers were also within her range, although Val still wasn’t properly sighted-in for their distance.

Adjusting the scope one last time, she suddenly began to feel doubt creep in. What if she missed somehow? It was a four round magazine, but what if she fumbled the magazine change? What if there were more than eight of them… or they somehow had an arsenal instead of a single makeshift pipe-gun? She felt her fingers begin to tingle.

Valerie closed her eyes tight, suddenly hoping it was all just a nightmare; hoping that she’d wake up next to her fiance, caught in the throes of another bad dream. Instead, she saw the white light of the sun through her eyelids, and her heart remembered the cold fire of revenge.

She let her eyes readjust to the scope for a moment, and felt an odd sensation in the back of her mind as she moved the crosshair from his chest to his leg. From this distance, the result would be the same, she thought. Why make it painless?

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-clack.

The first man’s leg exploded just above the kneecap when the bullet hit the bone, and both the wiry raider and his shotgun fell to the ground under the force of gravity.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-clack.

The second raider turned sideways to regard his downed friend, but when he inhaled, his freshly-pierced lungs made a frantic slurping sound, and he fell dead on top of his now screaming, one-legged companion.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-clack.

One of the three stragglers had turned to run after the first shot rang out, but Valerie’s aim was as good as you could find in the wilds. She shot him in the back as he ran for his life, and he collapsed face down, bleeding uncontrollably from a chest wound.

The last two raiders that had been coming down the hill now stood frozen in the road, confused and indecisive, unsure of where the gunfire was even coming from.

>Bang!< Clink.


The last man raised both of his hands in the air, looking around frantically, his voice full of terror, “Don’t kill me, please! I’m not like them!”

Valerie inserted a fresh magazine and came into open view, stepping out from the side of the house and raising the rifle to her shoulder.


“Please?! I swear!” the man cried, finally locating the source of bloody havoc.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-clack.


 The sun was now prominent in the clear blue sky, and the heat was coming on fast. The amber of the long grass blew lazily in the morning breeze. Four raiders lay dead, and one lay writhing in a growing puddle of dust and blood, soon to be dead himself.

Valerie watched the road with her rifle in hand as she approached the wiry raider who had killed Mathias. The shotgun he had been holding took a small bounce when he dropped it, and the bony man hadn’t made a move toward it. His stump was still spurting blood.

“They’ll have fun with you bitch,” he grated at her, looking down at his half-leg, “You just wait. My fellas… we’re together-like, an’ they’ll be comin’!”

Val hadn’t heard raider dialect in ages, and she couldn’t tell if he was smiling or grimacing. It didn’t matter though. She picked up the pipe-shotgun and examined it. It was loaded, but not for long.

Every. Last. One. 

Valerie had taken her revenge on her finance’s murderer, with the weapon that had killed him, but somehow it wasn’t enough. Rather than closure, or emptiness, or sadness, she felt something different.

It was almost… pride? Satisfaction?

She shook her head, and looked at the carnage she’d wrought. She knew it wasn’t over yet. There had been a few more up at Annie’s place, and they’d certainly heard the gunfire.

She had to find them, too. Then it would be over.

Although the chances were slim, Valerie couldn’t be positive that one of the remaining raiders wasn’t armed with a rifle, or even a longbow. She moved cautiously and skillfully, having scouted ahead for her dad on dozens of occasions in the past. Keeping her profile low, and her rifle at the ready, she crested the long, gently sloped hill, creeping along the roadside.

From a distance she kept an eye out for movement using her rifle scope, but saw none. Instead she saw a dead body laid out in the street by her wagon, with a blood soaked shirt tied around the neck, and a second man, pale and unconscious, piled up against the first.

Her horse was gone, but the cart of beans and valuables remained, and they had left their friend to die and run like cowards.

Like raiders. 

Val knew there could be at least one more somewhere nearby, and she didn’t want to be caught by surprise. Keeping to the bushes, she crept around the perimeter of the house, listening, and watching the windows for movement. After a complete circuit around, she went inside to make sure there weren’t any raiders left to surprise her.

The only surprise she found was Annie’s body, covered with a sheet.

In her head, Val heard, “I’m not like them! Please!” It was the voice of the sandy-haired man she’d shot dead just moments earlier, and she wondered absently if he’d been the one who covered her friend’s body.

The man with the stab wound moaned when Val pressed her foot onto the dressing, but he didn’t come to. His pants and shirt were covered in blood, and there was a trail leading out of the house where he had been dragged, apparently left to die.

She could tell by the hoofprints that Thunder had taken off quickly, spurred into a hasty gallop. Valerie imagined the raiders had been coming back down to her house for one last look around in the daylight, and were met with her rifle fire instead. The remaining raider must’ve heard gunshots and run off with the horse.

She pushed again on the man’s wound with her dirty boot, grinding dust into the gash in his side. He moaned more vigorously this time, and fresh blood soaked through the makeshift bandage. His eyes opened just a slit, and he winced.

“Where’s the camp?” Val grabbed his face with her small hand, squeezing his cheeks together. The smell of liquor and rotten teeth nearly made her gag.

He looked delirious, but he was her only chance of finding out where the last of the raiders had gone.

“How far?” She shook the man, and slapped him, but rather than becoming more lucid, his eyes glazed back over and he went limp again. Even for the wilds, these guys looked rough around the edges, and this one had been bleeding since Annie had stuck him in the stomach last night.

Valerie walked inside, grabbed some salt and a few implements from Annie’s butcher block, and returned to the unconscious raider. She was going to be satisfied one way or the other.


It was too damn hot. Valerie had felt it coming on yesterday, and the lack of breeze punctuated the remaining spring moisture as it was being baked out of the ground by the unrelenting sun. She and Mathias had jokingly nicknamed the place “mosquito alley” when they first moved in, and right now the air was swarming, the warmth bringing the final batch to life.

Wild blackberry fields went on for miles along the coast, and sometimes they were lucky to have the rotting fruit distract the bloodsuckers, but not today. It was still too early in the year for that, and a small cloud of them followed Valerie around the farm as she went about her next order of business.

She’d found half a dozen of her chickens still alive, stuffed into grain sacks in the back of her cart, and she’d put them back in the broken coop, securing the door with little more than a length of twine.

She and Mathias had spent a fair bit of the previous summer preparing what was going to become a strawberry patch; clearing branches, blackberry vines, and even a few old car frames with some help from their horse. Val looked at the half-barren field, and then involuntarily glanced over at the brush-filled ditch where she’d dumped the bodies, and saw even more flies, swarming and buzzing.

Using her cart to move the bodies out of sight earlier, the view from her front porch was now largely the same as it had been the day before. Valerie now stood looking at the broken inside of her home unsure where to start.

She was feeling a little woozy, but she couldn’t be sure if it was from the heat, the lack of sleep, or from the effort of the two graves she’d just spent most of the day digging for Mathias and Annie.

Val was eyeballing a half-empty bottle of brandy, and slapped another pair of mosquitoes dead. Taking another pull straight from the jug, she set it back down on the entryway table and looked around at the mess again. Taking a deep breath, she sighed with resignation; there was still work to do, but in the end, she knew she’d feel better when it was done.

Eyeing the road and peering at the position of the sun, Valerie began putting everything back in its place, just as it had been before. She didn’t even want to see signs of what had happened. Some of Matty’s furniture had held up fine, but mainly the things that were overlooked by the intruders. A lot of it had been smashed to bits, unusable and unable to be repaired, and everything beyond fixing was tossed out back in a heap.

As the pile of broken memories grew, so did the weight of her loss. Val stared at the furniture for a moment, her mind seeing the white-hot shotgun blast that had killed Mathias and imagined it catching the woodwork and everything else around her ablaze. She shook her head.

No, no. There’s still work to do.

As soon as Val was done sweeping up all of the broken glass, she made her way hastily up to Annie’s house, hoping there was enough time to finish up with everything there too, before night fell.

Flies were thick on the ground where pooled blood had coagulated in the sun, but Val avoided looking at them, opting instead to be grateful for the breeze that had kicked up as she was making her way back toward the other homestead one last time.

Somehow Annie’s house wasn’t as broken up as Valerie had remembered from earlier, or at least the raiders hadn’t gone so far out of their way to destroy it. Val didn’t know exactly where everything went, but she topped off the oil lamps, tidied up as best she could, and then ducked into Annie’s distilling room.

The sharp chemical smell of alcohol and over-ripe fruit hit her immediately, followed by the mustiness of the dirt floor and the smell of old wood smoke. She perused the impressive selection of spirits, some dating back 40 years, her fingers disturbing the dust on the oldest jugs.

Val admired the sheer volume of alcohol the old woman had amassed. Even with the raiders drinking their fill and loading dozens of bottles into the cart outside, there was plenty of brandy left to last a lifetime, even if only as barter.

Valerie brought up a couple of different bottles and examined them in the fading light before deciding on one to bring back to her place, leaving the rest. She closed the door and hung one of Annie’s oil lamps in a window nearby, lighting it. Poking her head out the window she saw the sun was finally getting ready to set on what felt like a never ending day.


The raider scouts sat along the side of the road, waiting for backup, the sun having set about an hour earlier. They’d spotted lights inside both of the houses, but the blackberry vines made it impossible for them to get a good look at the farmhouse at the bottom of the hill. The two were on edge, feeling like sitting ducks, knowing there was at least one person with a working long gun, just waiting somewhere on the other side of the ridge.

Two of the spotters saw smoke begin to rise in the distance from somewhere near the second farmhouse, just as the sound of hooves and voices were just coming up the dusty road from the direction of the highway.

“Is that all?” said a man with a salt and pepper beard and no teeth, clearly unimpressed.

“All? Nah! We gots more comin’. Mick says there’s a-liquor there. Lots. They’s bringing another wagon to take all of it. And they’s bringin’ guns to get the sumbitches who ambushed Billy an’ the rest.”

“Well when they gon’ be here? Looks like they’s havin’ a fire and I heard they got some chickens to cook,” the first raider replied, standing up and slapping bugs off of his face as if he were trying to sober himself up, “and I could use a piece o’ that fire to chase off these damn mosquitoes.”

“They’re not too far behind, we just needed to round up a few more guys,” said an approaching man on horseback. He spoke with an air of authority, more clearly than the others, “That alcohol distiller is liable to be heavy. Maybe just a few minutes behind at most.”

“I ain’t fittin to wait, Finn. I ain’t,” said one of the original scouts, “I’z been up here since daytime and I ain’t seen nothin’ but skeeters an’ blackberries neither. I’m fixin’ ta get those bastards. Manny was a friend o’ mine!”

“He was a good friend,” Finster replied, clearly the leader of the group, “And we’ll have our revenge. But first,” he dismounted the horse, “We even the odds.”

The other horse had arrived, and the men stirred at the sound of clinking weapons and the smell of potent numbshine, a raider favorite. Just a few pulls was all it took to give you the courage to walk into a fight, and the anesthetic-kick to dull the pain; a few more pulls would put you to sleep, maybe for good.

The raiders marched up the hill as quietly as they could, keeping crouched low, spread out wide. Finn took his time tying the horses up to a tree, making sure he brought up the rear; if a group of homesteaders opened fire, he wanted to see the muzzle flashes.

They weren’t well hidden because the moon was so bright, even while trying to stick to the bushes along the roadside, but they didn’t have far to go before reaching the first homestead in the first place. Finn saw light coming from inside but no movement.

“‘Ey Finnee!!” shouted a raider who’d gone on well ahead of the rest.

“SHhhHHH!” rang out from many voices simultaneously, every bit as loud as the man who’d yelled.

The raider had gotten all the way to the farmhouse door, and was running back with a piece of paper, “Nobody home,” He handed it to Finn as the others came closer to listen in, eyes still peeled, “Looks like nobody home at least.”

“Well, you ain’t been shot, Stee,” Finn said, drawing his words out thoughtfully, “So I’d say you’re probably right, unless they’d had a change of heart,” he paused, “I can’t say about that though.” Finn pointed to the rising smoke at the other farmhouse, “Somebody lit it. Probably whoever wrote this here note, come to think of it.”

The note was written in clean, feminine handwriting. Most raiders had little to no reading skills, but Finn pulled out an electric hand lamp and clicked it’s dingy light on, looking around with satisfaction at the amazed faces of his fellow raiders.

“Wherdja get that?!” a yellow-toothed man croaked excitedly.

“Never you mind,” Finn said defensively, “Well, actually do mind. Big bossman lent it to me. Said I can keep it if we make it back in one piece with the distiller in workin’ order. But that’s beside the point… what’s this note say?”

Valerie watched the raiders through her scope, and breathed a sigh of relief. The first hurdle; one of the raiders was actually reading her note. Now it was just a matter of watching and finding out whether or not they’d believe it, or if she needed to run.


Fi nn and another couple of raiders stood in the lamplight, just outside Annie’s farmhouse, still waiting for the second raider he’d sent out to return. He eyed the cart full of beans and booze, thinking about how much of the cut would go to him. Finn shined his dim light around inside the cart one more time, and grabbed a bottle of brandy for himself.

“Checks out, boss. Blood everywhere, big ol’ trail leadin’ straight to the fire,” said Mickey, the sole survivor of the prior morning’s ambush, “The gal went nutty and offed herself just like she wrote. Right into the bonfire with her little boyfriend an’ the old hag that killed Manny.”

“What about the gun? You find it or what?” Finn asked roughly, hoping for a trophy.

“Nah, fire was too hot to get a good look. We looked in the house for it too, but no such luck. Didn’t take long, either. It was weird,” Mick shook his head with a confused look, “Y’know, she really lost it. Cleaned up all the mess and just… jumped in. Nutty.”

“Well, it’ll make things easier on us, so you won’t hear me complaining. Now speaking of cleaning up, let’s get moving. Get them horses up here and start loading up that distilling rig.” Finn said gruffly.

The raiders within closest earshot took his words as orders and ran to fetch the horses, one of them hitched to a second wagon they’d brought here from their main camp. Finn walked over to some raiders passing around a bottle of vintage brandy while they waited.

“Strong drankin’! More like moonshine than wineshine!” one of them half-shouted, which was met with hooting agreement.

“Jus’ the way I likes it!” another replied, pulling off the top of a second bottle and uncorking it.

Finn spoke up, brandishing his flashlight like a badge of authority, “Enough! We got work to get done by sunup! Now let’s get to it.”

He led a group into Annie’s, walking to the distilling room near the back kitchen, and opening the door. The acrid smell of fermentation roiled around, the vapors mostly trapped inside, with only hints of the scent escaping.

Waving a handful of large raiders inside to carry the heavy still, Finn began descending the steps, led by the light of an oil lamp hanging in the kitchen window.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-Clack.

Val’s first shot missed the mark. Instead of falling straight down, the oil lamp shattered into a million pieces, as the high powered round blasted through the glass bulb, unburnt oil splattering the walls and floor. Her heart sank.

It felt like a second passing, a million times. How could she have counted on a single plan? A single note? A single shot?

A single shot. 

In that second, Val imagined Mathias, standing with his hands out in front of him. Imagined him afraid. Setting down his lantern, seeing them pointing the gun, raising his arms… a single shot killing him.

She was picturing the flash of that gunshot, when suddenly a brighter flash caused her eyes to snap open wide. Fire.

Her plan had worked after all. Oil-fueled flames from the shattered lamp were erupting inside the kitchen, trapping the handful of raiders downstairs, and she could hear the sound of panicked, confused yelling from inside, and screams for water. Val felt a surge of adrenaline as the high-proof moonshine she’d left open on the floor ignited, exploding in a gout of flame that licked out of the kitchen window.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-Clack.

The raider in charge of the horses fell to the ground, headless, unable to cry out. The mounts reared up and ran, one of them dragging the raiders’ wagon behind it, trampling the other horse handler, leaving him dazed and groaning in the growing firelight.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-Clack.

Valerie’s adrenaline and lack of sleep was affecting her accuracy, and she missed a headshot. Instead, a raider’s right shoulder exploded into a gory paste, and he began screaming.

He won’t survive it. 

The panicked cries of the one-armed raider, combined with sudden gunfire sent the raiders scrambling for any decent cover they could find, and their first instinct was to run inside the house.

>Bang!< Clink.

This time Valerie hit her mark squarely in the chest, dropping him in the front doorway of Annie’s house, adding to the confusion as some raiders were scrambling to get in while another pair was pushing to get out. The fire in the kitchen had already doubled in size, and was spreading quickly.

Just as Valerie began to hear glass breaking, the flames sucked inward and then exploded back out. Every window in the house shook or shattered, as Annie’s still, along with over two hundred bottles of alcohol, detonated like one gigantic firebomb.


Valerie inserted a fresh magazine, feeling the heat of the huge fireball even from her concealed position in the blackberry brambles across the road between the two houses.

In the firelight she saw raiders with their clothing and hair fully engulfed in flames, scrambling blindly out into the darkness toward the creek, wailing. Others were looking for cover from the gunfire, running back up the road, or diving into bushes to wait out the hail of bullets.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-Clack.

One of the raiders had wrongly assumed the gunfire was coming from Val’s house and had taken cover accordingly. Valerie shot him dead, square in the back.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-Clack.

Another went down; the toothless scout who thought he’d cleverly hidden in a bush, was now noiselessly writhing in his death throes on the ground, the numbshine counteracting the shock he should’ve been in. Val knew that at these distances every shot was a killshot; it was just a matter of time.

>Bang!< Clink. Ka-Click-Clack.

She fired quickly, barely aiming, surprised by a man who was running toward her position. He fell to the ground sixty yards short of the edge of the brambles, his pelvis shattered.

He began to call out, “Here! The bastard’s over here!”

The raider tried to stand, but the bullet had severed his spinal cord too, and he collapsed from the pain, only moaning and whimpering, but somehow still waving his hands to attract the attention of the others.

>Bang!< Clink.

She hated to waste a second bullet on a single target, but the arm-waving ceased and she took a tense breath, waiting and watching.

The frantic screams of raiders burning alive were coming from inside Annie’s house, accompanied by the wailing of two raiders who were rolling around in the grass outside.

Val couldn’t be sure if anyone else had spotted her, but earlier she’d seen some of them armed with guns, and she didn’t want to get pinned down, or caught up in a shootout. She had to move.

Unsure how many there were left, Valerie crept backward through the path she’d cut through the thick tangle of interweaving vines earlier, keeping both fires in front of her. Valerie’s eyes scanned the darkness to see if any other raiders had heard the man who’d called out her location.

After about forty yards of backtracking on hands and knees with her rifle, she finally escaped the confines of the sharp thorns and vines, and began rising to her feet. But her rifle didn’t budge. Someone even larger than Mathias was towering over her.

“You’z a priddy one huh? Bozzman gon’ be real happy with you… an’ yer long gun,” a large, fat raider was already tracing her curves out in the air with a handmade shotgun. He’d stepped on her rifle, pinning it to the ground, and was leering at her in the moonlight.

He continued, “Ain’t so tough when you ain’t got ‘yer fanc…” a wet bubbling sound replaced the man’s gibbering voice.

The potato peeling knife completely severed the fat man’s windpipe, and he reflexively fired the shotgun, missing Valerie’s hip by an inch. She shoved him into the brambles and jumped on top of him, stabbing him repeatedly about the neck and chest with the short blade, until he was still.

She sat back in the moonlight, gasping for air, her arms tired, her chest and upper body completely covered in raider blood. Once she had her breathing under control, she listened for the sound of more raiders, but realized the screaming had stopped too. All she heard was the occasional sharp crackle of fire, or the sound of a pane of glass shattering from the heat.

Using the dead man’s pants, she began wiping as much slippery blood off her hands and forearms as she could, and tried to think back to how many more there might be left alive. How many were uninjured, still looking to capture or kill her?

Tucking the potato knife back into her belt with a reassuring pat, Val looked around before rising this time, and began to make her way back toward the road where the bridge crossed the wide creek.


The ditch full of brush and bodies was still burning, now more of a smolder, and the reek of smoke, burnt hair and charred meat hung nearby in the night air. She stuck to what shadows she could find, but the bright moon made it difficult to feel hidden, even in cover.

Annie’s house was fully engulfed by now, lighting up the top of the hill and sending up billows of thick smoke into the clear sky, and Val could see firelight even through the forest.

It had been an hour or so since she’d seen movement, when the silhouette of a man came shambling out into the road, waving both of his arms.

Rather than opening fire again, Val snuck down behind the concrete bridge near the edge of the water and watched in horror as three more raiders on horses came rushing out of the darkness, followed by even more on foot, all running straight down her hill toward the bridge.

Her only option was to flee into the wilds. Ducking quickly under the bridge, she began wading along the creek into the darkness.

Just as she began to think about the leeches again, she heard two gunshots ring out. She scurried onto the bank, and crawled up into a patch of cattails to get a look at whoever was shooting at her.

More gunshots, but far off, followed by a sound she hadn’t heard in years: an engine.

Suddenly, the night air was alive with the sound of gunfire, and far off screams. She saw a riderless horse race down the road toward the bridge, crossing it, running off into the dark.

There was a large explosion and a flash, followed by more steady gunfire. A handful of men could be seen running toward the field of brambles across the street, where she’d been shooting from earlier. They were running from something, and for good reason. A wall of steady muzzle flashes lit up the distant hilltop, and the raiders collapsed where they stood, riddled with freshly pressed bullets.

There was only one group that had that kind of weaponry.


“Nope, seventeen. We take our scratches seriously,” the brown haired soldier tapped his helmet pointing out the scratchmarks. He had eight, and two looked old and worn-in.

Val looked around at the helmets, noting the number of scratches, and the difference in the way the soldiers with ticked-up helmets carried themselves compared to those with few.

None of them had seventeen though.

“Somebody get this woman a helmet!” crowed one of the younger soldiers on the noisy flatbed, a woman with olive skin and a stocky frame. She stepped past a couple men who had been listening in on the story, and handed Val a flask, lowering her voice, “Careful with that, sweetness. It’s not for the faint of heart,” she looked around conspiratorially, “Numbshine. We found ‘em cookin’ it up at their main camp.”

“Numbshine?” Val asked, looking at the flask skeptically, sniffing it, “I never tried the stuff before, what’s actually in it?”

“Moonshine and opium. Great for sleepin’ medicine… or long boring drives.” the woman smiled and winked.

The whole group laughed, except the first man who waited for the laughter to die down, “I mean it though, we could use somebody like you on The Ship.”

Val took a long pull off the flask and handed it back, nodding her thanks. Shaking her head at the taste of it, she clicked her tongue at the numbing sensation, and wrinkled her nose disapprovingly.

After another moment, she spoke up, “My father never liked being tied down, said it makes you rusty, lazy.”

The man laughed, “Nothing out here but rust! Seriously though, once we get you back, and get everything figured out…” he trailed off, embarrassed. He’d been so caught up in the excitement that he had forgotten what had happened to her just a couple of days ago, “I’m… I’m sorry.”

Val shrugged indifferently, “Don’t be. It still hasn’t hit me yet I don’t think,” she looked at her hands, remembering the big raider she’d stabbed to death, “Unless there’s something wrong with me,” she gave a dry chuckle, still feeling oddly satisfied with all the killing she’d done.

Nothing wrong with revenge, girl.

Her hand went to her belt; her knife was still there, next to the recipe book Annie had given her for a wedding gift. She clutched her rifle to her chest and patted her sole pack of belongings as they drove on for a while longer.

Sitting on the transport truck, with the smell of biodiesel and sweaty soldiers swirling around her, Val gently elbowed the man she’d been chatting with, “Hey… uh?” She looked for a name patch.

“Name’s Kyle,” the soldier replied, “Millikin.”

“How long until we get there, anyway Kyle?”

“The Ship, or Northlake settlement?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Already feeling the numbshine’s effects relaxing her muscles and weighing down her eyelids, Val shrugged, “Well, I guess I should see The Ship once in my life. Why not?”

See it? I mean join up. My captain would take you in a heartbe…” he remembered himself this time, “But don’t worry about any of that. Just rest up. You earned it more than any of us,” he laughed.

Val closed her eyes lazily as the convoy rumbled down the highway that she’d grown up traveling, and began to doze, smiling to the sounds of soldiers asking Kyle what happened, and him embellishing and retelling her story.

“…killed her husband, made those bastards pay…”

“…Seventeen at least, every one of ‘em headshots…

“…found her horse too…”

Val perked up for just a moment, smiling, and drifted off into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.


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