The walk back to this new camp was not as bad as Leonid expected. They held a brisk pace, and Roy mostly kept his mind off of the soreness in his arms with conversation. Already he was beginning to like this new partner of his, and he reminded himself that he'd only known the man for an hour. At the very least, his first impression was positive.
They passed the gas station, and from there it was only about a ten-minute walk. Roy carried the dog over his shoulder the whole way, which was a mildly impressive feat of endurance to Leonid. When they arrived, first they saw tents, then saw the people that inhabited them. There were four of them, sitting around a campfire, two men and two women. Some of them had their hands extended towards the fire in a fruitless attempt to unnumb their cold hands. As they approached, one of the women stood and turned to them.
"You're back," she said. "And with someone new."
"That's right. This is Leonid; he's going to be joining us. He saved my life."
"He saved your life?" the woman repeated. "What happened? I told you that it's not safe for you to go out alone."
"Anne, it's okay," Roy said, putting the dog on the ground. "We got some food out of it."
"I am not eating that," the man with a large black beard said.
"More for us, then," the second woman said.
"Leo, this is Anne. That's Marie, the bearded one is Clint, and that's Seth." He turned his attention towards Anne. "Kirk and Lawrence aren't back yet?"
"Where are you from, Leonid?" the woman apparently called Marie asked. Her hair was like black silk, and it shined in the flickering light of the campfire.
"I'm from around here," he said. "I headed down to St. Louis when everything happened, but they turned us away. So we just decided to come back home."
"All of us here can empathize," Marie said, "but who is 'we'? Are you not by yourself?"
"I am. I did have a partner, but… well, she's gone now."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "We've all lost people thanks to the Army. It's good to meet you."
Leonid nodded and gave a smile, though it was very weak. He faintly noticed that Roy and Anne were now hand-in-hand. She said something to him quietly that Leonid couldn't hear. The beardless man whose name Leonid had already forgotten got up from the ground and picked up the dog.
"I'll get started on dinner," he said, and took the dog into one of the four tents.
Suddenly, Leonid became aware of the faintest sound. It seemed to be the low rumble of an engine and the kicking of gravel under wheels. He turned his head, and his suspicions were confirmed: a faint pair of headlights was rapidly approaching them.
"That must be them," Roy said.
As the source of the headlights became visible, Leonid saw it was a dark red truck that probably didn't do well on gas mileage. A man with a thick brown mustache on his lip got out of the front seat. He looked to be one of the oldest of the group, although not by much, perhaps in his late forties. Leonid guessed that this was the Kirk that he'd been hearing about.
"Anything?" Anne asked, but Kirk didn't respond. He turned and opened the backseat of the truck and reached in. Out he pulled a man, a man whose head and face was covered by a cloth hood and whose hands were tied with rope behind his back. He wore digital camouflage pants and shirt with light brown boots. A dark blotch stained the collar of his shirt.
"Holy shit," Roy said, amazed. "You got him."
Another man followed the prisoner out of the backseat of the truck. He said nothing. Kirk grabbed the prisoner by the back collar and arm and shoved him forward. He fell hard on his shoulder.
"Let's get this son of a bitch on trial right now," Kirk said. His voice was deep and raspy. Once again he grabbed the prisoner by the arm and lifted him to his feet. He pulled a pistol out from the waist of his jeans.
"Please," the prisoner said, his voice weak and shaking. "I can get you food; we can make a deal. I can get you all the food in the world, just please let me go." Leonid imagined the man was crying under the cloth hood.
Kirk ignored the pleas. "Roy, Clint - where's Seth? Somebody find him - and take this scumbag out to the woods and get him calmed down. We'll be out there soon. Who is this?" he said, referring to Leonid. Roy and the bearded man were already grabbing the prisoner and taking him past the campfire, grabbing Seth from the tent along the way.
"He's new," Marie said. "Roy brought him in. Leonid is his name."
Kirk approached him and stuck out a hand. Leonid shook it. "What happened to your head there? Nevermind. Welcome to your new family," Kirk said. "You're going to see how we protect and avenge our own." He walked past Leonid towards where Roy, Clint, and Seth took the prisoner. "If you wanna see this, follow me!" he said.
Leonid followed, along with everyone else.
They found the three guards and the prisoner in the middle of a small clearing of trees. The prisoner was on his knees, the dark stain on his collar now also visible through the cloth hood. He was audibly sobbing. The three of them simply stood there, unmoving, with their arms crossed.
They formed a circle with the prisoner in the center, crying into his cloth mask all alone. Kirk walked up to him and bent down to his level.
"What's your name, son?"
"My… my name?"
"That is what I asked."
"Tobias," the prisoner said, an ounce of hope in his quivering voice.
Kirk stood up and addressed the group. "Everyone, let us start with a moment of silence for poor Antonio, whose life was cut short by the man in front of you, Tobias. May he rest peacefully, and may we meet him again in the afterlife."
Seconds passed. Even the prisoner did not speak a word.
"Okay," Kirk broke the silence. "It's time, then. All in favor of avenging Antonio, say aye."
"Aye," their collective voice said.
"Good." Kirk pointed his gun at the prisoner's head, cocked it. "An eye for an eye," he said.
"No, wait," the prisoner started, but he was interrupted. The gun exploded, and the prisoner fell to the ground, blood pouring from his head.
Leonid found that the sorrow he thought would come would not. They walked for a long time, resting often to thwart the soreness in their legs, until Leonid's watch read eight. Then they slept.
They found that their biggest issue was not food, but water. The vigorous traveling made them exhausted, and without water, Leonid was not sure how much longer they would last. His mouth was unbelievably dry and he had a headache. The freezing air coated his lungs when he breathed. Perhaps, he thought, they wouldn't last through the day. Perhaps if he had stopped the bandit from robbing them they could have, but not now. He thought of how much he didn't want to die, yet, he also wondered if it would be a mercy.
Leonid woke first. They slept in the median between the two roads, filled with dead grass. At first he did not know what woke him. He looked at his watch, and it read four in the morning, almost exactly.
A distant boom startled him. It sounded like a gunshot. He looked at Edith, and she was still hard asleep. Another sound rang out only seconds later. This must have been what woke him, he realized.
The lantern was still burning. He stood and picked it up, looking off towards the direction of the gunshots. "Edith," he said. "Wake up." He bent down and lightly shook her shoulder. She moaned groggily. "Do you hear that?" he said after another bang sounded. "I think they're gunshots. Maybe someone is hunting. They might be able to spare some supplies. We should go take a look."
Edith groaned. "Just go without me."
"What? No, get up and come with me. We don't want to split up."
"Leo, just go. I'll be fine."
He shook his head, but backed off. "Fine. But stay here until I get back." With that, he picked up the lantern, leaving the phone by Edith's side, and made his way towards the gunshots.
He only walked for about five minutes before he found a rest area. If they had just walked for a little bit longer they wouldn't have had to sleep on the itchy grass. The gunshots stopped shortly after Leonid left, but from what he remembered they sounded about this far away.
The rest area was a brick building with the state and country flag in front, along with an assortment of fake plants and an empty parking lot. A line of cans lay destroyed in the cement. The front door was made of glass, and as Leonid approached, he decided to turn off his lantern. Somehow only now was the danger of approaching a stranger with a gun was dawning on him, and he wondered why he allowed Edith to stay behind. He thought briefly of turning back, but decided against it. He would have to take this risk, or he and Edith would almost certainly be dead within a few days.
He felt his way blindly through the darkness towards where he knew the door was. He felt for the handle and opened it. He realized he had no way to light his lantern now that all of his supplies were gone, but somehow that didn't seem important. The only light in the room was a flashlight pointing straight at the far wall. Other than the small tiles that the flashlight revealed, Leonid could not see anything.
He moved along the wall as the door closed behind him. It shut with a chunk sound, and he heard movement from the other end of the room.
"Who's there?" a voice said, a voice that Leonid thought he recognized, although it was not so chillingly calm anymore.
Leonid kept moving along the wall towards the corner as the flashlight beam moved. It pointed towards the door, but Leonid remained in darkness.
"Hello?" the voice said. Leonid said nothing.
Leonid continued along the wall until he came upon a corner that led into another room. A bathroom, he supposed, although he could not see. He crept inside the room, and he waited. He saw the beam of light jerking about as the man searched frantically for what made that noise. Leonid stayed hidden.
Suddenly the flashlight beam was gone, and Leonid peeked out to find complete darkness. He heard rustling from the man, as if he were laying down on a sleeping bag. Now was his time to move.
He moved as quickly and as quietly as he could along the wall towards where he saw the beam of light. He thought of taking off his boots but decided that was unnecessary. If he moved quickly enough, the man wouldn't be able to see him anyways. They might as well have had their eyes closed.
Leonid reached the flashlight and bent down on his hands and knees to search for it.
"What the hell?" the man said, terrified. First Leonid found a long piece of wood of which he had no idea what it could be, and then his hand found and grasped the stubby handle of the flashlight.
"Who's there?" Leonid stood and turned on the flashlight, shining it directly into the man's face. Immediately his suspicion was confirmed. The man was in his forties or fifties with long graying hair and a patchy beard. Leonid stood over him. He grabbed the man by the coat and lifted his back off the ground.
"You don't remember me?" Leonid said.
The man only stuttered.
"The people you robbed yesterday," he said. "You don't remember them?"
"Yes, I - I remember. I'm sorry, you have to understand, there was no other way for me to survive, I had to do it, please, just let me-"
Leonid hit him in the face, using the flashlight as a baton in his right hand and holding the man by the coat with his left. Uncontrollable anger and hatred washed over him, and he hit him again. He thought of how he believed this man to be their death sentence, of how he should have done this when he had them at gunpoint. The man screamed, and Leonid slammed the flashlight into the man's face with a crack. Blood poured out of the man's left eye. The flashlight's beam turned from a bright yellow to a dim blood red. The screams stopped, but Leonid did not. He felt bones break under the flashlight. He turned the left side of the stranger's face into something that was bruised and bloodied to the point of unrecognizability.
Finally he stopped, and he let the man fall back to the ground, unmoving. Leonid breathed heavily, big clouds of fog exhaled from his mouth. He looked down upon what he'd done, expecting disgust but found that it did not come. Power is what he felt, although he didn't know it. Leonid smiled.
He looked around and found that the piece of wood he'd felt earlier was a rifle. He found three backpacks, two of which he knew, and another that he did not. First, he dug inside his own backpack and brought out a bottle of water, which he downed quickly and with ease. He picked up his and Edith's backpack and slung them around his shoulders, and looked inside the third. What he found was boxes and boxes of ammunition. He slung this around his shoulders as well.
He picked up the rifle, and with one last look around, Leonid left the rest area, with not a shred of guilt inside him.