Tears of the Madman

By Benjamin Taylor Jr.





            It was cold.  God, was it cold!

            God.  What would he know of cold?

            “What’d you say?”

            “Nothing.”  A pause, then quietly, “Just driftin’.”

            Jim Mathews mentally cursed himself.  It was bad enough talking to yourself without the added distraction of doing it at the wrong time.  Like now.  It could get you killed.

            Cold and hunger will do it, though.  He remembered someone saying once that a man could miss one day’s meals with no problems.  After two days,  he’d be willing to steal to eat.  After three, he’d be willing to kill.  It had been four days since Jim had eaten, and that a single, unlucky rabbit shared three ways.

            They were hiding out in the lowland woods.  Bob Sidler and Jim were both twenty, and if still alive would graduate in the spring four months away.  Bob’s younger brother, John, was sixteen and experiencing his first winter of the Test.  Jim didn’t think John would last, and he suspected Bob felt the same way.  But, that was the nature of the Test.

            They were all haggard, exhausted from lack of food and sleep.  In being pared down by winter’s knife, though, the character of each boy had been revealed.  John had the air of a hunted animal finally brought to bay by a pack of wolves.  He would face death with unresisting resignation.  When and if the other two met their ends, it would be with a boiling rage, each determined to take someone or something with them in a blind desire to slay.  They were the flame-eyed wolves of John’s nightmares, as much a part of the suddenly unfamiliar and inimical universe as the Adults they sought to avoid.

Normally sought to avoid.

            They were situated behind a large fallen tree trunk which offered at least a partial shelter from the sharp, penetrating northwind.  Half awake, Jim and Bob sat hunched over with their backs to the trunk.  John lay curled up on his left side, trying unsuccessfully to sleep.

            It was five miles to the Town cluster, too close for boys still in the Test.  They intended to rest throughout the day, awaiting moonrise before continuing on.  They built no fire because the risk of discovery was just too great.

            Pulling his ragged blanket tighter about himself, Jim thought about his father.  It was a lonesome feeling because, owing to the circumstances, his father might very well kill them all.  It was only a small consolation that he would not want to.




            “How do you feel, boy?”

            Young Jim Mathews looked up at his father.  It was his first deep forest hunt.  The two had always been close, but now they shared a much tighter bond - the comradeship of battle.

            “I don’t know.  Kinda scared, now.”

            “I know the feeling.  It’s a reaction, is all.”

            They conversed during a brief rest on the way back to their cabin.  As they moved out, the boy reflected on the fight.

            His adeptness at tracking was learned early, his father tying it to a child’s natural curiosity, and it paid off when the boy saw the deer first.  His father passed Jim the rifle, smiled, and signed for him to make the kill.

            Moving very carefully to ensure a clear shot, the boy rested the rifle barrel on a tree limb and took aim.  He knew the single shot, muzzle loaded rifle was loaded because his father always kept it that way.  Plus, they had checked it before leaving the cabin just outside the Town cluster’s walls.

            Recalling his father’s patient lessons, the boy took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and began to squeeze the trigger.  It was almost a surprise when the shot cracked out.  He looked up and saw the deer was down and motionless.  He started forward to claim it when his father roughly jerked him back.

            “Reload, boy!  Never go out there with an empty gun.  You never know if the critter is still alive or not.”  He waited the few moments it took for Jim to reload.  “Okay, now go check your deer.”

            It was clean neck shot, the animal killed instantly.  Just as Jim was turning to call to his father, two figures stepped out of the brush.  One had a rifle leveled at the boy, the other a drawn bow.

            They were seventeen or eighteen, but with deep set eyes shrunken and hard, making them appear much older.  Both were dressed in ragged, mismatched clothing that blended well with the forest.  The one with the bow had a full beard, the other just patches of scraggly growth on his face.

            “Hold it right there, kid,” said Beard, nervously scanning the surrounding woods.  “Where’s your pa?”

            “He’s not out here.  He let me go hunting by myself.”  Jim caught the flicker of movement in the brush behind the two.

            “Why that just don’t seem right,” put in Scraggly, whose cold gaze never wavered from the boy.  “I mean, someone might come along and take that deer away from you.”  They both started laughing at the apparent joke.  Beard relaxed his pull on the bowstring.

            The boy had been raised in a hard world.  He knew what these two were and what he could expect.  At the same time, however, he was possessed of a streak on contrary and stubbornness.

            Standing his ground, he spoke softly.  “Nobody’s taking this deer away from me.”

            The two stopped their laughter momentarily, then began again even more loudly.  Scraggly reached out to take Jim’s rifle.

            The boy had kept the rifle cradled in the crook of his left arm, his right hand near the trigger guard.  Pivoting suddenly, he pulled the trigger.  The bullet entered Scraggly’s head just under the chin and exited out the top of his scull, taking much of the contents with it.  Scraggly stumbled backwards a few feet before he tripped and fell over a tree root, dead before he hit the ground.

            The act was so swift and unexpected that Beard just stared open-mouthed at the body.  Then, he turned back to Jim.  “Boy, that was almighty slick.  But now I’m goin’ to kill you.”

            Before he could draw the bow, however, there was a muted ‘thunk’.  Nerveless hands released the weapon and his eyes, wide now in shock and surprise, stared at the steel point protruding from his chest in a widening splash of crimson.  He came to the realization he was dead and fell face first into the earth beside the deer.

            As his father emerged into the open, the boy quickly reloaded the rifle.  The father went first to Beard and retrieved his long-knife, two feet of double-edged razor sharpness.  He nodded as the boy handed back the rifle.

            Before dressing out the deer, they stripped the two corpses of their weapons, then buried the bodies.  Finished, his father regarded Jim with a new appreciation.

            “You killed your first deer, boy.  That’s something to be proud of.  You’ve also killed your first man.  It’s not something to brag about, but it had to be done and you did it well.”  He took Scraggly’s rifle and handed it to Jim.  “You earned this, boy, by right of combat.”

            It was almost sunset when they reached the clearing outside the cluster and their home.  The two paused at its edge.

            “Boy, you learned two valuable lessons today.  The first is to reload after every shot.  That saved you life today.  The second is to respect your enemy.”

            Jim was puzzled and said so.

            “Son, a man with strong enemies is that much stronger for it.  It makes him think.  Those two back there didn’t respect you.  They saw only a child they could easily frighten.  It was a mistake they made and now they’re dead for it.  They should’ve killed you right off or at least disarmed you.  Remember that, boy!  Always remember that!”

            Fireflies performed their dance of lights to the insect music.  The man and his son could see smoke from their chimney rising against the twilight sky.  It was a comforting sight.

            “You did fine today, boy.  You did real fine.”

            With that, the two started across the field for home.  Even here, though, the man kept his eyes in constant motion.




            Respect your enemy.

            Unable to sleep, Jim pondered the advice given so long ago.  It had been nine years since that day and never let himself forget that lesson.  In the nearly four years he had been Outside, he had made many enemies.  Significantly, few of them were still alive.  Those few were very good, though, as displayed by the scars of bullet and blade.

            He had killed only when necessary, but then without hesitation.  It was a simple matter of reaction and survival, not ethics.

            He did not kill other Solitaries, having become one himself after his first year.  He was curious about the other ones, a trait they all shared.  Their reasons for rejecting the relative safety of the Packs were varied, but fell primarily into three groups;  some couldn’t accept any kind of authority, others found they worked best alone, and the last did not like the organized warfare and killing among the Packs.  The only commonality was the belief in the Test being a matter of individual survival.

            Jim studied Bob and his sleeping brother through half-closed eyes and recalled their first meeting two months before.  He had been in need of food then, too.

            Finding them together, he thought they were members of some Pack on a last hunt before winter closed in.  On closer surveillance, Jim recognized the signs of a fellow Solitary in the older boy.  The other, however, did not fit.  He was too unsure and nervous to be effective outside a Pack.  Deciding to chance it, Jim stepped out from behind the tree used as his observation point and moved openly toward the camp.  He kept the rifle cradled in his left arm.

            Bob spotted him quickly enough and straightened up, casting a glance at his own rifle six feet away.  It was another three or four seconds before John grew aware of the intrusion.  His inexperience showed when he overreacted and reached for his bow.  Bob knocked his brother’s hands away from the weapon even as Jim was bringing his rifle into play.

            “You’d be dead before you could do anything, kid,” was all Bob said, pointing at the rifle in Jim’s hands.  The muzzle was a black hole centered on John’s chest.  Paling, the boy backed up.

            After the introductions, Bob explained he was trying to help his brother through the Test.  Jim was intrigued by the concept, seeing it fit in with his own plans.

            Since he had meat from a deer killed the day before, Jim offered to share it with the two brothers.  Pulling a haunch of venison from his pack, he had just cut a thick slice when an arrow ‘shunked’ into the dirt at his feet.  As they all dove for cover, the chill mountain morning reverberated to the twangs of bowstrings and the impact of flint-tipped missiles.  A rifle periodically barked, but none of the bullets even came close.

            “Friends of yours?” asked Bob, half-grinning at Jim from behind a boulder.

            “None of mine,” Jim responded, ducking another arrow that sliced the leaves above his head.  “Doesn’t anybody knock and just say hello anymore?”

            “I don’t like rude company either.  If you can reach my rifle, I’ll help you take in the welcome mat.”

            Bob’s rifle was close at hand, so Jim tossed it over to him.  Using his own rifle as a pole, he snagged an ammo pouch.  They began to return the fire.

            Faced with the deadly effectiveness of two rifles in the hands of Solitaries, the attackers withdrew, leaving four of their number behind.  They had not run away in panic, though, having stripped their comrades’ bodies of anything worthwhile before retreating.  Their one rifle had been shattered by a bullet that went on to kill its owner.

            Satisfied that the Pack was no longer in the area, they settled down once more by the fire.  Not quite sure why, possibly because of Bob’s attitude towards his brother, Jim partnered up with the two.

            John showed himself to be a skilled hunter, as good with a bow as his brother’s rifle - necessary attributes for Solitaries with no ready access to ammunition.  His weakness lay in his hesitation to take a human life.  Otherwise an admirable quality, during the Test it became a severe handicap.  Solitaries generally did not kill each other, preferring to live off the land.  When they had to, when the alternative was starvation, they raided isolated camps of the Packs.  The Packs, on the other hand, waged an incessant war with each other, taking what they needed from the bodies of the losers.

            Jim knew that small bands from one Pack or the other would occasionally raid down into the lowlands, ambushing smaller parties of Adults for the highly prized rifles and ever needed ammunition.  Adults, however, were not to be taken lightly.  The success rate for these forays was very low, owing much to a combination of Adult cunning, savagery, and the psychological advantage of being graduates of the Test.  They took no prisoners;  losing or being captured indicated weakness and the only mercy shown was a quick death.

            In the afternoon sun, with its illusion of warmth, Jim hoped that such mercy would not have to be called upon.  He knew Bob and John considered him half crazy already to venture into the lowlands like this, and themselves completely insane for going along.  However, Bob saw a faint hope in the plan for his younger brother, and John went because Bob was going.

            Jim needed to talk with his father, and to do it without getting himself killed doing it.  He suffered no delusions as to what their fate would be if discovered by Townsmen.  Luckily, his parents lived outside the walls of their Town cluster.

            He had learned much of his father in the last three and a half years.  Noticing that Bob had dropped off to sleep, Jim turned his head to stare upwards, recollecting that first day of the Test.




            The two walked away from the Registration Center towards the gate.  Outside and one quarter of the way around the wall was Jim’s home.  But he was not going there;  he was sixteen years old, it was spring, and he was to begin the Test.

            “Remember what you’ve learned, boy.”  They stopped before the large wooden gate framed by two watchtowers, manned by lookouts as were the other ten evenly spaced along the wall enclosing the cluster.  “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders there.  Use it and you’ll make it back as an Adult.”

            Outside the portal and monitored by the Priest, ten other boys of Jim’s age waited awkwardly, engaged in nervous conversation with their fathers.  In dress, they were all very similar.  Each wore buckskin trousers and pullover shirts of heavy cloth.  Their jackets were of tanned leather, held closed at the waist by belts from which hung suspended their individual knives.  These ranged from the basic heavy bladed hunting knife to Jim’s long-knife, an exact duplicate of his father’s.  All wore calfskin boots laced up over their trouser legs to just below the knees.  The only difference between Jim and the other boys was that, in addition to the bows they all possessed, he carried the rifle taken off a dead man eight years before.

            Standing in the morning’s light, Bill Mathews rested his hand on his son’s shoulder.  He searched the boy’s face, seeing the as yet unrealized hardness buried just beneath the surface of calm acceptance.

            “Come back to us, boy.  There’s a lot to talk about between you and me.”  Slanting his eyes briefly at the Priest, Bill Mathews’ face reflected a vague doubt until his iron self-control regained its hold.

            Jim had been well trained by his father to detect breaks in a pattern, its possibly being the difference between life and death.  His father had broken a pattern; he expressed, in his eyes and tone of voice, disapproval of the Test.

            “Pa, isn’t the Test right?”  Jim kept his voice pitched low, for what he asked bordered on blasphemy.  He watched the older man closely for any sign of betrayal.

            He waited, but with no immediate response it was answer enough for the boy.  His father was a rock.  He seemed to believe in the Test, yet now he wavered.  Something was not right.  Finally, Bill Mathews made a decision.  His voice was also low, but it carried a firm conviction, much anger, and a hint of relief.

            “Boy, the Test is wrong, but I’ll be damned if I know what to do about it.”




            It started over a thousand years before with a world severely overpopulated.  Hunger-bred riots spread across the globe like a reincarnated bubonic plague;  a frustrated reaction to the governments’ increasing inability to cope with massive food shortages.  As the riots grew in frequency and violence, the repressions which followed were even bloodier.  Like infectious sores, wars erupted within and between neighboring countries, ending in massacres and festering, short-lived regimes.

            The world was going mad.

            As has happened many times in the past, the chaos gave rise to a twisted genius of oratory, a social scientist who would have been quietly ignored in a saner era.  His message was the spark, the word of God used once again for a misguided purpose.

            “This is the Lord's Test!  Let the world burn!  Only those who are strong - those who are fit to survive - only they shall live!  LET THE WORLD BURN!!!”

            And the world burned.

            In the maniacal destruction that ensued, billions died, senselessly killing one another until they too were struck down.  It went beyond even the major world powers’ capability to contain and suppress.  They were toppled, and their successors were toppled, and their successors.

            A nuclear holocaust had been Man’s nightmare for two hundred years.  Yet, ironically, Armageddon came and went without one mushroom cloud rising to stain the atmosphere.

            The madness lasted a year, but the famine that followed endured for five.  By that time, the world population had been reduced to a few million starving souls.  The one or two cities still intact were abandoned as the technology required to keep them functioning perished in the daily hand-to-mouth struggle for survival.

            Organized religion died ion the conflagration, but another rose to take its place.  It was a cult whose priests were the disciples of the madman’s words.  He himself survived the immediate devastation only to propagate a further insanity.  From a world psyche still numb from the havoc wrought, he molded a new civilization.  His was the voice, the only voice offering hope, and the people listened as if hypnotized.

            He envisaged a human race of supermen and intended a Test to further weed out from the survivors those still unsuitable to live and breed in this coming age.  As children approached Adulthood, age sixteen being arbitrarily decided upon, they were to be driven out of their homes and told to survive for four years.  This Test was to last one hundred years, at which time Mankind, having purged itself of its impurities, would progress according to his outline towards eventual Utopia.

            Unfortunately, although he lived through the world’s insanity, he did not survive his own.  He killed himself before finishing his outline.  It was found tear stained near his body, and went only as far as the test.

            With a mind-shattered docility, the people followed the dictates of his fanatic disciples.  Technology was dead within ten years, and with it communication ceased.  But the spore had already spread to take root everywhere.  The population dropped sharply again as many of the children starved or simply gave themselves up to be killed.  Then, those remaining began to fight back.

            Within one hundred years, the Test was an integral part of all societies.  In what had once been the United States, the people settled on the coastlines, clustered about small towns near the sea.  Very few lived in the interior.  With no population urge to migrate, the mountains were once more an effective barrier.  And, although there were occasional flare-ups, the raids and fighting between Town clusters tapered off and all but disappeared as their destructive energies were channeled by the Priests towards the youth of the Test.  Hunted out of the eastern lowlands, the children organized themselves into Packs and sought refuge in the mountains.  There, they engaged in a perennial warfare among themselves that slowed only in winter.

            Theirs was a savage struggle to survive and pass the Test, for a harsh morality had been imposed by the Priests.  No person could marry or have children until they were proven Adults, death the price of transgression.

            Over the next two hundred years, the madman had been forgotten and only shadowy legends existed about his time.  His words were continued, but the reasons behind them vanished.

            Progress was extremely slow because of the unreasoning fear that it would lead to another world doom.  It was a further two hundred years before gunpowder was rediscovered and approved by the Council of Man.  Feeling that any further advancements would unleash the same evil that caused the world’s undoing centuries earlier, the Council halted firearm development at the rifled musket.  Those who attempted any change without the Council’s approval were labeled heretics and killed directly.  Lesser offenses were punished by exile, a slower death it turned out because the guilty party was placed outside the law, as the children of the Test were, and could be hunted as such.

            The last major decision of the Council of Man was take the females out of the Test.  The population had been continuing to decline steadily, so the modification was considered necessary.  During the course of the next four hundred years, no new Town clusters were built.  The population still shrank, albeit very slowly, but the culture remained time-locked and static.




            Stunned by his father’s blasphemous outburst, the boy walked speechless to join his compatriots outside the gate.  He knew that for his own question he risked exile, but a chill coursed through his body as he realized his father faced death for his answer if it had been overheard.

            As if he had read their minds, the Priest turned a sour face to the approaching pair.  When he sighted the rifle in Jim’s hands, he drew himself up in righteous indignation.

            “You know the rules!  You all know the rules!  No firearms.  He must survive on his own skills.  You would give him an unfair advantage?”

            He had addressed the assembled youth, leveling a baleful eye on all, finishing his remarks facing Bill Mathews.  Without waiting for an answer, the Priest turned to the boy and extended his hand to take the rifle, by this time cradled in Jim’s left arm.

            “Last man tried taking a gun away from the boy is dead now, Priest.”  His voice calm and quiet, Bill Mathew’s observation was delivered in a flat, matter of fact tone.

            The Priest froze, his hand still outstretched, as he locked eyes with the boy and found himself locked tight in their cold grip!  He was made undeniably aware of his own mortality in those still blue orbs.  He was looking into the eyes of a mountain lion the moment before it sprang.  After what was almost an eternity, the Priest withdrew his hand.

            “He took that rifle off a man he killed in combat, Priest.  I figure he's entitled to it.”

            “Yes.  Yes, of course.”  Still shaken, the Priest smiled in poisonous acceptance.  Recovering his composure, he faced the gathered boys.

            “You are all sixteen years of age.  If you are to become Adults in our society, you must be found fit to survive.  If you are, you will return in the spring of your twentieth year to take your place among us.  You have food for a week and weapons.”  He paused ever so slightly to glare at Jim.  “You will have until sunrise tomorrow, then the hunt begins.  Go now!”

            Jim stood a long minute before his father.  Then, shaking his hand, he said, “I’ll be back, pa.  Don’t worry.”  He smiled, turned, and jogged after the others.

            Under his breath, Bill Mathews murmured, “I don’t know, boy.”

            They moved towards the mountains at an easy trot.  Jim felt slightly uncomfortable in the group, for his father had rigorously trained him to depend only upon his own capabilities.  But he knew these other boys, although none were close to him.  And, he reasoned, their numbers might be advantageous should they be attacked.

            They reached the mountains after three weeks of broken hiking with the loss of only two boys.  Joining one of the Packs, Jim’s first day proved nearly to be his last.  In a quick study of the Pack, he noted that all of the very few rifles were held by the older members.  Jim was the only novice to arrive with one.

            He had been seated on a rock talking with Frank, the Pack leader.  Frank, a tough individual of nineteen who would graduate in the spring, had been swift to notice the deference paid Jim by the boys of his Town cluster.  What made it puzzling was Jim’s seeming indifference to it.  In sounding him out, Frank found Jim to be no threat to his own leadership;  he wanted only to be left alone.

            There are bullies in any group, and in the Pack it happened to be a swaggering tough who wanted a rifle.  Seeing Jim’s, he figured to take it with little or no protest.  Strutting over to stand before Jim, he demanded the weapon.

            “Nobody’s taking my rifle,” said Jim, squinting up briefly before resuming his conversation with Frank.  His rifle had been grounded, butt down between his legs.  His only action, other than the negligent response, had been to shift it to lie in the crook of his left arm.

            “Back off, Joe.  He’ll kill you.”  Frank, sensing something very deadly in this newcomer, had been trying to head off a fight.

            Startled, Joe straightened up.  Not to be put off and not knowing when he was outclassed, he found his voice and challenged Jim.

            Frank shook his head and sighed.  Smiling sadly, he clapped Jim on the shoulder.  “Well, kid, looks like you got it to prove.  It’s with knives.  You ready?”

            Jim nodded and handed the rifle over to the Pack leader, then stepped into the cleared area.  Joe already stood there, feet spread, knees bent, and a wide-bladed hunting knife gripped in his right hand.  Jim drew his long-knife, letting it hang down alongside his right thigh, then waited nonchalantly.

            “Kid, one other thing.  It’s to the death.”  Frank stepped back and shrugged.  “It’s how things are done up here.”  With a curious reluctance, he signed for the fight to begin.

            Enraged at Jim’s calm composure, Joe charged, aiming a wicked backhand slash at the younger boy’s head.  Standing motionless until the last split-second, Jim ducked under the swing and slammed his left fist into Joe’s midsection.  Doubled up in agony, Joe dropped to his knees.  Jim yanked him to his feet, then spun him around to face the Pack.   Holding Joe by the hair, Jim jerked his head back to expose the throat.

            “I told you, nobody’s taking my rifle,” he hissed.  Then, with one quick stroke, he ended any desire Joe might ever have for the weapon.

            The battle had been concluded with such speed that Joe was dead before many realized it had even started.  Jim’s cold eyes raked the silent crowd before he stooped to wipe his bladed on Joe’s shirt.  His words had not been spoken loudly, but they had carried.

            Frank stepped up, glancing distastefully at the corpse, and handed the rifle back to Jim.  “Nice bit of work there, kid.  Welcome to our happy family.”  He smiled again and held out his hand.

            Jim stayed with the Pack for a year and during that time was never challenged again.

            With the exception of Frank, he remained aloof from the Pack.  The leader was very much intrigued with Jim as they were so much alike in fighting skills and command, but opposite in almost all other respects.  Jim preferred operating alone as scout or hunter, where Frank enjoyed the company of others and, more importantly, leading those others.

            Yet, throughout the summer and fall seasons, Jim had proved himself an able field commander;  a decisive tactician with concern for those in his care, he displayed an utter ruthlessness towards his enemies.  Several times on hunting expeditions, his group was attacked by other Packs with superior numbers.  In each case, he lead his troops in cunning counterattacks and was victorious every time.  But, his increasing harshness with each new attack made even his own Pack fear him.

            With the slowed pace of winter, Jim had time to think.  He was disenchanted with the Pack existence, but unsure of the reason.  And the Test itself was a large question mark posed by his father.

            “Kid, you oughta go Solitary.”  It was snowing hard outside the shelter of their cave, the swirling whiteness swallowed the world without.  Frank was seated beside Jim near the entrance.  The boy eyed Frank carefully because he knew Solitaries were generally not welcomed by the Pack.

            An uneasy trade was haphazardly maintained in which Solitaries bartered game for the powder and shot produced in limited quantities by the Packs.  But, with no trust on either side, and with Packs more often than not hunting the Solitaries, spilled blood was the most common exchange.

            “No, I’m not trying to get rid of you.  But you don’t really belong here, and we both know it.”

            Jim nodded slowly in agreement.  It matched his own thinking.  With his chin, he pointed back down the cave to the others gathered about the fire.  “What about them?  They’d kill me for going Solitary.  At least, they’d try to.”  They both chuckled.

            “Yeah, I know.  But, if I say so, they’ll leave you alone.”

            They sat silently listening to the wind howling outside.  There was a primitive comfort in the sound, perhaps because of the relative security of the cave.

            “Kid, I kinda understand these Solitaries, even if I choose not to live their way of life.  The Packs don’t like then because they’re different.  And because they’re different, they’re often hunted and killed.  I just figure Solitaries see the Test from another angle.  They see it …”

            “As a Test of the individual,” Jim interrupted.  He waved a negligent hand to encompass the Pack.  “Not like this!”

            “Don’t knock it, kid,” snapped Frank sharply.  “Think on it awhile.  We’re just like those folks back in the clusters.  Back there, we live in well ordered communities as groups of families working together.  People just can’t help it.  We like to live around others like us, and it’s the same up here, Jim.  It’s human nature, I suppose, to draw together to face trouble.”

            “What about Solitaries?  Where do they fit in?”

            “I’m not sure exactly.  Maybe they don’t like people, or maybe it’s the Test.  Whatever, most of ‘em just want to go their own way.”

            Jim did not tell Frank of his decision to go Solitary in the spring.  Perhaps he hadn’t needed to.  But, he was fascinated by the conversation as it probed his doubts and answered his questions.

            “Why do the Packs hate Solitaries?”

            “Like I said, maybe it’s ‘cause they’re different.  It’s the same down there as it is up here.  Anyone who doesn’t fit in with the group is a threat to the group, that sort of thing.  You buck the system, you’re killed or exiled, which is just about the same thing.”

            Jim thought about that day at the gate and nodded.

            “Make’s sense,” concurred Jim at last.  “You seem to have given this a lot of thought.”

            With a wan smile, Frank replied, “Yeah, I guess I have.  You got plenty of time for it up here in winter.”

            “You don’t consider Solitaries a threat?”

            “Not as them bein’ Solitaries, no.  I fight back against them if they attack my hunting parties, but I don’t go hunting them like some Packs do.  I’d rather trade with ‘em.”  He paused a moment.  “For the most part, they leave us, the Packs that is, alone.  They have their way of life and we have ours.  There doesn’t have to be the hate!”

            Standing up, Frank stretched the kinks out of his back.  Taking a couple of steps towards the fire, he stopped and said over his shoulder, “Think on it, kid.”

            Jim had listened to the sounds of the retreating footsteps.  He had had much to consider.

            With the approach of spring, Jim watched the older boys jockey for power, to see who would emerge as leader when Frank departed for graduation.  Jim had been sought out as a contender several times by some of the younger boys, mostly those who had fought at his side.  He had quietly refused for two reasons.  The first, the one he told them, was that there would be too much jealousy due to his relative youth.  The second, the real reason, was that he was leaving.

            Privately, he knew he could have handled any dissension that might have arisen from the older boys.  But, administrating a whole Pack in the interminable daily routines was also what made a good leader.  Jim liked his freedom too much to give himself up to what he considered a mammoth task.  He knew Frank had thrived on it and was, accordingly, an excellent leader.

            The internal struggle had resolved itself until there remained only two contenders, both good fighters, upon which the Pack was evenly divided in their support.  Before knives could be drawn to resolve the matter, Frank had stepped between them.

            “Listen to me for a minute!  I don’t want to see either one of killed.”

            The two fighters backed up warily, keeping each other and Frank in their view.  Satisfied, the Pack leader had waited for the excited chatter to fade before proceeding.

            “You are my friends.  All of you are my friends!”  His eyes rested briefly upon Jim, who went instantly on guard.  “I’ve enjoyed leading you guys, and I don’t think I’ve done too badly.”

            There were muted sounds of agreement from the crowd of thirty or so boys.

            “We had enough food for winter, so nobody starved.  And the other Packs all pretty much leave us alone now.  We have more rifles and ammo than  them, and we haven’t had to move around as much.  Hell, we’ve even been able to plant a few crops!”

            Everyone was beginning to join in the agreement as Frank pressed home his argument.  Jim had been starting to see where he was headed and was uncomfortably aware that so did the two contenders for Frank’s position.  They were not smiling.

            “There is nothing waiting for me down there.  This is my life.  And it can be yours as well!  Let me remain as Pack leader and soon none of us will have to go back!”

            In the space of a heartbeat, it was as if an Arctic wind had whistled through them all.  Smiles hung frozen on faces suddenly devoid of friendliness.  Jim noticed several of the younger boys were thoughtful, but even they were carried to their feet in an ugly surge of rejection.

            Before Frank could protest, before Jim could react, two shots cracked and Frank was down.  In the hush that followed, one word cut through.


            Jim’s eyes swept the crowd, causing them to instantly recoil from their icy fury.  Stepping through the opening, his desire to kill just barely held in check, he approached the still breathing Pack leader and knelt down beside him.

            “It … it could’ve worked, kid.”  His words came out in a weak whisper, but he gripped Jim’s arm with iron fingers.

            “Too much … too fast …”  He died with those words on his lips.

            Rising, Jim turned to stride purposefully back through the crowd that once again opened before him.  Gathering his weapons and trail rations, he cast one last contemptuous glance at the assemblage, then headed out of camp.  The April sun had warmed his back through the cool breeze still left over from winter.




            The long day was slowly drawing to an end.  Jim and Bob had both dozed off and on for the past couple of hours.  Neither had felt rested.

            It was strange, Jim reflected, that of the three, John should be able to drop so completely into slumber.  It must be the comfort of ignorance or, more probably, he had already given himself up for dead.  Jim intended to live, however;  giving up never entered his mind.  And, he still had the promise to his father to fulfill.

            When he had become a Solitary, not having the protection of any Pack, Jim was fair game for anybody.  As a consequence, he increasingly relied upon and developed his instincts and skills as a woodsman.

            He spent the warm seasons exploring.  He found high mountain valleys cut by clear, bubbling streams.  Animals were numerous and of many kinds, not all of which were timid.  Twice he had close brushes with wolves, and once a bear almost had him for a meal.

            He was exhilarated!  Life down below, even in the Pack, was far away and stifling now.  He knew he would never again live in the cluster.  From Frank, he had heard of Adult Solitaries, considered renegades by nearly everyone.  He understood them now as Frank never had.

            In his wanderings, he came across one long, wild valley beyond the mountains.  He tramped through the few crumbling ruins of long forgotten towns from a time when the earth was young.

            “Maybe the world did burn once, like the Priests say,” he muttered to himself, shivering at the vague dread felt in the dead places.

            He roamed the mountains that rose from the opposite side of the valley and found no recent sign of man.  With the fall, he turned back to the eastern mountains.

            In the winter, like other Solitaries, he sometimes raided Pack hunting parties for food and ammunition, always in short supply.  But, as he had been doing for months, he mainly used snares and his bow to bring down game.

            Jim met other Solitaries, sharing supplies and conversation with them.  Most were like him;  old and young, they had broken from the mold and would no longer fit into the Town cluster way of life.  They discussed the Test and, from most of the Adult Solitaries he had come across, he heard again his father’s words that it was wrong.  One in particular spent several days with the youngster.

            “I go back every once in a while, son,” explained George Munro, a tall, white haired Solitary.  He eased back away from the fire and chewed on a piece of rabbit.  “Maybe to see if it’s changed or something.  It never has and I figure it never will.  ‘Cept for once thing - there aren’t as many folks around as there were when I was your age.”

            “You think the Test is killing ‘em off?”

            “Mostly.  But there’s also the types like you and me who just don’t want to go back.  Then, there’s some of us that go back anyway.”  He caught the boy’s questioning look and, squinting his brown eyes through tangled brows, he smiled.  “Your pa must’ve found that woman, son.”

            Jim almost spilled his soup.  “You knew my pa?”

            “Well, if his name’s Bill Mathews, I should say so.  We were partners for about a year before he went back.  Said there was a girl, somethin’ special.  From the looks of you, he found her.”

            “He was a Solitary, too?”

            “Yep.  About the best I’ve seen.  And, he carried a long-knife like that one there.  Said it was special, and I never saw anyone else with its like.”  George wiped his hands on the ground, then brushed off the dirt.  “You must have your ma’s good looks, son, but you handle yourself like your pa.  And only he would give you a knife like that.”

            From George, the boy learned of the side his father had never shared with him.  Jim realized that, without telling him, his father had been preparing him to become a Solitary.

            George and Jim worked well as a team, the boy picking up subtleties in the art of survival that come only from living continuously on the edge.  George, on the other hand, felt in Jim’s abilities the hand of his old friend.

            It was a fluke that caused Jim to be injured.  The two had been tracking a buck when it disappeared into the thick brush.  Splitting up, Jim entered the stand to either kill the deer or drive it out to George.  There was very little room to maneuver, so Jim left his rifle behind and took only his bow.  His long-knife was with him as it always was, but tied down to his leg for this stalk.

            He worked his way in slowly, an arrow nocked and ready.  Moving almost without a sound, he sniffed the air for any hint of his quarry and scanned the ground for spoor.  He couldn’t see it, but everything in him shouted that the animal was close by.

            Then he saw the buck!  It was only a quick movement of tan, otherwise invisible, that alerted him.  Keeping downwind, Jim haltingly inched into position for a clear shot.  With the tangled branches and tightly packed trees, he had to be very close.

            Finally, he pulled back the bowstring, his thumb just grazing his chin at full draw.  Feeding in a small clearing, the eight-point buck was wary, his head rising nervously to sniff the air for predators.  Jim’s arm began to tremble as he froze in place.  Then the buck dropped his head back down to crop the grass.

            Twang!  The audible thud of the arrow’s impact followed the release so closely it blended into one sound.  The deer leaped once, then crumpled.

            Nocking another arrow and pulling to a half-draw, Jim stepped out into the clearing.  As he neared the animal, his foot slipped on a pebble, causing him to drop the arrow as he reflexively through out his arms.  At the same instant, the buck, in a last convulsive effort, rose and lunged at the boy.

            Jim dropped the useless bow and tried to dodge out of the way, but antlers raked his leg before he could get clear.  He pulled his long-knife and rolled to his back to face the next charge.  But the deer, its last spark of life expended, had collapsed, this time for good.  With the relief had come the sudden realization of tremendous pain in his leg.

            By the time George managed to reach him, the boy had packed moss and leaves into the deep laceration, wrapped the leg with strips from his ruined trousers, and secured them with lengths of rawhide string.  He was unconscious, but had dragged himself up against the deer’s carcass before passing out.  He still gripped the long-knife in his fist.

            Jim wandered in and out of delirium for a full day and night.  During one short period of lucidity, he noted that George had changed the dressing on his wound.  He no longer felt any pain, just a dull, distant ache.

            George’s face appeared at infrequent intervals only to change, to soften.  Jim was vaguely conscious of the older man reassuring him, but his voice was higher somehow, lilting and familiar.  Her blue eyes were moist with concern, comforting him.

            Jim slept.

            He had finally awakened to the sun’s touch on his face.  His leg was still stiff, but he felt much better.  George would not let him move around much for the next two days, so with food nearby and no need to hunt, the two had plenty of time for conversation.

            “I don’t know why it started or when,” said George, reclining against a tree opposite Jim.  “Maybe it was right a long time ago, I don’t know.  But now it’s just slowly killing us off.  Anything like that, something that doesn’t serve any useful purpose now, it should be stopped.  Question is, how?”

            Jim did not know either, but he was beginning to get an idea.  It was still very hazy;  he needed time to think it through.  And he needed to sound out other Solitaries.

            Over the next two years, he did just that.  As time passed, his idea emerged from the fog of uncertainty into the clear daylight of understanding.  There was another way!  He would have to fight deep seated, iron-hard custom, but with the proper tools, he could do it.

            George was not the only person who remembered Bill Mathews.  It was a name well known and respected among the older Solitaries in the high country.  It made Jim aware that he needed to talk with his father.

            He decided, however, to wait until he was close to graduation before attempting contact.  He figured it might smooth things over if he had proved himself first.  The boy himself could no longer support a system of slow self-genocide, but however much he felt that his father also disagreed with the Test, the fact remained that Bill Mathews had gone back.  He would have to be careful broaching the subject.

            Jim’s own name was also becoming known, both among the Solitaries and the Packs.  With the latter, it was not universally popular, but the respect was there nonetheless.

            Apparently, he had raided the hunting camps of one particular Pack too often.  These raids had not been all one-sided affairs;  he had been shot, cut up, and pursued on more than one occasion.  He held no personal animosity toward this Pack, or any other for that matter.  Need and risk were simply weighed against each other and, if one justified the other, he went in.

            This Pack, however, went too far.  They sent out a hunting party with Jim as the prey and, in doing so, became his enemy.  He had never gone into any raid with the expressed intention of killing anyone - it happened, of course, but only when no other recourse was open to him.  Jim dealt mercilessly with the hunters;  there were no rules in this kind of battle and only one winner - the last one alive!

            Night after terrifying night, sneaking into their camps past the sentries, Jim killed with his long-knife.  After three nights, and with only six boys left, they were ready to quit the chase and return to their Pack.  They were not allowed to, not all of them.  He let the last one live, to return carrying the warning, just three words - “Leave me alone!”

            The Pack leader was stubborn and could swallow this insult.  He sent another party, stronger than the last.  It took a little longer, but the results were the same.  Only, when the lone survivor stumbled back with the same warning, he also brought a sack containing the severed heads of the hunting party.  When the leader tried for one last attempt, his people killed him.

            And Jim was left alone.




            At dusk, the wind dropped until it was completely still.  A few stars began to light the cloudless sky, the promise of crystalline beauty wrapped in a frozen velvet.  Jim could appreciate the effect, even when it was offset by a harsh reality - dirty patches of brittle snow littered the forest floor.

            He felt so alone there among the solitary trees, stripped and scarred by countless bitter northwinds.  He identified with them;  one among many, yet separate.  It had become his strength.

            In the twilight, each tree assumed a twisted nightmare shape of his youth, but without the fear.  They were old friends now.  In the morning, they would return to simple tress again, waiting patiently for spring’s caress.  They sustained winter after long winter, ever resurrected to green life, only occasionally losing the battle.  But even then they would return to the soil and begin anew.

            John awoke and broke the melancholy spell with more prosaic complaints of cold and hunger.  He kept it up until Bob grabbed a fistful of his jacket and jerked him close.

            “Kid, you don’t shut up,” hissed the older brother, “I’ll cut you loose to starve!  Got it?”

            Jim looked across Bob to fix John with an icy glare.  “I’ll do more than that.  I’ll cut your throat.”  There was no doubt in John’s mind but that Jim would do exactly as he had promised.  John nodded glumly, was released, and lay back down.

            It was something barely perceptible that impinged on Jim’s consciousness.  His eyes snapped open as he strained to recall it.  It could have been his imagination, spurred by a hunger induced light-headiness, but he was not willing to gamble on it.  He had survived this long by trusting his instincts, even above what his senses told him.  Glancing over at Bob, Jim saw that he too was vaguely uncomfortable.

            “Something’s coming.”

            Bob nodded his concurrence and poked his brother, motioning him to silence.  It was another minute before they heard it.

            Voices!  Still far away, but growing louder.

            Since John was near the tree roots, and therefore in a better position to observe without being seen, Jim signed for him to do so.  John kept his head near the ground and peered through the roots in the direction indicated.  He stiffened and pulled back immediately.  Managing to stifle the urge to cry out, he was just able to use his fingers to report four men with rifles headed in their direction.  He mouthed the word ‘Adult’.

            Controlling his frustration, Jim considered the tactical situation.  Four Adults, probably out hunting.  Evening was coming on and it was still pretty far to the cluster.  They were going to take shelter for the night and, mentally recalling the surrounding terrain, he knew with a sick anger where the best shelter was to be found.

            And, it was already occupied.

            The irony was not lost on Jim.  Here they were, waiting on nightfall before moving in order to avoid Adults.  Now, because of nightfall, they were about to be discovered.

            The approaching voices reached them clearly in the cold stillness.  The Adults were confident of their being safe from attack this deep in the lowlands.  But there was no excuse for this complete lack of caution.

            Wasting no further time on self-recrimination, Jim signed for them to be ready.  He indicated that their first volley would be with arrows, Jim taking the lead man.  Bob would hit the next closest and John the one furthest away.  The last man belonged to whichever boy could grab a rifle the fastest.  Jim hoped the sudden, unexpected assault this close to their cluster would paralyze the Adults for those few precious seconds needed - but he didn’t count on it.

            Looking past a grim-faced Bob, Jim realized their youngest partner was close to panic.  John was shaking uncontrollably and could not get a grip on his bow.  Tears streamed down his cheeks.

            “He doesn’t belong here with us,” thought Jim.  He drew his long-knife, leaned over and placed the point against John’s neck.  Seeing the deadly message in Jim’s face, John slowly regained some control of himself and was able to nock an arrow after several attempts.  Closing his eyes momentarily, he opened them and nodded halfheartedly.

            Jim sheathed the knife.  Still keeping low, he passed his own rifle over to the frightened boy.  After an instant’s hesitation, John laid his bow aside and took the proffered weapon.  Jim smiled and leaned back into position.  He had three arrows on the ground beside him and one ready on his bow.

            In the few remaining seconds of peace, Jim released his anger and frustration, channeled them carefully into ice cold hate.  The seconds slowed in anticipation, every move clear in Jim’s head.  His universe extended now just several feet;  his life had no past, no future, only the present.

            When he estimated the Adults to be about ten feet away, Jim gave the signal.  All three boys rose up onto one knee, John a little slowly, then drew and released after a quick aim.  Jim’s arrow buried itself in the chest of his man.  Feeling he was moving with incredible slowness, he reached for a second arrow, then a third.  Somewhere after the last arrow, a rifle roared, its echo fading into silence.

            All four Adults were down.  Total surprise had been achieved.  Jim and Bob had both dropped back down behind the tree to grab their rifles.

            “I’ve never seen anyone move so fast,” confessed Bob, staring at Jim.  “I didn’t even get a chance to shoot a second arrow.”

            Jim shrugged, feeling his return to the larger universe, one that perhaps now contained a future.  He turned to reach for his rifle, then remembered that John had it.  And John was no longer behind the tree with them!

            The young boy was walking towards the bodies in a slight daze.  Jim guessed it must have seemed like something miraculous to have actually killed Adults.  As he stood over one body, probably the one he shot, it suddenly rolled over and brought a rifle to bear.  John reacted quickly, jerking his weapon up into firing position and pulling the trigger.

            Nothing happened.  He had not reloaded and could now only watch in horror as the Adult’s rifle lined up on him.  Before any of the others could act, John was blown off his feet, shot through the heart.  In a rage, Bob leaped over the tree trunk, raced to his brother’s body, then turned to face the fallen Adult.  Even had he wanted to, Jim did not think he could have stopped him.  The grieving boy walked over to the wounded man, pulled out his knife and, staring into his face the entire time, cut his throat.  Jim gave this to the Adult, he never begged for mercy or showed fear.

            When they had calmed down enough to take stock of their situation, they stripped the dead men of their ammo and trail rations.  The rations would be sufficient to last the two of them for several days, especially on their shrunken stomachs.

            Bob wanted to bury his brother, but there was no time.  The ground was still too hard and Jim was worried the shots might have been heard.  They could not take the chance, they had to leave quickly and Bob understood that.

            The two were finishing their gather when Jim got a strange feeling.  Living in the wild, fair game for anybody, he knew the sensation of being watched.  But this went beyond even that;  he was being watched sure enough, but down the end of a gun barrel.

            Jim dove behind the tree trunk an instant before the gunshot cracked.  The bullet struck where he had been standing only a moment before.  Looking around, he noticed that Bob too had gone to ground.

            There had been only four in the party, of that Jim was sure.  This had to be someone else, a lone hunter perhaps.  They could not wait to let him come to them like the others because if anyone from the cluster was on their way to investigate the shots, they would arrive soon.  They had to go out after him.

            Jim had a rough idea where he was, or at least where the shot had come from, so he crawled back further into the woods until he could stand up behind a tree.  He knew Bob would be doing the same thing from wherever he was.  Jim circled slowly, darting from tree to tree.

            Another shot, the bullet shattering a branch above Jim’s head.  The hunter had moved and still Jim had not seen him.  Whoever was out there was as good a woodsman as he had ever run across.  He continued to circle, however, trying to outguess their stalker.  Jim heard Bob’s rifle and an answering shot.

            There, he had finally spotted him!  Bob’s shot had distracted the man, and that was all Jim needed.  He began to close in as the brush and trees were too thick to give him the clear shot he needed.  Jim knew he was up against an experienced hunter and fully expected that, at any moment, there would come a brief blinding pain, then nothingness.

            The hunter must have realized Jim was onto him because the late afternoon grew deathly quiet.  In the stillness, Jim waited, his one advantage was the fact that the hunter did not know exactly where he was.  Jim watched for tree branches moving the wrong way, a bird to fly up startled, anything!  It was growing darker, and this time Jim did not think the darkness would be his friend.

            Then he saw it!  A shadow where previously there had been none.  Jim slowly raised his rifle to get a shot.  His movement, careful as it was, must have been enough to alert his opponent.

            The hunter fired, the bullet clipping the tree beside Jim.  The boy returned fire at the muzzle flash in the shadow and was rewarded with a grunt of pain.  Jim quickly reloaded and worked his way around behind the hunter’s position.

            In the faint twilight, Jim could see the man lying on his back in a small hollow of rocks.  He could not tell how badly he had been hit, or if he had even been hit at all.  Hesitating only a moment, Jim leaped into the hollow with his rifle ready.

            From his breathing and the blood trickling onto his chest, the man was still alive.  Jim kicked the rifle away from the man’s hands and went about checking for other weapons.  Bob appeared out of the shadows just as Jim found the Adult’s knife.

            It was a long-knife!

            The man had been in darkness this whole time, so Jim moved him to look upon his face.  It was his father.  No wonder it had been so hard to get him.  Evaluating the wound, Jim found it to be a shoulder injury, more bloody than serious.  He began to clean it.

            “What the hell’re you doing?” growled Bob, reaching for his knife.  His voice was charged with emotion;  hate and anger boiling over in the loss of his brother.  “Kill him!  Or let me kill him!”

            “No.  This man’s my father.  No one’s going to kill him.”  Jim continued to dress the wound.  The bleeding had stopped and the man was conscious.  It took him a few minutes to recognize his own son.

            “Well, boy, you’ve learned a lot.”  Even with the pain in his shoulder, Bill Mathew’s voice was clear and steady.  “What’re you aiming to do?”

            “Get you fixed up, pa.”

            “No!” shouted Bob, losing control.  “I say we kill him!  Here and now!”

            “Nobody’s going to kill him, Bob,” replied Jim, deliberately keeping his voice calm in an effort to stem Bob’s anger.  He had foolishly left his rifle out of reach when he had moved his father, a lapse he regretted.

            “He’s an Adult!  They’re the enemy!  He’d kill us in a heartbeat!”

            “Maybe.  But he’s not the enemy.  The system is!  He doesn’t believe in the Test.  He thinks it’s wrong.”  At least, Jim hoped he still did.

            “He tried to kill us!  Kill you!”

            “All he knew was that we were intruders who had just killed men from his cluster.”

            Jim knew he was going to have to kill Bob.  He felt it at that moment.  The other had lost all control, letting his grief blind him to their purpose.  And, old habits die hard in regards to the Test.  Adults had been the enemy to generations of children of the Test.

            His back was to Bob as he worked on his father.  Jim felt a long-knife pressed into his left hand, his body shielding the action.  It was his father’s knife.

            As Bob leaped, Jim whirled on his left knee.  With no chance to rise, he thrust from a kneeling stance, the long-knife entering Bob in the solar plexus.  Bob’s own knife left a long scratch down Jim’s arm.  Throwing off the body, Jim withdrew the long-knife, wiped it on Bob’s jacket, and returned it to his father.

            “What makes you so sure I won’t use this on you, boy?”  The point of the knife was an inch from Jim’s abdomen.  “You’re still in the Test, you know.”

            “Once, you told me the Test was wrong.  If you’re a liar, you’ll go ahead and kill me.  If not, put that thing away and let me finish.”

            Bill Mathews looked up at his son and smiled.  He slid the knife back into its sheath, then lay still while Jim completed the dressing.  By the time he was done, twilight had surrendered to near total darkness.  The moon would rise in another two hours, but for now everything was enveloped in a dim, starlit blackness stirred by a rising breeze.  With a part of his concentration, Jim listened for any sound of a relief party.

            “You’re safe for the time bein’, boy,” reassured the elder Mathews, sensing his son’s worry.  “Even if someone did hear those shots, they won’t investigate tonight.  In the morning, though, they’ll come lookin’.”

            “I’ll be gone by then.  How about you.  You expected back tonight?”

            “Yeah, but no one but your ma will be concerned.”  It was spoken with bitterness.

            “Way it is.  No one much likes us Solitaries.”  The boy grinned as he felt his father stiffen in alarm, then relax.  “By the way, pa, George Munro says you must’ve married a beautiful woman to have such a good looking boy.  I agreed with him, of course.”

            “George Munro?”  Astonishment was followed by a short laugh.  “That rascal’s still around, hunh?  I figure he would’ve been hung out to dry a long time ago.”

            “He said you were one of the best, pa.”

            “He said that?  Boy, he pulled trouble off me more times than I care to think about.”  Then, he abruptly changed the subject.  “Why’re you here, boy?  You don’t finish this blamed Test until spring.”

            “I was looking for you.  I needed to talk to you.”

            “Well, looks to me like we found each other.”  They both chuckled.

            “I’m not coming back, pa,” Jim whispered suddenly.

            “I didn't figure you would.  But why tell me?  You’re taking a big risk coming down here now.”

            “I’m here because of my word to you!  You said we should talk about the Test.  The day I started it, you told me it was wrong, but I didn’t really know what to make of it.  I mean, it went against everything I’d been taught.  But, I guess you were trying to protect me from the Priests by not bringing up your doubts before that.”  In the faint light, the boy saw his father nod.

            “Well, the first year, when I joined one of the Packs, I played the game.  I honestly didn’t think about the Test that much or what I could do about it until that winter.  I was still operating under the concept of duty;  the Test was a requirement, so I had to do it.

            “By winter, though, I had decided on going Solitary.  I kept quiet about it, of course, the Packs hating Solitaries the way they do.  Except for Frank.  He was our leader and a pretty good one.  He even suggested I go Solitary.”

            Jim fell silent a moment thinking back to his first friend.  “You see, he liked the Test the same way most Solitaries do, but from a Pack standpoint.  It was a good life for him.  He understood enough about Solitaries to know we have our ways, different from the Packs, but that it doesn’t have to be in opposition to them.  He felt there didn’t have to be any of the hate or conflict between the two.  I think he saw some mutual benefits that could’ve been had.”

            “Sounds like a smart kid, but a little ahead of his time.”

            “He was.”


            “He wasn’t really ahead of his time, just in the wrong place.  The changes he proposed would’ve made life easier for everyone and they killed him for it!”

            There was a barely restrained anger in the boy as he thought back to his friend butchered by a short-sighted, locked-step system.  It was the sharp bite of the leather wrapped long-knife handle in his white knuckled grip that brought him back to the present, facing his father.

            “He was for changing the Test, pa,” continued Jim softly, once more in control.  “Just like most Solitaries don’t go back, he didn’t want to either.  His aim was for the Packs to become completely self-sufficient, to the point where no one would need to go back.  He wanted the Packs, maybe the whole mountain culture, to become independent of the lowland.

            “His problem was in trying to use the Packs as his raw material.  They were too rigid to adapt or even think of adapting.  Just like most folks down here.  But there’s another group that’s more receptive.”

            “Receptive to what?”

            Jim took a deep breath, the nerve steadying breath of a hunter.  “I’m going to set up a community in the mountains.  A Town cluster made up of Solitaries.  I’ve talked with many of them, young and Adult, and they like it.  There’s enough that want to settle down and raise families, but on their own terms and not the Council’s.  And, it’ll be a secure base for those who still want to live as Solitaries.  Someplace where they can relax for a while and not worry about an ambush or getting their throats cut in their sleep.”

            “That’s quite a speech, boy.”  Bill Mathews struggled to a sitting position and hitched himself up against a tree trunk.  “But why are you telling me?  And what makes you think this plan of yours’ll work?”

            “Because we want you to be our leader.”

            “What?!”  Mathews jerked in surprise and was rewarded with a stab of pain in his shoulder.

            “Yes, sir.  You see, once when I was laid up with an injury, George and I did a lot of talking.  He told me how you organized the Solitaries for a season.  He said they all understood when you left to marry ma - it was something almost everyone of ‘em wanted deep down.  But, the main thing is, they still remember you, pa!  Your name is well known and respected.  We need you!”

            “Why don’t you lead, boy?  This seems to be your idea.”

            “It is, pa.  Mostly anyways.  And I can set it up.  But you can make it last!  You and ma.”  Jim watched his father carefully.  “You see, that’s the key.  Families!  Something to come home to, a home.  I’m not being noble, and I’d like you and ma up there in any case, but it’s you we’re counting on.  You know how to lead.  I just know how to fight and survive, and all of us need more than that if we’re going to grow into something worthwhile.  You started it, pa, back when you left for ma.”

            Leaving his father to consider the proposal, Jim finished gathering the ammo and trail rations of the dead men.  Standing over the lifeless form of John, he tried to visualize the boy as a Solitary and could not.  However, he did fit the image of a young man that one day would have become a useful member of a future society.  Returning in a pensive mood to the hollow and his father, he set about consolidating his supplies into one bundle.

            In the growing light of the rising moon, Jim dropped once more to sit across from his father.  He saw the pain lines etched in the man’s face matched by an icy deadliness in his eyes.  His visage that of a timber wolf seeking any weakness in an opponent, Bill Mathews finally spoke, “Boy, are you truly serious about committing this blasphemy?”

            Startled and instantly on guard, Jim wondered if his father had lived too long among the lowland folk to accept change.  His hand surreptitiously sought his long-knife.

            “Yes, sir, I’m very serious.”

            “And the Test?”

            “There will be no Test, pa.”

            Some of the ice began to melt.  “You understand you’ll be setting yourself against the Council, don’t you, boy?  They may try to hunt you down.”

            “It’s been tried before, pa,” grinned Jim.

            “They’ve just barely tolerated Adult Solitaries because they’re not thought of as a threat to the system.  This is, or it will be!”

            “Is it right for a father to kill his son, or a son to kill his father, for no other reason but that the Test says to?”  Jim desperately sought for the right words.  “Bob here was part of the change I’m talking about.  He was helping his brother to survive the Test.  He was supposed to let him make it on his own or die in the process.  But you know why he was doing it?  Because they were brothers.  For his brother, he was willing to break the rules.

            “Anyone who ever questioned the Test was branded a heretic and killed!  We don’t even know why the Test was started, much less why we’re still doing it.  We’ve just accepted that that’s how it’ll always be.  Well, not any more!  We can’t afford to!  I’ve come across a lot of ruins out there where hundreds, maybe thousands of people once lived.  We’re dying off, pa, and instead of trying to stop it, we’re helping it along with the Test!”

            Shifting his body to sit cross-legged, Jim leaned towards his father.  “Have you ever looked at a stagnant pool of water, pa?  I mean, really looked at it?  On the outside it can look all peaceful and calm, even well ordered.  But that’s just the appearance.  Look further and you see the pool is choked up with weeds and other growth, and that it’s killing off the pool itself.  Nothing else can live or grow there.

            “That’s us, pa!  We’re dying, just like that pool.  On the outside, our society is calm and well ordered.  That part’s good, but we haven’t gone anywhere.  We haven’t expanded or grown in hundreds of years.  We’re being choked to death by the Priests and their Council of Man!

            “We want to grow, to break that hold!  That will be our Test.  We won’t hunt our young, or each other, but I suspect others will.  They’ll try to destroy what we build.  If they come to fight, we’ll give ‘em one.  If they come to join up, we’ll welcome them.  Their choice.  Our Test, the real Test, will be to grow and build on our dreams.”

            His father’s cold determination was balanced against Jim’s burning desire to create a new order.  Then, like a glacier finally meeting the sea, the ice fell away.  Bill Mathews smiled, almost erasing the pain on his face.

            “Boy, I never knew you to talk so much.  You got some place in mind to start this new cluster of yours?”

            Relieved, Jim rose to his feet, the escaping tension seeking an outlet.  He paced back and forth in the limited confines of the hollow as he described the long mountain valley he had wandered through, and the location he would start building on.

            “You’ll be among folks who remember and understand you, pa,” he finished.  “And ma wall have friends, too.  Talk to any other former Solitaries you know, ones you trust, and bring them along if they’re of a mind.”  Jim paused thoughtfully.  “There might even be some others, non-Solitaries, that might fit in, too.  I knew a few in the mountains, in the Pack.”

            “You so sure I’ll show up, boy?”

            Jim stood before his father, slung the bundle over his shoulder, then took up his rifle before replying.  An image flashed through his mind, a woman with blue eyes wet with tears.

            “I’m sure, pa.”

            Noiselessly slipping into the night, the man disappeared.




© 2003 by Benjamin Taylor, Jr.  Ben Taylor Jr. is a technical writer in the aerospace industry.  In his spare time, he writes fiction (currently working on a sci-fi novel), reads voraciously, and is pursuing his 3rd degree black belt in Taekwondo.  Ben is married, and lives with his wife and two children in Jacksonville, Florida.