Dear Reader Friends and New Subscribers, thanks for joining us for “Lonely Days, a Steadfast Short Story.” Have you gotten started with The Steadfast Series yet? America’s Last Days are told through the eyes of Eric Radner in the series, but there are other characters who want to offer their perspectives as well. Each character will share with us a story of steadfast faith in the midst of turmoil. These “side stories” will be called Steadfast Shorts. In this Steadfast Short, the adventure expands to Wendy Sullivan. Enjoy this longer short story, and let us know what you think of my new venture!—David Telbat
A Steadfast Short Story
by D.I. Telbat
Forty-five-year-old Wendy Sullivan stared at the deer through her rifle scope. She needed the meat, but she didn’t know who was in the area. The sound of a gunshot on the open plain would carry for miles, and she wasn’t prepared to fight with someone over food.
Two does joined the buck in her scope, and the temptation to shoot the smallest doe was overwhelming. Wendy didn’t want much meat, just enough to keep her moving southwest. Sundown was an hour away. People would be less likely to confront her over meat if it was dark. They wouldn’t know if she was alone or with a party of hunters. But if something went wrong, Wendy had no plan. She was alone, and had been for a long time.
The family hunting cabin outside Billings, Montana, had been a safe haven for her and her two adult brothers for the first months of the collapse of America. Vic, the eldest, had been the bravest. He had dared to hike into Billings for supplies, before that first hard winter. From somewhere, he’d picked up the virus, but he’d made it back to the cabin. He died a week later.
Wendy and her younger brother, Bud, had survived the virus, even through caring for Vic in his last hours. Then, Bud had died two years later. She’d buried him after an infected axe wound to his foot had killed him. In those days, there were no hospitals to rush to. Medical care was limited to whatever knowledge the caregiver had.
For the last three years, Wendy had been alone. The seclusion of the cabin had kept her safe, but she couldn’t stand the silence any longer. She couldn’t tolerate not being around people. She needed to know if the virus had passed, and if pockets of civilization had stabilized. For years, she’d heard nothing. The cabin had no electricity, no radio, no company. Her journey southward had begun that spring.
As Wendy stared through her rifle scope, she wondered what the distance was to the buck and two does. She guessed they were around two hundred yards away. Vic had taught her how to shoot years earlier, and Bud had taught her how to carve up the meat. Such memories seemed like a lifetime ago now. She missed them. She missed everyone.
If the deer were still out in the open at sundown, she decided, she’d take the shot. Until then, she’d wait and watch.
By trade, Wendy was a long-haul truck driver. Against her father’s wishes, she’d avoided college and gotten her Class A trucking license. For ten years, she’d traveled the country, from El Paso to International Falls, from Baltimore to Coos Bay. Trucking had its highs and lows, but the money was good, and she’d always used her radio to stay in touch with humanity.
There’d been lonely days on the road occasionally, but nothing like this. When the virus had truly become a pandemic, Wendy had driven to her childhood home in Eastern Montana. For safety’s sake, she’d listened to her two brothers and hid out at the cabin with them.
“Even the deer aren’t alone,” Wendy mumbled as her cheek rested against her rifle. She’d noticed a year earlier that she’d been talking to herself more frequently. Why not? There was no one else to talk to. “If there were only two of you, I wouldn’t have to shoot. But there are three, so when I take one, I won’t be leaving any of you alone.” Even for the animals, she refused to sentence the survivors to her same lonely fate.
Dusk settled, and storm clouds rolled in from the northwest. Though she’d been on the move for sixty days, she could only guess where she was now. Somewhere in Wyoming, maybe. Several times, she’d seen other hunters at a distance, but she hadn’t liked the looks of them, and chose to press on. When she came upon highways, she crossed quickly, though the roads were always deserted.
That evening, Wendy welcomed the rain. It meant people would be less likely to investigate her gunshot, if anyone was around.
The deer had grazed closer to a small stand of fir trees, but Wendy could still see them in the last rays of light. After a final glance at the empty plain, she sighted on the smallest doe and fired. The buck and larger doe ran away as the sound of the gunshot rolled across the plain.
“Maybe they’ll think it was thunder,” she said as drops of rain fell on her shoulders.
Rising to her feet, Wendy clutched her pack and jogged to the fallen deer. The sky was completely dark now, and she couldn’t possibly gut the deer without starting a fire for light. The stand of trees was twenty yards away, so she ran to the thickest, tallest tree and set her pack against the trunk. By the time she returned to the deer, the rain had increased, but even in those summer months, Wendy wore a hunting cap and a weather-proof coat.
With effort, she dragged the deer to the tree, then gathered wood for a fire. She still had matches from her Montana cabin, so the fire sparked to life in minutes. The air wasn’t cold, so she didn’t need a huge fire for warmth, only for the light.
Drawing a short but sharp skinning knife, she started on the carcass. Mentally, she counted the minutes since the gunshot. It wasn’t wise to stay in the same location for long. Once she got enough meat for cooking and drying, she’d run into the storm to hide under her tarp on the open plain. By nightfall, she guessed she’d be in the next mountain range, within sight of the southwest. Then, she could take her time and scout out safe company. She had to make contact with someone!
Suddenly, she stopped cutting on the deer and gazed into the darkness. Her small fire burned low, hissing briefly when the occasional raindrop made the journey from the sky through the tree branches all the way to the coals. Something had moved or made a noise out there in the night. After years in the wild, Wendy’s senses were tuned to the barely perceptible noises and smells.
She continued on the deer, briskly cutting away meat to last a few more days. The wild dogs or wolves on the plain could have the rest of the deer, as long as she got enough to get her to the mountains and—
A branch broke nearby. Wendy glanced at her fire. Whoever was that close had already seen the light of her fire, she guessed, so she didn’t bother to throw dirt on it. Instead, she lay two more thick branches on the flames, then clutched her rifle and darted into the dark woods. No way would she remain a sitting victim of strangers when she could be cautious and lurk in the darkness.
From behind a thick fir tree, she watched as two bearded men prowled into the firelight. They both carried assault weapons, not hunting rifles. Their clothing was wet, and they had no packs. That probably meant they hadn’t come far.
The larger of the two men knelt over the deer as the smaller one examined Wendy’s pack. She cursed to herself for not taking her pack with her. If she had it, she could’ve run onto the plain and been gone. Alone, but safe!
“Blood’s still warm,” the first man said as he touched the deer. He had a Southern drawl, maybe New Orleans. “I think she’s alone.”
The two men snickered together in such a way that Wendy was tempted to run away, even without her pack. Meeting these two men wouldn’t end well.
The smaller man set his rifle against a tree and rubbed his hands together as he surveyed the forest. Wendy wondered if she was tough enough to take the shorter man, if he were alone, but there was no way she could fight off both of them.
“Come here, little lady,” Shorty called. “Come on, now. We’ll keep you warm tonight. We got your thingies here.” He crouched and untied her pack. “What’s this?”
He yanked out a flannel shirt and tossed it over his shoulder onto the ground. His partner drew his knife and continued what she’d started on the deer.
Wendy raised her rifle. She’d never killed anyone before, but if it was them or her—
“Hello, the camp!” a loud voice shouted from the tree line.
“Who’s that?” The two bearded men squinted into the darkness and fumbled to aim their rifles, half-turned away from Wendy. “Who’s out there?”
Licking her lips, Wendy eyed her open pack. If she could sneak up behind the two scavengers and grab her pack, she could be gone in seconds. But she’d never be able to survive and start over without her gear. Whoever else had been attracted to the gunshot, could fight over the deer with these two.
But while she was still contemplating, her window of opportunity closed as a brown-haired man and a blond boy, about five or six years old, stepped into the light. The newcomer carried a hunting rifle with no scope.
“We heard the gunshot.” The new stranger stopped just inside the ring of firelight. His voice was clear and friendly. Though he was bearded like the other two, his eyes had a gentle and even casual look about them, like he couldn’t be upset by much. “You boys from Mastover or Adderthorn? Got yourself a deer, huh?”
The two first-comers aimed their rifles at the man and his boy, but the stranger didn’t seem to care. The boy patted his leg. A young Labrador trotted from the darkness, but she looked too friendly to be an attack dog.
“Come here, girl!” The boy’s eyes were big as he and his dog acknowledged the two bearded men.
“Yep, we got us a deer,” the larger of the two said. “We’re fixing to have us a little party, and you’re interrupting.”
“I see.” The stranger and his boy looked at one another. Wendy heard no communication, but something passed between them, for the boy turned and walked straight back into the woods with his dog. After the boy was gone, the stranger focused again on the two Southerners. “Yeah, I see a lot, actually. One of the things I see is that pack hardly seems like it’s a fit for either one of you.”
“I said you’re interrupting!” the larger one said.
“Oh, it’s my intention to interrupt. You see, I know you two didn’t shoot that deer, and that isn’t your pack. It seems Andy and I were watching the same woman as you two this evening, as she hiked in from the north, right?”
“Hey, where’s that kid of yours?” Shorty snarled at the darkness. “Tell him to come back out here with his dog!”
“I’ve got to tell you two something,” the stranger said. “You are the bravest men I’ve ever met. Look at you! Taking a gal’s deer, and sorting through her pack like this. And there she is, somewhere out there, probably aiming her rifle right at you. Yes, sir, you’re pretty brave.”
“What?” The larger man ducked his head. “She’s out there?”
“Well, sure! And we already know she’s an expert markswoman, bringing down that deer with a perfect heart shot. Yeah, you two have nerves of steel. I mean, if I were you, I’d begin to back away real slowly, just in case she fires. I wonder which one she’ll shoot first if you stick around. She’s out there in the dark, and you’re very visible here by the fire. Pure courage, on your part; no fear at all!”
Wendy couldn’t help but smile as she listened to the stranger. Instead of confronting them violently, he was using reverse psychology to encourage them to leave without a fight.
“Now, we don’t want no trouble, missy!” Shorty shouted and raised his empty hand in surrender, while he still gripped his rifle with his other hand. “We were just looking for some fun. We’re leaving now, see?”
“Yeah!” The other man took deer steaks and stuck them raw into his jacket pockets. “We’re done here. No need for any shooting.” The two men backed away from the fire.
“It’d be a good idea,” the stranger said, “if you two stayed in your tent on the other side of the trees for the rest of the night. What a tragedy to be mistaken for a bear in this storm. Might get yourselves shot, right?”
“Might. We’re going now.”
In seconds, the two men were gone, and Wendy lowered her rifle. An instant later, she shrieked aloud as the Lab sniffed her leg.
“Don’t do that!” she whispered to the dog and ruffled the canine’s ears. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
Hesitantly, Wendy approached the fire and the stranger. The man shook out her discarded flannel shirt and stuffed it back into her pack. He looked up when she appeared. Up close, he was visibly younger than her by about ten years.
“Clever,” Wendy said quietly, wondering if she could remember how to talk to people after so many years alone. “You made them leave.”
“Well, I figured they needed to leave before you and I could meet.” He held out his hand. “I’m Eric Radner. This is Andy.”
Wendy sheepishly shook the man’s hand. The boy held out his hand like a little man as well.
“I’m Wendy.” She shook Andy’s hand.
“This is Runner.” Andy rubbed under the dog’s chin. “She likes it when you do this.”
“You guys were really watching me today?” Wendy asked.
“We saw you approaching mid-afternoon. Andy and I were out hunting.” Eric set more wood on the fire. “Usually, we stay in the mountains, but we spotted those deer out here, so we set out around noon. You beat us to them.”
“Do you need some meat?” Wendy drew her knife again. “I can share. I don’t need much.”
“We do have a few mouths to feed. Thanks.” He frowned at her as she continued to work on the deer. “It’s a little strange to find a woman all alone on the range like this. Are you lost?”
“No, I just . . . got tired of being alone up north.” She looked up suddenly. “I don’t think we’re supposed to shake hands! What about the virus?”
“People with the virus nowadays aren’t out carrying packs and hunting for deer. Besides, for the sake of being neighborly, we have to be a bit vulnerable ourselves, right?”
“You know, you have a natural way about you.” Wendy smiled, and liked the way it felt on her face. She handed him a deer steak. “Are you for real, or has everyone up in the mountains gone bonkers?”
“What’s bonkers?” Andy asked, then pulled Runner back from sticking her nose into the deer.
“Where are you headed, Wendy?” Eric asked. He stabbed the steak through the middle with a tree branch, then handed it to Andy to hold over the fire. “You’ve been alone for a while?”
“For years. I was going insane.” She felt herself blush. Talking to actual people was weirder than she remembered! “You’re with other people?”
“A small settlement. We call it River Camp.” He thrust another steak onto Andy’s stick, and Andy laughed at his bowed branch as he struggled to hold it above the flames. “That’s the real reason Andy and I sat and watched you and those deer today. You seemed lonely, and maybe a little too cautious. That’s no way to live life. I’ve been there.”
“Caution is bad?”
“Oh, caution is good.” Eric nodded. “But I’ve learned that, well, we can isolate ourselves to the point of silliness. At River Camp, we relax a little. And, of course, the Lord has a way of watching over His people.”
“The Lord? You’re religious?” Wendy felt herself draw back at the thought of fanatics. “Wasn’t religion one of the problems with the world before the virus?”
“Sure, people have always used religion to commit all kinds of atrocities or to justify evil. But we at River Camp are just simple followers of Jesus. No religion, Wendy, just kindness.”
Wendy stared at Eric for a moment. She’d never heard anyone speak like him before, but she’d witnessed his kindness already in action—the direct but caring way he’d dealt with the bandits, and now how he so effortlessly made her feel at ease. Whoever he was, she hoped there were more like him left in the world!
Andy giggled as he was about to lose the battle with the steaks on the stick.
“So, do you think you have room in River Camp for one more person?”
“River Camp would be happy to have you, Wendy.” Eric scowled playfully at Andy. “Are you done playing with those steaks, young man? Runner and I are hungry!”
They all laughed. And for the first time in years, Wendy wasn’t alone.
The End of “Lonely Days, a Steadfast Short”
Readers: The above story is just an example of what The Steadfast Series has to offer. Check out the series here. And watch for other Steadfast Shorts to come soon! You can find many other unrelated Christian short stories here.
Prayer Prompt: Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of London in the wake of another attack. On a more uplifting note, we bring before you news of Muslims coming to Christ in Iraq. Read this Back To Jerusalem article about ways we can help and pray for these new Iraqi believers.
COMING UP: Join us next time for an Author Reflection from David Telbat, “Effective Living for Christ.