Patty was right. It was a hard slog.
They took the county road north by northeast and followed the winding turns past numerous small homes, trailers and patch work farms interspersed with brush and stands of pine. Along the way, they saw a few of the houses and mobile homes were occupied, but many were not.
Some of the structures had clearly been abandoned for some time. But most of the others bore signs of hasty retreat - front doors and garages left open, children's toys abandoned, personal possessions left casually behind and finally, signs of struggle and destruction. More than one home was partially burned or featured broken windows and kicked in doors.
The homes and buildings which were occupied housed paranoid residents armed and peering from behind shuttered window or impromptu barricades of cars, trash, firewood or other debris pointing long arms their direction as they passed. Nobody, save for a dirty little boy with his chubby finger wedged firmly up his nose, said anything as they hastily rode by.
The county road ended abruptly, and after standing atop a fence and grasping the lower limbs of a tree, Brad pointed that the farm to market road they were looking for was just across the field in front of them. Dismounting and working together, the five heaved their bikes and trailers over and under the fence and then pushed them across the damp ground to the other side and the waiting road.
The day was hot and humid and all stopped for a drink before mounting up and riding due west on the farm road to the next junction. They were fortunate as the map showed two of of the upcoming roads were connected meaning there would be no fence hopping or cross country travel. At least for now. The worse stretch was yet to come.
Patty refused to stop and told the others, namely Candace, that the next meal would be dinner and until then, they were free to root whatever snack food they could find in their bags if they were hungry. Bathroom breaks would be short and hasty. There was no time to waste as long as they were so close to Mineola and off their path home.
A couple of hours later, they came to another dead end, this time, blocked by heavy trees and brush.
"Well?" said Patty looking at Brad. "We know the county road is on the other side of this mess, but how will we get through? Do you want to turn back and find an easier path back the way we came?"
"Let's try this. How about I take a look a ways into the brush and see how far we are from the next road? We'd kick ourselves if the road was only a hundred or so yards away, wouldn't we?" he said.
So Brad took his machete from his pack and found an entrance point and crawled, hacked and pushed his way through the thick brush. He was surprised when he found the thicket only went a few yards in and then opened up to a trees with plenty of space between them to walk or ride the bikes over the leaf covered ground.
It was darker in the trees however, with the shade and lack of sunlight. Brad peered into the gloom and tried to see where the road might be, but had no luck. Rather than turn back, he walked into the glade hoping to find the other side where the road might be. He walked for about ten minutes before he came to another stand of heavy bushes and upon parting them, he immediately saw another clearing and what appeared to be, through a break in the trees, the road.
However, his reverie was broken when he noticed something else in the clearing he had overlooked. The remains of a large campfire with a pile of dirty clothing next to it. He looked more carefully when he noticed a fly covered heap just off to the side when revulsion and then nausea struck him. The remains of a person, a small person judging by the size, laid partially dismembered and covered with insect, dirt and leaves. He realized then what he had stumbled upon and he turned to run back to the others.
Brad did not realize he had become disoriented in his travels through the brush and his obsession with finding the elusive county road. He ran for a few minutes before he realized he was going the wrong way. Pausing to catch his breath, he carefully looked up at the tree cover and tried to determine the position of the sun and hopefully, the direction he was headed.
He walked carefully back in his steps and found the scene of cannibalistic horror and then carefully made his bearings again before heading out in hopefully the wrong direction. He was elated when he noticed several landmarks in front of him which he remembered and knew he was only moments from joining his friends.
He heard the crunching of leaves only seconds before the shout pierced his ears.
Brad turned and was tackled by a big man with long dirty hair, unshaven and wearing only a pair of stained overalls. The wind knocked out of him, Brad was unable to yell before his attacker tossed him like a rag doll around on the ground and punched him repeatedly in the head and torso.
The man laughed with an insidious giggle and appeared to never tire or lose strength as he pummeled Brad and played with him like a cruel house cat having caught a helpless mouse. Brad struggled to get to his feet but with each move, his legs were kicked out from underneath him and he found himself on the receiving end of even more beatings.
Finally, his attacker stopped and hunched back on his knees and regarded Brad laying there prone and breathless on the ground. He reached out and squeezed Brads calf and then tossed it back to the ground.
"You almos too purty to eat, boy! But fun's fun and we got's to get piggy in the pot. So c'mere and quit fightin' me boy. You aint gonna mind this a lil ole bit when we's all done, now is ya?" he taunted.
Brad was disgusted and overwhelmed at the same time. He was done for and there was nothing he could do about it. Except for one thing. He screamed at the top of his lungs.