After nuclear apocalypse brought civilization to its knees, one man rose up to lead a once-great nation out of the ashes. When everything fell apart, it was Ben Raines, heroic soldier and survival expert, who became the leader that freedom-loving, law-abiding people everywhere could rally around.
Now a bloodthirsty religious cult called the Ninth Order is spreading a doctrine of hate across the land. Soulless and sadistic, they're sending their fanatical armies against Raines and his Rebels, plotting treachery within his own ranks. If their terrible plan succeeds, Ben Raines will die...and so will all his dreams for the future of America.
Fourth in the long-running series!
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Blood in the Ashes
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1985 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
The long convoy bivouacked between Lebanon and Cookeville, Tennessee, near a small town named Buffalo Valley. It was a dead town, with no sign of any living beings. Only the scattered bones in the streets gave testimony to that which once was.
Many of the towns the convoy had either driven through or bypassed on the interstate appeared dead, but Ben had detected a definite air of hope in the men and women and children in the long column that had snaked and threaded and picked its way from southern Missouri. Other columns were on their way to north Georgia, coming from Louisiana and Arkansas.
Yet another move for Raines' Rebels.
Hopefully, Ben thought, as he lay beside Gale in their tent, the last move.
But as he lay waiting for sleep to take him, Ben pondered over what he considered to be the somewhat mysterious behavior he had detected from his close circle of friends: Ike, Cecil, Doctor Chase, Juan, Mark and Colonel Gray. Something was in the wind. But what?
"Are you asleep?" he whispered to Gale.
Silence from her side of the double sleeping bag. But her breathing had changed. Ben knew she was awake.
"I asked if you were asleep," Ben persisted.
She sighed, turning to face him, dark eyes shining in the dim light filtering through the open flap of the tent. "I was," she said sarcastically. "Despite your tossing and turning and snorting like a water buffalo."
"I do not snort like a water buffalo! Have you ever seen a water buffalo?"
"What's that got to do with it? Ben, what do you want?"
"Do you get the impression that Dan and his people are becoming a bit overprotective lately?"
"You woke me up to ask me that? Good God! And I was having such a nice dream. Do you wanna hear about it?"
"No. I am not in the least interested in hearing about your slumbertime sexual fantasies. Just answer the question."
"Sexual fantasies! I was dreaming about a hot roast beef sandwich, with mashed potatoes and lots of gravy. How in the hell can you make anything sexual about that?"
"Just answer the question."
"Yes, master. They're just trying to keep you alive, that's all. You're such a klutz."
Ben smiled in the darkness. "Wanna play?"
She looked at her watch. "At two o'clock in the morning?"
"Well, there is that old saying. I forgot about that."
"What old saying?"
"Warmed up coffee and woke up pussy."
"Good God! How crude." She rolled over and went back to sleep. But she was smiling.
Ben thought: I wonder if she knows more than she's telling? Whatever it is, maybe she's in on it, too? Damn! What I don't need is a mystery. Not at this time.
He put his arms around her and she turned to face him.
"He's not going to like it," Juan Solis said. "I can tell you all that right up front."
The group of men were meeting not far from the main bivouac area. Dan Gray, Cecil Jefferys, Juan Solis, Mark Terry, Ike McGowen, Doctor Chase.
"I think he'll see his way to do it," Ike said. "Once we lay it out for him. But Ben's gonna take off for a while before he does it. He wants some time alone on the road."
"He said it himself," Dan said. "This morning after the firefight. 'The nation is leaderless, with no direction, no organization.'"
"Ben is tired," Dr. Lamar Chase said. "Not to imply his health is bad," he quickly added, catching the alarmed looks on the faces of the men around him, "for he's in better physical shape than most men fifteen years younger. He's just tired. Good God, people, the man has been building and rebuilding nations for more than a decade. That would tell on a god. And he's worried about many of these new people that have joined us. And I am too."
"Yes," Cecil spoke. "Ben has talked with me about them. Captain Willette and his bunch especially. We have no way of checking their stories, no way of knowing where their true loyalties really lie. Ben is leery of many of them. But they've done nothing out of line."
Ike said, "I'm with Ben about these new people. Some of them rub my fur the wrong way. I get the same feeling I had back in '88, just before the balloon went up."
"All we can do is keep an eye on them," Juan said.
"We'd better," Mark said. "You all notice how they're singling out the younger troops to talk with? I don't like that. I get the feeling something ... evil is in the wind."
"I'm with you, partner," Ike said.
"When do we tell Ben?" Dan asked.
Ike looked at him. "When we get to Georgia. No point in gettin' him all stirred up now."
Ben experienced a form of mild depression as his eyes swept the land on either side of Interstate 24. The scene greeting him was one of almost total deterioration. Ben knew living beings were out there, knew many had survived not only the bombings of '88, but also the plague and the horror that followed a decade later. But the survivors did not appear to be doing anything.
Ben thought: How in the hell do these people expect to pull anything out of the ashes of destruction and despair if they just sit on their butts and do nothing?
Gale glanced at him. As if reading his thoughts, she said, "They don't have a leader, Ben. Someone to put their faith and trust in."
Ben shook his head. "Uh-huh, and hell, no, lady. Not again. Not this ol' boy. I've had my shot at running the show."
"Then why are we moving to Georgia, Ben?" she challenged him. "Just to see the countryside?"
"It's one thing to build a small following of people, Gale. It is quite another to try to pull together an entire nation. I thank you, but no thank you."
She thought about that. She stuck out her chin. "You did it before," she reminded him.
"No," Ben contradicted her. "I attempted to do it. And for a very brief time, if you are speaking of my short tenure as president of this battered nation."
"No, Gale. No. Another Tri-States, perhaps, something on that order. Perhaps, Gale, if I — we — could do that, and make it work, then others would follow our example. That is my hope. But only time will tell."
"All right, Ben." She knew that particular subject was, for the time being, closed. She gazed out the window. Nothing moved, no sign of human habitation, much less human progress toward rebuilding. "It just looks so ... barren, Ben."
"It is, to some degree. But it's a dangerous illusion, Gale. I think many of the survivors have formed pockets of defense around the nation. Probably many have slipped back to the medieval fortress/village type of existence."
"This nation — or what is left of it — put people on the moon. We were reaching for the stars. Now — this."
"It was inevitable, Gale. All people had to do was study history to find out where any nation is heading. Unfortunately, most people were too busy protesting this or that — whatever served their own special interest group or union — or were too busy glued to a television set watching the most asinine pap ever made for insulting the human intelligence. In short, the majority didn't give a shit."
"That's harsh, Ben. Perhaps too harsh."
"I don't think so. It isn't too harsh for me to say the nation's morals slipped to zero. It certainly is correct to say in our courts it became not a matter of guilty or innocent, but guilty or not guilty — and not guilty came, more often than not, as a result of some minor breach of technicality. Fuck the victims of crime and turn the punks loose. And as for my remark about TV, after a time, I just quit watching television."
"Come on, Ben — what did you watch? Stuff with a lot of violence, I'm sure."
"No. I bought a VCR and watched screw movies," he said with a grin.
"Come on, Raines! Get serious."
"What is this, Gale — psychoanalyze Ben Raines time?"
"I would like to know a little bit about the man I'm living with," she said, adding primly, "and the guy who got me pregnant."
"Takes two, you know?"
"I watched what I personally enjoyed, Gale. High drama or low shoot-'em-up-and-stomp movies. I watched good comedy — as I define 'good.' Most of the comedians I enjoyed never used one word of profanity in their routines. A good comic doesn't have to. Just like a good actor doesn't have to rely on gimmicks. Their very presence emanates talent. And dancing should be graceful, Gale. Not leaping about like a pack of savages in the throes of a pre-sexual orgy."
"Ah-huh!" Gale whirled on the seat — and cracked her noggin on the sun visor. "Shit!" she said, rubbing her head. "I always knew you were a closet bigot. Admit it, Raines."
"I'm not a closet anything, Gale. How's your head?"
"Don't change the subject."
"You asked for my opinion, Gale — I gave it. Others are entitled to theirs, as well."
"I know," she said, smiling. "I just wanted to see if I could get a reaction out of you." She glanced at his strong profile. "I read every one of your books I could find, Ben. I didn't like some of them, but I read them. You really got down on the American people. I used to think what you wanted was a nation of clones, all patterned after yourself."
"I was wrong."
"My God! Let me stop and find a hammer and stone tablet. I want to preserve that last remark for posterity."
Gale stuck out her tongue at him.
"How's the kid?" Ben asked.
"Plural, Ben. Two. The twins are doing just fine, thank you."
"In nine months I'm going to prove you wrong, Gale."
"You really know a lot about the reproduction system, don't you, Raines? Where are you getting this 'nine months' crap? Try about six and a half months."
He looked at her midsection. "I can't tell any difference. You look just as skinny and malnourished as ever."
"Thanks a lot, Raines. I've gained a few pounds. Hey! Look over there." She pointed.
Ben looked. He radioed the column to a halt and got out of the truck. Uncasing his binoculars, he focused them and then began cussing. "Bastards," he said. "Dan! Over here."
The Englishman appeared at Ben's side. "Sir?"
Ben handed him his field glasses. "Take a look, Dan."
Dan's face went white with rage. "Damned barbarians."
"What do you make of it, Dan?"
"They seem to have constructed some sort of miniature Stonehenge, General. And they are burning someone alive in the open center of it. My word! What has this nation come to?"
"It'll get worse, Dan," Ben said. "I assure you of that. Let's go take a look."
"Ah ... General? Why don't you just let me take a team over there? We'll —"
The look on Ben's face stopped Dan. Ben said, "I believe I said let's go take a look, Dan."
"Right-oh, General," Dan replied cheerfully. "You will permit me to lead the way, I hope?"
"Carry on, Colonel. Oh, Dan?"
The Englishman turned. "Thanks for your concern, Dan. But when I require the services of a nanny, I'll want one who's a hell of a lot better looking than you." Ben softened that with a smile.
Dan laughed, taking no umbrage at Ben's remark. "I certainly can't blame you for that, sir. I am a bit worse for wear."
"Be careful, old man," Gale called from the truck.
Ben waved at her and followed Dan and his scouts across the rocky field. The screams of the man being burned alive at the stake grew louder as the Rebels approached. The smell of burning flesh was offensive to them all.
"Jesus Christ, Ben," Ike said.
"I know, Ike," Ben said, then cautioned them. "You people step easy now. We don't know what we're facing here. Whatever these people represent, they're armed." He could see the man chained to the stake was not much more than a boy.
"That is far enough!" a robed and hooded man called from the outer fringe of the circle of stone. Other robed and hooded men joined him. They were all armed, most with sawed-off pump shotguns, a few with M-16s and AK-47s. All carried sidearms belted around their waists.
"Stand ready!" Colonel Gray barked the order. A dozen bolts on automatic weapons were pulled back. A stocky Rebel with an M-60 machine gun, belt ammo looped over his shoulders, leveled the light machine gun at the knot of strange-appearing men.
The guards quickly re-evaluated their position. "We want no trouble, gentlemen," one of the older guards said. "But you are interfering in a matter that is none of your concern."
"Seems like to me you're giving that boy —" Ben's eyes touched the young man chained to the stake, his lower body now completely engulfed in flames — "more trouble than he deserves. What has he done to warrant this?"
"That is none of your concern," Ben was told. "Stay out of it."
"Colonel Gray?" Ben said. "Would you be so kind as to put that young fellow out of his misery?"
"My pleasure, sir." The Englishman lifted his rifle and shot the burning boy once in the head, forever stilling his hideous screaming and ceasing the agony from the fire.
A low grumble of anger sprang from the crowd. It was a mixed group, Ben noted. Men and women and some teenagers.
"Whoever you are," a woman spoke from the crowd of robes and hoods, "you do not have the right to interfere with justice."
"Justice is one thing," Ben said, his eyes searching the crowd for the source. "Torture is quite another. My name is Ben Raines. Now you know my name, what is yours?"
The crowd looked at one another. A tall, stately, middle-aged woman stepped from the inner circle. She walked out of the stone circle to within a few feet of Ben. The odor of burning flesh clung to her robes. She had the eyes of a fanatic.
The woman stared at Ben for a moment. "We were told you were dead," she finally said. She seemed disappointed to learn Ben was still alive.
"As you can see," Ben said with a smile, "paraphrasing Mark Twain, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I am very much alive and doing quite well."
"So I see," the woman spoke. Her eyes were like a snake's stare: unblinking. "I am called Sister Voleta. I am a princess in the Ninth Order."
"Fuckin' loony, is what she is," a Rebel muttered.
The woman heard the comment. Her dark eyes narrowed. The odor of unwashed bodies mingled with the sweet smell of human flesh.
These people, Ben thought, don't believe much in bathing.
Ben's peripheral vision picked up movement from the north, along the timberline that bordered the open, weed-filled field.
"I see 'em," Ike muttered. He lifted his walkie-talkie and spoke quietly.
At the interstate, mortar teams began setting up by the side of the road.
"If those are your people," Ben told the robed and hooded woman with the dark, evil eyes, "you'd better pull them up short before I give the orders to have them annihilated."
The woman's eyes never left Ben's face as she spoke. "Very well," she said softly, speaking so only Ben and those near them could hear. "You win this small battle. But I assure you, there will be a next time. You have made a serious error by interfering. It will not be forgotten." She smiled strangely as her gaze swung to the long column behind Ben. She raised her voice. "Tell our guardians to halt. We are too few against many. This time," she added.
A woman lifted her arm and waved the group of men to a halt. She lowered her arm and the men squatted in the field.
Ben pointed to the charred, bloody remains of the dead young man. "What had that boy done?"
"He violated the rules," Sister Voleta said. "That is punishable by death."
"Must have been a serious violation."
"He bred with an outsider. That is not permitted in our society."
"An outsider? Where is she?"
"She will be stoned to death at dusk. That is our law."
"Get her and bring her here." Ben's words were harsh.
"You do not give orders on this land, Ben Raines. Your words are meaningless here. For as far as you can see and beyond, all that is land claimed by the Ninth Order. You are trespassers. Do not tempt the gods, Ben Raines."
"We take her easy, or we take her hard. Your choice." Ben threw down the challenge.
The woman made no attempt to hide her hate or her anger. Her eyes flashed venom at Ben. "The Ninth Order is powerful, Ben Raines. Your interference this day will neither be forgotten nor forgiven."
"I'm scared out of my wits," Ben said. He barked, "Get the girl."
The robed and hooded woman trembled with rage. She glared at Ben. Finally she said, "Bring the godless slut here."
A young girl, no older than her middle teens, was dragged from the inner circle. She had been forced to watch her lover burned and ultimately shot in the head. She had been savagely beaten. One eye was closed. Her face and arms were bruised. Blood leaked from her mouth. She was naked from the waist up. Her breasts were bruised.
"They took turns raping me," she said to Ben. "They hurt me."
Excerpted from Blood in the Ashes by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 1985 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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