In this eighth installment in the bestselling Borrowed World series, Jim Powell is convinced that his presence in the valley is putting his friends and family in danger. Hoping to buy them some time, he increases the security at his home, then sets off on a trip to allow the situation in his community to cool off. As much as he hates the idea, he also intends to scout out a location to fall back to if his people get driven from their homes.
Frustrated by the constant tension and violence, his best friend Lloyd joins him. Though Jim initially welcomes the company, Lloyd spends his day writing folk ballads about his friend’s body count and bad decisions.
Both men struggle with how best to confront their changing world. Both are desperate for a solution that will give them peace. Jim ultimately wants control of his surroundings, but doesn’t want the responsibility. Lloyd wants to lay down his gun and return to the life of a performing musician. In his own way, each man will find that some truths are inescapable. While their collapsed world still allows them free will, there will be no peace and there is no escape from the violence.
Release date: November 25, 2020
Print pages: 436
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Blood and Banjos: Book Eight in The Borrowed World Series
Jim was walking the dusty, debris-strewn road through his valley when he met the group of strangers. He was on his way to Lloyd’s house, a musician friend who’d joined them in the valley not long after Jim got home from Richmond. Jim didn’t hear the strangers coming and he wasn’t used to meeting people on the road. He simply came around a corner and there they were, maybe two hundred feet ahead of him and walking in his direction.
He mumbled a few curses but couldn’t think of a single countermeasure that wouldn’t appear suspicious. He couldn’t leap into the bushes and hide. He couldn’t turn and run. He couldn’t haul his rifle off his back and threaten them.
He’d changed his appearance as best he could, trying not to look like the photo of him that had widely been circulated on the flyers that branded him an insurgent. Most of the town should believe he was dead but he couldn’t be sure of that. He didn’t want to take any chances.
He’d grown his short beard out into a longer version that put him in touch with his inner hillbilly. His hair had always been short but after that whole fiasco in town he’d shorn it down nearly to his scalp, using some manual clippers he’d borrowed from Lloyd. The musician had been a barber before the collapse, though Jim never trusted him to cut his hair. He’d known him too long.
Lloyd had laughed his ass off at Jim when he first saw him like that. “You should have let me do it. You look like some hipster trying to get a job as a barista at Starbucks.”
Jim had snarled at him. “The difference between me and that hipster is that they’d try to use their words to hurt you. I’ll deliver a words and whoop ass combo meal. If that’s what you’re hungry for, keep running your mouth.”
Along with the changes to his hair and beard, Jim wore dark glasses and a floppy straw hat that shaded his face. Pete thought he resembled Billy Gibbons, the guitarist from ZZ Top. Jim took that as a compliment.
Since he couldn’t dodge the folks headed toward him on the road, he’d just have to keep his head down and hope for the best. If they spoke, he’d nod and keep going. The longer he stood there talking, the more opportunity they’d have to figure out who he was. He couldn’t let that happen. Jim Powell was supposed to be dead and he wanted to keep it that way.
Without making a big deal of it, Jim moved his hand to the pistol grip of the M4 hanging across his body. Before he was close enough for them to hear, he flicked the safety off. It was best to err on the side of caution.
They were seventy feet apart now. The strangers were two men with what Jim guessed to be their teenage sons. They weren’t from the valley and Jim didn’t recognize them. The men carried hunting shotguns and their sons carried .22 rifles. Jim wondered if the men had come back here to hunt or were they here on other business? They could have been visiting one of the other families in the valley. Even if this was a social call, they’d carry weapons. Everyone traveled with weapons these days. It was the only way to stay safe and even that was no guarantee.
These strangers could also be looking for him, wanting to confirm the rumor that Jim Powell, the man who’d brought so much grief and destruction to his community, was really dead. Did the townspeople still think there was a price on his head?
Surely after all that happened in town on the 4th of July people would understand there was no reward to collect. Those who’d seen what transpired that day would have seen him shoved into a helicopter and hauled off. That didn’t mean people didn’t harbor resentment against him because he’d deprived them of electricity and comfort camps. Some hated him for that.
If people came for him, it was as likely to be out of that hatred as anything else. This county had a public enemy now and Jim Powell was that man. He was the vessel for their hate. Everyone wanted someone to blame for all the grief and hardship that had befallen them. Jim was all they had.
At forty feet, the men were looking at him, trying to make eye contact. They were within hailing distance. Politeness and rural custom should have them smiling and greeting each other by this point. Jim did none of those things. He kept his head tipped to where he could see their movements, their guns, below the brim of his hat. His aloofness probably put them on edge, but he was fine with that. These weren’t regular times. Everyone was on guard these days. People weren’t the same relaxed, casual country folk they’d been a little more than a year ago. They were hardened survivors now, less trustful of their fellow man.
“Howdy,” one of the men said, slowing.
Jim didn’t speak, just nodding as he’d planned. He walked right by the group, within feet of them, but didn’t make eye contact. The next part of the interaction bothered him even more. He had his back to them now. He could feel the armed strangers watching him, wondering about him. He heard them whisper among themselves.
He was certain they were calling him a rude asshole, but that label had lost its ability to bother him long ago. He’d been an asshole before the world had fallen apart. Since then, he’d only gotten better at it. His actions toward these strangers, his assholeness, surely wouldn’t be enough for them to identify him. He couldn’t be the only asshole in these parts.
He forced himself to put another hundred feet between them before he glanced over his shoulder. When he did, he found the group had gone on about their business, seemingly unconcerned with him. In the retelling of their excursion, he would be nothing more than a rude and abrupt footnote.
Shortly, Jim climbed a fence to the right of the road and cut across the field to Lloyd’s place. It was actually Buddy’s old house and their entire clan ached from the loss of the kind old man. Jim couldn’t help but think Buddy would have steered him in a better direction had he still been alive. He might have kept Jim from acting in such a rash manner—making decisions and taking steps from which there was no backing up. For the short time they’d had him there, Buddy had been the one man who could talk Jim off the ledge when he was ready to slit throats and sling lead. Without him, Jim was unrestricted. He was more prone to asking forgiveness than permission, even when having acted with such finality that there was no forgiving.
Jim had to traverse this field to approach Lloyd’s place from the back. The Wimmer family lived within sight of Lloyd’s place, though thick summer foliage helped to break up the direct sightlines. It was still risky. The Wimmers were a large family and they owned much of the land around Lloyd’s place. They were always outside farming or hunting. They’d gotten along with Jim’s people at one time but there was a lot of resentment now. His clan had killed one of them for abducting a child. Even though the killing was justified, blood was thicker than reason.
The house the sheriff had been living in was also within sight of Lloyd’s place, but Lloyd said he’d moved out, as he’d promised. When Jim had told the sheriff what he was going to do in town, that he intended to fake his death, the sheriff wanted no part of it. He also said he’d be leaving the valley as soon as he was able to. He reminded Jim that he’d come there to help keep the peace and instead found himself immersed in a violent world he wanted no part of. Jim wished him the best but knew he’d find no more peace anywhere else. The sheriff longed for a world that no longer existed. He wanted law and order, wanted people to have respect for their fellow men. All of those things were in short supply.
Jim hoped Lloyd was home. A couple of months ago he’d have called him on the radio before making the hike but he couldn’t do that anymore. His voice might be overheard by people who wanted him dead. He was disgusted by the state he found himself in. He was in the valley he’d called home for much of his adult life but didn’t dare show his face or talk on the radio. For a man already pissed off at the world, this only further stirred the pot.
“Lloyd!” Jim called, stomping up the porch to announce himself.
With no air conditioning, all the windows were open on the hot summer day. Jim didn’t hear an instrument being played so he assumed Lloyd was either asleep or not home. He banged on the metal screen door, the noise loud enough to wake the napping or the dead. “Lloyd!”
“Simmer down,” Lloyd growled, his voice coming from an unexpected direction.
Jim spun. He walked to the edge of the porch and saw Lloyd ambling down from the outhouse, hitching his suspenders up onto his shoulders.
“What are you up to?” Jim asked.
Lloyd frowned and gestured back toward the outhouse. “I’d think the answer would be obvious, even to someone with your obvious mental deficits.”
“That comment would piss me off if I wasn’t already pissed off. Randi with you?”
Lloyd shook his head. “She’s taking this gardening thing seriously. That’s all she does anymore. Then she passes out around dark.”
“She’s living the farming life.”
“I call it ‘hoeing around’ but she doesn’t think that’s funny anymore. Farming ain’t for me, though.”
“Well, not everyone’s cut out to be a drunk, banjo-playing fool either.”
“It’s about damn time someone appreciated that fact,” Lloyd said, climbing the steps to the porch. He pointed to the front door. “Inside or outside?”
Jim wavered for a moment before replying. “How about back porch? It’s too damn hot to be inside but I can’t risk sitting here by the road. It’s too public.”
Lloyd went inside and Jim followed him through the door. Lloyd made a detour to pick up a banjo, then a second detour to pick up a jar of red liquid packed full of cherries.
“For medicinal purposes only,” Lloyd said, holding the jar aloft.
“What’s the ailment today?”
“I claim allergies. What’s the matter with you?”
Jim faked a cough. “Asthma.”
“That’s a good one. I used it yesterday.”
“Don’t you ever run out of ailments?” Jim asked.
Lloyd shook his head seriously. “They’re all chronic, recurring conditions. It’s a tragedy really.”
“Indeed.” Jim held the back door open for him, then took a seat on a metal glider.
Lloyd settled into a wooden ladder-back chair. It had once been painted white and the paint was now peeling off to reveal the past lives the chair had lived, one in green and another in blue. “You pass those people headed down the road? I saw them when I was headed to the johnny house.”
Jim plucked a cherry from the moonshine jar with his fingers and tossing it into his mouth. “Yep, but I kept my face hidden. I’m going to have to quit using the road. It’s so much faster than going through the fields with everything grown-up, but I just can’t risk running into people.”
Lloyd took the jar and fished out his own cherry. He washed it down with a sip from the jar. “You could have run into the Wimmers or someone else who hated you. It’s a long list. I always thought you should have tried to be a nicer person. Being an asshole has caught up with you.”
“It’s caught up with me many times in my life. This is only our latest visit.”
“It’s going to get worse,” Lloyd said, settling back into his chair and giving the banjo a strum.
Jim gave his buddy a curious look. “Why?”
Lloyd adjusted one of the tuners, repeatedly twanging a single string until he had it where he wanted it. “The Wimmers are fixing the bridge to town.”
Jim sat bolt upright. “Excuse me?”
Lloyd nodded. “One of them told me yesterday. They’ve been cutting logs off the hillside above the road and using horses to get them in place. It may even be done already.”
“Well, that’s just great. What’s the point of that?”
“They said they’ve got more cattle than they can manage. They want to sell some off before winter. They’ve got corn planted and tobacco in the ground they want to sell too. It’s hard to blame them for that.”
Jim picked the cherry jar up off the floor and helped himself to another, his mind racing as he chewed. “I understand from an economic standpoint but it sure makes this valley harder to keep secure.”
“Maybe they think there’s less of a need for security. Maybe they think the worst is over and they’re ready to start rebuilding what’s fallen apart.”
Jim looked grim. “I have no confidence that this is over. Part of me feels like it’s only the beginning. What we’ve seen already, with the government wanting to attach aid and power to turning in guns, is a sign of things to come. I’m not ready to accept that kind of America.”
Lloyd grinned. “You just going to keep blowing shit up until they come up with a version you like?”
“If I have to.”
Lloyd was afraid his friend was a lost cause. “You aren’t done pissing people off, are you?”
“Not by a long shot.”
Jim left Lloyd sitting on the back porch, playing his heart out to a field of cows, birds, and the odd rabbit. The couple of moonshine-spiked cherries Jim had eaten did nothing to improve his mood. In fact, they only enhanced his irritation with the state of things. He was walking home through a field of waist-high grass and that pissed him off because it filled his shoes with grass seeds and made his sweaty arms itch. A variety of burrs clung to his clothing. A scowl on his face, he stomped through the grass as if he could scare it out of his way. As he walked, he pondered his situation.
Should he pull up stakes and move his entire family somewhere else? He couldn’t imagine doing that. His farm wasn’t perfect but he’d spent years putting things in place that made life easier for them. The entire house could be heated with his wood stove. The home had a gravity-fed water system that kept water flowing through the pipes, even if it didn’t have a lot of pressure. They could flush toilets and use the sinks, an advantage a lot of folks didn’t have.
He also had the spring house with a spring box, the closest thing available to natural refrigeration. While the home itself didn’t have solar power, he had a few solar panels that allowed them to keep rechargeable devices operating. Plus, he had the fortified cave at the back of the property.
The idea of moving was ridiculous. Even if he found a better place, how would he get there? How would he be able to make improvements to a new place under these powerless conditions? Then there was his tribe. His clan. The friends he’d surrounded himself with. Was he just going to walk off and leave them?
The valley had some people like the Wimmers, with whom he didn’t have a close relationship. In fact, their relationship was now fairly hostile. There were other families like the Weathermans and the Birds with whom he had a friendly relationship but didn’t hang out with every day. They supported each other and had each other’s backs, but it wasn’t the kind of relationship he had with the people who formed his inner circle. That was Lloyd, Alice’s son Charlie, Randi’s family, Gary’s family, and Hugh. They were his people. They were his tribe. For better or worse, they were all in this together.
But were they? Was it right to drag them down with him? The same could be said of his family. Was it right for him to risk their lives because he was public enemy number one?
He stopped and fished a water bottle from a pouch. He took a long pull, trying to replace some of the moisture the high-octane moonshine had pulled out. The water was warm and he’d have much preferred a dipper straight from the spring. That would be his first stop when he got home. Maybe he’d hold his head under the pipe and see if that did anything to extinguish the fires raging in his head.
He was mid-drink when a shotgun blast destroyed the midday calm. A flock of starlings erupted from a maple tree ahead of him. There was a second blast and then Jim was running. At the edge of the field, he entered an isolated forest, an island of trees surrounded on all sides by pastures. Logging roads laced through the remaining timber. Jumbled slash piles of stumps and trash logs were scattered along the path.
The roads had once been maintained but now weeds were taking over. Scrappy wild roses with their pink and white flowers tore at Jim’s legs. Blackberry vines raked across his upper body. He tried to brush them out of his way but one caught his cheek. Another snagged his neck, the cut burning as sweat ran into the torn flesh. Stinging nettles grew thick, nearly at the height of Jim’s elbows. Each time he brushed against a leaf, he felt the burn. His arms grew red and irritated, the outside of his body becoming a reflection of the turmoil that was going on within him.
There was another shotgun blast. Jim was certain it came from his place now. He wanted to use the radio and ask what was going on but he didn’t chance it. What if it was a snake or a rabid skunk they were dealing with? He couldn’t expose himself for something that trivial. What if it wasn’t though?
He topped the low ridge and started down the far side. In winter, he could see his house from here but now the thick leaves of poplars, maples, and oaks formed a green wall through which he only caught snatches of the world beyond. He kept to his jogging pace, his rifle held across his body to keep it from beating him to death as he ran.
In another eighty yards, he was halfway down the hill and a gap opened in the tree canopy. He paused and squinted. Sweat ran into his eyes, burning as he tried to blink it away. He pulled out a cheap monocular and studied the scene in his yard. His family was standing in the front yard with Hugh, studying something on the ground. Jim couldn’t make out what it was, but he was less alarmed now. Everyone appeared safe. If there had been a threat, it either passed or they’d dealt with it.
Jim stowed the monocular and got moving again. In about three minutes, he was crossing his yard like a lost prospector staggering into an oasis. The humidity and exertion had done him in. He’d sweated through his clothes and was gasping open-mouthed, trying to breathe through the soupy air.
Ellen hurried toward him. “You okay?”
Jim took off his wide-brimmed hat and dropped it. He paused in the shade of the maple that dominated the front yard. He gasped one question. “Shooting?”
Ellen took Jim by the arm, apparently more concerned with him than whatever had taken place in his absence. Hugh pointed to something on the ground. Jim stared at it but couldn’t figure out what it was. It looked like a kid’s toy that had been run over by a car. Pete and Ariel were walking around the yard picking up more pieces and adding them to the pile.
“What is it?” Jim asked.
“Honey, it’s a drone,” Ellen said.
Jim looked at Hugh for confirmation.
Hugh nodded. “It was a drone. I was on my way down here to check in and see if you guys needed any help in the garden. I thought I heard a hummingbird but I didn’t see one. Then I decided it must be a swarm of bees. It wasn’t. When I caught sight of it, I could tell it was a drone hovering over this general area of the valley.”
Jim moved closer to the pile and studied the pieces. He dropped to his knees, set his rifle to the side, and picked up a few of them. “You know anything about this stuff?”
“It’s a consumer-grade drone,” Hugh replied. “You can get them anywhere but they’re not cheap. It could be someone that lives in the area or it could be the cops. It could have been something some kids stole and were playing with. It doesn’t look military but who knows. It could have been anyone.”
“You think it could be coincidence?” Pops asked.
Jim was shaking his head in disgust. “It was in my yard.”
“It could have been looking for you,” Hugh conceded. “But we don’t know that for sure.”
“It might be coincidence,” Ellen said. “Like Hugh said, we don’t know that it was here for you.”
“But we don’t know that it wasn’t,” Jim said. “I don’t like it. I don’t like this at all. Does it mean there are people still looking for me? Was our production in town not convincing? Did we go to all that trouble—all that risk—for nothing?”
“The fact this thing went missing might draw some attention,” Hugh pointed out. “The owners might come looking for it. The good thing is that no one likes a drone flying over their place. With the state of the world, they can complain all they want and no one is going to be able to do a damn thing about it.”
“Are these pieces trackable?” Jim asked. “Have you destroyed everything?”
Hugh nodded. “I checked it. Everything is dead. I’m going to bag the pieces and hang them on a fence post on the road into town. Thought I might also leave some menacing message in the bag with them. Maybe that will scare them off.”
“It could have been random,” Ellen said.
“I can’t take that chance,” Jim said.
His wife stared at him. “What can you do any differently than what you’re doing now? You’re already living like a prisoner on your own property.”
Jim stared at the pile of shattered electronics in his yard. “It’s just going to get worse.”
“How do you know that?” Ellen asked.
“The Wimmers are rebuilding the road into town. I just found out from Lloyd. The road is going to be open any day now and more people will be coming through the valley.”
“But why?” Ellen asked, her voice pleading.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...