Most days, Whit didn't take to grooming. He had a casual regard for keeping up appearances, doing what was necessary purely for the sake of hygiene, but it was difficult to hide the type of man he was without an extensive or bothersome attention to detail. His palms were made rough by manual labor. The prison tattoos that once covered his hands and forearms, his back and chest, twisting in elaborate patterns that ended under his jaw, had been painstakingly covered after what he refers to as the "Great Fall" with rudimentary, handmade tools.
Among them were the sort of redneck fashion that had once accompanied lock-up in Huntsville: the Lone Star with great frequency, still uncovered; Confederate battle flags, busts the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that had been redesigned into depictions of natural Kentucky, the trees and the hills; vines and flowers, skulls and bones; his corrections ID number, which was now but a black bar and a distant memory; "TEXASBOY" etched across his knuckles; crests, shields, and broken swords made into dragonflies or filled in messily, to hide that he was once a purveyor of violence. The beard he wore was thick and overgrown, shaped by an old pair of trimming scissors with dual purpose, to manage a short crop of greying hair that had once been very copper, but now seemed almost entirely absent. Hard, green eyes hinted that he'd seen his share of ugly, and wanted little more to do with the burdens of socialization.
The clothes best suited to his lifestyle were worn by necessity, and often alternated between whatever he could find: jeans if he could help it; a thick jacket when the weather called for it; simple t-shirts and sleeveless tops; a brown leather belt with a large, silver buckle that seemed to be from the days before; sturdy boots for working or hiking; and some sort of hat, preferably with a rim, though he wasn't picky. Often, he smelled of earth and smoke, cypress and mesquite, like he'd manifested in all its silent and wild majesty from some open range lost to history. And though he wasn't a particularly tall man, he was athletic by most considerations. Tight lipped, certainly. An endless appreciation for quiet and solitude. Still waters.
In trouble most of his life, unwilling or incapable of settling into a socially normalized routine, Lincoln, or Whit to his close friends, was never more at home than when the world fell apart. His father, a stubborn son of a bitch who spent more time in prison than out, had left him to the care of his trailer-trash girlfriend for as long as he could remember. She wasn't a terrible woman either, but for the drinking and the carrying on, she just wasn't equipped to raise a boy who was born with a legacy for mischief. In and out of South Texas school districts, chartered to more juvenile facilities than he'd care to admit, it wasn't until he was nineteen that he received his first adult charge and arrest, one that would ultimately land him in the same prison as his father for the following twelve years.
He was thirty-one when finally released from Huntsville, left a piece of land near Brownwood, Texas when his father died that had once housed a deer hunting blind and a small shack. The time he served inside allowed him the education to write and publish a book of poetry, "Alone With The Universe", and the resources to receive his first degree, a bachelors in forestry, which he used to further his goal of living as far away from civilization as he could reasonably afford. Admittedly, it wasn't far enough, and probably never would have been.
Eleven years alone in the woods had done strange, or at the very least unexpected things to Whit. He wasn't as quick to anger. He spent more time thinking and less time talking, though he wouldn't have had anyone to talk with, regardless. The days were filled with simple labors, like maintaining his vegetable garden and hunting from the blind, or reading old books he had mailed to his P.O. Box just inside the city. He didn't own a radio or a television either, and had little other contact with the world at large, so when the outbreak in Austin broke free into the rest of Texas he was caught unaware. It was only by happenstance that in those early days he stumbled across a caravan of survivors that welcomed him into the fold, and together they marched onward north.
In Kentucky he had hoped to find solace, even if for a spell. The long journey from Texas had left him depleted and weary, and though despite with other survivors he was quickly becoming friends, he could never shake the inherit desire, the return to nature and the surrender of ones self to the soil. The old man, Abrahms. The Soldier, and the group he met at the road block on his way into Valley Station in 2015. Many he held in high esteem, and yet still he drifted away. He could not stand to see more of them dead, and had suffered enough. Perhaps he preferred to die alone, with his boots on, and not to leave that burden with someone else. For twelve years, where he has been or what he's been doing would have been difficult to determine, but rumor has developed of an old hermit wandering the wood, passing his knowledge to those that would listen on a long, arduous trek towards Monroe County.
Whit is a confident individualist. He doesn't spend much time thinking about how people might view him, but rather focuses internally, dealing with obstacles according to how he feels about them, or how they fit into his system of values. Experience matters more to him than logic or practicality. When making decisions, he foremost consults the advancement of honor, beauty, morality and virtue. By the same token, it isn't difficult for Whit to see someone eye to eye. Listening to other people and understanding their plight comes easy, though not without its cost. Too many friends or social entanglements can be detrimental and have proven taxing in the past, so he chooses them carefully. He's also been known to drift into deep thought for extended periods of time, enjoying to contemplate the hypothetical and the philosophical, but left unchecked may start to lose touch or become withdrawn. Bringing him back from these intermissions can be demanding work for those he's placed his trust.
Whit's primary concerns seem particularly focused upon survival and homesteading, attempting to teach what he can to people who never learned, and to pass the torch of stewardship to the individuals he believes to be the most competent and capable leaders of generations to come. He's fond of writing, and spends his free time penning a book he one day believes might see more eyes than his own.
Huntsville wasn't a place for weak willed men. The Walls Unit, a name bestowed by inmates, had a reputation for molding lifers, building criminal minds and enterprises for the likes of the Aryan Brotherhood or the NLR, Barrio Azteca and La Eme, the Texas Syndicate and Tango Blast. Its history was steeped in division and race hate, the only prison that claimed allegiance to the Confederacy even after the Civil War ended, a cage for whites and whites alone, they wagered, until forced by the Federal Government to integrate. It held the record for the longest siege in corrections history, lasting eleven days in 1974 and taking with it the lives of two prisoners, a guard, and a teacher. Even the electric chair had a personality of its own, coined "Old Sparky" and constructed by convicts, the most active execution chamber across fifty states with a sum of three hundred and sixty-two sentences carried out before the program was traded for lethal injection. Most mornings, Whit half expected to open his eyes and find himself back behind those cold, steel bars.
But Huntsville wasn't all bad, not all the time. It was where Sam Peckinpah filmed The Getaway with Steve McQueen, host to scores of tribute by the musical talents of Merle Haggard and Steve Earle, Cody Johnson and Bobby Bare. It was where he reunited with his father after nineteen years of parole and re-offense, where he learned to be a man and how to survive by the grace of God and his fists, but most importantly Hunstville was where he sharpened his mind and learned the value of an education. The most dangerous men in the room were always the quiet ones. They read books and people as if their lives depended on it, honed themselves daily like knives on whetstone, and practiced routines that made them difficult to be taken advantage. As far as Whit was concerned, it was true and always would be: you didn't mess with a guy who spent the last two decades repping his brand and studying the Art of War or 48 Laws of Power. Nothing to gain from that but a shallow grave and a quick way out -- that was if you were lucky -- and so it was apparent to him, young as he was, that those who could not find practical application for the years spent vacationing in sweet, sweet Huntsville were destined to lose their minds, bodies, or souls. Sometimes all three. Often more than they bargained for.
That wasn't Whit's intention, however. He didn't plan for a future in the convict hierarchy, deftly as he may have maneuvered, and there was no dodging the program no matter how hard someone might try. First day in his cell, first minute he entered the block, the AB was examining his paperwork like some kind of criminal interview for legitimacy. When they asked what good he was, the sort of skills he'd bring to the table and how they could extort him, his only options were to embellish the truth or be divvied for the sort of work given to prison wives or punks, and there was no coming back from that. Music and tattoo's were his ticket out, the first thing that sprung to mind, so he practiced for days, twelve hours a day, until the moment came and went that he earned the type of reputation which gave him a pass from heavy hitting.
"Red? You alright. Ain't no one gonna stick the ink-man in our wood pile," they reassured him, but he couldn't avoid it. No one could. Everyone put in work, even the artists, even the punks. If it wasn't tattoo's, it was holding contraband. If it wasn't holding contraband, it was keeping tabs on other inmates, or keeping watch for corrections officers when the real shit was about to pop off. An eight year sentence for assault and armed robbery turned into twelve with loss of privilege, and by the time he was released in 2004, he had narrowly avoided association with the TDCJ's Gang Intelligence Unit simply for the sake of survival and being where he was. His parole wouldn't be over until he was fifty-one. No mistakes, no slip ups, no exceptions.
In hindsight, those twelve years were a saving grace by comparison to what might have been had he and Huntsville never crossed paths. He wrote and published a book of poetry, earned a bachelor's that would lend to keeping as far and away from people as his PO would allow, salvaged some sort of dysfunctional relationship before his father passed away, who left him a small plot of land outside of Brownwood. Not many men walked away from the Walls Unit more prepared than when they entered, not by a long shot. Damaged? Without question, but ready? Having used their sentence to plot every moment, the multitude of measures one could employ to avoid finding oneself in a place like that again? Wiser, stronger? The rare breed who emerged new, capable men? That was one testimony, the list he was sure to grow on his way through a simple, honest, quiet life. With great sincerity and determination, he sought to rebuild with his own two hands, an appreciation for the free world that could not be fathomed by a man who never had it taken away, and yet every morning, aligned with the dawning sun, he was reminded of those cold, steel bars. A piece of himself had been left behind, and he was never getting it back.
Life During the Great Fall: Brownwood Approximately 12 Years Ago
On the road, they were all strangers. Those early days brought to bear a peculiar circumstance wherein the people who wandered onto Route 377 mixed with a mindless caravan too bereft of wit, or overcome by fear, to acknowledge where they were going or what they might plan to do. From time to time the chatter sparked and fizzled, or someone might have exclaimed to a loved one who meandered at their side, but otherwise Whit kept his mouth shut and shuffled onward. He didn't care to invite their stories, and found no fulfillment in communal suffering.
Most of them seemed distraught, the thousand yard stare associated with tragedy untoward the likes of modern civilization, or at least not here, not withstanding the social fringe he often mingled before and during his sentence at Huntsville. He'd seen it before in the eyes of new prisoners who hadn't the wherewithal to fathom just what exactly they'd gotten themselves into, those poor souls who were chewed up and spat out like the raw taste of rotten morsels. Some of them were lucky enough not to be alone, and in some regard they had, perhaps, all been fortunate that the strangers on the interstate had not sought them harm first and foremost.
His first contact had been a paltry affair by comparison to what he imagined the others experienced. In that too, he was fortuitous. A three mile hike had lead him by the setting sun at the merciless advance of swarming mosquitoes, through a thick mesquite brush, that season in which all Texans seemed to unite in a mild displeasure for the outdoors. At the end of his walk stood a quiet tavern, the sort of place only to grace the lips of locals, where he would stop once or twice a month to catch broadcasted news across a wide variety of cable networks. It was the only time he allowed himself a drink, and Whit was thirsty by the time he reached his destination, but upon arrival he found the door left open. Not particularly unusual, he considered, if it weren't for the bugs and the heat.
Entering then, he was met by an empty room. Customarily, the owner -- a man he knew only by Bert -- would have been leaned behind the counter or seated at a table with his back to the wall, as to catch patrons as they made their way inside, but he was nowhere to be seen. Whit called out his name expecting to hear him stir from elsewhere, but was met only with silence and the flashing, low light glare from a boxy television situated precariously on a high shelf in the corner. Suddenly his interest diverted.
Images transitioned from one to the other, with text in red and white boxes across the bottom of the screen, displaying messages like "Stay Indoors", "Seek Immediate Shelter", or "Avoid All Contact". As a crease drew firm in the middle of his brow, attention fixated upon the scrolling content -- a list of numbers for services and makeshift hospitals -- he fumbled hurriedly at the devices volume control while a woman appeared, holding a microphone, with a crowd of busied officers and paramedics in the background.
"The situation is dire in downtown Abilene tonight, where Police responding to an emergency at a local music venue arrived to contain what they're referring to as an extension of the hysteria taking place in communities across the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, since the first time the rioting and looting started over the weekend it has spread outside Austin to other major cities in Texas, prompting the Mayor of Abilene, Anthony Williams, to release an official notification to all - Oh my god!"
A shot rang clear as the reporter ducked out of frame. The camera swiveled wildly from side to side, zoomed out and back in, until focused on an ever proceeding crowd held at a makeshift barricade. Another shot followed, by another and another, until the audio output became overwhelmed by an explosive distortion that compelled the speakers to rattle and shake. As he watched on with grave concern, he flipped channels to confirm what he'd seen, but all he found were different reports of a similar state-wide catastrophe. Dallas was forcibly evacuating its residents; Austin was quarantined; El Paso was burning; the ports in Houston had been closed by Customs and Border Protection, a massive naval blockade anchored off the coast.
In that moment, absorbing what information he could in his frenzied pursuit through station after station, he caught something move from his periphery, just over his left shoulder and several meters at his heel. Whit adjusted slowly then, turning to face the door as a nervous sweat rolled down his cheek, to find a reeling silhouette planted shakily in the frame. As it stepped forward, he knew by first account what he'd seen to be true. This wasn't a fever dream, or a hallucination. It was Bert, his throat torn out, drooling like a mad dog and gnashing his teeth.
Life During the Great Fall: Route 281 Approximately 12 Years Ago
At some point in the evening while half asleep, his third day on the road surrounded by people he was still yet unfamiliar, slumped in a shallow ditch a mile off the interstate, a child attached himself to Whit's proximity. The boy must have been alone, he assumed, as there didn't seem a soul otherwise preoccupied with his well-being. His face and hands were blackened by soot, streaks cascading down his face where tears had once accumulated, leaving his skin exposed only in those solemn strips that dried along the cut of his jaw. Everything he wore lead Whit to believe he'd emerged in solitude at the expense of some disastrous shortcoming, a lone survivor. He was naught but ten. Twelve at the oldest. Trailing in tandem, it would have been cruel to disavow his company.
Like each morning passed since flight from Brownwood, their ragged band of miscreants stirred from fitful slumber at the first signs of a stranger rising. They had, in the first two days, only lost a handful of their congregation. Whether they had strayed too far and lost account, or had they -- in one instance -- been devoured before daylight, none of them slept more than a wink, and often with one eye open, had they even slept at all. Everyone was depleted, Whit among them, and the boy was faring worse than most.
On more than one occasion, Whit was forced to turn around and drag the child back to the others while the party marched nearer the Oklahoma border, hastened footsteps met with purpose to the baking blacktop that patched the asphalt of Route 377, but it was steadily driving the pair toward the brink of oblivion. When they flanked the edge of Dallas, west of Weatherford and crossing then onto the 281, aimed at Decatur, the boy sat himself in the middle of the road and protested he'd move no further. While he kicked and screamed, crying like a wounded animal, Whit tossed him over his shoulder and carried him until the fourth night fell.
An hour into the evening, however, after they'd stop to rest, a small crowd of leering corpses intercepted their trajectory to devastating effects. In the aftermath of that chaotic scuffle, more than half of those weary souls traveling in their midst had succumbed to bites and scratches, forcing hard decisions upon the remnants unscathed. Families shared parting words, while others not granted the grace of heartfelt goodbyes wept for loss, and with their individual duties done, they piled their lifeless husks clumsily for fear of lingering a moment too late in that cursed stretch of Northern Texas. It seemed barbaric to leave them there above ground, but so few had ate since departure, both their energy and spirit were waning.
Each second had tugged Whit closer to the earth for sake of respite. He hadn't the heart to mourn a man unbeknownst their will and memoir, but a child was effortless; adrift on the wind, a fleeting sort of connection to what was and what might have been. The boy could not understand this new world any clearer than a worm the scale of time, but realizing now as their passage pushed forward that he had been separated, Whit wandered again, over a wire fence and leaned against a lonesome shack -- a flattened plain -- where the boy rested immobile in the dirt. Blood caked in the soil, a thick, expansive pool. His breath was stilled, his flesh still warm to the touch, and though it could not be spared the urgency with which the others had left their darlings to rot among reanimated cadavers, he dug with his hands a narrow grave and left him there, at last to find peaceful accord with the universe.