We ran through the buildings to the front door and looked out at the long driveway that led from the front gate up to the school. An old man was running as fast as he could up the drive towards us, holding hands with two boys. All three were shouting for help. Behind them, just inside the gate but gaining fast, were a man and a woman on horseback. Both carried shotguns. The woman took aim at the fleeing trio. She fired and one of the boys stumbled and fell forwards onto the gravel. The old man hesitated, unsure what to do.

'Run, you idiot, run,' whispered Norton.

The old man ushered the other boy towards the school and as the child continued running the man turned back to get the wounded boy. He crouched there protectively shielding him from the approaching riders as they reigned in their steeds and loomed over them. The woman took careful aim at the running boy.

While all this was happening boys had come running up to the door one by one, drawn by the noise. Bates arrived last, carrying his rifle. He pushed to the front and went to open the door just as the woman fired and the running boy threw up his arms and tumbled head over heels onto the cold drive. He lay there for a moment and then started crawling towards us. We all gasped, horrified. The woman started her mount trotting towards him.

I glanced up at Bates but the look on his face said it all; he was frozen, unable to make a decision. We weren't going to get anything useful from him.

'Where's Mac?' he asked.

'Scavenging party, sir,' I replied.

'Oh. Right. Ummm…'

Shit. I had to do something.

'Sir, give me the gun sir,' I said.


'Give me the gun, sir.' I didn't shout, that wouldn't have worked. I was just quietly insistent, assuming authority I didn't really feel. He handed me the rifle just as Matron came running. She too was armed.

'Matron,' I said. 'Get out there and talk to them. Just give me two minutes.'

Startled, she looked to Bates for confirmation, but he was just staring out the window, biting his lip. She looked back to me and nodded, then stepped out onto the front steps, rifle ready but not presented for firing.

The horsewoman had dismounted and was standing over the injured child, who continued to crawl away from her, whimpering and crying, leaving a thick red snail trail behind him. Her colleague was still mounted, covering the other two, about twenty metres behind her.

I turned away from the door, pushed through the crowd of boys, and ran up the main stairs. I needed to get to a good vantage point.

I heard a shot behind me and my stomach lurched. Jesus, she'd executed the boy.

I reached the first floor landing and ran into the classroom that looked down over the driveway. Dammit, the bloody windows were closed. I laid the rifle on the window seat and tried to pull up the sash. No use, it was painted shut and wouldn't budge. I looked down, saw Matron, and realised with relief that it was she who had fired, a warning shot. The wounded boy was still crawling. The horsewoman's shotgun was now aimed square at Matron.

I could have shattered one of the small panes of glass, but I didn't want to draw attention to myself, and I needed to be able to hear what was being said. I cursed, grabbed the gun, and ran back to the staircase. I was losing seconds I couldn't afford. I sprinted up the stairs to the second floor. The front room here was a dormitory with beds lying underneath the windows, one of which was already open. I muttered silent thanks and lay down on the bed, brought the rifle up and rested the barrel on the window frame. I nestled the stock deep into the soft tissue of my right shoulder. The. 303 kicks like a bastard, and if you don't seat it properly you can give yourself a livid purple bruise to the collarbone that'll leave you hurting for weeks. Believe me, I know.

I lifted the bolt, drew it back and a round popped up from the magazine to fill the void. I then pushed the bolt forward again, smoothly slotting the round into the breach, snapped the bolt back down and slipped off the safety catch. I took careful aim and calmed my breathing, steadied my hands, focused on the woman with the shotgun.

'…looters, plain and simple,' she was saying. She stood about five metres in front of Matron. The boy was still crawling, still whimpering, halfway between the two women.

'Looters?' replied Matron, incredulous.

'They were seen taking food from a newsagent's in Hildenborough. An old man with two boys. No doubt. We've been tracking them for the past hour.'

'And who the hell says they shouldn't take food where they find it? You may not have noticed, dear, but our debit cards don't work any more.'

The boy kept crawling.

'We control Hildenborough now,' the woman said. 'Our territory, our rules.'

'And who's we?'

'The local magistrate, George Baker, took charge. He's the law there, and if he says you're a looter, you're a looter.'

'And you shoot looters?'

'The ones who run, yeah.'

'And the ones you catch?'

'We hang them.'

Matron leant down to the boy, who had now reached her and was clawing at her shoes.

'I know this boy. He's thirteen!' she shouted.

The horsewoman shrugged.

'Looter is a looter. And people who shelter looters are no better.'

Matron stood up again, raised her rifle and walked right up to the horsewoman. I thought the rider would fire but she kept her cool, confident that her colleague would deter Matron from firing the first shot.

The two women stood face to face, one raised gun barrel length between them.

'Well this,' said Matron, 'is my territory. And here I am the law. You leave. Now.'

The horsewoman held Matron's gaze for a long minute. I had to shift my aim; Matron's head was blocking my shot. I sighted on the horseman instead.

The horsewoman called Matron's bluff.

'Oh yeah,' she sneered. 'And who's going to make me? You and whose army?'

She pushed the barrel of Matron's rifle aside, raised her shotgun and, before I could react, clubbed Matron hard on the head with the stock. Matron slumped to the ground, stunned.

This was it, the moment of truth. I'd fired this rifle countless times on the range, blasting away at paper people, but I'd never fired at a real, breathing, living human being. If I could list my unspoken ambitions in life one of them, which I think most people probably share, was to never actually kill someone. I didn't want anybody's blood on my conscience, didn't want to stay awake at night playing and replaying my actions, seeing someone die again and again at my hands.

I'd heard my dad wake up screaming.

I knew what becoming a killer meant.

But there and then hesitation meant that other people, people I cared about, would die. I didn't have time to consider, philosophise or second guess. As the horsewoman lowered her gun to point at Matron's head, I took careful aim at her chest and gently squeezed the trigger.

But before I could shoot, before I could take my first life, someone else opened fire at the man who sat covering the other two 'looters'. The man spun in the air, tumbled off the horse and lay still. The woman turned to see what was happening. Matron, injured but mobile, gathered the wounded boy into her arms and began staggering towards the school. The man's horse took fright and ran left onto the grass, whinnying and rearing, revealing Mac, stood at the school gate with a smoking rifle held firm at his shoulder.

The horsewoman gave a cry of anguish and ran towards Mac. She fired her shotgun once, causing the old man to duck, but the shot went wide, and then she too was felled by a single shot from Mac. Her momentum carried her on a few steps and then she fell in a heap alongside the two looters she'd been pursuing.

Her horse now took fright and bolted, racing, head down, towards Matron, threatening to trample her and the boy she was carrying.

Without a second's thought I re-sighted and fired.

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