Yeah, that gave me a lot to chew on all right. I had thought it was going to be so simple. Cross the mountains with a group and then go my merry way. I hadn’t intended on getting … well attached I guess you would call it … to the people I was traveling with. I also hadn’t realize how hard and dangerous the trek would be. If I hadn’t been with these men I would have been puppy chow or I could have fallen to any number of other things along the road. Certainly there would have been an issue of supplies, sharing night watch, and loneliness. Now that harsh reality had made itself known I was running out of time to decide what to do.
I gave myself a deadline. We’d already cross the Continental Divide between Table Rock and Red Dessert. I’d missed it because construction had the sign down. We’d cross the Divide again right before we got into Rawlins. Before I got to there I wanted to talk to Thor and see if I was included in that “welcome to come along” statement or if it only applied to the real men.
We’d travelled two days and thirty miles and I was running out of time. The only time I wasn’t thinking about it was when Evans had me pawing through a vehicle looking for goodies to put in the bike trailers we all took turn pulling. Every day I found it amazing how little truly useful items people had gathered to take with them for the end of the world. But there were the occasional finds worth the trouble of their weight. What little food we found was usually eaten within a day or two of the find. It takes a lot of calories to feed eight people that have been doing hard labor all day. The bottles of water came in handy as well because natural water sources were few and far between. I had a feeling that was going to get worse once I was out on the Great Plains.
The night of that second day we were camped next to a pull out. For once Richards had another target. Evans had finally simply grossed everyone out so much that they’d appealed to Richards to see what could be done about the foot odor. Richards was really laying into Evans about the state his feet were in and had him sitting with his feet in a plastic pan that contained a strong solution of Lysol, water, and who knows what else. I was sympathetic as I had been the man’s focus often enough but not so sympathetic that I didn’t appreciate being out from under the microscope for the night.
The day had been a hard one and not just because we’d moved a car after car after car, some of which we just pushed over the edge and let them crash where they may however far down they went. What had been hard was the number of bodies that many of the vehicles still contained. The worst had been the school bus full of kids. Not even Evans had a snappy remark for that one. We were all a little morose and choosing to be more quiet than normal. I felt set apart, unable to release that part of me that exercising might have given me more comfort; there is something said for the release that comes from shedding tears. I needed some physical distance to make the emotional one from them men easier for me to handle.
I didn’t go far, just on the other side of some rocks so they were no longer in my line of sight. I’d been there maybe ten minutes and had begun to relax when Thor showed up. I prayed silently, “Please, please, please not another lecture.”
“Most of the other men have already given me there answers. You come up with one yet?”
I realized he was asking me about my traveling plans and it looked like my three days had turn to two. “I … I wasn’t real sure if … you know … I was … invited.”
He never once looked at me. “I couldn’t not include you.”
Oh great. At least now I had my answer. I sighed. “Thor, that tells me more than it doesn’t. I know I’m not part of your group of guys. I know you all got stuck with me. I know I’ve caused some problems. But I also did my best to carry my own load and help out. I thought maybe I was making up for my short comings.” I heard him rumble but interrupted him before the rumble could be put into words. “I’d wondered where I stood and you just told me. Don’t sweat it. As soon as the feds release the group …”
“Hey Kid … get off your duff and come give me a hand!” Evans. I stood up and went to go help.
“Rocky …” Thor started.
“Forget it. It’s better off all around now that I know where I stand. I can get my own plans figured out quicker.”
I tried real hard not to let my feelings be hurt. It was stupid really considering I’d already had my suspicions. Evans was so foul that everyone was just happy that I was the dumb sucker that got to deal with him. They stayed away and no one noticed if I was quiet by choice or quiet because I was trying to keep Evans from chewing me out even more.
Ten miles of back breaking labor the next day and we were in Rawlins. It was the biggest place we’d been to at a while but where the population of 10,000 souls went was anyone’s guess. It wasn’t until mid-morning of the seventh day that we got an inkling. Evans, scrounging around for some new boots so he could get Richards off his back, found a broadsheet from a small local newspaper. Apparently some threat, or more likely rumor of a threat, had been identified and the town had been evacuated … which also explained the miles upon miles of cars that apparently went in both directions of I80.
We ate well that night as there was still lots of canned food in the stores. It wasn’t all on the shelves, there was a lot just rolling around on the floors, but the town hadn’t been completely panic-stripped before people left town. But somewhere about my third bite I realized something was different and then I understood what it was. The gulf that I thought I had built a bridge across was widening. It wasn’t them against me or vice versa but it definitely wasn’t one for all and all for one either. I crawled into my tent, I had last watch and I knew it would be a while until I could fall asleep.
Three AM rolled around and the watch with the vibrating alarm woke me before anyone else had to. I’d found the watch in a pawn shop slash beer joint the day before and knew that if I was going to be on my own it would come in handy. I crawled out to find Evans taking a brush to his feet like he wanted to scratch the first couple of layers of skin off.
He groused quietly after Barkley had gone off to get some sleep. “If he’d just left me alone … I had it under control … now this stuff is driving me insane.”
“You’re making it worse,” I told him. “You’re breaking the skin, drying it out, and it more places to take up residence. Soak your feet in some more Lysol and then put some of that foot cream on them and then clean socks. The new boots should help.”
“My old ones were broke in.”
“Your old ones could petrify Medusa. Tell me you chunked ‘em.”
“Didn’t have any choice. Richards threw ‘em in the fire. And anyway, it’s too cold to soak my feet. I’ll catch my death.”
“Don’t be a baby. What’s worse? A running nose or itchy feet?”
After a lot of quiet moaning and groaning Evans finally finished soaking his feet and doing the other that I’d suggested. He said it was now too late to bother with going to bed as it would only make him more tired. “Hey, I meant to ask … why you think you can just go off on your own at Laramie?”
I did not want to have this conversation but it is pretty hard to ignore someone when they won’t let you. “You got some hot little cheerleader waiting for you back home that you afraid one of us will take?”
I snorted a quiet laugh, “Nope.”
“Then what’s up?”
I looked at him but he knew already which was a good thing because I wasn’t looking forward to another lie. “I’m not part of the team. I know that. You know that. Y’all have been good to me, I’ve learned stuff, but that doesn’t make me part of the team.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” I interrupted him. “I appreciate it … even getting hassled … well some of the time anyway. But there was always going to be a time when I was going to get cut and released to find my own way. Laramie is just as good a point as any for that to happen. Really, what’s the sense in putting it off?”
Before Evans could answer my rhetorical question the sound of a heavy engine caught my ear. I stood up to try and figure out the directions while the other men went to wake everyone up. It was coming up too fast and then was forced to brake accordingly before losing control. It was the forward guard for the caravan.
“Dang. What spooked you?” I asked the driver who couldn’t have been much older than me.
“There are dead bodies everywhere,” he said before a more senior member of the guard could shut him up.
I tried to say as calmly as I could, “Better than live bodies I expect. They might cause more trouble.” That caught the guy’s attention and some of the crazy went out of his eyes. But that was the last interchange I was allowed to have with him as he was shifted to the back of the truck where they dropped off our supplies and told us to get.
Thor asked, “What about the debriefing?”
“We have our orders and they were to deliver these supplies and then send you on your way,” this from a heavily mustached man that looked like he’d seen way too much in way too short a period of time. It was like trying to talk to a wall to get anything else out of him so we packed our gear and got back on the road with one less day of rest than we had expected.
Adding the miles up gave us a hundred miles to Laramie and it looked like that might get eat up faster than I had expected it to. We made it to Walcott despite the distance because fifteen miles outside of Rawlins the traffic went way down. I was too tired to do much more than take my shift that night. I knew the men were tired as well but I felt like I was already being cut from the loop.
The next day we made it to Elk Mountain. There were people around but we all tended to stick to our groups rather than communicate with each other. I tried asking different groups what the road ahead was like but they treated me like … well they treated me like folks used to treat me when they found out I was a GWB, like I was a freak. Next town was Arlington and that’s where we ran into a road cleaning crew from Laramie and got some answers.
Yes, Laramie had been under the control of the feds but they’d been removed from control by the local citizenry when they tried to say that the Constitution was not applicable to the current situation. Times were hard in the surrounding area and there was quite a dust up when the feds were deposed. Infrastructure was non-existent but groups were trying to do what they could. The roads were being cleared. The dead were being given a decent burial. Orphans and the frail elderly were being cared for by their neighbors. Work crews were being put together to help gather items from vacant buildings and businesses so that it could be used as constructively as possible. No one single person or group was in charge but there was a main committee that held open meetings so anyone could make a concern known or get help in solving a problem.
Evans, nearly the only one of the men who I could still talk to, said over one of our late night discussions, “I’d be interested in knowing if those people behind us know what they are rolling into.”
I understood he was talking about the feds. I wondered, “And does this change things for us?”
“You know, whether … I don’t know what to call it. Can they still threaten us in some way?”
“Oh … guess you didn’t hear Chuckri. Since we’d have to go through Laramie anyway to get into Nebraska we’re going to try and end the job on a civil note. No reason to make enemies if we don’t have to.”
Ouch. I guess they didn’t think I had any reason to know or care about it at this point. Or that I’d go along just like I always had. I refused to let Evans see that hurt like it did so all I said was, “OK.”
We were half way between Arlington and Laramie when that the truck that had been used by the forward guard caught up with us. The woman I’d met my first day was riding shotgun … but she wasn’t in uniform.
I’ll have to admit they made their BS sound all official. They even gave us a computer printed piece of letterhead with a bunch of numbers on it saying that we’d been released from activity duty and could return to our former command. Then they sped off like they were in a hurry to get someplace … or get away from something.
Reading the letter I said, “Good trick but I didn’t have a command. I could have made something that looked better than this thing using a little cut and paste and a cheap publishing program. They didn’t even spell my name right.”
Evans slapped my back and told me, “Don’t complain. It’ll do for what I need it for.”
For lack of anything better to do, the next day I followed them the rest of the way into Laramie. We arrived on what turned out to be market day. The streets were wall-to-wall people, buggies, wagons, and animals from the surrounding areas. I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do when suddenly a voice blasted in my ear.
“Charbonneau! Are you deaf?!” I knew that voice but was trying to place it. “Dang Rocky I knew it was you. Hair’s different but it’s still you.” I looked into the face and finally recognized who it was. The last time I’d seen him they were carrying him off the field on a stretcher. I’d sacked him during the play offs of my freshman year. Oh crap.