“What now?!” Thor and I growled in unison.
Thor ran to the door and I followed more slowly, unwilling to jog my still throbbing shoulder until I knew what the fuss was about. Unfortunately for me, fast or slow, Thor had other ideas.
“Stay here,” he snarled.
“Don’t start that again,” I snarled right back.
“Kid, you’re in no shape and I’m in no mood,” he said before wrenching the door open to reveal Evans and another man I didn’t recognize but whose eyes looked as big as saucers and who was holding his rifle a little too tight for good sense.
“Hey Kid. Listen up, bad business coming so let Thor do his job.” Turning to Thor he said, “A road patrol came in saying the pirates have been agitating anyone they can get to listen and now we got a mob of those highway refugees heading this way. Sounds like they plan on raiding the warehouse district and stripping the fields.”
“Get our people mounted up. We’ll take what grain we can and get gone.”
“Cain’t. The militia has us boxed in. We move we might accidentally get take for a baddie and then our goods might get confiscated. You know as well as I do there’s some around here that their feelings wouldn’t exactly be hurt by that and you know who I’m talking about.”
Still thinking of the refugees I muttered, ‘Stupid strategy. They’ll get steamrolled.”
Evans said, “Good eye Kid. Except we don’t know how big or desperate the crowd is going to be. The patrol came in in a panic which says more than it don’t. Them guys ain’t cowards. Sheer numbers could overwhelm our defenses. Strength in numbers may be all they need and after they break our line it will be everyone for themselves. Hungry people do crazy things.”
What he said made sense but it still didn’t feel right.
“But why would the pirates agitate them now? What do they gain from it? The locals will only blame them and make their life even harder,” I said.
Thor turned from bellowing orders to overhear my questions then he glanced at Evans. Evans shrugged, to adults silently communicating over the head of someone they thought was still a kid. It made me want to hit both of them.
Just then I saw Delia with Trish, Mickey, and several other kids. I threw over my shoulder as I moved forward, taking the safety off my rifle, “Fine. Keep your secrets. I’ve got a few of my own. Delia!”
She hesitated a moment then hustled her ducklings in my direction. I asked her, “Am I right to think this is the most secure building around here?”
I could feel Thor’s eye on me while his mouth gave orders to the other runners who had come up. Delia finally answered, “Yeah, it’s why it was chosen to store the grain in.” She had a slight accent I could identify that gave her voice a softness mine had never had.
“That’s what I thought. Take the kids inside. We’ll use bags of wheat to build a temporary bunker. Anything that manages to get through the steel walls will hopefully be stopped by all those sacks.”
Delia started to say, “Thor hasn’t …”
“Thor’s busy with organizing the crew, he can’t keep up with a bunch of kids too. And I don’t see anyone else around to it’s up to us.” As she continued to just stare at me I told her, “Move or don’t but I’m not leaving these kids standing in the middle of a potential war zone.”
I picked up two of the smallest, one of whom was a highly upset Mickey, and she finally seemed to come to the decision to do as I suggested. Then several more women came up with more young ones. A few of the women and teenagers were armed, most were not.
As I passed Thor and Evans they both glanced my way and told me with a nod to continue on with what I was doing. Evans went even further by reaching out and grabbing my arm. Quietly he told me, “Do what you can. Keep them out from under foot. We may send any wounded this direction too. Telling them Thor has other priorities is right. You’ll need to keep the door clear and don’t let ‘em build any fires; grain is combustible.”
Corralling a bunch of scared kids was easier said than done but it was finally made easier once Delia snapped back to herself. Listening to her way of ordering people around was an educational but not near as fun as watching Thor do it. Delia was more of an encourager, trying to work with people’s personalities; she didn’t bellow, she mothered.
Rather than getting her her way and distract the momentum she was building I told her quietly, “I’m going to be on the roof.”
“Body shots,” she told me gruffly.
“When you shoot, don’t get fancy and go for a head shot. You’ll miss too often. Body is a bigger target and disabling works just as well as death in these circumstances.”
I nodded and then went to the caged ladder that ran up the inside of the wall and ledt to the catwalk beside the ventilation windows. It hurt going up but not as bad as I knew it was going to coming down. I just hoped I didn’t pull those stitches out again.
Once I got up there I was reminded of being up in the tobacco barn at home, hanging the sticks of leaves to cure or taking them down to process for grading and bartering. Heights didn’t bother me at all and neither did the odd sounds and smells of being that close to the roof. The birds and their associated mess didn’t make me happy but I’d made them even less so by disturbing their slumber. I used a utilitool from my pocket to pry out one of the jalousie windows. From there I played monkey and got up on the roof.
If it hadn’t been so serious I might have laughed, it was just that bizarre. I was reminded of the old monster movies where the villagers stormed the castle with torches and pitchforks. There were torches this time too only instead of pitchforks the moonlight glinted off of bottles, clubs, rocks, and I was afraid to wonder what else. Something still didn’t make good sense. How did these people expect to go up against guns? Hadn’t they learned yet that the world had turned and that guns weren’t just props on a television show?
Then something caught the corner of my eye. Two warehouses over several people I identified as militiamen were backing an old armored truck into a bay and then pulled down the roll down door before taking up positions in and around the location. A couple of thoughts fell into place with a dull chunk. The look between Thor and Evans. The fact I hadn’t seen any bartering going on like in other places I’d been. The municipal “dollars” I’d seen being used to pay for the things at the clinic and that the onl other thing they’d accept was silver or gold in whatever form you had it. Last but not least was that someone had enough precious metal to pay every man employed by the caravan in coinage as well as grain. As hungry as people were they could have found some who would have done it just so that they could feed their own families.
Creeping in behind that was the memory of the pirates being the agitating force behind the refugees but another glance told me they weren’t part of the crowd that had gotten closer despite the warnings being blasted by some kind of PA system.
Diversion or misdirection, like a Reverse Play in football, that makes your opponent look in one direction when the ball is already going in another. Reverse plays and End Around Plays didn’t always work and if that is what the pirates were doing that didn’t mean it would work this time either. But if the fake didn’t succeed at least a large portion of the fore they were going against would be tied up in a fight with the refugees while they played fox in the hen house.
Suddenly the battle was on. The refugees picked up speed and began to swarm. After the first few waves fell it was like trying to hold back the tide. The defensive line broke here and there allowing large groups through who then started making a run for the closest buildings looking for anything they could carry off. Our guys were getting swamped.
The time for watching was over. I was already sprawled across the still warm metal roof so all I had to do was start carefully picking my targets so that they caused as much confusion to any organized group of refugees that I could. Ours wasn’t the only caravan of goods as Topeka was a major trade and transportation hub. First one warehouse fell and then another one.
Then off to one side a large explosion lit up the sky adding to the chaos. But for me it wasn’t the response to the explosion that drew my attention but something I suspected was coming from a different direction. Sure enough I saw the first one slinking between the shadows heading towards the warehouse with the armored truck in it. The militiamen were all looking in the other direction. Well I wasn’t.
My first shot took out the slinker and alerted the militia they had trouble coming in behind them. I continued to pick off people as I could, where I could. The next explosion when it came had me sliding uncomfortably close to the edge of the roof. The only thing that caught me was some wire strung up there to keep the birds from roosting. I could hear the screaming inside the warehouse … all those kids.
My worst fears had not come true but it was a close thing. The warehouse next door to ours had taken a hard hit by something. Then I saw what the something was. There was some lunatic a couple of roofs over with an honest to goodness rocket launcher. He didn’t live to launch another since he didn’t survive the swan dive I caused him to have due to a well-placed head shot … the one that Delia had recommended against despite the fact I frequently took care of squirrels that way … but that wasn’t the point. I started looking not only on the ground but at the other buildings around me and it was a doggone good thing I did.
Note to self, always expect to run out of ammo at the absolute worst time. Although if you get right down to it there isn’t ever a good time to run out of ammo.
Two men were running towards our warehouse carrying something between them. I didn’t know what it was at the time and I wasn’t going to wait to find out. I was back in and then down the ladder as quick as I could though landing jarred my shoulder enough for me to want to gag for a second.
“Delia, I need a rifle …”
“We’re all out of ammo.”
I said a very unlady like word and then passed my useless rifle to her and pulled out my bowie. “Keep everyone down. Something’s up. I’m going to try and stop it but you may … you may be on your own from here on out.”
“I gotta go …”
“You’re OK. Give Charles a chance to … to get passed this. He’s trying.”
“Sure,” I told her just to pacify her and get going. If I hadn’t she seemed to be the type of person that would delay me because she absolutely had to get me to understand she’d changed her mind about me or some sort of rubbish like that. I didn’t necessarily care what people thought of me anymore. I’d learned early and the hard way that it just did pay to worry about it though I admit I still fall into the bad habit of it with some folks.
By the time I did my own slinking to find where those men had gone they’d managed to set up at the darkest outside corner of our warehouse. I got close as I could trying to figure out what they were up to.
“In Gaia’s name will you hurry up! This is the last one we have and we can’t get caught here.”
“Don’t get your panties in a knot bro. We’ll blow the grain and by this time next year the Great Starving will be history and the Earth will be able to begin to heal herself righteously.”
My blood went cold. These people killed my parents. After the fog of hatred cleared a bit I could admit maybe not these two specifically but their group. For the first time I was faced with the opportunity to exact some revenge for all of the deaths these people had caused.
“I can’t hurry up. I’m having to do this old-style and this stuff isn’t very stable. One wrong move and we both go before Gaia before we’ve earned enough credits to satisfy her.”
Great, just freaking great. No time for strategy or finesse. It was going to have to be brute force. I got into position and as the two of them stood up to move away trailing something that was still connected to the box they had put at the foot of the wall I determined it was now or never.
Freight Train Charbonneau had absolutely no problem taking out two wimpy emo dudes. I was actually afraid for a second I had killed them … until they started whining and complaining at each other. The idiots actually thought their little science experiment had gone off too soon and were cussing each other for making some kind of mistake. They still didn’t realize I was standing behind them and I didn’t feel like an introduction was a proper thing to do under the circumstances. So instead I gave them a well placed kick in the head to put them back out.
I was jittery with the desire to do something to them now that they were under my power. I hog tied them and then pulled their t-shirts up over their heads and used duct tape to hold them there so they couldn’t see what was going on around them if they did come to before I was ready for them to. I nearly laughed when I saw what was tattooed right below their belly button. “I belong to Gaia.”
I was thinking about what little Thor had told me and that there is no way idiots like this started the end of the world all on their own when a voice like molasses aske,“You going to give them a wedgie too?”
I spun and was face-to-face when what had to be a road pirate. How did I know? The stupid get up gave him away. On the other hand while he may have looked like an extra from a Disney sound stage, the dark light in his eyes and the sadistic pleasure he was taking in what I had done to those boys told me the comic attire was camouflage and that I was actually looking at a very dangerous man. “Hadn’t thought of that. Wanna help?”
He smiled a Cheshire Cat grin and said, “Some other time.”
The knife was simply there and coming at me giving me only seconds to react. Good thing my legs go to my armpits because I was able step out of his attack and make him over extend in his follow through. I came up and under his defenses and the bowie did the same job to the pirate that it had done to the coyote. But where the coyote had just been a dangerous animal this had been a human at some point in its life and I had just taken that life up close and personal. Immediately the bile rose in my stomach and I was puking my guts up before I could even think half a thought to stop.
I preferred the roof, you didn’t get to see their eyes that way, or hear moan as the life left their body. Speaking of moaning I nearly started up myself I’d pulled the stitches but at least it didn’t feel as if I had pulled them out.
I was looking down into the box wondering what I should do, listening to the two emo boys scream and carry on, when another voice had me spinning around.
“Easy,” he said while putting his finger to his lips and then pointing at my prisoners.
I nodded at Chuckri cautiously and then pointed down at the box and then a toss of my head indicated who it belonged to. When he came over and then looked down inside it his face got pale enough that it looked like soured milk. He quickly detached the strings I had seen which actually turned out to be a set of wires. He also took out a bag of some kind of powdery stuff before relaxing somewhat.
He reached over and whispered close enough that I could understand him to say, “Drag them to that shed and block them in with something. Things are dying down but we’ve still go mop up so don’t drop your guard. I’ll tell Thor about the wonder boys there.”
I nodded and turned to do what he’d told me when he grabbed my arm. I turned sharply but the look on his face stopped me from saying what was on my mind. He whispered again, “Evans is down. It only looked like a little tap in a fight but … something isn’t right. He’s spacey. Richards is with him in here.” He indicated the warehouse. “Just thought … you …” he stopped, shrugging.
I turned and grabbed them both by a foot turning them so that they were on their stomach and then drug them across the gravel and into the windowless shed. The shed’s door slid rather than swung so after closing it I had to jam something into the track to keep them from being able to open it. I turned to find that Chuckri had removed the box and then I went back into the warehouse to find Richards.
I found chaos. Kids were screaming and crying and there plenty of adults doing it too. The medical staff was trying to separate hysterical people constantly trying to get their attention from patients who really needed their attention.
I blew a whistle that, because of the echo in the warehouse, nearly made my own ears bleed.
“Shut up! Someone, get those kids and put them someplace. Get the older ones to help with the younger ones. I hear one more cry, scream or shout and you aren’t going to like the consequences!” My voice was naturally loud but I was adding a dash of Thor and a good dose of Coach to get my point across. “Now listen up, this is not helping. You interfere with the medics anymore and people are going to die, you are making it too hard for them to do their jobs.” Looking at the limited number of people helping Richards and the too many bodies littering the floor I asked, “Anyone here with first aid training? I don’t care if you are a kid. Boy Scout? Cub Scout? Girl Scout? Venturer?”
A voice answered, “4H, I know how to give first aid to animals.” A big, bushy headed boy stood up.
Then another voice, “There’s three of us from Troop 212.” That came from a cluster of boys standing beside and older woman who added she was a retired nurse.
“I … I know CPR. I have my babysitting certificate.” That from a little wisp of a girl near the back.
I nodded and then said, “Good. Now listen up. I’m going to ask you all to do something. This man here is named Dr. Richards. I want you to do what he tells you. It doesn’t matter if that just means sitting and keeping someone talking or if you are running to get him something. He may assign you to do help someone else. But I want you to work and give it your best. You could be helping to save lives here.”
The kids were obviously scared but they were also digging down deep and showing some pride. That more than anything would help turn this from a night of terror into a night they grew up some and maybe found a purpose. Like me. I didn’t know where what I was feeling was coming from but I knew that I’d found something worth cultivating.
With the human volume at manageable levels I walked over to Richards just as he gave the last kid an assignment.
“They said Evans was hurt.”
“He’s over there. He’s better now, more himself but …”
“This morning … wait … no … yeah, it was this morning … Lordy the hours are running together … he was acting a little off. Weak with a tendency to lean or lose his balance.”
He looked at me sharply, “Bad?”
I shook my head, “Not … no … no not bad but enough that I noticed. No one else seemed to though. Just … don’t tell him I said anything.”
“You’re looking after him?”
“Just returning the favor. He’s … he’s had my back a few times.”
“Rocky this is important. I want you to keep watching him. He was badly concussed when you got him out of that fix with the gamblers. Concussions can have lasting effects. I want to give him time to heal on his own before … before I say anything to Thor.”
“Thor knows. I had to explain why I wanted to get paired up with Evans. I don’t think he wants to … do whatever it is he would have to do if Evans wasn’t fit for working for some reason. You saw how Evans got last time. Evans is a good guy.”
He looked at me and then pulled me to the side. “I haven’t said anything up to this point because I figured it was your business but … if you’ve fallen for Evans this is going to make things difficult.”
I choked so hard my lungs nearly exited my nostrils. He just shook his head. “Kid I may not be a medical doctor per se but I do have more than a rudimentary understanding of anatomy. When I was checking to see if you’d broken any ribs when the dogs went at you I can count.”
“Oh.” I mumbled then the light bulb came on. “Oh!” Women generally have one more rib than men do; it makes up for the adam’s apple they don’t have.
“Who else knows?”
“Hmm. Dollars to donuts Thor knows or at least suspects; he doesn’t miss much though you’ve had him confused. I enjoyed watching him watching you trying to figure out what was different. Evans might know too. He’s just that way and it would explain why he was so foul with you in the beginning. Me. But I’ve wondered if the rest of them had bricks for brains lately. I count myself open minded so I figured you might be transgendered or …”
I snapped, “Well close your mind before something nasty flies in. What I am or am not is no one’s business but mine. Evans is my friend. He … I don’t know how to say it … he’s just been good to me when the rest of you acted like I wasn’t worth spitting on. Beyond my telling you that I don’t owe you an explanation.”
He got that irritatingly compassionate look that some head doctors get when they interview their clients. “You’re perfectly within your rights to feel that way but it might help you to let it out and …”
“Don’t … start. I am not a bug in your collection.” I stopped and then forced myself to say, “Please don’t tell anyone. I have my reasons. Respect them even if you can’t respect me.”
After another professional once over he nodded his head and then said, “Remember what I said. If you and Evans are going to …”
“We aren’t!” I said quickly. “We’re friends. I swear why do guys always have to think everything goes back to the issue of sex.”
A surprised look lit his face, then an appreciative smile came out and he said, “Touché.”
Richards went back to doctoring and I went over to check on Evans. “Hey, you try to take on someone my size?”
“Kid, don’t kid a kidder. A little tap like that shouldn’t have put me on the ground and out for as long as it did.”
“Maybe not if you were back to one hundred percent but you didn’t exactly give yourself a break after the gamblers. As I noticed you went back on full duty nearly as soon as you could sit a horse. Might not have been the smartest move. And you haven’t exactly been resting, not to mention the world is kinda falling apart as we watch. That’d put anyone under some serious stress.”
I watched him grab at those straws I was holding out and build a fire with them. Seemed to warm him enough that he got some natural color back. “Mayhap. Maybe we’ll run and grab us a fishing hole after we deliver Chuckri to his home. Might be time for a little R&R now that you mention it.”
“You’re on. And if we don’t find one in Missouri maybe there’s one along the way to whatever place you’re looking for. I know of a good one that stays wet all year back in the woods near home. There’s a hot spring that feeds it. Smells terrible but it makes a pretty good hot tub so long as you don’t mind the occasionally curious nibble.”
He smiled but then got serious. “You asking me to come to your place?”
“Well, yeah. Come throw your feet up by the fire. It’ll keep me from talking to myself all winter.”
I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing but something was telling me this man needed me. Not in … well … not in that way. I couldn’t explain it but asking him to go home with me was right.
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Says you. You’re just trying to get out of me beating you by landing the first big one.”
“Like @#$% you will. I was fishing before you was even thought of.” Just like that the bargain was sealed. It didn’t even need a handshake.
Then the door slammed open scaring the bejeebers out of all of us and a voice yelled, “Richards!”
It took me a second to realize the sack of potatoes they were hauling in was Thor.