Warrensburg had several strikes against it when things first began to fall apart. First off it was a university town; the University Central Missouri played a prominent role in the local economy and well as bringing in a lot of outsiders. It was also an Amtrak hub along the Kansas City and St. Louis route with tracks that spread from one end of town to the other … and a train out of Kansas City used by escapees from whatever bacteria was released there derailed right in the middle of things spreading. It had over fifteen thousand permanent residents which didn’t include the all of the students in the area, and the area really wasn’t designed to be self-sufficient. But the worst thing was that it filled with evacuees from Whiteman Air Face Base.
The evacuees along with all of the other stranded residents, permanent and otherwise, quickly stripped the town of everything remotely edible or useful (and some things that weren’t either) and then turned on each other. At some point someone’s cooking fire, or that was my guess anyway since it started in the primarily residential area of town, got out of control and took out about a quarter of the east side of the town. The chaos of that destruction overwhelmed what little infrastructure that remained. The rest of the town died a quick and hard death accentuated as the Kansas City illness spread beyond the containment area that had been set up and the only thing that was left by the time we got there was the rougher elements and guys on leave … permanent or otherwise … from the air force base.
We had several groups try to shake us down for protection money, supplies, etc. One group looked particularly disgusting with sores and such that proclaimed them to be severe meth-heads. We finally took up a defensible position by simply driving the wagons and horses into a warehouse that still had a roof and four walls if little else.
With no internal walls there was no privacy and for once I was once again grateful for dark corners and shadows to escape the attention of other people. It was difficult to scrap together enough wood to have a cook fire so dinner that night was simply a thrown together mess for most folks. There was no game to supplement the supplies even as flavoring and if everyone hadn’t been so tired – and if Uncle Bedros hadn’t turned a forbidding stare on a few – I suspect there would have been no small amount of grumbling. Water was not to be found either which meant using a lot of what we had in the water barrels, one of which was attached to each wagon.
For my own use I used bits of charcoaled wood and built a small fire in an empty coffee can I’d found. Thor, Alfonso, and I had been working our butts off through dinner fixing a axle that was starting to wobble. Alfonso had a cast iron stomach and didn’t seem to mind what the Chuckri women had thrown together but I knew Thor and I needed more. While he took care of a few other things I went to work. When he finally returned I was pretty satisfied with my efforts. Thor was as well but was concerned at our water supply level since we’d also had to water the animals with it.
“I wouldn’t trust any water from around here anyway,” I told Thor as we shared a plate of Mexican Grilled cheese sandwiches I had made for us. “No sense in risking us or the animals getting sick. As soon as we find the next watering hole or water tower we can fill up there.”
Thor sighed and admitted we didn’t have any choice at this point and finally bit into what I’d been working on. “If I’d known you could cobble together a meal like this you’d been cooking a long time ago,” he mumbled around his first mouthful.
I snorted, “Yeah, like I was going to let you know so that you could do just that.”
He reached over and gave me a cheesey kiss on the cheek. “Seriously, soups good but I couldn’t handle another night of corn chowder. Where’d you get the supplies for this?”
“The bread is ours from what was baked last night. By the way, you might want to mention to Chuckri that his uncle should pull out some seed wheat so it doesn’t accidentally all get used up. Who knows what the state of things are going to be once they get to Kentucky. Anyway I saved back the bread from toast at breakfast since you didn’t seem to mind the leftover corn pone from the night before. Then tonight I just pulled together stuff out of my supplies.”
“What’s your pack weigh?” Thor asked.
“Now? I don’t know … forty or fifty pounds probably. Normally when Dad and I went hiking my pack ran between eighty-five and a hundred pounds but I didn’t like carrying that heavy for the short trails.”
“You carried an eighty-five to hundred pound pack … hiking … you’re not just making that up?”
Getting irritated that he seemed so surprised I asked, “Do you want dessert or are you going to be deprived?”
“There’s dessert too?”
“Assuming you behave,” I told him.
“I always behave … just don’t expect me to always be well behaved. Now seriously, what were you doing carrying that much gear on a hike? Did them scouts make you carry all of the gear?”
“Our venture crew was pretty decent sized, in number and build since most of us were older, but we always had a couple of smaller and younger kids that came along from the local Boy Scout troops who were working on some of the high adventure badges. If I wasn’t helping them I was helping my dad. Dad was the guy who trained the trainers that in turn trained the local adult volunteers and that sort of thing.” I shrugged. “I helped carry any special equipment like the climbing gear, block and tackle and other heavy trail clearing equipment, stuff like that. It helped me to stay in shape in the off season since it was too hard for me to get to town and use the gym every day.”
“Is your dad who taught you to trail cook?”
I laughed remembering some of my dad’s cooking experiments. “No. He could cook but a lot of the time he doctored it up so much that it never turned out to be what it was originally meant to be. It was Mom and my grandmothers. There was always this tug of war going on. I was a tomboy, well you can imagine why, but the more dainty females in my family refused to give up hope that one day I would settle down to just being a normal sort of girl. And if it wasn’t that they still wanted me to be able to look after myself as far as cooking, cleaning, sewing, yada, yada, yada.”
“OK, oh woman of the mountains, so what am I eating that tastes so good?” he teased.
“You’re being silly again. All I did was sprinkle some taco seasoning on the bread, spread some Velveeta on top of that, fry it on both sides and then when it was gooey I opened it up and spread some black bean and corn salsa in it and resealed it before the cheese got cold. Like I said the bread came from our bit of breakfast this morning and the rest was just stuff I’ve been salvaging as I’ve run across it. I was trying to save the salsa for a special occasion but I needed the proteins the beans have.”
He looked at me in the middle of chewing the last corner of his sandwich. “You feeling OK?”
“Oh I’m fine, just not getting the amount of protein I’m used to. All of the corn and bread and potatoes we’ve been eating is great for the carb count and short term energy but I need to balance that with protein and the little bit of game we’ve been able to bring in just isn’t …” I trailed off afraid I sounded like I wasn’t grateful or was complaining.
Thor made it easy on me however as he scooched up close and said, “Yeah, I’ve been missing the meat that goes with the potatoes I’m used to as well. It’s going to be hard with a group this size though and no resupply in sight. It’ll be easier when we are on our own. Now what’s for dessert?”
I laughed and pulled an aluminum foil lined box away from the fire. “Don’t tear the aluminum, I’m going to try and reuse it again if I can. I’ve used it several times already and it is starting to fall apart but hate to use any new until I have no choice.”
Thor opened the two aluminum foil packets like it was an expensive Christmas gift while I did a quick clean up of what mess I had made. I told him, “It would have been better if I could have saved any of those wind fall apples from that tree but they got used in the cobbler that Mrs. Chuckri and Joan made night before last. These are some of the last dried apples that I’ve got and I also used the last of the honey out of my bear and the last two caramels that I had. I know it’s not much but I figured why have them if I wasn’t going to use them.”
If most everyone hadn’t already gone to sleep by that point I would have laughed out loud to watch Thor lick all of the sweet off of the aluminum and out of the whiskers from around his mouth. Despite his best effort I still tasted caramel and honey when he kissed me before telling me to get some sleep while he went on guard duty for first watch. About every third or fourth night we’d get a night off together and in fact should have had one that night but with the situation being what it was Thor had doubled the guards. I would be on later in the night.
When it was my turn I took up a place outside the warehouse. On the wind came the kinds of hooting and hollering of people having what sounded like a drunk of a time. No one had mentioned seeing anyone nearby our location but during my hours that I caught someone sneaking around. To his surprise he walked right into me … well, my fist actually. He dropped with hardly a sound.
After thinking a moment I took his belt since he really wasn’t using it to keep his pants up and hog tied him. After telling Chuckri what I was doing I hauled him over to a building where they did oil changes on big rigs and lowered him down in the changing pit. I could have dropped him down into it but there was no need to wake him up so soon or make any noise doing it. I picked off three more guys that way, dumping each of them in a different bay, and all the while collecting a mangy assortment of items and packs that I gave to Thor when he woke up when I came to bed to try and catch a couple of hours more sleep before what passed for reveille.
The next morning as the family was trying to load up to leave Thor took me aside and said, “Next time Rochelle wake me up if you have an encounter.”
Realizing that I may have stepped on some toes I said, “I … I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You didn’t upset me exactly but I’d prefer to know what is going on as much as possible especially if they involve you. I’ve asked and no one else says they saw anything. How is it that you not only saw four but took them out when none of the others did?”
Wondering if he was the one wondering or if it was the others I shrugged, trying not to care one way or the other. “Might have been my position. I caught every one of them coming from deeper in the complex of warehouses to the rear of here. None of them were being noisy or anything as far as I could tell but they weren’t exactly announcing themselves either. I don’t even know if they knew we were here, Uncle Bedros muffling the animals’ hooves was a pretty good idea, but I wasn’t going to take any chances just to be on the safe side.”
“And you didn’t go looking for them?”
“No,” I told him upset that he’d even think I would do something like that. “I was just behind that truck that is parked kitty corner to the rear door over there.”
“You were outside the building?”
“Well … yeah,” I said beginning to wonder where this was leading. “I couldn’t see anything from that stupid small window. Someone could have crawled under it and I’d never have seen them.”
“But it was dark and damp outside.”
Beginning to get irritated, “Now hang on a sec. You aren’t going to start treating me like a girl all of a sudden are you? ‘Cause if you …”
A cough from behind me followed by a, “No Rocky, I think he is trying to make a point.” Chuckri was standing there with a grin on his face.
I still didn’t get it so Chuckri said, “Thor is just making the point that being on guard duty doesn’t mean doing it the most comfortable way, it means doing it the right way.” He looked over at a couple of his family members that had gathered around with an easy expression on his face. “And he’s trying to do it so no one gets offended.” But suddenly his face went from congenial to forbidding. “It’s something he shouldn’t have to point out. Pilbos, you had that position before Rocky. How many did you miss do you think? How many people now know that we are inside this warehouse simply because you let them by? Taniel, you had that position after Rocky. Instead of using the truck as cover you stayed at the window the way Pilbos had. Were you even able to see anything at all?” He wasn’t ripping into them exactly but I decided then and there that I’d watch out for sour grapes from them and the others that he was starting lean on.
I turned to Thor. “It might be a good idea if we got out and looked around a bit before getting everyone out of the building.”
A grunt of agreement came my direction and he said, “Barkley and Montgomery already on it. They said your four are still in the warehouse but haven’t figured out what is going on yet, aren’t even working with each other so that tells me they were loners.”
I asked in a voice no one else could hear, “Did I cause problems?”
He gave me a don’t-be-stupid look and popped me lightly on the head with his cap. It wasn’t the answer I was looking for but it was enough that I wasn’t worried any more. If people wanted to think I was a hard case out to make a name for myself then that was their problem, not mine. I’d continue doing what I could to protect this caravan and to heck with them.
“All’s clear,” I heard Barkely say quietly to Thor a few minutes later. Montgomery and Alfonso remained outside to make sure it stayed clear.
I sighed and Thor heard me, “What’s up?”
“Just thinking that I wished I could run around the town and see what, if anything, is worth salvaging. I got to thinking last night after you asked what my normal pack weight was and I’m wishing I had a few more things in there. Not to mention these slippers aren’t going to cut it for much longer. I bruised my instep again last night.”
Thor nodded, “I’d run around with you if I thought it would do any good but it’s not worth the effort. I wouldn’t mind seeing what was left at the university, especially in the science labs, and I know Richards and Elsapet want to restock on med supplies. I just want to get on the other side of Whiteman without incident. Keep a good watch today. Chuckri is working on training his family but I’d be more comfortable if we had more time before we run into trouble.”
“You expect trouble?” I asked him, growing wary of the day.
“I don’t not expect trouble. You saw that one group that was in fatigues that tried to extort a ‘traveling tax’ from us. Some of them had some basic training but I don’t know if they were AWOL or just what. You’d figure with more training and serious intent they could have taken our group down easily.”
I smiled and said, “You guys don’t look in the mirror much do you?”
He gave me a sour look and I explained. “You guys are tops at doing the scary look. In fact anyone with any sense can tell you don’t just look scary you are scary. Y’all are the real deal.”
Thor just shook his head. “Get on your horse girl and stop trying to have your way by flirting with me.” I stuck my tongue out at him but moved when he growled … I couldn’t tell if he was being playful or not.
We’d stuck with the frontage road since Hwy 50 was a mess and we continued east using the same street system. We did OK until lunch time when the railroad tracks grew close to the road again and the parallel road ended. I was covering our back trail to make sure we were weren’t being followed, and to make sure the animals kept pace, when a shot rang out and I saw Richards fall sideways off his horse as it reared.
The tracks rested on a built up hump that had given our attackers just enough cover to operate from. I rode forward and quickly handed my horse off to Taniel who was herding the sheep and goats and then went up into the grass and over the tracks at a dead run. I was met by a scruffy looking man but I’d been prepared for that. He got the butt end of my rifle in the side of his head and he dropped out of my way. These people were used to ambushing the weak and unwary and were completely unprepared for an immediate return offensive.
I shot a few of the ambushers in self defense but most of the ones I had direct encounters with were simply too slow for me to bother. I was angry and worried about Richards so my response was more aggressively painful than I might have been if none of our people had been hurt. I stomped ‘em pretty bad and met up with Alfonso as we crushed the rest of them between us. Alfonso whistled a signal and then Chuckri came over the tracks and we spear headed an attack, following the few escapees back to a camp about a hundred yards to the south of where they had tried to stop us.
It was a complete route. Every ambusher was dead or injured; or soon to be injured and dead I realized as I heard a shot here and there back the way we had stormed from. I’d been forced to learn to live with the men’s way of making sure no one got back up to come after us again. I suppose it was true that if you lived by the sword you would eventually die by it but it didn’t help the dreams I sometimes had about it. I had hopes that Thor and I could eventually put some of that behind us but having solid proof that humans in general were animals even when they didn’t have to be I became less and less confident that my hopes would prove true in the long run.
We cleared the area and found two women tied up. They’d been roughly used. One was a complete mess and not all there but the other looked ready to fight which gave me hope that she’d heal from her ordeal. I bent down and said, “Don’t expect any of the men I’m with to treat you the same as you’ve been treated so take it easy. You’re making it hard to untie you.”
The woman … I couldn’t tell if she had blonde hair or brown as she was so filthy … looked at me intently. She finally stopped fighting so that I could take the tape off her mouth. It sickened me. “Oh geez. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were so busted up under this or I would have tried to be more gentle.”
“You’re female,” she lisped through swollen and split lips.
“Last time I checked. Hang on and I’ll get you some water.”
She warned, “Don’t drink anything around here. It’s more than likely contaminated. There was an outbreak of something not that long ago. I’m the last of a group of hostages I came in with; the others died of dehydration caused by some kind dysentery.”
I nodded my understanding. “You got people around here?”
“I’m from the base. These freaks were trying to use us as bargaining chips to get what they have no business having.”
Chuckri came over at hearing that. “You’re from the base? Whiteman?”
“Yeah but … but I’m just civil support. Who are you people? I thought at first you were a rescue squad.” I noticed it was mostly bravado that was keeping her going. She was actually pretty scared.
“Chuckri? Can Joan or Elsapet come give me a hand?”
He caught the look on my face without knowing why but left me to deal with the woman. I turned to her and said, “Look, regardless of who you are, you aren’t going from the frying pan into the fire. If you really did come from the base I’m sure we’ll be able to give you a hand getting back there. And I’m sorry about your friends. Is she one of them?” I asked point to the nearly comatose woman.
“No. She was already here when we were taken. She …,” she shook her head in disgust. “She’s an addict and as long as they supply her she … she …” She shook her head and then whispered, “It’s disgusting but I’ll take her back to base with me and see what can be done. She’s pretty far gone though. It might just be kinder to leave her with a supply and let her OD. Base command has an absolute zero tolerance for recreational drug use. She’ll have to go through DTs and in the condition she is in it might be the death of her anyway.”
That wasn’t my problem and decided to leave that to other folks to deal with. The woman’s name was Carol and I found some better clothes for her from a pile off to the side and while I was doing that I noticed that the pile was huge. There were also piles of shoes, a box of reading glasses, and in fact noticed that there was quite an inventory of odds and ends under the camouflaged canvas tent top.
Carol had just finished covering up when Thor came out of the tall grass with Shoushan. I later found out she had worked as a social services manager at a women’s half way house. She was a no-nonsense kind of person and I hadn’t had a lot of luck getting to know her but she seemed kind to Carol if in a very clinical way so I left to see what else needed doing.
“Thor?” I’d found him looking around the encampment.
He was still in battle mode so I was succinct as I could be. “We aren’t the first people this group has attacked. Carol … the survivor over there … was from Whiteman. And these piles, they remind me too much of the pictures from my world history book in the chapter on what happened to the Jews during World War II.”
In a very clipped voice he said, “Yeah, it was bothering me beyond the obvious. The connection must have occurred to me too subconsciously. Make a quick survey, see what’s here and what might be useful to us. Doesn’t need to be detailed … and look through that pile of shoes to see if there’s anything that will fit you.”
I wanted to object but he’d already gone on to his next priority. I pulled out the little spiral note pad that I had been using to make notes and ideas in and flipped to the back and started making a very general list of what was lying around the encampment. In addition to the piles of clothing, shoes, glasses, hats there was an ammo can of jewelry and I did want to know where it came from. There was also plastic storage tubs of canned goods divided into vegetables, fruits, meats, soups, and then one of ravioli and things like that. There were also a few tubs of convenience items in other packaging like cardboard and plastic. The best in my opinion were the tubs that held grains and beans; there wasn’t much but with grains cooked the right way a little can go a long way.
I was shaking my head over some weirdness that I’d just noticed when Mrs. Chuckri made her way into the encampment. I saw her and rushed over to make sure the tiny woman could get around all of the trash and debris.
She smiled and said, “I will not break.” Then her smile fell away. “This reminds me too much of my girlhood. The senseless violence, the destruction of human lives, the lack of care for even the most basic human dignity of those they perceive as enemy. I had thought never to see this again.”
I wasn’t sure what to do but I told her, “Maybe you should go back to the caravan.”
“No, my daughters are old enough they should know how to take things in hand. Shoushan told me you were here alone looking over supplies. Is there anything we can do to help? You looked very pensive.”
“It looks like they just opened packages and dumped things together. All of this rice isn’t from the same batch, I can tell by the coloring. And look at this tub of bulk beans. It looks like anytime they ran across dried beans they opened the package and dumped them in here regardless of type.” I shook my head at the mess.
Mr. Chuckri looked around nearly as helpless as I trying to put things in some type of order. I looked around and didn’t see Thor but Chuckri wasn’t too far away. I waved at him to get his attention. “Thor wanted this generally gone over to see what there is. I’ve got about half of it done. Did he say when or if he wanted it taken to the wagons?”
He nodded, “When you’re ready I’ll send a few of the boys back here. Send the most valuable items first. We found several wagons off in the grass but they’ll have to be cobbled together to get one or two that will actually work.”
I could tell Chuckri wasn’t real happy seeing his mother where she was at and her being back there was making me nervous as well. I couldn’t do what Thor asked me to and protect her at the same time so I asked, “Chuckri, what about your mom organizing where she wants what after the boys have brought it to her?”
“Good idea. Mother?”
Fooled by neither one of us she still graciously admitted defeat and allowed Chuckri to take her back to the caravan. I was finally able to go through the rest of the flotsam. When Chuckri returned with two of his nephews I asked, “Chuckri?”
“I … I’ve been afraid to ask. How’s Richards?”
He looked over and gave me a wink. “He’s OK Rocky. It was only a crease on his arm. When he jerked the reins the horse dumped him. He was cussing such a blue streak last time I checked that he had Grandmother swatting him with her fan. Surprised you didn’t hear him back here. Elsapet won’t let him get back on his horse until he’s ready.”
I was relieved. “Hey, can Taniel tell the difference between ammo?”
“I don’t know. Tovmas can, why?”
“Some of this ammo is divided up but most of it looks like it has just been dumped all together. I don’t even recognize some of this stuff.”
At my last observation he came over. “Military. I’ll send Barkley back here to pick that stuff out. We’ll turn it over to the resources at Whiteman and get it off of the market.”
“Shouldn’t we keep it ourselves?”
“Why? We don’t have those kinds of guns and they aren’t practical for what we need. There’s only a handful in there anyway. Not worth it.”
“You’re the boss.”
“Who’s the boss?” came Thor’s growly voice.
After seeing him smile I curtsied and smiled, “Oh you are sir. Of course you are. Why I just don’t know what I was thinking. Silly little ol’ me.” My southern belle falsetto antics had both men laughing out loud.
“And don’t you forget it girly.” After a moment both men pulled themselves together, glad that the brief firefight went our way. He asked me, “Ok, what do have?”
I told him in general since things had already been moved out to the road. Then Chuckri said, “Problem. Alfonso said we’ll only get one whole wagon and then some parts for the others but he doesn’t have the equipment – or time – to do anything better than that. We are also going to have problems getting animals to pull more than one. We’ll use two of the long horns to pull the new wagon so that we don’t have to take any horses away from people, and Anoush and one of her sons will take turns driving it. It’s not a perfect solution but it is better than none. The shortage of work horses, more than available drivers, is going to be the problem if we try and expand the number of wagons anymore.”
“No more wagons,” Thor said with finality. “We’re moving slow enough as it is. In fact if we hadn’t found this food I’d say not even bother with adding this one but it’s too much weight to add to our existing ones.” He turned to me, “Why are you still in those slippers? Were there not any boots to fit?”
“I haven’t looked yet.”
An impatient grunt met my answer. “Chuckri, if any of your people need clothing or boots tell ‘em to get down here a-sap. I want to be moving east in fifteen minutes.”
Chuckri turned to go back as Thor pointed at the pile of boots and shooed me that direction. “Rochelle, you need to take what you need when you need it as fast as you can instead of just letting other people go first all the time. Tonight I want you to go through those tubs and refill your pack. You take out what you think will be useful and then grab some stuff for my pack as well.”
“Won’t the Chuckris …”
I didn’t even get to finish what I was saying. “I’m helping Tavit Chuckri out of friendship but I’m not going to move all of them without securing something for us. We’ve got a lot miles ahead of us after we drop the rest of them off. I don’t want to have to start from scratch when we hit the trail.” I could have kissed him right then and there but several of the others had started to show up and I’d still needed to find the mates of the two boots that I had found to fit, if fit imperfectly.
It was closer to thirty than fifteen when we finally started moving again much to Thor’s displeasure. I looked around and realized that it was all just beginning to sink in for some of them. Being shot at, killing rather than taking prisoners, taking on another wagon. I figured they’d be having adjustment reactions for some time to come.
The woman Carol was riding in what I had started calling the “elder wagon” as was the other still insensible woman. Thor rode beside it getting as much information from Carol as he could in terms of just how careful we would need to be as we approached Whiteman.
“It is still heavily manned even though many of the bases around the country were allowed to fall. We’re one of the consolidated foreign defense locations. Enough communication equipment was hardened off that we are still in contact with what passes for the federal government these days.”
I heard Thor grill her a little more but it was plain that she’d given up just about all she was going to. Rather than risk getting to the base right as evening fell, Thor decided that we would stay at a little town called Montserrat. It was a skanky little place that had been worked over pretty hard by riots, fire, and salvagers. We circled the wagons south of the railroad tracks and had just told the kids they’d have to wait to set up a latrine until we could scout the area when we heard the click and jack of rifles being trained in our direction.