Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

I awoke with anticipation that we’d be moving forward but once again the feds changed their minds at the last moment and declared that we’d be waiting one more day to see if we’d get any more people to join the caravan. They made it sound like they were being … kind and magnanimous or something like that but I had the feeling that really wasn’t their goal.

I followed Chuckri after grabbing a bowl of thick oatmeal and bringing it back to a tarp that Thor’s men used to eat under. No one was digging in and after getting my first taste I figure out why. Refusing to eat the tasteless glop I told the men to wait and reached into my backpack and pulled out one of those multi-sectioned containers of spices and a small bear-shaped container of honey.

The men just kind of stared at me when I offered it around. “What? It ain’t poison and even if it was it has got to be better than the way this stuff tastes now.”

I tossed it to Thor who looked at me and said, “We’ll use it up if all of us get some.”

“Whoever empties it cleans it, and then I want it back in case I can find a bee tree or something along the road. This stuff would be better off fried into oat cakes with a little sweetening. How often do we eat this stuff anyway?”

Chuckri snagged the honey and spices from Thor since he was still just sitting there staring at me and not using it. “Couple times a week. Tastes like @#$%.”

Evans as surly as ever said, “Used to have oat cakes when I was a kid. Ma made them from leftovers. Nobody made them as good as Ma. Cain’t remember how she done it.”

I told him, “I don’t know about your Mom but mine just mixed whatever was handy into the leftover oatmeal, or left it plain, and then fried it … sort of like fried mush.”

Some of the other guys had blank looks and Alfonso asked, “Fried polenta?”

I was getting in over my head and shrugged, “Don’t know but if it is made from cornmeal that … well, yeah, I guess. Kinda anyway. I think polenta is Italian though.”

Richards, a quiet man from everything I’d seen up to this point nodded and said, “Different countries call it different things. Ate it in many different places in the world and no two called it the same name. First thing you’ll learn on the road son is that with this many people to feed they aren’t after flavor so much as quick and filling. They also want to minimize the fuel they have to use and the cleanup it takes. Water is going to be critical for this many people too. I don’t see the logistics getting it to work to be honest.”

Chuckri picked up the thread. “Plan is supposed to be to get as close to Laramie as we can before the supplies run out. They swear there is a big camp up there taking in refugees and that there is plenty of food waiting on us but I’m beginning to doubt it.”

“Laramie is where we’re going?” I asked.

“No kid, the moon,” Evans said snidely. “You stupid or something? No one hooks up without getting all the facts first. No one with any sense anyway.”

I didn’t know what his problem was but I wasn’t going to rise to the bait. “All I’m trying to do is get across these mountains. I don’t want to get put in a refugee camp. I just want to go home.”

Thor finally asked, “Where’s home?”

I looked at him carefully before saying, “Off the Blue Ridge Parkway.”

Evans again with the snide voice asked, “How the Sam Hill you’d get so far from home? You ain’t even wet behind the ears yet.”

“It was a school trip.” That was close enough to the truth that it sounded like it. I was starting to remember things that I didn’t want to.

Evans kept pushing. “Sure it was kid.” He didn’t believe me. “Where was this ‘school trip’ to? The way you act it couldn’t have been too far away or you’d be dead by now.”

I was having a hard time keeping the memories from breaking free, “San Francisco.” I stood up abruptly and said, “Just give me the bear when y’all are through with it.” Then I walked away trying hard to not look like I was running.

Thirty minutes later I had my back pack and other gear in the shade of a big rock and was leaning against it throwing smaller rocks at nothing in particular. At the crunch of gravel I froze hoping whoever it was would go away. “Hey kid?”

I sighed at hearing Chuckri’s voice knowing it probably meant chores. “Yeah,” I answered.

When I moved to stand he waved me to stay put. He sat beside me and we were both throwing stones before long. “Thor’s the leader but I’m what you would call second in command. It’s my job to keep things running smooth. You’re a wrinkle and it’s gonna take some time to iron things out.”

“Sure.” I said not wanting to care too much one way or the other right at that moment.

A moment later he continued. “Thor thinks you’re lying about something and I’m thinking he’s right. Is this it?”

“Is what it?”

“Where you come from? You lying about San Francisco … or where you’re headed?”

Still feeling mostly dead I said, “No. We were having a party in one of those swanky hotels where they don’t let the bums hang out. It had these big meeting rooms like a convention center. There were lots of parties that night, all the rooms were booked full, and the bathrooms on the floor we were on all had lines. I told my parents – they were chaperones – that I was going to go find one that wasn’t backed up around the block. While I was taking care of business there was a lot of noise and then my best friend runs to get me and tell me … tell me … they’d … these men … they’d … they’d gassed the room we were using. He told me that my parents … his parents … everyone we knew there was dead and that they were starting to spread out in the hotel and shoot people. We got out and managed to get out of the city before they could … could hold us for whatever reason. Jonathon’s family … they … they had money and … his family … he didn’t want to get put someplace for his own protection where his family couldn’t get to him. Anyway we grabbed a car and made it to his grandmother’s house in Oregon and then things really started hitting the fan. We were trying to escape and brought her with us. We were on the road but still in Oregon when the EMP hit. Then they ran out of medicines they needed and then nothing mattered … I couldn’t save them. And if Evans gets in my face about it one more time I won’t answer for the consequences. I’m not telling this story again, it was hard enough living through it; I ain’t going to keep repeating it just because people get curious.”

“Kid?”

“What?” I snapped without meaning to.

“You should tell Thor.”

I shook my head. “You tell him,” I snarled. “I told you I’m done saying it.”

A sigh and Chuckri said, “It’ll get easier. Burying the first few is always the hardest.”

It was the way he said it as much as what he said that had me turning slowly to look at him. “There were two dozen of us when we started. We’re down to seven … eight with you added back in. We were all buddies, a tight crew, known each other for years. I don’t want to have to bury anymore. Evans can be a $%&* but … but this? It’s made him worse. He thinks if he is a big enough $%&* that nothing can hurt him. I don’t need two people in the crew acting like that.”

I debated whether to say anything but the man had been halfway decent to me and I’d be stupid to spit on that. “Just give me something to do. I don’t think about it so much when I can work at doing something.”

He gave me the once over and then said, “I saw some maps in your pack when you pulled that honey out. The feds ‘borrowed’ ours and ain’t give ‘em back yet. Give me ten minutes and then bring them back to that rock we were eatin’ around. I wanna see what kind of miles we’re looking at.”

I responded automatically, “Between here and Fort Bridger it’s fifty miles. From here to Laramie it’s about three hundred depending on the route we take.”

Chuckri shook his head, “Three hundred freaking miles … on foot.” He stood up and told me, “Just bring the maps like I told you. We got some planning of our own to do.”

I did as I was told and we spent the rest of the afternoon comparing my maps to the route the feds said that we were taking. It was going to be more than three hundred miles. First major point was Fort Bridger, WY. From there we were supposed to bypass I80 by following 414 south until we hit the town of McKinnon, WY – another 40 miles – and then we’d swing north again taking the McKinnon Rd and heading into the Flaming Gorge area which added another 50 miles. From there to Laramie it was 225 miles for a grand total that was closer to 400 than 300 miles.

Three hundred and seventy five miles and that didn’t include any detours we’d have to make. I asked of no one in particular how many miles a day they were making before they settled down in Fossil.

Montgomery – who got as irritated at being called Monty as I did at Charb or Bono – answered, “Most we got out of them was fifteen … even with Thor growling and driving them with a stick. Chucki said you was traveling with an old lady. How far’d y‘all get?”

Montgomery had the broad accents of the Highlands that could still be found in the ridges of the Smokies. I told him, “Eight to ten a day and they crashed and burned almost as soon as the tent got put up.” As I thought about what the caravan was going to look like I shook my head and muttered, “Holy Moses and the Children of Israel Batman.”

Chuckri heard me and actually laughed. “Yeah, it’s gonna be a mess. I’m not sure putting the kids and elderly in the trucks is going to help much since most folks will still be walking. Once we get off these back roads and get back to the traffic blockages it might actually make things worse.”

Thor casually leaned over, startling me, and swept the papers off of the rock we’d been using and muttered, “Hide ‘em.” I slipped them inside the bag at my feet just as two young men in uniform walked up “requesting” Thor’s presence at a briefing. This left me at loose ends again, a state I’m not fond of being in.

“Boy, you need to learn to relax,” Chuckri advised. “You look like you’re too anxious for work and you’ll find yourself volunteered for some again.”

I shrugged. “I relax best when I’m busy.” He snorted, leaned back in the shade tipping his hat over his eyes.

With no help from him or any of the other men who seemed to be following his example I looked around for myself. The first thing I noticed was the chaos. No one seemed to know what they should be doing and most didn’t seem to care. I saw a lot of people just sitting around with vacant eyes not really looking at anything. Kids were running underfoot again drawing the ire of many adults. I watched two brawls start before I’d had my fill of looking.

I sat back down with the men. “Why aren’t the feds getting things organized? These people could be doing something constructive, something useful … training maybe … the kids could be rounded up and done something with …”

Evans said, “Yeah … beat like they need.”

I ignored him and continued. “Has anyone checked the town? Are there any people there? Supplies? Look at the trash and people’s equipment that needs fixing.”

“Don’t try and make sense of it kid.” As big as Thor is he’d returned quietly enough to make several of us jump when he spoke. “Besides, not our problem; we’ve got a mission.” Instantly the men around me were energized like they hadn’t just been lying around like a bunch of old hound dogs.

The issue of getting the fed vehicles through had been duly noted and the feds solution was simple. An advance group would go out and move stuff out of the way.

Barkley asked, “How? With our looks?”

Evans was the one that said, “What’s the compensation plan? I ain’t working for free.”

Thor’s response was dry yet held a lot of contempt for the feds at the same time. “Ain’t you heard? We’ve been drafted. And yeah, appears that that still means something. They proved it by letting me overhear some radio transmissions. They said either we agree or we’ll be, and I quote, dealt with. They left the rest of it to our imagination what that might mean.”

Evans, ever the conniver said, “Fine. We go out but we just keep walking. Leave this whole mess behind.”

Thor shook his head. “With a price on our heads. They know who we are, where we call home, family if we got any,” he growled. “What’s more, if one of us pulls that it comes down on all of us.”

Most of the comments for the next few minutes aren’t printable. These were rough men who didn’t appreciate being backed into a corner.

Finally Chuckri asked, “Fine, what’s the rest of this plan or is that it?”

Thor looked around and just like Coach quieted the group with a look. “We get supplies for eight days. We work our way out along a predetermined route for six days. On the seventh we wait for them to catch up if they haven’t already. The eighth day of supplies is for just in case. We get resupplied when the caravan catches up and the schedule then repeats itself, barring any unforeseen incidences, until we get to the area cleared around Laramie. Once there we’ll get papers releasing us. How we move things out of the way is up to us.”

“Which truck are they giving us?” someone asked.

“They aren’t. That would mean splitting their fuel resources.”

“And another chance for us to skip on them,” I added.

“The kid’s right,” Richards said. “What are we going to do about this?”

Thor opened his mouth to answer when Chuckri turned to me and asked, “If it was you, and it is, what would you do Boy?”

It was a test that even a blind man could see. I was as careful with my answer as if my life depended on it, which it might in the long run. “Go along with it … for a while. See if their threats have any merit. Test their defense then go on the offense. Maybe …,” I stopped for a moment to think. “maybe do what they don’t seem to be which is looking for new resources … check the cars and any towns we go through for things we need or could use. If we can find a locksmith shop or truck we could even find a lock punch or a master key set and we’ve got the only keys we ever need. Mostly check for things we need or could use right away.”

“Steal you mean.”

“Huh?” I asked startled out of my thoughts. “No. That’s not what I mean at all. Leave it alone if there are people already making a clear claim to it. I don’t want to be a raider like in some post-apocalyptic movie. But if it don’t belong to anyone and we can use it ourselves or trade it for stuff we do need, then we’ll be less … dependent than they want us to be. Just no matter what we end up doing, it has to work for all of us. Nobody gets stupid … or stupid greedy … or we could all wind up in trouble.”

“Or with a noose around our necks if not worse; some of us hope we still got families to go home to,” Chuckri added. To make his point he asked Thor, “Any word on those men from last night?”

Nonchalantly Thor answered, “Disposed of. Apparently they were three from a group that had been told to move along the day before the Kid here showed up.” Looking around he told everyone, “We start before first light. Check your gear again, say any goodbyes if you got ‘em. You know the drill. Chuckri, grab the kid and his gear and come with me.”

I didn’t like the sound of that but didn’t see as I had any choice. We ended at a vacant area off of one of the hiking trails from the main parking lot of the national monument. “I need to know what you can do kid. The road is no place to find out just how much I’m gonna need to teach you. Break your weapon down and then put it back together.”

Since I was used to the drills Dad had pulled on me fairly regular, and because I’d taken the time to familiarize myself with the rifle, I did it in good time; not as quickly as if it had been my own rifle from home but quick enough that I got a grin from Chuckri and “smart @#$” from Thor. The target tests went just as well. I was a little rusty … and nervous … so didn’t do as well as I could have but apparently I passed muster.

“What about his gear?” Chuckri asked Thor.

I tried not to show the panic I felt on my face. I didn’t know how I would explain away bras and panties and my monthly needs unless they wanted to believe I was some kind of pervert. However Thor just said, “What would we replace it with? Let the kid deal with it as it comes.” I was too relieved to take affront.

Thor then switched gears and told me, “Kid you wouldn’t be my first choice for the crew but we’re stuck with you anyway it appears. Don’t complain. Don’t pout. Don’t get in the way. Don’t slow us down. You won’t like the consequences.” My mouth wanted to go into overdrive but if nothing else, age and recent experience was giving me more control over that part of my personality.

“What? Nothing to say?” Thor asked, poking the bear whether he realized it or not.

Shrugging as casually as I could I calmly said, “What do you want me from me? I don’t like what you said but in your shoes I’d probably say the same thing to someone I didn’t know … probably didn’t want to get stuck with. The only thing that fixes this is I do my job, you stay off my back. We don’t need to like each other, we just have to be able to work together. If we can make a little profit at the same time then that’s icing on the cake.”

Evans chose that moment to walk up and I noticed that the other men had come to watch as well. “Maybe you ain’t gonna be the waste of skin you appear to be,” was his typically nasty comment.

Evening meal was some kind of barley soup that was more water than anything else, and a hard flat lump that was supposed to be a biscuit. “Geez, they’re going to have a mutiny on their hands if they don’t get some real cooks in there. We slopped our pigs better than this,” I muttered to myself.

Richards, the quietest of the men said, “Thought the same thing at first but take a good look around you. What are they going to riot with? These people turned in their guns when the feds showed up just so they could have a place in the caravan, like they didn’t need them any longer. Any extra supplies they had when we were leading things are now gone; used up or turned in for the apparent benefit of the entire group. When you were mentioning dependence that most appropriately sums it up whether you knew it or not. The feds want these people completely dependent on them for everything; more control that way. I think one of the reasons why they feed ‘em the way they do is to break them down, make them more pliable and easy to manipulate.”

Just as quietly since you never knew who might be listening I asked, “Is that why they are getting you guys … us … out of camp? To … I don’t know … make them think the feds are the only ones that can feed and protect them?”

Richards gave me a serious look. “Keep those types of thoughts to yourself boy. I’m not saying you’re wrong but it might not be the smartest … or healthiest … thing to say aloud where just anyone could hear them.”

*******

The next morning we headed out and I could really feel the extra weight of my part of the eight day’s worth of supplies. “You’re getting weak Rocky,” I snarled at myself. As soon as we were out of sight of the caravan I pulled out a bag of peanuts, put a handful in my pocket and then told the guy in front of me … I was bringing up the rear again … to pass it up.

When it got to the front Thor turned around and I thought I was going to have to duck as he stomped back towards me. “What the Sam Hill are you up to?”

“I’m … hungry,” I told him like he was a slow child. “I can’t eat if y’all don’t. Whatever that grey stuff was that they fed us on our way out didn’t stay in my stomach long enough to even be missed. You want me to move cars all day then you let me eat. Me and protein are good buddies. Without it I get cranky. You want peace in the world then you let me do what I gotta to avoid cranky.” I was also close to my monthlies which tended to give me the munchies but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

He opened his mouth and I said, “If you don’t like peanuts or are allergic to them or something I’ve got raisins or I think there is a chocolate bar in my pack someplace. Take your pick.”

Barkley, with a twinkle in his eye, interrupted us. “Well, at least now we know what’s been up Thor’s back. He needs his protein.” After we both turned to glare at him, “Kid, stop causing a ruckus. If everyone stays quiet I’ll see if I can’t get us some protein that is still walking around and we’ll add it to our rations for dinner.”

I knew Thor wanted to pop me one but I couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t. Some of the other guys must have been thinking the same thing if the looks on their faces were any indication. An hour later we ran into our first roadblock but since this one only involved two cars it wasn’t hard to move off to the side.

The only problem came when we found out their bumpers were locked. I was getting frustrated then had a thought. I kicked in the tail lights on one side enough to break out the whole unit then I reached in, felt around and sure enough the tire iron and jack had just been tossed in the trunk. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. I stuck the jack down between the two cars and then started opening it up. It took some muscle but I finally got the bumper of one of the vehicles to tear off enough that I could stomp it off the other side. Finally the two vehicles were free of one another.

I stood there sweaty but pleased with myself then looked up to find them all just staring at me. Rather than let it bother me I told Evans, “I felt what might have been bottles of water in that trunk. Might be useful if we can pop the hood.”

The older man got a wicked look on his face, pulled out what looked like an oversized screwdriver and a mallet and in less time than a honest man should have, he had the trunk open revealing a flat of water bottles and a 12-pack of store-brand cola. Evans rubbed his hands together and starting with Thor divided the booty up. I was low man on the totem pole so all I got was two bottles of water and one can of cola. “You got the room for that jack? Might come in handy.”

I told Evans, “I’ll make room.” That happened off and on throughout the day. We had the worst time at the intersection of highways 30 and 189. It was in the middle of this little town called Diamondville and something bad must have gone down. There were bodies lying around and some of them still smelled. I pulled a bandana up over my nose and mouth to try and cut the worst of it, especially when some of the cars we were trying to move still had bodies in them.

The lack of good food was telling on the older men’s energy levels and I was pretty done in myself but more hungry than anything. The stress of being on guard in case any live person suddenly jumped out from the buildings on either side of the streets didn’t help; we weren’t worried about the dead ones. Thor looked around and said, “Let’s find a roof for the night.”

All the men headed towards the Fossil Butte motel while I headed towards the Pizza Hut. Chuckri laughed and asked, “Boy, everything revolve around your stomach?”

I gave him a disgusted look. OK, so I had been thinking of food but only as in finding some but not actually cuddle up to sleep with it. “I’m going to see if they got any flour and condiments in that joint. If they do we can make campfire pizzas to go with the ground squirrel Barkley bagged.”

Chuckri looked at Thor, grinned and changed course. “Boy, you better not be telling tales about that pizza.”

Still irritated I snapped, “I ain’t lying about nothing. I was in Venture Scouts and we used to fix it all the time.”

“Ain’t never heard of Venture Scouts,” Evans said, joining us as well as we moved across the street, still eyeing the area to make sure we didn’t get caught flat footed.

“Run by the BSUSA organization but they operate in crews instead of troops and dens … biggest difference is most crews are co-ed.”

Evans, ever the gentleman said, “Whooeeee. Never heard of that growing up. I wouldn’t have minded camping with me a girl to cuddle up to. You’ve led a blessed life son.”

What do you say to a guy that seems to enjoy being just as big a donkey’s backside as he can get away with being? I’d already run into more than my share of chauvinist pigs in this life but Evans had to take the cake; he skipped the chauvinist part and went straight to just plain pig.

The inside of the restaurant was a little tore up but not too bad. All of the refrigerated condiments had gone over from the smell of things but the dough mix was in a separate cooler and the sauce was in cans on metal shelves in the back. I grabbed a sack of dough mix and tossed it up on my shoulder and was wondering how to carry the sauce, oil, powdered parmesan and the pans I wanted when Chuckri said, “Stop trying to do everything yourself kid. Evans can grab the pans and I’ll grab the rest.”

The pizzas weren’t pretty but they filled the hole in my belly better than anything had since San Francisco. The men didn’t seem to mind them either. Barkley had coated the ground squirrel pieces in some dough mix and fried them and I’d pulled the meat off of my pieces and put them on one of the pizzas. I’d never heard of squirrel pizza but it wasn’t bad at all.

When everything was done and cleaned up I took off to look in a couple of the buildings along the street. A rumble warned me that Thor had joined my exploration. “Buddy system. You walk off by yourself, something happens …,” he left the sentence to hang. It didn’t take an Einstein to understand what he meant. “You just curious or you looking for something in particular?”

Actually I had been after some extra feminine stuff but his presence was going to make it more difficult. I made up something for his benefit anyway. “Ziploc bags. They’re dead useful and might come in handy if we have to start splitting stuff up or if we run into bad weather.”

He gave me a look and said, “Might not be bad to think of a few other things we might wish we had.”

I muttered, “Yeah, like foot powder for Evans’ shoes.” The man’s feet had nearly knocked me out the previous night and I was two tents down from him.

That rusty laugh escaped from Thor’s mouth again before he thought better of it. “Might not be a bad idea,” he agreed. “We could all use clean socks now that you mention it.” As we entered the Kemmerer Pharmacy I realized the place looked untouched. Like a zombie I walked back toward the back and jumped the counter. I took the flashlight and looked for the names of the medications that Nana and Jonathon had needed and sure enough there was a small supply of most of them.

Something inside me seized up. I jumped back over the counter and stumbled down the aisles looking without seeing. Then I fell to my knees and was doing everything I could not to act like a girl. I was slamming my fist into the floor and the pain felt good and I just kept doing it. Suddenly I was grabbed from behind in a bear hug and I started fighting.

I’d like to say that I gave as good as I got but though I was able to lift my opponent off his feet using leverage that’s all I managed to do. The grip became crushing and I was starting to see dots as the air was literally being squeezed out of me. “Knock it off kid or I’m going to wind up hurting you.” When I realized it was Thor I stopped fighting and he released me. I was breathing like a horse that had been run too long and hard.

“You done?” Thor asked in a conversational voice.

I just looked at him still trying to hold in the desire to cry. I stepped away from him as fast as I could and backed straight into Barkley and Richards. Richards said, “You aren’t an addict. The drugs you were looking at were common for heart ailments and asthma.”

When I jerked in the direction of the voice that I hadn’t expected Barkley got in my line of vision drawing my attention too. He said quietly, “Richards is the closest thing we have to a medic. He’s also a shrink when we aren’t in the guard so spill it son and get it out in the open or he’ll use a can opener and get it out anyway.”

I could not do what I wanted to. I wanted to cry and tell them I wanted my Mom and Dad. I wanted to tell them I missed my best friend so much it felt like my chest was being ripped open. Instead I had to remember who I was supposed to be and pray to God the store was dark enough they couldn’t see how I really felt. Just to be on the safe side I walked a few paces away from there and faced the darkest corner of the store. It took me three times but I finally said, “If I could have gotten them here, that was the medicine they needed. It would have been enough to get to the next spot. Jonathon’s grandmother had … she had … a friend put some back for them a couple of different places along our route home.

Richards said, “I’m going to tell you something and you won’t thank me for it right now but it is something you need to take in before this eats you up.” After a moment to make sure I was listening, “You can’t save everyone. No matter what you do or how strong you are, you can’t save them all. Even if you could I’ve learned there are some that perhaps shouldn’t be saved. What quality of life would your friends have had? Eventually the medicine would have run out. What then?”

“I would have figured something out? I … I …”

“No son. You couldn’t have. And even if it wasn’t the medicine they would have been considered weak. In the world we are faced with right now they would have been prime targets.”

“No one ever bothered Jonathon when I was there!” It wasn’t quite a wail but it was too close to one so I shut my mouth. I realized my fists were balled so tight I could barely feel them anymore and I forced myself to relax. When I had the best control I could pretend to have I said, “It doesn’t matter. I can’t go back and change it. They’re gone and I’m just gonna have to live with it. Just … just leave me alone.”

I walked to the back of the store. If I thought I could have gotten away with walking out of the store I would have but while I might have been what my mom called “distraught,” I wasn’t stupid; Thor stood between me and the door and I thought right then wasn’t the time to push my luck. Slowly I realized what I was staring at was what I’d come into the store for in the first place.

I walked back to the front to see all three men talking quietly and reached over the store counter and grabbed a few plastic bags. I walked back and started dumping stuff in the bags from here and there. I caught my reflection in the mirror of the sunglass carousel and I heard my mother’s voice say, “Careful Rocky or your face is going to stick like that.” I wondered to myself whether that wasn’t a lot more true than not.

“Give me one of those bags kid,” came Thor’s quiet rumble. I handed him one without looking at him.

“I sent Richards and Barkley next door to do a little recon in there. You got something you wanna say? Spit it out.”

I licked my lips and asked, “Am I still part of the team?”

Thor shook his head. “That it? That’s all you got to say?”

Knowing I had a drumming coming to me I told him, “Me saying sorry ain’t gonna fix it. All I can do is prove I’m not … weak … like I was acting. It’s done. I won’t let it happen again.” I wanted to say more in my defense but I wasn’t sure there was any excuse for what I’d just done.

“Look kid …”

When he stopped talking I turned and looked at him. He just shook his head. “You’re @#$% straight this better not happen again. Everyone of us has lost friends … good friends. You say your goodbyes and then you carry on. Do it in their memory if that makes you feel better but you don’t fall apart and take other people with you. Got it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Aw $%&@, drop the sir. You make me feel like your ol’ granpappy and I ain’t. Give me them bags. You got three minutes to pull yourself together then I want you outside looking alive. I don’t want Richards thinking I’m kicking the puppy. Got it?” he asked giving me a hard look.

I nodded my head and gave him the bags as ordered and he walked swiftly out of the store. I knew this was likely the only chance I was going to get so I stuff the oversized pockets of my BDUs with the personal stuff that I had come in for in the first place, zipped the pockets closed and left the building just as Thor looked like he was about to get irritated.

I was careful to stay in control the rest of the night. I divided up the remaining dough mix and double bagged it in Ziploc bags and gave each man some to add to the rations that we’d brought with us. Richards looked over what I’d pulled out of the store and nodded and tossed each men toothpaste, small bottles of mouth wash, soap, hand sanitizer, Gold Bond powder, deodorant, chap stick and a few other things. For his part he used some of the zip bags to store the medications he’d collected from the pharmacy earlier. We were also given individual first aid supplies. There were socks to divvy up and some of the men had also taken the opportunity to pick up clean clothes to replace the ones they’d been wearing for a while.

Since we had the opportunity we skipped the tents and stayed at the motel. Some men doubled up but most were happy for the privacy. I used mine to take a spit bath using the water from the toilet tank and to repack my things. I also got rid of the old strips of cloth I was using and cut a large ace bandage down into lengths that would work for what I needed.

I went to bed fully clothed and it wasn’t until the next morning, after being rudely awakened by a boot to the door of the room I was sleeping in, that I found out Richards had taken me out of the guard duty rotation. I was determined to not let that happen again. Not only did I worry that they’d think I was soft and start wondering about things I didn’t want them wondering about, but it was a pride thing too. No one was going to think I couldn’t take it, not because of something I did or didn’t do. For the next five days I worked as hard or harder than any of the other men.

After Diamondville we had to sleep on the open road a couple of nights. In this place called Carter … population 8 if the sign was to be believed … we broke into a utility shed to get out of a late snow storm. That night was no fun. And neither was the next day as we worked in the mud caused by the melting snow. The sixth day found us tired and dirty and preparing to wait at Fort Bridger State Historic Site.

Thor gave us the remainder of the day to pretty much goof off if we wanted to. I was glad to have it because as promised my monthly had arrived and I was not in the mood to handle Evans’ goads he was always making. So while the guys pulled out an old set of horseshoes they’d found I hung out around historic museum which wasn’t too far from the historic outhouse. I figured if anyone asked I’d say too much fiber or something like that.

Sure enough Evans had to look me up and start poking the bear. I was really close to making him sorry he hadn’t chosen a different past time when Chuckri gave a piercing whistle. Evans may have been the back end of a donkey but he moved just as fast as the rest of us when necessary.

Chuckri and Thor were looking up when we got out to the parade grounds. I heard it before I actually saw it. It was the sputtering, dying motor of a small airplane. How one had survived the EMP we never found out because by the time we found the wreckage of the downed machine the pilot and passenger were both dead. There was nothing special about either one of them; two harmless looking, middle aged men. There was nothing special about anything in the plane either. You could see where the rear seats have been removed and the whole thing stripped down, possibly to lighten the load so less fuel would be needed. Other than that nothing. I got tired of listening to the men BS over the mystery and went to my tent … set up in the museum just because I felt like it … and tried to get some extra rest.

I was dozing when I heard the footsteps. I cracked my eye open and immediately recognized the giant well-worn shoes that belonged to Thor’s feet. I groaned without meaning too. In returned Thor chuckled and said, “Well, at least we know you ain’t dead.”

I crawled out thinking I’d left some chore undone but I couldn’t imagine what. “Easy kid. Just checking on you.”

Concerned I asked seriously, “You still think I need babysitting?”

That got me a look and then he said something I hadn’t expected. “Kid, whether I want it or not you’re my responsibility. I take my responsibilities seriously.”

I told him, “I’m not going to flip out again.”

“I’m not saying you are … ain’t saying you aren’t either.” After a pause he asked, “What did you make of the plane?”

“An unsolvable mystery.” When he raised an eyebrow I told him, “No IDs, no papers, no maps, no nothing. If I had to guess I’d say they didn’t come from very far away and the trip planned was a short one because there weren’t any supplies in the plane either. I’d say where ever it is, it is probably a place low on the right kind of fuel because I didn’t see any extra. The trip was either one way or where they were going to had at least enough fuel to get them back. Plus the plane had been stripped of most anything unnecessary, and Montgomery said the tank was nearly dry too. Since I’m not Sherlock Holmes I doubt I’m going to come up with the right answer with that little bit of input.”

He snorted, “Better than some of ‘em came up with. Most of ‘em didn’t even take the fuel issues into account until Alfonso brought it up.” I just shrugged.

“Listen kid, you ain’t doing half bad but we are about to get into some rougher territory coming up. And at some point we’ll likely run into people.”

“I thought we would by now what with all of the empty cars all along the road.”

“Nah. There ain’t nothing for folks out in this area. More than likely people just started walking, realizing after a while that no one was coming to the rescue. I bet if we walked off into the terrain on either side of the road we’d find some human remains. But that ain’t our problem; all we’re concerned with is getting the road clear enough for the caravan. Speaking of which, we’ve all agreed that we don’t say nothing about nothing except what a rotten hard job clearing the road is. The plane is a curiosity they can find for themselves after we get outta here. And we don’t mention any of the ... requisitioning … we’re doing either. I’ve sent Chuckri and Montgomery to cache most of the extra supplies we’ve got left over. We’ll pick them back up on our way down the road after we’ve gotten another eight days worth.”

I told him, “Make sure Evans doesn’t jingle around any of the guys in uniform once they get here, they might get suspicious.”

That brought a round of cussing that would have embarrassed a navy cook. He aimed a kick at a trash can then missed on purpose. “How often?”

“Is he getting sticky fingers? At first he was taking a lot and it didn’t seem to matter what. Last couple of days I noticed he’s been a lot more selective. I stay away from his when he starts taking stuff off the dead bodies though; I saw him yank a good sized diamond ring off one of them yesterday.”

Another round of cussing and then he stood still for a moment before saying, “Anyone else know?”

I shrugged from my seat on the floor. “I ain’t asked and no one has said. I just figured it was Evans being Evans and that you and Chuckri knew what was going on.”

“From now on kid don’t assume I know anything. Come tell me.”

“I’m not a tattle tale.”

“And this ain’t the school yard. That crap could bring down some serious trouble. Desecrating the dead is no small matter and could be used against all of us. Anything else you think I should know about?”

I gave him a suspicious look.

“Kid, I can’t be everywhere at once. I have to trust these men to do their job which means I’m willing to look the other way about some things but I still want to know about them in case they turn into problems I have to deal with. You tell me but if it comes down to it, your name’ll stay out of it.”

I snorted, “Why would you think I’d know anything?”

“Because you ain’t near as stupid as you let people think you are,” he told me seriously.

This man saw way too much and it made me nervous. “You and Chuckri are the only ones that credit me with any brain cells. Richards only sees me as a potential mental case, which is pretty much my own fault I admit. The rest of them only see me as ‘the boy’ or ‘the kid.’”

A wise smile flitted across his face, “Tell me that ain’t suited your purpose.”

He was starting to make me very nervous so to distract him I told him some of the things I’d seen. “Montgomery and Alfonso both have flasks of what smells like hard liquor that they refill every chance they get which is surprisingly often all things considered. I never realized booze made for such a popular car accessory these days. Richards must think antacids are one of the basic food groups the way he eats them. Barkley has more knives than most people have sense and I don’t even want to know where all he is hiding them. Chuckri has the weirdest taste in boxers I’ve ever seen … Oscar the Grouch? Seriously dude.” I shook my head reminding myself to find Chuckri a smaller belt so his pants would hang higher than the middle of his hips. “And in addition to sparklies, Evans is getting a pretty good porn library going that he’s selling reader subscriptions for.”

Thor stood there for about three heart beats before he busted out laughing. Apparently it was an uncommon occurrence as three of the men came running in and then just stood there with their mouths hanging open. He finally just shook his head and they all went back outside leaving me to finally get comfortable and fall asleep.

The caravan showed up before noon the next day. We were hustled into what they called a debriefing, given new supplies and then ordered to start on the next leg.

As we were escorted down the road and then after we’d all but been driven out of sight of the caravan I asked, “How come they don’t want us talking to the refugees?”

Richards replied, “He who controls information, controls the world.”

At my blank look he added, “They decide what information gets out to the caravan and what doesn’t. They’re in control. Sort of like when the government would put pressure on the news organizations to keep some story under their hats until they said they could release it.”

Evans of all people seemed to get it best. “If we’re not around we can’t contradict anything they decide to tell the refugees. Control. Power. It’s about those two things and nothing more.”

I rolled my eyes. “If I had stayed with the caravan I probably would have been in all kinds of trouble by now.”

A couple of the men snorted and I heard Thor mutter soto voice, “Ain’t we lucky we got you instead.”

Two days and we made it to this place called Lonetree. Another day after that we made it to Burntfork and Thor called a meeting, “We got three days to travel sixty miles to Green River. I’m hoping that we don’t run into much because McKinnon Road is way off the beaten path. But listen up people, Chuckri said he caught sight of people … live ‘uns … twice today. They might be tracking us, they might not. From here on out though you step soft and don’t take anything without my say so. We may be stepping into someone else’s territory.”

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