“Yeah, yeah … don’t get too happy yet. And do me a favor and run around and double check that everything is turned off. I don’t want to overload …” He finished on a curse as the lights went out again.
Some growling and snarking and then he said, “I’m not sure. I think … think mind you … that it was a lightning strike. Even though your dad took the house off line and had everything well grounded, there’s only so much you can do about a direct strike. Looks like that’s what fried the main breaker and not the EMP because nothing was connected to send the pulse through … not to mention this room feels like a freaking Faraday cage.”
“What’s a …”
“Don’t worry about it.” At my affronted look he sighed and said, “Not my best at the moment Hon. This electronic stuff was something I always gave to Alfonso. Teach me to over specialize. Suffice it to say that a Faraday Cage was something that was supposed to protect electronic gear from EMP damage. And suffice it to say it would be better if we simply replaced the entire panel box, breakers and all, and start from fresh.”
“Will they have it? At the place in town I mean.”
“Yeah, and I had considered getting one and didn’t …” he sighed again. “Which is why I’m so foul. One is none and two is one. Just run around before it gets too dark and make sure all the switches are off … and tape ‘em off. I don’t know about you but out of habit I still catch myself trying to turn on a switch when I go into a room.”
I smiled a little and said, “Guilty as charged. And why don’t you just give this stuff up for a while and take a break. It’s waited this long, it can wait some longer. Besides, don’t we have better things to do?”
“Huh?” he grunted as he was moving stuff around in the small space.
“Well … I could … um … use a little help … you know … washing my hair,” I blushed.
Now that got him to pay attention. “I would be most pleased to render such assistance Beautiful … but I might get … distracted.
Giving him some of his own back I said, “I’m counting on it.”
Now that’ll put a man in high gear and it wasn’t long before the night became more pleasant for both of us. Afterwards I tried to tell him about Mom’s recipe boxes but he kinda started snoring in the middle of it so I gave up and decided we could both use a little extra sleep since we had to be up and out very early to get to town.
“Hmmm,” Thor mumbled.
“Thor you know we really need to take it. So long as we don’t load the wagon down, and don’t take it into the orchard, we should be fine. If it was the other end of town I wouldn’t be saying it.”
“What’s different about the other end of town?” he asked me.
“They have more of a clay pan and water doesn’t drain as well. That’s why most of the oldest farms are on this end.”
“Makes me wonder why people didn’t take over the older farms.”
I nodded as I harnessed my horse to the wagon while Thor held the lantern since his shoulder was a little sore from our rather … er, spirited … activities the preceding evening. “You would have thought. We still haven’t heard just who has survived and who has not. If none of the real old timers made it then no one may have thought to take over the farms. Plus, no doubt you’ve noticed, some of the farms aren’t the easiest to get to and the houses are … well, they’re old and some of ‘em are pretty beat up as the younger generations moved away and the older folks were just content to live like they’d always done. Jimmy Ray’s uncle has a nice little place but if he’s having trouble too it might have discouraged some of the others from trying to have more than a kitchen garden.”
“That’s a mistake … and one some people will be paying for right when they can least afford to.” He stopped me and by the way he put his arm around me he was about to be pretty serious. “Hon, I need to know and I want you to think about it before you answer me, is there anyone you couldn’t stand to watch starve over the winter.”
“What?!” I turned around and looked at him.
“We can’t help everyone. We might not be able to help anyone. But … but I figure if it comes down to it there are some you won’t be able to turn away for any reason. On the other hand, who you want to help may determine how many we can help … assuming we can.”
Trying to be honest I said, “You’re talking about Jimmy Ray.”
“You said it, not me.”
“Don’t even bother trying to keep a straight face. Jimmy Ray … for a lot of reasons … wouldn’t be at the top of my list. Geez that sounds so cold-blooded.”
I could see Thor was trying not to handle me with kid gloves and I appreciated it, especially as he said, “Not cold-blooded … realistic. He doesn’t strike me as someone particularly familiar with the trait of gratitude.”
“He’s not quite that bad … but his folks had some money and he does have a mouth that gets away from him. Aside from being a bottomless pit – he’s never really had to do without – he can’t keep a secret. Coach nearly kicked him off the team because he kept talking about our plays with players from other teams. On the other hand, he once stepped in and KO’d a tourist because he’d come to ‘take pictures of a living bigfoot’ for his college newspaper and kept pestering me to pose for him. When you’re on his team that’s just the bottom line for Jimmy Ray.”
“Pictures of a what?! I’m suddenly a little more fond of ol’ Jimmy Ray.”
I laughed because I couldn’t help it despite the serious topic. “Relax. All the guys were like that. Well, most of the ones that lasted were. Coach didn’t put up with much and there were a couple of families that yanked their sons off the team on principle.”
“And then begged to get them put back on when they saw the team going to the playoffs?”
I smiled, “Something like that.” Then the smile melted and I sighed, something I seemed to be doing a lot of lately. “Put Sarah at the top of that list. Sand and Johnson will starve to death before they see her go without but I’d rather not put their family under that kind of stress. They looked like they were doing OK, but Sand … he’s smart and probably started some salvaging before the others. Maybe even before his parents and Sarah knew it. There were twin sisters between Sand and Johnson but they died when Johnson was so little he barely remembers them. They both caught some kind of staph infection when they were first born and the damage it did eventually killed them though I don’t know all of the details. That’s one of the reasons why Mr. and Mrs. Winkle took to Sarah so hard so fast.”
“OK, Sarah Winkle. Anyone else?”
Wondering if he would get angry I said, “I already explained about … about Stro. If he gets the baby or Janie back from Kemper I’d say we could do something for him.”
I heard a little rumble in his throat but all he said was, “Think careful before you add anyone else to the list. We’ll need to prioritize and that’s only after we make sure we have sufficient to get through to spring ourselves.”
That reminded me of the recipe boxes, “There might be another way to help folks.” A cocked eyebrow from Thor while he tied on his saddle bags had me explaining, “Come the first thaw and green sprouts there will be edibles in the woods. Most of our Venture Crew were proficient in foraging … between Dad and Mom we didn’t stand a chance to be otherwise … and we even had entire camping trips devoted to foraging to supplement a few meager rations we would bring with us. You spend most of your time and energy searching for food if you completely rely on plant forage but with a little hunting and fishing you can survive on it. Ramps in late March and April spring to mind though if we eat a lot of them we might have a rash of domestic violence on our hands.”
“OK, you lost me.”
Being as serious as I could I explained, “Think of the results of eating a lot of a combination of onions and beans.”
After a second he started laughing. “Yeah, or suddenly everyone feels the need to spend some alone time.”
“That too,” I laughed in agreement, finally giving way to the giggles I was holding in. Dad loved ramps but there were days I drug my feet coming home from school knowing what was waiting. We both led our animals from the barn at that point and headed off.
We had good road bed most of the way; only two spots had places that I worried about and both of them I could easily drive around. It was slow going because when we started out it was still fairly dark and was just barely light when we got to the outskirts of town. We headed over to the supply house and got what we needed and put it undercover in the wagon before doing any more salvaging. Thor and I were just beginning to think that Mr. Hefling had decided against the meeting when I heard the distinctive whistle call that Dad had taught our crew.
“I heard it. Take it slow and steady. I don’t want to walk into an ambush.”
I wanted to deny that any of those boys would do that to me but in all honesty I couldn’t. The times were changing and it was possible that the people right along with them. A second whistle told me that there were five people with him.
“For some reason Stro says there are five people total and I didn’t hear Lawson whistle.”
“Tickling your funny bone?”
“Yeah. Cover me and let me go on in first?”
“I …,” a grunt and then “All right. You owe me some happy time for this. And if you aren’t careful …”
He let his threat hang in the air. He didn’t really mean it, it was just his way of expressing his dislike of what made the most sense under the circumstances. I took the long way around from Thor’s position and came up to the group from the opposite side. I didn’t like things any better up close.
Stro was alone and stressed out though the stress wouldn’t have shown to most people. His eyes were telling me things none of the men around him realized. There were several reasons why Stro and I understood each other and it had a lot to do with practice. He was linebacker to my defensive tackle. We worked hand-in-glove. It wasn’t always about sacking the quarterback; sometimes those slippery running backs and wide receivers needed to be caught in our net too.
“Stro! What’s up man?”
He spit and I saw pink; he’d busted his mouth … or had it busted for him. “Nuthin’.”
“Somewhere. He and Dad are together.”
“Cool. They coming?”
He just shrugged. One of the other men, a man I knew from the highschool alumni association. “Aren’t you going to say hello Rocky?” the man asked casually and a little too friendly.
“Hello Mr. Cockrill. I wasn’t sure if you’d … you know … want me to say anything.”
“Aw, that’s the past.” He had been one of the dads that had yanked their kid off the team and then gotten mad when he couldn’t get him back on and had to be satisfied with Junior Varsity when the Varsity team slots had been filled. “Heard you’d done found yourself a man, the protective type too if the story is true.”
Now if that wasn’t a way to turn something bass-akwards I hadn’t heard it. If you listened you understood he didn’t know whether to believe the stories or not because he’d never expected me to ‘find myself a man’ much less one that was protective of me. I smiled and said, “He’s around. He knows what I’m capable of and never sells me short.” There, take that you ol’ ring tailed skunk.
Then one of the other men, one that definitely didn’t understand the slow movement of southern conversation got impatient and asked, “Well, where is he then?”
“I don’t have a tracking device on him. Don’t know how you work things with your missus but my husband is a grown man, not a dog, and will come in when he’s ready and not when called.” That got a snort of laughter from Stro and one of the other men and a really dirty look from the speaker letting me know I’d pegged him right. The guy had wuss written all over him.
One of the last two men who hadn’t said anything to this point said, “Rocky … that’s your name right?” I nodded, and I took my measure of this man. I wasn’t sure what to make of him as he was different. “We need to talk business so there’s no misunderstandings from here on out.”
“Misunderstanding about what?”
“You’ve been pinching our supplies.”
My eyebrows shot up to my bandana. My, my but he was direct. “If by pinching you mean stealing … we haven’t stolen a doggone thing from anyone.”
“You’ve been taking things from the town.”
“And I’m a resident of this town. There’s no one left in charge here … no law enforcement, no military, no local government of any type, heck I haven’t even seen a teacher from the schools … and everything is being left to deteriorate in the weather or being eat up by all the mice and rats that are taking over the buildings now that they are unoccupied.”
He shook his head, “I’d prefer to discuss this with someone older and …”
“If that is a crack about Thor being a little older than me you’re speaking about something you don’t having any business commenting on.”
“So his name is … Thor? What is his real name?”
“That is his name … or the only one I’ve ever known him to answer to anyway,” I said with another smile. “What’s your name?”
“Gerald Randall Clive.”
Ah … now I was getting the feel for him. Gerald … not Jerry … and all three names. Mr. Clive thought a rather lot of himself … and might have some reason to … but that arrogance would still cost him.
“Well Mr. Clive I don’t know you from Adam. You aren’t a resident of this town, only a tourist at best. You haven’t shown me any documentation proving you are anything at all really. You aren’t my boss … and you certainly aren’t my better.”
Struck a nerve. “Listen you little …” he ground out and then with effort he reigned himself in. Score a measure of a point for ol’ Jerry boy. “You don’t seem to understand the magnitude of your errors. There is a party in power in this area and …”
“Ah … I see. Someone thinks they are somehow a feudal lord. Whoever it is isn’t doing a very good job of it. These supplies should have been secured months ago. There has been an amazing amount of waste that can’t be gained back. Other towns have long ago organized and disseminated the resources that remain so that everyone can get through the coming winter. Looks like whoever is playing at lord of the mountain is incompetent at best and criminally stupid at worst.”
The next man to speak asked, “What makes you such an expert?”
“I’ve travelled thousands of miles across this country to get home. I’ve seen things Mr. ..?”
“Bart … just call me Bart.”
“Well Bart, I’ve seen things … both good and bad … saint like behavior to behavior that brought demons to mind. I’ve seen just how little government of any sort is left anywhere. If there is any federal government left … and there is no guarantee of that as far as I’ve experienced … they are probably doing nothing but trying to do the same thing as we should be doing right now instead of standing around jawing. Winter is coming, time’s a wasting, and resources are disintegrating before our eyes. No family will be able to survive the coming hard times alone on their own. And no tyrants will live to see the good times come back around. The time of the tyrant is over. No one will stand for such a person for long. Those that want to be leaders need to learn that leaders are nothing but servants to those they lead. Those that don’t want to be leaders need to get out of the way before they are run over or gunned down.”
The man Bart seemed to be thinking which is more than I could say for the other three with him. In fact Mr. Clive was highly affronted. “Now see here young … er … lady.”
I laughed out loud at his hesitation. “Cost you something to say that didn’t it?”
Then the gloves really came off, “Listen you freak of nature, you will do what you’re told or …”
I never did find out what my punishment would have been. A shotgun blast tore what was left of the morning apart. The blast was followed by a piercing whistle from Lawson and then Stro broke loose and starting whooping the tar out of Mr. Cockrill who was no small man himself. I saw the wuss-man take off running at the same time that No-name and Gerald Randall Clive brought their guns up. Expecting this possibility I’d left my holster unsnapped and had gotten pretty fast at drawing and shooting accurately with it thanks to Thor’s constant badgering on the subject. I still preferred my rifle but at close range the hand gun was much better.
The man called Bart had faded into a store. Cockrill was down and wouldn’t be getting up when Stro said, “There was another group …”
Mr. Hefling came from around the building and threw wuss-man down with a hole in a place that said he had answered for his shortcomings in a more immediate way. “Where’s the other one?” he asked gruffly.
A voice from the door way office space said, “The other one is in here and he’d really like not to get shot since he’d really not like to go back to Kemper’s at all since those folks seem to be losing their minds a handful of brain cells at a time.”
The man was sweating bullets but seemed like he deserved a chance. As Thor came up with Lawson beside him I said, “Mr. Hefling? He said his name was Bart … just Bart … and he seems like he might have some sense.”
When Bart cautiously stuck his head around the door he said, “I like to think so and I might have some info you folks would be interested in. I tell you, you let me head on out of town. I’m from Volney and want to go back and check to see if any of my family made it.”
Thor said, “Kinda late to be traveling.”
“I have a bike and some supplies stashed not far from here. I’ve been biding my time, trying to get away with a woman … well, never mind about that since she chose someone else … but I’ve got what I need and the bike will speed me on my way.”
Mr. Hefling said, “I’ve seen you a few times. You stopped McElroy from pounding on those kids who were fishing.”
Bart’s eyes widened but he nodded.
“What’s your intel then?”
“Let’s not stand out in the open in case they have a spotter on us.”
“Two … and had not have,” was all Thor said.
Again Bart’s eyes widened but Mr. Hefling gave a respectful nod. Bart then told us, “Things are going to hell in a hand basket at Kemper’s place. There had been too many people so two weeks ago he split the group up and about a third of them were sent to this other ritzy bunch o’ cabins a couple of miles away. Everything was fine for about a week and then bam … they took a group of people in that had shown up.”
I asked, “Infected?”
“How did you know?”
Mr. Hefling said, “Don’t you worry about that just finish it.”
“Kemper forbid everyone from speaking about that second group – not even names. We’ve had some attacks from the sick and dying who threatened to name Kemper as the one who infected them. Kemper didn’t want anyone around to associate us with them so he and a couple of the men he is calling his lieutenants planned to stage some things. He sent out a group yesterday but they didn’t come back and most everyone thinks they ran off.”
Thor said, “Is that it?”
Bart shook his head no. “You’re woman there has the right of it. Kemper ain’t got the sense to manage his way out of a paper sack … not long term … not enough to set up a permanent town or colony or anything like that. It was his wife that managed everything all nice and neat. When she died …”
“Mrs. Kemper is …?”
“Dead? Yeah. Food poisoning or appendix, we ain’t got a doctor so we didn’t know which for sure. And that’s another thing. It was because of Kemper that we don’t have a doc. Instead of holding back the valuable people he said everyone had to help with the manual labor. Guy wasn’t in any shape to be doing what he was being asked to do and he had a heart attack.” He paused and then looked around like he was checking to make sure it was safe to continue. “Supplies are real short too. They split the food when they split the group and the stuff that went with the smaller group is pretty well contaminated now … either with the virus or because the smaller group destroyed it out of spite.”
I glanced between Thor and Mr. Hefling but then looked at Stro who whispered to me, “The infected people get real mean as soon as the sores start breaking open. I saw where a man burnt his house down just so his wife wouldn’t get anything from it … including any of the pictures of their kids that he took with him when he went.”
I made a face at the imagery … and at the madness that seemed to take the infected. “Sounds like they have sores on their brains as well as on the outside of their bodies.”
Lawson said, “That’s what Doc Sims thinks too but he said it was too dangerous to autopsy any of them.”
“Senseless too since it wouldn’t have helped to save anyone,” he father added. With a glance at Thor Mr. Hefling told the man named Bart, “Go on … git. I would hit the road as soon as you can. If I was Kemper I’d expect a report fairly soon and if I didn’t get one I’d send some more folks out.”
Bart said, “I’m not sure Kemper has that much sense. Clive here was one of his top guys … and there’d been a few whispers about him taking over from Kemper if things didn’t start going right. Cockrill here was bucking for control too. I think that is why Kemper was putting them out in the field so much to get them away from the main body of people.”
I asked, “How many people does Kemper have?”
“Had a little over two hundred if you count adults and kids. Had about a hundred and thirty after the group was split. But if the numbers keep trickling down … the folks from yesterday, the kids that got snitched last night, now these guys today …”
“Snatched kids?” Thor asked.
“Yeah, snatched or something worse. Someone came in and took about six of the youngest kids. Nobody knows who but there’s some hysterical women as you can imagine. We’ve had kids snatched before. Everyone thinks it was one of the infected women that had made the threat last week. Of course that means Kemper is refusing to look for the kids because they are probably infected now. It’s a mess and everything is falling apart. Can I go now?”
“Last question,” I said. “Where did Kemper get all of the food to take care of that many people?”
“Supply points that the greenies had before they all died, Walmart trucks, different places like that. But it’s running out now and that just might be the straw that breaks the ol’ camel’s back. There was a lot of grumbling when the meals went from three down to two per day but the meals that are being served these days just ain’t fit to eat and there ain’t much to them … unless you happen to be dining with Mr. Kemper himself. He stills get a full MRE and anyone that sits at his table gets one too … but he only invites the same people over and over rather than taking turns like he used to.”
The men hustled Bart off and when he said his bike and supplies where far he meant it literally. We watched him pedal away as fast as his legs could push. Then we stood around looking at each other for a second before I said, “Stro, you have something to say?”