The next morning was not one of the best I’d ever had. I’ve been injured on the field before so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what to expect; I’d just never had to cope completely on my own, my parents had always been there to look after me and help me. What made it worse was that for some reason I’d managed to irritate the men by getting hurt. I started to worry that maybe they’d guessed I wasn’t one of them. It was Evans that gave me a clue as we stopped for our first break of the day that maybe it was the opposite problem.
“Dumb #$% thing to do to get kilt by dogs,” he snarled at me reminding me rather unfortunately of the slobbering beast that had been at me the previous night. He kept on at me until I was beginning to wonder if the fumes off his feet had short changed him some oxygen and his brain had gotten damaged in the process.
“Evans will you knock it off? I’m not dead. If I was dead I wouldn’t be sitting right here being tortured by your infernal sermon. It isn’t my fault you had your sleep disturbed and you had to mix it up with those playful pups so lighten up already. Tell you what, next time I’ll let the beastie eat me; bound to be easier than having you drag me across the coals for something that wasn’t any of my fault,” I said doing some growling of my own.
Chuckri said in a mild voice that nevertheless got the point across, “If you two lovebirds don’t knock it off I’m gonna find you a chaperone.” Evans and I looked at each other in disgust, him for his reasons and me for mine. Thor chose that moment to tell us break time was over.
The stretch of the road we were on was desolate but that didn’t mean that there weren’t some cars that would have to be moved. I was doing OK but mostly because all I was doing was popping clutches or throwing cars into neutral and then pushing from behind with the strength of my legs. I had gotten into an old truck to put it in neutral so it could be rolled when a gust of wind banged the door into my wrist which was already swollen and thumping pretty good. I was running low on patience anyway as the men had been picking at me, again for no reason I could understand, and that dang ol’ door hurt.
I lost my temper and kicked the door open so hard I sprung it and then got out and kicked it two more times for good measure. I looked down and nearly went crossed eyed trying to keep from swearing; my wrist was bleeding through the bandage Richards had put on it after breakfast.
I pulled my cuff down to hide it as Richards started my way. “I’m fine, just throwing a tantrum. At least I didn’t bust all the windows like Thor did on that Caddie,” I said just trying to act like nothing was wrong. At the reminder the man gave an impatient shake of his head and went back to moving his own part of the mess off the road. “Knock it off Rocky. No one is in the mood for your mouth,” was his tired admonition.
The blood was starting to seep below my cuff and I needed to figure out some way to hide that too. Surprising me, it was Evans that saved my bacon. He came over like he was going to hurry the kid along with a stick but in a slick move he passed me a wad of good restaurant napkins and said beneath his breath, “There’s some duct tape in that work van over there. Come with me and help me go through it and I’ll cover for you. Just don’t take all day and don’t make it obvious.”
When it was all done I asked him quietly as I passed out things that might come in handy, “What is this going to cost me?”
The wicked gleam in his eye said that he appreciated my understanding and cutting to the chase. “Next two stashes you find, you call me over and I get first dibs and you let me divvy up whatever is left over.”
It was painless enough so I said, “Deal.”
It was a long day but we managed through sheer will to make it to the turn off to this place called Buckboard Crossing campground. I was bleary eyed with fatigue by the time we got down to the place. It was still light so some of the men decided to clean up using the water from the marina. All I wanted to do was crawl in my tent and go to sleep. It had been a long time since I had felt this rough.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
Thor. That man was turning into a thorn in my side that was beginning to annoy me. I mumbled, “I’ve got middle watch. Just trying to get a little rest before hand.”
“You haven’t eaten.”
“Not hungry.” As soon as I let the words escape my mouth I could have kicked myself. I tried to cover it with a fast, “I’m saving it for …”
“Don’t even try it kid. You got a long way to go before you can pull one over on me. Get out here.”
I crawled out and tried to look nonchalant but that only got me a contemptuous look. “Barkley’s already got a net and a half dozen fish.”
“What?” I was amazed enough to look half alive. “Dang, is there anything he can’t catch? First those quick little boogers … the ground squirrels … and now a bucketful of fish just for thinking the thought.”
“In his old life he was a game warden. Knows his stuff.”
“Oh.” I was sitting there trying to act like I was interested in what he was saying. Suddenly I catch Richards sitting down on my left side and I looked at Thor. “Dude,” and I put every bit of annoyance into the word as I could. He just smiled and said, “Tough. And I’m sitting here until Richards is through with you.”
I’d at least gotten rid of the duct tape and napkins while I was in the tent but it had hurt like the dickens. Richards looked at my wrist and then looked at me but didn’t say anything. However, in what felt like punishment he wasn’t exactly gentle either. When he was done I really did need to go lie down but I got precious little sleep because of the pounding winding its way from my hand to my head. It was a relief to get up for my watch and a relief to lie back down after it too.
I did good to put one foot in front of the other the next day. I know I did work but how many cars I moved I couldn’t tell you if my life depended on it. I know I ate breakfast and then the evening meal but again I couldn’t tell you what I was eating. My arm felt hot and I knew my body was fighting an infection. My mouth was dry as I asked Evans what watch I was on.
“You’re night off kid.”
“Are you sure … wait … I’m not due an off night yet I …”
“Chuckri is trying a different rotation. He says it keeps us on our toes.”
Falling for it hook, line, and sinker I said, “Oh.” Then I crawled into my tent and I didn’t even bother taking my boots off. It couldn’t have been too late though when I heard strange voices. “You can’t stay here. This is our place. And besides, you’ll draw the dogs with your soft-sides.”
I heard Thor’s rumble but couldn’t understand what he was saying, things seemed to be shifting all funny.
Another voice answered him, this one female. “Look, I’m really sorry but we don’t have anything to share. You’ll have to leave.”
This time it was Chuckri who said, “We don’t want any of your stuff, just this piece of ground for the night.
There was some more rumbling and then I heard Evans yelp, “Silver?! You’re all jacked up. And we sure as #$%@ don’t have any gold!”
The voices were like needles piercing my skull. I reached into the money belt that had become my habit to keep around my waist and pulled out two little silver bars. “Sorry Jonathon, hope you understand buddy,” I said to the tent pole.
I crawled out and walked like a drunken sailor over to this little man whose eyes got big as butter bowls as I stumbled over. “Evans!” I bellowed making everyone look at me.
Evans couldn’t decide whether to laugh at me or swear because I was interrupting his bartering discussion. I grabbed his hand and slammed the two little bars down in it hard enough to make him wince and said, “Make … them … go … away. They’re noisier than them dogs were and no one can get any sleep.” I tried to go back to my bed roll but I didn’t quite make it. I tripped over my feet and just managed to sit down at a picnic table while trying to look like that’s exactly what I had meant to do.
“Whot’s wrang with heem?” came a heavily accented voice.
Evans said, “A sweet little pup tried to turn him into a doggie biscuit.” My forehead slowly descended to the top of the table while Evans went back to dickering.
“Hey mate, let’s see the ahm there.” I opened one eye to look into the face of someone that was too cheerful to be allowed to live. All that came out was a growl. “Right friendly little fella ain’t he?” the man said to someone on my other side that was too much trouble to look at.
“Rocky, you bite me and I’ll plant you.” Thor. So caring. So kind. If I had had the energy to show him how much I appreciated his concern I would have willingly done so. The big ape.
Someone, Thor I expect, lifted my arm onto the table and I focused on not puking. I hated puking. It is just about the most undignified thing I can imagine … not to mention people who are nearly six feet tall have a lot of puke volume and projection capability.
After a little while I hear the accent say, “Your mate’s got an infection but I expect that’s no surprise to you. I’m gonna give heem a shot that’ll put ‘em out for a full day most like. Let ‘em sleep it off. Unless he develops a fevah he should turn the corner right quick after that.”
The last thing I remember was being stuffed back into my tent then at some point during the night having Thor stick his head in the tent and me telling him, “If I die, remind me to tell you something.”
I woke up feeling like I was going to puke … not from being sick but from hunger. I noticed that despite the relatively cool weather I’d sweated through my clothes and I stank pretty bad. I didn’t hear anything outside, nor anything identifiable off in the distance. Wondering if they’d left me behind I pushed my tent’s flap to the side and was startled to see all the men sitting around moping.
“Geez. Somebody die?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if I had meant to say it out loud but it sure got a reaction.
I started crawling out and I had more hands of helping me up than I knew what to do with.
Evans said, “Kid, you do that again and I’ll kill ya.”
He was a little too cheerful when he said it. I responded with, “Well, as soon as you tell me what I’m supposed to have done I’ll do my best to avoid it.”
“Pshaw,” which of course meant absolutely nothing to me and only confused me more.
I was forcibly parked at the picnic table while my hand was suddenly filled with my canteen. When what I thought was water hit my lips I found something both sweet and salty. “Drink it.” That was Richards.
It quenched my thirst and most of my hunger for the time being. “What’s up? Is the caravan here yet? Have we had the debriefing? Why isn’t anyone packed up?”
They told me that I’d been out of it for over twenty-four hours, that the caravan was late … probably due to the route change … and that we were in the town of Green River and there was a sizeable community here that had decided to tolerate our presence and that they’d already heard about the federal refugee caravan and had agreed to let them stay in the same park that we currently occupied.
I was just starting to wonder if I had the energy to dig the bag of gorp out of my backpack when Thor, Chuckri, and another man walked up. Thor was looking like his thunderous namesake. I held up the hand that Richards wasn’t working on and said, “I know, I know. Evans has already promised to kill me if I do whatever it was I did again.”
All the big man said was, “He’ll have to wait in line.”
The other man grinned and I vaguely recognized the excessively cheerful man. I groaned, “Not you again.”
He didn’t act like he was offended. In fact he seemed to think it was funny … but I wasn’t quite sure that I’d meant it to be. He was a professor from some university somewhere that had been at the Rec area on vacation when everything unraveled. He and his family were doing well enough and were actually happy about no longer living in the big city even if they were having to start over. I wasn’t really listening to his rattling on as I was concentrating on not feeling all the poking and prodding he was doing to my wrist.
“Swellings almost gone. At night when there’s less chance of getting it dirty you need to let the wound air.” He then ignored me and continued talking to Richards while I promised God that I’d be a good girl for the rest of my life if they would just leave me alone for a while.
Apparently in exchange for his services, Richards had bargained a bit of his time going over the few psychotropic meds they had in stock. That and the silver that I had passed to Evans was giving us and the caravan safe passage between Green River and the next small town called Rock Springs.
I spent the rest of that day trying to get loose from my babysitters. I needed a little privacy to get myself cleaned up and it was tough to come by. I had to use the men’s bathroom of course but that meant being prepared to share space with a species that didn’t seem to have the same privacy issues that real females had. I nearly died three times over trying to change fast enough I didn’t get caught and then getting stuck in the john with a couple of zipper users. All right, I’ll admit that my limited experience … OK zero experience due to circumstances not really beyond my control … had me dealing with a little temptation to see what all the fuss was about but had I gotten caught looking I would have probably gotten some pretty strange looks in return. In the end I just walked out looking straight ahead and trying not to catch anyone’s eye.
We traded a few items we’d found and been dragging around plus a little of our wheat and corn that someone said they were going to use for seed; in exchange we got some canned fruit. We all got a canned peach half and I used the left over juice to marinade a small canned ham I had left from Nana’s stash. We also had rice and beans. I could have eaten the whole pot myself and then some I was that hungry by the time the evening meal rolled around. In the end I was more tired than hungry and was again excused from guard duty to rest up. I knew pay back would come eventually but I wouldn’t be any good with a rifle for a little while yet anyway.
The caravan showed up the next day and they were looking the worse for wear. Apparently there had been a minor mutiny and some people had been “dealt with” as the feds were wont to do. We got debriefed, re-supplied, and out of there as fast as we could get. The emotions coming off the refugees didn’t bode well for long term peace and harmony of that group. We still had about 225 miles until Laramie and we wanted to put as many of them between us and the caravan as quickly as possible.
All we did that first day was walk. The communities of Green River and Rock Springs had cleared most of them already and the few that were left … like those from a three car fire … could be detoured around, if not quickly at least safely. Even with me holding us back we were able to get well on the other side of the county airport but most of the last stretch was due to a farmer who was willing to barter the lift for the muscle to get one last pile up from blocking his main gate. We camped on the hillside beside this gate and I finally started feeling less like there was something hanging over my head waiting to crash down.
The next day we made it to Point of Rocks, Wyoming which is an old stage coach stop. There wasn’t anything there anymore except for the Jim Bridger Power Station that was a pretty big coal-fired electrical generation facility. It was all shut down and looking haunted but the farmer had said that people were going out there and taking what coal was left in the train yard to use in their houses or to store for next winter since it wasn’t likely that the feds would have everything cleaned up by then. I snagged up a few pieces of coal and put them in a baggie. If nothing else they might be useful keeping a fire going at some point. Several of the other men did the same.
The map showed us that Hwy 30 and I80 were the same thing in that area and as expected our distance traveled drastically fell as we ran into the bumper to bumper traffic remains. It took us two days to travel from Point of Rocks to Table Rock for a total of 24 more miles. Between Table Rock and Red Desert we had even more fun as there was construction on top of everything else making it very hard to move vehicles over far enough to allow the caravan to pass. We barely made ten miles that day.
With one day left we only got eight miles into the town of Wamsutter. We were supposed to be much closer to Rawlings but there was just no way to have made that happen. We used what was left of the sixth day to forage around in the empty town … finding some bicycles helped with that … and we also sent the stuff we’d been collecting on ahead to be cached since we’d run into space empty of people again. Enough of the cars still had bodies in them that Richards surmised that one of the weaponized germs had come through the area so hot that it burned out before it could spread as far as Green River.
The smell of the area was getting to me so it was with relief that I saw an advance guard from the caravan pull up for a debriefing and with our supplies. On second thought when I realized how slim the resupply was I nearly said something until Evans caught my eye and gave a brief shake. He and I still weren’t friends but as I’d come to accept him for who he was our exchanges had become less irritating. Don’t get me wrong, his feet still knocked flies out of the air, but I also managed to learn a few things from him too like breaking and entering in three easy steps, determining whether car theft should be a hobby or a career, and where people were most likely to hide their valuables.
Since it was in our own best interest to get going that’s what we did but I had to ask once out of earshot, “Did anyone else get the feeling that they were a little too anxious to send us on our way?”
Evans answered me with, “Something’s sure up. We’re gonna get hungry if we don’t find us a deer, elk, or something though they might be stringy and tough right here after a hard winter. I know we keep finding snacks in the cars but Rocky here is the only one that is young enough to appreciate all them empty calories.”
I looked at him like I was seeing a side I hadn’t expected. He laughed unexpectedly and said, “@#$% kid you’re gullible.”
The other men laughed at my expense which was fine by me. I was just glad that they weren’t snarking at me all the time anymore. I looked down at my wrist. Everything was almost one hundred percent again but I’d carry the scars for life. I had others on my body but not quite this obvious and the part of me that was still a girl wondered just how ugly they would stay.
I brought the attention back to my question, “But seriously, weren’t they acting kinda more weird than normal?”
Thor, backing up Chuckri’s point position said, “Yeah. Yeah they were. Something must have happened and either they’ve lost feds or they’ve lost refugees … either way they didn’t want us hanging around to see the main body come in. And Evans is right, keep your eyes peeled for some real food. We’re down about half what I figure we were due and they knew I knew but were all but daring me to say something about it.” After a pause he continued. “But listen up, none of that is our problem right now. Our job is to get the road cleared enough for them to get to Laramie. We’re down below a hundred and fifty miles now; that’s two, three weeks at most barring something getting in the way besides vehicles. The other thing we need to count on is running into more people.”
Barkley picked up the thread. “There have been sign that some have been around but can’t be anything too organized or more of the cars and trucks would be ransacked. That probably means only small groups of people, not necessarily stationary or not living close enough to carry off too much from any foraging operations. The game is slim … slimmer than I’d expect it to be … so someone is hunting, or maybe it was the bad winter. I don’t know what the normal wild animal populations were in this area to begin with.”
Thor picked it back up. “And with Laramie as close as it is we need to start thinking about what we do next. I’ve heard from some of you but I want all of you to think real good before making your final decision. Just to let you know, I’ve agreed to buddy with Chuckri to his home base in Missouri. We’ve both agreed that any of you would be welcome to tag along but as a group we never agreed to more than to get to Laramie. Just think on it.”