Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chapter Sixty-Three

Chapter 63

December 4th – Haven’t written for a few days. I was too busy and too overwhelmed by everything to stop and think about it before now. When I caught myself talking to the brussel sprouts out in the garden I realized it was time to step back and get some perspective before I really jumped the tracks.

The night of the 28th … yeah, just looked at my journal and it was the 28th … that night I put on dark clothes that made me look like a cross between a Goth wannabe and that old blonde actress in that movie Private Benjamin when she is marching through the mud and muck. Didn’t feel like much of a comedy though; felt more like I stepped into some whacked out, LSD laced version of Alice in Wonderland. I'm looking back and still have trouble coming to terms with everything that has happened.

I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t some PTSD dream and that I was really doing what I was doing. If I had only known how those feelings would double up as the night wore on I don’t know if I would have had the courage to start. I think that is why, if precognition really exists, God doesn’t give it to too many people. If people always knew what was coming down the pike they’d probably decide to check out early rather than face it.

All the pack and gear was a little heavy but wouldn’t have been as bad if I hadn’t had to put rain gear on top of everything else, winter gear to keep myself from freezing, and slogging through puddles and wet ground that felt like quicksand every few steps. I’d like to record for posterity how many trees and bushes I walked into because of the dark but I lost count. At least I wasn’t running at that point and I only fell down a few times, not counting the bath I took in that ditch that I didn't see in the dark.

The summer and autumn had given all the greenery time to try and take over the world. It was much more difficult to reach the Crenshaws by going across fields than it had the last time I had attempted this with Alicia. I think I could have dealt with the miserable weather and lack of light if it wasn’t complicated by the fact that the rain had my hearing all out of whack on top of it. I finally had to take the poncho off my head and just deal with the soaking. The hoodie took away what peripheral vision I had and the rain drops felt like fingernails against my eardrums. The dirty USF Bulls baseball cap I wore kept the water out of my eyes for the most part or I would have been blind as well as nearly deaf.

I learned to hike more carefully but it made for slower going and it was after midnight before I made it to the Crenshaw’s place. I knew right away that something terrible had happened. The Winston place was burned to the ground. A couple of the floor joists … I think they were the floor joists … were still warm to the touch and the rubble definitely smelled icky enough that the damage wasn’t that old.

I only took a few steps and tripped over what I thought was a piece of wood I hadn’t seen. That was my first step down the rabbit hole. As soon as I got a good look at what I had tripped over I realized God had decided not to answer my prayer. I wasn’t sure who it was at first, except that it was a female, most of the anatomy was in the right spots. The one hank of hair left is what identified the poor woman. Mostly it was an unfortunate shade of gray pm tje scalp end but on the ends was about six inches of false blonde from the last dye job Mrs. Winston had.

Someone had tried to cover her up and put stones at the four corners of the plastic but the wind had ripped it loose from its moorings and the rain beat down without mercy on what was left of the afflicted woman. I couldn’t see her family leaving her exposed like this, not even for a short while. I searched around for other bodies but didn’t see any. I had a gut sick feeling.

I was much more cautious as I approached Clyde’s house. The baby’s bed was turned on its side and there was a window busted out in there. Other than that there was no other damage. I crossed over to Uncle George’s place. No one was home. Missy’s place was empty too. I went out to the barn … no animals. Things began to freak me the heck out. I checked all of the houses up and down the farm road and nothing. No people, no animals, damage in a few houses but nothing major, one brown smear on the bedroom door in one location and a puddle of brown in another. The rain continued to fall and I was tempted to let some tears fall as well.

I decided to check the Trading Shack and thank God that I did but I still nearly wet myself when that bird shot blew out the window I had just past in front of.

“Oh my God … OhmyGod … Kiri … please, please, please, I didn’t hit you did I?!!!”

“Not for freaking lack of trying!!! Dang it Missy, give me a blasted heart attack next time!! And if I’ve messed myself you are going to give me something out of the supplies for free!!!”

Then we fell on each other crying and laughing at the same time. A pain racked voice from the hallway said, “If y’all are done now I’ve started bleeding again and could use a little tender care.”

Bill is in pretty bad shape. He took what he calls an in and out in the shoulder and he bled quite a bit from a head wound. The attackers thought he was dead and didn’t check him over too well. He and Missy had been over in the Shack cleaning up from a day of heavy trading when their nightmare started.

They attacked almost every home on the road simultaneously. The noise of the rain gave them the advantage over most everyone. The fact that they went after the kids first had most families giving up without a fight. They’d go in, take a kid, hold them at gun point and the rest went pretty much like you would expect it would. If a house didn’t have kids they would either use a pregnant woman, someone else’s kid, or an elderly person to force compliance. They hit in the dark. First they took the people away and then they came back for the animals.

Missy asked, “How is it that you don’t know what has happened?”

“I came over here because Rand hasn’t been home in two days. You remember my foster brother Ram? He had stopped by and he was in bad shape after south Florida so Rand was taking him back to the train where it had stopped over near the old train depot museum then he was supposed to go to the Harbingers and … and he never came home.”

Bill asked, “And you haven’t seen anyone else?”

“No! I mean, not living. There were two burned bodies dumped not too far from our front gate and then … then I think it is Mrs. Winston across the road.”

“Yeah, they didn’t realize she was crazy when they tried to use her and … well, the inevitable occurred as you can imagine. You haven’t seen anyone else? No one at all?” Missy asked inspite of the fact I'd already answered that question.

“Isn’t that what I just said?!”

“Hey, don’t yell at Missy she’s just … “

“Well so am I so lay off. I don’t know why they missed our place. Do you have any idea where they took folks?”

“Maybe.”

“What do you mean ‘maybe?’ Either you do or you don’t.”

“Kiri, take it easy. Missy and I have been holed up here … “

“Bill, enough with the explanations. Just spit it out for Pete’s sake.”

“They were dressed in camou but nothing standard issue that I used to see come through. Not your average hunter’s camouflage either. The color of the green … if you want the truth I saw some of that out of the jungles of South America but … “

“Venezuela … could you tell …”

“How the … Kiri, they were speaking Spanish or something close to it.”

“Castellano … that’s what they call it. Most of the words are the same, they just sound like they are in a different dialect.”

Missy eye me suspiciously. “That’s right, you speak Spanish.”

“Get off it Missy. Ram was talking about what had gone on down in south Florida. I guess those creeps didn’t give up after all. They are being backed by the … “

“Russians,” Bill said finishing my sentence for me.

“Yeah. Guess it didn’t take much of a brain drain to figure that out.”

“No. And it explains some of the Anglo-looking people them.”

“So, where do you ‘maybe’ think they’ve taken everyone?”

“Hoss said … “

“Whoa, back up. You’ve seen Hoss?”

“Yeah. He was at his relative’s place and was cutting through and stopped by the Shack for a second and mentioned he was heading back to Henderson’s. He said tomorrow he might have a little news to trade because there had been a transmission that there was some type of fight going on at the old military outpost, the one over between River Road and the old GoldKist processing plant on US90.”

“Well, that gives me a place to start.”

“That gives you … oh no you don’t girl.”

I remember turning and giving Bill a look. There aren’t too many people that dared to tell me no like that before things went to heck in a hand basket. Bill found out there was only one or two I tolerate it from these days … and he wasn’t one of them.

Bill blinked first when Missy hitched up her breath like she was going to cry. I looked at her and said, “You don’t really expect me to baby sit the two of you do you? You’re both adults and neither one of you stood up to your Daddy when he was being so rough on Rand.”

“But … “

“Missy, under any other circumstances … but not this, you can’t ask me to sit around and not try and find out what has happened to Rand.”

“It isn’t about anyone else for you is it?”

“You want to get nasty Missy I can and with a clear conscience. No, right here right now it isn’t about anybody else. I owe Rand my loyalty, my love, my life, and likely my sanity. Right now he is all I care about. You want to hold that against me then go right ahead. Does that make me hard? Maybe. After that comes Momma O … and after that Mick and Tommy and Pastor Ken. Those folks have given me the most acceptance for who I am and I don’t intend just sitting around waiting for someone else to …”

Bill broke in, “Kiri, Missy is awful close to her due date and I’m next to useless. If something happens to me … “

“Then find a hole for you two and crawl in. When I find out what is going on I’ll be back or I’ll send some help or something. If you need some food or water I’ll … “

Missy, rather coldly said, “No. We can take care of it.”

Bill, trying not to get in the middle of a cat fight said, “Kiri, this isn’t … Girl, Rand wouldn’t want you to … Nothing I say is going to change your mind is it?”

Feeling a little bad for the way things were going despite what I had said I told him, “Bill, would you let someone or something stop you finding out about Missy? Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t feel that same kind of need. I’m not a frilly girly-girl. I’m not even a normal kind of girl. I’m me … rough, not able to put up with people much, scarred in a lot of ways. But Rand stood by me, from the very beginning. He’s never asked me to be anyone and anything else than what I am. He … he …”

I guess Missy must have thawed a bit because she put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed and it let me continue. “He is the reason why I get up in the morning and the reason why I can sleep at night. The reason why I even bother trying to … maybe I shouldn't put that kind of burden on him, maybe if … If I was going to have a baby or there was a kid or something I could handle things if … Look, I have to know. I can’t not try. I’m not asking you to understand. I don’t really care if anyone understands. It’s just the way it is for me.”

I finally looked back at the two of them and it was like they were seeing me for the first time all the way through. It wasn’t a real comfortable feeling so I got up and grabbed the bucket they were using for water and went outside and filled it from the water barrel and filled up my own canteen at the same time. When I came back in I was back in control and had my attitude wrapped around me like Kevlar. “You have food or do you need anything else?”

“We’ll be fine. Stay out of trouble if you can Kiri. Whatever has happened I know Rand wouldn’t want you walking to your death with wide open arms.”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. I’m not going looking for it, that’s not the plan. I want a chance at my happily ever after and I’m not about to let some jerks cut me out of it.”

There was a few more things said, mostly Bill giving me tips on strategy in case I needed it, then I was off. There were only a couple of hours until daylight and I wasn’t going to make it on foot the miles I needed to travel before it arrived.

Live Oak is like a spider’s web, lots of major roads radiate out from the city center. One of those roads is CR136. The Crenshaw’s place is on a road off of CR136. The county road then runs SW until it hits the city center and then turns sharply due east before running smack into the southern end of River Road. That was a haul to walk, almost made me wish that I’d ridden Hatchet … almost.

It was mid morning and I was so tired of weaving and dodging to stay out of sight that by the time I got to the intersection I knew I needed to rest or I was going to be useless. It hadn’t stopped raining either. My feet were soaked and so was the rest of me. There was an old house set back from the road and I went in. The house had been salvaged over so many times that it wasn’t much more than a frame in some places but the roof was relatively intact and kept me out of the rain. There was an old metal bed with some junk piled around it and I crawled under it like a vampire to get out of what daylight there was so that I could rest and then sneak in under cover of darkness.

And boy did I sleep. I woke with a start when something squeaked in my ear. Thank you Lord for the rain because I made enough noise to draw every baddie within a mile with all my scrabbling to get out from under there. Rats, I so do not like them. I sure as heck don’t like them squeaking at me like an alarm clock but what happened next was too providential for me to curse them completely.

I pulled myself together, grabbed my gear (after checking it for hitch hikers) and then took off in the direction that would bring me behind the old GoldKist plant where who knows how many chickens used to meet their fate. I was no more than five buildings away when boots on a run had me ducking for cover. Men, men with guns, big guns were going from building to building. I guess they were looking for stragglers they might have missed the first go around. They didn’t look too happy to be out in the cold, wet weather. The men that were higher in rank, I presume they were anyway because they were standing around telling the rest of them what to do, were shouting, “¡Muévale los perros! Estamos tarde y el comandante flay le si hay más retardos.”

Sounded like things weren’t moving to someone’s timetable. Find by me, I decided to cause them a few more delays and I got my first chance when one of them men snuck off to take a potty break. What is it with guys anyway? They get so involved with marking their territory that a brass band could march up behind them and they wouldn’t notice. As far as I know the guy is still down under the manhole plate where I dumped him after I caught him on the back of the head with a piece of convenient tree branch wet and heavy from all of the rain. There wasn’t any water down there so I expect it was an electric junction or something. I'd forgotten about him until just now. I suppose I better say something to someone.

What I didn’t dump down in there with the guy was his gun and ammo belt and the bandolier of grenades he had been wearing. The grenades looked like dark green apples with pull rings. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with them but I figured they would come in handy. This next part is something I’m not too proud of and figure I’ll have to answer for some day.

I’ve gotten pretty good at plinking with the Mark III. I can hit the bullseye at fifty yards. I don’t know how that compares to what really passes for marksmanship but Rand likes it and I’ve hit near the center of the target at nearly 70 yards, but not farther. I don’t know if that is the limit of the gun or what but I only needed to get 60 yards and I wasn’t aiming at a little bitty bullseye but at a man in the back of a truck holding one of those military radio gizmo thingies. I don’t know what planet these guys came from but no one with any brains just sits in the bed of a pick up in the middle of a war … and I had declared this to be a war. He was just leaning back in the truck like he didn’t have a care in the world, arms spread wide, mouth open to catch the rain.

I told myself, “You’re just plinking cans, aim for the radio and cut them off.”

I got the radio … and the guy wearing the radio and God sent a clap of thunder to cover the shot. I had moved and found fresh cover and the group of twelve … make that ten … men still didn’t realize anything was amiss. I guess they had had it so easy up to that point that they had gotten careless. I decided not to push my luck and ran for it. No one saw me or at least no one shouted, “Hey, look, there’s a girl … let’s get her.”

It started to rain harder and I ducked under some bushes to catch my breath. The extra gear from the guy I dumped down the hole weighed me down and I was really tempted to leave it behind. I’m glad I sucked it up and brought it with me, it came in handy.

I didn’t have any more trouble – sometimes you just know your guardian angel is working overtime – and followed River Road for a while and then cut behind where I knew the old outpost was supposed to be. I nearly puked when I saw what was happening; I would have puked if I had known it all.

It looked like one of those WW2 internment camps from those documentaries you used to be able to watch on the Military Channel. Tall fences where people were mashed together like sardines. Men in one area, women in another, young children separated out into a third. They didn’t need to have too many guns on the adults because they had a lot trained on the children. Then I saw some of the rough men dragging a young girl out of the crowd of women. The women tried to hold onto her but they were punched and butt stroked with rifles and then someone shot a gun into the crowd of young children … they all ran screaming in different directions but it didn’t look like any of them had been hit, at least not that time.

I knew I didn’t have much time so I ran around the compound through the overgrowth that was there. They hadn’t even had time to clear the land where it had grown back from the last trimming it had been given. I didn’t even stop to think. It was just a stupid portable outside the main compound fences, paper thin walls, two doors, a few blackened windows. The day had grown dark earlier than normal because of the weather and I took advantage of it. I ran into the door on the opposite they were going to enter. My brain was going nothing to ninety in less than five seconds. For some reason Rambo got stuck in my head and I knew what I was going to do.

Two men drug the young girl into the portable slamming the door behind them, I came out from where the door closed and using one of Daddy’s knives out of his collection I … I stepped up behind them and did what I thought was necessary. The girl they had thrown on the stained mattress just laid there crying, waiting, unaware that I had taken care of her most immediate problem. I turned quickly and rigged a grenade on the chain lock that was on the door then I turned to find the girl staring at the two men. I grabbed her and ran to the door I had come in, took a quick peak hearing the other men laughing on the other side of the building, and then drug the kid into the thick bushes and kept going even after the explosion that signified that someone had become impatient for their turn.

An old, overturned bread truck became our refuge and that is when I realized who the girl was … Sadie. She fell on me and was crying and I don’t know what all but I couldn’t seem to find it in me to be patient. I slapped her to get her to stop and said, “I need to know as much as you can tell me about how things work here. We haven’t got much time. That explosion is going to be like stirring a hornet’s nest with a sugar bush stick.”

She’d cried snot all over her face and I handed her a bandana as she told me basically the same kind of story that Missy and Bill had. The men had caught Hannah as she gathered eggs and used her to force the rest of the household into compliance. Paul had tried to lock her into their bedroom but they broke down the door and dragged her downstairs. As soon as they had been herded to the pins the little kids and babies had been taken away and the men and women separated. I asked her if she had seen Rand and she said no but that it didn’t mean anything because she had only seen Paul and his dad a couple of times since they had been separated; but she also said that some of the men that had fought in the beginning were taken away and you could hear shots. None of those men came back.

I told her I was going to have to leave her there and she started to panic but I told her she really didn’t want to go where I was going and that Hannah, Paul, and his family needed her to stay safe, they were going to need her when this was all over with. I felt funny when I said it, like it was true in a way that I wasn’t going to like.

I left her my extra canteen and some food. That helped lighten my load a little bit but I didn’t bother leaving a gun after she told me she didn’t know how to shoot one because her dad said only loose women handled guns. Well, I was about to get as loose as her dad probably fantasized about. She caught me off guard when she hugged me as I was leaving and I felt driven to tell her to stay hidden for as long as she could but if she had to move, to do it carefully and to stay out of sight and out of the way.

It was back to the dark cold rain and the sounds of the enemy running around like chickens with their heads cut off. As soon as I thought that I wondered where the command center was for the compound. At the time I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the information but, just like the grenades, I thought it would be useful.

I scrambled around to the other side of the compound as quickly as I could. All the activity was on the side where I had blown up the portable and I wondered if I had left Sadie in the wrong place but it was too late to go back and change it. I refocused and started looking at the mess the enemy had made. They had tents galore set up and I could see where the train had been derailed and a couple of the cars were lying on their sides. That would have been the explosions reported by Henderson’s men. I also saw a pile of dead soldiers stacked some ways off. The rain was keeping the predators away for the time being.

I saw a bunch of the invaders packed into one tent and figured it was the mess hall. Some of our men were being directed at filling sand bags and they were using these to build makeshift walls around some of the free standing tents. One looked a little bit like a MASH unit and another one looked like a small radio station. The radio station was the focus of a bunch of arguing. I couldn’t see what was going on in any of the other tents because the lamp light didn’t penetrate far enough but none of them looked like there was a lamp on inside of those tents either so they might have been sleeping quarters. I didn’t see anything that looked like a command station. I guess the movies make it seem like it is so easy to figure everything out.

I was trying to think so hard that he got the jump on me before I even realized it. I was kicking and fighting and then got flipped over on my stomach which knocked the wind out of me despite the hard hand across my mouth.

In my ear I heard, “Ow! Don’t bite! Will you stop it!! Blast it! Ram was right, you’re as mean as a cottonmouth when you get cornered!”

I stopped fighting and as soon as I did the man let up and I squirmed out of his control and pulled the Mark III and put my back to a tree and aimed.

“My gawd girl. Point that thing someplace else. And be careful of them grenades you’re swinging around, you want to blow us all up? By the way, now that I’ve spotted you I assume that was your doing over there.”

It took me a second then I recognized the guy. He’d been with Ram that first time, at the church service.

“You don’t remember my name do you? It’s Duncan … Pepper Duncan. No, don’t ask, my dad was drunk at the time. Have you seen him? Ram I mean.”

“Not for a couple of days. My husband never came home from bringing Ram to the train.”

“Rand. That’s your husband’s name. I heard about him to. Ram said he was the only guy crazy enough to put up with you.”

“If you are done insulting me, would you mind telling me what is going on and where is everybody else?”

“I’ll tell you if you point that thing … fine, have it your way. There isn’t an ‘everybody’ any more. You’re dead or your behind the fence.”

“You’re not behind the fence.”

“No. No I’m not.”

“And why would that be?”

“Because if you’ll notice I don’t look like I’m much of a threat now does it?”

I looked at the direction he was pointing. I blinked and then blinked some more. Pepper was missing the foot on one leg and from the knee down on the other.

“Looks can be deceiving obviously. You didn’t have any trouble sneaking up on me and taking me down.”

I surprised him. His mouth hung open and then he grinned. “You’re all right. Look, I don’t know what you are thinking about but there are too many of them. Ram said you were crazy, he never said you were suicidal.”

“I’m neither, Ram is a big fat pain in the backside and I’m going to kick his for telling my business all over the place. As for what I was doing I was wondering where the command center is for this place.”

“Hasn’t got one. I don’t think this is the command group. I think this may just be the advance guard or something like that. I figure they were to come in, soften up the place, and then get it ready for the main body to arrive. They’ll either use those people as cannon fodder or as collateral. Our guys aren’t going to want to massacre our own, not even to get to the enemy. Bad for morale and we got enough of those problems already.”

“OK, if what you say is true then we don’t have that much time.”

“Much time for what?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out. Do you know if the military are sending troops in here?”

“They got the report. I know that for a fact as I was the one that sent it. What they do with that information is anyone’s guess. Depends on what resources we have in the area and how many and how big a threat they consider this incursion. They’ve let other ones go unchallenged.”

“What?!”

“For cripes sake, keep your voice down knucklehead. We’ve had some Asian incursions on the West Coast but there wasn’t much left over there worth anything anyway, especially not after the fires. The Canadians are coming across the border for food and fuel too but we’ve formed a sort of coalition with them so local authorities turn a blind eye to the salvaging as long as that is all it is … no taking stuff that already has legal owners. The Republic has held firm on the southern border with surprising tenacity now that they are allowed to use whatever force is deemed necessary. That’s why we are now seeing incursions by water.”

“You mean invasions.”

“Call them incursions; you’ll stay out of trouble that way.”

“Call it like it is instead of some stupid politically correct whitewash and you might be able to correct the problem sooner.”

“Yeah, yeah … that’s above my pay grade. I’ve got my own problems to worry about right now sweetheart.”

“Well, don’t look at me, I’ve spent my time in a wheelchair. At least what you’ve still got obeys the commands your brain sends them.”

I’d surprised him again and he gave a quiet chuckle and shook his head. “Fine. Let me tell you what I’ve been thinking while I was sitting here feeling sorry for myself. You see that radio tent? Something is wrong. They’ve been working on it for over 24 hours straight and that big guy, the one that looks like Dolph Lundgren … “

“Who?”

“Never mind, the big blonde … the Russian … he’s been getting angrier and angrier and about an hour ago he put a bullet in some guy’s head and bellowed out something like, “¡Tonto incompetente!”

“That means ‘incompetent fool’ if you are pronouncing it correctly.”

“You speak Spanish?”

“Well enough and it is pretty clear that he was calling the guy incompetent.”

“Yeah, even I could figure that one out. Anyway, everyone is getting all nervous and bent. Look … see those men there? The Anglos? They’re the Russians, or at least Eastern Europeans. See how they are standing off and away from the rest of the men?”

“The Venezuelans?”

“Ram told you. Yeah, the Venezuelans. Even before the pandemic got bad the Russians had built bases of operation in Venezuela. Long political story that I ain’t going into. It simply was and when the pandemic had the kaka hitting the twirling blades old grudges started looking like they could be settled. And there is a worldwide resource grab going on. China is too busy claiming the rest of Asia and most of Africa right now, or trying to claim it. Russia has decided to take the Americas. But they have to keep most of their forces in the motherland to fight off China stepping into their territory as well. And both countries are trying to claim the oil reserves of the Middle East, but China needs it worse.”

“So, Venezuela to make up the difference and to give them some manpower.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think things are going near as well as either country expected. Even little, nothing countries had access to suitcase sized dirty bombs before the pandemic and both Russia and China got pounded and pounded hard. Venezuela saw that and has gotten a little big for her britches and the Russians gave them a couple of nasty blackeyes to remind them who’s boss. It’s made for poor coalition relations. But the Russians are the brains, the experience, and they’re the ones with the equipment … there is no way that Venezuela could have gotten this far without help, a lot of it. I’m thinking that the Russians might just be the brains of the operation here as well. If someone could cut the head of the snake off … Who knows?”

“So how do we do it?”

“How do we? Are you crazy? I told you, this was all just conjecture!”

“Conjecture or not it is the only plan I’ve got. The problem as I see it is that whatever it is it has to be big enough to really disrupt things or they are going to take it out on the little kids and women just because that looks like the kind of people they are. Where are they getting their fuel for the trucks and jeeps?”

“You’re nuts! Grade A certifiable!!”

“Yeah, yeah. I thought you told me Ram warned you about that. Do you know where their fuel is?”

“It’s over there. No, over there, that small tanker. The way they monitor that thing I’m thinking they don’t have much and are waiting for resupply.”

“They didn’t get any when they attacked you guys?”

“We were a hospital train … emphasis on the train. We weren’t carrying fuel, we were running coal.”

“Like a … a choo-choo train?”

“Yeah smart aleck, like a choo-choo train. Coal is about all there is going these days for large transportation activities.”

“I just thought of something. Where are the animals?”

“If you mean the ones their patrols have been bringing in, they are over at the processing plant.”

“So that means that there isn’t just one group but two.”

“More. You’ve got all the small patrols that are out trying to round up stragglers.”

“Great. Do you know how big the force is at the processing plant?”

“Not big, Maybe a quarter of what there is here.”

“As heavily armed?”

“Yeah. No. Heck, I don’t know … no, I don’t think so, not really. They might have one mounted machine gun to the six that are here. I know there is another six in the field for sure but there may be more than that.”

“Crap, but not as crappy as it could be. I can’t take care of the animals but … “

“But what?”

“What happens if you put a bullet into a propane tank?”

“What?!”

“What happens if you shoot a bullet into a propane tank?”

“A big fat boom.”

“So the bigger the propane tank the bigger the boom?”

“Theoretically? Yeah, I guess. What are you cooking up in your twisted little brain.”

“Legless man or not, I’m going to kick you if you don’t knock it off. See that messhall?”

“Darling, I’ve been smelling the … oh. Holy … And it’s right in the middle … Forget it, you aren’t going to hit it with that little thing you’ve got. And blowing a propane tank isn’t as easy as I just made it out to be.”

“I don’t intend on hitting it with this little thing, “I said, referring to my .22 rifle. “I’m going to hit it with this.”

“Little girl, that is a Kalashnikov. Have you ever shot something like that?”

“Sorta. But they are all just point-and-shoot so stop acting like I'm talking about landing a 747.”

“Kiri, I’m not joking. If you don’t hold something that powerful correctly you could get hurt. I’d do it but my legs aren't the only things … I took some shrapnel to my eyes and my far vision is shot, no pun intended.”

“Look, I don’t know what else to do. I can’t just sit here and wait for whatever is going to happen. If you have any better ideas sing out. And what did you mean about the tanks not going boom?”

Pepper got real serious and then said, “I didn’t say they wouldn’t, just that it was harder than you would think. How good are you with the pistol?”

“I can hit the bullseye consistently at 50 yards.”

“Well, this isn’t fifty yards, this is almost 250 yards. And you are going to need a clear shot.”

Looking around I said. “I’ll climb a tree.”

“Girl, it doesn’t work that way. The kick will knock you out of the tree if you aren’t ready for it and …”

“Stop telling me why it won’t work and help me to figure out a way it will!”

After a long pause he said, “Over in those trees is a culvert. It will get you closer for sure. It might also get you are clearer shot. The problem is going to be that gun going off in an enclosed area. If you don’t have some ear protection you’ll lose your hearing. You might lose it anyway at least for a time just from the percussion. And you are going to be caught. If someone sees you you’ll be as good as dead. You are also going to need to hit it near where the cookfire is which is going to make your angle even more difficult. The bullet hitting the tank isn’t really going to do much more than release the gas from pressure, you are going to need to make sure that fire gets to that gas as it is being released.”

He went one for a few minutes more but I was focused on getting into the culvert and what I could do after I did what I wanted to do which was make the big tank explode.

(later)

I had to stop and check on things and make some new ink. Everything is so quiet this time of night. It reminds me of how quiet and muffled everything was in the culvert. I had shoved some tissue in my ears, wrapped a bandana around them and then pulled my knit cap down over that. Not the best protection by any stretch. I had the perfect angle from a less than perfect position. I was practically lying in the open, only hidden by some scruffy little turkey oak saplings growing up through the cracked cement and clay mud.

Pepper was right, this was a completely different kind of shooting. The long range stuff was outside my talent, but I didn’t see where I had much choice than to at least try. And I wasn’t trying to hit a squirrel’s eye … I was aiming at a big what tank that looked as big as a hippopotamus’ rear end … roughly the same shape too for that matter.

The deal was to pray for God to guide the bullet, aim, shoot and then pray the entire time that the tank actually exploded.

I was shaking so bad that I had to calm myself down and when I finally did it the results were more spectacular than I could have ever imagined. The fireball was huge. The cooks had been making food as fast as they were serving it. The entire mess hall tent and everyone in it was just … gone. The radio tent and everyone in there as well. Further out a watch tower had two of its upright legs damaged and it collapsed into the men’s fenced in area. Chaos ensued.

I think what happened was that the guns of the guards were taken and were used to take more guns from other guards. I could see the big Russian Pepper had pointed out running out of a tent that had only partially escaped the blast. I helped the chaos along further by rolling a grenade his direction. I thought at the time he was done for. I was wrong.

I’m not even going to write about what happened over the next hours. I don’t even want to think about it. They said it was war. OK, it was war. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still rules. I know “fair fight” is an oxymoron. I know it was me or them, us or them … but I don’t know if that makes any of that right, or if it is something I’m just going to have to live with and let God sort it out when he gets to be inclined.

Some of the enemy men weren’t even men … they were younger than I am. Just kids. Some of them … some of them hardly big enough to carry the guns they had in their hands. Why does the world do this? No … why do people do this? Life is hard enough as it is, why do they have to make it worse? And why would these boys join in? Was there no other option open to them? I guess those are questions I’ll never have an answer for. It’s bad enough I was faced with the questions to begin with.

Sheer desperation and determination won the day, but not without casualties. Momma O had a heart attack the first day of the internment. I guess Sadie had been too shook up to tell me. She’s not dead, but … no one seems to think she’ll pull through this time. Ron Harbinger’s aunt was killed in the fighting. Julia is bad sick, she started bleeding again after she was beaten and despite first rate care … or as first rate as we have around here … she isn’t out of the woods yet. Paul’s dad was shot but will live; he’ll walk with a limp for the rest of his life but he’ll live. I thought Paul was going to break down and cry when I told him where I had left Sadie. Hannah refused to leave Ms. DeLois’ side. She has a bruised confused look around her eyes and I’m afraid to ask why.

Mr. Henderson has a broken leg … shin, not thigh. Several of his men are dead but he’s vowed to continue looking after their families. Mr. Winston, Julia’s brother, and Ron’s Aunt Buzzy are at the Harbinger place. They buried old Mrs. Harbinger beside her husband; she just wasn’t up for the stress. Pastor Ken is one of the walking wounded. He’s up, but is just as often down. There are too many wounded. I heard one woman moan, “What next? Locusts?!” That is pretty much my feelings at the moment.

I looked, begged people I recognized for some word of Rand. Nothing. Finally some of the least wounded … I fell into that category at the time … decided it was time to take on the ones that were barricaded in at the processing plant, before they got any reinforcements. It wasn’t much of a battle, those men tried to throw down their guns and surrender. They weren’t given the option. That’s something else I’ll have to live with since it isn’t exactly something you can undo.

But that’s where I found him. I thought at first … well, never mind what I thought. They’d had some fun with him. I’d seen him after a fight before but never anything like this. He'd been tortured. Ram, wheezing his way through the explanation, said they’d been caught almost as soon as they had been hit as they were crossing CR129 as they were travelling west on US90. Ram was forced to play translator for a while then when the radio problems started they were sent to the processing plant to the radio that was set up there. The Russian left in charge there knew no Spanish and the Venezuelans knew no Russian but the Russian did speak English, well sort of. The Russian spoke English to Ram who then translated it into Spanish for the Venezuelan Major. The Venezuelan spoke Spanish to Ram who translated it into English for the Russian. Ram said it was a farce.

Don’t you just hate movies that run along and you think they’ve resolved the conflict and the protagonists get to live happily ever after only to find out in the last five minutes of the movie that the monster really isn’t dead and it has come back to eat everyone? I despised that type of movie, they made me want to scream especially when it was really unexpected rather than contrived just to irritate the viewer.

I cried buckets when I realized that Rand was alive. He was damaged and ornery but alive. Found the mules and the wagon too. They had all sorts of crap loaded on the wagon but Bud pulled it with ease by himself. Rand had only had Bud harnessed to pull single and Lou had been tied to the back of the wagon. I had Bud in the harness and had helped Rand into the back of the wagon and had gone over to the makeshift corral to get Lou so we could get home before dark. Rand was worried about the animals despite the fact I’d told him at least three times I left them with plenty of food and water in case I was gone for more than a day.

I was tired and distracted but that is no excuse for what happened. Lou was acting skittish and suddenly tried to drag me. I made the mistake of letting go because I thought he would kick me. It wasn’t Lou that kicked me, it was the big Russian … the one I thought I’d blown up.

It felt like a sledge hammer hit me. I was down and had some guy spitting blocks of consonants in my face that I didn’t understand. I did understand that he was hacked; his hands around my neck pretty much made that clear. I could hear the horses screaming and then that faded as the spots in my vision got bigger. I tried ramming my fingernail under his to make him let go but I guess they teach you how to deal with pain like that in the Russian army because it didn’t seem to faze him at all. It felt like either my face or my lungs were going to explode if I didn’t get some relief and then I imagined that it had started raining again because there were drops of wet all over my face … then nothing.

I came to when it felt like someone was feeling me up. And then my head was tilted back and I was suffocating. It took a minute but I finally found it in me to pinch my attacker.

“Ow! She’s back … watch out for the nails. She scratches like a cat.”

My whole focus was getting enough air into my lungs so that I could let Ram have it with both barrels right between the eyes. But then I heard a snarled, “Get out of the way.” And I was crushed against a smelly shirt and was getting something that was a cross between a lecture and a promise of love everlasting if I would just open my eyes.

Rand was a mess. And I guess I was closer to being dead than was healthy. I’m still bruised from Ram’s attempt at CPR. The “rain” was where Rand and Ram had dealt with the Russian at the same time. There wasn’t much left of … well, there wasn’t much left and he won’t be a problem ever again.

Then the military arrived. A little late to be the Calvary but their medical triage facilities were welcome. Rand and I were patched up while Ram gave his report that is being passed on to someone higher up the ladder. The soldiers from the hospital train that survived are still waiting for the tracks to be cleared and repaired. Ram was assigned to the Colonel’s office as an interpreter. He’s also receiving much better care; he was by yesterday to say he was being reassigned to the Colonel’s staff on a permanent basis and they were going to set up in the Big Bend area. He’d keep in contact as he could, we’ll know it when we see if whatever that is supposed to mean.

The military also took the few enemy troops that escaped the townpeople’s … justice. Maybe that isn’t what it really was but I’m afraid to think about what else you could call it. A lot of the Venezuelan and Russian weapons just disappeared. The Colonel and his people didn’t seem too perturbed about it. The man seems to think that an armed citizenry is a better protection from invaders than a citizenry totally dependent on its armed forces. Mr. Henderson thinks highly of the man. Goody.

Today was the first day I looked in the mirror and didn’t see a purple strawberry staring back. My throat is still black and blue but time will take care of that. My ribs are another matter. It will probably be at least a week before I’ll be able to draw a deep breath or cough without wanting to double over. I had a clearly defined boot print on my back before the bruise started spreading out.

Rand is sick. I mean really sick, maybe not pneumonia but close. Ram snuck over some kind of cillin and shot Rand in the hip with it and he finally started to improve. Ram wanted to give the same kind of shot to me and I told him he’d heat the needle before he got it anywhere near me. I had some funny reactions to medications after the car crash and I’d rather not take any chances. Ram is smart enough not to push me on some things and doctoring is one of them.

Brendon and Paul have come by a couple of times. They check on Rand … and me … and I get news of what is going on outside our gates. It isn’t good but at least now there is an enemy to prepare for as a forcus. If Pepper … who is awaiting transport to a VA hospital for possible prosthetics once the train track is repaired … is right and this was only an advance guard, what will the main body look like? Providence, luck, whatever … will that be enough next time if there is a next time?

I’m tired. So tired. It is taking everything I have just to put one foot in front of the other. But all I can think of is that we’re running out of wood and it is cold again and I have to churn the butter before the cream goes off and turn the compost and manure under in the garden soon so that it will be ready for planting next month. It is taking everything I have to take care of what has to be done today. How am I supposed to prepare for some invading army with who knows what kind of weapons to throw against us that may or may not be coming tomorrow or a few weeks of tomorrows?

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