Authors: N.C. Reed
He heard Pete’s MP-5 rattle away on full auto, and heard the other man gurgle, then hit the floor. There was another short burst after that.
“Clear,” Pete whispered, changing magazines.
“Clear,” George agreed.
“Clear,” Terry called, having checked the woman. She was dead.
The three reassembled. George took his radio out. He needed to know how Billy was making out.
“Billy, what’s your count?”
Billy never took his eyes off the parking lot as he raised his radio.
“I got four down hard, and another wounded, but hid in the parkin’ lot somewhere. He’s hit good, but made his way to cover. I’m lookin’ for him. Ya’ll come out the front, be a lookin’. I got no idea where he got to.”
George did the math. All eleven men were accounted for. That left the women. Of the five they had seen, two had been part of the outfit, and were down. That left three, plus the teenage girl, and the man.
“Let’s get looking,” he ordered.
They found the others locked in a store room. All were malnourished, and showed signs of abuse. The teenage girl had a black eye, and her lips were swollen. Someone had worked her over pretty good, and recently.
The older women weren’t in any better shape, and the man was favoring is side. Seeing the bruises and the swelling when the man raised his shirt, Terry announced that he likely had some cracked ribs. The man nodded.
His name was Robert Billings. He’d been traveling when the gang had caught him trying to siphon gas from a nearby filling station. Surrounded, and unarmed, he’d had no choice but to surrender.
“I was just trying to get home,” he shook his head. “I’m from Lexington, Kentucky. Was working construction in Birmingham Alabama when things went south. Was trying to work my way home.”
The women had similar tales.
“I’m Vivian Shell,” the older of the three women told them. “This is my sister, Meredith, and our sister-in-law Katherine. We were in Biloxi at a real estate convention. We started back home when things started getting so bad. This is as far as we made it, I’m afraid. We’re from Cleveland, Ohio. Or whatever’s left of it,” she sighed. “We have no idea if our families are even still alive.”
The teenager was different.
“My name’s Megan Johnson. I live here. These bums did too,” she waved an arm to indicate the now deceased gang of misfits. “They caught up with me salvaging food from a grocery store, I guess three months ago, now.” She didn’t say more, but looked at the floor, hiding her face. The men gathered around her could guess the rest.
“Well, what do you folks want to do?” George asked. “You still want to try and get home?” All nodded. Megan just shrugged. She was home.
“Well, let’s get you four set-up to travel, I guess,” George told the adults. “Reckon you can travel together a ways, for safety.”
“Can’t you take us?” Katherine asked.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Terry shook his head. “We got families of our own to see to. But we’ll find you good vehicles, fuel, and supplies. Get you some good maps. You can find your way home okay, I imagine.”
“But what if someone else, like them, attacks us?” Vivian asked. “I don’t see why you can’t take us!”
“Just told you, lady,” Terry didn’t quite growl. “We got families to take care of. We can’t just up and go. Best we can do is set you up good for your trip. We’ll make sure you’re armed well enough to keep yourself safe.”
“I’ve never touched a gun!”
“Ain’t our problem,” Terry shrugged. “We’ll show you how. After that, it’s up to you.”
“Look, I ain’t with them,” Billings said. “You get me outfitted, and I’ll get along toward home. I got a family too. Just hope they’re okay.”
That pretty much ended the conversation.
It took most of the day to get the former prisoners equipped. The women complained non stop, to the point where George finally told them if they complained any more, they were on their own. That had shut them up.
No one had even approached the idea to let the women stay with them.
Billings had picked out a new truck at the local Chevrolet dealership, armed himself, packed supplies for his trip, and headed out long before sundown, thanking the men profusely for their assistance, and for rescuing him. The women, having chosen a large and comfortable luxury car, despite warnings about fuel economy, followed him. Billings had warned them he wouldn’t be stopping at every opportunity, so keep up.
The five men watched them go, glad to be rid of the women, whose whining and complaining seemed to have no end. That left them with Megan Johnson.
Their remaining loose end had yet to be tied up when Toby had brought the truck up. He and Rommel had found the man Billy had wounded, or at least his body. Billy’s round had pretty much mangled the man’s right arm, and he had bled out shortly thereafter.
No one was really bothered by that.
“We need to get the big trucks, and come back here,” George announced, having surveyed the area. “There’s a lot of things here we could use.”
“True enough,” Terry nodded. “We can look for more trailers, and just use them for storage until we can do better. Plus, it’ll make the job go faster, if all we have to do is drop the trailers and head back.”
“There’s a few things we’ll want to do today, or tomorrow, before we go back,’ George told them. “Or at least I do,” he added, looking at Terry. “You okay with that?” Terry shrugged.
“As long as I can go back tomorrow, yeah,” he agreed.
“We might as well get busy, I guess,” George sighed.
“What about her?” Billy asked, pointing to where Megan sat, watching them.
“Damn,” George swore softly. He hated to admit it, but he’d forgotten about her.
Billy looked over at the girl, and waved for her to join them. She did so, reluctantly.
“You want to come with us?” Billy asked her point blank. “There’s other women back there, includin’ some from here. Might be you know’em,” he shrugged. Megan looked interested.
“Who?” she asked.
“Regina Townsend, for one,” Toby answered. “Two twins named Pinson, and Miss Townsend’s niece. Don’t, ah, recall her name, exactly,” he admitted sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“I know Regina,” Megan nodded eagerly. “She ran Little Tykes. Daycare?” she added, when the men didn’t react.
“Yeah, she ran a day care,” George nodded.
“Gone now, though,” Billy told her. “We moved her and the rest down to a house in our community we’d set up for such as that, just in case. Reckon you can join’em, you want.”
“I’d. . .I’d like that,” Megan agreed. “I don’t wanna stick around here alone, that’s for sure. Didn’t work out so well the first time. I would like to go and get my things, if they’re still there, anyway.”
“We’ll see to it,” George agreed. “Meanwhile, there’s some things we want to do, right now, before we head home. Reckon you can help us out?”
“I guess,” Megan nodded. “What you need me to do?”
“We’re interested in finding any guns shops, sporting goods stores, that sort of thing. See what’s left. . . .”
Soon, with new vehicles taken from the long abandoned car lot, they were on their way, gathering useful and needful things.
There was a lot of work to be done, now.
Rhonda saw the Ford coming, with four other trucks behind it, and frowned in concern. Then she relaxed, slightly. There was no chance that Billy would lead anyone back here who might be unfriendly.
Her confidence was confirmed five minutes later as the vehicles pulled into the yard at the Todd farm, being driven by George, Peter, Terry and Toby. Toby had a passenger.
“About time,” Rhonda grumped, to hide how relieved she was to see Billy back safe. He snorted.
“What a fine welcome,” he teased, then embraced her. She hugged him back for a second, then pushed him away.
“Ewww,” her face contorted. “You need a bath, Billy Todd!” He nodded.
“Spect I do, at that,” he agreed. “While I see to that, how ‘bout you help this young lady here find her way up to the Clifton House. Megan, this is Rhonda. Rhonda, this here is Megan Johnson. She knows the women up there, and is gonna be stayin’ with them.”
“I can do that,” Rhonda smiled. “I need to go up there anyway, and check on Mary, I guess. She and Amanda are helping Amy with the kids. We’re swapping out for a few days to let them get some rest,” she added.
“Sounds good,” Billy nodded. He turned to the others.
“We heading back tomorrow?” he asked.
“The four of us will,” George nodded. “We can scout out everything, get everything in order. Make it easier to get everything with one go, I should think.”
“Okay by me,” Billy nodded. “See ya’ll then.”
“You’re going back?” Rhonda demanded. “What for?”
“Found a whole bunch o' stuff, that’s why,” Billy told her, already in the house. “The four of us are gonna get it all bundled, see can we find some semi-trailers, and then get Jon and Terry to start hauling it home. There’s enough lumber, hardware, and even food to last a good long while. Not to mention some clothes and what not, especially at the Wal-Mart and a few other places. Ain’t no need o’ lettin’ that go to waste. So, we’re gonna go get it.”
“And leave me here alone,” Rhonda ground out. “Again.” Billy stopped and looked at her.
“You make it sound like I don’t want to be here with you, or want you with me,” he frowned. “That ain’t how it is. You oughta should know that, by now.” Rhonda colored a bit at the dressing down. She had it coming. Maybe.
“And you ain’t alone,” he pointed out. “You wanted to take Mary in, and we did. Now we got Danny too. That makes us responsible. And besides, it ain’t like I want to go. But George is right. This here is a big find, and we can’t leave it go to waste. Rightly, should have some of us stayed there, and kept a look out. We decided if we went straight back, then we could all come home, rest, and be with our families, even was it for just one night.”
“All right,” Rhonda grumbled. “I. . .that does make sense. I just don’t like not being able to go with you.”
“What did you do when you stayed at the Clifton place?” Billy asked her.
“Well, I took Mary with me, and left Danny guarding the farm,” she admitted.
“Well, reckon you can do it that way now, you want to go so back. We can ask Jerry to keep an eye on things. But it’s rough goin’,” he added. “Ain’t no runnin’ water nowhere. It’s a rough camp all the way.”
“Why don’t you wait and come up with the trucks?” he reasoned. “See what you want, look around for things you want, and then come on back when the trucks make their next run?”
“I. . .you think that would be okay?” she asked.
“Can’t see why not,” Billy nodded. “Now, you need to get that girl settled, and I need a hot soakin’ bath.”
“Yeah, you do,” she nodded.
“That ain’t nice,” Billy told her.
“You’ll get over it, you big baby. I’ll be back in a bit.”
When she got back, almost two hours later, Billy was sound asleep on the couch, with Rommel tucked in at his feet. She covered them both with a blanket, and let them sleep.
After talking to Megan Johnson, she knew they’d earned it.
The group wasted no time. The four of them were back in Columbia by eight the next morning. Jon and Terry were waiting for the word, with Jerry and Ben watching the farms close. They were running short of people, that was for sure. Billy voiced a concern as they drove into town.
“I don’t like this,” he told them. “We ain’t got enough people. We got to think on how them trucks is gonna look to anyone who spots’em. They might attack Jon and Terry. Or worse, just follow’em back to the Farms. We got to make sure that don’t happen.”
“Hadn’t really given that any thought,” George nodded, considering. “What have you come up with?”
“Think two of us need to go back with the trucks,” Billy said at once. He had been thinking about it. “Way I see it, we take three, four days, make sure we’ve found most all we want or need, and get it loaded onto a trailer. Once all the trailers is loaded, then we call Jon and Terry, and start convoyin’ this stuff home. Leave two here to guard the trailers, the other two ride shotgun.”
“Me and you can ride shotgun,” Two Bears said. “And that will give Toby some experience here that he might not get elsewhere,” he looked over at Toby, who nodded.
“Works for me,” the teen agreed.
“George?” Billy asked. “What you think?”
“I think it’s the best plan we’re going to get,” he sighed. “You’re right. We don’t have enough people. But I don’t relish the idea of adding any more to our group. At least not yet. We’ve pretty much exhausted all the people we know of that we can trust. At least, the one’s that survived. Sure, there’s others we know, but I got no idea where they are, or if they made it.”
“We’ll go with you idea, Billy. I think it’s the best idea.”
“Well, then we need a plan,” Billy said as they entered town. “We need to make us a plan for all this, get it nailed down, and then stick to it.”
The plan was pretty simple. They went store to store, marking things to take first, things to take if there was room, and things that would be worth an extra trip, if necessary. The entire first day was consumed with that. Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, grocery stores, hardware stores, even the local fuel distributors.
“I like the idea of takin’ one o’ these tankers home,” Billy told them, pointing to a truck normally used to deliver gas and diesel to service stations. “Small enough we can handle it, but it’ll give us an edge on gas. And we need it.”
They encountered some good fortune where gasoline was concerned. The distributor also stocked the highly valuable Pri-G, Pri-D, Stab-bil, and Lucas additives. It wouldn’t last forever, but then neither would the gas. All of that material was considered high priority.
For three days, two of which it rained solid, the four of them went from store to store, using a forklift that operated on propane to load trailer after trailer. Fortunately there were several trailers to choose from, and one trucking company had even had seven wonderfully empty trailers on their lot. They managed to coax a semi into life, which they used to haul the trailers, an extremely reluctant Billy Todd at the wheel.
On the fourth day, it snowed. The men had made camp in the Lowe’s store, and stood looking out the front doors are the white flakes.
“Figures,” Billy almost spat. He didn’t like being away from home.
“Well, we were going to work in the Wal-Mart today, anyway,” George sighed. They had left it for last, since the thugs they had eliminated had made it home for so long. There was some usable stuff left, to be sure, but the bunch had pretty well trashed the place.
“We did find that one pharmacy,” Peter mentioned. “I don’t know how that bunch missed it, but I’m glad they did.” Everyone nodded. The medicines and equipment would come in handy.
“Well, let’s get started.”
After six days of hard, back breaking work, the four of them were satisfied they’d gotten everything they had need of.
They stood behind the Lowe’s looking at thirteen box trailers.
“Bad luck,” Billy muttered.
“What?” George asked, looking over at Billy.
“Thirteen. Bad luck,” Billy repeated.
“Well, it’s actually fifteen,” George reminded him. “We’ve still got one trailer at the oil place loaded, plus the tanker.” Billy brightened at that.
“Forgot that,” he nodded eagerly. “Reckon it’s time we called the cavalry?”
“I think so,” George nodded. “Whatever else we want we can finish today.”
Terry and Jon rolled in early the next morning. Rhonda had rode with Terry.
“Don’t you dare,” Rhonda ordered when Billy went to hug her. He frowned, then realized what she was worried about.
“We rigged us a poor man’s shower. I’m all fresh and clean.”
“Well,” Rhonda hesitantly hugged him tight. He was right, she decided, kissing him.
“Would you really not o' hugged me?” Billy asked.
“Of course I would,” Rhonda replied at once. “Just. . .carefully,” she added, grinning.
“Okay, let’s get this done,” George ordered. “How many runs can you guys make today, you think?” Jon and Terry conferred for a moment, then Jon answered.
“At least three,” he said firmly. “Possibly four, but we’d get home after dark.”
“That means, if all goes well, we can have this done in two days,” George mused. Terry pointed to the truck they had used to move trailers about while loading.
“What’s wrong with that truck?” he asked.
“Nothing,” George asked. “Why?”
“Was just thinkin’,” he shrugged. “Use that one too, and we can move almost all the trailers today.”
“Who would drive it?” George asked. Everyone looked at Billy.
“No you don’t!” Billy stepped back a few paces. “I ain’t drivin’ one o’ them things no more if I can help it!”
“It would make things go faster,” George told him.
“I ain’t a doin’ it,” Billy shook his head firmly.
“It would get us out of here faster, Billy,” Peter threw in.
“Not happenin’,” Billy continued to shake his head.
“Be safe at home tomorrow night, work all done,” Rhonda added. Billy shot her a look that practically screamed ‘traitor’.
“C’mon, Billy,” Toby pleaded. “Let’s get this over with and go home.” The teenager was proud to be treated like a man, especially among these men, but he was tired, too. He wanted to be home for a while.
Sighing in defeat, Billy ground out one word between clenched teeth.
Billy driving a third truck did put a monkey wrench into their plans.
“You gonna be here all by yourself, if Toby rides shotgun with Pete,” Billy told him. George nodded.
“I’ll make out. Ain’t but one night,” he said.
“I don’t like you bein’ here alone, though,” Billy pressed. “Somethin’ might happen.”
“Well, someone might also steal these trailers we’ve worked so hard to load. I don’t aim to let that happen.”
“Trailers ain’t worth losin’ you, George,” Billy told him bluntly. “Whatever we lose on them trailers won’t even matter, we lose a friend.” George smiled.
“I’m glad you think of me as a friend, Billy,” he said earnestly. “You can’t know how much that means to me. But I can take care of myself. I’ve done stuff just like this way more times than I can count.”
“But not lately,” Billy shot back, frowning.
“No, not lately,” George agreed. “But it’s a bit like riding a bike. It’ll come back to me.” Billy didn’t seem convinced.
“Billy, I’ll be fine. Now you guys need to get going. Got a lot of miles to cover today.”
Billy finally gave up. George was right. There was a lot to do. The last snow hadn’t stuck around, but the skies were threatening. They would be lucky to get everything hauled before the snow fell.
“Okay, let’s get’em rollin’,” he ordered. Rhonda joined him in the truck, as Toby got behind the wheel of the Ford, allowing Pete to ride hands free. The truck would lead, unless they picked up a follower.
Ten minutes later, the trucks were on their way, the first of a hopeful four trips.
George watched them go, sighing as they disappeared from sight. Truth be told, he wanted to go home, but he didn’t.
He hadn’t bothered to see Debbie while he’d been home. He was sure they would fight, and that was the last thing he needed. But sooner or later, they would have to address the problems between them. They couldn’t let them fester much longer.
He thought of his son, then. He wished he could have seen little Georgie. The boy deserved better. But he also deserved better than for his parents to be fighting all the time.
He’d have to find a balance, George knew, if he was to ever make Georgie’s life the best it could be. If he and Deb couldn’t work out their problems, then he had to make that as easy on the boy as he could. He wouldn’t let whatever life Georgie might find in this knew world be screwed up by his and Deb’s problems. His son would have a chance.