Sudden Independents

Dedication

Early August

One
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Two
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Three
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Four
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Five
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Six
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Seven
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Eight
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Nine
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Ten
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Eleven
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Twelve

Middle of November

Thirteen
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Fourteen
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Fifteen
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Sixteen
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Seventeen
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Eighteen
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Nineteen
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Twenty
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Twenty-One
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Twenty-Two
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Twenty-Three
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Twenty-Four
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Twenty-Five
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Twenty-Six
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Twenty-Seven
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Twenty-Eight

Late March

Twenty-Nine
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Thirty
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Thirty-One
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Thirty-Two
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Thirty-Three
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Thirty-Four
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Thirty-Five
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Thirty-Six
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Thirty-Seven
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Thirty-Eight
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Thirty-Nine

Fourth of July

Epilogue

Preview: HUNGRY INDEPENDENTS

Acknowledgments

About Ted Hill

Copyright

For Michelle

H
unter shattered the minivan’s window with a broken chunk of asphalt and shoved the dried-husk of the driver aside. Dust from six years of slow decay rose in the sweltering heat, reflecting sunshine in a cloud of golden glitter. Waving off the floating remains, he reached inside and found the lever that released the fuel door. He grabbed a pair of Ray-Bans off the dash and licked them clean before sliding them on. Adjusting the rearview mirror, he checked out his new look and then smiled at the dead man. Nothing beats a nice pair of shades on a bright, sunny day.

Hunter removed the gas cap with a pressurized pop—a good thing—and fed his siphon hose into the minivan’s tank. He filled a small cup and checked the quality. Free of floating particles, the fumes and the taste also passed inspection; thankfully the gasoline remained pure enough to run his motor. He siphoned again and topped off his Kawasaki two-wheeler. Without the empty tank problem, the trip back home to Independents would be a cinch.

He screwed the gas cap back on tight for the next time he rode this way and left the tangled bones strewn about the front seat. Hunter sped his motorbike parallel to Interstate 80’s buckled pavement through the untended farmlands of central Nebraska. He slowed across a bridge spanning the Platte River, and picked up speed heading south on State Highway 10.

Long miles of travel wore on, his body roasting in the August heat under the midday sun. Sweat trickled off his brow and streaked across his new sunglasses. Riding alongside an empty irrigation ditch, he spotted the invitation of cool shade beneath a solitary cottonwood tree. He turned and was coasting to a stop when someone sprung up from the tall grass.

Hunter veered left, barely missing the person, and rolled straight for the tree’s massive trunk. He laid the Kawasaki over and landed on his feet, fists clenched.

His nostrils burned from the harsh exhaust blowing out the Kawasaki’s tailpipe; his faulty throttle was stuck again. Gas still revved through the fallen motorbike and the rear wheel spun in the air, creating a deafening roar.

A little blond girl stood close by with her hands pressed against her ears.

Hunter killed the motor and returned to his fighting stance.

The girl uncovered her ears and stretched with a mighty yawn before rubbing the sleep out of the corners of her blue eyes. She wore jeans, and her white T-shirt was impossibly clean for someone taking a nap on the ground. Her feet were covered with grass stains, especially over her toes—as if green was their natural color.

“What the hell were you thinking jumping up like that?” Hunter said with his adrenaline still amped up high. Her frown caught him off guard and he felt stupid for yelling at a little girl. He took a deep breath, unclenched his fists and combed his fingers through his hair.

“Sorry about that,” he said in a calmer tone. “Are you out here all alone?”

“I’m not alone, silly. She’s been keeping me company.”

His heartbeat raced again. Hunter whirled in the direction the girl pointed, expecting trouble, but found only the cottonwood and more grass. “Who’s out there?” he called, scanning the prairie for motion not related to the wind, anticipating an ambush any moment.

“I was talking about my tree, silly. My name’s Catherine.” She ran over, wrapping her arms around Hunter’s waist and squeezed. “Thank you for finding me.”

Hunter twisted away, struggling to break free. He straightened his shirt and his composure. “I wasn’t out here to find you. You almost got ran over. Are you from Cozad?”

She scrunched up her face. “What’s a Cozad?”

“It’s a town about eighty miles northwest of here.” Hunter pointed, unsure if Catherine knew which way was northwest.

Her eyes followed the direction of his finger. “I’ve never been there.”

Hunter found his Ray-Bans lying in the dirt. He frowned at the scratch across the left lens and stepped under the shade. “Well, how did you get
here
?”

She smiled up at him and patted the tree. “I was born here, silly.”

A blood vessel started throbbing in Hunter’s head. The girl beamed at him and moved forward with arms wide for another hug, but Hunter planted his hand on her forehead. She stopped pushing after a couple seconds.

Hunter fixed her with his serious face. “What were you doing under the tree?”

“I was sleeping, until that
thing
woke me up.” She gave the Kawasaki a disgusted glance.

Hunter looked over at his fallen ride with concern. Hopefully his bike wasn’t trashed. “That’s how I get around,” he said. He righted the motorbike on its two wheels, settling it against the tree. “If it breaks down, then I’m walking.”

“I like walking.”

Hunter clamped a hand over his own sweaty forehead where his pulse pounded. This was the reason he never babysat the younger kids back home. “Do you have a brother or sister, or are there any other kids nearby, maybe somebody older who takes care of you?”

“Nope, it’s just me.”

Hunter knew that wasn’t possible. The only survivor settlements nearby were Cozad and Independents, and they were divided by a hundred-sixty miles. Maybe she got separated from one of the caravans that sometimes rambled through, going from one coast to the other. Whatever happened, someone brought her along this far. No one survived out here alone—especially not little girls.

He knelt, getting eye to eye with Catherine and growing more irritated by her infuriating grin. “You’re what, six, maybe seven?”

“I’m six or seven what?”

Hunter rubbed his hand over his face. He hated his next question before he asked it, but this conversation wasn’t getting any easier. “Do you remember your parents?”

“Sure I do,” Catherine said, looking up to the sky. “Father’s in Heaven.”

He’d already guessed that answer, figuring he knew the next one as well. “What about your mom?”

Catherine smiled at him and patted the tree. Its leaves ruffled in the breeze as if the tree acknowledged its status as the little girl’s mother.

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