“It’s bad, I won’t lie. But those bodies are decaying. Eventually, there won’t be the herds of infected. The world will have to learn to deal with the dead and dying in a new way, but I think we can survive. Maybe, even thrive.”

“How can that be? More people are infected every day. We see new turns every time we stopped.”

“Like I said. People will hunker down and survive while the bodies of the infected decay. Once they’re gone, communities will learn to trade and co-operate.”

“Or not,” Zack added.

“Good people will step up and work together. It will be different than it was before, but life will go on.” Steve yawned. “Come on big guy, get some rest. We stay close to the girls. I’ll wake you around two.”


At first light, Zack retied his shoes and yawned as he got to his feet. He walked past Steve as he added several sticks into the Dakota pit.

“I’m gonna check the snares I put out. Maybe we can have something besides oatmeal.” He checked the skinning knife at his belt as he walked away.

“I’ll put on the water for oatmeal,” Steve called after him.

Zack raised his hand with his middle finger extended.

Steve chuckled as he picked up his prosthetics. When both were in place, he made his way to the stream where h found a large rock at the edge and settled on top. Steve retrieved a bar of soap then pulled off his t-shirt and used it as a makeshift washcloth. When Steve was satisfied he was as clean as he could get, he splashed the shirt around a few more times before fumbling to his feet with the wet shirt in hand.

He made his way back to the camp where he took a long stick and draped his shirt over the end and propped it over the fire to dry. Just as he finished adjusting the angle of his shirt, he heard a branch snap nearby and stepped back against the thick trunk of the Pin Oak tree. He took a calming breath the eased around to look toward the sound with his handgun drawn. A heartbeat later he stepped out just in time to intercept Zack. “Well?”

Zack held up two squirrels that had been skinned and gutted. “Breakfast of champions.” He whispered softly. “You think Della can make some fresh biscuits?”

“I wouldn’t plan on it.” Steve laughed. “I’ll break the backs and lay them out on the grate. While I do that, can you get the girls up then get the horses watered. We’ll let them graze a bit more before we saddle up and head out. Penny can come help me.”

Zack sighed dejectedly, “I was hoping for three.”

“You did just fine. We’ll make due,” Steve answered as he pulled his shirt off the stick and pulled it over his head. It smelled of smoke and was still damp but at this point, felt cleaner than it had been.

After a quick breakfast, the tarp was taken down, the horses were saddled, and the duffle bags loaded. When everyone was mounted, and Penny sat in front of her mother, she kicked her heels then called out. “Gitty up.”

Steve obliged by touching his stirrups to the horse. The day got hotter and hotter as they shadowed the highway. His t-shirt clung to his back while dark rings of sweat circled his armpits. Trees grew fewer and farther between. As he rode, he hoped the place he was leading the other to was not this arid and unforgiving. For the first time, he began to question his destination. The horses plodded along without complaint but the riders not so much. Hours became long and grueling.

“Steve we have to stop. Everyone is exhausted.” Della called out.

The light faded as the party of five sat watching the sun settle behind distant hills is a display of gold, oranges, and shades a red. Finally, Steve spoke. “We should get to the outskirts of Van Horn in two days.” The Dakota Fire still smoldered below ground.

“How big of a place is it?”

Steve shrugged. “Maybe two thousand people so I’m hoping to find some supplies. We could use clothes, food, and footwear.”

Darlene brushed Penny’s damp hair from her face. “It’s hot now, but winter this far north can be brutal.”

“I don’t want to show up at Randy’s with nothing to offer,” Steve commented.

Della turned to Steve. “What do you mean? Do you think they would turn us away?”

“No. Not at all,” Steve answered.

“Then why do you seem worried?” Della asked.

“I just want to have more to offer than a gimp and three women,” He laughed.

“You’re baiting me,” Della smiled.

Steve nodded. “We have five horses, but I don’t plan on handing them over to anyone if I don’t have to. They’re our trading future down the road.”

“What do you mean?” Darlene asked.

Steve took a deep breath. “We’re joining a community. As such, we either live off their charity, or we become a critical component. We have five horses two males, and three mares and two of those are pregnant. That gives us leverage.”

Zack cocked his head to the side. “You’re thinking long term?”

“Yes. But this only works if the camp doesn’t have many horses. That’s why, if we get a chance, we need to gather supplies or items that are light, easy to transport and will be in high demand. Drugs or seeds are at the top of the list. A good alternative would be ammo. But ammo is heavy, and that would limit the amount we could carry.”

“What about fishing gear?” Zack asked. “Line, hooks, that kinda thing.”

Steve laughed. “Anything that will help a community survive would be good. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”

Della picked up her bedroll on the patch of grass near where she had been sitting. “I’m going to turn in, folks. I’m exhausted.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Steve agreed.

Darlene chuckled. “Penny has been out for the last ten minutes. Della, will you spread out that extra blanket for her?”

“Sure.” Della laid the blanket out for Penny near Darlene’s bedroll under the tarp.

After a few minutes, both women had settled down under the tarp. Zack and Steve still sat by the dim glow of the fire.

Zack swatted at a dark spec on his arm. “Damned bugs.”

“Yeah. Nothing compared to the mosquitos around South Houston.” Steve laughed. “Half a dozen of those suckers are big enough to suck you dry in twenty minutes.”

“Never been there,” Zack answered. “Fact is, I was never outta San Antonio before now much less the state.” His voice trailed off.

“You doing alright?” Steve asked.

“I guess. I don’t know. I keep thinking I’ll never see my mom again.” His voice was soft with emotion.

“There’s a good chance none of us will know what happened to our families. My dad still lives in Galveston. I don’t imagine it was spared since Houston was overrun.”

“The world is pretty screwed,” Zack whispered.

“We don’t have infected with us. We got some people that could use some doctoring. There’s only about forty of us left after we ran into trouble about a hundred miles south of here.”

“Sorry to hear that. Give me a few minutes to talk it over with folks over here, and we’ll see what we can do to help you.”

He turned to Randy. “Do you know someone from Eagle Pass?”

Randy shrugged. “Not me. Pablo had family from a native tribe south of the border. Maybe they knew folks from Eagle Pass.”

“That’s a stretch.” Will scowled.

“Well, what are we going to do with this bunch?” Randy said. “We could use the help.”

“They say they’re all clean with no bites, but I’m not willing to let that many people in the compound without knowing a lot more about them.”

Will approached to the gulch and called out. “The person that might vouch for Y’all is not here right now, and I’m not willing to let you over here without getting to know you a little better. If you’re agreeable, you can camp in that grove of trees to the east. We’ll come with medical supplies and fresh water. Everyone has to be examined for bites. No discussion on that point.”

Ben gave a thumbs up then struggled to raise his injured arm and cupped his hands together in front of his mouth. He placed his lips against his thumbs and blew. The pitch of the whistle changed with the rise of his fingers.

After some noticeable hustle and bustle, the vehicles headed for the designated camp site. Ben called out. “We’ll be settled in an hour. Come by then, and we’ll have a drink.”

Will waved. “I’ll bring our doctor and a couple folks to clear your people for bites.” After a brief consultation with Randy, Will turned and climbed back into his truck. Two more trucks fired up leaving only four guards at the drawbridge.

When Will got to the lodge, Liz and Cassie waited at the door.

“Well?” Liz asked as she replaced the binoculars on the small table near the window. “Who are they? Do they have kids? Soldiers?”

“I talked to an Indian by the name of Ben Nascha. At least some of them are from Eagle Pass. Kids, I have no idea. Soldiers, don’t think so but only saw Ben close enough to tell.”

“Why did you leave the bridge up? When are they coming inside?”

“They’ll be staying outside until I know who they are. You and Cassie get some medical supplies together. Put enough of that cured venison for about forty people. Add some flour and canned good. Whatever you think they can use for a meal or two.” Will spoke to Randy. “Fill half a dozen five-gallon plastic water bottles. Seal ‘em up, so they stay clean.”

“I’m going with Cassie,” Liz announced.

Will started to protest but thought better of it. “Fine. Randy, when you go, take an extra man with you and pick up two of the guards for backup when you go into the camp.”

Thirty minutes later, Randy loaded up his pickup with the designated supplies, Cassie, Liz, and Harry.

“Well, Lizzy, you’re looking a lot better lately,” Harry commented.

“It’s a miracle what a few nights of sleep without listening to you and John snoring will do for a person.” Liz laughed. “How are the kids doing?”

“Doing good. The kids have settled in at the cabin pretty well. We got everything we need since we got that last bunch of clothes.” He laughed. “Little Mexican girl gave her a couple of those hair clips thingies. She doesn’t look like an orphan anymore. Cody is still quiet. I don’t think he’s ever going to be the life of the party.”

“Losing their parents has to be hard on both of them. I’ll stop by tomorrow. Maybe Trace would like to work with me in the garden for a change.”

“Sounds good.” Harry

When they got to the bridge, one of the guards turned the large wheel and lowered the cattle guard.

Randy rolled down the window and motioned two of the men into the truck bed. “Raise the bridge after we’re over it. Unless I ask about your daughter feeling better, don’t lower the bridge.” The man nodded.

“What was that all about?” Cassie asked.

“Insurance.” He answered.

It took nearly a month for Liz to get to feeling like herself. She got up one morning and was up and dressed before she realized she was anxious to face the day. She slid her hand over the slight swelling in her lower abdomen and smiled. Brian would be happy. She, like Will, had decided this baby would be a boy. Brian, like all other men, always wanted a son and they had talked about another child, but Claire had been so young.

Liz took a deep cleansing breath, opened the door, and left the room. She had gained almost six pounds according to Cassie at her last check-up. With the return to health, Liz began spending mornings in the garden while taking over some of the office tasks in the afternoon. There was a constant influx of scavenged materials and needs to be control and monitor storage and distribution. There were color codes, letter codes and even numeric codes. It all depended on who made the request, the current inventory and the trips planned outside the compound. The result was a large metal building nearly bursting at the seams. She was working on a supply wish list when an alarm sounded inside the house. There was someone at the drawbridge. Liz rushed to the front window where Cassie looked toward the gathering in the distance. “What do you see?” Liz asked.

Cassie passed Liz the field glasses she had been using. “It’s a pretty large group. Maybe three dozen people, men, women, and children. Some of the vehicles are pretty old and ratty looking..”

Liz pressed the glasses to her eyes. She adjusted the sight then watched as Will and eight men and four women roll up to the bridge in four pickups. Each of the residents were well armed with rifles and handguns as they exited the vehicles and took a defensive position behind their trucks.

The majority of the visitors had parked two hundred yards from the draw-bridge, while a single truck approached the opposite side of the arroyo.

“What do you want?” Will called out from behind the hood of his truck.

A large man with his left arm in a sling stepped out from the truck and stood clear of the vehicle with one arm raised. “I want to speak to the man in charge.”

“You got him.” Will yelled back impatiently.

“My name is Ben Nascha. We come to help build a community here.”

With a snort, Will answered. “Why would you think we would be doing that?”

“A man who lived at the Eagle Pass Reservation. A man known to Pablo Hernandez.”

“You know Pablo?”

“No,” Ben answered.

“If this man knows about this place why isn’t he talking to me?” Will snapped in response.

“He died. We were attacked by the cartel when they started moving north. They killed everyone and looted everything useable in their path. We had left only a few days before they made it to Eagle Pass.”

“I hate to hear that, but I still don’t know you.”

“Pablo will know of me. I am the brother of the man who died.”

“Maybe, but right now the best we can offer is a place to camp.” Will pointed at the trees in the distance.

“That’s understandable,” Ben answered.

Will started to walk away then turned back to add, “Living here is not a free ride, and we don’t take in the infected.”

“That old bastard?” Tate laughed. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what would have happened to Randy.” Her face grew serious. “All I know about him is he bought an old run down hunting lodge out there about three years ago. They’ve been fixing it up. The website just went live before, well… It looked pretty sweet. Pretty big lodge with a dozen cabins or so.”

“So it could be a safe place for the girls?”

“Hell yeah,” Tate answered. “Last I heard they planned a self-contained facility since they were so far off the beaten path.”

“You could take the kids!” Matt brightened.

“Wait a minute, cowboy. I don’t do babies.” Tate protested. “I didn’t babysit as a kid, and I don’t know shit about taking care of no babies.”

Jake laughed. “My boy, Matt knows all about changing diapers and makin’ bottles.”

“Not so fast, folks. Dip-shit there owes me a new truck. He has to hook me up before I’m willing to go anywhere with or without kids.” Tate snorted.

Matt raised his hand in defeat. “I know what I owe you. When we get the camp set up, I’ll go with you back to Hondo. But that means me and the kids go to Pine Springs with you.”

“It’s a deal. But, I don’t do crying babies. I drive. You take care of the kids.” Tate added.

“Fine.” Matt conceded.

Tate got to her feet and handed the empty bottle to Larry. “You folks got a week then I plan on heading north.” She breezed out the back door leaving the table of soldiers to stare at the black ink visible around her shirt.

“Well, shit,” Mumbled Matt. “I guess that settles it.” He looked around the table then continued. “We have a plan so let’s get some sleep before we have to stand guard duty. We’ll call a meeting after breakfast. All adult will need to attend.”

Jenkins and his companion got to their feet and headed for the door. Matt followed them out into the summer night. Heat still wafted up from the hard packed dirt of the parking lot. Dark of night had settled on the camp leaving only a hint of light from the moon and stars. A soft glow from lanterns and candles could be seen around the blinds in the rec-room building.

Jake walked up behind Matt and cleared his throat. “I can’t be going to Pine Springs.”

Matt turned to face him. “Wasn’t planning on it. I noticed how you’ve been sleeping upstairs.”

“All she’s got is that baby. I won’t let her loose the boy. Besides, I think I love her.”

“Then she’s a lucky woman.” Matt slapped Jake on the back. “I’m not taking you or Larry when I go.”

“What do you mean?” Jake asked.

“It’s going to be just me, Tate and the girls,” Matt answered. “Anyone else going would leave the camp shorthanded.”

“How will you get back? She’s planning on staying.” Larry asked.

“I’ll figure out something. I imagine the grandfather will be glad enough to have the kids, I can talk them outta vehicles of some kind.”

“I don’t like it,” Larry commented. “You’ll be driving back alone.”

“You don’t have to like it.” Matt got to his feet. “I’ll be heading out in a few days to help Tate pick up a rig. And if we find what she’s expecting in Hondo we’ll be bringing back a full tanker. That’ll solve our persistent fuel shortage, at least for a while.”

The five soldiers sat around the kitchen table for over an hour. Lists were made, inventories consulted and options discussed, some dismissed while others added to the list. Eventually, the items on the list were prioritized and scheduled for implementation.

“There’s a small front-end loader in the barn. We can dig out the hill and slide in a small shipping container near the playground. If we cover it with soil and plants, it’ll be warm, but the kids can survive for a couple days. We can put in a couple vent pipes with a wind vane for ventilation and a composting toilet behind a curtain. If we store water and MREs, the kids could hide up to forty-eight hours. I can make it easy to open and secure from the inside.” Jenkins commented.

“If we get everyone trained, we’ll have thirty-plus adults protecting the camp,” Larry added. “Then we can start thinking about sending the girls to their grandfather.”

Matt, with his elbows on the table and clutching a cup of coffee, moved his head from left to right and sighed impatiently. “It’s over four hundred miles. Even if we could make it to Guadalupe National Park, we’d have to find the place.” Matt lamented. “All I have is a road number and name of the site.”

Jake answered. “It’s a chance to get them to their family. Hate to see you break your word, man.”

“How in the hell can I leave? It takes all of us working full time to keep this camp going.” Matt snapped.

“Can you live with not?” Jake answered. “Besides, we’re going to be training everyone.”

Matt scowled. “Getting them there would be at the expense of the camp?”

“Not necessarily if we ensure everyone could help defend the camp, you could take off a couple days to go to Guadalupe National Park.” Larry grinned. “You were gone four days with Tate, and we managed just fine. You aren’t as indispensable as you think.”

At the sound of footsteps at the door, the conversation fell silent. Everyone turned to see a slender silhouette standing in the doorway. “Is this a private meeting?”

“No. Come on in,” Larry called out. “Is there something we can help you with?”

“Got any beer?” She settled on a stool in the corner while Jake opened the frig and passed her a bottle of Lone Star. Tate shrugged an inked shoulder, and the tattooed panther’s eyes peeked from under the wife-beater. “Better than nothing, I guess. You said something about Guadalupe Park.”

“Yeah. It’s where Amy and Claire have a family,” Larry chimed in. “We were headed that way when we ran across Jenkins and the busload of kids. They were in pretty bad shape when we got here, so we decided to stay a day or two. It got complicated, and we never moved on.”

“I guess so with the fuckin’ Pied Piper there.” Tate laughed when she saw Matt cringe. “Where ever he goes, he picked up strays. Haven’t you noticed?”

Jake chuckled. “Yeah. He has been doing that, lately.”

“I was heading to Pine Springs Canyon on the east side of the park. I have family there. He used to talk about some crazy shit back in the day, but no one ever believed him. I guess he knew more than anyone knew. He met some old man at the VA once. The man offered Randy a job. He’s been living out there for the past couple years. I’m hoping Randy made it into Houston to get my mom and sister. I think his name was Edwards, Edmond or something like that.”

“Edmonds? He’s the girl’s grandfather.”

Leon searched his bag and found a small LED flashlight. He used the narrow beam to walk to the stove in the diner and turned on a gas burner under a metal pot of water and threw a handful of coffee grounds in the water. He lit a candle on the table near the prisoner and pocketed the flashlight. When steam rose from the pot, he crossed the room to the stove and turned off the burner. He watched the grounds settle then poured a cup of coffee.

“Mind if I have a cup?” Henry whispered as he struggled to sit with his hands still bound together around the leg of a bench.

“I suppose it won’t hurt for me to watch you drink coffee.” He poured a second cup of coffee. “Don’t know how you gonna drink it, cause I ain’t cutting the zip ties.”

Henry chuckled softly. “You give me the cup, I’ll manage.”

Leon passed him a cup then settled on a bench where he had a clear view through the front window. He brought the cup to his lips and slurped the hot liquid.

“Not good,” Leon whispered. “But it’s coffee.”

Henry clutched the big cup and leaned close to suck at the hot liquid. “Ah…thank you. I know you don’t have any reason to believe me about the people in the camp. Most are good folks. Just got tangled up with assholes.” He slurped at the coffee again.

“Why didn’t your menfolk step up and do something, man?”

“Only people with guns were Grant’s people. When he didn’t come back, the people he left behind are even worse.”

“Who stands guard?” Leon asked as he poured another cup of java.

“Wilson was the name of the man your boss killed. He only left six men behind to keep the camp in line.” Henry held the cup toward Leon. “I tried to talk to Wilson about making some changes. That’s when he locked up the women and made me come on this raid.”

Leon refilled Henry’s cup of coffee. “My guess is you’re lucky to have survived. Is that why you didn’t have a gun?”

Henry nodded. “Wilson told me if I didn’t get with the program, I was useless. He was right, I couldn’t save that woman’s husband or her son. If I had tried, I’d be dead.”

“We saw what you did to protect them,” Leon answered. “That counts for something in my book.”

Henry looked toward the first hint of dawn shining through the large plate glass window. “I guess we’ll see when your boss wakes up.”

One by one the sleepers awoke and found their way to the coffee pot. Margo poured a cup of coffee and took a swallow then coughed coffee across the counter.

“How can you drink this shit? You make coffee, and it’s filled grounds? Why didn’t you use a filter?”

Margo poured the contents of the pot down the drain, used bottled water to rinse out the last of the ground and then refilled the pot with water. She laid out a filter, poured a cup of grounds then put another over the top. She walked to the counter and retrieved a stapler. She folded the edge of the filter over, stapled the edge, folded and stapled again until she had an enclosed packet. She tossed the bundle into the boiling water, then repeated the procedure for a second pot.

Ten minutes later, coffee was being passed around when Brian walked into the diner. He was given a Styrofoam cup and took a swig. “Not bad…not bad at all.” He nodded at Leon. “You have hidden talents.”

Leon laughed. “Not me. It was her. She’s more resourceful than we thought.”

Brian walked to the pot with the coffee and saw the filter packet floating on the rich dark liquid. “I guess so.” He walked to where Henry still sat on the floor and pulled a knife from his belt. He slid it between the man’s wrists and freed him from the bonds.

“I understand.” Elaine wiped at a tear sliding down the side of her face then answered, “We’re ready to go.” She struggled to her feet picking up the bag of supplies with Sandy following suit.

Brian led the women to one of the trucks and helped them inside with Paula at the wheel. He walked around the back of a second truck and pulled at the rope hanging on the roll bar and used it to bind Henry’s hands and feet. Billy, Leon, Juan, and Margo each got into the remaining vehicles, and they caravanned back to the gas station.

Once the women had settled inside the gift shop, Brian and Billy went back outside and pulled Henry across the bed of the truck. They slid him off the tailgate none too gently and deposited him on the ground.

“Alright, Henry Dodd, this is your chance to live. I want to know everything about the camp.” Brian leaned toward Henry menacingly.

Henry held up his tied hands in surrender. “You got it….”

Henry talked for nearly an hour before Brian finally spoke again. “You’re sure of the numbers?”

Henry nodded excitedly. “A man by the name of Grant was in charge until last week. He left with a group scavenging and just never came back. Most people figured he ran into the military or took on someone he couldn’t handle. Anyway, that’s when this bunch took over. You have to understand, not everyone in the camp is bad. Grant brought in a bunch of assholes right after the attack, and everyone is afraid to do or say anything. One of the men you killed was a decent man, too. He was just too scared to do anything about it just like me.”

“Decent?” Brian interrupted. “It’s so-called decent men standing by while others do harm that will be our downfall, not the damned dead!”

“I know. I’m ashamed of what I watched happen, but I had my family to think of.” Cringing, Henry pleaded. “You got a family? Wouldn’t you do whatever it took to protect your family?”

Brian turned away. He kicked at a cigarette butt on the concrete. Henry was right. If he were honest with himself, he would do whatever it took to protect his family. Finally, Brian spoke. “We’ll do more talking tomorrow.” Brian pulled Henry to his feet. “For now we’re going inside and get some rest. We’ll have a guard, and you’ll stay tied up for the rest of the night. Any trouble and you’re dead, no second chances.”

Henry gave a quick nod. “You won’t have any trouble with me.”

Brian led Henry inside the gift shop, and found a place for him to sleep away from the others but in plain sight. He secured Henry’s hands around the bench leg then turned to Billy. “Get some sleep I’ll keep an eye on our friend and wake Leon in a couple hours.”

Brian settled on the office chair he had used earlier and watched the night slip away. It was a quiet passing of time. Around three, his eyes grew heavy, and he woke Leon.

Leon started, looked around, then stood and stretched his arms wide, muscles bulging in the undersized, t-shirt. “I got it, boss. Anything I should watch for?”

“All’s quiet. Just keep an eye out and watch sleeping beauty over there.” Brian nodded toward Henry. “He hasn’t moved since I tucked him in.”

“He sounds like a freight train.” Leon laughed.

“Just make sure he stays where he is. I don’t want him moving around while most of us are asleep.”

“Got it,” Leon answered to Brian’s retreating back.

Paula and Margo parked the vehicles near the camp. Both women ignored the gathering of men and their clean up activities to walk up to the two women huddled together near the car where they had been chained.

“Hi. I’m Paula. This is Margo.” Paula stepped closer with bottles of water in hand.

The woman looked up and stared without speaking. Paula gave each of them a bottle while Margo handed them a plastic store bag with beef jerky, fruit cups and a handful of candy bars.

“I’m sorry. We didn’t find much in the truck stop.” Margo whispered.

“This is fine.” The woman whispered. She nodded to her daughter to eat, but she just stared straight ahead.

“I’m sorry about your family.” Paula sat down next to the woman.

Margo followed suit. “Steve and the guys came as soon as they saw the gunfire. I’m sorry we were too late.”

“So am I.” The woman whispered. “My name is Elaine, Elaine Ward. This is my daughter, Sandy.”

The woman pushed greasy hair from her face while she studied the bag on the ground. She looked up then silently opened the bottle of water. She took a drink then passed it to her daughter. Sandy finished the bottle of water and Elaine opened the second. They both drank without speaking for a couple minutes then peeked into the bag. Elaine opened a package of jerked meat and passed a piece to Sandy then pulled one out for herself while Margo and Paula waited quietly.

“We haven’t eaten in a couple days.” Still chewing, Elaine opened a fruit cup and passed it to her daughter.

Sandy tipped up the cup and spilled the sweet syrup and fruit into her mouth. She licked at the dribbled of syrup with a hint of a smile on her lips. When she realized what she was doing, she started crying. “They’re dead.” She looked at the food horrified. “How can I eat when Daddy and Danny are dead?”

Elaine put her arm around her daughter. “It’s alright. You have to eat. Your body is hungry. Your dad and Danny would want you to eat,” Elaine tore off another piece of jerky and put it in her mouth in a show of support for her words.

Brian approached the women. “Ladies? Is there anything I can do over here?”

Elaine looked up and studied Brian for a moment. “You’re military?”

“Yes, mam. Captain Brian Jameson. I’m sorry we couldn’t do more for your family.”

“Me too.” She introduced herself and her daughter then added. “What now? The van is destroyed?”

“You get your choice of trucks from the four these assholes were driving. You can come with us, or you can head back out to wherever you were going.” Brian answered. “We’re loading everything from your van into a truck then we’ll head back to the fueling station where we were staying. We’ll spend the rest of the night there. We can talk about your options in the morning, and you can make those decisions then.

Elaine nodded. “What about my son and husband? I’d like to bury them.”

Brian sighed. “I’m sorry. The best we can do is put them in the van and burn it in the morning. We don’t have the tools to bury them, and we can’t chance a fire tonight.”

When Zack handed Steve the camp shovel, he slid off the log and scooted over to a slight depression in the ground. He pulled away a couple handfuls of scrub grass then began to dig. He looked to see Penny watching and smiled as he wiped the moisture from his brow.

“You want to help?” Steve asked.

“Uh-huh,” Penny answered.

“I need lots of little pieces of wood.” He held his hands apart about six inches. “About this long and no bigger than your thumb, can you do that?”

Penny grinned. “Uh-huh.” She ran to a nearby tree to begin picking up sticks.

When she brought the first handful, Steve pointed at a place nearby. “There’ll be fine. Don’t wander far.”

Penny skipped away giggling while Steve completed the first hole when he had gotten down twenty inches. He cleaned to hole of the last of dirt then slid over to begin a second smaller hole. When he got to the same depth, he reached into the first hole and joined the two.

Zack hung the green tarp while Della and Darlene began sorting supplies for an evening meal. He walked over to Steve carrying an armful of small limbs and branches.

“Thought you were building a fire. What’s the hole for?”

“It’s a Dakota fire hole. Remember all the fires we saw? No one will see our fire below ground,” Steve answered.

“Want me to help?”

“Sure.” Steve passed Zack the shovel. “We need to expand the bottom of the big hole a little more. Make it about the size of a five-gallon bucket. Don’t open the top any larger if you can help it. We’re going to use that grating to cook on.”

Steve sat back and began weaving together the dried grass into a tight ball.

Zack shoveled and scooped dirt then sat back. “I think I got it.”

“Put this in the center and add sticks around it in the shape of a T-pee. Add bigger sticks as you work your way out. Leave access to light the tender.”

Della and Darlene walked over. Della sat down a pot of water. Have you got a fire going? We need to start boiling water.”

Zack stuck a lighter into the hole for a minute, then sat up just as smoke wafted from the hole in front of him.

“What are you two doing?”

“A Dakota Fire takes less fuel and burns hotter. Did you bring that metal grating?”

“We should have brought more supplies,” Della commented as she handed him the camp grill.

“A little trapping or hunting and we’ll be fine,” Steve answered. “Even at just twelve miles a day, we can be there in less than a week.”

“How far did we ride today?”

“Seven, maybe eight miles. No more than that.” Steve answered.

Della interrupted. “The way my legs and butt feel, I can’t imagine going further than we did today.

Darlene echoed Della’s sentiment then added. “Besides, I don’t think Penny can take riding more than we did today.”

“Then we’ll go as far as we can,” Steve answered.