Bernie and Henry made a rough drawing of the camp with guard locations in the dirt then Brian used it to outline a plan. “Billy and I will take out Dixon or whoever is in the main building and get the armory open. You two watch until Billy’s signals then it’ll be your job to get the men out of the cellar and armed. I’ll head to where the kids are being held. Billy and some of the men can secure the front gate and any remaining guards.” He turned to Billy. “If any of the guards don’t give up quietly, do what you have to. The rest should head for the shed and back me up. Hopefully, I will have taken out the guard and finish freeing the camp. I don’t want shots fired unless absolutely necessary. No point in drawing attention to the place. Be sure the men are free and armed before you come out of the house.”

“Yes, sir,” Billy answered. “We’re set, right men?” He looked at Henry and Bernie pointedly. Both men nodded.

Brian and Billy led the two seniors behind the buildings across the edge of the camp amid the weeds and scrub trees. They got to the first building then moved building to building until they got to a cluster of bushes near the target dwelling. Brian paused at the corner of the building when he heard the back door open and slam close. A man walked down the steps and turned to stroll away, then hesitated while he pulled a lighter from his pocket. He flicked the flame to life just as Brian reached out and used his knife to end the man’s smoking habit once and for all. A heartbeat later, Brian pulled his body to the corner of the steps and kicked it into the shadows. Billy appeared at his side with a branch of foliage to hide the body.

Brian vaulted up the back steps and could still hear the angry voices arguing inside the house. He gave the knob a twist. It didn’t budge. “Damn,” Brian cursed as he glanced over his shoulder. “This is not going to be as quiet as I had hoped.”

Billy chuckled. “I got this.” He pulled a small black container from his pocket and sorted through the contents until he found what he was looking for. He slid a key into the lock and pulled his knife from his sheath. He turned the butt of the handle toward the key sticking out of the lock and whispered. “Not as quiet as just turning a key, but this does the trick.”

With a knife in his hand, Brian prepared to slip inside the minute the door opened. Billy took a deep breath and gave the key a quick tap driving it into the lock. Billy gripped the key and gave it a turn. The lock clicked, and the door swung open a couple inches.

“Nice,” Brian whispered as he pushed the door wider and stepped into the old farmhouse. He glanced inside then eased into a room with Billy on his heels. It was an old-style kitchen with scared laminate countertops, a fifty’s refrigerator, and a white enamel gas stove. Apparently, it hadn’t been used much to prepare meals in a while because the counter was littered with beer bottles and a multitude of dirty plates and cups. He stepped deeper inse and looked to the left to see two doors. One would be the cellar and the second the armory described by Bernie. Both doors sported a padlock on a hasp with a pin securing the lock. Brian turned back to Billy and whispered. “As soon as we take care of Dixon, get back here and open those doors then get Henry, Bernie in here and arm the men.”

“Yes, sir,” Billy whispered back.

Both men stepped into the hall and could hear an argument at the front of the house. The voices held an angry tone. Brian raised his hand, and they listened for a moment before moving toward the sound confident the heated discussion would cover their footfall.

“I don’t give a damned who you talked to. They stay where they are until Grant or Wilson gets back. I’m not taking a chance pissing off either one of them.”

“What if they don’t come back? Shit happens.” The second voice responded.

“Then I’m fucking in charge,” Dixon replied.

“You know as well as I do, if Grant were coming back, he’d have made it back by now. No way he’d be gone this long.” The deep voice answered. “We don’t have enough guns on the fence. Maybe we need to let the men out. If we’re attacked….”

“I got it covered. Get outta here and find me something to eat. Send one of the women in here to clean up this place.”

“Sure,” The subordinate answered, then steps crossed a room, and a door opened at the front of the house. “No problem.” The door slammed, and the footstep disappeared when the man stepped off the porch.

Brian side-stepped down the hall with Billy close behind. Brian got to the first doorway and glanced inside. The bed was a pile of messy sheets. From the look of it, the sleeper had not been big on washing up before bed. He did not miss the dark stains on them either. After his quick perusal, Brian continued toward the front of the house. When he got to the front parlor, Brian looked inside to see a man stretched out on an old couch with his arm resting over his eyes. Brian held up a closed fist to stop Billy. Brian crept into the room and turned around a straight-backed chair from dining room table and sat down. The aged wood creaked. Dixon flung his arm aside at the sound and spun around to drop his feet on the floor.

He glared at Brian, ready to rail at the intruder when he realized he was looking at a stranger. Dixon reached for his handgun in the holster on the floor, but Brian held up his own gun and pointed it at Dixon. He pulled his hand back and straightened on the couch.

“If you reach for the gun again, you’re a dead man,” Brian advised calmly.

“Who are you? What is the military doing in my camp?”

“Who I am, isn’t important. What you have to say in the next few minutes will be critical to your future.”

Billy stepped into view with his own gun drawn. Brian gave him a quick nod toward the front door, and the kid took up a guard position there.

“What in the hell do you mean?”

“You’re holding people hostage. Marshall Law is in effect in Texas which means I get to be judge, jury, and executioner. That’s not good news for you if I decide you’re acting adversely to the common good.”

Dixon leaned back on the couch. “I’m not doing….”

“Shut up!” Brian holstered his handgun and Billy raised his. “I see this is not going to go well for you. Standup asshole!” Brian pulled two zip-ties from his pocket and stepped closer. A loud thud just as Brian pulled Dixon to his feet but he jerked free. Dixon ducked and kicked out with his right foot. The impact knocked Brian against the wall just as the front door swung open kocking Billy to his ass while the new arrival gasped in surprise.

Billy rolled and bounced to his feet pointing the gun at the intruder. The older black woman stood paralyzed half inside the door. She gasped as Billy grabbed her arm and pulled her inside and demanded. “Quiet! Don’t move!”

Brian spun around and laid a round-house on the side of Dixon’s head. The man stumbled, and swung out, failing to connect, causing him to lose his balance. Brian made a quick jab and brought Dixon to his knees. While he was down, Brian stepped around his back and grabbed his left arm. He brought it up to the middle of his back and closed a zip-tie around his wrist. Before Dixon could fight back, Brian pushed his wrists together and secured the second tie. The woman gasped, but Brian turned and ordered. “Don’t start!”

After a moment she found her voice. “What are you doing here?” She looked at Billy still holding the handgun. “You’re the military. Are you going to arrest us?”

Brian turned to face her. “No.”

Dixon tried to stand. “What are you gonna to do with me?”

Brian picked up Dixon’s gun and set it out of reach on the table then walked back to Dixon and searched his pockets. He found a set of keys. “Is the key to the armory on here?” He tossed them to Billy. When Dixon remained silent, Brian continued. “If the key isn’t on there, break the lock. When the men get armed, send a couple men to stand guard down here.”

When Billy disappeared back down the hall, Brian turned back to the woman. “Who are you? Are you going to be a problem for us?”

The thick-bodied, black woman chuckled. “Only, if you leave that piece of crap in charge around here,” She answered then turned to the door. “Now, we have to get those kids outta that shed.”

Brian chuckled. “Soon as I have someone to keep an eye on Dixon.”

“Give me a gun, I’ll do it.” The woman offered.

Dixon interrupted. “Shut up, bitch.” He glared at the woman.

Before anyone could stop her, the woman crossed the room and slapped Dixon. The lightning-fast smack connected with his left cheek. The sound exploded with the crack of a gunshot. She got in Dixon’s reddening face and scolded, “You a disrespectful little shit, and I’m tired of your mouth.”

“Well, maybe you CAN take care of the problem.” Brian laughed. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Bessie Brown. Everyone just calls me, Miss Bessie.”

Well, Miss Bessie, I’ll hog-tie this disrespectful little shit and then I need to go take care of getting some kids outta that shed. Can you tell me about the guard?”

Brian pushed Dixon face down on the floor, pulled a paracord from his pocket and secured Dixon’s legs then pulled the zip-ties down to bind his ankles to his hands. He jerked a sock from Dixon’s bootless foot and stuffed it in his mouth.

“Now, that ought to keep him quiet until I get back, Miss Bessie.” Brian stood and gave her a wink. He passed her Dixon’s weapon. “There will be men coming through the house pretty soon. Billy is back there to let them out and arm them. Just stay here.”

She accepted the revolver, checked the load and snapped the barrel back in place. “Young man, you go take care of business and don’t worry about this bag of dog crap going anywhere.” She walked to the table and picked up a cast iron skillet sitting among the remains of meals. “He moves, and I’ll knock him out.” She hung the holster over her shoulder. “You go on now. We’ll be here waiting.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Brian headed for the door. “Billy will send a couple men to help you watch him in a few minutes but if you need anything just call him.”

Brian stepped outside and looked at a crowd of people circling the front of a building on the opposite side of the camp. He glanced over his shoulder one last time then jogged toward the group. An angry voice rose up protesting the situation.

“I ain’t letting ‘em out. Dixon will have my ass.” A bearded man standing in front of the door yelled at the gathering. “I can’t,” He said less convincingly.

Brian got to the back of the gathering of older men and women paused. He placed his hands on two shoulders and gently pushed them aside. He eased through the crowd until he got to the front and faced two men. Both looked angry, confused and a little terrified.

“I’m in charge now. Dixon has been replaced,” Brian announced facing three men.

“You can’t be. Wilson left Dixon in charge.” Another man protested. “Besides, you’re military. You can’t come in here and order us around. We’re civilians.”

“Wilson won’t be coming back, and Texas is under Marshall Law.” He pulled his handgun and pointed the barrel at the angry man. “That makes me in charge, so either open the door and let the women and kids out, or I’ll end this.”

“We gotta do this, man. It’s the right thing to do.” The smaller man of the trio announced.

He turned to unlatched the door, but Brian interrupted. “No. Put down your weapons, then get down here and on your knees.”

The smaller man propped his rifle against a post and raised his hands. “I ain’t got no beef with you.” He turned to the big man. “Come on, Tiny. Things are changin’. We ain’t getting shot for Dixon or Wilson.”

The big man sat down his weapon, stepped off the porch and fell to his knees in the dirt alongside the smaller man. Facing the mass of men and women the third man followed suit. Two minutes later the hands of all three men had their hands zip-tied behind their backs.

Billy accompanied by nearly another dozen men, retrieved Miss Bessie on his way from the front gate. The group was leading Dixon’s guards toward the gathering. After a quick search of Dixon’s guards, Brian left his crew kneeling in the dust amid the pine needles and dirt. Brian’s group were brought into the camp and the gates secured. Lunches were served.

Miss Bessie had organized the older women ensuring the people in the shed including Henry’s wife and daughters were cared for and children united with parents or families to care for them. With the freeing of the men, it was determined that a few had mysteriously disappeared. Despite questioning, Dixon swore ignorance to their fate. Considering Grant and Wilson were in charge before him, Brian wa inclined to believe him. Besides, pain was usually a real incentive to telling the truth.

When Brian saw all the families together, he was surprised at the number of people that had been imprisoned. It was amazing to see what could happens when decent folks were left unarmed. Brian ensured every adult who could handle a weapn, carried one, men and women.

Brian sat on the front porch enjoying a glass of warm tea when Bessie found him. “Captain sir, when we get done here I’ll clean up that house for you and your friends. No point in you having to clean up after this trash.” Bessie spit in the dirt in front of Dixon.

“Fuck you, bitch.” Dixon cursed.

Bessie laughed. “Not likely. I’m used to a real man, not some scrawny little twig like you got.” The crowd roared with laughter at Dixon’s expense.

Brian held up his hands and waited for the chittering to silence. “Since everyone seems to be here, it’s time we have a trial to determine the fate of each of these men. I’m only going to sit here as a judge. You as a community will decide their futures but those offering testimony will not be part of this jury. Each man will be judged individually. Whatever the sentence is, will be carried out immediately.”

“You don’t have the authority…” Dixon began, but Brian interrupted.

“Marshall Law gives me the authority to do as I see fit to restore stability to this community. Do any of you have questions?” No one spoke, and he pointed to Henry. “Charges for each man will be announced, relevant testimony will follow.”

Henry read each man’s name and charges from a list created by several men and women. When he was finished, he turned to Brian.

“Alright. Any of you men have anything to say?”

“You can’t do this! This is a kangaroo court.” One of the men protested.

Brain slammed the butt of his gun on the small table in front of him. “Move on. I’ve already explained my authority to conduct this trial. Anyone have a defense for any of these men?”

Henry, Bernie and several other people stepped up to defend Tiny and three of the men. Henry closed with, “These four did not participate in any of the atrocities committed against folks here. I guess, being scared and trying to get by is a crime most of us have been guilty of since the attacks in San Antonio. I count myself guilty as them. I watched people die and did nothing and then held two women during a recent attack.” Without saying another word, Henry stepped to the side of the four men and bowed his head in submission.

Bernie followed up with, “I agree we have all done things unbecoming of real men of honor. I vote they be punished by a period of hard labor. They are family men and friends. We can’t afford to lose thesm.”

After a flurry of voices and nods of agreement, everyone turned back to face Brian. He smiled and tapped his gun on the table. The assembly grew quiet. Brian inhaled, then began. “These FIVE men have been found guilty of conduct unbecoming. Each is sentenced to work in the garden every day, eight hours a day, six days a week for the next month. Miss Bessie tells me she’s the organizer of the gardening activities and needs to clear more ground to expand, so she will serve as their parole officer. As part of the punishment during that period, they reside in the shed the women were held in.”

After a few snickers, the men were freed and stepped back with voiced acceptance of the sentences. The next hour was spent with testimony being given by residents against Dixon and a second person, named Baker. At least ten people stepped forward to accuse the men of assaults and abuse of one kind or another. Half a dozen woman came forward and accused either Dixon or Baker of rape. One of the women admitted amid a flood of tears to being pregnant as a result.

When the populace grew quiet, Brian asked. “Anyone else has anything to say, do it now?”

A young girl around sixteen stepped forward. “Dixon raped me. After my father confronted Grant, Dixon and Baker came to our cabin and took my dad outside the back gate, and I never saw him again. They killed him.”

“You can’t prove shit.” Dixon protested.

Two more people stepped forward to accuse Dixon of being responsible for disappearances or deaths. When they were out of accusations, and no one else came forward, Brian raised his hand and looked at the accused.

“This concludes this portion of the trial. Do you men have anything to say?” Neither responded, and he continued. “If there is no defense to be presented I’ll call for a vote.”

Dixon looked up finally realizing he was in trouble. “I just did what I was told. It was Grant….”

Brian cut off the tirade with the tap on the table, “I see. Is that your argument? The boss made me do it?” When there was no answer, Brian looked at the populace. “Is there any discussion?”

After a brief consultation with the other residents of the jury, Bernie stepped forward, squared his shoulders and spoke. “You two have been part of the culture of abuse and wrongdoing. We find you equally culpable in the death of George Stevens. We considered banishment but refuse to live in fear of your returning with men of your mindset to once again prey on this community. That said we find the charge of murder is a capital offense and finding these men guilty of murder. Without the abilty to jail them for an extended period of time, the jury sentences both these men to death.”

Brian looked at the collection of faces watching the proceedings. “The community has passed judgment. These two men have been found guilty of murder, and the sentence is death to be carried out immediately.” He tapped the table again, and that was it. “Everyone but the Bernie and Henry is dismissed.”

Most of the crowd of nearly sixty people drifted from the gathering leaving the two men Brian had called out. “This is your camp, you men have a responsibility. For the time being, you will be the leaders here. I would suggest in a few days, you call a meeting and elect a council of at least three people. Be sure there are at least one of the women.”

“But we thought you would be in charge,” Bernie answered.

“No,” Brian replied, “I have a family out west, and I won’t be staying. As for the others, that’s up to them.” He nodded toward the two men still kneeling in the dirt. “You have a sentence to carry out.”

Henry gasped. “Us? We can’t kill them.”

“I don’t have a problem with it. Those two killed my dad.” The young woman who testified during the trial announced. “I won’t lose a moment of sleep killing those two.”

“Tiffany, you can’t do that.” A man, who had not spoken before, protested. “If the soldiers will accompany me, I will be the one to pull the trigger.”

“Eugene, you’ve never shot a gun.” Bernie objected.

“Tiffany’s dad was my best friend. I would like to ask the soldiers to come with me. I’d hate to screw it up.”

Brian interrupted. “If none of you are going to step up, then Eugene, Billy and I will ensure this is done right, but at least two strong men will accompany us to dig graves.”

Henry and Bernie stepped to Eugene’s side. Dixon opened his mouth to protest, but saw the determined look on the faces around him and remained silent.

Baker whimpered and protested. “I was just following orders.”

Billy and Brian grabbed Dixon and Baker by the arms and pulle them to their feet. They pushed them into walking to the back fence. Bernie and Henry stopped at the tool shed to retrieve four shovels and two pickaxes. They fell back into line with the others. The grim group left the camp through the back gate and walked to an area of open ground, about a quarter mile from camp..

Both men were shoved to their knees and held at gunpoint while two graves were dug. It took nearly an hour to get the holes almost five feet.

Brian slid a towel across his damp forehead. “That’s enough for these two.” He grabbed the back of Dixon’s collar and pulled him to his feet while Billy brought the second man to his feet. The man tried to pull away, but Henry stepped up and cuffed him across the face.

“Man up, for Pete’s sake. You were a big man killing that gal’s daddy. Now act like a man paying the price.”

They walked the two to the graves and forced them to their knees in front of the holes.

“You can’t do this!” Dixon cried.

Brian slapped him on the back of the head. “Shut up.”

Eugene laid down the shovel and slowly walked to the back of the two men. He pulled an old Colt from his waistband and raised the pistol toward Dixon’s companion. The barrel of the gun shook violently.

Brian reached out with his right hand and covered Eugene’s hand with his own. “Breath. In and out.” Eugene did as he was told, his hand steadied, and Brian released his grip. “Use two hands to hold the gun. Place our finger on the guard until I count,put your finger on the trigger. I’m going to count to three, and you squeeze the trigger.”

Brian raised his own gun to the back of Dixon’s head. “On three.”

Without further comment, Brian took a breath and counted. The explosion of both guns shattered the painful silence. Both bodies slumped forward and were let fall into the holes.

Eugene dropped the gun and turned away. He took three stumbling steps from the graves and then fell to his knees. “Oh my God….” He whispered.

Brian walked over to Eugene and pulled him to his feet. “Let’s head back.”

Brian led Eugene back to the fence. At the gate, Eugene took several deep breaths and then squared his shoulders. Brian handed him the Colt.

Eugene looked down at the gun and quietly replaced it in his waistband. “I shot infected leaving the city, but this was different.”

Brian let the quiet envelope them for a full minute before he answered. “It’s meant to be difficult to kill a man. The day you can shoot a man and feel nothing, it’s the day you have lost your humanity.”

“But you shot Dixon,” Eugene mumbled.

“I have a duty to protect this country and the citizens from all enemies. This is a different enemy than I could have ever imagined fighting, but I’ll do what I need to, to protect who I can. Those men were part of the danger the citizens face since the attack. Billy and I have a duty to help take care of the problem when we can.”

Eugene sighed. “Maybe we should have exiled them.”

“Do you think that would have worked?” Brian asked. After a long silence, he continued. “They would have done one of two things; victimize others or come back to attack you folks.”

Eugene looked toward the camp beyond the gated fence. “We did the right thing.” His steps quickened. “Let’s get those graves covered then get you and your folks settled for the night.”

After a subdued evening meal, Miss Bessie led Brian and his traveling companions into the house. It smelled of pine cleaner and was spotless. From one end of the small farmhouse to the other, it had been cleaned and swept. The dirty mattress has been removed and cots brought into the house. Each bed had a pillow with a white pillowcase, a sheet and quilt draped over the foot. The foodstuff had been returned to the cellar so there was a bedroom for Margo and Paula, then the mother and daughter they had rescured.

Brian and Billy, Juan and Leon took the first four-hour shift of guard duty during the night. Brian volunteered since he imaged most of the men confined in the basement had not spent much time sleeping.

Billy and Brian stood at the front gate as the sunset. Families and friends gathered to celebrate being back together.

“Wonder what happened to that guy, Grant they talk about?” Billy asked.

Brian shrugged. “Dead. He probably met someone either smarter and with more guns. Eugene said he left almost three weeks ago.”

“How do you make a decision to kidnap women?”

“When the man in charge realized there was going to be an imbalance of men to women and none of the married men intended to share their daughters or wives I guess Grant decided on the plan to find women.”

“That’s crazy,” Billy observed.

“Yeah, it’s crazy. I can’t imagine how anyone could justify killing families. Six women and girls that were brought in by Grant. I’m just sorry I didn’t get here sooner.”

“We’re not staying are we?” Billy asked.

“No. We’ll rest for a couple days. I want to help these folks elect a council and get leadership sorted out before we leave. Long range, the camp has a good set up with the natural spring and garden.” Brian looked toward the compound. “I want to give Paula, Margo, Leon, and Juan a chance to get to know the folks around here then decide if they want to stay or move on.”

Brian turned to Henry. “You’d better be telling the truth. If this goes bad because of you, you will die.” He picked up the binoculars and studied the camp below. A ten-foot-high hurricane fence anchored in concrete surrounded the sprawling encampment. Two armed guards watched from inside the padlocked gate. He moved the glasses to examine the inside of the compound. A guard sat in the shade of a covered porch monitoring the women working around the camp. Two older women worked at the side of an open fire, one in a stained white apron stirred in a large iron pot while the other shifted two Dutch ovens closer to the heat. While they cooked, the women watched two more guards with guns stroll through camp barking orders at three gray-haired women sitting at the side of a second fire with a massive kettle of steaming water. Each straddled a bucket and scrubbed clothing across ribbed metal boards. Brian scanned to an ample open space at the back of the enclosure where half a dozen matrons tended a sprawling garden. The women weeded at the flourishing patch of garden. One of the women leaned back on her heels, and one of the guards carrying AR-15s yelled at her. Brian lowered the binoculars and turned to Henry. “I only see old women, where are rest of the camp? You told me there were young women and kids.”

“They’re locked up in the red building at the end, the one with the window panels at the top of the walls. We gotta get ‘em outta there. It’s bound to be hotter than hell in that shed. My youngest girl has asthma. She’ll die in there.” Henry started to get to his feet, but Brian caught him by the arm.

“We take the time to do this right. Tell me about the guards.” Brian asked. “I want to know about the men in camp?”

Henry answered. “The men I know that would help us are locked up in the so-called jail in the root cellar under the big house. The idiots moved all the food stored into a two days ago so they could use it as a holding cell until Grant or Wilson returned. I don’t see Dixon, the man left in charge. He’s probably in the office in the same building. At the front gate, Carl is the one in the red t-shirt. He’s okay, he just goes along. Jim, the man with him, is an asshole. He’ll be trouble. He’ll do what Dixon told him no matter what.”

“That means we have Jim to worry about if we try to take the front gate. Where is the second entrance?”

“Around on the north side,” Henry answered.

Brian grabbed Henry’s arm, “Let’s move and see who’s on guard duty back there.”

The three men slipped down the face of the hill and moved closer to the fence hiding amid the brush and cedar. They saw a lone guard limp from the back gate toward one of the buildings. He reappeared a few minutes later but seemed more interested in activities inside the compound than any danger outside.

“What about him?” Brian asked.

“Perkins can’t do much to help, but he won’t get in the way. He’s got bad knees and is barely make it across the camp,” Henry answered venomously.

Brian watched the enclosure while they made their way to the back gate of the compound where a single man sat on a bench in the shade. He was well past middle age judging by his lined face and thickened middle. While Brian and Billy studied the access into the compound, Henry used the overhanging brush to sneak away and close to the fence.

He called out softly. “Bernie! Bernie!” Bernie looked up and finally saw Henry in the brush clinging to the fencing. Henry pointed at the gate. “Open up, Let me in.”

Bernie shuffled to the fence all the while fishing keys from his pocket. He flung open the gate just as Brian and Billy joined Henry.

“Woe! Who are these fellas, Henry?” Bernie startled.

“Friends,” Henry answered. “Close the gate now.”

“Shit, man. I didn’t figure you’d be coming back when Wilson took you with him.” Bernie spread his arms and pulled Henry into a bear hug. “Who you got there? Looks like soldiers. Has the military finally come to straighten this shit out?”

“Bernie, shut up a minute. Where’s my wife and kids? Are they still in the shed?”

“Yes. Since she tried talking Dixon into letting the kids out. He never got over being confronted in front of everyone.”

“Is there anyone guarding them?” Brian asked.

“Hell no. Too damned hot. Bailey has been sitting outside in the shade with Tiny and another guy.” Bernie answered. “Some of the men tried to talk sense into Dixon when he locked up your wife, and the bastard rounded up the rest of the men and locked them up, too.”

“Why aren’t you locked up?”

“I was in the outhouse when it happened. I heard the shouting, took a peak and saw what was going down, so I just stayed there. Figured I’d keep my nose out of it and maybe be able to let ‘em out after dark tonight.” Bernie scrunched up his face. “Dixon is dumber than shit, but he’s got Gus and me standing guard without guns,” Bernie answered. He raised his arms to expose his weaponless belt.

“Who’s left packin’ guns then?” Brian asked. Bernie answered then Brian interrupted. “Okay, we need to take out six to eight men with guns, and the armory is in the main house. Can you two give us a layout of where the guards are stationed?”

He glared at Brian, ready to rail at the intruder when he realized he was looking at a stranger. Dixon reached for his handgun in the holster on the floor, but Brian held up his own gun and pointed it at Dixon. He pulled his hand back and straightened on the couch.

“If you reach for the gun again, you’re a dead man,” Brian advised calmly.

“Who are you? What is the military doing in my camp?”

“Who I am, isn’t important. What you have to say in the next few minutes will be critical to your future.”

Billy stepped into view with his own gun drawn. Brian gave him a quick nod toward the front door, and the kid took up a guard position there.

“What in the hell do you mean?”

“You’re holding people hostage. Marshall Law is in effect in Texas which means I get to be judge, jury, and executioner. That’s not good news for you if I decide you’re acting adversely to the common good.”

Dixon leaned back on the couch. “I’m not doing….”

“Shut up!” Brian holstered his handgun and Billy raised his. “I see this is not going to go well for you. Standup asshole!” Brian pulled two zip-ties from his pocket and stepped closer. A loud thud just as Brian pulled Dixon to his feet but he jerked free. Dixon ducked and kicked out with his right foot. The impact knocked Brian against the wall just as the front door swung open kocking Billy to his ass while the new arrival gasped in surprise.

Billy rolled and bounced to his feet pointing the gun at the intruder. The older black woman stood paralyzed half inside the door. She gasped as Billy grabbed her arm and pulled her inside and demanded. “Quiet! Don’t move!”

Brian spun around and laid a round-house on the side of Dixon’s head. The man stumbled, and swung out, failing to connect, causing him to lose his balance. Brian made a quick jab and brought Dixon to his knees. While he was down, Brian stepped around his back and grabbed his left arm. He brought it up to the middle of his back and closed a zip-tie around his wrist. Before Dixon could fight back, Brian pushed his wrists together and secured the second tie. The woman gasped, but Brian turned and ordered. “Don’t start!”

After a moment she found her voice. “What are you doing here?” She looked at Billy still holding the handgun. “You’re the military. Are you going to arrest us?”

Brian turned to face her. “No.”

Dixon tried to stand. “What are you gonna to do with me?”

Brian picked up Dixon’s gun and set it out of reach on the table then walked back to Dixon and searched his pockets. He found a set of keys. “Is the key to the armory on here?” He tossed them to Billy. When Dixon remained silent, Brian continued. “If the key isn’t on there, break the lock. When the men get armed, send a couple men to stand guard down here.”

When Billy disappeared back down the hall, Brian turned back to the woman. “Who are you? Are you going to be a problem for us?”

The thick-bodied, black woman chuckled. “Only, if you leave that piece of crap in charge around here,” She answered then turned to the door. “Now, we have to get those kids outta that shed.”

Brian chuckled. “Soon as I have someone to keep an eye on Dixon.”

“Give me a gun, I’ll do it.” The woman offered.

Dixon interrupted. “Shut up, bitch.” He glared at the woman.

Before anyone could stop her, the woman crossed the room and slapped Dixon. The lightning-fast smack connected with his left cheek. The sound exploded with the crack of a gunshot. She got in Dixon’s reddening face and scolded, “You a disrespectful little shit, and I’m tired of your mouth.”

“Well, maybe you CAN take care of the problem.” Brian laughed. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Bessie Brown. Everyone just calls me, Miss Bessie.”

Well, Miss Bessie, I’ll hog-tie this disrespectful little shit and then I need to go take care of getting some kids outta that shed. Can you tell me about the guard?”

Brian pushed Dixon face down on the floor, pulled a paracord from his pocket and secured Dixon’s legs then pulled the zip-ties down to bind his ankles to his hands. He jerked a sock from Dixon’s bootless foot and stuffed it in his mouth.

“Now, that ought to keep him quiet until I get back, Miss Bessie.” Brian stood and gave her a wink. He passed her Dixon’s weapon. “There will be men coming through the house pretty soon. Billy is back there to let them out and arm them. Just stay here.”

She accepted the revolver, checked the load and snapped the barrel back in place. “Young man, you go take care of business and don’t worry about this bag of dog crap going anywhere.” She walked to the table and picked up a cast iron skillet sitting among the remains of meals. “He moves, and I’ll knock him out.” She hung the holster over her shoulder. “You go on now. We’ll be here waiting.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Brian headed for the door. “Billy will send a couple men to help you watch him in a few minutes but if you need anything just call him.”

Brian stepped outside and looked at a crowd of people circling the front of a building on the opposite side of the camp. He glanced over his shoulder one last time then jogged toward the group. An angry voice rose up protesting the situation.

“I ain’t letting ‘em out. Dixon will have my ass.” A bearded man standing in front of the door yelled at the gathering. “I can’t,” He said less convincingly.

Brian got to the back of the gathering of older men and women paused. He placed his hands on two shoulders and gently pushed them aside. He eased through the crowd until he got to the front and faced two men. Both looked angry, confused and a little terrified.

“I’m in charge now. Dixon has been replaced,” Brian announced facing three men.

“You can’t be. Wilson left Dixon in charge.” Another man protested. “Besides, you’re military. You can’t come in here and order us around. We’re civilians.”

“Wilson won’t be coming back, and Texas is under Marshall Law.” He pulled his handgun and pointed the barrel at the angry man. “That makes me in charge, so either open the door and let the women and kids out, or I’ll end this.”

“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.