Captives – Part 1

Posted: June 24, 2017 in 22 Captives - Part 1

“What are we going to do?” Leon whispered.

Brian stepped back pulling Leon with him as he replied. “We can’t do anything right now.”

“What?” Leon queried. “You can’t be serious. You know what’ll happen to those two girls.”

Brian eased back down the hill. When he was out of sight of the mayhem beyond he jogged toward the truck with Leon close on his heels. At the truck, he pulled a sniper rifle, a combat knife and extra magazines from behind the seat.

“We can’t save everyone, but I’m not willing to abandon those two. Take the truck back and get Billy and Juan. Gear up and get back here as fast as you can. Park down the road about a quarter mile and make your way to the place where we were.”

Leon jumped into the truck and cranked the engine. Brian leaned close. “Don’t use the lights or race the engine until you’re out of earshot. I don’t want them hearing the truck. You got an hour. I’ll keep an eye on them and meet me here. Tell the women to be in the van ready to head out, just in case.”

“Got it.” Leon shoved the truck in gear and pulled out onto the broken asphalt and quickly disappeared.

Brian carried his personal arsenal to the crest of the hill to watch the camp when the two women were led to a truck where they were chained to a bumper. Brian watched the man with the key and noted he spread out a sleeping bag and settled down for the night not far from the girls.

The felonious crew passed around two more bottles and a second man had found in a truck. They scrounged food and laced metal cups of coffee as they sat around the fire. The drinkers grew steadily louder. The celebrating would soon obscure any distant rumble of the returning truck. It would all depend on how long the boss let the party continued.

Brian ignored the mosquitos buzzing and lighting on his bare skin as he slowly screwed the silencer on the end of his rifle. He hadn’t done any serious distance shooting other than at the range in a really long time. He hoped he was up to the task if the need arose. He watched the celebration spin up into a full blown party.

The men toasted each other for a well-executed ambush, and the plethora of supplies gathered from the victims including the women. As the salutes grew more raucous, one of the men approached the women rubbing at the front of his jeans. The guard jerked upright and growled curses while pointing a gun in the man’s direction. The would-be abuser crept back to his friends amid a myriad of laughter.

Brian slowly released his breath as he watched one of the men shove his way through the celebrating group breaking up the party. He talked to four people, and they headed off to stand in the shadows at the edge of the camp. The drinking suddenly slowed, and the party began to wind down.

Penny bounced on the back seat while she called out to Zack. “We go? We take horsy?”

Steve laughed. “We go.” He slapped Zack on the back and chuckled at the uncomfortable look on the kid’s face. “Remember, slow and easy taking off, and it will take longer to stop with the extra weight.”

Zack shifted in the seat with a bit of discomfort. “Got it.”

The drive down the access road was a bit hairy, but once they pulled on the blacktop the morning wore on pretty uneventful as they drove down State Road 505 toward US 90 West. The rough hill country terrain had disappeared shortly after they left the cabin and trees grew more stunted, and patches of bare earth turned into even more arid land. The straight arrow road disappeared into the distance. Mountains gradually appeared through the haze in the distance.

Zack pressed his foot on the gas, but Steve interrupted. “Keep it around forty. Remember about stopping.”

“Valentine Texas? I saw a special on television about that town. It’s famous. The post office receives thousands of cards every year so they can be sent from Valentines all over the country.” Darlene announced.

Della laughed. There was a movie called “Dancer, Texas” filmed there in the nineties.”

“And that’s important why?” Steve turned and asked.

Della poked him with the tip of a slender finger. “It was a cute movie. I wonder if the eighty or ninety people who lived here are alive.”

Steve sighed. “I guess we’ll know soon enough. It’s not much more than five miles ahead. Then we pass Lobo. Then hopefully, a clear shot to the mountains.”

“There’s a Prada store there.” Della laughed. “I saw it on a Sunday morning program, Prada Marfa was erected as a work of art. It has shoes and stuff from a Prada collection.”

“For sale?” Darlene asked. “Can we stop?”

Della shrugged. “No. It never opened. Supposedly, it’s an earth-friendly building that will decay and fall into ruin along with the shoes and purses. I doubt anything there will be worth our time.”

Steve chuckled. “Not many places to wear high heels now.”

Darlene sighed. I could have tried on a pair of Prada shoes.”

Zack interrupted the conversation when he stepped on the breaks. “There’s your Prada store, but where’s the rest of the town?”

Zack slipped the truck into gear and stepped on the accelerator. The truck pulled away from the cabin as his eyes filled. “We could make her come.” He whispered.

“It was her decision. She only has a few days of medication left.” Steve answered.

“What if someone comes?” Darlene argued.

“She has a gun,” Steve answered.

“She can barely see. How can she protect herself?”

“Not why I gave it to her,” Steve answered with a catch in his voice. “Enough. Drop it.”

Darlene flopped back in the seat more than a little angry while Della remained quiet. Her words had failed to dissuade her when Millie announced her intent of staying behind when they left. Despite Della cussing and discussing the decision over and over again for the last two days, Della knew she could say nothing that would change Millie’s mind. In the end, Millie turned away and refuse to even discuss it.

Zack followed the narrow trail back to the shed and corral. The horses milled around the gate, anticipating their daily allotment of hay. Zack stopped the truck, and Della jumped out of the back seat door anxious to be out of the cab and the sadness of sniffles and tears. She hurried to the trailer and stood next to the hitch on the trailer with her arm above the connection.

“Can you do this?” Steve asked with a raised brow.

“Hope so,” Zack answered.

He slipped the truck into reverse, and it moved toward the trailer. Della began to point to the right. When Zack seem to ignore her guidance, she made a more frantic pointing motion and yelling, “Right! Go to the right!”

Steve turned and could see he was missing the hitch. “Hold up a minute.” Zack kept moving, and Steve shouted. “Stop!” Zack stopped, jerking everyone against the seat belts. Steve leaned forward. “Let’s try this again, but this time, you do what I say. Let’s do this slow and easy, okay?”

“Alright.” Zack pulled the truck forward, stopped and put the truck in reverse.

“Straighten the wheel before you start moving, then just do as I say,” Steve spoke calmly.

After three long minutes of left then right and back again, the trailer was connected, and Zack pulled the trailer from the barn. “Damn. That’ a lot longer than I thought it would be.” He stopped when he got well past the gate and again slipped the truck into reverse.

“This is a little different,” Steve instructed. “You turn the wheel in the opposite direction you want the trailer to go. It seems crazy, but that’s how you do it backing up a trailer. Now, straighten the wheel and get a clean start.”

Zack took his foot off the break and with a few adjustments, the trailer rolled toward the gate.

“Wheel to the right,” Steve instructed. “Ease off the gas. Slightly to the left.” A moment later he announced. “That’s it. Stop.”

Zack jerked stepped on the break with a sigh of relief. “Shit. I would have never gotten that done by myself.”

Darlene and Penny climbed out of the cab to watch all the activity fro the side of the corral. Della and Zack walked inside the pen closing the gate behind them and bridled each of the horses. Once they were each tied to the fence, Zack led them, one by one, into the trailer and tied them in place. The whole process took nearly an hour. When Zack was done, he got back in the cab with a sigh of relief while Darlene, Penny, and Della climbed into the back seat.

Randy reached out, but Harry turned away. “Lead out.”

Randy turned to the other. “You three come along, but be quiet.”

Meanwhile, three women had appeared on the front porch. The younger woman rushed down the step to begin examining Liz. “Is she bit?” She asked.

“No,” Harry growled. “She’s pregnant. We had an accident a few days ago.”

Randy pushed his way past her to reach for Liz. “It’s Liz. Will’s daughter.”

Wilma reached toward John and the kids. “Let’s let them take care of Liz. If you come with me, we’ll get you cleared and a snack, okay.”

John looked at her and scowled. “We ain’t bit.”

Wilma held up her hand to let Randy, Harry and Cassie disappeared into the building. Just then two men, both Hispanic and wearing sidearms appeared from behind the building. “I’m sure that’s true, but we have a process and everyone, and I mean everyone who walks in this door gets inspected. You can relax and make it easy for everyone or….” She let her voice trail off then continued while giving John a big smile. “My friends will assist either way.”

John sighed. “Fine. But ain’t no man checkin’ HER out.”

“Of course not.” Wilma led them into the main room of the lodge.

All three of the newcomers looked around in awe. Their footsteps slowed as they took in the massive room with two fireplaces, and an open stairway to a second story.

“Quite a little hiddy hole,” John turned to Cody and whispered. “Not what I expected for sure.”

Wilma led them to a hallway and to a side door across from a first aid station where voices spoke in hushed whispers. “This way, please. Mr. Edmond’s daughter is in good hands. Our doctor is my little girl.”

At the next doorway, Wilma pointed inside and stepped back. “You and the boy can go in there. Jose will give you a quick once-over then you are free to wander around. Maria is gathering drinks and snacks.”

The men disappeared into the room, and the door closed. The second man stopped outside the door.

She turned to the preteen girl. “Hi, my name is Wilma. What’s your name?” Trace answered then Wilma continued. “We’ll go in here then make sure you have no bites or sores that need to be treated.”

They stepped inside, Wilma completed her inspection then helped the young girl right herself, and they stepped outside chatting like old friends. John and Cody stepped out of the room.

“Now, you folks are probably hungry. If you go to the dining room to the left of the stairs, Maria and a couple ladies will bring out refreshments in no time. Dinner won’t be for a couple hours and Jose, and I have some people to clear.”

John and the kids headed off to where they were directed while Wilma stuck her head in the exam room where Randy and Harry stood aside while Cassie inserted a needle into Liz’s arm.

“You two can’t do anything more. Randy, I think we need to get inspections done then figure out what we’re doing with all these folks. Will won’t be back until dark, so it’s left up to you.”

“I want that ultrasound you snagged at the vet office, too,” Cassie added.

“Right.” He looked to Harry. “Come on, Harry. We get folks checked out then settled in.”

The caravan headed for a metal structure that appeared in the middle of an open expanse between the edge of the forest and a distant camp. The road angled toward the structure, and a ravine that ran the full width of the canyon entrance became more evident.

“Well, that’s a hell of a ditch,” Harry commented. “It looks like someone went to a lot of trouble.”

John pointed toward the left canyon wall. “It looks like there was a natural arroyo part way across the entrance of the canyon. They used heavy equipment to extend the trench all the way across before laying out that razor wire on the far side. It’s good to see the old man used the natural terrain to fortify the compound. Now it looks like only one way across the arroyo, that metal bridge.”

Randy’s truck pulled up across from a guard shack and waved. A man appeared at the gateway, gave a wave, and headed for a nearby metal structure and raised bridge.

“It looks like there’s a metal bridge of some kind,” Harry commented.

With the angle of the approach to the rock-strewn landscape, Harry and John could watch the guard reach out and turn a huge metal wheel at the side of the metal support structure. As the wheel turned, chains at the top of a tall metal structure extended and a skeletal platform began to lower toward the abyss of the gap.

“Fucking drawbridge?” Johan asked.

“Looks like it,” Harry answered.

Randy headed down the length of the caravan. When he got to the camper, Harry opened the side window. “Follow the rest and park the vehicle in front of the big building. We have a procedure in place to ensure we’re not bringing infected into the compound. Just stay inside the vehicle, until we get to you.”

“No problem.” Harry nodded. “A few more minutes is not going to kill any of us.”

“I’ll be taking Liz in first. Her father would have my hide if I didn’t. Besides, she needs to see the doctor.”

“Agreed.” Harry hesitated then asked. “Is that bridge sturdy enough for this rig?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. May not take a loaded 18-wheeler, but it’s designed to carry a good size load. We already had the sides reinforced. Just take it slow and keep moving.”

“Now that’s promising.” John laughed.

A few minutes later the caravan pulled up in front of the Lodge. Harry got out from behind the wheel and walked toward the back of the camper. “You kids sit tight for now.”

“Yes, sir,” Cody answered.

When he got to the back bedroom, Harry used his knuckle against the door frame. Liz lay still. Harry whispered. “Lizzy? Lizzy, girl you’re home.”

She lay still. Harry walked to the side of the bed ready to jostle her awake, but when he saw her face, he stopped still. Liz’s face was flushed and glistened with moisture.

Harry reached down to lay his hand on her shoulder. He shook gently. “Lizzy, wake up now. You’re scaring me.” Liz lay still.

“John, holler at Randy. Liz is unconscious. We need to get her inside right now.”

Harry slid an arm under Liz’s shoulders and then behind her knees. He grunted and struggled to his feet. John rushed into the bedroom just as Harry turned to walk out. “She doesn’t weigh hardly nothing,” Harry complained as he sidestepped through the door and made his way to the side door. “We should have noticed how much weight she’s lost.”

“John followed behind Harry. “We have been a little busy if you’ll recall. You were gimpy, and I had a busted rib or two.”

“We let her take care of us like we were a pair of geriatrics.” Harry lamented as he stepped aside to let John open the side door. Harry stepped out with John, the kids, and dog close on his heels. The dog ran in circles, while the kids danced around excitedly.

Randy appeared. “What the hell are you doing? I told you….” He turned toward the kids. “Quiet!”

“She’s unconscious. You said you have a doctor.” Harry demanded. “She needs to see him now.”

Harry watched Randy slow as they crested a hill. “Guess this is the place. He mentioned stopping and picking up a few more people.”

“Looking like more than just a few. Four vehicles included two large extended-cab pickups with trailers, a suburban and SUV.” John shrugged.

Harry glanced up at Cody in the rearview mirror. “Has she moved?”

Cody moved his head from left to right. “No, sir. She’s still sleeping. My sister is sitting with her, sir.”

John turned to Harry. “I told you, I checked her. Looks like she’s sleeping.”

“She ain’t been right since the ambush. I’ve seen her favoring her side when she thought no one was looking. I hope her ol’ man’s place isn’t far.” Harry answered.

“Randy’s motioning the trucks to move out. Hold back. Looks like we’ve got four more vehicles coming with us.”

Harry pulled to the side to allow Pablo to pull up next to the camper. Harry gave a careless wave. “Picking up a few friends.”

Pablo laughed. “Sí. Y cabras, goats.”

John chuckled. “Makes sense. Goats can live on limited forage and can provide meat and milk. Smart.”

“What we’re attacked or someone tries to follow us?” Hugo asked.

Pablo shrugged. “Señor Randy say we shot them.”

Hugo shrugged. “Sí.”

Pablo nodded toward the last vehicle as it pulled onto the highway. “Señor?”

“Yeah. Got it.” Harry slid the camper into gear and pulled the camper out to follow the last vehicle.

Harry followed the trailer for another ten miles then saw Randy lead the caravan into a turn. When Harry got to the turnoff, he guided the camper across a cattle guard onto what looked like a fire road. It was a gravel trail that was little more than a cattle path. He glanced at the side mirror and saw Pablo pull across the ground gate and stopped.Hugo stepped out of the truck and stepped into the brush and pulled several dried branches from the roadside. He shoved several tree-looking pieces of the brush into the cattle guard. Once that was done, he used two more lengths of the brush to obscure the tracks of the vehicles that had just passed. He tied a rope on each limb and tied the end of the line to the back of the truck. He hurried back to the cab and the truck followed.

The caravan spent another two hours winding through scrub oaks, rock formations and a terrain that got steadily more rugged. Canyon walls gradually grew up from the rough landscape in the distance. Soon, the vehicles were swallowed by the wilds of Guadalupe National Park.

Harry growled as the camper bucked and rolled at yet another dry gully crossing. “Damned road sucks. I wonder how much longer.”

John pointed at a building in the distance.  It was not what he had expected. As they drew closer, he could see a large log structure on a distant hill. The lodge was a two story log structures with a metal roof of forest green. Additional buildings could be seen through the stands of trees. On either side of the trees in the distance could be seen the towering faces of the canyon.

“So this is it. Pine Springs.” John whispered.

“I’m clueless. The only one I’ve even talked to has been the preacher. I was hoping to get a few of the girls into separate quarters. It’s one thing to have a dorm for kids…but all the adults in the Rec Center with them, is a pain in the ass. No one is getting any sleep between the snoring, kids giggling, and going to the bathroom all night long, it’s fucking circus. Then add all the bitching…shit.”

“Is there more units at the camp?” Matt asked.

“At least three. They’re not in the best shape but movable. Maybe with a little cleaning and a new mattress or two, they’ll be serviceable. We can keep looking for campers if we head back toward one of the bigger towns.”

“Hell no! We make due. No one’s heading into that cluster-fuck.” Matt growled.

“What if we get a bunch of tarps from that home improvement store or look for some place with tents?” Larry suggested.

“Tent’s might work if we can find a sporting goods store or a rental store. They have those big white ones like they use for weddings.” Matt offered. “Get a couple portable air conditioners and generators, maybe. But then we’re back to making way to much noise.”

“I’ll talk to the team and see if anyone knows of a place that might have supplies we can use to expand our living space.”

“Meanwhile, let’s go over to Billings and put half those women in the empty camper. It’s stupid for all those women to be in one camper. The damned waste tank will be overflowing by morning.”

Matt and Larry walked across the parking lot to the furthest pair of campers. They got to the preacher’s trailer and tapped on the door with the end of a flashlight.

“Billings? We need to talk.” Matt called out. He could hear a harried discussion then the door opened a couple inches.

“What do you want?” The man in coveralls growled.

“I want to talk to Billings,” Matt announced. “Get him out here, or I’m coming in.”

“He’s busy.” The man retorted.

Matt sighed. “You were starving, and now you have a full belly. Either Billings gets out here, or you can load up that fucking bus in the morning and drive on outta here.”

The door slammed, and a frantic conversation took place behind it, then it reopened, and Billings appeared. It was evident he had been in bed. When Billings opened the door to speak Matt caught a glimpse of a young girl in a white shift staring at him. Her hair was a tangled nest while red marks marred her young face. Her eyes were red and puffy.

Matt turned and whispered to Larry. “Assemble the men and make sure they’re armed. Tell Jasper and Joan to get the kids in the Rec Center.” He whispered.

Billings watched as half a dozen uniforms in addition to Larry lined up behind Matt. “What is the meaning of this?” He puffed up his chest and did his best to look authoritative.

“Get out here. All of you. And leave your fucking guns inside.” Matt ordered as he pulled his handgun. Larry and the men behind him raised their weapons.

Billings started to close the door, but Matt slid the Mag Light into the opening. “What do you want? You don’t have the right to order….”

Matt grabbed the door and jerked it open with Billings still clinging to the barrier. He stumbled outside. Matt caught him and pushed him to the ground.  With a nod to Larry, he was searched, and then pushed to his knees.

The remaining men stared at the scene, unsure what to do. Matt reached into the camper and pulled the rifle from the man wearing coveralls. Matt raised his handgun at the men. The little girl’s eyes were big as saucers.

“You men get out here! Don’t make me shoot you,” Matt ordered. “I’ve had a long fucking day, and you’re pissing me off.”

Larry and the soldiers took control of each man as he came outside. Matt walked inside the camper while the remaining men were each searched then forced to their knees next to Billings with zip-ties on their hands.

Matt nodded at the second camper and ordered. “Everyone out of there, too.” He walked into the men’s camper where the child still stood trembling. He sat down at the table while the girl stood staring at him. The child was terrified.

“My name is Matt. You don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m here to help you. Can you tell me your name and how old you are?”

“Mary.” She answered as tears slid down her cheeks. “I’m twelve.”

“Is your father one of those men?” He asked.

She moved her head from left to right then answered. “My daddy’s dead. I don’t have no family.”

Matt was confused. “Your mother is not one of those women?”

Mary squared her shoulders. “No! My family’s dead. Some sick people came into the camp. Daddy locked me in the camper, then he and mama and two other men tried to kill them, but they got hurt.”

“What about the preacher and his men?”

“They didn’t come out to fight them.”

“When it was over, they were covered in blood, and the preacher said they would get sick, so the men shot ‘em all. Just like that, they shot them.”

“Did the other men have families?” Matt asked.

“Yes. There was a lot of yelling and screaming. They killed Becky’s mom when she pointed a gun at the preacher. The other man’s wife and two daughters are here. Becky’s daughter is my age. They came got me and said I belonged to them now.”

Matt struggled to control the rage that was building. He wanted to kill the bastard. After taking several deep breaths to steady his voice, he asked. “Did he hurt you?”

“Yes.” Mary turned toward the door and whispered. “He said he was saving me.”

Matt jumped to his feet with his fists clinched. When he saw Mary shrink away, he realized her fright, and he sat back down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’m just so angry right now.”

“Can I shoot him? He did it to my friend, too.” Mary asked.

Doc opened the door and saw the large black man sitting on the top step with a worried look distorting his face.

“Well.” Doc turned back to Amanda. “It seems we have a changing of the guard, young lady. Jake is outside, and the Lieutenant has disappeared.

Amanda smiled at Jake from the bed and held out her hand. “He’s my coach.” She announced.

Jake’s face bloomed with surprise and joy. “Me? Are you sure?” He rose and stepped inside the bedroom to kneel at the side of the bed. “I…I….” He stuttered.

Despite the grip of another contraction she reached out her hand and whispered. “I couldn’t think of a better person. You know I love you.”

Jake grinned. “Really? Really?” He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. “I was…I just couldn’t. Really?”

Amanda laughed. “It’s alright. Now, do what you do.”

She turned to her side, and Jake immediately began to massage the small of her back. Amanda relaxed and focused on her breathing. When the contraction eased, Doc cleared his throat. “Well, it’ll be a while, and I think you two have things handled for now. Helen and I will be downstairs for a few minutes. Someone mentioned coffee?”  They disappeared from the room.

Jake sat back, and Amanda turned toward him with a questioning look on her face.  He whispered. “I know you loved your husband and I’m sorry he didn’t make it. I know I can’t take his place, but I love you and want to be this baby’s daddy.”

“I love you, too.” She smiled. “Now let’s get this baby born.”

Jake grinned back until he saw her face melt into a grimace. “Right.” He grinned. “I’m gonna be a daddy.”

Doc and Helen came down the stairs whispering and chuckling. They appeared at the kitchen door, and Doc asked. “Did I smell coffee?” He asked as he walked into the kitchen where Matt, Larry, and the girls now sat.

“We’re having a baby now?” Amy asked.

“We sure are, little one.” Doc settled at the table, and Helen poured two cups of coffee, crossed to the table and settled on a chair.

Doc took a sip of coffee then spoke. “Well, Matt, quite the merry little band you have here. I take it, the illustrious Reverend Jacob Billings is a new arrival.”

Matt bounced Clair as she pulled at his collar giggling. “It does seem to be getting a little out of control. And yeah, we got Larry to thank for Billings.” He frowned.

Larry looked up from the cup of coffee in his hands. “I think I should have turned around and left the bastard there. But they were starving. They had those little girls.” His voice trailed off.

“Who exactly did they have?” Matt asked.

Larry shrugged. “Five men plus Billings, two are young men, maybe early twenties. There’s eight women, four middle age, four real young and then three little girls, preteen I’d say.”

“No little boys?” Helen commented. “That’s strange, and all the women are dress in long dresses. They remind me of those Amish or Mennonite folks except the look on the younger women’s faces.” Her voice trailed off.

Larry continued. “The preacher insisted all the women stay in the big camper and the men are in the smaller one next to it. They turned the campers, so the doors face each other. Something weird about them, for sure.”

Doc stood up and nodded toward Helen. “You gentlemen seem to have things to discuss, and we have a baby to deliver.” The old couple ascended the stairs without more comment.

“Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” Matt chuckled and turned to Amy. “Time for you two to get back in bed. One of us will be in to tuck you in in a little bit.”

Amy yawned. “Yes, sir. I’ll fix Claire’s bottle then we’ll go.”

Matt smiled and nodded. “Thanks, sweety.”

He let Claire’s hand slide across his face to his lips. He caught her fingertips between his lips and blew out. The baby giggled as she collapsed against him and hugged his neck.

“Da Da.” She giggled. She pulled at his hair, then sat up and grinned.

Amy appeared and reached out for her sister. “Good night, Mr. Matt and Mr. Larry. Tell Mr. Jake good night for us, please.” She disappeared down the dimly lit hall without a backward glance. The small lantern flicked on and a hint of light spilled from the back bedroom.

“Da da?” Larry grinned.

“Drop it,” Matt growled. “Now, about the preacher.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, but I do know, all those women and girls can’t stay in a one-bedroom camper.”

“What?” Matt jumped to his feet. “How many units did you bring back?”

“Six,” Larry answered.

“I put Doc and Helen and the girls in one, Red and Theresa with a couple kids in another, then the rest of their group in the third. We can go back for two more units tomorrow.”

Matt ran his hand through his hair. “Aren’t any of them families? What in the hell is going on with them?”

Brian pulled his legs from the window ledge and sat upright.  He got to his feet and turned to study the four sleepers now only shadows in the gloom. He turned back to Billy’s flushed face visible in the moonlight through the windows.

“What is it? Is it midnight?” He whispered.

Billy pointed through the window. “No! There! I can see lights.”

Brian wiped his eyes with the back his hand and studied the dark shadows in the distance. He got to his feet, squinted and leaned closer to the glass. After a full minute, he was ready to give Billy hell for waking him when he saw a flash of light. Suddenly there were three more flashes in quick secession.

“Gunfire?” Billy asked.

“You got the keys to the truck?” Brian demanded. “Stay here and keep watch until morning. If I don’t make it back, you know where to go.”

Billy handed Brian keys. “The truck has a full tank. Are you sure you should go?”

“I don’t want someone or something to sneak up on us. Besides, there might be someone we can help.” Billy looked unsure, and Brian continued. “You see any other vehicle than this truck headed this way, you load up and head out the back. Drive like hell. I’ll catch up.”

“Got it,” Billy answered. “I’ll be watching. You want me to get the others up?”

“I’ll take Leon with me but let the other’s sleep for now.” Brian walked to Leon and gave him a shake. Leon jerked away grabbing for a big knife at his side. “Easy, big guy.”

When Leon realized it was Brian, he flopped back against the pile of T-shirts. “Boss, you scared the shit outta me.”

Brian shrugged. “Come on. We have to check out something.”

Leon stumbled to his feet and stepped into his boots. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Brian answered.

Brian and Leon grabbed a couple go-bags and climbed in the old truck.

The eighty-nine Ford 150. It had original red and white paint and interior though a little worn was in good condition. When Juan had examined the motor, it was evident it had been well cared for. Brian had debated because the standard tires had been replaced with wide, deep tread, off-road versions. The truck would be top-heavy, but at least the engine and muffler hadn’t been modified.

Just as Leon pulled the passenger door closed, Brian slammed the big engine into gear. He stomped on the gas heading for the parking lot entrance.

“Lights!” Leon commented as he clung to the dash, “We need lights!”

“No, we’re going in stealth. I had Juan take out all the light bulbs in the breaks.” Brian answered. “Only headlights left.”

“Where are we going?” Leon asked.

“There.” Brian pointed to two flashes of light. “I want to know who’s doing all the shooting.” The truck turned onto the narrow blacktop and headed toward the gunfire in the distance. Leon rolled down the window and stuck his head out. “I can hear it. Some of it sounds like automatic weapons. Not a .22 for sure.” Leon called over his shoulder.

Brian turned the steering wheel, and the truck left the highway for a narrow side road heading toward the small war in progress. The truck bounced over the rough road, and half a mile from the station could hear the roar of several big engines as heavier gunfire echoed in the distance.

“What are we gonna to do?” Leon settled on the seat and picked up a military rifle with the muzzle pointed out the window.

“We’re stopping in that grove of trees and check out what’s going on.” Brian drove another three minutes while the gunfire got louder and more sporadic. He pulled off the road and backed into a corpse of scrubby trees. He turned off the engine.

Both men jumped from the truck.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Leon asked.

“Follow me, but not too close. If anything happens, head back and get the hell outta here. You and Billy load everyone up and move out.”

Brian jogged to the side of the road with Leon following ten feet behind. The two men hurried between dark shadows until they neared the crest of the hill. Brian took a knee and pulled a small pair of binoculars from his vest and studied the scene below. Leon moved closer and waited in the dark shadows of the overhanging trees alongside the road.

Below in the middle of a small clearing sat half a dozen vehicles. Two heavy duty pickups blocked the road in front of a minivan and truck. The second pair of trucks had blocked their retreat. The van and truck driver had tried to evade the attacker by driving into the trees on the side of the road and gotten trapped by a small stand of trees. They had made their last stand, and it had not gone well.

Four bodies lay on the pavement where they had been drug from the shadows of the trees. A young woman and teen girl had been forced to their knees in the middle of the road. A man in front of them was laughing and poking at the older woman. Each time he reached for the teen the woman slapped the man’s hand and pulled the girl closer. Even at a distance, Brian could hear sobs of terror from both.

Brian tore his eyes from the women and examined the men dressed in camouflage. After a barked order from the man harassing the women, the dozen or so people milling around each seemed to find purpose. Trucks were pulled off the road, supplies were removed from one of the pickups, and a fire was built on the side of the road. One of the men put a coffee pot over the small fire.

Two men began scavenging supplies from dead bodies. They drove a knife into the eye of each body before dragging them away from the camp. Three people went to the disabled vehicles and pulled supplies and personal items from inside each. Suddenly there was a yelp of excitement.

One of the men reappeared from the minivan with a quart bottle in hand. He passed the black-labeled bottle to one of the offenders spreading out a sleeping bag. The man took a long draw on the amber liquid then gave it to another person. Within minutes several of the men were passing the bottle back and forth. Some stopped at one drink and gathered bedrolls and laid down near the fire.

A man gave some gruff orders and the group as a whole drifted to the side of the road where they quickly built a fire and began heating cans of food and a coffee pot.

Brian, Billy, Leon, and Juan walked back into the fueling station gift shop. Margo and Paula had pushed racks and remnants of merchandises into a pile at the back of the store while sorting through the remains of useable supplies. Most of what remained was souvenirs for the traveler; hats, t-shirts, and plethora of knickknacks including a large velvet painting of Elvis that had been leaned against a wall on top of one of the piles as if in a place of honor.

Juan walked to the last standing rack with half a dozen ball caps still clinging to the hooks and pulled one from the stand. He pulled the dirty cap from his head and tossed it to the floor before retrieving a new one and settling it on his skull. He sniffed at his sweat-soaked armpit then moved to a pile of shirts and found a sand colored camouflage pattern T-shirt and headed toward the bathroom. “Gonna get cleaned up.”

Leon followed suit. He sifted through the pile and laid out three or four shirts and began checking sizes.

Margo looked up from a small stack of supplies she was sorting through. “Not a lot left in the larger sizes. Most of the food stores we found were in the office where the manager died.”

Paula appeared from the back office holding up a bottle of Jack Daniel and box of candy bars. “This is the last of it.”

“I’ll take that.” Juan appeared from the bathroom and reached out for the bottle.

Brian pulled Juan’s arm back. “Not so fast. Better keep it for medicinal purposes.”

“It would be. I haven’t had a drink since the bar back in San Antonio.” Juan answered.

“But we’re not wasting it.”

“Señor Brian, you are a hard man,” Juan answered as he walked back toward the front of the store.

Brian laughed. “Everyone, get cleaned up and let’s get something to eat before it’s too dark to see what we’re doing. Between the windows and this place sitting on a hill, the light will be visible for miles. So we will be sitting in the dark.”

After a meal of shortbread cookies, canned vegetables, and Raman noodles the group settled down for the evening. Juan stood at the front door watching the parking lot and black ribbon of asphalt beyond. The rest of the group spread out a few shirts and blankets to make beds. Leon lay on his side using an armful of T-shirts as a pillow. Brian had pulled the office chair from the back room. He leaned back in the chair with his feet propped up on the windowsill.

“It doesn’t seem as dark now,” Margo commented to no one in particular.

“Full moon.” Brain answered before taking a sip of the steaming coffee.

He smiled at the thought of the six bags of coffee they had found in a cabinet. Even if they had to throw a handful in a pot of water, they had coffee for the foreseeable future. He wished there was a way to get the big natural gas tank to his father-in-law’s place. Natural gas would be at a premium soon enough.

Brian folded his arms across his chest and let his chin fall to his chest and mumbled. “Wake me at midnight.” He felt himself drift away to the sound of Leon snoring and Margo sniffling.

“Sir? Sir?” Billy shook Brian’s shoulder. “You need to see this.”