Posts Tagged ‘Torn Apart’

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.

“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.”

“Yes, accident,” She said firmly. “Time to isolate the sick, no matter who they are. If someone fails to get up and you don’t get a vocal response, take precautions. That’s all we’re asking. The man involved in this incident had a snake bit. He didn’t tell anyone, and neither did his wife. He died and attacked his family.”

“You mean that could happen to any of us?” One of the Goodman women asked.

Will answered. “As terrible as that sounds, yes. It’s important to take care of each other, so come to the clinic, so illnesses and injured are treated.”

Liz realized why her bedroom door had been closed when anyone left and why they always knocked and waited for her to respond before entering. She covered her bulging middle. What would happen to her baby? Was she sick because she was pregnant and was it because of the virus? With a wave of dizziness, Liz slipped into a chair at the side of the room. After a couple deep breaths, she calmed and looked around the room. She realized she didn’t know most of the people. There were two distinct groups. Each crowd clustered together acting more than a little suspicious of the other. She recognized Pablo, Miguel and their extended family and gave the women a quick nod and smile of recognition. Elaina and her mother, Maria whispered at Pablo and Miguel. Both men turned toward Liz and smiled. They turned back to the assembly, their faces still looked.

The goat rancher, dressed in overalls, sat next to a graying woman with the two younger men, and women approximately that appeared to be the younger generation. Two teenagers sat on the other side of the gray-haired lady. Randy stood next to Liz’s father. Not far from him, sat John and Harry.

Will raised his hands to quiet the assembly then continued. “Now that we’ve settled that, let’s work on setting some priorities. I realize we still don’t have enough folks to do everything we need to get done yet, but for now, we’ll do the best we can. Safety and becoming self-sufficient is the two most important tasks at hand. Planting the new gardens need to be done by the end of the week to take advantage of the remaining growing season. At the same time, we need to finish fencing the goat pen back at the Goodman cabins.”

Mr. Goodman stood up. “Me and mine can work on it. I ‘magine two days and we’ll be finished. The wife and girls are milking twice a day. We’ll keep what we need and bring the rest up here. You can pass it along with who you want. I got a spot picked out to put in our own garden…”

Will interrupted. “Sam, this is a community effort, I think you seem to be missing that point, here. You and I obviously need to discuss individual efforts, but for now, let’s move on.” He turned to Randy and nodded.

Randy began. “We still have to try to gather livestock and supplies while we can. We’re not the only people trying to create a secure stronghold to live. As time goes along, more and more infected will leave the cities and make it more dangerous out there. As people get more desperate out there, some groups will be raiding others to survive.”

“What makes you think the government won’t get this under control. Early on, there were reports of the CDC working on a cure.” Glenn Goodman interrupted.

“Have you heard something I don’t know about? We’ve had a couple people monitoring communication channels and the Internet. Unless you know some other means of communications, we don’t.” Will asked.

“Well….” Glenn mumbled.

Liz descended the stairs to the great room to a cacophony of voices from the dining room. Some voices were raised and sounded angry. She made her way to the front desk to hear voices of a meeting taking place in the dining room. From the size of the gathering, she imagined all the adults in the canyon compound were present. Liz leaned against the check-in desk to catch her breath. She grimaced at her own weakness but refused to let it deter her. Liz made her way to the door and stopped.

Will Edmonds voice rose above the din. “Everyone has to contribute, and that’s the bottom line. Your herd of goats produces milk, and that means we all benefit from it. But that can’t be your only contribution. At some point, the goats will need to become part of the food supply chain in a more meaningful way.”

An unfamiliar voice countered. “When we agreed to come, we didn’t know it was going to mean moving into a socialist state. You can’t just take our livestock to feed a bunch of Mexicans.”

“Young man, you have been given a safe haven, homes for your family, your brother’s family, your parents, and younger siblings. Did you expect to show up and contribute nothing?”

“Our livestock is not community property.” The young man protested.

“Shut up, Glenn!” A gravelly voice interrupted. “Son, you’re making an ass outta yourself.” After a brief grumble, the older man continued. “What you have outlined sounds reasonable as long as the herd size maintains numbers for healthy breeding stock. We’re grateful for the offer of a safe place to raise our families. As for the suggestion concerning closing all bedroom doors at night, I can see the wisdom in such an action.”

Cassie added. “From what we’ve found on the Internet we know the virus has mutated since the initial attack and become an airborne pollutant that spread far beyond the initial attacks. There are now reports of people dying of natural causes and reanimating well away from the initial attacks. Considering that, if we each follow this simple rule, we can stop accidents like we had a few days ago.”

“Accident? You call that an accident?” Another voice protested. “Three people died.”

“Hey, about time you woke up.” Harry chided Liz as he rushed toward the bed with Cody and Emma close on his heels.

“Miss Lizzy, we’ve been waiting for you to wake up. We got a house to live in. It has running water and a toilet and everything.” Emma announced.

Liz looked at her father.

“The kids wanted to stay with Harry and John. We put them in the cabin south of the barn. It’s the one with two bedrooms downstairs. We put twin beds in the loft.” Will added.

Liz looked at Harry and John. Both men were cleaner than she had ever seen them. Harry had trimmed his beard but still wore a do-rag on his head with gray hair neatly bound with a band at the nape of his neck. John was clean shaven and looked relaxed for the first time since she had met him.

“I got a full belly.” Cod patted her rounded middle then asked in all seriousness, “Are you getting better?”

“I can see that.” Liz smiled at the brother and sister. “I’m doing the best I can. Are you two doing alright now?”

“We’re good.” Answered Cody with a hesitant smile. “We have lights at the house. We get to eat a lot.”

“They got horses. Did you know they have horses?” Emma said excitedly.

“No.” Liz smiled. “I guess that is a new addition.” She looked to Will.

“Lots of things have changed.” Will chuckled.

Cassie interrupted. “All right. Everyone move along. My patient needs her rest.”

When the room cleared out, Cassie started to walk away, but Liz called her name. “A minute, please.”

Cassie turned. “Sure.” She forced a smile.

“Now, I want to know what you’re trying not to tell me.”

Cassie squared her shoulders. “Best case scenario is appendicitis; worse case, a tubal pregnancy.” She whispered. “Either way, I’m not a surgeon.”

“But you have medical training.”

“Sure, I can perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat the common cold, set bones, and monitor patients, but that’s a far cry from being qualified for doing surgeries,” Cassie protested.

Liz sighed, “I guess you’re continuing education will have a steep learning curve.”

“Try to rest. The antibiotics you’re receiving seems to be resolving the current issue. Let’s pray it’s not something that needs surgery.” Cassie closed the door to the hall then added. “Someone will be in the next room. Just ring the bell if you need something.” She stepped into the next room and came back with a cup. “If you keep the ice chips down, I’ll bring some clear broth in an hour or so.”

Liz spent another day in the ward then talked Cassie into removing the IV and letting her move to her two-room suite on the second floor. The main room included a queen-sized bed and a small sitting room. The second room was once used by the Amy and Claire. It still held Claire’s baby bed and two twin beds and small chest f toys. When she saw Liz look longingly at the reminder of her lost children, Cassie closed the door to the second room.

The terrible abdominal pain had disappeared, and everyone including Liz crossed their fingers and prayed the antibiotics had resolved the problem. She spent two days staring at the wall, then on the third day she got up bright and early and put on clothes that she had left at the Lodge. She cinched the belt at her waist and decided it was enough to keep her pants up. She pulled on a t-shirt that had belonged to Brian. They had always been an oversized, but now they really seemed big. She walked out of the bedroom and crossed the balcony to the curving stairs where she met Cassie.

“Well, I guess this means you’re feeling better,” Cassie said.

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?”

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.