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Fallen Into Darkness

Fallen Into Darkness


    After much of humanity is destroyed in a massive collision, fellow survivors manage to band together and fight for survival. How will these survivors react when they discover society has been drug down into the dark ages and is full of chaos and disorder? Will the few that remain return humanity to what was once greatness? Fallen into Darkness is a harrowing tale of survival, struggle, and morality in a post-apocalyptic world.


Chapter One

    It was early on a Monday morning and Robert Worth had just finished a five-mile run under the big sky of Helena, Montana. It was still dark, just before sunrise, when he began his jog, and that gave him a chance to admire the beautiful stars in the clear dawn sky. The sun had just begun to break the horizon, fading the stars slowly away, as he finished his morning run. He truly enjoyed running early in Montana, especially the way the air smelled. It was clean, fresh, country air.
    Cooling down from his run, he stepped off the sidewalk and onto the far end of his hotel’s parking lot, slowly walking to the main entrance as he caught his breath. The hotel was his temporary home for two weeks while he was in town on business. He stopped, turned his back to the hotel, and with his hands on his hips, stood quietly and let the cool breeze remove the heat under his sweat-soaked clothes. It was nearly summer, but the air was crisp on his skin.
    The rising sun was just breaking the eastern horizon, its halo slowly cresting the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains. Tilting his head toward the sky, he closed his eyes and absorbed the peacefulness of the silent morning. Suddenly, with his eyes still closed, he sensed a flash of colored light rising from the northern horizon. He opened his eyes to a spectacular assortment of meandering colored lights, curling free from the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains and arcing up across the sky, intermingling and dancing with an intense brightness. Fluorescent hues extended from the northern to the southern horizon in an instant. The celestial lights were so bright that as he turned to the south, he noticed that his body cast a faint shadow on the hotel’s parking lot. The tortuous lights in the sky were approaching a frenzy of brightness and color. He mumbled under his breath at how amazing this was, and, looking for his cell phone, he patted the pockets of his sweatpants to find it and record a video of the impromptu light show. Finding the outline of his phone in his right pocket, he swiftly retrieved the device and lifted it toward the sky to capture the luminous ballet unfolding above.
    Robert repeatedly tried to turn the device on and noticed that the cell phone maintained a blank screen. He thought that this was strange because he could remember turning it on earlier to access the clock to time his run. He fumbled with the power button several more times before acquiescing to the dead phone. He dropped it back into his pocket and continued to stare above, slowly turning in a circle to fully capture the image of the colored lights that had painted the early morning sky.
    Suddenly, he noticed a loud humming sound. He turned to see sparks violently flying from a transformer suspended on an electric utility pole not more than a block away. Then, just as suddenly, the transformer exploded into a ball of fire. The explosion made him flinch and he turned reflexively to cover his face. For a brief moment, the flash of light from the explosion cast shadows across the parking lot, then an arc of sparks was all that remained where the transformer was attached. The electrical transmission lines were on the ground, arching and writhing like venomous snakes striking at their prey.
    He cautiously lowered his hands and looked around again. Gradually the intensity of the aurora began to diminish. As the glow in the sky slowly faded away, he looked to see if anyone else was witnessing this. Across the parking lot was a road parallel with the hotel. He saw a car, with the driver’s side door and hood open, stopped on the road. A man wearing dark coveralls and a baseball cap turned backwards was bent over the front of the car, cursing into the engine bay. Turning back to the hotel’s main entrance, Robert noticed that all the exterior lights were off and the hotel’s automatic sliding glass front doors were in the open position. Walking toward the hotel’s entrance, he could see that inside the lobby was dark, too. As he stepped into the lobby, he could just barely make out the night clerk standing at the front desk. It was the same clerk that had greeted him on his return from his other early morning runs and Robert felt embarrassed that he still did not know the young man’s name.
    “Good morning,” the clerk said, as he passed a cheap plastic flashlight from one hand to another. “Sorry, lights are out. Hopefully, they’ll come on soon. You better get your coffee while it’s still hot.”
    As the clerk spoke, he gestured, using the flashlight to point at the complimentary breakfast area. There were a few people fumbling around next to the breakfast buffet, trying to do their best with no electric lights. Robert stepped into the dining area and retrieved the cell phone from his sweatpants again. After sitting down, he tried turning it on once more, this time to use the glowing screen as a flashlight. His frustration grew each time he pressed the power button. He knew it was fully charged and wondered why the phone, being less than a month old, would have failed this soon. Robert glanced up just as Kyle Brown stepped up next to him at the small table.
    “Mine threw craps, too,” Kyle commented. Kyle, like Robert, was an information technology consultant, and they were traveling together for the same job. They had traveled to Helena with two other coworkers, Henry and Richard.
    Robert and Kyle did not fit the nerdy computer geek stereotype. Robert was physically fit with a rugged physique. He had just turned forty and was older than Kyle, who had recently graduated from a university in the Midwest. Although Kyle was a jogger, routinely exercised, and was very physically fit, he chose not to run with Robert. He never could maintain Robert’s fast pace. Henry was older and nearing retirement. The joke around the office was that Henry’s first job was programming an abacus. Richard and Henry fit nicely into the nerdy stereotype. They never exercised, worshipped cable television, and loved to eat junk food.
    “Your phone isn’t working either?” asked Robert.
    Kyle shook his head, adding, “I tried to turn on my laptop to check my email, and… nothing.”
    “No email?” Robert asked.
    “No computer. It’s dead,” replied Kyle.
    Robert looked down at his cell phone again and tried to think of an explanation why Kyle’s phone and laptop would have died, too. “I bet it was a power surge. Your phone and computer were plugged into an outlet during the night and I bet there was a power surge.” Robert was anxiously tapping his phone on the table. “They got fried. That explains the blackout. Something must be wrong at a power station nearby.”
    “Nope, my laptop and phone weren’t plugged in,” Kyle replied, shaking his head in frustration.
    The orange glow of the morning sun came through the dusty windows of the hotel’s breakfast area. The glare from the sunrise reflected off the wall clock’s glass cover, capturing Robert’s attention. He had just realized the clock’s hands had not moved since he sat down. Baffled, he stared at the clock on the wall and could not believe the incredible coincidence.
    “Kyle, I’m going back to my room. You can use my laptop to get your email. Sit tight, I’ll be back in a flash.”
    Robert stood up and briskly went into the hallway and toward his door. He slid his keycard to disengage the electric lock to his room, but got no response. He tried swiping the card slow, fast, upward, and finally downward through the slot. It would not work. Frustrated, he mumbled to himself, “Shit… happy Monday.”
    Feeling defeated, Robert slowly returned to the hotel’s breakfast room that he left just moments earlier. Kyle, eating a bowl of cold cereal, had moved to a table closer to the large picture windows that were now letting in the first few rays of morning sunlight.
    Robert held up his hotel door’s keycard and said, “Guess what? The electric lock doesn’t work.”
    Kyle looked at his own keycard and asked, “Then how do you get into your room?”
    “I’m going to find out,” Robert said, as he turned to go to the front desk.
    There were several people standing by the desk, all with the same complaint. They had closed their room doors and now, since the keycards did not work, they could not get back in. The clerk looked flustered, confused, and fatigued. He was doing the best he could under the circumstances.
    “I’m sorry, everyone,” explained the clerk, “Maintenance should be here by now. My phones are down and I can’t get hold of anyone.”
    Robert knew the clerk just had begun working at the hotel recently and only worked the night shift. The young fellow probably could not help him, but he felt obligated to interject himself into the conversation. He stepped up to the desk and held his keycard up for the clerk to see. “Isn’t there a real key to use in the door in this type of situation?”
    “Yeah, but I don’t have the tools to take the faceplate off the door lock to access the key hole. The maintenance staff has that and they know how to do it. I’m really sorry, the hotel manager, maintenance, and housekeeping should have been here by now. This is totally weird—”
    The clerk stopped speaking as he recognized the tall man with the backward baseball cap and coveralls coming through the front lobby. It was Lee, the hotel’s maintenance man, the same man Robert had seen on the road with the stalled car. Robert stepped back from the desk because it was obvious the clerk needed to speak with Lee.
    Lee stopped at the front desk. Looking frustrated, he asked, “Where’s the manager?”
    “I don’t know. Should’ve been here by now,” the clerk replied, as he shrugged his shoulders.
    Lee pointed out the hotel’s open front doors and said, “My car is dead. I tried to call for a tow, but my cell phone is dead, too.” Lee continued to point in the direction of his stalled car. “It’s on the side of the road for now and I can’t even turn on the flashers.” Lee threw his hands into the air to punctuate his frustration.
    “Sorry about that, but it’s bad in here, too.” The night clerk shrugged his shoulders once more and said, “Here’s the situation. The door locks have failed for all of the people standing here. We need to get a key to each room.”
    Feeling overwhelmed with the request, Lee took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and rolled his eyes. As he took off the baseball cap and stuffed it into the front pocket of his coveralls, he said to the clerk, “I’ll get the toolbox and remove the faceplates. Get the keys ready.” Just as Lee started walking away, he stopped, turned around, and asked, “Did anybody see the light show outside?”
    Robert responded, “Northern lights?”
    Swiftly, Lee turned and walked toward the maintenance room, speaking over his shoulder. “That’s my guess. It was better than anything I saw when I was stationed in Alaska.” Lee raised his hand and extended one finger upward. “Give me a minute, I’ll be right back.”
    Robert went back to the table where Kyle was sitting, and discovered that Richard was seated there, too. Robert sat down and gave them both an update on the door locks. Richard had a very different personality from Robert and Kyle. He was not known as a pleasant person, and the only reason they tolerated him was the simple fact that they had to work together. Richard was overweight, smoked, drank too much alcohol, and ate plenty of junk food. He was forty, like Robert, but anyone would guess he was at least sixty. He did not look healthy, with his yellowed teeth and bloodshot eyes. Richard sat at the table nervously fondling a pack of cigarettes and eating a sugar doughnut.
    “There was a bright light coming in through the window and it woke my ass up,” Richard mumbled, speaking with his mouth full of sugar doughnut, then sipping the cold coffee. “I thought it was the sunrise. My alarm didn’t go off, I have no power in my room, my laptop is down, the phone in the room doesn’t work, and my cell phone won’t work, either.”
    “Join the club,” Kyle responded, trying not to show his irritation. Richard smelled like an ashtray and was spitting doughnut crumbs as he spoke.
    Leaning back in his chair to distance himself from Richard, Robert said, “I haven’t been back in my room yet, but I can’t wait to find out if my laptop is down, too.”
    As the three men sat talking at their table, huddled around their dead cell phones, nobody noticed the short stocky man that had been standing close enough to hear their conversation. His head was shaved and he was wearing military camouflage. The insignia indicated that he was in the Air Force. The man was standing with his back to them and looking out the large windows. He turned to look at Robert, and spoke.
    “I bet your laptop is fried along with everything else electronic in your room.”
    Robert delayed his response. He was not sure if the stranger was talking to him. He quickly looked around and noticed no one else close by that the man could have been talking to. “Really? Why do you say that?” Robert asked, looking at the name and rank displayed on the stranger’s shirt. His rank was colonel and his shirt was unbuttoned and not tucked into his camouflaged pants. This was uncharacteristic of Robert’s mental stereotype of military personnel.
    “I’m Colonel Sheppherd.” The colonel extended his hand to greet Robert, and Robert met his hand halfway. “Did anyone here see those lights in the sky? The aurora borealis?” the colonel asked, making eye contact with all three of the seated men.
    “Yeah, I was outside jogging,” said Robert.
    “After that, didn’t you notice electronic devices aren’t working and there’s no power?”
    Robert, Kyle, and Richard looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.
    The colonel said, “It was an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, that fried electronic devices and took the power grid down.” Colonel Sheppherd pointed to the dead cell phones on the table. “Like your phones.” Then he pointed toward the main lobby doors. “Outside, there was a transformer that blew apart. The EMP induced a current on the power lines and it exploded. Take a walk around. You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
    As the colonel was speaking, the hotel clerk stepped around the corner and shined a flashlight from the lobby, pointing the beam of light at Robert. “Let me know when you’re ready to have your door key,” said the clerk.
    Robert gave him the okay sign and a quick wave.
    Richard turned to the colonel and said, “Okay, dumb shit; I just saw a flashlight that was obviously still working.” Richard was obnoxiously shaking his head in disagreement. “You keep talking about your alien invasion. I need a smoke.”
    Richard stood up and grabbed two more sugar doughnuts from the counter. He noticed a roll of aluminum foil that had been used to wrap biscuits, still cold from the dead refrigerator. Richard pulled out a two-foot length of the foil and went back to the table. He put the foil sheet on the table in front of the colonel and said, “If you make a hat out of this, the aliens can’t read your mind.” Richard turned and walked away, holding a cigarette in one hand and two doughnuts in the other.
    Ignoring the comment, Colonel Sheppherd folded the foil into a plane and tossed it at Richard’s back. By the time the foil plane hit Richard, he had stuffed both doughnuts into his mouth.
    “As you can see, Richard is an ass,” Kyle said.
    The colonel nodded his head and said, “Gentlemen, I’m not joking. I saw the aurora from my window this morning, and then I went to have a walk around. It really happened. Anything electric, with a computer chip, is ruined. That flashlight you just saw doesn’t have a computer chip.” He paused to take a sip of the cold coffee. “Most cars, jet planes, satellites, the trucks that bring food to the grocery store, you name it, anything that supports our modern way of life is now history.” He took another sip of cold black coffee and wondered if that was the last coffee he would ever drink. “Take my advice and bug out now. Get home to your families. When people realize there is no more food showing up at the grocery store and the cities can’t pump clean water into the water towers, the population is going to panic. That is when, shall we say, the shit hits the fan. I give it three days to total chaos.”
    Kyle asked, “What makes you so sure?”
    “I was at a military conference about a year ago. We were there to specifically discuss the effects of an EMP. From a military perspective, a nuclear device can trigger an EMP. One good nuclear weapon high above the center of the United States would send us back to the stone age.” He angrily tossed his empty coffee cup into a large trashcan by the wall. “Our society is dependent on high technology and we’re not prepared for an event like this. Once an EMP destroys the power grid and micro circuitry, it is, literally, lights out. We were warned, but nobody did anything to harden our infrastructure.”
    Robert sat stoically, listening to the colonel and Kyle speak. He was trying to mentally digest what the colonel was explaining.
    Kyle nervously asked, “So you think we were hit by a nuclear weapon? I saw the flash of colored lights, but I didn’t hear an explosion or see a mushroom cloud.”
    The colonel leaned forward toward the table, placing his palms flat down on it and looking them both in the eyes and with dire conviction, explained how there did not have to be a bomb. The colonel believed it was a massive solar event that he referred to as a coronal mass ejection. He told Robert and Kyle that solar storms cause northern lights, and a solar disturbance that could cause the dark sky to glow as bright as the noon sun had to be massive.
    “Three days at the most. Heed my warning.” The colonel stood up, paused, and looked out the large window, noticing it was finally past daybreak. “And then there will be total chaos, especially in the urban areas. Those living in rural areas, not so dependent on the grid, will not have it as bad. I would suggest getting home to your families as soon as possible.” The colonel yawned, stretched, and put his hands on his hips. The cold coffee was not strong enough for him. “My plan is to get to the nearest military base, as quickly as possible, and pull rank to get in.”
    Robert asked, “How do you plan on getting there? You can’t drive or fly there.”
    The colonel shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’ll start walking and then maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll steal a bicycle.”
    Sarcastically, Kyle said, “Then get thrown in jail like a criminal and get kicked out of the military.”
    As the colonel spoke, with his hands behind his back, they saw the bulge of a pistol at his waist. “The delicate network of technology that held everything so nicely together is gone. There is no federal government or organized military. It’ll be groups of people just trying to survive. I expect ninety percent of the population will be dead in a year. What just happened is an absolute game changer.” The colonel lifted up his shirt from the front exposing the pistol tucked behind his belt and said, “I won’t be an easy target for any banditos on my journey out of here. I’m a survivor.” Colonel Sheppherd moved closer to the breakfast counter and said, “I’m going to get a stash of this food and get out of here. Good luck. You’ll need it.”
    After the colonel left, there were a few moments of silence between Robert and Kyle.
    “What he just said scares the shit out of me,” said Robert. “I need some proof it’s that bad. Let’s look around. I’ll start by checking my laptop. I’m going to get my room key. Care to join me?”
    “Let’s do it.”
    As they walked to the front desk, Robert changed his mind and told Kyle to bring Richard back inside, get Henry, and then come to Robert’s room. They all needed to talk. Robert thought that by the time he got back into his room, Kyle would have everyone gathered together.
    After Lee opened Robert’s door for him, Robert left it ajar and immediately tried the power button on his computer. He got no response. He then tried his cell phone again. Same response: nothing. Everything seemed fried, just as the colonel had predicted. He sat on the small couch in his hotel room and stared at his useless phone as he thought of his children so far away. His son Brad, just seven years old; his daughter Jennifer, only four. His wife had stayed at home with the children. The pulse was early enough in the morning that he thought it was most likely they would all have been at home asleep when this happened. Thinking of his family, his stomach tightened into a knot.
    He closed his eyes as he faced the sunlight coming through the window. He was remembering the conversation with his son on the phone yesterday evening. His son asked when he would get back home; Robert told him that he would return on Friday. Robert’s face cringed as he thought about his situation. How the hell am I going to ever make it back home from here alive? He shook his head, opened his eyes, and stood up to look out the window. Now that it was fully light outside, he could see that no cars on the road were moving. He cringed again. That colonel might be right about all this.
    “Knock, knock,” Kyle announced, as he entered Robert’s room with Richard right behind him.
    “Hey, Robert, it sounds like you need a foil hat, too,” Richard said sarcastically, as he fondled another sugar doughnut in his hand.
    “My laptop is dead, Richard,” Robert said, as he walked to the window and completely opened the curtains. He gestured with his hand for Richard to look out the window. “Take a look at the cars on the road. They’re stalled. Why haven’t they been towed? See any lights on anywhere?”
    The three men looked out the window. As they looked down at the stalled vehicles in the street, Robert unlocked the window and slid it open to allow some fresh air into the room.
    Richard leaned closer to the window and looked to the left and right. “Hey, I think I heard something. There’s an old beat-up pickup truck… It’s parking right over there… look!”
    Robert laughed and said, “Yeah, that thing is older than me, no high technology to get fried in that engine.”
    Robert noticed Henry was missing and asked, “Where is Henry?”
    Richard pointed at Kyle and said, “He beat on Henry’s door. Henry is going to be pissed off. He never gets up this early.”
    With a confused look on his face, Robert asked again, “Then where is he?”
    Richard rolled his eyes and said, “Earth to Robert, he didn’t answer the door. He’s probably still asleep.”
    In an instant, Robert’s face took on an expression of horror. He bolted out of his room and down the hallway. In his haste, he bumped Richard, knocking the doughnut out of Richard’s hand onto the carpeted floor.
    Robert exclaimed, “Henry has a pacemaker! We have to get that door open!”
    Kyle sprinted out of the room right behind Robert.
    Alone in the room, Richard looked at the doughnut on the floor and said, “Five second rule,” before he grabbed the pastry off the floor and made it disappear with one bite.
    Robert stopped in front of what he thought was Henry’s room and asked, “Is this it?”
    Kyle nodded.
    As Robert stepped away from the door, he said, “Stand back. I’m going to kick this door down.”
    Before Kyle stood back, he pointed to the door’s sweet spot for Robert, right by the handle, but Robert already saw his target. Robert took a deep breath, clenched his teeth and fists, coiled his foot up to his body and let it fly forward like a steel spring. As his foot contacted the door, they both heard a crack in the wood. Kyle gave him an approving nod. Robert backed up again and sent his foot flying hard at the same spot near the handle. On second contact, the wood holding the locking mechanism splintered away and the door flew open. They stepped into the room and saw Henry’s body on the bed, contorted under the sheets. He was lying in vomit.
    Robert was the first through the door and yelled, “Henry!”
    Kyle went to the other side of the bed, touched Henry’s face, and said, apprehensively, “He’s cold. I think he’s dead.”
    Kyle looked away and shook his head in disbelief. Robert turned to look back at the doorway and saw Richard staring at Henry’s lifeless body, his eyes wide and his face noticeably pale. Richard abruptly turned away and vomited, his breakfast of sugar doughnuts spattering on the hallway carpet.
    Robert looked back at Kyle and said, “This does it for me. We have to get out of here. I’m taking the colonel’s advice.”
    “How?” Kyle asked.
    Robert looked out Henry’s window into the parking lot. He saw the old pickup truck they knew was still working and spoke toward the window. “Some things must still be functioning. Let’s get out of this room and get a plan.”
    As they stepped out of the room, they saw Richard hunched over in the hallway on his hands and knees. Saliva was hanging from the corner of his mouth.
    “Get up,” Robert said, as he and Kyle walked past.
    Richard was still visibly pale and his body was shaking. “What about Henry?” he asked.
    “There’s absolutely nothing we can do for him. We have to get out of here now,” Robert replied, as he walked down the hallway with Kyle. “Get off the floor and meet us in the lobby.”

Chapter Two

    Robert and Kyle stopped in the hotel’s lobby to wait for Richard. They sat there watching the confused people making their way in and out of the main entrance. The night clerk was still there alone, his fatigue even more obvious now. Robert did not think that it would be too much longer before the clerk got too frustrated and walked away from this mess.
    Robert stood up and walked to the edge of the lobby to see if Richard was coming down the hallway. He saw Richard talking with Lee, the hotel’s maintenance man, just outside Henry’s broken door. Knowing that there was nothing he could do for Henry, and that he had broken the door, he decided not to go back and get Richard. He desperately began to brainstorm ideas on how to get out of town and back home to his family. Home for Robert was Kansas City. Robert knew that Kyle must be from Omaha because that was the corporate office where he was stationed. Richard lived the farthest away, based out of St. Louis. As Robert leaned against the wall, he dropped his head and started to feel the calamity of their situation. They each lived a thousand or more miles away.
    As Robert’s depressed gaze tracked downward toward the tiled floor of the lobby, he noticed a rack of tourism brochures against a wall. One brochure stood out from the others. The title was Float the Headwaters of the Missouri River. Robert quickly grabbed it off the rack and hastily unfolded the brochure. The brochure described a family business that sold or rented rafting equipment and camping supplies. According to the brochure, it was located at the headwaters to the Missouri River, at a prime location for trout fishing and rafting.
    Kyle was still sitting on a couch in the lobby.
    Robert held up the brochure for him to see and said, “I have the answer.”
    “What? A vacation?” Kyle asked, with a confused smirk.
    Robert sat down and placed the brochure flat on the table in front of them. Robert placed his index finger on the brochure next to a large X that represented the location of the rafting supply store. Next to the X was a tortuous blue line running across the brochure, representing part of the Missouri River and its headwaters. He traced his finger across the blue line and explained they should get rafts and float downriver to make it home. Although not on the brochure, both men knew that the Missouri River flowed through both Omaha and Kansas City before merging with the Mississippi River at St. Louis.
    As Kyle was nodding his head in acceptance of the idea, he asked several questions in quick succession. “How do we get to the store? How can we buy this stuff if retail-sales computer equipment is dead? What do we eat and drink? How could we keep ourselves alive on a thousand mile float trip?”
    Robert did not have a chance to answer Kyle’s questions as Richard had just come around the corner and sat down next to Kyle, interrupting their conversation.
    Richard looked apologetically at Robert and admitted, “You were right and I was wrong. Something very bad has happened. I was talking to that maintenance guy and he said he’s getting out of here and going to his brother’s ranch north of town. I saw his brother. He was the guy with the old diesel pickup we noticed going into the parking lot. I heard his brother say there are stalled cars all along the road. I’m a believer now, Robert. We are in trouble.”
    “Robert has a plan,” Kyle announced, as he pointed to the brochure on the coffee table.
    “What? A vacation?”
    Robert rolled his eyes again and explained, “No, an escape out of here.”
    Robert quickly explained to Richard what he had just explained to Kyle. Richard nodded his head in agreement as Robert spoke. Now Robert could answer Kyle’s first question. They would get to the rafting store in the old pickup they saw in the parking lot.
    “Richard, we need to convince the owner of that truck to drive us there,” Robert said, as he pointed to the brochure.
    “We better act quickly. It looks like he’s getting ready to leave with his brother,” Richard said, pointing to the front desk. Lee and his brother were standing there.
    “Let’s go. You first, Richard,” said Kyle.
    Richard greeted Lee and his brother again, then introduced Robert and Kyle, and asked if they could get a ride. Richard explained that he knew it was a pickup and they had no problem riding in the bed of the truck. He held the brochure up to their prospective driver and explained to him where they needed to go.
    Lee’s brother said, “No problem. It’s right on my way home.”
    “Thanks for helping us. How much time before you leave?” Robert asked.
    “My brother is fix’n to quit this place. I’d give it thirty minutes.”
    “Sounds good,” said Robert.
    “Hold on. None of us has anything that tells time,” said Richard.
    “Me, neither,” said the man. “I’ll just be hangin’ out around the front here. I’ll wait for ya.”
    Robert watched the man turn his baseball cap backward, like his brother Lee had worn his cap earlier this morning. Robert walked away thinking how much the man looked like his brother.
    Robert motioned for them to walk over to the empty breakfast area. He told them his plan. They were to go back to their rooms, clean up, and put on their best suits. They should each pack a large suitcase with some clothes, as best they could, to accommodate roughing it for a while and bring the pillow cases from the beds back here with them. If they were to buy equipment, Robert wanted to put as much as he could on a credit card. The longer they postponed getting the equipment, the harder it would become to use a credit card for anything. Everyone was going to figure out soon that credit cards were no good anymore. After merchants stop accepting credit cards, Robert thought they would accept cash for a while. He also knew it would not take very long before cash would also become worthless. That was why they needed to work fast and get dressed in nice clothes. It would be easier to convince a shop owner to take the credit cards of three businessmen rather than those of three guys in sweatpants, each with five o’clock shadow.
    Robert, Kyle, and Richard arrived back at the breakfast area at about the same time. Each of them was clean-shaven and wearing a nice business suit. Sitting together at one of the small tables, each of them clutching empty pillowcases, they discussed what they should take to eat for their journey. Whatever they brought would have to last without refrigeration. They decided it would be wise to take all the bread and dry cereal they could find. Kyle opened the cabinet doors below the breakfast counter and found a case of oatmeal packets and some boxes of apples, bananas, and oranges.
    Kyle looked up and said, “Jackpot!” as he shifted his weight to move back from the cabinet door, revealing the bounty of food.
    Robert quickly leaned over and gestured a thumbs-up sign. Robert checked on Richard to see what he was putting in his pillowcases. It was doughnuts, pastries, and packets of jelly. “Dump that crap out,” Robert said, as he pointed to Richard’s pillowcase. Richard put his hand on the pillowcase and stared back at Robert. He was clutching the bag as if it was a precious treasure. Robert snatched the pillowcase full of junk from Richard’s hands and said, “Go to the front desk and get as much bottled water and trail mix as you can. Grab a map. Kyle and I will finish in here.” Robert walked to the large trashcan and dumped the junk out of the pillowcase, shaking it to remove the crumbs.
    Richard approached the front desk with his remaining pillowcase and noticed that the night clerk was still there, still alone. He was sitting back away from the counter in a chair. His head was leaned back, eyes closed, and there was drool on the corner of his mouth. Richard politely coughed and when that did not wake the clerk, he tapped the bell on the counter. The clerk was startled awake and jumped out of the chair, embarrassed.
    “Hi. I would like to pick up a few things you have back there,” said Richard.
    “Sure, what would you like?”
    “I am interested in the bottled water and the bags of trail mix.”
    The clerk quickly set a bag of the trail mix and a bottle of water on the counter and asked, “Anything else, sir?”
    “Yes, there is. I actually want all of them.”
    “You mean all of the bags of trail mix and bottles of water? It would be a lot cheaper to get this at the grocery store around the corner.”
    “That’s okay,” said Richard, as he put his credit card on the counter, “something came up. We decided to have a company retreat and go camping. If we’re going to rough it, we might as well do it the right way, in the woods.”
    “Okay, I will have to write your information down and run the card when the power comes back on.”
    “I understand,” Richard said, as he slid the card closer to the clerk. The clerk was too tired to notice Robert and Kyle walking out of the breakfast area, past the front desk, and out the front doors of the hotel carrying pillowcases stuffed with food. When all the pillowcases and luggage were at the front of the hotel, Robert and Kyle stood at the entrance and motioned for Richard to come out.
    Carrying a case of bottled water toward his coworkers, Richard said, “I was able to get the other stuff sitting on the counter. I need a hand with it all.”
    Not missing their cue, Robert and Kyle went to the counter and grabbed the results of Richard’s shopping extravaganza. Richard was able to get the hotel’s entire remaining inventory of bottled water and trail mix.
    “Nice work, Richard,” Kyle said, as he carried his armload to the bed of the pickup. “Let’s get this stuff in the truck and find Lee’s brother to drive us out of here.”
    Robert was finished loading first and told the others to stay by the truck. He would jog past the maintenance room, then around the hotel to see where Lee and his brother were. Robert felt awkward dashing into the hotel wearing a suit and dress shoes. He slowed his pace and calmly walked down the hallway. Robert noticed that the door to the maintenance room was open, so he stepped halfway into that room. It was dark in the windowless room. Robert’s hand reflexively rose to the light switch on the wall. His wrist flicked and the switch toggled upward. As he heard the empty click, he realized what a foolish gesture this was, and laughed at himself as he turned away from the empty room to exit the building at the end of the hallway. Robert looked quickly to the left and right through the clear glass door at the back of the hotel before he opened it and stepped outside. Under a large shade tree, he saw their driver and his brother talking.
    “Ready when you are,” Robert said, as he waved to get their attention.
    The men quickly gestured back to him, motioning for Robert to come over. Lee pointed away from the hotel toward a nearby intersection. He told Robert they had seen a carjacking, and described what they had witnessed. The sound of an old car engine had caught their attention. As the car slowly approached the intersection, two men stepped into the street and waved their hands as if for the car to stop, which it did. One of the men approached the driver, pulled a pistol from under his shirt, and pointed it at the driver’s head. The driver raised his hands and the armed gunman opened the door for the driver to exit. The gunman motioned for the owner to run away, which he did. The carjackers drove north, toward the highway.
    “Sounds scary, mister…?” Robert said, as he paused to finally get their driver’s name.
    “Call me Chet,” he said, shaking Robert’s hand.
    “Did they see you two?” Robert asked.
    Lee replied, “Nope, we were behind this tree.” Lee looked around. ”Let’s get out of here.”
    All five men gathered at the truck. The brothers also explained to Kyle and Richard about the carjacking they had seen. Chet directed his brother to push the seat forward, get the rifle out, and be ready to use it. Lee slid the deer rifle out of the camouflage case that his brother had hidden behind the truck’s seat. The dark brown walnut stock of the rifle was polished and shiny. The dark wood complimented the hue of the gunmetal. The rifle looked like a work of art. Lee firmly gripped the rifle in his hands and nodded, thankful to have the weapon with him. He grabbed the cold metal of the rifle’s barrel, felt it warm to his touch, and said, “There will be no more carjackers today.” As the brothers settled into the cab of the truck, Robert, Kyle, and Richard climbed into the truck’s bed.
    “Robert,” Richard said, as he tried to shift his weight on the suitcase to get a comfortable position, “your plan better work.”
    “Or what?” Robert asked, tilting his forehead toward Richard and lifting an eyebrow.
    Richard replied, revealing a hint of fear in his voice. “If we can’t obtain the equipment to get on the river, we’re as good as dead. Chet’s not going to drive me to St. Louis.” Richard paused. “Robert, I don’t want to die.”
    Robert thought for a moment before replying. “I’m not going to die. I’m a survivor. Nothing is going to get between me and my family—” Robert said, as he was cut off by the jolt of the old truck engaging into first gear.
    The truck sluggishly accelerated out of the hotel parking lot and onto the adjacent road. The men observed their surroundings in silence. Some cars were still in the correct lane in the street, while others appeared to have been pushed to the side. It was strange to see so many stalled cars on the road. On this late morning, people were walking down the sidewalks or using bicycles to get around. A few of the people appeared to be greatly fatigued from having to walk, red faced and panting from lack of exercise. Robert suspected that some of them had been stranded on the highway and were now walking into town looking for help.
    Chet cautiously approached a four-way stop next to a convenience store. There was a sign in the store’s front window written in capital letters, CASH ONLY. Chet’s truck was getting attention from a small group of men near the convenience store parking lot. As Chet passed the intersection, the men stepped into the street, blocking the path of the truck. A man stepped forward from the group and positioned himself closer to Chet’s truck. He was a bearded man with long hair and dark sunglasses, wearing worn jeans, a dirty shirt, and leather vest. His leather boots had capped metal toes. Those boots would be perfect to kick with in a fight. Chet stopped the truck to maintain his distance from the men. Robert pointed to a tire iron and baseball bat near the tailgate of the truck and nodded to Kyle, knowing that they could not expect Richard to join the fight.
    The man in the street took another step toward the truck, raised his right arm and extending a finger directly at Chet and yelled, “Hey, who do you think you are? Why are you so special? This thing is a piece of shit! I have a nice ride. You should be the one walking.” His cheek was full of tobacco and he spit the dark juice onto the asphalt as if he was marking his territory.
    Robert looked into the cab of the truck from the rear window. He saw that Lee had the rifle level with the dashboard and the barrel pointed toward the door. Lee’s hand was on the door handle and he was primed for action. The men in the street could not see the rifle that Lee had ready for them.
    Robert stood in the bed of the truck and said loudly, “We don’t want any trouble. We’re just moving through—”
    The bearded man interrupted Robert, angrily yelling, “Shut your mouth! If I want any shit out of you, I’ll squeeze your head!”
    Robert quickly turned to the rear of the truck and stepped toward the tailgate. He jumped out of the truck, landing solidly on both feet and reached back into the truck bed to grab the baseball bat. He did not want to fight, but he knew this needed to end, and would not tolerate any delays in his plan. As Robert walked to the front of the truck toward the lunatic, he quickly glanced up at Kyle and shrugged his shoulders. Kyle nodded to Robert in a way that meant, “I am glad you are doing that and not me.” Richard cowered in the truck’s bed, just as Robert had expected.
    Pointing the bat at the man, Robert said, firmly, “Listen, asshole, like I said, we don’t want any trouble. Step back from my good friend’s truck and we’ll be on our way.”
    The man moved his right foot back and turned his left shoulder toward Robert, narrowing his profile. Quickly, the man reached into his back pocket and pulled out a switchblade with his right hand. He pointed the blade at Robert and said with gritted teeth, “I am going to stick that bat up your ass sideways.” Then he stepped toward Robert.
    At that moment, Robert heard the loud report of a rifle discharging. He had not noticed the bald man with a pistol behind the group, but Lee did. By the time the bald man had pulled the pistol from under his shirt and begun to point it toward Robert, Lee had the rifle on center mass of his target. Lee pulled the trigger and the bald man collapsed, falling backward. The pistol landed near its owner’s warm corpse. As the bearded outlaw turned toward Lee, the bat Robert had already begun to swing met him directly in the face. On impact, Robert felt the man’s skull collapse and sunglasses disintegrate simultaneously. Lee stepped forward to get the fallen pistol and moved the barrel of the rifle from side to side at the group of men in the street. Robert bent over to get the switchblade, but he knew that what he really needed was the pistol.
    While Lee was still stepping backwards to the truck, Robert had already jumped back into the truck bed and dropped the bat where he found it. The men in the street parted into two groups and moved away. Lee sat back down in the truck and held the pistol out the window, ready for action. As the truck began to move forward again, Richard said to Robert, “Hey, I didn’t know you liked to play baseball.”
    “Maybe you can play next time.”
    “No, thanks.”
    It did not take long to drive across the small town and find the ramp to the interstate going north. This highway took them to an access point for the headwaters of the Missouri River and, according to Robert’s plan, equipment for the long journey home. As they traveled to their destination on the highway, they passed many stalled cars. People were walking on the highway, most waving for the vehicle to pull over. The men drove onward without slowing. Robert could see how these roads were going to become very dangerous. He knew traps would be set and people would be killed in the struggle for survival. He felt confident that his decision to use the river was the right one.
    He remembered the sign on the convenience store that they recently passed, warning of cash-only transactions, and became slightly nervous. They wanted to get the equipment with credit cards because what they needed to survive would cost more than the cash they had with them. Robert’s plan to get equipment was based upon the assumption most people had, that the power would be on again soon. Get the seller to capture the information from their cards and complete the sales transaction when the lights come back on. He hoped the suits added to their respectability, which would help insure that their credit cards were accepted.
    The truck was going fast enough that the three men in the back crouched down as low as possible to avoid the annoyance of the wind trying to knock them over. At highway speed, the turbulent wind passed over the cab of the truck and whipped around the men’s heads, creating enough noise to discourage talking to one another.
    Robert saw the sign for their exit and knocked on top of the truck’s cab as a reminder. Chet had already seen the sign and started slowing down to pull over. According to the map, the access road was parallel to a small lake connected to the headwaters. The store where they planned to get their equipment was on this road and near the lake’s shoreline. The brochure for this facility described it as a family operation. Robert assumed that the owner lived nearby and would be resourceful enough to make it to work even under the current circumstances.
    The sky was clear and they guessed by the position of the sun that it was about noon. The waters of the lake were calm and devoid of boats. They noticed one person casting a fly rod. Robert was not a fisherman, but already knew how important that would become in order for them to get food to stay alive. The store and marina area became visible in the distance and they noticed a pickup similar in age to what they were in. It was parked in front of the store. Kyle and Richard were still kneeling with their backs turned away from the front of the truck. Robert’s eyes squinted in disbelief. The store was open! Robert saw the bright neon light in the store’s front window blinking, OPEN.
    Robert tapped the kneeling men with his foot and said, “Get up! Look, the lights are on!” Both men quickly stood to attention and immediately saw the flashing neon light and the fluorescent lighting inside the store. Speechless, they looked at each other in amazement at the site of electric lights. The truck slowly coasted to a stop at the side of the store. Chet turned off the ignition and the sound of an emergency generator from the back of the store became obvious to the men. The subtle hope that maybe, just maybe, the power was not out everywhere faded away and reality set in. Each man grabbed his possessions from the back of the truck and set them against the side of the store on a narrow sidewalk. Chet remained in the driver’s seat, and Robert stepped up to the window.
    “Chet, I can’t thank you enough for giving us a ride here,” Robert said, as he shook Chet’s hand.
    Chet replied, “No problem, glad to help. The only advice I can give you is to stay dry.”
    “Hey, buddy, come around here,” Lee said, as he slapped the outside of his door with the palm of his hand.
    Robert went to the opposite side of the truck and reached through the truck’s open passenger window to shake Lee’s hand. Lee extended his arm and handed the pistol to Robert. “You earned it,” Lee chuckled. “You have some big balls.”
    Robert accepted the pistol and thanked Lee profusely. He gripped the handle and extended his index finger to touch the safety, ensuring that it was in the correct position. The gun would be a nice insurance policy. Robert turned to look around and see if anyone noticed him with the pistol. No one was around, just as he expected it would be. The pistol fit nicely in the deep front pocket of his dress pants.
    Chet backed the truck away from the store, turned toward the highway, and drove away.
    Robert slapped Kyle and Richard on the back and said, “Men, let’s go shopping.”

Chapter Three

    The store’s front door was open a few inches, held ajar by a rock on the floor. Robert grasped the handle and shoved the door back. A cowbell attached to the door clanged loudly. The three men entered the store with Robert in the lead, just as an older man, looking flustered and walking with a cane, emerged through the backroom door.
    “Hey, there. Sorry the power is out. You’re my first customers today. I was beginning to think no one was going to show up.” The old man forced a smile. “It’s a nice day for fishin’ or what not… you don’t plan to fish in those suits, do ya?” He leaned forward and gripped the cane’s handle with both hands for balance.
    “Oh, the suits,” Robert replied, acting surprised. “We had a business meeting today. It was cut short, you know. Having no power created a small change of plans for us. So… here we are… ready to go fishing in Big Sky country and we want to get out on the water, too.”
    “Okay, do you gentlemen need to rent a boat for the day?”
    Richard interrupted and said, “I need a cigarette, I’ll be outside.”
    Irritated, Robert ignored Richard and faced the storeowner to speak. “We are interested in rafts, one for each of us. They need to be big enough for a man and plenty of camping equipment. We also want to move fast through the water. Do you have anything like that?”
    The man rubbed the gray stubble on his face and thought for a brief moment as he looked in the direction of the rafts against the far wall. “Follow me, I’ll show you what you need.”
    Using his cane, he directed them to the type of raft they needed. The man described the raft as having multiple air chambers. If one chamber was punctured, the others would remain inflated. There was plenty of room for a man and equipment, maybe even two men. Robert saw that there were oarlocks for rowing and he knew that using the oarlocks would allow for greater speed on the water.
    “Looks good to me,” said Robert. “We need to catch some fish, too. Right, Kyle?”
    Kyle nodded in agreement, adding, “But I don’t have the patience to fly fish for trout. What about bass, and maybe catfish, too?”
    “That’s easy enough. I’ve got lures, trot line for catfish, whatever you need is on the wall next to us.” The man turned and looked at the backroom, like he had just remembered something. “Sounds like you know what you want. I’ll be back in a second.” The man disappeared into the backroom.
    Robert tapped on the glass window to get Richard’s attention. Richard flicked his cigarette butt onto the gravel of the parking lot and came back into the store. Robert showed him the rafts and pointed out the fishing equipment. He told them they could throw a line into the water at night when they sleep or tie a line to the raft when they are on the water. This would be the most efficient way to fish. Robert also thought it would be a good idea to get a plastic tarp for each man. They could use the tarp to shield themselves from rain and to sleep under at night.
    “Just tell me what to get and I’ll put it by the checkout,” Richard said.
    “Follow me and take what I do,” said Robert. “Let’s make three piles, one for each of us.”
    Robert glanced around the store. He knew this might be his last opportunity to acquire supplies before people began to realize how bad it was and how much worse it would become. He estimated that it could take a few months to make it back to Kansas City, so it was critical that they get as many supplies as possible. Robert knew that Kyle did not live as far away, but he lived with his wife in a large apartment building in the downtown area of Omaha. As he thought about where Kyle and his wife lived, he remembered what the colonel had told him that morning. The urban areas would transcend into war zones as soon as people began to starve.
    Robert lived in suburbia, but not far enough from the city to please himself. He knew there was a chance for bad things to happen in his neighborhood, but at least he lived on the edge of his town and many miles from a big urban area. He did derive some solace from the realization that his home was actually closer to some small farms and open fields than to the concrete jungle of an urban downtown. He lived in a new subdivision that was not nearly complete. He picked the lot for his house specifically because it was next to a large county park and a small creek that flowed into a nearby lake. Having this location kept the neighbors a little further away, which was what Robert intended. It would take a little longer for chaos to make its way to his front door. Richard lived in a downtown St. Louis condominium. Robert knew there was no hope for Richard continuing to live there, but he had not told him that yet.
    On the other side of the farthest aisle, Robert saw some equipment he should have already thought about, and realizing that there are more things they needed to get, he started by selecting a small hatchet. They would need this for firewood. There was a water filter to purify water for drinking, definitely a must. He selected three of those. Behind a glass case, he saw a large survival knife. He had the man’s switchblade from earlier in the day, but that would not be sufficient. Robert needed a sturdy fixed blade knife and this one looked like the kind of knife that would help him survive in the wild, the kind of wild the world was turning into. His hand tapped the bulge in his right pocket and Robert whispered to himself, “9mm cartridges and as many as I can get.”
    Robert did not hear the store’s owner walk up behind him. He was disgusted and embarrassed at himself for not being more aware of his surroundings. Being tired and hungry could not be an excuse. He knew his survival would depend upon alertness and that he would be tested many times in the future.
    “It’s a nice one, the best I’ve got,” the storeowner said, nodding toward the knife.
    “This knife looks solid, very sturdy,” Robert replied, as he admired the blade. “I’ll take it, and we plan to do some target shooting, too. I have a 9mm pistol. Are those 9mm cartridges?” He pointed toward the locked display case.
    “That they are. How many do you need?”
    “I’ll take what’s on that shelf. We don’t get to shoot much, so we’re going to make up for that.”
    The old man began to perform a calculation in his mind. He looked at the boxes of cartridges and then tilted his head upward, looking at the ceiling. “That would be ten boxes at fifty cartridges to a box.” He tapped his head and said, “That’s 500 rounds.” The storeowner held his arm parallel to the floor, close to his body, and stacked the boxes of ammunition on his forearm. Then he gently bumped his cane on Robert’s leg and asked in a serious tone, “Do you really want that much?”
    “Yes, sir. And the knife.”
    The storeowner took his position behind the cash register and explained again that the power was out. Then the owner said what Robert had feared, “Cash only.”
    Robert began to feel a knot tighten in his stomach. He knew he needed the equipment on the floor to get him back home to his family. He felt his pulse climb, along with his blood pressure, and started to feel a sense of desperation overcome his cool temperament. He forced himself to remain calm, however, and said with resolve what he had already rehearsed in his mind on the way to this store, “Yes, the power is out. That’s why we’re here now and not later in the week. We’re going to take this unexpected chance to meet Montana’s outdoors sooner than we anticipated. As you know, the ATMs are down and that puts us in a bind. What I’m asking you to do is take this opportunity to help us. I’m sure the credit card companies have given you guidance for situations like this.”
    The owner shifted his body and leaned on his cane at a different angle. The slight movement of his body to one side revealed a dusty shelf under the counter behind him. Robert immediately recognized an old mechanical credit card machine, the type that required the card to be placed flat in the device with a sales receipt placed directly on top of the card. Once the card and paper were in place, the top of the device slid across the paper and card, imprinting information from the card onto the receipt.
    “There,” Robert said, pointing to the dusty credit card machine. “Just use that and when the power comes on, run the card.” Robert placed his driver’s license on the counter. “Here’s my identification.”
    The man poked at the old machine with his cane. “Well… I don’t like to use that piece of crap… and haven’t for a while… oh, well… okay, let’s get you outta here.”
    A sense of relief erased the tension in Robert’s body. His pulse slowed and his body relaxed. He glanced out the store’s window, past the silhouette of Richard smoking, and saw the water awaiting them. He was anxious to get home and desperate to see his children. He tapped on the window to get Richard’s attention and motioned for him to get back inside. After each man exchanged his credit card for supplies, they thanked the man for his assistance, then carried their bounty outside, around to the side of the building.
    Kyle crouched down on the narrow sidewalk, patted his pile of gear, and said, “We should get started.”
    Richard mentioned that he had seen an air compressor behind the store. The three men used it to put air into the rafts and placed the remaining equipment into each raft after it was inflated. Then the three men carried the rafts to the boat dock. They removed their suits and changed into clothes more suitable for the journey ahead. They put the rafts in the water and climbed aboard. Robert began to paddle first. Kyle was right behind Robert, and Richard followed in close succession. Robert did not paddle fast, wanting to accustom his body to this new activity. As he slowly paddled, trying to find an efficient rhythm, he studied his surroundings.
    The water was calm, reflecting like a mirror the upward outcroppings of a rocky bluff. No boats were in sight as the ripples from the three rafts erased the mirror-like reflection in the water. Robert heard the screech of a large bird echo off a nearby cliff. He looked up and saw an eagle. It looked magnificent, and so graceful coasting in the air above the clear lake. The eagle swept its wings back and began to descend toward the water. Its speed increased rapidly as the eagle plunged downward. In a brief moment, the eagle was directing its power upward away from the lake. Its wings pumped furiously. He could see that the eagle had a large fish clasped firmly in its talons. The fish was trying to convulse itself free, to no avail. Robert watched the large bird disappear with its meal as he felt the talons of his own hunger grasp his stomach.
    He knew that hunger was going to be a new companion. Life before today was so easy. If he was hungry, he could just go to the refrigerator or pantry. If he needed more food, he could go to a grocery store that was open twenty-four hours a day. Robert wondered if he could remember ever being hungrier than he was now. Food had always been easy to come by. He could remember eating for the fun of it, or simply out of boredom. On rare occasions, he would eat junk food, but made up for those transgressions with intense physical exercise. He knew that he was in excellent physical condition before this event, but maintaining health and stamina while scavenging for food would be a challenge. Kyle was also very healthy and in good shape, while also being several years younger. Richard was another story. Robert knew that Richard was in serious trouble. He was a chain smoker, practically lived on junk food, and never exercised.
    Robert was desperate to get back to his family and fought the urge to break away and go off on his own, at a pace neither of the other men could maintain. Conversely, Robert surmised that there might be a survival advantage in maintaining the group. As he paddled toward the shore on the opposite side of the lake, he theorized that it might be safer to stay close to land on the wider bodies of water. If something happened, they could get to shore quicker that way. After they had glided across the smooth water for several miles, they noticed a camping area toward the right, near the opposite shoreline. As they floated closer to the shore, tents and a few vehicles were visible at the small campsite.
    “Hey, let’s get closer and quietly drift by,” said Robert, in a hushed tone. “Let’s see if they say anything to us. I want to get a feel for how other people are reacting to what has happened.”
    They could smell the wood smoke from a campfire close to the edge of the water. There were also some cooking utensils near the fire. Robert gently paddled closer. He warned the others to stay back away from the shore. If the lakeshore was free of hazardous obstacles, he would wave them in closer. Robert’s raft met the edge of the lake and rubbed bottom. Taking his shoes off, he stepped into the cold water and pulled the raft onto the shore. He motioned for his two companions to come in closer and sat on the edge of his raft. A man with short hair and thick razor stubble came out of a camper and, looking down at a rectangular pan in his hands, stepped toward the campfire and Robert sitting on his raft. When the man glanced up, he was surprised by Robert’s presence.
    Startled, the man looked around and said, “Oh, buddy, you scared me to death. I didn’t see you there.” Then he asked, “Are you camping around here? I didn’t hear a car pull in.”
    “No, we’re just floating by and thought we might stretch our legs for a second.”
    Kyle and Richard were almost to the shore. The man stopped in front of the tent closest to him, put a large pan of cleaned and filleted raw fish down, and then whispered something into the tent’s opening. A woman whispered back from inside the tent, “Just ask them.”
    “Can we borrow your cell phone? I can’t get my truck started and it seems like the batteries went dead in all of our stuff. I need to call a tow truck to get a jump start.” The man looked back toward the fish. “We ran out of ice and I’m going to have to cook all this fish now or it’ll spoil. It’s really more than we can eat. You’re welcome to have some. There are paper plates on the table.” The man looked toward Robert and asked pleadingly, “Do you care if I make a call?”
    “I’m sorry, we’re just roughing it. We don’t have a cell phone with us,” Robert said, with remorse.
    “Damn. I’ll keep waiting for someone else.” The man picked up the pan of fish. “I better get this fish cooked up. Tell your friends to come ashore. It’ll be ready pretty quick.”
    Robert felt sorry for the man and wanted to tell him everything he knew about the EMP and the collapse of the electric grid, but was afraid of what his reaction might be. Right now, even though most electronics were not working, he still might sound crazy to the stranger. He wanted to avoid all confrontation, and with firm resolve, reminded himself that his only objective was to get back to his family. He could not save the world.
    The man placed the pan of filleted fish over the fire and in moments, the cooking fish smelled delicious. As the aroma wafted his way, Robert felt his mouth fill with saliva. He had an impulse to devour the half-cooked fish. Sharing food with a stranger was an unexpected bonus; it could help to stretch their supply of food for the journey. He knew they had some food in the rafts, but it would be good to conserve as much as they could.
    Kyle approached their cook and handed him a bottle of water. “You look thirsty,” Kyle said, smiling at the sight of a hot meal.
    “Yeah, my truck won’t start, so I can’t drive anywhere to get drinking water. We’ve had to boil that stuff. It’s a real hassle,” the man said, as he pointed to the lake.
    “Grab your water jugs. I have a filter. It’s the least I can do for some of that fish,” said Kyle.
    “Deal,” the man said quickly, just before turning the fish and dashing over to get the water jugs so he could be back in time to keep the fish from burning.
    Kyle retrieved the filter from the raft and proceeded to wade into the shallow water. The man had brought every container he had that could hold water. Kyle lined up the man’s containers near the water’s edge and began to fill them with filtered water. Once they were all full, Kyle sat them next to the picnic table. The man was very pleased.
    Robert held out a paper plate on the palms of his hands. The man placed the cooked fish on the plate and Robert could feel the warmth of the fish through the thin paper. After sprinkling a little salt on the fish, he devoured it, eating with his fingers. He noticed that the others doing the same, and suspected that this style of eating would be the new normal. After they consumed all the fish, Robert apologized again for not having a phone, then they pushed away from the lakeshore. With a quick wave goodbye and shouting their thanks, the three men continued their journey. Robert felt sorry for the man at the little campground, but he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do for him. He suspected that, on their way home, they would meet many others who were stuck. He expected other strangers, as time passed, to be increasingly desperate, and with that comes danger.
    Robert assumed the lead in the flotilla again. He changed his position in the raft to face the rear, and from this position, placed each paddle into an oarlock. The oarlocks, acting as fulcrums, allowed Robert to use the strength of his arms and back to row more forcefully. He estimated that by turning paddles into oars, his speed doubled on the water. He easily accelerated away from the other men, then slowed down for them to catch up. When Kyle and then Richard got near Robert’s raft, he suggested that they also switch from paddling the rafts to rowing them. At this faster pace, they could make it to the first dam before sundown, then use the remaining light of day to find portage around the dam, and still have time to find a place to camp for the night. In agreement with the plan, they continued, but with Richard struggling to keep pace with the other men.
    Robert’s enthusiastic rowing put him well ahead of the others and he was the first to hear the muffled roar of water pouring over the dam. Looking in that direction, he noticed another campground to the right of the dam. He removed the oars from the oarlocks, and turning around, began to paddle. He moved slowly forward, but angled his approach toward the side of the dam opposite the campground. Kyle and Richard gradually caught up.
    Looking toward the dam, Robert said, “I think we should stay away from the campground. Let’s set up our camp away from other people. To the left of the dam it looks like there’s a gradual slope upwards. I’ll jump out and look for a good path around and down the other side. Once we get around this dam, let’s stop at a flat clearing and pull the rafts out. It would be a good time to split up some of this food and get some sleep.”
    “Do you care if I tag along?” asked Kyle.
    “Be my guest,” Robert said, then asked Richard, “Do you mind watching our rafts?”
    “No problem, I need a smoke break.”
    “Not in the raft,” Robert said emphatically. “Keep your lit cigarettes away from the rafts. I don’t want any accidents. These rafts are our ticket home.”
    At a safe distance away from the dam, the men found a gradual slope from the shoreline upwards. Robert and Kyle jumped out of their rafts at this point and placed them on either side of Richard’s. They tethered the rafts together to keep them from floating away, and then stepped out of the water and up the gentle slope. Robert told Richard that they needed to find a clear path on this side of the dam. Nodding, Richard took a long drag from his cigarette and waved them away. To their good fortune, Kyle noticed a small road near the dam, and therefore this route seemed like the logical choice.
    Robert and Kyle climbed upward to the small road. From here, they could look down and see Richard in the center raft, and in the other direction, they could see that the road went down to the bottom of the dam. There was a parking lot in the distance and what looked like a small boat ramp. Kyle wanted to walk by the stalled vehicles in the parking lot to assess any hidden threats. He did not want to carry their equipment past anyone who might cause a confrontation. They glanced back down at Richard once more. He was floating in the center raft and not paying attention to their ascent up the hill. Richard was slightly slumped over in the raft looking downward, not paying attention to anything.
    The narrow road around the dam was steep. At the bottom, they stood in the parking lot and looked back up at the enormity of the dam. Water crashing over the top created a foggy mist at the base. They saw nobody around the dam and all the cars in the parking lot were empty.
    Kyle turned to Robert and spoke. “I don’t have a good feeling about Richard. He looks like he is really struggling with the raft.”
    “I know exactly what you mean,” said Robert. “He’s going to be a problem, and unfortunately he’s a problem we’re stuck with. As time goes on our situation is going to get worse and Richard isn’t going to be able to adapt very well. With what we’re heading into, Richard might do himself in.”
    “Or us with him?” Kyle asked, raising an eyebrow.
    Robert’s only response was to nod his head wearily.
    The two men paced themselves going back up the steep slope of the road. On reaching the top, they looked down to where they had left Richard with the rafts. The rafts were gone. Richard had pushed a paddle into the muddy bank and had been holding the paddle to maintain position. He had drifted off to sleep and let go of the paddle. The paddle was still in the mud, but the rafts were floating toward the strong current that plunged over the dam. Both men screamed at Richard as they ran down the slope to the water’s edge. Richard remained oblivious. At the water’s edge, Robert and Kyle plunged into the lake and swam frantically to the drifting rafts, which were getting dangerously close to the swift current near the center of the dam. Kyle got to the drifting rafts first.
    Kyle grabbed the rope on the side of a raft and screamed, “Wake up, asshole! Wake your fat ass up! Paddle! Paddle! PADDLE!”
    Richard jerked up, startled, and grabbed for a paddle that was no longer there. It was still stuck in the mud on the riverbank. He fumbled for his remaining paddle and clumsily tried to paddle from the front of his raft. Kyle pulled himself onto a raft tethered to Richard’s and paddled with desperate effort. Robert reached the raft opposite Kyle, with Richard in the middle, and quickly pulled himself up. The rafts were drifting closer to the dam.
    Robert yelled to Kyle, “Put the paddles in the oarlocks and row hard!”
    Robert and Kyle rowed in unison and slowly began to pull away from the dam. After what seemed like an eternity, they broke free of the current and headed back to the area on the shore marked by Richard’s paddle, which stood protruding from the mud. Finally back to shore, Richard stretched forward and grabbed his paddle from the muddy bank. Robert and Kyle were too out of breath to speak, and simply stared, fuming with rage, at Richard.
    “I know I screwed up. You don’t have to say anything,” said Richard.
    Kyle stood up in the raft, grasping a paddle firmly in his hands. “You screwed up? No, asshole, you almost got us killed!” As he was yelling at Richard, Kyle raised his paddle like a baseball bat, ready to swing, and angled his stance toward Richard’s head. Kyle’s eyes were narrowed and filled with fury.
    Robert held up his hand and motioned for Kyle to lower the paddle. Speaking in a low, menacing tone through clenched teeth, Robert snarled at Richard, “Don’t do anything stupid like that again, anything that jeopardizes me getting safely back to my family. If you do, I won’t bash your head in with a paddle. We will leave you behind, by yourself, and that’ll be a death sentence for you.”
    “I get the message,” mumbled Richard, sheepishly. He looked away, terrified to make eye contact.
    Kyle jumped out of the raft and pulled all three, still tethered together, half out of the water. “It is going to take at least two men to carry each raft up the hill and down the road on the other side. Richard, you will never again be left alone with my raft or equipment. Do you understand?”

Chapter Four

    The men moved their equipment from the road and stood at the bottom of the downstream side of the dam, with their rafts and equipment at their feet. A small sign indicated that they were on Holter Dam Road, and the narrow pavement traveled parallel to the river for a short distance. Their waterway, once past the dam, had changed into a small river and their first lake was behind them now. According to the map, there would be more dams. They discussed the dams and decided the awaiting lakes would become evident to them when the river began to widen and the current slowed down. At that point, it would be prudent to switch from paddling to rowing again. They agreed that it would make good sense, when the current was swift enough, to conserve their energy by minimizing paddling to only what was necessary to maintain navigation. Robert was hesitant about staying close to the dam, the parking lot, and this road. They agreed to float downstream to get further from the spillway and find a place that was more secluded.
    About a mile downstream, they came upon a small island in the river. This little island was a few hundred yards long, and at its widest point, half the width of the river. The island’s flora varied from dry grass at the near end to dense tree growth at the far end. This would be a suitable location for their camp. It was not directly connected to the road, and the trees would provide camouflage during both day and night. Before pulling the rafts completely ashore on the little island, Kyle took a quick look around for any surface dangers that could puncture the rafts. None were found. He did notice a sufficient supply of dry driftwood that they could use for a campfire and hopefully to cook something before they left again. Robert and Kyle lifted each of the equipment-filled rafts toward the dense trees. Richard ignored the threat of nighttime hazards and only went a minimal distance from the riverbank. Robert handed Richard his hatchet and told him to gather plenty of wood and start a fire. Robert and Kyle were going to explore the perimeter of the little island and be back to help as soon as they were done. The two men walked to the far end, through the dense trees. In the thick of the wooded area, Robert stopped at an oak tree sapling. He circled the tree looking it up and down. The tree was about fifteen feet tall with a trunk slightly bigger than he could get one hand around.
    “What is it?” Kyle inquired.
    “What is it going to be,” replied Robert.
    Kyle lifted an eyebrow and waited for the answer as Robert slowly caressed the sapling, looking for any imperfections in its trunk.
    “This is going to become a bow. My silent killer,” Robert said, as he slapped the tree with the palm of his hand. “Primitive bow making is a hobby of mine.”
    “Could you make me one?”
    “Yes, find another tree like this one while I get started.” Robert handed Kyle a leaf from a branch of the tree for reference.
    Robert withdrew the fixed blade knife from the sheath strapped to his right thigh. Kneeling, he chopped carefully around the circumference near the bottom of the tree, wielding the thick blade until the sapling fell over. Robert estimated a distance of six feet from the bottom of the freshly cut sapling and hacked through the wood once again. There were no small limbs to remove on the bottom six feet of the trunk. Kyle motioned for Robert to come deeper into the thicket. He had found another sapling. Robert repeated the process on the second sapling, and then they hiked back to Richard, taking the wood with them.
    As they walked back toward the front end of the little island, Robert noticed an area between the island and the shore that became marshy and shallow for half the island’s length. It would be possible to walk across to the small road and only get your feet wet for the length of this narrow wetland. He saw many cattails and suspected there would also be frogs. This reminded him that they should set some lines in the river and try to catch some fish.
    “Let’s take these saplings back to where we left Richard. They can dry by the fire and then I’ll carve them into bows.” Robert gestured toward the water. “We need to get some lines in the water to catch some fish.”
    “We don’t have any bait,” said Kyle.
    “I know. Let me dump these saplings by the fire and we’ll get started.”
    Robert and Kyle continued toward the camp. They saw some driftwood in a pile with a few hatchet marks. There appeared to have been a feeble attempt to chop and split the wood into smaller pieces. Richard was smoking, standing with his back toward them.
    “Nice fire, asshole,” Kyle said, loud enough to startle Richard and make him jump to attention.
    “Don’t burn this wood,” Robert said, as he placed the two saplings on the ground an obvious distance from Richard’s pile of driftwood.
    Robert told Kyle that he heard frogs in the marshy water. He wanted to get the frogs, use their entrails as bait, and eat the legs. They approached the marsh as silently as pumas in a nighttime jungle. Robert hoped the water was cool enough to slow down the cold-blooded amphibians. The frogs were well camouflaged, and the men’s grab-and-snatch technique yielded few results. They finished the frog hunt by chasing some of the remaining frogs from the marsh onto the grassy area and grabbing them on dry ground. After they caught about a dozen frogs, Robert bound their small ankles together using a long flexible grassy weed. Robert then directed his attention toward the cattails in the shallow water. He guided Kyle back into the swampy area to harvest the marshy plant. Robert used his knife and they each harvested a full armload. Kyle grabbed the frogs and they walked back toward Richard with the soon-to-be entrees of frog legs and cattail salad.
    Richard was fumbling with scraps of wood and his lighter. There was still no fire. Robert took the hand axe and split some of the dry driftwood into small splinters. Then he took his knife and made a little pile of fine shavings from the driftwood. Around this, he placed small twigs, and nearby placed some larger branches waiting to be fed to the fire. Richard handed his lighter to Robert, and with a few sparks from the flint, the small bird’s nest of wood shavings began to smoke. Robert gently blew on the base of the smoking pile and a tiny flame appeared. He sprinkled more wood shavings on the flames, and added small twigs as the fire grew. After the twigs began to burn, he added a few larger branches to the fire. He then placed two big pieces of driftwood over the flames and, with a sigh of relief, considered his work with the fire complete.
    “Cut the frogs’ legs off, but leave them bundled together,” said Robert, as he handed his knife to Kyle. “When I get some red hot coals, I’ll roast them for us over the embers. Take the frogs’ entrails and use them for bait. Throw some lines in the water and hopefully we’ll have some fish for breakfast. I’ll peel the skins off the cattails and split up some of the food from the rafts.”
    The fire continued to burn well. Kyle returned from setting the trotlines for catfish. Robert got some bagels and small boxes of cereal from the rafts. Kyle decided he would wait until morning to filter more drinking water. There was plenty of water for their evening meal. Kyle decided that to filter water they would fill all their empty bottles at the end of the day. The bottles would be set upright and left undisturbed throughout the night, allowing the sediment to settle to the bottom. The settled water would then be put through the filter. By eliminating as much sedimentation from the process as possible, the filter should last longer. They discussed straining the river water through shirt fabric as an alternative to waiting for the sediment to settle, and agreed to do what was expedient.
    The three men sat around the fire. Robert poked at the burning wood and brought a pile of glowing embers closer to him. He fastened the bundle of frog legs to the end of a stick and held them near the coals. He pushed the end of the stick into the soft ground at an angle to keep the frog legs at the correct distance above the red embers, and slid a piece of wood under the stick for additional support.
    “How do you like your steak?” asked Robert, with a failed attempt at humor. The others, apparently hypnotized by the fire, said nothing in reply. Fatigue was settling in.
    Finally, Richard asked, “Can we split this stuff up now? I’m starving.”
    They each ate an even share of the bagels and boxed cereal taken from the hotel, and devoured the frog legs. Then Robert pointed to the cattails.
    “The cattails are peeled and ready to eat,” said Robert.
    He was first to try a cattail. He took one gingerly from the pile and slowly chewed. Kyle was next, and apprehensively took a bite of the cattail shoot.
    “Not bad,” said Kyle, “but I’m still hungry.”
    “I never thought I would eat something like this,” Richard said, as he tasted the white and green shoot.
    The sun began to set in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains shortly after the meal. Each man placed his raft where he chose to sleep that night. Richard stayed near the upstream end of the little island. His raft was closest to the fire and remained in the open. Robert and Kyle suggested that he move to a more concealed location, but Richard had no further energy to expend. He would sleep right where he left the raft. Richard sprawled awkwardly in the raft, covered himself with a tarp, and promptly went to sleep.
    Robert and Kyle both retreated to a thicket of shrubs and small trees farther away from the campfire, and the seclusion gave them a sense of security in the unfamiliar world of their new nighttime surroundings. Eager to rest, Robert and Kyle settled into their rafts. Robert chose this opportunity away from Richard to discuss long-term plans.
    “Have you thought about what you are going to do when you get back home to your wife?” asked Robert.
    “Yeah, I thought about it. I live in an urban area. It’ll be bad. My wife and I discussed staying in a cheap apartment for a while to save enough money for a down payment on a house. That might have been a bad idea.” Kyle paused and thought about his wife. “I hope she’s okay. She’s there and I’m here. There’s nothing I can do for her. It’s just us in that town, no family.”
    “Let me tell you what I was thinking.” Robert cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and spoke. “From what you have told me and what I’ve concluded is going to happen, your situation in Omaha is bleak. Consider where you live and ask yourself how you’re going to get food and water. Your neighborhood, if not your apartment building, is going to become a war zone. I bet your wife has already heard gunshots. It’s only going to get worse. Think about it, Kyle. I killed someone with a baseball bat today. Did I ever think that would happen to me? We need to stick together. Forget about Omaha and go to Kansas City with me.”
    “I’m not going to abandon my wife.”
    “No, you got it wrong. We get your wife and bring her with us. There is no safe place for you in that town.”
    “What about Richard?”
    “We bring him, too. I wanted to ask you first.”
    “What you said about cutting him loose from us still stands?” asked Kyle.
    “I’ll give him a chance. If he jeopardizes us or our ability to get back to our families, he is gone… just like that,” Robert said, snapping his fingers.
    “Your place is better, right?” asked Kyle.
    “Let me explain,” said Robert. “My house is in suburbia. I wish it was a rural setting but it’s not, so I’ll have to deal with that. However, I’m away from the urban area. My subdivision is located close to farmland and an enormous county park. That open parkland is next to my house. It’s a new subdivision and not all of the lots are developed. Therefore, I’ll have the advantage of low population density. The parkland I’m next to has an artificial lake. The lake is fed by a small stream a short distance down my street. I’ve seen deer, turkeys, geese, and ground hogs, you name it and I have seen it walking through my backyard. That’s food and water, Kyle. Let me tell you something else. I’ve been stockpiling food, the kind of food that will last for years, and seeds, too. We’ll have time to learn to grow our own food.”
    “Will you help me get my wife?” asked Kyle.
    “Yes, I’ll help you get your wife and bring her to Kansas City with us.”
    “I like your plan,” Kyle said, nodding with approval.
    Both men hung their heads and thought about what they had discussed. Traveling and surviving with a group could have its advantages. To survive, they needed every advantage they could get. Robert’s proposal offered several safety advantages and Kyle could not think of any reason not to accept the offer.
    “What did you say?” asked Kyle.
    “I didn’t say anything. I’m just thinking about how we can make this work and I’m glad you agreed,” said Robert.
    The men continued with their private thoughts, each thinking about travelling home and all the obstacles they would need to overcome.
    “What?” Kyle asked again.
    “I didn’t say anything. Get some sleep, you’re hallucinating,” Robert said, with a chuckle.
    “Shhhhh…” Kyle held his index finger to his lips.
    Robert froze in place. He could hear the voices now, too. His eyes were wide open and he could feel his heart trying to beat out of his chest. One of the voices sounded like Richard, very scared. The other was a deep voice, giving commands. In the dark of the night, Robert reached for the pistol hidden on the floor of his raft. His hand coupled with the handle of the pistol like they were old friends. Positioning the pistol in front of him and away from Kyle, he brushed his trigger finger across its safety. The pistol was now ready to kill, and Robert dreaded what he slowly began sneaking towards, still hidden by the brush. Stealthily, Robert and Kyle edged forward, inch by inch, on their bare feet, toward the voices. Each step felt like an eternity as their toes felt for dry twigs that might snap and reveal their presence. From a crouched position, Robert leaned around a bush and saw Richard cowering in his raft. There was enough light from the campfire for Robert to see a tall skinny man with tattoos on his arms, brandishing a machete at Richard.
    “Where are the others?” said the tattooed man with a threatening voice, while pointing the machete at Richard.
    “I don’t know! What do you want from me?”
    “I saw you fellas hav’n some trouble with your rafts on the lake. I saw you come down here, too. I was think’n that since you didn’t know how to use ‘em right, I’ll just take ‘em off your hands… and those supplies, too. Get your ass up!”
    The stranger never heard Robert’s panther-like approach. He did notice Richard’s facial expression change as he glanced past the tattooed man and toward the dark woods. Richard saw Robert with the pistol leveled at the intruder’s head. It was dark, but Robert had crept so close, a blind man could have got a perfect headshot. It was doubtful that the intruder had a chance to see Robert at all. Most likely, he never even saw the orange muzzle flash from the pistol. He was dead before he hit the ground.
    “Richard, are you okay?” asked Robert.
    “Yeah… I’m… okay.” Richard held his hands up and looked at them. They were shaking violently. Kyle came out from behind the bushes and told Richard he would have to move back into the thicket and stay concealed. Richard stepped out of the raft and helped Kyle carry it into the dark wooded area. As he walked away Richard felt the warm urine that had soaked his pants go cool in the nighttime air. He hoped the other two men did not notice and was glad to be walking into the darkness. The three finally drifted to sleep in their rafts, covered by their plastic tarps.
    Robert was the first to wake the next morning. He remained under the tarp as his mind migrated from the world of peaceful dreams to his newfound reality. His body was motionless as he lay there, listening to nature’s morning chatter by the river. He closed his eyes and tried to identify all the noises from his new surroundings. There was an orchestra of songbirds, crickets, frogs, a few buzzing insects that had found their way under the tarp, and the perpetual sound of the river. He pulled the tarp aside and felt the cool morning air. He groped around on the floor of the raft to verify that the pistol remained where he had hid it, then he stood and stepped out of the raft, saying quietly to himself, “Time to start the day.”
    Robert walked out of the thicket and toward the smoldering campfire. He split a few pieces of driftwood and tossed them on the glowing embers to get the flames back, hoping there would be fish to cook. Then his attention turned to the where he left the intruder last night. He glanced at the lifeless body, and walked toward it. The sound of chopping wood had awakened Kyle from the short night’s sleep. He joined Robert and they both stood staring at the man sprawled on the ground.
    “What do you want to do with the body?” asked Kyle.
    “Nothing. Let the buzzards have it,” Robert replied.
    Pointing at the body Robert said, “This is the reason why we need to avoid people. I can’t imagine what the roads will be like. They’re probably full of desperate people like this guy.”
    “What roads will be the worst?” asked Kyle.
    “The interstates will be bad. You don’t know how happy I am that we’re not trying to travel on an interstate. Lots of people were stranded on the interstates and with every second that passes, they’re going to get more desperate. Then inside the towns, I know there’s going to be road blocks and traps set for the unsuspecting.”
    “Robert, I looked at Richard’s map. I hate to tell you, but the interstate stays by this river for miles. We’ll be right beside that interstate for… I don’t know how long. I saw a small town on the map named Cascade, downstream from here. We might be able to get there by the end of the day. Then next is Great Falls, and we’ll have five dams to get around in about ten miles.”
    “Shit!” Robert exclaimed. “There are five dams outside of Great Falls?”
    “Yeah. I didn’t think you wanted to hear that. One more thing, Great Falls has a military base. There’ll be plenty of soldiers with guns that we need to avoid.”
    Robert shook his head and said, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about that. We’d better get busy. See if we got any fish last night and I’ll get more wood on the fire.”
    Kyle went to the trotlines that he had set the previous day. Each line was tied around a large stick and the end of the stick was hammered securely into the ground. He pulled on the first line and it felt heavy. Kyle hauled the line in and revealed a large catfish. He pulled the fish up to dry ground where it flailed convulsively. Kyle grabbed a large stick and hit the fish squarely on the head to kill it. He was able to retrieve two more catfish of similar size from the remaining lines, and the other fish met the same fate when he hauled them in. Kyle, now in possession of the switchblade that Robert had acquired, used it to cut a long flexible branch from a small tree. He used this little branch to thread through their gills so he could carry the fish after he cleaned them on the riverbank. He carefully looped each fishing line, then wrapped them in an old shirt and placed the bundle in the raft. Kyle was afraid that the fishhooks, if left uncovered, could puncture the raft. He walked back toward the campfire with the cleaned fish hanging on the green stick. Midway to the fire, he stopped and focused on the ground in front of him. He noticed a camouflage backpack in the weeds and picked it up to take back to camp.
    Richard was at the campfire, prodding the coals with a long stick. Robert was cutting newly picked cattails to length and then peeling the shoots for breakfast. Kyle approached Robert and dropped the backpack at his feet.
    Looking at the intruder’s dead body, and then looking at the backpack, Robert asked, “What did Santa Claus bring us?”
    Kyle passed the fish to Richard, then dumped the contents of the backpack on the ground. There were clothes, a knife, some paracord, binoculars, and cookware. He tossed the knife and cookware to Richard and told him to cook the fish in one of the pans. He also placed the machete back in its sheath and gave it to Richard.
    “Let’s keep all of it. You never know when we might need it,” Robert suggested.
    They ate boiled catfish and cattails, then boarded the rafts and resumed their journey.
    Heading downstream, they kept cautious eyes on the interstate. There were people still stranded on the road. Some saw the three men in their rafts and waved, while others were oblivious. Most of the stranded travelers would be dehydrated and beginning to get desperately hungry by now.
    At a point where the road came close to the river, they saw a woman by the water’s edge. She appeared to be drinking the river water. The woman was carrying a bundle of something in her arms, but the men were too far away to see what it was. Kyle put his paddle down and motioned for the others to do the same. He retrieved the binoculars from the backpack and brought the woman into focus. He could see she was carrying something close to her body as she positioned herself to drink the river’s water.
    “It’s a baby. She has a baby in her arms,” said Kyle.
    The woman looked up and saw the men floating down the river. Standing up, she lethargically began to wave with one arm. Her weakness overcame her and she went to her knees. She raised her weary arm to signal them again. The men could barely hear her attempt at a scream for help.
    “Look around. If it’s clear, we should try to help her,” said Robert.
    Fearing an ambush, Kyle looked around with the binoculars, but saw no threats. The riverbank gradually met the water with a barely existent slope. The men beached their rafts nearby and approached the woman. Robert immediately thought of the family he was desperately trying to get to. This increased the urgency he felt to help the woman and her baby.
    “Help me… help me, please… I need water… I’m hungry… my baby—,” the woman said before she glazed over with a fading consciousness. Regaining focus she began to speak again, “I need your cell phone… my… car—”
    “What’s your name?” Robert asked, interrupting the woman’s lethargic speech.
    “Beth,” she said softly.
    “Beth, I want you to sip this water,” said Robert. “Give some to your baby. You look dehydrated. Sip it slowly; I don’t want you to vomit. Keep the water down and we can give you something to eat.”
    They moved to the cover of a small shade tree. After the woman finished the bottle of water, Kyle handed her another one, reminding her to drink slowly. The woman appeared to gain focus in her pattern of speech, so Robert continued questioning her.
    “Where are you going?” asked Robert.
    “I was going to Helena to pick up my husband from the airport. He was on an early morning flight.” The woman looked down at her child. “This is our first child. He hasn’t even seen her yet. He’s been deployed overseas.” She leaned her head back against the trunk of the tree and closed her eyes. “My car died and my cell phone doesn’t work, either. There’s no way to call a tow truck and no one has driven by to help. I tried to walk to get help, but saw all the other stalled vehicles on both sides of the road.” Beth opened her eyes and shook her head. “I need to get my husband and get back to Great Falls.”
    “Beth, when your car stalled, did you see the massive display of northern lights?” asked Robert.
    “How did you know that is when my car stalled?”
    “We think there was a large solar storm responsible for causing that display of northern lights. It was so massive everything with a computer chip is dead and the power grid has been taken down, too. We’re lucky to have these rafts to take us home.”
    The woman appeared stunned and tearfully said, “My husband… he was on a jet… what about my husband?”
    “I’m sorry,” Robert said, in a hushed tone.
    The woman broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. Kyle and Richard walked a short distance away from the woman, but Robert stayed with her. He kept thinking of his family. He thought how easy it would be to collapse emotionally right now, but that would not help him get home. He knew they should help this woman and he wanted to make sure they did all they could. He gently touched her shoulder and spoke.
    “Beth, we’re going through Great Falls to get home. You can go with us. We can get you home. Grab your stuff. Don’t you have a stroller?” asked Robert.
    “They took it. Those men took the stroller and my purse,” she replied, as she pointed to the road.
    Robert immediately stood up and quickly looked around. Kyle and Richard, noticing Robert’s sudden alertness, became concerned and hurried back over.
    “She said she got mugged on the road.”
    “I don’t want any trouble. Let’s get out of here,” Richard said, as he inched backwards toward the raft, while continuing to scan the highway with his nervous eyes.
    “Get in my raft,” Robert told Beth. “I have some boxed cereal there. You can crush it and feed some to the baby.”
    The woman obeyed, and they pushed away from the shallow riverbank and began to float downstream again. The woman swallowed more water, ravished the dry cereal, and fed the baby what she could. After she and her baby ate and drank, they fell fast asleep in Robert’s raft.
    As the sun climbed higher in the sky, they travelled several more miles downstream. Richard motioned to the riverbank where there was some trees for shade. That is where they all stopped and pulled the rafts from the water. Richard headed to the bushes to relieve himself and smoke one of his precious cigarettes. Kyle had been studying the map and concluded that they could make it to the next town by sundown. Robert suggested they go just to the other side of the town and stop for the night. They needed to get food. Everyone ate a bagel and drank some newly filtered water. The shadow of the shade trees barely moved before they continued downstream again.
    Just outside of the small town, the woman and baby awoke. Robert could feel his body becoming fatigued from constantly paddling and steering the raft. It would be a good time to stop. As they gently floated past the quiet town, Kyle noticed a small park and that there was no one around. Robert only agreed to stop at this location because it offered trees and shrubbery to conceal the rafts and supplies. He was extremely hesitant about staying this close to the town.
    “Do you know anybody in this town, or have any relatives here, maybe?” asked Richard.
    “No, my husband is—,” she choked up, but maintained her composure, “was in the military. We moved around a lot. We were each other’s best friend.”
    “Richard, here’s the axe and machete,” said Kyle. “Get some wood together. I’ll use some grubs as bait and throw some lines in the water. We are going to try to find some food around here.”
    Richard nodded, and the woman sat down at a picnic table with her baby. Richard lit a cigarette and began to gather wood for a fire. The woman held the baby close and wished her husband could have gotten the chance to see his beautiful daughter. Beth pulled a small picture of her husband out of her pocket. She turned the photo over and read the back. He had written, “I love you” in red ink. Her eyes welled and a tear hit the picture near the red ink. The three words began to smear and then disappeared in an incoherent trail of red on the back of the photo.

Chapter Five

    The highway paralleling the river went through the small town. Robert and Kyle walked to the road from the river and followed it to the town’s outskirts. At the edge of town, the name of the highway changed to Main Street, and looking several blocks down Main Street, they could see what looked like a convenience store with its front door propped open. They thought it would be hot in the store, with the sun shining through the large glass windows, and no air conditioning or even an electric fan. As they got closer, the men could see a sign in the window that warned, CASH ONLY, and wondered to themselves how much longer that would last. From the sidewalk, they peered inside the store through the open door. The men saw a clerk leaning against the counter by the dead cash register, with his back to the door, fanning himself with a flat piece of cardboard. The clerk heard the men enter the store and turned, wiping the sweat from his brow with a rag, and staring at Robert and Kyle as they came in. The clerk had an awkward movement and tilt to his head as his gaze tracked the men walking through the store.
    Their plan was to use cash to buy supplies. Robert surmised, and Kyle agreed, that merchants would first stop using credit cards and then only accept cash. They wanted to use their cash before people realized it was also worthless. Food was their main priority. After the cash ran out, or people stopped using it, they would have to scavenge and barter, but they had nothing to barter with.
    “Cash only,” said the clerk.
    “We have cash,” Kyle replied.
    They found a short aisle with dried foods. Using a dusty blue plastic basket, they took all the bags of rice, beans, noodles, and spaghetti that were on the shelf. Robert found some dishtowels for sale. He grabbed two for Beth to use as diapers for the baby. They sat the small basket of dried goods on the counter and noticed that the man had a glass eye, explaining his strange stare. The clerk grabbed the basket and pulled it toward him.
    “One hundred dollars, please,” he stated flatly, without adding up the individual items.
    Robert replied angrily, “What kind of shit—”
    The clerk immediately pulled the basket off the counter, halting Robert’s response.
    “We get it, here’s your cash. Bag it up,” Robert said, trying to conceal his anger.
    The clerk stared directly at the men as he slid the cash off the counter and onto the palm of his hand. Fanning the twenty-dollar bills, he tilted his head toward the outside light from the window and panned over the paper bills with his one good eye. Satisfied, the clerk placed the money into his pocket, bagged the items, and then slid them halfway across the counter to Robert and Kyle.
    “Thank you and come again,” the clerk said sarcastically.
    “What a deal,” Robert said, as he grabbed the bags close to his body, holding tightly with both arms.
    “Yeah, what a deal. I would have given my right eye for this stuff,” Kyle said, as he looked directly at the clerk’s glass eye.
    The clerk held up his middle finger and pointed to the exit.
    Robert and Kyle walked back to the campsite down a nearly vacant Main Street. There were no moving cars, no electric lights, and only a few people out walking. At the end of the block, they turned the corner at a large old brick building on their way back to camp. Around the corner, they found themselves staring directly into the face of a horse, mounted by a man in uniform. They stepped back and saw that it was a police officer, with his hand on a pistol holstered to his leather belt.
    “Not from around here, are you?” the man on the horse asked in an offhanded tone.
    “Nope, just passing through,” replied Robert.
    “Just keep on passing through.”
    The officer watched them walk away toward the river and disappear into the bushes and small trees. They set the dry goods on the picnic table and Kyle got to work preparing to boil some of the food. Robert handed the towels to Beth, explaining that they could use them as diapers. She unwrapped the sleeping baby and put the blanket she had been using to hold her child onto the ground. Beth cleaned the baby as well as she could and wrapped her in a clean towel. Richard had found a working faucet at the campsite. Beth used the clean water to rinse the soiled blanket.
    She had just finished rinsing her hands when Kyle announced that the food was ready. They ate small portions of boiled rice and noodles, then Robert removed the equipment from his raft so he, Beth, and the baby could have room to sleep. After covering themselves with the tarp, they immediately feel asleep.
    With his eyes still closed, Robert sensed dawn’s morning light and decided to get up to start the day. He moved the tarp, startling Beth, which in turn startled the baby, and the baby’s crying woke the others.
    “Don’t tell me, I know. I’ll get the fire going,” Richard said to Kyle.
    “I’ll check the lines for fish,” Kyle replied.
    Robert looked at the two saplings that he had chopped down to make into bows for hunting. He was ready to get started on them. He burnt the end of a pencil-sized stick, and used the charcoal to mark dimensions on the oak staves. Robert retrieved the paracord from the backpack and unraveled it the length of the staves. He folded the paracord in half and marked the midpoint of its length with the charcoal pencil. Placing his hand around the stave just above the midpoint and then just below it, he made two additional marks to define the bow’s handgrip. He held each stave at one end and peered toward the other end, slowly rotating the wood. He needed to identify the curvature of the former sapling to find the future front and back of the bow. Each stave had a slight curvature along its length. The convex side would be the belly of the bow, and the opposite side, its back. This natural recurve would allow for some eventual set in the wood from the stress of being in the strung position. Robert was ready to start carving the belly of the bow away first, by working from the grip toward the tip.
    Robert found a gap in the slatted wood planks of the picnic table. He inserted a stave into the gap, wedged it there, and used the gap to hold each stave like a vice. Starting at the bow’s handle Robert held his knife with both hands, blade perpendicular to the wood, and pulled the blade back. The knife released thin shavings of wood. With each pull of the knife, he removed more wood as he got closer to the bow’s tip. He did this to allow for an even bend to the wood. The stave began to have a taper from the thickness of the handle toward the thinness of the tip. After he roughly carved the staves, he peeled away the remaining bark. The wood just underneath the bark of the stave would be the back of the bow. Satisfied, he decided to stop and allow the wood to dry further before doing any additional carving.
    Kyle proudly brought back three large catfish. The smell of the cooking catfish from Richard’s campfire teased their hunger. They shared small portions of rice, beans, and pasta, the catfish adding the missing flavor to their meager breakfast. Beth ground some dry cereal into powder, mixed it with water, and fed her crying baby.
    With their morning hunger temporarily suppressed, they decided it was time to get ready to leave. Kyle got the map out to identify their next destination. It would be Great Falls, a much larger town than their current location and it had a military base. The military base would be an uncertain variable. Robert expressed his concern and reminded them that a large group of people with weapons could be dangerous. There were also five dams to portage around within about ten miles, starting at Great Falls. They agreed to drop Beth off somewhere on the riverbank, near the city, then continue downstream without an excursion into the town. Getting around five dams would take time, and could take all day. They planned to stop just before the city, and at daybreak, pass through Great Falls and get around the dams. If the current was swift, they could make it to just outside of Great Falls, and camp there for the night.
    Before they left, they took advantage of the faucet at the campsite. After filling all the water bottles, each person had their turn trying to clean their bodies as best they could with the cold water from the camping spigot. Beth rinsed out her baby’s nighttime diaper and placed it flat on the raft to dry as they floated downstream.
    This section of the river had many curves. Small islands divided the waterway at several points, offering a riddle as to which side was best to pass. At midday, they came to a road crossing the river in front of them. Beth recognized the bridge spanning the water. It led to a small community near the highway that went into Great Falls. They stopped under the bridge for shade and decided to try using their remaining cash to get more food. Richard took the opportunity to smoke. The tendrils of cigarette smoke wafted around Beth and her daughter. She glared at Richard as she moved further away to cleaner air.
    “Let’s not stay here very long,” said Robert. “I don’t think we should build a fire. We don’t need the attention that would bring.”
    “You have all my cash,” said Richard. “I’ll wait here while you’re gone. Get what you can.”
    “Somebody has to stay awake,” Kyle said, looking at both Richard and Beth.
    “No problem, I have to watch the baby. I can sleep as we float if I really need to. By the way, there should be a little store close by on the right side of this road.” Beth pointed upward, toward the bridge.
    Kyle nodded and then prodded Robert with a small stick. Robert hesitated and walked back to the raft. He reached to the floor of the raft and retrieved his pistol.
    “I should carry this from now on. It needs to be a habit for me,” Robert said, as he tucked the pistol into his pants, concealing it with his shirt.
    The two men climbed the steep embankment and stood on the road. They looked back down and motioned for Richard and Beth to move further underneath the bridge because they saw them from the bridge.
    The midday sun was hot and it drained their energy away as they walked on the blacktop. The gentle breeze was welcome, but only offered minor relief from the heat. A small store came into view and they walked toward it, passing a few abandoned cars on the way. Some of the car doors were open and the cars had obviously been relieved of anything the looter thought had value. They decided to check the next vehicle for items they might need. Stopping at a pickup truck, they peered through the open door into the cab. The glove compartment was open and empty. With probing hands, Robert felt underneath the seat. Hidden farther back he found sunglasses, and placed the sunglasses on his face to model his newest accessory.
    “You look stunning,” Kyle said, sarcastically.
    As they got closer to the store, a woman was visible, nervously looking through the glass door. She did not see the two men yet. There was a sign on the door that stated, CASH ONLY, NO PHONE, and NO RESTROOMS. She turned toward them just as they approached the door and the woman jumped back, startled. The men stopped walking as she opened the door, but stood there blocking the entrance.
    “Can I help you guys?” the woman asked, trying to hide her apprehension.
    Robert’s sunglasses protected him from the glare of the store’s glass window. His hidden eyes glanced into the store. He saw a man trying to conceal himself behind the shelves of the first aisle, and peeking over it at them.
    “We want to buy a few things,” Robert said, trying to smile.
    The woman looked at the sign on the door and tore it off.
    “We’ve decided not to sell anything. We’re closing now. Goodbye.”
    Robert cautiously stepped toward the woman, and said, “Hold on. We just—”
    As Robert spoke, a small gust of wind blew his loose shirt back, revealing the pistol. Seeing the pistol, the nervous woman screamed. Instantly the man hiding in the store ran down the aisle toward the door. At the doorway, he leveled the shotgun and pointed it at Robert and Kyle. Both men raised their hands above their heads. Robert began inching backwards and Kyle followed.
    “Nobody is going to rob me! Keep walking or I will fill you full of lead,” the man said, as he continued to point the shotgun at both of them.
    “We have cash. Look, I’ll show you,” Robert said, as he slowly moved his hand toward his front pocket.
    “Move your hands another inch and I’ll kill you. My neighbor was murdered last night by thugs like you. It’s not going to happen to me,” the man said, as he jabbed the shotgun toward them in short, violent strokes.
    “Okay… okay… we’re leaving… we don’t want any trouble,” Robert replied, as he began to back away from the man at a quicker pace.
    When the man began to slowly lower the shotgun, they turned and continued walking away at an increasing speed. They repeatedly looked over their shoulders at the man holding the shotgun as they retreated, feeling some relief when the man relaxed his arms and the shotgun finally pointed down. However, at that moment, from a distance up the street, they heard another man’s voice yelling at them.
    “Hey! Hey!”
    They quickened their pace toward the bridge. Then they heard a barking dog. Looking back, they saw the man that was yelling and that he was restraining a large vicious-looking dog with a chain leash. The man had a shotgun pointed toward Robert and Kyle, and then he dropped the chain to the ground. The dog sprinted forward.
    “Run!” Robert screamed.
    Kyle was already in motion, sprinting for the embankment by the bridge as fast as he could. Robert felt the adrenalin instantly course through his body and his legs turned into steel springs propelling him forward. He could hear the dog’s claws on the asphalt, getting closer, and with a quick turn of his head, realized that he could not outrun the dog. Robert stopped running, grabbed the pistol from his belt, and spun around. He gripped the pistol tightly and used his other hand to chamber a cartridge. He dropped to a kneeling position and the dog lunged directly into two bullets and landed at Robert’s feet, dead. Two men were now coming their way with shotguns.
    “Get on the river! I’ll hold them back,” said Robert.
    Kyle disappeared down the embankment.
    “Don’t come any closer. I have the advantage,” yelled Robert, as he held the pistol up for them to see.
    “You killed my dog!”
    Robert did not reply. He walked backward to the embankment and was ready to run for his raft. Before he jumped down the embankment, he yelled back at the men to stay away or he would shoot to kill. Robert slid and jumped his way down the dirt slope and motioned for the others to push off. He jumped into his raft and pushed off the riverbank. Robert pushed his paddle against a concrete pier supporting the bridge and fiercely paddled away. As the river curved, he paddled toward the cover of low hanging trees. He heard a shotgun blast from the bridge, but the distance was too far. They had successfully escaped and headed downstream again.
    The sun was at their backs and getting lower on the horizon when Beth said that they were just upstream from Great Falls. They slowed down near an airport observation tower on their left and hugged the riverbank with their rafts. Beth explained that it was a civilian airport and the military base was further down on the right side. Robert did not want to get closer to the city and pointed to a little island splitting the river. They put ashore on the island and carried the rafts and equipment into the shrubbery for concealment. They all gathered driftwood for a fire and Kyle found grubs under a fallen tree to use as bait. Kyle set the lines for the night and joined the group back at the campfire. He found an abandoned cooler by the riverbank and offered it to Beth to use as a seat for her and the baby.
    “What do we do now?” asked Richard.
    After a brief silence Robert said, “We need to eat. I think we’re all starving at this point. It would be best to eat what we got from the hotel first. It’ll spoil the soonest.” Robert stood up and looked around before speaking again. “Go ahead and split up the food. I’ll take a walk around to see if there is anything else to eat.”
    “Oh, not more cattails,” Richard moaned.
    Robert pointed to the bow staves and said, “If I can get those done, we’ll have more options for food.”
    “Need any help looking?” asked Kyle.
    “No, this won’t take long,” replied Robert. “Try to get some fish for us.” He gestured toward the far end of the island. “I don’t hear any frogs nearby. The best I can do will probably be some greens.” Robert walked away to forage and Richard grabbed the axe to get more wood for the fire.
    “You’re home,” Kyle said, smiling at Beth.
    Beth smiled back. “Almost. The best thing for me would be to go further downriver and go ashore just before you have to go around the first bridge. It wouldn’t be good to start walking the rest of the way now that it’s getting darker.” Beth began to rock her child. “I keep wondering if, at a place like this, martial law would be declared. Nervous people can get trigger-happy. I don’t want to get shot in the dark.” The baby began to cry again. “I really need to get a new towel on her and clean this one in the water,” she explained and excused herself to go to the riverbank.
    Kyle toasted a bagel in the flames and thought it tasted delicious. As he ate, he noticed Robert moving about in the tall grass. He felt guilty sitting there, so he got up and trotted over to Robert. He noticed Robert had an armful of some green plants.
    “What is that?” inquired Kyle.
    “I call it lambsquarters. I remember my grandmother showing it to me when I was young. She told me they gathered and ate it all the time on the farm. I have it growing around my house, too. It grows like a weed.”
    “That reminds me. Did you tell Richard that I’m continuing to Kansas City with you? Did you invite him, too?”
    “No, I am dreading that, but I should get the invitation over with,” Robert said, as he shook his head in doubt.
    At the campsite, Robert pulled each green leaf from the plant, making a mound of primitive salad. Robert grabbed a handful and began to chew. It had a bitter taste, but he thought it would suffice. They were at nature’s mercy now and had to make do with what they had.
    “Is it any good?” asked Beth, not realizing the grimacing expression on her face.
    “Not as good as a fancy restaurant salad with lots of ranch dressing, but it’ll do,” said Robert.
    Beth took a bite. “Bitter, but okay. Kind of tastes like spinach.”
    “Well, I like spinach and I’m starving. Here goes nothing,” said Kyle.
    Richard was the most reluctant and the last to try the greens. He gagged slightly and said, “I need a cigarette.”
    The next morning Robert woke to the noise of green wood crackling on the fire. The Montana air smelled fresh and complimented the hint of pine smoke from the fire. Robert saw that it was Richard stoking the fire and approached him to speak.
    “Kyle is going to Kansas City with me. You’re invited too. You can stay at my place. If we all work together, maybe we can have a better chance to get through this,” said Robert.
    “My condo is in the middle of a concrete jungle. I don’t have a chance there. I can stay at your house… really?”
    “Yeah, really. Where’s our fisherman?”
    Richard pointed toward Kyle. He was already up and had checked the lines. Kyle had two fish strung through the gills using a willow branch. In his other hand, he had a large crayfish. He held the crayfish up for Robert’s inspection.
    “Well, well, well… what do we have here… lobster for breakfast?” Robert asked with a laugh. “Not a bad idea. I’ll be right back,” Robert said, as he picked up an empty pan and darted toward the river.
    Robert went to an area with shallow water. He carefully turned all the large flat rocks over to reveal the creatures underneath. The crayfish were plentiful. He caught seven more and returned to the campfire with his bounty. They ate some bagels with the roasted catfish and boiled crayfish. The baby ate a little crushed cereal, but no one was full. They had to stretch out the food supply.
    Robert wanted to work on the bow for a while before heading downstream to the first dam. He needed a way to hold the wood tight and still so he could use both hands to hold the knife and carve the wood. He noticed a small tree that bifurcated into an acute angle at its trunk, a few feet above the ground. With Kyle’s assistance, he set the bow stave in the bifurcation of the tree trunk and Kyle stood on the other side of the tree pulling the end of the stave at an angle to lock it tightly in place. It worked; the stave held solid in that position. Robert angled the knife toward the wood and held the blade tightly with both hands. Slowly, he pulled the knife toward himself removing more thin shavings of wood. Occasionally he would remove the stave from the tree and compare both sides for symmetry. When Robert judged that he had completed enough rough carving, he held one end of the stave in his left hand and put the other tip of the stave to the ground. He pushed onto the center of the bow and it started to bend. Then he went through the same process with the other bow.
    “Perfect!” Robert exclaimed. “These need to dry completely, then I’ll take the length down to size. We’ll keep them in the sun. With this dry air, it shouldn’t take too long at all.”
    “We still need arrows and strings,” said Kyle.
    “One thing at a time, my friend. Trust me. Now let’s get out of here. We have five dams waiting for us,” Robert said, holding up all the fingers of his right hand.
    It was another bright, clear day. The morning sun was in their eyes as it rose higher in the distant horizon. Robert thought about the sun as he paddled toward it. Should he blame the sun? Or maybe the blame should go to humans for being so completely dependent on little computer chips. The answer did not matter; they could not change their predicament. He looked upward and saw buzzards circling in the sky on invisible columns of air. He reaffirmed his promise to himself that he would survive and make it back home to his family.
    Where the interstate crossed the river, there was a small road running parallel and close to the water. They got the raft to the riverbank and let Beth and her child out.
    “Thank you so much,” she said profusely. “I don’t know what would have happened to us if you hadn’t come along.”
    Robert asked, “Where will you go? What will you do?”
    “I live off base in an apartment. I’ll go back there and see what happens. I really don’t know.”
    She turned and walked away, stopping once to smile back at the men as they receded from her view.
    The men floated under several bridges on the way to the first dam. They observed men, wearing uniforms of military camouflage and holding automatic weapons, patrolling the bridges. Whispering amongst themselves as they stealthily floated downstream, they speculated on what the military’s orders were. Was there already martial law? They agreed this was a bad situation and they should surreptitiously continue toward the dams and away from this city and the military base.
    According to the map, they would get closer to the base as they went toward the dams. At the first dam, the Air Force base came into view just past the crest of the riverbank on their right side. The men noticed a walking trail parallel with the river and going toward the dam. Unfortunately, the trail was on the military base’s side of the river. Kyle retrieved the binoculars from the backpack and slowly scanned the dam and trail. He saw no one patrolling the dam. He wondered if the military was just patrolling streets in town and roads into the military base.
    The men stopped at the riverbank where a tree had bent over and leaned into the river. The tree’s fallen canopy gave them cover from unwanted observation, as well as a place to secure the rafts.
    “This is it,” said Robert.
    “Now what?” Richard asked.
    “We get these rafts to the top of the dam one at a time, and move as fast as we can.”
    On dry land, Robert placed the front of the raft on his shoulders and looked forward with an uncomfortably bent neck, but the pistol felt reassuring, tucked in the waistband of his pants. Kyle and Richard held up the raft from the back. They all moved to the top of the dam as fast as Richard could go. At the trail’s crest at the end of the dam, the rear of the raft suddenly fell to the ground. When Robert turned around and straightened his neck, he saw the horrified look on his friend’s faces. Their eyes were wide, jaws open, and their hands were in the air. Robert turned quickly forward and saw two soldiers with automatic weapons running toward them. The soldiers had been just over the crest of the dam and out of view.
    The first soldier commanded, “Freeze! Don’t move or I’ll shoot!”
    “The colonel said we can shoot intruders. Should we shoot them?” asked the second soldier.
    “Get the colonel. He may want to see this,” said the first soldier.
    Robert stared in silence at the remaining soldier. The name on his shirt was Ramirez. He looked young. Probably still a teenager. Ramirez paced around the three men, still pointing his automatic weapon at them. He had the men standing on the trail with their hands on their heads. He stopped behind them and began to taunt them.
    “Bang… bang… bang,” jeered Ramirez, as he stood behind them and laughed.
    “We didn’t do anything!” screamed Richard.
    “Shut up, fat ass!” commanded Ramirez. “Now get your fat ass on the ground. Face down. Now!”
    Ramirez stood over Richard and straddled his body. He began to poke Richard’s head, neck, and back with the barrel of his rifle. Ramirez was debating aloud to Richard exactly where he should shoot him before he threw his body over the dam. As the rifle barrel slowly worked its way down Richards’s spine, Ramirez noticed the pack of cigarettes in Richard’s back pocket and took them. He lit a cigarette, pulled the smoke deep into his lungs, and slowly exhaled.
    “Thanks, fish bait. I needed a cigarette,” Ramirez sneered mockingly at Richard.
    Still standing over Richard’s prone body, Ramirez did not notice the second soldier returning with the colonel.
    “Ramirez, what are you doing?” barked the colonel.
    Ramirez jumped at the sound of the colonel’s voice. He flicked the lit cigarette into the air, dropped the pack of cigarettes, and nervously stood at attention. “Sir, we captured intruders, sir.”
    The colonel turned to the second soldier. “You said you captured terrorists.”
    The colonel was a short, stocky man with a shaved head, camouflage hat, and sunglasses. He stepped in front of Robert and Kyle to get a look at the captured men. He stared at them and tilted his head to the side. He kept looking back and forth at Richard on the ground and the two men standing, and then he took a step back and began to laugh loudly as he removed his hat and sunglasses.
    “Colonel Sheppherd?” asked Robert.
    The colonel laughed louder and slapped Robert and Kyle on the back.
    Ramirez’s disposition totally changed. He kept glancing at the other enlisted soldier with a confused look on his face. The other soldier tried to ignore Ramirez staring at him, because he had just realized that they must have made a terrible error.
    “You ladies made a dumbass mistake here,” the colonel said, looking at both soldiers.
    The colonel stepped closer to Robert and lifted Robert’s shirt enough to reveal the pistol in his beltline. “If this ‘terrorist’ wanted you dead, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Go find your sergeant. Both of you are relieved from patrol.”
    “Am I glad to see you,” said Robert.
    “Now that you’ve been captured, do you want to be interrogated in the mess hall?” the colonel asked, laughing.
    “Food?” Richard asked, still prone in the dirt.
    “Yes,” the colonel replied, but then he corrected himself, “a ration of food.”
    The colonel leaned down close to Richard’s ear and whispered, “You might as well get up now. I already know you pissed your pants.”

Chapter Six

    Colonel Sheppherd escorted the men into the mess hall for an early lunch. They each got a ration of cold food, and sitting at a small round table, they devoured it. They told the colonel about their plan to get home and what they had seen so far. He nodded with approval at their plan and reminded them that they needed more practice at not letting the bad guys catch them. The colonel started to tell how he made it to Great Falls, but was interrupted.
    “Sir,” said a young soldier, standing at attention.
    “What is it?”
    “Sir, the general needs to speak with you right now, sir.”
    Colonel Sheppherd reflexively looked at his wrist to see the time and was embarrassed when he realized that the digital watch was no longer there. It had stopped working, along with all the other computerized devices he owned, and being useless, he had already thrown it away. He sent the soldier on his way with orders to let the general know he would be right there.
    “Duty calls,” said the colonel. “Follow me. I’ll take you to my room on my way to meet the general. You can get cleaned up there. When I come back, I want to trade some more stories before you go.”
    The colonel’s room had a small window facing in the direction of the river. The window allowed adequate light for the three men to see as they cleaned up in the bathroom. They took quick showers, washing their dirty clothes in the shower with them. Robert opened the window and they spread their clothes out to dry. The men, overcome with fatigue, promptly fell asleep.
    The men awoke later to the door swinging open and the colonel’s loud voice commanding them to, “Rise and shine.” The light through the window was much dimmer now. After Robert rubbed his eyes, he realized that they must have been asleep for hours and that the colonel was not alone.
    The general had told Colonel Sheppherd to meet them in the cafeteria. They would discuss business over evening meal rations.
    “Get dressed,” ordered Colonel Sheppherd. “General Matthews has business to discuss with you.”
    “What could he want from me?” asked Richard.
    “Actually, all of you. Meet me back where we ate lunch. It’s more like a favor, so don’t worry about it.”
    Robert was the first to get dressed. He looked out the little window toward the river. It was late in the day and he realized that it was too late to get started around the dams. The river valley reminded him of what he needed to do and that his only objective was to get back to his family and protect his children. He wanted to leave now, but felt obligated to stay and listen to the general.
    The three men walked back into the cafeteria. They immediately noticed Colonel Sheppherd with the general and several other officers sitting at a long table. The general was at the end of the table speaking. The colonel looked up and saw the men standing at the entrance to the cafeteria. He motioned them over and several people moved away from the table so the three men could sit together. With a few quick hand gestures from the general, a young soldier hurried off to the food line and brought back three rations of food for their new guests. The general stood, and in a southern accent, addressed the three men.
    “Colonel Sheppherd has explained your quandary to me. I commend you for adapting, and overcoming this crisis facing us Americans, if not the entire world. Those of us who have grown accustomed to and dependent on high technology will be affected the most. I fear a dire outcome. However, like you three gentlemen, we are also going to adapt and overcome.”
    The general exhaled with a sigh. “We need food. There are thousands of people in town and on this base. The trucks are not going to show up with food anymore and the high-tech machinery used to harvest the crops is obviously not going to work. Ironically, farmland and cattle ranches surround us. We need help from the communities surrounding us. Our city population can provide manual labor to help harvest the crops. This base can supply an organized force to provide protection and security. The country is going to Hell in a hand basket, and soon organized gangs will form and have the power to terrorize the small communities that surround us. If we can get those communities to cooperate, everyone benefits.”
    The general sat down and leaned forward as he continued to speak. “I would like you gentlemen to deliver a message to Fort Benton from the people of this base and the city of Great Falls. I understand your chosen route is to take the Missouri River back to your homes. Fort Benton is right on your way. I have a handwritten message signed by the members of the city council and me, promising protection for their community, and workers to harvest the crops. All we want is food in return for that protection and security.”
    “Forgive me for asking, but why don’t you have your men do this?” Robert inquired.
    “We are all working double time to keep things orderly around here. There are a few vehicles… older and maybe unreliable vehicles… that our mechanic crew has been able to get operating again. We have a lot of people on patrol to deter impending chaos, civil unrest, and all that comes with it. A contingent of personnel is currently heading westerly to rescue the missile launch officers in the Minuteman silos. Our resources are spread thin. In a nutshell, it’s on your way and we need your help,” said the general, now leaning back in his chair waiting for a response. The general had noticed that Robert and his two companions were nodding their heads as he spoke. He did not doubt that they would cooperate.
    “I want to help,” Robert responded.
    “Fantastic!” exclaimed the general. “I should also tell you that we want to help you. The colonel has requisitioned one of the trucks that is still working. Using the truck, we can get you around the dams, all five of them. That should get you home a little faster. Before you go, have the colonel take you to see a supply sergeant. He will get you some MREs and supplies for your journey. I can’t give you any weapons. I hope you understand.”
    “You have a deal,” said Kyle, nodding to Robert and Richard.
    With a few quick hand gestures from the general, a young soldier scurried off and returned with three cots.
    “Stay with the colonel tonight. I have assigned him to get you on your way in the morning.” The general nodded, then turned abruptly and left the dining hall.
    “Let’s put the cots in my room and go find a supply sergeant,” the colonel said, as he stood, waving the men toward his room.
    The supply sergeants were located across the base, away from the officers’ quarters. The colonel walked them toward the inventory building. They passed countless stalled vehicles cluttering the base. As they walked, the colonel said in a low voice to the three men, “Look around. If we were attacked right now, there’s nothing we could do. Let’s hope nobody can take advantage of what has happened to us.” Speaking in a normal but sad tone, the colonel added, “I hope the best for the missile launch officers in the underground missile silos. They have sent teams of volunteers to get those the men out. I hope the missile silos don’t become their graves.”
    Sergeant Haber stood at attention when Colonel Sheppherd entered the supply requisition office. Robert, Kyle, and Richard, walked in behind the colonel. Colonel Sheppherd introduced the men to Sergeant Haber, who was working alone. The colonel returned the sergeant’s salute and said, “At ease, Sergeant. These men need some supplies,” as he handed the sergeant the signed requisition. The colonel turned and pointed toward the door where they had just entered the building. “Is that jalopy out front the transportation for these men to get around the dams?”
    “Yes, sir. The mechanic told me to tell their driver to choke the throttle hard to start it,” said Sergeant Haber. He held up the truck’s key and dangled it with two fingers.
    “The mechanic is not their driver?” asked the colonel.
    “No, sir.”
    The colonel turned to face the concrete block wall. He raised his forearm to the wall and leaned against it, burying his forehead into the bend of his arm. “Oh crap, they need someone to drive them and then bring the truck back.”
    Sergeant Haber held up the key again and said, “Sir, I’ll volunteer. I’m cycled off duty tomorrow and would like to get a chance to drive that old thing. It reminds me of an old flatbed we had on the farm back in Illinois. I’m a little homesick, sir.”
    “Deal.” The colonel motioned for Sergeant Haber to keep the keys. “They’re going to bunk in my room tonight. Work out what time to meet in front of the officers’ quarters tomorrow morning. I have to get to another meeting right now.” The colonel walked away and turned to give a quick salute just before he went through the exit door.
    Sergeant Haber picked up a pad of paper and a pen, walked to the row of windows, and pulled the blinds up to let in the remaining light of the day. He tapped the pen on the pad and asked, “What do you need?”
    The three men stood facing each other. They exchanged ideas with brief debates. Their immediate concern was food and they were each able to get a case of MREs. Robert requested some digital camouflage clothing. Richard mentioned they did not have anything for first aid, so the sergeant handed him a first-aid kit. As an afterthought, Robert doubtfully asked for a multi-tool with a small saw and was pleased to get one that would help him finish the bows. Kyle looked down at his worn shoes and requested some boots from the sergeant, who found each of them a pair. Robert thought it would be a good idea to get wool blankets, just in case the weather got cold at night. He still doubted how fast he could get back home, although he desperately hoped it would be before it truly did get cold.
    After an extended period of silent contemplation from the three men, Sergeant Haber asked, “Is that it?”
    Each man nodded silently as they looked at their supplies.
    “What time shall I meet you?” said Sergeant Haber, lifting an eyebrow.
    Richard held his bare wrist up to the sergeant. “We don’t have watches that work anymore.”
    “Shit… you’re right… I don’t either. Can you get your breakfast rations, then meet me at sunrise in front of the officers’ quarters?”
    “Sounds like a plan,” said Kyle, speaking for the others as he turned to walk toward the exit. “We have to get going now.”
    On the way back to the room, they noticed dark clouds coming in from the horizon. Robert mentioned the two rafts they had left concealed on the riverbank; he was concerned about the approaching storm raising the water level. They decided to drop the new gear off at the room, move the two rafts up to the top of the dam, stake them down, and use the tarps to cover their supplies.
    Dusk was approaching rapidly and so were the dark clouds. They trotted down to the riverbank and untied the two concealed rafts. With three men to a raft, they moved them to higher ground. Kyle used his little axe and made stakes to lash the rafts to the ground before covering them with a tarp. They finished just as it started to rain, and jogged swiftly back to the room, but to no avail. They were soaked by the time they got inside. They were all still fatigued and agreed the best thing to do would be to just go to sleep. They needed the rest, and everyone agree that this was probably the last time they would sleep inside for a while. They took off their wet clothes and covered themselves with their new wool blankets. Deep sleep came quickly to all three men. They did not hear the colonel come back, bumping the furniture in the dark room, and cursing at his dead flashlight.
    The colonel was the first to wake the next morning. He stood up and clapped his hands loudly to announce the dawn of the men’s departure. Richard groaned and pulled the blanket over his head. Kyle stood up and gave Richard’s cot enough of a kick to get his attention, then pulled the blanket off his head.
    “It’s probably later than you think. Cloudy and raining outside, looks miserable,” said the colonel, as he lifted the blinds on his small window. “Let’s get some chow and get you out of here.”
    Robert was noticeably withdrawn that morning. He had dreamed about his children being in danger and he could do nothing to help them. He woke up thinking about his current situation and began to brood over his new reality, which was a nightmare he had to struggle through. All he could do was survive day by day and keep moving forward. As the other men talked at the cafeteria table, he rested his face in the palms of his hands, hovering over his meager ration of food. Kyle noticed the change in Robert’s disposition. He slapped him on the back to bring him into the conversation at the table. He did not ask what was bothering Robert. He knew, and there was nothing he could do about it.
    “Let’s find our chauffeur,” said Robert, as he stood up, looking toward the exit.
    Sergeant Haber was ready and waiting for them by the flatbed truck. He was wearing a rain poncho and had brought three more for the men. They quickly put the rain gear on and jumped on the flatbed, tucking the wool blankets and other new supplies under their ponchos to keep them dry. As soon as they jumped on the truck, the colonel dashed for the entrance to the officers’ quarters and saluted them quickly before he stepped inside. The Sergeant pulled the choke fully and closed his eyes as he turned the key. To his astonishment, the motor turned over on the first try, with a cloud of dark smoke from the exhaust. He pumped the accelerator a few times with his foot, the engine responded with a moan and more smoke.
    Robert leaned forward and pointed to the direction of the dam near where they secured the rafts. The sergeant slowly released the clutch and the truck jumped forward, rocking the three men in the back. The sky was pewter gray with low hanging clouds. Raindrops smacked the plastic of their rain ponchos hard as the truck strained to go faster. The men pulled their hoods over their faces and waited for the truck to stop. As the truck slowed near the dam, Robert tapped the top of the cab, leaned to the driver window, and pointed to the three rafts on the ground, still covered with tarps. The sergeant pulled up next to the rafts and pointed the truck toward the road that would portage the men and rafts around the dams. They stacked the rafts on the flatbed and Robert and Kyle began tying them securely in place. The sergeant and Richard stood by the passenger door and tried to talk over the pounding rain and echoes of thunder.
    “Someone should ride in front now,” suggested Sergeant Haber.
    Richard opened the passenger door to take advantage of the invitation. He saw a black duffle bag on the seat and reached across to move it. The sergeant lunged and grabbed Richard’s arm.
    “Hold it, hold it… I’ll move that out of your way,” said the sergeant, as he pushed Richard’s arm away from the bag. The sergeant gently moved the bag over to the driver’s side and then he went to the other side of the truck and gingerly picked up the bag, then set it carefully on the floor. The sergeant took the driver’s seat and everyone else found their spot on the truck. With another cloud of black smoke, the truck lunged forward again and into first gear. The sergeant drove the truck slowly up, then down the hills around the dams.
    Richard saw the sergeant’s knuckles turning white from his tight grip on the steering wheel. The sergeant was silent as he drove. He stared at the wet road ahead, occasionally glancing down at the black duffle bag. As the truck approached the last dam, Richard noticed the sergeant had started sweating profusely. The windows were slightly rolled down and the air was cool. Richard tried not to stare, but he could see that there was something different about the sergeant now.
    The sergeant stopped the truck at the top of the last dam. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still dark and gray. Looking past the dam, they could see a gentle slope to the river. The sergeant helped them take the equipment down to the riverbank. They left the wool blankets in the truck cab to stay dry.
    “I’ll put your blankets in my bag and meet you down there, go ahead,” said the sergeant, pointing to the rafts near the water. He waited until the men turned their backs and slowly removed the black duffle bag. The sergeant unzipped the bag and carefully placed the blankets inside. He carried the bag down to the river and sat it down by the raft nearest the riverbank. He was now between the men and that raft. He removed the blankets and tossed them into one of the rafts.
    “I was thinking it was too bad we couldn’t get you any weapons for your journey. It’s such a shame. You have a long way to go and there are a lot of bad guys out there.” The sergeant spread his feet a little wider as he stood in front of Robert’s raft. “I heard you were lucky enough to get a pistol. What kind is it?”
    “9mm,” Robert said, looking confused at the question.
    “That’s fantastic. Do you mind if I take a look?” asked the sergeant, with a forced smile.
    The sergeant took a step toward Robert. “I am a big fan of firearms, I love the 9mm… do you mind?” asked the sergeant again, now holding his open hand toward Robert. “Look, I brought a wonderful assault rifle. It’s in my bag, right here. The stock collapses… why don’t you have a look at it?” The sergeant got closer to Robert.
    Robert pulled the pistol out of his pants and handed it to the sergeant. The sergeant smiled and passed the pistol from hand to hand. He took a few steps back toward his black bag by the raft. “Robert… Robert… Robert… a good soldier never gives up his weapon,” stated the sergeant coldly, as he looked up from the pistol, shaking his head disapprovingly. “I think I should keep this pistol, Robert… I wouldn’t abandon a good pistol… especially if it was my only weapon.”
    Robert’s face was red with anger. His hand was on his knife under the rain poncho, gripping it tightly. But Sergeant Haber had the pistol; Robert knew there was nothing he could do about it.
    “What kind of shit is this?” said Robert, angrily. “You have your choice of weapons back there. You’re in supply and can get anything you want. We need that!”
    “Yes… plenty of weapons, kept in the armory, locked up tight and guarded. But no rafts. And correction… I was in supply. I quit this morning,” said Sergeant Haber, sarcastically. “I should thank you for your idea on how to get home. I’ll be going back to Illinois. My parents have a farm there.” The sergeant sneered. “They will be out of food on the base and in the city before winter arrives. You’re crazy if you think I am sticking around for that. Thousands of hungry people with automatic weapons… no thanks.” The sergeant pulled an envelope sealed in a plastic bag out of his duffle. “Here is the general’s message for Fort Benton,” said the sergeant, as he put the envelope, sealed in a plastic bag, on the ground. The sergeant began to push the raft onto the water after gently loading his duffle bag into the raft. “Don’t follow me. I prefer to travel alone,” warned the sergeant, as he patted the black bag. “Stay away.” The sergeant jumped into the raft and pushed away from the shore. The three men stared at him and he stared back as he floated away.
    “I didn’t see that coming,” said Robert, in a subdued voice. Robert picked up the letter from the general and dropped it into Richard’s raft. He turned and looked at his two companions and said, “I saw what was in the bag. It was full of ammunition, grenades, and maybe some explosives, too.”
    Richard’s eyes grew wide as he listened to Robert speak, and said, “When I reached to move that bag, he freaked a little. That explains it.”
    “There’s nothing we can do about it,” said Kyle. “Double up with Richard. Set part of his stuff in my raft to give yourself some more room.”
    They transferred some of the supplies between rafts. Robert was now sharing Richard’s raft, and they moved the rafts near the water. Just before they pushed off, Robert noticed a stand of river cane at the riverbank. They delayed their departure to cut down several dozen of the bamboo-like plants.
    “What’s it for?” asked Richard, as Robert put a bundle of river cane next to him. “It looks like skinny bamboo.”
    “Keep these dry and I’ll turn them into arrows for the bows,” said Robert. “I’ll try to hunt with them; it’s all we’ve got now.”
    The men pushed away from the bank. Gray clouds remained low in the sky. Intermittent raindrops would tease the men every time they thought about removing their rain ponchos. The river had swollen from the rain and the current grew stronger.
    For miles, they saw desolate rock bluffs and scruffy patches of grass under the gray sky. Their surroundings appeared inhospitable. By late afternoon, their journey had taken them to a small oasis on the riverbank. They approached a gravel clearing that joined to green grass and trees. Kyle was first to signal that this was the place to stop for the day. They pulled the rafts out of the water and surveyed the new landscape with wide, alert eyes. Robert took the hatchet to chop driftwood for a fire, hoping the inside of the wood had remained dry. Kyle and Richard decided to find a secluded area to camp in the thicket of woods. They found a flat spot under the canopy of trees. They noticed an existing fire ring someone else had used. The ashes were old and cold; no one was around now. Robert brought several pieces of driftwood and split them open. The center of the wood was dry. Robert split the dry core from the wood to use as kindling to start a fire, and when he had sufficient kindling, he gathered some larger pieces of wood, leaving Kyle and Richard to get the fire started. Robert wanted a good fire this evening because he was determined to dry the bow wood further, and the green river cane, too. When the wood and cane were completely dry, he would be able to finish them and hunt for food. With a bow and arrow, he might be able to get something bigger and different than fish to eat.
    In spite of the damp weather, they were able to create a decent fire. Robert bundled the river cane tightly together to keep it straight as it dried. Next to the cane, but still at a safe distance from the fire, Robert placed the bow wood.
    “I’m starving.” Richard’s stomach growled with hunger. “Can we eat now?”
    “Are the bagels still any good? Think they’ve gone stale yet?” asked Robert.
    Richard reached into his raft. “I don’t care if they’re stale. We have to eat something,” said Richard, as he handed each man a bagel.
    “I’ll go set the lines for fish and filter some water,” said Kyle, as he walked away.
    Robert sat by the fire and alternated holding the river cane and bow wood close to it. Keeping it warm would dry the wood faster. As he sat there, he noticed something flicker under a bush, reflecting the fire light. He pulled it out from under the bush and showed it to Richard. It was the Mylar wrapper of an MRE.
    “Did you eat this?” Robert asked Richard.
    “No, I never touched them. We only have a few left.”
    Robert stared at the wrapper in silence. Then he spoke angrily, “That bastard Sergeant Haber was here. I bet we just missed him.”
    In the distance, Robert and Richard heard Kyle yelling. “Hey! Get over here.”
    Robert held his index finger to his lips, signaling Richard to be quiet. Robert grabbed his knife and whispered to Richard, “Haber?”
    Richard shrugged his shoulders and looked for a place to hide. Robert motioned with his hands that they should split up and Robert would be the one to circle around to Kyle. Robert slowly moved through the trees looking in the direction of Kyle’s voice. When the shrubbery began to clear, he saw Kyle holding something with both hands. It looked like a large rock. There was no sign of Sergeant Haber.
    “Look, a salt lick. This will go good with some fish or whatever we get,” said Kyle.
    “You have got to be kidding. We thought you ran into Haber,” said Robert, looking around the horizon and shaking his knife at the river. “I found an MRE wrapper back there and thought you might have run into him.”
    Kyle cringed at the thought of meeting up with Haber. “Nope, but I found a tree house back there. Go check it out,” said Kyle, nodding in the direction he had come from.
    Robert walked back into the wooded area, looking upward. In a heavily branched tree, he saw something, but it was not a tree house. It was a deer stand. That would explain the salt lick. This would be a great location to hunt deer. The deer could eat the plentiful grass and come back for the salt lick and river water. He approached the boards nailed to the tree and tested the first few with his hands. They felt strong enough to hold him and they were not heavily weathered. He estimated the structure was only a couple of years old. Robert sheathed his knife and began to climb the ladder. He pulled himself up into the stand and surveyed the landscape. It was the perfect spot to hunt deer.
    “Anything up there?”
    “There are just some newspapers up here. I’ll bring them down and we can use them to start fires.”
    Robert bent over to grab the pile of newspapers. As he wrapped his hands around the papers to scoop them up, he felt a sharp pain in one of his fingers. He recoiled, and kicked the papers to the side angrily. He looked back where the papers had been. Robert’s jaw dropped and his mouth hung open in awe at what he had just found. He dropped to his knees in disbelief. The razor sharp tip of an arrow had cut him. There were a dozen carbon-fiber arrows with broadhead blades, and a quiver lying under the old newspapers. He touched each arrow as if it was a priceless crystal statuette and gently placed each one, tip down, into the quiver. He put the quiver on his back and rolled the newspapers. Robert shoved the roll of newspapers into his waistband, then carefully climbed back down. He was eager to show Kyle the arrows.
    “I don’t believe it,” said Kyle, staring at the arrows in amazement.
    “We’ll divide these after I finish the bows. I’ll still make some out of the river cane. Save these beauties for something big, like a deer,” said Robert, as he held the arrow up, staring at it in admiration.
    Kyle asked to hold an arrow. After handing it to Kyle, Robert looked back at the tree. He noticed it was an old walnut tree, then quickly glanced around the perimeter of the trunk, and noticed all the walnuts on the ground. “Kyle, look down there,” Robert said, pointing at the ground. “Walnuts are all over the place. We can eat them. Let’s get something to carry them in.”
    Robert and Kyle went back to the campsite. Kyle left the saltlick at the deer stand. If they caught any fish, he thought that he would bring it back to camp and use it for seasoning. They showed the arrows to Richard who was prodding the campfire. He responded with an apathetic nod. Robert asked Richard to keep rotating the bow wood and river cane by the edge of the fire. Kyle dumped the contents of his backpack into his raft and they went back to the walnut tree and filled the backpack. Robert went to the river’s edge and found two rocks to break the nuts open. He noticed the walnut hulls had stained his hands almost black, and decided to save some of the hulls to rub on the bows when they are finished. A dark finish to the wood would provide some camouflage.
    With Kyle’s assistance, Robert finished carving the two bows to the correct dimensions and placed notches near the ends with the multi-tool. “I’ll let these dry a couple more days and then I’ll try out the new arrows on something furry. Keep your eyes open for feathers. I’ll need them for the cane arrows,” Robert said, looking at his companions as he pointed to the bundle of river cane near the fire.
    “You guys ready for some food? I’m starving,” said Kyle, as he turned toward his raft to survey the remaining rations. “We better be careful with the food we have left. That asshole stole a third of it.”
    “Give me my share,” Robert said, as he yawned. “I’m going to eat, then go to sleep. I think that raft is a little crowded for two of us.” He stood and stretched. “No offense, Richard, but I think I’ll sleep up in the deer stand tonight.” Robert took some food, water, and a blanket. He started toward the deer stand, then stopped and turned to face the two men at the campfire. “I’ve been thinking about Sergeant Haber. We’re wearing the same clothes he is, and he stole my raft. He’s in front of us on the river somewhere and is going to terrorize anyone to get what he wants on his way downstream. If people see us, they’re going to think we’re with him because we have the same clothes and rafts. That’s not good for us.”
    “What do we do?” asked Richard.
    Robert shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know, but when we meet again, it won’t be pleasant for him.” Robert turned and walked to the deer stand for the night.

Chapter Seven

    A distant thunderclap woke Robert the next morning. He stiffly got up from the uncomfortable wooden floor of the deer stand, stretched his aching back, and turned his gaze toward the small window, edging forward to observe his new surroundings. He froze in place as he looked out the window. In the clearing below, he saw a huge mule deer using the saltlick that Kyle had dropped the day before. In his mind, Robert slowly raised an imaginary bow and arrow to aim at the deer. Pretending to pull the string back to his cheek, he aimed directly at the deer’s heart. He closed his eyes, released the arrow in his mind, and imagined the deer collapsed where it stood. Robert’s stomach rumbled with hunger, he opened his eyes and ended his fantasy. The deer sprinted away with the next thunderclap.
    Kyle had caught two small catfish overnight. They were prepared with dandelions and lambsquarters that Robert had scavenged from the surrounding area. As Robert was searching for something green to eat, he found bird eggs from nests in the grass. He put the eggs on hot embers from the campfire to cook them.
    Robert found the general’s letter, still concealed within a large envelope inside a plastic bag, and turned to face his companions. He pointed downstream with the letter and asked, “Ready for Fort Benton?”
    “I looked at the map,” Richard stated. “I think we should get there by late afternoon.”
    “Let’s do it.”
    The sky remained gray with low clouds. The clouds harassed the men with occasional raindrops, just enough to keep them in their rain gear as they floated downstream. Late in the afternoon, they came upon a town on the north side of the river. Estimating that this should be Fort Benton, they decided to look for a place to hide the rafts so they could go ashore. They stopped just downstream of the town and hid the two rafts in a patch of shrubbery close to the riverbank.
    “The weather is still miserable,” said Robert. “I think we should see if they offer us a place to stay for the night before we try to set up camp.” He tucked the letter under his poncho.
    “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Richard.
    “We’ve had some bad luck, Robert,” Kyle added. “I’d feel better if you had that pistol back.”
    Robert was quiet as he looked toward the buildings of Fort Benton. He knew that he had made a big mistake by losing the pistol and his raft to Sergeant Haber. A pistol would be good insurance for walking into the unknown and he knew that what they were about to do was definitely the unknown.
    “You’re right, I screwed up,” admitted Robert. “I’ll drop the letter off and get out quick. You don’t need to go with me. I understand.”
    “I’ll go, but I don’t want to stick around,” said Kyle.
    “I’ll go, too,” said Richard, looking hesitantly at the rafts.
    They walked toward the town. As they struggled up the slope and away from the water, they looked back and saw fog hovering over the river, shrouding the bushes and rafts. The fog at their backs seemed to grow thicker as they moved farther away. There was nobody walking around the town. It looked completely deserted. They realized the collapse of the electric grid would have kept normal business away and the drizzle probably kept others away, too.
    The sign for Main Street was just ahead. They decided to walk Main Street toward the center of town and look for any government building. If they could hand the letter from the general to the mayor or anyone on the city council, they could consider their mission complete. Only a few blocks away they saw a building with a sign that advertised, City Hall. It was a brick building with concrete steps leading to a row of glass doors.
    “What day is it?” asked Richard.
    “I stopped keeping track,” answered Kyle. “What’s the point now?”
    Robert glanced nervously around. He ascended the concrete steps. At the top, he stopped and looked back again. Nobody was around. He pulled on a glass door and hesitantly opened it. Robert looked surprised, as if he had not expected it to open. He swung the door wide and stepped in with Kyle and Richard behind him.
    “Hey!” exclaimed a man from a dark corner.
    The three men were startled. They heard the voice, but could not see anybody in the darkness. They heard someone walking toward them. As he got closer, the faint outside light coming through the glass doors revealed his features. He was an older man with gray hair and a moustache. He appeared to have on a law enforcement uniform with a leather gun belt and pistol. The man looked like he had been sleeping somewhere in the darkness. He walked toward the three men with his right hand resting on the pistol. The man was tall and his name badge was right at Robert’s eye level.
    “Officer Billet?” asked Robert.
    “That’s Chief Billet. What do you want? This area is off limits to the general public,” said the chief of police, as he scanned the three men with bleary eyes. The chief rested his hand on the pistol and tapped his trigger finger on the holster.
    “We have a letter for the town.”
    “For the town? That makes no sense to me. What the hell are you talking about?” asked the chief, tapping his holster more rapidly.
    “Maybe I should’ve said for the mayor or City Council.”
    “We still have a mayor. He’s there, just down the hall,” said Chief Billet, pointing down the corridor.
    Robert took a step forward and he felt a hard thump on his chest. The chief had shoved the end of his nightstick into Robert’s chest to stop him from walking to the corridor.
    “Hold it. No one goes down there without permission. I’ll take the letter.”
    “We were asked to personally deliver it,” said Robert, holding up the plastic bag with the envelope to show the chief.
    The chief took several steps backward. He unsnapped the leather strap holding his pistol in the holster. “Listen to me. Turn around and put your hands on the doors. Spread your legs wide. I’m going to pat you down for weapons. Don’t make any funny moves.”
    Robert felt a knot tighten in his stomach. He had brought the large survival knife with him under the rain poncho. Reluctantly, Robert turned to the glass doors as instructed. This is where it goes bad, he thought. He risked a quick glance toward Kyle and Richard. From the expressions on their faces, he knew what they were thinking.
    The chief patted Robert down first. Robert closed his eyes and his mouth went dry. He felt the chief probe around the rain poncho’s collar, then pat under his armpits with the palms of his hands. The chief briefly felt past Robert’s waistline and down his legs. Without commenting, the chief moved on to the other two men and again found no weapons. Robert opened his eyes in disbelief. He slightly turned his head toward Kyle and saw him fighting away a grin of relief.
    “Who’s the letter from?” asked the chief, stepping back and pointing to the letter with the nightstick.
    “General Matthews at the Air Force base asked us to deliver the letter,” answered Robert, authoritatively.
    The chief considered what Robert said. He briefly stared at the men as he rubbed the razor stubble on his face. “Follow me. I’ll take you to the conference room where Mayor Jenkins has been working,” said Chief Billet, as he turned and walked down the corridor. The three men followed the chief in single file with Robert in front.
    They walked into a room and saw a large meeting table near a wall with several large windows. The blinds had been lifted to allow the meager sunlight into the room. An older man was sitting at the table with his back to the windows. He looked up at the men as they walked into the room. The mayor tilted his head downward and moved his reading glasses to the tip of his nose. The mayor remained seated and stared stoically at his uninvited guests.
    “Visitors,” announced the chief.
    The chief walked toward the mayor’s side of the table to face the men. He backed up to a window behind the mayor and leaned against it. The three men stood in front of the large table, facing the chief and the mayor. Behind the three men was a large flat-screen television secured to the wall. The screen reflected a black glare from the dim light coming through the windows.
    “Can I help you?” asked the mayor, insincerely, while raising an eyebrow and looking over his glasses.
    Robert stepped forward and slid the plastic bag with the letter from General Matthews across the table to the mayor. “This is from General Matthews at the Air Force base. He asked us to deliver this letter to you.”
    The mayor opened the plastic bag to remove the envelope. He slid a letter opener, shaped like a sword, across the seal, removed the letter, and began to read it. He tilted it to the dim light as his eyes peered down his nose through the reading glasses. Robert noticed the mayor’s hands begin to shake as his face contorted into a furious expression. The mayor stood up angrily. “What nonsense is this!” yelled the mayor, as his fist hit the table. The chief suddenly straightened up and put his hand on his pistol. “You are demanding the unconditional surrender of my town?” screamed the mayor. As he yelled, he held the letter up toward them.
    Robert was close enough to see the letter in the dim light. It was not the letter from the general. Robert instantly got a sinking feeling in his stomach when he realized what had just happened. Sergeant Haber had switched letters to set them up, as if stealing their raft and supplies was not enough.
    “Hold on… just wait a minute—” pleaded Robert, before the mayor abruptly cut him off.
    “Bullshit!” yelled the mayor.
    “That’s not the letter we were supposed to deliver.”
    “Haber did this?” asked Kyle, speaking in an angry tone.
    Robert nodded his head at Kyle, then spoke directly to the mayor again. “Just calm down—” Robert tried to plead before he was cut off once more by the mayor.
    The mayor furiously wadded the letter into a ball and threw it at the men. “Arrest them!” he roared.
    The chief drew his pistol and fanned it back and forth at the three men. “Put your hands on your heads and interlock your fingers,” commanded the chief. He stepped closer to the men. “Turn around and face the wall.”
    “You ever hear of frontier justice?” asked the mayor sarcastically. “You’re about to get some.”
    The three men faced the wall and Robert noticed that the large glossy screen of the television on the wall was reflecting the images of the mayor and chief of police standing behind them. The chief was moving toward the closest man, which was Kyle, and Robert was directly next to him, in the middle. Out of the corner of his eye, Robert watched the image of the chief’s reflection, on the flat-screen. As the chief got closer to Kyle, he placed the pistol in his holster and removed a set of dull chrome handcuffs. Robert jumped on the chief’s back as he reached for Kyle’s wrists with the handcuffs. Robert wrapped his right arm around the chief’s neck, wiggled his forearm under the chief’s chin, and pulled it back and up to choke him. The chief flailed his arms frantically at Robert and he flung the handcuffs backward, hitting Robert several times.
    Kyle desperately grabbed the pistol from the struggling man’s holster and leveled it at the mayor.
    As the pressure from Robert’s forearm increased on his trachea, the chief let the handcuffs slip from his fingers and desperately clawed at Robert’s forearm. Robert pulled his arm violently backward and, as he pressed harder on the chief’s carotid artery, the chief dropped to his knees and then fell backward, unconscious, on top of Robert. Robert pushed the limp body off him and stood up, quickly handcuffing the chief’s wrists together. Robert picked up another pair of handcuffs, and stood to face the mayor.
    “You ever hear of frontier justice?” asked Kyle, parroting the mayor’s sarcastic statement.
    “Just shoot me, you bastard!” said the mayor, holding the letter opener like a knife and pointing it at Kyle.
    Robert motioned to Kyle to lower the pistol. “I have a better idea,” said Robert, as he tossed the handcuffs on the table toward the mayor. “Handcuff yourself to this table and we’ll be happy to be on our way.”
    The mayor angrily threw the letter opener down, then handcuffed his wrist to the leg of the large table, which was secured to the floor.
    “For the record, that letter is a fake. We were set up. If anyone from the Air Force base comes this way, show them that letter and tell them Sergeant Haber wrote it. Let them know that he deserted when he left the base. The general just wanted to have an alliance with the surrounding communities. He would supply men to work the fields and provide protection for a share of the food. That’s it.”
    The mayor remained mute, but his anger was obvious.
    “I get it. We’re not welcome here,” said Robert. “Like I said, we are happy to leave. But we’ll be taking the pistol. I think you understand.” Robert bent over and grabbed the spare magazine for their new pistol from the chief’s belt. He handed it to Kyle and told him to keep the pistol.
    Before they left, Robert, with squinting eyes, quickly scanned the dimly lit room for anything they could use on the long journey home. The opposite wall was covered with a mural of the local landscape. Next to the wall was a stuffed bobcat lunging at a stuffed pheasant. There was also a deer head and a trout mounted on the wall. Robert walked over to the pheasant and removed several of the large feathers to use as fletching for the river-cane arrows. As he walked back toward the door to leave the room, he held up the feathers for the mayor to see, and said, “Just a little something for my troubles.” The mayor cursed at them as they walked away down the corridor.
    “We’re lucky no one else is here,” said Richard, as he nervously scanned the area.
    Robert rubbed the lump on his head from the chief’s handcuffs. “You’re right. We need to leave immediately, and move way downstream before we set up camp.”
    The men walked toward the gray light coming through the glass doors at the end of the corridor. The building appeared to be devoid of other people, and eerily silent. Near the exit, Richard noticed a room with an open door and commented that it looked like an employee lounge and he wanted to check it out. He opened the cabinets and gave a verbal inventory of the items he saw.
    “Paper plates, cups, spoons, pepper, more plates… nice… a case of instant noodles,” Richard said, as he held a box of noodles toward his companions.
    Robert and Kyle went into the room and looked around.
    “I don’t see any more food,” said Kyle, with a sullen tone.
    Robert grabbed a box of trash bags and removed one. He put the eating utensils in the bag with a bottle of dish soap and vegetable oil. He said they could use the vegetable oil to cook with and provide some fat calories. Robert also wanted to use the oil to rub on the bows he was making. The oil would make them waterproof, allowing him to finish the bows. Robert carried the trash bag over his shoulder as they left the building. They did not see anyone on the way back to the rafts.
    The men wasted no time in getting the rafts back to the riverbank. Robert reminded Kyle to engage the pistol’s safety. They pushed away from the bank and floated downstream, staying on the opposite side of the river.
    After several miles, the rain stopped and the gray clouds began to dissipate, but the current remained swift. When they came to a section of riverbank with plenty of driftwood, they got out of the rafts, pulled them out of the water, and carried them to the nearest bushes to conceal them.
    Kyle went directly to set lines for catfish as Richard began to gather wood for the fire. Robert positioned the nearly finished bows and river cane by the fire. He wanted to finish the bows by tomorrow so they could begin hunting. The food supply was getting really low. As he sat by the fire, Robert felt the lump on his head from being hit with handcuffs and looked at the deep scratches on his forearms from struggling with the chief. Sergeant Haber had taken the first-aid kit when he stole Robert’s raft. Robert knew that their situation provided the perfect conditions for an infection. An infection now could be fatal. He also knew he had to eat to maintain his health. As soon as he placed the bows near the fire to finish drying the wood, he began exploring the area for food to scavenge. He returned to camp with nothing but hunger. This meant they would have to eat more of their rations and hope for fish by morning. Supper was some bread that was beginning to go stale, and instant soup in a cup.
    Robert was thinking about his family and trying to ignore his hunger as he sat by the fire. A noise in the tall weeds caught his attention. He rose up and turned to the direction of the noise. Kyle and Richard stopped what they were doing and stood quietly in reaction to Robert’s movements.
    “Look, over there,” Robert said, pointing to the tall weeds that moved in unison with the sound of dry grass crackling.
    “It has to be an animal,” said Kyle, as he picked up a club-sized piece of driftwood.
    Robert picked up a rock and signaled to Kyle that he was ready to jump the animal. Their sprint towards the animal was noisy and the furry creature ran away. It was large raccoon.
    “I saw the little bandit,” said Robert. “It went into a hole.” Robert looked at the rock in his hand and said, “I have an idea. Help me find a large flat rock and we can make a deadfall trap. I can see where it ran to. It used a little trail in the weeds to get to that hole. Let’s put a deadfall trap on that trail.”
    “What’s a deadfall trap?” asked Kyle.
    “We’ll balance a large flat rock up by a stick. When the raccoon uses its path and walks under the rock, it will bump the stick holding the rock. The rock will fall and you get a flat raccoon.”
    They found a sufficiently flat rock, but the sun had begun to set before they had it positioned correctly and struggled to see their work in the dim evening light. They decided against using any of their food as bait and went to sleep hoping for catfish or raccoon for breakfast.
    A large hawk swooped low over the men and screeched, waking them at sunrise. It was a clear morning. There were no clouds in the sky to block the radiance of the sun’s ascent. Robert had slept by the fire and turned the wood each time he woke from his restless sleep, so that it would be evenly and completely dry by morning. He got up and felt the wood. It was still warm. He thought that if it had been warm all night long, the wood had to be dry, so it was time to apply the finish. Robert retrieved the little bag of walnut hulls and began to crush them with a stone. This created a dark paste that he rubbed on the bows, and then wiped off the excess. The wood was stained black from the hulls and he placed the bows near the fire to let the residual paste dry. Robert looked toward the deadfall trap and then looked again at the bows by the fire. He thought about how convenient it would be to hunt after the bows are finished this morning. They would soon be able to take game down silently.
    “I’ll check the deadfall. How about some fish?” Robert asked.
    After a quick nod, Kyle stood, stretched, and walked to the fishing lines he had set last evening.
    Robert crept toward the trap. He did not want to make noise and scare a loose raccoon. To his delight, he saw that the rock had fallen and a raccoon’s tail was just visible, protruding from underneath the flat stone. Quickly, he lifted the rock, revealing the fatally trapped raccoon. When he picked it up, he realized the body was still warm and was surprised that he had heard nothing when the trap collapsed. Robert proudly showed the raccoon to Richard, then rotated the darkened bows and bundles of river cane drying by the campfire. Kyle was coming back to the campfire with the fish lines. He held up one finger indicating that he had only caught one fish.
    Still holding the raccoon Robert looked down at Richard and spoke. “I’m glad we got this. It looks like we only have one fish coming our way.”
    Richard turned toward Kyle, who was approaching the campfire, and put more wood on it. He looked back at Robert. “I’m starving. Do you know how to clean that thing?” Richard asked, pointing at the raccoon.
    Robert tapped the knife in its sheath and nodded. He took the catfish from Kyle and went to the river to clean both for breakfast.
    While Robert was cleaning their catch at the water’s edge, Richard approached Kyle with the map. Richard showed Kyle landmarks on the map as a guess to their location. He wanted the other men to know what to expect before they crossed the Montana state line into North Dakota. Richard pointed at two locations downstream where roads crossed the river. At these locations, there were public recreation areas and there could be people on camping trips who had become stranded after the grid collapsed. With roads so close to these recreation areas, maybe other stranded people who were traveling on the road had decided it would be a good place to stop. He thought there was a good chance for desperate people to be there, so they needed to be cautious. Further downstream he showed Kyle a lake on the map. Using his fingers to measure the lake to scale, Richard determined the lake was at least one hundred miles long. Kyle shook his head and looked away. He knew that meant endless rowing and another dam to get around.
    Robert was back at the campsite now with the cleaned catfish and skinned raccoon.
    “Richard just showed me on the map what we have to look forward to,” said Kyle.
    Robert traded Richard the map for the cleaned game. Richard began to cook the meat and Robert studied the map where Kyle indicated their estimated position was.
    Kyle explained to Robert as he pointed to various locations on the map. “We are low on food and have a lot of rowing to do on the lake. I guess it’ll take about a week to get there and a lot of calories to do it. With these recreation areas and roads coming up we could run into some desperate people when we stop to get food or camp for the night.” Kyle pointed to the roasting meat and the two bows by the campfire to emphasize his conclusion. “We have to find more food and get those bows completed.”
    Robert nodded his head. “I can finish the bows this morning. We have a dozen good arrows to start with. The river cane will need feathers and points to make them useful. The pheasant feathers will work as fletching, but I have no idea what to use for arrow heads.”
    Robert put the map down and inspected the two bows. He rubbed the residue of walnut hull paste off the bows, then for a finishing touch, rubbed vegetable oil on the stained wood to waterproof them. He cut a length of paracord to use for bowstrings and strung the bows, handing one to Kyle. Robert then cut a notch at the end of each river cane and attached pheasant feathers to the notched end. They practiced shooting with the blunt-tipped arrows, not wanting to damage the razor sharp tips of the carbon-fiber arrows that Robert had found in the deer stand.
    Satisfied with the performance of their new weapons, Robert and Kyle set their bows and arrows down, and rejoining Richard, ate the fish and raccoon. They were not able to find anything else in their surroundings to eat.
    The men left their camp that morning with two new weapons and the hope that those would serve as another means of getting food. The land was barren for miles as they floated downstream. Robert and Kyle had their bows ready just in case they saw something to hunt as they went along. There was nothing but clear sky and grassland until late afternoon, when they came upon irrigated farmland. They could see massive irrigation equipment on wheels that previously allowed the mechanism to be moved in a circle around the field. They went ashore to filter more drinking water and look at the crops in a nearby field.
    Robert ran into the field with his bow. He yelled back down to his two companions. “Look, soybeans, a field full of soybeans!”
    Kyle and Richard went up the incline of the riverbank and into the soybean field.
    “How do we eat them?” asked Richard.
    Robert grabbed a pod from the plant. “Just boil them and open the pod. The beans are inside. They are immature right now, but still delicious.” Robert opened the bean pod to show Kyle and Richard the individual green-colored beans inside. “This is something we can take with us.”
    Richard immediately ran to his raft to get something to hold their harvest of beans. He came back with a pillowcase and began to pick the beans. Kyle did the same. Robert volunteered to survey the area for animals to hunt. He strode down the row of beans next to the motionless irrigation equipment. He decided to walk toward a ravine bordered with trees. He noticed a buzzard circling over the ravine, and, as he got closer, thought that the treed area might have game to hunt. Near the tree line, he paused and stared into the greenery. Robert stood quietly for several minutes as his eyes slowly scanned for any motion, then he heard a noise. There was a slight movement in the short grass and a ground squirrel emerged. Robert remained still and the ground squirrel did not appear to notice him. Robert did not want to damage a good arrow on the little morsel. He thought that maybe the blunt tip of a cane arrow might be sufficient to stun the rodent. He slowly put the crude arrow to the string and pulled back. The ground squirrel stood on its hind legs and stared at the man curiously, unaware of its impending fate. The blunt tip of the arrow struck the ground squirrel in the chest. The impact caused a high-pitched squeak from the creature. Robert picked up the pathetic little animal, held it up for inspection, and said to himself, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
    He was able to retrieve his primitive arrow before he began the walk back. As he walked away from the ravine he looked closer at what he had earlier thought was a large stick on a flat rock. It was a large black rat snake warming its body in the sunlight. Robert positioned himself behind the snake and used his bow to pin the snake’s neck to the rock. The captured snake was at least three feet long. Still pinning it to the ground, he cut the snake’s head off with his knife. He put his arm and head through the strung bow to carry it across his torso, so he could carry the decapitated snake in his right hand and the ground squirrel in his left. The sun was getting low in the sky and it cast his shadow across the ground. He saw the silhouette of a primitive hunter-gatherer. Robert knew that this was how it would be from now on, kill or be killed. The world had new rules now and he had better learn fast.
    Back at the campsite, Kyle and Richard had gathered an enormous pile of immature green soybeans. Robert held up the two creatures and shrugged his shoulders at the two men. No one who was as hungry as they were was going to complain. For supper they boiled beans with the squirrel and snake. Their meal also included the last of the food from the hotel. Before bedding down for the evening, Kyle and Richard picked more beans for their journey. The huge pile of beans they gathered was impractical, but understandable. Their hunger was a motivating force and Robert decided to say nothing because it was a harmless way to feel like they were coping with the situation.
    Not having room in Richard’s raft for the two of them, Robert went toward the irrigation system with a tarp to hang over a horizontal pipe and a blanket to keep him warm. He brought his bow with him because it was comforting to sleep with a weapon.

Chapter Eight

    Robert curled under his wool blanket, the bow in front of him and a few of the good arrows by his side. He closed his eyes and listened to the river meandering its way across the landscape. Within minutes, he was dreaming of his family. Later in the night, his pleasant dream turned into a nightmare, and he woke up sweating. In an effort to regain his composure, he emerged from under the tarp, which he had draped over an irrigation pipe. Standing by the tarp as it gently flapped in the breeze, he could still see the glowing embers of the campfire. Suddenly, he saw something move at the campsite. Rubbing his eyes, he blinked, trying to clear them, and stared again toward the camp by the riverbank. Robert saw something moving around, so he grabbed his bow and the arrows. He nocked an arrow on the string and crouched low as he walked back toward the camp, stopping every few steps to glance behind himself. He stayed low at the edge of the bean field. The bushy plants kept him completely camouflaged. Slow moving clouds obscured the full moon, so he continued to strain his eyes, peering into the darkness to see what was down at the camp. As he edged further down the bean rows, the clouds drifted away from the moon. Through the filtered moonlight, he saw exactly what was down there. A large mule deer had walked along the river and was eating from their pile of beans. He really wanted to shoot that deer. It would be quite a feast, and he thought they might dry some of the meat for their journey. He quietly took his boots off. The wind was in his face so he had an advantage over the deer; the wind would carry his sent away. The beans occupied the deer, so Robert slowly crept forward on his bare feet. The deer’s head was down as Robert slipped toward the side profile of the deer. He was now less than twenty yards away. Robert raised the bow and leveled the arrow at the deer. He was close enough to see exactly where he should place the arrow, right behind the shoulder blade. At this distance, he hoped the arrow would go through both lungs. He took a chance and stepped a few yards closer. In the darkness, Robert stepped on a stick and the snap of the twig sounded like dynamite to him. The deer was startled, and spun its head toward Robert, focusing directly on him. Robert stood motionless, except now his right hand pulled back on the string. He felt the bowstring touch his cheek. The adrenaline was coursing through his body and it was everything he could do to keep his hands from trembling. He forced his body to remain calm, adjusted his aim, and released the arrow. The arrow flew precisely into the side of the deer, behind the shoulder blade, and the deer made a deep grunt and bolted forward. The placement of the arrow was so good that the deer collapsed almost immediately. Kyle was startled from a sound sleep and jumped from his raft, brandishing the pistol.
    “It’s me! It’s me! Don’t shoot!” yelled Robert.
    “What the hell is going on? Why are you standing out there with your bow?” asked Kyle.
    Robert looked at Richard’s raft and saw him peeking from under the tarp. “It’s safe to come out, Richard. I shot a deer, a big deer, so get out and look.”
    Richard got up and Kyle put the pistol back in his raft. The men walked over to the deer, now dead and lying on its side.
    “What are we going to do with this monster?” asked Richard, as he was running the palms of his hands down the length of the dead animal.
    “Let’s gut it right here,” said Robert. “I’ll need you to help me hang it from the irrigation pipes to bleed it the rest of the night. When it’s daylight, we’ll eat as much as we can and try to make jerky with the rest.”
    Richard woke Robert at daybreak, shaking him lightly on the shoulder. “Hey… wake up… wake up… let’s get this going. I’m starving again, and so is Kyle.”
    Robert opened one eye, stared at Richard, and then spoke sarcastically. “Oh, hello Richard. I thought I should let you know something. The past couple of weeks have been somewhat rough for me. I think the civilized world has come to a screeching halt and I was about a thousand miles away from my family when the world decided for that to happen. I’ve been floating myself down a river to get back to my family and I’ve had to kill people to stay alive. What was so important you needed to wake me up after I spent the good portion of the night killing and gutting a large deer for all of us to eat?”
    “Nothing.” Richard sulked his way back down to the campfire.
    After a few moments, Robert realized he should not have been so angry with Richard. They were all in this bad situation together and needed to practice patience and cooperation. He decided to walk over to the camp and apologize. Near the fire, he saw his companions creating flat racks out of green sticks. His curiosity made him forget to apologize to Richard.
    “What’s that?” asked Robert, pointing at the grid of green sticks.
    “Drying racks for the deer meat. It was Richard’s idea.”
    Robert felt slightly embarrassed, since he had berated Richard just moments before. “That’s a good idea, Richard. I’ll go quarter the deer. We need to get started on this project.” Robert turned away and walked a few steps. He stopped abruptly and turned back. “Hey, Richard, I’m sorry about what I said this morning. It’s just that I’m all beat to Hell and you caught me at a bad moment.”
    Richard was binding more sticks together, using a vine. He never looked up. He just smiled, nodded his head, and waved Robert on.
    The men spent the entire day processing the deer meat. The Montana air was extremely dry and the campfire helped to accelerate the process. While the meat dried, the men cooked some of the venison for a meal and ate beans with it. They ate all day long. Robert wandered a little further away than he had the day before, and came back with a shirt full of chokecherries. They ate several handfuls and saved what remained to dry in the sunlight.
    By nightfall, they had processed nearly one hundred pounds of the deer meat. It had dried to a significantly lighter weight and the sliced meat was less than half its original size. They stuffed the pillowcases from the hotel, which had carried stale bread, full of soybeans and dried deer meat. The meat would continue to dry in the arid Montana climate.
    Robert wanted to get started downstream early that morning. He noticed a road that crossed the river and a recreation area close together on the map. If that meant people, he wanted to see it in the daytime to assess the threat. The men rode the current again, their rafts filled with drying deer meat, soybeans, chokecherries, and the few remaining MREs that Sergeant Haber hadn’t stolen from them.
    The morning sun was in their eyes as they began to float downstream again. Robert and Richard occasionally traded positions in order to take turns paddling with the current. As it rose higher in the sky, the sun warmed the morning air, and by the time it was at their backs, they saw the road that crossed the river just ahead. Large concrete pillars supported the bridge. Beside the road, a clearing became visible. There were recreational vehicles parked there, and they could see smoke from a campfire. Robert wanted to quietly float past the area, hide the rafts downstream, and then walk back to where the RVs were to have a look around. If confronted, they would lie about having rafts and say they were walking the road.
    They went ashore just downstream of the bridge at a spot where there was enough shrubbery to conceal the rafts. Robert and Kyle strung their bows. Kyle tucked the pistol under his shirt.
    “What are we doing here?” asked Richard. “Wouldn’t it be safer to avoid people?”
    “I didn’t see anybody,” replied Robert. After he spoke, Robert remembered the smoke from the campfire they had just seen, and admitted to himself that had to be from someone. “I want to get a feel for how things are going around us. Maybe we can get a lead on Sergeant Haber, too.”
    The men carefully walked toward the bridge. They very cautiously checked out their surroundings. From the road, they glanced back to where they hid the rafts. They had concealed the rafts well, so they continued their advance toward the RVs.
    Robert yelled, “Anybody here?” There was no reply.
    The men walked around the RVs. There were twelve of them. They knocked on a few doors with no response, then walked toward the smoky fire in the pit. Robert thought someone was there. He sat down at a picnic table and stared toward the RVs. Just as Kyle and Richard began to eat some jerky, Robert noticed the drapes in one RV move slightly. He whispered to the men what he had seen. Kyle slowly moved his hand under the table and removed the pistol from his belt, but still kept it hidden from view.
    Robert stood up and called out again, making it obvious to which RV he was yelling. “Anybody here? We don’t want any trouble. We’re just passing through.”
    Someone yelled through the draped window screen, “Go away.”
    Robert placed his bow on the table and lifted his hands in the air. He walked closer to the RV. “Hello. We don’t want trouble.” He held his hands higher. “See… no weapons.”
    “Do you have any food?” the voice asked, in a desperate tone.
    “Yes, we have some deer jerky. We can give you a piece,” Robert replied.
    The door to the RV slowly opened. A middle-aged man apprehensively looked out the door at the men, then scanned around suspiciously for others. Robert put his hands down and walked back toward the picnic table, motioning for the frail looking man to join him. Kyle and Richard stopped eating the jerky and placed their shares in front of them on the picnic table. The man stood next to the table and gawked at the food with wide, hypnotized eyes. He was desperate with hunger.
    Robert spoke to the man as he pointed to the deer jerky. “Go ahead. You look like you’re starving.”
    The man leaned forward, reaching for the food. As he was about to grab the jerky in front of Kyle, he gasped and jumped backwards. Through the slatted top of the picnic table, the man had seen that Kyle was holding a pistol. He started to shake and held his hands up. Kyle realized what had happened and quickly apologized to the man. He explained that they had seen some bad people on their journey and only used the gun for protection. Kyle tucked the pistol back into his pants and the man grabbed the food, eating it ravenously.
    “I haven’t eaten for days. All of us here were low on food, then what little we had was stolen from us.”
    “What happened?” Richard asked.
    “Everything stopped working here at the campsite. We couldn’t make a call for help. Everyone pooled their food together and we rationed it out. Some of us went fishing and that helped. If we needed water, we just boiled it on the fire. That’s what I was getting ready to do when you stopped by.” The man paused and stared at the fire. He appeared weak from hunger.
    “You said the food was stolen?” prompted Richard.
    The man rubbed his hands down his face and tried to wet his dry lips. “Some guy walked up on us like you just did, two days ago. He said he didn’t want any trouble and he was wearing camouflage pants just like you guys. Everyone told him they didn’t have enough to share and he walked away. But then he came back with a rifle, like a military rifle, and pointed it at us, telling us to give him our food. One man tried to jump him, but he got shot right in the head. It didn’t even bother that bastard to shoot somebody in cold blood. He grabbed our food, put it into his rain poncho, and took off.”
    The man pointed toward a large oak tree. “We buried the dead guy there. All the others left yesterday. They said they couldn’t take it here anymore and were going to walk for help. I’ve got asthma and will run out of medication in a few days. There’s no way I could make a trip like that, so here I am, starving to death.” The man looked up at Robert with distant, glazed eyes. “Do you think they will come back for me?”
    “Sure, just give it some time.” Robert put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Would anybody care if we slept here tonight?”
    “It doesn’t matter. They’re all gone.”
    The man went back to his RV. Robert told them they should wrap all their food in a tarp and string it up in a tree so animals would not get it. They hid the food and came back with fishing equipment. Robert went to the big shade tree and began to pick up acorns. Then while Richard boiled the acorns, Robert scavenged for something green to eat. The grassland nearby had many dandelions. Robert brought back an armful for supper. Kyle stopped fishing at four catfish and set the lines for the night. They tapped on the door of the RV and invited the man to join them for their evening meal. He hastily agreed, and ate hungrily. Robert let him know that acorns and dandelions were edible and pointed out that he was right next to a large oak tree. The man thanked him for the information and told them to pick any RV for the night, then returned to his camper.
    “Let’s take the big one,” said Kyle.
    “Keep your eyes open for anything we can use,” said Robert.
    The men entered the large RV.
    “Sleeping in a bed, now that’s going to be a change,” said Robert. “I have slept on the ground every night, except the night in the deer stand, since that asshole stole my raft.”
    Kyle picked a bed in the rear and reclined on it, putting his hands behind his head. “I could fall sleep right now.”
    “Guys, you have to see this! It’s a shower and it works,” Richard yelled from the bathroom.
    “Hey, shut it off. I’ll climb on top to see how much water is left in the tank,” said Kyle.
    Kyle went outside to find the water level gauge.
    Robert grinned at the prospect of being clean. “Maybe we could take a quick shower and wash these clothes.” Robert turned to look in the bathroom mirror. He did not recognize the man staring back at him. The sun had burned his skin red. He had greasy hair and a short beard. The man in the mirror looked like any of the homeless people he would routinely see, and ignore, in the downtown area by his office building.
    Kyle shouted from outside, “Fifty gallons. Let’s get busy.”
    Each man took his dirty clothes into the shower with him. They washed the dirt and smell of the river off their bodies, and then rinsed the filth out of their clothes. They hung the wet clothes on a makeshift clothesline inside the RV. Wrapped in blankets on their beds, the men woke to dry clothes in the morning. They knew their cleanliness would be short lived, but it was a pleasant change.
    When Robert awoke, he noticed that he was the last to rise. His eyes scanned the inside of the RV for anything useful. He opened every cabinet and carefully took note of any item that could help their journey. He put a fillet knife, cooking spices, and a package of lighters in a large stainless steel pot and wrapped that in several blankets. That was all he would take. The cooking spices would add some flavor to the bland food.
    Robert joined the men sitting at the picnic table and put the newly acquired bundle of items at his side. “Let’s give this man the fish we caught overnight and get on our way. I want to get an early start. He needs the fish more than we do.”
    The man was pleased to have acquired three large catfish from his unexpected meeting with the strangers. There was a polite wave goodbye and informal thanks from the men as they left the campground. When they were far enough away that the man couldn’t hear him speak, Robert said, “He’ll be dead in a week.”
    They pulled the rafts free from the shrubbery and lowered the food from the tree limb, then rearranged the supplies for better balance in the rafts and prepared to enter the river.
    “The map has another campground about a day away. We could probably be there tomorrow morning. What do you think it’ll be like?” Kyle asked. “Could it get worse than what we just saw?”
    “I think it’ll get worse every day,” replied Robert. “That man back there is going to starve to death and his friends will most likely die on the road looking for help.” Robert jumped into the raft and held it close to shore by clinging to a small tree hanging over the river. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Nine

    The morning air was cool and the current was swift. They did not need to paddle much because the current was doing most of the work as they went downstream. It felt good to be in clean clothes and just floating for a change. They ate deer jerky, beans, and some partially dried chokecherries as they floated along, and later they stopped to filter water near a steep dirt embankment. Robert got the river-cane arrows from the raft and decided it would be wise to practice shooting the bow on a regular basis. Kyle and Richard joined him. They practiced at a distance from which someone could reasonably expect to get a squirrel or rabbit. The cane arrows still had no sharp tips, just blunt ends that could stun a small animal.
    Several more hours downstream, they found an ideal location to set up camp for the night. The riverbank was gravelly with a slight slope and there were enough trees around to supply wood for a campfire. They pulled the rafts out of the water, and began to set up camp.
    Richard walked over to some large rocks that created a fire ring and noticed something strange. “Hey, look at this,” Richard announced. He pointed to where he was going to build a fire. “Don’t you think that’s weird?”
    Kyle poked at the ashes with a stick. “They’re fresh.”
    “Who would want to build a fire here?” Richard asked.
    “Someone floating downstream, and I bet we know who it is,” said Robert. “He must be moving slow, because we’re closing in on him.” He squinted his eyes and surveyed the horizon. Then he mumbled to himself, “Wait ‘till we meet again, asshole.”
    Early the next morning Robert found some wild greens to go with the catfish that Kyle caught overnight, and they used some of the new spices with their breakfast.
    “If I am judging the distance correctly, we’ll make it to the next bridge and campsite this morning,” said Robert. “Let’s stop before we get to it, and be extra cautious. There’s someone out there we should try to avoid.”
    The men continued their journey, staying close to the riverbank and keeping their speed down. They did not want to travel fast today. Going slower would help them keep a safer distance from obstacles and dangers in their path. It was not long before they saw, in the distance, another concrete bridge spanning the river. They hugged the riverbank and Robert signaled for Kyle to get the binoculars out of the backpack. They floated a little further down, but the steep terrain and trees blocked the view. Trees were plentiful around the perimeter of the RV park. The men found a location on the same side of the river as the campground, and went ashore. They hid the rafts, as usual, and then moved to higher ground. They would feel more secure if they observed the area before they passed it or decided to make contact. The tree line stopped at the top of the slope overlooking the campsite. At this distance, they would need the binoculars to get a good view of the roadside campground. Kyle scanned the park with the binoculars.
    “See anything?” asked Robert.
    “Maybe ten or twelve people. That’s just a guess. They’re walking around the RVs. There are a few children down there, too.” Kyle changed his position and adjusted the focus of the binoculars. “That’s weird. They all seem to be looking in the same direction, toward the river.” Kyle lowered the binoculars and handed them to Robert.
    “You’re right; the adults are all looking toward the water.” Robert shifted his position to view the riverbank near the park. “I see two people. Two men, down by the river. The guy with long hair looks big. He has red hair and a flannel shirt. He’s talking to a guy with short hair, maybe light brown or blonde, wearing a gray shirt. They’re standing by a raft.” Robert strained his eyes for more detail. The two men moved slightly away from the raft as they talked. “Hey, guys, that looks like my raft down there.” The larger man began jabbing his finger at the other man and appeared to be yelling at him. Robert adjusted the focus of the binoculars just as the smaller man turned and seemed to be yelling back at the larger man. “It’s him. I can see his face now. That’s Haber down there.” Robert handed the binoculars back to Kyle.
    “I see him. That’s definitely Haber, and it looks like the guy with the flannel shirt is pissed off. Wait a second… ouch… Sergeant Haber just went flying backwards into the raft. The big guy is walking back to the campground now. Haber is just lying there.”
    “I hope he killed him,” said Richard, nervously.
    “Do you see any weapons?” asked Robert.
    “No. Have another look around.” Kyle handed the binoculars back to Robert.
    Robert watched the man walk back to the RVs and tents. He seemed to be explaining what just happened a moment ago. Another man was slapping him on the back and laughing as the big man spoke to the others. Robert pointed the binoculars back toward the raft and saw that Haber was gone. He quickly swept the binoculars across the landscape, desperately trying to locate Sergeant Haber. Robert followed a row of bushes from near the water as it curved up the slope, and he saw Haber moving low behind the bushes toward the stranded campers.
    “There he is. He’s closer to us now. He’s by that row of bushes, making his way to the campsite,” said Robert, as he pointed toward the shrubbery Sergeant Haber used as concealment. “He has a rifle with him. Looks like an assault rifle.”
    Sergeant Haber positioned himself so that when he walked through the bushes toward the campers, a large concrete outhouse would hide him. Haber got to the concrete building, and stood there with his back to the wall. Robert watched him chamber a round. Haber moved to the end of the building and peeked around the corner. He was waiting for a chance to make his move. When the other campers gathered around the big man that he had just fought with, Sergeant Haber jumped from behind the building and advanced toward the crowd. The mothers screamed and grabbed their children. He put his rifle barrel into the face of the large man and pointed toward the ground. The man immediately went prone on the dirt. Haber gestured with his rifle toward the large RV and told the others to go inside. Sergeant Haber then flipped a small picnic table over and picked up one end, shoving it under the door handle of the RV and making it impossible to open from inside.
    Robert laid the binoculars down. “He trapped everyone in the big camper, except the guy that hit him. Something bad is about to happen.”
    “We have to get out of here now, Robert!” exclaimed Richard.
    “Is he going to kill them?” asked Kyle.
    “He killed a guy back at that other camp. We have to do something. Come on men, think.” Robert put his face in his hands after he passed the binoculars back to Kyle.
    “He has the guy tied to a chair,” reported Kyle. “Now he has his back to us… he’s poking the guy with the rifle barrel. I can see the guy’s face… he looks terrified.” Kyle watched the sergeant terrorize the man with his rifle.
    The sergeant would occasionally look around, then resume taunting the man tied to the chair. Haber noticed something leaning against the picnic table by the outhouse. He hit the man with the butt of his rifle, then turned and went toward the object. Kyle adjusted the focus and saw that he was walking toward a baseball bat. “He’s going to get that baseball bat by the picnic table.” Kyle handed the binoculars back to Robert.
    Robert found Haber again with the binoculars and brought him into focus. He watched Haber lean the rifle against the table and pick up the bat. The sergeant tested the bat’s weight in his hands and swung it around. He looked back at the man tied to the chair and strode directly toward him, leaving the rifle by the picnic table.
    “That’s it. Checkmate, asshole!” Robert quietly exclaimed, as he tossed the binoculars back to Kyle. Robert immediately dashed down the hill toward the row of bushes.
    “Oh, shit, what’s he doing?” Richard pleaded.
    Kyle brought the binoculars back up to his face. He watched Robert as he arrived at the row of bushes and positioned himself so that the concrete outhouse was between him and Haber. He moved silently to the concrete wall, and then sidestepped toward the corner near the table. There it was. He could see the rifle now. It was about six feet away leaning against the table. Robert’s heart was racing when he leaped from the corner and snatched the rifle. He immediately put the rifle to his shoulder and aimed at the sergeant. The sergeant was facing the restrained man and taunting him with the baseball bat. The man tied to the chair saw Robert approaching with the rifle and turned his head toward him. As the man’s expression changed from fear to disbelief, Haber spun around and saw Robert approaching. He immediately noticed that it was his own weapon that Robert was pointing at his head.
    “Haber… Haber… Haber… a good soldier never abandons his weapon,” said Robert, sarcastically, looking at the sergeant and shaking his head. “I think I should keep this rifle, Sergeant… I wouldn’t abandon a good rifle… especially if it was my only weapon.” Sergeant Haber froze in disbelief. His eyes were wide and his jaw hung open in absolute shock as he stared at Robert and the rifle. Keeping his eyes on the sergeant, Robert waved for his friends to come down from behind the trees. He expected one of them would be watching with the binoculars and knew they would understand the hand signal. “Was I the last person you expected to see alive?” Robert smirked. “Drop that bat and put your hands on your head.”
    The sergeant dropped the bat and faced Robert as commanded. “Are you going to kill me?” he asked, without emotion.
    “Get on your knees, asshole!” commanded Robert.
    The sergeant dropped to his knees and continued to face Robert. His hands were on top of his head. Robert could see the look of defeat in his eyes as he walked behind the sergeant and placed the end of the barrel at the back of the defeated man’s skull. The man tied to the chair was trying to scoot the chair back away from the scene, but with little result. Kyle and Richard ran down to Robert’s location. Kyle had his pistol drawn and told Richard to untie the man.
    Robert looked at the man in the flannel shirt and asked, “The sergeant wants to know if I’m going to kill him. What do you think?”
    “It’s your rifle,” said the large man, holding his hands up as he took several steps away from Robert.
    “Fair enough,” said Robert, as he pressed the rifle harder against the sergeant’s skull. “I will count down from five. Say your prayers, asshole.”
    The sergeant began to cry uncontrollably as Robert slowly counted down. At zero, Robert paused for a moment, leaned toward Sergeant Haber’s ear, and yelled, “Bang!” The sergeant began to scream that he was sorry, and tried to beg for forgiveness from everyone.
    Robert circled around the kneeling sergeant and told him to look up. “I should kill you. You stole my raft, and tried to get us killed in Fort Benton. There’s one thing holding me back.” Robert took a step away from the sergeant and lowered the rifle. “You’re not worth a bullet.” Robert kicked the baseball bat to the large man, then walked back to the sergeant who was casting his eyes at the ground in front of his knees. “Look at me, you bastard!” yelled Robert. The sergeant raised his head. His eyes were red and snot was dripping from his nose. Robert lifted his right foot and kicked the sergeant hard, right in the center of his chest, sending him several feet backwards. The sergeant landed flat on his back, gasping for air. Robert instructed Richard to frisk the sergeant for weapons. Richard found nothing and stepped away.
    Robert walked toward the sergeant and nudged him with his boot. He looked down at his contorted face. The sergeant was desperately struggling to breathe, and his broken ribs were not cooperating. “When we were in Fort Benton, someone tried to introduce us to frontier justice. We didn’t stick around for the introduction. I think we’re supposed to thank you for that.” Robert tested the sergeant’s broken ribs with his boot. The sergeant screamed. “Sergeant Haber, I would like to formally introduce you to my version of frontier justice.”
    Robert walked toward the barricaded RV. He passed the large man who was holding the baseball bat. “He’s all yours.” Robert went to the picnic table that was holding the door shut on the RV, and pulled. The table collapsed and Robert dragged it away from the door. The men inside the RV jumped out of the vehicle and stared at the sergeant, who was writhing on the ground. “He’s all yours now. Do what you want.” The men from the RV immediately ran to the sergeant and dragged him to the river, and the man with the bat followed behind them. Robert decided not to watch, although he briefly heard the sergeant screaming.
    Robert, Kyle, and Richard, stood near the RV that the sergeant had held the campers captive in. The men picked up the picnic table and placed it upright on the ground. They discussed what had just happened and felt a sense of relief knowing that the campers had taken care of Sergeant Haber. Realizing that it had just gotten quiet by the riverbank, Robert glanced in that direction. He saw the men standing there looking down. The large man was still holding the baseball bat, but now he was using it to poke a motionless body sprawled on the ground. Robert saw them throw the body into the river.
    A young woman holding a sleeping infant came quietly up to the three men sitting at the picnic table, and hesitantly sat at the far end. The men could sense the fear in her as she glanced at their faces. Her hair was long and greasy, and like everyone else, she had not bathed. Her eyes had dark circles around them and were slightly sunken inward. Although it was summer, her skin was pale. She did not appear to be well.
    “Do you know what has happened?” she asked.
    “Yes, ma’am. Something very bad has happened,” Robert said quietly.
    “Bad?” The woman laughed inappropriately and with glazed eyes, looked past the men. “Do you believe in God?” She stared at them with bloodshot eyes and did not give them a chance to respond to her question. “It’s the rapture. We have been left here to suffer. I will starve to death with my baby. I know this. I saw the angels the morning this happened. My baby was crying, so I woke up and took her outside to rock her. The angels lit up the night sky.” She was speaking loudly and her baby began to cry. Two women overheard what she was saying and came to her side. One of the women took the baby to comfort it and the other put a blanket around the deranged young woman’s shoulders and led her away.
    The men who had taken Sergeant Haber away came back to the campground and the big man in the flannel shirt approached the picnic table where the three men were seated.
    “I saw them take Jane away,” said the man. “She’s been acting strange ever since we’ve been stuck here. Sorry about that. Do you know what happened? We haven’t seen a single vehicle or a plane in the sky, and nothing electric works here. Most everything stopped at once, except for the electric lights in the RVs, but the batteries died because our motors wouldn’t start, and now nothing works.” He leaned the blood- stained bat against the table and sat down.
    “Everywhere we’ve been is bad,” said Richard.
    “Really, really, bad and it’s going to get worse,” Kyle added.
    “Let me try to explain what I think happened,” said Robert. “There was a massive solar storm and it destroyed tiny electronic circuits and the power grid, too. Nothing with a computer chip works now. People are going to get desperate, like Sergeant Haber, and do stupid things. Most likely, they will hurt other people in their desperation.”
    “Then we are stuck here. Really stuck here,” the man said, fearfully.
    “We decided to head south, to get back home,” said Robert. “We aren’t looking forward to going through any large cities. Think about how much trouble the sergeant has caused. What if there was a whole gang of people like him, with weapons?"
    “I better tell the others.” The man stood up. “I forgot to thank you for helping me today.” The man extended his hand to shake Robert ’s, and realized it was bloody. He slowly put his hand to his side and rubbed the blood onto his jeans. “I wish there was something we could do for you, but we’ve got nothing. I don’t even know how we’re going to get out of here.”
    Robert stood up. “You don’t owe me anything. We’re just going to get what was stolen from us and leave, if you don’t mind.”
    The big man buttoned his flannel shirt, thanked them again, and walked away.
    “Let’s go. You two go back upstream, get your rafts, and float down here. I want to check out my raft before we leave.”
    Robert walked down to the river’s edge. He looked, but did not see any food left in the raft. The pillowcases that had held the food from the hotel were empty now, and the box of MREs was gone. He evidently had not tried to scavenge food along the way, either. The sergeant had nothing to eat, and must have been desperate. Robert thought, What a fool, not rationing out the food supply. Robert lifted the suitcase and saw the pistol that Haber had stolen from him. There were still boxes of cartridges, some clothes, a blanket, and that black duffle bag that the sergeant had brought with him. Robert stepped into the raft and opened the black bag. He had been right; the bag was full of weapons that the sergeant had stolen from the base. There were boxes of ammunition and hand grenades. He moved the bag carefully away from the other supplies and put his suitcase on top.
    Robert noticed that a zipper on an outside pocket of the suitcase was partially open. He opened it the rest of the way and felt around inside. There was a folded piece of paper tucked way back in there. He pulled it out and opened it. It was a picture that his son and daughter had drawn for him, with crayons, before he left on the trip to Montana. It depicted him with his children standing beside him, and at the top they had written, We love you Daddy. The emotions evoked by that piece of paper hit him hard. He felt a sick feeling in his stomach and a huge lump in his throat. The crayon lines became blurry as tears welled in his eyes. When he noticed his two companions floating toward him, he quickly replaced the picture and wiped away his tears. He waved to the two men and shoved his raft out into the water. While he floated down the river, he kept his hand on the suitcase pocket that held the drawing, and thought of his children a thousand miles away.

Chapter Ten

    The river carried the men forward on their journey, teasing them with abrupt changes of direction and speed. Although Robert felt like he had the burden of leading the others on this journey, he had the comfort of knowing that the river would lead them home. That was one less thing he had to worry about. Just follow the river, let the river take its course. As the river meandered, taking the men with it, minutes changed to hours, and the hours changed to days. Nobody kept track of time anymore. The days just blurred together. The days of the week held no meaning for them. There were no jobs, no meetings, and no appointments to keep. Life was just day by day.
    They scavenged for food as they went along. For days, they supplemented the deer jerky and dried beans with small game, cattails, berries, dandelions, and other green plants that they would have normally never considered as food. As the days passed, their beards grew longer and their waistlines smaller, and after several more days, the terrain also began to change. The river gradually got wider and the current slowed. It became increasingly difficult to paddle the rafts through the sluggish water. The men decided that as the river widened, the riverbank was turning into the shoreline of a lake, so they switched from paddling to rowing the rafts. The lake seemed to fight back, in alliance with a constant headwind. The men would row and seem to advance only an imperceptible amount against the strong winds on the lake. The endless rowing was burning countless calories and their hunger increased in unison with their discontent.
    The men decided to go ashore and gather more food. There were many inlets along the shoreline. They saw a large cove in the distance and rowed toward it. As they got closer, they saw white rock bluffs partially surrounded the inlet. The shoreline appeared shallow, but adequate for beaching their rafts. As they turned to enter the cove, they noticed a large cabin cruiser anchored there.
    “What do we do now?” asked Richard.
    “I say we get closer to see if it’s abandoned,” Kyle offered, as he used his pistol to point in the direction of the boat.
    Robert reached for the rifle and held it close. “Move in slow. I’ll make some noise to let them know we’re here.”
    The men paddled up next to the boat. Robert and Kyle went to opposite sides.
    “Hello… hello… is anybody there? Hello,” Robert announced.
    There was no reply. The boat gently rocked in rhythm with the rafts as it floated on the lake, silent except for the gentle slap of the water against the hull.
    “Hello… we’re going to come on deck now… if anyone is there, let us know,” Robert repeated the announcement as he nodded to Richard.
    Richard immediately contorted his face. He looked at Robert and silently mouthed the words, “Why me?” as he shrugged his shoulders.
    Robert waved him onward with his hand. Richard apprehensively grabbed the ladder at the rear of the boat and climbed upward. He slowly brought his head above the deck of the boat and cautiously looked around. After a quick glance back at his companions, Richard triumphantly jumped onto the boat. He motioned for the other men to join him. Kyle secured the rafts to the boat before joining his friends and was last up the ladder. The men remained quiet, whispering softly and using hand signals to communicate.
    After Kyle stepped onboard, Richard looked at the closed cabin door and then back at Robert and Kyle. Robert nodded again to Richard. Richard immediately grimaced for the second time, looked at Robert and mouthed the words again, “Why me?” as he shrugged once more.
    Robert leaned toward him and whispered, “We got your back, Rambo.” Robert followed the whisper with a push toward the cabin door with his boot.
    Richard quietly edged forward to the door. He extended his hand over the brass knob and hesitated. Richard looked back to see both Robert and Kyle waving him on. His hand was shaking as he turned the knob. Richard closed his eyes as he reluctantly inched the door open. He heard a slight squeak from the door hinges, which brought him back to reality, and he opened his eyes. Richard shrieked, stumbling backward as the cabin door slammed shut.
    Both Robert and Kyle crouched low and gripped their weapons tightly. Adrenaline pumped into their veins and their eyes grew wide, locked on the door as they waited for it to burst open, the threat behind it revealing itself.
    “Get back here!” hissed Robert. “What did you see? What were they doing? Did they have weapons?”
    “They… I mean she… was just sprawled there. It looked like a woman.”
    Robert lowered his weapon and walked to the closed door. He placed his hand on the doorknob and turned to glance back at his two companions. Robert did a silent countdown from three, then flung the door completely open. He saw a woman lying on the bed. Then his senses captured the horrible smell. A woman’s dead body lay there in her own filth. In her arms, she was holding a picture. Robert took the picture and held it up to the cabin’s rear window. It was the picture of a man wearing a monogrammed leather jacket and alligator boots, with a large Rolex watch on his wrist. In the background was the boat they were now standing on. He wondered if the man was her husband.
    Kyle stepped into the cabin, opened the windows to let fresh air inside, and noticed a note on a small table. He read it aloud. “My love, it has been days since you left to look for help. I pray that you are well, but I’m sick and can feel myself weakening. The food has gone bad, but I’m so hungry and thirsty that I ate the food anyway and drank water from the lake. If you read this note, I want you to know my last thoughts are of you.” Kyle dropped the note back down on the table. “Looks like food poisoning and dirty water. He has to be a goner, too. There’s no help anywhere. They never had a chance, not even with all their money.”
    “There’s nothing we can do for her. Let’s look around to see if we can use anything,” stated Robert, already looking for whatever could be of use.
    The men systematically opened every one of the boat’s compartments, assessing all the items at their disposal.
    Robert reviewed their new inventory. “Flashlight, first-aid kit, rope, flare gun, and… what are these… life preservers? Who needs these?”
    Richard took a deep breath and reluctantly said, “I do. I can’t swim.”
    Robert and Kyle were speechless. Robert glanced back and forth from Richard to the raft in the lake and said nothing, but shook his head in disbelief. He grabbed a life preserver and pushed it into Richard’s chest. Robert took the new supplies, lowered them into the rafts, then the men continued on their way.
    They rowed until well into the afternoon and stopped at a gentle shoreline with a narrow gravel service road next to it. The road was at least one hundred feet from the river, with a grassy hill behind it. They needed to go ashore to scout for food, and decided that this flat area would be a good place to set up camp. The trees were sparse in this area, but there was just enough wood to start a fire sufficient for their needs. Kyle set the lines to catch fish and Richard took the hatchet to gather more wood. Richard walked to the gravel road and followed it to a small stand of trees, where anyone watching would have seen him stop in horror. He gripped the hatchet tightly and quickly cast a fearful eye over his surroundings. There was a body of a man lying there, wearing only underclothes, with his hands and feet bound. Robert and Kyle came running with weapons in hand.
    With a shaky finger, Richard pointed to the lifeless body on the ground. “Look, another body. It looks like he was shot.”
    Kyle knelt down near the corpse and looked closely at the man’s facial features. “Yeah, he’s been shot. This is the man in the picture, from the big boat.”
    “Are you sure?” asked Robert.
    “Positive. We had better take turns on watch tonight.”
    Trying to ignore the body, Richard gathered wood for the fire and returned to the campsite. He went to another stand of trees to get more wood. The branches were still green, and the fresh wood sizzled and crackled in the fire as the men stood around it silently reflecting on the day’s events.
    Richard was facing the slope and thought he saw something moving on top of the hill. The other men turned to see the same dark figure. Robert grabbed the binoculars and determined that it was a man in a dark green uniform coming their way. As the man got closer, he waved his arms in their direction, trying to get their attention. Robert continued watching, and could soon tell that it was a park ranger’s uniform. The men waved back to acknowledge the ranger. Robert handed the binoculars to Kyle.
    “Hey, I went to take a look around on that hill and I saw your fire,” said the ranger.
    Robert noticed he still had a nametag on his shirt. The name was Murphy. “Ranger Murphy, we found a body over there. It looks like he was murdered.”
    Murphy touched his nametag as though he had forgotten that he was still wearing it. The ranger appeared to be affected like all the other people they had met after the grid crashed. Robert assumed he was on duty at this enormous park when it happened, and now he was stuck here.
    “People are running out of food. They’re desperate.” The ranger looked at the ground and shook his head dejectedly. “There’s nothing I can do.” He looked back up and spoke with tension in his voice. “Something’s wrong. I can’t radio for help and everyone is stuck here, including me.” His gaze turned to the three rafts and supplies. “It looks like you guys are doing alright, though.” The ranger pointed at the rifle on Robert’s shoulder. “Nice piece. Military?”
    “The rifle is. I’m not.”
    “I met someone that was camping on the other side of the hill. We’ve been helping each other while we’re stuck here. He got an elk and there’s too much for us.” The ranger looked at Robert. “Why don’t you come over and get some elk meat. If you help us butcher it, we can give you plenty. I’ll help you carry some back to your camp.”
    Robert looked at his companions and they nodded in agreement. “I’ll go,” said Robert.
    The ranger and Robert crested the grassy hill. From above he could see that the service road went around the hill and split, one section following the lake’s shoreline. The road on the other side of the hill led to the campsite where the elk was supposed to be. They went directly to the other campsite through a stand of trees and bushes, using a path that, according to the ranger, would lead them there. The path was narrow so the two men walked single file. The ranger walked behind Robert giving him directions as they went along. The path stopped at a large clearing a short distance in front of Robert. He stopped and the ranger stopped behind him. Robert looked around the clearing to study the campsite. He could see a truck farther away, on the far side of the clearing, next to the road that split around the hill. Behind the truck, he saw a man standing there with his back turned to their approach.
    “I don’t see the elk,” stated Robert, as he took a few slow steps forward.
    “Just keep walking,” said Ranger Murphy, remaining behind Robert.
    Robert moved slowly forward toward the truck and the man behind it. He cautiously looked around and observed how well concealed the clearing was. Tall trees and bushes surrounded this campsite. As the two men got closer, the man behind the truck turned and seemed surprised to see them. He had not heard them approaching from the trail. The man behind the truck gave a quick wave after he recognized the ranger, who was partially concealed behind Robert.
    “Where’s the elk?” Robert asked again.
    “Just keep on walking,” said Ranger Murphy.
    The man in the distance stepped from behind the truck. He was wearing an expensive leather jacket and holding some rope in his right hand.
    “Here we go,” shouted Ranger Murphy toward the other man.
    The other man did not respond as he moved toward the front of the truck. He put his foot on the truck’s bumper and leaned on his elevated knee. As the man leaned forward, the sleeves of his jacket pulled back, revealing a large expensive wristwatch. He brushed some dust off the shiny alligator boots he was wearing.
    Robert saw the man’s boots and stopped walking toward the truck. His eyes went from the boots to the wristwatch and then to the leather jacket. He could now see that the jacket was monogrammed. Robert kept his eye on the man as he leaned back to whisper to the ranger.
    “I think he killed the man that we found near our campsite. I saw a picture of the dead man and he was wearing that jacket, boots, and watch.”
    The ranger put his hand on his pistol. Robert could hear the sound of the Velcro strap holding the ranger’s pistol pull away.
    “Are you sure he shot the man you found?” Ranger Murphy was directly behind Robert now.
    Robert felt his heart drop. Now he realized why there was no elk. He moved his hand toward his rifle and spoke as he spun around to the Ranger. “I never told you he was shot.”
    Robert did not have time to shoulder the rifle. He turned to see that Ranger Murphy already had his pistol aimed directly at him.
    “I suggest that you cooperate,” the ranger said, coldly. “You don’t want to end up like the man you found by the road, do you? He wouldn’t tell us where his pretty wife was. See what happened to him? Now put the rifle down nice and slow, then we need to walk over to the truck.”
    Robert was furious. “You’re a real piece of shit, asshole. What do you want with me?” asked Robert, clenching his teeth as he set the rifle on the ground.
    “We don’t care about you, just your supplies,” the ranger smirked. “This has been a good day for me. We just got this truck and were getting ready to leave, and then you come along with all your goodies.” The ranger laughed and sneered when he did. “The world has changed. There are new rules for us now. The first rule is, everyone for themselves. I think you understand that, don’t you?”
    The ranger picked up Robert’s rifle and took a few steps back. He had moved closer to the trees and bushes surrounding the campsite. He put the rifle butt up to his shoulder and aimed toward Robert. Robert did not flinch. The Ranger lowered the rifle and pulled back the slide to verify it was loaded. A cartridge ejected. The cartridge arced upward, then hit the dusty trail. After watching the cartridge hit the bare ground, the ranger looked back at Robert.
    “You need to walk toward my friend by the truck. We’re going to tie you up.” The ranger sadistically grinned and motioned with the rifle for Robert to move toward the truck.
    Robert stood his ground. Rage was coursing through his body. He clenched his fists tightly by his side. As his fists brushed against his thighs, he suddenly realized he did not have his knife. He had left it behind. He quickly glanced over at the man by the truck. The man was laughing at him, while swinging the rope tauntingly. Robert felt defeated.
    The ranger raised the rifle. “Remember what I said about cooperation?” The ranger waited for Robert to move, but he remained stationary, with his hands clenched so tight that his knuckles were white. “Have it your way,” snarled the ranger, as he again shouldered the rifle and aimed at Robert’s head. The ranger took a firm stance and prepared to fire the weapon.
    At that moment, a firearm discharged with a loud crack. Although it had happened quickly, it was like slow motion in Robert’s mind. He saw Kyle step through the bushes behind the ranger, already with the pistol aimed at his skull. As soon as Kyle stepped through there was a quick muzzle flash and the ranger’s forehead exploded at the same time his dead body began to collapse to the ground. He was instantly dead with one shot.
    Robert immediately turned to locate the other man, and saw the rope on the truck’s hood; the man was already running away. Robert sprinted in pursuit.
    “Wait… Robert… wait!” yelled Kyle.
    Robert was beside the truck. He stopped and turned toward Kyle just in time to catch the rifle thrown his way. Using the truck for stability, Robert took aim on his moving target. He placed the sights just barely in front of the running man. Robert consciously relaxed his body, exhaled, and slowly squeezed the trigger. The fleeing man dropped like a rock into the tall grass.
    Robert stepped back from the truck and inspected the rifle. “I think we’re going to be the best of friends,” said Robert to his rifle. “Now let’s go find you another companion. I think the Ranger doesn’t need his pistol anymore.”
    Kyle kicked the Ranger’s body over and removed the pistol. “Let’s get out of here.”
    “Just one question.” Robert put his hand on Kyle’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. “What brought you up here?”
    Kyle reached into a deep pocket and handed Robert his knife. “You forgot this. I thought you would need it to butcher the elk.”
    “My lucky charm.” Robert gave his knife a kiss and attached it to his belt, then picked up the cartridge the Ranger had ejected from the rifle.
    Kyle turned toward the path back to their camp. Robert glanced over at the truck. He noticed that it was parked under a large tree that would have given it plenty of shade all day long.
    “Wait a minute. I want to check something out.”
    Robert walked to the truck and put his hand on the hood. It was warm. He motioned for Kyle to come over.
    “It feels warm. I think it might still run,” Robert said.
    Kyle’s jaw dropped. He slapped the truck. “I’ll be damned. Let’s give it a try!”
    Kyle jumped into the driver seat. The key was still in the ignition. He turned the key and the engine sprung to life. “Hot damn! Get in. Richard will shit his pants when we drive up.”
    Kyle put it into first gear, released the clutch, and eased the truck around. He drove it back to the road and around the hill. The road that split around the grassy hill took them directly back to their campsite. When they saw Richard, they slowed down to observe his reaction. Richard was by the fire, splitting some small logs. When he saw the truck he stood, stared, and probably thought that he was imagining things. They could tell by Richard’s body language that he could not see who was driving the truck, most likely from the glare of the setting sun on the windshield. Kyle sped up and honked the horn wildly. Richard stepped farther away from the road and held the little axe tightly in his hand. Kyle drove off the road and went directly toward the campfire, leaving a cloud of gravel dust behind him. Richard’s eyes got wide and he was looking all around for his two companions. Kyle spun the wheel, slammed on the brakes, and rolled the window down, revealing himself. Richard’s expression went from fear to disbelief when he saw that Kyle was the driver of the truck.
    “Hey, we got you a present,” yelled Kyle, out of the driver’s window.
    “A truck?” asked Richard.
    “Nope, that’s for me. This is for you.” Kyle held the pistol out the window with his index finger and thumb on the handle. It dangled between his fingers with the barrel pointing toward the ground.
    Richard eagerly accepted the pistol and walked away, admiring his gift. Kyle parked the truck and offered Robert the keys, but Robert shook his head and sat down beside the campfire to rest. He was hungry and all he wanted to do was eat something and go to sleep, but his hunger drove him to obsessively inspect the food supplies again. The amount of food was getting dangerously low. He knew that all the rowing they had to do on the lake was burning calories. Consequently, they needed a lot more food. What they had been able to scavenge was inadequate.
    Robert ate his share of the remaining food, and promptly dozed off. The nightmares came back, as expected.

Chapter Eleven

    At daybreak, Kyle pulled his trotlines in from the lake. The fillets of fish smelled delicious as they roasted over the campfire.
    Kyle leaned against the truck and spoke to the others. “We’ve been burning a lot of calories rowing on the lake. According to the map, it’s over one hundred miles long. That’s a lot of energy to get to the end. We should put our gear in the bed of this truck and get the hell out of here. Let’s take the truck as far as that gravel road will take us along the shoreline.” He slapped the truck. “This baby is going to save us a lot of time and don’t forget, we better make a good effort to get more food. We’re real low. I don’t want to touch the MREs unless it’s an emergency.”
    The men wasted little time loading the truck. They sat in the cab shoulder to shoulder and took off down the road. It was a fantastic feeling to go faster than the river’s current. The dam was several days of backbreaking effort away by raft, but now, with a truck, they planned to make it in less than a day.
    Richard sat in the middle, his thigh leaning against the stick shift, and dozed off as Kyle drove down the bumpy road. Robert looked out the passenger window and watched the shoreline whip by, and the birds circling in the air above the water as he quietly daydreamed of a better time in his life, a time when a trip to a lake would have meant fishing and camping for fun, not survival.
    Kyle was the first to notice the people ahead of them, sitting on the side of the road. He immediately applied the brakes, jerking Richard forward and waking him up.
    “What happened?” asked Richard, still groggy from sleep.
    Kyle had a tight grip on the steering wheel and extended a finger to point at the group of people in the distance. Richard and Robert saw what Kyle was pointing at. They strained their eyes and noticed that the members of the group all appeared to be wearing the same type of clothes, maybe uniforms. When the group ahead noticed the truck, they stood up, and then began to jump up and down. They waved their arms frantically, like castaways on a deserted island, finally seeing a passing ship and desperately trying to get its attention. They were Boy Scouts. Kyle leaned forward again, straining his eyes toward the distant pack, and all the men remained alert for danger.
    The tallest of the scouts got to the truck first, and pleaded for help. His shirt had a patch with the name Ryan embroidered on it.
    “We need help! Can you help us?” Ryan begged breathlessly.
    Robert got out of the truck. “Calm down. We all need help. What do you need from us?”
    “We’re starving, all of us are starving, and two of us are really sick. They can’t walk anymore. We need food and help getting back to town.”
    “What happened?”
    “We went away for a camping trip, but didn’t bring a lot of food with us,” said Ryan, lethargically. “It was supposed to be just a week in the wilderness. Our vehicles went dead, so we’re stuck out here. We hiked to the road to get a ride, but no one has showed up except the three of you. Our troop leader left days ago to get help. He told us to stay at our campsite, but he never came back.”
    “Let’s stop here, and get them some food and water,” said Robert to his companions.
    Ryan pointed to the two boys lying on the ground. “They’re really sick and too weak to eat. We need to get them to a hospital.”
    Everyone’s eyes turned toward Robert for a decision. He covered his face with his calloused and dirty hands, subdued a scream of frustration, and moved his hands back through his now longer hair, then rubbed his beard. He shut his eyes tightly as he tried to think of a solution, or more likely, a compromise. Getting involved was not part of his plan. He knew that avoiding people was their safest option. Nevertheless, when he saw those young boys in trouble and desperate for help, his isolationist resolve quickly vanished.
    “That does it. Let’s get our gear out of the truck,” Robert said, as he started to remove his pack from the bed of the truck. “We all won’t fit, so it’s back to the rafts for us, except you, Richard.”
    “You get those two kids to the dam and find help. Get them into the town and wait for us there. It might be a couple of days. I don’t think you’ll mind not rowing for a couple of days.” Robert then turned toward the boys who were still standing. “Let’s get you something to eat, and then you go to work.”
    Robert pointed toward an inlet that was surrounded with trees. “Take your gear over there. We’ll set up camp. Some of you pick cattails from the shoreline. I made a couple of bows and some arrows. Some of you need to hunt for any kind of game animal; we’ll cook it all up later. While you’re out there, look for nut trees. Get as many nuts as you can. Ryan, can you shoot a bow?”
    “Yes, I have my archery badge. I can do it.”
    Robert pointed to the bows and river-cane arrows on the rafts. “The arrows are blunt tipped. Look for frogs, rabbits, and squirrels. Just the small stuff. It’ll only stun them, so be quick to grab what you shoot.”
    Richard drove away with the two sick scouts, leaving the others to set up camp by a row of trees near the inlet. Six scouts remained with Robert and Kyle.
    Ryan told the two men that they had walked here from north of the road. The area they walked through was full of large game. He pointed to Robert’s rifle and said, “With that rifle you could bring down something big, like a deer or elk. We saw plenty on the way over here.”
    Robert looked at Kyle and smiled. “Let’s go for a walk in the morning.”
    Kyle gave Robert’s rifle a pat and eagerly agreed to the plan.
    At sunrise, the smell of cooking fish woke up all the hungry campers. Kyle had been the first up and brought the fish back to camp. He reset the fishing lines because they were going to be there until they could build up the food supply. Breakfast was fish, more cattails, and the remainder of the nuts found the previous evening. When everyone was done, Robert shared his plan for the day.
    “Kyle and I are going for a walk toward where Ryan said he saw those big game animals. We hope to get something big, and quickly. If we do, we’re going to need help bringing it back to camp. While we hunt with the rifle, I want you boys to scavenge for as much food as you can find, like you did yesterday. We’ll need to dry the meat when we bring it back to camp. Some of you find tree branches you can make drying racks out of for the meat. When we have a good supply of food, we’ll take the rafts on the lake and row to the dam. I think the town is just past the dam. You should be able to get help from there.”
    Robert and Kyle walked in a northerly direction away from the lake. It was not long before they came upon a herd of deer, grazing on the side of a hill. The two men decided to go around the hill and shoot the deer as they crested its peak. The deer were facing down the hillside as they grazed the slope. Robert slowly crawled to the top of the hill to peer down the other side. His stealthy movements went unnoticed by their prey. From a prone position, Robert aimed at the closest deer. He wanted a side profile shot to get both lungs. The deer turned slightly, and at just the right moment, Robert squeezed the trigger. The crack of the rifle sent all the deer running away, back toward the lake. With the binoculars, he watched the wounded deer run, then stumble and collapse to the ground about one hundred yards from where it was shot.
    After they all helped drag the deer back to the campsite, the boys helped to fillet strips of meat from the deer to start the drying process. The scouts had made several drying racks and poles to hold the meat over the fire. They spent the entire day collecting nuts and drying meat, so they could be ready to leave for the dam in the morning.
    The next morning the scouts were up first, right at sunrise. They cooked the fish that had been caught overnight, and processed the pile of walnuts and acorns. After everyone got their fill at breakfast, the scouts pushed off the shoreline with Robert and Kyle. Each person had a turn with the oars and they rowed continuously until late afternoon. That was when the dam came into view.
    “There it is,” said Ryan, pointing at the dam. “It’s a hydroelectric power plant. See all the buildings around it.”
    Robert stopped rowing and turned to look at the dam. It was big; the complex of buildings meant one thing to him, trouble. There were probably still people there and he would like to avoid them. He just wanted to get Richard and be on their way after they let the scouts out on the shore.
    They landed the rafts on a gravelly section of shoreline and got out. Robert went up the hill and looked around. A road went across the top of the dam, and from this road, he could see down into the shallow valley behind the dam, with the town below. Scanning the whole area, he did not see the truck or Richard anywhere. He did see a road that would take them around the dam. That was where they would need to get the rafts to in order to continue their journey downstream. They carried the rafts up the hill to the asphalt road atop the dam. Robert pointed toward the road that would guide them to their entry point on the river as it meandered through the valley below. Walking toward this road would take them in the direction of the complex of buildings at the power generating station. With the help of the scouts, they would be able to get the rafts to the next section of the river that was their pathway to home. Now they needed to find Richard. He might have gone into the town to get help for the two sick children.
    They all walked past the rear of a car that was next to a building with a large open metal garage door. As they came around the vehicle, they noticed a man bent over the motor, working on it. He saw them at the same time, and jumped backwards, startled.
    “Oh, shit, you scared me,” gasped the man. He quickly took another step back when he saw Robert’s rifle.
    They put the rafts down on the asphalt and sat on them to rest.
    Carefully watching Robert and the rifle, the man said, “I’m an engineer here at the plant. I’ve been stuck here for weeks. I thought I might be able to get this car running again in spite of what’s happened.” He threw a greasy rag at the motor.
    “We’re using the river to get back home.” Robert turned and looked in the direction of the lake. “It’s a good way to avoid people.” Realizing what he had just said to the man, he turned back toward him and said, “No offense to you.”
    “None taken.”
    “We found an old pickup that still worked and were headed towards the dam when we came across these guys.” Robert pointed toward the scouts. “Two of them were really sick, so our friend Richard drove them here, we hope. The rest of us used the rafts to make it here. Have you seen anybody with an old truck pass through recently? A man with two sick boys?”
    The man’s expression changed. He took another step away, so that he was completely on the other side of the stalled car. Robert did not like the man’s body language. The engineer looked downward, avoiding eye contact and began to speak.
    “I was out here working on this useless piece of junk. A truck pulled in, and that caught my attention. The driver saw me and immediately drove over here.” He picked up a wrench and fumbled with it as he continued to speak. “I let him know that all we have here is a first-aid kit and some old civil defense rations we’ve been living on. Some of us are trying to get power back on for the town while we’re stuck here.” He cleared his throat and became noticeably nervous. “A sheriff’s deputy has been going back and forth on horseback to check on our progress. He showed up when I was talking with your friend. The deputy recognized the truck and accused him of stealing it. He handcuffed your friend and took him to town. He found your friend’s pistol.” The man finally looked up, not knowing what kind of reaction to expect from the men. “Here’s the worst part. The deputy said he was going to hang your friend Richard. Sorry to have to tell you this.”
    Robert immediately stood up and turned to Kyle, “We have to get going. We’ll explain what happened so they don’t hang Richard.”
    The man spoke again, looking back at the ground as he did. “The truck belonged to the deputy’s brother. If something happened to his brother, I don’t think you’re going to get him to understand.”
    Robert sat back down on the raft. He buried his face in the palms of his calloused hands. Think… think… what can I do? After several silent moments, Robert stood up. “Let’s get going. We have to hide these rafts down in the valley, and then go to town and get Richard. We’ll ask nicely, and if that doesn’t work, we do it the hard way.”
    They found a secluded location by the river near a narrow road that led to town. They concealed the rafts and walked toward town with the scouts. Robert explained to Ryan they were going to find out where Richard was being held, which was probably the police station. He wanted them to stay back because he did not know what was going to happen. Ryan gave the message to his fellow scouts as they walked toward town.
    The town was not that large and it was easy to find the red brick building with a police headquarters sign on the front. Directly in front of the police station was the truck Richard had been driving. Robert motioned for the scouts to wait across the street at a city park. He told them not to go near the police station until they left with Richard.
    Robert buried his hands deep into his pockets and followed Kyle through the glass front doors. The entry way had a reception desk that was empty. In the reception area were two uniformed lawmen, a sheriff’s deputy and a city policeman, sharing jokes between themselves and laughing. The officers immediately got quiet at the arrival of the two men.
    “We found some scouts stranded by the lake. They need some help getting home,” said Robert quietly.
    “Send them in,” said the deputy. The nametag on the front of his shirt was Murphy.
    Robert and Kyle noticed the deputy’s name and realized that this must be the ranger’s brother. The police officer sat down in a chair and pretended to ignore the conversation. He picked up an old magazine and flipped through the pages. He was squinting at the pages, struggling with the thin light getting through the open windows.
    “I told them to wait outside,” said Robert. “I need to clear something up first. There has been a terrible misunderstanding. We heard that you are going to hang the man that had that truck out front. All he did was drive those sick kids to get help.”
    The police officer stopped looking at the magazine. He peered over its top and continued to listen, as he remained seated.
    “How would you know that? Are you with the guy we have locked up?” asked the deputy, now visibly angry.
    “You could say that. We know he didn’t do anything wrong,” said Robert, in a more assertive tone.
    The deputy drew his pistol and aimed it back and forth at Robert and Kyle. “Get your hands up. That’s a bullshit story. I found my brother’s pistol on your friend. A hanging is too good for him. Maybe a hanging is too good for all of you!”
    Robert and Kyle did not move.
    “I said get your hands up now!”
    Kyle’s hands went immediately up. Robert had buried his hands deep into his front pockets, but he began to remove them, slowly. As his right hand cleared his pocket, he turned his hand to show an object, tightly gripped in his right hand, to the deputy. His other hand displayed the pin from the hand grenade, which he had already pulled.
    “Drop it now!” commanded the deputy.
    “I don’t think you want me to do that,” said Robert, as he dangled the grenade pin in front of him for the deputy to see. “If you shoot me, I’ll let go of the grenade. Is that really what you want?”
    “Everybody calm down,” said the police officer, getting up slowly from the chair. “Let’s just take it easy and work something out. Murphy, you need to put the pistol down before this situation gets worse.” He tossed the magazine to the floor. “I’m going to release their friend, and they’re going to leave.”
    “We’ll take the keys to that truck out front, too,” demanded Robert.
    “I’m going to get your friend now, okay?” said the police officer, holding his hands up.
    “Follow him, Kyle. We don’t want any funny stuff.”
    Within a few minutes, Richard was in the lobby with Kyle. Richard was wearing an orange jumpsuit and carrying a bundle of the clothes he had been wearing when he was arrested. Kyle used a set of handcuffs to restrain the deputy and the police officer, cuffing them to each other. Kyle and Richard ran to the truck, piled in, and waited for Robert. Seeing that Richard had started the truck and was ready to go, Robert dashed to the street, jumping into the bed of the truck, and Richard hit the gas. Robert went flat on his back and carefully replaced the pin back into the grenade. Kyle gave Richard directions to the road leading back to the river where they had hid the rafts. The three men jumped into the rafts and headed downstream.

Chapter Twelve

    As the endless days turned into weeks again, the men noticed the surrounding terrain gradually change. They saw more farmland with abandoned crops, and the arid grassland faded away as trees became a common sight along the riverbank. Although the men were able and motivated to avoid direct contact with people over these weeks, they did see people with increasing frequency. Some were walking in the fields and others were on horseback. The closest they came to contact, recently, was with a man chopping a tree near the river. They had drifted too close and the man with the axe had his back turned, oblivious to the rafts floating downstream.
    On a cloudy morning, the men came upon a bridge crossing the river. It had been weeks since they had seen a bridge. This was a steel-framed bridge supported by large concrete pillars. It was a wide bridge, and because of the billowing dark clouds behind them, they decided to stop beneath it to rest and determine whether a storm was actually on its way. The men pulled their rafts out of the water and tethered them to the riverbank in case of heavy wind from the possible storm. Robert climbed up the embankment, staying under the bridge, looking for an area that would remain dry if it began to rain. He sat down in the dirt and the other two men joined him.
    “Anybody want to guess where we’re at?” Robert asked.
    “It’s hard to say without a map,” Kyle replied. “I know we’ve covered a lot of distance and the river has turned south now. My guess is we’re deep into the Dakotas.”
    “It won’t be much longer before we go through some bigger cities,” said Richard. “We’ve been able to avoid people for a while, but I’m afraid when we get closer to a city, that’s not going to work anymore.”
    Robert reflected in silence on what Richard had just said. He knew that Richard was correct. They would not be able to avoid people much longer. The larger cities were getting closer and it would not be long before they had to pass through them. He looked up at Richard, nodded, and then spoke to Kyle. “He’s right. We can try to keep our distance, but when we get to Omaha, we’ll start to get into the thick of this mess. You said you live in the downtown area. My guess is that by now chaos has reached your town. We’ll need to go in fast and get right back out. I plan on carrying the rifle in plain sight to deter the criminal element.” Robert stood up and brushed dirt off his pants with his hands. “Kyle, how do you think your wife is doing?”
    “She’s a smart person, a science teacher, so I’m sure she figured out what happened faster than others. She’s thrifty, too. When we went grocery shopping and she saw a good deal on something we could stock the pantry with, she loaded up.” Kyle’s voice trailed into a depressed tone. “There was plenty of food in the house when I left.”
    “Kyle, is there something wrong?” asked Robert.
    Richard stood up. “Just leave him alone. We’re all in a shitty situation. This sucks for all of us,” said Richard, as he started to climb to the top of the bridge.
    Kyle’s silence answered his question. There was something wrong. Kyle glanced up and watched Richard walk away. He then turned to Robert and said, “She’s pregnant. My wife is pregnant.”
    “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this before,” said Robert, shocked at his confession.
    “There’s nothing you could do about it, and I didn’t want to talk about it. It bothers me to be this far away when I know she needs help,” replied Kyle, showing frustration.
    “Do you want to tell Richard now?” asked Robert.
    “Where is Richard?” Kyle replied.
    Robert stood up and looked around. “He must’ve gone up the embankment to see where we’re at.”
    “Go check on Richard while I get some firewood. If it rains, we’ll need it dry,” said Kyle, as he stood up and stretched his tired body.
    Robert looked at the dark clouds covering the sky. He still could not tell if it was going to rain, but he did know he should find Richard. Robert walked up the embankment to look toward the road across the bridge. Before he reached the top, he heard Richard’s voice. It sounded like he was trying to talk to someone. When Robert reached the top of the bridge, he saw Richard walking toward the road from a fencerow that was near the bridge and parallel with the road. On the road was a young boy riding a bicycle and holding a fishing pole. Richard was waving his hands at the boy, walking towards him, and telling him to stop. Richard startled the boy, and he quickly turned his bicycle around and peddled away.
    “Richard, stop!” said Robert, as he jogged toward Richard.
    Richard turned and walked back toward a damaged section of the fence and waited for Robert.
    Robert jogged up to where Richard was leaning on the damaged fencerow. “You scared the crap out of that kid, Richard,” said Robert, short of breath and exasperated.
    “I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to get an idea of where we are.”
    “Let’s just stick to our plan and avoid people. We don’t need any more trouble, okay?”
    Richard agreed. Both men looked beyond the fence, noticing that there were cattle in the pasture. They could see a house in the distance.
    “Cattle ranch,” said Robert. “I bet that kid came from that house.”
    “Look over there, Robert. What is that?” asked Richard, pointing toward a large bush on the other side of the fence.
    “Something is dead over there,” said Robert. His eyes were squinting at a carcass that was barely hidden behind a bush. He looked at the damaged section of fence next to them and realized that the barbed wire had been cut. He easily jumped the remaining bottom wire in the damaged section of fence and walked toward the bush to have a closer look. Richard followed him. The two men discovered the remains of a cow that had been neatly butchered in the field, and another cow that did not have much more than the entrails removed. Both were freshly killed; there was no stench of rotting flesh.
    Richard gave the carcass a quick kick and said, “Looks like the rancher gets to eat steak every night.”
    Robert stared at the butchered cattle with a puzzled expression. He looked back at the damaged fence and then over to the farmhouse in the distance. “There’s something wrong with this picture, Richard.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Someone poached the cattle. That’s why the fence is damaged. Someone cut the wires on purpose. The damaged fence made it easy to get the butchered meat to the road. They must’ve got spooked and left the other dead cow to waste right here,” Robert said, as he looked around nervously. “We need to get out of here and take our chances with the storm. I’m going to tell Kyle what just happened.”
    “Go ahead. There’s nobody around.” Richard withdrew his knife, testing the sharpness on his fingernail. “I’m going to cut a few steaks for us before I go anywhere. I’m starving.”
    Robert shook his head. “Bad idea. I’m getting out of here.” Robert stepped through the damaged section of fence and jogged back toward the embankment under the bridge. At the top of the embankment, Robert looked down toward the river and saw Kyle stacking firewood. Robert took a few steps down the slope and then cupped his hands to his mouth to amplify his voice and yelled down to Kyle. “Hey, we have to go. We’re next to a cattle ranch and it looks like someone has been poaching the cattle. I think we should move downstream.”
    Kyle dropped the bundle of wood he was carrying, pointed to the sky, and yelled back up the hill to Robert. “It looks like bad weather is on the way. We have some cover with this bridge. Where’s Richard?”
    “There is a freshly killed cow up there. He thinks he’s going to cut some steaks off it. I told him that was a bad idea. We should go now. A kid on a bicycle saw us up there, so we aren’t a secret anymore.”
    Kyle looked down at the pile of wood and then back up at the dark clouds to contemplate the situation.
    Robert quietly waited for Kyle to respond as he considered their options. Suddenly, a noise broke the silence. It sounded like a rifle shot. Robert quickly, yet cautiously, went back to the top of the embankment to check on Richard. Robert looked across the unfamiliar horizon, but did not see Richard standing anywhere. Kyle had just gotten to Robert’s position at the top of the embankment. The two men stood behind a protruding section of concrete from the bridge’s foundation.
    “I can’t see Richard,” said Robert. Robert pointed in the direction of the butchered cattle. “He was over there when I walked away.”
    Kyle strained his eyes in the direction of the cattle. “Maybe he’s hiding. I would’ve got low if I heard a rifle. There’s a large bush over there. Maybe he’s past that and we just can’t see him.” Kyle took a deep breath, cupped his hands to his mouth, and was just about ready to yell Richard’s name.
    “Hold it. Don’t make any noise. I don’t want to give away our position. Let me low- crawl over there and look around. That bush will cover me from the ranch house at this distance, if that’s where the shot came from.”
    Robert crawled along the swale between the road and the fencerow. He occasionally stopped and looked back at the bridge to see Kyle peering from behind its concrete foundation. As he got closer to the damaged section of fence, the carcasses, and the large bush, he became more cautious. He stayed lower to the ground and moved even slower. Near the bush, he stopped and felt the small of his back, where he had tucked his pistol, and took a deep breath. He inched up next to the bush and concealed himself from the ranch house. Apprehensively, he changed to a kneeling position and was about to peer around the bush when he heard a faint sound of a horse galloping across the pasture. He reached for the pistol and chambered a round as the sound from the horse’s hooves became louder. Robert tried to separate some of the branches to peer through the bush, to no avail. If he wanted to see what was approaching, he would have to peek around the bush and risk being seen. Robert held the pistol in his right hand and lay prone on the ground. He slowly moved to the edge of the bush and saw a mounted horse approaching. He leaned his body further and saw that the rider was holding a rifle. Suddenly, he realized that Richard was lying on the ground, opposite of Robert’s position and just a few feet away. Richard was in plain sight of the approaching rifleman.
    “Richard, you have to move,” Robert whispered desperately from behind the bush. “That man has a rifle. Move Richard, get up, you have to move, Richard,”
    There was no response from Richard. Robert slid back behind the bush and listened to the horse’s gallop turn into a slow trot. The horse stopped on the opposite side of the bush, Robert could hear the horse breathing, and the sound of the saddle leather as the rider adjusted his position. He now feared the worst for Richard. Robert thought he was most likely shot and the rancher was riding out to inspect the target. Robert got a lump in his throat when he heard the horse slowly moving around the bush. The rancher spurred the horse and it turned around suddenly. Robert startled the man, so the man immediately tried to bring the rifle to his shoulder. Robert jumped up into a firing stance and was raising the pistol toward the rancher’s chest as the rancher’s rifle levelled at Robert in the same instant. In the rancher’s haste to shoulder his weapon, he accidentally spurred the horse just before he pulled the trigger. The startled horse reared, and the rifle discharged harmlessly into the sky. The bullet from Robert’s pistol knocked the rancher backward and out of the saddle. The frightened horse galloped away with the rancher’s foot caught in a stirrup. Robert stared at the horse’s retreat and the sight of the rancher’s body reacting with each bump in the ground as the horse galloped away. Robert took a step toward Richard’s body, knelt down, and felt for a pulse. There was no pulse. Richard was dead.
    Robert looked up and saw Kyle running toward him with the rifle. As Kyle got closer, he slowed his pace, but his breathing was labored. Kyle tried to speak as he gasped for air. “I saw what happened. I didn’t know what to do. I’m sorry, Robert.” As he got closer to Robert, he could see that Richard’s dead body was concealed on the other side of the bush. He stared in disbelief with wide eyes.
    Robert moved closer to Kyle and said, “There was nothing you could have done, and now there is nothing we can do for Richard. We need to go.”
    Kyle agreed and slowly walked backward and away from Richard’s body as he stared at the carnage.

Chapter Thirteen

    In the heat of the late afternoon sun, the men met the river’s edge at Omaha. They stepped out of the rafts onto loamy soil, and dragged their belongings into the concealment of a small grove of trees. Shrubbery helped to conceal the rafts after they covered them with tarps and buried them with dirt from the riverbank. Robert stepped back, adjusted the fit of his rifle, and paced around the three buried rafts.
    “Does it look good?” asked Kyle.
    “It looks good. But I don’t know about the clouds coming in. If we get a bad storm, maybe strong winds and rain could blow the cover away.” Robert pointed to the horizon. Dark clouds were visible and the air was thick with humidity. The skies looked like rain was on the way and the distant wall of clouds looked ominous.
    Kyle put on the backpack and adjusted the straps. “If it rains, the dirt will get heavy. I don’t think it’ll blow around. It should stay concealed.” Kyle removed his pistol, verified that there was no cartridge in the chamber, and engaged the safety.
    Robert came back around the rafts, and spoke as he did. “I’m worried about dogs, too. I can only imagine how many dogs are loose now. They’re going to form packs and prowl around, hunting. If they get near our equipment, they may smell the food we left in the rafts. What if they dig it out and tear apart our rafts?”
    “We don’t have any other options. If someone stays to watch this stuff, we’re split up. That’s not a good idea, either. Let’s hurry, get in and get out,” said Kyle, as he was adjusting the heavily loaded backpack for the search to find his wife.
    Robert, scanning the urban landscape with cautious eyes, asked, “Which way?”
    Pointing in a westerly direction, Kyle said, “Follow me.”
    The tall buildings of the downtown area were just beginning to silhouette in the setting sun. One of them was still smoldering from a recent fire. Other billows of smoke, from sporadic fires in the area, could be seen in the distance. Kyle pointed in a direction that would take them out of the loamy soil and onto rough open grassland near a railroad-switching yard. Walking through the massive rail yard would put them directly on course to enter the concrete jungle ahead of them. The two men walked away from their buried rafts and out of the sandy dirt toward the railway complex. After spending so much time rowing and paddling on the water, walking on the rough ground felt awkward. Their pace was cautiously slow as they advanced, carefully scanning the path ahead and frequently checking what was behind them.
    Kyle stopped walking and looked at Robert briefly, then turned and looked back at the river. He said, “I never did thank you.”
    “For what?”
    “Getting a plan together that worked. Look how far we’ve made it.” Kyle paused and pointed toward the city. “I made it home alive, and you offered to get me out of this place and will let me stay with you, too. If all this hadn’t happened just like it did, I can’t help but think I would have ended up like Richard.”
    Robert visibly cringed at the thought of what happened to Richard, and said, “Don’t thank me for anything. We’re a team and I’d like to think we’re just working together for survival. As for Richard, what’s done is done. I don’t want to talk about it. I‘m more interested in getting your wife, and then getting out of here. I’m happy we’re here, but don’t forget, the journey isn’t over. We have quite a distance left to go and I’m not with my family yet.”
    Kyle adjusted the backpack and looked toward the city. His body language said he was finished talking. Nothing else was said as they continued to walk toward the railroad tracks. A large pile of debris, mostly composed of railroad ties, was in their path, obstructing the view ahead. As they walked around the stack of railroad ties, Robert saw something moving in the distance. He saw motion around the stalled railroad cars. There were miles of stranded freight cars in this complex. It must have served as a railroad hub. Robert extended his arm and gestured for Kyle to get behind the stacked railroad ties.
    “I see movement ahead. There’s a lot of motion behind the railroad cars. Get the binoculars out of the backpack,” said Robert, in a hushed tone.
    Kyle had already slipped the backpack off and was getting the binoculars before Robert was finished asking for them. Robert peeked into the open backpack as Kyle was removing the binoculars.
    “Hand grenades. You aren’t kidding around today. How many did you bring?” Robert asked.
    Kyle answered silently with two fingers. He pointed to Robert and then to himself indicating one for each.
    Robert smirked. “Nice of you to share,” he muttered, as he turned the binoculars toward the stalled railroad cars. “I see people. They must be raiding the freight cars. Some are on top of the cars. It looks like they’re throwing something out… it’s too small to see what it is. Here, take a look around.”
    Robert handed Kyle the binoculars. Just as Kyle began to focus, they both heard the sound of firearms coming from the direction of the railroad cars. Kyle quickly lowered the binoculars and looked around.
    “I heard it. It’s coming from straight ahead. That’s right in our path,” said Robert, angrily.
    Kyle pointed to an alternate direction to get to his apartment and wife. They needed to keep moving to avoid traveling in the dark of night. He had just begun to explain the detour to Robert when dozens of people from behind the railroad cars began to run in their direction.
    Robert tapped Kyle on the shoulder and pointed to the obvious. Kyle had already seen the throng headed toward them. Robert chambered a round in his rifle and placed the stock against his shoulder. “Get ready… stand your ground, Kyle.”
    “Hold it. They aren’t running at us. They are running away from something. They must be running from the shots we heard,” Kyle said, as he put his hand on Robert’s rifle and lowered the barrel.
    “You’re right, Kyle. Look at them. They look sick and weak; they must be starving. There are children out there, too. We got caught in the middle of something. We need to go, now.”
    As the people fled from the railroad and got farther away, they began to scatter in different directions. Robert and Kyle remained hidden behind the railroad ties. A middle-aged woman and a young boy continued in their direction. The woman was running as fast as she could, but appeared to have an injured leg. She was limping badly. The young boy tried to help her move as she leaned on his shoulder while running away. In their panic, the woman and boy did not notice the two men hiding behind the railroad ties. She could not run anymore and wanted to hide there. When the starving pair got near to the pile, Robert and Kyle stood up. The woman instantly stopped, frozen in fear, as she saw the two men with a rifle and a pistol, directly in front of them.
    “Please don’t kill us,” the woman pleaded. The young boy began to cry. “There’s so much of it. We just need a little coal to boil water and cook what little food we have.”
    Robert looked at the woman’s leg. She had been shot. Both the woman and young boy were covered in black coal dust. “Lady, we’re not going to kill you,” said Robert, as he pointed the rifle down.
    “If you’re hiding from someone over there, you better get on the other side of this pile,” said Kyle.
    The young boy stopped crying and looked up at the woman, who was still frozen with fear.
    “Lady, you and the kid better get over here.” Robert motioned to their position behind the pile of railroad ties. “You better sit down.” He then gestured toward the wound on her leg.
    The sound of additional gunfire, closer this time, brought the woman out of her trance. She hopped on her good leg toward the two men and collapsed on the ground at their feet. “I thought you were going to kill us for taking the coal out of the coal cars that are stuck on the tracks. There’s an armed gang that’s hoarding everything. They shoot to kill. I’m lucky to be alive.” Her eyes squinted. “You aren’t one of them?” Emotion overcame her, and she began to cry uncontrollably. “They already killed my husband… his father.”
    “An armed gang shooting innocent people? That’s not good,” mumbled Kyle to himself, as he looked back toward the railroad tracks.
    Robert knelt down next to the woman and gently put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry about your husband.” He paused. “We need your help. Tell us about this gang.”
    “They look just like you, men with guns. Except they wear a red cloth, like a bandana, tied around their upper arm.”
    “I need to know where—” Robert started, but Kyle abruptly cut him off.
    “We have company. Two headed this way. Red armbands,” said Kyle, peeking around his cover.
    “Shhhh… they don’t know we’re here. Keep it together and stay quiet,” whispered Robert to the woman and her son.
    The woman nodded and her son sat next to her and wrapped his arms tightly around her.
    Kyle peeked through a gap in the railroad ties and watched the two strangers walking their way. One man had a rifle and the other had a shotgun. The rifle appeared to be a.22 caliber. Kyle knew that a.22 caliber bullet could spin around in the body and leave a nasty wound. The shotgun would be dangerous at close range, accuracy not required. Kyle leaned over to Robert and whispered, “They look too casual. It looks like they are telling each other jokes. What are they doing?”
    Robert shrugged his shoulders and continued to stare at the advancing men, his eyes unblinking. The armed gang members were now less than twenty yards away and they heard their sinister voices. They were making fun of the people they had shot. One of the men placed his weapon on the ground and began to imitate one of his victims. He went to the ground on his knees begging for mercy, holding imaginary wounds. The other man laughed hysterically. When the bad actor stood up, leaving his weapon on the ground, he unzipped his pants to relieve himself and the other man did the same, after placing his weapon on the ground, too. Robert saw this and turned toward Kyle. Kyle was already staring at Robert with wide eyes. Robert nodded his head and held up five fingers for a silent countdown. At Robert’s closed fist, both men sprung from behind the pile with their weapons drawn.
    “You move and you die!” yelled Robert. “Step this way, we need to have a talk with you.” Robert motioned with his rifle for the two men to walk to the other side of the stack of railroad ties.
    Kyle found some twine and plastic rope on the ground and tied their hands behind their backs, then tied their feet together. He sat the men up to face them for questioning.
    Robert looked at the injured woman and asked, “Lady, did either of these men hurt you?”
    “You can call me Dorothy. I don’t know, my back was turned and I was running. It could have been any of their gang. People see the red armbands and they run. Their pathetic gang has a reputation of murder.”
    “Dorothy, please move around to the far end of this pile. Take your son with you. I don’t want him to see this,” said Robert.
    “Kyle, take their armbands and hide them in the backpack. We’ll use them later.”
    The two captives were sitting on the ground with their backs to the pile of debris. Robert and Kyle stood directly in front of them. Robert withdrew his large knife and Kyle did the same. When Robert began to speak, Kyle slowly paced back and forth behind Robert, tapping the blade of his knife on the palm of his hand in rhythm with his paces. He stared directly at the two men and nodded his head in agreement when Robert spoke.
    Robert knelt to the ground and leaned forward toward the captive men. “This is what’s going to happen. I’m going to ask questions and you are going to answer. If I suspect you are lying, we’ll kill you. If I think you are telling me the truth, we won’t kill you. Do you understand?”
    The men were obviously terrified and simultaneously agreed to tell them anything. They begged for their lives and explained they did not want to join the gang, but only did so to get food and protection. A man named Cyrus led the gang. He was getting an armed force together to move through the city and confiscate anything of value, and he wanted to get control of the stalled coal cars. People would need to boil water and cook food. In the winter, the people who had not starved to death would also need it for heat. He wanted to trade the coal to get food for his gang, so they had moved into the railroad hub today to take it over. They had also found an Amtrak train and that was where they planned to stay. Cyrus and a few others were planning to take up residence in the sleeper cars.
    “How do we avoid your gang? We want to get into the city,” asked Robert, as he prodded the closer man on the head with the blade of his knife.
    “Put on the red armbands and stay clear of the railcars. Walk around them. Go straight west. They’re focused on looting the freight cars right now and will be for several days. Just walk around like you’re on a patrol looking for something. People will avoid you if they see the red armbands.”
    “Why would people be so quick to avoid you?” asked Kyle.
    “We have a reputation.”
    The other captive smirked at his accomplice’s reply. Robert immediately drove his tightly clenched fist into the smirking man’s face. The man’s head snapped back and struck the pile of tar-black railroad ties. The humor disappeared from the man’s face as his unconscious body slumped over. A streak of red blood contrasted with the black creosote-stained wood.
    “What should I do with you?” Robert asked the other man.
    “Let me go! You said you weren’t going to kill us if we told you everything, but you killed him.”
    “Him? I didn’t kill him,” Robert replied sarcastically as he rose to his feet. “He’s just taking a little nap.”
    “Untie me!”
    “No, that wasn’t part of the agreement. I said that I wouldn’t kill you, nothing more. Maybe my new friend Dorothy has other plans for you. That’s up to her. Have a good nap.” Robert drove his fist into the second man’s face, knocking him unconscious.
    Robert and Kyle gave Dorothy and her son the.22 caliber rifle and the shotgun taken from the gang members. Kyle let her know that the men were tied and out cold. He did not care what she did to them, but it would not be a good idea to shoot them. The noise might attract attention. Robert explained that they would like to help her back to the city, but they needed to hurry and find Kyle’s wife. It was going to get dark soon and it looked like a storm was approaching. Dorothy and her young son would slow them down, but the new weapons should provide them some protection. She thanked them for what they had done and used the rifle as a support to help her stand before she spoke to Robert and Kyle again.
    “Why are you putting on those awful red armbands?” Dorothy asked, with an expression of disgust and curiosity.
    Kyle tied a red bandana on Robert’s upper right arm and replied, “It’s camouflage so people will avoid us.”
    Dorothy shook her head. “I’m not so sure about that, but good luck,” she said, as the two men turned to leave.
    Robert and Kyle made it past the railroad hub. The wind was blowing harder and it was going to storm for sure. There was not much daylight left, but they were on the right road to take them to Kyle’s apartment building, and hopefully to Kyle’s wife.
    Both men decided that it was best to walk in the middle of the road. They wanted to keep some distance from the corners of alleys because that would be an easy place to set up an ambush. The few people they saw appeared to be starving and weak, and as predicted, the people on the sidewalk saw the two men and turned aside. The men did not know if it was Robert’s rifle or the red armbands, but they were pleased to have no confrontations, so far, on the road.
    “How much farther?” asked Robert.
    “Not much, we’re going to beat the rain and—” suddenly, Kyle stopped walking and quickly turned to look around.
    “What is it?”
    “I think we’re being followed.”
    Robert gripped the rifle tightly. “Are you sure? I don’t see anyone.”
    “Maybe I’m being paranoid. Do you want to jog the rest of the way? It’s about a mile. If we are being followed, that would make it harder for them to keep up.”
    “Good idea. Let’s get out of here.”
    The men soon arrived at the apartment building. It was a tall brick building. The double glass doors on the front of the building were shattered and the front lobby was dark inside. The men stopped at the entrance and looked back down the road to see if they had been followed.
    “See anything?” asked Robert.
    “No, but I still have the feeling that I’m being watched. Let’s get inside. The apartment is on the second floor, number 210, at the end of the hallway. We can see this road from up there.”
    The men stepped across the broken glass and into the dark lobby. The stainless steel doors to an elevator were directly in front of them and the stairwell was next to the elevator. As they stepped into the building, there was a horrible stench in the air.
    “Shall we take the elevator?” Robert asked, with an invisible smile in the darkness.
    “That’s funny, old man. Let’s take the stairs. You need the exercise,” Kyle replied, facetiously. Kyle opened the door to the dark stairway and tripped, falling completely to the ground, as he stepped inside. The stench of death was overwhelming in the enclosed space.
    “What happened!” exclaimed Robert.
    As Kyle got up, he realized that it had been a dead body that he had fallen over.
    “Hold it. There’s a body here. Prop the door open to let the odor out,” said Kyle.
    Robert propped the door open and carefully stepped over the body. It was very dark in the stairwell and they were lucky to only have to go to the next level up. Exiting the stairwell onto the second floor provided no relief from the smell. It was on that floor, too.
    “What is that smell? Is it everywhere in this building?” asked Robert, as he held his nose. After he spoke, Robert immediately noticed a small single hung window at the end of the hall. He immediately went to the window and opened it, hoping the wind could blow in some fresh air.
    Kyle followed him down the hall and stared at the door to the apartment they were next to. It was apartment 210.
    “You made it.”
    “I’ve thought about this moment every day since we left Montana. It has kept me going. I wondered what I’d do when I got here. Maybe I would run to the door and pound on it, or scream at the window from the street.” With a quick laugh he said, “I guess I kept it simple. Here we go.”
    Kyle knocked on the door.
    “Why don’t you just open the door? It’s your apartment.”
    Kyle replied, embarrassed, “I lost the key.”
    Robert rolled his eyes and slapped his forehead. He then turned to the window for fresh air as Kyle continued to knock.
    “Honey, it’s me, Kyle. I’m back. Open the door.”
    “Where else could she be, Kyle?”
    “I don’t know, but I’m not leaving without her. You don’t have to stick around. If you want to leave that’s fine, but she’s my wife and I am not leaving without her.”
    “I’m not leaving, either. Let’s find your wife. What do we do now? Where would she go?”
    “Let’s go out back and look around,” said Kyle.
    “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to avoid walking through that stench again. Go have a look and come back. I’ll wait here.”
    Kyle scrambled down the hallway to the stairwell, and was gone. Robert stepped out of the main hall, around the corner, and sat on the floor with his back to the wall, watching the rain come through the window. The raindrops were reflecting the small bit of golden light left from the setting sun. The hallway was dark and quiet. The sound of the raindrops was hypnotic. Robert closed his eyes and listened. He began to fade away into sleep as he sat on the floor. In his dream, he heard gentle footsteps. They got gradually louder, and then he heard a metallic noise. It was the sound of a turning doorknob and squeaky hinges. The sounds were real and not from a dream, he realized. Robert jumped up. He grabbed his rifle, turned around the corner, and was staring at a thin woman with long black hair standing in the open doorway to apartment 210. When she saw Robert jump around the corner with the rifle, the woman began to scream hysterically in fear.
    “Please don’t kill me! Please, please don’t kill me! I’m begging you!” pleaded the woman, as she collapsed to her knees and begged for mercy.
    “No, no, this isn’t what you think!” said Robert, as he dropped the rifle and held up his hands. Robert took a step toward the woman and she screamed even louder.
    Kyle heard the screams through the open window and ran back inside. He leaped through the stairwell doors, darted up the steps, and started down the hall toward the apartment. He stopped halfway down the hall when he saw his wife; she was wearing a loose fitting sundress. He immediately recognized his Alexis.
    Robert looked down the hall where Kyle was and saw the dark figure that Alexis was looking at. As Kyle began to slowly walk toward them, he realized her terror. She saw an unrecognizable man with long hair, a beard, and a pistol walking toward her, and both of the men were wearing red bandanas on their arms.
    “Alexis, it’s Kyle!” Robert gently explained, as he pointed to the slowly advancing figure in the dark hallway. Robert quickly removed his red armband, wadded it up, and threw it on the hallway floor. “We’re not a part of that. Those armbands aren’t ours.”
    When Alexis heard her name, she was shocked into silence. She stared at Robert’s face in the dark of twilight, but did not recognize him.
    “Who are you? How do you know my name?” As Alexis demanded an answer from Robert, her fear and panic was transitioning into anger.
    “My name is Robert ; you don’t know me. I am your husband’s friend.” Robert extended his arm and pointed to Kyle’s shadowy figure slowly moving toward them.
    Alexis was still on the floor and on her knees. She straightened her torso, and with clenched fists at her side, yelled at Robert. “My husband is dead! Everyone I know is dead! Damn you to hell!”
    At Alexis’s exclamation, Kyle’s shocked silence disappeared. He took a step forward to stand next to his kneeling wife in the dark hallway. “Alexis, it’s me. I made it back. I came back for you and the baby.” She recognized his voice. Kyle dropped to his knees to look directly into his wife’s face. Lightning from the storm flashed, shining through the little window and illuminating the hallway. In that brief instant, Alexis could see him clearly. The sun had burnt Kyle’s face, and he had a beard now. His hair was long and as ragged as his clothes. She thought to herself that his eyes were the same. She had fallen in love with those same kind blue eyes. This was her husband, and he was alive! She grabbed him, holding tightly, and began to cry.
    Robert stepped softly around the embracing couple and went into the dark apartment to give them privacy. Inside the apartment, he stood next to a window overlooking the road outside and stared cautiously through it. He remembered Kyle’s earlier suspicion of being followed. He believed Kyle, and was worried.
    Kyle grabbed his wife’s face and kissed her on the forehead. “Where were you? We were looking for you.”
    “I was on the roof. When it rains, I put buckets out to collect water.” Alexis stood up and used the loose clothing of her sundress to wipe away her tears. “Where have you been all these months? How did you get back here?”
    “It’s a long story. I’ll explain later.”
    She turned to go into the apartment. “Honey, come in quickly and lock the door. I’ll light a candle.” She looked at Robert and invited him in too. Robert accepted the invitation, and, in his haste to find a place to rest his weary body, was the first to enter.
    Kyle stepped inside and saw Robert’s figure in the darkness, looking alertly out the window. In the room was a large couch with a coffee table and a few chairs. Robert moved to a chair in the corner of the room and, by moving away, allowed a little more moonlight to come through the window. Kyle sat in the middle of the couch and placed the backpack on the coffee table. There was a faint smell of sulfur from the match as Alexis lit a candle. The orange glow grew brighter as the large candle that Alexis brought into the room came closer. Alexis was holding the candle directly in front of her when she crossed the room and stood next to Kyle. She sat the candle on the edge of the coffee table, and began to cry when she saw the expression on her husband’s face. She could see that he had just realized what she had not told him yet. She was not pregnant any longer. She had lost their baby.
    Without a spoken word, Robert realized the horror Kyle was now experiencing. Robert subconsciously pushed back with his feet to move his chair further into the corner, but there was no escaping the tragedy filling the room.
    A broken man slowly and weakly stood up from the couch. Kyle then went to the room that they had prepared for the child. Robert heard him cry from the baby’s room, closed his eyes, and tried to keep his own demons from returning. They were telling him that his children were in trouble and that he could not help them. He understood that there was nothing he can do. All he could do was remind himself to survive one day at a time and not give up hope.
    Alexis turned away from the candlelight and entered the nursery to be with her husband.
    “I’m sorry, Kyle. It’s been horrible here. Since the grid went down my life has been a nightmare. I’m so sorry—”
    “I’m not blaming you for anything.” Kyle had turned away from his wife and leaning over the crib. He gently pushed the mobile hanging at the head of the empty crib.
    “Kyle, when I saw the red armbands that you and your friend were wearing, I panicked. Men with red armbands attacked me and my friend.” She began to cry again. “It wasn’t my fault.”
    “What? Men with red armbands attacked you?”
    She was shocked at the sound of his voice. He sounded like a killer. She knew her husband would never hurt her, but she unconsciously took a step backward. If the room was illuminated, she would have seen his narrowed eyes grow bloodshot and his hands begin to tremble with the adrenalin coursing through his veins. His breathing became deep and quick. His body was ready for combat.
    “It was after the power was out for quite a while. I didn’t think you were coming home. A friend lives close by, so I walked to her house hoping we could help each other get through this. As we were walking back here, those men were looting the area. They surrounded us. I fought back as hard as I could. An ugly man with a cratered face told the men to hold me. They called him Cyrus; I think he was the leader. He had a red bandana on his head, not on his arm. He whispered into my ear, ‘Don’t fight back so hard. It’s bad for your health,’ and then he hit me in the stomach. I passed out. By the time I woke up, I had lost a lot of blood and realized I had lost the baby, too. My friend was gone and I haven’t seen her since.”
    Kyle felt the rage beginning to erupt from his body. He ripped the red cloth off his arm and went back to the room Robert was in. “Robert! I’m leaving! You don’t have to come with me. I have something to do and I may not come back… I have to do it. I’m going to kill them all… every single one of those bastards… they’re all going to die.”
    Robert stood up from the chair. “Kyle, I heard what she said. I’m so sorry to hear that. You’re a good man and don’t deserve what’s happened. Calm down for a second, and let’s talk about this.” Robert held his hands up at his chest level with his palms facing out. He motioned downward with his hands to try to reinforce his desire for Kyle to calm down.
    “Kyle, please don’t leave—” Kyle pushed his wife away as she tried to hold on to him. “This is something I have to do. Nobody is going to stop me,” Kyle said, as he reached for his backpack and angrily thrust the red bandana into it.
    “I’m not going to stop you. I just want you to think about what you are doing,” said Robert, in a calm voice. “You don’t have a plan. Don’t be foolish and get yourself killed.”
    Kyle’s wife stood behind him and gave him a hug. She could feel the tension in his body. Kyle turned and sternly put his hands on her shoulders. “I will come back… after I do this.”
    Alexis stepped back and then sat in a chair. She leaned forward, put her face in her hands, and began to cry. “This is my fault… it’s all my fault,” Alexis said, weeping.
    Kyle turned to Robert and said, “I do have a plan. I am going to kill them… all of them. I know where they are. The men we captured told us they would be in those Amtrak cars. They won’t be hard to find, and when I find them, I’ll have a couple of presents for them.” Kyle tapped the backpack to remind Robert of the grenades. “The rain is going to keep them inside, so they’ll be easy to find. I’m leaving now.” Kyle grabbed the backpack and turned toward the door. He paused by his wife on the way out and whispered in her ear, “I’ll be back when I’m done. I love you.”
    They heard his footsteps in the hallway fading as he left.
    “Damn it!” said Robert, as he grabbed his rifle. “I’m sorry about this, Alexis. I have to go with him. I’ll do my best to keep him safe. When we get back, we’ll make a plan and get out of here.”
    With tear-filled eyes, Alexis asked, “Where will we go?”
    “With me, I’ll explain later.”
    “Don’t let him get hurt. Promise me you will not let him get hurt.”
    “I promise. You had better lock the door behind me. I need to run fast and catch up with him.”
    Robert picked up the red armband he had thrown down earlier and ran as fast as he could down the dark hallway. The stench of death was still overwhelming and he tried to cover his nose with the red cloth to filter the odor. He descended to the ground floor through the stairwell filled with the horrendous stench, so thick in the air that its taste filled his mouth, gagging him once more. After he stepped over the corpse sprawled in the stairwell, he swung his rifle to his back and made a dash for the doors to the street, still covering his nose with the bandana. When he stepped through the broken doors, he felt a sharp pain at the back of his head. Robert’s world spun around before him. His vision tunneled and began to slowly fade away as he landed on the concrete sidewalk. He heard the voices of several men laughing as he lost consciousness.

Chapter Fourteen

    When Robert regained consciousness, he was lying face down on the concrete in front of the apartment building. A bag covered his head, blocking his vision. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. They had bound his wrists behind his back, but his legs were free. Robert heard a distant clap of thunder and remembered that it had been raining. His clothes felt wet, but it was barely sprinkling now. He tried to get up, groaning from the pain in his head and wrists, and then he felt a kick to his ribs that knocked him back down.
    “Kyle, are you there?” moaned Robert.
    “Yeah, they got me too. I screwed up.”
    “You were right. They followed us. Who are they?”
    “I don’t know. I have a bag over my head, but—” Kyle was abruptly cut off by a deep voice.
    “Shut up or we’ll gag you. Both of you,” said the deep voice. “Alright men, let’s get out of here. Stand these two pieces of shit up and let’s get going.”
    “Who are you? What are you doing?” asked Robert.
    The deep voiced man pressed the end of his shotgun against Robert’s neck and said, “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this my way. If it was up to me, I’d let you rot out here, but there are some people that want information out of you. That’s the only thing keeping you alive right now.”
    “We don’t know anything.”
    The deep voice replied, “That’s what the last guy said… before he died.” Robert felt the barrel of the shotgun press harder on his neck. “Both of you get up, and shut up. We’re moving out now.”
    The men walked blind for several miles toward an unknown destination. Their captors were silent with the exception of a few whispers, occasionally prodding the captives with a rifle or shotgun to correct their direction. The only explanation Robert could surmise was that the gang with red armbands had connected them with what they did earlier at the railroad hub, when they met Dorothy and her son. Was it possible that Dorothy had let the two men go? They could have gone back to their gang and organized a search party.
    Finally, the familiar deep voice sternly said, “Hold it, we’re here.” They all stopped walking and the two men were pushed next to each other. They were positioned shoulder to shoulder, and heard the faint voices of their captors talking to one another. Then they heard more voices, and the murmur became a growing crowd of voices.
    “Just shoot them,” was said in the distance.
    “We should hang them,” was yelled from the crowd.
    The captors grabbed the men by their arms and led them away. “We’re going inside. Start walking.”
    As the crowd grew louder, they forced Robert and Kyle to walk faster. When they finally stopped, they heard creaking hinges that indicated that they were going through a door. The door shut behind them, and seconds later, they could see the flickering of an electric light filtering through the bags that still covered their heads. They were shoved into chairs, and their arms and legs were strapped down.
    Robert and Kyle were sitting next to each other when the man with a deep voice pulled the bags off their heads simultaneously. He was a large man with a scar on his face. A thick scar ran across his left cheek, and appeared to be from a deep knife wound. His eyes were hollow and absolutely void of emotion.
    They were on a concrete floor in an unfinished room. The studs were visible in the walls and the construction looked unprofessional and haphazard. Both Robert and Kyle stared at the glowing light bulb in amazement. It had been months since the grid went down, and they had often wondered if they would ever see anything like that again. It was only a single light bulb, just enough to barely illuminate the room. There were several wooden chairs, a few cots, and boxes of medical supplies stacked around the walls.
    Robert caught himself in a trance, staring at the electric light, and shook his head. He turned to look at his abductor and asked again, “Who are you?”
    “Your worst nightmare. Don’t piss me off.”
    Robert turned his head and looked at Kyle. He slowly shook his head with a defeated look on his face. Kyle nodded his head. When Robert looked back at where the man had been standing, he had moved. The big man had the door open, and was waving toward someone in the distance. The two captives noticed that their backpack, pistol, and rifle were set against the far wall, partially concealed in the dimness.
    The door creaked open and a small man stepped into the room. “Good evening, Bull,” said the frail man, as he pushed his thick eyeglasses back up the bridge of his nose.
    “Evening, Doc,” replied Bull, as he nodded his head. He then put a black leather glove on his right hand. Bull pulled the glove on tightly and made a fist. He rapped the back of his fist against the table and it made a hard thump on the tabletop. The glove was filled with lead pellets.
    “Are you ready, Bull?” asked Doc, looking over the top of his glasses and lifting an eyebrow.
    “I’m ready. Let’s get this over with.” Bull repeatedly made a fist to feel the leather stretch snugly around his hand. When the leather felt right on his hand, he wrapped the red bandana around the glove to make it tighter. He did this as he continued to stare at the captives tied to the chairs.
    Doc pulled up a chair and sat down in front of Robert and Kyle. He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose again. “I will ask you some questions, and if you do not cooperate, Bull will administer discipline. All I need is some simple information. For example, tell me how many of you are there now, where your gang is staying, and if you are all armed this nicely?” Doc pointed to the rifle and duffle bag. They had also found the hand grenades.
    “What are you talking about? We’re not in a gang,” said Kyle.
    “Really?” said Doc with a smirk, as he looked at Bull and rolled his eyes. Doc stood up and walked over to Kyle’s backpack. He put his hand in the backpack and pulled out the red bandana Kyle had placed in it before he left his apartment. He held the bandana by pinching it with two fingers. With a disgusted look on his face, he waved the red cloth in front of Kyle. Kyle felt the anger rising up inside him.
    “There you go. You can have your colors back,” said Doc, as he dropped the bandana on Kyle’s lap.
    “That’s not his,” said Robert.
    Bull stepped forward and leaned into Robert’s face.
    “I’m not stupid. We saw you coming from the direction of the railroad hub. We followed you, and both of you were wearing these,” Bull said, as he held his fist, wrapped in the bandana that he had taken from Robert, close to Robert’s face.
    Doc motioned with his hand for Bull to step back.
    “You should understand something immediately. Bull would prefer to kill you right now. I would prefer to get information from you. Bull doesn’t care for people like you, and I understand that. The fact that both of you are still alive tells me he has exercised some considerable restraint in this matter. But every man has his limitations, so don’t test our patience.”
    Kyle turned to Robert and said, “They think we’re in that gang, with Cyrus.”
    “Cyrus! Now you’re talking. Tell me more about your leader,” spat Doc.
    Neither man replied.
    “I need answers. Start talking. Don’t you understand?” Doc demanded impatiently.
    “No, I don’t understand,” said Kyle.
    “Wrong answer,” said Doc, as he motioned for Bull and pointed a wagging finger at Kyle.
    Bull had taken only a step toward Kyle, his clenched fist raised, when there was a knock on the door.
    Doc gestured toward the door and Bull turned away to see who was knocking.
    “We are trying to tell you that we’re not mixed up with Cyrus’s gang,” said Robert.
    “It’s not working.”
    Bull yelled toward Doc from the open door, “We’ve got a gunshot wound. They need you.”
    Doc stood up and tied the red bandana around Kyle’s arm and said sarcastically, “Don’t go anywhere.”
    Doc pushed his glasses up again and cast them a final glance before he left the room with Bull. After the door shut, Kyle looked at the red bandana tied to his arm. His anger turned to rage. He began to pull at the ligatures on his arms and legs by twisting his body. The chair began to move. It was an old wooden chair and he could feel the weakness in the chair’s wooden joints.
    “I’m going to try standing up and crashing this chair on the floor. The joints are weak. I think it’ll break,” said Kyle.
    Kyle awkwardly stood, still bound to the chair. He threw his body to the concrete floor hoping the impact of the chair on the hard surface would break the wood. Kyle landed hard on his side, but the chair did not break apart.
    “Damn it! I can’t get back up,” said Kyle. He struggled with the chair as he tried to shift his body. “It did something; I can feel the joints trying to give. Get up and fall on the chair, Robert. I think that will do it.”
    Robert stood and slowly hopped his chair over next to Kyle. He twisted his body and threw his weight against the back legs of Kyle’s chair. There was a resounding crack, and Kyle’s chair broke apart. Kyle stood up and brought his hands forward. He could move, but he was still tied to wooden fragments of the chair. Robert was still bound to his chair and now lay on the floor.
    “Get my knife. They left our stuff against the far wall. Hurry, cut me loose,” said Robert, in an urgent but hushed tone.
    Kyle got the knife and brought it back to Robert to cut his bindings. Both men dashed back over to the far wall and grabbed their weapons. They quickly checked their firearms and went over to the door. Robert opened it just enough to peek out. They were in a concrete parking garage and he could see several people, who had apparently been living in the parked cars. There was no way out without being seen. They decided to wait for someone to return. This room was where the medical supplies were stored, so they would have to come back here. When someone returned to this room, they would take them as hostages and use them as a ticket out. Robert and Kyle stood behind the door, and waited for it to open.
    Through the thin walls, they heard the familiar voices of Bull and Doc, getting louder as they approached the door. They were speaking with a woman, and Doc opened the door. He entered the room backwards, as he spoke to Bull and the injured woman. Bull was helping the woman, and was not paying attention to the room as he walked into it. He looked down at the woman’s bloodied leg. An instant after they entered the room, it was too late. Robert kicked the door shut.
    Doc spun his body around and faced the two armed men. With a terrified look on his face, he held up his hands and said, “Just hold on. We can work something out. Think about what you’re doing now. This woman is hurt and I need to help her.”
    The woman was weak, pale; she had lost blood, and was dehydrated. Bull was supporting her meager weight, or she would not have been able to stand. The woman slowly lifted her head. With a shaky hand, she pushed her long hair back from her face and stared at Robert and Kyle. At that moment, both men recognized her, although she looked different with the coal dust washed off her face by the rainstorm.
    “Dorothy?” asked Robert.
    With a weak voice, Dorothy replied, “I know you. What are you doing here? Why are you pointing those guns at us?”
    While still staring at the loaded weapons pointed at them, Doc tilted his head toward Dorothy and asked, “How do you know these men?”
    “I would have to say they saved me. I mean us. My son was there, too. That gang back at the coal cars was waiting for us. They started shooting at us and we ran away. I was hit in the leg, and these men helped us hide. I saw them capture two of Cyrus’s men, and they gave us a shotgun and rifle.”
    “But we saw them wearing the red bandanas around their arms,” said Bull.
    “I watched them take the red bandanas off Cyrus’s men,” said Dorothy, as the weakness in her legs began to overcome her. “They put them on as a disguise. I told them it was a bad idea.”
    Bull glared at Robert and Kyle with anger and confusion, and began to ask of the two men, “Why would you—”
    Bull was cut off abruptly when loss of blood and fatigue overcame Dorothy. Her knees buckled, and she would have collapsed to the floor if Bull had not quickly swept her off her feet. She lay unconscious in Bull’s arms.
    “Get her to the cot,” said Doc, his attention directed toward Dorothy.
    Bull gently placed her on the cot. Her pale skin reflected a yellow tone from the single incandescent light in the room. Shadows cast from the same light enhanced her sunken facial expressions.
    Doc felt for a pulse and found that it was racing. This confirmed what was already obvious to him. She had lost a lot of blood, and now her blood pressure was collapsing. Her heart was trying to compensate for the lack of volume in her circulatory system by beating rapidly, to quickly move the remaining oxygen left in her blood. He knew what he needed to do and quickly went to a stack of boxes containing IV bags of saline solution, near a table with medical instruments. He reached out to get a small knife on the table to open the cardboard box that held the bags of saline. With his hand halfway to the knife, Doc looked at Robert and Kyle, and asked, “Are you going to kill us? If you are, just do it now.”
    Robert slowly lowered his rifle and said, “No, patch her up.”
    With a quick slice of the tape, the box was open. Doc tossed a bag of saline solution and some plastic tubing to Bull, who spiked the IV bag with the plastic tubing as Doc felt for a vein in the woman’s arm. Doc wiped her upper forearm with an alcohol pad and inserted a needle into a nearly collapsed vein. The tubing to the IV solution was connected to the needle and the bag began to drip fluid back into Dorothy’s body. Bull placed the bag on a pole and stepped back just as Doc stood and faced the men again.
    With irritation Bull asked, “Well then, what do you want? If you’re not going to kill us, just leave here, just go away.”
    “Listen to me, asshole. It wasn’t my idea to come here,” said Robert sternly to Bull, and also casting a critical glare at Doc. “My friend was on his way to settle a score and I was right behind him. As a matter of fact we would’ve been taking care of business by now if you hadn’t interfered.”
    Doc tilted his head forward submissively, and his thick glasses slid lower on his nose. “What’s your business? Revenge? Extortion? Robbery?”
    “It’s Cyrus. I’m going to kill him,” stated Kyle. “I’m fine with leaving now and doing that.”
    “Do you know where he is?” asked Bull.
    “There’s an Amtrak train stuck at the railroad hub, and his gang is staying in the sleeper cars. We guess that the rain will have driven them inside, and that’s where we’re going to hit them while they sleep.”
    Doc’s face broke into a slow smile. This was the information and the opportunity he was looking for. Bull showed no emotion, but they could see that his mind was savoring this information, as his glance moved slowly toward the far wall and the ceiling, looking at nothing in particular.
    Doc pushed his glasses back up again and said authoritatively to Bull, “Go get Hector. I’ll stay with Dorothy.”
    Bull immediately turned and opened the door. He was halfway out when Doc had one more request. “Please explain to the men our… shall we say… misunderstanding with these gentlemen.” Bull nodded and left the room.
    “We are going with you,” said Doc.
    Doc did not wait for a response. He turned his back to Robert and Kyle, reaching for Dorothy’s wrist to check her pulse. He confidently nodded his head in agreement with himself regarding his assessment of her condition. He connected a new bag of saline solution to the IV and decreased the solution’s flow rate into her arm.
    “You know you’re going to need our help… don’t you?” said Doc assuredly, as he flicked his finger against the IV’s clear plastic drip chamber, trying to remove some small bubbles. “Cyrus has a lot of men. His gang is getting bigger every day.”
    “Keep talking,” said Kyle.
    “He is a real threat to our survival. We have to go through that area to get water from the river. Getting coal off the coal cars was helpful, too. Cyrus has changed that for us, so he has to go. I won’t ask you what your motivation is, but I think we share a common goal.”
    “I’m still listening,” said Kyle.
    “There are at least half a dozen very capable men in our group that will go with you. One of them is Hector, and Bull is getting him now. Hector was a foreman at the railroad hub before the grid went down.”
    There was quick knock on the door. Bull and Hector stepped into the room. Hector looked at the weapons still in the hands of Robert and Kyle. Although he was just told that they were not a threat, Hector kept a cautious eye on the two men. He gave a quick nod as a greeting and stayed several paces away from both of them. Hector wore a loose shirt that covered his beltline, and had tucked his pistol into the back of his pants. He stood with one hand behind his back in an unthreatening, but ready, position. Hector was a native of Mexico and had come to America with his parents when he was young. Although he did finally gain US citizenship through military service, his early years in the U.S. were nomadic and rough. His parents worked difficult jobs for little money, and so did Hector. He had lived in dangerous neighborhoods all his life, learning early on not to trust anyone, and most of all, to stay well armed.
    “Gentlemen, this is Hector.” Doc cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. Our pleasantries were not extended to formal introductions yet. What are your names, anyway?” asked Doc, as he used both hands to move the thick glasses to the correct position on his face.
    Robert noticed the distant stance and the unblinking stare of Hector, and then realized that he had not completely aimed his rifle downward. He pointed the barrel to the floor, and then introduced himself and Kyle to Hector. Hector nodded his head again to acknowledge the greeting.
    “Gentlemen, you need to go. I will stay with Dorothy. Discuss a plan of action and execute it… and Cyrus, if you like,” Doc said, with a euphoric laugh.
    “Hold it. I haven’t agreed to anything yet. One condition isn’t negotiable for me. I get to kill Cyrus,” Kyle said, with absolute resolution. “Any problems with that?”
    Bull looked around at the group and said, “I don’t care who does it.”
    Everyone nodded, and an alliance was formed.
    Doc motioned with his hands, waving the men toward the door. “Move along, you’re wasting time. Find the other men and get going.”
    Bull opened the door for the men to leave the room. Robert and Kyle could see the rest of the concrete structure they were standing in. It was a multilevel concrete parking garage. Bull led them around the structure and gave them a tour of the different levels as they gathered men for the nighttime raid against Cyrus. They started at the top level, where there were water buckets to catch rain. There were also wind turbines made from alternators they had removed from cars. The alternators had makeshift blades attached so that when the wind blew, it would turn the alternators, creating an electric current, and charge the car batteries. Those batteries ran their electric lights. They also were able to recharge batteries for handheld flashlights. He explained that the concrete structure was much like a medieval castle, with the height of the top level being useful as a lookout, and the concrete walls providing protection against bullets. The concrete garage would also not burn down. Fires were why so many people had ended up homeless. People’s homes had been burning down because of candles, inadequate fireplaces, and pure stupidity in using fire in their homes. Bull thought that the number of fires during the coming winter would be astronomical.
    The underground levels of the concrete structure would remain cool in the summer, and because they were so far underground, would not get below freezing. The lowest levels were much like a cave. The food they had scavenged was stored below. That would keep them through the winter months. People who were homeless and without food could easily die over the winter. In the spring, they would to plant the seeds that they had stored, and hopefully be able to raise their own food. It would not take long to scavenge all the canned food and boxed goods. They all knew that it was critical to become self-sufficient.
    Bull brought all the men to the lower level. He flipped a switch and the cavernous space was illuminated by the power of car batteries. He directed them to sit at a large table so they could discuss a plan of action. Hector used a piece of coal and created a rough map of the area where Cyrus was. He estimated there were nine sleeper cars and they were on the far side of the rail hub, closest to the river. The entry doors to the sleeper cars were on the west side and the river was on the east side of the tracks.
    “Okay, Hector, how do we do this?” asked Bull.
    Hector tossed the piece of coal to the ground and brushed the coal dust off his hands. He walked over to a small crate in a dark corner, grabbed something from it, and returned to the table. “This will get us started. Bullets will do the rest.” Hector was displaying a stick of dynamite.
    “You’re the only one who knows how to use it,” said Bull skeptically. “And we only have a few sticks.”
    “That’s right, four sticks exactly. We put this under every other car that they’re in, and boom, they wake up, run out of the cars scared to death, and our bullets take over from there.”
    “How do we know which car Cyrus is in?” asked Kyle.
    All the men looked to Hector for an answer. Hector scratched his head. “That’s a good question. Here’s a guess. When we get there, we’ll see if they have anyone on watch. If so, they’ll be near where Cyrus is sleeping. That’ll be your car.” He pointed to Kyle. “If they have someone on night watch, it’ll be somebody low in the organization, probably someone stupid and easy to control. That will make them an easy target for us.”
    “What are the details of your plan, then?” asked Robert.
    “If there’s someone on watch, we get them with a rifle, and then wait to see if anyone heard the shot. If not, I sneak up and place the dynamite under the sleeper cars. We set off the dynamite and wait for them to run out. Then when they run out, we pick them off one by one.”
    “What if they hear the shot that takes out the night watchman?” asked Bull.
    “We will shoot through the walls and windows of the rail cars. That option isn’t as good.”
    “The dynamite won’t blow up the cars?” asked Kyle.
    “No, those cars have a massive steel undercarriage. One stick will just motivate them to leave.”
    Robert removed the two hand grenades from his backpack and placed them on the table. Hector smiled and leaned over to get one. He placed it on the palm of his hand and held it up to the light like a precious gem.
    “It’s been awhile since I’ve used one of these. I was in the army for a few years. That’s where I was able to play with these. Where did you get them?”
    Robert pointed to Kyle. “We passed by a military base and got a few things a while ago. It’s a long story.”
    “You’re going to have another story after this night.” Hector leaned over to grab the other grenade from the table. “You mind if I work with these?”
    Robert and Kyle both shrugged.
    “Let’s get going,” ordered Bull.
    The eight men stopped when they could see a fire near the Amtrak cars. The cars were exactly where Hector thought, in an open area next to the river. They faced the side of the cars with the exit doors. To get out of the cars on the other side, near the river, would require someone to climb out the windows. In a hasty retreat, Cyrus’s men are going to run out the doors, and to their death. Hector went ahead alone to see if there was anybody on night guard duty. He returned and confirmed that one person was on watch near the lead car.
    Slightly out of breath, Hector began to give out orders. “Kyle gets the lead car. That looks like it’s probably Cyrus’s location. Robert, you get the next car after that. The rest of us will spread out along the remaining cars. There are nine cars total. If there are about ten people per car, then there’s close to ninety men in there. Make your bullets count.”
    A man with a rifle and large scope stepped forward and said, “I’m ready.”
    Hector grabbed the man’s shoulder and said, “He’s standing by the fire. If he’s been staring into the firelight, he’ll be fire blind and won’t see you. Take him out, and stay low to the ground. If they start coming out, shoot to kill and we’ll come running. If it stays quiet, cover me. I’m going to place the dynamite.”
    The man disappeared into the darkness, moving toward the campfire. It was only a few minutes later that they heard a distant crack. The night guard’s body slumped over by the fire and the sleeper cars remained quiet.
    “You’re up, Hector,” whispered Bull.
    Hector slipped ahead to get the dynamite place, while the other men got into position. By the time all the men were about fifty yards away, Hector had the dynamite placed under the railcars. He ran back to them with the detonation cord in hand. He placed it on the ground and walked the line of men, having each one double check his weapon and placement of extra ammunition. He told each man to stay flat on the ground until ten seconds after the explosion, just in case of flying debris, then to stay spread out and low, to avoid crossing into someone’s line of fire.
    Hector connected the detonator and whispered to himself, “Fire in the hole.”
    The dynamite’s blast shook the railcars. Cyrus’s men stumbled down the steps, dazed and confused. They were unorganized and undisciplined, and most ran quickly into the line of fire and to their deaths. Within a few minutes, the shooting stopped. A few men held out. They were shouting obscenities and threatening to kill everyone outside. Hector stayed low and crawled to a broken window of a car that still had some of Cyrus’s men inside. Gripping a grenade, he pulled the pin and tossed the grenade into the car. The fragmentation grenade obliterated the remaining men. Bullets and shrapnel perforated all of the cars, except the lead. It was the car that they had expected Cyrus to be in, and Kyle was watching it intently, waiting for any movement, but he saw no one. Robert came over to Kyle’s position.
    Robert tried to give Kyle his rifle. “Here, shoot it up if you don’t want to use your pistol.”
    Kyle put his hand up, refusing the weapon. His eyes remained on the lead railcar.
    “Something’s not right. I see a flickering candle burning inside. Nobody came out and nobody has moved inside. I’m going in.”
    “I wouldn’t do that, Kyle,” said Robert.
    “I need to see his face when I kill him.”
    Kyle brought his pistol up to a ready position and braced it with his other hand, where he held the flashlight that Bull had given him. He moved slowly forward and stepped into the lead car. He held the pistol directly in front of him, and he pushed each compartment open with his foot, shining the small light into each empty room. In the last sleeping compartment, there was a large candle burning in the center of a small table. Someone had closed all the windows. No one had escaped. The car was empty. Cyrus was not there. Kyle took the candle, lit the bedding on fire, and walked out of the railcar. Within minutes, the car was ablaze. He jumped to the ground and saw the men he was with, standing in a semicircle watching his return. He felt like a defeated man.
    “Empty?” asked Bull.
    “Completely empty,” said Kyle solemnly, “but that’s where he was, I just know it.”
    “He can’t bother anybody now. He’s a broken man, wherever he is,” said Hector.
    “Not good enough,” answered Kyle.

Chapter Fifteen

    Robert and Kyle left the rail yard. Bull, Hector, and the others decided to stay and patrol for any stragglers from Cyrus’s gang, as well as stack the remaining bodies to burn later. The two men walked directly back to Kyle’s apartment. Kyle was mute, lost in his thoughts. They were obsessive thoughts about Cyrus, his gang, and where he might be. Robert tried to stay alert for both of them, but fatigue began overcoming the adrenaline rush of the night’s events. They arrived at the apartment building at daybreak. The rain had stopped hours ago. There was a cool morning breeze and not a cloud in the sky. The eastern horizon began to glow with sunlight, waking the songbirds at the park across the street from Kyle’s apartment building.
    The stench inside the lobby remained oppressive. Robert ripped the drapes from a large window in the building’s lobby. He placed the drapes beside the body in the stairwell. They rolled the corpse onto the fabric, and then pulled the dead body outside.
    “We should bury this. It’s putrid,” said Kyle, looking toward the park.
    “I’ve got to rest,” said Robert, as he sat on the concrete sidewalk. He then went flat on his back, and closed his eyes.
    Kyle stepped back off the sidewalk and sat on the hood of a car with broken windows. “Hey, do you think what we did was right?” asked Kyle.
    Robert opened his eyes and turned his head to look up at Kyle. “What do you mean? Not burying that body?”
    Kyle was looking at the ground and slowly shaking his head. “No. What we just came back from. We helped kill a lot of people.”
    Robert jumped to his feet. “What? Those weren’t girl scouts back there. You saw what that pack of wolves was capable of.”
    “I’m just sick of all this shit.” Kyle looked up from the street, and then looked around, surveying the desolation. “What happened to everyone? They’re all animals. Disgusting animals.”
    Robert took a step back and threw his hands in the air. “I’m sick of this shit, too.” He put his hands on his hips, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. He lowered his head again, looking directly at Kyle, and slowly exhaled. “There’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Let’s get your wife and get the hell out of here.”
    This time the hallway was not so dark on Kyle’s floor. The morning light had begun to fill the sky and the hallway, too. Kyle knocked on this door.
    “Alexis… Alexis, it’s me… open the door.”
    Within seconds, Kyle heard his wife running toward the door. Alexis swung the door open wildly and stared at Kyle. The morning light illuminated a man quite different from the man that left her several months ago. She could see him clearly now. He was dirty, had longer hair and a beard. His beard camouflaged his thin smile. He was happy to see her, but his body was fighting back with hunger and fatigue. She stepped forward, hugged him, and wrapped her arms tightly around his body. He bent over far enough that his bearded face touched her cheek. He wrapped his arms around her and picked her up. She whispered into his ear, “Don’t leave me again.”
    All three of them went into the apartment and locked the door behind them. Inside, Robert found the couch and Kyle sat on a chair with his wife on his lap.
    “Kyle, I’m starving,” said Robert.
    “Honey, we need to eat, and then we need to sleep. We have been awake for… uh,” said Kyle, pausing as he rubbed his bearded face and briefly tried to remember when the last time was that he had slept. “I don’t know how long.” He leaned his head back, thinking of food, and closed his eyes. “What do you have to eat?”
    “I was awake all night, too.” Alexis playfully hit her husband on the shoulder, and then jumped up off her husband’s lap. “I’ll get some food ready.” She walked halfway to the kitchen, but abruptly turned around. “Oh, I forgot about the water. Can you go get the buckets from the roof?”
    Kyle opened his eyes and looked at Robert.
    “Let’s go,” said Robert, stiffly getting up. “No rest for the weary.”
    On the roof, they could feel the morning sunlight still warming the air. The sun had come up past the horizon, casting long shadows from the tall buildings. Alexis had set ten buckets on the roof, and arranged tarps and sheets of plastic to direct the rainwater into the buckets. Before they took the buckets of water back to the apartment, the men looked around the surrounding area from the rooftop. This height gave them a good vantage point to study what to expect in an urban area.
    Stalled cars filled the streets below and the cars were vandalized, most having broken windows, although some were burned, too. There was a large building in the distance with smoke still rising from it. Trash littered the streets, some of it collected in small piles by the wind and the rest dispersed across the urban landscape. Movement in the city park across the street got their attention. It was a pack of dogs. People were either no longer able to feed their pets, or the owners had already died. The dogs were chasing a rabbit. The rabbit was running and turning as fast as it could, but the pack was gaining. The alpha dog captured the rabbit and the rabbit let out a high-pitched screech before the dog shook it, breaking its neck. The dogs hastily devoured the rabbit and the pack moved onward, noses to the ground in their search for another meal.
    “Hey, Kyle, earlier you asked me if what we did was right. Now I have a question for you. Do you want to be the dog or the rabbit?”
    Kyle put his foot on the roof’s parapet, bent forward, and then rested an elbow on his elevated knee. He continued to look at the park while he stroked his beard and contemplated Robert’s question.
    “A dog,” replied Kyle, pausing to look at the desolate street below before he added, “with a conscience.”
    Robert slapped him on the back and said, “Good answer. Let’s go before I chase down a rabbit and eat it raw, too.”
    Kyle quietly laughed and looked back at the pack of dogs wandering around with their noses sniffing the air and the ground, looking for their next kill. The humor of his comment faded away as he thought about his answer to Robert’s question. Kyle knew it was survival of the fittest now. He did not ever want to kill and enjoy it, but he wanted to survive, and he still wanted revenge.
    The men brought the rainwater back to the apartment and Alexis soaked pasta in the water to soften it. She opened cans of beans and fruit, which were quickly devoured. They put water into the empty cans and gently swirled it to dissolve any remaining nutrients, and drank it, then drank some more.
    With food in their stomachs, they decided to finally get some sleep. Robert leaned back on the couch and put a towel over his eyes to block the morning light. Kyle and Alexis went to their bedroom, and all were instantly asleep. It had been months since Robert and Kyle had slept inside a building.
    Hours later, they heard a loud blast through the apartment’s open window, rousing everyone in the apartment from a deep sleep. Robert was sleeping next to his rifle and instinctively grabbed for it, jumping off the couch. In a startled daze, Robert looked around the apartment, then realized that the blast had come from outside at street level. He put the rifle back down, and gave Kyle and Alexis a wave as they entered the living room.
    “I’ve heard that before, mostly at night,” said Alexis, sitting on a chair in the living room. “I’ve mostly stayed in the apartment for months now.” She looked at a calendar on the wall that was no longer of any use. “Just like solitary confinement. I hate it.”
    Robert and Kyle went to the window for a look outside. There was a person sprawled in the street, dead from a shotgun blast. Next to the body was a shopping cart, tipped over and empty.
    Robert pointed out the window and asked, “Have you seen that before?”
    Not knowing what Robert was referring to, she looked out the window. When she saw the body, she quickly turned her head and closed her eyes. “Disgusting. I hate it here,” she said softly to herself.
    Kyle tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention and moved his chair next to her so he could face her when he spoke. “We can’t stay here. We have to go.”
    With a confused look on her face, she shrugged her shoulders and asked, “Where?”
    Kyle pointed toward Robert. “With him.”
    “But I don’t know him,” she said, apprehensively looking away from Robert, “and you still haven’t explained how you got back here.”
    “This could take a while,” said Robert, lying down on the couch and closing his eyes. Kyle began to explain to his wife what they had done to get back to her. “There were four of us on the job when the pulse hit. One had a pacemaker and it must’ve failed when everything else did. He died in his sleep. Three of us got rafts and headed downstream. It was Robert’s idea to get the rafts and travel on the Missouri River. That river got me all the way back here to you.”
    Alexis smiled at the thought of her husband’s return. She then asked, “Three of you? Where’s the other one?”
    Kyle quickly glanced at Robert. He appeared to be sleeping already.
    “Richard was the third man. He was shot. Richard didn’t have much common sense.”
    “You want us to leave with him?” Alexis whispered the question as she pointed at Robert. “Where to? When we leave the building, do we end up like the person on the street down below, like your friend Richard?”
    “It’s not pretty out there. We were able to get some weapons and ammunition. If we stick together, we can help each other. That’s what has worked so far.”
    Kyle stood up and walked into the kitchen. He opened the pantry door and pointed inside.
    “What little food we have here is going to run out soon. When the food runs out, what will we do?”
    He walked back to his wife, kneeling beside her. She put her arm around him and touched her forehead to his. “What do you want me to do, Kyle?”
    “Robert said we could go home with him. He’s convinced me. And face it, Alexis, we don’t have a better option. I’ll let Robert explain.”
    Kyle moved over to Robert’s sleeping body on the couch. He tapped Robert on the shoulder to wake him up. Robert was startled awake, took a deep breath, and sat up wiping some slobber from his beard.
    “Sorry to wake you from your beauty sleep.”
    “Asshole,” said Robert with a laugh.
    “I told her about how we got here and that you offered to take us with you.”
    “Yes, I did.”
    “Tell her why you have a better deal.”
    Robert rubbed his face with the palms of his dirty hands to help wake himself. He looked at Alexis, smiled under his beard, and said, “Let me explain to you what I’ve told your husband. I live in a house in suburbia. I wish it was a rural setting, but it’s not, so I will have to deal with that. However, I am away from the urban area. That’s very different from where you live now.”
    Alexis nodded her head.
    “My subdivision is located close to farmland and is next to an enormous county park. That open land is next to my house. It’s a new subdivision and not all of the lots are developed. Therefore, it has the advantage of low population density. The parkland I’m next to has an artificial lake. The lake is fed by a small stream a short distance down my street. I’ve seen deer, turkeys, geese, and groundhogs close by. I’ve seen them walking right through my back yard. That’s food and water, Alexis, and let me tell you something else. I’ve been stockpiling food, the kind of food that will last for years, and seeds, too. That will give us time to learn to grow our own food.”
    “Where do you live?”
    “A suburb of Kansas City, on the Missouri side.”
    Alexis quickly stood up and ran to a closet down the hallway. She moved a stack of papers and books, and retrieved a road atlas. As she walked back into the room where she had left the two men, she opened the atlas to a page showing the route of the Missouri River from Omaha to Kansas City. She carefully traced the convoluted blue line of the river between the two cities on the map and compared the distance to the map’s key. Alexis shook her head.
    “Are you crazy? It’s hundreds of miles from here,” said Alexis, in disbelief.
    Kyle stood beside Alexis and held her index finger. He traced the river on the atlas, with her finger, from Omaha back to Helena, Montana.
    “That’s what I’ve been through to get back to you. Now I’m here, and we have to go. There’s no other option.”
    Alexis sat down in the chair again, dropped the atlas to the floor, and began to cry. Kyle gently touched her shoulder and gave her a kiss on the forehead. He then walked to the kitchen pantry and motioned for Robert to follow him. Kyle opened the door to the pantry and leaned his hip against the kitchen countertop.
    “That’s not the reaction I was expecting,” said Kyle, quietly.
    Robert whispered back, “Cut her some slack. This past day has been a shock to her. Let her sleep on it. We all need some rest. It’s probably a good idea to eat some more food now, and then try to get a good night’s sleep.”
    Kyle nodded.
    “Go talk to her. I’ll find some food and bring it out to you,” said Robert.
    Kyle groaned. “Cold beans and dry pasta.” He rubbed his stomach sarcastically as he left the kitchen.
    Robert walked into the pantry. He looked at the shelves and was impressed at the amount of food he saw. Kyle was serious when he said that they stocked up on food when it was on sale. There were a lot of canned items and plenty of dried goods like rice, pasta, and beans. They would have to take as much food as possible when they left Omaha. The more food they had with them, the less time they would have to spend scavenging for it. He got a chair and closely surveyed each item, to begin prioritizing what food to take. He reached back behind each row of cans and boxes. He turned a small stack of cans around to read the labels, but discovered that it was actually a stack of canned cooking fuel. Robert grasped one can and used a spoon to pry open the lid. He could still smell the gelled alcohol in the can. He lit a match and placed it in the can. A small translucent blue flame instantly appeared. Robert placed the blue flame under a pot of water, and within minutes, it was boiling. Robert found a jar of spaghetti sauce and ten minutes later, he had three plates of hot spaghetti with red sauce. Robert walked back into the living room where Kyle and Alexis were talking. They turned to see Robert approaching with two plates of spaghetti.
    Robert leaned over in front of the couple and held the plates in front of them. “Here you go. Two plates of hot spaghetti with a tangy marinara sauce.” Two confused and curious stares greeted him.
    Alexis was the first to take a plate. “It’s warm. The plate is warm.”
    With a skeptical look, Kyle took the remaining plate. His expression changed and he looked back up at Robert. “How did you do that?”
    “Cooking fuel. It was in the pantry.”
    Alexis slapped her forehead and laughed. “I forgot about that. It was left from our camping trip.” Her mood was elevated now. She seemed much happier.
    Robert went to the kitchen and brought back his plate so he could eat with the others.
    “Robert,” said Alexis, with an apologetic tone.
    “Kyle talked to me some more about the trip. I’m okay with it now. He told me about your family. I understand why you want to get back as soon as possible. They have to be worried about you.”
    Robert was rapidly eating the hot food while she spoke, and he replied, “That settles it.” Robert spoke to the couple while chewing a mouthful of food. “Pack only essential items, and let’s get a plan for the food in your pantry. We need to take as much food as possible.” He wiped the spaghetti sauce from his beard with a dirty forearm.
    Kyle and Alexis got out their suitcases and a large duffle bag. Kyle quickly stuffed his clothes, including winter clothes, into the duffle bag. He then joined Robert in the pantry to help with a plan for the food.
    “What do you think?” asked Kyle, staring into the pantry with Robert.
    “Dried food first, and then cans. Dried goods are the lightest.”
    “We’ve got to bring our winter clothes, so the suitcases are full. How can we move it all?”
    Robert leaned on the kitchen counter with his elbows. He slowly tapped on the counter as he thought about a solution. He closed his eyes and concentrated. A few moments later, Robert stopped tapping and opened his eyes, then darted to the living room window and looked outside. “Look, it’s still there.”
    Kyle looked out the window and saw the tipped-over shopping cart on the road. The dead body was near it from earlier in the day. Robert told Kyle he was going to move the cart inside and would find a dark corner in the lobby to hide it. In the morning, they would use the cart to push the food as far possible, back toward the buried rafts.
    Robert went to the street with his rifle slung across his shoulder. He walked past the dead body and tried not to care. It had been a close-range shot to the chest. The image was gruesome. Robert put the cart back on its wheels and pushed it forward. The cart appeared ragged and abused. It was painted black and had some long pieces of different colored strands of yarn tied to the handle. It was ugly, but it worked.
    He pushed the cart into the apartment’s lobby, broken glass crunching under its wheels. The corridor to the right was dark and farthest from the light filtering through the broken front doors. As he got closer, he could see the building’s freight elevator in front of him. He tilted the cart to the floor and, as he bent over, he noticed something on the floor at the end of the dark hall. The shape was familiar. As he moved closer, he could see that it was a moving dolly. Robert realized that if they put some of the food items into boxes, they could get it all moved out of the apartment by using both the cart and the dolly.
    Back in the apartment, Robert set his rifle against the wall and took a quick peek out the window again. “Hey, the cart works and I found a moving dolly by the freight elevator. Put anything that won’t stack on a dolly into garbage bags. Keep the individual bags light enough to carry.”
    The threesome bagged, boxed, and stacked the remaining food in the pantry. They were going to be able to take it all.
    Robert was the first to wake the next morning. He peered out the window to see what the world looked like today. The sky was clear and there was a breeze. He noticed that the body in the street had been moved. The clothes were ripped off the corpse and it was left in pieces. It appeared that animals had devoured it. Robert suspected dogs. He knew there are going to be a lot of feral dogs from now on. He quickly glanced back at his rifle for comfort.
    From the other room, Robert heard Kyle say, “It’s moving day. Let’s get going.”
    Still standing by the open window, Robert cupped his mouth and loudly replied, “Waiting on you.”
    Robert turned his head to look out the open window again. He wanted to take a deep breath of the outside air because of the lingering stench inside the building. Robert looked back out the open window and his eyes met the eyes of a man staring up at him. He was a large man covered in filth, standing in the middle of the street. He looked like he had been living in dirt and garbage. Robert ducked from view and ran to Kyle’s room. He knocked on the closed door and told Kyle that there was a strange man outside who must have thought he was yelling at him. Kyle dismissed the event and told him they would be going outside fully armed. He told Robert that they were leaving town and he just did not care anymore. It was not his neighborhood now.
    The threesome emerged on the street in front of the apartment building. The dolly was loaded, but Robert was still experimenting with how to manage the suitcases on the cart. He balanced a suitcase on top of the cart, and then placed another down below. He was circling the cart like it was a masterpiece and he was the artist. He tried to push the cart forward and the suitcases slipped off.
    “That’s not going to work,” said Robert, as he shoved the suitcase back onto the cart.”
    He circled the cart again tapping his forehead with his finger as he thought.
    “Alexis,” said Robert, kneeling close to the cart, “help me with these pieces of yarn tied to the handle. We can tie them together and use it to hold the suitcase still.”
    Alexis began to pick away at the knots holding the long pieces of yarn to the cart.
    “Oh, I forgot something,” said Alexis, standing up as she spoke. “The cooking fuel and matches are in a small bag in the kitchen. I didn’t want to put them in a bag with food.”
    “I’ll go grab it, I’ve got the key,” said Kyle.
    Robert laughed and rolled his eyes. “You locked it? Do you think you’re coming back?”
    “Shut up, old man.” Kyle shook his head, embarrassed, and jogged back into the apartment’s lobby.
    Alexis removed the pieces of yarn, tied them together, and then Robert tied the yarn to the suitcases.
    “Let’s take this for a test drive,” said Robert. “Hold this for me and cross your fingers.” Robert handed her his rifle. He slowly pushed the cart around and everything seemed stable. As he started to push at a slow jog, the bottom suitcase started to shift. He slowed down and pushed it back toward Alexis. “Look,” said Robert, kneeling in front of the cart, “this piece needs to be tighter, and then we’re good to go. Come over here, I might need your fingernails again.”
    Robert had his back turned and did not see her set the rifle down. Side by side, they were both kneeling low by the cart with their backs to the morning sun. As Robert shifted the bottom suitcase back and tied the last strand of yarn tighter, he saw a large shadow cover both of them. Instinctively he stood up and spun around, grabbing for the rifle, but it was not on his shoulder anymore. Alexis screamed, and the shot of adrenalin could not take away the sick feeling overcoming his body now. In front of them was the large man he had seen from the window earlier that morning. He was holding Robert’s rifle. Alexis had left the rifle on the ground and walked away.
    “That’s what’s left of my brother over there. I recognize his clothes,” said the large man, angrily. He was directing his anger at Robert.
    Robert held up his hands and inched away from Alexis. He wanted to move so the large man would turn his back to the apartment building. As Robert spoke, he took small side steps and the man began to rotate, keeping Robert directly in front of him.
    “I don’t know anything about your brother,” said Robert, trying to stay calm.
    “I saw you looking out the window at me.” He threw his thumb over his shoulder at the apartment building, not looking back as he spoke. “You’ve got his cart. We had food in it. Where the hell is it?” He pointed the rifle at Robert.
    “Hold on, just calm down,” said Robert, holding his hands higher. “We’ve got a lot of food. Just take our food and leave us alone.”
    The crazed look never left the large man’s eyes, but he lowered the rifle. “I think I’ll take your food and your woman, too,” he said with a sneer.
    The big man turned back around toward the cart, but did not have time to react to Kyle’s pistol leveled at his head. Kyle had heard his wife’s scream, so he ran back to the street and saw the man with Robert’s rifle. Kyle had silently crept, with his pistol ready, toward the man. As soon as the man turned, Robert had gone flat on the ground and, at point-blank range, Kyle pulled the trigger. Brain matter followed the bullet as it exited the exploding skull. The morning sunrise illuminated a halo of pink mist and the man’s ominous shadow disappeared as rapidly as his dead body hit the street.
    Robert jumped back up and stepped away from the dead body. He paced back and forth by the cart rubbing his face and head with shaking hands.
    “How did this happen?” asked Kyle.
    Robert did not say anything.
    “I was my fault,” Alexis said, as she began to cry. “I put the rifle down and walked away from it. That man came out of nowhere… it’s my fault… I’m so sorry.”
    “I gave her the rifle. I shouldn’t have done that.” Robert walked over to Alexis and put his hand on her shoulder. She could feel his hand trembling. “Don’t blame yourself. Let’s forget about this and get out of here.”
    Robert took the rifle, slung it over his shoulder, and began to push the cart. Kyle put on his backpack and was about to grab the handles of the dolly when he realized that he was still holding the key to his apartment. He offered the key to Alexis and she smiled, wiped her tears, and shrugged her shoulders. “What’s the point?” she said. He tossed the key to the curb and laughed at himself. They turned away, Alexis walking by his side.
    The threesome took their belongings as far as they could toward rail yard. They ran out of paved road, and had to make several trips from the cart to where they had buried the rafts, in order to move all of their supplies. The two men removed the sandy dirt from the tarps covering the rafts, showed them to Alexis, and let her know that she would get Richard’s old raft.
    Alexis walked around the rafts with her arms across her chest. She looked at them with a humbled curiosity. “I have never been on a raft or on a river. What am I supposed to do?”
    “Float and paddle,” said Robert, as he began to mentally divide the food among the three rafts.
    Alexis grinned apprehensively, trying to hide her fear.
    The men dragged the rafts to a shallow spot on the riverbank and began to load everything. They had to carefully balance the load because of the amount of food they were able to bring. The men finally had an abundance of food, good food that would be edible the entire trip. This meant less time trying to kill a deer, or picking through the farm fields as they traveled downstream.
    They helped Alexis into her raft and pushed away from the bank.
    “How do you like it, Alexis?” asked Robert.
    “I’m not doing much. Just sitting here.” Alexis began to feel overwhelmed as she looked ahead and thought of the distance before her.
    “Use the paddle and get a feel for the water. See what it takes to move the raft. I can stay close behind until you feel more comfortable,” said Kyle, as he motioned for Robert to take the lead.
    Alexis tried to paddle, but the raft was not moving fast. In fact, not much faster than the slow current. Kyle stayed behind to keep an eye on her. As he drifted lazily along, he became bored and decided to grab the binoculars from the backpack. They were getting close to the railcars that Cyrus’s gang had been using. Kyle scanned the western horizon and brought the binoculars into focus. He first noticed that the dead bodies of Cyrus’s men had been stacked close to the river. He moved the field of view farther down and brought the railcars into focus. The fire had destroyed the lead car. Then something caught his eye near the railcars. He saw motion. It was two men walking. When they stopped walking, he could see that one of the men was wearing a red bandana around his arm. Adrenalin and anger came back to Kyle’s veins and coursed through his body again. Strangely, the other man did not have a bandana on his arm. Then he remembered what his wife had said. Cyrus wore the bandana on his head, not his arm.
    Kyle began to paddle for the riverbank. He jumped onto the bank and told his wife to stay next to his raft.
    “Where are you going?” she asked, but her husband did not respond.
    Alexis franticly waved to Robert downstream. Robert saw Alexis’s flailing arms and began to paddle back. Then, when he saw Kyle’s empty raft, he hurried back upstream as fast as he could.
    Kyle strode to where Bull and his men had piled the bodies. Feral dogs had found the corpses. Limbs were ripped from bodies and their flesh was shredded. Kyle removed a red bandana from the carnage and placed it on his arm. He chambered a round in his pistol, dropped it into his deep front pocket, and began to walk toward the two men. He walked slowly, still calculating what he wanted to do. Was it Cyrus? They had not found him that night. Maybe he escaped and came back? There was no way to tell because the men had their backs turned to Kyle as he slowly approached them. As Kyle got close, they finally saw him. They turned around and were startled to see anyone in their proximity. The man with a red bandana on his arm was older; he had plenty of gray hair, and was the taller of the two. He also had a shotgun and partially raised it on Kyle’s approach. The other man was wearing a large brimmed hat. The shadow from the hat obscured the shorter man’s face.
    Kyle stopped about twenty yards away from the two men.
    “I don’t recognize you,” said the taller man with gray hair. “Who are you?” He raised the shotgun further.
    Kyle removed the red armband. He held it up and said, “I can leave. Do you want it back?”
    The man did not reply and lowered his shotgun. Kyle put the bandana deep into his front pocket, and gripped the concealed pistol tightly.
    The other man held his hat brim down across his face to block the sun. It also blocked his face from Kyle. The shorter man asked, as he pointed back to the smoldering wreckage, “Were you here last night?”
    Kyle nodded.
    “You sure don’t say much,” said the taller man, as he flipped the shotgun over his shoulder, “Come over here and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.”
    Kyle moved toward them again. His hand was deep in his pocket holding the pistol, ready to draw and ready to kill.
    “What’s your name, boy?” asked the shorter man condescendingly, as he removed his hat and squinted from the sunlight.
    Finally, Kyle saw the man’s face. He was an ugly man with cratered skin. The broad-brimmed hat had covered a red bandana on his head.
    “You’re Cyrus,” said Kyle, stoically.
    “Well, no shit. Who are you?”
    Kyle smiled. “You can call me the angel of death.”
    Cyrus and the other man sadistically laughed for a moment. Kyle’s humor was interrupted when the pistol in his right hand cleared his front pocket. He shot the older man two times in the chest. The tall man fell backwards and began to writhe on the ground, gasping for air and grabbing at his bloody torso.
    Cyrus dropped to his knees and, with wide-eyed desperation, put his hands together as if he was going to pray. He then began to beg for his life, pleading desperately with Kyle.
    “Please don’t shoot me! You have the wrong man, I don’t know you. I’ll leave… I’ll leave and you will never see me again… I promise!” Cyrus now had his hands in front of his face as if he was trying to block a bullet to his head.
    Kyle dropped the pistol and grabbed the bandana that he had buried deep in his pocket and held it tightly. He lunged forward at Cyrus, knocking him backward and down to the ground. Kyle dug his knees into Cyrus’s flailing arms and pounded his face with calloused bare knuckles, while still gripping the red bandana tightly in his hand. Kyle then quickly grabbed the red bandana by opposite corners and wrapped it around Cyrus’s throat. He was going to choke the life out of him and watch the expression on his face as he died. Before Kyle pulled on the bandana, he leaned close to Cyrus’s ear and whispered, “Don’t fight back so hard. It’s bad for your health.” He then gripped the bandana so tight, and pulled so hard, that his knuckles blanched. Cyrus’s face went from a dark red to deep purple as his blood-shot eyes rolled back in his head. Cyrus’s body went limp.
    Kyle took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He had done it. He had found the son of a bitch and killed him. When he stood up from getting his pistol off the ground, he saw Alexis and Robert running toward him. He stood there, took a few deep breaths, and tried to regain his composure.
    “What the hell, Kyle! I heard the gun shots and came running,” said Robert, bent at the waist and gasping for breath.
    Alexis walked over to Cyrus’s strangled body. She recognized him. Alexis did not say anything. She was glad he was dead and glad that it had been her husband who did it. Alexis turned to look at her husband, but he was already watching her. He looked into her eyes and tilted his head back toward the river. She nodded, and not a word was spoken or needed to be said.
    As they neared the riverbank, a noise far behind them caught their attention. They looked back and saw that a pack of dogs had already found the two bodies. They were ripping at the carcasses and fighting over the dead flesh.
    Robert laughed to himself.
    “What’s funny?” asked Kyle.
    “You were right.”
    “About what?”
    “Remember the pack of dogs by your apartment? They were chasing the rabbit.
    “You doubted yourself about what we helped do earlier that night, so I asked you if you would prefer to be the dog or the rabbit. You chose to be a dog, with a conscience. After this, I would say that you’re more like a dog with a vengeance.”
    “Well, I guess you’re right.”

Chapter Sixteen

    In the several weeks since they had left Omaha, Alexis seamlessly integrated herself into the group. Initially, they had tethered Alexis’s raft to one of their rafts, taking turns, and rowed her along so the group could stay together. Now she was taking the initiative, occasionally even leading the threesome on the float down the river. The additional dry food that they had brought with them had reduced the need to search for food on the riverbank and therefore, freed up more time on the water moving downstream towards their new home. They still fished when camping on the riverbank, because it was easy enough to throw a line in the water, and then collect firewood while fish took the bait. Also, in the time since they started this leg of their journey, Kyle had been rowing with less enthusiasm and tended to drift to the rear of the flotilla of rafts. Robert noticed that Kyle seemed to be guarding the left side of his face, trying to conceal a pain or irritation. Kyle would row for a while, and then touch his jaw lightly with his fingertips, producing an immediate scowl. Robert suspected that Kyle had a toothache, but had not confronted Kyle about it; however, now that Alexis was in front of the pack and Kyle in the rear, it was obvious that something was slowing Kyle down.
    Robert ceased rowing to close the gap between himself and Kyle. He noticed that Kyle was holding his jaw again. “Hey, Kyle, are you okay?”
    Kyle gripped both oars by the handles and turned the raft around. “No problem here. Why’d you ask?”
    Robert glanced quickly at Alexis. She was rowing close to the riverbank and out of the range of conversation. “I’ve seen you holding your left jaw and you’re slowing down. Just look, even your wife has been staying way ahead of you. Is it a tooth?”
    Kyle took a deep breath and began to row a slow stroke. He looked up and away from Robert, not ignoring him, but contemplating what should be a simple answer. He exhaled and stopped rowing, with Robert right at his side. He glanced downward at the water and lightly touched his jaw. “Yeah, it’s my tooth. About a year ago, I was going to get a molar worked on. I got busy and forgot about it. My tooth hurts, and today it’s just throbbing.”
    “Getting worse every day. I can’t chew on that side now.” Kyle quickly glanced in Alexis’s direction and saw that she was on the western side of the river. The sun was low in the sky and he needed to shade his eyes with his hands to see her. “I didn’t tell her because I don’t want her to worry.”
    “We don’t have any pliers.”
    “Pliers! Shit, man, calm down and back off, Dr. Frankenstein.” Kyle began to row away from Robert and toward his wife.
    Robert was not able to determine how much of Kyle’s reaction was anger and how much was sarcasm. He did not reply to Kyle’s remarks, but merely shook his head as Kyle went toward his wife near the river’s edge. The sun was getting low in the western sky, causing him to squint as he looked toward them.
    “Hey,” Robert yelled toward the couple with his hands cupped to his face, “we’re getting close to a town and it’s getting late. Let’s find a spot and set up camp.”
    Kyle nodded and waved him forward. Just ahead was a cornfield near a small inlet that should be good for fishing. A grove of trees that would supply abundant firewood surrounded the inlet. The riverbank was worn away near the inlet and was low and level, a perfect place to stop for the night.
    The threesome pulled the rafts up the riverbank and away from the water, so that they were midway between the river and the cornfield. The field sloped up gently to the crest of a ridge that was greeting the setting sun. A breeze wafted from the direction of the cornfield. It carried the smell of wood smoke and Robert became tense when he noticed the aroma.
    “I smell a campfire,” said Robert, cautiously.
    The couple went motionless and closed their eyes. Another light breeze brought the smell of burning wood to them. They caught the scent and looked at each other simultaneously, not knowing what to say.
    “How close?” asked Kyle. He began to bring his hand to his jaw, then awkwardly raised his hand and scratched his head, trying to disguise his gesture toward the painful tooth.
    “Maybe it’s not a campfire,” Alexis said, apprehensively. “We can’t see past the ridge. Farmhouse… or fireplace… maybe?”
    “If we can’t see them, then they can’t see us,” said Robert. “Let’s just keep low and we’re out of here tomorrow.”
    Kyle put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and said, “Get a little fire going. I’ll go get enough wood for the rest of the night.”
    She patted him on the back and pushed him toward the inlet and the grove of trees. Kyle got the hatchet and went for wood. Not realizing it, Kyle grabbed and held his jaw as he walked away. Robert pointed to Kyle and nudged Alexis.
    “How bad is his tooth?” asked Robert.
    Alexis exhaled a long sigh, frowned, and shook her head. “I don’t know. He has been trying to hide it and he didn’t say anything to me. I know that last year it was bad. He was going to get it fixed, but there was an infection. He got on some antibiotics, but never did go back to the dentist.”
    “He can’t let it go. There are no antibiotics here. We need to pull it.” Robert motioned toward his jaw as if he was pulling a tooth.
    Alexis was kneeling down around a small pile of wood she had gathered. She touched it with a precious match, starting a fire. The small twigs began to ignite and she gently fanned the flame with her hand.
    “How are you going to hold him down?” Alexis asked. “He’s not going to cooperate.”
    “We couldn’t pull it if we wanted to. We don’t have any pliers,” said Robert, shrugging his shoulders.
    Alexis was contemplating their problem as she picked up more branches for the fire. The branches were still green and many still had leaves on them. She stood in front of Robert and hugged the bundle of green wood tightly, momentarily lost in thought. “I’ll talk to him. He needs to be confronted so that—”
    The sound of Kyle’s scream interrupted Alexis. She was startled and dropped all the green wood on the campfire near her feet. They both instantly turned toward Kyle. They saw him holding the hatchet in his left hand and stomping the ground near a pile of old driftwood. Kyle then swung at the ground with the hatchet several times, and turned to walk back toward Robert and Alexis.
    Robert cupped his hands and yelled at Kyle as he approached. “Hey, big man, if it hurts that bad we need to do something about it. I told your wife and she agrees.”
    Kyle said nothing, his face visibly pale, and with a terrified expression. He kept glancing down at his right hand, and as Kyle closed the distance, he held his hand forward, terrified and speechless. What had happened became obvious to Robert instantly. He saw the two bloody spots in the fleshy part of Kyle’s hand, between the thumb and first finger. A snake had bitten him. Only a poisonous snake could make that wound.
    Alexis’s green wood had begun to cause a large plume of white smoke on the fire. Robert stepped away from the smoke. He grabbed Kyle, guiding him to his raft, and motioning for him to sit. With tears in her eyes, Alexis huddled close to her husband.
    “Where is it? What kind is it?” demanded Robert. “Did it rattle?”
    Kyle was in shock. He glanced back to the pile of wood near the grove of trees at the inlet. He looked down at his wound and summoned a few words. “I killed it.” He gestured with the hatchet in his left hand. “I stomped on it, and cut its head off. It was brown like the dirt and the dead wood around it.” He sucked the wound on his hand as he contemplated his fate. “What am I going to do?”
    Robert took the hatchet from him. “I don’t have an answer.”
    Robert went to where Kyle had killed the snake. The decapitated snake’s body was next to its severed head. He tossed the head into the river and brought the snake’s body back toward the smoky fire and Kyle’s raft.
    Robert held up the snake. “Copperhead.” It was three feet long and thick. The brown color gave it a perfect camouflage against the dirt and weathered wood on the ground.
    Alexis held onto her husband tightly, fighting back her tears. Kyle’s eyes were wide and his face was pale. He looked terrified.
    “That’s poisonous. What am I going to do?” Kyle asked, not hiding the fear in his voice.
    “I don’t know.” Robert cut the belly of the snake and pulled the skin back toward the tail. The skin neatly peeled away like a sausage casing. He held the length of snakeskin up for Kyle to see. “Souvenir?”
    Kyle shook his head. “No, thanks.” He clutched his hand close to his chest and leaned back in the raft. His wife caressed his forehead as he looked upward to the fading blue sky. He watched the few remaining puffy white clouds slowly drift by and tried to remember a better time in his life.
    Kyle suddenly sat up and shook the daze from his eyes. “Am I going to die?” Alexis’s lips began to quiver. She was trying to maintain composure and be strong for her husband.
    Robert did not immediately respond. He tossed the snake near the smoky fire, sat on his raft next to Kyle and took a deep breath, trying to find the right words. He slowly exhaled, leaned forward, and rubbed his bearded face with the palms of his dirty hands.
    “Am I going to die?” Kyle sternly repeated.
    “No, but you’re going to get sick. Very sick. We’re going to have to stay here until you’re better. We still have plenty of dried food. Just relax and let us take care of you for a while.”
    Kyle nodded his head and then closed his eyes and leaned back in the raft, waiting for the poison’s effects.
    During the night, while the others were asleep, Kyle became ill. His right hand was swollen and very painful. He broke into a sweat and his breathing became labored. The nausea urged him to lean over his raft as he felt his stomach turn, and the saliva dripped from his mouth. Kyle began to vomit violently and it felt like his guts were being ripped out of his body through his throat. The vomiting and diarrhea lasted throughout the night. Alexis tried to give him sips of water and Kyle tried to drink. The nausea was overwhelming his tired body when, near sunrise, the effect of the poison began to fade. His fatigued body retreated into much needed sleep and, just before sunrise, all three weary travelers finally slept at the same time.
    Robert was usually the first person to wake in the morning. Because of Kyle’s illness, he knew they would not be travelling anytime soon, so there was no urgency to wake early and start the day. When Kyle’s sickness faded, he took advantage of the temporary tranquility as he stretched out and faded into sleep once again. He knew the other two would do the same; Kyle needed as much rest as possible.
    Robert was deep asleep when he felt the tap of something metal on his forehead. He did not understand why they would be trying to wake him up. Staying up the entire night from Kyle’s violent illness should have been fatiguing, and he knew they needed to rest. Then he heard the voice; it was a man’s voice, but not Kyle’s.
    “Hey, wake up,” said the stranger to Robert, as he took a step back. He had poked Robert on his forehead with the barrel of a shotgun.
    Robert’s eyes flew open wide at the sound the strange voice. He sat up startled and shifted his body slightly away from the man, but not very far, as the raft confined him to a seated position. He quickly turned his head to see his rifle, but it was out of his reach on the opposite side of the raft from the stranger.
    The man was wearing a flannel shirt and overalls with black cowboy boots. One of the overall straps was not clasped and hung loose. The man had the shotgun under his arm hanging downward, not in a threatening way.
    “Who are you?” The man’s eyes squinted, more from curiosity than anger or fear.
    “Nobody, we’re just passing through.”
    The man saw Robert quickly glance toward his rifle. The look toward the weapon was enough for the man to respond.
    “Don’t do anything stupid.” He patted his shotgun gently. “We’re just talking, so stay cool. You’re on my property and I need to know what you want.”
    “We don’t want anything and we’re not looking for trouble. Like I said, we’re just passing through.”
    The man paused, looked toward the sleeping couple and faced Robert again. “I’ve had some people ‘just passing through’ before. They caused problems for me. They were really crazy, sort of spooky. You look like you’re doing okay, not starving and desperate like the others.”
    Robert nodded.
    “Do you need any work? I’ve got a lot of corn in this field.” The man tilted his head back toward the field of corn, but kept eye contact with Robert.
    “He’s sick. We’ve been up all night.” Robert nodded his head in Kyle’s direction. “We just wanted to wait it out until he gets better.”
    The man stepped away from Robert and more toward Kyle.
    “What’s he got?”
    “Snakebite. It was a copperhead.”
    The conversation woke Alexis and she gasped at the site of the man and his shotgun. She quickly shook Kyle. Kyle was groggy from sickness and fatigue. He acknowledged the man’s presence with a lethargic groan.
    “Hey, amigo, let everyone know we’re just having a conversation and not to do anything stupid. Okay?”
    “This is…”
    “It’s Ben. Just call me Ben.”
    “I was just telling Ben that we’re passing through. We’ll leave when Kyle gets better. This is Ben’s land and—”
    Kyle interrupted. “Water, I need water, please,” said Kyle, in a hoarse voice.
    Ben saw a bottle of water between him and Kyle. He picked up the bottle and bent over to hand it to Kyle, but not before he gave a quick glance back toward Robert and the rifle. Robert noticed the glance and held up his hands passively.
    Kyle reflexively tried to reach for the water with his right hand. When he pulled it out from underneath the tarp, everyone could see it had swollen to enormous dimensions. That hand was not going to work. Kyle then slowly extended his left hand for the bottle of water and Alexis quickly intercepted it, opening it for her husband, and holding it while he drank. Vomiting and diarrhea throughout the night had dehydrated him.
    “Hey, buddy, your jaw is messed up, too. You look like you’re in a world of hurt,” said Ben, sympathetically.
    “It’s his tooth, and it’s infected,” said Alexis. “We should have taken care of that a year ago. I just don’t know what we’re going to do. We need a doctor.”
    “Pardon the expression lady, but the shit has hit the fan. Good luck on that.” He paused and removed his hat to scratch his head. As he spoke, he pointed at Alexis with his index finger as he held his hat in his hand. “If his tooth is infected, then you better pull it. You better yank it out with pliers now, before it gets worse.”
    Kyle closed his eyes and groaned.
    “Robert says we don’t have any pliers,” said Alexis, looking at Robert.
    Robert shrugged his shoulders. “I wouldn’t know how to pull a tooth anyway.”
    Ben went over to Robert. He got close to him and leaned over to whisper in his ear. “Your friend over there is getting ready to meet Jesus. I’ll see what I can do.” Ben stood up and started to back away from the group. “My wife worked at a dental office for a while. I’ll see what she has to say about that tooth.”
    “Bring her back, let her look at his tooth,” said Alexis, with exasperation.
    “No can do. No offense, but I don’t know you, so she’s not coming over here and you’re not going near my house. It’s better that way.” He turned completely around and walked toward the field of corn.
    “Hey, Ben,” said Robert.
    Ben stopped and turned back around.
    “How did you know we were here?”
    Ben laughed. “Smoke, lots of smoke. It was like you were trying to give away your location.” He disappeared into a row of corn.
    Robert looked at Alexis and she realized that she was the one who had put the leaves and green wood on the fire.
    “Hopefully, something good will come of this,” said Robert, as he grabbed his rifle and moved it to his side. “Cover him back up. Let’s try to get some sleep.
    Robert slept for several more hours, and it was hunger that woke him up this time. The late morning sun was bright, so he changed his tarp to lean over the raft for shade and tried to quietly fix some food while the couple slumbered on. The sun was climbing higher in the clear sky and a warm breeze was picking up. Robert looked at the smoldering fire, and then looked at the grove of wood where the snake had been. He frowned to himself and went in that direction to get more wood for the fire. Robert carefully stepped around and kicked the wood before picking it up. He cautiously collected a supply of firewood and deposited it all by the fire. Kyle and Alexis woke up as he stacked the wood.
    Robert took some food over to Kyle and offered it to him. Kyle lethargically shook his head and reclined again. Robert handed the food to Alexis. “We can’t waste it, so here you go,” said Robert. He stepped back from the couple and silently motioned for Alexis to come towards him.
    “He’s bad. Ben was right, we have to do something,” said Robert.
    Alexis nodded; she had a sad and defeated expression on her face.
    “He’s got to have some pliers,” said Robert, angrily. “Damn it, I should’ve said something. I should’ve told him to bring back some pliers.”
    “But you said you didn’t know how to do it?”
    “This isn’t worth dying over. I should have said something. We have to try.”
    Alexis’s face was horrified.
    “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
    Alexis held the crucifix around her neck with her thumb and first finger, and then gently gave it a kiss, trying to comfort herself. “I heard what he said,” Alexis said, nervously. “I heard that man whisper to you; he thinks Kyle is going to die.”
    Robert shook his head. It was something he did not want to talk about anymore. He walked toward the field of corn to escape the conversation, leaving Alexis standing by the campfire. He stood near the rows of corn that must have been planted before the event, before the grid collapsed. He grabbed an ear and ripped it from the stalk. A quick glance back to camp showed Alexis sitting by her husband again. Robert began to walk the edge of the cornfield. He held the ear of corn with a tight grip and used it to hit the stalks of corn as he walked by. He heard something in the cornfield. Something was moving in the stalks of corn and the sound was getting closer.
    “Ben?” asked Robert, as he curiously peered into the rows of corn. There was no reply. The sound grew louder, so he began to step away from the corn. Suddenly a German shepherd lunged from behind the tall stalks. It was about six feet away from Robert. The dog bared its teeth and delivered a low growl. Its hair was standing up along the ridge of its spine. Robert frantically looked around for a rock or stick to use like a club. There was nothing but the ear of corn in his hand. He faced the dog and slowly moved backward. He knew that if he ran the dog would attack.
    “Alexis!” yelled Robert ; he raised the ear of corn to throw it at the dog. “Get the rifle!”
    Robert did not turn around. He knew if he turned away, the dog would be on him.
    “Hurry up, Alexis! Squeeze that trigger!” exclaimed Robert as he continued to back up slowly.
    The dog’s growling stopped and it lifted its head. The dog sniffed the air and its ears twisted, searching for a noise. Robert heard a whistle. It sounded like a person whistling for a dog.
    “Don’t shoot! Hold it! Someone is in there,” said Robert, still backing away.
    The dog turned and ran back into the cornfield, and Robert quickly turned to sprint for his rifle, grabbing it from Alexis. His hands were shaking.
    “Are you okay?”
    “Yeah, but that was close.”
    Ben emerged from the cornfield. He did not have his shotgun this time, but was carrying something in his hand. The dog was right behind him. “Looks like you met my dog. Sorry about that. She got away from me.”
    Robert pointed to his rifle and shook his head disapprovingly. “That was close.”
    “Sit! Sit!” Ben commanded the dog. The dog sat and Ben commanded her to stay as he walked toward Robert and Alexis.
    “I need to keep her away from that water,” said Ben, pointing to the inlet, “and the trees. There is good fishing over there, but it’s thick with snakes. I already lost my other dog to a copperhead.”
    Alexis went pale and looked back to her still sleeping husband.
    Ben held up a pair of pliers. “Let’s sit down and talk.”
    They walked back to the campfire and sat down. Ben tossed the pliers to Robert.
    “I talked to my wife. She said, ‘grip the tooth and wiggle it back and forth until it comes out.’ That’s it.”
    “That’s it?” asked Robert.
    “That’s it. Well… almost it,” replied Ben, tipping his hat upwards. “My wife said that between the snakebite and the infected tooth, your friend Kyle is going to need some antibiotics, and fast.”
    “I’m listening,” said Robert.
    Ben took his hat off and used it to fan his face. “I’ll help you pull his tooth. Then we go into town and get some antibiotics. What do you think?”
    “It’s just that easy?” asked Robert, skeptically.
    “Maybe, but it’s my wife’s idea.”
    “I’m still listening.”
    “She said that pet stores sell antibiotics for aquarium fish and they are the same as human antibiotics.”
    “Really? Is she positive?” asked Alexis.
    “Absolutely. I’m sure the pet stores will be looted, but people would’ve taken the dog and cat supplies and pet food. They won’t give a shit about their fish. Hell, they probably ate their fish by now,” said Ben, laughing. “You go into town with me and we’ll split everything we take. Sound fair?”
    Robert looked at Alexis and she nodded.
    Ben extended his arm and opened his palm. “Alexis, give this to your husband. It’s a painkiller. Once it kicks in, we should take the tooth.”
    Alexis took the pill wrapped in a small piece of paper. “I’ll go talk to Kyle.”
    “How do we get into town?” asked Robert.
    “Horses. I have two. We’ll ride out at sunrise tomorrow,” Ben said, looking back toward the dog to make sure she was still there.
    “Okay, it’s a deal.”
    Robert looked down at the pliers in his hand, then toward Alexis and Kyle. Kyle was sitting up. Alexis made eye contact and nodded her head as she tossed away the empty piece of paper that had held the pain pill. By Alexis’s expression alone, they understood that Kyle had agreed to go through with the tooth extraction.
    Robert and Ben put a tarp on the ground and helped Kyle onto it. They positioned Kyle on the edge of the tarp and rolled the tarp around his body, like a cocoon. All that was exposed was Kyle’s head and neck. The tightly wrapped tarp restrained his arms. Robert held the pliers and straddled Kyle’s supine body and Ben held onto Kyle’s head. They put a short but thick stick in the back of Kyle’s jaw to keep him from biting down on the pliers or their fingers.
    “Remember, don’t crack the tooth. Just grip it and wiggle it around until it gets loose,” said Ben.
    Robert nodded, took a deep breath, held it briefly, and tried to relax as he slowly exhaled. Robert held up three fingers. “On my count. One… two… three… Hold him! Hold tight!” Kyle’s head jostled on the hard ground and he groaned in pain. Robert pushed, pulled, and wiggled against the tooth with the pliers. He began to feel a slight looseness from side to side. “It’s moving… almost there.”
    Kyle began to cough and choke on his own blood. “He’s bleeding! Get that tooth out,” said Ben, frantically. “The snake venom thinned his blood. His mouth is filling up with blood.”
    Robert leaned his body weight forward and he felt Kyle’s tooth release from the jaw. “Got it! Flip him over.”
    Kyle turned his head toward the ground, coughed, and spit a cupful of bright red blood onto the dirt. He coughed once more and took in a deep breath. Both men swiftly unrolled Kyle from the tarp. Kyle curled his body on the ground, grimaced, and touched his jaw with his swollen hand.
    Alexis handed him a small piece of cloth wadded into a ball. “Bite down on this. It will help the bleeding,” said Alexis, as she sprinkled some water on her husband’s forehead.
    Robert picked the molar up from the ground and washed it off. He carefully inspected the tooth. “It’s intact. We got the whole thing.” He handed the tooth and the pliers to Alexis and humorously said, “Keep them for your scrap book.”
    Ben had walked back over to his dog. The big German shepherd had obediently stayed in the same spot. Ben motioned for Robert to come to him, and Robert acknowledged with a wave.
    As Robert closed his approach, the dog alerted and began to growl at Robert again.
    “Heel!” commanded Ben.
    “Your dog doesn’t like me,” said Robert, stating the obvious.
    “She doesn’t see many strangers out here. Let her get your scent. She’ll warm up to you.”
    Robert slowly extended his hand. The dog began to smell the air, then licked Robert’s fingers, hand, and arm.
    “Looks like you’ve got her approval now,” said Ben, petting his dog.
    “What’s her name?”
    “How’d she get that name?”
    Ben pointed to the wooded area by the river. “When she was a pup, Lucky and her brother were down there chasing rabbits. Snakes bit them both. Her brother didn’t make it. So, she’s Lucky.”
    “I need all the luck I can get,” said Robert, now freely petting the dog.
    Ben fanned himself with his hat a few times and turned to walk toward the cornfield. He gave a quick wave and a smile. “I’ll be back at first light tomorrow.” He disappeared into the rows of corn. Robert heard a quick whistle and Lucky ran into the cornfield, following her master.
    Although the man and his dog had already disappeared, Robert waved towards the corn, and then returned to Kyle and Alexis. Robert stepped over to his raft and sat down. “He’ll be back at daybreak. We’ll head for town early.”
    Alexis forced a smile at Robert as she put a wet cloth on her husband’s forehead. She knew that Kyle was deathly ill, but was trying to display strength during his adversity.

Chapter Seventeen

    The warm breath and cold nose of Lucky, Ben’s German shepherd, woke Robert at the break of dawn. Before Robert could get his hands up to ward off her affectionate advances, she had already licked the side of his face, which cooled from the evaporating saliva. He immediately extended his arm to force her back from the raft. His greatest concern was that her sharp claws would puncture it. She promptly licked his hand and arm instead.
    Ben was crouched at the campfire prodding the glowing embers. He quietly laughed to himself as he watched his dog interact playfully with Robert. “I think she likes you now,” said Ben, placing a small log on the remains on the campfire.
    Robert eased the grip on his rifle and placed it down in the raft. He extended a finger toward the dog and commanded, “Sit!” The dog partially lowered her hindquarters and whimpered slightly, wanting to play.
    “Sit!” commanded Ben. The dog immediately complied. The dog sat with her mouth partially open and her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, panting.
    Ben continued to poke at the red embers with a stick, persuading the log to come ablaze.
    “Ready?” asked Ben.
    Robert stood and stretched. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” He noticed that Alexis was awake, her eyes wide as she listened to their conversation. Alexis’s hand was on her sleeping husband’s forehead.
    Ben started to walk away, and with a quick whistle, called his dog. Robert wondered if Ben had called him with that whistle, too. With little regard to the issue, Robert grabbed his rifle and filled his pockets with cartridges. Ben stood at the edge of the corn with the dog, waiting for Robert.
    Alexis impulsively sprinted toward Robert, and as he slung the rifle over his shoulder, she grabbed him by his arm and stared hauntingly into his face. Her dilated eyes were bloodshot and full of fear. “He has a fever. I’m afraid… no… I’m terrified, Robert.” She quickly glanced back at her husband. “He’s burning up.” Her voice began to tremble. “You have to get some medicine. You have to come back with some medicine, or I’m afraid he’s not going to make it.” She dug her fingers deeper into his arms. “You have to promise me. Promise me you’ll come back!”
    Robert grabbed her shoulders and spoke confidently. “Relax. I promise I’ll come back. Just stay with Kyle. Just relax, okay?”
    Alexis’s tight grip on Robert’s arms began to loosen and she slowly let go. Turning away from Robert, she cast her eyes toward the ground and folded her arms onto her chest. She grabbed the crucifix dangling from her necklace, and went to her husband’s side. She genuflected toward her husband, made the sign of the cross, and began a silent prayer.
    Ben whistled again. This time it was obvious that the whistle was for Robert.
    “I’ll hurry,” said Robert, as he began to walk away.
    Alexis nodded and tried to force a smile as she waved the men on.
    Robert walked with Ben through the cornfield, heading toward Ben’s house. Lucky darted in and out of the rows of corn, sniffing the ground as she made circles around them. The corn was wet from the morning dew, and by the end of the rows of corn, Robert’s clothes were also wet, bringing a chill to his body. Emerging from the cornfield, he welcomed the morning sun and the warmth it would bring to him as his clothes dried in the breeze.
    Ben pointed toward a small corral by his house. There were two black horses saddled and ready to go, trotting freely in the corral. Near the corral was a well with a hand pump, a metal cup hanging from the handle. Ben pumped the handle several times and water splashed out of the pump. He drank several cups of water and offered the cup to Robert, who did the same. Ben then let Lucky drink from the same metal cup and Robert’s stomach turned. Ben saw the expression on Robert’s face and said, “She’s family.”
    “I understand.”
    “Have you ridden a horse before?”
    “No,” said Robert, as he began to walk toward the horses for closer inspection. As Robert got closer, he noticed that Ben had left a pistol belt hanging from the corral’s gate.
    Ben grabbed the pistol belt and placed it around his waist. “This is going to be a baptism by fire for you, then.” Ben laughed. “Don’t worry, your horse is broke.” Ben opened the gate. “Follow me. Just do what I do, and you’ll be fine.”
    Robert stood next to his horse and felt the coarse hair of its mane. He rubbed the horse’s jaw and neck. The horse was indifferent, chewing on hay. He touched the saddle leather. It was stained and smooth from years of use. Ben’s horse had saddlebags that appeared full.
    “Ready?” asked Ben.
    “You first, I’ll watch.”
    “Put your foot in the stirrup, grab the saddle horn, then step up and swing your other leg around.” Ben demonstrated as he instructed Robert and was immediately in the saddle. He pulled on the reins and positioned himself to observe Robert’s mount.
    “You made that look easy,” said Robert, as he shifted his rifle to his back, with the strap tight across his chest. Robert placed his left foot in the stirrup and grabbed the saddle horn. He hesitated before he started to lift himself up into the saddle. With one of Robert’s feet in the stirrup, the horse began to walk forward. Robert fell to the ground, landing on his side. Only his pride was hurt.
    Ben laughed. “Faster next time, cowboy. That horse isn’t going to wait for you.”
    Robert stood and brushed the dirt off his clothes. He took a deep breath and shook his head clear. With squinted eyes, he quickly looked around the corral. “Don’t you have a mounting block I could use?”
    “Mounting block? There’s no valet parking where we’re going. Let’s get moving, city boy.”
    Irritated, Robert looked at the horse and its saddle with heightened determination. In one motion, he put his left foot back in the stirrup, grabbed the saddle horn, and swung his right leg over the horse. He was now on the black beast and holding its reins. Ben led them out of the corral and toward the dirt road, with Lucky at his side. He explained that they would follow the dirt road for several miles south until they reached blacktop. The blacktop road would take them east to a bridge over the river, and that road would take them into town.
    As the road into town became wider, the ruins of the town became visible to the riders. Robert spurred his horse forward to be at Ben’s side. Although they saw no people, the evidence of what pillagers had done was everywhere. Stranded cars on the road had been looted, and all the businesses that they passed had succumbed to the same fate. They were in a commercial area. There were no houses. Every building, if it was not burned, had shattered windows, and all the doors were broken open.
    “Where is everybody?” asked Robert. He changed the position of his rifle to his front as the horse slowly trotted along beside Ben and his mount.
    “Just businesses around here. They looted and left. I didn’t think it would look this bad.” Ben pulled his hat a little lower, held the reins with one hand, and kept his right hand close to his pistol. “Just ahead less than a mile is where we’re headed.” Ben pointed forward and then looked around to survey the damage to the area.
    At the next main intersection, Lucky ran forward and began to bark at an abandoned car. The dog circled wide around the car and began to bark at the back of the vehicle. Cautiously, Robert and Ben guided their horses to the other side of the car and saw a decomposing body. Bullet holes riddled that side of the car, which explained the man’s death. The dog started to approach the corpse.
    “Get back, girl!” commanded Ben to the dog. He dismounted and walked toward Lucky, ushering her away from the dead body. His fear was that she might try to eat the corpse’s decomposing flesh. Pulling his horse behind him, he went to the dog and used his foot to turn her and get her to move away. Robert stayed mounted on his horse and Ben stood by the dog.
    “I can see the strip mall and the shop we need to get to.” Ben pointed in the store’s direction. “Right there on the corner.”
    “What are we waiting for?”
    Ben lifted the flap on his saddlebag, revealing several sticks of dynamite. He explained to Robert that he wanted to try to blow his way into a bank vault and pointed to the bank at the next intersection.
    Robert shook his head. “I don’t want any part of it.”
    “You don’t have to.” Ben removed the dynamite and detonation equipment from his horse. “Just take my horse and dog with you. I know where you’ll be. I’ll meet you there.”
    Robert leaned forward and grabbed the reins of Ben’s horse.
    “This will take me about as long as it will take you to get into the store and look around. Tie the horses tight to something, and get my dog inside. You’ll hear the blast.” Ben laughed.
    Robert grumbled his disapproval again and led Ben’s horse away. The dog reluctantly followed Robert to the strip mall. As he made his way toward the pet store, he passed by several abandoned cars in the parking lot. All of them had broken windows. At the end of the strip mall was the large pet store. All the windows were broken; it had obviously been pillaged and looted. In front of the store was a bicycle rack where he could tie the horses. After dismounting and tying the horses, Robert nervously looked back toward the bank at the far end of the parking lot. It was not a big bank and Robert could not understand the appeal of what Ben planned to do. What could he get? Money? Money had no value. Jewelry in a safety deposit box? Maybe jewelry would have some type of intrinsic value, but you cannot eat it. Jewelry would be worthless to a starving person.
    After double-checking the knots that held the horses to the bicycle rack, Robert called Lucky into the store. Although the windows were shattered, allowing a breeze through the store, there was still a terrible stench of death that remained. The small rodents and fish were dead and rotten. The dog and cat food sections were scavenged clean. Robert wondered if the looters had taken the food for their pets, or if they had become desperate enough to eat it themselves. Since most of the other cat and dog merchandise was gone, he surmised that they were still keeping their pets alive.
    The store was divided into departments. The dog section was the farthest from the front, then the cat section, pet toys, and near the front of the store was a large picture of a fish. That would be the section he wanted. Unfortunately, large metal shelves separated these sections, and the shelves had been toppled over and collapsed like dominoes in the direction of the store’s front, covering the fish section. Robert would have to lift these shelves back to an upright position, starting in the back, to get to what was buried at the front of the store. The empty shelving was not very heavy, but it was awkward to move.
    Lucky left Robert by himself as she patrolled the store. She methodically sniffed at almost everything, as Robert worked his way toward the store’s front, lifting each of the metal shelves. As he lifted the last shelves, he glanced behind himself and noticed that Lucky had found a rope toy. She leaned forward with the toy and moved her head from side to side as a signal to play.
    Suddenly an explosion rocked the store, and reflexively, Robert dove to the floor. Ben must have set off the dynamite. The explosion was loud, much louder than he would have expected at this distance. Lucky dropped the toy and whimpered in the explosion’s aftermath. Robert quickly looked back to see that the shelving was still standing. He grabbed the rope toy and tossed it for the dog, then went to the broken store windows to get a view of the bank. From that distance, he could see that all the glass from its windows were gone, and smoke billowed out of the openings. Emerging from the bank was a man holding a hat with one hand and the side of his head with the other. It was Ben, stumbling as he made his way toward Robert and the pet store.
    Robert stood by the two horses and stroked their faces. The explosion had startled the horses, and he tried to calm the animals as he watched Ben approach.
    Ben made it to the storefront and, holding his hat in his right hand, bent at the waist and put his hands on his knees to lean forward. He was shaking his head back and forth.
    “It didn’t work. I got nothing, not a damn thing,” said Ben, in an unusually loud tone.
    “What did you expect to get?”
    Ben was looking at the ground in front of him. He did not see Robert ask the question and could not hear him due to the ringing in his ears.
    “Hey!” exclaimed Robert. “Can you hear me?”
    Ben looked up with a contorted face. “Sorry, my ears are ringing, I was too close. I can’t hear anything.” Ben cupped his ears with his hands and shook his head.
    Robert did not speak, but motioned for Ben to get inside the store. With Ben inside, Robert stayed out front momentarily to observe his surroundings. Ben had made a lot of noise. That might bring unwanted attention in their direction.
    Inside, Robert found Ben sitting on the floor with his dog next to him. Lucky had brought him the rope toy and they were playing tug of war. Robert pointed to the fish supply area. The toppled shelving had covered it so most of the area had been protected from the looters.
    “What are we looking for?” asked Robert, as he pointed to the first aisle.
    Ben nodded and held up one finger. He did not want to speak yet. He walked to the fish section and began to sift through the bottles strewn on the floor. He grabbed each bottle and peered at the label intently. Ben kept frowning and tossing bottles in the corner. Then his mood changed, and he began to smile as he held up a bottle.
    “This is it. Get them all.”
    Robert started doing the same. He looked at each bottle and tossed all those that he did not want into a corner. Methodically, they sifted through the debris and found at least twelve bottles of the medication they were looking for. During this process, Robert noticed that Lucky had vanished. He looked around the store, but did not see her. He called her and she did not respond, so he headed toward the back of the store. Ben did not notice, and probably could not hear Robert as he called unsuccessfully for the dog.
    Robert was halfway to the rear of the store when he heard a low growl. It was Lucky. He saw her staring at the backroom door. Her lips were curled back, exposing her sharp teeth as she snarled. Robert shouldered his rifle and back stepped toward Ben. He tapped Ben on the shoulder. Ben saw Robert’s rifle and quickly grabbed his pistol. Robert pointed toward the backroom.
    “Your dog is growling at the something in the back.”
    Ben squinted toward the back of the store and the backroom door. It was closed. He turned to the front of the store and scanned the parking lot with cautious eyes.
    “Look around, we could have company.”
    Both men carefully studied the parking lot. They stared at the silhouette of each vehicle. Finally, near the edge of the parking lot, Robert noticed someone sticking his head up from behind the hood of a car.
    “I’ve got movement. Behind the black car, near the hood,” said Robert, bringing his rifle to rest on a place where there was no glass in the front window and aiming at the target.
    “Can you get a shot?”
    “No, they’re behind the engine block.”
    Ben glanced back at the backroom door. It was partially open now. He tapped Robert on the shoulder. “We’ve got company.”
    Robert held a finger to his lips as a sign to be quiet. He motioned to Ben that he was going to stay at the front window to keep an eye on the fellow in the parking lot. Robert balanced the rifle on the windowsill and stayed low.
    Ben slowly crept toward his dog. He whistled quietly and motioned for the dog to come toward him. Ben took slow, quiet steps toward the dog while he kept an eye on the backdoor of the store. He knew someone was back there because the door had been opened slightly, and dog’s warning gave their position away. Ben turned to see Robert intently staring at the black car at the far edge of the parking lot. He was squinting with one eye, targeting the car in the rifle’s sights, not paying attention to Ben or the dog.
    Ben reached Lucky just as the backdoor of the store swung violently open. He heard voices in the backroom then, and in a loud, but young-sounding voice, someone yelled, “Just leave your horses! We’ll let you leave unharmed. Don’t do anything stupid.”
    The dog began to bark loudly toward the dark backroom. Ben was beside his dog and extended his hand around the dog in an attempt to restrain the animal. He held her and his pistol tightly, and then turned to make eye contact with Robert. Robert motioned for him to stay silent, and then pointed out the window indicating that he could now see the person watching them from the parking lot.
    “What’s it going to be?” shouted the voice from the backroom. “You’re trapped. Give up and leave. Now!”
    Ben looked back at Robert again, shrugging his shoulders. Robert pointed back out the window and motioned for him to watch. Robert leveled the rifle on the front windowsill. The intruder outside was carelessly exposing his body and Robert could see the barrel of a rifle. The two men were crouched low in the store, and it would be difficult for the intruder’s lookout to see them. The lookout recklessly tried to see into the store and in doing so had made himself a target for Robert’s rifle. Robert aimed for the torso and slowly pulled the trigger. There was a loud crack from his rifle and the lookout’s body slumped to the ground. Robert looked back toward Ben and gave him the thumbs up sign.
    “Hey, I said don’t do anything stupid. Just walk away!” exclaimed the voice again from the backroom.
    Robert slowly crawled over to Ben and his dog. Ben still had an arm around the dog in an effort to control her position. She wanted to lunge into the backroom and was barking loudly and viciously. Robert put his hand on Ben’s shoulder for balance and partially raised himself from the floor. Robert yelled toward the backroom. “You should leave before this gets bad for you. It’s not worth dying over.”
    Robert moved to the other side of Ben and the dog. He wanted to position himself closer to the backroom door. Robert reached across Lucky for Ben’s shoulder to balance himself as he partially rose up from the floor again. He was going to yell toward the intruders in the backroom, but when Robert moved his arm across the dog, Ben mistakenly thought Robert was going to help hold her, so he let go, and Lucky sprinted into the backroom. Ben raised his body to lunge for her, but it was too late. She had disappeared. In that instant Robert turned to look at Ben and saw his body tense and panic flood his face. Almost immediately, they heard yelling from the backroom, the sound of two shotgun blasts, and finally, the yelp of a dog. In the silence that followed, Ben’s panicked expression turned to anger. He sprinted toward the dark backroom holding his revolver forward, ready to fire. He entered the backroom at full speed and Robert saw six orange flashes from his pistol, intermittently illuminating the darkness of the backroom. Screams and groaning were followed by silence.
    Robert cautiously advanced toward the door to the backroom. The open door allowed for only a small amount of light to enter. Just past the door, Robert could barely see the lifeless body of Lucky, Ben’s German shepherd. The dog had jumped into the shotgun blasts, with no chance of survival. Ben was kneeling by his dog. Behind Ben, further into the darkness, were two lifeless bodies. They were young men, probably teenagers, and lay sprawled on the floor. One had a shotgun on the floor next to him. The weapon was a double-barreled breach-loader. The kid had discharged both shells and did not get to reload before Ben entered the room, shooting them at point-blank range. Pain and damage of the bullet wounds had contorted their bodies.
    Robert pushed the exit door to the alley open. Sunlight poured in, illuminating the carnage. The rays of light shone through the smoke and cast eerie shadows across the bodies. He checked outside the door and saw no one else. They were alone again in the bloody aftermath. A breeze came through the door that Robert had propped open. It began to take the smoke and putrid smell of death away from the backroom, but could not remove Ben’s anguish over his dog. Robert pulled the two bodies out the door and left them on the black asphalt. He then walked around to the front of the store where they had tied the horses, and put the intruders’ shotgun and rifle into Ben’s saddlebag. He scratched the two horses on the head and neck for a moment before he went back inside to retrieve the antibiotics.
    It was nearly an hour before Ben could walk away from his dog and go to the storefront where Robert was waiting for him.
    Robert sat on the sidewalk with his knees drawn upward to allow him to wrap his forearms around his knees. He was swinging the bag of antibiotic bottles back and forth, bumping his shins, admiring the heft of the bag and how, even after splitting with Ben, they would leave with an abundance of medication.
    Ben walked toward Robert and sat on the ground near him.
    “I’m sorry about your dog,” Robert softly remarked.
    “She was a good dog.” Ben cleared his throat and took several deep breaths before slowly exhaling. “I don’t know how I’m going to tell my son about this.” Ben paused, trying to control his grief. “I do know that she sacrificed her life for ours.” Ben hung his head low and shook it back and forth, trying to suppress his grief.
    Robert shook the bag full of bottles, rattling the capsules inside. “We should go,” he said, shaking the bottles once more.
    Ben stood up and brushed the dust from his pants. “Yeah, let’s go. We need to beat sundown.” He adjusted his hat and walked directly toward his horse, not looking back.
    Robert followed in quick succession with the sack of antibiotics in hand.
    Both men untied the reins and mounted their horses simultaneously. Ben gently spurred his horse and Robert’s horse followed. The echo from the rhythmic clack of the horseshoes on the pavement slowly faded away as they got farther from the strip mall. They passed the bank, wrecked from dynamite, and crossed onto the street. They rode into the setting sun as they left the apocalyptic scenery behind them.
    After several miles, Ben leaned forward on the saddle horn and adjusted his position. He tilted his hat forward to shade his eyes and looked at Robert riding next to him.
    “Did you ever think your life would be like this?” asked Ben.
    “Never. I took everything I had for granted.” Robert gestured around the horizon with his hand. “The grid went down and took everything with it.” He shook his head in disbelief. “The grid supported our lifestyle and civilization, and now it’s all gone. This is a nightmare I’ll never wake up from.”
    Ben tapped his gun. “Think about what you’re going to do when your ammo runs out,” said Ben, as he raised an eyebrow in Robert’s direction. “How can you protect yourself?”
    Robert only responded with a sigh before Ben ended the conversation with a slap to the rear of his horse. The horse began to trot faster and he assumed the lead. Ben caught himself looking down for his dog running near his horse’s legs. He swallowed his sadness and spurred his horse onward.
    They made it back to the small corral before sunset. Robert was the last to dismount and gave his horse a few pats on the neck before climbing over the wooden rail fence. Ben took his holster off and hung it back on the gate.
    “Are you sure you don’t want to stay? I have plenty of work, and we can feed you.”
    “No thanks, we have to move on.” Robert held up the bag of antibiotics. “Ready to split ‘em? They’re all the same. Here’s six of the twelve we got. I’ll keep the bag if you don’t mind,” said Robert, as he handed Ben the bottles of medication.
    Ben held the bottles close to his body with both hands. “I’d shake your hand but…” Ben looked down to his hands holding the large bottles.
    Robert smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. “No problem. Thanks for your help.”
    Ben tipped his head forward. “Be safe and good luck.” He turned and walked toward his house.
    Robert gripped the bag tight in his hand and ran back into the cornfield, guessing which row that would take him back to their campsite. He ran past endless stalks of corn. The leaves monotonously slapped his face, making it difficult to keep a fast pace through the field. He finally emerged to see Alexis and Kyle. Kyle lay listlessly on the ground with his wife at his side. She had placed a wet cloth on his forehead, and was clutching the crucifix necklace with the other hand as she whispered the Lord’s Prayer.
    “Hey,” Robert yelled, announcing his return.
    Alexis had her back turned and was startled, but visibly happy.
    “Is that it? Is it in the bag?” Alexis asked, pointing to the white plastic bag wrapped around Robert’s fist.
    “Six bottles,” replied Robert, holding the bag upward.
    Alexis knelt back down by her husband. “He’s burning up. How many does he take?”
    Robert looked confused as he read the label. “I honestly don’t know.” He scratched his head, frustrated. “Let’s just give him three or four a day. What do you think?”
    Alexis agreed to the plan and tried to bring Kyle back to consciousness. Kyle opened his eyes with considerable effort. He was sweating and delirious from the fever. Alexis held a pill in one hand and opened her husband’s mouth. She put the pill in his mouth and encouraged him to drink the entire bottle of water. Kyle did so, coughing several times. She placed his head gently back down and he was immediately fast asleep.
    Robert sat by the fire with his rifle across his lap. He stared into the glowing embers and watched the tendrils of white smoke dissipate into the encroaching darkness of the twilight’s night air. The day’s events repeated in his mind. He was obsessing over all the details of the day and what he could have done differently. He realized that it was another day that had almost brought him to the limits of his own mortality. Each time he thought about how close he had come to dying, he unconsciously clutched the rifle tighter. Finally, his hand began to cramp and he realized the manifestation of his obsessive thoughts of death. He resolved to himself that he would remain strong, and he would survive. His family was depending upon him to return, and he needed to do that quickly. He shook the cramp out of his hand and removed the clip from his rifle. With a quick flick of his wrist, he ejected the chambered cartridge from his rifle and watched it arc into the air before hitting the ground. The brass casing made a small click as it hit a pebble in the dirt. He picked the cartridge up and blew the dirt off of it, trying unsuccessfully to see his reflection in the shiny brass, before he inserted it back into the clip. Physically and mentally exhausted, he leaned his torso forward and rested his face in the palms of his dirty hands, trying to forget the day’s events.
    Alexis walked to his side and he felt her gentle touch on his shoulder.
    “Do you want to talk about it?” asked Alexis, looking hesitantly at Robert.

Chapter Eighteen

    Kyle’s fever gradually began to recede, and then completely dissipated by the second day. On that day, Kyle stood up and tried to walk, encouraged to do so by his wife and Robert. He was shaky from the illness and lack of food, but he began to regain his appetite after the fever disappeared. Kyle paced back and forth through the campsite trying to restore some steadiness to his legs, and as he was pacing, he felt the empty space in his jaw from the missing molar. Kyle took a final lap around the campsite, and then sat near Robert, who was taking his turn stoking the campfire.
    Robert sat cross-legged on the ground in front of the fire and asked, “How are you feeling?”
    “I’ve been better.”
    “You’ve looked better, too.”
    Kyle smiled and stared into the fire. He held up one hand to feel the heat. “Be careful what you say, old man. I can still kick your ass.”
    “Oh, really?” said Robert, sarcastically. “Don’t forget, I already knocked one of your teeth out this week.”
    At Robert’s comment, Kyle furrowed his brow as he touched his jawline. “I just don’t remember. I can’t seem to remember the last two days. The fever and that damn snake bite took me down.”
    “It’s probably better that way,” said Robert, as he turned his head to look toward the cornfield. He saw Alexis moving through the rows of corn, gathering young ears to prepare for supper. “Did you see any lights at the end of a dark tunnel?”
    “I’m not quite ready for that yet,” said Kyle, confidently pointing at his chest with the swollen thumb on his right hand. When Kyle shifted his position on the ground, he heard the capsules rattle in the plastic bottle at the bottom of his deep pockets. He remembered Alexis mentioning Robert’s mood on the return from his trip into town. Robert was withdrawn and did not want to talk about that day. Curiosity prodded Kyle to ask what had happened there.
    Kyle tapped the bottle in his pants, rattling the capsules again. “What was it like in town? Did you have to wade through some deep shit?”
    Robert nodded and looked away. He stared at the flames while he collected his thoughts. “Apocalypse,” said Robert. “Three young kids, barely teenagers, tried to kill us for our horses. “They’re… dead.” Robert was looking at the campfire, but he saw the images of the people that he and Ben had shot just a few days ago.
    Both men jumped up when they heard Alexis scream. Ben had come back to the campsite and emerged through the corn, frightening Alexis. She had been gathering ears of corn from the field and her arms had been full of at least a dozen ears of corn, which were now scattered on the ground at her feet.
    “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” said Ben. He took his hat off and smiled at her.
    Alexis looked down at the ears of corn at her feet and was embarrassed that Ben had caught her taking corn from his field. She looked up, timidly waved, and tried to smile. “Hello again. You scared me.”
    “I wondered if you were still here.” Ben walked toward Alexis. “Take this. My wife baked it.” Ben handed her a loaf of cornbread. It was in an old plastic bread bag.
    Alexis opened the bag and smelled the contents. It smelled delicious. She closed her eyes and breathed in the aroma of freshly baked cornbread again, exhaled, and cast a large grin toward Ben. “Thank you. It smells wonderful. Would you like to stay? We have cans of beans. I can warm some up for you.”
    “Sorry,” said Ben, apologetically, “I can’t stay long. There are a million things I need to get done.” Ben used his hat and waved it in a broad arc toward Robert and Kyle. Then Ben began to look intently around. He peered deeply into the rows of corn behind him. Facing the corn, he whistled loudly and, almost instantly, a Labrador retriever puppy came running toward him from the field. It circled his boots, and then darted toward Alexis, smelling her ankles and the ears of corn on the ground. Ben walked toward the campfire snapping his fingers. The dog followed closely, greeting Robert and Kyle with its cold wet nose.
    “I thought you might still be here.” Ben looked back at Alexis. She was picking the ears of corn up from the ground. “My wife baked some cornbread. Alexis has it.”
    “We couldn’t leave with an invalid.” Robert jokingly pointed at Kyle.
    Kyle offered his right hand as a greeting. “You must be Ben. It’s good to meet you, again. I can’t remember much from the past two days.”
    Ben reached for his hand, but stopped when he noticed the swelling.
    “Sorry, pal. Your hand looks terrible.” Ben extended his left hand and gave Kyle a firm handshake.
    Robert pointed toward the puppy. “How’d you come across that thing?”
    Ben bent over to scratch the dog’s neck and back. “I finally made it to one of my neighbors. We talked about our problems and decided to work together. He has an old tractor that still works and a storage tank of diesel fuel. We agreed to help each other and share food. I have corn and he has beans. It’s a good combination.” He looked at Alexis, remembering her invitation to eat cornbread and beans with them. “I have a place to store the harvest and a grain mill to grind the corn into meal.” He gave the dog a gentle pat and stood up again. “And he gave me a dog. It’s a good dog.” Ben smiled at the puppy.
    Alexis walked back to the campfire. She grinned as she held up the plastic bag with cornbread inside that Ben had just given them. Not saying anything to the three men, she set the ears of corn down and found a can of beans to warm by the fire.
    “Y’all going to stay long?” asked Ben.
    Robert looked at Kyle and cast a thumb in his direction. “Maybe leave tomorrow if he can handle it.”
    Kyle smirked, and then his stomach growled loudly from hunger.
    “I’m not going to keep a man from his supper.” Ben put his hat back on. “Best of luck to you,” said Ben, as he turned away. He slapped his leg and the puppy followed him into the field.
    The next morning Kyle decided he was strong enough to try to continue downstream. They gathered their belongings and packed the rafts. The rafts were near the riverbank when Robert decided to look around the campsite once more to make sure they forgot nothing. He picked up an ear of corn and threw it back toward the field. He saw movement inside the cornfield, and then Ben’s puppy ran out, whimpering and limping toward Robert. The dog had its tail between its legs and began to cower at Robert’s ankles.
    Robert called out loudly. “Ben… Ben… your dog is over here.”
    There was no reply. He looked back toward the river and he knew that Kyle and Alexis were waiting. Robert bent down and touched the dog’s back leg. It howled in pain.
    Robert called out loudly again. “Ben… Ben… I have your dog… it’s hurt.”
    “What’s going on?” yelled Kyle from the riverbank.
    Robert motioned for Kyle to come back and showed the injured puppy to him.
    “That’s his dog alright and it’s hurt,” said Kyle.
    “We can’t just leave him here.” Robert looked toward the grove of trees that Ben had said was thick with copperheads, and remembered the story of Ben’s old dog that died from a snakebite it got out here. “I’ll do it. I’ll take it back.”
    Robert gently picked up the dog and began to walk into the cornfield. The coarse corn leaves irritated his skin and were blinding as they whipped into his face. He could not block them with his hands because he was carrying an injured dog. As Robert neared the end of the row of corn, the dog began to whimper loudly.
    “Easy now, you’re almost home,” said Robert, as he gave the puppy gentle pats on the back.
    When Robert stepped out of the corn, the dog tensed, began to growl, and tried to get away. Robert did the best he could to hold the dog tight and not hurt it. When he looked up from the dog, he noticed an old van near the house. He did not remember the van being there from days before. Robert thought it might be the neighbor Ben had talked about, but Ben had not mentioned that they had a van that was working. Robert got nervous. He stopped abruptly and looked around. Quickly, he went back into the cover of the cornfield and watched the house. He put the dog down and stared at the house and its surroundings. He saw no movement, but thought he heard something behind him. He listened closely; it sounded like crying. The dog began to sniff the air and it limped back into the cornfield toward the noise. As they got closer, the sound grew louder. It was someone crying. Curled in the dirt between rows of corn was a young boy. His knees were up and he had wrapped his little arms tightly around his legs. He buried his face into his thighs and he was crying loudly, not hearing Robert’s or the puppy’s approach. The boy felt the puppy’s cold nose bump his cheek and he sat up. When the boy looked back and saw Robert approaching, he fell back, shuffling his feet and hands backwards in the dirt, not gaining any traction. Robert could see the look of terror in his eyes.
    Robert knelt down into a less threatening position. “Are you Ben’s son?”
    The boy nodded, with fear in his eyes.
    “Are you hurt?”
    The boy shook his head. He still had tears running down his face.
    “What’s wrong?”
    The boy pointed in the direction of his house. “Those men are going to hurt my parents,” said the boy, with a trembling voice. “My dad went to the neighbor’s house, so he wasn’t here when they showed up. They came to the house and wanted food. They said they would leave if my mom gave them something to eat.” The boy’s face contorted as he tried to keep himself from crying. “I was outside and they grabbed me and told her to open the door or they would hurt me. They kicked my puppy. My mom opened the door. When my dad got back, they got him, too. That’s when I got away.”
    Robert’s heart sank into his stomach. He knew he had to help them.
    “How many?
    “Two.” The boy held up two trembling fingers.
    The boy nodded.
    “Do you know what kind of guns?”
    “I think they were shotguns.” The boy closed his eyes as he thought. “They looked like the kind my dad uses to hunt birds.”
    Robert nodded. “Listen to me carefully. I am going to try to help your parents. You need to follow me and hide by the river. I have friends there and they’ll help. Okay?”
    The boy nodded and wiped the tears from his face. He stood up, and Robert could see that the boy was barely eight years old. The boy picked his little dog up and touched his cheek to the dog’s soft fur.
    “Follow me. Let’s hurry.”
    They ran through the corn back toward the campsite. Curious and concerned looks of both Kyle and Alexis met them when they exited the field. Kyle shrugged his shoulders in the distance. He was confused. Why was Robert running back toward them with a boy and the puppy?
    Robert stopped in front of Kyle and leaned over, resting his hands on his knees and breathing deep. He took a deep breath and spoke. “This is Ben’s son. He told me that two men with shotguns are at his house. His parents are in trouble.”
    The curious look on Kyle’s face faded to a distant stare. He clenched his swollen right hand and tried to make a tight fist. He still felt weak and Robert knew that. “What’s the plan? I owe this guy something.”
    Robert stood completely up and put his hands on top of his head interlacing his fingers. He closed his eyes momentarily, then stared back toward Ben’s house. “Get your pistol. Use your left hand if you have to.” He put his hands on his hips. “I have a rifle so we can get them from a distance. We’ll sneak up or try to draw them out of the house. Either way, I’m going to shoot first and ask questions later.”
    The boy and his dog stayed behind with Alexis. They sat by the extinguished campfire and the puppy stood on its good back leg and licked the boy’s face, happy to be back with him. Alexis was scared for her husband again, but she tried not to show it. Her eyes followed him as he ran to the raft on the riverbank to get his pistol. Then both men disappeared into the cornfield.
    Near the end of the field, the men cautiously stopped and carefully looked around. They saw no movement. Robert tapped Kyle on the shoulder and pointed to his weapon. He chambered a round and Kyle did the same. Pulling the slide back on his pistol caused Kyle to wince from the pain in his right hand.
    “I’m ready,” said Kyle, shaking his right hand, trying to work the pain away.
    Robert nodded and surveyed the landscape. The house was in front of them, with the van parked in the back. It was an older two-story house with white peeling paint and an old walnut tree to the left near the long driveway. At the back of the house, he could see double doors, almost horizontal to the ground, near the foundation. The doors would most likely lead to the basement. To the right of the house was a large propane tank for the furnace, and still further away was a red barn with a large sliding door. The barn’s door was closed.
    From around the corner at the front of the house, a man carrying a shotgun emerged. He was walking toward the barn at a fast pace. The shotgun was pointed halfway down and the man constantly looked to his left and right, nervously, as he hurried toward the barn. Kyle tapped Robert on the shoulder and pointed. He wanted Robert to take the shot. Robert sat with his knees up to aim the rifle, and wrapped the rifle’s strap around his left forearm as he pressed the stock tightly into his right shoulder. Robert followed the man with the rifle’s sights, suppressed his breathing, and moved the barrel to lead the man as he aimed. He had just begun to slowly squeeze the trigger when sweat dripped into his eye. He angrily lowered the rifle and wiped the sweat from his face.
    “Damn it!” Robert whispered to himself.
    The man was sliding the barn door open to go inside.
    “Too late, he’s inside,” said Kyle.
    “Damn it!” Robert cursed to himself again. He looked toward the barn with determination. “I’m going to jump him. He’ll never expect it.” Robert held his hand up with his palm toward Kyle. He was signaling him to stay there. Robert ran toward the barn as fast as he could and slowed near the entrance. As he crept into the barn, he heard noises like someone recklessly tossing things around. He entered the barn with his rifle in position. Instantly he saw the man turn to face him and raise a shotgun, but not fast enough. Robert pulled the trigger twice and the man fell backwards. The holes in the man’s torso were faintly whistling in rhythm with his rapidly expanding and contracting chest. The whistling turned to a gurgling noise as the man drowned in his own blood. Robert kicked the shotgun away and went to the edge of the barn’s open door. He peeked around the corner and noticed an open window on the second floor of the house. It had not been visible from their position in the cornfield. He saw movement in the house through that window. To his left he could also see Kyle’s position in the cornfield. Robert cautiously glanced at the house, and then quickly stepped out to show Kyle he was safe. He swiftly hid behind the door, only peering far enough around the corner to see Kyle extend his hand from the corn and wave back.
    Unexpectedly, he saw Kyle running barefoot toward the house’s cellar doors. Kyle grabbed the handles, looked around, and disappeared inside.
    “Shit.” Robert cursed to himself. “What’s he doing?”
    Robert’s mind raced, and he concluded that Kyle was going to try to sneak up on the remaining intruder. Kyle would need a distraction, but Robert did not know what to do. Almost as soon as Kyle disappeared into the house, Robert saw a person’s head at the second-floor window, which was open. A man with a ball cap sheepishly looked out the window and, after a moment, yelled, “Hey… hey, Billy! What was that? I thought I heard something. Are you okay?”
    Robert peered at the man though a crack in the barn door. Two pieces of parallel wood were warped and separated, allowing a clear view and a gun port for Robert. He rested his rifle in the opening and gently touched the trigger. He had the man’s head in his sights. Robert shook his head and partially lowered the barrel of his rifle. He did not know if anyone was behind the man. The bullet could ricochet or go into another room hurting an innocent person. Robert angrily lowered the rifle and stared back through the crack in the door. The man, now more boldly, was calling for his accomplice. Robert knew Kyle was in the house. He knew he could give Kyle the advantage if he could create a distraction. He looked back at the dead man’s shotgun and then back at the open second floor window. He judged the distance and made a decision. He would step outside the barn door. The distance from the house would be too far for a shotgun to reach with deadly force. Robert placed his rifle on the ground and stepped outside. The intruder was so startled that he hit the top of his head on the window, knocking his hat off. By the time the hat hit the ground, he was back at the window with his shotgun aimed at Robert.
    Robert held his hands up. “We can make a deal,” said Robert, yelling from the front of the barn.
    “Why shouldn’t I just kill you now?” said the intruder, still aiming the shotgun at Robert.
    “I’ve got your friend. He’s here in the barn.”
    “You son of a bitch! Bring him out here and prove it.” The man was stabbing the air with his shotgun in Robert’s direction as he yelled.
    Robert mumbled to himself, “That’s it. Keep talking. Let Kyle find you. Just keep looking at me.”
    “I said bring him out here so I can see him!”
    “Okay, relax, I’ll get him.”
    Robert went into the barn and looked back out through the crack in the door. Come on Kyle, where are you? He’s distracted. Robert noticed the cellar door lifting up. He saw Ben’s head appear and look around. He stepped out, holding the door open, and a woman appeared behind him. He closed the door and they ran for the cornfield. Robert shook his head in disbelief as he hid behind the barn door. Kyle is still in there. Robert turned to look at the body on the floor. There was a portion of the corpse’s belt that was not soaked with blood. Robert grabbed that part of the belt to drag the body outside. He thought to himself that the home invasion business must be good. This man still weighed a lot. He must have been getting plenty to eat. Robert dragged the body across the gravel floor. The sunlight through the door’s opening illuminated the gravel dust liberated from the ground. The gravel dust, damp hay, and blood made for a putrid smell in the barn. Robert dropped the belt and the limp body hit the ground. The intruder leaned forward in disbelief. He stared at his partner’s pale white face, his eyes squinting in confusion, and then realized that the clothes were soaked in blood. The man dropped to one knee and raised his shotgun to aim at Robert. He leaned forward out the window, and just before he could pull the trigger, Kyle was behind him with his pistol. The intruder never heard Kyle’s bare feet or the bullet that went through his skull.
    Kyle put the smoking pistol in his pocket and pushed out the limp body hanging from the second floor window. The body fell on the shotgun that the intruder had already dropped. The body landed, with a small bounce, in a very contorted position. If not already dead, the fall would have killed him. Kyle leaned out the window and yelled toward Robert. “All clear.” Then he gave a quick wave with his swollen hand and disappeared back into the house. Robert wasted no time and sprinted toward the backdoor just in time to greet Kyle as he exited the house. Kyle had a gun belt hanging over his shoulder. He stood at the top of the back steps and looked down at Robert.
    “When is all this going to end?” asked Kyle.
    Robert looked back in the direction of the two dead intruders. “Never. Too many bad people.”
    Robert motioned for Kyle to come down the steps and then he pointed toward the van.
    “Look at that.” Robert smiled at the old van. “If that thing has a full tank of gas, it can get us where we need to go.” Robert dramatically held up his hand and crossed his fingers. He went directly toward the front of the van and opened the driver’s side door. The interior dashboard was cracked and faded from the sun. The seats were torn open. One section of the seat had a spring exposed. The inside smelled like mildew. He sat in the dirty driver’s seat and stared at the instrument panel as he gripped the steering wheel. The dials on the instrument panel were all pointing down. He needed to determine how full the gas tank was. The key was still in the ignition, and hanging from the key chain was a lucky rabbit’s foot. With a turn of the key, the engine roared to life. Robert pressed the accelerator quickly to the floor and the engine backfired with a cloud of smoke.
    “What’s it look like?” asked Kyle.
    Robert was tapping the fuel gauge with his finger. “Hold on, it’s moving.”
    After a minute of the old engine sputtering and rattling, the needle of the fuel gauge only rose slightly higher than the empty mark. Robert turned his head, looked at Kyle, and shut the engine off.
    “It’s nearly empty. We’d never make it in this thing.”
    Robert fumbled with the key chain and removed the rabbit’s foot. He tossed it at Kyle and said, “Here’s some good luck for you.”
    Kyle caught the good luck charm and dangled it briefly in front of his face. “Thanks, I could use that.” Kyle grinned. “Lately, if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” he said, putting the lucky charm deep into his pocket.
    Robert shifted his position in the driver’s seat to directly face Kyle as he stood by the open driver’s door. He lightly kicked Kyle’s leg and pointed to his friend’s feet. “Get your boots on. You don’t want to get bitten by a snake.”
    Kyle rolled his eyes and turned to walk toward the cornfield to get his boots. “Don’t test me, old man. Let’s get going.”
    Back at the campsite, they found Ben with his wife and son, sitting close together. Joy radiated from their faces as they watched the two men emerge from the cornfield and advance toward them, unharmed. Kyle’s wife ran toward him and hugged him tightly, being careful of his still tender and swollen right hand. Kyle put his arm around her and hugged her back. He slipped the gun belt off his shoulder and held it up, signaling to Ben that he had retrieved his weapon from the house. Ben got up and walked toward Kyle. Kyle tossed it to him when he was halfway there.
    “I bet you don’t forget to keep this with you from now on,” said Kyle, pointing at Ben’s holstered pistol.
    Ben knew that he had made a mistake by not keeping it with him, even if he was only going to the neighbor’s farm. He did not hesitate to place the leather holster around his waist and buckle it tight. Ben’s son walked to his side and stared at the pistol, touching the handle with curiosity. His wife came to his other side, and he put his arms around his family. “There is no way I can thank you enough for what you have done.” Ben cleared his throat. “I know there is no way we would be here right now if it weren’t for you.”
    Robert’s attention drifted away from the conversation as he caught a glimpse of the rafts near the water’s edge. His brow furrowed as he thought of the van parked behind Ben’s house. Robert spoke, interrupting the conversation.
    “The van behind your house… it works. The motor runs, we started it,” said Robert.
    Ben lifted his hands, palms forward, and raised both eyebrows. “It’s yours, buddy. You just say the word.”
    “It’s a gasoline motor. Do you have gas?” pleaded Robert. “A full tank of gas could get us home.”
    Ben cast his eyes lower. “Sorry. All we have is diesel. The neighbors, too.”
    Robert looked back toward the rafts. He was irritated at how slow this trip has been and how much time they had lost due to these types of unfortunate circumstances. The rafts were a way to get home, but he hated how long it was taking. He had spent a lifetime traveling at highway speeds, and this was a difficult adjustment. Regardless, Robert did not want to go back into a warzone to scavenge gasoline for a van that he was not sure would be reliable transportation. A breakdown on the road, a roadblock or trap on a highway, all it would take is one perilous twist of fate, and they would be stuck with no easy way to continue on, and no convenient source for water. Although the river was slow, it was sure.
    Robert looked at Ben, shook his head wearily, and said, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”
    Kyle reached deep into his pocket. He retrieved the rabbit’s foot, held it up briefly for Robert to see, and then tossed it to him. Robert snatched it from the air.
    “You keep it, then. Let me know if it works.”
    Robert rolled his eyes. He was not superstitious, but he did find humor in Kyle’s gift.
    A gust of wind blew through the campsite. Ben reached for his hat at the same instant he realized he was not wearing one. He awkwardly pretended that he had been intending to scratch his head, and then his hands dropped to his side again. The gust of wind was strong enough to bring up some dusty dirt, causing everyone to turn their heads away from it. The sleeping puppy woke, stretched, and limped toward Ben. It balanced on one good leg and extended its front paws up toward Ben’s knees. He looked down at the pup. It made him smile. He cradled the puppy carefully with one arm, extended his hand to Robert, and thanked him again for all his help.
    “Is there anything I can do for you before you leave?” asked Ben, gently scratching the puppy’s neck as he cradled it.
    “Nothing I can think of.” Robert briefly looked back at the river.
    “You better get going,” said Ben, pointing to the sky. “You’re burning daylight.”
    Ben’s family stood next to him. They watched Robert, Kyle, and Alexis get into the rafts and push away. Robert was the last to leave. He deeply missed his family and was happy to continue the journey. Robert’s raft headed backward into the current. He gave one last, quick wave and then used the paddle to correct the raft’s direction. The three were finally on their way downstream again. Robert felt the bulge of the rabbit’s foot in his pocket and pressed his palm against it. I’m ready for some good luck now.

Chapter Nineteen

    Robert knew that they were getting close to Kansas City. He obsessively looked around for any familiar landmark, and when the tall buildings in the city’s downtown area broke the horizon, he finally smiled.
    “That’s it!” he exclaimed.
    The others stopped rowing and turned, looking over their left shoulders. They saw the buildings, too, buildings now as empty as the hopes and dreams of the people that once worked in them.
    “How much farther?” pleaded Alexis.
    Both she and Kyle were exhausted. Kyle’s hand was not completely healed and Alexis was losing her battle against the summer heat and the long hours of constant rowing. Because of this, the married couple was having difficulty keeping up with Robert’s adrenalin-fueled rush.
    “Can we please rest?” asked Alexis, speaking for her husband, too. His pride kept him from admitting the difficulty that he was having with Robert’s frenzied pace. “We have to be close. I just need to rest. Please, Robert.”
    Robert put his hand to his forehead to shade his eyes from the sunlight and looked to the west. The sun was getting lower in the sky and he wanted to get off the river while it was still daylight. “Okay, catch your breath and rest.” He turned to Kyle. “How’s your hand?”
    Kyle made a fist with his right hand and held it up for Robert to see. “My hand is fine, couldn’t be better.”
    “No, it’s not,” said Alexis. “I can see the expression on your face when you’re rowing. It hurts you, I can tell. You aren’t rowing straight either. Your raft is veering to the left. If your hand was fine that wouldn’t be happening.”
    Kyle was looking down at his hand. He did not say anything. Robert understood the silence and was not going to challenge Kyle’s pride.
    “We’re close. Let’s rest,” said Robert, with a sigh.
    The river’s current took over and they meandered slowly with the river, occasionally steering to stay in its middle. They were floating toward the city’s downtown. They saw people now, dirty ragged-looking people, going to the water’s edge with buckets to fill. Some were sitting on the banks, trying to catch fish. They looked like starving refugees from a war, victims of a concentration camp. Not long ago, this would have been the scene from a charity’s television commercial for the starving people in a third-world country. The commercial would have pleaded for money to feed the hungry. Money was worthless now and everyone felt the pain of hunger. People were living in tents or tarps draped over lumber or large branches of driftwood. Others were huddled beneath the bridges that the threesome floated past. The city’s food supply was disappearing and the water had long since stopped flowing from the taps. There were campfires, and people were boiling river water to drink. They saw an old man who was sitting alone catch a fish from the riverbank. A group of hungry, desperate people beat him to death, and his fish was taken away. No one cared. His body was pushed into the river and the dark water closed silently around his corpse.
    They passed by the large city’s downtown area without stopping, and then floated beyond and away from it. People gradually became fewer and fewer along the riverbank, and the tall buildings receded into the western horizon as they continued downstream.
    The sun was low and the humidity was high. Shadows grew longer as Robert strained his eyes toward the distant horizon, looking for more landmarks that were familiar. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with a dirty shirt and placed the shirt on his head for cover from the setting sun. His eyes narrowed to slits when he saw the faint outline of twin bridges across the river in the distance. This is where they would exit the river and begin the walk home.
    “I can see it. Stop rowing,” said Robert.
    Kyle and Alexis stopped rowing and turned around in their rafts.
    “Straight ahead.” Robert quickly lifted his hand and pointed forward.
    “What are we looking for?” asked Kyle.
    “Twin bridges. Concrete pillars in the water, and steel frames.”
    “That’s it? We’re done with the river?” asked Alexis.
    “That’s it,” replied Robert, in a relaxed tone. “I’ll go ahead of you. Look for a concrete boat ramp on the right, just after the second bridge. Get close and throw me a rope. I’ll pull you onto the ramp.”
    “Then what?” asked Kyle.
    “Get out and kiss the ground.”
    Robert turned his back toward the setting sun and pulled hard on the oars. The gap between him and the others widened with each stroke into the water. When he was closer to the boat ramp, he removed his oars from the oarlocks and began to paddle for the riverbank on the right. There were large ragged chunks of limestone around the foundation of the bridges. Regardless, he hugged the right edge of the river, bouncing off the jagged boulders at the river’s edge. He used his paddle to hook some of the rocks and pull himself nearer to the concrete boat ramp by the last bridge. The current curved toward the ramp near the last pillar in Robert’s path. He pushed against the pillar with his oar, toward the ramp, and jumped into the shallow dirty water. His feet touched a submerged section of concrete. It was slippery from moss. The boat ramp went up at a gentle angle, to merge into the asphalt parking lot of a large roadside park. He took small steps in the water, tightly holding the raft by a short length of rope. When his legs cleared the water and he stepped onto dry concrete, he leapt forward, pulling his raft out of the water and securing it on dry ground.
    He waved toward the others, and then cupped his hands to his mouth. “Bring it in tight. Get close to me and throw your rope.”
    In quick succession, Kyle and Alexis paddled closer and threw their ropes to Robert. He pulled them to the ramp and the couple stepped from their rafts onto the concrete ramp, then onto dry land. Robert pulled their rafts completely out of the water and turned toward them. Kyle was on his knees in the green grass. He was bending over, kissing the ground.
    “I wasn’t serious,” said Robert.
    Kyle laughed and rolled to his back. Alexis knelt on the ground near her husband, smiling at his joy. He moved his arms and legs back and forth across the grass in unison, as if he was making a snow angel. She leaned closer to him, placing her head on his chest. She could hear his heartbeat. He lay motionless now, staring through the tree canopy above him at the remains of clear blue sky. The leaves moved gently in the breeze and the sound of the wind through the leaves was calming. He was remembering a summer day years ago when he first met Alexis. They went to a park for a picnic and when they were finished eating, they sat together on a blanket and watched the clear sapphire sky. That had been a perfect day in his memory. He remembered it well: that was the day when he knew he was in love.
    Robert walked toward them, casting a long shadow across their bodies, and gave them a gentle nudge with a dirty wet boot. “Don’t get too comfortable. There’s work to be done.”
    Kyle sat partially up and rested on his elbows. Alexis turned toward Robert and shaded her eyes from the setting sun.
    “C’mon, we made it. Just relax for a minute,” said Kyle.
    Robert shook his head. “Not a good idea.” Robert pointed to the highway less than fifty yards behind him. “Drag the rafts back away from that road. We need to get them behind all these trees. We can use those bushes back there for cover.” Robert turned back around and stroked his beard as he looked across the terrain. “Just in case people are using this road, and I bet they are.”
    They were at a roadside park near the bridge, with covered areas for picnics and playground equipment under large shade trees. The grass was tall now and the area was obviously not maintained any longer, and most likely never would be again. They pulled the rafts through the tall grass and the thicket of trees, away from the bridge, to get cover behind some bushes. They were standing on flat river-bottom land. The area around them was grassy with clumps of bushes. Surrounding the area was farmland. They stopped behind some large bushes and felt secure enough to start a campfire. Robert went through the thicket of trees and found one that had been cut into short logs with a chainsaw. He easily kicked the bark off the logs because they had been lying there for months, decaying. The job never had never been finished. He rolled three of the large stumps back to camp to sit on. They sat by the fire and prodded the glowing embers for entertainment. Robert was deep in thought.
    “Hey, Robert, you’re too quiet,” said Kyle.
    Robert nodded as he stared into the fire.
    “What’s wrong? Aren’t you happy?” asked Alexis. “We made it off the river. Aren’t we close to your home now?”
    “I’m happy,” replied Robert, not looking away from the fire.
    “You could have fooled me,” scoffed Kyle.
    “I’m just thinking. I have a lot on my mind,” said Robert, still staring into the fire.
    The evening wind began to shift and a small gust blew smoke toward Robert’s face. He turned away from the fire and stepped back, wafting the smoke away with his hands. Standing there, he cast his eyes from the supplies in the rafts to his two companions and back again. He did not know how they were going to be able to carry everything with them to his house. They were walking now, not floating all the supplies.
    “Any ideas on how we move all this stuff down the road?” asked Robert.
    Kyle and Alexis turned their gaze toward the rafts. Each was silent in their contemplation.
    “You don’t think we could carry it all?” Kyle finally asked.
    Robert shook his head and looked at Kyle’s right hand. It was getting better, but it was not totally healed. Kyle saw what he was looking at and subconsciously clenched his fist to test his grip. He knew that Robert was right.
    “How far is it from here?” asked Alexis.
    “My house? That would be at least thirty miles.”
    Kyle groaned and slid into his raft pulling the tarp across himself. “I’ll sleep on it. We’ll figure it out.”
    Alexis leaned forward. The crucifix on her necklace hung straight down away from her body. It turned in the breeze sending reflections from the fire in small flashes of light. She knelt to the ground and closed her eyes, holding her hands together with the shiny golden cross held tightly between her palms. Robert heard the faint whispers of her prayers. The words were indiscernible. After making the sign on the cross, she kissed the crucifix and sat back on the log.
    “What did you do?” asked Robert.
    “I prayed for help.”
    Robert looked around. “Nothing happened.”
    Alexis snapped her head around and stared into his eyes. She did not blink. Sternly, Alexis said, “I am a Christian, and accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
    There was an awkward silence. Robert said nothing in response. She never looked away from him.
    “I don’t question my faith,” Alexis continued, “and I have a personal relationship with God. I pray when I need help and God speaks to me.”
    “What does God’s voice sound like?”
    Robert saw that she had grasped the cross hanging from her necklace again. The firelight revealed that her grip was so tight that her knuckles were blanched. Now Alexis’s eyes narrowed to slits. Her body language was screaming at him.
    “I will pray for you,” Alexis said, scornfully, through clenched teeth.
    Robert grabbed the rifle by his side and stood up. “Good night, Alexis.” He turned away and walked toward the raft that he would sleep in one last time.
    When he turned to walk away, Alexis spoke loudly. She wanted Robert to hear her. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
    Robert stopped and turned around to face Alexis again. He held up his rifle and said to her, “You fear no evil because of this. Pray for more bullets, Alexis.”
    He went to the raft, covered himself with a dirty blanket, and went to sleep.
    At the break of dawn, Robert felt someone shaking him. “Hey, wake up.” He sat up and rubbed his face, trying to wake himself further.
    “What is it?”
    “I went over there to take a crap by those bushes, and found two bodies,” said Kyle, trying not to gag as he remembered the smell.
    Robert stood up and looked around. “There is nothing around here. Where’d they come from?”
    “I don’t know.” Kyle paused, his empty stomach beginning to churn as the revolting image of the rotting corpses entered his mind. “It looked like a woman and a baby.”
    Robert closed his eyes and thought of his children again. He was repressing the frenzy of anxiety trying to explode from his viscera. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.
    “Did they have anything with them? A backpack, supplies, anything?”
    “I didn’t notice anything,” said Kyle, trying to suppress the image. He had seen a corpse with long blonde hair. It appeared to be wearing women’s clothing and was bloated and insect infested. Her arms were holding an infant in the same state of decay.
    Robert grabbed his rifle. “Let’s look around.”
    Kyle took him to the clump of bushes that concealed the bodies. Behind a large bush, Kyle pointed to the bloated corpses. Robert saw the baby and gagged. He turned away, bent at the waist, and almost vomited. After a few moments, he wiped the saliva from the corner of his mouth and circled the bush to get the wind to his back. The smell was horrible. As he rotated his position around the bush, he noticed something lying in the tall grass. It was a bicycle with an infant trailer attached. She had tried to conceal it from the road, behind a large bush. The grass had grown taller since the bike had been hidden there. No tracks were visible in the prairie grass. He looked back at the dead woman and noticed a bicycle helmet nearby.
    Kyle went to the bike and began to inspect it.
    “Let’s take it. Maybe we can use it,” said Robert.
    Kyle had already lifted the bike upright and was pushing his thumb down on the tread. It went down to the metal rim.
    “Flat tire,” said Kyle.
    “Damn it!” said Robert. “Look for a patch kit. I see a pouch hanging from the seat.”
    “There is a bag inside the little baby trailer. I’ll look through that, too,” said Kyle.
    The small pouch had a folding tool for a bicycle, but no patch kit. The bag in the trailer had an empty water bottle, one diaper, and a small hand air pump.
    “We’ll figure something out. Let’s get it back to our camp,” said Robert.
    Alexis was awake by the time they got back. She was turned away from the men, putting some wood on the fire.
    “Hey, look what we found,” said Kyle to his wife.
    Alexis turned around to look.
    “There were two dead bodies near it. It looked like a mother and her baby, really sad,” said Kyle, pointing in the direction of the distant bushes. “She hid the bike. It looks like she got a flat tire, couldn’t fix it, and died hiding.”
    While Kyle spoke, Robert wasted no time. He was already removing the front tire to inspect the damage. He turned the wheel in his hands, closely inspecting the tread. “I see it.” Robert put the tread closer to his face. “It looks like a thorn from a locust tree.” He pulled the sharp thorn out. “Damn locust trees,” said Robert, as he tossed the thorn into the fire.
    “Any ideas?” asked Kyle.
    “I’m thinking.” Robert was sitting on the ground with his knees pulled toward his chest. He closed his eyes and lowered his face to his knees. His mind was racing for a solution. If they could get the bike to roll on the road, they could use it to carry what was on the rafts. Still deep in thought, he looked up and noticed that Alexis was standing several feet away, staring at him. She was tapping the cross on her chest. He wondered if she was trying to say something with the gesture, but he ignored it and continued to think.
    Robert used the bicycle tool, shimmed the tire from the rim, and removed the flat inner tube. He stared at the hole in the tube. It looked so small.
    “Tree sap. Could we put tree sap on it and plug the hole?” asked Kyle.
    “I don’t think so. It’ll have to hold a lot of pressure,” said Robert.
    “What are you talking about?” Alexis stood by them to see what the tire looked like. “That’s it?” asked Alexis. “I’ve never fixed a tire, but can’t you put superglue on the hole and cover it with a piece of plastic.”
    Robert looked at her with wide eyes. “You have superglue?”
    “One small bottle. I’ll get it.”
    Robert placed the inner tube flat on the ground. He put one large drop of glue directly on the small puncture in the tube. Then he placed a small piece of plastic that he cut from the tarp over the hole and pressed with the heel of his hand. After several minutes he let go, placed the inner tube back on the rim, and shimmed the tire tread back on the wheel. He put the wheel’s front axle back on the fork and pushed the quick release lever down, locking the wheel to the frame. Using the hand pump, he slowly inflated the tire.
    “That did it. Kyle, take it to the parking lot and I’ll drag the rafts over to you. We’ll load up and leave.”
    Kyle looked toward the parking lot and asked, “What do you think the woman that owned this bike was hiding from?”
    “Exactly what we are going to walk into.”
    Kyle walked away with the bicycle and Robert watched the bike and its little trailer cut through the tall grass, bouncing across the bumpy trail to the parking lot.
    “You see Robert, my prayers are answered,” said Alexis, tucking the cross back into her shirt.
    “What did you pray for?”
    “And that’s why we have the bike?”
    Robert scowled when he thought of the dead mother holding the rotten corpse of her child, both being consumed by insects.
    “We have the bike because someone left it there, and then they died. One of them was an infant. Is that part of God’s plan?”
    “The Lord works in mysterious ways and I don’t question my faith. I’ll keep praying for you.”
    Robert draped the rifle over his shoulder and said, “Tell God we need bullets.”
    Robert saw Alexis kneel again and pray. He did not know what she was praying for and did not ask. The rafts needed to be taken to the parking lot and that was what he did. He dragged them over to Kyle and dropped them beside the bicycle. The asphalt was slowly warming in the morning sunshine.
    “Tie the bags together and balance them over the bike frame like saddle bags. Stuff as much as you can into the little child trailer and we’ll drag the suitcases behind us,” said Robert, as he looked back toward the river.
    They walked away from the roadside park leaving the three rafts behind them. The gusty wind lifted the front of the empty rafts up, and then let them drop back down to the ground. It reminded Robert of stallions rearing up in a corral. Like stallions with boundless energy, wanting to run free on the open range.
    They began the long walk out of the river valley. In the distance, the road crested in front of them. It was the first of many hilltops where they would stop to use the binoculars to examine the unfolding landscape, scanning from left to right and then back again, looking for any foul thing.
    The afternoon sun was hot. Its heat reflected off the black asphalt and back up to the three weary travelers. The heat and the weight of their belongings soon began to feel unbearable. There was no shade or mercy from the sun. As the sun grew higher, their pace grew slower.
    “I have to rest,” pleaded Alexis. She was already trailing behind Robert and Kyle.
    “We can’t stop here.” Robert held his hand to his forehead for shade and judged the angle of the sun in the sky. “We’ll stop when we find shade. I promise you.”
    “Can you please slow down? I can’t keep up with you.”
    Both men stopped and looked back at Alexis. She was far behind and struggling on the hot pavement. They nodded to each other, stopped, and patiently waited for Alexis to catch up with them. Alexis was moving slowly, struggling with the heavy suitcase. Kyle removed the binoculars and went to the crest of the hill to scan the landscape before them. Robert looked back at Alexis and watched her trudge slowly along. He wanted to help, but he was holding the bicycle laden with their supplies. Looking past Alexis to the distant hill behind them, he saw something move. A dark object was at the top of the previous hill. It appeared to be a car. He stared at the object and it moved again. He looked toward Kyle, who was coming back to rejoin them.
    At Kyle’s approach, Robert pointed to the hill behind them and said, “Look.”
    Kyle brought the dark object into focus, “It’s a car. I see a man standing by it.” Kyle put the strap around his neck and let the binoculars hang free. He rested his hands on his hips. “When I looked ahead I saw a car in the road. It was across both lanes and looked like the front end was wrecked.”
    Robert’s heart sank. He was familiar with this road and knew what it looked like ahead of them. Just over the hill, the road construction crew had dynamited a path through the limestone bedrock to lower the grade of the road. The limestone was blasted away, creating bluffs, in ascending steps to the top, on both sides of the artificial canyon. It was a perfect bottleneck for an ambush.
    “It’s a trap!” exclaimed Robert.
    “I didn’t see anybody ahead.”
    “Let’s move to the top and keep watching.”
    “Do you think that car behind us is part of the trap?” asked Alexis.
    “I don’t know, but I think we’re about to find out,” replied Robert.
    Pushing the bike and pulling the suitcases behind them, they went almost to the crest of the hill. Exhausted, Alexis stepped off the highway and down into the drainage swale, which was overgrown with tall weeds. Robert took his turn with the binoculars and panned the landscape in front of them. He saw a car, wrecked, on their side of the divided highway. Surrounding the section of road in front of them were stepped walls of limestone blasted away years earlier, creating an artificial valley. The sun was getting lower on the western horizon and the limestone bluff began to cast its shadow across the wrecked car. The top of the bluff had a few trees and sparse shrubbery, enough for someone to hide behind. Robert lowered the binoculars and went back to his companions.
    “What did you see?” asked Alexis.
    “The valley of the shadow of death,” replied Robert coldly, before he kissed his rifle.
    Alexis gave him a glare, and clutched the cross dangling at her neck for comfort.
    Suddenly the distant car, atop the previous hill, began moving in their direction.
    “Get back from the road and stay low in the ditch. Where’s your pistol, Kyle?”
    Robert held the rifle to his shoulder, but pointed it downward. Kyle crouched behind the bike concealing the pistol. They did not want to start a confrontation, but were ready if need be. The car moved to the lane farthest from the ditch and sped up. With that lane change, Robert knew they were only wanting to pass and were also trying to avoid confrontation. In the brief moment when the old rusty car passed by, they saw that four people occupied it. Two men were in front and two women in back. In the instant of passing, they made eye contact. They all looked scared. These people in the car, in their haste to get by, were going directly into a roadblock. Robert started to raise his hand, but it was too late. The car had passed.
    Just as the car went over the hill out of view, they heard the sound of tires on pavement with brakes locked tight. Robert ran to the top of the hill and put the binoculars to his eyes just in time to see the car’s front window shatter. The driver had been shot dead from a distance. He heard another shot and saw steam erupt from the radiator. Robert looked up and saw a man with a scoped rifle bounding down the stepped levels of the jagged limestone bluff. Another armed man emerged from behind the wrecked car that was blocking the road. Kyle and Alexis were at his side and witnessed the ambush.
    Alexis gasped and put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear God,” she continually repeated to herself.
    The two armed bandits removed the three survivors from the car and bound their hands behind their backs. They pushed their victims face down onto the tall grass of the median. One of the highwaymen removed a long knife from the sheath strapped to his side and cut the bound man’s throat. The two women’s screams were ignored as the bandits went directly to the captured vehicle to ransack it.
    “This is our chance,” said Robert. “They’re distracted. I’m going to use this ditch and go down there.”
    Robert’s eyes traced the path before him. The ditch on the side of the road was designed for drainage. Its deep slope away from the road was meant to quickly take away rainwater. The ditch was low and the weeds were high. It would be a good cover to hide his movement.
    Robert made it down into the shade of the limestone bluff. He was only the width of the highway from the two armed men. From the tall grass of the drainage swale, he watched them going through the car and its trunk. He could hear the bound women crying in the tall weeds of the median. Robert wanted the men to stand next to each other, away from the cover of the car, before he took the shot. Finally, one man exited the back seat and the other shut the trunk, and they stood together at the side of car. They had found nothing of value, and it made them angry. One man motioned to the other and they began to walk toward the two helpless women.
    Robert pulled the trigger and fanned the shots from one torso to the other. Instantly, both men dropped to the ground. One was dead and the other lay writhing in agony. The bullets had caught him in the lower torso. He was paralyzed from his midsection down, lying on his back, partially eviscerated.
    Robert walked up to him. The dying bandit looked upward at his assassin, but the sun was in his eyes. He could only see Robert’s shadowed silhouette. Robert stepped over to cast his shadow across the man’s face. He wanted the man to see him before he died.
    “Why did you do that? Why did you murder them?” asked Robert, coldly.
    Then, with what strength he had left in his body, the mortally wounded killer’s hand slowly went toward the rifle lying next to him. His arm inched across the hot pavement. He grunted in pain as his hand got closer to the weapon. Robert moved and the sun hit the man’s eyes again. He squinted and turned his head. Robert kicked the rifle out of the bandit’s reach and slammed the heel of his boot onto his scuttling hand. Robert could feel the bones break as the murderer screamed.
    Robert looked back up to the top of the hill and waved broadly with both hands. He knew Kyle would be watching with the binoculars. He wanted them to come down the hill. They needed to move on. Robert went to the two women lying bound in the overgrown grass of the median, and cut their ligatures. The women recoiled in fear.
    Robert let his rifle hang from the strap on his shoulder and held his hands up. “I’m not with them.” He pointed to the outlaws, one dead, and the other barely clinging to life. “I’m sorry. I saw the roadblock ahead, but you passed us so fast and we didn’t know who you were.” He cleared his throat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his dirty shirt. “I wish I could have signaled a warning to you.”
    Kyle and Alexis approached, and stood next to Robert. They had suitcases in tow and were balancing the overloaded bike.
    Robert picked up the two rifles and placed them beside the women. “Keep these. Stay off the highway if you can.”
    The two women never said anything. Still in shock, they just watched the three strangers push the bike and pull the suitcases up the hill and over its crest, out of view.
    The trio walked for several more hours, creeping along with even more suspicion of their surroundings. They spotted a large concrete culvert just ahead of them. A small road merged with the highway and the culvert allowed for drainage under the ramp accessing the other road. They pulled their supplies inside and spent the night in the concrete tube. That night Alexis prayed for bullets and dreamed of salvation.

Chapter Twenty

    In the morning, Robert inspected the beans and rice in a plastic container that he had let soak in water overnight. It was still dark and very hard to see anything. Not having a fire would help to keep their presence concealed, but, even if they wanted a fire, there was no wood for a fire anyway. The soggy mixture had absorbed most of the water and had swollen to more than twice its volume in the time since they had gone to sleep inside the culvert. Robert ate the cold food with his fingers and watched Kyle and Alexis sleep, huddled together on the curved concrete floor. He used the plastic container to hold his uneaten food, shoving it into his pocket along with a can of tuna fish, then leaned back and waited for the morning sun to break above the horizon.
    At sunrise, he nudged Kyle on the leg. “Wake up, sleeping beauty.”
    Kyle opened his eyes and saw the morning light. It cast a red hue at the opening of their temporary abode. He groaned loudly and woke his wife.
    Robert stood up as far as he could, hunching his shoulders. He stood over Kyle and his wife, looking down at them. “We need more water,” said Robert, shaking an empty water bottle.
    “Is there any close?” asked Alexis.
    “Yeah, we’ll pass by a lake. We’ll stop and rest there in the shade, and filter more water. My house is not far from there. We should leave now and travel in the cool morning hours.” Robert pointed toward the road. “We can make it to my house by sunset.”
    Kyle stood up quickly, almost as if he was startled. “That’s fantastic! We made it!” He bent over and wrapped his arms around his wife to help her stand up. Alexis was short enough to stand fully erect in the tunnel, but in his haste to help his wife stand, Kyle hit his head on the domed concrete as he straightened. He rubbed his head with one hand and began to drag a suitcase outside with the other. Robert pushed the bike and trailer, heavy with their bags. Alexis brought the remaining suitcases out of the culvert, and they resumed their trek.
    They traveled south several miles down the highway. To their right was an off-ramp that merged onto another road. The new road turned east, into the morning sun. Robert quickened the pace.
    “Can you please slow down?” pleaded Alexis.
    Robert stopped and looked behind him. Kyle held the middle ground between him and Alexis. From the distance, Robert saw the sweat dripping from Alexis’s face. He drank the last of his water and waited for them to catch up.
    “I have to rest,” said Alexis, breathing heavily, “and I’m so thirsty.”
    Kyle handed his wife the rest of his water and she drank it all.
    “That’s it for us. Unless you have some water, it’s all gone,” said Kyle.
    “There’s water just up the road.” Robert pointed forward. “Look ahead of us. Do you see the top of that hill?”
    Kyle and Alexis both nodded. Alexis was still panting, and both of them were sweating profusely in the direct sunlight.
    “Past the crest of that hill, we’ll come to a wide valley. The stream flowing through there was dammed, which created a large lake. This road goes across of the dam. Down there we’ll find plenty of water and shade. We’ll stop to rest under the first big tree we come to, I promise.”
    Robert and Kyle looked at Alexis, waiting for a response. They could not tell if she was crying. Her eyes were red, but that might have been from sweat irritating her eyes. Alexis nodded lethargically and continued onward. They paused at the top of the hill. It was just as Robert described. The road went down into a wide valley and across a dam that created a lake that they could see to the left side of the road.
    “There it is,” said Robert, triumphantly, “a thousand-acre lake surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness. A small stream that feeds the lake flows near my property. We’ll use the stream for water, and hunt down here if we have to.”
    “Are we close to your home?” asked Kyle.
    “Yes, very close. We’ll pass a subdivision on the right. It’ll have large houses and its own private lake. Just past that is where I live. Look for a sign that says Hidden Acres, and that’ll be home.”
    Alexis leaned into her husband, pressing her forehead against his chest, and held his upper arm tightly. He felt her breathe a sigh of relief, then she released him as they turned to walk down the hill toward the lake. Near the trough of the valley, an access road led toward the lake and around its shoreline. Near the entrance to the park was a small empty parking lot and a pier for fishing. Just past the pier, they saw a man and a young boy beneath a small shade tree. The man was casting a fishing lure into the water, while the boy stayed close to his side. Stopping at the shade tree nearest to the lake, Kyle and Alexis sat down in the grass while Robert went toward the pier with several empty bottles, the water filter, and the rifle slung on his back. The man who was fishing watched Robert walk to the end of the pier, and as Robert and he made eye contact, the man started to raise his hand in a friendly wave. At that moment, Robert removed the rifle slung across his back. The man saw the rifle and dropped his hand. He called the boy to his side and whispered something to him as he kept a cautious eye on Robert and the rifle. Robert saw the man and boy talking and decided to ignore them as he filtered the water. He looked back toward his companions. They were still sitting deep in the tall grass under the canopy of a large oak tree, resting.
    Suddenly the man’s fishing pole bent sharply and his attention focused on the taut line. The young boy had been curiously watching Robert, out on the pier filtering water. The boy got up and moved toward him. Robert watched the little boy’s approach, then looked over at the man, who was desperately trying to reel in a large fish. The boy came closer and stood by Robert’s side.
    “What are you doing?” asked the boy.
    “Getting water for me and my friends to drink.”
    “Are you a bad guy?”
    “No. Why would you think I’m a bad guy?”
    “Daddy is afraid of you.”
    Robert pointed to the man struggling with the fish. “Is that your father?”
    “Yes. My mommy is in heaven.”
    He looked into the boy’s eyes and his heart sank into a bottomless pit as he thought of his own children.
    “I’m sorry.”
    “Can I have some water to drink? We don’t have any more water.”
    “Yes, of course. Go get your container and I’ll fill it up.”
    The young boy ran back to the little tree and brought back an empty plastic jug that at one time, many months ago, had been full of milk. Robert filled it with clean water and the boy hurried back to his father with it. By the time the child reached his father’s side, the line had broken, and the fish got away. The man sat back on the shoreline, defeated, staring at his dangling fishing line blowing in the wind. The boy showed him the jug of water and pointed toward Robert. The man quaffed some water from the jug, handed it back to his son, and then walked out on the pier toward where Robert stood. Robert had finished filling their water bottles and was ready to leave. The man approached Robert and removed his hat, nervously rolling it up in his hands. He cast his eyes downward, and stopped several feet from Robert.
    “Sir, I want to thank you for the water.”
    “Okay, I’m glad to help. I have to go now. Please excuse me.”
    The man looked up in alarm.
    “No, please, wait just one minute.” His gaze went down again and he twisted his hat more tightly in his hands, wringing it like a wet washcloth. “You look like you’re doing better than most people I’ve seen down here. We’ve had it hard these past few months.” The man began to choke up from deep emotions, then cleared his throat. “His mother died, and now we have run out of food. Do you have any food? Anything at all that you can spare?”
    “I’m sorry, I have to go now.” Robert put the full bottles of water and the filter back into his bag and slung the rifle onto his back.
    The man dropped to his knees in front of Robert, let go of the wrinkled hat, and clasped his hands in front of himself as if praying for mercy. “Please help us. Give us something.”
    “Don’t do this in front of your son. Get up.”
    “Please, it’s not for me. It’s for my son. Please, I’m begging you. I’ve lost everything and I can’t lose him, too. Please—”
    “Get up. Take this.” Robert handed him what was left of the beans and rice he had in the plastic container in his pocket. The man grabbed the container and pried the lid open with his trembling hands. His fingernails were long and dirty. He put the container on the wooden planks of the pier and slid it directly in front of his son. The boy wolfed the cold beans and rice down while his father sat next to him, wrapping his arm around the boy’s shoulder. Robert walked by the two huddled together on the pier. When he stepped onto the grass, Robert looked back at them once more. The boy was still ravenously eating and his father was right by his side. Robert remembered the can of tuna in his pocket and pulled it out. The label was missing from long ago. He walked back to the man and handed the tuna to him. The man held the small can like it was a precious gem and ran for the access road. He pressed the top of the can onto the concrete and moved the can in a circular motion. In no time, he had rubbed the soft metal of the can’s rim away. He hit the lid with a rock, pulled the jagged metal away, and then ran back to his son, offering him the open can of food. Robert could not stand to watch any longer. He returned to his friends, handed them their water bottles, and they all drank their fill, sitting in the shade.
    “What was that about?” asked Kyle.
    “It was horrible. They’re starving and the man just wanted food for his son.” Robert paused. “We should go now, the sun is getting low.”
    “Aren’t you hungry?” asked Alexis.
    They heard Robert’s stomach growl from hunger and knew that he was lying. He pushed the bike loaded with their belongings back up to the road. The other two were close behind him as they continued up the hill and out of the valley.
    Their final landmark before Robert’s neighborhood was an upscale subdivision named, Swan Lake Estates. The subdivision’s entrance monument was located on the right side of the road near a large sycamore tree. They could see the community’s stone monument soon after the immense tree came into view. They stayed on the opposite side of the road as they passed. When they got near the tree, they saw a naked body hanging from a low limb. The noose was positioned correctly on the side of the neck, in just the right location to break the neck when the body fell. Robert counted thirteen loops on the hangman’s noose. Someone knew what they were doing. The back of the legs were soiled with filth from the bowels releasing at the moment of death. A large sheet of plywood was on the ground leaning on the subdivision’s stone monument. In large letters the sign read, TRESPASSERS WILL BE KILLED. He had always thought that this subdivision was full of high-society people who never did anything for themselves. He was surprised to see this type of message displayed. That meant someone from the pampered crowd had to get their hands dirty, and that they were taking a stand.
    There was a breeze at their backs, but it provided little relief from the late summer heat. The setting sun burned their necks as they pushed forward. His only solace from the sun and evening heat was that his destination was directly ahead. He could see his subdivision’s monument on the corner of the road they would turn onto. They trudged past the stone structure slowly, and he announced, “Hidden Acres,” as they plodded along. Robert led the way down the road to his house, with Kyle and Alexis close behind. The scene was an absolute contrast to the neighborhood that he had left months ago. Sections of lawns were spaded over and planted with vegetables. Lawns that were not turned into gardens were overgrown with grass and weeds. Garbage was piled in mounds at the ends of driveways, an effigy to a society of convenient disposal. The trash piles had a wretched smell and flourished with buzzing insects. Dogs, rodents, and starving people had shredded and picked through the plastic bags that once lay intact, waiting for sanitation trucks to haul them away. The windows of the homes that had not been abandoned were opened to let a breeze through. They had not yet seen any people. They assumed all were inside hiding from the heat, or perhaps out searching for food and water.
    Robert’s was the last house at the end of the street and he just stood there beside a pile of trash at the end of his driveway. The pile was noticeably smaller than the others were. His home was at a dead end and the lot was next to thousands of acres of county parkland. A stream went through this land to the lake from which they had just got water. The windows and doors to his home were closed. The house appeared abandoned. Kyle and Alexis were close by, standing rigid as if waiting for a command.
    “Is this it?” asked Kyle, not understanding Robert’s silence and apprehension.
    Robert nodded and appeared confused. His mind was racing with thoughts as he stood at the end of the driveway. He seemed apprehensive, looking almost afraid to walk back into his own home.
    Kyle nudged Alexis and they walked to the top of the driveway and set all their worldly possessions down near the garage doors. Robert slowly emerged from the mental haze clouding his thoughts, pushed the bike and its trailer next to the suitcases, and let it drop over on its side.
    Robert began to walk around his house. In the backyard, he saw the garden that he had planted before he left for Montana. Worn in the tall grass was a path from his garden to his next-door neighbor Jim’s house. He noticed that the garden had been taken care of, and also that his wheelbarrow was missing. Tomatoes and green peppers were ripe on the vine, and he saw incredibly long vines of watermelon, cantaloupe, and pumpkin. He peered into each window, looking for his family, but saw nothing to indicate that his family was home. After making a full circle of the house, he went to the rock garden by the front door and fumbled through a pile of decorative river rocks near the foundation. From underneath several rocks, he grabbed what appeared to be a gray rock of uniform color, about the size of his fist. He shook it quickly, heard the rattle of a key inside, and turned it over, revealing a false bottom. He slid the metal bottom off the fake rock and removed a shiny brass-colored key.
    Kyle and Alexis watched from the foot of the steps as Robert put the key into the lock of the front door and turned it. He pushed the door open with his boot. The door creaked, opening into an empty, silent house.
    “Hello.” Robert said, sounding almost unsure of himself. “Hello!” he repeated, with tones of fear and frustration in his voice. No one answered. In his dreams, his wife and children had come running to him. Grabbing him, hugging him, and telling him how much they had missed him.
    Robert turned away from the open front door. His shoulders were slumped and he did not look up. He took the rifle off his back and leaned it against the house. At the bottom step, he sat down hard, putting his face in the palms of his filthy hands. His knife sheath rattled on the concrete step as he leaned forward. He did not know what to do. His muddled thoughts were pulling him back into the fog and haze of confusion. When he sat down, he felt his pants pull tight around his thigh and he felt something poke him from deep in his front pocket. He removed the object. It was the lucky rabbit’s foot that Kyle had given him.
    He tossed it back to Kyle. “Keep it. I don’t want it.”
    “Don’t worry, we’ll find them,” said Kyle.
    “How?” asked Robert. He made an exaggerated motion with his hands, gesturing his frustration.
    “The car is still here, so they can’t be far,” replied Kyle.
    “Where did you think the car would be?” said Robert angrily.
    Kyle did not respond. He ignored Robert’s remark and sat down on the concrete driveway.
    Robert glanced at Kyle. “I’m sorry for saying that. I didn’t mean it.”
    Alexis sat down on the other side of Robert and put her arm around him. He did not move, and they all sat in an awkward silence. That silence was broken when, from their left and past the dead end, they saw someone emerge from the tree line of the little creek that ran through the park property. It looked, from a distance, like a man pushing something.
    A man with a wheelbarrow soon emerged from the tall prairie grass of the park and onto the asphalt of the dead end street. The man did not see the three of them sitting in the shade of Robert’s front yard as he pushed his load of buckets toward Robert’s house. Just as he passed the front of the house, he turned the wheelbarrow onto the sidewalk, and in doing so, looked up and saw the trio staring at him. The man was startled and almost tipped over the buckets in the wheelbarrow as the wooden handles slipped from his hands. His clothes were baggy and he tripped on the cuff of the pants that sagged from around his waist.
    He quickly grabbed the handles again, and began to walk forward on the sidewalk, staring at the man on the steps. He stopped again, squinting his eyes and peering directly at Robert.
    “Robert? Is that you?” inquired the man, as he set the wheelbarrow down again.

Chapter Twenty One

    Robert thought that he recognized the voice, but was still not quite sure who the man was. He did realize that the man had his wheelbarrow, since he remembered that it was missing from behind the house. Robert stood up, approached the stranger, and stared intently into his face. Neither man said anything for what seemed like an eternity. They just stared at each other. Finally, Robert looked over at his next-door neighbor’s house and his expression changed from frustration to resolve.
    “Jim?” asked Robert. “I’ve lived right by you for years and I didn’t recognize you.”
    Jim held up his ragged, baggy shirt to reveal a svelte waistline and a belt with many additional holes added, still not cinched tight enough to hold the baggy pants around his shrinking waist. “I’ve lost a lot of weight.” He rubbed his beard. “And I need a shave, too.” Jim pointed to the wheelbarrow. “Sorry about taking your wheelbarrow. Everyone thought you were… dead.”
    “I don’t care about all that. Where’s my family?”
    “Your wife is gone, Robert. I’m sorry.”
    “She’s dead?”
    “No, I mean she’s gone. She disappeared. No one saw her leave, but she must have left because your children were alone for quite some time.” Jim moved out of the light of the setting sun and into the shade cast over the driveway by Robert’s garage. He lifted his baggy shirt to his face and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
    “Where are my children?”
    “Michael, the president of the home owner’s association, and his wife Becky have them.”
    Robert’s jaw clenched tight at the thought of this couple taking care of his children. He remembered the couple as egomaniacs with fake personalities. Michael sold cars and had honed his talent for lying to get that job done. He boasted that he was the owner of a car dealership, when in reality; his father had built the business and then turned it over to him. Michael’s single accomplishment was conning innocent people into buying less-than-reliable used cars. Michael had used his extrovert personality to campaign for the position of president of the homeowner’s association, a position that no one else wanted, but one he bragged about unanimously winning.
    His wife Becky liked to tell everyone that she was a model. She was tall and slim, and wore excessively heavy makeup, but no one had ever seen evidence from a photo shoot. She got her money from a slip-and-fall settlement with a local grocery store chain after faking an injury and claiming that the fall permanently disabled her. She was an adept liar, just like her husband.
    They were an odd-looking couple. Becky was tall and slender while Michael was much shorter than she was and soft around the middle. What they did have in common was their phony facade and ability to lie. They would lie to each other and use their mutual fables to create the charade they lived in and presented to all those that surrounded them.
    “How did that happen?” asked Robert, coldly.
    Jim took in a deep breath. He did not immediately answer. There was so much to tell Robert and he was not sure where to start. “Not long after the grid went down, we began to figure out that something really bad had happened. Nobody’s car would start. Nothing was working anymore. Michael went around to all the houses telling everyone that he ‘had a plan.’ He told everyone we had to ‘stick together and share resources.’
    “The neighborhood was meeting regularly to discuss what was happening and he told everyone to listen to him, and he promised to keep the neighborhood together. Every day he would go from door to door checking on people. Some people just left, just went away, thinking it would be better somewhere else. A few people committed suicide. Do you remember the older couple that lived at the top of the hill?”
    Robert nodded.
    “He found them dead, and others, too. For God’s sake Robert, we’ve been burying people in their own yards.”
    “What was his plan?”
    “I don’t know. He found your children alone, and at our last community meeting volunteered to take care of them. Not long after that, he quit going around the neighborhood and organizing meetings of the homeowners.” Jim paused for a moment. “I haven’t seen your children since then.”
    Robert abruptly turned and went to get the rifle leaning against his house. He flung the rifle on his back and walked directly past everyone, not stopping as he spoke. “I’m going to pay him a visit and get my kids back,” said Robert, hastily, as he hurried past.
    Jim watched Robert walk and then jog away. After a moment, he turned to Kyle and Alexis to introduce himself. “I’m Jim. I don’t know either of you, do I?” He extended his hand toward the couple to greet them.
    Kyle stood, helping his wife do the same. He extended his right hand to Jim and gave him a firm handshake. “No, we’re strangers to the neighborhood, but friends with Robert. I’m Kyle, and this is my wife Alexis.”
    “Where have you and Robert been?”
    “That’s a long story,” said Kyle, as he grinned at his wife.
    Jim looked at the bike laden with bags and the suitcases on the driveway and asked, “How did you get here?”
    “That’s a long story, too. Help us move this stuff inside and I promise to tell you the whole tale sometime.” Kyle pointed to the pile of their belongings.
    “We should hurry. It’s getting dark and I don’t know if there are any candles in your house,” said Jim, as he gripped the closest suitcase and began to roll it into the house.
    The house was quiet and dim. It had a stale smell from being closed so long. Alexis opened the windows and a small breeze wafted through the house. They placed the bags of food in the kitchen, and Alexis immediately recognized double doors to the pantry. She opened the doors and stepped inside. She quickly emerged from the large but empty pantry, looking confused.
    “It’s empty!” exclaimed Alexis.
    Kyle looked at Jim.
    “Don’t look at me. I took the wheelbarrow and haven’t been in this house.” Jim looked around. “The windows and doors haven’t been broken into.”
    Kyle systematically opened kitchen cabinet doors and did not find any food. He saw kitchen supplies, and in a bottom cabinet, he found a large black metal flashlight hidden under a deep pan. He retrieved the flashlight, pressed the button and discovered that it worked.
    “We need to tell Robert. Can you take us to him?”
    “Sure. If he’s at Michael’s house, I can take you there.”
    Kyle pointed the flashlight toward the front door. “Let’s go.”
    Robert had stopped in front of the house that he thought was where Michael and Becky lived. Although he had never been in their house, he thought he remembered seeing him there in the front yard. His eyes squinted in the dim evening light. There was an expensive foreign car in the driveway with a dealer license plate above the back bumper. This had to be the house. He could see a faint orange glow from a flickering candle through a lower level window. Robert knocked on the door with a clenched fist. He would have preferred to just kick the door in. Almost instantly, he heard a voice from behind the door.
    “Who is it?”
    “I’m here for my children.”
    The door opened partially, still attached to a safety chain. A man’s face peered through the opening. Robert recognized him. It was Michael. He still combed his hair back, but it was longer now, and his cheeks were round and full, like a chipmunk storing nuts. Michael did not say anything, almost as if he was in shock. He looked like he had seen a ghost.
    “May I have my children now?”
    “Your wife is gone. I thought you were dead,” said Michael, speaking in disbelief.
    “Obviously, I’m not,” Robert firmly stated. “Any idea where my wife is?”
    “No. Nobody does.”
    The door shut. Robert heard the small chain rattle, then the door completely opened.
    “Hello, Don. It’s good to see you again.” Michael motioned to get his wife’s attention. “Look over here, Becky; it’s my good friend, Don.”
    “No, it’s Robert, and I was told that you have my two children here.” Robert looked past the living room and into the kitchen. Becky was standing behind their kitchen island preparing food by candlelight. She heard Robert, but did not make eye contact. Robert stepped through the front door into the living room and stood near the steps to the second floor. He left the front door completely open. It was dark upstairs and Robert did not hear the sound of young children from anywhere in the house.
    “Brad! Jennifer! Where are you?”
    “Hold on, she’ll get them for you,” said Michael, smiling widely as he motioned for Becky to go upstairs. Becky held a candle and nervously edged past Robert. He smelled her expensive perfume. She said nothing to him, and still avoided eye contact.
    “Those are good children.” Michael’s fake smile grew wider. A cosmetic dentist had veneered Michael’s teeth to make them look perfect. “You did a good job raising those kids.” Michael slapped Robert on the shoulder. “I volunteered to take care of them and I wouldn’t have done that for anybody else.” Michael slapped him on the shoulder again and stretched his fake smile even wider. “I told everyone I didn’t care how much sacrifice we had to make, Becky and I were going to take care of those two children.”
    Michael’s false martyrdom did not change Robert’s opinion of him. Every time Michael slapped him on the shoulder, he felt like grabbing Michael by the throat and strangling him. Becky came down the stairs briskly, with her hand in front of the candle’s flame. She went directly back to stand behind the kitchen island and did not look up. Although she was always thin, Robert did not perceive her as having a famished appearance, and the same with Michael.
    Robert heard a noise from the top of the stairway. He saw his children emerge from the dimness like apparitions from a fog. Michael’s eyes nervously darted back and forth between the two children, who were slowly descending the stairway, approaching Robert.
    As his children came closer, he was shocked to find them appearing gaunt and emaciated. Every slow, weak step his children took toward him made their pathetic condition more obvious. These children were neglected and starving. Robert was in shock and totally speechless, his mind slipping back into a hazy fog. At the bottom of the staircase, his children stopped, held hands, and stood close to one another. Robert began to feel faint, and he dropped to his knees in front of them. Tears formed in his eyes. His children were pale and looked like skeletons, with tightly wrapped, translucent skin. He reached up to touch their faces, and tried to speak, but was not able to. The shock of his children’s condition was overwhelming and when he summoned the courage to hug them tightly he felt the boney protrusions of their skeletons poke back. His arms dropped to his sides. From behind him, he heard the sound of familiar voices piercing the fog that clouded his mind. It was Kyle, Alexis, and Jim. He heard Alexis gasp loudly. Kyle and Jim were behind her.
    Robert turned and saw Alexis’s eyes wide with horror. She had one hand over her mouth, and clutched the cross on her necklace with the other. She kept repeating to herself, “Oh, dear God… oh, dear God…”
    Kyle knelt beside Robert and spoke softly to him. “I found this,” said Kyle, handing him the flashlight, “and it works. Your kitchen pantry is empty.”
    Robert quickly looked up at his children, then at Becky, who was ignoring what should have been a happy reunion, from her spot from behind the kitchen island. Becky pretended to be oblivious to what was happening and continued to prepare the meal. He looked back at Michael, who was still wearing a large fake smile. Robert leaned toward his children, gave them each a kiss on the forehead, and whispered into their ears. “These are my friends. They are going to take you home. I will be there in just a minute.”
    Robert turned to Alexis and looked up at her. “Please take them home and feed them something.” Alexis did not speak, but she gently picked up Robert’s daughter and held her carefully, almost afraid she would break the child’s frail body. Kyle held the boy in his arms, and just before he turned away to leave, he asked Robert, “Are you going to be okay?”
    Robert stood up with resolve. “Yes, I just need a minute with these two.”
    Kyle was the last out the door, closing it behind him.
    Robert turned back toward Michael, looked past his cold smile, and locked eyes with the sad excuse for a man.
    “Buddy, there’s no need to thank me,” said Michael. “You would’ve done the same for me. I know it. Everyone says such great things about you.”
    “Do you know what people think about you?” Robert could feel his blood pressure rise as he began to clench his jaw.
    “What are you talking about, Robert?”
    “I’m not your buddy and I wouldn’t have done the same to you. If I were taking care of two small children, I would make every sacrifice to protect and feed them. Now, let me tell you what people say about you.” He clutched the flashlight so tightly that he could feel the knurling on the handle dig into his skin. “People think you’re a liar. You’re a fake and a liar.” Robert firmly pushed him in the chest with the flashlight. Michael’s chest felt soft. He noticed that Becky was paying attention to the conversation now.
    “Hold it. You got this all wrong. We’ve all had to make sacrifices, big sacrifices.”
    “Sacrifices!” exclaimed Robert. “What sacrifices have you made? All things considered you look like you’re doing well, maybe too well.”
    The door to the garage was past the staircase, but just before the kitchen. Robert walked that direction and Becky stiffened, thinking he was coming at her. Robert stopped at the garage entry and opened the door. He turned the flashlight on and shined it into the garage. It looked like items from the various houses Michael had been constantly visiting in the aftermath, including Robert ’s.
    “Aren’t you going to say anything?” asked Robert.
    “About what?”
    “After the grid collapsed, you ran from house to house acting like a savior, but you were really seeing what you could take from people. Like I said, you’re a liar. A fake and a liar and a thief, and both of you disgust me!” He slammed the door to the garage, and a picture from one of their tropical vacations fell off the wall next to it. The glass shattered on the floor.
    “You need to go!” Michael said angrily.
    Robert walked into the kitchen and Becky stayed on the opposite side of the kitchen island. Her body tensed as Robert got closer. She moved over to a small kitchen drawer and reached inside, out of Robert’s view. He opened the door to their walk-in pantry, stepped into it, and shined the flashlight around inspecting all that was inside. There was a cornucopia of food stacked tall and deep, and Robert recognized a box of cereal, not yet opened, that his son had colored on with crayon before Robert had left for Montana. At the thought of his children starving next to all of this food, his temper began to flare again. He noticed his hands shaking from the anger as he left the pantry and walked back into the kitchen.
    Becky was staring at him now. He noticed that she had something gripped tightly in her hands, and was trembling with fear or anger. Robert could not discern at first what the object was, but quickly realized that she was now pointing a small pistol at him.
    “You can’t do it,” said Robert, stoically.
    “Squeeze the trigger, Becky,” urged Michael, still in the living room.
    Robert took a step toward Becky and she flinched. “Don’t come any closer, or I’ll kill you,” she said, with a trembling voice.
    “Oh, no, you won’t. You can’t do it. You didn’t have the guts to kill my children. Both of you just left them hidden in a room, starving, and out of your sight.”
    Robert took another step toward Becky and she raised the pistol.
    “Pull the trigger, nice and easy. Listen to me,” said Michael.
    Robert looked directly into her eyes and said, “You can’t do it because you’re weak and a fake. Everything about you is fake.” Slowly moving forward, he pointed the beam of light at her trembling hands as they gripped the pistol. “Fake fingernails.” Still moving forward he moved the beam of light to her chest. “Those are fake, too.” He quickly flicked his wrist so the beam of light went into her eyes. Instinctively, she squinted from the brightness and turned her head away. Robert lunged forward and violently crossed her temple with the metal flashlight. She dropped the pistol on the top of the kitchen island as she fell to the floor. Becky curled into a ball and moaned in pain. Blood was dripping from her temple. Robert reached for the pistol and noticed that he had knocked out a contact lens from one of her eyes. He picked it up and held it near the candlelight. The contact was colored blue. Her eye color was as fake as everything else about her.
    Michael gave Robert a glare filled with hatred and said, “You think you’re so virtuous. Where have you been? You abandoned your children.”
    “Where have I been? You have no idea what I have come through to get here and what I’ve done to make that happen. You’re just a little bump in the road compared to what I’ve been through.”
    Robert put the pistol in his pocket and set the flashlight on the kitchen island, turning it off to save the precious batteries. He pushed Becky flat to the floor with his boot, and dragged her into the living room, dropping her next to Michael. He spun the rifle from his back and placed the stock firmly into his shoulder.
    “Are you going to kill us? You don’t have to. We can work something out.” Michael begged.
    “Neither of you is worth a bullet,” Robert said, coldly.
    “There’s lots of food in this house. We can split it,” said Michael, in the tone of a man pleading for his life.
    “I’m not splitting anything with you, because you don’t have anything now. Understand?”
    “I don’t understand,” Michael whined, staring at the rifle.
    Robert opened the front door wide and stepped back to make room for them to walk through the open doorway. He pointed outside with the rifle.
    “Through this door is exactly what you gave my children: nothing. Go, and don’t come back. If I see you around here again, I’ll kill you.”
    Michael dropped to his knees and waddled toward Robert, begging for mercy. “We have no place to go. We’ll starve to death. You can’t do this!”
    “Yes, I can!” Robert drove his knee into Michael’s perfectly veneered teeth, knocking him to the ground. When Michael sat up, he felt his mouth and the gap where a tooth used to be. Robert pushed him out the door with his boot, then Becky crawled out and sat next to her husband on the front porch. They held each other, whimpering loudly.
    Robert put the end of the barrel at the back of Michael’s skull. “You better leave now before I change my mind.”
    The couple ran away, not looking back. Robert watched them disappear into the darkness, toward the stream that fed the nearby lake. He went back into the house to retrieve the flashlight and some candles from the kitchen. He opened the pantry and the garage entry door one more time to look at the pile of food, just before he ran back home to his children. He hurried home as fast as he could and pushed his front door open. Kyle, Alexis, and Jim were there. Alexis had made some cold oatmeal for the children, and he could see their weakness in the way they chewed the food so slowly. He placed the candles on the kitchen table and lit them.
    “You’re safe now,” Robert said, as he touched their boney shoulders gently.
    Brad looked up at his father. He finally smiled. His mouth was full of food. From the opposite side of the table, Robert leaned forward to get a closer look at his children in the candlelight. Jennifer touched his wrist. Robert turned to her and smiled. She smiled back. Then the children, so fatigued from their hunger, drifted to sleep at the table. Robert gently picked them up and carried them to their beds, covering them with blankets to keep them warm through the night.
    Robert sat at the dining table facing the other three adults in the flickering candlelight.
    “I didn’t want to say anything in front of your kids. What did you do after we left?” asked Kyle.
    “That asshole won’t be coming back.”
    Jim laughed and said, “I wish I could’ve seen that.”
    “He took my food and starved my children.” Robert shook his head angrily. “He got better than what he deserved.”
    “That’s where all the food went?” asked Alexis.
    “Yes, and he had a lot more than that. He took from everyone he could.” Robert pointed at Jim. “We can take some of that food and split it among the people who are still in the neighborhood. I don’t know who needs it, or who deserves it the most. Do you have any ideas?”
    Jim nodded his head, saying, “I could use some of that food, myself.”
    “We need to go move that food back here tonight,” said Robert. “Michael is a snake in the grass, and he might come back for it. Jim, I want to do this quick, tonight. Can you come back tomorrow, too? I want to know about everything that’s happened here since I’ve been gone.”
    “Sure, I’ll come back at daybreak.”
    “Thanks, Jim. Now, take the wheelbarrow, and you and Kyle get started. I’ll be right behind you.”
    They left, and only Robert and Alexis remained at the table.
    “Thanks for making them something to eat.”
    Alexis smiled and said gently, “They’re going to be okay.”
    “I’m going to make sure of that. They’re all I have now.”
    Robert stood up, retrieved the flashlight from his pocket, and handed it to Alexis.
    “It’s going to get dark in here when the candles go out, so you should take this.”
    “You won’t be afraid of the dark?” Alexis asked, sarcastically.
    “I’ve got nothing to fear.” Robert held the rifle up for Alexis to see.
    “I prayed for bullets last night,” said Alexis.
    Robert walked to the front door, stopped, turned around, and said with a somber expression, “I hope you did.”
    Robert opened the door and stepped outside.
    “Hold on, Robert. You should be happy now. It was a long journey home and we made it.”
    “We made it here, but our journey isn’t over yet. It has just gotten started. Keep praying for bullets, Alexis. We’re going to need them.”
    He shut the door and walked into the darkness.