Original Work Year 12 (sequel to Half Past Midnight)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by Jeff Brackett, Oct 12, 2016.


  1. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    For those of you who read my first novel (Half Past Midnight) and it's companion novella (The Road To Rejas), I'm finally getting around to writing a sequel novel. It takes place twelve years after the Doomsday War that occurred in the previous titles, and has some of the same characters. I'm currently working on plowing through notes from my beta readers, and the novel goes to the editor in five days. But if you want to read the rough draft, I'll start posting here, a few chapters at a time.

    As with my previous stuff, if you find something that I messed up, PLEASE don't hesitate to point it out to me. The more mistakes I can correct before it gets published, the longer it will take the rest of the world to realize that I haven't really got a clue about how to write. ;)
     
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  2. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    PART 1
    LEAVING



    Chapter 1
    Thief​


    I was almost to the barn when I heard the back door of the house open. Dropping to the ground, I tried to blend into the darkness, hoping the lamplight from the back porch wouldn't reach this far into the night. The old man leaned against the back railing. He looked lost in thought, and more than a little tired, and I wondered for a moment what was going through his head.

    Several voices in the house rose in argument, and the man cursed as he turned and went back inside. They'd been going at it for more than an hour already, and showed no signs of slowing anytime soon. Slipping around to the back of the barn, I set my pack on the ground before I swung the door open, freezing for a second, as an extraordinarily loud burst of shouting came from the house. And though I could make out a few distinct words, they might as well have been spoken in a foreign language for all the meaning they held for me.

    Solar-synchronous orbit? I had no idea what that meant, but it really didn't matter. As long as they kept quarrelling, I didn't have to worry about being discovered. As long as the drone of old men and women carried through the night air, no one was going to be paying any attention to the horses.

    It was a warm summer night, and the full moon illuminated my way as I slid through the shadows into the barn. I left the door open, needing the moonlight as I slowly stepped inside, smelling the rich scents of horse and fresh hay. Moving to the nearest of six stalls, I pulled a slice of fresh apple from the pouch on my belt and held it out to the horse before me.

    "There's a good girl." I spoke quietly to her. I cupped my hand around her nose, letting her catch my scent, keeping her calm with my words and attitude. "And there's more where that came from once we get down the road a ways." I stroked her nose as I slipped the bridle over her head, then led her out of the stall.

    As I turned toward the barn door, I saw the silhouette of two dogs approaching from across the yard. Great! All I need is for a bunch of barking to attract someone's attention. I was at least partially prepared for this. I pulled several bits of jerky from my pocket and coaxed the dogs to me. They scarfed the meat down in a matter of seconds and sniffed my hands for more. "Greedy little things aren't you?" I reached into my pouch. "Want some more? Come on." There were leashes hanging on the wall by the door and I grabbed two as I led the dogs back into the mare’s stall. I handed them each another piece of jerky and they munched happily as I slipped the leashes around their necks and secured them in the stall. "You're good dogs, aren't you?" I emptied the rest of the jerky into a pile and slipped out of the barn.

    Saddling the mare outside the barn, I grabbed my pack from where it lay, and secured it behind the saddle. More shouting from the house across the yard told me that I still had time before anyone missed the horse. I grinned again, swung my leg up, and quietly rode away from the lights of home.


    ***​


    I rode through the night, armed with some old folding maps I had stolen from the Rejas Library. I felt a bit guilty about that. No one had yet devised a way to make paper as fine and crisp as the Old Days paper in the books and magazines preserved in the Library. That meant every bit preserved was precious. I justified it mentally, telling myself I would return them in a few months, when I returned from my trip. Besides, there had been dozens of the Texas and Oklahoma maps, and at least ten other copies of the Easy-Fold Map of The United States. And while there was some question as to whether or not the United States still existed, the roads and cities were still there.

    Mostly.

    Mother Nature had reclaimed sidewalks, as well as most of the smaller roads in the area within a few years of D-day. But she was still working on the larger highways and interstates, so it was easy enough to see the wide, barely-covered, flat pathways that meandered across the landscape. They were recognizable enough to use as guide markers for a journey, anyway.

    In less than two hours, I was riding north beside Highway 96. The light of the full moon illuminated the road well enough, but a decade of unmaintained blacktop still made travelling it at night a dangerous endeavor. Grass runners and shrubs grew through crumbling concrete and potholes. The overall path was still mostly flat and the uneven ground was easy enough to navigate during the day, but concrete, whether covered in grass or not, was still unforgiving. Not wanting to risk injury to my horse, I stuck to the softer grass that grew to the side of the roadway.

    I rode for about three more hours, keeping Tallulah to a slow trot in the darkness. I estimated we'd gone about ten miles by the time I decided to stop. The young appaloosa was in good shape, but I didn't want to push her too hard, especially so early in the journey. Riding a short distance into the forest, I quickly found a good spot near a little stream. A few minutes later, I had Tallulah tethered to a tree where she would be able to drink, and was climbing one of the trees I'd picked out as a support for my hammock tent.

    It was basically a hammock with a fine mesh mosquito net over it. It took a little work to hang it as high as I liked, but I had gotten good at it over the last few years, and within a matter of fifteen minutes my pack and I were settled into it, almost twenty feet above the ground.

    I listened to the sounds of the forest as I tried to get to sleep, telling myself that they were the reason for my insomnia. But I knew better. It wasn't the forest, or the crickets or bullfrogs keeping me awake. It was the excitement, and perhaps a bit of fear at the sheer audacity of my undertaking. The truth was that the whole thing was more than a little intimidating. I mean, what did I know about travelling and the world? Me, who had lived most of my life in a town of less than three thousand people.

    But the message had been clear, and while the Rejas City Council sat and argued about who to send as ambassador, I wasn't going to wait. It had taken them two days to decide to send anyone at all. There was no telling how long it would take to figure out who to send. "And there was no way they would have chosen me, anyway," I thought bitterly.

    I was well known in town, but not for anything I had really done. It was more a matter of what had been done to me, and for me. And I was tired of that. I needed to make my own mark on the world. Needed to earn a place in my community for something that I actually did on my own. But none of the Council would have agreed, not even my own father. Even though I was the one who had first seen it.

    Well, me and Donna.
     
  3. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 2
    The Beginning​




    I peered through the rapidly darkening forest. Donna's hand in my own was warm in the cool nighttime air as I led her through the trees.

    "Where are we going?" she asked quietly.

    "You'll see." I looked back at her and smiled teasingly.

    "Come on, Zach. Tell me, please?"

    "Nope. It's a surprise."

    I could hear the pout in her voice as she complained. "Not fair."

    "Whoever told you life was fair?" I grinned evilly.

    She slapped my arm. "You're mean, you know that?"

    "Don't worry, we're almost there." I knew this patch of the Texas Big Thicket as if it were my own back yard. I should. Having lived here for more than a decade, for all intents and purposes it was my back yard.

    We pushed through the trees and stepped into the clearing from the eastern edge. I stepped aside, waving my hand in a grand gesture, as if presenting her with a special gift and she gasped at the sight before us.

    The clearing was about thirty yards across, an almost perfectly round hole in the huge pines of the Texas Big Thicket that gave an unobstructed view of the stars and Milky Way. That, in and of itself, made it one of my favorite places to go even on cold winter nights. But in the late spring, for a period of a few weeks or so, there was a special magic to the place.

    "Oh my god, Zach. It's beautiful!" She stepped past me, into the clearing. Into the gently flowing clouds of fireflies, flickering lazily through the air. This clearing was a breeding ground for them, and every spring it came alive with what appeared to be millions of the lazily drifting lightning bugs. Males flew about, frantically flashing their signal in an attempt to attract a mate. The females, who held all the power, just as in the world of humans, stayed on the limbs of trees or tall blades of grass flashing their replies.

    Donna held her arms out to her sides, slowly spinning around to see the wonder of tiny flashing orbs all around her. Her expression of wonder brought a smile to my face, and I noticed, not for the first time, that she was really quite a pretty girl. She was a year younger than I was, and we'd known each other for several years. Her father had died during the Rough Times after the Doomsday War, when Crazy Larry had rolled into town at the head of a small army. I'd met her a year later when she and her mother had started training with Megan.

    We'd always been good friends, but lately she acted like she was trying to push the relationship a bit farther, and I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about that.

    Other girls had tried to get close to me, but they had always turned out to be more interested in my story than in me. Unlike them, Donna had never pushed me for anything more than friendship. She'd never pressured me to "tell her the story". She had respected my privacy, and as a result of her discretion we'd become close friends.

    I followed her into the clearing and laid back in the grass, looking up at the light show. I'd seen the fireflies on many occasions, but the joy on her face brought a smile to mine. She finally realized I was watching her, and dropped beside me, a self-conscious grin still plastered to her face. For several minutes we laid there in comfortable silence.

    "Zach?"

    So much for silence. "Yeah?"

    "Why don't you have a girl?"

    And so much for comfortable. I hesitated, somewhat anxious about where this conversation might be going. "Why don't you have a guy?" I deflected. "I know for a fact that Jerry's been trying to get your attention for weeks now."

    She chuckled. "Jerry's a dick. He thinks more about his reputation with the ladies than about the ladies themselves." She rolled onto her side and raised onto one elbow. I turned my head to meet her eyes. "I'm not interested in becoming a notch on his bedpost. Especially not for—" She stopped and pursed her lips. It was obvious that she'd almost told me something she considered important, but had changed her mind.

    "Not for what?"

    "Wait a minute. You never answered my question." She sat back up. "You always do that."

    "Wait. What? I always do what?"

    "You always avoid answering my questions when you don't want to talk about something. Then you twist the conversation around to distract me." She frowned. "You think I don't know what you're doing, but I see it. I'm not stupid!"

    "Wait a second." I sat up and scooted back on the grass where I could see her better by the flickering light of the fireflies around us. "How did this go from me asking about Jerry, to you saying I think you're stupid?"

    "It didn't. It went from me asking you about a girlfriend, and you avoiding the question, just like you always do." She shifted to where she could better face me. Her lips pursed, and I could tell she was upset. "I just don't like Jerry." She looked down, and her hair fell forward like a dark curtain, blocking my view of her face as she lowered her voice. "I don't want him to be my first."

    At first I didn't understand. Her first? First what? Yeah, I'm slow like that sometimes. When I realized what she was saying, my reply was equally inspired. "Oh. So you... um?"

    "Yeah." She looked up at me, expression inscrutable. "I um. And I don't want some little boy in a big man's britches to un-um me."

    I chuckled at that, until she looked up at me glaring. "Sorry."

    Her expression softened a bit. "S’all right. I guess it's not exactly the discussion you expected to be having tonight."

    "Ah, not exactly." Oh yeah. I was absolutely eloquent tonight. "I mean, you just—"

    But Donna wasn't finished. "I wanted to see if you... might..."

    I swallowed. If I might? Was she asking what it sounded like she was asking? "If I might... um?"

    She giggled. "Or un-um..."

    "Wow, Donna. I, ah... I mean..." There I was, Mr. Articulate yet again.

    She looked at me directly for the first time since she'd broached the subject. "Look, it ain't like a marriage proposal or anything. I don't expect anything more than what we already have. We're friends, right?"

    "Well, yeah. I like to think so."

    "So I don't want my first time to be with some dick like Jerry."

    I snickered at the double entendre, and after a second she must have realized what she'd said. She laughed and slapped my shoulder. "You know what I mean!"

    "Hey! You're the one making bad jokes here." I rubbed my shoulder in mock pain.

    Her smile faded, and she steered the conversation back to the subject. "I also don't really want to be all clumsy and bumbling when I finally do get married, either. I want my first time with my husband to be wonderful, and that won't happen if I'm so worried about the pain of my first time, and bein' all clumsy and wondering what a man likes and don't like."

    What she said made a certain amount of sense. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was all I could do not to roll her onto her back right then and there.

    "And I sure as hell don't want to go hop into bed with someone I don't even care about, or who doesn't care about me. And you do care about me, right?"

    "Well yeah."

    "So then..." Her voice trailed off and she looked at me.

    I didn't know what to do. Was she finished talking? Did she need to talk it through some more? If I let her keep talking, was she going to talk herself out if it? Did I want to do this, to risk what had been a good friendship, all for the sake of sex?

    When I didn't do anything, she took a deep breath and leaned in to me. Her lips were soft and warm as she kissed me. Stunned for a second, I didn't react. But she didn't stop, and after a few interminably long seconds I reached up, cupping her cheek as I kissed her back. Her tongue brushed my lips and I opened, reaching forward with my own. She moaned, or maybe it was me. I wasn't sure. All I knew at that point was that this situation had gone from trot to gallop in a matter of seconds, and I wasn't entirely sure what to do about it.

    I felt like a clumsy child, not knowing what to do with my hands, with my lips or tongue. Should I bite her lip? I'd heard some girls liked that. Could I get away with touching her breasts? Or her butt? Or even her… um ? Was it too soon? Would I disgust her by rushing things? Did she really want this? Was she going to change her mind? Was there some game going on here I didn't know the rules to? Did she really want to go all the way, or did she just want to neck for a while? If I pushed it too far, would I get slapped? If I did something wrong, would I anger her, and ruin the opportunity. Would I ruin our friendship?

    My mind spun with the typical insecurities and questions of a twenty-year old and I was almost paralyzed with indecision.

    Donna seemed pretty sure, though. She pulled back for a second, and by the dim yellow light of the fireflies, I saw her pull the loose dress over her head. I swallowed. She saw my hesitation and smiled reassuringly as she slid the straps of her bra over her shoulders. Her breasts drew my eyes like magnets. She twisted the bra around to where she could get to the clasp.

    "Donna?"

    My eyes refused to pull away from her breasts as I spoke. Distracted, I realized that my hands had somehow become attached to them. Wasn't I about to say something? Tell her something? Ask her something?

    "What?" she murmured.

    "Hmm?"

    She pressed my hands tighter on her breasts and moaned. The sound broke the spell her breasts held on me and I looked up at her face. Eyes half closed, she licked her lips. We were both panting as she spoke. "You said my name?"

    But those amazing breasts called to me again, and I leaned up, taking a nipple into my mouth, licking it, then pulling gently with my teeth, afraid of hurting her. More afraid of not pleasing her. She gasped again, pressing the back of my head to her, then pulling me away. She pushed me onto my back and straddled me and once again those lovely breasts were in my hands. She grinned. "You had something you wanted to say?"

    I remembered. "Yeah. I..."

    She ground back against me. She still had on her panties, and I was still fully clothed. But her center was hot enough that I could feel it against my hard length, even through our clothing. Once more, I couldn't tell which of us moaned.

    "I... um..."

    She ground harder against me. "You what?" she teased.

    I gripped her hips, pulling them forward, then back, increasing the friction between us. Then I forced myself to stop. I couldn't think while she was doing that. While we were doing that. And I needed her to know. "I um." I swallowed, unsure how she would react.

    She looked alert again, maybe a little irritated. "What?" she panted. "Oh god, what is so important right now?"

    I looked her in the eye.

    "I," I said plainly, "um."

    She blinked, then smiled as she caught on. "Really? You too?"

    My face flushed at the admission. "Yeah."

    "But I thought you... I mean, there are always girls throwing themselves at you. I sorta assumed you had... umm."

    We both chuckled at the term now. Then I shook my head.

    Donna raised an eyebrow, then smiled tenderly. "Then we can both un-um each other." And she leaned forward to kiss me again. There was no hesitation now. We laughed together as my shirt got tangled over my head. When we finally got it, I pulled her back to me, wanting to feel those gorgeous breasts against my bare chest. Our skin was hot as we ground against each other again, and I reached down to her hips, pulling her tightly against me, then reached around, sliding my hands inside her panties to grasp her cheeks. This time, I knew it was her who moaned, and I smiled to think that I could cause such a reaction in her.

    She sat back, reaching for my belt, and my hands yet again were drawn to her breasts. I pinched her nipples lightly as she fumbled the buttons on my pants. Her hand grasped my length, bending me painfully as she tried to separate me from my pants. "Ow!"

    Reflexively, I pinched her nipples harder, which caused her to also hiss.

    "I'm sorry!" We both said at the same time. Then we laughed.

    I rolled her gently off me, onto her back. She grinned at me. "We're a mess, aren't we?"

    I nodded, also smiling. "But practice makes perfect." I stood, sliding my pants down, and my erection sprang comically up. The cool night air made me realize that I'd been sweating.

    "What's that?"

    I wasn't sure how to answer her. Surely she knew what it was. It was sort of the point to what we were doing, wasn't it? What was I supposed to say? My pecker? No, too crude. My penis? Too clinical. My love pole? Just plain ridiculous. But she pointed past my head, and I turned to see what had interrupted our moment.

    At first I thought it was just another firefly, but it didn't flicker. It didn't change direction. It was a steady shining light in the sky, travelling from one side of the clearing toward the other. I stood there like an idiot, penis wilting, pants around my ankles, as I realized what I was seeing. I'd read about them in the library, and never thought to see one. "It's a satellite!"

    Donna stood, still clad only in her panties as she grabbed my elbow. "There haven't been any satellites for years." The pressure of her bare breast on my arm was distracting, and I looked over at her, once more becoming aroused. She turned her face to me, grinning with excitement.

    My erection began to return at the sight of her nearly naked body, and I was glad to see her grin. Good, we can get back to—

    "We need to get back! We've gotta tell your dad!"

    "Wait. What?"

    She turned away from me, bending to pick up her clothes. The sight of her backside stretching those panties had me fully distracted again, and I realized my chance was slipping away.

    "We need to let them know there's a satellite in the sky! Don't you realize what that means?" She reclasped her bra, slipping the straps back over her arms, and I nearly groaned with disappointment as her breasts, those gorgeous breasts that I had just had in my hands, in my mouth, disappeared behind plain white cotton. "Someone is rebuilding!"

    She slipped her dress back over her head and I groaned aloud. She looked at me, still standing in the clearing with my pants around my ankles, and she smiled pityingly. She sauntered over to me. Yes, that was the word. She sauntered over to me with a sexy smile. "Oh, Zach. I'm sorry." She reached out and her touch sent a thrill through me once more.

    I moaned.

    "It's not fair to leave you like this is it?"

    Hope beat in my chest as she squeezed lightly. Then she giggled. "Then again, whoever told you life was fair?" She squeezed once more, giggled, and ran out of the clearing towards town.

    I sighed and dropped my head. Looking down at my confused penis, I spoke resignedly. "Guess we stay um for a bit longer."


    ***​


    Dad sent me out with messages at first light. Rejas had a seven-person town council. Dad, as mayor, and six others sat once a month to hear and decide on city business down at City Hall. But on rare occasions someone called a special session. This was one of those occasions, and I spent four hours delivering messages to all six of the other council members.

    That night was the first of several meetings at the Dawcett homestead. The initial meeting was immeasurably complicated by the fact that the two Ham radios reported that they were receiving a signal, apparently from the satellite. Taking full advantage of the fact that I happened to live where the meetings were taking place, I eavesdropped every chance I got. And hearing the content of the message had me more excited than I had been in a long time.

    It was actually two messages. The first was a simple recording that played over and over in a loop.


    To any citizens who are able to receive this message,

    Be advised that the government of the United States of America is advancing down the long road to recovery. With the destruction of Washington DC as well as many of the nation's largest cities, the government has relocated to a secret location. We also have a new military installation that is working to rebuild some of our technological infrastructure. If you are hearing this message, it means that you have either saved or rebuilt to some level of electronic technology. Please send representatives to discuss what is needed for the reconstruction of our great nation.


    That simple message was accompanied by a set of coordinates in Morse code.

    35-20-23N / 99-12-02W

    They pointed to a town in western Oklahoma, and the message was clearly a call to arms, of sorts. And when I heard that the location in Oklahoma was an old abandoned space port, left over from a ten million dollar competition called the Ansari X Prize, I was intrigued enough to visit the library.

    That was where I found a couple of magazine articles. The Ansari X Prize had been a private space race that took place around the turn of the century. Any private individual or business who managed to build and launch a reusable manned spacecraft twice within two weeks would win the ten million dollar prize. From the articles I found, several companies tried, but a company called Scaled Composites won the prize in October of 2004 with the second launch of SpaceShipOne.

    But before their spaceplane roared to victory, several other organizations were also working toward that ten million dollar X Prize. One of them involved a failed and abandoned spaceport in the small town of Burns Flat, Oklahoma. Now, it looked like the US military had taken up residence at that location, and had used it to launch a satellite.

    Who knew what else they were building up there?

    With that question, my imagination refused to let me rest. I had to get away from Rejas, from where I was known as Leeland Dawcett's kid, or the kid that hundreds of people had gone to fight a madman to rescue. I had to make my own mark on the world.
     
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2016
  4. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 3
    Caught​


    The smell of eggs and bacon woke me two days later. It was a wonderful scent, eggs with some sort of herbs or spices mixed in as they cooked. At first I drifted in and out of consciousness, content with the senses that wonderful dream sent my way. The whine of dogs shocked me fully awake.

    Keeping as quiet as I could, I reached up and pulled at the side of the hammock so I could peer over it at the ground below. I squinted at the scene below, trying to make sense of the situation. I was supposed to be alone. No one knew where I was. Yet here were Bella and Cricket, sitting below, looking up at me, tails wagging contentedly. Smoke drifted up from a small campfire and I saw a hulking figure kneeling beside it, frying pan resting on a small metal camping grill. I had used such grills many times when I'd camped out.

    The demeanor of the dogs told me that they knew who this mysterious cook was, even if I hadn't yet figured it out. It wasn't my dad, this guy was way too big. The rifle that lay on the ground beside him caused my heart to thump loudly in my chest. It was a bolt action rifle from the Old Days. There weren't many people who carried those any more, since bullets were becoming scarce. Most folks carried simple black powder rifles, or even more commonly, a bow and arrows, like I did. Anyone who carried an Old Days rifle like this was a person of means and standing.

    He shifted where he squatted beside the fire, drawing my attention from the rifle back to him, and as his size registered, I finally realized who it must be. "I'm not going back."

    Mr. Roesch simply looked up from where the food cooked in his pan to where I peeked over the edge of my hammock.

    "You can't make me. I'll just sneak out again."

    "I know."

    I waited for him to elaborate, but he had nothing more to say. That was pretty normal for him. Mr. Roesch was one of the least talkative people I knew. Dad had once told me it went back to something that happened to him on D-day, but neither of them ever showed any inclination to elaborate.

    Not really sure of what to expect, I slipped my boots on and grabbed the rope I had coiled beside me. I used it to lower my gear, then tied myself off to my upper support line while I dismantled my hammock. Mr. Roesch watched as I swung from tree to tree, and I thought I saw him nod with approval as I finally untied my support lines and lowered myself to the ground beside my pack. But he said nothing as I left everything on the ground and walked over to sit across the fire from the big man. He scooped a pile of eggs and bacon onto a thin shingle of wood and handed it across to me.

    "Thanks."

    He nodded and began eating the rest of the food directly from the small frying pan. As with most things when it came to Mr. Roesch, breakfast was a quiet affair. I ate, all the while wondering what his appearance meant. At first, I was convinced he was going to try to take me back home. But he could have easily just overpowered me and thrown me over his horse if that was the case. I thought about it, and finally figured I had it.

    "They decided to send you, didn't they?"

    He looked up with a twinkle in his eye. He jabbed his fork at me and grinned. "Got it in one."

    "Alone?"

    Mr. Roesch shook his head. "Told 'em I had people I could pick up along the way."

    "You knew I was already out here?"

    "You'd been hounding them for the chance ever since they deciphered the message. Suddenly you get quiet and disappear?" He scooped another fork full of eggs into his mouth. "Your dad checked the barn and found the dogs leashed up in an empty stall. Didn't take a genius to figure it out."

    "But how'd you find me? There's half a dozen ways I could have gone."

    He just pointed to the two Catahoula leopard dogs. My girls nuzzled up to me, tails wagging, unaware of their unwitting betrayal. "Should'a taken them with you."

    I sighed at my own stupidity even as I scratched the dogs behind the ears. We finished the rest of our breakfast in silence. I broke my last piece of bacon in half and tossed a piece to each of the girls, then tossed my shingle into the fire. Shortly thereafter, we were strapping our gear onto our horses, and I was still trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, I gave up working on it on my own and just asked. "So my folks are all right with this? With me going with you to the meet?"

    "We talked about it when we figured out what you had probably done. Figured you were probably gonna go no matter what. Makes more sense for me to go with you than to let you go on your own."

    I couldn't entirely stop the grin. "So I really get to represent Rejas for this?"

    "Nope."

    My grin died.

    "I represent Rejas. Your dad got the rest of the council to agree to let you come along for as long as I can put up with you. Figure it'll be a good experience, you being the son of the mayor and all."

    "But I can..." I let my words trail off at the look Mr. Roesch gave me.

    "I represent Rejas. You're my assistant. Capiche?"

    I swallowed. "I don't know what a capeesh is, but I understand."

    He grunted as he swung into his saddle.
     
  5. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 4
    Attitude Adjustment​


    Riding with Mr. Roesch was like riding with a statue. He looked like a person, but he was silent as stone and always seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. Any time I tried to drag him into conversation, I was more often than not answered with grunts, nods, or shrugs. After trying for several hours, I finally gave up. He obviously didn't want to talk, and I didn't need the frustration.

    Bella and Cricket scouted several yards ahead of us, and as the sun approached its zenith, I called out to them, "Bella! Cricket!"

    They stopped and turned to look at me as I rode toward them. "Hunt."

    They scampered off into the forest beside the road, and I finally got a reaction out of Mr. Roesch. He turned to me with a raised eyebrow. "You trained 'em to hunt? That'll come in handy."

    I grunted at him, happy to finally be able to turn the tables on the taciturn old man. As I pulled my horse past him, I had to fight hard to suppress a grin.

    It wasn't long before the two came back with a pair of rabbits. I dismounted and praised them. "That's my good girls. Put it down." They did, and I scratched them both behind the ears for a moment. But they wanted more, and I needed to oblige them. I grabbed the coneys, pulled my knife, and quickly gutted them, dropping the heads and entrails for the girls.

    I looked up at where Mr. Roesch was watching me. "Ready for lunch?"

    He smiled and dismounted. "Need help?" He jutted his chin at the rabbit carcasses.

    "Nah. I got it." I grinned, pleased to have impressed the older man. "I'm the assistant, right?"

    He nodded. "That you are." He took Tallulah's reins and left me cleaning the rabbits as he took care of the horses. "Looks like you're learning pretty fast, too."

    He put a quick fire together, starting it with a tinder kit he pulled from his pocket. By the time I had the rabbits cleaned and skewered, he had a good fire going, and it was my turn to be impressed. It usually took me twice as long to get a decent fire, and I made a mental note to pay more attention next time to see how he did it so quickly.

    We ate in silence, of course. Everything with Mr. Roesch was in silence. I thought for a bit about my plan... my former plan. When it had been just me, I had known my intent. I would travel to the space center, announce myself as a representative of Rejas, and see what the price of admission might be. By the time anyone from Rejas caught up with me, it would be too late to contradict me.

    Of course, all that changed as soon as Mr. Roesch entered the picture. And despite the fact that my own plan was pretty much in shambles now—not that it had been such a great idea to begin with—I was genuinely curious as to what the council had decided to do. But I knew enough about Mr. Roesch to know that he wasn't going to volunteer any information. I was going to have to drag it out of him. So as we neared the last of our meal I gathered up my courage and asked him.

    "Mr. Roesch?"

    He looked up at me over the fire. The fact that he stopped chewing and raised an eyebrow were the only indications that he had heard me. "So what's the plan? I mean, what are you gonna... or I guess, what did the council decide to do?"

    He went back to chewing for a moment, and I wasn't sure at first if he was going to answer. But he swallowed the last bit of meat from the bone in his hand and tossed it to the dogs. Bella snatched it out of the air and growled at Cricket, warning her away from the tidbit. "Depends," Mr. Roesch said without looking at me. He stood as if the conversation was over, but I wasn't willing to let it go that easily.

    "Depends on what?"

    "On what they're after."

    "What do you mean? The message said what they were after. They want to rebuild the country."

    He began kicking dirt onto the camp fire. "Yep. That's what they said."

    I swallowed the last bit of my food and absently tossed the bone to Cricket. I wiped my hands in the grass and hurried to help bury the fire. "Ain't that a good thing?"

    "Isn't."

    "Why not?"

    He shook his head. "I'm not saying it isn't a good thing. I'm correcting your grammar."

    I was dumbfounded. "My grammar?"

    He shrugged. "I'm the ambassador. You're my assistant. Can't have my assistant come across like an ignorant hick." He climbed back into his saddle without looking at me. "You have responsibilities now. Even as my assistant, you still represent Rejas."

    I thought about that as I climbed into my own saddle. The idea that I had a responsibility to the town hadn't really hit me until that point. As I thought about it, I realized I'd been approaching this whole thing from a pretty selfish point of view. I'd been so intent on making my mark that I hadn't considered the impact of my actions on other people. A quick moment of soul searching told me something about myself, and I didn't much care for the message.

    "If you want to be treated like an adult," it said, "then stop acting like a kid."

    We rode in silence as I thought about that. Everything I had done had been for selfish reasons. Ever since I'd been kidnapped ten years ago, I'd spent nearly every day resenting the fact that I'd had to be rescued… that people had fought and died to save me.

    I'd spent my days since then trying to overcome that feeling of inadequacy, trying to make sure it would never happen again. I'd studied hard in the school, when they'd finally gotten one running, and had excelled in reading and history. I'd done all right in math, but history was my real interest.

    I'd trained hard with Dad when he still taught the self-defense classes, and harder with Megan when Dad had gotten too busy with town politics and she'd taken over the classes. I trained the dogs, learned to hunt with a bow, and take care of myself in the wilderness. I was one of the best around with the throwing knives my dad had given me as a kid. Basically, I'd pretty much lived my life to ensure that I would never have to depend on anyone else, ever again.

    But I realized now that while independence was a fine thing to strive for, my desire to make a mark for myself wasn't the only thing at stake. It wasn't even the most important thing at stake. That realization put a new spin on all the things whirling through my mind, and I began to feel the tiniest bit of shame and guilt at the way I'd gone about this whole endeavor.

    It wasn't until we were several miles down the road that I realized that Mr. Roesch had never actually answered my question. Wasn't the government trying to rebuild the country a good thing? He had implied that it might not be. But all the history books I'd read had extolled the virtues of the founding fathers of the United States. They had taught us in school that the government had been built to be of the people, and for the people, and that seemed like a pretty even-handed way to do things.

    I considered asking him what he'd meant again, but strongly suspected I wouldn't get an answer. We rode the rest of the afternoon in silence.
     
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  6. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 5
    First Lessons​


    Riding with Mr. Roesch the following day was suddenly a new experience. Where the day before he had been quiet and reserved, now he was more talkative than I'd ever heard him before. It appeared that I wasn't the only one who had thought more on what was going to be expected of me. He gave the impression that he was genuinely intent on educating me as to what our journey was all about.

    It started as we ate breakfast. He had produced a few more eggs and a slab of bacon, and began cooking while I once again performed my circus antics, swinging from tree to tree as I broke down my hammock.

    I was pretty proud of the way I camped. I'd read about hammock tents in an old magazine from the library. It wasn’t like the Rejas newspaper, black ink on plain newsprint. This was full color on glossy paper, and I had often wondered how they'd gotten paper to shine like freshly cleaned glass.

    The article had shown pictures and detailed descriptions of a method of camping that had evidently been relatively popular back before D-day. I'd liked the idea, and had devised my own version of hammock camping. It consisted of a hammock covered with a mosquito net, much like the ones I had read about. But I had added an extra support line above the mosquito net. I could use this line as a sort of zip line, tying myself to it and sliding back and forth between trees while I tied up my hammock and raised my gear off the ground. It gave me the means to work much higher in the trees than the hammocks I'd read about.

    When I was finished breaking down my hammock and had lowered my last line out of the trees, I walked over to the fire. He handed me a shingle full of food again. As I took my first bite, he asked, "Why do you go to so much trouble?"

    I hurried to swallow before replying with the incredibly intelligent "Sir?"

    He jabbed his fork up at the trees where I had slept. "Why sleep up there?"

    "It's safer. No wild dogs or wolves can get to me up there, and people usually don't even see me until they're within bow shot." I smiled. "I've had people walk right under me and not even know I was there. Using the hammock means I have to camp in pretty dense growth, and people tend to keep their eyes on their path when they're going through the woods at night. They don't usually look up unless they're near a clearing."

    "Smart." He nodded, taking another bite. Then he pointed his fork at me. "But you still haven't really gotten to the why."

    "Excuse me?"

    "Why do you feel the need to sleep in the trees?"

    I felt like this was a test of some kind, but had no idea as to what answer the older man was looking for. Hadn't I already told him why? Obviously he was looking for more than a repeat of "it's safer." I finally gave up and shook my head. "I'm sorry. I guess I don't understand."

    He looked at me in silence for a moment and I swallowed nervously. Finally, he nodded. "I'm beginning to think you might work out after all." He chewed another bite, swallowed, and looked up at the trees again. "First of all, I think you're being pretty smart, sleeping up out of sight." He looked back down at me. "And you're smart again, to admit to me when you don't understand something."

    He finished his breakfast and tossed the shingle into the fire while I hurried to shovel the rest of mine into my mouth.

    "But be careful who you admit it to."

    "Sir?" There I was again, with the witty banter. I swallowed the last of my breakfast and tossed my shingle after his.

    "You can always ask me privately if you don't know something. That's how you learn. But the impression you make on people will reflect on me." He reached out and lightly grabbed my shoulder, adding emphasis to his words. "It will reflect on all of Rejas. I don't know yet how we're going to play things at this meeting, so you need to be on your toes. Understand?"

    I hesitated, then decided to be truthful. "No sir, I don't. Not completely."

    He actually grinned at that. "Good answer!" He stood and the two of us began kicking dirt over the coals. He continued talking as we worked on cleaning the campsite. "What I mean is, why do you feel the need to sleep up in the trees? I know you said you feel safer, and that it lets you avoid animals and people. And I'm impressed that you knew better than to just repeat that when I asked you to elucidate."

    Elucidate? What in the world did that mean?"

    "But what I'm really getting at is, why do you feel the need to avoid them? Not the animals, but the people. Don’t you trust them?"

    "You never know what someone's gonna do. It's better to be safe than get hurt." Or kidnapped.

    "And if they smile, and tell you that you can trust them? What about then?"

    I was silent as I saddled my horse, trying to wind my way through the hidden depths of the conversation. It was beginning to feel like one of my dad's lessons, and part of me resented that feeling. But since I didn't want to get shut out of the trip, I figured I'd be better off going along with it. "You can't trust someone just because they smile at you."

    "But if they promise you that they won't act up?"

    "Still can't be sure." I sighed. "Look Mr. Roesch, I get that you're trying to teach me something here. But I'm sorry, I just don't know what it is."

    He cinched his saddle down and looked at me over the top of it. Leaning onto the saddle he asked, "If you go to all that trouble to sleep in the trees just because you can't fully trust people," He slung his saddle bag over the haunches of his horse, "then why are you in such a hurry to believe a message from someone you've never seen, just because they say they want to rebuild the country?"

    "But they're the government." I protested.

    "Are they?"

    That caught me. I thought about it for a second. "They must be. The message came from the satellite. No one else would have the resources to launch a satellite." I was proud of this little piece of logic. My pride lasted all of two seconds.

    "You think the United States is the only government that could put a hunk of metal in the sky?"

    That sent my brain in all sorts of directions I hadn't considered. "Why would another government send us that message? Why send us a location in Oklahoma?"

    He shrugged. "I don't know. But I'm not going in blindly just because someone says they represent the US government." He swung into his saddle. "And here's something else for you to think about. Once we get to the spaceport and meet these people, how will we know if they really represent the government? Would it make a difference if they wore US military uniforms? We both know from experience that a uniform doesn't mean anything, don't we?"

    He had me there. Crazy Larry had rolled into Rejas at the head of a bunch of thugs wearing army uniforms. Then he had proceeded to destroy a good portion of the town, kill several hundred people, and kidnap me. All in order to get revenge on my dad for having beaten and humiliated him back on D-day. No, uniforms weren't a guarantee of anything.

    I mulled the thought over, silent as I tried to follow all the implications and possibilities. Mr. Roesch kept quiet, letting me think as we broke camp and rode north.
     
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  7. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 6
    Old Friends​



    The rest of the day was filled with similar thought exercises as Mr. Roesch began teaching me a new way of looking at things. He began stressing to me that I couldn't go into this situation with any sort of preconceived ideas.

    "Evaluate the situation," he told me. "Gather as much information as you can."

    He taught me that I needed to learn to quickly analyze any given situation, decide for myself how to react, or possibly not react, and never give away my full intent before I was ready. "It's a lot like your dad taught you to control a fight. Keep your opponent off balance. Don't react the way they expect you to. Try to take control of the situation. And if you can't take control, make them think you have control."

    I shook my head at the new concepts. I understood that I'd always been pretty linear in my way of dealing with people, but I'd never really had cause to consider treating anyone any differently. The idea of dealing with someone that I couldn't trust was disconcerting.

    "Where did you learn to think like this?" I asked him as we rode.

    "Hmm?"

    "Where did you learn all this stuff about logic, and trust, and analyzing situations and stuff?"

    He turned his eyes back to the road. "Your dad never told you what I used to do before D-day?"

    "No sir. I never asked."

    "Long time ago, I was a lawyer."

    I had read about lawyers in various books, but to be honest, books that had involved the law and lawyers had always struck me as pretty boring. I preferred more action. "So lawyering taught you all this?"

    "It did. You have to learn to take advantage in a situation where you can find it. And you learn that the truth isn't always as cut and dried as you would think."

    "I bet you'd make a mean poker player."

    He simply shrugged, giving nothing away, and making my point for me.


    ***​


    The sun was fading behind the trees when the dogs began barking. Cricket launched forward, growling and yipping as she raced up the road, while Bella stayed back beside me. The fur on her back was ridged up, and her bark had the characteristic booming volume of the Catahoula breed. Mr. Roesch and I pulled the horses into the trees and dismounted.

    "Bella, hush!" I hissed at her, and she responded as she'd been trained. "Come." Bella dropped back to my side, waiting to be told what to do. "Good girl," I whispered, and reached down to scratch her behind the ears. Cricket was out of earshot, and I wasn't going to shout for her and give away my position before we knew what was going on.

    To my right, Mr. Roesch grabbed his rifle, and seeing that he was taking this so seriously, I immediately pulled my bow and strung it. I had a pouch to carry my arrows that I slung over my back. It wasn't a quiver like I had seen in books. I'd tried something like that at one time, and all I can say about it is that whoever came up with that design had never had to run through the woods with arrows in it. My design was more like a flat goatskin pouch with a rigid back and a flap over the top. I could easily move through all sorts of brush at a full run and not have to worry about losing any of my arrows along the way. I grabbed four arrows from the pouch, holding them in my bow hand, snug against the bow. Gearing up took only seconds, and when I looked back up from my task, it was to find Mr. Roesch watching me intently. He nodded approvingly, then jutted his chin forward, indicating we should move forward. The fact that he wasn't speaking told me that he would prefer that we do so quietly. We slipped through the scrub, keeping as silent as possible as we approached the area where Cricket had charged forward.

    We moved quickly, but it quickly became apparent that, while Mr. Roesch was pretty quiet for a man of his size, he wasn't as quiet as I was. I touched him on the sleeve and leaned in close. "Let me move ahead," I whispered to him. "I'll wave you up when I see something."

    He pursed his lips, then nodded reluctantly. "Be careful. Don't take any unnecessary chances."

    I nodded and slipped through the woods, silent as the wind. Beside me, Bella's speckled fur blended into the overgrowth, especially with the dim remains of the day fading by the second. A few moments later, the alarm call of a blue jay told me that something had disturbed the wildlife a short distance ahead. The idea that there was a disturbance so close, but I didn't hear Cricket barking any longer made my chest tighten with concern for the smaller of my two girls. I nocked an arrow in the bow, holding it in place between the fingers of my bow hand. With my right hand, I quietly moved a branch out of my way.

    A quiet rustle from behind told me that Mr. Roesch was getting impatient and I turned to see him easing forward. I held my hand up to indicate he should wait where he was while I moved ahead. It was too dim to see his expression, but I thought he didn't look very happy. Nevertheless, he nodded. I turned to Bella and held up one finger to her. It was the hand signal I used when telling her to sit, and I wasn't sure she would obey without the verbal command that normally accompanied the gesture. But she dropped her haunches to the ground obediently, and watched me. I held up an open hand, palm toward her in the stay command, and she dropped to her stomach. Pleased that she obeyed so well, I turned back toward the road and crept slowly forward.

    The sun was nearly gone at this point, and the calls of various toads, frogs, and other night creatures were beginning to fill the air. Over the rising cacophony, a voice called out. "Would either of you gentlemen in the woods there be Mark Roesch?"

    Freezing in place, I blinked at the unexpected inquiry from the road ahead. It was a woman's voice, and I turned to look back at Mr. Roesch questioningly. Unfortunately, he was barely more than a dim silhouette at this point, and there was no way for us to communicate without one of us going to the other. Starting back to him so we could discuss matters, I was surprised when he responded to the mysterious woman.

    "I'm Mark Roesch. Who are you?"

    "Before I tell you, can I ask you a question?"

    "You can ask. Whether or not I answer depends on the question."

    "Fair enough." She paused. "What does the little green frog say?"

    I thought I had misheard, until Mr. Roesch began to laugh. Then I heard him moving through the forest behind me, all attempts at stealth apparently abandoned. I wasn't entirely sure what had just transpired, but he apparently trusted the woman in the road, whoever she was. Suddenly, to my utter surprise, he began to sing. "Blink, blonk, went the little green frog one day. Blink, blonk, went the little green frog!" It was a tiny snippet of a song, and it sounded like he was only singing a small part of it. But he walked past me as he finished, and I could have sworn I heard him sigh wistfully.

    A second later, I heard a distinct giggle from the road. "Hello, Mark."

    As I watched from the cover of the scrub at the tree line, I saw Mr. Roesch spread his arms and embrace one of the two women who waited for him on the road. "Hello, Kenni."
     
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  8. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 7
    Ultimatum​


    Watching from the cover of a copse of yaupon, I wasn't entirely sure what I should do. For the moment, I was hidden, bow drawn, arrow nocked, watching as the normally taciturn Mr. Roesch smiled and laughed with one of the women in the road while the other one stood by, watching. As Mr. Roesch stepped back from the smiling woman, I saw her by the light of the full moon. Still smiling, she turned her face toward me. And though I was certain I was fully hidden from sight, she beckoned to me nevertheless.

    "Come on out, young man. We're all friends here."

    I wasn't sure that I was as ready to trust her as Mr. Roesch obviously was, but then again, I wasn't really sure what was going on, either.

    My mentor called to me. "Come on out, Zachary."

    Still, I hesitated. The second woman looked in my general direction, obviously not quite certain of my location. But not Kenni. There was absolutely no way she could actually see me. No way! Yet her eyes drilled directly into me and I had the eerie feeling that despite the darkness, despite the cover of the foliage, she nevertheless saw me looking back at them. And though it was a warm Texas summer night, my skin prickled into goosebumps.

    But despite the strangeness of the situation, there was no indication of a threat. Just an uncanny feeling that there was more going on than I could tell. I licked my lips as I weighed the situation.

    In the end, the deciding factor was the black and white speckled bundle of fur that sprang back to her feet, tail wagging as she bumped against the woman's leg. As if in agreement, Bella let loose a quiet whine beside me. It wasn't fear. It was the whine she used when she wanted a treat, but I was keeping it from her. It was her "please Dad, haven't I been good long enough?" whine.

    I sighed, and though I eased the tension from my bow, I kept an arrow nocked and pointed at the ground. I whispered back at Bella. "Bella, come." I heard, more than saw her approach in the darkness. Together, she and I walked quietly from behind our cover.

    As we cleared the trees, I scowled at the dog pawing lightly at the woman's leg, clearly vying for more attention. "I see you've met Cricket." I said.

    She looked back down at the dog. Seeing that she was once more the center of attention, Cricket rolled onto her back, inviting the woman to rub her belly. Kenni grinned and knelt. "Cricket? What a cute name." It was evident that Cricket was enjoying herself. Her tail thumped her pleasure on the grass-covered concrete. Bella trotted past me to nudge the woman's other hand. The overt bid for equal attention caused the woman to giggle. "And what's your name?"

    I slipped my arrows back into the pouch on my back. I still didn't know who these women were, but I trusted my girls.

    "Her name is Bella." I told her.

    She scratched Bella behind the ears in the way that I knew she loved.

    "Zachary, I'd like for you to meet an old friend." Mr. Roesch brought my attention back to the woman beside him. "This is Kennesha Anderson. Call her Miss Anderson."

    "He will do no such thing! Zach and I are going to be very close friends soon."

    Mr. Roesch raised an eyebrow at that. "You are, huh?"

    "We are."

    From the look on his face, I could tell there was again more going on with their conversation than I knew. Before I could say anything though, she stepped forward, presenting her hand to me. She was younger than Mr. Roesch, though not by too much - a pretty black woman, slender yet muscular, with close cropped hair and skin so dark that I wouldn't have been surprised to see stars reflecting off it. "You can call me Kenni."

    I shook her hand. "Thank you, Kenni."

    "And this," she waved a hand toward her companion, who now sat on the ground, rubbing Cricket's belly, "is Robin."

    Robin looked up and smiled at me, even as Bella nudged her hand with her nose, obviously wanting her share of the attention. She scratched the dog behind her ear. Not to be outdone, Cricket wriggled her way halfway into the woman's lap. She smiled, looking up from her spot on the ground, extending a hand for me to shake. "I would stand, but it seems I'm not allowed up quite yet. I'm Robin Scott. Pleased to meet you."

    Bella nudged her hand again, apparently offended that I would dare to interfere with the attention she and Cricket were receiving. Robin giggled. "Kenni said you would have some friends with you, but I didn't know they would be this friendly!"

    "They aren't always. But when they are, I know I can trust the person they're with." It was true. They were my "people barometers". It wasn't usually so overt, but I could always tell whether or not I could trust a person by the way my girls acted around them.

    As usual, Mr. Roesch used the moment as another lesson. "The proper response at this point would be 'the pleasure is mine.'"

    Chagrined, I slumped my shoulders. "The pleasure is mine." I repeated, and Robin raised an eyebrow, looking from me to Mr. Roesch and back again. "I'm his assistant. It's a long story."

    Kenni chuckled. "Well, we have a fire set up in the trees over there by the creek," she pointed, indicating a little clearing just a few yards past the tree line across the road. "Would you gentlemen like to get your horses and join us?"

    A fire? I didn't smell any smoke, and looking past them I didn't see any hint of a glow. I did hear the faint sound of running water though.

    Mr. Roesch nodded and turned to me. "Zach, would you mind running back and getting them? We'll be spending the night with friends. Tomorrow promises to be an interesting day."

    Interesting. That was a word that always made me suspicious. Its implication was something that had the potential to be exciting or fun. In my experience, far too many interesting things in my life had proven to be more dangerous than fun. Still, Mr. Roesch had made it abundantly clear that he was the one calling the shots. Besides, tomorrow would be soon enough to find out what was going on.

    For now, I was the obedient assistant. I trotted back to get the horses.



    ***​


    When we got to their camp site, I saw why I hadn't seen or smelled the fire. The only indication that it was there was a small mound with rocks on top. Through the side of the mound was a smaller hole someone had dug. The hole went all the way through the side of the mound and there was a bundle of small branches protruding from it. As I watched, Robin walked over and pushed the branches a bit farther into the hole.

    "Zach?" Mr. Roesch's voice reminded me that I still had work to do, but I promised myself I would take a closer look at their unusual campfire as soon as I took care of the horses. I walked them over to the creek next to a pair of chestnut mares. Moonlight gave just enough visibility that I was able to work without worrying about tripping on anything.

    I saw that the women's horses were picketed where they could get to water throughout the night. I nodded, approving the setup as I bent to uncinch the saddle from Mr. Roesch's horse. His was a tall crème and white, nearly seventeen hands at the withers, and strong, as any horse that carried the big man would have to be. Mr. Roesch called him Ford. Said he'd always been a Chevy man in the past, but that after D-day, he realized he had to make a change.

    I spoke to Ford as I worked, wanting to get him comfortable with my sound and scent. "Hey, boy. You ready to get this load off?"

    I heard Cricket's tail begin to thump in the grass nearby, so I wasn't startled when Robin's voice sounded behind me. "You look like you could use a hand."

    I pulled the saddle from Ford's back, setting it on a log I'd picked for that purpose and nodded. "I wouldn't turn it down."

    She helped me strip the rest of the tack from our mounts while they drank. "So who are these handsome devils?" she asked me.

    "The big guy there is Ford. He's Mr. Roesch's. And this little lady is Tallulah." I stroked her shoulder affectionately.

    "She's yours?"

    I shrugged. "She's a good friend who lets me ride on her back."

    Robin chuckled, and I was suddenly self-conscious of the way I spoke about her.

    "Sorry. Guess I get carried away sometimes."

    "Don't be. It's good to see someone who's not afraid to show their appreciation for animals."

    I smiled.

    "These two," she pointed to the chestnuts, "are Cinnamon and Shadowfax."

    "Shadowfax?"

    Robin chuckled. "Kenni is a big Lord of the Rings fan."

    I grimaced. "Sorry, never read it."

    "Well, don't let Kenni find out or she'll spend days telling you every detail. All you need to know is Shadowfax was Gandalf's horse."

    "Gandalf. Got it." I pulled my hoof pick out of my pack. "If you still want to help, why don't you brush them down while I clean their hooves?"

    We spent the next several minutes in a surprisingly companionable silence, her brushing the horses while I picked the hooves clean and checked their legs. Working together, it only took us a few minutes.

    "Thanks. That didn't take long at all." I took the brush from her and slipped the hoof pick into my pocket.

    Robin grinned. "I enjoy spending time with animals. I have to say, though, you really seem to have a way with them."

    I shrugged. "I've just always been good with them. Especially dogs."

    As if on cue, Bella and Cricket trotted up beside me. Absently, I reached down to scratch them affectionately. "There's my good girls." Their tails wagged more fiercely.

    "Come," I told them, and they led the way back to the main camp. Now that my eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness, I could see a dim glow of the fire. It wasn't much, but it was enough to rekindle my curiosity. Robin must have seen my interest and led me over to it. "It's a variation of a Dakota fire pit."

    "A what?"

    She pointed out the anatomy of the pit. "Dig a hole, about a foot or so wide. Make it a foot or so deep. Then dig the feed hole about half the diameter on the windward side so the breeze will blow into it." She lightly kicked at the mound. "It works better if you either find or make a small hill. Makes it a lot easier to make the holes intersect right."

    I walked around the pit, and from the opposite side I could see how the two holes intersected at the bottom of the main pit. "What about the wood sticking out?"

    "It's an easy way to add fuel to the fire without disturbing the main pit." She grinned. "The fire burns more efficiently, uses less wood, and hardly produces any smoke at all."

    I nodded, walking around the pit again, memorizing how it was made.

    Mr. Roesch and Miss Anderson… Kenni, walked over. To my surprise, Kenni slipped an arm around Robin in a familiar fashion. It was a casual, yet intimate gesture that caught me by surprise. I had read all sorts of books in the library, and I knew what lesbians were. But the world had shrunk considerably since D-day, and Kenni and Robin were the first I had ever met. I was momentarily speechless, not sure how I should react.

    Kenni must have seen me studiously avoiding looking at them, because she laughed. "It's all right, Zachary. We know it's unusual, especially these days."

    Mr. Roesch looked from Kenni to me. Something in my face must have amused him, because he smiled for a second before getting serious. I recognized the look, and groaned inwardly. Crap. It was lesson time again.

    "You have to learn to conceal your emotions better than that, Zach. You don't have any idea what we're going to run into on this trip. Things aren't always going to be like they are in Rejas, and offending the wrong people might mess things up in all sorts of ways."

    "Oh, don't be such an ass, Mark," Kenni joked.

    But Mr. Roesch shook his head. "Me being an ass right now could save his life later." He turned his attention back to me. "We have a long way to go, and we're likely to meet a lot of different people between here and there. And I can just about guarantee that not all of them are going to say and do everything the way you're used to. What if we find a whole town where there aren't any men left? You think people are gonna just hole up in their homes moping because they can't find a man? No! Some of them will find that it's not so important whether the arms they find comfort in belong to a man or a woman, just as long as they care for each other." He looked around for a second, then pointed at Bella. "You've spent a lot of time training those dogs, haven't you? Well, what are you gonna do if we run across a town where someone wants to buy one of them?"

    I shrugged. "I can be polite. I'll just tell them that the dogs aren't for sale."

    "But what if they get insistent? What if you notice that there aren't any other animals in town? And that the people are thin and starving and desperate enough that they'll eat anything, including your dogs if they can get their hands on them?"

    I swallowed.

    "What if they get pissed off and start yelling at you? Threatening you? Crying because their kids are starving? What would you do then?"

    "I— I don't know."

    Mr. Roesch narrowed his eyes. "Well I know. You would do what I tell you to do."

    I nodded. "Yes sir."

    "You would do exactly what I tell you, when I tell you, and nothing more than I tell you."

    Everyone was silent at that point, and Mr. Roesch must have realized that he had drawn all eyes to himself. He stepped back. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm not trying to be a hard ass. But the kid needs to realize that as rough as things are, he's still been sheltered. This isn't a picnic. We don't know what we're walking into, and we don't know what we're going to find along the way. And those people might just as easily be desperate enough to eat us instead of the dogs. You can't make any kind of assumption if you don't have all the facts."

    I cleared my throat. "Mr. Roesch?"

    "Yes?"

    "I understand what you're saying, and I agree with you. I've lived in a small town that's mostly cut off from the rest of the world. I know that there's a lot that I don't know."

    Kenni chuckled again, and I was glad that I'd managed to lighten the mood a bit, because what I had to say next just might undo that. "But there's something that you need to know, too. And if it means you feel like you have to send me back…" I squared my shoulders and met Mr. Roesch's narrowed eyes with a steady gaze of my own. "Well, you already know I won't go, so I won't lie to you on that count."

    He scowled. "Well, what is it, then?"

    "Bella and Cricket are not for sale. Nobody is gonna eat them without going through me first. No matter what you say."

    He froze, and I couldn't tell whether he was angry, shocked, or simply stunned that I would stand up to him.

    "I just figured that might be one of the facts that you'll need to know before you make any kind of assumption."

    Everyone was silent for a moment. Then Kenni chuckled and Mr. Roesch turned to her. His voice was almost pleading as he asked her, "Damn it, Kenni. Do you even know what's going on here?"

    She stopped, sighed, and laid a hand on his arm. "Of course I do, Mark." Then something happened that caught my attention. Her smile faded, and the same time, Bella and Cricket froze, heads cocked curiously toward Kenni as she spoke to him. "I can see it plain as day."

    I'd read about sail boats and seen pictures of them, and I had heard people use an expression about taking the wind out of someone's sails. Kenni's words seemed to have that effect on Mr. Roesch. He hadn't been angry with me. Not really. But neither had he been exactly happy with me either. But when Kenni told him she could see what was going on, his shoulders slumped, and his expression changed. It was like he was finished with me. Finished with the whole situation.

    "We'll talk about it more tomorrow."
     
    Motomom34 and Sapper John like this.
  9. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 8
    New Companions​



    Robin and I worked the horses over again in the morning, and I worked hard at avoiding Mr. Roesch. But when you're part of a four person camp site, and responsible for grooming the horse of the person you're trying to avoid, well… it was obviously an exercise in futility. To be fair, Mr. Roesch seemed content to leave me to my inner demons while he appeared to wrestle with his. But after the horses were ready, we all still had to eat. And that meant sharing a seat around the small fire pit.

    As Robin and I approached, Kenni and Mr. Roesch looked up. It was apparent that they had been deep in conversation. It was equally apparent that they had stopped that conversation as soon as we got within earshot. Yeah, nothing like a sudden hush falling over the room to make a person feel awkward.

    Mr. Roesch handed me a shingle of food, just like he had for the last few days, but this morning the gesture seemed hollow and strained. After several minutes of anxious silence, he cleared his throat.

    "Look, Zachary. It's sorta been brought to my attention," he flicked his eyes briefly toward Kenni, "that I might have been a little too hard on you last night. I need you to know I wasn't upset. Not really anyway. I just want to make sure you're ready for whatever we're going to run into on this trip."

    Kenni interrupted. "We also need you to realize that none of us really knows what we might run into." She looked significantly at Mr. Roesch. "None of us."

    He had the decency to look embarrassed at that. Then he shrugged. "Look son, there's still a lot that I can teach you. But there's also a lot that I don't know. And I have to be smart enough to admit that, same as you. So as much as it pains me to have to say this, I owe you an apology."

    He grinned good-naturedly as he said this last, and I had to smile back. And just like that, most of the tension dissipated.

    But as we finished breaking camp and getting our group on the road again, I couldn't help thinking about some of the implications of everything that had happened. I thought about it in silence as we rode, and for the first time in two days, Mr. Roesch seemed content to let me do so without shoving his lessons down my throat. He rode a bit behind of the rest of us, silent and brooding. I rode a bit ahead of him, but behind Robin and Kenni, who led the way chuckling and speaking quietly to one another.

    The morning was clear and bright, yet another beautiful east Texas day. Birds called through the trees. Bella and Cricket traipsed in and out of the brush ahead, occasionally bounding off after something or other that they scented, then reappearing a few minutes later, tongues lolling and tails wagging at the great fun. Everything seemed peaceful, except for Mr. Roesch.

    And me.

    I considered all that had led up to last night's confrontation. "You have to learn to conceal your emotions better than that, Zach," he had told me. And there was his reluctance to take the message from the satellite at face value. He obviously didn't really trust whoever sent it. Not completely, anyway. And the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that I had been much too trusting.

    There was simply too much that I didn't know. The more I thought about that, the more I realized that it applied to several facets of my current state of affairs.

    For the next few hours, I tried to look over what I knew of the situation with some of the impartiality that he'd been trying to teach me. There were implications in the fact that my father, and the rest of the council had sent Mr. Roesch, a former lawyer, as the Rejas representative to what may or may not be an official representative to the national government.

    And ever since he had pointed out that I also represented Rejas, simply by virtue of accompanying him as his assistant, he had been stuffing my head full of all sorts of what if scenarios. More implications?

    Okay, so he didn't want me to screw up the meeting with whoever we were going to meet. And yes, I had to admit that I likely would have done exactly that. But there seemed to be more to it than that, and I needed to figure it out. It was as if my learning to comport myself properly was more than him just not wanting me to embarrass myself or Rejas. It was more like he was grooming me. And the more I thought about that, the more it worried me.

    Our new companions were yet another mystery. Who were they? How had they known where we would be last night? What was their relationship to Mr. Roesch? Why did her words sway him so much?

    It wasn't like I had ever seen him argue too much back home. He was always pretty quiet. But he also didn't really knuckle under too well. Not to anyone.

    I had watched him listen to what people had to say on many occasions, and he always appeared to consider their words and value their opinions. But I had as often as not seen him completely disregard their advice after they had said their piece. It was as if he listened, weighed the evidence, and then did whatever he wanted, based on his own interpretation of the facts. Likely another facet of his training as a lawyer.

    But there was more to his deference to Kenni than just that. It was like he took her words as absolute. And the more I considered that, the more I realized that I was thinking about the situation all wrong. I was concentrating on Mr. Roesch's reaction to Kenni, when I should be examining the question of what it was about Kenni that Mr. Roesch considered so deserving of such regard.

    Yes, that felt right. I looked up to where Kenni rode beside Robin. As if she knew my eyes were on her, she turned to look at me and smiled. Then she jerked her chin at me in a come on over here gesture.

    So I reigned Tallulah over to ride on her left, while Robin rode on her right. She smiled again in that friendly way she had. "You're awfully quiet this morning."

    "Yes, ma'am. I've had a lot to think about. And Mr. Roesch seems to be pretty caught up in his own thoughts too."

    She turned in her saddle and looked back at him. Then she nodded. "Yeah, I guess he is. Guess I should have expected that reaction."

    "Ma'am?"

    She grinned again. "All right. First of all, you're gonna have to drop the ma'am stuff. Unless you want me to start calling you sir."

    "Sorry. It's just the way I was raised. But I'll try."

    "That's all I can ask. And as for Mr. Roesch," she paused, as if trying to think of what to say. "Mark and I have a little history."

    "I gathered that much. He acts… different around you."

    "I suppose." She shrugged. "We were together on D-day. We met under… unusual circumstances."

    Beside her, Robin guffawed. Kenni sighed. "And, yes. Robin already knows the story."

    "Must be some story then."

    "It is. But not all of it is mine to tell."

    "But Robin gets to know?"

    Kenni paused. "Something you'll learn… You don't keep secrets from those you love. It breeds distrust. So I suppose what I should have said is that some of the story isn't mine to tell you."

    She said it without malice, which made it hard to get upset with her.

    "Besides, someday you're going to want me to keep something secret for you, too. And won't you feel better knowing that I can be trusted to do so?"

    I grinned. "I guess so."

    "But I can tell you that Mark and I went through some life altering changes together. We lost loved ones, and we made some friends." She looked forward, up the road into the distance, and at first I thought she was going to stop talking. But after only a few seconds, she continued. "I guess just about everyone has a similar story in that regard. But most of all, we learned to trust each other implicitly. I haven't seen Mark in more than ten years, but still, I would trust him with my life." Then she turned those eyes back to gaze intently at me. "And I believe you should do the same. He has nothing but your best interests in mind.

    "Still…" She trailed off for a second. "Let me talk to him." She looked up at the sun overhead. "You two ride on ahead. I'll have a word with Mark."

    With that, she pulled her mount back to fall into place beside Mr. Roesch, leaving Robin and I suddenly riding beside one another. I looked at Robin. "Is she always so cryptic?"

    Robin shrugged. "She… she can't always put what she knows into words. Sometimes she gets so much that it's hard for her to tell how much is important, so she doesn't really know what needs to be said until it doesn't need to be said any longer."

    I just stared at her.

    Robin apparently realized how that sounded and laughed. "Yeah, talk about being cryptic. I guess I just topped Kenni, didn't I?"

    "Well, I sure don't understand what you're talking about, so I guess so." I laughed along with her.

    "You know how she said that some of what happened to Mark wasn't her story to tell?"

    "Yeah."

    "Well, some of what happened to Kenni isn't my story to tell, either."

    "Now, why doesn't that surprise me?"

    "Look, if you want to know what happened to Mark, he has to tell you."

    "And Kenni?"

    "Once you get Mark's story, I imagine Kenni will fill in her part, too."
     
  10. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 9
    Story Time​



    The rest of the day was a little awkward, what with nobody telling anybody else's stories. And since I seemed to be the only person who didn't already know those stories, it basically felt like everyone was avoiding me, specifically. I was determined to resolve that problem as soon as the opportunity presented itself, but for the time being, there was nothing I could do about it.

    A few hours after lunch, there was a little distraction as we wandered through what had once been a small town. But like so many east Texas towns these days, it seemed to be completely abandoned. It wasn't a complete waste of time, however, as a little scavenging through Uncle Benny's Quick Stop gained us some powdered drink mix and a box of dried noodles. Rats had chewed one corner of the box, and a few of the packets inside were ruined, but eight of them looked to still be good.

    The distraction and good fortune seemed to lighten everyone's mood a bit as we got back on the road. About an hour or so before sunset we found a spot where a small stream had washed out part of the highway. The dogs caught the scent of something and raced ahead, barking excitedly at the edge of the stream. Their barking spoke to me of danger and challenge, and I drew Tallulah up to see what they had cornered.

    As I approached, Cricket pounced in and back, dodging at the last second as I saw what they were doing. "Cricket! Bella! Come!" Heart pounding, I grabbed my bow and swung out of the saddle as the girls returned to my side. I didn't bother to string the bow, instead running to the stream and using it as a simple pole to pin the snake that had been resting on a warm rock beside the water.

    "Zach? What is it?"

    "Cottonmouth!" And with the head pinned tightly, I drew my belt knife and quickly decapitated the thing. I kicked a hole in the soft dirt and tossed the head into it, safely burying it before I brought the rest of the snake back to the others.

    "Are cottonmouths edible?" I asked.

    Mr. Roesch shrugged. "I have no idea. Kenni?"

    "I don’t know either. I know rattlesnake is. I guess we can try it and find out."

    So we made camp there. Robin and I tromped around, beating the bushes and overturning rocks to make sure there were no other snakes. Once we felt relatively safe, we picketed the horses. I let Robin do the grooming this evening while I started cleaning the snake for dinner. I kept an eye on Kenni, watching as she dug the fire pit, mentally confirming that I knew how she did it. As I began pulling the skin from the snake, I wrinkled my nose at the smell of the meat.

    Mr. Roesch must have been watching me. "Something wrong with the snake?"

    "Just smells fishy. You still want to try it?"

    He walked over and sniffed of it. "We can try it, but it might also be a good idea to have the dogs bring in some rabbit. Just in case."

    I grinned. "Bella, Cricket, hunt!" The two of them darted into the brush.

    "I'll get some water," he said, and went back to his pack to get a small pot. He put it over the fire to boil and took the snake from me. Cutting it into bite-sized chunks, he tossed it into the water, along with some of the noodles and a flavor packet that came with them.

    The girls returned after a short while with another brace of rabbits that I cleaned, again giving them the entrails as a reward. I gave the rest of the rabbits to Mr. Roesch, who pulled a packet of corn meal, as well as some salt and dried jalapeño from his saddle bags. Kenni pulled her belt knife, walked over to a nearby shrub, and cut several small branches that held bunches of tiny red berries. She broke one of the berry clusters loose and handed it to him. "Stick these in the meat while it cooks. It gives it a citrus flavor."

    Mr. Roesch looked at them questioningly before holding them to his nose and sniffing. "What is it?"

    "Sumac."

    "Are you crazy?" He tossed it away and wiped his hand on his pants.

    "Depends on who you ask. But it's not poison sumac. Different leaves. Different berries. Poison sumac has light green or white berries in clusters that hang downward, and the leaves have smooth edges." I watched as she held another branch out to him. She pointed. "These leaves have serrated edges. There are a lot of edible varieties, but they all grow red or purple berries, and the clusters grow pointing upward." She cut the berry cluster loose and tossed the leaves to the ground. "Put the berries in the meat while it's cooking and it should give it a nice tang."

    "If you say so." He shrugged, and skewered the meat with the small branches.

    I was intrigued, and walked to the shrub she had cut them from. The berry clusters were distinctive, and I realized I had seen them growing in the area for most of the day. I stripped several of the tiny things loose, rolling them in my hand. I sniffed them, but there was no distinctive scent. Finally, I popped a few in my mouth, chewing tentatively. "Holy crap." I spat the bitter, astringent mess out. "That's nasty!"

    Robin laughed as she stepped out of the brush nearby. "You aren't supposed to chew them. The flavor is in the coating, not in the actual berry." She had a handful of leaves that she stuffed into a pouch on her belt as she walked toward me. She smiled as she took some of the tiny berries from my hand and popped them in her mouth. "You just put them in your mouth and suck on them for a few minutes."

    I followed her example and was pleasantly surprised at the tart flavor. I grinned.

    "Better?"

    "Much."

    "You can chew the shoots, too. In fact, if you get them while they're young enough, you can eat them like tiny stalks of celery."

    She pulled a small growth from the base of the shrub and peeled the bark from it. Breaking it in half, she handed me part of it and popped the other in her mouth.

    I licked the green shoot and raised an eyebrow at the tart taste.

    Robin laughed at my expression. "Go ahead and eat it."

    Somewhat tentatively, I bit down on the little stalk. It was tangy, and as Kenni had said, it had a citrusy taste. I nodded. "Not bad." I looked once more at the plant, memorizing it so I would be able to readily identify it in the future.

    "Are the leaves good, too?"

    She shrugged. "I wouldn't say they're good, but they won't poison you."

    "Then why save them?"

    She looked puzzled until I pointed to the pouch in which she had stuffed the handful of leaves.

    "Oh! That's not sumac. There's a patch of comfrey back there." She pointed to where she had emerged from the thicket.

    "So comfrey is edible?"

    "Yes, but I collect it for its healing properties. It's one of the best medicinal herbs around."

    "Robin was a nurse in the Old Days." Kenni spoke from behind me. "She's continued as an herbalist since then."

    I was intrigued. Herbal healing had always interested me. I decided to get her to teach me what she could whenever we had enough time.

    Half an hour later, we all congregated around the fire, munching the rabbit and some poke salad in silence. After only a bite or two from everyone, we decided as a group that the snake and noodles would better serve as dog food. It wasn't inedible, but it wasn't appetizing, either. And we had fresh rabbit that was oh, so much better.

    I picked at my meal, trying to figure out how to start the conversation I wanted when Kenni gave me the opening I was looking for. "Tomorrow morning we'll probably get to what's left of Carthage."

    Mr. Roesch took the bait. "What’s left of it? What do you mean?"

    Kenni grunted. "Don't you remember? That was the town where there'd been a fire." She looked at me. "Most of the town was gone, burned to the ground."

    I seized the opening. "So you guys have been this way before?"

    Mr. Roesch sat on a log, quietly studying the fire pit in the evening light. His expression was stoic, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that he'd been manipulated by his friend. Finally, he shook his head and glared at her. "That was low."

    Kenni shrugged. "We can't keep talking around it. Carthage is where we have to decide which direction we're going."

    "So?"

    She gestured to me. "Zachary, you have a map, don't you?"

    How did she know that? "Yes, ma'am. Sorry. I mean, yes, I do." I pulled the folded map out of my pack and handed it to her.

    She unfolded the crackling paper and traced a route with her finger. I watched over Mr. Roesch's shoulder while Robin came and held a small torch over the map so we could all see it better.

    "We're right around here on highway fifty-nine," Kenni pointed to a stretch between two towns. "Uncle Benny's was back at Tenaha." She pointed to a dot. "Now, the stream here is too small to show up on a map this size, so I don't know for sure where along here we are, but judging by the amount of time we've been travelling, I'd guess we're just over halfway between Tenaha and Carthage."

    Mr. Roesch nodded. "Looks about right. So why is Carthage so important?"

    "Zach needs to know what happened before you start getting all sullen. And you know you're going to. It's only natural."

    "What makes you think I'm gonna turn sullen?"

    "Because Carthage is where we have to decide which direction we're going to go." She traced a line on the map from Carthage to the northwest. "If we head up one forty-nine toward Tatum we eventually have to go past East Texas Regional."

    I saw Mr. Roesch clench his jaw at that.

    "If we keep going north on fifty-nine instead—"

    His tone was flat as he completed her sentence. "We go through Marshall."

    She nodded. "Either way, it's going to be rough on you." He started to say something but she shook her head. "You know I'm right. It's only natural."

    This was my opening. I cleared my throat. "Sorry, but why is it going to be rough?"

    Everyone was silent. Mr. Roesch stared into the fire, while Kenni and Robin looked at him. Kenni gently prodded him. "Mark, tell him. Tell him before you get all moody." She put a hand on his shoulder. "It will do you good to talk about it."

    "What about your part? What about what happened to you?"

    "So we'll tell him together. It'll do us both good. And it will help him to understand some things."

    He sighed deeply. When he looked up at me, I was shocked to see tears in the man's eyes. He began. "Kenni and I met on D-day. I lived in the city of Marshall, Texas at the time. I was at East Texas Regional Airport to pick up my wife and daughter."

    Kenni chimed in, "And I had just flown in to meet my brother. I was on leave and—"

    "On leave?" I interrupted. "What's that mean?"

    "It meant I had some time off. I was a Marine."

    "Like in the army?"

    "No, not like in the army." She seemed insulted. "The US had different branches of the military who worked in different arenas."

    Now I was really getting confused. "Arenas?"

    "We had the Air Force, who specialized in air warfare. The Navy handled aquatic warfare—"

    "That's in the water, right?" I remembered reading the word in the past.

    Kenni sighed. "Yes. That's over the water. And the Army focused on land battles."

    "So what were the Marines then?"

    "Marines were trained to work in all arenas. Think of the other branches as specialists. They knew a lot about their particular type of fighting. But the Marines did it all. We fought in the air, on the land, and in the water."

    "And you were one of them?"

    "I was."

    I was impressed.

    "Now, can we get back to the story?"

    "Sorry."

    "I was on leave to visit home on D-day."

    Mr. Roesch picked up the narrative again. "We were both at the airport when the EMP hit." He took a deep breath. "You already know about the EMP, and what it did."

    I nodded.

    "My wife and daughter were in a plane when it lost power." His tears flowed freely now as he spoke. I'd never known that he had a family before he got to Rejas. It made sense. So many other people had lost loved ones that day, and in the hard times after it. But he'd never spoken of it.

    "The plane crashed and set off a chain reaction of explosions at the airport. The crash—" He stopped, unable to continue for the moment.

    Kenni came to his rescue. "The crash killed his family. The explosions at the airport got my brother." She took a deep breath. "And my lover at the time."

    Robin took Kenni's hand and squeezed.

    "Mark and I barely made it out alive."

    We all sat in silence for a bit. "Mr. Roesch? Why did you come to Rejas? You said you lived in Marshall."

    "It was also where my wife and daughter lived. I couldn't go back there."

    And I understood. Tomorrow, Mr. Roesch had to choose between going back to the place he had lived with them, or where they had died.
     
  11. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 10
    Belief​


    They weren't kidding when they said Carthage had burned. I wouldn't have known a town had once been there if Kenni hadn't pointed out some of the remains. Along highway fifty-nine, there was little other than the highway itself and a few crumbled bridges to distinguish the town from the forest that had begun to reclaim it. Even the main highway had succumbed to the ground cover in many places. It was pretty obvious we weren't going to find anything worth scavenging here.

    We passed a slight depression and Kenni stopped, looking up and down its length. "Zachary, can I see that map again?"

    I pulled it from my pack and passed it over to her.

    She sat on her horse for a few minutes looking up and down the ditch, then back at the map. "Mark? I think it's time to make a decision."

    Mr. Roesch pulled his mount up alongside hers. "Not that I'm arguing, mind you, but what did you find that makes you say that?"

    She leaned over, holding the map closer to him. I leaned over so I could see, as well, shading my eyes against the late morning sun. "I'm pretty sure this is where we are." She pointed to a point on the map.

    "That's pretty specific. Why do you think we're there?"

    She pointed to the right, up the ditch, to where a piece of steel stuck straight and narrow out of the earth. It spanned horizontally about three feet over the ditch and seemed to have just been cut off at that point. Mr. Roesch squinted. "Is that a piece of railroad track?"

    "Looks like it. And right here on the map is where highway fifty-nine intersects with the railroad and a small creek in Carthage. I think this ditch is the dried up creek bed."

    Mr. Roesch and I both looked up and down the depression, much as Kenni had. Mr. Roesch nodded. "Looks about right."

    "And that means we're about half a mile from the middle of where Carthage used to be. That means we need to decide what direction to go."

    Mr. Roesch sighed. "Okay. I've been trying to think about this as objectively as I can."

    "And?"

    "Burn Flats is northwest, toward the airport. But if we go that way directly, it takes us closer to the DFW metro area, and we already know for a fact that it was hit hard on D-day."

    "So you're worried about fallout?"

    "Yeah. The closer we go toward Dallas, the stronger the chances of running into it. No need chancing it."

    "So," she traced a finger up the map, "if we stay on fifty-nine, we go up through Marshall into Oklahoma. Eventually we would hit interstate forty and we could take it west all the way to the space port."

    Mr. Roesch shook his head. "That looks like it would add at least another week to the trip."

    "You on a schedule?"

    "Not really. I told the council I'd try to be back in six to eight weeks. But everyone knows that nothing's a certainty these days. Still, an extra week before we even get there seems a bit much." He ran his finger to a point a bit north of Marshall. "What about if we go north to Jefferson, then cut northwest on forty-nine through Paris? We could get a more direct route without taking as much extra time, and still keep far enough away from the DFW area that we should be safe."

    Kenni nodded. "Looks like a good compromise to me."

    So we continued north, passing through the crumbling remains of a dead town.


    ***​


    We camped that night on the banks of the Sabine River. A nice breeze had rolled in, and cloud cover had cooled us off for the last few hours of the day. All in all, from late afternoon until we found a place to break for the night, it was one of those summer evenings that just made you content to be part of the world. It was nice enough that we briefly considered fording the river and pushing on for a bit longer, but Mr. Roesch squashed that idea.

    "We can break here, catch some fish, get a good night's rest, and start fresh tomorrow. Or we can cross the river, move on for a few more miles, and camp somewhere up the road with wet clothes. I vote for sleeping dry with a belly full of fish."

    I had to admit, he made some good points.

    Our routine was pretty well established at this point. We all knew our jobs, and were learning to do them pretty efficiently. Less than an hour after we'd dismounted, we were sitting around a fire pit, watching a couple of spiced catfish cook on some cedar shingles.

    I sniffed appreciatively. "That smells great!"

    Mr. Roesch just grunted, never looking up from the fire. I looked over at Kenni, questioning her with my eyes. She just shook her head. I took that as a hint that I should just let him be. So we all sat around in awkward silence while the big man brooded over the food.

    Eating was more of the same. We sat looking at one another, waiting on someone to break the silence. Bella pushed her head into my lap, wanting me to scratch her behind the ears. Cricket was giving Robin a similar treatment, but she preferred belly rubs. She made that preference known as Robin reached down to scratch her, by rolling over onto her back. Robin chuckled and rubbed the dog's belly.

    "She really is a glutton for attention, isn't she?"

    "Yes ma'am," I agreed. "She doesn't trust people easily… well, not usually. But when she does, she trusts them completely. She wouldn't expose her belly to you like that, otherwise."

    Robin smiled at that, still rubbing Cricket's tummy as the dog grunted in pleasure.

    A few minutes later, Mr. Roesch finished his fish and tossed his shingle into the fire. He stared at the flames as they consumed the split wood. Kenni spoke softly to him, but I heard her words as she asked, "Having trouble sleeping again, aren't you?"

    He simply nodded.

    "Nikki?"

    Another nod.

    "Can you hear her?"

    This time he shook his head. "It's just that damned crash, over and over."

    Kenni laid a friendly hand on his arm. "I'll see if I can get her to talk tonight."

    Wondering what they were talking about, I looked from his face to hers. Then I saw Bella and Cricket roll over and look at her. Their tails had stopped wagging, but I didn't feel that they were frightened, either. It was as if they were watching something they weren't used to seeing. Something I couldn't see. I didn't realize that I was staring at Kenni until she looked my way and her brow furrowed. "What?"

    I looked away, afraid I would offend her. "Nothing. Sorry." I looked back up to find her still staring at me. "I'm sorry. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on. I'm still odd man out, and I know it. You talk about things and people that I don't know, and it's like everybody knows some special secret, except me." I looked at Mr. Roesch. "I'm trying to be respectful of what you went through, and the fact that we're heading to your old home, and the memories that it has to be giving you. I know it's got to be like torture for you, so I don't want to… I don't know. I just don't want to make things worse for you."

    We all sat in silence for a few minutes. Even the dogs settled back down, acting once more as if nothing in the world mattered except getting belly rubs and ear scratches while they lay beside the fire. Then Kenni spoke.

    "Back before D-day, there was a radio host my dad used to listen to. I don't remember his name, but he always told little stories about famous people. Only he didn't tell you what they were famous for at first. And he didn't tell you what their names were. He would tell you some little side story about how they gained the ambition, or acquired the talent to become that famous person, instead of just an ordinary Joe like the rest of us. At the end, he gave the big reveal about who that person was.

    "He called it the rest of the story, and it was a pretty popular program." She looked at Mr. Roesch, and then pursed her lips. "I guess it's time to tell you the rest of our story."

    I sat up, forgetting the dog sitting beside me, contentedly warming herself by the fire. I concentrated my entire being on Kenni's words.

    "Mark helped me get home after D-day. Shortly after we got there, my mother died."

    Now that was an abrupt way to start to the story. "I'm sorry."

    "Don't be. Death isn't really the end of things." Kenni looked at me, her gaze drilling into me. "That's sort of the point of this little story. Death is just a transition. Do you believe that, Zachary?"

    I shrugged. "I don't really know. I know I'm supposed to believe it. Most of the people in Rejas believe it."

    But Kenni was shaking her head. "That's not really what I mean. I'm not talking about religious faith." She leaned forward, "No, when I talk about death not being the end, I'm talking about something much simpler than religious belief and salvation. I'm simply asking if you believe that we're more than just a bunch of electrical impulses firing through some chemical soup housed inside a bag of meat and bone. Do you accept the possibility that there's something more to us? Something that's part of that combination of electrical impulses and chemistry and physiology, but that can still exist without it?"

    "Well, I suppose so." I nodded. "Yes ma'am."

    "No. Not 'I suppose'. Do you really believe it? Deep down in your gut?" She peered intently at me, as if whatever answer I gave were of supreme importance. "Think about it before you answer."

    Not really sure where this conversation was going, I knew it was a turning point in my relationship with Kenni. So I searched my thoughts on the matter, really examining them. I had long since rebelled against my peers' religious beliefs. I'd even gone through a short period where I had decided I was an atheist, eschewing any possibility of a Creator. I thought that the idea that someone could tell me that there was some supreme being that no one could see or hear was more vanity than faith. After all, who were they to tell me what to believe?

    Later, I had realized that my refusal to believe was just as vain as their insistence that I do so. I had no more proof that such a being didn't exist than they had that He did. So I had come to accept that there were many things I simply didn’t know about the world… things I would likely never know. And that had been a turning point in my understanding of life. I had learned to accept other peoples' beliefs as a viable possibility, and that had brought me a strange contentment in my dealings with them.

    Like Kenni, I didn't begrudge or belittle their faith. It simply wasn't something I could accept. But she also made it clear that this wasn't the type of faith she referred to. She was asking if I believed that there was a possibility of something beyond Life As We Knew It. And that was a question I had long since asked myself.

    "Yes. There's always the possibility."

    "And do you believe that there may be people who can more easily access this part of themselves, who can see things that others can't?"

    Once more, the girls perked up, watching Kenni intently. What was it about her that grabbed their attention? Were they seeing something? I'd always heard stories about dogs and cats being able to see ghosts, but I'd never really believed it to be anything more than an old wives tale. But now I was starting to wonder if there was something to it.

    She smiled and nodded. "I see you do."

    What was she talking about? This whole conversation had just gone off track. "Wait. What does—?"

    "My brother called it 'the knowing'. Mark calls it 'seeing'. I've heard it called second sight, clairvoyance, ESP, or any number of other things. I've even had people over the last few years who call me a witch."

    I swallowed. "And you say you have this," I hesitated, "second sight?"

    She nodded. "I believe a lot of people have similar gifts to one extent or another. Whether or not they chose to accept or acknowledge it is another matter." She nodded to Bella and Cricket. "Most animals can sense it. And I've seen how you interact with them. You have a real gift with animals, don't you?"

    "Well, sure, but that's just—"

    "Just what?" She grinned. "It's something more than most people have. It's something unquantifiable that some have, and others don't. It's a gift that can't be explained by normal means."

    I looked at Mr. Roesch. She said he had called it 'seeing'. So he knew about her claim. "Mr. Roesch?"

    He looked up from the fire… looked at me and shook his head. "Like she said, it's nothing I can explain. I've seen her predict the future. I've seen her tell me things that no one could possibly know." He looked back into the fire. "I've seen her talk to the dead."

    Kenni laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it before turning back to me. "Now that we don't spend all our time watching television or staring at computer screens, I think we're getting back in touch with that part of ourselves. I think most people, maybe everyone, has the capacity for it in one degree or another."

    She looked keenly at me. "With you, it's an affinity for animals."

    "What? What do you mean?"

    "You have a touch of it. I've seen the way you look at me when I get a flash. What is it you see?"

    I stared at her. "Nothing really. It's the girls. They change. It's like they see something no one else can see."

    She nodded, then turned to Mr. Roesch. "Mark, what did you see the night that Mama died?"

    He didn't bother looking up. "You know what I saw."

    "But Zachary doesn't."

    He looked at me again and shrugged. "I saw her mother lay her hands on Kenni's head. And I saw a glow. It was a soft, golden glow on her hands where they touched Kenni." He smiled sadly looking over to Kenni now. "It was beautiful."

    She looked back at me. "In ancient times, people simply accepted that these things existed. Sometimes they called them gifts, and sometimes curses. Sometimes they were embraced, and sometimes they were feared and reviled. But even as recently as half a century ago, most people accepted that they were real.

    "Then we grew more educated, learned more about technology and science. We were taught that there was a logical explanation for everything… even what we had once believed to be unexplainable. So we learned to explain away the things we saw. We convinced ourselves that because there was a logical way to explain the things we saw, that it was the only way to explain them." She shrugged. "We lost our ability to believe in anything else."

    Mr. Roesch snorted. "Until someone like you comes along and shoves it in our faces."

    "So I propose we conduct a little experiment." Kenni looked at me. "Zachary, would you mind participating?"

    "Sure."

    "Now, I'm going to try to see someone on the other side."

    "Other side?"

    "Just let me know if you or the dogs see anything."

    "O-okay." Inwardly, I shrugged, but I kept watched. I shifted my gaze between her, and the girls, watching for the subtle change in their attitude that I had seen earlier. For almost two minutes, nothing happened. "Kenni?"

    "Shh!"

    So I shushed. Another few minutes passed, and my eyes were burning. I kept resisting the urge to blink, afraid I would miss something. A few minutes more and I was just tired of looking. And suddenly, I saw Bella's ears twitch. She raised her head, suddenly watching Kenni intently. I looked at Cricket. Her eyes had riveted on her, as well. "There!" I told her.

    Kenni closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, as if she had just completed some physical task. Then she looked at Mr. Roesch. "You're right. Nikki was trying to get you to see something. She says you need to be careful when you go home. There will be bad people."

    "Nikki?" I asked.

    "My first wife." Mr. Roesch answered without looking at me.

    "And, ah… didn't you say she… I'm sorry, but isn't she…?"

    "Dead?" He finished. "Yes. But isn't that what we were just talking about?"

    I turned to Kenni. "So you're telling me you can speak to the dead?"

    "It's like I said. There are some people who have certain gifts that others don't."

    I shook my head, not willing to take the leap with her. "I admit I said I thought it was possible, but that doesn't mean that I fully believe it, either."

    "You aren't willing to believe your own eyes?"

    "My own eyes? I didn't see anyone but us. I definitely didn't see a ghost!"

    "But you saw your dogs react?"

    "Sure, but that doesn't mean anything. Just because they act a little… odd, doesn't mean something actually happened."

    "It doesn't mean it didn't happen, either."

    I knew better than to get drawn into this kind of argument. "So we’re basically saying that something might or might not have happened? Do you know how that sounds?"

    "Of course. I don't expect you to take my word for it. I just want you to remember it. File it away and keep an open mind for now."

    "About what?"

    "About what we've been talking about. About the idea that just because we can't see something doesn't mean it's not there. About the idea that there just might be people who can touch the supernatural."

    "What?"

    Kenni smiled in that knowing way that she seemed to have. "Supernatural simply means that something is beyond the natural. Just like your gift."

    "My gift?" My voice nearly squeaked at the sudden shift in topic. "I don't have a supernatural gift."

    "So everyone can gain the same affinity with animals that you have?"

    I thought about it for a second. Everyone had always told me I had a special way with animals. It took me a fraction of the time to train Bella and Cricket that it took even the best trainer back in Rejas. And I'd always been able to calm temperamental horses and livestock. Everyone had always called it a gift. But I'd never thought anything much of it.

    She looked at me, waiting for me to answer.

    "That's not the same thing at all," I said.

    "Why not?"

    "Because having a way with animals is…" I didn't know how to finish that sentence.

    "Normal?" Kenni asked. "If that were the case, then everyone would have it, wouldn't they?"

    "No. Being a good shot with a bow isn't an ability everyone has. That doesn't make it a supernatural ability."

    Kenni nodded. "Granted. Are you a good shot?"

    "Yes, ma'am."

    "And could you teach someone else to become a good shot?"

    "With enough time, sure."

    "And could you teach them how you handle animals?"

    I clapped my mouth shut.

    "Zachary, I've had a feeling since I met you that there's something in you that I'm supposed to help. I feel like you have your own gifts, and that I'm supposed to help train you."

    Great, someone else who wants to start teaching me. I was really getting tired of all the lessons.

    "No, I'm not going to start filling your days with lessons like Mark does."

    It really bothered me when she did that.

    "At least not right away," she said. "All I ask is that you keep your eyes and ears open to anything unusual that you see."

    "I guess I can do that."

    "And can you try to keep your mind open, as well?"

    I hesitated. I didn't want to lie to her, but neither did I really believe that there was some kind of… what had she called it? Some kind of second sight.

    "I'll try."

    "Good enough for now." She sighed. "Now, why don't you and Robin go get some rest? Mark and I have some talking to do."

    Shaken, I took advantage of the dismissal and walked away from whatever discussion she and Mr. Roesch were going to have. Whatever it was, I had the distinct impression that I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I grabbed my gear and moved away from the river, into the tree line. Spotting a pair of trees that fit my needs, I began slinging my hammock, losing myself in the personal ritual. Fifteen minutes later, I was staring up through the tops of the trees, rocking gently in the breeze.
     
    techsar and mysterymet like this.
  12. duane

    duane Monkey++

    Thank you. Very interesting take on character development, observing the main character develop, and wondering where it will lead to next. Good details on survival in a post SHTF world and an interesting touch of both the world of the Hobbit and the world of man. Also interesting in the almost endless directions it may go. Not to far out, but it isn't a routine story where you kind of know the ending of the story by the end of the first chapter. Enjoyed the shifts from one character to the next and keeping it related to the story as it develops.
     
  13. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Agreed! Most definitely looking forward to future installments :)
     
  14. Pax Mentis

    Pax Mentis Philosopher King Site Supporter

    I enjoyed your first 2 a lot. Unfortunately I am proof of the theory that we don't retain what we read on a backlit screen so I will have to wait until it comes out on Kindle (unless you would like to send me a .pdf for proofing when you finish the draft ;))...
     
  15. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Thanks folks. Here are the next chapters...
    ___________________________________________

    Chapter 11
    Perspective​



    We rode in relative silence. I didn't know what Mr. Roesch and Kenni had discussed after Robin and I had left, but it seemed to have left him with a lot to think about. And her discussion with me had left me more than just a little uneasy, as well. The idea that I might have some kind of special powers was ludicrous, but it bothered me that all the others seemed ready to accept that Kenni had them.

    I couldn't really put my finger on why it bothered me so much. It wasn't like she had tried to do anything wrong, or pressure me into anything. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that it was probably just a matter of having yet another instance of me not controlling my own destiny. Another person who seemed to know more about where my life was heading than I did.

    I finally gave up with that line of thinking. There was nothing I could do about it for the time being, so my time was better served by paying attention to the road ahead. The map showed that we would more than likely be in Marshall before evening, and Mr. Roesch had mentioned that he wanted to go by his old home. Personally, I didn't think that was a very good idea. But putting myself in his shoes, I also understood that it would be hard to have come all this way, to have gotten so close, and then not go by to see it.

    When we began coming across rusted hulks of old automobiles, I knew we must be getting close. Abandoned cars were commonplace on the highway, but they were becoming more frequent along this stretch. I figured it was a good indication that we were approaching a relatively large town – at least by any standard I was used to.

    I wondered how big it had really been. "Mr. Roesch?"

    He looked at me, but didn't speak. His raised eyebrow was the only indication he was listening to me.

    "We're passing an awful lot of cars. Does that mean that Marshall was a big city?"

    He smiled slightly and shook his head. "Not really. I think there were twenty-five or thirty thousand people."

    It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. Thirty thousand? Rejas was less than three thousand. "That's not a big city?"

    He chuckled. "I guess big is a relative term, isn't it? No. By pre-D standards, thirty thousand was a decent sized town, but the really big cities usually had millions of people living in them."

    "Millions?" That many people living together was almost incomprehensible.

    He looked at me quizzically. "Don't you remember anything from before D-day? Your dad told me that y'all came from Houston. That was one of the largest cities in the country."

    I shook my head. "I was eight years old when it happened. I guess I remember bits and pieces. Little things like riding in a car, or having a birthday cake with fancy flowers made out of icing. I remember television. I even remember going someplace with Mom and Dad to see a movie once. But I don't really remember that much."

    "You have no idea how sad that makes me."

    I shrugged. "I used to think about it. We talk about it sometimes."

    "We?"

    "Some of us who aren't quite old enough to remember too much of what it used to be like. We talk about what we do remember." I looked at him sheepishly. "It's not very much. School helped some. They kept pictures up and taught us about it all in History classes. But those of us who remember much of it have been out of school for a few years now."

    "Don't you go to the library?"

    "I do. Not many others my age do, though. It's hard to get time to go there. Everyone has a life to lead, and going into town just to look at books takes too much time away from the farm, or the forges, or whatever it is you have to do during the day. You know how it is."

    "I guess I never really thought about that part of it." He looked at another line of vehicles as we rode past. "So much lost."

    "Dad always told me that we shouldn't worry too much about it. He said that we lost a lot of bad stuff along with the good… that we just have to make sure to appreciate what we have, and not dwell on what we don't."

    "Like?"

    I pointed to the dogs. "Bella and Cricket. He tells me that if things were the same as they were before D-day, I wouldn't have had the time to train them and spend so much time hunting with them. He says I probably wouldn't even have learned to ride a horse.

    "So I guess it would have been cool to learn to drive a car. And I wish the motorcycle still ran. I remember learning to ride that when I was a kid." I grinned. "And I'll be the first to admit just how awesome that was. But the way Dad explained it to me was that a lot of the stuff that he misses, and you and the rest of the people who were around before D-day miss? I don't miss it because I never really knew it. And I have new stuff that you guys didn't have growing up. He says life's harder in a lot of ways, but at least he doesn't have to worry about paying the mortgage."

    Mr. Roesch chuckled at that. "I've always said, your dad's a smart man."

    "I like to think so."

    We rode on for a few minutes before I asked something I'd always wondered about. "Mr. Roesch?"

    "Hmm?"

    "What's a mortgage?
     
  16. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 12
    Owen​


    By afternoon, the road had widened to twice the size I was used to seeing, and bare concrete showed through in the center, though it was in pretty bad shape. The forest hadn't encroached as far, and there were several buildings that were more or less standing about fifty yards from the road. As we passed one, I saw movement in one of the windows and I wondered if I should string my bow. A man emerged from the darkened interior and waved to us. I looked back at Mr. Roesch to see him wave back.

    "Trade?" the man yelled, and followed with, "News?"

    Kenni and Robin pulled back alongside us. "What do you think?" She asked Mr. Roesch.

    "Looks harmless enough. And we might get some information about the road ahead. You get any…" He waggled his hand back and forth in the air.

    Kenni cocked an eyebrow at him. "Is that your way of asking if I had any sort of seeing about him?"

    "Well…"

    "No, I didn't get anything. I'm not a mind reader."

    He grinned. "Damn close, though." He looked back at the man standing in the clearing before the two-story building. "Give us a second," he yelled.

    The man nodded and walked back to the doorway.

    "You armed, Kenni?"

    "Shift your horse a few feet forward where he can't see me for a few seconds and I will be."

    Mr. Roesch twitched his reins and moved forward. Without moving her head, I saw Kenni reach into her saddlebag and pull out a bundle wrapped in a dirty white rag. She unwrapped it quickly and tucked the pistol under her shirt in the back of her pants.

    "Is that my SIG?" Mr. Roesch asked.

    Kenni grinned. "A long time ago, it was."

    He looked over her to Robin. "Miss Scott? You armed?"

    "Shotgun wrapped up under my leg on the saddle."

    He turned to me. "I know you have your bow, but I also see that it isn't strung. I've seen how quick you can remedy that, so just keep your eyes open."

    I nodded.

    "Got your blades on you?"

    Another nod.

    "Your dad says you're good with them, so I won't baby you." He spoke to all of us. "I don't expect trouble, but be ready if it shows up."

    He turned his horse toward the man sitting in front of the building. We followed, eyes open.



    ***​


    The man grinned as we approached. "Welcome, folks. Where you from?"

    Mr. Roesch spoke for us. "We're up from Rejas."

    "Rejas, eh? Town doing all right?"

    "We had a rough time of it for a while, but we're doing all right now. About three thousand strong."

    The man's eyebrows went up at that. "Three thousand? That's fantastic! I'm not even sure there's that many left in Marshall."

    Mr. Roesch dismounted and the man immediately stuck out his hand. "I'm Owen. Owen Jakeman."

    "Mark Roesch." He pointed to the rest of us and gave our names, as well.

    "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you folks. You looking for any supplies? I got all sorts of stuff inside. Food, gear, even got some artwork my wife painted. She's pretty good."

    "We'll be happy to look around, but mainly, we just want to see what news you can give us about the road ahead."

    Owen nodded. "Fair enough. First thing I can tell you is that those are fine horses. And if you're going through Marshall, you need to keep your eyes and ears open. There's a shortage of decent livestock in the area, and lots of gangs popping up. Not as bad as the old days after the bombs, but bad enough. One of the main things they're stealing is horses."

    We all looked at one another.

    "We appreciate the warning," Mr. Roesch still spoke for us. "We'll definitely keep a close eye out."

    "Good. Now, if you want to come inside, I can at least offer you a few minutes rest out of the sun, and a cold glass of water." He turned, heading back into the building. "Come on in to the front office."

    "Front office?" I asked.

    "Back before the bombs, this was a hotel. I still keep a few rooms cleaned in case someone wants to trade for a night's sleep, but to be perfectly honest, that doesn't happen very often. So I turned the front office here into a sort of trading post."

    "Do you get much business?" Kenni asked.

    "Not really. Then again, it's not like I have bills to pay, either. The dollar is more useful as toilet paper than money, and coins are just dead weight. But if you have trade goods, then you can get by all right."

    I tied the horses at the long watering trough in front and posted Bella and Cricket outside to watch over them, giving them a firm "stay" command. I didn't know if they would really stay for long, but they laid on the ground beside Tallulah as if they were going to listen. "Good girls," I told them, and followed the others inside with only a few glances over my shoulder to make sure they stayed.

    Inside, the front office was filled with half a dozen glass cases stocked with all sorts of trade goods. The far wall of the room was a huge mirror, bigger than any I had ever seen. I was a bit embarrassed when I saw how bedraggled I looked in the mirror, and I snaked a hand up to brush my hair back.

    Mr. Roesch, Kenni, and Robin were wandering around inside, looking at the various display cases and I wandered in to join them. One case was filled with various kinds of jerky, labeled according to the kind of meat and spices used. Another was filled with bags of grain and legumes, from pinto beans to some kind of purple hulled bean called a royal burgundy.

    There was even a cabinet with a couple of old rifles and handguns. But the one that caught my eye was filled with all sorts of blades. There were throwing knives, Bowies, daggers, machetes, short swords, and even what looked like a replica of the old Japanese style sword my older sister kept… a katana, she called it. She'd gotten it from the father of her fiancé when he'd been killed by Crazy Larry and his body guard.

    I shuddered a bit at that particular memory and went back to the other knives. I'd worked the forge with Mr. Roesch and my dad when I was younger, and knew how to look for stress points in the blade. And while some of these were all right, most of the work was below the quality of what I already carried. There were several knives that were impossibly shiny. My dad had a couple of knives like these from the Old Days. They were made of something called stainless steel, and they almost never rusted.

    Something else caught my attention, though. Laying in the case on top of their sheaths, was a pair of old handmade long knives. The blades were rusted and the handle on one of the pair was missing. But that missing handle showed that the knives were ground in a sturdy, full tang design, and appeared to be made of good quality carbon steel. Whoever had originally made them had known what they were doing. They were a trailing point design, curving up at the tip to a needle sharp point, and it was all I could do to keep the interest from showing in my face.

    "Let me know if there's anything you want to see," Owen said to everyone. "I'll pull it out of the case for you."

    He was all smiles, as friendly as a salesman should be. But studying the room, I furrowed my brow. He was too easy going. There were all sorts of valuables in here, and Owen was only one man. Granted, he was obviously armed. He wore a shotgun slung across his back, and I saw others on the wall around the room. But he was still too confident. Too trusting.

    "Don't you worry about being in here with four people you don't know, all of us surrounding you? All of us armed?"

    Owen's face froze. Mr. Roesch figured it out before I did. "That's because he isn't alone." He held his hands out to the side in a clearly non-threatening manner and turned slowly, scanning the room. I understood and also began to look around, checking closely for hidey-holes. But try as I might, I didn't see anything. I stopped to find Mr. Roesch smiling at Owen. "I assume the mirror's a two-way?"

    Owen nodded. "My wife's in the room behind it. She's got an M-16 covering everyone in here, and she's a damn fine shot."

    "So, are we the ones being ambushed? Or is your wife watching us simply as a guard?"

    "Just a guard. We don't plan on doing anyone any harm. But we don't want anyone doing us harm, either."

    "You do realize that if something happened, you would be among the first to die?"

    Owen shrugged. "Then I guess it's in all our interest to make sure nothing happens, right?"

    "I suppose it is."

    The two men smiled at one another before Owen spoke again. "So what are you folks looking for?"

    I wandered away from the case of knives, pretending interest in some jerky. I felt an itching between my shoulder blades at the thought of some hidden person pointing a rifle at me, but Mr. Roesch seemed all right with it. And if I put myself in Owen's place, I would probably do something similar. A label in the case caught my eye. "Buffalo jerky?"

    Owen walked over behind the case. He pulled a large pair of scissors out and clipped a bite off. "Try a bite."

    Putting it in my mouth I chewed for a moment. "That's really good!"

    He smiled. "There's a guy that comes in every three or four months from up north. Says there's a bunch of folks in north Texas that have herds of buffalo. He brings in a few pounds of the jerky every trip."

    Mr. Roesch joined me at the counter. Owen offered him a bite, as well. Mr. Roesch nodded. "Yep, pretty good. I might be interested in some." He wandered over to the firearms case. "You got any ammunition for the pistols?"

    Owen shook his head. "I'm afraid not. That's why they're still in the case. Not much ammo left, these days, and a pistol doesn’t do anyone any good without it."

    Mr. Roesch sighed. "That's too bad. You have some nice ones in here." He peered at them. "They're a nine millimeter aren't they?"

    "Most of them. There's a couple of forty-fives in there, too. But the majority are nines."

    Mr. Roesch pointed to one. "That's a nice one."

    "Yes sir, it is. It's a Springfield XDm." He pulled it out of the case and handed it to Mr. Roesch, who pressed something on the grip, and part of the handle fell into his left hand. He then pulled the top of the pistol back and looked through a hole that appeared in the side of the pistol. Having absolutely no idea what the various parts of a pistol were, I simply watched and tried not to make a fool of myself by gawking.

    Then Mr. Roesch pressed something else and the top slid back into place with a loud click. He took the piece in his left hand and slid it back into the bottom of the handle. He handed it back to Owen. "If one were to have some ammo for these, how much would you trade, ammo for the XD?"

    Owen smiled and licked his lips. "Well, if someone were to have enough ammo to trade for a pistol, it would probably take about five hundred rounds for such a firearm as the XD. Remember, you're the one who said it was a fine pistol. Your own words sir."

    "I said nice, not fine. And five hundred rounds is totally out of the question. After all, a pistol doesn't do anyone any good without ammo. Those were your words, I believe."

    The two men smiled at one another and I wandered away as the dickering began.
     
  17. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 13
    Trade​


    Walking over to Kenni and Robin, I saw them looking through some old books. Robin was thumbing through an illustrated book of medicinal herbs, while Kenni thumbed through a ratty and torn women's magazine.

    They looked up as I approached. "Mark found something?" Kenni asked.

    "He's haggling for a pistol."

    "What about you? Did you find anything?"

    "There's a pair of knives I wouldn't mind having. They aren't real pretty, but they look well made. My dad taught me enough about how to work on them that the repairs should be easy enough."

    "So are you going to trade for them?"

    "After Mr. Roesch is done. But I think I'll start with something else. Something I can't afford."

    Kenni smiled. "So you barter a lot back home."

    It wasn't a question. "Yes, ma'am."

    "Ma'am?"

    "Sorry. It's a habit."

    Robin interrupted. "I don't understand," she whispered. "Why try to get something you know you can't afford?"

    "Let's go watch him and I'll explain later," Kenni told her. "It looks like Mark is done."

    I looked back and saw Mr. Roesch shake Owen's hand. Owen took the pistol they'd been haggling over and slid it into a holster as I approached. Mr. Roesch turned. "Zachary, would you go to the horses and bring me my saddle bags?"

    "I'll get them," Kenni said. "I think Zach wants to look at some of the knives."

    Owen smiled. "Do you? Well I have a fine selection."

    "I saw some of them. Could I see the sword? My sister has one sorta like it."

    The trader pulled the katana out of the case. "Now this isn't one of the cheap fakes that you usually see. This is what they call battle ready." He handed it to me and I pulled it part of the way out of the wooden scabbard. He was right. The sword wasn't just decorative. Everything I could see about it indicated that it was ready to use.

    I let enthusiasm show on my face. "This is really nice. What's it worth?"

    "I suppose that depends on what you have to offer. I can tell you this, though. It's probably worth more than that pistol your friend just got."

    On cue, I let my face fall. "Maybe we should put it back then."

    Owen smiled and took the katana back from me just as Kenni returned with Mr. Roesch's saddle bags. "Why don't you see if there's anything else that strikes your fancy while I settle up with your friend?"

    "Sure."

    Owen turned to Mr. Roesch, who reached into one of the bags and pulled out three small leather pouches. "One hundred rounds in each pouch."

    Owen actually shook as he took the pouches from Mr. Roesch. "You don't mind if I count them, do you?"

    "I'd think you were foolish if you didn't."

    The man pulled out a wooden block with holes drilled in it and began inserting the ammunition into the holes. I could see that the holes were laid out in a geometric pattern, and a quick count showed it was a ten by ten pattern.

    While the two older men worked out their trade, I looked back into the case for another expensive item. There was another sword, smaller, but still obviously outside what I could afford. When Mr. Roesch and Owen had exchanged goods and finished their barter, the trader turned to me, smiling. "Did you find something else?"

    "Yes, sir. I'd like to see that one."

    Owen looked at it and for the first time I saw a slight frown touch his face. "I'll be happy to let you see it," and he took it out of the case and handed it to me. "But you should know that it will be almost as much as the last one."

    "Really?" I feigned disappointment.

    He smiled again. "Why don't you show me what you have to trade, and we'll see what I have that's comparable."

    I pulled out the pouch I had gotten and peered inside. "I guess I really don't have a lot." I reached in and pulled out half a dozen barbed arrowheads, a few archer's thumb rings, thumb gloves, and some jerked goat.

    He picked up one of the arrowheads and inspected it. "This is well made."

    "Thanks. My dad taught me."

    "You made them yourself?"

    "Yes, sir."

    He got a speculative look and went back to the pile of items. He looked at the rest of the arrowheads, then picked up one of the thumb rings. "What are these?"

    "Thumb rings. They're used in archery. They help your speed and accuracy."

    "And these?"

    "Thumb gloves. They protect the thumb on your bow hand."

    He sighed. "Son, I'm sorry, but I don't see much trade value in any of this." He picked up one of the arrowheads again. "These are at least worth something, but not enough for you to get a decent blade."

    I sighed and started putting it all back in the pouch. Then, as if I had just seen them, I pointed to the old knives in back. "What about those?"

    Owen looked at the knives. Before reaching for them, he asked, "How many of these arrowheads do you have?"

    "I have about a dozen."

    He nodded, still not reaching for the knives. "I tell you what. I'll trade you sight unseen, your dozen arrowheads for these two knives."

    "And the sheaths?"

    "And the sheaths."

    I pretended to think about it. "All right." I counted out a dozen arrowheads and slid them across the counter.

    Owen smiled and pulled the knives out of the case, wrapping them in a rag before laying them on the counter. As he pushed the bundle across to me, he offered his hand. I shook it. "Done?"

    "Done," he agreed. "I'm glad we were able to do business."

    "So am I."

    "What are you planning to do with them?"

    "The knives?"

    Owen laughed out loud. "Yes, son. You don't think I didn't notice the blades you have strapped under your sleeves, do you? And the small throwers you have on your belt? And the make of those arrowheads looks to show the same quality. A man who knows metal the way you obviously do wouldn't waste time on junk, so you evidently saw something in these that I didn't. What is it?"

    I blushed. "They're a good solid design, and the metal looks to be a good quality. I can refit the handles and clean up the blades. With a little bit of work, I can have them as good as new in a few days."

    "You can, eh?"

    "Yes, sir."

    He looked at Mr. Roesch, who nodded. "He can. He was raised working a forge and pounding metal. His dad taught him. Taught me too, for that matter. But Zachary's better at it."

    Owen pursed his lips, then counted out half of the arrowheads I had traded him. He handed them back to me. "Take these back. Those knives you got from me weren't doing me any good the way they were. If you can fix them up the way you say, I want to propose something to you.

    "I'm trying to set up a kind of coalition of traders in the region. If you folks have a town doing as well as you say, and you have a local forge set up, then I want you to consider setting up a trade route. How many days ride is it from here to Rejas?"

    "Took us five days steady riding."

    "So if we set up a regular trade route, you could figure a two week trip from Rejas to here and back if you haul a wagon."

    I blinked. Owen certainly had high aspirations. "So you want to trade… what?"

    "Anything!" he grinned, suddenly enthusiastic. "You say you folks have a forge and know how to use it? We can start there. People can always use decent metal goods. Son, I've been working to set up as a trading hub for the last two years. Trouble is that there just ain't that many people that travel much, yet. I got my buffalo trader, and plenty of local folks trading scavenged goods and locally grown crops. But if you have metal goods like these," he held up one of the arrowheads, "and those," he pointed to the knives in my belt, "then we have the beginnings of a good trade relationship."

    "So you take what you got here, and remember that I did you fair. And when you get back home, talk to that daddy of yours about maybe setting up a steady trade between us. I figure we can all use goods from other places, and the side benefit is communication."

    Mr. Roesch nodded. "That would be worth it, in and of itself. We've been isolated for so long, we don't know what's going on outside of a fifty-mile radius. Setting up a regular route between us could be huge."

    "So will you set things up on your end?"

    Mr. Roesch nodded. "We will."

    They were both grinning as they shook hands again.

    "If this trip goes according to plan, we should be back through here in about a month. After that, a week to get home, maybe another week to clear things with the town council, and another to gather trade goods and people to run the route. A conservative guess would be two months from now before you have your first trade wagon through from Rejas."

    Owen nodded. "That sounds fine. And while you're on your trip here, think about things you folks need in Rejas. When you come back through, leave me a list and I'll see what I can do to gather some of them up."

    "Sounds good."

    Owen looked past Mr. Roesch to where Robin was still thumbing through the book on herbal medicine. He looked back at us. "So, are we finished here? I need to see if that young lady needs anything."

    I grinned.
     
  18. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 14
    Marshall​



    The sun was beginning to dim with the approach of nightfall when Mr. Roesch guided us down an overgrown street with tree limbs arcing overhead from one side to the other. Several houses sat in various states of disrepair, and he rode up to one that looked worse than most of them. Every window I could see appeared to be broken, and the front door was completely missing.

    He dismounted, and leading Ford by the reigns, walked through the front entrance. He and his obedient mount disappeared to the sound of crunching bits of decaying house. I looked at Kenni and Robin, cocking an eyebrow in an unspoken question. Kenni simply dismounted and led her own mount inside, following the big man's lead. Robin and I followed suit.

    We found that Mr. Roesch had walked Ford all the way through the house and into a huge back yard through a broken sliding glass door. He was removing the saddle when I emerged into the back yard to join the others. I gazed around, a bit surprised. The front of the house was nothing spectacular, and looked like a stereotypical home in a stereotypical small neighborhood. But the property in back extended back much farther than one would think from the appearance in front, and I could see that there was an acre or more, with a variety of trees and brush several yards back from the house.

    I was dying to ask Mr. Roesch about the house. I assumed it was his, since that had been his stated goal. But he hadn't said anything at all when we'd gotten here. In fact, it had been several minutes since anyone had said anything, all of us knowing how hard this had to be on him.

    He stripped Ford of his tack without comment, as if nothing unusual was going on. But we all knew better. Mr. Roesch never took care of his own mount. Not since he had declared me to be his assistant. But tonight, we all took our cue from him and groomed our own horses. For me, it was a bit of a break, since the majority of the grooming had fallen to Robin and me. But there was also a tension in the atmosphere, as if we were all expecting some kind of reaction from Mr. Roesch, and unsure what to do until it happened.

    Finally, he turned to me. "Zach, there used to be a big ditch just past that clump of brush. Would you picket the horses where they can drink?"

    And he turned to go inside without waiting to see what I did.

    The ditch was where he said it would be, though it looked more like a stream now. It was a lesson we had all learned over the last several years. Nature abhors vacuum. If there is an empty field, it fills with plants. If there is an empty waterway, it either fills with water or plant life. Without mankind molding things to our will, nature will inevitably reclaim her own. It's just a matter of time.

    When I finished tying the horses up and got back inside, it was to find everyone sitting around an old table in what had been a dining room. Someone had lit a small candle, and Mr. Roesch held a framed portrait in his hands, speaking softly as tears rolled down his cheeks. I walked around the table where I could see the picture. It was a photograph of a younger Mr. Roesch in a suit standing beside an attractive young woman in a blue dress. Between them was a little girl in a white dress. A bow decorated the girl's blond hair. Her smile showed two missing teeth in front.

    Mr. Roesch touched her face on the picture. "It had been raining all day, and Nikki was worried that Angela was going to get her new dress dirty." He laughed. "And sure enough, she did. We were so worried about it that I didn't even let her walk from the car to the door of the studio. I picked her up to carry her inside while Nikki held the umbrella, and while I was closing the car door, I brushed her up against the dirty car. You can't see it, but that dress has a black smudge right across her butt. I thought Nikki was gonna kill me."

    "So technically, she didn't get dirty."

    "No." He chuckled at my comment. "No, I suppose I'm the one who did that."

    Kenni reached over and gripped his hand with a familiarity that spoke again of the friendship they shared. I looked away and saw that darkness had fully fallen now. "So what's the plan for the night? Do we cook or eat cold?"

    "Considering Nikki's warning, and the fact that we have the new supplies, why don't we play it safe and eat a cold meal tonight?"

    I was happy to hear Mr. Roesch sounding more normal.

    "And Zach? I'd appreciate it if you would keep an eye on the horses tonight. Considering what Owen said, we wouldn't want someone to hear them in the night and decide they're free for the taking."

    From what I remembered, the back yard didn't have any trees large enough to hang my hammock. "Yes sir." Oh yay! A night outside on the ground.
     
  19. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 15
    One of Us​


    Breakfast was another cold meal. I figured everyone was taking Kenni seriously, and while I didn't have the same faith that the others seemed to have, I didn't see any harm in being a little cautious. But after nearly an hour, the horses were saddled and packed, and we were all outside waiting for Mr. Roesch. After almost half an hour, I looked at Kenni. "Was he all right this morning?"

    "He was quiet. Nikki and Angela spoke to him a lot last night."

    I was learning to interpret Kenni's mysticism into something I could more readily relate to, so mentally, I simply translated that to "he had dreams about his lost family." And considering the fact that he had slept in his old home last night for the first time since D-day, that was more than understandable. It was, after all, where he had once shared a life with them – a life that had ended tragically and horribly.

    Most adults had similar stories. Even I remembered some of that world we had left behind, and I was just eight years old when it had happened. And while I didn't remember much about them, I had lost friends and family that day, too. So my attitude might have been somewhat less than sympathetic when I sighed and dismounted.

    "You sure you want to do this?" Kenni asked me.

    "He keeps telling me I'm his assistant. I figure it's on me to get him moving."

    "This isn't really the same thing, Zach." Robin chimed in. "Maybe you need to give him some more time."

    But I wasn't in the mood to be patient. I threw my reigns around a sapling and marched through the front doorway and into the dim interior of Mr. Roesch's old house. I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to say to him, and I wasn't foolish enough to have thrown diplomacy out the window. It was, after all, what he thought he was training me for. But I was also learning to get results. For a split second, it actually occurred to me that this might be some sort of test. Maybe he wanted to see how I would handle his recalcitrance as part of his constant training.

    When I saw him sitting on the old bed, I knew better. He held that same framed photo in his hand, and the grief in his eyes robbed me of whatever words I had thought to say. Immediately, I knew that while I might be able to claim to have also lost friends and family just as he had, I had nothing that would compare to the devastation of losing a wife and daughter. The raw emotion on his face looked more painful than anything I had felt in many years.

    And as I watched him in his grieving, all I could think was that I needed to get out before he saw me – before he knew that I had intruded on such a personal moment.

    "How old are you, Zachary?" His words froze me as I was turning.

    I turned back to him, swallowing my embarrassment as I answered. "I'm twenty, sir."

    He nodded. "Angela would have been just a couple of years younger than you if she had lived." He looked away from the picture, turning to face me. He pushed back most of the grief I had seen there just a few seconds before. "I wonder sometimes if you two would have liked each other. I've watched you and some of the other kids, and I've often thought about how she would have fit in."

    I had no idea how to answer. I didn't even know if I should answer. But his expression begged me for something, and I knew that whatever I had intended to say when I walked in, it wasn't appropriate for the man's grief.

    I only had to think for a second about what he had said, and I realized that I did know what to tell him, after all. It had been swirling around in my head as I'd walked into the house. Only the framing of the thoughts needed to be changed. "She would have fit in just fine," I told him. "We all get along, all of us from our general age group. We can't help it."

    I walked over and sat on the bed beside him. "You know how yesterday you asked me about what I remember from when we lived in Houston?"

    "Yeah."

    "I told you how a lot of us talk about what we remember sometimes. What I didn't mention is how formal we've made it." I looked up and saw that I had his full attention now, so I continued. "You call us kids. I guess we all think of you as old folks," he grinned a bit as I said that. "And I don't think I ever really thought about it until now, but even though we all were around on D-day, our perspectives now are a lot different."

    "It's called a generation gap. It's what keeps you kids and us old folks from seeing things the same way. It was there between me and my parents just like I'm sure it was there for my dad and his parents." The bigger man sighed. "I suppose it's been there throughout history. But this gap is going to be bigger than most. I'm part of the last generation to have lived the majority of my life in a high-tech civilization."

    I nodded. "And I'm part of the last generation that will even vaguely remember what some of that was like. Those bombs fell twelve years ago, and we were barely old enough to understand what was going on. Some of us remember more than others, and we talk about it sometimes, comparing memories. I guess we're sorta trying to bolster each other's memories because we know that our kids will have no idea what we lost. It's almost like we feel we need to…" I trailed off, suddenly less sure of what I was trying to say.

    "Keepers of the flame, eh?"

    I furrowed my brows. "I'm not sure what that means."

    "It's an old saying. It means you don't want the memories to be lost – like a flame going out in the wind."

    "Yeah, that fits. But the point I'm trying to make is that Angela would have been one of us. She would have shared what she remembered, whether it's a drive your family took to go shopping, or watching a movie on the TV with you. Maybe you went somewhere special that she remembers. Jerry's always talking about how his family took him to that big park, Disneyworld, just a month before D-day. But whatever her memory was, it would have started someone else talking about how they had done something similar, or maybe one of us would have asked what it was like.

    "We try to remember because we know that one day our kids will ask us questions about the Old Days, and we want to be able to tell them what it was like. We're the last." I took the picture from him and looked at the young girl smiling at the camera. "She would have been one of us."
     
  20. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey++

    Chapter 16
    Shot​


    We rode out of Mr. Roesch's neighborhood two by two. He and Kenni rode beside each other, speaking to one another quietly enough that I couldn't overhear any of their conversation. Robin rode beside me, patient and quiet. I got the impression she was perfectly content to just watch the world go past, perched in her saddle. I liked that about her. She never put any pressure on me.

    Mr. Roesch had let it be known that he had big plans for me, and Kenni had hinted that her hoodoo witchy power had plans for me, too. But not Robin. All she wanted was companionship. Maybe it should bother me that she seemed to be just as content getting that companionship from the dogs or the horses, but I found her lack of expectation strangely peaceful.

    Here was someone who wanted nothing from anyone, including me. For the moment, that suited me just fine.

    Bella turned, looking behind us, nostrils working frantically, ears pointed forward. Cricket joined her, growling low and menacing. I reined Tallulah in and turned, studying the area that drew my girl's attention. There was a flicker of movement in a window about fifty yards back, gone almost as soon as it registered. But it was enough to draw my attention. I squinted, trying to draw more detail from the darkened interior of the distant structure, but there was no sure way to tell if I had really seen anything.

    "Mr. Roesch?" I reigned Tallulah back around and called to get his attention.

    He looked back over his shoulder. "What?" When he saw that I had stopped, he pulled Ford to a halt as well. "Something wrong?"

    I never got a chance to reply. Mr. Roesch grunted and slumped forward in his saddle just as a thunderous crack sounded. It was a sound I hadn't heard in a long time. But it wasn't something I would ever forget, either.

    Kenni recognized the gunshot for what it was, too. Her pistol was out in a second and she spun her horse around looking for the source of the shot.

    "There!" I pointed to the house where I had seen the movement. A length of black stuck out from the window, resting on the lower ledge.

    Mr. Roesch slid to one side, and I pulled Tallulah up beside him to brace him in the saddle. Kenni fired several shots at the window just as another shot rang out. Whether it was because her shots distracted the shooter, or simply blind luck, the mystery shooter missed this time.

    Leaning Mr. Roesch against my shoulder, I grabbed at Ford's reins. Never going to be able to hold him like this. Not taking time to think it through, I scrambled from my saddle onto Ford's back, landing behind Mr. Roesch. Holding Tallulah's reins in my left hand, I grabbed Ford's in the other and kicked him into a gallop, pulling Tallulah along and struggling to hold Mr. Roesch in his saddle as we fled the ambush.

    Robin pulled up on the other side of Tallulah. "Let me have her! You've got your hands full with him. I'll lead your horse!"

    I nodded, and with an amazing show of agility, she reached up to Tallulah's bit and snaked the reins from my side to hers without slowing any of us down. Seeing Tallulah was in good hands, I concentrated on keeping Mr. Roesch in the saddle and guiding Ford as we put more distance between ourselves and our attacker.

    Robin led us to an intersection and cut to the right. I followed without question, struggling to keep my balance, reaching around my mentor to hold him upright between my arms, and keeping a tight hold on Ford's reins. I couldn't afford to let the horse give in to panic, or let my charge fall to the ground, but the strain of trying to keep up the insane balancing act was causing me to slide steadily back on the big horse's flanks. I had to slow us down as soon as we were out of the line of fire, or we were both going to fall.

    Luckily, Robin slowed before that happened. We didn't stop, but I was able to take a second to reach down to the cantle of Mr. Roesch's saddle and pull myself back up snugly behind him. Looking over his shoulder again, I saw Robin duck as she rode, horse and all, into the open garage of an old house. That might work for her, but Ford was a much bigger horse, and there was no way I was going to be able to lean Mr. Roesch over in the saddle, keep him balanced, duck over him, and guide his massive mount under that doorway. I pulled up close to the open door and called to her, "Help me get him down!"

    But she had anticipated me. She had dismounted as soon as she got the horses inside, and was reaching up to help me slide the big man out of the saddle. Kenni was there with us before we got him to the ground. "How bad is he?"

    "I don't know. Haven't had time to—"

    She pushed me aside before I could finish. It was dim in the garage, but there was enough light to see that his shirt was soaked with blood. She put fingers to his neck, checking for a pulse. "He's still with us."

    She looked back up at me. "Do you have…?" She blinked at me. "Are you all right?"

    I looked down, realizing with a sick feeling that my shirt was just as wet as his. It was soaked with the sticky warmth of Mr. Roesch's blood. "I… I'm fine. It's his blood." I stripped the ruined shirt off and pressed it against the wound in his chest.

    "Good." She looked around. "Where'd Robin go?"

    Robin called from across the garage. "Bring him in here." She disappeared back into the house without waiting for us to reply.

    "Help me get him inside."

    Robin waited inside the door, pointing up a hallway. "Last room on the right." She ran ahead. "In here," she shouted as she ducked into the room. I heard a rustling ahead as Kenni and I struggled to get the big man down the narrow hall. "In here" turned out to be the master bedroom. It was large, and the windows were still intact. Robin had stripped the old sheets and bedspread off the large bed and thrown a blanket over the mattress.

    Kenni and I laid him on the blanket as carefully as we could. I looked at his unconscious form. I didn't know if it was the dim interior of the light, or maybe my imagination, but he looked pretty pale to me. For the first time, it occurred to me that he might not make it.

    "Do you have a first aid kit?" Kenni asked me.

    I nodded and started to go get it.

    "Get mine, too," Robin called without looking up. "It's the red one in my right saddlebag."

    I ran back to the garage to get them. As I entered the garage, Bella and Cricket ran in, tongues lolling as they panted in exhaustion. "Good girls," I told them absently as I gathered gear. The garage was crowded with four horses in it, but I didn't want to risk them wandering off. The outer door was broken, partly hanging off the track. But I was able to force it down far enough that it would block them for the time being. "Come," I told the dogs, and ran back inside with my med kit. I tossed it to Kenni, who in turn handed it to Robin.

    "Is he going to make it?"

    Robin didn't even look up. "I don't know. If I can stop the bleeding, he at least has a chance. Doesn't look like it hit a lung, and if they had hit his heart he would already be dead."

    This was a side of Robin that I hadn't seen before, but I remembered Kenni mentioning that she had been a nurse. She rummaged through her kit, pulling out bandages and a leather pouch. "I don't suppose you have a sewing kit in your bag, do you?"

    "I have an emergency suture kit. Is that what you need?"

    She looked up at that. "You do?"

    I grabbed my bag and pulled it out. "I also have alcohol wipes and some sterile bandages in a sealed plastic bag in there.

    "Thank God. You just tripled his chances." She grabbed the supplies, then handed me one of the wipes and the pouch of leaves. "Clean your hands. Then crush a few of the leaves in the pouch. Just enough to make them limp and moist."

    I fumbled the ties on the pouch, but when I got it open, I recognized the leaves she had gathered a few days ago. Comfrey, she had called it. I hurried to follow her directions, noticing that the leaves emitted a crisp, fresh scent, similar to fresh cucumbers. When I looked up, she had cleaned her own hands and was just beginning to stitch the hole in Mr. Roesch's chest.

    "What do I do with the leaves?"

    She nodded her head to the plastic bag of bandages. "Wrap them in a piece of bandage."

    As soon as I had done that, I stood over her shoulder, watching her work. "What can I do now?"

    "You can stop blocking my light."

    "Sorry."

    Kenni grabbed my arm. "We'll be right back," she told Robin, pulling me out of the room.

    She led me back toward the garage, speaking quietly as we went. "Mark has a rifle. You any good with it?"

    I shook my head. "No ma'am. But I'm a damn good shot with the bow."

    Kenni sighed. "That'll have to do." We entered the garage. "Gear up," she told me.

    Understanding, I went to Tallulah and grabbed my bow. I braced it against my foot and strung it in a quick and practiced move, then grabbed my emergency pouch and quiver.

    "You know what I have in mind?"

    "I think so. We're going back."

    "Good." She went back to Ford, pulled Mr. Roesch's rifle from its sleeve, and pulled back the bolt on the side. She dug through his saddlebags and came up with a small box of ammunition. "Not a lot, but better than nothing." She slung his rifle across her back and went to Robin's appaloosa. She grabbed the shotgun I had seen Robin holding back at the trading post, and a box of shells, then led the way back inside.

    Back in the bedroom, Robin had finished sewing up the wound in Mr. Roesch's chest and was struggling to roll him over. She looked up as we walked back in. "Good. Help me roll him over. I need to sew him up on his back, too. And make sure you don't put his face in the blanket. We don't need him suffocating while we're trying to save him."

    I looked at Kenni, who nodded. I leaned the bow against the wall, knelt and helped roll him onto his stomach, making sure he was still able to breath. Robin didn't even look up as Kenni laid the shotgun and shells on the floor near her.

    "How's it going?" Kenni asked.

    "Not too bad." She kept her eyes on her work as she continued sewing Mr. Roesch's wound closed. "Having a suture kit is a huge help. Once I get the wounds closed, I can cover them with the comfrey. That should help the skin heal, anyway. There's not a lot I can do for him internally. I think I still have some old antibiotics in my kit, but I don't know if they'll do much good after a decade. I guess it's better than nothing."

    Kenni was silent for a second, then touched the other woman on the shoulder. "All right. Your shotgun is on the floor behind you. Zach and I have to make sure no one's coming after us. If we're not back in an hour, start getting ready to get yourself and Mark back to our place. If we're not back by the time you have him stable and you're ready to go, then head back. We'll catch up when we can."

    That stopped Robin, and she looked up. "What? No! All you need to do is guard the area. Keep anyone away from us while I get him patched up."

    "No baby. We have to make sure there aren't too many of them. If we're in here and there's a large group, then we're trapped. And if we're trapped, we're dead. You're the only one who can save Mark, so it's up to us to make sure you have the time you need."

    I swallowed as I heard her explain this.

    "But—"

    "No buts," Kenni told her. "And we don't have time to argue about it." She turned away from Robin, not giving her the chance to object any more. "We should be back before the hour's up. Safe word's…" She thought for only a second. "Safe word's Tallulah. Got it?"

    Robin nodded. "Tallulah."

    "Answer with Ford. Duress word is Cinnamon."

    Once more, Robin nodded. "Cinnamon."

    "Take care of him." Kenni leaned over and kissed Robin. "I'll see you in an hour."

    Kenni turned to me. "Ready?"

    "Hang on a second. Let me post the girls."

    "What?"

    She hadn't noticed the dogs come in with me, and they were sitting quietly against a wall, away from where Robin worked on Mr. Roesch. Their demeanor told me they knew something was wrong, and they were frightened.

    I knelt beside them and rubbed behind their ears. "Good girls," I reassured them. "You're good girls."

    Bella whined a bit and licked my chin. Cricket sniffed my bare chest and snorted at the blood still smeared on me. I wished I had more time to spend with them, time to make them feel more at ease. But time was something we were in short supply of. I led the girls to Robin, touched her on the shoulder. Then I pointed at the two of them. "Stay," I told them, reinforcing it with an open palm, the hand signal I used for the same command. Then I closed the open hand into a fist. "Guard."

    Bella whined again, and started to come to me.

    "No." I held up the fist again. "Guard."

    This time she sat beside Cricket.

    I grabbed my bow and walked out of the room. Kenni raised an inquiring brow at me.

    "Are they still sitting there?" I asked her.

    The question seemed to surprise her. "Yes."

    "Good. They should protect Robin and Mr. Roesch once we leave," I told her.

    "Really? They'll protect her?"

    "It's not perfect, but they usually do what they're supposed to."

    She looked over my shoulder. "And is there a reason you won't look at them?"

    "Sometimes, if I look at them after giving them a command they don't like, it's like they take that as an excuse to come to me, and I have to start all over again."

    Kenni said goodbye once more and we went back into the garage to gather our gear. I grabbed a shirt from my bags and shrugged it on. "So what was all that about Tallulah and a duress word?" I grabbed my bow, then slipped my quiver across one shoulder, and my go pouch over the other so that they crisscrossed across my chest.

    "When we come back, we announce ourselves with the word Tallulah. She answers with Ford. If any of us are in trouble, like with unwelcome company, we let the others know by using the word Cinnamon."

    I nodded and settled everything into place.

    "Ready?"

    I shrugged. "Not really."

    "Yeah. Me either."

    I followed her out of the garage, and the two of us headed back the way we had come.
     
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