Those two steps put him directly in the path of the young black bear that he had startled. The bear, that had spun to face the light, bolted for freedom straight ahead. His path just happen to be straight through Dan.
Dan hadn’t expected to have 400 pounds of terrified predator aimed at him and had no chance to bring his gun on target. He instinctively pulled the trigger once as the animal crashed into him, barely slowing as it plowed through him. The impact with the ground knocked the breath from his lungs and Dan was unable to do anything but gasp for air.
Ted and Bill appeared on the porch in seconds. The beams of their powerful flashlights locked onto Dan as he tried to sit up and figure out what was going on.
Bill ran to Dan’s side and took cover next to the truck while Ted scanned the area.
“Oh Christ, you’re hurt! Dan, how many are there? What happen? We heard a shot! Where are you hit?” Bill spewed the words almost as one.
Dan was finally able to take a breath and reply. “I’m fine; I just had the wind knocked out of me. It was a bear; that was me shooting.”
“What? A bear? Okay. You’re all bloody, where did he get you?” Bill went on.
“Huh? Oh, this isn’t my blood. In fact, I think its cow blood.” He stood and shone his light into the bed of the pickup. “Yeah, he was eating.”
“Dan, is that you by the truck? We heard a shot.” Jeremiah called from in front of the bunkhouse.
“I’m fine, it was a bear.” Dan called back.
Jeremiah yelled for everyone to stand down and lower their weapons. They all met on the porch of the main house and Dan described what had happen. After explaining it, Jeremiah pointed out that the blood on Dan’s shirt looked to have come from the paws of the bear.
“Boy, Smokey must have looked like Superman coming out of that truck. You got really lucky he didn’t feel like defending his dinner. Do you think you got him?” the ranch hand asked.
Dan played the event back in his mind. “I doubt it and even if I did we’ll never find him in the dark if he made it very far.”
“Ted and I will take a quick look around then move that truck down the drive a bit. I never should have kept if here tonight; I know better.” Jeremiah replied.
“Oh well, I shoulda paid closer attention in school but that doesn’t matter either. How about I move the truck while you guys check stuff out?” asked Dan.
“You, sit.” Ned said, pointing at his son. “You two take a look and Bill, park the pickup about half way to the bridge.”
As they turned to leave, Jeremiah told Ted, “Be careful, we might have an injured bear running around. If you see anything, call out.”
The men nodded and followed the older mens’ directions. No sign of the bear was found in the dark and the truck was safely parked well away from the house. By the time they were done, everyone was in the kitchen. Dan had explained what had happen to the rest of the family and assured his mother he was fine. At Bridget’s suggestion, Festus was brought into the main house and Dan and the little dog slept on the couch.
The next morning dawned bright and crisp. Jeremiah offered to let Ricky drive if he would help clean out the truck and the two set off immediately after breakfast.
Dan and Bill, armed with a shotgun and the .45-70, went to inspected the property. They found a few bloody footprints leading away from the house but no sign that the animal was injured.
The others went through the normal morning chores. Ann declared today a house cleaning day and anyone not wanting to dust, wash, wipe, or scrub needed to make themselves scarce. With no need for subtler hints, Dan, Ned, Ted, and Bill moved outside.
None had a clear idea of what needed to be done so Bill suggested they organize the remained of the scrap lumber pile. It didn’t take long as the outhouse project had put a considerable dent in it. Appreciating how the organization would make future projects much simpler, Ned talked the others into doing the same with the scrap metal pile.
As they sorted, Ned began pulling specific pieces aside. He had the guys carry an old water heater, several leaf springs, and all the rebar they found into the shop. When the pile was finished he used the available hands to help him with his newest project.
He explained that he wanted to build the shop stove. Laid horizontally, the water heater would become the stove body set on the leaf springs as legs and the rebar would become a grate. It would support the logs and keep them from sitting directly on the bottom of the stove. This was necessary to keep the metal from burning through too quickly and to allow air to get to the logs.
Dan offered a couple suggestions. He pointed out using the high carbon steel for the legs, which could be tempered to make tools, would be a waste when they had other options. He also suggested a way to add a flat top to the stove that would allow them to keep a pot of water heated for drinks. Standing in the cool morning watching there breathe steam as they spoke, they all agreed that would be a good idea.
Dan returned to the scrap pile and found three pieces of square tubing that would work well for the legs of the stove. It reminded him of a project he had undertaken at home and he set it aside.
Ned started marking where he wanted pieces cut using the hacksaw or cutting torch. Ted started out on hacksaw duty and he went to work on the leg pieces. They were quickly cut to length and Ted turned his attention to the rebar. While he had been using the hacksaw, Bill had been busy with the water heater. He had stripped off the sheet metal and insulation. He used the torch to cut out the opening for the door and made the cuts they wanted to allow heat to circulate against what would be the flat top. Ned had found a flat piece of steel that he bent to the shape he wanted. It took him little time to gas weld the butted edges together making the box a solid piece. He considered welding the box to the body but decided it would use too much gas and bolted it in place instead. When the rebar was cut and set inside the body, Bill had another suggestion. Instead of welding the rebar into a grate, he found an old bed frame in the pile. He then used the hack saw to notch the angle iron on the corner in such a way that the rebar fit into the notches. After making sure the bars sat how he liked, he fit bolts through the angle iron, securing it to the body. When the bars were set in place, the logs would sit about five inches above the bottom of the body. Jeremiah and Ricky returned to find the stove nearly complete. All they needed was a set of hinges and a stove pipe of some sort to complete the project.
“Looks like it will get the job done, even if it’s a little rough around the edges,” commented Jeremiah. “But why didn’t you want the one from the Higgns place?”
His question was met with blank stares all around the room. Ned’s chin hit his chest and the group erupted in laughter. They agreed they would go after the wood stove at the other ranch as soon as they could.
It was Ricky that suggested a use for the project that had absorbed their morning. “I read a thing in history class about Indians up in Alaska that used to dry fish in a big shed to keep them over the winter. Could we use that to make a bunch of jerky?”
“I know a lot of Natives that still do that,” said Dan. “We could probably jerk a lot but we don’t have a building to use and there isn’t much wood left.”
“We could use that van you drug home I’ll bet. If we pull the engine and stuff the stove in there we can vent the smoke up into the van itself. We can use the windows in the front to control the temperature. It would just mean we need to strip it really well. In fact, we could probably used the hinges from the hood for the door here.” Ned pointed out.
They talked it over and decided to run the idea past the women at lunch. While they talked, the group had moved from inside the shop into the sun in the driveway. Ricky called out and pointed down the driveway at the four horses that approached.
Jeremiah told them all to get their rifles and get to cover. Ricky was set into the house to alert the women just in case it wasn’t the rest of the Lost Park Ranch crew.
The horsemen stopped at the bridge and two removed their hats. The flags that waved proclaimed that it was indeed James and Mary. Jeremiah stepped out to the middle of the driveway and waved his flag in return and the riders continued up the road at a trot.
They came into the parking area and they could be clearly identified. Everyone, but baby Hannah who was sleeping soundly in her new play pen, met them as they dismounted.
None looked worse for their excursion though Fred proclaimed his butt may never have feeling in it again. The horses also looked healthy but stared longingly towards the barn. Bridget went back inside to tend lunch while everyone else helped with the horses. They were quickly unloaded, including some things they hadn’t left with. James directed where things were to be put and promised to fill them in on the trip over lunch.
Lunch was leftovers from the previous day and nobody complained. They were all eager to hear the story of the last three days but waited patiently for James to begin.
“The trip went well, better than I expected actually. We left here and started with the Johnsons up at the Double Bar $. They’re doing okay but are having a tough time since the quads don’t work. Mike and one of the hands hiked out to the herd and they look okay but they haven’t been able to get feed out to them. We’re going to take the pickup up their way and lend a hand. They didn’t have much to say but they were personable. After that we popped into the Burnwood place. I swear Frank and Gert hardly even noticed anything strange was going on. They told me they have plenty set by and they’re doing well. When I told them we might not be able to buy much food, Gert just said ‘Oh well, be like it was during The War I guess. Just need a bigger garden.’ Tough ol’ coots they are. We went by the Troutes but nobody was around so we left a note but Ken and Jackie Krenshaw put us up for the night. We had a long talk and have a few plans we are going to get together. I’ll get back to that though.
“The next day we crossed 285 and made our way to the Miles ranch up there by Jefferson Lake. They’ve been having trouble with some folks that seem to be squatting at the campground. Greg says they came by asking for a handout and got pretty rude when he sent them off with a few canned goods. They came back and shot his dog and burned down a shed. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal but it was the pump house. The fire burned so hot it destroyed the pump and cracked the well casing. The ash has fouled the water. He’s not sure but he thinks they may have been stealing his cattle for food and he’s not willing to ride up there alone to check. Can’t say I blame him, not with Shirley and the boys at home. When we finished at the Miles place, we headed back towards the highway. South Park is pretty much deserted and it looks like some of the places right along the highway may have been looted. Beats me what people were looking for at the service station; maybe gas I guess. Anyway, Mary had us make a little detour and we found a gold mine, literally. I forgot about it but there has been a group that has been setting Old Town South Park up as a sort of museum. For years now they have been hauling buildings there and stocking them with Gold Rush era furnishings. All sorts of things that would be really handy right now. Having found all that stuff in tact and locked up tight, we went into Fairplay to see what plans had been made for it. Well, Fairplay isn’t as bad as I imagine Denver is but they are starting to have trouble, especially with highway people. They’ve setup roadblocks and the Park Country Sheriff’s have deputies there along with a sort of militia. They let us in after we were able to show local addresses but wanted to disarm us. Fred stayed at the roadblock with the weapons and horses and we went in on foot.” James paused, took a drink, and nodded to his wife.
Mary took up the story. “Things are breaking down in Fairplay. Their sewage and water system need power to function and it took them a while to get a handle on that. The Mayor and the three Sheriff’s deputies that live there have been able to get the high school setup as a shelter of sorts. They were able to get some wood stoves into the gym and they have about 150 people living in the school. There are a couple wells within a few blocks of the school and they are getting water out of them somehow. The majority of people are still living in there own homes and trying to scrape by. But the Mayor is, and rightfully so, worried about food. We offered him a partial solution to that problem and he accepted. We’ll be driving 30 head to town in four days. In return, we own Olde Town South Park. That will all be hauled back here though where it’s all going to go, I don’t know.”
James resumed, “After making this deal, the Mayor got a lot more hospitable and let Fred into town with all our kit. One of the deputies is a single fella and had a big house so he let us stay there last night. He and Fred seemed to hit it off real well. He told us a bit about the folks in town and how things are going. They’ve had between three and five deaths a week since the Event. Some just died, others were suicides, but the majority have been due to the weather. They had a family of six go down from probable carbon monoxide poisoning and three times that from hypothermia. People just don’t respect the cold. And they had a gang roll through town before they had the roadblocks in place. They lost a deputy and two civilians in the firefight. He figures the total population is somewhere around 500 as it sits.”
He also told us a few things he probably wasn’t supposed to. The Sheriff has been in touch with the Base Commander over in the Springs. This wasn’t just a solar event. It seems that when the damage from the solar radiation began to become apparent, some folks took the chance to get even on some old grudges. There were multiple HEMP explosions over the US and Europe. Nuclear explosions happen in D.C., New York City, LA, and Savannah, Georgia within a week of the most powerful of the solar flares hitting the Earth. They either don’t know or aren’t saying if those were bombs or missiles or what. The federal government, and probably most world governments, are in total disarray. We cannot expect any help on that front.”
Dan let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. Everyone looked pale and the couples in the room had unconsciously moved towards each other. He thought of Lynne and his family and felt a tightness in his throat.
“Like I said, we talked ,” James went on. “We came here pretty much straight from town. As you saw, we were able to do some trading along the way. Mom swapped her little backup pistol to Jackie Krenshaw for some seed packs and that aloe plant. The hens are a gift from the Miles family. But those aren’t the half of it. I mentioned we talked for a while with the Krenshaws. We talked about forming a rancher’s collective. It’s a sort of mutual aid group and corporation in one. We’d work together to take care of our herds, negotiate stock sales, and generally help each other out. So, on the way back we stopped in at all the ranches we talked with the day before. I made it clear that even though the Burnwoods don’t have any stock, they would be full partners if they were interested. The Troutes were back in from checking the herds and we got a chance to speak with them. Nobody was willing to commit on the spot and we didn’t expect them to. We agreed to provide transport for one member of each household to a meeting to be held on neutral ground in a week to talk things out further. And we have one more, big, piece of news.”
Mary picked up again. “Greg and Shirley Miles are good people. Ricky and Caleb have been pals since they moved here two years ago and Jerry, their youngest, is cute as a button. Shirley is scared and so is Greg, even if he won’t admit it. They’re living off stored water and a few rain barrels for the animals. It’s not a good situation. In fact, Shirley told me they were probably going to have to move even before this thing hit. They just couldn’t cover the mortgage with the recession. So, they are going to move down here. They’ll bring half a dozen horses and almost 40 chickens along with the goats whose milk Shirley makes cheese and soaps from. Besides, we need more hands around here, especially once we start planting and harvesting.
We’ll have to do a bit of rearranging and building but I think it will work out. Greg has been building houses for 20 years and already has some ideas for what to do here.”
“And they have a fair bit of food,” James continued, “So it’s not as though we’ll be supporting them. Anyway, it’s decided. We’re going to start moving them this afternoon. Right now, I’d like to see the cool room and get a rundown of what has happen around here. Bridget you up for a walk?”
The young woman shrugged. “I can go out there with you but I imagine Jeremiah has a better idea of what you want to know. Besides, I’m cooking today and need to finish a couple things for dinner, especially if we have four more mouths to feed.”
“So be it.” James replied as he stood.
The two men walked out the door and the others moved off. Mary began filling the bathtub with hot water and Ricky and Ted were quick to refill the buckets as they emptied.
Dan walked with Fred back to the camper where Festus showed Fred he had been missed. Dan asked about the wound on Fred’s chest but was assured it wasn’t hurting, he hadn’t overdone it, and that all was well.
“What do you think of James’ plans then?” Dan asked.
“I think he’s on the right track but I may not be the most, um, objective person to ask.” Fred replied with a wink. At Dan’s blank look, he went on. “I put the bug in his ear about the Rancher’ Association while we were on the road. These folks need to band together if they want to stay alive. Did you know that in Special Operations, we spend as much time teaching the indij how to work together as much as we do bringing extreme violence to bad people? Well, at least we did before the Sandbox. But if you look back at places like ‘Nam, the A-Teams were out there getting the locals to band together for a common goal and teaching them how. And if you look at pioneer times here in the states, hell, in this state, you won’t find isolated ranches or homes that thrived. It was communities that were organized and working together.
He took a long drink from a water bottle and went on, “As far as the other stuff, we’ll have to see. The deal with Fairplay is a good one. We’ll be able to save that equipment and it gets some of the cattle out of here. I think we’ll be working with the town a fair bit in the future and good relations are going to be important.
“The other deal, that family moving down here, I don’t know. They seemed like good people and they have kids so it’s not like we could leave them in harms way. I think I may take a look at what is happening up at that lake while we work on getting the Miles family packed up. Speaking of that family, I wanted to run something by you… This trailer is pretty big for the two of us and with that family moving down here, what do you think of letting them have it?”
Dan didn’t hesitate before he answered, “Yeah that makes good sense to me. I am sure we’ll be able to find a chunk of floor to crash out on somewhere.”
“Exactly my thought. Festus, you good with letting the kids have these digs?” the man asked his companion.
Hearing his name Festus let out a bark and executed one of his favorite tricks, a standing back flip.
Fred laughed and threw him a piece of jerky from his pocket. They talked for a minute more about where they would sleep then Dan left him to relax for a few minutes.
He met Jeremiah and James in the driveway as they returned from the cool room. James turned to him as he walked up to the pair.
“Jeremiah tells me yawl have been busy. Great, I didn’t really expect you to get both steers put up. You got real lucky with that bear though and we’ll need to keep an eye out. I think most of these new projects are going to need to wait until we get the Miles clan moved in though.”
“Well, when I walked out your wife was getting a bath heated up so I think she may have plans for you.” Dan chuckled.
The men walked in and found that to be the case. Mary was scrubbed clean and hustled James off to the tub. She called over her shoulder, telling Dan to let Fred know the bath would be ready for him in just a few minutes.
True to her word, the couple reappeared fifteen minutes later. The hot water was topped up and Fred took his turn in the hot water. The others smiled when his heart felt sigh was heard three rooms away as he slid into the water. They laughed until they held their sides as he belted out his rendition of ‘The devil went down to Georgia’.
It wasn’t long before he rejoined the group looking refreshed. They gathered around the table and James laid out the plan for the next few days.
“Ned, Jeremiah tells me you want the woodstove from the Higgins place for the shop. We’ll get it but I want to wait until Greg gets here. He may want to salvage lumber from there and we need to make the most of each trip. I like the smokehouse idea too but this move has priority. The Miles boys can sleep with Ricky for now but Greg and Shirley will have to sleep in the greatroom until we can sort something else out.”
Dan looked at Fred who interrupted, “We was talking about that and figured that family would be better suited in the camper. If that’s okay by you of course.”
“If you boys are sure, then that’ll make things a bit easier. You can have the couch in here if you can keep a handle on your attack beast.” James answered.
“Festus would be fine but we talked about it and since it’s just sleeping we can really crash anywhere.” Fred answered.
“The three of them can sleep in the bunkhouse with us until we set something more permanent up.” Ann said.
James nodded, “Done then. When we finish here, you boys get your stuff cleared out of there and stowed in the bunkhouse. After that you join Ricky and Ned behind the barn. We need to get setup to take in Greg’s cows. He has segregated out ten that will calve in the next week or so but the rest of his herd will join ours on the range. You boys are going to make up a few more pens. We need to get our mommas up here soon too. After the pens are done, we need to figure out something for a chicken coop. Oh, and something for those goats too. Give that some thought and let me know what you come up with. I’m hoping to not have to disassemble pens up the hill but it might come to that.”
Jeremiah, you, Bill, Ted, and I are going to take the trailer and go up to the Double Bar $ and move some feed for them. We’ll go from there to the Miles place and get a load together and bring the family down. I want to be back here before it gets dark. I’m hoping that we can have them totally moved in here before we need to drive the cattle up to town.”
Fred spoke up. “Can I throw in a couple points? I’d like to go with you up to the Miles place. I still can’t do a lot of lifting but I wanna take a sneak over to that lake and see what is what there. I’ll pack to be out overnight but shoot for getting back to Greg and Shirley’s just after nightfall. And speaking of that, if you move the family out of there, what’s to keep the people up at the lake from moving in? I think we ought to plan on leaving some people up there to protect the place until the move is complete.”
James considered that. “Okay, Bill, you stay here and help with the new coral. We’ll leave as soon as Fred is ready then.”
“We’ll be out to help on the coral once we finish up in here.” Mary said with hand on hip, indicating Ann.
“Dear, I am sure your help would be greatly appreciated.” James replied, realizing he had excluded a big part of there workforce, again.
James scanned the faces before him. They all held looks of determination, hope, and a little fear. All but one.
“What’s wrong son?”
Ricky lifted his eyes from the floor, “Does Caleb HAVE to sleep in the camper? It’s been forever since I got to see any of my friends; can’t he sleep in my room? Jerry can even come and we’ll be good, I promise.”
Mary slipped her arm around her son’s shoulder and kissed him on the top of his head. “I am sure his mother will be fine with the boys sleeping in your room, at least tonight.”
The boy smiled at his mom and said, “Really? Cool!”
With that James put both his hands on his knees and stood. “Okay then, let’s get to it.”
The group quickly moved on to the tasks they had been given. Each carried their weapons as James had instructed and began preparing to leave.
Bill followed Dan and Fred to the camper and helped Fred gather his things. It didn’t take long and Fred soon joined the others that would be going off the ranch at the truck.
When James and Ricky looked over the area behind the barn, they realized space for more animals was going to be very limited. The mothers waiting to calve would have free run of nearly all the space left in the barn and it would still be tight. Expanding living space for the stock would be added to the high priority list, a list that desperately needed to be written down.
Ned and Jeremiah had attached the horse trailer to the truck and topped off the fuel from the dwindling stores. The rest of the group met them in the driveway. A couple last minute changes were made to the roster. Mary decided Shirley would want another woman there and Ann agreed to go without hesitation. Dan, who James had overlooked earlier, was told to stay at the ranch and help wherever he could.
The group going to the neighbors loaded up with Jeremiah driving. James joined him in the cab and the others rode in the pickup bed.
As the truck rolled out the driveway, Ricky called out, “Okay guys, lets get the barn setup,” sounding many years beyond his thirteen.
The twenty minute ride to the Johnson ranch was uneventful. When Jeremiah turned off the county road onto a long driveway bordered by barbed-wire fences, the ranch house could be seen at the crest of a small rise. At James’ direction Jeremiah stopped the truck at the base of that crest.
James had walked only a dozen paces from the truck when another man appeared at the top of the hill. The man waved when he recognized the elder Duncan and they were soon stopped in front of the house.
The Double Bar $ Ranch was larger than Lost Park Ranch. The main house was a large log home with beautiful stone columns flanking a massive entry door. Large windows with etched images of mountains, elk, and pheasant, looked out at upon the driveway. Several outbuildings were scattered around the property. One of these was a large shop where half a dozen identical pickups, none more than two years old, were parked. A man in greasy coveralls extracted himself from under the hood of one as Jeremiah shut the truck off.
Several other people approached as the vehicle came t a stop. No weapons were aimed at them but everyone was armed. The man that had waved them up swung a gate closed, completing a circle around the truck and trailer.
Fred scanned the men from the bed of the pickup and mumbled, “This should be interesting.”
James opened the door and walked up to a man that stood out from the others. It wasn’t just the fact he was three steps closer to the truck that set him apart. Where the other men’s worn jeans, Carhartts, and Stetson’s spoke of a working life, this man looked like a Dallas cowboy. Dallas as in the TV drama, not the city in Texas. His black Wrangler’s looked brand new, his matching black shirt with pearl buttons pressed, and his bolo tie comical. The smile he wore looked as genuine as a politician’s promises.
“Jimmy, the boys said you had stopped in, sorry I missed you,” he said, “I was out checking the fences, you know how it is.”
James gave him a quick nod. “Yeah, I know how that is. I tend to look as worn out as Joshua over there does when I’m finished. Glad to see you’re nice and spry, even at your age.”
The belly laugh Mike gave was no more genuine than his smile. “You old dog, neither of us are pups any more are we? What can I do for you? Looks like you brought some friends.”
“Mike, we both know why I’m here. Let’s cut the crap, huh? Billy told me yesterday you were having trouble getting feed out to your stock so we’re here to lend a hand.” James said, keeping his tone level.
Mike’s false smile never wavered. “Yeah, we’ve had a bit of a snag. The boys had been using Tom’s old beater pickup since all the ranch trucks died. But then a few days ago it quit too. Brian tells me he’s not sure he can get it running again so now I’m in a bit of a lurch.”
“I know. A couple of my people can ride out with the boys here to drop feed; that’s why we’re here. Billy, why don’t you unhook my horse trailer and we’ll hook onto your flatbed, I see you loaded it all up.” James said, never taking his eyes off Mike.
The man that had closed the gate and was now standing near the trailer looked to his boss before moving. When Mike gave the nod, he called to two other men around the yard and they moved to unhook the trailer.
“Jeremiah, why don’t you and Fred give these fellas a ride? Ted, Ann, and I will wait here with Mike until you make it back safe and sound.” James yelled back over his shoulder.
“You boys be careful out there, I’d feel terrible if something were to happen to folks lending a hand on my property,” Mike called to the truck.
James very subtly let his right hand drift to his pistol. Looking Mike straight in the eyes, he said. “It truly would be a shame if something were to happen.”
Ted and Ann climbed from the truck and joined James at the foot of the porch. It only took a minute to get the pickup hooked to the loaded hay trailer. One man joined Jeremiah in the cab when Fred said he would rather ride in the bed of the pickup. Billy spoke with two other men who climbed aboard the hay trailer while he climbed in the bed with Fred.
The man in the cab directed Jeremiah through a gate near the barn into the pastureland beyond it. As the truck left the driveway, the door to the house opened. The young woman that stepped out looked gaunt, even wrapped in a heavy sweater. Her eyes were red rimmed and her hair unkempt. Her arms were crossed over her chest as if to keep her emotions penned inside.
“Dad, we have guests? Why haven’t you invited them in?” she sniffed and leaned against the door frame. “Hello Mr. Duncan, who are your friends?” she continued, looking at Ted.
James’s smile was tempered by concern. “Elizabeth, this is Ted, Bridget’s fiancé and this is Ann, a friend of the family,” he introduced the others.
Mike’s plastic face crumbled when he saw young woman. He stepped past the others to her side. Putting one hand under her arm, he guided her back into the house, motioning the others to follow.
Ted closed the door behind him as Mike lowered Elizabeth to the couch. The woman rolled herself into the plush corner with her knees drawn up, not quiet in a fetal position but close. Mike pulled a blanket over her and gently tucked it behind her shoulders. Elizabeth closed her eyes and said, “Please give me a minute, I think I may have overdone it getting up so quick.”
‘You boys go in the kitchen, I’ll sit with her,” Ann ordered the men.
Mike looked like he was going to object until James reached over and gave his shoulder a firm squeeze. The men looked at each other for a moment then walked into the large kitchen.
They gathered around the table and Mike spoke. “She showed up here on foot two days ago and this is the first time she’s been up other than using the bathroom. I don’t know what happen to her or why she’s so sick. I don’t know anything about taking care of sick people but she’s not getting any better. I need to get her to a doctor James.”
Mike's voice was almost pleading. Ted prompted him to keep going, asking what had happen to her.
Mike shrugged. “She moved over to The Springs and took a job with Wells Fargo a couple years ago. I think the only reason she stayed her as long as she did was because she thought I was going to loose it after Rachael, that was my wife, died. She has been back a couple times but seemed to be doing well. Anyway, she was living with some soldier over there. Then this… thing happened and I didn’t hear from her until she showed up looking like this.”
Ann called from the other room asking for water. Mike grabbed a plastic bottle from the counter and the three walked in the room. He handed it to Elizabeth who started to guzzle it. Ann stopped her and told her to sip.
“I’m sorry, I’ve just been so sick for the last few days,” the girl apologized.
“Its okay kiddo, what happen to you?” James replied.
She took a deep breath and began, “I live over in Colorado Springs. One morning we woke up and nothing worked. My boyfriend Andy is…was, a soldier at Fort Carson. His commander told them it was something to do with the Sun and frying computers; I don’t really remember. After the second day the bank told us to stay at home since the computers run everything. One of the other branches had been robbed and the Manager was worried about us. At first at wasn’t too bad, you know, kind of like a camping trip. But then people started getting crazy. Because we weren’t married, I couldn’t move onto the base when Andy was ordered to. I think the Mayor asked the Army for help because pretty soon the police and the Army guys took over all the stores that had food. People weren’t happy but the government people were just trying to get things organized. Pretty quickly they opened some shelters and started helping regular people.”
Most of the Army trucks and tanks and stuff were still running and they were going out and bringing food and people back into Colorado Springs. Everyone was hungry but not starving. They setup pumps to get water from the wells and people were doing okay.”
But then one of the food groups didn’t come back. Andy was sneaking out to see me and he told me they had been attacked by a Mexican gang that had been big in Pueblo. People stared getting scared. Then about three weeks ago that gang moved into the south part of Colorado Springs. Andy said the military couldn’t find all of them and it was like fighting in Baghdad. He said these guys were trained like Special Forces or something and were really dangerous. We could here gunfights and explosions from that side of town. They even stared some big fires and shit anyone that tried to put them out. A lot of the city just burned up. Then they started blowing stuff up and killing people on the ‘safe’ side of town. I was really scared.”
Andy knew I grew up out here and figured I would be safe on the ranch. One night we snuck away from town. We had backpacks full of food and camping gear and what we needed to hike here. He said he was going back after he got me to The Ranch but I know I could have made him stay. He had his Army rifle and we were being careful so I wasn’t worried.”
I was pretty worn down from the lack of food so it took three days to get to Woodland Park. I wanted to go into town but Andy said it was too dangerous. We camped in the woods then snuck past the town at night. The sun was just starting to come up when we can out on this side of the town limits. We had been climbing through the trees all night and we were both really tired so we went back down to the highway. That was what got us into trouble.”
The people in Woodland Park must have decided they didn’t want anyone coming or going because they put up roadblocks. We came out of the woods about thirty feet behind one. As soon as we hit the pavement the guys at it saw us. They didn’t say anything, they just started shooting. Andy pushed me into the woods and shot back. We were running and could hear them chasing and shooting at us. Andy made me drop my pack and told me to keep going.” She paused, took a shuddering breath, and went on.
“I ran. I could hear him shooting and them shooting then everyone was shooting. Then there were no more shots. I kept running. After a while I didn’t hear anything but I was so scared and tired and Andy and I….” she trailed off into barely controlled tears.
Ann put a hand on the Elizabeth’s leg and her father slide to the couch next to her. She sobbed for a minute, took another breath to collect herself and continued. “I don’t think Andy made it. I found a dirt road and crawled into a culvert to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night. I was so cold. I had on my good thermals but I didn’t have anything else. I knew I was still really high up and if it snowed I’d be in big trouble. So I waited until the sun came up and started moving North and West. I knew I’d eventually hit the Park and if I did I’d get home.”
I just kept walking. I found a few pine nuts like Bridget and I used to collect as kids but that was all I had to eat. At first I was worried about drinking from the streams but I had to, I was so thirsty. After the first one didn’t make me feel bad, I drank every time I could; it made me feel less hungry.”
After a few days I found an abandon Ranger Station/Fire Tower thingie. I was so hungry and tired. There was an axe and I used it to break the door in. The place was pretty empty but it had a stove. It started to snow while I was there so I made a little fire. There were two of those Army food bags, MERs or whatever, in a metal box. I tried to eat a whole packet of spaghetti but I got sick after half of it. I eventually was able to eat and slept there that night.”
It didn’t snow too long and the weather was good the next day so I kept going. It was the day after I left the Ranger Station that I started getting sick; I guess about a week ago. I can’t stop going to the bathroom and it’s so gross. Sometimes my belly hurts really bad and I have to just lay down.”
It made it really hard to keep going but eventually I came down into the Park. I think I was north of Spinney Mountain Reservoir. I don’t remember most of the rest of the way here. I know I thought about going to your place Mr. Duncan, but I never saw the driveway. I think I was hallucinating. Somehow I made it here a couple days ago. I’m doing better now that Dad has been giving me food but it’s still going right through me. And nothing tastes good and I’m still so weak and….” Again she trailed off into a bout of crying.
While Ann and Mike comforted her the others sat quietly. Ted was the first to speak, “Elizabeth, I’m not a doctor but I have almost finished veterinary school. Can I ask you a couple things about this sickness you’re going through?”
When she nodded, Ted continued, “The diarrhea you’re having, what does it look like? Is there any blood in it? Is it mucusy or anything like that?”
The girl looked slightly embarrassed but answered, “It’s really watery, yellow, and it really smells bad.”
“Okay, anything else? Have you been throwing up?” he asked.
“I did when this started but not so much anymore. When I was, and even when I burp now, it really burns; that and it tastes horrible. It’s like rotten eggs or something,” she replied.
Ted considered her words. “I had something like that a couple years ago and your story would fit. Those sulfur belches, I remember them. I went on a whitewater rafting trip in Montana one summer. I was fine while I was there but a few days after I got back I started getting cramps, diarrhea, and those belches. It was mostly just really annoying in my case but I eventually went to the doctor. He told me it was Beaver Fever; Giardia. I did a short course of an antiparasitic tablets and was all good afterwards.”
“I have a couple half full bottles of antibiotics in the bedroom; maybe one of those would work,” Mike said.
“Antiparasitics and antibiotics are different and antibiotics can make diarrhea worse,” Ted explained. “I bet Dan would know what we need. I’m not sure where we can get it though.”
“The pharmacy in Buena Vista might have some. We could take your truck and go buy it,” Mike said.
“Maybe but I doubt they would let us buy anything with cash,” James said. “We have some resources available and Ann’s son is a paramedic. He’s back at my place and we can see if he’ll come up. But I was serious; I have things that need to get done today. When the boys get back from the field, Jeremiah can run down and get Dan. I hate to bring this up now but we’re running low on fuel, so if you can help us out I’d greatly appreciate it.”
Mike began to bristle then looked at the emaciated form of his only child on the couch next to him. “Whatever you need, just help her.”
Elizabeth leaned in close to Ann and whispered something in her ear. Ann listened then nodded to the girl.
“Mike, where has Elizabeth been sleeping?” she asked.
He pointed her at a doorway across the room where she quickly disappeared. She came out carrying double bagged garbage sack. Mike directed her to a plastic bucket on the porch that held two other such bags where she promptly deposited it. She turned to the men and said, “Would one of you gently carry this young woman to the bedroom please?”
Without a word, Mike scooped his daughter up and carried her to the bedroom followed by Ann. Mike reappeared a moment later at the same time as the sound of a motor could be heard.
The men walked out onto the porch as the pickup returned through the gate it had left by. Jeremiah and Billy rode in the cab and the others in the bed of the truck. The trailer was nowhere in sight. They pulled up in front of the horse trailer.
Jeremiah once again shut the truck off and everyone exited it. The atmosphere was much less tense than before but a sense of expectation filled the air.
Mike boomed out to the group, “You get that load staged where you wanted Billy?” When Billy shook his head, he went on “These folks have helped us a bunch today and they’re offering more. All they’re asking is for a bit of fuel and we’ve got plenty of that. Brian, top off the tank for ‘em.”
While Mike had been speaking, James had walked to where Fred and Jeremiah stood. He briefly explained the situation and instructed the two men to get Dan and bring him up to the Double Bar $. Jeremiah left to help Brian fuel the truck and Fred followed James back to the porch.
As they neared the bottom stair, James asked how the trip had gone.
“Went slicker than greased goose poo. They had a pretty decent road that we followed for about five miles to the base of the foothills. We pulled the trailer off to one side of it and dropped about half the bales over a few hundred yards. We covered the rest so they say they say they’re set for another week or so. These guys seem fairly decent. Their bossman has kept them fed so they’ve stuck with him but they’re a bit worried about what’s going to happen down the road.” Fred answered.
“Mike’s a decent enough guy though he gets pretty full of himself sometimes. It’s gotten worse since the cancer took Rachel. Lizzy and Bridget rode together in high school so we used to spend lots of time with each other at competitions. Now Lizzy is back here and if we can get her healthy, that should bring his head around. If not, I’m not sure what that’ll do.”
Once we get Dan up here, I want to get up to Greg’s place. We’re gonna be short of daylight and may not get a lot done, but we can make a start at it. I’d still like to get everyone back to out house tonight.”
Fred nodded and looked back at the truck. Jeremiah had finished fueling the truck and started it up. He pulled in front of the house and dipped his head towards the two men. Fred shook James’ hand said, “I’ll be back,” in what may have been the worst Terminator impression ever.
The living are higher than the lifeless, and the thinking are higher than those that can merely draw breath.
Marcus AureliusMechanical Issues