“What happened?” I asked Evans. “Have you heard?”
“Most of it … or at least all that I need to know. Thor isn’t going to give those road pirates a second chance.”
“He’ll burn ‘em out?” I asked envisioning some kind of battle royale in the near future and despite myself getting a little excited.
“Kid, get your head out of the … er … the story books.” I’m sure he meant to say something else but it was cute the way he changed it for the kids’ sake who were bound to have been listening through the tent whether they admitted to it or not. “This is real life. You leave that stuff to the people what’s it their job to do things like that. Playing hero only gets you dead. Or worse, gets your friends dead. He’ll send a message rider to the militia and they’ll come in and burn ‘em out … assuming the pirates are that lucky,” Evans said ominously. “You don’t mess with most of these militiamen out here. They’s kinda touchy of whot’s theirs to protect.”
I didn’t like being told that I was romanticizing things and not being realistic. I know that’s not exactly how Evans said it but that is what he meant. And when he explained it I could see what he meant; it still embarrassed me though.
“Hey Kid, don’t think you’ll get out of all of the fighting. Even on the back roads we’ve seen some people get too pushy. But when you’s got a job to do you do it. Lucky for us though so far the pirates have stuck to the main transportation lines. They’ve been picking up all of the toys that have just been lying around and most of ‘em like to play rough.”
Trying to figure out what Evans meant I asked, “You mean they’ve been finding guns and stuff?”
“Kid, more than little pop guns.” He pulled me further away from the tent. “One group even had a cobbled together Gatling gun from some museum, or so we heard. Flame throwers, grenades, and other nasty things. Worse though, some of those … turds … are starting to show up with biologicals and chems. All we can do is pray that all the dirties have already been detonated; don’t need more of that stuff going off. Kid, that reminds me, you ain’t planning on going to Asheville are you?”
“Why?” I asked suspicious at the sudden change of topic.
“Got word that the city proper took a few bad hits – conventional not nuclear – and then the riots really took her to the ground. There’s an enclave out at the Biltmore working the vineyards and using the grounds for gardens but Asheville itself ain’t no place to be if you can hep it.”
Trying to put his mind at rest without giving away any more than necessary I told him, “Well, I can hep it. I don’t plan on going into North Carolina at all. Well, only the state line but then I’ll pick up the AT and head north. That good enough for now?”
“What’s the AT?”
He was about to grill me some more when Montgomery came up in a hurry. “Load up. We’re heading back to Alma and overnight there. Next day is Keene and we’d hopefully get more intel there.”
The kids were scared but when I told them they were riding with “Mr. Chuck” they settled right down. I asked him if he was sure that he’d have the patience. “If I can find the patience to be around my ex so that I can spend time with my kids, then these kids will be a breeze.”
Well that certainly put a different spin on the story I was building in my head. I was wondering what I was going to do when Thor whistled. He was having the pony cart put on the back of one of the equipment trailers. “You fit to walk?”
“Good. That’ll give me someone that can run between trucks. It’s only five miles to Alma. We’ll overnight there. This is going to put us days behind but I will not risk this shipment if the pirates are working that stretch.”
Not only did I “run,” I had to help push off some debris that people had piled into the road since the last time they had been through. I’d gotten used to the extreme flatness that I had come through but in this area I started to relearn about up and down and how to pace myself. Despite the good night’s sleep I had gotten by the time we pulled into Alma I was tired again. The heat coming off the road added to that but I had been warned to stay off the roadside as people with nothing better to do than cause pain and suffering to others had mined it with painful surprises … trip wires, spiked holes to catch the unwary hiker’s foot, actual mines that went boom. All I had to say was some people had way too much time on their hands and too little brain matter between their ears.
It was a tense night in Alma. The scenery, as beautiful as it was, couldn’t make up for it. Keene was a little over twenty miles away and we were really going to push it to get everyone there in a single day. Horses and trucks could have done it but we’d picked up some stragglers that were just trying to get from point a to point b and they were paying for the privilege.
Alfonso said, “We had a bigger group leaving Topeka than we have right now but there are more whiners in this group; makes the problems just about even I guess.”
He wasn’t kidding about the whiners. That night while Thor was going around getting everyone’s reports I asked him point blank, “Did you stick me where those crybabies could get to me on purpose?”
He gave a tired chuckle and said, “I’ll leave you to wonder.” After I told him that I thought one of the trucks was overloaded for the balled tires it had and a few other things that I’d noticed from “on the ground” so to speak he told me, “Anyone in particular giving you grief?”
“I have a couple of favorites but no one I can’t handle by ignoring them or giving them your trademark growl. That girl who said she was a cheerleader … wasn’t. The girl could barely get in and out of the pickup bed she finally conned someone into letting her ride in. She’s got clutz written all over her daisy dukes. And that guy who still insists on carrying around that brief case? Is it me or is he just plain creepy?”
He sighed, “It’s people like that that won’t make it through this winter. Well, the girl might if she makes herself available as a bed warmer but the life won’t be kind to her.”
I’m not crude by nature but that had been my thought as well. “Yeah, she reminds me of the girls whose boyfriends always ran off and leave them to get eaten by the monster in whatever horror flick was out. The kids weren’t a problem for Chuckri were they?”
Thor shook his head, “Best mood I’ve seen him in in a while. Might be that woman that was riding shotgun though. She was NG out of Topeka when things went south. She and he seem to have hit it off pretty well.”
The wicked grin on his face caused my own to warm up. When he noticed he said, “Lord you make me feel old. Get some rest, it is going to be a long day tomorrow and you have last watch.”
I wanted to groan but didn’t. There was no way I was going to allow myself to look weak. “Sure thing Old Man.”
“Yeah … and don’t you forget it.” Only when he said it I noticed that his voice didn’t have quite the whim, wigger, and witality that he normally did. I thought either I had hurt his feelings somehow, which I was at a loss as to how, or he wasn’t as unaffected by the constant work and ruckus as he tried to make people believe he was. It made me determined to be less of a pain for him, although a part of me enjoyed it enough I would miss it.
The road to Keene was both as good and as bad as I had expected. I switched off with several of the men so I didn’t have to be a runner the whole twenty miles. On the other hand that meant I had to ride in the trucks.
I learned something amazing. The body can get use to traveling at a slower pace and to suddenly get even close to “modern speed” the inner ear tries to revolt; or at least mine did. Anything faster than say twenty or twenty-five miles an hour and my head started to swim. As the day wore on the feeling was less pronounced as my body remembered what it was like traveling at that speed but it just seemed so strange to have that problem.
That night, when Thor came around I was almost too embarrassed to ask him if anyone had ever reported feeling like that.
“Kid, how many weeks, months, has it been since you were doing anything other than walking? God gave us two legs for a reason. On a horse we still feel the living thing beneath us doing what God created it to do. But when you get on a machine after so long away from it our brains kind of revolt. One of the reasons we filled that bus with grain instead of people is because on the trip out here we kept having people get car sick. Human body just isn’t designed to go from zero to sixty without practice. Some people like the feelings that roller coasters give you and some don’t. Some like driving fast and some don’t. Same thing.”
“Well, at least I don’t feel like such an idiot then. Although I do have some fond memories of our family vacation to Florida. We must have hit every theme park in the state and I rode every ride in every one of those parks. Of them all the only ones that gave me the willies were the 4D rides.”
“Yeah, you know. You’re watching a 3D show only they add special effects like puffs of air that feelings like things are crawling up your legs or rumbles in the head rest that makes it seem like there is something behind you.” He laughed and then shook his head at my foolishness. “Don’t tell me you never did anything for fun.”
With a look he said, “The kind of stuff I thought was fun isn’t the kind of stuff you tell in polite company.”
“Aw come on,” I laughed. “When is the last time I claimed to be polite company.” But no matter how I begged and pleaded he wouldn’t tell me. Oh well, not like I really needed to know but I wondered what Thor had thought of as fun … when fun was easier to come by.
The next day was the leg that would take us to the west side of Topeka. It was the same kind of day as the previous one except that at mid-day I ran up to the truck that Thor was in and hopped on the running board. “Thor, you’ve got a city map of Topeka.”
He looked at me through the rolled down window. “Yeah.”
“If I give you an address could you plot it?”
“If the address is good.”
I gave him the address of the kids’ aunt that I had taken out of the address book. “Looks like you’re in luck Kid. It’s near the enclave we are delivering to.”
He took another look and said, “Same lake but on the other side.”
That gave me a lot to think about. It was going to be easier to find the address than I thought but it seemed like it was also going to be sooner than I was ready for if their aunt wasn’t there. I jumped off the running board and went back to work which primarily amounted to babysitting the tagalongs. At my next break I ran to the truck where the kids were riding with Chuckri.
“Hey, how are you two kidlets doing?”
They both laughed. “What?!”
“You’ve got dirt on your face!” They both said continuing to laugh. I looked in the side view mirror and I did look a mess. “Ha ha, very cute,” I said grinning to take the sting out of my words. “They behaving themselves?” I asked Chuckri.
“Always.” You could tell he and the woman in the truck were fond of the kids and both seemed pretty good natured which even I knew was always a plus when working with kids.
I didn’t want to break the kids’ mood so I didn’t raise the fact that I would be going to look for their aunt the next day, tonight I would be stuck helping to unload the wheat and get rid of the tagalongs. I had no idea what I would find when I did go looking. I’d heard there was a secure enclave near with their aunt lived. But I’d also heard that Topeka was a mess. I didn’t know what I was going to find but for their sake, as well as Chuckri’s, I needed to find out sooner rather than later.
First we had to get into Topeka and I’d been warned it wouldn’t be pleasant.