I gave it another minute and then decided to wake Thor just to be on the safe side.
“Thor,” I whispered.
He woke as fast as he ever did and came over and then got a strange look on his face. “How long?”
“Five minutes maybe another two while I was trying to figure out if I was really hearing what I thought I was hearing.”
“Been any closer than this?”
“Hard to say. The wind is blowing away from us so I’m not sure if the sound is being pushed away as well or what.”
“Could also be that there is something between us and them.” And as soon as he said that the sound was just suddenly there and louder.
“Get ready. And Rochelle … no hesitating if it comes down to it.” I nodded and we went back to looking out the gaps in the wooden siding on the barn.
It didn’t take long. Small headlights appeared and I counted nearly a dozen of them. There were two with dune buggy frames and the rest were two-wheeled. All of them looked old enough and beat up enough to have been built before I was born … maybe like from when my dad was a kid or something, some of them even older than that. You could hear some of the engines knocking and missing.
I thought for sure the motorcycles and two passenger buggies were heading straight for us but instead they started circling around the warehouse in front of our location, revving their engines menacingly. The horses didn’t like the motor sounds but they had learned to behave as warhorses and shivered their flanks without sharing their displeasure vocally.
After a few minutes of revving engines and hooting and hollering and cat calling someone inside the warehouse finally broke when a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the old building.
“Oh God,” I whispered.
“Easy,” Thor whispered back, trying to bolster me.
People started pouring from the burning building like rats from a sinking ship. Thor and I had known there were people in the building but I’d had no idea there had been that many. Some of them were small children.
The motorcycle gang – I didn’t know what else to call them – were running people down, knocking them down with nail-filled boards they were using as weapons, chasing them simply to cause fear, and worse. You could hear the maniacal laughter above the screams and cries of their victims.
“Interesting,” Thor muttered.
Thor continued to look from our hidden spot. “No guns. They have motors but not guns. That make sense to you?”
“None of this makes sense,” I complained nearly distraught. “Thor I can’t stand this. There’s little kids out there.”
“OK then you tell me how we are supposed to shoot the idiots with wheels and not hit the crazies running around out there. They could overwhelm them with numbers but all they are doing is running around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off.”
“But me no buts woman. I don’t like it either but we can’t rescue people that aren’t even trying to rescue themselves. Already been there, done that, have too many flaming t-shirts from it … and scars. Something else is going on here and I’m not getting involved until I know what it is.”
It hurt so bad to watch that I had to treat it like a bad movie from the 70s. It was the only way I could cope with what I was witnessing. Then from out of nowhere in came about six really fast Asian style crotch rockets. I heard a lot more screaming and shouting but the fight seemed to suddenly be on between the crotch rockets and the older style motor bikes and passenger buggies and it looked like a fight that had been had before.
Not ten minutes later came a group of men on foot and while these didn’t have motorized transportation they did have guns.
“Geez …,” I breathed.
“Chaos. Why does it always have to be chaos,” I heard Thor mutter irritably.
I wasn’t sure what he meant but to say that the scene before us was chaotic wasn’t a lie. The slow motors outnumbered the fast motors and they fought to a standstill and then turned in a “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type strategy to take on the men with the guns. And all around people were getting injured and a few were probably dead. And even crazier, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I saw people risking everything to go out in the middle of the chaos to pilfer the dead and dying of anything valuable.
“Pick a shot. Pick it careful. Try and make sure that they don’t come down here at the barn. We don’t need anyone coming close out of curiosity. One round at a time only and try and make it occur during a barrage from the other shooters so that it blends in.”
I almost didn’t have time to do as Thor ordered and was just able to take down one of the crotch rocket riders. The rider wound up driving straight into the burning building as he lost control after my shot took him in the right shoulder. A few moments later there was a loud whoosh as the bike exploded in the intense heat of that inferno.
“Almost missed that one Hon. Be more careful.”
Under other circumstances I might have had something to say to that but he was right and it was no time to let pride twist my knickers into a knot. My next shot took one of the buggy drivers out and the buggy ran into some bushes. I popped off another quick shot, hitting the engine, as I watched some people running towards it.
“Why?” was Thor’s one word question.
“If these people are as … as … whatever they are as they appear they’d only use the buggy to turn into the thing they had feared. Better to simply take it out all together.”
He grunted and then took a shot that hit another biker sending him into the hiding place of the men with the guns.
Thor gave the order to, “Hold off on any more. Let’s see if the interplay changes any.”
Since the gunmen didn’t seem to care whether they hit a runner or a motorized rider it didn’t surprise me any to see the gunmen start to intentionally pick off individuals from the original group of victims.
Thor whispered, “Watch to make sure that we don’t have anyone heading this way. That fire is lighting up the sky and may spread before too long. Idiots. I’m surprised we haven’t had anyone come back here yet as it is.”
I thought for a second and then said, “Territory. This whole thing looks like a territory fight if you think about it.”
“I think I see what you’re saying but finish it.”
“The … let’s call them runners ‘cause I don’t know what else suits them better. The runners use the warehouse as their territory. They’ve probably been turned out of a lot of other places which is why their group is so big but in such a compact location. They are at the bottom of the local food chain. The second group – the slow bikers – came to agitate and maybe run them off. Maybe the slow bikers territory abuts this warehouse area or maybe they were looking to enlarge their territory.”
I stopped to think as I watched the chaos continue only slightly abated and then continued. “Now the fast bikers heard that the slow bikers were getting up to something and they weren’t going to let them have anything that they weren’t going to try and take for themselves first, only they got to the game a little late and a little understaffed for what was occurring which is how the standoff happened. Enter the gunmen. I’m not sure where they fit in but maybe they just thought it was a good opportunity to have all of their quarry in one place where they could pick them off like fish in a barrel because normally they might be too fast to deal with in the city.” I waited for Thor to say something.
Before he could the fight escalated again with all of the motor bikers, fast and slow, attacking the gunmen as one. Only two of the bikers fell and the gunmen were flushed from their hiding spot and now they were running with the original group of victims, never being allowed to slow down long enough to aim and get off a good shot in the night. The bikers concentrated on them with their chains and spiked boards and soon enough Thor said, “Again. I’m not sure I care who we hit this time around. Just don’t make your fire too concentrated. We want to add to the confusion without getting noticed.”
We’d pick off a biker giving the gunmen a chance to gain the upper hand and then we’d pick off a gunmen when they started hitting the non-bikers. Back and forth with no real timing to it and many minutes between shots so as not to bring attention to our location. The warehouse fire spread, but it spread forward pushed by the wind.
The fire also seemed to run the rest of the citizens of the booby hatch away. I was shivering in reaction. For some reason this was worse than any of the other battles I had ever been in. Thor seeing my reaction said, “Easy Hon. You’ll find a direct confrontation always seems easier to deal with than one like this.”
I asked him, “You’ve had to fight like this before? Fight but not ever really be part of the battle?”
He nodded soberly. “Sure. So have a great many soldiers, it’s the nature of modern warfare. There were fewer and fewer opportunities for hand-to-hand combat. Everything was computer generated target numbers and strategies, long distance firing with smart bombs doing most of the work or things like road side bombs and traps doing the damage with the enemy long gone leaving you no one to shoot back at.”
“I don’t like this,” I told him bluntly not caring if I sounded like a petulant child or not.
“No one does, not really. But you do what you have to Hon. Had we gotten any more involved in the altercation we would have been at too much risk. Better to do it this way and live to fight another day if necessary.”
“I know … I really do Thor. It’s no different than the backwoods fighting that I heard about growing up; the feuding, the ambushing, stuff like that. It was just … hard … to stand back and let things develop enough for us to do anything at all … and watch while people were getting hurt, while little children were getting hurt.”
Thor reached over and pulled me into a one armed hug. “I’m sorry Hon. I just didn’t feel the risk was worth it. I know it hurt your heart but war … and make no mistake this is a kind of war … is hard and my goal is to get us to the farm with our skin in one piece. If we can help along the way we will … but not at too great a risk to ourselves. We’re two people, not Pershing’s freaking army.”
I nodded against his chest but was gladder than glad that I’d never experienced the kind of life that Thor had that had given him the ability to be that detached and … complaisant wasn’t exactly the word I was looking for but it was near enough that made no difference.
I don’t know how we managed it but we finished the night taking turns on watch and sleeping. I know that the only way I really slept was in Thor’s arms. He slept beside me while I took my watch and his nearness steadied me.
It wasn’t only the type of fight we had experienced that had thrown me off my stride; it was finally and completely realizing how alone we were. I thought about it as the night wore on and I was able to understand Thor’s caution in how much we took on. We weren’t invincible. We didn’t have an endless supply of ammo. And we had only a few resources to get us where we were going and to set us up for winter in case everything was gone. It may have sounded selfish at first but we weren’t the saviors of the world and we had to look out for ourselves and cover each others’ backs because we were alone with no one else to count on for support or help if we got in a jam.
We left that little piece of hell before first light. Thor had already been out to check what bodies remained but the only thing he came back with was a shotgun and a bag of slugs to go with it. “All the other bodies have been stripped … down to the skin so you might want to avert your eyes, it ain’t a pretty sight. They missed the gunmen under that last buggy you shot that wrapped that tree. Most of the machinery has already been stripped as well except for that one; too much of a mess to do anything with.”
I kept my rifle handy as always but Thor seemed to take some comfort in adding that shotgun to the wagon seat. I tell you in all the trekking I had done to that point I’d never been so glad to shake the dust off my shoes from a place as the area around Bowling Green. All of the small towns along 240 looked the same as the area we’d just left; Woodburn, Allen Springs, and even south to Westfork to some extent. Breakfast that morning was apples and we also ate a raw produce lunch so that we didn’t have to stop to do more than let the animals have a rest.
Looking around after getting back up into the wagon seat I said, “The exodus from the big cities must have been bad around here.”
Thor nodded, “Likely, but what makes you say it in that particular way?”
I sighed and then tried to put my feelings into words. “This is … this is farm country Thor or at least the rural boonies. The terrain might be different from where I grew up by I’d stake a lot and say that the people themselves aren’t that different. Might be a little more to ourselves in the mountains but farmers are farmers are farmers on a local level, even if their farm is more about animals than produce or tobacco versus moonshine. You see how people just close up and give us the eye as we go by? It would take a lot of hurt to get that level of reaction from that many people like this.”
“Maybe but you gotta remember Hon that people are probably on the cusp of having to admit that no one is going to come help for a good long while. People are worried. They are counting every grain of rice or morsel of food they have. The medically weak and frail are starting to die off if they hadn’t already. People are starting to look at themselves and see grasshoppers instead of ants. And they might have been surviving on hope up to this point but winter’s coming and that has to be preying on the minds of those that have survived this far. Look how relieved Bedros’ neighbors were to find he was prepared to be at least partially self-sufficient until spring time; they were even more willing to trade with him when they realized it wouldn’t be going to waste.”
“True. I did kinda think that was strange. But these folks aren’t the only ones worrying about winter coming.”
Thor shook his head, “Don’t go there again Hon. We’ll evaluate when we get to the farm and see what kind of damage there is to repair. Until then there isn’t anything you can do.”
“I’m not worried about the house so much,” I told him, blithely ignoring his suggestion to change the subject. “I mean I am but if the house is uninhabitable there is the cabin. And if both are a lost cause then I know some caverns we can hole up in for the winter. It’s the supplies …”
I sighed, “Oh all right. But you know I’m right.”
“Yes but that doesn’t mean I think worrying it to death is going to make it any better. You’re just winding yourself up again and there’s no purpose to it.” I relied on Thor’s calm way of dealing with things quite a bit, it was one of the things that made him and outstanding leader, but it also made me want to throw a boot at his head now and again.
We couldn’t find a barn or even a shed to stay in that night so we hunkered down in a stand of trees well off the road near a little creek. The babble of the water over the soft round pebbles in the creek bottom soothed me so that when I wasn’t on watch I was able to get deeply enough to sleep that I felt somewhat rested the next morning.
Five miles down the road Scottsville was a pleasant surprise and we found we could have stayed the night in a local park set up for travelers. There were also bed and breakfast type places catering to the traveler.
“This is really strange,” I told Thor out of the corner of my mouth as we passed through the historic down town district. “I haven’t seen anything like this since we were out west.”
Thor was very tense. I suppose it was the number of people in one place but nothing happened despite or maybe because everyone, including the women, walked around openly armed to the teeth. We left the city and continued on to Cedar Springs and then right up to the bridge over Barren River Lake. There were some local officials enforcing a toll for crossing the bridge … several people ahead of us turned away grumbling to go around the lake but we paid the toll willingly. The officials made sure all of the crossings were well ordered and safe.
One of the toll masters heard me say so to Thor who said, “We’ve heard about some of the troubles other places had so a bunch of us got together to make sure it didn’t happen here. We fought off three attacks by some eco-terrorists but haven’t seen any for … guess it’s nearly two months now. We plan on shutting the bridge at the end of October, weather gets bad then and the bridge will ice over with little notice. You’re actually getting good weather. If I might make a suggestion?”
Thor nodded noncommittally.
“You seem a nice enough couple so I’ll tell you. My aunt and uncle run a tight ship over at the campground in the state park. They’ve got washing facilities and hot showers and they butchered a buffalo this morning and are having grilled steaks. There’s a fee for the night and for the meal but it ain’t bad, about like the toll. You could do worse for lodgings.”
Thor got directions from the man and we continued to the park’s entrance. “Thor, you aren’t really thinking of stopping are you?”
“When’s the last time you had steak?”
My mouth watered at the question. “That’s not the point.”
“Hon, consider this our honeymoon of sorts. I want to treat you to a steak dinner because who knows when we’ll ever get another one. I’ve got the metal to do it now and want to do it. Besides, the campground might be a good place to get some information on what lies ahead of us. Information out of the east has been little and hard to come by.” He gave me a wicked twinkle. “Now come on … you know you want to.”
I was left laughing as we turned down the road that would lead to the first hot shower I had had in a good long time.