Consequences - Chapter 8
By Susan Callaway
Dishes clattered in the kitchen as "Cowboy" the cook and some of the ladies finished clearing up after lunch. His off tune whistle, faint but shrill, was irritating Roger more and more. He knew it was mostly his general state of anxiety and not really anything to do with the other man, so he tried hard to ignore it. They needed to get out of here and get home, but he knew they had a better chance of that if they made good plans and didn't make any mistakes.
Charlie was studying several maps on the living room floor, going from one to the other with no pattern Roger could determine, but he'd seen the way Charlie worked before and didn't say anything, just sat looking out the window, jingling the keys and a few coins in his pocket - totally unaware that it had the same affect on others that the whistling had on him.
He had spoken to Betty just a few moments before, and so far they had not been attacked again, but with only about twenty five adults really able to man the defenses, they were spread mighty thin over that large valley. An attack with any force from more than one point at a time would be serious. They needed every hand they had to produce food and keep the rest of the operation going, let alone mount an effective guard.
The vehicles were fueled, food had been packed, and much that had been offered in the way of clothing and other comforts for the women had been reluctantly refused because they were going to be pretty crowded with another passenger. They had gratefully accepted a few more water containers, however, because they would soon be leaving Nebraska for less watered areas of South Dakota and Wyoming, depending on where the road took them.
In consultation with the local residents, they now had charts and diagrams of the best routes. What they would find on those roads as far as bandits or other trouble, the maps couldn't tell him of course. They'd have to play it by ear, but they had a good chance to get through going into potentially less hostile territory.
Bradshaw heaved a sigh of relief when Charlie indicated he had all the information he needed as he rolled the maps and charts. Roger went into the kitchen and asked Cathy to gather the children. Stepping out onto the porch, he was amused to see Maria talking with Jeff in a small side yard. He signaled to the men that departure was upon them, and they all said their final good-byes while the ladies and children were tucked into the HumVee.
Luke and Carrie stood with the other farm folk on the drive way, waving until the little convoy vanished through the gate and over the hill. They had once again considered Bradshaw's offer to come join the community in Wyoming, but had all decided to stay and help rebuild their own. They truly believed that the worst was over and they were much better prepared to defend themselves now.
Roger had smiled and let it go, certain that the offer would be made again as they maintained contact via the ham radio. They needed more people at the ranch, with many skills not yet represented. A few farmers would be a big help, and while he hoped they really could revive their own town, he also hoped that even a few might eventually join his efforts. Recruiting strangers was dangerous, and he felt he knew these people pretty well.
Mutt was back behind the wheel of the hummer, with Bradshaw in the shotgun position. Cathy and Maria, with the three children filled the back seat, and Charlie once again rode with Jeff and part of his team in the Jeep. The old pickup truck brought up the rear, and Roger sincerely hoped it would hold up until they got home. It was getting mighty tired, but there wasn't much of a way they could haul all they needed without it - not to mention there being no place to put the three men. They could have gone back to town to find another vehicle, but the Sergeant had not wanted to waste the rest of the day and decided to trust his luck with the one they had.
The early afternoon sun was sliding toward the west as they drove up the farm road north. They would not travel on regular state highways again until they got to South Dakota. They had decided that the highway they'd been on before, heading west, would take them much too close to the path of the goblins from Denver and that they'd have a better chance in an area without so many towns along the road. The sooner they could hit the Wyoming state line, the sooner they would be home.
Farm roads gave way to dirt BLM roads in the sand hills. They crossed a small stream at a ford, grateful it was late summer instead of spring. The flood marks on the rocks were much too high. Scrubby cedars began to dot the rolling landscape as it gently rose to meet the foothills, and they entered the beautiful mountains called "The Black Hills" at dusk. Pressing on, they came to another set of gravel county roads and found a small town nestled in the hills just as full night fell.
The people of the town had set up roadblocks and armed men bristled with suspicion until Bradshaw urged them to talk to the women and some of their story had been told. Once past the barrier, they were directed to an old motel in the trees and allowed to take as many rooms as they needed. Bertha, the middle aged lady who owned the place complained that there certainly wouldn't be any tourists through this year at any rate. Payment was offered and refused. All she asked was that they clean up after themselves and maybe help the townsmen guard the road during the night.
The refugees made supper in the main lounge of the Motel, furnished with a big wood burning stove and several tables. They provided their own food and service, inviting Bertha and her family to share the meal with them. The townspeople shuddered at the fate of Luke's community, but they were confident that they could repel any raiders.
Supper over, the Sergeant asked both teams to help with the guard, then urged everyone to get as much sleep as possible. No telling what they might run into next.
First light found them on the SD state highway going west again. The sense of urgency was building in all of them, and Roger feared that their time was fast running out. All of the men kept a sharp watch in every direction. Each blind or obscured turn in the road was approached with great caution, and they lost an hour once sending a scout team ahead on foot just to be sure there was no ambush on the other side of a small pass. It was almost more unnerving to be left unmolested, after all they'd been through, than it would have been to run into goblins.
Sandwiches packed by Carrie and "Cowboy" were passed around with the canteens at lunch time, and nobody asked for a pit stop unless it was truly urgent, but the miles seemed to crawl by and the unfamiliar territory was not reassuring. They passed through several small towns, each fortified and well guarded, and none of them reported seeing any bandits for the last several days. They were alarmed at the story of the hoards supposedly coming out of Denver, but believed they were far enough away not to be in too much danger.
Roger quit trying to convince them otherwise after the first few towns, and they drove on into the west as quickly as they could manage. He was afraid he'd been much too optimistic when he told Betty they'd be home in 24 hours. They had almost 200 miles left to go, and night would probably find them on the open highway in Wyoming.
At last they saw the little town where the road split, one part going north again, and the other going more or less west toward the Wyoming line, only about 20 miles away. The usual roadblock was poorly manned, and the exhausted guards told of frequent attacks in the week before. They'd been unmolested for several days, but they feared more of the goblins could come at any moment.
The convoy paused there, trading one of their hand pumps for fuel to top off the vehicles and both barrels. Water jugs and canteens were refilled and trash dumped, even as the last sandwiches and cookies were handed around for a quick early supper. Roger made sure everyone was ready for the final run The children were placed between bedrolls in the cargo area of the hummer, and the men were surprised when both of the women asked for guns so they could participate in their defense, if necessary. Charlie fished Cathy's own .380 pistol out of the bag he'd carried all this time, handing her two extra loaded magazines as well. She didn't have a holster, and she wasn't too happy about the idea of putting the gun in her pocket, but she didn't have much other choice. Her hands needed to be free to take care of the children.
Maria said she had the 9mm Luger Carrie had given her, but she was much more used to shooting a rifle and wondered if they had an extra she might borrow. Jeff, with a wide grin, handed her a spare AR15 and watched in wonder as she expertly checked the chamber, the safety, and then adjusted the stock and sling. She took the pouch of extra ammunition without a word, and climbed back into the truck. They were ready to roll.
After staring into the distance both ways for a few moments, Charlie pointed to the northern fork as the best route. There were few towns that way, he said, and more cover from both hills and forest. Roger nodded, and hearing no objection from anyone else, they mounted up and hit the road. The day was fading, and they still had many long miles to go.
The winding road through the hills was empty, but they were all encouraged as they came upon a small herd of buffalo crossing the road a few miles from the town. They began to see antelope, deer and hundreds of prairie dogs along the way too, but the homes and ranches they passed looked empty and forlorn. At least they were not burned, and they saw no corpses - human or animal.
Finally, they came to a good sized town and turned west again on a main state highway. The townspeople had not been attacked yet, but the folks from the surrounding territory had gathered for mutual defense, which was why the farms were deserted. They were well armed and resolute. Roger briefed them on the situation to the south, and the little convoy went on briskly, jealous of the fading light.
Passing the Wyoming State line just as night fell, they stopped for a few minutes to take a break and stretch their legs. The tanks of the vehicles were topped off again, and the boys were fed, then allowed to run around for a few minutes to ease their boredom with the steady travel.
Roger tried the CB radio again, but it had not functioned since the first attack on their way out to rescue Charlie. He wished he'd taken the time to exchange it for a working one with Luke, but it hadn't seemed important at the time. They couldn't call for help anyway. He just wished he could tell Betty that they were almost home.
Soon another little town came into view, and the recent pattern was repeated. Roadblocks and armed men with hard, suspicious eyes looked them over and, finally, let them pass. These people had been attacked several times over the last week, and were fortunate that their valley had limited access points for vehicles. They had a refinery in town, and many generators were evident by the few lights that twinkled on the hills and in town. Turning north onto another highway inside the town limits, Bradshaw's outfit was quickly on its way again.
Silence descended on the travelers as the children slept and they waited for the other shoe to fall... They each nurtured hope, but battled the premonition of more fear and pain to come. They'd been very fortunate since leaving Nebraska, but they all knew that the chances were still high of running into another attack.
In the dark, with only a sliver of moon, they made the final turn onto another highway winding through wooded hills. At the top of the first rise, their fears were realized and they stopped clear of a big bonfire in the middle of the road. Seemingly deserted, they knew whoever had built the fire had heard the vehicles and faded into the dark in order to trap them if they could.
Turning around, they retreated to a position of relative safety and once again circled the wagons. Jeff's team went left, and Mutt's boys went right. Bradshaw, Charlie and the women stayed to guard the children and vehicles. Both teams knew their business very well, and soon shots rang out in the warm darkness. Occasional muzzle flashes were seen among the trees, and the distant sound of shouting and curses rang in the night air.
Suddenly, a few man sized shapes in the moonlight were running toward the convoy, and everyone tensed to meet the challenge. No shots were fired, however, as the bandits discerned their relative disadvantage with enemies before and behind them, and they quickly vanished into the woods to the south.
Another shout and a flashlight signal announced one of their own running toward them. Bill, one of Jeff's men, told the Sergeant that Jeff had been hit and needed help fast and that the goblins were dead or had been run off.
All the vehicles were in motion in seconds, and they pulled up beside the dying fire. Jeff was sitting against a rock, holding a field dressing to a wound in his left shoulder. A nasty gash in his scalp bled freely too. He was covered with blood and dirt, but he didn't look as if he was in much danger.
Maria, however, flew out of the hummer. She knelt at his side and swiftly began to deal with the wound. Bradshaw brought her the medic pack, and stood back grinning. The two young people looked deeply into each other's eyes while she got the bleeding under control. "Here is a lady of many talents and much charm," he thought to himself, but it didn't look as if any of the other young men at the ranch had a chance now.
Mutt and his team kept careful watch for the goblins, while others cleared the remains of the fire from the road. Roger rubbed his neck, again approaching exhaustion, and considered how they could rearrange the passengers to accommodate the injured Jeff. He wanted to continue to ride in his usual place, but Maria insisted it was better if he could lay down and make sure the bleeding didn't start again. The bullet had gone through the shoulder cleanly, and no bones were broken, so bleeding was the chief worry.
They rummaged around in the bed of the pickup truck and placed some of the bedrolls there, moving the stuff displaced to where the bedding had been or discarding what they figured they could live without. Jeff was finally convinced to lay down in the truck, and Maria wiggled her way in to sit beside him, both covered with a thick blanket and the AR15 firmly in her grasp. Charlie returned to the hummer, now in the rear guard position, and the Jeep took the lead as they headed out into the star filled night.
When he thought they were close enough, Roger keyed the little radio that had been so helpful all through their ordeal. They didn't have much range, but he hoped he could contact the outer guard post on this road now. The static at first was discouraging, and he wondered how much life was left in the batteries, but suddenly he heard the challenge of the guard, and gave the proper countersign with a full heart and lifting spirits.
The common room was soon truly packed full when they finally pulled in. Never mind that it was after midnight and the travelers were weary. There were hugs and tears and stories told until Betty, with Roger's arm around her, insisted they all go to bed and take it up again in the morning. Jeff, with Maria at his side, occupied the small hospital room in one of the cabins, and Charlie led Cathy, carrying the baby, to their cabin. The sleepy boys were carried by other women, and soon deposited in the bunk beds their father had made for them. The little crib that had been built for Jackie received Angel, and when the lights were finally extinguished, Cathy clung to him with the first real tears in many days. But this time they were tears of relief and joy. The sorrow was there, and would never totally depart, but now there was room for peace and joy as well.
This is fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or places is purely unintentional.
It is a work in progress and may change or be published later.