Castle Roland

Day of N

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 20

Posted: 15 Sep 16

Day of N

Kyle Aarons

(Starts Day +14)

Angus moved around to the garage and tried to pull the door up, but found it locked. In truth, it didn't even budge even when Angus tried to shake it. "He has turned this place into a fortress!"

Gage chewed on his upper lip as he took a knee at the corner of the garage and scanned the street, "Which means he is scared of something. Let's get inside and see what is really going on."

Zeki looked over at Gage, "Him be scared. Me be too if me be here alone."

Hunter started to nod in agreement, but Gage cleared his throat and got the attention of the others, "I don't know about the rest of you, but there is a difference between being scared and all but nailing yourself in. You guys know him and I don't, but no matter what, I would not start boarding myself up. I just don't see it…"

His words seemed almost prophetic as the garage door slid up and Luke's voice came from behind it sounding panicked, "Hurry up, get in here."

Gage jerked his head, signaling the others to go in, while he continued to scan the area with his rifle at the ready. Once Angus rolled under the door, he scanned the area one last time before darting under the partially opened garage door. As soon as he was in, he noted the garage door had been reinforced with cut pieces of plywood, which still let the door fold upward, but not real well. In addition, Luke had made a pair of braces, which were set into brackets in the sides of the door, to prevent the door from being forced open.

Coming to his feet, Gage glanced over at the kid he had only met a couple of times, noting the boy was staring at the guns draped off everyone, but was also crying. Moments later, they were all plunged into darkness as Luke seemed to shake of his unease at seeing everyone so heavily armed and bolted over to the garage door. He slammed the garage door back down and pushed one of the braces back into the slot he had built for it by feel.

Angus and Zeki both pulled out flashlights and panned them around before Luke clicked on a battery powered lantern with solar cells for recharging. He looked over the four visitors and sank to a knee. "Does your moms and dads know you are carrying guns out in the open?"

"Only Mr. Korbal for the moment, well him and like the entire town of Jennings." Hunter responded, "We are trying to find our parents, any of them. We were heading back to Colby but stopped here to check on you."

"I think Colby's gone." Luke managed to get out as more tears streamed down his face, "I thought it was all gone and I'd just die here…I can't believe there is anyone I trust left…" As the sobs started, he managed to add, "I can't believe you came for me after I stopped showing up…"

Hunter didn't hesitate to drop to the floor right next to Luke and wrap his arms around the boy, "Luke, you are still one of us, have been for since we were in the same tiger den when we were five or six."

Seeing Hunter move to take the boy into a hug, Gage took another couple of steps back. The idea of giving a full hug to another boy, well there was something he wanted no part of. It was one thing to have Zeki or the kid for the train lean on him or hold a kid down and comfort them. Gage didn't even mind holding the kid down so others could work on him, but to hug and hold on... Gage gave a shiver. Fortunately for Gage, Luke didn't know him well enough to expect much and it was abundantly clear Angus, Hunter and Luke had know each other for quite some time.

Knowing he was not the right person to say anything, he let Hunter and Angus concentrate on comforting the kid while he moved over to the old Buick Skylark and flipped on his flashlight in the now very dark far side of the garage. He ran his hand down the side of the metallic blue with wicked red and black flame paint job and looked inside. Even with only a flashlight beam, he noted the interior had been redone in leather and chrome. Finally, after listening to Luke sobbing diminish; he just couldn't help himself any longer. He spoke up while his eyes stayed fixated on the car. "Oh, this car is just too cool! Someone really put some work into this baby, what is it, a '71?"

Luke took a few deep gulps of air as he continued to cling onto Hunter and Angus, "1972, my brother is in the Navy, it belongs to him."

Gage let out a light whistle as he gave the car yet another once over. "Man, we need to find a way to get this back to Jennings so it stays safe. A car like this shouldn't be abandoned!"

Hunter thought about saying something about how mean it was to worry about a stupid car when one of his friends was still crying, but stopped as he felt Luke ease up some and focus in on Gage. A glance over to Angus told Hunter to let things go and see how this played out. He gave Angus a light nod as he kept his arm around Luke.

Luke used his right shoulder to wipe away some tears and snot and nodded, "Almost every dime James makes has gone into her. If you have someplace we could take it to be safe for him…"

Angus patted his friend on the back and moved up to the car, "As long as it still runs one of us…" He paused as he saw the manual transmission shifter, "Scratch that, I wasn't thinking. It's a stick, so I will have to drive it to Jennings so we will put it in storage. Someone else will have to drive the van."

"Oh, it runs." Luke sniffled as he stared at the car, "More like purrs, I checked already." He then glanced over to Gage as he added, "James has won four different car shows with her…"

"It'd get my vote!" Gage stated emphatically. "She is totally awesome!"

Hunter felt Luke slide out of his grasp as the boy moved closer to the car. He looked over at Angus and mouthed, "Car nuts." Forcing Angus to clamp a hand over his mouth to prevent from laughing.

Off to the side Zeki looked over the garage noticing several wood working tools and a table saw were all plugged into a generator, which was not running. Next to the generator were over a dozen five-gallon gas cans. He picked one up and found it was full. "You make all wood to make house strong?"

Luke glanced over his shoulder, "Dad is a contractor, learning to build things with wood is a requirement around here. All the help I did on Cal's eagle project was cake compared to what Dad has me help with when he takes me to a job site." He paused as he saw Zeki pick up another of the gas containers, "All those are full. I have been siphoning gas out of the cars and trucks left in the town over the last two nights. Those are all the gas cans I could find left in the couple of blocks around here."

Zeki put the second plastic can down and looked back to the table saw, "Look like you be good woodworker."

Luke shrugged, "Not bad, but I couldn't do more than patch the hole in the roof where the tree broke through. I'm not real sure how to do it properly since it broke the peak and we don't have any more peak shingles like Dad used for our roof, so all I did was go up into the crawl space and patched it…"

He stopped, however, seeing the others looking at him and clearly listening he went on to explain, "It wasn't a big deal, guys. I used some tin to form a peak over the hole, formed the biggest tin around the biggest hole into a funnel and a wood brace under it all. Finally I ran a tube down from the funnel to catch water in the bathroom and filled in all the openings with foam crack and crevice spray to make it to where it wouldn't leak, but I think it still does a little. The last big rain caused some drips, so I went back up this morning and tried again to find all the leaks. It's the best I can do with what I got; besides, leaving the branch on the house makes it look like I'm not fixing the place up anymore."

He paused as he looked back over at the Skylark, "But I am more interested in cars, like James is… or was…"

Hunter moved up to Luke again and put his arm back over the boy's shoulder, "We have it from good authority that lots of the Navy survived and is now helping Israel."

This got a gulp while causing a flash of hope to flash in Luke's eyes. "You aren't just saying he may have made it to make me feel better…"

Gage shook his head, "No, we got it from an Army pilot…"

"Air Force," Zeki corrected Gage, "her had tag on shirt said U.S. Air Force."

"Army, Air Force, whatever," Gage snarled, "all I know is those jerks in the back should have all died in the crash."

Angus shook his head, "No, I just think the wrong ones lived. Remember it sounded like they didn't go bad until the guy with the gold leaf died."

"Yeah, well, I wish we could have nailed them all." Gage grumbled then turned back to the car and opened the door, to take a closer look at the interior. "Man, your brother really did some nice work!"

To Zeki, Hunter, and Angus it was clear Luke wanted to ask about what Gage was talking about, but the quick switch back to the car, coupled with him being relived to be around people he could talk to, caused him to move over to the driver's side and pull on the hood lever. "If you like the inside, you need to take a look at the motor."

Hunter simple rolled his eyes as he leaned against one of the wood working tables at the back of the garage. He had seen Luke talk to others about this car and knew his friend was quite capable of talking over everything about it. The funny part was Angus wasn't far behind. Angus had helped both Luke and James several times on the car. As soon as Luke and Gage started talking about the '402 under the hood', he knew Angus would join in, so he cleared his throat, "So how about a Gatorade or bottle of water you were telling us you had?"

Luke didn't even look away from the engine, "Down in the game room, Hunter, I got several cases of stuff, but don't touch the water out of the tap. It's poison. I have been catching rain water and filling the camp shower to get clean, but it is almost empty again."

"OK…" Hunter shrugged and moved into the main house.

At the same time, Angus moved over to the front of the car and watched as Gage's eyes lit up. They chatted over a few of the things Angus and Luke had helped install and rebuild before Angus heard a distant clap of thunder. This caused him to back off and key the walkie talkie, "Hey, Devin, you listening?"

"Yeah, what up? I figured you all would be back by now."

"We found Luke."

"Is he OK?"

"Yeah, But he has been living here alone and he's just happy to see someone he knows. At the moment, he and Gage are talking about James' car..."

This got a snicker out of Devin, "Oh, man, you may be there a while."

"Tell me about it," Angus spoke in a half groan.

Devin's voice came back over after a few seconds of giggling, "Hey, I know you love James' car as much as Luke does, so don't go sounding like you aren't interested."

"I am, but you need to see this. I think Gage is going to get drool on the engine if we aren't careful."

This got Angus a pair of middle fingers from Gage before the boy leaned in and looked at some of the chrome in the engine causing Angus to burst out laughing. "Yup, his whole face is now under the hood. I think he'd jump right on in there if we'd let him!"

Devin's giggles could be heard as he keyed his radio. "It least we know we have another grease monkey to help if the van breaks on us… Oh, we let the pigs out, and they pretty much ran out and scattered. Vernon finally braved it and went in just far enough to open the inner stalls, but it looks like the propane tank was set to refill the water from the well pump and drop food from bins up above so they look to be in good health."

"They don't look sick or nothing?" Angus asked in clear surprise.

"No, should they be?" Devin responded with some concern.

"Um, well, Luke says the water in town is poison… I'd think they are tapping into the same underground water as close to town as the farm is to here."

"No clue, but they look fine to me." He then paused, "Hold up though. Ram wants to talk to you."

Ramsey grabbed the radio, "Hey, you guys may want to think about getting out of there and backing off, the Geiger counter shows counts per minute at ninety-seven now. Plus, the wind is picking up and there is a line of storms to the south."

Angus frowned, "I heard the thunder which is why I radioed you to begin with. Maybe you all should drive up here. We can move stuff and have you park in the garage here. Luke has turned this place into a stronghold. Besides if the radiation levels are going up, we should get below ground like Mr. K. told us. Stand by. Let me ask Hunter and see what he says."

Luke suddenly turned with wide eyes, "I didn't know you came with the others! Tell them to watch out for the military guys with the Hummer and get here before they get seen!"

Gage's blue eyes went ice cold, "Desert cammo Hummer with a machinegun on the top and a huge scrape mark on the passenger side?"

"You've seen them?" Luke asked with panic in his voice while nodding his head, "They also have an Army truck, a big green one with canvas on the back…"

"Where in the hell did they get a truck?" Gage growled as he moved over to Angus while holding out his hand for the radio. As soon as Angus handed to him he spoke with pure anger in his voice, "Devin, get your asses up here, but keep your eyes peeled! It sounds like those Army jerks are in the area and they have an extra truck of some sort! If they see you, let us know and we'll tell you where to lead them so I can put a grenade into their Hummer and kill their moron leader!"

"On the way!" Devin's shaky voice responded without hesitation.

"Just keep your eyes open." Gage ordered, "The last thing we want is to lead those animals to this house. If we have to fight them, we have a whole town to use and their Hummer is a big target for a grenade as long as they are going slow. The truck sounds like it is even bigger, so it won't do well in town either."

"It is bigger." Luke stated with certainty. "But it seemed to get around pretty well."

"Then if they show, maybe we can stop them before they even get here." Gage snarled, "I want another shot at those Army creeps!"

Hunter came up with an eight-pack of Gatorade in his hand and stopped as he heard what Gage said and went pale. "Are you guys talking about the Army guys from the plane?"

"Sound like it." Zeki answered as he pulled his shotgun off his shoulder and checked to make sure it was loaded.

"Use the .22, Zeek," Gage commanded, "but keep the shotgun ready for close range. Remember, they have armor, so aim low or go for headshots. The scope on the .22 is good for headshots out to about seventy-five yards, probably only fifty with you… Sorry…"

"No be sorry, me no good shot. Me stick to close bad man; you shoot far."

Gage pointed to the garage door, "Let's go outside and cover the van as it comes in. If no one follows it, Zeek and Luke, open the door and then close it most of the way. Just leave enough room for us to roll under it. I'll be last in so I can keep my eye out.

"If they do show, Angus radio them and have them go toward the water tower, but one block up from here. That way, I'll shoot a grenade right up the Hummer's tail pipe after they go past us and take them by surprise. It may block in the truck too. With them being a block away, the explosion won't hurt this house or this car." He patted the side of the highly modified Skylark.

Hunter checked the magazine of his M4 and shot a look over at Angus and Zeki, "I think Gage cares more about the car than the house."

"I do!" Gage stated without hesitation before pulling the garage door up just high enough so he could roll out under it.

As Gage disappeared, Hunter and Angus shoved the work table and the table saw out of the way so there was plenty of room to pull the van in. Still, Angus pulled up the radio as he looked at the other car in the garage, "Devin, don't you dare bump James' car when you pull in here. Gage would not be happy."

Once there was an open spot for the van, Hunter pulled his pistol and handed to Luke, "Here..."

Seeing Luke shaking his head, Angus moved over to the boy, "You know how to shoot and you may need it before this is over. We have dealt with these morons once already."

"I have guns in the house, Hunter, but my dad will kill me if he finds out I handled any gun without him…"

"Need to be live for him to kill you, Luke." Zeki informed the boy. "This no be time to worry 'bout rule."

With a great deal of reluctance, Luke reached out and took hold of the pistol. "Is it ready?"

"There is one in the pipe, but it is on safe." Hunter stated, then paused as he realized how much he had changed in the past couple of weeks. Talking about guns and having a round chambered was now second nature. It was actually kind of scary and somewhat sickening to the youngster. He shook off the thought as he watched Luke's hand wrap around the nine millimeter.

Luke closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Finally his hands gripped the pistol properly and he flipped off the safety. "I think I can feel the belting I am going to get if Dad finds out about this."

"Luke," Angus hardened, "your dad would get this, he really would. Now you and Zeek stick right next to the house and get ready to yank up the door when our van gets here. Then, once we are all safe inside your house, go get a couple of the guns you know and are comfortable with, because it isn't even slightly safe anywhere now."

"I'll be fine with the pistol. I was there for the NRA guys training and Dad takes all of us to the range once a month." He then looked over the weapon and shuddered slightly, "But my dad… no one in this house touches a gun without his direct permission…"

Hunter nodded his understanding, "Things have changed and carrying a firearm is just part of the world we are living in." He patted Luke on the back and made sure his friend had a good feel for the pistol. Finally he handed him an extra clip before sliding out under the cracked open garage door. As soon as Angus followed, Hunter pointed in the direction of the latest storm moving up from the south. "With any luck those idiots are looking at those clouds and are finding a place to hunker down."

"We can only hope…" Angus paused and forced a grin, "However, if this lets Gage get a clean shot at them and he takes them out, we have one less thing to worry about."

From the nearby burned-out building Gage's voice could be heard, "That's what I'm talking about!"

Hunter shook his head and moved away from Luke's house, finding good cover between a shed and an abandoned car half a block away. Every time he felt like he was starting to really like Gage, the kid said something to make Hunter rethink things. While he was pretty much certain the rest of group never wanted to have to deal with the evil men again, Gage was pretty much dead set on a second confrontation.

The kid was 'off' in so many ways, but still so fun to be around, it made no sense. Hunter shrugged as he thought back to what Gage had told them when he had opened up. There was more in the boy's past he hadn't let out yet, like getting hurt by his mom's boss, so maybe there were other reasons and thoughts going through Gage's head which could not be understood without hearing the whole story. Still, who longs to shoot a grenade at someone? It was just plain freaky and creepy.

With the sky quickly growing dark and the wind from the coming storm starting to slam into him, Hunter fought to focus on the task at hand. Lightning suddenly forked overhead and the thunder rolled over him with such intensity he could feel it in his chest, while also making hearing more difficult. Still, as another round of lightning slashed across the sky, he ducked a little lower. Even as he spotted the headlights of the van as it appeared in the distance, he wondered when Mother Nature would calm enough to not have to worry about sudden storm's wind and hail.

Another flash of light caused Hunter to cringe, but when no thunder followed he peeked his head up just a little, only to get another flash of light in his eyes. Confused, he glanced around. This time as the light cut across his face he realized it was Gage. The kid had once again seen something none of the others had. He inched forward until he could see around the shed, only to spot Angus, almost directly across the street, who was also looking over toward Gage with an equally confused look.

This time, as the flashlight beam cut across Hunter's face, Gage moved out into the open just enough to point to the southeast then darted back into cover, moving locations as he did so. Seeing nothing at first, Hunter pulled up his binoculars. He scanned the horizon for several seconds and almost put them back into his case when he noticed a belch of smoke from a large diesel engine come from behind a distant hill.

"Man, he is good!" Hunter muttered in some awe, as fear seemed to cascade down his spine. Hunter glanced to the northeast only to see the van they had come in, turn off its lights, and turn into the small town on the first street, then disappear from view.

Moments later the Humvee appeared as it came up the slight incline, followed seconds later by a much larger, olive drab colored truck. Lightning flashed once again, and thunder rattled the frame of the car he was next to. Hunter glanced over, but Gage was nowhere in sight. At first this caused some extra panic as he wondered if the boy had fled, but he bit back the irrational fear, knowing in his heart, Gage would be the last one in the group to run away.

Moments later another flash of lighting crisscrossed the sky giving momentary illumination to the Humvee and the truck. Moments later the thunder cascaded over the area and the first huge drops of cold rain pelted Hunters face. This forced Hunter to look away from the oncoming vehicles for a moment as he wiped his face. As he returned his gaze he was totally confused to see the large truck had gone off the road and down the slight embankment into the muddy field. At the same time, the Humvee came to a skidding halt then started to back up. A man appeared in the turret, got behind the machinegun and started firing blindly into the town, spraying the buildings closest to the edge just as another boom of thunder came from the angry skies.

Another flash of lighting silhouetted the man in the turret enough for Hunter to know this had been the man Vernon had shot with the musket. There was no mistaking the face. It had been burned into Hunter's brain. Less than a second later another clap of thunder tumbled over the town. Moments later, the man in the turret twisted violently as a bullet slammed into his shoulder.

The Humvee backed up much faster as a man got out of the passenger side of the truck and four others, all armed with rifles, piled out of the back. Lightning gave them all clear definition for a brief moment then thunder ripped the air once again. Almost on cue, the man who had jumped out of the passenger side of the truck did a pirouette and fell, rolling down the embankment off the road.

Bullets fired from those fleeing the truck peppered the structures on the edge of town as they crammed themselves into the Humvee; even as the driver of the Humvee pulled back further to get cover behind the truck. The maneuver was not fast enough, however, as lightning once again caused a fireworks-like glare over the area. The rumbles and cracks of thunder followed. This time, the now unmanned machinegun spun to the side as a bullet slammed into it.

The Humvee then disappeared back down the incline. With total confusion and lightly shaking hands, Hunter lifted his binoculars up to his eyes and focused in on the truck. What he saw made his blood run cold. There was a single hole in the front window right above the steering wheel. Slumped over the wheel was a body. Seconds later the first hard sustained wave of rain slashed into Hunter's face and splattered the lenses of the binoculars enough to where he couldn't see. He stayed hunched down for two more minutes getting totally drenched, trying his best to piece together what had just happened without success.

While his mind was still spinning, Gage appeared, "Dude, let's get inside before we get cold and get sick!"

Hunter followed Gage, who took a long roundabout way to get back to Luke's house, including a stop off to grab a full box of candy bars from the feed and seed store. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, Hunter found Gage, pushing him under the garage door. He ducked underneath and noted the van parked next to the Skylark.

Luke slammed the door as Gage rolled in right after Hunter and looked over at Gage with terror mixed with something akin to hero worship. "That was…" His voice faltered as he found himself at a loss for words.

"Awesome! Absolutely freakin' awesome!" Angus spoke with total admiration in his voice.

Gage shrugged off the praise and the looks he was getting as he turned to Devin, Vernon and Ramsey, "Were you able to check out the truck?"

Vernon nodded, "Yeah, empty except for the two you took down. Ram and me were able to grab their weapons and packs but neither one was any of those guys who tried to take Nikki and Tamera…"

"The guy who shot the machinegun was." Hunter managed to speak up, still trying to figure out what, exactly, had happened.

"Yeah, but I only hit him in the shoulder." Gage growled. "The M-60 was giving his head cover from me. The second shot missed 'cause a gust of wind caught me from the side just as I fired, or I would have had him. At least this time I know I put a round right into the M-60's feed, so if it ain't totally broke, it won't fire properly until they fix it."

Ramsey dropped down one of the two captured field packs complete with four hand grenades, an M16s, an M1911 .45 pistol, combat knife, and extra ammo pouches. He also put down a green ammo can. He was soaking wet and breathing heavily. "This weather is killing me," he spoke with a slight wheeze, "but before this I would have been having a full Asthma attack, so I think I am getting stronger." Even as he said this, however, he slid down against the back wall of the garage and focused on his breathing exercises.

"Did you guys find anything else?" Gage demanded to know as he looked over at Ramsey with a great deal of concern.

Vernon shook his head, "The back of the truck was empty except for eight large gas cans and a pair of bullet cans. Everything was stenciled with Norton NGA and the canvass over the back was kind of burned and melted on the passenger side. I pulled two of gas cans off and started to carry them, but they were just too heavy, so we went for the bullets instead, and they aren't light."

Angus scratched his chin, "If they are really heavy, I bet they are probably full diesel since it is heavier than gas, so we can't use it in our van, but having forty gallons of it would let us take something that is, like a tractor. We should try to get them."

Luke eyed the others for a couple of seconds, noting Devin had not said a word, which seemed really strange. After another moment of debate, he let out a long sigh, "The Kempler place across the street has a pair of ATV's and they run. I checked them out after I helped to bury them four days ago."

"All of them?" Vernon gulped, "Even Kurt?"

Luke glanced over, lowered his head and gave a slight nod. He then leaned against the side of the van hand held his head in his hands as he spoke. "All five died… Kurt and Marsha were first and Mr. Kempler died digging their graves in the front yard. We found Mrs. Kempler in the house the next day. She had cut her wrists and had baby Hanna on her lap who had probably died about the same time as the others."

"And everyone else?" Vernon asked with wide eyes.

Luke let out a long breath, "Most of the town started to get sick right about the same time Kurt and Marsha did. It started out as fevers, then, from the way I heard, it became puking and bad runs. Some lasted longer than others, but once they got sick, there didn't seem to be any way to stop it. Whatever it is happens fast though, like a day or at the most two before they get too sick to do anything.

"Mr. Gorman and two of the other volunteer firefighters took a whole load of dead to the cemetery with me, Doug, Mr. Pollard and Kate to help since none of us had gotten sick and we were old enough to help. When we got back, Mr. Gorman noticed the Kempler's dog, Darkie, drinking out of a pool of rainwater and tried to give her some water out of a hose, but Darkie backed away with her hackles up. No one figured out the water was the problem till then, and almost everyone was sick by then…"

Angus heard the pause and looked over at Luke, "Let's go get the gas while they are gone…"

Hunter shook his head as he looked down at the Geiger counter, "The gas can wait, we are at ninety-nine counts per minute inside, which means it's probably higher outside. Let's get to the basement, fix a meal and talk over what we do from here."

"Hunter," Gage countered, "if we don't grab it now, the ATV's will leave easy to follow mud trails right back here. Besides, if we don't take the gas, then they will think there isn't very many of us or we are sick or something. If we grab it, then they may consider backing off and rethinking things."

Hunter clenched his fist and took in a deep breath, "OK, but make it quick and only those of us who really know how to ride them should go."

Angus nodded, "I'm in."

Gage looked a little dejected, "Only time I have ever ridden one was the ATV safety class Mr. K. arranged…"

Luke turned his head sharply, "You guys got a ride class? Did you get your safety certification too?"

"Yeah." Vernon glanced over at Luke, not hiding some of his underlying annoyance at the kid who used to be his tent-mate for every campout. "You would have too if you had joined us on the second canoe trip."

"But I hate Mr. Korbal!" Luke shouted. Seeing nothing but stunned and even angry looks from the others, he frowned deeply, "He's mean!"

Zeki cocked his head to the side in total confusion, "Mr. Kobal be nice… Him teaches me all kind of good thing and no be mad when me get wrong."

Vernon shook his head in anger and disbelief as he moved over to the garage door, "Come on Gus, let's get the gas and let them figure out what drugs Luke has been smoking. I know the Kempler house since Kurt and I got to be good friends and stayed friends, even after I stopped coming over here."

The comment clearly stung Luke who started to say something but no words came out. Instead he stood there and watched as Vernon and Angus slid out under the door followed by Gage who talked about spotting for and covering them.

Hunter shook his head and let out a soft sigh. He had really thought once Vernon and Luke got together again, Vern would let the past few months go, but it just was not meant to be, at least not right out the gate. He still hoped things would change.

Still, he was worried about the radiation so he looked over to Devin, "Why don't you and Zeek take both captured packs down and spread them out so we can see what they were carrying. Ram, you aren't sounding too good, but there is too much radiation for you to stay there. Why don't you go down there with them and keep focused on your breathing."

This comment seemed to snap Luke out of his stupor. "Hey, Ram, we still have a part full inhaler for you up in my desk drawer…"

"He has one with him," Hunter informed Luke, "but we are doing everything we can to not have him use it. Still, we'll take it. The more we have the better off we are just in case of a full breathing attack. Besides, we all know it gets worse in the winter and there is no telling how long it will be before more medicine like his gets made again."

"Me'll take pack." Zeki stated as he hefted up one of the rucksacks and struggled with the other before finally getting it over his shoulder. "Let Devin help Ramsey."

Luke started to move into the house to go grab the extra inhaler only to get stopped by Hunter. "We need to stand watch here." Once they were alone Hunter glanced over with bewilderment, "OK, so it is just the two of us. No one else needs to know, but I do since I am the patrol leader and pretty much team leader now. What do you have against Mr. Korbal and why did you stop showing up? Did he do something to you?"

"The winter campout with the NRA guys was really cool, but the snowshoe hike up in Colorado over spring break… He took my canteen away and gave me one of his!"

Hunter squinted in complete and utter puzzlement. "Um, I didn't know… Why? Did he say?"

"None of you knew." Luke kicked at the floor to vent some frustration. "He pulled me off to the side and took my canteen right after I poured in powered Gatorade. He dumped it out and handed me one of his new canteens saying I had to drink water!" Luke's tone became even angrier as he punched his left hand with his right, "The whole rest of the trip he made me drink water! I almost threw up a couple of times!"

Suddenly Luke's actions made sense to Hunter. His long time friend and fellow scout hated water; he never drank it, never. In all the time he had known Luke, the boy had not once drank a glass of water without putting some kind of drink mix in it and even that was very rare. Instead Luke drank Gatorade, pop, juice, milk, whatever, but never water.

It was one of the things Luke's parents simply gave up fighting with him about from a very young age since Luke always insisted water tasted 'nasty'. Because of this oddity, Luke's parents bought cases upon cases of drinks, even flavored vitamin water. As long as it didn't 'taste like water' Luke was good drinking it. This also explained why Luke had not gotten sick while everyone else in the town had.

Hunter rubbed his forehead before looking back into Luke's eyes, "You could have tried to talk to him…"

"Yeah right!" Luke snorted, "Just like Devin trying to talk to him about wearing clothing inside his sleeping bag. We all saw how much good talking did for Devin! It got him an inspection each night by one of us to make sure he wasn't fully dressed inside his bag and extra night wood chopping chores the night he was found in his coat inside his bag."

Hunter couldn't help but smile at the memory of how mad Devin had gotten when Mr. Korbal made someone check each night after the second one to make sure Devin wasn't wearing all his clothing inside his two sleeping bags. In truth, as funny as it had seemed at the time, Mr. Korbal hadn't been nearly as nice as he later turned out to be. Thinking back, Hunter remembered actually thinking Mr. Korbal was kind of mean about several things. Those feelings had been totally replaced by only the utmost of respect and caring for the man; not just by Hunter, but all of the kids in the patrol.

Finally Hunter shrugged and nodded, "He wasn't exactly a kid person at the start and he is real strict on some things…"

"Some things?" Luke snarled back in total exasperation. "He should be a lion tamer, not a scout leader!"

This got a giggle out of Hunter, which in turn didn't help Luke's demeanor.

By this time Devin had come back up the stairs for the basement and had overheard the last comment, "Who, Mr. K.?"

"Yeah! Who else?" Luke glared at Devin. "I'm amazed you are still in the troop after how mean he was to you!"

Devin arms came out from his side and his palms turned upward, "I hated him at first, but once I got over being mad, I realized everything he said was correct, even about sleeping in a tee-shirt and boxers inside the sleeping bag. I was actually way less cold the last couple of mornings than I was the first two because I had something to put on. My clothing didn't stink as much on the snowshoe hike either. He really knows his stuff."

"I can't believe you are defending the jerk!" Luke complained. "After the snow campout, all of you were talking about how mean he was."

"He just hadn't gotten to know us yet, Luke." Hunter stated softly, "And we were kind of spoiled too."

"Way spoiled." Devin admitted totally surprising both Hunter and Luke. Seeing the looks he was getting from the two, he snorted. After a few seconds of silence, he looked up at the ceiling of the garage and let out a long sigh, "Look, I know I'm used to buying whatever I want and getting things just because my dad has money. I also know most of you think I am a spoiled brat some of the time. But Mr. Korbal didn't care who my dad was from day one. He didn't care when I said I'd tell my mom. He definitely didn't care when I threw a fit. And the one time I yelled at him he actually popped me in the mouth.

"I told my dad, and… Well I don't know what was said or how it was said, but the next scout meeting Mr. Korbal waited for the rest of you to leave, brought my dad into the scout hut and all but shoved me into a chair he had set up in the back corner with my dad standing there saying nothing.

"Mr. Korbal then grabbed me by the front of the shirt and told me to my face that he had no intention of having to babysit me. If I was going to be around him I was going to act like a young man and learn to be a real man if it killed him. He even said if I quit scouts he would come to the house and drag me to meetings until I grew up some.

"He then told me he and my dad had come to an agreement on not letting me pout my way out of scouts because he saw way too much potential in me. I looked back and saw my dad looking a little pale, but nodding. I still wonder if Mr. Korbal didn't threaten to beat my dad up or something, but whatever happened didn't matter 'cause Dad wasn't letting me out of scouts.

"The next week I even tried to skip out, but my dad grabbed me, smacked me on the butt for the first time ever, and made me go to the meeting over my mom's complaints. That night they had a big argument about me. But the last thing I remember my dad saying before my mom stormed out of the house was I needed to stop expecting everything to be handed to me; I was too smart to be babied. He even said I needed to learn to have some pride in myself, since I had none, if I ever wanted to make something of myself and not rely on their money all my life.

"I actually thought Mom and Dad were going to get a divorce but the next day, when I got home from school, Mom told me Dad was right. I needed to learn to toughen up a little and work through some things without them. She kept saying they had failed me and I needed to learn to deal with life before I was out on my own. She made me a deal, though. I would stick it out for two full years with Mr. Korbal as a leader and she would let me turn the back guesthouse into my own apartment.

"Now… Well, I guess… No, I know I have learned more from Mr. Korbal in the past few months than in my first eleven years and nine months of my life combined and I don't feel like such a crybaby anymore. I don't want to go run to my mom and dad every time something bad happens. Besides, even though I am now scared out of my mind and am useless when bullets start flying, I am not like that Levi kid we found on the train. I can be out here, help you all, help others, and not be totally freaked out. There is no way I could have done any of this before Mr. Korbal came into my life!"

Hunter found himself agreeing to everything Devin was saying, but felt Devin, out of all the kids had actually made the fewest strides toward being independent and self-sufficient. He also decided not to point out the scout trailer being a step in the wrong direction for the troop as a whole. In fact, thinking about the trailer, he saw just how much Mr. K. had changed since joining. If someone would have suggested a trailer to hold the stuff when he first started, the man would have blown a gasket. Now, however, he shrugged it off while making sure it wasn't around all the time by taking them on overnight hikes and rides to get to where it would be.

Hunter actually found himself smiling at the deviousness of Mr. K.'s insistence of doing overnight outings where the trailer couldn't get to them or they had to get to it. Still, it showed a great deal of understanding on the part of Mr. K., which had not been there early on. "He has mellowed some too, though."

Devin couldn't help but nod in agreement. He then snickered as he added, "Yeah, I think he actually started to like us somewhere along the line over the last few months."

"No way!" Luke eyed the two boys as if he was looking at aliens, "Mr. Korbal hates us!"

"No!" Zeki moved back up into the garage and glared at Luke, "Mr. Kobal be bestest man me meet here! Him work with me on me English! Him come eat with me family! Him even fix car when we not have money to fix last month! Him be like uncle for me here in United States! No say bad thing 'bout Mr. Kobal!"

Seeing Luke take a step back from the smaller, clearly angry boy, Devin reached over and patted Zeki on the shoulder, "He never gave Mr. K. a chance, Zeek. You have to admit, Mr. K. was kind of mean at the start."

Zeki fiercely shook his head, "No, him be tough, strong… him be like Uncle Kadir. Mr. Kobal care, want to make man, not boy. It be like Uncle Kadir say so much; it take good leader to turn boy into man. Mr. Kobal teach good too!" Zeki turned and stared right at Luke, "If him not teach, we not be here to get you."

Luke said nothing over the next couple of minutes as he tried to figure out a way to counter what he was hearing. He despised Mr. Korbal, detested him with a passion. How could kids he trusted so much see the man in such a different light? Before more could be said, though, Gage knocked on the door and pulled it up enough to duck in. He was totally drenched and even shook off much like a dog as he stood, leaving a small puddle of water under him. "They're coming, and man is it ever coming down out there."

Hunter pulled the door brace the rest of the way out of the slot so the two ATV's could pull into the spot directly in back of the van. Seconds later Vernon came in followed by Angus. The two pushed the ATV's in until they were touching the bumper of the van as Hunter and Luke pulled the door shut and reset the braces to prevent anyone for opening it from the outside.

Angus squeezed between the door and the ATV's and started passing the extremely heavy cans over to Hunter, Vernon, and Luke. He stopped and looked around, "Hey, where is Ram?"

"Downstairs resting and working on his breathing." Luke answered as he almost fell face first into the ATV as he accepted the next five-gallon metal gas can.

Devin glanced at the heavy cans and knew he would have a hard time moving them without looking bad, so he moved toward the door to the house, "I'll go be with him."

Hunter nodded as he struggled with the heavy jerry can he was hefting over to far side of the garage, only to see Angus hop over the back of the second ATV with two in his hands. He shook his head, knowing there was a slim chance he could lift two, but none if he tried to hop with them, let alone jump over something.

Gage also noticed and rolled his eyes, but still shot Angus a sharp glanced, "Just don't bump the Skylark with them!"

Angus snickered, "And here I thought I was a car nut."

"I love cars and stuff, but only got to work on them with my dad's buddies, so I don't know as much as I wish I did." Gage complained. "Once they found I could shoot OK, they took me shooting instead, which was cool and all, but I missed time in their garages."

"When something breaks, help us." Luke finally spoke up again. "James taught me the best way to learn to fix an engine is to get my hands dirty with him and learn as I held wrenches for him. Now I can pretty much rebuild a motor."

"Which is better than me." Angus admitted as he grabbed the final cans and moved them over to where the rest of the fuel was lined up against the wall. "Where do we stand on radiation, Hunter? We were told to check after getting rained on in areas away from Jennings."

Hunter pulled out the Geiger counter and did an air sample then ran it over Angus. "The air is up to a hundred and five counts per minutes and you are actually reading a bit higher at one hundred and ten."

Angus didn't hesitate to strip all the way down, "Any better?"

Hunter took another reading and nodded, "Yeah, the rain must be a little radioactive, just like Mr. K. warned us it might be if the storm blew over a bombed place and picked up any dust."

Angus tossed his clothing over the handlebars of the ATV while looking over at Gage and Vernon, "Come on guys, get it off and get into clean stuff out of your packs!"

Gage went down to his briefs before jumping into the side door to grab fresh clothing out of his pack. He finished undressing and redressing in the van.

Vernon on the other hand did the same thing as Angus. The two boys then waited, nude, until Gage came out of the van, tossing the two of them their packs as he did so. Gage quickly turned away as he pulled on a back-up jacket. "Sorry guys."

"No prob." Angus responded as he dug into his pack. "So, do we throw away our clothing now or what, Hunter?"

Off to the side Hunter was busy undressing as he found his own readings were higher than the surrounding air. Hunter shrugged and shook his head, "Not sure… But Devin, Zeek, and Ram all need to change as well. I guess we should check it all after it dries and see. We can also try to wash them in fresh water. Maybe after we check our homes, we should go back to Jennings and ask Mr. K."

"We don't have much in the way of other clothing left." Vernon stated as he pulled on a fresh set of briefs and a sweatshirt, shivering as he did so.

Luke thought over what he was hearing, "Um, you can all use some of my clothing and my brother's stuff may be a bit long for you, Angus, but I bet it will fit OK. There is also plenty of clothing across the street in Kurt's house. A few other kids our age are dead, too, and I bet there are some clothes in Henry's house as well."

Vernon's head jerked to look over at Luke, "Henry? Is he alive?"

Luke's tone became nervous as he responded, "Last time I saw him, he was."

Hunter jerked his head in a way of motioning everyone to head down into the basement. As they got down to the bottom of the stairs, Vernon turned to face Luke, "So did Henry flee with his dad and sister or what?"

Luke shook his head hard enough to cause his long wavy black hair whip through the air around him. "On the day it happened…" Luke paused, clenched his fists, took a deep breath to compose himself. He then moved over and grabbed a bottle of Sunny D and plopped down on a beanbag chair and flipped on another battery-powered lantern like he had in the garage. He sat there for several seconds before he wiped a couple tears out of his eyes. Finally after taking a couple of deep drinks for the bottle in his hand, he looked upwards as he spoke.

"For any of this to make sense, I think I need to start from before this all happened…"

At this point several of the kids moved close since, between the rain, the thunder and Luke speaking so softly, it was very difficult to hear. When nothing more came out of Luke, Hunter slid another beanbag chair over and reached over to put his hand on Luke's arm, "You only have to tell us what you want." He then paused and looked over to Ramsey, "I know you aren't doing great but you need to change. The rain was a little extra radioactive."

Luke saw Zeki scramble up the steps to grab Ram's pack so he could get some dry clothing and realized how much he missed being able to talk to people. Yet here he was with friends and they had come to check on him. He glanced over and blinked out some tears. He waited for Zeki to return as he fought to compose himself.

Even as he wiped away another trickle of tears, he started to talk in a quivering voice. "I think I need to tell someone, someone who wasn't here. None of us, even when we did talk, really never talked about it… We talked about what needed to get done, then about surviving, then dealing with damage to the buildings from the earthquakes and storms, then taking care of the sick, then burying the dead without getting sick, then leaving because the water went bad. It was always talk to avoid what happened or even what was happening. We didn't even talk about those who died, not really. It was only about getting them away from the rest of us so we wouldn't get sick and they wouldn't start to smell."

This got server cringes and even an 'Ewww' out of Devin.

Gage even looked a bit green, but still spoke up. "Um, can I ask how you buried them without, like touching them?"

Luke glanced over, "I will, but let me go back to just before this all happened, OK?"

Gage held up his hands, "Sorry, do this your way." He listened to another clap of thunder and let out a long breath, "It isn't like we are going anywhere anytime soon."

Off to the side Hunter checked the Geiger counter and let out a sigh, "Mr. Korbal was correct about being below ground. We are down to forty-one counts per minute here." He glanced over to Luke, "Gage is right, tell us your way. We'll wait on questions."

Luke took another drink, leaned back, and closed his eyes. He was totally silent for several seconds before finally starting to talk his way through the events of the prior couple of weeks. "First off I was grounded again. After skipping the first trip, Dad caught on quick to the fact I didn't want to go any more and those of you who know my dad, knows quitting is not an option, at least not a good one. So, every Thursday I had to come home and didn't get any TV, radio, music nothing, since I wasn't going to the meetings and every trip you guys took, I was grounded for the full time.

"So the day before it happened, I was put on garage cleaning duties and even had to patch up and paint the shed. Dad came to me that evening and said he could drive me to where you were all camping out and finish the bike trip to the park. If I didn't, I was grounded for the full week you were gone and he would find all sorts of stuff for me to do." Luke shook his head, "And boy, did he!"

"The day the world came apart, Dad got me up at five in the morning. He had me put on old clothing so I could change the oil on the Cherokee and the Windstar. Then, after breakfast, he handed me a list and told me the Kempler's were around if I needed anything, but the rest of the family was going to Colby for the day and wouldn't be back till late. I could tell he was really annoyed at me, so I said nothing and took the list. Dad said he had to go check on a job down in Oakley and then he was going to meet Mom and the others in Colby. First thing was mowing and edging. I did it first because I didn't want to do it in the heat of the day.

"Next was cleaning the shed, and it was a mess." Luke shook his head, "I finally decided to take everything out and simply start from scratch. I guess I should have noticed something, but since I was on grounding, I wasn't allowed to even turn on a radio, and I knew Mr. Kempler knew it. The last thing I was going to do was push my luck any further, so I worked without anything on. I didn't even know there was a war starting. I was in the back of the shed screwing in one of the shelves better when the light bulb above me blew up, showered me with glass, and even caught the shed on fire as the electricity arched. I jumped out and flipped the switch to off and sprayed the fire with the extinguisher.

"I remembered I pulled off my shirt too, since there was glass all over it and even inside it. I don't even remember if it was before or after I used the fire extinguisher. All I really remember was I didn't have a shirt on as I backed out to go tell Mr. Kempler what had happened and to ask him what to do. I kind of heard people shouting and junk, but I was so freaked out I didn't even really look around. Finally, I heard someone shouting 'fire!' Thinking it was our shed, I ran around to the back… That's when I noticed the Mitchell house was burning. I could also see the transformer half a block up sparking. At this point everything kind of gets blurry.

"I think I started to run to see if I could help with a hose over at the Mitchell's but saw Ben and Krystal come out of their house coughing, with smoke rolling out their front door followed by Mr. Cook. I ran over there and pushed Krystal down 'cause her shirt was on fire and I think Mrs. Tailor ran out her door and put a blanket over Krystal and handed me one. As I looked up wondering why she was giving me a blanket in June, I saw lots of smoke from other house. People were running around all over the place and… and… I saw the first mushroom cloud to the east…"

Luke took a couple deep breaths and a long drink finishing off the bottle, then grabbed another before he settled back into the beanbag chair, wiped away some tears and continued. "Even as we saw other bombs all over, several houses continued to burn. Mr. Gorman pulled up in his Pathfinder and started yelling at everyone to pull the main breakers going to their houses and form into teams to fight the fires however we could. It was too late for the Cook's place and we all knew it. So as Mrs. Tailor tended to Krystal, the rest of us on the block moved down to Mitchell's.

"None of us really talked about anything as we used garden hoses into the broken windows and shut off power to all the houses. Once the big flames were gone, a couple of the men went in and kept it confined to one side of the house so we managed to get it out before it did too much damage. We then moved as a large group to each fire as we came to it. We must have crisscrossed with other groups three or four times as new fires seemed to break out or were found, what Mr. Gorman later called 'hot spots'. I think it was the fourth building, Mr. Long's garage, when Mr. Gorman showed up with several of the other volunteer firemen. The truck ran out of water before we could put out a couple of the other fires, so we lost Old Lady Barker's and the bank, but with everyone's help we kept them from spreading.

"The water tower ran dry halfway through the day, but it started raining which really helped, but Mr. Gorman made it a priority so he and a few of the others fixed the pumps from the main well and refilled it. They also brought in gas from the Maple Farm, just to the north since their house burned down and they came into town early. But no one had any water pressure for several hours. Even with all the rain, having no water pressure let a couple of other out-buildings burn down because we didn't know they were burning until flames or smoke could be seen and couldn't fight them. Then the rains continued to come, and man did they come.

"Most people in town stayed inside, but Mr. Gorman and like four or five of the men stayed out and recruited me, Kurt and Henry to go into attics and crawl spaces to look for any signs of fires. It's good we did too, since we had a bunch of smaller fires break out here and there from smoldering wires or whatever. We caught at least a dozen we were able to hit with fire extinguishers before they did more than singe things. Mr. Gorman said we would have to keep our eyes out for fire for a few days since the massive power surges caused enough damage to create embers in walls and some would finally start to burn.

"We got lucky, though. It never happened. Mr. Gorman said a couple of days later all the humidity from the rains probably prevented dozens more fires. Anyway, it was way after dark before all the fires were out and we were pretty much wiped out. Kurt and I fell asleep still at the dinner table.

"The next morning several of the woman banded together, collected a lot of the perishables and cooked everyone a big early dinner and we used the furniture store to feed everyone and take a head count. Mr. Gorman took over the town, too. He and three of the firefighters took the dead to the cemetery. Krystal was one of them." Luke choked up as he added, "I guess I didn't get the fire out fast enough…"

At this point Vernon finally moved over and sat in the beanbag chair with Luke, "You did what you could…"

Luke put his head on Vernon's shoulder and blinked out a new round of tears. "We found nine others dead, all from smoke and fire and we couldn't find Ben. We looked all over the place. His dad finally wondered aloud if Ben may have tried to run back inside to get his new snake and simply burned up in the fire, but that was just a guess. No one remembers seeing him after he came out of the house, so…"

Hunter couldn't help it. "I know I would have run in after my dog if he hadn't gotten out…"

A couple of the others with pets nodded in agreement, which seemed to set Luke's mind more at ease over the missing boy. "I wish we know for sure, but it is really the only thing that makes sense, if any of this makes sense."

Luke slowly shook his head, "Since I was home without my parents I moved over to Kurt's and Mr. Ward, the fourth grade teacher, took Henry who was also alone. Several others offered to take Henry, but Mr. Ward insisted saying he was told to keep any eye on him while his dad and sister drove up to Oberlin for something at the junior-senior high school up there.

"Henry admitted his dad and sister had gone up there for some kind of test, but didn't know anything about Mr. Ward watching him. Since Mr. Ward knew what was going on, though, Mr. Gorman decided to let Mr. Ward take care of Henry. By then, whatever Mr. Gorman said was pretty much law and everyone was looking to him for what to do since he was a firefighter and used to be in the Marines. I know Henry wasn't thrilled and as he walked down the street with Mr. Ward's arm around him, it was the last time I saw him until everyone left… At least I think I saw him, but… well, I'll get back to Henry and Mr. Ward in a bit or I will start jumping all over the place."

Luke snuggled a little closer to Vernon who put his arm around the slightly older, distraught boy. Luke closed his eyes and gave a slight shudder before continuing, "The next couple of days it just kept raining and storming. Then the earthquakes hit. Four or five buildings were badly damaged and the Sampers were all killed when their cellar collapsed on them. Worst part is we didn't even know for like two days… I know we all felt bad for not checking on everyone, but Mr. Gorman pointed out that they had died fast and there was nothing any of us could have done unless we had been standing there. Anyway, after some discussions, the men filled in the cellar with mud and dirt and put up a trio of crosses which became the norm as more and more died..."

This caused Luke to gulp and grab onto Vernon's hand hard enough for the younger boy to wince, but he dealt with it and said nothing. The pressure on Vernon's hand diminished as Luke started talking again, "The earthquake also damaged Kurt's basement room, so I finally came home between storms. Besides, I wanted to check the house and Kurt's family was starting to drink nothing but water."

"I cooked what was left in the downstairs freezer since it was almost out of ice… I used the camp stove inside, which I know Dad would have freaked out on, but I didn't know what else to do and didn't want food to go bad. I also went around and boarded up the windows. Only a few broke before I could cover them, so I got lucky there. I guess between how well Dad built the house and the trees around our place really helped until the branches started falling on the house and shed…"

Luke gave a bit of a humor filled snort. "Kurt's dad came over between a few of the storms and helped with his chainsaw and we finally decided to cut down the big maple because it was starting to lean toward the house. I got pretty good with his smaller chainsaw too. Pretty much the entire shed is full of firewood all the way to the top. Since I was only right across the street, they let me stay here, but checked on me pretty much between every storm.

"Actually, the whole town worked together pretty well, but then the really big storm hit. Some said it was a tornado, others said just a really bad wind, and some even thought it was a close by bomb. Whatever it was, it hit late at night and toppled a few buildings and did massive damage to a bunch of others.

"Mr. Gorman tried to keep people in town and working together, but the storm was kind of the beginning of the end. Several people, including most of the farmers who came into town left, heading out to try to get to other family members. Most took what they could and gave the rest to the town, but a few couldn't leave because the only cars and trucks they could make work were older ones, other than Mr. Gorman's Pathfinder. Still, I think about fifty or so left, maybe more. Just a couple of days later people started to get sick and once people started dying. Mr. Gorman finally called for an emergency meeting. Only thirty-nine of us showed up and I'd say half were at least a little sick.

"The next morning we organized and pulled the dead out and buried them." Luke opened his eyes and looked over to Gage, "To answer your question about the bodies and how we buried them, Mr. Gorman, Mr. Oakhill, and Mr. Ward put on firefighter suits and pulled the bodies out, while some of the rest of us dug the graves. Once we dug them, the men put the air tanks back on and dropped the bodies into the holes, many of which were filling with water because of how wet the ground was. We all then filled them as fast as we could. The problem was we kept finding more dead. Finally Mr. Oakhill went out to one of the farms and came back with a backhoe. Everyone else was put into a mass grave on the north side of town.

"But a few more got sick and then we figured out the water was bad when Darkie backed away from the water coming out of the hose. I think the water being bad was more than even Mr. Gorman could handle; he called a meeting a couple hours later and finally said it was time to leave. Those who were still alive, and went to the meeting, got two pickups, three cars and two tractors along with empty trailers up and running over the next couple of hours plus Mr. Gorman's Pathfinder.

"They loaded everyone up and were just getting the last of the extra fuel on one of the trailers just as Mr. Ward pulled up in his old VW bus and tried to make me go with him, but I pulled away. Mr. Gorman stepped between us. He tried to talk me into going. He even said I could ride with him over Mr. Ward's objections… but I couldn't leave, I just couldn't… I know my family is probably dead because we all saw the cloud from Colby, but what if James tries to come home from the Navy, or Missy from her college in Nevada? I also know if any of my other brothers or sister lived, they would try to walk back here. I just had to stay since the rains stopped and they could try to get here with the break in the weather. Besides, I knew not to drink the water, wouldn't anyway, and Mr. Gorman turned off the pump to the water tower, took the fuel for it and divided it up between everyone since there was like eight 55-gallon drums left. He also closed the main valve coming down from the tower so no one else would get poisoned and painted warning signs all over the equipment.

"Mr. Gorman finally said the decision had to be mine and wouldn't let Mr. Ward grab at me again. Mr. Gorman then told me whatever was left in town was mine, along with whoever else may not have come to the evacuation point, but really thought I was the only one left. There was only like five others unaccounted for by then, one of them being Ben.

"Last I saw, was they pulled out heading north on Kentucky. I know some said they wanted to try to get to Oberlin and others talked about Atwood, since no one saw any bomb clouds or anything from up there. But as I watched them leave, I saw Mr. Ward pull off and head east. I also saw someone who I think was Henry look out the back window, but it was so dirty and far away I couldn't be sure.

"I spent the last two days getting gas out of left behind cars and checking houses for food. Those who left took pretty much everything, but lots of those who died had canned stuff and Mr. Woodson's store had two full pallets of Sunny D, another of apple juice, along with a couple of pallets of soup, beans, and most of a pallet of chili that got stuck behind the collapse of the roof during the big storm that killed him and Mrs. Woodson. The store also had lots of other stuff including a forklift with an extra tank of propane fuel. Once I wiggled through the rubble into the back area, it was like treasure of food. I taught myself how to operate the forklift from the manual stuffed in the desk in the back office, then moved everything here after using the forklift to drive through the back wall."

Luke pointed to the far door, "It's now all in the junk room and game room. There was lots of crushed stuff too, and I was going to go try to use the forklift to pull out sections of the building to see if anything was usable, but then…" Luke took a very nervous breath, "Those Army guys showed up with Mr. Ward."

Angus' eyebrows arched up, "How did they end up together?"

Luke shrugged, "I don't know, but I saw them come in with the big truck, the Humvee, Mr. Ward's bus, and another truck that had to be an ambulance since it had a big red cross on the side. I almost went out to meet them, but then I saw some of the guys going into houses and taking things so I got scared and used some of the wood in the garage to block everything up that night.

"The next morning, Mr. Ward come up to my house with two of the guys and beat on the door telling me to come out, but I hid down here…"

"How come they didn't break in?" Gage wondered aloud.

"They were talking about it." Luke gulped, "But then something really strange happened. There was a train horn sound from the northeast side of town. It really spooked them. They thought maybe the military got a train working and was doing rescues or something. I heard them talking about trying to take the train, but it didn't last long. They were overruled by a guy with his arm in a sling, who had two silver bars on his shoulder. He told them they had a full truck of stuff and didn't have the firepower to take on a unit capable of getting a train up and running. The big guy with the three strips on his collar shook the door but finally backed off when the train horn sounded again. They jumped in the Hummer and big truck and left, but Mr. Ward stuck a note in the door before they did."

Luke pointed over to an end table, "So I knew he would come back. I really thought you were them at first."

Devin moved over and grabbed the single sheet of paper, then pulled out his flashlight so he could read it since the single batter operated lantern was too dim. He scanned before reading it aloud. "Luke, you can't stay here. The water is bad and there is no one left to help you. I heard you say your family went to Colby, and it is gone. You can live with Henry and me. I will make sure to take good care of you and teach you everything you need to survive, just like I am Henry. I also have some new friends who would be happy to teach you things as well. I can tell you, some of these National Guard guys would really like to meet you too! We'll come back in a few days to get you, so get your things ready." Devin looked up with a frown, "It's signed 'your new dad, Ren Ward'."

Luke's eyes narrowed at the mention of how the note was signed. "Since then I have gone around and grabbed every bit of lumber I could and made everything as strong as I could. Then you all showed up and I stayed quite because, like I said, I thought you all were Mr. Ward again."

Gage stood, moved over, and took the letter from Devin. He read it and gave a little shiver. "From what we saw and heard, the last thing you wanted was to meet some of the National Guard guys. You got really lucky. But you shouldn't have stayed where they knew where you were. You should have moved everything to another house with a big basement and made it look all looted and stuff."

"He did a good job boarding up the place, though." Devin countered.

Hunter shook his head at Devin. "Gage is right. No matter how much work Luke did making his house into a fort, they still have guns and grenades and stuff. There was nothing stopping them from getting in here other than sheer luck and good timing on Zeek's part."

Luke looked over with a cock of his head, "Good timing on Zeek's part?"

"Yeah," Ramsey spoke up sounding a little better, "the only trains running around these parts are being driven by Zeki."

Zeki managed a small grin as he saw the shocked look on Luke's face, "The train horn be me. Track washout before me get train here so me blow horn to see if people live here. We no saw nothing so me blow horn real long second time then back train up and check other track. All track in and out of Jenning check. There be break or bad spot all direction so me no go further."

Seeing a totally befuddled and skeptical look on Luke's face Ramsey snickered, "Zeki knows how to drive trains, Luke. He got all sorts of stuff off the tracks and back to Jennings."

Before Luke could respond with anything other than an amazed look and a dropped jaw, Vernon took a look at the note Gage was still holding and let out a deep breath, "Are you really sure Colby was hit with a nuke?"

Luke chewed on his bottom lip as he nodded, "During a break in the weather, I think it was the third day, about fifteen people showed up from Gem and Rexford. The four people from Gem were in really bad shape and all had nasty burns. From what they said, Gem was pretty much flattened and Rexford got some bad bomb damage. They wanted to get up to the hospital in Oberlin since all of them were hurt and junk, so Mr. Gorman got them some food, gave them one of the old tractors, a trailer, and some fuel. Several of the people in town also handed them some blankets and stuff too.

"Other than some close by farmers, the National Guard guys, the train and now you, no one I know of has come or gone from here. But yeah, a bomb hit close enough to Gem to destroy it, and they came here instead of going to the hospital in Colby, so…"

Devin let out an uneasy breath, "I told you we should have gone to Oberlin!"

"Devin, knock it off." Angus snarled. "If we hadn't come here we wouldn't have Luke and we wouldn't know about the National Guard guys getting more trucks and people. Besides, my farm is southwest of Colby so it may still be there!"

Hunter nodded in total agreement, "We still need to check out what is down this way and see if we can get to Angus' farm. It would be a rally point for some of our families, if they are alive, because all of us know where it is. Even my little brother could find it as many times as we have all been out there. But, we also need to warn Sheriff Will and Jennings about what we have found and see if we can get some of what Luke has back up there." Hunter managed a grin as he added, "Especially James' car."

Devin sent Hunter a nasty stare only to see Vernon, who he expected to get some support from, shake his head and roll his eyes. Devin's frown deepened, "What? Your dad went to Oberlin too!"

Before Vernon could speak, Ramsey spoke up and sounded angry even though he was still wheezing some, "Yeah, and mine was on the way to the campground and should have been there when the bombs hit but he wasn't. We agreed to come back this way, all of us. We came this way to check out home, Devin! Not just one or some of our homes but all of them!"

Vernon's normally soft looking blue eyes seemed to harden, "Ram's right, this isn't just about your dad or my dad. It's about our homes, our friends, about Luke, who is right here in front of us. Our dads are either in Oberlin or they aren't, we don't know, but we know they lived through the bombs. Thanks to this trip we also know Luke is here and we know more about what is going on now than we did early today. What if one of us had decided to drink some water from some abandoned town? Have we been told not to? I bet we wouldn't have even thought about it and we could have all gotten sick and junk. So we learned something new, something to prevent us from dying! Isn't finding Luke and learning about a deadly hazard worth coming down here for?

"I'm not a church goer, but I still think we better all thank Hunter and Zeki's God we got here when we did. It worked out like someone, something, out there has a plan for us. We found Luke in time to stop those Army jerks, we found out about the bad water, we learned they got more people and supplies, and we know the very next town down the road was blasted, all without any of us getting hurt.

"Besides, while our dads were alive, and we have that, none of the others here have any idea if anyone else in their families even survived and we all have or had family down in Colby too! I care about my mom and my brothers and sisters too and what if Red is alive down there with no one? He's my dog, and I care about him too!"

Luke looked over seeing more than a little hostility toward Devin and picked up just enough information to try to step in between the others and Devin. "Guys, far for me to get too far in the middle of this, but what you have done as a patrol is amazing. You can't get mad at each other now!"

This settled things quickly. Before anyone else could jump in, Hunter quickly nodded, "Luke's absolutely right, guys. We need all of us and we all have to understand where Devin is coming from. We all want to find family. Devin, we already promised you we would head up to Oberlin as soon as we check out Colby, but we have lots to do before we can really check it out; including figuring out how to wrap around to the back side so we can check out Angus' home. Gus, get us a count per minute check and go see if the CB they gave us can get through to Jennings. They need to know everything we do."

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