Castle Roland

Day of N

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 17

Published: 16 Jun 16

Day of N

Kyle Aarons

Place   Latitude   Longitude
Prairie Dog State Park Kansas   39.804316   -99.954987
Farmhouse   39.702333   -100.331268
Missile launch site   39.989523   -101.379384
Benkelman Neb.   40.050811   -101.534958

Name  Age   Eye Color   Hair Color  Weapon(s)
Devin 12 Blue Black M4, M9A1, 12 gauge Browning BPS
Hunter 12 Grey Brown M4, M9A1, M-1014 12 gauge
Angus (Gus) 12 Green Red M4, M9A1, 10 gauge Browning BPS, collapsible .22
Gage 11 Blue Sandy M4 w/M203, M9A1, .308 w/scope
Zeki (Zeek) 11 Brown Brown .22 w scope, .38 rev., 410 Shotgun (single shot)
Ramsey (Ram) 12 Brown Sandy M4, M9A1
Vernon (Vern) 11 Blue Blond M4, M9A1, Remington 870 youth 20 gauge shotgun

Hunter woke to the sounds of clattering dishes. He blinked his eyes and sat up, suddenly realizing he had fallen asleep at the table while watching the shadows of the men on patrol and the tractors moving the train cars. He looked back out the window and felt his heart sink in his chest. While it was light out, there was no sun. The sky was grey with heavy clouds and a light mist was coming down.

A quick glance around told him he was one of the last ones to wake up. Only Ramsey was still in bed, and showed no signs of waking up anytime soon. Vernon and Devin were up, but just getting dressed. Vernon's wet hair gave testament of a recent shower. The other beds were empty and made.

Vernon continued to towel off his hair as he looked over with a grin, "Dude, if you would have told Sheriff Will you wanted to sleep in a chair, it would have saved them from bringing in another bed for you."

Hunter ran his hand through his brown hair and let out a sigh, "Bad dream woke me, but I can't remember what it was all about." He paused and eyed Vernon, "I don't think I was the only one…"

Vernon's smile quickly faded, "I had a couple. The first was something about having my skin all burned like that guy on the train. The second was even worse; I woke up all sweaty, so I decided to grab a shower." He shook his head, "I don't think I'll have any good dreams for a long time after these last several days."

Devin made a quick shrug, "I guess I am lucky, I never remember my dreams, and as far as I know I have never had a bad one."

"Lucky is an understatement." Vernon shuddered then quickly changed the subject as he looked over at Hunter. "You can take a warm shower if you're willing to heat a pot of water and do a real quick one. All you have to do is heat water over the fire and pour it into the water heater. Sheriff Will and Hank set it up. There is a generator to pump water out of the well and they put a big funnel on the water heater, but it only lasts like five minutes. If you want a longer one you have to heat up more water, but then some of it starts to cool in the heater. Hank also said they are going to shut the generator down about nine so if you want a shower without someone having to pump water for you, do it now."

Hunter quickly grabbed some clean clothes, "I'm all about a warm shower! Where are the others?"

Devin pulled his comforter around himself, "Hank took Zeek and Gage out to see if they could get the rest of the train on the far side of the bridge. It sounded like a couple of guys checked the back way around and the tracks are good. Sheriff Will took Angus out to help with guard duty. I guess some people showed up looking for a safe place to stay real early this morning and, as usual, Gus was already awake. I heard him offer to help."

Hunter yawned and stretched, "Wow, I didn't hear a thing. I think I actually slept better at the table than I did in the bed."

Devin pulled the comforter even tighter around himself. "It's too cold to sleep without blankets."

"Cold?" Hunter barked with a great deal of sarcasm. "It's chilly for June, but cold?" He shook his head and snorted, "What are you going to do when winter comes around?"

"The same thing he did at the winter campout," Vernon giggled, "we'll have to drag him out of a pair of sleeping bags!"

Hunter snickered at the memory of Mr. K and Ramsey's dad having to team up to pick up the sleeping bag, holding up and shaking it until Devin finally fell out, only to find the boy in a second bag.

"That was not funny," Devin muttered while his cheeks flared red.

"Yeah," Vernon grinned, "it was! Especially seeing them shake you out of the second bag into the snow."

Devin tossed his pillow, missing badly, before flopping back on the bed. "Am I the only one who hated the winter campout?"

Ramsey groaned, "Man, you all are noisy! And yeah, I think you are the only one who hated just about the whole trip. Most of the rest of us just hated parts of it, like getting the fire started so we could have some heat. I actually loved the ice fishing part."

"Yeah, cause you caught double what the rest of us did." Hunter snickered at the memory. "I didn't get squat."

Vernon nodded, "You caught enough to feed all of us by yourself, Ram. Everything I caught I had to throw back." He paused and glanced over to Hunter, "Speaking of fishing, will we be able to fish after all this radiation? Won't the rivers carry it into lakes and stuff?"

Hunter shrugged, "I wish I knew. Maybe we should go see Mr. Korbal, see how he is doing, and ask him."

This comment got the others moving. The idea of checking on their scout leader was more than motivating. By the time Hunter got out of the shower Devin, Ramsey, and Vernon were eating fresh eggs with a side bowl of oatmeal cooked by Erma and Hank's sister.

Before Hunter could say anything, a plate and bowl was handed to him by Erma, "Eat up, son. I hear you all want to head over to the clinic, but before you do my husband would like to see you over at the sheriff's office."

Hunter eyed the food for a few seconds, not really caring for sunny side up eggs or oatmeal.

Hank's sister shot Hunter a smirk, "Not your normal breakfast?"

Hunter gulped as he sat the plate on the table and pulled back a chair, "Um, no… I mean it's fine…"

Vernon glanced up with a big grin, "Hunter likes his eggs dead."

"Dead?" Erma asked as she turned back to look at Hunter.

"Yeah." Ramsey snickered. "If they are still runny at all, they are still alive to him."

Before Hunter could say a word Hank's sister grabbed the plate and dumped the contents back onto the pan still over the wood burning stove. "Three dead eggs coming up!"

"I'd have eaten them…" Hunter mumbled while his head dropped with a great deal of embarrassment. One thing his mom and dad were big on was being ultra-polite when over anyone's home, especially when getting fed by them.

"Nonsense!" Erma all but shouted. "You want your eggs dead, then dead they will be." She snickered, "To be honest I like my scrambled or firm yoke too, but my grandkids all like the gooey yoke so they can soak it up with toast. I should have asked you how you all wanted them."

"I don't want you to do anything extra for me ma'am." Hunter stammered while his cheeks took on a crimson color.

Erma moved over and gave Hunter a hug, "Without you and your buddies I wouldn't have three grandkids to make eggs for. You all risked your skins to save them and in my eyes that makes you all family. Besides, I am used to cooking to order in this house. You have no idea how picky my grandkids are, and I love spoiling them!"

This finally got a bit of a smile out of Hunter who didn't try to break the hug. "Um, is there any chance you have some cinnamon for the oatmeal then?"

Erma gave Hunter a tight squeeze as she laughed, "How about some apple slices for it? One of the train cars was full of apples and were getting a bit soft so we have plenty and we need to use them up. I am going to save my spices since it may be hard to find some for quite a while."

Hunter nodded without hesitation, "An apple would be great."

Erma let go while ruffling Hunter's hair. "A couple of cut up apples coming up!"

While she cored a pair of apples and chopped them into small pieces she glanced over to the table, "Many of the ladies are going to try to can as much of the apples as we have stuff for, but there is no way we are going to do a train car full of them, so if you all want some, feel free. It would be a real shame for them to go to waste."

Ramsey eagerly nodded, "I could eat apples all day long."

Devin snickered, "The way the mayor was talking yesterday, everyone might be walking around with an apple in their hand the next few days. He and the sheriff are working with some of the farmers to figure out what can be stored and what has to be used and stuff. The plan is to use up things that have to be eaten soon, then move down the list. They want me and Angus to attend a meeting this afternoon to help figure out the best way to handle food so there will be enough until stuff can be grown.

"We are also going to talk about checking out all nearby farms and seeing what crops can be salvaged and to figure out what can be planted now for extra food this winter. Angus will help with the crop thing and I will work with figuring out what to keep in storage and for how long. Something tells me the soup and stovetop will be some of the things put into emergence storage. If there is more food in the rest of the train Zeek went to grab, we'll have more to work with."

Hank's sister glanced over her shoulder as she turned the formally sunny side up eggs into a scrambled mass for Hunter. "You seven boys are amazing you know that?"

"What do you mean, ma'am?" Vernon asked with clear confusion in his voice.

Erma responded, "Carol's right; you all are remarkable." She handed Hunter a bowl of diced apples before continuing, "You all have huge hearts. You care about others. You are polite… But all of those traits just scratch the surface. For a group of boys you have a wide range of skills while all having an understanding of the outdoors."

She shook her head and nodded in the direction of the window. "We have over twenty kids in this town in your age range. Not one of them could hold a candle light to the flame you boys carry and with very few exceptions they are all cowering in their homes or not letting their parents out of their sight because of how afraid they are."

Carol pulled the pan of scrambled eggs off the wood burning stove and scrapped them onto Hunter's plate. "Hank's kids are a prime example. Two of them are older than you, but you all smoke them with what you are able to do."

Hunter took a bite of eggs before he looked up at the two women, "I think I would be holding onto my parents if I knew where they were."

Vernon quickly nodded in agreement, "Me too!"

Erma put the pan in the sink with a sad sigh, "I hope one day you will get to hold them again. You all deserve no less. Still, the fact remains what you seven did and continue to do have given me my grandkids back to me safe and sound and has given this whole town along with the surrounding area a chance to survive and start some kind of rebuilding process.

"Very few can say this and I am willing to bet God has a very special place put aside for all seven of you."

Hunter shrugged off the praise while taking another fork full of eggs. "I just hope there are lots more places like Jennings out there and they all come back together."

Devin's head bobbed up and down. "If we are going to ever get back to what we had a few weeks ago we will need everyone on the same page. Power, water, gas, and all the normal stuff we are used to will only get restored if people work as a giant team to rebuild. We still don't know if there is even a government left out there."

Carol pointed over to the radio, "Well if what we heard early this morning is true, there is something left."

"Really?" Ramsey asked with a great deal of eagerness. "What?"

Erma moved over to the radio. "It started about three this morning and continues to give the same information. You may as well hear it for yourselves."

Before she flipped on the radio, she glanced over. "A military government is not exactly my idea of a good starting point, but it is something."

The radio came to life with some static but after a couple of seconds a voice could be made out. The signal was not the greatest and there was quite a bit of break-up so not all the words could be heard but a male voice spoke slowly and firmly. "…Again, we are asking all residents of the Texas… radio your status to us… Fort Bliss by shortwave or… and most of El Paso survived… Troops at Fort Bliss under command of Gen… are moving out and establishing safety corridors. Anyone with radiation equipment is asked to monitor… Fort Bliss air defense artillery shot down most of the incoming to southwest Texas and south east New Mex… but what was shot down is still highly radioactive and we need locations so we can attempt some kind of clean up… Areas between Las Cru… and El Paso are secure.

"Areas south of the US border are not secure and have sustained heavy nuclear damage. Those south of Juarez are advised the southern area of Juarez was hit and radiation levels are heavy along the southern end of the city extending down several miles. Wind at the time took fallout to the southwest, so contamination is heavy and dangerous for several miles of Juarez extending along a line… Northern parts of the city experiences heavy dam… Also at this time the river is impassable and areas on both the Mexico and U.S. side are flooded. As of this time, any crossing of the US Mexico border in the area of El Paso and… will be met with deadly force. We currently do not have resources to deal with boarder security any other way and the US cannot take in and support anyone else with damage as widespread as is being reported. Besides, anyone coming through the area is likely to be contaminated and sick. We do not have medical rescores to handle this. Refugees who crossed over before this time will be allowed to stay as long as those refugees are willing to work. Sick and radiation contaminated persons are being moved to a camp just west of Deming. It is for U.S. residents only. Insured should go to Deming… medical resources we have available are there. Law and order will be maintained by military… a shoot on site order… Food is needed so bring what you can…

"Any U.S. citizens who wishes to come into the Fort Bliss safety corridor we are establishing… under military rule and law until a centralized plan can be established…

"At this time the surviving city of El Paso and the UTEP School of Mines is under military control of Fort Bliss… Military control of the region will remain in effect for the foresee… any bandit activity should be called in. Military units will respond as soon as available. Any looters or bandits inside the corridor will be treated as a shoot on site. We do not currently have the resources to imprison anyone.

"All surviving military units be advised Biggs Army Airfield is open as is Fort Bliss…. units willing to fall under the temporary military government of Fort Bliss… welcome. Other units not wishing to declare allegiance to the Fort Bliss leadership is asked to hold and not engage…. we are still on the same side and we only want to restore law and order…

"Any civilians in the areas of Midland Ode… we are sending troops into the area to secure the oil fields and gasoline production… Do not attempt to stop us, you will be fired upon. Those resources need protection and military control is needed. Those in the oil fields and in the production of gasoline, you will be compensated if you continue to work…"

Erma clicked it off and glanced over to the boys, "It pretty much just goes on and on with a new voice taking over ever couple of hours. Basically, if all the talk is true, a chunk of West Texas and East New Mexico are under the control of the leadership of Fort Bliss and for some reason they were able to shoot down most of the nukes aimed at them so there isn't much damage. One of the reports says large sections of the border patrol joined up with those in Fort Bliss as well and several military planes ended up going there so there is a big mass of our surviving military there.

"They even give out warnings to the rest of the world about having some nuclear bombs left and they would use them if anyone tries to attack."

"If the reports about big tidal waves hitting all over the place is right, then there probably isn't many left to shoot at them." Hunter remarked between bites of food.

"Let's hope everyone left keeps their fingers off the triggers of any more bombs." Erma grumbled. "Way too many have been killed over nothing already!"

Ramsey took a long drink of water before speaking, "I just wish I knew who blasted us and why. We didn't do anything!"

"Someone must have thought we did or figured we would." Erma responded, while taking the empty plates off the table so she could wash them. Even as she did so, she made a point of quickly waving off Vernon, who got up to help. "The important thing is some of us survived and we all need to work together to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. It sure doesn't make me comfortable to hear the first signs of a new government is a military one though."

"Someone had to take charge right?" Hunter wondered aloud.

"Yes," Erma agreed, "but I just wish it was one elected and not one with the biggest guns who can take what and do whatever they want."

Erma pointed back to the radio. "All the local stations down there are under military control too, so all we can get is more of the same kind of thing, but some of it is in other languages. More seem to be coming on line as they fix them and find people to speak various languages. The problem is they are telling everyone what to do and not giving any information other than what they want to give out. They aren't saying anything really helpful."

Carol glanced over, "I speak Spanish pretty well, and I found a Spanish speaking station saying it was in El Paso. It is saying the exact same things the English one is but it is giving more warning about no Mexicans coming over the border and that crossing the Rio Grande is all but impossible with the waters as high as it is. It also says it is under military control and isn't giving any real news out, only telling people what the leadership of Fort Bliss is doing and not to mess with what they want to do."

It was pretty clear the boys eating at the table didn't really understand why the two adults were so uneasy over the idea of a military controlled area as they all exchanged glances and finished up eating.

Once Hunter downed the last bite of oatmeal and apples he stood, "Hopefully the stations down in El Paso will start saying more about the rest of the country."

Vernon gave a quick nod, "I guess the important thing is someplace big survived."

Erma and Carol exchanged glances while silently communicating to not push the issue further. The boys had a right to be happy something survived and someone was doing something to get the world organized again.

Erma forced a smile as she gently pushed Hunter away from the sink. "Let us ladies deal with the dishes. You kids should head out and check on your scout leader, but don't forget, Hunter, my husband wants to see you over at the sheriff's office."

Hunter glanced back at the sink with some aggravation, as one again his upbringing was to not burden those he was a guest of. On the other hand, he was also expected to obey rules as set down by those he was staying with so he begrudgingly accepted the fact his help was not expected nor wanted. He glanced over to the others. "Guy's I'm going to go see Sheriff Will. I'll catch up to you over at the clinic. Just make sure you arm up before you head out. With all the train activity and stuff going on, we are sure to get some visitors today and need to be ready in case some aren't nice."

Vernon tilted his head to the side as Hunter pulled on his vest holding his pistol, extra ammo for it, a pair of spare ammo clips for his rifle, and a survival knife. He quickly followed it up by slinging his assault rifle over his shoulder. "You really think you are going to need all that?"

"I hope I don't," Hunter shrugged, "but we can't be too safe and if we are really going to head back out and search for our moms and dads, we'll need to get used to carrying way more than this all the time."

Ramsey quickly agreed. "He's right, Vern. Besides, I don't know about you, but I sure don't want to go see Mr. Korbal without being armed and ready."

Devin jumped up and moved back to the room they had slept in. "He'd already be mad at me for not taking my rifle to breakfast. You know how he is about us always having our firearms with us!"

Erma shook her head sadly, "I think you kids could bend some when in town."

Hunter's right hand stroked the sling of his assault rifle as if he was starting to find some comfort with it being there, "Until things settle down and real order is established, Mr. Korbal said we can't let ourselves go soft about being ready. Besides, pretty much everyone in town knows us now, and any new arrivals will see this. Since we are trusted and well armed, it should send a signal to anyone who may want to cause problems to give such ideas a second thought."

Erma reluctantly gave a single nod while letting out a long sigh. "Such a terrible world we now find ourselves in. I hope we can turn it around so kids can go to bed with nightlights and dreams of having fun again."

Vernon stood, grabbed his shotgun, checked the safety, and shivered lightly, "Right now I would settle for dreams without mushroom clouds and Zombies." He glanced over to Erma who was giving him a strange look, "I think it was the burns on Levi's dad… It made me think of zombies and I had all sorts of crazy zombie dreams last night."

Hunter cringed, "Oh, man, I never even went there… but now… I sure wish I could have done something for him, but he made me sick just to be near him with the way he smelled." He glanced around with wide eyes, "Oh crap, where is Levi?"

"Finally sleeping," Carol stated with sadness. "He spent almost all of last night looking down toward the tracks hoping his dad or brother would show up. I finally got him to eat an apple and tucked him in to my bed just as the sun was coming up. Was his dad really burned as bad as you all are making it sound?"

The look on Hunter's face told more than his words could have hoped to. When he spoke his voice held a note of disgust. "Worse. His face was just like something out of… well the Walking Dead series suddenly comes to mind," Hunter whispered then shot Vernon a glare. "And now I am going to have to figure out a way not to think about Zombies all day long, thanks Vern!"

Ramsey eyed both Vernon and Hunter as he slipped his own vest with a pistol and extra ammo on, "Ah, gee, I couldn't sleep for like three nights after seeing 28 Days Later. Now, in addition to all the bad dreams I already had last night, I am going to be thinking of the zombies from a stupid movie for God only knows how long. You both suck!"

Vernon forced a grin on his face, "Happy to help."

Hunter lowered his head and snickered despite the situation. "Man, without your twisted humor this world would be a whole lot harder to live in!"

"Maybe not harder, but a whole lot less fun," Devin agreed as he came in with his 12-gauge and a pretty heavy jacket, pockets full of extra ammo. "Ready, but don't go all zombie hunter jokes on me, and if you do what you did to me after we watched 28 Days Later again, I'm going to give whoever does it a fat lip."

At this Ramsey and Vernon burst out laughing.

At the same time Devin groaned and lowered his head, knowing he had just opened up a door he would have preferred had stayed shut for all times.

Erma paused her dish washing and looked over, "OK, this just demands an explanation."

While Devin turned bright red, Ramsey's eyes twinkled with total merriment. "It was the three of us plus Angus. We were staying over Devin's house and his dad broke down and said we could have a horror movie fest for Devin's tenth birthday since he was a double digit. We watched Mirrors, this Swedish movie called Let the Right One In, Quarantine, and finally 28 Days Later."

"What in the heck was he thinking?" Hank's sister demanded to know.

Devin shuddered, "He wanted to prove we really weren't ready for them. He was right."

"At least Devin wasn't!" Ramsey chuckled.

Vernon could see the two adults and Hunter staring so he grinned even wider, "Hunter, your dad said no, so we couldn't invite you. But, anyway, after 28 Days Later, Devin was like totally freaked out. He went into the bathroom, turning on every light in the house as he did so. I just couldn't resist…"

"You could have!" Devin shouted with now flaming red cheeks.

"No… No I couldn't!" Vernon burst into giggles. "It was just tooooooooo good of a set up! Besides, your dad loved the idea as soon as I told him about it."

Hunter's head cocked to the left as he glanced over at Ramsey, "OK, Vernon is going into giggle fits, what did you guys do?"

By this point Devin was trying to hide his face by covering it with his hands while Vernon sat back down and burst into all out laughter.

Ramsey, although snickering and smiling was able to get out the rest. "He got Devin's dad's permission and had me go out and turn off the main circuit breaker to the house. At the same time he ran up to the bathroom door and pounded on it while making growling noises. Devin screamed so loud it woke up two different neighbors. One of them even called the police!"

By this time Ramsey was fighting hard not to bust up laughing, "I flipped the lights back on… Devin totally lost it… He peed all over the walls cause he was going when we did it. By the time we got in there, he had jumped into the bathtub and pulled the toilet rug over himself trying to hide. His dad was rolling on the ground… Angus took like twenty pictures."

Vernon pounded on the table in uncontrollable laughter, "His dad drove to an all night store… to get cleaning stuff…. and all the stuff to make us banana…. Splits… cause none of us could…. Sleep… and he ended up cleaning… up the bathroom…. while we eat and calmed down."

Erma couldn't help but move over and wrap Devin in a huge hug while Carol snickered and eyed the boys for a few seconds, "While way mean, I have go to say that was a great prank. No one got hurt and will certainly be something you will be able to talk about for decades. All things said, nicely played!"

"AHHHH!" Devin shouted, "You're as bad as my dad! He said it was the funniest thing he ever saw and even printed off the pictures for my mom to see and mailed copies to both sets of grandparents."

Erma had to fight hard not to chuckle as she continued to hug Devin. "So when did you finally start watching horror movies again?"

Devin cringed, "I haven't!"

"Well, now I finally know why you never came over to catch the DVR's of the Walking Dead with the rest of us." Hunter laughed hard. "Vernon, one of these days one of us is going to get even."

Devin shook his head while taking a few calming deep breaths, "None of us will even be able to come up with one one-millionth of the crazy stunts he does!"

"I sure wish I could have been there." Hunter giggled as he eyed Ramsey, "But the fake bear sounds when we went to the Rockies was pretty good, too."

"Yeah, sure it was." Ramsey sighed, "Talk about not getting any sleep for a couple of nights… He then glanced over to Hunter with a sly smile, "But pinning you in your sleeping bag was pretty funny too."

"I still don't know how I didn't wake up." Seeing raised eyebrows from both adults, Hunter rolled his eyes. "One morning I woke up with my head poking out of my sleeping bag, but Vernon had used huge safety pins right next to my neck on both sides and a couple more further down on each side, plus did the same to the zipper. I couldn't get out. I even tried to rip it, but he had folded it over and the pins were really strong. I had to unzip my tent with my teeth and then spent like ten minutes hopping around camp begging to be let out cause I had to go pee real bad. My dad still keeps the video Angus shot of me hopping around in my bag while almost everyone else was rolling on the ground laughing."

Vernon had to wipe tears out of his eyes while he gasped for air, "Getting Angus in the hammock was actually my favorite."

With this the others all started laughing again.

Vernon took almost a minute to calm again. "Devin's dad bought all of us hammocks to put up between trees because we wanted to see what it was like to sleep in them so we stayed over his place and decided to sleep outside in his grove of apple trees. Angus had just come from football practice so he set his up and took a nap, I couldn't help it…"

Hunter rubbed his hand through his hair, "You are so lucky Angus was out cold."

"Oh, I made sure. If he had caught me, he would have killed me."

Erma glanced over, "What did you do to Angus?"

Vernon's eyes glinted again. "I took the edges, pulled them over top of him and used twine to sew it closed; I did it like three times, too; then made sure the knots were up on the cords holding the hammock to the trees so he couldn't get to them."

Hunter got a wicked smile, "Then we all opened up with super soaker water guns on him." With a great deal of satisfaction he added, "And I got to video that one!"

Hank's sister shook her head, "Vernon has done all of those things and you all have not leveled the playing field yet?"

"We've tried a few times, but somehow he always outguesses us and turns the table on us." Hunter responded with some annoyance. "Once I put a snake in his sleeping bag, but somehow it ended up in mine, and he even managed to tape a thing to its tail that rattled. I started to slide in when it moved and then I heard the rattle. Thinking a rattler had gotten in my tent I screamed and tried to scramble out but he managed to zip the tent shut behind me and safety pinned the zipper on the outside before I could get out so I ended up knocking the tent over with me in it! Dad had to buy me a new tent, but said it was worth every second of watching me getting more and more tangled in the tent. As it was, I ended up sleeping in the adult tent that night, which was fine cause I was like petrified of everything."

"I think the bull snake was way more scared by the time it was over than Hunter was." Devin added, somewhat thankful the conversation was no longer centered on the worst few minutes of his young life. "But Hunter isn't alone. I tried to switch the lock on his bike when we went to the rec center swimming pool one day during winter break. It took me like a month to finally get his combination for his bike lock, but once I got it, I bought one that looked exactly like his, only with a different combination. I switched it when he went inside, but… I still don't know how he pulled this off… but we stayed till closing so it was getting dark and was like fifteen degrees. When we got done swimming the locker I used had the new lock on it and the paper with the combination for it was in my pants pocket inside the locker as was my cell phone."

Devin then pointed to a widely grinning Vernon, "And somehow the pool couldn't find their bolt cutters so I had to ride home with only a towel and a swimsuit. Man I was like frozen stiff by the time I got home. Making matters worse, when Dad took me the next day, my regular lock was on the locker so Dad and Mom both wondered if I made it all up. Actually I am pretty sure Dad knew the prank had utterly backfired, but didn't let Mom know."

Hunter glanced over a Vernon, "OK, sneak master, how did you manage to pull off such a stunt?"

Vernon shrugged and almost didn't tell, but a light elbow from Hank's sister finally brought out the truth. "I saw the lock in the side pouch of Devin's back pack and took a look while I sent him in to get some fresh cookies Mom had just made. As I suspected, he left his pack by his bike when he ran in, so I took a look and copied the combo. When I went into the locker room to take a leak, I hid the bolt cutters they kept next to the check-in cage in the locker next to the one I used. It really wasn't hard."

Devin's jaw dropped, "I remember those cookies… they were still warm! But how did you get your lock out of my locker? Did you get my combo?"

Vernon snorted. "No!"

"Then how?" Devin demanded to know. "I know my locker was locked!"

It took another elbow for the youngster to divulge the rest. "Come, Devin, those lockers are a joke! I unscrewed the metal panel between your locker and mine with the can opener screwdriver Mr. Korbal bought all of us and told us to keep on our key chains. It took like twenty minutes to take the panel off, then screw it back in. When he first told us those would have all sorts of uses, I didn't believe him, but now it is one of my favorite things and I never go anywhere without it." He held up the tiny P-38 with a wide smile. "I actually had Dad go to an army surplus store and get me several more. The weird part is, with how long it took, I am surprised no one caught me. But every time someone walked in I pretended my towel had gotten caught in the metal between the lockers and was trying to get it out without tearing it. No one said a thing even though like twenty people saw me playing with the screws."

Erma slapped her forehead, "OK, there is sneaky then there is devious. I'm not sure what is above devious, but whatever it is, still may not fully explain you, Vernon."

Vernon stood and gave a quick bow, "Why, thank you ma'am."

Hunter shook his and giggled, "One of these days, Vern, we will get you back."

All this did was cause a huge smile to spread over Vernon's face. "Bring it!"

Erma chortled, "Well, I now know way more about all of you and I like each and every one of you even more! It's good to know you are still kids at heart."

Hunter grinned, "Dad always said growing up was way over rated. He fully encourages Vernon's pranks even if he knows it will cost him money. The ruined tent was only one of many." He glanced out the window and frowned as he saw a kid about his age walk down the street, "Um, are the other kids here going to hate us for carrying guns and being looked at like we seem to be?"

Erma looked out the window and spotted the boy, "A few might, given time, but Ronnie won't ever be one of them. For the most part, the kids in your age range around here will never have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to any of you. The few who give others problems are bullies and they are already scared of you and pretty much on my husband's radar. He knows them by name and deed. The others say nothing or are the ones getting picked on, so if they won't stand up to bullies, they'll never say anything to the likes of the seven of you. I bet a few of the bullies will grow to dislike you simply because they are afraid of you and they hate to be afraid of others. I am sure a few others will be jealous, but you can't ever expect everyone to like you."

She moved over to the front door, "Ronnie!"

Hunter cringed, "No… it's OK…"

"Nonsense!" She once again looked out to the street, "Ronnie Theodor Owens, get your tail over here and introduce yourself!"

The sandy haired boy turned and cringed at the use of his full name. His shoulders dropped some as he saw Erma, hands on her hips, staring at him. Without further hesitation he walked up to the door, "Hi, ma'am."

Erma put her hand in the small of Ronnie's back and firmly guided the boy through the front door. She then used her foot to close the door behind her. "Boys, this is Ronnie Owens. His grandmother and I play bridge together on Tuesdays most weeks."

She continued to guide the boy closer to Hunter and the others. "Ronnie, these are four of the young men almost everyone is talking about." She then pointed to each boy in turn as she spoke. "This is Hunter, Ramsey, Devin and Vernon."

Ronnie's eyes stay fixated on the weapons each of the kids. Since he was now right in front of Hunter his gaze quickly fixated on the assault rifle and stayed locked onto it. Feeling Erma squeeze his shoulder he managed to speak, albeit softly. "Um, hi, um… you can call me Ron…"

Hunter took a single step closer and extended his hand while looking slightly upward into the boy's pale blue eyes. He quickly estimated the boy had a good four inches on him but didn't weigh much more than he did, "Good to meet you Ron. We were kind of hoping to get to know some of the other kids our age around here."

"I'm twelve." Ronnie managed to choke out while accepting the outstretched hand with his own trembling one.

Hunter gave the boy firm handshake like his dad taught him to only to see the kid flinch and not return the grip at all. Suddenly Hunter realized why his dad always said no one wants to shake a hand that feels like a wet noodle. It was kind of icky feeling. To this end he applied a bit more pressure before letting go. "Awesome, so am I. Any chance you can show me to the sheriff's office, then come back here and show some of others places around town? We really don't know much other than the clinic, the gas station, here, and the middle school."

Before the boy could answer Carol spoke up. "Ronnie would be happy to show you and your buddies around and introduce you to other kids you age; right, Mr. Owens."

Hunter looked over with a bit of a frown, but before he could even make eye contact with Carol, Ron spoke. "Sure, whatever they need, Ma'am."

With a long uneasy exhale Hunter turned back to Ron, "Lead the way."

As the door closed Ramsey glanced over to Erma, "Let me guess, he is one who gets bullied."

Carol shrugged, "Let's just say it's probably going to do him some good to be seen with you all a few times."

"One thing is certain." Erma responded, "It sure won't hurt."

Hunter pulled his baseball cap down a bit further as some mist blew into his face. Not knowing what else to say to the kid next to him he stuck with the easiest conversation opener known, the weather. "This cold rain sucks."

Ron nodded in agreement, "Everything about Kansas weather sucks if you ask me."

Hunter picked up on the unspoken words, "So you not from around here?"

"No. Until last year I lived in Lompoc."

"Where?" Hunter couldn't help but wonder.

"California." Ron sighed at the very mention of his home state showing how much he missed it. "My house was less than three miles from the ocean."

This really got Hunter's interest. "So you could go like fishing and surfing and stuff all the time?"

"Pretty much, although I am like super beginner on a board. I can get up and ride real small waves but anything over a few feet and I don't last long. Dad used to say I let the wave scare me instead of me trying to tame it. Maybe he's right. I saw lots of kids half my age ride better them me."

Hunter almost asked what brought Ron to Kansas, but stopped himself. Something told him it wouldn't be a good topic to make small talk with and it was pretty clear if he was going to make any kind of friend out of this kid, all the work would come from himself and would have to be slow. Because of this gut feeling he went back to what his dad did as a part time high school psychologist. His dad was an expert at making others open up and had a whole arsenal of ways to get both kids and parents to talk. This seemed like a perfect time for one of those his dad saved for people who seemed to be skittish. Instead of asking questions he went for what his dad called an ego builder. "You'd smoke me out there. I haven't even seen the ocean."

The slight hint of a smile told Hunter the tactic had worked. For a brief minute his eyes teared up as he wished he could call his dad and let him know. However, he forced himself to stay focused on Ron. "Maybe, after the world starts working right again, you can teach me."

"Teach you?" Ron shook his head vigorously, "How could I teach you anything? Hell, just walking this close to you scares the shit out of me."

Hunter cringed at the language use. Had such words ever come out of Hunter and anyone around him found out, he would have had a hard time sitting for a good three to four days. Because of this he simply didn't cuss. At the same time the words and the tone they were spoken took Hunter totally off guard, "Why?"

"Why?" Ron gasped as he stopped, took a step back from Hunter, confirming he really was scared on the boy next to him, and stared with outright confusion. "Are you seriously asking me why I am scared of you?"

Hunter's head tilted hard to the left while his right eyebrow shot up quizzically, "Ahhh… Well, yeah."

Ron let out a grunt of astonishment as he took another step back, "Are you fucking kidding me? You all killed soldiers, real soldiers with real guns! You took a train by force! You actually cut into someone and did an operation: I heard all about it at the clinic! Besides, I heard it right out of the horse's mouth when the sheriff was talking to the mayor and a couple of other business owners. Sheriff Will doesn't take shit from any kids, but says you all are tough as nails and pretty dammed daunting! Why am I scared of you?… Give me a God-damned break!"

Caught totally off guard by the outburst, Hunter just stood there for a few seconds with his mouth hanging open and staring at the boy. The problem was Hunter loved the church and hated to hear the name of God defamed in anyway so his eyes narrowed as he stared. This, in turn, caused Ron to back off another couple of steps.

Suddenly a slightly older and considerably better built kid turned the corner with a buddy. The kid leaned against the building and spoke loud enough to be heard, "Oh, look at this Billy! Gay-boy Ronnie is about to get his butt kicked by a Boy Scout!"

This comment caused Ron to cringe and take a step away from the corner the two boys were at, while still keeping a very nervous eye on Hunter.

At the same time Hunter could see the words had hurt Ron a great deal. He turned and looked over at the older boy and the boy who was probably a year younger than Hunter with a deep frown. "Let me guess, the town's future thug and his punk follower?"

The older boy glared deeply. "If you weren't armed to the teeth, you'd be my bitch right about now Boy Scout."

Hunter took a deep breath. His grandfather was big on never letting bullies win. The first time the old man had seen someone picking on Hunter, the man walked up to the kid's father, punched him in the mouth for encouraging the behavior, and told Hunter to fight the kid.

Hunter had gotten his butt kicked, to be sure. On the other hand, the other slightly bigger boy had left with a bloody nose and a black eye. The kid had never so much as tried anything else nor had the father, even though they lived only a couple of blocks from Hunter. When he got home, with a torn shirt, ripped pants, skinned knees, and a very fat lip his mom listened to the crying and wiped the tears, while shooting his grandfather a rather dirty look, but then chuckled. Her words suddenly came back to Hunter. "Bullies are walking on Satan's turf and need to be knocked off of it for the better of the bully and those he picks on. In your grandfather's words, it sounds like you done the world a favor and have the battle wounds to prove it."

Wondering if he would ever hear his mom's voice again only fueled Hunter's anger. He glanced over at Ron, "How about holding my weapons while I have a discussion with him?"

Ron eyed Hunter as if he was looking at an alien life form, "But, Bart's going into the ninth grade!"

Hunter shot Ron a sly smile as he handed over his assault rifle and started to undo the vest, "So was I and I bet I got way better grades than he did."

Ron held the rifle out away from his body, clearly afraid of it. But finally lowered it to his side as while using his other hand to take the vest which was way heavier than he expected it to be. "Even if you aren't lying, he is way bigger than you!"

"Yup." Hunter nodded in agreement as he took a couple more steps forward. "So Bart, you want to do this or not."

Bart started to move forward only to stop as Sheriff Will moved into view with Angus. "Ah, hi Sheriff…"

Will's eyes narrowed as he surveyed the scene, but Hunter simply glanced over, "Sheriff I'd prefer to get this out of the way now rather than have to watch Ron's back and mine."

Angus glanced back and forth, "Dude, he's bigger than I am…"

"Yeah, I know. This is going to hurt, but not just me."

"Alright, but remember what Mr. Korbal taught us."

"I plan on it Gus."

Will glanced down at Angus, "You sure about this?"

"Nope." Angus countered, "But Hunter is."

"Ah, crap." Will sighed, "OK, boys let's finish this here and now, but when I call for a stop, I expect it to end."

"Sure Sheriff." Burt stated with a vast degree of surprise. But did pause and glance at Angus, "So when I finish kicking the crap out of your friend, will I have to do the same to you?"

Angus snorted, "Dude, even if you win, you aren't going to be in any condition to fight me. If you really want a round two with me, I'll let you heal up then we can play."

Angus' cocky comment caused the younger boy with Burt to giggle causing Burt's nostrils to flair. "I've always wanted to kick a fairy scout's butt!"

Will held up his hand as several adults came out of nearby buildings to see what was going on. "Let's let the kids settle this ladies and gentlemen. I'm giving the OK for this fisticuffs under the condition it ends when I say it does. If it doesn't the guilty one will get my belt across a bare ass in front of this whole town."

One man started to protest, "But Sheriff…"

Will glanced over at the man, "Duncan, the next time we have an election you can run against me and use this as a reason, but right here right now, I am the sheriff and I say this is the easiest and safest way to deal with these situations." He eyed the two boys, "But I want you off into the mud, not on the street. Black eyes are just that and busted lips from fists heal on their own; busted bones from hitting concrete need medicine and we don't have much."

Hunter wasted no time in stepping off the street and into a muddy front yard, "So Bart, we doing this or are you going to wuss on me."

Bart growled and quickly moved up, stepping in the yard while his fists came up, "This is going to be such a waste to a pretty face."

"Yeah," Hunter agreed with a nasty sneer, "but, I can't do much to hurt your looks so you don't have to worry about that part of it."

Bart advanced and threw the hardest punch he could, figuring he would end it in one blow, but this proved to be problematic as the smaller boy easily ducked under it, then as Bart's momentum took him wide, Hunter lashed out with a foot, buckling Bart's right knee.

Bart yelped in pain and stretched out his arms to stop his fall. This in turn opened up the left side of Bart's face. Hunter didn't hesitate. He used his weight and his elbow to smash down on the boy's left cheek and eye. Then, as Bart splattered into the mud, Hunter delivered the hardest kick he could into the boy's gut.

Bart screeched in pain, but managed to grab the foot embedded into his gut and yank. This sent Hunter onto his back and even though it was mud, it still jarred him quite badly. On the other hand, he had air in his lungs and Bart didn't so he was able to roll and get back to his feet while Bart struggled to get his breath back. Hunter shook his head to clear it and used his finger to dig a glob of mud out of his right ear. "Come on, get up. I don't want anyone saying I cheated."

It took almost a minute for Bart to fully restore air into his lungs for proper breath. When he got up, his left eye was already starting to swell shut, but rage could still be seen in both eyes. He dove at Hunter.

Hunter was caught off guard by this, and even as he tried to turn out of the way, he knew it was too little too late. Instead of just accepting the coming body slam, he put his elbows together and brought them down on Bart's back while he brought his left knee up. Even as he felt the onrushing blow all but fold him in half, he knew his knee had connected with Bart's face and the elbow slam and driven the boy down onto the knee even harder. A moment later he slammed into the mud with enough force to half bury him in it. He saw some stars, but he still swung his left fist with everything he had at the mop of hair pushed into his chest. At the same time he brought up his right knee. Both connected and he felt a spray of blood over his face proving his fist had done serious damage.

Bart screeched and rolled away from Hunter while pushing a hand up to his bleeding face and the other into his battered crotch. This allowed Hunter enough time to extricate himself from the mud he found himself embedded in. As he snarled, wiped blood off his split lower lip and moved forward with fist ready to fly, Sheriff Will moved up stepping between the two boys, "Whoa! Enough!"

Hunter took another step forward only to find Angus's arms rapped around him from behind, "Hunter, stop. You won and I really don't want to see your bare butt spanked."

"I don't think anyone wants to see his bare butt." The sheriff snickered while pointing over at a couple adults and nodding over to Bart who was still rolling on the ground. "Check the damage and get him to the clinic if needed."

At the same time Hunter tried to jerk free of Angus only to feel his friend put on a much firmer bear hug, "Dude, stop. It's done."

Hunter took a couple of breaths and relaxed slightly, then nodded. "Thanks, Gus."

As Angus let go and Hunter pushed his bloody lip down to his shoulder with a slight wince, the smaller boy who was with Bart saw Hunter turn his attention his way. The boy bolted. "That's what I thought." Hunter snorted. This, in turn, got a chuckle out of both the sheriff and Angus. Others quickly followed suit as they realized what had happened.

"The fag…" Bart whimpered as he heard the light laughter, "He kicked me in the nuts…"

"No, you landed on his knee when you foolishly tried to jump on him, Bartholomew." Another older man from the crowd pointed out with a loud voice and moved up to check on the boy. "Now I've told both you and your dad you were going to end up in jail or worse if he didn't get some control of you. I think we just found out what was worse, cause if Sheriff Will hadn't stopped this you would be a bloody pulp right about now. To be honest, I don't know how many would have stopped it before he sent you to intensive care, either. Now get up and shake hands!"

Bart continued to hold onto his face and his groin while crying, "But Grandpa…"

"But nothin', boy. You just got your butt whooped fair and square and are damned lucky it was stopped when it was. The world just took a step back in time to when things were settled with fists and friendships were forged over a bit of disagreement and blood. Now get up and shake hands or I'll tan your butt for all to see. Your time-out lovin' mom ain't gunna stop me this time." A bit of a smirk crossed the old man's face, "And the only cop she can threaten to call on happens to be right here, and there ain't no child services left for her to complain to either."

There was no doubt in anyone's mind the old man towering over Bart was more than prepared to carry out his ultimatum. If anything, there seemed to be a bit of satisfaction over the way this was being handled by many of the older adults looking on. With his grandfather's help Bart finally managed to get to his feet and limp over to Hunter.

A single tight squeeze on his shoulder was all it took for Bart to extend his hand. "Sorry."

Hunter looked at offered hand and the snot and tears running down Bart's face, clearly not wanting to take the offering of peace. However, the look in Sheriff Will's eyes was pretty much the same as Bart's grandfather's. To do anything else would not make the old man happy and Hunter figured chances were good his butt might still feel the bite of a belt if he did anything else but take the hand, so he begrudgingly did so. "I don't know what all the gay comments are about, dude, but just stop. Besides, Ron's kind of a friend and I don't like friends getting picked on."

Bart let go and put his right hand up to his face to help hold back the blood flow and hide some of the snot and tears. "It won't happen again."

Hunter shrugged, hoping the words were as sincere as they sounded. "Then we're good."

Will moved up and lifted Hunter's chin and surveyed the damage. "You got some nasty teeth marks in your lower lip and your clothing is a mess. Other than that, you don't seem too bad off. I'm sure you'll have a few extra bruises tomorrow, but all in all, you done good, son. Now head back to the house, get a shower and then come see me. I'll have one of my grandkids drop off some ice for you since Hank is still able to make some." He glanced over to Bart, "Same for you, son."

"I think he needs way more than our young scout." Bart's grandfather stated with a bit of a gleam in his eyes.

"No doubt." Will nodded. "Maybe the word will go out about this and people will start believing what some of us already know. These boys are tough as nails and should be treated with real respect."

This got a few murmurs and nods out of those who had witnessed the short brawl.

"You all think this is funny!" Bart complained as he was led through the crowd on still wobbly legs.

"Funny, no." His grandfather responded loud enough for others to easily overhear, "Satisfying and needed, absolutely. We have a new youth pecking order 'round these parts and you are not even close to the top of it anymore. Now shut up and deal with it."

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