Castle Roland

Day of N

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 19

Published: 18 Aug 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

Angus moved into the barn and could hear the grunting of the pigs from deeper inside. The large barn was sectioned off, with this being a storage area for a tractor, a repair area, and general storage. There was a second inner door, which clearly led to the pigs and the smell only increased as he made his way toward the large pull door.

As he did so, he played his flashlight over the surroundings. There were tractor marks for a pair of large tractors, one probably a combine, but neither were here. However, there were some parts on the ground, which Angus identified as an ignition unit and a support rod along with a small pool of oil, which hadn't been cleaned up. As a matter of fact, the smaller tractor had driven right through the puddle to get out. This seemed odd, so he guessed there was a good chance someone took it and left quickly after the bombs fell.

A creaking and groaning from overhead caught Angus' attention. He glanced up noticing the roof of the barn had holes in it and a few of the rafters were hanging down. He pointed up while looking back at Hunter, who was pulling open the drawers of a large toolbox, finding it had been pretty much cleaned out.

Angus took one more glance up as he spoke, "This place is just a few steps away from falling down. I wonder if there wasn't a nearby tornado or something, cause none of the other places we have seen look this bad."

"As crazy as the weather and the earthquakes have been, it's possible. But, some of the pigs are alive. I can hear them." Hunter paused, and looked around, "I think whoever lives here left. There are no tools, no gas cans, nothing really usable left."

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. I think they fixed one of the tractors and then took off in both of them. It couldn't have been too long ago, though. Cause some of the oil they drove through is still sticky." Angus moved to the inner door and put his ear to it. The sounds of pigs, lots of them made him eye the door nervously. "There are quite a few alive and they are agitated. If any are loose, we need to be out of the way before we open the door so they don't charge us. But we can't just leave them there to die, either."

Hunter rubbed his chin, "If they are free some might survive on their own and could be later hunted or rounded up for food." He then looked around trying to figure out a good option. Finally, he pointed to the steps going up to the walkway above noting it didn't look great either, but it was still somewhere they could get out of the way, "What do you say to pulling and running?"

"I'm game," Angus snickered as he played his flashlight beam over the steps and the landing above. "But don't go up too far, I can see some broken steps further up and the upper walkway isn't all there anymore."

"Just enough to get them out of our way," Hunter agreed, "but let's hold off. I don't want a bunch of crazy pigs running round while we search the property and head into town."

Angus nodded in full agreement, "Let's check on the others and see if there is a back way in. If there is, maybe we can open it from outside."

While Angus and Hunter moved toward the barn, Gage made his way to the storm cellar door. As he got closer, he could see the foundation of the house was partially collapsed and the whole house was actually leaning with the outer walls bucked out toward him. Not really liking what he was seeing, he pointed it out to Devin and held up his hand to warn him Vernon and Devin to say well back.

Gage moved around to the side of the house and chanced a quick glance inside through one of the broken windows. The window he happened to look through was into a bedroom. By the looks of what he saw in his first quick glance it had belonged to a very young boy. The bed was small and in the outline of a racecar and all the furniture was plastic and in bright colors. He waited a few seconds before poking his head back up and taking a closer look.

It didn't take long to confirm his first thought. The bedspread was now weathered but had NASCAR on it along with the number 23, and there were a pair of plastic toy trucks along with oversized blocks on the floor. All the dressers were open and it appeared as if they had been hastily emptied. He took a step closer and pushed hard on the house, almost expecting it to fall. It didn't budge. He gave it one more good shove and snickered at himself for letting his imagination get the better of him.

He glanced in a couple more windows. The first was the bathroom, where the mirror cabinet hung open and the mirror was broken. The second one gave him a good view of the main dining room. He noticed almost instantly the upper floor of the house had buckled just like the farmhouse they stayed in, since there was a large bed laying on a heavy half-shattered main table. He craned his neck and noted he could see clear through the second floor to the sky beyond. With a shake of his head, he backed off, grabbing a long piece of siding hanging off the side of the house as he did so.

He moved back around to the storm cellar and used the hunk of siding to knock on it. On the third hit, the left side door to the cellar broke off and fell in. Nothing moved.

Vernon moved up to the other side opposite of Gage and called out, "We are here to help. Anyone down there?"

The boys waited a few more seconds before Devin moved closer, "Hey, we can get you to a safe place…"

Gage shook his head, "I think they left." He moved around so he could look down the steps. All he could hear was the occasional drips of water hitting something hollow. Finally he put the rifle over his back and pulled a pistol with one hand and pulled his flashlight out with his other. He moved down four steps then stopped and backed up while shaking his head. "It's mostly caved it, but there is a hand sticking out of the dirt that is turning all black. I'd say it's clear."

Devin and Vernon both turned their heads away and shuddered at the description. Vernon finally spoke, "Next time, leave off the hand part, OK?"

Gage just shrugged, "Whatever. It's not like we haven't all seen dead people at this point. It's nowhere near as nasty as what we found in the back of the Army plane. This is just a hand and it is at least attached to a body."

Both Angus and Hunter heard the last part and turned a bit green.

Angus shook his head, "Thanks for the new nightmare material Newb."

Gage simple rolled his eyes and made his way back to the van to grab a bottle of water. "I bet we see lots worse before this is over." He could see the others eyeing him so he sat on the edge of the bumper of the van and let out a long sigh, "OK, fine, I might as well tell you a few things and get this over with. At least out here it will only be between the seven of us.

"Before I came to live here we lived in St. Louis. My dad and mom broke up after Mom got her new job as VP of foreclosed properties or some B.S. along those lines. In simple terms, Mom is good at taking homes people can't pay for and turning them around for some kind of profit and she doesn't really care who the people are she is taking the homes away from. I don't get how it all works and don't really want to. All I know is, my mom is very good at being two-faced. She can take someone's home and say all the right things to make most people still like her.

"One of the first places Mom took after her vice president promotion was a friend of my dad's. There was a huge argument about it and my mom called the cops saying Dad hit her, but he didn't. The bruises she claimed dad gave her she had already. But the cops took my dad away and didn't listen to him or me. She then filed for divorce and tried to get sole custody of me, but I threw a fit and told her I would tell everyone she lied and junk."

"But she seems so nice…" Ramsey stated only to get a very nasty and sharp look from Gage.

"Yeah, she is good at pretending to be whatever she needs to be to make herself look good and to get more money."

Hunter held up his hand to stop other comments as he moved closer and spoke softly, "OK, so your mom lied about your dad. What does this have to do with how… well Hank kind of said it best; you have like ice in your veins or something. Nothing ever bothers you."

"I'm good at pretending too," Gage grumbled. "The bank president… well, he was not nice at all and Mom knew it… She let things happen in exchange for another promotion… Anyway my dad found out. He got together with his St. Louis buddy who lost his house and two other guys and decided to get even for what the bank president did and the house Mom took away. They were kind of stupid about it. They hit some check cashing places belonging to the bank my mom worked for and directly owned by my mom's boss. They didn't get caught at first, but my dad's buddy got greedy and tried to hit one of the real banks without Dad. The three guys came back to Dad's place where me and Dad were eating pizza, but they must have been seen or something.

"There was a huge shootout between the cops and my dad's friends. Dad tried to stick me in the bathroom as the bullets started to fly but I saw Dad's buddy get shredded as he fired out the window at the cops. His blood got all over me… so did some of his brains."

"Oh, yuck!" Devin shouted.

Gage shrugged as if it was no big deal. "He fell on me and pinned me to the ground, then the cops fired teargas. They came through the door with masks on and tasered my dad and shot one of the others with a pair of gut shots, but the last guy pulled a sawed off shotgun and shot one of the cops in the face and took a trio of shotgun blasts in return. I saw all of it since they were right over me when it happened. I saw the cop's face shred and the other guy as his arm got ripped off, his guts explode outward, and his foot get blown off all within seconds as I was coughing and crying.

"The last cop in must have thought I was trying to reach for one of the dropped guns as I struggled to get out from under my dad's buddy, so he nailed me with a taser, too. I woke up in a hospital."

"Your dad went to jail?" Ramsey asked with a great deal of disgust in his voice.

Gage gave Ramsey a snarl and shook his head, "Only for a few nights. First off my dad didn't shoot at any cops. He didn't even grab a gun! He was trying to keep me safe. Second off, I lied about where my dad was during one of the check cashing robberies…"

Hunter sat next to Gage, "Hey, we aren't holding anything against you, OK? It's just kind of surprising to hear we have friend whose dad robbed places…"

This seemed to calm Gage a great deal. He nodded and sighed, "Like I said, he was stupid for hooking out with those guys. Still, he was the driver and…" He shook his head and looked up, "I know I am kind of making excuses, but he really isn't a bad guy and I love him…"

Vernon moved over and sat on the other side of Gage and put his arm over Gage's shoulder, "From everything else you have told us, he sounds like a great guy, and loving and protecting your dad isn't something we are going to hold against you."

Gage wiped way a couple of tears, "Thanks… so, anyway, since he was not part of the bank job, the cops were only able to get him with adding and abetting or something like that, but they finally dropped everything other than a misdemeanor charge of failing to report a crime, only more minor than that after they checked his hands for gunpowder and fingerprinted all the guns that were not locked up.

"They still suspected him of the check cashing places, but with the others dead, they had no proof. Besides, he never got a chance to resist since he was doing everything he could to protect me and got tasered as soon as the cops busted in the door." Gage let out another light sigh, "And like I said, he didn't have any gunpowder on his hands and all his guns were locked up, cause he kept them in a safe whenever I visited unless we were going to a shooting range. I did everything I could to cover-up too, telling him the guys came in acting all crazy and bragging about a big haul and junk. I told them my dad tried to get them to leave, but they had their guns out and said they needed a place to lay low. So the cops finally gave up trying to put any of it on my dad.

"I then threatened to tell on the bank president, so my mom, who didn't want to lose her job, struck a deal. Mom got another promotion. The bank president said he was certain Dad was not involved in any of the robberies and was just caught up as an innocent in all the mess, Mom got moved out here, and I would forget what the bank president did. Because of what I said, we got some cash as 'reward' money for helping catch the robbers. Dad even got a settlement from the cops for damage to his house and Mom and I gave him the settlement for them tasering me. He moved to De Soto Missouri and started a small bait and tackle shop the bank foreclosed on. It sounded like the bank all but gave it to him so now he lives there, where he also works on outboard boat motors and even sells ammo.

"He is trying to get a gun dealership permit, but they still think he had something more to do with the robberies and shootout, so he keeps getting turned down. At least Dad thinks so. So, anyway, because of all that happened, Dad is seen as kind of a rebel and made lots of new survival-type friends. Since I was there for the shootout, they like me too and taught me all sorts of survival stuff and got me real good at shooting guns, bows and even throwing knives. They are really cool when I come to visit and show me lots of neat stuff. I even know how to make a couple of different types of homemade bombs."

The other six boys stared at Gage with a mixture of expressions on their faces. Finally, after nearly two minutes of total silence, Vernon couldn't hold back any longer. With a sputtering voice he managed to ask, "What did… um, the bank president guy… he hurt you or something?"

"Yeah, bad too…" Gage spat as he stood back up and double-checked his assault rifle, "and lots of other 'or somethings'."

Gage then took a long breath and the gloom in his voice faded as he nodded in the direction of the tiny town, "So who is going to take the lead? I have no idea what house belongs to Luke since I ended up staying with Ramsey while my mom left town."

Angus shot Gage a look, clearly wanting to know more. However, he was smart enough to know whatever happened had to be told on Gage's schedule. The fact the kid was finally trusting them enough to know some of his past would have to be enough for now. "I'll take us to it."

Vernon shot Angus a smirk while doing his best to break up the tension in the air, "You will have to walk right past the cemetery if you are going to use the road. Luke and I used to play out there at night with a couple of the other kids from Selden, playing hide and seek."

"In a cemetery?" Zeki asked with wide eyes.

"Yeah, more fun and spooky that way. At least it was till Luke's dad somehow set things up with one of the grave tenders and a couple of other dads to make a casket pop up out of the ground while we were talking about what the rules were one night. It opened and he came out looking like a zombie. Luke peed himself and fell into the hole the casket came out of, I ran into a tree and nearly knocked myself out, Brook ran while looking over his shoulder and slammed right into one of the entryway pillars and they had to hop in a car and to catch Sara, since she ran down the road screaming. It took like two hours to find Benny who was under his bed sucking his thumb. Doc Franklin had to get called out of bed to tend to us all, and Luke's dad still thought it was way worth it. So did his mom for that matter."

"The black eye and stitches you had last October?" Hunter asked.

"Yeah," Vernon shook his head as he rubbed the small scar under his left ear, "If you find the DVD of it in their house and they aren't home, please break it. Sara's dad videoed the whole thing on his low light camera and gave all the parents copies. It says Hallo-Scream on it with pictures of us under it."

"Hell, no!" Gage stated, "I'm taking it and keeping it until we find a working DVD player!"

"Sorry Vern," Angus snickered, "I'm with Gage on this one."

"Didn't any of the parent's get mad?" Devin managed to ask.

Vernon sighed at the almost eager expressions on his friends' faces before he nodded, "Benny's mom was really mad, but Benny's dad said it served him right for sneaking out of the house, and he bet Benny wouldn't do it again. As far as I know, his dad was right. Benny doesn't even like to be out after dark anymore.

"I know Benny's mom wanted to get him counseling or something but his dad said he needed to man up and get over it and that no one forced him to sneak out to play with us."

"My parents would have blown a gasket if I had been hurt over such a mean prank." Devin shook his head with wide eyes.

"Which is why you don't get invited to do lots of cool stuff." Vernon countered. "You, because everyone is afraid of your parents suing them and Hunter, because there are some things a Christian boy shouldn't do, like playing in a cemetery at night."

"I wouldn't have gone with you…"

"Yeah, we know." Ramsey jumped in. "You are too good a kid sometimes; which is kind of boring by the way."

"My mom wouldn't like me sneaking out at night, and the Bible says to obey your parents." Hunter countered. "I have plenty of fun without doing things I know I am not supposed to."

Angus moved up next to Hunter and patted the boy on the shoulder. "Not as much as some of the rest of us have, though. But you're still the best friend a guy could have."

Hunter made a half gesture of tossing up his arms, "You know, even my mom and dad have said I need to push the limits sometimes, but it just doesn't feel right." He paused and looked around, "Well, not until all this happened. Now nothing seems so clear-cut anymore."

"I hear ya," Angus stated with a nod as he pulled up his .22 rifle, still feeling far more comfortable with it than the assault rifle. "The fields are still partially flooded and full of mud, so we will have to take the road. Gage, keep your eyes open. You are way better at spotting trouble than all the rest of us are combined." He pause and looked back to Zeki, "Unless we are on a train, then you have a back seat to Zeek."

This got a big smile out of Zeki.

Angus pointed to the barn and explained what he wanted done with the pigs. After several seconds on exchanged looks, Vernon finally spoke up, "OK, We'll yank the doors and get out of the way, but if some are still in their pens you'll have to get them out, cause I am NOT going in there, not with the smell this bad all the way out here!"

"Many will probably break out once the door gets opened if they are strong enough to do so." Angus glanced back to the barn, "But Hunter and I will take care of any still trapped when we get back."

The four boys quickly moved out, two on each side of the road so they could dive off to the side and into the mud and water should trouble erupt. It was clear all over, even Zeki, with his small .410 shotgun, fully expected problems. While the trek was only just over a mile it took them almost twenty minutes to get to the edge of town. They stopped once to glance into the cemetery, but didn't go in. Gage, however, noted what looked to be several fresh graves with small wooden crosses and deep ruts from where a tractor or something came and went a couple of times.

As they got to the first structures, Angus moved up to a large metal building with a set of round silos next to it. He tapped the side and glanced over to Hunter, "They sound part full and don't look damaged. These are seed silos, so we need to get word to Sheriff Will to come get some, so fields can be planted in the spring."

Hunter nodded, but looked around, "We need to make sure we aren't stealing it first. If people live here, it belongs to them."

Angus nodded in quick agreement, knowing to do anything else would be to end up in a morals argument which, in turn, would lead to a religious discussion. The last thing he wanted to hear out of his best friend was how he needed to go to church more often. The couple of times a month he had to go was way too many in Angus' opinion.

Instead, Angus glanced over to Gage, "This is the feed and seed store, you hear or see anything?"

Gage switched over to his .308 with the scope and slid around to where he could look past the large building. After well over a minute he shook his head, "A whole lot of nothing. Should we check the store?"

Angus let out a deep breath, "We buy some of our premium seeds here, so let me go in and call out for the owner. He kind of knows me."

Gage rolled his eyes, "Man, this everyone knowing everyone else is kind of creepy, no matter why you all say."

Zeki shrugged, "Me think it kind of neat. No strangers to be 'fraid of."

"Strangers are not always the problem." Gage muttered as he moved out from around the building with the rifle ready. Still seeing nothing more, he slid down the wall of the feed and seed store until he got to the main door, which was chained shut, but the windows were totally broken out. He gave a sharp tug on the chain only to find it was indeed secure. "Seems to me if the owner was around, he would have undone the chain by now, especially since anyone can slide in right under it."

"Out here a locked door is still a locked door even with a broken window, Gage." Hunter stated with annoyance in his voice.

Angus moved around and glanced in, but it was too dark to make out much. "Mr. Bailey, it's Angus from the McKutter Farm, you here?"

The words were met with silence so he moved to shine a light in. Everything looked pretty much in order other than the glass lying on the floor and a pool of water, which had formed in a low spot on the floor. Nothing seemed disturbed and there were no muddy footprints on the ground. "No way anyone has been through here. The candy bar rack is still full and there are lots of sodas in the back wall fridge."

Hunter was a bit disappointed, but nodded then gestured to Gage to move toward the town.

Gage looked back over his shoulder, "A Hersey bar would taste really good…"

Angus gave a single wave of his hand cutting Gage off, "If the town is as empty as it looks then we'll come back and grab some, OK?"

Hunter looked at the two boys, clearly disappointed in them, but at the same time he didn't have a good argument. If everything was abandoned then it really wasn't stealing, just like at the farmhouse. Reluctantly he nodded, "Fine, but don't expect me to take any unless we are certain no one who works here is left around to care."

Zeki cocked his head to the side, "Someone will take, better to do when it not go bad yet."

Hunter let out a sigh. "Fine, but let's check the town first, OK?"

The others could see Hunter was fighting an internal battle and decided with unspoken communication to let it go.

With a disappointed glance back to the shattered glass door, Gage moved out to the road and made his way toward the closest homes. The first thing he came to were several trees devoid of all but a few leaves. To the north was a single story home with a detached two car garage. The garage appeared to be in good shape but the house was a wreck, with the south side walls totally buckled and some evidence of fire damage. Across from the trees, was a white picket fence with a half dozen pickets missing. The house further down had two side windows and a side door boarded up. Just to the north was another house with an upper level. A tall antenna on the northeast corner of the house had fallen on the upper level creating a large hole in the roof and side. Pieces of the house hung down as if pleading to be fixed.

Gage scanned the structures, "Not seeing anything, guys, but the boarded up windows and door may mean someone lives there. At least someone did some work before they left. Someone could also be in the garage to the north, but there is no windows and I don't see any holes to look out of or shoot out of."

Hunter glanced around, and shivered from the eeriness of it all. "Let's try to knock on the door with the bordered windows. If we don't get an answer then we'll try to head straight to Luke's. His house is on the next street over is the house on the northwest corner."

"Fine but we move one house at a time and let me scan everything I can before we move again. I can't believe the whole place is empty."

"Me neither," Zeki agreed. "Me see plastic baby toy, and swing set next door. Must be kid here someplace."

"Several." Angus nodded, "But maybe they all left. I don't see too many vehicles."

"Only newer ones with computer chips that probably don't run, just like all those Hank is trying to figure out how to fix back in Jennings." Hunter agreed. "Come to think of it, I bet the people at the farmhouse we stopped at took the tractors because their car wouldn't run after the EMP."

Angus couldn't help but agree. "Probably, but I just have to wonder where they went."

Gage shrugged, "Lots of folks probably took off to where other families are. As bad as their house was, they had to find somewhere else to live."

"You haven't lived here long enough, Gage, so you don't get it," Angus responded. "In these parts, they would have gone to a neighbor for help."

"You're right, I don't get it." Gage stated emphatically.

Before more could be said, he moved out again, taking cover at the corner of the house with the boarded up windows. After a couple of minutes he gestured for the others to move up, then pointed to the back of the yard. "Three crosses and the ground is um…. You can see how it is lower in front of the crosses. Something was buried here and they used the pickets from the fence to make the crosses."

Hunter moved at a couch over to the graves and looked at the names. He cringed, bowed his head and clearly said a short prayer, then moved back over, "I think it was two pets and a human. The names are Tabby, Rex, and Jennifer. I think Jennifer was small. All the graves are tiny."

Angus looked down at the ground and muttered, "Man, that bites."

Hunter nodded, "They all died eight days ago, or at least the date scratched in was as of eight days ago."

Gage glanced up from his scope, "Still got nothing, but if you want to knock, take another picket off the fence and stand to the side. This way if they try to shoot through the door, you won't be there."

"More of your dad's teachings?" Hunter asked.

This time Gage grinned and shook his head, "Nope, Steven Segal movies."

This got some light laughter out of all three of the other kids. Finally, Zeki moved over, grabbed a gutter down spout off the side of the house and darted up to the porch. Using the several foot metal gutter, he tapped on the door. After several seconds he hit the door much harder. He poked his head up so the others could see and shrugged his shoulders.

Gage moved around, noting all the widows were covered with sheets of plywood and the house looked to be in pretty good condition. A couple of the steps even appeared to have been redone, but not yet painted. Taking a closer look he noticed no hail dents in the new wood. "They fixed this step after the big hail storms hit, so they didn't leave too long ago."

Angus moved up and looked down, "Man, you are really good. We need to find something other than Newb to call you."

"How about spotter, since he is clearly the best we got?" Hunter asked.

Gage rolled his eyes, "How come you can't just call me by name like everyone else?"

"Because the new guy always has a nickname." Hunter snickered.

Zeki managed a grin, "Me was Stuffing after me no longer get called Newb."


Zeki elbowed Hunter, "Me from Turkey, so since I come from inside Turkey, me Stuffing. Glad you came so fast after them started to call me it."

Gage let out a very long breath, "So we have to find some new kid before I lose my nickname?" Seeing the looks he was getting he shook his head, "Not real fair. I can't recruit like you guys could."

Angus just shrugged, "Be happy we are letting you help pick what we call you."

Gage's shoulders dropped and he kicked at the repaired step. "How about sniper?"

Hunter turned and glanced at Angus, "Works for me…"

"Me too." Zeki chimed in.

"Fine," Angus nodded, "so three of us agree to call you Sniper and Hunter as patrol leader gets final say in a tie, so you are now Sniper. Fastest anyone stopped be called Newb, so you can at least be happy about getting your real nickname so fast."

"Yeah, well, until now new kids couldn't get their real nickname until they got to Second Class, but after all you have done, you are clearly not a tenderfoot, so we'll call it good." Hunter stated as he mentally ran down the requirements of moving up to second class scout. "Besides other than the flag ceremony, the water rescue stuff, and the scout conference you pretty much have all the other requirements taken care of and I am pretty sure there won't be any scoutmaster conferences any time soon."

"Mine was before Mr. K. joined and was a total joke anyway." Angus snorted in disgust. "They asked me if I think I deserved it and told me to give one reason. I said yes and told them I should get it because I'm the best Pop Warner football player in the area and I'd quit if they didn't. There was no argument about football having nothing to do with scouts at all."

"You blackmailed them," Hunter giggled, "the football coach would have paid them a visit if you had quit, and they had to be afraid of Mr. Brackmore!"

"Everyone is afraid of Mr. Brackmore." Angus nodded it full agreement. "He may be the best football coach in the area, but man, does he ever have a temper!"

"But with so many kids getting scholarships because of his coaching, no one in their right mind would say anything to get him into trouble. Besides, he helped get like the mayor's kid and the sheriff's two boys full scholarships to division one colleges." Angus rolled his eyes, "So who is going to arrest him when he knocks a kid down or smacks one of us? Besides, even as mean as he is, he only pushes as hard as he thinks we can take it, and without him, I'd never had benched over one fifty this spring."

Gage's jaw fell open, "You can lift over a hundred and fifty pounds?"

"One eighty-five!" Angus proudly stated. "Three times, almost got a fourth on the last workout session, but Mr. Blackmore had to give me a little lift right at the end so I could put it back on the rack safely. He wanted me to be able to do two oh five by the time August practices started, so Dad bought me a nice weight set. Problem is I need an adult to spot me, since none of the kids can do it safely."

"Maybe if all three of us were there." Gage cringed, "So the lifting and stuff you were doing with the men to help set up the camp, you were doing to keep your strength going?"

"Yeah, and it is a whole lot of fun to lift more than many of the guys in town could."

Hunter snickered, "Once you get to know Angus better, you'll find he works out more to show off than to play football."

"No, I love crushing quarterbacks. There is something very satisfying about hearing the air rush out of their lungs when I hit them just right. Besides, all Q.B. parents like to brag about how awesome their kids are, so flattening the little punks shuts them up for a while."

"You sure tackled Devin…" Gage snickered.

"You needed to see him play football. Kids were scared to block him and the quarterbacks were terrified of him. They bumped Angus up in age groups twice because he kept hurting kids or kids would run away from him."

"You should have seen the JV high school game they let me play in."

"One scrimmage game, four plays, two tackles for losses including a sack." Hunter jumped in, "And knocked the fifteen-year-old's helmet off his head as he folded him in half. Angus already has a few scouts pay attention to him when he doesn't even go into high school for real for two more years."

"I bet I could have gone to Nebraska or Oklahoma, but some idiot pushed the button and now we are all screwed; so now I am going to keep working out in the hopes I can find whoever caused this and beat the snot out of him!"

Gage gulped but looked over, "Um, I'll be part of your cheering section."

"If we ever find who did it, just don't shoot him until I am done." Angus grumbled as he moved off the steps. Wanting to take his mind off of what was no longer going to happen, he glanced over, "OK Sniper, where to now?"

Gage moved to the corner of the house and scanned the surrounding area. The house directly to the west was burned to the ground with only some timbers sticking up, but the fenced yard told of a lot of kids. Toys galore littered the ground, a huge sandbox was partially full of water, and a large trampoline was battered and ripped but still anchored to the ground. The tiny house directly north of it was also badly burned, but not to the ground. Three junk cars could be seen, one with the hood up.

Across the street, another boarded up house looked to have some fire damage as soot marking could be seen from around several of the covered windows, but it appeared mostly intact. The detached garage looked secure and had no windows he could see. "Lots of fire damage, but I think it happened early on, since there is weather damage on top of the fire marks. Let's move around the burned down house and see what is further up."

Hunter followed keeping Gage covered. When the two made it to the only standing wall of the structure, Gage motioned for Zeki and Angus to move up while he panned his rifle around. Once the four boys were together again, Gage used his rifle to point. "I have five more crosses off to the left side of the second house up across the street right in front of the boat and there is a red 'X' on the door of the house and there is a sheet of plywood over the doorway. The windows are all boarded up from the outside too, so I wonder if something really bad happened inside."

"Let's bypass it," Hunter ordered, "I don't like the sounds of it."

Zeki nodded, "Same here. Red X may be for sick or some bad thing. After big quake red X mean not safe. Much of time because part of body still inside under stuff and had to leave to rot. Very bad. Other teams come in later and deal with bad. Most time they take building down."

Angus cringed, "More than I ever wanted to know, Zeek, but thanks for the warning."

Hunter moved closer to Gage, "Anything else?"

"Nothing, absolutely nothin'. No movement, no birds, no dogs, no sounds other than the wind. The truck at the end of the street by Luke's house took out the stop sign and must have broke down right there cause they left it, but it looks like they may have drained the gas cause there is still a hose is sticking out of the gas tank."

Gage looked back over at Zeki, "How much further did you get when you took out the train?"

Zeki made a shrugging motion, "Maybe ten kilometer. Track washout just before we come to tiny place call Wreck-ford or something like Wreck-ford."

Angus grinned and patted Zeki on the back, "Next town is Rexford."

"Yeah, me just say that…"

This got some snickers out of Gage and Angus while making Zeki frown.

"Rex-ferd not Wreck-ford, Zeek." Hunter stated nice and slowly for the boy, "But you were very close and the way it is spelled should make is Rex-ford, but it isn't for some stupid reason."

"English so hard." Zeki complained, "All rule get broke and no way to know until get told, then have to remember broke rule too. Not nice the way you all talk."

"You're doing really good." Gage jumped in with a nod, "We get what you are saying almost all the time now and your accent is much better than even when I started."

"Good, me think me need to be way more good though. People no like me accent after all this."

"I'll shoot them before they complain too much, Zeek," Gage stated firmly. "Or we can let Angus pick them up and throw them around. Whatever you think best."

This got a genuine smile out of Zeki, "Thank you. Me start to see you like me."

"You didn't before?" Angus asked with some hurt in his voice.

"You no come over, no eat with me, no come by to ask to play…"

"Your aunt, the one you call mom, wasn't exactly open to us stopping by, Zeek." Hunter reminded the boy. "But until we found out about your aunt's fear of people not accepting Muslims, we all kind of took it as being told to stay away unless invited, so some of it wasn't all our fault."

Zeki put his head down and nodded slightly, "We all be afraid Muslims be treated like Jews back home. But you all be way nice. Mom... um, Aunt, was not sure, think it be a trap. She wanted you all to come prove you really like me. If Vernon hadn't come over, she talk of make me quit. Now very happy Vernon came. She trust him, so let me stay."

"Man, I am glad one of us had the guts to go over your house for dinner." Angus chimed in while putting his arm around the smaller boy, "I wouldn't want to be out here without you Zeek."

"Same here," Gage nodded in full agreement. "Without you and your train driving a whole lot of people would be way worse off including us."

Zeki gave a slight grin. "Me so hope Uncle Kadir live and me get to tell him how me drive train. Him be so proud of me!"

"I am sure you are right!" Angus gave Zeki a quick hug, "I know we all are!"

Gage looked noticeably uncomfortable with seeing someone else get a hug, so he used the scope once more to look over the area. "I still have nothing. I think we can building hop up to Luke's house. The house across the street from the one you say is his has a boat in front of it in the drive, so I can't see it completely. It is hard to really see everything, but once we get closer I will take another look. As creepy as this is, I really don't think anyone is here."

Hunter patted Gage on the back, "Yeah, I tend to agree with you, but just like Mr. K. told us, we have to be careful and not assume anything at this point. It would suck to get all the way up to his house then have someone from across the street start shooting at us."

"I'm all about not getting shot at again." Angus snickered, "But at least Devin isn't with us."

"Thank God." Gage muttered as me moved around to get a better look at the other houses. "I don't really like him trying to buy my friendship either."

Hunter shot a smirk over to Angus, "Sniper has Devin all figured out."

"Me think same thing. Him dad give him way much money." Zeki added, "Me think him not know what to do now."

"Judging on how he has already jumped in with the mayor of Jennings, I think he'll be fine," Angus complained.

"He's good at talking, and we need those skills on our team, though, guys." Hunter reminded the others.

"Agreed, but let's keep the guns out of his hands as much as possible." Gage countered.

Seeing nothing but nods, even from Zeki, Gage darted across the street, scanned the last house on the block and motioned for everyone else to come over. "Two more crosses and sunk soil right in the front. Lots of dead here…"

"Too much." Angus shivered. "Let's check on Luke and get out of here."

"We'll check the school on the way out since it is on the far southwest side of town, but I agree." Hunter whispered as if wanting to say another prayer for the dead. "Something really bad happened here."

Angus moved past Gage and up to the house, noting it was storm damaged, but overall in decent condition. The only real damage he saw was to the screen door and the porch rail. There were a few broken off branches in the trees and one large one on the house, but there was also a fairly large pile of cut wood on the right hand side of the porch. Angus also noticed the front window to the left of the door was broken and boarded up from the inside. "Someone did lots of clean-up here."

Hunter moved up and looked down the side of the house. He quickly spotted Luke's family's fishing boat by the garage was damaged but someone had taken the time to cut a fallen tree off of it and had boarded up the damage to the garage from where the tree had grazed it. "Lots of clean-up!"

Gage moved up next to Hunter and pointed to some fresh looking wood chips, "Those can't be more than a day or two old or they would have been washed away or at least spread out in all the rain!"

Angus heard enough; he moved up, stepped to the side of the door, and pounded on it hard, "Luke! Mr. Baker! It's Angus! Anyone home?"

Angus glanced over to Hunter then banged even harder, "Luke, if you are in there open up! We didn't come all this way to be ignored!"

Hunter moved up to the boarded up window and shouted, "Luke, Hanna, Chance, Diane, Mr. or Mrs. Baker, it's Hunter. If you are home, open up!"

With all the noise, Gage dropped to a knee and scanned the streets, while tapping Zeki and motioning for him to do the same thing. At the same time Angus banged even harder on the door casing a cracking sound to come from the doorframe.

Finally Angus looked over at Hunter, "Guess not…"

His words were interrupted by a quivering voice, "Hunter, Gus, is it really you?"

"Luke!" Hunter shouted with joy. "Yeah, come on dude, let us in!"

The terrified sounding boy responded after a few sobs, "Who is out there with you?"

"It's Gage and Zeki, you know them…"

There was a couple more sobs before Luke finally spoke again. "Come around to the garage… I have this door nailed shut from the inside. The only way in or out is through the door inside the garage cause I made a drop down bar for it."

"OK," Angus agreed, but couldn't help but ask, "but where is everyone else?"

There was another sob from the other side of the door. "I don't know… Dad grounded me for not taking the bike trip with you all and they went into Colby while Dad made me stay home, mow the lawn and clean the shed while they went shopping and were going to see a movie… They never came home!"

"Ah, crap," Angus whispered.

Hunter moved up and spoke through the window again, "Go around and let us in Luke, we're here for you!"

There was a few sniffles from the other side, but before the group got off the porch Luke's voice shouted a warning, "Whatever you do, don't drink any water from here, it is all poison or something! I still have lots of Gatorade, juice, pop and junk inside if you need a drink!"

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