Tag Archives: celebration of mediocrity

Chapter 57 -Belt Fed Revolution

What makes the grass grow? 

A smile came to my face as I recalled a line from a movie. These ladies were killers of a type that would put most men to shame. They weren’t superbly trained or excellently equipped but they made up for those short comings with an absolute dedication to finishing the job.

Michael’s body lay still on the ground where it had been left; a mangled wreck so tainted even the dogs wouldn’t go near the remains. No overstatement that as Sako and Tikka followed me around and made haste to step away from the  meat spoiling in the heat of a new day.

I felt myself at something of a loss. My work here was done–this demonstrated to me by the women organizing a group to hunt down the men who’d escaped in the chaos–and I didn’t exactly feel needed or welcomed now. Sarah was the lone hold out among the women. She would talk to me, meet my gaze and acknowledge my existence; to everyone else I was a ghost.

Small groups of women had begun to return now with prisoners. The men were bloodied and disheveled from their flight and subsequent capture. This was not of my doing; the women were doling out their own brand of justice to their captives.  One of the male prisoners found this out in a hard and utterly final way that the balance of power had shifted fully. The man’s guard attempted to push him into a kneeling position alongside his comrades; the man refused and attempted to strike the woman. The female guard wasted no time as she drove her bayonet deep into the man’s guts angling down so that the tip of the bayonet protruded high up on his thigh.

I was just beginning to understand the monster I had helped create when I was interrupted from my observations by a tap on the shoulder.

“You’ll be leaving soon I suppose.”

I looked at Paige and saw no hint of the woman I’d met mere days ago. “Soon as I can find transportation.” I said as I took in the lovely shell that was Paige.

“Leave the dogs.”

It was an order. I though I might refuse for a moment, but I decided to let it go: Sako and Tikka could make their own choice. Even if I had refused her it would have been to her back: she hadn’t waited for a response when issuing her edict.

I stared at her retreating form as the dogs made themselves busy chasing each other around my legs. For a moment I considered drawing my revolver and putting a single round in the back of her head, but after what I had witnessed here I thought it might be biting off more than I could chew.

“I guess the hero doesn’t get the girl after all. Apparently western culture has been wrong all these years.”

Sarah looked worse for the wear. Her prim smile was still fixed firmly on her face, but there was no trace of humor in her eyes. Her gray hair looked as if it had been arranged by a visually challenged lunatic, spilling off her head in a loose braid that sprouted wild hanks of hair everywhere.

“They also lied about the heroine looking like she just stepped off a fashion runway, too.” I said without making it plain to whom my comment was directed. We all looked like shit.

“I suppose. So you’ll be leaving soon?”

I half snorted half laughed at the statement. “Yes ma’am. I thought I might stay for a bit and offer you some advice on how to fortify the place . . .” I let my offer hang in the space between us for a moment.

She paused for a few minutes, remaining silent so long I almost thought to simply walk away, but finally nodding her head she spoke “That would be helpful.” She went quiet again before adding “I could use some advice on how to handle the prisoners brought back as well.”

Before I could tell her to kill them all my brain jumped in ahead of my tongue for once. “Use them as labor. The ones you can reintegrate get brought back to the fold, the ones you can’t–” I shrugged “work them till they drop then turn them into fertilizer for your gardens.”

Sarah considered this thoughtfully for a moment before nodding her agreement  “Those were my thoughts as well. I was actually hoping you might offer a different solution .” she paused just briefly “but perhaps there’s some humanity left in them yet. Maybe . . .” she looked at the faces of the men kneeling some yards away and let out a heavy breath “maybe they can be rehabilitated.”

“Rehabilitation is a myth, Sarah. You bring these men back only after you’ve watched them for a long while. You have a doubt about one of them, you put him down right then.” I said holding her gaze before eventually turning to look at Michael’s remains “if you need reminding about why that’s necessary . . .”

I thought she looked embarrassed for a moment but the resolve I’d seen in her earlier quickly returned. “No. You’re right, but . . .” There was conflict evident in her features. “But, Finn . . . ”

I held my hand up to stop her. “Finn is gone. I’m just The Heathen now.” I smiled “That doubt you have about trying to be kind to these men who abused you? That’s the old world. That world is used up now, just like my name. You want to lead these women, keep them safe, you have to put that away.”

She looked defeated but nodded. “Thank you, Finn.” she said putting a touch of tenderness into her words.

I shook my head. “That world is dead, Sarah. Trust me; bury it along with your compassion. Man can only overtake. Whether it’s the highway or the highway of life man cannot rest, cannot be happy merely to pass his fellows, he must overtake them. And even then the happiness that brings him exists only as long as there are no others in his sight.”

Sarah smiled “I hope you’re wrong.” I could see the spark being reignited in her eyes and hoped that spark would build up a fire strong enough for her to lead.

Chapter 54 -Belt Fed Revolution

I was waiting for the women to show up and staring at the sunset lost in my own thoughts. The Feds blowing up Nuke plants had at least one interesting side effect. Sunsets were really interesting now, with colors straight out of an artists dreams. The pretty colors only made me sad though, knowing it might never be safe to fish in my homeland again. I’d never spent a lot of time fishing Lake Michigan. Or swimming in it. Or hanging out on the beach. It was something I took for granted. I always assumed the lake would be there when I wanted to visit.

The women were turning out for our first practice session much more quickly than the men had done and seemed to have better discipline to boot. Donnelly, still hanging around after the men’s practice, paced nervously back and forth a few feet away.

“You can relax, Donnelly. No more holding targets for you today–you can go on back to your quarters if you like.” I tried my best to sound friendly, but the truth of the matter was I’d be just as happy to use Donnelly for a target so the women could get a crash course in what a human body looks like when a high velocity projectile tears into flesh.

With a relieved sigh Donnelly stopped pacing and blazed a trail away from the range. “Thank you, sir. Good luck with your training .” The way he said the last word tickled something at the back of my brain, but whatever it was didn’t set off an alarm.

I was wiping down the board I’d used to explain ballistics ad nauseam to the men when I heard Paige speak up behind me.

“Pretty as a picture, isn’t it?” She said, her eyes still fixed firmly on the ground.

I guessed that she had likely been looking at the sunset. “And deadly.” I added.

“What is? The clouds?” she asked, risking a quick confused glance from the sky to me.

“Yep. Feds hit the nuke plants on the lake. Or so rumor has it. Gods willing the wind will keep the worst of it away from here, but I . . .” I was forced to break off as Paige walked quickly away from me. The sounds of her distress were obvious even if I couldn’t see her tears.

Sarah made her way quickly to my side with a reproachful look set on her features. “What did you say to her?”

“Nothing, really.” I shrugged. “She was talking about the sunset and I told her it was because the Feds blew up two nuke plants to keep them from falling into citizen control.”

Sarah tsked softly, shaking her head “Her family’s from Bridgman. That’s where one of the plants is. . .was.”

I looked blankly at Sarah. I’m sure I was supposed to feel something or say something to make things better, but even as awesome as I thought I was there’s only so much I can do, especially about things that had already occurred.

Sarah continued to look at me and until she realized I had nothing to offer. She  gave me a slight roll of her eyes and pressed on. “I’ve brought fifty-two women. Most of them are healthy enough; two are pregnant but in the early stages still. Will that be enough, you think?”

“I’d be a lot happier if Force Recon sent a group our way. About 15 guys would do.Throw in a couple of 203’s on their M4’s and we’d have a party.” I tried to muster up a smile “But we will make it work with what we have.” Sarah turned away and I muttered under my breath “or die in the trying.” I saw her head snap back around and I tried to give her an encouraging smile but I’d used up all my facial expressions for one day.

****

The women had even less training than the men. More than half of them had never even held a rifle, much less a beast like the Mosin. I offered up a quick plea to All-Father Odin, god of the slain and a similar plea to Thor, the warder of Midgard. My Gods weren’t the kind that tended to help people just because they were worshiped by them, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. I thought about it for a moment and offered up another plea to Tyr and Freyja just on the off-chance the other two weren’t interested.

The women had several things working in their favor. Enough that I started to feel a small glimmer of hope that we might actually succeed.  The biggest plus for them is that unlike the men, they weren’t afraid to admit they didn’t know much about rifles or shooting. After I demonstrated loading the rifle and working the action I had to stop and answer several questions. I was pleased that none of the questions were ‘when are we going to shoot?‘ as it had been with the men.

The next thing the women had working for them was that they listened. I wouldn’t say either group were what you would call fast-learners but the women usually only needed something explained or demonstrated one time to understand what was required or expected of them.

The training progressed at a fantastic rate since I didn’t have to worry about teaching them how to break down and clean the rifle although I did have to explain why the open bolt kept falling out of the rifle when the trigger was pulled which happened several more times than I was comfortable with. My greatest concern so far was whether or not the women would be able to operate the Mosin-Nagant since it could occasionally require tremendous force to close the bolt or get the rounds loaded into the internal magazine.

I didn’t know all their names, but I was impressed by a small blonde woman with short hair who probably weighed the lesser part of 100 pounds. As we ran through loading drills her bolt stuck and she couldn’t get it to close. Without asking for help or guidance she sat the butt of the rifle on the ground and shoved the bolt closed with the heel of her foot. Several other women who had the same problem began to mimic this and soon anyone that couldn’t get the rifles bolt to close were using this method. Turned out it worked pretty well for opening the bolt, too.

The final advantage the women had over the men was my own self. I was trying to actually teach them how to be deadly with the rifle. This included the use of the bayonet and showing how well the rifle functioned as a club when all else failed. I watched as the women plunged their bayonets into the ground, fierce looks composed of hatred and rage dancing about their normally dulcet features. If I had a week or two I could make these women into a deadly force to be reckoned with but I wasn’t counting on having more than a few days.

****

After the women’s practice was ended I stole a moment to speak with Sarah. Small beads of sweat had sprung up on her forehead as she had spun the Mosin around and practiced giving butt-strokes to add to her lethal repertoire. She walked toward me, prim smile painted on her face right hand rubbing her shoulder against the effects of the vicious impact from the big rifle.

“What’s our schedule looking like?” I was flooded with memories of the first few shots I’d taken with the M91/30 and trying desperately to keep the grin off my face.

“Two more days should do it.” She winced and continued to rub her shoulder “I’ve been leaving hammers in places they can be gotten to in a hurry. I’m more than a little worried though that some of the ladies may not wait. If that happens. . . ” She let the consequences of that scenario hang in the air.

“Understood. Do your best to keep them calm. Surprise is the one thing we need to keep on our side if we’re to have a chance.” This time I found my reassuring smile and showed it her, though Sarah clearly was not buying. “Proper planning prevents piss poor performance.” I said and gave her a wink. “It’s just a couple of days they have to wait. If I can work it out, I may have another surprise or two in store. Everyone just has to be patient.”

Sarah sighed heavily and nodded, grasping my hand and squeezing for all she was worth. “I’ll do what I can.” She said and fixed a grim smile to her face as she turned to leave.

****

I returned to my quarters where Paige was waiting cross-legged on the bed absent-mindedly petting Sako and Tikka. She stared off into space and tried to think of comforting words to offer her, but nothing really came to mind. Instead I sat next to her and took my .357 out of my improvised blowout kit to  clean it.

“Sarah told me why you were upset. I’m sorry about your family.” I waited for a response but she was gone. I wasn’t really planning on doing therapy for these women and the longer this went on the more it seemed my limited skills would be of little use. Paige may have been too damaged to repair. I could only hope she held it together long enough to point a rifle downrange and inflict some damage. I finished with my revolver and tucked it back into my blowout kit and began to drift off.

Paige went to stand by the window. I didn’t know if she was standing guard or just staring at the sun hoping to go blind. As I lay on the bed trying to relax with the zombie at the window I felt a small furry body plop down next to my head with a sigh as though he shared my misgivings about getting out of this place.

I was asleep for what felt about a minute when I heard a voice quietly, but frantically urging me back to consciousness.

“Wake up! WAKE UP!”

I felt my upper torso being shaken by what felt like the worlds smallest tornado. My eyes popped open and I noted the sun had gone down. “What time is it?” I asked as I started pulling on my boots.

“I don’t know! Late!” she hissed “Something is . . . “

Chapter 46 -Belt Fed Revolution

Michael turned away from me apparently satisfied that I was falling into line.  He walked back toward the crate of rifles and finished pulling off the blanket, to reveal a few large cardboard boxes sat next to the weapons crates.

“At least one of us thought ahead” he boasted as he turned the box around so the label could be read. “I know these are the best scopes you can get. When you get back you can have the men attach them to their weapons.”

I smiled appreciatively and opened the box pulling out one of the Leupold scopes. I’d never used a Leupold myself, but I was aware that they were considered one of the best commercially available scopes you could buy. I made the appropriate ‘ooh and ahh’ noises as I examined the scope, but didn’t bother to tell Michael that unless he had a gunsmith handy these lovely pieces of equipment were about as useful teats on a male hog.

Before we left to retrieve the rest of the Mosin parts I asked to be given a tour of the range where we’d be doing our shooting. Michael gave us permission to tour the facilities and shortly a golf cart appeared to take us out to what was just a large empty field.

I raised a hand to shield my eyes and looked off into the distance. I saw nothing but undeveloped land.

“I hate to be a problem here, but I’m not going to be able to properly train riflemen here.” I turned to Michael to head off his anger before it got brewing “if you want men who can shoot like Marines we’ll need to change . . . everything.”

I explained to Michael how a Marine rifle range was set up and the equipment we’d need to make this happen. The mood swings he was experiencing here were probably going to lead to one tuckered out little dictator, but to his credit he listened to me and told John to take a crew with us into town to get the tools and supplies needed.

What I needed more than anything was to get away from Michael and his insanity. I asked John to assemble the men we’d need to get the supplies and then asked Michael for his permission to walk alone back to the house.

Michael was having none of it, instead assigning a guard and my aide-de-camp Donnelly to shadow me as I made the walk back. Donnelly was unarmed as far as I could see and the guard with me wasn’t particularly attentive. I considered trying to take his rifle and make my escape now that we were far enough away from Michael’s guards. I grunted and shook my head a bit. I couldn’t just flee. I had given my word.

Even if it killed me, I was going to help the women escape this place and Gods willing do unspeakable things to Michael until even death wouldn’t be enough of a release.

****

When we finally entered the town I was surprised to note that there were still people there. Even more of a surprise was the fact that some of the businesses were open and at least one of them appeared to have electricity.

Inside the gun store was pretty much as John had described, all of the guns had been taken and most of the ammunition as well. I noticed that the few boxes of ammunition remaining were mostly old mil-surp stuff .303 Enfield and the like as well as some unusual calibers like .22-250, .204 Ruger and several dozen boxes of 16 gauge shotgun rounds. Michael’s people had secured the store against further incursions by bolting steel shutters over the broken windows and leaving a patrol to keep an eye on the place.

One cabinet that had not been opened caught my eye. I grabbed a flashlight from one of the work crew and shined it over the display and shook my head. The Gods. They can be cruel and capricious. Or perhaps Michael’s god -squad showed up before the looters had a chance to crack this particular nut. On the whole I’d still bet on the cruel and capricious Gods and their sense of humor.

I looked around until I found the right tool. A Ka-Bar. It hadn’t really hit me that I no longer had my Sweet Louise until I held this new unmarred version in my hand. I jammed the blade of the Ka-Bar into the display case and worked it around until I managed to crack the wood around the lock. I smiled as I lifted out a nearly pristine Nagant  M1895 revolver . Even better was the fact that it had been retrofitted with a cylinder allowing it to fire modern ammunition.

I went into the back room and found a couple of cases of .32 Magnum rounds and loaded the revolver, smiling secretly inside. John however was not about to let me walk away with the gun.

“Michael gave me specific orders. You are not to use or have a weapon except during training! I will not  allow you to take that gun.” John threatened.

I did the only thing I could think of. I placed the barrel of the gun against his eye and put my finger on the trigger.

“Your choice, Johnny boy. I can take this revolver and you can tell Michael and get marked for your troubles or I can mark you right here and now and free you from that that ever happening again.” I said waiting for him to make his choice. I gave him a little time to consider before speaking again. “Or option three, I take the revolver, you don’t say anything and continue to suck down oxygen.”

John swallowed hard and nodded “Okay, take it!Just keep it hidden! And please don’t take the knife . . .at least do that, okay?!”

I smiled at him. “This knife is not a weapon, it’s a tool.” I sheathed the knife “And yeah it’s going with me. Sorry.” I kept the revolver pointed at his face until he recognized this was non-negotiable.

When, after a while, he offered no further protest I lowered the gun, wedging it into my belt and lowering my BDU shirt over it. I’d figure out a way to carry it hidden later. “Oh, and John? let’s keep all this between us all right? If we get back to camp and anything goes awry. . . well let’s just keep it between us. Health reasons. Right?”

John nodded and let out a deep breath. “Fine. As far as I know you grabbed that while I was looking for the rifle kits. Deal?”

I nodded “You have my word on it.”

****

The work crew loaded up everything left in the store and then disappeared, leaving us to go and find another box truck.  We were going to hit a hardware store and afterward we needed to find a place that had heavy equipment to get the range set up properly. I was hoping none of Michael’s people had any experience with heavy equipment so my stalling tactic could be pushed even further as a reason his people weren’t getting trained.

We found a delivery company across town with several large box trucks and a couple of flat beds. We checked out the trucks and discovered that most of them were loaded with cargo of some sort or another, mostly useless things like telephones and office equipment. One truck, mostly empty had one pallet up near the cab. I climbed in to see what the box contained. A smile struck me briefly as I removed the plastic and prised open one box with my Ka-Bar.

I knew I could sell this as necessary, assuming the truck started. John climbed in behind me to see what I’d found. “Tools. This will save us a little time at the hardware store anyway.” I held out a titanium hammer with a skeletonized frame and a wicked looking head.

John nodded disinterestedly and tossed the hammer back in the box. “Cool. Let’s see if we can get the truck started; I’m ready to get this done and get back.”

I looked at him hoping my predator wasn’t poking out. “Sure thing. Let’s be about it!” I smiled and we climbed out of the truck. Cruel and capricious the Gods may be, but sometimes, just sometimes they tossed you a softball.

Chapter 45 -Belt Fed Revolution

I spent a pretty restless night in my quarters with nothing to do and too many thoughts running through my mind to permit sleep to come. I did drift off here and there, but would wake at every strange noise.

Whatever you could say about Michael and his people, they were certainly dedicated. I kept a watch on my watchers and other than seeing them be relieved by other guards there really wasn’t much slack in their routine.

I finally settled in at some point during the night sitting on my bed with my back against the wall just as the sky was beginning to lighten. I must have drifted off again because I found myself unsettled and confused by my surroundings when I heard my door opening.  I have always been lucky in that when I wake up I am instantly awake with no noticeable lag in my cognitive faculties; the door hadn’t opened far when I jumped up off the bed and planted my foot against the bottom, placing all my weight against the door.

Whoever was trying to enter my quarters yelped in pain as I forced the door closed on his foot.

“Ever heard of knocking?” I asked, lowering my center of gravity and leaning as fully into the door as I could. My uninvited guest pushed on the door  trying to withdraw his trapped foot while calling me some unseemly names. He managed to do all this without swearing which was impressive.

“Pete’s sake, SORRY!” He finally relented and stopped pushing against me “I was sent to wake you.We don’t knock here or lock doors. Michael says it’s against the rules of fellowship!”

I satisfied myself with a peek around the door frame and saw that the guard wasn’t holding a rifle so I eased the pressure off and let him withdraw his foot. “You might want to mention these ‘rules’ to new people. May save someone a broken foot . . . or worse.”

Part of me still wanted to cup-check the guy for opening my door without knocking. I stood aside and let him enter “Is there coffee?”

The guard shook his head and smiled apologetically. “No coffee here. Not allowed, sorry.” The guard, who according to his name tape was called Donnelly handed me a small ditty bag full of hygiene products and a towel “takes some getting used to, I know. I used to drink a pot of coffee with my morning coffee, y’know?” he laughed.

“Let me guess, gruel for breakfast? Bread and water for lunch?” I muttered as I pulled on a fresh pair of socks.

“No sir, not quite. Although I think this morning’s breakfast is oatmeal . . .”

I stared at Donnelly until he quit talking. “Where’s the head in this place?”

“Head? The . . . ?”

“Where is the bathroom? Look, if you’re going to be barging into my room it’s only fair that you make an attempt to know things so that when I ask questions answers are on deck, yes? Now, where is the head?”

“Uh, yeah. Yes, sir, follow me.” Donnelly was flustered but at least he knew the layout of the camp. We eventually made our way to the  head following a winding path through several tents which I would not remember to arrive at a fairly well equipped outdoor shower setup complete with a several composting type toilets.

Donnelly came to a version of parade rest as I pulled the curtain closed to handle my ablutions. I pulled the curtain aside slightly and saw Donnelly standing there staring disinterestedly out at the camp. “Uh, you’re dismissed?”

Donnelly turned his head slightly toward the sound of my voice “No sir. I’m to escort you and be and your aide-de-camp. You need something I’m your man.”

I grunted angrily “Fine. Go get me a cup of coffee. Do not return without one or you are fired.”

****

The Gods ruled in my favor. As I stepped out of the little shower area Donnelly  held out a cup of coffee, a wisp of steam rolling out of the mug. It was instant coffee but I drank it down with the same relish I would have a cup of Starbuck’s finest.

I had to consider what I was going to teach my students. I’m a damn good shot, but how do you explain a lifetime of doing to someone? I didn’t even know what kind of weapons we’d be using. I handed the empty cup back to Donnelly and strode off as though I knew where I was going. Donnelly sounded rather perturbed as he caught up to me.

“Uh, Sir? Um, the field is this way, but we–well, you– have to meet with Michael first?” Donnelly said trying to get me to break stride.

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Well, uh, I’m–I guess, I . . . ” he stammered

“What did I say, Donnelly? You must know things when I ask, otherwise one of us is going to look pretty dumb, when he’s standing alone and I have wandered off to find another cup of coffee. Now, are you asking me or telling me?”

“I’m, uh. . .  I’m informing you, sir. Michael told me to bring you over to him before you got started.” Donnelly stepped around to place himself in front of me. “Please, sir?” Donnelly held out an arm to redirect me toward my meeting.

I relented and let Donnelly lead me away.  As we walked I began to notice how the camp was laid out . The land appeared mostly flat but formed something of a natural bowl shape with the outer edge of the bowl being a little over a foot higher than the main concentration of buildings.  The living quarters were arranged close together yet a good distance away from Michael’s house, making me wonder if that was intentional. There weren’t any guard towers, but given the shape of the land high towers weren’t necessary.

There were a lot of things that could have been improved here in terms of security, but if the guards were even partially attentive getting out would be impossible, which left me with one option. I was going to have to bring someone in.

Michael was busy discussing some logistical matter with a man I’d not seen before but he stopped long enough to wave me to a seat.

“Stephen, I want you to see what you’ll be working with” he waved at a large square shape covered by a moving blanket “and discuss some further training with you. Tell me, brother, do you think you can train your fellows? Do you think you can make these men into an army?”

I was caught off guard by this. He may as well have asked me if I could run a successful space program. I needed to stall him on this. No way was I going to train an army for this light bulb and anyone in their right mind–by my estimation anyway– would be trying to train a guerrilla  force, not a conventional army. I didn’t intend to share that little nugget with him either.

The storm clouds gathering behind his eyes told me that hesitation was not the expected answer so I tap danced around the mine field a little to appease him. “It’s just kind of a lot to consider. I mean, do you have anyone else with military experience or am I supposed to do this on my own? I can handle things like PT and drill and the like, but I need a whole support structure . . .”

I let him to chew on that a little. My refusal to immediately give him a yes had forced an uncomfortable pause into the discussion. I hadn’t forgotten his threat to mark me either. If he tried though, he was likely to find out that I presented a much different challenge than a terrified woman who hadn’t even attempted to fight back.

Michael suddenly smiled, his little shark’s teeth gleaming dully in the early morning light. “That is how I know God has sent you to lead my Army, brother! He never just gives us what we need, he gives us a challenge, makes us  work for what we need!” Michael grabbed our hands attempting to pull me and the still unknown man to the floor “let us pray! Let us give our thanks to God!”

I resisted. It was a mistake. I knew it was a mistake but I could not do it. I covered as best I could by clutching my knee and grunting a little.

“Sorry, about that. If I get down, I may not be able to get back up again.” I let out a weak chuckle, but the look in his eyes let me know that I’d crossed a line.

Michael smiled slightly “Of course. That was thoughtless of me to forget your injury.” He stood and brushed off the knees of his pants. “No matter. Come see what I have for you!” The change in his voice wasn’t fooling me, he was pissed. Fortunately for me none of his guards were around so he could put me in my place.

Michael proceeded to the boxes and began to pull the moving blanket off. I saw one corner and immediately knew what awaited me and the torture that awaited those I was responsible for training.  The faded green wooden crates were so familiar to me I had a psychic flash of exactly what the rifles would look like down to the thick coat of cosmoline that would undoubtedly cover them.

I opened the crate and was greeted by the bane of the modern rifleman, the Mosin Nagant 91/30.  I nodded appreciatively and withdrew one of the rifles and worked the bolt. The action was smooth even with the peanut butter thick coat of cosmoline. I pulled the trigger and slid the bolt all the way out. The protective grease on this shipment had been forced into the barrels. I let out a heavy sigh.

“Well, this is good in a way. The first thing I’ll be teaching is rifle maintenance.” I looked inside to the bottom of the crate “Where’s the rest of it?”

Michael looked confused for a brief second “Oh, don’t you worry, brother. We’ll have ammunition out at the range for you.”

“Yeah, that’s great obviously. But I mean where’s the rest of the kit? The sling and bayonet?”

His face was totally crestfallen “The. . . bayonet?”

I nodded “These come with a whole kit usually. I mean we can do without most of it, but the bayonet and sling are almost as important as the ammunition.” I stood there smiling blandly at him waiting for him to lose it. The great thing about the M91/30 was that even without ammunition or a bayonet it made one Hel of a club. I stopped myself smiling as I envisioned the steel butt plate crushing Michael’s skull after I’d bashed him five or one hundred times for good measure.

The locus of Michael’s anger shifted. “John?! Where are the things I need for my rifles?!”

John. I shook my head. It always had to be some fuck up called John.

John backed water both verbally and physically, raising his hands to ward off being marked.  “This was all there was when I paid for them! I–I I’ll go back, right now and look? Most of the guns are gone but almost everything else was untouched after the townsfolk broke in!!!”

I decided to step in. It’s not that I felt any special attachment to people called John, but I really didn’t want to see this sadistic circus act get rolling.

“I can go with him. The Mosin’s bayonet sort of looks like a screwdriver. I doubt most people would realize it was a weapon.” I offered waiting to see if Michael was capable of backing down twice in one day.

Michael reached up swiftly grabbing John’s crotch and squeezing until he dropped to his knees. “You will take our brother and get everything left in this store. When you are done, report back to me immediately and we can discuss your inability to conduct a simple task.”

John’s face was a deep shade of red and a high keening noise was beginning to escape his pursed lips yet he managed to say “Yes, Michael!” before he was released, folding up in a fetal position with his hands between his legs.

Michael spun toward me so fast I almost raised the rifle  to deliver a butt-stroke to his head. “You will lead them. You will make me an army. You will do this or I will put the mark of Cain on you so all will know you for what you are!”

I wasn’t looking to have my beautiful self marked in any capacity. Michael was making it clear now that he had been pushed as far as he would allow for one day and I honestly wasn’t prepared to argue without having several rounds of 7.62x54r loaded in this rifle for the guards that would try to enforce his edicts.

I raised my hands to try and calm him. I leaned over and helped John to his feet and led him away from Michael’s reach and put myself between the two of them.

“Of course I’ll do as you ask. May we go and get the kits to complete the rifles?”

Michael instantly demurred, his tone and expression changed, looking as if I had hurt his feelings. “Certainly, brother! I can’t expect you to make the omelet if I don’t give you eggs, now can I? Go forth now, gather what is needful.” He smiled broadly “soon you shall bring us glory for his name!”

Chapter 37 -Belt Fed Revolution

Upon reaching the camp I noticed things were greatly relaxed compared to the last time I’d been here. The guards around the supply CONEX were still pretty rigid, but the rest seemed to have settled into a mode that spoke of resignation to their new lives. I could recall having seen this when I was deployed with guards that had been in country before Desert Shield kicked off. Sure, they’d still shoot you if you looked wrong, but they probably wouldn’t bother shouldering the rifle; they’d just shoot you from the hip.

I hit the little two-stroke’s kill switch and let our momentum carry us into the center of the camp which was the erstwhile Wal-Mart delivery area. I had to stand there and blink the grit out of my eyes for a few seconds before I could begin to engage in conversation.

“So what’s the plan?”

Starke shot back “You’re the guy with the plan, you tell me?”

Having seen which side of the loop we were both on, we decided to go Dwyer’s office for my after action report. I didn’t have to wait this time. Being escorted directly into Dwyer’s office suited me just fine. I had some questions that needed answers right now.

Dwyer looked up as we entered, appearing slightly surprised to see me. I waved his opener away before he said it “Yeah, I know you didn’t expect to see me so soon.”

Dwyer gestured to the plastic chairs in front of his desk. I stood back and let Starke take the one furthest from the door. As soon as he settled in, I stepped around behind the desk and drew my revolver, shoving Dwyer’s head down onto his desk. Starke regarded me with the same look I imagine he would have if I’d sprouted tentacles and began to dance. I stripped Dwyer’s sidearm from it’s large, ostentatious holster and pointed it at Starke.

“Relax. I’m going to ask the Major here some questions and I think you might want to hear the answers as well.” Starke nodded and held up his hands, leaning back into the chair slightly.

“Not that I don’t trust you, but I’m gonna need to relieve you of your sidearm as well.” Starke drew his 9mm from the shoot me  holster on his leg holding the grip with two fingers. “Now empty it.” I could see the rage building in Starke and I understood it. When you carry a weapon for so long you get used to its presence and for someone to take it from you carried the same feelings that might accompany having a finger removed with a cold chisel and a hammer.

Even though he didn’t like it, Starke ejected the magazine and pulled the slide back until it locked, letting the chambered round dribble down the mag well onto the floor and set the gun on the desk.

I did the same with Dwyer’s gun, a very nice chrome plated Colt chambered in .45 caliber with what appeared to be genuine pearl handles. A show piece I thought as I examined it. The gun fit Dwyer to a Tee.

“So question number one. Who are you working for?”

Dwyer didn’t answer immediately so I placed the revolver at the nape of his neck.

“What do you mean? I’m working for the governor, for the state of Michigan! Who else would I be working for?!” Dwyer wasn’t shouting which was good. I didn’t need to draw too much attention from the bored looking guards outside.

I considered his response for a moment before switching gears “Okay, let me rephrase. You are working for the governor who wanted martial law declared and wants to continue martial law, with the help of the feds. True or false?”

Dwyer began to try and bluster. This didn’t really work for me. Turns out in the new world there are quicker and better ways to get things done, so I drew my Ka-bar and slid my revolver back into the holster. Placing the blade between his index and middle fingers , I drew the edge over the soft web of  flesh there until I saw a little line of red appear.

Dwyer to his credit endured this well a sharp intake of breath the only hint that  he was not enjoying the days proceedings. Starke stood up and began to protest. I didn’t point the gun at him this time, only stared at him until he resumed his seat. I placed Ka-bar against Dwyer’s eye this time and repeated my question.

“Yes, damn it!Yes!!!”  I was glad that the threat of losing an eye was enough to motivate him as I really didn’t want to strip him naked and cut off his balls. “My orders come from the Governor himself! We want the Feds to know their place, but we don’t want them to leave!”

Starke stared at Dwyer now as if he, too, had grown tentacles and joined me in singing a duet of ‘No Greater Love’.

“Terrific. Now that we’ve answered the how full of shit is this guy question, hopefully we can proceed without need of further crude  demonstrations. Agreed?” I waggled the blade of Sweet Louise in front of his face slightly until he nodded. That was impressive considering he had most of my weight bearing down on his neck.

I stood just behind and to the left of Dwyer, letting him raise his head and rub his neck a bit. I was pretty sure that Starke, if he wasn’t on board was at least swinging that way, but I wanted to be able to cover the both of them just in case. There was one tense moment when Dwyer, apparently without thinking, turned slightly away from me and reached toward a drawer in his desk. My .357 was out of the holster and laid against his temple before he had a chance to close his fingers on the drawer pull.

He held his hands up “I just wanted to get the neosporin out of that drawer there” he gestured slightly with his head. I opened the drawer for him and saw that it did indeed have a tube of neosporin along with a compact .380 semi auto located just deep enough inside the drawer that most people would have missed seeing it from the other side of the desk.

I took possession of the little handgun and, wrapping my hand around the grip as I slammed my fist into Dwyer’s face twice in rapid succession. I had opened a small cut on the bridge of his nose and my hand was on fire from the impacts.

“If you have any ice in the other drawer, you just leave it there unless you want me to send you off to meet your gods.” Dwyer nodded and took a tissue from the box on his desk and placed it against the cut on his nose.

The voice in my head was insistent that I kill him, but I knew I couldn’t do that and hope to walk out of here alive. I took a moment to master my emotion and gave Starke a chance to chime in. “So why have we been killing the Feds if we’re on the same side?”

“The Governor considers it an ‘acceptable loss’. Plus there just isn’t a way to get everyone in the comm loop on this. We can’t exactly fake a battle!” Dwyer’s face had taken on a deep purple hue. I guess being made to answer to an NCO is a blood pressure trigger for some people.

I waved Starke back before he could say anything else. “So you sent me out to meet with the militia in the hopes that, what? They’d agree to your little plan and when they showed up you’d just slaughter them?”

Dwyer laughed. “Not entirely. We have a use for the so called Patriot’s but it’s a plan that’s already happened you see. We’ll be sending a patrol along shortly to pick up the survivors.”

“You total piece of shit. I was your bird dog?”

Dwyer regarded me calmly “In a sense. We knew where they were, but not what buildings they were using and it’d be wasteful to destroy the whole town, so we just added a little something to your Jeep.” Dwyer looked like the cat that ate the canary, his smile was wide “their headquarters probably went up in flames moments after you left.” He shrugged and smiled so broadly I thought his head might split open “I mean, I’m no pilot but I’m pretty sure the guns on an A-10 have incendiary rounds, right?”

A slight wisp of smoke wafted out the muzzle of my revolver before I had a chance to remind myself that killing Dwyer would likely mean a full on shooting-war to get clear of the camp. The room stank of gunpowder and quickly of urine and feces as Dwyer’s bowels let loose.

I swung to the door seconds before it flew open, two guards with M-16’s appearing there looking confused. Their confusion was short lived as they saw Dwyer’s lifeless body sitting behind his desk.

I pointed the revolver at the guard nearest me and fired before he had a chance to swing his muzzle toward me. The second guard wasn’t as slow in aiming, but had been about to order me to drop my weapon before I shot his companion. I dropped him with another round, his mouth still working wordlessly as he fell.

Starke reached for his gun then stopped holding up one hand “I’m on your side here, okay? But we have got to get this shit under control now. Just let me handle it and don’t shoot anyone unless you have absolutely have to.”

I nodded and thought if I made it through this, he and I were going to need to have a talk about my definition of ‘absolute’.  Starke took up his sidearm and reinserted the magazine, pausing for a second to grab the loose round from the floor and inserting it directly into the barrel.

“Okay, come on. We have to get to comms riki-tik.” Starake turned and left the room stepping over the bodies, not glancing back to see if I was following him. In the maze of CONEX boxes and regular semi-trailers there stood a small U-Haul style truck with several confused looking guards around it. They’d heard the gunfire, but no one knew where it was coming from or what they should do about it, so they kept their posts, but now in high alert.

One of the guards attempted to challenge Starke, but he stood down as Starke brushed by him saying   “The fuck out of my way before I shoot you in the dick, boy.” The guard and his compatriots chuckled nervously as we rushed the truck.

Starke raised the door of the truck and stepped inside walking immediately over to a gray phone and snatching it off its cradle before anyone inside had a chance to object.

“All civilian section leaders and all NCO E-5’s and above report to command immediately.”

The inhabitants of the commo truck began to ask questions, but Starke shook his head and held up a silencing hand “Command has issued a change of orders. Your squad leader will be by in a little while to explain.”

Starke looked at me and let out a pensive breath. “Let’s go. You have a meeting to lead” and was out of the truck before I had a chance to respond.

I stood there for a moment wondering if it was too late for me to sneak out of camp. Yeah, probably was.

Before I could formulate anything resembling a plan small arms fire erupted around the camp. I turned back to one of the comms techs and told him “if there’s a general order to get everyone moving, issue it now. After that, I expect everyone in here to get suited up and get out there ready to build a wall of lead,brass and flesh.” I paused for a moment the comms tech was a slightly pasty faced and overweight kid who probably spent most of his time playing Modern Warfare instead of learning how to operate a rilfe. To the blank stare I said “How read?”

The kid jumped up out of his seat and pressed a button before responding “Sir, yes sir!” I muttered something about being called ‘sir’ under my breath and exited the trailer, the sound of small arms fire still intermittently filling my ears.

Chapter 36 -Belt Fed Revolution

It was the worst of injustices. The buckshot had not only taken my windows, but my sound system. I could really go for some Judas Priest right now. Motherfuckers.

I was approaching the turn off to the MVDF when I saw the top of the ramps had been blocked off.  Trucks had been rolled into place and their tires flattened to make them almost immovable. Awesome. Looked like I was hoofing it. I slung my rifle and almost hit the pavement as I got out of the Jeep.

My knee buckled under my weight causing me to flail wildly to try to keep my balance. I managed to stand up by grabbing onto the mirror to take some pressure off my knee. I stood there for several minutes wincing and cursing, waiting for the pain to abate.

I hobbled off to the roadside and sat for several minutes flexing the muscles in my leg, hoping that I’d be able to get underway. I tried several times to walk, but with each step I’d nearly lose my balance as my knee refused to cooperate. I ended up taking the sling off my rifle so I could turn the bipod 180 degrees, locking the legs back toward the stock. This wasn’t exactly the most ergonomically pleasing arrangement, but it made a decent enough cane to help me make it past the trucks at the head of the off ramp.

After clearing the end of the truck I saw something that struck me as surreal. A  large oak pedestal table sat about fifty yards away from the off ramp , complete with chairs. I scanned the area as best I could and noted nothing else that struck me as odd.

I approached the table after a good deal of time passed, hobbling as quickly as it was possible and saw on top of the table a yellow legal pad inscribed with details about myself and my vehicle written on it. I pulled out one of the chairs and sat down, placing my rifle on the table.

I read through the information several times, though there was nothing unusual to be noted about how I was described. Subject is white, approximately 210 lbs, 6’2″ , blonde hair, blue eyes and will likely be sporting a long bushy beard. Expect subject to be driving a Jeep (possibly a Cherokee) or other vehicle recognizable as a technical or specifically well suited to off-road travel (like a Toyota PickUp)–  I scoffed. A Toyota? Not bloody likely!– A side note in a different had been scribbled in the margin. I smiled as I read it he likes revolvers! 

I continued to flip through the legal pad and came across a couple of similar references to other individuals, though these struck me more as the ‘operator’ type of individual by description. Apparently I wasn’t the only bait floating around on this little stretch of the Shit River.

I noted all the descriptions had names at the top of the page then immediately next to it a code name. Great stuff; Snake-eyes, Ace,Wolverine and one called Nightcap. At least they weren’t all comic-book characters. I scratched out my own name and wrote next in its place ‘The Gentleman Caller’. I scratched that out as it was too long a code name and replaced it with ‘Heathen’.

My knee was feeling a little better and I was considering getting underway again when movement caught my attention. I flipped open the  lens covers  and pointed the rifle in the direction of the movement. I took me only a second to find him, a gangly young kid wearing an Army dress uniform which he was buttoning up hurriedly. I maintained my sight picture on him as he turned and appeared to be searching the grass he’d just been in when I saw more movement. I chuckled and shut my lens caps as I saw the kid help a young woman to her feet and get squared away, brushing grass and debris off her back.

My welcoming committee had apparently sneaked off for a little afternoon delight. Hel, I couldn’t blame them: it’s not like there was a ton else to do. Part of me thought I should report the kid for quitting his post without being properly relieved, but I reminded myself I wasn’t part of their military for a reason.

The young couple was saying their goodbyes and taking their time about it. I gave a quick sharp whistle and both heads jerked around to see me sitting at the table. I gave them both a polite little wave and did my best to remain expressionless as the kid hoofed it over to the table, his paramour melting into the scenery, no doubt with a reddened face.

I watched him approach. He had the standard issue side arm and nothing more. Dwyer must have figured they had this place on lock to leave just this poorly armed kid out here. I looked around the area again. Plenty of good hides around here, but if there was a sniper hanging out somewhere he was well concealed and smart enough not to give himself away.

The kid made it to the table and snapped off a hurried salute. “Sorry, sir!”

I laughed “Knock that shit off and straighten your gig line.”

His face went beet red as he bent over to examine his gig line and give his zipper a tug. When he was squared away he looked at the legal pad in front of him and flipped through a couple of pages. I helped him out by setting one of my revolvers on the table and giving him a patient look.

“You’re Finn,sir?” the kid smiled and sat down.

“Minus the sir.” I nodded.

“You weren’t expected back so quickly. I have orders to have you escorted back to the camp. . . without delay.” He smiled sheepishly at me.

“Relax kid, I’m not here to break balls.” I looked over my shoulder “Any chance you can get that moved?” I said indicating the truck blocking my Jeep.

“No, sir. I have an alternate means of transportation though, just wait one while I call it in.” At that he produced a cell phone and hit one button and waited.  He sat the phone down and looked at me “transport will be here in a couple.”

A couple of minutes passed and the kid did his best to make small talk, all of which I ignored. I heard a sound that I first took for a chainsaw motor, but realized it must be a motorcycle as it got closer. I saw the bike, it’s headlight taped WWII style to reduce its signature. Sat on top was Starke, grinning as he approached the table.

Starke didn’t bother with a salute, just gave me ‘the nod’ and asked “You ready?”

“Only if you intend to walk back to base.”

He frowned slightly “Whaddya–”

I cut him off. “I don’t ride bitch. Give me the bike and hoof it back to your camp or go get a car. Your choice. I’ll be right here, waiting.”

I heard him mutter ‘asshole’ as he got off the bike. “Can you ride one of these things?”

I nodded “Since you were pulling on your pecker like you were the first one to ever discover the thing.”

Starke rolled his eyes. “Fine. You drive, I’ll ride bitch.”

“I feel anything poke me in the back and I am going to leave you on the side of the road with a tension pneumo, you read me?”

“Jackass!” he said as I mounted the little bike and kicked it to life.

Starke got on the bike behind me . I felt him give my shoulder a quick thump and I dropped it into gear and headed off to the camp.

It had only been a couple of days and I was already tired of playing messenger boy. I made my plan to get out of the camp tonight, even if I had to cut throats to do it.

Starke tried to say something else but I gunned the little two-stroke motor and drowned him out.

Chapter 29 -Belt Fed Revolution

I fell deeply asleep. I guess it worked out for me since I didn’t have to be blindfolded to get to the camp. I woke when Starke was giving the command to dismount.

I stepped out of the APC expecting something resembling an abandoned Army base. Instead I was greeted by trees bordering a parking lot. Still a bit sleepy I muttered “Wal-Mart?”

“Feds know where all our bases are. Also, they’re using them. Figured it’d be best to go some place to hole up where we wouldn’t get shot.” Starke was grinning as he handed me a rucksack filled with the spoils of our battle. I nodded dumbly and shouldered the ruck.

Guererra walked by me and spoke just loud enough for me to hear “Welcome to FOB Assrape.”

At my look he chuckled “You want to keep an eye on your six, otherwise you’re going to get volunteered for something . . . unpleasant.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

Guererra and Patrell shared a laugh and set to unloading the APC. Starke walked over and pointed at a CONEX box still attached to a semi-tractor. “Command.” he moved his finger slightly to indicate another CONEX container surrounded by armed guards “Supply.”

There were groups of civilians milling around aimlessly near  the boxes. Starke jerked his chin toward the group “That’s the Third Michigan Regulars. Civilians that found us and were conscripted.” Starke eyed them with obvious distrust. “They’d join the Feds in a heartbeat if the Feds could feed them three squares a day and keep them warm and dry.”

I nodded but kept my mouth shut. I didn’t come here to join some sad sack cannon fodder unit. I had just about made up my mind to thank Starke and his crew for the ride and see about getting further down the road when Guererra looked over my shoulder and announced “Command on the prowl.”

I hadn’t been in the military long, but I knew enough not to look where Guererra had indicated. As it turned out that was unnecessary. Their commander, a soft looking Major made a beeline for Starke, causing all the men in the crew to snap to attention.

“Sergeant! Did you intend to report in sometime today or were you just going to hang out with your new friend here?” Dwyer tossed a brief disinterested look my way.

Starke snapped off a salute “Sir. We just returned and were unloading our cargo, sir.”

The Major looked Starke over and glanced at the now mostly empty APC. “Very well, Sergeant. The instant you’re finished here, you come find me. Have one of your men get your friend here settled.”

With that the Major strode off.   “Nice to meet you, too.” I said to his retreating form.

“Don’t sweat it, Finn. He spent most of his career behind a desk until just recently; he means well.  And he’s committed to the cause. He’s just trying to get used to being in the field and in combat.” Starke stared off at the Wal-Mart for a second “I’d probably be as headfucked as him if I had to do his job.”

Starke had O’ Toole introduce me to the civilian component of the camp. At first I wondered if I’d done something to piss Starke off, but it occurred to me that he chose O’ Toole because he was a civilian too.

Discrimination was alive and well here. Military and civvies kept their distance and seemed to have set up their temporary camps as far away from each other as possible. I noted some women who appeared to be unattached had strung their camps out closer toward the military side.

O’ Toole wasn’t talking much which suited me fine. “Driscoll!” A man with a mustache out of the Civil War looked up our approach.  When we got closer than shouting distance O’ Toole made a hasty introduction “Driscoll this is Sigurdsson. Show him around and keep him out of trouble.”

Driscoll extended his hand “Jim Driscoll.”

“I’m Finn. Good to meet you.”

“So I take it you’re not military since O’ Toole brought you to us.Civilians don’t normally get to ride with the Mikes. Where’d you come from anyway?”

I didn’t really feel like rehashing John’s death and the fight with the Feds, so I kept it vague. “You said Mikes. What’s that about?”

Driscoll grinned “Kind of a poke at the military guys with all their alphabet soup chatter. They’re not that bad really.  Dwyer just keeps ’em busy.”

“Dwyer? That the Major in command of this…camp?” I chose my words carefully because hobo love palace  while seeming appropriate might cause some upset.

“Yeah. He’s just such a joy, too, let me tell ya.” Driscoll rolled his eyes. “Dwyer has been in charge since I came here two months ago. He was the one that instituted the no fraternization rule for the Mikes. Got to keep them,”  Driscoll paused for effect “pure.”

I was sure there was some kind of message there but I wasn’t going to waste time figuring it out. I’d spent time in enough hostile environments personally and professionally to know when the soup was going to reach a boil. I did have questions though and since Driscoll seemed ready to talk I hung around.

“Two months you’ve been here? The Feds haven’t found you?”

Driscoll shook his head. “They’re busy with the remnants of the civilian militias. Those guys had more firepower than the government knew. At least until the MVDF came along.” Driscoll began slowly drifting toward the supply CONEX box and I followed. “There’s a militia camp north of here,militia mind, not connected with the Mikes. They’ve been pounding the Feds with mostly captured equipment and they keep moving around.” Driscoll smiled “The Mikes here have been trying to establish contact with them, but those guys think any form of government they didn’t personally approve is not to be trusted.”

  The supply area had a smell about it. People say you can smell fear or desperation. I didn’t smell anything but people living rough, eating the same food and living in cramped conditions. If anything the smell was that of the comforts of the old world falling away. Humanity returning to what it was meant to be. That and coffee. The smell of coffee coming from the supply area was so pungent it was making my mouth water.

Driscoll stepped carefully by the Mikes assembled here and made his way to the front of the supply line. The supply clerk was a young woman with blonde hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a month. Driscoll pointed to me “New guy here, Cheryl.”

Cheryl was busy writing and didn’t give me more than a cursory glance. “Identification please” she said this as she turned to grab a styrofoam cup and fill it with coffee. She pushed the coffee toward me across the desk and continued writing distractedly. I patted down my pockets. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had my license or been asked to show it.

I stuck my hands in pockets containing rounds for the revolvers until I came across a small familiar rectangle. I drew out my battered wallet and withdrew my license handing it to Cheryl. She glanced at the identification for a moment and then looked up at me.

“Velkommen.Snakker du Engelsk?”

I blinked. “Yes. Quite well, too, from what I’m told. Mange takk.”

Cheryl smiled. “Sorry. It’s not everyday you see a name like Finn…”

I cut her off before she could say my entire first name. “Understood. I still have a lot of family in Norway, but my branch has been here since the 1600’s.” I searched my bank of expressions for ‘smile, non threatening’ and think I came up with the appropriate one since she didn’t immediately recoil. “As best I know, the last Sigurd in my family was busy setting England on fire in the eighth and ninth centuries.”

Cheryl handed me back my license. I made a note to throw it away. Even if the government–some government–managed to restore order, I wasn’t going to be participating.

I offered my thanks and took the cup of coffee Cheryl had poured. She gave me a half-smile. “Sorry, it’s one cup per person per day. You’re new so you’re entitled to two. Try and make it last.” 

I stopped mid gulp. “Thanks for the heads up.”

She smiled and wrote something down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “I’m off-duty in a while. This is your camp identification. If you need something, bring it back here and give that number to whoever’s on duty and if they can help you they will.”

 I didn’t mean to hang around here longer than was necessary. I reached for the piece of paper, but Cheryl held onto it smiling at me “you know, in case you want to get some clothes or something.”

She let go of the paper and I looked down at my ghillie suit. John’s dried blood covered a large portion of the front and I probably had some on the back as well. I folded the paper and stuck it in my pocket. I thanked her and wandered off to check out the command area.

I was greeted by an officious young man with dark skin and a bad case of razor burn. He shoved a clipboard into my chest “Name and service number?”

I stared at him. “You want my serial number?”

He shook his head “Service number. You’ve been issued a service number haven’t you?”  He looked at me “Oh, sorry…you’re old military. Yes, serial number then. We’ll get you converted to a service number later.”

I realized that with my ghillie suit, new ruck and rifle slung over my back the kid likely took me for a current service member. I reeled off my name and serial number to him.

He looked at me then “You’re new right? MOS?”

“0300.”

He stared at me for a minute longer “Marines? 0300 is…”

“Infantry.” I supplied

He nodded and shoved the clipboard deeper into my sternum. “Sign and date. See Tech Sergeant Ruiz for assignment to quarters.”

I laughed inside and wandered up the steps into the CONEX box like I belonged there. I intended to look around and see if this snowball was going to survive the microwave, but apparently Ruiz had been watching.

He strode over and gave me a curious look  “salute or shake?”

“Uh, shake.” I said and extended my hand.

“Welcome aboard.” he shook my hand and continued ” I have some forms for you over here.”

I had to laugh “Of course you do.”

Ruiz sat down behind a small laptop with a sigh “okay let’s get the basics. Name, rank, service number.”

“Sigurdsson, E-3.” I hesitated at the service number thing having just gone through this. “I haven’t been assigned a service number, but I have my serial?”

Ruiz eyed me up and down “E-3? who’d you piss off?”

I stood there silently unsure how to respond. Ruiz smiled at me, “You look a little old to be enlisted still.” he continued “Okay, so E-3, MOS?” I sighed having a bit of a flashback to days gone by.

Ruiz stopped typing briefly when I told him my MOS and stared at his monitor”Oh, lance corporal . Sorry, Marine. We got people from every branch here.” Ruiz wrote something down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Take this to supply, they’ll get you outfitted.” He looked at my cobbled together gear “They catch you on leave or something?” I was about to respond with a witty go fuck yourself but he just shook his head “Anyway, go get geared up. Supply will give you your BDU’s and whatever else you need. Get cleaned up and report back to Major Dwyer when you’re finished.”

I meant to be down the road, but the idea of new gear and a shower was appealing so I headed back to supply. Cheryl was still behind the little desk inside the CONEX box. She smiled at my approach ‘Velkommen, Finn.”

I smiled and handed her the slip of paper Tsgt Ruiz had given me. She stared at it blankly for a minute.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were military. Why didn’t you say something?” She looked at me with new eyes “Beards aren’t regulation. The Major may want you to shave.” she grabbed two sets of BDU’s and a shaving kit no doubt courtesy of the Wal-Mart. She looked at my rifle next and paused thoughtfully. “We’re short on full auto’s, but we may have ammo for that. What is it?”

“.243”  I said hopefully.

She blew air out in a silent whistle “Let me check.” She left the desk and was gone for several moments before returning with several boxes of ammuntion for me. “Sorry, it’s just Remington white box. We don’t have much in the way of surplus ammo even for standard calibers.” I noted one of the boxes was labeled .357 JHP.

She smiled when she saw my look  “My dad has the same gun. And .357 rounds are something we have a bit of; if you were carrying a 9mm or a .45 you’d be just about S.O.L.”

I gathered the things she had set out for me and asked her to point me in the direction of the showers.

She pointed at the Wal-Mart building proper. “The building still has power, but the lights are off. You have a flashlight?”

I told her no and she handed me a flashlight with a giant piece of wood taped to it. “Sorry, flashlights are getting scarce. You’ll have to turn this in after you get cleaned up.” I nodded and took the flashlight, looking for a place to secure it. “There’s a laundry facility inside, too.” She wrinkled her nose slightly “you may want to get that washed” she said indicating my ghillie suit.

I thanked her and made my way toward the building.

I decided to drop off my ghillie suit before hitting the showers. I handed it to a woman there, a civilian apparently, and thanked her. I hoped the stitching would hold.

I turned on the flashlight and entered the building. Another civilain, this time male, was waiting just inside. “Showers?” I asked and he pointed wordlessly to an employee locker room. “Can I take my gear in there?’

He nodded “Stick it in a locker, just don’t shut it. Otherwise we have to cut it open.”

Upon entering the locker room the smell of mold hit me. I shined the flashlight on a row of lockers and shoved my ruck into the first unoccupied one I saw. I didn’t have to worry about closing the door, as the locker barely contained the near empty ruck as it was.

I stripped down and shoved all my clothes into the locker as well. Standing naked in the locker room in the dark I let out a long sigh. I was ready to find a bed and crawl into it for a year or so.

I shined the flashlight toward the emergency shower stall and stepped in. As the water hit me I could see it was discolored when it reached the shower floor.

“Goodbye, John.” I said and hung my head to let the water wash over me.

Chapter 28 -Belt Fed Revolution

Starke and Guererra were walking alongside the APC as we continued our crawl up to the the MRAP’s. Saying they had been in a fight was putting it lightly. The leading MRAP had almost completely burned down and was riddled with holes from something pretty large. The Second MRAP actually looked largely intact save for flat tires and several holes in the front leading to the drivers area. There was a large spray of red on the windows.

I pried my eyes away from the abandoned vehicles just in time to see the three men outside fade like ghosts into the surrounding area. I swung the PKT in a wide arc expecting trouble.

I had to risk it. “Tool? What’s going on here?” O’Toole wasn’t talking to me or hadn’t heard me. The engine suddenly cut off leaving only the remembrance of the sound ringing in my ears.  I felt a tapping on my foot and looked down quickly into the interior of the APC where Tool was standing with a not-at-all-regulation-issue shotgun that I think was called a street sweeper. Tool held a finger to his lips and pointed to the rear of the vehicle.

I craned my neck around to see what he was pointing at but saw nothing. “John! Get up to the driver’s seat and get us ready to get the fuck out of here!”  I hated whispering; I was no good at it.

I heard John below stepping over the vehicle’s cargo as he settled himself into the seat. “Can you drive this thing?” several moments passed.

“I think so.”

I calmed my breathing and forced myself to focus out. Nothing had actually happened and I was starting to get tunnel-vision. There was a light breeze blowing the high grasses around on the side of the road. I kept the PKT moving, my eyes looking past the sides of the barrel for any hint of movement. I had completed another sweep when I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye. I say flash because I have no other way to describe it: there was movement in the grass that was out of sync with the breeze. I had only a vague idea of where the three scouts had gone and a sudden icy feeling creeping down to grab hold of my testicles and give them a squeeze.

My boys had never lied to me before. “CONTACT LEFT!” I shouted and swung the PKT to where I had seen the odd movement and let off a measured burst. I put several such bursts into the area moving left and right of where I’d seen the movement. Nothing happened for several seconds and I was beginning to feel like I’d called for my mommy because the monster in my closet was threatening to break free.

I had almost entirely convinced myself that I’d just  been spooked when I saw the movement again. A man-shape popped up out of the high grasses with a tube pointed my way. I sent a controlled burst his way, the Russian-surplus ammunition ripping him in half. Before he had hit the ground, I saw more man-shapes popping up, these with AR’s in the M4 configuration.

I didn’t hesitate. As soon as I had a general bearing I began to fire in three round bursts, counting it off in my head. As I searched out targets I could hear intermittent fire from behind me. I saw something large and black being rising up from the same position as the man-shape with the rocket launcher and had a second to register the muzzle flashes before I felt the impacts in the APC’s hull.

I very bravely grabbed the pistol grip of the PKT while I crouched inside the APC and laid down some suppressing fire.I watched as the end of the belt zipped past my face and paused long enough to grab another belt and hurriedly attach the links to the other end. There was an explosion outside and a brief lull in the firing. I risked a look outside and saw a column of smoke rising up from the ground. I guessed this was the source of the explosion and was hoping that was a win for our side.

I caught fleeting glances of more man-shapes bolting for the treeline and I opened fire on them. It may not have been what some people think of as honorable, but I’d rather not give these people a second chance to kill me. I saw several of them fall under the barrage and let it go at that. I could have sent more rounds into the trees but I had this thing about using ammo unnecessarily.

Time passed very slowly for me. After some time I began to see more movement in the area I’d been putting rounds on and I saw movement toward those areas followed by strangled screams and shortly after, silence.

Man-shapes in gray began to emerge from the grass. Patrell and Guererra from the north, Starke from the west and O’Toole from the east. Starke smiled up at me “Good work, devil-dog.”

I smiled back. “Everyone okay?”

Patrell did a quick scan of his mates “Looks like we got one casualty.”

I looked at the four men all of whom appeared to be more or less intact. The strained looks on their faces told me the rest. I wiggled back inside of the APC.

****

There was little more than a shredded torso where John had sat. The interior behind him was sprayed with so much blood it looked like a bad horror movie. Patrell helped me carry him out and lay him on the side of the road.

“Why the hell was he sitting up there in the first place?” O ‘Toole. He seemed more agitated than usual.

“I told him to take your place when you bailed out.” I shrugged.

“Well who the fuck told you to do that?! You’re not in charge here!!!”

I clamped down on my response and looked at Starke. This was his crew, he had to make things right with them. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence it was clear Starke wasn’t going to jump in.

“I don’t know you people, okay? I’m an expeditionary unit of one, got it?  You all have some time together and that’s just tits, but you don’t clue in the new guy the fuck do you expect?”

Starke finally decided to weigh in. “It’s not Finn’s fault, it’s mine. I should’ve made it clear we suspected it was an ambush.” Starke paused to refresh his dip “The Feds have been known to leave some of their motor-pool specials out and pop a few caps in them to make it look like they fell into an ambush. They don’t have the parts to repair something and it makes perfect bait. Win-win.”

Tool tried to glare at me but I met his eyes and he looked away. Too late. I saw the fear.

“Anyone have an e tool?” I asked looking around for a place to dig.

“No time. If this thing starts up we gotta roll. Everyone check bodies for ammo and intel. Tool, check out the MRAP’s, see if there’s anything usable left.” Starke crooked his finger in my direction “You’re with me.”

I fell in behind Starke and we walked off into the high grass.

“I’ve only been in charge for about a month.” Starke said this without ever looking back. “I was 0311. The biggest decision I made was what weapon to use when we were going house to house, you know?” We had stumbled across a couple of bodies and Starke began searching their belongings for anything of use.

I stayed quiet and helped with the search. Starke for some reason seemed to regard me as an equal and clearly he needed to get some things off his chest. “I got thrown into this. I was hoping to go to school or at the very least try to go mustang and get commissioned. Maybe then I’d be better suited to lead, but –man–” he shook his head and looked at me imploringly “I’m lost, bro.”

I winced at being called bro. This man–this kid–was heading for a burnout. I couldn’t have that, not now, not if the regular Army was about to be crawling up our asses.

I tried my best to channel a Drill Instructor. Social Work fluffiness wasn’t going to help here. “Sarn’t I suggest you take a second to yourself if you need to pass some eye water. Go ahead, son, get it all out. I’ll wait. Soon as that weakness gets outta you, you better get yourself unfucked in a hurry. You pull real hard until you hear a pop and when you got yer head outta yer ass, you are going to lead these men and get the fuck out of this shit-hole in a godsdamn hurry, you read me?” I almost laughed at my cliched pep talk and wondered why Drill Instructors always sound southern to me.

Starke looked slightly taken aback. I guess it had been a while since he’d heard things laid out like that. “C’mon son, rub some ooh-rah on that axe wound and lets get moving.”

Starke laughed and with that seemed to be back to the cool, confident and dangerous individual I’d met earlier. We hoofed it over to the treeline careful to keep an eye out for any stragglers or rear guard from the ‘rabbits’ we just ran off.

We had a bit of luck and found some equipment, mostly rucks filled spare uniforms and energy bars. Starke collected weapons and magazines as he went stuffing them into one of the empty rucks he had claimed.

Eventually we circled around to the small crater where the ruins of a pedestal mount for a gun had been. The gun itself was toast, the barrel bent at a 30 degree angle and the receiver seemed to be less than half there.

“The fuck?” I asked of no one in particular.

“Satchel charge. Fuckin’ cabrón’s keep trying this shit. Hopefully they won’t figure out that guerrilla warfare is the new black.” Guererra revealed sharp teeth in his predators smile.

Starke seemed satisfied with his spoils. “All right. Everybody ruck up and let’s hope we don’t have to hump it out of here on foot.”

We made our way back to the roadside and I looked at John’s remains. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were friends, but he had shed blood with me and for me and I owed him something for that. I couldn’t just leave him to rot on the side of the road.

“Wait one.” Everyone but Tool stopped where they were and turned toward me. I picked John’s body up and carried it over to the second MRAP opening the door and sliding him behind the wheel.

I looked back at the faces looking at me. “Maybe when they come along they’ll think he’s one of theirs and give him a proper burial.”

Three heads nodded in unison. I heard Patrell mutter condolences as I went to get into the APC. Starke had been keeping quiet the whole time. Part of him looked as though he wanted to give up.  Must have been the civilian part. The Marine said “Mount up. There’ll be time for payback down the road. Dunno about you all, but I’m gonna get me some!”

This was greeted with some ‘hell yeah’s’ and a few expletives directed toward those that had caused this. I said nothing as I took a seat and smiled as the APC roared to life. I used  the remnants of John’s ghillie suit for a pillow and drifted off to sleep as we  started to move out.

Chapter 27 -Belt Fed Revolution

I settled into the back of the APC  which had a lot less room than one would have imagined. Presently the back was filled with MRE’s and several boxes of ammunition for the vehicles gun.

Starke had assigned Tool to be the driver which I appreciated as it saved me from having to make small talk with the man. Starke sat down next to me with several papers in hand along with a ruler and a lensatic compass. I looked around at the interior of the APC and was given pause when I realized the lettering inside was in Cyrillic.

“The Hel is this thing?” I said out loud, but mostly to myself.

Starke looked up from his papers “BTR-80. We picked it up at an Army-Navy surplus store.” Starke folded his papers over the ruler and sat back for a moment. “The owner had this thing sitting outside for a few years. We were kind of surprised it started up.” He gestured to the boxes on the floor “That there’s for the little gun up top. We couldn’t find anything to feed the big gun.” at this he gave me a wink “So you see any thirty millimeter shells lying around you let me know.”

“Will do. The other armament didn’t look like a .50 cal.” I stated. I could make out the marking on the wooden cases of 7.62 once more but still I had no idea about the rest of it. Clearly I needed to learn Russian.

Starke nodded “PKT in 7.62x54r. Not much use against armor, but it’ll send the rabbits running.” Starke grabbed one of the wooden ammo cases and handed it to me. “You get to feeling useful sir, you help yourself to one of these boxes and check the belt links. We got caught in a pretty bad firefight outside of Paw Paw. The damn links wouldn’t feed through so we had to get out and personally hand them a can of whoop-ass.”

“Things are bad all over then?”

He nodded “We’ve been fighting the Feds pretty heavy on this side, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Lansing and Detroit.”

I paused for a brief second “The Feds? As in the Federal Government? Like regular Army?”

Starke laid his papers aside and took out a can of dip “Chew.” he said as he handed the container over to me. The last time I had put tobacco in my mouth I had been physically intact and too young to buy beer, but I took the offering gratefully. Starke took a dip himself and leaned back against the wall of the APC “You’re a Michigan boy, right?”

I nodded and Starke eyed me carefully. I was suddenly aware that there was the possibility of this ride coming to an immediate and bloody end.

“The MVDF got called up to help maintain order when the president placed Michigan under martial law.  The militia boys didn’t care too much for that idea and they made it plain.” He chuckled “Turns out those fellas had been buying and importing things a lot more dangerous than full auto AR’s and AK’s.” Starke closed his eyes for a second. I had no doubt he’d probably fallen asleep lulled by the soft growl of the BTR-80’s engine. His eyes snapped open “Yeah, so anyway, the militia’s got hold of some RPG’s, even got some homemade ones as I heard it, and some demilled anti-tank cannons from World War II. Give a man a lathe and he’ll fight you to the death.” Another wink.

“President’s decree of Martial Law didn’t set too well with the governor either it turns out. Especially when some Army weenie showed up and kicked the governor out of his office.” I had to raise an eyebrow at that. I hadn’t heard about a declaration of martial law, but given what I’d heard from others it wasn’t too surprising.

“So anyway, the governor gets good and pissed and starts contacting MVDF commanders secretly. The ones I guess he figured he could trust at least and started giving them orders to reach out to suspected militia leaders about joining forces.” he shrugged as if it were a given “turns out a lot of the militia boys were more than happy to join up and kick the Feds out.”

At this point Guererra poked his head in “Not just the militia’s either.I was regular Army, just home on leave when I got the call. I was in the MVDF before I joined the Army. Figured my oath was sworn to them first.”

Starke nodded “A lot of us feel that way. It’s one thing to ask for the National Guard to come in  and patrol the streets. something entirely different to start dropping ordinance on civilian targets.” The APC jerked to a halt. Starke jumped up front to where Tool sat. “Sitrep?”

Tool scanned the road “Patrell left a marker.”

Starke peered out the window then turned to look back at me “Think you can run that PKT?”

“A Russian gun? I would think a blind monkey could run it.”

Starke laughed “Yep. Pretty much.” He removed the magazine from his AR and checked it before putting it back in. Without a word Guererra appeared AR in hand and the two exited the vehicle.

I stood up as best I could and made my forward to the PKT and poked my head out into the brisk air. The smell of smoke was heavy on the wind. I couldn’t identify it at first but I knew it wasn’t wood smoke. I felt a little less than sure about my competency and wished there were a blind monkey nearby to give me a quick run down of the PKT.

“John, look in my ruck. There should be a small case in there with some glasses in it. Grab those then stand by with a couple of those belts just in case.” I was greeted by silence. It went on for a few beats before I called out “John? You with me?”

“Finn…um, I don’t see your ruck.”

“What?! Oh, shit…” John had done as I asked him and hidden my pack. For some reason I assumed the delay in him coming out after I called him was due to him retrieving my ruck. I thought for several moments but I didn’t recall seeing him with it when he came out.

“Shit,shit,shit. Is it back at that house, John?”

More silence. then “Yeah. I think so.”

I didn’t have much choice. I’d have to deal with it later. “Damn it. Okay. You still have your pack?”

He didn’t hesitate as long this time, but the response still wasn’t immediate. “Yes.”

I sighed. “Okay, hand me all the .500 ammo you’ve got. If you’re carrying any rounds for the rifle, separate those and keep them somewhere we can reach them in a hurry.”

John handed me more rounds than I could count and I stuffed them in every available pocket I had. I told John to make sure the shotgun was loaded and to be ready to jump out if I gave the word.

We waited for several minutes before Starke and Guererra returned. “Looks like the Feds had a pretty serious fight with somebody. There’s a couple of disabled MRAP’s up ahead. We’re going to pull up and see if we can’t scavenge a few things.”

Since we were the FNG’s here I didn’t really want to press our luck, but I figured this diversion was as close as I might get. “Sarn’t?” Starke looked at me “Sarn’t I left my ruck back at that house you picked us up at. You think…”

I didn’t get to finish my question. Starke started laughing “It’s gone, man. We’re crawling out of here for a reason. Feds aren’t far behind us. They’ve been trying to intercept us for a while but we’ve managed to evade,” He smiled wickedly “or at least slow them up. Sorry. Maybe you can get re-geared at our base.”

I didn’t fight it. Shit happens, right? I looked down and saw Sweet Louise hanging from her accustomed spot. I had several hundred rounds of ammo for both revolvers since I’d thought far enough ahead to split the ammo between John and myself. I was down to very little now, my guns, Sweet Louise and my improvised ghillie suit. An old saying from my time in the corps came back to me: Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.

“All right, sarn’t.’ It was all that needed to be said.

Starke nodded and called out “mount up!’ and we were on our way.

Chapter 24 -Belt Fed Revolution

I couldn’t remember having had this much fun in ages. Certainly not since gas became crazy expensive. Only the truly wealthy drove for pleasure now, but here I was, ripping through this field, the 33 inch tires on my Cherokee tearing up the ground flinging mud helter skelter. The young woman on the seat next to me was certainly enjoying this. She cried out “Look!” and pointed through the windshield to a pair of bobcats we had disturbed.

I tried to turn the Jeep toward the bobcats but the snow was everywhere and I wasn’t getting a lot of traction. I got us pointed in the right direction and hammered the gas pedal. It was too dark to see properly so I flipped on all of the off-road lights turning the Jeep and the area surrounding it into a small pale blue sun. Motörheads “Ace of Spades” was blaring away on the radio in an infinite loop.

From the passenger’s seat area I heard the sound of a belt buckle unlatch as she leaned over and kissed me on the neck. The song on the radio seemed to get louder in anticipation.

I woke up to near total darkness, my interior voice laughing and mocking at the same time.

Oh sure, it’s not because there’s a chick in your Jeep. That’s all normal. Uh huh. You know it’s not real because there’s a radio. Even your dreams are pathetic.”

I couldn’t really deny what the voice said. My dreams were kind of pathetic, but those were old world dreams. As meaningless now as dreams of dragons.

 There was a candle lantern near my bed, but my eyes were well accustomed to the gloom so I didn’t bother with the light.

I could see a familiar lump at the end of the bed. My ruck had been placed there with my boots lined up next to it. Someone had been busy while I was asleep. My BDU style pants were placed on top of my ruck and neatly folded along with my shirt. They even smelled clean.

I got dressed silently in the dark and sat down to slip my Cadillac’s on. For the first time in a while I  felt pretty decent. My back wasn’t bothering me, my knee hadn’t had much of a chance to complain yet and if my pants were any indication I had even lost a few more pounds. This end of the world stuff wasn’t too bad then.

I tried to sling my ruck, but as I grabbed one of the straps it became immediately apparent that its weight had almost tripled. I thought Stephen might have crawled in there, but chided myself and mumbled into the darkness “He’s far too tall”.

I reached into the pack and pulled out something anyone familiar with military surplus could identify immediately. A spam can. I couldn’t see what caliber it was, but given the guns I carrying I was pretty well assured I didn’t have anything that could chamber the contents of the spam can. I reached into one of the pouches on the back of my ruck and grabbed my little wind up flashlight.

I pressed the button and was rewarded with a watery light from the three LED’s. I couldn’t read the language, but  important stuff was plain. 7.62 something. Mosin? Kalashnikov? I shrugged and pulled the spam can out and laid it on the bed. There were two more in my ruck and I removed those also.

I wasn’t hearing sounds in the house so I assumed everyone else was still asleep. I made my way outside so I could get a fix on the sun and figure out what time it was. I opened the front door and saw Stephen sitting in a plastic Adirondack chair. His head moved slightly at the sounds I made and I knew that he was awake.

Propped up next to him on the arm of the chair was what I took at first blush for some AK variant, but it didn’t look quite right. The stock and foregrip were aftermarket polymer, but the length of the foregrip and barrel gave it away. A Romanian PSL. I had always admired these rifles and this one looked to be in fine condition.

“G’morning.”

“Morning, Stephen. Nice stick you have there.”

He smiled appreciatively. “There’s coffee. I made it the way my dad showed me, but I don’t know if it’s any good.” He gestured toward a blue metal carafe on a table with some coffee cups.

I said my thanks and grabbed up the carafe. It was still hot and I didn’t think it would be polite for me to use it as a coffee cup, so I settled for one of the small ceramic mugs and took a seat.

“Got some people comin’.” Stephen said and pointed toward a small two lane track that was probably a lot of fun on a snowmobile. I leapt to my feet and went inside, grabbing my .243 and hoped the lighted reticle scope still had some power.

I ran out and dropped down to one knee behind some concealing junk in the yard. “Um. . .  ” Stephen began “I invited them.” I looked back at him. Damn kid. He had this cool detachment thing down far better than I did. I looked through my scope anyway and saw people shapes at about 1500 yards.

Stephen held the PSL out to me. “Thought I might offer you a trade. My dad’s PSL for that.” He pointed at the rifle I held. I handed over the .243 to Stephen so I could examine the PSL. I pulled back the bolt and to my surprise a live round leapt out of the chamber. I grabbed it before it could hit the ground and examined it. Oh yeah. I was smiling inside, holding this familiar cartridge, running my finger around the odd rim that was part of its designation. 7.62x54r .

“Well as much as I appreciate the offer, Stephen, I’m kind of trying to travel light.” I winked at him before I realized he probably couldn’t see the expression in the faint light of dawn. “I can’t hump all that ammo around, unless you want to throw in a pack mule.”

He looked a bit disappointed, but handed me back my rifle without protest. “So who’s coming?”

“Couple of the neighbors. I went out last night and talked to ’em while you were sleepin’.” Stephen pulled the magazine from the PSL and reinserted the round I had ejected. “Some of ’em are in pretty bad shape already, so they were happy to come. Johnson’s tried to follow me right then, but I told ’em to wait an’ come  later.”

I cradled my rifle in my arms and sat down on a tired looking deck chair to drink my coffee and wait for the guests to show up.

****

Before Stephen’s neighbors began to arrive I went in the house and woke John. I wasn’t expecting trouble, but I’d rather be on my feet to meet it if it came our way. John was definitely not a morning person. I had to wake him two more times before I left him to stumble through getting dressed.

Stephen was talking to an older couple when I stepped through the door. Conversation stopped and I found all eyes on me, or more likely on the rig I was wearing and the gun I had slung over my shoulder.

The stragglers were coming in at this point so I waited for them to arrive and enjoyed another cup of coffee. Stephen was willing to give way too much for my rifle. I’d probably have traded him for a pound of coffee, but I wasn’t going to mention that.

Only a couple of them carried weapons. I had to wonder at that. Michigan wasn’t exactly known as a gun-shy state, but the few decent people I had seen lately with the exception of Stephen and his clan, weren’t exactly loaded for bear.

When everyone, including John was present Stephen began to hold a meeting. I stood up and introduced myself.

“Morning folks. I’m Finn” I smiled and nodded at the few that made eye contact “This is John.” John still grouchy stepped forward and offered everyone a sullen wave before collapsing onto one of the chairs.

“What’s yer part in this?” One of the neighbors, asked an elderly man with forest of stubble covering his face.

“Nothing, honestly. I helped Stephen out with a problem he had and he’s given us room and board for a couple of nights.” I waited for a further challenge, but the old man seemed satisfied.

The rest of the meeting was all Stephen. He made it clear to those assembled that John and I were temporary guests and we would be leaving soon. I offered what help I could as they discussed logistics and started making plans. More coffee was prepared and I helped myself. I figured it was a fair trade for the work I had done.

I made it around 11 am when the meeting broke for lunch. Stephen was a sight. He began working people individually while they ate, doing his best to swing them around to his way of thinking about issues they had argued over.

After lunch was over people wandered around and examined Stephen’s steading. Stephen let them look around but he wasn’t showing all his cards yet. I had seen him call a couple away from the barn and engage them in conversation as a distraction. I didn’t like the predatory looks on some faces but I chalked it up to people hard pressed to survive, seeing things they desperately needed.

I listened in on some conversations while doing my best to look like I was doing anything other than eavesdropping. I heard some talk I didn’t like, but I kept it to myself for now. The meeting resumed eventually as meetings tend to do. I was largely tuned out, watching a hawk circle on a thermal in the afternoon sun.

“Well, no offense Steve” My attention suddenly focused on the discussion “But I don’t think you’re exactly cut out to be our leader! ” I stood up at this point deciding to interject on behalf of my host. Stephen shook his head when he saw me stand, so I merely crossed my arms and stood there.

“This is my farm. You want to live here? Eat my food? Then you follow my rules. Don’t like it? You ain’t gotta stay.” I rubbed my chin and tried to hide a smirk. This kid was setting the standard for being the big boss. “If you don’t want to follow my rules, you’re welcome to go back home, but know this: once you leave, you’re out. I ain’t gonna take you in when you run outta food or can’t get water. We have to work together now, if we’re going to survive.”

The old man who had challenged me earlier spoke up “The boy’s right. Fer what it’s worth I wouldn’ta invited most of you here if it was my place.” He picked one of the troublemakers out “Dave, we all know you and your lady friend like that Metha-amphetamin shit.  What ‘re you bringin’ to the table Here?” My .357  in hand, I wordlessly  shot Dave in the head across the circle of those gathered. He slumped to the ground his head nearly falling into the small firepit we sat around.

There were screams and someone started crying. The old man looked at me gape-mouthed. Stephen just stared at me.

“Consider that express rehabilitation.” I picked a round out of my pocket to replace the one I had just fired. “Trust me. You don’t want or need people like that in your group. If you want to make it through this with half a chance everyone here needs to be healthy and willing to work.” I wasn’t telling Stephen that Ol dead Dave there was one of those I had heard talking about what they could take to sell.

I looked at the woman who had been standing next to Dead Dave and took aim once more. I fired and she flopped to the ground a few feet away, dead, but making a weird low-pitched whining sound with her last breath. I looked each of those still gathered in the eye. “You’re welcome. People say that. Usually after others thank them for the favor they’ve just received?” The old man laughed and spat “He’s a dirty fucker anyway! ” That was close enough to thanks for me.

“You can also consider that a statement on how serious is your situation if you’re in doubt of your hosts word.” I looked around and saw shocked faces still doing their immitation of a goldfish. “My name is Finn Arngeirr Sigurdsson. I killed these people. I’m happy to leave my fingerprints and a DNA sample if that will make you feel better, but trust me–no one is going to come along to punish me for that” I gestured toward the two bodies.

My ears were ringing a bit from the .357 but I heard the old man’s wife ask “What’d he say?” The old man flapped a dismissive hand at her and replied ” He said he’s some sorta Viking.” he looked at the two corpses “he was right about them at least. He did us a favor.”

The old man stood and offered me his hand “Thanks much Mr Viking.”

The old-timer didn’t see me roll my eyes at that as he retook his seat.

Stephen restarted the meeting after my little display and smiled as he asked “Anybody got any questions?” This kid was a natural.