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Chapter 32 -Belt Fed Revolution

I went to bed that night with a stomach full of deer liver and onions, the heart sauteed with carrots, I shared with Starke and his crew who provided me a Guinness Extra Stout to wash it all down. It had been ages since I’d had a drink and I must have been somewhat dehydrated to begin with as the one beer made me drunker than I can ever recall being.

Sleep was fitful. I had dreams of my old life. I dreamt of being late for work and behind on paperwork. For some reason my dream self found this all terrifying, but on waking I had trouble recalling why such  things would be of concern. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and sat up in a small tent. I couldn’t remember having crawled into the tent the night before or who might have been displaced by my lightweight self crashing here.

At least I had remembered to take off my boots. I rolled out of the little tent and fished out a pair of my new socks and laced up my Cadillac’s.  I needed water, but wanted coffee. It occurred to me I should have checked to see if the CONEX box with the Wal-Mart stuff in it had a French press. I’d sold myself too cheap.

As much as I felt Dwyer’s policies were unfair to the civilians under his charge, I didn’t feel like sharing my small hoard of coffee with them and given Dwyer’s edict of the previous day I wasn’t sure what my status in the camp was. Things weren’t nearly as bad as I expected.

Patrell came by as I was getting my ruck sorted and handed me a small leather pouch. He took one look at me and started laughing. “Rough night, bro?”

“Hel if I know. I slept through most of it.” I replied as I opened the pouch. Inside was a key and a piece of paper. The key had a stylized Ram’s head logo on it which I regarded with some puzzlement. The slip of paper was a small hand drawn map with details on how to access a cache of gasoline stored nearby and a warning not to use more than five gallons.

Patrell saw my confusion and pointed over toward the Wal-Mart parking lot “I got sent out to find your little request. Hope you like it.” I looked in the direction he pointed and saw a 2001 Jeep Cherokee, black with tinted windows and sporting a small lift.

“Foo-ken A, man.” I smiled impressed with his choice “You want a cup of coffee?” Patrell as it turned out went around prepared for situations exactly like this and produced a small camp coffee pot and and a bottle of water to cook it up with.  We walked over to the Jeep and Patrell set up a small cookstove on the macadam and set the water to boil. This kid really did come prepared.

We stood about silently for a bit watching the water heat up. “Hey!” Patrell almost jumped at my sudden exclamation “This thing got a radio?”

Patrell looked at me like I was new to the century. “Yeah man, it’s got a pretty kickin’ system too. I mean, not as nice as my ride back home, but y’know, nice.”

I grinned at him  and asked “I don’t suppose in the effort to get stuff out of Wally-World the CD section was touched was it?”

Patrell shrugged “hell if I know man. Why, you needin’ your country music fix?”

“Eat a dick.” I told him as  I proceeded to look in the Jeep. There was a knock-off maglite secured in the rear. I snatched it up and took off at a run.  Patrell fell in behind me.

“The hell’s so important man?” he called out as we ran for the store.

“Gotta have some tunes!!” I said and laughed as I trotted up to the open entrance.

Dreams really do come true.

****

I didn’t spend a lot of time looking through the music offerings, but I came up with a winning soundtrack pretty quick. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Sabaton  and much to my surprise Amon Amarth’s ‘Fate of Norn’s’ album. I may only be driving a few miles but I fully intended to rock the entire way.

I started the Jeep, the familiar inline six engine making the right sounds as I put it into gear. I chose Amon Amarth to go in the CD player first and selected ‘Pursuit of Vikings’ as I left the parking lot. The sound system was set up for bass heavy music, but with a bit of fiddling I managed to get it to produce the sounds I wanted.

The Jeep had a nearly full gas tank and a happy Heathen behind the wheel. Now came the part I was dreading. I had to come up with some sort of plan to find the militia group Dwyer was interested in and in the process not get my head blown off by the same group.

I switched CD’s to listen to Sabaton’s ‘Forty to One’, which seemed entirely appropriate, a song about a small force of Polish soldiers holding off the German Wehrmacht in World War II. I drove the Jeep in the same way I would have driven mine, which was to say slowly as I got on the freeway to go the few miles to the town where the militia was thought to be holing up.

I hadn’t come up with much of a plan, but I thought if the briefing I’d received from Dwyer was accurate I might do well just to try and get spotted.  The exit to the town was approaching and aside from being one of the few vehicles I saw on the road, I thought maybe doing something to get myself noticed might be a good plan.

I slowed as I approached the exit ramp and coasted over into the breakdown lane. I was checking for hostiles, but more importantly for my purposes, I needed to get a look at the terrain. The area next to the off ramp looked manageable so I shifted into four wheel drive and did something I’d always wanted to do. I drove off into the little area just to the right of the breakdown lane. Once I’d hit more or less level ground, I floored it.

This Jeep wasn’t as near like mine as I would have preferred, but in typical Jeep fashion it performed without a problem. I accelerated hard, causing the ground– which usually only saw the occasional riding mower– to be torn up, mud flung everywhere. I turned the wheel hard over and did a couple of donuts and did my best attempt at a hill climb toward the areas that ran next to the road.

I stopped when I felt one or more of the tires leave the surface. I’d decided that I’d had enough fun for now and proceeded to slowly climb up out of the little pit.

I made it back to the shoulder and got out to admire my handiwork. I had managed to cover the Cherokee with a good thick coat of mud. I nodded and muttered to myself as I walked around the vehicle checking the tires “Field expedient camouflage? Check!”

I hadn’t heard anything from the town and while I wasn’t exactly sitting there with a pair of Big Eyes I hadn’t seen any potential  hostiles checking me out either.

Okay genius, what now?

Time for plan B. I climbed back into the Jeep and cranked up the sounds. I chose my favorite song by Iron Maiden. ‘Run to the Hills’ and drove into town.

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Chapter 30 -Belt Fed Revolution

I dried myself off and dressed, gathering my gear so I could head back outside. Fortunately people weren’t expected to shave in the dark. There was a five-gallon bucket filled with water next to a mirror taped to one of the CONEX boxes.

I was a little surprised when I saw myself. The face in the mirror was edging toward gaunt and my eyes looked almost like deep sunk bruises. My normally pale complexion had taken on a ruddy tone from exposure to the sun and my beard –while not overly long– had gotten very bushy as had my mustache, both of which were changing color turning from a dirty blonde to a lighter color with streaks of red.

I opened the shaving kit which consisted of a disposable razor, shaving cream and a no-alcohol aftershave. I laughed and zipped the kit up mumbling to myself   “not bloody likely.”

I returned the kit and the flashlight to the supply sergeant that had taken over for Cheryl. I asked for and received a ‘hat,sun,hot weather,’ a.k.a a boonie hat. The sergeant handed me one in Army ACU pattern. I tucked the string up inside the hat and stuck it on my head and went to see if my ghillie suit was done.

A different woman greeted me at the laundry and looked at me with no comprehension when I asked for my ghillie suit back. After several attempts at explaining to her what a ghillie suit was, she waved me back behind the counter and showed me everything that was waiting to be put in one of the industrial dryers.

I saw the beaten rag of my burlap poncho and pulled it out. The stitching had held up well and the burlap had even frayed a bit in the washer. The blood stain was still evident though greatly reduced. “Just can’t get rid of your ass, can I trucker boy?” I laughed and hefted the burlap which had to weigh close to a metric ton now that it was wet. I asked the lady if she had a garbage bag and she gave me a used canvas tote with an apology

“Garbage bags are a hygenine imperative. You have to get them from supply if you want one.” It was obvious from her tone this had to be one of Dwyer’s rules. I thanked her for the tote and stuffed my suit inside.

Base security wasn’t exactly lax, but with so many civilians around the guards weren’t paying close attention to people wandering about inside the perimeter. I sat down at one of the communal tables and was marking the routes of the guards seeing where the biggest hole in their patrol was when I felt the slight breeze that had been blowing suddenly change.

I saw a pair of boots –highly polished– standing next to me. “Major.” I said without turning to look at him. He didn’t say anything for several moments and I knew what was expected. I stood and gave him a somewhat flippant salute.

“You’re military then? What sorry sacks-of-shit they dig up these days.” He looked me in the eye, not predator to predator but simply a man used to making  prolonged, uncomfortable, eye-contact. I was betting he was a big hit with the ladies.

“Have you received a duty assignment yet?” I’m sure he was used to either getting fear or respect generated by his oak leaves, but I had been a civilian for way too long to go in for that.

The predator in me was working his way to the surface. This man struck me as a bully and I had never cared for bullies. I drawled a “Naw,sir” at him and waited for whatever was coming next.

He surprised me by nodding “All right. Come see me in command and we’ll get you squared away. Have you had a chance to eat?”

Had I misjudged him? Maybe Starke had the right of it. The man was just trying to do his best to get by; the only difference was he was the one everyone looked to for answers. “Sir, no. I just got out of the shower, sir.” I straightened up a little.

The corner of his mouth twitched up in what I was guessing passed for a smile. “Beards aren’t normally regulation, but I’m not going to bust balls over it. I wouldn’t want to dull a razor shaving that thing off anyway.”

I squinted slightly. Was that a joke? “Yes, sir.” I replied and smiled back uncertainly.

He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “Right. Get some food in you and I want to see you at 1430 in my office.”

“Aye aye, sir.” I waited until he moved around me to relax a little bit. I sat back down and resumed watching the guards. It occurred to me I had no watch or any idea what time it was. The sky was overcast so I couldn’t get an exact fix on the sun. I scanned the area and found a group of civilians standing single file in a line leading into an area hidden by several stacks of pallets.

I joined the line guessing correctly it was for chow. The civilians in line all stared at me like I decided to set myself on fire and hang around to enjoy the blaze. One by one they all stepped to the side to let me pass to the front. I felt a tapping on my shoulder and turned around. “Mikes don’t wait.” O’ Toole said with obvious disdain. I felt slightly embarrassed and excused myself, stepping out of the line entirely and wandering away from the group.

I saw Patrell standing by the supply area, an eyebrow raised as I apporached. “One of us now, huh?” He shook his head and I could only shrug.

“Guess so.” Right now all I wanted was to get away from everyone, but it seemed everywhere I looked was filled with people military or civilian. “Hey, what time is it, Patrell?”

Patrell had on a digital watch with an oversized dial. He turned the dial toward himself and said “1345.” I thanked him and looked for a place to hide until I could make my escape or until I had to go meet with Dwyer.

There was a trailer parked right against the building with the kind of ladder Wal-Mart employee’s would have used to stock high shelves. I climbed the trailer and saw that there was about a 6 foot difference between it and the roof of the building. I looked around to see if anyone was watching.

If I messed this up it was going to be embarrassing. I ran and jumped at the wall grasping the edge and managed to pull myself up pretty easily. I was duly impressed considering I’d done this carrying all my gear.

I no longer had my monocular having lost it sometime during the fight with the feds, so I had to satisfy myself with using my scope to see the area.

I unsnapped the lens covers on each end and extended the guns bipod to its fullest height. I looked around scanning the area until I found one of the guards I’d been watching earlier.

“Killing anyone in command is a court-martial offense.”

****

I was glad I had wrapped my rifle sling around my wrist or it would have been a neat little mess on the ground below.

Cheryl was smiling beatifically “What are you doing up here?”

“Just trying to get the lay of the camp.”

She put her hands on her hips and laughed “Well you’re certainly forward!”

I stopped and ran the exchange back in my head. When I saw my error I hung my head “Yeah, sorry. not what I meant. I was just wondering how big the camp is?”

Cheryl put her hand on my elbow and turned me back toward the trailer I had jumped up from. “Anyone else would probably turn you in as a Fed spy for doing that, but I’m going to give you a break because you’re new here and Starke vouched for you.”

Even though Cheryl had been smiling and laughing there was nothing funny here. I had not missed the fact that her hand had never been more than a few inches away from her sidearm during the entirety of our exchange. I swung my legs over the edge of the roof and let myself down gently.

No matter. I had a good enough idea of where to probe the perimeter to escape. I decided to head over to command and see what Dwyer had to say. At the very least I might get another cup of coffee before I sneak out.

As I approached the CONEX box the guards on duty there saluted me.I guessed it was probably habit for them to salute uniformed people they didn’t recognize. I thought about the few times I had pulled guard duty and realized they probably didn’t even see me, they we’re just saluting out of habit so some dipshit officer didn’t get his panties in a twist.

I climbed the steps into the command CONEX and waited while a sergeant I didn’t recognize advised me that the Major was running behind. Moments later Starke appeared and grinned at me “ready for your meet with Dwyer?’

I nodded “As I’ll ever be. Does he tend to run late?”

Starke shrugged it off “Grab a cup of coffee if you want. Command doesn’t have the same restrictions on the stuff.”

I asked for and received a cup of coffee from the sergeant at the desk. As far as I was concerned the meeting was already a win for me. Starke and I passed the time talking about duty assignments and making small talk about the base. after a while Dwyer appeared and waved us in to his makeshift office.

 Office was really stretching the term. Dwyer’s office was a corner of the CONEX partititoned off with cheap wood paneling  and contained a small cheaply made computer desk with a ‘ruggedized’ laptop computer open on the desk. Dwyer waved us into a couple of plastic chairs sat in front of his desk,dispensing with military formalities.

Dwyer typed something briefly into his laptop and sighed tiredly as he waited “Finn Sigurdsson. Served one tour in Iraq as part of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Lejune. Injured while escorting a convoy of HMMWV’s at Prince Sultan Air Base, separated from the Corps without benefits…” he trailed off as he read giving a brief shake of his head. “Long and the short of it is, welcome back Marine. You’ve been drafted into the service of the Michigan Volunteer Defense Force.”

“Drafted?” I looked to Starke who was concsciously avoiding eye contact with me. “My pension getting reinstated, too?”

Starke decided to join the fray “Look Finn, the truth of it is we need every body we can get. The Feds are busy elsewhere and haven’t committed their full strength here, but the problem is  we aren’t just fighting the Feds. Some of the militias want to scrap as well. We need someone who can act as a go between.”

Starke eyed me hopefully.

 I looked at Starke. “I should’ve killed you when I had the chance.”

Starke laughed and Dwyer remained silent watching the exchange. “I’m guessing my option, should I refuse, is death?”

Dwyer shook his head ‘No. We’re not the feds. You can refuse if you want.” I could feel the but coming. “But unfortunately we can’t allow you to leave if you do refuse.”

I ran through several scenarios in my head. I could easily shoot my way out of the CONEX box, but I didn’t think I’d be able to escape the camp.

Under my breath I muttered “Welcome to FOB Assrape.”  Aloud I said “All right damn it. What do I have to do?”

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 25 -Belt Fed Revolution

John got volunteered to help me dispose of the bodies. The show I had put on for the people seem to crystallize things for them and everyone was more or less willing to accept Stephen as their leader. The group he had invited had already taken up residence at his homestead. I heard from most of them that they didn’t really have anything at their houses worth bringing.

Stephen suggested that they send armed patrols to each persons house to get personal belongings, clothes or whatever else could be scraped together the next day.

John and I stayed on until evening and ate a final meal with the group. I kept the goodbyes limited, speaking mostly to Stephen.

“I gotta tell you kid you were born for this. You had these people in line long before I dropped the hammer on those two lightbulbs.” I gestured over to the two small graves John and I had dug.

I stuck out my hand and Stephen took it, grasping it with surprising strength “Thanks, Finn. Y’know…if you ever need a place to stay I’d be okay with you hanging out here.”

I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. I saw a younger predator looking back at me with the same steely glint in his eyes I had been carrying for years. “Nah, I think you’re better off without me around.”

Stephen knew it too, though his offer had been genuine. We finished our goodbyes and I promised that if I ever headed back this way I’d stop in and see how things were going at Stephentopia as some people were starting to jokingly call it.

John had decided to take his chances on making it to Canada and thus following me.  As we said our final goodbyes and turned, Stephen called out to us “Wait, I forgot somethin’!” He disappeared into his house for a few minutes and came back out with a backpack and handed it to John.

John hefted the pack with a slight grunt “What’d you put in here, a brick?” Stephen just smiled and said “It’s a gift for, Finn.” For a moment the budding leader was gone and in his place was the child I had seen but briefly when we went out to hunt.

We waved goodbye again and started walking. Soon the little farm was no longer visible and I reckoned it had to be closing in on 7 ‘o clock. We stayed near the road walking mostly on the soft shoulder prepared to jump if we saw anything or anyone else.

John was walking behind me by several yards when I suddenly stopped.  I heard John ready his shotgun by clicking off the safety. He called out quietly “What’s up?”

“Dunno” was all I could say. Something for sure had my attention but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The sky was dark enough I could see the stars starting to pop up and even without the moon I could see pretty well. I stood as still as I could once more trying to will my senses to be superpowered if only for a second or two.

“No lights!” John jumped as I exclaimed this.

“What?”  he hadn’t noticed it yet.

“There’s no lights, John. Look around.” I pointed to the northeast. We had been walking along U.S. 31/I-196 looking for Blue Star Highway near South Haven. I didn’t see any lights shining up into the sky which would indicate there was a town nearby.

“Son of a bitch. . . you’re right. I’ve driven this road plenty of times and I know there’s a couple of little truck stops that could pass for a town with all their lights on around here.”  John scanned the area and pointed almost east “there’s something.”

I waved him down into the ditch and unslung my rifle. I could see light, but it wasn’t the usual steady glow of flourescents lighting the sky. “Fire.” I said and handed John the rifle.

“How can you tell?” he asked peering intently through the scope.

“Watch the way the light wavers and flickers. You only get that from fire” John handed me back the rifle “I’ll take your word for it.’

“Rule one, John? It also means ‘I’m always right’ “I heard him laugh but I continued to watch the fire for a moment. I stood up and picked off the bits of gravel that had become embedded in my arm. “With that fire, anyone over there can’t see us. Let’s get going.”

John walked a little closer so he could talk. “So what’s up with the lights then?”

“Power must be off. Could be anything. Someone could have taken out a transformer or there could have been a storm.” I offered these explanations and thought they sounded reasonable, but I had a feeling that wasn’t the truth of it.

As night wore on and the further we walked it remained dark all over. If I had to guess, I’d say the grid had gone down here for some reason. All I knew was I didn’t really feel like approaching any of the darkened towns and asking questions so we kept moving.

We walked on for the rest of the night making our slow and steady progress. When the sky began to turn lighter I started looking for a place to hole up. I saw a house not too far off and thought we’d try there. I had my monocular strapped to my wrist again since we had been walking and I lifted it up to scope out the place. The house looked deserted, but still pretty well intact.

As we approached the house I didn’t see any signs of recent habitation. Either the former owners had cleaned up pretty well before they split or the squatters had decided this place was too far out to trouble with. That was fine by me so I began looking around for a place to enter the house.

All the windows were intact and I didn’t want to break one in case anyone was keeping an eye on the place and give away that we were there. The house was old. I noticed a coal delivery chute on one side and tried to open it. I couldn’t even budge the thing. “Finn, come here!”  I had my revolvers in hand and went around the corner prepared to shoot. John was standing at the back door which was open.

“It was unlocked.” He smiled at me as I holstered my revolvers and walked in past him. My instincts about the place were right as it turned out. The house was pretty well spotless and empty but showed  signs of furniture having been moved recently. The place smelled of antiseptic and I wondered if a realtor had come out and cleaned the house up desperate to try to sell it.

We went through all the cabinets and closets downstairs and found nothing. I set my ruck on a counter and pulled out my tactical L.E.D. flashlight and clicked it on using all 350 lumens to explore the basement.

There were boxes in the basement, but they contained nothing useful, being filled mostly with dishcloth’s and other kitchen items. Satisfied with my exploration I went up the stairs and put my ruck back on. John had been standing watch in the kitchen where we had entered and I jerked my head toward the stairs “Come on.”

“Finn?” Fuck. I didn’t like that tone.

“What’s up?”

John was pointing out the window so I moved up beside him. I couldn’t see what he was looking at so he moved and I stood where he had been. I saw a patch of gray that looked weird. It got weirder seconds later when the gray patch resolved into a man. I raised the monocular and looked out.

“What’s going on?’ John hissed.

I stood there looking until my brain found a working gear. “Well I’ll be…”

“You’ll be what? Hanged? Arrested? Dipped in shit?”
I picked up my rifle and adjusted the eyepiece to maximum magnification. “It’s a scout. . .”

“A scout? A boy scout?” I dropped the monocular prepared to smack some sense into John but I saw he was being serious.

“Not a boy scout. MVDF if I’m not mistaken” I could see that didn’t mean anything to him, so I explained “Michigan Volunteer Defense Force. Sort of like the National Guard but just for Michigan.”

I moved to the living room and its larger window and watched the scout for a while. Eventually he disappeared. I kept scanning the wooded areas near the house looking for his mate but I couldn’t see anything out-of-place. I don’t know how long I waited but I eventually gave it up.

“Okay, John, go on upstairs and get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch.” I could see he was tired and I didn’t mind being awake right now. Why one scout? Where was the other one? Or for that matter where was the unit he was scouting for?

I kept watch until about 1400 and went up to wake John.  “while you’re on watch if you see anything–even if it’s  animals running–anything that doesn’t look right, get upstairs and wake me.” He nodded “Oh and try not to silhouette yourself.”

“That a gay joke, ’cause I don’t get it?”

“Don’t stand in front of the windows if you can help it. Definitely don’t stand in an open door.” I yawned “just try not to make yourself a target to anyone with a rifle and decent eyesight.”

I headed upstairs and closed my eyes, but my thoughts kept turning over. Maybe the scout had gotten separated from his mates. Maybe he wasn’t a scout at all, just someone lost and trying to get to a fortified position. As I pondered the situation I actually managed to fall asleep.

A short time later John was kneeling beside me, shaking me by the shoulder. “Get up!” he said in a stage whisper.

My eyes were open and I was instantly awake. “What’s happening?” I asked as I stifled a yawn.

“He’s back!” John pointed at the window.

“Who? The scout?” I doubted it was the same person, but the fact that there was another one was enough to pique my interest.

“I saw him a few minutes ago, but I couldn’t tell what was happening. It’s that one from earlier, coming back this way.”

I let John lead the way downstairs and Ito the window he’d been standing at. It took me a few moments to spot him even with the gray BDU’s he was wearing.

“The fuck?” I said to no one in particular. John thought it was directed at him.

“I know! He’s been sitting there for a while” As soon as John stopped speaking I heard it. The sound was as familiar to me as it was to John. A diesel engine changing gears. John looked at me wide eyed.

The typical reactions in this situation are fight,flight or freeze. Maybe add freak out in some cases.  I saw the vehicle, a gray painted APC of some sort. I wasn’t really up-to-date on my military vehicles and this one didn’t look American. I started having a flashback to Red Dawn. Russians? But if it were Russians why would they be wearing the MVDF insignia?

“Fuck it.” I took out my S&W .500 and made sure it was fully loaded and did the same for my .357. I was going to add a new category to fight-flight-or-freeze.Confront like a man. “Gimme the shotgun, John.”

John looped the shotgun on over my extended arm and stepped back. “I’m going to go out there and talk to them. If I don’t signal you after a bit, get out the window and hide yourself. I’ll keep them busy for a second or two.” John nodded and gathered up all his supplies and stood ready. “I’m leaving my ruck here. Carry it down to the basement and hide it as best you can. If you hear shooting wait for a few hours and come back. If you can do it safely, you can have my ruck.”

I stepped out the door and headed off to meet the scout and his friends.

Chapter 23 -Belt Fed Revolution

Instead of burying Carl by the roadside where he had died I thought it more appropriate to carry him back to Stephen’s stead.This was a slow process and before I’d gone fifty yards I wished I’d just left him there.

The grave I dug was not deep nor very long.

“Stephen, do you want to say anything?” He remained steadfast and silent.

I rolled Carl into the grave, folding up his legs into a semi-fetal position and covered him over with the dirt.I made sure that when Carl was buried his hat and the Ruger Vaquero he’d been carrying went with him. I asked Stephen if he wanted his brother’s gun but I got no response so I put the revolver in the holster Carl still wore. I didn’t feel right not saying a little something even if it were just for Stephen’s sake. I had been a solitary Heathen for most of my life and certainly didn’t consider myself a goði–a term roughly equivalent to priest– and even though I hadn’t spoken at many funerals I decided to give it a shot.

I started to speak then almost immediately snapped my mouth shut. For  once  it was not due to a shortage of words, but it occurred to me it might be insensitive to say words meant for my people over a stranger. Stephen looked up when I stopped, raising an eyebrow at me like a pubescent, malnourished Spock. “Is your family Christian?” I asked softly.

Stephen shrugged “Dad always said we were, but we never went to church or nothing.”

I figured that was good enough. I began with a snippet of poetry from long ago, one that many people before me have said and even though it felt kind of cheesy to be saying it, it was fitting.

“Cattle die, kinsmen die, you yourself shall one day die. But I know one thing which never dies, the fate of the honored dead”.

I paused to clear my throat then words came to me “I didn’t know Carl, but I am one that has accompanied him down to the barrow.  It is thought that kings and exceptional warriors are called to Valhalla, brought there by the choosers of the slain. Carl it seems was one of those warriors, defending home and hearth even to his death, but it is not ours to know what fate awaits a man. We bring him now to the barrow that he may watch over his home and his brother, causing him no ill as he dwells here until time ends.”

Stephen didn’t say anything, but when I stopped speaking he merely looked at the grave for a moment before heading back into his house. I looked up and saw John standing a few feet away.

“All right, John?”

“I’ll be okay.” He said. “Finn, I’m sorry. I really am. I know how dumb that was…those people could have killed us!”

I laughed “Yeah, they might have killed you. I would’ve made them sorry though if they had killed me.”

John seemed to skip a beat and then he laughed quietly. “Yeah, I bet you would.” We began to walk toward the house, where I was hoping to spend a few hours asleep.

John broke my train of thought when he asked “So how’s this gonna work?”

“How is what going to work?”

“Well, us, this place, Stephen? I mean are we going to take rooms here, try to build the place up? Defend it, I mean?”

I hadn’t really thought about that and said as much. “I was kind of figuring on heading out, John.” He didn’t exactly look surprised, but I could tell this wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. “As far as I’m concerned, this is Stephen’s steading. He’s in charge here. Now, maybe you can handle that, but I’m not made that way.”

He snickered “You mean you can’t handle someone else being in charge?”

I shot him a warning look “No. I can handle someone else being in charge. Like I said, this is his place. I’d be in charge for a while until Stephen was ready, but when he gets there, it’s not going to be a ‘hand over the keys to the shop’ kind of transition. He’s going to take leadership. I don’t want to be the one he takes it from. If you want to stay here and play that role, you go ahead. My plans haven’t changed.” I left John standing there and went into the house to find myself a comfortable place to rack out for a bit.

****

I slept until just before dusk and woke up cursing, my back being twisted up in knots. I found Stephen and John outside cleaning a brace of rabbits. Stephen was doing the work and teaching all at once.

“Stephen” He paused briefly and gave me a half-smile. “I was thinking it’s time for me to move on. I wanted to thank you for hospitality and ask if there’s anything I can do for you before I go?”

His smiled filled in the rest of the way as he spoke “I think I’ll be all right. I know how to operate the equipment here and we got seeds I can plant.” he kind of shrugged as if he’d been expecting this “and there’s a couple of people nearby, some families that aren’t near as well set up as I am. Kinda figured I’d go talk to them and see if we can all get together in one place…I guess try and start over?”

I grunted noncommittally at that. “Well, I’m not going to tell you how to run things. I think you probably can figure that out as well as I could. But starting over?  You know where we just came from; you in a big hurry to get back there?”

He thought it over almost a full second before responding “Nah, I guess not.”

I looked at John “What about you? You going to stay and be Stephen’s hired man?” The look on Stephen’s face said he hadn’t thought of that, but he didn’t really seem too keen on the idea.

John managed to save face a bit when he said that I’d be lost without him and besides who else was there to carry the gear?

“You mind if we stay on an extra night? My back could use the rest and I’d appreciate a chance to get all my gear squared away.”

Stephen had already returned to skinning the rabbits but tossed a few words over his shoulder “Yeah, no problems. I think I can even help John out a bit. I’ve got my brother’s old backpack down in the bunker if he can do some sewing, it might even hold together for a while.”

I laughed and looked at John “Well, you heard the man, Suzy Homemaker. Get to work!”

I left John there fuming and went into the house to make ready for our return to the road.


Chapter 22 -Belt Fed Revolution

I needed to tell the kid his brother was dead, but I’ve never been really good at delivering bad news.  I delayed dealing with this by asking Stephen to run me through reloading.  Stephen agreed and headed down into the crawl space to gather brass and primers for the .500  keeping him out of my hair for a few minutes.

“John?”

“Hmm?”

“Come here for a sec, would ya?”

As soon as John got within distance I blasted him with a left cross followed by a slightly off center upper cut that caught him flush on the chin. I wiped blood–mine or his I couldn’t say– off my hand. I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs and waited for him to regain his senses. I think I knocked him out for a second, but wasn’t sure; he seemed dazed, but still coherent.

“So rule number one, one more time: You are never in charge.”  I fished around in my pack looking for the anti-bacterial gel for my knuckles and the cut under John’s eye. “Rule two, we don’t hand guns to people we don’t know.”

I sighed and stood up to help John get to his feet. “and not to put too fine a point on things, but…if you’re ever confused about anything, rule one is your friend.”

John nodded and let me put a dab of the anti-bacterial gel on his cheek. “Sorry, I don’t think I have any butterfly bandages.” I offered to stitch the wound up for him but he refused. He wanted to go off somewhere and be quiet, by himself. I approved wholeheartedly and suggested he go keep an eye on the remnants of the fire.

I had to admit, this new world, it had a lot going for it.  No one was pestering me to communicate or share my thoughts . When you have a problem, blast away. It was up to you to decide if blast was best accomplished with fists, guns or whatever else was near to hand. This was downright refreshing.

The more I thought about it I realized that I hadn’t really encountered the issues I expected being off my meds. When something pissed me off, I killed it, burned it, beat it or broke it. Maybe the medication I had to take to get by in the old world was a symptom of the civilization, not a failing in me. Was it possible mother nature had been cranking out people like me to try and thin the herd?

I always put thinking like that down to my dysfunction . In my time as a social worker it was clear to me that the dumber a person was the more likely they were to have about 10 kids: smart people stopped breeding. We’d done everything we could as a species to stop our own evolution. Strong predators make smarter prey, I suppose.

I ruminated on this for a while until Stephen came back upstairs and told me he was ready to show me how to reload my own ammo.

****

I had to admit I was pretty well tuned out. I heard what Stephen was saying, but I wasn’t really there. When I had loaded 10 rounds of .500 on my own, I went outside and sat under the stars. I couldn’t recall how long it had been since I’d slept the night through but I didn’t feel tired.

John was off sulking somewhere and Stephen was working away in the little crawl space loading up his special hand loads for his shotgun. It was nice to have the time to myself.

Eventually I began to see squirrels and rabbits telling me morning had arrived.

Stephen was still in the crawl space but now he was loading something else. The kid was efficient and really knew his stuff. “Hey, Stephen?” the kid jumped like he’d heard a shot. I smiled and wondered if A.D.H.D. was going the way of the dodo now as well.

“Yessir?” He replied coming up the stairs but without the same energy he’d had last night.

“You have a .22 around here?” He smiled and ran off to one of the rooms in the trailer addition and returned a few seconds later with a Marlin Model 60 equipped with a small 4x scope. I grinned at him “I’d ask if you have ammo for it, but…” the smile he was wearing now split his face wide open as he opened one bulging pocket on his cargo shorts filled almost to overflowing with .22 rounds.

I had  heard the soft sound of the rounds in his pockets as he ran back to me and I smiled my approval when he showed me he was ready for the zombie apocalypse.  Provided the zombies were all bunnies or squirrels. I grabbed my slingshot out of my pack and a handful of the little steel ball bearings I used for ammo. I tried to be subtle about grabbing my little e tool off my pack and attaching it to my belt.

“Let’s go find something for breakfast.” I had barely finished speaking and he was out the door.

I followed along as fast as I could. I didn’t see John anywhere around as we walked away from the little homestead. I mentally shrugged and figured if he had taken off so much the better for me.

I didn’t really want to do this, but I couldn’t think of a better way. Stephen and I walked a while each of us taking shots at whatever critters could be found as we went. We had been walking for a while when Stephen piped up with “Where are we going?”

I had hoped he wouldn’t twig to my plan until we got closer, but the kid was pretty on the ball. “Your brother, Carl, you looked up to him?” I cursed myself silently for using the past-tense, but Stephen didn’t notice.

He looked a little embarrassed but he finally nodded “Yeah. Him and my dad, taught me everything about huntin’ and stuff. Carl taught me how to drive…on the tractor.” I nodded and kept walking. There had to be words for this. I knew lots of words, so I knew that if I searched long enough I’d find them, but my brain just wasn’t cooperating.

“Stephen…” Shit! Words! Any words would do! Come on brain, help me out here! “Stephen, I think your brother is dead.” I waited a beat for the explosion but it never came. “John and I, we came across this ambush…” Stephen’s eyes were filled with tears but otherwise calm still. His voice stayed even and flat. “Did you kill my brother?”

“No. Not us.I promise you that” He seemed satisfied with my answer. Moments passed between us before he spoke again.

“Take me there.”

Before we got to the ambush site the soft buzzing sound of flies began to reach our ears. The wind was blowing toward us and the ripe bloated bodies left to the elements were challenging my ability to look like the cool, calm, disaffected drifter.

Stephen must have recognized something about his brother’s remains from a distance. We were probably still a hundred yards from the burned out cars when Stephen took off running.

By the time I made it to the side of the road, Stephen was on his knees next to his brother. Not crying, not really doing anything, just kneeling there. The cowboy hat I’d placed over Carl’s face had blown away leaving it exposed to the birds and whatever else out there might fancy a bit of human flesh.

“This Carl?”

Stephen nodded pressing his lips into a thin line until they turned white.

I turned away to let Stephen say goodbye to his brother and started looking for a place to dig.