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Chapter 51 -Belt Fed Revolution

We sat around the table trying not to stare at each other but largely failing.  Michael looked at us expectantly waiting to hear the tale.  I had no doubt he’d make one up later if this one didn’t suit him.

I maintained eye contact with Starke for as long as I could. I saw O’Toole wince and his head whip around to look at Starke.  The two of them exchanged a brief look before turning back to me.

“Boys care to tell us what happened since we last met?” I asked searching my expression database for congenial smile I think I pulled it off, but without a mirror I never knew for sure.

Starke cleared his throat and stood unfolding a map. “You may recall last time we met the MVDF was pulling out of one of their forward operating bases. My group joined up with another militia at almost the same time. . . I think you know our new leader?”

I nodded. “I think we met, but I don’t recall his name.”

Starke nodded and continued to look at the map. “Well you were kind of busy last time I saw you. What ended up happening with you guys? The PLM was busy bugging out of the area after the nuke.”

All talk ground to a halt.

“Nuke?” my voice was a whisper and I was sure I’d misunderstood him.

Starke nodded and took a marker and made two X’s on the map. “Not like thermonuclear weapon, but nuclear material. Here at Palisades nuke plant and then down the coast at Cook Nuclear. The populations from those areas were swarming the nuclear plants, looking for aid, electricity maybe. Maybe they wanted to play some Madden. Who knows?”  Starke shrugged. “Anyway, the people overran the guards at the one plant, here” he pointed at one of the X’s “the Feds, they tried to drive them out but with their resources spread so thin they didn’t commit enough resources.” Starke and I shared a laugh at that. “So after some fights back and forth, the Feds they realize that maybe they don’t need to take the plants. . . maybe they just keep the people from having them.” Starke shrugged again. “You can do the math there.”

We all stared quietly at each other for a while. Eventually some more coffee was brought out. Starke sat down and turned in his seat looking at me. Michael wasn’t there as far as we were concerned nor was O’Toole. This conversation was just between us.

“So most of the lower southwest quadrant is considered uninhabitable. No telling how they fucked up the lake. . .” he trailed off for a minute lost in his own thoughts. “We had wounded we had to evacuate because we didn’t know how far the fall out was going to spread. . .” he raised an eyebrow at me.

I kept my expression neutral as I swallowed that. I had escaped from friendlies. I am a genius. I nodded to Starke and hoped he knew that I got the message.

“Where did you hear all this? Were there survivors or what?”

Starke shrugged and leaned forward placing is arms on the table. “Survivors? Probably. Hell if I know. We heard it from an Indian News Station. India, indian. Caught it on shortwave.” He laughed here “I don’t know how much of it is propaganda, but India actually sounds relatively stable now. Of course that because they nuked the living shit out of Pakistan, but y’know, give peace a chance an’ whatnot.” Starke whipped out a can from his back pocket and offered it around making a question into a statement. “Chew.”

Michael and O’Toole passed, but I leaned forward and took a pinch,completely  ignoring Michael’s disapproving look.

With the offer of tobacco it was my turn now to talk which I did with some care. “I was in a firefight. It was a weird one. It was really hairy at first, but I was on my gun and was taking the enemy down as fast as I could work the bolt.”

Starke and O’Toole both nodded since they knew this part well. “There was a lull in the firing and even though we were winning I held out the white flag when I realized the unit was friendly.” I smiled “We were all kind of confused in that fight; tough to tell the good from the bad when they don’t wear uniforms you immediately recognize.” I said veiling the reference to their new urban camo outfits  in my comments.

I saw the ‘fuck you’ in Starke’s eyes but kept on talking. “I went out thinking the other side realized I was trying to sue for peace and then I took a shot ” I pointed to my side “in the back.”

Starke’s eyebrow’s flew up, but as he was facing away from Michael the expression was hidden from him as well as the fact that Starke’s eyes locked onto O’Toole. The implication was unmistakable.

“Good ol’ friendly fire.” I said and locked eyes with O’Toole “I’m sure you’ve all been through that before. Or may soon. Happens when you work with a bunch of untrained types.” I let the threat hang there though there was really nothing I could do about it at this point.

Starke gave me a nod, his jaw clenched tightly shut.

Michael decided to interject at this point “Well that’s terrible news. Terrible!” he shook his oversize head sadly. “To think that the government would do such a thing to their own people!”

We all nodded our agreement.

“So what brings you guys to our little slice?” I asked.

Michael smiled broadly his eyes practically sparkling “These fine men have brought news. There’s going to be a fight soon. ”

“That so?”

Starke nodded. “The Feds have holed up in Lansing. Several unconnected groups are heading this way. Final push and such. We’re out scouting, hoping to find supplies or recruits.” Starke shifted in his seat a bit to look at Michael. “Your leader here was telling us you’re raising an army for him.”

“Trying to. I just got here, really. These guys are green. Like pine saplings.” I looked at Michael, since this was our first chance to really discuss such things it probably came as an unwelcome surprise to him. “Of course, I’m not in charge here so I couldn’t commit forces one way or the other. If I had to send anyone it’d be the guards. They’ve got the gas tanks for a fight and at least some discipline.”

Michael nodded at my assessment, looking displeased. “So be it then. I’d be happy to support this effort, even though it cost me dear. Do you boys know when this fight is going to take place?”

Starke looked at me. “Not too soon. Probably the next couple of weeks at the soonest. Of course, if you like we can take your men with us and start getting them trained up.”

Michael nodded “Yes. Yes, indeed. I think that’d be just fine.”

“Michael, I don’t know if you are aware, but Mr Starke here was also a Marine.” I smiled at the little psychopath “his experience may be invaluable. If I could have him look at the range set up, he might remember some things I’ve missed.”

“That would be fine. I’d welcome the help and I’m sure it’ll make your job easier as well.” Michael nodded and smiled as though indulging a small child. “The sun will be up shortly if you gentlemen can spare the time?”

“Be happy to help.” Starke confirmed folding his hands in front of him, waiting I think, to be dismissed.

I saw my chance and took it “Uh, gentleman, if you don’t mind I’d like a minute to speak to Michael, alone.”

Starke nodded, standing up and seizing O’Toole by the arm. “Sure thing.” he said pulling O’Toole along after him.

Michael hopped down off his chair and waved at a nearby guard “See that these men get some food and water. Replenish their supplies, too.” The guard nodded and escorted them from the room.

“Michael, I’ve been hoping to have a minute of your time. I hope you don’t mind.”

Michael’s thought’s was not truly present but he nodded and resumed his seat at the table.

“I know this may not meet with your approval, but given current happenings I feel it may be more than a good idea. It’s a necessity.”

Michael focused on me with tired eyes. “If you need something else, just tell John . . .” he started to wave me away.

“Well not exactly.” I said.

He raised an eyebrow at me “Okay. Out with it.”

“If you’re thinking about taking on the Feds then we’re going to need all hands on deck.” I put the idea out there and waited for him to seize on it.

“What do you mean, brother Stephen?” He asked. Michael was aging before my eyes. Slumping into his seat almost impossibly growing even smaller.

“I’d like your permission to train the women–those that are fit–how to shoot. Not the physical training the men have gotten, but as a last line of defense for home ground.” I gestured to the area of the camp behind me.

Michael nodded and thought about it for a moment. “No. Absolutely not. It is not woman’s work to make war. Women are here to serve men, to please them,  rear children, and take care of the things we must needs let slip in order to wage this war against the heathen.”

“Have you ever heard the name Simo Häyhä?” I asked changing tactics.

Michael shook his head. “I can’t say that I have brother.”

“Simo Häyhä was a Finnish sniper in World War II. During the course of his service, he managed to kill 505 enemy combatants. That happened over the course of one year. From 1939-40. There was only one more sniper that even came remotely close to matching his skill. Her name was Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She killed 309 men. ” I leaned forward to indicate how sincere I was “They killed almost 1,000 men between them, using the very rifle you were so far sighted to provide for your men. Your army.”

Michael sat back in his chair locking eyes on me, searching for something. Finally he let out a sigh and nodded. “All right. You may train them.” he held up a stubby finger “With the understanding that they are the last line of defense.”

“Thank you, brother.” I smiled “When this war is over, I think you will be regarded as a prophet for your vision.”

Michael smiled tiredly “God willing brother. I am just here to do his will.”

I turned to leave but stopped “Brother Michael, you look tired. Are you well? Should I send for Sarah?” I smiled down at him “We need you to strong. We can’t have you leaving us before you’ve served your purpose.”

Michael smiled at me and nodded “I want that more than anything brother. But I’m fine. I just need to get some rest.” He hopped down out of his chair and took my hand in his own “I’ll send for Sarah later, when I’ve had some rest just to make sure. I thank you for your concern brother. It’s touching to know that humanity still knows compassion even in these dark times.”

I closed my other hand around his and smiled “You just concentrate on keeping your strength up. We need you to be strong for a while longer.”

I chuckled inwardly. Stay strong at least until I have a chance to bathe my knife in your blood.

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Chapter 50 -Belt Fed Revolution

My quarters were empty except for the dogs. I slipped inside happy to be out of sight of prying eyes. I sat on the bed and removed my weapons, stuffing the Ka-Bar into the bag with my medical kit.

I kicked off my boots and slid my revolver under my pillow. I stared at the door and pondered what Preston had said. Why would Michael be making up stories about my past? What purpose did it serve? Between that and trying to figure out a plan to even the odds with the men of the camp my brain was working at full capacity.

I fell asleep without even realizing it.

There was a person laying next to me in the bed. My eyes snapped open, and I went into full alert. I caught a whiff of Paige’s natural scent. For a brief moment I felt her soft warmth pressed up against me and the rhythm of her snoring. I pushed myself up out of bed, my heart racing, layers of pathology suddenly reasserting themselves. It had been so long since I’d touched another human being for any purpose other than to kill I didn’t know what to do with them anymore.

Paige was rudely awakened by my movement. Her eyes popped open and she reached for her hammer. To me she whispered “What is it? Is something wrong?!”

I had my revolver in my hand and was sweating profusely. I lowered the gun, gently releasing the hammer as I did.

“Sorry” I looked at her.  I hadn’t realized how attractive she was until this moment. “Bad dream” I shook my head as if trying to clear the lingering remnants of my dream. “What–what were you doing in bed? With me?”

Paige’s face turned a lovely shade of bright pink. “I don’t feel so good. I just wanted to lie down–I didn’t think you’d mind.”

My brain kicked into neutral for a moment as I examined her. She had a long graceful, almost swan-like neck with blonde hair that reached down past her shoulders. I guessed she must have weighed only a bit more than she did now since she didn’t look quite as ‘deflated’ as the other women in the camp, even given her current circumstances.  When she’d lifted her dress to remove the hammer I’d given her it wasn’t exactly lost on me that she had, long, very shapely legs. I realized I was taking a mental inventory of her, breaking her down to component parts. I stopped when I thought of her breasts and how Michael had marked her. It didn’t actually serve to make her any less attractive, but it did stop my prurient line of thought when I remembered.

I felt my hand flexing on the grip of the revolver and  forced it to relax. I suddenly became aware of an odd feeling  below my waistline and quickly sat down. The last thing I needed right now was for Paige to freak out over a biological reaction I had little control over.

I tried to cover up more than my physical discomfort by engaging her in small talk.

“We haven’t really had much chance to talk since, ” I shrugged and looked around “well since we were thrust into this little arrangement.”

Paige nodded and smiled almost making eye contact with me.

I asked her the question I dreaded. “What do you do? Er, what did you do? You know, before?”

Ugh. I wanted to kick my own ass. I hated asking this question far more than I hated answering it. I took a breath and prepared to make small talk until the sun rose if it were necessary.

Paige smiled and rose to take the bait. We talked for hours into the night, and yes, I even answered the question about what I used to do back when there was a world and a civilization inhabiting it.

Paige and I switched places after a while, with me on the bed, Sako and Tikka curled up in my lap. I laughed, knowing that it would be considered incredibly stereotypical, but women really did enjoy talking about themselves, or failing that what terrible people their friends were.

I got a good chunk of Paige’s life story out of her before I drifted off again.

****

I was floating somewhere in between wakefulness and sleep. I didn’t believe the things my senses were telling me but they didn’t seem implausible either. In my own personal twilight I felt the warmth of a body pressed up against my own. On my feet were fur covered shoes filled with sharp little things that occasionally poked me in the toe or scraped across my ankle.

The scent of a woman was in my nostrils and it was enticing. Suddenly my feet were cold, my furry shoes gone and bouncing across the bed.

The movement of the dogs woke me up. They jumped off the bed and were sat in front of the door alerting to something there. My eyes snapped open as I saw the door begin to swing inward. I hurtled Paige’s sleeping form and threw a kick at the door frame slamming it shut with great force. Paige sat bolt upright in bed, reaching under the pillow for my revolver, handing it to me without being asked.

I gave her a quick smile and eased the door open. A red faced Donnelly was standing there doing his impersonation of a man about to die from some coronary event.

I let out a deep breath and surreptitiously handed the revolver back to Paige as I squeezed out the door.

I smiled at Donnelly as I approached him. No reason to make my prey bolt before I had a chance to kill it. As soon as I was within reach of Donnelly I seized him by the throat and drove him to the ground.

“The next time, Gene, you try and enter my quarters without permission will be the last thing you ever do. Have I made myself clear in this?” I asked slightly releasing the pressure I was applying to his hyoid bone.

Donnelly nodded. Flecks of spittle had formed at the corners of his mouth and stood in stark white relief to the bright red-going-purple of his face. I eased my weight off his chest and broke the hold I had on his throat.

Donnelly sat up hands at his throat and gasping for breath.

I looked at him. I had always been a fan of Wanderlei Silva and his propensity for soccer kicks must have rubbed off on me as I had to restrain myself from delivering my self-styled version of that kick to Donnelly’s head.

“Micheal or training?” I asked him in a voice that was almost a hiss.

He coughed more trying to calm himself and regain his breath. “Mi–Mi” he heaved.

I grabbed his chin and titled his face up to meet mine. “Michael?”

He nodded. and I let him go. Out of the corner of my eye I had seen Paige open the door, peaking out watching quietly with an almost joyous glee in her eyes. I stepped back into our quarters and began to get dressed.

I looked out the window and noticed how dark it was. I reckoned it to be around 0400 as I got my gear on and headed out the door toward Michael’s house. Donnelly was nowhere to be seen.

I kept my features expressionless but inside I was laughing, giddy as a school girl. Violence– it turns out–does solve problems. Must be in the application. Violence also cured what ails you apparently. As soon as I’d kicked the door shut my knee felt like a knife had been jammed into it, but know I was moving along at a decent lope, barely aware of any pain at all.

I reached Michael’s house and noted there were several guards there that had not been present before. There were in uniforms I probably would have laughed at at any other time being dressed in a combination of blue and black ‘urban’ camouflage patterns.

Two guards were on the door and those I did recognize. They waved me through without so much as a glance and into the house. I hadn’t seen the upstairs level of Michael’s house which was furnished in Early American-Creepy, complete with sepia toned photos of  what I guessed was Michael and his mother. I had to wonder how much Norman Bates was charging to decorate a place these days.

I was ushered into a room that was darker than the rest, mostly due to the heavy velvet wall covering that seemed to drink in the available light. I heard the sound of a motor starting somewhere outside and was instantly blinded as the house lights came on.

“Ah, here’s our Brother Stephen!” I felt someone take my hand and place it on the back of a chair as I tried to rid myself of the afterimage  while my eyes adjusted.

Michael continued “I’m so sorry, brother to have you woken so early. I know you have a full day of training and such to do today.” Something was placed in front of me. My sense of smell was working just fine. Coffee. I inhaled deeply of it. My eyes finally cleared enough I could make out Michael’s face as well as the guests seated at his table. One face smiled broadly at me, while the other gaped almost open mouthed.

“I wouldn’t have brought you here if it weren’t important. These two gentlemen are militia fighters like us. This is Adam Starke,” he said pointing at the Marine who was just a shot away from needing to hold his sides to contain the laughter “And this is. . .I’m sorry, was it Mr Toole?”

I shot Starke a look and the smile dropped almost instantly from his face, but it was too late. Michael had seen the recognition pass between the three of us.

I nodded and extended my hand. “Mr Starke. Nice to formally make your acquaintance. ” I turned and offered my hand to Tool who would not deign to shake it at first “Mr Toole.” I nodded to him. “Nice to see you both again.”

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 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 31 -Belt Fed Revolution

Dwyer was being very casual about this. “The job comes with a promotion. A big one, too. Congratulations Sergeant.”

Clearly there had been a scramble going on before the meeting. Dwyer pushed sergeant’s chevrons and a name tape toward me. I didn’t reach for either. “How about we restructure this sweet deal ? How about I agree to work on a contract basis?”

Dwyer sat back in his chair and put his hands behind his head.”All right, let’s talk. I can’t force you into this, or more to the point, I won’t force you to do this. I’d rather you were complicit and actively trying to accomplish the mission rather than doing it because you felt coerced.”

At least I had some leverage to work with. Money was worthless so there wasn’t much he could offer me in those terms and I was pretty sure I could feed and care for myself, unlike most of the conscripts wandering around outside this office;still didn’t mean I had to give away the farm. Unfortunately the more I thought about it there wasn’t a lot I wanted or needed. Luckily though my mouth jumped into gear before my brain had a chance to stop it.

“I want a vehicle. Personal use. Jeep Cherokee–oh!– and it has to be a stick.” Dwyer looked to Starke who shrugged.

“Okay we’ll see what we can do.” He leaned forward ready to conclude the meeting.

I let out a sardonic chuckle “Not getting off that easy, Major. I’ll help you with your militia problem, but when I’m done, I’m done. I walk away with nothing more than I brought with me.”

Dwyer’s cheeks puffed up with air as he considered this. I could see Starke watching the Major out of the corner of my eye, but couldn’t get a read on what he thought. Dwyer blew out the breath he had been holding and stood with his hand out “Deal.”

I should have asked him before if he had ever been a recruiter, but I took the chance and shook his hand. Dwyer took a piece of paper from his desk and signed off on the bottom. “Take this to supply. Anything you need, just have them write it here and it’s yours.”

I took the paper and smiled. At the very least I wasn’t going to have to worry about coffee for a while.

****

Starke accompanied me to supply, laughing at some private thought. I didn’t like that, didn’t think it could possibly be good for me, but he wasn’t sharing.

The clerk in charge of supply looked at the paper with wide eyes and waved a hand toward the back of the CONEX box. “Help yourself”.

It turned out there were several CONEX boxes filled with various supplies, some from Wal-Mart, some military issue. I grabbed a can of coffee as the first part of my shopping spree and cackled gleefully. People never learned. I’d have joined the Coast Guard as an E-1 if there had been coffee on offer. Dwyer got screwed.

There wasn’t really much in any of the containers that I couldn’t live without. I took a decent looking compass in a ‘shock-proof’ housing and a small Fiskars hatchet from the Wal-Mart stuff. The real shopping began when I was escorted  into a CONEX box filled with what military gear there had been for the MVDF to salvage.

I took a CamelBak hydration system with an extra bladder and some water purification tabs. I also found a box filled with socks and took several pair. Now I was sure Dwyer had gotten the short end of the stick. A man can never have enough socks.

This particular CONEX box was divided into two sections. I had to pass by an armed guard at the second entrance and  was required to leave my firearms with him before being admitted to the back. I figured if they had wanted to kill or imprison me they could have easily done so by now, so I handed over my revolvers and rifle. It was obvious the guard on the door didn’t share my taste in weapons, smirking slightly as I handed him my .357.

He practically giggled when I pulled out the .500. The Private unlocked the door and shouted into the back “Yosemite Sam, coming through!” I walked through the door after flipping the private off in a dignified manner and was greeted by two more guards armed with M249’s. A row of overhead flourescent’s flickered into life and revealed row upon row of M4’s and boxes of ammunition to feed them.

Although I had used the M16 in my day, I wasn’t particularly fond of the gun as it had always been touchy and maintenance intensive. I was ready to leave when I saw  a weapon case poking out, hidden by one of the guards stood in front of it.  I mumbled an ‘excuse me’ as I pushed between the men in these crowded quarters and was greeted by a glorious sight. Laying inside the pelican case was a custom-built bolt-action rifle. Definitely not military issue. The military couldn’t afford something like this.

I picked the rifle up and held it reverently there in the flickering light of the container. I had only seen weapons like this in gun magazines. The gun was massive, nearly 20 pounds but still felt well-balanced for all its weight. I turned it over and saw the heavy ‘competition’ barrel marked .300 WIN MAG. The stock fitted to it was either an Accuracy International model or a very well done knock off. The case contained a second barrel marked .338 Lapua Magnum and several spare magazines.

Attached to the picatinny rail on the top was a scout sniper scope. I flipped open the lens caps and was rewarded with a glance of a P4 reticle.

In my head I began writing a letter. “Dear Penthouse Forums, I never thought this would happen to me…”

I shook myself out of my reverie and asked the guards where the ammunition for this rifle was stored. They didn’t answer the question so Starke, whom I had totally forgotten had accompanied me yelled at them

“AMMO! NOW! MOVE,MOVE,MOVE!”

The guard on his left jumped and turned around quickly locating 160 boxed rounds of .300 Winchester Magnum and held them out to Starke. “Do I appear to be holding a rifle?! About face, numbnut!”

The guards face was coloring rapidly as he spun around and handed me the ammo with a muttered “Sorry,sir.” I barely heard him. I was busy examining the massive cartridges and not trying to hide the wolfish smile I was sure I was displaying.

To Starke, I said “You guys have a sniper here?”

He shook his head “Don’t think so.”

“Right. You guys can have my .243 and the ammo for it. I qualified expert with my service rifle and was later awarded a distinguished marksman badge…I was scheduled to go to Dam Neck after my deployment to tryout the Designated Marksman course.”

Starke just smiled “It’s yours. Dwyer said take whatever you want.”

I worked the action a few times to make sure the rifle was in good order and walked out of the CONEX box feeling and looking literally like a kid with a new toy. Starke was laughing at me for a while before my perception finally snapped back to the here and now. “What?”

He kept on laughing “Man, I’ve been trying to talk to you for the last 5 minutes!”

“Did I answer you?”

“You grunted once and said ‘uh huh’ a couple of times.”

I slung the rifle over my shoulder and looked at him. “I’m sorry. Did you want to stop and talk about our feelings or are you good?”

“Nah, man I’m good.” he laughed again “So do you want to check zero on that thing or what?”

“Hel yeah.” I started feeding rounds into the magazine.

“Whoa there, cowboy! We gotta get off base first.”

I nodded, not really caring where I shot this work of art only that I get to do it soon.  I muttered “good point” to Starke and continued to load the spare magazines.

****

The delivery area of Wal-Mart was bordered by a small wooded lot. A stream ran through the back of the lot and opened out onto a more densely wooded area. The stream itself was wide, but not deep, coming up to just above my knees as I sank into the soft sandy bottom. I took out my ghillie suit midway across the stream and put it on so it covered me and my ruck.

The detergent-perfume smell of the ghillie suit was anathema to the smells of nature and I needed to get the suit ‘broken in’ once more. I spotted a small copse of trees nearby. The ground beneath the trees was covered with ‘canopy litter’  and I laid down and began to roll over.

Starke thought–from the look on his face–that I had lost my mind and he was going to have to shoot me. I popped up satisfied that the burlap was sufficiently subdued.

I took my ghillie suit off laid it on the ground with my new rifle on top of it. I opened my ruck and got the extra magazines out laying them on the burlap as well. When I opened my ruck I saw John’s bush blanket was still inside. I pulled it out and offered it to Starke.

I laid down on top of the ghillie suit while Starke went off to set up the targets. I placed the recoil pad against my shoulder and cradled the stock with my left arm, placing my left hand on my right shoulder with the web of my index finger and thumb just under and supporting the stock.

The rifle fit as well as any glove I’d ever worn, making contact in all the right places. I reached forward to flip open the lens covers and saw a crisp clear picture. The colors inside my scope seemed somehow brighter and sharper than  those around me.

Starke had liberated a couple of flat cement pavers from the Wal-Mart’s garden section and set one at what I reckoned to be about one-hundred yards. I watched him through my scope as he moved even further down range and set up the second target.

I waited until he returned to insert the magazine and the extra round directly into the bore. Starke laid next to me and pulled out a spotter’s scope while stuffing his ears with small neon orange plugs. I looked over at him and he gave me a thumbs up. I took a deep breath and let it out. As I got to the bottom of my exhalation I heard him say “Send it”.

“Sending” I replied in a voice that seemed quiet even with the ear plugs in. I squeezed the trigger slowly and was surprised when the round was launched downrange. The cement paver turned into a cloud of dust and I felt a strange sense of satisfaction having ‘killed’ the paver.

A few seconds later there was the sound of leaves as though the wind had suddenly come up. Starke was still looking through the scope and laughed. “Nice. You got a nice big sapling to bring home for dinner!”

I looked back through the scope in time to see a tree about 8 feet tall fall entirely to the ground. I adjusted my aim and began trying to set the dope for the other target. From the angle I was at, I didn’t have a clear shot at the second paver and so had to aim for center of exposed mass.

I repeated my ritual and at the bottom of my breath heard Starke say “Send it” again.

I was gently but gradually putting pressure on the trigger “Sending.” I felt the rifle recoil almost before I was aware I’d pulled the trigger fully, but this time there was no explosion of dust.

Starke called out “Miss! High, left.”

I ejected the spent cartridge and slid the bolt home once more “re-acquiring.” I adjusted the scope again and called out “re-engaging”. I heard Starke say send it and didn’t bother to reply as I let off the round.

“Miss! High!”

Starke chuckled tersely.”You scared the crap out of him though, look he’s trying to get concealed!”

I peered through the scope tube once more and saw that while I hadn’t hit my target I had knocked it over. I could see the impact of the round just a couple of inches high in the tree trunk where the paver had stood.

I started muttering to myself angrily.

“What was that?” Starke asked.

“I said that was the shooter,not the gun.”

He barked out another harsh little laugh “takes a big man to…”

“suck it.” I finished for him.

I took two deep breaths and got the call from Starke again. This time I replied and sent the round downrange. There was less dust this time, but I smiled happily as I watched the block explode sending pieces everywhere.

“How far was that?”

“Little over 600 yards.” Starke was setting up the bipod on my old .243 “Think this can reach down that far?”

“Without a doubt.”

Starke grinned and fed  rounds into the magazine. I was looking downrange through my scope and froze when I saw a herd of deer.  I reached over and tapped Starke on the arm. He looked at me wordlessly and I pointed down range. The small herd of whitetail deer was just beyond the area where my last kill was. Starke smiled and took aim.

I hadn’t been on the bolt side of my old rifle before and was a little surprised at how loud it was. I looked downrange and saw the deer flopping on the ground trying to get up.

I didn’t say a word to Starke as I sent another round to finish off the deer. I looked at him, my anger apparent. Starke hung his head and was completely silent.

I stood and gathered my gear putting on my ruck and my ghillie suit over it. Starke started to say something and I snatched the rifle out of his hands. “Why don’t you go back to base? I’ll go clean up your mess.”

Starke said nothing but set to policing the area and when he was finished headed back toward the camp. I have no problems with killing animals. Everyone knows how tasty they are. I have a problem with people that don’t kill cleanly. I had always been of the opinion it was unfair to the animals to hunt with a rifle and whatever hunting I had done before in my life was with a bow.

I walked down to where the deer lay and shook my head. I’m not exactly a mother-earth-let’s-all-hug-a-tree kind of Heathen, but I apologized to the deer for my compatriots action. I hated to see animals suffer. I pulled out Sweet Louise and set to field dressing the deer. If this one had made it to fall it probably would have been close to 175 pounds, but as it was I estimated it at just under 150.

I cut the liver away from the rest of the organs and stuffed it back in the carcass. I touched my Ka-bar to the heart and was rewarded with a spray of blood in my eyes. I sat there and blinked until my eyes cleared and then removed the heart.

I hefted the deer up in a fireman’s carry and headed back to camp.

****

When I made it back to camp I took the deer to the chow line and gave it over to the cook and asked if he needed me to skin it. The cook, a small Hispanic looking man smiled broadly and shook his head no.

The cook summoned two men from the improvised kitchen to carry the deer away.

“Wait! ” the two men turned to look at me. I couldn’t tell if they were Hispanic or not, so I asked “You speak English?” They both nodded. I stuck my hand out and put it inside the deer “Liver and heart are mine. Comprende? The rest is for everybody.”

The men smiled and assured me they understood and took the carcass away. I heard a murmur rising from behind me and turned to see Major Dwyer approaching. I figured my appearance, bloody face and dirt covered ghillie suit must have caused a stir.

When Dwyer got close enough he grabbed my elbow to pull me aside. Speaking in a low angry voice, he said “That’s not how we do things here!”

“It’s certainly not how I do things.” I said as I tore my elbow from his grasp.  “Do not put your hands on me again unless a fight is your intent.”

He demured slightly. “Sorry. But troops have the priority here. Any time an animal is taken, it goes to the troops and whatever is left over goes to the civilians.”

I calmed myself slightly and spoke in a voice barely above a whisper “That’s great. Tell you what: how about you write that up in a memo entitled ‘How to Foment a Rebellion’. I understand that the troops need to eat, but if you’re not providing for the citizens in your charge then what’s the point of this fight? Pretty sure the Feds could do the same thing for them!”

Dwyer made to reach for my elbow again but stopped himself and beckoned for me to follow him away from the line of gawkers “You do not tell me how to run this base. You want to talk about fomenting a rebellion? What do you think you’re doing?! Based on this little interaction alone I could have you tried for sedition and …” he broke off suddenly

“And executed?” I finished for him.

Dwyer’s face was bright red and a vein was throbbing up on the top of his forehead.

“Well shit, go right ahead. you’ve got me outgunned here. Hey, better yet why don’t you deliver me to the Feds? I’m sure they’d reward you– give you a nice position with even– since you seem to be following their playbook so closely.”

Dwyer leaned in close “I want you gone. Tomorrow morning. Do not come back until you have made contact with the militia groups in the area. Until then, you are to be considered ‘persona non grata’ here. Do you read me?”

Dwyer spun around and left me standing there without another word. I thought to myself I’m probably going to have to kill that man. I snorted with a bit of laughter as I realized I had drawn my .357 and had the hammer cocked.

“Soon.”

Chapter 26 -Belt Fed Revolution

I felt pretty calm as I walked out toward the pavement. I gave a sharp whistle and the scouts head snapped around. He held his rifle ready and I could see him lean his head over and say something. The APC that had been making its way up the road picked up speed to meet me and the scout at the same time.

A voice came through a loudspeaker “Drop your weapons! Get on your Knees!” The voice yelled a couple of other orders at me. I turned to face the vehicle and shook my head at whoever was inside.

The vehicle remained still and the scout froze in place where he was. I waited a beat and said “I’m not dropping anything and I’ll be fucked if I’m going to kneel in the road like a criminal.”

Several moments passed and a head popped out of the APC. The head–which may have been the voice from the loudspeaker repeated the commands– “Get on your knees! Put your weapons on the ground!”

I looked at the face behind the blast visor “Hey comrade, you speak English?” I thought I heard laughter from inside the APC. “Lookit here, chief. You got an APC with a pretty serious gun attached to it. More importantly you have an APC. You read me? I’m a man standing in the street. You wouldn’t even have to shoot me. You could run me over. All I have is a couple of old revolvers and a shotgun” I said hoping the people inside weren’t too familiar with the chunk of metal I had hanging on my hip. I didn’t think the .500 could penetrate the armor of the APC but if push came to shove we’d all find out.

“Are you alone?” Mr Blast-Visor shouted.

“Only if you don’t count the mouse in my pocket.” definitely heard laughter that time. I heard a noise and saw movement from the rear of the vehicle. A couple of guys in their late 20’s came around to the front of the vehicle. I noted that both they and the scout were carrying the M16A2 not the smaller, more maneuverable M4. The two that approached me had their rifles slung across their chests. I pegged them for vets who had probably been deployed not too long ago.

They looked relaxed and friendly, a look I knew meant twitch and die, asshole.I held out my hand “Finn.” The first guy to come around the vehicle took my hand and shook it. “Starke. This is Guerrera.”  I nodded and smiled politely “Gentlemen. You with the MVDF?” There was a barely perceptible turn of the head as Starke and Guerrera looked at each other.

Starke turned and made a motion to whoever else was in the APC and the engine died.  I hadn’t realized how loud the thing was until it shut off. My head was throbbing from the sound.

“Come on out, Tool!” A smaller individual with no rifle appeared next to Guerrera.  I saw the name tape and couldn’t stifle my laugh. ‘ Tool’ was the one that had been yelling at me. Corporal O’ Toole in fact. I shook my head and then I lost it. Damn it. Starke and Guerrera turned their heads to hide their smiles from ‘ Tool’ who was obviously used to this reaction.

When I collected myself, Starke made propper introductions. He pointed at himself  “Adam Starke, staff sergeant with the Marines until about 3 months ago. Private Gabe Guerrera, U.S. Army” he pointed toward the scout who had approached the vehicle when he realized I wasn’t going to try and start a mini war out here in the road “That’s Specialist Steve Patrell, U.S. Army and of course you already met, Tool here.”  Tool was giving me the death glare. “Robert O’ Toole. ” he said with a curt nod. I noticed there was no branch of service mentioned for Tool.

I noticed the chevrons on Starke’s uniform and asked why it wasn’t him giving me orders instead of Tool. “Meh, I gotta let the man have some fun.”

I felt a little bad for embarrassing Tool, but it wasn’t going to keep me from sleeping at night. “I’m Finn. I’d give you my rank, but it’s kind of pointless” I said with a smile.

Starke looked at me appraisingly “You military?”

“From about a millenia ago.”

“What branch?” Starke looked at me  over the top of his glasses.

“United States Marine Corps” I said with a grin.

Starke grasped my forearm and shook vigorously”Hell yeah, devil dog!’

****

We chatted for a moment before I remembered John. I was thinking he might have run for it given the way things had started out.

“Guys, sorry –I know how it looks–but I have a ” I struggled to say the word friend “traveling companion in that house over there.” Looks were exchanged.

“Call them over.” I saw Starke choke up on the pistol grip of his rifle as he said this.

I whistled and called “John! It’s ok, come on out!”

Several moments passed before I saw John peek his head out from behind the house. I waved him over again. I made introductions and kicked back a little and let John recount our story.

Starke interrupted “Hey, I don’t want to be a buzzkill here, but we need to get moving.”

“Oh. Right. Well…” I was looking for words as usual.

“You guys coming with or what?” Starke looked at me “We can always use another man who knows which end of weapon goes where.”

I didn’t want to appear to be too eager, but the idea of riding in an armored vehicle had a certain appeal to it. “Where are you guys headed?”

Starke shrugged the question off “Away from here. We have a supply depot to get to.” I guessed there was something about OpSec that kept him from answering the question. I looked at John. “I’m going to catch a ride with these guys. What about you?”

“Oh no, that’s okay, I’ll just hang out here.” John looked exasperated “Of course I’m coming with you. Get in the damn truck, what are you waiting for?”

I chuckled a bit “It’s an APC, John.”

He called back “Can’t hear you! I’m getting in the truck!”

Starke let out a whistling breath and laughed. “Guess that’s answered. All right, let’s mount up!”

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.

Chapter 18 – Belt Fed Revolution

The bodies at the bottom of the hill had been stripped clean of what people considered valuables. The contents of the cars had also been tossed down the roadside. I noticed a lack of tire irons and other things that made good weapons of opportunity. Mostly there was windshield wiper fluid, jump leads and the randomness that makes up people’s second homes. One item of interest was a roll of burlap three feet wide by 50 feet long. I grabbed this up along with a couple of empty water bottles. Everything else was junk including the bodies.

John was stripping the shirt off one of the larger males and using it to make a pack. A snappy one liner ran through my head but I dismissed it and left him to his task. I crouched at the bottom of the ditch waiting for John to finish collecting the things he thought would help him, all the while I kept scanning with the monocular.

The quiet no longer bothered me. It no longer bothered me mostly because there was little quiet. The sounds just weren’t the sounds I was used to hearing. Red winged blackbirds–highway birds as I thought of them for their insistence on gathering in the median–were calling out to each other soliciting mates and warning off rivals. Combined with the ravens and other birds in the cornfields around us, the birdsong itself was a screen to most noise. Hel, it was deafening.

I looked out to the ravens in the field and apologized for interrupting their meal. My hand went to my hammer beneath my shirt and I called out to the ravens asking them to remember my name to the All-Father. I thought about that for a moment afterward and realized I might not necessarily want Odin as my battle buddy. Instead I thought of my grandfather and my uncle and hoped they were watching with approval.

I looked up and realized John had been standing next to me for some time. I cursed myself again for my less than sterling situational awareness. “Ready?” I asked as I stood. “As I’ll ever be. I didn’t find much on them, but I took what I thought might help.” He dug into his pocket and withdrew a piece of blue metal “Found this too. I needed a knife.” He unfolded the blue metal into what I thought of as a carpet knife. He had a lockblade knife that was fed with razor blades that could be replaced when they wore out. I nodded my approval as I turned it over in my hand. “Find any blades to go with it?” He smiled and held out his other hand which contained a small plastic case of refills.”Sweet.” I said and handed his knife back to him. “Aww, you too!” I raised an eyebrow at him as he let out a laugh. Good to know he had found a sense of humor again. We would need every mental tool at our disposal to make it through what our lives had become.

****

Our march didn’t have much more to go. Lucky for me as I didn’t think I’d be able to do the marching. The copse of pines turned out to be a bit farther away than I had thought and I was still trying to determine whether or not the fact that it separated two farm fields was a good thing. As we got closer I saw that among the pines were some scrubby little deciduous trees mostly young boxwood  and elms. I wished I’d bought some Real Tree camo; I would be almost invisible here with it.

I chose a spot amongst the leafy trees that had clustered together and dropped my pack there. My back thanked me for it with another twinge of pain. I grabbed my scavenged burlap and begin to unroll it. I used my Ka-bar to cut the burlap into strips and after a bit of rummaging in my ruck I came up with a small sewing kit. I cut the burlap into a few long sections which I left intact and began sewing the smaller strips onto it. John watched me with something approaching fascination.

“Well,well, if it isn’t little Suzy Homemaker lost in the woods!” I laughed at his joke and continued sewing. “Well?” he looked at me as if expecting an answer to an unasked question. “Well what,John?” “What are you making, Ms Homemaker?” he chortled. I stared at him until the smile left his face. “The proper term would be a ‘field expedient ghillie suit’ ” I replied and added “Jackass.” He continued to look puzzled. Fuck him, I thought. It’s not my job to educate the whole damn world.

I kept working on the suit and test fitted it to see if it would cover my ruck when I was wearing it and how far down it would hang. Eventually I came up with something resembling a poncho that covered me almost to the knees. Satisfied with this I gathered up some of the local plant life and began adding it to the suit. When I was satisfied I laid back against my ruck and closed my eyes. “Uh, excuse me?” Well that was nice. I had closed my eyes for about ten whole seconds. “What, John?”  He wasn’t trying to hide his exasperation. I appreciated that since I reading facial and verbal cues wasn’t a huge strong suit for me. “What do you think you’re doing?” I sat forward and looked up at him. “Sleep, John. What I am trying to do is called ‘sleep’. You are on watch and I am going to lay my ass here and rest for several hours.” I tossed the burlap to him “While you are not busy patrolling the perimeter, try to make yourself a ghillie cape, or frilly ghillie dress. Whichever moves you.”

John threw the burlap back at me “Look, I’ve about had it with the damn gay jokes, okay? And what the hell do you mean you’re going to sleep? Shouldn’t we be moving? I mean I don’t know about you, but I…” That was as far as I let him get. I leapt to my feet, my revolver came out and landed barrel first against his forehead knocking him backwards a bit. “Not a democracy, Johnny. This is what I am doing. You don’t like it get gone, but don’t you open your mouth to utter one single word of complaint.” I looked at him to see if I was cutting through his line of bullshit to the part of him that did the thinking. I thumbed back the hammer on the revolver and took aim at him. “This is the last time I am going to have this conversation. Say anything other than an agreement or goodbye.” I walked forward and pressed the revolver to his forehead. For a moment I saw a glimmer in his eye that was telling him to grab the 9 millimeter and meet me and his death like a man. I wasn’t conscious of how much pressure I had on the trigger but we were reaching the point of no return. John just stood there looking bewildered. I dropped the revolver and decocked it.

John stood there rubbing his head. I apologized mentally to my grandfather who had always told me not to point a gun at something I wasn’t going to kill. Although in fairness to myself,I thought, I would have killed John. He relented and held up his hands in surrender. “Okay. Sorry, you’re in charge Mr Stalin” he thumbed away a trickle of blood from where I had bashed him with the gun’s barrel. “But if it’s not too much trouble, would you clue me into the plan?”

I dropped back onto my ruck and holstered my revolver. “I’m going to sleep for a few hours. Then I’m going to wake up and let you sleep. It’s called standing watch.” I made a the motion of a man walking with my fingers “you are going to keep an eye on things while I sleep. If anything looks wrong, you will wake me up and I will go kill it.” I pointed up at the sky “and when it gets dark, we will start moving so as not to make ourselves huge, and in your case flaming, floating,dancing targets to anyone with eyes”.

I closed my eyes and pulled the impromptu ghillie over my head. “And” I said as I kicked out my legs to relax “I’m in charge. I get to make the gay jokes. When you’re in charge you can pick something about me and make jokes about it.” I folded my arms over my chest and swatted at something flying near my face. “And by the way? You’re never going to be in charge.” He threw something at me and I chuckled. I was just able to reach my holster with my hands across my chest as they were, so I drew it out and held it in my hand as I faded off to sleep. As I did I thought I heard John say “We’ll see about that, fuckstick.”

Chapter 17 -Belt Fed Revolution

The sun had officially lightened the sky enough that it could be called morning.  I wasn’t sure how far we had walked as I was trying my best to keep us concealed which meant walking alongside the road down in the ditch that separated the state roads from surface roads and homes nearby. The going was slow, made slower by the fact that since it wasn’t the height of summer the state hadn’t been out to mow the grass on the roadside. Twice now I had either gotten my foot tangled in this thigh high grass or tripped over something hidden by its ferocious growth.

It was my ill luck that the Jeep had stopped where it did, a large flat expanse of mostly farmland with corn stubble remaining from last years harvest. I could see an overpass in the distance at what I reckoned had to be a mile and a half and just behind that I saw the green of some tall pines. I stopped in my walking as I spotted a tire I had been about to step in which would have led to yet another fun trip to the ground. I turned to look at John and pointed at the ground to warn him  before I stepped around the tire and kept moving.

My knee was already complaining and my back had joined the chorus, punctuating my gait with a sharp pain every other step. I kept my monocular on paracord lanyard hung loose around my left wrist. I was damned tired of getting ambushed. I worked out a rhythm of about every 20 steps turning back to make sure John was still with me and  every third time I did that I would raise the monocular to scout the area ahead of me while trying to make sure sunlight didn’t reflect off the little plastic lens and announce us to whomever might be watching.

The closer we got to the overpass, the more paranoid I became, sure that yet another ambush was about to be sprung. When we made it to within a few hundred feet I crouched down and waved John up to where I was. John wasn’t carrying as much weight as I was since he didn’t have much of his own gear to bring. He had my shotgun and all the spare buckshot I carried. As John reached my hide, I lifted my shirt and pulled out the little polymer 9 mike and gave it to him. Keeping my voice low I told him to use this before he used the shotgun, unless he had to hit several people at once.

John looked disdainfully at the little pistol and wiped the sweat off it before switching it to his dominant hand. I shrugged and asked “what do you want?” He kept the sneer on his face that spoke words he wasn’t uttering, until I shook my head and said “I’m sure this is not the worst thing another guy has ever put in your hand.” I turned and began moving away before he could respond.

It was strange. I’d gotten used to the no traffic thing, in fact I thanked the gods for it as other drivers tended to light up all my sociopathic buttons almost better than anything else could. What I had gotten used to was the lack of background noise. A lot of the sounds of mankind simply weren’t present anymore, at least not in sufficient volume to drown out everything else. I actually felt my ear move as I strained to pick up any noise that would betray the presence of other people, but I heard nothing.

****

I had checked the bridge for the last time–we were too close now to turn back–and I decided to go for it. I walked up to the overpass slipping out of the high tangling grasses and was instantly rewarded with a cool breeze and the shade provided by the concrete abutments. Ahead in the southbound lane I could see several cars pushed together to make a barricade. All the cars had been burned and a couple showed bullet holes. I saw nothing that indicated danger, but as I climbed over a buttress I could smell shit.

I moved around to the back of the cars and I saw boots laying there, the toes pointing east-west. I leaned my head out just enough that I could see jeans that would have left the boots looking like they were designed for an area prone to flooding reaching about halfway down the boots shaft. As I fully cleared the rear of the car I saw a kid, probably not yet 21 and thin as a rail. He’d been shot at least once in the eye and more across his upper torso. Ambushed or bandit I wondered to myself as I waved John forward.

When he got to the back of the car John was immediately overcome by the smell of shit and gasses escaping the boy’s body. To his credit he managed not to lose his lunch right there, but took several steps away and vomited into the ditch. When he finished I clapped him on the shoulder “Aw, come on, that can’t be the worst smell a guy…” John pulled himself upright and swiped the back of his hand across his mouth as he glared at me. “Save it for your girlfriend, fuckstick!” I laughed and handed him a bottle of water.

The kids blood had run down the roads crown. I followed the path it made with my eyes and spotted several more bodies there, two of which had been stripped naked. One of the remaining bodies was female and still clothed. I figured these people and maybe Mr Cowboy were the bandits and someone had got the drop on them, given the relative lack of destruction. I looked back to Mr Cowboy and saw he still had his sidearm. I blinked when I realized that the kid really was going for the cowboy look, wearing a gunbelt with ammo contained in loops around its girth.

I nudged Mr Cowboy over with the toe of my Cadillac and freed his sidearm from under him. I laughed mirthlessly as I looked at the weapon. A nickel-plated revolver, in .357. I turned the revolver over in my hand and saw the Ruger logo. I pulled the trigger to confirm my suspicions. Nothing happened. Single action revolver. I wondered if the kid had a hank of chewin’ tobaccy and some pemican on him as well.

I bent down and slid the rounds out of his belt, stowing them in my pocket. I emptied the revolver of its rounds, finding three unfired and I laid the revolver on the kids chest. I sat there on my haunches for a minute contemplating what to do next when I saw something flutter underneath the front of one of the cars.  The kid thought he was John Wayne for sure. I picked up a lightly singed cowboy hat from under the car and walked back to the kid covering his face with the hat. It wasn’t much of a burial for a cowboy, but it was the best that I could manage.

I took one of the salvaged rounds back out of my pocket and tucked it into Mr Cowboys shirt. I patted the bullet as it rested there near his heart and prayed that I would meet my end the same way.