Sleep that night was interesting to say the least. I was on the left, Curtis in the middle and Chuck on the right. Chuck and I had sleeping bags where poor Curtis only had two blankets. None of us had a pillow as my mesh linen bag from the truck which had my pillow and sheets from my dorm room, did not make it out of Hobbs.
Regardless, we were wedged in that tent like sardines and that included our gear because there was no way I was going to leave that outside. As beat as we were, we all passed out but were awake before the sun came up. I kind of freaked because I forgot where I was and how we got here. Then I remembered the two guys on the road and Holtz. Great.
I worked my way out of my sleeping bag and crawled out of the tent. I figured it was sometime before dawn but I could tell the ever present cloudy sky was lightening to the east so our first day at WinterHaven would soon be starting. Ignoring the fact I was in mixed company for the first time in a few weeks, I went ahead and stripped down to my Patagonias and pulled out my other pair of jeans, a flannel shirt and my A&M hoodie. I put the sweats I had been wearing back in my bag and pulled out some sort of clean socks and my boots and sat on the ground and put them on.
Sooner or later we would have to do laundry and I had no idea how that was going to happen. Something to think about during the day I guess. Chuck crawled out and put on his glasses as I was finishing my boots.
"So what do we do? Go down to the welcome center for our work duty?" he asked.
"I guess. You know last night, one of the guys from the gate was standing over there in the shadows watching us. It was kind of freaky."
"He is probably worried we are thieves," said Mike, "We are new here after all."
I grabbed my toiletry bag and brushed my teeth and washed my hands and face with a bottle of water. That was another thing on the list; get more water boiled, filtered and refill our containers. Since that was one of our alleged chores today, I doubted that would be a problem. Curtis stuck his head out of the tent his long hair as messy as always.
"Hey, when's breakfast? I hope they have something better than a protein bar and warm water like we've been eating the past few days." he said.
A few minutes later, while Curtis was digging through his backpack for something to wear for work, Hap came up the path carrying a Coleman lantern.
"What's kept you boys? You need to get down to the center and get working. We need water fetched and firewood cut up for breakfast. I hope I didn't make a mistake letting you in for nothing." he griped.
"Hey, nobody told us what time to be there or what to do, bud. Cut us some slack." I replied back.
"Just get down there and get busy before Holland lays into me. That guy don't pull no punches." Hap complained
I had no idea who Holland was, but the three of us zipped up our tent and headed down to the center. Hartman said our stuff would be okay while we were away and his family would keep an eye on our campsite. Mr. Hartman would be joining us at the center shortly while Mrs. Hartman had already gone earlier to start cooking the communal breakfast. Their children were watched by an older couple we had not met named Trainor and who had the tent on the other side of the Hartmans.
I took along my work gloves and reminded Curtis and Chuck to do the same. I also stuffed a protein bar in my jacket pocket for later and naturally took along my shotgun with plenty of extra shells.
When we arrived at the center, we went inside and saw what passed for the dining room was the main area with a handful of card tables set up with folding chairs. We could smell something frying in the back and in spite of the kerosene lamps for lighting, it felt almost normal. But before we could grab a table or figure out the serving rules, we were bushwhacked.
"What do these young men want here?" said a nasally voice that I recognized immediately. I turned and there he was, the guy from the wood pile with the Northface jacket and turtleneck. In the lamplight I could see him much more clearly, He had carefully combed over white hair, a long nose (useful for looking down at other people with I was sure), the same turtleneck and North Face jacket and wearing khacki trousers. Instead of the large plastic tumbler he had yesterday, he was carrying an oversized coffee cup with lid.
"These are the newcomers I told you about Mr. Holland that come in yesterday," said Hap.
"Well? Why aren't they at work yet? I noticed the wood pile outside wasn't getting any higher and there certainly hasn't been any water brought up the hill yet." he drawled.
Holland turned to us and said, "Gentlemen, meals are served to workers, not drop ins. Those with their hands out have a tendency to suddenly develop mysterious ailments and excuses when fed before work is completed. Come back at lunch time when the wood pile has been brought up to snuff and adequate water has been delivered up the hill."
"That will be all." the last part he said with a dismissive wave of his hand before turning back to Hap.
"Huh?" said Curtis. "Why doesn't he..."
Then Hartman appeared next to us and took Curtis' arm and gently turned him towards the door.
"Come on guys, I'll show you where everything is and we can get our work done toot sweet." he said.
"OK, Mr. Hartman, what was that all about? Who does he think he is? God almighty come down on high to direct his minions?" I said once we were outside. "Screw this. We're gonna get packing and take off. Holland can go get his wood pile up to snuff himself."
"Mike, hold on a minute. Look, let me lay things out for you and then maybe you might want to stick around for awhile afterward. Here's the deal. Holland and some of the others are paying for everything around here like the food and other supplies. After the Day, most of us went through our food and supplies pretty quick and things were going to get bad fast.
A woman who lives nearby came and offered to sell some of her excess crop production and livestock. Of course, she had no interest in paper money, only things with real value like gold, silver or hard to get trade goods. Well, most of us did not have much of what she wanted, but Holland and some of the other snowbirds had things like gold set aside for their retirement and were willing to make the investment to keep things normal for all of us.
And so, a deal was made. Look, we know the government is nowhere near functioning and we all have to make the best of this situation for the duration and this seemed like the best way. I am able to provide for my family and Holland and the other birds get some basic work done for their benefit. It may seem clumsy, but it really is a win/win for all. Understand?"
"Mr, Hartman, I can see how you see it and you got children but it's different for you. I don't like Holland's snotty attitude or the way he thinks everyone is a thief or up to no good. Chuck, Curtis and I have been through and seen some nasty stuff out there on the road, most of it just in the past two days, yet we are trying real hard to keep our... well, I don't want to sound holier-than-thou, we are trying to do the right thing by ourselves and others. I know that sounds preachy, but it's all we got.
Let me ask you this Mr. Hartman, and this will help me make my mind up, Will it help you and your family and some of the others if we stick around for awhile? We are not sure where we are going and how we are going to get there, but I know all of us like you, your wife and kids and we don't want to leave you hanging. Not at least until we can find a better situation or a way out of here" I finished.
"Mike, I am not going to kid you, Between my wife and a few others, we are doing most of the work around here. Sure, some of the older guys like George and Ernie are pulling guard duty, but the heavy stuff falls to a small group of us every day. I was hoping when we saw you guys show up, you would stick around for a little while, you know?" he sighed.
I turned and looked at Chuck who sighed and Curtis who had his emotional empathetic thing going which told me enough.
"OK, Mr. Hartman, we'll stick around. You got to do something for me though. Run interference between us and Holland. I don't know about Chuck, but Curtis and I have a way of speaking our minds and I don't think Holland will like us any more afterward, OK?"
"Agreed," said an obviously relieved Mr. Hartman.
With that, it was work time and boy, did we work. First, we had to collect a couple of dozen five gallon buckets and one fifty five gallon drum and bring them all down to the creek. We formed a bucket brigade and started hauling buckets up the steep bank to the only flat spot which was about ten yards from the creek and where we set the big drum.
The sucker was the guy who had to stand either in the creek or right on it at a place deep enough to fill a bucket. Even then, we could only fill each bucket half way or it was too heavy and clumsy to pass back and risk losing most of the work. The big drum could only be filled half way or we would be able to get it on the hand truck we brought or up the muddy hill to the camp ground.
Finally, we settled on the half filled drum for one guy to muster and the rest of us carrying at least one half five gallon back to the fire. We were not alone; we were joined by the middle aged long hair guy whose name was Aldus Barger, a man named Harry Stifflebeam and his sixteen year old son, Brett so the work went a little bit faster. Barger and the Stifflebeams were residents of Tent City as well and they promised to share their stories over breakfast.
Once we arrived at the fire pit, half of the crew started piling wood together to boil the water while the rest of us headed for the treeline to gather more wood. Tools were in short supply; a single saw, two axes (both in need of a sharpening), and a sad little hatchet which had seen better days. I stopped by my tent and picked up my Cold Steel Trail Boss hatchet. I am not a gear snob, but this was one of my best purchases and I keep it honed with a good sharpening stone so I knew it would come in handy for the work at hand.
"Are you able to work with that thing on your back?" Mr. Stifflebeam asked pointing at my shotgun.
"I won't work or go anywhere without it," I said without looking up.
"I know all about going armed, it just seems uncomfortable. I prefer something more manageable myself." he replied. He then parted his coat and showed a holstered pistol on his hip. "We were stranded a few miles from here on the Day and had to hoof it in to camp. Along the way, a couple of yahoos thought they needed our camp gear and stuff more than we did. A little firepower goes along way, never leave home with out. Know what I mean?"
"Yeah, sure." I replied. I don't know if he was all talk or if he actually did something to those "yahoos" on the road, but after my personal recent events, its not something I can see anyone wanting to brag about or toss around casually.
After that. we all concentrated on our work and soon had a large pile of fresh cut wood, most from a good sized dead fall the campsite had been harvesting. We loaded it up into two tarps and with two men carrying each tarp, we worked our way back to camp.
When we got there, the fire was going well and two steel pots of water were almost done boiling. They would then be transferred to other containers and brought up the hill or to the kitchen. Standing nearby watching was Holland, another man about his age and a woman. All had coffee cups in their hands and appeared to be watching the activity with bored interest.
"See, Evelyn. Once a community comes together and puts its back to a project, anything can be accomplished with diligence, don't you think so?" remarked Holland to the woman.
"I think it's amazing. Len and I once went to China on a tour and while it is a communist country, it was fascinating how they could get so many people to work on these huge projects. All these little people building these skyscrapers perched up on bamboo scaffolds, nobody complaining, no shirking their duty. Say what you want, but those people know how to get a job done." she responded in this loud, daffy voice.
"Especially when everyone knows their place," said the other man with emphasis. "Hierarchy is critical to success. Look at the ant or the honey bee. How could honey be produced if every drone had allusions of being a queen. Ha! What a mess that would be!"
I looked over at Hartman and he gave me a weak smile and said, "Mike, why don't you bring this pot of water over to the kitchen? I know Jennifer could sure use some more about now."
I took the pot with gloved hands and worked my way over to the kitchen. I backed into the screen door pushing it open and took the steaming container over to the counter.
"Oh good, I needed that. Thanks, Mike" Jennifer said.
"No problem Mrs. Hartman, happy to help"
There was a six burner gas stove burning with two large skillets and a big cast iron pot boiling away.
"Where did the gas for the stove come from, Mrs. Hartman?" I asked walking over to the stove.
"There's still propane in the tank out back. As long as it lasts we will keep using it and then it's the great outdoors" she responded.
In the skillet were at least a dozen eggs with deep yellow yolks frying. The pot contained something like oatmeal, but it had a yellow color to it.
"It's corn mush, like oatmeal, but with corn. I am also going to fry up some potatoes." Jennifer said when she saw me looking at the pot.
I noticed a couple of loaves of irregular shaped bread which I assumed were home made. Eggs, home made bread, fried potatoes, and some of that corn mush. Sounds like a hungry man breakfast to me!
I went outside and arrived just in time to watch Holland and his entourage start their way back up the hill to their motor home. Evelyn was chirping about how good the coffee was and Holland waving his hand saying "only the best" followed by lots of tittering. What a bunch of idiots.
We finished boiling several containers of water and Mr. Hartman had us set them aside on the wall to cool. "After breakfast, we will start bringing these up the hill and distribute them. We are going to have to boil some more around noon, so keep that in mind, gang."
I took that to be our cue to head inside for breakfast. While I didn't mind cooking something over the old campfire, the thought of eggs and toast was getting me excited as I had had nothing like that in weeks.
We grabbed some plates and went over to a folding table which was loaded down with large serving bowls. Sure enough, there was a big pot of the corn mush and another of potatoes, but I did not see the eggs or fresh bread. I helped myself and stood back from the table figuring that Jennifer or someone else would be bringing those eggs and bread out any moment.
Hartman stopped and asked "What are you doing, Mike? Foods getting cold."
"I thought there were some eggs and bread with breakfast as well. I'm hungry, but I know what I saw and I am not crazy." I replied craning my neck to look in the kitchen.
"Oh that. Um that stuff is for the folks up on the hill. We don't get enough eggs and only have enough flour for a few loaves each day. But don't worry, this corn much will stick to your ribs!" he replied going to a table where his kids were waiting.
Curtis was sitting down shoveling a potato in his mouth when I sat down. "The mush tastes like warm, wet corn flakes all mashed up. Wish we had some syrup or sugar to put on it. Make it taste a lot better that's for sure".
I looked down at my tray and then over at Hartman who was feeding spoonfuls of food from his tray to Tyler and his three other kids. Jennifer came out with a tray, sat down and starting doing the same as well. My blood was beginning to boil. I stood up, took a deep breath and brought my tray over to the Hartman table.
"Here," I said slowly, "I don't feel well Mrs. Hartman, Can I just take this tray back to the kitchen? I haven't touched it or anything."
"Oh, hon. What's wrong? Your not coming down with anything are you?" she asked
"No ma'aam. I did not sleep well last night and that always messes up my stomach. Where did you want me to put my tray?" I asked again.
"Just leave it here, I'll take care it." she said. I knew full well that left overs would go to her kids and they could have it. I lost my appetite.
I hit the door and walked out into the damp, cold morning air. Those people on the hill stink. I didn't care how much gold or money they put into the place, the Hartman kids were starving while their parents busted their humps boiling water for Holland's gourmet coffee and doing who knows what else. I don't do protests and don't consider myself some sort of communist, I guess, but how can anyone sit back while a little kid like Tyler is wasting away in a cold tent?
I didn't know where I was going, but found myself at the edge of Tent City when a gravelly voice said
"Finally figured it out, did ya?"
I turned and there was the old guy with the beret and the M1 carbine sitting in a camp chair front of a good sized camoflage tent.
"Figured what out?" I asked.
"How the rules work and how the game is played. You ever heard the term, Golden Rule, he who has the gold makes the rules? Well, there you go." he replied.
"Well, it stinks. I don't have to play the game. I can take off and let Holland and his pals sit in it." I groused.
"Yep, you could. Won't change things. You want a cup of coffee?" he said holding up a perculator.
"Sure sounds good. Wait, do I have to fetch the water and get the wood, etc?" I asked.
"Don't lump me in with that riff raff. Baby boomers, greatest generation, bah. Nope, I still got propane, got a camp stove and even got real coffee. I'll bet mine's better than Holland's. Ha!"
"I'm Ernst Rheinhardt, by the way. What do they call you, son?" he said holding out his free hand.
"Mike Brewer. Ernst Rheinhardt? Were you like in World War Two or something. Sure sounds like a name from a war movie."
"Yeah, a typical Nazi bad guy, huh?" he laughed. "Nope, family is German, but they came here before the big one. Besides, I was too young for that. You young people think all of us are old as dinosaurs. I don't know if it's your lack of judgement or poor education. Ah, who cares. Nope, my war was Vietnam, that's where I served. I fought the Americans, by the way" he added with a smile.
"Where are you from?" I asked,
"Latrobe, Pennsylvania, ever hear of it?" Ernst said.
"Heard of Pennsylvania, but not Latrobe." I responded
"Never heard of it? You go to college? You drink beer? Never heard of Latrobe? What do they teach you kids these days? Well, its outside of Pittsburgh. Nice place if you ever get up that way. I should say, if any of us ever get up that way."
"How did you end up in nowhere Texas?"
"Came down here after my sister died. Long story, but I am a widower and my sister died not too long ago so I figured I would come down and look up her family down here. She was much younger than me and married a fella from Texas, moved away and we lost touch. I'm retired and I have a really nice pickup with a fifth wheel and have spent the past year or so seeing the country. Great way to travel, by the way. Any way, the Day came and I found myself stranded with a dead truck and nowhere to go."
So I packed up and went a couple of days until I found this place and have been here ever since."
"I saw you working guard duty when we came in yesterday. Have you had much trouble?" I asked after Ernst handed me my coffee.
"Some. The riff raff stays away from places with lots of folks. Too big of a target and they have no idea what we have or don't have inside. Plus seeing a couple of guards, even as old as me and George, makes this place not worth the trouble. Yet. But that day will come."
"Why do you say that?" I asked interested in something close to home.
"In the first days of a crisis like this one, the criminals work in small groups or alone. When they do get together in large groups, they fight with each other - it's called "too many chiefs and not enough Indians". But that doesn't last forever. Sooner or later someone tough will take charge of a group, and then absorb another and another until they have a fighting force big enough to take on a big target.
Unless they are countered by another fighting force, they will go on the rampage and burn through the countryside like locusts. It's gonna happen and with this group, I don't think we will be ready to do anything about it." he said.
"What about Holland? What does he say?"
"Holland, that old turd? He thinks the government is going to come rolling in any day now. Thinks they are going to setup shop right down the road, get all the snowbirds motor homes running again and tell them where the closest Walmart is and that'll be that. He's a pompous old idiot. All of them are. Even the ones who are half decent are so scared they try to put on a big old act about this or that."
There's this one woman up there, Pat, that's her name. She traded a perfectly good .38 revolver to the farm lady for some eggs, tomatoes and a jug of home made wine! What's she thinking? We got so few guns and folks here to use them and there she goes giving one away for a day's eating!"
"Who's the farm lady? Mr. Hartman mentioned her too." I replied.
"Ah, Celina. There's a smart cookie. She has a farm near here, one of those organic places. Raised vegetables and stuff for some of the restaurants in Austin. She comes in once a week or so and does business with the camp ground. The corn and potatoes at breakfast came from her place along with the eggs, the tomatoes and just about everything else. Only trades for tangibles. Gold, silver, guns, fuel. She's been getting gasoline out of those dead motor homes up on the rise along with diesel, jewelry, oh lots of stuff."
At the rate we are going, I figure we got a month or so before even the wealthiest of those folks up there run out of anything of value. Then everyone will be in the same pickle, won't they?"
"So why were you giving me the ugly eye yesterday?" I finally asked.
"Saw the gun, but then I saw the look in your eyes. Saw that look a lot in 'Nam, especially in the young guys just in from the bush. Sorry if I bugged you, young man, but I can tell when someone's done their first, or come close to it. I want you to know something and I won't say another word about it.
You are are a good person in a bad world. You are not the same person you were yesterday, but you still have the same heart and the same character. Your family and friends still love you, they care about you and they want you to be safe and whole again. And you are not first and you won't be the last but you must always pray that that won't be the case. Finally, don't take this the wrong way, but get off the cross. Someone else is already there and there's no room for you. He made sure of it."