"Who were they?" said Curtis, finally shaken out of the initial shock.
"I don't know," said Chuck, "But I think they were going to kill us and take our things."
Chuck and Curtis were still standing in the rain staring at the two dead bodies lying in the road. Chuck removed his ever present eye glasses and attempted to dry them on his shirt tail, but once he put them on again, they only fogged up. He and Curtis walked towards the overpass where I was sitting, carefully circumnavigating the dead men.
My hands were shaking uncontrollably and I felt incredibly tired as if I could lay down on the road shoulder and sleep for a month. I kept seeing those men's faces as I pulled the trigger, their bodies ripped apart by the shotgun blasts. I did not care what they did, only that I wanted to take the entire experience back and make it so it never happened.
"Are you OK? Of course you aren't, I'm sorry" said Chuck quietly. "That first guy. He had a gun. He was going to shoot you, me, Curtis. Just like those convicts who got Billy and his friends, they were animals and they were going to kill us. You had no choice, it was us or them."
"Oh really, Chuck? Us? Where were you? Standing there thinking about your mom and dad and how they are doing right now? Letting good old Mike shoot the bad guys for Chuckie so he can get home in one piece?
Who cares about Mike? Just let him shoot the bad guys. Let Mike drive and figure out what we are going to do next. Let Mike get his truck stolen. Let Mike build the fire, pick the camping site, stay up all night on watch. You can just sit there and think about home and do calculus problems in your head. Whatever. Us. Right."
I thrust the shotgun at Chuck. "Here, why don't you shoot the next guy? How about you Curtis? It's just like a video game. C'mon, get the top score and go gun down some bad guys. They're not real. They don't have parents, they don't have families, they aren't anything like you. They're just bits and dots on a computer screen!"
Curtis looked down at the ground, "Mike, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to do that, but thank you. You saved my life. I don't what else I can do or say, but I'm sorry. Here, give me the gun. You're right. You got stuck with the sh*t jobs since this all started.
I have just been sitting around with my thumb up my butt and until Hobbs, I thought this was just a bad trip or a game. But you're right, I gotta step this up and you.. you shouldn't have to go it alone. I'd like to think we're friends and that's not how friends treat each other."
Curtis carefully took the Remington from my hands and put the paracord sling around his neck, making sure the barrel was safely pointed at the ground. I slowly stood up and walked down the road a few feet on my wobbly legs trying to get my bearings.
"I am sorry guys for jumping on you. It wasn't cool at all. This is just... getting harder all the time, but you don't need me downing you, so I'm really sorry, OK?" I said without turning around.
"It's OK," said Chuck, "We know... we'll get through this.
You know, with all the bad that is happening, the odds of something positive are clearly in our favor."
"Where'd you get that from, Chuck? Your magic eight ball?" teased Curtis. "Geez, I think your losing it faster than Mikey, here."
We all laughed at that. For me, it was the laugh of a guy on a ledge teetering between the edge of madness and death. I wanted to laugh, and run, and never look back. I wanted all of this to go away and be back at home with my parents and my sister. But if they were here now, they would probably turn their back on me with revulsion and horror for all the evil I have done.
I stood for a moment in the rain and let it fall on my face and stared out at the dirty gray clouds. It was time to go. To go somewhere away from the dead I have left in the middle of the road like trash.
I went back and took the shotgun back from Curtis over his protests, and we headed out in the same direction.
With the rain, we traveled about five more miles that day along the road and finally noticed a few things. First, every single abandoned car we passed had been stripped, not only of gas but also of at least one, two or all ifs tires. All had their doors and trunks opened and anything of value removed (we found that out when we checked a delivery truck for anything useful ourselves). Clearly, someone is scavenging anything of value and quickly before the elements take over.
The other thing I noticed was the lack of game. Sure, old Mr. Deer isn't going to hang out by the highway and watch guys with guns go by, but for the past two two nights, I have not heard or seen anything. No rabbits in the early evening, squirrels chattering in a tree or even a coyote laugh in the dead of night and those guys are everywhere. It's like anything on four legs has holed up or run off.
We were about to call it quits for the day and find a shelter of some sort when we saw a small wooden sign on the side of the road advertising WinterHaven Camp Grounds and Trailer Park. It was a short distance ahead so we figured it might have something more friendly to outdoor living and hopefully, was not over run with dirt bags, so we kept our caution up.
Sure enough, it was the real thing and for the first time, it seemed somewhat normal. There was a large cluster of newer looking Winnebagos and motor homes in one section, a small group of manufactured homes in another group and surprisingly, a group of tents in another. There was a welcome center out front but the gate was down and there were three older guys with rifles sitting in folding chairs nearby.
I shouldered my shotgun and took the lead in front of Chuck and Curtis and held up my left hand as I approached.
"Hi, how's it going?" I said as I reached the gate.
"Fine, keep your hands where we can see them, son. What can we do for you?" an older man holding a lever action rifle and wearing a leather jacket, gloves, scarf and USS Enterprise ball cap asked.
"We were looking for a safe place to camp for the night. We have our own gear and stuff and just need a pad off the road. If you have water and facilities that would even be better."
"Well, facilities are a bit different than they were a few weeks ago, but yes, you can rent a space here. Go on in the welcome center and talk to Hap. He'll explain how payment works and how we do things around here, son." he answered.
Besides the guy with the Navy cap, there was another man wearing an overcoat and a cowboy hat holding a baseball bat who appeared uninterested in us and just wanted to get out of the weather.
The third man was right out of a Hemingway story. He wore an army field jacket, a worn black beret, had a pair of binoculars around his neck and carried what looked like an M1 carbine. He watched all of us like a hawk, me especially it seemed. Each of the men was old, like in their 60's but the third guy carried himself like he was half his age. I needed to keep an eye out for him I told myself.
They opened the gate and we went in to the welcome center office which at one time was the office, store, post office and information center. The post office window was closed, the information center was dark and the small store was completely empty of anything useful.
An older man whose face hung like a worn out old bloodhound was sitting behind the counter reading a paperback book by kerosene lantern when we entered the office. He looked up and asked,
"Can I hep ya?"
"Yeah, we need to see about getting a campsite for a couple of days or so, I guess." I answered.
"Didn't hear a vehicle drive up, you got a tent or something? We don't have no cabins or nothing like that." he answered in a bored voice.
"We have a tent, we just need a site and facilities if you have any. We could all really use a shower," I said smiling.
"Showers? That's funny. You can get a bucket and make your own, partner. We were on county water before the Day and it ain't running now more. Got a crick though you can haul water from." he replied.
"Guess that will have to do. How much is it?" I said pulling out my wallet.
"Unless you got gold or silver coin in that thing, we are going to have to figure out another way for you to pay, sonny. We don't take no credit cards, checks or folding money, only gold, silver, or trade goods. List of what we needs is up there." he said gesturing at a white board above the desk.
Payment may be made in
Gold or silver coin, jewelry, or precious stones
Gasoline or diesel fuel
Working guns or ammunition
Pre-war canned and packaged foods
Good batteries, kerosene, camp fuel, butane, propane
Or other stuff - make us an offer!
"Sir, we don't have anything like that for trade except for my shotgun and we can't give up that. I guess we will have to go elsewhere." I said looking down.
"Now hold on, feller. The three of you look like some strong young men. We have a need for some chores to be done around here and they require strong backs. As you can tell from the gate guard, we don't have a lot of spring chicken here," he said with the first smile I had seen on his face.
"Here's the deal we got. You do simple chores like fetching and boiling water, cutting and hauling wood, helping dig some garden space and and other stuff and you'll get a camp site and three square meals a day. I haven't seen the want ads in a few weeks, but I think its the best offer around these days. What do you say?"
"Guys, I think we could use a break for a couple of days. We can figure out where we are going next and we might get some information from some of the folks here." I said to Chuck and Curtis.
"Sure, nothing like some fresh country air and blisters," said Curtis.
"OK," said Chuck.
"Alright boys, standard rules apply with a few new additions. No fighting, stealing, loud yelling or cussing, no staying up late and bothering folks, no hitting on other men's women or their daughters, no drunks, no dope, no littering and no using the bathroom except in designated areas. You cause trouble in any way, we will kick you out and and you forfeit anything owed ya. Got it?"
We agreed to the terms and we were shown where to set up our tent in the designated "Tent City" area of the campground. There were about ten or so tents of varying sizes from a lone single man tent occupied by a middle aged long haired guy to a king sized family structure which indeed housed a large family; mom, dad and numerous kids.
In front of each tent pad was a fire pit which in the "old days" before the Day would have been used for roasting marshmallows. Today, it was needed for warmth, light and for cooking everything else. Some of the tent residents were sitting front of their tents watching us come in and we got the vibe from them right away - suspicious. Especially the dad with all the kids. It can't be too comforting to have a group of young men setting up their camp site right next to you and yours.
The first thing I noticed was how separated the camp sites were by dwelling. The big motor homes were up on a slight rise and had the best view of the country side. The travel trailers were nearby, but on slightly smaller pads. The manufactured homes were behind a large wooden fence, surrounded by big trees in need of a trim, and slightly downhill. The tents were at the bottom of the rise at the foot of a winding path and furthest from the welcome center. I wondered if this was done by design.
Behind the manufactured homes, down in a small draw, was the creek the park manager told us about and I could see why they wanted someone else to get the water. The banks were grassy, even in the winter, and steep. Someone would have to either carry a small bucket or be fairly strong to fetch a large pail of water and bring it up to the camp site.
There was a center area to the park which had a flag stoned patio with an extra large fire pit in the center. This was the communal area where water was boiled and collected. There were several large metal buckets and pots tasked for boil duty each blackened from repeated usage. There were ropes hanging between the now useless lamp posts which someone could use to dry laundered clothes if only the rain and dampness would let up.
There was a chain link fence and part of a wooden fence around part of the back of the property. The front section of the park was bordered with a pipe fence with the gate as the only opening. Hap, the guy running the front office lives in a small house with his wife behind the office. His wife, it turns out, gets the job of making food for us but was another story altogether.
We set up our tent and it was already getting to be post-nuclear war early twilight so I went looking for some firewood to cook our dinner over. There was a pile next to the central fire pit and figured nobody would mind if a grabbed a few pieces in the meantime. Boy, was I wrong.
I picked up five decent chunks of wood and filled one our leftover plastic grocery sacks with handful of twigs and sticks for starter when a voice yells over at me.
"I hope you plan on burning that wood here and aren't thinking about taking it over there."
I turned and see this sixtyish guy wearing an expensive Northface jacket over a turtleneck holding a big plastic cup standing on the walking path nearby.
"Yeah, I was going to make a fire and cook some dinner up. We just got here and I have not had the chance to get wood and figured a few pieces wouldn't matter." I replied.
"Well it does matter, young man, as that is not how we do things here. Now you put that wood back and go get some of your own from out there and leave this wood alone or you may find your stay here prematurely ending." he sniffed before strolling back up the hill to the motor home area.
I returned the wood all while thinking of different derivatives of the term "pecker head". I hoped I didn't have to deal with that jerk any more.
It was rapidly getting dark so I went over to the treeline hoping to find some not too damp wood beneath the spreading limbs. I was lucky, but it took some time between gathering sticks off the ground and breaking some off of a dead fall nearby. I balanced my load and went back to the tent where I found Chuck and Curtis engaged in a conversation with the family "next door".
I went over and dropped my wood next to our pit, wiped off my hands and went to introduce myself. The father, was Paul Hartman and with him was his wife Jennifer and their four kids. The youngest, Tyler, was talking to Curtis and in hysterics as Curtis was making faces and saying all kinds of goofy gibberish to the kid. I guess Curtis found his mental equivalent or something.
The Hartman family was from Nebraska and were en route to San Antonio to visit Jennifer's parents for Thanksgiving. Like most everyone else on the Day, their car died but fortunately were only a few miles away. Also, they had packed plenty of camping gear with them as they were planning on camping on the way down to save money. Besides their tent, Jennifer was a bit of a worry wart and had brought plenty of extra food and supplies thinking "something would go wrong". Something did and here they were.
Mr Hartman was doing the same thing we were planning on doing to keep his family in the camp grounds. He explained that wood was cut only a few days a week and the big job was hauling water and working on a number of raised garden beds.
"When and if the weather warms up, we are going to start planting some gardens and raise some extra food. We are already working on getting some chickens and other small livestock locally, but its not been easy as most of the local farms are hanging on to what they have."
"Have you guys eaten, yet?" I asked Mr. Hartman.
He shifted uncomfortably and said, "We have to head over to the welcome center and eat here soon or we might miss out. C'mon gang, Let's get over and get dinner and let these guys get their camp setup."
The Hartmans headed off into the darkness to the welcome center leaving us alone.
"Felt like I said something wrong just then. Did I?" I asked Chuck and Curtis.
"You missed the first part of the conversation while you were getting wood. They feed Hartman and his wife because they both work, but the kids only get food if there is leftovers because they can't do any of the heavy stuff. The family shares so everyone gets something." said Chuck.
"Man, I feel bad for asking him. I wonder if he will let us give something to his kids. You know, maybe make..." I said.
"There you go again," interrupted Chuck. "As soon as you see a hungry person, you're busting open the pantry. Did you ever think sooner or later we have to head home and what ever food we have has to stretch? It's not like we can feed everyone, Mike"
"Says the guy who handed our emergency food to Billy and his friends at the barn. Remember that, bud?" I countered.
"OK, ok, what did you want to do?" Chuck said holding up his hands.
"Let's just make a quick stew with I will put together some camp biscuits, they're not too hard..."
And so it went. Am I a "sucker" like Bill Hough called me? Maybe, but unlike him I have a conscience and right now it's weighing pretty heavy on me. We made a big pot of interesting stew to say the least, but it had plenty of flavor. I made the camp biscuits and cooked two batches in my small skillet and wrapped them in foil to stay warm. When the Hartmans came back from dinner, we asked them to come over and check something out for us.
We presented the kids with cups of stew and a biscuit each and told them to sit down before it got cold. The children looked up at their parents for approval and when it was given, they dug in with relish. The cups were clean in no time at all and scraped with swatches of biscuits. We shrugged and poured out seconds and watched them gobble it down.
"You didn't have to do that," said Mr. Hartman, "but it was very nice all the same. But please, we'll manage and I can't let you feed my family, that's my job."
"Mr, Hartman, a couple of things have happened to us the past few days and we.. I really need to do something to get it behind me. I am not trying to butt in or anything, I just wanted to do something." I replied.
Hartman shook his head and shrugged, "OK, just let me know if you need to talk about it or if I can help. I don't know where you are from or what your family is like but I am sure your mom or dad wouldn't mind if you talked to another old dad."
I went to my bag and took out a couple of chocolate bars and gave them to Mrs Hartman and said in a low voice, "I'll let you figure out when you want to give these to the kids."
Then I went over to the fire and had some of the left over stew and two biscuits myself. While we were cleaning up the dishes, I saw a figure standing in the shadows just outside of the light from our dying fire staring at us. It was the old guy from the gate with the beret and the M1 carbine.