The ride west went without a hitch for the first few hours. They first town they came to was a wide spot in the road called Hawkins and as they were to see again and again, a road block had been set up for entry into the town, but not across the state highway. A half dozen men were setup behind two disabled newer model trucks while a few others hunkered down in makeshift fox holes twenty yards or so off the road.
They stared at Patty's group as they passed which irritated Patty to no end.
"Why does everyone out here stare? What's the deal with people in small towns? Why can't they say something like 'Hi' or 'Keep on riding'? Instead they stand there and stare like they can't get their pea brains to do two things at once." Patty groused to herself.
"What's up?" said Lamar noting the look on Patty's face.
"Nothing, just remind me when things get back to normal and I am in my car driving in East Texas that I am never, ever going to stop in Hawkins and spend one dime." she replied.
"Don't forget, Hawkins has the bomb." said Lamar and he rode ahead with a smirk on his face.
"What? Oh, whatever." Patty shouted after him.
The state highway was flat and open in front of them and took them through one more small town called Hoard. Unlike its' implied namesake, Hoard did not have any barricades or guards, only a few bored people sitting in front of a closed mini mart smoking home rolled cigarettes and drinking some clear liquid from mason jars. "I'll bet that's not water" thought Patty.
Afterward, they passed a few people on foot and another couple on bikes going the other direction, but nobody said a word. They merely passed with their heads down or staring straight in front of them. The look said fear to Patty.
"This has gone on for too long," thought Patty. "A week or so ago, we were all Americans and in this together. Now, we are each individuals or drawn together into tribes concerned only with our next meal and safe place to rest. Authority is meted out by bands of men hiding behind dead cars or laying in holes in the ground. Their bellies growing empty as they protect their families from potential predator while wondering if the man next to them is holding out on the others. This will not play out well."
A sign on their right said Mineola, the next town, was ten miles ahead. On their left, a large forested area began and for some reason, Patty recalled it was the beginning of a state forest of some kind or another. The trees were a mix of pine and oak and stood tall and green against the gray skies.
"Patty, are we going to stop in Mineola or ride past it and stop?" asked Brad.
"I doubt any of the motels are open in Mineola. I imagine they will watch us pass through, detour us around the town or make us go back the way we came." she replied.
"I thought the law or something said we could travel on the public roads without being bothered. At least that's what we learned in school." said Brad.
"Sure, but times have changed. I don't blame what some of these towns are doing to protect themselves. Imagine if Winona believed that the mob had the right to an open road hadn't done anything when they rolled through." she replied.
"I guess. But I wish they would just let us pass through so we could get home. This is taking forever." Brad complained.
"That, I agree with, Brad." said Patty.
"What's that smell?" asked Catelyn.
"What, hmmm, that is strange. It's the smell of something burning, that's for sure. Look over above the trees, smoke." replied Patty pointing at the forest on the left.
A wisp of white smoke rose up from the forest probably a hundred or so yards into the trees. As they passed, Patty tried to look into the trees, but could see nothing, but thought she heard voices speaking deep in the shadows.
The odor from the fire was stronger as they rode near it. It was meat or something similar cooking and smelled both sweet and rancid at the same time. Obviously, someone had killed an animal and was cooking it off the road, but was not very good at remaining furtive and their actions only served to draw attention.
Before long, the smoke and odor fell behind them and they continued on towards Mineola. It was around then, they saw the first sign. A billboard had been haphazardly painted over with white house paint and written in black spray paint was a simple message.
"KeeP Going. No Food hear. Will Shoot Looters!"
"Well, they know how to make newcomers feel welcome." said Lamar wryly.
Soon after, they came to another billboard done in the same manner.
"NO Stopping In Town. Closed to Outsiters"
"Should we turn back?" asked Lamar to Patty.
"No, they specifically said to keep going, so let's do that." she replied.
It took another hour before they reached the edge of Mineola. The barricade was much more elaborate than others they had seen and was manned by uniformed men all heavily armed. Already, there were four other people on foot standing outside the blockage speaking to a tall man carrying a semi-auto rifle across his chest.
"Say, it looks like the military is here." said Lamar.
"I didn't know the military wore beards or had long hair." said Patty gesturing at a couple of guards on the far left of the road. Both men had beards and one had long hair underneath is baseball hat.
"Hang on, folks. Stop right there for processing." said the tall man in their direction as they rolled to the stop at the barrier.
"Processing? For what?" asked Patty.
"Just hang on. We got a few people here before you. One at a time." he replied.
A few moments later, the four people were ushered inside the barricade and directed into town by two more uniformed guards.
"OK, what we got here. One, two, three, four, five of you. On bikes. Alright, I need you to declare all firearms and weapons on your person and be prepared for a full search and inventory of your property." the man stated.
"Hold on. What right do you have to search us and our personal possessions?" asked Patty.
"By right of the state and the city of Mineola. This area is under martial law and the control of the town militia operating under the precepts of the Texas State Guard." he replied. "Now, we can make this easy or hard, how do you want to work it, folks?"
"Texas State Guard? Is the state finally getting its act together? What can you tell us?" asked Patty.
"Only that the state has authorized all local and county governments to make whatever preparations they see fit to deal with this crisis and provide for the greater good." the guard replied.
"How did you find out? Do you have working communications? A radio?" Patty blurted.
"Nope, a couple of fellers rolled in here in a helicopter working out of some base nearby. Told us to get ourselves organized and to hold the line as long as possible until aid was distributed. Said we were going to get priority relief supplies if we did as we were told, so that's what we're doing. Now, let's get those weapons out and declared." he replied.
"Wait, what did they tell you to do and when is the relief operation starting? We have been dealing with this mess for two weeks and haven't seen any sort of supplies or military operations." said Lamar.
"Easy. We are to make a head count of all entering and leaving town. We are to take an inventory of their supplies, means of transportation, ages, home addresses and intention. That means finding out where you are heading and why. Finally, we are to confiscate all guns and ammunition. Do that and the aid starts rolling in from the government warehouses. Food, medicine, toilet paper, the works. It's pretty cut and dry folks, so can we cut out the jawing and get down to business? I got a job to do." the tall man said, visibly irritated.
"What if we say no and turn around the way we came?" asked Lamar.
"You're free to do that if you want, but listen here and listen good. You do and don't come back this way again. For all we know you're checking the town out for raiders and looters and want to see how we operate." the man said gravely.
"We are neither, we are just trying to get home." said Patty. "Look, we don't want any trouble. Yes, we are armed and you'd be crazy not to be if you were out walking these roads. And if you let us go straight on through the highway to other side of town, we won't be any trouble. You can even escort us if it makes you feel better."
"Sorry, miss. Nobody goes through armed and everyone is subject to search and inventory. We got a lot of scared and hungry people in town and we can't afford to have anyone wandering through without giving something up." said the man.
"Oh, that's it. Alright, we'll just go back and figure another way home." said Patty turning her bike around. "But you are making a mistake in letting us walk away. We actually know quite a bit about what's going on to the east and south of here which might be valuable to you. But you just keep operating in the dark and see how that works out. See ya."
The guards went back behind their barricades and assumed their spots as Patty and company turned around.
"Hey lady. You might want to know something too before you ride away too fast. Foods running real short and guess what some of locals are eating? I'll give you a hint. Your big friend looks like a blue plate special." yelled one of the guards and which caused all the others to break out laughing.
"Ugh" thought Patty. "Come on everyone. Let's go back a ways and then we can figure out which way to go from here."
They rode back about a half a mile and found a wide spot to hunker down and figure out their next move. Patty pulled a worn map and carefully traced the route they had taken so far until they came to Mineola.
"OK, we should be about here. Now look, there is a farm to market road just back a mile or so and it goes south and around to the west. From there, we can take this county road and come out about a mile or so from the edge of town. If we ride to that spot, just to the end of the county road, we can lay low and then move after dark. I imagine they probably have road blocks and guards, but I bet they can't see very well at night. What do you think?" asked Patty.
"Probably would work," said Lamar. "I really don't want to go all the way back the way we came and start over."
"I bet they are expecting it." said Brad quietly. "Look, they are searching people and taking their stuff for some government goon. I am sure a bunch of other people have tried the same thing and they have moved their blockades and look outs to deal with it."
Patty stared quietly at Brad for a few moments before speaking.
"That makes a lot of sense. OK, take a look at the map. What do you think is a better route?"
"The hard way. Those guys looked lazy and acted cocky. See this county road going north? Take this and follow it up to farm to market forty nine. Take that north east and then this county road going north and then west." Brad replied.
"But that county road ends, Brad. It dead ends and goes no where." replied Patty.
"I know. Would you watch that road? Of course not. But look, its a hop skip and jump from this other farm to market and then to this county road to the west and then one more and we're on the other side. Easy peasy and no one taking pot shots at you or going through your underwear drawer." Brad said.
Patty stared at the map and realized it might work.
"We'll have to go cross country in a few places to get where we are going. It'll be a tough slog, especially with all our stuff." she said.
"Sure, but wasn't that one of the reasons we left the wagon and the interstate? I think that's what YOU said wasn't it?" said Brad with a smile.
"OK, you got me. Alright, Daniel Boone. Why don't you lead the way and we'll follow you for a while, deal?" said Patty.
Everyone mounted up and rode the mile to the county road cut off. As they started, Candace finally spoke since leaving camp this morning.
"He meant they are eating people, didn't he? That guard at Mineola, that's what he was talking about when we left wasn't it?" she said.
"I think so, Candace. I think so." said Patty quietly. "Let's go."
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