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A Change of Major (Chapter Seventeen)

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."

A Change of Major (Chapter Sixteen)

"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.