Sunday, February 20, 2011

For The Greater Good 14


CHAPTER FOURTEEN


    Working their way west along the C&O Canal trail, the group passed the car packed, road blocked bridge at the Point of Rocks. Although there wasn’t any indication of anyone guarding that bridge, they learned the hard way about hidden dangers, and kept on pedaling. Shortly after moving by the Point of Rocks bridge, Christine had a flat tire, it took almost an hour to effect a repair and continued back on the increasingly difficult trail. They stopped and camped about two miles from Point of Rocks and then went through Brunswick early the next day.

    Brunswick’s rail lines and marshalling yard lay abandoned. In normal times, there would be trains and their loud whistles, rumbling in and out of town. Burned out cars littered the bridge connecting Virginia and Maryland at Brunswick. Although a few people were seen near the town, the group made no effort for personal contact, preferring to keep moving.

    The scenery changed dramatically from the time they hit the trail near Irene’s farm. What was once rolling hills and farms, now changed into the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The trail, with its rocks, mud and slow going was wearing out the group rapidly, and thoughts about breakdowns slowed them until they reached the river crossing at Harpers Ferry.

    The states of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland butted up against one another in this area. The bridge which crossed the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, actually made landfall in Virginia. Approaching the long concrete span, the group stopped as Paul scanned the other side with his binoculars.

     The Potomac River at this crossing was a wide, boulder filled, shallow body of water. The bridge would leave everyone exposed to any sniper, there was no way around that fact. If they were to cross, and they needed to cross, it would have to be here.

    “Well, what do you think?” Rick asked Paul, sitting and intently observing the area.

    “There are a few cars on the bridge, but I think we can get around them. At the far end there’s a road block and looks like a couple of guys guarding the border.” He replied, eyes still scanning the road block ahead. “It’s your call.”

    “Let’s do it. This trail is getting worse and we have to cross, so let’s hope Pepper is right.” Rick said, and began to push his bike rig from the trail on to the road. The others lined behind him, pushing their heavy rigs.

    Rick waited until everyone was on the road, and began to pedal slowly across the bridge which he judged to be about five hundred yards long. The Potomac below and the mountains surrounding them, framed a picture post-card perfect scene, although no post-card could reveal the intensity of their crossing.

    They were two-thirds across the bridge and slowly winding their way around a few dead vehicles, when they were spotted by the guards at the road block. The two men looked through binoculars at the approaching group, making no overt move which might indicate whether they were friendly or not.

    “Get off your bikes, and approach on foot…one at a time.” One of the guards ordered.

    Rick was first to stop his rig, and slowly approached, his empty hands in plain sight. “Hello.”

    The tall and unwashed guard held a shotgun in a semi-state of readiness, pointed at Rick’s feet. “Where are you headed?” He asked with a wad of brown tobacco in his jaw.

    “South.”

    “Where are y’all from?”

    “We’re from Baltimore.” Rick replied, making direct eye contact with the unsmiling man

    “So, why should we let y’all in?” He commented, spitting a thin line of brown tobacco on the ground.

    “Hmm, good question.” Rick said, pausing to think that over briefly. “First of all we are all marksmen, and we believe in God and the Constitution of the United States.” Rick said seriously, as Emmy nudged up to his side holding his hand. “Besides, could you turn away someone as cute as this? He said and smiled.

    “That’s enough Clay.” The man’s partner said. “My names Bill and this is Clay.” The partner, who evidently was the one in charge said with a broad smile and extended his hand.

    Rick shook his hand vigorously, introducing himself, and then the rest of the group. “Thank you, we appreciate it.” Rick said smiling, and relieved at the welcome.

    Bill turned to the tree-line behind him and waved an ‘All Clear’ to the unseen marksmen guarding the span. “You folks are just what we need here, welcome to Virginia.” Bill said with a slight southern drawl. “I hope y’all understand that things over on this side of the line, aren’t much better than what’s over in Maryland…and I don’t know, maybe they’re worse.” He said and then paused, “Come on, let’s get your bikes off the bridge.”

    The group followed him to a nearby rest area where other recent border crossers sat cooking on small fires and chatting safely amongst themselves.

    Bill led the group to a well used, wood and metal picnic table. “So, y’all are from Baltimore…how is it there?”

    “It’s bad. The nuke blast and the fallout killed a lot of people. What’s left is struggling to stay alive…and then there’s the gangs and other less desirables, if you know what I mean.”

    “Same story here, we’ve got entire towns that have been wiped out from the radiation.” He paused and added, “The gangs here are well organized. We had a big population of illegals before the bombs went off, and although some aren’t bad folk, however, others especially that MS-13 group are especially violent.”

    Rick cringed and then nodded his understanding, “How organized are you guys?”

    “Not at all. As a matter of fact…I don’t know why we are even watching this dang bridge. Hell, most of our troubles come from inside Virginia and not from Maryland.”

    “What are you doing to stop these gangs?” Paul asked.

    “Nothing except a good defense. They attack at night and with automatic weapons, grenades and those shoulder fired rockets.”

    “RPG’s?” Rick asked, surprised. 

    Bill nodded.

    “Where did they weapons like that?” Rick asked.

    “Rumor has it, that the Arabs up north are supplying them.” Bill answered.

    “Arabs up north?” Paul said to Rick.

    “That’s what some of the folks who come through here are saying.” Bill paused, and then added. “I don’t know if that is a fact or not, but I do know that the gangs have better weapons than we do.”

    The group stood silently. “Sounds like we’ve jumped from the frying pan into the fire.” Rick said with a soft resolution.

    Bill started walking back to the road, “Come here. “ He said motioning to Rick and Paul. “I didn’t want to say anything around your women, but one of the things that these gangs do is to kidnap women…and girls.” He paused and added, “Make sure you keep them close.”

    Rick and Paul nodded. “Thanks.” Paul said. They shook hands and started to head out. “By the way, what can you tell us about the roads?” Rick asked.

    Bill scratched his head in thought. “All I can say is what I know about this area. If you take Route 340 through Charles Town, you’ll see a sign for place called Summit Point. There will be another check point at the four-way intersection…past that is Winchester.” He paused. “Winchester was one of the towns that had a lot of deaths from radiation and those that are left have to deal with the gang’s. You’d be advised to avoid that area. I wish I could say more, but that’s all I know.”

    The group formed up and started out along Route 340. Charles Town, located about five miles inside the West Virginia line, was a fairly large town for this mountainous area. Railroad tracks crossed many of the city streets, a remembrance of its recent past. Now it stood unpopulated and abandoned, the group went through as quick as they could, dodging the dead cars and debris on the city roads. Keeping on the main road, they followed the signage to Summit Point.

    It was mid afternoon and hot when they reached the large road blocked spot, called Summit Point. Cars and trucks were pushed onto the four way intersection, blocking the crossing. The check point was manned by at least a dozen armed men and women.

    The group dismounted and approached the post on foot, pushing their bikes. The guards were friendly and offered advice about how to safely travel through the area, and like Bill they cautioned about Winchester. Spending about an hour talking and resting with the guards, Rick and Paul each gleaned as much information as they gave. They learned of the location of a camping area with a small stream about a mile distant. Shaking hands and wishing each other luck, they pushed on.

    About a half mile from Summit Point, the team came on a group of walkers. Rick was on point and slowed.      

    “Hello.” Rick said, the woman who was in front looked at him and nodded, in a manner that indicated that she wasn’t interested in any small talk. The four women, turned out to be three teen girls of various ages and their leader, a woman who looked to be much older than what she probably was, due to her gray hair. “We’re going to camp at the creek ahead, if you’d like to join us, you’re more than welcome.” Rick offered to the unfriendly woman.

    The group pedaled away, leaving the four behind. Brenda rode up next to Rick, “They weren’t too friendly, were they?”  She said.

    “No, and there’s no reason for that either.” Rick replied, as they rounded a curve in the road, the camping area and slow moving creek on the right. They pulled their bikes into the wooded area, well off the road and started setting up camp.

    Rick set up his shelter with Brenda’s single person tent alongside. They knew the procedure and with Lisa and Glen missing, their chores took much longer than before. The fire was stared and Rick set up the water filter about fifty feet down stream. Brenda brought Emmy down to where Rick was and both started to clean up in the warm creek. Emmy enjoyed playing in the water, splashing Rick and Brenda. It felt good to play, as all three began splashing one another, erasing the dirt, sweat and grime.  

    With the water filtering steadily, the three went back to camp. Christine had dinner started as Emmy slid in next to her and gave her a hug.

    “Hello.” A voice called out from the path leading to the road. The gray haired woman leading the three girls, walked into camp. “You said we could camp with you…is that ok?” She asked.

    “Sure is.” Rick said, turning to Brenda, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Find a spot and feel free to set up.”

    The four women, wearing heavy packs with their bedrolls attached beneath, started to set up their camp in the trees, away from the group, the stream and camp fire. It didn’t take long for the teens to have their bedrolls spread out beneath the cover of the trees, and a small cooking fire going, as the gray haired woman looked on.

    The leader walked over to the group, “I’m Eileen.” She said.

    Rick stood and offered his hand, “I’m Rick and this is my wife Brenda and our daughter Emmy.” It felt very natural for Rick to introduce Brenda and Emmy in that manner.

    “I’m Paul and this is my wife Christine.” He said shaking her hand. Christine looked up from the cook pot and smiling and gave a hello.

    “Eileen, where are you all heading?” Rick asked.

    “North Carolina. I have some friends in Charlotte.” She replied.

    “Charlotte, that’s quite a distance…have you been on the road long?” Rick asked, not really giving a damn, but it seemed the polite thing to ask.

    “We started out about three weeks after the blast.” Eileen replied.

    Rick nodded, “I see that you don’t have any weapons.” He wanted to ask if that was a wise thing to do, but decided against it.

    Eileen’s facial expressions changed rapidly. “Guns are what’s wrong with this world…if everybody turned them in, like the government ordered in the beginning, then we wouldn’t have the need for…guns.” She quipped, her pale skin turning red with anger, as her distain for guns venomously spewed out of her mouth.

    “Is that right?” Rick said, leaving Eileen standing by herself as he went back to the water filter, not wanting to waste his time arguing or talking with her further.

    Kneeling at the stream dipping water, one of Eileen’s girls came down and began to wash some clothes. Rick looked at the girl and said, ‘Hi my name is Rick.”

    “My name’s Rosa.” She said emotionlessly, continuing to wash clothes which looked to be too large for her. 

    Rick judged the Latino girl to be about twelve or thirteen years old. “Nice to meet you Rosa.” He said, pouring more water into the filter. Looking over at her. “Are you all doing ok?”

    Rosa understood and shook her head no. “She treats us like we’re…” She paused trying to find the right word in English, “…serpents.”

    “Serpents are snakes, do you mean, servants?” He said, chuckling at her wording.

    “Si…yes.” She said smiling at her error. “We don’t rest much anymore, all we do is walk on the roads and hide in the bushes.”

    “That woman is going to get you all killed. I am really surprised that you’ve made it this far.”

    “The other two say that they are going to leave as soon as they get the chance, but they are from Russia or someplace like that and don’t speak much English at all.”

    The woman called out, “Rosa…I need you back here.”

    “I have to go, nice to meet you Mister Rick.” Rosa stood and called “Coming.” She turned and left.

    Rick sat by the stream, shaking his head dejectedly by their conversation. Finishing the water, he brought the pot back to set on the fire after dinner was finished.

    That evening Rick lay on top of his sleeping bag, it was still too hot to sleep inside. Emmy came over and gave him a good night kiss; Brenda tucked her in inside the tent and came back out, sitting next to Rick.

    “What are you thinking I about?” She asked, lying next to him.

    He sighed, “Those girls and that…” He stopped short from calling her a bitch or worse, “…I didn’t care for her kind before, and I sure don’t care for them now.”

    “She’s just an angry and bitter woman. It’s too bad because life is just too short to carry around that much hatred.” Brenda offered.

    “I agree.” Rick rolled over and they held each other, saying goodnight with a kiss. Brenda went into her tent with Emmy, Rick stayed outside, rifle and pistol next to him. Dousing the dying embers of the campfire, he lay down and slept.

    A distant boom brought him out of his sound sleep. Sitting up, he tried to get his thoughts together. Another boom echoed, and this was followed with the unmistakable sounds of automatic weapons fire. Rick was wide awake and off of his bag. Dressing quickly, he had his weapon out, and listened for anything else. The booms and gunfire increased in intensity, although distant, it was unnerving none the less.

    Paul was out of his tent, dressed and with his weapon in hand. He came over to Rick. “Where do you think that’s coming from?”

    “It sounds like it’s coming from the roadblock at Summit Point.” Rick said, his eyes focused in the early morning darkness.

    The weapons fire stopped as suddenly as it started. Another sound was heard in the distance, it took a moment for Rick and Paul to recognize it. A vehicle of some kind was approaching. Rick and Paul knelt, weapons pointed towards the woods which shielded them from the road. The vehicle approached fast; its exhaust notes echoing loudly in the dark night, screamed by their camp, passing them quickly. Moments passed and the vehicle was long gone.

    Rick and Paul looked at one another, fear for their families safety grew at the new level of danger. “Do you want to go and see what went on back at the roadblock?” Paul asked.

    “I do, but at first light.” Rick said, not wanting to leave Brenda or Emmy unprotected in the dark. “I wonder how those others are doing.” He said to Paul, motioning towards the other camp site behind them.

    Paul went over to their area with his flashlight. “They’re gone.” He said, surprised.

    “Gone? I didn’t hear them leave, did you?” Rick questioned.

    “No, I was too deep in sleep to hear anything.” Paul relied.

    “Same here…well, I hope they are alright.”

    Rick and Paul went out to the road, walking short distances in both directions, trying to see anything. The dark night finally gave way to the approaching sun, as the sky began its colorful change. Brenda, Emmy and Christine were now up and dressed…and scared.

    “Paul and I are going to ride back to Summit Point and see what went on last night.” Rick said to Brenda and Christine. “We won’t be long.” He added.

    The pair unhooked their bikes from the trailers and pedaled back to the roadblock. It was evident as they approached that the guards took a beating, the cars which blocked the roads were peppered with bullet holes and shrapnel from the grenades. One car had its door shredded and blown off from a rocket propelled grenade.

    Some of the guards were wounded in the attack. The lucky ones had minor flesh wounds, while the not so lucky lay one the ground, being attended to, their blood stained bandages showing bright red. “Is there anything we can do to help?” Rick asked one of the men attending to wounded comrade.

    “I think that we’ll be ok. We were lucky that no one was killed.” The man looked at Rick, his eyes filled with anger. “I’m sick of this shit. These bastards come and attack us and all we can do is to defend ourselves.”

    Rick and Paul nodded at their situation. “We heard the attack from our camp down the road, it sounded like it didn’t last very long.” Rick commented.

    “No that’s the way they operate…hit hard and then run. One of our guys heard their truck in the distance, so we had an advance warning. They started the attack with grenades, and then fired that RPG. After that they opened fire with their automatic weapons. We were able to return fire, but I don’t know if we hit anyone.” He said, and added. “We’ll be alright, thanks for stopping by.” He said, his confidence waning.

    Rick and Paul pedaled back towards camp. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” Rick asked Paul.

    “I don’t know, this makes the Canal trail look tame, doesn’t it?” Paul commented.

    They rode the rest of the way in silence, thinking about their situation and how best to deal with it. Arriving at camp, Brenda and Christine had the trailers packed and ready to go. Rick and Paul shared what they found out about the attack.

    “Where do we go now?” Christine asked.

    “To be honest, I don’t know.” Rick said, trying to remember clearly what directions Bill had given. “We have to find some maps and figure a way out of here.” The maps that Pepper had given them were of Maryland and ended across the state line.

    The group set out, pedaling slowly and with a renewed caution. They rode by small farms as Paul scanned them with his binoculars, noticing that most were burned out shells with no people present. About a mile from their camp, Paul noticed a house set well off the road, he raised his hand, and they stopped.

    Rick and Paul sat on the shoulder of the road as Paul scanned the farm. The house, a double wide trailer home, nestled amongst a couple of trees. A pick up truck was parked on the gravel driveway.

    “OK, what do you think?” Rick asked.

    “There’s smoke coming from their chimney…so evidently someone is home.” He looked at Rick, “can’t really tell anything else.”

    “How old is that truck?” Rick asked.

    “Maybe a 1980’ish.” Paul looked back at Rick, “Do you think that…” he stopped his comment and looked at the truck again, “…the exhaust pipes dump out in front of the rear wheels….I bet it’s loud.”

    Rick and Paul looked at each other, wondering if this could be the truck that came by their camp last night. Movement from the house caught their eyes. A man chased a girl around one of the trees, catching her and then slapping her across the face.

    “How far are we away?” Rick asked.

    Paul quickly got up and went to his pack, finding what he searched for, he returned with a distance finding gauge. Peering through the narrow optical tool, he said, “We’re about three hundred and forty yards.”

    “Too far.” Rick stated, as he looked for a closer advantage position. A large tree which had in the past blown over, its roots sticking up in the air, looked to be close to halfway to the house. “How far is that tree?”

    “Maybe a hundred and fifty yards from us.” Paul replied.

    “Lets go.” Rick said. They went back to their bikes for their rifles. “I want you to get off the road and into some cover.” He said to Brenda and Christine, after explaining what they found.

    Rick and Paul crouch walked towards the downed tree. Briars and weeds, tugged and tore at their bare skinned legs as the made their way to the tree. Reaching their spot without incident, Paul scanned the house again. It was close enough so they could see very well without the aid of Paul’s binoculars. Rick opened the butt plate on his rifle and pulled out the rolled distance chart, he then made sure his rifles sights were set correctly. They waited.

    Rick took a position next to the exposed roots, lying prone. Paul sat next to him and called out the distances to the various parts of the farm. “210 to the front of the house…190 to the truck.” Paul said softly.

    Rick nodded silently and tried to steady his breathing.

    “Front door.” Paul said, as a naked girl ran out of the trailer. “It’s that girl from camp.” He said peering through his binoculars.

    The girl ran towards the pick up truck as a shirtless man came after her. It was evident even at this distance that the man chasing her was covered with tattoos. He caught her, and began to drop his pants.

    Rick breathed deeply, and exhaled slowly…his front sight squarely on the mans back. Halfway through his exhale, he stopped and squeezed the trigger on the Garand. The round went off with a loud bang. The man turned, stunned, after being hit with the heavy bullet. Rick placed the sight on his chest and fired again, the man dropped to his knees and flopped forward on the gravel driveway. The girl ran behind the truck and into a small wooded area.

    The front door of the trailer opened as two other males came out, their AK-47’s up and firing blindly towards their position. Paul fired his FAL repeatedly at one of the men, Rick fired at the other, emptying his clip with a ‘ping’. Reloading, he heard the AK bullets buzzing angrily overhead, some impacted the tree, showering them both with bark and chips of wood.

    Paul’s guy was down, as Rick’s guy took cover behind a small tree. Rick aimed and fired into the tree, the Garands bullets chewing through and impacting the man, who fell backwards, his weapon flung on the ground.

    Paul reloaded as another man ran from the trailer and headed to the pick up truck. Holding his AK-47 at hip level then man fired fully automatic bursts towards the tree, chewing up the ground. Rick tried to hit him as he ran. He fired one round, the clip was empty…‘ping’. “Shit.” he said, reloading as the man got into the truck and started the motor. They both heard the vehicle start up, it’s loud exhaust blasting.

    Rick and Paul took aim at the back of truck’s cab. Firing into the thin metal cab of the green Ford, the truck started to move off. Rick took aim at the glassed back window, firing one round and missing, shattering the rear glass. The trucks exhaust noise was noticeably quieter now as it slowly nudged into a tree; the driver slumped over at the wheel.

    Rick and Paul reloaded, both ran towards the truck. Reaching the idling vehicle, Rick opened the door and pulled the dead man out onto the ground; he shut the vehicle off and pocketed the keys. “Paul, go over to that trailer, make sure nobody goes out the back door.” Rick said, pointing to a tarp covered trailer was off to the side of the house. Paul took off at a run and slid behind the trailer, weapon up and ready.

    Rick turned and headed towards the small stand of trees. “Rosa! It’s me….Mister Rick.” He shouted into the grove.

    “Mister Rick?” She said from the midst of the wooded patch, her voce crackling in fear.

    “Where are you?” He asked, moving into the grove.

    “I’m over here.” She said, rising up slightly from behind a bush. “I don’t have any clothes on.” She said, wrapping her arms tightly in front of her chest

    Rick took his t-shirt off and tossed it towards her direction. “Put this on…then come over to me.” He said, turning away and heading back to the truck, focusing on the front door of the trailer house. It took Rosa just a few moments to scamper to Rick, she looked at the dead man on the ground, and said nothing.

    “Are you ok?’ Rick asked her.

    “Si, I mean yes, I’m alright…thank you.” she said hugging him.

    “Rosa, we’ve killed four of them…are there any more?”

    “Yes, there are two more inside the house, both women. The others…” she paused and shook her head, “…they killed Eileen. I don’t about Martina and Natasha…the two women were…” her words trailed off as she searched for the words in English, “…sexing them.”

    Rick thought for a moment about Rosa’s comment. “Here is what I want you to say, ‘We are the police, and you are surrounded…come out with your hands up.’”

    Rosa looked at Rick, “They won’t believe that…I know what they’ll believe.” She said and then shouted what she thought would be believable in Spanish loudly towards the house. Nothing was said from inside.

    Rick didn’t understand much Spanish, but he picked out ‘gobierno’ which sounded much like ‘government.’ “Tell them that if they don’t come out, we’ll open fire into the house.”

    Rosa yelled the command, her confidence growing as she felt safe next to Rick.

    Slowly the front door opened and the women slowly started to exit the trailer. Paul stood off to the side, his weapon leveled at them. The first woman noticed Paul and decided that he was not from any government, she started to run. Paul shot her twice in the back, dropping her a few feet from the front door. Swinging his weapon to the last woman, she stood stone still, knowing her fate would be the same if she moved.

    Rick walked from behind the truck with his weapon leveled at the woman. “Get on the ground!”

    Rosa walked in Ricks shadow, and translated his orders. The woman sat on the ground.

    Rick went behind and pushed her down, face first onto the dirt. “Tell her if she moves, she’s dead.”

    Rosa repeated his threat, as Rick searched the woman for weapons.

    Paul came over, his weapon pointing at the woman. “What do you want to do with her?”

    “Let’s tie her up for now.”

    Paul looked around for some rope. Untying the boots from the dead men, he used their shoestrings to bind her hands and feet tightly. Paul then stood off to the side, weapon at the ready.

    Rick went into the trailer and was shocked at the raped and mutilated bodies, as he had witnessed a similar scene with the Johnson’s.  The women had all died a horrible and tortuous death, and Rick could not become accustomed to this kind of death.  He found what he thought was Rosa’s clothes and shoes and tossed them outside to her. Rick left the trailer and sat on the front step, glaring at the woman on the dirt.

    Rosa dressed quickly and then came to the front step, standing next to him and giving him back his shirt. Rick looked at her and smiled as he put on the shirt. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

    She smiled back, her bright white teeth mirrored her feelings as she was definitely happy to be alive, “Me too.” She replied.

    The woman started talking to Rosa, her threatening tone obvious.

    “What is she saying?” Rick asked.

    “She says that her group will come back and kill all of us…that we’re all dead men.” Rosa said.

    “Dead men, eh?” He said, turning to Paul, “Let’s get her up and over to this tree.”

    The two flipped the woman over, dragging her to the tree which Rick had shot one of the others through. Untying her hands they placed them behind the tree and retied them, painfully tight. She was now able to see what fate awaited her. 

    “Rosa, I want you to go up the hill to Brenda and Christine. Tell them that we are going to be a while, and not to come down.”

    Rosa nodded vigorously, and then ran towards Brenda, Christine and Emmy.

    “Do you want me to shoot her?” Paul asked.   
 
    Rick smiled deviously, “No, I have something else in mind…I need five sticks, about eight to ten inches long, maybe a half inch think and sharpened to a point on one end.”

    Paul nodded, not knowing what Rick was up to, went over to one of the trees and lopped off a branch. Rick sat on the ground in front of the woman as Paul brought him a couple of sticks. Taking his KaBar knife, he started whittling them to a needle point. The woman’s eyes grew wide, anxious about what he was planning.

    “You say we are dead men?” He asked her.

    “No hablo Inglés.” She uttered, venomously.

    Rick chuckled, “No habla, eh?” He smiled at her. “Well that’s too damn bad, you see, I have a feeling that you ‘habla’, and you’re just playing stupid…I don’t like stupid people.”

    The woman said nothing, staring at him.

    Rick got up and went over to Paul. “Let’s get their weapons and put them in the back of the truck. Also, you might want to go through the house and check things out.”

    “What are you going to do with her?”

    “Get her to talk.” He said, quietly and added, “And to make a point.” Rick then told Paul what he wanted from the house.

    Paul went into the house, as Rick started dragging the woman’s dead comrades, setting them side-by-side in front of her. Looking around the yard, he saw the woodpile with an axe stuck into the chopping block. Taking the axe by its handle, he walked back to the woman, her eyes never leaving him. Rick made a show with the axe by running his finger along its sharp yet rusted edge. 

    Standing in front of the woman, he said, “You tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let you go.” He turned, raising the axe and took the first dead guys head off with two hard chops. Pausing for a moment to allow his actions to have the maximum effect on the woman, he then took off the next guy’s head with two more blows.

    “Ok, Ok…what do you want to know?” The woman spoke, her fear quite evident, however her English was not as bad as he would have thought.

    Rick turned to her. “So you do habla.” He said sarcastically, “I want to know where you are getting your weapons.” Rick commanded softly, standing over her, holding the bloody axe.

    “Your government gave them to us.” She answered with an insolent tone.

    “Bullshit.” Rick said, his eyes telegraphing his intent to use the axe on her.

    “No, it’s true. I know you don’t believe me, but I swear it’s true.” She pleaded, her tone changing dramatically, from insolence to fear. 
  
    Rick paused for a moment. “Why would our government give you weapons? Besides, we don’t use AK’s or RPG’s…those are Russian and Chinese weapons.”

    “The Arabs gave them to us…the Arabs are working with your government, and they gave us this territory and the weapons.” She paused and added, “They have split up the entire country, giving territories and weapons to a lot of groups.”

    Her statement took Rick completely by surprise, as he thought about her comment.

    “You didn’t know that did you?” She said confidently, as someone who had a secret to share, and added, “We give them what they want, and in turn we get this area.” She paused, “It’s just business.”

    “Business, huh?” he paused and added, “So, what do they want?” He asked, referring to the present government and the Arab underlings.

    “Food, generators, medicine and sometimes people…anything of value.”

    Ricks anger flamed at the woman, with all of the death and destruction in the past couple of months; it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to go Medieval on this piece of human debris.

    Paul exited the house with the items Rick asked him to find. Rick went over to him, “I need a cigarette.” He said. Paul produced a pack he had found inside the house. 

    “What did she tell you?” Paul asked, lighting Ricks smoke and then his own.

    Rick told Paul their conversation.

    “That’s horseshit, you don’t believe that do you?” Paul asked angrily.

    Rick thought for a minute, “I think she’s telling the truth. When I asked her about the weapons, she could have said that they had them stored, or they got then from the black market or any other excuse. I would have probably bought that, but this?” His voce trailed off as he tried to organize his thoughts. Walking over to the woman, he asked, “Where is the military?”

    “I don’t know, I guess they are in their bases.” She said.

    “So, this is just business to you, right?” He commented.

    “Yes and no…we are taking back what you Europeans have taken from others, it’s a matter of pride.”

    Paul handed Rick what he had asked for, Rick held up a sheet of paper to the woman, on it, the word ‘MS-13’ with a circle and slash running through, the international symbol for ‘No.’ 

    Rick took one of the sharpened stakes and the paper, plunging it into the nearest dead mans chest, the statement pinned to him. The next piece of paper had the word ‘Gang’; Rick and Paul impaled each of the dead with their statements.

    The woman wet her pants from fear. She was now on the receiving end of the same treatment she had inflicted on others.

    “You said you wouldn’t kill me if I told you the truth.” She stammered.

    Taking his ultra-sharp pocketknife and flicking it open, he walked behind her. The woman closed her eyes to what she felt was her end. Rick took the blade and sliced off her t-shirt, exposing her tattoo covered chest and breasts. Kneeling next to her, his anger burned furiously, he wrapped his arm around her head, showing her the shaving sharp blade, mere inches from her face. “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you. Now you get your ass back to your people, and tell them I said to get out.” Without waiting for any comment from her, he took the knife and cleanly sliced off a large portion of her nose. The woman screamed loudly from the pain, as blood poured out, running down her face and onto her chest.    

    Rick cut the string, which held her hands and feet, then tossed the cut up t-shirt to her. “Get out of here.” He commanded. The woman took off through the back yard and woods.

    Rick stood, in shock from the conversation and the brutality he inflicted on her. Paul reached down and picked up the remnant of the woman’s nose. “We should have killed her.” He said, flipping the piece of flesh up and down in his palm, and then tossing it away like a pebble. 

    “Yeah I know…you know, I could have gone crazy on that woman, I mean really crazy.” He paused and added, “Maybe she’ll make it back to them and…give them our message.” Calming down, he said, “Hey, we’ve got a truck.” He smiled, as Paul held out his fist, Rick tapped it with his own. Finally, they could ride instead of bike.

    The green Ford pick-up was in very good shape for its age. The interior was a mess, with the cloth seat covers soaked in blood. Rick cut off the old seat covers and used them to wipe the blood off of the bullet punctured vinyl seats.

    Paul called out. “Hey Rick, look at this.” He said, standing next to the trailer he had taken cover behind previously. Pulling off its blue plastic tarp revealed an almost new green All Terrain Vehicle. “I wonder if it runs?” He questioned.

    “Check it out.” Rick said, as he walked behind the pick-up. Noticing that it had a trailer hitch, he said, “We can use that trailer to haul our bikes.”

    Paul went back into the house and returned a few minutes later with a set of keys he spotted earlier. Climbing onto the green camouflaged hunting vehicle, he tried to start it, however, the battery was dead. Trying the pull start without any success either, he said, “I think it’s dead.”

    “Did you turn on the gas?” Rick asked.

    Paul smiled, and then reached down turning the fuel selector to it’s ‘on’ position. The ATV started on the second pull. Paul then shut it off and began to unlock the trailer from its concrete blocked anchor.

    Rick started the truck, quickly figuring out the three-speed column mounted manual shifter. His father had one of these trucks many years ago, so re-learning it was no problem. Backing the truck to the trailer; Paul raised the trailers tongue, as Rick slowly moved the ball into the hitch. The truck and trailer now connected, Paul retrieved their weapons and the cockroaches weapons, then climbed in. They looked at one another and laughed. “This is great!” Paul said excitedly. “Oh, by the way, I found this.” He said, producing a folded road map from his pants pocket.

    Slowly moving forward, the trucks loud exhaust sounded like heaven, as they moved along the graveled driveway to the road above. Stopping in front of Brenda and Christine, Paul had rolled his window down. “Excuse me Ma’am…you all look like you could use a ride.” Rick said with an exaggerated southern accent.      

    They smiled. “Sorry, I only go with men I know...Do I know you?” Brenda said smiling seductively, mocking his accent.

    Rick winked at her, and smiled back, shutting off the truck. They hugged and reveled in their good fortune, all except Rosa. “Let’s take the food buckets and packs and put them in the back. The bikes and trailers we can stack in the trailer.” It didn’t take very long to get the truck organized. Paul spread out the map on the vehicles hood. “Where do you want to go?” He asked.

    Rick looked at the map and shook his head. “I don’t see many options. With this truck being as loud as it is, we’ll be a target for sure. So, either we go through Winchester, which I don’t want to do, or we could take this road.” He ran his finger along a thin lined road. “We could take the by-pass around Winchester and pick up Route 50, and head into West Virginia.” He looked at Paul. “What do you think?”

    Paul nodded in agreement, “West Virginia, huh? Let’s do it.”

    “You’re too easy, you know that?” He said, smiling.

    “Hey, you’re the boss and we’re still alive, so something’s working right.” He said chuckling.

    Paul and Christine climbed into the trucks bed, settling in the midst of their packs and food buckets. Rick sat behind the wheel as Rosa moved next to him, followed by Emmy and Brenda. Emmy was excited about riding in the truck. Rosa sat quietly, her face downcast. Rick put his arm around the thin black haired girl. “Are you alright?” He asked her.

    Rosa started crying, softly at first and then deeply sobbed, burying her face in Rick’s stomach. Rick looked at Brenda with a questioning gesture. “Rosa, are you sad about your Mother and Father?” Brenda asked.

    Rosa nodded, and continued her weeping.

    “Come over here sweetie.” Brenda said in a comforting tone. Rosa and Emmy changed places in the seat. Brenda held the girl, as she cried herself out.

    Emmy also hugged Rosa, “Rosie, I know you miss your Mommy and Daddy…I’ll share mine with you.” She said sweetly, mispronouncing her name and at the same time giving Rosa a new one.

    Rick and Brenda smiled at Emmy’s heartfelt comment. Brenda reached her hand over to Rick, he kissed it, as the three hugged and comforted Rosa. Rick knew what Brenda was thinking, and he nodded silently to her. Rosa would join Emmy as their daughter.

    They moved off slowly, as Rick needed a bit of time to get adjusted to driving again. The two lane back road, joined to the larger four lane Interstate. Moving along the freeway, Rick drove around the few cars that were blocking the rural road. Taking the bypass around the town, and then the exit for Route 50 into West Virginia, they slowly left Winchester and ten miles later exited the state of Virginia.

    The two-lane road led straight into the mountains. The truck chugged slowly and loudly up the steep grade and around a sharp bend. Rounding the curve Rick braked hard as logs blocked their path. The bikes in the trailer shifted, as did the food buckets in the bed. Brenda, Emmy and Rosa held their hands out to protect them from hitting the metal dashboard.

    The moment the truck stopped, six armed young men instantly surrounded them. Rick had a shotgun pointed at his head, no more than a foot away. Paul had two men with their weapons directed at him.

    “Don’t move…keep your hands on the wheel, where we can see them.” The man with the shotgun threatened.

    Everyone sat silent in the idling truck, waiting for their assailant’s next move. Rick looked at the fellow with the shotgun, a young man no more that sixteen or seventeen, the youth stared at him intensely. “Now, get out of the truck….slowly.” He said, as he opened the door for Rick and then went back into his armed stance.

    Rick held his hands up, turned and slid off the seat, standing in front of the shotgun pointed at his face.

    “Now turn around and place your hands on the hood.” He ordered.

    Rick complied as the man took his pistol and knives. The others in the rear of the truck ordered Paul and Christine to do the same, and then Brenda and the girls.

    “Now what are you doing here?” The man questioned.

    Rick turned and looked up at his captor, “We’re traveling through…that’s all.”

    The man looked at the bullet scarred pick up and trailer with its bikes. “Where did you get the truck?” He asked.

    Rick stood with his hands raised, and looked him in the eyes. “Who is in charge here?” He asked authoritatively.

    The youth thought momentarily, “I am.” He said, motioning the shotgun closer to Ricks face.

    “You are, huh?” He said, pausing and then added, “Well, I’d appreciate it if you get that gun out of my face.” He ordered.

    The youth’s eyes widened at the tone of his comment, swallowing hard he hesitated and then slowly stepped back.

    “Alright, that’s enough boys.” A voice called out from amongst the trees on the roadside.

    Rick looked towards the source of the voice. Stepping out in the open, a slightly overweight gray haired and bearded man, walked towards them. The elderly man walked with a noticeable limp, in his right hand a hand carved wood cane helped steady his steps. On his hip, an aged holster with an old Colt six-shooter hung low.

    “What’s your name?” The man asked.

    “Rick…and yours?”

    “Harold…but most people call me Hal.”

    “Well Hal, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

    “You don’t know that yet.” The man commented dryly. “You say that you’re traveling through, where are you headed to?”

    Rick scratched his head, as the youth moved slightly closer with his shotgun. Rick looked at the youth, “I said, get the gun out of my face.”

    The youth looked at Hal, who nodded at Ricks request; he then backed away and lowered his weapon.

    “We’re headed south Hal.”

    “Where to…specifically?’ He asked.

    Rick shook his head, “Well, we haven’t figured that out yet.”

    Hal scratched his beard, and looked at the group. “Who are these folks?” He said, directing his question to Rick.

    Rick motioned towards Paul, “This is my partner Paul and his wife Christina.” Paul nodded, and Christina smiled their greeting. Rick continued his introduction, “This is my wife Brenda, and my daughters Emmy and Rosa.” Emmy beamed at her introduction, Rosa looked at Rick, understanding what he had said, she then smiled broadly.

    Hal nodded, and then noticed the bullet holes in the back of the truck. “Where’d you get the truck?”

    “We killed five gang members for it.” Rick said with a matter-of-fact tone.

    Hal’s eyes opened in surprise. “Tell me how?” He asked.

    Rick moved closer to Hal and softly said, “I’ll be more than happy to, but not in front of my wife and kids.”

    Hal nodded, “Fair enough.” He turned to the group, “Are y’all hungry?”

    They nodded.

    “Well, we don’t have a lot, but we do have some fresh baked bread and peanut butter and jelly.” He said, the added, “Blake, why don’t you take the women and kids over to the camp and let them fix some sandwiches.”

    The young man who was holding the shotgun on Rick nodded and asked Emmy, “Do you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?”

    Emmy nodded vigorously, “Yummy.” She said, her eyes growing wide at the treat.

    Blake chuckled and said, “Why don’t y’all follow me, camp is just over here.” He said pointing to their set up about fifty feet away.

    Paul stayed, moving alongside Rick. “Hal would you like some coffee?” Rick asked.

    “I am always up for coffee.” He said.

    Rick went to the trailer and started digging out his coffee pot, and then told Hal their story as they put together a fire ring alongside the road. The other young men who were guarding the roadblock, started helping as did Hal, everyone listening intently at their story.

    “That gang woman told you that? Hal asked, and then added, “Sum-bitch.” He uttered quietly. “Well, that goes along with some of the other stories we are hearing from folks coming down from Michigan and Ohio.” Hal said and then asked, “So, you say you took off a couple of their heads?”

    Rick and Paul nodded. Christine, Brenda and the kids came back from their camp and had a couple of sandwiches for Rick and Paul. 

    “Do you have a map of that area?” Hal asked. Paul went to the truck and brought it out, opening it on the hood. Hal hobbled over, put on a pair of tiny gold wire framed eyeglasses, and examined the area Paul pointed out. “Thomas, do you know where this place is?” Hal asked one of his men.

    “I know the road, and I’m sure I can find it.” Thomas said.

    Hal nodded motioning for him to leave and check it out. Thomas went off into the woods and started a motorcycle. Thomas came out onto the road, as Rick stopped him. “You be careful, those guys don’t play around.” He cautioned.

    Thomas nodded and sped off on the motorcycle designed for the trails and street

    Rick looked at Hal, who commented, “Like President Reagan said, ‘Trust…but verify.’”

    Emmy walked over to Hal, looking up at him, her eyes broadcasting the question he had heard many times. “Are you Santa Claus?” She asked.

    Rick looked at Emmy with a glance which said ‘Don’t ask those kinds of questions.’ Everyone else laughed, especially Hal. “Sweetie, I get asked that question a lot…tell me, have you been a good girl?”

    She nodded, “Oh yes.”

    “Then I guess you’ll find out at Christmas, right?” He laughed, as she hugged her Santa.

    Hal continued, “Now tell me about how it all began with you.”

    “It’s a long story.” Rick answered.

    “I’ve got time.” Hal smiled, his arm wrapped around Emmy.

    Hal was a good listener. He would nod as he absorbed the tale Rick told and then would back-track to a certain point, asking very specific questions. Rick didn’t know whether he was trying to find a flaw in the story, or he was genuinely interested in the specifics of what happened.

    They were on their second pot of coffee when Hal said, “Sum-bitch, that’s a heck of a story.” He paused and took another sip of coffee. “So, you and Paul didn’t know one another before this, right?”

    “Yes and no.” Paul replied. “We had actually talked to each other on a website forum, but didn’t make the connection until after we met.” Paul said.

    “What website was that?” Hal asked.

    Paul gave him the information he sought.

    Hal nodded, and grinned. “So what was your online name?” He asked Paul.

    “Claymore, like the sword.” He replied.

    “Mine was Garandman,” Rick added.

    “Sum-bitch…sum-bitch.” He laughed heartily. “Mine was Ridge Runner.”

    “Get out of here!” Rick exclaimed. “Wow, you and I have talked…a lot!”

    “We sure have.” He said, pausing then added, “Sum-bitch, this is beyond weird.”

    Everyone became silent as another seemingly supernatural connective event just took place.

    “Well, I only have one thing to say.” Hal said with a smile.

    “What’s that?” Rick asked.

    “Welcome home.” Hal said, welcoming the group. “You’re home now.”

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