Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 9

Boogie Out of Dodge

Abraham, Kansas

March 09, 2007

1521 hrs_

THE CLEANUP HAD GONE much more smoothly than Sheriff Keaton had imagined. The townsfolk had raided the clinic for surgical gowns, gloves and masks to keep hot blood off of themselves, and had pulled all of the infected bodies free from their tangled piles near the guard towers and crumpled fenceline.

A bonfire of human corpses had been formed on the far side of the field outside of town. Each time a new body was added, a splash of kerosene followed to make certain the body would catch. The infected weren’t the only ones being thrown unceremoniously onto a burn pile. The bodies of the raiders who had tried to attack during the excitement at the front gate were all trucked across town and thrown onto the pile as well.

Sheriff Keaton had placed himself in charge of corpse disposal. He’d said that it was his duty to see to it that the people of Abraham were protected, and that extended to making sure plague-ridden bodies were properly taken care of. Sherman and Thomas volunteered their services wherever they could be used, and Keaton had sent them to oversee the repairs being done on the fence and main entryway into the town.

Krueger, Denton, and Brewster, who was still a little shaky, found themselves cleaning up the battlefield at the rear of the town, where the raiders had attacked.

“Oh, man, my head is killing me,” Brewster lamented as he bent over to pick up a discarded pistol. He checked the chamber, unloaded the weapon, and dropped it into a duffel bag that hung over his shoulder. “All this movement isn’t helping any.”

“No one made you drink all that beer last night,” Denton said, rooting through a small pack one of the raiders had dropped. “It’s your own fault.”

“Well, sure, but can’t I bitch about it?” Brewster asked.

“No,” came the simultaneous reply from Krueger and Denton.

The trio, along with several townsfolk, quickly cleared the area inside the town of debris and discarded bits of weaponry and equipment. Street sweepers were hard at work with hand-held brooms, sweeping up bits and pieces of shrapnel, tree bark, asphalt and brick that had been blown free during the firefight. Another crew was busily removing the blasted and warped section of fence that had been damaged in the grenade attack, and once they’d pulled it down and cast it aside, Krueger seized the opportunity to exit the town’s perimeter and inspect the weapons and bodies left behind on the wooded hillside.

Behind him followed Denton, nudging at what few bodies were left over with the toe of his boot and occasionally stooping to add a bit of useful equipment to his slung duffel.

“Look at this, man,” Krueger called out over his shoulder. “Come on, check this out.”

Denton, furrowing his brow, jogged over to where Krueger knelt next to a large weapon on a bipod. Laying next to the weapon was a raider whose head had met a bullet.

“So?” Denton asked, shrugging. “Dead guy and his gun. Grab the weapon and let’s go.”

“No, no, man, this is U.S. Army issue,” Krueger said, hefting the weapon in his arms. “It’s an M-249 squad automatic weapon. We call her the SAW. Where the hell did they get their hands on a piece like this?”

“Probably looted it off of some dead soldiers,” Denton shrugged.

“Yeah, maybe, but then look down there,” Krueger said, pointing downhill to another firing position. An identical M-249 lay there, ammo half-expended. “These guys are really well armed for a gang of bandits. Did you see the other weapons they were carrying?”

“Wasn’t really paying attention,” Denton admitted. “I was kind of busy not getting shot.”

“Most of them were using AK-47’s, but almost all of their pistols are Berettas—same issue we got in the Army.”

“So they knocked over an Army supply convoy. At least they don’t have these guns anymore—they’re in our hands now.”

“Yeah, but . . . I don’t know, it still seems weird that they came by all this nice hardware,” Krueger said. “Never mind. It’s probably nothing.”

“Hey, guys,” Brewster called from the other side of the fence. He was sitting on what remained of the brick wall, looking miserable. “My duffel’s full. Does that mean I can drop it off at Keaton’s office and go to sleep?”

Krueger and Denton glanced at one another and shook their heads.

“Sure, Brewster, why not?” Denton said, chuckling. In a softer tone, he added to Krueger, “That’s it for Brewster and drinking. He’s cut off.”

“Yep, I hear that,” Krueger replied, grinning.

As Brewster wandered off in the direction of the sheriff’s office, Denton and Krueger continued their cleanup of the battlefield. A pile of weaponry was growing steadily on the lawn nearest the fence, firearms taken from both dead raiders and dead defenders. A separate pile of magazines and ammunition was growing just as steadily next to it. Every now and then, a townsperson would come walking up with one of the sheriff’s duffels, load up a bagfull of the gear, and head back across town to deposit it in Keaton’s armory.

Krueger and Denton worked together to toss a body through the breach in the fence, where another pair of townsfolk were waiting to load the corpse onto an electric cart and take it across Abraham to the burn pile.

Denton counted out, “One . . . two . . . three . . . heave!” The body arced through the breach and landed in a crumpled heap on the other side of the fence. The townsfolk got to work hefting the body onto the cart, and Denton and Krueger went back to searching the battlefield.

Denton wandered off to the side, using a long stick to push aside leafy branches to check for bodies or discarded equipment. Krueger, a little winded from throwing the heavy body and toting the weapons back and forth, huffed and puffed his way up the rise to where the corpse of the machine-gunner lay. He knelt next to the corpse, pushed it over so it lay on its back, and began rifling through pockets.

He pulled out a few folded pieces of paper, glanced at them, and tossed them over his shoulder. A compass went into one of his pockets, as did a combat knife. The dead machine-gunner had also been wearing a watch—a nice, rubberized number with a built-in calendar and a quality wriststrap. Krueger pulled it off the dead man’s wrist and slipped it onto his own. No use worrying about what the dead man would have thought. As he was adjusting his new timepiece, a bit of discolored grass on the far side of the hill attracted his attention.

Krueger squinted at it, then stood to get a better view. It wasn’t a discolored bit of foliage after all—it was the tip of a dead man’s boot, sticking up above the wild grass. Curious, Krueger slid carefully down the short embankment and trudged through the knee-high weeds to where the body lay.

The raider had been shot high in the chest—in fact, the round looked as if it had gone in just above the man’s collarbone and right out his back. The considerable pool of blood under the corpse and soaking through the dirt around it told Krueger that the raider had bled to death.

“Not a pretty way to go, my friend,” Krueger murmured, looking the man over. Something struck him as odd. Though the man was armed with a pistol, Krueger couldn’t locate a rifle anywhere nearby. So far, all the raider bodies they’d searched had a matching rifle lying nearby. The men had been very well-armed. So why was this one fellow near the back lines carrying only a pistol and a backpack?

For a moment, Krueger thought he’d discovered the body of the bandits’ leader. He just as quickly discounted the idea. The description Keaton had given them of the raiders’ leader didn’t match this corpse. The body was that of a short, wiry man in his mid-30’s—almost the exact opposite of Herman Lutz’s characteristics.

So what the hell was the guy doing way back here? Krueger wondered. From the look of things, the man had tried to get a view of the battle and had been hit by an errant round—piss poor luck on the raider’s part. All the evidence pointed to this man being a very important part of the overall battle plan for the raiders. He’d been kept on the back lines, supposedly safe from fire, and he’d only been armed with a pistol, meaning that they hadn’t expected him to do much fighting.

Krueger flipped the corpse up on its side. The body was still wearing a heavy hiker’s backpack, and Krueger pulled out his knife, slicing the straps clean from the corpse’s shoulders. The pack came free easily, and Krueger stood it on its end, unzipping the top and looking inside.

His eyes widened, and he froze in place. His left hand, still holding his combat knife, shook a bit as Krueger slowly backed away from the pack, still at a crouch, his hands held out in front of him as if to ward off the backpack. Once he was a good fifteen feet away, he relaxed, turning and jogging back up the rise.

“Denton!” Krueger called out from the top of the hill.

Below, busy dragging a body out of a bunch of thick brush, Denton looked up. “What is it? I’m busy here.”

“Hey, uh, look,” Krueger said, casting nervous glances behind himself at the backpack. “We have a little problem here. Actually, it’s a pretty big problem and I’m not sure how to deal with it, so, uh, we’d better get Sherman over here. You still have your radio on?”

“What kind of problem?” Denton asked, dropping the body he was dragging and turning to face Krueger. “More raiders? Shamblers coming this way?”

“Ah, no,” Krueger said. “Look, just get on your radio and get Sherman over here and tell him to bring Keaton and anyone who knows anything about bombs.”

“Bombs?!” Denton said, eyes widening. “We’re going to blow up?! What kind of bomb?”

“Radio!” Krueger shouted, pointing at the gadget on Denton’s epaulette.

“Oh, right, right,” Denton said, visibly shaken. He clicked the handset and made the call.

————————

There were a number of people gathered near the sheriff’s office. Most had come to drop off bits and pieces of gear they’d collected from the dead raiders, but some had formed a circle around Krueger’s discovery: a brown hiking pack that was crammed to the seams with plastic explosive.

As it turned out, none of the explosives were set to detonate. They’d found det cord, blasting caps and a plunger in one of the pack’s other pockets. The plastic explosive was inert. Just the same, Keaton and Sherman kept the curious onlookers at bay while Thomas and Krueger emptied the contents of the pack onto a folding table brought out of the office just for this purpose.

“Jesus Christ,” Krueger said, as he pulled the last brick of explosive out of the pack. He and Thomas had formed a neat stack of brown-paper-wrapped plastic explosives on the table. Each brick weighed around a pound, and they had pulled fifteen of the bricks from the bag. “That’s one shitload of explosives.”

“What is it, though?” Keaton asked, folding his arms and turning his back on the pressing crowd momentarily. “C-4?”

“Worse,” Thomas growled, picking up one of the bricks and reading the fine print on the underside. “Semtex.”

“Semtex? Isn’t that military?” crowed one of the onlookers.

“No, not quite,” Sherman said, leaning in close to inspect the blocks. “It’s used commercially, too, but the military does use it. Strange, though—it has to be imported from the Czech Republic. It’s normally relegated to special operations, at least militarily. A very powerful explosive, and there’s pounds of it here. Enough to . . .”

Sherman let his voice trail off.

“What?” Keaton pressed.

“Well, I was going to say, it’s near enough to blow up a town,” Sherman concluded, then shrugged.

The crowd of interested onlookers took an unconscious step backwards from the table and quieted.

Keaton nodded to himself, picking up a brick of the explosive and examining it for himself. “Yeah, that’d be Herman’s style. Come in, blow up a few of our most useful buildings, then get back out—bloody our noses, like I said.”

“So that was the whole plan,” Krueger said, piecing together the battle in his mind. “Send the infected as a distraction, penetrate the town’s defenses as we’re distracted, plant the bombs, get back out, and blow half the town sky-high. That’s brutal.”

“Actually, it’s almost exactly what you soldiers did to Herman and his raiders the other night,” Keaton mused. “He probably thought of it as poetic justice.”

“Well, why don’t you ask him?” said a voice in the crowd. The townsfolk parted to let through Deputy Willis. He looked haggard and worn, and sported a fresh bandage on his forearm.

“What do you mean?” Keaton asked.

“I’m just coming from the town clinic,” Wes said, holding up his arm. “Got myself caught on a piece of that torn wire in the fence and thought I’d better get it cleaned up. All the wounded are there and Miss Barrington and that Rebecca Hall girl are trying to treat them all. Anyway, I’m sitting there waiting for one of them to check out my cut and I look over and see fucking Herman Lutz laying in one of the beds, dead to the world.”

“Are you serious?” Keaton pressed, excited. “Lutz was one of the attackers, and we got him alive?”

“Alive? Mostly,” Wes said. “The guy took a couple of bullets, but it wasn’t fatal. They—Nurse Barrington and Hall, I mean—gave him a sedative to knock him out since he was apparently cussing up a storm and trying to leave.”

“Well, shit on me,” Keaton said, awed. “We got their leader.”

This set the townsfolk gathered around to murmuring amongst themselves. As Keaton and Willis conferred, the murmurs grew into victorious whoops and shouts, and the little crowd dispersed to take the good news to their friends and neighbors.

“This’ll mean the end of those raiders,” Keaton said, grinning widely.

“The Lutzes were the glue,” Willis agreed. “They were the ringleaders. Now George is dead and Herman’s in our clinic, strapped down to a bed. We can transfer him to the jail tomorrow, at least that’s what Nurse Barrington says.”

Keaton seemed speechless. He grinned, put his hands on his hips, and nodded to himself.

“I don’t know what to say,” Keaton stammered after a moment. “Aside from the infected, those raiders were the biggest threat to our survival out here. Now—that’s it, they’re done with. Whatever or whoever remains out of their band will probably disperse after this. We’ll have our fields back, and it’ll be safer to travel. Seems like a dream come true after these past few months.”

Wes nodded in agreement. “I feel like we’ve just been paroled—we can go out in the world again if we need to.”

Keaton turned to Sherman, Thomas, and Krueger. “We couldn’t have done it without your help. If you want to, I’m sure you’re welcome to stay in Abraham. The offer goes for any of you. You’re friends here.”

“I thank you, Sheriff, but I need to get myself back on the road,” Sherman said. “I told an old friend I’d meet her in Omaha.”

“Omaha,” Keaton drawled. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay, Sherman? If what you told us about all the major cities is true, Omaha is probably a dead zone. You might be driving to your own death.”

“Just the same, Keaton, I told her I’d be there,” Sherman said.

Next to Sherman, Thomas nodded slowly in agreement.

“Look, uh, I hate to be the prying type, but I just have to know—why turn down a relatively safe town to head out to what could be your own death?” Keaton asked. “I mean, I’m not offended you’re turning down the offer or anything, but I just don’t see your motivation.”

“Hope,” Sherman said, smiling gently at the Sheriff. “Hope, Keaton. That’s why I’m going to Omaha. My friend—the one I promised I’d meet—is a doctor. She thinks she has a chance at creating a vaccine using a facility in Omaha.”

“A vaccine?” Keaton repeated, his eyebrows rising. “Now, that’s something worth trying and dying for.”

“Exactly my thoughts,” Sherman said.

“Do you really think you’re going to find it? The vaccine, I mean? Or even your friend the doctor?” Willis asked.

“I don’t know,” Sherman admitted, “but the chance is there and I can’t give it up. We’ve got to try.”

“Well, the offer is open to you and your people,” Keaton said. “Anyway, you’ll have time to think it over. I’m sure the people are going to want to celebrate this victory, too.”

“Oh, another night of carousing about Abraham, a night on the town,” Krueger chuckled. “Now that I’m up for. Especially if we can get Brewster to start drinking again.”

2031 hrs_

Keaton’s prediction about the town wanting to celebrate had come true. He’d dismissed a sulky Deputy Willis to his guard tower post just as the festivities were warming up. Someone had brought out an old iron grill and set it up over a campfire on the lawn of the town park and was busily barbecueing fresh venison, shot earlier that afternoon. Eileen and her husband had brought their pub outside—or at least rolled a few metal kegs out to the park and tapped them. One of Abraham’s eldest residents, a man who told everyone to just call him Buck, sat in a rocking chair near the grill playing a fiddle without a care in the world. The town’s younger folks clapped and danced in time to the music, and the smell of roasting meat and frothy beer drifted across the entire gathering.

Sherman and his survivors were once again present, only this time they were treated less as conquering heroes and more as comrades in arms. The distinction was actually a pleasant one—they all felt accepted. It was something none of them had felt in months.

Sherman sat near the edge of the party on a park bench, sipping at a pint of Eileen’s bitter lager and laughing at the antics of the people arrayed in front of him.

Katie tried to drag Ron into a dance, wounded leg and all, and eventually the pair worked out a deal where Katie danced normally and Ron stayed in one spot, hopping up and down on his good leg and trying not to look too foolish.

Jack and Mitsui were sitting at a picnic table with several of the townsfolk, sampling the barbecued venison. Mitsui hadn’t had the pleasure of barbecue before, and when Jack and the townsfolk figured that out the slightly built Japanese man suddenly found himself barraged with advice in the form of different bottles of sauces and which bits and pieces of the meat were best. He barely understood a word of it, but faithfully sampled each of the platters set in front of him, bowing and thanking each of the townsfolk in turn.

Brewster, fully recovered from his hangover, was sipping as lightly on his pint as was Sherman but didn’t allow his lack of drunkenness to get in the way of having fun. He tried to flirt with some of the town’s young women, but was rebuffed each time.

Krueger, on the other hand, leaned back against a tree and silently drank his beer—and was bombarded with requests from those same young women to dance with them. He turned down each invitation politely.

“What the fuck, man?” Brewster asked, throwing up his arms in exasperation after the fifth girl walked away from the pair. “I’m trying my best and I’m not getting shit, and you’re doing shit and getting the best. What’s going on here?!”

“You ever see Airheads?” Krueger asked around a sip of beer. Brewster shook his head. “Old comedy movie. Anyway, what I’m doing is ‘the quiet cool.’ You just lean back, act confident, pretend like nothing around you is worth your attention, and man, it drives the ladies nuts.”

“So why do you keep saying no?” Brewster asked, putting his hands on his hips and glaring.

“Adds to the act,” Krueger said. “Eventually word’ll get around that there’s this mysterious soldier who can’t be charmed, even by half a dozen young ladies, and when that happens, the real beauties will start swinging by to try and get me to dance. You’ll see.”

“Fuck you,” Brewster said, holding up a middle finger.

Denton was maintaining his distance, slowly circling the town park with his camera hanging around his neck. He’d dragged it out earlier in the day and had taken shots of the battlefield, and was now taking another opportunity to document his journey. Every now and then his flash would light up the park as he took photos of the dancing crowd, Buck the fiddle-player, a pair of young lovers on a bench, and one of Brewster glaring at Krueger, who was surrounded by adoring women.

Rebecca was nowhere near the celebration. She was still at the clinic, along with Nurse Barrington and Mbutu Ngasy. The three were doing their best with minimal supplies to treat the wounds caused by the day’s violence. Two of the townsfolk had already died of their wounds, and they were put in the morgue until the next morning, when they would be buried. That still left a full dozen in the ward, and there was no real doctor anywhere nearby. Nurse Barrington was the closest thing the town had.

Off on the border of town, Deputy Willis puffed on a cigarette—one of the few remaining in town—and stared out over the open fields. Behind him he could hear the music and the laughter of the party, and grimaced again at having to pull guard duty while everyone else enjoyed themselves. Out across the field, however, stood a stark comparison to the celebration in Abraham: a pile of blackened and charred bodies, smoke still rising off of their cracked and deformed limbs.

Let that stand as a warning, Wes thought as he looked at the pile. Anyone coming into Abraham from now on will have to pass by that shitty sight. Let ’em. I don’t want to have to shoot another human being as long as I live, and if a pile of burned corpses is the only guarantee I can get, I’ll take it.

Wes spat off the side of the guard tower and rested his arms on the ledge, sighing heavily.

Near the center of town, close enough to the park to hear the music and smell the barbecue, Jose Arctura was busy in his shop. He had his end of a bargain to fulfill. His daughter was off enjoying the celebration, but he had closed himself up in his garage and was busy surveying the vehicles that Sherman and his friends had brought in.

Jose looked over the sedan, grimaced, and wrote it off as a piece of junk that wouldn’t last much longer.

The black pickup that Sherman and the rest had taken from the raiders was in nearly perfect shape. A few bullet holes had dinged up the exterior, but when Jose looked under the hood, he saw that everything was in working order and nodded to himself, allowing the hood to slam down. He moved on to the utility truck, the largest of the three vehicles.

“You’re in a sorry state, friend,” Jose said, running his hand along the side of the boxy truck. “But we’ll see if we can get you back into working order . . . or better than working order.”

Jose turned to a cinderblock wall covered in hanging tools and equipment. He pulled on a welder’s mask, freed his torch from a tangle of cables, and turned to face the utility truck. He sparked the torch and adjusted the flame, then lowered the mask over his face.

“All right,” Jose said, approaching the truck with the blue-flamed torch in hand. “Let’s see what I can do.”

Long into the night the sound of roaring tools and the clang of metal on metal rang out from Jose Arctura’s body shop, and didn’t cease even after the party had ended and the good people of Abraham had gone, full, sated and happy, to their beds.

March 10

1032 hrs_

The town was slow to awaken the next morning, which was just as well. The weather dawned warm and humid, and low-lying clouds sprinkled the area with a steady drizzle. By the time midmorning had passed, the clouds were just beginning to break up and the first rays of direct sunlight began to shine through.

Deputy Willis had spent all night in his guard tower, and midmorning saw him leaning against one of the rebar supports, eyelids heavy and drooping. The steady clank-clank of booted footsteps on the ladder leading up roused him from his doze, and as he turned he saw Sherman pulling himself up into the tower, holding a styrofoam cup in one hand.

“Morning,” Sherman said, offering the cup to Willis. Wes accepted it and sniffed at it.

“Coffee?” Willis asked. “Haven’t had a cup of this in about a month.”

“It’s instant,” Sherman warned. “Keaton broke it out at the station this morning, said we could all use a little treat, even if it is only Sanka.”

“Here’s to instant, then,” Wes said, taking a sip from the cup. He grimaced, but swallowed it down. “It’s not decaf, is it?”

“Not at all,” Sherman chuckled. “So it’s not a total loss. You’ve been out here all night?”

Wes nodded around another sip of coffee. “Keaton isn’t big on set schedules for us deputies. He’ll probably have a replacement around for me before noon. We tend to pull down about twelve hour shifts.”

“So you missed the party last night,” Sherman said.

“Yeah,” Willis shrugged. “No biggie. Someone had to stay on duty. By the way, I think you might want to swing by Jose’s shop sometime today. I was sitting up here at four in the A.M. and I could still hear him banging away in there. I don’t know what he’s up to but you might want to take a look.”

“Well, he told us it would probably take a couple of days before he finished. Jack—wait, did you meet Jack?” Sherman asked.

“Taller fellow, brown hair, about 180?” Willis asked.

“That sounds like him,” Sherman nodded.

“I think so,” Willis said. “What about him?”

“Jack’s a contractor, handy with a torch. Said he was going over there when he woke up today to see if he could help. I’ll trust him to keep an eye on things,” Sherman explained.

“I’m not suggesting you need to keep an eye on Arctura or anything,” Willis was quick to explain as he took another sip of his coffee. “It’s just that from the sound of the place he’s tearing right into that job—and from what I can remember before the pandemic, if a mechanic tells you it’s going to take a couple days what he really means is a couple weeks.”

Sherman frowned and sighed. “Well, I can’t have that. I wanted to get on the road within the next day or so.”

“Good thing that Jack guy’s going over there, then,” Wes said. “He’ll be able to move him along, keep the pace up. Though I’m betting that Jose’s grateful enough for what you did for him that he’ll keep up his end of the bargain.”

“I’m hoping so, too,” Sherman said. “Well, I’m going to head over to the Sheriff’s office again and see what else is brewing— besides bad coffee.”

Willis chuckled. “Thanks for stopping by. And remind Keaton when you see him that I’ve been up here since last night.”

“I will.”

————————

Sherman was greeted by the sound of raucous laughter as he entered Sheriff Keaton’s station. Three of the deputies as well as Thomas and Krueger were gathered around the coffee pot sharing stories, and Keaton was in the middle of a tale about one of his small-town criminals.

“So he’s just robbed Ruby’s convenience store just outside of town,” Keaton said between chuckles, “And I’m driving out there to respond when I pass this guy jogging in the opposite direction—completely naked!”

The deputies, who had heard this story before, all stifled their laughter. Krueger and Thomas looked at one another incredulously.

“Don’t tell me it was the robber,” Krueger said.

“Yeah, yeah, it was,” Keaton said, trying hard not to laugh. “He’s carrying a bag full of cash in one hand and his clothes in the other—only thing he’s wearing is a pair of tennis shoes. So I stop him and he says, ‘What’s the problem, Sheriff? I’m just out for an evening jog.’”

One of the deputies lost control at that point and laughed. “Tell them the best part, Keaton.”

“Turns out,” Keaton went on, “that the guy realized that Ruby would call us and tell us which way he’d gone and what he was wearing—so—so,”—Keaton choked back laughter—“He thought that maybe if he took off all his clothes we wouldn’t able to identify him!”

Even Thomas cracked a smile as the room burst into laughter.

“Oh, morning, Sherman,” Keaton said as he noticed the older man entering the room. “We were just swapping war stories from before the pandemic. Got any?”

“Tons,” Sherman said. “but I thought we’d get to taking care of some business before the day’s half gone.”

“Oh, right, right,” Keaton said. “The weapons—you’re right, come on, let’s get that taken care of.”

The sheriff and Sherman had come to an agreement about the weapons they’d seized from the raiders. Since Sherman’s group was working with a ragtag assortment of firearms, Sherman had asked if they could pick and choose a few from the raiders’ leftovers. Keaton was quick to agree, since his office’s small armory room was now overflowing with rifles, pistols, and spare ammunition.

Keaton led Sherman down the hall to the armory, unlocked the door with a key that hung on a small ring from his belt, and allowed Sherman to enter, followed closely by Thomas, Krueger, and the deputies.

The sheriff’s regular weapons store was neatly arranged along one wall: a rack filled with 12-gauge pump-action shotguns and a pair of high-caliber rifles. Directly beneath that was a pistol locker filled with standard-issue Berettas and outmoded .38 revolvers. Across from these neatly-stored firearms was a hodgepodge assortment of the weapons they’d seized.

Most of the long arms were AK-47 assault rifles, but there were a few hunting rifles thrown into the mix as well for longer-range work. The pistols that had been seized were identical to the ones Keaton had locked away: nine-millimeter Beretta 92FS. Stuffed carefully into a steel locker secured with a padlock were the blocks of Semtex explosives, and on top of that locker lay one of the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapons. Conspicuously missing was its mate.

“Where’s the other machine gun?” Sherman asked, furrowing his brow. “We did get two, didn’t we?”

“Oh, yeah, we sure did,” Keaton said, nodding. “About seven or so this morning Jose and your man Jack showed up and begged it off of us—they didn’t ask for any ammunition so I didn’t see why not. Besides, the way I see it, half of this stuff is yours anyway. Right of conquest and all that.”

“Now what the hell are they doing with a SAW?” Sherman wondered out loud. He shrugged and filed the thought away to be addressed later. “All right, let’s get down to business. Thomas, you have our weapons list?”

“Yes, sir,” Thomas growled, pulling a neatly folded sheet of paper from a chest pocket and unfolding it one-handed. He looked down at it and read off the manifest. “We came in with two rifles, .30–06, scoped. One carbine, Ruger M-14. One Smith and Wesson Revolver, .22. Four pistols, assorted makes, nine-millimeter. One pistol, Cobra, .380. One shotgun, double-barreled, Remington, and one revolver, Smith and Wesson, .357.”

“All right,” Sherman nodded. “Now, how do we go about this switch-out?”

“Well,” Keaton said, rubbing his chin, “I honestly don’t care. Most of this town is self-armed. Second Amendment and all that. And we don’t really need all this firepower sitting in here. I’d say, leave us whatever you don’t want or need and take whatever you think you could use—except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“That other machinegun, the SAW—leave that one to us. I’d like to mount it in one of the guard towers,” Keaton said.

Sherman nodded in agreement. “Sounds fair to me. All right, Thomas, let’s get to picking and choosing.”

The next few minutes were spent placing firearms into cardboard boxes and shuffling them around the room as the two parties worked through the armory. Sherman turned all of his group’s pistols over to Keaton, with the exception of the .357, which Krueger insisted he wanted to keep as a backup. The motley assortment was replaced with the bandits’ Berettas. Their ammunition was taken as well—an entire box full of magazines and bullets. Even so, Keaton was left with a surplus of ammo.

Krueger also insisted on keeping his .30–06, a decision Sherman didn’t fight in the least. Krueger was the best shot the group had, and he wanted him to have a long-range rifle in his hands. Keaton must have been feeling generous, because he tossed in the night-vision scope he’d lent Krueger for the night raid. The rest of the longarms were turned over to Keaton, and Sherman took one Kalashnikov for each of his people minus two. He managed to wrangle two of Keaton’s pump-action shotguns, one for Brewster and one for Jack.

“That’ll about do it,” Sherman said, surveying the boxes full of weapons he’d procured and double-checking to make certain he’d gotten ammunition for each.

“One thing left to talk about,” Keaton said, holding up a finger to forestall Sherman’s exit.

“What’s that?”

“The semtex,” Keaton said, pointing at the sealed locker in the corner. “I have to tell you, I have no use for it whatsoever and having it in here kind of makes me feel unsafe.”

“The stuff’s perfectly safe!” Krueger protested. “It’s inert unless you add heat and pressure—then it blows. Hell, you can almost play with it like silly putty—”

“Krueger, if I hear you refer to semtex as silly putty again I’m going to have you on shit details until you can draw Social Security,” Thomas growled, fixing Krueger with a stare. Krueger’s talk fell off and he shrugged, hands in his pockets.

“I was just saying,” Krueger protested, looking a little guilty.

“Just the same, I don’t really want it. Got any use for it?” Keaton asked Sherman.

“No,” Sherman admitted. “I don’t really have anything to blow up. Thomas? Anything to blow up?”

“Nothing at the moment, sir,” Thomas replied.

“I guess we don’t need it, either, Sheriff,” Sherman said. “Sorry.”

“Well, just the same, I’d be much obliged if you’d take it with you. You never know—you might need it down the road and I really don’t want it in my town,” Keaton said. “Hell, you can dump the stuff over the side of a bridge if you want. Call it a personal favor, what do you say?”

Sherman shrugged. “I suppose so. Once the vehicles are fixed up we’ll load it into one of the trucks and figure out something to do with it.”

Keaton smiled and nodded in appreciation. “Oh, about that. I’ll bet you’re probably wanting to see if Jose’s made any progress. I think you’ll be surprised—the guy has a gift. He should be middle-management at Ford, not running some backwater garage in a little town like this.”

“I actually would like to see what he’s done so far,” Sherman admitted. “Though I’ve heard it’s bad luck to disturb an artist at work.”

Keaton chuckled. “We’ll see when we get there. If he’s into his project, he won’t even answer the door—but it’s worth a shot. I’ll meet you out front in one of the electric carts.”

————————

The trip to Jose Arctura’s shop took all of five minutes. Only Sherman and Keaton had come out to check on things. Thomas, Krueger and the deputies had remained behind to pull out the weapons and get them ready for transport.

The shop looked much the same as it had when Sherman had first seen it. It was still half-hidden on a side street, the sign was still humble and two-dimensional, and both garage doors were down and secured. The only change was in the spray-painted message on the facade. Instead of reading “closed” it had been covered over in paint and replaced with “open for business.”

“Well, look at that,” Keaton marveled, pointing at the paint.

“It’s an encouraging sight,” Sherman agreed.

The high-pitched whine and grind of a saw shearing through steel echoed from within, and every now and then a loud boom rang out. Sherman envisioned a sledgehammer hitting steel.

Sherman stepped out of the cart and walked around the front of it to approach one of the garage doors. He knocked politely, and when no one came to answer, he pounded his fist on the metal, causing the door to vibrate. From within, the sound of the saw cut off, and a moment later the side door to the garage opened and Jack appeared, careful to keep the door open just wide enough for him to stick out his head.

“Sherman!” Jack said with a grin, spotting the General. “Good morning. Come by to take a look at the progress?”

“Sure have,” Sherman said, nodding.

“Well,” Jack replied, an impish look crossing his features. “You can’t.”

“Can’t?”

“Can’t,” Jack repeated. “It’s a surprise.”

“Surprise? I just wanted these damn things fixed up—tell me the truth, you’ve got them all torn up in there, don’t you?”

Jack looked guilty for a fraction of a second, just long enough for Sherman to pick up on it.

“You did!” Sherman said, pointing an accusing finger. “You’ve been taking the trucks apart! Oh, come on, Jack, we’re supposed to be getting them put back together, not the exact opposite!”

“If you want to make an omelette you have to break some eggs,” Jack said in his own defense. “Trust me, Frank, this is going to be worth it. Give us another day in here. Jose’s already got both engines running and they’re purring like a cat in a lap—now we’re just making a few modifications. Twenty-four hours, General. Twenty-four.”

“Keaton tells me you and Jose wrangled one of the M-249’s from the armory this morning,” Sherman pressed. “You want to let me know what that’s about?”

Jack grinned once again. “Twenty-four hours, Frank.”

Jack shut the door in Sherman’s face and the older man could hear the sound of deadbolts sliding into place on the other side.

Sherman was left standing in the alley facing the shut door. Behind him, Keaton sat up on the cart, biting on the end of a cigarillo and chuckling.

“A few hours with Jose and your man Jack is already starting to act like him.”

“Can’t say I’m not curious,” Sherman said, still eyeing the closed door in front of him. “I guess we’ll just have to give them their day. In the meantime, we can get ready to hit the road again.”

“Did you give any more thought to my offer?” Keaton asked from the cart.

“What, about staying?” Sherman asked. “I’m still set on getting to Omaha. I let my people know, though, so they’ve had a night to chew it over. I asked them all to meet me at Eileen’s for lunch to discuss the matter.”

“Well, it’s coming up on noon now,” Keaton said, glancing at his watch. “Want me to take you over there?”

“That’d save me a walk,” Sherman agreed. “I’d be much obliged.”

“Hop in,” Keaton said, settling back down into the driver’s seat. “I’ll drop you off.”

————————

Eileen’s was mostly quiet; only a couple of the locals had come in. Most of them were still at home, either sleeping off the effects of the party or relaxing. Sherman’s group made up the largest bunch of customers, and Eileen was kept busy with them. They weren’t drinking much of her bitter beer, but they weren’t shy about ordering food. Eileen had a working kitchen in the back of her bar, complete with a jury-rigged woodstove oven. Most of the group were busy eating fresh scrambled eggs and sliced ham when Sherman entered and joined them.

Denton signaled for Eileen to bring Sherman his breakfast, and she vanished into the kitchen to fill the order. Sherman sank into his seat with a sigh and folded his hands on the table.

“Well,” he started, “we have quite a bit to discuss today.”

“Fire away, Frank,” Denton said around a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

“First of all, I wanted to see how our wounded are doing. Gentlemen?”

Ron and Brewster swallowed their mouthfuls of food before commenting.

“Hand’s doing fine, General,” Brewster said, holding up his bandaged hand. He then pointed to the taped gauze on his cheek. “The nurse down at the clinic said the hit on my face’ll leave a little scar but other than that, I’m in good shape.”

“My leg still hurts like a bitch,” Ron said. His crutch was leaned up against the table next to him. “Apparently it’ll be a while before I can walk on it properly again. In the meantime I’m going to have to rely on the crutch.”

“But it’s healing?” Sherman pressed.

“That’s the verdict,” Ron agreed. “Healing nicely; it’ll just take a little while before I’m back up to speed.”

“What about you, Thomas?” Sherman asked, looking over at the Sergeant Major. Thomas hadn’t made much of a fuss over his wounded arm. He’d allowed Rebecca to bandage it, and accepted a shot of antibiotics, but then simply donned a long-sleeved camouflage shirt over the gauze so the wound was invisible to the casual onlooker.

Thomas looked over at Sherman. “Arm’s doing fine, sir.”

“No pain, aches, anything like that?”

“No, sir.”

Sherman grinned. “Don’t lie, Thomas, it sets a bad example. We’ll need you in your best shape out there. If you’re hurting at all, get a shot of local anesthetic at the clinic.”

Thomas looked left and right at the group, almost embarrassed to have to admit such a thing. “It’s a bit sore, sir. I’ll stop by the clinic later.”

“Excellent. Now, on to item number two. This is the big one,” Sherman said. All eyes turned toward him. “Have you all given some thought to Sheriff Keaton’s offer?”

“What, about staying in town?” Brewster asked around a mouthful of ham. “No offense to him, but fuck that, I’m headin’ on to Omaha. I haven’t come this far just to stop here.”

“I’m in, too,” Denton said. “Been with this ragtag group of screwups since Suez, and I’m not leaving now.”

“Who the hell are you calling ragtag?” Krueger asked, narrowing his eyes at Denton. He looked back over at Sherman after a moment. “I’m in. I’m going, I mean. You could use me out there.”

“Very good,” Sherman said, nodding. “Mitsui?”

The Japanese man recognized his name and looked up from his food, a wide-eyed expression on his face. Jack was his usual translator through hand motions, and the contractor was truly feeling the language barrier. He was a clever sort, however, and figured from the context of what he’d just seen that he was being asked whether he was going or staying. He called on his meager supply of English to answer.

“Yes. I go,” he said. “Omaha to go.”

Sherman nodded and moved on down the line. “Ron? Katie? What are you thinking?”

There was a moment of silence as Ron and Katie looked at one another, then back at Sherman.

“We’ve talked it over, Frank,” said Ron. “We’ve decided we’re going to stay.”

“You’re not coming with us, man?” Brewster asked, a pained expression crossing his face. “We’ve come all the way from Oregon with you two. You sure you don’t want to finish up the trip?”

“Yeah, we’ve looked at it from all the angles,” Ron went on. Katie nodded silently in agreement with him as he spoke. “With my leg I’d just slow you down out there. Plus, we’re not looking for anything more than a safe place to settle down and get on with our lives. We’re thinking maybe this is the place we can manage that.”

“I don’t really want to stay behind and leave all of you,” Katie said, speaking up for the first time, “but it really is the best thing we can do right now.”

“That’s just fine,” Sherman said, sighing. “I hate to lose you two, but I wish you the best of luck here in Abraham. I’m sure they could use you here, too.”

“What about Jack and Mbutu and Rebecca?” Denton asked. “Where are they?”

“Jack’s over at Jose Arctura’s shop,” Sherman said, “working on our trucks, and Rebecca’s still at the clinic with Mbutu treating the wounded. I’m pretty sure they’ll want to come along—Jack and Mbutu, anyway, I’m not so sure about Rebecca.”

“She has seemed pretty uptight recently,” Denton said.

“Ever since the Ramage,” Brewster agreed.

“We’ll ask her and the others when we see them,” Sherman said. “For now, let’s just enjoy our breakfast. We’ve got another day here before we have to move out.”

Eileen appeared at Sherman’s elbow with a plate of food for him. He moved to the side to allow her to place the platter in front of him and dug in with the gusto of a hungry soldier once she’d left.

“So what are Jack and Jose doing to the trucks that’s taking so long?” Denton asked.

“I’m not sure,” Sherman said, slicing up his ham. “They’re being a little secretive about it. Wouldn’t let me see inside; said to come back in twenty-four hours. I have to admit I’m pretty curious. Keaton says Jose’s got a bit of a gift with mechanics and we all know Jack’s had experience with construction and the like. I’m wondering just what they’re adding or removing from those trucks of ours.”

“Just as long as they’re road-worthy, I won’t be complaining,” Brewster chuckled.

March 11

1023 hrs_

Several of the townsfolk, including Mayor York, Sheriff Keaton and Deputy Willis had shown up to see off Sherman and his group. The previous day had been spent rounding up supplies, most of which had been happily donated by the citizens of Abraham. Thomas stood off to one side with a sheet of paper taking inventory. A lot of the donations included fresh vegetables and crusty, home-baked bread, and Thomas was already listing them in his head as perishable—the survivors would eat well for their first few days on the road, then it was back to canned rations and other unperishables.

Katie and Ron had shown up as well. They’d already been offered a small house back in the residential blocks. The owners had been among the victims of the pandemic, and the structure had stood empty ever since. The town didn’t mind donating it to their two new residents.

Rebecca and Mbutu had both elected to come along, and stood with the rest of the group on the sidewalk, checking over their gear one last time to make certain they were ready to continue their journey. Packs were filled with food and clothing and strapped to backs over fresh clothing donated by Keaton. Weapons were distributed. Finally, all seemed to be in readiness—all that was missing were their vehicles.

After nearly an hour of waiting, the sound of Arctura’s garage doors sliding open drew the attention of the assembled group. Jack appeared in the open doorway, a wide grin plastered on his face. He was covered in grime, oil and bits of debris, having been working nonstop on the vehicles for nearly two days alongside Jose.

“You guys are in for a treat,” Jack said. He looked over his shoulder into the garage. “All right, Jose, bring her out!”

The sound of a truck engine revving echoed through the garage, and Jack stepped aside as Jose drove the utility truck out of the garage and into the street—except it could barely be called a utility truck anymore. It was somewhere in between its former incarnation and a tank.

The back end of it had been gutted and then reinforced, creating a wider, more comfortable space in the back. Firing slits had been cut in the sides and those had been protected with jutting steel mesh. The tires had been replaced with larger, off-road numbers, and the front grille had been armored with iron bars. A triangular-shaped device had been attached to the front of the truck that looked like some kind of a plow. Sherman realized that was exactly what it was—a way for the truck to push its way through abandoned cars or a horde of infected. A pair of swiveling spotlights had been attached on top of the cab, and every visible part of the truck had been armor-reinforced. A rusting metal cylinder jutted out from underneath the truck, and Sherman saw it was a fuel tank from the cab of an 18-wheeler. This, too, had been armor-reinforced, and, if Sherman had to guess, most likely doubled the fuel capacity of the truck.

Most conspicuous of all, however, was the gunnery turret that rested on the roof. The purloined M-249 sat there, welded into place on a swiveling tripod. Jack and Jose had cut out a hatch that could be opened and closed from within the rear of the truck, allowing an occupant to pop up through the roof and put his hands on the firepower waiting there.

Finally, the pair of grease monkeys had redone the camouflage paint job that Sherman and the others had slapped on weeks earlier, only they had managed to make it look halfway professional—the entire utility truck was done up in woodland camouflage, all flat paint with no shine. If Sherman didn’t know better, he would have guessed it was an actual military vehicle.

“Holy shit,” Brewster murmured from just behind Sherman. “I call gunner.”

“Fuck you,” Krueger riposted. “I’m the best shot here; I call gunner.”

“Ah, but wait, we’re not through yet,” Jack said. “Wait here a second.”

Jack vanished back into the garage. A moment later, a second engine revved and out pulled the raiders’ truck. The vehicle had already been massive, a gas-guzzling behemoth, but Jack and Jose had managed to make it appear even larger.

The group’s old pickup—which was sitting abandoned a few miles from Abraham near the original ambush site—had seen its bed reinforced so riders wouldn’t be in danger of getting snagged by an infected as they passed by. That job had been held together with spit and duct tape. Jack and Jose had done one better.

Steel rebar had been threaded through the truck’s metal frame, and used as supports for the aluminum siding that now ran up all four sides of the bed. The siding, which Jack commented had been found in the alley behind the shop, had been welded together and secured firmly to the steel rebar. Firing slits similar to those on the utility truck had been cut out of the armor, though there was no matching turret. The tires had been replaced with the same large off-road numbers on the utility truck, and the paint job had been changed from flat black to the professional-looking woodland camouflage they’d managed on the first vehicle.

“I have to say I’m impressed,” Sherman said, grinning and folding his arms across his chest. “You two went above and beyond.”

“Ah, but there’s one final thing,” Jack said. He walked over to the large rusting fuel tank on the utility truck and kicked it. The kick rang solid, and the group could hear fuel sloshing inside. “Jose siphoned the gas out of a few of the impounded vehicles behind his shop and filled up both tanks with it. We’ve got about a 250-mile range with what we’ve got in the tanks, and . . .”

Jack let his sentence trail off as he walked around to the side of the utility truck and popped open one of the tool lockers there. Inside were a number of red plastic gas cans, all full.

“. . . we’ve got enough spare to get us the rest of the way to Omaha, provided we don’t have too many more obstacles along the way.”

“Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since the pandemic, it’s that there’s always an obstacle,” Sherman said. “Still, hell of a job. I don’t know how to thank you both—you especially, Jose.”

“It was my pleasure,” said the mechanic, grinning. “You gave me back my daughter. You come back here anytime in the future, I’ll fix you up for free. I’ll never be able to truly pay you back for what you did for me.”

“We’ll consider this a bargain struck and filled,” Sherman said, nodding at the vehicles. “The slate’s clean.”

Jose chuckled. “If that’s the way you want to think of it, sure, but in my mind, I still owe you.”

Sherman turned to the gathered group.

“All right, gentlemen and ladies, it’s time we got on our way. Mount up!”

The group got busy, loading the supplies and tossing full packs into the vehicles. Sherman turned to Keaton.

“Thanks for taking us in, Sheriff. I have to say, we’ve had a good time here, except for the whole battle thing,” Sherman chuckled. “All the same, it’s been a pleasure, and I hope I’ll see you again down the road sometime.”

“Maybe you will, Sherman,” Keaton said. “We’ll see.”

The men shook hands and Sherman moved down the line to where Ron and Katie were standing. Rebecca was busy saying goodbye to Katie, who she had become rather close with over the past few months. They were teary-eyed and looked involved, so Sherman turned to Ron first.

“Glad you came along with us this far, Ron. We’ll miss you out on the road,” Sherman said.

“Same here, General. If it wasn’t for you, we’d be dead in Hyattsburg by now,” Ron said, shaking Sherman’s hand. “Like Jose said, we owe you. If you ever come back through here, look us up.”

“I will.”

When the good-byes had been concluded, the last remaining group members boarded their newly improved vehicles. Thomas took the driver’s seat of the utility truck, as he had in the past, and Sherman slid in beside him, slamming shut the passenger door. In the back of the truck, Krueger and Brewster were still arguing over who would take the gunner position. Mbutu, sitting in the driver’s seat of the pickup with Denton next to him, waved and flashed a thumbs-up to Sherman and Thomas.

Sherman waved a hand out his window and made a circular motion. “Let’s roll on out!”

More good-byes and well-wishes were shouted as the trucks pulled off the side street and onto the main road running through town. They turned east, and picked up speed, heading in the direction of the still-rising sun.

It wasn’t far to Omaha now.


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