The sun was finally starting to rise across the field from the farmhouse and Jackson was glad; it had been a long four hours. His stint of guard duty was supposed to be two hours, but Aguilar was sick, so instead of waking him up for his turn at the windows Jackson had allowed him to continue sleeping. There were three beds in the bedrooms of the dilapidated house, but all were in use, the previous owners still occupied them as their bodies slowly decomposed. Normally, Jackson and the rest of the group he was traveling with would not have even considered using the house to shelter in, but the cold rain the evening before had soaked them thoroughly and it was still getting unseasonably cold at night.
Rising from where he sat on a bucket next to the window, Jackson walked across the floor and looked out the opposite window for any movement along the tree line, nothing, and then he made a circuit of the rest of the windows before returning to the bucket and resuming his seat. It didn’t pay to become complacent, something he and his teammates had learned the hard way. The infected could move very fast when they chose to and it was necessary to stay alert, always looking, even when you thought you were in a safe location.
For a moment his thoughts flashed back to D.C. and cruising the streets in a police patrol unit at night. He had always preferred night shift, but not so much anymore. In D.C. the day shift could be rather boring; it was during the night the fun could be had and the most interesting things happened. In the past he would have hated sitting at the window and silently watching the night as others slept, now he prayed for inaction and quiet. Sighing, he lifted his shoulders and pulled his collar higher on to his neck as he shivered.
There was definitely a chill in the house and Jackson looked longingly at the wall furnace, and then the old wood burning stove in the corner of the living room; if they started a fire in the wood burner it would remove the chill, of course it might draw any infected nearby also. Screwing the cap off, he took a pull from the western type canteen hanging over his shoulder. He didn’t much care for the canteen’s style, granted it carried a gallon of water which was good, but it had a tendency to constantly bang into his side when he ran and twice it had dislodged pistol magazines from his belt.
He stood and made a another circuit of the windows, there was a low-lying fog out there he hadn’t paid attention to before, but he wasn’t overly concerned, the infected wouldn’t use it for cover to crawl forward and the sun would burn it off rapidly once it was high enough. Behind him he heard a spate of wet sounding coughing and he glanced to where the rest of his team lay sleeping.
Aguilar had sat up and was leaning against the wall trying to catch his breath. I wonder if he has pneumonia, he thought. Jackson hoped not, but he didn’t like the sound of that cough. He caught Aguilar's attention and gave him a questioning look, but Tomas just shook his head and closing his eyes leaned the back of his head against the wall. Dan Clinton rose from where he lay and walked to the bathroom for a few minutes and then joined Jackson by the window.
“Anything?” He whispered.
“No, Tomas is getting worse.” Jackson whispered back.
“Yeah, getting soaked last night didn’t help any either.”
“I think we should do a sweep around the area, make sure we’re in the clear, and then get a fire going if the furnace doesn’t work.”
“You mean hang out here for a while and give him a chance to shake that shit?”
Jackson nodded and returned his gaze to the tree line. “If we don’t, I’m afraid we’re going to lose him too.” The team had started out with twelve security personnel and six protectees; they were down to seven security and Tomas. Not all of the people they had been assigned to protect had been killed, two had elected to stay at the shelter outside of D.C., but there were the other three they had lost along the way.
“We don’t have much in the way of supplies, and the cupboards here are empty; probably the reason the owners opted out.”
Jackson shrugged, “I don’t know, this is one of the areas they went around confiscating people’s supplies, remember? They may have had a stash.”
“Then why would they off themselves if they had food hidden?”
“I checked the bodies last night, only the older male killed himself, the wife and kids had their skulls crushed, probably with the hammer I found. The only one that looked like they might be infected was the male that shot himself. He had a wound that looks like a bite on his calf muscle.”
They were both quiet for a moment, and then, “Pretty selfish of the father,” Dan said. “To think it was merciful to kill his family so they wouldn’t suffer after he was gone.”
“We don’t know that,” Jackson replied. “It’s all conjecture.” He stood up and arched his back hoping it would crack. “You’ve got the watch?”
“Yeah, are you going to catch some shut-eye?”
“No, I’m going to check around and see what I can find.”
“We looked around last night.”
“I know,” Jackson said. “But it was dark and sometimes things look different during the day.”
Walking away, Jackson entered the kitchen. He knew there was nothing there; it’s hard to hide empty cupboards, so he opened the door to the cellar and took the stairs down to the dirt floor below. There were numerous shelves with empty canning jars and his first impression was the same as the previous night, the family had used up their supplies. Instead of just shining his light in and then leaving, he walked along the shelves from one end of the room to the other.
On the last shelf he found the piece of paper with the hand written note, Peter, the barn. Okay, what did that mean? Was Peter one of the bodies upstairs, or someone else they expected to come? Peter must have been someone besides the family in the house, otherwise, why leave a note for them? Ascending the stairs, Jackson re-entered the kitchen and started to pass through to the rear door of the house, but stopped at the refrigerator. It was covered with notes, bills and assorted things a mother might place there with magnets. One of the items was a report card from the University of Ohio with the name Peter Johansen, straight ‘As’, Peter must have been pretty intelligent.
Alright, so Peter was away at U of O when the shit hit the fan and they expected him to try and make it home. Jackson entered the living room and crouched next to Clinton, “There was a hand written note in the basement that said “Peter, the barn,” I’m headed out there and I’ll take a look around to see if there’s something we can use.”
Dan nodded and returned his gaze to the tree line.
Letting himself out the kitchen door, Jackson scanned the area around the barn and then quickly jogged across the distance and pulled the large door open before entering. The interior of the barn smelled both musty, and it had a strong scent of diesel fuel; sunlight was beginning to filter through the cracks between the boards of the exterior walls. There were half a dozen empty stalls in the rear, a large stack of hay bales and a smaller stack of straw. In the center of the open area at the front were a tractor, and a trailer parked to one side.
He began to walk through the building as he examined the corners, searched under and inside of boxes, and finally simply stood in the center and searched with his eyes as he slowly turned in a circle. There was nothing that stood out, nothing that might indicate something hidden, and nothing that looked out of place. Of course, if something was out of place, he doubted he would recognize it; he was city born and bred and had no idea what might be out of place to begin with.
He started to leave, but then stopped. When he had been in Afghanistan with the Marines he had searched many small farms for contraband and some of them hid items inside of piles of feed and straw; he returned to the stacks of hay and straw bales and looked them over again. The stack of straw bales was smaller, so he started with it. He began pulling the straw bales off of the stack and immediately exposed a cavity where a bale should have been. Inside were a backpack, a duffel bag, and a gun case.
He removed the gun case and opened it to find an over/under shotgun suitable for small game hunting, or trap shooting, but not much else unless you didn’t have a gun at all, so he slid it back into the case and set it aside. The backpack, with a sleeping bag and a rolled up tarp attached, provided several items they had needed, but would be insufficient for eight people in the long run. He set the pack aside and opened the duffel bag. He literally moaned when he saw what was inside, it was freeze dried camping meals. His stomach instantly started to rumble. Slinging the pack over one shoulder and the duffel over the other, he carried them to the house.
Carrying the pack and duffel into the kitchen, Clinton saw him and approached, “What did you find?”
“Peter’s Bug Out Bag,” Jackson said as he laid the two items on the kitchen table.
“An over and under twelve gauge and probably some shells in the pack.”
“No one has a twelve gauge anymore, not since Jimmy bought it.” Clinton started digging through the pack, “Think we should take it and the dead guy's .410 with us?”
“I’m not going to, the twelve gauge holds two rounds and the barrels must be a good thirty inches long; the .410 is single shot.”
“Well, what do you think, should we build a fire and get some water started heating up?”
“I want to do that sweep first.” Jackson moved to the huddled group on the floor and tapped the feet of two of the men who immediately roused and looked around.
“Martin, Cap, we found some food, but we need to do a perimeter sweep before we build a fire in here to boil water; you two are elected.”
Neither man bitched, they merely rose and did a quick weapons check before moving to the front door of the house. Jackson looked the two men over, Harrison, though tired looking, seemed ready to go, but Swanson was shivering. “Casper, you feel okay?”
“I will be if I can get warm.” Casper Swanson was Black, but his skin had a grayish pallor to it.
Jackson placed his hand on Cap’s forehead, “You have a fever, go back and rest.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Maybe, in the meantime go lie down and get some more rest.”
Swanson must have been feeling bad because he didn’t argue; he just returned to where he had been lying and stretched back out on the floor. “Let’s go, Marty.”
An hour later they returned. Clinton opened the door as they approached and stepped aside as they entered, “Anything out there?”
Jackson slung his carbine, “A body out by the tree line with a shotgun wound to the head. Probably the one who bit the male in the leg.”
Clinton nodded, “So, are we building a fire?”
“Yeah, there’s a stack of firewood behind the house in a wood shed, I checked the fuel tank for the furnace, but it’s empty.”
Clinton left out the back door and returned with an arm load of wood. Together the two of them prepared the wood and finally a fire started burning in the stove. Jackson rooted through the cabinets in the kitchen until he found a large pot and filled it with water from the tap and then placed it on top of the stove.
Jackson stopped and considered, water from the tap? There had been water to the toilet also, that meant electricity for the well pump, but he hadn’t noticed the increase in pressure when the pump came on. He walked back outside and looked around, there it was, a water tower about forty feet high. It wouldn’t supply a lot of pressure, but enough to send water to the house reliably. He wondered how much water was left in the tank? He stepped outside again and walked to the water tower, there was conduit and two pipes running down the side and into the ground though the ninety degree electrical elbow was partially exposed. A float switch maybe?
Looking in the direction the partially exposed conduit fitting faced, he saw a small shed and walked to it from the water tower. When he opened the door he found the wellhead, a series of batteries, a charge controller, and an inverter, solar power? Leaving the shed, he strolled to the side of the barn facing south and looked at the roof, there were six panels attached. He walked back to the well shed and checked the water level of the first battery; he could see the tops of the plates inside the battery, the batteries needed water if they were going to continue to absorb power and store it.
He couldn’t see any distilled water bottles, so he opened a cabinet attached to the wall and found seven full bottles and one partial; he began topping off the water of the sixteen batteries. Maybe he was silly to go through the trouble, after all, they weren’t going to be here very long, but Jackson liked the idea of leaving the system in good order for anyone else that might shelter in the house after the team left. When he finished he returned to the kitchen and found most of the team eating from the containers the freeze dried food had been packaged in.
Clinton pointed to a package on a counter, “Yours is over there.”
“Thanks, I found a solar system attached to the well pump and serviced the batteries, we should be good to go as far as water while we’re here.”
Aguilar swallowed the macaroni and cheese he was chewing, “We shouldn’t hang around here very long.”
“No we shouldn’t,” Jackson replied, “But you need to get back on your feet so we can cover ground and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need a shower and I want to wash my clothes.” He looked at the front of his meal package, “Teriyaki Chicken and Rice, how did you guys know this was my favorite?” Actually he had never had it, but it was very good, then again maybe a couple of days of being hungry increased the meals acceptability.
Tomas chuckled and coughed, “When we get to wherever we are going I’ll make sure you get all you can stand.”
“Well,” Clinton said. “Another reason for us to make sure you get to wherever we are going. By the way, does anyone know where we are?” No one answered as they continued to eat. “Anyone?”
Casper looked up from his packet of food, “I thought you were being facetious,” he swallowed. “We’re just past Springfield on Highway 40. To the South is the I-70, and west is the I-675, and then the I-75 to Cincinnati, I don’t think we want to go that way since we avoided Columbus.”
“No,” Aguilar said. “No more big cities, hell, let’s avoid the big towns too.”
Harry Marston folded up his empty pouch, “We keep heading west until we get out of the infected zone, right?”
No one answered, too many times they had heard of safe zones where the occupants had been able to stop the spread of the Rage Virus, but so far each one they reached had been over run. It was easier not to hope, it was easier just to keep plugging along.
“The last report we heard outside D.C.,” Clinton commented. “Indicated the conditions were better west of the Mississippi, but we’ve heard that shit before.” The room grew quiet as each of the men finished their meals.
Simpson placed his empty packet on the floor next to him, “Jackson, when you and Harrison were walking the perimeter, did you notice any crops planted?” Jackson shook his head “no.” “I just thought if crops had been planted we might just hang out here, you know?”
Clinton shook his head, “No, the food Jackson found is ideal for a group on the move, but it’s not going to last long with us sitting around eating it up. We need to scavenge some food to last a few days and give all of us a chance to rest and recuperate because it will be weeks before any crops that might have been planted are ready to be harvested.”
“So back on the march again?”
Jackson sat there and thought, “There’s a tractor and trailer in the barn.”
Clinton looked at him quizzically, “Do you think it has fuel?”
“I could smell diesel in there, but it might just be fumes, old exhaust, I don’t know.”
“Okay, check after you eat. I know the truck out front is on empty, we checked that last night.”
“Alright, I think we should prop open the front and rear doors,” Jackson said. “And then stuff towels, or something, under the bedroom doors and see if we can get some of the stench out of here.” Wadding up his empty meal package he stood up, “I’m headed for the barn to see if I can get that tractor running, if we can we’ll use the tractor and trailer for transportation until something better comes along, or we run out of fuel.”
Clinton and several others nodded, and then Clinton said, “Bardot, go with Jackson and watch his back, I don’t want anything creeping up on him while he has his head under a hood.”
Phillip Bardot joined Jackson as he walked out the rear door, “Bardot,” Jackson asked. “How many rounds do you have left for your MP-5?”
Bardot didn’t bother to look, “Three full mags and a partial with ten rounds. I’ve still got four mags for my Glock as well.” They watched around them as they walked to the barn. “What about you?”
“Two for the M4 and one full spare for the Glock.”
“We’re really getting low; maybe one of these small farming towns will have a gun store, or a Wal-Mart, we can scrounge some ammo from.”
Jackson chuckled as he entered the barn, “After the last Wal-Mart you still want to go inside of one? We used up half our ammo just getting in the front door and got nothing in return.”
“It was worth the try.”
“It was before we tried it, but not so much after we escaped.”
Jackson walked to the tractor and saw the key in the ignition, turning the key nothing happened. “Shit, the battery is dead.”
“Well, it looks like we’re still walking.” Bardot turned and started for the door.
“No, hang on. Maybe there’s a safety switch in the clutch or something.” He climbed into the seat, depressed the clutch, and tried the key again; the engine turned over once and died. “Shit!”
Bardot shook his head, “Like I said, back to walking again.”
Jackson sat there for a moment, “Not yet, we can take two of the six volt batteries from the solar system and use them to jump the battery in the tractor.”
Bardot looked at the tractor’s battery, “It’s twelve volt, not six.”
“Yeah, but if we wire the batteries in a series the two six volters equal a twelve.”
“I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Try reading a book sometime.” Climbing down from the seat of the tractor, Jackson walked to a near-by work bench and started picking through the tools until he had found a half inch socket, ratchet, and half inch combination wrench, “Let’s go pull two of the batteries out of the well shed.”
Thirty minutes later he used a pair of jumper cables to connect the two six volt batteries to the tractor’s twelve volt. After twisting the key, and then adjusting the grip of the jumper cables, the motor spun over readily. Jackson turned the switch off, climbed down again and checked the fuel level in the tank; there was at least three quarters of a tank. Climbing back to the driver’s seat, he turned the key on, allowed the glow plugs to warm, and then spun the engine over. After several seconds of turning the motor began to cough and belch thick black smoke from the exhaust pipe, then suddenly caught and began to rattle.
“Sweet!” Phillip shouted.
Leaving the tractor idling, Jackson disconnected the jumper cables from the batteries, “Let’s see if any of these drums have diesel fuel in them.”
There were several drums that were empty, but only two with any fuel in them; one was maybe a quarter full while the second was completely full.
“How far can we go on this much diesel?” Bardot asked.
Jackson shrugged, “Beats me, I have no idea what kind of mileage one of these will get on the road, but I can guarantee two things, we won’t have to walk for a while and it will be faster than walking.”
“Damn straight! My feet are feeling better already!”
After twenty minutes Jackson shut down the motor and then checked out the tongue of the trailer and the hitch on the tractor, they were compatible and they left for the house to get help loading the barrels of fuel into the trailer; after a while they would try the battery to see if it was holding its charge.
Jackson woke to the sound of Aguilar coughing, so he rose from where he lay on the floor and crouched next to him, “How are you doing, Mister Secretary?”
He coughed once more into his hand and then wiped it on a towel, “Better, still not good, but better, and please call me Tomas. We don’t even know if there is a government anymore.”
“There must be, at least I hope there is somewhere.”
“Did I wake you up coughing?”
“It was time for me to get up anyway.”
Aguilar tried to lie back down and started coughing again; he sat back up and leaned against the wall as he closed his eyes. Jackson walked into the kitchen where he found Harrison staring out the kitchen window.
“Something out there?” He asked.
“I swear I saw a light earlier, maybe a flashlight.”
“You know the farmhouse across the field? I think it was from there, maybe one of the windows.”
“Okay, I’ll keep an eye out and see if it happens again, in the meantime hit the sack. Maybe we’ll check the house out tomorrow.”
Harrison disappeared into the living room with the rest of the team and Jackson began his rounds. He kept finding himself at the kitchen window looking across the field to the next farmhouse, it would be great if they found someone else after so long. Sometimes he wondered if there was anyone else out here, anywhere, anyone uninfected that is. Maybe a woman, someone different than the seven men he looked at every day, not that he disliked the people he was with, but someone new would be good. Of course with the luck they had been having it would be someone who was a drain, someone that didn’t know what to do, or how to do it, someone who would lessen their chance of survival. Actually, just about anyone they found now would, by the process of natural selection, be competent to some degree; otherwise they wouldn’t be alive to be found.
Ten minutes before his time was up for guard duty he stepped in front of the window and saw it, just a quick flash of light from the area of the second floor. Harrison hadn’t imagined it and five minutes of staring into the distance rewarded him with another flash. Jackson left the window and woke Clinton.
“Clinton, time to get up.”
Clinton squirmed out from under the blanket he was using and picked up his M4, “Seen anything?”
“Yeah, come into the kitchen.”
Together they stood and watched where the farm house would be in the distance, but there wasn’t another flash of illumination. “You sure you saw something?” Clinton asked.
“Yeah, Harrison saw it too, earlier, before I took over.”
“Okay, we’ll check it out.”
Jackson didn’t like the sound of that, “Now?”
“No way I’m going out in the dark, we’ll do it come morning.”
“Sounds good,” he responded. “I’m hitting the sack.”
The white paint of the dilapidated old house was peeling and the curtains in the windows looked sun rotted and tattered. If there was someone in the old house they were definitely keeping a low profile. Jackson watched as Clinton, and Bardot, worked their way closer to the east side of the building and then Bardot rose up enough to peek through one of the windows. Dropping back down he waved and Jackson rushed across the space separating them. Crouching beside Phil, he allowed him to whisper into his ear.
“Lower windows are boarded up on the inside.”
Jackson looked past Bardot to Clinton and Clinton motioned them to follow as he moved carefully to the front door. Reaching up he checked the door knob, and then shook his head, locked. They crouched close together so they could whisper and be heard by each other.
“We’ve got the crowbar,” Clinton said. “What do you think?”
Jackson shook his head, “If there are survivors they won’t be very happy about us destroying their front door.”
“They can come over to the house we are in.” Bardot said.
Clinton shook his head, “Jackson is right, but what the hell are we going to do?”
Jackson looked around and then, “Move to both corners and watch our perimeter.” When the two cops were in place, Jackson stood up in front of the door and casually knocked, “Is there anyone home?” He shouted.
“Jesus Christ, Jackson!” Clinton stared with disbelief.
Jackson knocked again, louder, “Is there anyone inside?” Then he listened and was rewarded with the creaking of the floor as someone walked around inside, but no one answered. “I can hear you in there moving around, if you don’t respond I’m going to assume you are infected and set fire to the house!”
“What do you want?” The voice he heard sounded young and feminine.
“To help if we can, we’re police officers and can protect you if you want.”
“You don’t look like any of the police from around here, you look like soldiers.”
“We’re all SWAT Team members, so we don’t wear regular uniforms.” He waited a moment, and then added, “Look, if you don’t want us to help we’ll just be on our way and leave you alone, okay? It’s just been a long time since we saw anyone who wasn’t infected; we thought we could help each other out, what do you say?”
There was a long pause, but then, “Do you have any food?”
“We don’t have a lot, but we’re willing to share what we have.”
After several moments the door opened slightly and he saw an eye peeking out, “I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”
“We’re not going to hurt you, like I said; if you don’t want our help we’ll be on our way.” The door opened wider and Jackson could see she was thirteen, maybe fourteen. “Are your parents here?”
“There’s just me and my brother.”
“Did you live here before the sickness came?”
She shook her head, “We came from Cincinnati.”
“So, this isn’t your house?”
“Nobody was living here, I swear!” She started to back up.
“It’s okay, really,” he said. “Heck, the house we’re in belonged to someone before we came also.”
“Jackson,” Clinton said. “Let’s wrap this up.”.
“I know,” he turned back to the girl. “Where is your brother?”
“He’s upstairs, he doesn’t feel good today.” She glanced back over her shoulder, “I think he ate something bad.”
“How about I come in and we’ll take a look at him?” Stepping forward he pushed the door wider and checked out the living room. The house must have been abandoned for years before the children took shelter inside. The wallpaper was peeling off and the throw rugs over the hardwood floor were ragged and faded. All of the windows had been covered with interior doors and what appeared to be the doors from the kitchen cabinets. “Did you nail the boards over the windows?”
“Yes, so the sick people couldn’t get in.” The girl stepped back farther as Jackson entered and he saw a pistol she was holding at her side.
“My name is Jackson Grayson, what’s yours?”
“Okay Helen, why don’t you show me where your brother is?”
After nodding, she turned and started up a set of stairs to the second floor with Jackson following. The wooden steps were warped and groaned beneath Jackson’s weight as he climbed them and he was more than a little nervous as each one sagged beneath his feet. Following Helen into a room, he found the boy sleeping on a pile of old throw rugs, another one had been placed over him for warmth.
“What’s your brother’s name, Helen?” He crouched next to the boy and lifted the rug; the boy was dirty and emaciated.
“Donny, well, Donald; I had to help him use the bucket several times last night and now he just sleeps all the time.”
“Okay, we’re going to take you and your brother to the other house and see if we can help him get better. Do you have spare clothing and gear?”
“No, we lost everything when we were being chased once.”
Jackson stripped off his tactical vest and then his jacket which he used to wrap Donny in. After putting the vest back on he scooped up the child, “Okay, Helen, let’s get out of here.” Carefully negotiating the stairs with the added weight of the boy he stepped out the front door of the house.
“Hey, guys, let’s bug out of here.” Clinton and Bardot joined him and they started back across the field to where the rest of the team waited for them.
Helen finally succumbed to exhaustion and was sleeping on the floor next to her brother who was sleeping on the couch. When Jackson was sure she was asleep, he removed the snubnose revolver she held clutched to her chest and examined it; the weapon was dirty, beginning to rust, and there were only two live rounds in the five shot cylinder. Taking it to the kitchen table he removed his cleaning kit from his pack and began to service the small pistol.
Bardot sat down across the table and watched for a moment, “Thirty-eight?”
“Yeah, she probably picked it up somewhere and has been carrying ever since.”
Aguilar joined them, “I’m glad you were able to get it from her, she could have hurt herself or her brother; children shouldn’t have guns.”
Bardot and Jackson both glanced at him, and then Bardot said, “I’ve got some .38 in my bag.”
“You do?” Jackson asked.
“Yeah, when Bernard bought it I grabbed his pack and there was a box inside of it. You can have it if you want.”
Jackson nodded, “She might need it.”
Tomas glanced back and forth between the two cops, “You’re not serious? You’re not going to give a child a gun.”
Jackson finished wiping down the pistol and re-inserted the two cartridges while Bardot left to retrieve the .38 ammo from his pack, “As a matter of fact, yes, I am. That young lady has been caring for her brother since this whole thing started and I want her to have every chance there is to continue surviving.”
“They’re with us now, we can protect them.”
“Mister Secretary, there were eighteen of us a while back; there’s only eight of us left. We lost five men trying to protect people who either refused to protect themselves, or were unable to. This “child” as you called her, has survived where grown men haven’t and I am not going to reduce her chances because some people think children shouldn’t handle guns. She is going to be armed and when her brother is able I’m going to train him also.”
“My God, Jackson, are we going to start creating child soldiers now?” Tomas shook his head, “This isn’t some third world nation, we have laws, and children are not allowed to have a guns, period!”
Bardot placed a box of ammo on the table as he sat; Jackson opened it and started feeding rounds into the empty chambers of the revolver, “No Sir, this isn’t a third world nation; there are the infected, and the uninfected, and the way to stay uninfected is to be armed and ready to accept responsibility for your own welfare. Helen is uninfected and she has demonstrated a great deal of personal responsibility already and the way I see it, I’m not making a child soldier, I’m making a child survivor. I am going to arm her, and when I can find something better I’m going to give it to her, period.”
“Nonsense,” Aguilar stated. “We will all take a vote and you’ll see how the others will feel about children with guns.”
“Tomas, I like you, I like you a lot, but there are times when I really don’t agree with your world view. Before the plague hit I probably would have agreed with you on this subject because we lived in a society with laws and rules, but you need to look around you and think back, how many times have you seen children in the small groups of survivors we’ve come across?”
Aguilar stared at him.
“How many children have you seen, Mister Secretary? They’re easy targets, they don’t last long, and I won’t be a part of making their chances less than they are already.”
Tomas glanced at Bardot, Bardot shrugged, “It’s a different world, Tom.”
“Only if we allow it to be a different world,” he answered. “We must maintain our basic humanity, we must maintain our rules and our laws, or else we will slide down into an abyss.”
Casper, who had entered the kitchen, stepped next to Aguilar and placed his hand on his shoulder, “Tomas, we’re already in the abyss. What we’re doing now is trying to stay alive long enough to crawl back out and if that means a thirteen year old with deadly weapons then so be it.”
Aguilar shrugged off Cap’s hand and stood, “I am, without reservation, against what you are planning.” With that he walked away into the living room and sat beside the wood burning stove.
Donald died during the night.
They buried him in the backyard and Tomas gave an eloquent eulogy as Helen stood in front of him with his hands resting on her shoulders. She never cried as they placed the dirt into the grave, instead, she merely stood there quietly waiting for the service to be finished. When the graveside service was over the team and Helen returned to the house.
Tomas Aguilar was the first to speak, “I think it’s about time for us to be on our way, but we don’t have very much food left. What does everyone think about using the tractor to visit the surrounding farms and see if we can scavenge some food for the road?”
Clinton nodded, “Okay, let’s plan on tomorrow morning, Jackson, is the trailer ready?”
“Yeah, I was afraid the battery wasn’t any good, but it seems to be holding a charge; I still want to take a couple of the six volt batteries in case we have a problem. The trailer is hooked up and the drum of diesel is loaded, the one that was almost empty filled the tank on the tractor and I put it on the trailer also. I found a hand pump and a long hose, so we can refill the tractor when we need to and we have several chains in case we need them.”
“Excuse me,” Helen said.
“There’s no food in the houses along this road, Donny and I took it all.”
“Okay,” Clinton said. “Did you go anywhere else looking for food?”
“No, everything is so far apart out here and then Donny started getting sick and couldn’t come with me, and then I was afraid to leave him alone…”
Jackson patted her shoulder, “That’s okay, there are lots of houses between here and wherever we end up, I’m sure we’ll find something along the way.”
With the trailer hooked to the tractor and loaded with all their equipment they left the following morning. Jackson had entered the bedroom of one of the original family members of the house and picked out several clean pairs of jeans and shirts, underwear, socks, boots, and a coat for Helen before they left; the clothing was a few sizes too large, but it was better than the filthy rags she was wearing. Because the trailer had no seats, Clinton removed the seat cushions from the couch and love seat in the living room and threw them into the trailer to sit on.
After an hour on the road Helen pointed to a house, “I never got to that house, so if you want to start looking for food or other stuff you can start there.”
Bardot, who was driving the tractor turned onto the access road and stopped in the driveway. The house was newer in appearance than most of the houses they had passed and there was a large metal barn behind it; the team kept a close watch around the surrounding fields as the sound of the tractor’s motor died out.
“What do you guys think?” Bardot asked.
Jackson jumped down from the trailer, “Phil, you stay with the tractor, Tomas, you and Helen stay here also while the rest of us do a sweep around the property.”
Twenty minutes later the team entered the house through the front door, found the body of one woman who had been infected and must have died of dehydration, and then searched the kitchen and anywhere else they might find food or usable items. They carried out a few basic food staples, quite a few wool blankets and several more cushions from furniture. From the barn they refilled the fuel tank of the tractor and the empty drum from a large diesel storage tank and collected a tarp that would cover the trailer if it rained again. When they were finished, Bardot drove them back to the main road and they proceeded to the next house.
As the day progressed, their situation in regards to food slowly improved; most of the homes they searched had little food in them, but the amount they had accumulated increased. Surprisingly, they found few weapons in the abandoned homes they searched, and the ones they found were mostly hunting rifles, or shotguns. They did find a Ruger Mini-14 in one house though it only had one five round magazine with two twenty round boxes of ammunition, Jackson gave it to Helen and demonstrated how to operate it. Its ammo could be used in the M4s the team had, but unfortunately the magazines were not interchangeable: Jackson told everyone to keep an eye out for more.
In the early afternoon they began to look for a house they could stay in for the night and Clinton directed Bardot down a long driveway to a secluded house surrounded by trees. When the team deployed to sweep around the farm house Bardot, Aguilar and Helen waited with the tractor.
Bardot said, “Hey, Tomas?”
“Other than the dead woman in the first house we searched, we haven’t seen an infected all day.”
“I know; I see that as a good sign.”
Helen glanced around, “I really need to go to the bathroom.” Parked where they were, there was nowhere convenient for her to have any privacy.
“Can you hold it a little longer,” Tomas asked. “The guys should be done with their sweep in a minute.”
“I guess, but I really do need to go soon.”
Tomas nodded, “Me too.”
Several more minutes passed and Helen was beginning to become visibly uncomfortable. Turning to Bardot Aguilar said, “Helen, and I, both have to use the restroom, let’s check the house ourselves.”
“Not a good idea to deviate from our SOP, Tomas.”
“Maybe,” Aguilar said with a smile to Helen. “But if we don’t go soon we’re going to be standing in puddles of you know what and we haven’t seen anything all day, it should be okay this once.”
“I don’t know,” Bardot replied.
Aguilar jumped down from the trailer and swung his carbine around to his front, “Come on, Helen, and let’s check the house.” Reaching up he helped Helen down and then frowned when he saw the pistol in her waistband, “Why don’t you leave that here, you don’t need it.”
“Jackson said to keep it with me all the time,” she said as she walked towards the front porch of the house.
“It’s safe for you with us, Helen, you don’t need a gun.” She ignored him as he followed and Aguilar grew somewhat irritated. “Children shouldn’t have guns; it’s the responsibility of men to protect women and children.”
When Helen reached the front door she started to take hold of the doorknob and stopped, “The door isn’t clos…”
The infected man burst through the door knocking Helen to the side and grappled with Aguilar as they both fell to the ground. Tomas’ M4 was pinned between the two struggling men as Aguilar forced his forearm under his assailant’s chin, barely keeping the man’s snapping teeth from his throat. “Bardot!” He shouted. His attacker was bigger and stronger though, and the teeth came steadily closer as Aguilar began to panic, “Bardot, help!”
Tomas heard a sudden gunshot and the man’s body collapsed; he rolled the body off and rose to his knees as Bardot kneeled next to Helen where she lay on the ground three feet away. She was unconscious and there was a deep gash in her forehead where the edge of the door had struck her. “Is she alright?”
“I don’t know, she’s out though; damn it! I shouldn’t have allowed you to talk me into letting you go!” Scooping Helen up, he carried her to the trailer and placed her on some of the cushions as they were joined by the rest of the team who came running in response to the gunshot. Tomas picked up Helen’s pistol from the ground and put it in his rear pocket before he joined the others.
When Jackson saw Helen’s forehead he was furious, “What the fuck happened!”
“My fault, Jackson, both Helen and I needed to use the restroom really bad and…”
“You needed to take a piss? You endangered Helen, and yourself, to take a piss! What the fuck were you thinking?”
Helen stirred and finally looked around her as she tried to focus, “Oh, I wet myself! Is Mister Aguilar okay?”
Tomas leaned forward and touched her shoulder, “I’m fine, Helen, Phillip shot the man attacking me.”
“It wasn’t me, Tomas; I didn’t have a clear shot.” Bardot looked down at Helen, “Good shooting, Helen.”
She shook her head, “Not really, I was only a couple of feet away.”
Tomas looked at Bardot, “Helen shot him?”
“Good thing too,” Phillip said. “If she hadn’t you’d be in a lot of trouble right now and the rest of us would be unemployed.”
Clinton held a bandage to Helen’s head and began to wrap the ends around it; Tomas closed his eyes and bowed his head as he thought of the ramifications of what could have happened. Finally he reached behind him and pulled the snubnose revolver from his pocket and held it out to Helen.
“Here, you better take this and keep it with you all the time; don’t let any fool say you shouldn’t have it.”