Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hunting August Moon - Chapter 11

Chapter 11
As Sam and August drove away from the decrepit store, Ted turned to Claire. "So what are we after?" he asked.
Claire smiled widely as they walked into the dark interior, past the shattered windows of the front. "First thing I always go for is flashlights, batteries, and camping lanterns. Sometimes I get lucky, but not lately. Then we look for other things we need - clothes, weapons, tools and the like. We'll take them out front so we can load them into the truck when Sam gets back."
"These big stores are all the same. The sporting goods are toward the back." Ted made a small noise in his throat. "In the dark." Ted paused and took a deep breath. "What's that smell?"
Claire looked at Ted. "You know as well as I do. Something dead."
"Or dying?" Ted used the bright flashlight in his right hand and gripped his black-handled machete in his left.
Claire glanced at him. "Lefty, huh? Watch out for your right side if we need to fight back to back." Her black sword hung in the scabbard at her waist, the flashlight in her left hand. "Make sure your gloves are tight. I'm worried about your machete, though. If you used a baseball bat the blood wouldn't splatter and put you at risk."
Ted grunted. "I'd rather have something tougher than a ball bat." He looked at the machete and back at Claire. "That's a good point about the blood, though. I'll come up with something better when we get back to the ranch."
Claire chuckled. They moved deeper into the gloom of the superstore.
"This is pretty creepy," Ted whispered.
"It's always creepy. Sometimes we find places where the ceiling is caved in. That's a mixed blessing. We can see better, but the weather and critters get in and ruin a lot of good stuff." She shrugged. "This place seems intact, so we might find a lot that's usable."
"Toilet paper, perhaps?" In the dim light, Claire noticed the slight smile on Ted's face. She laughed, the sound echoing through the vacant store interior.
"Wouldn't that be nice!" Claire smiled brightly at Ted. "I think you made a joke."
His grin was broader. "Maybe a little one …" Ted stopped, aiming his circle of light toward his left. Tiny red eyes stared back at him from floor level. The eyes disappeared from the beam and they heard the scuttle of small feet, long claws scratching against the torn linoleum floor.
"Rats," Claire whispered. "There's always rats…"
"Those were fast, too. Real fast," Ted said.
The scratching noises increased in front of them and to the sides. "Rats are always fast, Ted."
"Not that fast. I grew up with rats and that doesn't sound quite right. Too many, too fast..." said Ted.
Ted could feel Claire nod her head beside him. "Entirely too many…" she replied. She looked at Ted. "I think we should leave," she said, as the skittering of rats on the tiled floor increased.
Ted and Claire moved back to the front of the store, again standing in the bright sunlight.
"That was…odd." Ted stood next to Claire, the two of them staring into the dim interior of the store.
Claire cocked her head, listening intently. "I think I still hear them in there." They backed up another twenty feet, leaning against a rusted out Chevy, one of over a dozen abandoned cars sitting on the cracked black parking lot.
"Look." Ted whispered and pointed at something moving in the dark shadows by the edge of one of the doors. "That isn't right…"
The dark shape moved jerkily, sniffing around the edges of the broken glass, but avoiding the direct sun. Claire watched it for a few seconds then pulled her pistol from her holster.
Ted scowled. "You plan to waste ammo on a rodent?"
In response, Claire fired a shot and the head of the small beast disappeared. She ran forward, pulling a cloth from her back pocket. As she neared the fallen creature the scrabbling sounds of dozens of feet sounded louder, and rats appeared as vague shapes in the near-darkness of the inside of the store. Some ran forward and started to gnaw on their dead comrade as Claire reached its corpse. Her sword rose and fell three times in swift succession and three small bodies fell to the pavement, but now dozens of red eyes moved toward her and the bloody bodies.
Claire grabbed the nearest corpse using the cloth, turned, and ran, not looking to see if the other rats followed, but yelling at Ted. "If they follow me, climb on the car." Ted stood and stared, his own pistol pointed past her.
"I'm not a good shot," he said. He climbed on the hood of the car, picking his feet up from the ground.
Claire leaped to the top of the trunk, turning to look, her sword still in her hand. "Which is why I didn't suggest you shoot," she said. None of the rats followed, though they swarmed over the bodies of their companions, gnawing them. When they moved away, nothing but a few bloody bones remained.
"And why did you do that, if I might ask?" Ted looked at Claire as he hopped down from the car and placed his feet on the warm pavement.
"I had to check something…" Claire also stepped down, moving to the other side of the car where she could watch the front of the store. She laid her prize down on the hood and flipped it over using the rag.
"That is disgusting," Ted said, turning away.
"Yes, and fascinating. And terrifying," Claire said.
Claire used her knife and sliced the rat's body open from sternum to tail, the razor edge of her blade leaving a straight, even cut. She looked around and walked a few steps away, picking up a small branch, which she then used to probe the interior of the rat.
"Claire?" Ted's brows knitted together and he looked at the small body on the hood of the car. "This looks…"
Claire's voice lowered and she muttered in a strange tongue. She looked at Ted, her voice firm. "It's infected. It's a zombie rat." She pointed at the building. "And that place is full of them."
Ted shook his head. "But the virus doesn't affect animals."
"That's right. Not the virus we know. It's mutated and the rats carry it." Claire said some words in the other language as color rose in her cheeks as she fell silent.
"Well, I don't know what the words are, but I do have a question." Ted stood straighter, looking down at her with a knowing smile on his face. "How is it that you can swear in ancient Egyptian?"
Claire looked at him in surprise and he laughed. "I taught ancient languages, remember?" he said. "A colleague of mine at the university specialized in Egyptian. We taught each other swear words." He grinned, a far off look in his eyes. "Those were some amusing times."
"Most people don't notice." She looked back at the rat. "They assume it's a dialect of my home country in Africa." She paused. "Let's leave it at this; my grandfather spoke it to me and I learned it from him."
Ted started to ask another question, but Claire waved him off, a frown on her face. "Not now. We have much bigger problems." Claire pointed at the rat with her stick.
Ted looked at the large building. "Please don't tell me you want to go back in there."
Claire looked at the forbidding structure, the darkness inside now ominous. "Well, I don't want to. How many do you think are in there, Ted?"
Ted leaned against the car, watching the storefront. "It sounded like hundreds, but who knows? Dozens, at least."
"Why so many in one place?"
"It's dark. I'm sure they've created little rat dens for themselves. So they're in the dark and warm and cozy…"
"Food source? I don't see why here instead of one of the other stores."
Ted was quiet for a minute. "I don't know. Big field behind them, so they can get seeds and such, I suppose. These seemed to like chewing on each other, though."
Claire picked her sword up. "Now the big question. What's the source of the infection?" She headed for the other side of the parking lot, walking in the bright sunlight, parallel to the storefront. Ted followed.
"I don't know," said Ted.
"There's the rub. How contagious is this? Does it affect more than rats now? I suspect a bite from them would be as bad as a bite from a Z, and that's a fair assumption."
Ted cleared his throat. "I don't volunteer to check that assumption, so let's take it at face value." They came to the end of the parking lot and started walking east, toward the area behind the store. Ted looked nervously at the tall grass. "What if they are in the fields?"
In answer, Claire lifted her sword and sliced through some of the grass. "If they're in here, I doubt there are many, Ted. You're wearing boots, so you shouldn't be at risk. We'll be careful. On top of that, they seemed to hate sunlight, which is a deviation from the original virus as well."
As they came to the back of the large store, Ted pointed at rusting rail cars, one toppled on its side. "That looks recent. Looks like a small sinkhole under the tracks gave it the push it needed."
The pair approached the rail cars, eyes sharp for rodents. Birds flew away from the toppled car as they approached.
"Grain." Claire put her hand on Ted's chest to halt him. "It's rotting grain. This entire set of cars is carrying grain. When it collapsed, it split open, which drew the rats. The store is the closest large habitation."
Ted looked around nervously. "Aside from the rail cars themselves," he said.
Walking away, Claire sliced through the tall grass mechanically. "Still, that might help explain the rats, but not the infection."
The breeze shifted and the smell of decaying flesh assaulted them. Gagging, they stopped and tied bandannas across their faces, looking at each other.
"Whew," said Ted. "These don't help much, do they?"
Trudging further east, they came to marshy ground, where they had to move more carefully toward the source of the stench. The breeze shifted back and forth and it took a long time for them to reach the edge of a small riverbank.
"Oh my…" Ted whispered.
Tangled among branches and debris were the remains of cattle and goats. Dozens of animal corpses littered the sides of the small tributary. Among them were the partial remains of humans. Even from this distance, many showed signs of the Z infection.
"So those torrential rains we had last week swept through somewhere and brought these here," said Claire. "I get the cattle and goats. I even understand humans, caught in a flash flood. I don't understand why some are Z's."
"May we leave now?" Ted asked, trying to straighten the bandanna over his nose and mouth.
Claire and Ted remained silent as they trudged back to the store parking lot. They went back to the old Chevy and sat in the weathered seats.
"We have to wait for Sam to come get us. I hope he found a cycle for August." Ted yawned and pointed at the car shadows on the parking lot. "It's getting late."
Claire looked toward the sky glumly. "Yes, it is. I don't want to be here when it gets dark."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Hunting August Moon - Chapter 10

Chapter 10
August and Sam looked at the busted glass windows in the front of the motorcycle shop. There were no cycles in the showroom.
"Nothing here, Sam," August complained. "Look," he said, "we need to find something fast. I don't want you to leave Ted and Claire back at that store with no transportation for very long."
"Yeah, yeah, August. I get it. Let's look in the back first," said Sam. "Turn your flashlight on, big guy, and don't let any rats near me." Sam pretended to shudder. "I hate rats." He turned his flashlight on and they moved through the broken doors into the back room, a large repair shop with aluminum garage doors.
"Hey, if we can get these bay doors open we might see better," Sam said.
A few minutes later, after the screeching of twisted metal and rusted gears, bright sunlight blazed into the interior of the repair bay. Sam ran from one workbench to another, stuffing tools into the bag slung over his shoulder.
"We need to go, Sam. There's nothing here we can use."
"There's a lot of tools if you know what you're doing, big guy."
August headed for the open doors, stopping suddenly and staring. Without saying anything, he turned and walked to a workbench, grabbed a rusty crowbar and walked out the door.
"Hey!" Sam shouted. Clapping a hand over his mouth, he stared at the shadows, looking for motion. Zs weren't the only things to be afraid of in this new world. People were people, even now. Reaching into the waistband in the small of his back, Sam produced a Glock and stepped into the interior shadows, stealthily making his way toward the huge open door.
He watched August walk up to a large trailer with locked double doors, where he slipped the crowbar into a padlock on the back. With a quick twist, the lock shattered.
Sam looked around and stepped into the sunshine, replacing his weapon. "What the hell, August. You scared the wits out of me. I didn't know what you were doing…"
The creak of metal against metal cut Sam off and the back doors of the trailer swung open. Inside was a motorcycle, a Honda Shadow.
Sam leaped into the back of the trailer and whistled softly as his hands moved over the engine. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it, August. Let me check it over, but this is pretty good."
August stepped into the trailer and pushed the large motorcycle out into the bright sunshine. Sam grinned at him. "This Shadow should work, August. You need a large motorcycle like this; you're a big guy," he said.
"Can you get it running?" August had to admit the cycle was a nice machine, still looking in good condition, in spite of years of storage.
Sam knelt beside the bike. "The tires need some air. I'll need some gas for it. If you can bring the gas cans, I can have you going in half an hour." Sam had pliers and a screwdriver in his hands and was already working on the engine, not even looking at August.
The work took more than an hour. Finding a manual air pump was the hardest part, but there was a working one in a locker in the repair bay. The gas seemed okay. After cleaning the plugs, Sam crossed his fingers and pressed the starter. The Shadow roared to life, sputtering. Black smoke belched from the tailpipe.
Sam frowned. "Well, it isn't purring, but it's running. I guess you're good to go." August threw a leg over the seat and sat down, the shock absorbers bouncing. Sam laughed. "Perfect fit! Don't forget to stop every hundred miles or so or you'll wear yourself out." He slapped his hand against August's broad back then stepped away, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Oh, and say hi to Hemanth and Holden for me."
"Will do, Sam. Good job on the bike," August said.
Sam waved, a crooked grin on his face as August disappeared north on the cycle. "You should have a nice trip, August," he said to himself. Sam looked longingly across the street at the restaurant with the collapsed blue roof. "I sure would have liked some pancakes…" He climbed in the truck and drove deeper into the heart of Pueblo.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hunting August Moon - Chapter 9

Chapter 9
The two trucks rolled out from Selah Ranch an hour after sunrise, while the cool air still carried the moistness of night. The newer blue truck rumbled as it led the way down the road, gobbling its tank of bio-fuel. The older red truck left a plume of sooty smoke in its wake.
Jed shook his head. If he had his way, the trucks would be much newer, though his Dad insisted they needed older trucks with carburetors rather than electronic controls. This wasn't what his Dad envisioned, though. He shrugged and went to do chores. It is what it is, he thought.
The sun was high in the sky as Fae fed the chickens and gathered some eggs, then headed to the outside pen where the female goats spent some of their time. Jed and Linda were getting the buckets ready to milk the goats.
A wolf howled in the distance.
"I heard them earlier too." Fae cringed against the sound as another wolf howl echoed from the forest.
"Yeah, it's making the goats nervous, which doesn't make milking any easier, so grab a bucket, Fae."
Fae picked up one of the empty pails and looked around. "No more stools." She grinned at Jed and Linda, who were busy milking. "Guess you two are on your own."
Jed laughed shortly. "Not a chance. It's not like they're cows, Fae. Kneel down next to Lottie over there and milk her, then we're done."
Fae did so, whispering to the small, brown-furred goat with the white front stocking. "I hate milking," she muttered. "It takes me forever."
Jed laughed. "It takes about five minutes with practice, so maybe..."
"I get it, Jed, I need to..."
A wolf howled again, louder and closer. Fae jumped up and stared into the distance across the hillside.
Jed tapped Fae on the shoulder. "You and Linda get the goats into the south barn. I'll finish with Lottie."
Ten minutes later the three does were nervously milling about in the pen in the south barn. Another howl emanated from close by.
"What about Jethro?" Fae stood close to Linda, holding her hand.
"Yeah, I didn't think to check on him. Stupid buck hates me anyway." Jed frowned. "But we need him or we can't get any goatlings."
"Kids." Linda grinned at him. "They're called kids."
Jed laughed. "I know, but goatlings sounds better to me." He stepped outside, followed by the two women. "I'll get him and bring him in the barn, too."
"Why do we keep him in a separate pen?" Fae whispered to Linda as they walked to the main house.
Linda answered. "Because he's dirty and smelly and mean, Fae."
Fae giggled. "But we let the guys live in our bunkhouse."
Linda chuckled and glanced at Jed.
"Why the wolves? It seems odd, doesn't it?" She stood next to Jed, the three of them staring toward the source of the howls.
"It's like they sense some threat here, but I don't understand that. Wolves avoid trouble and rarely come here, though I think they snatch a few chickens occasionally." Jed paused, scratching his stubbled chin, "I'm told the Alphas will hunt and kill non-pack members in their territory, so maybe they are chasing another wolf."
"So we have a wolf trespassing on the property?" Fae looked around, checking the shadows of the buildings.
Jed shrugged. "I don't know. I haven't seen signs of any."
Linda tugged Fae's arm and headed for the main house again. "Well, if they're chasing something, we don't want to get in their way. If they're hunting another wolf, we definitely don't want in the middle of that."
Fae shivered as she walked with Linda, Jed close behind. "So what do we do? Wait them out?"
"I don't know," said Jed, a frown crossing his face.
Jed was in the main house for a half hour when the howls got louder. He stood at the window and watched five wolves trot into the yard, sniffing at the doors. They growled when they crossed the street and smelled the door of the bunkhouse.
"Well, that's fascinating." Linda watched the wolves, a look of peace on her face. "I love the way they move. I never thought I'd see a real, live wolf. They aren't common in the swamps."
"I don't suppose so." Jed cleared his throat when he realized he was whispering. His next words were at normal volume. "What do you think they want at the bunkhouse? They seem fascinated by the doorway."
Fae looked out the window. "They are a lot bigger than I thought they'd be."
Jed watched the wolves prowl around the outside of the bunkhouse, sniffing and scratching at the walls. "Don't worry, Fae. They can't get through any of the bars on the windows and they can't get through these walls. They look agitated, not angry. And they look sleek, not starving, so I don't think we have any worries."
"I wish they'd go away..." Fae whispered, rolled into a small ball on the couch. Linda sat next to her and wrapped her arms around her.
"It'll be okay, darlin'. They aren't here to hurt us. I'm sure of it." Linda stroked Fae's red hair as she spoke in a low, soothing voice. "And they aren't huffing and puffing, either. That's a good sign," she whispered, a smile in her voice.
The lead wolf raised his head, ears forward, looking toward the path to the woods.
A low singsong voice echoed along the street and the wolves stood still. Lone Wolf walked into the street, singing in a language none of them understood. The wolves stood enraptured, tongues lolling from their mouths, as Lone Wolf approached them.
He stopped in front of the alpha male of the small pack, still rhythmically singing the low-pitched song. He squatted down on his heels, the tone of his song changing, the rhythm slowing. Each of the wolves crowded close to him and Lone Wolf touched each one briefly, the song changing to something more subdued and quieter. Lone Wolf stood and raised his arms, the song changing in pitch. He closed his eyes as the song reached a final note. The wolves raised their muzzles and howled in unison. The alpha male licked the back of Lone Wolf's hand and trotted past him. Lone Wolf touched each of their smooth coats as they went by.
Jed moved to the door of the main house, opening it for Lone Wolf. The tall Indian grinned at him. "That was exciting, wasn't it?" he said,  his eyes sparkling. "They think there is an intruder here." Lone Wolf looked at the small yard between the buildings. "I'm inclined to think they're right."
"I don't know what that means, Lone Wolf. I'm not sure what I would have done if you hadn't come." Jed motioned for Lone Wolf to come into the house.
Lone Wolf stopped and looked into Jed's eyes. "You would have done the right thing, Jed. It is what you do." He grinned. "In this case, you would have stayed inside and waited for them to leave. But now, of course, you have a greater purpose. And I'm here to help."
Jed looked at him, puzzled. "I'm still not sure what you mean."
Lone Wolf laughed, deep laughter that shook his entire body. "Why, I'm here to help you prepare for a feast tomorrow! I hear you have venison!"

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hunting August Moon - Chapter 8

Chapter 8
Most of the residents of Selah Ranch reclined in the large living room of the main house. Light bulbs glowed overhead, and a fire crackled in the huge stone fireplace, sending occasional sparks onto the slate floor in front of the non-grated opening.
Maddie sat across from Ted at one end of a rectangular table. Fae and Claire sat on the other end watching the game of checkers.
Ted glared at the checkerboard. "You win again." He stood up, his jaw muscles tight. "I'm done playing against you."
Claire chuckled at Ted as he stalked away. "You've been playing her for six weeks now, Ted. You say that every other night."
Jed stretched his feet closer toward the fire, his woolen socks in danger of igniting. "Read a book, Ted. That's what I do. Maddie is the best checker player I ever met."
"Though," Maddie smiled sweetly, "you're not that good, are you?" Jed rolled his eyes and went back to his book.
"I'll play you, Maddie, since August doesn't want to watch movies with me tonight." Fae slid across the bench to sit opposite the blonde leader and they set the pieces up to start the game.
Claire leaned her head on the palm of her left hand, watching the game. She sighed in contentment. "I like the quiet evenings, even when it's getting dark early."
"Me, too," said Nancy. She sat in a cushioned chair near the fireplace, one leg curled up under her, her eyes closed and head leaning against the soft cushioned headrest. She no longer looked starved. She tugged a small lap blanket closer and snuggled into a more comfortable position. "This is the most peaceful I've felt in a long time."
"I'll be red. I like red," Fae said.
Maddie smiled. "Red goes first, Fae. Go ahead."
Linda and Shelly sat in plump chairs on opposite sides of a small table, a deck of cards between them. Each looked intently at the cards in their hands. Linda laid three kings down on the table and Shelly groaned. "It's nice to have a place to belong," said Linda.
"Where's Sam?" Ted sat on the end of the small sofa.
"Outside in the barn. He's working on something special. It's a surprise, he said." August lounged on the end of the long couch, reading a thin paper book, his feet propped up on the couch.
"It isn't much of a secret." Claire smiled. "It's a modified all-terrain vehicle. He says it will carry more weight and go farther than the horses and still be able to get over the rough patches in the roads. He thinks he's almost finished."
"I'd rather have a horse." August turned a page.
"The horses don't like Sam much." Claire got up from watching the checker game and moved to the large couch next to August. "Move your feet, August."
August grunted and moved his feet to the floor. Claire sat on the couch, a little space between the two of them.
"What are you reading?" Claire leaned over and pushed the book August was holding so she could see the cover. "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine?"
"It was in the last box of books from Monte Vista. We weren't too picky about what books we took."
"Dad liked Ellery Queen," Jed chimed in.
"Your father had excellent taste." August waved a thick forefinger at Claire. "Can't a guy read in peace?"
"Sure he can. Rub my feet for me while you do it, please." Claire stretched out on the couch and put her stocking feet against August's thigh. He sighed and started massaging Claire's foot.
"Not so hard, you brute!" Claire kicked him and he chuckled.
Jed's right forefinger was in the pages of the closed book in his hand. "You know," he said, "an ATV might be exactly what we need, if it can handle the bio-fuel."
Maddie looked at the checkerboard and smiled at Fae as she moved a black checker in response to Fae's first move. "For a supply run? That's a good idea," Maddie said.
Everyone looked at Jed, who grinned at Maddie. "Right. We might be able to take an ATV instead of the second truck and that would save quite a bit of fuel."
"Less manpower, though," August reminded him.
Everyone heard the front door open and close. Sam came into the living room, his black hair wind-blown. His hair was longer now than when he first came to the ranch. Rubbing his hands together, he moved to the small stool in front of the fire, sat and put his stocking feet on the hearthstones. "It's crystal clear out there. There's a Norther blowing in, and it'll be pretty cold tonight."
"Well," said Maddie, "there are plenty of blankets here and in the bunkhouse."
"Thanks," said Sam. "I'll be sure to grab a couple extra." He looked around the room. "What's up?"
"We're thinking of making a supply run." August closed his book on his finger, though his free hand continued to rub Claire's foot gently. "We've cleaned out Del Norte, Monte Vista and Alamosa, Jed. Canned goods are questionable, so we need to go somewhere we might find large quantities of dried goods, beans and grains. We need to go somewhere bigger, too, perhaps as far as Pueblo." He gave Claire's foot a slight squeeze. "Or we could gather the few acorns that fell this year. That was fun last fall, wasn't it, Claire?"
"Not hardly, August. My back hurt for days after picking up acorns for you." She grinned at him. "You did make some pretty good acorn cakes out of them, though, I'll give you that."
"Good might be a stretch, Claire," Shelly said, staring at her cards.
Maddie grinned at August. "Well, if we find anything in the city, we'll have to fight animals for the food. Not just squirrels either." She laughed. "Probably rats. Little beggars are everywhere."
Jed rolled his eyes. "Everyone make a list of what they want to find. Most of us will need to go, since we might have to scavenge in the neighborhoods, house to house." He looked at Sam. "Do you think the ATV will be working in the next few days?"
Sam sighed as he moved to a chair across from Jed, turning it so it faced partway into the room. "Afraid not. I was about to ask if you knew where I could get some tools and parts. I know what I need, and I'm pretty good with engines, but without a couple key pieces I won't be able to finish the modifications." He laughed. "So I guess it isn't a big surprise after all."
A small chuckle floated around the room.
Sam grinned. "I guess the mounted flame thrower isn't a surprise either?" Eyebrows rose at that and Sam laughed. "I borrowed the design years ago. Old gasoline works great once I get it to congeal." He narrowed his eyes. "And that's my secret on how I do that!"
Nancy grinned. "Well, that should be different. Let's hope we never need it!"
Amens echoed around the room.
"Pueblo has a few auto stores, so you should be able to find what you need. Or if you want to scavenge, many of the houses have cars, and some might be functional, even after this many years."
Fae stared at the checkerboard. Maddie glanced at the board and moved one of her checkers. "There are a couple of warehouse stores in Pueblo, too. Those are worth checking out while we're there," said Maddie.
August shook his head, his dark hair swinging off his forehead. "I don't mind the big stores, but I hate doing the neighborhood thing. It's like ghosts haunt the vacant neighborhoods."
"We have a bigger issue than ghosts, August, and I'm not sure what to do about it." Jed sighed and Maddie turned her head to look at him. "I haven't heard from Hemanth since before y'all got here."
"That's six weeks, Jed. I thought Sam fixed the radio," said Maddie.
"Radio is fine, Maddie." Sam sounded defensive. "The problem isn't on this end."
"Yeah, the radio is okay. I can still contact other enclaves. I was hoping someone on their end would fix the problem, honestly." Jed's closed his eyes, his head against the back of the chair, the firelight reflecting from his worn features.
"Who is this Hemanth guy?" Nancy asked.
"Holden is the leader of a bunch of reformed academics up in Fort Collins and Hemanth is his right-hand man," Maddie said.
"What's a reformed academic?" Fae asked, putting her finger on a red checker then pulling her finger back.
Claire laughed. "An academic that has learned to live instead of reading how to live."
"That's a bit rude," said Ted. "I was a University Professor."
Claire smiled at him. "I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to be rude. Most of these people worked in the universities, too. Fort Collins and Colorado State became their stronghold over the last few years."
Jed waved a hand, dismissing the conversation, and Maddie frowned at the motion. "Holden's group is pretty successful. They keep in touch with a lot more communities than we know about, maybe hundreds. They perfected our stream generators using some research from Michigan State, I think. Mankind didn't lose innovation during the Z-pandemic, thankfully. Holden's people might be our best hope at establishing a new civilization."
"So what do you want to do about it?" August sat still, even his hands not moving. "I don't like that you haven't heard from him."
Jed grimaced. "I know. I get some of the western groups, and a few Texas ones. Hoover Dam acknowledges me but they don't like to talk."
"Have you heard from Jason? He misses us when he's gone, you know," Shelly said.
"Misses you, you mean," teased Claire. Shelly grinned and shrugged.
Jed shook his head. "You know Jace. If he finds a radio he'll call. Otherwise he'll be off exploring."
August sat up straighter. "I'll head up to see Hemanth and Holden, see what's going on there. The rest of you can see about supplies with the vehicles. Fort Collins is about two weeks away by horseback, if I go steady and up through Salida and Fairplay. Or I could run and be there in about ten days."
"If we had the fuel you could be there in a day, even if the road is worse than last spring." Jed shook his head. "With our mileage, that's what? Forty gallons of fuel for there and back." He rubbed his face with his hands. "I don't think we have forty gallons to spare."
"I shouldn't have taken Charlie over the mountains. That was a good tank of gas." August rubbed his hand over his stubbled square chin. "It was a bad summer for the bio-tanks. We usually do a lot better."
Jed rolled his shoulders. "I know. Hemanth said something about a new high-pressure nozzle, too. Ask Holden about that when you see him, by the way. See what he thinks of the problems with the bio-tanks."
Everyone was quiet for a few minutes, each thinking their own thoughts.
"What about the community in Pueblo?" asked Maddie.
"They keep to themselves and don't even talk via the radio. We hear they are quite successful, though." Jed grinned, sheepishly. "Small-town life isn't for everyone."
"This isn't even a small town, Jed." Nancy smiled at him. "It's more like a survivor community."
Jed laughed. "Hey, we have electricity and indoor plumbing and hot water. We manage." Jed's eyes reflected a deep tiredness. "It is harder with such a small group, though."
Maddie looked up from the checker game. "Speaking of electricity, I noticed the battery levels aren't topping out lately. I think the storm the other night might have damaged one of the stream generators. That's where the voltage drop seems to be, anyway."
"That was a fearsome storm." Jed pursed his lips then looked at August. "Another thing to ask Holden about, I guess. See if they have any extra stream generators. We can bring them as many horses as they like in the spring, as well as some cattle."
"What about a cycle?" Fae chimed in, biting her lower lip and staring at the intimidating checkers on the board.
"What about a cycle, Fae?" Maddie touched one of Fae's checkers with her finger and winked at her.
"Use a motorcycle instead of a car or truck to get to Fort Collins. They use a lot less gas."
"The bio-fuel doesn't work well in a cycle, Fae," Jed said, shaking his head.
"So get some real gas. You know, from abandoned cars and stuff. Or from the gas stations." Fae moved the red checker one square, anxiously watching Maddie.
Maddie grinned at her. "Clever. But most gas is stale or contaminated or we can't get to it." Maddie moved one of her checkers and looked back at Jed.
Fae bit her lower lip. "So use a hand pump, like my Daddy did." She squinted her eyes at the red checkers, sliding one forward then moving it back.
Jed and August looked at each other and laughed. "Out of the mouth of babes..." muttered Jed.
"You have an old hand pump in the barn, Jed. It needs a new diaphragm. I can have it working in a few minutes." chimed in Sam.
August looked thoughtful. "And we should be able to find a cycle in Pueblo. We go to Pueblo for supplies and while we're there we can look for fuel tanks or gas stations that still have usable gas. Older gas will gum up the cycle and it'll run rough, but I should be able to make it to Fort Collins. They can help me clean it up and I'm back here in four days - five, tops."
A cold blast of air shook the windows and the chill crept into the room.
Jed grinned. "That might work, August. Pueblo it is. We haven't foraged there, yet, so that might be okay. On the other hand, it might be dangerous. We still run into Zs in this part of Colorado, though I sure wish I knew where they came from." He smiled grimly. "We'll go armed and be careful. Best case, we get a cycle and some gas for it. You can leave from there. Worst case, we don't find a vehicle and it delays you for a few more days. I don't know why Holden and Hemanth are out of touch, but it can't be serious." He looked into the fire, his face grim.
Maddie moved a checker. "That's what we'll do, then. Let's plan a trip to Pueblo."
Claire voiced the question everyone was thinking. "So who's going?" Claire moved her left foot and put the right one into August's left hand, wiggling her toes. He sighed and started massaging the bottom of her foot, putting the book aside.
"Maddie and I," started Jed.
"Or at least I am," interrupted Maddie. "I'm bored out of my mind and I'm pretty sure it's Jed's turn with the goats."
Jed groaned and rolled his eyes. "Why is it always my turn with the goats?"
Maddie laughed. "We only have three does, Jed."
"And more milk than we know what to do with." Jed sighed then continued. "Okay, Sam and August need to go. Sam needs parts for his ATV and August needs a cycle." He pointed at August. "You get on the road and then Sam helps the team scavenge."
"Something I am extremely good at, I might point out," Sam interrupted.
"So you keep telling us, Sam. Now we'll get to see your skills at work." Claire grinned at him.
Maddie chimed in. "I'm going." She looked at Jed. "No arguments."
"I'm going." Claire and Shelly spoke at the same time, echoing each other.
"You can't both go. One of the seniors needs to stay here, in case of trouble." Jed knit his eyebrows together in thought.
Maddie smiled. "Unless you stay, Jed. Then they can both come with me. One more person and we have two three-person teams."
"I'd rather go," Jed interjected.
"Of course you would, but you'll have to wait this one out. We'll be fine." Maddie smiled sweetly.
"Check," said Fae, moving a red piece next to one of Maddie's black pieces.
Sam looked at the board and grinned. "You don't say 'check' in checkers, Fae," said Sam.
"I know. I wanted to contribute to the conversation," Fae responded.
"That's not exactly conversation," replied Sam.
"I don't want to go," said Fae. "I like it here fine, and I don't ever want to leave."
Sam chuckled. "Okay, that's more like conversation." Fae stuck her tongue out at him.
Maddie spoke up. "Okay, then. Ted? Nancy? Linda? Volunteers?"
Ted's voice, deep and formal, rolled from his chest. "Though I have no wish to embark on this journey, I do consider it part of my duty, to help the family and to protect the ladies as needed."
Claire, Maddie and Shelly exchanged quick looks, but said nothing.
"I'd like to go, if that's okay." Nancy's voice was quiet, but firm. She looked at everyone in the room, one at a time. "It feels like something I should do."
Linda looked at Maddie. "Nancy needs to go with you," she said.
Ted shook his head. "I think the ladies will need the assistance of another male in their group."
The room was quiet for a moment and everyone looked at Maddie. "Tough call, but this should be a quiet foray into town and back again. We don't anticipate trouble."
Ted raised his hand, his broad palm toward Maddie. "No one anticipates trouble, Maddie." His voice, incredibly, dropped an octave, as if he were giving a speech. "And then trouble ensues. I shall go."
"So will I," said Nancy, looking at Linda.
Maddie hesitated and grinned. "Okay, then! Ted and Nancy it is! Seven there. Six back here and August to Fort Collins. The extended cab truck and Old Red, each with a trailer for hauling stuff back." She smiled at Jed and winked. "How's that?"
Jed shrugged. "No problem. Fae, Linda and I will hold down the fort. I mean, what could go wrong here?" He opened his eyes wide and clamped his right hand over his mouth.
Maddie stared at him. "You didn't seriously say that?"
Sam started laughing. "He did. He most certainly did!" They laughed, except Fae who still studied the checkerboard intently.

Next chapter, next Wednesday.
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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Hunting August Moon - Chapter 7

Chapter 7
August sighed and looked at Jed. "My next fully coherent memory is your Dad giving me a shot of something and helping me into that beat up jeep that's out in the barn. Lone Wolf was grinning. Hemanth and a couple other guys were there, too, every one of them fully geared up for battle. We came here and I've been here ever since."
"That's all Dad mentioned to me. He said he helped Lone Wolf get you back from a government gone mad." Jed rubbed his chin, and Maddie patted his knee. "He never gave me more details than that."
"Lone Wolf could," said Maddie.
"Lone Wolf won't," August said. "It's a moot point anyway. The virus swept the country shortly after that and now everything is changed."
"Yes, it is." Jed smiled. "Thanks for the story."
August looked somber. "You can see why I want to keep it a secret."
Maddie shook her head. "No, not in today's world. Why keep the secret that you're immortal when the world now has them everywhere?" Maddie grinned, teasing him. "What about telling someone nice, like Claire?"
August's face lightened. "I'd like that, but I can't." He spread his big hands wide. "Don't you see? I don't age. She isn't ageless. I'd have to watch her grow old and die." He sighed. "That's a hard thing to do. Lone Wolf's heart broke so badly it took decades for him to get over it. He might still be heartbroken, in fact."
"Too bad Claire is Immune and not Transformed, August." Jed smiled. "I don't hear anything that leads me to think Sam is a threat, though. He is different, I'll grant you that. He might be a form of Transformed that we can't sense." Jed looked at Maddie. "What do you think?"
Maddie shook her head. "I don't know. He seems odd at times. Even Claire says he's all talk and no action." She laughed at the look on August's face. "What, August? Even if you have forever, she doesn't."
"So he's odd, but harmless. Everyone is allowed to be a little odd," Jed said.
August sighed. "You're right, of course. Maybe I'm a little annoyed because he pays so much attention to Claire."
Jed chuckled. "Claire doesn't think too much of Sam, August. Sam does help around here. Do me a favor and look for the best in him. If you look for the bad, that's all you'll see."
Maddie looked at Jed. "I'll keep an eye on Sam and make sure he doesn't cause trouble."
Jed stood up. "Hey, I'm beat. I have to get some sleep. You need to find your big brother and invite him to dinner. That's why we got the venison."
"Right. I'll tell him about it." August shrugged and smiled tiredly. "I'm sure he'll come. It's free food." He chuckled. "He probably already knows about the venison."
Maddie covered her mouth as she yawned. "I think we need to talk about a scavenging trip before we have a venison feast. We need some supplies." She stood on her tiptoes and hugged August tightly. "Thanks for the story. We love you, you know."
Jed patted August on the shoulder. "Someday we'll hear those Wendigo Tales, August." He grinned. "Good night, Wendigo Hunter."