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.