"This gas might protect us a little." Claire covered her mouth to avoid the pungent odor of the gasoline as she poured it from a glass jar onto grass in front of the store. She looked at the setting sun. "I sure wish I knew where Sam was. Where anyone was, for that matter. This trip isn't going as planned."
"Do you have matches or something?" Ted's worried eyes scanned the rapidly sinking orb as it slid closer to the pointed peaks of the mountains in the west.
"I have a lighter." Claire laughed. "I have this thing for fire starters or something. After everything went bad, I collected those tiny disposable lighters like crazy. I have a backpack full of them at the Ranch, and they're in pretty good shape." She reached in one of her cargo pants pockets and pulled two lighters out. She gave the transparent green one to Ted and kept the red one.
They sat on the hood of the Chevy and watched the front of the store, looking for movement as the darkness descended.
Two trucks roared into the parking lot at the same time. Maddie jumped out of the passenger side of the red truck and stared at the small collection of bottles and dented cans lined up along the rear of the Chevy. She raised her eyebrows at Claire.
"Thank goodness you are finally here!" Ted was halfway to Sam's truck when he stopped and looked at Claire. "I think we need to go."
Claire faced Maddie's questioning glance. "It's a long story. I need one of the plastic bags from the truck, though."
Maddie brought the bag as multiple conversations broke out.
"Where've you been?" Ted said to Sam, who continued to sit in the driver's seat of the blue truck.
"Hey, how come you guys don't have any stuff? You've had hours to scavenge. I could've found a dozen trucks of stuff by now," Sam yelled through the open passenger window of his truck.
"You wouldn't believe what happened. We were kidnapped and drugged and almost assaulted…" Shelly tried to talk to Ted, Sam and Claire at the same time.
Claire wrapped the cloth-bound rat in the plastic bag, placed it under the truck seat, and looked at Maddie. "Assaulted? Kidnapped?"
"We found infected rats," Ted said to everyone else.
"And Nancy shot this guy named Tomás," said Shelly.
Darkness dropped like a blanket over the parking lot and a chill breeze blew down from the mountains. Small shadows disconnected themselves from the front of the store. The truck headlights reflected from hundreds of red eyes across the parking lot, the shadows moving closer.
"We'll swap stories later." Maddie jumped back into the truck as Ted climbed into the passenger side of Sam's vehicle. Claire looked at the small shadows then said something in a whisper, running toward the wrecked Chevy.
They saw the small flame as it licked at the edge of the piece of cloth sticking from the bottle. Claire ran with the flaming bomb. With an effortless throw, the bottle flew toward the old Chevy. It didn't break, but it knocked over cans on the rear of the car and flame erupted, spreading along the top of the flowing gasoline.
Claire jumped in the back seat next to Nancy, grinning.
Shelly hollered through her window at Sam. "Guess you'd better follow me!"
The flames leaped across the parking lot toward the front of the store, small bodies igniting as it swept over them. "With a little luck that will clean out some of the little monsters," said Claire.
Maddie looked over her shoulder at Claire. "This should be a good story."
Claire grinned back. "Sounds like yours is, too."
The fire brightened the sky behind them as they travelled south on Highway 25 toward Colorado City. When they found a building that looked relatively intact, they pulled over and spent the night, eating the bland rations they had with them.
In the bright morning sunshine of the next day, the sole thing that marked their trip to Pueblo was a slight smudge of smoke in the sky to the north, and an unfamiliar thirst in Maddie.
And six cases of toilet paper Sam had in the back of his truck.