Excerpt for The McClane Apocalypse Book Seven by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





The McClane Apocalypse

Book Seven



Kate Morris

Ranger Publishing 2017


Ranger Publishing

Copyright © 2017 by Ranger Publishing

Note to Readers: This publication contains the opinions and ideas of its author. It is not intended to provide helpful or informative material on the subjects addressed in the publication. The author and publisher specifically disclaim all responsibility for any liability, loss or risk personal or otherwise.

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Manufactured in the United States of America

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file

ISBN 13: 978-1545449776

ISBN 10: 1545449775


Dedication

To my McClane fans who have supported the series from the beginning. Thank you so much for all the fan letters, emails, and Facebook messages. Your kind words and support have kept me going through some difficult times the last few years and encouraged me to continue on with this series.

As always, please continue to support our troops and visit RangerUp.com. Buy a cool t-shirt, be the envy of your friends, and spread the message. Twenty-two a day is still too many.

Thanks,

Kate


Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Epilogue


Chapter One

Sam

Life in Dave’s compound is much different than it was with the McClane family. She was placed in a women’s barracks, or so that’s what Dave’s wife explained them to be. It is more like a long bunkhouse with many twin-size beds, two showers that don’t always run very hot water, and a single toilet room. Gunny’s family housed their dairy farm laborers in the bunkhouse. Those people are long gone, likely out there somewhere with their own families. Or at least Sam hopes they have reunited with their loved ones. The building is constructed of painted white cement blocks with a matching interior. She’d like to paint the walls with murals of lovely shades, but at least the building is cozy and warm, especially with the cold winter settling in. There are two girls much younger than her, orphans who were taken in by Dave’s group living in the bunkhouse. Also cohabitating in the building are around twenty women older than her, widows of the apocalypse, or women who were taken in from the sex camp who were freed. There is also a girl her age, Courtney, with whom she’d become fast friends. Her parents had also been killed by violent marauders in the beginning. She’d traveled with a small group far from her home in Virginia until they were also attacked. That’s when Dave’s group came upon the survivors. The others had gone their own way, but Courtney had decided to stay on with Dave’s people. Sam is certainly glad she did since it is safer than being on the road. She is very thankful for the newfound friendship. It helps to soften the ache of homesickness she feels when she allows herself to dwell on her McClane family.

Dave’s wife, Connie, has also helped her along. She is very sweet, mild-mannered and doesn’t put up with much from her raucous husband. They are rather humorous to watch. She is usually pretty busy with her own children, though. They have three; two boys and a girl. They are all much younger than Sam, as well, but she tries to help Connie with them when she can. She has her own set of chores that she must attend to each day that requires much of her time.

Although she misses her McClane family, having her uncle back in her life has been the biggest blessing. They have been working day and night trying to establish their own medical clinic that she’ll help him run, along with Dave’s Army medic and a nurse they rescued from the sex camp. She’s also been studying and learning a lot from the nurse. Gunny’s large farm is completely secure and just outside the town of Hendersonville. They have converted one of the equipment sheds into a men’s barracks, complete with newly finished plumbing and heat. There is a house nearby that they are trying to fix up into a medical clinic. Some of Gunny’s, or Henry as she now calls him, men have been hanging drywall and plywood and building interior walls to make individual patient rooms. Dave seems less worried about allowing people from town so close to their farm than the men in her family always were. Grandpa’s farm was always a secret, but Henry’s compound is less remote than the McClane farm, and he said that everyone already knew about it and about Henry’s family. His farm is an impenetrable fortress in Sam’s opinion. She feels safe, and that’s not something to take lightly, as she knows so well.

She rises before dawn, unable to sleep and anxious to be up and moving. Dave and a few of his men are meeting with some of the McClane group to head north to Fort Knox. It makes her uneasy. She is unsure and distrustful of Robert McClane and his motives. She wanted so badly to tell Dave of her feelings, but she doesn’t know him that well yet. So, instead, she is going out to feed the horses, of which they have many more on Henry’s farm. They also have many more people living on his farm, so it makes sense to have a bigger herd of livestock. Sam pulls on black jeans, an orange sweater and her black coat. Lug sole boots are last. The weather has been dry but cold lately. She can’t wait for spring.

“Where ya’ headed?” Courtney asks from her bed near Sam’s, startling her.

“Out to feed the horses,” Sam whispers so as not to awaken the other sleeping women and children. She has her own twin bed, but many are still sleeping on roll-away cots that Henry explained they found in a hotel in Nashville. They are working every day on runs to acquire more bedding, beds and linens.

“Wait up,” her new friend whispers in return. “I’ll come with you.”

Sam bides her time organizing her space and making sure everything is neat and tidy while her friend pulls on clothing and shoes. Courtney hadn’t come to Henry’s farm with much, according to her. She and her group had been robbed many times while she was with them, leaving her with so little. Dave’s wife has taken it upon herself to become the den mother to all of the young women and orphans on the farm. She and Dave live in the main house with Henry, but the other soldiers and their families either live in bunk housing like Sam or in small cabins they’ve built over the years. Connie makes sure they all have what they need, including clothing and toiletries. Or she makes her husband get it for them while he and his men are out on runs for supplies. Sam hadn’t needed anything from the new group because she’d brought everything she owned from the farm. She even has her art supplies tucked securely away under her bed, but she hasn’t felt motivated to draw anything yet. There hasn’t been inspiration in her new surroundings. The first few nights, she’d wept quietly in her bunk. She was terribly homesick for the family and heartbroken because of him. But she has learned that time does heal one’s wounds. She just wishes that she didn’t have them to begin with.

“Ready,” Courtney whispers and taps her shoulder.

They leave the building, closing the door behind them quietly so the other women can sleep. The work on Dave’s compound is no less time-consuming and tiring than on the McClane farm. Everyone needs their rest, and most crash at night like they are going into a coma. She is finally sleeping a few hours at a time but not usually the whole night. There was a big adjustment period that she went through the first few nights. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. The sounds, the strange bed and sleeping quarters, the different people, none of it helps her sleep. At night, the biggest problem is being left alone with her own thoughts, which haunt her like apparitions from her past. They do nothing to calm her spirit to prepare for deep sleep. Most nights, she lies awake for hours.

She and Courtney walk to the horse barn, which is a former single story building with a dirt and sawdust floor where hay was stored. They keep the hay in the loft of the old bank barn now and the horses in the open barn. They don’t have stalls, but there is a gate at the end to keep them locked in for the night. Like the McClane farm, they only keep pregnant mares or injured horses in the barn. It reminds her of the farm where she took riding lessons when she was younger. It’s more of an indoor riding arena than a hay or horse barn anyway and is built like Grandpa’s equipment shed. At one end are two, small stalls where they allow the pregnant mares to give birth. It keeps them safer than allowing them to do so in the field where other horses could interfere.

When they arrive at the barn, Sam scoops oats into a wheelbarrow while Courtney grabs a clean set of leg wraps for a gelding with a bowed tendon. Sam is fairly sure he’ll never be ridden again. That type of injury is not usually something most horses can fully recover from, especially at his age. At best, he’ll only be able to handle the weight of someone small or a child and definitely not at a pace faster than a walk. She overheard Dave discussing it with his men that maybe they should donate the horse to town for meat. She’s glad it never came to that at the McClane farm.

“Got my wraps for Buddy,” Courtney declares. “I’ll meet you out there.”

“’Kay,” Sam answers with a smile.

The sun is just rising as she pours the last scoop into the cart and pushes it toward the horse pen. She doesn’t get far before one of Dave’s men, a sentry that Dave keeps on the barn at all times, meets up with her and insists on taking it.

“I’ve got this, ma’am,” he says.

Sam offers a grim smile and nods. “Sure.”

His men are all mannerly, kind and sometimes a little too helpful. She hardly does any work on the farm because as soon as she tries to lift a finger, she is met with this.

“Thanks…,” she pauses, trying to remember his name.

“Perry, ma’am,” he answers for her and tips his tattered military cap.

“Right, sorry,” she apologizes.

“No problem, miss,” he says with a wink and resumes pushing the wheelbarrow again.

“Are you off to catch some sleep now?” she asks, making small talk with him.

“Nah, I’m on for the rest of the day,” he answers.

“Why?” she asks. “I thought you guys took turns on watch duty.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “We normally do, but with Sergeant Winters being gone, we gotta’ stay on shift.”

“Right, makes sense,” she concurs. This is something that is troubling her very greatly. Dave and his men are meeting up with Cory, John and Kelly, who agreed to escort Hannah’s father to Fort Knox, check out the place. They have all promised to return to their prospective farms posthaste, and Sam hopes it is true. The original agreement with Grandpa was that Kelly wouldn’t leave the farm, but he also didn’t feel comfortable leaving the decision to John alone as to whether or not to get involved in Robert’s plans. She’s very worried about all of them, but she knows that Hannah must be out her mind. And Sam is also worried about Dave, too. He is a very kind, good man who has so many people relying on him. She certainly doesn’t want anything to happen to him or his men while they are on the road. She knows firsthand how dangerous it can be out there.

“Don’t worry, miss,” he says, trying to allay her concerns that must be so visible on her face.

“Sure, that’s simple,” she says in a joking tone. She gets a smile in return from the stocky soldier. She’s pretty sure he was a part of Dave’s team in the Army. There are so many more people roaming around on this farm that it’s been a struggle getting to know and remember each one.

Perry leaves the wheelbarrow near the gate in the barn for her and tips his hat and leaves. She spreads the crimped oats in a long, black rubber trough for the horses, who finally realize that she is there bearing breakfast. They nicker and whinny to her in greeting. There are only five horses in the arena, so they don’t fight and kick at each other. If there were more, it might turn into an all-out food war. She joins Courtney in the stall at the back of the barn where she is rewrapping the gelding’s legs.

“Six months ago, I didn’t know squat about horses,” Courtney confesses.

“Really? You’re a natural with them,” Sam praises.

“I’ve learned a lot from Gunny. He’s a great trainer. Loves farming.”

Sam hasn’t had much of a chance to get to know Henry yet, but he seems very nice. The fact that he’s letting her and her uncle live on his farm doesn’t hurt in her estimation of him. Everyone calls him Gunny because he used to be the machine gunner in some military unit. He’s a lot like Kelly and Cory, big and imposing. But she suspects he’s a lot deeper than they give him credit for being.

“Yeah, he seems very patient,” Sam replies.

They finish their chores and head out to the dairy barn. Gunny’s family farm used to be a huge dairy operation. They had a few horses for entertainment, but it was mostly a dairy farm. When Dave and his men came, they increased the herd of horses substantially. They still run quite a few head of cattle, mostly because of the demand. They trade dairy products with the townspeople in Hendersonville for supplies. Dave’s group is a lot less generous and more business-like with their town than the McClanes, who primarily act as good stewards of the town of Pleasant View. Dave doesn’t put up with much from the townspeople, according to her uncle. If they want something from his group, he demands a barter. If they can’t give anything, then they are expected to work off their trade in labor. Uncle Scott also told her that the people respect him and Gunny, who acts as Dave’s right-hand man. Everyone knows that the farm belongs to Henry, and they admire him for sharing in the bounty of their toils at the farm with them, even if they have to trade for it. They don’t share food with the townspeople other than the overflow of dairy goods. Each family in town is expected to grow gardens and hunt for their own food. Her uncle explained that there are just too many families living on the farm to share in the food stores.

They are up to twenty-three horses, and none of them are used for entertainment anymore. His horses pull plows, take people on patrols, and work as farm equipment when the implements aren’t running. They don’t quite have all the unusual setups that Grandpa initiated on the farm with the equipment, but they do have other inventions that have aided in their survival. She knows that John and Derek are hoping for a visit when they return from Fort Knox so that they can discover and exchange ideas with Dave and Henry. Cory, being the most mechanically minded, will no doubt come, too. As far as Sam is concerned, having Dave’s group as allies will probably be a very vital asset in the McClane family’s future.

There are already six people milking cows in the dairy barn when they arrive, so they walk to the chicken pen where Sam releases them for the day. The birds cram through the small door, their feathers flapping and shedding in their haste to be the first ones to the morning meal of grubs and bugs. Some things don’t change on a farm, even if one’s address does.

After they have collected the eggs into the baskets and boxes near the coop, she and Courtney turn and head to the main house where the eggs will be washed and stored. There is a ‘mess hall,’ which she at first thought was an untidy hallway and had mistakenly figured that people just dropped their coats and hats on the floor. Dave had chuckled at her and rubbed the top of her head. It had made her homesick for John’s attention. Then he explained that the mess hall was where everyone joined for meals. Feeding so many families is an ordeal of epic proportions. The mess hall is a building that the men built when they first arrived on Henry’s farm. It can hold many tables and chairs and families, which it does for most meals. There are picnic tables and long, rustic tables and benches that the men made from wood harvested on the farm. Occasionally the men in Dave’s group, his inner circle of soldiers, will dine in the main house so that they can hold meetings. But most of the time they all eat together when it is at all possible due to work and sentry schedules. Sam can smell the aromas of breakfast being prepared in the mess hall. It makes her mouth water and her heart sick as she misses Hannah and Sue.

“Good morning, ladies,” Henry says as he looks up from his coffee at the kitchen table and quickly stands. As far as creature comforts go, Dave’s compound is a lot more stocked up on certain items than the McClane farm. With so many more soldiers to go on runs, they have quite the stockpile. A few other soldiers are sitting with him, and they all rise to greet Courtney and her. Sam just nods and waves before leaving. She trusts Henry and Dave. She’s not sure about the rest of them, although she knows that Dave would never allow predators into his compound. Most of them, she’s learning, are men from his unit.

Courtney stays and chats with them. Sam suspects that she has a crush on the one man with dark skin and hazel eyes and a muscular build. His face lights up every time he sees Courtney, and he has a magnificent, broad, and brilliantly white smile. But he usually tries to hide it. Sam is pretty sure he is just shy, especially around her new friend. He is a very imposing figure, and she overheard one of the men teasing him about being quite the lethal killer. He’d given his friends a dirty look when he’d noticed that Sam had entered the room. Apparently, he doesn’t want his more sinister side to be exposed to the women, especially not Sam who could take negative intel back to Courtney. His secret’s safe with her, though. Everyone has something they want to keep concealed from the ones they love. He is sweet and kind, but she can’t remember his name, either. Lieutenant Stevens, perhaps. Dave’s compound is a lot like Grandpa’s farm with all of the military men and their crazy nicknames for one another. As soon as she has someone’s name memorized, they go and call each other something else like AIT Barbie, or Flash-Bang, or Alley-Cat. She’s still not sure how someone would catch the nickname Alley-Cat in the first place. She’s pretty sure a lot of the call signs are negative and insulting. It’s going to take some time getting to know everyone.

“Miss Patterson, wait up,” Henry calls, tugging on his coat as he exits the home behind her.

His house is nice, quaint, not as big as Grandpa’s. But it is a typical, white four-bedroom, two bath older farm house. It’s cozy. The touches his mother must’ve placed in the home are still present, like the doilies on the oak coffee tables, the nick-knacks and candlesticks on the fireplace, family photos in silver frames.

“Did you need to speak with me?” she asks. Sam wants to help out in the mess hall. Like the McClane family, Dave’s group has a lot of little kids that need attention and looking after. Some of the soldiers have wives and children of their own. She is on her way to help set up the buffet tables, which is how they serve all meals.

“Um, yes, ma’am,” Henry answers, shoving his hands deep into his coat pockets. His breath comes out in white vapor clouds in the cold morning air. “Are you settling in all right?”

“Yes, fine,” she answers. It’s the truth. She has settled in. she just wishes that she hadn’t had to because she misses her home and family.

“Do you need anything?” he asks. “Clothing? Warmer underclothes or anything?”

“No, I’m good. I’ve got everything I need,” she replies with a nod and a half grin. The smile is fake. She finds that if she offers it, even if it doesn’t come from a genuine place, it still comes off as sincere. If she had everything she needed, she’d still be living at the McClane farm. But she does have everything she needs to survive. At least, for now, she does.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says and then adds, “Just let me know if you require anything else. I’ve got an in with the guy that runs this place.”

He winks for good measure. This time Sam does grin crookedly.

“Sure. Thanks,” she answers and walks away.

He’s a nice guy. It seems like most of Dave’s men are decent and trustworthy. She’s just not the kind of person who can trust people anymore, even if they seem harmless.

She keeps busy the rest of the morning in the mess hall setting up the buffet with some of the other women and teenagers while waiting for her uncle to awaken. He’s been burning the midnight oil studying diseases, especially plagues and poxes. He reminds her a lot of Reagan, who she desperately misses. It’s like a hole has been punched into her chest, and she’s waiting around for someone to magically fill it in again, to erase the hollow feeling she has there now. That place where her love for Simon used to dwell.


Chapter Two

Cory

They’ve been driving a short time, haven’t come across any roaming vandals, which is unusual for them, and are traveling in the Hummer behind Dave’s pick-up truck full of men. Cory is fairly confident of their returning to the farm unharmed being a nearly one hundred percent probability. Dave’s team has a fifty cal mounted on the bed of the pick-up truck like the technical they encountered many times in the Middle East as Dave described it with a laugh. It helps the odds. Plus, four more men are in the deuce and a half bringing up the rear.

Reagan’s father has been sleeping in the back of the Hummer most of the trip so far. They brought along enough sleeping bags and supplies for camping out in the woods somewhere if it comes to that. Her father still seems too weak and frail to even make a trip to their small town, but he felt it was necessary to meet up with his men, which is a whole hell of a lot farther than their town.

His brother is driving while John rides shotgun and he rides in the back.

“Hey!” John calls out. “Pull over… yeah, up there, bro. At the convenience store.”

Kelly maneuvers the vehicle while John radios the truck to let them know of the stop.

“Need help?” his brother asks.

“Nah, I got this,” John answers with a wink.

John jumps out of the Hummer, and Cory follows to stretch his legs but more importantly to keep watch. Kelly stays behind the wheel but has his window rolled down in case something happens, and Robert is still dead out in the hatch.

“What the hell’s he doin’?” Dave asks as he approaches on foot. “Gotta take a piss or something?”

“Not sure,” Kelly answers.

A moment later, John emerges from the store again and jogs to them. He tosses a bag of hard candy to Cory, who nods appreciatively, and hands Dave a twelve pack of beer. He pulls two cans of baby formula from his pack to show them.

“You went on a fuckin’ beer and formula run?” Dave inquires. “This is startin’ to feel all too goddamn familiar.”

Everyone laughs. The way Dave delivers his words with a slow, hanging drawl is a crack up to Cory. His sarcasm is dry, and he uses the f-word rather prolifically.

“No, looking for something for the little woman,” John explains.

“Piss warm beer?” Dave asks as he removes his ball cap, pulls his long ponytail back into the cap again, and replaces it to his head.

John chuckles and says, “No, she has this affinity for Skittles candy, my friend.”

“Candy,” Dave replies drolly.

“Sugar junky,” John says sheepishly.

“And she’s pregnant,” Kelly puts in.

“Oh, well, why didn’t you fuckin’ say so?” Dave jests. “It all makes sense now.”

Some of the other men laugh and jeer in a moment of mutual male camaraderie. Dave tosses beer to his men and offers one to John, who refuses. So do Cory and Kelly. He’s not a big fan of beer, especially warm, four-year-old beer.

“My wife wanted damn pickles. Pickles!” Dave says loudly above the melee. “Where the hell was I supposed to get pickles?”

“Did you find some?” Kelly asks with a lingering grin.

“Hell yes, I did!” Dave replies with a grave expression. “I’m not a total fuckin’ idiot, man.”

Everyone laughs again. Dave grins crookedly. He is not a big man like himself and Kelly but more lean, shorter, and lanky as hell. There isn’t an ounce of fat on him, and Cory’s pretty sure he could give him a good run of it in a fistfight.

One of Dave’s men asks, “Did you get your woman the Skittles, bro?”

“No, gonna have to keep lookin’,” John answers.

“We’ll all keep an eye out. Don’t want you to get your balls busted when you go home,” Dave says, punches his fist to John’s and turns to go.

They pile into the vehicles again to resume their journey. Two cans of formula for their newly orphaned and adopted baby on the farm isn’t going to go very far. They are hoping to find cases or even a damn pallet of the stuff. Daniel is already small; he needs formula or a lactating wet nurse, of which nobody can find. Talia volunteered, of course, to nurse him when she delivers her own baby, but that is a long way off. The kid needs sustenance now. Cory worries the little guy won’t make it. They all do, and it pisses him off. Anything that messes with kids, even fate, angers the men on the farm. He knows Doc is feeling the full burden of this situation on his shoulders.

The road is cluttered with abandoned vehicles, and a light snow must’ve fallen last night in this area. Cory hopes they don’t get into shitty weather the farther north they go. It was bad enough last winter when he was on his own in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Usually, Tennessee doesn’t have the harsh winters that the more northern states suffer. He’s glad Doc’s farm wasn’t established in Pittsburgh or Cleveland. He’s not looking forward to bad weather on top of everything else that could be waiting for them up north at Knox.

He’s thought a lot about Robert and his plans. Cory’s not sure what to think of this potential civil war. He sure as hell doesn’t feel any allegiance to Robert McClane, but he does bear a fierce loyalty to Doc and his family. They took him and his brother and sister in without the faintest hesitation. Doc also took in Huntley, Sam and Simon without question. He knows this for sure. He was able to sit in on some of those meetings. He owes Herb McClane everything. However, he doesn’t want to fight for his son. Robert seems power hungry, even if he doesn’t want anyone to see through his claims of not wanting to run the country. Cory believes that about as much as he believed that Sheriff Jay didn’t want to run his new town that ended up being a flop.

He’s relieved that Jay Hernandez and his people are gone. It took them a few days to pack everything and get a caravan moving south, but at least they’re gone and nobody has to worry about them anymore. Cory had been a part of the secret detail that had ensured that Jay’s group had moved on. He and Derek took two of Dave’s men, including his sniper, and followed them for about thirty miles. It was important to insist they leave the area. He knew how hard the decision was, but Cory also understood that it needed to be done, which is why he also volunteered to make sure they followed through with their agreement and left. Jay was a terrible judge of character who’d allowed jerkoffs into his town who had almost killed some of the McClane family and his own people. Cory worries that Jay will end up getting his people killed, but he also isn’t going to lose sleep over it, either. He has his own family to look after. He’s hoping he can take over the responsibility someday of also considering himself to be the sole proprietor of Paige’s care.

“Up ahead,” John says over his shoulder. “Stay frosty.”

Cory sits up straighter and leans forward slightly in his seat. He sees what John and his brother caught sight of before he did since he was daydreaming about Paige, something he does with too much frequency. She’s a huge distraction, and one he thought he’d never encounter in this lifetime.

There are cars and trucks left on the sides of the road, a few in the middle of the freeway and some flipped over onto their sides and roofs. That isn’t the disturbing part. That’s normal to see. There are also dead bodies. This is the part that isn’t as common.

“Damn,” Kelly remarks as they veer around the bodies and follow Dave’s truck, which is being driven by one of his men.

“What the hell is going on around here?” Cory asks quietly as he notices fresh, red blood near some of the bodies. Sometimes they’ll encounter dead bodies, but they are usually in a state of late decomposition. If they were murdered, as most of them usually are, the blood around them is dark brown or even just a black stain on the concrete or other surfaces. This is clearly fresh.

“Looks like a battle took place,” John observes.

His brother slows to a snail’s pace as does the truck in front of them. “I don’t think these people were the victors.”

“No,” John agrees.

“Wonder what happened?” Cory asks rhetorically.

Kelly ponders, “Fighting for food maybe.”

Perhaps his brother is right. In the middle of the street is a lot of debris and a few empty coolers. The people seem to have been unarmed, but maybe the others who killed them took their weapons when they defeated them. It sends an unbidden chill up his spine.

“Few days ago at best,” John notes. “This happened fairly recently if I were to guess.”

“Yeah, they haven’t been here long,” Cory agrees. “Covered in snow but not rotted or gnawed on by wild animals yet.”

Dave calls them on their radio and says they’ll take another route. Dave knew they would occasionally be stopping to scout out baby formula, so they’d planned on arriving at their destination by tomorrow morning since it is not far. They may be taking a longer path to get there. Cory would like to return to the farm as soon as possible, so this pisses him off. However, they don’t need to engage a group in a battle while they aren’t on their home turf, especially if it is a large group of people.

As they veer around bodies and vehicles, Cory sees in a ditch a woman who has clearly been raped by whoever assaulted and killed this group. It turns his stomach. There is extensive bruising around her neck. Someone has strangled her and left her for dead in a ditch with the bottom half of her body exposed. John sees her, as well, because he groans with disgust. If this were another time, another day and the two of them were just on a supply run, their plans would change, and they’d hunt down the bastards who did this. Then they’d take the intel back to the farm and gather the other soldiers to take them out. Today, for now, these bastards have earned a reprieve. But if he knows John as well as he thinks he does, his friend and mentor is also contemplating a return to this site in a few days to do some tracking.

They trudge along on a back road that hasn’t seen maintenance in years and has the ruts to prove it as Cory wipes down his rifle with a well-oiled rag from his pack. He snacks on the hard caramel candies that John lifted at the convenience store. He’ll take the rest of the bag home to the kids. This trip is dragging ass. They stop twice more to remove debris and fallen trees from the road. They should’ve been able to make it to Knox in three hours or less, but this is going to be an all-day excursion. Travel is never fast anymore. Moving around on horseback is sometimes faster. Dave’s truck makes a left at the next intersection, and they continue on at a snail’s pace.

“What the hell happened here?” Kelly asks as he slows to a stop.

Cory looks out his window at their surroundings. Trees have been knocked over into the road, their branches scattered like toothpicks from a fallen box.

“Trouble?” Kelly asks.

“Not sure,” John replies.

Cory isn’t sure, either. As he glances around, he can see other trees in the woods near them that have had their tops knocked off and are laying on the ground.

“High wind storm or a trap?” John asks.

Cory’s brother nods, “Maybe a bad storm. Hope it’s not a trap. We don’t have time for this shit.”

Cory adds, “This is gonna take a while to get around all the shit in the road.”

“What’s going on?” Robert asks wearily from the back.

His wife promptly replies, “Nothing, dear. Just some trees in the road. Rest, Robert.”

She reaches over the seat to pull his blanket up higher onto his thin shoulder. He nods and is out again within seconds.

The rest of them get out of the vehicle.

“Stay here,” Cory tells her before following his brother to Dave’s truck.

“Do what you do best, you rangy, raggedy-assed bastards!” Dave calls out to his men with great affection. “Move out!”

They lightning speed separate, and Dave is sending groups of men to scout the surrounding area for trouble. Cory waits with his team for orders from Kelly or John. They don’t give a command, so he continues to stand guard at the front of their vehicle scanning the area carefully. He notices that his brother’s posture is tenser than his own. Cory wonders if it is because he senses danger or if the situation itself has him on edge. He’s noticed lately that anytime he has to leave the farm, Kelly seems more and more uncomfortable. Cory doesn’t blame him. His brother has a wife and kid back home. It would make Cory nervous leaving them, too.

“All clear,” comes across Dave’s radio in intermittent calls.

“Must’ve been a storm ran through here, sir,” one of his men says to him when he rejoins the group.

“Yeah, saw what’s left of a few homes on that ridge over yonder,” another with a particularly strong, southern accent remarks as he points west of them. He is as well-conditioned to the fast perimeter check at a brisk pace as Cory would’ve been. He isn’t winded, nor does he seem tired even though it was a wide check. “They’re either burnt to the ground or leveled flat like kindling. No human coulda’ done that.”

“Yes, sir,” the first one confirms as the others come in from their routes. “Tornado for sure.”

“Lucky it missed us,” Dave admits. “Let’s clear this road and get movin’ again.”

“You heard him, boys,” the one with the southern accent commands. “Asses and elbows, people!”

Dave turns to them and says, “If those asshats from the road back there get in our path, we’ll be mowing them down.”

“Hooah,” John says and bumps his friend’s fist.

Kelly nods and adds, “Yeah, we don’t have time for shit like that. We’ve gotta get back to our farms.”

“Planting season will be on us soon,” Cory says.

Dave chuckles and says, “Hell yes, it will be. We’re all a bunch of farmers now.”

“Farmers who shoot people on occasion,” John jokes, earning another fist bump from Dave.

“I see, you’re carrying an M4, Doctor Death,” Dave remarks.

“Yeah, picked it up in Arkansas when we stopped to find Kelly’s family,” John explains, unslinging and flipping the short rifle over to show his friend.

“You like that better than the 16?” their friend inquires.

“Sometimes,” John answers honestly. “Still keep the Kimber on my side, though. For those reach out and touch someone close quarters kind of situations.”

“Yeah?” Dave says. “I’ve got a .44 cal for that.”

He whips it out and turns it sideways so they can get a look.

“Subtle,” John jokes.

“Now there’s a pistol,” Cory remarks with respect. The wood grips are inlaid with what looks like rosewood swirls, metal that is probably real silver and gold. He’s a little jealous.

“She does have a bark,” Dave says with a lopsided grin. “I call her ‘Betty’.”

“Betty’s one mean bitch,” Cory jokes.

Dave laughs and says, “Betty was my mom’s name.”

“Oh, shit!” Cory says. “Sorry, man.”

“No, my mom was a mean bitch, too. That’s why I call my girl here that,” Dave expands, causing uproarious laughter from everyone.

His brother, ever the pragmatic one, says, “Good stopping power, though. Practical choice. Six shooter, though. I prefer a fifteen round mag.”

Dave chuffs and says, “That’s ‘cuz you can’t hit shit, old man.”

“Hey, my eyesight ain’t what it used to be.”

They all have a chuckle as Dave’s men continue to clear the area. He leaves the men to their gun talk and jogs over to help Dave’s men. He hauls branches away while two of Dave’s men use a chainsaw and cut up a large felled tree resting at an awkward slant across the road. A retching sound catches his attention, and he pauses in his work to go investigate. A few feet into the woods he spies Robert and his wife. The man is bent over and vomiting into the weeds while Lucy rubs his back. He sounds awful. Cory wonders if this trip was a bad idea. He has wondered the same thing many times since the first mention of it, but not because he was worried about Robert’s health. Leaving the farm so weakly fortified makes him anxious. The Professor stayed behind with Derek and Doc, and a few of Dave’s men are supposed to come by and check on the place, but Cory hopes this all goes smoothly so that they can return as soon as possible.

Knowing Simon is keeping an eye on Paige, which he no doubt is doing, makes him feel a little better. He’d just rather do the job himself. He still wakes up with nightmares in the middle of the night as his mind recalls the shooting and tortures his subconscious with the vivid images. He can still see her being shot and crying out. She’d taken a bullet for his brother. When he’d first met Paige, Cory never would’ve thought her capable of being selfless. Now he knows her so well, so intimately. He also knows he’s in love with her. He knows that she’s in love with him, too. She just doesn’t want to admit it. That’s fine. He is a patient man, somewhat. She’ll come around. And if she really doesn’t love him, he’ll find a way to convince her that she does.

After they remove the rest of the debris, they get moving again after Kelly helps Robert back into the Hummer. Cory is pretty sure Reagan’s dad isn’t going to make it, but he holds his tongue. The dude looks like he has one foot in the grave.

“You doing all right back there, sir?” Kelly asks.

Cory is surprised at his brother’s show of respect. He knows his brother is not fond of Robert. Most of the people on the farm are not.

“Yes, fine, thank you. Just a little motion sick,” Robert replies.

Cory doesn’t believe him in the least. Her father falls asleep again within moments, and his wife dozes beside Cory against the window. They aren’t much for road trip companionship, not that he requires any from either of them.

A short distance up the road, they run into a family in what appears to be a broken-down RV. It is parked in the middle of the road at a slant, flanked by abandoned vehicles on either side. Their choice is going to be to push it out of the way or drive down into the muddy berm, which is steep and they could possibly get stuck. The hood is up, the side panels open, and people are standing around it, including women and children.

“Looks like they could use our help,” John says what they are thinking.

“Yeah,” Kelly remarks and pulls up beside Dave in the road about fifty yards from the stranded motorists. They make a plan to offer aid if they are friendly. Cory volunteers to approach them with John and Dave at his side. Kelly will provide cover along with the rest of Dave’s men.


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