Chapter 1

The world has gone to hell, Casey Stewart thought as he made his way up the steep trail to his cabin in the hills. This area of southern Missouri was known as the Gateway to the Ozarks. The closest big city, St. Louis, was nearly two hundred miles away, the closest small town was fifty miles, and his closest neighbor was almost twenty. He turned to check on his fiancée, Dixie Martin, as she followed him up the faint game trail. Hell of a thing, he said to himself. There are just as many resources and supplies as before but people are going crazy because they're not as readily available.

Civilization had started its downward spiral three weeks previously. There was a new 'virus' or 'worm' that had infiltrated most of the computers in the country and spread to the rest of the world. Government and private sector IT people had been unable, as of yet, to get rid of it; they hadn't even been able to stop it from spreading.

No one knew where the 'virus' came from or how it started. Usually, when a 'virus' caused a lot of trouble, some group with an idiotic name like 'The People's Liberation Front' or 'Freedom Hackers' would claim responsibility for the bug. Someone or some group had implanted this 'worm' and they were keeping quiet about it so far.

More important than who was responsible, was what they'd done. The bug basically froze the computers it infected; they just plain quit working. No amount of rebooting or scans cured the problem. By the time the IT gurus found out that it apparently had started with an email, it was too late. If someone opened the email, it made their hard drive self destruct.

Before doing its dirty deed, the virus scanned and forwarded the email to every contact the person had listed. It seems that the worm would read previous emails and hide itself behind a person or subject that wouldn't make the recipient suspicious. That person would open the email and the bug claimed another set of victims.

The bug was like a snowball on steroids, rolling downhill along the computer network picking up speed and size as it went. Firewalls and anti-virus software didn't even slow it down. Soon almost every computer in the nation was no more than a large paperweight.

Some of the small towns, most of the bigger municipalities and all the larger cities had depended too much on computers. As a result of the 'virus', their infrastructure failed. Telephone and other communication services failed. People or groups who had access to battery powered short wave radios or walky talkies could still communicate. Food inventories began to dwindle; orders couldn't be made much less filled, and the distribution network came apart. The flow of water in homes and business stopped and electrical power became sporadic at best.

Without electricity food stuffs in freezers and refrigerators spoiled; this happened to businesses as well as homes. The supply of canned goods rapidly disappeared. It became difficult to get gas from the underground tanks at service stations with no electrical power to run the pumps. The few stations that had hand pumps were sort of under siege with long lines wanting gas. There were serious arguments and more than one fight broke out over who was first in line. Some station owners were beaten because of the inflated prices they began to charge. And of course without gas, the cars and trucks stopped running.

Casey had seen a Discovery Channel show that said most major population centers were, at best, two to three days away from food riots. He believed it because he'd seen it with his own eyes. People started hoarding food and those that didn't have food began to steal from their neighbors and from strangers. There were several instances of people being beaten and killed; both the victims and the aggressors had causalities.

The local television and radio stations had emergency generators and were still able to broadcast; at least until the fuel for their generators ran out. Most stations began to ration their time on the air; they broadcast news and helpful information for an hour at a time, twice a day. Local stations took turns broadcasting but national news was limited and not always available.

Casey was watching the news on the morning of the twenty first day. There were several reports of gangs roaming his city, beating people and stealing their food and supplies. Some home owners were even killed. As soon as he saw how dangerous the city was becoming, he made plans to head for his cabin hideaway.

He packed his Ford F250 4x4 with supplies; the camper shell would hide the food and other items from prying jealous eyes. Casey took sleeping bags, several changes of clothes, his supply of freeze dried food, canned goods, and other foods that wouldn't require refrigeration; the exception being several frozen steaks and a couple of roasts. He hoped they'd have a chance to use it before it thawed; if nothing else he would use the roasts to make beef jerky.

The last things he packed were a Weatherby .223 bolt action rifle, which he put in the gun rack over the rear window of his truck, and his three pistols He carried a Colt 1911A1.45 pistol in the small of his back. In the lock box in the cab he put his Dan Wesson .357 revolver, and a .38 special revolver. In addition, Casey had several hundred rounds for each of his weapons.

Dixie lived across the street and when Casey waved at her about noon, she joined him at the truck carrying her duffel bag. They started the long drive to Casey's secluded cabin. As they left the city they had to run a road block on the main road. Casey didn't know if it had been set up by the government or someone trying to capture food and supplies. It didn't make any difference who had set it up; Casey had no intention of stopping.

He pulled his Colt and pushed the accelerator to the floor; heading for the middle of the roadblock. When he got within 50 feet he turned the steering wheel sharply to the right and squeezed the truck between a light pole and a building. After clearing the obstruction, he never slowed down. There were a few shots fired at them but they weren't hit.

On the trip to his cabin, Casey explained that they'd stay there until things stabilized in the city. "We'll go back when things go back to normal," he told Dixie. "Or at least as normal as they can be after a situation like this."

Driving secondary and back roads, it took Casey and Dixie a little over six hours to get to an unmarked, overgrown fire road leading through the forest toward the cabin. He drove to within a mile of the cabin; it was just on the other side of the ridge. Casey backed the truck into a gulley and after unloading some of the supplies, he and Dixie covered the truck with tree branches to hide it. She helped with the camouflage but asked why they hadn't driven all the way to the cabin.

"I don't look for it to happen but if we have to get the hell out of Dodge I don't want to find that someone waiting by the truck or that they've disabled it," Casey replied. "If we have to run, we'll come down that ridge line, grab the truck and get gone." He pulled the ignition coil, put it in a zip lock bag, and hid it under a nearby rock. "Now no one with be able to steal the truck if they find it"

"Do you really think things are going to get that bad?" Dixie asked in a worried voice.

Casey hesitated for a few seconds before answering. "I just don't know. It's been less than a month and we're already having food riots, looting, and some people have been killed for what was in their panty." He stopped for a bit and said, "There's food and supplies in the cabin to last two people for a long time." Casey took Dixie's hand and added, "We'll be okay up here honey."

Dixie was happy that she and Casey had a safe haven to go to. She knew he had bought the cabin and the surrounding acreage when got home from the Army a couple of years ago. The first time Casey brought her to the cabin, Dixie had asked him if it was a hunting lodge.

"The only hunting I do now is with a camera," he replied. He hesitated and continued, "I don't hunt anymore for two reasons. Never liked the taste of venison, elk or smaller animals and I feel it shows a lack of respect to kill them for sport unless you eat the meat."

"And the second reason?" Dixie had asked Casey.

"I saw enough killing when I was in the Army."

"You still carry a gun though," she said pointing to the rifle slung over his shoulder.

"I said I didn't hunt anymore but I don't claim to be a pacifist. I don't hunt but during this mess I don't want to be hunted either. At least this," he said hefting the rifle, "will even the odds some." Then the lights in Casey's eyes went dim and Dixie knew he was off somewhere.

Dixie interrupted his reverie. "Earth to Casey. Hey, where are you?" Casey had been staring at her, off in a world of his own. Her question brought him back to the present.

"I'm sorry, I was reliving how we met," Casey replied. "And why we're here."

Casey looked at Dixie and thought for the thousandth time how lucky he'd been to find her.

It was more than the fact that she was very attractive, although that didn't hurt he admitted to himself. But more important was the independence, intelligence, and the way she handled herself. They had met on a hike down the Kaibab Trail at the Grand Canyon. He was a loner and she was part of a group from work.

It was apparent by the time they got to Cedar Ridge, that this would be a short hike for most of her group. Cedar Ridge was about a third of the way down to the bottom of the Canyon and the majority of the group was already complaining. They bitched about the steepness of the trail, how tired they were, and that they were short on water.

Casey chuckled to himself. If you think it's bad now wait until you start the hike back to the rim, he thought. The group made a rest stop at Cedar Ridge and questioned if they should continue or turn back. Casey learned that the only three that wanted to go on was Dixie, Sally, and her husband Mark. He heard the other members of the group call them by name. The discussion continued on past the fifteen minutes they'd allotted for the rest stop.

Finally Dixie stood, donned her pack, motioned to Sally and Mark, and they continued down the trail. "The rest of you can go back or just sit here and bitch, but we're going on," Dixie said as she walked away.

Casey wasn't far behind them and watched as she followed her friends. He'd been attracted to Dixie because of the way she looked. She had long auburn hair worn in a pony tail hanging down between her shoulders. Dixie was tall, about 5' 9 and slender; she looked she looked athletic instead of anorexic like some models. Now Casey was impressed with her attitude and refusal to give up her plan. She didn't need or want the approval of the group she was with.

We'd fit well together, he thought and then chuckled. Don't be a dummy, you haven't actually met her and you don't know anything about her. He was interested anyway. Maybe we'll get a chance to talk at Phantom Ranch if she stays over, he continued his thought.

Dixie had noticed Casey too. She'd seen him as they started the hike down from the South Rim; mostly because he was the only stranger hiking with the group. Dixie saw him watching with a small smile and a look of contempt as she debated with the group about quitting.

Her first thought was that he was what would be called ruggedly handsome. But his face was dominated by sad looking blue eyes. He looks like he's seen too much or had too much happen to him, she said to herself. After the debate at Cedar Ridge she saw him stand to continue the hike. Oh good, he's at least 6 feet tall. I can wear heels when we go out, she thought. Then laughed at herself. We haven't even met and I'm already thinking about wearing heels for him.

She was right; Casey was 6' 1 with 190 pounds on his frame. Casey blue eyes stood out because of his dark hair and tanned face which showed he spent a lot of time outside.

The foursome stayed overnight at Phantom Ranch and had dinner together. As they sat down to eat Casey said with a smile, "I know you're Dixie, Sally, and Mark but I haven't introduced myself. I'm Casey Stewart."

Dixie returned his smile and shook hands with him. "I'm Dixie Martin and this is Mark and Sally Jennings."

Casey nodded and as they ate dinner he learned that Dixie lived and worked in the same city as he did. In fact she lived about two miles from his apartment. Mark and Sally were Dixie's high school friends and now lived on the west coast.

"It's a small world," Mark said. "I mean you two live and work in the same city but hadn't met until you both decided to hike the Canyon on the same day." He laughed and added, "It's almost like fate."

After dinner Dixie told Casey that she and her friends were going to hike back up the Kaibab to the real world the next morning. She invited him to hike with them.

"Thanks, but I'm hiking over to Bright Angel and go out that way," he replied. At their questioning looks he added, "Its two to three miles longer but a lot easier than hiking back up the Kaibab. Besides, I don't know if I'll ever be down here again and I want to look around a little."

The next morning Dixie and the others joined Casey and hiked back up the Bright Angel trail. They had a chance to talk as they hiked along the Colorado River toward River Rest House. Overall they spent better than 25 hours together including the evening at Phantom Ranch. By the time they finished the hike back to the South Rim of the Canyon, Casey knew he wanted to see more of Dixie.

They began dating, first meeting for lunch then going to dinner and a movie. Six months later Casey asked Dixie to marry him. She made him wait almost three seconds before she said yes. They could have moved in together but both felt it was better for each to maintain their own place until after they were married. Dixie did move in across the street from Casey's place. The computer virus put a crimp in their plans three months after they got engaged.

Casey and Dixie stopped at the top of the ridge to catch their breath. "About another mile," he told her. "It's just down the ridge on the valley floor. We'll rest here for a few minutes and then start the last section."

Dixie had been to the cabin several times but they'd always driven right to the cabin. This time they came in from the other side of the ridge line. As they rested Casey thought back to the events that caused him and Dixie to make this trek.

Casey led the way up the steep ridge and down the other side to the cabin. When they got to the clearing the cabin sat in, he held up his hand for them to stop. He knelt down in the tree line, took off his pack, and pulled Dixie down beside him. Speaking in a very low voice instead of a whisper, which would carry farther, Casey told her to stay put.

"I'm going to scout around a little and make sure nobody beat us here. Wouldn't be healthy to walk into an ambush."

Dixie was beginning to get worried; the fifteen minutes that Casey had been gone seemed like hours. She saw him step out in front of the cabin and motion for her to join him. Dixie picked up his pack and went to him. She hugged him when she got there.

Casey smiled and returned the hug. "Sorry to worry you but I had to make sure it was safe. C'mon let's get inside and get something to eat. We've got a lot of work to do before dark."

Entering the cabin, Casey and Dixie pulled back the heavy inside shutters and opened the windows. It let light and fresh air into the cabin so it didn't take long to air out.

The cabin had one very large room plus an enclosure for the bathroom. Kitchen and dining area took up the rear portion of the room. The front section was divided on one side into a seating area with a sofa and two easy chairs.

The other side was the "bedrooms" with a double bed and two double size bunk beds. The sleeping area could be partitioned off using sliding curtains like the ones found in hospitals. In fact Casey had bought the drapes and supports from a hospital supply warehouse.

Dixie asked, "What kind of work are we going to do?"

"Well, we need to get the place ready to live in," Casey replied. He showed Dixie how to bring the solar cells on line, primed the water pump in the kitchen, and made sure the composting toilet was working.

Finished with making the cabin livable, Casey grabbed a ball of heavy twine and a big box full of empty cans. "Now we're going to set up a perimeter guard," he explained.

Dixie followed him outside and over to the tree line. Casey tied the twine about ankle high to a tree and stretched it to another tree. He did the same thing all around the clearing, leaving one or two hidden walkways. Then Casey had Dixie tie cans to the twine every few feet and put several small stones in each can.

"If anyone tries to sneak up on us they'll hit the string and rattle the cans," Casey explained. "There's something else you need to know about in the cabin Dixie. Follow me."

Casey led her back to the cabin and over close to the heavy wooden table. He pushed the table closer to the wall and moved a small throw rug that had been under the table. This uncovered a trap door which was barely visible given the floors normal wood grain.

"This opens onto a tunnel that goes about a hundred feet to the south. There's an opening just beyond that big rock down the hill behind the cabin. It's a way to get out of the cabin if for some reason we can't use the door or windows."

"Why couldn't we use the door?" Dixie asked.

"If the cabin is surrounded by ... let's call them unfriendly refugees, we can escape down that tunnel," Casey replied. "I've rigged it so the trapdoor can be opened from the underside and it blends in with the rest of the floor. If anyone breaks in it will take them a while to find the door. By that time we'll be long gone over the ridge and down to the truck."

Dixie didn't know what to say and watched as Casey closed the trap door and moved the rug and table back to conceal it. He acts like he expected something like this computer virus to happen, she thought. Casey put their packs in a corner and began to fix a late lunch or early dinner. Dixie offered to help but he told her to rest after their difficult hike over the ridge to the cabin.

"You want me to unload the packs while you're getting lunch?" She asked; Dixie wanted to do her share of work. After all without Casey, she'd still be stuck in the hell hole that the city was becoming.

Casey smiled and shook his head. "The packs are for our escape if we have to run. They have most everything we'd need to get by in the woods. At least for several days anyway."

After the meal, Dixie insisted on helping clean up. "I'm just not another pretty face you know," she teased Casey.

They sat in front of the cabin after eating with cups of coffee. "Did you expect something like this to happen?" Dixie asked. "This cabin, the supplies, the escape tunnel, and everything else make it look like you did."

"I didn't think of this exactly but I prepared this place for some kind of breakdown of civilization."

"You said you planned for a breakdown. What do you mean?"

Casey sighed and answered, "I was in the Army when the big uproar about Y2K came up. As you know nothing happened but it got me to thinking. I realized that everyone, the whole country, even the Army, was too damned dependent on computers and if the computers went down so would civilization. When I was discharged in '08, I bought this place. I've spent two years making into a haven where I can be safe or make a stand. You know just in case, for whatever reason, civilization went to hell."

He shook himself and smiled at Dixie. "I'm sorry I didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn't. I was scared down in the city but I feel safe now," she said hugging him closer. Dixie was deep in thought for a minute and then asked, "Why isn't the government doing something? What if it doesn't get better for months? How long can we stay up here?"

Casey took Dixie's hand. "The government, in its own fumble fingered way, will finally get things under control. It might take a while for them to find their ass with both hands and a road map, but they will." He chuckled and went on. "We've got enough packaged supplies and food for several months. But if things don't get better within, say a month, I'll hunt to supplement our supplies."

"But you gave up hunting," she objected.

"I gave up hunting for sport. If it's hunt or go hungry, I won't have a problem hunting," Casey replied. After locking up he said, "C'mon let's get some sleep. I've got a lot to show you about our hideaway tomorrow."

The other times he'd brought Dixie to the cabin it seemed like a good place to spend a weekend or a few days together. They'd taken advantage of the seclusion and the romantic setting offered by the woods and the valley. But this night, they slept with their clothes on and just held each other. Casey's weapons were never more than an arm's length away.

The next morning Casey was up at daybreak. He hiked to the top of the hill that overlooked the rear of his cabin. Hidden in a tall oak tree was a radio antenna. Under a brush pile, covered by a waterproof tarp was an AM/FM/SW radio that could be powered by a hand crank or solar energy. He didn't have to worry about batteries for it. He attached the antenna leads to the radio and waited for the morning news broadcast. As long as the stations continued to broadcast he would be able keep aware of what was going on in the city.

While he waited for the morning broadcast he thought, I didn't tell Dixie the whole story when I said I didn't hunt anymore. It was true that he thought it was disrespectful to kill animals and not use the meat. It was also true that he'd seen a lot of killing in the Army. But the real reason he didn't hunt was that he'd been responsible for a lot of men's deaths and would have been responsible for more; except for what happened on his last mission.

Casey had been a sniper. And a damn good one, he admitted to himself. One shot, one kill is the sniper's creed and Casey lived up to that creed. It was on a search and destroy mission that his career came to an end. Casey and his spotter, Tommy, had trailed their human target to a jungle hideaway. They spent three days in the hide they'd chosen before Casey got the shot.

The distance was just under a half mile. He was using a Remington Model 700 Tactical rifle with a noise suppressor; the round would take four point three seconds to travel that distance. The man was kneeling talking to a young boy and Casey planned to fire as the target stood up. What he hadn't counted on was the man picking the boy up as he stood.

Casey watched through the scope as the bullet hit first the boy and then the man; both were dead before they hit the ground. Tommy had to pull Casey away before they were spotted. When they made it back to base, Casey and Tommy made an after action report and Casey applied for a transfer out. He followed the chain of command up the ladder and told his First Sergeant, his Lieutenant, the company commander, and the Major commanding the brigade that he'd gone on his last combat mission.

Over a period of two weeks, they all tried to reason with him and tell him that he couldn't just quit. The Major suggested a week of R&R in someplace like Spain. Casey's response was "Transfer me or send me to the stockade, but I've done all the killing for you that I'm going to do."

Casey had been decorated several times and the powers that be decided it wouldn't look good if such a decorated soldier was court marshaled. They discharged him and sent him home.

Right on time the news broadcast began; pulling Casey back from his memories. The news wasn't good. Armed gangs of looters were taking over the city and people were running with no idea of where to go. There was no mention of the National Guard or the police or any other group trying to establish control in the city.

After an hour Casey shut the radio down, covered it, and returned it to its hiding place. Looks like we might be up here for a bit, he thought. He chuckled and said softly, "It's a good thing I fortified this place. Like it was Fort Apache or something."

Using a propane camp stove, Dixie had fixed a breakfast of steak and eggs while Casey was gone. He sat down at the table and she said, "The steaks were starting to thaw and we don't have a way to refrigerate the eggs so I thought we had better use them."

Casey nodded and started eating. "After breakfast I need to show you a few things about the area around the cabin."

Later Casey led Dixie to a stand of trees growing close together. He took her hand and led her through a small aisle between the trees and a rock bluff. Behind the trees there was a room size cavity in the rock. Set in the wall at the back of the cavity was a steel door. Casey showed Dixie the combination to the lock and opened the door.

"This is my storage area," Casey said pointing to a long room cut in the rock.

Dixie looked around, surprised at the size and length of the room. "Did you dig all this out?"

"No, it's an old mine shaft actually. Don't know what they were looking for but I guess they never found it. It had been abandoned for years when I bought the place."

Casey had picked up a flashlight just inside the doorway and now led Dixie further into the mine. About a hundred yards into the mountain the shaft sloped gently downward.

"You can't see it but there's an underground stream at the bottom of the shaft. Guess that's why they stopped digging. The water is safe to drink." Casey and Dixie retraced their steps toward the door. "I thought this would be a good place to cache stuff so I put in that steel door to keep people and varmints out."

Although Dixie had been to the cabin several times, she'd never seen this storage area. There were twenty or so large metal boxes with hinged lids. She opened one and saw it was full of military type MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Others had sacks of beans, oats and rice in them and still others had dehydrated food packages. Dixie looked at Casey with a question in her eyes.

"Told you we could hold out for quite a while up here," he said. Smiling he continued, "I may have gone a little overboard preparing this place as a refuge but I'm glad I did now." Let me give you a running inventory of what I, I mean we, have here." Casey unfolded a camp stool and offered the seat to Dixie.

"As you've seen before, there are solar cells on the south facing roof of the cabin. All they really can do is work the water pump and give us lights at night; there's not enough power to run a refrigerator or anything like that. Further back in the mine and one level down is my "cool room" where I keep perishables," Casey said and led Dixie to a portion of the tunnel that slanted downward.

"As a backup to the solar power, we have several kerosene lanterns. During the rainy season or cloudy weather there is a gas powered generator for backup. It's a small one but it can charge the batteries in about two hours. We can use that old wood burning stove to cook on and it'll heat the place in cold weather; if we have to stay here that long. I cook on the grill or over an open fire as much as I can. And we have a deep well with a hand pump in the cabin for water in case the electric one shoots craps."

Casey stopped to think for a few seconds. "C'mon, one last thing to show you." He took Dixie's hand and pulled her to her feet. Still holding her hand he led her into a small side tunnel.

"I know what that is," Dixie said. "It's a gun safe. Although I've never seen one that big."

"To me it's an arms locker," Casey said smiling. "But gun safe is right too. The combination is the same as the one on the main door and the door to the cabin, 7-4-17-76. July 4, 1776; go ahead, open it"

Dixie worked the combination and opened the heavy door. Inside were several weapons of various types; including a bow. Casey took a pistol with a belt and holster and handed it to Dixie.

"Put that on," he ordered as he handed her the belt and holster. Then he handed her the pistol. "Be careful, it's loaded. "That's a .38 Special six shot revolver; it has semi wad cutters in the cylinder. They'll hit hard and make a big hole. I want you to wear that rig every waking hour and when you sleep keep it within reach."

Casey smiled as Dixie put on the gun belt and stuck the pistol into the holster. "You look like Annie Oakley," he teased her. "I gave you a revolver because they don't jam. It's double action so all you have to do is pull the trigger. You've got two speed loaders on the belt. We'll do some target shooting this afternoon so you can get use to reloading in a hurry and get a feel for the weapon."

"I know how to shoot Casey," Dixie told him. She laughed at the surprised look on his face. "My Dad wanted a son but he got me instead. So he treated me like a boy until I was about 15." Dixie stopped for a moment and smiled. "Then he began to treat me like a little princess."

Casey smiled and reaching into the safe, he pulled out a Remington 887 tactical 12 gauge shotgun. He gave Dixie a quick lesson on where the safety is, how to load it, and the use of the weapon. "I've loaded it with double aught buckshot so it has got a range out to about 150 feet. Just point and pull the trigger. Pump the action," he said demonstrating, "and you're ready to shoot again. It holds five shells in the magazine and one in the chamber. Got it?"

Dixie nodded and Casey added, "There's also a Ruger .22 Magnum SR-22 rifle back at the cabin over the door. I hope you won't have to use the guns but if you do have to use them at close range, keep pulling the trigger until you're out of ammo. Don't stop to warn anyone, don't stop to threaten them and don't stop to see if you hit anything, just keep shooting."

"I know Casey, I know," Dixie responded. "Daddy taught me how to shoot most of the weapons you have here."

Before Casey closed the arms locker he ran his hand over the Remington 700 he'd used in the Army. He'd made a deal with a compassionate (and greedy) ordinance sergeant and brought it home with him. He'd used the 7.62 NATO round in the military which was the same as the .308 available commercially. A ready supply of ammunition was one of the reasons he'd brought it home. But the main reason was that he hated to think of "his rifle" being used by another sniper. Dixie didn't see the gesture or the extent of the small arsenal inside the locker.

For the next week, Casey and Dixie spent some time cutting firewood and stacked it behind the cabin with a small supply beside the stove. He also set up his BBQ grill under the covered patio at one side of the cabin. Casey, and Dixie, would use the wood stove or the grill to cook most of their meals. Even though the cabin had a 250 gallon propane tank, he wanted to save as much of it as possible for cold weather.

During that time, Casey listened every morning and evening to the news reports. The situation locally and from what he could tell around the country, was still deteriorating. The military had been deployed in the major cities to put down the riots and looting. But it's a big country and not all areas had been stabilized.

At the start of the second week Casey decided to make a trip back to his truck. Dixie looked at Casey with apprehension. "Look Honey, I don't know how much longer we're gonna have to stay up here," he said taking her in his arms. "There are supplies in the truck that can stretch our food for a long time," he told her. Among other things are cubed beef, oats, rice, and some vegetables."

"Stay close to the cabin and if anybody shows up lock yourself in," he ordered. "It's next to impossible to break into the cabin. Anyone that tries will go crazy." He hugged Dixie and kissed her. "I'll be back in about an hour. Okay?"

Casey left at a ground eating trot. Better make time now, he thought. I won't be able to keep this pace coming back.

Raff Talbert looked alertly out the passenger window of the Jeep Cherokee. His brother Sam was doing the same thing from the back seat. The driver was Ted Adams and they'd just met him a few days ago. Raff and Sam had been living in the city. They had run a family out of their house and taken it over; that included the food and supplies the family had cached.

A larger gang of thieves and looters had moved into the neighborhood which forced Raff and Sam to leave. On their way out of town they saw two men trying to pull another man out of the Cherokee. Raff shot the two thieves. He was going to shoot Ted too and steal the SUV but decided that a willing third man could be helpful. The three men formed an uneasy alliance and left the city.

Raff had been in the military and had learned a little about scouting before he was dishonorably discharged for desertion and commission of a felony (grand theft auto). He'd been stripped of rank and benefits and sentenced to two years in the stockade. Sam, although a civilian, had been part of the same operation and had done time in a state run jail. They had both gotten out only four days after the computer virus attacked.

That had been almost three weeks ago. Now they were following old faint tire tracks along a forest service road. Raff had said that there had to be a cabin or lodge along the road. He hoped they'd find one with food and a place to stay for a few days. As the Jeep made a sharp turn another narrow road branched off and went up a small ridge.

"There," Raff said. Pointing to the narrow path, Raff order Ted to take it. The 4x4 topped the ridge and the three men saw a cabin in the small valley on the other side. "Told ya there'd be something up here," Raff bragged. "Stop the car and let's do a little reconnaissance," he ordered, using a term he'd learned in the Army.

The three men slowly made their way down the ridge to the valley floor. Raff directed Sam to one side of the cabin and Ted to the other side. He walked just inside of the tree line until he could see the front of the cabin. Sam and Ted tried looking in the windows but they were mostly covered. They walked to the front corner of the cabin and peeked around at the front door.

Raff began to inch his way through the trees toward the cabin. He was picking his way as quietly as he could but suddenly there was a loud clanging and banging; Raff had tripped one of the perimeter wires that Casey and Dixie had set.

He was about forty feet from the cabin door as it opened. Raff saw a young woman step onto the porch. Damn, he thought. She's a looker, maybe we'll get more than just some food and a place to stay.

The woman put her hand on the pistol. "What do you want?" She challenged.

"Hoping to find some water and maybe a little food Miss," Raff answered. He gave her a big smile and held his empty hands out to his sides trying to reassure her that he was friendly. He took three or four more steps toward the cabin.

Dixie didn't hesitate and pulled her pistol, pointing it at Raff. "Stay where you are," she warned.

"You out here all on your lonesome?" Raff asked taking another step toward the young woman.

"I told you to stop," Dixie told him. "Don't make me shoot you Mister." Raff stopped and she added, "My fiancée is hunting and will be back any minute."

"All right Miss. Sorry I didn't mean to scare you," Raff said. He took a step back and asked, "Can you spare some water and a little food. It's been a couple of days since I ate."

The man was smiling and seemed to be harmless but Dixie didn't trust his looks. He doesn't look like he's missed many meals, she thought. Pointing down the ridge line, she replied, "There's a spring at the bottom of the hill; the water's safe to drink."

Dixie took a couple of steps back toward the doorway. Reaching inside she pulled out a can of beef stew and threw it to him. "That's all we can spare. Now be on your way."

"Thank you Miss. Can I borrow a can opener?" Raff asked, still smiling.

"Use the knife on your belt to open it," Dixie answered. "I don't want you any closer. Now one more time, get going."

"Yes ma'am. I'm leaving," Raff answered. As he turned he made a motion with his right hand.

Dixie heard a noise off to her right. She turned and saw Sam creeping toward her. Before she could bring her pistol up to cover him, another man grabbed her from behind. When Ted put his arms around her, Dixie fired a shot at Sam. The bullet hit the log wall, narrowly missed him. As she and Ted struggled, Dixie remembered the lessons that Casey had taught her early in their relationship.

She stomped on the instep of the man holding her and threw her head back quickly, head butting him. Blood gushed from his nose and his grip loosened. Dixie almost broke free but Raff had closed with them and pulled her in close to him. Dixie tried to shoot him but he knocked her arm away just as the pistol went off a second time.

Raff was 6' 3 and weighed well over 200 pounds. He easily lifted Dixie off the ground holding her in his arms. She kicked and made hard contact with his shin. Raff dropped her to her feet, turned her around and backhanded her to the ground. Dixie dropped the pistol as she fell.

"Now Missy, let's just see what else you can spare," he said kicking the can of beef stew to the side and picking her up.

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Story tagged with:
Romance / Drama / Post Apocalyptic /