Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
As we drove south, Garcia taught the others the basics of aiming and firing the weapons we had with us. Smiley, for some reason, was a whiz on the machine gun. He learned very quickly how to pick his targets and let the weapon's natural action lead the bullets into what he was aiming at, instead of starting off with the target in his sights and having his shots drift wide, as Jamaal was prone to do. With the M16, both got to where they could hit what they aimed at consistently, but neither, in those first days, got the hang of the handguns. Crystal, on the other hand, was a crack shot with almost any single shot weapon, but put it on automatic and she couldn't hold it on target.
Ruth and Cora were afraid of the guns, so Ramon patiently went about familiarizing them with the weapons and their safe handling before he even allowed them to fire a shot.
I also took the opportunity of preparing our party for a sojourn in the desert at every chance I got. We went over clothing, hydration, plant and animal life, and other basic survival skills.
As we progressed southeastward, Garcia started taking the Hummvee to scout potential sources of supplies while the truck continued along the planned route, staying mostly in the valley between US 99 and I-5 to avoid the frozen traffic jams on those freeways.
Southwest of Fresno, we came upon a ranch with several horses, and managed to find bridles, saddles, and so forth in one of the ranch buildings. It was no trick getting the horses to come to us. They were healthy enough from grazing, but seemed to miss human companionship. Ruth had some experience with horses and talked the others through making rope halters and slipping them over the animals' heads so they could be led.
From then on, Ruth made a habit of riding for a few hours each day, and Crystal soon joined her. Garcia, faced with having the girls out of his sight, did two things: He stepped up Ruth's training, and had her teach him to ride.
In a couple of days we came to the suburbs of Bakersfield. With the truck in front, clearing the way, we followed CA-43 to the Stockdale Highway before turning east to catch the end of US-58. With Bakersfield behind us, we started climbing the pass on Highway 58. Thankfully, not many drivers had died on that road and we made pretty good time over the mountains as we headed for Barstow.
As we climbed out of the valley, we met a guy wearing a backpack who was walking the other way. I stopped the truck, and told the women to stay out of sight. Garcia and his ever-present shotgun came forward to wait with me beside the cab, leaving Jamaal and Smiley in the bed of the truck with Crystal, each with orders to watch a different quadrant of our surroundings.
"Hi!" The sandy-haired hiker said when he was close enough. "Pleasant day for a hike, don't you think?"
"Nicer day for a drive," I answered, my eyes darting back and forth to see if there was anyone with him, perhaps trying to use his approach as cover to sneak up on us. California was a strange and diverse state, but the casualness of this guy's approach seemed strange even for California.
"Name's Dryer," he said, extending a hand to be shaken. "Matt Dryer."
I nodded, but ignored the hand, still scanning our surroundings.
"Gavin Thompson. How you doin' Matt?" I asked, keeping my voice friendly and the muzzle of the assault rifle pointed more or less away from him, but not too far away.
"I'm doin' okay, I guess, at least in comparison to most of the rest of humanity. Just got back from a camping trip up Big Bear way. Got sicker'n a dog! Wasn't 'til I got back to Victorville that I found out what had happened. Guess I'm not the only one who survived. That's good news!"
"You didn't hike all the way here from Big Bear."
"Nope," Dryer laughed a little. "My van broke down just the other side of the summit. I figured I'd see if I could pick up a car or something in Bakersfield, then get on over to LA and see if there's anyone left that I know."
"Not likely that you'll get very close to LA in a car, and the chances of finding anyone you know alive are slim to none."
"You're probably right, but what else have I got?"
"Before I answer that, why didn't you just take one of the cars here on the road whose drivers don't need them anymore?"
Dryer shrugged. "Most of 'em are out of gas. Drivers either pulled over and didn't turn the engine off, or they died behind the wheel and the car just kept going until it hit something. Some of those aren't driveable anyway."
"What'd you do before all this?"
"Stunt man, believe it or not. All the stuff the actors' insurance companies wouldn't let 'em do or they thought would muss their hair."
"You know anything about horses?"
"Sure. Grew up tending horses for the westerns, when they were popular. My first stunts were on horseback." He nodded at the string of horses that now stood patiently waiting for the truck to start moving again, eating the grass along the shoulder of the road. "From here, looks like you've got a pretty good string, but I'd change those shoes if you're going to keep 'em on the pavement for too much longer."
"You know how to do that? Change the horseshoes, I mean?"
"Yeah, that was one of my jobs on the ranch. Even learned how to make horseshoes from scrap iron. I did pretty much everything - blacksmith, farrier, groom, stable mucker, even mended the tack now and then."
"Well, Matt, we're collecting everyone we can who might be interested in giving the human race a kick start, then we're going to see if we can find an out-of-the-way place where we won't be bothered too much until we get a little momentum going. If you want to join us, you'd be welcome. We have one person who knows a little about horses, but we could sure use your experience."
Dryer rubbed his chin as he looked around at the truck, the derelict cars and the hills. "You pretty sure I'm not going to find any of my folks alive back there?"
"I can't guarantee it, but we've come down from the Bay Area - up San Francisco way, and we've got three women and four men that we've picked up along the way. That's all we've seen except one guy up in Vallejo who was more interested in robbing the corpses than in starting over. Granted we probably missed some, but we cut a pretty wide swath coming down the valley and these seven are it. You'd make it eight."
"Well, I wasn't really looking forward to walking all the way to Bakersfield, and riding sounds pretty good about now, whether the steed is flesh and bone or metal, so why not?"
"Can you handle a gun?"
"I can shoot, and most of the time I hit what I'm shooting at, but I've never shot another person, if that's what you're asking."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, but we want to be prepared, anyway. Gunny, how about getting him outfitted. You feel like doing a little scouting on horseback?"
"Sure, but if you've got some food and water, I'd appreciate something to eat and drink first. I had some water in the van with me, and some snack food, but that ran out a ways back. Hadn't really planned on taking this long to get back to L.A."
"Of course. I should have thought of that."
We got Dryer situated in the back of the truck while he ate. He seemed to be someone you could take at face value, but then, most people seemed that way. It was how they reacted in a crisis that would tell me what I really needed to know about my travelling companions, but by then, it might be too late. As I started to climb back into the cab, Ruth pulled me aside.
"Look, Gavin, I know you don't want to disclose your destination, but it's pretty clear that you're planning to hole up somewhere in the desert, otherwise you'd have turned east long before this. The supplies you've been collecting also suggest someplace in the desert, not to mention all the desert survival stuff you've been teaching us. Now, you don't have to answer, and I'm not interested in exposing your plan because I think it's a good one. The desert is one of the last places scavengers will look for things to take, but I do want to tell you this: My sister's place might be just what you're looking for. It's in some hills to the east of the Twenty-nine Palms Marine base, in a tiny, hidden valley that has its own artesian spring, and unless you know where to look, you'd never find it in a million years."
"Show me on the map." I told her, retrieving the topo maps I got from the National Guard armory in Vallejo.
"It's here," she said, putting a finger on the map east and south of Barstow. "You go past the Marine base, and then turn down this road. Right here, you turn south through Cadiz, then, about halfway to Archer, you take this little nondescript trail to the east. At this point, you turn back south and the trail winds up through these hills, then you top out about here, and you're in this green little valley. My sister's husband was Native American, and he built the place himself. They lived off of what they could grow or kill, but the place is really nice."
"This wouldn't be your way of enticing me to go check on your sister, would it?"
"I don't believe anyone survived there, Mr. Thompson. They don't have cellular service but there is a land line. I've called several times since I recovered, and left messages on the answering machine. No one has called back."
"Okay, it's worth checking out. I'll talk it over with Sergeant Garcia, and if he agrees, we'll head that way."
Ramon agreed it was worth looking into, and if it panned out, it would save a great deal of time scouting for a livable, defensible location. Satisfied with that as a starting point, we continued on toward Barstow.
We had been driving pretty hard, so when we got to the summit at Tehachapi, I decided we could take a break and set up camp for the evening. Garcia recruited the new guy to help him teach the novices in the group a bit about how to set up a safe, secure camp. Between the two of them, they managed a fairly decent hot meal, then demonstrated how to dry-wash the dishes - first scrubbing them clean with sand, then sterilizing them over the remaining fire. I thought we would be pretty safe in the middle of an open meadow as we were, but didn't want to start out being careless, so I set up a watch schedule. I took the first watch and found it harder to stay awake than I had imagined. Fortunately, we had coffee, and I kept my tin cup full, as much for something to do as for the caffeine.
Every few minutes, on no set schedule, I got up and walked around the camp peering carefully into the moonlit darkness of the meadow where we camped. After the stress of the past few days, I found it calming to be there in the crisp air of the early fall mountains. I had to keep reminding myself not to stare into the fire, and I gave Jamaal and Matt Dryer the same advice when I woke them for the 12-4 watch. I had made a fresh pot of coffee and handed each of them a cup as they emerged from their tents.
My sleeping bag felt warm and comfortable, especially since I had taken the time to prepare a mat of dried grass on the ground where I pitched my tent. I was a bit surprised when, just as I was falling asleep, the zippered door of the tent opened, and Cora slipped inside, dropping the robe she wore before sliding into the bag with me. It was a tight fit, since it was really only a one person sleeping bag, but fortunately she was a small woman, and wore no clothing to take up extra room.
"Ruth and I decided we might as well get started," the young Filipina said playfully as her small, cold hand sought my sex and her little butt wriggled against my groin. "We flipped a coin, and I won you."
It certainly didn't hurt my ego to know that they had each wanted to start with me, but I wasn't sure how to feel about being selected by coin toss. On reflection, I supposed I could get used to it - for the good of humanity, of course.
It wasn't exactly 'love-making' since we really didn't know each other that well, but it was far too sweet and tender to be called 'screwing' either. Cora was responsive to my touch, and I found her easily aroused. There wasn't a lot of room to maneuver, but there wasn't much need, either.
Cora seemed as excited about the situation as I, and it didn't take long for either of us to reach our peak. The young nurse shuddered in my arms, climaxing quietly, almost shyly, as I strove to help her produce one of the first children of the New World.
Cora showed no sign of wanting to leave, and it felt good to have her there, so we snuggled together and slept the chilly night away.
"How come the ground is softer here than under my tent?" She asked sleepily.
"It's not. I just took time to collect some dried grass to put under the tent before I pitched it."
"I will have to remember that."
"It's a good thing to know. Dried leaves, corn husks, hay, most of those will work. If you can't find anything for padding, take time to dig a couple of small depressions for your hips and shoulders. Oh, and one more thing: two sleeping bags can be zipped together to make one large enough for two people."
Cora laughed a little at that. "I will try to remember that next time I go tent-hopping!"
The sun was just coming up when my bladder told me it was time to get up. Cora complained sleepily when I unzipped the bag long enough to slip out, but she, too, decided it was time to get up.
Ramon grinned as we emerged from the tent to the smell of frying bacon and freshly brewed coffee.
"Quiet night?" I asked.
"Mostly," he replied, still grinning. "Some moaning and groaning from a couple of the tents. I was afraid, for a while, that the sickness had come back, but things quieted down after a while."
As I returned from the bush that I used as a restroom, Jamaal and Ruth emerged from his tent, looking as if they hadn't slept much. I simply smiled at them and went about dishing out my breakfast.
Ruth, Crystal, and Matt decided to start the journey down the eastern slope of the pass on horseback, and I took a break in the back of the truck while Ramon drove, giving Smiley his first lesson in driving a 6x6. The morning went uneventfully, and we were almost to the floor of the valley when a couple of shots rang out further ahead. A few minutes later, Matt came galloping back, leading the other two horses, without Crystal and Ruth.
"They kidnapped them!" He shouted, jumping off the horse and starting to saddle another. "The dogs startled the horses, throwing the girls, and before I could get to them, four or five guys had them. At least two of them were armed. They shot at me when I rode up, so I figured I'd better come back for reinforcements."
Ramon started saddling a horse, and then stopped, looking at me as if I were crazy when I started building a fire and stripping off clothes.
"I told you I've done some time in the desert. There are more of them than we can take head on and they've got dogs," I told him, putting on a pair of shorts and some moccasins that I had picked up along the way. "We're going to have to take them by surprise, but that means taking the dogs by surprise, too. The stuff we wear smells like laundry soap and we smell like human. To mask those scents, we smoke ourselves and our clothing first, and then we take advantage of those camouflage kits. While we're at it, we should try to mask the smell of our weapons, too."
I tore up some greenery and tossed it on the fire before rummaging in the truck bed for one of the crossbows I had taken from Carl's, then handed another to Garcia, who was already stripped down to his skivvies.
"What about me?" Dryer asked.
"You never shot anybody and I need someone who's not going to hesitate," I told him. "You'll take us to where they were kidnapped, then come back here and stay with the truck. Jamaal!"
"There's always the possibility that this is a diversion to get at the truck and the other gear. We passed a canyon about a mile back that should be pretty easy to defend. You and Smiley and Cora take the truck and just drive it into the mouth of the canyon, then unhitch the Hummer and drive it up beside the truck. Put Smiley on the machine gun and you and Cora get M16s and take cover. Disperse yourselves so that you have a good field of fire and aren't bunched up. Also make sure you won't be shooting toward each other. Make certain everybody has plenty of ammo and water so you won't have to move around. While you're at it, keep some food and hand grenades handy, too. Don't shoot Matt when he gets back, but don't let anyone that's not with us get too close. Got that?"
"Yah. Hey, Gav."
I raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Kick they asses, a'ight?"
"Will do. With a little luck, we'll be back within a couple of hours. If we aren't back by tomorrow morning, you'll find our planned destination marked on the map in the truck. I recommend that the four of you go ahead and try to get a base set up. If we can, we'll follow."
Garcia and I painted each other's faces and bodies with camouflage paint as we sat within the smoke of the fire.
"You told me back at the rest area that you never saw combat," Ramon said quietly, as the smoke did its work. "Are you going to be able to pull the trigger when the time comes?"
I almost answered with the bravado I thought would be expected of a leader, but this was serious business and he needed to know who he was partnered with.
"Let's put it this way, Sergeant," I answered. "If I can't, I don't deserve to be leading these people. The sooner we all find out about that, the better. I think I can do what I'll need to do, but I'm not fool enough to say that I can without having done it."
His eyes scanned my face, and I held his gaze. He gave a quick nod and said, "You'll do. Just think about what needs to be accomplished, nothing else."
With our bodies, clothing, and weapons well saturated with smoke and painted in colors that simulated the desert around us, Ramon and I followed Matt to where the girls had been taken. The kidnappers hadn't tried to hide their tracks, and weren't hard to follow. They dragged the girls downhill, and it wasn't long before we saw a trio of pickups parked near a clump of bushes that indicated a water source, a bit less than a mile away. Apparently they didn't fear pursuit and had decided to enjoy their prey before moving on.