Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
We scouted Barstow on horseback and by Hummer as we skirted the town, but found no living persons, perhaps not surprisingly. I think most people who found themselves surviving such a catastrophe in a place as hot and dry as Barstow would want to look for a more hospitable climate.
Crystal had taken it upon herself to see that the dogs got food and water and they started coming to her whenever they wanted to check in with us. They would tolerate petting and scratching from any of us, but they had a special affection for Crystal. I was glad she kept them fed. Dogs are not that far removed from their wild ancestors, and are not above eating whatever meat they can find. Unlike their wild cousins, however, they haven't learned that rotting meat is sometimes bad for them, and are not above eating carrion if they get hungry enough. I really didn't want them getting the taste for human flesh, so I encouraged Crystal to keep feeding them.
It was getting dark again by the time we had gotten everything we wanted from Barstow and headed east along I-40, beginning to leave the stench of week-old bodies behind. There was a lot of equipment parked in the open behind the fences at the Twenty Nine Palms Marine base, even though most of the base proper was miles to the south, near the town of Twenty Nine Palms. The proximity of so much military hardware was tempting, but we decided that we would find a place to roost first, then come back and see what we could find that was useful. We had just turned southeast off the interstate onto National Trails Highway when all three dogs appeared in the headlights of the truck, blocking its path and facing ahead, intent on something down the road.
This was new behavior for them and I took it to mean that they thought there was a threat of some sort ahead. I knelt and scratched them behind the ears, then gave them each one of the dog biscuits I had picked up in Barstow.
"Ramon." I said quietly, and the Gunny appeared beside me like a ghost. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Yeah, they think somebody's out there. It ain't very good country for an ambush, but dogs don't know if anybody's smart or not. They just know they're there."
"So how would you play it?"
"I'd send me out on recon and proceed with caution. Put the Hummer out front and have Matt and the girls ride about twenty yards behind the truck on the horses. Put Smiley on the .30 cal and let Jamaal drive the Hummer. Have Cora drive the truck and you ride shotgun. You're a better shot and ain't afraid to pull the trigger."
"All right. We'll go slow until you report back. I think I'll hold off on putting Smiley on the machinegun 'til we've got definite targets. He's a good shot but not very disciplined, and in the dark he might do us more harm than good."
"Yeah, guess you're right about that, but keep him in the back of the truck lookin' around. His eyes are young and might spot something you miss."
Garcia melted into the darkness as I went around to the others, whispering orders. I had no idea how far ahead the trouble was, and didn't need to be letting the wrong ears overhear our plans.
We had moved a tense half mile down the road when Garcia jumped up on the running board next to my window, startling Cora.
"Tanks," he said quietly, "four of 'em, set up to box us in as we come down the road. One in the road, one on each side, off a little ways, and one set to close in behind."
"Pretty stupid way to set up an ambush. They'd be in as much danger as we were, if we were dumb enough to fall into it."
"Yeah, I watched 'em movin' around some." Garcia said, spitting out the twig he had been chewing on, "My guess is they're not trained and only got one to a tank. Probably read an instruction manual or something. There's one on foot who moves pretty good in the dark and seems to be in charge. I imagine they'll try to talk before they shoot."
I got out the map and showed Cora what I wanted her to do. She looked a little uncertain, but nodded her head. I thought I knew what Ramon was after when he climbed into the truck bed with Smiley. Sure enough, when he hopped down, the shotgun was slung across his back and he carried a rocket launcher.
I spoke with Matt briefly, then climbed into the Hummer with Jamaal and gave him the Reader's Digest condensed version of the situation and our plan for dealing with it. Then I gave him the choice of going with the truck or staying with me.
"Hell, I'mo' stay here! Thas' gon' make a even better story fo' my gran'kids'n whut hap'ned up the mountain!"
I waved out the window and, as planned, Cora cut the lights on the truck and stopped long enough for her eyes to adjust to the moonlight, then she set off eastward across the desert while Jamaal and I continued down the National Trails Highway in the Hummer, headlights ablaze.
Sure enough, about a mile down the road, where the Twenty Nine Palms fence came close to the highway, the headlights picked up an M1 Abrams tank with its 120mm main gun pointed down the road in our direction. As we started to slow for the tank, a small figure dressed in black stepped into the cone of our headlights, and I heard another engine revving behind us - the tank that was supposed to close the box, no doubt.
"Kill the engine and step out of the vehicle and no one will get hurt," the black clad figure, a young Asian woman, said, casually pointing an M16 at the windshield of the Hummer. "Where's the truck?"
"Off in the desert somewhere, playing hide and seek." I answered, not making any move to dismount and signaling Jamaal to keep the engine running.
"Didn't you hear me?" she said, a bit louder, whanging a couple of slugs off the Hummer's armor for emphasis. "Cut the damned engine or die! There are tanks on all sides of you and you can't escape."
"Actually, I wanted to talk about that," I replied. "You see, the way your tanks are positioned, if you fire the main gun on one of them at us, the round will likely go right through this lightly armored vehicle and hit the tank on the other side."
Her eyes darted around at the tank positions, realizing that what I said was true. To her credit, she didn't let it show on her face, so I continued my speech.
"Do you even know what kind of rounds you've got loaded? Are they HEAT, HE, APFSDS, or other anti-personnel rounds?"
A look of consternation crossed her face as she realized she didn't even know what most of those terms were, and again, her eyes flicked around the 'box.'
"Face it lady, whoever you've got in those tanks doesn't know a damned thing about them, but the Marine I've got out there in the dark with a shoulder-fired rocket launcher is trained and experienced in using that weapon to kill tanks and the personnel in them."
I raised my right arm out the window of the Hummer and her eyes grew wide.
"If my hand falls before I give the all-clear signal, he's going to start killing tanks, and I, sitting here in this armored vehicle, protected from your bullets, have a clear shot at you, standing out there, all alone, in my headlights. You've got until the count of three to lower your weapon, carefully, to the road and order your people out of the tanks."
She looked around, as if looking for a way out, so I gave her a little more incentive.
"She needs a little more help, Gunny!" I said, loud enough that it would carry over the engine noises. "How about blowing the tracks off that tank behind her so she'll know we mean business!"
The words were no sooner out of my mouth than a streak of fire flashed from the darkness and blossomed into white heat against the side of the tank ahead of us, striking right below the bottom of the skirt. That hit should disable the tracks, but not do too much damage inside the tank, I hoped. Too late, I remembered to squeeze my eyes shut and preserve some of my night vision. When I opened them and blinked away the afterimages, the woman was picking herself up from the road, hands in the air, weapon still on the pavement. At the same time, a slender young man with dark hair scrambled from the command hatch of the crippled tank.
One by one, three other women and a man shuffled into the light, hands held high.
"Is this everybody?" I asked the Asian woman.
She looked around as if to reassure herself that it was before nodding, "Yeah, that's everybody. Shit! We watched you guys come through Barstow and thought you'd be easy pickings. Colby," she nodded at the driver of the damaged tank who was still trying to shake the ringing from his ears, "thought that if we surprised you with these tanks from the Marine base, you'd have no choice but to hand over the truck and whatever else you had collected. How'd you know?"
The dogs had been in evidence, weaving in and out among the people, sniffing at crotches, pissing on machinery, and, in general, doing what dogs do best. Now they lay on the roadway in front of me, facing the captives.
"The dogs told us something was up, so Ramon, the Marine with us, came up to look you over. It was pretty clear to him that you guys had no experience at setting up ambushes or operating tanks, so we thought we'd see if we could talk to you without generating too many casualties."
"Why the hell should you care how many of us died?" This from the skinny blonde in the expensive outfit that was somewhat the worse for wear.
"Too many have already died," I spoke to the Asian woman who seemed to be leading this motley crew, ignoring the blonde. "If the human race is to have a chance of survival, we're going to have to get started pretty soon at setting up some semblance of civilization again. That means collecting as many survivors as we can who are willing to help, finding and/or creating a safe haven to start from, and supplying it with the essentials. This group also needs to be strong enough to fend off marauders, and smart enough not to kill any more than we have to."
"I hadn't thought it out quite that far, but that's pretty much what we were going to do. I Figured L.A. wasn't the place for it, and the 'desirable' places were going to get overpopulated with 'undesirable' people pretty quick, so we decided to come out here and try to find a place to hide out. Couldn't bring much out of L.A. because the damned freeways were all clogged. Thought we'd find what we needed out here, but didn't have any way to carry it 'til we got here. Now we've got a couple of 6x6's loaded up with stuff from Barstow, but no place to go."
"So why pick on us? Why not just introduce yourselves and ask if we want company?"
"Look around, man," she indicated the group standing in the headlights, "Four women and two guys, and only three of us that know anything about fighting. You guys looked pretty well organized and pretty well armed, so I figured we'd be better off negotiating from a position of strength. We didn't expect you to be quite that well organized."
"Well, we're going to check out a place east of here to see if it will be suitable. Anyone who can take orders and is willing to work is welcome to come along, but like I told Jamaal here, when we met up with him - it isn't going to be a democracy, so decide now. Anyone who can't deal with those terms stays behind."
"We take our orders from Amanda," the one she'd called Colby said. "We don't know you."
"You know I beat you at your own ambush but didn't kill anybody," I said. "What else do you need to know?"
"Ain't the first time, neither!" Jamaal laughed, from the cab of the Hummer.
"There's more to bein' a leader than that," Colby answered, "and you know it. We know Amanda's got our backs. We don't know that about you. We take orders from Amanda."
"I take it you're Amanda?" I asked the Asian girl, and when she nodded, motioned her forward. "Step into my office."
I gave Jamaal the M16 and had him step out and help Garcia cover the others, then helped Amanda into the Hummer. Not that she needed it. She climbed in with athletic grace and moved easily to the passenger side of the vehicle.
"I'm Gavin Thompson," I said, extending my hand, "Formerly of the US Navy, now leader of this little band."
"Amanda Chen," she answered, gripping my hand firmly, "I have no military experience but I've got many years of martial arts training. Hand-to-hand, in a fair fight, I could probably defeat your Marine."
"That's good to know, though I don't think I'd count on the Marine fighting fair, but I'd rather it not come to that. Up to now, Garcia's been my number two, but I need someone with a bit more of a strategic outlook. You impress me as being that sort of person. I'd rather you people be with us than have to compete with you for whatever resources there are in this area, so what do you say to becoming my new number two?"
She smiled sardonically and said, "How about you becoming mine?"
I smiled back and answered, "Well, let's see, you set up an ambush - four M1 tanks against one Hummer and a 6x6. How'd that work out for you?"
"Fair enough, but you were going to pass this whole damned depot by. How smart is that?"
"As you can see, we're already armed well enough for our purposes, at least for now. We decided to get settled, then send out expeditions to forage for other things we might need, including the contents of this base, as well as Edwards Air Force Base, Fort Irwin, and China Lake Naval Weapons Station, up north."