Getting By
Chapter 20

Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B

There is much that I haven't written about in the last two and a half years. After I ran out of pages in my last book, I kept forgetting to get more journals. As time went on, it seemed less important to record our daily activities, in light of the urgency of some of them. It was my lovely Amanda who got me started again. It was she who made sure that there was a whole case of journals from the last foraging run with my name on them.

I apologize to anyone who might wind up reading these for using so much dialogue. I suppose Grey Eagle's storytelling style must have rubbed off on me somewhere along the line. For historical accuracy, I suppose I should mention that the conversations may not be recorded verbatim, but are intended to capture the gist of what was said while demonstrating the attitudes of the speakers. I do endeavor not to take as many liberties with the facts as Grey Eagle does, however.

So, anyway, where do I begin?

Well, perhaps with our marriage. We had no ministers, but Grey Eagle was up to the task. We had a simple ceremony at the first Winter Solstice celebration. Everyone who wasn't on watch attended.

Several other marriages were performed at that time, as well, including Jamaal and Ruth and Cora and Dr. Mondale.

If I remember, we had sent out another foraging party after the first Thanksgiving, who, besides returning with almost the entire library of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, (That was a convoy, all by itself!) also brought more booze, more food, more building materials, almost an entire machine shop, and another hundred twenty people, most of them driving trucks.

Our baby? Little Gav, thank goodness, got more of his looks from his mother than from me. It's too soon to tell if he takes after either of us personality-wise, but you can tell from the look in those huge, dark eyes, that he's going to be trouble once he becomes a little more mobile. Just like I was at that age.

Looking back at my last entries, I see I never recorded the resolution of Tracy's problem either. Amanda and I discussed her request, and decided that I should probably help her out. When we went to tell her, though, she had already taken care of the problem with young Wyatt Denton, the fiddle player from the night of the first Thanksgiving celebration. Mom and her little girl, Amy, are happy as clams.

Oh, yes, we have a new calendar. We had been informally dating everything from the time of our first arrival at our little fortress in the desert (somebody started calling it 'the Citadel' and the name stuck), so we simply continued doing so. We decided to keep the old month names, since everyone was familiar with them, but since we arrived here mid-October, which happened to coincide with a new moon, we shifted the calendar fifteen days, making November our first month, and recording November 1, 0001, as the first day of our new calendar. So, today is July 7, 0003, but when you look at the date on the computer, it says July 22, 2014, since the computer's still on the old calendar. Where the real differences come in is when you write the date as numbers: 09/07/0003, vs. 07/22/2014.

I don't know if it's good or not, but it works for us. We still can't get far enough into the computers to reprogram the internal date functions, but Sandeep and some of the former Navy people have come up with an accessory program that tracks the new calendar by converting from the old one.

Our first year was, as might be expected, very difficult. The plethora of rotting corpses caused the populations of carrion eaters and insects to skyrocket. Predators, too, gained in population, preying on the carrion eaters.

It wasn't too bad where we are at first, simply because there weren't that many bodies close by, but as the corpses elsewhere were consumed or rotted away to skeletons, the excess populations of carrion eaters, predators, and insects began seeking new sources of food.

First, it was the flies. They descended upon our little community like a cloud of locusts. Never mind the annoyance of having the damned flies everywhere, all the time. Any open wound, on human or animal, if not carefully bandaged, was likely to become home to a teeming mass of maggots. Livestock, dogs, and children, especially, had to be watched carefully, and any wound cleaned and bandaged. Any animal that died in the field was quickly butchered or buried, just to keep the flies from breeding in their corpses.

The carrion eaters turned to eating each other's carcasses as human remains ran out and they began to starve, but the Cougars, especially, ranged far afield, seeking more meat to feed the bumper crop of cubs that was born that year, and a couple of them found us.

One of the pre-sickness children was mauled and the mountain lion was trying to drag her away when the dogs came to her rescue. Marshall was killed attacking the Cougar, but the dogs gave us time to get there and get the girl out of harm's way. She still bears the scars, both mental and physical from that attack.

We killed the Cougar, and probably her cubs, since, wherever they were, the cubs would not yet have been old enough to hunt for themselves.

We also lost a couple of calves to another hungry Cougar, but Matt eventually hunted her down, too. By the end of the second winter, either we had killed all the mountain lions in the vicinity, or they had become wary enough of us to stay away.

Our first attempts at farming were far from an unqualified success. It's surprising how little instructional material was available on how to farm in the desert. Neither the materials we collected on our shopping trips, nor the dwindling sources on the Internet were much help. Water is not enough. The alkaline condition of what little soil we had, and the heat, especially in the summer, caused problems that we, as city dwellers could not have anticipated. For that first year and on into the second winter, we depended heavily on canned and frozen vegetables, and what little we harvested from Archie's little garden.

Ultimately, our friends among the People came to our aid, showing us how best to plant so that taller, hardier plants, like corn, could be used to provide partial shade for those more sensitive to the heat of the sun, and how to neutralize the alkalinity in the soil with acidic additives such as sulfur and boron which could be found in the vicinity if one knew where to look.

Even with canned and frozen foods and vitamin supplements that first summer was touch and go, health-wise, for a lot of us. The new mothers and their babies got first priority for nutrition and the rest of us lived primarily on animal protein and canned or frozen vegetables.

Grey Eagle's predictions of disease came true along with those of famine and pestilence. We lost three people in the first winter to influenza viruses. Doctor Mondale speculated that they were weakened by their bouts with the Sickness, and their immune systems, especially given our struggles with nutrition, just couldn't take the strain. The flu took its toll on all of us that winter, thanks to the close quarters we endured, living in the mine. We struggled on as best we could, and facial tissues became a commodity to be treasured. More than one fistfight broke out over possession of a box of Kleenex. We celebrated when the weather turned warmer again, but not for long.

Our first summer in the desert was pure hell. In spite of all the training we gave them, people just could not believe how harsh the desert summer could be - not until several wound up in the infirmary with heat stroke, and two died of thirst, not five miles from our compound. Sunburn, dehydration, and other sun and heat related conditions abounded until, near the end of summer, it finally became habitual for everyone to wear long sleeves and trousers despite the heat, as well as broad brimmed hats, and to never to go anywhere without water.

The adults began drilling it into the children, and watching over them like hawks until the children, too, got the message.

Mostly, summer was a time of staying busy in the mine, with only brief forays outside to tend to animals and gardens or to stand watch.

That first year also gave me my first real test as a leader. As nutrition and health issues mounted and the temperature rose, tempers flared, and discontent soon followed. This all came to a head in mid-summer when a group of about fifty people, lead by one of the men from Palm Springs, confronted me at dinner time.

He was a big man and had clearly been an athlete in his youth. He must have thought that having a crowd around would help his cause, or maybe he just wanted to perform for an audience.

"Some of us here," he said loudly, "have decided that you don't know what the fuck you're doing. We think it's time for a change of leadership!"

My first impulse was to use the extra training that Amanda had been giving me to beat the crap out of him, but that wasn't the kind of leader I wanted to be. I probably had enough support from the ex-military and others that I could have stomped on his rebellion handily, but that would have left resentment in its wake, and done nothing to resolve the concerns that caused them to come to me in the first place.

"I see," I told him, putting my back to a wall, just in case it did come down to a fight. "What is it that you and your supporters think I've done wrong?"

"Well, for starters," he said truculently, "you've brought us to this hell-hole instead of taking us somewhere where we've got a chance to survive."

I didn't bother to mention that he had come here of his own free will, electing, instead to ask, "And where do you think I should have taken you?"

"How about into the mountains?" he said.

Good. At least he, or someone in his group was thinking.

"That's a fair question," I answered. "Why don't you tell me why you think that would be a better place for us?"

"It wouldn't be so damned hot, for one thing," he said, "and we could hunt something besides these damned burros."

"True," I nodded, "but tell me, how would you protect all these people from the cold in the winter? Where would you go that you could support this many people? What would you do about water? What about defense? Once you get established, someone else is likely to see what you've got and decide they want it. What then? We already had problems with the flu this winter. What kind of problems would you have in the mountains? How would you get around in the winter, with snow on the ground?"

"I ... Well..." he stammered. "I haven't thought it out that far, but it's got to be better than here!"

"Does it?" I asked, "Sure, it's hot here, but you've been trained in how to deal with that. All of you have. You just need to remember your training. Yes, it's unpleasant, but it's only temporary. You say you haven't thought it out that far, and that's really the problem. I have thought it out. I could be wrong in some of my assumptions, but so far the important ones seem to be panning out. Of those, the most important is that no one else wants this damned little pile of rocks in the middle of the desert. Almost anywhere else we go, that's not going to be true. All of you," I paused to let my eyes scan the crowd behind him - not just his supporters, "are here of your own free will. Any of you can leave at any time. If you think you're safer in the mountains, then take your travel packs and go, but leave your weapons here. You knew from the beginning that this was not going to be easy, but if it's gotten too hard, you can go."

"But how will we survive without our weapons?" one of them asked.

"They are not your weapons," I answered. "If you decide to leave, you will have to acquire your own weapons the same way we have."

"And what if we decide to take our weapons anyway?" the big guy asked.

"Then you become my enemy and the enemy of anyone who doesn't join you," I told him flatly.

I didn't have to quote the rules for him and all of those with him to understand what that implied: Once they became enemies, they could be killed.

I let that sink in for a while as the group behind him looked nervously around, then I held out the carrot.

"Now, it's pretty clear that you and those with you have got a beef. It's also pretty clear that you don't really have a plan for dealing with the problems you perceive, so let me offer an alternative. Your group will elect one representative to bring your concerns to me to make sure that they are properly considered in my decision making. I can't promise that I will always act as you think I should, since I have more to consider than your group's concerns, but at least you'll be assured that you are heard."

That effectively took the wind out of his sails, but he wasn't going to give up easily.

"Oh yeah, you'll listen, nod politely, then do whatever you damn well please!"

"I might," I agreed, "or I might learn something that will help me make better decisions. Either way, you're no worse off than you are right now, and you're a damn sight better off than you would be trying to go out on your own."

I turned to the rest of the watchers while he thought that over. "The same goes for the rest of you! If a number of you have a concern over the way I'm running things, elect someone to tell me about it! These are not personal problems to settle with your fists. If they affect a number of people, they should be brought to my attention, before you get angry enough to try something like this!"

I turned back to the big guy. "So, is this acceptable to you and your people?"

He looked back at his followers and got a chorus of nods.

"Yeah," he said, grinning, "we can live with that, but damn I was looking forward to taking you on!"

"If you want to spar, there are better ways to get a match," I told him, "but don't forget that I'm married to your instructor, and she doesn't like the idea of anyone being able to beat me in a fight."

He apparently hadn't thought of that possibility, either. His grin faded as he shook my hand, and then melted into the crowd without making arrangements to spar with me.

Our training, except for that in desert survival, moved into the mine during the hottest part of the summer, but never stopped. As we neared our first anniversary and the weather cooled enough to send out new foraging parties, we ran into our first organized resistance.

Our first party to cross back into the San Joaquin Valley was ambushed near Bakersfield. Thanks to our training, however, they suffered only three minor wounds. Seamus O'Donnell was leading that party and to hear him tell it, they reacted like seasoned veterans, deploying quickly from the vehicles to flank the ambushers and kill or wound most of them. The team completed their run to L.A. and back, bringing more recruits, more food, and more knowledge from the universities in and around Los Angeles. They also fought five more skirmishes with poorly organized groups, losing only one man in all of that fighting.

Almost every expedition after that had to fight. In Barstow, Needles, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas - the towns nearest to us - we soon established a reputation and the scavengers left us alone. For our part, we moved our foraging operations further away, leaving what remained in those towns to the scavengers that claimed it. This informal truce gave us reasonably safe passage through those areas, and gradually, in ones and twos, some of the survivors of those places came to ask if they could join us.

With the help of Harry Saunders, the operator from Hoover Dam who was with the Lake Mead group, and Sandeep, we have been able to keep all three dams running and generating electricity, though, in time, we expect wear to begin forcing shutdowns unless we can develop the capability of manufacturing replacement parts for those huge generators. For now, we're being careful about maintenance and only using partial capacity from the generators, since the load, for now, is very light compared with what they were designed to handle. Keeping the power on and letting the people around us know about it helps build goodwill among the survivors of the nearby cities, and has cemented a relationship with some of the surviving farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. They provide us with corn for our biodiesel plant, and we provide them with biodiesel to keep their farm machinery going and electricity for their homes, barns, etc.

There are little bitty kids everywhere! Thank goodness we've got some older ones, ten and up, from the groups that have joined us. They help take care of the little ones and provide some continuity by teaching them kid games. At least we won't have a whole half-generation gap before these little ones are old enough to have kids.

Yes, more people have joined us. We're up to about five hundred now, not counting the babies. We got the entire crew of a nuclear submarine that showed up in San Diego a few months back, frantically radioing for anyone who might be listening. We've also had more from Bakersfield, Barstow, Las Vegas, Palm Springs and the other nearby cities come to us.

Every once in a while, a small group from Mexico will straggle northward, usually over in the San Joaquin Valley. If we, or one of our farmer allies sees them, and they look okay, we pick them up. I don't think we have to worry too much about genetic diversity now, but we're still welcoming anyone who's willing to live by our rules.

Speaking of the farmers, we have developed a cozy little interdependency with them that I think will work out well in the long run. We rotate armed units over to the valley about every three months. Their primary purpose is to protect the farmers and their crops, but when they're not on duty, they lend a hand with the work. In exchange, the farmers give us enough of their crops and meat to feed the population of the Citadel. We still grow cattle and vegetables here, but it's not enough to sustain us. As for the people who are sent on this detached duty, well, let's just say we don't lack for volunteers, especially in the summer. The temperatures are usually somewhat cooler there. They do see more fighting since, every once in a while, a small group of scavengers will come by and try to help themselves to the crops, but the skirmishes are usually short and one-sided.

We don't worry about individuals helping themselves to a little sustenance now and then, but the organized groups get greedy and there's plenty of unclaimed, fertile land there that they could use to grow their own crops.

One notable event that happened last year, I suppose I should mention, in case anyone reads these journals: I was on watch with General Lee, touring the posts in the peaks to the east of our valley, when we heard a sound we hadn't heard since before the sickness. Startled, we both looked up and watched as a jetliner flew overhead, east to west. Naturally, we hailed them on every frequency we could think of, but got no answer. They must have heard us, however, because the plane started to descend.

We watched until it disappeared behind the hills to the west.

"Must be trying to land at Edwards," Lee said.

"Most likely," I answered.

I thought about sending someone to investigate, but decided against it. If they had heard our radio transmissions, they would know about where we were, and anyone who could get a jetliner flying at that late date, could scare up enough transport to get here from Edwards. We put the watches on heightened alert and went on about our business.

A couple of hours later, the unmistakable sound of a helicopter rotor broke the silence of the desert - another sound we hadn't heard in a while. Sentries on the western rim of the valley reported the approach of a large bird from the direction of Edwards. Just as a precaution, we sounded the alarm and prepared for air assault.

My station was in the bunker in the mine where we had established fire control for the Metal Storms and our air defense system, as well, and everything was monitored from the mine. Some of the military communication guys had rigged antennas up in the hills that fed radio transmissions to and from the mine, so we didn't have to use the sound powered phones, but we kept them as a backup. We watched on radar and visual as the chopper, which resolved into the silhouette of a UH-1Y "Huey" helicopter, approached from the west.

"Get him on the horn and tell him not to overfly our position. If he ignores you, light him up with all the fire control you've got. If he still keeps coming, shoot him down." General Lee told the operators quietly as they sat tensely before their terminals.

A chorus of well-disciplined "Yessir"s answered.

The helicopter pilot did not respond to our radio calls, and kept coming, as if he intended to land in our valley. When the fire control systems started targeting him, however, he got the message.

"Whoever you are down there, stand down! This aircraft is currently designated Marine One. We are carrying the President of the United States. We will land in the center of your compound."

"I don't care who you have aboard," I responded on the same frequency, "you will shear off and land a half klick to the north of this range of mountains or in thirty seconds you will be nothing but smoking metal and rubber. This is not a threat, just a statement of fact."

Discretion became the better part of valor and the pilot eventually sat down just beyond the foot of our entry road. I called ahead on the sound powered phone and Heather had Humphrey saddled and ready for me by the time I emerged from the mine. It was mid-summer and she had taken the precaution of hanging a full canteen from the saddle for me. We had gotten used to such precautions after that first summer. A couple of people almost died of dehydration, right in our little valley, just because they hadn't bothered to drink enough, even though water was plentiful.

Humphrey wasn't too happy about the heat, either, but I could see the moisture on his muzzle where Heather had watered him before handing him over to me, so I paid him no mind. He humped a little and fidgeted, then settled down and got me to the bottom of the road without any serious trouble.

A man in a polo shirt and slacks, accompanied by a smartly dressed woman, was surrounded by armed Marines in dress khakis, and men in black suits whose jackets bulged under their armpits. I got a strong feeling of nostalgia, and they got very nervous when I rode up with the M-16 slung over my shoulder.

"Just hold it right there, mister. You'll have to lose the weapon before you come any closer," one of the suited men said.

"Nope," I shook my head. "If you don't want me coming closer with the gun, I guess I'll just head back up the hill."

So saying, I swung Humphrey around and started walking him back the way we had come.

"Wait a minute," the same voice said, louder. "What about us? What about the President?"

"You can go back where you came from, or you can sit here in the sand and die," I shrugged, "makes no difference to me, except I'm really not keen to revive the vulture population. They're finally dying down to a manageable level after the Sickness."

"But, there's no place else to go," the man said desperately, "Everybody's either dead or turned to savages. You seem to be the only ones in the country, except for small groups, that still have some semblance of a civilization left."

"Don't know about the whole country," I said, "but we have still got some civilization here, and we don't take kindly to strangers coming in with weapons and ordering us to get rid of ours. You folks can stash your weapons in the chopper and come on up, or you can leave, or you can wait here, but everyone else on this mountain is armed, and we're going to stay that way. Until we know who you are and whether or not you fit in here, you leave your weapons behind."

"You don't get it," the guy who seemed to be in charge of the detail said, drawing his handgun and pointing it in my direction. "This is the President of the United States. No one goes armed in his presence except us."

"Snipers, can you disarm this clown?" I said into my throat mike. I had deliberately angled Humphrey in from one side to leave a clear field of fire for the troops hunkered down in the rocks of the hillside behind me.

"I can, sir," one of the men in the hills answered.

"Okay, on my signal, do it. Fire control, I want four rounds of flash-bang bracketing this group on the same signal."

"Roger, Sir. Acknowledged. Four rounds flash-bang in a bracket."

The group in front of me was getting nervous, since I made no attempt to lower my voice. They must have thought I was bluffing, though, because the guy with the gun kept it pointed at me. I negligently raised a hand and chopped it down.

Immediately, there was a smack of lead on metal followed closely by the report of the sniper's rifle and the cry of the guy with shards of lead buried in his hand. Close on the heels of those sounds came four loud, but not very energetic explosions placed at the four corners of a perfect square around the group and the helicopter. A loud BRRRUP sounded from the Metal Storms on the hillside behind me, as the rounds fired within milliseconds of each other.

The Marines in the party around the chopper immediately took what cover they could find and started scanning the hills, looking for targets, while the guys in suits surrounded the couple, leaving the disarmed Secret Service guy alone to face me while his hand dripped blood into the sand.

"Now," I said casually, "we begin to get a little clearer picture of the situation. Near as I can remember, this President's term ended some months ago, and I don't recall having been given the opportunity to vote in another election, even though I did vote for this guy the first time. In my book, that makes this gentleman the former President of the United States. In addition, in case none of you have noticed, a biological weapon was released upon the world during this President's watch. While the rest of us suffered, and all but a small percentage died, you folks were, no doubt, hiding in some super secret bunker until your scientists or whoever told you it was safe to come out. Meanwhile, those few of us who did survive have been busy getting on with our lives, all without your help or interference. If this fella still wants to play at being President, take him back to Washington and have at it. If you folks would like to join us, and are willing to work and take orders, you're welcome to give it a try. As for those guns you keep waving around, we have a lot more, and if you insist on making this a shooting match, you will lose. I could just as easily have ordered the snipers to take out everyone with a weapon, or dropped high explosive in the center of your position, and if one of you lets loose a single round, that will happen anyway."

That was the longest speech I had delivered in months and I paused to take a sip of water.

"Now, what's it going to be? It's hot out here and my horse doesn't much care for the heat."

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