Last of the Breed
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2020 by Wendell Jackson

The world was edging closer to total war when the first fully manned expedition to Mars was launched. Once the ship was sent on its way, the remaining crew of the orbiting launch pad had nothing left to accomplish. The job was done, and now they either would be resupplied for an extended stay or return to earth in one of the shuttles. A replacement crew was scheduled to reach the space station in another month, and was waiting for the return of at least one of the shuttles. The boosters were in the late stages of construction, which would be attached for the next shuttle launch.

The news of the delay in launching the shuttle craft didn’t go well for the support section crew who had been in orbit for the maximum allowed time. Health concerns brought on by weightless conditions, that couldn’t be overcome with exercise in the special, would be looked after upon the return to earth. The crew was looking forward to leaving orbit and receiving their bonus checks for a successful mission. Since the mission had been civilian rather than military, the were being paid a hell of a lot more. With the introduction of private funded space launches, civilians were now serving as crew members aboard the Space station. A lowering of physical standards made it possible for many to enjoy working in the orbiting platform, and getting their names written down in history.

For Captain Dan Marshall, the only military man in the returning crew, he was anxious for the mission to be over. On returning to earth he was to be promoted and given command of another government space program. Hopefully he would put some life back into the program and get back in the lead of space exploration. The colonization of Mars was the current program, and would take decades to develop. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn were the next interests, and plans for placing an out post on a couple of the larger moons was the goal. He had barely missed qualifying for the current mission that was on its way to the red planet. He didn’t plan on missing the next one.

The adventure of mankind moving out to the planets, was hoped by all, to bring an end to world conflicts. It was beginning to look like it might be a possibility. The last pass over of the Huston based ground control with out a greeting was a little strange. Course they could be on the other wave lengths communicating with the more important Mission on its way to Mars.

A glitch in communications from ground control, caused some concerns but it was thought sun spots might be the cause. They were noted for interrupting radio signals, could temporarily block out transmission. Dan and those waiting for the shuttle realized there would be a delay in their return. It would only be for a short time, possibly a day or two, and then they could descend to the earth’s surface with clear communications.

When a stay in orbit message was received from the space center in Texas, the crew suddenly realized that serious problems were developing on the planet’s surface. Over the next several days in orbit, they saw many flashes of nuclear detonations. The war that everyone feared, had come, was taking place. The expected return to earth was going to be delayed for an indefinite period of time. Dan hoped that during the fighting, the orbiting station would not be targeted. The Station didn’t have a means of defending against a attack. The only recourse in such an event, was to take to the emergency escape pods and drop from orbit. An action that wasn’t safe as the returning pods might be viewed as incoming weapons. Plus the pods had never been tested.

The crew opted to stay in orbit and wait for an end to the hostilities. The next problem they faced, was the high radiation levels. Higher than normal levels were registered on their instruments. They were not sure if it would ever be safe to return. The decision to remain in orbit or return now, had to be decided by all of the crew. The mission aims and objectives were completed. There was no reason to stay in orbit, except that the shuttle craft hadn’t come. No matter what the reason was for the shuttle not being launched, they couldn’t stay in orbit forever. They had to make a decision on when to use the escape pods. The pods were the only way of returning to earths surface.

During the opening hours of the conflict, Captain Dan Marshall had everyone don the heavy shielded suits. They were kept on board for space walks or some other emergency. They offered better protection against the massive waves of radiation, but were cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear, even in a state of weightlessness. Thankfully they didn’t have to wear them for long, as the spike in radiation didn’t last.

The crew made a decision to return to earth, vie way of the escape pods. They had waited for the scheduled arrivals of the Shuttle, but since it never came, they were ready to get back to earth. The five-member crew approached Dan with the request to leave orbit, and wanted to do it immediately. Pointing out that it would be three more obits before the Station passed over the USA again, he was able to talk them into waiting. By using the escape pods, they wouldn’t be coming down near the launch center. The most they could hope for was to hit the Midwest. If they waited for another two orbits, they would descend on the west coast. The two other men in the crew, were from the west coast and wanted to aim there. However, the three women, were from the Chicago area. It didn’t matter to Dan, as there hadn’t been any radio signals emanating from any place.

Discussing the reasons why there wasn’t any signals, they thought it was because of the magnetic pulse that every nuclear explosion produced. All power grids would have been destroyed or damaged. It would take time for society to reestablish a working power grid, and communication system. The crew would be landing in a world that had been reduced to living with eighteen hundred technology. They would be returning without many expectations of a normal existence.

Rather than use both escape pods, they opted for only one. The captain was the only member that could work the pod and handle any difficulties that might arise. Once on the ground, then they would make another decision, on whether to stay together or set out on their own. Hopefully they would find plenty of help from the locals, as they wouldn’t have their normal strength after being in a weightless orbit for so long.

Taking a last-minute vote, Dan asked each member of the crew if they were all agreed on the Midwest as a landing site. Robert Shaw, a healthy man in his thirties, figured he could make his way home from any place. So, he was okay with the landing site. Bill Hepburn a tall red headed ex basketball player in college, would have preferred the West coast, but went along with the others and said the Midwest was as good a place as any.

Helen Winters, at thirty five, the oldest woman of the group. She just wanted to come down near a large city. She was attractive, but never had time for marriage. Always wanting to set new standards for women in the business world, she was along as the radio tech. The tour aboard the space station, was the next step in her ambition to be a personality in the entertainment field. She had planned on marrying some one high in the industry to launch her career.

Gloria Dawson, a young woman who was on the mission as eye candy for getting the attention of the public for future space missions. The public interest in the orbiting station had waned, and Gloria and Stella Walker were along on the mission solely for photo opts. They had made several videos of their floating around the station for the television audience back on earth. Mostly they were pretending to check the instrument panels as if they knew what they were doing. They wanted to get back to earth and enjoy the notoriety of having been in space.

Getting the okay from the whole crew, Dan made a quick check to see that they were all strapped in, and then pulled the red handled lever to disengage the Pod from the station. They were now on the way down. From now on, there was nothing for Dan to do, he was a passenger just like the others. The rocket engine was ignited by computer and guided by the same. The instrument lights inside the pod, revealed some very nervous faces. With no window to the outside, they could only surmise the different stages of their decent.

As the pod began the fall, Dan told the crew that the outer hull would be hot when they touched down. When they exited the pod, to make sure they didn’t come in contact with the outer skin. Once out, they should get a good distance away from the pod, lest there was fire. Hopefully there would be people around to help them.

A jolting set everyone tighter in the seat harnesses. Dan explained that it was the first set of drag chutes deploying. There would be more jolts when those were released at a lower altitude and the larger chutes deployed. Each time they could feel the pod slow in its decent. Even with Dan trying to ease their fears, they all, were very nervous. The escape pods had been in obit as long as the space station. Every item had been up graded on several occasions, but not the escape pods. Dan secretly hoped the touch down wouldn’t be like an egg smashing on a rock.

The decent was taking a long time, which wore on their nerves. They all wanted it to be over and found it difficult remaining calm with such a time consuming drop to the earth’s surface. When the impact of the pod touching down, gave them a final jolt, they felt the pain of their body weight slamming on their asses. Still hurting from the sudden stop, Dan reached up and pulled the next red lever that popped down. The lever was stubborn and hard to budge. Putting his weight on the lever, Dan pulled until there was a loud click and the pod hatch popped open. A sudden rush of air entered the pod, with a strong smell of dry grass. They had survived the landing.

Dan released his buckled harness and tried to stand. He found he didn’t have the strength, and fell to the floor. Staying in orbit so long had taken a toll on his muscles. His legs couldn’t support his body, so he crawled to the open hatch. Looking back at the others, he told them all to get loose from the Safety belts and get out of the pod. The hot hull was searing the grass it was sitting on. The chance of fire, was real, and with the hatch open, it could catch the interior on fire. They had to leave crawling on the open hatch door, now laying on the ground.

Crawling out the hatch, Dan collapsed in the grass only a few yards away from the pod. He was too weak to go any further. Rolling over on his back, he was able to look back at the hatch and observe the others slowly doing the same. All crawling out to collapse a few feet from the pod. It sat with grass smoldering under it. A flicker of flame grew out from one side, quickly growing larger. Dan told the others they needed to get further away, just to be safe. To die in an open field burn at this point would unacceptable.

They managed to crawl a few feet, and then rest for several minutes before attempting to crawl again. Their muscles after being in space for so long, had atrophied. Dan continued trying to stand, but his legs wobbled and wouldn’t support his body. He ended up just crawling further away until he crossed a bit of plowed ground. He’d urged the others to do the same as he made his way to the safety of exposed dirt. He was able to sit with his back against a post, and watched the others as they slowly pulled themselves along the ground to join him.

Helen was the next to reach the post and pull herself into a sitting position. Dan was glad that she was the first to join him. He’d found her attractive and felt a kinsman ship toward her. They were both several years older than their crewmates and their taste in all things was a little different than the others. Even liked the songs the others said they never heard of. Dan thought they were just pulling his leg on that one. Seeing there was a loose buckle on Helens boot, he leaned over and snapped it back in place. He didn’t want it catching on things and hindering her mobility. Dan was a little protective of her, and felt the need to fix things for her.

Gloria was the next one coming along, she had removed her helmet and her dishwater blond locks were pasted tightly against her scalp with sweat. She looked exhausted, just like the way Dan felt. She was trying to get to her feet, but couldn’t stand wobbly knees any more than Dan could. Pitching forward on her face, she uttered the first cuss words Dan had heard since they touched down.

IT took a while, but they all reached the leaning post and collapsed on one another. After several moments of rest, Gloria spoke up saying that someone surely must have seen their decent. She was wondering why no one was showing up. Even the farmers who’s field they landed in, ought to be coming around.

Robert pulled his helmet off and enjoyed the fresh air without it passing through the breathing tube. He was the last one to doff his headgear, and toss it into the tall grass. Seeing Dan’s critical eye at his tossing way the gear, he grinned and said he wouldn’t be needing it ever. There was no way he would ever go to space again.

Dan was rested from his crawling away from the pod, but he was still weak and couldn’t stand. Gravity was working against him. Going so long without it, he wasn’t strong enough to stand. From where he was sitting, he could see roof tops in the distance. A grassy path that the farmers vehicles had passed over, looked to head the direction of the roof tops. Dan started heading that way, still crawling on his hands and knees. After the little bit of rest, he was able to crawl faster, and easier. It still took him a quarter hour to reach the end of the field. Once there he could see the roof tops clearer. They were farm buildings, and one yellow painted house. Out behind the house, a clothes line with sheets and some clothing hung. He was hoping the people were home now, and would be there to help.

Working his way to the house, Dan called out several times for anyone to come help. He come to realize, if anyone was there, they would have heard the pod come down. Even with the chutes, he had hit with a solid thump. He knew there wasn’t any one at home. He just hoped that they had not gone off and locked the doors. Making his way up on the porch, hurt his legs. The wooden steps were rough and the thin material of his suit didn’t offer much protection. He had to rest a few more minutes, then he finally made it onto the porch. He took the time to look around again, and noted a windmill with a water tank just below the fan blades. The wind was turning the blades slowly, which gave him hope that there was running water. He saw a rusted pickup by what he assumed was a barn or some stalls for horses or cattle. A few chickens were strutting back and forth in front of the house. Seeing them was another reassurance that the place was being lived in.

Bill was coming down the grassy lane, crawling just like Dan had done. He could see the others slowly coming out of the field and trying to decide whether to try for the house or just stay and rest, leaving the decision till in the morning. Dan laughed at what a sorry sight he and his crew made. If they had landed with a shuttle, they would have been helped to the aid trucks and whisked away to a special clinic and treated with kid gloves. Here they were going to get well on their own. No one it seemed was going to come and help them.

Dan didn’t wait for Bill to reach the porch. He was able to move to the door and found it unlocked. It opened easy enough, and he found it led to the kitchen. Just the place he wanted to be. Still crawling he made his way to the sink, and pulled a chair from the kitchen table with him. He had to use the chair for support and pulled himself up enough to sit down. He was high enough to reach the faucets, and turned on the cold tap. He gave thanks, when water started to gush out. He found a glass on the counter and stuck it under the flow of water. Never checked to see if it was clean. He drank the first glass down in gulps, but the second one, he drank slower and enjoyed the taste.

Bill was coming through door, still on his hands and knees. Dan held a full glass of cold water out for him, and Bill moved even faster to accept it. After several glasses of water, Bill managed to say the word FOOD. Well the power was still on. He could hear the refrigerator motor running off and on. Turning to it, he said to Bill, Let’s see what’s for dinner. Inside they found a carton of milk and some left overs from a few meals. There wasn’t much of any one thing, but it all added up to enough to kill the hunger pains.

When the others finally made it to the kitchen, Dan and Bill had food sitting on the table waiting for them. They were propped up in the kitchen chairs, making sandwiches. Mostly it was tuna, from the can’s they found in cupboard, and a mixed with mayonnaise. A head of lettuce, was still usable, and a loaf of bread was quickly gone in making the sandwiches. There were plenty of can goods they could open, but for now their hunger was satisfied. Satisfied and exhausted. Dan left them eating, and crawled into the living room. There he pulled himself up on the couch, and rested. He was going to stay there for a good while.

They stayed there several days, resting and eating what they found in the pantry. Helen was the first one to get to her feet and stay there. Still weak, she took over the kitchen, and began baking bread and other cake mixes she found. Milk was no longer allowed to be drunk. She needed it for cooking, but there was plenty of coffee, and Robert had found a bottle of whiskey in the den.

They had plenty of discussions on what to do, now that they were back on earth. Especially now that they were regaining their health and strength. So far, they hadn’t heard anything over the radio. Nothing but static. They came to the conclusion that something more than just nuclear weapons had been used. It was apparent that some sort of biological germ warfare had been in the mix. Probably chemical agents too. They knew there were others still alive, as they had seen contrails high in the sky from passing jets. Not many, but usually one each day.

With the evidence of others flying overhead, Dan remarked to Helen, that they wouldn’t have to take it upon themselves to repopulate the world. Helen laughed and said it might have been fun to try. It put a thought in Dan’s head, and he offered to share a bed room with her. Of the three bed rooms, two had double beds and one single. Robert took the single bed, while the Dan and Bill left the other two to the women, Choosing the two recliners in the living room.

They were all stronger now, able to walk and even run a little. They had convalesced well at the farm, but they needed to find somewhere else to stay. Especially when the power went out. They had been expecting it to happen, and now they had to find other living quarters. At least someplace with a propane stove and refrigeration, so they could cook and save their foods.

Robert had wanted to leave for a while, and had done a lot of tinkering on the rusted old Pickup. It was running and the engine sounded good. Dan pointed out that once they left, they would find other vehicles. Most would be in better shape than the old pickup. Besides there was only room enough for two in the cab. The rest of them would be riding in the back. Robert drove with Helen taking the passenger seat, while the rest of them piled in the back. With pillows and blankets under them, the ride was comfortable.

From the maps they found, there was a good sized town three miles north. That’s where they were headed. With stores and a large number of homes, the chances of finding people there was better than hanging around a solitary farm.

Robert pulled up beside a nice looking Motel, and asked the others if it looked good enough for one night. Dan had no objections, and was the first one out of the pickup and heading for the Main office. The others looked around and took the keys, Dan brought from the office. They could each have their own room, if there wasn’t a body laying inside. Judging by the few cars that were parked in the lot, there hadn’t been much business the before the big die off. The place had a swimming pool, but with all the floating leaves and other debris, it didn’t look inviting.

Dan took over the living quarters behind the office, and was delighted to find it void of death. There wasn’t power, but that wasn’t needed to sleep in a soft bed. The others quickly found a unit for themselves and then met again under a sun shaded patio table. It was time to make a decision on whether to stay together or go their separate ways. As the temporary leader, Dan didn’t want to make decisions for everyone. If they didn’t want to stay together, it was fine with him.

The question went around the table with every one voicing their opinions. For the time being, they opted to stay together. Even though they hadn’t found any other’s still alive, the women weren’t sure of their safety if they did. Dan noted that Bill and Gloria were often hanging together, and looked like they had paired up. Robert and Stella hadn’t made a connection, and chose to sit apart. Stella was on one side of Helen and Dan and Robert on the other.

They all were eager to explore the town. A search for food, primarily on their minds. Robert moved his pickup outside the doors of the first supermarket, and told the others to fill up the backend. They would use it to carry the groceries back to the motel. The first thing Robert loaded up was a propane stove and grill. A couple propane bottles from a locked cage, were added. The lock didn’t stand a chance against a sledge hammer. The food might be all can goods, but tonight it would be served hot.

Dan tossed a few tin’s in the back, before looking down the street at an RV dealership. The motorhomes on the lot looked inviting. So, he headed that way and kicked in the office door, to look for keys. It took just a little while to find the right one and then he headed out to the longest motor home he could see. It was large enough to sleep six people, and seemed ideal for traveling across country. They wouldn’t have to constantly clean out the dead from the places they chose to spend the night. So, he set about reading the instruction manual and learning how to get it ready to roll.

Robert was thinking along the same lines, but more towards one of the newer pickups in the Ford dealership. He wanted something that he could drive in comfort. While Robert and Dan were getting their vehicles new batteries, the women were bringing shopping carts out on the side walk, filled with new clothes. They were tired of making due with what the found at the farm, and wanted items that fit.

Bill spent his time at the hardware stores, gathering generators and gas cans. He was tired of not having power, and wanted above all a hot shower. By the end of the day, they had an assortment of food, gear and transportation parked outside the motel. A lot of packing and sorting was instore for them over the next few days. In the mean time they were living in comfort and eating well.

After Bill set up a generator at the motel, they enjoyed lights and watching videos that night. Gas he’d syphoned from several vehicles, provided the fuel for the generators and they intern powered the gas pumps at the service station. Thinking ahead, Robert also hooked a fuel trailer to the pickup and filled it with gasoline. They would need a ready supply, once they set out on the highway.

A meeting was held to determine a goal for them all. The women wanted them to all stay together, as they needed the security the men provided. They didn’t want to take a chance on running into men with criminal leanings.

Even though there was evidence of others still living, they hadn’t seen any except for the planes flying high overhead. Where they were coming from, was a mystery that would remain unsolved for a long time. The goal they set for themselves was to find a place where they could grow crops. Stella pointed out that it sounded just like the farm where they landed at the start. That brought a few chuckles from everyone, as it was true. Only now they had the means of running a farm and all its machinery.

They decided to head west, and find land with fenced fields and plenty of water. They had to start providing for themselves as there was a limit on how long the food supply would last. Stores and home pantries probably held items way past the posted shelf life. Helen pointed out that they needed to be near a supply of medical equipment and medicines. The women would need those if and when one of them became pregnant. The idea appealed to Robert. He was sure he was the only one of the men not having a relationship. Now the discussion they were having, might help change Stella’s mind on having sex.

On Stella’s part, she didn’t like the idea of mating with Robert, simply because he was the only one available. She wanted to be courted and wooed, and not just by Robert. If there were other people still alive, she wanted to choose her man. In the meantime, she let Robert help her in and out of the motorhome, or the pickup. She didn’t allow cuddling, like the other two couples did in the evenings.

During the day when they were on the road, Stella drove one of the two motorhomes. At night she slept alone on the couch, often in the opposite RV where Robert slept. As for Robert, he would have welcomed a relationship. Stella had the looks he’d always admired, and was attracted to her. He figured to give her some time, and she would accept him. Until that day came, he would treat her with kindness as he did with the other two women.

Traveling west was slower than they expected. Some places the highway needed cleared of fallen trees or abandon vehicles. Storms came and soaked the land, and helped quail fires they could see in the distance. They passed towns with burnt out buildings. Smoke still curling up from the ashes. Seeing all this helped strengthen their resolve to settle where they could grow their own food and take care of themselves. Where ever it was they decided to stay, it had to be relatively free of hazards.

Winter caught them on the road, covering the pavement with six inches of snow. That was the first week. They knew it would only be getting deeper. For better comfort and warmer commendations, they decided on another motel, one with a restaurant and bar. Bill quickly set up his generators and got the motel lit up. It proved to be much warmer than the RVs, and after the women cleaned the restaurant’s kitchen, it was excellent for preparing meals. The Bar had a jukebox with what was the latest records. Bill opened up the coin box and ran the same coins through it over and over. Of course, every one danced to the music, even Stella and Robert. That was the only time that Robert had his arms around her. Mostly the women preferred the fast songs where they could move and sway by themselves. The men wanted the slow dances, so they could feel the softness of the woman in their arms.

Dancing wasn’t enough for Robert. He wanted more out of Stella, but that wasn’t going to happen. While Dan and Bill were content to wait out the winter, Robert was itching to leave. The cold shoulder Stella was offering, was worse than nothing at all. Conferring with Dan and Bill, he proposed to go ahead and find a vehicle capable of plowing snow off the roads. Then they would have the choice of staying or traveling on, to warmer climes. To help him on his way, they manufacture a set of snow shoes for his journey. They actually made three sets before getting one that passed Roberts inspection. The next step was to clothe Robert in enough layers to protect him from the bitter cold. There just wasn’t the right kind of clothing in the area, capable of protecting one from freezing. A sub artic set of clothing was tops on his shopping list.

Robert started out warm enough but after going less than a mile, he had another problem, he was sweating. Now he had to discard a layer so he could move. If he stopped, he knew the sweat would turn cold. He needed better clothing, that would wick the moisture away from his body. There was the danger of tiring with the heavy layers of clothing. The layers restricted free movement of his legs, tiring him after only a dozen yards. A few adjustments and he was off again. Having discarded some clothing, he would need to find shelter for the coming night. The immediate goal was to find an outdoor store, and get clothing more suited for winter. As yet there wasn’t even a hint of a town on the horizon.

Dan watched Robert leave with binoculars, until he was over the last rise. He was about to put them down when panning around he saw animals. Adjusting the focus, for the far off horizon, he could make out the shape of buffalo. It was a jaw dropping sight. He grinned as he realized that the animal, once so close to extinction was still roaming the wilds of America. After watching the animal’s paw and scrape the snow to get at the grass underneath, it came to him that they could again enjoy steaks and roasts. All he needed was a rifle, but he wasn’t sure where one was. He knew it had to be a heavy caliber, in order to bring down a buffalo.

Bill had gathered a couple rifles from the hardware store a while back. Where they were stowed, they weren’t sure. He and Dan began searching through the motorhomes, and came up with a couple small caliber rifles. Nothing big enough to take down a Buffalo, but they kept searching. Helen saved the day when she found several rifles in a closet of the main office. These were large caliber rifles, big enough to kill big game. Presenting them to Dan she demanded a reward. The buffalo got an extra day of life, while Helen received her reward.

Stella was aware of the others romancing. Gloria was very vocal in her climatic endings. The motel walls were not very thick, but they did keep out the cold. Stella could even her some of their conversation, but tried not to listen. They mentioned Robert quite often, and the bitter cold he had to be suffering. There was some anger towards Stella, as she alone could have kept him here. Without her affections, he was too full of frustration and had to leave. Stella on her part, did feel some regret, but wasn’t about to change. Robert was a grown man, capable of taking care of himself and didn’t need her fretting about his welfare.

Dan kept watch every day, looking for Roberts return. There wasn’t anything moving out there but the few buffalo that appeared a few days every week. Dan and Bill constructed a blind out of white sheets. It was large and made with a frame work of plastic pipe and some wooden slats. Covered with the sheets, it was light enough for the two of them to carry and slowly sneak upon the animals.

As they moved towards the Buffalo, one or two would raise their heads and peer at the white object. It didn’t quite blend in with the snow field, but didn’t alarm the herd. Each time, one peered at them for more than just a glance, they paused and waited until the animal was feeding again. Dan wanted to get close so the rifle shot would hit them at full power and not be depleted in strength after traveling a several hundred yards. Bill pointed out that as they crept closer, the buffalo were moving an equal distance away each time. It was still a long shot, but one that Dan was forced to take if they wanted fresh meat. Dan was an excellent shot, and hit the buffalo right where he suspected the heart would be. The animal went to its knees, and then struggled to rise. Dan’s second shot, placed in the same area, brought the animal down, and it struggled no more.

Using a make shift sled, they used it to transport the meat as they dress out the animal. It was too large to pack back to the restaurant. Cut into sections, they packed it to the restaurant in several trips. They were going back for a fourth trip when they spotted a bear feasting on the remains. Dan wasn’t willing to try bringing the bear down, as he knew grizzlies were a hard kill. There were many stories of the bears being shot a number of times and still able to carry out an attack on the hunters. Deciding they had enough meat for a while, Dan and Bill backed off and returned to the Motel. There they locked and bolted every door, even pushing tables up against the windows.

The Grizzly was of concern to Dan, as Robert was out on the frozen snow without a weapon. He had nothing to protect himself. Dan hoped and prayed Robert had found a safe place to spend the nights. The days were a hazard that he had to put up with. He was capable of avoiding the dangers he could see. With all his thoughts of Robert out there in the cold, he grew angry that Stella hadn’t done a thing to keep him from going out there.

The five of them were spending the days in the bar, and availed themselves to the liquor. Scotch was Dan’s drink, and he was known to pour at least four fingers worth in a glass. He was sitting, having a libation when Stella came into listen to the jukebox. Dan was feeling the effects of the alcohol, and mentally assessed Stella’s worth to the group. Her contribution wasn’t much he decided. She did do a share of cooking and cleaning, but they all did that. Helen had some medical knowledge, which was going to be needed if anyone got hurt or pregnant. Gloria had a sense of humor that was sometimes lost on the others, but she also was keeping Bill company and that was enough. Stella was more of a burden than a help.

He knew he shouldn’t say anything, but Dan couldn’t stop himself. With a few words that were slightly slurred, he told Stella what he thought of her. She was at first shocked, that Dan would say anything regarding her or Robert. It wasn’t his business, and she said as much. Ignoring her response, Dan went on, letting her know that as a member of the group, should feel obligated to give Robert what he needed. That was enough for her to turn on a heel and leave the bar. She wasn’t finished with Dan, went to let Helen know about the one sided conversation. Dan was in trouble, and Stella couldn’t help but smile. Once informed about Dan’s conversation with Stella, Helen was quick to search him out and give him a tongue lashing about keeping his nose out of other people’s personal affairs.

It was pointed out to Dan that not everyone needed a relationship to survive. Stella was probably one of those people. It could be that Robert just didn’t appeal to her, and she was under no obligation to sleep with him. They knew there were other people alive on the planet, and so it wasn’t just up to them to repopulate the world. Even if it was up to them, Stella wasn’t going to be part of it.

The one thing they were all concerned about, was Robert. out there in the cold, without a rifle. Seeing the grizzly put a scare in all of them. It also put an end to the wandering around outside the motel. For safety they all hung out in the lounge and bar area. Dan still had a drink or two every evening, with Bill joining him with a couple himself. They all tended to sit at the same table with room for all their chairs. There they discussed plans for when the snow melted in the spring. They would again resume their travels, in a more southernly direction. A warmer section of the country needed to be found if they figured to raise the crops needed for their survival.

The generators were drinking down the fuel in the trailer at an alarming rate. Bill figured they barely had enough to last till spring, if they were lucky. It wasn’t even mid winter, but if they had to leave now, they could walk on hard crusted snow, that would support their weight without falling through. The sun shining through the snow clouds, would melt the top half inch of snow, just slightly. When it froze again after dark, it made a very hard shell of smooth ice, that couldn’t be broken without a steel hammer. They still had the bear problem; they weren’t sure if it was the same one. They couldn’t tell one from another, and as long as it stayed away from the Motel, they were happy.

The garbage cans were attacked one night, the racket from the can’s being tossed around, panicked the women. They knew it was the bear, and could hear its grunting and heavy breathing. Every one hung back from the windows, lest the grizzly see them and come busting through. Seeing Helen and Gloria hanging on to their men, and being comforted in their arms, gave Stella her first feelings of regret. She wished Robert was there with her. She felt the need of a man to sooth her fears and hold her tight. She was tired of being alone. Perhaps it was the cold drafts that often chilled her. The moments when the other two couples were dancing to the jukebox, brought back memories of high school and college. It hammered in the fact that she was alone. Now with a grizzly on the prowl, looking for food and attracted by the garbage, she wanted more than anything for Robert to return.

Dan and Bill stood ready with the rifles. If the bear broke in, they planned to fire until the magazines were empty, then pickup the shotguns, loaded with double aught, and empty those into the bear. From the stories they’d heard over the years, Grizzlies were hard to kill. Neither man wanted to find out if their plan would work. So, they remained silent in the lounge, hoping the bear would be satisfied rummaging through the garbage cans. They all breathed a sigh of relief when the bear, grew tired of sniffing around the trash cans and wandered off. A few days later it paid them another visit, but it went about the same. The grizzly nosed through the garbage again, and after a while, left like it did the first time. So now when dumping the garbage, they looked around very carefully before stepping outside.

The snow continued to fall and build up a deep layer around the Motel. They were making trips out to the motorhomes and bringing in some of the food supply from there. The motel restaurant still had food, but the things they liked were becoming scarce. The one thing they had plenty of was Chili. Big cans of it. The women didn’t care for the effect it had on the bowels. Blasting gas out their rear ends, was something the two men enjoyed. The women figured they had enough problems, without having to ease out gas bubbles. It was just unladylike to fart like the men, who found it hilarious.

It was Bill who spotted the strange phenomena was coming up the highway. A great cloud of ice and snow was being thrown into the air. It could only be one thing. A large snow removal machine was coming, and pulling a box trailer behind it. Roberts back, he shouted to everyone. Bill was right, the snow plow slowed and the cast off ice and snow plume was no longer flying off the road, but was just being moved aside. The plow came to a stop, still on the highway with Robert opening the sealed driver’s side door. He was wearing cold weather gear, and a big smile. Descending quickly to the untouched frozen ice sheet, he asked if they were ready to leave.

There was a lot of hugging and hand shaking all around. Robert gave each one a hug, including Stella. Then he began telling them of his recent adventures. He was almost frozen to death at the start, but found recent burnt out buildings which were still smoldering. He was able stoke the flames up again, and survive the night. The next day he hurried on and came to a small community with every house intact. A home with a wood stove was his for several days, while he thawed out, and found better clothing for the cold weather.

It was then that he discovered the land was populated by wild animals. He saw the buffalo, but also the wolves that had been reintroduced to the lower forty eight. Cattle and wild cats, cougar and lynx, all kept some distance away. They were hunting and looked to have been feeding well. Finding a sporting goods store, he outfitted himself with several weapons. The pride of his collection was several magnum revolvers and rifles. One revolver was strapped to his chest with a shoulder holster, but so far, he’d not found occasion to use it. He did see some evidence of other people living in the area’s, but never found them.

When he found the abandon highway department shop and the Snow plow, sitting inside without batteries, he figured it would run, if he found a way to repair some batteries. Which was easy to do, as there were brand new ones on a shelf. All they needed was the battery acid and the truck was ready to go.

The box trailer he hitched behind the truck was filled with food and gear he’d liberated from some sports stores. Several times he stopped on the way back, to check out loads in some of the abandon trucks along the highway. Most were filled with items of fast sellers. The things stores were restocking after every day sales. There were several cases of booze, mainly scotch, which was the first item that was carried into the lounge.

Robert greeted every one warmly, except for Stella. He avoided her as if she didn’t exist. While she had been glad to see Robert return and had been thinking of softening her stand against him. His ignoring her, bristled up her anger.

Back inside the lounge, Robert relaxed in the warmth. He made himself comfortable and poured a glass of whiskey to sip on. He was only able to get a few small sips in before the warmth of the lounge, put him to sleep. His whiskey sitting on lamp table beside the lush recliner he was sleeping on. Physically he was exhausted. Being in the cold for so long, had taken a lot of energy and sapped his strength. Dan told everyone to let Robert sleep. There would be plenty of time to talk when he woke the next day. Until then, they should see about a good meal waiting for him.

With Roberts return, they again had the choice of moving on. They didn’t have to wait for spring, and could clear the road ahead with the snowplow.

Dan still planned on moving west, and taking the motorhome with them. They had the snow plow and the pickup with the fuel trailer. Since Robert had brought the Snow Plow, he was elected to drive it. Dan took the wheel of the motor home and Bill drove the other pickup. After a stop at a electronic store, each rig had a CB radio included. Helen and Stella riding in the motor home, used a map spread out on the table to plan out the route. They were still heading west, but with a dip south to get out of the cold weather, and thaw out a bit. They were looking for some farmland where they could grow more than one crop a year. Also, a variety of crops, to extend the food supply. Every little burg along the way, they searched the stores for seed packets. A good supply of fertilizer was also loaded on the truck.

They were able to travel almost fifty miles a day. Having to clear the highway of debris and pile ups of abandon cars, slowed the drive down considerable. Dan was experiencing some problems with the motorhome, so they all stopped and got another bigger and fancier one. They did the same with the pickups and trailers. They were out of the snow now, and could see herds of cattle and some sheep in the open fields as they passed. The one thing they didn’t see was another human being.

They stopped several places for a few days rest from traveling. It usually took a few minutes for the men to hook up the generators and get the places running again. They cleaned out the dead remains and if the place was in good condition, they stayed for a while. After getting the places livable again, it was hard to leave. Especially when they cleaned a swimming pool and were enjoying all the comforts the places provided. The motorhomes were comfortable, but they liked stretching out in a big house better. For one thing the beds were always more comfortable and bigger.

Robert shot a steer. He and Bill pulled it into a butchery and dressed the animal out. Dan seeing them working on the beef, told the women, that they were going to be staying for a while. They were not wasteful, and couldn’t pack the entire cuts with them. They didn’t have enough refrigeration. The butcher shop in town did, so the cleaned the meat locker and washed it down with lysol. The smell of rotten meat was almost gone, and they had a place to store their meat. They had to stay and eat the steer. With steak and roasts added to the diet, made for many happy meals.

They had plenty of beer, and when they made the long stops, Robert drank heavily. Helen concerned with his over indulgence, confronted him. She was concerned about his health. The men were all important to their survival and keeping their morale up was very important. Robert confided that drinking made him feel good and it was about the only thing that did. Helen knew there wasn’t a thing anyone could do to lift his mood. No one but Stella, that is.

Down at the laundromat, Helen found Stella washing several loads of laundry. Clothing was the one thing that they kept and cleaned. They didn’t care to keep searching for new things that fit. The men all took to wearing the same type things every day, making daily selection simple. Robert enjoyed camouflage coveralls, as they had plenty of pockets for the special tools, he used for getting the places like the motel up and running.

Getting right to the crucks of the matter, Helen asked Stella what the hell was the matter with her. They all had to work together to make a go of it, and she wasn’t doing her part. Stella denied the accusation, saying she worked just as hard as anyone else. Helen pointed out that there was more to it than just working. She needed to do her part and take care of Robert, before he drank himself to death or just decided to hell with it and left for good.

Standing back, Stella asked what was she expected to do, and Helen put it bluntly. “Sleep with him.” Helen didn’t care what her personal problem was, Robert was a man that needed a woman, and Stella was to fulfill that role. Shocked that she was being told to put out like a prostitute, she started to turn and leave the laundry room. Helen called after her, questioning her on who she was holding out for. If she wanted Dan, well okay. She would take Robert to bed, because she would have to do it sooner or later, just to give the man some release. Hearing her, Stella’s mouth dropped open. The idea of putting out, just so the men could get their jollies off, was against every moral code she’d been brought up on. Helen reminder her, that there was no one else around. Moral codes be damned. They were a group and had to take care of each other. Robert had certainly been doing his part, now it was time for Stella to drop her panties and take care of the man.

Helen saying that she would have sex with Robert while she was still sleeping with Dan, Gave Stella something to think about. There were other people in the world, the contrails of the jets in the sky proved that. Almost any man would be willing to have sex with her. This she knew from the time of her first period. Would she find a man of like caliber of Robert, who was a tall order to measure anyone else by? Just going over, it in her mind, she realized that she was really drawn to the man. Only her silly mind games was keeping her from going to him.

Reaching a decision, Stella went looking for Robert. She wasn’t going to just jump in bed with the man. No, she intended on having him approach her one more time, and then jump into bed. To do that, she made up an excuse that she needed some special clothing, and asked him to escort her to one of the large clothing stores they had passed. Robert was very hung over from emptying a whiskey bottle, and was reluctant to go. Unshaven and unwashed, he wasn’t quite the handsome male that Stella was used to seeing. Nevertheless, she presented her problem as a medical necessity. Robert never questioned any woman on health issues. He was just damn glad to have been born a man and not with all the maintenance it took being a woman.

The road was still clear and in good condition. Stella on passing the Snowplow, Robert intended driving, got his attention and pointed to one of the more luxurious cars parked around the motel. She explained that if the road was clear enough, she’d rather ride in a nice car, and bring her shopping back with out fear of getting grease stains on everything.

Sounded reasonable to Robert, so he found the right key for the one Stella wanted and after jumping the battery with cables from the Snowplow, they were off to the nearest store. Robert was carrying a shot gun and wearing a magnum revolver on his hip. There were too many dangers to go strolling around with out protection. The sightings of bears and some wolves were becoming regular events. Even with plenty of game for the predators to hunt, they might decide to take a bite out of a human too.

Picking through several female pregnancy garments, Stella dropped them into the shopping cart, then headed over to the racks of clothing she really came for. Robert wasn’t paying much attention to her shopping, but was constantly surveying the surroundings. He had seen several buildings with animals and birds coming out though broken windows. He didn’t dare slack off in his vigilance. Even when Stella asked for his opinion of some article of clothing. He hardly noticed, but gave a nod of approval with out really looking.

Finally, Stella held up some baby doll sleep ware. Holding against her torso, she asked if Robert thought it would look good on her. This time Robert did look and he looked hard. He said she would look good in anything. That brought a smile to Stella’s lips, and she told him. “I hear you might be leaving. I want to look good while were traveling, because I want to go with you.”

The words just set him back on his heels. He wasn’t expecting stella to say anything like what he just heard. He gave a slight negative shake of his head, and told her that she was one of the reasons he was leaving. Just being around her was too much, not to have a special relationship with her. After having his advances flatly rejected, he wasn’t ready to believe she was wanting anything more from him. His question to her was a big “Why”?

“Because I know I’ll be safe with you. You won’t abuse me, or deliberately hurt me in any way.” Stella felt it was time to open up to Robert. He needed to know that she wanted him, and was ready to give her self over to a relationship. “I’ve been wrong, and now I want to go with you, where ever you go. I don’t want to live some place, if you’re not there.”

The words coming out of Stella’s mouth, puzzled Robert. This was a ninety degree turn in her attitude towards him. The request that he bring her to the stores so she could collect some medical necessities had surprised him, but women did need extra hygiene care. This strange new side of her, reminded him of some high school affairs that went bad. He’d been set up several times to let his guard down, and then have the rug jerked out from under him. No, he wasn’t buying Stella’s spiel.

“Well, lets think it over. We have time, and you need to be sure this is what you want.” Robert finally responded after several moments thinking about it. He’d let whiskey become his comforter, and even now, was longing for a drink. Stalling for time to think and form some sort of answer, he assured Stella that he’d give her an answer, long before leaving. For the moment he told her he wasn’t quite ready.

Back at the motel, Robert gave their talk, some deep thinking. Taking a woman along with him, would make the nights more comfortable. There was also the trouble of not only looking out for himself, but Stella too. He had resolved himself to the fact that he wasn’t what Stella wanted. Even though she was claiming she now saw him in a different light, he had been rejected. He came to the conclusion that traveling alone, he could keep a clear head. He would be leaving early the next morning, before the rest of them woke up.

He would be traveling light, taking only a few ration packs and some water. The only other items in his pack would be two wool blankets, a can opener, extra ammo for the rifle and pistol, a fire starter flint and a packet of fishing lures, hooks and lines. This would be the camping trip he longed to take as a kid. He decided to go it alone and not have it spoiled by a woman’s sudden attitude shift.

When Stella woke the next morning, she sensed something was different. Going to where Robert usually slept, his spot was empty. She didn’t need anyone to point out, that Robert was gone. He had made a decision to live a life with out her. And it hurt.

The source of this story is Finestories

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