Cowboy (Chapter 4)


Cowboy - Chapter 4

Winter was approaching as Craig headed northwest. He began looking for a good situation where he could lay over until spring. It wasn’t until he got to Amarillo that he found an operation needing a hand for the winter.

It was another small ranch needing a little help handling the stock. It was owned by a very young couple with a baby. Alfred and Gwen Jennings, and little Stevie. They’d squatted on the abandoned land and set up a ranch. Having come out of a very successful retreat in Amarillo, the couple had big plans. They had the wherewithal to acquire stock and set up a fairly self-sufficient operation.

Their eyes were a bit bigger than their abilities. They ran out of money and tradable items about the time late fall rolled around. There was no way Alfred could take care of everything by himself. Gwen was pregnant again and in no shape to help, between that and taking care of Stevie.

They’d tried to hire hands for future shares, but people needed sustenance now, not in a couple of years. But Craig just needed a place to stay, something to do to keep him busy, and feed for the horses. He had enough trading goods, not to mention gold and silver, to get the provisions he needed for him.

So, when he heard about the desperate couple, Craig rode out to the ranch to see what kind of deal he might make. He nearly got shot in the process. Alfred was out with the stock, and a very nervous Gwen shot first and asked the questions after Alfred showed up a few minutes later at a gallop, having heard the shots.

Craig was sitting quietly on Clyde, just out of sight of the ranch house when Alfred rode up, the horse sliding to a stop. Alfred ran into the house, and a few minutes later, called out, “We’re armed! Move along and you won’t get hurt!”

It was sheer bravado. Alfred’s voice had been quivering when he yelled out the warning. “You realize, don’t you,” Craig called back, his voice just loud enough for them to hear him in the house, “that if I was intent on harming anyone I could have shot you down when you rode up. I’m here about the job you’ve been advertising.”

“How do we know that’s the case?” Alfred called back, his voice a bit more under control.

Controlling Clyde with knee pressure, Craig rode back into sight of the house, his hands held up so they could be seen. “You don’t, really,” Craig said calmly, “But if you give me a chance to talk to you, I’m sure I can convince you.”

It was Gwen that made the decision. “Al, maybe I over reacted. He was just riding up calmly. And he has a whole string of horses. He didn’t shoot back or anything, just turned around and waited for you.”

Alfred stepped out on the porch of the house. “Okay, mister. Come ahead. But keep your hands where I can see them until I’m sure you are what you say you are.”

Craig did as instructed. Alfred was impressed with his ability to guide Clyde without using the reigns and the well mannered string of pack animals following him on a lead rope. The bandits that had plagued Amarillo in the early days after the war, when Alfred and Gwen were children, had traveled hard and fast and light. Despite looking like an outlaw, Alfred was getting the feeling that Craig was anything but. But he still held the rifle pointed at Craig.

When he reached the house, Craig swung down off Clyde, and before Alfred could react, had the rifle out of his hands, the magazine dropped and the round in the chamber ejected. Strictly in passing Craig noted the gun was an AR-15 tricked out M-4 style. He handed it back to Alfred and said, “I’ve had a lot of guns pointed at me lately and am a little shy around them. I’d appreciate being heard out with the gun in my face.”

“It’s okay, Al,” Gwen said, taking her husband’s arm to keep him from trying anything foolish out of embarrassment of being disarmed like that in front of his wife.

Craig bent down and picked up the ejected round, handing it and the magazine to Alfred. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m just a little jumpy around guns.”

“I had to be sure,” Alfred said, managing to keep the whine out of his voice.

“Of course you did,” Craig replied, slightly regretting his actions. He should have handled it differently. But it was water under the bridge. Just have to make up for it in some way. “Now I don’t mind talking out here, but the door is open and I doubt you have heat to spare.”

“Well… I suppose you could come on in and we could talk. If you’re really here about the ranch hand’s job.”

“I am for a fact. But just for the winter. I’m on my way to Wyoming next spring.”

Alfred and Craig followed Gwen into the house, and Gwen offered Craig a seat. Craig took it and the Drover’s coat slid back a bit, exposing the Ruger, Whippet, and derringers Craig wore.

Alfred blanched and so did Gwen. They both suddenly realized that Craig could have done anything he wanted if he had been so inclined. He hadn’t, and despite being in the presence of a heavily armed man, the two relaxed.

“I should say up front,” Alfred said, “That I can’t pay very much. We were really wanting a full time, long term hand that would take a small cut when we begin selling off some of the cattle and horses next spring.”

“That’s okay,” Craig said. “All I want is a bed under a good roof, and a barn and feed for the horses for the rest of the fall, the winter, and early spring. I’ll provide my own provisions. But sure would appreciate having them prepared for me. I’m not much of a cook.”

“Excuse us for a moment,” Gwen said, again taking Alfred’s arm. This time she led him into the kitchen.

Craig looked around the living room as the two of them whispering back and forth. It was obvious that one of the couple had come from a very well to do family, particularly for after the war. The room was fairly simply appointed, but everything looked to be of the best quality.

His perusal of the room was interrupted when Alfred and Gwen came back into the living room. Immediately Alfred said, rather forcefully, “You’d have to stay in the barn,” But his voice was a little less aggressive when he added, “There’s an office in there with a bathroom… It really shouldn’t be too bad.”

“That’s fine,” Craig replied. Though he didn’t say it, the idea of staying in the house with them, especially with one baby in the house and another on the way, was way down on his list of preferences.

“And it will be really hard work. I would hate to be let down in the middle of the winter if you found the work too hard.”

Craig smiled slightly. “Oh, I don’t think you’ll need to worry about that. What say we give it a couple of weeks and if you don’t like the quality and quantity of my work we’ll just call the whole thing off and I’ll saddle up and ride off, with no hard feelings.”

“Well…” Alfred said slowly.

Gwen, however, immediately said, “You’re hired.”

What could a husband do but nod in that situation? Alfred nodded.

“If you’ll show me the barn, I’ll get my string put up and you can get me started on whatever needs done first.”

Alfred, perhaps just a bit reluctantly, led Craig outside. Craig whistled at Clyde. He’d drifted, with the other horses, out onto the lush grass of the lawn and was grazing. Clyde looked up and headed toward Craig, the other horses obeying the whistle as much as the lead rope looped around the saddle horn of the saddle on Clyde.

“You have a way with horses,” Alfred said, more than a little impressed.

“Fairly newly acquired,” Craig admitted. “But we have been on the trail for some time.”

Craig looked over the place as he followed Alfred over to the barn. It was set quite a distance from the ranch house. It had obviously been an equipment barn before the war. Now it was an animal barn. Most of the concrete floor of the large, slope sided metal building was covered with several inches of earth.

There were half a dozen horses already stabled in the barn, but there were plenty of empty ones available for Craig’s horses. Craig had to give Alfred credit. He had big ideas.

The office in the barn was more than adequate for Craig’s personal use. The large leather sofa was a hide-a-bed, and the bathroom had a shower. For someone used to living outdoors for long periods of time, it was a luxury suite.

“We run the generator for two hours in the morning and two at night. The rest of the time you’ll have to make do.”

“No problem. I can find my way around for now,” Craig said, anxious to get the horses stabled and fed. They were smelling the grain stored in wooden bins built along one wall and were ready for it. They knew what staying in a barn meant.

“Come over to the house and we’ll get you started after you get settled in,” Alfred said, turning and leaving without another word.

Craig chuckled. Alfred needed to get a little of his own back. Craig could understand it and let the little things go. One after the other, Craig unloaded and unsaddled the horses, putting each one in a stall, after leading them down the occupied stalls so the horses could all touch noses and familiarize themselves with one another.

After stacking all the panniers and pack saddles in another of the empty stalls, Craig took his saddle bags into the office and began to rearrange a few things to suit him. He went back to the pannier that held more of his limited personal gear and took the old duffle bag to the office and tossed it in a corner.

“Home, sweet home. For a while.” Craig said, and headed for the house as a blustery wind picked up, blowing swirls of leaves from the many trees that grew around the house.

He expected the first job to be a hard one, and Craig wasn’t disappointed. One of the constants in the post apocalyptic world was cutting firewood. Fortunately, with the greatly reduced human population, new growth was coming in faster than wood was being cut, despite so many people needing it.

“There’s a good stand of trees we’re harvesting about a mile that way,” Alfred said, coming out of the house with Craig. He pointed, and then said, “We’ll take the truck. The firewood stuff is already in it.”

Craig had seen the old Ford pickup sitting in the driveway of the house. With some pride, Alfred explained. “Got a rebuilt diesel in it. My father makes biodiesel on his farm the other side of Amarillo, so I have a good supply.” He looked at Craig when they got into the truck. “We still limit the use to real needs. Don’t expect to do your work in it,” Alfred warned.

Craig nodded. It took a few minutes to go the mile. Alfred was right. It was a good stand of trees, growing along a small stream. “You replanting was you cut?” Craig asked.

“Uh… well… we haven’t.” Then very quickly he added. “But we plan to start. Got to have plenty of firewood for these longer winters.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Craig commented and then fell silent.

When they reached the trees, Craig saw where a couple had been felled, but not cut up. That was what they did first, using the Stihl chainsaw Alfred took from the bed of the truck. “Pop had contacts on the coast. We get a little gasoline and oil from time to time. Enough for cutting wood and a couple of other things. Plus the lube oil for the diesel engines.”

Alfred finally fell silent when he fired up the chainsaw. As Craig used the double-bit axe to trim the smaller limbs, Alfred cut the larger, and cut the trunk up into the correct lengths for the stoves at the ranch house.

They worked the rest of the afternoon, taking the occasional break. Several more than Craig would have taken on his own. When they stopped, a bit before dark, the pickup was loaded down with wood, and there were several stacks ready for transport to the ranch house.

Craig was prepared to unload the truck when they got back to the house, but Alfred said they would do it the next day. Craig shrugged.

“Get cleaned up and come to the house for supper.”

Craig nodded and headed for his room in the barn. The power suddenly came on. He showered and put on fresh clothes before going to the ranch house. Gwen let him in after he knocked and he met Stevie for the first time. He was a rolly-polly, happy little fellow and Craig couldn’t help smiling and wondering what kind of babies he and Sally might produce. He put the thought out of his mind and joined Alfred in the dining room when he came out of the bathroom.

“Where is the best place to get provisions?” Craig asked as they ate a hearty meal. Gwen was an excellent cook. And she didn’t short the portions.

Gwen and Alfred exchanged a look, and then Gwen said, “My parents run a trading post in Amarillo. Things run short in the fall, as people stock up on the staples, but I’m sure Mom can scrape up enough for you for the winter.”

“We’ve put by quite a bit this harvest,” Alfred said. “We can supply you with quite a bit ourselves.”

Gwen gave Alfred a look that Craig recognized. It was one his Mother had used on him a few times when he did something she thought was incorrect or impolite.

Ignoring it, Craig said, “I’ll have to trade for it or pay gold or silver, since I can’t work it off.” Craig laughed, trying to ease the sudden tension.

“But…” Gwen started to say something, but Alfred cut her off.

“That is fine. Be easier with gold. I doubt you have anything to trade we might want.”

“Sure thing,” Craig said. Then he thought to himself, “Boy, is he going to get it from Gwen. She is not a happy camper!” Glad that the act of eating hid his slight smile, he made a mental note to himself to deal with Gwen when he paid for the food.

The next day, after breakfast, the first thing Craig did was bring in his current supply of provisions and gave them to Gwen while Alfred was outside doing something. He pulled out the leather poke that Jason had made for him and opened it. “How much for the winter’s provisions, Mrs. Jennings?”

“I’m not sure…” She looked at the back door that Alfred had gone out a few minutes earlier. Then, with a resolute look on her face she told Craig an amount of gold coin.

Craig counted it out without comment, more than pleased with the bargain he was getting. Alfred never mentioned the transaction, but he rather pouted the next several days, even as he put Craig through the ringer work wise, Starting with splitting the wood they’d harvested.

With the amount of work that needed doing, Craig wondered what the small family would have done if Craig hadn’t shown up. “Probably gone back to one of their families,” Craig mused. It would have been a shame. The kid knew cattle and had acquired some prime breeding stock as well as feeders the previous year. The losses would have been severe if the Jennings had just walked away from the place.

Craig just worked away, until he decided he’d shown what he could do without complaint. He told Alfred one evening at the dining table that he was going to go to Amarillo in a couple of days and would pick up anything he or Gwen needed while he was there.

Alfred didn’t like it much, but Gwen quickly produced a small list of items for him to try to find for her. One of the items was salt. Craig still had several pounds of it and brought some of it in the next morning and gave to Gwen.

“How much do…”

“Nadda,” Craig replied. “Just my contribution to the provisions.”

Craig, just to keep things amicable waited for three days before he saddled up Clyde and put the panniers on two of the pack horses, ready to go into Amarillo to get the rest of his winter supplies.

Gwen waved from the front porch of the house. Alfred just stood there. “Be back in two days,” Craig said and clicked at Clyde. Clyde hit his long range, ground covering stride and they were off, the pack horses following along on their lead, keeping the proper distance from each other to make travel fast and easy.

Unlike Gwen, Gwen’s mother drove a hard bargain. Craig enjoyed the negotiations and when the final tally was done he was more than satisfied, as was Alice. Craig had his winter’s worth of staples and Alice had a little gold, some silver, and a few trade items.

It took Craig most of the next day to find everything Gwen had on her list, which had lengthened somewhat when Alfred, a bit reluctantly, added a few items to it. Despite his bartering skills, he paid or traded somewhat more for the items than Gwen had given him for her and Alfred’s needs.

As he was traveling back to the ranch, he decided that he’d just leave the difference unsaid, unless Gwen or Alfred made an issue of it. “Best to keep the peace,” he told Clyde. Clyde’s ears flicked back toward him and then forward again. Craig had a tendency to talk to him when he rode but Clyde had learned the difference between ramblings and instructions, and acted accordingly.

It started to snow while Craig was still a few miles from the ranch, but he pushed on. The horses knew the barn and some grain was waiting. They’d been through plenty of snowstorms with Craig and were more than willing to keep going.

Craig stopped the horses at the back of the ranch house and Alfred and Gwen both helped him unload the food and take it down into the basement under the house. Craig saw that, yes, they did have quite a bit of food put up, but the way they ate, it would have been barely enough to get just them through the winter, if it would, indeed, last that long. Craig’s contribution would more than make up the difference. He’d had a feeling their estimation of their reserves might have been overly optimistic.

“Thank you,” Gwen told him when he gave her the items on her list. “Do I owe you any more?” she asked.

Appreciating the gesture, Craig just shook his head. Gwen didn’t press the matter. “Come in as soon as you take care of the horses. Supper is ready.” Craig nodded and led Clyde and the pack horses to the barn while Alfred closed up the outside entrance to the basement.

In pre-war days, the Jennings would have been yuppie conspicuous consumers. They were the equivalent in the post war world. Craig just shook his head at their wastefulness. Apparently they could afford it. They obviously thought they could. Alfred often explained, in great detail, the plans he had for the future. Craig wished him well and went about his work.

Craig was talking about leaving the next spring, but stayed on the ranch for three weeks alone when Alfred took Gwen and Stevie to Gwen’s mother’s for Gwen to have the baby.

Despite the renewed offer, made rather passionately by Alfred, with Gwen’s eager input, for Craig to stay and become part of the permanent ranch staff, for a percentage, Craig was packed up and ready to leave late the next spring. He was eager to be off. The short summers that were the norm now put a lot of pressure on anyone doing much traveling to get it done as quickly as possible.

Craig went into Amarillo again to restock his traveling supplies before he left the area, but was soon heading northwest again, bound for Wyoming, as the weather finally began to warm up.

He was in Colorado, traveling parallel to US 287 and then US 40, when he began hearing tales of a group of bandits working I-70, which was once again a major route of travel between the Rockies and the Mississippi River.

“It just never ends, does it?” he asked no one in particular when he’d stopped in Limon to take a break and do a little investigating. He was at a truck stop with mini-market that had been turned into a trading post for travelers on I-70 and was getting an earful from some of the locals.

He traded a few things off, replenishing his coin supply, and decided to drift east, along I-70 and see what he could turn up. When he intentionally made his intentions known he was warned repeatedly that the bandits would have his head. Not to mention his horses and all his goods. Craig, again intentionally, shrugged it off, saying he didn’t much believe in rumors.

All weapons cleaned and loaded, Craig headed east, despite the fact that it was away from his current goal of going to Wyoming. “First things first,” he told Clyde.

He let himself be seen from time to time, but did most of his traveling well away from the Interstate, picking locations to hobble the rest of the horses and taking one over to the Interstate to do some surveillance.

Craig was surprised at the number of semi trucks he was seeing. Denver was toast, and anything coming this way out of California had to bypass it and several other cities on the route. But trade was picking up.

He noticed that the trucks tended to run in convoys, with, at the very least, a ten-wheel tanker truck of fuel accompanying them, since fuel was so hard to come by. There was almost always a couple of smaller vehicles ahead and behind the convoy, with well armed guards riding in them. Some of the convoys had full tank trailers accompanying them.

From what he’d heard, those convoys didn’t get hit too often. But they did get hit. The main targets were the occasional lone truck or two truck convoy, with one of the trucks pulling a two axle pup of fuel.

There was some private travel, too, and they were often the targets. A few of those, like Craig, were on horseback. Craig talked to a few people on the road, mostly at the Interstate rest areas, which were getting as much, if not more use, than they had before the war.

Craig, taking more time to surveil than to travel, took three weeks to reach the Kansas border. He stopped at the nearest rest area for a few days, gathering information. Still with little to go on, Craig headed back west, traveling the same way he had before, watching more than traveling.

He found what he was looking for, when he was almost back to Limon. There were signs of travel off the Interstate to the south. He’d been traveling north of the Interstate going east. There were signs of horses, but also off road vehicles. The stories he’d heard had mentioned both, but as separate entities. Seeing what he saw, Craig thought it might be two elements of the same group. That would make his task easier.

Craig went looking for a nearby farm or ranch where he could leave the horses for a few days and finally found one. It took some gold, but he was able to make the arrangements. He took Clyde out and scouted the faint trail to the south. When he didn’t find anything after two days of riding, he decided he would just set up an ambush site and wait. If he went much further south he would be too far from his supplies to make staying out possible.

So Craig went back to the little truck farm where his horses were and re-supplied. Then he set up a long term observation point south of the Interstate. He had to fork up a little more gold to extend his stay in the area, but since it had been quite a while since the bandits had struck, Craig decided that an attack would be forthcoming soon.

He wasn’t wrong. Two groups passed his observation point above the trail. Both were traveling slowly, to minimize their dust trail. And sure enough, there were two groups. One in vehicles, and one on horseback. Like Craig traveled, the horsemen had several pack horses with them. From the way the horses were traveling, most of the pack horses were carrying only their empty panniers.

Craig climbed up into the saddle on Clyde and began to follow them. The two groups split at the Interstate, the horse mounted group turning west toward Limon, and the vehicles going east. The vehicles, no longer needing to travel slow enough for horses to keep up, put on some speed when they got on I-70.

Turning west, still south of the interstate, Craig shadowed the group, sure they were bandits, but not willing to either just open fire on them, or go up to them and simply ask. But he didn’t have long to wait to find out for sure.

The group had let a few groups pass them by, but when one of the medium size convoys appeared in the distance, the group’s lead scout came galloping back and the group took to cover on the side of the road, just below the crest of a ridge that the road went over.

Craig ground tied Clyde down in the bottom of a swale and made his way back, carrying a heavy load in the leather haversack Josh had made for him. Taking up an overlooking position of the ambushers, Clyde went prone and set up the M14E2. He was almost two hundred yards from the ambushers.

He saw the scout at the top of the rise signal his companions that the convoy was almost there, and then take up an ambush position himself.

Craig waited for the first shot from the ambushers and then raked the fully exposed ambushers on his side of the interstate with auto fire from the M14E2. He saw the scout break for the top of the ridge and shifted aim. He fired a long burst and saw the man go down.

The convoy had accelerated when the first shot had been fired and made a good account of themselves with return fire. But the attackers had some heavy firepower of their own and despite Craig having decimated the group on his side of the Interstate, the attackers on the north side of the road were able to bring the convoy to a halt. But not before it had mostly cleared the center of the ambush site.

Craig began to lay down fire, dropping the rounds just over the edge of the pavement in hopes of catching the attackers staying down. He gave passing thought to the MM-1, which would have been invaluable for this attack, but it was at the retreat and that was that.

Changing drums, Craig switched to semi-auto fire and started picking his shots as one ambusher or another showed themselves while trying to either get away, or press on the attack on the convoy.

Members of the convoy were shooting back and the attackers gave up and tried to get away. But there just wasn’t much place to go. The attackers had to highline themselves on the ridges as they retreated and Craig and the convoy guards cut them down without mercy.

Craig had lost sight of the ambushers for just a few minutes when they were approaching the road and hadn’t seen where they had held their horses. But he knew the approximate location where they had to be. Leaving the mop up to the members of the convoy, Craig whistled for Clyde.

The horse came running up and Craig mounted him, leaving the M14E2 behind, pulling the Calico. He gigged Clyde into a hard run toward the area he knew the ambusher’s horses had to be, expecting only one man to be there holding them ready to come forward and load up the spoils of war the bandits were expecting to collect.

But there were three men instead of one. Clyde ran right over one of them that had edged up the slope to try to see what was going on. The other two were mounted and took off as soon as they saw Craig.

Much as had happened with the rustlers, Craig directed Clyde to pursue the one closest and let loose with a burst from the suppressed Calico when he was in range. The man went down, and to Craig’s great dismay, so did the horse.

Unable to do anything about it, Craig took after the other man, but he had too much of a head start and Craig was unwilling to try a Hail Mary burst to try and get him, fearful of hitting the horse the way he had the other one.

Craig turned back. The bandits’ horses had scattered due to the gunfire from the bandits guarding them and Craig let them go. He’d do something about that later. He went back toward where the convoy was stopped. Craig rode down to join the men of the convoy, moving slowly so none of the jumpy men would shoot him.

“Was that you up on the ridge, Cowboy?” asked one of the men.

Craig nodded. “You got a handle on things?”

“Yeah. Got a couple injured, but no one dead, thanks to you. How did you get all those guys? And what’s your name, anyway?”

“Doesn’t matter. Got some business elsewhere, so I’ll be on my way.” Craig rode off before anyone else could ask him anything. He checked the dead and wounded on the south side of the road and picked up a few items useful to him, and then climbed back up on Clyde. He stopped to pick up the M14E2, the spent drum, and all the brass he could find, just as he always did, then headed back toward the east at an easy lope.

He left the Interstate where the bandit’s trail met it and he set up his ambush at the point where he’d been watching the trail. Craig was debating whether to get up and go to Clyde to get something out of the saddlebags to eat when he saw headlights approaching as darkness began to fall.

Craig saw the two semi rigs, one pulling two box trailers and the other a box trailer and full size tank trailer. They were in between two sets of the original vehicles of the bandits. Not knowing if the semi truck drivers were bandits, or the original drivers being held hostage, Craig dumped all of his fire into the cabs of the two leading vehicles. One was a pickup, the other a large SUV.

Switching his fire to the trailing vehicles, both of which had cut off the trail and were bumping their way away from the ambush, Craig again kept his fire through the upper portions of the vehicles. One stopped immediately, the other kept going for some little distance.

A man jumped out of the passenger seat of the front semi and began shooting at Craig with a pistol. It was almost humorous. Craig took a bead and shot him down. The two drivers of the semis climbed out of the trucks. They were on the far side from Craig, but both men walked around the front of the trucks, their hands up.

Leaving the M14E2 behind again, Craig hurried cautiously down to the convoy. It was getting dark and he could easily be shot from cover of darkness in the open the way he was. But no shots rang out and the two men held their positions, their hands up, until Craig got to them.

“We’re not bandits!” one was yelling as Craig ran up.

The other one, a bit more calmly, said, “There is people in the back of my truck. We need to let them out. They’re captives, too.”

“Put your hands down. Where’s the other guard?” Craig asked.

The first man replied, “He crawled over me and took off.”

Craig nodded and then motioned toward the back of the truck. Craig watched carefully as the man went over to the dead bandit that had been shooting at Craig and took a key out of his jeans pocket.

“Key,” he said, holding it up so Craig could see it. He went around and opened the lock securing the trailer’s double doors.

Craig stayed ready, his right hand on the pistol grip of the Calico, which was still in its holster under the cotton duster. When the man opened the doors, Craig saw several people crowded back against the load in the trailer. They were obviously terrified.

“Okay,” Craig said. “Get them out.”

Going to the head of the convoy, Craig checked inside the vehicles. Both were bloody messes inside. The one gun Craig would have taken was damaged beyond repair by one of the jacketed slugs from the M14E2. He took what little ammunition there was, and headed for the vehicles that had been the rear of the convoy.

The closest vehicle looked much like the first two. They were gory inside. But one of the dead was still holding a blood covered M1A similar to the one Craig had carried at one time. More importantly, there was a whole shoulder bag full of loaded magazines for it that would work in the other M1A and the M14E2.

Craig picked up a few more things from inside the rig and walked over to the one that had almost escaped. Of the four men in it, the two in the back seat of the SUV were dead. So was one behind the wheel. The front seat passenger, however, was still alive. Barely.

“What are you going to do with me?” the man asked, his head lolling to one side.

“Nothing,” Craig said coldly. “You’re on your own, at the mercy of the people you ambushed.

Craig reached in and took the Para Ordinance P-14 semi-auto pistol that lay in the man’s lap, and fished out the spare magazines the man had in his jacket pockets. The man moaned in pain, but Craig ignored it.

He found two more weapons worth taking, along with some ammunition and three pillow cases of dried foods, mostly jerky and dried fruit. Craig walked back to join the others, clustered between the two semis.

“What are you going to do, Cowboy?” someone asked him.

“Nothing,” Craig said. “I’ve got somewhere I want to be.” He started to turn around and head up the rise to get the M14E2 and Clyde, his arms full of the spoils of war. “I’ll let you take care of the others.” He’d barely taken two steps when the question he was expecting came.

“What’s your name, anyway? Who should we thank for saving us?”

“My name doesn’t matter. And I’d suggest you thank God for being saved.” As the darkness became complete, except for the headlights on the lead semi, which caused as many shadows as it created areas of light, Craig trudged up the hill with his heavy load. Clyde wasn’t going to be happy. But he’d carry the load long enough to get back to the farm where the other horses were.

Just to be fair, Craig walked part of the way, with Clyde trailing behind. Clyde grunted heavily when Craig finally swung aboard, the M14E2 and M1A slung one over each shoulder, the rest of the items he’d recovered in and on the saddle bags.

Craig took a couple of days to round up most of the horses the bandits had used. He was able to get all his coin back from the farmer, and then some, in return for the horses. He took a couple more days to rest up and clean up the bloody spoils of war he’d taken before he once more headed out. Instead of heading for Wyoming, the way he’d planned, he found himself turning south, following the trail of the bandits to their home base.

It took him several days and he was glad he hadn’t kept on the trail the first time he was on the track. When he finally reached the bandit’s base, Craig scoped it out from a distance. It was a ranch out in the middle of nowhere. He saw no activity at all the first day. The second he saw a Mexican looking woman hanging out laundry. There was no other activity, at the house, barn, or bunkhouse.

The third day, again seeing only the woman tending to a small garden, Craig decided to approach the ranch. As standard procedure, Craig hobbled the rest of the horses and then rode slowly up on the ranch, on the road that led in to it on the south side, away from the faint trail north.

He helloed the house and the woman he’d seen before came out the front door. “Go away, if you’re smart. We ain’t buying any.”

“I was looking for work. Is the boss in?”

“Boss and the hands are gone. Now get gone yourself.”

“What would you say if I told you your boss and his gang of bandits weren’t coming back?”

“I’d say good riddance to bad trash. Are you telling me this is true?”

Craig nodded. “Saw it happen myself. Both groups got ambushed trying to ambush people on I-70, up north.”

“Serves ‘em right. My boy was one of them, but he turned into a bad’un. I’ll grieve, I guess. But not right now. What do you think would happen if I took the only horse left in the stable and took off? Maybe taking a few things for back pay?”

“I’m not going to stop you,” Craig said.

“You lend a hand? I can’t get a saddle on that old nag by myself.”

Craig smiled at the woman’s matter-of-fact approach to the news. “You gather up what’s yours and I’ll get the horse saddled.”

Not totally convinced of her innocence, Craig made sure not to turn his back on her, and kept a sharp eye out as he found the horse and saddle in the large barn. He could see why the horse was still in the barn. It was ready for the glue factory. It was a shame. It looked like it had been a good horse at one time. The woman would be lucky to get where she was going on it.

The saddle wasn’t much better than the horse, but use it, Craig did. He had the horse saddled up in a few minutes and had it tied to the rail of the front porch of the house. It was only a few minutes later that the woman came out of the house carrying two loaded pillow cases and a battered old suitcase.

She was also wearing a gunbelt over her dress that held a holstered single action pistol that looked much like the horse and saddle. But the brass of the shells in the loops on the gun belt gleamed brightly. If that was what she wanted, so be it. Craig wasn’t her keeper. He was still pretty sure she’d been a part of the operation, even if that was only acting as gardener, cook, and housekeeper.

“You riding with me?” she asked as she brought the horse closer to the porch so she could step in the saddle from its height.

“No, Ma’am,” Craig said. “I plan to hang here a few days and rest up before I continue on my way.”

“Good luck to ya, Cowboy. This is an evil place and you’d be well put to leave it as soon as you can.”

Craig nodded, but he stood there and watched her ride away. He gave it a few hours and then went to get the other horses. There was enough grain in the stable to give the horses all a good bait.

There wasn’t much in the barn when Craig looked it over in more detail. Same with the bunkhouse. Besides wanting to make sure there wasn’t someone hiding out in it, Craig wanted to check it for trade goods. He figured it was all part of the spoils-of-war.

Craig had a feeling that the members of the gang didn’t trust each other much. There wasn’t much in the bunkhouse worth having. Some clothes that would fit him, that would need to be boiled before being worn, but that was about it.

Like the barn, the house wasn’t in good shape. The woman… Craig suddenly realized he didn’t know her name. She hadn’t even asked his. The woman might have tried to keep up the large rambling ranch house, but it was much the worse for wear and lack of care.

Craig checked the kitchen. Seeing the empty shelves, he was pretty sure the woman had cleaned out all the food she could carry. There was still a sack of flour and a few jars of home canned beans. The flour was infested with worms and at least one of the jars of beans was showing some bubbles. Not a good sign. Craig brought his own food in to prepare supper.

He’d looked the house over quickly after the woman left, before he lost the light and picked the bedroom he would use. It was cleaner than the rest, though the smallest of the rooms in the house. Craig guessed it was the one the woman had used. There were a pair of good deadlock bolts on the inside of the door and closed and locked-on-the-inside shutters on the lone window.

Craig made up the bed with clean linens he found in the tiny closet, after checking the bed for bugs. It was clean. He left the detail inspection of the house for the next day. His sleep was restless. He didn’t actually like being locked inside a room, even if the locks were on his side of the door and window.

Still a bit tired the next morning, Craig was up early and took a cautious look around the house and property again before he checked the horses and then fixed himself breakfast. Then, not expecting to find anything, Craig searched the house with a fine tooth comb, just in case. Bandits were like pirates. Sometimes they buried their treasure.

He wasn’t about to start digging up the yard on the mere chance they might have actually buried something, but Craig was a practical man. If there was something of value here he aimed to find it and make it his.

It took him three days to find it. He’d almost checked it first, but it was so obvious he ruled it out. But since he hadn’t found anything anywhere else, Craig started taking a very close look at the large fireplace in the living room of the house.

He couldn’t be sure if more than one of the bandits had the same idea, or if just the leader hadn’t wanted to risk loosing everything if a hiding place was found. But there were several caches, all of them small, except for two. Tapping the bricks, one-by-one, Craig found the small stashes.

Now, it was years after the war, and much of the commerce was still one commodity traded for another. But there was some money changing hands, in the form of gold and silver. So most of what the bandits had taken in their days had been consumed, or traded off for consumables required to sustain life. And there was none of it to be found in those stashes. But the one thing of value that wasn’t consumable was the gold and silver coins that the bandits had taken over their years of operation, that hadn’t been spent for more of the consumables required to keep them alive.

That was what Craig found. A few coins behind one brick. A few more behind another. And so on. He had quite a pile coins when he thought to check under the fire grate. The house had been built not long before the war, and it had many modern construction techniques used to construct it. That included an outside air intake for the fireplace.

When Craig moved the fire grate he saw the grill covering the air vent. Sure enough, when he worked it free, was an ash covered leather bag pushed well back into the pipe. “No wonder there is so much smoke damage on the face of the fireplace. It hadn’t drawn well with the bag in the pipe. But it had drawn enough cool air to keep the bag from being more than just scorched.

The bag held as much as Craig had taken from the other stashes. On a hunch, Craig went outside and found the inlet to the fire place air inlet. The cover was already loose. It took only a moment to remove it, reach in, and drag out a leather bag nearly identical to the other one, just as full.

Craig almost stopped there. But he decided to check the fire brick on the inside of the fireplace just as he’d checked the bricks in front and in the hearth. He had no luck and was about to give it up, but he reached up and checked the smoke shelf. There was something there. It wasn’t a bag, and it was far too heavy to be a brick or piece of brick that had fallen down the chimney.

With a hard tug to clear the lip of the smoke shelf, Craig had the object free. It nearly knocked him out when it hit him on the head because he wasn’t fast enough to dodge away from it when it fell. The goose egg he got lasted for days.

But Craig considered it worth it. Like the first leather bag that held as much as he’d already found at the time, the box doubled what he’d already found, including both bags. Perhaps even more than doubled it.

“Why?” Craig wondered aloud. “Why? Why would they keep it up, with this much coin stashed?” He was silent for a while, his head aching from the blow and from the question. And then he spoke to no one again. “It had to be sheer greed for more. And bloodlust to kill and torture that kept them going.”

Craig loaded up the coin, along with the rest of his goods, and headed out, again to the northwest. He still wanted those buffalo. He went back through Limon, on his way to Wyoming, and the destruction of the bandits was all the talk.

He’d thought about staying around a day or two, but someone talking about what had happened out on I-70 said, “Yeah. They say it was a cowboy.” The man looked at Craig and continued. “Dressed kinda like you.” Craig decided it was time to hit the trail. The buffalo were waiting.

Craig took it easy through the mountains, giving Denver a wide berth. The Mile High City was now a series of still hot craters. The same nuclear warheads that had destroyed Denver had caused tremendous amounts of fallout east of the city. Though he had a radiation meter, and checked it regularly, Craig circled well east of the city on general principles, unwilling to go into an area of radiation if he didn’t have to.

He made it to Cheyenne without incident. There weren’t many people in the area. Between the mountains that were harsh anyway, and the new, much more severe winters, eking out a living was difficult. There were few remote retreats. Most of the human activity was in and around the cities and small towns, Craig found. It was suggested to him several times that he turn back and head for warmer climes. It didn’t set well with him on general principles.

As he moved north during the summer, his question’s about locating some buffalo were met with what could only be called hostility. The buffalo were making a real comeback, from the captive herds that had survived and escaped captivity. Craig was able to develop a real taste for it, as it was more common than beef in the area. It just increased his determination to take a small breeding herd back to Missouri.

When he was east of Casper, near where I-25 turned west, Craig ran into a road block. It was in a canyon that the road went through that was by far the easiest way for Craig to continue. Since he continued to travel with possible ambush in mind, Craig spotted it before he came up on it.

Watching from up high, with the binoculars, Craig began to wonder what was going on. It didn’t seem like those at the roadblock were stopping anyone. They just seemed to be waving people through without even slowing them down.

Though he still hadn’t come up with a reason for the roadblock where it was, Craig went back to his horses, made his way down to the Interstate, and turned Clyde toward the roadblock. He thought he would be waved on through, but as he passed through the narrow opening, six men leaped at him, dragging him down off Clyde, while others scrambled to control the horses.

It took a few seconds to realize that every one of the men was of Native American heritage. He’d never paid much attention to a person’s ethnicity. His mother had taught him it didn’t matter. What a person did was what mattered.

Two men where holding Craig’s arms up behind his back so tightly he had to stand on his tiptoes to avoid the pain. The men made no move to disarm Craig, merely waiting on someone to come up from a vehicle parked a ways down the road.

When the man got to them, with two more men flanking him, Craig was sure they, too, were Native Americans. “So, Cowboy,” said what was obviously the leader of the group. “You finally got here.”

Craig’s eyes widened. Apparently they had been waiting for him. He looked around. The roadblock was being dismantled. Him and only him, perhaps. Craig looked back at the man.

“I’m Chief Joseph. No relation.” The second part was said with a smile.

“Okay, Chief Joseph, you obviously wanted to talk to me. Have I made some transgression? If so, I will willingly apologize and do what I can to correct the matter.”

The Chief’s smile faded. “There will not be another case of white men from the east coming west and taking away our way of life. You have stated many times since you came into this area that you were looking for bison to take back to Missouri. We will not allow that.”

“I can certainly change my mind, then,” Craig said. “Though I must say, I’ve never had any intention of taking away your way of life. I’m not a hunter out here to kill indiscriminately, the way it happened before. I just wanted to take a breeding herd to Missouri to develop a high quality meat source that can handle the winters better than cattle. We wouldn’t be coming out to get more. We’d grow our own.”

“I understand that, Cowboy. But the bison is, and will continue to be, a resource for us.”

“You willing to sell me a few?” Craig asked and went back up on tiptoes when the two men holding him again applied upward pressure on his arms behind his back.

“Are you trying to be funny, Cowboy?”

“No sir,” Craig replied, around a groan. “Bison being sold is still a resource. A good one.”

“Not if you take them back and begin a breeding program, as you said you want to do, and that we have already done.”

“Okay. How about selling me the products, after processing? Or setting up a process center near the Retreat I’m from and bringing the animals yourself. Be easier to do on the hoof than shipping the finished goods. You could control the process the entire way.”

“You are making a business proposal to me while being held captive?”

“Sure. Why not?” Craig said and tried to shrug, but couldn’t.

“You actually think we would do that?”

“Not to repeat myself, but sure, why not?”

The Chief looked around at his men in wonder. Looking back at Craig, he said, “And what do you say we would get out of this? Beads, perhaps?”

Many of the other men around them laughed.

“Gold beads, maybe, if you’re so inclined.”

A man stepped forward and planted a fist in Craig’s belly, just above the gun belt.

“That’s enough of that!” the Chief said, pulling the man back himself before he could strike Craig again. “We don’t abuse prisoners any more. Those days are over.”

Giving Craig a hard look, he continued. “Don’t be facetious, Cowboy. It demeans both of us.”

“Sorry. That was out of line,” Craig replied after he caught his breath. “Of course, what I meant, was that the payment could be in gold coin. Or goods that we make. Whatever you want to set up.”

“You really are serious, aren’t you,” the Chief said, his wonderment obvious.

“I am. I’m a horse trader, so to speak. I make all kinds of deals for myself, and as lead man for our Retreat.”

“And you would do this as you said? Pay us in some way for bison products. Products that we make.”

“Well, up to a point. Some of the products would probably be finished in some way, into other products, but yes, for the most part.”

“Release him,” the Chief said, waving his hand at the two men holding Craig. They hesitated and the Chief sudden anger was evident in his repeated, “Release him!”

They turned Craig loose and stepped back. Craig worked his shoulders and arms and the man that had hit him quietly warning him, “Make a move I think is threatening and I’ll slit your throat.”

The Chief spoke to the man, angrily, in their native language. Craig didn’t have a clue as to what tribal organization the group belonged to, much less the language. But he heard the disciplinary tone of the Chief’s voice.

“Come sit with me in the Suburban. The air here is chill, and we have had to go back to herbal medicine. As good as it is, I miss the days of Excedrin for my aches and pains.”

“Look,” Craig said softly, so only the Chief could hear, “I can disarm if it would make you feel better. I’m really not out to hurt anyone.”

“No. Your audacity intrigues me, but I don’t fear you.” Suddenly there was a very modern Glock semi-auto pistol in the Chief’s hand. It was very much like the one in the holster in the small of Craig’s back. “And I can fend for myself if need be.” The pistol disappeared again. Craig couldn’t tell for sure just where it was.

“Okay by me. I prefer negotiating from equal footings.”

“Is that true?” the Chief asked, sliding into one side of the Suburban and motioning Craig into the other. “You are a true horse trader, making trades as much for the sake of the trade than the result of the trade?”

Craig nodded. “Something like that, yeah.”

“As am I. That being the case, make your pitch with the idea that it is indeed possible to do something similar to what you say.”

Craig and Chief Joseph dickered for almost an hour, as the roadblock was removed and the rest of the men with the Chief getting into vehicles to wait as what little traffic there was slowed to try and see what was going on.

Finally, Craig and the Chief struck a bargain, pending Quentin’s approval. “Here’s the frequencies we use,” Craig said, handing Chief Joseph a small piece of paper with the Retreat’s information on it.

“Lots of obstacles in a deal like this,” Craig said and Chief Joseph got a wary look on his face.

“Is this going to be another white man’s loophole to allow you to do pretty much anything but what we just agreed to?” the Chief asked.

Craig looked surprised. “No. Of course not. I just wanted to seal the deal with some earnest money.”

He started to reach inside the Drover’s coat for his poke and the Glock appeared in the Chief’s hand again. “Carefully. Very carefully.”

Craig nodded and used his right hand to open the coat just slightly to reach into the inner pocket and take out his leather poke. He opened it and asked, “Ten ounces of gold okay?”

The Chief, surprised once again, put the Glock away and nodded. “I had not expected any prepayment, but if you are willing, I am certainly not going to turn it down. These are still difficult times and many things can happen.”

“That’s the way I approach things,” Craig said, counting out ten of the gleaming gold coins into the Chief’s hand.

“You really like to push it, don’t you?” the Chief asked, when he took a close look at the coins. All but one were the last US gold coins minted before the war. The Buffalo 24 carat one-ounce coin, with a standing buffalo on one side and the profile of a Native American on the other.

The Chief pointed out the portraits on the coins. “Oh,” Craig said, “Those.” He looked up at the Chief and said, “I can give you different coins if you want. I didn’t realize…”

The Chief shook his head, slipping the coins into a pocket, and with an amused smile said, “I wonder how you managed to make it this far from home.”

“My good looks?” asked Craig. He rather liked the Chief.

Chief Joseph laughed. “I think not. There is more substance to you than that, obviously. Now, is there anything I can do for you before you leave our territory?”

The message was plain to Craig. He was expected to leave, and leave soon. “Well… If it is possible, I’d like to do some trading. I came out here looking for buffalo and I’d like to be able to take some product back with me, if that is possible.”

“I suppose that could be arranged. Follow us back to town. There is a trading post there that most of us use as an exchange point.”

Craig opened the door and walked over to where Clyde was tied to the back of a stake bed flatbed Dodge truck. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the Chief apparently laying down the law to the man that had punched Craig. The men that had ridden horses to the roadblock climbed aboard their horses, as did Craig.

They all waited for the few vehicles to get turned around and headed up the road before the trailed along behind at a steady pace. The vehicles were long gone. Craig started up a conversation and was already making trade deals when they rode into the small town that was the base camp for Chief Joseph and his people.

Craig made his trades, spent the night in the motel that the Chief owned, forking over a bit of silver for the privilege, and left early the next morning. After much thought, Craig decided against going further west. Instead he turned northeast, with the intention of picking up I-90 and going east to Lake Michigan to see what he might be able to turn up in profitable trade agreements.

The weather was a nagging worry and he kept a sharp eye out for a good situation where he could lay over in relative comfort for the winter, working for his keep, as he had in the past. Craig was a very good judge of the post apocalyptic world weather normally. But he badly misjudged the coming of this particular winter.

He said more than one prayer of thanks for being where he was when the first big snowstorm caught him out in the open. Fortunately he had been taking it easy a couple of days for the very reason that he was able to stay where he was when the blizzard started. All the things the valley offered.

He’d found a large, currently uninhabited valley in the Black Hills west of Rapid City, South Dakota. The valley floor was covered with waist high wild grass. Craig wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but it looked like oats growing wild with the grass. True or not, the horses loved the just cured grasses.

There was a small stream right down the middle of the valley, paralleling an old, mostly overgrown, gravel road leading somewhere up into the higher hills. There was one copse of trees near the road and the stream, and Craig set up camp in a tiny clearing inside the copse.

He cut down a few saplings and made a pair of large lean-tos facing each other, about three and a half feet apart. Craig dug a small fire pit between the lean-tos. The area between them was roofed over with more saplings, small limbs, and thatched grasses, high enough up to allow the smoke to escape without any going into the lean-tos. He began cutting wood for a fire that wouldn’t go out for months.

Since he was going to be stuck there for the winter anyway, Craig didn’t beat himself up very much for taking the two weeks he had when he killed a large grizzly bear out getting that last little bit food in its belly to hold it over the winter in hibernation.

Craig had just hit the edge of the Black Hills range when he spotted a small herd of antelope. He pulled the Marlin out of the scabbard, ground hitched Clyde, and began stalking the antelope. It took him three hours to ease up on them. They just went over the ridge.

Afraid he’d loose the chance, Craig ran the rest of the way up to the top of the ridge and started to take a shot at the nearest antelope. They were about to disappear into a stand of trees. Craig got ready to fire at a range of just under two-hundred yards by his estimation. When he fired, the antelope dropped like a rock and the other antelope began to run in a panic.

Craig was amazed that they were running toward him. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Craig dropped another at close range as it ran almost up to him. The rest of the antelope sped past. Craig wouldn’t take another. Two were enough.

Then he saw why the antelope had run toward him and not down the slope away from him. An extremely large, and extremely disturbed grizzly was running at full speed after the antelope, having started his charge just as Craig had shot the first time. But when it saw Craig standing there, it made the slight change in course and headed for Craig.

There was no tree to climb close, and there was no way he could outrun the grizzly. The grizzly slowed some, due to the distance it was traveling at a run, but showed no signs of stopping. Craig waited, rather nervously, for the bear to get a little closer, and then began firing the Marlin as quickly as he could work the lever.

His prayer to heaven for it not to hurt too much was passing his lips when the still running bear dropped, its nose plowing to a stop a few feet from Craig. Craig suddenly sat down. His legs wouldn’t support him. It took some little time for him to recover and get up. He checked the bear carefully. It was definitely dead. So were the two antelope. Craig walked back and got the horses, finally his normal calm self.

He’d never intended to have that much meat at one time, but Craig wasn’t one to waste anything. Times had been tough right after the war and the lessons learned stayed with him. So Craig took the time to skin out and butcher all three animals. He brain tanned the hides, and cut up all the meat.

There was no way he could carry the hides and all that meat the way it was. He was packing a fair load as it was. So more time was taken to preserve all the meat he could. The antelope, both of them, were mostly converted into jerky on racks he built in place, with a slow fire under them.

He built a smoke house and smoked most of the bear, trimming out the massive amount of fat and rendering it for future use. It all went into the cleaned out intestines. It took more time than it normally would, using only the iron skillet and Dutch oven that Craig carried.

As it was, he had to leave some of the less desirable cuts of meat of all three animals, and travel much slower than usual, because of the heavy loads that the horses were carrying. Craig stopped more often, as well, traveling only a few hours a day. Craig quit switching between Clyde and Mule Ears as Mule Ears was carrying a good pack load on the saddle.

Between the delays, and the actual misjudging, Craig found himself snowed in for the winter, in about as good of shape as one could ask to be in such a situation. The few fresh potatoes, carrots, and onions he had with him didn’t last all that long, despite rationing himself harshly. The dried fruit lasted longer, as he rationed that even more harshly.

Fortunately he did have the meat from the antelope and the bear, along with all the buffalo jerky, pemmican, and pinole he’d traded for as future trade goods.

The mostly cured bear skin went down on the bedroll tarp under one of the lean-tos, with the buffalo robe used for extra cover when Craig slept, using his regular bedroll wool blanket on top of the bear skin.

The two antelope skins were hung from either end of the roof between the two lean-tos. With them in place, and the thatching of the lean-tos covered with a thick layer of leaves, and then snow on top of that, Craig was as snug as a bug in a rug.

Besides the corral he made inside the copse so the horses had some protection, he built a couple of wind walls to cut the bitter wind even more. He took them out just about every day for them to graze on the grasses of the valley outside the copse, and to water them and get water for himself.

As the snow accumulated, the horses had to paw some to get to the dried grasses, but they seemed well able to do it and get more than enough to eat. They actually gained weight during the winter. Their coats were long and shaggy. Between that and the cover the wind breaks and the copse provided, they weathered the winter without suffering.

The small stream ran well into the winter, but finally froze over. Craig was able to chop a hole in the ice to get to the small amount of water still flowing for the horses to drink and for him to fill his several canteens when needed.

Craig was just getting ready to shed the Drover’s coat and climb into the bed for the night, one very cold night in late January, if his calendar keeping was accurate, when the horses started acting up.

The horses were seasoned travelers and caused Craig few problems. If they were disturbed, there was a good reason. Craig grabbed his wind up flashlight, gave the crank a few turns and then picked up the Marlin and stepped out into the dark, to see what was going on.

The corral was just a few steps from the lean-tos and the horses moved toward the man and the light, comfortable with both. Craig went one way around the corral. The horses stayed where they were, near to the lean-tos, still riled up.

Craig suddenly saw why the horses were agitated. Light was reflecting from animal eyes several feet away, in the trees. At first, Craig thought it was a wolf, but suddenly doubted there would be just one. He was easing the Marlin up into position when the animal charged him. Craig dropped the flashlight, snap fired the Marlin, worked the lever and fired again.

But the cougar was on him. The animal raked Craig with a paw as it knocked him down and kept going. Scrambling to his feet, Craig worked the action of the Marlin again, squatted down cautiously and picked up the flashlight. He followed the tracks of the cougar out of the copse and into the valley on the side toward the closest hill.

Craig didn’t go far. The cougar was lying on its side, breathing heavily, unable to move. Pulling the derringer from its belt buckle holster, Craig put the animal out of it’s misery with a shot in the back of the neck.

Deciding to deal with the carcass the next day, Craig turned around and headed back into the copse to his camp to calm the horses some more. He saw the blood trail of the big cat. Both rounds from the Marlin had hit it. The blood was obvious. It was right in the line of the cougar’s tracks.

But Craig saw the small spots of blood in his track. “Why is there…” Craig’s voice faded away and he looked down at his chest. His shirt was ripped in three parallel lines. Blood was dripping from two of the tears. Craig said a bad word and ducked into his lean-to shrugging out of the Drover’s coat and putting it down by the Marlin he set handy. He took off the gun belt and set it by the Marlin.

Starting to feel the pain, Craig eased the shirt off and looked at his chest in the light from the windup flashlight. There were two jagged rips in the skin in the middle of his chest, with one scratch parallel to the deeper wounds. Craig washed the wounds with soap and hot water, and then fished a bottle of whiskey out of one of the panniers.

Holding the cuts open wide, Craig poured some of the whiskey into each one, gritting his teeth at the intense pain. The whiskey hurt far worse than the washing had, but Craig was afraid not to do it. An infection could kill him. His first-aid kit was little more than band-aids that wouldn’t stick anymore.

The shirt he’d been wearing he’d put on just that morning and was still clean. Craig cut it up with the scissors on his Swiss Army Knife, and made a bandage and wrappings out of it. Craig took a little nip of the whiskey and put the bottle away. He was already getting stiff.

Craig stretched out gingerly on the open blanket and pulled the other half up and over him. He pulled the buffalo robe over himself and finally fell asleep a few minutes later.

He didn’t awaken until late the next morning. Stiff and sore, Craig put on his other shirt and then the gun belt. He shrugged into the Drover’s coat, picked up the Marlin and went outside to take care of the horses. They all seemed fine, except for being somewhat eager to get to water and some feed.

While they fed, Craig went back through the copse and walked over to the dead cougar. Meat was meat, and a pelt was valuable. Despite the pain and awkwardness, and the fact that the big cat had frozen solid during the night, Craig clenched his teeth, pulled out the Laredo, and began to skin and then butcher the cougar.

He was weak and sick to his stomach when the task was complete. He couldn’t do much with the pelt with it this cold, so he stretched it out and hung it from a tree, to be dealt with in the spring when he could work with the pelt.

Craig took it easy for the next two months, the only strenuous thing he did being the cutting of more wood for the fire. With plenty of meat available, now including the cougar, he ate all the protein he could get down, to help the healing process. With the few vegetables and fruit long gone, Craig harvested a bit of the grain that was growing with the natural grasses and added a bit of carbohydrate and roughage to his diet.

With a foot of snow still on the ground in the valley, and the horses feeling sassy, a nearly healed Craig packed up and saddled up in mid-March and headed east, to pick up I-90 east of a demolished Rapid City.

He spend an excessive amount of silver the first place he found that had fresh vegetables and dried fruit left from the winter. Craig ate himself sick one day, came to his senses, and left the little town well fed, and a bit poorer, but with a goodly supply of root vegetables and a small amount of dried fruit, obtained by trade and not coin. He still had much of the buffalo, having eaten the less well preserved antelope, bear, and cougar, though he did keep some of the antelope jerky and smoked bear meat, for variety in his diet.

There was still the occasional snow as he traveled easy, staying mostly on the I-90. He traded for the sake of trading, and keeping his food supply up, in the small towns across South Dakota. Craig discovered many totally abandoned towns. The fallout had been heavy in the area from the nuclear attacks on the missile silos in Montana.

Many of the survivors, located here and there all across western and central South Dakota had to band together to make life possible and moved to the nearest small town that had a decent surviving population.

From what Craig was hearing, there hadn’t been as much banditry in the northern states as he’d run into down south. Craig kept traveling east, hooking up with one group of people migrating over to Lake Michigan to look for a better life on the lake shore.

None of the people were well equipped or very experienced in the kind of travel they were doing. Craig found it hard to believe that several of them had planned to use vehicles, diesel admittedly, to go the whole way, refueling as they went.

Unlike I-70 much further south, there wasn’t the kind of traffic that had extra fuel available, in amounts that were adequate for the group. Craig gave a teenager some extra provisions for him to ride Mule Ears and lead the pack horses for him while he roamed north and south of the highway, looking for game and fuel.

He found plenty of game to supplement the rations the group had, but very little fuel. He was able to arrange for the purchase of some extra horses and a couple of trailers for those with the vehicles that they could no longer keep supplied with diesel.

Craig came to the conclusion, based on the attacks he’d suffered by the grizzly and cougar, and the number and kind of animals he was seeing, that since the war, due to the severe winters, and lack of human population in the area, that animals, both predator and prey, had multiplied and moved southward.

While there might not have been much banditry in the years since the war, the slow, inexperienced wagon train was too good of a target to be let go by someone with the least bit of larceny in his heart.

Craig was able to save the members of the wagon train, mostly relatives of each other, from the scams and hustlers that tried to take advantage of them. He started doing all the buying and trading for the group so they wouldn’t loose everything they had.

Aside from the larceny, the group was openly attacked twice. A small number of the group had firearms and made a heroic attempt to protect themselves and the group, but it was Craig’s skill and the firepower from the M14E2 and Calico that saved the day, both times.

The group didn’t even know about the three times Craig was able to head off attacks before they came while he was out scouting.

Craig got the group to the western shore of Lake Michigan and left them there to their own devices. Several of them had learned much under Craig’s tutelage and he didn’t fear too much for their success without him.

From what he got from the wagon train in payment, which wasn’t much, what he had left, and what he managed to trade for at a good advantage, Craig was able to restock both his ammunition supply and stock of trade goods, both of which were lower than Craig liked to have on him. He’d been able to trade the empty cartridge cases he always policed up after a battle, if he could, five to one for the loaded ammunition. He used only a small portion of his coin reserves during all the bartering.

Feeling a bit better after the trading spree along the lake, Craig began looking for deals for the Retreat. One of the places where Craig had traded for some excellent cheese, he was able to get to contact Quentin about supplying the Retreat with cheese. The Retreat members made enough for their own consumption and a bit more, but there was a market for much more. Craig thought the Retreat should be the one with the supply for that market.

Finally deciding to head for home, Craig turned Clyde south. He swung wide around what little remained of Chicago. It, like several other major US cities, had taken multiple warheads, from multiple countries.

But as he reached a point southwest of Chicago, his mind turned to fresh fruit, as he chewed on a slice of dried apple. “Michigan is known for fruit…” Craig told Clyde. Clyde turned left, due to the unconscious knee movement Craig made.

A rather surprised Craig again spoke aloud. “You understood that? Clyde, you’re a wonder.” He leaned forward and patted Clyde fondly on the neck. “If you agree, it must be the right thing to do. Of course the Retreat produces a lot… But you can never have enough, if you are trading it away.”

Craig went on alert when he caught movement out of the corners of his eyes. Keeping an eye out for any kind of cover, he picked up Clyde’s pace slightly. Whoever, or whatever, it was didn’t follow them, as far as Craig could tell. But the same thing happened as he went east while still south of Chicago.

Craig nearly ran into the camp of a group of people on the southwest side of Chicago, far enough away from the city to be safe from radiation. He eased back, found a place to cache his goods and hide the rest of the horses. He turned Clyde back toward the group. Craig checked them out, which wasn’t difficult. The camp didn’t have very good security.

Convinced it was a simple salvage party, Craig approached and made contact. Several weapons came into view, but it looked cautionary to Craig. He would have done the same thing. “Come on in. Keep you hands where we can see them,” said a man. From his demeanor, Craig took him as the leader of the group.

“Passing through,” Craig said, “Saw your camp and thought I’d see if there was news of how Michigan was faring now.”

“We just happen to be from Michigan.” The group leader’s voice was more than a bit brusque. “We don’t need any cowboys up there, Cowboy. Got plenty of our own people to take care of.”

“I see,” Craig said softly, his back up a bit at the man’s attitude. “Well then. I’ll just move along.” He started to turn Clyde around, but his conscious wouldn’t allow him. “Just so you know, there are some skulkers around. Haven’t had any tro…”

“We don’t need you to tell us about security,” said the man. “We know all about the skulkers, as you call them. They’re harmless. We’ve been coming here for years to get things from the city and we’ve never had any trouble with them.”

“I see,” Craig said again. “That’s good to know.” He just couldn’t help it. Before he turned Clyde he just had to ask, “Anything you all need? I have a few things to trade.”

Before the leader could urge Craig away, one of the women near the back of the group spoke up and asked, “You have any salt?”

“A little,” Craig said. He looked at the leader and asked, “Okay if I do a little dickering here?”

Before the leader could say no, several people moved forward and began asking Craig what he had and what he wanted in return. He always kept a few things in his saddle bags and made a few small trades and then heard one of the men say, “Sure wish we could find sugar. Don’t suppose you have a couple tons of good sugar in those saddlebags?”

It was the opening Craig needed. Their need for salt might or might not have been enough to get a trade route going with someone in Michigan, but by the comment, Craig realized sugar very well could be. He wondered if it was to preserve their fruit harvest.

Craig didn’t have to wonder for long. The same man spoke again. “We need sugar by the ton to make jelly and preserve some of our fruit. And salt so we can preserve fish and meat.”

“Now, listen up, folks,” the leader said, wading into the group to confront Craig. “We don’t need to be discussing group business with a stranger. It’s none of his business.” Looking at Craig he ordered, “Get on your horse now, Cowboy, and be on your way.”

Craig saw that the man had enough power over his group that they wouldn’t interfere any more. He started to swing aboard Clyde, intending to hurry a bit and get to Michigan to see what kind of deals he could set up when a clear voice came from behind the crowd. “Wait,” was the only word said.

It was enough to open a path between Craig and the woman who had spoken. And it was a woman. She was old, Craig could see, but still had quite a presence. Craig glanced at the Leader. He didn’t like it, but he wasn’t doing anything about it.

“Sir, if you are of a mind to do business with us, other than simple trades, please come to my tent and we will discuss it over a cup of tea.”

“Mother!” the leader said, in protest.

“That is enough, Raoul. You take care of your responsibilities and I will mine. Come along, Cowboy. Some one will tend to your horse.”

Craig had a difficult time not making a childish face of triumph at Raoul, but decided it would be unwise. He followed the woman to a large, family camping style tent. She held the flap back and Craig entered.

The tent was furnished simply, with a small table and four chairs in the center section. There was a cot in each wing of the tent. The curtains to close off each wing were tied back.

“Please sit.”

Craig did and she sat across the table from him. “Now, sir, what do you have in mind?”

“I act as representative for my home, a Retreat near Sullivan, Missouri. We’re in need of some things on an on-going basis, such as salt. I’ve been traveling around, setting up initial trade routes that I hope will expand to the point of having a true economy going again, with resources from widely spread areas available to all.”

“I see. A very ambitious endeavor.”

“Not so much. It all starts with one small deal and provides opportunity for others to join in.”

“And do you have many of these trade routes open?”

“A few. A very good one for salt. Another for sugar. I would certainly like to set up trades for your fruit and fish. We have a pretty good thing going for meat.”

“We could use a bit more meat. Our consumption has held pace with the increases of game. Moose gets rather old after a few years of it. And certainly the salt and sugar.” Looking at Craig rather intently, she continued, “You sound very positive about being able to get us sugar. You say you don’t make it yourself, or the salt. Very presumptuous of you to offer in trade what you do not make yourself.”

“I believe my suppliers will come through on their end of the deals. I’m very good at what I do,” Craig said simply.

“I think you probably are. We are a week away from going back to our family holdings. If you would assist us in our salvage work, and then accompany us back home, I can make you a good personal trade. And you will have a chance to see what we have to offer as a community.”

“Just have someone tell me where to put my camp. I’ll go get the rest of my rig.”

“So you do have more than the clothes on your back, and what you carry on your horse.”

“That I do.”

The woman dismissed him and Craig went out. Raoul immediately entered the tent. Craig hurried away and found the man that had spoken up about the sugar. “The lady…”

“We just call her Mother,” said the man.

“Well… Mother asked me to join you for a while. Where should I set up camp to be out of your way?”

The man laughed. “One man and a horse isn’t going to be in the way.”

Craig smiled. “I have a small pack train hidden away near here.”

The man’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh. I see. Well then, Cowboy, I think we’d better put you over on the downwind side of our camp.”

“I’ll be back,” Craig said then. He mounted Clyde and headed off to get Mule Ears and the pack horses with his gear and supplies.

Raoul didn’t like Craig’s presence, but Mother kept him in check. Plus Craig made a point to avoid him as much as possible. Raoul really didn’t like it when Craig made the same deal that the Retreat used for salvage operations with Mother. Those doing the work got a share of the spoils, or the equivalent in other goods, and had a reasonable amount of time to salvage on their own. For Mother’s group, it was all for the group. Except for Craig.

Another thing that upset Raoul was Craig’s refusal to go close to areas that still showed moderate levels of radiation. Several members of the group willing did so. To Craig, the risks were nowhere worth the few things they found useful in the badly damaged areas just outside the craters.

Craig worked just as hard for Mother’s group as he did for himself. He had a knack of interpreting yellow page listings, finding sources for items that simply didn’t occur to those in the group, despite their years of salvage work around Chicago.

From what he was hearing at the end of the week of salvage operation, the group had doubled what they’d located the prior three weeks they’d been there, primarily due to Craig’s assistance.

Craig did well for himself, too, when he was working on his own. He gave the group things they were looking for when he found them when he was on his own time. It was just right, Craig decided, despite Raoul’s constant badgering. None of the group asked him about the items, taking them eagerly, without questioning how he managed to acquire some of them.

One of the first things Craig did on his own was to find a welding supply shop that hadn’t been completely stripped. It was more than a bit awkward getting an oxygen tank aboard one of the packhorses for use with the burning bars he’d been looking for.

Using the burning bars, or thermal lances as they were called by some, allowed him to keep the small stock of black powder he had, and still get into well secured buildings and vaults.

Chicago had been in the throes of total elimination of firearms just before the war and had very few gun stores left in the suburbs. Craig hit every one he could find, despite being told, gleefully, by Raoul, that they had cleaned them all out years before.

Craig checked anyway. Sure enough, two of them had vaults that hadn’t been breached. The thermal lances took care of that chore easily. He gave the group most of the guns, and a bit of the ammunition he found, keeping a few guns to take with him, along with some ammunition. He found a good place to cache the rest. Chicago wasn’t that far from Sullivan. He’d be back for the rest of the guns and ammunition.

He had the same kind of luck with coin and jewelry shops. Though he wasn’t specifically looking for one, Craig ran across a beautiful engagement ring and wedding set that really caught his eye. He pocked it. It wasn’t for sale or trade.

The quality jewelry he bagged up. There wasn’t all that much of the really good stuff. He took all the jewelry making equipment from one of the stores, and all the loose stones and raw materials and cached them, too. Sometime in the future people would again buy jewelry. Might as well have the means to make it as not.

He was disappointed in the lack of gold and silver coins in the shops he found. While he knew he had plenty, one could never have too much gold and silver. So Craig looked for it on his own time. The shops showed the signs of looting, with high dollar numismatics littering the floor. But they were coins with no precious metal content.

Craig expected the displays to be empty, but he found three coin shops with intact vaults. The inventories were very low. Craig decided to check the sales records he could find in one of the stores where he found a few bullion coins.

Sure enough, in the days preceding the war, the coin shop had sold down their stock. Apparently some people had decided on the worth of having gold and silver. Just in case. And this time, the just in case came true. He took what there was and didn’t worry about it any more.

When Mother’s group was ready to head back to their holdings in Michigan, Craig was ready to move along with them. They traveled differently than the other groups Craig had been with. The vehicles loaded with the salvaged items, and most of the salvage team, took off at their own speed, leaving those on horseback, including Craig, to get there at their own slow pace.

Craig kept a careful watch, but those in the horse group assured him that there was little, if any, banditry in the small section of Indiana they crossed to get to the Michigan border. And assured him further that there were even fewer problems in Michigan. Except for around Detroit. That was a bad place and more than one of the group had warned Craig about traveling that direction.

It wasn’t so much that there was a group or two of bandits, it was more that it was just mean town to be in. As the bad element had been chased away by the locals all up and down the Lake Michigan side of the state and the central and northern areas, many of them wound up going east, taking up residence near the partially destroyed city of Detroit.

Craig thought about setting out on a campaign, but decided to let predators fight other predators. The good people of the area were holding their own. If those in and around Detroit preyed on each other. Craig didn’t care. They would eventually die out. As it was, several of the group said there weren’t nearly as many ‘over there’ as there used to be.

Craig had to admit he was pretty impressed with Mother’s holdings when he got to the place on Lake Michigan, west of Kalamazoo. One of the men of the horse group had taken to Craig and was a willing well of information.

While the winters were even more ferocious than before, the Lake tempered them somewhat, and the varieties of fruit in the area continued to produce, though with more losses than before the war. There had been heavy losses in the UP of Michigan, and the northern areas of the section of the state between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

There were a few people eking out a living in the northern areas, but it had mostly reverted to wild woods, with good populations of wild game, especially moose, which was the meat staple for many in Michigan, if they didn’t raise beef themselves.

Shortly after the horse group and Craig arrived on the holdings and got settled, Mother summoned Craig. She got right down to business. Craig gave her the communications protocols of the Retreat and Craig got Quentin involved immediately

Mother was a hard negotiator and Craig had to work for what he wanted personally and for the Retreat. But they finally cut a deal for the Retreat to get plenty of fresh and preserved fruit for distribution in the area, in return for steady supplies of fuels, salt, beef, buffalo, and sugar. The sugar was the deal breaker. If Craig couldn’t come up with a steady supply, the deal would eventually fall through. Though the Retreat was getting plenty of sugar for local needs, and to supply the wider area around it, they didn’t have the quantities that Mother wanted.

Craig packed up and headed for southern Louisiana. He almost veered west enough to stop at Sullivan but decided business came first. The sugar producers were surprised to see him again, at the least. It took some fast talking and some coin to get the owner to make the changes in production that would provide the new, much higher quantities that Craig now wanted.

With Sally and home on his mind, Craig turned Clyde northeast. “Never know what kind of horseflesh we might find in western Tennessee and western Kentucky.” There was always quite a bit going on along a major river, like the Mississippi.

He could see what he could do, trade wise, just because, and take a look around the western side of Tennessee and western tip of Kentucky before crossing the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, for the final leg of his journey to Sullivan, Sally, and his home.

Indeed there was some activity along the river. At least until he got to the border between Louisiana and Mississippi. He was warned about traveling the east side of the River through the southwest side of the sate. It was too dangerous.

When Craig asked about bandits, every person lowered their eyes as they responded in the negative. He couldn’t get anyone to tell him what was dangerous in the area. Craig, assuming it was bandits, despite what he was being told, and determined to break up any gang he ran into, set out north, keeping the Mississippi River in sight much of the time.

The area had taken a lot of fallout from the attacks on Dallas and Fort Worth, and was sparsely inhabited. The few people he met were far more stand-offish than Craig expected, considering his stock of trading goods. When he asked the locals about the rumors of bandits in the area, they just exchanged glances with one another and shook their heads.

Confused, and not a little annoyed, Craig pressed northward along the river. He was west of the abandoned town of Fort Adams when he found the answer he was seeking. He had the shock of his life when he discovered it. It was the middle of August, and despite the changes in the global weather patterns, southwest Mississippi, along the river, was more than just hot and humid. It was stifling.

Craig was taking it easy on the horses. He had just let them drink from the river and turned back when Clyde shied, almost dumping Craig off. It so startled Craig, since Clyde was usually so steady, that he didn’t notice what had caused it at first. Then he heard a sound that he shouldn’t be hearing. It was the sound of an elephant trumpeting.

Holding a tight reign on Clyde, Craig finally looked up and forward to see a rather large elephant, complete with large tusks, flapping its ears and trumpeting in anger. Growing up, part of the home schooling was watching DVD’s of Animal Planet and Discovery programs. Craig knew what a bull elephant ready to charge looked like, with a small heard behind to defend.

Turning quickly, Craig gigged Clyde. Clyde didn’t really need the touch of the flat spurs. He was more than ready to leave the area of the elephants. So were the other horses. Craig let Clyde find his own path through the trees at a gallop. Craig could hear the elephant behind them for a few seconds, but the sounds faded almost immediately.

Craig eased Clyde to a walk, having to reign him in firmly. The other horses, on their lead ropes, tried to get around Clyde, but Craig was able to calm them down finally, as they kept moving away from the area.

Looking around, Craig began to notice the condition of some of the trees. Limbs fairly high up had been stripped of foliage. The elephants were living in the area, Craig decided. It took him longer to figure out a reason they were there at all.

“Clyde, it has to be either zoo animals turned loose when the attack began… or maybe circus animals… or both… or… I guess it could be animals from one of the animal preservation refuges…”

Craig vaguely remembered something that had interested him as a kid. Refuges had been set up before the war to get breeding populations of endangered species going in safe refuges in the US, for repopulating the areas that were their natural habitat, once conservation efforts restored those habitats.

Looking around warily, Craig searched the surrounding thick forest. There’d been other animals besides elephants in the refuges. And zoos. And circuses. Like lions, and tigers. Leopards. Rhinos. Hippos. Monkeys… Craig couldn’t remember everything. That had been many years ago, with him just seven or eight years old at the time.

The point was, that there seemed to be exotic animals in the area. If the elephants were here, others very well could be, too.

Craig was convinced of it when he heard the sounds of a jungle at night, that night when he set up camp. He noted the horses staying even closer than usual, stirring at the loud sound of what Craig was sure was a leopard on the hunt.

Suddenly remembering the .460 Weatherby, 10-gauge double rifle drilling he’d found, and the thought of elephants that had crossed his mind at the time, he rather wished he hadn’t left it at the Retreat, having come to his senses, leaving it behind since there weren’t any elephants in the United States.

He kept the Marlin .45-70 and the M14E2 close at hand during the night. He might not have an elephant gun, but he did have some firepower. It was several days before the horses went back to their old routine, and he ran into people again. He got some curious looks when he rode up to a small town, coming out of the wilds south of it.

He did a little trading, mostly for fresh fish, staying only a day. When he was ready to leave, he told the small group that it might be a good idea to warn people traveling south of the town that… well… it was dangerous. Like many other people, Craig couldn’t quite come to say there were jungle animals in the forest south of the town. He wasn’t sure he would ever tell anyone. Who would believe it, if they didn’t see it?

Craig certainly did believe the reports that started to become common, as trade increased, of other exotic animals roaming in various areas of the United States.

Aside from some locals eking out a living along the river, Craig didn’t find much of interest the rest of the way north in Mississippi. Wanting to see a bit of Tennessee, Craig swung west of Memphis.

It had been hit with only one nuke and while much of the city was destroyed, Craig was able to do a bit of salvaging, mostly looking for high value items. He didn’t find much. The place had been picked over heavily. And the people in the area turned out to be territorial. More than once he ran into highly aggressive groups of people manning roadblocks at the edges of their territories.

After the fifth such encounter, and three sniping attacks that were unsuccessful, though enough for Craig to get Mule Ears and the rest of the horses into a gallop to get away from the danger, Craig turned due east to get away from the city. There wasn’t much reason to try to stop activities that were a way of life. It couldn’t be done, especially by one man.

There weren’t very many people out away from Memphis that he could find, so Craig decided to just head for Kentucky and leave west Tennessee to its own devices. Though, as he traveled further north, after getting back to the river after bypassing Memphis, Craig began to find people a bit more sociable. He spent a couple of days with people from Dyersberg, Tennessee that had set up a presence on the Mississippi at the I-155 bridge head.

Besides harvesting fish, game, and wild fowl along the river, the city sponsored several people with boats in river transport work up and down the river between St. Louis and Memphis. There wasn’t a great deal of traffic, but there was some.

Craig did a bit of trading, just for the sake of trading, and to lubricate peoples’ tongues a bit to find out if there was anything worth investigating in the area. People were doing fine, but Craig couldn’t find anything to suggest a major deal.

Though he did make note that it was a very good place to cross the Mississippi. All the bridges in Memphis and St. Louis were down. There weren’t many places between the cities to cross. The I-155 bridge was one of them. With the small settlement that had grown up at the bridgehead, travelers could take a rest at the inn and tavern that had been built for such purposes. Craig took advantage of the inn and slept a couple of nights in a real bed and took a real shower.

Craig thought about crossing the river and heading home, but Kentucky was beaconing. “Might as well see it while I have the chance,” he told Clyde as they left the settlement and headed north again, along the river.

Much to his surprise, Craig ran into almost exactly what he was looking for, not long after he crossed the state line between Tennessee and Kentucky. While the area around Sullivan had quite a few horses, thanks in part to Craig, there was only a tiny handful of dray or draft horses. St. Louis had been checked for the Clydesdales not long after the war, but none had been found.

Though there was diesel available, increasingly so, farming with horses was still growing much faster than powered equipment farming was. Craig wanted a source of good draft animals. He found it in the western tip of Kentucky.

His thoughts that there wasn’t much going on east of the Mississippi wasn’t entirely accurate. There were several horse ranches in the area, with most of the stock going east. There was life well east of the Mississippi. Some ranches raised riding and light harness horses. Craig didn’t want the competition from them. He concentrated on the draft animals.

Craig found both Clydesdales and Percherons being raised in the area. He cut deals with four different ranches to import some animals to Sullivan, with the intention of starting his own breeding ranch, with the ranches providing genetic diversity in the breeding.

Since it would be a few years before he would have animals for sale, the deal included trained animals in good numbers to get the use of the animals established and help create a market for the draft animals for farming, rather than the much lighter riding and light harness horses that were being used, since they were all that were available.

Quentin okayed the deal and asked when Craig might be headed back. Craig heard the quiet concern in his friend’s voice. He obviously didn’t want to talk about it with the others present on Craig’s end of the radio, but Craig was sure something was up at the Retreat.

The deals made, with a hefty down payment in gold to get the process started, Craig saddled up Clyde and loaded the other horses. It was time to go home. For a variety of reasons.

As he headed for Cairo, Illinois to cross the Mississippi, Craig began to wonder if he’d done enough to earn his place in post apocalyptic society. If he was contributing as much as he was taking. Smiling slightly, Craig patted the ring boxes in the inside pocket of his duster and urged Clyde into a slightly faster gate. It was time to get home to the Sally, and building a home for them and their children. And to see what had Quentin worried.

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