The Hermit Chapter 2


The Hermit - Chapter 2

Neal took his time, keeping an eye out for anything unexpected, not having to worry about making his way through the accumulated snow. The Suburban was made especially for such things.

He had the heater going, but Neal kept the front windows down, for better visibility, ignoring the small amount of snow that entered the cab of the Suburban. When he reached the gate at the end of the drive to his property Neal triggered the remote for the new gate he had installed.

With its own solar panel and battery bank, the opener for the gate rolled the heavy gate to one side and Neal drove through, triggering the gate to close behind him. There were no tracks on the gravel road. Nor any on the pavement when he reached it. There were abandoned vehicles.

Neal drove at a slow, economical speed, conscious that there might not be any more fuel available if he ran out on the road before getting back to the property. It was almost inconceivable, with the 3,000 mile un-refueled range of the Suburban, but Neal was well into prep mode and was making decisions as if it was confirmed that he was living in a PAW.

Going into Sullivan Neal still saw no signs in the snow of vehicles, but he did see smoke coming from chimneys here and there. He decided not to stop at any of the houses. It was too risky until he found out what was going on.

He went to the grocery store he usually used for his local purchases. There were signs in the snow in the parking lot and near the front doors of the store of activity. Mostly boot prints, though there was one set of tire tracks that went close to the doors and past.

Ready at a moment’s notice to hit the accelerator, Neal tapped the horn ever so slightly, producing just a beep, and watched the doors of the store. One of the glass doors opened slightly. Neal couldn’t see through the glass as the light was wrong. He did see the barrel of a shotgun and tensed.

“What do you want?” came the words, without an accompanying sound of a gunshot.

“Information, if you have it,” Neal said.

“Not supplies?” came the question. There was an element of disbelief in the sound of the man’s voice.

“No. Well, I’d get some, if you have them, but I mainly want information.”

“Okay. You alone? I can’t see into your rig.”

“I’m alone,” replied Neal.

“Keep your hands where I can see them and come to the door.”

Neal exited the Suburban, after killing the engine, the remote in his hand. He triggered it and heard the slight sounds of the various locking systems of the Suburban activate. Keeping his hands well away from the Glock 21 he wore openly on his hip, Neal walked toward the store doors, not liking the feeling of having a shotgun pointed at his belly, but desperate for information.

“Stop there,” said the man. The door opened slightly wide. “It’s you. Neal, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. Neal Grant. I buy groceries here from time to time.”

“You’re that loner up in the forest somewhere.”

“That would probably be me, yes,” Neal replied.

“Okay. Come on in. But keep your hands away from that pistol.”

When Neal went inside he stopped. “I’d kind of like to stay where I can keep an eye on the truck,” he said.

“Can’t blame you there. Aren’t many rigs running now.”

“Yeah. Why is that, do you know? No radio or TV or anything. I’m trying to find out why,” Neal said, glancing out the glass of the door from time to time as he spoke.

“What? You live in a cave up there or something? We’ve done had a nuclear war, mister,” the man said.

Neal’s lips only curled slightly at the man’s mention of a cave. He was trying to remember the man’s name. Of course. Same as the store. “Mr. Carmello, I must admit I haven’t been keeping up on the news lately. What exactly can you tell me about what’s happened?”

“Not much. There was a new Kingdom Of Persia, which I guess was most of the Mid-East, announced one day and the next somebody blew up the Saudi oil fields. Kind of sketchy after that. Somebody used a nuke, I don’t know who. The President came on and had just opened his mouth and everything went black and then white and then went off. There’s no power, phone, natural gas, water, sewer… anything. Haven’t had a delivery since and I’m out of just about everything a person needs to survive. I thought I was going to have to shoot people a couple of times.

“Couple guys I know, they have an old jalopy kind of car they told me it was one time, and they were coming back from KC and said they saw a mushroom cloud behind them. Tells me there was nuke war. Wouldn’t take a hit like that without hitting back.

“Now,” he said, “You going to buy something?”

Neal couldn’t hide his surprise. “Thought you were out.”

“I’m out to people that got nothing I want in return. What are you offering?”

“Kind of depends on what you have I might want. And what you’re asking.”

Carmello knew his inventory by heart. He reeled off a list of items of food. A short list consisting mostly of one or two cans or packages of the less desirable food options. Besides not particularly liking any of the offerings, Neal couldn’t bring himself to take food that other people were going to be desperate for, when he had so much stored.

Neal shook his head. “Batteries? Toilet paper? Bottled water? Butane lighters?”

Carmello shook his head no at each item until he got to the lighters. “Those I have some of. Three packages of six each.” A crafty look came over his face. If Neal asked for them, they must be important. “Got any canned food to trade to me?”

Neal shook his head. “What else do you have? Any salt?”

“Just ice cream freezer salt and some water filter salt. No food salt.”

“Okay,” Neal said carefully. “Tobacco?”

“No cigs, but got some roll your own stuff. You want it?”

“Let’s see what all you have before we talk money,” Neal replied, and then added, “Booze?”

This time it was a disappointed look on Carmello’s face. Not much. Let what I had go way too cheap.”

Neal named off many more things as he thought of them. Carmello had some, but not others, and no great amount of any of them. Finally Neal asked, “What will you take for all those items I asked about, that you have?”

With eyes opened wide in surprise, Carmello asked, “All of it?” And then the crafty look was back. “Don’t suppose you got a couple women stashed? I got some good bedroom action for stuff yesterday.”

It turned Neal’s stomach, but he didn’t turn and leave the way the comment made him want to do. “Sorry. No women.” Neal almost offered fuel, but quickly changed his mind. It was just too valuable to trade away for just some other goods Neal could use for trading at some point if the situation turned out to be what it was looking like.

“Be kind of dangerous thing, if a person offered gold, with it being illegal and all, now,” Neal said softly.

Catching on immediately Carmello said, “Sure would be. Person would have to know that they wouldn’t be turned in for passing it. But it’d be worth a lot.”

Neal knew he had the man marked when Carmello added, “A little bit would buy a lot. If it’s available.”

“Say, just for discussion, of course,” Neal said and Carmello grinned, “What would those things I mentioned be worth in gold coins?”

“That’s a lot of stuff,” Carmello said, not at all sure why Neal wanted some of the items. They must be worth something, if he wanted them. “Couple of ounces, easy,” he finally told Neal.

“Silver or gold?” Neal asked, more to annoy Carmello than any other reason.

“Gold! For crying out loud!” He huffed. “Two ounces of silver? What kind of idiot do you take me for? Two ounces of gold! American gold, too. Don’t want none of that foreign stuff.”

Neal managed to not ask him how many kinds of idiot there are. Instead he said, slowly, using what acting skills he had to convince Carmello he was reluctant, “I don’t know. That’s about all I have available. Can you give me a minute to think about it?”

Carmello looked worried. But Neal couldn’t pretend for long. “Okay. But I have to go get it out of the truck. I’m not stupid enough to carry it on me. You start gathering things up.”

With a quick nod, the shot gun set aside, totally forgotten by Carmello, Carmello grabbed a couple of carts and began gathering the items up while Neal went back to the Suburban, to make it look like he was retrieving something, while actually palming two of the Gold Eagles he’d stashed in different pockets of his heavy clothing.

He took a careful look around before he went back into the store. There was no one to be seen, but Neal didn’t want to take any chances.

“You want to help me here?” called Carmello.

“I have to watch the truck. Somebody might try to steal it.”

Carmello’s eyes cut to the shotgun, laying on the checkout counter right next to where Neal stood, watching the Suburban. Watching with his hand on the grips of the Glock. Carmello suddenly wondered what he’d gotten himself into, but continued to gather up items. Neal took a quick glance into each cart as Carmello brought it forward.

More than once Carmello was tempted to go for the shotgun and make a few changes in the deal, but Neal looked like he could handle himself, with that long hair and full beard, and heavy clothing, he looked like something out of the Rocky Mountains in the 1800’s.

When Carmello wheeled up one last cart Neal looked it over and said, “I think you might have forgotten the tobacco and booze,” knowing full well Carmello hadn’t.

“Oh, yeah. One more cart,” with a lingering gaze at the shotgun, Carmello pulled another cart and went to the locked tobacco and liquor cabinet. There really wasn’t all that much, but Carmello put it all in the cart, after one more look to see if Neal was watching him. Neal was.

Disconcerted enough not to remember that Neal hadn’t really said anything about lighter fuel, wicks, and flints for Zippo lighters, he tossed all of the containers and packages of each into the cart.

“Don’t have any boxes or bags left,” Carmello said, lying through his teeth, just to try to get some of his own back. Neal ignored the fact that there were plastic grocery bags in plain sight at one of the check out stands.

“No problem,” Neal said, grabbing two of the carts. “After you,” he said, and waited for Carmello to get behind one of the carts and push it against the door.

Carmello went as far as he could in the snow on the parking lot and turned around. “I’ll go get another cart.”

“That’s fine. You just see if you can’t get that one a bit closer to the truck.” Neal left the two carts he was handling, pulling one and pushing the other, and went back for two more of the loaded carts. Carmello was still struggling with the first cart but was nearly to the Suburban when Neal came back outside. He left those two carts and quickly went back inside for the last two.

When he made it to the rear of the Suburban Carmello was standing there with a very stubborn look on his face. “You don’t really expect me to load all this stuff up without being paid first, do you?”

“Oh, of course not,” Neal said, not having expected Carmello to load any of it at all. He produced the two gold coins and flipped them to Carmello one at a time. Knowing he was getting more than just a good value, Neal muttered something about being a bad miser, reached into another pocket and brought out a tenth ounce coin. He flipped that to Carmello, too, who looked at it in surprise. “Consider it a tip. Now lets get this stuff loaded. I’ve been in one place too long already.”

The third coin seemed to have appeased Carmello and he pitched right in to transfer everything from the carts to the back of the Suburban. Even though Carmello didn’t have the shotgun, Neal never turned his back to him, waiting just a moment for him to head back to the store with one of the carts before he went to the driver’s door and climbed into the truck, having started it with the remote when they unloaded the last cart.

Watching in the rearview mirror, Neal saw Carmello leave the cart and start to run toward the store. But he suddenly slowed, turned around, and began taking the carts back to the store, the thought of trying to take the Suburban and everything else from Neal pushed out of his mind as quickly as it had entered.

Neal’s head was like it was on a swivel, as he checked all around for any signs of people approaching the area, lured by the sight of the Suburban being loaded. But he saw no one, and was not interfered with.

He drove to the Interstate junction, not seeing anyone, but seeing more abandoned cars and trucks. Having read about salvaging goods from abandoned vehicles in some of the stories on the old Internet Prep sites, Neal checked several of the semi rigs, skipping those that were obviously not carrying anything he might want. A couple of marked grocery trucks were standing with rear doors open, empty for the most part. Someone had beaten Neal to the punch. Though he wasn’t really sure what he would have done with any of the goods if they’d been any usable ones left.

It was the same with the fuel tankers. He saw two. Both were empty and Neal surmised that they’d made deliveries and were on their way to pick up more. There were no signs of fuel having been transferred from them where they sat.

Putting salvage out of his mind, Neal parked on the on-ramp to I-44 and took stock. He adjusted some of the things in the back of the Suburban so they would ride better, in case he had to maneuver violently, and took the time to eat a thermos of soup he’d made before leaving the property.

He’d chosen the spot for its safety and only decided after he parked that he might as well head for St. Louis to see if he could find out anything else. Especially if St. Louis was still there. If Kansas City had been hit, it was likely that St. Louis had been as well.

Neal passed hundreds of cars on the way, most having been steered to the shoulder when they lost power, but with a few right in the middle of the lanes. Half expecting to run into blockades on the Interstate, which was a common occurrence in PAW fiction, Neal drove carefully, ready to stop and retreat if he did come up on one.

But there was nothing like that between Sullivan and the Pacific Exits. That was when his keychain radiation alarm started sounding off loudly, the LED blinking rapidly. Neal couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but turned the Suburban around quickly and drove much faster going back to the south-west than he had been driving north-east toward the city. If the radiation was this far out, St. Louis undoubtedly had been hit.

The destruction of Kansas City and St. Louis did not necessarily mean full scale nuclear war, but it sure didn’t mean that it hadn’t occurred. Without running across any more people, Neal went back to the property and parked the Suburban by the Lusby. He plugged the retracting electrical cord from the Suburban to an outlet on the outside wall of the tiny house.

The off-grid electrical system, which had obviously survived, would provide power to electrical heaters in the Suburban. Neal wouldn’t have to unload the Suburban until he was ready. And the truck would be ready on a moments notice, even if got much colder than normal in the area. The retractable cord also fed oil pan and block heaters on the diesel engine, and a circulating heater pump to keep the coolant at a reasonable temperature to help starting and to have warm air inside as quickly as possible.

Neal decided to stay in the Lusby for a few days, for the snow had covered up the tracks in the snow to and from the cave and he didn’t want to make more. Depending on the extent of the attack and the number of local survivors, Neal was sure there would be hunters in his woods looking for any game they could find as food ran out. He doubted his signs would stop anyone from hunting on his land now.

He settled in to stay at least several days in the Lusby. The snow continued off and on the next several days and Neal wondered if it was due to Nuclear Winter.

He went out exploring his property two days later, when the snow had stopped for a while and the sun was shining through a slight high altitude haze. Neal was sure the haze was the remaining superfine fallout particles that could take years to fall to earth.

He kept the keychain radiation alarm with him all the time and it hadn’t sounded off since his approach to St. Louis. If he didn’t get any radiation where he was, all the better.

Neal went directly to the nearest point of his property line from the home site and made a circle of the property, carefully cleaning off each warning sign that was covered with snow, looking for tracks. He checked his trail cameras and tripwires. All were intact. Neal cleaned the camera lenses and called it good.

He didn’t find any tracks that first time, but he did hear two clear gunshots coming from the State Forest lands. Neal stayed out of the State Forest, feeling like it belonged to everyone, and again he didn’t want to take food from someone else when he had his own. He did, without compunction, take a deer right at the edge of his property, within sight of one of his warning signs.

Rather than the game cart, Neal was using a pulk sled for the same reason and loaded the field dressed carcass off the deer onto it, in preparation of going back to the house to finish the butchering process.

He heard something, and quickly crouched down. The BM-59 he had slung over his back coming around into his hands. Though he was carrying the Charles Daly combination gun and had taken the deer with it, Neal had started carrying the BM-59 and a couple of spare magazines whenever he went out on the property.

Neal watched for a long time, but he saw and heard nothing. Finally getting up, a slight catch in his left leg from the cold and squatting position that was affecting the old injuries to the leg, Neal took the drawbar of the pulk and went back to the house.

Keeping the BM-59 handy, Neal butchered out the deer carcass and stretched the hide for later processing. He’d always taken his hides in to a taxidermist for tanning, but had learned the process on the internet and decided to try it.

Nothing untoward happened and Neal put the meat in the large chest freezer in one of the log sheds. There was a companion refrigerator to supplement the tiny one in the Lusby. He didn’t bother wrapping it since he planned to make jerky out of most of the venison in a couple of days. But that evening Neal enjoyed a nice portion of a venison roast with potatoes, carrots, and onions, all gleaned from his guerrilla garden during the trip around his property.

Usually he waited for a couple of days before checking the property after each trip, but it didn’t snow that night and Neal went back to where he’d shot the deer. Fox and coyote had been at the entrails, and the crows were cleaning up the rest. Neal didn’t bother the crows, though he hated their raucous racket.

He walked around the area and found human tracks that stopped at one of his signs. Someone had come up to it and then backtracked. Neal began to walk the property on an irregular basis, never going more than four days between trips, and often doing two days in a row.

But the snow was gone for a while and it was hard to tell if anyone was still coming onto the property. He heard a few shots, some rifle and some shotgun, and at least two or three .22’s. But all were off his property, the best he could tell.

Neal decided he would stay in the Lusby for a while longer, but took advantage of the snow being gone, and therefore no tracks visible to and from the cave, to bring out quite a few items, which he stashed in the lofts in the Lusby and the log sheds. He decided to start using the Hofer funfling again, since he was using the BM-59 and Glock 21, anyway. Chances were that BATFE wouldn’t be back for them.

Using the Bobcat Toolcat with the bucket attached, Neal moved many of the rocks he’d slowly gathered up around the open area of the property and stockpiled, to the start of the ledge on the face of the bluff that led to the cave entrance. The rocks didn’t completely block the ledge, but one would need to be looking for it to see it now. But the powered pallet handler couldn’t be used until the rocks were cleared.

After several days of not hearing shots and not seeing anything, it snowed again, beginning as a light dusting about noon, while Neal was having a bowl of venison stew. He looked up at the sound of a shot, one much nearer than any of the others had been. It had to have been on his property.

Looking out the window at the snow, which was beginning to get heavy, Neal made a snap decision. He set the stew aside, put on his heavy snow gear, grabbed the BM-59 and went out to the Suburban. With the room in the Lusby so limited, Neal had taken to using the Suburban as a closet.

Opening one of the rear doors, Neal pulled out an already loaded large Kifaru military pack and shrugged into the shoulder straps. He closed and locked the Suburban and then headed out onto the property, getting a better feel for where he was going when the sound of another shot came. Though he couldn’t place it exactly, just from the two isolated shots, the general direction made Neal think he might know were the shooter was.


He headed that way, as the snow swirled more heavily around the solitary figure, dressed in light brown Carhartt Arctic bibs and parka, LaCrosse snowpacks on his feet and warm thinsulate insulated gloves on his hands. The hood of the parka was tucked back out of the way for better hearing, but Neal had an Orvis wide brimmed felt hat on his head to keep the snow out of his eyes.

Forty-five minutes later and Neal knew he was right. There were not one, but two gut piles from, by the contents, one white tail buck and one doe. And slowly filling tracks of two people leading away from them. It was one of Neal’s favorite hunting spots, having taken deer himself here over the years.

Adjusting the pack’s ride slightly, Neal began following the tracks, hurrying slightly, not wanting to loose them in the continuing snowfall. He didn’t think he’d have much trouble anyway. The two were obviously using deer drags, which left a distinct trail. He was moving faster than they could dragging the deer. But he didn’t want to be too far behind them when they reached their vehicle. It would take them a couple of minutes or so to load the carcasses. That should give him a chance to scope out the situation and decide what to do.

Neal was very surprised when he cut one of the snow covered fire roads on the state property and the trail crossed it. There was no vehicle. He’d fully expected them to have parked where they crossed the fire road.

Picking up the pace just a notch, Neal continued following the tracks, muttering, “Must be at the other trail.”

But he followed the trail for another hour, and it cut across the second fire road, too. Totally confused as to what was going on in the minds of the pair, Neal kept going. When he caught up with them he was taken aback by what he saw.

The two weren’t heading for a vehicle. They were headed for a camp. A camp set up just outside the confines of the State Forest Campground. Neal stopped where he was, backed up slowly and found a good spot to study the camp without being seen himself.

It was quite a camp. A long fifth-wheel travel trailer with slideouts was at the base of an inverted U-shaped camp, still connected to a Dodge Crew Cab Dually pickup, with the opening of the U on the downhill side of the slight slope the camp occupied.

There was a mixture of family tents and tarp windbreaks forming the legs of the U, with two surprising large lean-to’s build of local materials at the ends of the U. There was a trench type campfire in the middle of the U, with a metal grate over part of it, and a tripod with large cast iron pot, as well.

The two men stopped at one of the lean-to’s and were met by several other people, including, by their size, several children, all bundled up in a variety of clothing.

Neal got a good look through his binoculars at the smaller of the two people that had taken the deer when both threw back the hoods on their coats and leaned their rifles up against the lean-to wall. Another surprise. It was a woman. A young woman. Probably late teens, certainly not older than mid twenties.

The other person was a late middle-aged man, by Neal’s estimation. He scanned the rest of the camp. There appeared to be three adult women, one carrying a baby; another teenaged girl; three teenaged boys; and five smaller children.

Then one of the doors of the travel trailer opened and a young man came out. He was joined a few seconds later by another man, who came from one of the large tents. Everyone was gathered at the lean-to. Neal couldn’t quite make out the words, but they sounded cheerful, and grateful, both the hunters getting handshakes and slaps on the back, obviously for bringing in some much needed food for the camp.

Neal stood up and made a slow circle of the camp. There were no signs of any tracks in the snow except for two places. Both sets of tracks led to crude latrines, one with a tarp and brush partial enclosure, the other with a much less complete enclosure. Neal assumed the first was for the use of the women and girls, and the second for the men and boys.

Then he found another set of tracks. These led to a small spring that, when Neal checked his topo map of the area he found it marked as year round. There had been an enclosure that protected the outlet, but that was missing, and the spring had been dug out to allow better access to get water from it. Neal figured the rest of the fence and enclosure was now part of the windbreaks protecting the center of the camp.

Completing the circle, Neal found another pickup truck, an SUV, and a mini-van. He couldn’t tell for sure, but he had a feeling that the vehicles hadn’t been moved in some time. “Probably the EMP,” he said under his breath.

Back at his original spot, Neal watched the camp for a little while longer, thinking. He was covered with a coating of snow when he finally stood up and made his way back to the men’s latrine.

Pulling a Write-in-the-rain notebook from a pocket Neal wrote a short note and fastened it on the enclosure where it would be found. Then he made his way back to the house, shrugged out of the pack, and put it back into the Suburban. Minus one layer of clothing, Neal went out to one of the log structures and went around behind it.

He opened a hatch and went down into the small root cellar he’d put in so he would have a place to keep some of the guerrilla garden surpluses. He’d taken to harvesting more than he needed for immediate use and used out of root cellar when he didn’t want to be accessing the cave. Plus, it explained how he was able to feed himself without having an outside source of supply. One less reason for people to expect anything other than a hermit in cabin in the woods.

Neal took stock of the supplies, and gathered a few things up in a hand made woven basket. Neal shook his head. He’d actually bought craft store woven baskets. He never would have thought he would, but had found them on sale at a store, before the war, and decided they were just the thing for his root cellar storage. They were. Both for storage and carrying purposes.

The snow had slowed to a flurry when Neal came out of the root cellar and closed the hatch. A few minutes later and the sky was clearing. By the time the sun set a bit later the temperature was dropping rapidly.

Neal slept restlessly, sure that the note he’d left would bring visitors to the place. He just wasn’t sure when, or how friendly they’d be. He found out early the next morning.

After breakfast, Neal was out clearing some of the snow accumulation around the house and out buildings, a BM-59 slung over his back and a Glock 21 holstered on his hip. He paused often to look around and listen carefully. He was glad he did when he heard the crunch of boots on snow approaching.

Unslinging the rifle, Neal stepped over beside one of the log structures. It gave him concealment, and a bit of cover, as he waited for what might come next.

Neal breathed a sigh of relief when he heard a loud voice call, “Hello the house! Can we approach?”

Staying close to the log shed Neal answered. “Come on in. Keep your hands off your weapons where I can see them. Are you alone?”

It was the same pair that had taken the deer. Neal relaxed a bit more, seeing the girl. To him it was less likely there would be trouble if she was there, and not two or more of the men.

“Just the two of us,” said the man, walking slowly from the forest into the small open area of Neal’s compound. “I take it was you that left the note?” The girl stayed silent, but watchful. She had a rifle slung over her shoulder, as did the man, but if either planned to use them, unslinging them would give Neal more than the time needed to lift his own rifle.

He continued to listen carefully in the cold, crisp air for sounds of an ambush being prepared. Still hearing nothing, Neal motioned for the two to come closer.

The man started talking rapidly. “Look. I know we were hunting on your land. But I’ve got to feed my family and there just isn’t any more game in the park and…”

“Slow down,” Neal said. “Would you like to get a cup of coffee and sit down and discuss the situation?”

The girl couldn’t help herself. “You have coffee?”

“A little,” Neal said, cautiously. He decided that she was a woman and not a girl, upon hearing her voice and getting a much better look at her face. She was a small, petite woman, but she was a woman.

“That would be most welcome,” the man said. “And what should we call you? I’m David Magnew, and this is my sister, Elizabeth.” Neal found himself wondering if it was still Elizabeth Magnew, or nee Magnew. He put the thought out of him mind quickly and concentrated on what was going on.

“Neal Grant,” Neal replied, and after just a short hesitation, reached out his gloved hand. David took it and they shook hands. Neal offered his hand to Elizabeth, and she, too, shook hands with Neal, though there was yet to be a smile on any of their faces, all relaxed somewhat with the official introductions.

Neal ushered the two into the Lusby and motioned to the two chairs, one on each side of the small table. “But you don’t have a chair,” said Elizabeth.

“I’ll stand. Think nothing of it,” replied Neal. He took down two more cups and refilled the one he’d used that morning.

“Sugar? Milk?” He asked, setting the cups on the table.

“Really?” asked Elizabeth.

Neal smiled and nodded, setting a sugar dish on the table, along with a small plate and a couple of teaspoons. He opened the small under counter refrigerator and took out a small milk pitcher.

“Powdered, I’m afraid,” Neal said, setting the container down on the table. “Help yourselves,” Neal said, noting their hesitation.

“It’s just… things are so hard to get,” Elizabeth said. “We don’t want to impose.”

“You’re not. I have enough for myself. I can share. A little.”

“Thank you,” both said, almost as one, each adding sugar and milk to their coffee cups.

“Oh,” Elizabeth said, “This is so good!”

“Nice,” said David. “Haven’t had coffee since right after the attack.”

Neal nodded and took a sip of his coffee. He liked it black, but added both sugar and milk to his, to make it easier for the other two.

Elizabeth put down her cup. “Do you… Do you have an outhouse?”

Neal shook his head. “No. Bathroom is in there. Feel free.”

“There’s really a bathroom in here?” Elizabeth asked.

Neal had to grin at Elizabeth’s surprised look. “Really. It’s tiny, like the rest of the house, but it’s really there.”

Elizabeth turned slightly red, but rose and went through the door Neal indicated. Neal and David sipped coffee silently while Elizabeth was in the bathroom. She came out a couple of minutes later and said, “He has toilet tissue, too.”

David nodded. “I think Mr. Grant knows how to take care of himself.”

“That, I do,” Neal said evenly. “And please, call me Neal.”

“As you wish, Neal,” David replied. “About yesterday…”

“Having seen your camp, I think I can understand. I’ll not stand in the way of someone providing for their family, but the signs were clear. You should have contacted me before you hunted on my land.”

“Come, now,” David said, “Things have changed. The old rules don’t apply.”

Elizabeth was looking down at her cup of coffee, hands clutched around it tightly.

“I would say, at the very least, that The Golden Rule still applies,” Neal said. “Common decency. Many things are, or should be, in my opinion, no different than they were before the war. There are fewer people, obviously, and times are tough, but things always work better when people cooperate than when they are at loggerheads.”

David rubbed his forehead. “Yes. Yes, of course. You are right. It’s just difficult. As a man of God I’m afraid I’ve fallen far from the path.”

“You’re a priest?” Neal asked, very surprised.

“No. We’re Baptist. I’m… was… still am, I suppose, a minister, though I don’t feel much like one at times.”

Elizabeth reached over and put a hand on David’s shoulder. “You are still a minister. And a good one. It has been your faith, and your guidance, in part, that have allowed us to continue in this existence after the terrible things that have happened.”

David sighed, but said nothing.

“How did you come to be where you are?” Neal asked, his curiosity coming to the fore, once more.

When David didn’t speak immediately, Elizabeth said, “We were lucky, in a way. Most of the family had come to St. Louis for an early Christmas when the trouble in Saudi Arab happened, and then the nuclear attack on Israel, we all decided to get out of St. Louis. We loaded up our camping gear in our vehicles, and John, another brother, had come in his travel trailer, so of course it was part of the convoy.

“We stopped at every store we found open and bought everything we could think of to last us for as long as possible. We got out of the city just in time, I guess. We were planning to go to the Ozarks… My uncle has a place there… but we couldn’t get enough fuel.

“We’ve camped in the park here before, so knew about it and the spring. We stopped, with the intention of continuing when things settled down. But none of the vehicles would start when we tried later.”

“Probably the EMP fried their electronics. They all looked fairly new.”

Elizabeth shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess there were a lot of people with the same idea. About staying at the park anyway. I don’t think many, if any, knew about the spring. There were a bunch of them, at first, but they slowly began to disappear…”

Elizabeth’s voice tapered off for a moment. “Or die… We buried many, as we found them, to help prevent disease. Some of them died of dehydration and hypothermia… Starvation… And there were some that were killed, their possessions gone through, and everything useful taken…”

“I see,” Neal said softly. “That must have been difficult.”

“You don’t know…” David said. “What they did to some of the women…”

“Fortunately, many of us are hunters and comfortable in the outdoors. And are pretty well armed,” Elizabeth continued. “There were incidents… But we managed to run off everyone that posed a threat to us.

“We started hunting early on, to supplement the supplies we picked up on the way, but a lot of other people did, too, out of necessity, I guess. The really bad thing is that not many of them were experienced hunters.

“There was a lot of game wounded that got away to die later. We found a couple of deer that way not long after they died and were able to salvage some of the meat. But there were a lot of others that were too far gone for human consumption. The predators and scavengers had good times, though. Such a waste! It wasn’t just deer. We found rabbits and squirrels, too.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “And then game got really hard to find. We widened our hunting area and… well…” She looked over at David.

He said, “And we poached on your land. So, back to the subject. What do you plan to do?”

Neal didn’t answer the question directly. Instead he asked, “Your group is really starting to struggle, isn’t it?”

Both David and Elizabeth nodded, and Elizabeth said, “We’re getting really low on basics, now. Those two deer will keep us going for several days… But after that…”

David cut in. “We have some material possessions… My wife’s jewelry… Investments…”

“But even if anyone would take them in trade for food,” Elizabeth said, “I don’t know if we could walk to where someone might trade, and then get back with any useful amount of food.”

Neal’s original intention of simply telling them it was all right to hunt on his property, telling them about the guerrilla garden, and give them some of his surplus fresh food, was slowly changing. On impulse, one he hoped he wouldn’t regret in the future as soon as he made the decision, Neal said, “I can get you to town. My Suburban runs. And I have enough fuel to get there and back.”

David and Elizabeth both looked hopeful. Neal refilled their coffee cups from the pot and both immediately add rather larger measures of sugar and milk to the cups than they had the first cup.

“But I have serious doubt about anyone trading food for what you have to offer,” added softly.

“We are worried about that, too,” Elizabeth said. “We’re afraid to try to trade off some of our extra guns, in case they are turned on us.”

“And since they don’t run, we can’t trade off any of the vehicles,” David added. “The trailer might be worth something, but we need it too badly to do that, even if someone could come get it.”

“Well,” Neal said slowly, “I have some things that I think would be pretty good trade items…”

“But we don’t have anything to trade to you, for them,” David protested.

“You do, one thing.” Neal made sure he wasn’t looking at Elizabeth when he spoke, a second idea coming to him uninvited that he quickly put out of his mind. “Security,” Neal quickly added.

“I’m alone here, and I lose sleep over being come upon by accident when I’m asleep or out hunting or scouting. Or having the place discovered when I make a trip to town. I haven’t gone since right after I discovered something was wrong.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” David said. “You want to trade those items to us to stand guard for you when you need it?”

“No,” Neal said. “I’m talking about moving your camp here and setting up a mutual aid group. I’d be able to sleep nights, and you would have a better camp. I have tools and things that you would be able to use to make life easier. Like chainsaws for cutting wood.”

“Really?” David asked, really perking up at the mention of the chainsaws. “We have a small chainsaw suitable for trimming trees, but it’s almost useless for gathering firewood. We’ve just been picking up deadfall. Have to go further and further afield for it, just like the hunting.”

“Speaking of which,” Elizabeth asked, a firm look on her face, “Would we be able to hunt?”

“Yes,” Neal replied. “And I have a guerrilla garden that produces more than I can use on my own.”

“What is a guerrilla garden?” asked both of them, again almost as one.

“I’ve planted food plants in various suitable places in the forest on my property. Mostly root foods like potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips. Some other things. Asparagus. And there are wild blackberries and wild strawberries, if you know where to look. Black walnuts and hickory nuts. Acorns. I have some fruit trees here and there. Of course much of that is moot at this season of the year. And wild roses, for the rose hips.”

Both looked amazed, but Elizabeth asked, “Rose hips? What are they?”

“The fruit of the rose bush. Very high in vitamin C and iron. Prevent scurvy and iron deficiency in women.”

“I didn’t know that,” Elizabeth said. “Are we in danger of scurvy? We haven’t had orange juice, fresh fruit, and certainly no other citrus in quite a while.”

“It takes a while,” Neal said. “Purplish spots, especially on the legs, spongy gums, bleeding from the mucous membranes. Those are a few symptoms. Any of you have any of those symptoms?”

David and Elizabeth looked at one another and then back at Neal, both shaking their heads. “No. Not yet,” Elizabeth said.

“I have some stored,” Neal said.

“Back to this… option… you are giving us… What are the strings?” David asked.

“I’d expect everyone to respect my property and my privacy. Stay away from some things. Use only the areas agreed upon. Hunt responsibly, taking only what is needed and doing everything possible to avoid injuring animals and not recovering them. The same with the guerrilla garden. Take only what is needed and help in propagating it further. Keep the children under control.”


Neal saw Elizabeth start to protest. He raised his hand up to stop her. “I know children will be children. I had children once. But I expect the best behavior that can be expected in well-raised children.”

Elizabeth’s sudden tension eased with Neal’s clarification. “That’s not unreasonable. My nieces and nephews have been raised well, as you put it.”

“But… If we even consider this,” David said, drawing a quick glance from Elizabeth, “How would we do it? That trailer is the core of our camp. How would we move it? Your Suburban can’t tow it.”

Neal smiled. “Well, if we can’t get the parts to fix it, I’ll just tow truck and trailer together.”

“With just a Suburban?” Elizabeth asked, obviously skeptical. “On this kind of ground? In the winter?”

“You might be surprised at what the Suburban can do. It isn’t stock. It can do it. But hopefully won’t have to. When do you want to go to Sullivan?”

The sudden question startled both of Neal’s visitors and they exchanged another quick glance. After a moment David said, “We would need to talk it over with the rest of the family, first.”

“Okay,” Neal said. “Fair enough.” He picked up the jacket he’d taken off, signaling the end of the meeting. “Let me show you around the place, to help in your decision making process, and then you talk things over. Do you have a radio? CB or anything? Or did EMP zap everything?”

“I don’t know about the EMP you’re talking about. There is a CB in the Dodge,” David said. “Don’t know if there is enough juice left in the battery to run it or not.”

“Okay,” Neal said, as they left the house. He went over to the Suburban and opened the front passenger door. Taking out one of the stored business band hand held radios he handed it to David.

“The charge is good for eight hours. Just turn it on if you want to talk to me. Channel one. I’ll monitor it, starting as soon as you leave. Give it a test.”

David turned the radio on and brought it to his lips. Pressing the transmit switch, he said, “Test. Test. Test.”

He came through clearly on the radio in the truck. He pulled out another of the handhelds and put it on his belt using the built in belt clip. Neal began to show them the basics of the compound. The first thing Neal showed them was the approach to the bluff. “Completely off limits. Kids and adults. I don’t want anyone falling off the bluff.”

After showing them around the things around the house, he walked over to the spot he thought would be best for their camp. “There are sewer, water, and electrical connections in a concrete box here,” Neal said, pointing to a point on the ground.

“You mean we’d have running water, a working bathroom, and electricity?” Elizabeth asked breathlessly.

Neal smiled and nodded. “And if we can find, or trade for, the parts, we can build a flushing toilet outhouse to supplement the one in your trailer. Do you have any propane left?”

David immediately said, “Just a quarter of a forty pound tank. We’ve quit using it for cooking and heating. Keeping it in reserve.”

“Okay,” Neal said, “I’ll throw in a one-hundred pound tank of propane for you to use. We can dicker over what it’s worth later. The other utilities aren’t costing me anything out of pocket. They’re already in place and paid for.”

“Were you expecting something like this?” Elizabeth asked Neal, nodding at the spot on the ground he’d indicated were the hookups.

“Not exactly. Just… trying to be prepared for things. Thought I might have visitors in a motorhome or travel trailer and wanted to have accommodations for them. You can see that there isn’t room in the house for guests.”

“That’s an understatement for sure,” David said. “Come along, Elizabeth. We have much to discuss with the rest of the family.”

“Come on back to the shed,” Neal said. He handed the large basket of vegetables to David.”

“Well,” David replied, looking at the food, “This certainly wasn’t expected. None of it was.”

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Elizabeth said.

“We will pray for you,” David said. He turned and the two walked away.

Neal watched the two trudge away, disappearing into the forest in just a minute or two. He sighed. What had he gotten himself into? And why the reaction to Elizabeth. He was supposed to be a hermit. No interest in women.

Neal was surprised to hear the walky-talky break squelch early the next morning. It was David. When Neal acknowledged the call, David said, “We’ve considered your offer. If your offer for a ride into Sullivan still holds, we’d like to try to trade for some things before we commit to your other offers.”

Just a bit disappointed, but understanding the reluctance to move the camp and become partially dependent on someone else, Neal replied. “Absolutely. Just name the time.”

“Tomorrow? About nine?” David asked.

Neal keyed the radio again and said, “That is fine. Tomorrow at nine.”

“We’ll be there,” David said. “Elizabeth and I, with Dwayne to keep an eye on your place while you are gone.”

Neal wasn’t sure he liked that idea, but wasn’t sure how to get out of it this time. He had said he wanted someone to help with security.

“Very good,” he replied and put the radio back on his belt.

He worked around the place for a bit and finally went back into the house to make lunch. On a whim, he turned on the CB. He hadn’t tried any radio communications for several days. He noted there was much less static than there had been right after the war. He switched to the channel he knew a lot of CBers in Sullivan used and listened for a few minutes while he ate a bowl of stew.

Hearing nothing, Neal almost turned the radio off, but decided there was no harm in trying. “Breaker, breaker. Anyone on this channel?”

He had the volume way too loud. The voice that came out of the speaker was almost unintelligible. “Got you five by five, good buddy. What’s your twenty?”

“Up in the hills,” Neal said, having quickly turned down the volume to a reasonable level. He wasn’t about to say exactly where he was. “Looking to do a bit of trading. Is there anything going on in Sullivan?”

“You betcha, buddy. Got a regular open air market going. You know where Carmello’s is?”

“I do,” Neal shot back. “That the new trading center?”

“You got it. I’m the biggest trader. Watcha got to trade?”

“A few small things,” Neal said, again wary of giving up too much information. “Is there any food available?”

“Some. Goes high though. Best bring in some good stuff if you want anything in return.”

“Going to be anyone there tomorrow?”

“I’m here every day. The others, mostly Saturday.”

Neal had to check. Tomorrow was a Saturday. He had a feeling that the man would like to get first shot at anything Neal had to trade.

“Maybe I’ll see you in a couple of days, then,” Neal said, after keying the mike again. “Who should I ask for?”

“Just ask for the King. Anyone can point me out. Who might you be?”

“Just a hermit in the hills,” Neal replied. “I’m gone.” He waited for a few minutes, but nothing else was said. He checked the other channels. Nothing. But having had the one positive contact, Neal turned on the broadband receiver in the house and began scanning the frequencies. Sure enough, he heard a little activity. Almost all of it was Amateur Radio Operators. Apparently, many had survived the war and the early days of its aftermath. But nothing he could pinpoint as a local.

Neal tried a few government stations. Nothing on any of them. Nothing on the AM or FM broadcast bands. Neal switched back to the Amateur bands and listened for a while, hoping for something that would identify their locations. But they all seemed to be reluctant to give out that information.

Having finished his lunch, Neal turned off the radios and went outside. He got a shovel from one of the outbuildings and went down to uncover the RV connection point. He uncovered and took out one of his one-hundred pound propane tanks from where he had them hidden in one of the log sheds, setting it aside, but handy.

He went to bed in the house that night again wondering what he was getting himself into. Up early the next morning, he started up the Suburban and took out the things that had accumulated over the last few weeks.

Neal was ready when David, Elizabeth, and a third person showed up about 8:30. David quickly introduced Neal to Dwayne, the oldest of the teenage boys, he was told. Neal had to admit, the boy looked like he could handle himself and the hunting rifle slung over one shoulder. There was a holstered revolver on his hip. He wore a small backpack, compared to David’s and Elizabeth’s much larger ones.

“There’s some sliced venison in the fridge and…”

“Thank you, sir,” Dwayne said, “But I brought a lunch, and a dinner. I won’t be needing in the house at all.”

“But…” Neal started to say, but David cut him off.

“Dwayne will keep an eye on the place from the forest. He won’t come back into the camp until he sees us return, unless there is trouble.”

“I don’t expect any kind of trouble, but having you here while I’m gone makes me feel better,” Neal said, shaking the young man’s hand when he offered it up.

The three adults watched Dwayne fade into the forest and then turned to the Suburban when Neal said, “I guess we can go. I have everything I need. You want to put your gear in the back?”

Both put their packs into the back of the Suburban, and both kept their rifles with them. David got into the bucket seat in front beside Neal, and Elizabeth took the bucket seat behind him. Elizabeth took David’s rifle when he handed it back to her and she leaned his and hers against the other bucket seat, keeping them close at hand.

Neal put the vehicle in gear and headed for the opening in the forest that was the driveway. The weather was clear and cold when they started, but had clouded up and started to snow before they arrived in Sullivan. Neal told them about the conversation he’d had on the CB the day before., having traveled the entire distance in silence.

When David asked for it, Elizabeth handed him his rifle again, as they neared the town. Neal asked Elizabeth to hand him the AUG sitting on the other passenger seat. She grunted slightly when she picked it up. It had a drum magazine in it. Neal set it across his lap.

“I’m going to take a roundabout route to make sure we’re not driving into an ambush. All eyes scanned the area around the Suburban as Neal drove around some. They were seeing people on the move, alone and in small groups. Most seemed to have long guns, but not all, and none were making any threatening moves. All carried packs or pushed or pulled some type of cart.

There was even the occasional older model car or pickup and several people mounted on horses. All seemed headed to the same point. Carmello’s grocery store. Neal looked at the other two and said, “I think we’ll be okay. You game to go in?”

David nodded and so did Elizabeth. Neal took the next turn and headed for Carmello’s, carefully avoiding those on horseback and on foot. All three looked on in amazement as fully one hundred individuals congregated on the parking lot of the grocery store when they got there.

Neal saw where the vehicles were parked and drove over. There were two heavily armed young men walking around. “We’ll keep an eye on your rig if you promise to remember us before you leave,” one of them said when Neal stopped by them.

“Such as?” he asked.

“Couple cans of food. Cigarettes, Booze. Food or anything we can trade for more food.”

Neal nodded. “You’ll get something. Take a look at all of us. Only we three would be getting into the rig.”

One of the men looked over at David and then Elizabeth. His eyes lingered on her more than Neal liked. “Yeah. Just the three of us.” The man looked at Neal again and then stepped back when Neal started to open the door.

“As a matter of fact,” Neal said as he opened the back of the Suburban, “here’s a down payment.” He handed the two men each a pouch of tobacco and a pad of cigarette papers.”

“Yes siree bob!” said one of the men. “Everything will be just like you left it when you get back.”

“That’s good,” Neal said. “If it is, you’ll get some food. If not… Well… I wouldn’t want to be the one to try to steal this rig. Could be fatal. If you get my drift.”

“Sir,” said the second man, standing up very straight. “We’re US Marines! Everything will be just as you left it.”

“Very good, then. In that case,” Neal said, reaching into the back of the Suburban, “Thank you gentlemen.” He handed each of them a bottle of vodka. “In case we have to leave in a hurry.”

David and Elizabeth had shouldered their backpacks. Neal slung the shoulder strap of a large duffle style bag over one shoulder, and the BM-59 over the other. David and Elizabeth added their rifles to their shoulders and headed for the mass of people and the tables and small stands that held their trade goods.

“Oh,” Neal said, turning toward one of the men. “Where do I find King?”

Both men got sour looks on their faces. “You mean ‘The King’? You really want to be careful around him.”

“That’s kind of what I thought,” Neal replied. He waited for one of them to answer in question.

It was the second man that said, “He’s in the store. It’s his now, and everything in it.”

“What happened to Carmello?”

“Gone as far as anyone knows. That’s what The King says. I think he’s probably dead.”

Neal nodded. “Good thing to know. Thanks.”

The three went to join the crowd. About half were doing what Neal, Elizabeth, and David were doing. Carrying what they had to trade with them and circulating to see what was available from those that had tables or booths set up.

Gradually, as trades were made, or weren’t made, those circulating began to find open spots to lay down a blanket and set out what they had for trade. Neal, David, and Elizabeth split up, to look for specifics each wanted.

Neal made the rounds of the set booths and tables, noting a few things he wanted. He didn’t want to buy until he’d seen everything. He then began to check as additional people set out their goods. He was surprised to see Elizabeth already opening her pack to lay out a blanket. When he walked up he saw tears in her eyes as she began to set out several items of women’s clothing. Everything looked like high quality goods, to Neal, but he knew they weren’t very suited to the current environment.

Then she put down half a dozen jewelry boxes and opened each one. More high quality goods. But just not useful in the current situation. David came over and began to do the same thing. He, too, looked very disappointed at his lack of success.

Going back through the booths and tables, Neal made deals for the few things he’d found that he wanted, and then took up a position, out of David’s and Elizabeth’s lines of sight, to keep an eye on them. People began to pass by, with many looking at the goods, but Neal didn’t see any trades made. People would like to have the goods, but were not willing to trade away things that would help one continue to survive for things that it would be nice to have.

It wasn’t long before the two gathered up their things and repacked them. Elizabeth caught sight of Neal and gave him a small wave. He walked over to join her. David was moving away, toward an open area.

A few minutes later and Neal noticed a crowd had gathered around him. Neal and Elizabeth walked over. “I’d bet,” Elizabeth said, “he’s turned into a minister again.”

Sure enough, when Neal and Elizabeth got close enough, they could hear him reading from the bible. Elizabeth turned away and Neal followed her, surprised at her actions. She stopped suddenly and Neal saw her shoulders slump. She was crying.

“Elizabeth, please,” Neal said, stepping up to her and putting one hand on her shoulder. “Is there anything I can do?”

She turned further away from him and shook her head. Neal just waited, hand on her shoulder, for a couple of minutes. She stopped crying and hurriedly wiped her eyes, still turned away from Neal. “I’m sorry,” she said, when she did face them. “We just need so much, and have so little that other people want. We have plenty of expensive things. Just not what people need.”

“No one want any of what you have?” Neal asked. “Not even the jewelry?”

“There were some interested, but nobody trusts what it is.” Elizabeth was suddenly very adamant. “It’s all real silver and eighteen carat gold with real gemstones. My late husband believed in getting the best he could for me, within his means.”

The point that Neal noted was that Elizabeth had once been married. The fact about the quality of the jewelry was of secondary importance to him suddenly. “Well, there is one more option. Let’s see what The King has to trade, and what he wants for it.”

Neal noticed that Elizabeth detoured slightly from the most direct path to the store doors. She stopped at one of the booths and asked the elderly woman, “Are you sure you won’t reconsider? The jewelry really is just what it looks like. The pearls…”

“Go along honey. There are plenty of women that need my menstrual products.”

Elizabeth turned away, her dejection obvious. “Wait,” Neal suddenly said. He leaned down whispered into Elizabeth’s ear. “All the women and girls are in need, aren’t they?”

Elizabeth nodded. “We bought extra, but it’s been a while, and with the stress… We’re almost out. The younger women… They are on the verge of panic.”

Neal stood up and turned toward the woman. “What are you asking? For all of it?”

Elizabeth took Neal’s arm. “Neal,” she said urgently, “We don’t have any way to repay you.”

Neal looked over and said, “You still might move that jewelry in the store.”

“You watch out for that King fellow,” the old woman said. “He’s a mean one. I’m sure he’ll take your jewelry, for a pittance in return. What he will want, if you go in, is you.” She was looking at Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Me?”

“He’s buying and selling women. Some for himself, some for future trade.”

“That’s disgusting! It’s slavery, and worse!”

“Well, I don’t think he’s actually bought or sold anyone, but the word is out.” The woman looked over at Neal then. “What’cha got to trade, sonny boy? I don’t need no jewelry. Don’t drink and don’t smoke. What else do you have?”

“I have some salt,” Neal said softly, so just Elizabeth and the woman could hear.

“Salt?” whispered back the woman. “How much?”

“More importantly,” Neal replied, “How much would you want for your collection of products?”

Elizabeth and Neal could see the uncertainty in the woman’s face, especially her eyes. She really wanted the salt, as much as possible. But how much was that? What if she asked for less than they were willing to give? Better to ask for too much and bargain down than not get everything she could. She didn’t need her own products any more, but she remembered when she did. They were crucial to a woman now. If this was his woman, he’d pay a good price to keep her happy. She decided she would go for the big score. “Ten pounds.”

“Don’t have table salt,” Neal said and the old woman looked as incensed as she was.

“Why did you even…” she said, but Neal cut her off.


“How about fifteen pounds of ice cream salt instead?” Neal asked.

The old woman changed her attitude quickly. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

“Stay here,” Neal instructed Elizabeth. “while I go get it out of the truck.”

Elizabeth nodded and Neal hurried off. He had one of the five pound bags in his pack, but he decided to get three more out of the Suburban and keep the one in his pack.

Neal nodded to the two Marines and opened the back of the Suburban with the remote. He gathered up three of the five pound bags of salt and hurried back to the old woman’s booth. He set the bags on the lip of the stand and she quickly moved them out of sight.

“You really don’t want all of my stock, do you?” the woman asked as she began to gather up the home sewn menstrual pads and other items she made for women. “Just the one of you…”

“There are five of us using the products,” Elizabeth said.

Neal winced. He wished she hadn’t let loose that small piece of information.

Eagerly the old woman said, “There really aren’t enough for five. I’ll have more made up next Saturday. Same price.”

Neal was impressed with the sweet smile Elizabeth gave the woman as she said, “That’s okay. I’ll take one of these apart and make more myself. We have the fabric. Just didn’t think of it before.”

The woman said a curse word or two, but handed the packet of goods she’d bundled up with a bit of string to Elizabeth.

As they moved away, Neal asked Elizabeth, “Do you really have that fabric? You don’t really know how they are made.”

“No. But I wasn’t going to let her gouge us again. You shouldn’t have done what you did, though I am thankful you did so. The younger girls are really freaked out about running out of feminine hygiene products.”

“I can imagine.” Neal didn’t mention that he had a few supplies hidden away in the cave. At some point, Neal realized, he would have broken security and opened the cave up to get some of the things the group needed. But for the moment, he’d just help out with what he had out in the open.

“We’ll figure out some way to repay you,” Elizabeth was saying as they headed for the front door of the store. Neal didn’t reply. Neal looked over toward where David was. There was still a crowd around him. Neal held the door open to let Elizabeth precede him into the rather dark store.

“Hello there, sweetness,” came a voice from the just a few steps away.

It took a couple of seconds for Elizabeth’s and Neal’s eyes to adjust from the snow white brightness of outside, to the dimness of inside the store. When they could see all right, both looked at the man that had spoken. If he could be called a man.

Neal doubted he was even twenty-one. More likely eighteen or nineteen. He had a multicolored spiked Mohawk hairdo. But what Neal saw first were the two tied down holsters on his thighs with a semi-auto pistol in each. Neal couldn’t tell what make the guns were, but the kid had his hands close to them. He wore a day glow T-shirt that said, ‘The King’.

“I take it you’re here to trade her off for what you can get,” said The King.

“I don’t think so,” Neal said quickly, putting one hand on Elizabeth’s wrist before she could speak out angrily. “She has some jewelry to trade, and I have a few other things. We’re looking for food, mostly.”

“Well now,” said The King, as Neal took stock of the three men standing nearby. They were obviously The King’s men. All were armed with what Neal recognized from his weapons research days as Hi-Point carbines. Probably nine-millimeter. They each wore a handgun. Neal suspected that the handguns were also Hi-Points. Probably The King’s were, too.

Hi-Points had something of a mixed reputation before the war, but Neal knew that any gun, at close range, could be lethal. He was careful to keep his hand clear of his own holstered Glock.

The King continued his words, still leering at Elizabeth. She moved fractionally closer to Neal’s side. “I had the great good fortune of acquiring some food, as a matter of fact.” The other men laughed.

“Found a grocery truck, did you?” Neal asked, on a hunch.

“I did, wise guy.” The grin was gone. “You sure you want to be mouthing off to me? I’m the King here, you see. I have what people want.”

“Sorry. Just a slip of the tongue,” Neal replied, keeping his cool.

Smiling again at the perceived acquiescence, The King spoke again. “Let’s see the jewelry the babe has and I’ll tell you what I’ll give for it.”

Neal watched carefully as The King took the jewelry boxes and opened them one by one as Elizabeth handed them to him. The King’s eyes gleamed with greed at the bright gold and gems that sparkled even in the dim light coming from the front door.

“A case of vegetables for all of it,” The King said, looking up at Neal, not Elizabeth, as he handed the boxes to one of his cronies.

Elizabeth started to protest, but again Neal pressed her wrist. “Not enough. Those are the real goods. Two cases of vegetables, two of fruit, and a case of tuna or salmon. And a case of candy. Any kind.”

“Look, you,” The King said, coming partially off the tall bar stool style chair he apparently considered his throne. “I make the deals.”

“We’ll take the jewelry back,” Elizabeth.

“Now, don’t be hasty,” The King said, relaxing again.

Neal could tell he preferred to deal with women. He felt superior, Neal suspected.

“I know the good stuff when I see it,” he boasted, “and yeah, I guess I low balled it a bit. But I’m not about to give out that much food for some jewelry, good or otherwise. You have any real gold coins?”

Elizabeth shook her head. Neal stayed still. He didn’t want to lie. He might need to use the coins he had later and didn’t want The King to remember him actually saying he didn’t have any.

“What’s that rifle on your shoulder,” The King suddenly said, looking over at Neal.

“BM-59,” Neal replied evenly.

“Like to take a look at it,” The King suggested.

“Sorry,” Neal said. “A man in your position understands gun handling etiquette in times like these.”

The implied praise mollified The King. He didn’t press the matter of handling it. However, he did ask, “What do you want for it?”

Neal smiled slightly and shook his head. “Not for sale. A good gun is like a good woman good horse, or good dog. You don’t trade them away.”

“Yeah,” The Kind said, liking the fact that Neal was treating him as an equal if not quite a superior. “We have to take care of our possessions.”

Neal could tell Elizabeth didn’t like the way the conversation was going, but with Neal’s constant touch on her wrist she continued to hold her tongue.

After a quick glance at the other three men behind The King, Neal said. “I’d be willing to throw in some good liquor and some tobacco to sweeten the deal.”

The three men stirred slightly, obviously liking the offer. King glanced at them and frowned for a second.

But Neal added, “Man needs some of the finer things in life, even in a situation like this.”

“That’s true,” The King replied, his attention back on Neal. “A case of booze and ten cartons of cigarettes. Any brand will do.”

“No can do,” Neal replied evenly. “Two bottles of brandy, and four packets of tobacco with papers. I’ll throw in a six pack of lighters.”

The King didn’t like being bargained with, that was obvious. But he did have to try to keep his men happy. And a good shot of the good stuff and a smoke would be nice. But… “You have any grass?”

Neal shook his head.

“Too bad. I’d have doubled the offer for some quality grass. Make it four bottles of the good stuff and we have a deal.”

Neal nodded in acceptance.

“I’ll help your men bring the goods outside while she goes and gets the rig.”

The King hesitated for a moment, not quite liking the idea, but not sure why. He nodded. Let the guy do a little grunt work, too. “Have at it,” he said, sitting back regally, he thought, on the tall bar stool.

Neal was able to whisper to Elizabeth as he handed her the remote for the Suburban, “Stay in the rig!”

The three goons didn’t know what to do when Neal began swapping cans from different cases with the items in the two cases each of vegetables and fruits, getting a variety instead of all of two kinds each. Neal also mixed the case of large cans of tuna and salmon. The three let him do it and then carried the cases toward the front of the store, stacking them just outside the door and came back for another load.

Neal checked several of the boxes that contained candy and found one that was bags of a variety of individual candies. He picked it up himself and went to the front of the store, accompanied by the three men, two of whom were carrying the other two cases of food.

Elizabeth drove up, and Neal went outside and opened the back of the Suburban. He put the box of candy in and then took out the booze and tobacco. He handed them to one of the three men as the other two put their boxes in the truck.

The King frowned from inside the store as his men picked up the other three cases they put down by the door and put them in the truck for Neal. The girl hadn’t come out of the truck, either. Hesitating, trying to decide what to do, the situation simply not what The King had envisioned, he finally got off the bar stool and headed for the doors to protest. Even cancel the deal. His part of the deal, anyway. He’d keep the jewelry, booze, and tobacco.

But he was too late. Neal closed the weird rear doors of the Suburban and was in the passenger seat of the Suburban. Elizabeth pulled away, headed directly toward where David’s sermon was winding down.

“Look,” David said, when Elizabeth stopped the Suburban and Neal jumped out, opened the second row passenger door and ushered David into it. Neal grabbed the items David indicated, placing them carefully, but quickly, into the cargo area of the Suburban.

“Go!” Neal said, getting back into the passenger seat, and switching the BM-59 for the AUG. He watched The King standing at the doors of the store. The King was looking at the Suburban. Neal was certain that The King suddenly realized the opportunity he’d just lost as he raised a fist and shook it at the departing truck.

“Did you see the chickens?” David asked eagerly. “Two different parishioners gave me a chicken each. And there were a couple cans of food, and…” David’s words faded away. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “We got something, just for my preaching, by the grace of God. It’s more than we thought we would get, after a little while here. And I still have Margery’s jewelry.

“Oh, we did okay,” Neal said slowly, softly, as Elizabeth steered around an abandoned vehicle, headed for the state road. “But I think we just made a serious enemy.” The snow had been falling off and on during their time at the trading post, but it began to get heavy as they headed for home.

Neal watched their back track on the rear camera monitor mounted in the dash, grateful for the falling snow. It would cover their tracks quickly. Neal had Elizabeth take a different, but just as roundabout, route as he’d taken coming in.

“This is some rig,” Elizabeth said as she parked it where it had been when they left that morning.

All three got out of the Suburban and looked around. It was several minutes before Dwayne showed himself. “Just wanted to make sure there wasn’t someone on your back track,” he said in explanation of his delay in coming in. “How did we do?”

“Pretty good, all things considered,” Neal said. “Don’t you think, Elizabeth?”

“I suppose so. But that was a most degrading thing in the store. How could you treat me like a second class citizen that way?

David and Dwayne looked on, without a clue as to what was going on.

“I’m sorry,” Neal said. “But that situation could have turned ugly in a hurry. That ‘King’ is a few cards short of a full deck, unless I miss my guess. He’s going to be trouble in the future. I’m sure of it. I didn’t want anything starting that I couldn’t handle.”

“Well, I didn’t like it. Don’t do it again,” Elizabeth responded. Opening the rear hatch of the Suburban, she asked, “How are we going to get these things to the camp?”

“Well, why not just leave them here. I’ll come over tomorrow and we can start moving the camp.”

“We really haven’t decided to do that,” David said.

“I see,” Neal replied, hiding his disappointment. “You can use my pulk. Bring it back later.”

“What’s a pulk?” asked Dwayne.

Neal took him over to log shed where he kept the game cart and pulk. “It’s just a term for a cargo snow sled. It’ll handle the food easily.” Before they loaded the pulk Neal opened his pack and took out two boxes. He handed them to David. “New electronics for the mini-van. It was all I could find. Nothing for the Dodge, though the guy is going to try to find the parts for it, the truck and the SUV.”

“Neal!” Elizabeth said sharply. “How are we going to repay your for all of this?”

“It’s all included as part of the deal for our mutual security,” Neal said. Elizabeth frowned but didn’t pursue the matter.

It took only a few moments to transfer the cases of food from the Suburban to the cart and then Neal was watching the three disappear into the forest as the snow began to ease off. Dwayne was pulling the pulk. It was good that the snow had stopped. It was almost to the point of needing snowshoes to get around in it. But not quite.

Neal fixed himself some supper, suddenly wondering about the weather. It wasn’t unusual to get snow in this area from time to time. But not this much. Not at all.

The next morning, after breakfast, anticipating a yes on the move of the Magnew camp, Neal moved the firewood that was stacked around the Bobcat Toolcat to hide it and got it started. It had survived the EMP without any problems. Using the bucket, he cleared the snow from the area where the camp would be and smoothed it off, leaving a very slight slope for drainage.

It was noon when the business band radio broke squelch and David’s voice came out of the speaker. “Neal, the family has discussed the move and are in agreement to accept your offer. What do we need to do to get ready?”

“Considering the weather,” Neal replied, a smile on his face he didn’t know was there, “we’d better do it in stages. Make sure everyone has shelter and food in case the weather stops the move for a day or two. The main thing, I think, is to get the trailer moved and hooked up. We can do that, today.”

“Are you sure? The snow…”

“Is only a few inches deep. The Suburban will handle it. I’ll be over in a little while and we can discuss it further.”

Neal fired up the Suburban, and rather than going out the track that connected the clearing to the road, turned into the forest. He had to be very careful, and use the rear wheel steering several times to get though tight places, but Neal, very much to the surprise of those in the camp, pulled into the open from the forest at noon.

“How did you get through there?” Elizabeth asked, looking at the tire tracks in the snow disappearing into the deep forest.

“I told you the Suburban is capable. Where you able to get the min-van going?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “Dwayne is a pretty good mechanic. But we don’t have much gas for it.”

“I have a can on the back of the Suburban. But I’m not sure it will make it with the snow this deep.”

“I know it won’t make it through the forest,” David said, “How…”

“Oh, no. I just came over here that way. We’ll use the regular roads to move the vehicles.”

“Oh. Okay. That sounds doable. We will move all the vehicles? We use them for storage right now.”

“No reason not to. I’ll just tow them around on the road. I don’t think the short trip will hurt the transmissions any.”

“I didn’t think about that,” David said. “I remember now that you shouldn’t tow some vehicles with automatic transmissions.”

“I think we’ll be okay,” Neal insisted. “We won’t be towing at anything approaching high speed. Five to ten miles an hour at best.”

“Okay, I suppose,” David said, “If you are sure.”

The entire population of the camp pitched in to get the trailer ready to move. The wind breaks attached to it were removed, and it was set down on its wheels, off the leveling jacks. David tried the big Dodge again. Even with the last of the power in the battery, it wouldn’t start.

Neal maneuvered the Suburban in front of the Dodge and attached the heavy tow strap he took out of the bumper toolbox. “Who’s steering the Dodge?” Neal asked.

“Dwayne will,” David said. “I want to stay here with the rest in the camp. Mathew, Gene, and Helen will ride with him. They’ll hook up the trailer when it gets there. They know what to do. We should have what we need in the way of connections.”

“Okay, then,” Neal said, “lets go. Elizabeth? Could you ride with me and be the eyes in the back of my head?”

“I was going to stay and help David.” She looked over at David.

“No problem. He’s right. Should be someone else to watch behind him.”

Neal got with Dwayne and they settled on a set of hand signals for braking and what not, as a back up to the pair of FRS radios Neal had in the Suburban. He gave one of them to Mathew and the other to Elizabeth. They would be the main communications method.

Everyone was amazed, except Neal, when he put the Suburban in gear and eased away from the Dodge until the tow strap went tight and then stretched slightly. Suddenly the Dodge and trailer were moving and Neal was steering toward the opening in the forest that led to the State Park proper.

There were a few times on the trip that Neal had to activate the differential lockers and go with hard drive, mostly getting the rig up the road to his place from the access gate. But the move was done in three hours on the back roads and a short stretch of county road. Neal didn’t like leaving the tracks, but there was no way to avoid it. There might be snow on the ground for weeks more.

The two groups stayed where they were that night. Those with David using just the tents, and those that had come with Neal, staying in the once again fully operating travel trailer.

The other vehicles were used as cargo trailers when the rest of the move was made the following day, with what wouldn’t fit in them going into the back of the Suburban, which Neal took through the forest after he’d towed all the vehicles to his place. That included the mini-van. It would start and run just fine, but it got stuck as soon as driver put it in gear.

Again Neal took a group on a tour, pointing out, and adamantly insisting, that people stay away from the bluff. He showed the group the log sheds and the root cellar, which he said they could use.

That evening Neal thought about things as he ate his supper alone, in the Lusby. He knew he was being selfish for allowing part of the family to live in tents rather than letting them have the run of the cave. But he just couldn’t bring himself to reveal the cave and its contents.

Instead, he made the decision to look for additional housing of some type for the rest of the Magnew clan. A thought woke him up shortly after midnight and he laid in bed, thinking it over for a while before he fell asleep again, a plan in mind for the next day.

He was up early, had his breakfast, and then started up the Suburban. He was in the forest, on his way to where the Magnews had been camped. He didn’t stop there, picking up the tracks the vehicles had made getting onto the Park campground roads.

Neal had remembered during the night that Elizabeth had mentioned burying some of the people they’d found in the campground. She hadn’t mentioned other RV’s, and Neal had wondered if it was because they had no good way to move them. Or perhaps because they considered it stealing. Or for both reasons. Neal was reluctant to bring the subject up, so decided to find out on his own if there were suitable RV’s to make life easier for the family.

He drove around the Campground. He found mostly empty camp spots, but there were a couple of abandoned tent camps. Neal checked them closely. There wasn’t much to salvage. The tents were ripped from fallen branches or damaged by animals. Neal was losing hope when he found another road in the Campground. There was the normal woodsy looking sign that indicated what was in that direction. In this case, it was marked ‘RV’s.

The campground had a separate section for RV’s apparently. Neal turned up the road and went to see what he could find. The first thing he saw was a burned out and bullet ridden Class A motorhome. One of the diesel pushers. Around another turn and a few empty parking slots for the RV’s and Neal found more what he was looking for.

There was a big ford truck parked by the tandem wheel, single slide out, conventional tow travel trailer, but not connected to it. Being cautious, Neal got out of the Suburban and looked around the area before checking the truck first. The doors were unlocked, one of them standing open a fraction of an inch. The keys were in the ignition and Neal tried to start the truck.

The battery was still good, for it spun the starter. But the truck didn’t even try to start. Neal left it and moved to the trailer. He checked the trailer’s entrance door. Unlocked. Glock 21 in hand before he thought about it, Neal eased the door open and looked inside. There was no one inside and Neal went in.

There were signs of hasty packing, with cabinet doors and drawers open, but Neal couldn’t see any damage anywhere. He was smiling when he left the trailer. Neal got back into the Suburban to see what else he could find.

It was all he could do to not get sick at what he found in the next RV. It, too, was a conventional travel trailer, tandem wheeled, but shorter than the first one he’d found. What must have been the tow vehicle, a mid sized four wheel drive pickup had numerous bullet holes in it. It was still attached to the trailer.

Neal didn’t get sick until he went into the trailer. It was trash and there was blood all over everything. He saw a couple of bullet holes, but found a bloody knife that he suspected had done most of the damage to the three bodies. It was a grisly sight. The man, woman, and young girl had all been butchered. Neal staggered out of the trailer and went to his knees, barely avoiding throwing up.

Taking a few deep breaths, Neal got up and continued his search in the Suburban, going through the entire RV section of the camp. He found over a dozen RV’s in various states of being, including another trailer of dead bodies. It held the remains of five people. All looked like they had died peacefully in their sleep.

Neal got one more huge surprise. He’d been trying to start the engines of the tow vehicles of the trailers, and the engines in the motorhomes. None had started. Except for one. It was the diesel engine in an older model Winnebago. It fired right up. When Neal checked the fuel gage he saw that it had more than a quarter of a tank. He tried the onboard generator. It too was a diesel and started right up. The rig was old, but it was very well cared for.

Neal looked all around the area and couldn’t figure out any reason for the vehicle, in operating condition, to still be there. He stopped both diesel engines and continued his search.

He drove back around to get the best of the conventional tow trailers. Like several of the others, the tow vehicle was parked beside the trailer. It took Neal a bit to get the Suburban in position, even with the rear camera, to hook up to the load equalizing hitch, but he managed and was well on his way back to his property, taking the same route he’d used to move the Magnews.

There was a mixture of joy and consternation when Neal appeared in the mouth of the track into the clearing when Neal returned with the trailer. He’d been only partially correct in his assumption that there had been two reasons the Magnew clan hadn’t salvaged any of the RV’s. Not only did David consider it stealing, and they didn’t have a way to move them anyway, there was also the reason that they didn’t know about most of them.

They’d had near lethal encounters when they’d approached that section of the campground and had avoided it from then on. “I don’t suppose there are any more rigs up there, are there?” asked one of the Magnew uncles. Neal still didn’t have all the names and faces set to memory.

Neal’s big grin gave the man the answer before Neal spoke it. David was suddenly speaking. “I don’t know about taking such things. It’s stealing. That doesn’t sit well with me.”

“It’s salvage,” Neal said evenly. “From every indication, this rig, and several others were intentionally abandoned. Do you really think that the true owners will suddenly appear and ask for them back?”

“If they do,” David said, “We would have to give them back.” That was enough of a ‘yes, do it,’ from David that the others quickly began asking questions about the other RV’s and when they could bring them here.

“Right now. I need a couple of people to help me and we can have the other four units here this evening.”

“Four more?” Elizabeth asked, excitedly.

Neal nodded. He had plenty of volunteers to go with him, including Elizabeth. It took longer than Neal had hoped. They didn’t have the last unit set in place until almost midnight. There were only four people to help with the outside work when the temperatures started to drop. The Magnews didn’t have enough cold weather clothing to go around.

They moved another large conventional trailer, one large three-axle fifth-wheel trailer that had to be moved the same way the Magnew’s was, the old Winnebago motorhome, and an almost new forty-foot Holiday Rambler diesel pusher motorhome. All were fully functional in a couple of days, after some wiring and plumbing were salvaged from some of the units still left in the Campground and used to install the ones that had been moved.

Neal decided to breakout and install the second PV system to provide electrical power to all the units. The first system just didn’t have enough power, but between the two of them, there was plenty. With help from the others, Neal moved five more of the one-hundred pound propane tanks to where the trailers were and hooked them up.

The tents and tarp windbreaks were taken down, after only having been up a couple of days, but it was done eagerly. Their tiny chicken coup and tractor for the two chickens David had been given was constructed behind the base of the U. Neal left the clan to decide who would occupy each unit. He was smiling when he walked slowly up to his Tumbleweed Tiny Home after everything was finished.

The next morning Neal came out of the Lusby, dressed for the bad weather that his weather station said the area was in for, the funfling in hand. He was going hunting again. It had been several days and he wanted to make sure the stocks of meat were adequate in case the weather kept them from hunting for several days.

When Elizabeth, who was already outside, saw him, she came hurrying over. “Going hunting?”

Before he could give the obvious answer, Elizabeth did so herself. “Yes. Of course you are. Silly me. Would it be all right if I tag along? I’d like to get at least a couple of rabbits or squirrels to stretch things out a bit.”

Neal had never hunted with anyone before, and was a bit reluctant, but found himself agreeing to wait while Elizabeth went to get a heavier coat, her hunting pack, and one of the families’ twenty-two rifles.

When she had rejoined him, Neal headed toward the forest, pulling the game cart behind him. Elizabeth followed along silently beside him. Most of the previous snows had melted away during the last two much warmer days, leaving only patches here and there on the north sides of large trees and rock outcroppings.

“You always carry two guns?” Elizabeth asked when they stopped to get a drink of water. She pointed at the BM-59 slung across Neal’s back, and the funfling he had slung over his other shoulder.

“Good hunting gun, not as good for self-defense. I’m worried about others being up here, hunting. Things are getting tough.”

“I suppose I should have brought something more than my twenty-two,” Elizabeth said. “I will be sure to do so next time.”

Neal didn’t remark on her using the term ‘next time.’

After a while, Neal changed his pace, slowing down and moving much more carefully. Elizabeth did the same, taking the cue from him. Suddenly the funfling was at his shoulder and Neal fired two quick shots and two squirrels tumbled out of the trees.

“Wow,” Elizabeth said softly. “You are a good shot.” Then she grinned. “Of course it is a twelve gauge. Though come to think of it, there sure wasn’t much of a report for a twelve gauge.”

Neal opened the action and showed Elizabeth the two twelve gauge to .410 bore shotgun shell adapters in the chambers. He removed the two spent shells, added two more, closed the action and said, “No point in wasting ammunition better suited for something else on what a .410 will take adequately.”

“What kind of gun is that?” Elizabeth asked, looking at the open action closely.

Neal handed it to her and went to pick up the squirrels as he explained what drillings, vierlings, and funflings were.

“Never heard of any of them before. Uncle Chuck has an old Savage 24 over under twenty-two four ten combo.

“I have a couple of combo guns, too. But this is my all around gun, now that the BATFE isn’t looking to take it away from me.”

“Oh. Okay. Looks beautiful. How much is something like this worth?”

Neal didn’t see Elizabeth’s shocked face when he replied, “Oh, I don’t know… pre-war, probably seventy-five thousand. Now… It’s just a good working gun. Couple ounces of gold… couple cases of canned meat… a big buck…”

Neal looked over at Elizabeth. She’d controlled her surprised look. “But I would never trade it away for that. For anything. It means a lot to me.” Neal took the gun back when Elizabeth handed it to him. He checked the chambers, just as he always did when he picked it, just as he’d been trained just those few years previously.

“You really are a good shot, seeing as that was .410’s you were using.”

Neal grinned over at her. “I’m pretty sure you can hold your own with me. Here’s your chance to show me.” Neal crouched down, so Elizabeth did the same. He pointed off toward a patch of snow perhaps sixty yards away.

Elizabeth raised her twenty-two and sighted in on one of the cottontail rabbits that were standing side by side in the snow, ears up, noses twitching.

She didn’t see Neal raise the funfling at the same time. She would have chided him about the rabbits being out of range for the .410 if she had. Instead, she steadied and then fired, and nearly jumped out of her skin when Neal fired too, a fraction of a second after her, at the second rabbit, which had made one quick jump at the sound of Elizabeth’s rifle.

“What?” she asked. “That wasn’t the .410’s.”

“The twenty-two Hornet,” Neal replied, again opening the action to take out the spent shell. He put it in a pocket, as he had the .410’s he’d shot earlier.

Both stood and went over to pick up the rabbits. “I hope you aren’t mad,” Neal said. “You probably could have taken the second one, too.”

“Not with this single shot,” Elizabeth replied, reloading the bolt action twenty-two with another .22 Short. “But I almost always get the first one with it,” she replied, slipping the rabbit into the game pouch of her hunting coat.

“You ready to go back? I’ve got what I wanted.”

“No. I’m going to continue. I’d like to get a deer, if possible. Feel free to take the squirrels and rabbits back with you, if you want to go back.”

“No,” Elizabeth said slowly. “I’d like to tag along the rest of the way. And see how you do. You’re a lot better hunter than I would have ever guessed. You’ve been hunting since you were a kid, I bet.”

Neal shook his head, took the handle of the game cart, and headed deeper into the forest. “Just took it up a couple of years ago. Neal smiled a bit at the slightly annoyed look that flitted across Elizabeth’s face.

Leaving the cart in the forest at one point, Neal walked a bit further, and then sat down on an insulated, waterproof pad he took out of his pack.

“All the luxuries,” Elizabeth said, crouching down beside him.

“Here,” Neal said, handing her a folded black garbage bag he took from a pouch on his pack.

Elizabeth sat down cross-legged beside him and the two waited in companionable silence for the twenty minutes or so it took for a large doe to begin moving cautiously along the game path Neal had found early on in his explorations of the property.

Neal lifted the funfling’s barrels up slowly, the butt stock already against his shoulder. He fired and the deer dropped without ever knowing a hunter was close. “Nice shot,” Elizabeth said, and watched Neal go through the same routine of unloading and reloading the funfling as he studied the area.

“I think that’s it,” Neal said after a few moments and turned around to go get the game cart.

“You want me to start the field dressing?” Elizabeth asked.

“No. I always go quite a ways from the known trails to dress them out. Don’t want to spook the rest of the herd from using the trail.”

Elizabeth helped Neal roll the doe onto the cart, and then worked beside him to gut and skin the deer after Neal had strung it up by its hind legs using a small block and tackle he carried in his pack.

It took less than half the time it usually took Neal alone. Elizabeth was rather more skilled at the dressing process than Neal was.

The two walked back home, each with a hand pulling the game cart, though Neal certainly didn’t need the help. When they arrived, Neal took care of the deer hide and let Elizabeth take the deer meat, two squirrels, and the rabbits to finish dealing with them.

Neal worked with the hide after he had a light lunch, watching the children playing inside the confines of the Magnew camp. It was set up much the same way as the other camp. An open-ended U, with the opening pointed toward Neal’s house, which was up the rise slightly from them.

Every once in a while one of the children would look up and wave at Neal. He always waved back. A very small wave, but a wave, none the less.

That even, just before Neal was going to go in and fix supper, Elizabeth came walking up the slight slope, carrying something in two hands. One of the older girls was with her, carrying something, as well.

With a smile, she handed the towel wrapped bowl. “Venison chili,” she said. Some of the RV’s had some spices.” She nodded at Amanda. “And a forequarter.”

“You didn’t have to do this. I was just planning on getting a deer for myself, later.”

“Oh, I think its better to share as we go,” Elizabeth said. She held the bowl of chili forward and Neal took it automatically.

“Come on in,” Neal said and stepped up onto the small front porch of the Lusby. With his hands full, Elizabeth reached around him and opened the door.

When Neal went in, Elizabeth turned around and took the other package from Amanda. “Thanks Amanda,”

“Can I see the house?” Amanda asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Elizabeth said, glancing at Neal.

He shrugged and said, “Sure. Not much to see.”

Amanda edged inside and took the nickel tour. It didn’t take long. “It’s tiny,” Amanda said. “Almost like a doll house. But it’s a real house.”

“Yes it is,” Neal said with a smile. “Suits me just fine.”

“Okay, Amanda. You’ve seen the house. Go on back to our place.”

“Yes, Elizabeth,” Amanda replied and immediately did so.

“Very well behaved children, I’ve noticed,” Neal said, setting the towel wrapped bowl of chili on the counter. Elizabeth put the venison beside it. “I’ll wrap that and put it in the freezer in the shed in a bit.”

Elizabeth nodded and turned toward the door. “I’d better go so you can eat that while it is hot. She had her hand on the doorknob as Neal said, “Thank you, Elizabeth. This was kind of you.”

“Just evening up the debt a bit,” she replied without turning around. Neal found himself a bit disappointed by her response, but shrugged it off and enjoyed the excellent chili.

Nothing much changed over the next couple of months, as the Magnew clan became settled in their new camp. They dug another small open trench fire pit and installed the grates and pot hangers, to do much of their cooking with the plentiful firewood, rather than use the precious propane.

David and Elizabeth came up to Neal one bright day that hopefully signaled that spring had actually arrived, despite the date being well after the date it should have come. “Neal, can we talk to you? It’s important,” David said.

“Sure. You want to get a cup of tea in the house?”

“I’m a little uncomfortable taking such things without the others being able to enjoy them,” David said. Elizabeth nodded in agreement. “This will just take a moment.”

“Okay,” Neal said, turning around and leaning against the work counter in the log shed where he’d been working.

“We’re getting desperately low on vegetables, fruits, and staples again,” David said. “We were wondering if you would be able to tow the mini-van down to the gate. I think we can make it from there to the trade center at the store in Sullivan and back. We’d just walk back the rest of the way.”

Neal hesitated before he spoke. “I can certainly do that. But I think I should go in with you.”

“We can not keep depending on you, Neal,” Elizabeth said.

“You don’t know how much your family’s presence here has increased my feelings of security. That is worth a lot to me. I know that if I was to get sick and couldn’t hunt, I would be provided for. I have help to cut wood, which is much safer, and besides, I could use a few items myself.”

Elizabeth sighed. So did David, who said, “Well, we certainly wouldn’t try to stop you from going in, and it is probably safer if we go as one larger group rather than one small group and an individual. If you are certain you wish to accompany us, we won’t object. But please allow us to do our own trading.”

“Of course,” Neal said.

Elizabeth eyed him as if she wasn’t quite sure if he was being completely forthright, but she said nothing.

“Tomorrow at eight?” Neal asked.

“As you wish,” David replied. He and Elizabeth turned and went back to their small enclave. Neal finished up what he was doing and took stock of what he would take in to trade with.

He loaded the Suburban with everything except some venison and small game he had in the freezer. He’d load that the following morning. Early in the morning, Neal got up and made his first trip to the cave in many weeks. He rounded up a few items and hurried back to the Lusby. There was no snow left around the compound. He’d left no tracks on the frozen earth and solid rock.

It didn’t take long to hook the tow strap between the Suburban and mini-van the next morning. It was to be David and Elizabeth going in again. Neal wished he could have dissuaded Elizabeth and have David take another of the grown men with them, but didn’t even try, knowing it would be fruitless. He did ask if Dwayne could accompany him in the Suburban and was granted his wish.


They refused additional gasoline, believing they had enough to get there and back, even if they didn’t find more. Gasoline was one of the things on their ‘shopping list’. Neal had great doubts about any being available. If it was, it would be very precious.

Neal stopped the Suburban outside the gate to his road and they unhooked the mini-van. Neal offered to lead the way, to break through the snowdrifts that they discovered still existed, despite the warmer weather. They just hadn’t had time to melt away the way the un-drifted snow had.

There were no signs of any traffic on the county road, though there was some on the state road. Neal knew they were leaving tracks on the muddy gravel road, even without the tracks through the snowdrifts. Once on pavement Neal quit worrying about it.

Again he took a round about way into Sullivan, but once there, went directly to Carmello’s store. It was Saturday, and the place was packed with people looking for all sorts of items. The same two Marines were watching vehicles and horses for a fee and Neal willingly paid them with a venison roast, over Dwayne’s objections that he could watch the Suburban for nothing.

“I want you and your firepower handy, with me,” Neal told Dwayne.

“You expecting trouble?” Dwayne asked.

“I always expect trouble,” Neal said with a small laugh. “I’m a hermit, or didn’t you know. We worry.”

Dwayne laughed in return. David and Elizabeth had come prepared for the Marines, too. Four individual freshly baked dried fruit pies were more than adequate for them to secure the mini-van.

Elizabeth gave Neal a telling look. He wasn’t to accompany them. He was to go do his own business and leave her and David to do theirs.

With Dwayne tagging along behind, just keeping an eye on things for Neal, Neal did a bit of trading and a lot of information gathering. Despite Elizabeth’s warning look, Neal made it a point to keep her and David visible out of the corners of his eyes, as they made the rounds the same way Neal was.

David cut away and began a prayer gathering, much the same way he had the first time. Neal saw Elizabeth standing by herself and looking toward the store. From the looks of it, she had not had much luck finding the food items she wanted. Almost everyone there wanted food in return for their goods.

When she resolutely started toward the store, Neal hurried over and joined her.

“Now Neal,” she said, “You said you wouldn’t interfere.”

“I know,” he replied. “But do you really want to go in there unescorted? Having seen what The King is like?”

“I know, I know!” Elizabeth’s voice was strained. “But some of the other people here said he still has canned and packaged food. Apparently he found another truck of food. And some say he’s holding gasoline and diesel fuel. That’s his truck over there.” Elizabeth, Neal, and Dwayne all looked at the fancy, rock crawling style modified Jeep Wrangler. There were four motorcycles of various types, too, Neal noticed.

Neal had heard the same information. “Let me go in with you. Please.” Neal said.

Elizabeth bit her lip for a moment, considering Neal’s offer. Finally she just nodded and began walking toward the store. “Wait out of sight, by the doors,” Neal whispered to Dwayne, who walked away, taking a different path to the store. One that anyone inside wouldn’t be able to see him approach.

Neal opened and held the door for Elizabeth to enter. Both stopped and let their eyes adjust to the dim light. There was actually more light than the first time. The King had found some wind-up flashlights and had several hanging here and there.

The King was on his tall bar stool, three men behind him. Neal looked carefully. Only one of the hangers-on was the same. The other two were new faces.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the hermit and his woman, Sweetness,” said The King.

Neal saw Elizabeth tense, but she didn’t say anything.

The King turned hard eyes on Neal. He wasn’t about to admit that he thought Neal had gotten the best of the deal the time before. He did say, “Some good deals the last time. What are you offering up? Sweetness this time, maybe?” His grin was directed at Neal first, and then Elizabeth.

Neal knew Elizabeth was furious inside but she was still holding her tongue, standing stiff as a board.

Looking back at Neal, The King said, “I know you had salt. Don’t need any of it. Got plenty, now.”

“Well,” Neal said, “You said you make the deals. What are you asking for canned or packaged vegetables and fruits, and for... Elizabeth, you were wanting?”

Through clenched teeth Elizabeth said, “Flour, cornmeal, oil or shortening, some spices, pasta, dry beans, rice…”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” The King said with an aggravating laugh. “Why don’t you just say you want everything I have? I doubt you have enough for half of what you’ve already named. I wouldn’t even give you half of it for a couple of hours in bed with you.”

“How dare you!” Elizabeth said coldly. “I wouldn’t give you the time of day if I saw you on the street, much less even consider sleeping with you!”

Neal didn’t like the look in The King’s eyes. The King slid from the tall bar stool and his hands hovered over the twin pistols on his thighs. His goons shifted nervously, the Hi-Point carbines shifting from a casual hold to a ready hold.

“Easy now,” Neal said. “No need to get riled. She’s a woman to speak her mind. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“None of your talking tricks like last time,” The King growled. “Anything you want is going to cost you big time.” He looked at Elizabeth and sneered. “Got a good look at you this time in the better light. Doubt if I’d touch you with a ten foot pole. You’re ugly.”

It was a little boy’s reaction to rejection, Elizabeth and Neal both knew. Elizabeth took it much better than Neal did.

“Be very careful what you say,” Neal said, his voice cold. “We’re here to deal. She isn’t part of the deal in any way. State what you want, besides her and any weapons and ammunition.” Neal had seen The King’s eyes go to the BM-59 slung over Neal’s shoulder.

“I don’t like being threatened,” The King said. His hands were shaking, held just above his pistols. It infuriated him that Neal was ignoring how close The King was to drawing the pistols and killing him and just taking the woman.

“I didn’t threaten you, King,” Neal replied, his voice still cold. “If you want to trade, we will, for something reasonable. Otherwise we’ll take our trade goods and leave.”

“I said don’t threaten me!”

It was a very near thing. Someone else came into the store and The King looked over angrily to see who it was. It didn’t matter. The person sensed the tension and hurriedly turned around and left.

The interruption was just enough for The King to calm down enough to not draw his weapons. “Okay, smart guy. You have one option. Gold. The previous owner took gold, before his untimely death…” His cronies laughed and The King, calmer now, grinned and continued. “So will I. You don’t have it, turn around and walk out of here.”

Elizabeth gasped and hurriedly spoke up. “I have more jewelry! My sister-in-law’s things. They’re even nicer than what I…”

The King cut her off. “Sure. I’ll take it, too. But there has to be gold coins in the deal.”

“How much, for how much?” Neal asked.

“You just gather up what you want, and I’ll tell you how many coins it will take. Give me the jewelry. All of it.” The King was smiling now. He hopped back up onto the barstool.

Rather reluctantly Elizabeth took several jewelry cases out of her pack and handed them to The King and stepped back quickly.

“Dwayne,” Neal said, only slightly louder than they’d been talking.

Dwayne came into the store immediately, surprising The King and his cronies no end. None had even suspected he was out there.

“Help Elizabeth gather up what she wants. Everything she wants.”

“It’s going to cost you if we have to restock all this stuff,” The King warned. He took what was intended as a cursory, ‘Big Deal’ look, but wound up admiring the fine jewelry in detail.

When he looked up again Rebecca and Dwayne each had a shopping basket loaded down with cases of food.

“They’re just getting started,” Neal said when The King started to speak. Elizabeth and Dwayne both looked at Neal for a fraction of a second, but both grabbed another cart each and went back into the depths of the store.

“You realize, I hope, that you are digging three graves here,” The King said, eyes and voice cold and venomous as he tried to stare down Neal. “It’s going to be fun with Sweetness before I kill her. There is no way you have enough gold, real gold, for any of this. You’re bluffing.”

Neal stood silently, where he could dive for cover if The King or any of his three men tried anything.

The King was beginning to sweat, worried despite holding the upper hand. At least what he considered the upper hand. “You can’t possibly think you can take all four of us,” he said, voice showing just a hint of unsureness.

“Just sit there calmly and we won’t have to find out,” Neal said. “I’m not going to steal your goods, no matter how you acquired them. You’ll get your gold. A reasonable amount.”

“You really have gold?” The King asked, incredulous.

“Some. That was probably my gold you took off Carmello.”

“How’d you know…” The King’s words faded away as quickly as he’d started them.

Elizabeth and Dwayne were back with overloaded carts again. “One more time,” Neal said, “Two carts apiece this time,” his eyes still on The King.

The King squirmed on his throne of a bar stool, but didn’t make a move towards his weapons. Despite the insult he was feeling, he wanted to see the gold before he killed Neal and Dwayne and took the woman.

The three goons started to move around and Neal told The King. “Have your goons chill out or I kill you first.”

“You can’t talk to me like that!” The King half screamed, sliding down off of the barstool. But Neal already had the Glock 21 out, pointed toward The King’s chest.

“Tell them, or die right now,” Neal said, steel in his voice and eyes.

The King didn’t like it. That was obvious. But he did it. “Take it easy guys. Don’t do anything until I tell you. And when I do, don’t kill the woman. I want her alive.”

“You really push it,” Neal said, his finger tightening slightly on the trigger of the Glock. It was probably good that The King didn’t know how close the gun was to going off in Neal’s hand. All the slack had been taken up on the trigger safety, and the trigger was tensioned. Another pound of finger pressure and the gun would go off. And Neal was holding it steady on The King’s chest.

It seemed like a long time to Neal, and he thought it probably seemed even longer to The King, before Elizabeth and Dwayne showed up again, with the four carts just as overloaded as the first four. Both took in the changes in the situation quickly.

“Now,” Neal told The King, “Say what you want for eight carts of groceries.”

“All the gold you have,” The King said immediately.

“Sorry,” Neal said. “You don’t know how much I have. Might not even have enough and will have to go get more. Just give a price and I’ll see if I agree with it. I gave Carmello two ounces for six cartloads. Figure from there.”

“Things are worse now,” The King said, his voice much more of a normal tone. Neal suddenly realized that it wasn’t a good sign. The King was about to explode with anger.

“Triple what you gave him!”

Neal nodded. “That’s fair.” Using his left hand, Neal slipped six one-ounce US Gold Eagles out of the pocket of his jacket and tossed them to The King, one at a time.

The King looked at each one closely and then started at Neal malevolently. He’d said he’d make a deal. Now he had to back out of it. That wasn’t good. But Neal and Dwayne weren’t going to leave alive, and the woman was staying permanently.

With a nod of his head, Neal motioned Dwayne and Elizabeth to take the baskets outside. “Get the truck and load up. David, too. And if something happens in the meantime, just keep going. Don’t stop for me.”

Elizabeth and Dwayne didn’t like it much. Neither did The King or his men. It sounded like Neal was more than ready to die over the transaction. But The King began to smile slightly when the Suburban came to a stop outside. Neal didn’t like that.

Edging over to the doors, still keeping his pistol pointed at The King, Neal said, loud enough for Dwayne and Elizabeth to here him, “He’s got an ace in the hole. Keep an eye peeled out there.”

Dwayne and Elizabeth redoubled their efforts to load the Suburban from the carts, tossing things in willy-nilly. The King as much as snarled.

Dwayne was in the Suburban driver’s seat, and Elizabeth took off at a run to get David into the mini-van and on the road. Neal backed out of the store, as Dwayne backed the Suburban enough to put the passenger door right by Neal, having already set the AUG handy.

It seemed to Dwayne that everything happened in slow motion the next few seconds. Neal jumped for the door of the Suburban and climbed in. Dwayne floored the accelerator to pull away from the store. A man with a Hi-Point carbine stepped out from behind an overflowing dumpster near the corner of the store building and raised it to fire.

Neal lifted the Glock and fired one shot and the man went down. He set the Glock on the center console and picked up the AUG, turning in the seat to aim toward the store doors through the open window of the Suburban.

The four men in the store boiled out, The King in front, a pistol in each hand. His gunmen had their carbines shouldered and began to fire at the Suburban. Neal began to fire the AUG as quickly as he could accurately.

Two of the gunmen went down almost immediately and Neal knew he hadn’t hit one of them. Someone else was shooting at The King and his men. Several more shots and the other gunman went down, riddled with at least half a dozen bullets. The King went to his knees, still firing the two guns alternately at the Suburban. Then he fell over face first.

“Stop!” Neal said, and hopped out of the Suburban. “Stay ready,” he told Dwayne.

Itching to get out and see what was going on himself, Dwayne did as he was told. Neal seemed to know how to handle a situation. Neal was the first one to the bodies, followed closely by Elizabeth and David. Elizabeth’s face was white and she held her hunting rifle in her hands.

“I shot one of them,” Elizabeth said.

“Get her to the van,” Neal instructed David rather harshly.

Suddenly there was a crowd gathered around. Neal reached into The King’s pocket and withdrew the gold coins The King had slipped into that pocket. A quick search and he found the jewelry boxes in The King’s hip pockets. “We paid what he asked,” Neal said, holding up the coins and jewelry. And he attacked anyway. We all need to get together and decide how to distribute the…”

That was as far as he got. The group rushed the doors of the store and Neal watched in dismay as the people began to grab everything they could carry and run back outside. Almost silently he said, “I was going to include what we bought for distribution.” No one heard, or cared if they did hear. A budding monster and his goons were dead and there was food for the taking.

Bending down, Neal gathered up the guns and all the magazines he could find, moved over to the dead man behind the dumpster and did the same.

Neal saw some of the group eyeing the Suburban and he walked quickly over to it. “Let’s go,” he told Dwayne as soon as he was in the passenger seat. He looked for and finally saw the mini-van. David was driving, just leaving the parking lot of the store, Elizabeth sitting in the front passenger seat, her head down.

David drove directly back to the county road, not attempting to confuse the route, much to Neal’s disappointment. Neal triggered the remote for the gate when they got to his road and the mini-van went through without stopping. David managed to get it halfway to the camp before it bogged down.

Dwayne drove past, and then reversed so Neal could hook up the tow strap. Neal looked through the windshield of the mini-van at Elizabeth. She was still slumped back, head down. He cut his eyes over at David, behind the wheel of the mini-van. David shrugged his shoulders.

When Dwayne pulled into the compound, and Elizabeth and David got out of the mini-van, Elizabeth ran around to David. He opened his arms and she slipped into them, sobbing heavily.

“I’ll get her to Margery,” David said and half carried his sister over to the big motorhome and then inside. Neal watched, but turned to help Dwayne when he opened the back of the Suburban.

“Well,” Dwayne said, “You paid for this, even if you did get everything back. Where do you want it?”

Neal was shaking his head. “We used David’s wife’s jewelry, too. At least half of everything is your family’s, too.”

“Got to tell you, bro,” Dwayne said, looking at Neal looking at the motorhome containing Elizabeth. “I know them. Elizabeth and David aren’t going to want to take any of this stuff. Going to consider it blood stained.”

Neal sighed. “How do things suddenly get so complicated?”

“Hey, man! Don’t ask me. I just know that when there is a woman in the mix, things get complicated, fast or slow.”

With a quick glance at Dwayne to try and determine just what Dwayne meant, Neal just had to ignore the cryptic statement. There wasn’t a clue on Dwayne’s face, and he was already unloading things. He would have answered if Neal asked him outright and Neal knew it. He started unloading, too.

“Let’s take it to the big shed and sort it out,” Neal said, heading that way with his first load.

Elizabeth and Dwayne had picked thoughtfully, Neal decided as they moved everything to the shed work counter. After the Suburban was unloaded, Dwayne went to unload the mini-van. He held up two more chickens so Neal could see them. “Another hen and a rooster! Woo-hoo! More eggs and chicken real soon!”

Neal didn’t see what else David and Elizabeth might have traded for, lost in his own thoughts as he re-sorted the items from the Suburban into one large and one small group. He put away in the sheds or in the Lusby, the things in the smaller group.

Waving Dwayne over, Neal said, “Get some of the others and you distribute the rest of this among yourselves. Margery’s jewelry is there, too.”

“David and Elizabeth aren’t going to like it,” Dwayne said. But it didn’t stop him from doing exactly what Neal had said. Ten minutes later and the shed was just as it had been when they’d returned.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Elizabeth and David came to the Lusby and knocked on the door. Neal set the laptop computer he was using aside and opened the door.

“Neal,” David said, “we have to talk about what happened yesterday and the goods that changed hands.”

Elizabeth was still pale. “I don’t feel right about taking things at gunpoint. Yes, I disliked The King. But I didn’t wish him dead. Any of them. Not even the one I killed.”

“We paid him exactly what he asked for,” Neal said softly. “He’s the one that changed his mind, took umbrage, and shot first to get back things that had been paid for. He wasn’t going to give the coins and jewelry back. He would have kept them. And you, too, after killing David, Dwayne, and me.”

Elizabeth was shaking her head. “We could have handled it differently. No one need have died.”

“Violence settles nothing,” David said. “I should have intervened in some way. Brought the Good Book into the equation.”


“Wouldn’t have helped,” Neal said. “The King was on the road to destruction long before the events of today. I picked up much information while I was making a few trades. The others of the trading group were planning to… displace… The King from his position of authority.”

“Still,” David said, “a group like that… perhaps they had jurisdiction. We don’t live in the town… Perhaps it was none of our concern.”

Firmly Neal said, “I am keeping my portion of what we acquired yesterday. If you want, I will take your portion and return it to the store to let the others fight over it.”

David and Elizabeth both looked at him and realized he was serious. “Perhaps…” David said, “Perhaps you are right. Ill gotten gains…”

“No,” Elizabeth suddenly said. “Neal is right. We did give him what he wanted. And if he would have had the chance, he would have taken me, without a second thought. It’s good he is dead. Better for everybody. We’re keeping the things, David, and that is it.”

“But Elizabeth…”

“No buts, except one. The distribution was unequal,” Elizabeth said, cutting off her brother. “You gave us too much and didn’t keep enough for yourself.” Elizabeth was giving Neal a hard look.

“I’m perfectly happy with the split. Margery’s jewelry was worth far more than my gold coins, back in the day when gold was only three-hundred-dollars an ounce. I suspect that one necklace was worth at least two-thousand dollars.”

“But things are different now! And gold was worth more than three-hundred-dollars an ounce when the war happened!” protested Elizabeth.

“Yep, things are different now. And gold was higher at the start of the war. In inflated dollars.”

“But people don’t want jewelry. They want food or fuel or medicines.”

“Sure they do. At least some of them. The King did. And there will be others. In time. There are people now that won’t take gold or silver coins. But some will. I’ll willing to work any kind of trade I can that I believe I will come out in equal value. Or better. And I think I’m way ahead on our deal here.”

Elizabeth sighed. Neal had a ready answer for everything. “Come along, David,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to win the battle and I’m not prepared to dispose of the food or let a mob take it. Better to use it ourselves and help people in some other way, or keep it and give it back a bit at a time.”

“Very well, Elizabeth,” David said, rising from his chair. “If you think it best.”

“I do.” She, too, rose, from the other chair.

“About that helping others,” Neal said, “I have an idea.”

“What?” Elizabeth asked. “Something to really help people?”

Her words and tone stung Neal a bit. “Yes. To really help people. I made some inquiries about greenhouses. There are a few in town, but smaller hobby ones. I’m thinking that if we put in one or two big ones, plus a conventional garden, we could produce more than enough for the group here and have an excess to trade. Or even give away, if the situation called for it.”

Both sat back down. “Where would we get these greenhouses?” David asked.

“Up in Union. If they still have any. If not, perhaps Rolla. There is a greenhouse dealer and nursery there, too.”

“What about seed?” Elizabeth asked. “There weren’t any in the stocks at the store. I looked.”

“I have quite a bit of seed stored away. Open pollinated types that we can recover seed from for future years. And if any hybrids do happen to be available we’d plant those first and save the open pollinated for use later.”

“How would we get them here?” David asked. “I don’t think anything of a size you’re talking about would fit in the back of the Suburban, much less the mini-van.”

“You have something in mind, don’t you?” Elizabeth asked, almost accusingly.

“I made contact with someone at the trade meet that has a semi truck that runs, and any kind of trailer we might ever need. What he doesn’t have is a supply of fuel. I have some fuel stored, and a line on a renewable source.”

“How did you do that?” David asked.

“Just by asking. Especially after small trades that put the trading partner in a good mood to talk. I got leads on several possibilities. But they all involve your family. That’s why I’m not very concerned about exactly even trades between us right now.”

“Are you going to explain some of these other ideas?” Elizabeth asked.

“Not until I get more information and can be more sure of the success of the endeavors.”

“At least a hint?” Elizabeth asked.

Neal smiled and shook his head. Elizabeth smiled back and all the previous tension was gone.

“Should I pursue the greenhouse project?” Neal asked. “There is no point in doing it without your help. I can’t do it alone.”

David thought for only a moment. “Yes. We will help you. If you can get the greenhouses.”

“Okay! I’ll get right on it. Spring is coming up fast. We need to get the guerrilla garden renewed and a regular garden started whether we get the greenhouses or not.”

“What do we need to do?” Elizabeth asked.

The three took another hour to discuss the coming spring projects. When David and Elizabeth left, everyone was smiling and eager for things to progress. Neal sat down and sighed a huge sigh of relief at the way things had finally gone. Now to get on with the plans.

Click here to read Chapter 3