The Hermit 4


The Hermit - Chapter 4

Neal controlled his steps initially, fighting the urge to up his speed until he was running. “I am not running away!” he said aloud. “I’m just changing my lifestyle! I’m a nomad now.” So he made a little less distance than he might have that first day. He took it pretty easy the second day, too, to let his muscles adjust to the new level of constant activity.

He had no exact destination in mind at first, but quickly decided that just random walking wasn’t going to work for him. Neal decided to check out sources of salt in Arkansas near Arkadelphia. While there was still plenty stored in the tunnel and especially in the cave, having a future source would be a good idea, for use, and for trading.

In a week Neal’s body was hardened to the trail. Concerned with security, Neal used the old method of stopping and preparing an evening meal fairly early at one spot, and then traveling a bit further before making camp, so as not to be tracked to a camp by fire or cooking odors.

He seldom used his fully enclosed tent, using a Baker style tent made from Siltarp material. Neal liked the open feeling and being able to see and hear what was going on outside. With no-see-um netting for the opening, he was comfortable even when the bugs were flying, which seemed all the time.

If need be, though it would compromise security somewhat, he could use the light tent in cool weather by having a small fire in front of tent opening.

In no particular hurry, Neal often took a day or two to hunt for game. He conserved his stored supplies as much as possible, depending on a mostly fresh meat diet to keep him healthy. Since hunting seasons were thing of the past, Neal took what game, birds, and fish he could, though he did avoid taking any deer fawns or obviously pregnant does, never taking more of anything than he could consume before the remainder spoiled.

He saw fewer people than he expected, even staying off the beaten track the way he was. Neal searched for wild edibles, but found he wasn’t as adept at identifying them without a manual in hand as he thought he would be.

An alternative presented itself to him and Neal took full advantage of it, while still maintaining a high level of security. There were abandoned, isolated, houses, farms, and ranches all along the route he was taking. Rather than looking for wild foods, he harvested fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries from existing orchards and gardens. Even some of the hybrid stock vegetables had volunteered as one of the original varieties the hybrid was based on. Some were fine, others inedible or of little or no production.

With the society back to primarily non-mechanized agrarian way of life, labor was in great demand. Neal was often able to supplement his food with good home cooked meals, along with the occasional score of jerky or dehydrated fruits and vegetables, by lying over and working for a few days at some of the working farms he ran across.

Though people were cautious, the early days of savagery seemed to be over. Not that there weren’t brigands and such out there, for there were, one didn’t have to worry too much about close neighbors turning on them for their supplies. There weren’t that many close neighbors to start with, and those that there were, were much more inclined to cooperate in defense than totally isolate themselves.

So Neal made his slow way southward during the remaining days of summer and early fall. He was still debating whether to try and find a job on a farm or ranch where he could winter over, or try to continue his journey during the late fall and winter months. Though already well into Arkansas, he was expecting the weather to be as unstable and severe as it had the previous year, whether due to the effects of global warming, nuclear winter, or natural climate change.

The decision was made for him when he tripped and fell, cracking at least three ribs when the heavy game cart ran over him when he was looking for a good place to camp for a while and hunt just off Highway 95 on the Little Red River not far from Scotland, Arkansas.

He wouldn’t be going any distance at all until the ribs healed. He managed to wrap his chest with an Ace bandage from his first-aid kit, and slowly maneuver the game cart to an acceptable spot on the river for a semi-permanent camp. He had to stop and rest and recover from the pain many times before the cart was moved and the camp set up.

Only when the camp was ready to be occupied did Neal dig into the first-aid kit again and take one of the prescription painkillers he’d obtained from the cooperative doctor he’d found when first getting into preps.

He had the Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1 three-person, four-season tent set up, with the Baker tent set up facing it so he could keep his gear under cover. Though it was exceeding painful, Neal managed to take a deer a few days after he set up camp and set about jerking the meat. It was a slow process as cutting the meat was hard on his ribs.

Neal set out limb lines in the river and supplemented his red meat with fresh fish, and the occasional game bird. Each time he fired the funfling, except the .22 Hornet barrel, Neal wondered if he was hurting his ribs more than he was getting in return.

He had to have meat to live, so he took the pain and delayed healing in stride, tapering off the painkiller and going to willow bark tea to control the pain. It was nasty tasting stuff, but at least partially effective for the minor pain he was in when at rest. Fortunately, there was a willow tree growing on the river, right near his camp.

Lonely, hurting, and depressed, the anniversary of the death of his family was a difficult day for Neal. He stayed in the Trango 3.1 except to use the bathroom, consuming nothing except three cups of the bitter willow root tea.

Neal managed to pull himself out of the doldrums over the next few days, taking another deer, again despite the pain, which was marginally less than it had been the first time. He was even able to take a couple of Mallard ducks just before Christmas. One of them, and the last of his fresh potatoes was Christmas dinner.

With the passing of January First of the new year, Neal began to get out a bit more. He was still keeping his ribs wrapped and was very protective of them, but he wanted to get some exercise, to at least get his legs in shape for the journey he would continue as soon as he thought the weather had broken.

March first and Neal was packing up camp, with only a few twitches from his cracked ribs. He only made a few miles that day, but was happy to be on the move again. The next day Neal began exploring areas on the back roads, looking for an abandoned place with fruit trees or volunteer garden.

It took him a few days to find what he was looking for, but when he found it, the place was a mother lode. There were plenty of root vegetables that had wintered over in the ground. Neal took the time to stock up.

When he checked the house, with crossed fingers, he found his hopes for home canned food only partially fulfilled. Most of the wet pack canning jars had frozen during this or previous winters and burst. Only the jams and jellies had survived.

But the owners of the place had not only wet pack canned in jars, they had dehydrated much of the bounty of their garden, orchard, and berry patch, and stored them in canning jars, Ziplock bags, and vacuum sealed bags, depending on the item.

Neal was surprised the place hadn’t been salvaged before, but was thankful it hadn’t been. Again, he took his time and stocked up selectively, there being more than he could carry. Rather than carry the heavy glass jars, he transferred the contents of those items in jars he wanted to Ziplock freezer bags, of which the kitchen was well stocked. That included quite a bit of what Neal was sure was beef jerky. It was mostly teriyaki flavor, or peppered, neither of which he particularly cared for. But he took it all, too. The only glass jars he took were the small jars of jelly, jam, and preserves. There were four cases of them.

He added to his trade goods several boxes of canning lids, a couple of bags of sugar, some packages of pectin, packets of yeast, and over a hundred packets of seeds, a few of which were open-pollinated types.

After two days at the place, Neal called it good and got back on the road, the game cart as well stocked and heavy as it had been when he left his property.

Neal stayed well west of Little Rock, which had taken a nuke, but moved a bit closer when his keychain radiation alarm began to occasionally let out a beep when he was east of Fort Smith. It must have taken a nuke too and he was passing through the fallout zone.

The alarm only sounded occasionally, indicating a presence of radiation, but it wasn’t at a level where Neal worried about it. He just edged east and then back west as he continued on his way to Arkadelphia.

Once he quit having trouble with his ribs, Neal went looking for operating farms again, to trade labor for whatever he could get out of the trade, once adding slightly to his gold and silver coins supply, which was stashed all over his person and all through his equipment. When the spring planting season was done, Neal continued south, until he picked up Interstate 30 West. The road was actually headed southwest on the stretch he was on, but Arkadelphia was just off the Interstate about half way between what was left of Little Rock and Texarkana.

Neal left the Interstate often during the summer trip, to hunt, but usually got back on it for the easy travel. He was again in good shape and could make several miles a day, on his travel days. He began to see other people on the Interstate, many, like him, with a cart, though most carried just a pack. Some had horses, but were mostly walking, the horses carrying their possessions.

A couple of cars and trucks, under their own power, passed them by, as did three loaded down pickup trucks being pulled by six horses each. There were two people in cab of the first one, one handling the horses’ reins from the passenger seat through the windshield opening while the other person steered the truck. The other two trucks were crew cabs and had five or six people in each.

Some of the people were very standoffish, but there were a few that didn’t seem to know how to stop talking if there was anyone within earshot, and, Neal suspected, even when no one was.

He traveled a couple days with a family group that was traveling to Texarkana to be with additional family that had a working farm.

Many of the other people were doing similar, though some were just getting away from the colder winters up north, headed for possibilities in the rolling country of east Texas.

Neal quickly tired of the annoyances of other people and left the Interstate to travel the side roads the rest of the way to Arkadelphia. Besides, he’d seen quite a few people eyeing his cart and gear when he made camp with others. Better to travel alone, he decided.

He made a few inquiries when he got to Arkadelphia and learned where a small salt recovery operation was going on. He went out and signed up for the rest of the summer, for eats and a share of salt.

Neal set up camp near the production facility and socialized very little. He got permission to hunt on the land. It was owned by the same family that ran the salt operation. He was able to trade the occasional bird, rabbit or squirrel he got for fresh foods from a couple of the other men that worked at the salt works, will still keeping himself in fresh meat. The jars of jellies and jams were good trade items, too. He kept the strawberry and blackberry preserves for himself.

Neal would have worked for a while longer that summer, but some of the owner’s family came in from Illinois and Neal was told he was no longer needed. They did let him keep his salt on the books, to be picked up a portion at a time over the next few years. He took all he could carry with him, for trading.

For somewhere else to go, so he would have a specific destination in mind, Neal thought about various needs survivors of the war would need or want. Alcohol was pretty easy to make. Already there were stills set up here and there. At least a few home beer brewers had survived, with their equipment. Beer was available in certain areas. Ditto wine making. There was another major vice that couldn’t be made or grown just anywhere. Tobacco. Never a user himself, Neal knew it was important to other people. If he remembered one of the PAW stories on the Internet, Lake City, South Carolina had a tobacco festival. What better place to find the stuff than there.

“South Carolina, here I come,” Neal said as he left the salt works. He knew he couldn’t make it before winter set in, and despite being this far south, Neal decided to head for the Mississippi, get across it, and then camp for the winter by the river. Consulting the atlas he carried, Neal decided to try to cross at Helena, Arkansas. It was the most direct route from where he was to where he was going.

Just below the maximum weight on the game cart and maxed out in the Kifaru EMR, Neal began his south-eastward trek across Arkansas. He kept the pace up, stopping only to hunt once in a while, and to check uninhabited, abandoned farms for produce, fruits, nuts, and berries.

He was pleased with the progress he was making. Staying supplied with food just this much further south than his property was easier. More plants came up voluntarily than they did further north.

He ran into the first serious problem on the trip, other than the cracked ribs, while passing south of Monticello, Arkansas. He had cut across country and was about to cross US 495 when four vehicles, two pickup trucks, an H-3 Hummer, and a semi truck with a reefer trailer, came barreling down the highway. The H-3 was in the lead.

Neal stepped back to wait for the vehicles to pass. But they began to slow down and Neal edged back further. The H-3 stopped and the window went down.

“Who are you?” asked the driver.

“Name’s Neal Grant. I’m passing through, headed for South Carolina.”

“Quite a rig you got there. Though not to be traveling all that way. Why don’t you climb aboard one of the pickups and we’ll take you in to Monticello and see if we can’t work out a better way to get you to South Carolina.”

“I’ll pass,” Neal said. “I’m doing fine on my own.”

“I think I said for you to get in the truck.” The voice was suddenly hard and cold. Neal caught the movement out of the corner of his eyes as the driver of the semi got down out of the cab of the truck and started to move up to the H-3.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” Neal said, taking a step back, leaving the game cart where it was. His right hand went to the BM-59, on the narrow part of the stock behind the receiver. His left hand went to the release strap of the gun bearer assembly.

The semi truck driver reached for a pistol stuck cross draw fashion in the front of his pants. Neal didn’t wait. He didn’t know what these people were up to, but it was certainly not good.

A pull of the release strap and a quick move with his right hand and the butt of the BM-59 came out of the gun bearer pocket and Neal had the gun in his hands before the man could get the pistol clear of his pants.

The safety was flicked forward in the trigger guard and Neal snapped shot a round at the semi-truck driver. It took him in the belly and he fell forward, grabbing his stomach and screaming.

Neal heard a shot come from the H-3, but it didn’t hit him and he didn’t know where it went. He hit the ground and fired back, shooting at the door of the vehicle, hoping to hit the man through the sheet metal with the powerful .308 rounds.

The H-3 suddenly surged forward and off the pavement and added the sound of its horn blowing to that of the screaming man. Dirt splashed into his face from a bullet impact and Neal tried to roll over, but the EMR pack kept him from it. He snapped the quick release buckles of the pack and let it fall off so he could roll the other way as another bullet whizzed past his head. He felt it strike his hip, but he was in the process of firing back at the driver of one of the pickups that was running toward him, firing a double action revolver as fast as he could at Neal.

A fraction of a second and Neal had the peep sight centered on the man’s chest. He squeezed the trigger, and the man’s momentum carried him half a step further before he plowed into the ground like a bag of corn.

The other truck suddenly took off, staying on the far side of the other vehicles. Neal tried several shots, but wasn’t able to hit the driver, though he did think he hit the truck somewhere. Neal scanned the area from his prone position, but there were no signs of any further movement.

Slowly Neal stood up, wincing at the stab of pain in his right hip. But he was able to move so he didn’t worry about it for the moment. He went to check the semi-truck driver. The man had quit screaming. He was unconscious, and Neal doubted he had long to live.

Neal checked the man from the pickup next. He was dead of the shot in his chest. BM-59 at the ready, Neal went to check on the pickup. Suddenly he realized the horn had quit sounding and he crouched down, scanning the area around the H-3 Hummer.

Nothing happened and Neal rose, approaching the H-3 on the driver’s side very carefully. He made a near fatal mistake when he moved forward another step and the door of the H-3 swung open rapidly, catching the barrel of the BM-59 and knocking it from Neal’s hands.

Neal began to back pedal, drawing the Glock from the holster on his pant’s belt. But the man came boiling out of the H-3, his face covered in blood, but without a gun. However bad the big man was hurt he still had enough life in him to kick the Glock free, spinning Neal around in the process. Neal went down and the man began to kick and stomp on him.

Half crawling, half rolling away, Neal scrabbled at the left leg of his pants, raising it just enough to grab the Bond Derringer from an ankle holster. He lifted it up and fired the first barrel point blank into the man’s chest as he was raising his foot to stomp Neal in the face.

The man crumbled, landing across Neal’s body. It took a concerted effort to roll him off, but Neal was finally able to get the body rolled off of his own. Taking a minute to look around and catch his breath, Neal then picked up and re-holstered the Glock, and then picked up the BM-59. He checked it carefully. It was fully operable. Next Neal checked the H-3. There was no one else in it.

But he did find a small collection of firearms and ammunition, some personal items, and a cooler half filled with food. And was pretty sure he’d figured out what had happened to the man. The .308 bullet from Neal’s snap shot with the BM-59 had apparently glanced off the customized Colt 1911 clone, ruining it. Bits of bullet and metal from the gun had peppered the man’s face. The ruined gun was on the floorboard of the H-3.

Going to the pickup behind the semi, Neal moved more carefully, having learned a painful and dangerous lesson. There was no one else in the pickup, either. There were several containers in the back. A check of the semi truck cab and Neal decided there wasn’t anyone else around. The other pick up was long gone.

Neal searched the bodies last, gathering up their weapons and ammunition. Not until he searched the big man from the H-3 did Neal find anything extraordinary. The first two men had a few fractional ounce gold coins on them, plus two one-ounce coins, too, but Neal didn’t think that too odd. The big man, however, had two coin tubes in his pocket. Both were full of one ounce Krugerrands. Neal pocketed them, thinking, “Something is not right here.”

He went back to the H-3 and tossed the guns and ammo he’d taken off the others inside, and then took what he wanted of the guns and ammunition already in the H-3. He sat down and ate the sandwiches and fruit that were in the cooler.

Finally, being as careful as he knew how, Neal opened the rear doors of the reefer trailer and almost fired into the mass of people grouped near the doors. But there were no shots and no sign of anyone being armed. Neal stepped back and was suddenly almost mobbed by the group of people that hurriedly got down out of the truck.

“Man! You have saved our lives!” said one of the men. “When we stopped we were afraid of what was happening. Couldn’t you hear us pounding and yelling?”

Neal shook his head. “It’s a reefer. Really good insulation. He felt bad about having left them in there all the extra time. “What is going on, here?” Neal asked.

“Slavery,” the man said, “Pure and simple and evil in all its ways. You’ve just freed all of us from a slave trader. He and his boys rounded us up one or two at a time over the last week all around and in Monticello. We were destined to be somewhere in Louisiana to work a sugar plantation. The slavers made no bones about what was going to happen to some of the women, either. Said he’d already collected half his pay for a group this size.”

One of the women came up to Neal then and was barely able to ask, “Do you have water? Some of us haven’t had water for two days.”

Neal had seen containers in the back of the pickup and indicated so. The entire group surrounded the truck and soon people were drinking and eating their fill from the supplies contained in the back of the truck.

Neal had a feeling the supplies, that were consumed completely, had probably been slated for the entire trip. Not everyone would have survived, he was sure. The man that had first spoken agreed. “Some of us would have died if you hadn’t intervened. How did you know what was going on? And where are the rest of your people.” He was looking around curiously.

“Didn’t. Just happened to be crossing the road when the convoy stopped and tried to take me. And it’s just me. No people involved.”

“You took them all on by yourself?” asked the man.

“Had too,” Neal replied. “They were trying to get me to stow my gear and ride with them. Look. The vehicles should all run. Why don’t you load up and go back home? I’m sure you have family and friends worried about you.”

“You come with us,” said another of the men. Our people will want to reward you.”

Neal shook his head. “I took some of their weapons and ammunition. Spoils of war. That’s all I want. That and to get away from here.”

The first man that had spoken reached out and shook Neal’s hand. “I’m Ben Cain. You ever come back this way, look me up. I’ll do whatever I can for you.”

“I’m fine,” Neal replied, beginning to feel the effects of the bullet wound in his hip, and the fight with the big guy from the H-3.

Neal watched from the shoulder of the road as the three vehicles were turned around, and people loaded up, this time leaving the trailer doors latched open for those that couldn’t fit in the H-3, pickup, or cab of the semi truck.

When they went out of sight, going northward, Neal took up the game cart and hurried away from the spot of the event. He stopped for the evening and finally treated the bullet burn on his hip. It had bled a bit, which had dried, covering the wound.

Neal used a couple of Provodone/Iodine scrub pads to clean the wound. He smeared on some triple antibiotic ointment, and put a small patch bandage over it. The most annoying thing was he was going to have to sew a patch on his pants where the bullet had cut a slit in them.

He fell asleep that night, berating himself for the fact that once again he’d been careless and almost lost his life. His family wanted him with them through natural causes he was sure, not through stupidity.

Stiff and sore, still angry at himself, Neal packed up camp the next morning and headed east and slightly south, headed for the US Highway 82 Mississippi River Bridge. He took it slow for a few days, stopping every three or four days to hunt for small game.

It was all of three weeks before Neal allowed himself to make contact with other humans again. He found another small town with a weekly trading day. He just happened to be there on the right day and saw several people traveling to the location. He joined the flow and was immediately engaged in conversation with a young man carrying a large backpack that drew up beside him and slowed his pace to match Neal’s.

“Nice rig there, mister. You aiming to do some trading? I’d like to trade you for the cart. What are you asking?”

“Cart isn’t for sale or trade,” Neal said firmly. “As for trading, yes I’d like to do a little.”

“What’cha trading?”

“I think I’d rather wait to get to where we’re going before I start the haggling. Don’t want to stop out here in the middle of everything and open up, just to repack and do it again at the trade center. Where is it, by the way? In case we get separated.”

“I’ll keep you on the right track,” said the young man. “But to be safe, I guess, it’s at the grocery store in town.”

“Seems like they usually are,” Neal replied, shifting the EMR pack on his back slightly and changing his grip on the game cart.

“My name is Bart, by the way,” said the man. “Bart Callahan. What’s yours?”

“Neal Grant.”
“Big pack. What kind is it? Where’d you get it? Did you have it before the war? Cool the way you can carry your rifle.”

Neal controlled his sigh at Bart’s constant chatter. “It’s a Kifaru EMR. Some of the pouches are from other companies. Got it shortly before the war. And yes, the gun bearer option makes it ideal for the way I travel.”

“You interested in a trade for it? I’d go pretty high, for a pack like that. My Kelty is good, but that one is bigger.”

“Same as the game cart, Bart. Not for sale or trade. I’d be foolish to trade away my means of carrying my goods, now wouldn’t I?”

“Yeah. Just rattling. People tell me I do that. Where you from? Where you going?”

“Central Missouri. Headed for South Carolina to see what I can find there.”

“Wow! That’s a long way to travel! How do you live? Where do you get your food? Do you hunt? You’re not one of those that rob people, are you? You don’t look like it.”

“No, I am not one of those that rob people!” Neal said, his annoyance at the question obvious.

“Of course not. Sorry. Just there are some of them around.”

“I know.”

“What about the other? How do you live? Where do you get your food? Do you hunt?”

“Yes. I just live out of my pack and the cart. I hunt. Stop and work for food sometimes. Forage for wild foods and sometimes get things from volunteer gardens at abandoned farms.”

“Wow! Some life! Just living off the land like that. Don’t know if I could do it.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone,” Neal said. “It suits me. Most people are much better off with a secure home base.”

“Mine is my parents’ farm. We do okay. But it sure would be interesting to see some of the country after the war. What have you found?”

“Good things and bad,” Neal replied. “Same as before, with radiation dangers. Good people, bad people, less of the first, more of the latter.”

“Yeah. Here about some of those bad people, like I said before. You run into any of them? What happened? You’re here. Must have gone okay, if you did.”

“I have run into some of the bad and have some scars to prove it. It’s not something I recommend you go out looking for.”

“Not me,” said Bart. “I’m kind of a chicken, I guess.” He tapped the Ruger 10/22 slung over his left shoulder. “Just have the Ruger, anyway. Not much to take on a bunch of bad guys with. Sure get my share of rabbits and squirrels with it, though. What kind of gun is that? Looks kind of like an M-14. Do you hunt with it?”

“It’s a Berretta BM-59. Similar to the M-14. I don’t really hunt with it, though I did take a deer once when it jumped out ahead of me on the trail. I have another gun I use for hunting.”

“What is it? Another rifle? A shotgun? I want to get a shotgun so I can get birds better. Right now I can only get them if they’re sitting.”

“It’s a specialized hunting gun called a funfling. Has three rifle barrels and two shotgun barrels.”

“Holy cow! I never heard of something like that. You mean separate barrels or all together? Is it heavy? What caliber? Do you want to trade it?”

Another slight sigh and Neal responded. “No, it isn’t for sale. The barrels are all together. It’s a bit heavier than just a rifle or shotgun, but not much. It has two twelve-gauge, three and a half inch chamber barrels, a .375 H&H magnum barrel, a .308 Winchester barrel, and a .22 Hornet barrel. I have some chamber adapters so I can use twenty-gauge and four ten bore shotgun shells in it, too.

“I use the .22 Hornet for small game, the shotgun for small game and wing shooting, the .308 for bigger game. Haven’t shot the .375 H&H much, but it’s a second shot to back up the .308, and if I ever go north and run into moose or bear or elk, it’ll come in handy.”

“Wow! Cool! I’d like to get something like that! You get that before the war? How much did it cost? Do you know where there might be another one like that?”

“I got it before the war. It was quite expensive. Don’t have a clue where there might be another. They are quite rare. And expensive.”

“You must have been rich before the war, then.”

“Not really. Well off, I suppose. Just another survivor, now. And the gun is just a shooter. Doesn’t matter what it cost before.”

“Guess not. Sure sounds nice. Can I see it? When we get to the trade center?”

Neal shook his head. “I doubt it. I probably won’t take it out. Just my trade goods.”

“What do you have to trade? Don’t want to compete with you.”

“A little of this, little of that,” Neal replied. “I’d rather wait and let you take a look when I set up.”

“Sure. No prob. I’ve got mostly some wild game jerky, some beef jerky, some dried fruit and vegetables, honey, cheese, home made beeswax candles and bayberry candles, and home made soap.”

“Quite a variety,” Neal said.

“My family has a farm outside of town a ways. You probably passed the driveway on your way. Mom is an herbalist, but she only comes in once a month to trade and treat people. Pop makes the jerky and the cheese. We have a couple of milk cows. I dry the fruits and vegetables with a big solar dehydrator I made. We all work making the candles.”

“Sounds like a very capable family.”

“Yeah. We do okay. So, what about you? Do you have a family?”

“Did. Don’t care to discuss it.” Neal’s voice left no doubt that the subject was off limits. Even Bart saw that.

“Hey! We’re almost there. Right around the next street corner. I want to go get a good spot. I’ll look for you later.” Bart picked up the pace and hurried ahead.

Neal shook his head at the exuberance of youth and maintained his steady pace. He’d get there when he got there, with no strain and no pain. When he did get there, he found a likely place and settled in for some bartering.

He wasn’t looking for anything specific, as he was in decent shape foodwise at the moment. But he did have things people wanted, primarily his still considerable supply of salt. He traded small amounts of it for a few things, the most important of which was six pairs of home woven socks. Three pairs of cotton boot socks and three pairs of wool knee high socks.

He picked up another good cotton shirt in his size, and a pair of hair-in rabbit skin, mittens. Neal had several offers for the guns and ammunition he’d picked up from the slavers, but nothing he was interested in accepting in trade.

Bart came by two hours after Neal set up and looked over the few items Neal had sitting out on his trading blanket. “Wow! Salt! We need salt, bad! How much for all of it?”

“You really need to work on your bartering technique Neal told Bart. “Telling someone how badly you need something kind of gives the other guy an advantage, you know.”

Looking chagrinned, Bart said, rather sadly, “I’m not that good of a trader. Mom and Dad give me a list of things I can accept for our trade goods or give for something else. Ignoring what I said, uh… how much for the salt you have there?”

“You said you had jerky, honey, and cheese?”

Eager now, Bart took off his pack and set it down. He began to take items out, mumbling as he did so. “I traded some of it, and all the vegetables. But there’s a lot of hunters and farmers around and the jerky isn’t going for much…”

Bart’s words faded away when Neal told him, “You’re doing it again, Bart. Don’t go telling people how bad the market is for something. It might just be what they are looking for and could be worth much more than someone else would offer.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Bart set several items out on the edge of the blanket, and looked at Neal.

“For half of the salt,” Neal replied to the unasked question.

Bart added pint glass jar of honey to the goods and looked at Neal. When Neal didn’t say anything Bart reached into the pack and set out cloth drawstring bag. “Dried apricots and peaches.”

“Okay,” Neal said. “That’s a bit more than I was needing. What else would you want for what you’re showing there?”

“I don’t see any, but do you have any .22 shells?”

.22’s were one of the things that Neal had been trading for and away over the weeks. “Two fifty round boxes.”

“Okay,” Bart said.

Neal dug into one of the cargo bags on the game cart and took out the ammunition. He set it on the bag of salt. “You’re sure that’s enough?” Neal asked, feeling a little sorry for the young man. He wasn’t a great trader by any means.

“I… uh… don’t know… What else are you offering?”

“Better,” Neal said. “I’ll throw in four pre-1965 silver half dollars.”

“Really?” Bart exclaimed and then quickly controlled himself. “Yes. We have a deal.”

Neal nodded and each took their goods from the blanket and stowed them away. Neal folded up the blanket and added it to one of the trade goods duffle bags and re-tarped the load on the game cart.

“You want to come back to the farm with me? You said you worked for food sometimes. I’d sure like to see that fun gun, you were talking about.”

“Funfling. Pronounced Funf ling,” Neal said slowly.

“Yeah. That.”

Neal had no intention of stopping in the area, but found himself saying, “If you think your parents could use the help for a few days, I don’t see why not. I just need to get to the Mississippi before winter sets in.”

Eager again, Bart said, “I’m sure they would. It’s coming up on harvesting and butchering time. We always try to find someone needing work to help out. The river is only a few days away on foot, I’d bet.”

“Perhaps,” Neal replied, knowing it was more like two weeks at his pace. He made a snap decision he hoped he wouldn’t regret. “Sure. Why not. I could use a break from the road for a few days.”

“Great!” Bart said. “Come on. I’ll show you the way.”

“Slow down, Sport,” Neal said. “I have a steady pace that gets me where I want to go. No point in hurrying without a good reason.”

“Sorry. I’m just kind of excited. You’re a lot different than the local guys on their own. Most of them are just interested in my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Neal asked, on the verge of regretting his decision.

“Yeah. Didn’t I say? I have five sisters.”

“No, you didn’t,” Neal said.

“Don’t worry. You’re too old for them, anyway. Cindy is the youngest and she’s only sixteen. Julie is the oldest and she’s just twenty-three. But her husband died and she really doesn’t want to get married again, anyway.”

“I see,” Neal replied, still considering changing his mind. But he couldn’t think of a graceful way out of the situation, so he just followed along behind Bart, going at his own pace. A few minutes later and Bart looked back for Neal. He waited for Neal to catch up and matched his pace to Neal’s.

“It’s going to be so cool to have another guy around. Sometimes sisters can really be a thorn in a guy’s side. You know what I mean?”

“Not really,” Neal replied. “I’m an only child.”

“Too bad. I like having a big family, even if they are sisters. But sometimes a guy needs to talk to another guy. You know what I mean?”

Neal just grunted slightly.

“Yeah. I bet you do. So, did you make some other good trades before you traded with me? I did. Always trade away all the candles. They’re the best. Little surprised the cheese didn’t go before you took it.”

“Not many,” Neal replied to the question before he forgot what the question was. “Cheese usually goes quickly?”

“Yeah. But more people are learning how to make it, I guess. There was someone else trading it today, besides me. At least I was able to trade everything off, thanks to you. Getting this salt will be a big help at the farm.”

“Can’t really have too much salt,” Neal said.

“Yeah. Sugar, too. We need to find more sugar. Still have quite a bit, but like salt, you use a lot around a farm.”

Neal thought about the people he’d freed from slavers. They had been destined for a sugar plantation. Might not be a bad idea to look for a source of sugar. A source not associated with slave labor. But he was on his current journey, with South Carolina at the end of this particular leg. Sugar would wait.

Bart finally fell silent as they got closer to his family’s farm. “You know,” he said, stopping at the end of the driveway that led up to the farm, shielded from view by the trees growing along the road and driveway. “Maybe I should go talk to my Dad before I spring you on the rest of the family.”

Neal sighed. “Not quite the done deal you implied.”

Bart looked sheepish. “I’m almost sure… But I’d better ask, first.”

Neal made himself comfortable just inside the edge of the woods along the road. The EMR leaning against the game cart, Neal did the same. He leaned back and closed his eyes. He came too with a start some time later with Bart’s loud calling of his name ringing in his ears.

“Over here, Bart,” Neal said, getting up. “No need to announce to the world.”

“Oh. Sorry. Thought you might have left. Dad said to bring you on up. You’ll get at least a meal out of it.”

Neal nodded, picked up and shrugged into the Kifaru pack, grabbed the game cart, and went through the gate when Bart opened it. “How do I get myself into these things?” Neal wondered silently as he pulled the heavy game cart up the slight slope.

They were waiting for him. Mom and Dad, and the five sisters. All looking curiously at Neal as he walked beside Bart.

“Neal Grant, Mr. Callahan,” Neal said, going over to the father. “Mrs. Callahan,” he added after shaking Mr. Callahan’s hand. Mrs. Callahan offered hers, and he shook it, too.

“That’s Cindy, Wendy, Sandy, May, and Julie,” Bart said. Each of the young women nodded in return to Neal’s nod when her name was said.

“Come on into the house,” Mrs. Callahan said. “Supper is almost ready.”

“My gear?” Neal asked.

“I imagine you want to keep it close. Bart, help Neal get the cart up here on the porch. Will that be satisfactory, Neal?” Mr. Callahan asked.

“Yes, of course,” Neal replied, taking one side of the cart and Bart the other. It was a bit heavy to actually pick up and carry, but between the two of them, the cart was eased up the stairs and then rolled over into a corner of the railed porch.

Neal took the BM-59 from the gun bearer, leaned it against the cart and then took off his pack, using it to keep the BM-59 in place. He put his wide brimmed hat on top of the pack. Neal hesitated for a moment, and then pulled the Glock from the holster on his hip and put it in one of the side pouches in the pack.

Neal neither mentioned the two derringers he still wore nor removed them. Mr. Callahan swept an arm slightly for Neal to follow his wife inside. “Your gear will be safe there, Neal,” Mr. Callahan reassured Neal. Bart, turn the dogs loose.”

“Yes, sir!” Bart said and hopped down off the porch. A few moments later and Neal saw through the open door three Rottweilers run into the front yard. When Bart came up onto the porch the dogs did, too. They immediately went to Neal’s gear and sniffed at it curiously.

“Bart will introduce you to the dogs later,” Mrs. Callahan said, headed off to the kitchen, followed by all five daughters.

“Now, Neal,” Mr. Callahan said, indicating a chair on his left side after he sat down at the head of the dining room table. “Bart tells me you are interested in doing some work for room and board.”

“Yes, sir. Bart said you sometimes take on temporary help during harvest time.”

“That is true, but I’m afraid the room may be difficult, unless you don’t mind staying in the barn. There is no room in the house. Most of the men that have helped in the past were close enough to walk or ride to and from home each day.”

“The barn is fine, I’m sure,” Neal said. “I have an excellent camping setup.”

“You wouldn’t work a while and then let me down, will you? I’d hate to have to try to find someone else on short notice to help me finish the harvest if you left before it is done.”

“I wouldn’t do that sir. As I told Bart, I need to be across the Mississippi before winter sets in, but that won’t be for some time, yet.”

“The board we can do. You can join us for breakfasts and suppers. Lunches are usually just sandwiches and such during the harvesting season.”

“I understand. It really isn’t necessary. I can prepare my own meals if you prefer, with supplied foodstuffs.”

“No, that is fine. We usually have the hired hand eat with us,” Mrs. Callahan said, returning from the kitchen with a large tureen. The other women all carried in something and then prepared to sit down.

Neal stood politely when the women were ready to sit. Bart hopped up and Mr. Callahan rose as well, though much more slowly than Bart.

“Thank you, Neal. I see you have learned manners in the past,” Mrs. Callahan said, taking her seat as the daughters did, too.

“From my mother,” Neal replied. “A long time ago.”

Fortunately, no one pursued the topic and Neal didn’t have to say he didn’t want to talk about it.

The bowls for the soup were passed around the table, to be filled by Mr. Callahan, and passed back. Then the platter of sliced warm bread, a pitcher of cold milk, made the rounds. When the family clasped hands for Grace Neal joined in without hesitation. He wasn’t going to show any lack of respect to the family’s beliefs.

Neal ate slowly, enjoying the hearty beef and vegetable soup, hot bread, and cold milk. “This is very good, Mrs. Callahan,” he told her halfway through the bowl of soup.

“Just plain old soup,” she said. “But thank you. Pass your bowl and the Mister will ladle you a bit more.”

“No, thank you. I’ve had enough. Can’t afford to start eating too much. Slows down the work.”

“Perhaps a piece of pie to finish with, though, Neal?” asked Mr. Callahan.

“Oh, I think I could manage that.”

The family laughed and Mrs. Callahan and the daughters cleared the table and brought back a large apple pie. Mr. Callahan sliced it, and served as the desert plates went around the table, followed by a pitcher of fresh cream to add to the pie.

“Oh, this is heavenly,” Neal said. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a slice of pie with cream.

But supper was over and as the family rose from the table, Neal asked, “May I help with the dishes?”

Mrs. Callahan smiled. “Thank you, Neal, for the offer, but no. I have all the help I need. I’m quite sure the Mister will keep you busy enough not to worry about the dishes.”

“Bart,” said Mr. Callahan, “Take Neal out to the barn and get him settled. Tomorrow is Sunday. We only do what we must on Sunday. Come Monday, breakfast is at five and work begins at six.”

Neal nodded and followed Bart outside. Near geared up again, to go to the barn. Neal stopped and let the dogs get a good sniff of him while Bart waited at the ready in case of trouble. Happy with the new tenant, the dogs ran off.

It was already getting full dark. There was one lone bulb on at the personnel door of the large barn, and when they went inside, Neal saw a similar bulb, but that was all the light there was in the barn.

The animals stirred slightly at Neal’s and Bart’s presence, but settled down again when Bart took Neal into a small office. “You’ll be staying in here. The generator is only on for a couple hours in the morning and evening. The lights will go out here in a few minutes. There’s the bathroom over there. Even has a shower, but no hot water here in the barn.

There’s no more toilet paper, but we keep sanitized shop cloths… you know… the red ones? Just toss them in the bucket in the bathroom when you’re done. Mom soaks them once a week, boils them with some bleach we make up from pool shock chlorine chemical and hangs them out in the sun to dry and finish sanitizing.”

“I understand,” Neal replied. He reached into his pack and took out a windup flashlight. He gave the crank a few turns and turned on the switch to check it. Plenty of pale white light from the three LED’s.

“Wow! That’s cool! Saw them advertised before the war. We never got any.”

“Does come in handy,” Neal said. “Especially during the winter when I can’t use the solar charger to charge the batteries for my other lights and electronic gear.”

“Wow!” Bart said again. “You’ve got some really cool stuff!”

“I don’t know about how cool it is. It all works for me.”

“Well… I’ll leave you alone. Breakfast at six in the morning, not five, since it is Sunday.”

“I’ll see you then,” Neal replied. He waited for Bart to leave, used the bathroom, and then went about setting up a camp inside the office. He turned in a few minutes later, his old windup travel alarm set for the next morning.

The situation was similar to what he’d done before, working for food, only somewhat more intense since it was harvest time on a large operating farm. The Callahan family’s farm had fruit tree and nut tree orchards, grape vines, berry patches, small fields of a variety of table vegetables, large fields of wheat, corn, three kinds of dry beans, and canola for oil for bio-diesel.

The animals that the family raised included chickens, milk and beef cattle, and hogs. They had a regular buyer for most of the production. One of the local grocery store owners picked up whatever was available Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. A little was set aside for Bart’s trading ventures.

It was a year round operation, but there was a time in the fall when more than could be sold before spoilage was available in the fields. That time was now. Neal began helping with the harvest and its preservation or storage. There were many twelve to sixteen hour days for him, despite the addition of two more men to help.

There were just so many things to do. Fortunately, with the bio-diesel that Mr. Callahan produced, he was able to run several pieces of diesel powered farm machinery, which helped tremendously. A working farm of this size would not have been possible without it, without dozens of laborers.

His worry about the daughters becoming an issue simply faded away, quickly. They were as busy as any of the men, and didn’t fraternize with the farm hands. Bart, despite his relative youth and talkativeness, was skilled at all the farm tasks and was quite an excellent teacher. And very strict when it came to safety issues.

“Only old Doc Drayman and he’s about deaf and blind. Doesn’t have much left to work with when it comes to medicines. So do it safe and don’t get hurt, ‘cause even a little injury can become life threatening nowadays.”

Bart was equally impressed with Neal’s already considerable skills and his ability to learn quickly things that were new to him. Neal could already dress out a pig as fast as Bart could, and had taken to driving the combine to harvest the canola that was destined for the presses for oil, with the remains stored as winter feed for the stock.

Neal kept an eye on the calendar and the weather. He was afraid he’d waited too long when an early snowstorm blanketed the nearly empty fields with an inch of snow. But Bart asked him to stay one more week, until they finished harvesting the canola and pressed the oil. The family had been good to Neal, so he said he would.

But the day after the last of the oil was collected and the pressed cake added to the others for feed that winter, Neal was packed up and ready to go. An additional factor was driving Neal, besides just the weather. It was approaching the anniversary of his family’s death. Being around Bart’s happy family during that time was more than Neal wanted to face.

So Neal waved one last time that morning, gripped the game cart handle firmly and headed down the farm driveway, walking beside Bart. Bart unlocked the driveway gate for Neal and stood there watching him stride away without a backward glance.

With a sigh, Bart walked slowly back up the driveway, feeling like he’d just lost a brother. He smiled though, at the memory of Neal showing him the funfling, and letting him use it hunting one day. Neal had let slip how much it had cost him, and how much it was worth just before the war.

Neal set a moderate pace, to allow those few muscles he hadn’t used on the farm, that he did use traveling, to become used to the road again. But as the weather continued to threaten Neal picked up the pace just a little each day until he was once again putting the miles behind him at his old pace.

He made it to the US Highway 82 bridge over the Mississippi and breathed a sigh of relief. It was still standing. Neal looked over the bridge abutment on his side. The bridge was still securely attached to the shore.

A freezing rain began as Neal started across the bridge, immediately making footing precarious. Taking small, careful steps, Neal made his way across, the vehicles abandoned on the bridge since the day of the war making it eerie in the near darkness. As soon as Neal was across the bridge he made his way off the highway and found a place to set up his camp near the river. As he set up his standard camp, he wondered if he should have taken the offer to stay at the farm for the winter.

But as he settled in, snug and warm, despite the freezing rain that continued, Neal decided he was better off where he was. Things had been too comfortable there at the end of his stay with the Callahans.

The hunting was good along the river and Neal stayed where he was through December and early January. When the worst of the weather turned out to be the one ice storm when he’d first arrived, Neal started thinking about moving on in mid-January. Either the weather simply wasn’t as bad this year, or it was returning to a more normal pattern, with rains this far south rather than snow.

Neal broke camp and headed east again. He’d checked his atlas and made the decision to stay on US 82 across Mississippi. He’d decide on whether to bypass some of the towns on the route, or go through them, doing a little trading when he could, depending on the circumstances he found as he approached each town.

Neal quickly fell back into the routine of travel, stopping to hunt, doing a little trading, and avoiding trouble. It stayed very cool during the days, falling to just above or below freezing during the nights, with the occasional heavy rain slowing Neal’s progress.

Apparently Neal hadn’t been quite careful enough and picked up a cold after a trading session he attended in a small town about two-thirds of the way across the state. He had plenty of supplies so he just set up a long stay camp with both his tent and the lean-to set up. He gathered up as much firewood as he could before his cold symptoms became too bad, using his pocket chainsaw to cut more when he couldn’t find any more good downed wood.

Then he just holed up and waited the cold out, taking a hot toddy each evening made with a tablespoon or so of 190 proof Everclear he carried in his first-aid kit for the purpose. A little honey in the rose hip tea he made helped soothe his throat and upped his vitamin C intake. But with the isolation, rest, and plenty of liquids, Neal finally got over the cold. He waited another week to regain his strength, and then hit the trail again.

Shortly after reaching the Alabama state line, Neal stayed on US 82 which took him further south than he really wanted, but was worried that Birmingham might have been hit with a nuke. Every once in a while Neal’s pocket radiation alarm would chirp and flash for a little while. When it did, Neal kept traveling until it stopped. The radiation was never very high, but Neal didn’t want any more exposure than necessary.

He decided to stay on the southern route, bypassing Atlanta by a wide margin. There seemed to be fewer and fewer people, and the radiation alarm sounded off more and more for a while after he passed Atlanta and began to swing back toward the north slightly.

Neal stopped at J. Strom Thurmond Lake for a few days, taking a break to hunt and fish and then dry the meat for future use. He butchered the meat with radioactive contamination in mind, cutting off the meat well away from the bones and not using any of the organ meats he usually ate. He’d been finding plenty of volunteer gardens so his fruit, nut, berry, and vegetable supplies were holding up well.

Neal saw some boats out on the lake, but he stayed out of sight on shore, preferring to maintain his solitude for the moment. He was ready to leave, but the weather changed the evening before he was planning on going. An unseasonable early and very heavy rain set in. Neal waited it out for the four days it rained, leaving the morning of the fifth day in bright sunshine, not a cloud in sight.

Angling slightly south to avoid Columbia, South Carolina, in case it had been nuked, Neal headed for Lake City. Once past Columbia, he began to make inquires about tobacco production. He was offered trades, of cigars and pipe tobacco, but since he didn’t smoke, he declined. He was after a significant amount for future trading, not small amounts for his own use.

The pocket radiation alarm began to chirp when he turned a bit further north, on track to Lake City. Neal decided the risk was too high and began looking for an alternative to Lake City as a source of tobacco. It didn’t take him long to find one.

Keeping the conversations casual as he made the occasional trade, Neal again made gentle inquiries for sources for tobacco. He got the information he wanted in a round about way. He overheard one woman berating her husband for trading for tobacco for himself. She mentioned, among many other things, that she would like to see the place shut down.

“Bingo!” Neal said under his breath. He had a location. He headed for the spot the next day, and a week later was being shown, with pride, a small-scale tobacco operation. With no source for papers, no cigarettes were made, but plenty of cigars and pipe tobacco were produced.

The operation was in an area that was slowly recovering and was using gold and silver coins for commerce. Neal was able to acquire a large trading stock of pipe tobacco, locally carved pipes, and a variety of cigars for some of the Kruggerrands he’d recovered from the slavers.

A trading and selling expedition was in the works westward. The bulk of what Neal purchased would go on that first pack train west sometime that fall. Neal gave Harley, the owner of the operation, precise directions to Carmello’s store and instructions on how to contact David. Harley assured Neal that the local area around Sullivan would be Neal’s. He wouldn’t sell anything in that area, except to Neal.

Having completed the task he’d set for himself, Neal rested up a couple of days, thinking about where his new nomadic life would take him next. “Sugar,” Neal said aloud, just before he fell asleep in his camp in the tobacco operation’s owner’s back yard.

Neal shook Harley’s hand the next morning and hit the road again, bound for New Iberia, Louisiana.

As spring turned to summer, Neal decided he should have gone south when he was crossing Louisiana on the way to South Carolina. It was hot and humid as he traveled south-west toward Mobile, Alabama. He intended to stay well north of the city, since he’d heard an Amateur Radio Operator near Mobile say it had been hit with a nuke during the war, when he’d been doing a lot of monitoring of the airwaves shortly after the war.

Besides the heat and humidity, or because of them, the insects were terrible. Purity had given Neal one of her herbal creations as a sample of what she could make when Neal first met her. It was a lavender based mosquito repellent. Neal was glad to have it and a no-see-um head net. Between them he was relatively comfortable despite the insects.

Neal slowed his pace and increased his water intake. It took him several weeks of uncomfortable travel to get past Mobile, Alabama. Then several more weeks to make his way around Baton Rouge and to the Gulf, west of what was left of New Orleans. Not only was it hot and humid, but the locals were none too friendly. At least, what few there were.

Houston took several hits with nuclear weapons, as did the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. The wind carried fallout from one or the other to coastal Louisiana and northward. There were few shelters and the fallout was heavy. The death toll was staggering in the area. Every so often Neal’s radiation alarm would sound and he would increase his pace until the sound stopped.

Finally, he found a small trading park set up and he did a little trading. He also acquired the information he was seeking. Again he declined trades for sugar, and headed for the source. Three days later he was at the site of what had been a large scale sugar production plant, with fields of sugar cane growing all around it.

The plant wasn’t running, but some of those familiar with the process had created their own small-scale processing plant. Neal was cautious when he found the place, checking it through his binoculars for some time before walking up to the gate in the fence surrounding the property. From what he could see, there was no indication of there being any slavery going on. Hot, miserable work, yes. But as far as he could tell, everyone was able to leave anytime they wanted. But to be a little more mobile, just in case, Neal cached the game cart, pack, and BM-59 in an unlikely spot and camouflaged it with grasses cut with his twenty-four inch Cold Steel machete.

Neal had to wait for a few moments before anyone noticed him and came over to the gate. “What do you want?”

“Sugar,” Neal replied.

“Funny. Ha Ha. State your business.”

“I want to trade for some sugar. Set things up so we can get it from here, up in Missouri.”

“Oh. In that case, come in. You’ll need to talk to Tiger. He’s the one running this set up.” The change in the man was remarkable.

“Hey, Tiger!” the man yelled over to another man leaving one building and headed for another.

The man turned and waited for Neal and his escort to get to him. “What is it, Lloyd? You know not to bother me with people begging for sugar.”

“No, sir, Tiger. He says he wants to trade for sugar up in Missouri.”

“I see. How much and how often?” Tiger asked, his attention on Neal now. Lloyd left to go back to what he’d been doing.

“That’s still up in the air,” Neal said hastily. “I’m scouting for sources that can supply half a dozen small communities south-west of St. Louis.”

“That far north, huh? Come on inside and lets discuss it.”

Neal was amazed at the fact that there was a working air conditioner going in the small office trailer that Tiger ushered Neal into.

“Man! That feels good!”

Tiger smiled. “Won’t find AC many places down here. Not enough juice. But I have a Lister engine on biodiesel running a good generator head. We have lights in the plant, and in here, plus the AC.” Tiger was obviously proud of the fact.

“But down to business. You say you’ll be buying for several communities?”

It wasn’t what Neal had intended, but he took it upon himself to set up the deal. Those in Missouri would have to figure out how to come up with the payments. “Yeah. What have you been selling sugar for around here?” Neal asked.

Tiger barked out a laugh. “You mean besides fish, chickens, eggs, milk, and garden produce?”

Neal smiled slightly and nodded.

“Well now, I would have taken diesel early on, but I have a good deal going there, so bio-diesel is out. I’d like to set things up to take gold, but I know not too many people have it.”

“Well, I could probably come up with enough for an initial shipment. Then your rep could make other arrangements. They’re starting to produce some excess food now.”

Tiger was shaking his head. “Got plenty of going farms around here. Don’t need food.”

“Salt?” Neal asked.

“Got that, too. Fellow evaporating saltwater down on the Gulf.”


Tiger’s eyes perked up. “You still have tobacco?”

“Fresh,” Neal replied. “I can get you a sample in a little while. I can supply quite a bit, if you’re interested in setting up a trade agreement.”

“That’s worth considering. Let me think on it. And try that sample.”

“You said there are farms around here. How are they fixed for viable seeds?” Neal asked.

“I don’t rightly know. I have heard some people say the vegetables they’re getting aren’t all that good. Something about the seeds not growing true.”

“Hybrids can do that. We’re producing non-hybrid crops and saving seed each year. I can supply good seed each spring.”

“I’ll consider that, too. How about that tobacco sample?” Tiger looked eager.

“I’ll be back in about an hour with the sample,” Neal said, standing up.

Tiger walked Neal to the gate and let him out. “Just yell out when you get back. I’ve got a couple of things to do.”

Neal nodded and headed for where he had his gear cached. It didn’t take long to get two cigars, a pipe, and one small cotton drawstring bag of pipe tobacco out of the gear bags on the game cart. He fished out a couple of pieces of jerky as well, and then got several gold coins from one of the stashes in the equipment, finally covering everything back up again.

He wasn’t in any hurry. Neal wanted to give the impression his cache was some distance further away from the sugar operation than it actually was. So he chewed the jerky slowly, and then headed back to see Tiger again.

Neal didn’t have to call out. Tiger was passing by when Neal walked up to the gate and let him in. “Wait in the office, Neal. I’ll be just a couple of minutes.”

A bit uneasy, Neal went into the office and sat down, checking to make sure the Glock would slide free of the holster quickly, in case he was being set up.

But Tiger was back in less than two minutes and the eager look on his face told Neal that the situation was just as it appeared. Tiger set a container on the desk and sat down behind it. “I figured a sample deserved a sample.”

Neal took out the cigars, pipe, and pipe tobacco and set them on the desk. Tiger picked up one of the cigars and ran it under his nose. “Oh, sweet!” Taking a penknife from his pocket, Tiger trimmed the cigar, and then took out a cheap butane lighter. He took a few moments to get the cigar lighted and burning to his liking and then leaned back in the chair with a sigh.

“Oh, man, is this good! I may smoke up some of the profits myself, but I can tell you, I can handle all the tobacco you can supply. What’s it worth?”

It took several minutes of ****ering to agree on trading prices of the sugar for tobacco, open pollinated seeds, and gold. One of the hold ups was that Neal wanted delivery of the sugar to Missouri. Tiger finally agreed to make the arrangements and the prices were adjusted accordingly.

Neal gave Tiger enough gold to get a large shipment headed north, with detailed directions to Carmello’s store, and radio frequencies and times he could contact David and Elizabeth. He asked for and received a piece of paper and an envelope and wrote a note of explanation to be given to David on the first delivery.

He added enough gold to take the limit of sugar that he could carry. Both men stood and shook hands. “I’ll have that sugar for you at the gate in just a minute,” Tiger said, leading Neal out of the air-conditioned office into the oppressive heat and humidity.

Again Neal waited nervously, fearful of a double cross, but Tiger showed up quickly with a large cloth bag over his shoulder. “Fifty pounds,” Tiger said. “Give or take. It’s hard filling the bags to an exact weight. I can guarantee you that over time it will all average out.”

“Good enough,” Neal said and took the bag onto his shoulder. “Oh, by the way, I was warned about someone capturing slaves for use down here. Anything I should look out for?”

A rather gruesome look twisted Tiger’s face. “Not any more. Some guys came down here from up north looking for them. Apparently, they’d raided a town in Arkansas and the slaves got away. Came down here and cleaned that place out. No survivors from what I hear. Good riddance if you ask me. Some of us around here were about ready to take care of it, after we found out what was going on, but the victims took care of it, first. Was one of my competitors. Double benefit for me.”

Neal nodded. Another handshake and he was on his way back to his cache. He immediately headed north, without a destination in mind, except to get back to cooler climes. Thoughts of his property, and the Magnews, especially Elizabeth, were suddenly in his mind. He pushed the thoughts away, but realized his steps were taking him back there.

The decision made, Neal eased into his steady traveling pace, putting the thoughts out of his mind. He’d deal with them when he got home. Neal cut over to the Mississippi River. He’d travel along it where he could. He’d have to bypass Memphis, Tennessee, since it had been hit with a nuke.

There were several advantages to traveling along the river. Reliable source of water, though he did run all his drinking and cooking water through a filter. There was almost always some game available. Small game mostly, though Neal did bag the occasional deer. And there were plenty of fish in the river.

The major problem was crossing the watershed rivers at their widest point, right where they joined the Mississippi. More than once Neal cut west, following a tributary till he found a bridge on which he could cross, and then rejoining the Mississippi a bit further north. He did make a pair of tarp rafts a couple of times to cross at places when he didn’t want to go the long way around.

Neal piled up reeds, small limbs, and long grasses, along two edges of a tarp, rolled them up like pontoons connected at the bottom, and brought the front and rear sections of the tarp up and tied them off. One for him, and one for the game cart. He always put the pulk down on the tarp and set the game cart on it to spread the weight more evenly.

He was making good time, but had to swing well west of Memphis. It had been taken out with a nuke. There were signs of skirmishes at some of the highway crossings and Neal decided to swing even wider west than he first intended. He picked up I-55 well north of Memphis and didn’t run into any problems.

I-55 paralleled the Mississippi on the west side north of Memphis. There wasn’t much traffic on it, but there was some. Motorized, by draft animal, bikes, and many on foot, some with carts like Neal.

Some were just adventurers, nomads like Neal, out to see the world and pick up what they could. Many were just people tired of the severe winters further north. They were headed for the milder climate of the South. There were at least some bandits, according to several people Neal spoke to. None of them had encountered the bandits, but had seen the remains of their attacks.

Neal debated with himself for another mile of travel on I-55. He decided he didn’t need the hassles of bandits and turned slightly east to get to the river again. Feeling more secure than he did with many other folks around, Neal continued to camp on the river as he traveled north.

He was just south of the Missouri State Line when he stopped for a planned two day stay to hunt and fish, and see what he might recover in the way of fruits and vegetables from abandoned properties.

Neal managed to find a farm not too far from the river that had a garden spot with quite a few volunteer plants. “Hybrids,” Neal snorted in disgust when he got a good look at the corn and tomatoes. Neither had produce he would eat.

He was able to get some potatoes, carrots, onions, asparagus, and cucumbers. The few grape vines that were on the property were heavy with fruit and Neal ate his fill while picking them. When he had what he wanted, Neal made his way back to the woods bordering the river, the BM-59 slung across his back, the funfling in the gun bearer of the Kifaru EMR pack. He had both hands behind him on the game cart handle.

He often hunted the same way and was usually successful in hearing or seeing game before he spooked it as he traveled with as little sound as possible. Neal was moving along slowly and had just turned a corner in the slight trail that led down to the river and his camp.

It happened without warning. There were suddenly three men in the trail ahead of him, coming in his direction. It didn’t take genius to realize that before him stood the bandits that had been mentioned. Neal didn’t think. He reacted. Dropping the handle of the game cart, his right hand went to the grip of the funfling in the gun bearer pouch, his left going to the quick release strap. One quick tug and the gun was at his shoulder.

The triggers were set for the two shotgun barrels. He fired the left barrel at the man that was the closest to getting his weapon in play, and fired the second at the man carrying a sawed off double barrel shotgun.

Neal switched the trigger to the .375 H&H barrel and shot the third man just as he fired at Neal with a full auto M-16 or a clone. Neal wasn’t sure which. He was just glad he had dropped and rolled to his own right, as the M-16 barrel pulled up and to the shooter’s right.

The .375 H&H round broke the man’s right femur and he went down, emptying the magazine of the M-16 into the air, his hand having tightened on the grip from the shock of being shot.

Neil didn’t hesitate. He fired the .308 barrel into the man chest. His eyes going to the trail behind the men, Neil dropped the funfling and swung the BM-59 around on the sling and brought it up to the ready.

Keeping an eye on the trail ahead, Neal checked the three men. All were dead, the first two having taken the twelve gauge blasts in the upper chests and faces. Neal said a little prayer for having loaded the funfling with twelve gauge number four shot that morning, wanting the power to take down squirrels or rabbits in the heavy vegetation.

Normally he hunted with four ten bore or twenty-gauge shells in adapters to conserve the limited amount of twelve gauge hunting rounds he had. He’d picked up quite a bit of four ten and twenty-gauge in trade.

Neal eased around the next bend in the trail. Nothing. But he cocked his head slightly. There were sounds closer to the river. Close to, if not in, his camp. Neal moved quickly, cutting through the forest to come out unannounced, not from the trail, but from the heavy woods.

There were another two men, both crouched down behind large downed trees that lay on the bank of the river. Neal’s gear was spread out. It looked like the two were divvying it up in five shares. Neal fired at the man with another M-16 or clone, which was aimed at the opening of the trail. He went down with a 147 grain full metal jacket .308 caliber bullet through the brain.

The other man had a hunting rifle and shifted his aim toward Neal. Neal had stepped back and to one side after his first shot. He stepped forward again for a clear shot as the man worked the bolt action of the rifle. The man died when the bullet went through the upper two inches of the log and embedded itself in the man’s left lung.

Neal waited and watched, not wanting to waste another bullet. The last man’s head was lying on top of the log, in plain sight. But he seemed to be struggling. Not for long. Less than a minute more and the head slid off the log as the man’s body slumped backwards in death.

Still Neal waited, in case there were more of them. After an hour Neal cautiously moved forward, BM-59 at the ready, and quickly checked the tent. Empty. He checked the bodies. They were already being fed on by turtles. The turtles scattered when Neal stepped up. It was only when he got a good look at the last man’s face when Neal realized it was no man, but a boy in his late teens. “Oh, Criminey!” he said softly.

He went to get the game cart and funfling from the trail and slowly packed everything up. He didn’t want to stay in the camp any longer. With everything packed, but without the tarp fastened, Neal left the game cart by the river and went back to the trail to strip the men of anything useable or of value, wondering if they had wives or girl friends… “Or Mothers…” he added softly when he checked the boy. He added the items he recovered to the load and fastened the tarp
Neal decided to stay on I-55 when he crossed the Missouri State Line. The river went east in a wide loop and he saw no reason to go the extra distance. There was plenty of water available from the many rivers in the area.

He picked up his pace slightly as the temperatures started dropping at night. Fall was here and winter wouldn’t be far behind. His thoughts turned to his property, and the cave. The nomadic life for a couple of years was one thing, but Neal was coming to the conclusion that the life of a hermit was preferable. It wouldn’t matter who might still be at the property. He was going to get in the cave and lock the doors behind him for a while.

The decision made, Neal pushed on, keeping a weather eye out. He did a bit of trading, as well as hunting, but didn’t stop for more than one day at a time, feeling more and more anxious to get home without any more problems. The human kind or natural.

Neal left I-55 well south of St. Louis and cut west, on the last leg home. His worries about the weather were well justified. The first winter storm of the season was a dilly. He was between Fletcher and Richwoods on Highway H when the storm began. The sky darkened in just a few minutes and Neal stopped where he was and set up camp in a small clearing in a copse of woods on the north side of the highway.

He had the Trango 3.1 tent up and was working on setting up the siltarp Baker tent when the rain started. It was a light misty rain at first, but cold. But it didn’t stay misty for long. There was a light rain for a few minutes as Neal put the finishing touches on the lean to and got his gear under its cover. He had a fire pit dug and had gathered up some wood. The sky seemed to open up then, with the rain coming down hard, with a mixture of sleet.

Neal was in the Trango 3.1 when the sleet turned to hail. He watched the hail through the window in the vestibule of the tent. Fortunately it didn’t last long. The temperature had been dropping steadily and the rain and hail soon turned to a whiteout blizzard.

Holding the Brunton ADC Pro weather instrument outside the vestibule, Neal got a reading of thirty mile an hour winds. And that was here in the woods. He wondered what it was like in the open. He looked over at the Baker tent, four feet away and could barely make it out.

Neal settled in for the duration. He still had fuel for his MSR Whisperlite Internationale so he set it up in the vestibule and put on water for a cup of rose hip tea. When the tea was ready he sipped it and cut up some jerky into a small pan of water to make a hot meat broth. He ate it slowly when it was ready, with the last of a loaf of wheat bread he’d traded for three days earlier.

It was full dark by then and Neal cranked up one of his wind up flashlights and set up his sleep pad and sleeping bag. Before he turned in, he took his food bag out, left the tent with it, and threw the weighted line kept tied to it over a limb of a tree at the edge of the open area of the woods. He pulled the bag up and tied the line off. He didn’t want any visits from bears, cougars, or even raccoons during the night.

When he returned to the tent he took off his boots and outer clothing and slipped into the sleeping bag. He was asleep in minutes, despite the slight noise the tent made in the wind.

Neal had to tromp through two feet of snow the next morning. He could still barely see to get to his food bag and get out enough for the day. The storm lasted for three days, though the blizzard lasted for only twenty-six hours. Neal packed up, pulled the game cart onto the pulk and set off two days after the storm ended. It was much warmer, and the snow was beginning to melt, but he still had to make his way through three feet of accumulation, with drifts as high as ten feet in some places.

He’d carried MSR Series 12 snowshoes the whole trip, but it was the first time he used them. It was slow going, especially getting around the drifts. He tried digging through a couple of them, but found it easier and safer to go around.

Neal resisted the urge to push his pace. Snowshoeing burned up a lot of energy. He stopped and rested often, drank plenty of water, and took what game he could find as he walked, pulling the pulk behind him.

His eagerness to get home was tempered by the unknown of what he would find when he got there. Neal came in the back way, seeing no one the last two days of travel. He was pleased to find the gate intact and locked. There were no tracks in the snow that was left. No one had been in or out since the storm.

Neal had to think to remember where he’d packed away his keys. Taking them out he pointed the remote for the gate and it jerked, and then slid smoothly aside. Pulling the pulk through, Neal tripped the remote again and the gate slid close.

After taking, holding, and releasing a deep breath, Neal started up the driveway to his home. He heard activity when he turned the final corner in the trail and stepped into the clearing. And it was cleared. The snow had been piled around the perimeter of the compound, with a couple of gaps, where the various trails entered the clearing.

The Lusby looked fine, and the Magnews’ camp was intact. Neal heard the thwack again and saw Dwayne splitting wood in front of one of the firewood stacks. Neal watched as Dwayne casually put down the axe, and then suddenly jump for his rifle, which was leaning against the stacked wood.

He dove behind the same pile of wood and had the rifle pointed at Neal in the matter of just a couple of seconds. Neal lifted his hands and held them out to the side of his body. “It’s me, Dwayne,” Neal said.

Dwayne looked at Neal for a long time. Neal’s beard had been long before he’d left, as had Neal’s hair. Now the beard was down almost to his stomach and the hair hung down almost to his waist.

“Neal?” Dwayne asked, though he was already sure it was him. Dwayne stood up and walked over as Neal dropped the towline of the pulk, stepped out of the snowshoes, and walked further into the clearing. The two shook hands warmly and firmly, for several seconds.

“Glad you’re back,” Dwayne said. “Place hasn’t been the same since you left.”

“Looks like everything is okay. You look the same.”

A slight smile curved his lips. “Not quite. I’m married now and have a year old baby.”

Neal’s eyes widened slightly. “Really? Purity?”

Dwayne was grinning. “Yep. And the baby’s name is Neal.”

“Aw! Dwayne! You didn’t have to do that!”

“Wanted to.” His smile faded. “David is dead. Elizabeth is head of the clan, now.”

“Oh, no,” Neal said, his voice soft. “What happened?”

“A crazy at one of his preachings just up and shot him three times in the chest before anyone could react.” A grim look on Dwayne’s face accompanied his next words. “But at least five people shot the guy twenty or thirty times when they finally did react. Never found out what the guy had against David. He was new to the community.”

“How’s…” Neal said, starting to ask about Elizabeth. But he saw her come out of the big motorhome, stop, look at him and Dwayne, and then come running toward them. She almost knocked him down when she ran straight to him and locked him in a bear hug. His arms wrapped around her in like manner.

“I am so glad you’re back! I’m sorry, Neal, for the way I acted. I never should have…”

“It’s all forgotten,” Neal said. And meant it, he realized. What had happened in the past wasn’t important. The future was. “Dwayne told me about your brother. I’m sorry.”

Elizabeth didn’t respond. She just held him, as he was holding her, for a long time. Dwayne moved away and busied himself, waiting for the two to separate. He wasn’t alone. Several more members of the family came out and saw the two.

Finally, Neal felt Elizabeth relax slightly and begin to step back. He released her so she could and looked down into her upturned face. “I’m sorry, too,” he said. “I won’t hold things back in the future.”

Elizabeth smiled through her tears. “Nor I. I think I love you, Neal Grant.”

“I know I love you, Elizabeth. Have for a long time. Just wouldn’t admit it to myself… because of my family before…”

“You don’t have to explain…” Elizabeth said, reaching up to touch the lone tear that was trickling down his cheek.

“I do… But not now. We have an audience.”

Elizabeth turned around and the rest of her family came forward eagerly to welcome Neal back home.

Elizabeth and Dwayne finally ushered them all away and let Neal go to the Lusby. He unlocked it and went in, taking off and leaving his pack and rifle on the tiny porch. It was spotless. He turned around and looked at Elizabeth. She shrugged and said, “I knew you’d be back. I’ve cleaned it once a week since you’ve been gone.”

“Thank you,” Neal replied. “There is something that shouldn’t wait. Something I should have done a long time ago. If you’d come with me…”

Elizabeth nodded and followed Neal to the path beside the bluff that went down to the lower part of the property. “Careful,” he said, taking Elizabeth’s hand to help her over the slick, snow covered rocks at the path end of the ledge on the face of the bluff.

“Where are we going? This just tapers off past all that hanging vine.”

“I know. That hanging vine is where we’re going.” They both moved carefully on the snow covered ledge. When he reached the mass of hanging vines he lifted them away from the face of the bluff and let Elizabeth see the original door to the cave.

“A cave entrance?” she asked.

Neal nodded. “My hermit cave.” He unlocked the door and swung it open. “My very secure hermit cave.”

Neal wouldn’t look at Elizabeth, fearful of what he might see on her face, as he worked the combination of the vault door. He walked inside after he had the vault door open and took the windup flashlight that hung on a peg pounded into a crack in the rock just inside the door. A few cranks and he shone the light around the first room of the cave.

“Another safe door?” Elizabeth asked when the beam of light cut across it.

“I like my privacy,” Neal replied. He still hadn’t taken a good look at Elizabeth’s face.

“I guess!”

Neal opened the vault door into the main room of the cave and ushered Elizabeth inside. He didn’t know if the maintainer solar panels had kept the batteries of the electrical system charged, but he flipped a light switch. The room brightened and Neal turned off the crank-up light as Elizabeth looked around.

“Oh, my goodness! You have a house in here! And three safes!” Neal just let her wander around, go into the house, and come back out. Neal was standing by the fire ring and Elizabeth joined him.

“What can I say? Wow! You could have been living in here, away from everything, yet you took it upon yourself to help out everywhere you could. And I bet you did the same thing on your journeys.”

“Not really… But… well, we’re not done yet.” Neal walked over to the large cabinet that covered the third vault door and pushed it aside.

“More?” Elizabeth asked, and walked past him into the third section of the cave. Neal flipped the light switch and Elizabeth gasped. “Definitely more! You could live for years on what you have stored in here!”

“Yes,” Neal replied.

“And yet, you gave us all that propane, and had a whole truck load of sugar sent up. And enough tobacco to trade for months.”

“There is salt available, too. Just have to make arrangements to go get it.” Neal went to the safe in the room and opened it, and then stepped back. “My miserly hoard of gold and silver coins.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You’re rich!”

“In some ways,” Neal replied. “Not so much in others.”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked, turning toward him and taking a step forward.

“I have material things. Since I lost my family, so many years ago, I’ve cut myself off from any meaningful relationships.”

“You didn’t… There was no one… Even on your trip?”

Neal shook his head. “No. Whenever I was tempted, which really wasn’t often, I always thought of you.”

“Rather the same situation with me,” Elizabeth said. “I guess I was just waiting for you to come back, with someone on your arm, so I could put you out of my life and thoughts. But you came back alone.”

“I should tell you… Well, I am what I am, and I don’t know if I can change,” Neal said, looking into Elizabeth’s eyes.

Elizabeth shook her head. “Don’t change. I’ve grown accustomed to you being you, secrets and all. You always come through when it’s needed.”

After only another moment of hesitation, Neal leaned down and kissed Elizabeth. She kissed him back. When they separated, Elizabeth stepped away and said, “We’d better stop while we still can.”

Neal nodded. “With your brother gone… How will we get married?” Suddenly looking chagrinned, Neal asked, “You do want to get married, don’t you?”

“I must say that isn’t the most romantic request for my hand I’ve had, but yes, of course I want to get married!”

“You’ve been asked before?”

“Don’t be so shocked, Neal. I’m considered quite a catch. I was, even before the war, after my husband died.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

Elizabeth laughed. “It’s okay, Neal. And there is another minister in Sullivan now. I’m sure he’ll be glad to marry us.” Her voice dropped. “I wish David was here to do it. He would have been pleased. He had reservations about you at first, the way I did, but he had changed his mind before he died.”

“Perhaps we should tell the others before we make too many plans. They might have objections once they know what I’ve kept from them.”

“We’re a close knit family,” Elizabeth said, “but my decisions on how I live my life are none of their business.” A slight smile curved her lips. “You should understand that.”

Neal had a rueful smile that matched Elizabeth’s. “Yes, I think I do.”

“So, I’d like to put that last conversation we had before you left behind us and start fresh. But once we’re married… no more secrets.”

It was said in a normal tone of voice, but Neal could tell how important his answer would be. “No more secrets. Starting now.”

“I can agree to that.”
They kissed again and then Neal led the way out, giving Elizabeth the combinations to each of the doors. “It’s half yours now,” he said as he locked the entrance vault door. He left the lock on the outer door open. He had another key for it, but he’d have to dig it out of his gear.

The whole Magnew clan was waiting for them on top of the bluff. “So?” Dwayne asked. He was holding his son in one arm, with Purity on his other.

“We’re getting married,” Elizabeth said calmly.

Minor pandemonium ensued, with her family gathered around her. Dwayne handed his son to Purity and walked away from the group with Neal.

“Good to hear it man. Congratulations. You’re getting a good woman in Elizabeth.”

“I know. I just wish I’d realized it sooner and not put the barrier up between us. Might have saved a lot of shoe leather.”

Dwayne smiled. “How was the trip, by the way? We got that load of sugar. You were busy while you were on the road.”

Neal nodded and gave Dwayne the highlights of the trip. “I want to get the Suburban and trailer out and go get the salt I’m due.” Both men looked up as snow began to fall. “Next spring. Elizabeth said the tobacco arrived, too?”

Dwayne nodded.

“Don’t really like contributing to people’s vices, but the market is there, I think,” Neal said.

“I know those with stills around here are doing a land office business. Can’t change people, Neal. I wouldn’t let it bother you. I’m thinking about brewing up a batch of beer for trade. Things have settled down now around here. Those that were able to survive have adapted to the new lifestyle. There isn’t much surplus, but there is some. People want their little luxuries, when they can get them.”

“True. I saw it on my trip. Things… well… they aren’t getting back to normal, as in before the war, but a new normal is being established. That includes, like you said, a few little luxuries.”

“What did Elizabeth think of your cave?” Dwayne suddenly asked.

“I thought you might know about it.” Neal smiled. “Were you able to get into it?”

Dwayne laughed. “No. Didn’t even try. It was your secret, not mine to know. Sure would like to get a look, though.”

“Might as well be now,” Neal replied. “I think the others are occupied for a while.”

“Yeah. It was the same way when Purity and I told them we were getting married.”

They two headed to the cave and Neal showed Dwayne what he’d done with it. Neal gave the vault door combinations to Dwayne. “Just in case,” Neal said.

“Quite the setup,” Dwayne said appreciatively. “I knew the cave was here and suspected you had some stuff stashed, but nothing like this.”

Neal shrugged. “I saw money becoming less and less valuable and goods becoming more and more valuable. I converted early on, while there was still some value in the money I had, and the products were available.”

Dwayne noticed a surprised look come over Neal’s face. “What?”

“I just remembered… I haven’t thought about them since the war. I set up lifetime annuities just before the war. To cover all the bases, so to speak. In case things didn’t develop the way they actually have. I wonder if those companies are still in existence.”

“I sense another trip coming on,” Dwayne said, chuckling.

Neal shook his head. “No. I think I’ll wait until a postal system is up. The longer I wait, the more I’ll get, if the companies survived. If they didn’t, then it’s a mute point. For now, I think I want to try and help the local area make a comeback. That’s enough to do for a few years.”

“Maybe you’ll get lucky and they converted everything into gold before it rained nukes.”

“Yeah, right,” Neal laughed. “I should be so lucky.”

Dwayne laughed, too, and the two men left the cave, closing it up as they did so. Good to know we have a reserve, if something else happens.”

“Man, do not jinx us!”

Both men laughed again, having no idea of the prophetic nature of Dwayne’s words.

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