Laid Back Louie


Laid Back Louie - Prolog

Louie Vargos was the most laid back person Austin Hill knew. Austin knew Louie fairly well now. It struck him suddenly one day that Louie didn’t try to be laid back. It was just his nature. He didn’t do ‘cool’ things because someone else did them. He did them because he felt they were good ideas in and of themselves.

He rode a custom diesel engine Harley-Davidson motorcycle from mid spring through mid fall, but he wasn’t a ‘biker’. Louie even used it sometime in the winter if there wasn’t much snow on the road. But he only rode it under those conditions with a Walker Motorcycle Conversion Kit that added a full size wheel on each side of the rear wheel of the bike. It made it stable and almost tip-proof.

His really bad weather vehicle was a custom non-electronic diesel engine Chevy Suburban, suited for heavy-duty off-road use, but he wasn’t a ‘mudder’ or a ‘rock crawler.’

Louie usually had on a well worn leather jacket, a leather snap-brim fedora, hiking boots, and khaki chinos with a khaki shirt that had two flap pockets and working epaulettes, but he wasn’t trying to be a knock-off Indiana Jones.

He had long brown hair, kept back out of his eyes, but he wasn’t a ‘hippie.’

The leather belt he wore carried five leather pouches with various tools and lights. It was even a money belt where Louie kept gold coins. But he didn’t consider himself Batman.

Louie even had a cool career. He was an entrepreneur. He didn’t do any one thing. He had fingers in a bunch of things. The closest thing that Austin knew Louie did on a regular basis was act as a high security courier. He wouldn’t tell Austin what he usually carried, other than there were half a dozen different businesses that used him. He did say that everything was either very valuable in monetary terms or in importance.

Austin couldn’t really determine how much money Louie made. He never seemed to want for anything, and always had cash available when it was needed. He had a bank debit card, but he also carried an American Express Platinum Card.

He lived in a customized Airstream thirty-four foot Classic Limited trailer set on blocks, the tongue and rear bumper removed. It was underpinned with matching aluminum material. The major modification was the installation of a small wood burning stove for heat. There was a large covered and railed patio along the length of the trailer, fifteen feet wide. It was Louie’s concrete front yard, as he referred to it sometimes.

Austin thought the thing looked like it was just extruded from the ground below. It was sitting on a large, sloping, wooded lot, as Louie put it, ‘a few and a half miles from town.’ A US Tower fifty-five foot free-standing retractable/fold-over tower with a half a dozen different antennas seemed to be growing next to the trailer.

What looked like two more Airstream trailers, partially inlet into the front of a tall earthen berm, were, in fact, only the shells of two additional thirty-four foot trailers. They had both been wrecked when Louie bought them, cheap. He refurbished them to a certain extent, after gutting the interior. They were Louie’s storage room and work shop.

Hidden away underground were two propane tanks, two diesel fuel tanks, a fuel alcohol tank and a gasoline tank. The pump system for the gasoline and alcohol would pump either one straight, or combine gasoline with alcohol up to the proportions of eight-five parts alcohol to fifteen parts gasoline to give E85 fuel.

The fuel fill pipes, the fuel dispensers for the liquid fuels, and the valves for the wet legs in the propane tanks, were hidden away in a shed like indentation in the back side of the large berm.

Several other indentations in the berm contained twenty-four cords of seasoned split hardwood firewood from his coppicing woodlot. Several more stacks of wood were covered with heavy tarps along the back edge of the property.

On top of the berm was a large array of AWE Schott 315-watt 48-volt photo-voltaic panels. They fed Xantrex/Trace 115/230-volt stacked inverters to provide electrical power. The inverter charge controller kept twenty-four Surrette 8-CS-25PS 8-volt/820 amphour batteries charged. They were wired in a series/parallel configuration to provide two banks of batteries to provide 48-volts to the inverter.

At one end of the shop was a whole-house 21kw diesel electric generator in a weather resistant, low sound level enclosure. It was wired into the power system to take over if the batteries of the solar system were getting close to the lowest usable level of charge.

Louie had a deep well with an independent solar pump to keep a cistern filled, which provided his water through a ¾hp pump-in-tank jet water pump located in the shop in a insulated enclosure.

Sewer was a twelve-hundred-gallon fiberglass septic tank well down the slope from the trailer. It had six-hundred feet of field tile in three separate sections.

Louie was pretty much self-sufficient, utility-wise. Aside from the electrical, water, and sewer systems, there was a waste incinerator behind the berm, and a concrete bin for trash. Louie would take the ashes from the incinerator and the trash to the county dump when enough accumulated to justify a trip.

Telephone service was a cellular phone connected to a directional antenna on the tower. TV and high-speed internet were provided by a small dish system mounted at the base of the tower.

At one side of the clearing was a well built equipment shed made of logs and bermed with earth around its three sides. It contained elements of one of Louie’s entrepreneurial businesses. A Unimog U-500 truck with several attachments took up three bays of the shed, and that didn’t include the Carolina Smooth Roads road maintenance implement parked outside, since it was so long.

Also outside were the various beds for the U-500 and several trailers for the U-500 and the Suburban.

A Bobcat A300 skidsteer/4-wheel steer loader and a Bobcat 5600T utility machine were both on a trailer with a selection of attachments in another bay. The next bay held more attachments. The Suburban took one bay, and Louie’s Harley and a ROKON 2-wheel drive bike took up a bit of space in another. That left three more bays empty in the long structure.

The county paid Louie a nominal amount to keep some of the secondary roads open during heavy snows in the winter. A group of the residents in the area chipped in, too, plus many of them had Louie keep their driveways clean using the snow blowers for the Unimog and for both of the Bobcats.

In the spring, he was paid again for running the very expensive Carolina Smooth Roads road maintenance implement over the gravel and dirt roads in the county. He could keep the roads in better shape than the county, for less money than they could themselves. And just like the snow removal, Louie got quite a bit of private driveway work, too.

Now, Louie didn’t do much of the work himself, though he certainly could. He had a couple of reliable hands that used the equipment for him. Their arrangement included using the equipment for jobs they found themselves, for a small fee, when not using it for Louie.

That’s where Austin came in. He was a plumber with equipment operator experience and used Louie’s Bobcats and Unimog on a regular basis for his plumbing business. When he wasn’t busy with plumbing, which, in the economic climate at the moment, was way too often, he worked the equipment for Louie.

Austin only knew about some of the aspects of Louie’s place because he was the one that did most of the digging, dirt work, and plumbing work after Louie bought the land. Louie hadn’t actually sworn Austin to secrecy, but he’d paid a premium for some of the work and implied he’d rather no one besides Austin know about much of it.

That was fine with Austin. Louie kept him busy when he wasn’t plumbing. As far as he could tell, he was the closest thing that Louie had for a friend. Louie told him once that Austin’s key to the gate at the road end of the driveway was the only one out there, and that if anyone said they had permission to use the property or visit when he was gone, they were lying.

Though he was affable and sociable, he just didn’t socialize much, unless it was for some charity activity.

Austin didn’t know all this about Louie at first. It was some time before he knew it all.

Laid Back Louie

Austin flipped open his cell phone on the third ring. He didn’t recognize the number. But he recognized the voice. It was Louie Vargos. “Hello, Austin. You real busy at the moment?”

“Not really, Louie. Why?”

“I need a favor.”

It stunned Austin. He’d never known Louie to ask for anything even approaching a favor. From anyone.

“Sure, Louie. What’s up?”

“I need a ride home from the hospital.”

“Hospital! Are you alright?”

“Yeah.” The sigh was audible on the phone. “They just say I can’t drive for a while.”

“Well, sure. You at County General?”

“Yes. But my bike is in the city. Any chance you could go get it, take it home, and then pick me up in the Suburban?”

“Okay.” Austin looked at his watch. “Take me about two hours to the city, and the same back with the bike. Then another half an hour to your place and forty-five minutes more to the hospital. You sure you don’t just want me to get you and take you home, and then go get the bike?”

“They’re not going to let me out for a while. I’ve got time. You sure you want to do this? I’ll pay…”

“No pay. Just helping out a friend.” Austin was adamant.

Again Louie sighed. “Okay. Will you be able to get someone to take you to the city?”

“My sister is here visiting. She can drive my truck back. Oh. Do we need to stop and get the key to the bike?”

“No. It’s pushbutton start after you do a couple of things so it will run.” Louie proceeded to tell Austin about the hidden fuel cut-off and battery cutoffs that prevented the bike from starting without changing their positions.

“Okay, Louie. Sis and I will get going in just a few minutes.”

“Thanks Austin.”

“Not a problem, dude. It’s what friends are for.”

“Yeah. And you are a good one.”

Austin was smiling when he walked into the living room to talk to Colleen, his older sister. “Collie, I need to go into the city to pick up my friends bike. I told him you’d drive my rig back. I hope that is okay.”

“Sure, Austin. Let me just go to the bathroom first and I’ll be ready.”

Austin watched his sister. She was getting better, but the loss of her husband and baby in a car accident the previous month was still eating at her. Though it was the other driver’s fault entirely, she still blamed herself for sending them off in a taxi to the airport. She went to her office before going to the airport herself for the trip to Austin’s for the holidays.

The taxi hadn’t made it to the airport. It had been clipped by an oncoming semi rig and flipped three times. Her husband had not been wearing a seat belt. Though the baby was in a carrier, it wasn’t belted in, either, and both were thrown from the car and killed instantly when an oncoming car couldn’t avoid running over them.

Grabbing her purse and a jacket from the hall closet, Colleen followed Austin out to his pickup truck. It was set up as his plumbing truck, but it was the only vehicle he had.

The two were silent most of the way to the city. Finally Colleen spoke. “Who is this friend of yours? Did he say why he was in the hospital?”

“Come to think of it, he didn’t. It’s Louie Vargos. I’ve mentioned him before, I’m sure.”

“Um… The guy with the equipment you sometimes use?”

“Yep. That’s him.”

“You made him sound a bit strange.”

“No I didn’t!”

“Yes, you did. A real loner. No friends. Secret agent kind of jobs where he disappears for days or weeks. Fingers in all kind of pies, too, you said.”

“I didn’t say he was a secret agent! He’s a courier. Of… well, I don’t know, really. But it’s important. I know he commands a high price for that work. And he just has a small interest in a lot of businesses. A lot of people do the same thing.”

“Yeah. But by owning stock.”

“Come on, Sis. He’s a good guy. Louie has helped me get through some tough times throwing me work he could easily have done himself with the equipment.”

“Okay. But you be careful on that bike. I don’t want to lose you, too.” There were tears in her eyes when Austin got out of the truck with his motorcycle helmet in hand and walked over to the bike. It took only a few seconds to pull the cover off and throw it into the truck. A few more to change the valve settings and flip the two electrical switches that would allow the bike to start.

The diesel engine rumbled to life and Austin looked over at Colleen. He hadn’t known what to say when he got out of the truck, but she looked dry-eyed now and ready to go. Putting the Harley in gear, Austin headed for the entrance to the parking lot. He winced when he paid the parking attendant. It took all his cash.

Colleen stayed behind Austin all the way back to Louie’s place. She waited while he unlocked the gate and then drove through. On a whim, instead of just waiting, Colleen followed her brother up the rough drive and stopped in the turnaround driveway.

“Why is the bottom part of the driveway so bad?” she asked Austin as he was putting the bike in the equipment shed.

“I don’t know, actually,” Austin said, walking over to the Suburban. He stooped down and looked under the body of the vehicle. It was fairly easy, as the suspension had a four inch lift to clear the large tires the Suburban had.

Austin continued after he found the hidden key. “I think he wants to discourage visitors. Not too many people would venture up that driveway very far in a regular car, even if they could get around the gate. It’s easy for a four wheel drive, but it just looks like it’s a fire road going nowhere.”

“More strangeness from the man,” Colleen muttered. She got back into Austin’s truck and led the way down the driveway, stopping well past the gate so Austin could come through. He got out and locked up the gate again before climbing back up into the Suburban.

They made it to town and Colleen turned off to go home. Austin continued through town and headed for the county seat and County General Hospital.

Austin gasped when he saw Louie waiting for him in the Emergency Room waiting room in a wheelchair. “What happened to you?” he asked.

“Later, please. Just get me home. I hate hospitals.” Louie started to get up, but a nurse had her eye on him and quickly got him back into the wheelchair. She handed Louie’s crutches to Austin.

“You know the rules. You come in on a gurney; you go out in a wheelchair.” She got behind the chair and reached down to unlock the brakes, but Louie was already doing that. The nurse pushed the wheelchair out to where Austin had parked the Suburban.

“You really expect to climb up into that thing?” the nurse asked, looking at the rig doubtfully.

“No problems,” Louie said as Austin opened the passenger side door. Louie lunged to his feet, grabbing one of the grab handles the Suburban had in handy positions. He tossed the small bag he was carrying into the front of the Suburban and then drew himself up with his arms and slid over into the bucket seat.

“I’ll put the chair in the back,” Austin said.

“’Fraid not, my friend,” said the nurse. “This one is hospital property. The crutches are his. But if you can influence your friend, have him rent a chair for a few weeks until he is better able to get around.”

Austin nodded and hurried around the truck and climbed into the driver’s seat. “You want me to stop at a medical supply place?”

“I don’t think so. I can get around. Just slow. And painful.” The last was said just before Louie opened a pill bottle from the bag on the floorboard and took one of the tablets dry.

“Only if you’re sure,” Austin tried again at the parking lot exit. “I don’t mind taking the time to…”

Louie looked over at him. “I’m fine. People worry too much.”

“Yeah. Right.” Austin pulled out into traffic and headed them home. When they were close to town, Austin called his sister and let her know they’d be at Louie’s in a while.

“She coming after you?”

“Yep. But… How are you going to get around? You can’t drive in that cast.”

“I know.” Louie sighed. “I guess I’ll have to hire a driver. I don’t suppose you…”

“I would. You know that, Louie. But I’ve got a good job going right now. I can’t afford to mess that up.”

“I know you would if you could. And I appreciate it. I’ll just have to call a temp service and see if they have anyone that lives close that could do the job.”

“Why don’t you ask Colleen?” Austin said before really thinking about it.

“Your sister? I don’t think so. I’m sure she is still in recovery from her loss. She’s not going to want to be around someone in my condition, considering…”

“Yeah. Didn’t think about it.”

The two were silent the rest of the way to Louie’s property. Austin was a bit surprised when Louie let him help when he went from the Suburban to the Airstream. Austin had parked as close as he could get to the door, but Louie was still quite pale when Austin got him onto the sofa in the trailer.

“Are you okay?” Austin asked, his worry obvious to Louie.

“I’m okay. Just can’t take another pain pill for another couple of hours. I’ll just have to tough it out.” He looked around suddenly when a knock sounded at the open door.

Austin automatically told Colleen, “Come on in,” without checking with Louie.

Louie frowned for a moment, but then he got a good look at Colleen. He forgot what he was going to say.

“Colleen, this is Louie Vargos. Louie, my sister, Colleen Hodges.”

“Mr. Vargos,” Colleen said, nodding at him. Her eyes were taking in his appearance. “You don’t look too good.”

“Colleen!” Austin exclaimed.

“Well, he doesn’t.”

“You can call me Louie,” Louie said. “And I know what I must look like. It’s not as bad as it seems.”

“Um,” was all Colleen said.

“She goes by Collie,” Austin said, for something to say in the awkward moment.

“You know I hate that name, Austin,” Colleen said sharply.

“Mrs. Hodges it is, then,” Louie said.

“Oh, no! You can call me Colleen. Only Austin calls me… that other name. He thinks it is funny.”

Austin was grinning.

“I guess we’ll be going,” Colleen said then. “You look like you need some rest.”

Louie nodded. Austin looked from one of them to the other and suddenly said, “I’ll check around to see if I can find a driver for you. Too bad you don’t want Colleen to do it.”

“I didn’t say…” Louie protested.

“You didn’t even know me before just now. Why would you not want me to be your driver.”

“Well… I just thought… with your loss… you might not be comfortable around an almost invalid.”

Colleen paled for a moment, but then shook her head. “I have to get over that. I need something to do. I’ll be your driver.”


“When do you need me here?”

Louie hesitated, and glared at Austin for a moment. Austin was grinning. “Day after tomorrow I need to check on a project. You think you can drive the Suburban?”

“Of course I can,” Colleen replied. Rather sharply, Austin thought.

“You have a way out here?” Louie asked, searching for reasons for Colleen to not be his driver. For some reason he couldn’t quite fathom.

“I’ll bring…”

“You can’t afford the time away from your job,” Louie said. Then he sighed. Looking at Colleen, he said, “You might as well take it in with you. Get familiar with it before you come out day after tomorrow.”

“If you wish,” Colleen replied. She kept her face neutral. But she was trying to figure out just how she’d managed to become Louie’s driver.

Louie and Colleen both glared at Austin when he started whistling happily on the way out of the trailer. “Shut up!” Colleen growled, hard on his heels. The trailer seemed to have suddenly shrunk around her and she needed some air.

Still grinning, Austin handed Colleen the keys to the Suburban and climbed into his truck. Colleen took her time looking over the Suburban before she opened the door and climbed up into the driver’s seat. Austin had left the gate open and she drove through. She almost decided to leave the gate open, but sighed, stopped and got out to close it.

Driving extra carefully in the large vehicle, Colleen took her time going to Austin’s. She was comfortable with the truck by the time she got there. She locked the doors after she got out at Austin’s, and then went inside. Austin was working on the company books, so she didn’t disturb him. Though she wanted to. To bawl him out for getting her in the mess she decided she was in.

Since she couldn’t, Colleen proceeded to prepare them a simple supper. An excellent cook, she hadn’t had the urge since her husband and child had died. Just didn’t seem to be any point to do anything other than eat enough to stay alive. And she wondered about that a couple of times.

Louie was feeling much the same way. He, too, was an excellent cook when he wanted to be. But he usually just ate simple meals and had a nice dinner out occasionally while on one of his trips.

Tonight he decided to forgo anything other than a bowl of cereal. He just wasn’t up to even heating anything up. But he had to eat something so the medication he was on wasn’t so hard on his stomach.

He was in a great deal of pain by the time he managed to get himself undressed after his cereal and climb into bed. He took the pain medication and laid back, hoping for sleep to come quickly. Louie didn’t like pain, but he’d known it several times in the past and knew that only time would bring him back to full function, and almost pain free.

It is amazing what the difference a day can make thought Colleen when she pulled up and parked in the circular driveway in front of Louie’s Airstream. Louie was in the equipment shed, on his crutches, checking a piece of equipment. He waved at Colleen and started toward the Suburban.

Colleen jumped out of the Suburban and started toward him. But Louie looked at her and frowned. “I’m doing fine.”

“As you wish,” Colleen replied. “Anything you need from the trailer?”

Louie shook his head and opened the front passenger door of the Suburban. After sliding the crutches behind the seat, he hopped up and into the truck.

“You seem much better today than day before yesterday, Mr… Louie.”

“I am better, Colleen. Thank you. You okay with this old hunk of junk?”

Colleen cut him a glance as she buckled herself in. Louie was already buckled up. “Some hunk of junk. With all the accessories you have on this thing, it must have cost a fortune. Do you really need everything you have on and in it?”

“Only needed a few of the things. But I’m a believer in ‘better to have and not need than to need and not have’.”

“I suppose there is something to be said for that,” Colleen said. She was headed down the driveway now. “Where are we going?” she asked when she had gone through the gate and then locked it and got back into the truck.

Louie was using the touch screen on the Suburban’s navigational system. He leaned back in the bucket seat and said, “Just follow the directions the Nav system gives.”

Colleen put the Suburban in gear and the Nav System said “Right turn.” From time to time Colleen looked over at Louie. He seemed about to doze off when the Nav System said, “Destination reached.” They were at a new building going in on the far side of the town.

Louie looked up and put his hand on the door handle. “You can stay in the truck if you want. It’s a bit muddy out here.”

“I think I’d better stay handy, just in case,” Colleen said. She wouldn’t look at Louie, knowing he’d have an annoyed look on his face. She hurried around the Suburban, but Louie was already slipping the crutches under his arms.

The two walked over to where a man in a business suit was talking to a man in a hard hat.

“Louie! What the hey happened to you?” asked the man in the suit. He shook hands when Louie gripped the right hand crutch under his arm and extended his hand.

Louie nodded at the other man and said, “Hello Charlie.”

“I’d ask how you’re doing, but it’s kind of obvious,” Charlie replied. He turned to the man in the suit and said, “I’ll get right on those changes, Mr. Masterson.”

“So you decided on the changes, Glen.”

Glen Masterson was looking at Colleen standing just a few feet away. “My driver,” Louie said. “As you can see, I’m not up to it.”

“Of course. And yes, I am incorporating the changes. You drive a hard bargain, but I can’t do the project without your help.”

“I’ll have that line of credit set up at the bank in town today. You can access it starting tomorrow.”

The two men shook hands and Louie headed back to the Suburban, Colleen keeping close watch in case he slipped on the muddy ground. But he made it, knocked the mud off his boots with a crutch and then climbed into the truck.

After scraping her feet on the running boards of the Suburban, Colleen got in, too, and said, “Where next? The bank?”

“Yes, please. Do you need the navigator?”

“No. I know my way around town pretty good, now,” Colleen said.

Again they were silent as Colleen drove back to town and stopped at the only bank the town had. It was a small branch bank with only two teller windows and two offices, besides the main vault and the lock box vault.

Colleen didn’t ask, and when Louie didn’t object, she followed him into the branch bank. She took a seat and waited while Louie talked to the banker. Neither had shut the door of the office and Colleen heard everything that was said. She was amazed, to say the least.

Louie made arrangements to open a ten-thousand-dollar line of credit for Glen Masterson to draw against for the building project. It only took a few minutes, and Louie was heading for the Suburban again.

“You do that a lot?” finally said as they headed back to Louie’s place.

“What’s that?”

“Finance things for people. Austin wouldn’t tell me much, but he once said you had your fingers in a bunch of different pies. I hope I’m not touching on a taboo subject.”

“It’s okay. I normally don’t discuss my business ventures, but you couldn’t help but overhear. That is part of what I do. I don’t like to actually work.”

Colleen looked over at Louie. He was grinning. She smiled back and then put her eyes back on the road. “I find that hard to believe. Austin said you’re usually pretty busy with your equipment. And some other things he didn’t know the specifics of.”

“I’m glad to know Austin doesn’t spread my business around. He does a lot of work for me and knows more than anyone else does about what I do. I hope to keep it that way.”

“Oh. I see. No more questions, then.” Colleen said.

Louie thought for a moment her hair flamed a brighter red, and suspected the green eyes he’d noticed before were flashing sparks.

“I didn’t mean that like it sounded, Colleen. I’m just naturally… well… to put it bluntly, I’m a real hermit and loner. I don’t like people knowing my business. But Austin does some of it and it’s never been a problem. I doubt if you find out a few things you’ll say anything about it to anyone.”

“Of course I wouldn’t,” Colleen said.

Louie saw her relax slightly, and relaxed a bit himself. He found himself telling her more than a little about the various ‘pies’ he ‘had fingers in.’ Restaurants, local farms, the farm and ranch store, and several others.

“Austin was right. You’re into a lot of different things. Plus the equipment and the courier jobs.”

“Keeps me in granola,” Louie replied.

“Austin didn’t say,” Colleen said, feeling like she was suddenly treading on eggs. “How did you get banged up so bad? Traffic accident?”

Louie sighed and looked out the passenger window. “I guess it won’t hurt to tell you. Austin doesn’t know. I took a courier job I knew better than to take. But a good customer vouched for the guy. I made sure the product was legal. But the security arrangements weren’t up to snuff. I wound up in a gun battle with would be hijackers.”

“Oh my lord! You were shot?”

“Yep. Five times. All in the left leg. Broke it in two places.”

“Should I ask what happened to the hijacker?”

“Hijackers. Plural. And it’s probably best you don’t know. One thing, though. You don’t have to worry about them coming after me while you’re my driver. They’re not in a position to do that.”

“Prison? Or… Dead?”

“Some of both,” Louie replied. He turned to look at Colleen to try and judge her reaction to the news that he had killed someone. There didn’t seem to be anything in her face to indicate great disgust, and Louie relaxed a bit more.

When she stopped the Suburban near the Airstream Louie said, “It’s okay if you tell Austin about what happened. I know he’s curious.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Colleen replied. “You have something easy you can prepare for lunch? You’re looking a bit peaked.”

“I’ll grab another bowl of cereal. And then take another pain pill. I’m past due for one.”

“Figures. I’ll fix you something while you relax.”

“That’s not really necessary. I hired you as driver, not a domestic. You don’t have to cook and clean for me.”

“Just consider it part of the service. Can’t get paid if you starve to death.”

Louie decided he was too tired and in too much pain to protest further and sat back on the sofa to do as Colleen suggested.

Colleen was wondering why she was offering to cook for Louie. She’d had no plans to do that until he said he was eating cereal again. She ignored his occasional looks as she investigated the small galley sized kitchen for something to fix Louie for lunch. Her stomach growled slightly. She wondered if Louie heard it.

“You might as well make yourself something, too,” he said after a few minutes. “Consider it part of the pay.”

Colleen smiled slightly and took out a carton of eggs. “How about scrambled eggs? You need a lot of protein while you’re healing.”

“Sounds good to me. There is bread in the freezer compartment of the fridge. Have to fry the bread. Don’t have a toaster.”

“Okay,” Colleen replied, taking out the rest of the ingredients she needed. It didn’t take long and she carried a plate for Louie to the small dinette. Louie managed to move from the sofa to the dinette with only a couple of grunts of pain.

Colleen sat down across from him, a plate of the scrambled eggs and toast in front of her, too.

“This is good,” Louie said after a couple of bits.

“It’s scrambled eggs. Other than burning them, or pouring them out still raw, you can’t mess them up.”

“I suppose so.” Another couple of bites and Louie took out his pocket pill holder and took a pain pill.

Louie ate everything and then said, “I’ll do the dishes later. I need to lie down for a while. Just lock the door when you leave.”

Colleen didn’t comment. He looked pale, even after the meal. She slowly finished her eggs, and then stood. She tiptoed to the open bedroom area and saw Louie lying on his back on one of the twin beds the bedroom contained.

Going back to the galley, she didn’t hesitate. A half an hour later the dishes were done and everything put back into its place. Colleen decided Louie was as much a neat freak as she was.

On the third day, Colleen waited patiently as Louie took a call. She saw Louie look over at her, rather speculatively, she thought. She didn’t much like the look and was about to say something about it when Louie asked her, “You want to make some extra cash? I have a job needs done, but I can’t do it and Austin is still tied up on that big plumbing job.”

“What do I have to do?” Colleen asked.

“Till a garden spot to get it ready for winter.”

“That doesn’t sound difficult. Sure.”

Louie held his smile in check. She had no idea of what she was getting into. It would be interesting to see how she handled the reality of the job. “We’ll be there in a couple of hours, Mrs. King.” Louie closed the cell phone and headed toward the door of the Airstream. “Let’s get things ready.”

“Where is this that’ll take two hours to get to?” Colleen asked. She chuckled. “Across the state?”

Louie had to grin then. “Nope. Just down the road a piece.”

“The why will it take…” Colleen’s words faded away as she followed Louie, moving much better on his crutches now, toward the machine shed.

“Wait a minute,” she suddenly said. “I thought I’d be using a walk behind tiller or something…”

“Nope. The A300 with tiller attachment.” He watched her closely. “You up to it?”

Colleen frowned and started to say ‘no’, but the expectant look on Louie’s face changed her mind. “Sure. Why not? Can’t be that hard to do. I learned to drive the Suburban.”

“True,” Louie replied, smiling. “I knew you had it in you.”

“So. What do I do? You obviously can’t do it.”

Louie walked her through the operation of the Unimog U-500 first, as she would be driving it, pulling the trailer with the two Bobcats on it, plus the implements. He was pleased with her progress. She had little trouble backing the U-500 up to the trailer and then connecting it.

“Pull it out and stop. We’ll need to unload the A300 and hook up the tiller. It’s that one over there,” Louie said, pointing to the implement in question. He got a pair of gloves from a toolbox on the trailer and handed them to Colleen.

Again Louie took his time and worked with Colleen on learning to drive the Bobcat A300. She managed to back it off the trailer without problems, and then connected the tiller attachment to the lift arms and hydraulic lines.

Colleen was very careful loading the A300 with the tiller attached back onto the trailer. There was just enough room.

Louie didn’t resist the boost that Colleen gave him up into the cab of the U-500. It was even higher than the Suburban. Colleen took a deep breath standing beside the truck before she opened the door and climbed into the driver’s seat of the Unimog.

“You’re doing fine,” Louie said. “Make a right turn when we get past the gate.”

Colleen took it very slow down the driveway, especially on the gate end over the roughest area. Louie didn’t complain and didn’t try to give her instructions while she was driving.

She checked her watch when she pulled into the driveway of the place where she would be using the Bobcat. It was almost two hours since the phone call. She was surprised. It seemed like only a few minutes.

An elderly woman came out of the trim white clap-board house. “Hello, Louie. Who is this? And what happened to you?”

“Long boring story about me. This is Colleen Hodges. She’s working for me until I can do it myself again.”

“Well, if you let her work for you, she must be good. You know where the garden is. I’ll pay you when you’re done.”

Louie took Colleen down the driveway that ran past the house and showed her the garden spot. “Why is it… lumpy?” Colleen asked.

“That’s manure from her son’s horse barn. It needs to be turned into the ground with the rest of the vegetation. Just take your time and you’ll do fine.”

Louie stepped back, found an empty five-gallon bucket and turned it upside down so he could sit down. Colleen looked over at him several times as she began to till the garden. But he made no move toward her and she just turned back to the job and learned it on the fly.

Making two complete passes at right angles to each other, the garden was soon in shape for the winter. Colleen looked over again at Louie. He nodded and Colleen headed for the trailer to load up the machine.

Louie was standing at the front door of the house when she walked up after having chained down the A300 and closed the tailgate on the trailer. She took the grocery bag that Mrs. King handed to her. Louie was putting a check into his left shirt pocket.

“You did good, Sweetie,” Mrs. King told Colleen. “There’s a little something extra in there for you.”

“Oh. Well, thank you, Mrs. King.”

“She’s a keeper, Louie. You should consider that.”

Colleen knew she had turned red, and could see the back of Louie’s neck. He did, too. Colleen felt Mrs. King’s eyes on her as she followed Louie back to the Unimog and helped him get in.

“I’m sorry about that, Colleen. She didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I know. She seems like a very nice lady. What’s in the bag, by the way? I didn’t even look.”

“Baked goods. Usually a pie.” Colleen had placed the sack behind the seat when she got into the truck and Louie couldn’t get to it to check for sure.

Colleen was distracted anyway. She was backing the truck and trailer toward the road and kept her attention on that. Twenty minutes later they were back at Louie’s and she backed the trailer into the equipment shed without a bobble.

After helping the somewhat pale Louie to the Airstream, she unhooked the trailer and parked the Unimog before going to the Airstream trailer, carrying the shopping bag. She looked inside. Sure enough, there was a pie, covered with foil, and what she suspected was a loaf of bread of some kind by the shape of the foil wrapped package.

Louie was sitting at the dinette, taking a pill when Colleen came in. “Pie and bread. I think.” She set the bag on the dinette.

“Hopefully it is her banana nut bread. It is really great. I’ll swap you half the pie for half the bread.”

“You’re serious!” Colleen said. She was headed to the trailer’s bathroom to use it and clean up before making them some lunch.

“Of course I am. She said the extra was for you. But I like the bread as much as her apple pies.”

“Well, then, of course we’ll share both.”

Louie turned his attention to opening up the baked goods while Colleen was in the bathroom. Then he leaned his head back on the back of the dinette bench seat and closed his eyes.

That’s where he was when Colleen came out. He was asleep. He still looked pale to Colleen. She quickly turned to begin a light lunch for them, working quietly to avoid waking Louie. He didn’t look comfortable, but she doubted he’d lie down until she was ready to leave.

“Louie,” she said quietly, sliding a bowl of soup on a plate in front of him on the dinette table.

He jerked awake and groaned a bit. “Lunch is ready,” Colleen said. “Can you take another pain pill now? You are still pale and look like you’re in pain.”

“Yeah. Over did it, I guess. Should just have let you handle it on your own. You did great.”

The praise surprised Colleen. There was no way she would have been able to do the work on short notice like that without Louie’s help. His confidence in her pleased her greatly.

“Well. Eat and then lay down. You need the rest.”

“I think I will.”

Louie did eat most of the soup, but left a little in the bowl when he got up and headed for the bedroom end of the trailer. Colleen took her time with her lunch, and then the clean up. She checked Louie a couple of times. His sleep was restless.

“Louie. Wake up. Wake up, Louie,” she said, shaking him gently. She barely managed to dodge the wild swing Louie took when he came too, his eyes unfocused.

“I’m sorry,” he said a second later, obviously now aware where he was. “It’s not a good idea to wake me like that. You shouldn’t be waking me, anyway. I thought you’d be long gone.”

“No. Let me check your temperature. I think you may have an infection.”

“That’s not nec…”

“It is necessary. You’re pale, but are sweating. And you obviously are still in pain. “Where is your first-aid kit?”

“Under the right hand dinette seat.”

Colleen went to retrieve the kit from the storage compartment under the dinette seat. She was surprised at the size of it. It was bigger than some she’d seen paramedics use.

“There is a fever thermometer in here, isn’t there?”

Louie nodded. He tried to swallow, but his throat was hurting. “Yes,” he managed to croak out. “It’s all labeled…”

He fell silent as Colleen took the digital thermometer and took his temperature.

“Louie! You have a hundred and one degree fever. I’m calling 911 to get an ambulance.”

“No. No. No. Okay. I have a fever. But I’d rather you take me in than ride in an ambulance again so soon.”


“Please? I hate being in an ambulance.”

“Okay,” Colleen said after a bit more hesitation. “Let me get the Suburban started and moved close to the door. You wait for me to help you. You understand?”

“Of course I understand,” Louie said with a frown.

Colleen hurried out and brought the Suburban around. Louie had made it to the door of the Airstream, but that was as far as he’d gone. Colleen guided him to the truck and helped him into the front passenger seat, putting his crutches behind the seat. She ran around the front of the Suburban, climbed in, and headed for the hospital.

She held her speed to the limit, but she did do the limit all the way. Louie didn’t say much, but was conscious every time Colleen looked over at him. She was sure he started to protest when she pulled into the emergency room parking lot, but he said nothing.

Colleen watched as he took the gun she now knew he carried almost everywhere and put it in the console between the bucket seats of the Suburban. He added his cell phone, keys and wallet, after taking out his ID and insurance cards. “I’ll go in now. No need for you to stay.”

He made it through the doors on his own, but was more than ready for the wheelchair that an orderly got ready upon seeing Louie when he entered the building. Colleen took the crutches from Louie as he sat down.

Colleen held out her hand and Louie gave her his driver’s license and insurance card. Louie, if he wasn’t hurting so much, would have found it intriguing that Colleen knew enough about his condition to fill in the admitting nurse, but didn’t go into details about how he came to be in the condition in the first place.

“We’ll take good care of him, Mrs. Vargos,” the nurse said, signaling the orderly to push Louie into one of the empty treatment rooms.

“But I’m not…” Colleen started to protest that she wasn’t Louie’s wife. But they most likely wouldn’t let her see him if they knew she was simply an employee. She just closed her mouth and thanked the nurse.

She found a chair and waited. It didn’t take long. A doctor went in, and then came out, all in the span of ten minutes. Louie was pushed out of the exam room a couple of minutes later and Colleen got up to follow, mentally crossing her fingers that she wouldn’t be asked about her relationship status with Louie.

The nurse and intern had Louie in a bed in a four-bed ward in just a few minutes. He was already almost under the influence of whatever drug he’d been given. “Thank you,” he said, looking at Colleen. Then he was out of it.

When a doctor came by a few minutes later and said, “Mrs. Vargos?” Colleen just nodded. “Your husband is going to be fine. He checked himself out far too early. He will need to stay here for at least another three days. Do what you can to persuade him to cooperate this time. I’m glad you’re here. He didn’t even indicate he was married when they brought him in from Washington, D. C. Helen, his regular doctor, didn’t mention anything about it, either.”

Colleen wanted to ask the doctor what he knew about Louie being in D. C., but that would probably give away the fact that she wasn’t really his husband. “May I see him?”

“Just for a few minutes. He’s out, but I’m a believer in the healing powers of love.”

Being the truthful sort, Colleen again almost admitted that she was only Louie’s driver and not his wife. But she simply didn’t. Instead she went into the ward and stood looking down at Louie for several long minutes before she left.

She called Austin on the way home to tell him that Louie was back in the hospital. Colleen had to explain in detail what had happened before he would let her hang up. Instead of going home to Austin’s, the way she intended, Colleen found herself going back to Louie’s. Just to check things.

Sure enough, Louie had failed to lock the trailer. Colleen started to just lock the door and leave, but she went inside. She immediately saw the message signal on the permanent bag type cell phone Louie had installed. She hesitated, but then ran through the messages, taking notes on the pad beside the phone.

Colleen bit her lip, but then returned the three calls, one after the other. There were two more calls for garden work, and one for some trenching to lay utility lines to a new house. She accepted all three jobs on Louie’s behalf. Then, appalled at her audacity, she went out to the equipment shed and looked over the implements until she found the trencher attachment for the Bobcats.

“I can do this,” she said aloud. She hooked the trailer with the Bobcats up to the Unimog again and pulled it out of the equipment shed. She spent the next several hours practicing with the trencher after she hooked it up to the A300. By the time she got home to Austin’s that evening, she was tired and dirty, but satisfied that with just a little luck she could do the work she had committed herself to do.

Austin was waiting for her. “Are you crazy?” he asked when she told him what she was doing. “You could get hurt, not knowing the equipment.”

“I practiced! Carefully,” Colleen protested. Louie was very thorough about showing me how to operate the equipment. And he has all the manuals. I read through them.”

“Well, I’m going to go with you,” Austin said. “I finished up that job today and have the time now.”

Secretly, Colleen was relieved. But she didn’t say so. She was also sure she could do it and planned on doing the bulk of it herself. But having Austin along as back up and help would be a good thing.

For the four days that Louie stayed in the hospital, Colleen, with a bit of help and advice from Austin, took care of the three jobs and booked two more to do the following week.

Colleen went with Austin to pick Louie up when he was released. When they went into the hospital, Louie was in a wheelchair, talking to what Colleen decided was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. She was wearing a doctor’s smock and had a stethoscope in one pocket sticking out slightly, and a chart in her hands.

“So, this is the new wife,” she said, with a light laugh, even before Louie could introduce them. Colleen knew she turned beet red, but managed to hold her composure.

“You know Austin. This is his sister, Colleen Hodges. Colleen, this is my regular doctor, Helen McIntire. The two women shook hands.

“I… Well, about letting people think I was his wife… I knew they wouldn’t let anyone in to see about him if they weren’t a relative. I just let people believe what they wanted to.”

“It’s understandable. Louie doesn’t have anyone close. I’m glad you where there for him,” Helen said.

Colleen felt herself bristle a bit. It had been a very possessive statement. But she didn’t let it show, and Louie was shaking hands with Helen. “I’m ready to get out of here,” he told Colleen, rather than addressing his remark to Austin.

“If there are any more complications, get him in here as quickly as possible,” Helen said. “I’d hate to lose my favorite patient.”

“Yeah. Right,” Louie said and laughed. Colleen had a feeling that the sentiment was more heartfelt than Louie realized.

After Louie was settled in the front passenger seat, and Austin in the left side second seat, Colleen got the Suburban started and on the road. She was trying to come up with a way to tell Louie what she’d done when Austin took it out of her hands. He went into a detailed description of the last three days.

Colleen could feel Louie’s eyes on her from time to time, but she kept her eyes on the road.

“I deposited the checks in the bank,” she finally said, when Austin quit talking.

“Let’s stop there on the way home,” Louie said. He took one of the checkbooks out of the console and slipped it in a shirt pocket.

As she had done before, Colleen went in with him. Austin stayed in the Suburban. He was talking on his cell phone. Apparently Louie did a cash check. Colleen couldn’t see how much money the teller counted out to Louie, but there were either a lot of ones, or there was a lot of money.

When he turned around he handed the stack of bills to Colleen and gripped the crutches again, headed outside. When they were back in the Suburban, Colleen tried to hand Louie the cash, but he refused to take it and said, “Payday, Colleen. You didn’t think you were working for me for nothing, did you?”

“But there’s…” Colleen quickly counted the money. “Way too much! I was expecting like eight or nine bucks an hour for when I’m driving you.”

“Fifteen, plus the work you did with the equipment, at twenty-five an hour, four hours minimum per day worked. Training time on the clock.”

Colleen protested again, and frowned when she looked back at the grinning Austin for help. “Tell him.”

Austin shook his head. “Between you and him. We have our own financial arrangement. I think it is different for every person that works for him, or that he works for.”

Colleen huffed and slid the money into the pocket of her jeans. “We’ll talk about this later. I want to get you home.”

Louie watched the scenery pass as Colleen drove home. It was a cloudy day and threatening rain, or even snow. “I’ve missed the news the last few days. What’s the weather supposed to be like?”

“Blustery, rainy, temps in the low forties, thirties at night,” Austin said. He’d started keeping very close track of the weather, the way Louie did. It paid to know what to expect in his business. Some things were just too difficult to do in bad weather and needed to be scheduled in advance when good weather was at least forecast.

“How about the world situation?” Louie asked.

Again Austin spoke right up. “Not good, Louie. The Dow is on a roller coaster, headed down hill. Gold and silver going up. Russia is making noises again about basing nuke capable forces in Cuba. China did a space walk. Meaning they are one step closer to militarizing space. Iran and Venezuela…”

Louie cut him off. “Same ol’ same ol’”

“Yes. Pretty much,” Austin replied.

Colleen looked over at Louie when Austin got out of the Suburban to unlock the gate to Louie’s place. “Be just my luck for the balloon to go up while I’m all laid up,” he muttered.

“What balloon?” Colleen asked. She was driving through the opening in the fence.

“Nothing. Just muttering,” Louie said.

He was tired and it showed. Though neither physically helped him into the Airstream, both were right there to help him if needed. “I’m going to lie down. I’ll see you guys Monday for that first job.”

“But Louie…” Colleen started to protest.

“Monday,” Louie said again and slid the bedroom door closed.

Colleen looked more than a little annoyed, and Austin decided not to press the matter. “Come on, Colleen. He’ll be fine.”

“Bull headed…” Colleen murmured under her breath. But she followed Austin outside, locked the Airstream behind her, and started for the Suburban. But Austin was walking toward the equipment shed.

“I want to fuel everything up and have it ready for Monday. Louie likes to get an early start.”

Colleen nodded and went about helping Austin prep the equipment, in the process learning more about equipment and the layout of the place.

When the two jobs were done, Louie asked the two if they would do the regular maintenance on his ‘topsoil farm’. Both agreed, without knowing what Louie was talking about. Even Austin couldn’t say when Colleen asked him about it that evening.

“Like I said,” Austin told Colleen, “He’s got his finger in a bunch of pies.”

They found out the next day. Austin drove the U-500 with a loader bucket attached, and the Bobcats on the trailer behind. Colleen and Louie were in the Suburban, in the lead. Louie guided them to an open grass covered field nestled among the surrounding forest. The field was two feet higher than the surrounding ground.

There were several piles of material along one edge. A manure wagon, disk harrow, tandem wheel box trailer, and broadcast seeder were parked nearby and chained to a tree on the edge of the field.

Louie proceeded to explain. “I get manure from several of the farms around here. They dump it when they have a load. All the mulch I make from grinding limbs when doing arborist work goes into piles, too. Also any excess dirt from dirt work jobs is piled up. Even my kitchen waste goes in. We’ll mix the piles together with loader buckets on the Unimog and the A300.

“Then we’ll load the mixture into the manure wagon with the A300 and spread it on the field with the Unimog. Disk that in along with the green manure… That is the standing alfalfa growing now. Then plant a winter rye and vetch mixture with the broadcast seeder. The seeds are in the box trailer over there. That will get disked in early next summer and I’ll plant more alfalfa.”

“How long have you been doing this?” Austin asked. “I just noticed how much higher the field is than the surrounding ground.”

“Ten years,” Louie replied. “Haven’t sold any yet. I want a good crop before I start digging into it.”

“Wow,” Colleen said. “That’s what I call foresight and long range planning.”

“Tell her about the coppicing woodlot,” Austin urged Louie. “It is really cool, too.”

“No big deal,” Louie said. But at Colleen’s questioning look, he explained. “I have another forty acre plot with second growth trees on it. I’m slowly clear cutting two acres a year and letting the ash, white oak, and hickory coppice, and plant additional ash, white oak, and hickory on the harvested area for future coppicing. I plant a black walnut tree here and there just for future nut use and premium wood working lumber.

“I get about twenty cords of firewood a year per acre off the mature sections. Been doing that for ten years, too. I should be able to keep up that rate of production for years.”

“That explains all the fire wood I saw at your place. And the splitter attachment for the Bobcats,” Colleen said.

“I do most of the wood cutting in the winter when the sap is down, split it, and let it dry for two years before I sell it. I only use about a cord per winter myself.”

Explanations done for the moment, Austin and Colleen got to work. Louie chaffed at his forced inactivity. This was something he usually did between other activities. It just didn’t feel right to him to have someone else doing his work for him.

It took all day, with only a half hour break for the lunch that Colleen had prepared and brought along for them. It was growing dark when Austin snapped the combination lock closed on the chain securing the equipment stored at the field.

He climbed up into the Unimog and followed Colleen and Louie in the Suburban back to Louie’s place. He had them wait for a few minutes while he went into the Airstream. He came back with two envelopes. He handed one to Austin and one to Colleen.

“And don’t even start protesting,” Louie said when both flipped open the unsealed envelopes. “It’s worth it to me.”

It was obvious that Colleen was, indeed, going to protest. But Austin cut her off. “Don’t even try, Collie. He’s bull headed as they come.”

Colleen frowned. “But…”

Louie turned around and went back into the Airstream.

“Well, rats!” Colleen said. She followed Austin back to the Suburban. “Can he really afford this? I mean, he doesn’t have a regular job. These other jobs…”

“I’m sure he can afford it, Collie. He’s too smart to spend himself into the poor house. I only know a few of the things he’s doing. I didn’t know about the topsoil farm until today. No telling what else he has going for him.”

“Well, he does have investments… In people, I mean. I know it is for their business ventures, but he doesn’t seem to care too much about what it is, if he trusts the person. Does always ask for something specific in return for the investment. But I’m not sure what that is.”

“I bet it is provisions for emergency preparedness. He’s big on that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Anything having to do with building a new building, or redoing one, he requires storm shelter slash fallout shelter space to be incorporated.”

“He’s a survivalist? I know he carries a gun…” Colleen didn’t quite know how she felt about the fact now.

“I think he’s what is called a prepper. I’ve never heard him say anything about trying to do away with the government or anything like that. Just stock food and supplies for hard times.”

“Oh. That doesn’t seem so bad.” Colleen fell silent. Austin watched his sister as she drove. There were a myriad of expressions crossing her face as she thought. Obviously about Louie.

She watched the news with Austin that evening, paying more attention to it than she usually did. Normally just interested in the weather for the day, and local happenings, watching the news with Louie in mind put it into a different perspective.

The news and dinner over, Colleen got on Austin’s computer and did a little research. What she found surprised her no end. It was late before she went to bed, even later before she fell asleep. It wasn’t until much later that she realized that it was the first night since their deaths that she hadn’t cried over the loss of her family.

As fall settled in, Colleen was kept busy with projects for Louie. She learned to use the various attachments for the Unimog, Bobcat A300, Bobcat 5600T, and the ROKON. Some were factory implements, some of them Louie had designed and had a welding shop put together for him.

With a bit of help from Louie, who was eager to get out of the cast, Austin and Colleen felled, trimmed, cut up, split, and stacked the twenty cords or so of firewood that would be harvested that fall. The trimmings were shredded and taken to the topsoil farm for incorporation the next year. Fortunately the equipment and attachments did much of the work so it went fast, and relatively easy.

The trio did a few other jobs together during that time. Austin and Colleen did a few together without Louie. Colleen and Louie did the rest that Louie would have done alone or picked up a day laborer to help.

Two days before Thanksgiving Dr. McIntyre removed Louie’s cast and put him in a walking cast. It was the same day NASA announced the impending passage of a large Near Earth Object between the earth and the moon. The closest point of approach would occur in seven days. There were assurances that the object would not hit the earth. The assurances didn’t stop the panics.

Stores were stripped of supplies within hours of the announcement. Grocery delivery trucks were stopped and looted. Gun stores sold out of firearms and all but the most obscure gauges and calibers of ammunition.

Liquor stores, too, sold out. There was no tobacco to be found three days after the announcement. The same with fuel. Service stations were pumped dry, with people filling every container they could find. Like the grocery delivery trucks, fuel trucks were hijacked. The waiting lists for propane deliveries and fuel oil deliveries were pages long.

Churches of all faiths were filled to bursting around the clock by those seeking redemption before the event, and by those hoping prayer would prevent the event.

There was a rush out of the cities into the state and national parks and forests, for no good reason that anyone still with reason could fathom. Outdoor equipment stores sold out of tents, sleeping bags, camping foods, and gear of all types.

The telephone system went down from massive use. Cell phone equipment couldn’t handle a tenth of the traffic that would have gone through had it been possible.

Borders were closed. Travel came to a standstill due to lack of fuel. Martial law was declared in almost every nation on earth to try and control the panic. It didn’t work. People were scared. Despite NASA’s assurance there would be no impact, many people believed it would be the end of the world, anyway.

Unfortunately, there were people in positions of power that believed it. Some welcomed it. Some intended to make sure it was the end of the world, just in case the NEO didn’t do it.

Pakistan launched her nuclear arsenal at India and India responded. China, with millions of people in the path of the fallout from the local war hit both nations in return. And that started the cascade. Nuclear nation after nuclear nation began to launch missiles.

When the sensors showed missile tracks coming across the Arctic, the US President, unwilling to take an attack unanswered, released the launch codes and the US missile fleet began to fly.

There were still three days before the time of closest approach of the NEO.

Louie didn’t have any jobs scheduled through the weekend after the Thanksgiving Holiday. He decided to just sit at home to watch what news coverage he could on the satellite TV, and scan the Amateur Radio bands for more accurate information. The happenings caught even Louie by surprise. He expected concern and some panic when he heard the announcement. He didn’t expect nuclear war. At first. Louie suddenly turned off his radios and disconnected the antennas and power leads. He grounded the antennas. He kept one battery operated AM/FM radio turned on to listen to what news was still coming, and one of his NOAA All Hazards radios. Just in case.

By Friday afternoon, he felt the first stirrings of real fear. He tried to call Austin, but the cell system was overloaded and he couldn’t get through. He was ready to go try to see if he could drive the Unimog and go get Austin and Colleen when the annunciater sounded, indicating someone was coming through the gate. He went outside and watched, his fingers mentally crossed.

It was Colleen, in the Suburban, with Austin behind in his plumbing truck. Leaning on his crutches, he waited for the two to get out of the vehicles.

“Austin thought you would want to have the Suburban here, rather than in town,” Colleen told Louie.

Austin joined the two before Louie could say anything. “I just tried calling to ask you to come out here.”

Austin smiled. “With everything going on I figured you’d want the Suburban here.”

“That’s what Colleen said. But I wasn’t trying to call you for that. The Suburban is secondary. I’ve got a bad feeling about what is going on. I’d like you to take the Unimog back to town and pack up everything you want to keep safe and bring it out here. Stay until this thing resolves itself.”

“But NASA is saying that there won’t be an impact,” Colleen protested.

“If you’ve seen any news at all, you know what is going on in the world. This could get a lot worse than it should, even with an NEO.”

“Things aren’t too bad in town,” Colleen said. “I went to the store to pick up a few extra things. Wasn’t much to pick from, but there aren’t any riots or anything.”

“No fuel, either,” Austin said. “I tried to fill the truck. No dice. I’m down to a quarter of a tank. Should have been doing like you. Keeping it at least half full all the time.”

“But that doesn’t mean…” Colleen was saying when Louie suddenly lifted the AM/FM radio he had in one hand and turned up the volume.

An excited news reporter was saying, “…reports of tremendous damage and countless casualties. India is reportedly retaliating with her own arsenal of nuclear weapons. More as we get it.”

The three looked at one another. “Take the Unimog and go get everything you want kept safe and bring it out here. And don’t waste any time. Don’t stop for anyone or anything.” It was an order from Louie, not a request.

“But…” Colleen protested.

Austin grabbed her arm. “Come on, Collie! Louie knows what he’s talking about. I trust him. Let’s go!”

Colleen, looking back over her shoulder at Louie, let Austin tug her toward the U-500. Finally she turned around and shook his arm off. “Okay! Okay!”

A few seconds later Austin had the Unimog headed down the driveway. Louie watched until they were out of sight and then hurried back inside the Airstream. He hesitated. Once he was in the shelter, it would be very difficult for him to come back out. Better to wait on the others to get here before he went down.

He did, however, open up the hatch in the floor of the Airstream, to expose the entry hatch of the disaster shelter below the Airstream. Louie stayed glued to the AM/FM radio. The reports were coming fast and furious. All were bad. What wasn’t about the India/Pakistan war was about the fearful preparations for the NEO. While he was listening, he put together a few things in a hemp grocery bag, and set his pre-packed bags next to the hatch.

Louie went back outside when he saw the headlights of the Unimog coming up the drive. Austin pulled the truck up behind his truck on the driveway and climbed down. Colleen got out and stepped toward Louie.

“I don’t know why we’re doing this. You don’t have room for any of this and…” Colleen suddenly stopped and looked up at the sky. “What was that?”

All three were looking up at the clear night sky. A large, bright circle of light was fading away.

“HEMP,” Louie said. “High altitude electro magnetic pulse. A nuke enhanced to destroy electronic equipment. This is going to be bad. We’re being nuked. Hurry with your things.”

Austin and Colleen both ran to the back of the Unimog and grabbed suitcases. They ran toward the Airstream trailer. Both looked in the doorway and saw the floor hatch open.

Louie was standing out of the way. “Austin,” he said, “It’ll be easier if you open the hatch.”

Austin dropped the two suitcases and got down on his knees. He grunted, but the counterweighted hatch opened without problem. Colleen was staring at Louie. “You have a bomb shelter?”

“Yep. Cost me everything I had at the time. I’m just now recovering, financially. I’ve wondered a few times if I was making a mistake. I’m not wondering any more. I didn’t. Head on down. I’m not coming until right at the end. I’d have too much trouble getting back up here, once I’m down there. Besides… I’m claustrophobic… I don’t want down there any longer than I have to be.”

Colleen was still staring at Louie, but Austin gave her arm a tug and she stepped down to the ground, and then onto the first rung of the ladder going down into the shelter proper. Colleen took her time. She didn’t want to fall. When she arrived at the bottom and turned around she gasped.

Having no clue what to expect, she was amazed. It was much larger than she thought it would be, and much brighter. Austin called down to her. “Come on, Collie! Take the suitcases!”

Colleen hurriedly reached up and took the items as Austin handed them down to her. It took Austin four trips to get everything they brought back with them. When Austin told Louie they’d handed the last load down, Louie told him, “Take everything out of the fridge and freezer and hand it down.”

That done, Louie directed Austin, “Park the trucks in the equipment shed and come on back.” Louie handed his crutches to Colleen in the shelter and then slowly, carefully, climbed down the ladder himself. A few minutes later Louie explained to Austin how to close and lock the hatch. “Are you okay?” Colleen asked Louie. He was pale and breathing rapidly.

“It’s the claustrophobia. I’ll be fine in a few minutes. I’ve come down and made myself stay for lengthening periods of time. The first few minutes are tough. And so are the last few, when I’d decided ahead of time when I would go back up.”

“How long will we have to stay down here?” Colleen asked, looking around the space again.

“It all depends on whether we get a warhead close, and how much fallout we get from it and any others to our west. For sure, until we know the missiles have quit flying. A couple of days to a couple of weeks, hopefully. Worst case scenario, with a warhead off course that lands near, several months.”

Colleen was as pale as Louie now. “Months? We’ll starve! Or more likely die of dehydration!”

“I bet not,” Austin said, looking at Louie. “You have food and water and everything else we need to survive, don’t you?”

“I hope so,” Louie said. “I surely hope so. I think I’d better lie down until this feeling passes.”

Louie headed for the other end of the shelter, where the bunks were. Austin and Colleen made themselves familiar with the shelter. Austin looked for and found the papers that came with the various elements of the shelter. Brother and sister talked quietly, not wanting to disturb Louie.

The first thing they noted was that it was much bigger than the Airstream trailer hiding the entrance. The second thing was the escape tunnel. Austin opened the hatch and looked down the thirty-inch concrete drain tile tunnel. “I think it must come up right out in the middle of the back yard.”

“Here’s another one,” Colleen said, pointing to another of the simple looking, but heavy hatches on the wall, partially hidden by a cabinet.

“Somewhere in the front yard, I’d say,” Austin said, though he didn’t open the hatch and see how far the tunnel went.”

Colleen put away the fresh foods Louie had handed down to her. It was a small refrigerator/freezer. She had to take out several water bottles to make room for the food.

“Full is better than empty, I guess,” Austin said. He looked around some more. There were thick columns every eight feet in the twenty-four by forty-foot space. The ceiling was at least nine-feet high, Austin decided. Even with the columns, and the few curtained off spaces, the area felt spacious. The paint was white, and there were white LED lighting fixtures everywhere.

“He certainly didn’t need anything this big for just himself,” Austin said.

“It’s because of his claustrophobia, I’m sure,” Colleen told Austin. “Though, I’m also sure that had it been possible, he would have brought more people in for shelter.”

“I think you may be right,” Austin said. He was always stressing for people to prepare. Oh. Look. This must be how he got some of the larger things down here. At first I just thought he put everything in before he put the roof on and backfilled.”

Austin pointed at a hatch in the ceiling along one side of the shelter. “It’s an opening with a lift system. The top side has to be covered, but knowing Louie, it could be opened up if needed.”

There was a pair of steel double doors nearby, on the outside wall of the shelter. Not knowing what to expect, Austin carefully opened one of the doors. It was another room, this one holding a generator, battery bank, and electrical panels. Measuring with his eyes, Austin decided that the generator could be removed from the shelter though the large overhead hatch inside the shelter proper.
The room also contained a water pump and two hot water heaters. A small electric heater and a standard size propane heater. Like the generator, the propane water heater was vented to the outside. The air handling equipment and filters were also in the room. “That explains some of the features incorporated in the patios roof and its supports,” Austin said.

Colleen looked at him questioningly.

“Air intakes and exhausts for fresh air, combustion air and exhaust for the genset and propane heater. I’ll show you when we go out. They are very cleverly worked into the features of the patio and patio cover supports.”

As they went around the rest of the room, another door, a single wide steel clad one, opened into what was immediately identifiable as a store room. It was filled with shelving units. The shelving units were filled with box after box, each one neatly labeled, if the contents weren’t already shown on the producer’s label.

“You were right,” Colleen said. “I assume there is as much water as there is food.”

“I’m sure,” Austin said. The two checked the bathroom. It was a simple bathroom such as might be a bathroom in any house. Flush toilet, washbasin in a counter, and a combination tub/shower unit.

They noted the communications desk, with its copper covered storage cabinet. “Is that for the EMP?” Colleen asked Austin, running her hand over the smooth, bright copper.

“I think so,” Austin replied. “I remember Louie mentioning something about shielding radios. He seems to know all about it.”

Suddenly Colleen sat down in one of the chairs at the small kitchen table. “It’s just sinking in, Austin! We are in the middle of a nuclear war! Even with all this… and Louie… How will we survive? There won’t be anything left…”

“Louie wouldn’t have done all this if he thought it was useless. You heard what he said. He put every penny he had at the time into this. You’ve been around him a while now. You think he would waste money?”

Fighting back tears, Colleen shook her head. “No. I can’t see him doing that. But I don’t know anything about what we should be doing. And certainly not what to do when the radiation goes away. If it does. What if they are wrong about that? We can’t spend our entire lives down here.”

Austin sat down beside his sister and took her hands in his. “I trust Louie. He knows what he is doing. We’re probably better off here than ninety-nine percent of the rest of the population.”

“I just… I wonder… What if I hadn’t sent Bill and Julie off in that taxi… What would we be doing now, with all this going on…”

“You can’t dwell on it, Colleen. You’ll make yourself sick. Things are the way they are, and I think we need to do what we can to help Louie. He’ll do everything he knows how to make sure we are okay. Now and in the aftermath.”

Colleen nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I think I’ll lie down, too, Austin. I’m exhausted emotionally and physically.”

Austin nodded and watched his sister walk over to the curtain that Louie had gone through earlier, and then got up to go over to the refrigerator. He was suddenly ravenously hungry.

Colleen tiptoed into the cubicle that contained two sets of triple bunks and six large lockers. There was a lone LED fixture turned on. It provided plenty of light for Colleen, once her eyes adjusted, to see Louie stretched out on the bottom bunk on the right side stack.

He seemed relaxed and Colleen didn’t want to waken him. She took off her hiking boots and lay down on the bottom bunk of the other stack. She thought about the loss of her family, and fell asleep with tears in her eyes.

When she woke up and glanced at her watch, she saw that she’d been asleep for several hours. She looked over at the other bunks. Louie wasn’t there. In her stocking feet, she left the bunk room and entered the main part of the shelter.

Louie and Austin were at the communications desk. Louie had a laptop computer opened up and he and Austin were discussing what they were looking at on the screen.

“You’re awake,” Austin said, when he glanced around and saw Colleen. “We’re getting fallout. But not very much, Louie says. He’s got a spreadsheet on the computer that calculates shelter stay times for various radiation levels.”

“I have Tired Old Man to thank for this,” Louie said. “He’s one of the gurus on the prep forums I frequent. Learned a lot from him and his stories. He writes stories that incorporate prepping for and dealing with the aftermath of all kinds of disasters.”

“When can we get out?” Colleen asked. She saw Louie pale slightly and wished she hadn’t asked.

Louie nodded at the yellow box with a meter on it sitting next to the computer. “The remote survey meter is showing just low amounts of radiation and it is already falling. If we don’t get another wave of it from other detonations, we should be safe to go out for a bit after just a week. Basically for just a few minutes to look around. After a month, we can leave the shelter permanently. If we don’t get more fallout.”

“Let’s hope not,” Colleen said.

“Yeah,” Louie said softly. “The sooner we get out, the better. But I’m not going to risk immediate harm to anyone by going out early. I’m going to go lay back down if one of you can keep checking the meter and recording the numbers. Wake me if the readings go up.”

He got up and started to head for the bunkroom again. “Oh,” he said, stopping and looking at Colleen. “You’ll want some privacy. You can use the other bunkroom as your room for the duration. Austin and I’ll use the one I’m in.”

“Okay, Louie. Thank you,” Colleen replied. She didn’t tell him that she felt better in his presence.

Louie smiled slightly and nodded. A few minutes later he was asleep again.

“I think I’ll try to catch forty winks, too,” Austin told Colleen. “You okay monitoring the rad meter on your own?”

Colleen nodded, though she really didn’t want to do so. She looked a minute later when Austin came out of the bunkroom, carrying Colleen’s hiking boots. He held them up and, after she nodded, set them down by the curtain of the other bunkroom.

For something to do, since they were going to be in the shelter for some time, she took her suitcases and put some things away in the other bunkroom. She used two lockers and wondered what it would be like to share the small room with five other women.

She wandered around the open area of the shelter, checking the survey meter every so often. The needle wasn’t moving visibly. She’d glanced at the large bookcase earlier. Now she took a close look. For the most part, the books on the shelves were on practical subjects. Subjects that would be of interest in a post apocalyptic world. Colleen picked one at random and took it to the communications desk. She checked the meter again. No visible change.

Colleen opened the book and began to read. She continued to check the meter and finally realized the needle had moved about one width since she’d been watching. The radiation really was falling and she breathed a sigh of relief.

She jerked away a few hours later when she heard the toilet in the bathroom flush. She checked the meter again. Another needle width down. She hadn’t been asleep more than an a few minutes.

Colleen got up and stretched, and then went to the bathroom when Louie came out. “How’s the radiation?” he asked as they passed.

“Down. Very slowly.”

Louie just nodded and headed for the kitchen area of the shelter. When Colleen came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, she smelled bacon cooking.

“I can fix breakfast,” She said.

“That’s okay. Gives me something to do. Though… if you want, you can chop up things for an omelet.”

Eager for something to do, just as Louie was, Colleen began to work beside Louie, cutting up mushrooms, onion, and bell peppers from the refrigerator on the small cutting board Louie handed her.

There was a loud yawn behind them and both turned to see Austin headed for the bathroom.

The three shared the bacon and large omelet in silence. Austin offered to do the cleanup. Louie and Colleen didn’t protest. She went to lay down for a bit, and Louie, like Colleen, chose to occupy his time with reading. But instead of a paper book, he got on the computer again and began to read one of the many manuals he had downloaded from the internet. Back when there was an internet. Louie doubted it would be back up for years.

When he’d finished the clean up, Austin did the same as his sister. He went over the shelves and picked out a hardcopy book to read. He sat down in one of the comfortable chairs facing the silent TV. Things were quiet for a long time, but Colleen got up just before noon and started preparing a lunch for them.

Austin and Louie were both engrossed in their respective reading material and didn’t offer to help. Which was fine with Colleen. She was finding out it was easier to be doing something, or sleeping, than just sitting in the shelter.

“This cleans out the fresh food,” Colleen told Louie after she called them to the table.

“I’ll break out the LTS food this afternoon,” Louie said, taking a seat at the table.

“LTS?” Colleen asked, taking her own seat.

“Long Term Storage,” Louie replied.

“Oh. I saw some boxes in the storeroom,” Colleen said. “That must be part of it.”

“Yes. I have regular canned and packaged goods, freeze-dried items, mostly in #10 cans, and dehydrated food items, again, mostly in #10 cans. There are 6-gallon buckets called Super Pails with other, more or less regular foods packaged for long term storage by sealing them in with an oxygen absorber in a mylar bag inside the bucket.

Austin cleaned up after lunch, as he had after breakfast. Colleen followed Louie into the storage room. The two came out a few minutes later carrying a case of six #10 cans of food each. “This will get us through the week,” Louie said. “After that, we’ll see what the best way to go is.”

Colleen had the sudden thought, and spoke without thinking. “How are we going to pay you for all this?”

Louie looked stunned. Austin looked annoyed. Louie spoke up first. “Paid? You don’t have to pay me. I thought… Well… I thought we’d just work together after we get out of here. A team. Share and share alike.”

“Come on, Collie!” Austin urged Colleen. “He’s not doing this to get paid!”

“I know! I know! I just… The thought crossed my mind and I spoke before thinking. I’m sorry, Louie. I didn’t mean it like it sounded. Of course we’re a team. And from what I’ve seen, a team the community will need to get back on its collective feet.”

Seeing the look of consternation on her face, Louie quickly responded. “It’s okay, Colleen. I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just being cooped up in here has me on edge.”

“I know,” Colleen said softly. “I am truly sorry.”

Louie waved it away. “No harm, no foul. I’m going to lie down for a while. I’ll take the night shift watch tonight.”

Colleen started to protest, but Austin touched her arm. When she looked at him, he shook his head slightly. She frowned, but stayed silent as Louie headed for the men’s bunkroom. She sighed and went over to the communications desk to check the survey meter. It was already a habit. She finally got the book she had started and began to read again about how to raise rabbits.

It was how they spent the long hours of the shelter stay. When Louie announced the radiation level was low enough to go out for a few minutes to look around, Colleen was more than ready to go. Except Louie objected.

“You probably should wait for a while longer. Any exposure is bad.”

“You said it was safe!” she protested.

“Well… safe is a relative term. If we stay outside at these levels, we’d still receive a fatal dose over a period of time. Going out and then back in occasionally with the level where it is isn’t fatal. But it could be the beginnings of cancer some day.”

“Please, Louie. I’m so in need to know what is out there.”

Louie reluctantly agreed that Colleen could come with him and Austin. But like them, she had to suit up in protective clothing and a respirator before he would allow her to follow him up the ladder.

He didn’t insist on her taking a weapon, but when he offered Austin a shotgun she asked, “You have anything for me?”

“Rifle, shotgun, or pistol?” Louie asked.

“Better stick with a pistol,” Colleen said. “I don’t think I could handle a shotgun or rifle without some practice.”

“A .22, even?”

“Oh. I’m sure I can handle that. They don’t kick much, do they?”

“Not much,” Louie replied. He went over to the cabinet from which he’d taken the shotgun for Austin while Colleen had been getting dressed in her protective clothing. Louie took a minute to show her how the Ruger 10/22 worked, and handed her three long curved aluminum magazines for it. “Put in a magazine after we get topside.”

Colleen nodded and slipped the magazines into a pocket of the Tyvek coveralls. Austin handed Louie the shotgun and climbed the ladder. It took a moment and he had the top hatch of the shelter open.

Louie handed up the shotgun so Austin would have it when he went through the hatch in the bottom of the Airstream trailer.

When Austin was inside the trailer and had a chance to look out, he called down, “Don’t see anything amiss.”

“You next,” Louie told Colleen. She handed him the Ruger and climbed up, taking the rifle when she was inside the trailer as Louie handed it up. He started up the ladder. It was a slow process and painful.

Louie sighed with the realization that he was going to have to let Austin and Colleen do the preliminary things. He simply wasn’t going to be able to get in and out of the shelter on a regular basis unless he opened up the big access hatch and used the hoist. He wasn’t prepared to do that yet.

But he made it topside and followed Austin and Colleen outside. They took a turn around the property. There had been some wind and rain, and there was no real evidence of the fallout, except the meter in Austin’s hand.

The three stayed out the allotted fifteen minutes, and then returned to the shelter, Louie going down first. He was taking off his gunbelt when Colleen came down. She took the Ruger and the Remington shotgun from Austin and handed them to Louie one at a time. He put them back into the cabinet with his pistol.

Louie winced when the hatch clanged slightly when Austin closed it. The enclosed feeling came rushing back and Louie had to clench his teeth not to yell out in terror. Austin and Colleen could tell he was tense, and knew the cause. But there was nothing they could really do, except be there if he wanted to talk about it. He didn’t.

A week later Austin and Colleen went up again, with Louie staying inside. He’d ungrounded the simple wire antenna for the AM/FM radio and the FRS radios and wrapped the end around the built in antenna of an FRS handheld. He was able to talk to Austin and Colleen while they were outside. The trip went much as the first one. The radiation was lower, but still too high to stay out. Nothing moved. Anywhere. There wasn’t even a breeze at the moment. There were heavy, dark clouds, but no precipitation.

Christmas came and went with no real mention of it made. The only thing of note was Louie, checking the Amateur Radio several times a day, made contact with another Amateur Radio operator in town. He still hadn’t gone out from his home, either.

Finally the agonizing weeks for Louie were over as the three left the shelter for above ground life again. Louie knew it wouldn’t be a problem for him, mentally, to come and go from and to the shelter, as long as he knew he’d be right back out. That was the way it had been before the attack.

With Louie’s guidance, and sometimes help, or hindrance a time or two when he tried to do more than he should, the area was decontaminated. Louie remained in the Airstream at night, though Austin and Colleen went back into the shelter to sleep, simply because of the accommodations.

Louie had insisted that they decontaminate first, before venturing out. Austin was anxious to get back to town to check on a few people he knew. Louie was more interested in the town as a whole, though there were a few people he intended to check on, too.

Colleen simply didn’t know what to expect as they suited up in the Tyvek coveralls again, readied their respirators, armed themselves, and climbed into the Suburban. Colleen was driving, and when they reached the road, Louie directed her away from the town.

“I want to check on Mrs. King. She has a basement and home cans from the garden and her rabbit hutches every year. She has what she needs to have made it. But she’s alone.”

With the filter system on the Suburban, the three didn’t need their respirators until they arrived at Mrs. Kings. When Colleen pulled up and stopped, Louie saw the front door of the house standing open. He pulled his pistol as he got out of the truck after putting on his respirator. “Stay here, Colleen. Be ready for anything. Come on, Austin. Chamber a shell. I don’t like the looks of this.”

“Louie! You’re on crutches! You can’t…” Colleen protested. But Louie was already making his way to the front door of Mrs. King’s house. Austin followed him in. But he came out only seconds later and ripped the respirator off his face. He began to retch at the side of the porch.

“Austin! What is it?” called Colleen. She started forward, but Louie, still in his respirator, stepped outside. “Stay there! There is no need for you to see this.”

Louie handed Austin his bandana so he could wipe his mouth. “I hate to ask, Austin, but I need you to go downstairs with me.”

Austin nodded and wiped his lips, handing the bandana back to Louie. He slowly put the respirator back on and followed Louie inside again.

Colleen was on pins and needles for the several minutes that the two men were in the house. She relaxed slightly when nothing happened and they both came back out. Louie carefully closed the front door. But instead of coming to the Suburban, the two men went around the house.

Anxious again, Colleen waited impatiently until Louie and Austin showed up again. They came over to the Suburban this time. Both men removed their respirator, and Colleen did the same.

Louie looked somber, but Austin was pale as a ghost. “Austin? What is it?”

Louie was the one that responded. “Some thugs… They beat her to death… Ate all the food. They better hope I never find them.”

“What are we going to do?” Colleen asked.

“Come back with the equipment and dig a grave. Some of her rabbits survived. We’ll pick them up and take them back to my place. They might not live long, but hopefully we can get a couple of healthy litters before the original rabbits die from radiation poisoning. We’ll collect all the empty glass canning jars, and her canning equipment, too. They’ll be important for the recovery.”

“We can’t just take things…” Colleen protested.

“It will all go to the local community,” Louie said. “It isn’t for us. But nothing can go to waste any more. Every factory produced item must be conserved for use. There won’t be any more canning jars made, probably for years.”

Louie looked up. A light snow had just begun to fall. “Let’s get this done before we go to town. And when we go, it’ll be with the equipment. There are going to be a lot of bodies to bury and we have the best equipment to handle that locally.”

Silent on the trip back to Louie’s, the three transferred to the Unimog, with the equipment trailer behind. Louie tried, but it was Colleen that had to help carry Mrs. King from the house to the grave Austin had dug.

It took another hour to gather up, box, and move the canning jars to the Unimog. The thugs had just left them lying around after emptying them. Colleen again helped Austin, this time with the collection of the rabbits. None tried to get away. It even seemed to Colleen that they were glad to see human beings. They went into the cages again without a problem after they the cages were moved to the Unimog.

Louie, unable to do much physically, investigated the outbuilding and found the rabbit care products and food. As Colleen and Austin loaded the last of the items they were taking, Louie looked agitated to Colleen. “Louie? Are you all right?”

“No. I’m not. I’m standing around on crutches when I should be doing things. This cast is coming off when we get back home.”

It took the entire time going back to the property for Colleen and Austin to talk Louie out of taking the cast off himself. He finally agreed to go into town the next day and try to find the clinic doctor so he, or a nurse, at least, could evaluate his condition, and take off the cast, if it was all right.

None of the three wanted anything to eat when they got home and unloaded everything. The rabbits were cared for, and then all three turned in early.

Louie was up the next morning, bright and early. There was over a foot of snow on the ground. As much as he wanted to go out and start the Unimog, Louie knew that if he slipped and fell, things would be worse than they were now.

So he started some breakfast and waited for Colleen and Austin to come up out of the shelter. Both looked like they hadn’t slept very well to Louie. He was right. Both knew, from the experience the day before, that the next few days were going to be rough ones.

But it didn’t deter them from doing what they all saw as their duty to the community in which they lived. Breakfast and the cleanup done, the three suited up and armed themselves again and went out to the Unimog. Bobcat backhoes were attached to the A300 and the 5600T. A loader bucket was on the front lift arms of the Unimog.

The equipment loaded and ready on the trailer, the three climbed up into the Unimog cab and headed for town. There wasn’t anything on the road until they were on the outskirts of the town. Then Austin had to go around a couple of vehicles just sitting on the road.

“EMP, no doubt,” Louie said. “Head for the clinic first.” He wanted the cast off in the worst way.

Austin nodded and turned down the street where the clinic was located. They still hadn’t seen anyone. But that changed at the clinic. There were three people outside, and when Louie and Colleen went inside, there were half a dozen more. Austin was staying with the rig. Just in case. All three had their respirators ready, in a pouch on their thigh, but they weren’t wearing them. Still, their appearance brought many questioning stares.

It looked almost like business as normal, but Louie knew it wasn’t. People were showing signs of various degrees of radiation poisoning. Louie signed in and noted why he was there. The nurse behind the desk looked haggard. “There will be a wait. Sickness first. We’ll get to your cast when we can.”

Louie didn’t argue. He turned around and left, Colleen right on his heels. “You guys probably want to check your place. Should have gone there, first,” Louie said.

“We can do that later,” Austin said.

“Okay,” Louie said with a shrug. Let’s check in with the town hall.”

They drew many looks from the few people on the streets. They didn’t see another operating vehicle. Again Austin stayed with the truck and equipment while Colleen accompanied Louie inside. There were a few people around, most just standing and talking.

One of them eagerly asked, “Are you the National Guard?”

“Sorry,” Louie said. “No. But we are here to offer some help. I have some equipment I’m willing to use to help with the cleanup.”

Another of the men stepped to an office with the door open. “Mayor. Got someone here willing to help. Don’t know what he can do. He’s on crutches.”

A man followed his voice out the door. “Louie! Thank God you are alive! I heard you were laid up. Looks like you weathered the attack okay.”

“Mayor Dobson. This is Colleen Hodges. Austin’s sister?”

“Nice to meet you, Colleen. You must be the one that was driving Louie around, before… well, before all this.”

“Before we get to other things, Mayor, I need to report to Hank that Mrs. King is dead. Murdered. Sometime after the attack started.”

“Oh, no! Not Mrs. King!” The mayor sighed. “And you’ll have to report to Ben Murdock. Hank is dead, too. He was out in the fallout too much. He died a three weeks after the attack.”

Suddenly the squelch broke on Louie’s and Colleen’s FRS radios. It was Austin.

“Louie! You better get out here! Quick!”

Colleen beat Louie outside, and the mayor and other men were hard on Louie’s heels as he followed Colleen as fast as he could.

Louie drew up short when he saw Austin standing face to face with Ben Murdock, the former town night duty officer, now Police Chief.

“I’m telling you to stand back. I am commandeering this vehicle in the name of the law.”
“No, you’re not,” Louie said, making his way down the steps of the town hall to street level.

“I have the authority. Martial Law has been declared. I was in the Army and have taken charge of the town.”

“Is that right, Mayor?” asked Louie, though he kept his eyes on Ben. There were two others standing behind him, and rather incongruously, a bright red, carefully restored, Farm-All H-model tractor parked at the curb. A tractor that had been at Hiram Walker’s the last time Louie had seen it.

“Come on, Ben!” Mayor Dobson said. “We talked about this. You report to the town council. You aren’t ‘The Law,’ as you put it.”

“Mayor, high and mighty Louie Vargos has no right to have equipment like this when my people and I are riding around on a tractor, for crying out loud!”

“Who was it that suggested an older model diesel powered truck for the next police car, instead of the high speed road demon you talked the town into paying for?”

“Look, Vargos, We’d be entirely within our rights as members of the martial law forces to shoot you where you stand for defying a direct, lawful order.”

“You agree with that, Fred? How about you, Anne? You want to just shoot me down like a dog because I have a better vehicle than you do? Did you even ask Ben where he got it? That was Hiram Walker’s pride and joy. I don’t think he would have given it up easily.”

The two people behind Ben looked at one another and moved, slowly, to the sidewalk.

“I’ll deal with you two yellowbellies later,” Ben growled. He looked back at Louie. “You’ve got me out numbered. But this isn’t the end of this, Vargos.” He headed toward the tractor.

“Yes, it is, Ben,” Louie said, handing his crutches to Colleen. “Austin, put down your gun and back away. No interference, no matter what happens.”

Ben stopped and turned around. “You’re calling me out? You have got to be kidding!”

“I’m not kidding. You’ve killed Hiram, I’m sure, and I think you did in Mrs. King, too. I’m not going to go around looking over my shoulder, waiting for a no good punk like you to shoot me in the back.”

“Now Louie!” the Mayor said, stepping forward. But he stopped before he got to a point that would put him between the two men. “We don’t need this! We need every person left alive to help with the recovery.”

Never taking his eyes off Ben, Louie replied, “You going to say the same thing when Ben decides you are in his way and have supplies he needs for himself.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Mayor Dobson said. “He doesn’t have the authority.”

“I’m not saying I’d do it, Mayor, but I do have the authority,” Ben said, a sneer curling his lips. “Martial law rules say I’m in charge and can do anything I want. There ain’t no way you can prove I did anything to that old woman or that old man.”

There were many sets of widened eyes as the slowly growing group of spectators heard Ben’s statement.

“You really want him in charge?” Louie asked.

“He isn’t in charge,” Mayor Dobson said, rather loudly. “I’m the duly elected Mayor of this town and I say…”

Louie wasn’t sure whom Ben was intending to shoot. The Mayor or him. It didn’t matter. Ben was in the process of pulling his holstered pistol. Louie pulled his own. Ben might have practiced many times in front of a mirror to hone his fast draw, but Louie was inherently faster, due to his calmness.

Ben got off three shots, but they all went into the pavement at his feet, as he was already dying from the .45 ACP bullet Louie fired. It hit Ben squarely between his eyes.

Louie turned to Fred and Anne. It was Fred that broke first. “It was Ben! Ben did it! We were just there, looking for food and she called him a name and he hit her. And again and again and again. I ate the food, but I didn’t have no part in killing her!”

“And Hiram?” Louie asked. Fred just hung his head.

“Please?” Anne begged, shrinking into her coat as snow started to fall. “We were so hungry. And Mr. Walker wouldn’t let us use the tractor to go looking for more. I didn’t mean to kill him. I didn’t want to kill him. Ben said we had to. He’d say we did, even if we didn’t and have us hung. We believed him. I think he would have killed Mr. Walker and then us and blamed it all on us.”

Anne was crying. Half a dozen people stepped up and took the two by their arms. There were murmurs of a lynching, but Louie looked over at the Mayor. “Stop it now, Mayor. A trial with a jury and what they say. Not like this, as a mob.”

“But I don’t…”

“You can swear in a police chief. I’d suggest Jack Ranking. He’s solid and won’t take any nonsense off anyone, but won’t try to take over the town.” Louie looked over at Jack. He was one of the men holding Fred. “How about it, Jack?”

Jack seemed to think about it for a few moments, but then nodded. Everyone looked at the Mayor.

“Okay, Jack. You’re the new Police Chief. I think you know what to do.”

“I do, Mr. Mayor. These two go to jail until the trial. I’ll get a couple of guys from the lumber yard to put together a gallows.”

Anne let out a long drawn out “No!” and Fred tried to pull away from those holding him.

“It was Ben! It was Ben! He made us!”

Jack and the others hustled Fred and Anne inside, toward the jail in the basement of the town hall. Louie nodded at Ben when Austin looked at him. A bit squeamish about it, Austin never the less checked Ben’s pockets for keys. When he found them he hurried after the group on the way to the jail.

Louie put his gun away and took the crutches when Colleen handed them to him. “How did you know about the deaths?” she asked him, her voice low as they went back into the town hall.

“Plain old guess. Ben was the type, in my opinion. He looked too good to have been doing without. And I helped old Mr. Walker work on that tractor. He very well might have provided it for the town to use, much like we are our equipment. He wouldn’t have just turned it over to Ben. Of that I am sure.”

Mayor Dobson looked more the worse for wear. “Three more dead. Or soon to be dead. Four, I suppose, including Hiram.” The Mayor sighed and looked up at Louie. “I don’t know if I shouldn’t put you in jail, too. Just for all the aggravation.”

Louie chuckled. “You know better than that, Steve. You would have figured it out sooner or later. Ben was always an ornery one, but the attack sent him over some kind of edge. He would have let the cat out of the bag at some point in time. Or tried to take something that he didn’t have any business taking and get himself shot on the job.”

“I suppose so. What are you here for, anyway? To help, I hope.”

“That we are, Mr. Mayor. Initially to bury the bodies. After that, where ever we can until the community can get back on its feet.”

“Louie, with all your skills and experience, I don’t know if that is possible.”

“All we can do is try,” Louie said. “Now, I’m going back down to the clinic to get this cast off.”

This time, the line was shorter and Louie found a place to sit down and rest his leg. Colleen went back outside to talk to Austin. She came back in just as the nurse called Louie. She sat down and waited.

Louie was surprised to see Helen McIntyre come into the room. “How did you get here from the city?”

“By car,” Helen replied, smiling. “I came out on a consultation and got caught here for the duration. I wondered if you made it. I’m glad you did.”

“Same here. Now, can you take this thing off?”

“It’s early, Louie. There is a danger you’ll do more injury, if you aren’t really careful. And I suspect you’re just itching to get back into full action.”

“I know. And I will be careful. But I need to be more mobile.”

“I’ll have a nurse come in and cut the cast. But promise me, no more stunts like the one today.”

“You’ve heard about that already?”

“Talk of the town, you are, Louie. Talk of the town. I’ll see you after the cast is off to check the leg.”

With the process in motion, Louie was back to his laid back ways. He was nearly asleep when the nurse came in and plugged in the cast cutter. The clinic still had fuel for their small generator, which they ran for a few hours a day.

It took a few minutes and Helen was back by the time the cast came off. “Whew!” Louie said, a bit embarrassed at the smell rising from his leg. “I cleaned around it the best I could.”

“It’s normal, Mr. Vargos,” the nurse said. “So is the…”

“I’ll take it from here, nurse,” Helen said. She waited until the nurse was gone before she spoke again. “The slight atrophy is normal, too. I hope you realize, that even with the cast off, you will still need the crutches for a few days until the leg can take your full weight.”

“Oh. Didn’t know that,” Louie replied, frowning. “Doggone, it! I was ready to start working again as soon as this thing came off.”

Helen handed Louie the crutches and walked out with him to the waiting room. Colleen frowned when she saw Louie and the doctor. The same question came to her mind about Helen’s presence as it had to Louie’s.

She was sure Helen saw her, and remembered who she was, before Helen said, “Just a couple of days and you’ll be fine. Won’t need your driver anymore. You can get rid of her and drive on your own.”

Colleen felt her face go red, but wasn’t about to make a scene in the clinic. Louie, laid back or not, didn’t have a clue about the visual battle between the two women when Helen looked directly at Colleen.

A determined look on her face, Colleen waited for Louie to walk over to her, awkward again on the crutches due to the change from walking with the cast to needing more support for the weakened leg.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to do much at the moment, Louie. Why don’t we park you at the town hall and you and the Mayor talk over plans while Austin and I start the clean up.”

“No. I’m with you guys.” It was all Louie said and Colleen didn’t press it. She could see Louie was disappointed and thought that perhaps a little work would cheer him up and make him feel better. But there was no way she was going to let him over do it.

When they made it outside, Austin was talking to three people. Colleen noted that one of them was Austin’s occasional companion when he was in a dating mood. The other two were men she didn’t recognize. Obviously Louie knew all three.

“Stan, Randy. Sharon. Glad to see you all made it. Don’t suppose you’re looking for work?”

All were surprised, including Austin and Colleen. “Sure,” Randy said. “But doing what and what will we get paid and what will we buy with it anyway?” He sounded dejected.

“You’ll get paid in food,” Louie said immediately. “I’ll need you to trust me for a couple of days while I get my hands on it, but I believe I can have it by Friday.”

“What do you want us to do?” Sharon asked. “Austin was saying you’re here to bury bodies.”

“That’s right. At first.” Louie looked up at the sky. “And there will be some snow removal, if I don’t miss my guess. And soon.”

“What about disease… or something… from the dead people?” That was Stan.

“You’ll all have suits like we’re wearing to protect your clothes. Gloves. And a respirator to help with the smell.”

“Well, I for one,” Sharon said, looking at Austin rather than Louie, “trust you guys. I’m in.”

“Me, too,” Stan said. “I’ve got to get more food for my family. Thanks to you, Louie, we had enough to get us this far, but I’ve only got enough for another month or so.”

“Same here,” Randy said. “Anything I can get will stretch what we have. My wife was saying just the other day she hoped you made it.”

“I didn’t think your wife thought much of Louie,” Austin said.

Randy turned a light pink. “Yeah… She’s changed her mind, based on the fact that Louie was right and we’d be dead, the kids included, had we not incorporated the shelter when we remodeled. That and the long term storage food that Louie helped us get at a bargain on those group buys from Walton Feed and Emergency Essentials.”

Colleen looked at Louie again. It hadn’t been just businesses he’d invested in, it appeared. Individuals and families, too.

“Sorry I can’t be of more help at the moment,” Louie was saying. With everything going on I forgot to ask the Mayor about the burial ground. Once we know that, we can get started.”

It was a gruesome looking bunch that left the town hall a few minutes later. Ben’s body was in the loader bucket of the U-500. They were headed for the town’s small cemetery. The Mayor had given an answer quickly. It had already been discussed where, just not how, to bury all the bodies that had died since the attack started.

Colleen and the others had been a bit taken aback, as had the Mayor, when Louie declared that he would be claiming items from the deceased, as payment for the service, though he made it clear that it was up to the city to take advantage of everything Louie, or his crew, didn’t want.

“You can’t just take things…” Mayor Dobson protested.

“I have to make a living, too, Steve. There aren’t that many things I want. But I do want some compensation for the fuel, wear and tear on the equipment, and the stress of doing this job is going to entail.”

The Mayor shook his head for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay. But it’s on your conscience. What about recording the… deaths…”

“We’ll do the best we can,” Louie said. “It’s going to be an open trench grave, but we’ll record the placement therein of each body we can identify.”

Now at the cemetery, the two Bobcat units were unloaded and Louie had Colleen and Austin begin using the A300 and the Toolcat, both which had a backhoe unit already attached, to start digging in an out of the way corner of the cemetery.

Stan and Randy unloaded Ben’s body and Louie checked it for useable items. The others looked away, uncomfortable with the idea.

With Sharon driving the Unimog, after a quick lesson, the three men riding the equipment trailer, they headed down the closest street. Sharon found the pad and pencil that Louie told her would be in the glove box of the U-500 and took down the details that Louie gave her after he came out of the first house.

It wasn’t just information on the two bodies, but a list of items Louie was suggesting the town could use. Though he couldn’t help much physically, he stayed right with the others as they went house to house until dark. The trailer was disappointedly quite loaded with bodies. The bed of the Unimog contained only a few items that Louie asked Stan and Randy to load for him.

He finally quit asking them if there was anything they wanted and hearing the reply that they just wanted the food Louie said he could get for them. Louie took it in stride, but didn’t hesitate to take those things he wanted, while having Sharon list the rest.

It was full dark, and they finished the task of placing the bodies side by side in the trench, Sharon recording the distance from the cemetery fence for each name. Austin and Colleen began to fill that section of the trench.

“I’m taking the others home,” Louie told the two. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

They all protested, but Louie shoved the crutches behind the seat of the Unimog and climbed up into the driver’s seat. Randy, Stan, and Sharon noticed his occasional wince when he used the injured leg. But he managed, without too much trouble, to get the three to their respective homes, and then back to the cemetery.

When he stopped, Austin dropped the ramps of the trailer and he and Colleen loaded up the A300 and the 5600T Toolcat. Louie didn’t get down to help, or move over when the task was completed.

“Don’t you want me to drive?” Austin asked, looking up in the darkness at Louie.

“No. I’ve got it. I figure to drop you two off at home and then head for home, myself.”

“You’re kicking us out?” Colleen asked before she could stop herself.

“Kicking you out? No! Of course not,” Louie stammered. “I just thought you’d want to be back in your own place.”

“Of course we will, if you want us to,” Austin said. His disappointment was obvious on his face.

“But you said you wanted to check the place this morning. I thought you meant after we quit working.”

“Actually,” Austin said, brightening slightly, “I meant some time after all the work was done. In a few weeks. We might pick up a few more things…” He looked over at Colleen and she nodded.

Looking back at Louie, Austin continued. “For the moment, we’d really rather be out at your place.”

“Well, then, sure. It’s up to the two of you when you decide to leave. Climb in. I’m ready to get there and get off this leg.”

“You’re trying to do too much,” Colleen chided Louie when she got into the truck.

They were quiet the rest of the way back to the acreage, the falling snow reflecting back the headlights mesmerizing. All were eager for showers and a hot meal when they made it to Louie’s. And then sleep. Because the next day was going to be just as hectic and heartrending as this day.

Austin and Colleen came upstairs to the smell of breakfast. None of the three rushed through it, more than a little reluctant to resume the work they’d promised to do. But Louie stood up and took his dishes to the kitchen sink. “I’m going to fuel up the equipment,” he said, going out the door into the snow. It was still falling gently, but steadily.

“I’ll help him,” Austin said, quickly getting up before Colleen could say anything to Louie. She frowned, but turned and did the dishes while she was waiting. She’d finished the dishes and was shrugging into the Tyvek coveralls she’d worn the day before when Austin came in to tell her they were ready to go.

“Okay. Got my gloves and respirator,” Colleen said, following Austin out the door, locking it behind her.

It was Austin that asked the question when Louie turned into a driveway about halfway to town. “What’s up, Louie?”

“I’ve got a deal with Glenn Smithers. I want to make sure he made it okay.”

Louie hit the brakes suddenly when a man stepped out in front of the truck just before they could pull into the open space at the end of the driveway. He was holding a shotgun at low ready.

“Smithers! It’s Louie Vargos!” Louie callout after rolling down the window.

“I know who it is! Only man around with that monstrosity of a truck. Turn around and leave.”

“We have a deal, Smithers,” Louie said, opening the cab door and stepping down to the ground.

“Deal is off! I’m not giving you the premium goods I’m producing here!” Smithers motioned with the shotgun. “Get back up in that truck and get out of here.”

Louie stood his ground. “Our deal was you get the greenhouse and the new barn, with my help, and I get ten percent of what you produce if anything like has happened, happens. I just want my regular ten percent.”

“No dice. I can make a mint off what I have. Just waiting until people get good and hungry.”

“That’s no way to be, the way things are now, Smithers. We need to cooperate or more people are going to die that don’t have to.”

“I’m telling you, get off my land!” Smithers lifted the shotgun and pulled the trigger. Colleen screamed and Austin was scrambling for his pistol. Louie flinched a little as the birdshot went well over his head.

“It’s not over, Smithers. I want my ten percent.” Louie calmly climbed up into the cab of the truck, the shotgun pointed at him, now.

Louie put the truck in gear and eased it forward and turned around as soon as he could, Smithers tracking him with the shotgun the entire time.

“I hate that!” Colleen said as they made the way back down the long driveway from the county road to Smithers’ farm. “Having a gun pointed at me.”

“I should have shot him,” Austin said, sliding his pistol back into its holster on his belt.

“No. He’s just an old man that sees the opportunity to better himself. Unfortunately it is at the expense of others that can’t afford it. He’ll come around. In the mean time, I have a couple of other situations that will do for now.”

Louie didn’t offer up what those situations were and Austin and Colleen didn’t ask. Both were mentally readying themselves for more of the same from the day before. After dropping the two off at the cemetery and unloading the equipment, Louie went to get Sharon, Stan, and Randy.

Again Louie surveyed each place and took an item here and there, including most of the guns that he found. Some of the houses showed signs of having been abandoned in a hurry by the owners and ransacked later. They were finding very little food. At least, any easy to prepare and eat food. There were still staples in some of the houses like flour and sugar.

Louie had Sharon take note of all they found that day, and the next three days. It seemed the more they worked, the harder it snowed. The only real difference in the days of recovering and burying bodies was that Louie disappeared for about an hour with the Unimog on the third day. What was on his face couldn’t be called a smile, but he did look satisfied about something.

Austin and Colleen were surprised on Friday when Louie turned the truck into Smithers’ driveway again. One of the sons saw them and ran for the house. Louie pulled to a stop in an out of the way place.

Austin look over at Louie nervously. “Should we get out guns out?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Smithers knows which side of the bread is buttered. There he is now. You two stay in the truck until I ask you to get out.” Louie got out himself and shut the door of the truck.

Smithers came stomping up to him, the shotgun in one hand, but not pointed at Louie. “You’re a no good…”

Louie’s eyes narrowed. “Careful now. There’s a lady present.”

Smithers looked up at the cab of the truck. Colleen was a bit pale, but she stared right back at him.

“Get your stuff and get off my land!” Smithers said. He waved the way toward one of the farm’s outbuildings.”

“Drive the truck over,” Louie told Colleen and she slid over to the driver’s seat of the truck.

Smithers stood silently as the three quickly loaded the various boxes sitting in the doorway of the small building. Louie said nothing, and despite a burning curiosity, Colleen and Austin waited until they’d finished and were back on the road before saying anything.

It was a simple question from Austin. “How?”

“He’s not the only farm I have deals with in this area. And farms aren’t the only types of business with which I have agreements. I asked Chuck McQuire to let Smithers know he wouldn’t be getting any biodiesel from him until I okayed it. The same with Mike Shumaker. No more seed.”

“That’s blackmail!” Colleen said.

Louie looked over at her and replied. “I suppose so. But it worked. Smithers knows now survival for all of us is going to be a joint effort, but with each person still able to maintain their own business. I wasn’t going to give up my equipment to Ben, and I sure don’t expect Smithers to just give his food away. There’ll be a time when I’ll see that he gets a bit of current compensation from me, even though the deal was that the ten percent would be the payment for what I invested.”

“Still seems a little manipulative,” Colleen responded. Austin elbowed her gently in the side.

“It’s okay, Austin. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion. And I can’t deny what she said. I’ve spent most of my adult life manipulating people to get what I want.”

“Oh, I can’t believe that!” Colleen quickly said.
“It’s true,” Louie insisted. “I made… and will probably make more… of these deals that gives me a huge advantage in situations like this. Hopefully, it will be just for this situation.”

“What do you mean?” Austin asked.

Louie nodded at the snow that was again falling, adding another layer to those already on the ground. They weren’t a hindrance to the Unimog, even with the trailer, but the constant off and on snowing had Louie worried.

“I was never a believer of a nuclear winter as laid out in the eighties by Sagan et al. The theories and projections they made I think were flawed. However, volcanic winter is a known fact. I’m wondering if somewhere one of the major volcanoes popped.

“I don’t think it was anything just to our west like the west coast or Yellowstone. But somewhere in the world… I’ve looked at the snow with a magnifying glass. There is an unusual amount of dust in it.”

“What does that mean, Louie?” Colleen asked.

“It means we may be in for some very lean years, until the climate returns to normal, if it does.”

Sharon, Stan, and Randy were glad to see the boxes of jars of home canned food. There was quite a selection of vegetables and meats. Louie let them have their pick, at the end of the day. It coincided with the snow becoming much harder, and the final bodies of those in town being covered with earth in the slit trench.

After dropping them off at their homes, with the food, Louie went back to the cemetery and picked up the equipment, Austin, and Colleen.

“Going to make a stop at the town hall,” Louie stated when he didn’t head out of town. When they got there, Louie said, “Bring in the rest of what we got at Smithers’.”

Louie was talking to Mayor Dobson when Austin and Colleen came in with the first boxes. “I trust you to see that this goes to those who need it the worst. I doubt we’ll be in again until the snow abates at least some.”

“You’re just giving us the food?” the Mayor asked. There were several people standing near the door listening to the conversation. Austin pushed through them and he and Colleen stacked the boxes on the floor.

“No, not really,” Louie said. “I expect some help next summer. Physical labor. Again, I’ll trust you to keep track of who gets what, and how many hours of labor they are obligated for.”

“How much labor for how much food?” The Mayor looked a bit uncomfortable with the idea.

Louie grinned at him and said, “I’ll leave that up to you, Steve. Try to get a feel for what people are willing to do to get the food, and weigh that with the needs of those asking.”

“But Louie! That’s going to be a real pain! Everyone that finds out is going to want food!”

“I know,” Louie replied. “That’s why I leave it to you. You’re a politician, a good one, and will figure it out. Let’s go, Austin. I don’t want to leave the food unguarded.”

There was plenty of help to get the rest of the boxes, and Austin, after seeing the hopeful faces in a crowd that had gathered outside, let them take the things in while he stayed with the truck and put the boxes where they could be reached from the ground. Louie had disappeared somewhere as soon as they were outside.

He showed up from around the corner of the building just as Colleen took the last box of food into the town hall. She, like Austin, wondered about the sudden disappearance and then reappearance. But neither asked and Louie didn’t volunteer anything.

It was full dark when Louie headed them home in the snow that was falling harder and harder. By the time he parked the truck and got out there was almost a foot of accumulation. Knowing Louie’s preference to keep the equipment always ready to run, Austin and Colleen went ahead and fueled everything before parking them in the equipment shed.

Louie was working on getting a supper started for them when the two came in the Airstream trailer after brushing each other free of snow. Both went down the hatch to the shelter to shower and change clothes.

As soon as Colleen came up a bit later, Louie turned over the cooking to her and took a shower and changed clothes in the trailer. He still had trouble on the ladder down into the shelter.

There was little talk during the meal, and after a long look at Louie when he wasn’t looking at her, Colleen sighed and went down into the shelter for the evening.

Louie had one of the Amateur radios on and was engrossed in what he was hearing. He looked around when Austin came up through the hatch and said, “I’ll be back in shortly. I want to check something…”

Curious, Louie left the radio and followed Austin outside. He was standing at the corner of the front patio, just out of reach of the falling snow, looking toward the forest.

“You see or hear something?” Louie asked, his hand sliding toward the gun in the holster behind his right hip.

Austin looked around and quickly said, “Oh. No. Nothing like that. I was just… Well… Sharon and I… You know we’ve dated off and on…”

“Things getting serious?”

Austin nodded.

And you’re wondering about maybe moving her out here. For safety.”

“I know I have no right to…”

“It’s okay, Austin. I set this place up to allow for a few additional people, just in case. There is no problem if you want to get a trailer in here, or even build something.”

“Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

“Of course not,” Louie replied. “I’d like to see a few more people out here for security. No one has tried to get to us, but that could change. We’re less of a target than the farms I have deals with. Part of the deals is my lending a hand if they need some help defending their places. I’d like someone to be here, even when I’m gone. What does Colleen think about this?”

“She doesn’t know. I was going to talk to her a few minutes ago, but she’d just put in a DVD and started watching one of her favorite movies.”

“Well, it is your choice. You just need to decide on a trailer or to build. Or get a trailer now and build later.”

“Okay. Thanks, Louie.” Austin held out his hand and the two men shook.

The following day, Louie could tell that Austin was anxious about Sharon coming out to take up residence. He made sure that Austin had talked to Colleen about it before he brought it up at lunch.

“Austin, we can handle the snow with no problem if you want to go ahead and bring Sharon out to stay in the shelter, until we can make other arrangements.”

“Are you sure, Louie? I don’t want to put you out or be more of a bother than we already are.”

“You’re not a bother,” Louie insisted. “Either of you.” Louie looked over at Colleen. “She’ll be sharing your space. You have a say in this.”

“But it’s your place,” Colleen said.

“Still, you are part of the group, small as it is, and have a say in who can come out here.”

“You’re thinking of others?” Colleen asked.

“Not specifically, but the way things are going, I’m worried about leaving the place unprotected when we’re out working. Also, about the ability of some of the people trying their best to help others winding up with enough to take care of themselves.”

“Well, as far as Sharon goes, I have no objections. But… Well, Austin said you might bring in a trailer for them. Perhaps you could get one for me, too.”

“Well, sure, if you’re sure,” Louie replied. “I certainly don’t have a problem with you being in the shelter, but if you feel better about being in a trailer of your own, I can sure understand it. I still hate going down there, except for a few minutes at a time.”

Colleen let him think what he wanted. It was easier. But she let out a sigh when he and Austin went outside and fired up the Unimog and attached a snow blade to the front. She made sure to keep the radios on so they could contact her if necessary.

But there was no word until four hours later when the headlights of the Unimog shined through the falling snow. To Colleen’s surprise, there was a long travel trailer hooked to the back of the U-500.

Slipping on her coat, Colleen went outside and watched while Austin and Louie jockeyed the trailer into the spot where Louie wanted it. Sharon had walked over and said, “I hope you’re okay with this. Until they get the trailer ready, Austin said I would be staying with you.”

Colleen managed to smile slightly. “That’s right, I suppose. He didn’t tell you exactly where that would be, did he?”

Sharon shook her head. “Come on. I’ll show you.” Colleen took Sharon into the Airstream. She could see the doubt on Sharon’s face until she took a look down the hatch into the shelter after Colleen opened the two hatches.

“Down there?” Sharon asked.

“Yes. Don’t worry, it’s bigger than you might suspect.”

Colleen followed Sharon down and showed her around the shelter. “Wow!” Sharon said. No wonder you guys did so well during all of this.”

“Yeah. We did okay. Louie planned well.”

“Thank God for him. He guided me into getting things ready for a just-in-case situation or I wouldn’t have had the means to survive the war. Things are really getting iffy now about surviving, without Austin’s help. And Louie’s of course.”

“Louie does like to take care of people,” Colleen said, musing on the fact for a few seconds while Sharon went to the bathroom.

A few minutes later Austin was handing down a suitcase to Colleen for Sharon, and then came down himself. “What do you think? Okay for a few days while we modify the trailer and get it plumbed and wired in?”

“Oh, yes! It’s more than fine! If it wasn’t such an imposition on Louie, I wouldn’t mind living down here! All the amenities and none of the worries.”

Austin smiled. “Good. If you two would work on something for supper, Louie and I are going to do some preliminary work on the trailer.”

“Don’t let him over do it on that leg,” Colleen said as Austin began climbing out of the shelter.

Louie, knowing better than to hurt himself more than he already had, was waiting for Austin to return before trying to unload the items in the bed of the U-500. It took them five trips to move everything from the truck into the trailer, arranging things so they would be able to do the work on the trailer needed to make it livable for the long term for Austin and Sharon.

Tired, but pleased with the situation, the two parked the Unimog and went into the Airstream. Austin went down into the shelter. Louie stayed topside and took a shower and changed clothes before he went down.

It took three days for them to get the trailer set up and connected to power, water, and sewer. A wood stove was installed after lining the floor and wall where it would sit with fire-proof materials, and a chimney run up through the roof and sealed into place.

Sharon and Austin moved in on the fourth day while Louie and Colleen went into town to check on the situation there.

It wasn’t good. The snow was accumulating and only a minimal amount of clearing had taken place due to the shortage of fuel and equipment. Half a dozen farm tractors were the main mode of transport. At least they didn’t have too much problem getting through the snow, but the older model tractors didn’t have cabs and it was miserable out in the weather operating them.

Louie spent several hours clearing snow around the key buildings in the town, with paths cut through the snow connecting them. With that work done, he and Colleen made the rounds of the local farms, collecting what food they had left.

The greenhouses were all producing, but without a growing season, the major crops were going to be in very short supply the next year. All the farms were holding onto stock, allowing it to grow as large as possible before butchering, to increase the meat supply.

Colleen could see that Louie was thinking as they headed back to the town hall to drop off the food they’d managed to collect.

“Louie? What is it?” she asked as they walked back to the Unimog after it was unloaded.

“I’m worried about the weather,” he replied. “It’s May and there is no sign of the snow letting up. I’m… We’re… good for years, just ourselves, but the community as a whole may be in serious trouble if the weather doesn’t moderate. And I’m dependant on biodiesel manufactured locally. If those two farms can’t produce the oil crops, I’m out of luck. I was counting on as much cooperation from the community as I was giving in help. But the community may not be up to it, and I certainly can’t do it alone.”

“Of course, not, Louie,” Colleen said. “It’s not your responsibility. I…”

Louie was braking suddenly and Colleen looked through the windshield and snow. She frowned. It was Dr. Helen McIntyre. She was waving her arms for Louie to stop.

Colleen got out of the truck even before it stopped rolling. “Is everything all right?” she asked Helen.

“I just need to talk to Louie.” When Louie came around the truck, she added, “Privately.”

Colleen nodded and stepped away. If it was any of her business, Louie would tell her. She watched the snow fall and thought about what Louie had been talking about. It was almost as if he thought they should leave the area. She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that.

Louie was frowning when he climbed back up into the truck. Colleen joined him after watching Helen walk back to the clinic.

Maybe he would tell her. But maybe he wouldn’t. “More trouble?” she asked.

“Sort of. Dr. McIntyre is worried about her safety.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. She’s about out of supplies and people are still getting sick. Some of those in the area simply don’t understand that there isn’t anything she can do about it. One of the nurses let out the information that they were holding back some of the most needed medications for the worst cases. Some people don’t like it. There has been at least one attempt to break into the clinic.”

It suddenly struck Colleen. “Surely she doesn’t expect to come out to your place!”

“Yeah. Austin and Sharon made no attempt to keep the fact that you two are out there and we just moved Sharon.” Louie sighed. “I told her if she could locate a trailer, we’d move her.”

“You don’t seem too enthused,” Colleen said, wondering if she was making a mistake.

“Dr. McIntyre is a good woman and a good doctor. She’s been a friend for a long time. But she has romantic intentions toward me and I don’t return them, beyond just being nice to her.”

Colleen’s heart lifted and she just barely was able to stop the loud “Whoopee!” she almost shouted out. But she controlled herself and simply asked, “Do you think we should help look for a trailer for her? How is she going to get out and about to find one?”

“I know. I should have offered. But she caught me by surprise. I don’t like people just expecting me to do things without any type of discussion. She more said she was going to move, than asked, if you must know.”

With Louie upset with Helen, Colleen decided she could be generous. “Well, she’s important to the community, and so is her work. Perhaps we should help her with the trailer.”

“Yeah. Okay. Austin and I’ll go back in tomorrow and see what we can find in the area that will be suitable.”

“What’s up with you?” Austin asked later that day, when he realized that Colleen was in an exceptionally good mood.

“Oh. Nothing special.” She suddenly got serious. “Austin… What do you think of the idea that we might have to move south, because of the change in the weather?”

“I don’t like it. I think things will moderate after a year and we’ll be okay.”

“What if they don’t?”

“Then, even with Louie’s help, we’ll be up a creek without a paddle. I don’t expect him to take care of us for the rest of our lives.”

“Yeah…” Colleen said thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t want that.”

Colleen stayed out of the way when Austin and Louie came back the next day with another travel trailer in tow. There was no sign of Helen and Colleen smiled. Apparently Louie was going to get the trailer ready before he brought her out. She and Sharon had a nice hot meal ready for the two men when they came into the Airstream after working all afternoon on Helen’s trailer.

It was another two days before Louie and Colleen went in to pick up Dr. McIntyre. It was obvious that something was going on when Louie brought the Suburban to a stop. He leaped out and ran toward the clinic door, drawing his Glock as he did so.

Colleen stayed behind, but pulled her Ruger 10/22 from behind the front passenger seat. Louie had seen to it she knew how to use it shortly after they were able to leave the shelter for extended stays.

She jumped when a gunshot sounded, but brought the rifle up to her shoulder, ready for she knew not what. “Look out, Colleen! They’re armed!”

It was Louie shouting out through the open door of the clinic. Two men followed the voice out, one pointing his pistol outwards, and one pointing a rifle into the building. The man with the rifle fired at something in the building.

The second man lifted the pistol and began to aim it at Colleen. She reacted the way Louie had taught her in those few intense lessons. She squeezed the trigger, twice in succession, aiming at the man’s chest. When he didn’t go down, she lifted her aim and shot him twice more. He went down that time, screaming.

The man with the rifle turned, but before Colleen could shoot another shot sounded inside the clinic and the man went down without a sound. Colleen, knees shaking, stood ready for what might happen.

She lifted the rifle again, but quickly brought it down when a figure came out of the building. But it was Dr. McIntyre and she was checking on the wounded man. Or, Colleen realized, the dead man she’d just shot. Helen was closing his eyes with her hand.

Louie came out of the building and Helen stood and stepped toward him. He held her for a moment, but quickly stepped back. “Come on, Colleen. Help me get her stuff.”

Slinging the Ruger, Colleen hurried forward. She paused for just a moment to reassure Helen. “You’re going to be all right. Louie will see to that.”

Helen nodded and followed Colleen into the clinic. She was fast regaining her composure and began to point out things she wanted to take. Most of it was already boxed, but there were a few items from the clinic she wanted to take, to keep them safe.

It took an hour. Before it was up, there was a crowd around the clinic, with one person after another wanting to know what had happened. Louie, Colleen saw, wasn’t in a mood to answer any questions. Helen didn’t seem to be up to it. So Colleen stopped before she went back into the clinic and addressed the group.

“Some lowlifes attacked Dr. McIntyre and tried to take medicine and equipment. Louie Vargos and I stopped them.”

“You might want to watch who you call a lowlife. That fellow there is Brad Miles. Got a wife and two kids. He’s a… He was a good man.”

The murmurs began. “She’s been keeping the medicines for herself,” someone called out. “She wouldn’t give my baby anything for his cough.”

“I told you to use lemon water and honey…” Helen said, stopping to face the crowd.

“You could have given her a shot or something!”

“And my wife is pregnant!” yelled another. “You have to do something for her!”

“That’s it,” Louie said, setting a last box in the back of the Suburban and closing the tailgate and hatch. “Let’s go.”

Colleen didn’t hesitate. She grabbed Helen’s arm and ushered her into the rear passenger seat and climbed into the front passenger seat herself.

Louie, when he got in behind the steering wheel, set the Glock on the console between him and Colleen. But no one tried to stop them as Louie put the Suburban in gear and drove away. Colleen looked back. The crowd was rushing into the clinic.

She offered comforting words to Helen on the way back to Louie’s acreage, surprising herself that she could be so supportive of someone she’d just recently considered a rival.

Louie was silent the entire way back. He still hadn’t said anything much when he and Austin had unloaded the Suburban and Sharon and Colleen helped Helen arrange things in the trailer. There was barely enough room in the trailer to turn around with all the medical equipment and supplies.

“I’ll be back in a while,” Louie said suddenly, and headed, not for the Suburban, but the Unimog.

“You aren’t going alone,” Colleen said. Austin spoke up, too.

“I am this trip,” Louie said. He was in the truck and gone before Colleen or Austin could say or do anything else.

It was evening before he returned. He’d not answered any of the radio calls that Austin and Colleen tried. He was grim faced when he stopped outside the Airstream where the others were all waiting.

“What is it, Louie?” Colleen asked.

“Half of the people I made deals with before all this happened aren’t wanting to follow through on their end. Some of them think I’m trying to take over the town. Other’s just want to keep things for themselves. A couple simply said the deal was off and they would trade with the town on their own. Killing Brad Miles has turned the town against us.”

“But he was stealing valuable supplies!” Dr. McIntyre protested.

“And who has those, now?” Louie asked.

“Well… I do, I guess… But…” Helen didn’t know what to say.

“Even in your control, the thought is that I took them, like I’ve been taking other things. I need to think about this for a while and decide what I am going to do.”

Helen hesitated when Austin and Sharon went to their trailer, and Colleen followed Louie into the Airstream. Frowning, she turned and headed for her own trailer. It was going to be a lonely supper.

It was only a few days until the Fourth of July. It was a historic date. And the things that happened prompted Louie to do what he did.

First, after three days of no snow, a veritable blizzard set in. Next, when Louie and Austin made the regular run to pickup food from the farms and deliver it to the town hall, only two of the farmers would give Louie anything. They were run off two places at gun point.

It was just as bad in town when they arrived with the small amount of foods they had. Oh, Mayor Dobson tried to keep things calm, but there was a small riot and not only the food that Louie and Austin delivered that day, but everything in reserve at the town hall was taken. It was the third time during the day that Louie looked down the barrel of a gun.

Louie stayed cool and actually did little to try to stop the riot, including putting a hand on Austin’s arm to suggest he let things play out. Austin went to the U-500 and sat in the cab with the door open, is rifle in plain sight.

It was an unhappy and greatly saddened Mayor Dobson that came to Louie after things calmed down and asked him what he should do. Before Louie could answer, Austin called him on the radio and Louie and the Mayor ran out to the truck.

“Listen! It’s the NOAA radio! It just came alive. The President is supposed to speak at any moment.” Austin was excited, but he kept a wary eye out. The increasingly heavy snow could hide a great deal of trouble.

Louie and the Mayor waited for the few seconds for the new President to come on. He didn’t say what his former position was, and Louie couldn’t remember the line of succession of the top of his head and just accepted the fact that the man was the President.

“My fellow Americans. It is with heavy heart that I broadcast the news that I must today, on what was once a glorious day for our nation.

“In the days after the attack, we in the Federal Government in Washington, D. C., have tried to begin a recovery effort. We have not succeeded. I am speaking to you this day not far from what was once our Capital, but is now a still smoldering nuclear ruin. And just outside this studio is seven feet of snow. That is right. Seven feet of snow on July 4th, in Virginia.

“Our priorities have shifted from true recovery to simply the continued existence of as many of the population as can be saved. According to all projections made by the best meteorologists and theorists the Northern Hemisphere is expected to glaciate all the way down to south of the Interstate 70 east west line in ten years, and be uninhabitable in only another six months.

“All those north of I-70 should move southward as quickly as possible. Those south of I-70 should prepare themselves for an influx of their northern countrymen and women. It is indeed ironic that the great loss of live in the entire United States will make it possible for others to go into the area without disrupting those that live there now.

“Please cooperate with any Federal, State, County, and local authorities that are still in existence to make this mass migration as easy and quick as possible.

“When the seat of government is moved to a viable location, I will once again address the Nation.”

Austin looked at Louie and so did Mayor Dobson.

“That tears it,” Louie said, not cognizant of the two men’s looks. “At least it makes the decision easier.” He looked up then and told Mayor Dobson, “You heard it. Going to have to move the community. And despite what the President said about we northerners not disrupting the remaining population of the south, I suggest you take lock, stock, and barrel.”

“You mean ‘we’, don’t you, Louie?” Major Dobson asked cautiously. “You’ll help get us moved, won’t you?”

“I’m sorry, Mayor. No. I have my own group to think about. We won’t hinder you, but everyone is going to have to get together and get their act together, or most are going to die.”

“You think it will really be that bad?” Austin asked.

“You looked up lately?” asked Louie, the sarcasm biting to Austin, since Louie seldom used it.

“Yeah. Uh… Right. So… What do we do?” Austin asked then.

“We gear up for a move. You drive. I need to think for a few moments to get my thoughts straight.”

Austin drove away, leaving a forlorn looking Mayor Dobson behind, slowly disappearing in the snow. When Louie looked up and saw that Austin was heading back to the acreage, he said, “No. I want to check with a couple of people first. Head for Stan’s place.”

Austin stayed in the truck each time Louie had him stop at a different place. There were two stops at places where he didn’t know the people. Then Louie directed him to stop at the farms again, even the ones that had chased them off at gunpoint.

Louie only spoke a few words to those, but spent several minutes with the ones still trying to cooperate with him.

He wasn’t smiling, but Louie didn’t look as dejected as he had that morning at the town hall. When the two returned to the acreage, Louie asked Austin if they could have a meeting in his and Sharon’s trailer. He wondered why they didn’t use the shelter. Everyone knew about it… Except Dr. Helen McIntyre. Austin nodded. If Louie didn’t want her to know about the shelter, that was his business. He’d clue Sharon and Colleen in as soon as he had a chance.

“Got some decisions to make, people,” Louie said when everyone was gathered and had seats in the travel trailer.”

He started to tell the others about the broadcast he and Austin had heard, but Colleen had heard the alert tone and gathered Sharon and Helen in the Airstream to listen. They knew as much as Louie and Austin.

A discussion started, but Louie held up his hand. “Something I want to say. I’m leaving the area. Each of you need to decide if you’re coming with me, going on your own, or throwing in with the rest of the community.

“I’ve already asked a few others to join me. I’ll have their answers in a couple of days. You all talk it over among yourselves and let me know tomorrow.”

“I already know,” Austin said. “I’m with you.” He looked over at Sharon.

“So am I. And… She looked at Austin. “I was going to tell you this evening… I’m pregnant.”

She looked back at Louie. “I thought you should know. You might not want the complications of…”

“Think nothing of it,” Louie said quickly. “We’ll cope. Should be there and settled before it affects the rest of us. As long as you don’t have problems.”

“My family usually has an easy time with births. I really don’t think it will be a problem. But I wanted you to know.”

“You two can let me know tomorrow,” Louie said to Colleen and Helen.

Colleen started to say the same thing Austin did, but Louie was gone and Sharon distracted her. By the time the celebration was over, and Colleen went into the Airstream, Louie was in bed. She thought about disturbing him, but sighed and went down into the shelter.

The next morning Louie was up and gone in the Unimog before Colleen climbed up out of the shelter. She had intended to make Louie and herself some breakfast, but went over to Sharon’s and Austin’s trailer, not wanting to eat alone.

Helen was there, too, talking to Sharon as Austin made breakfast. “Where’s Louie?” Austin asked when Colleen knocked and came inside out of the cold. It wasn’t snowing at the moment, but the wind had a deep chill.

“I don’t know,” Colleen said, watching Helen out of the corners of her eyes. “He was gone when I got up.”

The disappointment was obvious in Helen’s eyes. Colleen didn’t feel the joy she thought she would when Helen was finally convinced that Louie was off limits, even if it was based on slightly incorrect assumptions.

The four were discussing the need for the move when Louie drove up in the U-500. There were several other vehicles behind him. Austin and Colleen, both now carrying a weapon at all times, hurried outside to see what was going on.

It turned out to be Stan and his family, and Randy and his. Both families were avid RVers and had brought their big bus type RV, in the case of Stan, and the triple axle trailer in Randy’s. Louie had parked the heavily loaded U-500 out of the way and was directing the newcomers where he wanted them to park.

Austin looked down the drive when he heard something and saw another convoy headed toward them. Most of the vehicles were farm tractors pulling travel trailers or equipment trailers. There was much confusion for a while, but the skies stayed clear, and the work of setting them up for temporary living quarters was finished by nightfall.

“How’d you get all the vehicles running?” Austin asked Louie when he had a chance.

“It wasn’t easy. Actually, some were. They just needed fuel, like some of the older vehicles. The same thing for the older diesel tractors. Everyone that had one was conserving fuel and using them only in have-to cases. It cost me a bundle, but it’s worth it to have enough mobility to get the move done in only three or four trips.”

“Three or four! I thought it would just be one!” Austin exclaimed.

“No. Despite the fact that we should find many of the things we need when we get there, I think it better to take everything we need, just in case.” Someone waved and Louie went over to see what the problem was, leaving Austin to his thoughts.

“I couldn’t find you a trailer,” Louie said as he pulled off his gloves and coat as darkness fell.

Colleen looked around quickly. She was stirring the pot of soup she’d started at noon, knowing Louie would want something hot and filling after the day out in the cold.

“A trailer for me?” she asked, rather cautiously.

“People are going to get the wrong idea about our relationship. You coming in here in the evenings and not going back out until the morning. I don’t really want anyone else to know about the shelter at the moment. Do you think Sharon and Austin would mind if you bunked with them?”

“Oh, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind. And before you suggest it, I am not sharing a trailer with Dr. McIntyre.”

“I kind of figured that. But we need to do something…”

“Why not just make the rumors not be rumors any more. Louie,” Colleen said, moving over to the dinette table and sitting down. She took Louie’s hands in hers. “Louie,” she repeated, “I never thought I’d get over the lost of my husband and baby… And I guess I really probably won’t. But I need to move on. These are tough times. A person on their own has more problems than a team. We’re a good team. You know that. I’d like to take the next step. Become partners in thought and fact.”

Louie’s eyes searched Colleen’s face. “You mean that? You’d marry me? I didn’t think…”

“Yes. I’ll marry you. As soon as we can find someone to conduct the ceremony.” Colleen leaned forward and Louie kissed her.

Colleen smiled and went back to the stove.

Nothing really changed, except Colleen began sleeping in the other twin bed in the Airstream instead of the shelter. Both agreed that it would be a platonic relationship until they could actually marry, but for essentially everything else that mattered, they considered themselves already married.

Austin knew his sister well enough to know something really had changed, at least in her attitude. He pinned her down when he finally got her alone a couple of days later and she told him that she and Louie were going to get married.

Austin almost asked Colleen if she was pregnant, but realized he was walking a dangerous path assuming something like that, knowing his sister in particular, but also suspecting Louie wouldn’t much like the implication, either.

“Good,” he said, “That’s good. He’s a good man. You deserve another one. And you’ll be good for him. He needs someone that will be a help rather than a hindrance.”

Colleen smiled. “Yes. Exactly. Now, come on, there is work to be done.”

Though she wanted to spend every minute of time with Louie, she finally agreed to stay at the trailer and keep things under control while he and several of the others were out doing whatever it was they were doing. Louie didn’t say much other than that they were getting ready for the first convoy by the end of July.

But July 31 came and went and Louie said they still weren’t ready. Colleen finally insisted on going into town with Louie when a call came in asking for Dr. McIntyre and Louie insisted on taking her himself.

She was glad she went, for before Helen was finished at the clinic, another mob had gathered. It was starting to get ugly when Louie and Helen came out. Colleen was standing beside the Suburban driver’s side door, her rifle at the ready. She quickly climbed behind the wheel and drove away as soon as Louie and Helen were inside. At that, several objects pelted the Suburban before she got out of throwing range.

Louie again looked grim, but said nothing on the way home. They followed a semi tractor trailer rig up the driveway. Austin directed the driver to the only open spot left on the property that didn’t have to be kept open.

“Will you see to Helen, Colleen?” Louie asked, his eyes on Austin and the driver of the truck.

“It’s alright, Colleen,” Helen said. “I’m okay. But I don’t know if I can go back there after the things that have happened.”

She started to follow Louie based on the assurances that Helen had given her, but turned around and helped Helen with the various medical bags she taken in to the clinic with her. If Louie wanted her to keep an eye on Helen, then so be it.

“Who is this and what do they have?” Louie asked when he joined Austin and the other man.

“Name’s Mathews. Jim Mathews. I heard you were putting together a convoy to go south and I was hoping my family and I could join you. All we need is the fuel. We’re set otherwise.”

Louie looked up at the cab of the truck. A woman was in the passenger seat and Louie could see the heads of two small children behind her in the truck’s sleeper.

“All right. We may ask you to help out here and there.”

“That’s fine. My wife won’t be of much help. She’ll be tied up with the children, but I can do most anything. Except operate a computer.”

Louie smiled. “That’s okay. We got plenty of keyboard jockeys. Need more real hands on in the outdoors people.”

“I’m you man.” Louie shook hands with Jim and he headed for the Airstream. Colleen came in a few minutes later as Louie was preparing a pot of soup, their main meal now. She took over and Louie went to the radios.

He was smiling when he came over to Colleen several minutes later and put his arms around her waist from behind. “Good news, my sweet! I finally made connections with the guy in Southeast Missouri again. Though it is a terrible thing, there was a heavy loss of life from the fallout from Kansas City, Whiteman AFB, and the missile silos that Whiteman controlled, it’s great farmland and plenty of it to take anyone that wants to go.”

“Don’t most of the others want to stop just past I-70?”

“I don’t think I need to tell you what I think of the opinions of some of these people that have jumped on the bandwagon, do I?”

Colleen chuckled and turned around in his arms. She gave him a kiss and a small push so she could get back to work.

“I’ll be back in a few. I want to check a few things. With this report, we’re good to go any day now. I want to make sure the rest are, too.”

Another three days and Colleen stood silently as Louie pulled the U-500 and the trailer with both Bobcat units down the driveway, followed by fifteen more rigs, including the truck with twin fuel trailers waiting at the gate. There had been someone guarding it since Louie and Austin turned up with it a few days previously.

Slowly the acreage emptied of vehicles that were going on this first trip of three planned. Colleen sighed. All that was left was Louie’s. Well, and hers, once married. The pristine rural setting of Louie’s home was a mess of ruts, dirty snow, and not a little trash. Colleen sighed, snugged her gloves up tightly, and began to clean up the area the best she could.

Having been over most of the local area, Louie kept up a steady pace, relying on his Tail End Charlie to let him know if there was trouble behind him. Randy would radio him of any problems.

Louie was disgusted almost to the point of anger that evening when the camp finally settled down. He’d allowed many of the area residents, including some townspeople, come with him, against his better judgment. Only a handful were experienced campers. It had taken an hour just to get the camp arranged safely.

Not too many of those going considered there would be much of a threat, since there were so many of them, but Louie wasn’t so sure. Never much of one to socialize, and despite being very well known in the area, he didn’t have many friends. Ad he’d apparently developed several enemies he had not had before the war.

So he and Austin took their personal security as seriously as they did the convoy, not getting to bed until midnight. But both were up early the next morning, using the A300 and 5600T with blades attached, to clear the accumulation of snow from the camp to the road, a hundred feet away.

Sharon had a hot breakfast ready for them when they loaded and secured the Bobcats back on the trailer. Both gulped the breakfast without really tasting it, and got into the U-500. Sharon set the plates inside the door of the travel trailer she was pulling with Austin’s repaired work truck, and got behind the wheel of the truck. She followed Louie as he headed out.

It was a long time before Randy said he was on the road and everyone was moving. Louie, the loader bucket on the front of the Unimog down, to clear the worst of the snow drifts, picked up a bit of speed. It didn’t last long. They came to the first bridge that was impassable and took the route around it that Stan had scouted out the day before. Stan was running about a day ahead, scouting for a passable route for the rest of the vehicles.

Louie had decided that it was better to bypass as many of the problems as possible. But with the Unimog and the two Bobcats, and their implements, they could make even a relatively difficult spot in the road passable.

They had to do it often, despite Stan out scouting on the ROKON bike. For every three by-passes they had to clear the path themselves at least once. It was slow going, though, after the second day on the road, they didn’t get any additional snow, but still had to deal with drifts from earlier snowfalls.

Once Louie got the convoy up onto I-39, the going was easier. He still had to deal with some snowdrifts. In addition, there were a large number of vehicles stalled on the road. Most of those Louie left in place and let the others drive around them. Those really blocking the way he moved with the bucket of the Unimog. Most of the overpasses were still standing, but Louie always led the convoy up and down the entrance/exit ramps rather than chance one dropping down onto them, or one dropping out from under them, depending on the situation.

A few complained about the extra time, because many of the ramps were blocked more severely than the highway itself, but the sight and sound of one of the overpasses they bypassed coming down because of the vibration of all the vehicles passing stopped the complaints.

Louie was saying an extra prayer every day after they left I-39 and got on I-74 east for a ways, to get to I-57 south. If the bridge at Cairo was out, there would be a very long way around to find another bridge. St. Louis was just too hot with radiation, and so was Memphis. There weren’t that many other bridges between the two major cities.

But Louie was cheered when they pulled up to the east side of the I-57 bridges crossing the Mississippi River and smaller rivers that joined it nearby. The bridges were standing. Still, even after a long, careful examination on foot, Louie insisted that only one vehicle at a time cross, with him again leading the way in the Unimog.

Everyone fueled up before crossing so the fuel trailers would be as light as possible when the semi took them across.

Though a long way from warm, those that were pulling trailers with actual farm tractors without cabs, were delighted with the warmer weather. It had been beyond cold out in the weather on the tractors those first few days.

On I-55 south now, they were nearing their destination. When they left the Interstate at Hayti, Missouri, they got a lot of less than welcoming looks. There were many people about, but very few vehicles.

Louie led the convoy through as quickly as possible, going west to Kennett, Missouri on US 412, then south on the same highway, to Senath Missouri. Louie pulled them into outskirts of the small town and got on the radio again.

An hour later five vehicles, including three farm tractors, showed up. A bit nervous that it might be an elaborate ambush, Louie had his pistol in his hand, behind his thigh, when he went to great the Mayor of Senath. He slid the gun into his hip pocket and shook the Mayor’s hand when it was offered.

“Glad to see you made it! How many new residents do I have? And you say you have a doctor with you?” the Mayor asked.

Louie had to grin. The Senath Mayor could be the twin brother of the mayor from back home. In looks and attitude. Louie began to make introductions, first Mayor Dobson to the Senath Mayor. Being close to the housing where most would be living, the group mobbed the group from Senath, and Louie, Austin, and Sharon stepped back out of the way. Matt McGurdy, the owner of the fuel truck and trailer, stood nearby, talking to his wife. Stan, on the ROKON, was also nearby.

It was only a few minutes later that the two mayors, on the official town tractor, led the convoy the rest of the way into town.

Louie watched it go. There were some inquiring looks when the small group made no move to join the convoy.

“I’d like to say, ‘good riddance’, Louie said. “But they really aren’t that bad a bunch. The real troublemakers are still back in Wisconsin. If you guys are ready, I’m ready to head back. I’m a little worried about Colleen being there all on her own.”

Laid Back Louie - Epilog

The trip back went much more quickly than the trip down, and much less eventful. Colleen met them with a hug for each when they pulled onto the acreage, parked and got out of the vehicles.

“I’m glad you’re back. I missed you.” Colleen said, planting a long, possessive kiss on his lips. “I’ve got everything ready the way you asked.”

“Did some cleanup, too, I see,” Louie said. “This place was a mess when we left.”

“I didn’t want to leave it like that for posterity. Our descendents may want to take up residence here when the weather changes again.”

“You are an optimist, Sis,” Austin said, laughing.

“No. I think realist. I fully expect this area to become habitable again. Eventually. But for now, I want to get loaded up and prep the property for a long sleep.”

Much to Austin’s surprise, not to mention the others besides Colleen and Sharon, Louie uncovered the outside entrance to the shelter and opened the covers and then the interior doors. Everything they weren’t taking with them went into shelter. That included the elements of the patio canopy. All the pipe ducts were sealed underground and the pieces of canopy and support structure put in the shelter.

The radio tower and solar system were dismantled and added to the shelter. So was the well pump and associate components. The generators went on the Unimog.

The wheels, bumper, and tongue of the Airstream were installed and the trailer set out of the way. Then Louie buried the area where the trailer had set under a mound of earth three feet high.

The two workshops were emptied, the contents added to those already on the Unimog. With a last look around a week later, the new season of snow storms beginning, Louie headed the Unimog and the rest of the convoy back to Missouri. They left four semi trailers behind, loaded with the last of Louie’s equipment, plus four double side dump trailers loaded with the material from Louie’s composting field, and four more flatbed trailers loaded with seasoned firewood.

But, having discussed it first with Colleen, and then the others, Louie led them not to Senath, but to the area of the northern Ozark Mountains west of Poplar Bluff. The deal with the Mayor of Senath had not been the only deal Louie set up. With what they brought with them, the things from a third trip, and what the previous occupants had before they died of radiation sickness, Louie and his group had a nice, secure, mostly self-sufficient estate to be theirs and their descendants home for many generations.

End ********

Copyright 2008
Jerry D Young