Pestilence in the Darkness: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 6 | America's New Apocalypse
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Millie Copper has done it again, another great story.Tonya Crawford
I could not put any of the Havoc in Wyoming books down. I enjoyed them all. I highly recommend all.silknsew
This is the best survivalist series I have ever read... I can't wait to find out what happens next.Dschwanee
Just finished another one of your awesome "Wyoming" books. You are a wonderful writer!! Thank you.J.M.C
How much would you sacrifice to keep your family safe?
Jake and Mollie Caldwell spent years planning for an unknown future, with the intention of providing for their children and grandchildren.
Surrounded by danger, they band together with the community of Bakerville to move to a new defensible location. But they weren't prepared to have to give up so much for the security they so desperately need. And they quickly learn trust must be earned, not freely given.
Pestilence in the Darkness is the sixth installment of the Havoc in Wyoming Christian Futuristic series. If you like mysterious apocalyptic events, fast-paced adventure, and plausible situations, then you’ll love this page-turning series.
Discover why readers love this twist on the Post-Apocalyptic genre!
The Havoc in Wyoming series has been described as “Cozy” Apocalypse and contains no profanity, gratuitous sex scenes, or overly detailed gruesome death scenes. However, it does contain conservative family values and references to God, prayer, scripture, and Christianity.
Books in the series and suggested reading order:
- Wyoming Refuge: A Havoc in Wyoming Prequel
- Caldwell's Homestead: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 1
- Katie's Journey: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 2
- Mollie's Quest: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 3
- Havoc Begins: A Havoc in Wyoming Story
- Shields and Ramparts: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 4
- Fowler's Snare: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 5
- Havoc Rises: A Havoc in Wyoming Story
- Pestilence in the Darkness: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 6
- Christmas on the Mountain: A Havoc in Wyoming Novella
- Havoc Peaks: A Havoc in Wyoming Story
- My Refuge and Fortress: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 7
Release date: October 15, 2020
Publisher: CU Publishing LLC
Print pages: 329
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Pestilence in the Darkness: Havoc in Wyoming, Part 6 | America's New Apocalypse
Thursday, Day 163
Prospect Creek Dude Ranch, Wyoming
“Mom? Mom!” Calley cries with a slam of the front door. “Shelby had her baby! It’s a girl!”
Sarah, eyes filling with tears, puts a hand over her own swollen belly and asks, “Are they both okay?”
“Her grandpa Paul says they’re fine, resting now. He hasn’t seen the baby yet, but Shelby’s husband told him she’s perfect. What a Thanksgiving!”
Grant and Shelby Cameron, along with the rest of the Cameron family, joined our community at the end of September, having escaped the murderous reign of Richard Majors in the nearby town of Prospect. When they arrived in Bakerville, along with several neighbors and friends, most of the community was in the process of relocating to the nearby ski resort.
While my husband, Jake, and I hated the idea of leaving the homestead we’d spent years lovingly developing, the safety offered by the community—the safety our children and grandchildren needed—swayed us to make the move. Not everyone in Bakerville was convinced this was the right choice, and part of the community stayed behind.
Uncomfortable with leaving everything they owned, a few families even divided, sending most of the family to the ski resort while someone—usually the husband—remained to protect their property.
“It smells so good in here. Is the cooking going okay?” Calley asks.
“We’re good,” I say, wiping my forehead with the back of my hand. “How’s the firepit?”
“The meat’s getting close to ready. It also smells amazing. Do you think there will be a huge difference between Pamela Cameron’s domestic turkeys and the wild ones Jake and Evan shot?”
“I think it’ll be noticeable,” I say with a smile. “Did Paul happen to know anything about Dr. Sam?”
“I asked that too. They kept Sam in the other room, on account of his fever and possible new infection, but he was able to verbally offer his expertise.”
I nod my understanding. “Any change in the fever?” Dr. Sam was shot by a still-unknown assailant two months ago. The first several weeks were touch and go, but the last few weeks have been much better, to the point he’s even started consulting with patients again. He’s still unable to walk, or even sit upright, from the bullet that shattered his pelvis and did considerable internal damage. His doctoring is now limited to an advisory position, with his wife or one of the others on the medical team as his proxy.
Maybe, if we had an actual hospital—and an actual surgeon with unlimited supplies and resources—things would be different. But during the apocalypse, everything is finite.
Sam has already had several infections and used many of our antibiotics. There was some disagreement among the Bakerville council as to using so much medication for one person. Belinda and Kelley fought hard for Sam, saying they felt if they could get the infection under control, he had a chance. And as a doctor, his survival could mean many other people survive in the future.
“He still has a fever,” Calley says. “Just low, around a hundred, like it has been for days. Belinda thinks it might be the same virus floating around. Are you feeling okay, Mom? You look a little . . . ” She shrugs. “Your color’s funny.”
I wipe my forehead again. “Just hot from cooking.”
“You sure?” Sarah asks.
I raise my eyebrows in response. “We’re about an hour away from having all of the cooking done. Can you check with Kelley on the rest of the preparations?” I ask Calley.
“Kelley’s at the clinic with Shelby and the baby. Doris took over setting up the dining area at the ski lodge, and Angela and Katie are doing the decorating. It’s looking good.”
“Oh, he’s helping, too, of course. You know how he is!”
I can’t help but laugh, thinking of the antics of my almost three-year-old grandson as he “helps” his mom—Angela—and his aunt Katie with their duties. Probably better he’s in there than outside at the firepit with his dad and uncles.
“Where’s Malcolm?” I ask.
“With Tony and TJ, where else?” Calley says with a wave. “They’re acting as runners, making sure everyone has what they need for the party. I still don’t know why you volunteered our family to oversee the festivities.”
“Not just our family,” I say. “Kelley’s and Doris’s families are also taking part.”
Calley nods. “A birth on Thanksgiving. That definitely changes the plans, but it’s still amazing.” She gives another wave and then tightens her coat and goes back outside.
I glance at Sarah and catch her wiping her eyes.
“You okay?” I ask.
“I’m so happy for Shelby,” Sarah says. “And for Grant. She’s been worried about the birth—you know, with not having a hospital and all.”
“She has been. And I know you worry about it too. With the birth of Shelby’s baby, it might be hard for you these next few days.” Sarah tilts her head at me. I rush on with, “Seeing Shelby and Grant together, holding and loving their child, it might make you think of Tate more.”
With downcast eyes, she says, “I think about Tate all the time. Seeing them with their baby won’t change it. Besides, they’ll be keeping the baby away from people until she’s older. Belinda talked with me about doing the same when my baby arrives.”
With a nod, I turn back to the corn casserole I’m assembling, when the tinkle of a bell sounds. “I’ll go,” I say, turning to leave the kitchen.
“No, Mom. Let me. I’ll tell her about Shelby’s baby being born. She’ll—there will be tears.”
Two months ago, my son-in-law Tate—Sarah’s husband—along with his dad, went missing during a hunting trip in the mountains. A search party spent a week looking for them. With many snowstorms since, there’s little chance Tate or Keith are still alive. Sarah and her adopted children—Marc, Sissy, and Andy—bore their loss. Her mother-in-law, Lois, hasn’t done well with accepting the deaths of Tate and Keith—her husband of almost forty years. She still expects them to walk in the door at any time.
Unfortunately, during her time of mourning, she’s taken to her bed, rarely leaving it, as she seems to fade away day by day. Sarah takes the children in to visit her each day. We know Lois loves this time, often reading to them or listening to their stories. But the visits seem shorter and shorter; she tires so easily. When she needs something, she rings her bell. Even that isn’t too often since she doesn’t wish to be a burden. Tate’s sister, Karen, is Lois’s main caregiver. But having come down with a cold a few days ago, she’s keeping her distance, even sleeping on the couch in the great room instead of the bedroom they share. Lois is so weak, we’re not sure her body could even handle a mild cold. Sarah and I have been taking turns during this time.
Calley was right about Katie and Angela’s festive décor. The space is lovely. As we enter the building, the wonderful food aromas, combined with the joyous atmosphere and people laughing and talking, make it a truly wonderous occasion.
“Hello, Mrs. Caldwell,” a young voice says.
“Well, hello there, Cheyre. I sure like those boots you’re wearing.”
“Mrs. Snyder found them for me. She said I needed some nice warm boots for winter. She also got me a pair of slippers. I love wearing slippers in the morning. They keep my feet toasty warm.”
“I’m with you on that! I put mine on as soon as I roll out of bed. Are your mom and sister here?” I ask, glancing around.
“Both are. We’re sitting at the Cameron table. Did you hear they had a new baby?” I give a nod as Cheyre rushes on. “Mrs. Cameron asked us to sit with them today. She’s always so nice, and with my mom on the hunting crew now—well, she’s not really on the crew, but she’s in training. They have a special name for it that I can’t remember.”
“She’s an apprentice?”
“Yeah, that’s the word. She used to hunt before when we still lived with my dad on our ranch, so they say she’ll only need a little bit of training. I’d better go. I think Pastor David is going to do the prayer soon.”
She gives me a small wave before bouncing off toward their table. It’s great to see her so cheerful. She, her mom, and older sister haven’t had it easy. Rochelle, her mom, did what she had to do to protect her children, but the emotional scars are still evident.
“Folks,” David Hammer says loudly, “let’s get settled down so we can enjoy this feast.”
The Thanksgiving meal is truly a feast. While some of the dishes were made in my kitchen, and the meat was cooked in the firepits, Kelley’s daughters used the smaller kitchen in the ski lodge to make the rest.
Like Karen, there are several people with sniffly noses in the community. Because of our close quarters here at the ski lodge, dude ranch, and surrounding houses, under Dr. Sam’s guidance, Belinda suggested anyone exhibiting signs of illness forgo the group meal. Food was boxed up for those to enjoy in their own residence. Likewise, those on guard duty are taken a still-hot plate of food.
David Hammer leads us in prayer. He and Pastor Ralph have become our spiritual leaders. When our group broke up, Pastor Ralph chose to stay behind in Bakerville proper. David now leads a twice-daily Bible study, following breakfast and supper, allowing people to join as their schedules permit. Chaplain Rick, part of the group that arrived here from Prospect a few months ago, will sometimes assist David. But for the most part, Chaplain Rick acts as a counselor and confidant, which is a huge help to psych nurse Kelley Hudson. Living in the apocalypse, we need all the mental health help we can get.
I’ve just finished filling my plate when a gruff, nasally voice near my ear—too close to my ear—says, “Nice spread.”
I close my eyes. I prayed he’d keep his distance today. I start to move away.
Slightly louder, he says, “I said this all looks great, Mollie.”
“I heard you the first time, Brad,” I say with plenty of venom in my voice. There’s an immediate pain behind my right eye, a common affliction when Brad Quinton is near.
“The polite thing to do is acknowledge a person when they speak to you.”
Turning, I face him full on and paste on a fake smile. “It’s also polite to keep your distance from someone who wants nothing to do with you.” I spin on my heels, making a beeline for the section my family is occupying. My husband’s eyes meet mine, questioning, asking if I’m okay and what Brad wanted. I give a slight shrug and a nod.
“I’ve been looking forward to this meal all week,” I say, with forced joviality as I set my plate on the table. “Did you try both turkeys, Calley? The domestic and the wild?”
“Yeah, you were right. Big difference. I’m sticking with the domestic.”
“Probably not for long,” Jake says. “The Camerons only brought toms they order in and raise each year. We’ve trapped a couple of wild females, but it’s not likely they can reproduce naturally with the domestic toms. We need to trap a wild male so we can start our own flock, which hasn’t proven easy.”
“Please,” Sarah says, raising a hand. “Can I not hear the details of this while I’m trying to eat?”
“What?” Calley’s husband, Mike, says with a goofy smile. “You don’t want to hear the details of breeding among turkeys?”
“Or how domestic tom turkeys need to use artificial insemination because they’re too heavy and will crush the females?” Angela’s husband, Tim, asks.
“Definitely not,” Sarah says. “I never want to hear about that.”
“So you definitely don’t want to hear about ‘milking’ the toms?” Mike asks.
“Ewww. Stop,” Sarah says. “Jake, I really wish you wouldn’t have brought this up. Mike and Tim are like little boys any time they get an opportunity to tease.” She turns to Tim and sticks her tongue out, causing everyone at the table to laugh.
It does my heart good to see Sarah acting a little like her old self again. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for helping to heal Sarah’s broken heart.
Wednesday, Day 176
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Malcolm. Happy birthday to you!”
Mollie engulfs Malcolm in a hug, causing him to squirm, and then plants a big kiss on his cheek. The color creeps up his neck.
“Um, thanks, Mom,” he says.
“How’s it feel to be eleven?” Katie asks.
“About the same as being ten, except I think I have a mustache starting now. See?” Malcolm points to his lip, which looks the same today as it did yesterday, and every day before that.
“Hmm,” Katie says, examining it closely. “I don’t see anything.”
“It’s just because it’s so dark in here. Wait until tomorrow, in the sunlight. You’ll see it then.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” Katie laughs.
Her husband, Leo, joins in. “It probably won’t be long. I was shaving when I was fifteen.”
“Yeah, well, no one shaves now,” I say, rubbing my own itchy beard. Shaving is one of the many things that have fallen by the wayside since the EMP. While we still have a small stash of safety razors, it just doesn’t make sense to take the time to worry about being clean shaven. Plus, now that we’re fully in winter’s grip, it seems smart to have a little more insulation on our faces. I understand why Malcolm, who’s now surrounded by bearded men, might be rushing his maturity a little.
“You get a sharp enough blade on your new birthday knife, and you could shave with it,” Leo tells Malcolm.
“Don’t give him any ideas!” Mollie says, throwing up her hands. “He’s growing up fast enough already. He doesn’t need to be shaving yet.”
I feel my face fall slightly as I realize it’s not just the beards but our entire life aging Malcolm quicker than he should be. While things are slightly more relaxed living in the mountains this winter, our days are still full. There’s so much to do to keep our group going, from making sure there’s plenty of wood for the fire to tending the livestock to manning the guard towers. The guard towers, originally thought to be only necessary for dangers of our fellow man, quickly became useful in avoiding wildlife encounters as well.
Living halfway up a mountain, in an area inhabited by both black and grizzly bears—along with wolves and mountain lions—has its dangers. We’d only been living here two weeks when the first bear was spotted. The sentry put out a call, which allowed time to get the livestock and people locked down. With the bears bedding down for their winter sleep, we hope to not see them again until spring.
Unfortunately, predatory animals and invaders aren’t our main worries. We’re almost positive there are people living among us that plan to do us harm.
Deputy Fred turned out to be a criminal. We also discovered Fred may not have been acting alone. Not a fan of the leadership of Bakerville, he was planning a coup. Around the same time, Dr. Sam was shot; his shooter has yet to be discovered. When Tate and Keith disappeared during a hunting trip, it was rumored to be related to Sam’s shooting. Was it? I don’t think we’ll ever know.
“How big of a piece do you want, Dad?” Malcolm asks, knife hovering over his birthday cake.
“This big.” I motion for a two-inch square. “And just one scoop of ice cream.” While I could easily eat more, even on birthdays, we ration food and had to receive special permission for the ingredients. Next week my grandson, Gavin, will turn three. I’m not sure we’ll be allowed the ingredients for another celebration, so Angela’s working on a different plan.
Our years of planning so we could provide for our family took quite a turn. While it seemed as if we had rooms full of food and supplies—and we did—with more people living at our place than we had planned, and helping to contribute to those without, our stores depleted quickly.
When it was decided we’d join the main group of Bakerville that was moving up to the ski lodge, we didn’t realize our remaining food and supplies were expected to become community property. That was almost a deal breaker for us. But the truth is, we weren’t sure we’d be safe staying at our small homestead. All of our nearby neighbors moved up to the mountain. Those who stayed behind either lived directly on the river or relocated to be near the others.
My friend Evan Snyder now jokingly refers to Bakerville as the mountain people and the river people. When spring arrives, us mountain people will return to our homes so we can grow crops to get us through another winter. Now, in order to get the ingredients for a special dessert of cake and ice cream, we must either work additional duty shifts or somehow “make a deal” for extra rations. I admit, this bothers me. Especially since the goats providing the milk for the ice cream are owned by us!
“Karen, here’s a nice piece for Miss Lois,” Malcolm says. “Do you think she’ll want ice cream?”
“Just one scoop, like your dad,” Karen answers. The mild virus that went through a couple of weeks ago has passed, allowing Karen to once again be part of our group activities. We hoped Lois would join us tonight. Earlier in the day, she said it was a good day and she planned to leave her room for Malcolm’s party. But by the time the party arrived, she was too tired. While Karen has recovered fully from her cold and mild fever, Dr. Sam has taken a turn for the worse.
“Thanks, Dad,” Malcolm says as the party begins to break up. “I really like my new knife. Do you really think Mr. Vasquez will teach me how to make knives?”
“I think he will. He seemed excited about having a willing student. He’ll teach you leatherwork, too, so you can learn to make your own sheaths.”
“I don’t know if I could make one as nice as this,” he says, stroking the leather.
“I think you can.” I ruffle his hair. “Let’s tell everyone goodnight. It looks like they’re getting ready to leave.”
“You ready for bed?” Mollie asks as we finish cleaning up the kitchen. Mollie and I live in the lodge of the old dude ranch with Malcolm; our informally adopted children, Tony and Lily; my parents; plus Mollie’s oldest daughter, Sarah, her three adopted children, and her mother and sister-in-law. It’s crowded. And because of the running water and the large, mostly working kitchen, it’s far from private.
There’s a policy in place that allows the rest of the community to use the public facilities anytime they wish between 0600 and 2100. The two bathrooms on the main floor are community space, along with the kitchen and den. Most people are kind enough to knock and wait for us to answer. There are a few people, though, who just walk in and help themselves.
“Jake? You ready?”
“I told Art I’d go see him before bed. He thinks there might be something going on with the little blond-colored goat.”
“Honey? From last year’s kidding?”
“Yeah, from last year.”
“Is she okay?” Mollie asks, concern lacing her voice. “Should I go with you?”
“I’ll check her out. If anything seems off, I’ll have Madison look at her.” I walk to the hook for my coat.
“I’ll wait up,” Mollie says, raising her eyebrows slightly.
“I won’t be long.” I shove my feet into my heavy boots and put on a stocking cap. I’m only halfway off the porch before I start putting on my gloves. It’s cold tonight. The old equipment shed housing the livestock is part of the original ranch, possibly before it was even used as a commercial dude ranch. Its driveway is off what used to be a county road, which ends not far beyond the turnoff to the ski lodge on the south and the dude ranch on the north, about a third of a mile walk on icy roads. Instead of risking the walk in the dark, I fire up the quad.
A curtain in the RV parked next to the lodge flutters slightly. Katie gives a small wave. I return her wave, and she holds up an index finger, asking me to wait.
She and Leo share the Class C RV with Laurie and Aaron, another newly married couple. Towing their RV up here, after the electronics were wiped out by a presumed EMP, was a challenge. Such a challenge, there’s little chance the RV will ever move from its spot parked next to the lodge we’re living in.
“Jake!” Katie sticks her head out the passenger’s door. “Where’re you going?”
“To check out a goat Art was telling me about. You need something?”
“Leo’s on watch tonight. Can he ride down with you?”
“Yep. Is he ready?”
She sticks her head back in the RV, and a moment later says, “Two minutes? He’s tying his boots.”
“I’ll wait.” It’s less than two minutes when the door opens again and Leo climbs out.
“Thanks for waiting,” Leo says, putting on his well-laden backpack.
Instead of going straight to the livestock shed, I cross the county road and drive down the entrance to the ski lodge, crossing the large parking lot, then over the bridge. The final stretch to the ski lodge and the small shed next door, being used for the militia headquarters, is a steep hill. Too steep for my quad.
“You know your assignment for tonight?” I ask as I let off the gas and coast to a stop.
“I’m taking a regular militia shift, which won’t start until twenty-two hundred, but Cole—uh, Major Gunderson asked me if I could come in early.”
“I call him Cole too. The whole rank thing seems unnecessary.”
“Yeah, I agree. Evan, Bill, and Cole don’t care, and neither do I.” Leo’s been given the rank of lieutenant. Evan and Bill are each a colonel. “But you’d be surprised how bent out of shape some of the sergeants and corporals get. They like to make a big deal about outranking people.”
“Oh, believe me, I know,” I say. “I had one of the sergeants get after me, until he realized I’m the same rank. Then he changed his tune. Personally, I can’t stand it and wish they’d rethink the ranks.”
“I’m with you on that. Oh, and to answer your question, I’m fairly certain I’ll be in the uppermost tower on the west side. I’m glad we have the snowmobile to get to the top of the hill.”
We’re fortunate to have several snowmobiles in the community. Some were part of the equipment belonging to the ski resort, others were owned by community members. There’s also a couple of snow grooming machines. While the EMP fried a few of the newer snowmobiles in Bakerville, even the ski resort owners’ recently purchased machine still runs. We’re not sure why, but one theory is because it was kept in a metal building, which may have acted as a Faraday cage. “All right, Leo. See you tomorrow.”
Art, dressed in his winter gear, is sitting in a camp chair near the doe goat pen inside the livestock shed. Formerly used to house a variety of large equipment, the shed has been converted into several small pens to keep goats, sheep, and milk cows. The chickens and ducks also have a small area on one side, with a door to an outside pen. Art has made his home in a storage room connected to the livestock shed—his choice. He says he loves being with the animals and enjoys the solitude.
“What’s going on, Art?” I ask as I bend down to pet one of the cats. Our three barn cats from our homestead live here now. One of them has become so friendly with Art, she curls up on his bed every chance she gets.
“Not sure, Jake. She seems better now, not crying like she was.”
I spend several minutes looking her over. She seems fine, even running over, tail wagging, to take a few bites of hay after I’m done with her. “She’s eating okay?”
“Yep, just cries out occasionally.”
“Maybe she’s coming into heat?”
“Hmm. None of the others acted like that. I suppose it’s possible. I could put her with one of the bucks tomorrow and see what happens.”
“If there’s no trouble with her overnight, let’s try it. The way she’s wagging her tail makes me think that might be what’s going on.”
“Sounds good, Jake. Sorry to get you out here on this cold night.”
“You still think you’re going to be warm enough living in here? It’s going to get a whole lot colder before winter ends.”
“It’s chilly in here, but not in my room. The little stove warms it up right nicely. I suspect I’ll have it better than some of those living in camp trailers. Hard to keep those tin cans warm.”
“I guess that’s true. But seriously, you can always stay in the lodge if it gets too cold.”
“Yep. Uh, I ran into Kelley Hudson on my way back here. Seems our doc took a turn for the worse. She was on her way to help Belinda with him. There’s talk of opening him up again.”
I let out a sigh. “To see if they can isolate the infection?”
Art shrugs. “Don’t know. She was in a dither, and that’s all I got out of her.”
I nod. “See you tomorrow.”
I slow the quad when I drive by the doctor’s office—one of the duplex-style cabins set up for surgery, a patient room, and examinations. The lights are all on, and movement shows through the curtains.
Lord, please reach out to Sam with Your healing touch. Make him well and whole again. I ask these things in Jesus’ precious name, amen.
Thursday, Day 177
“Mollie? You in the kitchen?
“Kelley? We’re in the laundry room. C’mon back.”
I grab a towel to dry my hands, then offer it to Deanne, my daughter Calley’s mother-in-law and my good friend. The front of my apron is also wet, one of the difficulties with doing wash by hand. I remove the sodden item while waiting for Kelley to reach us. Most washing machines, with their advanced electronics, were destroyed by the EMP. We have a small RV-style machine, which is a quite simple design, that was unaffected. We can use it for many things, but sheets, blankets, denim, and heavier items need to be handwashed.
“Hey,” Kelley says from the doorway. “Hi, Deanne.”
“Hey. What’s wrong?” I ask, taking in her red-rimmed eyes.
“Sam—he’s not . . . ” She lets out a huge breath. “There’s nothing more we can do,” she whispers.
Deanne lets out a gasp.
My shoulders sag as I close my eyes. “The antibiotics?”
“Not helping. Nothing is helping. We can’t get his fever down. And he’s coughing now. We think it’s pneumonia, on top of whatever else was going on.”
“That’s not uncommon when someone’s confined to their bed, right? Isn’t there special positioning you can do to help?”
“We’re doing it. We’ve been doing it.”
“What about the— ”
“Mollie, we’ve tried everything. Sam knew days ago. He didn’t want us to use any additional antibiotics or medications. There’s nothing— ” She covers her face as she dissolves into tears.
I go to her, wrapping my arms around her. Deanne joins us as we cry together.
We’re now sitting in the kitchen, lingering over a cup of tea from our weekly rations. I’ve reused my teabag at least three times now; it barely tints the water. I’d prefer a cup of coffee, but it’s not part of our personal rations. The little coffee still available is reserved for special events. Again, the coffee is nothing more than lightly flavored water since it’s stretched as far as possible.
We purposely avoid talking about Sam during our teatime, instead discussing Shelby’s new baby, Malcolm’s birthday, Gavin’s upcoming birthday, and Christmas plans. Several of the teachers are working on a program for the children to perform. I’m not sure of the details; my own children and grandchildren have been very secretive.
“Phil said Evan and Jake are talking about goose for the Christmas meal,” Kelley says.
“Really?” Deanne exclaims. “We haven’t seen any geese lately.”
“They’ll go down to Bakerville. Isn’t this the time they usually goose hunt?”
I tilt my head. “Usually after the new year until mid-February when the season ends. With the elk and culled cattle, why bother with geese?”
“Don’t know.” Kelley shrugs. “But I do have to admit, I kind of like the idea. It’d be very traditional, give people something to look forward to maybe.”
“And more variety,” I say with a nod. “The little bit of fish we add into our diet is always popular.”
“It sure is. And, I never thought I’d say this, but I miss venison,” Kelley says, raising her eyebrows.
“I know. It’s just enough different from elk to know we’re eating something else.”
“Right.” Kelley laughs. “That’s exactly how I’d describe it. Especially the whitetail.”
“We can’t risk it,” I say, suddenly alarmed. “I know some people are still hunting deer for their personal rations, but as a community— ”
“Oh, I know,” Kelley says. “I’m completely with you on the deer risk. After we found those sick ones over the summer, we just don’t know. I really think they had Chronic Wasting Disease. Based on everything I’ve read about the subject, they had all the clinical signs.”
“Yeah, and even though CWD isn’t believed to be a threat to humans— ”
“Neither was BSE, but once it jumped from bovines to humans and became Mad Cow Disease, it was obvious the threat was real. I don’t want our community to experience Mad Deer Disease.” She gives a shake of her head.
“Agreed. I’m glad the council overruled Jon Dawson and stuck with only hunting elk and antelope for our food supply.”
“And moose if they come down,” Deanne says longingly. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful?”
“It would be!” I agree. “So, back to the goose hunt. They’d take the horses? No way could they get down the road in a truck without a snowplow leading the way.”
“They can take the snowmobiles,” Kelley says. “That’s probably a better choice, knowing Jake’s apprehension toward horses.”
“Definitely better. Jake insists the horses hate him,” I say with a small smile.
“Do you think we’re having a nuclear winter?” Deanne asks. “To me, it doesn’t seem to be any colder or more snowy than I’d expect here on the mountain.”
“I know that was a big conversation at breakfast,” Kelley says. “After all, we’ve heard about the bombs being dropped on the east and west coasts—and Doris’s daughter even saw the mushroom clouds—but I’m with you, Deanne. I don’t think it’s much different than a normal winter.”
“What did Ellen and Zeb say?” I ask. As the owners of the ski resort, they’d know better than anyone if we’re seeing normal winter conditions.
“They both agree it’s slightly colder and slightly more snowy than they’ve seen in the last decade or so,” Kelley says. “But they also think other places that don’t see winters like we do might notice a change more.”
“What was your husband saying about it?” Deanne asks Kelley.
“Phil thinks we may notice a cooler spring and summer, but it depends on how many ground detonations there were. From what we hear, there were five or six on the West Coast and around the same number on the East Coast. But you know how hard it is to get exact info from the radio.”
We talk a little more about the Christmas meal, and Deanne, who’s in charge of the menu, gives us insight into the food plans. While we’ll still have a nice meal, it won’t be too elaborate, since we have the rest of the winter to get through. There won’t be a community gift exchange, though families can do as they wish. Jake and I have been working on gifts for our young children and grandchildren but won’t have gifts for the adult children or each other.
Kelley says her daughters, Sylvia and Sabrina, are acting very secretive. She’s sure they have something up their sleeves, possibly related to the children’s pageant.
“What do you think they’re planning?” I ask.
“I have no idea.”
“What about the other children? Have you heard if the parents are able to give gifts?”
“Doris let people know there are a few things in the store available in exchange for extra duties, but I’m not sure how many people took her up on it. But, yes, it’s an option. I prefer the direct exchanges, like you did to get Malcolm’s birthday knife.”
“Me too. I’m glad Judge Avery decided bartering was allowed.”
“Who would’ve thought the idea of a simple barter system would have people so wound up?” Deanne asks with a small laugh.
I shake my head, remembering the meeting that almost came to blows. Two women had exchanged children’s clothing. Someone else felt it was unfair, that outgrown and unwanted clothing needed to be made available for community use instead of direct exchange or barter. I was surprised when nearly half the people at the meeting agreed with her.
“Maybe we should— ”
The front door pops open. “Mom? Mom! Hurry, we need you!” Katie yells, sticking only her head in the front door.
I jump up so quickly, I knock over the kitchen chair. “What’s happening?”
“Someone’s missing. One of the Baker girls. We’re putting a search party together.” I’m at the door when she says quietly, “I think it’s bad. They found . . . there might be blood. We’re meeting at the livestock shed. Hurry!” She pulls the door shut.
I turn and look at Kelley and Deanne; both are up and moving toward the door. “You heard?”
“Not good,” Kelley says, while Deanne shakes her head.
“Mom?” Sarah hollers down from upstairs. “Should I go?”
I meet her eyes, seeing the fear and memories there. “Stay, in case Lois needs you. You shouldn’t be traipsing around in the snow anyway.”
“All right, Mom. Karen heard too. She’ll be right behind you.”
Kelley is working her foot into her snow boot while I put on my coat. “Which Baker girl do you think it is?” Kelley asks.
“Not sure. I didn’t think to ask. I don’t really know any of them other than to say hello. You?”
“Phoebe. I know her. She’s the one who snuck out to get help last summer when they were under attack.”
I answer with a nod while putting on my stocking hat. “Ready?” I grab my small backpack, already loaded with a water bladder, snacks, extra cold-weather gear, and snowshoes bungeed on either side.
“I need to grab a pair of snowshoes,” Kelley says as I open the door. “I’ll see you there.”
“Same here,” Deanne says, sitting on the bench, lacing her heavy, fleece-lined, military-style boots. “As soon as I get these boots on, I’ll run home and then meet you there.” Deanne and the rest of her family didn’t bring winter boots or clothing from Casper, expecting to only be in Bakerville a short time until the attacks stopped. Doris found these in our supplies. They’re a men’s boot, but Deanne is tall with larger feet, and after adding heavy socks, they fit well. She often complains about their main drawback being the time they take to get on and off.
I find several others, including Calley and Angela, on my way to the meeting place.
“You have your snowshoes?” I ask each of them.
They both turn so I can see their backpacks, shoes strapped on. My family had a collection of snowshoes and cross-country skis before the attacks. Snowshoes, clothes, and a few other items were labeled personal items that we could keep, instead of becoming community property. That also didn’t happen without a fight.
“I sure hope they’ll have some working radios for this,” Calley says.
“That was the reason they put them up,” I say. “Only the few people on guard duty use them now so we can save the batteries.”
“I know, but you know how things seem to go,” she says, making a noise of disgust.
She’s not wrong. So many of the things we thought were happening are no longer. Sometimes, I wonder if the river people of Bakerville have these same issues.
I’m huffing by the time we reach the large group waiting at the livestock shed. The smoke hanging in the air from the multitude of woodstoves compounds my breathing difficulties. I’ve always loved the smell of a fire warming a home, but here, when wood is our only source of heat, the aroma’s almost overwhelming.
Bill Shane, a retired Prospector County deputy sheriff, is already giving out instructions. Within a few minutes, I’m in a group of five—along with Angela, another girl around her age, a man slightly older than me, and another man slightly younger than I am—that will follow the county road down the mountain.
It’s not expected we’ll find anything since the blood trail—assumed to belong to the missing girl, Phoebe Baker, the same one Kelley says she knows—took off through the woods. The trail was discovered by a teen out for a walk. Retired detective Jesse Richardson is with the group—which Bill says includes Jake—investigating the blood trail to see if it really is blood. If it is, they’ll try to reacquire the trail. While we’re gathered around receiving our assignments, there’s more than one murmur suggesting the boy who found the blood trail is likely the guilty party.
“Knock it off,” Bill says. “There will be no assigning blame to anyone at this point in the search. Your only mission is to find Phoebe. You need to keep in mind, we still believe in innocent unless proven otherwise.”
“Easy for you to say,” someone murmurs. “You’re an outsider too.”
“What’s that?” Bill demands, his voice booming over the crowd. I watch as several people cower in response.
Adding to the drama, and providing more tongue wagging, no one knows for certain when Phoebe went missing. She was at dinner last night, but her bed in the women’s dorm was not slept in. Her roommates didn’t think anything of it since she often stays in the cabin or apartment of one of her relatives. At fifteen, she’s younger than most people in the dorm. It seems she was staying the summer with the rest of her family when the attacks happened. Her parents are divorced; she lives with her mom back east but spends summers with her dad and his new family in Bakerville. She begged her dad to let her stay in the dorms instead of crowding into the small cabin with them. Even so, she often stays over with her dad or with one of the other Baker relatives. None confirm having her stay over last night.
Angela and I got all this information in a quick, rambling stream from a lady named Tricia. When she finished her spiel, we were both exhausted just from listening to her talk and watching her gesticulate. For a moment, I feared she’d be on our search team; I’m not sure I’d be able to handle her for any length of time. Oh, she was nice enough. Just exhausting.
We fan out along what was once a blacktop county road. The snow in this area is packed down, thanks to the snow grooming machine that keeps all the roads and driveways usable. This part of the road is kept clear for travel between the lodges and a couple of houses down the road that we’re also using for housing, making the walk somewhat easy and our snowshoes unnecessary for the moment.
“Be careful, Mom. It’s slick in places,” Angela says.
I answer with a nod. When did I get so old my children started looking out for me instead of me looking out for them?
We take our time checking the ditch and the drifts on either side of the road. A light snow started falling minutes after we left the livestock shed. Hopefully, it won’t snow too much, allowing someone to find evidence of Phoebe and bring her home. If she was missing overnight, will she—I stop my thoughts. I’m not going there right now. This is a rescue mission. We’re going to find her.
“The bridge is especially slick,” the older man says, reaching out his hand to help a woman in our group. Though rather plain at first glance, the smile she offers him completely transforms her face. And with her warm smile, I’m led to believe they’re more than friends.
As we cross the bridge, a cow in the dude ranch pasture lets out a deep bellow. While the livestock shed houses the smaller animals—goats, sheep, pigs, and poultry—the cattle and horses are in several large pastures on both sides of the road. When we made the move from Bakerville proper to the mountain, the cattle were the last to come up. Both Mick Michaelson and Barney Sanchez had small operational ranches before the attacks started, Mick having around four hundred pairs and Barney less than half that. There were also several people in Bakerville raising seasonal cattle or raising them for their own use.
When part of the community decided to stay behind, those with livestock kept what they owned. Mick and Barney each donated several cull head to help get them through the winter. The rest were moved up here in an old-fashioned cattle drive. The Cameron family had recently brought their small herd of cattle from Prospect in the same manner, adding their livestock to ours.
When we’re close to the first house on the road, where six of our residents are living, we see the owner of the home, Rudy Wallace, at the driveway. “What’s happening?” he yells.
“Someone’s missing,” the younger of the two guys yells back, in a voice much deeper than his small stature seems it should have.
“Need more help?” Rudy asks. Him and his wife are both close to seventy; they retired up here twenty years ago. Before the attacks, they were talking about moving into Prospect or Wesley—the property was just too much for them. When we decided to move Bakerville to the ski lodge for the winter, they opened their home to two other couples that are even older than they are.
I don’t really know Rudy, or any of the others living at this home or at the home farther down the road. Because of the distance to the ski lodge, where we eat our meals and have our community events, they only attend on special occasions. It’s just too far between here and there for them to make the trek regularly. Instead, food is brought down every few days so they can have their own meals. I heard Rudy joked about it being the apocalyptic version of Meals on Wheels.
When they do come up, we send a vehicle for them. It’s often the snow grooming machine, which has to make multiple trips because he can only crowd two in the cab at once, and he does the road at the same time. I don’t think having any of them out in this weather, walking on the snow and ice, is a good idea.
“We’re probably good,” I say. “Especially with the snow coming in. But you might call on your radio and see.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t call you,” the younger guy says.
“Our rechargeable batteries aren’t holding a charge like they should. It’s dead, and we didn’t realize it until we saw you all walking down the road. My wife plugged it into the little solar thing. Not sure how much good that’ll do with the snow starting.”
“When we get back, I’ll tell Doris,” I say. “Maybe she can get you new ones.”
“Humph,” he says. The perfect answer for everything these days. He lifts his hand and turns back toward his house.
“What are we going to do about the battery issue?” Angela asks. “Especially next summer, how can we be so spread out on watch without a way to communicate?”
I shake my head. “I’m not sure. There’s probably a plan floating around. I just don’t know what it is.”
“At least the ham radio still works,” Angela says. “It lets us know a little about what’s going on in other places.”
“True.” I choose not to say that, unfortunately, because of contact we made with the nearby town of Prospect, they know a little about what we’re doing also. After that experience, we stopped reaching out to others, and we now only listen. Calley is one of the listeners, and she has a regular shift monitoring the radio. She isn’t allowed to share what she hears; everything is filtered through the council, then we’re given a weekly briefing. There is, of course, a rumor floating around that what we’re being told in the briefings are watered-down versions of what they’re hearing.
We plod on in silence until we reach the end of the packed snow where the last house for our group is located. No one greets us at the road, but a woman does wave from the porch. As far back off the road as the house is set, even if she is trying to talk to us, it’s unlikely we’ll hear her. My guess is their radio is still working and they’re in the loop. Like the Wallaces, this is an older couple who’ve opened their home to other older couples. Also like the Wallaces, they’re not good candidates for being out here plodding through the snow.
I glance up the hillside behind the house to our easternmost lookout. Most of our guard towers are part of the ski lodge. We’ve utilized the ski lift shacks—with their multitude of windows and commanding views of the slopes—to be able to see the entirety of the ski resort.
This lookout is a newly constructed log cabin built in a lean-to style. It has a pony wall along the eastern side, but the top part is open to the elements. There’s a small woodstove to help heat the semi-open building.
The fact that most of the weather comes from the west or the north—which both have solid, closed in sides—is a plus. But even so, it gets cold in there. None of us are overly excited to have guard duty in the east lookout. There’s a plan to bring up windows before next winter, but it works for now. And the partially open side gives an expansive view of the valley below. It’d be incredibly difficult for anyone to approach without being seen.
“Time for the snowshoes,” the older guy says.
“Remind me of your name?” I ask him.
“Harry English. And this is my friend Annette.” He motions to the woman. She says something, but with the wind blowing and her mouth covered by a scarf, I can’t make it out.
“Heath Jefferson,” the younger man says in a confident voice while extending his hand. His weak grip reminds me of a dead trout. “I was on Foxtrot Team. Your daughter is Katie, right?”
“And your husband is Jake? Dot’s my wife. They were on Alpha together.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I met Dot in passing a couple of times over the summer. Jake said she was a very capable member of their team.
Looking over Heath, I question if he’s as capable as his wife. There’s nothing overly impressive about him. He’s slightly below average height and on the skinny side, with his brown beard frozen around his mouth. I glance to his waist and notice he doesn’t appear to be carrying a sidearm. That’s unusual on our mountain, especially considering the predators. Of course, he may prefer to conceal carry as opposed to open carry.
“This is my daughter Angela,” I say.
Heath reaches for her hand.
“Hello,” Harry says, as Annette gives a small wave. Then Heath shakes Harry’s and Annette’s hands too. Like Heath, Annette is also firearm free, but there is a wicked looking knife on her belt.
“Well,” Heath says, “I guess we should get the snowshoes on. I’m glad the ski resort had plenty as part of their rental stuff. We sure need them out here.”
“I’ll undo yours,” I say to Angela, motioning her to turn around. Once I have them unhooked from her pack, I help her get them on. She returns the favor, then I assist Annette with strapping her shoes on. She has the kind with rubber strapping, which I know from experience, having had this exact style as my first pair, don’t stay hooked well. “Have you used these before?” I ask.
“No,” she says quietly. There’s more to her answer, but I can’t hear it.
“Make sure there’s someone behind you,” I say. “They can tell you if your strap’s coming loose. Otherwise, you’ll walk right out of it and might not know it—unless you’re the one breaking the trail, of course.”
Heath takes the first turn at breaking the trail. Unlike on packed ground, we’ll stay in a line on the creek side of the road as our eyes search the surrounding area. We’re to go down the road until we reach a popular picnic spot along the creek—at least, it was a popular spot back when our world was normal—then turn around. We’ll break a new trail on the hill side on the way back.
With this fresh, unblemished snow, we’ll be able to easily see any tracks. It hasn’t snowed enough since Phoebe went missing for us to not notice a disturbance anyplace within our line of sight. The undisturbed snow is also going to be a workout for my legs.
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