CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

It was a bizarre caravan Helen led down the road, Cameron closely following in one of the empty trailers, where the people who could not find a horse to ride were minding the children who were either too young to ride or similarly lacking a mount. After the food trailers followed the possessions trailers, themselves followed by the mixed flock of sheep, cows, and even goats that now had to be herded down the road. It was an absurd sight and more than once Helen had to stop herself from turning them back around to get the trucks again, but there was just no guarantee of gas in their future. Twice a car came up from behind and they had to move everything into one lane to allow them to pass- both times the cars pulled over by Helen, clearly leading the group, and asked to know just what, exactly, they thought they were doing. She found she had no explanation ready. She merely said they were 'moving on' and asked for news. Neither car had any. They'd been looking for gas, but there was none to be found. Maybe it wasn't so strange that they'd met a group on horseback after all.

The afternoon sun did not make travelling, especially for those in the trailers, very comfortable, but the experience was so novel that even the children did not complain. Instead they begged to be boosted up to see out the windows, and even though there was nothing to see but mile after mile of featureless farmland they seemed to be thrilled with it. They were convinced they were having an adventure, and the whole group was thankful for it- it kept them happy and entertained, and things were more than usually cheerful when they pulled into the pasture of another empty house to stay for the night. Even the sight of the homes' nearly-empty larder wasn't enough to put them off their spirits, and there was even some singing and clumsy dancing to celebrate the first day of the journey.

Jenae, predictably, did not join in, and after a while Penny and Helen went to find her. From the moment Helen saw her face she knew something was more than usually wrong, and she didn't have long to find out what it was.

"Food," Jenae said without preamble. "We need food, and we need to be organized about how we get it."

"We'll set up scouting parties," Penny said. "They can go ahead and check the houses, and if they find anything they can have it ready to load by the time the group catches up with them."

"Will there be enough empty houses?"

"We saw plenty today," Penny pointed out, and Helen nodded in agreement. They'd seen more than a few, though no one had gone off to explore them. Jenae frowned.

"But why are so many houses empty?" she asked.

"People went looking for answers, like we did. Maybe went to stay with family, or friends. Got stranded without gas to get home," Penny suggested.

"No doubt."
"Why, what do you think it is?"

"The red house we passed about thirty minutes before we stopped here, the front window was broken."

"So?"
"So how did it get that way?"

Penny rolled her eyes. "Cut the melodrama and just tell us what's on your mind."

"Bandits."

"Out here? Why would they go so far from the main road?"
"Maybe the same reason they went to Fort Kit, looking for gas. Maybe they're doing what we're doing and just trying to stay out of the enemy's way. But I think they're out there, like animals being driven in front of a fire, and we're going to meet up with them sooner or later."

"We have guns."

"But not the training to use them, not to kill people, not like this. We need Cameron to start his training. Tonight."

"Maybe we should wait until morning," Penny suggested. "It's been a long day, and everybody's tired." Jenae didn't respond but the hesitation was obvious in her eyes. "Look, this isn't something we want people to be half-asleep for," Penny added. "There are children around. Let's wait until morning."

"We have to start early, then," Jenae said. "We can't afford to lose time. And everyone who can point a gun should at least learn the basics, especially if they're planning on carrying one. You too," she added, looking at Helen.

"I have my knife," Helen protested, trying not to think about what Cameron had said about her combat experience.
"But we're not talking about hand-to-hand, and as you're our guide I'd much rather you defended yourself from a distance, if at all."

Helen shrugged and nodded. There was no reason not to, and it was as good a time as any to pick up this particular skill. Her main hesitation was what she'd be using the skill for. She might not mind so much if she was learning how to hunt, or shoot for sport, but the thought that she might actually have to use a gun on men made her stomach turn. In her mind's eye she couldn't forget the sight of Penny shooting the man that had hurt Milo and Hardin, his face when the bullet had hit him, the look of terrible surprise. Maybe worse was remembering Penny's face, how distant she'd looked, how cold, like a vengeful robot. It was like she'd turned off everything inside her that made her human, and Helen didn't know if she could do that, no matter how bad things got. Could she seriously look down the barrel of a rifle and pull the trigger knowing what would happen next to the man on the other end? Although surely it would be better than having to use her knife on somebody. She looked up and saw both Jenae and Penny watching her, a pensive look on their faces. "I'll do it," she said, as much to reassure herself as them. They didn't look convinced.

"I have some experience, but I'll be there," Penny finally said. "So will Carissa. I think most of what's left of Grass Creek could stand to be trained up a little."

"I'll be there, too," Jenae said. "And I want to have someone behind the animals at all times, watching our backs. If someone shows up unexpectedly I want to know about it just as soon as they do."

Penny and Jenae started to argue more logistics after that and Helen left to find Cameron. He was outside with the dancing children, right where she'd left him, but when he saw her coming he got up and came over. "What's the plan?" he asked.

"Penny and Jenae want us to start training first thing in the morning. They want everyone old enough to be there."

"Did they say what kind of weapons training?"
"No, why?" Helen asked.

"Because if we're going to be firing our guns we'll need to be somewhere the bullets won't go far, and I also want to be prepared for the attention we're going to attract."

"Do you mean the guys in the tanks?"

"Maybe. Right now I'm more worried about the neighbors."

They were silent for a moment as Helen mulled this over, then she said "Cameron?"

"What?"

"When you were in Denver, did you… kill anybody?"

His expression went suddenly distant, an echo of Penny's when she'd shot the bandit. "Yeah, I killed a few people. Maybe more than I think, since I'm pretty sure I wounded a couple. They mighta gotten infected or bled out."

"Was it bad?"

"Not really. It was like a video game, you know? You shoot, the other guy goes down. Except I could have died too, that was different. The smell was different, too. I think I threw up at some point."

"In the middle of a firefight?"

He shrugged. "It happens. A couple of the other guys wet themselves. Doesn't really matter how you handle it, as long as you keep going. And don't get yourself or others shot."

"Hmm," Helen said, not sure if she agreed or disagreed. She'd be mortified if someone attacked the trailers and she threw up in the middle of the fight- mortified and furious with herself. Cameron looked at her with a smile in his eyes as though he knew exactly what she was thinking.

"I'm not worried about you, you know."
"What do you mean?"

"In a fight. I think you'll be okay. You just have to figure out how to get your mind to let you do it without thinking too hard about it."

"I thought you said it wasn't that bad?"

"But you're smart enough not to believe that."

She mulled that over all night as she lay on the living room floor in her sleeping bag, Jade on one side and Carissa on the other. So few of the Grass Creekens were left- Yvaine had taken her children and slipped away that morning. Now it was just the Fitzscotts, the Corellis, Susanna and Lily Colbly, Mandy Bowers, and the Saucedo family. Altogether from the original group of sixty-seven they now had only thirteen, including Helen herself. She heard the others talking in hopeful tones about friends or family members who said they might come back, but it was a slim chance at best. Aside from the difficulties of such a trip how would they be found? All the group knew for sure was that they were going somewhere vaguely in the northern hills, up in Nebraska. It could be anywhere- the hills were a huge network of rolling grassland with a bit of marsh in between, and lakes weren't exactly a rarity out there. Looking for a 'ghost town on a lake in the hills' would be a fairly difficult task, which was, of course, why they had chosen to go there in the first place. Helen thought all of this but didn't say anything, not willing to be the person to bring the collective high spirits of the group down a notch. When she did get a chance she mentioned that all the adults were supposed to be up early in the morning for weapons practice and even though that wasn't the most welcome of news it was for the most part accepted philosophically. Only a couple people looked as worried as Helen felt but no one spoke about it and eventually the living room went quiet as, one by one, its occupants went to sleep. Helen slept only fitfully before waking up again, and even though she tried not to disturb anyone else with her tossing and turning it definitely didn't do her any good to stay still. She drifted back to sleep twice more, and the third time she woke up it was beginning to look faintly light on the horizon, enough to have an excuse to be up and about.

The house was quiet except for the sound of deep, regular breathing from its temporary occupants- someone in the second bedroom was snoring and Helen grinned to herself, glad she hadn't been sleeping in there. She went to the kitchen and managed to start a pot of coffee even though it was too dark to see any of the buttons- luckily the unit was nothing fancy and she managed to figure out what to push without too much difficulty. The manufacturer, bless him, had probably anticipated that this was a machine that would be operated by sleepy, grumpy people at ridiculous hours of the morning who had neither time nor patience for anything more complex than hitting 'start', or perhaps setting a timer.

While the coffee brewed she went outside to check on Jett and Mayfly. They were sleeping comfortably, not seeming to mind that tonight they were outside the trailer instead of inside it. She refilled their water barrel and gave them some feed, and by the time she was done they were both awake and nosing toward the food. Helen watched for a moment, concerned that Mayfly might be sore from pulling the trailer the day before, but she looked none the worse for the wear. It wasn't right that a mare of her age should be in harness but until Helen could train Jett to take her place there was no way to switch them out, and for that to happen she'd have to have them pulling at the same time so Jett could take his cues from Mayfly. She either needed a third horse for herself or she'd have to suck it up and walk.

This problem brought to mind the many animals they'd seen so far along their way and she mulled it over as she walked back to the house. Some of them had been lowing at their animals as they went along, and some of the various moo's, bleat's, and whinny's had sounded more than a little hungry. The house they were at tonight had clearly been empty for several days, maybe even since Attack Day, and though they'd taken whatever animals they'd had with them it was becoming obvious that that might not be the case everywhere they went. And if that wasn't the case, if some of those animals had been left behind and were now starving to death, what should they do about it? There was always the chance that the owners would come back, or that a neighbor would eventually come along to care for them, but what if that didn't happen? They couldn't take in every herd of cows they found along the way, but if it was horses that had been left behind they might be able to get most of the group in the saddle. If they were very, very lucky they might even get enough horse and harness that they could put two horses to a team on each of the trailers, which would speed them up at least a little as well as keeping their animals from getting tired. As for the other animals…

She was almost to the house at this point but she stopped and doubled back. The horses snorted at her when they saw her, grateful for the feed, and she saw at least two other early-risers making their way toward the trailers, probably farm folk used to rising at the crack of dawn. She opened her trailer up and made her way through to her things. Many of the tools Mrs. Tilton had given her she'd made sure to stow near the top of the pile in case she needed them but it was still the work of a few moments to find what she was looking for- a very hefty pair of wire cutters that were rated 'for barbed and beyond!' She tore the package off and stowed them in her jacket's biggest pocket before heading back to the house. It wouldn't be much, but at least if they cut the fences open as they went by the animals would be able to roam in search of food, and that would give them a shot.

Cameron met her in the kitchen where he and Jade were leaning up against one of the counters, watching the coffeepot with the intense air of highly devoted disciples of the coffee religion. They didn't seem to be talking to each other but they didn't seem to be fighting, either, which was a start.
"Morning," Helen said, and they both glanced at her. "Jade, are you going to do the weapons training?"

"Yeah, Mom wants me to learn," she said, turning back towards the coffee. Cameron glanced at her warily but she did not acknowledge it, and all three of them waited in silence as the sun came up.