Bus rose from his seat. "We were just talking about the plan."
"Yes," Lee put his hands in his pockets. "That's what I was trying to find Harper for."
Harper raised his chin. "You found me."
"You know Nate Malone?"
"Yeah. Decent guy."
"Good. Because I need you to train him and about twenty others that just volunteered to help."
"Oh." Harper looked confused. "That doesn't leave much time, between Sanford and heading east..."
"You're not going to Sanford."
Harper's lips tightened. "Um...what do you mean?"
"I need you training the volunteers while we're clearing Sanford."
"Why not LaRouche?" Harper gestured off to the side as though the sergeant were sitting in the room. "He's military, and he's got just as much or more experience than me. He's way more qualified to train the volunteers than I am. Why would you want me to do it?"
Lee leaned in. "Come on, Harper. I trust you both, but...don't take this the wrong way, but I need LaRouche with me in Sanford. You're the next in line as far as trust and experience goes."
"f.u.c.k." Harper hung his head.
"I need you to do this for me."
"You've soaked up what I've taught you and you're one of the best people I have. Plus, you're a natural leader. People listen to you. LaRouche is just as good, tactically, but he's just a little bit loose for me to trust him with training the volunteers. Father Jim is good, but not as good as you. I need Julia as our medic. Jeriah and his team are just plain green."
Harper's eyes looked up at the ceiling. "Alright. Fine."
"You'll do good."
"I'd do better in Sanford."
"Agreed. But I gotta have someone to train them, and you're the best choice."
"Well..." Harper trailed off, not having anything else to say.
Lee looked to Bus. "Is there something you guys wanted to talk to me about?"
"Yes," Bus took a pen that was lying on the desk and tapped it on the wooden top. "It's about fuel."
"Right. The tanker."
"Were you planning on taking it with you?"
Lee shrugged, non-committally. "I gotta keep the Humvees running."
"Okay," Harper looked back at the map. "So are you taking both the Humvees in one direction?"
"I'm gonna have one Humvee go east, and one north. Obviously, there are going to be other vehicles in each group, especially the one heading east, because that group is going to need to carry a s.h.i.+t-load of ordnance. I'm going to need to keep all the vehicles in both groups fueled."
"We also need to keep the hospital running."
Lee nodded. "I agree. Which is why I hadn't really cemented this part of the plan. Because what we have to do depends on what we find at Sanford. There was a military installation there, evacuating people. We have no idea how much of the equipment they left. If we're lucky, we might come across some fuel trucks. We'll just have to see what we come up with."
Bus put the pen to his lips, thoughtfully. "Keith Jenkins did that welding for the dozer attachment, didn't he? If we can scrounge up some more welding supplies for him, and plug him into the power at the hospital, he might be able to weld us some fuel tanks."
Lee had to admit, that was a good idea. "Definitely. But how big those tanks need to be depends on how many vehicles will be in each group. Which depends on how many people and how much c.r.a.p we have to carry with us."
"So essentially planning is on hold until you guys clear Sanford."
"Correct." Lee rubbed his palms together. "Now, Harper, why don't you go talk to Nate Malone and plan for what you're putting them through this week?"
Harper looked at him blankly. "What do you want me to teach them?"
"Just drill the basics," Lee said. "Marksmans.h.i.+p and squad tactics."
"Right." Harper sounded despondent. "Just the basics."
After Harper left, Lee and Bus turned their attention to matters inside the camp.
"Have you heard from Jerry at all today?" Lee asked.
"No." Bus splayed his hands out across the desktop. "He's made himself a bit scarce after yesterday's performance."
"I'm worried about Jerry and Professor White," Lee stated.
"In what way?"
"They make me nervous. Professor White is just angry enough to do something stupid. And Jerry seems like he and his supporters are on the verge of leaving." Lee chewed at the inside of his lip for a moment. "You think they might do that?"
"Leave the group?" Bus's eyebrows quirked up. "I don't know. That's a big risk for them to take, wandering out there by themselves. We've built something safe here, or at least safer than it is in the rest of the world. I don't know if people will want to leave it."
"What if they don't leave it?" Lee found a small tear at the corner of the map and worried at it with his finger.
Bus rubbed his eyes. "I don't know, Lee."
"It's something we need to think about."
"What do you want me to do? Have sentries follow them around all day?" Bus snorted. "There has to be some level of trust."
"I agree." Lee stepped towards the desk. "But I want you to keep your eyes open."
"You have two groups of people that don't really want anything to do with how we've been running things, but I'm also sure they don't want to leave all this behind. We're no different than every other third-world country out there now. When there are dissenters, they don't picket congress. That's the old world. If you have dissenters now, they come after you." Lee lowered his voice. "I just want you to watch your back."
Bus gave him a pointed stare. "I could say the same to you."
Lee nodded. "I already do."
Their conversation continued and eventually fell to trivialities. Jeriah Wilson and his team arrived around noon and Lee left to debrief them. They reported that everything was quiet in Lillington when they left, and that the Fuquay-Varina and Dunn survivors were still settling in, but should be mounting scavenging operations inside Lillington in the next few days. They'd successfully set up a radio base station, and Outpost Lillington was currently on line.
Lee made an exhaustive list of everything he would need for their operations in Sanford and began to gather these items. Most of them were readily available from the stores that he had taken from Bunker #4. Such things as ammunition and ordnance were locked away in one of the ubiquitous s.h.i.+pping containers around the camp.
Some of the other items like food stores and medical supplies he had to scrounge from others like Marie and Jenny, who were in charge of the food and medicine, respectively. Luckily, most of the food and medicine they had, originally came from Lee, so they had no issue with giving it back to him. Several times throughout the day, Julia or LaRouche or Jim would pa.s.s by and ask if he needed help, but he would only smile and wave them off.
In truth, he just needed something to keep him busy.
And it was pleasant, in a way, to be busy with something besides keeping himself or others alive. The monotonous physical labor of hauling the heavy packages of supplies back and forth set his mind at ease and allowed him to work off some of his nervous energy. Because he had all day, he worked slowly and meticulously, and checked his list often. Sometimes he would sit on the tailgate of the Humvee for a long period of time and simply enjoy the quiet and the relative solitude of being left alone.
He loaded the supplies they would need into the back of the Humvees and checked the fuel level in both. They were each at about the halfway mark. Plenty to get them in and out of Sanford, but they would need to refuel immediately after.
As dusk threw giant splashes of amber across the sky, he finished loading the last of the supplies. A steady stream of people were now making their way towards the Camp Ryder building for dinner. Lee wanted to avoid the crowd and he quickly cut across Main Street between two groups of survivors, all talking loudly amongst themselves and not noticing Lee pa.s.s by.
He found his group nestled in an open area between several shanties, close to the fence. A fire pit had been dug into the ground and ringed with cinder blocks and loose stone, identical to the dozens of other fire pits that had popped up around Camp Ryder when the weather began to chill. In the center of the fire pit, a large stack of wood was burning hotter and brighter than was usual.
Around the fire were gathered most of Lee's team members, including Jeriah Wilson and his group. They sat atop crates and overturned buckets, and others stood around holding tin cans for drinking cups. LaRouche was laughing loudly, his mouth stained by the chaw that bulged on the inside of his mouth, and he held a bottle of whiskey in one hand. The bottle was already nearly half gone.
When he saw Lee, he raised it up, "Captain! We didn't think you were gonna make it."
Lee smiled and waved a small greeting. "What happened to the barbecue? Thought you were gonna have a whole hog spitted over that fire."
LaRouche threw a disdainful glance at Julia, who was seated a few places down from him. "Well, someone was supposed to talk to their sister..."
"I never agreed to that," she stated, blandly.
"But..." LaRouche held up the bottle of whiskey. "We did receive a charitable donation from one James Tinsley, scavenger extraordinaire. Along with his best wishes, of course."
LaRouche put the bottle to his lips and turned it up.
Julia crossed the distance in a flash and deftly s.n.a.t.c.hed the bottle from him. She stared at the mouth of the bottle in horror. "You're gonna get tobacco juice in it, you nasty b.a.s.t.a.r.d!"
LaRouche's eyes tracked her drunkenly. "Tobacco and whiskey is an excellent flavor combination. I was only trying to share."
Lee stepped in closer, feeling the warmth of the fire on his face and hands. Julia pa.s.sed the bottle to him with a sneer of disgust and he accepted. A quick label inspection revealed that this was not the cheap, bottom-shelf liquor like Bus had squirreled away in his desk. Lee was very surprised that someone had given it to them as a gift.
He swiped a quick hand across the mouth of the bottle and took a swig. It tingled on his tongue and burned going down his throat, nearly making his eyes tear up. After drinking nothing but water for months, the flavor of the whiskey was like a bomb going off in his mouth.
"You see?" LaRouche said with a tone of respect. "Now there's a man who appreciates my flavor combinations. You're welcome."
Lee laughed and took another, deeper gulp, then pa.s.sed the bottle back. He took a seat on an overturned bucket and warmed his hands at the fire. Across from him, Jim spoke with Wilson and occasionally tossed another log into the fire, causing a dazzling cloud of sparks to rise up into the air. Lee's eyes kept falling to Julia and then they would track unconsciously over to the dark woods that appeared as simply an uneven black smudge beyond the cross-hatch pattern of the chain-linkage. He would scan the darkness, not even thinking about what he was doing. He took two more hits from the bottle and decided that was enough. He hadn't had alcohol in his bloodstream for a long time now, and he was already feeling light and fuzzy upstairs.
The conversation took meandering turns, like a drunk man wandering through empty and deserted streets. For the most part, Lee listened and kept his own council, unless he was pressed by someone else for his thoughts on the matter.
Jake, the bright-eyed kid from Wilson's crew, brought up the old conversation topic of "what do you miss?" and was immediately booed down by nearly everyone around the fire. No one wanted to play that game. No one wanted to think about everything they had lost. It was a melancholy game that tried hard to disguise itself as pleasant memories, but was only teasing ghosts of things that would never return.
Jake took the jeers well enough, hanging his head and raising his hands in surrender. "You got me! You got me!" he smiled, bashfully. "No more suggestions."
They laughed and told stories and made light of horrific things, as people doomed to repeat such things often do. Their raucous voices peaked and then began to subside as the emotions, stripped bare by the whiskey, fell into a calm. The group conversation split into several small conversations between two or three, and eventually many of them began to drift off as the night grew later and colder. The moon was high and bone-white above them as most of the group headed for their shanties and their own beds, which would embrace them in the numbness of their whiskey-sweetened minds.
Only Lee, Julia, and LaRouche remained around the fire. They lapsed into a comfortable silence, staring into the dwindling fire, hypnotized by the undulating tones of the embers. It was the silence born of knowing those most important and visceral aspects of the people you were with. That silence when nothing needed to be said, because the silence was never awkward, and never needed to be filled.
Of course, LaRouche had a habit of verbalizing his thoughts as they came to him.
In the quiet glow of the dying fire, he leaned forward on his crate and cleared his throat. "You know," he murmured. "I don't think I'm gonna make it."
Lee looked at him, and then across the fire pit where Julia was watching them guardedly, as though she sensed an impending conflict, and wasn't sure how Lee was going to react. Looking back to the sergeant, Lee watched him as he eyed the last dregs of amber liquid swirling at the bottom of the bottle, the flames dancing in it as though it had caught fire itself. He stared at this for a long while and then nodded once, as though confirming something within himself.
"What do you mean?" Lee asked, hesitantly.
LaRouche grinned into the fire, and his teeth glistened bright and wet. "You know what I mean."
"I mean..." LaRouche looked lazily skyward and seemed suddenly enamored by the sky above him. The smile faded from his lips and he seemed in awe. When he spoke again, his voice was eerie, like he was speaking in his sleep. "I only wanted a place in the sun. Like a big, open back yard where I could sit on a lawn chair with a cold beer in my hand. And maybe a wife, maybe some kids. We'd have the neighbors over for barbecues, and they'd ask us what type of beer to bring. And we'd talk about restoring cla.s.sic cars, and how best to keep your lawn green."
He closed his eyes as though he were picturing it. "And I'd be able to hear the kids yelling and laughing, playing in the yard, and the lawn would just stretch on for acres of perfect, green gra.s.s. And when the neighbors went home and the kids were put to bed we'd sit on the couch, me and my wife, and we'd watch some boring TV shows, before falling asleep at ten o'clock. Like real, boring, old married couples."
He opened his eyes, and the smile returned with a melancholy note. "But I'll never make it. All of that's gone now, and even if there was an end in sight to all of this, I don't think I'd make it through." He finished off the whiskey. As he lowered the bottle and sighed, his breath fogged the air before him. "You know, you live your whole life with these dreams and you know they're far-fetched but you think, 'at least they're in the realm of possibility.' But now..."
"Now you have to make new dreams," Julia stated simply.
LaRouche's smile broadened. He pointed the empty liquor bottle at her. "That's why I like you, Julia. Seriously though...there's no guarantee that I'll even live through tomorrow. Or you, for that matter. So...will you have s.e.x with me?"
Julia hung her head. "I think you've had enough to drink tonight."
"I know." LaRouche glanced between Lee and her. "So...yes?"
"Oh." LaRouche shrugged. "Well, I tried."
"Good effort, though."
"Well..." He stood up and swayed on his feet. Julia reached out to steady him. "I'm off to bed then. Early to rise. Got a long day, and all of that c.r.a.p." He extended his arm to her, like a gentleman offering a walk. "Would you like to walk me to my shack? I promise I will not make any more inappropriate advances."
"Or gestures," Julia said.
"Or gestures," he nodded. "And I won't cop a feel. Unless you want me to."
"Nope." Julia rose from her seat and looked at Lee. "You heading in, too?"
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