The Remaining: Refugees Part 39

His mouth dry and gritty, Arnie s.h.i.+fted his feet and sidled his belt around his midsection again. Then he stared right at the face and he nodded, just once.

A hundred yards away, in the quiet darkness of the s.h.i.+pping container, Jerry saw the signal.

He turned to Greg. "That's us. We're on."

He reached inside his jacket and felt the sawed-off shotgun slung at his side, felt the rough wood grip of it and took confidence from it. Moving with as much restraint as they could muster, trying desperately to look casual, Greg and Jerry slipped out of the s.h.i.+pping container and began making their way towards the Camp Ryder building.

Angela made her way across The Square, towards the last row of shanties. She moved with purpose and carried a satchel slung onto her arm, and two blankets over her shoulder. As she made her way towards the last row, Jerry and one of his friends pa.s.sed by. They both looked very serious and intently busy, but when they saw her, they smiled.

Snakes in the gra.s.s, she thought to herself, but nodded and smiled politely to them. She did not like Jerry, and it wasn't at all because he had opposed Lee on so many occasions. There were some people that disagreed regularly with how Lee did things and she'd found them to be great people. She prided herself in being a pretty good judge of character, and Jerry had always struck her as...conniving.

She didn't trust him one bit.

She hung a left at the last row of shanties and walked down to the end, to the brand new shanty that had been erected for the Ramirez family. Vicky Ramirez was standing outside, banging dust and dirt out of a large quilt. She smiled widely when she saw Angela approaching.

"Hey, Vicky."

"Angela, how are you?" She gestured to the blanket. "Just doing a little cleaning."

"Where's Elise and Anton?"

"They're on the other side of the complex, playing with the other kids." Vicky balled the quilt up in her arms and stepped through the doorway to her shanty. "Come on in."

The two women ducked through the low entrance. The roof was just a tarp draped over a simple A-frame to allow rain to slide off, rather than gathering in the middle and eventually collapsing on the family while they slept. Vicky had pulled the tarp back so that the daylight illuminated their little living area.

Angela laid the blankets and satchel down on the floor. "How are you guys acclimating?"

"Oh, you know." Vicky's smile had a sadness to it. "Doin' the best we can."

Angela touched her arm, comfortingly. "I understand. I felt the same way when I first got here. I know it's tough starting out, but these are all great people."

Vicky nodded. "Yes, we appreciate everything."

Angela clapped her hands. "Hey, I brought you the extra blankets you asked for." She bent down and picked the two blankets up, pa.s.sing them over to Vicky.

Vicky took the blankets, looking truly grateful. "Thank you so much for that."

"Well, it's been cold." Angela smiled. "And I know how it is to take care of little ones." She opened up the satchel on the floor, revealing a collection of canned goods and a bag of beans. "Me and a few of the others put together a little care package. I know it's not much, but it'll hopefully give you guys a third meal between breakfast and dinner, at least until you guys can get on your feet."

Vicky gazed down at the goods before her, clutching the two blankets tight to her chest. Her face tightened and her lower lip trembled just slightly. She looked as though she were on the verge of an outbreak of emotions, but she took a breath and nodded. "Thank you. You didn't have to be so generous."

Angela smiled welcomingly and waved her off. "It's the least we could do. I mean, your husband is out helping Captain Harden right now. We should at least take care of his family."

When she said this, Vicky's face did something different. The eyes averted down and to the right, blinking rapidly as her hand came up and touched her lips. It seemed as though she realized that her strange reaction was apparent, and she turned herself away from Angela, as if to hide. She busied herself with straightening the folds of the blanket and placing them on the bed.

Angela studied the other woman for a moment, then clasped her hands in front of her. "Listen, Vicky...is everything okay?"

"Yes." Vicky faced her quickly and Angela could see shame etched on her features, and the beginnings of tears glistening in her eyes. "Yes, everything's fine."

Angela took a step forward and raised her eyebrows, an expression that clearly communicated that she was not buying it. "Vicky..."

The other woman's shoulders slumped and she turned, looking at the ground, still covering her face with her hand. When she spoke her voice shook and cracked. "It's just that you and the others have been so kind...and I...we've all..." Her eyes raised up to Angela's and she seemed to draw herself up. "I have to tell you something...before something bad happens."

CHAPTER 29: BAD THINGS.

LaRouche stood at the hood of the Humvee, feeling the engine hot underneath the paper map laid out across the hood, the steady rumbling of it vibrating the pen in his hand. He turned and, keeping one hand on the map to pin it to the hood, s.h.i.+elded his eyes from the sun with his other hand and looked up at the water tower perhaps a hundred yards off to his left.

The convoy sat idling along a straight and barren stretch of road known as Memorial Church Road. Ahead of them, the intersection of Highway 581 cut across their path, surrounded by wilted and brown remnants of crops: corn on the right, and what appeared to be beets on the left.

At the base of the water tower, Jim and Wilson stood with their rifles to their shoulders, carefully scanning the surrounding fields and woods for any sign of danger. Halfway up the ladder that rose along one of the tower's legs, Lucky climbed, trailing a pack that contained another repeater set. They were slightly less than thirty miles east of Smithfield.

As he watched, Lucky reached the top and scrambled onto the catwalk to post the digital repeater. LaRouche looked back to his map and used his pen to mark the intersection with a big black dot. If they ever needed to do repairs, they would know where the repeaters were posted. After making the dot, he traced his fingers along the line of the road they were on, heading east. They were a short distance from the town of Fremont, and LaRouche immediately began to look for the best route to skirt around it.

A whistle drew his attention to the water tower.

Lucky was clattering down the ladder at an unusually fast pace. On the ground, Jim and Wilson had their rifles at the ready and were scanning out to the east.

"s.h.i.+t." LaRouche banged on the hood and hurriedly folded the map. "Head's up, everyone," he yelled out to the other vehicles. "Cover the road to the east. I think we got company."

LaRouche shoved the crumpled map into his jacket and shuffled around the Humvee to the pa.s.senger's side. Jim, Wilson, and Lucky were sprinting across the gravel lot between the road and the water tower. Lucky was waving his hands wildly while his rifle jittered about on his chest.

"Two pickup trucks comin' down the road!" he yelled as he drew close.

"How far out?"

"Less than a mile..."

"Eyes on!" Jim yelled, turning his body east and bringing his rifle up.

Down the road about a half a mile, the lead pickup truck came into a view, a late model, small-sized pickup, burgundy in color. Following close behind it was another pickup, this one larger and newer. LaRouche could immediately see that there were people in the beds of the pickup trucks, but he couldn't tell if they were armed or not.

"Wilson, get on the fifty." LaRouche turned and faced the rest of the convoy, stepping out from the column so that everyone could see and hear him. He held up his hand. "Everyone hold your fire!"

"They saw us," Lucky called out.

When LaRouche turned, the vehicles were halted in the road like two deer caught in a spotlight. They sat abreast of each other as though their drivers were conferring about whether or not to proceed. LaRouche made himself small up against the side of the Humvee, rifle addressed towards the two unknown vehicles.

"Should we signal that it's okay?" Jim asked.

"No, f.u.c.k 'em," LaRouche snapped. "We're not here to make friends. That's the captain's job. The sooner they move on, the better."

Jim shrugged. "Your call."

"My call is 'f.u.c.k 'em'." LaRouche repeated.

The better part of a very long minute pa.s.sed them in silence. For some inexplicable reason, the two pickup trucks then began to roll slowly toward them, creeping on as though their speed had something to do with their visibility. Perhaps it was a lack of common sense that told them to keep rolling towards the convoy of vehicles with guns pointed at them.

Or perhaps it was the exact opposite. Maybe the fact that they had not immediately fired upon them when they clearly had more than enough firepower to do so had convinced this mysterious third party that it was safe to proceed.

"Here they come," Wilson called out from the turret.

"Keep your gun on them," LaRouche bit his lip. "I'm gonna step out there. They do anything fishy whatsoever, please-please-light them the f.u.c.k up for me."

"Roger'at." Wilson tracked the two pickups with the M2.

LaRouche swore and stood up, still holding his rifle in tight, but taking his left hand off the foregrip and raising it high over his head, palm out. The vehicles were a hundred yards out and closing steadily, probably going less than ten miles an hour. He could see that the windows were rolled down and he called out to them: "Hold up! Yeah, stop right there!"

The lead pickup obediently lurched to a stop in the roadway.

LaRouche lowered his rifle, but only slightly. As quickly as his eyes could work, he traced them over everything that he could see, in the windows, in the beds of the trucks, but the only thing he could see were weary faces, all of them fearful, grimy, and smudged with what appeared to be soot. Many of them were young, kids maybe ten or twelve years of age. Even the adults were young, with the exception of the driver of the lead vehicle that looked to be in his mid-forties, and an elderly woman in the bed of one of the pickups that stared blankly on at LaRouche.

Seeing this pathetic bunch of refugees, he lowered his rifle just a bit further.

LaRouche made eye-contact with the driver of the lead vehicle. "Step out of the truck. We're not going to hurt anyone, and we don't want to take anything from you. We just need one of you to hop out and come talk to me."

There was a long moment of hesitation, but the middle-aged man in the lead pickup truck finally gave a shrug, resolutely opening his door and stepping out onto the road. His hands were raised, and in his eyes was a look of defeat. "What do you want from us?"

LaRouche shook his head. "We don't want anything from you. We wanna pa.s.s on our way without any trouble, and without you causin' us trouble on down the road."

The man turned and for a moment LaRouche thought he was looking back at his people sitting in the pickup trucks. Then LaRouche realized he was looking back down the road, as though picturing whatever he had come from. When he turned back to face LaRouche, he shook his head. "Ain't nothin' for us back there."

Suspicion squinted LaRouche's eyes. "Where you comin' from?"

The man looked grim. "Ain't much left of it now." He pointed back east. "Had a little settlement outside Fremont. Me and a few of the others were in the city, pickin' through the sc.r.a.ps when we saw the smoke. By the time we got back to camp they'd burned everythin' to the ground. We picked up the rest of these folks about a mile down the road-they managed to run before the camp got taken over."

LaRouche tasted something sour. "Who are you talking about? Who's 'they'?"

The man wiped his brow and seemed to just move the soot and dirt around. "I'm guessin' it was The Followers."

LaRouche wanted to roll his eyes, but in the face of this man's tragedy, he thought it would simply be rude. So he restrained his response to a slightly sarcastic, "And what makes you think it was The Followers?"

"Well..." The man put his hands on his hips and spat on the road. "Prolly because they hung ten of our men from crosses." His face twisted just slightly and his eyes blinked quickly. He met LaRouche's gaze, and there was grief but also anger. "See, what they do is use the telephone poles. First they nail 'em to a two-by-four, then they lash that to the telephone pole." The man began to visibly shake and his words became more strangled.

He appeared to be trying to say something else, but couldn't quite do it. He brought a white-knuckled fist to his mouth and breathed ragged, furious breaths for a moment before regaining his composure enough to speak. "I can't tell you the other thing they do. I can't get it out of my mouth. You'll see...if you're headed that way."

LaRouche found himself staring at the man with his rifle hanging loosely at his side. Cautiously he pressed forward. "The Followers are real?"

"h.e.l.l, I dunno." The man swiped at his eyes. "Whatever the f.u.c.k you wanna call 'em. Don't matter to me. But we've been hearing the rumors of them from folks travelling out of the coastal region. Thought they was fake..." He grew quiet for a moment, then shook his head again. "Didn't think they'd come this far west."

"When did this happen?"

He raked his dirty hair and rubbed the back of his neck. "We saw the smoke about an hour ago. I'm guessin' it took some time to...do what they did."

LaRouche stepped closer to the man and spoke softer. "We don't have much to spare for you folks, and I'm sorry for that. But we come from a large community, and it's less than an hour's drive from here. They'll be able to help."

The man looked up, dumbfounded. "You guys from Camp Ryder?"

LaRouche drew his head back slightly. "Uh...yeah, actually."

"Are you...are you Captain Harden?"

LaRouche was so stunned by the question that he wasn't able to muster an answer for a moment. He almost told the man that he was Captain Harden, not because he wanted to take credit, but simply because the man's eyes looked so completely hopeful. The look of defeat and desperation had fled from the man's face for that brief moment, and LaRouche didn't want him to be disappointed.

But in the end, he shook his head. "No, I'm not Captain Harden."

"Oh." The man almost looked like he didn't believe him. "Do you know him? Is he real?"

LaRouche smiled. "Yeah. He's real. We're actually out here, on his orders."

The man looked confused. "What are you doing?"

LaRouche shook his head. "It's complicated. Look, you're less than thirty miles from Smithfield. They're part of the Camp Ryder Hub, so they'll help you out. Go there and tell them Sergeant LaRouche sent you, okay?"

"Okay."

"Listen..." LaRouche took another step forward. "Anything you know would be helpful. Up to this point, I've pretty much dismissed The Followers as bulls.h.i.+t. If you know what we're heading into..."

"Yeah." The man shoved his hands in his pockets and his shoulders drew up. "Everything we've heard has turned out to be true...except that, as far as I can tell, they didn't eat n.o.body. But they did kill most of the men, and several are missing, along with most of the women." The man's chin quivered. "They say they take all the girls that are old enough to bear children. They give the males a choice to join them. The ones that don't join willingly are...put on the crosses."

"You know where they went? How many there are?"

The man shook his head. "Went back east. Don't know how many there were. They was gone by the time we got back. Had to be at least fifty of them to take over our settlement that quickly." He swallowed hard. "We had a lot of people in that camp." His hand searched for something to do as he spoke and eventually just flopped down to his sides like dead meat. "This is what they do. They send out raiding parties and they kidnap people. Force them to work in The Lord's Army."

LaRouche absorbed the information. "Anything else you can tell me?"

The man thought for a moment. "No. I'm sorry, there's nothing else I can think of."

LaRouche nodded. "Thank you. Please, go to Smithfield. They can help you."

The man eyed him. "You're really from Camp Ryder?"

"Yes, I am."

"Tell me something about Captain Harden...so I know you're tellin' the truth."

LaRouche almost laughed at the man, but he could see how fragile the courage was in his clouded eyes, and he didn't want it to break. He could have given the man some random factoid about Lee Harden that might have sufficed for the moment, but he knew the power of rumors, and the power of legends, and he knew how they imparted hope and inspiration to the people that heard them, even if sometimes the truth was stretched to its limit.

"Once, when we were fighting the infected," LaRouche said. "I saw him fall down a three story elevator shaft. Shoulda broken every bone in his body after that fall. But you know what the b.a.s.t.a.r.d did when I went over to try to wake him up?" LaRouche balled his fist. "He got up and punched me right in the nose because he thought I was an infected trying to attack him."

The man smiled widely. "Is that a fact?"

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